Saturday, August 20, 2005

The KC saw Wedding Crashers last night. We laughed a lot and came away with renewed appreciation for Vince Vaughn.

Today there is a great deal of baseball-watching going on, between the Yankees at the White Sox and the Little League World Series. It is good to have some downtime.

I am considering making some bread that uses whole wheat flour. I had to get some of said flour for making Martha Stewart's Swiss Chard and Goat Cheese Galette with Oatmeal Crust a while back, and it whole wheat flour turns rancid so quickly that I'm now in a use-it-or-lose-it situation. Here's the recipe:

Wheat and Wheat Germ Bread

1 envelope yeast
¼ cup lukewarm water
1 ¼ cups hot water
¼ cup butter
3 tbsps honey [use 6 tbsps]
1 cup wheat germ
1 cup whole wheat flour
2 cups white flour
1 tbsp salt [use 1 tsp]

Dissolve the yeast in the warm water. Melt the butter in the hot water and when it is lukewarm add the yeast and honey. Mix the wheat germ with the flours and salt. Make a well in the center of the flour and stir in the liquids. Stir hard for 2 minutes, adding a very little warm water if necessary to make a pliable yet firm dough. Set the bowl in a pan of warm water covered with a tea towel for the dough to rise until about doubled.

After dough is light, punch it down with a wooden spoon for 2 or 3 minutes, then put it in an oiled bread pan and let it rise again.

Bake it at 400? for 10 minutes, then turn the heat to 325? for 40 minutes. It can be brushed with oil before it rises the second time and sprinkled with sesame seeds.
Recommendations for extra honey and salt are from my mother. The bread is great with honey on top, or apple butter.
I don't know quite what to think of all the controversy over the Intelligent Design movement.

That is all.
Mickey Kaus says that the discussion about "comparable worth" (in light of John Roberts' distaste for the concept) serves as a reminder of

what can happen--what did happen--when you set up an intellectual conveyor belt that sends the latest and brightest ideas of liberal litigators and professors and their law students straight to liberal judges and their law clerks (often those same law students a year later) for quick approval.
Kaus says that just contemplating the idiocy of comparable worth "should remind everyone why it's valuable to have stubborn non-progressive doubters like Roberts around."

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Movie Review

Maggie Gyllenhaal and Lisa Kudrow in Don Roos's Happy Endings: Not Nice

Writer-director Don Roos's Happy Endings consists of three separate but interconnected comedies, each with a strong component of romance--the protagonists figure out which of their impulses tend toward happiness by acting on those that don't. In this relatively loose, aggregate structure Jude (Maggie Gyllenhaal) is the odd girl out. Needing a place to stay, Jude seduces Otis (Jason Ritter), a closeted rich boy who takes her home from a karaoke party and asks her to sing in the band he holds together with contributions from his father Frank (Tom Arnold). Jude sees how glad Frank is that Otis may not be gay after all, and uses it as leverage to keep Otis quiet while she snags his wealthy daddy. In the long run both Otis and Frank end up happily partnered but Jude is so predatorily naughty Roos can't think of an ending for her story at all

Roos has the same problem with Jude that he had with Christina Ricci's Dedee in his first movie as director The Opposite of Sex (1998): she's too nasty a piece of work to function fully outside of a nightmarish film noir plot, and Roos wants his movie to be more realistic and upbeat than that would allow. For the Otis-Jude-Frank tangle to work as noir, we would also need to identify with what tempts Otis to go along with Jude's plan when he knows it's wrong. That is, he would have to be an ironic protagonist, like Fred MacMurray in Billy Wilder's Double Indemnity (1944), a low estimate of human nature that dramatizes how we perceive traps and nonetheless walk into them, with our flies wide open.

Instead, Roos's approach in the Otis-Jude-Frank arc is schizoid: the rapacious girl is frighteningly able to adapt instantly as the situation morphs while the emotionally constipated boy is not seen askance at all, but empathetically. This empathy for the rich boy who can't speak the plain truth about himself or defend himself against exploitation turns inevitably into masochism. (Otis is surrounded by young wannabe rockers and Goth-grunge club kids who are both self-serving and homophobic, and his situation feels inexact, maybe because it's masochism from a couple of decades ago, when the openly gay Roos was these kids' age.) In the anxious person of Ritter, Otis misses even the basic appeal of a slapstick hero, the Harold Lloyd striver who's trying to live up to an image and needs to grow up.

