Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Dancing with the Drama Desk; Public Invited

Official communique from the Drama Desk, which I've been a member of for several years now. This Jersey Boy (Randolph, by way of Belleville, birthplace of The Four Seasons, and Colonia) be there, stuffing his face with pasta, and may favor the crowd with an enthusiastic (the charitable word for it) rendition of "My Eyes Adored You."

"Broadway performers Sutton Foster (THE DROWSY CHAPERONE) and John Lloyd Young (JERSEY BOYS, pictured; photo, Joan Marcus) will join director/choreographers Kathleen Marshall (THE PAJAMA GAME) and Casey Nicholaw (THE DROWSY CHAPERONE) and choreographer Sergio Trujillo (JERSEY BOYS) at a Drama Desk special Spring Luncheon/Panel at Sardi’s on Thursday, April 6, from 11:45 AM to 2:30 PM. The focus of the Panel, which will be moderated by Richard Ridge, a Drama Desk member and host of Broadway Beat TV, will be "Dancing on Broadway: The Art and the Staging." Sardi’s is located at 234 West 44th Street, between Broadway and Eighth Avenues.

Foster, who stars as Janet Van De Graaf in THE DROWSY CHAPERONE, and Young, who portrays Frankie Valli in JERSEY BOYS, will offer their personal perspectives on performing and dancing in stage musicals eight times a week, while Marshall, Nicholaw and Trujillo will discuss their individual approaches to staging and choreographing dance numbers for the Broadway stage.

The event is open to the public. Admission for Drama Desk members is $35 per person and includes lunch (choice of salmon, chicken or pasta). The cost for non-member guests is $45 per person. Reservations are recommended. To guarantee admission, reservations should be made now to wolf@wolfentertainmentguide.com or by calling 212/787-7020. (Please specify your choice of salmon, chicken or pasta.)

Founded in 1949, the Drama Desk is an organization of professional theater writers, critics and editors who cover all areas of the New York theater scene. William Wolf is President of the organization. The Drama Desk Awards, created in 1955, are held annually to celebrate excellence in all New York theater: Broadway, Off Broadway, Off Off Broadway and non-profit theater. This year’s Drama Desk Awards ceremony will take place on Sunday, May 21, 2006, at 9 PM at the LaGuardia Concert Hall at Lincoln Center. Robert R. Blume is executive producer of the Drama Desk Awards."

Sunday, March 26, 2006

R.I. P. Richard Fleischer, 89

Was there any film genre this director left untouched? He worked indiscriminately, which made him a moving target by the 1970s, his most prolific years. I can't blame Michael and Harry Medved for slapping him around in their 50 WORST FILMS and GOLDEN TURKEY AWARDS books; CHE! (1969), with Omar Sharif as Guevara and an unbelievable Jack Palance as Fidel Castro, is pretty terrible*, and I've had no particular desire to seek out the likes of THE INCREDIBLE SARAH (1976), ASHANTI (1979), or MILLION DOLLAR MYSTERY (1987). Whether to praise or condemn him for spotting the star potential in Meg Ryan for his 1983 AMITYVILLE 3-D is up to you.

But, c'mon...for those of us who love movies, who grew up watching movies on TV, who hung on to their storylines through commercials, cuts, and bad pan/scanning, aren't we all a little better for having been treated to 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA (1954) and FANTASTIC VOYAGE (1966)? Weren't are childhoods just a tiny bit richer for them? How about THE VIKINGS (1958), which delighted my moviewatching group when I screened it three years ago? Early, pulse-pounding noirs like THE NARROW MARGIN (1952)? COMPULSION (1959), with its marvelous courtroom summation speech by Orson Welles?

More. Other Fleischer films I enjoy, for all kinds of reasons (maybe unreasonably): BARABBAS (a fine Biblical epic), TORA! TORA! TORA! (history ably and impartially communicated**), THE NEW CENTURIONS (George C. Scott's haunting suicide sequence), THE LAST RUN (Scott again, in an atmospheric noir-type picture), THE DON IS DEAD (entertaining GODFATHER-inspired shenanigans on the Universal backlot), MR. MAJESTYK (Charles Bronson, exploding watermelons), SOYLENT GREEN ("twelve movies in eight years," marveled David Thomson of his 70s output, calling the best of his films "genuine entertainments" in his not-unkind NEW BIOGRAPHICAL DICTIONARY OF FILM entry), VIOLENT SATURDAY (gritty soap-and-bloodstains drama, 1955), THE GIRL IN THE RED VELVET SWING, 10 RILLINGTON PLACE, and THE BOSTON STRANGLER (he was one of its best practicionersof the true crime drama), sure, why not, for pure camp appeal, CONAN THE DESTROYER and RED SONJA, two films from the early 80s that hearken back to his 50's entertainments, when the CinemaScope ratio was brand-new and he was among the first to give it a test drive with 20,000 LEAGUES.

His good-natured 1993 autobiography, JUST TELL ME WHEN TO CRY, is a delight, with its vivid portraits of Darryl F. Zanuck, Edward G. Robinson, and Welles. I wish I had my copy nearby to quote from.

I mean, what's not to love? So many whales of a tale. And a mystery, which his bio discreetly sidesteps: What led him into the still-shocking slavery potboiler MANDINGO (1975), a movie too hot to handle 30 years later? Its sequel, DRUM, shows up on cable from time to time, but Paramount seems to have buried MANDINGO, a hit in its day. I'm glad I have the VHS to scandalize me.

All that and the son of Max Fleischer, too. A fantastic voyage indeed.

