Friday, May 30, 2008

Popdose: Indy (and indies)

This week: An Indy you may have heard about, and also a handful of others--Postal, The Children of Huang Shi, and Stuart Gordon's Stuck--that may be as hard to find as a kingdom of a crystal skull, given a changing and challenging marketplace for lower-budgeted and -profile film fare.

RIP Harvey Korman

One funny guy, seen here in the best of his Mel Brooks credits, Blazing Saddles. And the Carol Burnett sketches hold up well, even (or especially) when Korman and Co. have trouble containing themselves on camera. Korman, Sydney Pollack (who did a lot on the tube in his early career), Dick Martin, veteran director Joseph Pevney, composers Earle Hagen (The Andy Griffith Show, I Spy) and Alexander Courage (Star Trek)--it's been a tough week in TV Land.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

RIP Sydney Pollack

The passing of Pollack, too soon at age 73, did not come as a shock. The news of his terminal bout with stomach cancer had been in circulation for some time, and was part of reports about the unexpected death of his producing partner and friend, Anthony Minghella--one of the few directors who might have replaced him as a conscientious craftsman, a rare breed anymore. Still, it is a sad farewell, coming as it did just a few months after the Oscar-winning Michael Clayton, one of his last (and best) producing credits and acting roles; the same month he appeared in his final film as actor, Made of Honor; and the end of the holiday weekend that saw the debut of the entertaining HBO movie Recount, another worthy producing credit.

His name stood for something. I was irked by his Oscar win for 1985's Out of Africa, just as I was ticked off that 1982's Tootsie, one of the great film comedies, went home with just one statuette. Prizzi's Honor seemed the superior film in 1985. But Africa, with its magnificent Meryl Streep performance and typically excellent use of the hard-to-pin-down Robert Redford, has grown on me since then. It is that rare thoughtful epic, beautifully shot, edited, and scored (by the great John Barry). These kinds of pictures are difficult to make, and harder still to make well.

As a director, he seemed to lose his bearings after this triumph. The one substantial hit, 1993's The Firm, is overlong and not terribly confident, more of a Tom Cruise picture than a Sydney Pollack one. In the Seventies, when he made thrillers like The Yakuza and Three Days of the Condor, he would have tossed it off in under two hours. [The latter airs tomorrow morning at 1:30 EST on Turner Classic Movies, as it happens.] His last feature, 2005's The Interpreter, is a little more like it, and his eye on its varied New York locations, including the interior of the United Nations, impeccable (pictured). Comfortable in farther-flung locales, like Japan and Africa, the Indiana-born Pollack certainly knew his way around his adopted hometown.

He continued to excel as a producer, however, with credits like The Fabulous Baker Boys (a film that gets better every year), Sense and Sensibility, The Talented Mr. Ripley, the very fine The Quiet American, and Forty Shades of Blue on a distinguished resume. Three more films are due, a silver-screen lining as it were. He was an avid and candid commentator on his work for home video (that inimitable voice!) and by all accounts helpful to cinephiles researching facets of Hollywood's past.

After Spielberg, Scorsese, and maybe Tarantino, Pollack was perhaps the most recognizable American producer-director, not necessarily because of his credits but for the acting roles that eventually followed his brilliant comic turn opposite star and sparring partner Dustin Hoffman in Tootsie. [For the viewer, their much-documented difficulties were worth every argument.] He left acting in the early 1960s, left it again after Tootsie for a decade, then returned to play gruff, streetwise New Yorkers for Woody Allen (Husbands and Wives), Stanley Kubrick (Eyes Wide Shut), and Roger Michell (Changing Lanes), among others. I just saw him last week on the IFC Channel in the 2006 French film Avenue Montaigne. And his episodes of Will & Grace, where he and Blythe Danner played Will's parents, will continue to have their half-life.

His best films as director will continue to attract audiences for their quality, taste, superb star wrangling, and expert craftsmanship. The excruciating and unflinching They Shoot Horses, Don't They? (1969), his closest collaboration with Redford, Jeremiah Johnson (1972), the hard-hitting newspaper ethics thriller Absence of Malice (1981), Tootsie, and Out of Africa are gems. Condor and The Way We Were are among the commendable as well. His was a generous career that spanned so much.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Warmth in Autumn

If 4 for Texas touches bottom for director Robert Aldrich, then 1956's Autumn Leaves is an unsung highlight of his career. Aldrich's idea of a "woman's picture" was not at all dainty: Physically and mentally, the likes of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962) and The Legend of Lylah Clare (1968) play rough. Coming at a time when Aldrich was making punishing pictures like Kiss Me Deadly, Attack!, and The Big Knife, Autumn Leaves is (as you can tell by the title) an unusually sensitive change-of-pace, not without cruelty but never unkind.

