Thursday, May 31, 2007

Screen scene (June 1 edition)

With the biggest of the summer "threequels" all now in release, the movies are getting a little smaller, and the indies are reclaiming some ground starting today.

If the lovesickness of the finely acted Away From Her was a little too dry, literary, or "Canadian" for your taste, attend the tabloid-flavored true-life New York story of amor in extremis, Crazy Love (Magnolia Pictures). The facts have been picked over in advance of the documentary's release, but seeing is disbelieving. Love is literally blind for Linda Riss, who was left disfigured and all-but-sightless when an unhinged admirer, Burt Pugach, hired three men to throw lye in her face in a notorious 1959 attack. Pugach, a lawyer and two-bit movie producer (of 1958's obscure Death Over My Shoulder), went to prison for 14 years, during which time he infuriated state officials by acting as "in-house" counsel for fellow felons like Willie Sutton (the one who said he robbed bans "because that's where the money was"). Upon his release, the policewoman who had threatened to kill Pugach if he ever dared show his face again had a change of heart, and acted as matchmaker for Pugach and Riss, who had stubbornly, even glamorously, faced adversity but was succumbing to depression. The two have been married for 32 years, a union that has survived its nightmarish beginning and a seeming recidivism on Pugach's part, in a 1997 courtroom drama involving a second stalking incident that refocused attention on the unlikely, yet media-genic, lovebirds.

The co-directors, Dan Klores and actor Fisher Stevens, let the couple make their own case, first in separate interviews, then together. There is an at times arch use of music and a few clumsy attempts at style, but despite guest talking heads like columnist Jimmy Breslin this is mostly a classic two-hander, and maybe the next Grey Gardens. The same controversy, over why this distasteful material was considered worth digging up on film, looms. Fortunately, the problems of stalking and violence against women, so taboo in its era, get much more attention today, and Crazy Love is a time capsule look to when such behavior was routinely ignored or covered up, except in the most explosive cases.

Life has made Burt and Linda characters, who play up to the camera, but Linda, who faced the death over her shoulder as head-on and unconventionally as possible, has an unmistakable pluck--she suggests that her endless nagging and bickering amounts to a life sentence for Burt, who, imprisoned by his affection, can only react sheepishly to her barrage. He gets no sympathy, and rightly so, but is the focus of the film's most bizarrely funny recollection. His secretary recalls that at the low point of his obsession he barricaded himself in his office and endlessly played the Hoagy Carmichael hit "Linda" ("When I go to sleep/I never count sheep/I count all the charms/About Linda") on his ukulele, singing the lyrics to his pet iguana, who was named "Iggy." Much of Crazy Love can make you squirmy, but I laughed out loud at that one.

Timur Bekmambetov's Day Watch continues the hectic supernatural saga of last year's Night Watch, with the forces of Light and Dark taking their centuries-long war to the streets of present-day Moscow for a second round. This involves mistaken-identity soul switching and more fancy vehicular mayhem, as cars speed along the sides of skyscrapers and minarets. As the title suggests it's a somewhat lighter film than its predecessor, for all the Russian breast-beating about fathers and sons that goes on when the movie stops long enough to consider the emotional, rather than the technocratic gee-whiz, side of things. But it's also a longer one, and the low-budget inventiveness that marked the first installment feels slicker, and emptier, this time. The appealingly morose lead, Anton (Konstantin Khabensky), is sidelined as the pummeling special and sound effects thrash about, bringing the story to a conclusion that I'm not sure how a proposed third, English-language followup, Dusk Watch, will work around. If you ever wanted to see a movie that for more than two hours looks and sounds like one of those annoying anti-piracy ads that pop up on DVDs, then Day Watch is the one for you. Just sit way back in the theater to avoid eyestrain as the smash-cut edits and floating, multicolored subtitles flood the screen.

It's hard to avoid gallows humor when writing about Pierrepoint: The Last Hangman, a recessive, pocket biopic about Britain's Albert Pierrepoint, who carried on the family trade from his father and hustled a total of 450 convicted criminals to their deaths, including 17 women (like Ruth Ellis, the subject of 1985's Dance with a Stranger, and the last woman hanged in England) before his trade was abolished. Pierrepoint, who died in 1992, became something an anti-capital punishment figure in later years. But he came to enjoy his grisly fame in the aftermath of his export to Germany to carry out the sentences in the Nuremberg trials, during which tabloid photographers exposed his carefully concealed identity. He took pride in his problem-free career--it took him 45 seconds to hang each prisoner, without a single mishap--and opened a pub at the height of his notoriety. From what I gather the movie trumps up the turning point of his moral awakening, as a desperate friend falls into crime and slips into prison, but the point is made. By the time we get there, we, too, have become too used to Pierrepoint's ghastly routine, which director Adrian Shergold shows without fuss or elaboration, and need a jolt to our passive acceptance to the facts of death.

