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Other segments from the episode on December 21, 2001

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, December 21, 2001: Interview with John Powers; Review of Julianna Raye's new CD "Restless Night;" Review of best films of the year; Review of best books of the year.

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DATE December 21, 2001 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

Review: Upcoming holiday movies
TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

For movie fans, this is the time of year for new holiday releases and
end-of-the year 10-best lists. Our film critic, John Powers, will give us his
picks for the best of the year a little later. But first, we're going to talk
about the new movies that are opening for the holidays.

John, let's start with "Ali," which is opening Christmas Day. It's been very
heavily advertised. Will Smith stars as Muhammad Ali. How is it?

JOHN POWERS:

It's actually pretty good. I had had some doubts about the film in advance
because even though Michael Mann made it, and he's an interesting, talented
filmmaker, there's something about biographical films that tends to make
things extremely boring. But what Mann has done is he's taken a 10-year
period of Ali's life, basically from 1964 to 1974--the time from shortly
before his fight with Sonny Liston, in which Cassius Clay won the title and
became Muhammad Ali, to the period where he beat George Foreman in Zaire--and
uses that as a way not only of showing you Ali's life, which is rather
familiar, but of expanding out to offer a portrait of black culture during
that same period. A portrait that includes everything from Sam Cooke, who was
a friend of Ali, through the black Muslim movement; through the anti-war part
of black life that Ali came to represent; and then finally, to the sort of
Pan-Africanist ideals of Ali in the fight in Zaire.

GROSS: How does Will Smith do as Muhammad Ali?

POWERS: He's actually rather blank. I think they must have made some choice
that they weren't going to try to take you inside Ali. He's too iconic, in a
way; and I think they didn't want to try to dramatize him. So more or less,
it's an external performance, and deliberately so. It's rather convincing
much of the time. But, you know, the odd thing about it is that Smith, who's
so great at being light and exuberant, doesn't quite capture the lightness and
exuberance of Ali. He captures many of the other things. So he actually
moves around the ring very well. He's bulked up effectively. He's very good
at being sober and complicated. But what he's not so good at is being
delightful.

GROSS: I think a lot of TV and theatrical movies that are set in the recent
past have this fake picture postcard look about them. And a lot of the cast
looks like they've assembled for a theme party where you're supposed to come
dressed like it's the '60s or the '70s. Does "Ali" have that kind of fake
look to it in terms of, you know, the costumes and people's hairdos?

POWERS: No, it actually doesn't. I think that it's probably, like most
Hollywood films, a bit too precise in its art direction and costuming, which
is to say that everyone is dressed a little bit too much perfectly in
character. But what the director, Michael Mann, has very skillfully done is
show you the kinds of places that you never really had seen in movies before,
or at least I've never seen in movies before; so that you see the kind of
small hotels that an African-American would have stayed in in the 1960s, even
if he's an extremely famous African-American. It'll actually show you the
kinds of houses or apartments where Muhammad Ali would live. And I haven't
really seen that before, and at that level it's extremely interesting.

What you don't get are the kinds of things that used to get on, say, "Starsky
and Hutch," where--with the character of Huggy Bear wearing, you know, purely
extravagant costumes and everybody going, `Wow.' There's nothing of that. I
mean, the story is the center here, and the background and costuming and all
the rest is very, very discreet.

GROSS: It sounds like you're recommending the film.

POWERS: I am recommending the film. I mean, I'm--it's disappointing in some
ways, I should say. It's a cold film, and I think somehow it doesn't build in
quite the way I would like it to. So at the end, I didn't think I'd gotten
all that much--by the end. Yet, strange, as I was watching it, I was
engrossed at every moment watching the film.

GROSS: Now "In the Bedroom" is opening in more cities on Christmas and this
has already won the LA Film Critics Award for best film, you're part of that
group, John.

POWERS: Yes.

GROSS: And the New York film critics voted the two leads, Tom Wilkinson and
Sissy Spacek, best actor and actress of the year. What did you think of the
movie?

POWERS: I think it's a good film that, perhaps, has been a little bit
overrated. And I don't mean that as a negative thing. I think it is one of
the better films of the year, and it's an extraordinarily good first film by
the director, Todd Field. I guess my thought about the film is that it's the
kind of small humane film that people are going to especially like in the
aftermath of September 11th. It's a story about a couple who seem to be
happily married, who suffer a great personal loss in their life, a death, and
more or less what that does to their relationship, and to their sense of
justice in the universe. It has two excellent performances. One by Sissy
Spacek, and in particular, one by the actor Tom Wilkinson, who many of you
might remember as the unemployed foreman from "The Full Monty," who gives
probably the performance of his life, as a father who loses a child, and as a
husband who feels that he's losing his wife, who's very angry with him when
the child is lost.

GROSS: Without giving away the ending, John, I was wondering if for all the
realism and subtlety of the movie, if the ending seemed kind of false to you.

