Thursday, June 28, 2007

The Melville touch

French director Jean-Pierre Melville has been very, very good to Rialto Pictures, which has refurbised and re-released several of his pictures, and New York's Film Forum, which has exhibited them to great acclaim and SRO business. The last, Army of Shadows, topped numerous Top 10 lists, including my own. 1962's Le Doulos, which opens tomorrow, is a classic, black-and-white noir, highlighted by an eight-minute interrogation sequence shot in a single panning take in a glassed-in room--but something of a disappointment, if you compare it with the elegantly abstracted films that followed, like Le Samourai and Le Cercle Rouge. There, plot is subordinate to mood, sometimes a little too offhandedly so as the inscrutable gangsters-and-cops machinations unfold. In contrast, Le Doulos is all plot; so much so, the film has to double back to voiceover-heavy flashbacks to explain it all. Fortunately, that ending is not the ending, as the picture goes on for a few more beats, with a double-twist climax and an impeccably conceived final shot involving a hat. Haberdashery meant the world to Melville, and if there is a better-attired character than Jean-Paul Belmondo's possible doulos ("stoolpigeon") in a picture of this type than it was probably in another Melville film.

Afro-Punk Apes

The cinema side of the Brooklyn Academy of Music's Afro-Punk Festival kicks off tomorrow with a novel choice, 1972's Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, the fourth in the popular Apes series. I first saw it on a "Go Apes!" double feature with the fifth and final entry, Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973). Even as an eight-year-old, I realized that there something deep and disturbing going on beneath Conquest's surface. The Apes films had an interestingly circular structure, the original and Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970) heading inexorably toward a world-ending scenario, with Escape From the Planet of the Apes (1971) cleverly writing itself out of this fail-safe trap by returning lead apes Cornelius (Roddy McDowall) and Zira (Kim Hunter, both terrific under John Chambers' famous makeup) to our own world. That film ends with their deaths--the Apes films were fascinatingly grim for family-sold entertainment. Their son, Caesar (McDowall again), is the focus of Conquest, which is set in a chilly urban environment of the near-future, where docile apes have replaced now-extinct cats and dogs as pets and helpmates for humans.

Caesar, who can talk and reason, but under the tutelage of his human protector Armando (Ricardo Montalban) forces himself to remain silent and obedient, is appalled by the slave-like state of his fellows. In the prior Apes films, the apes were apes, with homo sapiens tendencies and mannerisms. But in Conquest, they are clearly identified with a roiling urban underclass, as the Black Panthers and other protest groups took their campaigns against injustice to the streets. There is very little monkey business in the film, one of the more pensive directed by the declining J. Lee Thompson (The Guns of Navarone and the original Cape Fear); Caesar, who is revealed as the son of the talking apes who were thought to threaten the human status quo in the last film, is tortured by the white fascist overlords. Gaining the upper hand, and leading the other apes in armed revolt, he considers, but refuses to heed, the calm-and-reasoning advice of a black character, a government aide (Hari Rhodes) who is cautiously sympathetic to his cause. The ending is chilling: As the city burns, Caesar, forcefully voiced by McDowall, announces that Earth is now the "planet of the apes." You could hear a pin drop in the theater at that one.

Battle, alas, doesn't follow through on its class and race struggle themes, and is more of a safe kids' film, a retreat from this unexpected rush toward a sociopolitical abyss. Ape-d out, I never watched the short-lived TV show. The less said about Tim Burton's hapless, thoughtless 2001 updating, the better. I'm sure the organizers of the Afro-Punk Festival regard Conquest as camp. But I suspect Caesar will have the last laugh as the film reaches its apocalyptic end.

Logical deduction

From the New York Times' Corrections column this morning:

"Because of a transmission error, a film review yesterday about Live Free or Die Hard misstated the critic's description of the plot. It should have been described as 'logic-defying,' not 'logic-defined.'"

Sweet memories

Released 50 years ago June 27. They don't write 'em like they used to.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Assessing Aldrich

I was recently asked to name my favorite film from the last four decades. Ulzana's Raid, Robert Aldrich's should-be-classic Western from 1972, wasn't it. But it was close, from a short list that included Burn! (1969) and Night Moves (1975), and more obvious choices, like Jaws (1975) and Chinatown (1974). (Look for the winner to revealed in fall). "Overlooked Aldrich", a six-film series that begins this Thursday at Brooklyn's BAMcinematek, may help put Ulzana's Raid on more Ten Best lists, or at least reveal a gem hidden for 35 years.

By my reckoning there are three gems in this series, one ringer, and one zircon. You always take the good with the not-so-good, or wrongheaded, with Aldrich, who I have written about before. The maverick filmmaker, whose big hits The Dirty Dozen (1967), The Longest Yard (1974), and What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962), and influential nightmare noir Kiss Me Deadly (1955), have certainly been looked over, fearlessly tackled controversial themes, but often with a sledgehammer or a blowtorch, where a less blunt instrument would have sufficed. He was wedded to obvious or miscast supporting players, like Ernest Borgnine and the new Ernest Borgnine, Burt Young, and the trite composer Frank De Vol, or just "De Vol"--his score for Ulzana's Raid lets the picture down, and should be erased (disdeVoled?) and replaced should it be reissued on DVD, as with the restored version of Sam Peckipah's Major Dundee. But his best films fascinate, and resonate; Aldrich (1918-1983) grabbed American cinema by the scruff of its neck and forced it, kicking and screaming, into more candid portraits of violence, sexuality, and the national underbelly.

