Sunday, January 28, 2007

Movie Report: Volver

I have seen a lot of good movies already in 2007 and Volver, directed by Pedro Almodovar, is one of the best. According to my handy on-line Spanish dictionary, "volver" means to return and this is one movie I would like to volver to see again and again.

The movie is set in Madrid and in the windswept countryside in LaMancha. It has some unexpected (at least to me) plot twists, so it is difficult to say too much about it without spoiling it. It involves murder, visitation by a practical-minded ghost, estrangement and reconciliation, but, best of all, lots and lots of Penelope Cruz. Forget that she is a Scientologist; that she has made a fool of herself with Tom Cruise or that she has gorgeous breasts (impossible to forget that,) the woman is a great actress. She is one of the nominees this year for Best Actress for her role in Volver, and had I not just seen Judi Dench's performance in Notes On A Scandal, (I'll do a report on that movie soon,) I would be ready to hand her the award.

There is no nudity in the film; the R rating comes from the language but Cruz's cleavage plays a prominent role. According to a review by Jonathan Richards on Rotten Tomatoes, Roger Ebert reported that when Almodovar was asked at Cannes about his enthusiatic display of Cruz's breasts, he said, "I'm a gay man, but I love breasts." There is a line in the movie when Cruz's friend, who is bartending at her restaurant says, "With your your cleavage and my mojitos, we'll make a fortune." Almodovar should make a fortune on this film, which has much more main stream appeal than previous efforts like Talk to Her. Lest I be accused of liking the movie only because I am a leering old man, let me repeat, there is no nudity, not even in a love-making scene. Rather Cruz's breasts are treated as one of the architectural wonders of the world, which they are.

The wind is prominent in the movie; there are modern windmills, and it is constantly blowing; hard. The wind must have some symbolic importance, but I couldn't figure out what it is. Maybe when I volver to the movie, it will become apparent.

I gave the movie five out of five stars.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007


I'll admit it, I'm a sucker for a politician who sounds good. I got all excited when Jimmy Carter was inaugurated, almost exactly 30 years ago, walking part of the parade route in Washington; finally an honest president. I got all excited when Bill Clinton was inaugurated, almost exactly 14 years ago, watching on CNN as he and Hilary stood in the White House greeting ordinary citizens who had stood in line; finally a president who cared about ordinary people.

I'm a late comer to Obamania; not voting for him in the Democratic Senatorial primary in Illinois in 2004 because I had never heard of him and didn't think someone with a weird name like his had a chance. I became a convert after I got to know him better after the primary, and, once more, I have high hopes that this time we have a different kind of politician. I am not impressed with the arguments that he lacks substance. Anyone who has read his books (I have only read the first one, Dreams From My Father, although the second one, The Audacity of Hope, is on the shelf waiting for me,) knows that Obama is not a person without substance. He did not miraculously become a United States senator without serving an apprenticeship in serving his community and state as a community organizer and state senator. He has not felt it necessary to try to hide the less savory aspects of his past. He lets it all hang out in Dreams From My Father, including the parts that do not make him look good, such as drug use when he was a young man.

I realize I'm getting too old to be suckered by a politician once again. But this campaign biography video made my throat get all lumpy and my head get all mushy. I'm willing to believe once again.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Movie Report: Dreamgirls

I seldom like movie musicals, but I was willing to give Dreamgirls a chance. After all, it had Beyonce in it, so how bad could it be? I had low expectations for the movie, and I have to report they were met.

Beyonce, I can report, is very lovely, and is displayed to good advantage, mostly in the last half of the movie. Don't go to the movie if you like the Motown sound and expect to hear Supremes-inspired singing. This is Motown by way of Broadway, which is to say it's not Motown at all. It's something else; I'm not sure what, well, I guess, "Broadway, as interpreted by Hollywood," best describes it. Broadway is fine for telling the story of Dolly Levi, but the tale of Diana Ross loses any authenticity when it is interpreted through production numbers.

In fairness, Dreamgirls does not pretend to be a biopic of The Supremes. It's just that in a movie about three black women who start singing gospel in Detroit and whose career is taken over by a shrewd operator who creates a distinctive sound and eventually takes them to Hollywood, one naturally thinks first of the group to whom this actually happened. But it's easy to soon forget about the Supremes as this group, the Dreamgirls, sing songs composed in Tinpan Alley, not Gratiot Street.

