Friday, February 29, 2008

Popping up on Popdose

I've joined the smart set over at the new Popdose site for some film writing-related gigs. First up: A look at today's release of the real-life anarchic cartoon Chicago 10, a Nam flashback, man.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Quick thoughts: Leap Day releases

Every four years brings a Feb. 29, which this year means a Friday of new pictures.

We have, from Brazil, City of Men (Miramax)--not a direct sequel to the Oscar-nominated City of God, but a followup to the TV show (2002-2005) it inspired. Clips from the program, which has aired on the Sundance Channel, are inserted as flashbacks to catch us up with the characters. But the storyline is a fairly simple one, as friends Acerola (Douglas Silva) and Laranjinah (Darlan Cunha) try to make it to age 18 in the gang- and poverty-ridden favelas of Rio de Janeiro, no easy task as family secrets are revealed and a drug war between rival factions erupts. Stylistically, God shot its wad continuously, showering us with dynamically edited spasms of vengeance and violence; Men, directed by Paulo Morelli, is a far more prosaic affair, and I found the change a relief. For all its filmmaking muscle, the predecessor (Black Orpheus on meth) was exhausting; the controlled, and a tinge sentimental, Men gives its characters, and audience, more breathing space. That is, till the final movement, a running gun battle along the hillside communities, with the breathtaking vistas of the city in mute counterpoint to the chaos.

Closer to home (Austin, TX, to be exact) is The Unforeseen (Cinema Guild), a documentary by Laura Dunn focusing on the chokehold overdevelopment has put on the city since the early 1970s. If you thought Austin was a cool place to hang out in, maybe grab a few beers with Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez on a trip to chilldom and that intangible Southwestern vibe, guess again: It's a snakepit of land shark avarice, competing bureaucratic interests, and strained and failing natural resources, and if Acerola and Laranjinah somehow wound up there they'd probably be worse off than they were. Overstatement is the film's problem: graphics that spread over the screen like fluids sloshing through a maze show the acne of houses and strip malls springing up, which the likes of co-producer Robert Redford and Willie Nelson pontificate over in distracting talking head bites. Dunn had a vital subject in her grasp, and a compelling rise-and-fall story in developer Gary Bradley's machinations, but it somehow wriggled free--perhaps inspired by co-producer Terrence Malick, she gets lost in impressionistic clutter (mournful musical performances, etc.) that pulls focus from the topic. The Unforeseen is itself a victim of sprawl.

RIP New Line

The studio that brought you the early films of an eclectic roster of moviemakers from John Waters to Paul Thomas Anderson, plus the Lord of the Rings, the Rush Hours, Austin Powers-es, etc., is no more, absorbed by patron company Warner Bros. after a string of duds. It amassed quite a history in its 40 years, and will continue in some hazy fashion or another. But as good as the Rings films are money changes everything, and its inability to prime the corporate pump year in year out cost it in the long run. But we'll always have Freddy, its unofficial mascot and horror hitmaker before it went legit.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Plays: The latest from Off Broadway

Is that a Picard I see before me? Indeed it is, as Patrick Stewart takes his Macbeth to BAM (and onto Broadway). Plus Adding Machine, one of the season's more fascinating musicals, and more from Off Broadway from the Live Design website.

Monday, February 25, 2008

The Spring issue of Cineaste, online and on sale

No sooner does Oscar madness subside than a Spring issue bursting with Academy Award-winning content (There Will Be Blood, The Counterfeiters, etc.) streets, online and on newsstands. Look for my review of Tim Lucas' big Mario Bava bio, All the Colors of the Dark, in the print edition. It's the issue that will drink your milkshake.

Another losing night

Not for the Coen brothers (pictured), but for me: I went 14-24 last night, equalling my record-poor showing of last year. And my point total only started climbing in the third hour. I need another easy, one-movie-takes-all year; my two wins were for the Titanic and Return of the King ceremonies.

Not a bad show, but not the killer evening of post-writer's strike TV everyone seemed to be counting on. Host Jon Stewart should be retained, if not for his material (middling funny) but his graciousness in allowing Once co-winner Marketa Irglova precious airtime to speak. Classy. If their song hadn't won I would've hurled my show through my friend's TV; the Enchanted numbers are cute in the film, where they are delivered a little satirically, but numbing served up straight onstage, even with Amy Adams and Kristin Chenoweth wrapping their pipes around them. The sounds of bathroom doors swinging open and bladders being emptied as they came on could be heard all across the land. Rule change: One nomination per songwriting team, please.

Otherwise, The Golden Compass whomping Transformers for visual effects was a nice surprise--the better picture won, though the latter is (for now) the highwater mark of merging reel and real. I guess the voters just hate the "awesome" Michael Bay.

