Friday, February 27, 2009

Popdose: Drink, drugs, and Jet Li

An eclectic mix of DVDs this week: The Oscar-nominated Ironweed, which is only now just making its DVD debut, in an indifferent transfer, and two pictures from Hong Kong, the hectic, pre-handover Jet Li vehicle The Enforcer, and the more sober drug squad movie Protege, from 2007.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

WatchBlog barks no more

It's not enough that the Rocky Mountain News will pass into history tomorrow, that several other city papers are bankrupt, and that some of them may expire before long, too. I logged onto Video WatchBlog and it, too, has died--by its own hand, in this instance. And very poetically, I might add. But having put the stake in blogging, I'm certain Tim Lucas will pop in other incarnations as a writer.

Fer chrissakes

This highly questionable op-ed ran in The Wall Street Journal two weeks ago, when we were preparing to head off to Vermont, but it's still bugging me. It's full of ridiculous assertions about boxoffice figures that would fall apart under even the tiniest fact-checking scrutiny, but I guess that function stays on the other side of the wall that separates news stories and editorials.

It was submitted by the founder of a "Christian" film website, I put the word "Christian" in quotes, as these "reviewers" (you know why I put the quotes there) are basically apostles of the far right of the Republican party, who got its ass kicked last fall, and who remain deathly afraid of communism, civil rights, and water fluoridation.

Here's a sample paragraph, if you stopped reading after "With media conglomerates, from Time Warner to Disney to News Corp., reporting big losses, few can afford to ignore proven recipes for box-office success. And when it comes to movies, what succeeds is capitalism, patriotism, faith and values." Did you get that, Mr. Murdoch?

"Among the films with more conservative content were Valkyrie (with its theme of opposing Nazi tyranny), Defiance (resistance fighters unite to save lives in World War II), Bolt (which promotes such moral values as loyalty, sacrifice and doing the right thing), Rambo, Prince Caspian and Gran Torino. They and others in their category averaged nearly $70 million more per movie at the domestic box office than more liberal movies. That group's films range from those with very strong libertine content (such as Mamma Mia!) or licentious content (Milk and Brideshead Revisited) to those with politically correct content, such as Sex and the City and Under the Same Moon. Also in the category are movies with anti-American content, such as Stop-Loss and The Visitor, and with very strong atheist or nihilistic content, such as Religulous and Wanted.

Two can play at this game. Valkyrie (pictured) and Rambo were break-even propositions, Defiance a big flop, and Caspian a disappointment. The tainted Mamma Mia! was a huge hit, and Sex and the City and Wanted weren't far behind. Religulous was the most successful documentary of 2008, and The Visitor a popular indie that affirms American values that are anathema the more rightwards you tilt.

I know this is a pointless exercise in setting the record straight. This is all about ideology, not quality, or facts and figures. But when a piece like this, as myopic as Tom Cruise in one of its approved titles, seeps out of the blogosphere and into a paper of record, giving it an unassailable forum and an unearned legitimacy, I have to protest.

Thank you for smoking

I hate smoking. Anyone who smokes in this day and age is a cretin. (If you stop, I respect you, but you were still stupid to start.) I hate pictures like the one I posted. But I also hate McCarthyite moralizing, and here we have a prime example. The American Medical Association Alliance, which is watchdogging smoking in movies, is upset with an anti-smoking storyline in the hit comedy He's Just Not That Into You, simply because a brand of cigarettes is shown. (There are no smoking scenes in the movie itself.) Apparently, just showing cigarettes--not even the cancer sticks themselves, just the box--is enough to turn kids into ravening smokers, something I find hard to believe. In a pretzel-ish twist, the brand maker, fearing bad publicity, has also criticized the film, saying it did not appreciate what looks to have been inadvertent product placement. How principled of the death merchants! When cigarette makers find common cause with the anti-smoking brigade, against a movie that criticizes smoking--well, the whole thing makes me want to light up.

