Sunday, May 31, 2009

Summer Cineaste online and on sale

The Summer issue is now available, on newsstands or online. Web content this edition includes an interview with Food Inc. documentarian Robert Kenner, "A Second Look" at the 1955 film Death of a Cyclist, and reviews of new books on Victor Fleming and Albert Maysles. There's a fair amount of sex in the print issue proper--but you'll have to buy it. Who said old media had turned up its toes? (Pictured on the cover is the latest film from the Dardenne brothers, Lorna's Silence, which opens in July.)

Last Titanic survivor dies

This AP story was interesting to me for a few reasons. The basic subject is of course compelling; two months old and a Titanic survivor, then flash ahead a staggering 97 years. Charles Haas was one of my English teachers at Randolph High School, and a world authority on the subject, who was in touch with many of the survivors and must have heard of this news today with a heavy heart. And I'm genuinely touched that Titanic film stars Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet chipped in to pay for Ms. Dean's nursing home expenses. A thoughtful way to help ease a historic passing.

Larissa meets Godzilla

It's been five long years since a new Godzilla picture, so I'm posting this to let Toho Studios know that I'm prepping the next generation of fans. That's mom holding the Big G. (Larissa has my plastic model to chew on, but it's not as cuddly as this one.)

Friday, May 29, 2009

Popdose: The sweet-and-sour Sherman Brothers

It hasn't always been a spoonful of sugar for the Sherman Brothers, the prolific tunesmiths behind Mary Poppins, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, "It's a Small World" and so much more from the soundtrack of our lives. A review of The Boys: The Sherman Brothers' Story, co-directed by their sons in an effort to get them to make amends. Robert Sherman is pictured at right; Richard, at left.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Stanley Kauffmann: 50 Years at TNR

In 1959, film classics like Anatomy of a Murder and North by Northwest were in release, and Eisenhower was in the White House. And at The New Republic, Stanley Kauffmann assumed the position of film critic. And stayed. And stayed. Kauffmann, now 92, is still going strong, and TNR is celebrating his half-century of scrivening with a special section on its website. It's a nice tribute for that milestone achievement, one virtually impossible to duplicate today as print film criticism withers and morphs to the web; I'm not sure the Chicago Sun-Times will last enough to celebrate Roger Ebert's fiftieth there in a few years. Meanwhile, Andrew Sarris marches on at the New York Observer, but at age 80 he's a mere lad next to Kauffmann.

Rain of stars

I have no particular beef with movie and TV stars taking the Broadway stage. Julia Roberts, in Three Days of Rain, and Katie Holmes, in All My Sons, weren't exactly revelatory but they didn't disgrace themselves; there were far worse things about the Miller revival than Holmes' earnest but undistinguished acting. I'm used to big stars treading the boards to give "EBU" performances (they get that a lot in reviews, along with a certain amount of cred for trying it) and don't usually comment on the latest news of someone braving the stage. But when I read that Hugh Jackman and Daniel Craig are teaming for a play this fall, color me impressed.

The drama in question, a two-hander by Keith Huff called A Steady Rain, has gotten good reviews on its home turf and has a clever website to boot. Jackman and Craig are an unlikely pair of Chicago cops but I didn't really see the former as Peter Allen in The Boy From Oz, and the latter as James Bond, and they have the chops to pull this off, too. I can only hope that new producer Barbara Broccoli, of the Bonds, won't mess it up, as she did with the ghastly musical of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (clips of which elicited groans from fellow viewers at my viewing last night of the excellent Sherman Brothers documentary, The Boys.) And if Jackman and Craig hit it off maybe Jackman, a Bond candidate, could be enticed to play a villain in an upcoming entry. That would be cool, too.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Cannes winners

For the record. Antichrist (pictured) seems like another canned provocation by the occasionally really provocative Lars von Trier, but I suspect Charlotte Gainsbourg acts the hell out of it, as Isabelle Adjani did the similar-sounding Possession in 1978. Christoph Waltz is about the only thing anyone's excited about regarding Quentin Tarantino's irritatingly misspelled Inglourious Basterds. Too bad the Park Chanwook vampire flick Thirst is supposed to be a disaster, whatever the jurors thought. But The White Ribbon and A Prophet sound like respectable winners, not that any of it particularly matters, lamentably, given an eroding audience for specialty and arthouse fare in this country.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Popdose: The Girlfriend Experience

Porn star Sasha Grey goes legit in Steven Soderbergh's latest hi-def trifle, available on pay-per-view and now in theaters.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Goodbye Earl

TBS may throw it a lifeline, but I'm royally ticked off that NBC is cancelling My Name is Earl. It had its ups and downs, but really rallied in its fourth and, alas, final season, never failing to make me laugh out loud--something only its still-standing stablemate on Thursdays, The Office, does on a regular basis for me regarding network comedies.

