Monday, September 29, 2008

Seagull squawking

I saw the mostly terrific Royal Court production of The Seagull yesterday afternoon, at the Walter Kerr. At the intermission my actor friend and I were talking about the play; this was my third Seagull in a year (fourth, counting the 1968 film version), and we got on to talking about the famous gunshot that closes the show (I think the Classic Stage Company version added another one). When the show ended, and the cast had completed their curtain call, a woman sitting in front of us turned around and hissed that we had spoiled the show for her by revealing the ending.

OK, The Seagull may not be as familiar to everyone as, say, Hamlet (everyone--but it's not The Sixth Sense, either, or an episode of 24. Chekhov wasn't writing a thriller 113 years ago. I responded, “Say what? This is a century-old play. A stage classic. It’s beyond spoiling at this point.” “Well, I haven’t read it in a while,” she huffed.

Like she ever had. She was there to see Kristin Scott Thomas and Peter Sarsgaard, and who knows, UK Office and Pirates of the Caribbean star Mackenzie Crook, in a transatlantic "event" to be dished with the ladies who lunch (color me impressed if she's a fan of the show's affecting Nina, Carey Mulligan, who I recognized from the bone-chilling Doctor Who episode Blink. Whatever. But, girlfriend, The Seagull has been flapping around the boards since 1895, so don't be surprised if fellow theatergoers talk it up. And don't listen in to other people's conversations, just because you had a mummy as your escort. (Her husband stared vacantly into space the whole time of the exchange, the way husbands do when their wives make a scene.)

It was a press day, and I could hear folks around us snickering at her offense. But, point taken. If you see me at a revival of Three Sisters, and want to know if those gals made it to Moscow, mum's the word.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

RIP Paul Newman


More to say later.

Ok, let's get started. Newman memorably inaugurated David Letterman's CBS show, looking around the Ed Sullivan Theater and asking, "Where the hell are the singing cats?" So maybe a Top 10 list of things I liked about Paul Newman, though I could think of many more. He wasn't just a quintessential movie actor (and an underrated director) but a great American, who made us look good.

1) In 1982, as his powerhouse role in The Verdict was about to hit cinemas, he gave a lengthy interview to Time magazine. Included was a box, where he evaluated all of his films to date: The hits, the misses, and, most revealingly, the ones he admitted to doing for the money, or because his wife, the equally formidable (and eminently approachable) Joanne Woodward, wanted to get out from under the daily routine of raising a family while he was on location and demanded a busman's holiday in Paris. It's pretty rare for a star to put his or her career under such scrutiny, and I admired his candor and humor (self-deprecation was among his many charms) in taking on such an assignment.

2) Particularly at that moment, when his reputation was still on the mend after a waning period. There was a time--before The Verdict, before the Oscar win for The Color of Money(1986)--that he was thought to be on the ropes, a spent force, going through the motions in junk like 1980's When Time Ran Out..., Irwin's Allen's last gasp disaster movie, a steep decline even from The Towering Inferno (1974). The mid-career superstardom from that and the two ultra-popular but lightweight Robert Redford smashes may have thrown him. But he always came back swinging, surviving an abortive debut in 1954's The Silver Chalice (it is to laugh that the Warner Bros. front office thought religious costumers might suit an epitome of the modern man trying to hack it) and what-the-hell duds like 1963's A New Kind of Love1965's Lady L, and 1968's The Secret War of Harry Frigg. Like his characters, he'd lose his faith, and somehow claw his way back. I respected that.

3) You know all the hits, or should know them. He was a handsome man who excelled at playing the flaws beneath the blue-eyed charm. The underrateds are just as compelling: Hombre (1967), The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean (1972), Fort Apache the Bronx (1981), Sydney Pollack's great journalism movie Absence of Malice(1981). I think The Drowning Pool (1975) is a lot better than his prior, more successful 1966 turn as private eye Lew Harper, whose spirit animates the aptly named Twilight (1998).

4) And then there is 1977's Slap Shot, my favorite sports-related movie, and a profane, rowdy delight from start to finish, anchored by his gutsy, lummoxy performance. Terrific. Rent it in tribute.

5) Tennessee Williams hated the bowdlerized films made from his plays, but I bet even he responded to the charisma Newman brought to Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958) and Sweet Smell of Success (1962; he had also starred in the production). (Newman's Turner Classic Movies tribute to Cat star Elizabeth Taylor, which you can catch between movies, is quite heartfelt and gallant.) And he would have been deeply moved by the truly great film Newman, as director, wrested from The Glass Menagerie (1987). A harrowing, heartbreaking picture, the last of the six he made. (Useless trivia: His Sometimes a Great Notion was the first movie cablecast by HBO when the channel debuted in 1972.)

6) My father-in-law knew Newman from his racing days, and saw him at the track; 1969's Winning, the movie that gave him the need for speed, starts at Wisconsin's Road America, where my in-dad often volunteers in pit crews. His favorite Newman picture, and one of mine, was 1967's Cool Hand Luke. He delightfully parodied his preoccupation in Mel Brooks' Silent Movie (1976). It's fitting that his last lap around the cinematic track was the Pixar cartoon Cars.

7) Newman's foodstuffs went beyond novelty and charity--they're actually really good, and staples in our house, The popcorn, ranch dressing, and peanut butter cups are outstanding. He'd be thrilled to see sales skyrocket, boosting the coffers of his many charitable activities, so go out and buy some Newman's products.