Its May-September success hinges on two thoroughly credible performances. In his second major screen role, after Picnic, Cliff Robertson gives a believably off-center performance as Burt, scion of a wealthy family. He strikes up an unlikely romance with Milly, a lonely middle-aged typist who sacrificed her youth caring for her ailing father, despite his protestations. Milly is played by Joan Crawford, in one of her finest performances. Her career was on the slippery slope toward camp at this time, in films like the Southern-fried family Gothic Queen Bee and the must-be-seen-to-be-believed musical Torch Song, and by Baby Jane? it had pretty much arrived. But Autumn Leaves and the cult WesternJohnny Guitar are high-water marks, and I don't think she was ever more vulnerable, and less guarded, than here.* Milly has two problems: Societal scorn for her romance, as in the more highly regarded Douglas Sirk picture All That Heaven Allows that same year, and Burt's creeping neurosis, whose root cause she goes through much trauma herself to uncover. Just when you've forgotten that you're watching an Aldrich picture, what with all the aborning romance and the lovely Nat King Cole title tune on the soundtrack, there is a horrific episode involving Milly's typewriter, a deal-breaker for most women trying to tough out an impossible relationship. But Milly carries on. Love hurts, Aldrich says.

Turner Classic Movies has a nice letterboxed transfer of Autumn Leaves in its library, which it will air Tuesday, May 27, at 8:45am EST, as part of a day-long salute to Robertson. Charles Lang's wistful, noir-inflected black-and-white cinematography, uncovering interesting facets of period twilight L.A., is well-preserved. It really should be on DVD but as the studios prepare to resell their biggest contemporary hits again and again on Blu-Ray I wouldn't hold my breath waiting. Aldrich fans, note that on Wed., May 28 at 7am EST TCM is airing 1957's The Garment Jungle, which the director was fired from, with two weeks to go in the shooting. [His replacement was old Crawford hand Vincent Sherman.]

*The script was co-written by the husband-and-wife team of Jean Rouverol and Hugo Butler, and has a nice give-and-take in the dialogue between the couple that could only come from lived-in observation. The two were blacklisted at the time, and the film co-credited to a front, comedy writer Jack Jevne. Butler died in 1968, the year they completed the screenplay for Lylah Clare. The 91-year-old Rouverol, a former actress who co-starred in the W.C. Fields classic It's a Gift (1934), appears as herself in the play adaptation Trumbo, which is being released this summer.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Rat Pack rewind

Last week, as part of its month-long Frank Sinatra tribute, Turner Classic Movies broadcast all four movies featuring the fabled Rat Pack, or, as they preferred to call themselves, "the Clan." Sinatra's brood, Frank Jr. (diffident, but straight-ahead), Nancy (out-of-it, but I like her anyway) and Tina (poised, attractive, but I wouldn't want to tangle with her), co-hosted the pix with Robert Osborne. I skipped the first, and most successful, Ocean's 11 (1960)--I find it a chore to sit through, with the mechanics of the big heist both lazy and hazy, and the boys clearly weren't trying too hard as they squeezed in the filming between their Vegas engagements. I'm not all that keen on the new ones but they're breezier and more efficient, yet also more knowing. It's easy to see why the original was a hit--through the prism of a too-loose narrative it seemed to give insight into the ring-a-ding lives of its performers. It lets you in on their 24/7 world, just as the current pictures put an ironic distance between us and them.

[As it happens, I stayed at Sinatra's stomping ground, the Sands, in 1996, the year it was demolished and made over into a convention center. The maids were changing the sheets but that was about it in its final hours. Somewhere, in the faded carpets and cheap, cigarette-burned furniture, I thought I could see the ghosts of its joie de vivre past.]

The second, 1962's comic Western Sergeants 3, is much better. It's also, technically, the last: the expendable Peter Lawford and Joey Bishop were cut loose after this one, for various internecine reasons, and the vital Sammy Davis, Jr. missed the next (lucky him) and returned for the last. In between the classics The Magnificent Seven and The Great Escape, director John Sturges rode herd on the principals, in a remake of 1939's Gunga Din shot, in glorious widescreen, in Utah. I love Gunga Din but this one has the same structural weakness, for impatient contemporary viewers especially--after a rip-roaring opening it settles into semi-improvisational romantic and interpersonal hijinx before starting up again as the pack takes on a Native American cult in the post-Civil War West. [By virtue of being better-written and more structurally solid the original gets away with all the tomfoolery, though Martin's double takes are sly.] Still, the action scenes (particularly the ones set in the mountainside Injun lair and a perilous rope-bridge crossing that might have inspired a similar scene in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom), are well-staged, the score by frequent Sinatra collaborator Billy May rousing, and Davis touching in the Sam Jaffe part, even if the all-in-good-fun spirit denies him the tragic character arc that gives Gunga Din its heart.

