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.

Saturday, February 28, 2009

Peeling the layers

Which sign of the apocalypse is it when the 2nd best newspaper in New York City might now be The Onion?

Many years ago I used to buy multiple newspapers every Friday to devour movie reviews and see what was going on in the weekend, and I'd cart around hundreds of pages of newsprint quite happily.  In the early years of JABberwocky I cut back a bit on how often I'd buy papers but would still decamp to the Sunnyside branch of the Queens library and read my Newsday, Post and Daily News.  Now I get my NY Times home delivered, and get the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post sent to my Kindle, and whatever's left in the NY tabloids I just don't much care about any more.  There's less and less news in any of them.  The San Francisco Chronicle wasn't much even several years ago when Worldcon was held in San Jose, and at this point it's probably so devoid of content that I don't know if it would be missed should Hearst kill it.  

The long and short of all of this is that I've been missing the smell of napalm, um, newsprint, in the morning, and not entirely happy that I've gone from having 4 or 5 reviews of a new movie to maybe 2 or 3, and since the Onion has this nice AV Club section I've decided to start picking it up 2 or 3 times a month.  And of course the news in the Onion isn't real, but it's darned funny.

I had to share this with my fellow comic book fans, because it's LOL funny.

The Shining is one of my favorite all-time movies, so you must click so we can discuss  And discuss forever, and ever, and ever.  The last line of the article is deadpan perfection.

My f0rmer assistant Steve, I think he hung out with this guy when he was grabbing his last smoke before our 2008 flight to London Book Fair.

All this, and I get some good film reviews to boot.

Only problem:  they have lots to say about the Kindle, but they don't seem to be aware of its problems with cold weather.

What Can Brown Do For Me?

Well, for starters, brown could deliver packages to my apartment when I'm sitting in it.

When I was working at Scott Meredith a long long time ago, I used to think UPS was the most wonderful thing in the world.  Vinnie the driver would cheerfully come by day in and day out bearing packages and it seemed to be the model of efficiency.

Working out of my home office, I have generally come to loathe and detest UPS.

Today I was expecting a new toner cartridge for my photocopier.  UPS says they couldn't deliver it at 3:36 PM because nobody was around.  The only thing is, I was sitting at my desk at 3:36 PM.  So why don't I have my package?  I don't even have an InfoNotice that should have been lurking in the lobby.

And this is not the first time this has happened.  Phantom delivery attempts are a frequent occurence.  This is the second package this year with a phantom delivery attempt. 

In December, UPS managed to deliver my new kitchen faucet to somebody else somewhere else not even in my apartment building.  The driver successfully retrieved it the next day.  It had been opened, but I think all the parts were intact.

Even when they deliver packages, well...  Vinnie always seemed to show up around the same time every workday.  For your home office, maybe UPS will show up at 6:38 PM one day, and then at 12:16 PM the next.  That makes it really easy to plan around waiting for a package.

They have this wonderful web site, and at least in the modern age many good businesses will send you the tracking # so you can watch UPS screw up in real time.  But bottom line is this:  if I'm sitting in my home office from 9AM in the morning to 6:30 at night, UPS should somehow manage to get a package to me.  No 3:36 and nobody was home BS.

And as a general rule when I call their toll-free number, I just don't ever get the impression that they really give a hoot that they can't master the simple art of getting a package to me when I'm sitting around waiting for it.

In all fairness, the Post Office manages to screw up, but at least if something doesn't get to my PO Box I don't have to sit around from 10AM to 7PM waiting for it not to arrive like it should during this long delivery window.  Fed Ex manages to screw up, but I feel as if they show just a little bit more love when you complain.  And there are e-mails that disappear into cyberspace and spam filters.  There's no foolproof way except maybe a phone call where you actually speak to someone to get information from here to there, and these days there's generation 200X that doesn't believe in using the telephone.  But when I think about Vinnie swinging by the offices at 845 Third Ave., there's something particularly disillusioning about the fact that brown manages to do so danged little for me.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

