Writer/director John Patrick Shanley - who won an Oscar for writing Moonstruck, but whose only other directorial credit is the 1990 Tom Hanks work Joe Versus The Volcano - has translated his Tony-winning play into a brilliant, albeit slow-paced, film. As is always the case whenever such a stage-to-screen project succeeds so fully, Doubt is the product of a top-notch cast, strong performances, and a great screenplay. Here, the story revolves around an implication of abuse at a Metropolitan New York parochial school in the mid-60s. Meryl Streep (Mamma Mia!, Lions For Lambs) is riveting as the accuser (though her acting veers perilously close to burlesque); Philip Seymour Hoffman (Synecdoche, New York; Charlie Wilson's War) brings strength and humanity, flashed with humor, to the accused; and Amy Adams (Enchanted, MIss Pettigrew Lives For A Day) personifies doubt as she struggles with the opposing arguments. Doubt is a fascinating treatise on morality, power, suspicion, and uncertainty.
Gran Torino, directed by 78-year-old Clint Eastwood, is also his first acting role since 2004's Million Dollar Baby. He plays Walt Kowalski - crusty Korean war veteran, recent widow, and retired auto worker - living in suburban Detroit in a neighborhood that has become dominated by immigrant Hmong. The storyline for much of the film moves in expected fashion, as Walt grouses about the changing world, mutters invective at anyone who crosses him, and generally wallows in his own bitterness with a cooler full of Pabsts. Many of Gran Torino's characters are more stereotypically sketched than fully-developed. But the plot eventually evolves and becomes more complicated, with intriguing overlays of sacrifice, atonement, and redemption. Add a classic Eastwood performance - all scowls, squints, and more than a few moments channeling Harry Callahan - and the result is an engaging, moving Gran Torino.
Last Chance Harvey is a sweetly appealing story of an unexpected, late-in-life romance. It is completely predictable and, like many current films, its full length adds little to what is in the trailer. But the veteran leads, Dustin Hoffman (last seen in Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium and heard in Kung Fu Panda and The Tale of Despereaux) and Emma Thompson (Brideshead Revisited and uncredited in I Am Legend), underplay their roles and carry Last Chance Harvey with a natural and charming chemistry. A pleasant holiday diversion.
The stars of Titanic - Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio - are reunited in this film by Winslet's husband, Sam Mendes, but to little return. Mendes has had a short but potent directorial career, creating the Oscar-winning American Beauty along with Road To Perdition and Jarhead. Revolutionary Road (based on the 1961 novel by Richard Yates) revisits some of the territory as American Beauty, portraying the ups and downs of young newlyweds (Winslet and DiCaprio) as they start their life together in suburbia. On a technical level, there is much that is appealing about the film - the recreation of mid-50s Connecticut is vivid, Thomas Newman's score is - as always - haunting and evocative, and the production design is exciting in its immediacy. There are strong acting performances throughout. But, unlike American Beauty, which beguiled with a multi-layered and provocative storyline, Revolutionary Road never connects and engages the viewer. The couple's hopes and aspirations, disillusionment and disappointment, are all well-portrayed, but there is little insight into why the characters do what they do. The film suggests interesting questions, but leaves them frustratingly unilluminated and unresolved.
[Note: I may notbe able to file a column from Oregon on Dec. 22 and Dec. 29; it depends on the Internet connectivity. This may be my last column for three weeks.] Coming Dec. 21: Neal's Review of Revolutionary Road!
In the fine old tradition of journalists who recycle their holiday messages year after year, here's the ninth rerun of my Christmas message since Dec. 21, 1998 (with a few slight modifications).
Season's greetings to one and all. Apologies to those of you who feel oppressed by the season. I know Christians, atheists and Jews who feel the seasonal oppression in equal parts. Oppression and depression. I'm sorry. This message isn't going to cheer you up, much.
