Tuesday, July 31, 2007

RIP Michelangelo Antonioni

To lose one filmmaking legend is sad; to lose two on the same day, unthinkable, as if the cosmos had shifted. (And I bid a fond farewell to French actor Michel Serrault, most noted for La Cage Aux Folles, too.) That great period in international cinema that began in the late 1950s and early 1960s is rushing headlong toward its earthly end, but the films remain, and generations to come will ponder the elusive mysteries of Blow-Up, L'Avventura, and other great movies.

On a personal note, how nice it was to discover that 1970's notorious Zabriskie Point, a fascinating boxoffice failure I screened for my film group in 2000, had genuine merit besides curiosity value, and that The Passenger, like many of his films, is now available on DVD for pondering at home. His latter-day efforts are not a fitting tribute, but that he was able to direct them well into his 80s and 90s speaks to his fortitude.

Monday, July 30, 2007

RIP Ingmar Bergman

Much more can be said about the passing of the legendary filmmaker. But dialing in from a lake house in Wisconsin (a locale he would surely have appreciated) this will have to do for now. From last December:

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

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

Whenever I get a walkthrough of this type on film I always look for the odd, personal touches, the ones that can't be explained by a biography or resume as we know them. At one point Bergman is seated in front of a shelf of videos, but alas I couldn't make out the titles. I was, however, delighted to see that the director has a proper place for his Oscars; nothing ostentatious, but a more fitting display than the bathroom, which is where so many winners claim, with offhand disdain, to keep them. And, relating the circumstances of his tax exile, he mentions a Hollywood pool party that Barbra Streisand invited him to. Inner torment, anxiety, depression; I expected Bergman to address these subjects. But Streisand was unexpected. Too clear-eyed and ever-so-slightly-bemused to be a dirge, Bergman Island ends (or, maybe, "ends") its subject's life and career on a grace note of anticlimax; the rest is just obituary, and we will have the work itself to console us one day."

The time has come.

Monday, July 23, 2007

RIP Laszlo Kovacs

The Hungarian-born cinematographer was 74. He and his classmate, fellow emigre Vilmos Zsigmond, revolutionized the look of American cinema in the late 1960s and 1970s. 1969's Easy Rider, which Kovacs shot, was a landmark achievement, not just for its counter-cultural attitude but its ragged, "dirty," against-the-grain imagery, the polar opposite of the whistle-clean shiny surfaces favored by Hollywood majors at that time.

Lighting Dimensions, a magazine I edited, interviewed Kovacs in 1996. He had finished shooting the Harold Ramis comedy Multiplicity, the kind of assignment that seemed naturally to come his way following the huge success of 1984's Ghostbusters. Multiplicity, with its multiple Michael Keatons, was not without its complications, even in the era of digital effects. Kovacs knew how to light studio comedies, and if that doesn't sound like much of an accomplishment consider how flat, harsh, and ugly so many of them are. He set a certain standard that few others could match, let alone top, in this regard.

The era-defining work had come earlier. He learned his trade in indies and cult movies, like 1967's Psych-Out and Hells Angels on Wheels. The next year's Targets, for director Peter Bogdanovich, was a step up, and his work with Dennis Hopper on Easy Rider and the unclassifiable The Last Movie (1971), and Bob Rafelson on Five Easy Pieces and The King of Marvin Gardens, secured his credentials as a member of the young Hollywood vanguard. When they went retro--Bogdanovich on the austere black-and-white Paper Moon (1973), Martin Scorsese on the dreamily old-Hollywood color New York, New York (1977)--Kovacs followed suit, and distinguished himself anew. Nothing "dirty" about those pictures. 1989's Say Anything..., for Cameron Crowe, hearkened back to that type of individualistic filmmaking, which he did so much to take from the script to the screen.

I was surprised to learn that in a career of many contours--other key credits include 1975's Shampoo and 1985's Mask, his final film with Bogdanovich--Kovacs was not once nominated for an Academy Award. But I'm sure his American Society of Cinematographers lifetime honor, in 2002, meant far more to this master craftsman. A documentary about Kovacs and Zsigmond and their distinctive achievements in the medium is in the works, which will help assure his posterity.