Monday, February 23, 2009

New Yorker Films shuts down

A combination of a small market and tough times have done in New Yorker Films, an indie mainstay for 43 years. The great and challenging titles it handled included Claude Lanzmann's legendary nine-hour Holocaust documentary Shoah (1985), the Dardennes brothers' La Promesse (1996), and Werner Herzog's Aguirre: The Wrath of God (1972, pictured). Lincoln Plaza Cinemas, operated by distributor founder Dan Talbot, is unaffected by the closing, small consolation for a historical loss.

Pop(dose) Goes the Oscars

Scenes from my red carpet evening...spent quietly at home, for the first time in years. That I had no skin in the game, ballot-wise, probably accounts for why I was slumbering through the Slumdog (pictured) night; that, and the utter lack of surprises (in retrospect, Sean Penn was a cinch to win for a hot-button Milk man, and no one but me and a few arthouse devotees really cares that Departures beat out the more highly touted Waltz with Bashir and The Class for the foreign film accolade) and the misuse of host Hugh Jackman (right talent, wrong material). Whatever: The highs weren't too high, the lows not too low, and we can only hope for a more compelling slate and show next year.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

New York Theater News: Frost/Nixon

Just in time for the Big Event tonight. I don't think it's going to win anything--I suspect Mickey Rourke's somewhat exaggerated but irresistible "comeback" will deprive Frank Langella the chance to be the tenth actor to win both a Tony and an Oscar for the same part--but Frost/Nixon was better than I thought it was going to be, and it's too bad it's not doing much business. It's the sort of rock-solid, "grownup" entertainment that everyone says they want to see more of, then don't support--and a whole lot better than The Reader.

As for predictions, well, this is the first time in years I'm not filling out a ballot, and with the pressure off I hope to just sit back and enjoy the show--which will have to be mega-entertaining, to make up for the unexciting, crepe-hanging nominees. I've seen them all, and while the only one that pains me is The Reader, the rest are indicative of a blah 2008 at the cinema. Best to Hugh Jackman, a terrific Tonys host, and for the movies to get their mojo back this year once last year is commemorated.

RIP Robert Quarry

Quarry had a long and varied career, bouncing back from assorted misfortunes. He was best known for Count Yorga Vampire (1970, pictured) and its 1971 sequel, The Return of Count Yorga, which brought the bloodsucker mythos up to date in California and haunted syndicated TV packages for years. Besides palpable menace, he brought Old World-ish charm and an urbane wit to these parts, and might have had a major career as a horror star if the opportunity had existed longer into the decade. He was always fun to watch in what came his way, though, including a vampire guru in The Deathmaster (1972), which he produced (check out his commentary on the DVD), combating Vincent Price in Dr. Phibes Rises Again (1972), and teamed with Price and Peter Cushing in the disappointing Madhouse (1974). My favorite role of his, though, was as the good ol' boy bad guy in 1974's Sugar Hill, oozing racism through a delightful, lip-smacking accent and providing a formidable opponent for the title character and her zombie hit men. The movies are poorer without distinctive talents like Robert Quarry raising hell.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Anatomy lessons

Breaking blogosphere silence after almost a week, a bit of sex to start your heart. Kate Winslet may or may not win an Oscar this Sunday for The Reader, but she'll be thrilled to learn that she and her, ahem, golden globes have received a "Lifetime Skinchievement Award" from the Mr. Skin website, which has announced its 10th annual Anatomy Awards. Once he finishes his assignment with Kate, Reader co-star David Kross will no doubt be dialing up Mr. Skin to see who won Best Skinny- Dip, Best Nude with a Toothbrush Scene, and Best Horror Movie Hooters among others, and to find out where to see this year's Academy Award-nominated ladies in the altogether. (Only one of the shameless hussies has kept her clothes on throughout her career.)

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Live Design: Winter's tales

I see the site is now obliging readers to register to read more than just an opening graf or two of every item posted. And there's a lot to read on there, including excerpts from my Shrek design feature in the March issue. So if you like this (I helped to originate the "Seen and Heard" column, in 2001), sign on for the proverbial much, much more.