The excellent Timothy Spall, a big man who favors tiny, precise gestures as the meticulous Pierrepoint, adds another richly colored portrait to his gallery of portrayals. Juliet Stevenson, as his quietly ambitious wife, and Eddie Marsan as their hapless acquaintance are good in equal measure. Crime watchers will enjoy the gallery of rogues paraded out in cameos, including Ellis. The brown-on-gray look of the film, recalling Mike Leigh's Vera Drake, feels true to the period and the subject matter. I tried to resist, but Pierrepoint: The Last Hangman, is well-executed (and, in a switcheroo the precision-tuned Pierrepoint would have objected to, the film is now opening June 8).

Paper Mill Playhouse secures bank loan...

...and Bob Cashill (the other Bob Cashill, my dad that is) plays a key part in the drama to keep the venerable New Jersey institution solvent. This may be the closest either of us will get to the professional stage.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Brando Classic Movies

Turner Classic Movies is reairing Leslie Greif's new documentary Brando tonight, at the crack-of-dawn slot from 3:15am, but that's what VCRs and DVRs are for. Like most of its engaging histories (Richard Schickel's current Bienvenue Cannes is another) Brando is more affectionate than probing, but with a runtime of three hours (over two 90-minute parts, both of which will be shown this morning) it digs a little deeper than most, and has the breadth to give an all-star cast of talking heads more time to talk.

Interestingly, actors who worked with Brando, like Edward Norton and Jane Fonda, say little about his actual on-set presence. But a poised and reflective Fonda (has 70 ever looked so inviting an age?) is quite insightful discussing his political activism, and familiar war stories about the likes of The Godfather (pictured) are all the more vivid when co-stars Al Pacino, James Caan, and Robert Duvall are on camera retelling them. The freshest, and best, anecdotes come from less familiar sources. Director George Englund, a long-time friend of the actor, candidly discusses the rupture that occurred when they worked together on 1963's The Ugly American, as ego and laziness clouded Brando's career. (Englund's wife, Cloris Leachman, continued to take his late-night phone calls, which came so late the actor sometimes dozed off between sentences). And Ed Begley, Jr., steals the show when, late in the second part, he relates a hilarious story about one of Brando's environmental whims. It's in Peter Manso's dirt-shoveling 1994 bio of the actor, but Begley's imitation of Brando is dead-on funny. (If only they had brought cameras to Sotheby's New York auction of his personal effects, in 2005; I wandered through the public viewing, which included his cars, furniture, annotated scripts, and DVDs--was he really a fan of Batman & Robin?)

Brando is at its best when its subject is simply observed working, or politely answering and evading, simultaneously, talk show queries. (The Tahitian footage is striking, too.) And the golden era film clips are magnificent; one quibble is that The Men, his undervalued first film, is again short-shrifted when the show moves from the stage and screen adaptations of A Streetcar Named Desire, as if Fred Zinnemann's war veteran picture had never happened in between. Such eloquence when he was on top of his game (see also his own One Eyed Jacks, and Gillo Pontecorvo's Burn!, for further proof his greatness); so much waste when he walked through parts or lent his name to junk.

I had a few words about him in an article that is soon to run on Cineaste's website, about a recently issued box set of his films: "I picked up The Marlon Brando Collection, and was baffled to find that The Formula, produced in 1980, was positioned before 1953's Julius Caesar. I quickly realized that the films were boxed alphabetically, and not chronologically, which offended my delicate cineaste sensibilities. Viewed alphabetically, the five films are a time travel experiment gone horribly wrong, with the bloated, out-of-it Brando pulling rank on the most exciting actor of his generation; the unwary might never get past The Formula, the newest film in any of the collections I viewed, and the worst, with Brando and George C. Scott plodding through murky Big Oil intrigue like two weary brontosaurs. I immediately reshuffled the discs, as any self-respecting movie lover should do, and watched them in date order, where they form an intriguing electrocardiogram of a career. Brando ("from T-shirt to toga," reads the box copy) more than holds his own against the likes of John Gielgud and James Mason in the formal surroundings of the Shakespeare adaptation. The Teahouse of the August Moon, where the actor turns Japanese, is an awkward attempt by the performer to fit into the Hollywood mainstream of the mid-Fifties, but Brando gives his uneasy, stereotyped role something of a pulse. 1962's Mutiny on the Bounty has the actor literally at sea, trying to impose some personality on a heavy-duty epic typical of its time. John Huston's Reflections in a Golden Eye, from 1967, is a definite spike, one of the best and certainly the most unusual of the films Brando made in the wilderness years before The Godfather. Opposite a brash Elizabeth Taylor, he is constantly surprising as a career office wrestling with his submerged homosexuality. But the jolt wouldn't last. Finally, and sadly, comes the flat line of The Formula, and his immortal offer to Scott: "Milk Dud?"

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

A hint of Paprika

I dozed off during Paprika, which Sony Pictures Classics opens May 25. Sound asleep. Not for long, but I think enough to enhance the experience of seeing the latest anime from Japan's Satoshi Kon. How can that be?

