Saturday, March 31, 2007

Briefly noted

There's something in the air as winter yields to spring that makes Northeasterners want to get up and go. I'm not immune. But before I go Westward ho, a few small things.

Building on a stronger-than-usual March, April starts off with not one but two good movies. Paul Verhoeven's Black Book, a return to form for the brazen Dutch filmmaker, may be better than good; it rattled by so quickly at a screening I attended I may need to see it again, to verify that the shot of adrenaline it gave to me that first time was no fluke. It's the flip side of his Soldier of Orange (1977), an epic examination of Dutch resistance fighters during World War II; here, the resistance is complicit in corruption and betrayal, and a Nazi's loving arms may be the most secure refuge for Rachel (an astonishing go-for-broke performance by Carice van Houten), a Jew who goes from one perilous situation to another once her family is wiped out on an informant's tip (Lives of Others co-star Sebastian Koch is the helpful blackshirt). Paced like an especially gripping graphic novel, Black Book races from one hair-raising, white-is-black and black-is-white, reversal to the next; I was wrung out, but completely satisfied, after its 145 minutes came to an end. Verhoeven's sensational (and sensationalist) Hollywood career, including personal favorites Robocop and Total Recall, fizzled out with Hollow Man. But this reunion with screenwriter Gerard Soeteman, his collaborator on Soldier and the still-shocking Turkish Delight (an Oscar nominee, which Black Book should have been), Spetters, and The Fourth Man, is a house afire. Sony Pictures Classics releases it on Apr. 4.

Like Zodiac, The Hoax (Miramax, Apr. 6) dives into Seventies-era paranoia, but director Lasse Hallstrom has a looser, funnier story to tell. Richard Gere, who idles as a good guy but comes alive in sleazier parts, has a good one as Clifford Irving, who, feeling unappreciated by New York's publishing establishment forged a memoir by Howard Hughes and did jail time for the deception. The book was a fraud, but it wasn't altogether a cheat. The author and his put-upon aide de camp, Dick Susskind (Alfred Molina), did solid research, which, in a clever adaptation (by William Wheeler) of an Irving memoir, made them ripe for manipulation by Hughes and the Nixon administration. To further explore the Hughes mindset, Irving actually "becomes" Hughes, via makeup, which pushes him that much closer to the brink. Harrowing in spots--it was fascinating to observe a screening room audience of journalists egg Irving on in his deception--The Hoax is a wryly cockeyed story of literary shell games that spin out of control for the players and the played.

My theatergoing was bound to strike a reef, and I crashed into Charles Busch's Our Leading Lady, a wan attempt by the author to move beyond knowing movie spoofery. Like Busch, it's a drag. The show-within-a-show conceit didn't get much better with the Kander and Ebb-ish musical comedy Curtains, which expends some terrific performers (including David Hyde-Pierce, Debra Monk, Karen Ziemba, and Edward Hibbert) and two or three decent numbers on a shapeless and not-very-funny mystery storyline badly in need of some of The Drowsy Chaperone's snap. Better, though, for plays and musicals to find subjects other than plays and musicals. The Pirate Queen has an interesting one, but discretion and an Apr. 5 opening date prevent me from saying more, except that I may not have the right chromosomes to appreciate a feminist-lite historical potboiler with song lyrics like, I kid you not, "She's confused about her gender," which are more 21st century Oprah than 16th century Ireland.

Last Sunday was a triple-witching night of TV series and season finales. We'll miss HBO's Rome, which was forced to telescope a lot of history into its second and alas final season, but emerged as good television, if never as great as I had hoped. Co-stars Kevin McKidd (the next James Bond?), Ray Stevenson, James Purefoy, and Kerry Condon will all move onto other assignments, and Lindsay Duncan secured her position as the most otherworldly actress of our time, seemingly channeling oracles and spectres and scaring the bejesus out of Polly Walker, the second coming of Joan Collins. Maybe Slings and Arrows will surprise us with a fourth series but the delightful Canadian show ended on a high note with its King Lear finale; the droll and good-hearted program is a must for anyone who appreciates theater and is worth moving to the top of your Netflix queue. Battlestar Galactica, meanwhile, ended a third solid season of intrigue with a few puzzles that will have to wait till 2008 to solve. I promise to be back before that, though.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Viral Malkovich

There were multiple John Malkovichs in the 1999 comedy that bears his name. He has been hard to pin down ever since, veering from Hollywood junk (Eragon) to high-art pictures, fashion spreads, and the occasional noteworthy credit, like Ripley's Game, from 2002, the same year he made an intriguing directorial debut with The Dancer Upstairs. In Colour Me Kubrick...A True-ish Story, the actor has gone viral, a non-fatal but highly communicable disease infecting gullible Londoners. Malkovich plays Alan Conway, in a loose account of the con man's highly successful masquerade as the reclusive director Stanley Kubrick during the years-long filming of 1999's Eyes Wide Shut.

The British-born Conway neither looked nor sounded anything like the bearded, Bronx-bred Kubrick, and knew little about his career; according to accounts of his spree, the only Kubrick film he had seen was Lolita, and that for only ten minutes. But he knew enough about the nature of celebrity to know that pretending to be one would be enough for him to cadge booze, money, and sex from his marks, all caught up in the delusion that "Stanley" would make them costume designers, rock stars, or Vegas lounge acts, whatever their fantasy job was. They were too embarrassed to prosecute, and Conway, shuffled off to a posh loony bin in the screen story, died a free man in 1998, just three months before Kubrick passed away.

