Thursday, December 03, 2009


"Chaos reigns"

A gorgeous prologue, in sumptuous very slow motion black and white, showing a couple making passionate love intercut with their child leaving his crib and fallling to his death from an open window. The emotional fallout is understandably severe, and is explored fairly closely in Lars von Trier's latest film, the mysteriously named ANTICHRIST. The film has a much narrower focus than von Trier's other films, amounting basically to a series of therapy sessions between the unnamed He (Willem Dafoe in what might be his best performance that I've seen) and She (Charlotte Gainsbourg, admirable in a tough role), the mother and father of the late child. She falls into a deep depression that lands her in an institution, and He, unhappy with the therapy she is getting, takes matters into his own hands (it is established that he is an experienced therapist) and brings her home. He soon decides to take her to their remote cabin in the woods, rather too symbolically named Eden, in order to confront her fears. There's a good deal of talk in what follows, and a good deal of supernatural goings on as well.

It turns out that there is Evil In The Woods. Von Trier seems to be simultaneously channeling the David Lynch of TWIN PEAKS (plenty of Lynchian rumbles and techno humming and oddly threatening trees and nature) and Andrei Tarkovsky (certain shots recall Tarkovsky's THE MIRROR and von Trier dedicates his own film to Tarkovsky's memory before the final credits roll). I can't deny the intelligence of the production, or the skill of the filmmaking and the performances. Moments of transfixing beauty and of real danger are conjured with an ease that Lynch and Tarkovsky would recognize as their own, I think. It isn't fair to dismiss ANTICHRIST as a bunch of acting therapy exercises strung together with some shock moments involving genital mutilation and some CGI talking animals, most memorably a fox that tells He that "Chaos reigns," but I have to say that the point of the film simply eludes me. There's just something missing. ANTICHRIST leaves a lot of questions unanswered, mostly about He's motivations. The biggest question of all being: why does He keep going with this mode of therapy, so completely isolated for so long, long after it should be abundantly clear that his therapy isn't coming close to working? I guess it is fair to assume some dark motive on He's part, but von Trier never gets around to making it at all clear, and such an important element of the film deserves considerably more clarification: it shouldn't be left as completely open as the issue of Rick Deckard's status as human or replicant in BLADE RUNNER.

Thursday, November 12, 2009


"I live to tango. Tango, tango. I live to tango. Tango. Tango."

A 7.5 hour film by Bela Tarr. Yes, you read that right. 7.5 hours long, in a screening at MOMA, that was supposed to be introduced by the director himself in person but wasn't. This wasn’t my first exposure to the film. I had attended one of the understandably infrequent screenings at the Museum of Modern Art a few years back, and simply fell asleep. The spirit was willing, the flesh was unable. I was impressed enough with what I had seen to acquire the US DVD release, which isn’t pretty: possibly the worst single non-homemade video transfer I've yet seen. The image isn't enhanced for widescreen TVs, which is a real drag and ultimately makes the film even harder to watch. A real shame, as the film features some of the most ravishingly gorgeous black and white cinematography I've ever seen, evident even in this cruddy DVD transfer. I watched the first two thirds of the film on my laptop during my flights to/from San Francisco for the Silent Film Festival, and watched the first two thirds of it, and was very impressed with those two thirds. I don’t really understand why I was willing to watch the film on a tiny laptop screen rather than our pretty good-sized flatscreen TV, though. So this screening represented my first exposure to the whole SATANTANGO experience.

7.5 hours. God. I actually watched a 7.5 hour long movie. I think the longest single film I’d seen before this was Syberberg’s OUR HITLER many years ago, which I saw when I was far too young and of which I have only very fragmented memories: an extended sequence about Hitler's valet and a man in an SS uniform delivering Peter Lorre's "I can't help myself!" speech from Lang's M being the main ones.

OK. So how was it? I liked a good deal of it. The seven hours don't exactly fly by, but there's some of the best filmmaking I've ever seen going on here. The story centers on a group of people who belong to what looks like some kind of farming collective, in what I guess is Hungary near the end of the Communist era. They seem to be living in borderline poverty. They are expecting a large sum of money which is to be divided amongst them, apparently derived from the sale of some cattle. The film opens with a sort of plot to steal the money. Bad news though: a pair of disreputable characters, Iremias and Petrima, are also on their way to the area...

Director Bela Tarr uses lots of long takes. We're not talking just long takes, but very very long takes indeed. And not Wellesian long takes, which are crowded with activity, but long takes showing someone walking along a deserted road, or even just sitting still, staring into space. There's one remarkable section showing someone referred to as a Professor who jots notes into a notebook about the locals when he isn't pouring brandy out of a bottle into a glass and then pouring water out of a pitcher into another glass and then pouring the contents of the two glasses into a third glass and then drinking the contents. It can get rather taxing after a while, expecially during one extended sequence involving a drunken dance in a bar, where Tarr seems to be pushing this kind of filmmaking, and my patience with this kind of thing, to the very very limit. About all that kept me going was the feeling that Tarr knew what he was doing, that there was a point to all this and that it was going to all pay off at some point.

And it largely does. The film is structured in an interesting way, as a series of intersecting episodes. There will be an extended sequence involving some characters, and then another sequence with another character will start, and at some point it will become clear that the actions of the second sequence are taking place at the same time as the first sequence, and the two sequences will suddenly intersect in an interesting and occasionally amusing way. Kind of like those glasses that get mixed together. A good deal of the fun of watching the film is finding the little intersections, the moments where the plotlines touch and move on. There's just no way to get these things on a first viewing, you're too busy getting and keeping your bearings.

I'm going to have to say that I think Tarr goes too far with the long takes. There are a couple of sequences that just go on long after anything is being gotten out of them; one scene in particular just never fucking ends, the drunken dance party in a pub with most of the cast dancing around, and it goes on long after it really could have stopped. I can't imagine anyone noticing or even caring if it were cut in half. Other moments like that, of people walking and walking or sitting and sitting or breathing and breathing could be similarly trimmed. Just because something can be shown for ten minutes doesn't necessarily mean that it bloody well SHOULD be shown for ten bloody minutes.

Ordinarily I'd brush that off as being a minor complaint, and on some level it is. Any film is going to have longeurs, but the sheer bloody length of SATANTANGO ensures some long longeurs. I'm not looking to turn anyone off from seeing the film, but I can't blame anyone who finds it just more than they want to deal with. It would be a shame to miss the film's best parts, though. The beauty of the black and white cinematography and the brilliance of the performances (there isn't a weak performance in the film, I've basically forgotten to think of them as actors playing roles) and the overall impact of the film make it worth the trouble.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009


Some short bits about stuff we’ve seen lately:


THE FURIES, a Western from Anthony Mann with Barbara Stanwyck and the sublime Walter Huston and Judith Anderson and Beulah Bondi. Great randy fun, lurid and melodramatic and overheated, madly entertaining, kind of like Aeschylus’ ORESTEIA on the range. Gorgeous black and white location cinematography. Huston plays an Alpha Male cattle rancher involved in something of a power struggle with his daughter, played by Stanwyck in full Bitch Goddess mode -- there’s a lot of bickering and one-upmanship and barely contained incestuous passionate subtext. One glorious scene features Huston and Stanwyck bitching at each other, and you can feel the simultaneous hate and love these two feel for each other. You often feel that they’re just a couple of drinks away from consummating. The movie doesn’t entirely work, alas. It feels bound by some kind of Production Code rules keeping it from going as completely for broke as it would like to go: certain elements feel shoe-horned into the story to lighten the darkness a bit. You’ll know what I mean when you see it. But no quibbling can diminish the good tasty fun the film provides. I liked it a hell of a lot.


