About Me

A blog wherein a literary agent will sometimes discuss his business, sometimes discuss the movies he sees, the tennis he watches, or the world around him. In which he will often wish he could say more, but will be obliged by business necessity and basic politeness and simple civility to hold his tongue. Rankings are done on a scale of one to five Slithy Toads, where a 0 is a complete waste of time, a 2 is a completely innocuous way to spend your time, and a 4 is intended as a geas compelling you to make the time.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Film @ 11

We did it!  Eddie played around with a Sony Reader as well and said he liked it, so we got one this afternoon at the Borders at Park Ave., and I'm going to be curious to find out what he thinks of it.  I'll play around a bit with it myself, I'm sure.  Stay tuned for further updates, sometime or other.

Monday, December 29, 2008

A Game of Leapfrog

I think that my Kindle was/is better, certainly for me, than the first generation of the Sony Reader.  But I was playing around some with the new and improved Sony Reader at the Borders in Manchester, CT on Saturday night, and I think Sony has leapfrogged over the Kindle in many significant ways with their 2nd generation reader.

Instead of using buttons to move the pages back and forth, you can do that kind of iPhone touchy thing and drag across the screen to move forward or back a page.  Sweet!  The touch screen also can become a keyboard for searching for text.  Theoretically you can also bring that keyboard up to annotate text, but the fact that I wasn't intuitively able to figure out how to do that with the demo model suggests they might be able to improve upon that a tad (unless I was pressing the right buttons but the demo models don't let you do that so some 12-year-old won't look at the notes and find a pornographic treatise, which I'm thinking is a possibility?).  I worry some about the use of touchscreens, as I'm sure anyone would who's tried to use one at an ATM and found the corner with the button you need won't let itself be touched no matter what, but then again the little keyboard on my Kindle isn't exactly like new after eight months of vigorous annotating.  

The Kindle still has kind of a killer app with the whole wireless thing, while the Sony Reader requires hooking up to a computer as well as 3rd party intervention for use with Mac OSX.  And the subscription feature of the Kindle was a major plus for me as well.  I love having a Wall St. Journal and a Washington Post sent to my Kindle every morning; the Post is cheaper for a month on the Kindle than the NYC newsstand price of 3 Sundays.  And when I'm on the road I like being able to buy a full single issue of the NY Times instead of having to walk around with the National Edition in newsprint without the full NYC and Sports sections.  

So I'm not saying the Sony is a hands-down winner, because at least for me the overall functionality of the first generation Kindle still rates ahead of the Reader.  But if all you want to do is get books and read them, Amazon isn't the only player in this game right now, and we at JABberwocky may think on buying a Reader for my #2 for his manuscript reading using the 3rd party software that Charles Stross suggested in comment on my first Kindle post.  If Amazon gets too complacent about rolling out a new and improved 2nd generation Kindle, this is definitely NOT going to be a one-player game.

(All that being said with the caveat that playing around with the Sony Reader in its display at Borders may not be the same as the experience of actually using it, but even added display cuddliness is not a minor thing.)

Friday, December 26, 2008

Cinema under the tree

New York City is an island of little movie ecosystems on Christmas.  Walk down W. 13th St. and there's nobody around, until you get to the Quad Cinema.  Enough people milling around the lobbies of the Kips Bay or the Angelika you'd think they were giving something away.

One of the movies that opened in NYC on the 25th is Last Chance Harvey, which I'd seen Tuesday evening Nov. 18, 2008 at the AMC Loews Lincoln Square, Auditorium #2, "The Kings," Part of the Variety Screening Series,  2 slithy toads.  It's a star vehicle romance with Emma Thompson and Dustin Hoffman who had so much fun working together on Stranger Than Fiction (clearly more fun than I had watching the movie) that they yearned to work together so much that they chose this mediocre romantic comedy.  It's the very definition of a 2 toad movie.  It's not very good, but it does have star power and enough pleasant things going on that it's hard to regret spending 92 minutes with it.  I liked the first third of it the most, bcause it does an excellent job of establishing Dustin Hoffman's character.  He's a pianist who works on jingles and is close to being squeezed out for a younger generation.  So much so that it's kind of risky for him to leave work behind to go to the wedding of a long-estranged daughter he's clearly seen rarely since his divorce.  He's at a nice Marriott in downtown London, but that's only so nice when you consider that his ex and pretty much everyone else are at a country house rented for the wedding party for the occasion.  His daughter would much rather her stepfather give her away.  It's a series of small indignaties, one after the other, and Hoffman doesn't drown them in star power.  No, he shrinks just a little further into his not so tall self, his face droops just a little bit more with each passing moment.  Emma Thompson plays a lovelorn spinster who does polling of arriving passengers at Heathrow.  The two meet cute when Hoffman misses his plane home and loses his job as a result, and Hoffman's so desperate for something good to come of it that he breathes life into a relationship that shouldn't exist like somebody managing to regain fire from one drowning ember in a small pile of brush.  It's what comes after that  just doesn't work.  There's no impediment to the two of them having a relationship, and it's so preordained that it makes you yearn for the artificial complication of a bad romantic comedy.  The extent of the complications here is that Hoffman misses a date because of the most contrived circumstances imaginable, and there isn't all that much to the regaining of trust thereafter.  So don't let me keep you from this, there are way worse chick flicks out there, just don't expect much more than a short and pleasant exercise in star chemisty.  Q&A after, Emma Thompson was losing (more had lost) her voice, but that didn't stop Dustin and Emma from turning it into a love fest comedy routine tribute to their joy in one another's company.  It was certainly different than the usual Q&A, and not unpleasant, but when there were those few moments when Hoffman would begin to give a serious answer to a question by reflecting on his Method training or on The Graduate, it was hard for me not to wish there'd been a little more of the master classs from somebody who has a lot of stories to tell and a little less second rate George and Gracie.

On Christmas day, I commenced my movie-going with Let the Right One In, seen Thursday afternoon Dec. 25, 2008 at the City Cinemas Angelika, Aud. #6.  2 slithy toads.  This is an offbeat Norwegian vampire movie that opened 2 weeks ago and which had gotten some interesting reviews in NYC and in DC.  It's the kind of movie that six or ten years ago probably would have been gone from theatres by now, but since the Landmark Sunshine opened up a few blocks from the Angelika and added more screens to the dowtown NYC art house circuit, there's a little bit more room for a film like this with some decent reviews and some decent word of mouth to hang around.  And in this case to hang around long enough I decided finally to see.  The vampire is a 12-year-old who travels around with an elderly man who helps her out some.  Kills the occasional person and taps their blood, or cleans up after her own feedings, that sort of thing.  She moves in next door to a boy who's being badly bullied at school.  The two become attracted.  He offers her human companionship her own age which she's clearly had little of, she offers him encouragement and life coaching, like a little 12-year-old vampire version of Anthony Robbins for young people.  The first half is a little sluggish and could stand some tighter editing.  The second half is a little bit stronger as her presence in town begins to attract attention and his situation at school and with his new girlfriend both start to develop.  There are some nice visuals.  Certainly worth seeing for the die-hard vampire afficianado, and certainly interesting, but also a little too Euro-slow for me to give any kind of strong recommendation.

Then Doubt, seen Thursday evening Dec. 25, 2008 at the AMC Loews Kips Bay, Aud. #8, 3 Slithy Toads.  I had planned on only one movie for Christmas, but I stopped by the Kips Bay to see what was playing on their big screens.  This theatre has 5 passable small theaters downstairs, then the north side of the upstairs has six awful small theatres which I've kind of vowed never to pay to enter ever again. But auditorums #7-10 are all really big and spacious and comfy with nice big screens that I enjoy quite a bit.  It was a pleasant surprise to see that Doubt was on one of those big screens while (as an example) Marley was on one of the smaller downstairs.  Now, Marley was the #1 movie Christmas day and had sold out, while the showing of Doubt had 100 tops in the 350 seat theatre, so you never quite know but that management will flip-flop, so really if I didn't see Doubt on the big screen then no assurance I'd get to later.  Doubt is an adaptation of a play by Moonstruck's John Patrick Shanley about the principal of a catholic school 40 years ago who thinks one of the priests might be getting too affectionate with one of the students, the first black kid to be admitted to the school.  The idea is that there should be some uncertainty about weather the principal, played here by Meryl Streep, is right in her suspicions.  When I saw this on Broadway there was a lot of ambivalency.  Here, there's a little less so, and that throws off the balance of the closing scene.  In that way, it's not as perfect as the play may have been.  But, it's wonderfully acted not only by Streep but by Philip Seymour Hoffman as the priest and Amy Adams as a teacher in the school and Viola Davis as the student's mother.  It's wonderfully photographed.  I'm not sure I agreed with the decision to shoot with a lot of dutch angles (if you don't know the term please do follow the link; I think of these most of all from the old Batman TV show, but there's a lot more to them than that; impress your friends by studying up), but I did like the way that the movie was opened up from the more limited settings available to the stage version.  There's some added context to the whole ritual of the catholic school and the church itself which I liked, and I can assure you that the housing project near to the school where Meryl Streep and Viola Davis go for a walk in one of the pivotal scenes of both play and film is a quintessential examplar of NYC life.  So I would recommend, and I think people who are new to the material may actually enjoy even a little bit than I did, with the experience of the play having spoiled some of the surprises.