Playing Conway, Malkovich starts off somewhere in a stratosphere of high gay camp, and by the end of the film has reached his own stargate, a la 2001: A Space Odyssey. Dressed and coiffed like a transvestite, in short pink pants and silk shirts with lizard imprints, the actor adopts a new and more bizarre accent for each successive deception, which is pretty much all that the film is (that, and allusions to Spartacus, 2001, and A Clockwork Orange). The director, Brian W. Cook, and the screenwriter, Anthony Frewin, both associates of the real Kubrick, would have us believe that the more ridiculous Conway became, the easier it was for the swindled to believe that he was the Olympian director, who lived on his own unique plain, if not the gay fantasia Conway envisioned for himself. Maybe.

But I suspect they fell hard for the comic Malkovich who emerged from Being John Malkovich, and let the performer, who has an affinity for rogues, fool them into more and more improbable masquerades within the Kubrick persona. Recognizable performers like Honor Blackman, Robert Powell, and William Hootkins and Marisa Berenson (playing New York Times writers Frank Rich and Alex Witchel, who were caught up in Conway's act) flit in and out of the picture for a scene or two, but Colour Me Kubrick is basically a star turn overwhelmed by its star. The only real tension, and smoothly shaped scene, is a break from the funny freeloading, when a film buff calls Conway on his pretending. I doubt Kubrick would ever have countenanced such a slapdash goof, a true-ish story that is long-ish at 86 minutes, even if Malkovich does provide an irresistible sugar rush at first.

Colour Me Kubrick is out on DVD today. It opened in a few theaters on Friday, the same day it premiered on HDNet Movies, which is where I saw it, in a nice hi-def transfer that preserves every lurid hue in Conway's clothing. With so many ways to see the film its U.S. distributor, Magnolia Pictures, clearly intends for it to be catching.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Wedding blues

With his long and glowering face, Mads Mikkelsen is the Christopher Walken of Denmark. Both have played Bond villains, and if Mikkelsen were to work on his accent and guest-host on Saturday Night Live it would take a minute or two to realize the substitution. The difference is that Mikkelsen, at age 40, can still play legitimate romantic leads; there was audible swooning at the screening room where I saw his latest local picture, Susanne Bier's After the Wedding, which IFC Films opens on March 30. Walken, meanwhile, has to make do with a padded and bewigged John Travolta in this summer's film version of the Hairspray musical. Maybe the two actors will do a father-son thing together.

Mikkelsen's always slightly menacing presence in the trailer for After the Wedding indicated a thriller, but this is misleading. The film, which Bier co-wrote with Anders Thomas Jensen, is more of a soap opera, which I don't mean disparagingly; the story baits you with little plot hooks that add up to a larger, more dimensional hole. With its secrets and lies, it put me in mind of The Celebration, without that film's malicious edge. Mikkelsen is Jacob, who walked out on a drug-soaked past in Amsterdam for a more fulfilling and redemptive life managing an orphanage in India. (The sighing started when he and one the boys in his care struck up a natural rapport; nothing like a kid to warm up an icy-looking male lead a little. I was just amazed to see that Mikkelsen was capable of a tan.) An industrial magnate, Jorgen (Rolf Lassgard), offers to make the orphanage's money woes go away permanently, if only Jacob will attend his daughter's wedding back home, which the idealistic Jacob is loathe to do. Money talks, however, so Jacob dons his penguin suit--and is alarmed to discover that Jorgen is married to his former flame, Helene (Sidse Babett Knudsen). You can probably guess how Jacob is related to Jorgen and Helene's newlywed daughter, Anna (Stine Fischer Christensen), but just why the plump and self-satisfied Jorgen, who puts unwelcome conditions on his gift, is pulling the strings is revealed more gradually.

Bier's last film, 2005's Brothers, was about two people not having an affair, and there is a similar reticence here. (Except when everyone is grooving to the Weather Girls' "It's Raining Men," which happens twice at family gatherings. It's strangely...Walkenesque, watching Mikkelsen fly his freak flag for a few minutes.) That film had the Iraq war as a backdrop, but this one is more cosmic, gathering up strands of sentiment and attachment, first to make a switch--everyone winds up a little stung under love's lash--then tying them up for a hankie, which you might need at the picture's conclusion, not that the director overstimulates the tear ducts. A good foil for the chubby and life-embracing Lassard, her star is not for melting, which is all the better for the piece, which might dissolve into treacle without his steely presence.

After the Wedding is the weakest of the films nominated for the 2006 Foreign-Language Film Oscar. But it's still pretty good, and the final proof of a strong year for that category.

Much obliged...

I hadn't looked at my stats recently, but was pleased to discover that not one but two favorite destinations had linked to my site in the last week. Since the excellent House Next Door inaugurated its "Links for the Day" feature I'd dreamed of cracking its code and placing an entry there, and leave it to James Bond to figure a way in, on March 20. (Its coverage of many things, but Battlestar Galactica in particular, is second to none.) Likewise, Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule, a site that's easy to spend a lot of time with, made special mention of my Freddie Francis obit, which it picked up by way of the almighty GreenCine Daily.