The foreign-born actors' quartet (the first since 1964; give us your poor huddled performers, yearning to breathe free) are an acceptable lot, though Amy Ryan easily outdoes Tilda Swinton in Gone Baby Gone (best performance in any category this year, drinking even Day-Lewis' milkshake if anyone recalls that past-due catchphrase) and Marion Cotillard does far more for the overrated La Vie en Rose than the picture does for her. Oscar notwithstanding, I'd love to reedit that picture coherently, allowing the performance to build step-by-step. In that regard Juno is a far superior vehicle for its star turn, my favorite in that category.

[I got rapped for saying it was "back to obscurity" for Cotillard after the obligatory Hollywood assignment or two. She's lovely and talented, etc., but it's hard to see her building much of an international career if she chooses to. Maybe "back to the arthouse," a nicer way of saying the same thing, might have been the more gentlemanly comment.]

One thing it was great to see: Three actors winning for original, ground-up work, not a bunch of biopic recreation jobs.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Lumet's Journey through theater

Blogging about Equus (how does an 18-year-old get buff like that? Why didn't/don't I have that physique? God's gifts are parceled so unequally. "Mediocrities--I absolve you all!"--Amadeus) reminded me that I have the 1977 film version of Peter Shaffer's play on my DVR. It's one of the blue-chip titles (three Oscar nominations) that is not part of Film Forum's ongoing retrospective of the 83-year-old director's work, which this Wednesday brings one of the supreme stage-to-screen adaptations, 1962's Long Day's Journey Into Night.

Already shown was his first film, 1957's Twelve Angry Men, another superior filming. The brig-setThe Hill and The Offence (the latter airing on the Encore Action channel tomorrow morning), part of his underrated collaboration with Sean Connery (they've made five films together, and those two play adaptations boosted Connery's status as a serious actor) were also part of the retrospective, and it's my hope that an enterprising play producer or two saw them from Film Forum's more comfortable new chairs--to the best of my knowledge never produced locally, they would make terrific premieres, with strong roles for the performers. The Offence, detailing a cop's relentless grilling of a suspected pedophile, is the kind of pressure cooker tailor-made for a small, no-escape Off Broadway house.

Due this Tuesday is a double bill of 1959's The Fugitive Kind, from Tennessee Williams' Orpheus Descending, and a rare screening of his 1961 take on Arthur Miller's A View from the Bridge, an Italy/France co-production with an odd transcontinental cast. Shown last week was an admirable try at The Sea Gull, from 1968, which I saw. It's not Lumet's fault that the print was distractedly ragged, nor that Chekhov's distinctive stage rhythms resist the camera. (He would never had made it in Hollywood.) A weakness for foreign-born stars in English-language material is: Anna Magnani is a good try opposite a snakesuit-jacketed Marlon Brando and Joanne Woodward in the Williams, but Simone Signoret's accent as the domineering Arkadina in The Sea Gull smothers many of her lines in a thick French sauce. Pauline Kael noted that when her character says "I'm on the qui vive," audience members mistook it for "I'm on the TV" and were rightly confused at the apparent 20th century-ism; the same thing happened at Film Forum, 40 years later.

But Vanessa Redgrave made a spectacular Nina, and her Morgan! co-star David Warner (as Kostya), James Mason (as Trigorin), Harry Andrews (Sorin), and Kathleen Widdoes (Masha) were right behind (Denholm Elliott, as Dr. Dorn, lost points for a curious white hairpiece that sat strangely on his head). Lumet, an actor himself (the first, Yiddish theater-inflected play he was in, 1940's Morning Star, was revived off off Broadway last summer), knows that casting is key, and his best films, on and off stage as it were, are perfectly judged in this regard. The bad decisions linger: There's a reason The Last of the Mobile Hot Shots (another stab at Williams), the forlorn and atypical spectacle of The Wiz, and the deadly version of Deathtrap aren't getting a spin on the marquee, though I'd like to see what he made of the stage thriller Child's Play.

Long Day's is very much what happens when everything goes right. The film devastated me when I saw it on TV many years ago, worked me over when I caught it again at college, and deeply affected me once more when my movie group screened it last year. Much acclaimed though it was, the 2003 stage revival (with a hammy Redgrave) played like one of Lumet's worthy but unsatisfying clinkers; only Robert Sean Leonard seemed to be on the proper O'Neill-ian wavelength. Not so the film, an unrelenting portrait of domestic hell indelibly peopled by Katharine Hepburn, Ralph Richardson (in a part Gabriel Byrne must play the next time the show is revived), Jason Robards, Jr., and Dean Stockwell (such a deep resume--what an autobiography he could write). It's a Journey that must be taken at least once, and Lumet at the top of his judgment (ideal casting, appropriate, and minimal, "opening out" of the material, conservative but highly effective camerawork) gave it a first-class passage to the cinema.

