Thursday, December 21, 2006

Christmas crackers

After yesterday's unpleasantness, onto the sunnier side up regarding end-of-the-year releases, not that the topics are any lighter: insane behavior, cholera, old age, death, etc. But hey, that's Christmas at the movies, when the stockings are stuffed with awards season bait.

Notes on a Scandal (Fox Searchlight). Judi Dench rips it up and Cate Blanchett tears it down in a gratifyingly quick and nasty adaptation of Zoe Heller's page-turner. Directed with surprising verve by Richard Eyre, a theater veteran (Mary Poppins) more at ease with the medium here than with the plodding Iris (also starring Dench), it plays like What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? mixed with headline-grabbing material and British kitchen-sink realism, and fully capitalizes on an icily humorous screenplay by Patrick Marber. (The self-penned film version of his own play, Closer, leached out the bitter laughter of the superior source.) I thought Dench was lost forever to dear old ladyhood in last year's miserable Mrs. Henderson Presents, but she gathers herself together and strikes like a mamba as Barbara Covett (a terrific character name), a prim scold of a schoolteacher determined, in her fearsome, prideful loneliness, to make a cellmate of a new instructor, the willowy Sheba (Blanchett, shucking off the dullness of her roles in Babel and The Good German). Covett, who narrates the story from her tell-all diaries, sinks her fangs in when Sheba, a sweet but unformed personality with an older husband (Bill Nighy, as naturalistic as I've seen him) and retarded son, begins an affair with a 15-year-old student, with inexorably disastrous consequences all around. (The score, naturally, is by Philip Glass,the master composer of impending ruin.) Though the "L word" is never mentioned the film trafficks in female stereotypes; nonetheless, Dench is so assured she very nearly makes Covett the heroine she imagines herself to be. The sets and costumes, by Tim Hatley, are full of little symbolic touches that the DP, Chris Menges, makes sure you register without calling attention to them. And, at a time of year when most films top the two-hour mark, Notes is completed in a brisk 95 minutes. Not a nice movie, but kind of a fabulous one.

The Painted Veil (Warner Independent). Just as every Christmas brings at least one stuffed turkey, so, too, does it bring a film that I fear will be lost in the shuffle, and this year it is director John Curran's exquisite third version of W. Somerset Maugham's novel (the first, with Greta Garbo in 1935, is all about Garbo, as her creakiest vehicles tend to be). Critics and audiences who prefer films with lots of heavy-handed melodrama and emotional bombast need not apply to this more delicate and exquisitely modulated piece, which begins at a literal crossroads in the largely convenient marriage of Kitty and Walter Fane (Naomi Watts and Edward Norton). Kitty, who agreed to the union chiefly to escape her stifling family life, has had an affair with calculating British vice consul Charlie Townsend (played by her real-life boyfriend, Liev Schreiber) at their posting in 1920's Shanghai. Walter, a quiet, buttoned-down bacteriologist, realizes the adultery and has brought them from the city to the remote Chinese countryside, at a time of political unrest, to aid in a cholera outbreak--and quite possibly to die as a consequence (there is a streak of perversity underneath the period costuming and appealing natural landscapes, lovingly shot by Stuart Dryburgh). But Kitty, rather than wilt, slowly rises to the challenge of her circumstances and relationship. Entranced by the film, which casts a spell, Lora read the book and confirmed that there is no love story; Maugham didn't believe in romantic love, but more in spiritual transcendence, and I doubt he ever would have nudged the story into a more passionate dimension, as a recent New York Times article implied. Yet it works, thanks to fully realized portrayals by Watts (such a meaty role for an actress) and Norton, who effortlessly gives Ralph Fiennes a run for his money as Walter. (Under a nun's habit, Diana Rigg also shines, in one of those character parts whose payoff is withheld till almost the very end, and Hong Kong cult actor Anthony Wong has a sizable role, too.) Alexandre Desplat's Satie-derived score is just about the best I've heard since, well, the same composer's Baroque-influenced work for the otherwise marginal Casanova. A film to embrace.

Venus (Miramax). Midway through Roger Michell's elegiac drama there is an unsettling shot of a single, staring eye. The bluer-than-blue orb belongs to Peter O'Toole, and the entire film is a sustained death scene (I'm not really spoiling anything here) and requiem for the 74-year-old actor, who from the start looks as if he'll barely survive the opening credits, much less the closing ones. His stroke-like dissipation is startling and very nearly painful to watch, but he moves past self-exploitation to give a vinegary yet unsentimental performance as Maurice, a worn-down actor whose spirits are lifted by the uncouth 19-year-old grand-niece (Jodie Whittaker) of his ailing best friend (veteran character actor Leslie Phillips). Young Jessie is useless as a minder and health aide but has other rude charms, which Maurice gently, but firmly, seizes upon (their something-of-a-sex-scene is a surprise). Their May-December pairing is a companion piece to Michell and writer Hanif Kureishi's more deeply felt and disturbing The Mother, where 63-year-old Anne Reid romped with greater abandon with Daniel Craig, and is not its equal. But it does bring together, for the first time on screen and a handful of scenes, O'Toole and the undiminished Vanessa Redgrave, who, as Maurice's rueful ex-wife, has been given a cane to look impeded by age (to judge from her appearance, 69 is the new 49). And the star sparkles. It's as if O'Toole is saying, "I may live a few more years, and play a few more parts, but this is it--the most and best I can give you."