Here's his AP obit:

"Richard Fleischer, who directed several memorable films from sci-fi classics such as "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea" to war movies as "Tora! Tora! Tora!", has died. He was 89.

Fleischer died Saturday of natural causes at the Motion Picture and Television Hospital in Woodland Hills, said his son, Mark.

Mark Fleischer said he remembered his father as a gentle man who always put family first.

"My parents made a great effort to insulate their children from the craziness of Hollywood," he said. "They made sure our lives were as normal as possible."

The director's father, Max Fleischer, and his uncles Dave and Louis, pioneered animated shorts in New York, starting in 1920 with the innovative "Out of the Inkwell" series. In the 1930s, they became rivals to Walt Disney with their popular Betty Boop and Popeye the Sailor comedy shorts.

A quiet-spoken but firm-minded director, Richard Fleischer never achieved the recognition of his more flamboyant contemporaries, but his name was on a wide variety of well-known films, including "Fantastic Voyage" (1966); "Doctor Dolittle" (1967); "The Boston Strangler" (1968); "Che!" (1969); "The New Centurions" (1972); "Soylent Green" (1973); "Mr. Majestyk" (1974); "Mandingo" (1975); "Conan the Destroyer" (1984) and "Red Sonja" (1985).

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who starred in "Conan the Destroyer," praised Fleischer as "a true Hollywood legend."

"He was a man of great talent and an extraordinary director who leaves behind a legacy of amazing films," Schwarzenegger said in a statement."

And from the IMDb: Richard Fleischer's Internet Movie Database entry

*Worse yet is the useless 1980 remake of THE JAZZ SINGER, with a frail Laurence Olivier, in his last substantial bigscreen role, making a royal fool out of himself ("I hef no son!"). But I cop to once owning Neil Diamond's hot-selling soundtrack album, which my mom threw out in the Great Vinyl Removal (Without Son's Permission) of 1986. And I admit that some of its songs, which burned themselves into my memory, recently found their way to my iPod. Sue me.

**Clint Eastwood is getting a lot of attention for making two separate films about Iwo Jima, one from the American perspective, and one from the Japanese. And the big deal is? Fleischer and co-director Kinji Fukasaku got there first, in 1970, with the more incendiary subject of Pearl Harbor, and got it all into one trim and sober 144-minute movie. It's worth noting that for as circumspect as TORA! TORA! TORA! is, Fleischer co-won a documentary feature Oscar for 1947's DESIGN FOR DEATH, a film that looks anything but regarding Japanese history.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

First thoughts: INSIDE MAN (and L'ENFANT)

Spike Lee's INSIDE MAN (released Friday, March 24) emerges as the smartest Hollywood entertainment of the year thus far. Granted, the bar has been set low by the likes of BIG MOMMA'S HOUSE 2, but so it goes with the dead zone that is January-March. [From the looks of it, April isn't shaping up too strongly, and "the industry" usually goes to sleep from mid-August to early November, leaving studio-financed "dependies," studio also-rans that couldn't cut it in the more competitive months, genre pix, and whatever else happens to open to pick up the slack. This is no way to run a railroad. And the studios ask why grosses are off and attendance has fallen 9 percent.]

True, I liked RUNNING SCARED, but that ran out of gas quickly, and V FOR VENDETTA has little action/adventure for a movie touted as the first big action/adventure of the year. What it does have, besides a heap of well-worn totalitarian cliches and some nice jabs at current political malfeasance, is some refreshing moments; a nice little dance scene between Natalie Portman and Hugo Weaving's V, scored to the outstanding Antony and the Johnsons, a smartly written and played death scene for Sinead Cusack; and a surprisingly moving anecdote, involving ill-fated lesbian lovers, that awakens Portman's consciousness. Indeed, the movie's most involving undercurrent is the suppression and expression of homosexuality in the film's loveless and unlovely England, which elicited mild but audible grumbling at the showing I attended from an audience primed to expect more CGI-enhanced knife fighting. Slipping all this into an action/adventure context, produced by Playboy-bunny chasing Joel Silver, may be the movie's most subversive achievement. But it won't buoy it at the boxoffice as word gets out.

So, then, to Universal's INSIDE MAN (I've seen maybe three other commercial films since the Christmas blitz). It's a heist picture, but a more thoughtful one than usual, with a minimum of far-fetched twists and plotting. One of the pleasures of blogging is that I don't do plot summary here (you've seen the trailers, commercials, and ads already and get the drift) but suffice it to say that a super-nattily dressed Denzel Washington (a detective) and a mysterious Jodie Foster (as some sort of power broker) are in pursuit as a determined Clive Owen robs a Wall Street bank, precipitating a hostage crisis and machinations by the bank's founder, Christopher Plummer, who has cornered the market on playing suave seniors of mixed motives. Assisted by DP Matthew Libatique (the twilight photography at the bank is extraordinarily atmospheric without falling into cliche) and a typically eclectic score by Terence Blanchard (a little John Barry-ish riffing here, a blast of Bollywood there), Lee secures a foot-hold in the genre, without too much of the woolly-headed rhetoric or affected filmmaking "style" that mars much of his work.

There is a political subtext at play, but Lee goes easy on it, easier than the messaging that was part of THE INTERPRETER or THE CONSTANT GARDENER. I'm not sure it would withstand a second viewing (how many thrillers do?) but Lee is very much in his element with this material, written by first-timer Russell Gewirtz with a nod toward the "New Yawkness" of the best film of its kind, DOG DAY AFTERNOON, provided by a similar cast of polyethnic actors in vivid supporting roles. While on a different level than Lee's best feature films (DO THE RIGHT THING, MALCOLM X, and the underappreciated 25th HOUR), the snap and polish of INSIDE MAN helps relieve the frostbite that is a permanent feature of movies released at this time of the year.

