Saturday, December 29, 2007

Arrows flying New Year's Day

The Sundance Channel is ringing in 2008 with an all-day marathon of the delightful Canadian series Slings and Arrows, a favorite at our house. All three series will be aired beginning at 6am EST (alas, no more are slated). They're also on DVD but I can't think of a better way to welcome the new year than to enjoy the misadventures of the New Burbage Theater Festival all in one go.

Friday, December 28, 2007

Grace is already gone

I'm within five films of being able to put together a proper Top 10 list for 2007. One of those five was the Iraq War tearjerker Grace is Gone--not that I, or anyone else, really needs another Iraq/Afghani/9-11 melodrama, but I'll always give its star, John Cusack, the benefit of the doubt. Grace really is gone, however; after just two or three weeks of release, the film has disappeared from Manhattan cinemas, and unless The Weinstein Company is planning some sort of early 08 push it may be AWOL for moviegoers till DVD.

That simplifies things for me by a factor of one film. Still, it deserved due consideration, and despite my resistance I would have bitten the bullet and seen it, once the holiday rush subsided. TWC should have kept it in theaters, but may have enough on its plate trying to keep the gonzo I'm Not There* in play through awards season. I was further surprised to see that the studio isn't giving Woody Allen's Cassandra's Dream an Oscar-qualifying run; it had been scheduled to open today. This, however, is a concession to reality; the film is a big step back for Allen after the modest steps forward of Match Point and the lightly enjoyable Scoop, and its January dumping-ground release is apt.

Look for top, flop, and in-betweener lists of various kinds as my next few posts. Grace, we hardly knew ye.

(*That I did manage to see, and I must report that I wasn't really there, either. My Dylan phase pretty much ended with college graduation, and reviewers who wrote you don't need to know anything about him to appreciate the film are nuts. Forearmed, it's a slog through the soap operatic Heath Ledger segments particularly, and Christian Bale's bits aren't much better. The uninitiated will be ticked off or fast asleep within 15 minutes. There's an amusing short film with Cate Blanchett to be had from the remnants. Otherwise, to show that I'm not a complete philistine, I liked what Todd Haynes was trying to convey with the seriously miscast Richard Gere, never quite at ease outside big city parts, and his faux Western fable storyline. Plus the soundtrack has some decent covers. It's a puzzler, and like so many Bob Dylan or Dylan-related films a wipeout with audiences. He's as much a flop indicator as Nicole Kidman or airships.)

Drippin' Honey

Honeydripper, which Emerging Pictures opens today, confirms that John Sayles would make a better playwright than filmmaker. When a friend told me that his latest film as writer and director was "a John Sayles movie, like every other John Sayles movie," it wasn't really a dig; it's just that Sayles, at the vanguard of American independent cinema, has been tilling this soil for 30 years now, and hasn't much changed. Set in 1950's Alabama, Honeydripper has the two hallmarks of a Sayles movie: Meaty, dialogue-rich roles for underappreciated or underused performers like Danny Glover and Charles S. Dutton, and a fundamental humanism, which is always welcome. But, though veteran cinematographer Dick Pope applies a soft and frequently delicious glow to the Deep South locations, Sayles' basic filmmaking style is stagebound. I know he wanted to get the gifted Lisa Gay Hamilton and Mary Steenburgen together for a scene, and they are expectedly lovely together. Onstage, their segment might captivate you.

As the camera sits there, though, away from the main focus of Danny Glover trying to keep the failing juke joint of the title running till a much-anticipated concert can reverse its fortunes, you can't help but get impatient. Sayles doesn't much edit like a filmmaker; he's not ruthless enough to pare away and save a gem or two for the DVD. His movies can be tough-minded, and they can be lyrical, too; City of Hope and Passion Fish, from the early 90s, are the filmmaker's yin and yang. But they can also wander, and fall into a turgid heavy-handedness, and there is a forced mystical element here involving a blind man figure from Glover's checkered past that is alien to his down-to-earth sensibility. (The movie plays with stereotypes, though, being emotionally contained like all his films, never raucously.)

What I think Sayles was trying to paint was a picture of how the blues went electric and became rock and roll in the humblest African-American communities, and he picked the right person, charismatic Austin guitar and blues performer Gary Clark, Jr., as the bridge between the two worlds. (He is also Glover's meal ticket, once he's sprung from cotton-picking duty overseen by Stacy Keach, who with so many law enforcement parts under his belt could probably run for sheriff at this point.) But as Sayles honey-drips in subplots here and there what might have been a rich portrait is obscured.

Monday, December 24, 2007

A visit to Persepolis

In his review of Persepolis in the current issue of Cineaste, my colleague Rahul Hamid nails what bugged me about the film, a wholly worthwhile endeavor that I enjoyed watching despite a creeping dissatisfaction. Co-director Marjane Satrapi took incidents from her childhood in Iran, as the mullahs took power, and transposed them into two well-received graphic novels. From her exile in France, she and Vincent Parannoud have turned them into an animated film, whose stylized black-and-white images are in old-school 2D, no digital gimmickry here.

Their screenplay is as unadorned as the animation; not artless, but it gets down to business without much fuss or moralizing. Young Marjane, who loves Bruce Lee and ABBA, finds herself in conflict with her classmates and the government at large as the comforts of Tehran, provided under the dubious stewardship of the shah, vanish. Off she goes to France, for a first round of culture shock, followed by another as she returns to her remaining family in Iran, proving, wistfully but defiantly, that you can't go home again. Vocally, the movie is a family affair: Marjane is voiced by Chiara Mastroianni, whose mother, Catherine Deneuve, provides the voice of Marjane's mom. (Marjane's tart grandmother is played by 91-year-old Danielle Darrieux, who in the press kit notes that she has lost count of how many times Deneuve has played her daughter.)

Not that I didn't like hearing these distinguished ladies grouse about hard times in Iran, but I think their Gallic charm works against the effectiveness of the piece. The movie seems to be taking place in the next arrondissement over, rather than in the mystery-shrouded capital whose history over the last 30 years has been veiled from us. Rahul says the books are much more time- and place-specific; the film is more of a gloss, humorous and poignant, but too simple, more of a primer. The Western, "just-like-us" side of the film dominates. I still recommend a viewing: Persepolis, which Sony Pictures Classics opens tomorrow, is an educational entertainment that neither bores nor patronizes, a rare-enough hat trick for movies here and abroad to pull off. And I will treasure a cinema-set scene that unites Madame de... and Godzilla, two of my all-time favorite film characters. But I felt the reduction from page to screen.

Kick the Bucket

When I sit down to write a list of all the things I'd like to do before I die, high atop the sheet will be to avoid movies like The Bucket List, a soggy heartwarmer Warner Bros. opens Christmas Day. I could, and should, have planned this sooner, but Jack Nicholson pulled me in, as he usually does, so the 97 misspent minutes are on my head.

The director, Ron Reiner, has been off his game since his last picture with the actor, A Few Good Men, in 1992, and he hasn't regained his footing. Despite the brief running time, the well-meant film meanders listlessly (no pun intended) as cancerous codgers Nicholson (the rich, sybaritic one) and Morgan Freeman (boringly salt-of-the-earth as usual, right down to the sonorous narration) bolt their hospital beds for a worldwide spree: racing cars, skydiving, and visiting world capitals. This might be more meaningful if a) the characters showed more than passing signs of illness during their jaunt (Nicholson, a tub of guts, is the beefiest cancer patient ever, so much so I thought a mistaken diagnosis subplot was in the offing) and b) they were CGI-ed more fluently into their various misadventures. Like Hope and Crosby in their Road pictures heyday, I doubt they even left Burbank; the illusion that they did, which would have made the wish fulfillment fantasy concrete, is poorly realized.

Oh, and c), if there had been one surprise, in the casting, acting (fine but familiar) and direction, some twist in the tale that might have validated all the death-without-disease cliches the film parcels out. (I guess there is one, but it's more celestial than logical, and something of a cheat.) Hereby resolved: No more movies like The Bucket List. I'm already aglow with the potential of what I might accomplish in the hours I've rewarded myself with.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

"Oh, my God, they're singing!"