I'm not sure the warm-and-fuzzies are an appropriate way to acknowledge my peers in blogdom, but, like Jack Lemmon in Glengarry Glen Ross, it's always rewarding to find yourself on "the big board."

And a shout out to those who found me by Googling "Christian Hoff impersonation" and "Michael Pena shirtless." I hope you found what you were looking for. I figure if I post entries titled "Brad Pitt shirtless" and "Jessica Biel topless" I'll be at one million hits in a few days.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

On The Lookout

In making his directorial debut, screenwriter Scott Frank (Out of Sight, Dead Again), has outfoxed himself. The Lookout (Miramax; opens March 30) has a genuinely interesting protagonist, keenly played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who gave such a raw and forceful performance in 2005's Mysterious Skin and is clearly destined for better things. But Frank has plunked him down in a tired heist scenario, so rote that, like Gordon-Levitt's Chris Pratt, I'm having trouble remembering much about it just a few weeks later.

Chris is a star athlete in high school who, in the blink of eye, lost everything, including his short-term memory capacity and his world-for-the-taking attitude, in a murkily recalled car crash. Paired with a blind roommate, Lewis (the ever-reliable Jeff Daniels), while in rehab, and trying to stick to daily routines (which, Memento-style, he keeps pinned to his refrigerator, and repeats to himself time and again), Chris pushes a broom after-hours at a local bank. Into his narrow, cautious life swaggers Gary (British actor Matthew Goode, from Match Point), who encourages him to live it up--and if that includes dallying with his stripper girlfriend Luvlee (Wedding Crashers co-star Isla Fisher), so be it. Gary's fidelity is to the almighty dollar, and the one string attached to his friendship is Chris' participation, willing or not, in the robbery of his bank.

Wisely underplaying Chris' disabilities, and a good enough actor to skirt the fact that he is in no way a jock, Gordon-Levitt gives an honest, empathetic performance, a discretion that might have helped Goode, who's a little too zealous playing American. Except for its lead performance, however, the film is unexciting--a little too respectable--and as flat as its Midwestern landscapes (Winnipeg standing in for Kansas City, a locale used for more flavorful crime in The Ice Harvest). It's so tidily made the disappearance of a major character from the story creates a gaping hole, something that a little smoke and mirrors might have more easily disguised, and setting up a potential twist that never pays off. How and why Frank failed to seal this crack, which mars the clean if dulled surfaces of The Lookout, is a bigger mystery than anything in the film.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Theater Talk

From the pixels of Live Design magazine, a quick gambol through four productions, two on Broadway, and two off. I feel I see Liev Schreiber as much as I see my parents, and the visits are equally welcome. But with a baby on the way and Naomi Watts to co-habit with I suspect the siren song of TV and movie money will cause him to cut back on his stage work, so Talk Radio may be your last chance in a while to see Liev live, through June 24.

I spent some time at the Brooklyn Academy of Music last week. We seem to be the only ones in our circle of friends to have enjoyed Matthew Bourne's balletic take on Edward Scissorhands. True, there's as much pantomime in the retelling than there is dance, but it's quite well done and put me in mind of Jacques Tati's Playtime, where everyone is indulging in some sort of business and you don't know where to look (Edward isn't always the focal point of the piece). Then again, I'm not the biggest fan of the wispy (and at times didactic) Tim Burton film, so the changes made to the storyline didn't bug me (though the ice sculpture bit really does belong at the very end; its placement toward the end of the ballet makes the rest anticlimactic). In any case, the embroidered Danny Elfman score is wonderful and the production a treat to look at from beginning to end.

No reservations whatsoever about another British import, Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew, a co-production of the Watermill and the Old Vic playing in repertory with Twelfth Night. Besides, of course, the musical comedy version Kiss Me, Kate, I've seen the 1967 Taylor-Burton-Zeffirelli film and the Delacorte's 1999 production, which both winked at the sexual politics of the piece, but as performed by the all-male Propeller company Petruchio and Kate's turbulent relationship is no laughing matter. The male Kate (Simon Scardifield), a spiky, punkish blonde, gives as good as he gets in the fight scenes, but by Act II is as bedraggled as a wounded bird--the ending, usually played with an ironic nod to our supposedly "enlightened" sensibilities, is piercing. There is a lot of humor in this production, with the actors popping in and out of armoires like the Marx Brothers, but tremendous gravity, too. It's worth trekking to BAM for.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

The delectable Madame De...

One week left to see Max Ophuls' masterpiece, The Earrings of Madame De... , at New York's Film Forum, which is showcasing a ravishing new 35mm print through March 29. Janus Films has it for theatrical release, which means a long-overdue Criterion Collection DVD may finally be in the offing, but, as Anthony Lane says in this week's New Yorker, there is no excuse for missing it at the movies.

I first saw Madame De... (1953) at an Ophuls retrospective that the Film Society of Lincoln Center held in 2002. Many noteworthy titles were shown (I recall taking in Le Plaisir and Letter From an Unknown Woman, and had just seen The Reckless Moment, remade as 2001's The Deep End, around the same time) but Madame De... quite simply devastated me. It starts out like a fable of frivolous upper-crust lives in 19th century Paris, then deepens into gale-force tragedy, without you ever really sensing it to the very final shots. My breath was literally taken from me. Much the same thing happened to me last night, and Lora had the same reaction. A simply stunning film.

