Category Archives: Film & Television

Philomena Lee and the Magdalen Laundries

Philomena

Actor Judi Dench often plays unsmiling, all-knowing, uncompromising women who cannot be fooled, but in her Oscar-nominated role playing Philomena Lee in Stephen Frears’s film Philomena, she gives a unexpectedly soft, poignant and sympathetic performance that displays her versatility and range. The film is based on the true story of Philomena Lee, and Irishwoman who became pregnant as a teenager in 1951 and was sent to a remote Irish abbey during her pregnancy. There she was forced by nuns to work as a laundress alongside other unwed mothers, and was made to stay on working at the laundry without pay for four more years as penance for the sin of having had premarital sex, and to pay the abbey for the costs of caring for her during her pregnancy.

The practice of locking up young unwed mothers in what were known as “Magdalene asylums” or “Magdalene laundries” was common in Ireland and Britain in the 19th century, and it spread to other European countries and to the U.S. and Canada. The practice lasted well into the 20th century. The last Magdalene asylum in Ireland was in operation until 1996. At these workhouses girls were sometimes beaten, often locked inside against their will and sometimes forbidden to leave even after they became adults.

The Catholic Church enjoyed free labor from these women, and embarrassed parents of unwed pregnant teens were often so relieved to avoid the public shame of having their daughters’ sins paraded before society that many abandoned their children to the Magdalene sisters forever. Families often told neighbors and friends that their daughters had gone to live with family, or emigrated, or even died, all in an effort to save themselves from shame and social ostracism.

While these teen girls worked long hours in steamy laundries, their children were watched over by nuns in nurseries. At the abbey where Philomena lived, children were often adopted out to American married couples who sought children in return for generous donations to the abbey. Philomena’s much-loved son was adopted by an American couple and taken away without warning one day while she was working. She had no chance to say goodbye, she had no idea that her little boy had been flown to America, and she was not told that his named had been changed.

All her efforts to learn what became of her son were rebuffed by the abbey, which destroyed her records and denied knowledge of her son’s name and whereabouts. Ashamed by her plight but desperately sad to have lost her son, Philomena sought him secretly for a half century without luck. Finally, she enlisted the help of Martin Sixsmith, an out-of-work journalist and former government advisor to the Labour Party. Martin and Philomena traveled to America together and learned extraordinary things about Philomena’s son and the abbey’s deceptive practices. Their story of their adventure together was published by Sixsmith in 2009 in his book The Lost Child of Philomena Lee, described by the L.A. Times as “a serio-comic travelogue full of heart-rending discovery and the triumph of forgiveness over hate.”

Previews made it look like a manipulative tear-jerker about a naive old lady with a can-do attitude and a big heart, the sort of story that could turn sickly-sweet in under a minute. Happily, it stars Judi Dench and satirist Steve Coogan, two actors famous for their droll, whip-smart performances, and it benefits from the tart and clever writing of Coogan, who coauthored the screenplay. He is known for his cynical, sarcastic portrayals, and he shows his dark wit in films like The Trip and Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story. In England he’s well known for his most popular creation, a character named Alan Partridge described as “a socially awkward and politically incorrect regional media personality.”

I knew better than to expect mindless, treacly antics from Coogan or from director Stephen Frears, whose smart, often dark films include Dangerous Liaisons, My Beautiful Laundrette (which starred a young Daniel Day-Lewis), Prick Up Your Ears (with Gary Oldman) and The Grifters (a dark little masterpiece with John Cusack, Annette Bening and Anjelica Huston). Frears has no fear of difficult subjects or ugly moments. Weighing all these facts, I put aside my worries that this could be a manipulative little feel-good flick. Happily, I found it a movingly acted film about an unworldly, seemingly simple woman who turns out to be more complex and determined than people expect.

The battle between the jaded, antireligious cynicism of Martin and the every-day-is-a-gift devout positivity of Philomena is at the core of the film, but Dench’s portrayal shows the spirited openmindedness of our seemingly old-fashioned heroine. Her sense of hopefulness and appreciation for small kindnesses is nicely balanced by exasperation with Martin’s dour, dark, angry worldview. He is not won over by her endless sweet simplicity, but he is moved by her because he recognizes that she has insights into people and situations that he, with all his experience and inside information but lack of empathy, misses.