This is a time of year that has inspired some of the most brilliant writing in the English language. It ranges from Dickens' A Christmas Carol (which single-handedly revived the celebration of Christmas as a major holiday in the English-speaking world), to the sturdy newspaper editorial entitled "Yes Virginia, There is a Santa Claus." In more modern times, we have, among other things, The Grinch Who Stole Christmas and the unforgettable Bill Murray as Scrooge in the Dickens adaptation, Scrooged. (Not to mention Olive, The Other Reindeer. Never seen it. Love the pun).
Alas, like so many of us, the muse seems to have taken off early. I briefly considered, as I do every year, throwing in some of Dylan Thomas' A Child's Christmas In Wales which Fr. Harrison West and I recited several times at Benson High School assemblies (long before he was Fr. West). But then I decided just to do a quick Christmas column.
What is Christmas about? It can be about the birth of Jesus, but for most of us it isn't. It's about many things.
Christmas is about singing (or listening to) Christmas carols. My favorite annual Christmas party, bar none, is the Christmas Caroling party held annually by our best friends, the Strykowskis. They're Jewish, and so are many of the partygoers. Joyful voices raised together. Doesn't matter if they're not in tune. Doesn't matter if some of the lyrics are Christian claptrap. Jingle Bells, White Christmas and Jingle Bell Rock, along with the rest of the secular Christmas liturgy are just plain fun. I wince a little sometimes when we sing the later verses of "God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen," or "Good King Wenceslas." (Question: speaking of flow muses, why is it that the muse flees most lyricists somewhere between the first and second verses?) Besides, I get to do "Five Golden Rings" every year when we sing "The 12 Days Of Christmas."
Christmas is about family and friends. It is about Egg Nog (or fat-free "Holiday Nog") and all the rest of the seasonal food. It is about the children--bless my wife for her decision a decade ago to give to the kids only; no adult presents. Since then, not another fruit basket has been sacrificed to the impossible task of thinking up presents for adults who already own everything they want.
It's about travelling, at the worst travel time of year, to be with your family. Vicki and I hit Seattle Dec. 20 for the annual concert of her high school friend; after some time with my parents in Portland, Vicki and I head to Gleneden Beach, on the coast near Lincoln City, Oregon, for the week between Christmas and New Years. Spending that week in that town is a tradition as old as our marriage (29 years on Jan. 1). Last year, we bought clothing at the outlet mall in town because after I lost 70 pounds nothing fit. Since I've kept 65 of those pounds off, we may buy a little more clothing this year.
Christmas is about family traditions when you're a kid, and the blending of family traditions when you marry. In childhood, my family stayed at home on Christmas, my wife was always a Christmas runaway. My lights went up the Saturday after Thanksgiving each year and came down the Saturday after New Years. Vicki's went up on Christmas Eve and came down on Boxing Day. This year, there's hardly any lights at all. With two adult children, that's fine.
We've had artificial trees for years. Marlow asked for a big real tree her freshman year at college, so we put a 14-footer in the library in 1999; then Rae asked for one and got it in 2003. This year -- just a little tabletop tree with Mexican decorations. But it's a fancy artificial tree, with two kinds of lights and a remote control, modeled after a White Vermont Spruce. We bought it in January 2008, at an after-Christmas sale in an artificial tree store.
Christmas is about giving thanks. Thanksgiving is the official holiday to give thanks for our good fortune, but nothing says you can't do that at Christmas as well. Every Christmas morning when I wake up with my health, my wife, my children, my brother and my parents as part of this world, I count my blessings. Mine are beyond counting. I hope yours are too. I have adult-onset diabetes, but there are lots of worse diseases in the world. Mine, at least, is under control. I almost died in a car crash in January 2007, but I'm still alive. I had ventricle fibrilation, and now I have a defibrillator / pacemaker. And, medically supervised but eating normal food, At 235, I weigh less than I have since 1985, and I feel great!
One Christmas was so much like another, in those years around the sea-town corner now and out of all sound except the distant speaking of the voices I sometimes hear a moment before sleep, that I can never remember whether it snowed for six days and six nights when I was twelve or whether it snowed for twelve days and twelve nights when I was six...
A friend passed me the URL for Boot Hall, written by a pseudonymous American expat in London with a wry take on the world. If you're familiar with the second best journalism book ever, Scoop, you'll recognize the pen name, Bill Boot, as the familiar form of William Boot, the protagonist of the story. In British Parlance, Boot Hall would be the ancestral country home of the Boot family. Give this blog a look!