Based on this synopsis from Dave Kehr at The New York Times, which ran in last Sunday's edition, you'd think cat-napping would be an impossibility. The film is about a female "dream detective," whose investigative handle is "Paprika." She pops in and out of the consciousness of her client, a hard-bitten dick in the waking world plagued by nightmares in the sleeping one. A lot of colorful stuff happens when the machine that controls and monitors the dream detecting is stolen. To wit: "A sofa, a refrigerator, a microwave oven and a vacuum cleaner dance and twist their way down a confetti-covered street. Right behind them come the frogs playing trumpets; a group of tipsy raccoons, clutching bottles of sake; and a band of friendly cats, raising their paws in greeting. But the scene becomes wilder and stranger, and the mood shifts to something more sinister. Along come robots, anatomical models, masked demons, a swaggering samurai, the Venus de Milo and Godzilla. That seems to be the popular culture contingent; behind them, bouncing along with everyone else, are several religious and political figures: the Virgin Mary, Buddha, the Statue of Liberty, not to mention the red gates ("torii") that normally guard Shinto shrines."

Couldn't have said it better myself. And I did see all this. It parade of it stomps across the screen a few times during the picture. I think for most viewers this mad spectacle will open up the cerebellum, but mine gets tired out from too much ocular overload. Fatigue almost always sets in for me at CGI-filled pictures, where tons of fancy fantasy imagery hits our eyes with tsunami force, almost too fast for us to register. It's more strain than gain. I felt the Sandman visiting me during the tiresome Spider-Man 3, in more ways than one. But Paprika, while tiring, isn't tiresome. When I was under, my head resting against the back of my seat, I'm sure I wasn't off in some netherworld of my mind's own choosing but a version of Kon's. Taking a little break from the action onscreen sharpened my senses for more when I awoke. It's almost like a subliminal effect.

I don't know much about anime, a vast genre that I feel hopeless to explore. I've seen some of the acknowledged classics, like Akira and Ghost in the Shell, but have never really related to the animation style or the dense, sci-fi tinged plots. It's not for me. (Hayao Miyazaki's films, like Howl's Moving Castle, which I do enjoy, are different, more fairy tale-like, than its brethren.) The febrile imagination behind Paprika, though, opens a few other avenues of exploration--its notion of movie love as an enraptured dream state is intriguing, and the ending, where a character is deposited in front of a theater showcasing Kon's other films, is funny without being pompous. There's some weird, kind of sexually bent stuff involving outsized, devouring girls, which maybe I wish I hadn't been awake to witness, but this is also par for the course. These films do loop-the-loops where content is concerned.

Paprika is something to see, but given its accent on sleeping states resting through parts of it is an option. Bring a pillow, and your capacity to dream.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Spring awakens at Drama Desk awards

The 2006-2007 season Drama Desk awards have been announced. Nominations enthusiasm for LoveMusik was decisively checkmated at the event, with the dreary show, up for 12 awards, only winning two, one for its star Donna Murphy (and they were both co-wins, reflecting a distinct split of opinion over its merits; happily, 110 in the Shade's Audra McDonald got in there, too). I only liked the first third of The Coast of Utopia (pictured), and would have been happier to see Blackbird take best play, but Tom Stoppard's triptych had an early lock on the classy, good-for-you spectacle vote and its wins in the technical categories were no surprise. Company and Journey's End, the latter soon to close, were apt winners, as was Spring Awakening.

As usual, the nominees spread the wealth throughout New York's theater scene, but the winners were almost wholly Great White Way; only Edward Scissorhands, which stopped over in Brooklyn, and the saccharine Off Broadway musical In the Heights, a puzzling winner, previously announced, for outstanding ensemble, received honors at last night's ceremony. I was disappointed that Nilaja Sun's moving No Child..., which I saw under the voting wire last Thursday night, was left behind in its bid to win outstanding solo performance, but the received wisdom is that an Off or Off Off Broadway show getting a nomination is a win in and of itself. And Sun will be touring her show once its near year-long run at the Barrow Street Theatre ends June 3.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Little Dieter flies again

Werner Herzog appears in person this weekend at New York's Film Forum, to kick off a three-week retrospective of his documentary filmmaking. Go if you can: The combination of his distinctive German accent and patient, soft-spoken, tell-it-like-it-is storytelling is mesmerizing. I heard him speak at the 1992 San Jose Film Festival, where he presented his truly searing look at the Kuwait oil fires started during the Gulf War, Lessons of Darkness. The evening was one of the highlights of my two-year stay in Silicon Valley, before its boom and bust.

Lessons of Darkness is part of this retrospective, as are a number of inspiring documentaries made by others, like Errol Morris' Gates of Heaven and Vernon, Florida, and Hubert Sauper's Darwin's Nightmare, which starkly relates how inconvenient truths are besetting Tanzania. Tonight offers an opportunity to see his outstanding 1997 portrait of U.S. airman Dieter Dengler, Little Dieter Needs to Fly (pictured). Dengler's obsessive interest in flight saw him through a deprived and brutal childhood in Nazi Germany; when his village was destroyed by American bombers, he and his family decamped to the States, where fulfilling his dream he became a Navy pilot. But destiny denied him what would have been a reversal of roles, from oppressed to oppressor: On his first, top-secret mission over Laos, during the Vietnam War, he was shot down, and captured by capricious, trigger-happy Pathet Lao soldiers. Given up for dead in this uncharted territory, along with fellow American prisoners who had been jailed for two years, Dengler plotted escape. The incredible details of his escape and rescue, which Herzog filmed with Dengler at the actual locations, are the crux of the piece.

