Saturday, June 24, 2006

Drug culture

I won't be waiting on line to see the much-touted PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN sequel. Why the cult that had been gathering for years around its star, Johnny Depp, exploded around the first one I'll never fathom. It was, to me, a spoofy, HUDSON HAWK-ish swashbuckler with the usual after-thought script and tinsel production values associated with producer Jerry Bruckheimer, and my eyelids were in full flutter during the press screening. I figured it a cinch for Davy Jones' locker, but audiences and Oscar nominators found Depp's scruffy pirate adorable, and maybe there was some pent-up demand for swashbucklers I had missed (Manhattan's Film Forum has a bunch of good ones scheduled for August). And now there are not one, but two, sequels sighted, the first with undead fish people pirates. I don't know what to think. I was the one caught napping the first time, but maybe my brethren will wake up this time and realize how truly dopey this all is (or, hey, maybe it'll actually be good...).

Opening the same day (July 7), with less fanfare and on far fewer screens, is the antidote, Richard Linklater's superior adaptation of Philip K. Dick's A SCANNER DARKLY (Warner Independent Pictures), easily one of the best films of the year. Linklater, a staunch indie filmmaker, had become a cause for concern. I couldn't begrudge him his success with SCHOOL OF ROCK, as lightweight and forgettable as any Jack Black vehicle, but last summer's BAD NEWS BEARS was a shockingly lazy remake, a completely phoned-in assignment that suggested a distressed cynicism on the filmmaker's part. I know he had written and directed SLACKER but this was taking slacking a bit too far, and the creator of DAZED AND CONFUSED, BEFORE SUNRISE and BEFORE SUNSET seemed unsettlingly adrift. Not so with A SCANNER DARKLY, which manages, amazingly, to be faithful to its author's intentions while being fully Linklater besides*.

What unifies the film is its form---like Linklater's trippily philosophical WAKING LIFE (2001), A SCANNER DARKLY was shot live, then animated via rotoscoping techniques that designer Bob Sabiston has refined for the new film. Given its rootless content, WAKING LIFE was appropriately jittery and twitchy, but I know some viewers didn't cotton to what was like looking into a faster-moving lava lamp for 100 minutes. With one notable exception, A SCANNER DARKLY is more "solid," though it, too, has an unmoored feeling; cars and roads, for example, seem to exist on slightly separate planes. But this isn't a showoffy gimmick; thanks to Substance D, a drug that has 20% of the U.S. population hooked seven years hence in the world of the film, consciousness has been altered, and everyone, from the afflicted to the drug czars, is swimming in in its after-effects and consequences. Everything looks the same but nothing looks quite right.

Animation solves the biggest problem afflicting adaptations of Dick's work, many of which I've enjoyed at least in part (except John Woo's PAYCHECK, the title of Dick's story and the reason why anyone seemed to be making the movie). They establish a bleak, noirish premise and a similar mood, which is instantly disrupted when a mechanical effect, CGI creature, or chase scene is introduced. Dick's tough-minded prose handles all this with ease (assuming the robots, monsters, and pursuits were his inventions and not the vamping of a screenwriter trying to flesh out his sometimes very short stories) but live-action movies like TOTAL RECALL and MINORITY REPORT have a harder time of it, eventually giving into black comedy gags or reassuring sentiment. (The very "phildickian" BATTLESTAR GALACTICA TV show has, admirably, absorbed the tone without compromising or sentimentalizing typical Dick themes of alienation and paranoia). But animation is already unreal to our eyes, and more readily assimilates the wilder notions of the plotline, including a hectoring, thousand-eyed sentinel at the doorway to the afterlife, characters who casually sprout insect features, and, at the very start, an itchy infestation of aphids that a D addict has, or has not, hallucinated. This "cool stuff," which would be showstoppingly achieved in an expensive feature film, is here part of the show, and not the show itself. A SCANNER DARKLY was drawn from Dick's own experiences with drugs, visions, and paranoia, and the form honors and respects its source.

Rotoscoping realization also makes Keanu Reeves, so coolly "perfect" in THE MATRIX movies, a little more human. I was initially put off by his flat line readings, but came to see this as an asset; his character, Robert Arctor, is trying to keep his bearings, and his balance, in a tricky situation. A suburban dropout who has landed in Anaheim, CA, Arctor spends some of his day in a rundown household he shares with his D-dropping buddies, Barris (Robert Downey, Jr.) and Luckman (Woody Harrelson). Freck (Rory Cochrane), who is on the verge of D psychosis, and Arctor's sort-of girlfriend, Donna (Winona Ryder, a welcome presence even in facsimile form), also drop by, for some of Linklater's hilariously cockeyed conversations on the meaning of life as argued by people who live life in the grip of highly questionable stimulants. (Downey, Jr. and Harrelson could probably string this kind of material along all day long and score with it, over and over again). As part of his job, Arctor takes D, too--what his comrades don't know is that he works as an undercover narcotics agent, sniffing out D users and their supplier networks.