The women's wrestling picture, ...All the Marbles (1981), his last credit, wasn't intended to break ground, and unless it's improved drastically since I last tried to watch it the picture (featuring Vicki Frederick, who had graduated from my dad's Wall Street secretarial pool) can remain overlooked. Better choices might have been one of his two lesser-known films from 1956, the galvanizing war film Attack (some enterprising theater company should considering reviving its source, Norman Brooks' 1954 Broadway play Fragile Fox), and his most sensitive picture, Autumn Leaves, which has a deeply etched portrait of middle-age loneliness from Joan Crawford (it gets a rare showing on Turner Classic Movies on August 3).

Despite a semi-embarrassing script from chest-thumping Oscar winner Steve Shagan (Save The Tiger), I've always liked 1975's Hustle, with Burt Reynolds as an LA cop outraged by Seventies vice and corruption and Catherine Deneuve as his high-class prostitute girlfriend, who would prefer he live and love less fatalistically. Reynolds and Deneuve are cool enough to make their odd casting click but the real heat is supplied by the their co-stars. Eddie Albert, who plays a cringing coward in Attack, contributes a memorably sleazy turn as a lawyer pimp who revels in drugs and teen hookers; the squeakily clean Green Acres star obviously relished getting his freak on with Robert Aldrich. And Ben Johnson and Eileen Brennan are touchingly hardboiled as a married couple gone terribly sour, in a neo-noir enthusiastically, if as usual not altogether tactfully, directed by one of the outstanding veterans of the form.

1961's The Last Sunset was new to me when I caught up with it recently on TCM. Kirk Douglas and Rock Hudson are fairly restrained as adversaries in a convicts-and-cattle drive oater that late in the story brings incest to the surface, as Douglas unwittingly romances the daughter he never knew he had, played by Carol Lynley. Written by Dalton Trumbo, the film spins off in several directions and is never fully satisfactory, but it does indeed fit the bill as overlooked.

Three of Aldrich's four collaborations with Burt Lancaster round out the programming. The first, Apache, can be readily seen on TCM; the second, Vera Cruz (both released in 1954) was a big hit and hardly overlooked, an entertaining good cowboy-bad cowboy pairing for Gary Cooper and Lancaster that builds to a forceful ending. Its mix of established and rising stars in a buddy-type format has been a Hollywood staple ever since.

Lancaster, who was simpatico with the muckraking side of Aldrich's temperament, stars in the two best films in the series. 1977's Twilight's Last Gleaming, Aldrich's last rousing picture, is a taut nuclear thriller with Lancaster as an unbalanced general who seizes a missile silo to force the current occupant of the White House (Charles Durning, more sympathetic than presidential yet appealingly rumpled and human-scaled) to reveal the former administration's misdeeds in Vietnam. Besides an exciting, 24-like unfolding of the central action, via split screens and the like, the movie has an ahead-of-its-time critique of topical policy matters that is more-than-applicable to our current quagmire.

And then there is Ulzana's Raid, the last film to be screened, with Aldrich's daughter Adell in attendance. Its Vietnam parallels are thankfully unstressed, as the film excavates a true-life flashpoint in US/Native American relations, where the calvary sought to rout the bandit leader Ulzana from the warpath and bring him and his followers back to the reservation. Alan Sharp, who later wrote Arthur Penn's excellent Night Moves, contributes a terse, fast-paced, but never overheated script, which is superbly played by Bruce Davison, as a lieutenant entrusted with the ill-starred sortie, and Lancaster simply magnificent as a grizzled army scout. Aldrich said he was dissatisfied with the way the film, turned around quite quickly, came out, but it really gripped my movie-watching group when I showed it in 2001 and it has the stamp of authenticity to it. No longer should it be overlooked.

Conchords take off

I'm a little weary of HBO's run of showbiz comedies, but the Kiwi-accented Flight of the Conchords, which airs following channel retainer Entourage, is distinctive enough to earn a recommendation after two episodes. The "folk comedy" duo Flight of the Conchords are New Zealanders Jemaine Clement and Bret McKenzie, who, with no following whatsoever Stateside, are in New York hoping to make it big, if they can just summon the required wherewithal and motivation. The comedy is deadpan, Jim Jarmusch-meets-Extras noodling, not entirely fresh but put over well enough by the likably geeky pair. Where the show sings is in their dead-on song parodies; a fake video for a Styx-ian robots-themed number was the highlight of the first episode, followed by McKenzie's raucous rap love theme addressed to Tony-winning guest star Sutton Foster in the second. Two other reasons that I added Conchords to our DVR: The New York talent, and the freewheeling use of locations throughout the boroughs. Flight may prove to be the Williamsburg hipster-era equivalent of The Monkees.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

A Tonys Triumph

My friend Rosemary Rotondi sent this over to me from YouTube. Funny stuff. Surely Triumph should host a show "with ratings so low NBC is considering it for a series...Osama Bin Laden is hiding onstage."

Thursday, June 21, 2007


There are any number of productive, constructive things I could have done this past Tuesday. I could have learned a new trade. Volunteered. Written the first page of that novel I've been constructing in my head, the one that will surely win the Pulitzer, the National Book Award, an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay when the popular, critically acclaimed film comes out, and quite possibly a Tony when it is performed as a Broadway musical.