Jude's witchiness does wonders for Maggie Gyllenhaal, however. Somehow she isn't lamed as she was in Secretary (2002) by that movie's mish-mosh of narrative approaches--Lee's adolescent self-mutilation is treated with solicitous realism while the S&M relationship with her boss that helps her outgrow her self-destructive compulsion is treated first with sophisticated, poker-faced irony and then with berserk romanticism. Gyllenhaal is game and inventive but the character keeps bending with the changes of genre until she's bent out of shape.

Gyllenhaal was more confident as the adventurous Jewess Giselle in Mona Lisa Smile (2003), but that rattletrap schoolbus of a vehicle turns to her mainly for daring sexual moments as she drinks, ambiguously nuzzles fellow students, and throws herself at unavailable men. Wiser and sadder Giselle is the most liberated of the '50s Wellesley girls so the movie has to approve of her, but at the same time it bathes her in pathos that doesn't go anywhere. For Gyllenhaal Mona Lisa Smile is the opposite of Secretary, more character than anecdote.

Secretary also shows the danger of having full-moon eyes--they can go moist, pleading. It helps, of course, if your entire frame seems to be draped from your shoulders, and Gyllenhaal has the most comely, characterful slouch in movies since Kay Francis (of Ernst Lubitsch's Trouble in Paradise (1932)) and some of the other slinky, jut-hipped gals of the early talkies. I enjoyed Secretary most just watching her angularly-jointed body as Lee goes about her secretarial duties with her hands manacled to the ends of a metal yoke. The irony takes a balletic form--words aren't necessary, a big plus when the script has three heads but only half a brain. In Mona Lisa Smile Gyllenhaal's body is even more generally expressive, giddily seductive when she's happy and precociously gallant when she isn't.

In Happy Endings we get Gyllenhaal without pathos and though the character doesn't have an adequate storyline it's as if Gyllenhaal had got tired of waiting and so just gave a great performance despite her writer-director's lapses. Tumbling about in chemise tops and jeans, or less, and with an unkempt Betty Boop 'do, Gyllenhaal endows Jude with absolute physical self-possession; you always sense that Jude's opportunism girds her even though she never looks fully dressed. She doesn't even change her smiling expression when it comes time to explain to Otis how things stand: she's like a Bratz doll with the spellcasting powers of a Circe. As Jude, Gyllenhaal has the most glimmering amoral aplomb since Annette Bening in The Grifters (1990) and Bugsy (1991) and she similarly made me unreasonably happy to see her onscreen no matter what the character was up to (the way I imagine audiences were glad to see Jean Harlow and Barbara Stanwyck wriggling their way from man to man in Red-Headed Woman (1932) and Baby Face (1933)).

Plus she sings. Jude's initial karaoke performance is rough at the edges, but Roos shrewdly lets Gyllenhaal's voice sneak up on us. We hear her rehearsing a number called "How Lucky Am I" with the band, which she casually suggests they try slower; when we hear her sing it live, at a more leisurely tempo, her full-throated, smoke-tinged mezzo is a revelation. Altogether, Gyllenhaal gives the kind of teasingly controlled performance we might have hoped for from Madonna, who has turned out to be too deliberate an image manager to have much charisma as an actress. Gyllenhaal shines like a star here and the entire sequence starts to float on the power of that voice; but just when you're thinking it's one of the great musical performances in American movies Roos cuts it off halfway through, as if we were more interested in his moviemaking than in Gyllenhaal's shadowed radiance. We've seen and heard enough, however, to experience the thrill of talent that has matured young and to want more.

Roos has the gay movie lover's awe of bad girls who flow over and around all impediments, but he can't approve of them--both Jude and Dedee in The Opposite of Sex are pointedly homophobic. Those girls don't bring out his best writing, either, which focuses on "nice" people who are so divided about experience that they aren't even nice anymore. As Lucia in The Opposite of Sex, for instance, Lisa Kudrow is a punctilious high-school teacher so disappointed by other people's laxity she can barely speak to them without scolding. (Click here for my chapter about Kudrow in my new book.) As Mamie in Happy Endings Kudrow is a pre-abortion counselor at a women's health clinic who isn't warm and supportive in her interviews and who can't maintain enough professionalism to keep her confused feelings to herself. Mamie's personality is thus in the ideal middle range for Roos, where bruised hopefulness is buried under self-fulfilling low expectations. (She isn't pathologically hard-edged like Jude or pitiable like Otis.) Roos doesn't sand Mamie's personality to make it less abrasive, but he does shape her material for comedy so that even the reproach inherent in identifying with her is amusing. She's the crabby part of everyone who has tried unsuccessfully to carry on despite feeling thwarted, only with better come-backs and timing.

