Thursday, December 21, 2006

Christmas crackers

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Lumps of coal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, December 18, 2006

Requiem (maybe) for a heavyweight

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Spring awakens

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

Photo: Joan Marcus

Friday, December 15, 2006

The Winter Cineaste, online and on sale

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

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

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

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

German lessons

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

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

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

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

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

The Company He Keeps

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

Photo: Paul Kolnik

Saturday, December 09, 2006

A Christmas Gory

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, December 04, 2006

Clearing the decks

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

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

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

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

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

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

On Bergman Island

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

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

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

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

An Hour on Broadway

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

Photo: Paul Kolnik

Monday, November 27, 2006

10 points, 10 Items or Less

ThinkFilm opens the comedy drama this Friday, Dec. 1. In one of those experiments the indie film market is testing it's also supposed to be available for download and on pay per view. I'd explore the cheapest option, not that the film doesn't have a certain modest appeal on the bigscreen. In 10 points (or less):

1) It has nothing to do with the TV show premiering tonight; if it did, that would the best and most inexpensive way to catch it.

2) Freed from the yoke of voiceover narration and nobility, star and executive producer Morgan Freeman gives a relaxed performance as "Him," an unemployed action film actor going the indie route who stops by a faded Spanish grocery store worlds apart from his Los Angeles for research.

3) His biggest find is sharp-tongued Scarlet (Paz Vega), a clerk. Vega, the bright spot in Spanglish, shines here and sparks her co-star, who helps her improve her lot in life.

4) The writer and director, Brad Silberling, is a studio creature (Lemony Snicket, Casper, etc.) clearly enjoying a few days off from the backlot. The film has a loose rhythm.

5) The cinematography, by Phedon Papamichael, handsomely illuminates little pockets of the city and environs where cameras rarely seem to tread.

6) The musical carwash sequence and the scene where the two actors teach each other children's songs (it's that kind of getting-to-know-you movie) are charming.

7) The precise, unflashy editing, by Spielberg ace Michael Kahn, helps Silberling pull scenes like this off.

8) Freeman's encounters with VHS tapes of (fake) films co-starring him and Ashley Judd are an effective running meta-gag.

9) Danny DeVito and Rhea Perlman cameo as the movie moves into Brentwood for its bittersweet climax.

10) As fast and as painless as a trip to a well-organized grocery store with no waiting, 10 Items or Less is over in 82 minutes.

(11) And, in a season where movies routinely tip the scales at over two hours, that is no small asset. )

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

R.I.P. Robert Altman

Whatever the late director felt about "the industry" (The Player gives us a strong hint) Altman was a giant whose missteps and failures were as interesting as his unqualified successes. MASH, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, The Long Goodbye, California Split, Nashville, 3 Women, Streamers, Secret Honor, Tanner, Vincent and Theo, Gosford Park--and those are just the Altman pictures I love; I like several others, and find those I consider flops (like Quintet) to be at least interesting to puzzle over.

A Prairie Home Companion left me cold but I liked that he stares down death in that film with good humor--it is a kick in the teeth to the grim reaper as it prepares its embrace, and L.Q. Jones' character is surely a surrogate figure--and that here and with 2003's The Company he was experimenting with high-definition filmmaking. Altman changed with the times and I think changed them, too. Film, TV, theater, theatrical adaptation, opera; his maverick talent roamed everywhere. We are unlikely to see his kind again.

Celebrate his legacy with a commemorative screening. My pick: McCabe, a dirty, ornery, beautiful, wonderful film. Farewell Robert Altman.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Mary had a Little Dog

On Broadway, a little dog laughs, with Johnny Galecki and Tom Everett Scott. Plus a bit of BAM from Ellen Lampert-Greaux at Live Design.

I took in Mary Poppins, Disney's latest super-show, at the New Amsterdam last night, The Lion King having found a new habitat. [It's a lovely, woodcut space with the tiniest seats on Broadway; my knees spent the near-three hours having unpleasant sense memories of the last time I was there, in 1998.] The outsized, immaculately crafted Cameron Mackintosh production ensures that the musical, based more on the songs of the 1964 film than its plot or tone, never collapses into the vulgarity of recent disasters like Chitty Chitty Bang Bang or Lestat. Gavin Lee steps smartly into the shoes of Dick Van Dyke as Bert, the chimney sweep; the British music hall tradition lives. And you get your money's worth from the costumes, lighting, and effects; Bob Crowley's multi-tiered set for the Banks home, including a study to rival the Morgan library, can be retired to the Victorian seaside town of Cape May, NJ, once the run ends.