The Good The Bad & The Ugly

Midnight Eastern.  This was a very good Oscar telecast.  Not perfect.  Curtain over screen doesn't want to open, the Heath Ledger and Memoriam things.  But awfully danged good.  3:30 from beginning to the end of the credit roll, which is not bad at all for an Oscar telecast.  They did it tight while recognizing that the telecast isn't long and boring because of the acceptance speeches which the producers have no control over and which thus must be kept to 30 seconds max but rather because of the things they do have control over.  So Jerry Lewis didn't have the longest Hersholt presentation, perhaps sometimes they've actually gone on too long.  The acting awards were presented in a new and different way that lasted no much longer than if they had given that same time to the usual 30 second film clip, but this seemed much nicer and more affecting, in part because actors many of them don't lack for ego and this allowed them all to have it indulged for a few seconds.  Which made them happier.  Which made the show more interesting.  One production number did not work, but one worked very well.  They played to Hugh Jackman's strengths, but didn't give him much to do.  Maybe that's a good thing.  When you've got so much star power do you need to have a host appearing every so often to do a little host stuff just for the sake of having a host?  It doesn't hurt that you'll know from reading the pre-show and seeing the winners that I was by and large happy with them.  This makes the evening more pleasant for me than when some movie I hate is rolling up the statuettes.  Though a good telecast like this would certainly make even that evening a more enjoyable one.  So a good evening.  Jai Ho!  Jai Ho!  Jai Ho!  The Brillig Blogger, signing off.  WIll watch some of the press room and party happenings on E, try and finish my Washington Post, and the work day is just ten short hours away.

11:55.  It Is Written.  Slumdog Millionaire.  Color me happy.

11:50.  I love the way they're doing the Best Picture montage.  As you know from my film reviews a good movie makes you reflect on other good movies.  I think of other special experiences in that theatre, that actor, even that score as the lush one for Defiance reminds me of The Village.  They're getting that across in this montage, and it's wonderful.

11:43.  If memory serves Sean Penn and Robert De Niro were in We're No Angels.  A worthy win in a category with some rich competition.  Penn's performance is I think better than the film itself.  Gus Van Sant previously helped Matt Damon and Ben Affleck to an Oscar for best screenplay in Good Will Hunting, so this is the 2nd time he's done the trick for one of his screenwriters.  Which is not too shabby.  They're cutting less to Van Sant than to the screenwriter Dustin Lance Black who seems really moved to be watching this take place.  Other audience note, the pleasure Dev Patel seems to be taking in simply being in the crowd for this evening.  He's only 18, and here he is in the front rows of the Oscars watching life's rich pageant march by in front of him.  I'm glad he's enjoying it.  These moments are very very special.

11:32.  And I am so very glad to have Kate Winslet winning for The Reader.  It's a very good performance full of ambiguity, and it's nice to see the film winning a statue, which may help keep people seeing it for many years to come on 30 days of Oscar on TMC.  

11:31.  Nicole Kidman is looking a little too white; the dress blends into her skin.  She and Mickey Rourke should go out afterward.

11:23.  There's a very nice J. C. Penney in Queens Center mall, one of the biggest in the country.  I like Penneys because they have sections with shirts, and sections with pants, so if you want to buy a pair of pants you can go to the pants section.  At Macy's they have the this-designer boutique and the that-designer boutique and the other-designer boutique, and you have to go wandering all over from boutique to boutique to find a pair of pants.  I don't like that idea very much.  Could you imagine if your supermarket had the Kraft aisle and the Nestle aisle and the Procter & Gamble aisle and you had to wander all of them and remember which food conglomerate made that brand of shampoo or mustard that you really liked?

11:22.  Danny Boyle forgot to include the name of the person who choreographed the dance in the credits?  None of us are perfect, but talk about oversights.  Anna Paquin may not have mentioned Charlaine Harris in accepting her Golden Globe.  People make omissions.