Sinatra (who except for Ocean's 11 produced all these pictures) said they were meant to be nothing more than entertainment, but that is tested by 4 for Texas (1963). It didn't help that the film was carelessly cropped after the opening titles; still, I doubt there was anything missing from the frame that might have helped. I'm a fan of director Robert Aldrich and have read (and written) spirited defenses of his less-regarded work. Never a one on this picture, however, and I doubt anyone will pick up the banner. Aldrich and Sinatra, a good match on paper for a more dramatic movie, reportedly clashed during the filming of this sludgy riverboat gamblers farce, and even with Charles Bronson, Victor Buono, and the lusciously blank Anita Ekberg and Ursula Andress in the cast it just sits there, uncomfortably docked. Most painful is a feeble, final reel appearance by the last incarnation of The Three Stooges, though they at least are more in their element. I imagine it's preferable to some of the comic pictures Sinatra and Martin made. I am not, however, planning to check.

1964's Robin and the 7 Hoods is more like it. It's a cheerful, if dawdling, picture, despite the disruptions of JFK's assassination and the kidnapping of Sinatra's son during shooting. The only (sort-of) musical in the bunch, introducing the standard "My Kind of Town" in the opening credits and in performance by Sinatra toward the close, it has a pleasant Roaring Twenties atmosphere in ganster-ridden old Chicago and with the welcome Peter Falk (as the bad guy) and Bing Crosby (as a fop) in the cast a new pack is complete. Barbara Rush also has more to do in the distaff part, an afterthought in these boys' club movies. [Edward G. Robinson also shows up in an opening sequence cameo.] Sinatra's role in these pictures was pretty much to hold them steady, which he does; this one's stolen by Sammy, whose song-and-dance routine "Bang!," atop a speakeasy card table, is the highlight. [This is one of those films that must look like absolute hell minus letterboxing.] With a revamped book and more musical numbers--they are sparsely apportioned, as if no one really wanted to commit to the genre--this might work as a Broadway show. Gordon Douglas, an old Sinatra hand, directs anonymously but functionally, and I wonder what path these shows might have taken had there been more of them. The gig was concluded, however, save for an appearance by Martin, Davis, Jr., Rat Packette Shirley MacLaine, and the Chairman of the Board in 1984's The Cannonball Run II, one of Burt Reynolds' good-ol-boy vehicles, and a picture to make 4 for Texas look like vintage Preston Sturges.

Speaking of Sinatra, the last of the four, thus far terrific TV specials TCM is broadcasting, 1973's Ol' Blue Eyes is Back, airs tomorrow. This one pairs him with his MGM buddy, Gene Kelly. I'll be tuning in.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Live Design: Awards and more

The Lincoln Center revival of South Pacific (pictured) snares a few awards in the high season for honors. And a bit of talk about Conor McPherson's new old show, Port Authority.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Taxing DVD issues

About this time every month I log on to and select a few DVDs for purchase in the coming weeks. I got a shock today upon checkout: starting June 1 New York will be charging state tax on my bounty. In a way, that's not bad news: It will take the guesswork out of figuring out how much to dun myself on my tax forms every year. [Note to the IRS: I say "guesswork" as a shorthand for readers. I calculate the actual amount to the penny and never, ever estimate. I am as honest as the day is long in this regard, and can provide at least three witnesses in my defense should you decide to pursue the matter.] But, obviously, it takes some of the fun off the online shopping experience--may as well go back to brick-and-mortar stores now, if there are any left. [I get a little pang every time I pass former Tower Video outlets.]

Then again, the fun ain't what it used to be. My purchases have plummeted this year. Part of this is because of a tight squeeze at home; to paraphrase the tagline of Dawn of the Dead, when there's no more room in my cabinets the DVDs will pile up in the closets, an unacceptable situation for this semi-neat freak. And part of it is because there just isn't all that much I want. Clarification: There's plenty that I want, but it doesn't seem to be coming to a vendor near me, and the glut of new releases of tired new movies and retread "special edition" titles bore me. Time is also a factor; DVDs I'm interested in at least renting are stuck in my Netflix queue, which freezes over for long periods, and my purchases are also in permafrost. [Those venerable Western titles I picked up last week, including Man of the West, will have to wait for the next roundup, partners.]