Also in limited release this Friday is Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardennes' L'ENFANT, from Sony Pictures Classics. It's the fourth film I've seen from the prodigious Belgian duo, who specialize in humanist drama filtered through their documentary-trained cameras, and who shoot close and handheld to provide maximum absorption in the blighted lives of their bottom-rung subjects. [Maybe too close; sit farther back in the theater to avoid possible whiplash from the restless filmmaking.] And, I must report, it's the weakest; a little too schematic, as a feckless young thief thoughtlessly gives up his newborn baby to black marketers, then attempts to retrieve him. But, if not up to the standards of 1996's LA PROMESSE (the new film stars its now-adult lead, Jeremie Renier) or 2002's LE FILS, it is still miles ahead of the hand-wringing and special pleading that defines humanism in so many films, and is worth seeking out despite its imperfections.

Bowling Alone, or The $20,000-Grossing Movie

Film history celebrates the little movies that could, min-budgeted films, ranging from THE EVIL DEAD to EL MARIACHI, that against the odds somehow claim their place in the zeitgeist and propel their makers to fame and fortune in Tinseltown (as if that should be the goal of every aspiring cinematic artist, which perhaps says something about American cultural values). And the films that gross $200 million or more (some made by those who strived earlier on with their handmade, personal credit card- and blood donation-financed movies) are equally venerated.

But what about the little films that couldn't...those that can't get a leg up in a marketplace where the arthouse, cradle for the indie hits of yesteryear, has largely been colonized by better-financed, studio-wetnursed "dependie" films like BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN, and anything with subtitles is automatically granted second-class citizenship in its passage to America? In other words, the many movies that play New York and L.A. for maybe two weeks if they're lucky, with little critical fanfare, then basically vanish till reappearing, like ghost ships, on DVD? Who speaks for them?

Film Comment's 31st Annual Grosses Gloss, in the March/April issue, is as always a must-read, to see just how low the takings can go at the low-end of the cinematic spectrum. It's dismaying, if fascinating, to see how poorly some of my favorite films from 2005 fared in the trade winds of the distribution system. BROKEBACK, my No. 1, has grossed an excellent $82 million to date; my No. 2, MYSTERIOUS SKIN, a film with kinship to Ang Lee's dependie hit by virtue of its subject, a film that played long into the summer based on good reviews and positive word-of-mouth, still only made about $800,000.

And that's pretty good, by the yardstick of movies that may as well as not have left the screening rooms or festivals I saw them in, so dismal were the end results, which could not have reimbursed their marketing costs: The Korean satire THE PRESIDENT'S LAST BANG, $15,000; the bleak American indie, KEANE, $40,000 (both of which played the New York Film Festival); a documentary that missed the boat of that genre's current popularity, REEL PARADISE, $31,000 (results like that helped put its revered distributor, Wellspring, out of business last month); and so on. The depressing tally also includes starrier entries like PRETTY PERSUASION, NINE LIVES, and ASYLUM, which, despite name actors like James Woods, Glenn Close (pictured, with Close-in-the-making Dakota Fanning, in NINE LIVES), and Ian McKellen, sank well below the $1 million mark that means a more modestly budgeted project is at least treading water. It's a wonder distributors aren't charging critics to see them.

Which brings me to my $20,000 grosser, the bowling documentary A LEAGUE OF ORDINARY GENTLEMEN, which went right into the gutter late last spring. It's not the best or the worst of any of these films, and not the lowest earner. [There is worse, much worse: Can a movie called THE OVERTURE only have grossed $2,254, according to Box Office Mojo? That's one show that never got started.]

Here's what I had to say about it last June on the Lighting Dimensions (now Live Design) website:

"Just as there's a trade magazine for every trade, so, too, will there one day be a documentary about every profession. Even given the current glut in docs, however, I thought it would take a little while longer to get to pro bowlers, but here comes A LEAGUE OF ORDINARY GENTLEMEN (great title!) to prove me wrong. A little personal history: My dad was a terrific bowler, the terror of his league back in New Jersey in the early 1960s, and we used to play together. We also used to watch Professional Bowlers Association games, which ABC televised every Saturday for decades. Strike, spare, we were there, with pros like Dick Weber knocking down the pins and Chris Schenkel calling the shots on WIDE WORLD OF SPORTS. Alas, when my fastidious Mom threw out his crumbling lucky ball (a devastating event in our family), Dad hung up his shoes for good, and golf gradually replaced bowling on the tube. We weren't the only ones to give up the habit: After a recap of the glory days of the sport, the new film, directed by Chris Browne, picks up the story at its bitter end, with bowling cancelled by ABC in 1997 and the PBA slumping into a deep coma.

Then, a reawakening, as three Microsoft millionaires purchased the league for a fire-sale price in 2000 and a modest new version of the televised tourney reappeared on ESPN in 2002. The affectionate, if slightly jaundiced, documentary follows this seminal league year, one radically different from the past PBA, with the bowlers (mostly the same middle-aged schlumps of yesteryear) clad in snazzy new outfits and expected to cultivate marketable personas, per the Patton-like dictates of their new taskmaster, former Detroit Lions player and Nike executive Steve Miller. We meet a quartet of players as they make their way, match to match, from urban outpost to urban outpost. There's the Zen master of the game, world champion Walter Ray Williams, Jr., who is also the world's foremost horseshoes thrower (not the kind of thing you admit in mixed company); Pete Weber, trash-talking son of Dick (who died earlier this year), whose patented post-strike position, the "crotch chop," generates a little publicity as he obsesses over Williams; and handsome, media-genic family man Chris Barnes, groomed for stardom. More poignantly, there is the dark side of the force, the Sith of pro bowlers--Wayne Webb, who blew a million dollars in bowling earnings (back when the league was flush) on booze and bad business ventures and, with only a touring karaoke business to fall back on, attempts a comeback at age 45.