11:15.  I don't mind having a person sing during the In Memorium section.  I do mind having the memorials floating hither and yon and back and forth on the screen so that some of the images and names are shrunken onto a fraction of the screen and you feel as if you need to walk up two inches from the screen and press your eyes against the glass to read the name.  If Khan could see how hard it was to see Ricardo Montalban during the montage, he would certainly exhibit some Wrath.  

11:07.  Departures?  Did that play in New York City?  At least it wasn't The Class.  Though for the record my eldest brother who is a media specialist in a Ct. public school liked The Class very much and disagreed most strenuously with my review of it, posted on blog yesterday.  

11:03.  If I'd known how many nice Coke commercials there were going to be, maybe I would've had a caffeine free diet instead of the Whole Foods Root Beer.  Too late, though.  Before I saw Taken last night, there was a wonderful Coke commercial in the theatre that updates the Mean Joe Green giving the kid the jersey ad in a most pleasant and delightful way.  

11:01.  Jai Ho!  Jai Ho!  Jai Ho!  It was a nice production #, and another nice win.  Did I tell you how I think the end dance in Slumdog Millionaire is perhaps the best dance number to end a movie in over twenty years, since I saw Dirty Dancing?  Oh, I did.  Just seven minutes ago?  You're sure?  Oh, well, some things bear repeating.  

10:54.  A. R. Rahman wins for Slumdog.  No problems here.  I love the dance # at the end of the movie.  It's the best way to exit a theatre since Baby was taken out of her corner by Johnny Castle at the end of Dirty Dancing.  (Of course, in both cases one should actually not exit until after staying for the end credits, so maybe these endings are the best way to prepare for watching the end credits.)

10:44 & the one movie I know him from I don't think they even showed in the surprisingly short montage.  In years past it seems to me the winner of the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award has benefited from a much longer and lavish and more clip-filled introduction than this.

10:41.  Eddie Murphy.  Good choice to present this award.  Will anyone under 20 recognize him when he isn't wearing his fat suit from Norbit or hiding behind Donkey?  I'm neutral on the subject of Jerry Lewis, because I've just not seen very many of his movies.  The only one I could point to offhand that I know I've seen is Scorcese's The King of Comedy.

10:37.  I'd seen this Tide Total Care commercial for the first time a few nights ago, maybe while I was watching Friday Night Lights.  It's a very very good commercial.  I still have a large portion of a very big Costco-size Tide to work my way thru, however, so I won't be buying another detergent, Total Care of Wheaties Care or any other care, any time soon.

10:35.  Slumdog wins for editing.  Not a tough category.  Slumdog is a heckuva good piece of filmmaking, and the editing is a huge part of that.  Watching a 2nd time and focusing more on the cutting of the chase sequence from the airport, you appreciate just how good the cutting on this movie is.  

10:31.  Slumdog Millionaire wins for Sound Mixing.  Watching the clips I realize how tough a category this is.  Wall-E has its merits, Wanted, Dark Knight.  Now thinking cynically, if you cut to Josh Brolin and Robert Downey Jr. looking sadly contemplative as Heath Ledger's family speaks, is it on behalf of Heath Ledger, or on behalf of having to run against him this year?  On behalf of Heath, I'm sure.  But this decision not to try and find people who'd actually worked with him is still nagging at me. 

10:27.  Benjamin Button wins for Visual Effects.  This, art direction, makeup.  Such great art in the service of such mediocrity.  Salieri salutes you.

10:22. Great commercial for Jimmy Kimmel Live.  Five stars.  Also five stars for this sentence from a Washington Post article on texting:  "There is a cost when people multitask -- "a kind of a mental brownout," said Meyer, the professor at the University of Michigan. If a teenager is reading Shakespeare when a text message interrupts, "Hamlet's going to fade in and out in a ghostly fog."  Go Blue!

10:15.  Man on Wire wins for Best Documentary.  Sadly, to me a better concept than it was a picture.  Though since it's the only one of the films I've seen I guess I can't complain.  And the acceptance speech with magic and balancing acts is much better than the movie.  If you want to see a good documentary, add My Architect to your Netflix queue.