POWERS: It did seem false to me. I think that's one reason why I don't think
it's quite so good as people are saying, is that one of the problems with
films as opposed to short stories, and this is based on a short story by Andre
Dubus, is that films tend to need a little bit more of a wallop at the end
whereas, one of the great things about short stories is they can be more
muted. And I think that what happens in the film "In the Bedroom" is that you
need to build up to something slightly larger and more dramatic. It did ring
false to me. It's not so much the events of it, but even in some of the ways
that it's photographed and paced. It made it seem like a little bit more of a
thriller by the end, than the character study that it had been earlier.

GROSS: Let's look at "Lord of the Rings." Did you go into this as a hobbit
fan?

POWERS: Well, I had read the books when I was quite young, and so I guess at
that level I was a hobbit fan. Although, it must have been, you know, several
decades since I've actually wanted to read about an elf. So, at that level I
probably didn't go in. And I'm one of those people, like many people in the
audience who, when I see names like Frodo, my heart kind of sinks. I like,
you know, films where people are named Jim. And, so, like, I would say that
when I went into the theater I wasn't completely convinced that I wanted to be
there.

And for the first 20 minutes, I really thought, `I'm in trouble.' The film
was three hours long. It was 20 minutes in, and I was looking at my watch.
I'm thinking, `I'm now caught in middle Earth with these little people with
hairy feet for hours and hours and hours.' But a strange thing happened about
20 or 30 minutes in, which is the story suddenly kicks into gear, and the film
becomes extremely absorbing. Probably two of the three hours are extremely
good. You know, they're moving and fast paced, with absolutely spectacular
production design.

You know, one of the funny things about the film is it's one of the most
expensive projects in the history of filmmaking. It's actually a trilogy of
films made all at the same time, and the combined cost was $270 million. And
when you hear a number like that, it seems incredible that anyone can spend
that much on a film, yet when you watch "Lord of the Rings" you can actually
see where the money went. I mean, it is visually sumptuous, incredibly
elaborate, extraordinarily precise in all of its details of creating an
alternative universe. So, between the production design, the extremely good
acting, fine directing, it's actually a good film.

GROSS: How would you compare it to the "Harry Potter" movie?

POWERS: I think the "Harry Potter" movie had some of the same limitations,
which is to say that the fans of both Potter and Tolkien are incredibly
literal minded. They don't want you to change anything. So, you're stuck
with the fact that any change you make gets you in trouble. Both were caught
that way.

The difference between the two is that the "Harry Potter" film is essentially
a corporate product, and the film of "Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the
Rings," which is its actual title--It's the "Lord of the Rings: The
Fellowship of the Ring," is quite different. It was made by a New Zealand
director named Peter Jackson who shot it in his home country and it's an
extremely personal film. You actually--when you're watching it you can tell
that one guy made it, one guy's imagination is at work in it, and it has kind
of a home-grown organic quality. Whereas "Harry Potter" feels as though it's
put together partly with marketing ideas in mind, partly out of fear that the
kids who read the books won't like the version you're doing, and so there's a
very different feeling to the two films.

GROSS: Let's move to "The Shipping News," which is based on the Annie Proulx
novel of the same name. That's going to be opening in a lot of cities for the
holidays. It'll be open in more cities in the weeks to come. Did you read
the novel before seeing the movie?

POWERS: Well, I'd read the novel when it came out and I didn't go back to
re-read it, but, yes, I had read it. And, you know, what was striking about
the novel was the language in particular. It wasn't so much the story of the
novel, which is about a sort of zhlubby guy named Quayle Redemption(ph), as he
goes from being one of life's losers to regaining confidence, going back to
his ancestral home in Newfoundland and finding a new life. That part of the
story hadn't struck me so much as the way that Annie Proulx had told the
story.

In the film adaptation, what's lost is that narrative voice; and so what you
have is a slightly wan adaptation of a story that looks much less good when
you see it on screen than it felt when you read it in the book.

GROSS: Kevin Spacey is the lead. How is he?

POWERS: Kevin Spacey is making a serious career mistake. I don't usually
give career advice; you know, it's not my job. But for some reason, ever
since "American Beauty," he's decided that he wants to be lovable, and the
problem is that no one wants to love Kevin Spacey for being lovable. You
know, we want to love him for being a jerk. I mean, if you look at the great
Kevin Spacey roles, he's always ironic and nasty, and then maybe at the end,
as in "LA Confidential," he'll discover that there's a bit of humanity beneath
the smugness and the irony and the jerkiness. But ever since "American
Beauty," he's begun casting himself in roles where he's playing wounded
masculinity, the sensitive male. And this is perhaps the most extreme example
of that where he's even playing a sensitive kind of dumb guy. And I think
that no one in America thinks of Kevin Spacey as a sensitive, wounded kind of
dumb guy.

GROSS: So is this one you think we should avoid, or is it just worth going to
but not great?

POWERS: It's--I guess you could go. I mean...

GROSS: OK.