Another Anthony Mann, predating THE FURIES. T-MEN is a noirish cop thriller about the titular T-Men going undercover as part of an investigation into a counterfeiting ring. Again, some good gritty solid fun, but the real star here is the incredible black and white cinematography by the masterful John Alton. Even in the really cruddy DVD I got from Netflix, this film shines with a beauty that few contemporary movies can come near. If some of the film feels familiar, that’s because many shots have been used in assorted documentaries about film noir to illustrate the visual style associated with the genre. Worth seeing, by all means.


A new musical, apparently 5 years in the making, set in 1950s Memphis detailing the rise of what was then called "race music." The kind of show set in the early years of rock and roll where a white guy walks into a black club and impresses everyone with how soulful he is, as a friend pointed out. That's only the first of the cliches on parade. We're soon treated to this little exchange, when Huey, the white guy in question, hits on the hot black female lead singer:

Hot Black Female Lead: You know how I know a man is lying to me?
Huey/White Male Lead: How?
Hot Black Female Lead: He opens his mouth.

No, really, she actually says that. There's even a poor black teenager who saw his father lynched by a white mob and hasn't spoken since, and you get no points whatsoever for figuring out that he's going to start speaking at a crucial plot juncture and that at some point later on someone will say something about how they wish he'd stop talking. The token efforts the show makes in the second act to do something with these exhausted plot and character tropes amount to too little too late -- the attempts fall as flat as the original cliches do.

The cast by and large does its best with this stuff, but all of their efforts are undone by Chad Kimball's appalling performance as Huey. He lays on the quirky country hickdom to such an extent that he winds up coming off like a spastic George W. Bush. It got to the point where I just couldn't look at him. A real shame, because Kimball was one of the reasons I was interested in seeing the show in the first place. I'd enjoyed his Milky White in the INTO THE WOODS revival, and his tiny role in GOOD VIBRATIONS was the sole positive memory I have of that catastrophe. Why on earth he's decided to make Huey into such an obnoxious ass completely escapes me. His relationship with the female lead never for a solitary second convinces: she could surely do better than that twitching poseur, whatever his status as a suddenly successful DJ/TV personality. She'd be better off without him, and she does wind up being better off without him, in fact. The play would be better off without him, too: it would at least not be agonizing.


A new play by Tracy Letts, who won pretty much every award around for AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY, a vast splendid avalanche of a play. DONUTS is much smaller, more of a chamber piece than a full out symphony. It centers on Arthur, the emotionally reserved owner/proprietor of the titular donut shop, and his relationship with Franco, a eager young African American man he hires to help out. Boy does that sound like the most cliched set up imaginable, but DONUTS breathes actual life into the potentially overfamiliar set up and characters, in ways that MEMPHIS is never able to approach. A great evening in the theatre.

Thursday, August 27, 2009


“Nein! Nein! Nein! Nein! Nein! Nein! Nein!”

Wildly uneven, Tarantino’s latest film veers from brilliant to banal and back again. I can’t say the film is a total catastrophe, and I certainly can’t claim it as anything like a complete success.

The titular Basterds don’t appear onscreen for a good half hour, indeed the best half hour in the movie, featuring Christoph Waltz in a star-making performance as SS Col. Landa, known as The Jew Hunter. Landa arrives at a farm in Nazi-occupied France and has an extended discussion with the farmer about the local Jewish population. Landa is all good humor and sleekly sophisticated pleasantry but with a definite air of menace; for all the surface bonhomie he’s clearly not a person to underestimate. This opening section is followed by some stuff with the Basterds, led by Brad Pitt in full “Look Ma! I’m acting!” mode, and it gives Tarantino a chance to pander to his fans with some icky violence and smart-ass gabbing.

The film settles down a bit when it decides to be about Shoshanna (Melanie Laurent), the owner of a Paris movie theatre which has been chosen as the venue for the premiere of a new piece of Nazi propaganda. When it transpires that the entire Nazi hierarchy, Hitler included, is going to attend, Shoshanna hatches a plan to bring down the Third Reich. Col. Landa is involved in the proceedings, of course, as director of security for the event. Things progress from there, and it wouldn’t be fair to give away much more except to say that a large collection of films on nitrate stock plays a very important role.

Waltz’ and Laurent’s performances are far and away the highlight of the film, which lags pretty drastically when they’re not onscreen. And that’s a big problem. For a film by Tarantino, set during WWII about a series of plots to kill Hitler (British Intelligence has the idea to blow up the theatre, too, and there’s a lot of huffing and puffing and shooting and movie-referencing as they try to send an agent to contact the Basterds, and it just goes on and on and on, really, there’s just too much going on in this movie) to actually LAG is kind of remarkable.

But lag it does. And the fault is entirely Tarantino’s. BASTERDS is comparatively straightforward for a Tarantino film, lacking the chronological games of PULP FICTION and the KILL BILLs. The biggest problem with INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS is the Basterds themselves, and pretty much everything having to do with them. Brad Pitt’s latest attempt at a performance gets very old very quickly. He juts out his jaw, squints a lot, and talks with a bad Southern accent, and he’s just unwatchable. The other bastards don’t fare much better, being little more than excuses for nicknames and barely sketched out backstories: none of them comes alive as an actual human being. Only one of the Basterds, Til Schweiger as Sgt. Hugo Stiglitz, is given anything of consequence to do, and he doesn’t get to do it for long. And certainly none of them carries anything like the emotional weight of Col. Landa or Shoshanna, or even the basic wacko interest of Daryl Hannah’s memorably wacked out eye-patch-wearing assassin in the KILL BILLs.

This might be the point, I guess. If I gave a damn about more of the people in the film I might find the brutal violence unbearable. And there’s the big problem with the movie, I think. It doesn’t quite know what it wants to do. I’m reminded of the problem that finally sinks SAVING PRIVATE RYAN, the apparently unresolvable tension between wanting to make a serious film about the horrors of war and the temptation to make a Really Bitchin’ War Movie with lots of planes and bombs and stuff. But where Spielberg panders to his audience’s survivor guilt and ends by wagging a finger in our collective face (“Earn This!”), Tarantino gleefully goes for bloody broke and uses the power of cinema to destroy the Nazis (quite literally).

Tarantino’s results are ultimately as mixed as Spielberg’s. I wasn’t as appalled by the Holocaust that Tarantino unleashes on his massed Nazi victims as I was by the final act of smirking deliberate personal torture that a grinning Brad Pitt perpetrates on a single character. There’s something about that last gesture that really turned me off the movie and those associated with it for not being as appalled as I am by it.

Monday, July 20, 2009


“Shut up.”