10:11.  So even though Heath Ledger was widely considered a shoo-in, his family is as far back on nominee Siberia as the winner for animated short...  It's touching to see the expressions on people's faces during the acceptance speech, but to me also something missing because they're largely showing all of the celebrities they've been showing.  Were there any people in the auditorium who might have worked with Heath Ledger for whom the moment might have meant something even more than it meant to Robert Downey Jr. and Josh Brolin?  This is a miscue to me.

9:59.  Ryan Reynolds, Sandra Bullock, The Proposal.  June 12.  Looks good.  The Maytag Repairman was once played by Gordon Jump, who played Chief of Police Tinkler in Soap, which is one of my favorite TV shows of all time.  30 years ago he was in WKRP.

9:57.  The musical WAS back.  Until this production #.  If only they'd added a 4th couple, and had Rob Lowe and Cinderella singing next to Zac and Vanessa from HSM.

9:53.  Actually I went to the frig to start in on one of my special Oscar treats, a can of 365 Brand Root Beer from Whole Foods, which is very good and deserves the high ranking it got in a NY Times root beer review article last year.  & now do I watch this production #, or read more Washington Post.  I guess I'll watch the production # so I know why all the jaws will be dropped in the morning.

9:47.  Even with the thrust stage, the winner for Live Action Short still has to get to the stage from nominee seating Siberia.  If only one of them could sing and dance, could have filled in for Anne Hathaway in the opening.... Hmmmmmm....  And yet another commercial break.  A lot of those recently.  Back to the Washington Post on my Kindle.

9:35.  Nice Coke commercial, glad to have a Cinematography win for Slumdog.

9:17.  No surprise, really, for Benjamin Button to win for Art Direction. But I'd rather it hadn't.  During the commercial break I started reading what looks like a really good article in the Washington Post about the path of a Guantanamo detainee from prison to suicide bomber in Iraq.  You may need to register to read, but feel free to click here.

9:01.  And no complaints on Slumdog Millionaire.  Modest preference here for me for The Reader, but Slumdog is a very good movie.  A very good movie.  

8:54  Maybe I'd have seen Happy go Lucky if I'd known it had a shout-out to Roger Penrose, another client of my UK agent John Richard Parker at the Zeno Agency.  Is John watching at 2AM Greenwich time to know that Roger Penrose has just gotten a shout-out on the Oscar telecast?  This was a tough category for me without a real favorite, so I may as well be glad that Milk has won an Oscar.  In Bruges wasn't likely to win, Joshua.  Really, honest.  So let's be very glad for Dustin Lance Black.

8:52.  30 years ago would anyone have known what "blinking cursor on a blank screen" meant, and yet the actual sketch is being done with something that sounds a lot mre like a typewriter...

8:47.  I'm happy with the win for Penelope Cruz.  I can't believe I'm typing this, but as I posted earlier in the day it's a nice recognition for Woody Allen's best film in years for a role that was revelatory to me.  I'm liking the first 20 minutes.

8:43.  Eva Marie Saint was a clue in today's NY Times crossword puzzle.  Did they know?

8:23  while they interview Richard Jenkins, I wonder if the Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory in the entryway to the theater is open, and if there are candy apples for all who successfully complete the red carpet circuit.  I mean, if I could get free popcorn and soda from HBO at the True Blood premiere, can't an Oscar attendee get a candy apple?

8:20 PM EST.  A nice accounting montage to greet the men with the winning envelopes.  Meryl  and Penelope look pretty swell.

8:15 PM.  Egads.  Mickey Rourke's outfit is one of the most gadawful ugliest things ever known to mankind.  A segue from the charming tableaux of the entire Slumdog Millionaire cast walking down the carpet with director Danny Boyle, the young actors looking very snazzy in tuxes (but isn't making kids so young get jazzed up in tuxes the worst kind of abuse Hollywood can afflict), to Mickey Rourke looking like somebody who's just emerged from a time capsule in which he was watching John Travolta in Urban Cowboy for 23 years straight is a segue so awful it can only be called a Segway or a segueway or most accurately an abomination.  I hope has a spare outfit waiting inside the Kodak Theatre.

the pre-Oscar

Having now seen The Class and Frozen River, I've seen pretty much an Oscar nommed movie I'm intending to see and blogged accordingly.  Best Picture is less than a day away.  It's time to talk some about the nominations and go on record before the envelopes are opened.