Herzog has made Dengler's story into a feature film, Rescue Dawn, which MGM will release July 4. The date can't be entirely coincidental; there is a rah-rah component to Dengler's story in the film. What's inspiring about the documentary, however, feels flat and unleavened in Rescue Dawn, which had a troubled production history. By the time we reach the climax, which comes across differently than from how Dengler (who died in 2001 of Lou Gehrig's disease) describes it, you get the feeling that Herzog has left the editing suite. Herzog doesn't do triumphant, and you get the feeling that he left the film in the hands of its many mettlesome producers to finish as they wished, complete with a sudden addition of bombast to Klaus Badelt's score.

In interviews, Herzog asserts that he always wanted to make Dengler's story into a feature, and that the 80-minute documentary is its trailer. If so, then this is a case where the coming attraction definitively trumps the actual movie. Rescue Dawn (pictured) isn't bad, but it is broken-backed; according to a Vanity Fair article that ran last year (when the film was supposed to have been released) the writer-director, known for his fearless exploration of locations, was discouraged when he was obliged to shoot in the more accomodating Thailand and not Laos. A pall of missed opportunities over what Herzog felt was a dream project hangs over Rescue Dawn (not a particularly Herzogian title). Like Herzog's lesser films--and his more sporadically produced features have paled alongside his more numerous and consistently excellent documentaries, including 2005's Grizzly Man, for years--the two-hour-plus Rescue Dawn is logy, and rarely as involving as a making-of featurette about its turbulent production would be.

Part of the problem may be Herzog's immersion in the subject. He wants us to feel the humidity and stupor of prison camp life, and he does, all too well; the statis of the prison scenes, which are nimbly described by Dengler in the documentary, is completely enervating. That he seems to encourage his performers to behave, rather than act, is a real issue with twitchy Jeremy Davies, who is cast as one of the captives. Davies is more a prisoner of Method acting than he is of war, and when supporting player duty passes from him to co-star Steve Zahn, who brings a lighter touch to a poignant role, the film shakes off some of its tedium. Herzog is most fortunate in his star, Christian Bale. He loses Dengler's German accent, but in one of his yo-yo dieting regimens was also willing to lose the weight, and is credibly cast as Dengler. More than the physique, though, Bale captures Dengler's can-do spirit, which makes the documentary so watchable. Life in the camp is its own adventure, and Bale's Dengler tears into it, almost oblivious to how hairsbreadth his new existence is. Rescue Dawn consolidates Bale's hold as one of the finest young film stars, one capable of elevating problem material (like last year's Harsh Times) through his smart self-assurance.

What's really missing from Rescue Dawn, however, is Herzog. His documentary narrations--questioning, respectful, speculative--are superb, and it's easy to see how he gets subjects like Dengler to open up on difficult, close-to-the-bone subjects. His commitment to the documentary form, which in the case of Little Dieter Needs to Fly is largely less show than tell, and utterly fascinating to listen to, is commendable. The uneven Rescue Dawn is worth a look, too, but the possibility of a Herzog commentary track on the eventual DVD is more tantalizing than experiencing the film without his guiding spirit.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Hand(re)Made Films

Word from Cannes is that the classic British gangster picture The Long Good Friday (1980), among the finest of a excellent slate of movies put out by the George Harrison-owned HandMade Films in the 1980s, is being remade under the auspices of the company's current owners. It'll be relocated, updated, contemporized, etc. by director Paul W.S. Anderson, of Resident Evil and Aliens vs. Predator fame.

The original film is so much a product of its Blighty milieu, and so well-acted by Bob Hoskins and Helen Mirren, it's hard to figure what anyone is getting for the trouble and expense of a remake except a title beloved by film buffs who will undoubtedly shun the new picture. The new, but retro-thinking, HandMade is also...sacrilege...redoing one of my very favorites, Mona Lisa, with Kids director Larry Clark (!). A remake, or sequel, or who knows maybe both to Terry Gilliam's Time Bandits is in the works, and stage versions of Withnail and I and A Private Function are planned.

HandMade does have some originals on its slate. But the reliance on would-be trendy, with-it reduxes of a catalog that has hardly aged a day in terms of quality and is readily accessible to the younger, presumably culturally illiterate cinephiles being courted suggests a name change is in order. FactoryMade, perhaps? MachineTooled?