Reports are pouring in from online sources that audiences are fleeing Sweeney Todd in horror. It's not the hard-R level of violence that has them running from the auditoriums; no, it's the singing. "Shit! This ain't a goddamned musical!" one patron was heard to exclaim in Orlando, as he or she presumably departed to the safety of Disneyland. While a tone-deafness to the form that has brought us the $100 mllion-plus grossing hits Chicago, Dreamgirls, and Hairspray since 2002 is a likely contributing factor (along with a certain cultural illiteracy regarding the stage) I place the blame squarely on the shoulders of the distributor, which did its best to disguise the film's musicality in its trailers and advertising. In a crowded marketplace the well-reviewed film has gotten off to a pretty good start. But while I am no expert in the field of marketing, I strongly suspect that "Shit! This ain't a goddamned musical!" isn't quite the word of mouth to keep the turnstiles in motion. As if there were any shame in touting the film of a classic musical production, but that's the nervousness of Hollywood beancounters for you.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

What's so Great?

I haven't seen The Great Debaters. But I have seen The Great Debaters. We've all seen The Great Debaters. Earlier this year, it was called Freedom Writers. Last year, it was called Akeelah and the Bee. In 1967, it was called To Sir With Love; in 1987, Stand and Deliver; in 1995, Dangerous Minds. Debaters star and director Denzel Washington was featured in the 2001 model, Remember the Titans; in 2002, he directed and co-starred in the 2002 version, Antwone Fisher.

Knocking these inspirational teacher stories, especially around Christmas, is like stealing wheelchairs from a nursing home. (It's why one always opens at this time of the year, to disarm usually Scrooge-like reviewers who would otherwise twitch at the prospect of another two-hour plus Xerox to consider.) But the genre is so predictable, and there are so many of these films per annum it's hard to see how audiences can respond with any sort of spontaneous, deeply felt uplift. I guess I'd rather have another one under the tree than, say, a National Treasure sequel, but given the glut they seem so unnecessary. I already know how it's going with me: It's at the bottom of my too-see list, which means it will likely drop into my Netflix queue (buried under 400 other titles), then onto a look-see when it turns up on cable next fall. Only significant awards action is going to get my butt onto a seat. "Here endeth the lesson," to quote an "instructor" film I can get behind, The Untouchables.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

A slashing Sweeney Todd

Theatergoers attending the tale of Sweeney Todd at the movies will have two films in mind: The one Tim Burton has wrought from Stephen Sondheim’s 1979 masterpiece, and the one you may have hoped for. That one would have stronger singer-actors in the leads. More of the score intact. And much less blood, after the first two or three slashings have made their point.

But this is very much Burton's show. Indeed, the material has been so strongly reconceived by the reigning director of movies macabre it's as if Burton approached Sondheim about writing a Sweeney Todd musical and the work commenced a few years and not three decades ago. Wary of the stodgy, museum piece treatment that Rent and The Producers received onscreen, Sondheim encouraged the cuts, but admirers of the score will be surprised at how deeply Burton dug in. For example, we no longer "attend the tale of Sweeney Todd"; shorn of stagy ensemble numbers, like the opening ballad, the film simply begins, with crimson rivers overrunning the titles and the swift set-up of the storyline. Adapting Hugh Wheeler's book, John Logan has condensed the storyline to a tightly compressed running time of under two hours. (Suiting the task at hand, Logan has a prior “killer” title, the recently revived off Broadway Leopold and Loeb dramatization Never the Sinner, to go along with The Aviator and Gladiator for Martin Scorsese and Ridley Scott.) The outstanding difference is one of tone: Burton, whose films since 1994's Ed Wood have largely been disappointing, clearly relished returning Sweeney Todd to its Grand Guignol roots, and audiences accustomed to the comparatively more restrained musical will be covering their eyes and ears and not noticing the absence of "Ah, Miss" and "Parlor Songs."

I suggest leaving them open, simply to enjoy the lush orchestrations (by Jonathan Tunick, wisely retained from the Broadway original) and the ripely decayed and decadent Victorian atmosphere conjured by production designer Dante Ferretti, in Hammer horror mode. Using the "bleach-bypass" technique that gave 1995’s Se7en its sickly serial killer sheen, cinematographer Dariusz Wolski has all but drained the imposing imagery of its color, the better for the red to stand out. Once Todd begins to apply his razor to his vengeance against an uncaring and hypocritical society, look out; the title of another current release, There Will Be Blood, could easily apply here (and there are also the sickening skull-crunching thuds of the victims hitting Mrs. Lovett's basement abattoir to contend with). You may wish that what Tobias finds there toward the climax, which the show leaves to our darkest imagination, had been left to our imagination. Burton, typically cock-eyed and whimsical toward violence, has never abandoned himself in this way before, and Todd's dehumanization is annihilating.

Less definitive is his choice of leads. To confirm what undemanding critics have written, yes, Johnny Depp can sing. But he cannot sing well. The committed intensity of his performance, in his sixth collaboration with the director--no cutesy pirate stuff here--is unmatched by his vocals, and his songs trail off. In this regard he fares better than Helena Bonham Carter, whose numbers as Mrs. Lovett never really begin. Giving Carter her due, it's by no means a clearcut case of nepotism that Burton has awarded his five-time co-star (and mother of two children) this plum role—downplaying the character’s slatternly side, she finds a note, a compelling one, of bedraggled sympathy. It is, alas, the only one she holds. In their pallid makeup, peculiar hairstyles, and Colleen Atwood's modish ragtag costumes the two look like Edward and Edwina Scissorhands (recalling Burton's benign barbering fable), and harmonize in Burton's off-kilter realization of "By the Sea" as a bright CGI fantasia. But no one will purchase the soundtrack album on their account.

The supporting parts more evenly mesh acting and singing, and no one, fortunately, is asked to play an instrument, as in the revival Broadway Todd. Cast as the rancid Judge Turpin and the loathsome Beadle, Alan Rickman and Timothy Spall are spot-on, and their guttural vocals are acceptable. Better than that is Sacha Baron Cohen, in a delightful "who knew he had it in him?" performance as Pirelli, a sparklingly mischievous turn reminiscent of Peter Sellers. Vocally, the heavy lifting is reserved for Jayne Wisener (as the innocent songbird Johanna), Jamie Campbell Bower (a strong Anthony), Laura Michelle Kelly (the West End's Mary Poppins, near-unrecognizable except in talent as The Beggar Woman), and especially Edward Sanders, as Tobias. Casting a boy as Tobias adds a discomfiting edge to the story when you're used to the character being played by a young man, and he is terrific, on his own or carrying Carter through "Not While I’m Around." Oliver! should be revived just for him.

Sweeney Todd is a film musical informed by a strong central vision, and not its composer's. It may be the first of its kind to appeal to the crowd that lapped up Saw and 300, but its nihilism may not go down easy with them, either. DVDs of George Hearn and Angela Lansbury in the original production, and a concert staging with Patti LuPone, exist for purists, and will co-exist, however uneasily, with the extra-rare meat pie Tim Burton has carved up for the movies.

(This review was written for the New York Theater News site. Look for an appropriately short review of the off Broadway production of Beckett Shorts at the same URL.)

Lead balloons

I think I know why The Golden Compass is rudderless at the boxoffice. It's not that it's any worse than the Harry Potter films or The Chronicles of Narnia, if not nearly up to the level of the Rings pictures. It's not that it's more about girls than boys. It's not that it's blasphemous or irreligious; nothing to get the racks out over here, at least on film. (There's more talk of souls than there is in a Sunday school lesson. Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee could bond over it.)

It's not that the production is cheap or cheesy. In fact, the CGI polar bears, monkeys, cats, etc., are outstanding, and Hollywood should make them the template on which all future beasts are based, economizing all around. They're the best of the current menagerie found in Enchanted and Alvin and the Chipmunks--whose characters, not part of the national conversation since about 1972, got a big boost from the audience-friendly response to Pip the squeaking chipmunk in the princess picture. But I digress.

It's not that the marketing failed to distinguish it from other, less ambitious pictures based on books half-remembered from childhood, like The Dark is Rising (terrific novels, by the way, worthy of classier treatment). It's certainly not the under two-hour running time, which I appreciated, though a few more minutes spent on the complicated exposition might have been of benefit.

It's not even that the presence of Nicole Kidman in a movie is a reliable flop indicator, one that put the zotz on Daniel Craig twice this year. Mitigating factor: The two actors are only in the film for about a half-hour apiece (Craig's Casino Royale co-star, Eva Green, is only in Compass for about 15, giving more face time to the kids and the bears.)

