Movie Review: The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) written and directed by Noah Baumbach

 

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To be truthful, I am one of a few that has not loved Noah Baumbach’s movies. (I once famously said that after Fantastic Mr. Fox, for which he wrote the screenplay, we would never hear of George Clooney again! I was wrong.) But somehow I still go to every Baumbach film, thinking that ultimately I will find what everyone else has been talking about.

And with The Meyerowitz Stories, I have found it. The Meyerowitz Stories is a wonderful ensemble piece filled with both wrenching poignancy and a comic spirit that ranges from dead-pan to slapstick.

In his mind, Harold Meyerowitz (Dustin Hoffman) is one of the most important sculptors of the past fifty years. (He has a piece in the Whitney, but it has been long placed in storage.) That he has not received the acclaim that has come to his contemporaries and friends, he credits to his not selling out, his remaining pure in his artistic vision–unlike his peers.

This, of course, is purely delusional.

Harold’s other dysfunction is his personal life. He has been married four times–though he says “only three” because the first was annulled–and who has pretty much abandoned his first two children (to his second wife) for his son with his third. (His fourth wife when the film opens is Maureen, a drunken, late-hippy, wonderfully played by Emma Thompson.)

Matthew (Ben Stiller), the son whom he dotes on, lives in L.A., so it is up to his other two children, Danny and Jean (Adam Sandler and Elizabeth Marvel) to care for their father in New York City as he increasingly slips into angry dotage while finessing the drunkenness of his newest wife, his increasing delusion of his importance in the New York art world, and his general self-centeredness.

In fact, rarely has their been such a self-centered character in all of filmdom.

Now, if this seems like some sort of Bergman-esque psycho-drama, you are wrong. It is a funny, thoughtful ensemble piece that gives ample room for its many talented actors to shine.

Actor Dustin Hoffman, wearing a beard and newsboy cap, films 'The Meyerowitz Stories' in East Village

Dustin Hoffman as Harold Meyerowitz            Picture by: Christopher Peterson/Splash News    photodesk@splashnews.com

Hoffman, as the cantankerous Harold Meyerowitz, has been preparing for this role his entire life. Actually, I found much of his Ratso Rizzo in this character. Perhaps the voice is not as whiny, but still it is there, the complaining, set-upon kvetch.  (There is a subtle allusion to Midnight Cowboy and Hoffman’s character, when Meyerowitz’s son Danny  is chasing after his dad in mid-town New York, hobbled with a very bad limp. At one point, as he is hobbling across the street, one expects for a taxi to drive too close and for Sandler to start yelling, “I’m walking here! I’m walking here!”)

Nevertheless, Hoffman is a joy to watch.

But one expects that from Hoffman. It is the others who amaze. When was the last time, one has walked out of an Adam Sandler movie talking about his acting. As Meyerowitz’s

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Adam Sandler as Danny Meyerowitz

son, Danny, who’d been abandoned by the father he idolized, he has every intention not to make the same mistakes with his own daughter (Grace Van Patten) who is off to college to begin her own artistic journey. And their relationship is sweet and beautiful and everything that his own relationship with his father was not.

 

The sister Jean is even worse off than Danny, having been completely ignored for most of her life by her father.

And doted upon Matthew, who is the golden boy from L.A., successful in the world of mergers and acquisitions, is full of more buried hatred than the other two.

So the film deals ultimately with a time when they are all together in New York. Ostensibly for a group show–which Danny and Jean organized at the college where Harold taught–and for other family matters. Everyone needs to look a little closer at the truth of things.

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Grace Van Patten, Ben Stiller, Adam Sandler and Elizabeth Marvel

The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Collected) is  much fun, is thoughtful and revealing, and is a real treat for people who love movies (there are several cameos and fun allusions). For me, the film had been flying under the radar, but, without a doubt it is the best film I have seen in a very long while.

 

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Movie Review: The Idol by Hany Abu-Assad

The New York Times, in its review of Ben Ehrenreich’s book The Way to the Spring: Life and Death in Palestine,  posted the picture below:

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photograph by Ruth Fremson/The New York Times

It is a photograph of unbridled joy, curiosity and innocence set in a refugee camp against the bombed out ruins of Gaza.  The happiness of childhood trumps–at least in this moment–the nastiness of the adult world around them.