Martin recognizes that Philomena’s story is a door into a huge and devastating world of widespread, long-term institutional abuse of the most vulnerable among us: abandoned, pregnant teen girls and small children. He sees that she has a power to connect with people that he lacks because he is often closed to anything but the fulfillment of his own expectations and prejudices. The journey they take together becomes more tangled and difficult than they expect, and it becomes more personally engaging and meaningful than Martin could have guessed.

[Originally published on Laura Grey’s Little Hopping Bird blog.]

Capote

Capote

[Originally published on Laura Grey’s Little Hopping Bird blog.]

“My major regret in life is that my childhood was unnecessarily lonely.” –Truman Capote

The Truman Capote I grew up watching and reading was the Capote who appeared, usually drunk or drugged, odd but always interesting, on afternoon and evening talk shows, spinning stories about the fabulously famous and wealthy crowd with whom he ran. He was a professional personality by the time I was aware of him, but I also knew that he’d written much-admired stories that had been turned into very famous and popular films. I knew that my mother admired his work, and that he had written “A Christmas Memory,” one of the most beautiful, understated, tender stories I’ve ever read. The fact that it was based in his own experience made it all the more lovely to me. I felt sad for and protective of him at a young age, because I knew that the man who had written that story had been a tender and hyperaware child, like I had, and had seen the fear and pain in life as clearly as the joy and the secret beauties of it.

My mother taught “A Christmas Memory” to her high school English students for many years and she introduced it to me when I was about ten. I was completely taken with this story of a young boy abandoned by his parents and living with his disapproving southern aunts. This boy’s best friend was the childlike old-maid cousin with whom he also lived, a woman who flew handmade kites with him and took him to buy moonshine whiskey from Mr. Haha Jones so they could make their annual batch of fruitcakes, one of which they sent to President Franklin Roosevelt every year. Capote had taken the littlest details and moments in what others might see as an unexceptional situation and spun them into a rich and compelling story, simple and straightforward but with every word in place, every emotion sparely but elegantly woven into the words. I think it’s a short masterpiece; it is perhaps my favorite short story, and the one I’ve read more often than any other.

It was immediately clear to me that Capote got the tone, the subtleties, the story, and the total devotion of the characters for each other exactly right. That he was the model for the boy Dill in his friend Harper Lee’s story To Kill a Mockingbird, a novel that I find close to perfect, made him all the more special to me. I have read and reread “A Christmas Memory” to myself and others most of the Christmases of my life, and cry as regularly as clockwork when I come to the last bittersweet page. This was a man who clearly understood loss and loneliness, and who understood empathy and tender connection to another like few writers I’d come across. There was something beautiful and tender and true in him and in his art that I, and millions of other people, were drawn to, and wanted to believe in.

When Capote died in 1984 among swirling stories of long-term drug and alcohol abuse, he also left behind him a parade of disaffected friends who felt he’d used and abused them, that he’d betrayed their friendship and their secrets in order to steal their souls so that he might make not only his party anecdotes but his writing come to life. He had been such a wildly successful New York socialite, courting and collecting the loveliest, richest, and most prominent socialites as his “swans,” as he called them, for years. He hosted the New York social event of the decade, the famous and successful Black and White Ball, in 1966. Best-dressed list icons like Lee Radziwill and Babe Paley attended parties with him and had him to their summer homes, traveled with him and relished his delicious gossip. He wangled his way into the hearts of dozens of people who felt he understood them intimately and would respect and love them not only despite but because of their foibles. When he wanted to be charming, nobody could outcharm him. He made people of all types and of any social standing believe he loved them for the tender, misunderstood people they were inside their suits of shiny invincibility; they felt not only understood by him but safe with him. And then he spilled out their secrets for everyone to see.

For years he gathered their lives into his short stories and promised a splendid, insightful book to his publisher, talk show hosts, and the world, and we all waited with bated breath, knowing that when Capote had the time to build a work, like In Cold Blood, he would carefully piece it together just so and make the wait worthwhile. He had shown his mastery of the short story form very early in life, and, when sober, he was an insightful and entertaining fellow. He was also extraordinarily catty when he wanted to be, and, when one wasn’t on the receiving end of that acid tongue, he could be shockingly funny. But his charm was so extreme and his magical power of diverting attention from the things that everyone should have known that he was a sponge who missed no details, a writer first and foremost, insightful and ruthless when exposing the hidden motivation, the raw nerve.