No, it's that the characters in its near-Earth zip around in airships. I've wracked my brain, but I cannot recall a single successful film involving a zeppelin. 1971's Zeppelin crashed and burned. Not the recent Southland Tales and its apparent model, 1930's Madam Satan, a fun but lesser Cecil B. DeMille picture. Not the true-life The Red Tent or The Hindenburg. A View to a Kill ended Roger Moore's tenure as Bond on a deflationary note. One of my favorite thrillers, the blimp-set Black Sunday, never got airborne with viewers.

I love the idea of airships and enjoy looking at them in movies. But indulging my interest comes at a steep cost. Note to filmmakers: If your script has a part for a zeppelin, get rewrite and seek alternate transportation.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Plays: Lots of plays...

The plays are clearly the thing as the year on Broadway comes to a close, with a spectacle-driven Cymbeline and dirty rotten scoundrel Norbert Leo Butz making a spectacle of himself in a Mark Twain premiere, from the Live Design website.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

World gone wild

Mobius Home Video Forum correspondent Wade Sowers reminds me that 1959's The World, The Flesh and The Devil, with Harry Belafonte, did the whole abandoned New York sci-fi premise sans effects almost 50 years ago. Here's a
picture. I'm surprised TCM isn't showing it (or the two other Legend versions) to tie in; it has a tense ending, with Belafonte and bigoted Mel Ferrer stalking each other through the empty streets with rifles. (2001's non-apocalyptic Vanilla Sky also managed the same trick in Times Square, without apparent enhancement but with plenty of people wrangling in the small hours of the morning. Filmmakers looking for that deserted sidewalks feeling in the city know they can get it without too much effort by shooting on barren Wall Street on weekends.)

New York has long been a filmmaker favorite for disaster scenarios, as far back as 1930's earthquake-and-flood epic Deluge. As the city cleaned up in the 90s the movies were hellbent on destroying us; 1998 alone brought the asteroid two-fer Deep Impact and Armageddon, plus the Godzilla remake. There was a post-9/11 moratorium but the trend came back with a vengeance with 2004's The Day After Tomorrow. At that time I proposed an article for Slate that I called "It's OK to Kill New Yorkers Again" but they didn't bite; I did, however, just see a similar piece somewhere hooked to I Am Legend. And this new book (pictured), by Alan Weisman, looks interesting; I asked Santa for it, and I trust it will arrive unless our newly installed tree is vaporized in some catastrophe.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Tarnished Legend

Lost City readers will appreciate the opening sequences of I Am Legend, which Warner Bros. opens today. The film details life in a New York City shorn of its citizens, leaving only the buildings standing in a Manhattan rendered as a concrete grassland, where uncaged zoo lions stalk herds of deer that bound around Midtown. The last man standing in 2012 (thanks to a cancer cure virus inadvertently unleashed by cameoing experimenter Emma Thompson) is military scientist Robert Neville (Will Smith) who, faithful dog in tow, zips around the streets in search of venison of his own--and, sometimes, vampiric members of "the infected," whose rabidly dangerous bodies he injects with his own immune blood, in hopes of curing the disease that claimed most human life three years earlier.

Two prior versions of Richard Matheson's novel have made it to the screen. I've seen 1971's The Omega Man once or twice--its screenplay was the basis of this new one--but outside of star Charlton Heston pining for the past while watching Woodstock, a black-cowled Anthony Zerbe as the cult-like leader of the dead-ish, and an albino Rosalind Cash an in-betweener not much stands out (I recall it taking place in L.A., which typically betrays little sign of human life outside of the people driving cars). A much greater impression was seared into my moviegoing memory by the first one, 1964's The Last Man on Earth, with Vincent Price barricaded in his house at night as hordes of the shuffling dead feebly seek access (Calling his name: "Morgan!" "Come out, Morgan!")--it scared my sister half to death, and the creepy, black-and-white ambiance, reinforced by its taking place in a not-quite-America forged from the backlots of Italy where it was shot, burrows under the skin and stays there.

Last Man has an unforgettable flashback to Price searching a ghastly funeral pyre for his little girl as the contagion spreads. This new one being an impersonal, crowd-pleasing, A-list/PG-13 studio project, it ties our stomach up in knots over the fate of the dog while barely raising the hackles over the fate of mankind. A certain scale and perspective is missing, not that director Francis Lawrence, of the bum supernatural shocker Constantine, or writer-co-producer Akiva Goldsman, of Smith's hackwork version of I, Robot, could have been expected to provide it. The goal is to pile on the wow factor moments that move the merchandise through multiplexes, and they have done with reasonable sobriety, outside of a few too many jump-out-the-seat sound effects accompanying the nightly ravages of the near-dead. (The uber-personable Smith goes easy on the strutting this time, though those inoculated against his charm still may cringe at the fortunately fleeting "showbiz" moments he has here.)

About those infected: Like similar ghouls in the Dawn of the Dead remake and the quirkier, superior 28 Days Later pictures, they gallop after their prey, and don't have much to say. These also roar like jungle cats, which doesn't make a lot of sense given clearly failing lung power. The big difference, though, is that are almost entirely CGI creations, and as such come across as insubstantial. Once characterized, and personalized, by Andy Serkis, Gollum and King Kong could be run through the computer to assume their corporeal form onscreen. These creatures, with their bad attitudes and super strength, come straight from the workstation and ten other movies and not from someone's dark and imaginative heart. After their first "boo" moments they lack palpable menace, like aggressors in a videogame played once too often.

(The digitalization of the cityscape is more apt, but inexact. The TKTS booth scheduled for next year is open on Duffy Square in the film, but surrounded by billboards of the long-closed Broadway shows The Producers and Lestat, indicating that the data was dumped into the computer a year or so ago. How Lestat and Legally Blonde, whose billboard is also glimpsed, could play the Palace at the same time is a mystery greater than the virus. And if Neville is watching episodes of the Today show from 2009, before life got tougher, why is Katie Couric still on the program--or are the scripters somehow clairvoyant about her future prospects? Don't get me wrong, I dug the trompe l'oeil, but someone in research should have been swifter on the draw.)

In Last Man, the infected, who as in The Omega Man are sentient (but not as verbose) know exactly where the Price character lives, and give him grief every night. A plot point here is that they don't know Smith's well-fortified Washington Square address, which he leaves every day to see if his radio broadcasts, urging fellow humans to meet him at the Fulton pier, have attracted company. Late in the story he is joined by a pious, "Christian" without being too religious woman (Alice Braga) and the little boy she is taking to presumed refuge, in a commune in Vermont (natch). Why does Neville never leave the city in the daytime to more proactively find others if the infected (whom pious woman calls, with fake profundity, the "dark-seekers") don't know where he is in the first place? And why does Neville's final...well, you may know how the story ends from the prior films, but his gesture toward the rebooting of humanity seems poorly motivated and ill-considered here.

Maybe it comes down to this: A future that looks centered around churches just isn't as exciting as riding shotgun in the canyons of New York.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Wasted Youth

I always figured eternal life would get boring after a while, and Francis Ford Coppola confirms my suspicion with Youth Without Youth, an inert thumb-twiddler that Sony Pictures Classics opens tomorrow. "Cinema without audiences" read Variety's unfortunately on-the-mark pan, and any audience drawn to see the director's first film since John Grisham's The Rainmaker a decade ago will soon find themselves in an altered state--not like the one confounding Tim Roth's professor character, but one of grouchy sleepiness, struggling to stay awake as Coppola pushes metaphysical ideas around his plate.

No garden-variety auteur, pursuing variations on a theme, Coppola has always been a restless talent, and has put up with critical and commercial shrugs before. The many fine commentaries he has contributed for his past work on DVD, as he reflects candidly on ups and downs, can be enjoyed. But the new film is the worst kind of personal project, the type that stimulates and amuses its author and no one else. Richard Kelly's Southland Tales has numerous lapses; still, you sense that Kelly is trying to engage an audience as disenchanted with the American identity as he is, and his stumbling around with loopily explained concepts, zeppelins, and a cast stronger on personalities than actors is rather touching. It's never gratingly awful. Youth Without Youth, however, comes close; its basic torpor is an asset insofar as the film registers as a near-complete blank, which the memory banks erase once the lights have gone up.