POWERS: No, I'm--I try to be fair in these things, Terry, you know. Which
is, when I talk to people who've seen it--I think the general sense is the
same sense I have, which is it's a rather disappointing film, and one of the
major problems with the film is Spacey.

GROSS: Film critic John Powers is my guest. We're talking about movies
opening for the holidays.

John, I'm going to ask you to just put in a word for a film that you recently
reviewed, "The Royal Tenenbaums," but this'll be opening in a lot of cities
for the Christmas holiday, so tell us why you liked it so much.

POWERS: Yes. Well, I think it's actually one of the films this year that is
both funny and touching at the same time, often in the same scene at the same
moment. It's a story about a bunch of kids who were once geniuses who aren't
any longer, and they now have to come to terms with their father, played by
Gene Hackman. And what's good about this film is it captures the weird
dynamics of family life in a way that you don't normally see in films. And at
the same time, it's got very offbeat sense of humor and this peculiar ability
to make you laugh at something while you're feeling really sad at the same
time.

The reason I want to mention it is that this is a film that's been largely
neglected by critics groups and won't have the big advertising budget of films
like "Ali" or "Lord of the Rings," yet, it's a really, really good film--one
of the best films of the year--and I don't want to see it neglected.

GROSS: Why do you think that "The Royal Tenenbaums" didn't make it on more 10
best lists, or at least not yet?

POWERS: I think "The Royal Tenenbaums" is a tricky film, in that many people
are judging it in relation to other things than the film itself. So some will
say, `Oh, it's like a Salinger story,' and then it's not like a Salinger
story. And then they think it's a failed Salinger story. Or they'll say,
`Oh, it's like "The Magnificant Ambersons," by Orson Welles. But it's not
like "The Magnificant Ambersons," so therefore it's not a successful movie.'
I think the film makes a kind of demand on you that films don't often do,
which is it asks you to think and feel different things from moment to moment,
and that it kind of sneaks up on you with its emotions. And I think a lot of
people when they see the film--because it's got a lot of jokes and sort of
whimsical humor at the beginning--don't grasp that the film's arc keeps
getting deeper and deeper and deeper. And so they are sort of stuck on the
first part and think, `Oh, this is a precious comedy,' and they never adjust
to the fact that part of the structure of the film is to seem exuberant and
buoyant and then gradually change into something else.

GROSS: Anything you think we should avoid over the holidays?

POWERS: Well, there are a lot of things to avoid over the holidays. I think
that I wouldn't go to see "The Majestic," the Jim Carrey film, which has been
described by one critic as `the most boring film ever made.' That's probably
not true, but it's one of these--OK. In a way, that would actually make it
sound too interesting. I mean, to see the most boring film ever made is
something you might actually want to do. I think that the film that probably
will get the best reviews that I don't think is very good is the film "A
Beautiful Mind," starring Russell Crowe as a mathematician named John Nash,
who has a schizophrenic break.

From reading the early reviews, most of the critics think that it's an
extremely good film; it got a lot of Golden Globe nominations. And the truth
is Russell Crowe's very, very good in the film. He's one of the best actors
working anywhere in the world right now, and he's extraordinarily good as a
brilliant guy who more or less has problems with personal demons that intrude
into his life in ways that none of us normally could possibly imagine. But
the film is extremely flat and uninteresting and takes what I think one of the
most interesting stories I've ever read and turns it into an obvious
inspirational saga. It's sort of the math version of "Shine."

Now for a lot of people, to say that might seem like an inducement. So if you
liked "Shine" and want to see the math version of that, you probably should
race out to see "A Beautiful Mind." Since I didn't like "Shine"--and at least
in "Shine" the guy played the piano rather than just thinking about math--I
think that you would probably be wise to avoid it if you didn't like "Shine."

GROSS: Oh, count me in on that one. All right. Well, John, thank you for
reviewing some Christmas movies--movies opening up for the holidays. And in a
few minutes, we'll talk about your 10 best list.

POWERS: OK.

GROSS: John Powers is FRESH AIR's film critic, as well as media columnist and
executive editor of LA Weekly. He'll be back in the second half of the show.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Review: Julianna Raye's new CD "Restless Night"
TERRY GROSS, host:

Singer/songwriter Julianna Raye is probably the only person in pop music who's
written songs with both Rufus Wainwright and Kiki Dee. Our rock critic Ken
Tucker was a fan of Raye's 1993 debut album called "Something Peculiar." Raye
has a new collection called "Restless Night." Here's Ken's review.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. JULIANNA RAYE (Singer/Songwriter): (Singing) Tonight there's a new moon
about, and the glow it has cast fills this new love. Hold tight...

KEN TUCKER:

Although she was born in New York, Julianna Raye has long lived in Los Angeles
and with "Restless Night" it sounds to me as if she's created an admirable,
insinuating addition to LA pop music, the sort of album you can imagine
hearing wafting out of windows in the Hollywood Hills where inside a couple is
breaking up.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. RAYE: (Singing) I wish I could take the world apart. I'd build it again
state of the art. I'd hold the nature of man in the palm of my hand. You'd
be here now. You're not. I can't forget the man that time forgot.