Magnolia Pictures releases A LEAGUE OF ORDINARY GENTLEMEN today in New York; consider taking your bowling partner for a spin as it fans out across the country."

The press notes called bowling "the Rodney Dangerfield of sports." Clearly, where indie films, foreign-language titles, and less elevated docs are concerned in a splintered arena, Rodney has lots of company (and, speaking of Dangerfield, the film gets less respect than anticipated here, as an image I found from it refused to load). A LEAGUE OF ORDINARY GENTLEMEN was released on DVD yesterday. You and your bowling partner missed it at the alley last year; now's your chance to win one for the little guy, who now, more than ever, can use your help.

Friday, March 17, 2006

ASK THE (guy sitting in front of you)

So there I was at the 4pm show (Loews 3rd/11th, Manhattan) of Robert Towne's ASK THE DUST, a respectable, if mostly inert, attempt to wrestle something cinematic out of John Fante's highly regarded, and highly prosy, Los Angeles novel about a would-be writer's simmering passion for a Mexican waitress in less racially enlightened times. It's one of the those long-on-the-boil movies, like ALEXANDER and GANGS OF NEW YORK, that prompts great director interviews but not a great film.

Closer, thankfully, to our day and age than he was in ALEXANDER and THE NEW WORLD, Colin Farrell (period pieces threaten to wipe out whatever promise he has after six years of being The Next Big Thing) is a little livelier than usual, cast opposite Salma Hayek, who is I think acquiring Bernadette Peters' eternal kewpie-doll face. I admit to ever so slightly cat-napping between occasional lovely bits of period recreation (South Africa standing in for L.A. as convincingly as Morocco for New Mexico in the new THE HILLS HAVE EYES and Prague for Newark in RUNNING SCARED; the developing world is clearly at our doorstep) but was awake for their full-frontal night skinny-dipping scene, amidst crashing waves that must have terrified them. Elsewhere, there is a lot of voiceover narration, some arresting images (notably a tactile composition of cigarettes ground up in orange rinds), a strange role for Broadway's Idina Menzel (reminding me to rave about the new CD of the SEE WHAT I WANNA SEE cast album), and the return of Farrell's thrusting buttocks for a sex scene, which was pretty much how the actor was introduced onscreen in 2000's TIGERLAND.

At age 40, I was by far the youngest person in the modest crowd, which does not bode well for a wide release in the malls of America. I was sitting in front of a raucous elderly couple who became confused and agitated during a scene where TB was mentioned. The exchange went like this:

ELDERLY LADY: TV? TV? They have TV? How could they have TV? It's the 30s.

ELDERLY MAN: No, not TV--VD. Venereal disease.

ELDERLY LADY: Venereal disease.

ME (Turning to face them): No, not TV, not VD, but TB--tuberculosis.

THEM (In unison): TB. TB. Tuberculosis. That makes more sense.

There was scattered laughter from elsewhere in the audience over all this. [It's not a bag of chuckles, this movie.] Then we all fell back into our film-watching states.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

The collector

A recent entry on Tim Lucas' Video WatchBlog site about the urge to collect home video got me thinking about my own "holdings," as it were, which I began amassing 20 years ago. My profile note about owning about 1,000 DVDs is no joke; I've never counted (and have never annotated them, either, preferring to keep the library info in my head) but that's probably a reasonable estimate, within a 100 or so. Add to that maybe 150+ laserdiscs ("you still collect records?" ask astonished friends of my shelves dedicated to this deceased format) and several boxes of VHS tapes, split between my new digs (where they are stored in the cubbyhole beneath our stairs) and my parents' house (relegated to a corner of my basement) and you have the outline of my obsession.

That may seem like a lot, but, believe me, compared to others I know, I'm a piker (a DVD producer I met owns 6,000 titles, for personal, not professional, reasons). Ironically, my dad, who is on me about dumping the last of my tapes (following a large-scale purge of films I had since acquired in disc form a few years back) got me started on all this, when he innocently suggested I tape movies I watched in heavy rotation on HBO, things like BACK TO THE FUTURE. I did, in 86, and have never looked back, till recently. [One tape I made from that era--a lot of them succumbed to the rot of time but a surprising number of those hardy VHS's is still playable today--is James Harris' feisty neo-noir FAST WALKING (1982), with indelibly corrupt performances from James Woods and Tim McIntire. It's up to the tender mercies of Warner Home Video's DVD department when I can retire it to the circular file, dad.]

My collection got its first jolt in 1988, when, post-college, I relocated to Hong Kong for a three-year stint. There, I discovered laserdiscs, which I'd only heard about in the States. The format was ubiquitous in HK, mainly as a vehicle for karaoke, but lots of movies were available for purchase or rental; indeed, ready access to films like BATMAN (1989) on LD months prior to their theatrical release in the territory severely weakened their theatrical boxoffice. I bought a Pioneer player and dove in, picking BEETLEJUICE and MOONSTRUCK (pictured) as my first purchases; the former stayed in my collection till the DVD arrived, the latter lasting till I replaced it with a widescreen version, which will go in the garbage (the only place for them, alas) when a special edition arrives next month on DVD (the "MOONSTRUCK house," the Brooklyn Heights exterior shown in the film, isn't too far from my present digs and is up for sale for about $5 million).