And to all a good night, as I, still needing to catch up with a few new releases to create a definitive Top 10 list for my 100th post, take a bit of a hiatus.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Lumps of coal

Not everything under the cinematic tree this Christmas season is worth opening. In the run-up to my 100th entry, which I plan on being a Top 10 list for 2006, I have two posts to make, one naughty (today's) and one nice (tomorrow's). I'd give these a miss when planning holiday viewing.

Apocalypto (Touchstone). This one's already keeling over at the b.o., and doesn't need me to push it over the cliff, like so many warriors in the film. Shrug...not as violent as one might have feared (or wished) but one-note in its relentless, reductive, dog-eat-dog brutalism. I learned next-to-nothing about Mayan culture, though I guess how much there is to know is a question. Way overlong, too, particularly in the second half, in which every wilderness survival cliche is trotted out (quicksand, snakes, waterfalls, etc., except, of course, avalanches). The physical production is nicely realized but after all the tumult this is a ponderous non-experience, if maybe the strangest film ever released by a Disney unit. Reviewers who underrated or maybe undervalued Mel Gibson's more bracing Christ story seemed to go overboard on this one, perhaps embarrassed that they didn't "get" Passion like audiences did; with theaters empty of patrons for Apocalypto in its second week, I wonder if reviewer's remorse has set in? One of those movies that's more interesting to read about than actually sit through, all 2:20 minutes of it.

Curse of the Golden Flower ( Sony Pictures Classics). I attended the gala premiere of this film at New York's Lincoln Center late last month, with director Zhang Yimou and co-star Gong Li (absolutely, spectacularly beautiful in a floral print outfit) in attendance. Fans of Hero and House of Flying Daggers won't be keenly disappointed, but the film, which is comically perverse at times and underdeveloped except for the visuals, is unlikely to win any new converts. It's over-everything on the production side: over-the-top, overdesigned, overscaled, overstuffed, an attempt to dethrone Kurosawa's Throne of Blood, capped off by a Lord of the Rings-style battle sequence, that, in its heavy underlining of the futility and impotence of power, recalls Brian De Palma's Scarface besides. It's stunning to look at--reference-quality DVD material somewhere down the line, but you'd best see, if so inclined, on a big screen with a quality sound system. (The cinematography was able to cope with the rich colors Zhang puts up there, unlike in Daggers, a flat-looking film. A good thing, too, as a good chunk of the film takes place in an ornate room with corridors that have the color and texture of multiflavored Lifesavers.)

The emotions, however, are remote. The elaborately brocaded and coiffed Gong, returned to Zhang's fold after a decade away, and Chow Yun-Fat, in his first screen role in three years, are a scheming empress and emperor whose one-upsmanship games with their family members and with each other erupt into multi-army violence staged like Olympics ceremonies (which, as it happens, are on Zhang's directorial docket, for the Beijing Games). Chow, typically, effortlessly magnetic, looks depressed and miserable with all the corseting, which you would be, too, if required to stomp around in battle armor that makes you look like a fat golden lobster. The story strands come together in brazenly, almost silly, operatic fashion--the audience chuckled at the hysterics, particularly when the sons of their characters, the eldest very badly played, go crazy with bloodlust--but with limited dramatic effect, given the undercooked dimensionality of the characters. I felt more for the thousands of chrysanthemums planted on the grounds of the mountainside castle, which are trampled to death by the marauding armies.

I think Zhang really nailed this type of picture with Hero and has nothing else to convey in this vein. What's new, in pro forma genre filmmaking style, is the weaponry (flying scythes instead of daggers), the rope-drawn assassins, the battle atop the pretty flowers; the human touch is distinctly absent. But somewhere in the cosmos Louis B. Mayer is smiling; the MGM aesthetic has gone East in a big way.

The Good Shepherd (Universal). A film unlikely to find much of a flock to tend. As a director, Robert De Niro's first picture was the modestly appealing A Bronx Tale; here he and the screenwriter, Eric Roth, chew on the early history of the Central Intelligence Agency, with indigestible results. Roth dabs fictionalized episodes from the case files into a portrait of a fact-inspired spymaster, played by a barely simmering Matt Damon, who seemed to shake himself up in The Departed. The cloaks-and-daggers he encounters on his way to a personal comeuppance at the Bay of Pigs, told in barely comprehensible and unexciting flashbacks that fail to hang together, are played by trench-coated all-stars like Alec Baldwin, Billy Crudup, Michael Gambon, and a barely mobile De Niro himself. The left-behind love interest, a deaf woman, is played by Tammy Blanchard--so what of Angelina Jolie? She has the "I have Nick the pig for a friend" role (a la Michelle Pfeiffer in Scarface), the wronged and betrayed wife (shades of Jennifer Aniston) who pouts and frets as her husband fights the Cold War from behind a desk and inserts ships-in-a-bottle the rest of the time. (Her character is nicknamed Clover, but the aloof Damon, who married her only to get her out of "trouble," sure isn't rolling in it.) The wary fascination with period technology is the stock-in-trade of co-producer Francis Ford Coppola; the freeze-dried marriage, Scorsese's Casino, which had flamboyance and not the lugubrious, high-church style lighting here (by Robert Richardson) to offset its nullity. Unwilling to engage the subject politically, save for a pro-and anti-Americanism that glibly alternates, De Niro settles for a muted hysteria about how the collapsing WASP hierarchy of the period took no prisoners, and ends with preposterous contrivances. At first dull, then excruciatingly dull, The Good Shepherd is an end-of-the-year disaster, and the most useless three hours since the same distributor foisted Meet Joe Black on us in 1998.