It's the network thing that has me stewing. The show has been ailing in the ratings, though it can't be doing too badly for a program on cellar-dwelling NBC. What put Earl's head on the chopping block is that it's produced by 20th Century Fox Television. Fox doesn't want it (Why? Is it too brainy in comparison to its run of dull-witted redneck and trailer trash comedies?) and NBC doesn't want Fox to benefit from its continuing to air it. So away it (probably) goes--lacking a proper series finale, we'll never get to see Earl complete his karmic list. I'm stewed about that, and will miss the imaginatively dopey antics of Earl, Randy, Crab Man, and especially Joyce, played to a T (and A) by Emmy winner Jamie Pressly. Besides the down-and-dirty comedy, the show also had a warm heart and a genuine community spirit to recommend it; it was always smart, and non-condescending, about stupidity.

Meanwhile, Smallville and Scrubs limp on into ninth (ninth!) seasons. The all-but-bankrupt CW has nothing else on its plate, so it's exiled the exhausted Superman show, which came to a morose season finale that saw the death (and rebirth) of Jimmy Olsen and the hatching of another (yawn) Zod storyline, to Fridays, the Phantom Zone of network TV.

I'm more ticked off about Scrubs. I knew it might come back in some form or another, but its season finale was an effective capper to the show and a fitting exit for Zach Braff--who's returning for "transitional" episodes next year. No fair: Either take it off the respirator and exit gracefully, or reboot entirely. This half-and-half approach is unsatisfying to anyone whose emotional investment in the show was paid in full, and I can't see a semi-reborn Scrubs suddenly springing to life in the ratings after all its near-death experiences on two networks. It's only coming back because ABC owns it and wants to wring a few last bucks from the show before its final final fade. Scrubs is being whored, and I don't like it.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

King of Cool

The Film Society of Lincoln Center, which claims it was misquoted over the whole Film Festival member tickets flap I wrote about a few weeks ago, is making up for the annoyance with a good week-long series, "Yesterday's Loner: Steve McQueen". It's advertised as screening "the 12 unforgettable films that made Steve McQueen a legend"--but omits The Blob, surely a more legendary credit than the plodding adaptation of Ibsen's An Enemy of the People (1978), memorable more for his uncharacteristically bloated and bearded appearance than anything else. (Why not the spare and elegiac Tom Horn, released in the year of his passing, 1980? Just because a movie has been out of circulation for 30 years doesn't mean it's any good.) That all said, it's a well-chosen selection of pictures worth seeing on the big screen, from the underrated Love with a Proper Stranger (1963) with he and Natalie Wood in top form (pictured) to The Towering Inferno (1974), the only film of his I saw first-run, though I vaguely recall a drive-in screening of Bullitt (1968) with mom and dad when I was a tot. "Can't I just look it?" asked McQueen of screenwriter George MacDonald Fraser when Fraser presented him with pages of dialogue for The Sand Pebbles (1966). McQueen "looked it," and received his only Oscar nomination for his creative gazing.

I'll never forget being at a trade show some years ago and reeling off the members of The Magnificent Seven (1960) to chit-chatting guys who were stumped on the seventh (Brad Dexter is the closer) and wanted me to fill in the blank, then asked me to list the escapees of 1963's The Great Escape--James Donald escaped their mind. It all came up because they were talking about McQueen, and I knew the answers because I had seen both those John Sturges classics numerous times. (Who can forget the ending of Escape? That ball reverberating in the "cooler"...) McQueen, a star cut short at age 50; he'd probably still have the chops to play one of Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds this summer, or at least advise star Brad Pitt how to play it, or look it, properly.