I’ve posted on the Harry Potter Phenomenon (Here: )and I’ll have to say that the latest film doesn’t do much to change my opinion of the films. The latest film continues the Weirdly Uneven quality that has characterized the series as a whole. The last film ORDER OF THE PHOENIX was made with some energy, as opposed to the film before it, GOBLET OF FIRE, which is a major snooze, as opposed to the film before it, PRISONER OF AZKABAN, which is by the far the finest film of the series so far, as opposed to the film before it, CHAMBER OF SECRETS, which is by far the weakest film of the series so far, as opposed to the film before it, SORCERER’S STONE, which was a good solid kickoff to the series.

Anyway. HALF-BLOOD PRINCE is kind of a letdown, and kind of not a letdown. The biggest problem is that there’s just not a lot of urgency to the movie, it just dawdles along at its own very very slow pace, which is a big surprise considering that the last film ended with the official recognition that the Dark Lord Voldemort has in fact come back from oblivion and is up to No Good. I’d have expected some kind of uproar about this in the magical world of the film, but no, there isn’t any onscreen. It is just business as usual for the gang at Hogwarts, the kids are having their growing pains and we get to watch some mostly amusing games of the he-loves-her-he-loves-her-not variety, along with the inevitable rumblings from the bad guys and a big climactic showdown. Somehow, though, the movie doesn’t feel like a total disappointment, as there’s enough good stuff to keep interest up. My favorite scene in the film takes place on an island in the middle of an underground lake, and is almost impossible to watch without extreme discomfort, not least because it all takes place in near total silence. So gripping was this sequence that it managed to hold a NYC multiplex audience spellbound: there was none of the usual audience noise that makes summer blockbusters such agony to sit through. The film is deliberately deliberate, in other words, despite the couple of big set pieces which almost serve to remind you that this is after all an adventure story.

This slow pacing is a marked change from the book, which I’ve just started and which is written in J.K. Rowling’s characteristically energetic prose. The book begins with a marvelously conceived chapter that didn’t make it into the film, which very cleverly manages to deliver a good deal of What Has Gone Before In Vols I-V while setting up a good deal of What Is To Come In Vol VI. Rowling is able to keep the proceedings consistently lively in a way that director David Yates and screenwriter Steve Kloves never quite manage.

The film isn’t a total bore, of course. The story is engaging, to be sure, and the acting is of a very high standard. The great Jim Broadbent makes a long overdue appearance in the Potter Universe, and the three kids (Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson and Rupert Grint) all get their own little moments to shine in ways that they’ve only hinted at in the past. Radcliffe in particular gets a glorious little scene where Harry’s usual solemnity gives way to a chemically-induced cheer that is a joy to behold. Side note: they’re going to have to do something to explain Watson’s Hermione being so much in love with Grint’s Ron Weasley: her devotion to the character they’ve made into such a boob is increasingly unconvincing.

It looks like I really disliked the film, when I didn’t. Bottom Line: a deliberately told adventure story isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but a bit more consistent energy in the storytelling and filmmaking is definitely in order for the next two installments. I’ll go see them of course. I do wish they’d get Alfonso Cuaron back to tighten things up.

Friday, July 17, 2009


For the first time, I made a major cross-country pilgrimage to see a film festival. This is what comes of having a job with a firm with a liberal vacation policy. The San Francisco Silent Film Festival has been on my radar for a long time for a couple of reasons: I love silent films and I love San Francisco and I love the Castro Theatre where the festival takes place. I didn't see all of the programs, there just being limits to how much I can take in. Here are some notes on what I did see:

The opening night attraction was THE GAUCHO, a Douglas Fairbanks vehicle of great charm and energy. The story isn't much: Fairbanks plays The Gaucho, a notorious bandit leader who finds himself in a power struggle with a fascist-type dictator over control of a small town in Mexico which just happens to have a famous Lourdes-type shrine, complete with a St. Bernadette stand-in. There's a good deal of fun to be had before the inevitable Hollywood Silent Piety takes over, as Fairbanks cheerfully does a host of impossible things effortlessly. Not just the big wall-scaling stunts, either. The Gaucho has a running habit of putting a cigarette into his mouth, striking a match with his thumbnail, propping the match in his thumbnail, lighting the cigarette with the match in his thumbnail and flicking the match away (leaving an impressive trail of smoke), all with one hand in one continuous fluid movement that just defies description and must have taken weeks to master. Fairbanks seems to be having a grand old time doing all this, and his delight is infectious. The movie is almost pure pleasure. I liked it a hell of a lot, and the crystal clear print and live accompaniment by the Mount Alto Orchestra only added to the experience.

A program of odds and ends from assorted archives that wouldn't really fit into any particular program, some shorts, trailers and brief clips (some lasting only a few seconds) from films that don't exist anymore, introduced by the archivists who oversaw their restoration. A couple of amusing shorts, one with the memorable intertitle "Spurned By The Heiress, The Music Teacher Listens To The Arguments Of The Anarchist." A tantalizing couple of seconds from an otherwise lost film with proto-hunk Ramon Novarro were fun to look at, too.

A costume adventure in the Fairbanks style, starring the great John Gilbert, directed by the great King Vidor from a novel by Rafael Sabatini. Gilbert plays Bardelys, a 17th Century Casanova type in the court of Louis XIII who finds himself obliged to woo and marry a country virgin as part of a wager. Bardelys travels to the girl's family estate and for some reason takes the identity of a man he finds dying in a barn, and finds himself assumed by everyone to be the leader of an anti-royalist plot to overthrow the king, which plot involves the family of the girl he's supposed to be wooing. Don't be looking for plausibility here. Vastly entertaining, with some genuinely funny intertitles, a rarity in silent films. The movie dares you to take it seriously, and it was interesting to see it within 12 hours of THE GAUCHO. Fairbanks and Gilbert are both fascinating performers. Gilbert is by far the finer actor, actually creating characters onscreen, as opposed to Fairbanks' near-mugging. But the big climactic action sequence is clearly meant to be in the Fairbanks mode, and, despite some wonderful gimmicks it doesn't quite come off as handsomely as it might, largely because Gilbert simply lacks Fairbanks' astonishing ability to the impossible with ease. An entertaining bit of fluff, with a lovely performance by Eleanor Boardman as the object of Gilbert's affections. She plays a virtuous virgin without making her unapproachably pure, her occasional little grins add an amusing dimension to what could have been a real piece of cardboard.

Directed by Josef von Sternberg from a script by the great Ben Hecht, an early gangster film that seems to have set the template for a lot of what came after. Hecht even uses great chunks of the plot of this film (for which he won the first Academy Award for best original story) in his screenplay for Hawks' SCARFACE. The plot centers on a rivalry between two gang leaders (exactly what their gangs do is never really spelled out), one of whom takes a down and outer under his wing and sets him up in some style. The refurbished down and outer, of course, falls for the gangster's moll, and it kind of goes along from there. This must have been pretty alarming stuff in 1927, but it felt rather tame now, and the similarities to SCARFACE are just too apparent for the movie to seem like much more than a footnote to the later film.