This photograph reminds me very much of the first half of Hany Abu Assad’s film The Idol (Ya Tayr Al Tayer). It is a fictionalized account of the true story of Mohammed Assaf, the Palestinian wedding singer who sneaked across the border from his Gaza refugee camp and traveled to Cairo to compete in Arab Idol (the Arab version of “American Idol”). The film is divided neatly into two halves. (Though it is an awkward transition from the first to the second half.)

The first-half begins with a group of young children, riding their bikes, running from bullies, scraping together money, fishing (and then cooking and selling those fish). There is a sense of pure joy and freedom and hope. Except for the background of bombed-out buildings, exposed rebar, enormous piles of rubble and trash and ubiquitous destruction, the scenes could have been written for Hal Roach’s Little Rascals.

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All photos from “The Idol” press kit.

The children want to form a band. The 10-year old Mohammed (Qais Atallah) and his 12-year old tom-boy sister Nour (Hiba Atallah) recruit their friends and begin performing. Mohammed’s talent is evident; his voice is mature and controlled beyond his age. His sister’s charm and grit and ambition push the band forward, and they begin getting hired to play at weddings. (Nour’s being female is a problem. They cannot get hired if they have a female in the band and no one would hire them without her musicality. So she hangs in the background, behind the others, playing guitar and wearing her ever-present backwards baseball cap.)

Young Mohammed (Qais Atallah)and his sister Nour (Hibba Attala)

And they are good. Carried by Mohammed’s voice.

When Nour collapses from kidney failure, the band dissolves, but Mohammed vows to earn enough money singing to get her treatment–thus the quest to appear on Arab Idol. The actual quest begins the second half of the film when Mohammed (now played by Tawfeek Barhom) is 18.

Life hasn’t changed much in the seven years that have elapsed. It may have gotten worse. There are still power shortages, travel restrictions, destruction, hopelessness.  But Mohammed is determined, especially when encouraged by the girl he met while his sister was getting dialysis.

This is not a spoiler. It is the fact that the film is based on. Against, incredible odds, Mohammed Assaf rises to the top of the competition. And it is here that one witnesses the true joy of the film.

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Mohammed Assaf (Tawfeek Barhom) on “Arab Idol”

Every neighborhood, every household, every town square is filled with proud Gazans watching Mohammed on Arab Idol. Their pride and joy is palpable.  There is cheering, fireworks, embraces, flag waving. These people have not had a lot to cheer for, and now they do and it is cause for celebration.

It would be disingenuous to say that The Idol is not a political film, for of course it is. The politics, however, are subtle and act as a patina to a classic story of realizing one’s dreams. It is a joyous film, all the more remarkable for taking place in what appears to be such a joy killing space. And the realizations of Mohammed’s dreams are felt vicariously by the crowds that gather around televisions, big and small, and watch his ascent.

Hany Abu-Assad, who shares writing credits with Sameh Zoabi, has crafted an emotional film that never gets schmaltzy. There is angst and happiness, frustration and success, danger and death and victory and love. But it is all done with an even-hand and a simple narrative. Again, the politics are there–you cannot see Gaza and not wonder how or why? But, that is never the thrust of the film.

It is rare these days to see a film set in the Middle-East in which afterwards one comes out of the theater smiling and happy. Hany Abu-Assad has created such a film. And our joy is not simply for Mohammed Assaf, but for the Gazan people themselves. Sure their lives will remain unchanged for the most part, but the music competition has given them something to be proud of.

Book Review: My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante

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“Cellar Window in the Courtyard” –illustration 2016 by jpbohannon

The English translation of Elena Ferrante’s L’amica geniale has been given the title My Brilliant Friend and for much of the book  we believe it to be a reference to Lila Cerullo, the daughter of the shoemaker and the much-admired friend of the narrator Elena Greco (known as Lenù). And indeed, the phrase fits, for Lila is a precociously wise, driven, and independently thinking little girl. (The novel spans the two girls’ lives from six to sixteen.) And yet, much later in the book, when Lila is being fitted for a wedding dress, it is she who utters the phrase, calling the quieter, less assured Lenù “my brilliant friend.”  Much to Lenù’s delight.

