September 16th, 2009
There are few times in my life when I’m honestly star struck. I’m sure that if I was in the same room as George Clooney, I’d be tongue tied and shaking in my boots, but for the most part I’ve met some very cool people in my time working in both television and publishing. However, last night, at the gala premiere of The Private Lives of Pippa Lee, I have to admit I was a little gaga over Rebecca Miller, Keanu Reeves and Robin Wright Penn. They were all just so luminous, humble, appreciative and lovely (and I didn’t even get to actually meet them).
Rebecca Miller’s film, adapted from her novel of the same name, remains hard to describe. Simply, it’s a solidly good film with great characters, an interesting story, and fantastic performances. It’s everything a movie should be, and then some. I know I’m a little biased because I really enjoyed the book and have been a fan of Miller’s writing ever since I saw Personal Velocity. I still remember this line every time I think of that film: “Delia Shunt was 34. She had fine, dirty-blond hair and a strong, heavy ass…which looked excellent in blue jeans.”
For girls with heavy asses, it was a revelation of sorts.
But back to Pippa Lee, the titular main character who finds herself marooned in a retirement community after her much older husband suffers from three separate, serious heart attacks. The consumate wife, Pippa spends her days planning meals and raising her kids. She’s paying penance, it seems, for her earlier, wilder years. Suffering from what she calls a quiet mental breakdown, Pippa starts walking, eating, even driving, in her sleep. The sleepwalking is just the beginning. Pippa’s carefully constructed life crumbles down around her but it’s not a bad thing. It’s surprisingly, enlightening, even fabled, in a way.
The press point that Robin Wright Penn keeps mentioning, both in the conference yesterday and her red carpet interview, is how there are so few roles like this for women in Hollywood. It’s a familiar theme: women of a certain age getting cast aside for younger, fresher models. Maybe we need more auteurs like Miller, women who not only write, but also direct, intelligent films that present complex, honest, flawed characters like Pippa Lee. Wright Penn inhabits the role in ways that brought it to life beyond the book. She has a range and depth of emotion that displays a tenderness toward life, for her kids, for her husband, even when they’re being utterly shitty to her. When everything changes and she does something so out of character (although not necessarily so when you look at her actions in the context of her entire life), it’s hard not to cheer her on. You’re utterly on Pippa Lee’s side and that’s entirely because of Wright Penn’s performance.
There’s a lovely chemistry between Keanu Reeves and Wright Penn. Equally troubled in his own life, Reeves’ character finds himself in his mid-thirties, divorced and back living with his parents. Their friendship remains the most honest relationship (for a point) in Pippa’s life. With all new friendships, what’s nice is finding out the other’s story without any judgment. That’s biggest difference between Chris and Pippa’s husband Herb (Alan Arkin). So it’s easy to see why and how their relationship develops. Plus, there’s a point in the movie where Chris says, “Hi there,” to Pippa and I must admit, swoon.
Also, Winona Ryder, Alan Arkin and Mike Binder do well as the supporting characters, and Blake Lively’s even passable as the young Pippa (but her “bite my lip” equals “emotion” style of “Serena” acting gets a little tired). I was surprised by Reeves’ casting but, like everyone in the film, he’s really good. I can’t say much else — it’s just a good film. That might sound trite but I honestly mean it. Usually, I’ll say that one should just read the book, forget about the movie; it’ll only pale in comparison. But here the film is an amazing complement to the novel — so I’m happily suggesting one should do both.
September 14th, 2009
I am this-close to being all caught up with my book reviews. I’ve got two more after Dennis Lehane’s Shutter Island, and then I’m almost current. What a shock to my system that’ll be: actually talking about my life in real time. Like The Best of Everything, Shutter Island was another book that I read in pretty much one sitting.
Here comes the confessional. [whispers] I cheat and sometimes read the endings of books first. I know. It’s terrible. But it’s something I started doing when I was a kid and can’t control. So, after I started Shutter Island, I just had to know what happened. Like, HAD to know. Like, COULDN’T wait until I actually got to the end, and I resisted. Oh, I resisted until early evening when everyone else was playing cards and I was still reading. And then I couldn’t stop myself. Flipping the book over I scanned the last few pages and said, “WHAT? No, that can’t be right. I don’t understand.”