8) He was a forceful, but not overbearing, liberal activist. I miss these gentlemen on all sides of the body politic. Vote Obama in his memory.

9) It was lovely to see him onstage in Our Town, in the 2002-2003 Broadway season. The Menagerie film is a gift but I wish he had done more. He could hold an audience rapt.

10) I saw Newman and Woodward, his wife of 50 years (and ten films together), in the audience of the Atlantic Theater Company production of TrumperyOff Broadway last December. They very quietly upstaged the show. A woman seated next to them reported that they held hands the entire performance.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Popdose: Disturbers of the peace


This week, Sam Rockwell and Anjelica Huston as mother-son con artists at the end of their rope in Choke, and a documentary portrait of crusading publisher Barney Rosset, Obscene.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

How quickly they grow up


Sweet Larissa is one month old today. The picture of innocence asleep in her stroller...



...but woe unto you if you delay a feeding. When that happens...It's alive!

Fight club

Off Broadway can be hazadous to your health, as a dirty rotten scoundrel takes on a top girl in what appears from this press release to be an onstage death match:

"MCC Theater today announced that, due to injuries sustained this week by the two stars, a preview performance of Tony Award-winner Michael Weller’s new play Fifty Words, was cancelled (Wednesday night) and the opening night has been moved. The opening night, originally scheduled for Sunday evening at 6:30 p.m., has been rescheduled to Wednesday (10/1) at 7 p.m.

The two character play which includes a fair amount of physical action, co-stars Norbert Leo Butz and Elizabeth Marvel, and is directed by Austin Pendleton. Fifty Words began performances at the Lucille Lortel Theatre (121 Christopher Street, NYC) on September 10 and continues through October 25.

In a joint statement, Messrs. Robert LuPone and Bernard Telsey (the artistic directors) said, “In order to give our cast time to heal properly, and to give the critics an opportunity to reschedule their tickets and file their reviews, we felt it best to cancel two press performances and delay the opening night.”

In Fifty Words, something’s gone awry behind the idyllic fa├žade of Jan and Adam’s Brooklyn brownstone. At 9:10 p.m., they’re reveling in the freedom of having waved off their young son, Greg, to a neighborhood sleepover. By 9:30 p.m., things have gone, well…way past awry. Alternately funny and frightening, Fifty Words is an expansive look at modern marriage, as seen through the looking glass of one couple’s long night’s journey into day."

By 9:50 p.m., who will survive, and what will be left of Jan and Adam...

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Back-pedaling

In last week's Reads column, I expressed irritation with a New York Press feature, by Simon Abrams, criticizing the New York Film Festival, which begins on Friday. Abrams had a point or two to make, but it seemed an awfully naive and myopic piece overall, one that annoyed at least one of its sources. This week, the wussy wimp-out, not that an article in the Press, which fish jump out of when you try to wrap them in it, was going to ruffle that many feathers.

"I’m a fan of the New York Film Festival. This may strike some people as hypocritical after last week’s “Have You Ever Been to the New York Film Festival?” but it’s true. It’s a classy event that treats its critics right. For many acolytes, if somebody’s going to put film on a pedestal, high ticket prices and a willfully limited audience are an acceptable loss. As one of the self-same proud members of the initiated and well-tended-to, I shouldn’t complain.

And yet, my problem with the festival is that nothing substantial seems to come of it. While the contrary is almost certainly the case, I’m somewhat reluctant to recommend the festival, an event run by a terrific organization that treats both the press and industry with respect and graciousness, but also one where a sad number of the best selections will never be seen afterward.

While the festival almost always champions terrific films that have already attained distribution before their screening—The Orphanage, Persepolis and Redacted made last year’s slate particularly exciting—the disappearance of gems from last year like Carlos Saura’s Fados and Masayuki Suo’s I Just Didn’t Do It may have more to do with the sad reality of U.S. foreign film distribution than the festival’s active duties. But when Lincoln Center, the foremost cultural institution in New York, is the last stop in the city for such brilliant films, something is very, very wrong."

Something is out of whack, and Abrams calls it: Foreign films have to compete for a limited number of screens, for a rarefied audience, with everything else out there, good, bad, and mostly indifferent. Not a barn-burning observation, no "may have" about it. But how are Lincoln Center and the festival to blame? Festival exposure can very well get a film a release, or help it onto DVD, which, like it or not, is where viewers outside of the biggest movie markets will likely find them. What more can the festival do? Even in New York, the best a foreign film can hope for is a week or two at the arthouse, and if it's a smaller distributor, chances are it'll be at the small ponds of Cinema Village or the Quad rather than the Angelika or Landmark, which cater to bigger, studio-spawned fish. I get press invites to festival screenings, too, but, sensing that I Just Didn't Do It might not get much further than the festival, I paid to see it last year, as an audience member, and was glad to have done so. Count me among the "willfully limited," whatever that means. (Two showings at the Ziegfeld, which is what this year's entrants are getting, is more potential audience than a film like that could ever hope to get in a typical citywide release at a shoebox multiplex in two weeks--and the screenings tend to sell out.)