San Jose, CA, was my next port of call, where there were excellent LD shops, notably LaserLand in Cupertino. I had really got bit by the widescreen bug (my 1989 purchase of DIE HARD and several other Fox movies, like the STAR WARS films, was a turning point in my visual education), and was thrilled to finally be able to see CinemaScope films in their original proportions. The LaserDisc Newsletter, which has changed with the times and is now DVD Laser (see the right-side link), was my invaluable guide to that market, and taught me everything I needed to know about aspect ratios and other tech talk.

But, as LDs were expensive ($30-$40 was the norm) I started taping rental titles, which really added to that menagerie. [I lived close to my office, and would tape a side of the disc, leave, come back in an hour, turn it over, and tape some more till it finished. Crazy, right--but people who burn DVDs are often obliged to do the same nitpicky thing to properly fit recorded material onto the discs, even if they carry out the entire process in their homes. And, as I was the office manager, no one questioned my brief disappearances.]

And so it went. At my peak, I probably owned close to 350 LDs. I was a very early adopter of DVD (the week they came out, actually, in April 1997) but I really only got into to get myself a better LD player, as LDs and DVDs were combined in the first Pioneer unit I bought. But DVDs, borrowing as they did many of the special edition niceties that made that format so great, quickly took over. Their low price and CD size made them a lot easier to fit in a studio apartment (particularly when I bought beautiful custom-made cabinets to store them in), and I soon replaced a bunch of LDs with DVDs, an ongoing process. My last LD purchase, of one of the last LDs pressed, was in 1999, a gorgeous double-disc set of THE LAST MAN ON EARTH and PANIC IN YEAR ZERO, two apocalyptic movies that poignantly underscored the doom of the format (the very last LD to roll off the factory floor was the aptly titled END OF DAYS).

Marriage, and moving, last year finally got me to crack down. Out went many tapes I had made from Turner Classic Movies broadcasts; they'll be back soon enough for me to catch and release on my Time Warner-provided DVR (no more "permanent" taping for me). Netflix has drastically reduced the number of ill-fated impulse buys and, a little sadly, I rarely wander through video stores anymore. The LDs continue to decline in number, but there are some rarities I doubt I'll ever part with (some fetching $500 or more on eBay; they'll ever go in the trash). And I'm not awaiting the HD DVD "revolution," not until one of the two soon-to-be warring formats emerges victorious (a ridiculous state of affairs, indicating that no one learned anything from the DVD/DivX debacle of the late 90s), and not until it's clear that the new, high-resolution format won't reduce vintage movies to piles of cruelly exposed wires, exposed cycs, and matte lines, which happens on inadequately transferred DVDs like THE WAR OF THE WORLDS (1953) and GOLDFINGER.

But, you know, current films will look dandy on HD DVD. It's...tempting...

Friday, March 10, 2006

Cineaste goes ape

Excerpts from the spring issue of Cineaste are now online (it's linked to the right). But you'll have to actually buy the magazine to read my 4,500-word gorilla of an article about KING KONG--the 2005 remake, the 1933 original on DVD, and lots of other monkey business* as well, including considerations of the 1976 version and KING KONG VS. GODZILLA (1962) and KING KONG ESCAPES (1967) as well. It took most of December and January for me to research, write, and edit the piece and I'm immensely proud of the result. Here's the lead paragraph:

"Peter Jackson’s KING KONG is the movie as megachurch, where the faithful can gather to pay homage to the great ape. I was ready to enter Jackson’s house of worship, as his take is very much a shrine to the 1933 KONG, the one I loved as a kid, the one whose luster remains undimmed despite sequels, remakes, and offshoots of variable quality—but found the pews emptier than expected."

My article aside, there's a lot worth reading in the new issue, including a career-length sitdown with Sidney Lumet (FIND ME GUILTY), and interviews with Michael Winterbottom (TRISTRAM SHANDY: A COCK AND BULL STORY) and the Dardennes brothers (L'ENFANT). And plenty of reviews and the proverbial much, much more.

*I promise that the actual article is (almost) entirely pun-free.

Monday, March 06, 2006

Mom on the Oscars

MOM: "So I'm reading the Sunday, and I happen to look at what the Top 10 record albums are. And I was shocked; I turned to your father and I said, 'Bob, I can't believe this; look at the titles.' It's horrible. What does this say about our culture? I cannot believe what our children are listening to. So then I'm watching the Academy Awards and what wins Best Song but a song about a pimp. A PIMP. I mean, son of a gun, what does that say about society? What kind of example does that set?"

BOB: "If Lora and I have children, that could very well be the music that they listen to. I seem to recall you liking Eminen and his movie a few years ago."

MOM: "Yeah, right--don't play that music around me. Emimen is different. I mean, 'bitches and ho's'--on the Oscars!"

BOB: "So, Mom, are you a bitch or a ho?"

MOM: "Neither!"

Says Mom, "Gay cowboys, 'bitches and ho's'--I can't wait to see what they have next year on the Oscars!"

