Sunday, September 30, 2007

"Links for the Day"

Tooting the Cineaste horn (and, OK, my own)...this is my second time as a Link for the Day on New York Times writer Matt Zoller Seitz's online hangout, so permit me a Sally Field/Places in the Heart moment of "you like me, you really like me"...I should probably give up plays and weighty films to concentrate on Fifties monster movies...

Thursday, September 27, 2007

"An intensely spiritual thriller..."

...was how I labeled That Beautiful Somewhere, one of a handful of good films I saw at last year's Montreal World Film Festival (another, Holly, is opening in New York in November). (Nice, but not quite as on the money as the Montreal Gazette on the back: "A dark, stylish story about love, redemption and forensic archaeology.") Lo and behold that quote turned up on the front cover of the new DVD release, which is available from Monarch Video. I have it on good authority that a longer quote, attributed to both me and the magazine, is on the back cover of the Canadian DVD, directed by Robert Budreau and starring local hero Roy Dupuis. That I'd like to add to my scrapbook, but for now I'm happy to be big up North.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Plays: Suffering souls

A lot of misery currently Off Broadway. In Russia, from Leo Tolstoy. And closer to home, with a few laughs.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Proceed with Caution

Beware a short story that expands into a 157-minute film; that's a sure sign that the material has been overthought on its way to the movies. The affliction marks Lust, Caution, Ang Lee's followup to the great Brokeback Mountain, a short story adaptation done completely right. Lee's gift as a filmmaker is his acute sensitivity to and empathy for his characters; his weakness, a stifling self-importance when he can't locate the core of what he's engaged in. I happen to like, for example, Hulk, but through the comic book frame of my affection it's easy to see that the film was a whole lot more than it really needed to be. So, too, with Lust, Caution, which should have been an agile, quick-witted Asian cousin to the similarly long but never once logy Black Book (on DVD today) but instead sustains a single flat note for too long a time.

Lust, Caution, which Focus Features opens on Friday, Sept. 28, is a kind of reverse Notorious. Not to spoil anything, but imagine that the Ingrid Bergman character in the classic Hitchcock picture decided to bail on Cary Grant and ally herself with Claude Rains and his neo-Nazi scheming. That roughly approximates the storyline of the film, which should have emerged as perverse but instead registers as sloggy and distasteful. Set in World War II-era China, the story centers on Mrs. Mak (played by newcomer Tang Wei), who is part of a mahjong playing circle of well-appointed ladies in Shanghai. Or so it seems. We learn, through subsequent actions and lengthy flashbacks, that she is a spy, Wong Chia Chi, who has assumed an identity and placed herself in their company to get close to group member Mrs. Yee (Joan Chen). Her husband, played by the veteran Hong Kong actor Tony Leung, is a key Japanese collaborator, deeply involved in the torture of Chinese resistance members like Wong and the members of her own secret circle, who have been playing the spy game since college. (And not too ably; in a rare interesting scene that echoes Torn Curtain, a collegiate caper goes terribly wrong.) Wong's assignment, once the now more organized resistance approaches her in Shanghai, is to draw the hard-shelled Mr. Yee, her earlier target, into an ever-more-impertinent affair that will cause him to let down his guard, but an unforeseen factor is her own vulnerability.

This all sounds more pulse-quickening than it is. If you like watching mahjong tiles tumble about, Lust, Caution, may be the movie for you. Once the show gets up from the table, it doesn't get any more arresting. Tang Wei gives a proficient but opaque performance as Wong, and her remoteness is a stubborn obstacle. Wang Leehom, a singer, is another attractive blank as Kuang, who as a drama student gets her involved in resistance activities but is unable to act on his feelings toward her. Leung is a more magnetic performer, but outside of subtle makeup that helps him look more than 10 yeas older than he is he makes little more than a cold surface impression as the chilly Mr. Yee. Much has been made of their NC-17 level sex scenes, which are frenzied and violent, but unarousing, and take about 90 minutes to get to. HBO, as it happens, has trumped them; you can see more, and feel more, on an average episode of Tell Me You Love Me. Whatever period recreation went into the film is on the inside, in its airless rooms; Rodrigo Prieto's camera rarely seems to go outdoors, a pity, as there must have something more compelling happening on Shanghai's spy-packed streets.

To appease China's censors, Lee plans to cut a half hour from the running time for its release there. The sex scenes will surely be headed for the cutting-room floor. If only, for the US release, he would cut a half hour, or more, from Lust, Caution, which Variety aptly described as too cautious and not lustful enough. The sex scenes can stay; too bad they amount to its raison d'etre, and are not woven more skillfully into a vague and unsatisfying film.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Past imperfect

Next week we're going to the New York Film Festival unveiling of the latest, and said-to-be-last, incarnation of Blade Runner, which now exists in at least seven different versions (five of them are being collected in a DVD box set that Warner Home Video is issuing in December. This definitive-as-of-now version is scheduled to play New York's Ziegfeld beginning Oct. 5). I've always been partial to the international cut that I've owned on Criterion laserdisc for almost 20 years, but I'm interested in what this new cut will hold. (Ridley Scott's last stab at it, in 1992, comes across as underfunded and not quite there.) Lora, a big fan of TV's Battlestar Galactica, hasn't seen the film in any version, and that is an oversight for any science fiction fan that can easily be corrected as the vastly influential film celebrates its 25th anniversary.

Blade Runner gets so much right it's easy, and I think necessary, to overlook the details that stand out as 1982. The Los Angeles of 2019 may yet be as dark and polluted as the one in the film, but it's pretty much a cinch that no one will be flying spinner vehicles in 12 years. (And the likelihood of android replication is equally small.) The foibles of futurism are the amusing subject of Paleo-Future, a new blog dedicated to prognostications that haven't quite worked out, like abundant options for space travel in 2007, microprojecting credit cards (which may not be all that far off), and videos of a "classroom of the future," circa 1987. True, there has been tremendous change in technology, represented in its own humble way by this very blog. But what was it again that had everyone thinking that by 2000 we'd be up, up, and away in ways we're still just dreaming of?

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Another Cruising mystery

I have better things to do today. Like, I could tell you how much we enjoyed the Royal Shakespeare Company production of King Lear, which is playing at BAM (in tandem with a sturdy staging of The Seagull), last night. Ian McKellen, wonderful in the part. And no need for envy that I had the foresight to buy the tickets for the sold-out duo last November; I read that the production will be recorded for broadcast, presumably when its national tour ends.