So he gathered his swans’ secrets and then poured them out onto the page with such clarity, and so little effort at concealing the identities of his characters’ inspirations, that he immediately and permanently drove most of his friends and their associates away and turned their feelings for him from indulgent and loving exasperation to anger, fear, and resentment. To learn of how almost all the doors of society slammed on him one by one after he had been the toast of New York, the shining star of literary society, was to feel that, no matter how much he deserved what he got, it was still a terrible shame, that there must have been some mistake somewhere, some misunderstanding.

Knowing his downward trajectory during the last 15 years of his life makes “Capote,” the outstanding new film about his years researching and writing In Cold Blood, even more riveting. The film constructs, with not one extraneous scene or unnecessary bit of dialog, an understanding of his place in literary society, and his chameleon-like ease at blending into the lives of the people whom he wanted to capture and luring them into trusting him with their lives and stories. His ability to say exactly what a publisher, a murderer, his lover, his oldest friend wanted to hear in order to court their love or trust, and seem to mean each word he said, is juxtaposed rivetingly with his ability to cut them off at the knees, dismiss them, insult them, or ignore them when their needs don’t suit his. The performance by Philip Seymour Hoffman is astonishing, not only because his impersonation of Capote’s strained, high, tiny voice and his fussy mannerisms is so remarkably good, but because he moves effortlessly between charm and seemingly endless empathy to self-absorption of enormous proportion so smoothly and naturally. We both admire and revile him. In their roles, excellent actors Chris Cooper and Catherine Keener show indulgence and affection for him, as well as wariness and disgust with his deceit of others, of them, of himself. The script is often spare and the pacing, while perfect, is never rushed; what is not said by the characters is as important and full of meaning as the well-crafted dialog. We learn just enough about any character, any situation, to be able to piece together what its meaning will be to those involved. His actions and the reactions of others are carefully calibrated so that we are never in the dark as to what is going on or how his actions will reverberate, but we are trusted to be able to let the story build in our minds; the writer, director, and actors don’t spoonfeed us but deftly piece the feelings, words, and actions of the characters together so that the story builds and intermeshes exactly as it should. This is how a subtle story should be told.

How Schoolhouse Rock Led Me to Jazz Great Blossom Dearie

Schoolhouse Rock

[Originally published as “My Roundabout Introduction to Blossom Dearie” on Laura Grey’s Little Hopping Bird blog.]

When I was a child, ABC’s Saturday morning cartoon line-up was punctuated with wonderful short musical cartoons sponsored by Nabisco: the famous “Schoolhouse Rock” cartoons. The educational songs created for these cartoons were so clever, catchy, and memorable that they were all rereleased on video in the 1990s for the children of the children who enjoyed them over 30 years ago. I grew up on the “Multiplication Rock” and “Grammar Rock” videos; my daughter loved them 30 years later.

Much of the appeal of these videos was that each was just the length of a pop song, and the music and lyrics were written by proven and talented professional musicians, not by earnest professional pedagogues. They were quick and full of information, and had busy, funny animation. And they were the only regular music videos for kids on TV then; there were weak shows with live-action singers or talentless oafs in bad costumes doing pathetic songs, like on “New Zoo Revue,” and there were catchy theme songs on the somehow compelling yet also vaguely disturbing Sid and Marty Krofft kid shows like “H.R. Pufnstuf” (which starred Jack Wild, who played The Artful Dodger in the musical film “Oliver!”), “The Bugaloos” (whose villain was played by comedian Martha Raye, probably most famous to people my age as a denture adhesive pitchwoman) and “Liddsville,” that bizarre show about the land of talking hats starring Charles Nelson Reilly and Butch Patrick (a.k.a. Eddie Munster). But MTV didn’t exist yet and catchy musical TV ads for dolls or games (from “Life” to “Mystery Date“) were no match for three-minute musical cartoon masterpieces like “Three is a Magic Number” or “Conjunction Junction” or “I’m Just a Bill.” These songs were so good that a number of popular rock bands covered them on the album “Schoolhouse Rock Rocks.”