Blu-Ray? No way. Never say never, of course, but owning pricier HD editions of current movies that weren't that good in the first place, the bulk of the HD marketplace, is a non-starter for me. And having writhed through my share of careless transfers of standard-def titles like the wire-ridden War of the Worlds (1953) I don't trust the transfer poohbahs to know what they're doing with what they've got. Who can forget the Citizen Kane DVD blunder, where background rain was removed because the techs thought it was grain?

I was I could say that was an isolated incident, but according to the Digital Bits website it looks to become the norm on DVD. Today's consumers want their movies to be as clean and shiny as their playback systems, and if that means removing or reducing grain that a filmmaker deliberately put in so be it. Pan's Labyrinth without grain just isn't the Pan's Labyrinth it was meant to be. It doesn't "look bad"; it looks eerie and spectral and nightmare-like, which was the intent. But if it means selling more product to under-educated buyers who want the latest hit (and everything else) to conform to a false standard of glossiness on movie night, so be it. The grain goes.

It's a typically low-forehead approach to a market that could stand to use more edification. I'm thrown by the number of HD-owning shops and homes I enter where the TV is set to fill the screen, no matter that the image is ridiculously stretched to get rid of whatever "black bars" there are. This can only get worse with the mandated shift from analog to digital next year. The silver lining in this is that people with unusual body shapes will soon be embraced as the norm as wonkily set TVs change our perception of the human figure.

If this keeps up, I'm putting my money somewhere else. New York will surely suffer if I withdraw entirely from the DVD market.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Drama Desks: The show goes on...

...but happily last night's awards ceremony did not go and on, as it did last year. This was my first year as an attendee, and with Lora radiant in a black maternity dress we were treated to a zippily paced program that came in at the 2:15 mark. Much of the fun came from the presenters, the four-person cast of the Broadway-bound [title of show]--which was not nominated for Drama Desks in its original Off Broadway incarnation two years back, and which they were not shy to satirize. There were some terrifically funny speeches as well, from winners including Linda Lavin and August: Osage County author Tracy Letts, who got a big laugh wondering how his mammoth show will play "with a cast from the Love Boat" once its Steppenwolf members depart. And there were touching moments, too, notably from Gypsy winners Patti LuPone, Laura Benanti (who hoped her parents' server was working as they watched the live webcast on, and Boyd Gaines. I liked the anything-goes vibe behind it, as well--anyone up there was free to curse, ramble, or behave very eccentrically (the last would be Boeing-Boeing winner Mark Rylance), unlike at the televised Tonys. The "Deskies," as the hosts called them, were clubby-comfortable without pretense, and I for one did not miss the production numbers and hoo-hah that slow or mar so many award presentations of its type.

The night got a real lift from the before and after parties besides. The Hawaiian Tropic lounge on 49th Street always looks to me like a better place to get a lap dance than a dinner, and was a slightly ironic choice given how pallid relentlessly showgoing Drama Deskers look by the end of the season. But the food was excellent (and plentiful) and the service with a smile and a tan followed suit. Afterwards John's Pizza on 44th kept the pasta and slices coming, and I didn't make it home till well after 2am.

As for the winners, well, we nominators presented a very mixed menu, and the voting members pretty much selected from the Broadway entrees, as if often the case. (With interesting results: The 12-"Deskies" nominated A Catered Affair was shut out, and the singly-nominated The Seafarer and Cry-Baby were lauded.) For some this is a crisis. I would however place that word in quote marks. The many Off and Off Off Broadway nominees I talked to consider the nomination itself a win, given the staggering amount of potential competition they're up against (I know, I weeded through it). The "problem" would seem to be that not enough voters see the smaller shows. But to fix that, publicists would likely be obliged to dole out free tickets to more of the membership, which for obvious reasons they are disinclined to do (they are usually happy to accommodate voters who find them, but you do have to look hard sometimes). A larger problem is getting a shrinking number of media outlets interested in the less glitzy, more gritty productions. There is no incentive for voters to see more of the smaller shows, and publicists to allow access to them, if the editorial gatekeepers aren't that interested. It's no conspiracy, or "conspiracy," that the Broadway shows win.

I am, however, satisfied that my nominating committee discharged its duties superbly. What am I to do with myself now? There are, of course, more shows to see; there are always shows to see. Oh, and that event in August...

[Pictured is the "Deskie"-winning musical, Passing Strange, with winner Stew, at home prepping for tonight's Obies, at the left, and nominee Daniel Breaker at the right.]

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Too much information

The money quote Sony Pictures Classics is spotlighting in print ads for the fact-based Children of Huang Shi, which opens on Friday, is a wee bit overstuffed. Whatever four-star paean critic Karen Durbin wrote for Elle magazine has been blurbicized into:

"A Feel-Good Treat! Jonathan Rhys Meyers plays an idealistic journalist almost too shy to woo Radha Mitchell's fearless nurse on horseback as they rescue sixty Chinese orphans."