Based on a novella by Mircea Eliade, the 1938-set Youth Without Youth casts a bedraggled Roth as the 70-year-old Dominic Matei. Gripped by an existential crisis, Matei plans suicide, but a lightning bolt not only shocks him to his senses, it hurls him back into his 35-year-old body. His doctor (Bruno Ganz, recalling, as he always does, better days with Wim Wenders and Wings of Desire) considers Matei a living miracle; the Nazis, in his native Romania, a potential weapon to be exploited. As an American agent (a cameoing Matt Damon) briefly enters the picture the notion that this might lead to a thriller comes into view, but this slender reed of hope that a film already going in different directions will center itself is quickly dashed. Matei resumes his lifetime study of languages, a pursuit complicated by a taunting double and what can be construed (warning: fog alert) as the reincarnation of his lost love, very blankly played in both incarnations by Control co-star Alexandra Maria Lara. The film then dissolves into a series of digressions, about the nature of love and language (Lara's troubled present-tense character is speaking ancient tongues, never a sign of functional mental health), good and evil (Matei uses telekinesis to kill a meddling Nazi scientist, a power brought up, then left dangling), past and present, Indian teachings, and more, all insufficiently dramatized by Coppola, as writer and director. (The official press kit synopsis goes on for pages, and is less help than this synopsis of it. His editor, the gifted Walter Murch, is unable to parse all the loose ends.)

On some level, Youth Without Youth is another take on his Dracula, warmed over for pedants. I think that Coppola (who recently played the part of a gnocchi-preparing paisan, his winemaking alter ego in full flower, on the Martha Stewart show) wants to say something about the frustrations of a creative life through this material, but it never cuts through through the philosophical haze and technical matters like the poor dubbing of the supporting cast. The in-camera special effects and antique titles have their charm, and a radical note is struck when the film climaxes right at the end card--an abrupt conclusion to a movie that never really began, just unspooled. With the passing of Youth and whatever anxieties and hesitations were gnawing at him Coppola's return to active moviemaking duty is awaited.

Golden glop

The Golden Globes are so inane I'm not sure they're worth the 20 seconds it takes to link to coverage. But here it is. I'm suspicious of any awards body that takes American Gangster seriously, and, having endured Aaron Sorkin's emotionally and factually fraudulent The Farnsworth Invention on Broadway, have less confidence in his adaptation of Charlie Wilson's War. And I'm disappointed that Once (and Hal Holbrook's resonant supporting turn in Into the Wild) faded from view. Credit to the voters, however, for making Viggo Mortensen (pictured) and Eastern Promises a blip on the awards season radar screen.

How many have you heard?

Variety has a "set list" of the 59 songs eligible for Best Song at next year's Oscars. My personal frontrunners, the two from Once ("Falling Slowly" and "If You Want Me") haven't been far from my CD player since I picked up the soundtrack last summer, and Eddie Vedder's music for Into the Wild also leaves a favorable impression. Somehow I don't think the tunes from The Water Horse, the marauding Mormon epic September Dawn, The Last Mimzy, and the obscure 56 Drops of Blood (described on CD Universe as the "musical that brings the story of Romeo and Juliet into the chaos of the Hungarian revolution in 1956") will be joining the Hollywood Hit Parade anytime soon.

Monday, December 10, 2007

45 years ago today...

Cineaste editor Gary Crowdus reminds us all of a seminal world premiere, as Peter O'Toole and David Lean present their timeless collaboration.

Everybody's Country

No Country For Old Men's surprisingly robust performance at the boxoffice (and encouraging development amidst so many indie, or independent-ish, films that have sank without trace) has been matched by a good showing among critics' groups, with New York giving it top honors as Amy Ryan (go baby go) continues to sweep--you read it here first.

The full list of winners from the New York Film Critics Circle:

Best Picture - No Country For Old Men
Best Director - Joel & Ethan Coen / No Country For Old Men
Best Actor - Daniel Day Lewis / There Will Be Blood
Best Actress - Julie Christie / Away From Her
Best Supporting Actor - Javier Bardem / No Country For Old Men (pictured)
Best Supporting Actress - Amy Ryan / Gone Baby Gone
Best Cinematography - Robert Elswit / There Will Be Blood
Best Screenplay - Joel & Ethan Coen / No Country For Old Men
Best Animated Film – Persepolis
Best Non-Fiction Film (Documentary) - No End in Sight
Best Foreign-Language Film – The Lives of Others
Best First Film – Away From Her

Lifetime Achievement Award – Sidney Lumet
Special Critics Award - Killer of Sheep by Charles Burnett

Gossip here. It was pointless for Reed to try to raise a fuss about Coppola's wonky Youth Without Youth, which wasn't going anywhere, but that's Reed. And that's White for you. Otherwise, good if unsensational calls: Wasn't The Lives of Others considered last year?

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

An honor for Atonement

I should really say more about Joe Wright's fine adaptation of Atonement (pictured, with James McAvoy and Keira Knightley). Knowing it was due encouraged me to pull Ian McEwan's novel off the high shelf where it had rested since 2002, and reading it was a distinct pleasure for us both. I didn't quite see a film in there but quite a good one (better than The New York Times or Village Voice would lead you to think) has been wrested from McEwan's remorseless text, and I imagine it will do well for Focus Features with critics, audiences, and awards groups once it goes into release beginning Dec. 7.

Which is to say that with various engagements and assignments pressing I will send you to the National Board of Review, which has named it one of its top ten films of the year. (The very top honor, as the board kicks off awards season, went to No Country for Old Men.) One thing I can say for sure: It's a helluva lot better than the lachrymose The Bucket List, which I defy anyone outside of the voting bloc to recall a day after seeing it. (Some good calls on the acting side balance out the dud winners, which for me would include The Assassination of...Zzzz.)

And while I'm at it, having piggybacked off the labor of others, I humbly offer one of my periodic star lists, when I find myself unable to stop the march of time for anything more substantive...

***1/2: Atonement, No Country for Old Men
*** : Beowulf (in 3D), The Mist
**1/2 : Margot at the Wedding
** : The Walker (opens 12/7, Thinkfilm)
*1/2 : American Gangster

There. Don't say I never gave you anything. But as always more to come.

Friday, November 30, 2007

Plays: Glorious Ones, and not so much

Broadway's back on but I'm still Off, with a commedia dell'arte musical, more on the Frankenstein tuner, and a Hamlet that moves, from the Live Design website.

The Winter Cineaste, online and on sale

In the print edition, my 7,000-word powwow with Brian De Palma on Redacted and other matters, plus Todd Haynes on I'm No There, a supplement on French-Maghrebi cinema, and much, much more. Online exclusively, a chat with director Marc Forster on The Kite Runner, reviews of DVDs of Breathless and Inland Empire, and, available on the page or as pixels, James Mangold revisiting the Old West in his 3:10 to Yuma remake, with an introduction by yours truly. Saddle up, pardners.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Protagonist, with puppets

One of the funniest scenes in Being John Malkovich is when Catherine Keener asks John Cusack what he does for a living, then abruptly turns tail when he responds, "Puppeteer." As an art, puppeteering is about a half-step up from mime in the popular imagination, no matter how many folks see The Lion King on Broadway or on tour. I, too, am guilty of slagging our little wood and cloth friends, joking with a colleague who wrote on Off Off Broadway theater that she was stuck with the "puppet beat," little shows with little, hand-crafted and hand-animated actors.

Who's laughing now? I've seen Protagonist, which IFC Films opens Nov. 30, and my respect for puppeteering has gone up tenfold. Jessica Yu, the Oscar-winning documentarian of 1997's short film Breathing Lessons, and the director of the captivating portrait of naive artist Henry Darger, In the Realms of the Unreal (one of my favorite films of 2004), has given wooden-rod puppets pride of place in her latest work, which is easier to watch, and enjoy, than it is to classify and summarize. I'll cheat (it's a blog entry, not a paying assignment, after all) and borrow the short synopsis from the press kit, which says, "Protagonist explores extremism and the limits of certainty. Inspired by Greek drama, this visually inventive (I concur wholeheartedly--RC) documentary weaves the story of four men--a German terrorist, a bank robber, an 'ex-gay' evangelist, and a martial arts student--consumed by personal odysseys."