RIP Lydia Shum

This obit will be meaningless to all but my Asian readers (and you are out there), but the plus-sized Hong Kong comedienne known as "Fei-fei" ("Fatty") loomed large over my three years in Hong Kong, 20 years ago (!) now. Whenever I turned on the TV (she was a host of the ubiquitous variety show Enjoy Yourself Tonight) or looked up at a billboard there she was, appearing in or touting something, and "Fei-fei" was one of the first Cantonese phrases I learned. And her broad schtick was funny, even in subtitles, in films like The House of 72 Tenants and Millionaire's Express. (She was in Wayne Wang's Eat a Bowl of Tea in 1989.) As I recall she was one of the first celebrities to decamp to Vancouver pre-1997 handover, and was featured in an article in a short-lived but interesting publication called The Emigrant that my former employer put out. So long, Fei-fei, and best on your latest journey.

Another reason to hate Harry Potter

As if the Harry Potter movies--the whole Harry Potter thing, really--isn't boring and aggravating enough, word comes from The New York Times that movie wizard Daniel Radcliffe now owns $9.2 million worth of prime Manhattan real estate. He's 18 years old, and can't legally stock the 500-bottle wine cellar in his new digs. I'd feel less envious about this if I could say that he'll be humiliated onstage performing nude in the Equus revival on Broadway this fall--but London theatergoers report that he "measures up" to the horses mentioned in the show when the saddle (pictured, if you're looking to the right) comes off. Damn.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Dead issue

The most amusing idea in George A. Romero's Diary of the Dead comes early on, as student filmmakers attempt to liven up a hackneyed mummy scenario. What's funny is the notion of a pre-Night of the Living Dead movie world, one where Romero's zombies, who have cast long shadows over the genre for 40 years now, don't exist, and horror films basically stopped with Universal's pictures in the Thirties and Forties. When the flesh-eaters do turn up, the film, a reboot of Romero's quartet (or trilogy, if you, like the filmmaker, didn't get much out of 2005's I think underrated Land of the Dead), goes through the gut-munching motions, as the imperiled kids figure out pretty quick to shoot for the head. (The movie can't pause for us to relearn what we've known since 1968.) The difference is that it's conveyed in a video-diary format, an original idea when their respective filmmakers had it but itself a little fatigued since Redacted (which really pushes it) and the slicker Cloverfield.

Maybe it's just my own impatience with YouTube-ishly flattened images threaded together by voiceover and strategic editing tics and tricks, and 2D characters (inexpertly played) acting out behind and in front of the cameras as the Iraq/war on terror metaphors unfurl. [Future generations won't have much difficulty tagging these as made-in-2007 films.] But on first viewing Diary strikes me more as a footnote to the series than anything else. It's a little...dead. When, at the end, the movie wants to imprint upon us a particularly shocking image of homefront horror, I left impressed with the technical precision of the makeup effect. Diary of the Dead is too tightly controlled to entertain or edify us. It's a more sophisticated variant on the shaggier film crew-meets-zombies picture Children Shouldn't Play With Dead Things, a Romero rip job from 1972.

By this time, zombies should be as tiresome as hit men or serial killers, but Romero's cinematic children find inventive ways to replenish the stock. The Signal, written and directed by a trio of Atlantans (David Bruckner, Dan Bush, and Jacob Gentry) is one of the best examples I've seen. The first two or three minutes capture the Seventies grindhouse aesthetic better than any of the many films (particularly the lumpen Tarantino/Rodriguez picture) that have attempted to do so, and the basic feel of the movie doesn't stand down too much from that raw and bleeding low-budget look once we realize that we're watching a film within a film, the first of many head games it plays with us. The Signal (which Magnolia Pictures opens today) is at heart a love story--but a valentine to Romero, Cronenberg, Stephen King, and other masters of horror besides.

The gruesome opening footage is what's on the TV as illicit lovers Ben (Justin Welborn) and Mya (Anessa Ramsey) unwind. The transmission is interrupted by a strange burst of static, which afflicts cell phones and other devices. Mya's journey back home is interrupted by a violent altercation, which further frazzles her as she plans to ditch her exterminator husband, Lewis (A.J. Bowen). Lewis, a creepy obsessive, grills her about her whereabouts when she returns to their apartment, then focuses his growing rage on his houseguests. In this he is not alone--the malignant signal is causing an escalating chain of homicidal horrors, which Mya barely escapes in one of several bravura stalk-and-slash sequences.

Scripted as a triangle, with half-hour-or-so increments focused on each of the three main characters, the film then concentrates on the wounded and disgruntled Lewis, who makes a serious mess of things as a housewife soldiers on with a New Year's Eve party despite her inconvenient slaying of her maddened husband. The broader horror comedy in this vignette suggests that in the worst of times (and it gets pretty damned bad here, as Lewis administers the tools of his trade on the partygoers to track Mya) people will go to great lengths to establish a "new normal" as Code Red blares.

Ben's quest to find Mya is the focus of the final movement, by which time the signal has scrambled reality and the life-and-death scenarios are as psychological as they are physical. From the get-go, something has been off; the film takes place in a nowhere city, Terminus, whose TVs seem up-to-the-minute but whose cell phones and other clunky technology (like Mya's portable CD player) are out of date in our i-times. Similarly, Mya and Lewis' apartment house is off-kilter, as much a dorm (and a prison) as a residence. This displacement adds another anxious level to the film as it reaches its own satisfying terminus, as the buckets of blood subside for a war of wills as Ben attempts to make good on his promise to get Mya out of the confines of the city. (Are the town fathers perhaps exercising social control with the signal?)