Serves me right.
Back to the traditional old-school read it from beginning to ending. U.S. Marshal Teddy Daniels and his new partner, Chuck Aule, arrive on Shutter Island for a routine missing persons case. Except, is it really all that routine when the island, separated from the mainland by high tides, rocky outcrops and cold water, is home to a prison for some of the country’s most disturbed and dangerous offenders? So, one of them has gone missing — she’s utterly disappeared from her cell (not unlike Andy in The Shawshank Redemption only without the giant poster and the actual explanation) and no one knows what’s happened. But when Teddy and Chuck step off the ferry, nothing is as it seems. The staff are cryptic and unhelpful. The clues are confusing and don’t make sense. And soon Teddy’s not only lost his partner but he’s on the verge of losing his mind too. He can’t get off the island. No, wait, let’s rephrase that, they won’t let him off the island.
Let me tell you: I did not expect the ending. It came out of left field for me so much that I had to re-read the prologue AND the last few pages more than once. Lehane’s such a convincing writer that you get swept away in Teddy’s story the moment he tosses his cookies on the ferry ride over. That’s a part of why the novel’s so masterful too — that for a twist of this magnitude to work, you need to be with the main character from the very beginning. You need to sweat when he sweats, so to speak, and sweat you do.
I’m stoked for the movie, even if they’ve delayed its opening until next winter. Here’s the trailer in case you’ve been living under a rock these last few months:
Is it just me or is it totally terrifying? Trust me when I say that the book throws the same kind of punch.
October 19th, 2007
There must be something in the water in Hollywood this fall, because out of the four pictures I’ve seen (3:10 to Yuma, Into the Wild, Michael Clayton, and now Gone, Baby, Gone), there’s not a bad one in the bunch. Sure, they all have their flaws, but that’s what makes filmmaking so interesting as an art form.
So I refrained from writing a full review of Dennis Lehane’s novel until I had seen the movie. I wanted to really explore the idea (in my head) of how a movie adaptation might work or not work. Gone, Baby, Gone seems, at first glance, to be a strange book to start with, considering it’s one of the middle books in Lehane’s series centering on Dorchester-native and private investigator Patrick Kenzie (Casey Affleck) and his partner, Angie Gennaro (Michelle Monaghan). But in the end, I think it was a good choice, although I haven’t read the others, if only for its utterly current storyline and setting.
In this particular story, Patrick and Angie are called upon to help find a missing neighbourhood girl after she’s taken one night from her mother’s apartment. The mother, a drug addict and terrible mother, is forced into a sort of reckoning for her lifestyle by her older brother and his wife, who are the ones who actually hire Patrick and Angie. From the beginning, something’s just not right with the case, whether it’s the involvement of the cops, how the girl disappeared, or the story behind the story that starts to unravel the deeper Patrick and Angie get into it.
The film does an excellent job of streamlining the complex plot for a theatre audience. While plot details are tightened up, the film remains contextually in tact, despite its extreme complexity, which always doesn’t translate easily to the big screen. Affleck pays homage to noir films before him, but sometimes, he takes the elements a bit too far (although not to the crazy degree found in last year’s similar noir-influenced The Black Dhalia). Yet, despite the film’s few shortcomings, it remains tight, riveting and well-acted throughout.
If I have one complaint, it’s that the character of Angie becomes so very secondary in the film. She really doesn’t have a lot to do, she stands beside Patrick, asks a couple of questions, and has one pivotal moment that they took directly from the novel. Yet, in the book she’s complex, troubled, and deeply confused about elements of the case. The movie, I guess to keep it clear on Patrick, turns her into a truly supporting character, a partner in name only, and much less the strong, tough woman in Lehane’s narrative.
But the film’s got amazing art direction that brings the setting to life, fabulous performances by character actors like Amy Madigan and Ed Harris, and Deadwood‘s Titus Welliver and The Wire‘s Amy Ryan, and Casey Affleck, who brings a heart to the film that Lehane’s controlled style and hard-hitting language doesn’t always reflect. Affleck’s deft hand behind the camera and with the script show real talent and promise. And that’s a sentence I never thought I’d write, let alone think. He took everything he could from the book, changed what he needed to, remained faithful to the rest, and created a film that’s poignant, aching, bright, and honestly worthy of praise.