What's missing, frankly, is Mary Poppins. Playing the vain and vinegary nanny of the stories and not the film, Ashley Brown gives a remote, hard to relate to performance. It's intriguing that Broadway pro Rebecca Luker has been cast as the worn-down Mrs. Banks; Luker, who played Maria in a so-so Sound of Music revival, seems to be there to remind audiences of Andrews' warmth and accessibility in her Oscar-winning part. Why the kids need a helpmate at all with Luker in the house is a puzzle.

The razzle-dazzle is also fatiguing over time. With no real throughline, just a string of incidents, the show could easily wrap up with Act One. Musically, the show peaks with the first act's inventively staged and hand-jivey "Supercali..." (you know the rest), and Lee's gently handled performance and reprises of the Oscar-winning "Chim Chim Cher-ee" are a balm to the ears. A new, second-act number, the chimney sweeps' tap-danced "Step in Time," dazzles, but seems to be there just to give star choreographer Matthew Bourne something to do. I was restless by the time it finally ended. Giving credit where credit is due, Mary Poppins is sincere; I giggled at the Solid Gold costumes the chimney sweeps obtain during "Step in Time," and the near-nude statues who come to life and flounce about the stage during "Jolly Holiday" have raised an eyebrow or two, but that's my preconditioning. I doubt the show means to wink at us. It doesn't, alas, really embrace us, either. Mary Poppins flies but never really takes off, emotionally.

Photo, The Little Dog Laughed. Credit: Carol Rosegg

Friday, November 17, 2006

Boys and girls

Three new films this go-round, all of which happen to deal with teens and twentysomethings messing around. I wrote about the film version of The History Boys, the Tony-iest winning play in a half-century, for the New York Theater News' aborning website, so I probably shouldn't repeat myself. Suffice it to say that if you missed the show, you missed the essence of what made it such a thought-provoking hit, not that the movie by any means a disgrace. [With the entire cast and as much of Alan Bennett's witty script retained as possible, it couldn't be.] But changes have been made to the film which I think weaken it, and the pallid cinematography, by Andrew Dunn, is a disaster.

The real problem, I think, is that director Nicholas Hytner is more comfortable onstage than onscreen. He and Bennett collaborated successfully in both mediums on The Madness of King George, which the cheeky and thoroughly enjoyable The Queen put me in mind of. On his own, though, Hytner made a drab hash of The Crucible , and The Object of My Affection proved a fizzless romantic comedy. Opening Nov. 21, The History Boys (Fox Searchlight Pictures) might have been better served with a new headmaster at the helm.

Candy (Thinkfilm, opened today) is likely to be overshadowed by co-star Abbie Cornish's alleged involvement with Ryan Phillippe in le affaire Witherspoon. This would be too bad. I haven't seen the Australian actress' said-to-be-noteworthy performance in Somersault, which is lodged somewhere in my Netflix queue. But she is faultless playing an American in A Good Year, so much so that I didn't recognize her, though I had already seen her in this movie. Chameleon talent like this deserves to be spotted elsewhere besides the checkout tabloids.

She and Heath Ledger, continuing the career upswing begun with Brokeback Mountain, are shatteringly good as heroin addicts whose love for each other is as toxic as their mutual habit. Addiction movies are a perennial, and a bore when they go the therapeutic route, but the writer-director, Neil Armfield (adapting a book by Luke Davies), digs deeply into their self-deceptions and delusions. That their relationship continues beyond a horrific stillbirth early on shows how crazily committed they are to each other, as they descend into prostitution, and worse. I realized how sharp the movie was when, after Candy, an art student, turns a trick, she obliges Dan, her poet boyfriend, to do the same, an entirely reasonable request that I hadn't expected to see enacted. [Ledger is nervously funny in the scene.] As a bonus, Geoffrey Rush turns up, as a self-styled professor of pharmacology who is always good for a quick fix.

I realize it's not easy to sell arthouse releases, particularly those with (gasp!) subtitles, but Strand Releasing (or maybe Film Forum, which provided me with the press notes) is giving a false impression about Emmanuelle Bercot's Backstage, which the rep house launches on Nov. 22. "The Pop Star Diva Meets the Fan from Hell," the notes read, which is misleading; Lucie (Isild Lo Besco), who enters the orbit of singer Lauren Waks (Emmanuelle Seigner), is as much sinned against as sinner, and the whole film is very French, subtler and more reticent about the craziness of pop life than, say, The Rose.

