Monday, October 30, 2006

Nightmares before Christmas

It's only fitting that my 80th post concern Halloween, which is my favorite holiday of the year--as you might have guessed given the monstrous orientation of a number of the preceding 79 missives. I passed through the costumes phase of Halloween long ago; my favorite was a spooky devil's mask that was, appropriately, hot as hell to wear, but never failed to startle candy-givers used to kids in tamer outfits. A little sadly, I've also passed out of the gifting phase; parents are loathe to hazard New York City streets with their tykes and I haven't treated a Halloweener in years, which probably means--damn!--I'm going to have to eat that bag of $100,000 Bars I bought just in case from the Pathmark myself.

[My mother would roll her eyes at this. She gets upwards of 150 trick-or-treaters in the suburbs of northern NJ, more in good weather--and tomorrow is expected to be spectacular. She fobbed the job off to me when I was in my late teens but was forced into reemployment when I flew the coop. Her favorite trick-or-treater I went back and forth to and from the nest today to pick up my goodie bag. The 41 Year-Old-Halloweener.]

One constant on Halloween is, of course, scary movies, which you never age out of. I imagine a lot of big kids will make a pilgrimage to Saw III tomorrow night, but not me; I find a lot of modern horror too depressingly nihilistic, more cynical and enervating than nerve-jangling. If I want that kind of horror, I'll turn on the appalling Nancy Grace for all the breathless details about the crime of the day.

So we're off to see Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas, reformatted for 3D, tomorrow evening. My first exposure to the film, in 1993, was dismal; I was in a time of transition that year, and in no mood for levity. I didn't think much of it till the HMV that used to be on Lexington/86th in Manhattan sold off all its laserdiscs in the late 90s; one of them was the gorgeously packaged deluxe package that Disney put out of that film, which I scooped up. What a difference the passage of time had made; I loved it, and would likely haul it out this year, if it weren't for the new theatrical print (I'm a sucker for 3D, and think everything should be in the format, especially talky art films that could use a little zip and zing) and the fact that my LD player is still in storage, awaiting a new stand, which no one seems to want to custom-build for us. Having survived Jaws, Lora--not a horror film fan--has submitted to indoctrination by Nightmare. I think she'll love it; after all, at its core, it is a musical comedy.

Speaking of musical comedy, we listened to "Science Fiction Double Feature," the first cut off The Rocky Horror Picture Show album, last night. The first of the 11 creature features mentioned in its lyrics is The Day the Earth Stood Still, which we watched last night via TCM, which really puts its best fright forward before and during Halloween. What a timeless, witty, and engrossing picture the 55-year-old Day is; so long as there's war, its brand of humanism will never go out of date, and besides the big picture themes (and that amazing Bernard Herrmann score, and Michael Rennie and Patricia Neal, and Gort the robot, everyone's favorite enforcer) it packs a lot of little things into its 92 minutes: vivid location shooting in Washington, D.C., a great, pre-Father Knows Best performance by Billy Gray, a movie kid for the ages, and lots of amusing, at times inadvertently revealing touches. When the military and scientific personnel assess the alien threat, they inevitably light up as the conversations intensify, ignorant or the first- and second-hand danger right in front of them.

If you're looking for film fare tomorrow night, you could do worse than watching the films listed in the "Science Fiction" song. The writing is very astute, though Doctor X (1932) does not build a creature (he is the creature, encased in synthetic flesh) and you'd have no idea how good Night of the Demon (1958) is from the sophomoric "casting the runes" lyrics. I don't think It Came From Outer Space is out of on DVD, and Forbidden Planet is coming next month in a spiffy 50th anniversary version. Unless you like noisy, stringed spaceships I'd cheat and watch the deliciously campy 1980 Flash Gordon over the 1935 serial. King Kong and The Invisible Man, from 1933, are readily accessed via Netflix, as are Tarantula (1955) and When Worlds Collide (1951). The DVD of 1963's Day of the Triffids could be better tended than it is.

And, yes, I have them all. It's always Halloween in my house, just a little more, tomorrow.

Friday, October 27, 2006

Dim bulbs

Ways to turn down the wattage on a movie, culled from this fall's releases:

1) Make your twist ending incomprehensible. The finale of The Prestige (pictured) had me scurrying to the Internet Movie Database to find out exactly what happened, and I wasn't alone. When I did, I realized why the filmmakers had been so coy with their dropped hints and photographic asides (the hats): It's pretty ridiculous. And it's off-putting that Christian Bale's character exhibits no emotion whatsoever about the fate of a fellow character. Then again, the whole film, while well-mounted, is pretty chilly and difficult to warm to; I prefer the summer's warmer-blooded magician movie, The Illusionist, but enough with the hocus pocus.