What bugs me about this piece is how craven it is; last week, Abrams bit the hand that fed him, this week, he's salving the wound, glad-handing the organizers as if fearing he'll be cut off, denied access to an annual event he professes to disdain but is loathe to give up. No, you shouldn't complain, if you're just going to weasel out of your complaints a week later.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

History up in Harlem

I thought films like Wall Street (1987) and the book (later, alas, film) of The Bonfire of the Vanities were part of our living history, but overtaken by current events they're museum pieces now, as New York faces the prospect of a retro-future right out of the opening scenes of the Depression-era King Kong or Man's Castle. So they're suitable for booking as part of Rent Control: NYC Documented and Imagined, a series of documentary and feature films that begins Sept. 27 and runs through next April 25 at the Maysles Cinema, the Harlem-based theater that is part of the institute dedicated to the legendary documentarians Albert and David Maysles. The neighborhood-set gangster picture Across 110th Street screens Oct. 27, but you can get in a New York state of mind and enjoy Bobby Womack's great title theme right now.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Civilian action


The Civilians, who created the delightful Off Broadway musical Gone Missing (pictured), are taking on an entirely different subject for their next production: Gentrification in Brooklyn, with an emphasis on the Atlantic Yards project/fiasco taking shape in my backyard. (I've said before that I'd love to see something like Chicago's Millennium Park rise from its all-but-ashes, but my gut tells me all we'll get from it are empty lots and building remnants left from its clearing). According to the press release, "Brooklyn at Eye Level will examine the surge of development in Brooklyn, with a specific focus on the controversial Atlantic Yards project and its effect on the surrounding communities of Fort Greene, Boreum Hill (us, in the would-be "BAM Cultural District"), Downtown Brooklyn, Crown Heights, Park Slope and Prospect Heights."

It gets better. "Beginning in late October, a team of professional actors, led by (artistic director Steven) Cosson, will begin immersing themselves in these neighborhoods and conducting interviews with residents, business owners, politicians and civic organizations. They will collect information everywhere, from public events to beauty salons, developing insights into how buildings, services, public space and economic issues shape the ecology of the neighborhood around us. Civilians artists will participate in neighborhood life, observing public space, exploring community and gaining an intimate understanding of what has endeared generations to an area affectionately dubbed Brownstone Brooklyn.

Brooklyn at Eye Level will also incorporate a series of Artistic Labs bringing artists and community members together to creatively explore these changing neighborhoods. The Labs include playwright Lucy Thurber working with local youth at the Atlantic Terminal Community Center, a dance Lab led by the Brooklyn-based and critically-acclaimed dance company Urban Bush Women and a music Lab led by Civilians composer Michael Friedman, working closely with a group of Brooklyn musicians.

The Labs and the community investigation will culminate in a week of public performances at the Brooklyn Lyceum December 4-7, 2008 featuring professional actors, musicians and dancers as well as local residents. Following the December shows, the company will use the material gathered in the fall to develop a new full-length work of theater as well as online content and several future programs to be announced.

'Though the focus will be the Atlantic Yards project, we hope to delve deeply into the issues of development, eminent domain and community on a broad level, looking at changes in many neighborhoods and how they affects people’s lives on an intimate level,” explained Cosson. 'We are excited to begin this new theatrical experiment so close to home and are looking forward to seeing what this project reveals about our city and ourselves.'

The New York-based Civilians, whose other works include the musical hit Gone Missing and their recent Paris Commune, was founded in 2001 by Cosson. The renowned company develops original projects inspired from investigations into real life, using methods that combine documentary and artistic practices. The Civilians’ seven original shows have been presented by numerous arts festivals and a range of venues that include La Jolla Playhouse, The Public Theater, A.R.T., HBO’s US Comedy Festival, the Humana Festival, London’s Soho Theatre, the Edinburgh Festival Fringe (Fringe First Award, 2006) and other venues worldwide.

In addition to Brooklyn at Eye Level, The Civilians are deeply involved in their newest work, This Beautiful City, a play with music that details the explosion of America’s evangelical Christian movement. Major productions are scheduled for Los Angeles’ Center Theater Group this month (Kirk Douglas Theatre, September 21 – October 26, 2008) and New York City’s Vineyard Theatre in early 2009.

For more information, visit www.thecivilians.org."

So, neighbors, if you spot a Civilian among you, don't hesitate to do your civic duty and assist in this intriguing production.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Finishing John Adams


Five months after it aired on HBO we finally finished its seven-part John Adams miniseries, from David McCullough's book. Despite some inevitable speechy longueurs in the later chapters--then as now, our representatives loved to hear themselves talk, but how refreshing it was to share an infatuation with ideas rather than positions--the production earned its 23 Emmy nominations. Look for a cantankerous Paul Giamatti and Laura Linney in a Katharine Hepburn-ish turn to be elected, and if I had to choose between the three supporting actor nominees, I'd pick Stephen Dillane's wryly opaque Thomas Jefferson, though David Morse's staunch Washington (the best of several finely detailed, award-nominated makeup tasks) and Tom Wilkinson's foxy Benjamin Franklin are not far out of the running. We love this kind of historical recreation, and the show will always occupy a small part of our hearts as the last program we watched before the birth of our daughter, and the first we tuned into after she was born.

