Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Fun while it lasted

My hours-long reign as a Top Critic, or "TC," as I call former fellow members of my former inner circle, has come to an end. I got a friendly letter from a fellow at Rotten Tomatoes (which has some sort of stake in Popdose) explaining that the long-ago Newsweek affiliation (again, not my fault) automatically kicked me into TC-dom. Looks like I'm have to earn the designation the hard way.

But, ah, the good times, the merry memories. I got to recommend four films as a TC-er and chill with my hard-drinking, hard-loving peers at the exclusive TC Lounge, whose location I cannot reveal. And I am no longer part of the Rotten Tomatoes universe under false pretenses. Like a character from the Late Late Show, I stand in the gutter, but reach for the stars. My star.

Early start on May movies

Set your DVR (or, I guess, your VCR, if anyone still has one of those) to the Fox Movie Channel and get ready to record an eclectic assemblage of good movies tomorrow, May 1. First up, at 2pm EST, John Huston's nowhere-on-video The Kremlin Letter, a bizarre Cold War gamesmanship piece more deadpan (or is it stone-faced serious?) than his Beat the Devil, with a corrosive plot and a batch of stars, including George Sanders in full drag as a San Francisco chanteuse and spy master named Warlock (the "good" guys, led by Patrick O'Neal, all prostitute themselves for Uncle Sam). At 6pm tune in for Alan Arkin's quite brilliant film of Jules Feiffer's Little Murders (1971), a New York black comedy with real sharp teeth and excellent performances. Then, as reminders of how good summer films used to be, The Abyss at 8pm and the original Alien at 11pm. All in nice letterboxed prints, and Top Critic-approved.

"Top Critic"

Jeff, my editor at Popdose, says that the Rotten Tomatoes website, which aggregates reviews, has named me a Top Critic for my critique of the new documentary Standard Operating Procedure. I'm cool with that, if a little hazy on the specifics. Is there a cash prize? Do I get to hang out in a special "TC" lounge with the likes of Richard Schickel and Claudia Puig (first round's on me, guys!).

The big question: Once a TC, always a TC, or do I have to keep, like, proving myself? If that's the case I reckoned to retire early and just rest on this laurel.I asked Jeff, who said it's a forever kind of deal. That boosted my ego. Well, not so fast: It helps, he says, that I wrote for seven or eight years ago (still ID'ed as a gig, something that was decided for me by the site and that I can't change), and that my last name begins with "C," for easier front-page placement under each entry for every film I review. That ever-so-slightly let the air out of my newly self-inflated status (editors, gotta love how they have your back). In any event, it's better than "Flop Critic," and with the little gold star appended to all my reviews now I can smite the lackeys at Time Out New York and Premiere, who are as yet without luster. Yoo hoo, Richard, Claudia--drinks at 6!

Monday, April 28, 2008

Look what I (co-) did

Nominations for the 2007-2008 season Drama Desk Awards were announced today. You can find them on the spruced-up Drama Desk website. I was there at the Friars Club (great space) for the big announcement, which was webcast live by TheaterMania. If you go about two-thirds in, you can hear chairperson Barbara Siegel repeat (with my blessing) a few heartfelt remarks about the whole experience, and a bit about my upcoming journey, which will take me from aisle seats to changing tables.

One reason I undertook the arduous work of a Drama Desk nominator is that I sensed that the window of opportunity to do so in the foreseeable future might shut. Happily, I was right...and I managed to give back to the community, and organization, that has meant so much to me these past years. I'm particularly pleased to have been part of the committee that inaugurated the Outstanding Projection and Video Category; this was the moment, and we seized it.

Pictured are nominees Leslie Kritzer and Faith Prince in A Catered Affair, which took home 12 nominations. The Drama Desk's own catered affair, to hand out the awards, is on Sunday, May 18.

Best of luck... Matt Zoller Seitz, who opened The House Next Door online a couple of years back, and is turning over the keys to a colleague as he embarks on a new career as a filmmaker. Seitz, who has been freelancing (not enough) for the Times, lives right down State Street from me here in Brooklyn, and I wish him well in this career change.

