Thursday, December 31, 2009

The maligned Manhattan Bridge

The Manhattan Bridge is my lifeline to the "Big City," but it's celebrating its sort-of centennial without party hats and "Auld Lang Syne." The span has an image problem, exacerbated by its portrayal in the movies. On film, the Brooklyn Bridge is host to romances, high drama, and spectacular cataclysm (think the U.S. Godzilla reboot, or Cloverfield), while the Manhattan Bridge inspires...suicides. Think The Lonely Guy, where lonely guys like Steve Martin and Charles Grodin consider taking the plunge; or Luv, where Jack Lemmon does the same; or 1961's Something Wild, where Carroll Baker nearly ends it all, only to meet a stranger fate in the arms of rescuer Ralph Meeker.

I'd think about offing myself, too, if I walked across or biked the bridge on a rainy bad day, as I squeezed my frame along its narrow pathways while the N and D trains rumbled by noisily. On the other hand, the view from the trains is a treat, taking in the Statue of Liberty (and the scene-stealing Brooklyn Bridge) and a nice sliver of Chinatown as it descends into Manhattan. Someone should film that and uplift the bridge's profile.

As we ring in the New Year, may your prospects be Brooklyn Bridge, but remember that those Manhattan Bridge days build character. And the news isn't ever all gloomy: Sergio Leone gave the Manhattan Bridge a shot at immortality with an iconic Water Street view in 1984's Once Upon a Time in America.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Muppets, Michael Jackson make Film Registry

Back in spring I wrote up several titles for a proposed book covering all the movies entered in the National Film Registry. The status of that project is unclear but today add 25 more to the list, bringing the total up to 525. The enshrined run the gamut from The Muppet Movie, The Incredible Shrinking Man, and Once Upon a Time in the West to a number of early cinema selections, the excellent quasi-documentary The Exiles, and the first music video to make the grade, Michael Jackson's Thriller.

The full list:

1) Dog Day Afternoon (1975)
2) The Exiles (1961)
3) Heroes All (1920)
4) Hot Dogs for Gauguin (1972)
5) The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957)
6) Jezebel (1938)
7) The Jungle (1967)
8) The Lead Shoes (1949)
9) Little Nemo (1911)
10) Mabel’s Blunder (1914)
11) The Mark of Zorro (1940)
12) Mrs. Miniver (1942)
13) The Muppet Movie (1979)
14) Once Upon a Time in the West (1968)
15) Pillow Talk (1959)
16) Precious Images (1986)
17) Quasi at the Quackadero (1975)
18) The Red Book (1994)
19) The Revenge of Pancho Villa (1930-36)
20) Scratch and Crow (1995)
21) Stark Love (1927)
22) The Story of G.I. Joe (1945)
23) A Study in Reds (1932)
24) Thriller (1983)
25) Under Western Stars (1938)

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

"Barbara Steele Day"

An 8 1/2 fan of my web acquaintance has declared today "Barbara Steele Day," in honor of her 72nd birthday. I'll go along with that, except to say that in my horror-loving house every day is "Barbara Steele Day"--so beautiful, so cruel, in a number of classics and cult hits from the 60s to the 80s, from Black Sunday and The Pit and the Pendulum to Piranha and Silent Scream. Truth be told, I'm not much of an 8 1/2 admirer, feeling that it marked Fellini's descent into dull pageantry--but Steele brings her special something to her brief role, which is pictured. (I'm not sure there's an equivalent to her in Nine; then again, how could there be?)

Fans can really Steele themselves tomorrow, as the Chiller channel presents an all-day marathon of episodes of the prime-time version of Dark Shadows, which had a brief run in 1991. Too bad, as it's quite good. I discovered it while channel surfing a week or two ago (I was living overseas back then and was pretty much ignorant of it) and look forward to recording the episodes I missed. Steele had her biggest acting role in years in the show, as the physician attending to Barnabas Collins the vampire (a full-blooded performance by Ben Cross), and hasn't done all that much since. (She's listed as a producer of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, but I'm not sure that's accurate; she did, however, win an Emmy with Dark Shadows creator Dan Curtis for producing War and Remembrance in the golden age of TV miniseries in the 80s. Joining Steele for this gratifyingly large assignment on the short-lived show were Jean Simmons, Roy Thinnes, Lysette Anthony...and, a big surprise for me, nine-year-old Joseph Gordon-Levitt, well before Third Rock from the Sun and his current, well-earned It Actor status. Surrounded by such a coven of talent so young no wonder he's turned out as well as he has.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Popdose: Big Christmas Packages