Story of my life

Jonathan Lethem's story "Ava's Apartment", in the May 25 New Yorker, concludes at the Gracie Mews diner on First Avenue, a place I know well, having eaten there countless times when I lived in the less expensive section of the Upper East Side of Manhattan. It helped sustain me as a single, and was a pleasant post-theater hangout for me and my wife-to-be, particularly after a renovation a few years back. (The story's protagonist is a New York type I know well, and might have become had Cupid's arrow not struck.) Nothing more to say on the matter, just happy to see a little slice of my life immortalized by the writer--as it happens I live in his now-gentrified old neighborhood, and walk past the Brooklyn House of Detention, his "Fortress of Solitude," everyday, though have never visited, as either a tourist or inmate.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Drama Desk winners announced

A short and snappy ceremony resulted in big wins for Lynn Nottage's Ruined (pictured) and Billy Elliot the Musical at the 54th Drama Desk Awards, held last night. I've just come from the after party, held at the large and lovely Rouge Tomate bistro, where I met winners Geoffrey Rush (Exit the King), Pablo Schreiber (the off-Broadway reasons to be pretty), and Janet McTeer (Mary Stuart). The understandable absence of overseas-based winners like Shrek the Musical designer Tim Hatley was more than made up for by the present-and-accounted-for star wattage of winners Liza Minnelli and Angela Lansbury, whose award was presented by Jane Fonda. Besides Nottage's win for the gripping Ruined--one of seven Off or Off Off Broadway winners this year--I was especially gratified to see set designer David Korins take home a statuette. It couldn't happen to a better designer, or a nicer guy.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Live Design: End-of-season wrap-up

The most production-heavy Broadway season since 1984 has come to an end, and I look at no less than eight revivals herein, including John Glover, Bill Irwin, Nathan Lane and John Goodman in Waiting for Godot at Studio 54 (pictured). Lots of awards nominees are among them; I'll be at the Drama Desks on Sunday night, mingling with the bold and the beautiful.

Popdose: Star Trek

Phasers on stun as I review the new movie, and some of the old ones, with colleague Lance Berry.

Friday, May 08, 2009

Popdose: Johnny Got His Gun on DVD

The release of Dalton Trumbo's film of his 1939 antiwar novel, the winner of the National Book Award 70 years ago, prompts a few thoughts about violence, onscreen and off.

Thursday, May 07, 2009

RIP Alfred Appel Jr.

One of the first courses I took at Northwestern was Appel's "Introduction to Contemporary American Literature," in which he taught his own book, The Annotated Lolita. (The annotations were his; the book was of course Nabokov's.) Twenty-six years later, I still have that book, and I still refer to it. And I remember with pleasure many wonderful lectures he gave on that and other classics, his screenings of adaptations like The Killers (1946), and his stories of brushes with greatness with the likes of Nabokov, Hemingway, Gary Cooper, and Lee Marvin. An inspiring professor and a nice guy, too, who I always enjoyed chatting with between classes; looks like I'll be picking up his 1991 revision of The Annotated Lolita to see what he added.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Goodbye Scrubs

After eight seasons on two networks, Scrubs is saying goodbye tonight, if not necessarily farewell. It may come back in a new form, but it won't be the same without its truly talented cast, who ran with every zany idea that the inspired writing staff threw at them. 30 Rock gets all the credit for its innovative structure, and all the Emmy glory besides; all I can say is that I never missed an episode of Scrubs, even when it occasionally flagged, and have never made it through an entire episode of Tina Fey's critics' darling. (It tries too hard; Scrubs was breezy.) At its best, Scrubs struck a perfect balance between broad, often fantastic break-the-fourth-wall comedy, and affecting drama--it was sort of the Barney Miller of hospital shows, with an equally unbeatable ensemble across the board. Not a "numbskull" in the bunch.

A fabulous Woman

Writing about the "Late Film" program at BAM got me thinking about how formerly disgraced pictures go from the lower depths to becoming overrated. I think it may have something to do with younger cineastes looking for something to call their own that hasn't already been claimed and lionized by the old guard. If that's the case, then maybe instead of raiding the vaults, we (and I count myself; I'm not Rex Reed's age, yet) might instead to turn to lost, or at least orphaned, pictures, that never got their proper due and could use a champion. Exhibit A: Amy Heckerling's I Could Never Be Your Woman, which was supposed to debut in 2007, went straight-to-DVD a year later, and is now on cable, where it completely charmed me.