Perfume: The Story of a Murderer (DreamWorks/Paramount). I'm tempted to write "it reeks" and move on. The producer, Bernd Eichinger, specializes in inert, middlebrow, Hollywood-ish adaptations of literary bestsellers like The Name of the Rose and Smilla's Sense of Snow. Usually successful in Europe, they tend to tank here, and for once we Yanks can pride ourselves on our taste and discretion. Perfume, another English-language co-production from his mill, is a little more flavorful; the German director, Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run) has a bit more flair, in a perverse story of a mute, trod-upon 18th century Frenchman (Brit Ben Whishaw) who plans to avenge himself on an uncaring world by releasing the perfect, enslaving scent. As the key ingredient is carried on the skin of young virgin women, who must be killed for it to be properly extracted, there is some trouble. We have, again, The Good Shepherd problem of an uncommunicative and unsympathetic protagonist placed at the center of a story for well over two hours; at the margins, however, are the reliable Alan Rickman and a comic Dustin Hoffman, as a famed Italian perfumer who actually cries "Mamma mia!" and "Basta!" It climaxes with a very tastefully arranged orgy that has been carefully shot and edited to minimize naked abandon, precisely the opposite effect of what is intended in the story--that, in a nutshell, is the Eichinger touch. And the squarely composed images stink of production gloss, rather than beauty. If only scratch-and-sniff cards worked better to give the stagnant Perfume a more intoxicating air as it unspools.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Requiem (maybe) for a heavyweight

Stop the presses: Rocky is back. Sixteen years after he was allegedly pensioned off for good, the Italian Stallion, Sylvester Stallone, is leading the nicer of his two franchise characters back into theaters on Wednesday (MGM). Is there any reason you should see Rocky Balboa? Well, no. But maybe, yes, if you're looking for an unpretentious and unassuming holiday entertainment that's as cozy as a visit from an aging relative you haven't seen much since 1990.

Am I a Rocky fan? Let's put it this way: When, in the summer of 1977, as the first, Oscar-winning film was continuing to find audiences long after its release, and my 12-year-old self had to choose between seeing it and the killer whale picture Orca, I chose the sadistic Shamu over the soft-hearted slugger. I didn't see the first Rocky until I had seen Rocky II (1979) and Rocky III (1982), not in theaters, mind you, but on cable. (Orca never got a sequel.) When I did, I liked it, immediately; what had gotten a little shopworn after the two matches I had seen seemed fresh, like a Scorsese fairy tale. My pleasure was not to last, however: When Stallone, fresh from the success of the Rambo pictures, reconditioned Rocky as a cartoonish Cold War avenger for 1985's Rocky IV, I was ticked off. Campy today, IV was, at the time, one of the more offensive artifacts of the Ronald Ray-gun era, up (or down) there with the clumsily "arty" White Nights and the awful Iron Eagle. (Rambo: First Blood Part II gets a pass from this corner; the politics are objectionable but it's cleanly, elegantly machine-tooled and effectively brisk and exciting, a model of 80's-style action pictures.) The movie was a huge hit, the biggest of the Rockys; the opportunistic gains, however, were short-lived, as were those the era's junk bonds. By the time the embarrassingly titled Rocky V came around, the Berlin Wall had fallen, making for an (allegedly) kinder and gentler nation, and no one cared about Rocky or Rambo or Stallone anymore.

So now we have Rocky Balboa, a movie no one asked for, a movie only an on-the-ropes actor like Stallone would even consider making. Most performers would probably consider playing the underdog at this point in their lives and careers shameful. But they're not Stallone. And Rocky Balboa turns out to be a likable if, at this point, superfluous reprise, which the writer-director-star keeps simple and unfussy. It's a second attempt to return the character to his Philly roots after the forgotten fifth installment, and a better film (which I saw in a near-empty theater in Hong Kong); only Rocky purists will complain that Stallone has shamelessly rewritten the character's medical history to get him back into the ring one (or, one?) more time.