I attempted to see Valkyrie on the 26th, but the lines at the AMC Empire were so torturously long that I decided to come home and blog instead before heading out for the evening.  Also allowed me to do my weights.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Another shoe...

With Van Johnson, aka The Minstrel, and Earth Kitt, aka Catwoman, having sadly passed in this season, is there a third to come...  The old saying is that things like this will happen in threes.

Follow-on

So Lisa, what do you think of Gypsy from your personal experience with it?  Did your 12-year old self like the musical?  Do you think back on it otherwise?

Jeri Westerson's Veil of Lies continues to chug away in Boston, another 19 copies the week ending the 21st according to Nielsen Bookscan.  That Globe review is really a gift that keeps on giving. 

Oliver Twisted, Bollywood Style

Slumdog Millionaire, seen Thursday October 23 at the  Landmark Sunshine, Aud. #1,  Part of the Variety Screening Series, 3.5 slithy toads.

This was already a highly touted movie off of its screenings at the Toronto Film Festival and elsewhere even before I saw it, a few weeks before its opening.  And as you can see from the generous # of toads I am giving it, I think it's one of those movies that lives up to the acclaim.  My sister also liked it a lot, though a friend I was talking with on Monday night did not.  Well, the more people who read your book or see your movie the more people you can find who won't like it, but it's clear it is striking a chord.  The movie's been doing very well at the box office with signs of very good word of mouth, slowly broadening from being on very few screens to being on several hundred, and making the top 10 at the box office against films, up there with films that are playing at five times as many theatres.  Well, good!

If you're not yet familiar with the movie, it's set in Mumbai (nee Bombay) India.  It's like Oliver Twist meets Strictly Ballroom, game show meets Bollywood, East meets west.  A contestant on the Indian version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire is doing surprisingly well and on the verge of winning a million dollars worth of rupees, and nobody can quite understand why or how, so the contestant ends up spending his overnight leading up to the final question in police custody, trying to explain how he knows the correct answers.  The answer to that question is revealed in a series of flashbacks beginning in earliest childhood, and it's that part of the movie that's extremely Dickensian.  Dickens himself might find the poor man's upbringing to be a little bit harsh.  The answer to one of the earliest question emerges from a great outhouse adventure, homelessness leads him first to the ultimate girl of his dreams but soon thereafter to a Fagin character whom Fagin himself would find cruel.  Alas not unbelievably so; I live in a city where deaf Mexicans were enslaved into begging on the subway line that runs thru Sunnyside.  His escape from that fate comes with a large price tag, as he's separated from the woman he loves and estranged from his brother. 

So you're saying this doesn't sound like the feel good uplifting movie of the season?  Well, it is.  As grim as the story can be at times, it's far from unrelenting.  The outhouse adventure is full of brio, enthusiasm, and joy.  The escapades include a delightful interlude at the Taj Majal.  We're never too far from flashing forward to the game show, where that million dollars creeps ever closer.  The love story is a classic, one which I was far more involved with (and almost in spite of myself) than the one between Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett in Benjamin Button.

The filmmaking is full of life and energy and passion throughout.  I'd say director Danny Boyle has around a 75% success rate, and that's pretty darned good.  Shallow Grave was pretty much the progenitor of the British caper film that's ended up being way overdone in the ten years since, and I recall it having an integral zest and panache which a lot of the subsequent films in the genre have imitated without ever matching.  Trainspotting is the rare film about drug users that I quite cottoned to, and I even purchased the soundtrack album.  28 Days Later is one of the best zombie movies ever.  Millions is an underrated kind-hearted family movie which is well worth renting.  Sunshine, a sci-fi epic, falls apart in the final act and isn't as good as the other movies, but before it falls apart it's an interesting amalgam of a lot of other sf movies, kind of a more upscale seriously intentioned Stargate, with some stunning visual imagery.  There are a couple complete misses like A Life Less Ordinary which I've not seen, and which very few people have, and then there's The Beach, which I did see but don't remember much about either good or bad.  But by and large any film I've seen from Boyle has been crafted with verve and passion, and at least been interesting and often much much more than that.  I wouldn't rank him as high as Kubrick. I don't know if he's crafted a great movie for the ages like Scorcese's Goodfellas, but he's certainly been much more consistent in the overall quality of his movies than Scorcese or Altman.

He's come up with a real find in Dev Patel, a young British actor supposedly auditioned at his daughter's insistence, who displays even more It than David Kross in The Reader.  I was so thrilled Patel was present at the Q&A with Boyle and am very happy he has been nominated for Supporting Actor from his peers in the Screen Actors Guild.  He's very charismatic, has a nice combination of vulnerability and strength, and I expect to see him in more movies.  I hope he won't too quickly go the action star pay check route.

For all my enthusiasm for the movie, I've deducted a half toad because it did take me a while to warm up to the movie.  The characters were slow to gel.  I don't mind subtitles but found myself distracted by these.  I'm not sure I even got the whole romance thing, except that ultimately it was depicted with so much verve by the director and his team and acted with such fervency that I did eventually find myself falling entirely under the movie's spell.  The friend I was talking with earlier in the week was just the opposite.  He liked the movie at first but then felt it drowned in contrivance.   You all can let me know what you think if you see this movie, which I highly recommend doing.  When it came time for the big Bollywood dance number at the end, I wanted to dance in the aisles and I wanted to see the number go on for a long long long time, kind of like how I hated to see the last dance at Kellerman's eventually end in Dirty Dancing.  

I may see the movie again myself.  As sometimes happens at these Q&A screenings, when they're running  late or on a tight schedule they'll instruct the projectionist to cut out of the end credits so they can get an extra two or three minutes into the evening.  That happened here, and I feel as if I didn't get to properly enjoy the entire movie, beginning to end.

& in the interests of time, a quick post which I maybe should have included in Movies that Begin with the Letter W:

The Wrestler.  Seen Thursday December 4 at the Landmark Sunshine, Aud. #1.  Part of the Variety Screening Series.  1.5 slithy toads.

This is another movie that's been highly touted, especially for Mickey Rourke's performance.  It's just opened in limited release and hopes to follow in the footsteps of Slumdog Millionaire by slowly going wider.  It didn't work for me.  It's an archetypal story about a professional wrestler, once a star and now hanging out at the fringes of the sport 20 years later, playing in smaller arenas.  Can he reconcile with his daughter?  Find love with a stripper?  Find a life outside of the wrestling ring when health issues arise?  This kind of story has been done a million times before, though I have a hard time naming all the many movies I should be able to say this is exactly alike.  I think it's because there are so many of them that end up being at the Rocky III level that those I've seen drift into a kind of haze.  And would anyone want to say that Rourke's performance is up there with Paul Newman's in The Color of Money, which is a particularly good example of the faded-star movie?  I can actually hold a pool stick with the cue facing the right way, and though I'm no fan of pool and have no talent for it maybe the fact that I might at least consider playing a round to be fun to do every five years while going down for a 3-count on a wrestling mat is way too high-school-gym I never want to think of every ever again biases me against The Wrestler.  Still, I think I could put aside my dislike of the sport for a movie that were a little more interesting than this.  Personally, I think there were a lot of people who were ready to anoint Mickey Rourke as a great American actor 20 years ago even though he was never really close to it.  I saw Angel Heart.  I saw Barfly.  I saw The Pope of Greenwich Village.  I don't think these were good movies even then and yet somehow Rourke was perceived as being a great new actor.  And sometimes when the critical establishment decides something it never wants to admit its wrong.  So even though Rourke has been acting steadily in supporting roles in movies for the past 20 years without etching an indelible portrait in any of them (The Rainmaker, Point Break, Get Carter, there's a good long list), it's become the perceived wisdom that he's disappeared for 20 years and has suddenly emerged in this classic performance.  It's like Rourke is living for real the kind of existence that Fast Eddie Felson was living fictionally in The Color of Money, and just like Paul Newman doing the "I'm back" line as he hits his break at the end of that, Mickey Rourke can do it as he carts home his statues for The Wrestler.  Sometimes these stories feed on their own momentum, and maybe Rourke will end up taking in a Golden Globe and a Saggy and an Oscar and a this and a that.  We'll all find out soon enough.  But as far as the Brillig Blogger is concerned, The Wrestler ain't worth your time.  I'm tempted to say to see it nonetheless if you're a big wrestling fan, but if you are do you really want to look at the sordid underside of it?

