Friday, June 27, 2008

Run and gun

That a Supreme Court craven to the Bush administration reaffirmed the Second Amendment was no shock. Nor was the counterblast that awoke me this morning on NPR, which implied that gun-toting lunatics would be blasting away at passers-by within hours, if not minutes. It is unfortunate--the "right to bear arms" is the Constitutional equivalent of original sin--but I will for now trust the more moderate pundits on both sides of the fence and my own inclination to believe that the nation will not come to further harm because of this latest turn to the right.

Bad timing, then, for Wanted, this week's "graphic novel" adaptation, novels without pictures and ready-made storyboards too difficult for producers to grasp anymore. I doubt it'll hurt the bottom line, though I don't think it will shatter the boxoffice ceiling on R-rated pictures of its type. Not as crude as last year's abominable Shoot 'Em Up, but not quite Noel Coward, either, the film is, like so many of its ilk, machine-tooled to be absorbed and forgotten by fickle, thrill-seeking audiences till the DVD promo push begins. But coming the day after yesterday's news its message rubs me the wrong way.

The film is a hostile, fuck-everything empowerment fantasy, The Matrix minus the sci-fi frippery and philosophizing, or Fight Club without nuance or critique. The slightly built James McAvoy leaves the arthouse and (most of) his Scottish accent behind to play an oppressed office worker too weak to beat back his awful girlfriend, turncoat best friend, and fat- pig lady boss. Salvation arrives at the barrel of a gun: Angelina Jolie, a convincing human being in some pictures and a reasonable facsimile of a digital effect here, saves him from an assassination attempt, which involves fancy bullets that curve like bowling balls and car-fu with flipping vehicles. The perpetually statesmanlike Morgan Freeman informs him of his clouded birthright, that he is part of an international fraternity of superhero-ish stone-cold killers that takes its assignments from the thousand-year-old "Loom of Fate," which rather than T-shirts spits out the names of bad guys. (Worse, of course, than our nominal heroes, not that anyone civilian seems particularly bothered by their constant carnage. Weaving and textiles, however, could be all the rage if it takes off.)

McAvoy's character is a right wing kook's wet dream. His immersion in guns, knives, and fighting technique makes him a better person, perfectly suited for clandestine fantasy battles. He bootstraps himself from worm to warrior, leaves the white-collar grind behind, bulks up to pint-sized humanoid status, and lives off the grid with the bodacious Jolie. Following what looked to me like an epic CGI homage to, of all things, the Sophia Loren train wreck picture The Cassandra Crossing, there is a twist in the story, which obliges us to reexamine the storyline. But the fundamental message, that a bellyful of killing with bad-ass weaponry and wanton flouting of the law is necessary for all of us to "grow a pair" and stand up to our crappily corporatized lives, remains. (McAvoy's narration directly addresses all these points.)

It bugged me, just as it bugged me that the picture, which has its stylistic strengths and bursts of moxie, isn't better. The Russian director, Timur Bekmambetov, made the engrossing if uneven fantasies Night Watch and Day Watch, in a Hollywood-ready slam-bang fashion. Without better scripting, however, it's clear he's more eye than brain, and a little too eager for assimilation in our industry. Take, for example, the ending. The opportunity for a perfect deadpan finish was there, but someone in the fraternity of producers decided that the flourish-filled feature needed one more show of arms, and the whole thing ends in something of a muddle. Perhaps McAvoy is the director's stand-in and avatar, loaded for bear and swaggering, but ultimately impotent and giving the beast what it wants.

As for the gun issue, well, it is only a movie. Right? But I've seen this movie before, played out in workplaces and streets and campuses, and if someone takes this one's simplistic message to heart in our nervous times I will be ashamed to have given eight bucks to its cause.

Popdose: The stay-at-home critic

Reviews gathered from bedside, thanks to entrepreneurial distribution. Only one was worth getting out of bed for. Plus: A critique for Theater News Online from an old-school screening room preview, of the documentary Trumbo, which opened today. Pictured is the blacklisted screenwriter, practicing his bedside manner on the set of the 1971 film of his 1939 novel, Johnny Got His Gun, with Timothy Bottoms.