What Arctor doesn't know is that maybe his friends do know about his spying; Donna, an admitted cokehead who works, ironically, in surveillance, scanning the movements of suspects, is almost certainly onto him, but may not be his greatest threat to his double life. His own growing infatuation with D may be his undoing, as his bosses plumb his involvement with the drug. Not that they can see him--in the one flickering effect I had mentioned, Arctor wears a disguising "scramble suit," which constantly shifts identities, to the office, and to pro-drug war functions like booster club meetings, to maintain his cover. Industrial Light & Magic would have had a field day with this thing, but in the animated world it's just part of the fabric, as the film deepens into a multifaceted commentary on, and critique of, drug taking, drug laws, and recovery. The coda--a recounting, by Dick, of his own losses to drugs, is quietly shattering.

But I wasn't just moved by A SCANNER DARKLY. For a few hours after I saw it, I actually caught it. Minor encounters with people on the subway seemed slightly heightened. I felt hesitant and unsure with people I knew, tinged, just a touch, with suspicion, but also a little more open to the encounter. I can't explain it; it wasn't unpleasant, it just was. How will I feel on a second viewing? All I can say is that my first impression of A SCANNER DARKLY was unexpectedly transforming. Movies as rich as this can be habit-forming.

More on Dick, the film, and the source material, here. And find out how Dick, gone many years, lost his head in service of this film. I hope for a safe recovery.

*Reliable sources tell me that Linklater's other adaptation this year, of the best-seller FAST FOOD NATION, isn't as potent, but this is a startlingly ambitious couple of films. If making BAD NEWS BEARS helped cleanse his palate for them, maybe it's not so distasteful.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Summer indies

With SUPERMAN RETURNS and THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA winging their way into theaters, aloft on advance praise, there might be hope yet for the most dismal Hollywood summer on record. [I've never skipped so much, ever.] SPIDER-MAN 3 is shooting in my neighborhood, around Smith and Court Sts., so maybe Brooklyn will bring good luck for a better crop next year.

Meanwhile, the independent market is hopping, if only in the number of releases; regarding attendance, they're hobbling. But it would be a shame to relegate THE HIDDEN BLADE (Tartan Films), easily one of the best films of this year (or, for that matter, 2004, when it was released in Japan), to your Netflix queue.

As it happens, I saw it on a screener DVD. Impressive there, I can only imagine how much more I'd be taken with it at a theater. Since Film Forum of New York's dazzling "Summer Samurai" series last year I've gone a little samurai-happy; SAMURAI REBELLION, the cornerstone of that festival (now on DVD from Criterion) was a sensational film, and I've seen several since. THE HIDDEN BLADE is kith and kin to the very best recent samurai film, no, not the pre-breakdown Tom Cruise's LAST SAMURAI, but 2002's THE TWILIGHT SAMURAI, an international hit that received a subsequent release here. At age 71, its writer-director, Yoji Yamada, was an overnight sensation, and THE TWILIGHT SAMURAI, which swept the Awards of the Japanese Academy, went on to receive a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar nomination in 2004.

Yamada was hardly an unknown quantity; indeed, his stewardship of the wildly popular Tora-san films, detailing the gentle misadventures of an ordinary salesman, made him one of the country's most successful directors. But samurai travel better than salarymen. I've not seen a Tora-san film, but the qualities ascribed to them--their quiet, becoming modesty, credible, character-based humor, and affection for individuals stuck at the bottom rungs of society's ladder--were surely the reasons the two otherwise very different samurai movies have met with so much success. It's not their wall-to-wall action; samurai film fans know that the best of these films are coiled tight, with the screws turning subtly throughout, till the final, explosive release. The blade in THE HIDDEN BLADE is hidden for so long you may well forget about it, but when it's finally, devastatingly drawn, look out.

THE HIDDEN BLADE stars Masatoshi Nagase, who you may remember as one of the Elvis-struck Memphis visitors in Jim Jarmusch's MYSTERY TRAIN (1989). Nagase has played a comical detective in a popular movie series since then, and I was surprised to see how well the 19th century samurai code fit him after so much onscreen slacking off. His character, Munezo Katagiri, has sharp instincts undulled from the onset of middle age, but his loyalty to the code is doubly tested, when his clan obligates him to kill a trouble-making older comrade, and when his secret love for a former housekeeper, Kie (actress and pop star Takako Matsu, warmly sympathetic), is severely tested.