Inspired, perhaps, by Jennifer Jason Leigh in Georgia, Seigner throws herself into the part of a part-Madonna, part-Debbie Harry object of adoration, singing a half-dozen ethereal songs between all the strum and drang she and Lo Besco, as an off-balance fan she basically adopts, kick up. Very incisively shot by Agnes Godard, Backstage lacks the clawed wit of All About Eve, which the notes reference, hopefully. And nothing in it is quite as successful as its bizarre opening sequence, where Lauren, an angel in white satin, shows up unannounced for Lucie's birthday party, trailing a reality TV camera crew behind; Lucie hides in her room, as her beloved siren tries to tempt her before the cameras. Given the envy and psychological abuse and heartache that erupt when they do meet in Backstage, Lucie probably should have stayed put.

Fall MovieMaker online and on sale

The fall issue of MovieMaker, "the best-selling independent film magazine in the world," is online. My first contribution, a Q&A with Ridley Scott about A Good Year and assorted career highlights, is in the publication, which is available at better bookstores and magazine stands now. Check it out.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

An Aura of dread

I didn't much care for Nine Queens (2000), which became one of the relatively few breakout foreign-film hits in recent times when it was exported from its native Argentina a couple of years later. It wasn't hard to see why--the first-time writer-director, Fabian Bielinsky, had fashioned a gimmicky con-man thriller in the tradition of The Sting and given it a mildly exotic local air, and audiences swooned. [With similarly labored plot mechanics I don't like The Sting that much, either.] A meal of empty calories, Nine Queens was not the sort of film to adhere to the ribs, and a rote US remake, Criminal, vanished quickly in 2004.

To his credit, Bielinsky has not repeated old tricks with The Aura (IFC First Take), which begins its run on Nov. 17. Instead, he's borrowed from Memento, which has spawned a cottage industry in thrillers where the time frame is jagged and split. But The Aura, which runs an extremely generous 138 minutes, is anything but cut-and-run in the telling. Bielinsky lets the scenes run long, and an ominous, Tangerine Dream-like score by Lucio Godoy laps at the images, like little waves in a pond. The effect is meant to be hypnotic, drawing you into the dream state where its main character functions best, and from time to time it works--that is, if you can stay fully alert. The screening room I saw it in was full of lolling heads, like a room full of bobblehead dolls made from NY film critics, as everyone fell in and out of cat-naps. The occasional humor, and the gunshots, helped resuscitate interest.

The Aura centers on taxidermist, called simply The Taxidermist, a shy, plodding man played to boringly obsessive perfection by Nine Queens star Ricardo Darin. The taxidermist is on a hunting trip in the Patagonian forest. His real quarry is, however, in his dreams--what he would like to do, if he were less timid, is to commit the perfect robbery, the blueprint for which exists in his head. Events--an accidental homicide, a chance roadside encounter--give him a chance to put his plan into action, as he makes himself part of an unfolding conspiracy to raid a local casino. There is, however, a catch. The taxidermist is an epileptic, whose attacks are preceded by an "aura," which the press notes helpfully describe as "both a warning and a moment of strange, almost sublime enlightenment, an experience of utter confusion and overwhelming disorientation." Bielinsky is not making this up; Googling uncovered some interesting reading on this phenomenon, and it makes for a good hook for a thriller, as the taxidermist tries to stay one step ahead in his involvement with some shady characters.

Bielinsky's attempt to create the fugue-state experience of an aura is admirable; to judge from my experience, it may have worked too well. The violent action, when it comes, is well-staged, not that the plight of the shut-off, mostly unlikable taxidermist is of overwhelming interest (I was more concerned for the fate of the dog who lopes in and out of the picture). Most compelling, if more from thinking about afterwards than during the languid film itself, is the atmosphere of stealthily mounting catastrophe The Aura creates. Having completed his second film, Bielinsky died of a heart attack earlier this year, at age 47.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

Iraq in closeup

The winter issue of Cineaste, coming soon, has two good articles in it. [Actually, as it should be said without saying, it has more than that, including, ahem, an outstanding "Communique" from the Montreal World Film Festival.] One is a provocative roundup of documentaries (and the upcoming feature, Home of the Brave) about the Iraq war, filmed before the insurgency closed that window of opportunity; the other is an interview with the director of the best of these portraits, James Longley, whose Iraq in Fragments (Typecast Releasing/HBO Documentary Films) opens at New York's Film Forum on Nov. 8.

Longley directed, photographed, co-produced, co-edited and did the sound and music for the film, his second following the harrowing Gaza Strip (2002). Iraq in Fragments, shot over a two-year period, deservedly won best director, cinematography, and editing prizes at the Sundance Film Festival. While it has the immediacy of a documentary, it has the hallmarks of good feature filmmaking--vivid imagery, tight, attention-holding editing, and a fine score, qualities unevenly distributed among its peers, which are more journalistic or propagandistic in tone. In 94 minutes it tells three stories, one from each of the country's three most prominent groups, the Sunnis, the Shiites, and the Kurds.