Mamie also falls in the perfect range for Kudrow, who is the most readable actress in movies and yet one of the subtlest. Unfortunately, the slapstick bumbling in the Mamie arc isn't credible but also lacks the spark of far-out fantasy. Kudrow has the advantage, however, of a technique so developed that, even more handily than Gyllenhaal, she can give a complete performance in an unachieved script. Her technique is as idiosyncratic as Bette Davis's but it's not one intended to express grand passions gone awry. Kudrow's is a small-detail technique that expresses the fear of missing out on ordinary happiness of the kind that seems like it should be readily, naturally obtainable, and the exasperation and dismay when that happiness proves elusive.

There's a world of recognizable experience in Kudrow's edgy sideglances, the expressions that instantaneously turn inward at certain phrases (when, for instance, a young woman deciding about an abortion says to Mamie, "I'm not maternal either"), the censorious readjustments of the head, the defensive replies that are a few feet over the edge of politeness. A lot of what Mamie says sounds as if it were meant to end discussion; no wonder she feels isolated and unsure what to do about it. (There's a sensational exchange in the clinic with Jude, who has no compunction about defending her boundaries.) Although the shenanigans she gets involved in aren't plausible, they've receded in my memory and left Mamie on her feet; Kudrow thoroughly convinced me she was the kind of woman who'd run from emotion into the path of a car.

Kudrow has been Roos's best collaborator because the emotional pressure behind those tiny but unmistakable inflections make him look more than merely clever. He doesn't appear to be an astute judge of his own material and so his movies are more interesting the more things he tries out. When he went for single-strand emotionalism in the Gwyneth Paltrow-Ben Affleck romance Bounce (2000), only the chattery scenes at the airport were as much as clever, conveying what Roos picks up with his open ears and eyes. (Natasha Henstridge, receiving all frequencies, was his surrogate.) By contrast, the movies in which he piles character on character, story on story, gain from the layering and show a distinctively contemporary amusement at the complicated, even tortured routes we take to happy endings. And the obstacles he comes up with feel more "real," more rooted in character and less generic than in most comedies. (The desperate and self-cancelling Wedding Crashers makes for a painful contrast currently.)

This is what gives Roos's comedy its ironic kick and suspense--it's hard to pity people who are shown as plotting their own missteps, or to feel too comfy about what may happen to them--and perhaps explains why Bounce, in which the male and female leads are separated by what is nobody's fault (i.e., who dies in and who survives a plane crash), before inevitably coming together, is so inert. (I really missed Kudrow's snappy precision, too; Paltrow's dog-eyed touchingness made her bitter sadsack character pathetic and finally irritating, and she and Affleck just got slower and tearier as the movie wore on and on.) Moreover, with multiple storylines Roos can circle his dramatic ideas rather than driving up to them and parking in front as with Bounce. (In Affleck's climactic speech, for instance, in that wonderfully healing courtroom where a witness on the stand may take as much time as he needs to speculate about what's been troubling him, for the benefit of that one special person watching the proceedings on TV. Afterwards the plaintiffs' attorney looks at Affleck guiltily--he didn't know.)

Roos gets hung up, however, precisely because as a writer he thinks in terms of content, of changing attitudes and emerging lifestyles, rather than in terms of structure. He's not attempting to subvert conventions but neither has he mastered them in their traditional forms. He's muddling through on structure, and he's far from perfect in his handling of content, as well: he tends to overemphasize the vulnerability of his gay protagonists--Martin Donovan in The Opposite of Sex and Jason Ritter and Steve Coogan (in the third, and best-crafted, arc) in Happy Endings--for instance, and so interest shifts to the more complicated and independent female characters around them, making the movies kind of lumpy.

Perhaps the worst call in Happy Endings is to have bits of omniscient narrative appear onscreen to tell us what isn't shown (or relevant). These pop-ups are merely clever, and they made me think that Roos went into production with "copious notes" for a movie rather than a script. The pop-ups are nearly as intrusive as the voice-over narration in Rebecca Miller's Personal Velocity (2002), adapted from her own stories, in which Miller rolled her striking material and thoroughly engaged actresses flat because she couldn't let go of her writerliness, couldn't let the stories happen in the new medium. But then this comparison brings me back around to liking Roos--a shot of Kudrow's face, silently reflecting on the characters in her life while dancing at her wedding, shows what he's learned about moviemaking. The Opposite of Sex and Happy Endings are certainly patchy, but in some of those patches Roos gives his actors rare opportunities. His writing is facile--he needs actors like Kudrow and Gyllenhaal to give his work depth and texture, and he seems to sense it without jealousy. Roos's talent is frustrating, but in a way that makes me eager for his next movie.