Now, I've seen the movie, and that's not an inaccurate description. Rather top-heavy, though...and unintentionally funny. [I don't recall him wooing her on horseback, either.] Somehow I don't think it's going to lure audiences away from Indiana Jones.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Popdose: Prince Caspian and Young at Heart

Movies for young and old this week, as the Chronicles of Narnia roar at Iron Man and singing seniors try out Sonic Youth.

Too much Sex?

According to the mixed Variety review, the bigscreen continuation of Sex and the City runs 145 minutes, or the length of five back-to-back episodes. Unless the feature (opening May 30) is padded with robot battles and swordfights, that's a mighty long time in the sack, even with these four babes. Doesn't anyone know how to make these movies shorter, friskier, punchier, and more concise?

RIP John Phillip Law

Who is that masked man? Many years before I could answer that question, I remember my parents taking me to see The Golden Voyage of Sinbad, when I was about eight years old. I thrilled to the Ray Harryhausen creatures, of course (it was the only one of his pictures I saw first-run on the big screen) but liked the Sinbad, too. Law, who died yesterday at age 70, followed me around as I pursued my cinematic education, turning up in grade A to Z movies.

Not perhaps the most facile actor, the Hollywood-born Law was rather perfectly cast as a granite-hard TV executive named Robin Stone in the 1971 film of Jacqueline Susann's The Love Machine, accompanied by Dionne Warwick's title tune. (Catch it on cable; it's good camp.) After a charming co-starring debut as a seductive Soviet The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming, Law was cast in prestige pictures that weren't, notably Otto Preminger's back-to-back disasters Hurry Sundown and Skidoo; The Sergeant, as a love interest for a hysterically conflicted Rod Steiger; and Dennis Hopper's ill-starred The Last Movie (1971). A spaghetti Western, Death Rides a Horse with Lee Van Cleef, is held in some esteem. He had his best luck in fantasy films, amidst settings and situations that offset his handsome stolidity: the swashbuckling Sinbad was one, the blind angel Pygar, rescuing Jane Fonda in 1968's Barbarella, another.

His signature role was as the masked anti-hero (pictured) in that same year's Danger: Diabolik, a comic book fantasia wittily and stylishly directed by Mario Bava. The DVD, in which Law talks about the film with Video Watchdog's Tim Lucas, is good fun, and has as a bonus a Beastie Boys video made in homage to the devilish character. Seeing it at New York's Film Forum, with a large and appreciative audience, was a terrific experience, and thanks in no small part to Law's straight-ahead performance it holds its own against bigger-budgeted, but less imaginative, competition in the adaptations arena.

Sinbad was his last major role as part of the Hollywood food chain, and he worked mostly overseas on a variety of features, which more determined buffs than I have tracked down. [He was a popular guest at movie conventions, with an enthusiastic attitude toward a blown-sideways-through-celluloid career.] I do recall him checkmating Burt Lancaster and Ingrid Thulin at the close of 1977's The Cassandra Crossing, a favorite B-grade disaster film from the Carlo Ponti/Sophia Loren cheese factory. It was a nice treat to see him in the trippy movie-within-the-movie of Roman Coppola's CQ (2001), which has a Diabolik/Barbarella backbeat. He looked as if he had been preserved in amber, deep, deep down in Diabolik's lair.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Lost souls

Some time ago Cineaste received a fine interview with writer-director Christian Petzold, which will soon be featured on our website. The article is timed to coincide with Friday's release of his fourth feature, Yella, via Cinema Guild. Given the quick decimation of foreign-language arthouse releases, even award-winning ones like Yella, see it lickety-split if you can; its lead performance, in particular, will linger by the time the piece makes it to pixels.

Subtitles give audiences pause, and I must say if I'm not thoroughly engaged with a film my aging eyes tend to droop as a barrage of words comes at me from the screen. No such problems with Yella. For one thing, it's not that talky; the business-like characters play it close to the vest as they jockey for advantage. For another, Petzold admires American genre pictures, and Yella is essentially his version of Herk Harvey's Carnival of Souls, played straight. It's a nightmare of naturalism, reprising key moments from its source in a new, capitalistic context.