But instead, I killed time, and maybe a few of the brain cells needed for the more important work ahead, at a screening of Black Sheep, a film wherein genetically mutated sheep put the bite on unfortunate New Zealanders.

The first-time writer/director, Jonathan King, has clearly taken the early, disreputable, unsavory (and frequently hilarious) films of future fantasy wunderkind and Kiwi legend, Peter Jackson, to heart, and soul. (Jackson's Weta Workshop provided Black Sheep's old school makeup and model effects, which are fully in keeping with the blood-and-guts-and-laughs aesthetic of his off-the-wall Bad Taste and Dead Alive.) I suspect his fragile young mind was also warped by viewings of 1972's Night of the Lepus, where Stuart Whitman and Janet Leigh are besieged by giant killer rabbits. The more the hopping bunnies are rigged to look scary, with bloody incisors and the like, the funnier they are. Do not miss its next appearance on TCM, which really tests the channel's definition of "classic."

New Zealand's thriving, and docile, sheep population is even more unlikely to be stirred toward movie mayhem. Shaking things up in the paddocks is genetic engineering by animal sadomasochist Oliver Oldfield (Matt Chamberlain), who wants to create his own brand of sheep. Oliver's younger, therapy-wracked brother Henry (Nathan Meister) simply wants out of the trade after many years away from the family farm. But his visit coincides with a bungled attempt at animal rescue by ecological do-gooders, who succeed only in liberating a bad-tempered fetal beastie from its storage tube. The puppety creature sinks its newly carnivorous teeth into the more obnoxious of the greens, then one of its own normal brethren. This gives rise to a bucolic countryside swiftly filling with man-eating sheep, and man/sheep hybrids that persist in giving long-winded environmental speeches despite the impediments of hoofs and wool.

I laughed, my guilt over what I might be doing subsiding with each new shock comedy bit, usually something involving severed limbs munched on by the newly deranged wool providers, a twist on a familiar horror movie cliche, or the inevitable sheep shagging jokes, which the movie takes a while to get to. There is also the entirely incidental beauty of the setting, shot in ravishing widescreen by Richard Bluck, and a cheerful rubbishing of eco- and psychiatric-speak as Henry and his hippy-dippy "lunatic greenie" girlfriend Experience (Danielle Mason) find love on the run from herds of ravening sheep.

The film runs out of gas sometime before the sheep do, but at 87 minutes, no matter. Horror comedy fans: Ewe will eat up Black Sheep, which IFC First Take and The Weinstein Company release on Friday.

Fierce People, finally

I received a screening invite today to the coming-of-age story Fierce People. But I'd already seen it.

Two years ago.

2005. In real terms, how long has this not-quite-new film from actor/director Griffin Dunne been sitting on the shelf? Since before I was married. Before we moved to Brooklyn. Before I started this blog. Before the younger, cooler kids gravitated to YouTube and MySpace. When Paris Hilton roamed freely about the earth.

Not a long time, maybe. But, a long time.

Why the holdup? As two years is an eternity for a critiquist who sees film after play after DVD, let's refresh my memory with the plot synopsis provided in the e-mail.

"In this coming of age film, set in the 80's, Finn Earl (Anton Yelchin) has an opportunity to visit his anthropologist dad, during the summer, helping with his study and observations of a primitive South American tribe called Yanomano, or 'Fierce People.' After a series of events, caused by his loving, but drug- addicted, mom, Liz Earl (Diane Lane), he ends up spending the summer with Ogden C. Osborne (Donald Sutherland) and his wealthy eccentric family on their sprawling estate in the 'wilds' of New Jersey. The summer turns out to be a life-altering experience for Liz, but even more so for Finn who learns about drugs, sex and the very real threat to his survival. In the end he discovers that the 'Fierce People' of the New Jersey privileged are much more dangerous than ones in South America."

It's coming back to me know. Lane is good. Sutherland is good--but as I recall, he's ill with cancer and is having himself chemically castrated, a funk that Lane's massages help him out of. Something weird like that. Yelchin, who's made a few films since this one went missing, figures in a terrible scene where he is seemingly really castrated by the preppy no-goodniks, one of whom I recall is played by Chris Evans, before he hooked up with The Fantastic Four. A strange, ambiguous, distasteful scene, one I wrote skeptically about to its prior publicist when asked how I liked the show. ("Fix that scene, clarify it, do something with it," I remember writing.)

That's the problem with Fierce People. It's not that it's really bad. But it's not really good, either, and not really good in a squeamish sort of way. I can imagine Dunne fighting with the former distributor, Lionsgate (when that outfit was still Lions Gate), not to touch the film in his preferred cut, the one that had we-get-the-point-already scenes of the native tribespeople walking through the manicured grounds of Sutherland's mansion. Time will tell if he won that battle, if indeed there was a battle, but the film now has a distributor, After Dark Films, that sounds like a skin flick exhibitor. I wonder just how widely it will be seen, or if this is just a token move before the DVD streets.