But, no, I'm obliged to say a few more words about 1980's Cruising, which follows me around like the curse in The Ring, without killing me (yet). I raised a few eyebrows when I commented on the hardcore footage on the Home Theater Forum last spring. The film, set in and among actual New York City gay bars, has now appeared on DVD, in what I gather is a somewhat altered version. The color has definitely been boosted; then again, the sickly tape was almost drained of hue, so even the slightest shift is bound to register as a change.

Leaving these matters aside, New York Times DVD writer Dave Kehr has drawn me into a new mystery, a movie urban legend regarding the late character actor Bruno Kirby's alleged "fisting" cameo in the film. Scroll down his site for a read and response. And, of course, the photographic evidence.

Make that "evidence." I wrote to him, "It's a lot of rumor and conjecture on the web, based on an IMDb factoid that (if it ever existed) seems to have disappeared from his bio and from the film entry. I have the disc, and Friedkin and the 42-minute documentary are silent on the matter.

Friedkin mentions that the club sequences were cast with actual scene participants, though familiar faces (like the late Leo Burmester, as "Water Sport") are in there, too. It's true--when "Kirby" shows up, there is a shock of recognition. But looking at the scene more times now than I ever really wanted or needed to, I'm unconvinced. It's amusing to speculate about, but so far as I can tell there's no fact to the matter.

Seeing is believing...but Cruising is all about role-playing, identity crises, and deception, and I think this extends to this tangential issue."

Kehr said in response that the part may have been bigger--the film was extensively cut before release--and that Kirby declined to take credit for what amounts to a couple of shots. He is unaware that this was ever an issue...and, indeed, that is a plausible explanation. But I'm curious to know more about this vexing appearance, by Kirby or "Kirby," in an ever-vexing film that won't shake me off.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Screen scene: It's cold for indies

More than a dozen movies opened in New York last week, and the deluge of celluloid is set to continue. The current is running so fast I can barely blog them all--and there's evidently not much time for anyone to see them, either, as to judge from the boxoffice results many of them will be off to DVD prep by month's end. They'll be as dead and gone as the unfortunate soul in the picture.

In the case of Mike Cahill's King of California, there's probably not much inclination to attend, either. No longer an A-list star of the testosterone-fueled white male rage pictures of his heyday, but not really a supporting player, either, Michael Douglas tries a character lead in a very low-key comedy drama as a bipolar musician searching for conquistador gold under a Costco in California, much to the dismay of more sensible teenage daughter Evan Rachel Wood. Douglas has some fun in the part, which has trace elements of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (which he produced) and the Romancing the Stone pictures, but the shaggy dog film is so relaxed and unassuming it practically begs for you to watch it on pay-per-view.

The absorbing documentary The Rape of Europa, co-directed by Richard Berge, Bonni Cohen, and Nicole Newnham, is more intense. Yet it, too, feels more like TV, and will likely turn up on PBS or The History Channel before long. The story of the Nazi theft of art treasures during World War II, and the subsequent reclamation of the valuables by the Allied "monument men" (including future Lincoln Center founder Lincoln Kirstein) and the controversies that continue to simmer over their repatriation and true providence, is a story worth hearing, and the two hours passed quickly. The standard talking heads treatment, however, is more tube- than cinema-friendly. A more artful approach might have helped it stand out from the pack. Still, there are priceless moments, like the woman who recalls sleeping near the hidden Mona Lisa when it was moved from the Louvre for safekeeping.

Needing no assistance from me is The Jane Austen Book Club, which Sony Pictures Classics opens on Sept. 21. This chick-lit adaptation has a goof-proof premise--a group of female friends, dismayed by their relationships, find solace and solidarity reading Austen's works, as parallels to Emma and Pride and Prejudice are drawn to their own stressed-out lives. It helps for purposes of syllabus familiarity that film versions of all but Northanger Abbey are in easy viewing range (all are currently being readapted by the BBC, though you could of course take the hint and read the books, which are ably synopsized by writer and first-time director Robin Swicord) and that the cast of familiar to sort-of familiar faces gets into the proper harangues-and-hugs spirit of things. Maria Bello, girlier than usual, and a more insecure than usual Jimmy Smits as an errant husband, are highlight players, with Devil Wears Prada scene-stealer Emily Blunt, Lynn Redgrave, and, Hugh Dancy, Crudup's British twin, in there, too. If this one doesn't find an audience and/or spawn The Arthur Conan Doyle Book Club, The Bronte Sisters Book Club, and so-on spinoffs for different demographics, I'll eat my hat and read Mansfield Park again.

On the critical list (it's losing one Manhattan theater this Friday after just a week in release) is Craig Zobel's Great World of Sound, a doleful comedy about would-be record producers drawn into a shady outfit somewhere in mid-South flyover country, where Indianapolis is the "big city." The strength of the film, which is like a more subtly edged and less brassy Glengarry Glen Ross, is that it is not at all condescending, as my quote marks might imply. Everyone in the film, including the many actual musicians from both ends of the talent spectrum who audition for the two salesmen in amusing, poignant scenes, clings to an American Dream that is slipping farther and farther out of reach. The salesmen themselves, meek Martin (Pat Healy) and smoother operator Clarence (Kene Holliday), make an affecting, Mutt and Jeff team, and that race is never an issue is one of the stronger points in Zobel's keen-eyed, flavorful script. Highly recommended, but you may have to look.

Larry Fessenden's latest horror film, The Last Winter (pictured at top), is in release today via IFC First Take, which means you may be able to watch it on PPV. Look for it, however, in a theater. Fessenden, whose previous films like Habit and No Telling are scrappy New York-made enterprises, has graduated to widescreen shooting and a more expansive budget this time around, without losing the close-to-the-bone quality of his work. Set in Alaska (and shot in Iceland), the film sets up the title early on; the problem facing a corporate crew doing advance work on an oil-drilling project is that it is warm, and not cold, in the environmentally challenged North, the first of many reversals that come to plague the enterprise.