If that's not good enough, consult the website, but really, just see the movie, where the stories and the technique with which they are told (the "visually inventive" bit) are readily apparent. In 2003 Yu was approached by the Carr Foundation about making a film about Euripides, the fifth century B.C. playwright, and this is her eventual, well-crafted response. The four stories are told in parallel, with quotes from the plays used as chapter headings. The puppets, designed by Janie Geiser, are based on ancient Greek theater masks and are used to illustrate excerpts from the works, and incidents from the lives of its human subjects. Superb title animation by Robert Conner, an evocative score by Jeff Beal, and ancient Greek voiceover by former Star Trek-ker Marina Sirtis and Chris Diamantopolous accentuate the mood of the past and present overlapping in a timeless choreographer.

All of this would likely be quite precious if it weren't for the candor of her four male subjects. Yu's husband, Iron and Silk author and filmmaker Mark Salzman, is the martial artist, and the use of him as a subject might be nepotistic if his own journey through an ancient culture via suburban Connecticut weren't directly relevant to Yu's aims. It is, however, a warm-up to the more insurmountable problems faced by Mark Pierpont, who denied his homosexuality and donned a missionary's cloak to bring other men into his cloistered fold; Joe Loya, whose terror-fraught childhood reasserted itself in a criminal spree of bank robbery; and, most disturbingly, German terrorist Hans-Joachim Klein, whose own rebellion against parental authority took place on the world stage in the 1970s, when he joined an offshoot of the Baader-Meinhof gang and engineered the kidnapping of 11 OPEC ministers. (Klein's representation is pictured.)

Protagonist is a unique treatment of an unlikely subject, one that manages to be quite compelling even if you're at first a little resistant to its unorthodox aesthetic. But this was all, ahem, Greek to Yu as well, and that she approached the various aspects of the production with an open mind and heart makes for an absorbing, and fully cinematic, experience. She has pulled the strings extremely well.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Starting Out for the holiday

With Thanksgiving and the holidays upon us I urge filmgoers to treat themselves to Andrew Wagner's Starting Out in the Evening, which Roadside Attractions opens Nov. 23. There are many fine and thoughtful qualities to this adaptation of Brian Morton's novel but chief among them are Frank Langella's magnificent portrayal of an aging and faltering New York novelist, who is resuscitated in unexpected ways by an ambitious grad student, well-played by Lauren Ambrose, and the daughter who has always somewhat disappointed him, an engaging turn by Lili Taylor. (Adrian Lester brings increasing dimension to the fourth main character, Taylor's ex-boyfriend.) Langella may be our finest stage actor, a joy to watch in any vehicle, but he has never altogether clicked on film, at least not as much as he does here, where he surprises with the quietest, most hemmed-in performance I've ever seen him give. His body language, so sinuous as Dracula or awkward as Nixon in the play and soon film Frost/Nixon, seems to change entirely, drawing in on itself in carefully poised constriction, until circumstances force a change of habit.

Starting Out in the Evening is unabashedly literary in its overall tone but never dead on the screen, and is in welcome contrast to the more bombastic entertainments being offered up for seasonal distraction. If only there were more films like this one, a showcase for an extraordinary talent finally correctly applied for the medium, and not the completely dull and overrated American Gangster, the kind of blast from the past no one needs. Also worth viewing: The Coen Brothers' No Country for Old Men, but that doesn't need my modest soupcon of support as much as this sterling chamber piece.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Plays: Young Frankenstein, old Albee

The biggest, strike-unaffected musical on the planet, and a fusion of old and new from the venerable Edward Albee, at the New York Theater News website.

Earlier this evening I saw New York's other Frankenstein musical, now playing at the 37 Arts. The potential for vampire tuners has seemingly been staked but to judge from these two stiffs there's not a lot of life in Shelley's creature for the stage. Neither holds a candle to my fond memories of the non-musical Frankenstein that opened and closed one night in January 1981, a legendary bust I saw in Christmas week previews, to the undying envy of my theater-loving friends. That one had David Dukes as a dashing Romantic period doctor, John Glover, Dianne Wiest, some nifty Bran Ferren effects and the great John Carradine, a veteran of the Universal Frankenstein films, as the blind hermit; these have spoofery barely warmed over for the stage, a monster from the Crunch gym (Steve Blanchard, pictured), and the slight and petulant Hunter Foster as a none-too-Romantic doctor, and not a memorable song between them. Werewolves, anyone?

Sunday, November 18, 2007

On Redacted

The Mobius Home Video Forum has opened up a discussion on Brian De Palma's controversial new film. My interview with the director will appear in the Winter issue of Cineaste, which should be available the first week of December.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Broadway in Real Life

If you're missing Broadway due to the stagehands strike, get thee to the multiplex to see Dan in Real Life, co-written and directed by off Broadway veteran Peter Hedges. Hedges will always have a gold star affixed to his name for penning What's Eating Gilbert Grape, but the homey quality that draws people to this one is precisely the thing that repels me. A family that gets together to play competitive board games, have singalongs, and play charades? I love my family, at the holidays as much as any time, but, ugh, a true nightmare scenario for Bob in real life, include me out. (Hedges' more astringent indie take on get-togetherness, Pieces of April is more my speed.)

Selling the illusion of familial warmth and good cheer is, however, a supporting cast of stage veterans, exported to Rhode Island for the shoot. I think onscreen brothers Steve Carell (lightly charming but at the outermost region of his TV-bred talent, I suspect, as the widower Dan; his Hamlet we need not see) and Dane Cook are the only two adult castmembers without any stage experience, though Cook does hustle the crowds at comedy clubs. As their parents, Hedges has cast board treaders Dianne Wiest and John Mahoney, in full twinkle mode; as they woman they're both drawn to, the appealing but as always somewhat inscrutable Juliette Binoche, seen in the Roundabout revival of Betrayal a few seasons back. Alison Pill, currently co-starring in the still-running Mauritius, plays Dan's eldest daughter. Dan's siblings and in-laws are a clutch of Tony nominees and Tony winners: Amy Ryan, Norbert Leo Butz, Frank Wood, and the get-there-someday Jessica Hecht. (I'd pencil in their character names, but Hedges have given them little to do.) The recurring role of a taciturn comic cop is played by Light in the Piazza star Matthew Morrison.

So, not my kind of movie, though it was nice to see them. Better to see them in their natural habitat, however. As it is, the openings of The Seafarer and The Farnsworth Invention will have to be rejiggered, and as with the excellent Rock 'n' Roll, which I saw on Friday before helter-skelter came down, I suspect the UK-imported cast of the former is getting antsy. I don't know how it would conflict with the Hollywood writer's strike, but maybe Hedges has a trunk script they could all film to pass the time.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

RIP Ira Levin

I read the bulk of Levin's mega-selling output with undiluted pleasure back in the day; Rosemary's Baby, The Stepford Wives, and The Boys From Brazil are classic page-turners, and the first made for a classic film, too. (The others are, respectively, an eternal catchphrase not even a second-rate comic remake could diminish, and a guilty pleasure, itself slated for repurposing, with a peerless cast of overacting old hams.)

But like I'm sure many theatergoers of a certain age I have him to thank for my love of the medium, courtesy of the long-running comic thriller Deathtrap, the kind of play no one writes or produces anymore. The 1982 film version was a stodgy miss for Sidney Lumet but Levin's tasty Tony-nominated twists made for delectable theater, ably served up by Robert Reed (successfully shucking off Mr. Brady late in the show's run) and Tony nominee Marian Seldes, who is in the Guinness Book of World Records for not having missed one of its 1,793 performances. With material as plummy as that I wouldn't have missed one, either. The New York Times bids farewell here.

Catch the Blues

As "Guest Programmer Month" continues on Turner Classic, Simpsons creator Matt Groening has reeled in a live one for tomorrow night (Nov. 14) at 8pm EST--Anatole Litvak's delightful genre mash-up Blues in the Night (1941), which I don't think the channel has aired since I first saw it three or four years ago. Like Litvak's prior James Cagney boxing/musical melodrama City for Conquest (1940) but more unhinged it packs a whole bunch of stuff--gangsters, musicians, noir elements, "women's pictures"--into 88 breathless minutes. (Be sure, however, to record it for 100 or 105 minutes, not 90, in case the intro segment runs long).

