You Know How to Whistle, Don't You?

"You know you don't have to act with me, Steve. You don't have to say anything, and you don't have to do anything. Not a thing. Oh, maybe just whistle. You know how to whistle, don't you, Steve? You just put your lips together and... blow." - Lauren Bacall, To Have and Have Not

Monday, December 05, 2005

Fragrance Finder

Sephora's Fragrance Finder ( recommends the following based on my favorite scents:

Tabac Blond
Bandit (Robert Piguet)
Black (Bulgari)
Mitsouko (Guerlain)
Cashmere Mist (Donna Karan)

Jardins de Bagatelle (Guerlain)
Sentiment (Escada)
Pour Femme (Bulgari)
Joy (Jean Patou)

Fleurs de Rocaille
Pour Femme (Bulgari)
Joy (Jean Patou)
L'Air du Temps (Nina Ricci)
Quelques Fleurs L'Original (Houbigant)

Narcisse Noir
Michael Kors (Michael Kors)
Carolina Herrera (Carolina Herrera)
Fracas (Robert Piguet)
Gardenia Passion (Annick Goutal)

Nuit de Noel
Fleurs de Caraibes (Comptoir Sud Pacifique)
Dolce and Gabbana Woman (Dolce and Gabbana)
White (Comme des Garcons)
Omnia (Bulgari)

Parfum Sacre
Sicily (Dolce and Gabbana)
Cinema (Yves Saint Laurent)
Fleur de Sephora - Hibiscus (Sephora)

Enchantress (Stacked Style)
Kenzo Jungle (Kenzo)
Opium (Yves Saint Laurent)

Royal Bain de Champagne
Midnight Bloom (Stila)
Enchantress (Stacked Style)
BLV Notte (Bulgari)

Fiori di Capri
Jardins de Bagatelle (Guerlain)
Pour Femme (Bulgari)
Sentiment (Escada)
Joy (Jean Patou)

Shaal Nur
Prada (Prada)
Le Baiser du Dragon (Cartier)
Hypnotic Poison (Christian Dior)
Scent (Costume National)

24, Faubourg
For Women (Tommy Bahama)
Panthere Eau Legere (Cartier)
Curious (Britney Spears)
Tender Touch (Burberry)

Herve Leger
Sicily (Dolce and Gabbana)
Cinema (Yves Saint Laurent)
Fleur de Sephora - Hibiscus (Sephora)

Pour Femme (Bulgari)
Quelques Fleurs L'Original (Houbigant)
L'Air du Temps (Nina Ricci)

Le Baiser
Rockin' Rio (Escada)
Light Blue (Dolce and Gabbana)

Tendre Kiss
Very Irresistable (Givenchy)
Weekend (Burberry)
Romance (Ralph Lauren)
Aqua Allegoria Gentiana (Guerlain)

Monday, November 28, 2005

Black Phoenix Alchemy Lab

I tried Black Phoenix Alchemy Lab, after seeing them recommended/pimped all over the blogosphere. The descriptions and images on the website, while a little too Goth for my taste, were intriguing and I loved the literary references. Alas, the oils were by and large not to my taste. I kept finding them overly chemical-- too many scent-memories of drugstore fragrances-- and overly obvious. Scents in the parfum concentration are supposed to be softer (due to the smaller proportion of alcohol) even as they're richer. The parfums I own are exquisite and a privilege to wear. These oils may not contain the alcohol of an eau de toilette, but soft and rich they are not. Too many were like the stomp of a boot or a battering ram, a brutal, coarse announcement of a newcomer's presence. My impressions below, jotted down as I tested them...

Bastet - Started off with a blast of cherry candy. Ugh. Five minutes later, already transmogrifying into a warmer blend of scents. Still sweet, but the cherry's gone or absorbed. It's now a golden sweet scent. Nutty, incense-y and with the spices from the sweet side of the spice rack, which always make me think of Christmas. It's partly the suggestion of the name, I'm sure, but I smell this and think of curling up in front of a fire on a cold winter's night. Four hours and a couple of handwashings later, it's dying out, but it's stayed lovely ever since getting over that cherry. I may want this in a larger bottle, but I'll have to remember to put it on at least 30 minutes before I need to smell good.

Harlot - First sniff: full-on cinnamon blast. I know there's supposed to be rose in this but I could only smell it at the midpoint. It started off smelling like I was standing in front of a Yankee Candle rack, a place I normally avoid like the plague. At midpoint, it's not as bad, but still candle-like. Drydown - it's pretty much straight rose now, and nowhere near as dark or strong as I'd expect. I get pink rose, when I was expecting blood red. Nice, but nondescript. If I want rose and spices, I'll go for Caron's Parfum Sacre. Harlot is like its simple-minded cousin.

Lady of Shalott - Initial thought: I like this-- it's not so bad. Water-flowery (lotus? waterlily? or am I just making Lady of Shalott associations?) Like it less on drydown. It smells like several things tossed in together that just don't quite fit. Like Eau D'Issey (aquatic floral) with potpourri. It smells like Pier One.

Maiden - Very clean floral. Initial impression is a color: light girly pink. Tried it at the same time as Lady - at first sniff I liked Lady more, but as they dry down, I'm finding Maiden more wearable. Straightforward light floral, feminine but not coy.