But I would impeach one nominee. The director, Tom Hooper, won an Emmy for HBO/BBC's engaging Elizabeth I miniseries with Helen Mirren, and gets full credit for successfully marshaling cast and crew through a lengthy period shoot and keeping up the pace over several hours. But he did the elegant Emmy-nominated cinematography (by the great Tak Fujimoto, and Danny Cohen) a terrible disservice by constantly forcing the DPs into tilted Dutch angles, which works for a stylized suspense piece like The Third Man but not a straightforward drama. Some of the choices, including overhead shots listing to one side, were truly peculiar (and repeating a move from Gladiator, in the last hour, plain lazy). Did Hooper think this was "modern," with-it? Distracting, to say, the least, and we suspect Adams would be disturbed by all the fuss.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Sing along with Solace


Writer-producer-performer Jack White has debuted his theme song for "Bond 22," Quantum of Solace, on his record label's website. "Another Way to Die" is the first-ever Bond duet, pairing White with Alicia Keys. I grew to like Chris Cornell's Casino Royale theme (both Daniel Craig-era pictures ditch the lyrics-challenged movie titles) but this one I got right from the start; it's a White mash-up that's aggressively "Bond." Have a listen.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Popdose: Fall movies


Back in the swing of things with a personal look at the filmic fall, with Josh Brolin as Shrub in attendance.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Reads


The Henry Hewes Design Awards nominees for New York theater have been announced. A good excuse to run another photo from Lincoln Center's glorious South Pacific revival.

Who goes to the New York Film Festival? Not a lot of young folks, though I dispute the author's contention that it's only the rep house mainstays (about which an indie filmmaker recently said, "When I started going to revival screenings, I was 20, and the rest of the audience was 60. When I go now, 20 years later, the rest of the audience is 80"). For one thing, the recently graduated writer has only been going for two years, to a lot of press screenings; it's a different, more age-diverse constituency at the actual audience screenings (I know: I started going at 29, when I was new to New York, and have attended ever since). For another, the rep house bluehairs stick to that much different turf; when this year's entrants turn up at Film Forum in 2028, rouse them. It's nice that he carries the torch but his generation grew up on home video; moviegoing just isn't as ingrained as a habit or a necessity, and certainly not at NYFF prices. The NYFF has always been small and exclusive, its weakness (not every favored auteur should be showcased year in, year out, an issue the committee seems to recognize) and its strength. Unlike Tribeca or other more shapeless gatherings It has its own wavelength and you have to get on it.

The trouble with movie titles. Gigli is a bad title; The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, bloody good.

Red and blue: "Red-band" trailers take off at R-rated movies. My virgin ears were burning at the red-band Step Brothers preview before Wanted, my eyes more dismayed at the sea of toddlers whose parents had taken them there.

Negative buzz on Howard Shore's opera of The Fly, directed by David Cronenberg and with a libretto by M. Butterfly's David Henry Hwang, but my antennae are still up about it.

Monster musical interlude


Because it's hump day. Because I wanted to tell Classic Media how happy I am to have a nice legit DVD of War of the Gargantuas, my favorite non-Godzilla creature feature from Toho Studios, to enjoy. (On a double bill with the original Rodan, no less, a lot of monster in one package.) And because I want to share the gift of music, that is, "The Words Get Stuck in My Throat" (a future favorite of Devo in their concert performances), the best song ever to grace a movie about hairy fraternal mutations. Already booked on a cruise ship, the immortal Kipp Hamilton really suffers for her art. Don't say I never gave you anything.

You ignored it in 1981...

The situation's not exactly the same (so far, anyway) but I've been thinking about this since Sunday's meltdown, and it sure feels like the bill has come due...the final scene from Alan J. Pakula's financial thriller Rollover, a Jane Fonda flop that didn't do for the markets what The China Syndrome did for nuclear power plants. And to think you went to see On Golden Pond instead that same Christmas...

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

C'est magnifique


Max Ophuls' splendid The Earrings of Madame De..., surely one of my Top 10 favorite films if I ever decided to beat my brains in to create such a list (The Bride of Frankenstein, Chinatown, Citizen Kane, 1933 King Kong, Madame De...--five more to go!), gets the deluxe Criterion Collection treatment today on DVD, along with Ophuls' La Ronde and Le Plaisir. (Ophuls'Lola Montes has been restored and is soon to make the rep house rounds beginning at Film Forum; no doubt it, too, will be enshrined by the label.) Buy it, Netflix it--Madame awaits your pleasure.

RIP Frank Mundus


The alleged inspiration for the character of Quint in Jaws met a more peaceable fate than that which befell Robert Shaw in the movie, at age 82. With his own fish stories to tell, he scoffed at the landlubber-produced sensation. "I'm talkin' about sharkin'..."

Saturday, September 13, 2008

We'll always have (the) Paris


The Plaza Hotel is taking on condos, but the neighboring Paris Theatre is relatively unchanged, as it celebrates its 60th anniversary today. That's quite an accomplishment; I don't how the few remaining freestanding cinemas stay open in a still-voracious Manhattan real estate market, but they do. The Paris' secret is its pedigree--it was the first deluxe moviehouse built in the city following WWII, inaugurated by no less than Marlene Dietrich and the Ambassador of France, and it has had a distinguished history. This includes the controversial exhibition of Roberto Rossellini's The Miracle in 1950, a free-speech cause celebre that went all the way to the Supreme Court. Romeo and Juliet played there for a year in 1968, a run immortalized in the 1969 film Cactus Flower, where Walter Matthau and Goldie Hawn linger outside the lobby-less theater following a screening. (The Paris makes cameos in a number of movies shot at the Plaza, including the 1971 Matthau picture Plaza Suite and I think the climax of The Way We Were.)