The morning after

The sky hasn't fallen yet, so I can assume the world will move on from BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN's shameful Best Picture loss last night to CRASH. Funny thing is, I don't really hate CRASH, at least not as vociferously as some of my friends. When I saw it last year, I thought it was an OK late spring drama, an obvious torn-from-the-headlines mix of anguish and uplift--no SAHARA, or GODZILLA: FINAL WARS, for that matter, but not bad. Gradually, however, as a clutch of (mostly bad) movies opened with the same tired meandering-in-LA structure (HAPPY ENDINGS being the worst offender), the whole "CRASH as metaphor" thing started getting excess play in the media, and distributor Lions Gate started flinging DVDs left and right to Academy voters, I soured on the film. Couldn't the West Coast liberals who turned the tide against BROKEBACK have gone for CAPOTE, instead? Is your self-love and insularity so great? [Could this whole affair turn into the cinematic equivalent of the East and West Coast rap wars, with Susan Sarandon taking out Arianna Huffington in retaliation?]

I may have to watch it again when it hits cable, but, like the Paul Haggis-written MILLION DOLLAR BABY (already musty after just a year), I have a feeling CRASH will drop to the bottom of my Digital Video Recorder queue (currently chocked full of vintage musicals), then be deleted,unviewed, as other films and TV shows pile up. [For that rare movie that makes good use of CRASH's roundelay structure, check out the excellent Australian film LANTANA, from 2001.] I've finally found a Best Picture winner I dislike as much as others disdain CHICAGO or A BEAUTIFUL MIND, to name two recent examples.

Otherwise, thanks to superior Oscar hosting from Rosemary Rotondi, the evening passed painlessly, if unexcitingly. Jon Stewart proved a polished, if cautious, host, who went a lot easier on the BROKEBACK jokes than I would have thought (we caught just four, one from Ang Lee). The best bit of the evening was easily the faux Best Actress campaign, and more of that DAILY SHOW humor would be appreciated next time (and I suspect there will be a next time, as Stewart was outstanding riffing off Oscar gaffes, like the pointless, time-soaking montages that simply added ballast to a telecast everyone thinks is too long already, and kept the administration-bashing to a maybe too-bare minimum). I was happy to see the "Pimp" song win--goodbye, Dolly--but even happier to see the "interpretive dance" version of the CRASH theme emerge as the unintentionally funny lowlight of the night.

And my only regret about Eric Simonson winning for his short film doc on Norman Corwin was that it couldn't be nominated in more categories, which would've brought my total up from a pretty meager 16. Why didn't I pick KING KONG in more categories? Dion Beebe after he won the ASC award for GEISHA? For the record, I went toes-up on Best Picture, Original Song, Cinematography, Art Direction, Sound Mixing, Sound Editing, Makeup, and Animated Short. As an Oscar player, I need a big, category-sweeping movie like THE RETURN OF THE KING to win, I guess, none of this "share-the-wealth" stuff.

CRASH-and-burners are advised to read NY Press critic Matt Zoller Seitz's thoughts on the matter on his blog, The House Next Door. Heath and Michelle are invited back to my place to throw some shrimp on the barbie and commiserate. BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN, already a watershed film, will endure as CRASH fades from view.

Friday, March 03, 2006

Top (and Flop) 10s, 2005

I posted this on the Mobius Home Video Forum a while back, but figured I would "repurpose" it here, for whatever praise (and scorn) it might generate. For the record, I might swap out WAR OF THE WORLDS for LAND OF THE DEAD on my Top 10 list (questionable ending aside, WAR is a powerful summer movie experience, which I am not immune to) and would definitely add FLIGHTPLAN, a sad self-betrayal of Jodie Foster's strongly humanist roles, to my Flop 10s. And did I really like SAHARA enough to include it in my "worth noting" section? But I'm not going to second-guess myself, while reserving the right to adjust my thinking over time. [It's not as if I saw every film to come out last year; a stray something or other might force me to make a few changes.]

The list:





TOP DVDS (I didn't have any time, or patience, to sit down and actually watch a bad one):



I didn't prepare a top/flop 10 theater list, but I did send this bit over to the New York Theater Newsletter:

"Easily the best show of the Broadway season, IN MY LIFE...just wanted to see if you were paying attention (in fact, that ego-driven curio wasn’t even the worst production of the year, a dishonor I divide equally among LENNON, GOOD VIBRATIONS, ON GOLDEN POND, and THE COLOR PURPLE). Truly the best, THE LIGHT IN THE PIAZZA was musical theater at its most heart-rending and DIRTY ROTTEN SCOUNDRELS the form at its fizziest. The best play was DOUBT (boy, I really went out on a limb there) and, keeping the British end up, THE PILLOWMAN, with a nod to Antony Sher’s agonizing solo turn in PRIMO. The choicest revival was HURLYBURLY, a real blast from the past; otherwise off Broadway, SEE WHAT I WANNA SEE proved the most galvanizing musical, and I enjoyed being caught in the crossfire of ORSON'S SHADOW's star wars. In the category of Bravest Self-Sacrifice Endured for New York Theater News readers, I selfishly vote myself, for taking the bullet to the chest that was IN THE WINGS."

Dreadful play, that last one. Never let producers write. Sad to think that its co-star, Peter Scolari, was signing autographs and merchandise (for a price) at last weekend's New York Comic-Con expo. My career is in better shape than that. But if someone wants to drop a few bucks in my PayPal account...