Monday, June 23, 2008

RIP George Carlin

OK, so the comedian went from cranky-funny to just plain cranky in recent years, and he wasn't much of an actor. I lost touch with him. But his stand-up routines put HBO on the cultural map in the late 70s and early 80s (New Year's Eve was unthinkable in our house without Carlin working blue once the champagne glasses were put away) and his was a powerfully liberating influence. He truly put his money where his mouth was.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Popdose: Hulk, Herzog, and one bad Mother

This week's roundup: The Incredible Hulk and Dario Argento's
Mother of Tears for fantasists, and the cold comfort of Werner Herzog's Encounters at the End of the World for realists.

Pictured, though, is a gun-blazing scene from the Thai flick The Bodyguard, one of the selections at this year's New York Asian Film Festival, which runs through July 6. Always a treat the NYAFF is.

Live Design: Albee on Nevelson

Off Broadway, Mercedes Ruehl plays sculptor Louise Nevelson in Edward Albee's Occupant, as forty-year-olds finally grow up in Brooke Berman's followup to Hunting and Gathering, A Perfect Couple.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

RIP Cyd Charisse

I came to musicals late in my filmgoing. For the longest time I knew Charisse, who died today at age 86, from the 1978 fantasy flick Warlords of Atlantis, an HBO staple. Later, in more upscale company, I admired her in better dramatic roles, eye-catching in Nicholas Ray's Party Girl (1958, pictured) and Vincente Minnelli's Two Weeks in Another Town (1962). These were part of the "new" MGM.

But the cornerstone of her reputation was, of course, those MGM musicals, whose spectacular run had just ended. She had small but not insignificant roles in a number of Forties tuners like 1946's Ziegfeld Follies and The Harvey Girls and a few dramas, notably the fine noir melodrama Tension in 1950. Her great showcase was undoubtedly the famed "Girl Hunt Ballet" in 1953's The Band Wagon, opposite Fred Astaire. Her long legs entrap Astaire in a Mickey Spillane sendup that is one of the marvels of the genre.

She had already made her mark in the previous year's Singin' in the Rain, and would go toe-to-toe, so to speak, with Gene Kelly in the Broadway adaptation Brigadoon (1954) and the terrific, and still underrated, It's Always Fair Weather (1955). Silk Stockings, a musicalization of the Garbo classic Ninotchka, reteamed her with Astaire and in what would be her swansong to classic musical roles. But she continued on, more sporadically, in pictures like the spoofy Dean Martin spy film The Silencers (1966) and TV series up to Frasier in 1995. In a friendly nod to the glories of the past, Janet Jackson cast Charisse, who was married 60 years to singer Tony Martin, in her 1990 video "Alright."

Monday, June 16, 2008

RIP Stan Winston

Some loves you never outgrow. With me, it's dinosaurs. And if you love dinosaurs, you have to love dinosaurs. By 1993, I'd seen plenty of fossilized dinosaurs, and just about every dinosaur movie, good, bad, and indifferent. But I hadn't seen a real dinosaur, a fully functioning, living animal, till the great Stan Winston and a team of Hollywood's best special effects experts crafted a menagerie for that summer's blockbuster, Jurassic Park. When the T-rex makes its appearance, in a stunningly crafted sequence that is Steven Spielberg firing on all cylinders, you could have heard a pin drop in the theater. I had tears in my eyes. This went beyond movie magic--it was as if the creature itself, terrifying and magnificent, had been reconstituted whole. I still can't get over it.

And I will have a hard time getting over the death of one of its distinguished parents. Winston's passing, at age 62 after a long illness, is a great blow to fantastic cinema. Iron Man was just the latest in a long list of dazzling credits, which bridged the gap between makeup and digital effects. As a devout watcher of TV movies from that medium's golden age I loved his work on 1972's Gargoyles, with its memorable mythic creatures; he did more subtle, but no less remarkable, work on The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, aging Cicely Tyson. Both won the 20-something designer Emmy Awards. The believably deceased and revivified corpses of 1981's Dead and Buried were another early highlight. For that same year's Heartbeeps, he received his first Oscar nomination, turning Andy Kaufman and Bernadette Peters into comic robots.