Yella is portrayed by Nina Hoss, who won the Silver Bear at the 2007 Berlin International Film Festival for her anxious-under-the-surface performance. The plot straddles what used to be called the two Germanys, now reconciled but still divided by class and economic opportunity. Yella lives in a backwater East German town, but is planning her exit, which seems to become more permanent than planned when ex-husband Ben (Hinnerk Schonemann) reenters the scene. The emotionally disturbed Ben takes Yella on a car ride that ends with a plunge into the Elbe River, which only Yella survives. Restoring her equilibrium after her ordeal is a smooth-operating venture capitalist, Philipp (David Striesow), who hires her as his aide-de-camp in his ventures (the actor played the commandant in The Counterfeiters). Yella adjusts to a new routine in the wealthier environs of the former West Germany, and she and Philipp, who reminds her of her ex, strike up a more intimate sort of partnership. But there is a price to be paid, and what appears to be Ben's ghost materializes to exact it.

The horror movie elements give the picture a little jolt, though Yella is not a horror movie. [Nor is it strictly speaking a road movie, though it is a bit of that kind of film, too, punctuated by David Ackles' song "The Road to Cairo."] The quasi-thriller is about the difficulty of transitioning from one life to another, from the homey poverty of the ghost towns of the East to the colder comforts of the status-obsessed West. A romanticized portrait it is not: Both societies have their enticements and disadvantages, which keep Yella in a state not unlike suspended animation, unable to find her place. [Trains and cars, and the holding patterns they impose, are a motif.] When Yella accompanies Philipp on his rounds much of the film is about negotiation, and Hoss excels at listening, as she goes from pupil to peer under his tutelage. In asserting herself, what she can't shut out is her former life. Arriving is the payoff of travel, but in Yella the journey is complicated by conflicting emotions, and the destination a mystery.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Tony time: Another perspective

The nominations for the 2007-2008 season Tony Awards are out today, and I think it's true: The Drama Desks really are a bellwether for the Broadway event. Not for those of us who are Drama Desk nominators, mind you--our nominations are a solid mix of Broadway, Off Broadway, and Off Off Broadway shows--but for the Tony nominators, who seemed to have split the difference with us. We went for Cheyenne Jackson in Xanadu; they went for Kerry Butler. We gave the nod to Kevin Kline's Cyrano; The Tonys embraced Patrick Stewart's Macbeth. We nommed Marisa Tomei for Top Girls, they nommed Martha Plimpton for the same show. We dined out on A Catered Affair; they got all choked up over Cry-Baby.

A poor choice by the way, whatever support it has from the chattering classes. The reasoning must be that A) Rob Ashford's standout choreography, which we did nominate, will look good on TV, and B) the show could tour, if it gets enough audience support here. But it really shouldn't--a bad movie has made for a significantly worse musical. The nomination of Grease for best revival is equally embarrassing, but apparently Tony voters are obliged to vote for a full slate of nominees in all categories, quality be damned, so it got in on that outdated technicality.

Then again, I'm not knocking my brethren. I now know something about the calculus of awards decision-making now, and even if the Tony voters had only 35 shows to consider--a walk in the park, an obligation I could fulfill standing on my head--there are calls to be made, even if they turn out all wonky. But I must say that, with those same shows to consider plus hundreds more, our Broadway choices are a wiser mix. (And I must say that, as our nominations seem but a distant memory now.) It's better, I think, to have six discerning nominators rather than a committee of 21. That, however, is showbiz, and how different sets of rules play out.

A few observations:

*No surprise that August: Osage County and its powerhouse ladies, Amy Morton and Deanna Dunagan (pictured), were nominated. And no surprise that In the Heights got shown major love, too, after setting toes tapping at last year's Drama Desk awards. I did think it played better on Broadway, with the addition (finally) of a song for veteran co-star Priscilla Lopez, but not that much better. Too sugar-spun for my palate.

*So-called "mistakes" made by us were duly "corrected". (Broadway lovers can't see past our mandate of across-the-board excellence.) S. Epatha Merkerson got a slot, and The Seafarer found somewhat safer harbor. No suck luck, again, for the not-too-loved Cat on a Hot Tin Roof or November or the other shows that tumbled through the cracks, though Cat's James Earl Jones is getting a special award at our ceremony this Sunday. So, DD doubters: Did Tony get it wrong, too, or could it be that the shows just didn't add up?

*I liked Stew's performance in Passing Strange, but co-star (and co-Stew) Daniel Breaker does the heavier, leading-man lifting.

*I'm happy to see Bobby Cannavale, Mary McCormack, and A:OC set designer Todd Rosenthal being honored for their fine, and duly considered, work.

*Design dish: The 39 Steps is strong in every way except the minimal Tony-nominated set. The Tonys are to be commended for joining the 20th century a few years late and honoring sound, with play choices that should please Anglophiles. This I give to the Tonys: It distinguishes between design elements in a play and a musical, something the Drama Desk should do (and does do with sets), given the vast quantity of shows considered. On the other hand, only the Drama Desk honors projection, as of this this season.

The Drama Desk Awards are this Sunday, May 18. The Tonys are on June 15.