The Signal sure got my attention. It wears its allusions lightly: I got that the movie is a riff on Romero's unsung film The Crazies (its cinematography looks like that film did on TV before it got gussied up for DVD) with elements of Cronenberg's Videodrome, King's book The Cell, and other influences, plus a Pulp Fiction structure, but it doesn't dwell on its sources. It's very much its own blood-soaked thing, anchored to three well-calibrated performances (even the demented Lewis gets a sympathetic hearing) as the body count soars. The set-up is so outrageous the movie can never really become gratuitously violent (though you have been warned)--unleashed as it is, however, the human factor is its center. Romero is having an off movie, but The Signal is very much on his wavelength, and I'm sure he's pleased that his "kids" are alright.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Fake goods

The Austrian nominee for Best Foreign-Language Film this year doesn't bode well for this oft-challenged category, which has taken it on the chin for failing to recognize the more obviously plaudit-worthy 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days and other titles that slipped under the nominator radar. The fact-based account The Counterfeiters, which Sony Pictures Classics opens this Friday, has an intriguing mix of elements--flim-flammery, Nazis, the Holocaust--that fail to click. It may be that writer-director Stefan Ruzowitky has done his job too conscientiously.

Cast as Salomon Sorowitsch, a Russian Jew whose great skill as a counterfeiter was exploited by the Third Reich as he and a group of fellow reprobates languished in the Sachsenhausen concentration camp, is Karl Markovics. Well before his character's imprisonment, the actor (pictured) looks so much the part of an untrustworthy rat it's difficult to build much sympathy or interest in him once he's in the klink, turning out false dollars and pounds for Hitler. A George Clooney type would have gone too far in the other direction, but surely a more charismatic James Woods-ian actor might have played the part (perhaps such a model is lacking in Austria).

With no one in particular to root for, the movie has to rely on its central caper to generate a little heat. "Sally" and his gang, who fear that their criminal expertise might cripple the Allied currency markets and tilt the war in Germany's favor, continually bluff and stall their jailers. And so the temperature rises, but the flame only flickers at low. We're far away from the era of POW adventures like The Great Escape, but the film is paralyzed by the corrective example of Schindler's List. Ruzowitzky, thankfully, isn't Roberto Benigni, mucking around for cheap sentiment in the ashes a la Life is Beautiful--nor is he quite the same Ruzowitky who has the odd World War II espionage flick All the Queen's Men (2001), with Matt LeBlanc and Eddie Izzard donning drag to filch secrets, on his resume. Sobriety suits the story being told. But the pace is too slow (and the cinematography too grainy) for much interest to build, and I felt like I was handcuffed during 98 minutes that should have gone down as precisely as a well-executed pickpocketing operation.

It may be that the familiar elements that make up The Counterfeiters, a perfectly ordinary kind of art-house failure, were reassuring to the selection committee, who may have been looking for something comparable to last year's The Lives of Others. On its own limited terms, it's watchable if unedifying. As an Academy Award nominee, it's a phony.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Chan's (still) the man

The windows guys are here finishing their replacement work and I'm upstairs with the cats, taking refuge. And who better to spend our retreat from all the banging and hammering with on this holiday Monday than Jackie Chan, star of two of my Netflix rentals?

I've been a Chan fan since Hong Kong, where the release of his new films (timed around the holidays) was always an event. I recall seeing Mr. Canton and Lady Rose (AKA Miracles) and the odd-duck all-star Island of Fire, two of his lesser films, in cinemas, but I got his appeal instantly (Fire is a strange film in that he trades his fists for firepower, something he did more successfully in the dead-serious Crime Story in 1993). I rented the tapes and laserdiscs of earlier pictures like Dragons Forever, Police Story, and Project A: Part II, and reveled in the genius of his hard-driving, kung fu-meets-Buster Keaton physical comedy.

Back home I wondered if he'd ever hit it big here. I thought the dreadful Rumble in the Bronx, which I saw at a Chinese-language theater in LA, would bury his chance at Stateside stardom, but I was wrong: audiences found a new Everyman to embrace when he film was released in early 1996, and Chan was off and running, as films new and old got successful U.S. releases, usually in cut, poorly dubbed versions. With the East-meets-West Rush Hour (1998), Chan had his first Hollywood hit.