Afterwards, I was wondering why no one seems to have attempted a stage musical of the material. It lends itself very well to the form. But it is pure cinema--Christian Matras' restless camera, alighting precisely where it needs to be at all times, is as much a character as its trio of fate-bound characters, faultlessly enacted by Danielle Darrieux (90 years old on May 1, and still working), Charles Boyer (never better), and Vittorio De Sica. Though it has ballroom sequences, it may be musical enough without songs.

Andrew Sarris has called Madame De... (its original title; The Earrings was added for the US) the greatest film of all time. reported that Meryl Streep had a look last Saturday afternoon. If it's good enough for Sarris and Streep, it's good enough for you.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

RIP Freddie Francis

The great cinematographer, a two-time Oscar winner for the beautifully shot Sons and Lovers (1960), one of the best attempts to bring D.H. Lawrence to the screen, and 1989's moving Civil War drama, Glory, one of my favorite films of the last two decades, has passed away, at age 89.

Francis was truly a master of light. He found so many notes in illumination: The blunt, at times beautiful, realism, of Room at the Top (1959) and Sons and Lovers. The mysteriously diffuse The Innocents (1961). The graceful, time-straddling look of The French Lieutenant's Woman (1981). Three uniquely realized credits for David Lynch: The Elephant Man (1980), a startling return to black-and-white, Dune (1984), with its individualized sci-fi environments, and, his last credit, and a high note to retire his lenses on, 1999's The Straight Story.

Between 1964's Night Must Fall and The Elephant Man, Francis concentrated on directing, which is where I first made his acquaintance. Francis was a house director for Hammer and its competitor, Amicus, turning out installments of the former's long-running Dracula and Frankenstein series with a basic let's-put-on-a-show professionalism, no matter how tired the storylines and threadbare the budgets were. Some of them were beyond salvaging, and Francis was said to have had regrets that he never graduated to bigger and better things behind the megaphone. But some, like Joan Crawford's career-ender Trog (1970), are campily enjoyable, and some were really quite good--1965's The Skull and Dr. Terror's House of Horrors, and 1973's The Creeping Flesh, are fine pairings for the horror dream team, Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee.

Good, bad, or indifferent, there was a time when I loved them all, and he seems to have made his peace with his resume. One of his last, higher-end directing credits, a Dylan Thomas screenplay about grave-robbing, The Doctors and The Devils (1985), is a Hammer film in everything but studio credit, and his familiarity with the genre clearly informs the lighting and camera placement of 1991's Cape Fear. Surely Hammer fan Martin Scorsese had Dracula Has Risen from the Grave (1968) more in mind than Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960) when he tapped Francis for the assignment.

John Simon once carped, "the esteemed cinematographer, Freddie Francis, has lately taken to directing Tales from the Crypt, Tales That Witness Madness, and other tales told by an idiot." But with two enduring careers to his credit Francis was no dummy, and like the late Richard Fleischer, I spent many happy hours in his cinematic care.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Dear Sandra,

I'm afraid it's time to have a serious talk about our relationship. Your latest film, Premonition, got off to an OK start at the boxoffice, but you didn't have to be clairvoyant to foresee the reviews ("sloppy and absent-minded," raved The New York Times). I must confess to you that I skipped the free previews, and won't be a paying customer. I haven't even dropped it into my Netflix queue, where your last unstuck-in-time whackadoodle, The Lake House, currently languishes near the bottom of the pile.

Sandra, what happened to us?

We started off so well. I remember where it all began, in L.A., fall 1993, where, with a few hours to kill, I went to see Sylvester Stallone and Wesley Snipes slug it out in Demolition Man. There you were, so perky, so delightful, reciting TV commercial jingles and stealing the film. And my heart. I don't swoon easily, but your note-perfect girl-next-door persona was captivating.

Better was to come. You hooked me in Speed. Driving that bus, and animating for a couple of hours the human woodcut known as Keanu Reeves--wow. I saw it three times, own the DVD, and can never tear myself away when it turns up on TV. Tina Turner told Rolling Stone she wanted to be you, behind the wheel. Tina Turner. Awesome. You were on a roll, Sandra.

Then, the inevitable turn to romantic comedies, challenging Julia Roberts and Meg Ryan, in 1995's While You Were Sleeping. Another big score, in a cute, innocuous movie. Not really my bag, Sandra, and I knew what was in store. Maybe you did, too. You now wore the mantle of America's Sweetheart--but you wore the crown uneasily, as if you knew you could better but couldn't bring yourself to rage against the popcorn machine. The wholesome-image thing was tough to overcome, and the bad guys who threatened in The Net and A Time to Kill couldn't beat it out of you. So you played along, in successful films that went in one eye and out the other--Hope Floats, Forces of Nature, etc. The very title, Miss Congeniality, summed up your predicament, and that was the biggest money-spinner of them all.