Balboa finds him mourning the death of his beloved Adrian to "woman cancer" and distanced from his white-collar son, Robert (played by the small and wiry Heroes castmember Milo Ventimiglia, an interesting physical contrast to Stallone and very well-cast; the movie needed more of him). He runs Adrian's Restaurant and relives the glory days for his customers; Paulie (Burt Young), cranky as ever, sulks. For a lot of the film (maybe too much) Rocky is a palooka Dr. Phil, dispensing nuggets of street wisdom advice to the supporting characters, the most central of whom is barkeep and single mom Marie (Geraldine Hughes), who knew the champ when she was a kid and serves as a kind of Adrian surrogate. (Rest assured that in this PG film--I counted maybe two raw words--Adrian is not displaced in Rocky's affections, though by the end Hughes, again quite good in an Emily Watson sort of way, sports a sexier haircut and a more take-charge attitude.)

Of course, this being a Rocky picture, there must be an opponent, and in this corner we have heavyweight champ Mason "The Line" Dixon (played by light heavyweight champ Antonio Tarver), a kind of gangsta boxer so egotistical a cameo-ing Mike Tyson doesn't like him. When a computer game depicting Dixon duking it out with an in-his-prime Balboa becomes a hit, an idea is hatched to pit the new champ with the old one, in a well-publicized exhibition match. Rocky agrees, but no one expects for him to do anything except put his thickened brawn through the motions--everyone, that is, except Rocky, who if you hadn't heard after five films is as much heart as muscle and brings both to the ring for the final, 25-minute bout, after, of course, a training sequence and a run up the museum steps, dog and Bill Conti in tow. Fans of these final fights will be relieved that Stallone has put the 80's-relic MTV editing to bed; the match is instead intercut with brief B/W flashbacks from former glories (with color flashes) as Rocky goes down for the count, which may or may not be a satisfying alternative. (I would have preferred a straight bout, no fancy stuff, but it's not too distracting.)

Not, then, a bad way to spend 102 minutes this Yuletide. It would have helped if Dixon had been better defined and a more memorable adversary--he's no Mr. T--and that there was more heft to the father-son relationship, which should be the center of the picture but winds up a peripheral. It seems to wind down abruptly, too. Still: Stallone hasn't screwed up, and the movie has been crisply shot on Philly's gentrifying mean streets by Clark Mathis. You can imagine everyone on location calling Stallone "Rocky," so easily does he step back into character after his hiatus. Let's put it this way: Rocky Balboa won't make any Top 10 lists, but it won't make any Bottom 10 lists, either, which for its star, punchdrunk from so many flops, is an accomplishment. Just, please, no more Cobra pictures.

Even if you'd never be caught dead at a Rocky picture, you'll probably get a kick out of Stallone's relaxed, funny, and unguarded running commentary about his hits and misses, over at
Ain't It Cool News. Good stuff.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Spring awakens

Get horizontal as the sexational alt-rock smash Spring Awakening (pictured) hits the big time, plus a last spin round the turntable for the already-closed High Fidelity and an axe to The Apple Tree. It's all from the Live Design website, in my last look at the year on Broadway.

Photo: Joan Marcus

Friday, December 15, 2006

The Winter Cineaste, online and on sale

The new issue, and an improved look for our website, have arrived. Miranda Priestly wants you to check them both out...and whatever the Devil wants, the Devil gets. Pay particular attention, ahem, to the new Staff DVD Recommendations column, on page 73, and the Montreal World Film Festival roundup, on page 84.

A fine article by Susan L. Carruthers looks at films on Operation Iraqi Freedom, including a bit about the first feature to examine the conflict, Home of the Brave, which MGM opened today. The director, Irwin Winkler, has produced Rocky and Goodfellas, but battle-tested cineastes know that the possessory credit "A Film by Irwin Winkler" spells big trouble. 1992's remake of Night and the City had a fairly flavorful Richard Price script backing it but his other movies at the helm have been pretty disastrous, including the stickily sentimental Life as a House and De-Lovely, a movie musical so awful it made the immediate mothballing of the genre look like a sane and reasonable proposition. The stench of those failures hangs over reviews of the new film, but, really, it's not that bad, and Mark Friedman's script has some incisive moments to spice up Winkler's bland, small-screen style skills. As the war goes on with neither end nor victory in sight Home of the Brave is not a homecoming film in the tradiion of The Best Years of Our Lives but rather a requiem for those who have served and, uncomfortably, returned, in this case to Spokane, WA, an off-the-beaten-path location effectively captured.

Out of bad-ass entertainer mode Samuel L. Jackson gives a fine, subdued performance as a nightmare-haunted Army medic, traumatized by a massacre on the last day of his service, whose son (Sam Jones III) questions the war. The best and most touching performance is, surprisingly, given by Jessica Biel; a stunning objet d'art in The Illusionist, Biel is grittily convincing as a soldier who lost a hand in that same battle and finds her herself forced to adjust to more than a prosthetic limb at home. A more standard characterization is provided by Brian Presley, who feels lost and purposeless stateside without either his deceased best friend or a cause. I didn't know what to make of Curtis "50 Cent" Jackson, as a former soldier who spirals downwards into a life of crime; he commands attention but his gangsta patois is so thick I made out maybe 40% of his dialogue. And he figures in the silliest scene, a fast-food robbery that goes tragically wrong. (You know what happened--the film crew asked if Spokane could spare some cops and every single one showed up, to be a part of the movie. Not feeling inclined to say no, perhaps, the filmmakers had no choice but to fit them all in, and the sequence comes across as grossly overscaled.) But Home of the Brave is watchable--like Philadelphia, it may not be the best film to come out of its subject, but there is some honor in being first and not falling completely flat.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