The mood, which grows ever more taut over the course of the film's exceedingly well-paced 132 minutes, is splendidly sustained, as one man's allegiance to all he holds sacred begins to waver in the face of changing mores. There are, for example, some funny scenes involving a changeover to Western-style artillery, handled more offhandedly than in the Cruise film. What's smartest about THE HIDDEN BLADE is its economy of production, which is just the right size and convincingly, not overelaborately detailed, and austerity of emotion. Nothing is wasted; everything is conserved, and purposeful, as the film moves inexorably to its conclusion. It's a gem, heartily recommended. And, more good news, Yamada, 75 this year, is making another samurai film.

A picture is worth a thousand words, so the moving pictures of THE ROAD TO GUANTANAMO (Roadside Attractions) must be priceless. It's one thing to read about the sorry state of affairs at this outpost of the "war on terror"; another to see still photos; and quite another entirely to see the confinement and imprisonment enacted, documentary-style. Even this modest photo is unsettling, like something from a sci-fi film, suggesting captivity on Mars. But it's going on in the here and now, in Cuba, with no end in sight as a black mark against the American and British allies continues to widen, like a stain.

The film dramatizes the odyssey of the "Tipton Three," British citizens who, while attending a wedding in Pakistan, crossed into Afghanistan to deliver humanitarian aid as the U.S. began bombing the Taliban. The action is conveyed matter-of-factly, in the manner of co-director Michael Winterbottom's harrowing immigrant saga IN THIS WORLD, and intercut with comments from the actual men. Missing, however, is the rationale, the specifics, of what drew these young, Gap- and Adidas-clad men into the vortex of war in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, and the matter of their past brushes with the law is briskly eluded. Lacking context (the film, co-directed by Mat Whitecross, has no credited screenwriter), I couldn't help but feel that these men were guilty of something, if only incredibly bad judgment as what can be seen one good thing to come out of the war to date (the dismantling of the wretched Taliban regime) came to pass before their eyes.

Were they collaborators? Terrorists-in-the-making? Unclear. But did their punishment, meted out once they were captured by Northern Alliance forces and locked in metal containers, then sent onto the Guantanamo camps for two years without charges, fit the crime? Clearly not, argue the filmmakers, and their evidence is persuasive. This is not the glamorous, James Bond-like fortress Gitmo of BAD BOYS 2, or even the more by-the-book A FEW GOOD MEN, but a squalid, grubby place, where the prisoners are confined in outdoor cages and routine torture and interrogation is the norm, and the only tender mercy is when an officer snuffs out a tarantula that has sneaked into a cell. That, and a surrealistic celebration that breaks out when the young men, nearing the light at the end of a very long tunnel, are treated to Pizza Hut and McDonald's by their captors.

The cinema verite work by the cast and crew, led by the inexhaustible Winterbottom (six films, different from one another, in three years), is nothing sort of astonishing. You are there, in the shoes of the reenactors, in Pakistan and Afghanistan, as their story develops. (Filming also took place in Iran, where Gitmo was recreated--read into that what you'd like.) It's satisfying on a purely physical level, however insufficiently the drama is developed. (IN THE NAME OF THE FATHER may the best attempt to make a film of this type without the trappings of documentary.)The second half of the 95-minute film is a seemingly endless round of badgering, dirty tricks, and abuse, that you'd like to turn away from.

But don't, whatever questions you might have about what brought Asif, Shafiq, and Ruhel into this heart of darkness in the first place. Is this ROAD where a truly national conversation, beyond the bullet points and talking heads, about Gitmo begins? I'd like to think so, but that will mean commitment on the part of Roadside to ensure adequate distribution and a filmgoing public willing to engage it.

When did movie comedy get so ugly to look at? It wasn't always so; the Hollywood classics had that sheen to them, and a Blake Edwards in his prime could be counted on for a crisp widescreen image. But standards have been lax for some time; so many comedies have a cheap, dimly lit, disreputable look about them. Is it the cheap, disreputable content--has anything with Ben Stiller been artfully composed? I'm sure STRANGERS WITH CANDY (Thinkfilm, opens June 28), an extremely modest expansion of the funny Comedy Central show, was made on an extremely modest budget, but shooting in the less leafy precincts of the Garden State is no excuse for the crap look of the movie. The film seems to have been shot with the less demanding home video market in mind, which is the best place to see it, with a case of Bud close at hand.