The Terminator (1984) was a key credit, that remarkable fusion of man and machine for James Cameron. Oscar nominations followed for the toothsome terrors of Aliens (1986) and Predator (1987)--no one did drooling, fanged jaws and mouths quite like Winston, and he won his first Oscar, in part, for the terrible Alien Queen. The 1991 sequel Terminator 2: Judgment Day, a watershed, fused his work and CGI and earned him two Oscars, for makeup and for visual effects. Jurassic Park, a study in naturalism ("not monsters, animals," we are reminded of its saurian stars), was the next great leap forward, and his fourth Oscar. Two more nominations followed, for Spielberg's The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997) and the heartbreakingly discarded robots of AI: Artificial Intelligence (2001).

Winston was Oscar-nominated twice for his work with Tim Burton, for Edward Scissorhands (1990) and Batman Returns (1992). His poignant grotesques, iconically incarnated, are among his finest creations. His credits as director included the 1988 chiller Pumpkinhead and the T2-3D film, a highlight of the Universal Studios theme parks.

He made the incredible real, no small accomplishment.

Tonys, and The Oscar

Being a Drama Desk nominator last season was so consuming, for so many reasons, that I had my own case of awards fatigue by the time the Tonys rolled around last night. I wouldn't call them anti-climactic, but for me they brought a kind of relief, signaling that the curtain had finally come down on a solid if unspectacular 2007-2008, much stronger on revivals than new work. Rapped acceptance speeches or not, the Tony-winning In the Heights is far more retro (and far less interesting) than the gold-plated South Pacific and Gypsy, whose Tony (and Drama Desk)-winning stars Laura Benanti, Patti LuPone, and Boyd Gaines are pictured. Onwards into the new season, as I take my seat off the aisle, observant if (happily) sidelined as we await our own co-production in August. [And then I'll learn what "tired" really is, and look upon those three-show-Sundays in the depths of winter nostalgically.]

As for last night's show on CBS, the nits are for picking, and given cellar-dwelling ratings we should as usual be grateful that the whole thing hasn't shuffled off onto the web, not that the Drama Desks are poorly served there. The musical numbers were abundant, too much so: To accommodate modestly lauded shows important categories were relegated to the pre-show, which when PBS used to show it was always a more unbuttoned, less bamboozling affair. I was miffed that best book of a musical was off the mainstage, but lumping best revival in steerage with the downtrodden designers (who got a "new" category, sound, recognized by other awards bodies for decades, to join them in their unfair exile) was unconscionable. Stranger, from a telecast standpoint, was announcing the choreography winner in that lost hour--viewers enjoying high-stepping highlights from Cry-Baby and In the Heights no doubt expected the payoff to come with a front-and-center awards announcement. That's showbiz.

[Product plug: Read about the Tony-winning set design of August: Osage County here.]

Twelve hours later and it's all over except the annual keening over the golf- and basketball-challenged ratings. I would add that having Whoopi Goldberg host gave the broadcast a musty feel right from the start (since when was she last an arbiter of what's hip and happening? 1990?), but putting The Lion King in the catbird seat at the top of the telecast did at least bring things up to 1998. Best revival of a Drama Desk schtick (more than one acceptance speech had a familiar ring to it) went to Mark Rylance; I could feel America, or that small subset of America tuned to the Tonys, scratching their heads in puzzlement.

Now that the Tonys are dispensed with, it's time to think about The Oscar. No, not the award, but the deathless 1966 Joseph. E. Levine production, which gets a rare outing on Turner Classic Movies tonight at 11pm EST. In the new documentary Dreams with Sharp Teeth, Harlan Ellison says its star-laden belly-flop into the shallow end of the critical and boxoffice pool killed his screenwriting career. But it died with dignity; his hardboiled purplish prose is a constant riot. It’s hard to see how intended stars Steve McQueen (Ellison's pal) and Peter Falk might have improved matters, but Stephen Boyd and an earnest, preposterous Tony Bennett (!) really bungle the job, launching this one into camp heaven (it's harder still to imagine the academy countenancing such a project). Bennett, who took the still birth of his acting career in stride, later spoofed his role on SCTV.