2) Throw away your movie with the very final shot. I enjoyed most of The Departed, nothing more, and nothing less (but nothing more) than a slick genre picture from Martin Scorsese, on a more even keel than recently. But I hope the DVD hits with two versions on the same disc: One with rat, and one without. I've read that the last shot is meant to be acridly humorous, and to underline the theme, but the theme--we're all rats!--is not one that needed to be underlined at the 150-minute mark, with 90 percent of the cast dispatched. We got it already.*

3) Don't bother to ID your characters. Just as the spectators in Stardust Memories prefer the "early, funny ones" of its Woody Allen-ish filmmaker, so, too, do I prefer the early, violent ones of Clint Eastwood. Flags of Our Fathers means to tell us that heroes are merely survivors, getting on with a ferociously difficult task, and that heroism is manufactured for the survival of societies--but the first point is illustrated with familiar, Saving Private Ryan imagery that has lost its potency since 1998, and the second, more abstract point is beyond its director's workmanlike abilities to engage with. (My friend John Calhoun called 2004's Million Dollar Baby "the best picture of 1954," too true.) Further hurting the cause is that, except for Adam Beach as the tragic Ira Hayes, the parts are dully cast and dully played, and that not nearly enough is done to identify the characters, some of whom turn up, confusingly, in the present-day scenes as well.

Which brings me to 3a) throw a lot of flashbacks at us, just as we're absorbing what's happening in one timeframe, and 3b) shoot everything in an eye-straining colorless color, as if that is the "color of war" (the color of war is simply natural color; Eastwood would never have bothered with this high-falutin processing before Unforgiven domesticated him). I was only moved by the black-and-white photographs and memorial footage that play over the closing credits.

4) Upstage your fact-based movie by showing us the real person. The Last Days of Scotland isn't a biopic, and takes rather far-fetched liberties with the truth. Initially, I didn't quite believe Forest Whitaker as Idi Amin; the actor specializes in gentle, or at least slyly introspective, parts. He assumed authority, though, in a wonderful scene where a wound Amin sustained is dressed, a sequence played for nervous comedy and near-terror by Whitaker and James McAvoy, as his doctor. I slowly bought into the illusion...then the credits roll and footage of the actual dictator is shown, returning me to square one and my gut reaction that Yaphet Kotto was a lot closer to the mark in the 1977 TV movie Raid on Entebbe.

5) More a comment than a concern: Scare us with a supporting player. As creepy as Nosferatu the vampire, Jackie Earle Haley makes such an alarming impression in Little Children I almost lost focus. All I could think of when he emerged from the ranks of the cinematic dead as a child molester was, "Is this what age 45 looks like?" I saw him in one of his teen-dream pictures, Damnation Alley--he looks to have been living there for the last 30 years. Frightening.

*Reviewing the sci-fi thriller Outland in 1981, Pauline Kael anticipated a movie where the good and bad guys stalk each other on computer screens. This is that movie, except it's via cellphones. There may have been others before, but this one felt particularly technophilic, and at least there are real chases and shoot-em-ups to compensate for this rather distant and faceless interaction.

Theater week

Heartbreak, activism, and a little melodrama at the Public Theater, on and off Broadway...

Pictured: Swoosie Kurtz, Lily Rabe, and Byron Jennings in Heartbreak House. Photo: Joan Marcus.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Over the edge

The camera alights on the Golden Gate Bridge, one of the world's most photogenic structures. Tourists snap pictures of the San Francisco Harbor. One person, however, paces, clearly agitated. He breaks from the crowd, and leaps--a 225' drop into chilly water with the consistency of th hardest concrete from that height. In four seconds he is down, and gone. Kiteboaders go by. The Bridge Police are called. Just another day.

In 2004, there were 24 suicides from the Golden Gate Bridge. And many of them were captured, on camera, by first-time director and documentarian Eric Steel, whose The Bridge (First Stripe Productions/IFC; opens Oct. 27) is surely the year's most troubling and thought-provoking film. I saw it two months ago and not a day goes by when I don't relive one of its starkly terrifying, and starkly beautiful, images.

The bridge is a magnet for leapers. There is no more inspiring place to end one's life; it has no rivals for suicide attempts. The magnificent structure provides a coda, a final stab at glory and immortality, for the desperate. It is terrifying to watch these lost souls in their descent; and it is also terribly enrapturing. You may wish to turn away, to avert your eyes. It's only human not to want to look. But do look. You understand why someone would wish to end their life in exactly this picturesque way.

You may not understand why city fathers have yet to put a stop to it. I don't get it; I walked the span of the bridge several times when I lived in the bay area and, picture postcards aside, the absence of constraints worried me. It's within their reach to put up suicide barriers, and The Bridge, with its incontrovertible facts, may yet spur action this front. But this is a political issue, which was a focus of "Jumpers," the very fine New Yorker article, by Tad Friend, that inspired Steel to make this film. It is not even addressed within the film itself, which I found a shortcoming. (It is discussed in the press notes.) This should have been a pro-barrier advocacy picture, one that I think would have had a greater galvanizing effect on the legislature (and would have doused discussion that the movie, which does not take a strong editorial stance, perpetuates suicidal ideation by susceptible viewers). How many hundreds of people have died on the bridge? How many more will die if this continues? Is San Francisco worried that by doing something at this late date they will open themselves up to lawsuits for not doing something sooner? So many questions.