These were culled from footage obtained from right after the war began in 2003 to 2005 (a fourth story, Sari's Mother, became a short film on its own). We meet a fatherless 11-year-old boy, an auto mechanic who tries in vain to placate the owner of a Baghdad garage, to whom he has been apprenticed; gun-toting Moqtada Sadr followers in Shiite cities as elections loom; and Kurdish farmers who are pleased to see the arrival of the Americans following the downfall of Saddam Hussein. That the film is willing to showcase some display of good feeling among so much loss is proof of its open-mindedness, not that Longley is advocating the aims of the conflict itself.

A restless account, filmed with an eye toward the poetic, Iraq in Fragments is by turns discomfiting and moving--for as much as we have let these people down, inflaming distrust and disturbance, they go on. They are part of our story now. For their sake as much as our own, we need to send a clear signal on Tuesday. It's not the economy, stupid. It's Iraq.

Neat freaks

Jill Clayburgh and Blair Brown make a mess of a clean house off Broadway, in the latest from the Live Design website.

Photo: Joan Marcus

Monday, October 30, 2006

Nightmares before Christmas

It's only fitting that my 80th post concern Halloween, which is my favorite holiday of the year--as you might have guessed given the monstrous orientation of a number of the preceding 79 missives. I passed through the costumes phase of Halloween long ago; my favorite was a spooky devil's mask that was, appropriately, hot as hell to wear, but never failed to startle candy-givers used to kids in tamer outfits. A little sadly, I've also passed out of the gifting phase; parents are loathe to hazard New York City streets with their tykes and I haven't treated a Halloweener in years, which probably means--damn!--I'm going to have to eat that bag of $100,000 Bars I bought just in case from the Pathmark myself.

[My mother would roll her eyes at this. She gets upwards of 150 trick-or-treaters in the suburbs of northern NJ, more in good weather--and tomorrow is expected to be spectacular. She fobbed the job off to me when I was in my late teens but was forced into reemployment when I flew the coop. Her favorite trick-or-treater I went back and forth to and from the nest today to pick up my goodie bag. The 41 Year-Old-Halloweener.]

One constant on Halloween is, of course, scary movies, which you never age out of. I imagine a lot of big kids will make a pilgrimage to Saw III tomorrow night, but not me; I find a lot of modern horror too depressingly nihilistic, more cynical and enervating than nerve-jangling. If I want that kind of horror, I'll turn on the appalling Nancy Grace for all the breathless details about the crime of the day.

So we're off to see Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas, reformatted for 3D, tomorrow evening. My first exposure to the film, in 1993, was dismal; I was in a time of transition that year, and in no mood for levity. I didn't think much of it till the HMV that used to be on Lexington/86th in Manhattan sold off all its laserdiscs in the late 90s; one of them was the gorgeously packaged deluxe package that Disney put out of that film, which I scooped up. What a difference the passage of time had made; I loved it, and would likely haul it out this year, if it weren't for the new theatrical print (I'm a sucker for 3D, and think everything should be in the format, especially talky art films that could use a little zip and zing) and the fact that my LD player is still in storage, awaiting a new stand, which no one seems to want to custom-build for us. Having survived Jaws, Lora--not a horror film fan--has submitted to indoctrination by Nightmare. I think she'll love it; after all, at its core, it is a musical comedy.

Speaking of musical comedy, we listened to "Science Fiction Double Feature," the first cut off The Rocky Horror Picture Show album, last night. The first of the 11 creature features mentioned in its lyrics is The Day the Earth Stood Still, which we watched last night via TCM, which really puts its best fright forward before and during Halloween. What a timeless, witty, and engrossing picture the 55-year-old Day is; so long as there's war, its brand of humanism will never go out of date, and besides the big picture themes (and that amazing Bernard Herrmann score, and Michael Rennie and Patricia Neal, and Gort the robot, everyone's favorite enforcer) it packs a lot of little things into its 92 minutes: vivid location shooting in Washington, D.C., a great, pre-Father Knows Best performance by Billy Gray, a movie kid for the ages, and lots of amusing, at times inadvertently revealing touches. When the military and scientific personnel assess the alien threat, they inevitably light up as the conversations intensify, ignorant or the first- and second-hand danger right in front of them.