Kostnice - First sniff: lemon and lily. Revised to lemon and daffodil. Nice, but a bit detergent-ish. Midway: Now it smells like lemon soap and salty sweat. Very sharp and odd. Ends up salty and woody, with a little sweat still lurking under there. Reminds me a bit of L'Aromarine's Atlantis.

Moon Rose - First sniff: Just the way it sounds. A beautiful pale rose.

Othello - Started off with an indefinable fruity rose smell. Not soapy exactly, but that's the best way I can put it. Has stayed that way initially. Not at all the masculine dark scent I was hoping it would be. A bit later - I don't quite get dryer sheets as someone on Makeup Alley does, but it does present as a drugstore fruity/flowery smell. BPAL says it's "Arabian musk with two roses and a bevy of Middle Eastern and Indian spices." I get the rose, but it's wimpy and watery. No musk or spice at all. Update I: Actually, when I sniff around the margins of the perfume area on my wrist, I do get some of the spices. The center is still all watery rose, though. Update II: Ended up washing it off. I was ready to try something new and this one clearly wasn't doing it for me.

Xiutecuhtli - First sniff: can't pin it down. It's very smooth-- I can't break out the elements. Frustrating. Midway: very sweet. Floral, but not flowers I can pick out. South American/tropical, or am I just reading into the name? Stays very sweet and floral, possibly with some vanilla. It's got a similar sweet foody note and reminds me a bit of a bad, less complex Coco Mademoiselle - is that vanilla, patchouli, or what? In the drydown, there's a light hint of the woody note in Kostnice (assuming it's not that I've accidentally rubbed my wrists together) that makes the scent slightly more likable.

Hymn - First sniff: lemon and soap. Like Kostnice. At midpoint, I'm still getting mostly lemon and soap. Drydown- now it's all incense, and soft incense at that. Very nice, but I'll have to remember to apply long before I go out.

Tenochtitlan - Initial whiff is very sweet and chemical. Like potpourri. Ew. Update: not getting better. I wrinkle my nose every time I smell it. Fruity/spicy, way too sweet, and fake. Washed that sucker off.

Amsterdam - First sniff: new-mown grass. Fresh, light. A good spring and summer fragrance, an excellent bath or home scent (and I mean that in a good way.)

Prague - First sniff: Light potpourri. Midpoint: Can barely smell it. Reapplication: Light, sweet but also a bit white/green floral smell. Drying down, the lilies really come out. Pleasant, green and light in the drydown. I'll keep the imp, but won't bother with a bottle.

The Hanging Gardens - First sniff: potpourri. Midpoint: potpourri. Drying down, I get a much more distinctly fruity and juicy smell. Too much all smashed together-- I can't pick out any of the elements described at BPAL.

All in all, meh.

Perfumes I Have

Recently or currently on my dresser; reviews to follow.


Burberry Weekend (Burberry) - eau de parfum

Fleurs de Rocaille (Caron) - eau de toilette (old bottle; old formulation)
Infini (Caron) - (decant)
Narcisse Noir (Caron) - eau de toilette
Nocturnes (Caron) - eau de toilette
Nuit de Noel (Caron) - eau de toilette
Parfum Sacre (Caron)- eau de toilette
Royal Bain de Caron (Caron)- eau de toilette
Tabac Blond (Caron) - parfum

Fiori di Capri (Carthusia) - eau de toilette

Coco Mademoiselle (Chanel) - eau de parfum

Shaal Nur (Etro) - eau de toilette (mini)

Shalimar (Guerlain) - eau de cologne

Herve Leger (Herve Leger) - eau de parfum

L'Eau d'Issey (Issey Miyake)- parfum (mini)

Joy (Jean Patou) - eau de parfum

Le Baiser (Lalique) - eau de toilette
Nilang (Lalique) - eau de parfum (mini)
Tendre Kiss (Lalique) - eau de parfum

Blush (Marc Jacobs) - eau de parfum
Marc Jacobs (Marc Jacobs) - eau de parfum


Bijan With a Twist (Bijan)
Pour Femme (Bulgari)
Fleurs de Rocaille (Caron) - new decant; old formulation
Lady Caron (Caron)
Le Feu d'Issey (Issey Miyake)
Pure (Jil Sander)
Citrus Petals

Renamed, Redefined

Lacking the time and interest needed to write movie reviews, I was never posting here. So I decided to rename the blog and use it to keep track of various things I'm interested in. Movies, yes, but also perfume, wine, books, music and all sorts of other essential luxuries.

Whatever I write will be mostly for my own records, but who am I kidding? I can't publish anything on the internet and not be thinking of an audience, however miniscule or mythical. So if you happen to stumble across this place and like or hate anything you read, give me a shout in the comments. Nice to know you're here.

Friday, May 20, 2005

Very Short Cuts from long ago

The Return of the King - Underwhelming. Green ghost people? Frilly nightshirts and bed-hopping? Come on, PJ.

Master and Commander - Avoided it in theaters because I thought it was just Fat Russell Crowe on a ship for two hours. I was so wrong. Possibly the best film of its year.