TUCKER: Julianna Raye, with the bruise of heartbreak in her blue voice, has
flown down the temple since her grievously underrated 1993 pop-rock prize
"Something Peculiar." On "Restless Night," she sings a series of languidly
gorgeous ballads that evokes a timeless LA in which Raymond Chandler's Phillip
Marlowe dates '50s siren Julie London and they cool off in Randy Newman's
swimming pool. The duet with Rufus Wainwright alone is hot enough to make the
pool water boil.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. RAYE: (Singing) Like a grapevine, gently creeping. Would you care for
some more wine? Let me pour you some more wine.

Mr. RUFUS WAINWRIGHT: (Singing) I'm sure you've broken many hearts. You're
the true temper in your sparks. Now we're alone relaxing sweetly.

Ms. RAYE and Mr. WAINWRIGHT: Would you care for some more wine? Let me
pour...

TUCKER: Raye's chief collaborator on "Restless Night" is the producer Ethan
Johns, who's worked with artists as various as Counting Crows, current
critics' favorite Ryan Adams and the queen of '70s LA pop, Linda Ronstadt.

There are moments here when Raye's vocals also conjure up the spirit of
another Laurel Canyon woman, Joni Mitchell, before she became contorted with
self-consciousness.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. RAYE: (Singing) Every time I look at you, I see your light refracted
through some telescope, projecting you into a black hole night. Dark sky
travelers fall in line, wheels engage and hypnotize your troubled mind.
Frightened by day's glare all the world's unfair. I won't deny I've wished
for a different you too many times, and when I didn't wish, I tried to make it
true.

TUCKER: Elsewhere on this collection, Raye has a song called "Dark Night of
the Soul," which could have been an alternative title for the album, were she
not intent on transcending that cliche phrase. On another tune, "One Hour,"
Raye and her producer deploy a Latin-tinged rhythm that's like an urban
version of a Sergio Leone spaghetti Western theme, to sing about how, as she
bluntly puts it, `love goes rotten.'

If I was going to drive across the country to LA, I'd take along tapes of
Warren Zevon's first album, Randy Newman's second one, called "12 Songs,"
some CDs by the punk band X, 1977's The Beach Boys' "Love You," another
underrated LA master work and Julianna Raye's "Restless Night." I have a
hunch this would result in a ride that only director David Lynch could do
justice to.

GROSS: Ken Tucker is critic at large at Entertainment Weekly. He reviewed
"Restless Night" by Julianna Raye.

I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Interview: John Powers discusses his list of best films for 2001
and the film experience in Singapore
TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Our film critic John Powers is back with his 10 best list for 2001.

JOHN POWERS (Film Critic): Well, actually, Terry, I don't really have 10 this
year. I spent the first half of the year living in Singapore, so I didn't see
a lot of films that came out then, especially the foreign films. And so I was
on a different time frame than everybody else. But since arriving, I've
caught up with a lot of things, and I do manage to have eight films on my
10-best list. In more or less order of merit, I would put the re-release of
"Apocalypse Now," which I think is the best film I saw this year; David
Lynch's "Mulholland Dr."; the small comedy "Ghost World"; "The Royal
Tenenbaums," the film by Wes Anderson; a documentary called "The Gleaners and
I" by Agnes Varda; "The Lord of the Rings," which managers to be an
accomplished fantasy film, which is something I didn't think I would see or
like; "Gosford Park," the best film that Robert Altman's made in the last 25
years; and "Memento," which I think is not a great puzzle that it's sort of
this year's croupier.

GROSS: Now you only have eight films on your 10-best list. I think this was
just a particularly frustrating, mediocre year for movies. I know you were
gone for part of that year, and that's part of your explanation for only
having eight, but would you agree it was not a good year?

POWERS: Yes, I think it was a pretty terrible year, in fact, and I don't
think I'm the only one--you know, when I talk to my fellow critics, you know,
I find almost all of them saying, `Oh, my gosh, how am I going to find 10
films to really like?' And you can do it if you add some of the smaller films
that virtually don't get distribution. There was a very interesting Japanese
film called "Eureka" that played in maybe two or three cities in the United
States, and it's on a lot of people's lists. But other than that, it's really
hard to find them. I mean, you had a lot of famous filmmakers making films
that people don't like very much. I think probably the classic example would
be "AI," which I think was supposed to be the big Oscar film of the year, and
turned out to be this badly reviewed film that the public didn't like.

GROSS: Well, "Apocalypse Now" is at the top of your 10-best list. What do
you like about the re-edited version, the restored and re-edited version, that
was released this year that's different from the original version?