Friday, May 09, 2008

Popdose: Speed Racer and Iron Man

Twenty movies opened today in New York, which has to be a record (I think the previous high-water mark in city celluloid was 14). And I suspect the only two that will do any significant business are this week's action picture and last week's, reviewed here. Personally, I prefer Jackie Chan and Jet Li in the underrated Forbidden Kingdom over either of them, but that's got no kick left at the boxoffice. (Here they are trekking through some fascinating Gobi Desert locations.) Of the many newcomers, the three that interest me are the spy satire OSS 177, the delectable Famke Janssen as a pool hustler in Turn the River, and the Gallic gorefest Frontier(s)--but like most of this jumble of cinema I think they'll all be through the turnstiles and on their way to DVD before long.

Thursday, May 08, 2008

Live Design: Bye-bye to the Broadway season

The revival-ridden 2007-2008 Broadway season has come to an end, with the opening of Top Girls last night. A roundup includes Ben Daniels and Laura Linney in the Roundabout production of Les Liaisons Dangereuses, at the American Airlines.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Now this is a poster... unthinkable today, in our sensitive, post-9/11 world. Did it rankle New Yorkers in 1974, or were they too woebegone to care as the Death Wish-era city collapsed all around them? (A framed, full-size version hangs in the waitroom to the Magno screening room in Midtown.)

I bring this up to report that the minor classic of New York mayhem is being remade by slickster director Tony Scott in my neighborhood, for a 35th-anniversary July 2009 release. (There was a TV version in 1998.) I am living it: The gear and lighting trucks were out in full force near the Hoyt Schermerhorn station today, and I saw costumes being carted along State Street. It's the second big State Street shoot of the year, following the Coen Bros.' Burn After Reading, which opens in September. If I look harder I may spot co-stars Denzel Washington, John Travolta, and James Gandolfini, offering a temporary respite from the celebrity drought I commented upon a couple of days ago. But the original movie, with Walter Matthau, Robert Shaw, and a great cast of beat-up looking local talent, will be hard to top.

BAM goes down

The Brooklyn Academy of Music kicks off a salute to indie cinematographer Ed Lachman with a rare showing of the notorious Ken Park this Friday. I saw the undistributed-in-the-U.S. movie at a 2002 Lincoln Center screening, and as you can tell from the poster (which newspaper or magazine had the stones to reprint this?) it flirts with underage pornography, and tips right over with the legal-age castmembers--a lengthy sequence of autoerotic masturbation by one its disaffected male characters "pays off" in more ways than one. Lachman is the co-director, but the real auteur is undoubtedly the button-pushing photographer and filmmaker Larry Clark, whose controversial Kids (1995) and Bully (2001) were mere preludes to this one. (He's been fairly chaste since this one.) I don't want to oversell it, if you're fixing for a sex romp and would rather not go hunting for the Russian-market DVD that's out there; it's an ugly, not particularly arousing picture about ugly, not particularly arousing goings-on among California skateboarders, with occasional bits of beauty (a teen three-way is gorgeously lit). Clark and Lachman will be there for the screening...uncompromising artists or dirty old men? You decide.

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Theater News Online: Two reviews

As the 2007-2008 Broadway season draws to a close, the farce Boeing-Boeing flies high, while the sophomoric musical Glory Days crashes on takeoff. (It closed on opening night last night, a rare occurrence--maybe the first time a musical folded that fast since 1983.) Pictured are Boeing-Boeing co-stars Kathryn Hahn and Mark Rylance, in a smashing Broadway debut.

There goes the neighborhood...

Brownstoner and Curbed report today that A Beautiful Mind co-stars Jennifer Connelly and Paul Bettany are abandoning a formidable limestone brownstone on Prospect Park for the vapidly trendy and overpopulated West Village (I say that with love). With the saga of Heath Ledger and Michelle Williams come to its tragic end our beautiful people quota is plummeting, and don't tell me that "we still have all those writers"--they're homely souls no one except the book reviewing staff of the Times could possibly recognize. I worry that Peter Sarsgaard and Maggie Gyllenhaal are losing interest; hang in there, guys, is there anything I can do to make your stay more enjoyable? Need a half-pound of delicious smoked almonds from Sahadi's, perhaps? I'm on my way.

The silver lining: The Connelly-Bettany digs are in the hands of a broker to the stars, the only people outside of (ugly, graceless) hedge-fund managers who could afford the $8.5 million asking price.