Fessenden is canny about how to handle what could be stock figures--we're set up to think that Ron Perlman's team leader will be the "bad guy" and James Le Gros' environmentalist the hero, but the script shakes things up unpredictably. (It helps that the brutish-looking Perlman is a more facile actor than he seems.) There is a monster element, recalling Fessenden's Wendigo (with better CGI effects work), yet, that, too, has enough of a credible explanation if you're in need of one. Like The Thing, an inspiration, it's chilling, and movies like this do more to highlight the global warming crisis by inference and characterization than lecture films such as The 11th Hour. It's colder than Alaska these days for indie films, but I hope Great World of Sound and The Last Winter survive the deep freeze.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Talking points

For the 40th anniversary issue of Cineaste editors were asked to pick their favorite political films from 1967-2007. The lists make for interesting reading--how did I, of all people, forget about Dawn of the Dead? Mine was, however, the most "pop," or at least the most home-bound in terms of country.

Left off, however, were the explanations for each entry. We were asked to pick a Top 10, then add 10 more if we wanted. And so I did. Rationales follow.

"In the absence of any definition of "political"--the defining of which would probably be quite political in itself, as everyone has his or her own idea of how it might be applied to cinema--I ranged somewhat freely, and mostly on American soil. (I'll rely on the votes of others to take us from my homeland security.) But there are some old faithfuls in the mix, many right at the top.

The Battle of Algiers (Gillo Pontecorvo, 1967). The Pentagon favorite—but how closely was the brass paying attention?—is as relevant and urgent today as it was 20 and 40 years ago.

Z (Costa-Gavras, 1969). The top political thriller.

The Battle of Chile (Patricio Guzman, 1977) and Chile: Obstinate Memory (Guzman, 1997). Bookends—a brutal power play as it unfolds, and the event as it is remembered (or half-remembered) across the generations.

Fahrenheit 9/11 (Michael Moore, 2004). Love it or hate it, it shouted its way into the international conversation on Iraq. Will it endure 20 years from now? Three years later, anyway, people are still arguing about it.

Do the Right Thing (Spike Lee, 1989). Beyond the race-baiting headlines and attendant sensationalism, a moving, truthful, and frequently funny film.

Dead Man Walking (Tim Robbins, 1995). A terrifically even-handed film about the incendiary subject of the death penalty, limpidly acted, written, and directed.

Salvador (Oliver Stone, 1986). Lively, angry, saddening, and for me Stone’s best film, if not his best-known.

The Last Temptation of Christ (Martin Scorsese, 1988). Jesus Christ! Going on opening day in Chicago, and seated in a theater surrounded by phalanxes of angry protesters and police, was quite an experience. And the movie was solid, too, not that it could ever live up to the hysteria the religious right generated on its behalf.

Land and Freedom (Ken Loach, 1995). The Spanish Civil War, splendidly recalled and personalized.

Loose Change (Dylan Avery, 2006). Whether or not you believe its alternative theories about 9/11--I’m still skeptical--a fascinating study in alternative distribution as the YouTube generation ventures into politics, which may be its ultimate importance.

And Ten More…

Burn! (Gillo Pontecorvo, 1969). Pontecorvo on slavery and the colonial mindset, and a valuable, overlooked film.

The Conversation (Francis Ford Coppola, 1974). Another film that becomes more and more timely and prescient as snooping into our private lives becomes commonplace.

Ulzana's Raid (Robert Aldrich, 1972). The best of the films of its period to examine the Vietnam War through the prism of tortured Native American history, because it does so subtly (rare for its director) as a lean and muscular western.

Schindler's List (Steven Spielberg, 1993). A divisive film, but no argument from me as to the merit of the historical reclamation project it inspired.

Blow Out (Brian De Palma, 1981). The most artfully made of the many assassination, American-style pictures to flow from the Kennedy era.

Under Fire (Roger Spottiswoode, 1983). Like Salvador, drawn from the headlines of its time, and grippingly fictionalized.

The Last Emperor (Bernardo Bertolucci, 1987). The difficulties of living a neutered and apolitical life, however grand the surroundings. The director’s cut is vastly preferred.

Over the Edge (Jonathan Kaplan, 1979). Stifled adolescents explode in negligent, dead-end suburbia. An HBO staple in its day, the film really got us high schoolers agitated…but we behaved ourselves, handing “The Man” and the forces of conformity another victory.

A Fistful of Dynamite (Sergio Leone, 1972). The making of a freedom fighter/terrorist, and the most engaged of Leone’s high-firepower westerns.

RoboCop (Paul Verhoeven, 1987). Sci-fi satire, sure. But consider its scenario, of a war on terror that directly benefits its corporate contractors, whose soldiers are sent poorly equipped into battle as fodder for the machine. Still laughing?

Sunday, September 16, 2007

The 40th anniversary issue of Cineaste

At last the time has come for an event in the making since the advent of Bonnie and Clyde and The Battle of Algiers. Given the short lifespans of so many magazines this really is quite an accomplishment, and we're celebrating by adopting full color from here on in. Online, find out what my favorite film since 1967 is, my choices for the best political films, and my latest foray into horror and sci-fi movies. The things I do for Cineaste, a writing/editing home of mine since 2001.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Promises delivers

David Cronenberg has made some astonishing films: for me, The Brood, The Fly (1986), and Dead Ringers come immediately to mind. But in a remarkably consistent career I don't recall any one image in his work that has affected me as deeply as one early in his latest film, Eastern Promises, which Focus Features opens Sept. 14. It's a simple, clinically observed shot of an infant girl on a respirator, clinging to life. Cronenberg has had malign children in his films before; this tableau, while customarily unsentimental, indicates a new and more direct line to human connection, one that audiences who have recoiled from his futureshock visions acn instantly relate to.

Lest we think the director has mellowed, I should add that this shot is preceded by a gory throat-slitting (the first of two or three in the film) and the bloody suicide of the child's mother, a 14-year-old Russian immigrant, adrift and hopeless at Christmastime in London. As much a part of the Cronenberg condition as it is of the human one, violence suffuses Eastern Promises. (Not for nothing was the title of his last film A History of Violence, a title he was born to use.) But so does a mellow, melancholy air, and a gentleness that goes hand-in-hand with the rough stuff. It proves a rich and satisfying borscht of a film.