I liked the show, which gave the prosthetics-loving Amy Sedaris a place to shine. She played Jerri Blank, a 46-year-old reprobate who decided to change her fate by dropping back into high school, leading to skewed life lessons along the lines of ABC's "Afterschool Specials" for teens. At the end of the series, students and teachers alike revolted and destroyed the school, which rather ruled out a movie sequel. So the film goes back to the beginning, which obliges it to rework the less amusing material about Jerri's fractured home life that got the program off to a false start (it didn't hit its stride until its second season).

The regulars, who besides Sedaris included Stephen Colbert in another pompous portrayal and Paul Dinello as hopelessly closeted teachers, are back on duty and are all OK, but just OK--their co-written script, which has Jerri trying to win a science fair to revive her dad from a coma, isn't as fresh, or as sharp, as the best of the shows. And I'll bet the zomboid, unfunny guest stars, who include Philip Seymour Hoffman, Ian Holm, Matthew Broderick, and Sarah Jessica Parker, were probably hoping that the film, whose release was delayed, would have stayed on the shelf a little longer, or shuffled off quietly to pay cable. At 87 minutes, it's nothing to get too worked up about, but it dragged, which I was not expecting; you can easily devour three of the half-hour shows without looking at your watch. And Dinello's low-energy direction, coupled with the low-wattage lighting, had me wishing I had hooked the screening.

Here's a few long-ago laughs with Sedaris.

Grendelmania is upon us. Next month's Lincoln Center Festival showcases Eliot Goldenthal's opera GRENDEL, from the John Gardner novel, with puppety direction from his wife and collaborator Julie Taymor. Robert Zemeckis is putting the CGI expressiveness of his POLAR EXPRESS to work on a another version of the great Anglo-Saxon poem of the warrior and the beast, BEOWULF, due next Christmas.

But first, BEOWULF & GRENDEL (Union Station Media/Truly Indie, opens July 7), a Canadian-Icelandic co-production with the right stuff when it comes to harsh, unforgiving locations--but wrong, wrong, wrong everywhere else. Lacking other sources, I sometimes use Variety reviews as a guide to whether a film is worth scheduling, and the one this film got indicated trouble ahead. But I like the story, and it's got a monster, so, why not?

Well, for openers, Gerard Butler and Stellan Skarsgard, cast as Beowulf and the king who employs him to rout the trouble-making Grendel, have accents thicker than their broadswords; this is an English-language film that requires subtitles. Sarah Polley, uncomfortably cast as a whore-witch, wears a terrible red fright wig. Ingvar Sigurdsson's grunting Grendel is a bore. The production is threadbare, which may reflect historical accuracy or a financier who fled to Monaco with the budget. The "contemporized" language ("this troll is one tough prick!") caused ripples of laughter as the screening room audience mostly dozed. And the director, Sturla Gunnarsson, kept the camera locked into one or two positions, as if it froze in the mud and couldn't be moved. I've never seen a movie more lifelessly composed. It's not even up to the low standards of Sci-Fi Channel movies where boas fight pythons.

And the screening was at 10 am. On a Monday. What was I thinking?

The subject was roses

As seen at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, Saturday, June 17. Varieties include he Audrey Hepburn and Claudia Cardinale.

The greys are particularly fascinating. How do they come about? Some sort of weird science? What?

Not long before they're gone again for another year. Enjoy them while they last.

Monday, June 19, 2006

Could it be...Satan?

In its second weekend of release, the remake of THE OMEN, which opened 6/6/06, dropped...66.6% at the boxoffice. The apocalypse clearly boomeranged on 20th Century Fox.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Wild Asia

I was ahead of the curve regarding the popularity of Asian cinema Stateside. Just a month or two before I relocated to Hong Kong in 1988, Film Comment published an extensive article about Hong Kong cinema, which I took with me on my trip and used as a kind of guide. Thanks to the affinity HK genre cinema shares with its US counterpart (and, of course, to subtitles) understanding the films was no problem, but getting in to see them was sometimes a different story. "You want English movie, not Chinese movie," the ticket-taker would say, as I explained that I wanted to see the local CHINESE GHOST STORY III as opposed to the American GHOST, which was playing at the same cinema. No one could figure out why a Caucasian might be interested in the Cantonese-language product, and at the time, there weren't many who were. So impressed was I with John Woo's BULLET IN THE HEAD I actually called him at his office, which had a listed telephone number, and told him how much I liked the movie, which he was not getting much love for. "Umm, thanks...English not so good, but much thanks," he said. Made my day to do that.