German lessons

Steven Soderbergh and George Clooney have Ocean's 13 coming out next summer. Tobey Maguire suits up as Spider-Man for the third time in May. And freshly minted Golden Globe nominee Cate Blanchett has the riveting Notes on a Scandal due in just two weeks. Which is to say that The Good German will pass quickly from all their resumes. A World War II novel filmed as a Turner Classic Movie, in black-and-white, with a squarish, pre-Cinemascope 1.66:1 aspect ratio ("windowboxed" in a standard 1.85:1 frame) and a Thomas Newman score that grabs you by the earlobes and insists it's by Miklos Rozsa in his prime, The Good German is little more than a series of drab pictorial effects.

Soderbergh directs a complex tale of Berlin-set intrigue, set in the shadow of the Postdam Conference that divvied up the remains of Europe for the next, cold war, with a bad case of movie love. Philip Messina's rubble-strewn production design, not a concrete fragment out of place and seamlessly blended with documentary footage, conjures the real Germany, as filmed by Roberto Rossellini for Germany Year Zero and Billy Wilder for A Foreign Affair. For audiences to more eaily access from their movie memory banks, this is filtered through the Europe of The Third Man and Casablanca, with a nod to the noir of Chinatown, as the glamorously despondent Clooney and Blanchett run through a torturously detailed game of espionage. He is Jake Geismer, a war correspondent for The New Republic; she is Lena, his old flame, reduced to prostitution and trailing secrets as she plots to flee the city. Between them is Jake's assigned driver, Tully (Maguire), a baby-faced war profiteer who cheerfully pimps his girlfriend--Lena. [You know Tully, played at too high a pitch by the actor, is a no-goodnik because he has sex from behind with his partner, a sure cinematic sign that a male character has intimacy issues and is not to be trusted.]

This triangle is forcefully resolved but a new one, involving Lena's late husband, a Nazi rocket program scientist, emerges to take its place. Paul Attanasio's screenplay, from Joseph Kanon's 2001 novel, is so determined not to get muddled that it basically stands in place. It seems a full hour of the sluggishly paced, arrythmically edited drama is spent on Clooney gathering one bit of information from a supporting character, then relaying it to the next with a recap of his past conversations, like a game of Telephone you'd hang up on after the third caller. Occasionally a chair gets broken over his head. But genuine excitement, visceral or moral as Lena's motivations creep out of the darkness, is at a bare minimum. There are none of the chills of Ian McEwan's The Innocent, set later in Berlin's history, the thrills of Paul Verhoeven's nervily exciting Dutch resistance drama, Black Book, due next year, or the bitter, playful ironies of Lars von Trier's masterful Zentropa.

What there are, in abundance, are surfaces, but even these lack sufficient polish. Acting as usual as his own cinematographer, Soderbergh (as Peter Andrews) seems out of his depth; the whites are blown out and smeary, the blacks too often meagerly defined, like a public domain print of a golden oldie. His editing, under another pseudonym, is similarly ragged. The reactive nature of his part doesn't allow Clooney to seize the mantle of Clark Gable; he's more like Robert Taylor, marking time in yet another MGM assignment where the girl gets all the good stuff. And she does; trouble is, she's supporting player Robin Weigert (Deadwood's Calamity Jane), as a blowsy hooker who steals a few scenes and wrings all three laughs from the screenplay. Weigert proves that blondes do have more fun, certainly more than Blanchett. The actress, who won an Oscar playing Katharine Hepburn in The Aviator, tries out her Ingrid Bergman and Marlene Dietrich. But her woman of mystery is rotoscoped into Soderbergh's hollow construction. It's as if the film clips were removed from the spoof Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid and the actors were stuck recreating all the parts themselves, ending with the unintended comedy of a Casablanca restaging.

The Good German, which Warner Bros. opens Dec. 15, means to be franker and grittier than its predecessors, and to empty them of their traditional, sacrifice-and-uplift values. But the Warner brothers of yesteryear stand firm against this needless, useless assault.

The Company He Keeps

Raul Esparza, in good company at the revival of the Stephen Sondheim classic, now at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre on Broadway.

Photo: Paul Kolnik

Saturday, December 09, 2006

A Christmas Gory

Tonight is my turn to host the screening for Nous Allons au Cinema, which I've been part of for eight years. Amazingly, the seven-cineaste-strong group has been convening since fall 1989. The first films I showed were two shot by future director Nicolas Roeg, Fahrenheit 451 and The Masque of the Red Death; Onibaba, Burn!, The Vikings, Zabriskie Point, Ulzana's Raid, the original Gojira, and Shaun of the Dead (a group favorite) were my other selections. We kicked off the year at our place, with a Chinese New Year's-themed showing of the Hong Kong film Rouge, in a handsome new edition; as we managed to come full circle in a year, a feat rarely achieved given schedules and vacations, I decided to end on the same festive note that we began, with a holiday party and a Christmas movie. But not just any Christmas movie.