POWERS: Yes. Well, actually, I mean, I think just seeing the film again in a
pristine print was so exciting that I probably was overly enthusiastic about
the changes made in the version. What I guess I liked about it was that the
film always felt slightly choppy before, and now the film, running longer than
it did before with scenes set in a French colonial plantation, for instance,
gives you a sense of the full conception of the film. You know, one of the
funny things about the expanded version is that some of the scenes that are
expanded aren't very good, and you can see why Coppola cut them. At the same
time, when you watch the film you see the whole conception, and the conception
is so grand that the film suddenly becomes greater in your head.

There are lots of small little things that tweak the film in nice ways. You
know, for instance, the Martin Sheen character steals Robert Duvall's
surfboard in this version of the film, and it helps explain something that was
always confusing in the film, which was why his men were so loyal to him. But
when you see that he steals the surfboard from the jerk, you suddenly realize,
`Oh, the men will follow him farther than you might otherwise expect.' He's a
little less tightly wound than he seems in the shorter version, so it's an
improvement of the film. And there are lots of small things like this that
make the film better.

GROSS: "Ghost World" is on your 10-best list. This was a fine film, not a
big-money motion picture; good performances, really nice colors even. I mean,
it's set in a world of people who really like comic books and pop music, and
just the whole coloring of the movie seemed to reflect that. Tell us why you
chose the movie.

POWERS: Well, I think, actually, you described it very well. It's the story,
essentially, of two teen-age girls who are alienated from their larger
society, and one is trying to integrate herself a little bit and trying to get
on with her life. The other one is more of a fighter, and she gets involved
with an aging record collector, wonderfully played by Steve Buscemi in the
best performance he's given in several years. And more or less you see this
world of people who don't quite fit into the world and who can't decide
whether they should try or whether they should try to create a different world
for themselves.

And what's nice in the film is that it's extremely funny. There's a marvelous
moment where somebody does a painting of Don Knotts that I think is--made me
laugh louder than anything in a film this year. And at the same time, it's
extremely sad, because the film isn't afraid to show you what it means to
spend your life not fitting into the mainstream. It's based on a comic book
by an artist named Daniel Clowes, and the film has a very nice comic-book
look. It's very, very clean. It's worth noting, also, that one of the people
involved in producing the film was David Lynch, and although it's not really
like a David Lynch film except in its fondness for outsiders, it's--you know,
one of the reasons why people like me are so loyal to Lynch is that he would
back a film like this one.

GROSS: And, of course, Lynch's film "Mulholland Dr." was on your 10-best
list. I want to get back to Steve Buscemi for a second. He's such a good
actor. He was even good in that movie "Domestic Disturbance" that starred
John Travolta, which I thought was, you know--mediocre would be giving it the
benefit of the doubt, I think. It was not a good movie; totally formulaic.
But Steve Buscemi, those few minutes when he's on screen, the movie actually
becomes interesting.

POWERS: Yes. Well, I think this is the great Buscemi comeback. I think one
of the things that happened with him was that when he first started out in
films like "Parting Glances," he was really wonderful. And then gradually
people thought, `Oh, he's essentially the live-action version of Bugs Bunny.'
And they used him to `do Buscemi.' I think in a credit of one of his films,
the character's name is Buscemi and it's played by Buscemi. And that's
because he'd become such a shtik that you just hired him to do that.

In the last year or so, people have finally begun realizing that he's a good
actor again. And so "Ghost World" has this wonderful, sad performance with
him as a record collector, aging yet attracted to and scared by the teen-age
heroine of the film. And he's really, really good. I think the New York Film
Critics gave him their award for best supporting actor. And, you know, I
could only endorse that.

GROSS: Now you were living in Singapore when "Memento" was released, so we
never heard your review of "Memento." Why did it make it onto your 10-best
list?

POWERS: I guess it's because it's a really wonderful puzzle film that very
few films, especially these days, have the courage to fragment a narrative.
So in this case, you have the wonderful hook of the guy who's lost all his
short-term memory, and what that means in storytelling terms is you have to
keep starting and stopping, looping back over and over again. The last movie,
I think, that did that probably was "Groundhog Day," which was a comedy...

GROSS: Right.

POWERS: ...yes--because it's really, really hard, especially in today's film
climate, to tell a story that isn't directly linear. People get lost during
flashbacks. They don't like the choppiness that you had found in some
new-wave films from France in the 1960s, for instance. This is the first film
I've seen in years that actually trusted the audience to try to put something
together when it wasn't being explained to them at every moment. It also had
a really interesting feeling to it, because you were disoriented, like the
hero, who's extremely well-played by Guy Pearce. I mean, it's worth
mentioning that Guy Pearce, who starred with Russell Crowe in "L.A.
Confidential" and who's also Australian, has also become one of the more
convincing American actors around.

GROSS: Now "The Gleaners and I," which is on your 10-best list, a film by
Agnes Varda, is a film that probably most of our listeners won't even have
heard of, let alone seen. What is it?