It's fun to imagine Hymie Kelly, Bennett's character, musing about, say, Passing Strange star Stew as he does in the film. With apologies to Ellison: “You finally made it, Stew! Tony night! And here you sit, on top of a glass mountain called "success." You're one of the chosen five, and the whole town's holding its breath to see who won it. It's been quite a climb, hasn't it, Stew? Down at the bottom, scuffling for dimes in those smokers, all the way to the top. Magic Broadway! Ever think about it? I do, friend Stew, I do...”

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Not Happening

The New York Times and one or two other outlets were tolerably amused, but otherwise The Happening has gotten pretty vicious reviews--worse than M. Night Shyamalan's The Village, which I did see, and Lady in the Water, which I flicked through on cable. But I don't think I've ever read a pan this nasty. It's the kind of thing you expect to read on a frothing-at-the-mouth blog (not this one, of course), not in The New Republic.

As the reviewer explains, it's not really a critique, just a bunch of spoilers designed to make the film look as foolish as possible, to scare off any potential viewers. It didn't have much effect on me: The (terrible) non-title (is it an extended rock video of the great Diana Ross and the Supremes hit of 1967? A remake of the Anthony Quinn/Faye Dunaway picture it came from?), the breathless advertising of the picture as its filmmaker's "first R-rated movie," and Shyamalan's decline, which I've seen with my own two eyes, already branded this as toxic. (All that, and Mark Wahlberg, who like aspirin is best taken in small doses, in the lead. He clearly sees the bad news ahead in those binoculars of his.) On principle, however, this strikes me as a pretty shabby takedown. Give us what we need to know, tell us what you thought, let the viewer decide, and get a conversation going. (Well, a more balanced one--the commentators are positively gleeful over its bellyflop.) Unless, of course, it's as bad as he says...

Sunday, June 08, 2008

Sex sells

Last night, my wife and I saw Sex and the City, accompanied by our friends. I'm pleased to say the womenfolk survived untainted, we guys bore up manfully, and that I am reasonably confident that our nation, the international market, and civilization will survive its purported outrage and triple-digit-millions haul. Honestly, the way some male reviewers are carrying on about Carrie and Co., as if femalekind needs to be protected from its alleged abuses, is ridiculous, but that is the red meat boys-will-be-boys blogs thrive upon. Manohla Dargis at The New York Times, an astute critic in some ways, but a Sixties-era Friedan-inist when it comes to women on film, partakes of some of this attitude, but her critique, based on a closer reading of the show, is more nuanced.

My Sex-ual initiation began with its second season. I got HBO to
watch The Sopranos, and sort-of fell into its fellow powerhouse on the distaff side. [I don't think I've ever seen any of the first season episodes.] I liked it, and the way it addressed the gap between the fantasy and the reality of its characters' lives (it's all fantasy, of course, but it did, for example, explore how Carrie's paycheck fell far short of her go-go lifestyle with reasonable, been-there-myself accuracy) and the subtle way it changed and became more "grown-up" post 9/11. The movie has been attacked for being regressive, that Sarah Jessica Parker's Carrie is back in the money pit of fashion and carousing that "good girls" don't partake in, but the movie announces at the outset that she has three bestsellers to her credit, so she can well afford a spree. [She still lives in the same, modest Upper East Side apartment as before, and the movie saves its revelry for clothes given to her, like all those Vogue-assigned wedding dresses, or in presents she buys other friends.]

It is, I think, a matter of scale. Co-creator and first-time bigscreen writer and director Michael Patrick King does not announce himself as an auteur with the film. It is long, and slovenly around the edges, like several episodes of the show strung together than its own thing for the cinema, as if he felt there would be no chance for a sequel and he'd better get it all in, now. George Cukor, the eminent director of women (and The Women, which has been remade for fall release) is in no immediate danger of being displaced from the pantheon, though it is worth noting that his last film, 1981's Rich and Famous, anticipates the show in a few ways, and was also dismissed as coarse and tacky. [Both feature the generations-straddling Candice Bergen.] What's acceptable on the small screen doesn't necessarily translate to the big when simply transposed. Patricia Field's costumes, delightful punctuation on the show, read as exclamation marks on film--there is a too-muchness to them, but the ladies seemed to go for the frequent, show-stopping montages. They're like the fiery action sequences in Transformers or Live Free and Die Hard for boys, and I wasn't appalled, just a little bemused by the excess, which is bantered about in the film. [Kim Cattrall's Samantha has a hat in her Malibu wear the length and width of an airport terminal.]