*THREE...EXTREMES is a superior horror omnibus film from Asia, now out on DVD. [Lions Gate released it to theaters for about three days, or one for each extreme]. To my surprise, it's available as a reasonably priced two-disc Special Edition; the second disc contains a full-length (91m) minute version of the first story, Fruit Chan's highly unsettling Hong Kong/China tale "Dumplings"--believe me, once you know what the special ingredient is you'll never look at dumplings the same way again. With two versions of "Dumplings," Takashi Miike's strangely dreamlike "Box" from Japan, and the hair-raising Korean segment, "Cut" (director Park Chan-Wook told me it's his favorite film) that's four extremes for the price of one, a baleful bargain for horror fans.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Panning for gold

I didn't necessarily want it to be this way, but the calendar dictates that my first post on my first blog will concern...the Academy Awards. Is your pulse quickening yet? I mean, I could have started with something else--laid a little Robert Bresson or Wong Kar-Wai on you, to show how educated or hip I am--but to begin a blog a few days before the Oscars, and just not mention it, or skip over it as if it's of no consequence (it isn't, is it?) just doesn't sit well, as much as I moan over its self-importance and groan over its exclusions (such as, in a bad year for actresses, where was the love for Laura Linney in THE SQUID AND THE WHALE? Hell, Laura Linney in THE EXORCISM OF EMILY ROSE, over Judi Dench's appalling camera-hugging in MRS. HENDERSON PRESENTS, by far the worst film to receive any Oscar attention this year? How about...no, my stomach's seizing up already). Attention must be paid, not that Willy Loman wouldn't have killed for all the free publicity the Oscars get.


It's the year of the "dependies" (indie-ish films from the specialty branches of the major studios, dependent on their largesse) and as such it's a solid cross-section of middle-brow, left-leaning, blue-state fare, a good year for Jon Stewart to host and not a bad one for Robert Altman to receive his honorary old goat statuette in. [For a director who's shunned and ridiculed the pomp and circumstance of Hollywood, it's interesting how many times he's been in contention for awards; did he feel somewhat used all these years, as politically and artistically correct cover for so many other unfortunate business-as-usual nominations?] CRASH, which the pundits have been keeping alive to drum up more excitement for a Best Picture slate lacking in glitz and glamour (and as a hedge against the presumptive BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN win), and the queasy bloodbath that is MUNICH, left me non-plussed. CAPOTE and GOOD NIGHT, AND GOOD LUCK., were more the thing, but cold to the touch (the latter, however, has a killer Diana Reeves soundtrack; she makes a much better impression on my iPod than in the film, where her appearances were somewhat intrusive).

BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN will, and should, win. Its plain-spoken artistry, lucid storytelling, and above all its iconic lead performance by Heath Ledger put it way ahead of the pack. Ledger, I fear, will be edged out by the superb Philip Seymour Hoffman, but he, and the film, are already the stuff of movie legend. That should be consolation on Monday morning.

My predictions, and personal choices, are as follows (thanks to John Calhoun for putting together my crib sheet):

PICTURE: BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN, my prediction and my choice.

ACTOR: Hoffman my prediction, Ledger my choice. Here's hoping for an upset, not that Hoffman doesn't impress but, c'mon, Ledger is a true original, a character for the ages, and Hoffman a highly skilled impersonation along the lines of last year's turn by Jamie Foxx as Ray Charles.

[If Hoffman does win, he'll follow Foxx in another Oscar tradition--going from an Oscar winner to a mind-croggling, popcorn-stuffed action flick. Foxx went from RAY to STEALTH; Angelina Jolie from GIRL, INTERRUPTED, to GONE IN 60 SECONDS (and pretty much the rest of her career to date); Anthony Hopkins from THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS to FREEJACK; and Sally Field from NORMA RAE to BEYOND THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE. Hoffman, enjoying the payday, dukes it out with Tom Cruise in MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE III.]

ACTRESS: Such a weak field. Did anyone see NORTH COUNTRY or just drop it in their Netflix queue when it snagged its nominations, like I did? Felicity Huffman is the only memorable thing about TRANSAMERICA, that and its cheeky, non-judgmental suggestion that a career in gay porn might just be the best move for a troubled teen. I liked Keira Knightley in PRIDE AND PREJUDICE but it's lightweight, not so much as MRS... (can't finish it) but no match for Reese Witherspoon's down-to-earth chops in WALK THE LINE. She's my prediction and choice, y'all.

SUPPORTING ACTOR: Paul Giamatti was nominated in the wrong year, and good as he was in BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN Jake Gyllenhaal is no match for George Clooney, Hollywood's consummate liberal pro. That's the way things work. It's Chinatown, Jake. A win for SYRIANA will make up for GOOD NIGHT's other losses come Sunday evening, and he's genuinely good in that impenetrable movie, too.

SUPPORTING ACTRESS: My neighbor, Michelle Williams, really got to me in BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN (she and Ledger, and their daughter, live blocks away from me; their stars shine all the way up the street) but Rachel Weisz's performance in the underwhelming CONSTANT GARDENER is the most full-bodied role in the lot. She's my prediction and choice. So why wasn't Ralph Fiennes nominated for the same film? [Even my mom liked THE CONSTANT GARDENER. I have an aversion to thrillers that end with an incriminating tape conveniently played in public, exposing and embarrassing the bad guy; see also THE RECRUIT and MINORITY REPORT, or not, now that I've gone and ruined the endings for you. Such a lame device. Did John Le Carre cop out the same way in the book?] Points, though, to Amy Adams, for effective politicking that led to this year's "huh? What's that?" nomination for JUNEBUG (a nice movie, by the way, one for the queue).

DIRECTOR: No contest. Prediction and choice: Ang Lee. Such a fine career. And that includes HULK, the most thoughtful and complex of all superhero-type films. I don't think Mom went for it.

ADAPTED SCREENPLAY: It's got to be Larry McMurtry, an old Hollywood hand, and Diana Ossana for their sage adaptation of BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN. Prediction and choice.

ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY: CRASH has to win something. Better luck next time, Woody Allen and Noah Baumbach (THE SQUID AND THE WHALE). CRASH is my prediction, Baumbach my choice for his exquisitely funny-painful miniature.