POWERS: And I think probably it will be on video, and I would urge people to
get it. It's a film about--I mean, Agnes Varda's a famous new-wave film
director, and she's now getting on in years. She's making a film about what
was called a tradition of gleaning in France, which is basically people who
would go fields, orchards and so forth, and once everything had been picked,
would pick up what was left over. So you would pick the apples that haven't
been picked. You pick the potatoes that the machines can no longer get. And
you start with the idea of gleaning as an enterprise, and then Varda expands
that out to talk about basically what it means to glean and the changes of
gleaning, so that she, in fact, is a gleaner of images. You then have people
who are gleaning in city streets. See, she follows homeless people. And so
the whole thing becomes a meditation on more or less how people get wasted,
how people use things that seem to be wasted, an entire culture in which
you're living on the residue of what the regular society wants to throw away.

It's funny and smart, very, very, sharp, beautifully shot on digital video.
It's the kind of film on digital video that makes you realize that anybody
could make a film if they had the imagination.

GROSS: Well, let me ask you this.

POWERS: Yeah.

GROSS: You know, "Moulin Rouge" has made it to a few 10-best lists. What'd
you think of it?

POWERS: Actually, I thought "Moulin Rouge" was one of those films that I
really wanted to love, because I like musicals and I like the big, expansive
vision of it. And when I was watching it, if I had taken any 10 minutes, I
would have liked those 10 minutes. But the problem was that director Baz
Luhrmann has many, many gifts, but one of them is to not realize that every
moment doesn't need to be a climax. So you have this huge, expensive,
production-designed, music- and dance-filled extravaganza attached to the
thinnest of stories, where every scene seems to be played at exactly the same
pace. And that finally wore me out, and the story didn't have enough energy
to hold me. I like the idea of trying to make a big, exalted film about love.
I think Ewan McGregor gives an extremely good performance. I think Nicole
Kidman gives a pretty bad performance, very, very cold and distant
performance.

I thought it was OK. I mean, I was stunned to see that it's on people's
10-best lists and that I think it won the National Board of Review's best
film. It got a bunch of Golden Globe nominations today, but that makes sense,
'cause that's the foreign press and they're idiots.

GROSS: Any performances you want to single out this year--maybe great
performances in mediocre movies that you...

POWERS: Well, actually...

GROSS: ...don't want to go unnoticed?

POWERS: Well, actually, I think if I could--I think the best single
performance I saw by anybody this year was in "Mulholland Dr." by a woman
named Naomi Watts, who probably won't win anything because it's a David Lynch
film and people tend not to win things in David Lynch films, and because no
one's ever heard of her so she won't get the critical groundswell. She does a
role where she takes--it's more or less a dream role in which she starts as
the most innocent young starlet wanna-be who ever lived and goes through so
many levels of misery and jadedness, sexuality and weirdness that it's a role
that probably asks her to do more than any actress has been asked to do in a
film in maybe the last 15 or 20 years, and she's really great doing it. You
know, if there were any justice in the world, she would, you know, be getting
Oscar nominations and lots of work out of this. So I guess she's the one I
would single out.

You know, there were lots of other performances that I think are really
wonderful. Gene Hackman, who I think always seems to give a good performance,
is really great in "The Royal Tenenbaums." And Billy Bob Thornton, you know,
who I thought I was going to spend the rest of my life disliking after "Sling
Blade," has become, you know, one of the most interesting actors in Hollywood,
and he's really good in both this small film called "Monster's Ball," which
will be coming out, I think, in January, as well as "The Man Who Wasn't
There," the Coen brothers' film.

GROSS: One of the movies that I thought was overpraised this year, that I've
even seen on some 10-best lists, is a movie called "Deep End," or "The Deep
End." And this movie seems to kind of represent what I think may be a new
genre in American movies, which is the kind of high-class version of a
Lifetime movie...

POWERS: Yes.

GROSS: ...Lifetime cable.

POWERS: Yes. Well, I think what's funny about this movie is that it's
essentially a remake of an older film called "The Reckless Moment" that was
filled with energy. And what's happened to this film is that I feel it's been
crushed with good taste. You know, the heroine of the film is a sort of
Martha Stewart-type woman who's a control freak, and yet you actually
feel--you know, when I was watching, I thought, `Martha Stewart directed
this,' because everything is so tasteful. You know, whenever a person's
wearing a shirt or a blouse, it always seems to match the wallpaper. The
compositions of the shots is so precise that it feels fussy. You sort of know
the meaning of everything, so there's no juice to it. You know, I mean, I'm a
person who would prefer a messy film with flaws to one that's crushingly
perfect.

You know, I mean, to compare it to, say, "Mulholland Dr." by David Lynch,
"Mulholland Dr." has some scenes in it that aren't very good, but there's a
lot of passion and vitality and energy and you don't really quite know what's
going to happen; whereas in a film like "Deep End," everything is done so
perfectly and so tastefully there's just no room to breathe in it. It's not
that it's a bad film; it's just that it's a film that is telling you at every
moment, `This is a work of art.'