Here's the abridged text of the e-mail I dispatched via Polar Express to John, Liz, Rosemary, Roger, Sara, and Sydney (Michael and Otto will be joining us, too, along with Lora, who's on KP duty and will probably avert her eyes during the scary parts):

"The best seasonal film of all time. I wish I had kids. I'd make them watch it every year and if they didn't like it, they'd be punished."--John Waters on our holiday Nous Allons attraction...


THE FILM: I wasn't going to do a holiday theme. But as we discussed this is the first time I can remember since my membership began in 1998 that we completed a cycle within a year, which is cause enough for celebration. And as I got us started with a different holiday theme in January I decided to bring us full circle. Call me sentimental.

Our cinematic offering, however, is anything but, though I trust it will put a slightly warped smile on your face as we wade into the seasonal slog. I wasn't planning to show a holiday-themed film but when I found out that a brand-new DVD of YOU BETTER WATCH OUT was due I decided to pounce. Based on Waters' endorsement (in his CRACKPOT book) I sought out a tape of the film in he mid-80s; by that time its writer-director, Lewis Jackson, had lost the rights to his one and thus far only movie and it was called CHRISTMAS EVIL, a punning title that misrepresents its contents. Made at the height of the HALLOWEEN/FRIDAY THE 13TH horror boom YOU BETTER WATCH OUT stands apart from it; the horrific elements are relatively minor as Jackson mines the legend of St. Nick for black comedy. Think TAXI DRIVER in a red suit but that doesn't quite capture this portrait of a bad Santa, either. It's a unique one-shot that Jackson spent a decade trying to produce, unlike the later, fly-by-night, controversial (and bloody awful) SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT, which was yanked from theaters after two weeks when parents groups protested in 1984.

Families never got a chance to picket YOU BETTER WATCH OUT, which received little more than token seasonal distribution at Times Square and inner city "grindhouses." The drunks and hookers in the audience didn't fully appreciate its charms and probably liked SILENT NIGHT's Santa slasher, who mounts a naked girl on sharp deer antlers, better. [Yes, I saw that film in its two-week run in Chicago's Loop; the audience started throwing broken beer bottles around and my friend and I split during the co-feature, Charles Bronson in THE EVIL THAT MEN DO.] YOU BETTER WATCH OUT centers on sad-sack Christmas obsessive Harry Stadling (Brandon Maggart), who has had something of a Santa psychosis since he saw St. Nick kissing Mommy in a rather private area one Christmas Eve. When not supervising the crew at the grim-looking Jolly Dream toy factory, whose union employees hate Christmas (the set was an actual toy factory owned by the family of executive producer Edward Pressman, who probably rates this credit lower than his films with Brian De Palma, Terrence Malick, and Oliver Stone), Harry spies on the neighborhood children, determining who's good and who's bad among them (the mother of the worst among them is played by Patricia Richardson, who went onto HOME IMPROVEMENT and sitcom fame). His younger brother Philip (veteran character actor Jeffrey DeMunn) and sympathetic sister-in-law Jackie (Dianne Hull, in a role JoBeth Williams and Lindsay Crouse tested for; their audition tapes are part of the DVD's special features), fret. When his no-good employers welch on their charitable donations, it's time for Harry to put on his custom-tailored Santa suit, modeled after Thomas Nast's Civil War-era drawings, and determine who's been naughty and who's been nice...permanently.

There are other Christmas-set shockers (BLACK CHRISTMAS, which has been remade; the original was directed by Bob Clark, the future director of A CHRISTMAS STORY) and non-Christmas flicks set on the holiday for irony (GREMLINS, LETHAL WEAPON, DIE HARD). But YOU BETTER WATCH OUT is the one that really exploits Yuletide imagery and lore. A tri-state native like me, Jackson grew up watching the Thanksgiving Day parade, the lighting of the Rockefeller Center tree, and seasonal airings of the delightful Laurel & Hardy feature MARCH OF THE WOODEN SOLDIERS on TV, all of which the film references (along with Geraldo Rivera before he went national). His personal Christmas memorabilia decorates the sets, which were lovingly shot by Ricardo Aronovich, who had worked with Alain Resnais and Jeanne Moreau and would go on to shoot films for Costa Gavras, Ettore Scola, and Raul Ruiz. (Jackson had written him an admiring fan letter; for this rare US credit he brought with him camera operator Affonso Beatto, whose handiwork as cinematographer is on view in THE QUEEN.) The film plays with several images of Santa--his Germanic forebear, Black Peter, who left soot marks on houses so evil spirits could ID bad kids, the Nast version, which popularized Christmas in the US, and the contemporary commercial stooge we're all sick to death of by Dec. 25. But even Santa haters will get a kick out of the film's unexpected ending, not that Jackson necessarily intended for it to end as it does.