The men are a different story. Unprepossessing on TV, they are pint-sized at the movies, Wendell Coreys all. [He was the fallible, weak-looking actor so often cast with Joan Crawford or Barbara Stanwyck to make them all the stronger.] It's nice that David Eigenberg's Steve and Evan Handler's Harry are so normal-looking, but there's normal and there's normal, and they are normal to a fault (neither hugs the camera). The 37-year-old Jason Lewis has turned into the Spider-Man incarnation of Willem Dafoe in the four years since the show ended, and is much the worse for wear; I was surprised to find that the actor, playing a boy toy, was that old to begin with. Chris Noth's "Big" (whose real last name Preston, is King's hopeful nod to Preston Sturges) is keeping up appearances, but with each passing year is more and suitable for The Victor Mature Story. One of these guys isn't coming back for the sequel, if there is to be one beyond the implied passing-of-the-torch at its close; none would be a great loss.

King, who has a knack for how women talk and interrelate, needs to bring in a co-writer or adviser for the men in their lives. And he could have brought Jennifer Hudson, cast as Carrie's personal assistant, closer to the action; as it is, she is close to Carrie's accessory, though the payoff for her labors for white-woman maintenance, a genuine, $5,400 Vuitton bag, seemed worth it to our audience, who applauded the gift. As a parting gift, perhaps, the Oscar-winning Dreamgirl, who gives a surprisingly tentative performance, also gets to sing a song.

As my wife said, the great love affair on the show isn't between a woman and a man; it's between a woman and her closet, and the closet in Big and Carrie's Fifth Avenue love nest is an aphrodisiac that sent the ladies into ecstasy. [I do wonder, though, how audiences weaned on edited reruns of the show felt about the entirety of the unexpurgated film, which includes nude-ish scenes for three of the women and an actual penis.] The secret to its Sex-cess may be that in its fantasyscape of New York (which acknowledges, grudgingly, that Brooklyn may the New New York, though it may now be Queens), there is no drudgery. There is just a succession of milestone events (if Carrie has a family to attend her nuptials, they are not in this movie) and accompanying wardrobe changes over which relationships are repaired--little of consequence changes irreparably in the movie--and friendships solidified. Girls will be girls as much as boys will be boys, and the republic is not the worse for wear for dreaming.

Friday, June 06, 2008

Popdose: Genghis Khan and Harlan Ellison

This week, a tale of two warriors, one who wields a sword, and the other an Olympia typewriter. Tadanobu Asano, as Genghis Khan in Mongol, opening today, is pictured.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

Plays: Beauty and beasts

Off Broadway is the main game in town as the Great White Way sleeps it off in preparation for the Tonys next Sunday night. Rafta, Rafta... (pictured) and Body Awareness, with the always welcome JoBeth Williams, prove a winning pair of late spring diversions. Also on the boards: More of the same, from the tiresomely angry Neil LaBute.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

The Summer issue of Cineaste, online and on sale

It's a bright sunny day here in Brooklyn, a good one to herald the new issue of Cineaste, on newsstands now and of course online. Interviews include Alex Gibney, on his Oscar-winning doc Taxi to the Dark Side and his new one on Hunter S. Thompson, Gonzo; German filmmaker Christian Petzold on the intriguing Yella, which I reviewed here a couple of weeks ago; and Ramin Bahrani, director of the excellent New York indies Man Push Cart (which is on the Sundance Channel this month) and Chop Shop, at Film Forum recently. On the lighter side, in the magazine and online, yours truly on the comedic legacy of W. C. Fields on DVD. Enjoy, my little chickadees. [David Hudson at Greencine did, and much obliged to him for all the issue coverage.]