GROSS: My guest is FRESH AIR's film critic John Powers. We'll talk more
after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: I'm speaking with FRESH AIR's film critic John Powers, and we've been
talking about the best movies of the year.

John, for, oh, a half or two-thirds--I guess a half of this past year, you
were living in Singapore. What were you doing there?

POWERS: Well, my wife is a filmmaker, and she was trying to make a film in
Singapore. It didn't actually work out for the usual financial reasons, but
we'd moved there. And I had always wanted to live in Asia, so we moved. And
while she tried to make a film, I traveled and more or less went to the movies
in Singapore.

GROSS: What are movies like in Singapore? Let's start with what was showing.
What kind of films were showing?

POWERS: Well, actually, what's showing in Singapore is essentially what we
get. You know, there are a couple cases, because they're a day ahead of us
because of the time line, where films actually opened in Singapore before they
opened here. I think "Tomb Raider" was one of those films. The big problem
in Asia at the moment is that any film that you bring out in the US is pirated
and put on cheap VCDs, as they're called, and sold for $2. So that what's
happened now is that the Hollywood studios bring out their big films in
Singapore and in much of Asia at almost exactly the same time they do it in
the United States, because otherwise, everyone will have bought them for $2
and played them in their home long before you open them.

I believe that Singapore is famous for having the highest rate of film
viewership of any country in the world, which is to say that the average
Singaporean sees more films a year than people do in anyplace in the world.
It's partly because it's a very prosperous country filled with movie theaters,
and it's a very hot country and the movie theaters are air-conditioned.

GROSS: So when you were watching movies in theaters, were the movies dubbed?

POWERS: No, actually, Singapore is an English-speaking country, so that they
often would have Mandarin subtitles, because there's a certain percentage of
the population that's still not comfortable in English. But every
English-language film plays in English, and the official language of Singapore
is English. But, you know, sometimes you'd actually see certain films that
would have three or four different levels of subtitling. You might get a
print that was going to go to Malaysia and then Thailand. So I've actually
seen films where the people would be speaking English and you would see the
layer of Malay subtitling, the layer of Mandarin subtitling and the layer of
Thai subtitling at the bottom of the frame.

GROSS: My understanding is that the press in Singapore is pretty tightly
under the control of the government. There's, I think--you--there's a limit
to what you can say about the government without getting shut down.

POWERS: Yes.

GROSS: What's film criticism like in the press in Singapore?

POWERS: It's, frankly, terrible. You know, as a person who, you know, has
written film criticism and reads a lot of it, I was startled at the sheer
boosterism of it. I think that Singapore must be the only country in the
world where no one thought that "Charlie's Angels" could be better. I mean,
it was a--it's a place where "Godzilla" will get a great review. The whole
enterprise--and this is partly linked to, I think, once again--to a certain
level of oppressiveness in the government. The whole enterprise is to keep
people entertained, and so there's a level of boosterish promotion in the
press about all sorts of entertainment issues that's genuinely shocking. It's
really hard to get a bad review for a film in Singapore. They want people to
go out to the movies. It's a small country. There's not as much to do as
there would be in a larger country. Moviegoing is big, so they don't want to
have a negative reviewing environment.

GROSS: Are the theaters nice? Are there multiplexes?

POWERS: Oh, the theaters--oh, there are multiplexes. Some of the big, old
theaters are gone, but, you know, there are lots of multiplexes. And they
even--the thing I think they're just beginning to do in the US was is they
have special gold pass theaters(ph) where, for extra money, you can go into a
theater and sit in something that's not so much a movie theater seat as the
equivalent of a first-class seat on an airplane. Where you have--you--it's a
stand-alone seat, perhaps with a tray, you know, and you can tilt the thing
all the way back. And rather than there being, let's say, 500 seats in this
theater, there will be 50 and there will be people who come and wait on you.
And this seems to be the new thing both in Singapore and--but in the rest of
Asia as well, is they're trying to--they're trying to do something to make
moviegoing seem special again, because what's happening in Singapore is that
people now are, as I say, buying illegal disks that do the films for $2 and
you can see them in your own home. So they're trying to induce people to go
back to the movie theaters.

GROSS: Did you enjoy the experience of seeing movies that way?

POWERS: I--you know, it's actually OK. It felt slightly superfluous to me.
I mean, I--you know, it's--if someone were to offer me a first-class seat on
an airplane on a flight from Singapore to Los Angeles, which is 19 hours, I
would happily take it. You know, but to sit down and watch "Memento," I'm
perfectly content to sit in a traditional movie seat.

GROSS: Well, John, I'm glad you came back to the States and that you're back
on FRESH AIR again reviewing movies for us. I want to wish you happy holidays
and say thank you for talking with us.

POWERS: Oh, no, I'm happy to be here, and happy holidays to all our
listeners.

GROSS: John Powers is FRESH AIR's film critic, as well as media columnist and
executive editor of the LA Weekly.

