Friday, January 29, 2010

Popdose: Why I Heart Jeff Bridges

Will the fifth time be the charm for perennial Oscar hopeful Jeff Bridges? Stay tuned for Tuesday, but in the meantime a look back at the career of the quintessential American actor and his Crazy Heart.

B-Fest 4-Ever

A salute to all those attending this year's B-Fest at Northwestern this weekend. I, too, camped out overnight at Norris Center, enjoying mind-croggling filmic fare, dozing in the seats, and eating food that got more and more inedible with each passing hour. But, oh, the company I kept, over twenty years ago now--Plan 9 from Outer Space, The Giant Claw, Fiend Without a Face, all back to delight a new generation of genre insomniacs, plus Mae West in Sextette and Troll 2, not there was much difference between Mae and a troll in her dotage. (Rim shot!) I join the Claw in winging my way over to you if I could. Next best thing: Kids, if you call out "Day, night! Day, night!" during Plan 9's innumerable intra-scene changes, you may hear my echo reverberating from the walls.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Popdose: Kingdom of the Spiders on DVD

The Shat hits the fan as an arachnid army marches through Sedona, as the 1977 creature feature gets a special edition crawling with extras.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Popdose: Surrogates on DVD

It's doubles trouble for FBI agent Bruce Willis in Jonathan Mostow's sci-fi thriller , an Earthbound predecessor to Avatar (in more ways than one).

Saturday, January 23, 2010

RIP Jean Simmons

Sad to report that the actress who supplied the beating heart of Spartacus (pictured) has passed into legend herself. I always liked her, and my dad recently said she was one of his favorites. Despite many great credits, two Oscar nominations (for her Ophelia in Olivier's 1948 Hamlet, and 1969's The Happy Ending, as a desperate housewife directed by her then-husband Richard Brooks), and an Emmy (for The Thorn Birds) I think she was undervalued, and finding suitable parts was a challenge once her heyday had passed. But look at that resume, in major films and minor diversions: David Lean's Great Expectations, bewitching in Powell and Pressburger's Black Narcissus, the original Blue Lagoon, So Long at the Fair, malevolent and able to put a scare into Robert Mitchum in Otto Preminger's Angel Face, George Cukor's The Actress, holding unwieldy pictures like The Robe, Guys and Dolls, and The Big Country together with her warmth and good sense, Brooks' Elmer Gantry. All the Way Home and Home Before Dark would be welcome to see.

It was great to see her in 1995's How to Make an American Quilt after a film hiatus and to hear her voice again in the English-language version of Howl's Moving Castle. Bby chance I recently saw her in several episodes of the short-lived revival of TV's Dark Shadows. Big screen or small, she was one English rose who was always in bloom.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010


There's an article about CBS Films in today's New York Times that centers on Friday's release of Extraordinary Measures, an uplifting true-life medical thriller starring Harrison Ford and Brendan Fraser. The cynic in me says that if the movie were truly extraordinary it would be released in a more happening month, but no matter. What nagged at me is an offhand dig at Lorenzo's Oil, a fact-based movie with a similar bucking-the-medical-establishment theme.

"Medical tales, especially involving children, can veer dangerously close to schmaltz. One misstep and you could have Lorenzo’s Oil, the 1993 film about a boy with a rare disease that was well reviewed at the time but has become the industry’s go-to example of overdone sentimentality."

First off: Lorenzo's Oil was released in 1992. Besides being well-reviewed, it was nominated for two Oscars, and should have been up for more. Co-written and directed by an actual doctor, George Miller, it's one of the most gripping dramas I've seen, and there's not an ounce of sentimentality in it. If anything, its boxoffice was limited by it being too clinical, too "depressing." Yes, there are scenes where Lorenzo's Catholic parents (extraordinarily well-played by nominee Susan Sarandon and Nick Nolte) break down in frustration and even beg their son to "fly to Jesus" if his silent suffering becomes too unbearable, but these are hardly overdone after what we've experienced. If this is "schmaltz," I'd wish we'd see more of it on our screens.

Popdose: Streamers on DVD

Robert Altman's take on David Rabe's classic Vietnam-era play, with Matthew Modine and David Alan Grier, resurfaces. It's as penetrating now as it was in 1983, and the Off Broadway revival of the show I saw in 2008 had its work cut out for it to equal its quality.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Oscars suggestion

To cut the running time down further, simply mail Mo'Nique and Christoph Waltz their statuettes. After an avalanche of critics awards the Golden Globes confirms that without even being nominated yet they're shoo-ins to win. Hell, maybe develop a story where their evil characters from Precious and Inglourious Basterds meet in the late 80s and plot world destruction. Perhaps not, but it's a little off-putting to the home punter when there's a lock two months before the actual event, even if it does assure you two points in your Oscar pool (maybe three if you go with Jeff Bridges, who seems pretty solid this year to get a fifth nomination and an overdue prize). Though I like both for various reasons cause for concern is Avatar blanking The Hurt Locker last night--but the Globes don't mean anything, right?

Friday, January 15, 2010

Popdose: The prime of Christopher Plummer

The veteran actor celebrates his 80th birthday with two new films, playing Tolstoy opposite Helen Mirren in The Last Station, and an immortal carnival barker in Terry Gilliam's The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (with Tom Waits, pictured).