An early science fiction film from Russia. This has been on my radar for years, every now and then I'd catch a glimpse of a photo of some of the remarkable Futurist cubist type sets and costumes for the scenes on Mars, and had been expecting a kind of cross between METROPOLIS and BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN, but got instead a rather tired Soviet propaganda piece, with some admittedly cool bits that weren't cool enough to alleviate the boredom. I fell asleep, and don't feel that I missed much.

A fascinating program of shorts featuring Oswald, Disney's cartoon star before Mickey. Well, the shorts were fascinating. The biggest drawback to the San Francisco Silent Film Festival were the people chosen to introduce the screenings, who occasionally went on too long without saying very much of substance or even interest. The Oswald program had the worst offender in Leonard Maltin, who took a lot of time to tell the audience what pretty much every one of us present almost assuredly already knew about the early history of Walt Disney, without ever once managing to be at all interesting in any way.

I did like the shorts, though. Fast and funny and above all lively. Cartoons at this period were usually pretty simple affairs, you were expected to just sit and appreciate the moving pictures of dogs and cats and mice. These shorts are not much different, but there are little moments that surprise, like an extended bit with a dog who is startled when his hot dog sceams in pain at each impending bite. The dog finally tearfully sets the bun down, and the hot dog runs happily away.

A wonderful festival, all around. I didn't make all of the screenings, but there were plenty who did. The same people seemed to be in the same seats at each screening I attended, clearly having stayed put between shows. I don't know if I have it in me to go quite that far, but the opportunity to see such great prints of these films, in such a great setting, with such an appreciative audience, is not one that I'm likely to pass up often. I think I'll be making this an annual trek.

Friday, July 03, 2009


No, not the Republican Party, although Christian Bale does a witty impression of George W. Bush as Melvin Purvis, the G-man assigned to solve the Dillinger Problem.  It is kind of a clever idea, as Mann's film shows Purvis as borderline incompetent, but, like the rest of Mann's film, it is a clever idea that ultimately doesn't really add up to much.

Johnny Depp's work as John Dillinger is carefully observed if a bit remote, somehow.  I just never really felt that I got enough of a sense of what makes him tick, or rather, I never got the feeling that what made him tick was interesting enough to carry a full length film.  I could never quite shake my knowledge that Dillinger is, ultimately, just a criminal who finally winds up getting what is coming to him.

I'm finding it hard to find things to say about the film.  I've seldom been so underwhelmed by a big event film.  PUBLIC ENEMIES isn't bad, by any means.  There are some memorable moments, like Depp's first glimpse of his future girlfriend, played by the glorious Marion Cotillard, from across a crowded restaurant.  Their courtship is exciting and moving: they're the most interesting screen couple in a while.  Billy Crudup has some good fun as a fussy J. Edgar Hoover, and Bale's Purvis, as noted, is an amusing riff on George W. Bush.  

I think ultimately the film just wanders around too much.  I appreciated the economy with which it was established that Dillinger is among the last of a dying breed: solo bank robbers are on the way out, replaced by the big business of the Syndicate who make as much money all day every day as Dillinger makes in one single robbery, without the attendant gunplay and hostage taking.  If the rest of Dillinger's career and his pursuit by the (strangely ineffective) law enforcement forces had been handled as well the film would almost certainly have been a good 45 minutes shorter.  

I lost interest, and started to think about other movies.  Penn's BONNIE AND CLYDE manages to establish the economic ugliness of the Great Depression, and Hill's BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID generates genuine human interest in its characters in ways that PUBLIC ENEMIES simply never does.  PUBLIC ENEMIES borrows liberally from both film (Dillinger tells a bank customer to keep his money, as Warren Beatty's Clyde Barrow does, and Cotillard has a line about not wanting to watch Depp die that echoes a moment between Katharine Ross' Etta Place and the Sundance Kid).  I'd say that if PUBLIC ENEMIES had focused exclusively on one or the other side of the law, it might have amounted to something.  As it is, it just kind of peters out.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

A splendid revival of the classic tribal love rock musical. I’d never seen the play before, had only seen parts of the film, and hadn’t been very taken with the original cast album. We saw this production when it played in Central Park last summer, and were very taken with it. It has been moved successfully to Broadway in a theatre that is probably too large for it. Mercifully we had great seats, 4th row on the aisle, so we really got the full interactive experience. This is no ordinary musical: there’s not much of a plot, and the most potent romantic relationship seems to involve a young man and a poster of Mick Jagger. It is more of a revue of assorted songs and sketches hanging very very loosely together on the story of Claude, a young man who is having a bit of a crisis of conscience about the Vietnam war and his own impending draft into the army. The crowd of hippies Claude hangs out with is no merry band of psychedelic stereotypes. As directed by Diane Paulus, the Tribe is a bunch of pretty damaged people, a bunch of social misfits whose demands for love and peace are delivered with an enraged intensity that cuts deeper than merely flashing a peace sign and lighting a joint. Yeah, there’s a lot of fun in the show, but there’s method to its madness. I liked it a hell of a lot.

A mostly amusing revival of Coward’s comedy is mostly an excuse for Angela Lansbury to strut her stuff one more time as Madam Arcati, the daffy medium. There are some good laughs along the way from Rupert Everett (looking more than ever as if he had stepped out of a 1930s Arrow shirt advertisement) and Christine Ebersole as the ghost of his late wife. The show is pure fluff, there’s no doubt about it, but there was something uncomfortable about the proceedings, as Lansbury fluffed enough of her lines to make what should be pure bliss into an exercise in suspense: I shouldn’t sit there worrying about whether or not one of the great stars of the Broadway stage is going to be able to get completely through her lines. To be fair, she mostly gets through it, and her little preparatory dance around the room before starting her seance was a delight. It was okay, I guess, but I think I preferred--

An Albee-esque picture of the tensions lurking under the civilized veneer of the upper middle classes. Two couples have come together for an evening to discuss a schoolyard fight between their respective sons, and the drinks and revelations start flowing. There are some good surprises and some good mean fun to be had here as each single character eventually finds him/herself ganged up on by the other three. Playwright Yasmin Reza owes huge debts to director Matthew Warchus and the really outlandishly over-qualified cast including Jeff Daniels, Hope Davis, Marcia Gay Harden, and the great James Gandolfini who has finally been given license to reveal his great comic acting chops. A great treat all around. Not the deepest evening I’ve ever spent in the theatre, of course, but it comes off like KING LEAR compared to---

A lot has been made of this import from London of Alan Ayckbourn’s trilogy of comedies that take place in assorted rooms of one house over a weekend, one room per play. The NY critics have fallen all over themselves to praise it in extravagant terms, and it can only be put down to someone backstage having compromising pictures of them all. Considering the feverish raves for this tired revival of this dreadful little play, played with a near-total lack of inspiration or even simple human interest, the photos must have been damning indeed, involving animals and even infants. I did something I’ve never done in all my life – I left while the actors were still onstage, while the play was going through its agonizingly unfunny motions. I just couldn’t take it anymore.

