Saturday, April 17, 2010

Books And Other Arts Book Review: Woman Made Of Sand

Joann Kobin, author of "A Woman Made of Sand" actually started the novel, as many works of fiction today, as a short story. The short story is now a chapter within the novel. The title of the book is derived from a short story that is also now a chapter in the book. As odd as this seems, the book is a bit like a mosaic or a work of modern art in that as much as it seems pieces of it are incongruous, they actually do all work together quite well.

The novel is broken, as mentioned above, into different chapters, and also flits back and forth between the past and present. It is told essentially in the voice of protagonist, Harriet Stedman. At the opening of the novel she's remarking on the family she has, as well as the family she's married into, prompted to reminisce because of her father-in-law's death. Harriet is married to Phillip, the scion of a family of wallpaper manufacturers, and together they have two children, Matina, and Eric.

The things I found most interesting about the novel are the way the chapters, which can each stand alone as short stories, manage to blend with each other in a way that seems effortless. Harriet recounts years when her children were young and the immediate family had moved to Virginia so her husband could spread his own wings and test his skills out of the family business, working for an advertising agency. She also recounts moving back to New York state as the family lived a seemingly idyllic life in a more suburban setting.

I was enchanted by the way Kobin captured the concept that a life is comprised of many different "seasons" in which priorities, goals, hopes, dreams, skills, and lifestyles all change. In this novel she weaves us several different tales (chapter by chapter, literally) which demonstrate the only thing we can count on in life is that change is constant; sometimes it's slow, sometimes swift, sometimes of our own choosing, sometimes not. Each of the characters cope with it to the best of their ability. By the end of the novel, Phillip and Harriet have divorced, their children are grown, and even at the end of the novel, one of the characters announces another change in his life. And, like a ripple across a lake, all the characters feel the change.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Books And Other Arts Film Review: Evening

Movie Poster Image Courtesy of Wikimedia and QuentinX
So much talent, so many famous names and such a long, long, long movie to tell a tale that really should not be that complicated. Rest assured, you're going to recognize everyone in the cast. Also recognize there is no bad acting by anyone at all in this film. However the film seems to take an enormous amount of time even given it "flashes back" in time to the 1950's.

Ann Grant Lord (Vanessa Redgrave), a former cabaret singer, is gravely ill and on her deathbed, attended by her two alternatingly loving and warring daughters, Constance (the late Natasha Richardson, Redgrave's real-life daughter) and Nina (Toni Collette, whom I'd like to nominate for worst onscreen hairstyle ever in the history of cinema). Heavily medicated, Ann drifts in and out of consciousness, and in her dream-states, she drifts back to incidences in a summer in the 1950's, when she served as maid of honor to her best friend Lila Wittenborn (Mamie Gummer portrays the young Lila, and Claire Danes portrays the young Ann Grant) at Lila's family's summer home in Newport.

Ann, as a college friend of Lila and her younger brother, Buddy, seems out of her element among the wealthy. Her rather bohemian dress and hairstyle contrast with the preppy clothes, house and friends the Wittenborns embody. Glenn Close and Barry Bostwick portray the well-born, well-heeled Wittenborn parents to perfection. Much is made of the fact that Ann will be singing a song at the bride's request at the wedding reception. I'm still not sure WHY so much is made of this, and the best I can come up with is that the song selection, "Time After Time" is a little wink at us because the film flashes back and forth from this era of the 1950's to the present day.

Buddy (Hugh Dancy, with an American accent and boyish good looks) introduces Ann to Harris. It seems as though everyone loves Harris, and I do mean everyone. Today in loose company I think Harris could qualify as a man-whore. Lila has been in love with him since she was a teenager, Buddy is in love with him, and soon Ann falls under his rather bewildering spell. As Harris, Patrick Wilson is surely a great-looking guy, but I frankly couldn't understand his wide appeal to what seemed to be half of Newport. All that's revealed about him is that he's handy with a boat, is the son of one of the Wittenborns' servants, became a doctor and practices medicine in the small town where he grew up.

In events leading up to the wedding, Buddy becomes more and more inebriated to the point that "YOU KNOW SOMETHING BAD WILL HAPPEN". Ann literally clutches her stomach on the way back to the Wittenborns the morning after the wedding and says this much to Harris. And of course something bad does happen and leaves a void in all of their lives.

Back in the present, Constance and Nina are perplexed about Ann's mutterings and murmurings during her semi-consciousness and take stabs at each other, too for their different natures. Constance is apparently a model of stability and success, a career woman (in what field we have no clue) who's married with 2 chidren, and lives a short distance from Ann. Nina, of course, by contrast, is seen as flightly and non-commital, despite the fact her boyfriend Luc has accompanied her on the trip to see her dying mother. Meryl Streep turns in an interesting performance as the "present-day" Lila, who comes to see her dying friend and reminisce with her.