And, still, when it will be seen. The PR says "September 7, 2007--TBD." To Be Determined. C'mon, now: Let these People free.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Praising Parker Posey

Parker Posey, who has reigned over American independent cinema since the mid-90s, is on her way to becoming the darling of the nascent HDNet Movies channel, with two premieres in as many months. Broken English, a romantic comedy with more than amour on its mind, bows tonight at 9pm EST, with an encore showing at 11pm; Magnolia Pictures is handling the theatrical release beginning this Friday, June 22, with the DVD following next week. (As she is at the center of this tripartite approach to rustling viewership Posey could be said to be the Queen of All Media, if only for a week or so.) Last month's hi-def Posey, Fay Grim, was grim all right, with seasick Dutch-angled camerawork that made it watchable only for the hardiest of Hal Hartley's few remaining hardcore devotees (how he must detest the Tarantinos and Little Miss Sunshines of the world for mucking up the US independent film scene).

But Broken English, the first feature from writer-director Zoe Cassavetes, is a tough-love charmer, with Posey's finest performance to date. Her funny, touching, and faultless portrayal is not to be missed, in the best of the Americans-in-Paris indies I have seen to date (Julie Delpy's amusing cross-cultural clash, 2 Days in Paris, which opens in early April, is runner-up. Digression: Francophilia reigns at the arthouse, with BAM Rose Cinemas devoting all of its commercial screens to French and France-set films tomorrow.)

Posey plays Nora Wilder, who could very well be Posey's Party Girl long after the party has ended. Nora, who wanted to be an artist but never got very far, works a nebulous job as a VIP concierge at a trendy hotel in downtown Manhattan, an occupation as nowhere as her love life as she settles (or, rather, unsettles) into her late 30s. Her mother, played by Cassavetes' mom, Gena Rowlands, presses her to find a man, no easy task, as she sets herself up for disappointment with a self-involved TV star (Justin Theroux) and watches another prospect (Josh Hamilton) wilt when confronted by his ex on another disastrous date. More promising is Julien (Melvin Poupaud), a Frenchman who works on film sets, obviously a good job to have these days. But Julien's time in New York is short, which forces Nora out of her comfort zone and off to the airport, to somehow find him in Paris (irritated by her clinging to her nothing-in-particular life, he has left in a huff, without leaving an address). Accompanying her is her best friend, Audrey (Drea de Matteo), who is questioning her seemingly perfect marriage to a screenwriter. Complications, leavened with a Gallic charm, ensue.

Like her director father, Cassavetes is unafraid to plumb hard-to-get-at emotions, but Broken English has a lighter, more impressionistic touch, reminiscent of the films of another screen scion, Sofia Coppola. Posey is perfectly believable as Nora, a character I have known, and maybe been (the bad date scenes strike a funny-only-in-retrospect chord for both sexes). It's interesting how Posey divides people. I have one friend who was quite serious about wanting to marry her, and others who cross themselves when she shows up in a film. It's a question of immersion, I think; if you've followed the 38-year-old's indie career closely, to know her is to love her, in a range of roles, like The Daytrippers, the splendid Clockwatchers, and many others, where she can find more variation in character. Studio work tends to flatten her appeal--she's hired to bring a certain frazzled "Poseyness," or a second-banana bitchiness, to films like Superman Returns, a curious, modern day-set Frankenstein (a TV movie intended to launch a series that subsequently languished), and Blade: Trinity, where she had to spit out venomous lines through a mouthful of enormous vampire teeth. These are not her finest hours, but if they're all you seen (those, and You've Got Mail, thanklessly standing between Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan), that will be your impression.

Posey has been cast in a Fox TV series this fall, The Return of Jezebel James, opposite the Delacorte's present Juliet outdoors in Central Park, Lauren Ambrose. Careerwise, too, our Party Girl--was that only 1995? Is that so far away now?--is growing up, and I imagine out, of the finicky, low-paying indie scene. But Cassavetes has given her, and us, a parting gift, should this be the last time for a while that we see her in such a large part in a small film. Under cameraman Jim Pirozzi's deft HD lighting she has never looked so bedragglingly beautiful; she and the post-Sopranos de Matteo are effortlessly convincing as best friends, slightly separated by their choices in life; and she is finely attuned to every note in Cassavetes' insightful, observant script. If this is to be a sendoff, it is a good one.

A sound decision

Finally, the Tony Awards has decided that sound design is more than just wiring actors with mics, a practice members of the old guard still detest. But it's never too late to catch up with late 20th century modes of thinking (and with the Drama Desk Awards, which has long had audio as a category), and I applaud the painfully overdue decision to make sound design a category for plays and musicals. The 2006-2007 winners should surely have been the soon-to-close Talk Radio, with its exquisitely rendered and multitiered audio design, and Spring Awakening, which pokes a little fun at onstage mics.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Bond's next challenge

Having beaten the odds by successfully casting Daniel Craig as 007, the Bond team has taken on a new challenge: Director Marc Forster, the prestige hack behind Monster's Ball (for which Bond girl-to-be Halle Berry won her Oscar), Finding Neverland, Stay (flee!), and Stranger Than Fiction, which looked too twee for me to bother with. His slick, empty movies have won awards, some praise, etc., but there's not much going on under the hood of his vehicles, and little to suggest he's right for the series. As the gamble on Craig more than worked out, I can only trust the producers on this one, but wish Martin Campbell, who got the series off the ropes with GoldenEye and rebooted it with Casino Royale, had stuck around for the as-yet-untitled Bond 22.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Industrial Landscapes