But close readers come to understand this much earlier in the novel. Through the first two-thirds of the book we are caught up in Lenù’s appreciation, competition, and admiration of her friend Lila. Lenù is telling the story of HER BRILLIANT FRIEND.  But gradually we realize that the novel is actually the story of Lenù, the story of her friendship with Lila, and the decisions the SHE ultimately makes not to be dragged down into the social stagnation that is their poor Neapolitan neighborhood. (Lenù is telling us this story as a 60-year old woman living in Turin after Lila’s son has called from Naples to say his mother has disappeared.)

That Lila is brilliant there is no doubt. She excels in grade school–always edging out her friend Lenù and everyone else–and wins the admiration of all the teachers. She is fierce and brave and sure of herself. Meanwhile, Lenù is like most every youngster, tentative, unsure of herself, and uncomfortable in her ever-changing body. Even after Lila has quit schooling at the age of twelve, she continues to learn and tutors Lenù in Latin and in Greek and sharpens Lenu’s mind with logic and politics and philosophy.

And while Lila finally succumbs to the fate circumscribed by the neighborhood courtyard, Lenù knows that her schooling–an “occupation’ that none of her neighbors or friends or family see the value of–is her only way to break beyond the poverty, the dirt, the violence.

And by this point we see that the novel is Lenù’s Icarus moment, her attempt to fly, to soar higher than those before her. We leave her “on the cliff’s edge,” as she begins to realize at Lila’s wedding the cords that the neighborhood could tie her down with.  We readers had also hoped that her friend Lila would join her, but she cannot. At least for now.

Elena Ferrante may be the most written about novelist of the past five years. She is reviewed in the mainstream press and in literary journals. She is both critically and popularly acclaimed.  And she is “anonymous”–no one knows her true identity. (Despite a mid-March break through, that cited a Florentine history professor who has denied that she is Ferrante.)  This mystery certainly has added to her cachet. And has added to the millions of words written about her.

And yet, even if there were no “mystery,” Ferrante would stand out. Her writing is more than masterful–the narrative is a driving, relentless tour of childhood, filled with incisive details–both external and internal–and a realistic understanding of human fears, desires, needs and ambitions. My Brilliant Friend–the first of Ferrante’s four Neapolitan novels–follows the girls from six to sixteen, and captures exquisitely and perfectly, the pain and joy and dread and hopes of young children in a way that is unmatched in my reading.

Yet, like life itself when looking backwards, those ten years that Ferrante chronicles seem to fly by and are finished before we know it…or are ready for it.

I facetiously wrote to a friend that I found My Brilliant Friend “disappointing”: my great disappointment was that the 330-page novel was over so quickly.  I wanted it not to end.

I will take a breather…and then begin the second volume.

 

 

 

 

In Praise of Vanilla

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“Vanilla” illustration 2016 by jpbohannon

Vanilla has gotten a bad name. It has become a synonym for blandness, for a lack of originality, an insipid mediocrity.  In a world of seemingly infinite flavors–vanilla is viewed as the simplest, the plainest, the least interesting.

And I want to argue the opposite.

For I find vanilla the most intoxicating and exotic of spices. (It is second only to saffron as the world’s most expensive.)

For me, vanilla is the scent that a beautiful woman dabs on her wrist or behind her ear. It is the exotic and erotic scent that follows her as she passes, an aroma of rain-forest and orchids, of moist heat and island breezes.

Vanilla is the smell of  sweet pipe tobacco that still clings in memories onto a ragged old cardigan. A fusty old man, slow in his movements and careful in his thoughts. The smell of wisdom and advice.

Realtors know that vanilla is the aroma of comfort and baking and warmth. (Turn on an electric stove, let it get hot, and then turn it off again. When it has cooled down a bit, drip some vanilla extract on the burners and the house will smell delicious and inviting.) The smell of vanilla helps sell a home–or at least adds to its attractiveness, allows the purchaser to imagine the comforts of home.