Seen on Broadway: Richard Greenberg writes plays like Kate Hudson makes romantic comedies, and has been doing so for some time. The reappearance of The American Plan is a welcome reminder of why his nose-to-the-grindstone work ethic is still valued, after indifferent revivals of other, better-known plays like Three Days of Rain and dud new productions in the wake of the blue-ribbon success of 2002’s Take Me Out. The Manhattan Theatre Club, which originally produced the play Off Broadway, has given it a smart production on the main stem at the Samuel J. Friedman.

A gloss on Henry James’ Washington Square, relocated to the Catskills in 1960 and reoriented with a 20th century twist, the show pivots on fine performances by Mercedes Ruehl and Lily Rabe. Rabe is Lily, a gossamer beauty under the thumb of her mother, Eva, a hard-bitten Jewish émigré. Lily’s placid surface belies a roiling inner life due to her wealthy mother’s interference and her own penchant for telling lies, but a certain balance is achieved courtesy of their long-time maid, Olivia (Brenda Pressley). Tilting the scales is Nick (Kieran Campion), who swims up to the Adlers’ dock as the play begins, and promptly sweeps Lily off her feet. But Eva, who has seen other suitors come and go, and brushes past Nick’s charms to zero in on his uncertain prospects, connives to disrupt the union. A fifth character, Gil (Austin Lysy), who claims to be an old friend of Nick’s, is introduced in the second act as a catalyst, with results that were probably less predictable in 1990 when the play was new but remain dramatically and emotionally resonant.

David Grindley, of the masterful revival of Journey’s End, here charts a different course, with a show that today reflects our current fascination with the not-so-innocent era of the TV hit Mad Men. Jonathan Fensom’s clothes certainly reflect the period; more abstract is his beautiful dock set, on a revolve, with billowing sets of curtains (back in fashion as a stage design tool) that root the show as much in memory as in fact. Mark McCullough gorgeously illuminates it, for different times of the day and night, and there are fine ambient sound effects by Darron L. West and Bray Poor that capture a summer feel. The 1970-set coda, set in a cheerless Manhattan apartment, is thick with regret. But there are no missteps in this clockwork mounting of The American Plan, which runs through March 15.

The Roundabout’s Hedda Gabler is a revival gone terribly wrong. You’d think that Henrik Ibsen never wrote any other plays, given Hedda’s frequent appearances on, Off and way Off Broadway (the robot-ridden Heddatron). But this one might cure the impulse to restage the show anytime soon. Conceived as a vehicle for once-compelling and quirky Mary-Louise Parker, who has squandered her bag of tricks on the overrated cable show Weeds, the actress drives it right off the cliff with a performance far more suggestive of attention deficit disorder than spiritual malaise.

In this she is abetted by a shakily contemporized adaptation by the boring playwright Christopher Shinn and haphazard direction by Ian Rickson, who should have taken the first flight out of town after his well-received production of The Seagull. Instead, he has grounded a misused ensemble at the American Airlines through March 28. Michael Cerveris, a dopey Tesman, and Paul Sparks (who, as the fetishized Lovborg, strikes no sparks with the ditsy Parker) can, and will, do better; the grubby Peter Stormare has done far worse in Hollywood, but as Brack is basically unbelievable as a judge of anything but traffic court.

Following suit is a dismal design, more college-level than Broadway. Hildegarde Bechtler’s drab, unfinished-looking set is dominated by two massive doors, as if giants were the former owners of the Tesmans’ new digs. The stove is of course necessary for the burning of Lovborg’s manuscript, which has the emotional impact of a shrug; it looks ridiculous, overwhelming a bare wall. Natasha Katz’s putty lighting does nothing to flatter the shapeless period clothes of Ann Roth, which Parker wears poorly. John Gromada’s sound design is the delivery system for a would-be hip score by PJ Harvey, one more at home as relentlessly monotonous music for a John Carpenter horror movie. Then again, this Hedda is something of a horror itself.

Seen Off Broadway: Anton Chekhov is having an easier time of it at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, where the Sam Mendes-led Bridge Project, a melding of talents on both sides of the Atlantic, is presenting The Cherry Orchard as its inaugural production. Tom Stoppard’s fluid adaptation of the final masterwork that brought down the curtain on Chekhov’s life and art emphasizes the comedy of the piece, and also its politics; its pastoral Russians, musing on the vagaries of love and the passing of time and place, might be upcountry from the coast of Utopia. But the basic melancholy of losing one’s wealth and property, a theme never more timeless than it is today, is as affecting as always, and a fine cast that includes Sinead Cusack, Simon Russell Beale (both pictured), Rebecca Hall, Richard Easton and Ethan Hawke handles the tonal shifts with admirable precision.