ANIMATED FEATURE FILM: The Oscars love the WALLACE & GROMIT guys, who are moving up from the animated short film ranks. Membership has its privileges. My prediction and choice.

FOREIGN LANGUAGE FILM: TSOTSI has CRASH-like levels of rawness and sentimentality, in equal measure. And Africa is perpetually in the news. JOYEUX NOEL is an uplifting bore, the kind the French love to throw up to the Oscars, SOPHIE SCHOLL a rather dry procedural till its shocking, straight-from-the-history-books climax, and PARADISE NOW, a fine, low-key political drama, a victim of overheated politics. [I haven't seen the Italian nominee.] TSOTSI is my prediction, PARADISE NOW my choice.

ORIGINAL SONG: Much as I expect the live performance of "It's Hard Out There for a Pimp" to shake up a telecast that's promising to be rather staid, everyone loves Dolly Parton, and it's hers to lose for her TRANSAMERICA ditty (which may not even have been part of the print I saw late last summer). Dolly's my prediction and choice and I'm counting on her to wear a fun outfit.

ORIGINAL SCORE: The only standout, frankly, is BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN, very limpid accompaniment to the tragic story. Did John Williams really need two more certificates for his wall, for two of his less memorable efforts? His shelves must be groaning with statuettes. Gustavo Santaolalla, prediction and choice.

FILM EDITING: I'd probably take a scissors to all five of the nominees, but I imagine the flashback structure of THE CONSTANT GARDENER will prove beguiling. Or maybe the multi-threaded layering of CRASH, which is de rigeur in LA-set stories anymore (NINE LIVES and HAPPY ENDINGS are two other recent, tiresome examples). Hmmm...this is how Oscar pools (I knew there was a reason for the contest) are lost. My prediction is CRASH, and my choice is WALK THE LINE...for no other reason than that I enjoyed the movie, even if it did go on.

CINEMATOGRAPHY: Dion Beebe has gotten some ASC attention for MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA, but I think the vistas (and enclosures) of BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN will win out. THE NEW WORLD also has adherents. I'm predicting, and choosing, Rodrigo Prieto for BROKEBACK.

ART DIRECTION: If KING KONG doesn't win for its outstanding recreation of Depression-era New York, I'll be disappointed. GEISHA's hothouse exoticism is alluring, too. KONG is my prediction and choice.

COSTUME DESIGN: GEISHA. Unless anyone objects to Japanese clothes draped on Chinese ladies. My prediction and choice.

SOUND MIXING: It usually goes to the noisiest nominee, with WAR OF THE WORLDS edging out NARNIA and KONG. I'm going out on a limb, though, and predicting WALK THE LINE, a subtler piece. My choice, however, is the room-shaking WAR.

SOUND EDITING: WAR. The "tentacle" sequence in the house is all the more alarming given the snake-like precision of the cues. Prediction and choice.

MAKEUP: NARNIA was just too kids-movie fakey for me. STAR WARS, eh. The character designs for CINDERELLA MAN are on the nose, making it my prediction and choice.

VISUAL EFFECTS: KONG was another great leap forward for digital effects, maybe too much so--the Kong of movie myth has become an utterly convincing simian (thanks to actor Andy Serkis, too), robbing the story of its potency. It is astonishing work, however, far outclassing the uneven NARNIA and the familiar WAR OF THE WORLDS. KONG is my prediction and choice.

DOCUMENTARY FEATURE: 2005 was a watershed year for the form, with many outstanding films--so where was GRIZZLY MAN, the best of the bunch? My bad for not seeing DARWIN'S NIGHTMARE or STREET FIGHT, which, to be fair (on me) wasn't screened much. I admit, too, to only seeing MURDERBALL in its wash-your-mouth-out-with-soap edit on A&E this Tuesday; there was something about the subject that made me squeamish (sensitivity aside, let's face it, it's a perfect SNL sketch, if only it weren't true) but the guys won me over when they weren't bashing each other in their gladiatorial wheelchairs. But they won't be enough to stop the MARCH OF THE PENGUINS, a great technical achievement and one of the few genuine crowdpleasers in all Oscardom this year. I predict PENGUINS, but choose ENRON: THE SMARTEST GUYS IN THE ROOM, the best of the hot-button political documentaries in release.

DOCUMENTARY SHORT: I can't go against an acquaintance, so my pick and prediction has to be A NOTE OF TRIUMPH: THE GOLDEN AGE OF NORMAN CORWIN, directed by Eric Simonson, and featuring soon-to-be Oscar winner Robert Altman. Maybe he's marshalling his friends to vote for it. He'll need to, to beat GOD SLEEPS IN RWANDA, the sort of bedraggled-but-inspirational historical subject the Academy loves. For Simonson, whose film is my prediction and choice, I hope God sleeps a little longer.

ANIMATED SHORT: I've read nice things about the wrapped-in-burlap 9, so why not? Just not another Pixar win. 9: My prediction and choice.

LIVE ACTION SHORT: Irish playwright Martin McDonagh has been blazing away in London and New York for a decade now with lapel-grabbing shockers like THE BEAUTY QUEEN OF LEENANE and THE PILLOWMAN, and there's no reason to suspect that Hollywood won't succumb to his SIX SHOOTER, my prediction and choice.

In a break from tradition, the tie-breaking question this year for my Oscar-watching group (another reason to like, if not genuflect before, the ceremony) is not "how long will the show last?" but "How many BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN or gay cowboy jokes will there be?" I'm going to say 15...and hope that's about ten too many. Surely Jon Stewart can come up with some Edward R. Murrow rib-ticklers.