If you're looking for film fare tomorrow night, you could do worse than watching the films listed in the "Science Fiction" song. The writing is very astute, though Doctor X (1932) does not build a creature (he is the creature, encased in synthetic flesh) and you'd have no idea how good Night of the Demon (1958) is from the sophomoric "casting the runes" lyrics. I don't think It Came From Outer Space is out of on DVD, and Forbidden Planet is coming next month in a spiffy 50th anniversary version. Unless you like noisy, stringed spaceships I'd cheat and watch the deliciously campy 1980 Flash Gordon over the 1935 serial. King Kong and The Invisible Man, from 1933, are readily accessed via Netflix, as are Tarantula (1955) and When Worlds Collide (1951). The DVD of 1963's Day of the Triffids could be better tended than it is.

And, yes, I have them all. It's always Halloween in my house, just a little more, tomorrow.

Friday, October 27, 2006

Dim bulbs

Ways to turn down the wattage on a movie, culled from this fall's releases:

1) Make your twist ending incomprehensible. The finale of The Prestige (pictured) had me scurrying to the Internet Movie Database to find out exactly what happened, and I wasn't alone. When I did, I realized why the filmmakers had been so coy with their dropped hints and photographic asides (the hats): It's pretty ridiculous. And it's off-putting that Christian Bale's character exhibits no emotion whatsoever about the fate of a fellow character. Then again, the whole film, while well-mounted, is pretty chilly and difficult to warm to; I prefer the summer's warmer-blooded magician movie, The Illusionist, but enough with the hocus pocus.

2) Throw away your movie with the very final shot. I enjoyed most of The Departed, nothing more, and nothing less (but nothing more) than a slick genre picture from Martin Scorsese, on a more even keel than recently. But I hope the DVD hits with two versions on the same disc: One with rat, and one without. I've read that the last shot is meant to be acridly humorous, and to underline the theme, but the theme--we're all rats!--is not one that needed to be underlined at the 150-minute mark, with 90 percent of the cast dispatched. We got it already.*

3) Don't bother to ID your characters. Just as the spectators in Stardust Memories prefer the "early, funny ones" of its Woody Allen-ish filmmaker, so, too, do I prefer the early, violent ones of Clint Eastwood. Flags of Our Fathers means to tell us that heroes are merely survivors, getting on with a ferociously difficult task, and that heroism is manufactured for the survival of societies--but the first point is illustrated with familiar, Saving Private Ryan imagery that has lost its potency since 1998, and the second, more abstract point is beyond its director's workmanlike abilities to engage with. (My friend John Calhoun called 2004's Million Dollar Baby "the best picture of 1954," too true.) Further hurting the cause is that, except for Adam Beach as the tragic Ira Hayes, the parts are dully cast and dully played, and that not nearly enough is done to identify the characters, some of whom turn up, confusingly, in the present-day scenes as well.

Which brings me to 3a) throw a lot of flashbacks at us, just as we're absorbing what's happening in one timeframe, and 3b) shoot everything in an eye-straining colorless color, as if that is the "color of war" (the color of war is simply natural color; Eastwood would never have bothered with this high-falutin processing before Unforgiven domesticated him). I was only moved by the black-and-white photographs and memorial footage that play over the closing credits.

4) Upstage your fact-based movie by showing us the real person. The Last Days of Scotland isn't a biopic, and takes rather far-fetched liberties with the truth. Initially, I didn't quite believe Forest Whitaker as Idi Amin; the actor specializes in gentle, or at least slyly introspective, parts. He assumed authority, though, in a wonderful scene where a wound Amin sustained is dressed, a sequence played for nervous comedy and near-terror by Whitaker and James McAvoy, as his doctor. I slowly bought into the illusion...then the credits roll and footage of the actual dictator is shown, returning me to square one and my gut reaction that Yaphet Kotto was a lot closer to the mark in the 1977 TV movie Raid on Entebbe.

5) More a comment than a concern: Scare us with a supporting player. As creepy as Nosferatu the vampire, Jackie Earle Haley makes such an alarming impression in Little Children I almost lost focus. All I could think of when he emerged from the ranks of the cinematic dead as a child molester was, "Is this what age 45 looks like?" I saw him in one of his teen-dream pictures, Damnation Alley--he looks to have been living there for the last 30 years. Frightening.

*Reviewing the sci-fi thriller Outland in 1981, Pauline Kael anticipated a movie where the good and bad guys stalk each other on computer screens. This is that movie, except it's via cellphones. There may have been others before, but this one felt particularly technophilic, and at least there are real chases and shoot-em-ups to compensate for this rather distant and faceless interaction.