Once you hit 40, however, you decided, enough was enough. You put on the happy face one last time, with the male you, Hugh Grant, in 2002's Two Weeks had no way of knowing, but the last scene of the film was shot two blocks from my old place, on First Avenue and 84th Street in Manhattan. I looked for you and Hugh, and saw only your lighting doubles. I was a little disappointed, but, let's face it, we had grown apart.

While relieved that you had unburdened yourself from movie romance--though your lengthy offscreen fling with Murder By Numbers co-star Ryan Gosling was a cradle-robbing surprise, you saucy minx!--your choice in material remained questionable. After a fast start you had underachieved, an A-level star in C-movies like In Love and War and Gun Shy. You have sought to reinvent yourself as a character star, tucking yourself away in an ensemble picture like Crash (so mean you were to your maid!) while taking the lead in pictures like Premonition--which, I fear, wipes out those gains. I'm avoiding the new film, despite the co-starring presence of the dastardly Julian McMahon, so as not to erase the pleasant memory of your limpid and lovely Harper Lee in last year's Infamous. It wasn't your fault that the other Capote picture stole your quiet thunder.

Sandra, I could go on. But it may be best for us to part, if only temporarily, on this more upbeat note. The Internet Movie Database shows no upcoming credits for you. Perhaps you are settling into wedded bliss with your twice-married TV biker husband "Jesse James," and, yes, you sense my concern as I write that (what is it with you and your Practical Magic co-star Nicole Kidman and your choice of men? I see neither practicality nor magic in these associations). This hasn't been easy for me to write. But I am cautiously optimistic for you. And for us.


Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Of human Bond-age

DVD collectors can rejoice: Finally, a good James Bond movie to put on your shelves, as Casino Royale makes its debut today. And, if you're like me, you've restocked your Bonds more than once, an exercise that illustrates the joys and frustration of collecting.

My collecting of the superspy's exploits actually begins with the books, most of which I still have in 70's-era paperbacks. I was not quite a teen when I started reading them, and have to admit I didn't like them as much, as, say, the spy adventure novels of Alistair Maclean, which were far more riveting. But I knew enough to recognize that they didn't have all that much in common with the movies, which I started seeing in about 1973, when Diamonds Are Forever and Live and Let Die were twinned for a double feature my dad took me to. After that I was hooked, watching reruns, over and over again, on ABC, which held the TV rights to the series. I remember staying up till 2am one night to catch Dr. No for the zillionth time, one of my first TV viewings after midnight. Not long afterwards we got cable--HBO and Cinemax showed them at reasonable hours, and without commercials and content cuts to boot.

Somewhere in the too short-lived Dalton era (1987-1989) the original CBS/Fox VHS tapes of the films came down in price, and within a few trips to the mall I had them all. What a thrill it was to really own a movie. And what a revelation to discover that On Her Majesty's Secret Service (1969), which ABC had completely, and senselessly, altered (including a Bond narration) was in fact a terrific picture, one of the series' best, even if George Lazenby wasn't the greatest actor to follow in Sean Connery's footsteps, though he wore a ruffled shirt with aplomb (it was never rerun on cable, but has been rediscovered and reclaimed). Had I but known I would still own my tape of From Russia With Love, the only time the title appeared on home video minus the bizarre splice that somehow crept into all other incarnations to date.

And for me there would be more incarnations. Laserdisc was next. I owned all the Bond films in that format, some of them twice, as LD lasted long enough for the Bonds to appear in gorgeously letterboxed editions that allowed me to at last see the older titles in all their widescreen glory and own them all that way. I obtained a beautiful boxed set edition of the so-do Thunderball, but missed out on the Criterion Collection editions of the first three Bonds, which were highly prized for their un-PC commentary tracks from their creative personnel. (They were highly priced, too, but given how much I had already spent I should've just sprung for them. Lucre under the bridge. The disputed tracks were I believe wiped from subsequent pressings of the discs.) I ditched my discs for DVD but again, a regret: The DVD versions of On Her Majesty's Secret Service are missing bits of footage that were present on the LDs and VHS tapes.

One more time. I know some of the Bonds were released in barebones format early in the days of DVD (10 years old this spring) but all of them were again remastered and released as tricked-out special editions in 2000. And, again, I bought them all, adding the off-shoots Casino Royale (1967) and Never Say Never Again, which I had also owned on LD, when they became available. If you're keeping score, this is about 20 films that I had already owned at least three times previously, which surely earned me a special citation on MGM's annual report to stockholders. But I bought them all again with a heavier heart; bored with Brosnan-era Bond, the thrill had gone, replaced with duty, to have them in the latest, if not last, format.

To tie in with the new film the Bonds were released again last year, with remastered picture and audio and new commentary tracks from the likes of Roger Moore. No sale, however--I'm finally content with my collection as is, and I'm annoyed that the new box sets have the titles arranged in random order, forcing you to buy the bad Bonds along with the good. You can get the new transfers (but not the new extras) separately, not that I'm tempted. I'm tired of the relentless double- and triple-dipping of old titles when so much else goes unreleased. I understand that the new discs do a better job of hiding the antique special effects of the older pictures, which are cruelly exposed in the new format, yet I think I've reached a mental saturation point with the series--over the years, I've seen them so many times, in so many different ways, they play in my mind's movie theater, with near-total recall of their contents. How many hundreds of hours, and dollars, it took for me to achieve this I do not care to think about, but I can say it was worth it. Next stop: HD-DVD, which may open my wallet once more, not that I've committed to that format (yet).