In time, Woo would learn to speak better English as he moved to Hollywood, and the American audience got the hang of Cantonese-language cinema. I kept up. San Jose, my next port of call, had occasional HK and Asian film festivals (is the Towne theater still there, I wonder?) and a wonderful video store, run by a sweet old Chinese lady who stocked every title, some of dubious bootleg origin. [Also an astonishing variety of porn.]

By the time I reached New York, in 1995, HK cinema was on a definite upswing, thanks to the popularity of Jackie Chan's RUMBLE IN THE BRONX (the one with snowcapped Vancouver mountains in the background of "the Bronx") and an influx of HK talent to our shores. Chinatown still had its own movie theaters, like the Music Palace and the Rosemary, but I must admit I preferred the relative luxury of Cinema Village and its HK festivals to those smelly, rundown, moth-eaten joints. Now that they've been gone for several years I feel a twinge of nostalgia for them, which is preferable to the twinge of pain I felt in my rear end and lower back from their broken seat springs.

But Cinema Village stopped showing HK films, as the market went into a steep decline pre- and post the 1997 handover to China. The only place to see them, reliably, were the Chinatown video stores, but I'm not into blind buying of DVDs. I fell behind.

Fortunately, those crazy kids at Subway Cinema came to the rescue. Having failed to make the Music Palace a cinema cause celebre for local movie fans (a lost, if valiant, cause; the springs...I can feel...the...springs...) they started their own film festival, which kicks off its fifth anniversary edition tomorrow night. But, with HK movies having reasserted themselves to some degree (last year's award-winning triad drama ELECTION, from director Johnnie To, is superb), the New York Asian Film Festival concentrates instead on the weird and the wild from countries like Japan and Korea, movies highly unlikely to be selected for Best Foreign Language Film consideration by the Oscars, much less any kind of US release.

A couple of weeks ago the guys (who you get to know a little if you go to enough of their presentations, as I have, along with 8,000-10,000 other film geeks in the region) invited me to the ImaginAsia Theater on East 59th Street to catch a screening of one of this year's films, THE GREAT YOKAI WAR. This is an attempt by Japan's Takashi Miike, of the masterful horror film AUDITION and the gangster splatterfest ICHI THE KILLER, to crash the family film market after a series of duds (he makes films like the rest of us make dinner, and last year's output included an episode of Showtime's MASTERS OF HORROR show the network deemed too hot to handle, odd, given their showcasing of his other entrails-ripping movies).

Clearly, "family-friendly" means something different there than it does here. In the US, you get wise-cracking, digitally animated cars; in Japan, you get rubbery monsters with elongated appendages and umbrellas for heads, and a villainess who is the spitting image of Paris Hilton. It was a hectic two hours, like the entire LORD OF THE RINGS cycle boiled into a single, demented feature. I've decided that, by and large, I prefer my Japanese monsters large and reptilian--the last fest's showcase of GODZILLA FINAL WARS was an absolute riot--but driven by Miike's cracked sense of the absurd I enjoyed this new YOKAI more than the 1968 film on which it's based, and it's quintessentially Subway. [If you miss it, and you really should see it with an audience, it hits DVD on July 11.]

[Kudos, besides, to the ImaginAsia, which took a backwater cinema on its way to the fate of the Rosemary (and so many other theaters in its own backyard--the Beekman, the Sutton, the East Side Playhouse, etc., etc.) and gave it new vitality and purpose with its own Asian programming, which recently included the excellent Chinese feature MOUNTAIN PATROL and a CGI monster mash from Japan, NEGADON. Some new bars and restaurants have also popped up along that stretch of Second and Third Avenue, which is home to several lighting manufacturers and used to bustle, as much as it ever did, with the sound of Roosevelt Island tram commuters, who have been left to the tender mercies of the F train after its recent breakdown.]

It just so happens that today I attended a Film Forum screening of an upcoming feature, THE MOTEL (Palm Pictures, opens June 28), which is bowing there after a warm reception at Sundance. Developed at Sundance, it has a very Sundance ending--mysteriously, not all that convincingly, open-hearted after a lot of caustically funny exchanges between a put-upon Chinese-American woman (Jade Wu) who runs a hot-sheet motel somewhere in Westchester County and her chubby 13-year-old son (Jeffrey Chyau), who falls under the HUD-like influence of one of her boarders, a Korean-American (the charismatic Sung Kang, who stars in the new FAST AND THE FURIOUS installment) working his way through the local hookers. But the writer-director, Michael Kang, has a feel for life on the margins and the clumsiness of adolescence, and it's good to see the Asian and the Asian American finding a place on the Manhattan movie scene.