Sticking to the film Steel has made, and not the one I wish he had made, it is clear that he has made an advocacy picture, about the stigma attached to suicide. He spoke about this at a Q&A that followed the screening I attended. Friends and family of the deceased speak wrenchingly of their loved ones, lost in a fog of depression before the Golden Gate transfixed their imagination as the last best hope for personal apocalypse. Why did they allow Steel permission to use their death leaps, I asked. He replied that they were grateful to have some record of their passing, some memento, however terrible--particularly when they looked so peaceful in that last moment going over the side.

Lest one think that this is a blissful way to die, or a "respectable snuff film," as Dennis Lim put it in The New York Times, a rare survivor of a Golden Gate suicide plunge, 25-year-old Kevin Hines, talks about his attempt. We hear about his deepening apathy when passers-by ignored his obvious distress--oblivious to his tears a German tourist asked him to take her picture--and his sudden realization that he wanted to live the second he left the guardrail. He hit the water feet first, which saved his vital organs from shattering on impact as he tries, today, to repair his damaged psyche. And the cameras do record a dramatic rescue, much to the anger of the would-be jumper. There is as much life in The Bridge as there is death.

While I may have wanted a different, more activist film, The Bridge is heart-breakingly fine, and goes beyond mere voyeurism. [You can read more about the making of the film at its website.] If only reason would prevail in San Francisco and there were no need to make it at all.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Stabbing at Scissors

I love Nip/Tuck. It's the kind of TV show I usually hate, full of plastic people--but its willingness to dig deep under their facades, psychically as well as physically, fascinates me. It "jumps the shark" every episode with some new and incredible plot twist, in or out of the operating room, then asks, "Well, if you think you're so above this, why are you still watching?" Why indeed? Its reveling in, and simultaneous critique of, our beauty-obsessed culture is just about the most riveting thing that's currently on the tube. And any show that finds something genuinely touching about Rosie O'Donnell, in a guest role, can't be easily dismissed.

So I was predisposed to like Running with Scissors (TriStar Pictures, opens Oct. 20), the feature film writing and directing debut of Nip/Tuck creator Ryan Murphy, from Augusten Burroughs' memoir, which is riding high atop The New York Times' paperback bestsellers list. But I didn't. Really, really, didn't, as Roger Ebert might say. What went wrong?

As on the show, there's no shortage of crazed egomaniacs and nutjob therapists in Burroughs' life, so Murphy should have felt right at home. An only child, six-year-old Augusten is buffeted between his parents, Norman (Alec Baldwin), an alcoholic math professor who can't make his precocious neatnik son add up, and Deirdre (Annette Bening), an unpublished poet whose wild flights of fantasy are fueled by her compulsive pill-popping. As the marriage hits the skids Deirdre signs up her family for intensive therapy with Dr. Finch (Brian Cox), a charismatic quack who retreats to his personal "masturbatorium" when the day-long sessions get boring. [It's the early 1970's, and anything goes.] Eventually, Deirdre, who ambles from prescription to prescription, decides that Augusten (played, from age 13-15, by Joseph Cross) should simply live with the Finches; moreover, the doctor should adopt the boy, as Deirdre pursues her "career" and Norman pretty much vanishes from sight. His roost in the crumbling Finch home is not a happy one--Mrs. Finch (Jill Clayburgh with matted, stringy hair) putters around monosyllabically, when not watching Dark Shadows, and eldest daughter Hope (Gwyneth Paltrow) thumps the Bible. Augusten, shell-shocked by his changing circumstances, announces he's gay--a prognosis that is immediately challenged by daughter Natalie (Evan Rachel Wood), a disco dolly, but confirmed by Neil (Joseph Fiennes), Finch's schizophrenic, 35-year-old son, who begins an affair with the boy.

I've not read the book, from which the film has apparently been fictionalized, at least in part. But I've read articles by Burroughs and can imagine its tone being one of a quirky, scruffy surrealism--a cataloging of mind-bending experiences actually lived. I'm not sure how credible a lot of it is, frankly; IRS investigators nose around the Finches but the doctor's law-skirting excesses seem too much even for the Seventies. But the movie is determined to make the unpalatable palatable, to smooth things over, to go for whimsy and heartache and final-act confrontations and healing. One look at Clayburgh and you know she will turn out to be the deux ex machina who sets the caged Finch free, so he can go off and become--this you already knew--a writer.