As a boy, I associated vanilla with holidays–holidays where there was an abundance of food and drink. A creme soda from summer picnics, French toast when there were snow holidays from school,  Christmas cookies, and scones with our tea.

From then ’till now, vanilla has only stirred positive emotions in me–comforting memories and wondrous fantasies.

And that is why I will always choose the white scoop with black specks over a bowl of lurid pistachio.

 

Quote of the week #8: June 16, 2013

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illustration ©2013 jpbohannon

“Mythical heroes are of obviously superhuman dimensions, an aspect which helps to make these stories acceptable to the child. Otherwise the child would be overpowered by the implied demand that he emulate the hero in his own life. Myths are useful in forming not the total personality, but only the superego. The child knows that he cannot possibly live up to the hero’s virtue, or parallel his deeds; all he can be expected to do is emulate the hero to some small degree so the child is not defeated by the discrepancy between this ideal and his own smallness.”

Bruno Bettelheim, The Uses of Enchantment

Book Review: Deadman’s Pedal by Alan Warner…coming of age in Scotland

Chisolm Tartan 2013 jpbohannon

Chisolm Tartan
illustration © 2013 jpbohannon

Alan Warner belongs to a certain group of writers who came of age in Scotland in the last decades of the 20th century. Those with more recognizable names would included Irvin Welsh who gave us Trainspotting, James Kelman with his unique voice of urban rootlessness, Ian Banks (who died last week) and A.L. Kennedy with their distinctive fictions, and Ian Rankin who gave us Inspector Rebus and his Edinburgh detective novels. Among these, Alan Warner seems the one who has gained less recognition over here in the States. And that is a shame.

Warner’s first novel Morvern Caller was a magnificent tale of a young woman who steals her dead boyfriend’s novel from his computer, changes the name on the manuscript and quickly and decadently burns through the advance that the novel garners, moving from her dilapidated Scottish town through the ravages of the European rave scene. A later novel with the unfortunate title The Sopranos follows a group of high school choir girls from a rural western outpost on its class trip to Edinburgh. Both novels are memorable for their voice, for the seeming accuracy of Warner’s portrayals of 16 and 17-year olds. And both are fun.

Warner returns to the same locale from which Morvern Caller and the girls from The Sopranos escape in his newest novel, The Deadman’s Pedal. And again, he is dealing with characters of a certain age, characters who are between childhood and adulthood, characters who are innocents even as they are losing their innocence.deadman-s

The novel takes place around “the Port,” Warner’s fictionalized treatment of the town of Oban in western Scotland and is held together by the train line that serves the area and which is dwindling in impact. In fact the title “Deadman’s Pedal” refers to a device that on a runaway train is set to brake in the case of an engineer losing consciousness.

Simon Crimmons is turning sixteen and wants to quit school, get a motorbike, and get a job. He is considered well-to-do by his companions because his father owns a trucking company, but wealth is a relative thing, and the Crimmons family is certainly working class in comparison to the lordly Bultitude’s. In fact, Simon, the town and the novel itself are greatly aware of class distinctions. And this is a running theme throughout.

Yet it is in terms of young Simon’s desires that the class distinctions are most evident. For he is torn between the beautiful and always available Nikki Caine from the Estate houses and the enigmatic Varie Bultitude–of the town’s legendary, aristocracy. Managing such affairs is always risky and managing one between such two disparate worlds is like being on a run-away train.

When Simon mistakenly gets a job as a trainee train driver–he thought he was applying for a hospital position–he discovers the extent of these class divisions. He says to Vaire, “I’ve got the whole railway telling me I’m not working class enough and I’ve got you telling me I’m not middle class enough. This country needs to sort out the class question. As far as it applies to me.”

And to make matters more difficult, Simon’s father is caught up in it as well. He sees his son’s work on the trains as a betrayal, as his son’s working for a competitor that could ultimately put him out of business. It’s never easy being sixteen. It seems much harder for Simon Crimmons.

