Oscar Scores 2009: Slumdog Millionaire

January 28, 2009

Slumdog Millionaire posterArriving with mega-hype, numerous critical awards, a Golden Globe, and 10 Oscar nominations, Slumdog Millionaire left me a bit cash poor. The story of a young Indian man (Dev Patel) from the slums of Mumbai who uses the TV game show “Who Wants To Be a Millionaire” to find his long-lost love (Freida Pinto) is well-scripted by Simon Beaufoy (The Full Monty), but the story feels like a Dickens rags-to-riches retread just set in an exotic location.

It is difficult not to root for this cast of amateurs and lesser-known actors but the real stars of the film are director Danny Boyle, editor Chris Dickens, and Mumbai itself.  Boyle’s muscular direction and Dickens’ seamless editing (remarkable considering the extensive use of flashbacks) keep the story flying along at a brisk pace, so much so that it can be easy to ignore the flaws in the film. The crowded streets of the city provide their own soundtrack to accompany Indian musical superstar A. R. Rahman’s Golden Globe-winning score.

Most American audiences are not familiar with Rahman’s work, which is perhaps a reason why critics have been so quick to praise the composer’s blend of Indian instruments, rock, and electronic dance grooves. Rahman’s music and songs contribute to the film’s colorful feel.

Out of the many songs featured in the film, including M.I.A.’s popular “Paper Planes,” two have been nominated. “O Saya” is sung over the opening scene as the camera careens through the narrow, filthy passageways following a pair of street urchins. A blend of hip-hop, rock, and electronica, the tune’s driving rhythm begins the film on an energetic run. “Jai Ho” is the infectious end title tune. Gone is any hint of danger as the cast earns a well-deserved, victorious Bollywood dance number.

Rahman’s nominated score as presented on the commercial CD works quite well as a listening experience. The mixture of songs and a few instrumental tracks gets the blood pumping. But the “For Your Consideration” CD of Rahman’s score that was sent to Academy members is all of 16:54 of music. The electronica used in “Escape,” “Train Sitar,” and “Reaktor” is infectious yet ultimately musically empty. The best theme is the lovely melody for Latika (Pinto).

If Rahman’s score seems slight on the commercial disc, it is even choppier and less impressive on the FYC disc. If Enchanted was disqualified last year for the amount of score compared to the songs, then Slumdog should have been as well. The film’s popularity and critical backing will probably push Rahman into the winner’s circle. He wouldn’t be my choice, but a lot worse have won Oscars.


Rabbit Finally At Rest

January 27, 2009

John UpdikeI leave the office for lunch and come back to the news that John Updike has died from lung cancer. Updike (1932-2009) was the winner of two Pulitzer Prizes and two National Book Awards. In addition to over a dozen short story collections, Updike wrote poetry, essays, criticism, and plays.

Updike’s roughly 50 novels included, amopng other things, ruminations on faith (In the Beauty of the Lilies), Muslim rage (Terrorist), sex (Couples), even Hamlet (Gertrude and Claudius). Though probably best known for The Witches of Eastwick (whose sequel was published in 2008), mainly because of the 1987 film, it is the Rabbit books, chronicling American life in the middle class like few books before or since, that will stand the test of time.

As an undergrad, I discovered Updike’s work through his Rabbit books. At the time, I had never read an author who wrote prose quite like Updike. I stopped reading him several years ago as his books seemed to speak less and less to me. However, I have fond memories of his earlier work and what it meant to those times in my life. Perhaps this is a macabre invitation to revisit old favorites and finally encounter newer and classic works I missed the first time around.

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd

November 2, 2008

I haven’t read an Agatha Christie mystery since my teens or early 20’s. Let’s just say it was many moons ago. Why I picked up one after so many years remains a mystery to me, but I’m glad I did. After plowing through Lincoln’s presidency for a couple of months, Dame Agatha’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd was the perfect antidote to cleanse the historical palette.

I certainly appreciated the length (254 pages), the lightweight paperback, and the design of the Pocket edition that I remembered fondly from my younger years. What I had forgotten was how Christie wastes no words in telling her story. Descriptions are kept to a minimum, action often happens offstage, and most of the book is told through dialogue. I don’t remember the humor or the charm of these vedy British characters from past books, but as the song goes, “blame it on my youth.” I remember always having a preference for the Hercule Poirot mysteries and this story served up its tale very well. Murder, suicide, poisons…all the earmarks of a cracking good Agatha Christie mystery.

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd was an utter delight and has wet my appetite for more. Perhaps a Miss Marple next…

NaNoWriMo Begins!

November 1, 2008

Since 1999, aspiring novelists have taken part in National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo as it is more commonly known. The conceit? Write a 50,000-word novel in 30 days. Every November 1, published and unpublished novelists across the globe begin the frustrating, exhilirating process of writing a novel. Characters, plots, subplots, backstory… Ugh! My shoulders hunch over the keyboard in exhaustion at the very thought of them. I only made it to 19,919 words last year before eventually giving up. This year I have no intention of repeating that embarrassing mistake. I’ve already got my word count done for today, Day 1. I’m sure I’ll be writing more later, but for now, time for a little R&R with the dog. 64 degrees in NYC in November is rare and we’re gonna take advantage of a beautiful day at the dog run. Wish me luck over the next month!