"You missed the opening tracking shot!" the publicist yelled at me as I arrived late for a screening of the meditative documentary Manufactured Landscapes (Zeitgeist Films), which opens June 20 for a two-week run at New York's Film Forum. Sue me, or, rather, the MTA and its faltering D train. And, as it happens, I hadn't missed it, not entirely: There were still two minutes (out of seven) to go as director Jennifer Baichwal and cinematographer Peter Mettler roamed the Olympian expanse of a Chinese manufacturing plant, the kind of vast, yet eerily anonymous, space prominently featured in this month's Sino-centric Atlantic Monthly. You can all but hear the strains of Strauss in the background as the camera progresses through this inner space, much as Stanley Kubrick had the spaceships photographed in 2001. When the lens comes to a full stop, the image freezes, into a still life...and we are looking at one of Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky's large-scale images from the new industrial revolution, one that we are, or should be, aware that is happening not in our backyard, and one that is rarely seen in its enormity.

I use the word "enormity" advisedly. Yes, it's a shock to realize what's happening as China and other rapidly developing nations exhaust world resources to provide for the inexhaustible global economy. But it has a terrible beauty; Kubrickian, with a dash of David Cronenberg and, with Burtynsky at the helm, maybe a touch of Ansel Adams, an Adams fascinated by disruption and decay. The photographer started by snapping images of rock quarries, scarred fissures of earth like open wounds on the planet. This led to an inquiry as to where all the ore and minerals being dug up were going. The answer: China, which has been flexing its manufacturing might over the last 20 years. When I lived in Hong Kong I remember being impressed at how quickly the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen, a "special economic zone," was growing. Today, there's nothing special about it; city-size complexes churning out goods of all kinds are the norm. We see the photographer at work, getting (and being denied) permission to arrange one of his shoots, whose exactitude matches that of the factory superiors, who ride herd on the armies of young workers fitting components and products together (we see one employee upbraided for shoddy workmanship, a lapse that is said to threaten the entire enterprise). The micro (or perhaps macro) cosms photographed include Cankun, the world's largest maker of irons, which employs 23,000; sports shoe maker Yu Yuan, with a whopping 90,000 workers in shoe business, and Deda, China's biggest chicken processor, which helps feed all those workers.

Burtynsky also photographs villages that exist to recycle electronic waste, plastics, and metal, all work done by hand. What I found most breathtaking were his images of shipbreakers in Bangladesh (pictured), where the world's vessels go to die (the subject of a haunting Atlantic article, not on its site). Imagine the ships of Titanic or Fitzcarraldo being broken up and scoured for useful bits, then remember that this awesome, surreal, and frightening sight--it is dangerous work, performed for a pittance--is happening on the other side of the world and not on a soundstage.

Manufactured Landscapes has its banal side. The photographer gives rote answers to questions at gallery exhibitions, and I felt a certain impatience with his concerned but apolitical stance from Baichwal. It's as if there are two films going on at once: The one about Burtynsky, and the one that Baichwal wants to extrapolate from his work. (Both are stuck with a somewhat droning score; Philip Glass and Koyaanisqatsi this is not.) The film is at its best when observing the simple dictum, show, not tell. The photographer's pictures, beautifully presented and embroidered upon in 35mm, really are worth a thousand words, but I will leave you with some of Burtynsky's from the press notes, which I obtained on the fly. "These images are meant as metaphors to the dilemma of our modern existence; they search for a dialogue between attraction and repulsion, seduction and fear. We are drawn by desire--a chance at good living, yet we are consciously or unconsciously aware that the world is suffering for our success. Our dependence on nature to provide the materials for our consumption and our concern for the health of our planet sets us into an uneasy contradiction. For me, these images function as reflecting pools of our times."

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Brooklyn on foot

Taking a break from theater, fellow Drama Desk member and Medill grad Adrienne Onofri has written her first book, Walking Brooklyn, which Wilderness Press will publish next month. The book offers 30 tours exploring historical legacies, neighborhood culture, side streets, and waterways, and the excerpt she gave me pretty much takes me right outside my doorstep to Fort Greene, where Richard Wright wrote Native Son and where Spike Lee and Marianne Moore have called home. Sounds like a good reason to get outside and give my legs a stretch this summer.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Wiseman on Wednesday

Esteemed documentarian Frederick Wiseman's latest film, State Legislature, airs tonight on PBS, at 9pm EST. There's no better use for public television than to air lengthy, deep-dish accounts like this one, where Wiseman trains his camera on the inner workings of the Idaho state legislature. His documentaries are completely no frills--there is no narration, no editorializing, no score, and little editing, as the vignettes he focuses on play out. Think Andy Warhol capturing lawmakers and other functionaries being themselves in "the Factory." But they come to root out the humanity from underneath the mundane accretion of details and process, which makes them abundantly interesting if you immerse yourself in them.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Pest control

A few words about William Friedkin's adaptation of Tracy Letts' hit play Bug. Michael Shannon, the avenging angel figure in World Trade Center, reprises his stage success, and is clearly scuttling on to bigger things.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Creature featurettes

Some people fire up their grills in summer, I fire up my DVD player for primetime viewing. I'll dispatch the final episode of the first season of The Tudors, the first Showtime series to capture my fancy, tonight. And there will be space on the DVR to pick up the fourth season of HBO's Entourage, which makes for agreeable seasonal viewing, and CBS' US version of the Brit hit Creature Comforts, which very quietly slipped onto the off-season schedule. With one episode aired thus far, and a second scheduled for 8pm EST tonight, it's worth calling attention to.