Columnist Joe Queenan had his say in The New York Times. Sure, it's kind of unhip and fusty, and might well be renamed the Daniel Auteuil, given the number of films I've seen there showcasing the French star. It's the premiere venue for a certain kind of tradition-of-quality French cinema, and was the late producer Ismail Merchant's preferred venue for his collaborations with director James Ivory--I saw their underrated A Soldier's Daughter Never Cries there, and, after Merchant's death, the deflated, end-of-an-era White Countess, too. (I believe the producer owned the Indian restaurant that was next door.) But my interest in Alain Delon and French thrillers ignited following a revival engagement of Purple Noon at the Paris, Kenneth Branagh's middling Hamlet (1996) was more of a thrill in its 70mm presentation there, and I had a good time with friends at The Dinner Game in 1999. Here's to many more memories of Paris, encapsulated in this fitting image I found on Flickr.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Beware! The Blob!


The only movie monster that really scared me as a kid was The Blob. The Wolf Man's ferocity was unsettling, and the Hammer horrors, with their more explicit violence, gave me goosebumps. But The Blob gave me the chills. Not at first; it took several viewings for the full scariness of The Blob to sink in. (Back then, movies like The Blob were in constant rotation on local TV stations, so you could see it over and over again, without resorting to a "playback medium" like a DVD.) But when it did, it latched onto my nightmares, hard. I fantasized that The Blob was under my bed, ready to pounce if I dared leave the safety of my blankets and pillows. It didn't even have to pounce; if I accidentally touched one little portion of it, that was it, I was gone, Blobbed forever, like the doctor and the nurse in the best scene in the picture.

When the doctor throws some acid at it, and it briefly glows green, then goes back to its normal pulsing state, you knew The Blob meant business, and you worried that there was no way to get rid of it. Sure, I knew that Steve McQueen figured out that freezing it was the answer, but how could I replicate that from my bed? Blasting the air con and tossing ice cubes at it were not options. Clearly I was toast. The bedroom Blob had me in its grasp.

By dawn, I had recovered my senses, not that it was so bad. There was an upside. It was deliciously thrilling, conjuring different scenarios as to how The Blob might eat me and my family, then go on to subsume the neighbors, the neighborhood, and my sworn pre-adolescent enemies. But no way did I look under my bed in the morning. Fantasy was one thing; I dared not tempt fate. Let The Blob ooze under my bed, disturbing only my sleep.

Today is the 50th anniversary of The Blob's release. The bringer of night terrors (and the pride of Phoenixville, PA) was loosed into unsuspecting theaters a half-century ago, and my parents, age 16 at that time, recall seeing it then. Every teen saw it then, it seems: Picked up by Paramount, the indie production was double-billed with another good shocker, I Married a Monster from Outer Space (like The Blob, a more sober picture than its title or reputation suggest), and grossed an astronomical $4 million on a budget of $120,000.

(More of which likely went into the weather balloon and colored silicone gel from which the title terror was constructed than into McQueen's pocket; unhappy with the assignment, he unwisely took a salary of about $2,500 instead of a percentage, which no doubt added to his distress at playing a teenage rebel without a cause at age 27. But the film, and his charisma--he and co-star Aneta Corseaut are charming together--landed him his star-making role on TV's Wanted: Dead or Alive. )

The Blob isn't camp. The wonderful title tune, by Burt Bacharach and four more of "The Five Blobs," is mordantly, rather than mockingly, amusing. Played over the squiggly line credits, it creates a delightful unease about what The Blob might be...and what a shock it is when early on it splays all over the hand of the old man who dislodged it from its meteor cradle. The secret to The Blob's success as a movie monster is that it's not a metaphor for anything; the pointy-heads might say that it stands in for rampant late 50's consumerism, but why it works is that it's completely inhuman and unreasonable. Hollywood might have insisted on more of a backstory or explanation; working far from LA, screenwriter Kay Linaker, who died earlier this year (and was the rare woman working in the genre) dispenses with all that. It gets you and you're gone, end of story. The teens save the day, and order is restored between the restless youths and the disbelieving small-town establishment, but the question mark that ends the movie confirms what we think: That ice, even Arctic ice, isn't much of a prison for The Blob. (With the onset of global warming, where would you safely stick it today?)


The Blob came back in 1972, in a comical film too lazy and drugged-out to be funny, Beware! The Blob!. The one and only film directed by Larry Hagman (and re-released as "The film J.R. shot!" a few years later), it's a purple haze of a sequel, with the likes of Godfrey Cambridge (who has brought it back from the Arctic), Shelley Berman (as a disapproving hair stylist, the only amusing-scary bit) and Burgess Meredith Blobbed as McQueen's love-beaded replacements (including Bud Cort, Cindy Williams, and Robert Walker, Jr.) run from the beast. The ice rink climax doesn't "gel" like the movie theater sequence in the original, which no doubt added some meta-fun for Mom and Dad. Nothing does, actually. TV ads made me want to see it but when it turned up on New York's Channel 9 a year or two later I was severely letdown. Even the jellied special effects weren't as good. The Blob deserved better.

And, in 1988, it got it. The Blob roared back from cold storage in a wonderfully malign, R-rated remake, with state-of-the-art effects that for the first time showed you what happened when you crossed its pissed-off path (it isn't pretty, as you can see). Released at summer's end the film flopped, and stars Kevin Dillon and Shawnee Smith, game replacements for McQueen and Corseaut, had to wait till the next century to find some measure of stardom, on Entourage and in the Saw pictures, respectively. But I loved it. Like the 1982 remake of The Thing, it goes its own way, without the crutch of excessive homage, and breaks some taboos: Kids (about the age I was when the original Blob scared me silly) are on the menu, the church isn't much of a pillar of the community, and the friendly cliche black scientist (Joe Seneca) sent to solve the crisis turns out to be a cold-hearted SOB covering his government-experiment-gone-wrong tracks.