What Murphy can't do, however, is gloss over the abusive relationship Augusten has with the pitiably demented Neil. Nice try casting the older Cross in the role, to let the movie off the hook, but knowing that Augusten was in his early teens when the seduction began is guaranteed to raise the hackles. Casting a younger boy in the part would have thrown cold water all over the attempt to sentimentalize the relationship, to make it look like something other than abuse--which is pretty much the same thing Murphy does with Augusten and Deirdre, a monster mother to give Joan Crawford fits of envy. These are horrible people, whom the movie wants us to see as funny-sad, human in all their many flaws, and it just doesn't play. You can see the whitewash drying on the celluloid.

There are things to like about Running with Scissors. The actors are hamstrung by the slack, uncomfortable pacing of many of the scenes--Murphy's TV-learned strength is structuring between commercials--but not entirely defeated, and I appreciated the modulation Bening and Clayburgh (a Nip/Tuck veteran) managed to bring to their parts. Cross and Fiennes have difficult assignments they can't altogether rise to under the circumstances; Wood has an easier time of it, but I can't fathom why Paltrow took on her nothing part. [She's said she's tired of acting, and between this and Infamous I have no reason not to believe her.] The inevitable Brian Cox is disappointing as the charmingly fraudulent Finch; much as I like the actor, he is overexposed and underemoting, and needs to take a break.

The American Gothic Finch household designed by Richard Sherman, shot with an accent on bold primary colors by Christopher Baffa, is eye-catching. But so much of Running with Scissors, a film that wants to shock and soothe all at once, is mind-numbing. What really stuck in the craw was a note in the production releases from the author, saying that all is well--whatever happened to him, happened, and he's now a bestselling author with a movie to boot. I don't know what's more repellent; the movie, or the author's strip-mining and reframing of his own misery to attract sales.

Monday, October 16, 2006

Good and plenty

Much of last week was spent interviewing. MovieMaker magazine sent me to the Regency Hotel to give the third degree to three-time Academy Award nominee Ridley Scott about his first out-and-out comedy, A Good Year (20th Century Fox), which opens Nov. 10. Russell Crowe unveils what for many will be a hitherto-unsuspected light side in a slight but charming yarn about an arrogant master of the universe, London-issue, humbled in his efforts to sell off the crumbling French chateau and vineyard he has inherited from his bon vivant uncle, played in flashbacks by Albert Finney. Scott suggested a thread of the storyline, about black-market vintages, to his friend, former ad agency colleague and wine country neighbor Peter Mayle (author of A Year in Provence) and the novelist ran with it. I don't know how it stacks up to his 2004 novel but Scott's film (pictured) will feel like a gentle summer breeze when it reaches theaters next month. My interview with the director, who is shooting his latest film, American Gangster, in New York, will appear in the next issue of the magazine, also due in November.

Harry's Bar, in the Park Lane Hotel, was the site of a sitdown with Hong Kong filmmaker Johnnie To, who latest film, Triad Election (Tartan Films), played at the New York Film Festival. This is the sequel to To's gripping Election, which will get a Region 1 DVD release when Triad Election (or Election 2) begins its national release at New York's Film Forum next April 25. I'm not sure Film Forum is the best place for a launch, frankly; the theater has had no luck with its Asian aquisitions (the excellent Korean movie, Save the Green Planet!, sank there without trace in 2004), though it might make sense bundled with a To retrospective. The sequel, where the Hong Kong underworld comes under close scrutiny by the Chinese government, stands on its own despairing, dog-eat-dog (and, in one scene, people) merits, but you'll miss the back-and-forth between the two pictures and might mistake Lok (Simon Yam), who schemed his way to the top in Election, as some sort of hero, besieged by the more business-like Jimmy (Louis Koo), who played a smaller role in the first film. [Or you can just head over to your nearest Chinatown and pick up both on DVD, not that I want to sabotage Tartan, a commendable importer, in either market.]

The prolific To's very latest, Exiled, which Magnolia will release here next spring or early summer, also screened last year. A gangland caper set in Macau, this is a more playful film, with flourishes and themes that recall Sam Peckinpah and fellow HK-er John Woo, and a wonderful Bogart-type performance by jack-of-all-trades journeyman actor Anthony Wong (a little Beat the Devil here, a little Treasure of the Sierra Madre there, and a dab of High Sierra, too). The screening room erupted in cheers and clapping when the film ended, something that virtually never happens in New York (usually the journalists just file out quickly, well before the closing credits have concluded. Dereliction of duty, I say). I interviewed To with my Cineaste colleague Martha Nochimson, who has written a book on HK and Hollywood gangster movies, and I figure it will run in the spring issue.

I did not interview David Lynch, who showed up at the just-concluded NYFF with his latest film, Inland Empire, looking very much like I saw him when he last took the stage at Alice Tully Hall, with 2001's Mulholland Dr. Then again, Lynch is not forthcoming with questioners, deflecting queries about this-and-that interpretation with great politeness. Before I was enveloped in its three-hour running time Cineaste's Richard Porton told me that Inland Empire (nothing intriguing about the title, unless you look at it as some sort of metaphor for the life of the mind; it's the name of the belt of cities east of Los Angeles) was "Lynch's most avant-garde film, even more than Eraserhead," and he may just be right.