Of all the songs in the “Schoolhouse Rock” oeuvre, there was one that shone out as a particularly elegant little gem: “Figure Eight.” My mother loved it so much that she bought the “Schoolhouse Rock” album on vinyl many years ago just to listen to that song. This ode to the number eight was illustrated by a figure skater and the song was sung by a woman with an unbelievably darling name and voice: Blossom Dearie. The dearest part is that she was born with that name. And the best part is that sweet, small, clear voice has sung some of the lightest, crispest, most refreshing versions of a number of jazz standards I’ve ever heard. She also has a fresh, spare style of piano playing that underscores that little pussycat voice.

I remember seeing Blossom Dearie interviewed on TV in the 1970s; she had wit and sparkle, and I was rather amazed that her tiny little voice seemed not to be a put-on but the real deal. When I started listening to her recordings of jazz standards years later, I found there was less cutesiness than I expected, and more of a wistful, light yet wry quality to her singing. I love the way she delivers Dorothy Fields‘ lyrics in “I Won’t Dance” (“For heaven rest us, I’m not asbestos”) and the light but knowing quality of “They Say It’s Spring.” “Rhode Island is Famous for You” makes my daughter and me laugh, and it’s fun to compare her version of that song to Michael Feinstein’s. While I love Feinstein’s direct, swoony, passionate if sometimes campy treatment of lyrics, and think he does that song well, Blossom Dearie’s delivery has a quiet humor and a conspiratorial wink, whereas Feinstein’s is more of a showman’s romp, bigger and bolder and more obvious. Both have their place, but Dearie’s intimacy makes me feel like I’m in on a more sophisticated joke.

Can’t Sleep, Clowns Will Eat Me

clown

 

I’ve never cared much for clowns. I don’t have coulrophobia (fear of clowns), though this fear is apparently surprisingly common. I just find pretty much everything they are and most of what they stand for annoying. I don’t hate them, but I avoid them when I can, and I’ve been sorely tempted to buy myself a “Can’t sleep, clowns will eat me” T-shirt. Apparently many of my fellow Americans agree with me.

My beloved Uncle Steve is the exception to my anti-clown rule. He finally retired from his recurring role as Tidy the Clown in the annual Redwood City (California) Fourth of July Parade after 25 years of clowning around in public, and I must say I did enjoy him. But he was a gentle clown who pushed a bottomless garbage can down the street, popping junk into it and leaving a trail of trash behind him as the debris went right through the bottom of the can. When he’s a clown, the joke’s on him, and the audience gets to giggle at his cluelessness.

Steve’s alter ego, Tidy, recruited elementary school kids to be his clown sidekicks every year, and the result was charming and sweet. Tidy stuck flowers into piles of pucky left by the horses of the mounted police that went before him, and only approached people if they seemed open to it; he’d never force himself on a child. He’s more the sweet, Chaplinesque Little Tramp sort of clown, not the barrelling, bamboozling, freakazoid clown one finds on, say, ice cream cone packaging. (That is one horrifying dude.) I can make exceptions for someone like Tidy, but in general, keep Bozo and his ilk far away from me.

The sort of clown my uncle represents is endearing and enjoyable, a sort of old-style, mid-20th-century, fun-loving clown. But nowadays such cuddly clowns are rather rare. The cheerful, perky clown toys of the past have given way to more garish and ghoulish representations in the general media.

The general idea of the American clown, a white-faced social misfit clad in oversized and odd clothing, ignoring people’s personal space, attacking them with seltzer bottles or squirting flowers, and using them as the butt of public jokes as a way of seeking attention, pretty much sums up the worst of American behavior in one self-parodying, campy, over-the-top package. It’s nearly everything I hate about our embarrassingly accurate national stereotype: garish, self-absorbed, pushy, willing to trod on other’s toes, thinking our needs are greater than everyone else’s, ever ready to laugh at others’ humiliation but in a touchy, bad-humored funk when the table is turned and the joke’s on us.