The story, such as it is, involves -- aw fuck it. It isn’t worth it. The show blows. It blows CHUNKS. Yeah, yeah, I haven’t seen all of it, and there are little bits of jokes in the first play that clearly serve to set things up to happen in the second play and I’m sure there’s stuff in the second play that will set things up in the third play, and I’m sure there’s stuff in the second and third play that set things up in the first play, and it would all make sense after sitting through all seven and a half godforsaken hours of all three godforsaken plays but there was nothing and I mean NOTHING about the first play that made me want to go anywhere near a theater where any Ayckbourn play is ever running anytime anywhere for the rest of my life. This latest bit of Brit Chic shit is the second big trilogy of plays by British playwrights to get the anglolingus treatment from the NY critics in the last couple of years, Stoppard’s more substantial but still underbaked “epic” COAST OF UTOPIA being the other. I’d suggest Ayckbourn, Stoppard and the assorted blackmailed critics all be tied to chairs and be forced to see—
in the devastating new revival playing Off-Broadway, which manages to be entertaining, thought-provoking and profoundly moving in less than one third the time the Brits take to be annoying, condescending and profoundly boring. Thornton Wilder’s relatively brief play quite simply kicks Ayckbourn’s and Stoppard’s bloated trilogies into the dumpster where they belong. OUR TOWN invites you to consider your place in the universe and the way you live your life, an unabashed celebration of life on earth. NORMAN CONQUESTS and COAST OF UTOPIA only invite you to consider their playwrights’ own alleged genius.

You know OUR TOWN, of course. This revival manages to get pretty much everything right. The play’s bitter elements never overwhelm the sweet moments, or vice versa. And there’s a marvelous little coup in the final act that breaks every rule that Wilder lays down for the performance of this play, and it only serves to reinforce the brilliance and power of those rules and this play. I can’t imagine anyone but Dick Cheney being unmoved by it. If you’re in NYC, you are doing yourself a gross disservice in not seeing it.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009


So the big theatre season is over. Here are some notes on some of the shows we saw over the past few months. More will follow---

MARY STUART – a new translation of the Schiller classic about Mary, Queen of Scots and Elizabeth I. A big deal Brit-production, with two imported British actresses in the leads: the sublime Janet McTeer as Mary, and Harriet French as Elizabeth. All in all, a pretty good show for the leading ladies who do their best with the roles, but there was just no getting past the “so what?” factor for me. This story has been told and told and told again, and usually better elsewhere. Ultimately, there just wasn’t enough here to make me feel any of the sympathy that Schiller wants me to feel for either Mary or Elizabeth. I never for a moment thought that French’s Elizabeth would lose a single wink of sleep after sending Mary to the chopping block, and McTeer’s Mary, while fascinating and a joy to watch, never made me forget that the dear lady was, in fact, getting exactly what she deserved.

EXIT THE KING – Ionesco on Broadway, with Oscar winners Geoffrey Rush and Susan Sarandon. Rush stars as King Berenger the First, who is told by one of this queens (Sarandon) that he has exactly 90 minutes to live. He basically then lives out each of the assorted possible stages of dying, but this is no dramatization of Kubler-Ross. Rush makes Berenger’s shuffling off of this mortal coil a terribly funny and deeply moving experience, an all-out bravura display of every acting trick in the book, and it all works. Sarandon seems rather oddly miscast at first, but her choices get clearer as the play continues and it has to be said that Rush’s big final moments wouldn’t work without her. I’m very glad I saw this. Not to detract from this production at all, but I’d like to see another production, one that didn’t go quite so far over the top.

WAITING FOR GODOT – probably the show I was most excited about seeing this season. A revival of Beckett’s classic starring Nathan Lane and Bill Irwin, with John Glover and John Goodman. We wound up seeing this twice, as the first performance we saw felt very off-kilter. The first act was very bumpy indeed, with John Goodman in particular just seeming terribly lost. Then the second act went speedily and hilariously and movingly, it was almost as if the cast had all had a good strong cup of coffee at the intermission, or the director went backstage and kicked some ass or something. We saw it again a few weeks later, and were delighted. Goodman’s Pozzo was a treat to watch, all showy bluster but still able to navigate the stranger moments with real aplomb. No one has ever made such great theatre out of simply sitting down upon a stool. Nathan Lane’s Estragon was fine, as usual landing the laughs with ease but letting the really painful moments get away from him. I don’t think he’s in the same category as the great Bill Irwin, whose Vladimir is hilarious and heartbreaking without breaking a sweat. He accomplishes more by taking off his hat and putting it back on than most actors could ever think about doing given a dozen lifetimes. His mournful song at the start of Act Two, which Irwin has chosen to sadly sing to a down-tempo version of The Merry Go Round Broke Down, is one of the more haunting moments of the year.


Thursday, April 23, 2009


The original film by Albert and David Maysles is an unscripted direct cinema film about a mother and daughter who live in squalor in the titular collapsing mansion in East Hampton. The women are Edith Bouvier Beale and her daughter, also named Edith (they are referred to as Big Edie and Little Edie, respectively). The two women fight, worry over their cats, fight, worry over the city of East Hampton taking legal action to get them out of their cat and raccoon infested crumbling house, and fight. Little Edie is always complaining about the sorry mess her life has become. She wants nothing more (she says) than to get away from Grey Gardens and have her own life in New York City. There are some epic battles, most of which have clearly been fought and fought and fought again any number of times over the years. The Maysles film is not to everybody's taste. I've referred to it as being NO EXIT by Tennessee Williams, a thrilling and ambiguous and disturbing experience, and I've known people who think the film exploits mental illness, and others just can't stand all the bitching.

There seems to be a real little Beale industry popping up. Most of the reviews mention the Maysles film as being a gay cult classic, and the popular gay newsmagazine The Advocate published an article claiming the film as a rite of passage for young gay men. I'm not sure who these people are, I have to say. Few of the NYC gay men I know had ever heard of the film before the musical opened, and those who had heard of it didn't like it very much (exploitation, bitching). I don't remember the film being widely available on video (for a long time I owned the only VHS of the film that I'd ever seen, purchased from a video store that was purging unrented stock from their shelves) until the Criterion Collection DVD of the film was released. I'd guess this cult is only about ten years old.

There have been two major works based on the Maysles film. A Broadway musical in 2006 and an HBO film each added dramatizations of past events occasionally referred to in the Maysles film in an effort (not to say struggle) to answer the question that the Maysles film never brings up directly: what the hell is up with these two women? The musical was hampered by a lame score and even lamer book which made an ultimately ill-advised chronological decision. Act One was set in the late 1930s and centered on Big Edie Beale at the height of her popularity as a Hamptons hostess as her life starts to collapse around her, and Act Two centered on Little Edie Beale and her life in the crumbling mansion. Act One Big Edie and Act Two Little Edie were played by the same actress, and people just went nuts for the stunt, but it always felt to me that this approach cost more than it was worth. In dividing the performances this way I never felt that I learned enough about the women in the context of the play itself, which all too often resorted to easy musicalizations of major moments in the film (The Beales' Greatest Hits) and some really blatant bids for Sympathy for the Beales. The ugly deep sargasso swamp of these women's relationship was skimmed rather than seriously explored.