I've seen "only" 85ish movies that opened in 2008, but that does include virtually every feature-length film with an Oscar nomination, except I think a total of 4 noms for these 4 films: The Duchess; Hellboy 2; Happy-go-Lucky; and The Visitor.  I walked out on Kung Fu Panda.  Some films I may have been more awake for than others.  Some of the films I might have skipped if not for the Variety Screening Series.  I'm pretty certain I'd have skipped The Wrestler, and I may have caught The Reader only reluctantly after the nominations were announced.  I'm so glad Melissa Leo got a Best Actress nom for Frozen River, giving me an excuse to see a movie I'd missed, instead of Kristen Scott Thomas in I Loved You So Long which I'd quite happily missed and am glad not to have felt any obligation to see.

My best films of 2008:  Stop Loss, The Dark Knight, Tropic Thunder, Rachel Getting Married, Wanted, Tell No One, Slumdog Millionaire, The Reader and Defiance.  Vicky Cristina Barcelona was Woody Allen's best movie in years but I'm not sure good enough to be 10th on my ten best.  I really enjoyed Eagle Eye and Role Models as well.  

So of the films contending for Best Picture, the conventional wisdom has the battle between Benjamin Button and Slumdog, and Slumdog will almost certainly win.  The voters pay attention to box office, and Benjaminin Button has faded badly even with the benefit of all of its Oscar noms while Slumdog has been thriving.  I've seen Slumdog twice myself, I liked it equally as much the second time around, and I won't complain if it wins.

But I do wish more consideration were being given to The Reader.  I mentioned when I blogged on it how there were layers apparent a week after the movie that hadn't been when I saw it, and that sense has only grown.  Think Lynndie England.  Her existence:   working cashier at IGA and nights in a chicken processing factory.  Joining the US Army Reserve is a way to better herself, to serve her country, to do good and do right. She ends up doing horrible things at Abu Ghraib, court-martialled, in jail, almost certainly as a result of policies that came down from much higher levels than herself.  Well, that's somewhat like the character Kate Winslet is playing in The Reader.  When she's on trial for her role as a concentration camp guard who watched while hundreds of her charges died in a fire in the waning days of WWII, she asks the judge what he would have done when the Nazis came looking for people and she left her job at Siemen's (a German department store) to join.  The Reader makes you think.  It brings you face to face with unpleasant thoughts.  It deserves its Best Picture nomination, Kate Winslet is hugely deserving of hers for Best Actress, and you should see it.  

And then there's Benjamin Button, that doesn't deserve much Oscar l0ve at all; and Frost/Nixon and Milk which deserve to go at it in Best Actor and offer merits beyond, but which don't make my Best of 2008 list.  You can dig into mu archives for December and January to read more.  Let's just say for Best Actor that I'm glad not to have to choose between Frank Langella and Sean Penn, who both do brilliant work.  Wisdom says the Oscar goes to Mickey Rourke for The Wrestler, and I hope not.  Best Actress is also a hard category to make a selection in.  I may have enjoyed Angelina Jolie more in Wanted than in Changeling, and Meryl Streep in Doubt does good work but not so good as to deserve another trophy for it.  But Anne Hathaway is brilliant in Rachel Getting Married, Melissa Leo brilliant in Frozen River, and Kate Winslet brilliant in The Reader.  I reckon I'll root for Winslet just because I'd like the movie to pick up a prominent win to help get more people to see it, and if that happens it will pain me more on Anne  Hathaway's account than Melissa Leo's.  What a wonderful category full of great performances.