To be fair, clowns of other cultures (e.g., buffoons like Pantalone and Arlecchino in the commedia dell’arte tradition, or Britain’s Punch and Judy puppet versions of clowns) are also caricatures with distinct, overscaled features, costumes, and gestures, all of which predate the founding of the United States by many years. I’m being unjust in blaming American culture for the American clown tradition, I know. They come from a long and, to my sensitivities, annoying tradition of making the audience the straight man, barrelling over others for laughs, and making light of humiliation and slapstick violence. It’s the sort of thing that Roberto Benigni did in his Holocaust-lite Oscar-winning crowd-pleaser, “Life is Beautiful,” a few years ago—much to my disgust and dismay.  For a description of the film that agrees with my take on it, see David Denby’s review, “In the eye of the beholder,” published in The New Yorker, March 15, 1999.  I found nearly everything Benigni did in that film either offensive, maudlin, self-aggrandizing, disrespectful, or embarrassing—or all of those things rolled into one.

I’m not actually a humorless prig; I can cackle and guffaw with the best of them, and I laugh so hard I snort more often than I care to admit. I can enjoy dark humor, tacky humor, vulgar humor, but I can rarely appreciate or enjoy slapstick physical comedy or farce, unless they’re so bizarrely irrational (e.g., my beloved Monty Python) that it’s impossible to empathize with the person playing the butt of the joke. Otherwise, I usually become uncomfortable when the laughs come at the expense of someone else’s pride, safety, or happiness. Even when the straight man is set up to seem an unpleasant sort who deserves his comeuppance, I generally don’t like seeing others derive happiness from the suffering of others. But then, I don’t appreciate most light romantic comedies, either. I can watch “Six Feet Under” or “The Sopranos” all day long (gimme that angst!), but ask me to watch ditsy women trip over themselves to get the attention of pretty boys with great abs for an hour and really, I’d rather floss my teeth or weed my garden, thank you very much.

Of course, I’m not alone. A quick search of eBay will find you scores of scary clown puppets, figurines, and posters that the sellers recognize as distinctly creepy. A walk through the aisles of your local Blockbuster shows DVD covers emblazoned with killer clowns in the horror section. “The Simpsons” even featured an episode in which Bart is so frightened by the clown-inspired bed Homer makes him that he stays up all night chanting, “Can’t sleep, clown’ll eat me.” This is apparently the genesis of the refrain now printed on T-shirts worn by proud coulrophobes across the nation. (Leave it to Matt Groening to explore odd undercurrents of our nation in such a fun and funky way.)

I don’t know whether it’s worth it to resurrect cheerful, inoffensive clowns, since even they had elements that have scared children for centuries; outsized features, crazy make-up, and disturbingly child-like behavior coming from an oversized adult are just odd. I prefer my comedians to take the forms of everyday people, I guess. I like my fantasy worlds to feel as close to a world I can believe in as possible, so I can get lost in them more easily. Some like fantasy characters and scenarios to be as outlandish as possible in order to feel truly immersed in another world and way of thinking, but I’d rather have some emotional connection to fictional characters so that I can care about them and identify with them, and for me, that usually involves making them feel as much like realistic human beings as possible. I also prefer it if they don’t step out of their boundaries and squirt me in the face with a shot of seltzer water. I’m funny that way.

[Originally published in Laura Grey’s Little Hopping Bird blog.]

 

“It is difficult to produce a television documentary that is both incisive and probing when every twelve minutes one is interrupted by twelve dancing rabbits singing about toilet paper.” —Rod Serling

My Architect: A Beautiful Documentary

architect

[Originally published on Laura Grey’s Little Hopping Bird blog.]

Louis I. Kahn (1901-1974) was one of the 20th century’s most influential and well-regarded architects. He designed such important structures as the Exeter Library at Philips Exeter Academy, and the Capital Complex in Dhaka (Dacca), Bangladesh, and his work was revered by high-flying architects such as I. M. Pei, Philip Johnson, and Frank Gehry. But his habits of overwork and overextension, bidding for too many projects and becoming obsessive about his all-consuming passion for architecture, led him to die of a heart attack, bankrupt and alone, in a Penn Station bathroom as he was on his way home to Philadelphia from New York. When he died, he left not only a wife and their daughter, but also a mistress and his second daughter, as well as a second mistress and his third child, his 11-year-old son, Nathaniel, who made a beautiful documentary about his father, “My Architect: A Son’s Journey.”