Focus invited me to an hourlong roundtable interview session with Cronenberg, star Viggo Mortensen (or, as Lora says with a sigh, Viggo), co-star Vincent Cassel (a bigger, more reflective guy than I would have imagined given his runty-seeming, hard-charging roles in films like Irreversible and the last two Ocean's pictures), and screenwriter Steve Knight, the humanist author of the excellent Dirty Pretty Things and Amazing Grace. These aren't the best situations; my fellow scribes were congenial but there's little chance for significant headway into a production. (The Village Voice got more out of the writer and director.) Still, it was a chance to say hello to Cronenberg, a filmmaker I've long admired, and he proved as amusing and off-the-cuff as I've heard that he is--I guess if he weren't, no actor would readily do the distasteful things they are obliged to in his films. And I spotted Larry King and UK Office star Martin Freeman in the lobby of the host hotel, so that was two more sightings for the scrapbook of my mind.

But back to that baby, who, unlike the tyke in last week's bomb Shoot 'Em Up is fortunate to find an ally in midwife Anna, played by Naomi Watts. Unlike, say, Charlize Theron, Watts dresses down quite easily. After a miscarriage and a breakup Anna is in emotional hiding with her concerned mother, Helen (Sinead Cusack) and her blustering Russian-born uncle Stepan (director Jerzy Skolimowski), who brags of KGB connections. Stepan translates the diary Anna found on the baby's mother, Tatiana, an account of an increasingly grim spiral into degradation centered on a posh Russian restaurant owned by the courtly Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl). Semyon offers to continue the translation, an offer Anna rebuffs, which unknowingly puts her into grave danger. Semyon is the London head of the Vory V Zakone mob, whose son, enforcer Kirill (Cassel), is eager to please his remote father by taking on the dirty work of the brotherhood. On his rounds Kirill is accompanied by family chauffeur Nikolai (Mortensen), who keeps check on the younger man's impulsiveness and idiosyncrasies, even during brothel visits. As the diary yields explosive secrets Anna finds herself drawn to Nikolai, in an unusual co-dependent relationship reminiscent of noirs like The Reckless Moment (and its remake, The Deep End). It's not love, but a mutual curiosity about each other, which Knight frames as a multifaceted inquiry into the nature of good and evil.

Good as all the actors are--Cassel, in particular, brings a few more tones to his portrayal than I suspected he had--this is Mortensen's show. Accompanying the inner journey the soft-spoken actor makes in the part are two layers of externals. He looks damn good in the suits that Denise Cronenberg (the director's costumer sister, one of his designer regulars) has tailored for him, like Steve McQueen as Thomas Crown good. Beneath that, on his skin, are dozens of intricate tattoos, which in Russian mobspeak tell the story of his ascent to the top echelons of organizational power. (This visual element is one that, not unexpectedly, Cronenberg asked Knight to highlight in his script, which began as a documentary on East European human trafficking.) In the movie's sure-to-be-talked-about action highlight, Mortensen's fully exposed hide is flayed by two knife-wielding goons in a fantastically choreographed, shot (by Peter Suschitzky who I interviewed in 1997 about Cronenberg's film of Crash) and edited (Ronald Sanders) steambath fight scene that had the audience screaming at the screen. What really registers is how vulnerable the tough Nikolai is when his protective layers are peeled away, a change that prepares you for a waterfront ending roiling with the primal values of a D.W. Griffith silent feature.

Crafted with great assurance, and streamlined to an eventful 100 minutes, Eastern Promises makes a fitting companion piece to the mob story A History of Violence, the AC to its DC (not intentional, the director explained, just a matter of funding falling into place). At the roundtable, Cronenberg said that he's directing an opera of The Fly, written by its composer Howard Shore (who also wrote the new film's Russian-inflected score). "If I fail, I can just say it's a composer's medium and blame that," he kidded. In his own field, Eastern Promises finds him on terra firma.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Monsters Inc.

Now shored up by Fox Home Video, MGH Home Video has relaunched its dormant, but beloved, Midnite Movies line--beloved by me, anyway, and audiences who enjoy a good old-fashioned monster movie. The titles are packaged as double feature sets (some with two movies on one disc, others with separate platters) and range from black-and-white chestnuts like The Vampire and The Return of Dracula, from the late Fifties (to think they were only maybe 15 years old when I first saw them on TV's Chiller Theater) to the British-produced EC Comics adaptations Tales from the Crypt and Vault of Horror, with their unexpectedly tony casts (Ralph Richardson, etc.)

Others, like the very good Witchfinder General (Vincent Price, minus horror ham in a grim historical tale of witchburnings), get their own dedicated discs and a few extras besides. Star spotters will get a kick out of the 1981 slasher picture The Burning, a prehistoric credit for the just-founded Miramax featuring Jason Alexander, Fisher Stevens, and the debuting Holly Hunter, who it is safe to assume does not provide a commentary. I've always wanted to see a good-quality version of 1976's nature-run-wild picture Food of the Gods ("for a taste of hell!," said the ads) and I don't think 1974's Chosen Survivors, a film I know only from its grim TV spots, has ever made the rounds on cable, broadcast, or home video. Thanks to Midnite Movies, I can scratch those particular itches.

But there's more. Fox has released The Fly Collection, featuring the 1958 classic, its 1959 sequel, Return of the Fly, and a DVD debutante, the lurid, and as I recall fly-less, 1965 offshoot Curse of the Fly. (The later Eighties versions are buzzing around on their own.) And Universal has once again taken to Best Buy for its store-exclusive second helping of Forties and Fifties sci-fi, with a modestly budgeted "classics" set that includes the hugely entertaining Dr. Cyclops and a favorite dinosaur picture, 1957's The Land Unknown, in its original widescreen format. I sort of wish Halloween had come early on a different date but the monsters are hereby unleashed, with more to arrive over the next few weeks.

Like, far out, dude

From Mr. Smith to Mr. Jones: The title of the fourth Indiana Jones picture (opening next May 22) is Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Which sounds to me like a Doors or King Crimson song title circa 1967, and which will definitely turn up on marquees as simply Indiana Jones. That I prefer. There is no truth to the rumor that the bad guy will be played by bad boy Brit artist Damien Hirst, he of the $100 million diamond-encrusted skull. The curious will however find that there is quite a bit to this skulduggery.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Down in the Valley

Writer-director Paul Haggis, whose Crash magically solved the racial problems of Los Angeles, says a-ten-hut to the Iraq War with In the Valley of Elah, which Warner Independent Pictures opens Sept. 14. Starting with that portent-filled Old Testament title, the results fall predictably wide of the mark and short of the goal. Like Stanley Kramer, who turned out dutiful, lesson-filled pictures like Guess Who's Coming to Dinner and Bless the Beasts & Children, Haggis confuses good intentions with good filmmaking. A few days before it opens, you can already hear Elah creaking.