Quick hits

Ranking the current releases, from the stratosphere to the bottom of the barrel (and updated on July 28):


No End in Sight

*** 1/2

A Mighty Heart


Away From Her
Broken English
Le Doulos
Live-In Maid
Shrek the Third
Summer 04 (opens August 1)
This is England

** 1/2

Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer
La Vie en Rose
Knocked Up
Ocean's Thirteen


Becoming Jane (opens August 3)
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
Rescue Dawn
The Ten (opens August 3)
Spider-Man 3

* 1/2

Live Free or Die Hard
Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End


Hostel Part 2

Thursday, July 19, 2007


Sunshine goes into eclipse almost from the start. It is the year 2057, and the sun is dying. A...well, wait, I think even the most impassioned environmentalists would put its a millennium or two from now, but, OK, I'll roll with it.

As I was saying: A team of scientists aboard the Icarus II is dispatched to jump-start the flickering orb by H-bombing it. The craft, which is essentially an interstellar weapon of mass destruction, is tended by eight testy crewmembers, and is a replacement for a first vessel that mysteriously vanished seven years earlier. The...

Oh, now, come on. Too much. In 2050, manned spacecraft will be heading to the sun on missions of mercy? I'm still waiting for Los Angeles to begin crumbling as spectacularly as it does in 2019-set Blade Runner. As it is, NASA is having trouble getting much right except sex scandals, and I'm not sure privately funded efforts will be up to that sort of speed less than 45 years from now. Set Sunshine, which Fox Searchlight opens tomorrow, 200, 300, or 500 years from now and I might more easily swallow the basic premise. As it is, the plot does not compute.

The director, Danny Boyle, and screenwriter, Alex Garland, collaborated more successfully on the horror hit 28 Days Later. The new film, for all its tinsel beauty and pretty golden spacesuits, is a series of escalating wrong choices. Rightly, they dispense with the visual homages pretty quickly. Ethereal mysteries of space? 2001, check. Bomb on a ship? Dark Star, accounted for. Grumbling crew? Alien, present. Blade Runner and the space greenhouse-set Silent Running are also culled as Sunshine tries to radiate outwards. The movie has actors, like Cillian Murphy, Michelle Yeoh, Chris Evans, and Rose Byrne (still in Boyle's genre spin cycle after the underrated sequel 28 Weeks Later), who can handle more than the one emotion per character Garland has given them to play, but they are suitably workmanlike. The production is undeniably handsome, as attractive as films costing two or three times its relatively modest budget. And John Murphy and Underworld have composed a dreamlike score, part techno and part cosmophonic, that is prepared to accompany a more soaring achievement.

But Sunshine crashes. Not, like Icarus, because of its hubris, its taking of risks, but because it plays it way too safe. There is a lot of talk about the mystical and transformative power of the sun, and some compelling sci-fi imagery to go along with it. But once the Icarus I is found, and recovered, in a predictable turn and a suspenseful scene, the movie concentrates exclusively on the sun's scarring, destructive side. What started as a film of ideas--shaky ones, not very good ones, but ideas nonetheless--becomes just another trip to the slaughterhouse, as the crew is dispatched in grandiloquent ways that Boyle has said he and Garland had fun devising. Good for them. Anyone looking for more than that, though, will be severely disappointed, particularly with the goofy third act, in which a slasher/monster element is introduced that drags the entire film down to an undemanding C-movie like Event Horizon.

And them there is the coda, set on a frozen Earth. It looks very beautiful, like a literal Christmas in July--but shouldn't it look awful, not so peaceful and pristine? And wouldn't the reignited sun cause widespread flooding and catastrophe on a planet that is functioning without it? [I'm not saying if the movie does or does not end that way, but think about it.] Sunshine gets all hot and bothered about the end of the world, then shows us a world that has learned to cope. If we don't need the sun, why have the filmmakers concocted a movie like Sunshine? Better to skip it and, if in New York, take in the restored version of the daft, risk-taking, visionary and truly classic Metropolis at Film Forum instead.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

All Greek to me

Myth-making of various sorts, as a classic tale and a very bad movie get done over for the stage, from Live Design magazine.