The three Rush Hour pictures, the last of which I watched this morning, pretty much define light entertainment. The director, Brett Ratner, is a hack and a media whore (and I say that in a sharing, loving way), but he's bottled the essence of Chan better than any other U.S. director has, and the movies are breezy, inconsequential fun. They're package deals for undemanding summer movie audiences but Chan and Chris Tucker work so smoothly together you don't feel the calculation, or that your pocket's been picked afterwards. (Chan and Owen Wilson got a similar groove going in the two Shanghai Western comedies) They deliver what's expected, with no fuss or pretension. The third film, which sends the cop characters to Paris on some flimsy excuse or another, wasn't the smash the other two were, maybe because it hasn't been written so much as transcribed: The same jokes and stunts are repeated, with minor variations. And damned if I didn't laugh again, and thrill at the climax, a set of neatly orchestrated trampoline and paragliding stunts at and around the Eiffel Tower. These guys play me like a fiddle, and know precisely where my resistance point is and how to skirt it. That my house was falling apart around me during its 90-minute running time (actually, 81, with nine minutes of funny end credits outtakes) seemed hardly to matter, and Max Von Sydow, Roman Polanski, and Yvan Attal are along for the ride.

The Rush Hour films, the boxoffice highpoints of Chan's U.S. adventure, are mitigated by sloppy, far less successful efforts like The Medallion, and his star has waned here. With age (almost 54 now) he's also taken a hit at home, with stuntmen and CGI standing by to assist gags he nearly killed himself doing when younger. (Note to Jackie: The lightened hairstyle isn't doing much to stem the passing of the years.) His latest, lesser HK movies have bypassed theaters here, for good reason. But The Weinstein Company, which has been undoing sins of the past by putting out unedited, original-language versions of Chan oldies on DVD via its Dragon Dynasty label, has released his newest local picture, Robin-B-Hood. Rather, it's escaped; the DVD has received next-to-nothing press, befitting a minor title. Essentially it's Three Thieves and a Baby, with Chan, heartthrob Louis Koo, and veteran comic Michael Hui (from one of my favorite HK films, the Used Cars-ish Chicken and Duck Talk) as ne'er-do-wells mixed up with a kidnapped infant and some bad guys. The anorexic premise (poop gags, etc.) is obliged to sustain a film that runs more than two hours (the scissors might have come out for this one), with the inspired bits few and far between. The hospital atrium-set opening is a nice setpiece, as the story takes baby steps toward a rollercoaster showdown at the Ocean Park amusement park and a grand finale in a cold storage unit, where in a typically perverse HK touch the little boy has been stashed in subzero temperatures. He warms up, but the movie never does.

Things may be going more Chan's way this year. (And ours, now that the windows ordeal has ended.) April's The Forbidden Kingdom teams him, for the first time, with Jet Li. He lends his voice, and I assume some of his moves, to the DreamWorks cartoon Kung Fu Panda, with Jack Black and Dustin Hoffman (who reminds me of Chan in some way). His career may have some kick left.

Broadway on the box

Two outstanding revivals are coming around again, and the price of admission is free. This Wednesday, PBS' Great Performances is showcasing last season's superb production of Stephen Sondheim's Company, which won Tony and Drama Desk awards for Outstanding Revival. Cast in the difficult role of Bobby, whose singlehood is the envy of his married friends, is Raul Esparza, in a terrific performance climaxed by a soaring rendition of the Sondheim standard "Being Alive." (The Drama Desk got it right, awarding him Best Actor in a musical; he had to settle for a Tony nomination.) The device (pictured) of having the actors play their own instruments onstage, which director John Doyle repeated from the prior season's Sweeney Todd, works better in this modernist Manhattan context. (The time is the early Seventies; the emotions, and music, timeless.) I have some of the score on my iPod, and I was so transported by the silky "Barcelona" when it came up on shuffle I very nearly missed my subway stop. Check local listings and don't miss a minute of this great performance; there's no telling when PBS will repeat it.

(Speaking of Sondheim, I caught the Roundabout revival of Sunday in the Park with George at Studio 54 over the weekend. I had never seen the show, in its first Broadway revival since its original 1984 staging, and it confirmed what I always thought: I prefer the composer's work with other writers than with James Lapine. I enjoy the music from Sunday and Into the Woods but the shows themselves are chilly and overthought; with its artistic angst, precious stylization, and emphasis on doubling, it's practically Stoppardian. Conceptually, however, the revival, a British import from a company that will next tackle a personal Sondheim favorite, A Little Night Music, is dynamite; the animated projections are fantastically effective, and bring the show, with its 19th and 20th century overlap, right into the 21st. Leading lady Jenna Russell shines, too. Sondheim's openness to collaboration is commendable: Doyle, Sam Buntrock (the 32-year-old director of Sunday), and Tim Burton have all spotlit his work in new and compelling ways.)