[Photo credits: YOKAI, Media Blasters; THE MOTEL, Palm Pictures]

Tuesday, June 13, 2006


My favorite musical of the 2004-2005 Broadway season, THE LIGHT IN THE PIAZZA, is airing on PBS' "Live from Lincoln Center" this Thursday, June 15, beginning at 8pm EST. The show is wrapping up a several-times extended run at the Vivian Beaumont on July 2, before embarking on a 50-city tour. Tony winner Victoria Clark is still with the show, and the TV presentation (which is unlikely to be repeated), offers a chance to savor her performance, the wonderful score (highlighted by the poignant "Dividing Day," reason enough to tune in) and a magnificent, Tony-winning design.

The details are at Playbill.
And Live Design doesn't do too badly by the stagecraft.

Monday, June 12, 2006

"Insanely talented people" win Tonys

"You people are insanely talented people," said visiting movie star royalty Julia Roberts to her Broadway brethren during last night's Tony Awards telecast. Heartfelt, if rather inelegantly phrased, though at least America's senior sweetheart did hazard to go off book and say a little something spontaneous to the crowd at Radio City. Indeed, Tony Award nominees and winners are all insanely talented, but you wouldn't have known it from last night's sedate broadcast, in which 60 performers representing variable definitions of stardom took to the stage in tightly organized, repartee-free flights, as if ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST's Nurse Ratched had spiked their Evian water with lithium beforehand. Except when Roberts' co-star Paul Rudd fumbled, embarrassingly but humorously, with the Teleprompter, this was by far the dullest Tony Awards in recent memory, and not a worthy celebration of 60 years of great theater. The Beano ads were of greater interest.

Note to the producers: For better or for worse--clearly, for better in this instance--a host acts as focal point, and the lovely, even witty, 11 o'clock presenting by Julie Andrews was a hint of what could have been. You're never, ever going to get the ratings up appreciably so to hell with it and concentrate on putting on a more rousing show for the audience that does tune in, year after year, and not from their porch rocking chairs.


*Harry Belafonte looks sensational. He and the ever-spooky Bernadette Peters must have portraits moldering away somewhere.

*No HISTORY: There was some small excitement that THE HISTORY BOYS had made history by winning six Tonys, then someone noticed that a little something called DEATH OF A SALESMAN had rung that bell in 1949. Ever hear of that one?

*JERSEY BOYS is a better musical than THE DROWSY CHAPERONE, and the voters made the right call. Its book should have won, though. The downside: More jukebox musicals of inferior vintage.

*Unless I missed it, no one thanked God. But the winning Jersey Boys did thank their skeptical, suspicious dads, a sort-of antidote to the barrage of Father's Day ads.

*It's the nomination, Manoel.

*What an exuberant speech COLOR PURPLE winner LaChanze gave. Will she ever get a role that allows her to smile? Her lips are pretty much sewed up for that entire mirthless show, which very nearly replicated the same win-less fate as its film adaptation.

*Deathwatch: THE WEDDING SINGER. The cute musical number won't help it. There's no room on Broadway for any more Jersey boys. Bad choice: THE DROWSY CHAPERONE number just didn't click out of context.

*The Best Play presentation continues hapless. One line allocated to each show was simply absurd.

*I'm loving the new Carnegie Hall SOUTH PACIFIC CD, with its magisterial Brian Stokes Mitchell performance. Mitchell (who has a solo CD out, his first) did what he could with that disembodied Hal Prince presentation, the show's one near-camp moment. Later, there was an In Memoriam card for Brock Peters, when it hit me: Surely Mitchell could star in a revival of LOST IN THE STARS, which Peters appeared in in the early 70s (and the American Film Theater movie). He's the right age and right voice for it. A great idea for the Roundabout.

Playbill has the best coverage of the festivities, including bloggage from senior editor Robert Simonson, the No. 1 fan of LESTAT and IN MY LIFE.

Saturday, June 03, 2006

Altman (and action)

There's no reason to walk out on A PRAIRIE HOME COMPANION (Picturehouse, opening June 9), as a half-dozen media types did when I attended a screening earlier this year. But there's no urgent reason to walk in, either, unless you enjoy the Garrison Keillor radio broadcasts that the movie toys with, or get a kick out of director Robert Altman's all-star japes, like H.E.A.L.T.H (1979) or PRET A PORTER (1994). The audience for the second pre-condition is limited, and I suspect masochistic, though the new film offers some amusement if you suspend memories of NASHVILLE or GOSFORD PARK, where Altman takes more care, and applies more rigor, to the scenarios. And I suspect Keillor's audience, accustomed to his gentler barbs and rue, a Midwestern prickliness, will be aggravated by much of the film's in-your-face crassness, which at its lowest point descends to unfunny fart jokes, painfully detailed--as if Altman, at this late date, decided to play in the same arena as the makers of AMERICAN PIE.