The Motorcycle Diaries - Surprisingly engaging. I've now developed a fascination with the mountains of Chile, based on two shots in that movie. I especially appreciated the director's pacing. He let us gradually grow up along with the characters. At the end of two hours, you realize how much the two main characters have changed, but the pace is managed so that they're still the same people. The few "reveals" that point out to Ernesto (Che) and his friend Alberto the desperate lives of their compatriots are handled gracefully. There's very little in-your-face moralizing, which surprised me, since it's about a guy who ended up on the T-shirt of every in-your-face moralizer I went to college with! It fails to fully make the link between Ernesto the doctor who cares passionately for his leprosy patients and Che the guerrilla who instigated armed revolutions, but given the film's many other strengths, that didn't bother me.

Ocean's Twelve - Everyone in it was very pretty. And so very well-dressed. And that's about it.

Closer - You live in London, for God's sake. Quite possibly the coolest city in the world. Make new friends.

Kinsey - Loved it. I wanted to rush off and recommend it to everyone, but fortunately, I stopped myself before calling my parents and telling them to see it. (My parents, who are offended by the splashing about in Much Ado About Nothing, are perhaps not the target audience for this film.) Bill Condon approaches his subject in much the same way as his subject approached his work-- straightforwardly, scientifically, laying it all out there. Condon avoids titillation and shock value, severely playing them down at times. He gives hints that Kinsey was a more difficult figure than the movie shows, addressing, if not completely, many of the actions and attitudes that made him difficult-- a willingness to integrate his theories about sex into his and his colleagues' personal lives, a tenacity that ignored or overran all obstacles, a commitment to objectivity even when interviewing incredibly perverted people, etc-- but Condon also shows what a great debt we owe to Kinsey for getting sex out there in the open. Near the end of the film, an interview subject thanks Kinsey for making her life possible. It could have been mawkish or cloying, but Condon makes it feel well-earned.

Kinsey's also a very pretty movie-- the costumes, sets, scenery are all very pleasant. Some of the early scenes of Kinsey as a boy in the woods reminded me of A River Runs Through It and its depiction of a hazy, beautiful, irretrievable past. Liam Neeson does a great job as Kinsey, and Peter Sarsgaard is brilliant as ever as his chief assistant and sometime lover Clyde Martin. Sarsgaard underplays brilliantly, making his every sentence and quirk of an eyebrow worth catching. But Laura Linney surprised me most. In every other film that she's in, I forget not only that she's in it, but I forget her character. She just doesn't stick to the screen-- her average presence and average characters make me wonder why she's famous. But as Mac, Kinsey's partner in research and marriage, Linney helps us understand what people could love about him, even as we see just how much Mac had to deal with as his wife. Most notably, Linney's completely convincing in her portrayal of a woman who could go from a nervous virgin with a great deal of pain on her wedding night to a completely sexually confident and satisfied woman. We understand Mac's pain when Kinsey sleeps with Martin, but we also understand her when she sleeps with Martin too. I'm pretty sure playing the wife of a genius is harder than playing a genius, on screen as much as in real life.

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Short Cuts II - 2003-2004

Frida – The script is too palatable and Salma Hayek is too small a presence to make Frida an excellent film. We get the sympathetic Frida, a victim overcoming her horrific accident and her cheating husband to make great art, with no hint of the incredibly difficult woman she was. Taymor’s film is beautifully designed, though, and the music is wonderful. Alfred Molina as Rivera is the true star of the film, despite all the nominations for Hayek. No one else holds a candle to him.

Talk to Her – A difficult and beautiful film. I knew it was great when I saw it, but I like it more on reflection than I did in the theater—possibly because I’m no longer sopping wet from a hike in the rain to the Philadelphia theater where I sat and shivered. It’s Almodovar’s most thought-provoking and intelligent work, and every scene is a gem. The story line makes one uncomfortable, but not revulsed, and the universal empathy Almodovar brings to his storytelling is the film’s legacy. Not to mention the absolutely hysterical scene of the tiny man crawling into his lover’s vagina and staying there forever.

Gerry – I’m not sure I got it all, but I’m sure it was gorgeous. Vistas replace almost every element of a standard film in this movie. Matt Damon and Casey Affleck are as good as wordless, insignificant characters in a vast desert can be, and they make you believe in the characters’ disorientation and despair. The penultimate scene, when Damon strangles Affleck, is incredible, and the last scene of a pensive Damon returning to civilization can’t help but be a letdown.

Divided We Fall – I rented this again recently, and liked it as much as the first time I saw it. Josef and Maria and their refugee David may have archetypal names, but they’re typically Czech in their sensibilities, and refreshingly unheroic. Their fears, failures, and fallibilities make their story more engaging and rewarding than most stories of Holocaust victims and rescuers. The Czech title, Musime si Pomahat (we must stick together) summarizes the message of a film where there are no great heros and no complete villains. Director Jan Hrebejk maintains a light touch, but never glosses over the seriousness of the subject. The humor, and there is a lot of it, doesn't distract you from the story or cheapen the characters' suffering and sacrifices. Benigni, I'm looking at you.