The scenery was gorgeous, filmed on location in Newport. The costuming was pretty much on the mark, very tastefully done. There are bittersweet notes in viewing Natasha Richardson onscreen, of course, since her tragic and unexpected death. Needless to say she makes a very convincing appearance in loving daughter Constance. And despite the bittersweet, the one very joyful note about the film is that it was the vehicle for the meeting of Claire Danes and Hugh Dancy who have since wed. But as a whole it was a too-long film, and the plot was a bit of an inexplicable mess. So much talent, so little for them to do, and such a shame.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Books And Other Arts Film Review: Two Lovers


Two Lovers, directed by James Gray, was released just two years ago. Given the plot, I'd have thought that key characters like Leonard (Joaquin Phoenix), Michelle (Gwyneth Paltrow) and Sandra (Vinessa Shaw) should be about 10 years younger than they actually are. Maybe it's just a sign of the times and I'm a curmudgeon.

Leonard is a troubled young man, who, at the beginning of the film makes a half-hearted suicide attempt by jumping into Sheepshead Bay. We learn he's moved back in with his parents, who own a successful dry-cleaning store, and he's taking anti-depressants. He works in his parents' shop and to see him interacting with other employees, he seems like a happy, well-adjusted guy. A somewhat matronly-looking but patrician Isabella Rossellini portrays his concerned mother.

His parents decide to "merge" their business with a prospering businessman who already owns several dry-cleaning establishments in various areas of New York. The businessman and his family come to dinner one evening, which is how Leonard meets Sandra, the daughter. He reveals to her that he was engaged and with the discovery that both he and his fiancée carry the gene for Tay-Sachs disease the engagement was broken off, and the fiancée moved away.

One day while returning home from work, Leonard meets his neighbor, Michelle, in the hallway. He can hear a male voice yelling at Michelle, and offers her refuge in his family's apartment when Michelle tells him it's her father and he's angry with her. Michelle enjoys chatting and commenting on the features of Leonard's family's apartment, while making Leonard's mother visibly tense. She leaves, but tells Leonard she believes she can see his room from her apartment. Intrigued, Leonard looks out his bedroom window and discovers he can indeed see Michelle when she's in her kitchen and then in another room of her apartment.

Leonard finds himself caught between his attraction to Michelle, who is gorgeous and somewhat exotic (her "father" is actually not her father, but a lover who furnishes an apartment for her as part of "the deal") and Sandra, who is a "safe" choice, attractive, and has won over his parents' hearts with the full support of her own family.

Everything in this film is fairly understated. There are no loud colors in the clothing or furniture or scenery or landscapes. Despite the fact Ms. Paltrow's character is probably the most extroverted in the ensemble, even she doesn't wear anything bright, vivid or even pastel. This is also reflected in Leonard's avocation of photography, as he uses an old camera given to him by his father, and takes black and white photos. Likewise the performances are not larger than life, which may be an attempt to make them more believable. Most of the time this would work. I felt that the film needed a bit more energy. Nevertheless, all the characters are well-drawn, and most are also very likeable. As a whole I felt that the film was very believeable.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Books And Other Arts Film Review: Far From Heaven

Movie poster image courtesy of Wikimedia and Grandpasfootsoldier

The suburb of Hartford Connecticut in the late 1950's is the setting for this visually splendid film, directed by Todd Haynes. The use of color in this film is simply stunning. When the film opens in autumn, the screen is filled with rich, earthy tones---corals, oranges, greens and browns are a treat to the eye. The visual delight belies the secrets in this small town.

Cathy Whitaker (Julianne Moore) is a successful homemaker, wife, and mother of two children. Her husband, Frank (Dennis Quaid), is an executive. Their domestic Sybil (Viola Davis) completes this picture of domestic bliss---but pictures aren't always true to life.

One evening while Frank is "working late", Cathy decides to deliver dinner to his office. Entering his darkened office unannounced, she finds him passionately kissing another man. She leaves, and when Frank arrives home, he tells her he had a "problem" years ago that he'd erroneously thought was over. After speaking with Cathy, he decides to enter psychotherapy. His therapist tells him that very few men who seek "conversion" to heterosexuality are successful.

Cathy is overwrought with shame and confusion. She feels she has found a friend in another "outsider", Raymond Deagan, who is taking over for his late father as gardener to the Whitakers. Raymond owns a plant shop, is college-educated, a single father who had become a widower some years earlier, and oh, yes, is African-American. Just being seen with Raymond, Cathy becomes the talk of the town, and all gossip is viciously directed toward implying that her relationship with Raymond is much more than it actually is. (Although there is no denying there is a chemistry between Cathy and Raymond, they do not act on it.)

My biggest complaint about this film is the under-development of Dennis Quaid's character, Frank. I wanted to know a bit more about his life prior to meeting Cathy, and how he came to decide to marry her, and a bit more about his inability to supress his true nature and desires. These avenues are, alas, never explored in the film.

Acting by Julianne Moore and Dennis Haysbert, who portrays Raymond, is very good. Patricia Clarkson (the hardest-working actress in Hollywood) as Cathy's best friend, Eleanor, is really exceptional. Viola Davis' small role doesn't give her a great deal to work with, but she turns in a solid performance, and Dennis Quaid does convince us he is indeed conflicted and tormented.