The joy of the novel–apart from the very real depictions of young desire, lust, and confusion–is the language itself. Some may find the dialect off-putting at first, but it quickly becomes second nature, but the narration itself is pure genius: A funeral for a dead train man is told with humor, nostalgia and poignancy; Simon’s first kiss is described as sweet, anxious, innocent and thrilling; the grounds of the Bultitude property are given an almost gothic eeriness and grandeur. (The Bultitudes are said to bury their dead in glass coffins…the aristocracy is always with us!)

Early in the novel, Simon and his friend Galbraith show Nikki the secret hideout they have built out in the wilds. They make her promise not to mention it to the other boys knowing that it is a childish thing and that the others would tease them for it. It is here that Simon and Nikki first have sex– in a short scene that is both innocent and knowing. It is a scene–positioned in his boyhood escape– that captures the very tension of this novel, the tension between innocence and adulthood, between desire and attainment, between the people and their landscape.

Alan Warner Photo: Jayne Wright

Alan Warner
Photo: Jayne Wright

Alan Warner is an extraordinary writer. That his name is little known outside Britain is an injustice, but one that may be set aright by Deadman’s Pedal–a novel that is larger than its Scottish setting, a novel that is universal in its wonders, its desires, and its struggles.

A good story … and a story of goodness

Adams Daramy

Adams Daramy
photo © 2013 Malvern Preparatory School

Last summer, an African student at my school asked me to help him with his college application essay.  I was surprised–I had never taught him, had never actually met him before, although I knew who he was.  He was very polite, wide-smiling, and serious about his studies.  When I read his essay, I knew why.

Adams Daramy was born in Sierra Leone during the height of its civil war, the brutal Blood Diamond wars.  By the age of six, he had witnessed mutilation and rape, had seen dead bodies in the street and children trained to kill, and had eluded mass killings and general thuggery. He had seen vultures pick at not-yet-dead bodies and had barely escaped being forced himself into the military.  He told me of the favorite intimidation tactic of the rebels–chopping the limbs off civilians–and how once he was forced to stand in one of two lines and how his line was spared, but the other were not.  And all this by the time he was six years old.

His mother, wisely, got him out of there.

Because of the wars, Sierre Leone had no infrastructure to process Adams’ coming to the United States, so Adams had to live for a year in the Ivory Coast.  He worked that year as a tailor’s apprentice, sending money back to his mother and learning still yet another language–the French spoken in the Ivory Coast. In his college essay, he described how wonderful it was having a morning coffee at a shop down the street before he went off to work.  He was now seven, the age when most of the children we know are taking their first steps off to school.

And yet, in his essay, he did not dwell entirely on the bad. He recalled how kite flying was a favorite activity in the coastal town of Abidjan and because of his tailoring skills, how he was able to make some wonderful and beautiful kites.  He was proud of them and smiled brightly when telling me. But mostly, he wrote about his mother. He wrote about her love, her sacrifices and her courage.

This was all in 2001.

Fast forward now to 2013.  Adams had made it to the United States and lived with an uncle who had also escaped the horror that was Sierre Leone.  He enrolled in a good prep school where he succeeded in academics, athletics, activities and service. For his senior year, his classmates elected him president of the Student Council.  And all this success–the academic challenges, the championships on the track and field,  the rewarding service, the broadening activities and the solidarity with his classmates–all this came about while he was working long hours as an aide in a retirement home, sending the money home to the mother he had not seen in 12 years.

Yesterday, Adams Daramy graduated from high-school.  For the past three months, his classmates have been working very hard fund-raising and pestering a sometimes intractable bureaucracy to enable Adams’ mother to travel to the United States and be present at her son’s graduation.  On June 3, his mother was denied a visa.  The offices of Representative Pat Meehan worked overtime to see if they could have that decision changed, though they offered little hope. On June 4, the decision was reversed and she could come. Now, intricate travel plans had to be quickly expedited.

At midnight, ten hours before Adams Daramy would graduate from a prestigious American prep school, he embraced his mother, Grace Sankoh.

It was the first time in twelve years he had seen the woman he had written about so lovingly in his college application essay.

As with all graduations, there were speeches and homilies, awards and recognitions yesterday.  But nothing spoke so loudly about goodness and hope and friendship and love than the reunion of Adams Daramy and his mother.