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Theatricality

January tends to be a bad time for live theatre in New York City.  The tourist trade dries up after the holiday season, and with maybe some action around President's Day doesn't seriously revive until the warmer weather and the Easter holidays and spring vacations.  Even the locals get out and about a little less during the coldest days of the year.  This year the economy is adding an extra burden.  A full-price seat to a Broadway musical is $120 now, a play a few dollars less.  Even a half-price ticket will run $65 when the TKTS booth surcharge and the "theater restoration fee" are added, and "cheap" seats in the back of the mezzanine $45 or more.  This isn't the best time to hunt down people with $100 or $250 to spend for a couple of seats.  Hence, the usual slate of shows planning to close after New Year's rather than try and wait out the winter for the more profitable spring and summer months is particularly robust.  I decided to spend some of my time this weekend getting in some of the soon to be dearly departed.

My first priority:  Spring Awakening, seen at the matinee on Saturday afternoon Dec. 20, 2008, at the Eugene O'Neill.  4 Slithy Toads.

I had first seen Spring Awakening in 30 months ago just ahead of its off-Broadway opening at the Atlantic Theater.  Sentimentalist pack rat that I am, I save my Playbills and jot down on the cover some notes on when I saw the show, what I thought of it, maybe other interesting notes.  This was what I wrote on my Playbill in 2006:  "The best new musical I've seen since, if not quite as good as, Parade.  It grabs me instantly, doesn't let go.  Establishes a fresh idiom in its staging and its musical style.  It does what a musical should without being cloying or predictable.  Many of the young cast are making off B'way debuts, and they're working so hard and so enthusiastically to sell this.  So SO SO good."  Most reviewers were equally taken with the show.  Behind the good reviews and good audience reaction, the show did a very quick transfer to Broadway, where it was by no means a sure thing because younger audiences are not the core theatregoing crowd.  The show built on good word of mouth, became a contender for the Tony Awards in spring 2007, and won several of them.  I was rooting for it, and I yearned to see the show on Broadway, but what's the rush when it's there every night?  Well, now, the show is going after January 18, so I suddenly had reason to do it instead of thinking about it, and I am still head over heels in love with this wonderful musical.  If you live in NYC, go see it.  Visit Broadway Box for your discount offer, and go.  See the show on tour.  Go, go, go.  The only change I'd make on my second viewing is to say that this may be better than Parade, which was the last musical to excite me as much.  I saw Parade twice and loved it, but I don't know if I'd have happily seen it five or ten times.  Having seen Spring Awakening on Broadway, I want to see it again before January 18, and again and again and again.

Spring Awakening is based on a German play by Frank Wedekind, and is about young people experiencing their sexual awakenings in an era in 19th century Germany when these sorts of things were not supposed to be discussed.  It doesn't sound like a cheerful topic, and I don't suppose that is is, but it's a beautiful story beautifully told by young men in the starchiest and stuffiest school uniforms who whip out handheld microphones to sing their innermost thoughts, and the young women in long dresses who find something stirring but know not what.  The musical score rocks, especially in major group #s like The B***h of Living and Totally F*****, but it's also got songs of remarkable delicacy like "The Word of Your Body," the closing number "The Song of Purple Summer," and the opening song "Mama Who Bore Me."  Some shows take pride in having a variety of musical styles that get to showcase the broad talents of the composers.  Parade is one of them, as is Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.  Spring Awakening takes a different approach.  The music by Duncan Sheik is variations on a theme, in which the whole achieves something larger than any one song, while the lyrics by Steven Sater are gently poetic without going for easy rhymes.  In the aforementioned "Word of Your Body," there's a resonance between the long "o" sound in the words wound and bruise.  And I doubt you'd believe me if I said that a song driven by the long "o" in "wound" and "bruise" was a love song, you'd probably be dubious, but yet that's what it is.  It's a gorgeous and tender love song in multiple ways.  Furthermore, moderns musicals tend not to have scores as memorable as those of old classic shows like The Sound of Music, but Spring Awakening manages to achieve some level of resonance.  Not perhaps in a Carol Channing belting show tunes sort of way, but murmuring beneath the surface like blood pulsing just beneath the skin.  I haven't spent the past 30 months singing the songs of Spring Awakening, but when the band struck its music cues the tunes burbled up like water from a spring freshly uncovered.

The production is essentially the same as that which opened at the Atlantic.  The cast I saw at the Atlantic moved pretty much intact to Broadway, though as  I mentioned in an earlier post it was a plus that the role of the adult women in the show was recast.  That replacement Christine Estabrook continues in her role, and she hams up some of her parts a little bit more than I remembered but still nails it emotionally in the darker moments for her role.  Over the past year that original cast has drifted away, part out of necessity since the show requires that the actors not be too old for their parts.  Jonathan Groff and John Gallagher, Jr. have turned their roles into springboards for what should be promising careers.  Groff's lead role as one of the male students is now being played by Hunter Parrish.  I'm not familiar with Parrish, but he's a star of the Showtime series Weeds, and he's made a great career move by showing his chops on stage in Spring Awakening.  I had a very good view of his perch on stage when he wasn't singing (the cast intermixes with some audience members who have seats on stage to either side), and he seemed so happy to be in and part of the show, and he's really quite good when he's on.  But the current cast is good throughout.  Now, many of them are making Broadway debuts instead of off-B'way, but they're all still selling it with joy and verve and enthusiasm and talent to burn.

I'm glad the show had its two-plus years on Broadway, but sorry it isn't going to be more.  

In the evening, the half-price TKTS booth managed to cough up a great 6th row center seat for me at Gypsy, seen Saturday evening Dec. 20, 2008 at the St. James.  2 slithy toads.

Gypsy is considered by some to be one of the great American musicals, and I'd seen an earlier revival just four and some years ago with Bernadette Peters in the lead role, that of a stage mother, Rose, who won't take "no" for an answer as she oversees the vaudeville careers of her two daughters.  The older and more talented, June, eventually leaves her, and with her some of the more talented members of the small act she's formed around them.  The younger and supposedly less talented Louise then becomes the center of her mother's attention, and when she succeeds beyond her mother's imagining as a burlesque show stripper (the show is based on the memoirs of the stripper Gypsy Rose Lee), it becomes a hard cross for mama to bear.  Rose is a very brassy character, and unfortunately Bernadette Peters for all her considerable talents (and I've seen her perform masterfully in shows like the original Sunday in the Park with George) does not have a lot of brass.  The production I saw four years ago simply wasn't very good.  One example:  this is considered to be a great American musical and does have some great songs that you may know, without knowing they're from Gypsy.  "May We Entertain You" is a good one that can get trotted out on an award's show at a moment's notice.  Then there's Together Wherever We Go.  "Wherever we go, whatever we do, we're gonna go through it together."  You might know the tune without realizing it, and have it come to mind just by reading the words.  In the Gypsy with Bernadette Peters, this famous number was tossed off with no joy as if an afterthought, when you want to at least have some sense in watching in an "ooooh, a famous song" kind of way.