Doctor Atomic

October 26, 2008

John Adams’s 2005 opera, Doctor Atomic, recently premiered in a new production at the Metropolitan Opera. The opera marks the fifth in a series of collaborations (which began with Nixon In China) between the composer and director Peter Sellars over a twenty-year period. The story of J. Robert Oppenheimer and the testing of the first atomic bomb should have made for exciting theater. Alas, as one of the characters worried about the bomb throughout the course of the story, this opera is a “dud.” 

It is rare for new operas to get a brand-new production this early in the game. Met general manager Peter Gelb reportedly was unhappy with Sellars’s original production in San Francisco and bankrolled a new one, entrusting it to first-time opera director Penny Woolcock. (Woolcock had previously directed the film version of Adams’s The Death of Klinghoffer.) While I can’t compare the two visions (I haven’t seen the De Nederlandse Opera production on DVD which replicates Sellars’s original), I can comment on the Met production, which I saw last night.

First, the good news. The New York Philharmonic’s musical-director-elect, Alan Gilbert, making his house debut, led the Met Orchestra with an assured baton and the Met musicians played with their usual high standard. Adams’s score contains some thrilling and moving sequences for the orchestra, even when the vocal line doesn’t always support it.

But therewith ends the good news.

Woolcock’s lack of opera and stage experience shows in this static production. Actors standing around in opera is nothing new, but there are long stretches in which this large cast has nothing to do. When all else fails, Woolcock fill the stage with copious amounts of useless “business.” Adams’s music clues us in that something is going on but it is not reflected on the stage.

The three-tiered rows of windows (reflecting the periodic table) may have seemed like a clever concept except that it keeps the human interaction further removed. (Problems with the sliding window shades didn’t help.) While the bomb itself was appropriately menacing and impressive as it hovered over the (in)action onstage, white curtains upstage filled in as cheap desert mountains and an unimpressive mushroom cloud at the end. And to have the scientists in three-piece suits when there are countless desert photos showing them wearing short-sleeve shirts and khakis shows a lack of attention to period detail.

But the main problem of the opera remains in Sellars’s pretentious, opaque libretto. Culled from original sources, the arias and recitatives move from complex physics problems to an army general’s diet with not one shred of drama or human interaction anywhere in between. Scenes move from one to the next with no rhyme or reason, many of them seemed interchangeable or should have been, better yet, excised. Throw in a typically esoteric John Donne poem for Oppenheimer’s overblown Act I aria and you have a frustrating evening in which a well-sung cast (including Gerald Finley reprising the role of Oppenheimer) is strapped with cardboard characters that don’t command our attention or interest.

The story of Oppenheimer and the bomb is an intriguing story with a fascinating and complex central character. And the doubts and fears of the scientists–and our own knowledge of the effects of the bomb–should have brought a real human element into the evening. However, I predict Doctor Atomic may run the fate of John Corigliano’s The Ghost of Versailles, which premiered at the Met in 1980 to great expecation and great critical drubbing, and has never had another production (though it is scheduled for the 2009-2010 season with Angela Gheorgiu and Kristin Chenoweth).

Woolcock’s production doesn’t help Adams’s music, but I’m not sure any director could make sense of Sellars’s dispensible libretto. Perhaps it’s time for Adams to find a new collaborator.

Team of Rivals

October 21, 2008

My copy of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln has been sitting on my bookshelf since it was first published in 2005. Having read her Pulitzer Prize-winning No Ordinary Time about Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt, I was most excited to delve in Lincoln. Why did it take me three years to get around to it? I have no valid excuses. But I think reading it amid the political maelstrom surrounding the country only enhanced my enjoyment of the book.

Goodwin knows how to bring history alive. Taking the familiar topics of Lincoln’s presidency and the Civil War, Goodwin brings the reader deep into war-torn and contentious cabinet: the team of rivals. The personalities of the main characters–William Seward, Salmon Chase, Edward Bates, and Edwin Stanton–breathe through their own words. And after eight years of a country crumbling around us, there are few places more inspiring than Lincoln’s world.

With so much hanging in the balance of the upcoming election, reading Goodwin’s enthralling history reminds us that politics have always been contentious and, for lack of a better word, “political.” But occasionally one man can make a difference. The 21st century is far different from the one nearly 150 years ago. But we still find hope in our presidential candidates and in the democratic process…hope for a better future and hope for a return to a moral center to our government. Until then, we have historians like Doris Kearns Goodwin to show us the highs and lows of the American political, and how it can occasionally rise above the commonplace.

Banned Books Week

September 29, 2008

Since 1982, the American Library Association (ALA) has observed Banned Books Week during the last week of September to “remind Americans not to take this precious democratic freedom for granted. On the ALA’s “10 Most Challenged Books of 2007,” the most common themes are “sexually explicit” (7 books), offensive language (5), homosexuality (3), and religious content (2).

In this election year, when vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin brings with her a “rhetorical” history of attempts at banning books, supporting the ALA’s mission is more important than ever.

Whether it’s one of the “2007 Top 10” or one of the perennials, such as The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Catcher in the Rye, or the Harry Potter series, read a banned book so that freedom of expression and freedom of choice remain in our American lexicon.