A spritz of Hairspray

A few words from the web version of New York Theater News about one of the more successful stage-to-screen adaptations, opening Friday, July 20.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Maid to order

A once-cozy living room, onto which the shadows of a country's decline are steadily lengthening, is the microcosmic setting for Jorge Gaggero's gem-like comedy of class matters, Live-In Maid (Film Sales Company), which opens July 18 at New York Film Forum. The movie won a special jury prize at Sundance in 2005, and proves worth the wait. Modest and sharply observed, it is the story of Beba (the great Norma Aleandro, of The Official Story and Gaby: A True Story, who has spent much of two decades since onstage), whose life is melting down, one trip to the neighborhood pawn shop at a time, in the economic crisis that ushered Argentina unsteadily into the new millennium. Beba, a divorcee hell-bent on keeping up appearances, is held together by her maid, Dora (Norma Argentina). But Dora, a woman of monumental patience, has gone unpaid for seven months, a situation that is tipping into crisis. With little of value left in her apartment to maintain, Beba would probably be better off without Dora, and vice versa, but neither woman can easily leave behind the 30 years of memories of relationships and camaraderie they have shared.

Live-In Maid could probably use a title with more heft, but it is a appealing miniature, one that rarely strays from its central subject in 83 quick-witted minutes. Gaggero neatly sketches the shared plight of the two women as they slip from clinging-to haves to have-nots. Beba's making the rounds at the pawnshops and trying to hustle makeup for a conglomerate, one of the many get-rich-quick schemes she and her ex-husband have fallen prey to over the years, have a desperate humor about them. But it's impossible to laugh at this vain, preening woman when the lights, which have been flickering in her apartment, are finally switched off for good due to non-payment of the bill. Similarly, Dora's checkered past, in the rural village she returns to, gets a sympathetic airing. Live-In Maid is about the never-easy adjustment of accepting the bitter with the sweet once the good times have faded, and the solidarity of friendship against so much indifference from society-at-large.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

I, the Juror

It's only official if it's on Playbill On-Line.

Appreciating Charles Lane

But, to judge from the 102-year-old actor's many sour roles, he wouldn't have liked it. Not one bit.

There Was Almost a Ballpark Here

You don't have to be a baseball fan to enjoy Brooklyn Dodgers: The Ghosts of Flatbush, a fine documentary about the fabled club that HBO began airing last night (this is the 50th anniversary of the year the team abandoned the borough for Los Angeles, an unforgivable slight that is very much an open wound for many of the aged interviewees). But it probably helps to be a Brooklyn resident. There is a lot of wonderful period footage of city streets, some of it in color, and for me an interesting tidbit.

Rather than move the Dodgers across country, owner Walter O'Malley wanted to build them a replacement stadium for the crumbling Ebbetts Field, on the corner of Flatbush and Atlantic Avenues--or pretty much across the street from where we live. This had been the site of the Fort Greene Retail Meat Market, which was slated to close, and was more importantly located near many subway stops (as it is today, second only to Times Square in the entire system) and the prize, the Long Island Railroad stop, Long Island being where so many Brooklyn residents had decamped once Robert Moses built all his highways and thoroughfares leading the way out of town. There are scenes of O'Malley, a dead ringer for the imperious character actor Edward Arnold, dickering with Moses, who carries himself like Jabba the Hutt and emerges as the true architect of Dodgers fans' despair (along with, in a way, Rosalind Wyman, the scrappy 22-year-old Los Angeles councilwoman who planted the seed of California in O'Malley's head, and who is alive to voice disbelief that city authorities would let the Dodgers get away just two years after winning the World Series).

The somewhat desolate-looking Flatbush/Atlantic area of the era is just about unrecognizable today, as another stadium project looms for the neighborhood. But I'd rather have O'Malley's planned geodesic-domed wonder than what's being concocted in backrooms for the Nets.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Technology Transformed

For the second anniversary of my 40th birthday today I decided to wallow in my inner child and took in the rock 'em 'sock 'em Megatron-megahit Transformers. I left the movie astonished, and a little depressed.