That production was directed by the young and hip Sam Mendes, who directed the film American Beauty.  This new production is directed by the 90+ year old Arthur Laurents, who wrote the "book" (for those of you not in the know, the script for a musical is called the book, and consists of the spoken parts that aren't part of the music which would be supplied by a lyricist.  In some shows like Spring Awakening, the book and lyrics are by the same person, and in others like Gypsy not) for the production and is still at it now working on a new revival of West Side Story.  He brings more life by far to the material than does Mendes, who is less than half his age.  I'm still not totally satisfied with their approach to "Together Wherever We Go."  Both productions still rely on the choreography of the original by Jerome Robbins, who might not have known at the time which songs would be the keepers, but there's nonetheless more spring in the step of the actors and the orchestra in this song, and really in all of them.  More important, the star of this revival is Patti Lupone who is very much a diva and full of brass and who takes charge of the role and the stage and the audience.  

I don't think personally that Gypsy is a great American musical.  It has a lot of talent behind it, including Laurents and Jule Styne and Stephen Sondheim, all of whom are icons of the American musical theatre.  But to me, the first act drags on without much happening after a point.  I'm not sure there's enough fondness for either vaudeville or burlesque to make a memorial to them of much interest to my generation, and certainly not for any younger.  I can remember HBO doing some burlesque shows in its earliest years in the late '70s or early '80s and not many people any younger than me will remember.  It's got a lot of plot problems because it's hard to find a rooting interest in the domineering Rose or the mousy young Louise.  I'm happy to have at least seen a production that brings out the strengths of the show, but that the show will close even before Lupone's year long contract is up does say something about the show's ability to move an audience moving forward.  It's the kind of thing where you really probably should see a good production of Gypsy if you consider yourself a serious fan or devotee or acolyte or whatever of the American musical theatre, but we're kind of getting close to the edge of the "great books" debate here, where you're supposed to do it because it's good for you.

And then, Boeing Boeing, another revival, seen at the Longacre at the Sunday matinee, Dec. 21, 2008.  1 slithy toad.

This is a farce.  Comedy is hard, and good farce is very hard.  It's a kind of comedy of the extreme in which an outlandish situation develops and then builds and builds toward a hopefully very fast and very funny finale, often helped by an abundance of doors to make for well-timed entrances and exits to great humorous effect.  The best farce I've ever seen and perhaps the best farce ever is something called Noises Off, in which a British play is seen falling apart during performance from both sides of the stage to ever-increasing heights of hilarity.  I first saw it in my youth and enjoyed the first act immensely and then the second act not so much; when I found myself throwing up a bad meal into a trash can at the Port Authority Bus Terminal while making my way to the Shortline bus home, I had to come to the reluctant but firm conclusion that I may not have been in the best shape for judging the second act.  When the play was revived in late 2001, it was the perfect tonic to the 9/11 blues and I can confirm that the play is in fact quite delightful in all its acts.  An example of good farce is Lend Me a Tenor, in which the star of a Cleveland opera is tranquilized and a replacement must be found on short notice.  An example of the farce that dare not say its name is any episode of Scooby Doo in which Shaggy, Scooby and the villain are going in and out of the rooms in the old mansion.

Boeing Boeing is not a good farce.  It ran very briefly in an original Broadway run a long time ago, and this revival will have lasted less than a year, and that probably several months too long.  There are some laughts in it, so I don't want to be too harsh, but it's not well constructed and it takes way too long to go nowhere.  The premise is far more promising than that of Lend me a Tenor.  It's France, and a man is engaged to be married to a Lufthansa flight attendant.  And a TWA flight attendant.  And an Alitalia flight attendant.  This is set in the heyday of luxurious air travel when it was a glamor job to be an air hostess with a glamor uniform and a glamor tote, and he juggles the three of them by carefully tracking the flight times so that each will be in town for two days of the week.  When bad weather and faster planes arrive, all three of the flight attendants will be in town at the same time, along with an old college friend just visiting.  Alas, it's very slow to get going.  A good farce should establish its premise as quickly as possible and then build upon it.  In this play it takes something like 40 minutes for the third flight attendant to appear.  Why the wait?  We can figure out the idea within ten minutes, so get a move on...  The first two attendants having appeared together, you would expect to have the third coming back to the apartment, and the form dictates this would be a good way to close the first act.  As indeed it does.  But you've got all of those doors.  Have the stewardess walk in a door and surprise the three-timer and then bring the curtain down.  Here, we find out via phone call that the third is on her way.  I'd been wondering how the mechanics of having all three in one room would be handled to  humorous effect because it's a situation that isn't entirely funny and needs to be handled delicately.  Here, the solution is that you never actuall have all three in the apartment at once but just deal with them in different combinations of two, so the play never builds situationally beyond what we've already gotten in the first act.  And then instead of the bad guy having to rise to the occasion of digging himself out of a hole, the stewardesses resolve it for him.  One goes for the best friend, and another turns out to be playing a triple game of her own and finds true love with her boy in another city.  Good farce develops quickly and ascends the heights.  This builds slowly and then goes very flatly.  You have an abundance of doors to the foyer, the kitchen, the bathroom, the bedroom, the guest bedroom, and more, but the most action you get is at the most basic person A out door 1 right as person B is coming in door 2, never 3 doors at once.  The cast tries very hard and wrings I'm sure as much laughter as there is to be wrung, but it's not a very good play.

Neither is Speed-the-Plow, seen Sun matinee October 14, 2008, at the Barrymore.  .5 slithy toads.  David Mamet has done some great things, but this isn't one of them.  A Hollywood parable of something, act one shows us a smaller big-time Hollywood producer and his acolyte who have the chance to move up a notch with a big action movie.  In act 2, the big guy is seduced by a temp and agrees to spike the action movie for some artsy-fartsy thing.  In act 3, the younger producer can't believe this and restores order to the universe by throwing a hissy fit.  Mamet has explored the male bonding better in Glengarry Glen Ross, the battle of the sexes better in Oleanna, and it's not a very good play.  The role of the secretary is an awful one but nonetheless is a favorite for stunt casting.  Madonna played it in the original Broadway production, here Elisabeth Moss from AMC's "Mad Men."  It's still a bad role, and having actresses unfamiliar with the stage doing it doesn't make it any easier.  I recall Madonna being better.  Jeremy Priven (Entourage) plays the top dog producer.  OK.  Raul Esparza is the highlight.  He's a young Broadway actor who is capable of wonderful things, probably the best Bobby in the history of Sondheim's Company, and he makes the third act his own with a wonderful indelible hissy fit that should live in the annals.  But it's just not a good play.  I knew that from having seen the first time, only went again because it's included in my Atlantic membership, kind of wish I hadn't because of the opportunity cost.

Farragut North, seen Sun. matinee November 16, 2008 at the Atlantic's main stage, 2 slithy toads, was  worthier part of my membership.  Names for the Metro stop in downtown DC where all the K St. types go.  John Gallagher, Jr. from the original Spring Awakening cast now plays a 20-something high up in the press heirarchy of a presidential campaign during the primary season, but he finds out that immorality is still best done morally.  When he is outwitted, outlasted and outplayed in this game of political survivor, the only decision he has left is whether to take a high road or a low road to his next stop.  Gallagher is pleasant to watch and handles his role well, Isiah Whitlock, Jr. is exceptionally good as the wizened old hand at the helm of another campaign's press operations, and the rest of the cast all do what they're supposed to.  A perfectly pleasant way to pass the time.

That, at least, is off Broadway with off B'way pricing.  The problem with the now-deceased Title of Show, seen Thu. evening Sept. 25, 2008 at the Lyceum, 2 slithy toads, is that it's no more pleasant or unpleasant but costs twice as much.  Young creatives create a musical and then see it all the way to Broadway in a very pleasant very amiable more than enjoyable musical within a musical, but there's nowhere near enough meat on the bones to think anyone would pay $100+ for it.  And in fact, I'm not sure if anyone did. I paid half price, and that was more than what Variety reported as the average ticket price for the show most weeks.  But it's hard to make a profit on Broadway when you can only charge an off-Broadway price and still struggle to fill your seats.  

