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.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Untangling Kite

The film version of Khaled Hosseini's 2003 bestseller The Kite Runner has gotten all tangled up in sensitive cultural and political issues pertaining to Afghanistan, where it is set. (It was filmed largely in the mountainous regions of Western China.)
The New York Times has a comprehensive story about the various dilemmas, which have caused distributor Paramount Vantage to push the film's release from Nov. 2 to Dec. 14. The change in date may help the studio better reconnoiter a sticky marketing situation, but I doubt the storm clouds coming in from Afghanistan will blow over that easily.

We went to a screening of the film last Friday. Marc Forster, a flashy faux arthouse style director I have rarely liked (Finding Neverland and Stay being prime offenders on his resume), who raised red flags on this blog as the director of the next Bond picture, reins himself in at the helm. This is the kind of cross-worlds, time-spanning saga that Mira Nair (The Namesake) does better than anyone, and Forster offers a suitable approximation. I expected the film to be stuffed with multicultural gauze, but it's pretty spare on that front. The adapter, David Benioff, keeps the subject matter as sober and responsible as possible; it's a quantum leap past his silly script for Stay,
if not on the level of his assured self adaptation of 2002's 25th Hour for Spike Lee. I assume some of the creaky contrivances that reduce much of the second half of The Kite Runner to melodrama come straight from the source.

Still, the first half, focusing on the fraught relationship between two Afghani boys from different tribes, is affecting, and audiences are sure to watch much of it through through tears as their friendship dissolved under the weight of personal and ethnic tensions and the coming of the Soviet war in the 1980s. The boys, Ahmad Khan Mahmoodzada as Hassan, an illiterate Hazara, and Zekiria Ebrahimi as the better-bred Pashtun Amir, were paid little for their work on the $18 million film but are likely to be further compensated for their trouble--they are, however, worth their weight in gold to the picture, which rests largely on their natural appeal. The two boys share a mutual love of kite flying, and the competition sequences, a deft mixture of actual sport and CGI, are exhilarating to watch.

To Western eyes, the rape of Hassan, which Amir bears silent, frightened witness to, is sensitively handled, in an "impressionistic" (per The Times) way that doesn't push the PG-13 rating. The war now on and the friendship shattered, the film returns to its present-day framing device, where Amir (who escaped to America with his stern, withholding father) has published a novel about his childhood. A phone call summons him back to Afghanistan, which he is forced to sneak into now that the unforgiving Taliban are now in charge, and where he can make amends for his boyhood indecisiveness. There's plot turns here I really shouldn't spoil, but for as vile as the primitive Taliban can be I found it over the top that the teenager who raped Hassan is now a sect official, a deranged pedophile who has put together his own harem of boys, one of whom (the third boy, mentioned in the Times story, Ali Danish Bakhty Ari) is similarly threatened. It's not exactly a subtle portrayal, and I can see how the Taliban could turn it to their advantage, as an example of gross Western stereotyping, no matter that the source material was written by a local. Closer to home, I trust that audiences will make the necessary distinction between homosexuality and criminality, which we are meant to take as a given.

But as the communication of ideas brings peoples closer together, the more it can cleave them apart, and nothing can be taken for granted. However the story of The Kite Runner plays out, what we have are filmmakers doing as much as they could to be culturally correct, and making a respectable picture--but one that, just by touching on powderkeg issues, ignites a firestorm of wounded feelings, betrayed trusts, and the promise of worse to come. And all with very few of the upset parties actually having seen the film, which in and of itself is now virtually irrelevant--what counts is the first, visceral, unsubstantiated impression it makes, which can be downloaded as propaganda ripe for spinning.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Live from New York

With so much writing/blogging/opining about the 45th annual New York Film Festival last week, I thought I'd wait it out and actually see a few movies before chiming in. The time has come. No more lying down, like the protagonist of Korea's Secret Sunshine, pictured above.

For all my nitpicking and grumbles about the Festival--you'd think I was living in Bombay, so long it seems to take to get my advance order information mailed to me here in Brooklyn--once I'm there, I want to see everything, or at least more than I signed up for. But that's hard, given Drama Desk playgoing this year and the comforts of domesticity, and I need to remind myself that in those years when I did see a dozen or more selections my eyeballs were fried by about Week Two and my body sore from the uncomfortable seats at Lincoln Center's Alice Tully Hall.