I wasn't much looking forward to the 2004 revival of Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun. The never-revived show, dating to 1959, seemed like it had been in the civil rights-era sun too long. And its star, Sean Combs (then in his "P. Diddy" phase) was ill-equipped to follow in the shoes of Sidney Poitier, who played the role of Chicago Southside striver Walter Lee Younger on Broadway and in the faithful 1961 film version. On that score, I was right; Poitier was not equaled, much less eclipsed. Combs' hesitancy, however, made female leads Phylicia Rashad, Audra McDonald, and Sanaa Lathan all the more incandescent, and the production emerged as the unexpected highlight of its season. (Rashad and McDonald both won Tonys.) Director Kenny Leon has reassembled the cast for a TV version that will air next Monday, Feb. 25, on ABC at 8pm EST, and I expect Combs to be more in his element given greater experience in the part. Whatever, the women will be undiminished. It's part of Black History Month, but this moving piece of history will go over well with any audience.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

RIP Kon Ichikawa

The last of the "Golden Age" Japanese filmmakers (the generation that included Akira Kurosawa) has passed away at age 92. The longer he worked-his last film came out in 2006--the more critics wished he wouldn't, finding him old hat and past his time. Well, I'd like to know what they'll be up to at age 90, and doubt they'll leave behind works as fine as The Burmese Harp and Tokyo Olympiad. Not to mention the great Fires on the Plain, based on one of the best books I read in college, and an adaptation (from 1959) that eluded me till only recently. Criterion has it on DVD and I urge you to check it out; its depiction of wartime survival is once seen, never forgotten.

"Perhaps Ichikawa proves how many differences of understanding separate us from Japanese cinema," wrote David Thomson. His death certainly reminds us of what a great movement in world cinema he and his peers represented.

Advice for the ladies

With the advantageous placement of Valentine's Day as a lead-in to Presidents' Day weekend, this week's film releases opened today and not as usual on Friday. Girlfriends, all I can say is, if the man in your life suggests a viewing of Jumper or The Spiderwick Chronicles or even the Ryan Reynolds chick flick instead of a romantic evening at home or on the town, then he should not be the man in your life. He has put a white-haired, futuristic golf-club wielding Samuel L. Jackson ahead of your needs and simply cannot be trusted with any kind of partnership. Wash that man right out of your hair and don't give his sorry Jackson-lovin' ass a second thought. How many relationships are destined to die tonight because Hollywood couldn't wait a day to peddle its wares?

Plays: From November to Normal

Political chicanery with Nathan Lane and Dylan Baker, rampant misogyny, mental illness, brute force--why, it must be time for another roundup of the current New York theater scene, from the Live Design website.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

"We're gonna need a bigger boat"

RIP Roy Scheider, a classic movie Everyman, dead at age 75. He was in his forties when Jaws, one of my very favorites, hoisted him into the top ranks, up from distinctive workaday parts in The French Connection (his first Oscar nomination, in 1971) and its followup, 1973's The Seven- Ups. Ideally cast, he gives the Spielberg classic its gritty Northeastern heart and soul. 1979's All That Jazz was a stretch, but its director saw something in him that other filmmakers had not, and he excelled as the faux Fosse in the choreographer's meta-biopic, earning his second Oscar nomination by inexhaustible hard work.

A fist fight on the set of Jaws 2 (1978) with its original director hung a certain reputation on him, and his leading man salad days, largely in fun hardware movies like 1983's Blue Thunder and the following year's 2010, were over in a decade. 1986's effectively seedy 52 Pickup, with a similarly declining John Frankenheimer at the helm, was a last hurrah as the pictures got smaller, and eventually went straight to video as he himself took on more TV work and the occasional stage part. So, too, did the parts slim down, though he was a welcome add-on to worthier credits like The Russia House (1990) and the supporting actor heaven that was Francis Coppola's The Rainmaker in 1997. Whatever the circumstance, whether sharks, helicopters, or Ann Reinking were his co-stars, you always believed in Roy Scheider, which was the key to his career.

Writing this makes me ponder the mortality of the other screen stars who came of age in the Sixties and Seventies, all of whom are a huge part of the fabric of my moviegoing life. Has it really been four years since Scheider's French Connection co-star Gene Hackman, so ubiquitous for so long, has made a film (and the Ray Romano vehicle Welcome to Mooseport, at that?). It's worrisome when you start missing folks who are still around, and all the best to that greatest generation as one of its members departs.

"Dear customer"...

"We've noticed that customers who have purchased or rated Ghidorah: The Three-Headed Monster have also purchased ABC News Primetime Wilderness Camp on DVD. For this reason, you might like to know that ABC News Primetime Wilderness Camp is now available."

Thanks, but, umm, no...still, go on, try to sell me on this unusual double feature...

"For troubled teens, an innovative program that forces them to an arduous three-week trek through the Kalmiopsis wilderness of southwestern Oregon, could be their last chance to turn their lives around. ABC News follows a group of teens as they embark on a 21-day physical and emotional journey into the wilderness, a grueling encounter with nature and themselves. When parents have nowhere else to turn, can something like this work?"

Well, if it doesn't, they can always sic Mecha-King Ghidorah (v. 1991) on them...

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Gun crazy

This week's movie about hit men, In Bruges...yeah, I understand, you've flipped over to the next blog, the one with guacamole recipes. Believe me, I kind of wish I weren't writing this either, but Focus Features is opening it this Friday and it's on my watch so let's have done with it as quickly as possible.