At the movies this holiday season: Not your Grandma's Sherlock Holmes, and an Avatar from the returning King of the World.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Live Design: End of 09

A starry revival of A Little Night Music, a new Mamet, and an Emperor Jones superbly acted by John Douglas Thompson (pictured) round out the year (or my year) in theater.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

"TCM Remembers" too soon

TCM's annual remembrance short is much better and more thorough than the one at the Oscars, which always manages to overlook a few folks. This year's is no exception, and managed to fit in Richard Todd before it first aired--but we've lost one Oscar winner and other worthies since then, and my gut tells me there will be other losses through New Year's Eve (there always are this time of year.) Would it, err, kill TCM to put together the final assembly and broadcast it in January?

RIP Brittany Murphy

As I wrote to a Facebook friend, "When you're in Perez Hilton more than on movies or TV there's bound to be trouble." But I never thought it would end so badly for the 32-year-old performer, who should have become a major character actress. I hadn't seen her for a while, and was dismayed to learn that she changed her appearance and had become tabloid fodder, fit for parody on Saturday Night Live. Before the decline was a credible match for Eminem in 8 Mile (pictured), charmingly ditsy as the voice of Luanne on King of the Hill (admirably, a gig she maintained through thick and thin) and more than held up her end of the legendary 1997 revival of Arthur Miller's A View from the Bridge on Broadway. Film, TV, theater: There was versatility there that will go sadly untapped. Her 2004 film Uptown Girl was filmed right across the street from me on First Avenue and I saw her come and go; more memorable were her very different roles in films like Clueless, Girl, Interrupted, Spun (as a meth tweaker), Sin City, The Dead Girl, and another memorable voiceover role in Happy Feet. Just a damn shame.

Friday, December 18, 2009

RIP Robin Wood

More people pass away at this time of year than any other, and this year has been no exception. The Canadian film critic authored one of my favorite books, 1986's Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan. His book about that turbulent and fertile era is all the more rewarding for its close readings of movies either difficult or dismissed (like Heaven's Gate and Cruising) and low-budget horror films on the fringes of respectability, like Eyes of a Stranger. His insight on these and so many others will be sorely missed.

Popdose: Harry Potter, Hangover on DVD

Round Six for the seemingly endless saga of Harry Potter, and a second helping of The Hangover, both on DVD in time for stocking stuffing.

RIP Dan O'Bannon

In space, no one can hear you scream...

Thursday, December 17, 2009

RIP Jennifer Jones

For all intents and purposes Jones started her film career with a Best Actress Oscar for The Song of Bernadette in 1943; she ended it definitively a little over 30 years later with a dramatic plunge from The Towering Inferno ("poor Bernadette!" my mother gasped.) A third act of philanthropy--and avoidance of strolls down memory lane--followed. In between were four more Oscar nominations, two for films I like, 1946's lurid Duel in the Sun ("Pearl Chavez!") and a personal favorite, 1955's Love is a Many-Splendored Thing, as much for its views of a lost Hong Kong as for her own performance (pictured with co-star William Holden, she played mixed-race parts with as much delicacy, and sensuality, as the scripts allowed her). Other notable parts: 1948's Portrait of Jennie (with another great setting, a wintry Central Park), Vincente Minnelli's Madame Bovary (1949), William Wyler's Carrie (1952), driving Laurence Olivier to understandable distraction, and John Huston's We Were Strangers (1949), opposite John Garfield, and his curious Beat the Devil (1953). There's ample material there for a TCM tribute, which might excavate her obscure 60s credits The Idol and the eccentric Angel, Angel Down We Go.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Golden Globes, other awards orgs Hurt

We're in the thick of awards season now, with the largely unseen Hurt Locker getting the attention it deserves. As usual some goofy choices (we gave up on the tapped-out Entourage this season, shouldn't the Globes and the Emmys do the same?), some questionable ones (the praise for Meryl Streep in Julie and Julia may be overcooked), and some welcome ones--Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Michael Stuhlbarg, etc. Guess I better get on the stick and see Nine (pictured), Up in the Air, and so on.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Susan Gordon speaks (and sings)

The former child star is pitching Pennies--The Five Pennies, that is, a film she co-starred in with Danny Kaye in 1959. It's part of this Wednesday's matinee performance of the Off Broadway show Danny and Sylvia: The Danny Kaye Musical, at St. Luke's Theatre. Her appearance will include a recreation of a number from the film.