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Business Stuffs

So one question people ask is whether reviews sell books.  I recently had a good chance to look at that when Jeri Westerson's fine debut mystery VEIL OF LIES was reviewed in the Boston Globe.  Like a lot of in-genre debut hardcovers, the initial orders have been modest.  At the major chains, the main ordering was by B&N, which took a few copies for their better stores in the mystery category.  This wasn't the first good review for the book by any means.  It is quite a fine debut novel, and it had gotten a starred review in Library Journal and good reviews in Publishers Weekly and Kirkus, Mystery Scene and Crimespree, and the Richmond (VA) Times Dispatch and Historical Novels Review, among others.  It had a decent and steady Amazon ranking; most times I've checked it's been in the mid-20Ks as it is now, which I consider to be a very good showing for a first genre novel especially since it has been steady.  Prior to the Globe review running, it had sold 7 copies in Boston, according to Nielsen Bookscan.  In the two weeks since the review ran, 49 copies have sold in the Boston market.  So yes, the review has definitely sold some books for Jeri Westerson.    Down in Richmond, the Times Dispatch review saw sales reported to Nielsen Bookscan go up from 1 copy in the Richmond market to another 3 selling the week following.  So all told, 8 copies before, another 52 after.  It's possible to look at that and go "big whoop, 50 copies."  But I think it's pretty exciting to know that there are 50 people reading a review and picking up a book pretty much for that reason alone, and there are probably more copies than that.  Bookscan isn't capturing any sales at Kate's Mystery Books in Cambridge, MA.  There might be people in Hartford, CT or Washington, DC who are in the distant circulation areas of the newspapers that also picked up a copy.  What about the people who went to their local library, and the libraries that took an extra copy or two because of the review.  So I'm pretty psyched by this

The same week I was tracking the Boston market for Veil of Lies, I noticed another book that saw an unexpected and inexplicable 1000-copy increase in sales, a mass market paperback that had come out a few months ago where you don't expect to see sales spurt up like that.  So I did some asking around at the publisher, and found out that Target had taken a position on the book.  So now you know that reviews do sell books, and that having your book on the shelves at Target can sell even more.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Epic Movie

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.  Seen Thursday evening December 11, 2008 at Landmark's Sunshine, Aud. 1, part of the Variety Screening Series.  1.5 slithy toads.

Australia.  Seen Tuesday evening December 16, 2008 at Regal's UA Kaufman Astoria Stadium 14, Aud. 13.  2.5 slithy toads.

I'd say Benjamin Button was a disappointment except that I wasn't sure to expect very much from it.  With Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett, and directed by David Fincher (Se7en, Zodiac, others), this is an expensive big risk of the holiday season.  I doubt it's a worthwhile one, though you never know sometimes what award buzz might do, and the movie does at least have the good grace to have a better last half hour than first half hour, and is long enough you might leave with your fond recollections and have long since forgotten the less fond.  Brad Pitt plays a baby who is born as a small very old man, then grows in size as he grows "older," i.e., becomes younger even as he gets taller and bigger.  During the middle of his life he is Brad Pitt and has torrid Great Romance with Cate Blanchett, and then he grows up to become a small young man with Alzheimer's before ultimately dying.  His story is told via the lips of Julia Ormond, who doesn't yet know it (and takes far longer to guess than the audience probably will) that she's the daughter of the man whose diary she is reading to her mother (yes, Cate Blanchett in old person make-up that makes her look like one of the aliens from Close Encounters) who is the one and only Benjamin Button.

The screenplay is by Eric Roth, who hit the jackpot once upon a time with Forrest Gump.  That's a movie which to me was nice seeing once, especially at my beloved  Loews Astor Plaza, but which I don't think stands up much to the test of time.  For all the awards and the fuss and bother this isn't something that makes me watch when it's playing on TNT on a Sunday night.  I'm rather fonder of other movies Roth scripted like The Insider and The Good Shepherd, while Ali I remember mostly for inspiring me to get out an Analog to read during the brigher-lit scenes.  Fincher I've always found interesting, and I don't want to say that Benjamin Button isn't interesting, only that it isn't particularly good.

The essential problem for me is that there really isn't much to do with the Benjamin Button character between birth and the age of 40ish, coming or going, up or down.  So the movie introduces his family and sends him off to Paris and has him fighting the sea war during World War II, but I couldn't say I cared for any of it, and as the years slowly ticked by all I could think was "20 years down, and there are still 60 long years to go."  The great love story that finally emerges is a little better, though it's no Rose and Jack in Titanic, shall we say.  It ends tragically, and tragic ends to great romance are often worth a little emotional investment, but it ain't no Love Story, either.  There's a nifty running joke about lightning strikes, but there's also a framing device with a clock that runs backward which isn't sufficiently connected to the rest of the film to succeed as metaphor.  

The Q&A afterward was a "special" one with director Spike Jonze (Weezer "Sweater" video before going on to do movies like Being John Malkovich and Adaptation that are overrated to the extreme) interviewing David Fincher.  But why was Jonze there?  He didn't ask hardly any questions of his own, hardly seemed to have prepped, did they offer him free popcorn to come to the theatre?  So I found out that they had a really long script, which they needed to cut.  And then a really big budget, which they needed to cut.  And then a whole lot of film, which they needed to cut.  And since the movie was set in New Orleans and they couldn't decide whether to have it before Katrina or after Katrina they settled on putting it during Katrina.  

Australia is an in-between effort by Australian director Baz Luhrmann that on balance worked for me.  Lurhmann's first film as director was the delightful Strictly Ballroom.  If you're married, or dating, or something like that, rent this movie, snuggle up with your better half, and you'll enjoy yourself immeasurably and have a much nicer relationship after the two hours are up.  Then see Muriel's Wedding (not directed by Luhrmann) and you'll have a crash course in the new wave of Australian cinema that crested on these shores in the early 1990s.  That was followed by an offbeat Romeo and Juliet, the very very very very bad Moulin Rouge, and now this.  I might have gone to 3 toads with this if it had just a whiff more Strictly Ballroom to it, and a little less Moulin Rouge.

Because the thing I didn't like about Moulin Rouge was its artificiality, which is the same thing I don't like in Wes Anderson movies or Napoleon Dynamite (can that opinion be distilled to earn someone a million dollars?), and this movie starts out drowning in it.  Little planes flying around the globe in ways that make the little planes in the Indiana Jones movies look real.  Overdone acting.  Nicole Kidman prancing into Australia like a bride singing in the middle of an open pit coal mine.  When she and Hugh Jackman ride off to their home, a cattle station in north Australia called Faraway Downs, it's the most stylized car ride I've seen on screen since Kermit and Fozzie Bear started their ride to Hollywood while singing "Moving Right Along" in The Muppet Movie.  If Big Bird had said hello to Hugh and Nicole, it would've fit right in.

But ever so slowly the movie settles into a kind of grand Hollywood artificiality of the kind that works, or works for me at least.  CGI-gorgeous starry skies during the nighttime scenes.  A cute kid, in this case a half-breed Aboriginal whom Nicole Kidman wants to keep safe from the government-sponsored program of taking the half-breeds to be re-educated to serve white people.  Cattle driving across the Austalian wilderness.  A Gone With the Wind moment between Hugh and Nicole to be followed by the Cold Mountain 15 minutes.  Japanese planes bombing Darwin Harbor.  I can't believe as I'm typing that I can actually fall for this sort of stuff, but I did.  I wouldn't say this is interesting; Benjamin Button is more "interesting."  But I think Australia is funner and better.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Movies That Begin With The Letter W. Or Not

What Doesn't Kill You.  Seen Sunday Afternoon December 14, 2008 at the City Cinemas Village East, Auditorium #1.  1.5 Slithy Toads.

Were the World Mine.  Seen Sunday Afternoon December 14, 2008 at Cinema Village, Auditorium #2.  2 Slithy Toads.

Even though my movie-going is down quite a bit from its peak years when I used to do on toward 120 per year (this year will be over 80, I think, but not above 90), I do still try and see the occasional unheralded movie that gets somewhat interesting reviews that suggest it doesn't suck and may actually be an unsung gem.  So this weekend I decided I had some open weekend nights ahead to maybe visit the nearby multiplex and better to go far afield on the weekend, so I headed downtown to dsee these two movies that you've likely never heard of.