The HBO film, on the other hand, seems to get it all right. The Beales are played by two instead of four actresses, and manages to add biographical information about the Beales that actually create genuine sympathy for the ladies. The HBO film takes a more straightforward approach than the musical, simply cutting back and forth between 1970s Grey Gardens, where the Maysles Brothers are making their film with the Beales, and the Beales' lives in the 1930s 40s and 50s. Equal time is given to mother and daughter, and the train wrecks of their lives are clearly laid out, along with some real insight into their motives.

Jessica Lange is nothing short of brilliant as Big Edie Beale. She's able to evoke some real pity for the woman while never backing away from showing the total mama-monster. A fascinating and complicated performance. I wish I could say the same of Drew Barrymore as Little Edie. At 34, Barrymore is able to play the younger Edie with some skill and energy, but she's simply in over her head when it comes to playing Edie at 56. She does her best, and manages a couple of skillful impersonation moments when re-creating famous bits from the Maysles film, but ultimately it just isn't enough, layers of prosthetic makeup notwithstanding. She's just too young, plain and simple. Also, more damagingly, she simply isn't able to summon the breeding that Lange manages so effortlessly: simply put, she has no class at all, faded or otherwise. When the Maysles' Little Edie uses words like "apoplectic" she knows what she means, and she refers to someone as being "an artist from a very good family" without irony. Barrymore just can't simulate this kind of thing: she doesn't understand Little Edie the way Lange understands Big Edie.

The biggest problem I had with the HBO film is that it falls into one of the same traps that hampered the musical, the Re-creation Temptation. It gets to the point where the Maysleses and the Beales really deserve some kind of co-writing credit. Unfortunately, I just can't help thinking that the Beales and Maysleses are better writers. Too many moments from the Maysles film are shoe-horned in to the proceedings to satisfy the fans, whether in context or not. For example, one of the more telling moments in the Maysles film comes when Little Edie says that "(i)t's very difficult to keep the line between the present and past." Maysles' Little Edie drops this little bombshell, which is basically the entire film in a single sentence, in an otherwise innocuous exchange with their handyman about the assorted changes the estate has gone through over the years, while HBO's Little Edie delivers this line with High Seriousness straight into the camera after an argument with her mother so we can be sure that even the slowest viewer will GET IT.
Worth watching? Yeah, why not, you'll get to see Jessica Lange do some of her very best work. But nothing can substitute for the original Maysles Brothers film. Nothing can come near it.

Thursday, March 26, 2009


I don't pretend to be an expert on graphic novels. I read WATCHMEN a while back. I remember lots of splendid detail, every single panel crammed with lovingly chosen details that beg to be noticed, and a batch of characters whose backstories were interesting and elaborate enough for me to not mind the rather simplistic murder mystery plot (somebody is killing off ex-costumed heroes) at the story's core. The big climax seemed rather anti-climactic, a big statement about ends justifying the means or something, I couldn't help feeling that the creators had bitten off more than they could chew. But folks loved it, and continue to love it. Over the years rumored film versions were bandied about, including one from Terry Gilliam, but nothing ever came of it.

And now the movie is actually here, and I was simply dreading it. It is directed by the publicity-anointed "visionary director" Zack Snyder, who made the bizarrely successful and thoroughly evil film 300 two years back. WATCHMEN impresses occasionally with a simple competence that I wouldn't have expected from Snyder. There's a lot of crap to wade through, make no mistake, as our "visionary" packs on the "cinematic" stuff all over the place: he makes damn sure that each shot is a big showstopper. It isn't enough for Snyder to show a cemetery, he has to begin on a closeup of rain running down a statuary angel's face and then pull back and back and back through the wrought iron gate and all the way back up and out so we can see the hearse at the cemetery gates, with "Sounds Of Silence" on the soundtrack, yet. And Snyder's fondness for slow-motion hyperchoreographed fights and really revolting violence can make parts of the film difficult to watch without giggling or wincing. Make no mistake, the line between Serious Depiction of Graphic Violence To Make A Dramatic Point and Just Getting Off On The Sight Of Blood is crossed early and enthusiastically. And the nudge-nudge references to other films (certain scenes involving the the President discussing impending war are set in a mock up of the famed War Room from DR. STRANGELOVE, for example) don't really add much besides the satisfaction to a quick viewer of having Gotten It.

For all Snyder's slavish attention to stuff like this, there's something inert about the movie. I think that the film's biggest problem is pretty simple: it is hard to get terribly invested in the people being shown onscreen, largely because we never learn much about them. Big chunks of backstory are hinted at, but never really fleshed out satisfyingly; I imagine that the extra hour of footage apparently coming on the inevitable Director's Cut DVD will clarify a lot. As it stands now, though, only Jeffrey Dean Morgan's grinning sociopath The Comedian, Jackie Earle Haley's splendid Rorschach and Billy Crudup's CGI-enhanced Dr. Manhattan manage to generate much in the way of interest. The sections concentrating on these characters (Rorschach and the Dr. especially) are far and away the best in the film. Haley manages to project a very real danger out of thin air with his empty stare, and Crudup's sweet dreamy voice is a nice surprise. Alas, Patrick Wilson is left high and dry in his sputtering romance with the appalling Malin Akerman: I dare you not to be reminded of Andy Garcia valiantly trying to romance Sofia Coppola in GODFATHER III. Wilson and Akerman's slow-mo love scene, accompanied by Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" is painful to watch.

And someone named Matthew Goode delivers the worst performance of the year and possibly the decade as Adrian Veidt aka Ozymandias. He seems to have graduated from the Gerard Butler School of Acting, where all lines seem to have been learned phonetically and all actors seem to be overcoming heavy accents or serious speech impediments or both. The character's solemn pronouncements seem rather silly when expressed in a bizarre monotone with bad diction. Goode is aiming for some kind of Dark Superman but comes off more like a luuded out Elmer Fudd.
I couldn't escape a degree of "so what" about the film, ultimately. This sort of thing has been done before. Films like Tim Burton's BATMAN RETURNS and Nolan's Bleak Chic reboot of the franchise BATMAN BEGINS and THE DARK KNIGHT have pretty well stripped costumed heroes of any romantic notions we might have had of them, and Nolan's films went out of their way to jam Big Themes into the mix. I'd bet that a good deal of WATCHMEN's thunder has been stolen by the incredible worldwide success of THE DARK KNIGHT in particular. WATCHMEN's big speeches are as lamely written as any in THE DARK KNIGHT, and I can't blame Patrick Wilson for being unable to make a line like "(w)hat happened to the American Dream?" provoke anything other than laughter, coming as it does from a man in an owl costume.
I was certainly not a fan of either of Nolan's Batman films, but they at least try to wrestle convincingly with the Big Themes they address. I can give Nolan and his pair of films an A for Effort that I just can't bring myself to give to that Snyder guy. All costumed hero movies made since WATCHMEN's publication owe a big debt to its pioneering example. What a shame that WATCHMEN itself has been brought to the screen in such lackluster fashion.

Monday, March 16, 2009


Didn't see MAMMA MIA!? Too concerned that your brain would atrophy? Not interested in watching America's Dowager Actress Goddess debase herself in a piece of material way way way beneath her?

Fear not.

The clips below are from a Comic Relief parody of the film by the sublime team of Jennifer Saunders and Dawn French. They've saved you the agony of sitting through the movie. Part 2 is especially glorious, as Saunders takes down La Streep once and for all.