Short Cuts - 2003-2004

A bunch of little reviews or thoughts I've had on movies I've seen. I'm getting all my old stuff up here, hoping it will spur me to write new material!
Amandla! - Excellent, moving documentary on South African protest music and the anti-apartheid struggle. The wrenching subject material is balanced by music so ineffably confident that I wanted to dance through the whole screening.
Adaptation.– Not all I thought it would be. Nicolas Cage is good, but still Nicolas Cage, and he sweats more than I ever need to see again from anyone. Tilda Swinton’s cameo was a breath of cool crisp air, and Chris Cooper was magnetic, though not overwhelming. Meryl Streep played Meryl Streep playing Susan Orlean, or at least that’s how it felt. You could see the acting. The third act wasn’t half as confusing as people led me to believe. Clever, but it never took my breath away.
A Mighty Wind – Another great Christopher Guest film, although slighter and more hurried than the others, and more formulaic. The counterpoint of the Folksmen’s zany PP and ultimately M act and the far too young New Main Street Singers with the sweet and so sad Mitch and Mickey was the best aspect of the film. Catherine O’Hara played her part straight and heartbreaking, even when Eugene Levy went a little too far with his Mitch. Jennifer Coolidge’s humming and her model trains line brought down the house.
Divided City – Very homespun effort from a D.C. director about the drug trade here. Some good contrasts of Washington the power place with D.C. the divided city, and one very moving scene between a hopeless young man and his would-be mentor. Otherwise, the over the top story line and amateur actors made it close to unwatchable.
Bend It Like Beckham – Deserved all the hype unfairly given to My Big Fat Greek Monstrosity. Parminder Nagra made her character moderate and sympathetic when she could have easily come off whiney or self-involved. Keira Knightley was charismatic and sporty-hot. Jonathan Rhys-Meyers was unconvincing, but so fine in that white dress shirt that I forgave him all. Good on Jess for wanting both soccer and her family, tradition, etc. Good on both girls for getting over the man issue and continuing their friendship.
Bloody Sunday – Fucking phenomenal. I saw it in the tiny Inner Circle theater here in Washington. Sitting right up against the screen and watching handheld, gritty camera work makes you feel like you're there. James Nesbitt is understated and riveting as the Protestant MP trying to lead a peaceful protest and my neglected boyfriend Nicholas Farrell does an excellent conscience-ridden British military coordinator. The Romeo and Juliet subplot was extraneous—we didn’t need that to hook our emotions, because the whole film is so raw and so deeply felt. It manages never to overextend its dramatic moments, while still leaving you feeling like you’ve been punched in the gut. Wonderful, passionate filmmaking.
Lost in La Mancha – People said seeing this movie would make you never want to make a film. It only made me want to never make a Terry Gilliam film. The scale and scope of his Don Quixote movie seemed so over the top that its failure wasn’t all that surprising, even if the specific disasters weren’t predictable—NATO jets flying over location constantly, flash floods, etc. Gilliam comes across as a bit of an egomaniac. You feel worst for Jim, the first AD, who’s doing all he can to hold everything together and so clearly taking all the failure personally. Johnny Depp has the most memorable bit—a wonderful bit of action with a fish which is itself enough to make you wish the movie had made it to screen.

Movie review - Down with Love

Before seeing Down with Love, I e-mailed a friend: "I'm a little intimidated by the fabulousness of the outfits, so I'm wearing my cutest skirt. I fully expect to be charmed by Ewan McGregor. I may even swoon once or twice." I needn't have worried. The costumes are indeed fabulous, as were the apartment and restaurant sets. McGregor has his mojo working, and there are clever moments, especially in the first half of the film. There are many ways in which this movie could be oh, so right. But the many plot turns at the end, the many pointless sex jokes, and the continually uninspiring presence of Renee Zellweger make it nothing more than a bland, forgettable summer movie.
Peyton Reed's film, intended as an homage to Pillow Talk and the partnership of Doris Day and Rock Hudson, comes off as pastiche. Reed and writers Eve Ahlert and Dennis Drake capture many visual and verbal tics of the Day/Hudson movies. The story of Barbara Novak (Zellweger), author of the emancipatory book Down with Love, and Catcher Block (McGregor), a star reporter determined to expose Novak's proto-feminism as a sham, begins with zip and dash. Novak's arrival in the big city is done at breathless speed, and the various fashion show struts, "hitting the town" sequences, and street scenes are visually and verbally clever. Most efforts to alter the film's sensibility for modern audiences fail, however. The makers' apparent belief that "old hit movie + many references to sex = new hit movie" undercut the movie's promising start and make its efforts at originality seem careless and halfhearted.
It's clear from the beginning that Reed et. al. are taking a consciously updated approach to sex roles and sexual content in the movies they're imitating. Down with Love succeeds when it reverses, then equalizes gender imbalances in the workplace. Barbara Novak's idea that women should forget about love in order to advance their careers meets with appalled stares from a boardroom full of male publishers who can't fathom the idea of women acting just like them. Catcher Block decides to expose her as just another love-hungry single woman when he finds himself unable to get dates, due to the popularity of her book. At the film's conclusion, Novak's self-made success and Block's lesson in love resolve their professional and personal dilemmas, and the two are on equal footing at last.
Regrettably, the modernizing impulse doesn't stop there; Reed also takes an updated approach to body image. McGregor and Zellweger are bantamweight versions of their predecessors. Zellweger's pencil-thin legs make her sashaying and strutting ridiculous, and McGregor, when bare-chested, looks like he's just gotten over pneumonia. A "ladies' man, man's man, man about town" shouldn't simultaneously provoke girlfriend instincts and Jewish mother instincts: "You're so dreamy... EAT!" Does Reed think Doris Day's curves and Rock Hudson's solidity pose too much of an aesthetic challenge for contemporary audiences?
The film's approach to actual sexual content is its least successful element. At first, sexual innuendo is just that: allusion delivered with a knowing wink. True, the principals actually use the word sex, but the humor relies on it still being somewhat off-limits. During a split screen phone conversation between Novak and Block, however, the tone changes. Even though the scene refers to Pillow Talk's use of the same trick, it looks inspired by Austin Powers. Zellweger and McGregor's images are manipulated into simulating various sex acts and the knowing wink becomes a leer. Reed, Ahlert, and Drake's decision to rely on tired sex jokes instead of wit and repartee cost the movie its balance, and the humor remains ham-fisted throughout.
Ewan McGregor carries off the Rock Hudson part with panache. He softens his Scottish accent so it doesn't jar, and Catcher Block comes off as suave, international, and a bit of a cad. His impersonation of an "aw, shucks" American astronaut is over the top, but never more so than the film itself. Renee Zellweger, on the other hand, never convinces you that she owns the role. She's not bad, just unremarkable. She can't carry off the implicit wink at the audience that McGregor and the supporting cast master, and the "please love me" vulnerability that worked so well for her in Nurse Betty undercuts what should be a smart, engaging, scheming character. The rest of the cast is excellent. Jeri Ryan steals all her scenes as a swinging flight attendant, as do David Hyde Pierce and Sarah Paulson as Block and Novak's editors, respectively. Pierce embodies the witty, neurotic sidekick perfectly and his scenes with Paulson are far more rewarding than the leads' intrigues.
Pacing problems make Down with Love feel plotless for the first hour and jam-packed in the final minutes. Previous hints at the movie's big revelation would have made it more believable and would have helped satisfy the requirements of both plot and audience. Ultimately, the luster of fabulous fashion, scenic sets, and a scrumptious Scot is dulled by the filmmakers' slack approach to storytelling, and the film lacks heart as a result. Instead of offering a witty modern commentary on 1950s and 1960s social conventions, Down with Love makes you long for the films those conventions produced.
Originally published May 21, 2003.