Stay tuned for a fine cast of second-stringers (including Jack Carson, Priscilla Lane, and the pictured Lloyd Nolan as a mobster and Betty Field as the bad girl), the great, Oscar-nominated Harold Arlen/Johnny Mercer title tune (played every two scenes or so), and jaw-dropping montages directed by Don Siegel, later of Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Dirty Harry fame. In his autobiography motormouthed co-star Elia Kazan, an actor before he went behind the camera, warns "if Blues in the Night ever turns up on the late-late show I'd advise you to skip it," but don't; it's not on DVD or VHS that I know of and is a real find. I understand it's a favorite of Martin Scorsese, whose New York, New York is like a posher, molasses-slow version of its combustible predecessor.

Wish you were there

Dusk and daylight views of beautiful Harbour Island in the Bahamas, which is renowned for its pink sand beaches. We also spent time in Nassau and Paradise Island, stomping grounds of James Bond V.1 (in Thunderball and Never Say Never Again) and V.6 (last year's Casino Royale).

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

TCM's guest stars

Before I go, it would be remiss of me not to mention Turner Classic Movies's prime-time guest programmer event all next month, where various luminaries will be screening some of their favorite films. If you've never seen The Battle of Algiers, why not watch with Danny DeVito as your guide on 11/10?

Some promising pairings, by the day:

Whoopi Goldberg with A Face in the Crowd (11/1);
Alfred Molina shooting up on the original Get Carter (11/2);
Donald Trump, inevitably, with Citizen Kane (11/3);
cinephile Gore Vidal on That Hamilton Woman with Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh (11/4);
siren Rose McGowan with the noir Out of the Past (11/5);
Cabin Boy Chris Elliott on Captains Courageous (11/6);
tough-talking playwright Neil LaBute on Ace in the Hole (11/7);
Charles Busch on the tough-as-nails Ida Lupino drama The Hard Way (11/8); Jerry Stiller on A Night at the Opera (11/9);
foodie Alton Brown, showing good taste with Closely Watched Trains, one of the few foreign films selected (11/11);
Jack Klugman, one of the few (along with Charles Grodin) who had the chutzpah to show one of his own movies, 12 Angry Men (11/12);
jazzy James Ellroy on a crime spree with The Lineup (11/13);
Matt Groening on the crazy, must-see Blues in the Night (11/14);
Cybill Shepherd on His Girl Friday (11/15);
Paul Mazursky on a quintessential New York story, King Kong (11/16);
Tracy Ullman on a roll, beginning with Ken Loach's Kes (11/17);
Graydon Carter on The Philadelphia Story (11/18);
diva Renee Fleming on a classical evening, including the operetta Maytime (11/19);
the sharp-witted Alec Baldwin on The Bad and the Beautiful (11/20);
Kermit the Frog, why not, on 1950's Cyrano de Bergerac (11/21);
a competition winner who quite nicely selected the silent classic The Crowd for Thanksgiving (11/22);
Joe Pantoliano on the soon-to-be-theatrically-revived Stalag 17 (11/23);
Grodin on the much-better-than-his-own-movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind(11/24);
editor Thelma Schoonmaker in a touching three-film tribute to her husband Michael Powell, including his 1969 Age of Consent, an early credit for Helen Mirren (11/25);
Harvey Fierstein on A Catered Affair, which he has adapted into a musical (11/26);
hyphenate talent and former Miss Teen USA Maria Menounos on a popular choice among programmers, A Place in the Sun (myself, I would have obliged them to pick all different movies) (11/27);
tough-guy Brian Dennehy on Odd Man Out (11/28);
Mark Mothersbaugh, from conservative (Inherit the Wind) to far out (Hot Rods to Hell), on 11/29
and, closing out the month, Martha Stewart, decorating with Cary Grant and Myrna Loy in Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House.

And now that I've done this, hey, Robert Osborne, how about another airing of Dark of the Sun sometime soon? I'll be your guest co-host...

Monday, October 29, 2007

Movies by the pound

Fourth Estate admirers of 1998's Elizabeth said off with her head to the current followup, Elizabeth: The Golden Age, which we rather liked as its purgation from theaters begins in earnest. True, it's fairly ponderous, with a tenuous link implied between the Catholics of Spain and today's Islamist hordes in a bid for "relevance," but we like these kings-and-queens pageants (the co-writer, Michael Hirst, created The Tudors, and we're all set for next February's The Other Boleyn Girl, from the director of the BBC's Bleak House) and Cate Blanchett continues to reign. It's not her fault that the usurping Helen Mirren stole her crown for the Emmy-winning 2006 HBO/BBC miniseries Elizabeth I.

But this isn't really about that. The editor of Cineaste, Gary Crowdus, forwarded me a link from Newsweek, where long-time critic David Ansen said he has seen about 7,700 movies in his life. Which, of course, got me thinking about how many I had seen.

Ansen tallies his. I never have, save for a brief period in 1986-1987, when I did so to help prepare for a top 10 list for The Daily Northwestern. Nowadays I use the web for that; Box Office Mojo and Variety are reliable scorekeepers. I know my brother-in-law keeps ticket stubs to everything he sees, but mine wind up in the wastebasket or on the floor. I keep Playbills for a while, but lacking "backup data" like that movies tend to stick around solely in my memory banks.

I probably have half as many DVDs as Ansen's total in my disc drawers, which I've had to reshuffle and rejigger lately. I go to maybe three or four screenings per week, but that's in flux; with work to attend to I haven't been to many in a while, since one for Woody Allen's (awful) Cassandra's Dream. If you've been following along I've paid to see a number of films in the past three weeks, but there's no hard and fast number that I have on any of this.

I guess I look at the subject of moviegoing emotionally, rather than numerically, or categorically. My interest started when I was hospitalized at age 9, with viral bronchitis. My mother bought me a copy of Steven Scheur's TV Movies (a guide not to made-for-TV films but movies shown on TV, the only way you could see them once they were gone from cinemas in prehistoric 1974) from the hospital bookshop and I paged through it avidly. I determined that once I was back on my feet I would see every single movie he had so carefully encapsulated. It seemed easy; after all, I had already seen most of the Abbott and Costello films that started his catalog off at the letter A.

Of course, it wasn't that simple, and I long ago abandoned that quest. But I did leave the book full of red Magic Marker dots near the titles I had checked off. Mentally, I still keep tabs; 1962's (ho-hum) Five Miles to Midnight, that rare Anthony Perkins title I hadn't seen, finally made it into the checked items column courtesy of a Turner Classic Movies airing on Sunday (TCM being a major contributor to the cause of moviewatching). It's nice to be able to pass along little tidbits I've picked up along the way, to help admired others keep compleat themselves (Tim's Mario Bava book, All the Colors of the Dark, is a real doozy).

And I've learned to live in hope, rather than expectation, about seeing certain films that seemed to have vanished entirely, but how sweet it is when a rarity like 1972's The Pied Piper resurfaces in repertory. It's gratifying to know that someone else wanted to see it, too.

I suppose the best way to count off the number of films I've seen is: Too many, and not enough. But I can say, categorically, emphatically, that Elizabeth: The Golden Age will be my my last theatrical screening for a spell, as I dim the lights for an intermission till early next month.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Those 70s shows

A film director of my recent acquaintance, a key figure in the 70s, says the current revival of "70's style" in a variety of films is bunk, that filmmakers should go their own ways and leave the trademarks of the past behind. For the most part, I agree; the one that seems to earn its keep is Zodiac, whose gloom-and-domm stylization is backed up by strong period content. That none of the films donning cinematic bellbottoms for a little with-itness has made a dime at the boxoffice probably means the trend will expire on its own before long, nonetheless it's interesting to see what's out there.

The Assassination of Jesse James...yeah, that's about as far as I got, too, with the title, though the key figure, the cowardly Robert Ford (Casey Affleck), makes up the rest of it. Andrew Dominik's second film after the brutal Chopper has a very strong case of Terrence Malickitis, with many minutes of Days of Heaven-type pastoral navel gazing beautifully (and I think indulgently) shot by Roger Deakins. The storyline took Sam Fuller not long at all to barnstorm through in 1949's I Shot Jesse James; putting on white gloves and observing tabloid material through God's eyes, Dominik clearly wants you to feel the exhaustion of life on the run once the Wild West capers are over, and it worked. I struggled to stay awake during its 160 minutes. Maybe Ron Hansen's book in its totality is more meaningful, but you don't really have to read it; large swatches of it are read for you in sonorous, soporific voiceover, like a book-on-tape left on in the theater. Brad Pitt, a natural James in a more uptempo treatment of the legend, like 1939's fun Jesse James or Walter Hill's The Long Riders, tamps himself down as Dominik puts on airs; Affleck is more hairtrigger, but the movie's fate was probably sealed when Sam Rockwell was signed to play Charlie Ford. Excellent actor though he is, his presence in any film is a sure-fire flop indicator. Still, Warner Bros., which clearly outlaid some cash on it, should be giving it more of a run; it'll probably be out of New York, its last stand marketplace, altogether by next Friday.