Then again, I'm not hoping for much from the dozen or so Iraq/Afghanistan/9-11 pictures due to open in the next few months. On the one hand, it's better to get them now, rather than ten years after the conflict ends. On the other, most of them seem to be crafted from the same scratchy wool, stories suffused with righteous anger and bouts of "how did this happen to us?" soul-searching. I can only see Brian De Palma's controversial Redacted, a formally inventive reworking of his powerful Casualties of War, and Mike Nichols' less strait-jacketed Charlie Wilson's War, getting under the skin. The rest will simply get under the collar, to itch and irritate. Awards nominators will swoon for the middlebrow achievement, indifferent critics and audiences will mostly shrug, and the war will go on.

With numerous documentaries already released, Elah opens this new campaign in features (last winter's marginally better Home of the Brave proved a false start). The good news here is that Haggis has curbed the flashy excesses of the Oscar-winning Crash; the bad news is, In the Valley of Elah is so sluggish, so mindful of its own importance, that it is practically sedated. And no one remembered to wake up its star, Tommy Lee Jones. Though I'd hesitate to tell him this to his face, he's not really as iconic as his weathered saddletramp looks suggest (not as much as, say, Clint Eastwood, who allegedly turned the part down), and is a drag to be with as he enters our contemporary heart of darkness.

In the fact-adapted film, Jones is Hank Deerfield, a former military policeman who begins an investigation that hits home when his son, Mike (Jonathan Tucker), mysteriously goes AWOL on his first weekend Stateside, following the end to a wearying tour of duty in Iraq. Hank soon finds himself up against a wall of military officialdom, who would rather he just return home and let them close the book on his son's disappearance. But his discovery of Mike's anguished video journals harden his resolve. Watching his back in the dry-as-sawdust military town where Mike was last seen is a local police detective, Emily Sanders (Charlize Theron), whose fellow officers are slightly contemptuous of her capabilities.

Emily's battles with a tough-as-brass Josh Brolin, which come down to sexism, seem to have come in from another movie altogether, maybe Theron's last Oscar-baiting credit, North Country. Her total about-face in Monster was a complete transformation but the half-measures here to deglam her (downmarket hairstyle and makeup) make her stand out all the more. (She at least has more to do than Susan Sarandon, who, playing Hank's wife, cries and looks haggard in a handful of scenes.) Furthermore, she has been given a sickly son, to whom Jones relates the story of David and Goliath in the valley of Elah. Lest we misunderstand the story of the brave warrior going alone against the might of the giant and the Philistines, it is repeated twice more in the film, I presume for secular slowpokes in the audience and to imprint the title in all our heathen heads.

The main story is unfortunately pedestrian. With little variation in intensity or urgency, Jones and Theron pursue a lead to a bar or barracks, question him or her, then move on to the next person of inquiry. Some of these are Mike's brothers in arms, played by actual Iraq combat veterans, who give the film some authenticity. Lacking same is Jones. He relies on his weary ruggedness to tell the story of a nation's shame for us, but is otherwise incommunicado. That may work in a cowboy picture or thriller; his mere presence alone, however, isn't strong enough to shoulder everything Haggis (and the Bush administration) have burdened him with. Nothing seems to penetrate his mask-like somnolence, not even the revelation of Mike's tragedy--which seems to imply, as Vietnam-era movies like Jones' Rolling Thunder did, that an army of war-forged potential psychopaths is heading our way from the desert and we will soon reap what we have sown. That's a little rich, I think--is there supporting evidence beyond the story the film is based on?--and needlessly fear-mongering. Haggis plays at John Ford with his stoic compositions but a certain paranoia bleeds from the frame.

And he hasn't left all his old tricks behind. Early in the film, Hank corrects a Hispanic handyman who has raised an American flag upside down outside a school. That, he says, means a nation in distress. He corrects the error (which is not meant to be condescending but given Haggis' last film comes off as such). At that point I guessed, exactly, how the film would end, and its final, meant-to-be-shattering image. And I was right. If you can intuit it as well, then I suggest passing by this Valley.

Saturday, September 08, 2007

Theater: America LoveSexDeath

Aristocrats star Billy the Mime goes on the offensive. The very offensive.

Friday, September 07, 2007

The Moon and the stars

More stuff to see, beginning today:

Astronauts, moonwalking: About the only thing wrong with In the Shadow of the Moon, an inspiring documentary about the Apollo program, is that a British filmmaker, David Sington, cleaned up the existing late 1960s footage to digital-era perfection and put it together. Do we Americans consider one of our most unambiguously amazing accomplishments sort of passe? Are we embarrassed to be patriotic as Bush's war rages on? (Is part of the problem that more and more we distance ourselves from the Iraq campaign, as someone else's mess?) Is NASA today kind of a joke? Might it have been better to release the film two years from now, in honor of the moonwalk? Whatever; the film, presented by Ron Howard, is here in release, and a thrilling reminder of our ingenuity, capabilities, and can-do attitude. (So much has changed technologically, but we still haven't made it back.) In the Shadow of the Moon speaks eloquently to the better angels of our nature, which today, as much as in Lincoln's time, could use a good talking to.

James Gandolfini, singing. But not very well, in John Turturro's curious shelf-sitter Romance and Cigarettes, which the filmmaker presented at the Brooklyn Academy of Music last year. If I read between the lines correctly in a Times story about his long haul with his labor of love it appears that at a low point he begged Michael Bay for his negligible role in Transformers to make it over a financial hurdle. The sacrifice to his credibility may have been necessary, but I'm not sure it was worth it; the movie, about star-crossed relationships in working-class New York, is an all-over-the-place mess, beguiling in parts, slow and silly in others. Turturro wanted to get a Dennis Potter Pennies from Heaven kind of vibe started; in those programs, however, the characters let synched recordings do the harmonizing. There's one accomplished singer, Broadway baby Elaine Stritch, in the cast, and, perversely, Turturro gives her not a note, as the likes of Kate Winslet manifestly fail to carry vintage tunes in a bucket. (The attempt is touching and grating, in equal measure.)