Nathaniel Kahn’s documentary visits and discusses the works of his father, some of which Nathaniel had never seen before, and shows the emotional and artistic impact that Louis Kahn and his work made on others, both architects and clients. But more than being a simple homage to his father and his works, the film shows Nathaniel’s search to understand his secretive, mysterious father’s compartmentalized life and to strengthen his connection to the father he lost so early. Louis Kahn’s charisma and charm, his love for his children and the feelings of great love and loyalty he engendered in the women in his life are all made clear, as are his self-absorption, his need to make every commitment in life secondary to his commitment to his work, his flashes of arrogance, and his lack of empathy for others. The question which underpins the whole film is whether the gifts of an artistic genius whose work engenders tears of appreciation from his clients and fellow architects can justify his remote, selfish, and disconnected life.

To his credit, Nathaniel Kahn doesn’t try to answer any of these questions once and for all; he interviews his two half sisters and talks with his mother, who still nurses the belief that Louis Kahn was about to leave his wife and come to live with Nathaniel and his mother before he died. He asks difficult questions and presses his mother to be honest about his father’s failings and selfishness. The responses are at times surprising and always sad and touching.

Although he admires his father’s work, Nathaniel Kahn doesn’t like every one of his father’s buildings. As he makes his pilgrimage to each one, he asks the people who live with and use the buildings how they feel about them, and admits when he finds one cold or impractical. When he visits the Exeter Library or the Institute of Public Administration at Ahmedabad, India, or when he goes to Bangladesh and sees how the Capitol and Parliament Buildings in Dhaka are enjoyed and made into the center of life for the local people, he is clearly moved. Sometimes the technical mastery of his father’s work, its appropriateness in shape, form, and function and its original and spare use of light and materials awe him, and we see him surprised and touched by the effect that his father’s work had on others.

It’s difficult to express what makes this film so watchable, moving, and fascinating. I suppose it boils down to three things I find endlessly illuminating: artistic masterworks, biographies of unusual and influential people, and bad family dynamics. This documentary is worth watching on any of those counts; as a work of art encompassing all three, it’s extraordinary.

I found a lovely site with beautiful photographs of Louis Kahn’s work; do check out “The Works of Louis I. Kahn: A Visual Archive by Naquib Hossain.” Hossain describes Kahn’s work elegantly as “A purposeful knot of complements and contradictions in a rich fabric of brick, mortar, and concrete, woven to being by natural light.” “My Architect” is a purposeful knot of complements and contradictions, too, and a lovely work of art in its own right.

Oompa Loompas Go Oingo Boingo

oingo

[Revised from an article originally published on Laura Grey’s Little Hopping Bird blog.]

To celebrate my daughter’s twelfth birthday, she and her dad and I went to see the Tim Burton version of “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.” We were disappointed with it, largely because of the occasional scenes of gratuitous nastiness and Johnny Depp’s unsympathetic portrayal of Willy Wonka. The book’s author, Roald Dahl, is a favorite of ours, and while he was never afraid to expose young readers to scenes of characters getting pleasure out of bringing dismay or suffering to children, his willingness to show us brutish and nasty antagonists serves only to bring us closer to his protagonists and empathize with their pain. The nastiest things happen to those who aren’t pure of heart.

Tim Burton’s new twist on “Charlie” introduces Wonka with an awkward animatronic display in the style of Disney’s “It’s a Small World” ride (on an intimate scale) and then proceeds to burn, melt, and destroy the Hummel-like plastic figures of children to the alarm of real children and to Wonka’s delight. Right off the bat, this introduces a sociopathic streak to the character. It doesn’t carry forward the spirit of the original book, nor does it serve to make the film more appealing or enjoyable.

The Wonka of the book and earlier movie did get pleasure from surprising and even frightening the children some, especially when they were being selfish. Gene Wilder‘s Wonka was mercurial, well-read, nimble with language, the inscrutable mix of wit, joie de vivre, charm, alarm, entertainment, warmth and unexpected temper that he is in the book. Wilder’s Wonka was philosophical, quoted Shakespeare, and showed evidence of introspection, which made his tender moments with Charlie affecting and meaningful. Wilder (and the script, penned by Roald Dahl himself) showed Wonka to be a wild genius but also a man of caring and conviction.