Best Supporting Actor is another category full of great performances.  I wasn't so fond of Michael Shannon in Revolutionary Road, a movie I didn't like much.  The fact that he is nominated frustrates me some.  Shannon's performance is another demonstration of the power of playing retard, doing "the full retard" as Robert Downey Jr. calls it in his wonderful turn in the hilarous Tropic Thunder.  So why isn't there some actor somewhere who hasn't realized his path to an Oscar nomination lay in playing the role of Lou Arrendale in the film version of Elizabeth Moon's THE SPEED OF DARK.  Why hasn't this been filmed, or at least come a lot closer than it has?  My business is going very well right now, but this film thing with The Speed of Dark is one of my ongoing frustrations, and having Michael Shannon nominated for his awful overacting full retard performance in this movie stabs at me, kind of like the way Captain Kirk stabs at Khan.  Josh Brolin does good work in this category as well, and Phillip Seymour Hoffman does good work so often that it's hard to feel extra love for his performance in Doubt, though it is very very good.  I'm not as fond of the choices for Supporting Actress, but at least for me the most revelatory was Penelope Cruz's in Vicky Cristina Barcelona.  She has no chance of winning, but here's an actress I didn't mind at all after spending years minding her in just about everything, in the best Woody Allen movie in goodness knows how long.  

Can we give Best Director to Danny Boyle for Slumdog Millionaire please?  Ron Howard does very well with Frost/Nixon but not well enough to overcome the weakness of the play.  Benjamin Bad-don!  Gus Van Sant doesn't deserve a nominati0n for Milk.  Stephen Daldy deserves for The Reader, but as much as I like that movie Slumdog Millionaire is a great piece of filmmaking.

Bolt not so good, Kung Fu Panda worse, Wall-E wins by default even though it's not as good as the hooplah about it.  I'd like to get rid of this category.

The Dark Knight should win for Art Direction, though Changelings is also good.  But I suspect Benjamin Bad-don will take this category.  Cinematography is harder to get a handle on.  I think I'd select Dark Knight but Slumdog deserves serious consideration, and realistically so do the other nominees.  I rarely have any favorite for Costume Direction, but this year I'm pulling hard for a win for a movie I didn't like, in Revolutionary Road.  

Having just seen a second time, I can vouch that Slumdog Millionaire is a great piece of filmmaking so let's give it an Oscar for Editing!  I don't care about make-up or song, but score offers a great piece of film music in The Defiance and an offbeat and different approach in Slumdog.  

I'm not a real expert on Sound Stuff, but I'm glad to see two offbeat nominations for Wanted.  Wouldn't it be nice for that massively fun movie to be an Academy Award Winner for Sound Editing or Sound Mixing? 

Visual Effects:  Dark Knight!  

Adapted Screenplay is a tough call between The Reader and Slumdog.  Here I'd rather see The Reader win, because it cuts a lot deeper.  For Original Screenplay, In Bruges, but only by process of elimination.  The script is the weaker part of Frozen River.  Wall-E I don't like so much and the screenplay fails badly on some character motivation issues.  The screenplay for Milk deserves some of the blame for the film's odd choices in when to go Hollywood bio-pic cliche and when not. Happy-go-lucky is from a director I don't care for very much for a film I have no desire to see.  But, if Sean Penn isn't going to win for Best Actor, and if I'm going to think it would be nifty for Wanted to win an award just because, then I ought to want Milk to win an award just because, too.  Except deep down I don't think it has the best screenplay, or the best editing or costume design or director.  And Josh Brolin won't win against Heath Ledger.  So I'll go back up to Best Actor and start rooting hard for Sean Penn over Frank Langella.

Well, good or bad as the broadcast may be, I always love my Oscar night.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

It's Cold Out There!

Frozen River.  Seen Saturday afternoon February 14, 2009 at the Quad Cinema, Aud. #2.  2.5 slithy toads.

This was a movie which opened in August of last year to some solid reviews, especially for the lead performance by Melissa Leo, an actress mostly known for TV work but who ended up getting an Oscar nomination and just today winning the Spirit Award for her role here.  I was kind of interested, but August was a very very busy month and the movie wasn't at the top of my to-do list.  By the time I finally had time to actually see it, the movie was pretty much gone.  I was glad then that the movie did pick up 2 Oscar noms for screenplay and best actress, which led to a select re-release of the film, which gave me a second chance to see it.  