That strident title didn't help, but this is Heckerling's show all the way and I can live with it. The film was also a victim of bad timing: If only it could have waited for male lead Paul Rudd, her Clueless discovery, to emerge as a more of a marquee, thanks to his successful run of Judd Apatow, or Judd Apatow-like, comedies. The shame of it all, and why it's definitely worth catching (Cinemax has it in rotation), is that a spectacular Michelle Pfeiffer performance has gone unseen. She's looser, funnier, and more beguiling than she has been in years, and the film comes just as she seemed about to fall into caricature mode, via Hairspray and her fantasy witch in the underrated Stardust. She's good in those parts, but she really scores here playing a normal human being, a producer of an urban tween TV show whose inner child is feeling a bit beleaguered, as her daughter (Atonement's Saiorse Ronan) clambers into adolescence and she begins a tentative romance with a rising young comic actor (Rudd) who's a decade younger. Even her personal advisor, Mother Nature (Tracey Ullman), can't help her through an unexpected midlife crisis.

The movie is a lot of fun. Heckerling loves all the showbiz stuff and doesn't satirize it, though the movie implicitly comments on the silliness of ageism: Pfeiffer, Rudd, and Stacey Dash, as Pfeiffer's secretary nemesis, are all older than the parts (Dash, the star of TV's Clueless, a good 20 years older) but play them comfortably, and there's a good scene where Pfeiffer gives hell to a cad (U.K. Office co-star Mackenzie Crook) who's commenting on the alleged deterioration of actresses of her generation. I liked all the actors who flit in and out, particularly Jon Lovitz, as Pfeiffer's implant-obsessed ex. Lovitz and Pfeiffer as husband and wife is enough to blow a hole in the continuum of plausible movie marriages, yet they click. Working with comedians like Lovitz and Fred Willard brings out the best of Pfeiffer's timing and instincts, and on the more dramatic side of the scale she and Ronan are thoroughly believable. I'm making I Could Never Be Your Woman my cause; what else is out there that needs nurture and support?

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

RIP Dom DeLuise

We're fast losing a whole generation of funny people I enjoyed in movies and on TV back when I was a kid--Harvey Korman, Bea Arthur, and now the Brooklyn-born DeLuise. I don't think I'll ever forget him fumbling around Gene Shalit's feet on the Today Show, twiddling with his shoes and asking, as if he were a salesman, "Do we have these in blue?" Maybe you had to have been there, but it cracked me up when I was 11 and he and Gene Wilder were promoting The World's Greatest Lover in 1977 . A little DeLuise could go a long way, particularly if he had to vamp too strenuously when the material was lacking. But he was the best thing about several awful (and awfully popular) Burt Reynolds pictures (his "Captain Chaos" got me through the near-unbearable Cannonball Run films, and he showed how much he could do with a stronger part in Reynolds' more buttoned-down The End), added to the anything-goes flavor of Mel Brooks movies like The Twelve Chairs (1970), Blazing Saddles (1973) and Silent Movie (1976), and was a good foil to Wilder in their films together, appearing in drag in 1986's Haunted Honeymoon. He could play it straight--that's him as a nerve-jangled airman in 1964's Fail-Safe--and could hold himself back, as in the 1980 comedy-drama Fatso and his own, underrated comedy caper, 1979's Hot Stuff.

Tonys nominations announced

Tony Awards announced; chat room explodes. Where's The Seagull? Desire Under the Elms? So, Elton John and Billy Elliot the Musical are good enough for Tonys, but Chekhov and O'Neill aren't? (Pictured is one of the three Billys nominated on the same line, each Billy being exactly as good as each other Billy and all. There's an assembly line out there putting together Billys to precisely the same specifications.)

Popdose: Enchanted April on DVD

Seventeen years after its Oscar-nominated theatrical release, Enchanted April arrives on DVD. Couldn't it have come a few days sooner, though? I mean, it's May...

Friday, May 01, 2009

Late shows

BAM Cinematek has kicked off The Late Film, a series that focuses on onset-of-winter features (not necessarily final productions) of noted auteurs. It got underway with last night's showing of Billy Wilder's mangled 1970 release The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, which came in for additional mauling based on reviews I read this week. It's not at all bad--but it's not all that great, either (though who knows what we're looking at, given all the cuts?), and a lot of the films in the series tend to be middling and sort of interesting, rather than revelatory. That applies to Alfred Hitchcock's uneven Marnie (1964), John Ford's 7 Women (1966), which my film group watched some years back, Michael Powell's Age of Consent (1969), with Helen Mirren in her debut, and Stanley Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut (pictured, 1999), which I've never really been tempted to revisit. But throwing the occasional spotlight on movies that aren't Psycho, Stagecoach, Black Narcissus, and Dr. Strangelove is why repertory cinema exists, so the series has an intrinsic value. And I saw Robert Altman's The Company (2003) at BAM when it was a new movie, so I feel like I've become part of the repertory experience.