This week's movie about hit men, In Bruges...God in heaven, is there a more worn-out subgenre than hit men packing hearts of gold beneath their Glocks? OK, maybe anything involving serial killers, or Kate Hudson pitching woo at an aging stud. It's even beyond the point of combining the three, with hit lady Kate Hudson slashing her way to true love. There is simply no pulp left in this fiction. The guys who crank out Epic Movie and Chick Flick or whatever those parody things are called are long overdue to give hit man movies a sharp poke in the ribs and eyes.

This week's movie about hit men, In Bruges...the difference here, though it amounts to little in the end, is that it's the first feature written and directed by Martin McDonagh. McDonagh won an Oscar for a short film, Six Shooter, but is best known as the down-and-dirty playwright of the sick-soul-of-Eire hits The Beauty Queen of Leenane and The Lieutenant of Inishmore . In Bruges is something of an expansion on the earlier short, with co-star Brendan Gleeson playing another middle-aged widower who spends some time aboard a train and intimations of the Grim Reaper hanging in the air. He is Ken, who, along with his protege Ray (Colin Farrell), is sent to the medieval Belgian city to cool his heels after a hit gone bad in London.

Their employer, Harry (Ralph Fiennes) has sent them to the "fookin' fairytale-land" setting to give Ray, who is understandably a little downhearted after the blown assignment, a taste of finer things--but Ray, bored with churches and history, is more drawn to a movie set. "They're filming midgets!" he exclaims, as he proceeds to get involved with said "short arse" American film star Jimmy (Jordan Prentice) and a young woman (Clemence Poesy) also adrift in the city. But not all is what it appears to be, as real and reel intersect n scenes reminiscent of Fellini's "Toby Dammit" segment in the omnibus Spirits of the Dead, and the combustible Harry drops his mildly paternal facade, setting out for Bruges himself to fix a situation complicated by Ken's equally fatherly concern for Ray.

If Ken had been more concerned for Ray, he would not have let him take on such a big job (a mishap involving a priest and a little boy, only the latter whom the non-clerical McDonagh impishly sheds any tears for) by himself, but as I have written before, TWBNMT (There Would Be No Movie Then). There is not all that much of a movie in any event. McDonagh's most fantastic play, The Pillowman, was still rooted in a kind of naturalism, and he has no particular panache for the surreal juxtapositions the film makes. (It took Fellini some time to get there, and when he did it was I think to the detriment of a great career--but "Toby Dammit" is exceptional.) "Shock" dialogue exchanges during a coked-up blowout Ray gets into with Jimmy, involving a race war between blacks and whites, come from nowhere and go right back, and grate rather than illuminate. (It's as if McDonagh, knowing that dwarves aren't as unsettling as they used to be, had to make Jimmy a surprise racist to renew mileage on the cliche.) The humor isn't as sharp or as quick-witted as in his plays, which are joyously, raucously funny.

Crucially, neither McDonagh nor his cinematographer, Eigil Bryld, get enough of a fix on the city, best-remembered on film from 1959's The Nun's Story--if you're going to call your movie In Bruges, you need to lock it down in the viewer's mind with some specific location or recurring motif, like the Vienna of The Third Man or the Venice of Don't Look Now, two other films it recalls. Bruges (which the presskit is obliged to give a pronunciation for; best at the multiplex, or calling for tickets on Moviefone, when you're on your own and stumped) never emerges as a character in its own right. Ray calls it "hell," but it never registers beyond an imposing loveliness that all the bloodletting (restrained by McDonagh's theater standard) fails to obscure.

The acting has its compensations. Gleeson is sweet as Ken, or as sweet as a hit man can be, and he has a nice relationship with Marie (Thekla Reuten), a pregnant hotel owner who is thankfully spared the indignities of the recent Shoot 'Em Up. Fiennes tries too hard--the specific kind of profane villainy that comes easier to a Michael Caine takes more effort for him to achieve, though he has his ribald moments as he assumes centerstage. Best is Farrell; one-dimensional as a lead in a string of unfortunate films, the actor is showing greater flair in character parts, here and in the lame Cassandra's Dream. With scripts to equal his particular, unsung gifts (he needs to knock off the brooding; with his Irish charm and looks, and the flair for comedy shown here, I think he would be a dynamite romantic lead, though not with Kate Hudson) his future could erase an uncertain past.

So, then, In Bruges, a new hit man movie. Neither the best nor the worst of its ilk, it will have to do till the next one comes out, probably in a week or two.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Looks at books

My friend John Calhoun, over at the Donnell Media Center in New York, has programmed his first series for its "Meet the Scholars" program. The three lectures (illustrated with film clips) get underway this Thursday, Feb. 7, with Cineaste contributor Thomas Doherty discussing his well-received Hollywood's Censor: Joseph L. Breen & the Production Code Administration, about the enforcer behind the puritanical Production Code (1934-1954), the one that kept married couples in twin beds for 20 years. On March 6, James Sanders will be presenting an adapted version of his excellent lecture derived from his Scenes from the City: Filmmaking in New York, which I enjoyed at Limcoln Center in 2006. And on March 20, Jack Sullivan will strike up the band for his superb Hitchcock's Music, his study of the memorable scores behind the director's film classics.