It's not a very good movie. No Michael Bay picture can be. He has something of an eye (which puts this a notch above the raggedly produced and photographed Live Free or Die Hard) but precious little heart, and a cauliflower ear for dialogue. And no sense of humor, or a taste for humor that is obvious, vulgar, and unfunny (what will parents make of a scene in this kids' film where Tony-winner Julie White, as Shia LaBeouf's space-cadet mother, quizzes him if he's masturbating as the robots surround their house?). There is also, as in many of his films, a distasteful, free-floating jingoism. I don't mind that the robots are fighting--hell, it's what I came to see!--but the jarhead-jargon combat scenes in Qatar, where the warring Autobots and Decepticons first turn up, seem suspiciously like they're priming the small fry for the next decade's Mideast Wars of Liberation or something. I had a nostalgic good time watching the TCM special Spielberg on Spielberg, where many of the director's best clips are shown, but it's a shame that producer Spielberg is in bed professionally with such a talentless pretender-to-the-throne as Bay.

But that's not why I left the theater feeling deflated. It was my birthday, I was jonesing for popcorn and cherry Coke, and I wanted to see giant robots pound the crap out of downtown L.A. In fact, I wanted to see them pound the crap out of all of L.A.--who wouldn't? (I was glad that a rep house showing A Place in the Sun and The Rose Tattoo was largely spared from the mayhem, as if Bay has ever seen either of these films, or learned anything from them.) I wished the robots wouldn't have talked but while doing it (Hugo Weaving and Robert Foxworth are among the vox robotuli) but I guess it's that way in the cartoon, which I've never seen. I trust the appealing LaBeouf will star in a real movie that will test his affability. I hope Jon Voight and John Turturro give some of their paychecks to Easter Seals or Goodwill or some other charitable undertaking. And I won't be seeing the sequels. Probably.

But, no, the reason I felt kind of sad after it ended--other than the fact that I was by far the oldest unaccompanied adult there--was that the robots are pure cinematic perfection. They are as real as any special effect ever seen. They share the same plane with the actors, seamlessly. Jurassic Park got the digital ball rolling, and Gollum in the Lord of the Rings movies and the new King Kong ran with it, but this is it. Flesh and fantasy are now one. It helps, maybe, that the transformers are machines, with no irksome fur or skin to replicate. But here we are. They are as real as any human up there, and interact with them without a trace of difference. I can just imagine them showing up on set, putting in their union-mandated hours, then morphing back into toasters or nosehair clippers or whatever till the next day's shooting. (Speaking of which, why can't the captured transformer just downsize into a Matchbox car and scoot away from his tormentors?)

And that saddened me. All that wizardry leaves no room for dreaming. Jurassic Park was completely satisfying; I love dinosaurs, and dinosaur movies, and there at last were real dinosaurs up there on the screen. I might be disappointed if I were to meet an actual T-Rex but that's unlikely to happen. Gollum had to convince if two-thirds of the Rings films were to succeed, and he did, splendidly. Kong was more problematic. The Weta Digital crew made him as real a giant ape as possible, a tremendous achievement but a limiting one--he no longer passed muster as a fantasy creature, or a monster. He was a giant gorilla, cut down to size. Too real.

And so it is with the transformers. In the quantum leap forward from Peter Jackson's universe, movie magic has rendered the fantastic completely mundane. I liked having that little sliver of incredulity intact, the divide between fact and fantasy preserved. Ray Harryhausen's beautifully articulated beasts, in pictures like Jason and the Argonauts, may have been a little arthritic in their articulation compared to today's computer-animated creatures, but they were wonderfully handmade and tactile. You cared about them when the show was on and thought about them long after the movie ended. The in-the-lab professionalism behind Transformers, by contrast, leaves me feeling cold. The possibility for imagining has been taken right out of the equation, and I will miss it. It would have to be Michael Bay's fault.