Monday, May 05, 2008

Springtime for Sinatra

Turner Classic Movies has declared May "Frank Sinatra Month," and I definitely roll that way. Last night the channel broadcast a terrific, Emmy-winning 1965 TV special, Sinatra: A Man and His Music, and telecasts of additional Sinatra shows are scheduled for subsequent Sunday nights this month. I found this kind of programming kind of fuddy-duddy as a kid, but what did I know? Much as I've come to love his recordings from the late Fifties and early Sixties, that prime period, there's nothing quite like seeing him swing those hits, with those initimatable vocal inflections and surprising hand gestures. (It's hard to believe he taped it while suffering from a cold.) An epitome of cool, and TCM also showed some of his earliest features, from the early Forties, to see how he got that way.

And there are of course the movies, from the sublime (From Here to Eternity, The Man with the Golden Arm) to the ridiculous (Dirty Dingus Magee). Warner Home Video is also breaking out the box sets, celebrating the early years, the Fifties peak (including Vincente Minnelli's underrated Some Came Running, MIA on DVD till now), and the Rat Pack flicks. All in all a very good month for Ol' Blue Eyes, who died May 14, ten years ago.

Saturday, May 03, 2008

Trail of Tears

The Brooklyn Academy of Music is hosting the U.S. theatrical premiere on Wong Kar Wai's debut film As Tears Go By, which opened the year I arrived in the Crown Colony, 1988. Watching it this afternoon took me back. Not the film itself, really--like many of Wong's movies much of it takes place in fairly drab interiors, though it does get outside more than usual. It was the vibe, the thrum of the place back in that bustling, pre-handover era. The highlight is an exciting, kinetically shot foot chase through a hawkers' market that ends on a busy street, a reminder that Wong, who is content with still lifes these days, used to shoot motion pictures. BAM should have double-billed it with the current, narcoleptic My Blueberry Nights for a compare-and-contrast.

In this case, Tears would be the "winner," if you like your movies to be about something other than pretty pictures navel-gazing (and if you must pit them against each other, which I'm not saying you should). But Wong's acolytes tend to dismiss the film, finding it little more than a more stylish gloss on the formulaic, guns-blazing "heroic bloodshed" pictures that were all the rage when I got there. That it is. But it's more than that, too. Borrowing from Mean Streets, it spins a familiar story, of a bad guy trying to reform for love's sake. The charismatic and I think underrated Andy Lau is Wah, a self-confident gangster who is constantly bailing his friend less-stable friend Fly out of trouble. (The film is full of colorful monikers.) Wah's ease is undermined when his hostess girlfriend announces that she's aborted their child; he finds a measure of solace with his newly arrived cousin, Ngor, played by Maggie Cheung (luminous even when fighting off "lung malfunction," treatment for which has brought her to Hong Kong). Fly, portrayed by the showoffy and scenery-chewing Jacky Cheung (Robert De Niro from the Scorsese picture he's not), continues to fly off the handle with the underworld big shots, and which loyalty Wah will choose--to himself and to his relationship with Ngor, or to Fly--is the crux of the picture.

As Tears Go By was shot by Andrew Lau, who as a director later made the hit Infernal Affairs pictures, adapted by Scorsese into The Departed (Alas, his American debut, The Flock, a serial sex cult thriller thing with Richard Gere and Claire Danes as investigators, was reworked by others and is going straight-to-video this month, one of the highest-profile pictures to do so.) Lau's cinematography personifies flash, and there are some nice tricky sequences; the chase, for example, or a distorted, slo-mo confrontation that Wah has with some thugs, one of whom is feeding beer to a cat. Wong might have gone the route of Michael Mann, and the 80s-ish score (including a Cantopop cover of "Take My Breath Away") points the way. The camerawork is at its most searching, however, simply photographing the tight but expressive faces of its two leads, or quietly exploring some of the nooks and crannies of Hong Kong's street life. Of interest to me: When Ngor turns up on Wah's doorstep in Kowloon, I thought she must have come from the mainland. But it's the (then) more provincial Lantau Island, part of Hong Kong and a ferry ride away, yet a culture apart, that she hails from. (I lived in the more suburban and "cosmopolitan" sector of Lantau.)

BAM is showing As Tears Go By through May 8. The print isn't the greatest; Hong Kong, perpetually a culture of the now, hasn't shown much interest in film preservation and restoration, even of its recent past. (There are laudable efforts to correct this, however.) Like the film itself, however, it is good enough--a modest budget and a commensurate film stock may be to blame--and the subtitles are blessedly clean and legible. Maybe Wong, from a loftier but more precarious perch today, should try another exercise in genre and get the lead out of his filmmaking.

Friday, May 02, 2008

Popdose: Redbelt and The Visitor

This week, a look at David Mamet's sort-of martial arts movie and the escalating passion of Richard Jenkins. Plus a hug from Marisa Tomei at the Drama Desk Nominees party.