Movie review - Nowhere in Africa

Somewhere inside Nowhere in Africa hides the kernel of a great film. Unfortunately, Caroline Link hasn’t found it. Her Oscar-winning drama about a German Jewish family who flee to Kenya in the late 1930s boasts arresting visuals, excellent actors, and potentially engrossing themes of identity and homeland. The film founders on Link’s inconsistent use of perspective and persistent romanticizing of Africa and Africans. She can’t seem to decide what she wants her movie to be: adventure story, Holocaust drama, or family portrait. Not that a good movie couldn’t be all three, but Link often cuts awkwardly between perspectives and emphases.
The film is narrated sporadically by Regina (Karoline Eckertz, Lea Kurka), the daughter of Walter Redlich (Merab Ninidze), a lawyer, and his wife Jettel (Juliane Kohler). Walter goes to Kenya ahead of his family, and summons them when he has a house and a job as a tenant farmer. As the family adjusts to their new home, we see their senses of identity shift and change. As the one most aware of the Jews’ impending doom, Walter embraces Africa as a refuge and commits himself to building a home there, but he’s also inextricably bound to Germany. He sets up a radio to stay abreast of news, and wants to return home as soon as he can help repair his country. Regina embraces Africa as a child, befriending Owuor, the family’s cook, immediately, and her childish trust and wonder doesn’t change. She grows older, but doesn’t reflect on her place in Africa or her ties to Germany at all. Regina’s narration is flat, superfluous, and problematic——how do we know so much about Jettel and Walter’s lives alone and as a couple if she’s our viewpoint?
Jettel finds it nearly impossible to leave her old life behind. When her husband asks her to bring a refrigerator and mosquito netting with her, she buys a new formal gown instead. She insists on seeing the move as temporary, and treats Owuor with snobbery bordering on racism. Nearly every task is too much for her, and yet, when given the choice eventually to remain on the farm or go into the capital with Walter, she chooses to farm alone. As she finds her place in her new country, Jettel blossoms. She never entirely sheds her trepidation, but she comes to know and love Africa far more deeply than her husband, with all his initial optimistic bluster. Ultimately, Jettel argues against returning to Germany, not wanting to go through the upheaval of leaving for another strange land. She may have found a harsh welcome in Kenya, but Germany has rejected her utterly. Jettel is the most complex character in the film, and Kohler portrays her every shift of mood with clarity and sensitivity. In one remarkable scene, at Walter’s request, Jettel sheds her reserve and walks topless along the lane, mirroring her Kenyan neighbors’ easy grace. All the film’s themes of culture, gender, identity, and homeland are fused in this one moment, and Kohler carries it beautifully.
The characters develop and emerge largely on their own. Although they’re there as a family, Africa is a lonely refuge, pulling each of them away and into themselves. The doubts and fears caused by isolation and forced ignorance join to tear Walter and Jettel apart. Germany and its horrors are never far from their thoughts. Some references to their former country and its developing Holocaust appear in dialogue and plot, others are more subtle —— Regina is told a story of a maiden with golden hair, recalling the refrain of Paul Celan’s famous Holocaust poem Death Fugue: “your golden hair Margarete, your ashen hair Shulamith.” At one point, the Jewish refugees are interned as German citizens in British Kenya, an absurd yet logical development as the world tumbles into war. The family separates——Walter working in the city, Jettel farming, Regina at school——and they reunite only when the war is over. Much is made of the fact that Walter and Jettel don’t sleep together until the war ends. In the middle of so much uncertainty, their separate lives aren’t only the products of confusion and fear, but attempts at self-protection.
The subtleties that Link brings out in her German protagonists are nowhere to be found in the country and people they encounter. The decision to use ‘Africa’ in the film’s title (as in Out of Africa and I Dreamed of Africa), instead of Kenya, perpetuates the myth of an exotic, impenetrable continent, a mindset that is hopelessly unreflective and out of date. The continent appears as a unified ideal. Experiences there are universalized, lifted out of local, specific places and times. Link emphasizes breathtaking landscapes and a mysterious culture in her depiction of Kenya. Her Kenyan characters are two-dimensional. Owuor is saintly and dedicated, while the villagers are utterly foreign, if engaging, and are usually presented en masse. Regina’s friendship with a young village boy could have explored racial and sexual relations, but instead it’s largely undeveloped, used only to show she’s more comfortable in her new home than anyone else in her family.
This simplistic approach may be intended to reflect the German family’s view of Kenyans as strangers with an incomprehensible language and lifestyle. But that doesn’t mean that as the German characters develop, the Kenyan characters can remain cardboard cutouts. Owuor forsakes living with his family in order to work for the Redlichs, but his decision is presented as just another way in which Kenyan and German cultures differ. Kenyans’ displacement from their own land arises only in a conversation intended to parallel Walter and Jettel’s predicament. Link needed to Kenyans’ conflicts, difficulties, and disempowerment more deeply to make that parallel balanced. Like it or not, the Redlich family is safe at the mercy of others and their safety displaces others.
Nowhere in Africa is worth seeing for Kohler’s riveting, constantly unfolding performance, and for the seeds of a vital, visceral film trapped within Link's beautiful muddle. Jettel and Walter’s marriage and their separate and mutual transformations are intriguing and moving. The film would have been stronger if Link had focused on their relationship and omitted the superfluous narration, dreamy landscapes, and cultural stereotypes that pervade it. Instead, Nowhere in Africa seesaws between perspectives and events, alternately plodding and sparkling, until we’re as ready as the Redlichs for the war to be over so they and we can be at home.
Originally published May 8, 2003.