Al Pacino, Cruising. In advance of its Sept. 18 DVD debut Warner Bros. has re-released William Friedkin's confounding thriller, a strange, strangely compelling film that for all its flaws is difficult to shake off or dismiss. Problems it's got: Pacino's committed if dazed and difficult-to-read performance as as undercover cop rooting out a serial killer in New York's late Seventies gay bar scene, Paul Sorvino's completely uncomfortable, I'm-only-doing-this-because-Al-is-doing-this role as his superior, and the constant, pervasive, unleavened aura of dread and despair are just three. But the last is also its strongest attribute. The grime, and the unresolved tensions generated by the perplexingly plotted scenario, fascinate. All relationships, straight and gay, are suspect. And the portrait of the milieu, before AIDS began its crime spree, is as much a time capsule of a past generation as the moon landings.

Jane Alexander, naked. Beloved for her staunch TV roles, like Eleanor Roosevelt, the former NEA chair is exposing her inner Helen Mirren on HBO's Tell Me You Love Me, premiering Sunday. As Mirren herself turns toward an Elizabethan modesty the 68-year-old Alexander is apparently letting it all hang out as a couples therapist; she also appears in Robert Benton's said-to-be sexsational film A Feast of Love later this month. It's been since about Apollo 13 that she let her hair down so much, maybe since she and James Earl Jones were on the down low in the play and film The Great White Hope. I don't need another hour-long HBO program in my life but if Alexander's taking it off I should at least turn it on for one episode.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Theater: A Midsummer in Central Park

As intended for Live Design magazine, herein diverted...The Public Theater's "summer of love" outdoors at the Delacorte, which brought audiences the tragedy of Romeo and Juliet in June, continues through Sunday with the Shakespeare that is in some ways its opposite, the lighthearted A Midsummer Night's Dream. The differences extend to the design of the shows. Romeo was dominated by Mark Wendland's bridge-and-water design, a brooding, introspective landscape darkly illuminated by Don Holder. Here set designer Eugene Lee has put in place a single, enormous tree with several large branches, a sturdy structure on which much of the cast comes to frolic when the show moves into the woods. The tree, dead but buzzing with activity, is enticingly lit by Michael Chybowski, who emphasizes sunshine and warmth when those qualities are called for. Romeo deemphasized the natural beauty of the Delacorte's setting; the LD turns the lights up high on the trees that surround the theater for the climax of Midsummer, a more-than-satisfying closing guaranteed for uplift.

The enchantments, fortunately, start well before then. A Midsummer Night's Dream without a little stage magic goes nowhere, and director Daniel Sullivan has a bag of tricks ready. Much of the magic is supplied by the performers. Martha Plimpton, who continues to grow as a stage actress, is delightful as Helena, whose lovesickness for Demetrius (Elliot Villar) spurs the convoluted plotline, which absorbs the dimwitted acting troupe the "Rude Mechanicals" and an assortment of fairy spirits whose own romantic agendas dovetail with those of the humans. There are no weak links in the cast, but a few of my favorites are the always commanding Keith David as the fairy king Oberon; an alluring Laila Robins as his queen, Titania; Tim Blake Nelson as Rude Mechanicals leader Peter Quince and Jesse Tyler Ferguson as troupe member Francis Flute, who is reluctantly drafted to don drag as Thisbe in the play-within-a-play that ends the piece. Best of all is Jay O. Sanders, who is delightful as the egocentric Nick Bottom, Flute's lovelorn Pyramus. His rollicking performance triggers laughs well before the machinations of Puck (Jon Michael Hill) transform him into a braying ass who steals the bewitched Titania's heart.

A Midsummer Night's Dream is the kind of a show that a costume designer can capitalize on, and Ann Hould-Ward runs with the assignment. Here Athens is more like Victorian England, at least where the Athenians are concerned, with more proper costuming approximating that era. The Rude Mechanicals are suitably rundown in appearance. The fairy spirits (including several children) have been given a magic show look, emphasizing silky, spangled blacks and on the men silvery facepaint. (Robins, slipped into a form-hugging black camisole and a flowing wig of red hair by designer David Lawrence to complement her own, makes a particularly drop-dead impression.) Lighting effects, some handheld by the performers, accentuate the transition into fairyland.

A two-fold impression is made by the sound. Dan Moses Schreier has concentrated his efforts on an enveloping score, rapturously delivered by Acme Sound Partners, who were carried over from Romeo. Moreover there are beautifully reproduced sound effects, I would say the best I have ever heard in all my years attending Delacorte performances. (The audio was provided by Masque Sound, the lighting by Altman Rentals and PRG Lighting, and show control by PRG.) On an iffy night weather-wise the seeming approach of a fierce storm had audience members reaching for the umbrellas. Twas only an illusion, in A Midsummer Night’s Dream well-met by moonlight.

Cast photo by Michal Daniel

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

"A fella named Arbogast"...

...was kind enough to not only comment positively on my Shoot 'Em Up entry, but also added a link to my site on his own. And how did I return the favor? By inadvertenly deleting his dispatch. [To wit, regarding the tedious and possibly bipolar Don Murphy, "Haw-haw... you settled his hash!]
That's what happens when you snoop around the Bates Motel of this blog.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

But who gets the house?

After they painted it and everything. I never saw them in the neighborhood, and there was very little activity at their brownstone (formerly owned by club and Rocky Horror diva Nell Campbell, who painted it an aggressive yellow) on Hoyt and Dean till they gave it a more somber coat earlier this year, posssibly in advance of a post-breakup resale. They never did use that Brooklyn marriage license the tabloids were all abuzz about. Assuming they are splitsville from the borough, Heath, Michelle, and Matilda, we hardly knew ye.

Sunday, September 02, 2007

Shooting blanks

When the Oscars were telecast in March, Hollywood basically went to sleep from about now till mid-October, when the first wave of prestige pictures went into release. With the Academy Awards bumped up to February, the jockeying now begins in earnest this month. I'd become used to vacating the multiplex for the arthouse for a few weeks, but double duty calls, what with a raft of promising new releases floating toward us, including a new David Cronenberg picture, Eastern Promises; Jodie Foster in Neil Jordan's The Brave One; Julie Taymor's Beatles tribute, Across the Universe, featuring our actor neighbor, Patrick O'Neill, and two Westerns, 3:10 to Yuma (an example of the kind of good, but non-iconic, no-baggage picture that should be remade, unlike Halloween, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, or Sleuth) and the artier The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, whose title will undoubtedly be shortened to "Jesse James" on space-strapped marquees.