With Alice Tully getting a needed makeover I've been at Jazz at Lincoln Center's Rose Hall the last two or three days. It's a little cumbersome to negotiate from the lobby of the Time Warner Center, but the elevators are wide and the uniformed attendees nothing if not efficient in getting audience members to their seats (I miss the old lady who directed me right or left countless times in my 12 festivals past; was that Alice Tully?). We were up in the balcony (the $16 "cheap seats"; the price has doubled since 1994, not that I'm complaining, much) on Saturday and I was down below in the orchestra last night. I'm pleased: The acoustics, a problem at Alice Tully, are excellent, the seats and legroom fine, and the screen well-positioned for viewing at varied angles in a more intimate house. I've seen concerts there but never a film, and it works as a supplemental venue, one that I hope serves as a template for the in-progress Lincoln Center renovations.

The final (or "final") cut of Blade Runner, which we saw Saturday night, was a good test of Rose Hall's capabilities. The sightlines were good and the multichannel sound clearly separated even way up in the rafters. "A hundred little changes" have been made to accompany this definitive version, according to restoration producer Charles De Lauzirika, supplementing the macro additions and deletions made in 1992. Joanna Cassidy's digitized participation in her own death scene is the most notable, and it's done seamlessly, as is the revoicing of the whole, strangely out-of-sync Abdul Ben Hassan sequence by Benjamin Ford, Harrison's son. Also, Rutger Hauer's climactic dove release, under clear blue sky in the past, now unfolds in a properly matching background, and assorted crewmembers caught by the camera have been removed. It all plays more smoothly than the 1992 release, with the unicorn sequence and the ending now entirely organic to the picture, and every image with magnificent, tactile textures.

The new cut plays New York's Ziegfeld starting this Friday and is a must-see there, or at other theaters it may turn up at. It comes out on DVD Dec. 18, individually or as part of a heavily annotated 25th anniversary five-disc collection, so you can see the film's evolution version to version. The DVD of the 92 release is now pretty much a coaster, or a piece of chipped heirloom china that you keep for nostalgia but never again use or display. All I need is the 82 International cut, which augmented the Domestic version, and this one, but Warner Bros is really going the extra mile for cultists. I still don't buy that Ford's Deckard is a replicant, which is more a case of director Ridley Scott trying to get the unicorn back in the barn once the door had shut than anything concrete in the film, but you can speculate more easily on the notion now.

Earlier on Saturday we saw Ira Sachs' Married Life, a more plot-driven film from the director of languid Forty Shades of Blue (2005), with Rip Torn, and The Delta (1996). An adaptation of a noirish novel, rewired for wry comedy, the film stars Chris Cooper as a solemnly unemotional businessman (not dissimilar to his closemouthed spy in Breach) planning to bump off wife Patricia Clarkson, to spare her the pain of losing him as he canoodles with a platinum blonde Rachel McAdams. The film is dryly narrated by Cooper's best friend, Pierce Brosnan, who injects himself into the proceedings. Sachs needed to stretch and the game cast helps him extend his reach; Brosnan, in particular, is finding his niche in indie cinema, where Clarkson continues to reign. The film doesn't quite come together but it's better, and certainly less cynical, than generally dismissive notices in The New York Times and Variety might suggest. And sartorially it does for 1949 what Mad Men does for 1960; we need to start wearing good hats again.

Last night I saw Secret Sunshine, this year's mystic/religious entry, in the vein of The Apostle (1997) or, more closely, 1996's Breaking the Waves. Bereft after the death of her husband, Shin-ae (Do-yeon Jeon, winner of the best actress award at this year's Cannes) relocates to his hometown, with their son in tow. Further tragedy causes the young widow to whole-heartedly embrace Christianity, but there are subsequent reversals and turnabouts that test her newfound faith in an absorbing if somewhat leisurely paced drama adapted and directed by Chang-dong Lee. Jeon has the manner of a storm cloud about to burst and negotiates her character's trials fluidly; perking up her melodrama is Kang-ho Song, the oafish father from The Host, who is terrific as her bumbling would-be suitor and a strong advertisement for the simple pleasures of a secular life. With the Rush Hour movies out of gas someone should cast Song, a familiar face as well from Park Chanwoook pictures such as the likeminded Lady Vengeance, in a cross-cultural cop buddy picture.