The film has many stars, and, unlike, say, the celebrity-chasing Woody Allen, Altman gives them plenty of screen time--maybe too much, in the case of Woody Harrelson and John C. Reilly, as the singing cowpokes Dusty and Lefty, of the broken wind and bad-joke songs, the ones that had some of my audience on their feet and out of the screening room. The one unerring contribution is the one made by the veteran cinematographer, Ed Lachman. Shooting vibrantly, and steathily, in high-definition (transferred to 35mm), Lachman takes us deep inside the Fitzgerald Theater, in downtown St. Paul, MN, where the last broadcast of a show not unlike Keillor's "A Prairie Home Companion" (but not entirely like it, either) is shakily proceeding.

Keillor, as "G.K.," is the diffident host, seemingly oblivious of the importance of the occasion and the impending demolition of the theater at the wrecking balls of Texas real-estate magnate The Axeman (Tommy Lee Jones), who makes a third-act appearance via stretch limo. The show, which continually threatens to veer off course under G.K.'s lax supervision, blends familiar "Prairie Home" onstage and backstage personalities with in-character turns from Meryl Streep and Altman veteran Lily Tomlin as Yolanda and Rhonda Johnson, all that's left of their family's singing quartet; an initially ill-at-ease Lindsay Lohan as Streep's depressive daughter, Lola, who eventually relaxes in the little cocoon the movie forms; and bumbling P.I. Guy Noir (Kevin Kline, indulging in weak slapstick), whose investigation of the evening centers on a Dangerous Woman, vapidly played by Virginia Madsen. Death hovers lightly over the entire film, which is strongest when the Grim Reaper is sidelined, as during the actresses' musical numbers, which are sweetly, appealingly performed. Maya Rudolph, as G.K.'s heavily pregnant assistant, quite literally adds a little life to the show, as does L.Q. Jones, in an affectionate performance. [Under Lachman's care, the theater, and Mickey's Diner across the street, which is illuminated in Edward Hopper tones, do equally fine work.]

A PRAIRIE HOME COMPANION is no big deal, a minor, mild picture with off-putting surface details and a vaguely defined center. I've no doubt it was exactly the picture Altman and Keillor wanted to make, sidestepping expectations at every turn, but whether it's a picture you want to see depends largely on your tolerance for quirks and mannerisms, some engaging, some not. I didn't walk out, and have no regrets about walking in, but a return engagement is unlikely.

By this time the summer movie season has usually yielded one propulsive gem, but the action-movie crop has never been so thin. The culprit, I think, is overwatering the emaciated scripts of M:i:III and the new X-MEN movie with gallons of CGI, as if that alone could draw attention away from defects elsewhere. It's particularly galling with the latter, where characters more sharply defined in the prior installments and potentially interesting plot threads are quickly subordinated to a barrage of tiresome computer tricks. And the studios wonder why these things nosedive in the second week of release.

So the tendency to overpraise a diamond in the rough, like the French import DISTRICT B13 (Magnolia Pictures), by labeling it a diamond in the rough, is understandable. It's good-quality paste jewelry, but not quite the real thing, lacking that little spark that a film like SPEED has. What is undeniably real, and exciting, is the action, a brand of two-fisted, two-footed urban gymnastics called "parkour," as practiced by Leito (David Belle), a resident of one of Paris' troubled, headline-making immigrant districts, and an elite supercop, Damien (Cyril Raffaelli), who has been sent in to locate a high-yield explosive that has fallen into the clutches of one of the district's criminal gangs. The film is set in the near future, when the French government has cordoned off the districts, ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK-style, a provocative premise that is short-changed by having all of the district inhabitants look, and act, like Barbary Coast pirates in an old swashbuckler. [The twist in the tail shows that cynicism about one's government isn't limited to America.]

The leads, who jump in and out of car windows and transoms, and scale and clamber down walls without ropes, are personable in the manner of vintage Jackie Chan*, if a little gloomy, and the action nimbly directed by cinematographer Pierre Morel. [He is, the production notes say, the "protege" of producer and co-writer Luc Besson, who has committed crimes against cinema like THE FIFTH ELEMENT, but will perhaps escape this dubious parentage.] The film is, however, front-loaded, and lacks a more bang-up ending, once the most fearsome opponent, the Yeti (Jerome Paquatte, pictured with Belle) is dealt with by Leito. DISTRICT B13 is nonetheless a lithe and diverting 85 minutes, just no classic. That the French have to show us Yanks how to make this kind of picture, which we owned (or at least leased more effectively, as Hong Kong action was grafted onto Hollywood films), is a blotch on national pride.