There's good word on some of these. But even if they don't pan out, none will suck harder than the loathsome Shoot 'Em Up, which New Line Cinema is flushing into theaters Sept. 7. I've rarely been as uncomfortable in a screening room as I was at this geekshow, a quasi-parody of action pictures that, like Grindhouse and The Last Action Hero before it, will fail to satisfy genre junkies or anyone who thinks the genre is in need of a good ribbing. Though a smattering of critics drool over these mixed-intentions movies (the come-and-gone "fairy tale for hip grown-ups" Stardust would seem to be another) audiences rarely bite, and it's hard to imagine anyone getting with Shoot 'Em Up's agenda of shriekingly over-the-top ultra-violence and sledgehammer send-ups of family values politics. Trying to work around the iffy boxoffice appeal, the writer-director Michael Davis has turned up at interviews with a suitcase full of action movie DVDs, as proof of his sincerity in adding to the genre, not detracting from it. I'm not buying it; the 46-year-old Davis has struck out with slightly more upmarket fare, and Shoot 'Em Up seems more like revenge against blockbusters, and the audiences who patronize them.

Just as you should refrain from sending out poison-pen e-mails until you've really thought over the consequences, I wish Shoot 'Em Up had stayed a digital animatic, one that allegedly wowed Hollywood with its high testosterone levels. If it had stayed in that embryonic form, or maybe morphed into a videogame, the bulk of the moviegoing public might have remained blissfully unaware of its existence. Alas, producer Don Murphy, who cultivates a don't-tread-on-me image on blogs, bit hard, and is zealously defending the finished product on the web. Here's what we had to say to each other Aug. 9 on that movie mosh pit, Hollywood Elsewhere:

"However it was intended [straight-up action picture or parody], I thought Shoot 'Em Up was barrel-scraping garbage from beginning to end. The pits, the depths, the dregs, until someone or something lower arrives to churn the bottom anew." -- btwnproductions (my transparent nom-de-net).

"maybe that is why you are between productions- because you THOUGHT. Clearly this is not a strong past time for you. Stick to masturbating with sandpaper. It is more your speed." -- Don Murphy

"Sticks and stones, Mr. Murphy. You don't help your case by ranting. But maybe you're right; Shoot 'Em Up is a shade more intelligent than Transformers. " -- btwnproductions

And that was the last I heard from him on the subject. In a producing career that includes this summer's overripe-for-parody Transformers and Oliver Stone's low-blow Natural Born Killers, a spiritual cousin to the new outrage, Murphy has made exactly half of one good movie, 1998's Apt Pupil, which fell off the track at about the midpoint. Look, he's right to get in there and wrestle; Shoot 'Em Up is his pitifully malformed love child, and I don't blame him for speaking up for it. But his hot-headed and unfunny response belies a basic lack of sophistication thoroughly in sync with his cinematic track record, and that he fled from discussion, cowardice. I can only hope that his attitude is part-pose, but no wonder Hollywood is hell on Earth for true creative types.

So what is this movie that has me so riled up? This I will say: Shoot 'Em Up is worth devoting time to dispatching, unlike run-of-the-mill dogs that can be dismissed in a paragraph or two. It seeks to up the ante on amped-up fare like Sin City, whose finer qualities eluded me, and last year's underrated Running Scared, which was not afraid to reveal genuine heart underneath all its chest-thumping. It stars Clive Owen, who had a featured part in Sin City, here in a dumbed-down echo of his last, rather more brilliant, action-driven failure, Children of Men. He plays Mr. Smith, a mercenary of sorts, described as "the angriest man in the world," who delivers a working girl's baby amidst the first shoot 'em up of the title. A nebbishy-looking, henpecked, but death-dealing professional assassin, Hertz (Paul Giamatti), sends his minions after Smith, who hooks up with a another prostitute, DQ (Monica Bellucci), to figure out the angles between barrages of firepower. (All of the women in the film are hookers, eye candy, or completely nondescript.)

What plotline there is is pitched at such a high level of moronic silliness I suspect Davis and Murphy hope that critics will rise to the bait, just to squelch them for being humorless, can't-take-a-joke dolts, but here it is (you have been warned): The baby is the product of an artificial insemination program clandestinely run by an ailing politico who is an opponent of the gun lobby, represented in the film by a malign weapons peddler who is planning to expose the hypocrisy of the nemesis, who needs the infant essence to prolong his own life.

"Shoot 'em up," if I have to spell it out for you, has a double meaning, referring to the impregnated women. That's about the level of wit to Davis' screenplay, and it is not nearly enough to stamp the film as satire--and satire being boxoffice kryptonite, the movie tries, queasily, to have it both ways, to be the action film itself and the running, contemptuous commentary on movies of its ilk. When they materialize, the political sleaze elements are grubbily overstated, and so ludicrous they push you right out of the film, assuming you still had any interest in its bloodily cartoonish excesses. Shoot 'Em Up is vacantly mean-spirited without relief or insight.

Some of this might have been forgiven had the movie really delivered on its bullets-blazing promises. It doesn't. I chuckled at an early sight gag involving a lethal carrot, but it's repeated, another joke on an unwashed audience that the film's creators assume will laugh at anything. There is fairly clever staging of a gunfight in and around neon signage. After that, however, the rest is unbelievable CGI, inadequately rendered and much more reminiscent of the already forgotten Charlie's Angels pictures than John Woo or, God forbid, Jean-Pierre Melville, Davis' stated inspirations (or is this another tawdry private joke on the aspirations of action hacks who claim Woo and Melville as their inspirations?). Not even the most desperate action fan, clueless to the film's secondary agenda, will embrace its goofy parachuting gun battle. The action had to be better than its competition to give the movie any zest or focus, and it's uniformly worse. I will concede that the film ends in an energetic burst of animated credits, giving it a little of the cool it is too cool for, but I may have just been eternally grateful that its 93 minutes were finally spent.