Theater week

Heartbreak, activism, and a little melodrama at the Public Theater, on and off Broadway...

Pictured: Swoosie Kurtz, Lily Rabe, and Byron Jennings in Heartbreak House. Photo: Joan Marcus.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Over the edge

The camera alights on the Golden Gate Bridge, one of the world's most photogenic structures. Tourists snap pictures of the San Francisco Harbor. One person, however, paces, clearly agitated. He breaks from the crowd, and leaps--a 225' drop into chilly water with the consistency of th hardest concrete from that height. In four seconds he is down, and gone. Kiteboaders go by. The Bridge Police are called. Just another day.

In 2004, there were 24 suicides from the Golden Gate Bridge. And many of them were captured, on camera, by first-time director and documentarian Eric Steel, whose The Bridge (First Stripe Productions/IFC; opens Oct. 27) is surely the year's most troubling and thought-provoking film. I saw it two months ago and not a day goes by when I don't relive one of its starkly terrifying, and starkly beautiful, images.

The bridge is a magnet for leapers. There is no more inspiring place to end one's life; it has no rivals for suicide attempts. The magnificent structure provides a coda, a final stab at glory and immortality, for the desperate. It is terrifying to watch these lost souls in their descent; and it is also terribly enrapturing. You may wish to turn away, to avert your eyes. It's only human not to want to look. But do look. You understand why someone would wish to end their life in exactly this picturesque way.

You may not understand why city fathers have yet to put a stop to it. I don't get it; I walked the span of the bridge several times when I lived in the bay area and, picture postcards aside, the absence of constraints worried me. It's within their reach to put up suicide barriers, and The Bridge, with its incontrovertible facts, may yet spur action this front. But this is a political issue, which was a focus of "Jumpers," the very fine New Yorker article, by Tad Friend, that inspired Steel to make this film. It is not even addressed within the film itself, which I found a shortcoming. (It is discussed in the press notes.) This should have been a pro-barrier advocacy picture, one that I think would have had a greater galvanizing effect on the legislature (and would have doused discussion that the movie, which does not take a strong editorial stance, perpetuates suicidal ideation by susceptible viewers). How many hundreds of people have died on the bridge? How many more will die if this continues? Is San Francisco worried that by doing something at this late date they will open themselves up to lawsuits for not doing something sooner? So many questions.

Sticking to the film Steel has made, and not the one I wish he had made, it is clear that he has made an advocacy picture, about the stigma attached to suicide. He spoke about this at a Q&A that followed the screening I attended. Friends and family of the deceased speak wrenchingly of their loved ones, lost in a fog of depression before the Golden Gate transfixed their imagination as the last best hope for personal apocalypse. Why did they allow Steel permission to use their death leaps, I asked. He replied that they were grateful to have some record of their passing, some memento, however terrible--particularly when they looked so peaceful in that last moment going over the side.

Lest one think that this is a blissful way to die, or a "respectable snuff film," as Dennis Lim put it in The New York Times, a rare survivor of a Golden Gate suicide plunge, 25-year-old Kevin Hines, talks about his attempt. We hear about his deepening apathy when passers-by ignored his obvious distress--oblivious to his tears a German tourist asked him to take her picture--and his sudden realization that he wanted to live the second he left the guardrail. He hit the water feet first, which saved his vital organs from shattering on impact as he tries, today, to repair his damaged psyche. And the cameras do record a dramatic rescue, much to the anger of the would-be jumper. There is as much life in The Bridge as there is death.

While I may have wanted a different, more activist film, The Bridge is heart-breakingly fine, and goes beyond mere voyeurism. [You can read more about the making of the film at its website.] If only reason would prevail in San Francisco and there were no need to make it at all.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Stabbing at Scissors

I love Nip/Tuck. It's the kind of TV show I usually hate, full of plastic people--but its willingness to dig deep under their facades, psychically as well as physically, fascinates me. It "jumps the shark" every episode with some new and incredible plot twist, in or out of the operating room, then asks, "Well, if you think you're so above this, why are you still watching?" Why indeed? Its reveling in, and simultaneous critique of, our beauty-obsessed culture is just about the most riveting thing that's currently on the tube. And any show that finds something genuinely touching about Rosie O'Donnell, in a guest role, can't be easily dismissed.

So I was predisposed to like Running with Scissors (TriStar Pictures, opens Oct. 20), the feature film writing and directing debut of Nip/Tuck creator Ryan Murphy, from Augusten Burroughs' memoir, which is riding high atop The New York Times' paperback bestsellers list. But I didn't. Really, really, didn't, as Roger Ebert might say. What went wrong?