Filling the stage at BAM’s Harvey Theatre is always tricky, and Anthony Ward doesn’t even try—or, rather, he and Mendes let the skilled actors fill in the blanks with their performances, a sound decision. Oriental rugs and other bric-a-brac suggest the faded opulence of the estate. In the second act, as the premises are vacated, Paul Pyant’s fulsome lighting captures a wave pattern in the central platform, emphasizing the swirl of activity and conflicting emotions of the departure. Strong emotion is generated by Catherine Zuber’s exquisite costumes, which register the fade-out of the gentility and the upward mobility of the serfs who are taking charge, and Mark Bennett’s fine music, played live by musicians dressed as peasants. The only miscue the night I attended was a persistent reverb in the audio system, particularly in the first act, but I wouldn’t hold sound designer Paul Arditti responsible for what was the one sour note in an otherwise rewarding evening. Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale joins The Cherry Orchard in repertory through March 8.

Veteran actor Michael Countryman has the audience in the palm of his hand in Shipwrecked! An Entertainment, a Primary Stages production at 59E59 Theatres. He plays Louis de Rougemont, who captivated 19th century audiences in Europe with his Dickensian/Jules Verne tales of an impoverished childhood, nautical adventures, and 30 years in the wilds of Australia following the title event. Under scrutiny, however, it became clear that as a memoirist he was as much James Frey as he was James Michener, though there were elements of truth in his tallest tales. As scripted by Donald Margulies, whose plays (including Dinner with Friends and Sight Unseen) reach beneath façades, de Rougemont emerges a sympathetic figure, a fantasist who seized the popular imagination, if too strongly for the scientific establishment.

Director Lisa Peterson responds to the colorful, often humorous material with an appropriately imaginative staging, one that’s pure theater. Neil Patel’s set, with a spiral-patterned platform, has just enough scenic elements in place to suggest the different environments of the story, which are also evoked by Stephen Strawbridge’s colored lighting. Michael Krass’ costuming is in support of the two other outstanding players in the piece, Jeremy Bobb and Donnetta Lavinia Grays, who between them a few dozen roles. The strongest contribution comes from Gromada, who recovers nicely from the Hedda debacle with music and sound effects that are performed live, like a radio production, not on instruments but on found bits of scenery. It’s delightful tomfoolery fully in keeping with the spirit of the show and its subject. Shipwrecked! An Entertainment plays through March 7.

Popdose: It's love or nothing

In honor of you-know-what (you do know what, right, just two days from now) Popdose issued three posts, on books, movies, and albums we love. What do I love? I've had a soft spot for "Libby," and Supertramp's "Breakfast in America," for 30 years now.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

RIP Robert Anderson

The playwright was most noted for Tea and Sympathy and I Never Sang for My Father, which I know from their sturdy film versions (the 1970 movie of Father, with Melvyn Douglas and Gene Hackman, is particularly wrenching). He disdained his screenwriting as work-for-hire but The Nun's Story (1959), with Audrey Hepburn, is sensitive, honorable craftsmanship.

Popdose: Blindness on DVD

Fall films are making their way to DVD. Is the apocalyptic Blindness, which came and went in the blink of an eye, lameness?

Monday, February 09, 2009

Cahiers gets a bailout

Good news, I would think, for the venerable French magazine, which has been acquired by one of the classier book imprints (I cover a lot of its design-related titles for Array magazine):

"Phaidon Press, the world's leading publisher of books on the visual arts, culture and creativity has concluded an agreement with La Société Editrice du Monde ("Le Monde") for the purchase of Cahiers du Cinéma.