Friday, July 06, 2007

Stop ruining Christmas

Jim Carrey, whose appalling portrayal of the Grinch is seared into my memory, is now taking on, or taking down, A Christmas Carol. Carrey will not only play Scrooge, but also the three ghosts, making him a quadruple threat. Writer-director Robert Zemeckis, who put his own stamp on the holiday with The Polar Express, may come up with something interesting, but it will likely have to be in spite of his star, who has his moments but really rubbed me the wrong way in the Dr. Seuss movie. Needless to say, the notion of another Christmas Carrey does not fill me with glad tidings.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Heart murmur

Blink and you'll miss it: A Mighty Heart, Michael Winterbottom's fine film from Mariane Pearl's memoir, is going, going, gone, from New York area theaters. Its distributor, Paramount Vantage, clearly misread the tea leaves by releasing such a smart, somber film in summer, but exhibitors are guilty of not allowing it to become a word-of-mouth hit. We tried seeing it at the Regal Battery Park on Tuesday, right across from The Wall Street Journal's offices, but its run had been unexpectedly terminated to make way for Transformers, License to Wed (gak!), and Sicko, all of which began or expanded their runs a day or two early to capitalize on today's holiday. There was no annoucement of this online or in the papers.

So off we went to the Brooklyn Heights Cinema, where I knew it was showing, and was reasonably certain that it would still be there. But first, I called the Cobble Hill Cinema, which I thought might be showing it a little earlier. No such luck; the prime-time slot had been reassigned, and I imagine whatever run it has left there will be downgraded to the off hours (3:30, 10:30, or other times where only the hardiest cinephiles and the ticket takers will be there to see it). The Brooklyn Heights played it before a large and appreciative audience, though you'll have to hurry to see it there; it's closing tomorrow, to give Sicko, which is playing all over town, yet one more screen. (Go today or tomorrow and make it a two-fer with the other excellent film playing there, Once.)

The hassle was worth it. Winterbottom, the wide-ranging director of Welcome to Sarajevo and 24 Hour Party People, brings his documentarian's eye to the material, and Angelina Jolie gives a taut, stardust-free performance as Pearl, whose husband, Daniel, was slain in Pakistan while investigating terrorist links to would-be shoe bomber Richard Reid. It's a dry-eyed, unsentimental, yet moving film, one that most viewers will encounter on DVD.

Postscript: Or, maybe you'll still have time. Good luck, but it all hinges on exhibitors holding onto it, and audiences seeking it out.

Day and date

There's an article in today's New York Times, in which daily newspaper critics bemoan having to hold their reviews till opening day while bloggers start posting critiques minutes (maybe seconds, given their quality) after the screenings conclude, sometimes weeks in advance. This despite publicist-mandated embargoes, which exist largely to be ignored in the blogosphere.

I'm sitting on a review of the screen-to-stage-and back again Hairspray, which opens July 20. It's embargoed till the week of the 16th, but the trades and I assume blogs have already had their (largely positive) say. As a small fish in the infinite pond of the Internet, I could probably add a few words, without repercussion (that is, the risk of being embargoed from the advance screenings). But a deal's a deal, and the more professional blogs adhere to that same standard. Plus, there's not all that much buzz yet about the film; best to hang onto it till closer to the opening, rather than call "first" without anyone to pay attention to its existence. (Like my weeks-old mini-review of Rescue Dawn, which I had reasons to publish when I did. The film opened today. But the currency of my musings was spent as soon as successive entries pushed it lower on the blog chain.)

Something's got to give, and I imagine the gentleman's agreement between studios and scribes will change to some degree given the free-for-all online. But there's no changing one basic fact: People read daily newspapers to get their daily news. If a film opens July 20, they want to see the review on July 20, and not be referred back to a review that ran on June 15 when the movie was first press-screened. The day-and-date approach feels like the horse-and-buggy in our turbocharged times, but it still makes the most sense.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Old is new again

Old Acquaintance, the play, gets remembered again as the 2007-2008 Broadway season begins. And do you dare enter Neil LaBute's Dark Dark House?