UK's Hammer Films is allegedly back from the dead, too, but its plans are unknown. Variety also reports that Dario Argento's classic chillers from the 70's, like Suspiria, will be refitted for today's Goth kids. Rest assured that the 30-year-old Suspiria, available on DVD, is entirely capable of scaring the MySpace generation on its own. But the horror film makers I loved in my youth, alas, are all cashing in on their handmade masterpieces, with John Carpenter and Wes Craven treating their resumes like 401ks that can be banked on as they hit their senior years. Buffs moan and complain about the filmmakers behind redos like the upcoming Halloween remake--they should instead blame their money-grubbing creators, who have given up creature features for creature comforts.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

All the rage

The rage virus returns in 28 Weeks Later, an idea for a sequel that sounded straight-to-video but emerges as the scariest horror movie since The Descent, and I don't frighten easily. There was no particular reason, save the usual financial one, to continue Danny Boyle's superior 2002 thriller 28 Days Later and the title smacks of convenience and maybe desperation (next will come 28 Months Later, followed by 28 Years Later, 28 Decades Later, and so on). But it works.

The director, Juan Carlos Fresnadillo, made the quite different metaphysical mind-bender Intacto in 2001, and prejudiced as I was against the idea I was a little sorry to see that this would be his followup. He takes a different tack, however, and gives it distinction. I missed the pastoral (if misleading) lulls of the first picture and its richer, more eccentric characterizations, yet the stripped-to-the-bone style Fresnadillo employs pays off. At least half of the 91-minute movie is filmed on the run, shot herky-jerkily (but coherently) by Enrique Chediak, as if he, too, were in frenzied panic from hordes of blood-spewing "infected" (not zombies) who want nothing more than to add you to their number.

The first sequences, set during the siege of the first film, are real throat grabbers; you figure that the star, Full Monty character lead Robert Carlyle, is going to make it, but his survival comes at tremendous emotional cost--you can empathize, but not really sympathize, with him--and the way the film is scripted (by the director, Rowan Joffe, and Jesus Olmo) there's no telling how long we can expect to identify with him as the lead. The narratively similar Children of Men also brought up new themes from episode to episode--this may be the new scriptwriting paradigm--but Clive Owen stuck around to the end of the picture to see us through the apocalypse. So does Carlyle, but not in a way I could have anticipated, and each new shift has its own center--a military scientist (Rose Byrne) protecting Carlyle's scientifically invaluable children, then, when the proverbial all hell breaks loose, a disaffected U.S. grunt (the underrated Jeremy Renner) who balks at NATO's termination policy. But how long these centers will hold is key to the suspense, which is backed by composer John Murphy's embroidering of his mournful electronica themes from the first film.

The inevitable post-9/11 parallels, with Britain held hostage by an uncomprehending occupying force, are sensibly handled; even the innocents caught in the crosshairs realize that the firepower aimed their way is likely necessary. Fresnadillo goes a little trigger-happy witb the digital effects, including an over-the-top demolition sequence mimicking one from Grindhouse--for the audience I was with, the most unsettling scene was a simple drawing of blood, which had one aisle sitter crying "Back to Spidey! Back to Spidey now!" as he scrurried out the door. But Fresnadillo delivers the payload with the film's most awesome, and distressing, scene: The firebombing of London, reminiscent not of 9/11 but of continental horrors like the bombing of Dresden. The film may be called 28 Weeks Later, but it reflects a terrible history besides.

Raspberries for Blueberry

As so often happens with film festivals, the opening attraction of the 60th Cannes, Wong Kar Wai's U.S. debut My Blueberry Nights, has the bitter taste of lemon to it. Wong's acolytes in the critical community are no doubt forming a protective phalanx around him as I write, but if Variety's is one of the kinder reviews ("its ambition and accomplishment remain modest in the extreme") his detractors would seem to have the edge. Me, I go back and forth, sometimes in the same film; aspects sink into the cortex, while the rest can come off as precious navel-gazing, if elegant to look at and listen to (I rarely go back for return visits, though). Wong can take heart in that Michelangelo Antonioni's reviled visit to America, Zabriskie Point, looks better today than it did in 1970.

What I can't quite wrap my head around is how and why the Hong Kong filmmaker chose as his co-writer Edgar-winning mystery novelist Lawrence Block, known for his hard-hitting detective stories (like 8 Million Ways to Die, quirkily filmed in 1986). There is an alcoholic cop in the storyline, but much of it sounds a little like the twee Janet Jackson/John Singleton picture Poetic Justice (memorably described in an article I read at the time as "about a hairdresser, named Justice, who's poetic") and why Wong thought that senior citizen tough guy Block--not exactly Nora Ephron or Erich Segal--could help middle-of-the-road non-actress Norah Jones strike romantic sparks with boring boxoffice poison Jude Law is a puzzler. On paper, it's one of the stranger writer/director pairings since New York liberal blowhard Paddy Chayefsky and gonzo Brit Ken Russell were yoked together on Altered States once Arthur Penn dropped out, but this one is by choice. On screen, those of us far from the Croisette will have to wait and see once the hoping-for-a-hit-after-Grindhouse Weinstein Company cultivates Blueberry (the second pie-obsessed movie in a week, following Waitress) stateside, then hope that Wong and Block explain themselves on DVD.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Talking Tonys

As Spring Awakening (pictured) basks most deservedly in its 11 Tony nominations today it's "the bitch of living," to quote one of its song titles, for the passed over and just plain overlooked. Playbill has the honor roll; All That Chat, meanwhile, has succumbed to the theater version of the rage virus from 28 Weeks Later, as the chatterati get their licks in about the Kristin Chenoweth "snub" (to which I say, ha! Bad show, bad show) and other issues.