Part One---

Part Two---

You're welcome.

Thursday, February 26, 2009


I'm a gay male New Yorker. I have to watch the Oscars. It's a rule. Your membership is revoked otherwise, I'd have to give back the toaster.

There seems to be a sort of "meh" feeling about the whole Oscar experience this year. And as far as the winners were concerned, yeah, I'll have to agree. Meh. SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE for Best Picture and Best Director, uh huh. Fearless Prediction: this will come to be seen as the 21st Century equivalent of ROCKY having won Best Picture and Best Director. SLUMDOG and ROCKY are entirely adequate little comfort movies but Best Pictures they are NOT. I was glad that MILK picked up two prizes, though, and Penn's and Black's speeches were by far the best of the night.

But it was soon enough business as usual, as the Oscars went back to the sweep mentality that had been notably absent for a few years, with SLUMDOG picking up awards for Most Editing among other things. And the winners for BENJAMIN BUTTON made some of the dullest speeches imaginable, which I guess is appropriate for people who made the dullest film imaginable.

But there was something else going on that night. Something so astounding that no one seems to have noticed it. Get this folks. The Academy award ceremony was not an embarassment. I think I'll say it again, as it seems to be escaping everyone's notice: THE ACADEMY AWARD CEREMONY WAS NOT AN EMBARASSMENT. The show was a lean mean award show machine, with a minimum of the nonsense (bad hosts, bad musical numbers, self-congratulatory montages) that they seemed to cram into the proceedings to make it all last as long as possible.

There were some missteps. That song and dance thing about how Musicals Are Back was just a drag, but it did provide a handy bathroom break. The Oscar Remembers montage was a disaster, ruined by sloppy camerawork and a need to keep Queen Latifah in frame. The device of past Oscar winners announcing the names of the acting nominees was a bit much. Yeah, they did it well, I guess, but it doesn't need to be done again. And the idea of running Best Picture nominee clips interspersed with great Oscar-winning films of the past resulted in one really deeply offensive moment, as the montage for MILK included shots from noted bigot Mel Gibson's noxious BRAVEHEART, one of the most blatantly homophobic major studio releases ever. It was like including a clip of BIRTH OF A NATION in a montage for RAISIN IN THE SUN.

But overall, it didn't suck. Hugh Jackman was a charming host. The awards were presented speedily, so speedily that I remember wondering what they were going to do to fill up the rest of the time. Even Jerry Lewis was gracious and above all brief during his little moment of Jean Hersholt glory. I didn't miss the performances of the song nominees one little bit, the little bite-sized performances were more than enough, but two of the three nominated songs (from SLUMDOG) were only tolerable in bite-sized pieces anyway.

I wonder if that is contributing to the Meh Factor that seems to be so prevalent. There was no shock, no surprise, no moment of Supreme Tastelessness to make this year stand out from the rest. It will be remembered, by me, as the year that Sean Penn got an Oscar he deserved and made a genuinely moving little speech, rather than as the year that little cinematic Big Mac with Special Curry Sauce won Best Picture.

Friday, February 13, 2009


This is possibly the coolest thing to happen at an award show in a long time. That's Tom Yorke and Jonny Greenwood of Radiohead, backed by the USC Marching Band. Greenwood, by the way, wrote the score for THERE WILL BE BLOOD, one of the better film scores of recent years. Enjoy:

Monday, January 26, 2009


I'm an optimist. I keep hoping that these little gold bludgeons (in Jim Carrey's phrase: the Lord of All Knick-knacks) will finally go to the right, most deserving person. It seldom happens. This year, it seems less likely to happen than usual. After last year's entirely predictable triumph of the dullasdishwater NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN over the far tastier THERE WILL BE BLOOD, SWEENEY TODD and ZODIAC, and after the previous few years' senseless recognition of MILLION DOLLAR BABY and CRASH and others (THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE RETURN OF THE KING being the sole deserving winner in some time) I can finally say that I just don't give a damn anymore.

Aw, fuck. Who am I kidding? Surely not you. I do care. I care deeply. I love this stuff. This hideous award show horror. I do love to bitch and moan and complain about who wins and who loses and who wasn't nominated and what were they thinking and well what can you expect from the people who've given Clint Eastwood two Oscars for Best Director and Brad Pitt nominated for Best Actor Oh my GOD and ha ha they shut out THE DARK KNIGHT and Christopher Nolan so there might be some hope after all. Nothing provokes a good solid rant like the OSCARS.

So here we go, nominations rants.

Best motion picture of the year
“The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”
“The Reader”
“Slumdog Millionaire”

I've only seen three of the nominees: BENJAMIN BOREDOM, MILK and SLUMDOG. Well. It looks like SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE will win. One of Roscoe's Oscar Theories: Each Oscar Is A Reaction To Last Year's, which this year means that an easy piece of feelgood sentimentality (SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE) will follow last year's easy piece of feelbad sentimentality (NO COUNTRY). I'm not entirely counting out BENJAMIN BOREDOM, as it does have a lot of what Oscar Seems To Like: epic storytelling, thwarted lovestory, big stars, no appreciable content but a clearly stated (more or less) message about something or other, and it does seem to inspire tears in those easily inspired that way. It comes down to this: will they want to give the Best Picture Oscar to a piece of relentless fluff about slumkids in Mumbai? How's that going to look in future Oscar montages? I can't see it going to FROST/NIXON or THE READER, because they've just gotten zero serious consideration from anyone anywhere. MILK would also seem to have a lot of Oscar bait (big true story, martyred leader, big cast, easily digested Big Message) but there's that pesky Gay Angle that will probably keep it from winning the big prize. Going by another Roscoe's Oscar Theories (the most useless of the nominees usually wins) I'll go with SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE, with BENJAMIN BOREDOM a possible surprise. I'm not entirely counting out MILK, though, darker horses have won, and it might be a handy response to Prop. 8.

Performance by an actor in a leading role
Richard Jenkins in “The Visitor”
Frank Langella in “Frost/Nixon”
Sean Penn in “Milk”
Brad Pitt in “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”
Mickey Rourke in “The Wrestler”

Well, who can say. I'd guess Mickey Rourke, based on all the hype, but I think there may be a significant population who just can't bring themselves to check off the box next to Mickey Rourke for an Oscar. I haven't seen the performance, largely because I just can't bring myself to look at that hideously disfigured face for the better part of two hours. I'd like to see Penn win, myself, but I don't think it is terribly likely. After all, Penn plays a gay man who actually seems to be possessed of some measurable levels of testosterone, and that never goes over big with Oscar voters who like their gay performances to be as queeny/girly/femmy as possible: Hurt in SPIDER WOMAN and Hoffman's CAPOTE. Ugh. Pitt. My non-nominated choice: Colin Farrell for his funny and moving turn in IN BRUGES.

Performance by an actor in a supporting role
Josh Brolin in “Milk”
Robert Downey Jr. in “Tropic Thunder”
Philip Seymour Hoffman in “Doubt”
Heath Ledger in “The Dark Knight”
Michael Shannon in “Revolutionary Road”

I'd say give it to Josh Brolin, who actually had an actual supporting role, rather than Ledger who should be in the Best Actor category for what was for all intents and purposes the lead in that DARK KNIGHT thing. But Ledger will probably win, there's just no way to deny the brilliance of his work as the Joker, try as some might. I'd have liked to have seen Ralph Fiennes nominated for his total scary loon performance in IN BRUGES.