Comes word that New York's Film Forum is programming a partial Bond fest in April and May, along with some interesting knockoffs, like two of Michael Caine's Harry Palmer films from the 60s and Our Man Flint, which I loved as a kid. I have a bone to pick with their choices: The Daltons and Brosnans are skipped entirely, but Live and Let Die and A View to a Kill, Moore's first and last entries, and the worst in the series, are being trotted out. Still, with the Bonds a mainstay on home video, TBS, and the Spike! channel, maybe the last place to really see them is the first place, in the theater.

For the record, and to close today's dossier, my five favorite Bonds are From Russia With Love, On Her Majesty's Secret Service, Casino Royale (2006), Goldfinger, and The Spy Who Loved Me. The addition of the new picture knocked Licence to Kill off my list but it's still up there.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Theater week

Two reviews, and two or three observations this time. From the pixels of Live Design, Howard Katz at the Roundabout's Laura Pels. And Journey's End at the Belasco.

[Not to digress, but in the real world a disgraced London agent like Howard Katz would write a scandalous tell-all book about his talentless talent list and from there would become an E! Channel correspondent. But this is London and Off Broadway theater and not the real world.]

The powerfully affecting Journey's End was part of a three-show "theater tour" we arranged for my in-laws. Their last stop on their journey was Chicago, which now features the former Velma, Bebe Neuwirth, kicking up a fuss as Roxie. I didn't see her, though; I still get the hives thinking of a interview I conducted with the performer, who lived down to her reputation as difficult. I wince when her mug turns up on episodes of Cheers, and, anyway, I'd seen Chicago three times before, once in Las Vegas, with the ageless and graceful Chita Rivera as Velma. But Neuwirth did not disappoint audiences as she once did this interviewer.

Our first port of call was the Majestic, where Howard McGillin, who I saw in several musicals in the 1980s, has taken up permanent residence as The Phantom of the Opera. McGillin has long since surpassed Michael Crawford for total number of performances in the role and no one, least of all the tourists who inexplicably queue to take their already assigned seats, was disappointed by his room-shaking rendition of the score's standards. Musical theater buffs tend to grit their teeth at mere mention of Phantom and the British invasion of musicals in the 80's and 90's, but there's a reason the longest-running-ever-show-on-Broadway emerged as the top-grossing entertainment property of the entire 20th century, with $3 billion and counting in the till: It's good, an unabashedly heart-on-its-sleeve show from the big hair decade. Bursting with grand emotions, with an opulent but never off-putting design to match, the two-and-a-half hours fly by and you surrender to the Grand Guignol frippery, much as Christine succumbs to the music of the night. I have to say I prefer the maligned 2004 movie, which has a weak Phantom but irons out some of the bumps in the woozy plotline and moves the chandelier fall to the climax, where it works better. But Phantom phans would have it no other way, and probably missed some of the sillier bits wisely dropped from the movie, like the Phantom's flame-spitting walking stick. I'm sure the phaithful at least will turn out for Andrew Lloyd Webber's just-announced and dubious-sounding sequel, The Phantom of Manhattan, for which a custom-built theater could be built around the monumental McGillin.

"Monumental" is the word for Tom Stoppard's Russian triptych The Coast of Utopia. My journey ended with the third part, Salvage, last Wednesday night. Alas, the trip was fitful, and very much a case of diminishing returns--the first part, Voyage, was excellent, with an unexpected, career-best performance from Ethan Hawke as the most spendthrift of its turbulent true-life intellectuals, and a gallery of fine performances from the likes of Billy Crudup, Amy Irving, and Martha Plimpton. The second part, Shipwreck, took on water, with the greater prominence given to Brian F. O'Byrne, as the world-weary soul of the piece, Alexander Herzen. Normally an interesting actor, O'Byrne gave a detached and less-than-gripping performance, whether by inclination, or misdirection from Stoppard and director Jack O'Brien, I can't say.

Salvage is all Herzen all the time, and seriously dull. The Gollum-like appearance of Henry Kissinger, who creeped by me at intermission, was all that spiced the evening for me. It may not have helped that I saw the first two parts on a single weekend back in January, and that I had somewhat lost the thread since then, but nothing seemed to work: save for the saving graces of Plimpton and Hawke the other actors I had come to enjoy were underused, the sound was muffled, and the design unappealing. And the ending, anticipating the horrors of the 20th century, could not have been more trite--a character announces "A storm is coming!," as the light focuses on a backdrop of roiling waves. Stop the presses, Mr. Stoppard. If you hear reports of audiences rising up in rebellion and taking to the streets near Lincoln Center after marathon viewings of all three parts of The Coast of Utopia, you'll know where the fault lies.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

A strong Wind

Timed to arrive on the eve of St. Patrick's Day, the Cannes-winning The Wind That Shakes the Barley (opens March 16) is free of blarney, of either the Irish or Hollywood varieties--the latter exemplified by the kill-happy digital cartoon 300. Death is a very serious business in this period IRA drama, but, then again, its director, Britain's socialist maverick Ken Loach, has never had a light or tranquil thought. I prefer those films of his when an agenda of some kind takes a back seat to a thoughtfully observed humanism--Ladybird Ladybird (1994), My Name is Joe (1998), and Sweet Sixteen (2001) are deeply moving portraits of flawed and troubled lives, conditions exacerbated but not entirely the fault of poverty and other social ills. Many of these films, including the new one, were written by former journalist Paul Laverty, and they are trenchantly observed. So, too, is Wind, even if the period drama, set in Ireland between 1920-1922, is more of a polemic, though not as much as its fiercest conservative critics have suggested.