Eddie Murphy does a reprise of a Saturday Night Live character in his role as James "Thunder" Early. That is to say he plays a black singer who has some characteristics of James Brown, Wilson Pickett, Luther Vandross and others, but he plays the character essentially for laughs, with a toothy grin that never fades. Jamie Foxx got a lot of kudos for his portrayal of Ray Charles in Ray, but I didn't think he really got into the Berry Gordy character in Dreamgirls unless Gordy was essentially without emotion.

I wouldn't call this a "bad" movie, it just wasn't a "good" movie. I gave it two out of five stars. My companion thought it was worth three stars.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Book Report: Under the Banner of Heaven

As the child of a weird sect, the Amish, I would be the last person to argue against the virtues of religious tolerance and diversity. Nevertheless there are certain varieties of religiosity that make me uncomfortable, particularly those varieties that believe that God talks specifically to them and directs their every day actions.

So, I will admit it upfront, I have a problem with Mormonism. It is one thing to believe that thousands of years ago, God inspired men to write scriptures which still have the power to inspire and direct, in a general way, how people live. It is something else to believe, as Mormons do, that as recently as 1830, God, through the angel, Moroni, spoke through a man, Joseph Smith, by means of some buried golden tablets, which Smith translated from Egyptian into Elizabethean English sounding suspiciously like the King James version of the Christian Bible. The golden tablets then miraculously disappeared again, leaving no objective proof of their existence. Amazingly, these scriptures, which only Joseph Smith could read, designated Joseph Smith as God's prophet and the church that Smith founded, the Church of Jesus Christ of Later Day Saints (Mormons) as the only church through which mankind could be saved.

Whatever plausibility this scenario might have for 21st century belief is undercut by the fact that Joseph Smith would not be considered a saint by any normal standards of morality. Prior to the prophet gig, Smith raised money in upstate New York by claiming to be able to find buried treasure through means of a "seer stone," and although guillible farmers paid him money, he never did find any treasure, a fact that got him prosecuted for fraud. After he founded his church, God supposedly commanded Smith to marry many women, 40 or more by some accounts, with a peculiar emphasis on young girls, 13 and 14 years old, and further, he commanded Smith to lie about his "marriages" denying that he or his followers were engaged in polygamy when, in fact, they were.

Modern-day Mormorns, of course, take umbrage at the criticism of Smith's teachings about polygamy, as well as other teachings about which God has supposedly changed his mind, such as not only the inferiority of blacks but the barring of them from the holiest of Mormon shrines, because more recent prophets have been told directly by God that those doctrines are no longer valid. It is apparently not only the Supreme Court that follows the election returns. God changed his commandment about polygamy only after Congress outlawed it and serious efforts at enforcing the laws in the western United States began causing problems for Mormons, and about blacks only after the Civil Rights laws of the 1960s changed the climate of racial intolerance in the United States.

Although I have tried to read the Book of Mormon, I have to admit that I didn't get very far before getting bogged down in its essential presposterousness. I have visited Salt Lake City, took the tour with an All-American Mormon guide, but felt like I was being given a con job. The attempt was to make Mormonism seem like just another variety of main-line Christianity, different only in minor details from Protestant denominations like Presbyterian, Methodist or Baptist.

The book, Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith, by Jon Krakauer, does an excellent job of showing just how different Mormonism is from main-stream Christianity. Although Krakauer spends a lot of time describing fundamentalist Mormon sects, no longer formally affiliated with the main Mormon church, these extremists show what can happen when Mormon teaching and doctrine is taken to its logical conclusions. Main line Mormons still believe that God speaks directly to their prophets and that the prophets' commandments must be obeyed. Krakauer spends a lot of time on the Lafferty Brothers, several brothers in Colorado City, Utah, who killed their sister-in-law and her baby because of God's command,and I imagine that most Mormons would agree that these brothers were psychotics, not prophets. Nevertheless, they still are unwilling to believe that Joseph Smith was a con man, not a prophet, despite the many provable factual errors in the Book of Mormon.

I find it hard to believe that Mitt Romney, the Mormon ex-governor of Massachusetts, is considered a serious candidate for the Republican nomination for president of the United States. While Mormons are not the only religious group to take their marching orders from a leader with sometimes provable mendacity, I have more faith in the ability of Roman Catholics, for example, to disregard the teachings of the Pope than for Mormons to go against their prophet's instructions. I am not at all comforted by the malleability of Romney's views on abortion and gay marriage, depending on which way the wind is blowing at the time he is expressing the views. Krakauer wrote his book before Romney was prominent in national politics, and he states that Smith and his successor, Brigham Young, seriously entertained thoughts of becoming president of the United States. Romney has shown the capacity of raising lots of money, and I believe, without being able to prove it, that much of his backing is coming from fellow Mormons who dream of establishing a Mormon theocracy in the United States.