Cahiers du Cinéma publishes a monthly magazine of almost mythical status. Founded in 1951 by André Bazin, Cahiers du Cinéma changed the course of cinema forever when it created the concept of the Auteur theory and spawned the Nouvelle Vague (New Wave). Early writers on its staff included Jean-Luc Godard, François Truffaut and Claude Chabrol. On the occasion of its 50th anniversary, The New York Times wrote 'In the history of motion pictures, Cahiers du Cinéma stands unrivalled as the most influential magazine'.

Cahiers du Cinéma also operates a book publishing division that publishes a range of books on the subject of cinema, which perfectly complements Phaidon's existing activities.

Phaidon publishes high quality books across the spectrum of the visual arts, including art and photography, architecture and design and decorative and performing arts. It has recently expanded its range to include travel and cuisine as well as children's books. Phaidon publishes in six languages and distributes its books worldwide. Phaidon was founded in Vienna in 1923 and was acquired by Richard Schlagman from the receivers in 1990.

Richard Schlagman, the publisher of Phaidon, said, "I am delighted to have taken custody of this venerable title. The magazine has had an extraordinary history, although in recent years it has struggled. I am determined to once again make Cahiers du Cinéma play a central role in the world of filmmaking and indispensable to its participants and aspirants. I am positive that Cahiers can once again become relevant to our times and speak to a new generation of cinephiles."

Le Monde, France's leading newspaper, has owned Cahiers du Cinéma since 1998 and announced last April that it intended to dispose of Cahiers du Cinéma as a part of a plan to reorganise its corporate group. There was keen competition to acquire the magazine from some 30 candidates. Le Monde selected Phaidon as the party most suitable to guarantee the long-term future viability and vitality of the enterprise. David Guiraud, Director General of Le Monde, said, "we are convinced that Phaidon will continue to develop Cahiers du Cinéma and all its current activities, in full respect of the history and the values of this mythical revue."

La Société Civile des Amis des Cahiers du Cinéma, an association of friends of the magazine, including past editors from all generations, directors and personalities from the worlds of cinema and culture, supported the transaction and will continue to hold a small minority stake."

Saturday, February 07, 2009

RIP James Whitmore

The veteran character actor picked up two Oscar nominations, a Tony Award, and various other honors in a long and distinguished career, which also included stumping for President Obama. But with some actors you just fixate on one role, and for me it was Police Sgt. Ben Peterson in the sci-fi classic Them! (1954). His heroic demise at the end of the picture, saving two kids from the mandibles of marauding giant ants, made a huge impression on me when I was about the same age as those children, and I've never forgotten it. (He just about gets away himself, then...oh, what an ending. Great movie. Great performance.)

Friday, February 06, 2009

Popdose: The animated edition

This week: A truly graphic representation of the Israel-Palestinian conflict, Waltz with Bashir, and Coraline (pictured), stop-motion animation that reaches out from the screen and grabs your attention via the magic of 3D.

Thursday, February 05, 2009

The next Sci-Fi star

For most of us, the discovery of the world's largest snake, in fossilized form, is kind of cool. But for the Sci-Fi Channel, it's a goldmine. The beast even has a marquee-friendly name--"Titanoboa"--for not one, not two, or a whole series of its CG-packed weekend creature features once some screenwriter exhumes its remains from the past.


Titanoboa Returns
Titanoboa III in 3-D (glasses available at participating retail outlets)
Titanoboa vs. Boa
Titanoboa vs. Boa vs. Python
Titanoboa and Boa vs. Python and Mansquito

You came to this town a snake, now you're gonna be a star...

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

February festivals

After Nat Hentoff got the ax I vowed never to clutter my browser again with the infernal Village Voice. And I haven't. Except for the film coverage, which, while depleted, still makes for diversion on Wednesdays. (Oh, and Musto. And Savage Love. The theater coverage. And a quick look at Robert Sietsma. But that's it.) Hentoff would have made a good candidate to write this week's feature on Hollywood and the Depression(s), tied in with a lively new Thirties retrospective, "Breadlines and Champagne," at Film Forum this month--after all, he probably saw the movies first-run. But the task fell to still-standing J. Hoberman, who concludes his then-and-now comparison with "Maybe free online movies are strictly for the indies. But if times get worse and the studios want to get real, they'll have to find the audience where it lives: Hulu for Hollywood."