As on the show, there's no shortage of crazed egomaniacs and nutjob therapists in Burroughs' life, so Murphy should have felt right at home. An only child, six-year-old Augusten is buffeted between his parents, Norman (Alec Baldwin), an alcoholic math professor who can't make his precocious neatnik son add up, and Deirdre (Annette Bening), an unpublished poet whose wild flights of fantasy are fueled by her compulsive pill-popping. As the marriage hits the skids Deirdre signs up her family for intensive therapy with Dr. Finch (Brian Cox), a charismatic quack who retreats to his personal "masturbatorium" when the day-long sessions get boring. [It's the early 1970's, and anything goes.] Eventually, Deirdre, who ambles from prescription to prescription, decides that Augusten (played, from age 13-15, by Joseph Cross) should simply live with the Finches; moreover, the doctor should adopt the boy, as Deirdre pursues her "career" and Norman pretty much vanishes from sight. His roost in the crumbling Finch home is not a happy one--Mrs. Finch (Jill Clayburgh with matted, stringy hair) putters around monosyllabically, when not watching Dark Shadows, and eldest daughter Hope (Gwyneth Paltrow) thumps the Bible. Augusten, shell-shocked by his changing circumstances, announces he's gay--a prognosis that is immediately challenged by daughter Natalie (Evan Rachel Wood), a disco dolly, but confirmed by Neil (Joseph Fiennes), Finch's schizophrenic, 35-year-old son, who begins an affair with the boy.

I've not read the book, from which the film has apparently been fictionalized, at least in part. But I've read articles by Burroughs and can imagine its tone being one of a quirky, scruffy surrealism--a cataloging of mind-bending experiences actually lived. I'm not sure how credible a lot of it is, frankly; IRS investigators nose around the Finches but the doctor's law-skirting excesses seem too much even for the Seventies. But the movie is determined to make the unpalatable palatable, to smooth things over, to go for whimsy and heartache and final-act confrontations and healing. One look at Clayburgh and you know she will turn out to be the deux ex machina who sets the caged Finch free, so he can go off and become--this you already knew--a writer.

What Murphy can't do, however, is gloss over the abusive relationship Augusten has with the pitiably demented Neil. Nice try casting the older Cross in the role, to let the movie off the hook, but knowing that Augusten was in his early teens when the seduction began is guaranteed to raise the hackles. Casting a younger boy in the part would have thrown cold water all over the attempt to sentimentalize the relationship, to make it look like something other than abuse--which is pretty much the same thing Murphy does with Augusten and Deirdre, a monster mother to give Joan Crawford fits of envy. These are horrible people, whom the movie wants us to see as funny-sad, human in all their many flaws, and it just doesn't play. You can see the whitewash drying on the celluloid.

There are things to like about Running with Scissors. The actors are hamstrung by the slack, uncomfortable pacing of many of the scenes--Murphy's TV-learned strength is structuring between commercials--but not entirely defeated, and I appreciated the modulation Bening and Clayburgh (a Nip/Tuck veteran) managed to bring to their parts. Cross and Fiennes have difficult assignments they can't altogether rise to under the circumstances; Wood has an easier time of it, but I can't fathom why Paltrow took on her nothing part. [She's said she's tired of acting, and between this and Infamous I have no reason not to believe her.] The inevitable Brian Cox is disappointing as the charmingly fraudulent Finch; much as I like the actor, he is overexposed and underemoting, and needs to take a break.

The American Gothic Finch household designed by Richard Sherman, shot with an accent on bold primary colors by Christopher Baffa, is eye-catching. But so much of Running with Scissors, a film that wants to shock and soothe all at once, is mind-numbing. What really stuck in the craw was a note in the production releases from the author, saying that all is well--whatever happened to him, happened, and he's now a bestselling author with a movie to boot. I don't know what's more repellent; the movie, or the author's strip-mining and reframing of his own misery to attract sales.

Monday, October 16, 2006

Good and plenty

Much of last week was spent interviewing. MovieMaker magazine sent me to the Regency Hotel to give the third degree to three-time Academy Award nominee Ridley Scott about his first out-and-out comedy, A Good Year (20th Century Fox), which opens Nov. 10. Russell Crowe unveils what for many will be a hitherto-unsuspected light side in a slight but charming yarn about an arrogant master of the universe, London-issue, humbled in his efforts to sell off the crumbling French chateau and vineyard he has inherited from his bon vivant uncle, played in flashbacks by Albert Finney. Scott suggested a thread of the storyline, about black-market vintages, to his friend, former ad agency colleague and wine country neighbor Peter Mayle (author of A Year in Provence) and the novelist ran with it. I don't know how it stacks up to his 2004 novel but Scott's film (pictured) will feel like a gentle summer breeze when it reaches theaters next month. My interview with the director, who is shooting his latest film, American Gangster, in New York, will appear in the next issue of the magazine, also due in November.