Its producer, Nick Park's esteemed Aardman Animations, has been having a tough time in the Yank market. Its first claymation-technique feature, Chicken Run, was a hit in 2000. But the first, clever film to spotlight its popular Wallace and Gromit, 2005's Curse of the Were-rabbit, was a boxoffice disappointment here, and last year's Flushed Away an aptly titled write-off that led to the early dissolution of its distribution pact with DreamWorks. And its studios burned in a recent fire. With much bad karma, it's unsurprising that CBS has chosen it to lead off an evening of sitcom repeats.

Unsurprising, but wrong-headed. Creature Comforts delivers the comic goods, and should be better attended, and not just as a download to be peered at on a 2" screen. Aardman won an Oscar for its first, short-film incarnation in 1989, then revived the concept in England for series in 2003 and 2005. The animation has been fancied up just a bit for this US version, but the show remains the same. Interviewers fanned out across the country to ask ordinary folks about their lives, jobs, relationships, and aspirations. The answers were then wedded to Aardman's inimitable, personable animal animations.

Amusement frequently ensues: A pretentious conversation about wine now unfolds as two male dogs sniffing around a female poodle's rear ("It has the hint of Cassis"). A little boy, transposed into a frog, tells doctor jokes badly, to an audience of crickets--when one fails to respond, he gets slurped up. Later in the episode, when the boy threatens to tell waiter jokes, all the remaining crickets applaud wearily.

The humor in the British series, which are available on DVD, is the reticence of the human subjects. Shyness is not a problem on this side of the pond, as the interviewees kvetch and kvell and expostulate. Their comments are brilliantly matched to the animals, and the 30 minutes of tightly edited sketches fly by. Now that you know where to find it, look it up.

Tony and the Tonys

A rare summer TV season faceoff has ended in our house, and it was pretty much a tie. Like others in my theater- and Sopranos-loving circle, I thought we would watch the first televised hour of the Tony Awards on CBS, switch over to The Sopranos series finale on HBO, then track back to the awards, followed by a middle-hour recap of the Radio City Music Hall action on our DVR. But once the Tonys started, and The Coast of Utopia and Spring Awakening began their marches through the categories, we had to stick with them. Tony cooled his heels for a while.

The Tonys were pretty much a surprise-free zone, as if anyone could topple Christine Ebersole from winning for Grey Gardens (as I predicted a whole year ago). Coast picked up seven awards, a record for a Broadway play, and Spring dominated the musicals category. Company and Journey's End, whose journey has ended, were deserved revival winners. The shocker, if it could be called that in this most genteel of awards telecasts, was David Hyde Pierce clipping Raul Esparza's wings; I can only assume the voters felt sympathy for Pierce's having to carry the iron Curtains on his back through sheer professionalism and likabilty.

My eyebrow went up a little when Julie White won best actress in a play, her show, The Little Dog Laughed, a rare comedy, having closed some time ago. But it had a healthy off Broadway run and if she had lost we would have been deprived the most entertaining acceptance speech of the evening. Other excitement came from John Mahoney's belated bleep during his poorly scripted bit and the pre-bleeped Awakening number. The Tonys bashers are out in force but despite missteps here and there I always find the show a refreshing way to recap and wind down from the season, and there was a nice symmetry to CBS' former first lady of Sunday nights, Angela Lansbury, begin and end the program.

The Tony bashers will clearly be baying for Sopranos creator David Chase's blood over the final episode. I never bought into its greatest TV show ever rep; once the crucial Nancy Marchand had passed away the program was rudderless for some time, with very uneven stretches thereafter. Its sadly-never-ended HBO stablemate, Deadwood, may lay claim to the title. But the first two seasons are extraordinarily good, and over seven it never ceased to be appointment television, even when we went about two years between appointments. Last week's tense and shockingly action-packed episode satisfied viewers who were into whackings; the finale was more reflective and "Chase-ian," with its big hit exaggerated into over-the-top black comedy, and a sudden-death fade, after a nerve-jangling buildup putting us squarely into Tony's shoes, scored to the (ironic?) strains of Journey's "Don't Stop Believing." Not that there wasn't some information for us to go on to create our own perfect ending, but I suspect viewers will be dissatisfied at the perceived cop-out. Check here for what will be provocative postings.

And now I can prety much catch up on my DVD viewing for a few months.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Home sweet scandal

We just picked up a copy of the 2007 Boerum Hill Historical Brooklyn Calendar, provided by the Boerum Hill Association. True, it's June, but the photos and information are timeless. For one thing, the calendar would seem to confirm that we do in fact live in Boerum Hill. We'd always felt that we lived in a nameless intersection of that neighborhood, Park Slope, and Fort Greene, one that the realtors have taken to calling the "BAM Cultural District," after that local landmark. I like that, and if more culture enters the developing district that name may yet stick. But for now, I'm proud to be a Boerum Hiller, or Boerumer, or Boerumite; I'm not sure anyone has a name for that, either.

I picked up a few things from the calendar. January revealed that the UA Court Street cinema, about a 15-minute walk from our place, was in the 1870s co-occupied by the borough branch of the New York Conservatory of Music and C.H. Rivers' Dancing Academy; a century later, after converting to the movies and showing foreign and art films as the Borough Hall Theatre till the 1960s, it was a porn place, the Cinart. The space was demolished in 1998, then was revived by UA, minus its gray-white sandstone exterior.