Writer-director James Gray has been making 70s-style films since 1994's Little Odessa, so you can't blame him for opportunism. Like The Brave One and the forthcoming American Gangster, his latest, We Own the Night, fairly reeks of nostalgia for the good old bad old days of New York. How much does Gray miss coke-fueled 1988? So much, he's hired former mayor (and current movie critic) Ed Koch to play himself, in a waxen extended cameo. For additional gravitas, Gray has hired the venerable Robert Duvall to play a police chief, but it doesn't pay off; at 76, and looking it, Duvall is too old to be walking a beat, and would be more convincing as the grandfather of Mark Wahlberg and Joaquin Phoenix's cop-and-shyster characters than their dad. Gray's typically heavy-spirited approach to material that Pat O'Brien and Humphrey Bogart would have run with in 1937, with credulity-straining reversals for 2007 audiences, tends to kill the fun where it lies, though his fidelity to somber, monochrome moviemaking is sort of touching. Id did like Eva Mendes' period hoop earrings, which are big enough to jump lions through.

Lars and the Real Girl is in here primarily because its central conceit, a sheltered, timid man's relationship with a life-size doll, was part of the kinky fun of 1972's cultish Private Parts. But this is actually a clammy comedy-drama from the principal author of the Six Feet Under HBO show, with the good and bad that implies. It's fated to be more commented about than seen, but Ryan Gosling, here with a paunch and mustache that suggest a tryout for The Lee J. Cobb Story, is always excellent company (think early Nicolas Cage) and the movie is restrained to a fault. Patricia Clarkson, a real doll, adds further perk as a most understanding therapist.

The best of the bunch is Tony Gilroy's Michael Clayton, one of the smarter entertainments of the year, with George Clooney an unabashed star as a law firm fixer caught up in corporate malfeasance. Gilroy, co-author of the terse Bourne pictures, lets the dialogue rip this time, and Clooney, an unhinged Tom Wilkinson, and co-star, co-producer, and 70s icon Sydney Pollack are a joy to listen to. It avails itself to the doomy atmospherics of Pollack's Three Days of the Condor but, like his better pictures, doesn't stint on crowdpleasing tactics that it comes by honestly. It's a movie about dirty deeds that has clean hands, and is as quotable as a David Mamet picture. This is the one 70s-styled picture that people will remember with genuine affection 30 years from now.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

In focus: Beur cinema and Holly

The Winter issue of Cineaste will have a 24-page supplement on beur cinema; that is, films by Maghrebi-French filmmakers, or French films that address aspects of beur life (like 1995's La Haine, set in the banlieue housing projects, a flashpoint for rioting in 2005). It makes for interesting reading, and to get you up to speed a "Beur is Beautiful" film festival is being held Nov. 10-11 at the French Institute/Alliance Francaise. (1985's Tea in the Harem, the first beur feature, is pictured.) Curator Carrie Tarr spearheaded the upcoming supplement as well.

Holly, which I've been touting for a while now, goes into release with benefit screenings in New York on Nov. 9-10. A flurry of events is being held in conjunction with the opening, at Clearview Cinemas' 62nd and Broadway theater near Lincoln Center. It's well worth seeing.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Top to bottom

Various gigs (like a lengthy interview, one that came up unexpectedly, with Brian De Palma that will appear in the Winter issue of Cineaste) have kept me from my post, and my screenings have been sporadic. Time, then, for one of my lists, starred for the insta-comprehension that everyone expects on blogs.


Gone Baby Gone (opens today)
Good endings make up for a lot. Ben Affleck's career-rehabbing directorial debut, based on a Dennis Lehane movel, has a doozy, one that I still think about two months after seeing the film, after I'd put the few jarring notes (like the stars, Casey Affleck, pictured, and Michelle Monaghan, seeming too young to play hardened detectives) out of my head. And the gifted Amy Ryan is truly outstanding as the damaged mother at the center of the case--a less compromised, more original performance I'm unlikely to see again this year, and I hope awards nominators feel the same.


Across the Universe
Julie Taymor's Beatlemaniac romp through the late Sixties has a genuine visionary quality. It got me through the thinness of the storyline, which peters out at about the midpoint, and dissolves into jangly, eye-catching setpieces (some of them, spotlighting guest stars Joe Cocker and Bono, quite good). The quieter, more cohesive first half, with its plaintive song renditions, is actually the best, and the parallels to our own time effectively drawn. Our song-and-dance man neighbor, Patrick O'Neill, is in there somewhere, maybe under one or more of the many masks.

I Just Didn't Do It (New York Film Festival)
An intriguing turnabout from the director of the 1996 hit Shall We Dance, exhaustively detailing what happens when a falsely accused "predator" is caught in the Japanese legal system, which would rather process than adjudicate.

Into the Wild
The book is terrific journalism; Sean Penn's film, a nicely impressionistic rendering. Emile Hirsch's wide-eyed portrayal is basically a mirror, reflecting what you might think of, or read into, his character's journey. The strongest point of view comes from late-arriving co-star Hal Holbrook, another solid gold contender for end-of-year honors.

A fine portrait of publisher Barney Rosset, who bought Grove Press in the Fifties, and steered it through headline-making censorship trials of Lady Chatterley's Lover, Tropic of Cancer, Naked Lunch, and others, making and losing fortunes several times in the process as he put our First Amendment rights to the test. (Grove also distributed the groundbreaking adult film I Am Curious Yellow). I trust this documentary will itself find release. My friend Rosemary Rotondi did the archival research.

Redacted (opens Nov. 16)
Flawed but fascinating, Brian De Palma's multimedia take on the Iraq war is bound to be the most interesting of the films spawned by the conflict. Look for much more about it in Cineaste.

Wristcutters: A Love Story (opens today)
Droll and funny, with Patrick Fugit (Almost Famous) as a suicide who finds empty-lot purgatory so dull he thinks about offing himself again, finding new purpose on a road trip through the terrain. Low-key, disarming, and very Euro-feeling, and beautifully shot in a purposefully indistinct style.


Lake of Fire
Tony Kaye's abortion documentary is thoughtful, measured...and a little out of time. He's not big on the time-and-dates typical of documentaries, which is fine, but much of his long-in-the-making film (including a sympathetic, step-by-step look at an abortion) seems to be taking place in the Clinton era, a different epoch for Roe. vs. Wade. Essential, but more history than here-and-now, a feeling reinforced by the stately black-and-white cinematography.

For the Bible Tells Me So
In the opposite direction is this takedown of clerics who use the good book to bash homosexuality. It's a more artless, talking heads approach to the problem, but undeniably vital.

3:10 to Yuma
Hard times out there: The most profitable picture of Hollywood's lackluster fall season is pretty much off to DVD prep. It was a good idea to remake this kind of foursquare, respected but not beloved remnant of 50 years ago, and it's not a bad picture. It's just not terribly distinctive on its own terms, which comes down to adding explosions and mild psychosexual undercurrents to the old story. No one will be remaking it 50 years from now.


The Darjeeling Limited
Limited indeed, as the wunderkind of quirk, Wes Anderson, continues to tread water after the failed Life Aquatic. He needs to adapt something, or wait to have a fleshier, more intriguing idea than this threadbare train-set story, which goes nowhere for 90 minutes.


The Brave One
A career low for director Neil Jordan, who tilts the camera this way and that for a semblance of movement, and close to it (Flightplan, her last starring role, is worse) for Jodie Foster, who as always brings class and dignity. Her gifts, however, are squandered on a poorly plotted and opportunistic vigilante storyline; a terrible park crime would be front page news in New York, but the film treats it as strictly routine, one more ill in post-9/11 society that Foster alone (with vacillating help from cop Terrence Howard, also wasted) has to correct. These days, movies like this are better set in rust belt environs where meth use and petty crime are epidemic; the Seventies-style content is a poor fit for today's New York, even the film's Washington Heights, which as depicted is crawling with evildoers.