Ireland is a perennially loaded subject, and as an interview with Loach and Laverty in the Spring edition of Cineaste notes the English newspapers went at the film with guns blazing. In an America where Irish groups are more troubled over gays participating in their parades than the roots of IRA violence, the film is unlikely to generate as much heat. Like Loach's film of the Spanish Civil War, Land and Freedom (1995), The Wind That Shakes the Barley is very densely concentrated in its history, with long passages where politics and policies are debated, and I'm not sure how an audience not fortified, as I was, with press notes and the new Cineaste will make of it. Mindful of this, Loach and Laverty have dramatized the situation in the oldest of ways, as the clash between two brothers who find themselves on opposite sides of the fence as Britain's notorious Black and Tan squads attempt to quash Ireland's bid for independence. Teddy (Padraic Delaney) attempts to stick to the letter of the law when their guerrilla tactics work and a treaty comes to pass, but Damien (well-played, as always, by the doll-faced Cillian Murphy), consumed with guilt over the murder of spies within the ranks, continues to fight, arguing that the forfeiture of his eternal soul demands no less than a free and uncompromised Ireland.

While unsympathetic toward the British, and uninterested in a standard-issue fair and balanced portrait, this is a thoughtful film. The Black and Tan atrocities, particularly against women, are presented unsparingly. So, too, though, is the IRA violence--the execution of an Anglo-Irish landowner, which is presented in pastoral daylight, is equally ghastly. I disagree that the film, in the end, takes an unambiguously pro-IRA stance; violence simply begets more violence, which in itself is a cause for mourning and not celebration. Condemnatory conservatives seem to have missed this distinction. (Whether Loach has appropriated the IRA and its history, and has refashioned it to advance his socialist beliefs, is a matter addressed by Cineaste editor-in-chief Gary Crowdus in a wide-ranging review of the film.)

The Wind That Shakes the Barley (the title comes from a poem by Robert Dwyer Joyce) is being distributed by IFC First Take, which releases films on what's left of the arthouse circuit and also, simultaneously, to the IFC In Theaters on- demand cable service. Given the tiny print ad I saw in the paper this weekend I assume that cable will be getting the larger marketing push, and if broadcasting the film helps it reach a larger audience I can't really criticize the strategy. Anyone who has access to a theatrical presentation but chooses to tune in on cable, however, is only undercutting himself. Barry Ackroyd's soft-toned cinematography is among the best I have ever seen for a modestly budgeted period feature, and has, to borrow from Yeats, a terrible beauty on the big screen that will inevitably be diminished on the small.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Family ways

Spring is in the air, at least where U.S. movie screens are concerned. The generally excellent Zodiac, a police procedural that dovetails with an investigative reporting storyline, then merges into a blackly comic look at obsession (with one genuine scream-at-the-screen moment), is playing. Like Craig Brewer's previous Hustle & Flow, Black Snake Moan is a hard shell wrapped around a soft candy inside, more conservative than controversial, but sweet, and a novel take on a Pygmalion story (chained to Samuel L. Jackson's radiator, white-hot trash Christina Ricci becomes a better, blues-loving person). Opening tomorrow is the Korean horror hit The Host, which I had already described as Little Miss Sunshine meets Godzilla, a money blurb the distributor should feel free to borrow. [More on that here, from the pixels of Cineaste. Bong's prior film, Memories of Murder, is outstanding and worth a rental if The Host grabs you.]

The Host deals with a family in fragments. So, too, does Mira Nair's The Namesake (Fox Searchlight), which is also opening tomorrow, just in time to further chase away those late-winter blues. I've seen just about all of Nair's films, but with the exception of Monsoon Wedding have never really warmed to any of them. Never less than respectable, they're usually a little light for me, not in terms of content but in her approach to the material, which favors lyricism over depth. The Namesake, based on a highly regarded bestseller by Jhumpa Lahiri, tethers her to a stronger narrative than usual; things get a little fuzzy toward the close, but there's a tautness and purposefulness here missing from most of her work, for which a fine, and close, adaptation by Sooni Taraporevala takes ample share of the credit. So, too, does the typically excellent cinematography by Frederick Elmes, whose credits range from Blue Velvet to The Ice Storm. Here he makes Queens, NY, as exotic as the story's other location, Calcutta, but also as equally mundane.