I'm only seeing two more pictures, Brian De Palma's Redacted and the Japanese drama I Just Didn't Do It at Rose Hall at the festival, which concludes Oct. 14. Other films I might have seen are opening soon anyway, or so I comfort myself But I have caught a few of the selections at screenings.

Opening commercially in October, Sidney Lumet's Before the Devil Knows You're Dead is an effective blood-and-thunder crime thriller that, along with last year's underrated Find Me Guilty, signals that the sometimes dormant filmmaker, now 83, is far from finished. Philip Seymour Hoffman and Ethan Hawke, whose recent stage work has awakened greater capabilities as an actor than I thought he had, are thoroughly convincing as brothers who share more than just an interest in implacable father Albert Finney's jewelry store proceeds, which they plan to steal. Nothing goes right and Kelly Masterson's relentless script takes a turn into near-Greek tragedy, which the film can't quite sustain; the final developments beggar belief, and a fetching Marisa Tomei, as a femme sort-of fatale, is stranded by indecisive screenwriting. And Finney's inability to close his eyes or mouth, like a doll with pop-up features that can't snap back into place, is aggravating. But this slick, sick picture, with a gallery of supporting rogues including Brian F. O'Byrne, Amy Ryan, and Michael Shannon, is largely satisfying.

Like Married Life, artist Julian Schnabel's latest film, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is also better than I had heard. There would seem to be no movie in Elle editor Jean-Dominique Bauby's 1997 memoir of his near-complete impairment from a stroke, which left him a locked-down state save for his left eyelid, with which he tirelessly, laboriously, heroically composed his account via blinking. But Schnabel and writer Ronald Harwood have found one in his immobile perception, a point of view that the film expands on via flashbacks (the gifted Mathieu Almaric plays Bauby unsentimentally) and dream sequences. The stuff of life is what flavors the piece beyond usual disease-of-the-week heart-tugging; an early sequence where Bauby's uselessly occluded right eyelid is sewn shut is completely terrifying, and Max von Sydow has two terribly wrenching scenes at Bauby's father, sidelined by age. (The actor, who has seemed older than God since The Exorcist, is a comparatively youthful 78.) That Bauby favored pretty ladies in his life and work gives the movie a little Euro eye candy, too. Much of the visual impact, however, comes from cinematographer Janusz Kaminiski, who uses (and reuses, with sometimes detrimental results) the same congested, high-contrast palette for his Steven Spielberg pictures; Schnabel has gotten him to open up, and the film is bathed in a warm sheen that encourages depth perception.

Riding the coattails of Pan's Labyrinth, which may explain its otherwise inscrutable selection, Juan Antonio Bayona's ghost story, The Orphanage, is one of the year's more insubstantial offerings. Belen Rueda is effective as a young mother trying to convert a country house into a children's care facility, sidetracked by echoes from the past and bumps in the night. It's not a bad picture, but it's not much more than efficient in its modest genre aims, which would make it a winner at the overstuffed Tribeca Film Festival but renders it an also-ran at Rose Hall.

Monday, October 01, 2007

"Modernism in Motion" begins Oct. 3

The Donnell Library Center in Manhattan kicks off a new month-long series, "Modernism in Motion," this Wednesday at 2:30pm. Screenings for the first afternoon are Hans Richter's Ghosts Before Breakfast (1927), Fernand Leger's Ballet Mecanique (1924), Rene Clair's Entr'acte (1924), and Luis Bunuel's L' Age D'Or (1930), all shown in 16mm. Subsequent Wednsdays will feature Josef von Sternberg's The Blue Angel (1930), Ernst Lubitsch's Trouble in Paradise (1932), and Mervyn Le Roy's Gold Diggers of 1933, the last shown with a Betty Boop short, 1932's Boop-Oop-A-Doop. The Donnell is right across the street from the Museum of Modern Art, so you can really make a day out of the subject.

Betty is a favorite of my friend and former colleague John Calhoun, who works at the library and is making his programming debut with this well-chosen series. Next month: A cinematic celebration of Oklahoma, on the Sooner State's centennial.