The movie, which was shot on digital then (a little smearily) transferred to film over a lengthy period, without a firm shooting script, earns its surreal stripes with minimal shock effects or violence. Like Mulholland Dr. , Inland Empire focuses on an actress, Nikki (Laura Dern, who with her long flaxen hair and green dress looked smashing at Lincoln Center and gives a staggeringly committed performance), who lands a big new part in a new film directed by Kingsley (Jeremy Irons). Almost immediately, however, the movie jettisons the real world for the Lynchian rabbit hole, where an apparent murder mystery involving subtitled Poles is taking place, bunnies perform in a bad TV sitcom, a scary clown and flame animation appear, and there are many Twin Peaks-like rooms and corridors for the prowling camera to explore. Nikki, who gets wrapped up in the Polish mystery (shades of The Double Life of Veronique), seems to expire on the Hollywood Walk of Fame (or is it the character she is playing?) and there are teasing interludes and a closing musical number with a bunch of young vamps. Rather than face cuts (which would be absurd for something as all-of-a-piece as this) Lynch is self-distributing Inland Empire, and his acolytes are urged to seek it out wherever it turns up. [It has crossover possibilities with his website.] For as much as I admired Dern once was likely enough from this corner, though I got a kick out of the rabbits and a heavily accented Grace Zabriskie.

And I made the rounds on and off Broadway last week, taking in the revival of A Chorus Line, a revival of George Bernard Shaw's Heartbreak House, and the controversial solo show My Name is Rachel Corrie, a London import. I'll have more to say about the latter two on the Live Design website. As for A Chorus Line, I was lukewarm; the cast is made up of good dancers but good singers and especially good actors are in short supply--the lovely "At The Ballet" suffered grievous injury--and when Zach seems more interested in Paul than in Cassie you have a problem. But it's better than the movie.

Friday, October 06, 2006

In and around the NYFF

The first two weeks of October are always one of the busiest times of the year for me. There's work deadlines. The New York Film Festival. The theater season. The new TV season. Vacuuming. Personal stuff. All of which conspires to keep me from blogging just when I should really be working the keyboard.

But I would be lax in my duties not to say at least a little something about the films I've been seeing in and around the festival, though it can only be a little something for now. As most of the movies are sold out at Lincoln Center, I can always return to them closer to their release.

Right? Or just rationalizing?

Anyway...playing at the festival this weekend...briefly noted...

Volver (Sony Pictures Classics, opens Nov. 3). After the chilly intellectual breezes of Talk to Her and Bad Education, Pedro Almodovar's new film warms the circulation. The subject matter--hauntings, cancer, severely dysfunctional family relationships, homicide--is bleak but the filmmaker has calibrated everything to the strut and bounce of Penelope Cruz's ravishing performance. Wearing a big caboose as if she were born to it, her liberation from stultifying U.S. roles is worth the price of admission, with the great Carmen Maura and a cast of fine actresses adding to a smart, reflective entertainment.

The Host (Magnolia Pictures; opens January 2007). Little Miss Sunshine meets Godzilla. When a ravening monster makes off with a plucky schoolgirl, her family is forced to put their grudges and anxieties behind as Korean bureaucracy and American duplicity prove as much of a challenge as the creature, a tadpole-like beast with a prehensile tail and the ever-devouring mouth of Little Shop of Horrors' Audrey II. Bong Joon-ho made one of my favorite films of recent years, Memories of Murder, and his contribution to monsterdom is an equally impressive mixture of satire, social criticism, and gentle humanism. A remarkable balancing act.

David Lynch's Inland Empire and Johnnie To's Triad Election (plus a peek at the Hong Kong filmmaker's very latest, Exiled) are on the slate for Sunday.

Screening next weekend at the festival is Emmanuel Bourdieu's unsettling Poison Friends (Strand Releasing), about a very particular type we all come across, this time at university in Paris--an effortlessly charismatic know-it-all (newcomer Thibault Vincon as Andre) whose effect on those in his orbit is part galvanizing and part paralyzing, inspiring, intimidating, and undermining all at once. The strength of the piece is that it refuses to outright condemn Andre, who is more, and less, what he seems to be through the prism of his merciless ego. The accompanying short, Chronicle of a Leap, is a delight, by the way.

The closing film, Guillermo del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth (Picturehouse, opens Dec. 29, and pictured), is very much a case of saving the best for last. A sweeping fantasy of a little girl caught in the crossfire of Franco-era fascism and insurgent resistance fighters in 1944 Spain, it takes its place with the best films of its kind, like Forbidden Games, The Night of the Hunter, and The Spirit of the Beehive, but is very much one-of-a-kind, a great leap forward for the inventive but inconsistent maker of The Devil's Backbone and Hellboy. Sergi Lopez is wonderfully malevolent as a sadistic captain, right up there with Robert Mitchum in Hunter, and Ivana Baquero charming as his youngest, most unexpected opponent. The fantasy aspects, creepy and persuasively design, augment the storyline well. Terrific.