Something he said in his farewell address jumped out: "When I look back on those hundreds and hundreds of hours that I spent watching movies—many of which were not that memorable, and many of which did not tell a whole lot that I didn’t know—when I realized that they were hours that are gone now and I’m not getting them back… It makes me mad. It makes me mad, honestly, that I’m not gonna get those hours back. You know those are hours I could have been spending with my family. With my loved ones."

There are some who will say to that, stop whining. Suck it up. Grow a pair. Like this scribe. To which I say, to each his own, and people who have either failed in other endeavors, professional or domestic, or are too apprehensive to think outside the box of cultural commentary should respect someone who is stretching beyond its boundaries. As it happens, with our own "co-production" due in late August, I am rethinking my priorities, and they are definitely tipped to the home-and-hearth side of the equation. Not that I plan to give up on film and theater writing (I'm sure Seitz won't, either) but the time spent on both (and, more crucially, the time spent out-of-house seeing movies and shows) will decrease. This all ties into my next entry, which was an attempt (successful, I think) to give back to a community that has meant so much to me as I consider my own transition.

Where the movies are concerned, let's face it; on a weekly basis, there's not much to engage a sentient 42-year-old. To write about, sure--but to actively stimulate and challenge synapses tiring of the same old thing endlessly redressed, very little. Plus, unlike live theater, movies recur, on DVD, PPV, cable, etc. As the "theatrical experience" is degraded every year--high prices, bad screens, worse audiences--I don't think I'll be missing much. Like Seitz, I can't believe I'm writing this, nor will the folks who've known me the longest, but: Things change. And it's best to embrace change, not shrink from it.

Is this a sneak preview of an end to this experiment in blogging come summer? No. But you may find more DVD reviews for a time. Top 10 lists in May when all the year-end features are on home video. More of...well, I'm not entirely sure, but that is the fun, and the challenge, of new experiences. And, given time, in-depth analysis of Alvin and the Chipmunks 2 and The Return of Wicked as our little girl takes her dad to the theater and to the movies.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Popdose: A two-in-one review

I thought I'd rather be stuck in Abu Ghraib than have to watch a Helen Hunt-directed picture, but maybe I was wrong. This week: Then She Found Me (pictured, Colin Firth and Hunt) and Standard Operating Procedure.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Never, again

Has it really been a quarter century since Sean Connery made his last appearance at James Bond? Has it really been that long since I saw it with friends at a Chicago theater, the first movie I went to see as a college student? (And why do I remember these things when so much else has receded?) In any case, a new and more apt theme song, recorded by Phyllis Hyman, has surfaced. It's no Goldfinger or Diamonds are Forever, and doesn't win a lot of points for original lyrics, but it's far more workable than the wan number used in the film. Have a listen, and enjoy the early 80s poster.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Silence is golden

I'm pretty much in theater awards season lockdown mode over the next week, so not much time to post, or watch my newly arrived Criterion Collection DVD of the unusual noir indie Blast of Silence (1961), which I saw at Film Forum a couple of years ago. Though a lesser film it looks to have received the same deluxe treatment granted The Naked City, and an accompanying documentary where 80-year-old filmmaker Allen Baron revisits the still-standing locations (including buildings on St. Marks Place) looks swell. (I like the graphic novel version Criterion has enclosed, too). It's an interesting picture, one of the more psychologically credible hit man movies, and the climax, shot amidst Hurricane Donna in 1960, is super-atmospheric. Gotta love this poster, too. And Dave Kehr's mob is chatting about it.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Breaking news

I noticed this far-fetched item online last night, and applying simple common sense squelched it in the Comments section. It's since been extinguished at the source--and I believe the author heard it from me first. It would have been nice if the duped had given credit where credit is due, mentioning me by handle (btwnproductions) if not by name--but that's showbiz, kids. (C'mon, though, the Mike Nichols shooting a teen horror picture while readying The Country Girl for Broadway? Even he's not that relaxed.)