Harry's Bar, in the Park Lane Hotel, was the site of a sitdown with Hong Kong filmmaker Johnnie To, who latest film, Triad Election (Tartan Films), played at the New York Film Festival. This is the sequel to To's gripping Election, which will get a Region 1 DVD release when Triad Election (or Election 2) begins its national release at New York's Film Forum next April 25. I'm not sure Film Forum is the best place for a launch, frankly; the theater has had no luck with its Asian aquisitions (the excellent Korean movie, Save the Green Planet!, sank there without trace in 2004), though it might make sense bundled with a To retrospective. The sequel, where the Hong Kong underworld comes under close scrutiny by the Chinese government, stands on its own despairing, dog-eat-dog (and, in one scene, people) merits, but you'll miss the back-and-forth between the two pictures and might mistake Lok (Simon Yam), who schemed his way to the top in Election, as some sort of hero, besieged by the more business-like Jimmy (Louis Koo), who played a smaller role in the first film. [Or you can just head over to your nearest Chinatown and pick up both on DVD, not that I want to sabotage Tartan, a commendable importer, in either market.]

The prolific To's very latest, Exiled, which Magnolia will release here next spring or early summer, also screened last year. A gangland caper set in Macau, this is a more playful film, with flourishes and themes that recall Sam Peckinpah and fellow HK-er John Woo, and a wonderful Bogart-type performance by jack-of-all-trades journeyman actor Anthony Wong (a little Beat the Devil here, a little Treasure of the Sierra Madre there, and a dab of High Sierra, too). The screening room erupted in cheers and clapping when the film ended, something that virtually never happens in New York (usually the journalists just file out quickly, well before the closing credits have concluded. Dereliction of duty, I say). I interviewed To with my Cineaste colleague Martha Nochimson, who has written a book on HK and Hollywood gangster movies, and I figure it will run in the spring issue.

I did not interview David Lynch, who showed up at the just-concluded NYFF with his latest film, Inland Empire, looking very much like I saw him when he last took the stage at Alice Tully Hall, with 2001's Mulholland Dr. Then again, Lynch is not forthcoming with questioners, deflecting queries about this-and-that interpretation with great politeness. Before I was enveloped in its three-hour running time Cineaste's Richard Porton told me that Inland Empire (nothing intriguing about the title, unless you look at it as some sort of metaphor for the life of the mind; it's the name of the belt of cities east of Los Angeles) was "Lynch's most avant-garde film, even more than Eraserhead," and he may just be right.

The movie, which was shot on digital then (a little smearily) transferred to film over a lengthy period, without a firm shooting script, earns its surreal stripes with minimal shock effects or violence. Like Mulholland Dr. , Inland Empire focuses on an actress, Nikki (Laura Dern, who with her long flaxen hair and green dress looked smashing at Lincoln Center and gives a staggeringly committed performance), who lands a big new part in a new film directed by Kingsley (Jeremy Irons). Almost immediately, however, the movie jettisons the real world for the Lynchian rabbit hole, where an apparent murder mystery involving subtitled Poles is taking place, bunnies perform in a bad TV sitcom, a scary clown and flame animation appear, and there are many Twin Peaks-like rooms and corridors for the prowling camera to explore. Nikki, who gets wrapped up in the Polish mystery (shades of The Double Life of Veronique), seems to expire on the Hollywood Walk of Fame (or is it the character she is playing?) and there are teasing interludes and a closing musical number with a bunch of young vamps. Rather than face cuts (which would be absurd for something as all-of-a-piece as this) Lynch is self-distributing Inland Empire, and his acolytes are urged to seek it out wherever it turns up. [It has crossover possibilities with his website.] For as much as I admired Dern once was likely enough from this corner, though I got a kick out of the rabbits and a heavily accented Grace Zabriskie.

And I made the rounds on and off Broadway last week, taking in the revival of A Chorus Line, a revival of George Bernard Shaw's Heartbreak House, and the controversial solo show My Name is Rachel Corrie, a London import. I'll have more to say about the latter two on the Live Design website. As for A Chorus Line, I was lukewarm; the cast is made up of good dancers but good singers and especially good actors are in short supply--the lovely "At The Ballet" suffered grievous injury--and when Zach seems more interested in Paul than in Cassie you have a problem. But it's better than the movie.