Setting aside my own viral and visceral reactions for the moment, I can say that the Tonys did iron out a few quirks in the Drama Desk nominations, though given the wider range of my group it is an apples and oranges comparison. Early ardor about the insipid LoveMusik clearly, and correctly, cooled; turning the turbulent pairing of composer Kurt Weill and performer Lotte Lenya into the jukeboxed story of another bickering Broadway couple was a seriously sophomoric idea, and for this lack of vision director Harold Prince and book writer Alfred Uhry were rightly denied turns at the dais. (Somewhere in the cosmos, you can hear Bertolt Brecht, a cartoon character in the show, laughing his heinie off at the gross sentimentalization committed by the author of Driving Miss Daisy.)

It was nice--being nice now--to see that Translations, a stunning revival that seemed to have been lost in a fog of amnesia where end-of-season honors were concerned, is up for best revival. Maybe its multiple nominations, including best revival, will finally rouse an audience for the shattering Journey's End, which is in the boxoffice trenches. I suppose my not seeing the revival of Inherit the Wind makes a monkey out of me, but it's unlikely to evolve into an award winner.

Weeks after seeing it I'm having a hard time remembering anything about Curtains, the musical that nominators who couldn't bring themselves to pencil in the peppier and more engaging Legally Blonde went for. Not that Elle was snubbed but, omigod, the producers must be having a cow that they won't get a big production number on the Tonys telecast. 110 in the Shade's Audra McDonald mounts a strong challenge to Grey Gardens' Christine Ebersole in the musical performer races but as I predicted last year Ebersole will hold fast, though I suspect Spring Awakening has the edge for top musical honor. It's a shame, though, that Lea Michele couldn't have bumped Curtains' Debra Monk and LoveMusik's miscast and performance-missing Donna Murphy from the competitive actress slot.

Let's break it down. Nominations that surprised me, in a good way: Newcomer Stark Sands, from Nip/Tuck to Journey's End, plus its exquisitely naturalistic set and lighting design; Ethan Hawke, the best thing about the best part (Voyage) of The Coast of Utopia; Kevin Adams' Drama Desk-overlooked lighting for Spring Awakening.

Nominations that surprised me, in a not-so-good way: The inevitable but not really worthy Angela Lansbury, phoning in Deuce from courtside; Swoosie Kurtz in the forgotten Heartbreak House revival; the featured actress nominees of the curious Coram Boy, a nice piece of theatricalization but one that did not come off as an involving drama. I'm tough on the ladies this year.

And add a close-to-ridiculous and Misbegotten Kevin Spacey as a performer who I was glad not to make the cut. Harrumph.

Some snap winners on June 10, when the Tonys are telecast on CBS: Frank Langella for Frost/Nixon; Eve Best for A Moon for the Misbegotten; The Coast of Utopia for Play; Spring Awakening for Musical; Raul Esparza for Company; and Ebersole and Mary Louise Wilson for Grey Gardens. I can't snap winners fast enough in other categories, where given multiple nominations for performers in shows or nods in multiple categories vote-splitting could be rife.

The Tonys, by the way, are up against another Tony, Soprano, as he kisses HBO goodbye that night, but he'll forgive you if you DVR him for a night.

For a few final thoughts on the close of the Broadway season 2006-2007, click here.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Is Big better bigger?

In my post last week on Lee Marvin, I forgot to mention that an essential credit with director Sam Fuller, 1980's The Big Red One, is playing May 13 and 18 at Lincoln Center. The oversight was unintentional, but perhaps subconscious. The retrospective sceenings are of the 2004 "reconstruction" of the film, which runs 158 minutes, and not of the version I saw several times on cable in the early 1980s and own on DVD, which comes in at under two hours. With all due respect to Fuller, who was disenchanted with the cutting, I prefer the shorter version, and regret that the "fuller" version has displaced it (the special edition of the title on DVD contains only the reconstructed version; the version I own seems to have gone out of print). Despite the addition of 40 minutes, it's the longer version that leaves me feeling short-changed; for the one or two sequences that add something compensatory, others that fall outside of the viewpoint of Fuller-esque narrator Robert Carradine disrupt the structure, and scenes that benefit from the compression in the theatrical cut now dawdle. Fuller is better faster and tighter, and the loose, episodic, autobiographical Big Red One is just too unwieldy at greater length. I feel the same about the better-disciplined theatrical version of Apocalypse Now; its extension is merely tiresome.

Given their histories there was sufficient reason to revisit The Big Red One and Apocalypse Now, flawed, fascinating films in either version. But most of the director's cuts, un-cuts, extended editions, etc. that are on the market are just that, marketing gimmicks designed to get the unwary to double-, triple-, or quadruple-dip on a film that was more than adequate the first time around. Most of these are pseudo-cuts, achieved by reintegrating the deleted scenes showcased as extras on prior editions into the narrative, where more often than not they do little except make your recollection of how the film once flowed hiccup. The guiding force, if it can be called that, is the distributor, looking to soak up a little more lucre on a movie trotted out one more time to the DVD racks.