There was talk of a Blob TV show, with a "good" Blob, and murmurings of another remake, which would bring the character into the CGI age (and I'd bet reboot it for environmentalism, yawn). But if nothing pans out, no sweat--two good Blobs, 30 years apart, is a satisfying critical mass.

And did I mention that the 1988 Blob also gave me nightmares? Different bed, same shakes...

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Tribute in Light 08

We have a good view of where the Twin Towers once stood from our courtyard here in Brooklyn, and for the past two years I've taken pictures of the Tribute in Light, a small token of commemoration. This year's pics were dire (they're always more heartfelt than professional) but AM New York has a good one, and mentions that this may be the last year for the tradition, though I trust it will continue. The owner of our building told me earlier that he watched the towers fall from our courtyard view, and it has been a comfort to see them recreated each year this day from that same perspective.

A study in Scarlett

Scarlett Cinema has a comprehensive and insightful post on Cineaste's "Film Criticism in the Age of the Internet" critical symposium, which is flying around the blogosphere. I was flattered to see some of my thoughts earmarked for phrase; then again, the site went several extra miles and presented a kind of "greatest hits" survey of the entire piece. Well done--and I should add that he hard work of editor Richard Porton really made it the quality piece it is.

RIP Gregory McDonald


I read all of McDonald's Edgar-winning Fletch books the summer the film came out, in 1985. (And saw the movie a second time at the Lavalette movie theater at the Jersey Shore, long-defunct I'm sure.) All seven were tightly plotted and funny, and terrific for lazy afternoons. McDonald wrote three more, Fletch Won in 1986 (which I read) and two in the early 90s, which I should catch up with. Why Hollywood didn't just film them intact (as it pretty much did with the good first one) is a mystery greater than any its gumshoe journalist solved. (A McDonald-less 1989 sequel, Fletch Lives, killed a possible franchise dead, and Kevin Smith's plan to film Fletch Won with Jason Lee in the lead is moribund.) McDonald's Running Scared and The Brave were also filmed, the latter (directed by and starring Johnny Depp) largely unseen in the U.S. Fletch endures.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Reads


I agree with Armond White that David Lean, the subject of a retrospective at Film Forum starting this Friday, is underrated. I disagree that it's because Michael Powell is more highly valued by critics (a typical White tactic, slamming one filmmaker while saluting another), and I don't think Lean's films with wife Ann Todd were all that terrific (they didn't bring out the best in one another). It's that the big films on his resume, from River Kwai on, overshadow the more modest ones and have become overly familiar, and the smaller accomplishments are finally getting more of their turn to shine.

A history of wishful New York destruction scenarios, timed for the real-life tragedy commemorated tomorrow.

What's "Filming in Brooklyn"? Just click. Muppets in Park Slope!

Rain Man on the West End with Josh Hartnett (no foolin'), and more screen-to-stage adaptations in London, including Lean's Brief Encounter. Can a Lawrence of Arabia musical be far off?

Baltimore and Philadelphia feud over Edgar Allan Poe's bodily remains and artistic legacy. I can say that the Poe House in Charm City is in a neighborhood that's kind of scary.

Obama didn't say it, but I'll say it: John McCain tapping Sarah Palin as his VP pick is like putting lipstick on a pig.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

An Arbogasp in my direction

My sleep-deprived self got a pleasant wake-up call with this dispatch from Arbogast on Film, thanking me for mentioning his most excellent blog in my contribution to Cineaste's "Film Criticism and the Age of the Internet" critical symposium. He even put my picture in the paper, grayed out so my enemies can't spot me too easily. DVD Savant also had some kind words in an e-mail. I'm happy to immortalize their hard work, such as I can, and am pleased that the article is making an impact across the web.

Monday, September 08, 2008

Rear Window=Disturbia?


So says a lawsuit that has begun its journey through the courts. Sure, I saw the similarities in story--and the many obvious differences. But the Hitchcock classic (and its source inspiration, by Cornell Woolrich) have been homaged/appropriated/ripped off so many times this smells more of opportunism than of any defense of artistic integrity. (If that were truly at stake you'd think the long arm of the law would have reached Brian De Palma by now.) James Stewart can rest easy; I've seen Shia LaBeouf, and Shia, you are no James Stewart, just as director D.J. Caruso is a mere MacGuffin compared to the real deal.

The Fall issue of Cineaste, online and on sale


Yours truly was just one of the many contributors to this issue's wide-ranging critical symposium, "Film Criticism in the Age of the Internet." This is an in-depth survey of the changing world of film criticism like I've never seen before compiled, and even if I weren't a modest participant in the proceedings I'd still be awed by the breadth of responses. Pull up a chair, or a terminal, and dig in--we put it online as well as in the print edition, and there's much more to read in both old and new media, as a bountiful Fall issue is matched by our biggest array of web content yet.