Two other films open next weekend. Douglas McGrath's Infamous (Warner Independent Pictures) plows the same ground as last year's Capote, but with a lighter, "gayer" touch, as the writer (dead ringer Toby Jones) more explicitly finds a kinship with his journalistic quarry, the In Cold Blood killer Perry Smith (Daniel Craig). The New York material is mostly new and the all-star cast largely pleasant company, but once the film hits Kansas it's scene-to-scene similar to its more sober predecessor. Being first has definite advantages.

Being way, way out there does not, as is the case of Terry Gilliam's Tideland (ThinkFilm). This is an unfathomable and only very intermittently watchable story about a little girl lost in her own imagination of broken dolls and friendless souls once her hard-rocking father (Jeff Bridges) dies of a drug overdose, leaving behind little more than his rotting corpse in their isolated farmhouse home. Like David Cronenberg's Spider, the running time is largely given over to the kid (Jodelle Ferland in a heroically untethered performance) babbling nonsense to herself, a sure way to clear a theater. Those of us who stayed behind to watch to the bitter end were rewarded with an impressively staged aftermath of a train wreck, a metaphor that suits the entire artfully botched film. Only the hardest-core Gilliamites need apply; the rest of us can only hope that his semi-serious begging for work leads next time to a more engaging movie.

I hear the vacuum cleaner calling my name...

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

NYFF: Remembering Reds

In advance of its DVD debut next week, from Paramount Home Video, the New York Film Festival is screening Warren Beatty's Reds tomorrow evening. To further commemorate its 25th anniversary, the Village East theater in Manhattan is playing the film for a week, beginning this Friday.

Pretty middlebrow for the festival as it is today--hard to believe but in 1981 the NYFF got away with showing that year's eventual, and inferior, Best Picture winner, Chariots of Fire, which would be hooted off the screen if it were to be revived--and soapy and "Hollywood" in sections, the "interesting but wildly overpraised" (Leonard Maltin) Reds is still worth revisiting. Following up the audience-friendly Heaven Can Wait (1978) with a costly 200-minute drama about early 20th century radicalism and Bolshevism took fire in the belly for Beatty, a spark that has only flickered in subsequent features (I'd say the big problem with the much-scorned Ishtar is that, with the passing of time, it's a minor, throwaway disappointment, and not a major flop a cult can rally behind, like Heaven's Gate--one Columbia will assuredly not be celebrating on its 20th anniversary next year). The movie, framed with its novel use of elderly historical "witnesses" to comment on the tale, looks back wistfully on idealism and broken dreams; I suspect the supplement-laden DVD, a form Beatty has only just embraced, will have the same effect on viewers, taking us back to a Hollywood yesteryear when a Reds could buck the corporate system and get made.

My mom took me and one of my friends to see Reds when it played at the defunct Rockaway Townsquare Mall cinemas in New Jersey, in early 1982. Given that it bogs down in fiery speeches from time to time, and is short on physical action (big movies still get made, just not quiet, more intellectually challenging ones) it didn't have the same effect on my teenage consciousness as did, say, Raging Bull or Dressed to Kill, which mom also took me to see. But it made me want to know more about its subjects and personalities, and when a walking tour last year took me past John Reed's old haunts in Greenwich Village I could once again hear Diane Keaton's Louise Bryant warbling "I Don't Want to Play in Your Yard." I carried that tune around in my head for years after seeing the film (once at the theater, several times, if only in parts, on cable), and it was nice to have it pop back into my memory bank. Beatty, Keaton, Jack Nicholson (as a gimlet-eyed Eugene O'Neill) and Maureen Stapleton (an Oscar winner as the feisty Emma Goldman) are all aces (the last cast to be Oscar-nominated in all four acting categories) and I'm sure time has not dimmed the lustrous, Oscar-winning images DP Vittorio Storaro summoned for Beatty, who also claimed a statuette for his direction.

"It's rather a sad movie, because it really isn't very good," sniffed Pauline Kael, a Reds-baiter. But it's rather good enough. I'd go with David Thomson: "Still a fascinating picture with passages of greatness."

Monday, October 02, 2006

Naughty but nice

Shortbus begin exhilaratingly. A gorgeous diorama of New York City is unveiled. The nimble camera of cinematic Frank G. Demark glides up and around its talkie avenues, then pops in and out of windows, alighting on couples engaged in various forms of afternoon delight. Overlooking ground zero, a dominatrix cracks the whip over her "trust-fund baby" client. ("If you could be a superhero, what kind of superpower would you have?" he asks. "The power to make you more interesting," she responds. Crack!) A young gay man idly takes pictures of himself, then indulges in an impressive act of "self help" before his lover arrives to lend a hand, while a voyeur watches intently from a neighboring window. A sex therapist (played by Canadian TV personality Soon-Yik Lee, pictured) makes athletic but underwhelming whoopee with her husband, her only partner--to date.