July's entry is even closer to home. Right next door to us on State Street, which bustled with live entertainment venues nearby, was the Oxford Theatre, which seated 800. Its Oxford Follies burlesque shows in the 1930s were frequently raided, but audience ardor for them only cooled in July 1951, when the theater was destroyed by fire. The period photo used, which shows figures of dancing girls perched atop the marquee, suggests the ground floor of our building was a pub or restaurant. The image is partially obscured by the Flatbush Avenue portion of the 5th Avenue El train, which was torn down in the early 1940s.

Today it's all condos. To a newcomer, it has always seemed to be condos. But that is an illusion this calendar, welcome despite the lateness of the date, dispels.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Sour notes

In interviews, Olivier Dahan, the writer-director of La Vie En Rose, compares its subject, France's "little sparrow," Edith Piaf, to Billie Holiday. It's an apt comparison, one that extends to the films made from their lives. Like Lady Sings the Blues, La Vie En Rose is pretty much a mess--held together, and made riveting, by a brilliant, pulled-from-the-guts performance by its lead. I never would have figured the decoratively pretty Marion Cotillard (A Good Year, A Very Long Engagement) for the earthy, drug-addled Piaf, but, aided by terrific lip-syncing, she gives herself over entirely to the role. Philip Seymour Hoffman's Truman Capote, say, has nothing on this, except for a coherent script in his corner.

Dahan's prior credit was the fast-paced, nonsensical sequel Crimson Rivers II: Angels of the Apocalypse. From there to a life of Piaf was a stretch, but the means are pretty much the same: String the audience out on sensational scenes, and put logic aside. There's a love of filmmaking here, which pays off in one or two bravura sequences, but it's misapplied. Rather than the usual soup-to-nuts biopic approach, Dahan says he wanted the film to be impressionistic, to flow from the songs. Fine, but I really wish I had my laptop with me, set to Piaf's Wikipedia entry, so I could have kept better track of who Gerard Depardieu and Emmanuelle Seigner were playing and what they were doing as they popped in and out of the movie.

La Vie En Rose, which Picturehouse opens June 8, plays on, furiously but somehow listlessly, for 140 minutes, as we're whisked from one highlight to another in Piaf's but hyper-active 47-year life. It works in quieter scenes, like Piaf's doomed romance with boxer Marcel Cerdan (Jean Pierre-Martins), where we get more of the information we need and can let it sink in a bit; that segment closes with a killer tracking shot that ends on a concert stage, the film's strongest realization of Dahan's emotions-first style of direction. Too much of it, though, can be boiled down to Michael Musto's cracking wise about it in the Village Voice, that "the movie basically consists of a series of people saying, 'Edith, brace yourself for some bad news,'" as she falls in and out of addiction and on and off stages in Europe and America.(The good news, like her role in the French Resistance, is entirely ignored as the movie racks up the catastrophes with family, men, and pills.) We don't need another musty biopic, but clarity has its virtues. Still, for Cotillard's titanic effort, La Vie En Rose demands attention, if cautiously.

Speaking of jazz-age wrecks, New York's Film Forum is coincidentally reviving Bruce Weber's portrait of the glacially cool Chet Baker, Let's Get Lost, beginning June 8 for a three-week run. A 1988 Academy Award nominee for best documentary, the examination/autopsy of the singer/trumpeter (he died, in a mysterious fall from a hotel window close to Amsterdam's drug trade, before it opened) premiered at the theater, and has been out of public circulation for 14 years. Josh Hartnett is threatening a Walk The Line-style biopic, but this is the real deal, as filtered through the dreamily black-and-white lens of the photographer/director.

We see Baker, his idol, in period performance and film footage, including a role in an Italian flick that I found out later was directed by future horrormeister Lucio Fulci. The hard-faced, Jan-Michael Vincent-like car wreck he became, after a lifetime of hard drug use (speedballs were his candidly admitted favorite), turns up for interviews, and to croak out a few songs, like Elvis Costello's "Almost Blue," for a coterie of young admirers including Chris Isaak (the inheritor of his tradition, if not lifestyle) and former Tim Burton muse Lisa Marie. The film inspired me to pick up a Chet Baker collection on CD, but his verveless, monochromatic performances of standards (rock might have been his true calling, but he never heard it) are a drag, man, after a few numbers. (His "Look for the Silver Lining" is used on Turner Classic Movies.) Baker's thin voice was pretty much used up by the late 1980s, but he continued to exert a certain look-don't-touch fascination, an arms-length seductiveness that was clearly difficult for his wives and family members to break free from. Spiffed up for this new release, Let's Get Lost continues to cast a spell from the twilight underside of cool.

New York's IFC Center continues its "First Films" revival series with Gus Van Sant's Mala Noche (1985), which, like Charles Burnett's Killer of Sheep, has never been the easiest movie to see. Like Burnett's film, which enjoyed a successful run at the center, it looks as if Mala Noche will be getting an official DVD release (the Janus Films label, a harbinger of Criterion Collection release, is appended to the new print) but if you can try to see the film here. The rough-hewn black-and-white cinematography (with a playful burst into color during the closing credits) has been digitally done over, giving the film, which Van Sant shot in the rain-slicked streets of Portland, OR, for $25,000, an elegance I doubt it ever had before.