Well, OK, fine, that's nice...but why do I care about this? Because Susan Gordon is the daughter of filmmaker Bert I. Gordon--the beloved "Mr. B.I.G.," whose drive-in creature features included The Amazing Colossal Man, War of the Colossal Beast, and Earth vs. the Spider. Susan Gordon appeared in 1958's Attack of the Puppet People, which reversed the format. I can't attend, but if I could I'd definitely ask her about dad, who's 87. And you know I'd be there if she brought the amazing colossal man with her.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Popdose: Singular Men

This week, Colin Firth is Christopher Isherwood's A Single Man for first-time director/fashionista Tom Ford, and Christian McKay (pictured) excels as Orson Welles in Me and Orson Welles.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Popdose:The Golden Age of Television on DVD

The era of live TV and the original versions of Marty, Days of Wine and Roses, and Patterns returns via a Criterion Collection DVD set of the 1981 PBS series The Golden Age of Television. Was all that glittered really gold?

Room with a view on Broadway

My review of Sarah Ruhl's In the Next Room or the vibrator play is online at the Live Design site. But it may be lurking behind a firewall (where, groan, Variety is retreating) so here it is...

"The Lincoln Center Theater production of Sarah Ruhl’s In the Next Room or the vibrator play is housed in Broadway’s oldest theatre, the Lyceum. It’s the perfect place for the show, whose period setting—the 1880s, as electricity was being introduced—matches the antique atmosphere of the venue. Progress and its discontents are a theme of the comedy, which focuses on a doctor (four-time Tony nominee Michael Cerveris) who treats neurotic women for “hysteria,” a medical condition at that time. The treatment, which involves electrical stimulation of the delicate regions, proves wildly popular among his clientele—but neither the women, nor the men in their lives, realize the stress-relieving “paroxysms” for what they are. This includes the doctor’s wife (Laura Benanti, a Tony winner for Gypsy, who, dissatisfied with her life after the birth of their first child, secretly uses the equipment on herself—and begins to feel an unexpected surge of affection for her husband’s first male patient (Chandler Williams), a lovelorn artist who, in one of the show’s funniest scenes, endures/enjoys his own tailor-made treatment.

After the excruciatingly whimsical Dead Man’s Cell Phone, I’d disconnected on Ruhl, but this new play matches the style of earlier shows like The Clean House and Eurydice with more heartfelt substance. (And bigger laughs, too, as the actors, especially Maria Dizzia as one of the doctor’s more avid patients, react to the therapy.) Best known for their musical parts Cerveris (in a rare performance with hair) and Benanti are affectingly awkward as the couple, who little comprehend one another’s needs, at a time when people didn’t know or acknowledge that they had needs. Under the confident direction of Les Waters, they and the rest of the cast, including Quincy Tyler Bernstine as the more knowledgeable wet nurse employed by the doctor, give performances that respond nimbly to the shifts in tone in Ruhl’s work.

There are, perhaps, too many gear changes; after a brisk first act the second act dips in pace, though the design team rallies with a lovely coup that ends the show on a romantic note. Until that time this is the most naturalistic production Ruhl has written, with a handsome two-room set, by Annie Smart, that is ideal for drawing room comedy—one is the living room, and the “next” is the operating theatre. David Zinn’s richly detailed costumes, which require much effort to work around for the treatments to take place, are a constant source of pleasure, as is Russell Champa’s dawn-of-electricity illumination; lighting is referred to often in the text, and Champa’s takes full, yet understated, advantage of the opportunity. Jonathan Bell’s evocative original score is a primary recipient of Bray Poor’s fine sound design. Abuzz with humor and heartache, the vibrator play proves a vibrant work."