The modestly financed film, which went overbudget when the much-admired Aronovich came onboard, ran out of money completely and was seized by the crew for several weeks till they were paid. Jackson was forced to give up his stake in it and endured the puny theatrical release and the recut CHRISTMAS EVIL variant version till this official DVD appeared, a quarter-century later (for some copyright reason the DVD packaging bears the CHRISTMAS EVIL title, while the print has the preferred title). The disc has some nice extras, including the audition tapes, deleted scenes, storyboards, and delightful screening preview cards, which we'll be sure to watch (they run the gamut from "Two hours of my life wasted!" to "Beats Bing Crosby!"). There are also two commentaries, one by Jackson solo (where he talks about shooting the film in subzero weather in the NJ suburbs of Montclair and Glen Ridge in their pre-fashionable era, the visual references to Fritz Lang's M and Douglas Sirk's THERE'S ALWAYS TOMORROW, with Fred MacMurray as a depressed toymaker, and influences like Louis Malle and Jean Cocteau, whom the makers of SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT were unlikely to have had in mind for their film). There's also a second, amusing commentary with Jackson and the film's No. 1 champion, Waters.

I've got on at length about this obscure but apt-for-our-entertainment-and-edification picture. This is probably reading enough. But a few online readings (and listenings) you can check out:

The Internet Movie Database entry is here, at The user rating, based largely on bleary cut prints, can be ignored. You might want to consult the comments and the external reviews but it may be best to come in cold.

Brandon Maggart's website is here, at Much of the film's twisted charm is due to its star, a Tennessee native (born 1933), who received a Tony nomination in 1970 playing the Hugh Marlowe part in the musicalized ALL ABOUT EVE, APPLAUSE, opposite Lauren Bacall. He co-starred in another musical that the dear departed Comden and Green worked on, LORELEI, with Carol Channing and in 1980, the same year YOU BETTER WATCH OUT came out, played Nancy Allen's john in DRESSED TO KILL. Santa has followed him around--he played a Kris Kringle character in a 1995 episode of E.R. and today, at home in Venice, CA, sports a Santa-ish beard. [Playing Santa may be like playing Jesus; you can't really escape from it.] His kids with ex-wife Diane McAfee include singing hellion Fiona Apple. Hear Santa sing! (He nervously hums Christmas carols in our movie.)

Some of Thomas Nast's Santa drawings are here, at Nast, whose pointed political cartoons helped expose and break up New York's infamously corrupt Tweed Ring, is the guy to praise or blame for today's Christmas cheer, but is not responsible for the insistent music on this site. More on Nast's interesting life and times is here, at [I read a fascinating biography about Boss Tweed over the summer.]

And a word from John Waters, courtesy of NPR. Two audio selections here. The main one, from 2004, is about his annual Christmas party in Baltimore (how do we get invited?), tied in with his Christmas album of shunned songs (which I'll play for you) and another, from 2003, is a reading from CRACKPOT about his manic holiday spirit. They're linked here (the 2003 one at the bottom of the page):

Come on over and see the movie Waters calls "IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE for me!""

There'll be lasagna and Christmas cookies. Eggnog, too. Wish you were here.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Clearing the decks

For all the peace-and-goodwill in the air and on the airwaves, there's no more intense month than December. There's Christmas, of course, and the hum of seasonal activity; lists to make, cards to send, and presents to buy. For the NY-based culture vulture, there is the flurry of end-of-year plays to see on and off Broadway, and the usual snowstorm of new movies, which like nuts have to hoarded through the winter given the usual January-to-March famine.

This I will all get to in good time, but first I should probably say a few words about those new Hollywood releases that have somehow eluded this blog. There's not a lot to say, given the volumes of ink already spilled, but I'll say what I need to and we'll move on with the fresh slate due soon.

First, I doubt I was the first person to comment on how Casino Royale, the first Bond picture I've liked with few reservations since 1989's Licence to Kill, is given thrilling new life by an actor who looks a little like Kirk Douglas (that top-heavy, blond boxer's build). Or who has the cool of Steve McQueen. And how this combination breathes new life into an old tuxedo. But, somehow, after I posted these thoughts on the Mobius Home Video Forum, I seemed to come across them everywhere. Did I generate the wave, or was I merely surfing it? My ego aside, I'm pleased to report that thanks to Daniel Craig (and, I think, to editor Stuart Baird, for contributing a different rhythm to a series largely composed of old hands) I can proudly continue my Bond-age, begun at age eight with a double bill of Diamonds Are Forever and Live and Let Die but fairly moribund through the Brosnan era, into my forties.

Borat is basically an inverted remake of 1986's Crocodile Dundee. In the Reagan era, when Republican rule had the patina of optimism, everyone cheered the guy from down under who came up from the antipodes to get the girl and bid the new-morning America a cheery g'day. The knife of satire that Borat flashes, as fierce a tool as the one Dundee clutched, slashes away at the empty, broken, or unfulfilled promises of the Bush era and holds a mirror to the wreckage as our hero pursues his own dream girl. And, based on the boxoffice, we love both our foreign visitors.

Where serious pictures are concerned, I'd take The Queen over Babel any day of the year. The former is infused with a certain wry humor, and is to the point; the latter is sprawling and humorless, except when the comedy is unintentional, and much of it (particularly the quasi-pornographic Japanese segment) struck me as deeply distasteful. Paging Borat.