The film, about a liquor store clerk's ill-starred but not entirely doomed look for love in the city's Mexican immigrant community, has a certain kinship to My Own Private Idaho, and an open-hearted and winning lead performance from Tim Streeter, who promptly disappeared from the screen. So, too, in his own way, has Van Sant, who has made himself as marginal as his characters and whose recent run of films given over to ciphers and ennui excites few outside of Cannes. I miss the Van Sant who made Mala Noche, part of that most fertile time in American independent cinema, and back again as a reminder.

Monday, June 04, 2007

Subway to Asia

Subway Cinema has announced the lineup of this year's New York Asian Film Festival, which runs June 22-July 8. Splitting the event between the IFC Center and the 100-year-old Japan Society, which is co-presenting this year, is a good idea. Its former home, Anthology Film Archives, is something of a barn, which makes underperformers (and there are some each year) look really puny. And this is shaping up as the biggest fest yet, with outdoor screenings and other special programming on the menu.

Of the selections, I've only seen Johnnie To's Exiled, a virtuoso piece of gangster filmmaking, though Korea's City of Violence seems like it could top it for sheer bad-assedness. Park Chanwook's I'm A Cyborg, But That's Okay, starring local pop sensation Rain, has gotten a mixed response for its "sweet, loopy romance" yet represents a new vein for the OldBoy director to tap into. I've heard good things about at least one of the two Death Note horror pictures from Japan, which you can sort out as a two-fer, and the country also offers an eight-years-in-the-making anime that sounds a little like the number two version of Urinetown. The Banquet, a period Chinese Hamlet, is promising, and who cannot love the write-up for Thailand's Dynamite Warrior, the kind of off-the-wall fun this festival excels in?

Sunday, June 03, 2007

My kind of town, still

The city of Chicago, reflecting multitudes. I took this picture by shooting right into "The Bean," as Anish Kapoor's undulating sculpture, a highlight of beautiful Millennium Park, is called by locals. If Brooklyn's Atlantic Yards was going to be like this I'd have no complaints at all and would in fact bring my own shovel to pitch in and help make it happen. Chicago's Frank Gehry component, the Millennium Park bandshell, is a lot more inspired, and inspired, than the "Miss Liberty" (ugh!) planned right across Fourth Avenue from us.

The park wasn't ready when I last visited Chicago in 2001; in fact, I wrote a Stagebill article about the organizers, who were on edge about getting all the necessary funding. But they did, and the results are terrific. Chicago has also stolen some thunder from the "first city" by hosting the first, excellent production of the Brit hit Jerry Springer--The Opera,which runs at the small but commanding Bailiwick Rep through July 8. And I hadn't realized how much I missed stuffed pizza till we hit Gino's East (back at its old location since a move, but in a sleeker, street-level building), Giordano's, and Carmen's (which has the edge on cheese, but Gino's still comes out on top).

We hadn't ridden the El in years till our short sojourn the week before last, on unusually hot days. It's now color-coordinated, and the Red line took us past familiar haunts like Wrigley Field and the Aragon Ballroom to Howard Street (so cold and windswept in winter) and the Purple Evanston line. The hue is of course derived from Northwestern's school colors, but those colors are one of the few things the town has retained since I was there last in 1997. The good news is that those who opposed the McDonald's when I was a student (not me; I went once every week, before my cholesterol and triglycerides started spiking) won the battle; it closed years ago. But the war has been lost. The old storefronts remain, and you can still get a Gutbuster-size Dr. Pepper at Buffalo Joe's, but in place of the Sherman Snack Shop is a Cosi; wine bars, wine shops, and big brand names proliferate; J.K. Sweets serves "international cuisine" along with its cookies; and Carmen's Pizza, a local legend, has been shunted to a dimly lit building in the shadow of an 18-theater megaplex that adjoins a Wolfgang Puck restaurant.

If that thing, around Church and Maple--which, to be fair, looked quite posh from a quick tour of its lobby and has six art cinemas to go along with the 12 showing Shrek the Third--had existed when I was a student, I never would have gone to Chicago as much as I did. Back then, at the dawn of home video time, Evanston had the much-missed Varsity, which became a Cineplex Odeon theater showing nothing but campus favorite The Big Chill till it caught a big chill and shuttered, a theater on Main I think, and a small multiplex on Central that I slogged through all kinds of weather to attend.

While the campus has added a few new buildings, including a moderne complex for the Medill School of Journalism steps away from ivy-encrusted Fisk Hall, it felt happily unchanged, though smaller (well, I was smaller, or at least younger, and thinner, then). Have a look. Just ignore the massive condo projects going up in the back of the frame. I thought we were in Evanston, CA, and not Evanston, IL, but such are changing times.

Friday, June 01, 2007

The Summer issue of Cineaste, online and on sale

"Amazing Grace"/How sweet the sound/The Summer issue of Cineaste/Is now in town." Well, something like that, as the British abolitionist drama makes the cover. Parts of the edition, which spotlights Balkan cinema in a timely 44-page supplement given its award-winning prominence at the Cannes Film Festival this year, are also online. Plus there are some web exclusives, including a report on Warner Bros.' many DVD box sets by yours truly. Your summer reading is looking up.