The second film from Hedwig and the Angry Inch creator John Cameron Mitchell, Shortbus (opening Oct. 4, from ThinkFilm) is sweet and silly. The therapist, Sofia, confides in the gay couple, who have come to her for treatment, that she has never reached orgasm. (This after slapping them around. Sofia evidently trained at the same institute where Genevieve Bujold's frustrated radio shrink Nancy Love, in Alan Rudolph's Choose Me, got her degree. The films share a slightly similar vibe.) They recommend she joins them at a "shortbus," a polysexual party where anything goes, and where all the film's characters converge, intersect, and break apart, forming new relationships and/or reenergizing the existing ones.

The converging, intersection, and breaking apart is quite literal. As we saw in the opening sequence, which climaxes rather than concludes, nothing if left to the imagination in this unrated film. Mitchell's simple, but radical, idea, is to reclaim pleasure from pornography. The sex, which in most porn looks like pile-driving, is humanized here, even at its most unconventional (a gay threesome whose participants simultaneously start singing "The Star-Spangled Banner" is funny, rather than tasteless, or heavily ironic). There are "money shots" but the camera is largely positioned at a curious, let's-see-what-we-have-here middle distance. The mostly non-professional actors (with a smattering of downtown types, like ringmaster Justin Bond, among them), who helped Mitchell devise the script, are never violated for our jollies. Provided you can handle sex scenes that may veer from your comfort zone, Shortbus is an upbeat and disarming experience, with another langorous Yo La Tengo score to accompany a utopian vision far different than the one depicted in Old Joy.

Shortbus is also a thoroughly enjoyable Manhattan movie, moving from its allusion to 9/11 to the peace and quiet of the 2003 blackout, a bliss-out that settles over the film. I left satisfied.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Angel in America

At age 50, playwright and liberal activist Tony Kushner is a little young for documentary treatment--but if the likes of Jessica Simpson can snag an hour on E! for their accomplishments, I can't begrudge an hour-and-a-half in the company of one of America's finest authors. As it happens, seeing both parts of his epic "fantasia" Angels in America, which I caught on a Wednesday matinee and evening toward the end of its Broadway run in 1994, is one of the best experiences I have ever had in my life. Note that I didn't add the qualifier "theatrical" before "experiences"--it was this monumental production, so full of life and art and anger and love and showbiz, that really got me interested in the theater, and that really made me think about the many issues it enveloped, and I can truly say I emerged a better (or at least, more thoughtful) person from having seen it.

Freida Lee Mock's unashamedly admiring Wrestling With Angels: Playwright Tony Kushner, which opens Oct. 4 at Manhattan's Film Forum, was filmed about a decade after this breakthrough, and offers a picture of the writer juggling various projects from just after 9/11 to the 2004 presidential election. Mock, an Oscar winner for Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision, typically captures Kushner in mid-stride, hurdling from his Union Square office or upstate New York home to attend to, among others, his play Homebody/Kabul; Mike Nichols' very fine HBO film of Angels in America (the photo shows him, center, visiting its Central Park location); an adaptation of Brundibar, a children's opera designed by Maurice Sendak, and based on a production the youngest victims of the Holocaust performed in captivity; and the musical Caroline, or Change, which encompasses some of his boyhood in Louisiana.

Personal recollections are fleeting. We hear a little about his troubled relationship with his musician father, a rift, caused by Kushner's homosexuality, that healed. We see his wedding ceremony to his life partner, but hear nothing from either man about what they mean to each other. Kushner has a lot of barbed, funny, and generous things to say about the U.S. political scene and the many issues addressed in his work, but is largely discreet about himself. This is one portrait that lacks an animating brushstroke, the stuff of life to make it more fascinating on the celluloid canvas. (There is his weight fluctuation, which rises and falls from scene to scene and is attended to by his "fat doctor,", but what I wanted was more of his inner life.)

In an interview in today's New York Times, Kushner quite rightly laments the absence of critical voices in the film. Mock's lame response is that no controversies arose during the filming. No go. For openers, Mock might have sat down with Times reviewer Ben Brantley, whose appraisal of Caroline, or Change, a Broadway flop after its mixed reception off Broadway at the Public, was withering (and close to my own opinion). All we get is the good news from Frank Rich, and everyone else; surely a member of the right could have been found as a rebuttal witness?

The inescapable flaw with Wrestling With Angels is that filming ended a year too soon. I wanted to hear from Kushner on Katrina, not to mention the 2004 election; we see him at the polling stations but there's no followup on the crushing day after. And his script for Steven Spielberg's Munich was a lightning rod for controversy on the left and the right. Mock, a worshipper, plays too easily into Kushner's reticence; these are just three issues that might have forced her to get off her knees and take the full measure of the man.