Thursday, January 14, 2010

By George!

"He said, 'It's George Sanders' and I didn't even know who George Sanders was!"

--Michael Fassbender, on auditioning for his part in Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds (in the current issue of Vanity Fair).

“Acting is like roller skating. Once you know how to do it, it is neither stimulating nor exciting.”--George Sanders

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Popdose: Passing Strange on DVD

Spike Lee's fine film of the groundbreaking Broadway show bows on DVD. If you can't wait to order or Netflix it, it also airs tonight on PBS' Great Performances.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Centennial celebration

Sometimes I feel like a cryptkeeper, always burying the dead. But today a chance to light 100 birthday candles for Luise Rainer, winner of back-to-back Oscars for The Great Ziegfeld (1936) and The Good Earth (1937). She said the feat killed her career, but it gave her a kind of immortality as a trivia quiz answer, and I'm not sure anyone will ever equal her status of the oldest living Academy Award winner. (Not that I wouldn't like to see someone try.) You can see those 70-plus-year-old credits tonight on TCM. I missed her comeback on a 1983 Love Boat episode, but I did see her in The Gambler, from 1997--the same year her contemporary, Gloria Stuart, took a return trip on Titanic. She hits the century mark on July 4. You go, girls!

Monday, January 11, 2010

RIP Eric Rohmer

“I saw a Rohmer movie once,” sniffs Gene Hackman's detective in Arthur Penn’s Night Moves (1975). “It was kind of like watching paint dry.” I imagined that bemused the filmmaker, not that he hadn't heard it before. And it fits the character perfectly: He's a guy who doesn't see what's right in front of him, which turns out tragically. I remember settling in with Pauline at the Beach (1983) on Cinemax, and expecting a hot number--which it wasn't. But it was a rich experience--Rohmer's films typically are. And in its own way, beneath the chatty surface, it was a hot movie, it's just that at age 18 I wasn't ready to see the substance of sex beneath the skin, as it were.

A noble career his was, as the charter member of the French New Wave whose films so often hearkened back to an earlier time, sometimes historically but most often in a mode of civility and cultural engagement that seems remote but is actually quite refreshing to absorb. I was especially taken with his 2001 film The Lady and the Duke whose up-to-the-minute technique of digital painting recreated a vanished before our eyes. (This I would have liked to have seen in 3D.) Pictured is his last film, 2007's The Romance of Astrée and Céladon. Studied, antique, beautiful--and kind of hot.

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Me and The Simpsons

Settling in to watch the 20th anniversary episode of The Simpsons, and Morgan Spurlock's documentary about the animated juggernaut that got the drop on Gunsmoke and rewrote the TV series longevity books, I realized that I've seen all but a handful of episodes. And I may have seen those, too, at some point, amidst moves and life changes. The show got its start when I was living in Hong Kong, and eventually migrated to Asia. I got into it early on. The first one that made me laugh out loud had a parody of Jean De Florette, with Bart sent to France to work with Gallic evildoers, one named Ugolin, as in the movie. I mean, Jean De Florette as a subject of satire on a US network show? How many viewers got it then? Would anyone get it now? Those early episodes must seem like Sanskrit, full of lost or obscure cultural references.

Nevertheless, what makes the show work, then and now, is its abundant heart, which offsets a wicked cynicism. The two elements keep me watching, year in and year out. (Those, and that the show is programmed into my DVR, not that it's ever been hard to find. Rule No. 1 to keeping a show on the air: Leave it in the same place, without constant schedule hopping*.) It waxes and wanes, and was probably never better than when Conan O'Brien was at the writing helm, in 1991-1993, the years I lived in San Jose, CA, and needed the weekly pick-me-up. With NBC stabbing him in the back maybe he'd consider going back to it.

Hong Kong. San Jose. New Jersey. Manhattan. Brooklyn. Marriage. Fatherhood. And to think it made it into the new century and it's still on for Larissa to enjoy. Amazing. Simpsons, I salute you.

*Of course, in football season, always leave plenty of overtime when you tape/record. I lost the last 15 minutes of the special. D'oh!)

Saturday, January 09, 2010

RIP Art Clokey

Sorting through the Christmas boxes my parents came across my Gumby, who had somehow made his way into one. They insisted it was my original childhood Gumby, but I don't think so; he's too shiny and well-preserved. I think they bought me a new one a few years back as a sentimental gag, knowing how much I loved him as a kid, an affection that Eddie Murphy's parody did little to diminish. In any case, they gifted him to Larissa, who now has a flexible friend to call her own. And she enjoys him as much as I did.

Clokey was a more complicated person than his legacy, which also included the gentle Christian program Davey and Goliath, would suggest. There's a good documentary about him, Gumby Dharma, that goes into his deprived childhood, pioneering efforts in stop-motion animation, and later soul-searching. One can only marvel at someone whose creations have inspired generations of children to pursue adventures of their own.

Friday, January 08, 2010

Popdose: Youth in Revolt

Michael Cera tries to get laid--again!--in the cultish comedy Youth in Revolt, which kicks off the new year in movies.