As stated, the film is visually as perfect as you could possibly imagine, although there seems to be some incongruity. Connecticut seems to have very little snow at Christmas, and in a pivotal scene outside of Raymond's home, we see flowers blooming in winter. (The character is a talented gardener, but even talent can't win over a typical New England winter!) While the plot hits the right notes in terms of expressing the racial divide in the country and the homophobic undercurrent of society, the thinly-drawn character of one of the most important people in the film leaves it lacking.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Books And Other Arts Film Review: Finding Neverland

Movie poster image courtesy of Wikimedia and JasonAQuest


Today is Easter Sunday. For children in America, the Easter bunny has visited overnight and left brightly colored eggs and lots of candy, hidden and waiting to be discovered. (Hopefully before it melts!) Some of you reading this may not realize that I am the care-giver and housemate of an older brother, who functions as a child. I made for him an Easter basket of candy that has more chocolate than Switzerland and more eggs than any 5 chicken ranches put together. He's enjoying some chocolate eggs now as I write this.

It seemed right on such a holiday (aside from its religious significance, which is considerable for Christians like myself) to view "Finding Neverland". Released in 2004 and directed by Marc Forster, this film rightfully was nominated for several Academy Awards. The only thing I find puzzling is how it didn't sweep the field for wins. From Mr. Forster's direction, to the screenplay by David Magee, to the magnificent performances from every member of the cast, this is an incredible stellar effort.

At the opening of the film, playwright J.M. Barrie (portrayed by Johnny Depp at his finest) is seen on opening night of one of his plays, an abysmal flop. Although his wife, Mary (Radha Mitchell) gives him little, if any encouragement, he does get support from producer and friend Charles Frohman (Dustin Hoffman, in a small but pivotal role). The day after the opening, Barrie seeks solace in a park and is befriended by the youngest of a family of boys, Michael Lleweyn-Davies. Recounting the meeting at dinner to his wife, Barrie learns the family's father died and the widow is a woman from a prominent family, but now has little in the way of financial resources.

Barrie returns to the park and befriends the widow, Sylvia (the incomparable Kate Winslet) and finds great joy in playing with her four young sons, George, Jack, Peter, and Michael. Sylvia confides that Peter's not been the same boy at all since his father's death, and Barrie in turn, in a moment of spectacular intimacy speaks to her about the death of his elder brother, David, something he'd never spoken to anyone about.

Julie Christie as Sylvia's mother, Emma du Maurier (aunt of the famous Daphne, who authored novels) disapproves of Barrie's involvement with Sylvia's family, and expresses herself succinctly on the matter. Even one of Barrie's pals cautions him that "people are beginning to talk" about how Barrie spends more time with Sylvia and her family than with his own wife. Eventually Mary does leave Barrie for another man, something that apparently scandalized London society, but was something of which Barrie himself barely takes notice. Sylvia and her family take up residence in Barrie's summer cottage outside of London, and at that time he notices she's taken ill with a cough that will not subside, and she refuses to cooperate with a doctor Barrie engages to exam her; the doctor urges a stay in a hospital for some tests.

Barrie is about to stage a new play, and invites Sylvia's family to the opening. He also tells Frohman he'd like an additional 25 seats in the house reserved, scattered throughout the theater. At a dress rehearsal, George, the eldest of the boys, appears with them in tow, and asks for a word with Barrie privately. He reveals to Barrie that upon their return to their home in London, his mother is now much sicker and had asked him to take the boys out for the afternoon. In playing with the rigging that will eventually make the actors "airborn", George falls and breaks his arm. He won't permit the hospital to set his arm unless Sylvia submits to some further testing in the matter of her own health.

While trying to organize the boys on the opening night of the play "Peter Pan", Sylvia is stricken gravely ill. She sends Peter to the play, telling him he must take it all in and report back to her about it. Barrie, when informed what's happened, goes to her home and is almost barred by her mother, but George intervenes and tells his grandmother she must permit Barrie to see his mother. The 25 seats Barrie had reserved, by the way, were for orphans. Planting them throughout the audience, they laugh at appropriate times when the onstage antics are funniest, and allow the adults in the audience to find their own "inner child" and laugh along, too.

I'll not reveal more about the plot. I'll just say the scenes I thought most effective and poignant in all the film were those in which Barrie talks about his brother's death, and George and Barrie have a private discussion at the dress rehearsal. The depths of emotions conveyed by Depp and young Freddie Highmore, as Peter Llewelyn-Davies is unlike anything else I've ever witnessed onscreen and the film is worth all if only to see the two of them.

When viewing this film, I thought "How shall I end my review?" I shall end my review, dear readers, by quoting from the film itself. At an after-reception on opening night, Barrie finds young Peter Llewelyn-Davies and asks "Did you like it?". The young Master Llewelyn-Davies responds "It was magical! Thank you!"