In my mind, it was crystal clear that last week's item, Writing When Happy, was a mea culpa for the fact that I've only written intermittently about my life of late. It is not that I am unhappy, it's just that life is normal--just the way I like it. At least one reader, my brother Steve, mistook the tone for melancholy. Frankly, I think a life with an occasional high point is exciting enough for me. And that's all I meant.
Daniel Dern passed along the New York Times assessment of the state of college radio (weaker, but OK). If you've been paying attention, you know I was heavily involved in radio as a youth, to the extent that I hoped to become a DJ. I went to Benson Polytechnic School in Portland, Oregon and spent a lot of time at KBPS (my full radio résumé is here). Nothing changed at MIT; I began hanging out at the MIT station, WMBR (then WTBS) in my freshman year, when I anchored the half-hour Sunday night 9pm newscast. I wrote and performed comedy and drama, and hosted a program about electronic music. Had I continued, I might well have made my career in radio.
Fate intervened in January 1972, the middle of my sophomore year. There was an election for general manager; Roger versus Me. Roger creamed me (I wasn't very popular). He quit half way through his term to go to work for Tech Hi-Fi, but the damage was done. I withdrew from the station and devoted all my time to the job that I had won election to, news editor of The Tech, the most important MIT student newspaper. The WTBS staff had made the decision for me. The die was cast. I can't say I never looked back; actually, I looked back constantly until about 1985. Just as I gave up all hope of broadcasting, I got a gig as the software reviewer on the Computer Chronicles, which gave me my decade on national television (albeit public television). I love college radio, but its rejection of me gave me a life in print I wouldn't trade for anything.
I wrote recently about tricks of memory, which included a quotation from a lede by a college colleague and friend that I particularly enjoyed. I quoted it from memory. This morning, for no particular reason, I realized that I could find the exact quote in The Tech's online archives. Here it is:
If nothing else, the old Burton House was sturdy. To be sure, the plaster flaked, the pipes jutted inconveniently, the carpeting (where it existed) aged ungracefully and when wet smelled dankly of old beer, the furniture stubbornly resisted anything resembling interior decoration, and the Servend machines consistently denied their services, seemingly with a frequency correlated to the degree of desperation of the vendee. No one disputed the fact that Burton was ugly, decrepit, institutional, and often depressing in its own right. (August 3, 1971)
The part I remembered was "smelled dankly of old beer."
Now, I thought, if I could just find the New York Times review of a play. It began, in my memory, "Other than the script, actors, sets and lighting, the thing I hated most about this play was..." I could swear the play was "Drat," which opened in 1971 at the McAlpin Rooftoop Theater. I carried the review in my wallet for years as a perfect example of invective, then lost it.
After years of searching, I somehow found it this morning! The actual quote, from a Clive Barnes review, is:
What I disliked most about the show--apart from its book, lyrics, music, scenery, costumes, staging and acting--was its extraordinarily fetid air of innuendo. (NY Times, Oct. 19, 1971)
There's a review you'd want to keep in your wallet!
I know a lot of people feel they need the excuse of a young person to go see an animated film. I always went with my girls when they were young (and sometimes dragoon them into animated films now that they're in their 20s), but I needed no excuse to drive through the tunnel to Emeryville to see Bolt in Disney 3D. Boy, has that technology improved; you can wear the glasses for a whole movie and not get eye strain! Let's hear it for digital projection. This film is just as cute as heck, featuring the voice talents of John Travolta as the eponymous dog hero Bolt and Miley Cyrus as his person Penny. There are obvious echoes of the Truman Show, which is not something I'd expect from a children's movie, but of course, all the good ones operate at both the youth and adult level, so that they are truly fun for the whole family. There is nice foreshadowing, and, of course, I need to cheer on Mark Walton, a Pixar animator who did the voice of the hamster on the "scratch track" to which the film was animated. His voice was so perfect they kept it when the film was completed and now he's a star. Awwww.