An Ovation for Slings and Arrows

One of the TV highlights of the aughts, or naughts, or whatever was the great Canadian comedy series Slings and Arrows, which we loved on the Sundance Channel. Ovation has picked up all three six-episode seasons and will begin airing the show tonight at 8pm. Set amidst the Shakespearean levels of comical chaos generated by a Stratford-like company, Slings and Arrows was created by the folks behind the Tony-acclaimed musical The Drowsy Chaperone and I can't recommend it enough. And it comes just in time to chase the winter blues away. Pictured from left are stars Paul Gross, Don McKellar, and Kid in the Hall Mark McKinney. Bonus star-gazing: Rachel McAdams (Sherlock Holmes) was in the first season, and Sarah Polley the third.

Thursday, January 07, 2010


I was an early adopter of Netflix when it debuted in the late 90s. Too early: at the time it had just one distribution center, in California, and the DVDs took forever to arrive. I unadopted.

But I've been back in the fold for years now, and with a distribution center in nearby Flushing I sometimes get a new disc the day after I send one in. Trouble is, it can take me weeks to get to the DVDs I already have.

But Netflix has solved that problem for me. It's cut a deal with Warner Bros. that will keep its releases out of the familiar red envelopes for a 28-day window, to encourage DVD sales and other more profitable ancillary revenues. I can see how that benefits WB (and, inevitably, the other studios that will no doubt clamor for similar arrangements) but as a Netflix subscriber, even a slovenly one like me, why would I want to wait to see today's hot DVD a month later?

The official story is, "The new Netflix deal terms represent a bet by both sides that consumers will be willing to spend about $20 to buy what they want right away or otherwise wait nearly a month to get it as part of their subscription.

"This deal uniquely works for Netflix because our subscribers are desensitized to street dates and more interested in being matched to the perfect movie," said Ted Sarandos, Netflix's chief content officer, who handles studio relationships. "Some subscribers will so passionately want to see it in the first 28 days they may go out and buy it, just as some people want to see Avatar so badly they pay to watch it in 3D."

I'm slow to watch some of my Netflix pickups, but I'm not "desensitized." Due to the power of advertising, who doesn't know that the new Harry Potter is on DVD now? If I want him, I wave my magic cursor around my queue and get him ASAP; I don't want to twiddle my thumbs and wait a month for him to turn up, as I would on say pay per view. What business is Netflix in? Encouraging renters to buy, or stream movies through their computers rather than their home theaters, doesn't seem like an ideal model for growth. But what can one expect from a content officer who thinks that just a handful of viewers are seeing the billion-dollar earning Avatar in 3D?

Friday, January 01, 2010

2010: The year we make...manimals?

TCM is about to air 2010 (1984) in a few minutes. It's the 2001 sequel that imagines the birth of a second sun...but somehow couldn't foresee the end of the Cold War, which is in full chill as the movie opens but as we know pretty much came to a halt with the fall of the Berlin Wall five years later.

Once you've made that obvious stop this New Year's Day, maybe hit a few more flicks set this year. There's 1988's The New Gladiators, where armed gangs roam a post-nuke Los Angeles. Or 2004's District B13, where armed gangs skilled in the art of parkour crawl the walls and pop through walls in pursuit of a neutron bomb aimed at the slums on the outskirts of Paris. The armed--and legged, and furred, and toothed--gangs in 1996's The Island of Dr. Moreau are made up of Marlon Brando's menagerie of manimals, which back when a man from Hope was in the Oval Office and everything seemed possible we all figured would be commonplace by now. Maybe Lady Gaga is one.

There's 364 days left and the last laugh may be on me, but I suspect that by 2011 we'll still have one sun and be bereft of manimals. (The nukes and neutron bombs I'm not so sure about.) And I'm OK with that, so long as the events prophesied in 2012 don't come to pass.

Top 10 Theater in 09

In alphabetical order:

The Cherry Orchard (Bridge Project/BAM)
The Cripple of Inishmaan
The Emperor Jones (at the Soho Playhouse through Jan. 31)
Finian's Rainbow (closing Jan. 17 at the St. James)
God of Carnage
The Late Christopher Bean
Mary Stuart
Next Fall (reopens on Broadway March 11)
A Streetcar Named Desire (BAM, pictured)

Of note: The American Plan, Blithe Spirit, Brighton Beach Memoirs, Distracted, In the Next Room or the vibrator play (closing Jan.10 at the Lyceum), The Royal Family, Superior Donuts (closing Sunday at the Music Box), and the one-third of The Norman Conquests I was able to see.

Welcome mat: A Broadway hello to Catherine Zeta-Jones (A Little Night Music) and Daniel Craig (A Steady Rain). Good to see you again, Jude Law (Hamlet).

Flop house: Three of the worst shows I saw last year were at the American Airlines, which is enduring heavy turbulence: After Miss Julie, Hedda Gabler, and The Philanthropist. Further dishonorable mention to Killers and Other Family and Race.

Thought for the day

"New Year's Day: Now is the accepted time to make your regular annual good resolutions. Next week you can begin paving hell with them as usual."--Mark Twain