But the more interesting ones are the ones that the directors, producers, or other creative personnel tinkered with. And some do work. The grandaddy of the form, on laserdisc (and onto DVD), was James Cameron's The Abyss, which truly benefited from its expanded ending. His extensions to Aliens and Terminator 2, by contrast, add more running time than meaning to the films, and I find myself watching the theatrical cuts when I'm in a king of the world state of mind (Titanic is thankfully un-augmented on DVD). There is a crucial revelation in the extended Aliens--we learn that the embattled Ripley's daughter has died during her decades-long hypersleep, which adds considerable urgency to her relationship with her surrogate in the film. Once you know this, though, you don't need to sit through butt-twitching delaying tactics on the way to the big finish. And, trust me, you really don't need to see Terminator 2's "future coda," with a grandmotherly Linda Hamilton stuck in embarrassing old-age makeup.

Sometimes the augmenting approach does pay off. Ridley Scott always intended to increase his maligned Kingdom of Heaven for DVD, and the lengthened film progresses at a grander, more epic pace, making Orlando Bloom's transition from blacksmith to crusader far less abrupt and arbitrary. The three-hour Almost Famous that Cameron Crowe prepared sweeps key scenes with Philip Seymour Hoffman's Lester Bangs from off the cutting-room floor, and enriches almost every scene with tart dialogue and more flavorful characterization. And directors do sometimes exercise the power to cut: Oliver Stone first shrank, then lavishly grew, his Alexander on disc, in separate releases following the theatrical cut's DVD debut (once was enough for most viewers). And the DC (director's cut) of Tony Scott's Revenge, released on DVD this week, is 20 minutes shorter than the flabby release version, which is sure to displease fans for whom cut is synonymous with more, not less.

Revenge, a clinker, is one of several DCs to street in recent weeks. I can't imagine Payback amounting to much no matter how much is added or subtracted, and the only way to fix The Natural is to trash its ending, a betrayal of its source. Of greater personal interest are extended editions of Big and Donnie Brasco, which were also released this week. The latter picture, directed by Mike Newell, is one of the more underrated gangster films, a largely low-key character study with the mournful, hang-dog tone of The Sopranos, which started airing two years after its release. Al Pacino can show that he can still underplay--his last scene, a bit of business letting himself out of his apartment, is quietly devastating--and a non-cutesy Johnny Depp makes me long for the days when his talent was largely a treasure known only to cinephiles. (A sane Anne Heche also makes a vivid impression.) The 20 minutes of new scenes add to the texture of the film without causing it to break stride; a gritty, detailed piece, it feels more densely realized, and not swamped with superfluous flourishes. That sad, somber, daylight-never-breaking feeling it so powerfully creates is sustained. Then again, the supplemental features of past DVD editions of the theatrical cut have not been retained, so if you don't care to see more of the film--it's not a make-or-break proposition--this extended cut is an offer you can refuse.

Big is a different matter. The film is a delight, but it is a delight because the director, Penny Marshall, cut the modern-day fable to a trim and fit 102 minutes. Marshall has some presence in the extras on this disc--its star, Tom Hanks, who has chaperoned an expanded cut of his That Thing You Do! onto DVD this week, is conspicuously absent--but this is largely a writer's cut, adding almost a half-hour of business to the feature. I'm fond of Big, and I blanched whenever a new scene or scene extension popped up; each one felt like a detour my memory was forced to take. Frustrated, I gave up after an hour. A perfect light diversion had become fattening and bad for me. It reminded me less of Big, the movie, than Big, the bad Broadway musical, with no song-and-dance numbers and more book scenes added.

But Fox, smartly, has included the original cut on this two-disc edition. It's what we all remember and it deserves to remain in circulation, and the new print is nice and snappy-looking. Big is not always better, but it is tolerable if all the variants are included for the sake of comparison and choice under one roof, and all the extras ported over for convenience. If the studios want to us to flirt with these tarted-up versions, they should remember that everyone fondly recalls their first loves.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

A Blonde, a Blackbird, and some Boys

Omigod! Legally Blonde, the musical, kicks off three entries as the theater season winds down in New York, all from the Live Design website. And Cheek by Jowl's Cymbeline at BAM gets a quick beheading at Theater News Online.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Spring cleaning

It's only May 2 by the calendar but the summer movie season begins tomorrow at midnight with the release of Spider-Man 3. Sequels, remakes, and originals that feel like sequels and remakes, and costing more than the GNP of several countries, give me pause. But before wading into them, a look at what's come before the onslaught.