Photo credit: Todd Shotz

Stop, Go, at the New York Film Festival

After five-plus years of faithful service I suspect my Vaio is about to go bye-o. It's been singing a slumbering "Daisy...Daisy..." to me since yesterday, when Outlook developed a paralyzing glitch that took an hour of phone calls to not-really-fix, and we know what happened to HAL the computer in 2001 when he went all buggy. Not to mix my movie metaphors here, but I'm waiting with an empty bucket in hand if she starts taking on more water, like the African Queen.

Which means, natch, that those "intelligent and involved posts" have taken a backseat, and at an inopportune moment, at the start of the 44th New York Film Festival (NYFF). But I'm annoyed with the festival this year, and can't say I've been all that eager to cover it. Let me get this off my chest, and I'll move on.

I've been a Film Society of Lincoln Center member since 1994, well before I got on press lists, which have enabled me to see some of this year's films. But even with that, I'd still pay to attend the movies--if only they'd get the pre-order forms to me promptly, as every member rightfully expects. It didn't happen last year, and it didn't happen this year, either. This year, the order form didn't come till after the announcement of films had appeared in The New York Times, by which time it's far too late to get tickets for the biggest films.

Now, it used to be that even the smallest, distributor-less movies were sold out by then, but rising prices--$16 and $20, up from the $8 and $10 I paid back in the 90s--seem to have left swatches of empty seats in their wake. Even with a Q&A attached with the attending filmmakers that's pricey for a film, especially ones that will open for $10.75 the next day following their premiere, like The Queen (pictured) and Little Children. And cost-conscious buffs are less likely to take a chance on an unknown quantity at that outlay. I liked to mix it up--seeing, let's say, three films on a Sunday, one of them a big fish, and the other two "mystery movies" that sounded enticing. I saw 16 films one year, and loved it, regardless of the expense, which was smaller back in the day. Who knows--I might have done the same this year and last, though I noticed that a number of films are only screening once, down from the usual two showings, for reasons unknown.

I'm being slightly disingenuous. Yes, I am on a few press lists, but I'm not "accredited" for the festival, as I was for Montreal, where I breezed in (and out) of screenings with the ease of an X-Man. But as I said, I would have paid full freight. What has changed is my life, which, happily, no longer revolves around chronic cinematosis (it now revolves around Battlestar Galactica, which is a different story). But whether I buy two tickets or 20 is immaterial: The materials should arrive, as they always did till last year (when I was still living on the Upper East Side of Manhattan) the week before Labor Day, allowing ample time for consideration and organ donation to pay for it all. [Not that Brooklyn has changed my trip any; it takes the same amount of time to get to Lincoln Center as it did from there. Strange but true, life with mass transit.]

When I called to inquire, I was told that I wasn't the only member to complain, that due to an "aging computer system" a number of us had been left in the lurch. I can relate, but no one except me loses out if my computer crashes and burns. A core constituency is being ignored by this technical deficit.

I will add that the documents arrived via e-mail a few minutes later, followed by that way-too-late mailing, but the damage had been done,compounded by last year's slight. Adding insult to injury, my Film Comment, free with my membership, didn't arrive, either, necessitating further e-mails.

And to think, I interviewed festival honcho Richard Pena for once. And copy-edited their programs for Stagebill. Richard, where is the love?

I had reupped my Film Society membership before this little fiasco. I considered canceling, but held on. I'm not so sure about next year, and I bet I'm not alone. Get on the ball.

Back to our regular scheduled programming.

I went to a press screening of veteran filmmaker Tian Zhuangzhuang's The Go Master. More history: A few years ago, I had to write about the design of a play dealing with the ancient Japanese board game for the Public Theater's Stagebill. I couldn't see the play beforehand, and it was a tricky story to write, as the play centered on a subject I knew nothing about and the designers had a hard time verbalizing the Go-specific look of the set. Four years later, I was hoping this film, about the life of master player Wu Qingyuan, might clue me in more. No such luck: Go is the backdrop to Wu's life story, which sees him exported to Japan from his native China to play the game, as the two countries gird for war. Later, a religious cult tries to manipulate his celebrity. [Wu is in his early 90's today.]

Tian, whose 2002 NYFF entry Springtime in a Small Town has taken up residence on the Sundance Channel, is more interested in the life of the mind and the hardiness of personal values and beliefs as circumstances change, sometimes drastically; in a way, the quiet, meditative, lovely-to-look-at film reminded me of the equally cloistered Last Emperor, which had a much less cerebral character at its center. [Not that the movie lacks humor; there is a good fart gag, up there with the ones on Deadwood.] The Go Master is ideal NYFF fare, and screens tonight at 6pm. Too bad the Film Society couldn't pass "go" with me this year.