(Perhaps, but I don't think Hoberman has been keeping up with the grosses. The dead-zone months of January and February have been phenomenally successful, commercially if not artistically, with four out of the five Best Picture Oscar nominees the ones in the tank. Even at $12 a head in Manhattan movies still seem cheaper than other out-of-home entertainment options.)

In any case, Hoberman reels off his Film Forum picks. Another chance to see the one-and-only King Kong on the big screen, folks--step right up on Feb. 28. (Pictured is the entertaining Feb. 20 attraction, 1932's Three on a Match, with Bette Davis, Joan Blondell, and Ann Dvorak.)

Elsewhere, the IFC Center helps with Oscar pool handicapping by screening all of the Academy Award-nominated shorts, beginning on Friday. (If you can't see them, choose the ones with either the standout reviews, or, if none of them get raves, the worthiest subject. You can't go wrong.)

Also on Friday, the Film Society of Lincoln Center begins a program on black moviemaking pioneer Oscar Micheaux and other pathfinders in African-American cinema.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

80s flashbacks

Today on DVD, you can buy new editions of the first three Friday the 13th pictures, the third in a 3D version. And Yentl. That's an interesting juxtaposition. But I'm really intrigued by a slew of re-releases Paramount Home Video has dubbed "I Love the 80's" with an allegedly "awesome" logo stamped on the front and a CD with period hits enclosed. A few of the 40 movies fit comfortably under this marketing umbrella--Pretty in Pink, Ferris Buelller's Day Off, anything with John Hughes' involvement--but Children of a Lesser God? Reds? No one loved Bruce Beresford's King David back in 1985--does that "hip" cover and the promise of an Erasure tune as accompaniment make you want to open your wallet for it in 2009?

The Potty-Mouthed Knight

He might not win an Oscar for Batman, but Christian Bale may be up for a Grammy, courtesy of RuPaul's entrepreneurial producer:

As for the reel-life incident that inspired this budding hit, I found this on the IMDb:

"An associate producer for the forthcoming Terminator Salvation movie has defended Christian Bale's alleged on-set rant, insisting the actor was a "consummate professional" during filming. A man said to be actor Bale can be heard angrily screaming and using profanity at the movie's director of photography, Shane Hurlbut, for distracting him during shooting by walking into his field of vision.

In the four-minute tirade, Bale reportedly shouts: "I'm trying to do a f**king scene here and I'm going, 'Why the f**k is Shane walking in there? What's he doing there?' Do you understand my mind is not in the scene if you're doing that?"

The man later promises to "kick his f**king ass" before threatening to quit the film unless Hurlbut was fired.

But Bruce Franklin, an assistant director and associate producer on the fourth Terminator film, insists the star was only upset for a short period of time before his "moment" passed.

Franklin tells E! Online, "If you are working in a very intense scene and someone takes you out of your groove... It was the most emotional scene in the movie. And for him to get stopped in the middle of it - he is very intensely involved in his character. He didn't walk around like that all day long. It was just a moment and it passed."

And Franklin is adamant the rant has only been released to slander Bale, who he worked with on the 2000 movie Shaft: "This was my second movie with Christian, and it has always been a good experience with him. He is so dedicated to the craft. I think someone is begging to make some noise (controversy) about this, but I don't think it's fair. The art of acting is not paint by numbers, it's an art form."

The audio clip, allegedly recorded in July 2008, was obtained by, which claims the film's executives sent the tape to their insurance company in case Bale didn't finish filming the movie.

The 35-year-old actor was arrested in July in London - just days after the recording was said to be taken - over accusations he attacked his mother and sister at the city's Dorchester Hotel before the British premiere of The Dark Knight."

I'm not sure how the "art of acting" enters into a fourth (yawn) Terminator movie. Could just be that the star is melting down about being a franchise slut. (One per customer is enough.)

Monday, February 02, 2009

Things to come

In 1981, a "home computer owner" pays $5 for a two-hour download of his daily newspaper in San Francisco. The bemused journalist covering the story for KRON isn't concerned about the ramifications this might have; after all, the paper product costs 20 cents, and it's the future...