The Donnell (20 W. 53rd St.) is across from MOMA. The programs begin at 6pm, in the 2nd floor Story Hour Room. Admission is free.

Friday, February 01, 2008

DVD: Noteworthy in 2007

In trying to sort out a Top Ten list of DVDs, it occured to me that I don't really favor one over the other, and that, due to self-selection, I rarely buy or rent bad ones. It's not that they're all great, but they're never less than very good, in terms of quality, supplements, etc. So I offer an alphabetized list of noteworthy titles that can keep you busy through the year to come.

Ace in the Hole (Criterion)

Blade Runner: Four-Disc Collector's Edition (WB)

Close Encounters of the Third Kind (30th Anniversary Edition)

Cruising: Deluxe Edition (WB)

Cult Camp Classics: Science Fiction (WB)

Days of Heaven (Criterion)

The Film Noir Classic Collection Vol. 4 (WB)

Fires on the Plain (Criterion)

Flash Gordon (Special Edition) (Universal)

The Heiress (pictured, Universal)

The Jazz Singer: Special Edition (WB)

Killer of Sheep: The Charles Burnett Collection (Milestone)

Mala Noche (Criterion)

Malpertuis (Barrel Entertainment)

The Naked City (Criterion)

Raise the Red Lantern (MGM)

The Robert Mitchum Collection (WB)

Sam Fuller: First Films (Criterion/Eclipse)

Stanley Kubrick--Warner Directors Series (WB)

The Sergio Leone Anthology (MGM)

Twin Peaks--The Definitive Gold Box Edition (Paramount)

Witchfinder General (MGM)

Plays: Best and Worst of 2007

Before the calendar turns to 2009 on me, last year (as opposed to last, 2006-2007, season, or the current 07-08) in theater, considered in list format (Top Ten-ish, and worthy remainders). Winners and sinners below; those on the plus side that are still running (*) are worth seeing on your next New York trip, those on the minus side worth fleeing if they turn up anywhere near your vicinity.


10) Follies and Gypsy (Encores!): High-water marks for the revival series, the latter headed to Broadway.

9) King Lear (BAM): Ian McKellen, naked inside and out.

8) 110 in the Shade (Broadway/Roundabout, Studio 54): An overlooked musical, an unmissable performer in Audra McDonald.

7) Blackbird (MTC): Agonizing drama played to the hilt by Jeff Daniels and Alison Pill.

6) Crime and Punishment (59E59): In 90 minutes, three actors pierce the dark heart of Dostoyevsky, in (another) welcome Chicago import.

5) *Rock 'n' Roll (Broadway/Bernard B. Jacobs): Tom Stoppard at peak performance. I wish there were two more parts, like the (inferior, overrated) Coast of Utopia.

4) Jerry Springer--The Opera (Bailiwick Rep, Chicago): Not the unevenly reviewed concert version just staged at Carnegie Hall but the superb full production it received, which we were fortunate to catch last May.

3) Translations (Broadway/MTC, Biltmore): A heart-breaking revival of a truly beautiful play.

2) Journey's End (Broadway/Belasco): The best of the year's British imports, and a tremendously moving experience.

1) *August: Osage County (Broadway/Steppenwolf, Imperial): In charge now, the fiercest and funniest show in ages (pictured).

ELEVENS (in alphabetical order):

The Beebo Brinker Chronicles (4th St. Theater, transferring to 37 Arts); Bingo with the Indians (Flea); The Coast of Utopia: Voyage (Broadway/Lincoln Center); Edward Scissorhands (BAM); Frost/Nixon (Broadway/Bernard B. Jacobs); Jack Goes Boating (Public); Peter and Jerry (Second Stage); The Piano Teacher (Vineyard); The Return of the Prodigal (Mint); The Voysey Inheritance (Atlantic); Xanadu (Broadway/Helen Hayes).


10) American Sligo (Rattlestick): Bad Rapp.

9) The Wooster Group's Hamlet (Public): Not to be.

8) Frankenstein (37 Arts). Not undead, merely dead.

7) Walmartopia (Minetta Lane): All aisles closed.

6) *The Farnsworth Invention (Broadway/Music Box): Huffing and puffing, theater for those who prefer TV.

5) *Grease (Broadway/Brooks Atkinson): The one no one wants.

4) Our Leading Lady (MTC): Busch-whacked.

3) Election Day (Second Stage Uptown): No votes for this painful, barely political farce.

2) The Power of Darkness (Mint): An excruciating production unearthed from Tolstoy. The books are better.

1) LoveMusik (Broadway/MTC, Biltmore): Smarmy feel-goodish musical about near-unbearable genuises, made cuddly and likable for a Broadway audience. That sound you hear is Brecht, Weill, and Lenya rolling in their graves with mocking laughter.

Plays: Happy Days is here again...

...but only until tomorrow, at BAM, while Little Sheba has come back for a longer visit, along with a comic take on The 39 Steps. From the Live Design website.