In a key way, The Namesake reminded me of The Graduate, in that both feature star-making central performances. Kal Penn has been a mainstay in stoner comedies like Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle for some time but here he sobers up winningly, handling all aspects of a large and difficult role with tremendous ease. He plays Gogol Ganguli, the New York-born and bred son of Indian emigres Ashoke (Irrfan Khan) and Ashima (Tabu). In his college years, Gogol, a dutiful son with a slightly rebellious streak, rejects his offbeat given name and dates a blue-blooded blonde (Jacinda Barrett) while studying architecture at Yale. Learning how his name was derived from the Russian author of The Overcoat is just one of the film's family-related revelations; there is unexpected tragedy, and an equally unexpected relationship with mousy family friend Moushumi (Rome co-star Zuleikha Robinson), who has blossomed unpredictably with the passage of time.

Long-time readers of this blog (which just celebrated its first year) know that I don't do much in the way of extensive plot summary; I have to have some other inducement for play-by-play. But should you choose to see The Namesake (and New York viewers should know that the Paris, home of so many Merchant-Ivory pictures, is the perfect place to see it) you'll thank me for not spoiling too much, not that the storyline is particularly soap-operatic. The story of Gogol's name is actually elaborated in an opening scene, involving a massive train wreck, but the full import of the gesture is not clear till the train-bound end of the picture.

The film could easily have been a mess of flashbacks, but Nair has chosen to tell most of it straightforwardly; Penn, who radiates an appealing low-key charisma as he negotiates his Bengali and American ties, doesn't enter the scene until about 45 minutes in. And this is a good thing, as it gives us more of an opportunity to spend quality time with Khan and Tabu, seasoned Bollywood performers new to me. They are perfectly cast as partners in an unlikely arranged marriage that somehow survives cultural dislocation in frigid New York. Khan is the gentle, more intellectual helpmate, and Tabu is simply bewitching as the centrifugal force, an aspiring singer who puts her dreams on hold to raise her two children in an unfamiliar country. I was held by them till they naturally cede the screen to Penn, who does not disgrace his parentage and gives a lively, funny, even sexy performance.

A typical movie year doesn't begin to heat up till late March or early April. But with films of the caliber of The Namesake in release it looks as if daylight savings time has extended to the cinema as well.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

On DVD: Bugsy (1991)

I'm not sure Bugsy is a great film, but it is greatly interesting, and a new extended edition DVD (released last December) makes a good case for it. It's not a biopic, as it concentrates on the final period in the life of the infamous gangster and borrows as much from the proto-gangsta exploits of screenwriter James Toback (Fingers) as it does from any other source. Nor is it The Godfather or Goodfellas; there are spasms of ugly violence that upset the creamily beautiful Forties-era settings, but no capers, and little grit, least of all on the gorgeous cars.

What there is a constant tension, between the period Hollywood elegance of the production design and Toback's yammering, often wonderfully written script, and Warren Beatty's combustible, internally divided performance--he's somewhat old for the part, and, by his own admission, not quite right for it, a very controlled performer who had just played the tightly wound do-gooder Dick Tracy summoning his inner De Niro/LaMotta and acting insane while trying to convince everyone in his orbit that he is perfectly rational and in command of his crazy dream to build Las Vegas out of desert air. But he is every inch a star, and he and Annette Bening, as his treacherously devoted lover Virginia Hill, generate enormous electricity in their onscreen love affair, which blossomed off-camera once the shoot ended. No surprise: they are white-hot together, in a way that few movie couples are. [The heat had dissipated by 1994's tepid onscreen Love Affair but 16 years later they're still going strong; such an attractive pairing, dressed to the nines in Albert Wolsky's Oscar-winning clothes.]

Bugsy was nominated for nine other Oscars, and most sectors are heard from in a 90-minute documentary on a second disc, a typically excellent Charles Kiselyak production. Speaking from an old-time Hollywood restaurant, Toback, Levinson, and Beatty talk about the movie, with interspersed comments from Bening, Ben Kingsley, Elliott Gould (who, like Beatty, Kingsley, and Harvey Keitel, himself a former Siegel in a 1974 TV movie opposite Dyan Cannon, should have been Oscar-nommed), Wolsky, and others. [Composer Ennio Morricone--a great score--turns up in archival footage with Levinson, conducting his orchestra in Rome.] It's a strong piece, free of fluff, and tightly edited, the bane of so many DVD docs, where the speakers are allowed to go on and on well past the point of "cut!" As such it complements the film, which has been seamlessly expanded by a few scenes, notably a crazed suicide attempt by Siegel after he's dispatched Gould, his lummox informant friend.

I'm not sure Bugsy, a hard-to-pin-down film very classily (maybe too classily) directed by Levinson, has ever gotten its due; it was neither a hit nor a flop on its release, but an in-betweener. I first saw it in a Philly theater with an audience that had trouble taking a character named "Bugsy" seriously; the very mention of the name generated gales of laughter from the inner-city crowd. ["Look! They killed Bugsy!" catcalled one viewer at the bitter end. I admit I laughed, too.] But it holds up quite well.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

The Spring Cineaste, online and on sale

The Cate-and-Judi show takes centerstage this issue, with the former having her provocative say over her Oscar-nominated turn in Notes on a Scandal. Academy Award winners The Departed, The Queen, and Letters from Iwo Jima also get their due. Online, there's more of the magazine than ever before, in the form of content drawn from our pages and a number of web exclusives. Online and in print is my own co-interview with Hong Kong filmmaker Johnnie To, whose mob hits Triad Election and Exiled are being released this year. Don't just sit around here browsing...take a look inside...