Movie review - Divine Intervention

Divine Intervention, subtitled “A Chronicle of Love and Pain”, is at first glance less somber than its title indicates. Unlike Bloody Sunday, 2002's other great film about occupation, it presents its politics indirectly, through absurdism, allegory, and vivid imagery. Divine Intervention chronicles the irrationality and injustice of daily life in Palestine without recourse to simplistic dichotomies of right/wrong, Palestine/Israel, Arab/Jew. Director Elia Suleiman relies instead on black humor and mordant wit to communicate the love and pain that a people feels for itself and its land.
Suleiman largely forsakes narrative and characterization, choosing to construct a film out of vignettes depicting life under occupation–– the restlessness of men and women with nothing to do, the fierce arguments that break out at the slightest provocation, and the omnipresent distrust in communities where collaborators might be (and often are) everywhere. The main characters in the film are E.S., a film director (played by Suleiman); the woman, E.S.’s lover and the symbol of Palestine (Manal Khader); and his father (Nayef Fahoum Daher). Their everyday stories of lovers' meetings, separations, and illness are intertwined with sardonic fantasy sequences. E.S. eats an apricot while driving, then tosses its pit onto an Israeli tank, which explodes. During one of many scenes at a checkpoint, he releases a red balloon bearing a picture of a grinning Yassir Arafat. The soldiers radio frantically to their superiors asking whether they should allow the balloon to pass, but it passes by them anyway, floating over Jerusalem and hovering around the Dome of the Rock. In the most extended sequence, the woman appears as a Palestinian ninja fighter at an Israeli military training camp, wearing a crown of bullets and fending off attacks with a shield shaped like a unified Palestine. After vanquishing the soldiers, she leaves their commander shellshocked and mystified, standing in the middle of a Palestinian flag painted in the dust.
Although these sequences are overtly political, the film is not a polemic. Suleiman’s stories contain every form of defiance–– violence, magical powers, verbal confrontations, and depictions of the powerful as ignorant fools–– but his visions of defiance are not empowering. Retaliation, real or imagined, goes nowhere when it takes place only in fragmented incidents, among people who cannot work together. The unpredictability of a fractured, threatened community is summed up in the film’s final shot of a steaming pressure cooker in E.S.’s family home. The characters and their relationships all are trapped, warped by endless cycles of confrontation, suspicion, and betrayal. For Suleiman, divine intervention is both an escapist fantasy and the only rescue for Palestine and her people. While Americans may miss many of the film’s subtleties (I certainly did), Suleiman’s controlled yet wildly imaginative style, arresting visuals, and tight techno soundtrack succeed in expressing his message to all audiences. Divine Intervention is a masterful, witty, provocative depiction of current and age-old conflicts.
Originally published March 27, 2003.