I could go on, to chastise the flickeringly charismatic Owen for wasting some of his 15 minutes in the limelight, scold Giamatti for taking on a role that plays into the stereotype of a sweaty, grunting pig (complete with necrophiliac tendencies) and not away from it, as he has sensibly sought to do, and urge career counseling for the stony-looking Bellucci, who is overly enamored of victim parts (and, as a hooker whose lactating breasts are a prized asset, does only peekaboo nudity in a film where all the other women go at least topless). But here I will stop. You get the point, and unlike the makers of Shoot 'Em Up I won't belabor it.

Except for one thing. In a Aug. 30 Hollywood Elsewhere posting about the boxoffice shoot 'em up between his film and 3:10 to Yuma this Friday, Murphy, from somewhere out of the cyber-ether, interjected, "The tracking tells the tale, people have no interest in a western." I'd say the smart money is on the cowboys.

Saturday, September 01, 2007

Air sickness

The only way to experience Coney Island is to take a ride on Astroland's Cyclone rollercoaster. Or so I'm telling my sore self, a few hours after Lora convinced me to man up and join her on her first spin on the clattering 80-year-old thrill ride. As a rule I prefer more earthbound attractions, ones minus chutes and loops. But it was a such an ideal day--a perfect kickoff for what looks to be a Labor Day Weekend for the record books where good weather is concerned--and the trip up the gently spinning Astrotower, my first in the five years since I had last visited, whetted my appetite for something a little more visceral.

Be careful what you wish for; the wooden Cyclone lives up to its name, and then some. We were pummeled and bashed and whip-lashed for what seemed like an eternity. I thought Disney's Space Mountain and Twilight Zone Tower of Terror were fearsome, but the venerable Cyclone eats their dust. No wonder The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms came to grief there in 1953. Still, it was fun, in that exhilarating, what-have-I-gotten-myself-into kind of way, and on balance much less dangerous than the broken glass bits on the beach and the many loose planks on the boardwalk, which seemed poised to pop up and embed sharp nails in our knees, like a mantrap out of Mel Gibson's Apocalypto.

I can understand resistance to gentrification, but "the people's playground" is one serious incident away from a major lawsuit resulting from the tattered planking. Without better maintenance the park could one day soon be owned by an injured five-year-old and his or her parents. This isn't nostalgia; it's plain foolishness, and the nips and tucks we saw being performed on the worst sections clearly aren't cutting it.

I wouldn't go so far as to say that the boardwalk should be replaced by concrete, which I know has happened in some safety-conscious seaside communities. What's needed is greater vigilance over a national institution. Which, in a roundabout way, brings me to the amusement-related issue behind this post: An end to the in-flight movie, at least as they are shown on most commercial flights.

What got me going on this was a New York Times article. Apparently, studios are now preparing edited versions of R-rated films like Shooter and Fracture for airline use, upsetting parents, who are already on edge over in-flight showings of PG and PG-13 fare like the recent King Kong. I always wonder where reporters find these parents, and half-suspect that some sort of namby-pamby Christian organization offers them up for outraged commentary that a paper can then hang a culture-wars story on. But the griping sounded genuine and not canned, and I can only imagine the inconvenience for parents who, having manhandled their children onto the plane, now have to shield them from shorn-but-still-offensive imagery being beamed about the cabin.

[And I can further imagine the inconvenience for stewards and stewardesses, who, already having to cope with passengers disgruntled by the mysterious delays plaguing our distressed air-traffic system, then have to deal with skyrocketing stress-and-anxiety levels brought on by revenge-thirsty nailbiters like Shooter. If our recent 12-hour ordeal getting home from Milwaukee, a less-than-two-hour flight under now non-existent normal conditions, had been punctuated by Shooter, God knows what kind of damage might have been wrought by our tired, angry fellow passengers, who were seething like snakes on a plane by the time we took off.]

Movies have been a regular part of the airline experience since 1961, when TWA showed the Lana Turner picture By Love Possessed. I used to enjoy them, and I know Lora finds them calming, as easier-to-digest mind candy than reading. But moviegoing in coach is lately just another annoyance. Even if you don't buy the headphones (or plug yours own in), there's no escaping the visual white noise of, say, The Holiday, with Jude Law making puppy-dog eyes at the increasingly brittle Cameron Diaz, which I watched out of half-closed peepers on a recent trip to Arizona. Now, The Holiday is the sort of soporific pablum that is ideal for a plane ride. I can't imagine any parent protesting, except that it's not 100% family-friendly, what with its singletons hooking up, or a cartoon, though it is somewhat cartoonish. The problem is, like airline food, it's not very nourishing, and forced exposure to it is likely to bring on cramps, or gas. Worse, the feature, which is already trimmed for content, or time (it used to be that the airline platter could only hold a two-hour movie, which meant that some of Jude and Cameron, in their 134-minute opus, wound up on the carrier-room floor, unless the process has gone digital), is preceded and followed by empty-headed ads, news shorts, and TV shows, which sharpens the dull ache of in-flight ennui.

Enough, I say, with the all-cabin movies. Get rid of them. A better alternative is the seat-back console, with its more varied programming, but you only seem to get those in business or first-class cabins (another vestige of the class war) or on airlines that are willing to pony up for the expense. More and more, of course, passengers are simply forgoing the airlines altogether, and bringing their own DVDs aboard for use in their portable players or laptops. Which creates its own editorial problems; I once sat next to a guy watching soft-core porn, which would have given parents conniption fits (I admit I liked it more than The Holiday). I certainly have enough DVDs to bring, but I find watching them too self-conscious an experience, and, again, unrewarding, as the carts knock into my legs and passengers climb over me as I squirm in my aisle seat. But if you are going to bring them, be sensible in your choices. Baltimore-bound for my wedding two years ago, a train passenger next to me contentedly watched Peter Sellers in Being There on his computer, a classy, visually inoffensive, and perfectly reasonable pick. And a good omen.

So. Patronize your local amusement parks, cautiously. Beats flying. If you must fly--and having a bad experience in the unfriendly skies is akin to being a first-time crime victim, you don't know how soul-depleting it is until you've actually experienced it--skirt the in-flight cultural controversy and the cinephilic misery by blocking out the watered-down movie provided as best you can. If you do supply your own screening material, make it something civilized and uplifting, that your comrades-in-wings can share without residual embarrassment. And get back to work on Tuesday.