Sunday, September 07, 2008

Rent comes due


I saw the show just once, in 1996, when it opened at the Nederlander, so I hardly count as a so-called Renthead. But I have the cast album on CD, saw the 2005 movie (with original castmembers so old it might have been renamed Mortgage, but its heart was in the right place), and respect the late Jonathan Larson's not-inconsiderable achievement in bringing rock to the Rialto as it closes today, 12 years later. My wife and mother-in-law saw it just this past spring and reported that it was still in good shape. But the seasons of love will continue: The final performance is being recorded in high definition and will be screened later this month in select cinemas, and some of those original castmembers (pictured) are regrouping for a national tour.

Palin's hit list


UPDATE: Yeah, but it feels true.

This has been going around the web, and I thought it bears repeating. Just when you thought the Republicans couldn't get any worse, and that the culture wars were reasonably demilitarized, along comes this book banner in buckskins to stir the pot:

"Browse the list of books Mayor Sarah Palin tried to get town
librarian Mary Ellen Baker to ban in the lovely, all-American town
of Wasilla, Alaska. When Baker refused to remove the books from
the shelves, Palin tried to fire her. The story was reported in
Time Magazine and the list comes from the librarian.net website.

"I'm sure you'll find your own personal favorites among the classics
Palin wanted to protect the good people of Wasilla from, but the
ones that jumped out at me were the four Stephen King novels (way
to go Stephen, John Steinbeck only got three titles on the list),
that notorious piece of communist pornography "My Friend Flicka,"
the usual assortment of Harry Potter books, works by Shakespeare,
Walt Whitman, Kurt Vonnegut, Mark Twain (always fun to see those
two names together), Arthur Miller, and Aristophanes, as well as
"Our Bodies, Ourselves" (insert your own Bristol Palin joke here),
and the infamous one-two punch of depravity: "To Kill a
Mockingbird" and "Little Red Riding Hood." But the cherry on the
sundae, the topper, is Sarah Palin's passionate, religious mission
to clear the shelves of the Wasilia Public Library of that ultimate
evil tome: "Webster's Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary." That's
the one with "equality," "free speech" and "justice" in it.

Go over to your book case and take down one of the books you'll
find on the list (I know you've got a couple) and give it a read in
honor of the founding fathers. Then tell me I'm not the only voter
who doesn't want this woman within thirty feet of the United States
Constitution."

Sarah Palin's Book Club

> A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess
> A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle
> Annie on My Mind by Nancy Garden
> As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner
> Blubber by Judy Blume
> Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
> Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson
> Canterbury Tales by Chaucer
> Carrie by Stephen King
> Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
> Christine by Stephen King
> Confessions by Jean-Jacques Rousseau
> Cujo by Stephen King
> Curses, Hexes, and Spells by Daniel Cohen
> Daddy's Roommate by Michael Willhoite
> Day No Pigs Would Die by Robert Peck
> Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller
> Decameron by Boccaccio
> East of Eden by John Steinbeck
> Fallen Angels by Walter Myers
> Fanny Hill (Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure) by John Cleland
> Flowers For Algernon by Daniel Keyes
> Forever by Judy Blume
> Grendel by John Champlin Gardner
> Halloween ABC by Eve Merriam
> Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone by J.K. Rowling
> Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets by J.K. Rowling
> Harry Potter20and the Prizoner of Azkaban by J.K. Rowling
> Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by J.K. Rowling
> Have to Go by Robert Munsch
> Heather Has Two Mommies by Leslea Newman
> How to Eat Fried Worms by Thomas Rockwell
> Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
> I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
> Impressions edited by Jack Booth
> In the Night Kitchen by Maurice Sendak
> It's Okay if You Don't Love Me by Norma Klein
> James and the Giant Peach by Roald Dahl
> Lady Chatterley's Lover by D.H. Lawrence
> Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman
> Little Red Riding Hood by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm
> Lord of the Flies by William Golding
> Love is One of the Choices by Norma Klein
> Lysistrata by Aristophanes
> More Scary Stories in the Dark by Alvin Schwartz
> My Brother Sam Is Dead by James Lincoln Collier and Christopher
> Collier
> My House by Nikki Giovanni
> M y Friend Flicka by Mary O'Hara
> Night Chills by Dean Koontz
> Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck
> On My Honor by Marion Dane Bauer
> One Day in The Life of Ivan Denisovich by Alexander Solzhenitsyn
> One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest by Ken Kesey (is Palin the Nurse Ratched of the Republicans?)
> One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
> Ordinary People by Judith Guest
> Our Bodies, Ourselves by Boston Women's Health Collective
> Prince of Tides by Pat Conroy
> Revolting Rhymes by Roald Dahl
> Scary Stories 3: More Tales to Chill Your Bones by Alvin Schwartz
> Scary Stories in the Dark by Alvin Schwartz
> Separate Peace by John Knowles
> Silas Marner by George Eliot
> Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.
> Tarzan of the Apes by Edgar Rice Burroughs
> The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
> The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain
> The Bastard by John Jakes
> The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
> The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier
> The Color Purple by Alice Walker
> The Devil's Alternative by Frederick Forsyth
> The Figure in the Shadows by John Bellairs
> The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
> The Great Gilly Hopkins by Katherine Paterson
> The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood
> The Headless Cupid by Zilpha Snyder
> The Learning Tree by Gordon Parks
> The Living Bible by William C. Bower
> The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare
> The New Teenage Body Book by Kathy McCoy and Charles Wibbelsman
> The Pigman by Paul Zindel
> The Seduction of Peter S. by Lawrence Sanders
> The Shining by Stephen King
> The Witches by Roald Dahl
> The Witches of Worm by Zilpha Snyder
> Then Again, Maybe I Won't by Judy Blume
> To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee
> Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare
> Webster's Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary by the Merriam-Webster
> Editorial Staff
> Witches, Pumpkins, and Grinning Ghosts: The Story of the Halloween
> Symbols by Edna Barth