There was one pleasant surprise in store.  The City Cinemas Village East is a former playhouse devoted to Yiddush Theatre.  It has four very small theatres with very small screens in its basement.  On the former stage,  it has a relatively small screen on the bottom and then a kind of interesting and larger one directly on top of it, an arrangement which I'm surprised wasn't used in more old movie palace conversions.  The UA Lynbrook and the now-deceased UA Astoria are two other theatres which plexed in the old stage area.  But to my surprise this unheralded indie movie was playing on the big and still very richly ornamented main auditorium, which is a stunningly gorgeous place to see a movie and one of the few really gorgeous places left in Manhattan for viewing a movie.  So if the drama flags, you can look up and down and all around and enjoy the surroundings.  Alas, the drama flags in What Doesn't Kill You.  It has two good lead actors in Mark Ruffalo and Ethan Hawke, both of whom count as points in deciding whether to see a movie, but the true story is just not very interesting.  It's like Goodfellas or The Departed playing at too slow a speed.  The two leads are errand boys for a South Boston hood; doing it since they're kids.  Unfortunately the pay isn't always so good, the job security isn't so good, so they start to do some stuff on the side without cutting in the boss.  They end up being arrested (probably a coincidence?) and after they do their time one of them eventually chooses to go straight and enjoy his family while the other decides to do one last big score that can give him the seed money to maybe do better things.  Even if you haven't seen this movie before, you feel as if you had.  Because the writer/director knows the movie itself is dramatically inert he tries the same trick as many of the writers I've worked with, which is to goose the start with an Exciting Prologue that will be So Exciting it will Carry You Along In Its Wake.  That rarely works in writing a novel, and it doesn't work here.  I read that the Yari Film Group, which is releasing the movie, recently went into bankruptcy court.

I was a tad upset with the Cinema Village, because the ticket seller claimed to have no knowledge of the discount for Museum of the Moving Image members.  I've written to complain.  Also, I am pretty sure that the projector in this theatre is running with a bulb that's weak than it's supposed to be.  The movie I saw there on the little theatre cut into the mezzanine area of the main screen, is called Were the World Mine.  It's a gay Shakespearean take on the High School Musical sub-genre.  It's set in a private school where a gay student suffers the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune from his jock classmates.  When he's chosen to play Puck in the senior class play production of A Midsummer Night's Dream, he finds a recipe hidden in the play for some kind of potion that turns people gay or lesbian for a bit of time, which becomes a bit of wish fulfillment that turns the town upside down.  The play must go on, the town returns to a kind of heightened normalcy, and boy gets boy at the end.  Alas, it's so 1990s or 1980s.  You have the members of a high school basketball team breaking into song and dance, but we have that now in the High School Musical movies, so we don't need it here.  The cast isn't bad, per se, and the English/drama teacher is played by Wendy Robie channeling Katherine Helmond from Soap and Who's The Boss and I will never complain to be reminded of Soap.  But Robie's biggest role was perhaps a recurring one in Twin Peaks many years ago, and that's the overall level of achievement when you look at the cast credits, so totally cheap kids movies like if you look at the IMDB bios for the cast of Benji.   I was suffering a cold this week and a little drowsier than I'd really like to be when seeing a movie, so both movies have been given an extra 1/2 toad so they don't suffer totally if my own drowsiness was unfair.

& I have to say it again:  what is this movie really adding to the world when we have big Disney movies as gay as...

High School Musical 3: Senior Year.  Seen Sunday morning/afternoon Nov. 9, 2008 at the AMC Hoffman Center 22, Aud. #1.  2.5 slithy toads.

I hadn't seen the first two movies in the series on TV because, um, I've aged some past the target audience and totally don't get why anyone would groove to Zac Efron and in fact didn't see Hairspray in part because I didn't want to see him doing Link Larkin.  But I am more inclined in general to see movies in theatres than on TV, the coming attraction for this made it seem kind of fun, I have a warm spot for the director Kenny Ortega on account of his choreography for the wonderful I'm-Having-the-Time-of-My-Life-Whenever-I-See-It Dirty Dancing (and I really should see Newsies again some day), and I do occasionally see things in order to be part of the public dialogue.

& I'd have to say that the movie wasn't as bad as I feared it could be but nor was it quite as good as I'd hoped it might be.  The plot wasn't very interesting to anyone who hadn't gotten caught up in the trials and tribulations of Troy Bolton's life from the earlier two movies, and then those uninteresting plots had to be grafted uneasily with other story-lines to help introduce new younger characters for future HSM movies.  The music wasn't all that good.  It does end up achieving a certain emotional power through sheer repetition, kind of like the way Andrew Lloyd Weber beats you into submission in The Phantom of the Opera, and there isn't anything in the movie musically that still sticks around five weeks later.  But it is full of good spirits.  There was some nice choreography as I'd hoped; I was particularly impressed with a kind of "dance worm" that was a particularly cinematic piece of choreography that took advantage of being a film musical over a stage one to provide an effect that you wouldn't get on stage.  

But can we talk about the character of Ryan Evans, played by Lucas Grabeel.  Just as a matter of talent and ability, many of the reviews I'd read for this movie singled out Grabeel's performance as being of particular note, and I do think he has more stage presence and more inate talent than Zac Efron, though my own dislike of Efron aside I do think there's a little more "It" (see my recent post on The Reader) to Efron.  But going beyond that, there's nothing gay at all about HSM 3 because God Forbid and all that, but here's a character who wears very interesting outfits and leads the cast of the high school musical in what one character terms a "yoga Fosse" thing, which is a joke that nobody in the film's target audience will remotely understand but which some of the accompanying adults might.  And to all of the characters in HSM 3, Ryan Evans isn't even worth commenting upon.  He's a part of the scenery.  

& that creates a problem for a Were the World Mine.  In the world outside of East High, I'm still not sure how receptive the senior class would be to a Ryan Evans lookalike leading the ensemble in a Yoga Fosse thing, so insofar as the real world is concerned the issues that confront the lead in that movie are legitimately real world.  This is one reason why I give a little bit more toad to that movie over What Doesn't Kill You, which is superfluous in 68 different ways so many years after Goodfellas.  But culturally, when Disney is giving us HSM 3, and HSM 3 is giving us Ryan Evans, it becomes a lot harder to justify putting a Were the World Mine before the cameras.

A few weeks later I saw a good chunk of HSM 2 on Disney in an annotated pop-up version, and I think it may be a better movie than HSM 3, or it might just be that law of diminished expectations in watching something on TV where it doesn't have to be such an exclusive focus of attention.  But it seemed to me that the plot-line of HSM 2 was a little more universal in its appeal or use of archetype (rich v poor, etc.) than HSM 3.  HSM 2 has a little less music in it, perhaps because the made-for-TV sequel had a little less of a budget.  But I thought the baseball diamond dance in #2 was head and shoulders above anything in #3 in its creativity and verve and joy, and I'd say the same for the finale as well.

Lucas Grabeel in turn has as small role in...

Milk.  Seen Thursday Evening, November 20, 2008 at the Landmark Sunshine, Aud. #1, part of the Variety Screening Series.  3 Slithy Toads.

This is a film that's been getting some rave reviews from far and wide, and which along with Slumdog Millionaire has been leading an end-of-year box office resurgence in specialty films.  I like it perhaps a little less than a lot of the critics.

The story of Harvey Milk is a very powerful one, and this is at least the third time it's being put before us, following on the book The Mayor of Castro Street by Randy Shilts and the excellent documentary The Times of Harvey Milk.  An emigre to San Francisco from New York City, Harvey Milk organized the gay community in the Castro District of San Francisco, won a spot on SF's city council (well, they don't call it that, but...), and was then martyred along with Mayor George Moscone by a former member of the Council who subsequently helped bring national attention to the Twinkie Defense.  Moscone has a convention center named after him, but Milk's mark on US politics will likely endure longer.

This movie is directed by Gus Van Sant, who's been kind of all over the place in his career.  I'm very fond of  his Good Will Hunting (and in my usual way I could bore you with my "the night I saw..." story but won't right now), I regret not seeing his Columbine-inspired Elephant in addition to the interesting Zero Day, Drugstore Cowboy was a pioneering indie flick, but other movies of his like Paranoid Park and Last Days are elegiac odes to elegism that are acquired tastes at best.  