The Kingdom
Anxiety over our Mideast allies poorly fit into an action movie frame, resulting in hand-wringing over Saudi sins and the actors staring, CSI-like, into a bombed-out cesspit until it's time to get medieval on Arab ass. TV stars Jason Bateman and Jeremy Piven are unwisely cast, reminding you how much better the best of the tube is than bad movies like the one you're stuck watching.


Finishing the Game
A rock-bottom indie comedy. The pits. And we are finished with this round.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

RIP Deborah Kerr

An actress of great distinction, and one who was perhaps undervalued in her time. Despite six Oscar nominations (she should have won for her boundary-breaking performance in 1953's From Here to Eternity, yet instead claimed the dubious distinction for most nominations by an actress not to win) she went unrewarded until an honorary statuette in 1994, by which time she had been long retired. I recall her accepting remotely, or on tape; she did not look well, and I assume Parkinson's disease, which claimed her, was sapping her strength. But it was moving to see her one last time, in the face of gathering infirmity.

Of course, via Turner Classic Movies, it's always easy to see her at her strongest and best, and the channel will have no trouble mounting a tribute. In his exasperating but ever-opinionated New Biographical Dictionary of Film the curmudgeonly David Thomson sniffs at her "true blue" quality and her frequent casting in "resolutely ladylike" parts, but how often she played against them, or quietly subverted the roles: the Irish woman turned Nazi spy in I See a Dark Stranger (1945), forsaking adulterous passion (a specialty) and escaping into religion in The End of the Affair (1955), the neurotic Miss Giddens, a guardian in need of guarding and a razor's edge part she played impeccably, in The Innocents (1961). And if true-blue ladies were her stock in trade, she banked them better than anyone; I doubt anyone could have held her own against the imperious Yul Brynner as well as she did in the much-loved 1956 film version of The King and I. The singing voice was Marni Nixon's, but the steel in her spine was uniquely hers.

Other Kerrs to remember (and I would include 1957's silly An Affair to Remember, which got new life from its enshrinement in 1993's Sleepless in Seattle): playing her parts in the uncomplicated Hollywood fun of The Hucksters (1947), her first U.S. credit, and King Solomon's Mines (1950), Quo Vadis (1951), and The Prisoner of Zenda (1952); surrounded by starpower but holding her own in 1958's Separate Tables and 1964's The Night of the Iguana; going with the flow of "adult" filmmaking in the late Sixties, then turning away from the tide, in two of her last films, 1969's The Gypsy Moths (discreetly and surprisingly nude with Eternity co-star Burt Lancaster) and The Arrangement.

She and Lancaster bonded forever with moviegoers on the surf in From Here to Eternity but my favorite performance of hers came earlier, before Hollywood's call, in Michael Powell's astonishing Black Narcissus (1947) (pictured). There is much to admire about that film but at its center is Kerr's performance as an unsettled nun in the Himalayas, which she played with such grace, longing, and sensuality under her habit. Underrated she may have been, but with a solid list of credits behind her Deborah Kerr was difficult to overrate, or discount.

[As expected, TCM is right on top of things, but surely Kerr rates a whole day to herself, including another memorable performance, Tea and Sympathy.]

Sunday, October 14, 2007


You don't have to be a detective to figure out who killed the useless remake of Sleuth with the candlestick at the boxoffice. Beset by dreadful reviews ("Pinter hasn't gotten out much lately," opined The New Yorker of the playwright's attempts to update and improve upon a show he has never seen), it opened very weakly in New York and Los Angeles, and with the questionable star power of the pathologically slumming Michael Caine (can a remake of Beyond the Poseidon Adventure be far behind?) and the over-and-out, so-boring-even-the-tabloids have-lost-interest Jude Law behind it, it's unlikely to travel much further except to DVD.

How bad is the new Sleuth supposed to be? So bad I'm not even tempted to sample it. My friend John Calhoun, who acted as my canary down the coal shaft, called it "ridiculous" and "preposterous," and he doesn't even like the original film. I do, at least once, and you can give it a try on Turner Classic Movies tonight at 8pm EST. Memo to Caine: In your senior years, find somewhere less hazardous to stroll then memory lane.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Plays: Misanthropes, lesbians

A review of a very modernist Misanthrope at New York Theater Workshop. Plus, 50s-era Greenwich Village lesbians in torment. And on Broadway, F. Murray Abraham as a gangsta stamp collector.

Monday, October 08, 2007

Control issues

For some viewers, the micro version of the rise and fall of the British band Joy Division and the suicide of frontman Ian Curtis, as told in 2002's 24 Hour Party People, will be enough. For the rest, there is Control, a first film from photographer Anton Corbijn, who got his start about 30 years ago photographing the group in moody black and white. Martin Ruhe's cinematography replicates that exact look in widescreen , at 24 frames per second. I'm on the fence about whether the story of a Byronic 23-year-old who hanged himself needed the full, two-hours-and-change biopic treatment after being so precisely captured in a prior film, but Control, a Weinstein Company release that opens Oct. 10 in New York, is a respectable second burial.

I could go on (and not for the first time) about how I resent seeing another piece of my adolescence stuffed and mounted on the silver screen, but I'd be lying. Fact of the matter is my musical tastes back then ran to Supertramp, Hall & Oates, and the Lennon side of Abbey Road (I don't think I ever turned the record over till college), and I'm not sure I could have placed Joy Division, whose two and only albums I got acquainted with much later (all I have of them on CD, however, are the cuts from the Party People soundtrack). I like what I know of their funereal, not-so-joyous music, which sprang from the gritty streets of Manchester (so spiffed up today the new movie was made elsewhere) and Curtis. After he was gone the band reemerged as the peppier, chart-topping New Order, as if the members were somehow trying to exorcise his heavy spirit.

The movie calls a spade a spade: Curtis was a pill, a 24 hour perpetual pain in the ass. He had enviable talent. And epilepsy, which made him a little more sympathetic. Some of the best scenes in the film show Curtis, well-played (or perhaps well-channeled) by newcomer Sam Riley, at work as an unemployment counselor, a day job he seems to have taken seriously. Other than that, though, it was clearly best seeing him on stage, with his faux boxing moves, or on an album cover or in one of the director's photos, where his studied anti-charisma (making him all the more desirable as an object of veneration) leaps off the paper. He married too young and was a poor husband to his wife, who got caught up in his romantic temperament but could not fathom it. He neglected their daughter. He wasn't much better to his girlfriend, a foreign journalist, and the two of them were locked in mutual mopedom. Drugged and depressed, he had trouble showing up for gigs and studio dates, holding his band hostage. Worse, for dramatic purposes, he knew all of this and was wracked with guilt. A lot of the film is the other characters waiting for Curtis, as Curtis holes himself up in his room. (there is no "answer" to his suicide, but the movie omits his obsession with rock stars who died young, which may or may not explain anything but was likely omitted to preserve the image of enigmatic, unpredictable genius.)

In the weaker biopics, you can tell who has the rights to that story by the disproportionate amount of time the movie spends on that person. Control is based on a memoir by Deborah Curtis, Ian's widow, but the treatment is entirely self-effacing. She, too, stands outside the limelight her husband tried to shun. Samantha Morton (who is also credited as a producer) is, frankly, overqualified for the undemanding role. The two-time Oscar nominee specializes in quiet types yet there's little roiling underneath the mousy, unassuming Debbie, a night's-in-with-the-little-one kind of person stuck with a passive-aggressive spouse who probably should have stayed home, rested, and wrote more poetry once his foothold in the rock pantheon was secured. The filmmakers seem to have prevailed upon Deborah so Control is surprisingly even-handed regarding Annik, the modish, bleak-chic rock writer girlfriend (played by Alexandra Maria Lara). She has her say, not that she has much to say, either. The late impresario Tony Wilson, played so memorably by Steve Coogan in the earlier film, is portrayed from a greater distance by Craig Parkinson.

Distance and discretion sum up Control. The high church look of the film, with its imposing black, whites, and grays, works against the few moments of levity, as when Curtis responds to stage fright in an oblivous, unembarrassed way. But Control treats budding rock stardom and its toll on a delicate ego as no laughing matter. One man's funk is another man's fascination, and so it is with Ian Curtis, who lived, died, left a good-looking corpse, and now has a feature film for cultists to contemplate.