The usual suspects (Judy Blume, etc.) are present and accounted for. The witch books were obvious no-nos. Anything dealing with teenage sexuality was clearly verboten in the Palin household; that abstinence really works! There are a few puzzlers: The Devil's Alternative is a red-meat Cold War-era spy novel, and not about demons, which would indicate that Palin was going on titles alone. Denisovich? What could be more anti-Russkie than that? (Remember: as Sarah says, Alaska and Russia are right next to one another.) In this topsy-turvy context, where the dictionary is fair game for the pyre, the inclusion of Little Red Riding Hood makes sense, if one looks at the presumptive VP as a wolf in hockey mom clothing.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Fee Fi Foe Fum


At my age, CRAFT Syndrome (that is, Can't Remember a Fucking Thing) is an occasional nuisance. Enabling me today is Magnolia Pictures, which press-screened Mister Foe back in January, or maybe even late last year, and after at least two postponements releases it on tomorrow's dumping ground date. (It's also aired, as is customary with the Mark Cuban-owned distributor, on the magnate's HDNet Movies channel.) I'm not sure why: It wasn't going to be a huge grosser at this or any other date on the calendar, and it's not like the star, Billy Elliot-gone-teenage-gloomy Jamie Bell, was in anything hot earlier this year to give it a little clout at the arthouse. (There was the sch-fi picture Jumper, which came and went late winter, so whatever buzz that generated has dissipated.)

And there's the title: Hallam Foe in England, Mister Foe here. Why? Did focus groups think Mister would turn the tide of boxoffice fortune? What focus group could be enticed to see this pretty drab picture anyway? What about the more intriguing Foe? Or Fo, to fool anyone thinking it might be a biopic of anarchist playwright Dario Fo, or MoFo, giving it an urban edge?

And there's the problem. I will always remember the details of movies I like. But movies I don't like (and under any title Mister Foe is a muddle) tend to flush out of my memory banks pretty quickly. The co-adapter/director, David Mackenzie (working from a novel by Peter Jinks) made 2003's Young Adam, which hangs in there only because of a steamy (but not all that remarkable) sex scene between Ewan McGregor and Tilda Swinton, and 2005's less skinful Asylum was pretty much a straitjacket. (His next film, Spread, teams an unlikely Ashton Kutcher and Anne Heche.) The antipathy may be in my filmgoing DNA: Mackenzie gravitates toward lives of suffocation and neglect, and doesn't do much to make them less suffocating, or more interesting.

Mister Foe lets a little air in. The title sequence is animated, a friendly, frisky touch that sets up the off-kilter storyline. Seventeen-year-old Hallam (Bell) is somewhat unbalanced since the death of his mother, and has drifted into voyeurism, peeping in and out of the windows of fellow Scots (hence the odd camouflage) in the Highlands domicile of his father (Ciaran Hinds). He begins to suspect that his stepmother (Claire Forlani) may have done mom in--but he's also hotly attracted to her (understandably; Forlani, a decade after Meet Joe Black, is winsome). When things get too close for comfort Foe hightails to it Edinburgh, where he falls for hotel worker Kate (Sophia Myles), whose job gives him freer rein for his snooping. But Kate looks disconcertingly like his mother, upping the Oedipal tension and neuroticism as Mackenzie goes a little Hitchcockian, quoting Psycho and the like. But it's a less punitive film than those. It's also, unsurprisingly, not up to its sources, unable to find much comedy, drama, or mystery in its crossed wires despite a capable cast. It feels like a quirky novel that didn't quite escape the page, which adds to the general fog of forgetfulness I'm trying to dispel.

The website reminded me of one thing: Mister Foe has a decent, award-cited songtrack, Franz Ferdinand and the like. There are some good cuts here, and they vary, unlike the monotonous music of, say, Juno. So, OK, eight months or more later I can't remember too much about Mister Foe, except that I am not a friend to it. But I can hum you a few bars.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Reads


Countdown: The 25 best L.A. films of the last quarter-century. These lists are always kind of arbitrary, and typically lazy, but readers online and off seem to love them. Two questions: Where's 1983's Blue Thunder, with its terrific aerial views of the city, or 1984's Body Double (pictured) or 1990's The Grifters, L.A. as low as it can go? How about the fantastic (if admittedly little seen) documentary L.A. Plays Itself? And doesn't the L.A. Times have a better still library at its disposal or did its publisher get rid of that, too?

Another one, what the hell, on shameless product plugs in movies. Hey, who knew Cracked was still around?

"Thunder Throat" is silenced. I liked his style (if not as much as Adolph Caesar's) and his self-parodying Geico ads, but the studios leaned on his increasingly lazy writing too much, making movie trailers enervating to sit through.

Turner Classic Movies gets out the vote this month with a nice caucus of politically oriented pictures airing Wednesday nights. Tonight: Spencer Tracy in The Last Hurrah, Lee Tracy in The Best Man, and The Candidate and Nashville, too.

Here's something I can relate to (and have blogged about in the past): DVD Savant deals with the attack of the ever-expanding collection. My seven-year-old cabinets are groaning.