While Milk benefits from an amazing performance in the title role by Sean Penn and other excellent performances by Vincent Garber at Mayor Moscone and Josh Brolin as Supervisor Dan White, it suffers because it has in miniature some of the same tensions in intent that have kind of bedeviled Van Sant's career as a whole.  There's a little hint of this in the opening minutes of the movie, where you've got some very Van-Sant-y shots of gays in the Castro that are there for atmosphere but which have a little too much of the artsy-fartsy skateboarding scenes from Paranoid Park in them.  And then as the movie progresses, Van Sant can't decide whether to cater to or ignore the most conventional cliches of the biopic.

So Lucas Grabeel from HSM 3 is playing the role of Danny Nicoletta, who in real life was an important associate of Harvey Milk's but in terms of this movie (at least as it survived the editing process; I don't know what we have in the script) has hardly any role at all.  There's so little of this performance in the movie that I'd have to say it should have been deleted entirely, consolidated with some other character, something or anything other than what happened to it.  That's the kind of consolidation that happens a lot in biopics or sports movies because you want to make them dramatic and therefore do in your "based on a true story" movie the same kinds of things I might ask authors to do in tightening their novels.  Take two secondary characters that are weak, make a strong one out of them.  Van Sant doesn't want to do that here because he and the screenwriter are trying to be very true to the historic record.  Alas, just as in a novel the time and space and lines and itty bitty pieces of screen time devoted to this character with little import to the story of this movie end up taking time and space and lines and pieces of screen time away from other characters who are more important to the movie's story, and so to me the movie is weakened.  Goodness knows we could have wished for more of an effort to define Milk's relationship with Jack Lira.

And yet at other times Van Sant can't avoid some biopic cliches.  Is it really the case that there was a memorial service for Milk in city hall with all of three people attending at the exact same time that 30,000 people were marching from the Castro to city hall?  That's the way it's portrayed in this movie, where we see a couple of Milk's colleagues saying "oh, look, nobody cares," only to add dramatic heightening to them walking outside and seeing the candle-lit marchers spreading miles down Market Street, with of course some of the other major characters hand-in-hand in the front row.  Cue tears now.  In other places in the movie, Van Sant uses actual historical footage, including a scene of Diane Feinstein, now a Senator from California, announcing the news of the deaths of the Mayor and of Milk.  Here, I would have found archival footage of the memorial march to be more moving than the Hollywood recreation of it.

People should see Milk.  Many more people will find out about Milk's story courtesy of this movie than ever would by reading Randy Shilts or seeing the documentary, and that's a fact.  Sean Penn's performance is very good.  Josh Brolin's is very good, and that's a fact.  But I did see the Times of Harvey Milk, over 20 years ago in MLB 3 at the University of Michigan when the campus rep circuit hadn't yet lost out to the VCR, and in my memory that was a 4 toad movie that got me a lot more teary-eyed than today's Milk does, and even though I recommend Milk, I can't help but think you'd all be better  off finding your way to the documentary.

My Fair Weather Friend

Rather to my dismay, I have discovered that my Amazon Kindle is a bit of a fair weather friend, not as up to the rigors of wintertime as I might wish.  I first noticed several weeks ago while Kindling on a walk to Costco that the refreshing of the pages got a little bit sluggish.  Instead of a kind of "flash" from one page to the next, you had the image of both the old and new pages overlapping.  That also means you can't time as well for hitting the next page button a line or two from the bottom because you can't read either page when they're superimposed.  I came to realize that this was because the Kindle did not like even a moderately chilly 40 degree temperature.  The offical specs in the fine print of the manual say it works from 32 degrees, but it's safe to say there's need of an asterisk.  It might work, but start to get below 45, and it's going to show some degradation in its performance.  Seattle doesn't have some of the temperature extremes we have in New York, so maybe the people at Amazon don't need to worry about using at the Bellevue Transit Center while waiting for Sound Transit to wisk them to their office downtown, but anyone wanting to Kindle on the LIRR platform at Woodside in mid-January may want to do a rethink.

Beyond that, the specs say that the device can be stored at temperatures upward of 14 degrees.  That might be as generous as saying it works above freezing.  We had a couple of cold days in NYC a week ago, one with temperatures in the 20-30 degree range.  I knew better at this point than to try reading on my Kindle, but I did have it in the back pocket of my backpack while I was walking around.  Come Tuesday, I couldn't get the battery to fully recharge.  The charging light would stay on and on and on, and within five minutes of starting to read the device went from having four battery charge lights (of 4) to being down to 3.  After a couple of days the battery unfroze and has been charging and drawing down as it's supposed to.

I've already gotten used to the fact that I have to adjust my reading for the possibility of rainy weather, but for the next two months it looks like I'm going to have to spend a lot of time planning around having a useless piece of plastic in just about any outdoor waiting situation.  I'm not happy about this, and I think it's a significant enough issue that Amazon may want to reconsider its official specs for the device and maybe be a little more forthright about discussing weather issues in its marketing.  This would not be a good holiday gift for your friends in Wasilla.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

German Wheat, Winter Crop

The Reader, Seen Wednesday evening December 3, 2008, at Landmark's Sunshine, Aud. #1, as part of the Variety Screening Series.  3 Slithy Toads.  

Good, Seen Wednesday evening December 10, 2008, at Landmark's Sunshine, Aud. #1, as part of the Variety Screening Series.  1.5 Slithy Toads.

So I've gotten to spend the past two Wednesdays in WWII.  

The Reader, which stars Kate Winslet, Ralph Fiennes and a very talented young German actor named David Kross, is a rather meditative movie about the aftermath of the war and of Nazi Germany.  It draws on questions of guilt, innocence and redemption, it goes places where not too many other movies on the subject go, and while not successful in all ways and every way is nonetheless a film that grew on me as it went along.

Good is a more prosaic piece of work set during the thick of the Nazi reign from the early and mid 1930s thru to 1942.  It stars Viggo Mortensen as an academic who is roped into the SS at the possible expense of his friendship with a German Jew.  Based on the Q&A afterward, it's too much one of those movies Samuel Goldwyn was talking about in his famous quote "If you want to send a message, call Western Union."  It's a movie with a message, but not really with a purpose.

There's no denying Viggo Mortensen's talent as an actor.  As was the case here, I was able courtesy of the Museum of the Moving Image to see screenings of two earlier films of his, Eastern Promises and A History of Violence.  We've all seen him in The Lord of the Rings.  I also saw him in Appaloosa, another 1.5 toader.  His range and variety in all is quite stunning, to the extent that you'd hardly know it's him in Appaloosa if you didn't stay around for the credits.  This isn't his best performance, or maybe he's just putting on a show that doesn't interest me.  He seems to be channeling his inner William Hurt, doing a kind of mousy performance with bad glasses that reminded me of Hurt in The Doctor or other movies of his from twenty-some years back.  He's scared when he's called in to an interview in the German chancellory, and then relieved to discover that their interest in him is purely professional.  He's written a novel that dealt with right to die issues, which dovetails nicely with Hitler's idea on euthanasia, and thus is enlisted to write a paper on ethics that can be used to guide party actions on this issue.  But you know, if they're going to have him do this maybe it would be good of him to join the party, which he kind of forgot to do because he wasn't happy about book burning and his mother was ill and his marriage was breaking up on account of his relationship with a young student and etc. etc. etc.  So he joins the party, becomes a good soldier, slowly becomes more of a Nazi without ever fully becoming one or ever fully realizing what he's doing.  He has a Jewish friend played by Jason Isaacs (wow, I wish I'd known before I'd gone to the movie where he and Viggo were the 2 Q&Aers that he's been playing Lucius Malfoy in the Harry Potter movies) who is worried about what's happening and wants to get out and hopes his friend Viggo can help.  But Viggo doesn't realize how important it is until the eve of Kristallnacht when it's kind of too late and he has to rely on his student lover wife who everyone except him knows won't want to help the Jew, and it isn't until he gets to a concentration camp in 1942 that he finally realizes what he's gotten involved with, at which point the movie ends.