September 11th, 2007
There’s something about Cormac McCarthy’s attention to the sparseness of punctuation and sentence structure that works exceptionally well in No Country for Old Men. It’s as if one comma would ruin the flow of the language and pull your attention away from how the characters’ voices are conceptualized. And I’m consistently amazed at how he manages to ensure the flow of dialogue without quotations, or truly, any way of knowing who’s speaking beyond the voices you create for them in your own head.
As a youngish man goes for hunting in the back country near the Rio Grande, he discovers the spoils of a drug deal gone bad: lots of product, even more money. Leaving the product and picking up the cash, Llewelyn Moss turns around and makes his way out of the back country. He gets back in his truck, and drives home to his bride, who’s but a wisp older than sixteen.
[And I’m paraphrasing]
She drawls, “What’s in the bag”
“A pile of money.”
And at that moment, whether they know it or not, their lives change forever.
The blunt force trauma of this story follows as such: Llewelyn, having stolen the money from an active drug cartel, is hunted down by the killer Anton Chigurh on one side of the law and by the old-time police chief Ed Tom Bell on the other. Seen from either direction, the story is sure as sh*t not going to come down in the favour of poor Lleweyln, nor is it going to turn out alright for Carla Jean, his wife. The chase on either side is brutal, dedicated, bloody and violent as hell.
It’s hard to say but I’m not sure if there’s a living writer (non-Canadian) that I admire these days as much as McCarthybut only, truly, for these latest few books. All the Pretty Horses, with its majestic first sentence, as I’ve said here before, remains one of my all-time favourite books. Now, as you know, I was completely captivated by The Road. But No Country For Old Men blew me away. No one writes violence like McCarthy, and turns something that’s often mocked in the popular media, or blown out in ways that ensure any impact of it gets lost between big guns and lots of useless fake punches, into literature.
The character of Ed Tom, the local police chief charged with not only unraveling the mystery of all the dead drug dealers, but also attempting to find Llewelyn before he’s got no life left to live, remains a moral compass behind the entire book. Each chapter begins with a long, almost internal section from his point of view, where you can truly see how the country has started to make the changes into society as we know it today. It’s a very particular vantage point, sitting on the cusp just before the world completely changes, and he seems bittersweet at best when coming to terms with the end of his life.
Ed Tom, as with many of the characters, acts stoically when faced with a situation that seems quite simply beyond the grasp of what everyday life prepares you for. The novel openly contemplates the idea that a secret, life lesson, sense of karma, or fairness itself will truly be obliterated by the sheer force of the universe. So much of the narrative plays out this philosophical ideal by the scenes of truly brutal violence, but also in the sheer fact that, as McCarthy proposed in his Oprah interview, some people are simply born luckier than others.
Of course I’m preparing myself for the movie adaption. By all accounts it’s apparently bloody brilliant, the Coen brothers at their finest, but I still think the story will lose something that only the inner workings of Ed Tom’s mind can relay. So before everyone heads out during Oscar season to work out their picks, I highly recommend reading this book before thoughts of Tommy Lee Jones, Javier Bardem and Josh Brolin fill up your imagination.
Oh, and there’s a slight error in the cover copy that bugged me all through the book, it says something along the lines of ‘set in our modern time’ or something when it’s actually a period piece (to an extent). The book actually takes place in the early 1980s (or just 1980), which is just another reason to pay homage to McCarthy’s talents as he doesn’t have to come right out and say this, but it’s totally inferred by the cars the characters drive and the technology they use.
PHOTO IN CONTEXT: I left the book up north and feel very strongly that it belongs in the cottage library (should there ever truly be one), and so I’m posting a photo of the moon on the night I finished reading the novel. I’m telling you, as lame as my picture is, it was one of the most beautiful moons I had ever seen. I stood outside and took a dozen pictures trying to find just one that captured the tenor of the clouds and the songs of the night, and honestly think I failedbut I sure hope you get the picture.