The Willy Wonka created by Roald Dahl was wounded but determined to find faith in the future again by putting his masterpiece in the care of someone who would appreciate it for its magic and creativity, and who wouldn’t turn it into a crass, commercial, soulless enterprise. Depp’s Wonka is completely lacking in introspection or empathy until the very end, and even when he arrives at some awareness of his own shortcomings and Charlie’s value, it’s really only as an adjunct to his narcissism, as a means to getting positive attention, not because of a drive to better the world. Rather than showing signs of wit and erudition, he makes two-word pronouncements that are less articulate than any of the children who have come to him with Golden Tickets: “You’re weird.” “That’s gross.” Gone are the wonderful spirals of wordplay that flew out of the pages of the book, the arch insights into the crassness and self-absorbed nature of modern culture. What we have instead is a flattened world and a diminished Wonka, artisanal Belgian truffles reworked into stale Hershey’s Kisses.

This take on the story is especially sad because Johnny Depp is an actor of range and depth when given the direction or inspiration. In last year’s film “Finding Neverland,” in which he starred as J.M. Barrie, he was delightful and nuanced, as was the young actor Freddie Highmore, who plays Charlie in the new film. All the scenes with Charlie’s family were more affecting and appealing than the analogous scenes in the Gene Wilder version of the film. This Bucket family is warm, engaging, and loving, and the scenes with them bucking each other up in their hovel were a tender contrast to the brash bright production numbers featuring scores of Oompa Loompas. They also underscored the flatness of Wonka’s character. In the book and the Gene Wilder film version, Wonka’s anything but flat.

I will give Depp credit for saying much more with his facial expressions than the script allows him to say with words. The new “Charlie” features several scenes involving killing and tasting the entrails of a large flying insect and lots of caterpillars. Tim Burton’s style of humorous sadism is gooier than Dahl’s, and he draws out the “ew” moments in this film in a way that is at odds with Dahl’s subtler and funnier wit. Tim Burton’s vision requires Johnny Depp to play a Willy Wonka so completely out of touch with both the world of children and the world of adults that he comes across as a sort of disturbing mixture of Emo Phillips and Michael Jackson.

Twenty years ago, Tim Burton took another childlike misfit character, Pee-wee Herman, and built a brilliantly original film around him, “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure.” But Paul Reubens’ Peewee had an appealing inner core; he was wildly immature, but he also cared for people (like Simone the waitress) and animals (whom he rescued from a burning pet store). He was a goof, but he was harmless, and while he could get angry at Francis, his nemesis, he didn’t want to cause others suffering. He was a sympathetic character, so he could stand up to the Tim Burton treatment, and even benefit from it; the slight darkness of Burton’s vision burnished the edges of Peewee’s primary-colored world, and the scene involving Large Marge is priceless.

Burton’s “Edward Scissorhands” (also played by Depp, and beautifully) was an incredibly sympathetic figure, a tender-hearted artist trapped in a body with monstrous and dangerous hands. Burton’s “Batman” with Michael Keaton was such a successful mix of dark and dangerous with quirky and humorous that it launched a whole series of films trying to capture some of the magic and excitement of the Burton treatment. But I’ve found most of Burton’s films of the past decade a bit colder and meaner at heart. “Big Fish” was just an odd mess; it was trying for emotional connection with the audience but I just found it poorly scripted, boring, and overacted. Usually excellent actors like Billy Crudup and Albert Finney gave annoying and vaguely embarrassing performances (which I blame largely on the loopy direction).

I hope that Burton’s soon-to-be-released animated film, “The Corpse Bride,” will once again mix his gothic cynicism with the sense of childlike wonder that some of his earlier films held. I miss the fresh visions and psychological insights of those works. I will give applause to Danny Elfman for the (as usual) exciting score and fresh, funny, original songs. I’ve enjoyed his work for nearly 25 years; I used to go to see him and his clever, brash, brassy band, Oingo Boingo, when they came up to the Bay Area and loved them every time I saw them. Their energy was intense and focused, the band was tight and great, the lyrics were unique and cynically funny. Elfman was clearly a man of strong opinions and endless energy. His score for “Peewee’s Big Adventure” was a perfect jumping-off point for his talent and his style, and his theme for “The Simpsons” fits the feel of the show and the characters; it’s hard to imagine it without that signature theme and all the visual cues we all associate with its musical phrases. His orchestral work for the movies is so lush and evocative that I always enjoy his scores, but I’ve missed the darker, edgier, bouncier Danny I saw in San Francisco and Berkeley years ago.