Disturbia. The No. 1 movie at the boxoffice these last three weeks is Rear Window for kids, and if it leads any of them back to the source then it will have done its job. They'll be surprised to find that the Hitchcock film, while taking full advantage of its voyeuristic set-up, also critiques such behavior, a consideration that the writers and director of the new movie have ignored. Disturbia luxuriates in the peekaboo possibilities of home surveillance gadgetry you can find at any CompUSA store, and the only one to complain is the bad guy (David Morse), whose own house is outfitted with a brine pit stuffed with bedraggled corpses. In the commercial cinema, at least, civil liberties and the right to privacy are suspect, and the feel-good implied by computerized peeping tom-ism is likely to stick in the craw of anyone not bamboozled enough to still care. Otherwise Disturbia is a familiar, efficient, somewhat poky thriller, lucky in its lead, 20-going-on-15 years old Shia LaBeouf, whose large, soulful eyes and rebellious (but not too rebellious) attitude are clearly a draw for the target audience. If only John Hughes were around to find more interesting ways to explore his formative years than this picture, Transformers, and the next Indiana Jones movie.

Fracture. Rising young Academy Award nominee Ryan Gosling breaks onto the "big time" with this minor legal thriller, as a chomping-at-the-bit public defender bedeviled by the felon from hell, Anthony Hopkins. The senior actor, who has tried to kill his faithless wife and is making little attempt to evade prosecution, reuses his Lecterisms and is as stale as week-old ham. For his part, Gosling tries to make his role work for him, and sinks into its callowness; he's watchable, but the movies are full of on-the-make lawyers growing moral backbones and there's only so much distinction he can lend. The director, Gregory Hoblit, has a better story of this type to his credit (Primal Fear) but has had this one filmed in a gauzy way where grittiness was called for, and stalls the surprise ending for so long it's no particular shock to anyone when it comes. A full two hours is too long to spend on a scenario like this, which had the makings to be like one of those Levinson/Link Columbo-type TV movies that Hopkins made years before he put on Hannibal's mask.

Hot Fuzz. Funny, but not Shaun of the Dead funny. That film was a near-perfect blend of astute character comedy with on-the-money movie spoofery that woke the dead with laughter. This time, the scale tips too far over into the self-referential cinematic gags, and explicitly references movies like Point Break and Bad Boys II that were already way over-the-top. There's little for Hot Fuzz to add, or play off of, and the gags are largely buckshot. Still, it's hard to truly dislike a comedy that, after a lot of leisurely paced and poundingly edited non sequiturs, comes alive in the home stretch to allow deeply lined action movie vets like Timothy Dalton, Edward Woodward, and Stuart Wilson to haul out semi-automatic weapons one more time and blast away at landmarks in the twee English town where the Wicker Man-like story unfolds.

Private Fears in Public Places. I can only assume that the Alan Ayckbourn comedy on which Alain Resnais has based his latest film had actual humor to it. For the screen Resnais leaches most of it out of the stage play, leaving only the dry husks of its would-be friends and lovers rendezvousing in an endless Parisian winter behind when all their uncomfortable truths and evasions have been laid bare. But it is fascinating to watch Resnais' paring knife whittle away at a fine cast of veteran French performers, all of whom are at an age when most films lose interest in people. And the play has been very elegantly translated to the wide screen, with imagery that has a liquid clarity. The film is as soft--and as cold--as the cascading snowfall that acts as dissolves between scenes.

Waitress. A comedy too slight and lightweight to bear the weight of the tragedy that surrounds it. The writer and director Adrienne Shelly, who also co-stars, was murdered last November, and what was meant to be a whimsical and uplifting story based around her anxieties about impending motherhood now has the pall of an epitaph. Working hard to dispel the gloom is its star, Keri Russell, who gives off a sweetly warming glow as she tries to juggle an uncaring husband (the inevitable Jeremy Sisto) and an overly helpful obgyn (Nathan Fillion) while baking numerous delicious-looking pies for every emotional happenstance on the job. Lightly refreshing, it's a cute, little movie, with none other than Andy Griffith as the small-town grump who lends a hand to the empowerment, and it marked a change in the weather for an actress who first made her mark in cooler independent fare like Hal Hartley's Trust. That she died on an upswing is at best cold comfort.

Year of the Dog. The writer, Mike White, is a disturber of the peace. 2000's Chuck and Buck is one of the braver indies in recent years, and his smackdown on Hollywood violence in today's New York Times is food for thought, and politically incorrect in an industry that would just rather move on from the latest real-life tragedy (why do Americans like me clamor to repeal the so-called "right to bear arms," while resisting the notion that fictional characters might lay down their weapons, too?). There is no firepower in his directorial debut but its leading character, Peggy (Molly Shannon), stings, with her stubborn, almost psychotic, refusal to stick to the status quo. A dog lover, Peggy (played uncomfortably close to the bone by the actress), comes unglued when her pet passes away; a need to nurture leads to acts of aggression, and by the close the film is Repulsion with canines, as Peggy is surrounded not by phantom hands but by frolicsome pooches. The very ending too neatly ties a ribbon around its themes, which were more compelling when less defined. Yet the air of deadpan hysteria, which a fine cast including John C. Reilly, Peter Sarsgaard, Regina King, and Laura Dern all breathe, lingers.