You can find this review and a lot besides at Blogcritics.
Movie Review

Romain Duris in Jacques Audiard's The Beat That My Heart Skipped: A Star in Fragments

The dramatic essence of romance is to follow a hero torn between his higher calling and lower urges--will he achieve his quest or will he be permanently sidetracked by temptation? (In straightforward romance like High Noon the calling wins out; in ironic romance like Double Indemnity, the urges.) For Tom Seyr (Romain Duris) in Jacques Audiard's The Beat That My Heart Skipped, the higher and lower registers are represented by his late concert pianist mother and his living slumlord father, respectively. Tom's father occasionally asks him to do a bit of enforcement, e.g., to beat the owner of a couscous joint who owes backrent, and Tom reluctantly agrees when he's not busy using extreme and illegal methods to chase poor immigrant squatters out of buildings he and his own sleazy business partners intend to flip (i.e., following in Dad's footsteps. Audiard's father Michel was a successful screenwriter, who worked on that elegantly unsentimental rat-trap of a heist picture Mélodie en sous-sol (1963), starring Jean Gabin and Alain Delon.) Tom is a thug, but he has what most movies mean by a "soul." He runs into his mother's manager and the man offers him an audition; Tom finds a teacher and sets out to practice, practice, practice his way into a concert career. (At age 28, under a teacher with whom he doesn't have a language in common.)

There's a veneer of unadulterated naturalism over all this nonsense: the couscous joint owner is no melodramatic victim (he strikes first), for instance, and the life of the artist is shown as repetitive and grueling and tending toward neurasthenia. And Audiard has a relentless, exposed-nerve style that might, to the susceptible, seem to be nearly unmediated--the camera is up in the characters' faces and the rhythms are as fidgety as poor, driven Tom. Audiard's video-derivative style is hyperalert to the point of tickiness, maybe too lean and dry to make the story out-and-out laughable, but the story is nonetheless not to be taken very seriously. The problem is not, of course, that it isn't believable but that it doesn't develop a vision of why Tom would choose art over crime.

This missing element is what makes the great romances great--when the hero's quest dramatizes the triumph of deeply held common values, which are made explicit for us as the pattern of existence. It is thus a central problem that The Beat That My Heart Skipped cheats in its terms. Tom chooses between thuggery and a performing career, but from his conversations with his low-life partners it's clear that crime is not being distinguished from commerce; as Audiard says in this Wellspring interview, "[Tom] grows up because music teaches him that wheeling and dealing is a dead end." (In classic, hypocritical "Hollywood" form, commerce in The Beat That My Heart Skipped is a negative value as against art, as it is in the battle between commerce and craftsmanship in Executive Suite (1954), and commerce and journalism in The Insider (1999).) In the single biggest structural change from its source, James Toback's movie Fingers (1978) starring Harvey Keitel, the story then finds its resolution in the legitimate business of musicmaking. What matters for moviegoers, however, is that because Audiard takes the values underlying Tom's choice for granted, he's free to make both crime and art glamorous--the former by means of the "poetic" desolation it leads to and the latter by means of the lift we get from Bach's "austere, difficult, virtuoso" (quoting Audiard) "Toccata in E minor."

The movie draws most of its charge from Tom's sociopathic behavior, loosing rats in a building at night, beating men bloody, seducing the wife of one man he wants to hurt and the mistress of another. All the same, unlike Brian De Palma's Scarface (1983), I don't imagine that The Beat That My Heart Skipped will appeal to actual criminals, any more than the florid Fingers did. Tom's ambitions aren't inflated by The-World-Is-Yours delusions of grandeur, his criminal behavior overlaps too much with work.

The true extravagance is "spiritual," coming from the juxtaposition of the music scenes and the criminal scenes. In Fingers the extravagance is sexual--Keitel can't have lunch with his father without picking up vibes from a cluster of homosexuals at the bar, can't have a doctor's appointment but we get to witness the painful examination of his prostate. (I would call the latter a unique moment outside of low comedy except that one of the disequilibrating pleasures of Toback's movies is that you can never be sure you are outside of low comedy.) The Beat That My Heart Skipped is thus a peculiar combination of the louche and the high-flown, as if John Garfield's role as the gangster selling protection to boat owners in Out of the Fog (1941) had been grafted onto his virtuoso violinist in Humoresque (1946). It's a movie for slumming culturati--We are all in the stars, but some of us are looking at the gutter.