Coming up, critic Maureen Corrigan picks her favorite books of the year. This
is FRESH AIR.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Review: Best books of the year
TERRY GROSS, host:

For book critic Maureen Corrigan, it was the year of the horse. Here's her
best books list for 2001.

MAUREEN CORRIGAN: Some books were more consciously profound, other books were
more lyrical and still other books I never got around to reading, but in my
estimation, the winner of best book of the year is "Seabiscuit," by a length.
Laura Hillenbrand's dazzling account of the horse many aficionados believe was
the greatest race horse of all time gets the garland in part because if anyone
had told me that I would one day be raving about the biography of a horse, I'd
have snorted a resounding `Nay!'

In daredevil prose that sprints along at breakneck speed, Hillenbrand tells
the unbelievable tale of Seabiscuit, a one-time loser who tore up the track
for five years during the late 1930s into 1940. His story and the story of
the down-and-out men who joined together to uncover his championship potential
constitutes an inspiring, extreme adventure tale of physical courage and moral
grit; a tale that unfolded during a period when the whole country was living
out an extreme adventure of its own called the Great Depression.

Other thoroughbred contenders in this year's nonfiction field were "Nickel and
Dimed," in which social critic Barbara Ehrenreich, like a latter-day Nellie
Bly, investigated the realities of not making it in America by working
minimum-wage jobs as a hotel maid, cleaning woman, nursing home health aide
and, as she dubs it, a `Wal-Martian.'

"Facing the Wind," by New York Times reporter Julie Salamon, is an
intelligent, morally messy story about a Brooklyn lawyer named Bob Rowe, who,
in 1978, murdered his wife and three children, one of whom was severely
handicapped. This is one true crime story that forces readers to look long
and steadily at the deep sadness of some people's lives.

The reprint editions of Joseph Mitchell's sublime collections "My Ears Are
Bent" and "McSorley's Wonderful Saloon" take readers back to a New York of
corner candy stores, men in fedoras and steam heat.

Patricia Volk's evocative autobiography, "Stuffed," offers a gastronomical
tour of lost New York, one that's heavily oriented toward pastrami, Mallomars,
chopped liver and cucumber salad. For decades, Volk's family owned Morgen's,
a renowned garment center restaurant on West 38th Street. `It was the place,'
Volk writes, `where I was princess. Waiters winked at me. They plucked the
white linen napkin from under my fork, twirled it high in the air, then draped
it over my lap. And when I asked for a hamburger, my grandfather would raise
his forearm, then smash through the kitchen in-door, and grind a steak
himself.'

Poet Emily Dickinson reportedly made some excellent gingerbread. However,
it's not her cooking skills but her unstandard mind that Alfred Habegger
explores in his terrific and testy new biography of Dickinson called "My Wars
Are Laid Away in Books."

Literary fiction gave nonfiction a respectable run for the money this year.
"Empire Falls," by Richard Russo, was my favorite novel of the year. In this
nearly 500-page funny and moving class-conscious story, there's not one false
bit of dialogue, not one canned observation.

I came a bit late to "The Corrections," Jonathan Franzen's much-celebrated
novel about an aging Midwestern couple, their three adult children and every
minute social observation Franzen could squeeze in about middle-class America
in the late 20th century. The sweep and the language of "The Corrections" are
indeed amazing. Here, for instance is how Franzen describes the dementia of
the family patriarch, Alfred Lambert. `He had good days and bad days. It was
as if when he lay in bed for a night, certain humors pooled in the right or
wrong places, like marinade around a flank steak, and in the morning, his
nerve endings either had enough of what they needed, or did not, as if his
mental clarity might depend on something as simple as whether he'd lain on his
side or on his back the night before.' I also think, however, that Franzen
could have used a stern editor more than he needed that star-crossed
endorsement from Oprah. Some of the cataloguing and internal monologues that
distinguish the novel go on past the point of at least my interest.

Other, less ambitious novels I loved were "My Dream of You," Nuala O'Faolain's
lyrical meditation on a life lived too cautiously and "Bel Canto," by Ann
Patchett, about a famous opera singer held hostage by revolutionaries.
Patchett's lithe writing style does for this creaky plot what a great singer's
voice does for a moth-eaten libretto.

"Long Time No See" by Susan Isaacs, aka Jane Austen with a schmeer, made me
happy by bringing back Judith Singer, the first in Isaacs' long line of plucky
heroines.

And "Almost," by Elizabeth Benedict, was the first novel I managed to read
after September 11th. Its emotionally profound account of a youngish widow
trying to figure out her life's wrong turnings nudged me back into an
appreciation of why art matters, even, or especially, in history's most
desperate hours.

GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. You can
find her complete list on our Web site, freshair.com.

(Credits)

GROSS: I'm Terry Gross. All of us at FRESH AIR wish you happy holidays.

(Soundbite of song)

Ms. JUDY GARLAND (Singer): (Singing) Have yourself a merry little Christmas.
Let your heart be light. Next year all our troubles will be out of sight.
Have yourself a merry little Christmas. Make the Yuletide gay.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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