Krakauer is an excellent writer and although Mormons have criticized the book for emphasizing the negative, I have not seen any exposes of serious inaccuracies. I gave the book four stars.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Movie Report: The Painted Veil

The Painted Veil is like looking at National Geographic illustrations with a plotline attached. Set in China in 1922, every frame of this movie is a stunning photograph. The lighting is soft and bathed in a golden glow. The plotline has an excellent pedigree. It is based on a book of the same name by W. Somerset Maugham.

The story is not complicated. A serious physician and medical researcher, played by Edward Norton, back in England for a brief leave, spots and instantly falls in love with a beautiful, but vacuous young woman, Naomi Watts, who marries him out of a lack of anything better to do and goes off with him to China where he is helping to fight cholera epidemics. As the newly-weds get to know each other, it becomes clear to everyone that the marriage was a mistake. He exists only for his bacteria; she is interested in partying and socializing. She soon starts an affair with a debonair cad in the small British expatriate community, an affair which is quickly discovered by the young husband. To punish the wife, the husband forces her to accompany him to an isolated area in the interior, in the middle of a cholera outbreak. Predictably enough, she eventually, out of boredom, starts helping out in a Catholic orphanage and discovers the virtues of living for others; he gets a new-found respect for his wife, and they fall in love, for real this time, but too late to live happily ever after.

The story was first made into a movie in 1934 with Greta Garbo playing the Naomi Watts role. I have never seen that movie, so I can't compare the jobs Garbo and Watts did. I really like Watts's performance, though. She gives a strong performance, although not one for which I would nominate her for any Academy awards. I may be suffering from Edward Norton fatigue. I thought he played essentially the same early 20th century person in this movie that he did in the recent The Illusionist, about which I was unenthusiastic as well.

Overall, The Painted Veil adds up to less than the sum of its parts. My overall impression at the end of the movie was that I had just watched a "chick flick." A beautifully photographed chick flick but a chick flick nevertheless. In all fairness, the chick who watched the flick with me disagreed with my assessment. She gave it four out of five stars, while I only gave it three; three and a half stars, at the most, if the chick decides to really battle for the rating.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Third Day Book Report: Suite Francaise

Today is January 3rd, time for people in Patry Francis's Third Day Book Club to blog about Suite Francaise.

I'm going to blame the New York Times for my failure to get the complete book read by today. I finally succumbed to the offers to get the New York Times on a trial basis for $1 a week for four weeks. The holidays were coming up, with more time off for reading; Chris was coming home for two weeks and he might enjoy having something with a little more heft than our local rag which is filled 90 percent with sports. But I'm a little obsessive about reading newspapers; I read practically every word in our local rag, including the sports I care little about; the 50th wedding anniversaries; the obituaries; the celebrity birthdays -- everything. But our local rag is so small that I can do that and still have time for reading books and The New Yorker. Having the New York Times in the house has blown a hole in almost all other reading. The New Yorkers are piling up; books are sitting unread; even the Times is piling up because I don't have time to read it completely -- and that's without the Sunday Times. So, this morning I put Chris on the plane back to San Diego and today, I'm going to have to cancel the NYT; provided I can figure out how and that I can bring myself to do it.

In the meantime, I've read 230 pages out of 338, not including two appendices and the preface to the French edition of Suite Francaise. I hate to commit myself too strongly, because sometimes the ending goes south and changes my overall impression of the book, but so far I have to say that if I read any better books in 2007, this will have been a great year for reading books. The author, Irene Nemirovsky, was born in Ukraine to a successful banker and escaped to Paris during the Russian communist revolution. There she was a very successful writer, but eventually was shipped to a concentration camp by the Nazis where she died. The book was written shortly before the author was arrested. It was secreted away until many years later when her daughter discovered it and got it published. I had never heard of Nemirovsky before this book, so I don't know if her other works pack the punch of this one, but if they do, she is one of the great writers of the 20th century, in my opinion.

The subject matter of the book is every day life in France in the early part of the German occupation of France. Despite the subject matter, I did not find it to be a depressing book. She writes about very hard times with humor and insight.