Performance by an actress in a leading role
Anne Hathaway in “Rachel Getting Married”
Angelina Jolie in “Changeling”
Melissa Leo in “Frozen River”
Meryl Streep in “Doubt”
Kate Winslet in “The Reader”

Don't know, don't care, haven't seen any of them, and without the sublime Sally Hawkins from HAPPY-GO-LUCKY it doesn't matter a damn. Toss it to Winslet, she's long overdue, and it would continue the Oscar tradition of honoring the Right Actor for the Wrong Role.

Performance by an actress in a supporting role
Amy Adams in “Doubt”
Penélope Cruz in “Vicky Cristina Barcelona”
Viola Davis in “Doubt”
Taraji P. Henson in “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”
Marisa Tomei in “The Wrestler”

As long as it doesn't go to Taraji P. Henson, they can give it to the janitor for all I care. I'm betting it will go to Viola Davis in DOUBT, for what it is worth.

Achievement in directing
Ron Howard -- FROST/NIXON
Gus Van Sant -- MILK
Stephen Daldry -- THE READER

It will probably go to Boyle, I guess. I'd say the most worthy of the batch that I've seen is Van Sant's work on MILK. Oscar-winner Danny Boyle. Hmmmm. Doesn't really roll off the tongue, does it?

Adapted screenplay
“The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” (Paramount and Warner Bros.), Screenplay by Eric Roth, Screen story by Eric Roth and Robin Swicord
“Doubt” (Miramax), Written by John Patrick Shanley
“Frost/Nixon” (Universal), Screenplay by Peter Morgan
“The Reader” (The Weinstein Company), Screenplay by David Hare
“Slumdog Millionaire” (Fox Searchlight), Screenplay by Simon Beaufoy

Couldn't care less. Probably SLUMDOG. Whatever.

Original screenplay
“Frozen River” (Sony Pictures Classics), Written by Courtney Hunt
“Happy-Go-Lucky” (Miramax), Written by Mike Leigh
“In Bruges” (Focus Features), Written by Martin McDonagh
“Milk” (Focus Features), Written by Dustin Lance Black
“WALL-E” (Walt Disney), Screenplay by Andrew Stanton, Jim Reardon, Original story by Andrew Stanton, Pete Docter

Probably on balance the strongest single category. Who'd a thunk. I'd like to see IN BRUGES win, but it isn't terribly likely. I'd be down with MILK or WALL-E or HAPPY-GO-LUCKY winning, but I think they'll probably give it to MILK as a consolation prize for not giving it one of the big prizes.

And there you have it. I'll watch the show, I guess, but it just all seems to pre-determined now. SLUMDOG seems to be just cleaning up all over the place, like NO COUNTRY did last year. There's nothing really in the way of suspense.

And here's a gratuitous piece of anti-BENJAMIN BUTTONery:

Monday, January 05, 2009


Well, there's just not a lot out there that I'm at all excited in seeing right now. The big Oscar bait is flooding the theatres and I just couldn’t care less about a lot of them. Here are some thoughts about films I've seen and films I haven't seen.

DOUBT and FROST/NIXON -- sorry, just plain not interested. I saw both as plays on Broadway, and was extremely unimpressed with DOUBT and liked the fine performance of Frank Langella as Nixon. There's nothing about either film that really makes me want to shell out NYC movie ticket prices for them. They can wait for HBO, and even then I doubt I'll bother with DOUBT, because I just couldn't care less about it. Didn't like the play, am not interested in La Streep's take on the role, and I'm positively allergic to that Philip Seymour Hoffman person.

HAPPY-GO-LUCKY -- a tasty surprise from Mike Leigh. Sally Hawkins has been winning a good number of critics' awards for her performance as Poppy, an almost unquenchably positive woman living in London. Just because she's relentlessly upbeat doesn't mean she doesn't sometimes get pissed off, however. The film hasn't much of a plot, but I'm sure that repeat viewings will reveal a lot more going on than meets the eye. The film mainly consists of Poppy's interactions with assorted people: her roommate, her students, one young student who seems to be the victim of abuse at home, assorted members of her family, and most memorably a driving instructor named Scott. People have differing reactions to Poppy's surface breeziness, mistaking it for a lack of good sense or even a rebuke to their own ways of looking at the world. A fascinating group of character studies, not a dull moment in it. I'd love to see it again.

SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE -- One of the best received movies of the year. Probable Oscar nominee, and almost certain winner of Best Adapted Screenplay. Saw it over the weekend. Annoyed the living daylights out of me. A mostly simple rags to riches story of a young man who rises from the slums to India to the final round of the Indian version of I WANT TO BE A MILLIONAIRE. There's a novel narrative gimmick. Having risen to the finals of MILLIONAIRE, the hero has been arrested on allegations of cheating, and the film consists mainly of his flashbacks as he recounts the story of his life to explain to the police how he has acquired such arcane information, before he can go on to the final round. Okay, cool. Neat idea, I'm down with that. The film is certainly well made, and the acting is beyond reproach.

It isn't a bad movie by any means. I just got really really really tired of the non-stop emotional manipulation at work. Director Danny Boyle loads on the MTV Editing (executed with a skill that has eluded certain other practitioners, by the way) and the loud music and fancy hand held camerawork and basically every possible device in his arsenal to Ramp Up The Emotion full blast. I'll admit that I had certain feelings while watching the film, but I wasn't having them because I was getting involved in the story or getting interested in the characters or having my own responses. I was having feelings because my Emotion Buttons were being pushed, and pushed, and pushed again. And then pushed again. Exactly when they started using a jackhammer on those buttons remains unclear to me, but it was about the time that I started to develop a bad headache. Only MAMMA MIA has worked harder recently to push each and every emotional button, over and over and over again, to the point where it ceases to mean anything.

It got simply exhausting, and I've seldom been so glad to see credits roll in my life. Again -- not a bad movie. Its heart is definitely in the right place. It is just pushy to the point of being irritating.

MILK -- I'd been avoiding it, afraid that I was in for a lot of Preaching to the Choir. I'm so glad to have been proven wrong. An all around excellent film, I thought, the kind of thing that makes me wonder why more movies aren't as generally good as this one. A good solid piece of movie, that proves that Message Movies needn't be insults to the intelligence, that emotional responses can be elicited without resorting to drastic SLUMDOG-type measures. The acting is across the board excellent. Sean Penn finally delivers a performance of real grace and humor along with the expected power and intensity: this is what happens when he finally plays a human being, I guess. And Josh Brolin's Dan White is splendid, a sad dumb clueless straight guy who just can't seem to understand why things don't go exactly the way he wants them to. You can just see him Not Getting It. I know there have been some complaints that the film rather sanitizes the story, but it didn't feel sanitized to me. The ugly little subplot with Milk's overly dependent boyfriend was sufficiently messy, it kept me from thinking that Milk was a just plaster Gay Saint.