Friday, April 11, 2008

Popdose: Summer movies

"Ten Summer Movies You Should See Before You Die," I'm calling it, with appropriate fanfare. Sober, reasonably adult selections, I can only guess, as the funhouse reopens in May and a wizened Indiana Jones cracks his whip one more time (and not a moment too soon, as the multiplexes are really gasping for air now). Enjoy.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

A compelling stage Conversation

Opening tonight, Off Off Broadway at 29th Street Rep, is a solid theatrical adaptation of Francis Ford Coppola's The Conversation (1974), a three-time Oscar nominee and one of his best films, with an outstanding performance from Gene Hackman. It was unlikely for the stage, and unlikelier still for a 74-seat house, but leave it to clever, industrious Chicagoans to figure out a credible way to make it work. As wiretapper Harry Caul, star David Mogentale (pictured) could not be more different than Hackman; his accountant-type look and performance are, however, entirely fitting, the supporting actors fine (in at least one instance, better than the film), and Joseph Fosco's sound design (and original, David Shire-esque music) ingenious. (The way the actors "enact" the tape, with dropouts, etc., is well-handled.) As the story would be difficult to update--in our digital age it's only gotten easier to bug someone, and no one, least of all our government, seems to care about privacy anymore--it's still Seventies-set, but with reverberations that continue to cast a chill. And it's only $20, now through May 4 at the theater.

Plays: Tales of woe

Angst, straight up, comic, and musical, is the subject of my Live Design column this time. Plus, at New York Theater News, envy angst at The Four of Us. Pictured are Ellen Burstyn and Michael Shannon in a typically intense moment from The Little Flower of East Orange, at the Public.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Happy (belated) birthday

Released seventy-five years ago yesterday, and still going strong in the cinematic consciousness. I wish my Cineaste article from the Spring 2006 issue, taking in all the Kongs but of course giving pride-of-place to the first, was online to celebrate. The original, one-and-only King Kong affected my moviegoing life in so many ways, and remains a timeless, peerless achievement. Meeting Fay Way at Film Forum was a special thrill, and I always like taking friends to the top of the Empire State Building, which sells little commemorative dolls to honor the film that affixed the landmark in the cultural firmament. (It is the great monster movie and the great New York movie, all in one.) And Thanksgiving has never been the same since Channel 9 stopped running its Kong marathons, which I always looked forward to. It's good to be the King.

Sunday, April 06, 2008

RIP Charlton Heston

The last time I saw Charlton Heston in a film was Michael Moore's Bowling for Columbine, defending gun rights. He was clearly debilitated, and whatever your position on the subject it was not a fitting epitaph. But it would have been out of character for him not to debate an issue so close to him, and his appearance takes the wind out of Moore's sails. Like the historical figures he so often played, each stamped with his authority, Heston knew that showing up was half the battle. (And he continued to show up on screen, making a final film appearance as Nazi experimenter Dr. Josef Mengele in an obscure 2003 credit, My Father. That Heston and his liberal counterpart, Gregory Peck, both played the "Angel of Death" is fascinating. The two actors squared off in 1958's The Big Country, and debated each other onstage.)

Heston's granite good looks and set-in-stone principles made him ideal for Biblical epics and biopics. (What could he have learned at Northwestern, my alma mater, that he was not seemingly born to?) The Ten Commandments and his Oscar winner, Ben-Hur, are unthinkable without him. And he makes it difficult to think of Michelangelo (The Agony and the Ecstasy), say, or explorer William Clark (The Far Horizons) in any other way--surely, they had to be Charlton Heston. In 1966's Khartoum, he adopts a light British accent to play General Charles "Chinese" Gordon, safeguarding the Sudan against the forces of the Mahdi in the Gladstone era. He is probably as much like Gordon as Laurence Olivier, in Othello blackface, was like the Mahdi. No matter--the clash of acting styles is completely absorbing, and it drives the central conflict home. The picture is one of my favorite historical epics, and unsung.

Having buttressed a kind of Hollywood filmmaking in the Fifties and Sixties, Heston basically saved the Seventies for the unsure-of-itself town, with a string of disaster pictures that delighted me as kid. Lumet, Scorsese, etc., are all well and good, and emulated and hommaged by generation-after filmmakers, but Hollywood is a business town, and Heston, a company man, delivered big time: The Omega Man (Will Smith indeed!), Sykjacked, Soylent Green (where he and Edward G. Robinson, touching together, figure out that we really are what we eat), Airport 1975, Earthquake, Two Minute Warning, Gray Lady Down. Not all were hits, but they and their spawn kept the machinery cranking along. That Heston was on the job, saving earthquake survivors, landing the planes, and evacuating sniper-maddened stadiums undoubtedly reassured viewers who shared in the unease of the decade. (The Nineties cycle of disaster films just wasn't the same without his stalwart, take-charge presence, though he did narrate 1998's Armageddon.)