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Design award winners announced

Set designers David Korins and Derek McLane, and lighting designers Clint Ramos and Kevin Adams, are among this year's winners of the Henry Hewes Design Awards. McLane and projection designer Jeff Sugg are feted for their work on the play 33 Variations. Pictured is of course Hair, with Adams' award-winning illumination.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

World ends

I don't watch soaps, but the passing of The Guiding Light and now the 54-year-old As the World Turns affect me. As someone notes in the article, the soaps, born in the Great Depression, are dying out in the Great Recession. It's like the last T-rex collapsing dead at your feet. Judging by the pic, though, it did try to stay relevant.

Sunday, December 06, 2009

RIP Richard Todd

I'd sort of sworn off obits, but the British actor, an Oscar nominee for 1949's The Hasty Heart, has an unusual distinction on his resume. A hero parachutist of the Normandy landings, Todd co-starred in two films about D-Day, D-Day: The Sixth of June and The Longest Day, where he was portrayed by other actors. His best-known role was in another WWII-related film, 1955's The Dam Busters, an influence on Star Wars. Other credits included a stint as Robin Hood for Disney in the 50s, Hitchcock's Stage Fright ( 1950) and King Vidor's noir Lightning Strikes Twice (1951), Raleigh to Bette Davis's Queen Elizabeth I in 1956's The Virgin Queen, Never Let Go (1960) opposite a villainous Peter Sellers, and a memorable turn as a calculating professor-turned-guru in 1967's conservatively counter-cultural The Love-Ins.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

RIP Paul Naschy

I've slowed on posting death notices of late, but I really should say goodbye to the "Spanish Lon Chaney,", a beloved figure in horror movie circles, and one of the handful of performers who might still be considered genuine stars of the genre. But Naschy didn't just act; he was a one-man band, enthusiastically reviving all the classic monsters in uneven but distinctive pictures that kept many a TV-watching insomniac entertained when edited, cropped, and subtitled prints turned up. (Frankenstein's Bloody Terror, which introduced his best-known werewolf character, the cursed Waldemar Daninsky, and Count Dracula's Great Love were in a seeming loop of syndication in the early days of cable.) The psycho thriller Blue Eyes of the Broken Doll and the witchcraft film Horror Rises from the Tomb, with Naschy in a dual role, are worth seeking out on DVD, as is Bloody Terror, a Frankenstein-less werewolf and vampire saga, which U.S. distributor Sam Sherman sorts out in a marvelous commentary track. Naschy clearly enjoyed his rediscovery on disc and was himself a welcome contributor to the medium.

Gods, Monsters, and Showboat

The great James Whale is getting a one-week retrospective at New York's Film Forum starting tomorrow. What fun--the Frankensteins, The Old Dark House, The Invisible Man, and, beyond the macabre, his legendary filming of Showboat (with Paul Robeson and Helen Morgan), The Man in the Iron Mask, and one of the strangest screwball comedies, Remember Last Night?, which really boggled me when I saw it on TCM earlier this year. All this plus Ian McKellen's Oscar-nominated performance as Whale in 1998's Gods and Monsters. It's a Whale of a week (puns and wordplay; my only weakness...).

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Beyond the Canon

Now here's a film list I can get behind. A few months ago I was asked to participate in an effort to determine the next 100 best films of all time, beyond the standard 100. This was a compelling undertaking that the indefatigable Iain Stott committed to, and it makes for fascinating reading. The list is here; and here are my choices. 1934's The Black Cat (pictured) made it onto my list and the official one. Now go see some movies.

The horror of Cineaste

A special focus on contemporary horror films is a big part of Cineaste this edition, and I'm pleased to have played a part in bringing it to Frankenstein-ian life. Articles in the magazine are a critique of Saw and "torture porn," a look at the chaste vampirism of Twilight, and my friend and colleague John Calhoun on Let the Right One In and other childhood terrors. Online you'll find an interview with Re-Animator and Stuck director Stuart Gordon, Richard Harland Smith's authoritative viral history of zombie movies post-Night of the Living Dead, and my own roundup of horror movie books. "To avoid fainting, keep's only a magazine...only a magazine..."