Movie review - The Hours

The Hours, as nearly everyone knows by now, has been nominated for nine Academy Awards. (Indeed, a recent ad touts it as “the only film nominated for nine Oscars”, hoping we won’t remember that Chicago is nominated for thirteen, and Gangs of New York for ten.) The film won the Golden Globe for Best Drama, and Nicole Kidman won for best actress. Critics have been raving for weeks. I don't get it. Not only is The Hours far from being the best film of the year, it isn’t a particularly great film at all. Moviegoers expecting to see a masterpiece won’t find one, although those expecting an ordinary Friday night movie will find a few excellent performances and some inspired moments. Ultimately, however, Stephen Daldry’s flatfooted direction and a pervasive stagnant melancholy create a movie that seems to do little and mean less.
The Hours, based on the Michael Cunningham book of the same name, tells the stories of three women simultaneously——the author Virginia Woolf (Nicole Kidman); Laura Brown (Julianne Moore), a housewife in the 1950s; and Clarissa Vaughan (Meryl Streep), a Manhattan editor in the present day. The stories revolve around Woolf’s book Mrs. Dalloway, exploring its creation, depicting its effect on a reader, and recreating the book’s plot in Clarissa’s efforts to throw a party for a close friend and former lover, the poet Richard Brown (Ed Harris). Like Mrs. Dalloway, each woman’s story is told in the context of a single day: a conceit that gives the film needed structure, but sacrifices the characters’ histories, often rendering them unsympathetic or unfathomable.
The film repeats lines, actions, and imagery in each of the three women’s stories to emphasize the universality of its themes and the connectedness of women’s lives. Unfortunately, these themes——how death sharpens our enjoyment of life, and the small and yet profound tragedies of women’s daily lives——are obscured by muddy philosophizing, a thudding score by Philip Glass, and general artistic obfuscation. Too often, parallel incidents are treated with painful obviousness (Look! All the women are cracking eggs! Look, they’re all talking about flowers!) rather than with subtlety and wit. The contrivances of The Hours, and its stylized, somewhat artificial stories, would be forgivable and indeed fascinating if they illuminated powerful themes, or emphasized universal elements in women’s lives. Instead, Daldry seems to think that the parallels create meaning by themselves. It is unclear what he wants us to glean from his film.
Not that there aren’t excellent moments. Julianne Moore gives a shimmering performance in the film’s most underwritten role. We learn very little about Laura Brown——her history and motivations are a blank slate——but Moore convinces us that Laura’s suffering is no less real for being incommunicable. Toni Collette plays Kitty, Laura’s neighbor diagnosed with cancer, as funny, fake, and heart wrenching, with visible terror seeping through her insistence that nothing’s wrong. An argument between Virginia and Leonard Woolf (Stephen Dillane) at a train station has shown up in Nicole Kidman’s numerous awards show clips. While her moments are compelling, it is Dillane’s quieter performance that makes the scene so moving, depicting a man confused, frightened, and ultimately accepting of his wife’s fundamental instability.
Meryl Streep gives a curiously flat, two-dimensional performance as Clarissa Vaughan. This is partly due to the film’s limited time frame. We hear about one or two pivotal moments in her life, but they are unseen and unexplained. If, indeed, a long-ago morning with Richard was the happiest she’s ever been, what does that mean for Clarissa’s vastly different life now? We see Virginia struggle not to let her illness define her. Laura undergoes an identity transformation onscreen. Yet the possible tensions between Clarissa’s past with Richard and her present ten-year relationship with Sally Lester (a criminally underused Allison Janney) aren’t explored. Because of this, Clarissa’s meltdown in front of a guest (Jeff Daniels) is emotionally inaccessible to the audience, and Streep’’s incessant hand-wringing and bracelet-jangling distracts from any truth the scene might contain.
Nicole Kidman’s Woolf is fascinating and problematic. Kidman loses herself in the role, not merely with the famous nose, but in her posture, manner, and overall appearance. She plays a mentally ill woman with an abandon that walks a fine line between brilliance and outright caricature. She conveys Woolf’s fear and alienation effectively, but again, the constraints of the film keep us from fully encountering Woolf as author, friend, wife, or sister——everything we learn about her centers on her illness and the fact of her suicide.
Michael Cunningham may have written a lyrical, profound book that tells the stories of three complex, unique, and yet universal women. I haven't read the novel, so I can't comment on it. It’s clear, however, that Daldry is straining to create that kind of movie, and equally clear that he falls short. In the end, the audience sees Woolf and her fellow characters as terminally troubled without understanding what brought them to such a point. We encounter them only as depressed, suicidal, sexually frustrated cutouts. These women are incomprehensible and incomplete, constrained mainly by the author and director who created them. It’s unfortunate that a project with so much talent and promise leaves the reviewer wondering whether Daldry and Cunningham understand women’s lives at all.
Originally published February 18, 2003.