*I watched Chan's latest, THE MYTH, on DVD. As much as I love Jackie (and who doesn't?) it's time for the 52-year-old performer to give it a rest. His stunts are augmented by too much crap CGI, and the more straightforward setpieces, like a fight in a glue factory, don't have that zing anymore. I wouldn't mind so much if he would, for once and for all, grow up, but here he is again, making platonic goo-goo eyes at his much younger female co-stars. It's a persona that's overdue for the glue factory.

Friday, June 02, 2006

End of week odds and ends

Live Design magazine has posted my last two Broadway reviews of the season, for Disney's TARZAN musical, which I was more tolerant of than several folks I know (I mean, I didn't walk out on it, like RING OF FIRE), and THE CAINE MUTINY COURT-MARTIAL, which was so stirring it closed two weeks ago. But it's still a Tony nominee.

I'm behind the blogocurve on this one, but if you haven't joined the several million or so who have taken a gander at "Bus Uncle" on YouTube you really should--it's a true-life melding of stark Bressonian technique and Cassavetes content, urban angst straight from the public transport system of my old home, Hong Kong. It's ignited an international craze, T-shirts and everything, and the version linked has amusing English subtitles to boot ("Why do you aggress me?"). Also worth a watch is the mournful "Adagio in Strings" remix.

More info on the video, in which a deadpan youth straight from a Jim Jarmusch picture fatefully intersects with an aggravated middle-aged businessman who Jack Lemmon might have played in his SAVE THE TIGER phase, is here. And, straight from the Bus Uncle himself, here.

I have pressure. Everyone has pressure.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

"Welcome to Charm City"

That's the slogan John Waters found so funny as a way to attract tourists to his native Baltimore in the 1970s (it's still on a roadside billboard). Back when he was turning out his definitive tome on the place, SHOCK VALUE, it was amusing--but, thanks to canny redevelopment that hasn't entirely replaced the funk and formstone, it's actually true today. Baltimore does have its charms, and before I return to our usual programming I thought I'd blog a bit about my most recent trip to visit the in-laws.

Our first view is of a patch of green. Not too exciting, unless you were one of the 136 guests at our wedding, who were as dismayed as we were that that section of the Inner Harbor, visible from the Intercontinental Harbor Court where we were wed (and where Lora's folks reside), had been torn up to make way for a bit of parkland. The park, happily, is now in place, though the surrounding structures are still a work in progress.

[Incidentally, the Harbor Court will soon be seen in the upcoming Nicole Kidman semi-remake of INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS, titled THE VISITING. In a chase scene filmed at the hotel, she escapes through a secret passageway disguised by a painting, an actual feature of the place--not that it really goes anywhere, so you'd be body-snatched for sure if the scenario actually happened. Condo residents were costumed in black to play the bad guys, but Lora's parents, alas, were on vacation and not among their number. Keanu Reeves lived right next door to them when he was filming THE REPLACEMENTS in 2000.]

Here's another shot of mostly bare earth, which you can see in the background. [Not that the harbor itself, the linchpin of Baltimore's revival, is of no interest.] This is an EPA Superfund site that will soon be a Four Seasons complex, including the only cineplex for several miles. [The church we were married in is right next door to the city's entracing Art Deco showplace The Senator, which boasts Baltimore's own Walk of Fame, including the footprints of local luminaries Barry Levinson, Edward Norton, and Waters, once he was deemed fit for inclusion by city fathers he had embarrassed in the past with his ribald films.] Today it hosts Cirque du Soleil shows. But back when I first visited, in 2003, it was home to an enormous warehouse, that, mysteriously, kept burning every 20 minutes of so. Huge fireballs, then, nothing--and no seemed particularly fazed. We were fascinated. But we should have known, movie magic--the centerpiece conflagration sequences for the otherwise insipid LADDER 49 was being filmed there, before the structure was torn down. Amazing to watch as the flames shot up, were doused, then reignited as the cameras rolled.

The "Tree of Glass" is part of the American Visionary Art Museum, which I finally got to a chance to visit. It's home to the creations by self-taught artists, and has some truly striking pieces, including a scale model of the Lusitania made entirely out of matchsticks. And a really great gift shop. Also, art by Rosie O'Donnell, whose credentials as an artist and a visionary are questionable, though she is undoubtedly American.

Finally, as our mini-tour around the harbor concludes, the Lady Maryland, foregrounded by a lady of Maryland.