Finally, how nice it was to experience The Fountain with an audience of true believers. As eccentrically un-studio and richly produced as it is, with its imaginative pictorial effects, the film isn't fully satisfying as a cult object; we've been down the road that the film takes us on, if not in a space bubble. [The transformation-into-tree bit was handled without the sci-fi trappings at the close of the classic Edge of Darkness BBC miniseries (1985), directed by Martin Campbell, who, to bring us full circle, is at the helm of Casino Royale.] What's beneath the finery, and not the finery itself, is what gives a film like this true and lasting distinction. But my fellow viewers, who were there despite the dismissive reviews, who were there because they wanted to be there before the film shuffled off to DVD prep, were completely attentive to its particular vision, without a cellphone in sight or in sound. And that is always good to see.

On Bergman Island

Fate artfully arranged to have Robert Altman's final film, A Prairie Home Companion, to be a wrestling match with death. With equal artistry, Ingmar Bergman, age 88, has arranged an Altman-esque "long goodbye" for his passing--almost a quarter-century long, as it happens. He retired from moviemaking with 1982's Fanny and Alexander (the only one of his theatrical features I saw first-run, in a theater) but the screenplays and teleplays have continued to emerge, 2003's made-for-television Saraband under his direction. According to his his Internet Movie Database entry he also makes documentary appearances, checking in with his fellow Swedes like a distant but admired uncle. In 2004 filmmaker Marie Nyrerod made three hour-long films with him, which were broadcast on Swedish TV; these have been distilled into the 85-minute Bergman Island (SVT Sales), which New York's Film Forum is showing beginning Dec. 6, along with a quite different co-feature.

"Bergman Island" is the island of Faro, in the Baltic Sea. He came upon it in the late 1950's, when he was looking for a suitably austere setting for Through a Glass Darkly (1960), which went to win the foreign-language Oscar that year. He went on to shoot five more films on Faro, including Persona (1966) and Scenes From a Marriage (1973). The location spoke to him, artistically, but also emotionally; he has lived there, in relative isolation, for many years. Faro is so bound up in the tortured psychodynamics of the films it's hard to get a sense of it as a purely physical place, but here, in what he says will be his last film appearance, Bergman draws back the curtain for Nyrerod's camera to explore. It is quite striking, and not as stark as you might think; the rich blue ocean water laps gently at its shores, and Bergman's compound, which includes a swimming pool and a cinema, has a homespun, hewn-by-hand air. Bergman, who looks in ruddy good health (he seems aged in wood, perhaps a native constitution), enjoys playing tour guide, interspersed with comments on his films, his despondency following the death of his fifth wife, Ingrid von Rosen, in 1995, and his personal demons--mitigated, he says, by the wellspring of his creativity, which resulted in more than 50 features, many without peer, over the last 60 years. [He is pictured with a camera his parents bought him at age 10.]

A summer ago I took a look at the personal artifacts of Marlon Brando before they were auctioned in New York. I was fascinated to see that on his DVD shelves was a copy of Batman and Robin; I mean, it's on mine, too (I have no shame), but what did Brando see in it--was he a Batman fan? Did he covet the role of Mr. Freeze? Whenever I get a walkthrough of this type on film I always look for the odd, personal touches, the ones that can't be explained by a biography or resume as we know them. At one point Bergman is seated in front of a shelf of videos, but alas I couldn't make out the titles. I was, however, delighted to see that the director has a proper place for his Oscars; nothing ostentatious, but a more fitting display than the bathroom, which is where so many winners claim, with offhand disdain, to keep them. And, relating the circumstances of his tax exile, he mentions a Hollywood pool party that Barbra Streisand invited him to. Inner torment, anxiety, depression; I expected Bergman to address these subjects. But Streisand was unexpected. Too clear-eyed and ever-so-slightly-bemused to be a dirge, Bergman Island ends (or, maybe, "ends") its subject's life and career on a grace note of anticlimax; the rest is just obituary, and we will have the work itself to console us one day.

Bergman Island is preceded by Guy Maddin's delightful short film, My Dad is 100 Years Old (Zeitgeist Films), Isabella Rossellini's little tribute to her father, Roberto (1906-1977). The "father of neorealism" (a title he shrugged at) would probably have groaned at the fanciful form of this commemorative, in which his daughter plays all the parts, including David Selznick and Alfred Hitchcock, and he is portrayed as a giant belly, monitoring an average day's activities from his bed and bath. It is full of mad Maddin touches, like a pair of wolfen eyes to suggest the presence of Anna Magnani, who the director spurned when he took up with his daughter's mother, Ingrid Bergman. Rossellini fell out with Fellini when the latter turned toward fantasy in his work; what he would have made of Maddin is anyone's guess. But the film buffery is respectful, even if the scholarship is far from the norm of the usual talking heads approach. And I'm sure he would have had at least one indulgent, paternal smile for his daughter's head-nor-tails approach to his legacy.

An Hour on Broadway

A debuting-on-Broadway Julianne Moore and an untentacled Bill Nighy are together getting vertical in David Hare's new play, which is now playing at the Music Box Theatre.

Photo: Paul Kolnik