Movie review - The Pianist

Forget the Golden Globes. Forget the Oscar favorites. The Pianist is the best picture of 2002. Roman Polanski’s film is smaller and more intimate in scope than other recent Holocaust pictures, depicting the death of one city, the destruction of one community, and the degradation of one man, the pianist Wladyslaw Szpilman. It is the tale of a man stripped of everything and rendered profoundly alone. This intimate focus, a brilliant, wrenching performance by Adrien Brody (The Thin Red Line, Liberty Heights) as Szpilman, and Polanski’s unsentimental and unsparing use of solitude, silence, and music combine to make a masterpiece that is universal in its themes and affect.
The Pianist opens with a debonair, serene Szpilman playing Chopin on Polish radio as the station is bombed, leaving only when blasted off his bench. In the next few scenes we see him constantly practicing and composing, irritable when his sister interrupts to share the latest news. Szpilman is already a bit of a loner, committed only to his music and his family. When circumstances force him to sell his piano for food, we see a man divorced from his identity, his isolation already begun.
The film continues like all the other Holocaust stories we know: increasing restrictions on Jewish life, the move into the ghetto, and the trains. By focusing only on what Szpilman sees and experiences, however, the audience understands why he and his family see only absurdity and difficulty when we recognize the beginning of the end. The slow process of dehumanization creeps up on all concerned. With rare exceptions, Polanski uses Szpilman as the sole point of reference for the viewers, refusing to allow his camera to get closer to the action than Szpilman can. Watching him watch others, we observe the dynamics of the ghetto, the dividing lines of class, age, and income exacerbated by hardship and fear.
One of the Jewish police pulls Szpilman out of the lines of people going to the trains, at which point the film enters much less familiar territory. Through the help of Polish friends, he hides out alone in various apartments until, near the end of the war, he is reduced to scrounging for food and water among the bombed-out buildings of Warsaw. From his hiding places, Szpilman sees the ghetto uprising and the later street battles in the city. Polanski chooses not to cut behind the ghetto walls or around blind corners, allowing Szpilman’s distance to remind the audience of their own removal from the events depicted. Like him, we will never know the full details of the camps or of the final ghetto rebellion.
In the latter half of the movie, Polanski explores the geography of solitude. Brody is nearly always alone on screen and the already spare screenplay (adapted by Ronald Harwood from Wladyslaw Szpilman’s 1945 memoir) is almost non-existent. In Szpilman we witness the transformation of a confident, elegant artist into a desperate man begging collaborators for the lives of his family, and ultimately into a wordless, scavenging scarecrow, clutching a can of pickles like a lifebelt——a figure of tragicomic absurdity. Stripped of both family and music, he lapses into silence.
In their infinite variety, Szpilman’s silences speak louder than any line of dialogue in the film. Critics have complained that Brody lacks depth, that his character is two-dimensional and does not react adequately to his experience. They’re not watching closely enough. Wladyslaw Szpilman does not discuss his reaction to the loss of his family in his memoirs, and Polanski wisely leaves that veil in place, trusting Brody to express what his character has lost through his eyes and bearing.
Adrien Brody erases himself and his character before our eyes. He acts without words, and through him, the audience learns the different textures of silence and solitude——incomprehension, pain, loneliness, cold, hunger, and exhaustion are all mirrored in his face and movements. His incredibly expressive, mobile face, and the way in which he attends to the smallest details——mumbling his lips as he grows increasingly starved and silent, vaguely practising piano fingerings——make Szpilman’s experiences powerfully present to the audience. By the end, he is almost incapable of human expression. If this is a man, he is unrecognizably foreign.
Szpilman constantly scrounges for food, warmth, and safety, but is ultimately dependent on luck, friends and strangers for all three. At the climax of the film, Szpilman is discovered by a German officer while attempting to open a can of pickles, the only food he’s seen for days. Under interrogation, Szpilman blurts out that he was a pianist. The officer leads him to a piano in the house and commands a performance. Certain that these are the last moments of his life, Szpilman is nearly devoid of thought or emotion, and yet his frozen, gnarled hands unbend and perform. As he plays Chopin’s Ballade No. 1, Op. 23 in G-minor, the piano expresses what we have never heard him say aloud—— a lament for the beauty and calm of ordinary life destroyed by chaos and evil. Though he remains expressionless, the music ripples with brilliance and passion. Under Polanski’s direction, the scene is utterly devoid of schmaltz or sentiment, but full of profound discovery. Szpilman finds that, despite everything, he is still who he once was.
The officer allows Szpilman to remain in the house, later bringing him food and supplies. (Although "the good German" seems like a deus ex machina, the actual officer Wilm Hosenfeld is known to have saved a number of others.) In his last conversation with Szpilman, the officer asks what he will do when the war ends. Szpilman responds simply that he will play the piano on Polish radio, which is exactly what he does, returning to the studio to play the same Chopin nocturne with which the film opens. Wladyslaw Szpilman continued to perform on the radio until his death at age 88, in 2000.
Unlike Spielberg, Costa-Gavras and others, Polanski never stoops to didacticism or plays upon our emotions. The film is richer for his restraint. We are asked only to watch, and find we cannot look away. For Polanski and his character, survival offers no philosophical consolations and cannot be counted as a victory. It comes at the cost of our selves, submerging our identities under the weight of the daily struggle for food and warmth. And yet somehow Szpilman makes it through, and emerges with his art intact and deepened——a bittersweet ending to 2002's most compelling film.originally published January 30, 2003.

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