The new songs for the glitzy Oompa Loompa production numbers in the new “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” will stick with me and entertain me longer and better than the film itself. That’s a soundtrack I’ll be happy to own. But I’ll skip the DVD; I’d rather drag out my old “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” videotape and watch Gene Wilder sing “Pure Imagination” again. And again. And again.

Monsieur Ibrahim

sharif

[Originally posted to Laura Grey’s Little Hopping Bird blog in 2005.]

I just watched the lovely 2003 French film “Monsieur Ibrahim et les Fleurs du Coran” (“Mr. Ibrahim and the Flowers of the Koran”) over the weekend, and I found it a real gem. It’s a story of a 16-year-old boy, Moise (known as Momo) living in a working-class Jewish district of Paris in the 1960s. He looks after his father, a selfish, depressive man who is never satisfied by anything Momo is or does. Abandoned by his mother as a small child, Momo has never known parental love or kindness, so he seeks womanly tenderness from the prostitutes who work the streets of his neighborhood, and he filches money from his father so he can afford to buy some pleasure. He’s rather sullen and quiet, with no real friends and no one to help him learn about life’s possibilities and love’s responsibilities.

Momo makes daily visits to the local grocery owned by Monsieur Ibrahim (Omar Sharif), a Turkish Sufi who seems to know more about what is in Momo’s heart than should be possible. The two strike up a friendship, and Monsieur Ibrahim teaches Momo about loving kindness, about how to make himself more appealing to others so he can get what he wants out of life, about enjoying the world and the people in it. It could have been a paint-by-numbers sort of coming-of-age story, but instead the interactions feel very real and subtle, and Sharif’s performance is extraordinary. He brings a real joie de vivre to the role, but in a quiet, understated fashion. Monsieur Ibrahim is a nonjudgmental, spiritual man who finds beauty in his Quran and keeps that beauty in his heart at all times, and his connection with this drifting young Jewish man gives Momo’s life meaning and roots while still broadening his horizons, both literally and figuratively.

The religions of the two characters impact the story very little. Momo and his father appear to be secular Jews, and Monsieur Ibrahim’s Sufi Muslim beliefs are important to him but are flexible and nonjudgmental enough to allow him to show kindness and appreciation for prostitutes, as well as a desire and willingness to understand the beauty in other religions’ houses of worship, to which he takes Momo on field trips. But some have chosen to read a lot more meaning into the fact that the characters are of differing religions than actually exists in the movie. There will always be those who cannot handle a story of kindness between people of differing beliefs.

There is some argument on the internet among a few viewers of the film who dislike the fact that Momo’s Jewish father is so unlikeable and careless about the boy, and that Momo’s true teacher and father figure is a Muslim. They have chosen to read anti-Jewish sentiment into the story which I do not believe exists. My take on the film is shared by the vast majority of people who have seen it, apparently, but a couple of outspoken critics find the idea that a film that shows a sympathetic Muslim and an unsympathetic Jew must therefore have a message of hidden hatred of Jews, as if art can never show people of one religion or another having unattractive characteristics without painting all of their ethnicity or religion as bad. This sort of sweeping condemnation has as its basis a sort of bigotry of its own, and assumes that viewers are too stupid to recognize that an individual character does not have to represent an entire ethnic group.

I had no idea that Omar Sharif could give a performance of such subtlety and beauty; he was perfectly cast in the role and he brought much of his own personal experience to it. I always think of Sharif in his blockbuster days, from “Lawrence of Arabia” and “Doctor Zhivago” and “Funny Girl,” in which he gave fine and capable performances, but none of which allowed him moments of introspection. His international playboy persona didn’t help me to believe him capable of the sort of intimate gestures and nuanced emotions that flash across his face in this role. The DVD commentary by Sharif is thoughtful and articulate as well. I love getting a whole new perspective on an artist after having my eyes opened to his talents and possibilities. This film was a very pleasing surprise.