The Beat That My Heart Skipped is all gesture and attitude passing for sensibility and temperament, more diverting than absorbing. The only thing that gives it conviction is Romain Duris's performance as Tom. He starts out handicapped by the movie's amphetamine style: though he's in nearly every frame, Audiard's rhythms are so insistent that Duris is almost never in command of a scene. When the fancy-primitive writing is at its most suggestive, however, Duris is there: Tom's reluctance to help his father (Niels Arestrup), and his antagonism to his father's fiancée (Emmanuelle Devos), for instance, provide streaks of primal comedy. The father is pragmatic, sensual, literal-minded, corrupt almost as a fact of nature, and Tom's fastidiousness and balkiness, his alternation between sulking and seeking approval from this rotting oak trunk of a man, are incongruously funny, especially in the criminal context. (In Fingers Michael V. Gazzo as the father got the laughs.)

Although the art-vs.-crime dilemma is fundamentally silly, with just a tweak more development most of Tom's actions would at least make plain sense. It may be relatively easy to figure out why he seduces the wife of a man who cheats him, for instance, but we never know what his plan is, if he has one, or what comes of it. There's no point in not plotting the story out more explicitly--it's not a work of naturalism built up from minutely accurate observation. (Judging from Audiard's previous movie, the interminable, baggy business-and-crime picture Read My Lips (2001), which he co-wrote, if The Beat That My Heart Skipped has any shape at all it's due to Toback's original script.)

Whether the scenes add up to anything or not, however, Duris holds the screen like a natural--even in fragments. It's a darkly glinting performance, glimpsed piecemeal and on the fly as if the movie were projected on a cascade of broken glass. American stars don't provide much in the way of smoldering anymore; Duris thus seems to be in greater communication with certain intense commonwealth actors--Daniel Day-Lewis, principally, but also Clive Owen, Colin Farrell. There's drama simply in the changeable interplay of the shiny black eyes, the expanse of upper teeth poised over the generous underlip, all of which come together in the most ambiguous vulpine smile in movies. (You may not remember him from James Ivory's Le Divorce (2003), that contemporary transatlantic Jamesian melodrama, which makes the French mother and son the villains but at the same time expects us to share its gruesomely self-satisfied francophilic consumerism. In it Duris's smile is miniaturized under a troll-doll hair-do and comes off as merely quirkily provocative.) As Audiard says of his star, "I couldn't just point a camera at anyone. Romain stimulates one's appetite. One wants to move around him, to watch the way he moves."

As Tom, a man who both fights his feelings and acts them out all over town, Duris has the intuitive control to underplay without making Tom seem obscure or remote. He couples some of the distinctive qualities of Harvey Keitel and Robert De Niro, bottle and bottle rocket, respectively, in Martin Scorsese's Mean Streets (1973), without benefit of that movie's masterful script and direction--something Keitel himself failed to do in Fingers. Tom is blocked and yet his turmoil has undeniable impact, as preposterous as it is. The wonder of Duris's acting is that he enables us to focus on Tom's mess rather than Audiard's. There's more to Duris as Tom than there is to Tom as written, which is one way you know you've been watching not just a star but a star who can act.

You can find this review and a lot besides at Blogcritics.

Monday, August 01, 2005

Lyric of the Day:
"Troy Aikman wants you back
Willie Nelson wants you back
NASA wants you back
and the Bush twins want you back.
Pantera wants you back
and Blue Bell wants you back."
~ Bowling for Soup, "Ohio (Come Back to Texas)"

Happy Birthday:
Coolio
Jerry Garcia
Francis Scott Key
Herman Melville
Yves Saint Laurent
Christopher Hitchens wants us to stop tiptoeing around John Roberts' Catholicism:

If Roberts is confirmed there will be quite a bloc of Catholics on the court. Scalia, Kennedy, and Thomas are strong in the faith. Is it kosher to mention these things? The Constitution rightly forbids any religious test for public office, but what happens when a religious affiliation conflicts with a judge's oath to uphold the Constitution? ... The Church of Scientology is now a member of the American Council of Churches, and good luck to both of them say I, but are we ready for a Scientologist on the court rather than having him or her subjected to the equivalent of a religious test? I merely ask.
On a related note, GOP presidential contender Mitt Romney's Mormon faith has come up recently ("Do you wear the temple garments?" a reporter asked him awkwardly in an interview for The Atlantic Monthly.)