This is all Very Worthy.  But unfortunately the idea of somebody joining the Nazis unwllingly and then getting into it has been done before.  I think first in that subject of the underrated movie Swing Kids.  The movie is fraught with complication to make up for its absence of same so we get scenes of the tubercular and dementia-suffering mother being cared for and of the book burning and of other things that aren't entirely on point.  During the Q&A Jason Isaacs talked about how we had this thing going in the US with torturing people and tapping their phones, and what was he doing about it but being very upset at dinner parties, and a little of that as well from Viggo Mortensen, but all of their worthy intentions don't make this a worthwhile movie to see.  I'm not fond of the Bush administration's balance of civil liberties and securities needs, and I've limited my actions on that front similarly (well, I've also ranted against hotels asking for photo ID and made scenes at front desks about it, for all that's done), and I've called Rudy Giuliani a fascist but not to his face.  But it seems to me the slippery slope has to get a lot steeper still before I'd call the US a Nazi regime, and making this movie as a Lesson To Us All doesn't make it for me.

All that being said, Jason Isaacs may give the best performance in the movie.  Mortensen doesn't do it for me here, his mother is a caricature of a person with dementia, the two main women seem to be channeling Katharine Hepburn, and maybe if 20 years ago she had played the mother with dementia and William Hurt had played the academic this would have been a movie worth seeing.

The Reader was rather better, I think.

David Kross starts the movie as a 15-year-old stricken with scarlet fever while returning from school one day, and the moment we see our first glimpse of him on screen, it's clear that he has It, that indefinable It that you find very early on in Tom Cruise's career or that Shia LaBeouf radiates.  Granted as the camera pans along the bus where he's getting ill we are supposed to find him because he's one of the stars of the movie, but it's not just some cinematographer's extra bit of spotlight that makes him leap out at you.  The fact that he has It is a very good thing, because he is given succor and helped on his way home by Kate Winslet, several years older than he and a tram conductor, and following his months of recovery from his illness he returns to thank Winslet, and the two are instantly having quite a lavish sex thing going with one another.  Kate Winslet (Titanic, you know) isn't the kind of person we'd want to see having torrid underage sex with somebody who doesn't have It.  In any case, he and Daniel Brühl are my German actors to watch.

Perhaps the author of The Reader was inspired by Bull Durham, in which Susan Sarandon likes to read Walt Whitman as foreplay.  Here it's the reverse.  Kate Winslet likes to have David Kross read to her, and then they have sex and read more, and there are far worse things to do than watch 15 minutes of the two of them with little clothes on having sex and doing the live in person book-on-tape thing.This is not as good for the very middle class parents and siblings of David Kross who are mostly ignored for the period of time that this relationship endures, and he is not very happy when she suddenly disappears and he is forced to return home and be bourgeois instead of a matinee idol.

Spoilers follow:  Several years later Kross is in law school, and his class attends a trial of several women accused of being SS guards in Auschwitz.  In the final days of the war, trying to march some of the prisoners ahead of the allied troops, they house 300 of them in a church one night, the church catches fire, the guards refuse to let the prisoners out, almost all of them die in the fire.  And guess who was one of the guards, none but the character of Hanna Schmitz played by Winslet.  She is terribly unrepentant of her acts, not of leaving her department store job to join the SS, not of her selection of prisoners to go to the gas chambers, not of her decision not to unlock the church doors.  And the kind of scary thing is that her arguments on all three accounts almost sound reasonable.  But they're reasonable in the way of a fifth grader, the kinds of arguments that make perfect sense and are utterly logical so long as they're utterly divorced from any moral component or any depth of thought beyond the utmost blind adherence to rules.  

Kross is rather shaken to see his high school sex partner in this new light, and reluctant on those grounds alone to mention any connection between he and the accused to his classmates or his professor.  But there's more to it than that.  There's a kind of Sixth Sense moment in the movie where we and Kross realize something about Winslet's character, which I deduced fractionally ahead of the reveal.  Why in the movie does Winslet have Kross read to her?  And why in my review have I referred to her rationalizations as being those of a child?  Can you figure out something about what Hanna Schmitz can and cannot do in her life?  When Schmitz/Winslet confesses to something to her detriment and to the benefit of her co-defendants that she clearly could not have done, Kross is totally shaken about what to do.  Does he speak up to her benefit and his detriment?  Does he remain silent himself, as silent as all those who Knew what was happening during the War but chose not to speak up?  

Some years pass, and the adult version of Kross' character is now a lawyer with a daughter from a failed marriage who is played by Ralph Fiennes (and we've seen Fiennes and know this, the movie is a kind of memory play relayed in flashback from the adult version).  Fiennes takes up a correspondence with Winslet in prison, and becomes virtually her only link to the outside world.  The nature of their correspondence ties in to the reveal about the character during the trial.  

I wasn't inclined to like this movie from the start.  While I did like Kross very much, there was a whiff of starchy literary adaptation to the film (the critic in The Village Voice would say more than that).  Even worse, having the switch from Ralph Fiennes scenes to Daniel Kross scenes did not work at all for me because the two just don't look like the twenty-something and fifty-something versions of the same character.  Kross himself is only 18 (shooting had to be rearranged so some of the steamier scenes could be filmed after his 18th birthday), and as he's asked to play a character very much older than himself there's something about that transition that removed  little bit of his It factor.  Winslet does much better playing a character at many different ages, but I think it goes without saying that it would be easier to play from 20 to 80 if you're 30 or 40 than if you're 20 or 90.   But when the film gets into the trial and into the ethical meat of its story it gained strength and power.  When in the last third or quarter of the movie we are with Fiennes alone as the older version of the character, I was no longer distracted by the poor match between the young and old.  Evidence of this is the fact that I've come to some realizations of my own about the movie as I've been chewing it over while writing this post that are deeper and more layered than even what I'd felt a week ago while watching the movie and thinking on it immediately thereafter, and that to me is a sign of a film that has some sticking power to it.

Sydney Pollack and Anthony Minghella were producers on the movie, and both passed away during the development process.  Both had a tendency to stuff their turkeys a little too much, especially when doing literary adaptations, Pollack with Out of Africa and Minghella with The English Patient and Cold Mountain (his Talented Mr. Ripley on the other hand was quite good).  Minghella was originally supposed to direct but ultimately passed the baton to Stephen Daldry, whose film credits include Billy Elliot and The Hours.  I'm glad of this.  I think this film would have brought out the worst in Minghella.  Daldry got a little bit starchy but ultimately gave enough life to the film and material to make it surprisingly good, and much better for the whole of it than I might have thought from the first 15 minutes.  I would recommend.

A worthy reminder that even stupid questions may have merit:  during the Q&A somebody asked which of the two characters left the relationship (it was obvious that Winslet had walked out on Kross) and why.  The answer given to the why tied in to the reveal during the trial and something that was going to happen at Winslet's day job that would have revealed sooner.  It was obvious in retrospect, and Winslet during the Q&A gave one of those "struggling to be polite" responses.  But... as I thought about it further the gap between Winslet's leaving and us getting the reveal during the trial was more than long enough for the connection to be rather hard to draw without having it specifically pointed out, and if not for this "stupid" question being asked I think I might have gone through life thinking "well, she just left, and who knows why."

Saturday, December 6, 2008

The Sound of Music

Maybe the Borders web site would have more customers if it came with a Mute button?

No Shame, No Gain

So Dec. 5 was the day when Merrill Lynch and Bank of America shareholders voted on BofA's purchase of Merrill.  I had a vested interest in this.  For my bar mitzvah I'd gotten 2 shares of Merrill Lynch, and with dividend reinvestment over the years I'd accumulated a few dozen shares that a year or two ago were actually worth something and by today really not very much.  And I consider myself lucky because I'm ending up with a much better deal than if I'd gotten two shares of  Lehman Bros.

I'm not happy with the management of Merrill.  E. Stanley O'Neal has watched whatever stock he had drop in value just like the rest of us, but he made salary and bonus in the tens of millons of dollars for years of profits under his watch that have all but disappeared in a sea of black ink and write-offs.  

But here's the thing.  You know how many directors of Merrill Lynch showed up at the stockholder meeting where the vote took place?  According to this article from Bloomberg news, one.  One.  Bank of America did a tad better, with two of their directors willing to take any credit for buying Merrill.  To me, this says something pretty awful about the state of moral accountibility in America right now, that you can take home a $265K board retainer for a year when the stock of the company you run has lost 80% of its value, and you don't even think for that much money you can show up for the funeral a half hour of lectures from the shareholders.  Is there no shame?  Any sense of decency or responsibility or accountability?  It makes me sick.