The book reminds me of Proust in its ability to use descriptions of minute details to make a larger point about life and people. The writing is rich but very readable. The translator did a wonderful job of translating the book from French to idiomatic British English, so that the book reads as if it had been written in English.

One of the chapters, written from the point of view of a family cat, may be the best chapter of any book I have ever read. It is so rich and evocative and contains a twist with the last sentence of the chapter that made me say "Wow," and re-read the chapter. I don't want to ruin it for those readers who have not yet read the book, but for those who have read the book, but I am referring to Chapter 20, which begins on page 96.

This is not a very long or detailed report, but this will have to suffice until I finish the book. I intend to come back to it then and write in more detail about the book and author. In the meantime, I offer an unqualified endorsement of the book. I highly recommend it with five stars, subject, however, to yanking some of them away if the ending fails to satisfy.

Monday, January 01, 2007

Annual Book and Movie Report

For the last 15 years or so, I have inflicted an annual Christmas letter upon family and friends. If you're a friend and haven't gotten one, feel grateful, not insulted. One feature of the annual letter that recipients seem to enjoy the most (right after the fact that it only comes out once a year) is our annual book and movie picks. The winner of Best Movie Viewed in 2006 (I list only movies seen in theaters; movies were not meant to be watched on television) is Babel.

Best Book was Houseboating in the Ozarks, about which I have reported in more detail a month or so ago.

Here is a listing of all of the books I read in 2006, 52, and all of the movies which I saw in theaters, 46. It was a good year for books and movies. Only a few books and movies in my lifetime have ever rated the 5 plus rating, which is the highest rating known to humankind.

Here goes (Books first):

5 Plus Stars

Houseboating in the Ozarks by Gary Forrester

5 Stars

East of Eden by John Steinbeck
Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky
Boyhood: Scenes from Provincial Life by J.M. Coetzee
Blink by Malcolm Gladwell
How Men Pray by Phillip Deaver
Ordinary Heroes by Scott Turow
All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque
Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides

4 Stars

White Teeth by Zadie Smith
Family Man by Calvin Trillin
Silas Marner by Georges Elliott
Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh
The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne
My Antonia by Willa Cather
Hot Kid by Elmore Leonard
Devil With A Blue Dress by Walter Mosley
Falconer by John Cheever
American Humor and Satire various authors
The Mysterious Stranger and Other Stories by Mark Twain
The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins
Everyman by Phillip Roth
Atonement by Ian McEwan
Call It Sleep by Henry Roth
Mark Twain, a Biography by Ron Powers
City of Falling Angels by John Berendt
I Thought My Father Was God by Paul Auster
Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane
My Detachment: A Memoir by Tracy Kidder
Half of A Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Adiche
Second Nature by Michael Pollan
American Rhapsody by Joe Esterhazy
A Gathering of Old Men by Ernest Gaines

Three Stars

Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman by James Gleick
Stories of T.C. Boyle by T.C. Boyle
Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson
Joe Jones by Anne Lamott
Secrets of the Ya Ya Sisterhood by Rachel West
Journal of a Novel by John Steinbeck
"C" is for Corpse" by Sue Grafton
"A" is for Alibi by Sue Grafton
"B" is for Burglar by Sue Grafton
Selected Stories by Bret Harte
Mile High Club by Kinky Friedman
Straight Man by Richard Russo
Winter's Bone by Daniel Woodrell
A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole
Love in the Driest Season by Neely Tucker

Two Stars

Espelkamp on the German Frontier by Bill Dyck
Discipline and Punishment by Michel Foucault
Race by Studs Terkel

One Star

The History Boys by Alan Bennett

2006 Movie Ratings

Five Plus Stars


Five Stars

Match Point by Woody Allen
Why We Fight
Claire Dolan
For Your Consideration

Four Stars

The Family Stone
Fun With Dick and Jane
The Whale and the Squid
Looking for Comedy in a Muslim World
Brokeback Mountain
The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada
My Fair Lady
Man Push Cart
U-Carmen e-Khayelitsha
To Kill A Mockingbird
Prairie Home Companion
Look Both Ways
The Devil Wears Prada
Little Miss Sunshine
The Illusionist
Little Jerusalem
Last King of Scotland
Pulp Fiction
The Queen

Three Stars

Mrs. Henderson Presents
Thank You for Smoking
Duane Hopwood
The Sting
An Inconvenient Truth
The Unforgiven
The Departed

Two Stars

The Eagle
Ripley's Game
The Black Dahlia
Please Teach Me English

One Star

The Libertine
Bad Santa