It wasn't all gimmicks. He is terrific as an aging saddletramp in 1968's Will Penny, and binds the fragments of Sam Peckinpah's uncertain, forward-looking Major Dundee (1965). Anticipating the future he saves a swatch of humanity against devouring ant hordes in 1954's fine The Naked Jungle. Orson Welles could not have gotten the exquisite Touch of Evil (1958) off the ground without him--audiences chuckle at his Mexican cop, yet the laughter dies quick. The casting may have been implausible sometimes, the situations silly. But he was never absurd. (Not even in Wayne's World 2, where his stolidity, as the "Good Actor," is, well, "awesome.")

Without him, Planet of the Apes, his very best credit I think, would never have become the cultural phenomenon it was. The poor 2001 remake put him in an ape costume, satisfying in a sight-gag way but as wrong-headed as everything else. Heston's stubborn, egocentric, wounded humanity, leavened with bitter humor and a delightful hint of self-parody, is the very essence of the original. Offscreen, he was problematic, as the vitriol his death has unleashed online suggests. Onscreen, as a people, no one represented us as well.

Saturday, April 05, 2008

Popdose: My Blueberry Nights

Critics have been razzing Wong Kar Wai's My Blueberry Nights, with songstress Norah Jones and a singing-the-blues Jude Law, since last year's Cannes Film Festival. Did I blow the reedited version now in release a kiss? See here.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

Loss for words

Like a war veteran forced back to Iraq by unfair governmental policies, there's not much to be done for Stop-Loss, which will be gone from theaters quick enough. An audience may yet materialize, as it did for the (good) sleeper hit The Bank Job, but resistance to Iraq pictures is entrenched. I can only offer a few kind words for Kimberly Peirce's homefront drama on its way to DVD and "ancillary" half-life distribution channels. It's not a great, tradition-of-quality movie: The filmmaker, whose brother served in Iraq, is close to the material, too close for lump-in-the-throat sentiment. Her sober, somber (but not joyless) approach short-circuits a few surefire sequences that needed to grab us emotionally to work more fully, and once its main character, frustrated soldier Ryan Phillippe, goes AWOL the plot goes wayward to keep him plugged into the storylines involving his fellow comrades-in-arms.

But it's still more affecting than more smoothly made, tidier pictures, with fine performances from Phillippe (capitalizing on his basic training at Iwo Jima and Flags of Our Fathers), Channing Tatum, the excellent Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Abbie Cornish, and Victor Rasuk, Mamie Gummer, and Linda Emond (Englishman Ciaran Hinds is a bit of a stretch as a rawboned Texan). The great cinematographer Chris Menges is thoroughly in his element; I like that the video diary sequences don't entirely break with the overall look of the film. And the closing sequence, where everything that had been diffuse comes together, is quietly devastating. Its head and heart are in the right places. Too bad it will largely be experienced at home and not communally.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Defending J. Lee Thompson

In today's Times, Dave Kehr lays smack on the career of journeyman director J. Lee Thompson, while defending King Vidor's questionable Solomon and Sheba in a roundup of Yul Brynner DVDs. (It's interesting where these things start.) Thompson, who directed Brynner in the minor Sixties epics Taras Bulba and Kings of the Sun, is bitch-slapped as "startlingly untalented," while the past-it auteur of The Fountainhead gets a pass. Simply put, Vidor is in the club, and Thompson isn't.

As Kehr admits, Solomon (named one of the fifty worst films of all time by the Medveds in their 1978 tome, not that it's a reliable arbiter) isn't the best case that can be made for Vidor, whose silent classics (and delectably campy Bette Davis picture Beyond the Forest, among others) need to be on DVD. I'm not playing favorites here. But Thompson had his moments, and if Richard Fleischer could sneak in the back door reserved for auteurs of a lesser caliber, he'd probably hold it open for his contemporary in unpretentious commercial entertainment.

But, really, who cares anymore about this kind of categorization, but the folks who blog at Kehr's outpost? Don't get me wrong--it's a great crowd, flexibly minded, who make up for their oft-absent host. Yet on certain subjects they're mighty touchy. I like Fleischer, too, but I got hit with a two-by-four for suggesting that he made a few irredeemably bad films. It's as if no one in the "pantheon" could ever squeeze out a lemon from time to time. Well, Fleischer did. And so did Vidor.

And so did Thompson, whose resume smells like Pledge cleaner after 1985. (He died in 2002, after decades in the British and U.S. film industries.) He was the house director for the aging Charles Bronson, and their fortunes fell together. But 1983's 10 to Midnight and 1984's The Evil That Men Do are capably made actioners, that had Chicago grindhouse crowds cheering when I caught them. (The latter inspired rival gangs to hurl bottles at each other; I saw the ending on VHS, from the safety of my dorm room.) The earlier St. Ives is one of Bronson's more lightly enjoyable pictures, and The White Buffalo an amusing head-scratcher. There are stray flecks of gold in the junk: Robert Mitchum taking charge in The Ambassador (as Ellen Burstyn bursts out of her top), the chintzy effects and rattling pace of King Solomon's Mines, about on par with Fleischer's Red Sonja in bargain-basement entertainment value in 1985; Malcolm McDowell's over-the-top (even for him!) Nazi in The Passage (1979); and the tortured teen terror plotting of 1981's Happy Birthday to Me, a slasher-pic genre highlight. The big-budget, all-star 1969 Western Mackenna's Gold is completely dotty--the Skidoo of its genre?

There is good to go along with the goofy. Conquest of the Planet of the Apes is the most disturbing film of its series; its take on otherness and the need for, and consequences, of rebellion stuck with this eight-year-old viewer who was just there for the cool makeup. 1961's The Guns of Navarone (pictured) needs no defense as a classic war-time adventure, one I've seen many times. Tony Curtis and Brynner are miscast in the filial saga of Taras Bulba , but the film eventually delivers on sweep and scope, and has a marvelous Franz Waxman score driving the pace. And there is (sound of trump card being pulled) the still-disturbing Cape Fear, sweaty Southern paranoia to ruffle the rectitude of even Gregory Peck, cast as the divide healer in that same year's To Kill a Mockingbird. An interesting double feature, and Fear was a picture that Martin Scorsese could not really remake, just embroider.

I haven't seen many of Thompson's earlier British pictures, but I won't cross the street to avoid them. A diamond in the rough? Maybe not. Does it matter? The shuffling of position papers as lines are being drawn and sides being taken doesn't have to accompany every movie.

Critical Commentary #2

The New York Times weighs in on vanishing film critics syndrome--they're going the way of bats and bees in print publications, with Newsweek's venerable David Ansen the latest out the door. The article confirms that this is not a good thing; it also affirms that producers view critics, best-case scenario, as a useful adjunct to the marketing department, getting the word out on their Oscar worthies. (Worst case, an irritant, I assume.) On the other hand, Ansen is leaving on his accord, in part because the weekly churn of nonsense bores his 63-year-old self (yep, my two-decades-younger self nods). The notion is raised that serious film criticism has migrated to the web, which is sort-of true, except that it's too diffuse to be of much use in raising awareness.

And an awful lot of it smacks of film school grads looking to make their bones with their peers by raising the roof or lowering the boom on the New Big Thing--I've seen this "mumblecore" the kids are talking about, and I doubt anyone over age 30 won't do much more than mumble about it. (If the Young Turks are angling for paying jobs at legit publications, it's clear that dream is over.) The web is very tribal, and protective of its favorites. A certain broadmindedness, a key to good critical thinking, is suspect out here, where a thumbs up/thumbs down mentality has been internalized and spit out under cover of academe-ish writing. I enjoy reading what the camps have to say but resist joining in; like Groucho Marx, I'm suspicious of any club that would have me as a member.

One thing's for sure: J. Hoberman has a job for life at The Village Voice. The publisher seems terrified that if they throw him over for another second-rate stringer irritated cinephiles will delete their bookmarks in outrage--I don't know anyone who dirties their fingers with the print edition anymore--and that'll be that for the long-beleaguered, and sadly corporatized, alternative to nothing paper.