Since I'm on a theatre history kick, some background on the Quad Cinema, which opened way back in 1972 and was the first 4-screen theatre in NYC.  4 very small screens, 100-150 seats, with aisle down the center and no more than half a dozen seats to either side, not all that well raked, and not a lot of leg room.  For some reason I've always been more tolerant of this here than of the similarly unpleasant Lincoln Plaza Cinema, which I vowed never to go to again after a point and have pretty much kept to unless dragged along with family.  But the Quad I'll go to if I must.  I first went there in the winter of 1981/82 on a snowy day.  My mom and I went into NYC together, split up and went our separate ways, me to the Quad to see Prince of the City, and then I trudged back up to meet my mom at the Port Authority Bus Terminal for the return trip home.  My hands got very badly cracked that winter and were kind of at their worst then, and since I've used the occasional spritz of hand lotion during the dry winter months so it doesn't happen again.  In its heyday, the Quad was one of the few arthouse screens in Greenwich Village and in spite of its limitations could draw the occasional big crowd.  I remember waiting in line outside in 1986 to see the movie Housekeeping, and while I waited I read the Analog serialization of Falling Free by Lois McMaster Bujold.  Not too long thereafter the Angelika opened providing six somewhat more luxurious art cinemas downtown and the non-profit Film Forum relocated and started to compete for new releases.  While the Angelika also has aisles down the center and bad leg room, the theatres have more ceiling height and thus larger screens and are on balance much nicer places to see a movie.  But the Quad has survived.  It doesn't get the major first-run movies so much any more, but it does a steady enough business with gay interest films or more obscure but still somewhat of interest indie and foreign films as well as the occasional move-over of a mainstream or arthouse movie that's no longer welcome at the Regal Union Square or the Angelika.  I don't know if the Quad will last forever, but as of this writing it's one of the eldest surviving theatres in NY.  The Ziegfeld is older, the original 2 screens at the 64th & Second (aka Gemini), Cinema 2 at the original Cinema 1/2 complex (Cinema 1 was divided so doesn't count), the Paris, the AMC Loews 72nd St. (nee Loews Tower East) are the only movie theatres in Manhattan that I know from checking the weekend listings and Cinema Treasures that have been around as long or longer,  maybe the Imaginasian/DW Griffith and the City Cinemas 86th St. except that in changing from twin to quad possible it's another Cinema 1 situation where the screens aren't as they were in 1972 even if the theatre's still there, and we're not counting Radio City.  So of 10 screens that you might have gone to 36 years ago today in Manhattan, the Quad accounts for 4 of them.

Also of note about the Quad... if you remember those old drive-in things about going to the refreshment stands, there was a company called Pike Productions that chugged along for many years doing updated versions of them, and the Quad is one of the theatres that's pretty consistently shown one of them.  Alas it seems from the web site that Pike itself is now a redirect for another company doing that sort of thing.  Bummer!  But if you want a nice "Feature Presentation" thing for your home theatre click away at that link.

So that's where I saw Frozen River.  Melissa Leo is a mom with a 15-year-old and an elementary-school age boy and a gambling addict husband who's just run off taking the money that was intended to pay for a new double-wide prefab house to replace their old one in the cold snowy plains of upstate New York just across from Canada.  Her attempts to run down her husband put her in contact with a young woman from the Mohawk reservation nearby who smuggles illegals in from Canada to the US, and out of desperation the mom decides to get involved with the trade.  I'm vaguely annoyed that Courtney Hunt has garnered an Oscar nomination for her screenplay, because it's not particularly original or above the run of the mill amerindie in my eyes.  The foreshadowing gets to be obvious, and it's another of those movies where you know the lead character really shouldn't try for that one last bank robbery/stakeout/kiss/whatever and that it probably won't end up well.  But Melissa Leo's performance is a revelation.  She inhabits her character absolutely, totally, and completely, and makes her every act of desperation into something utterly believable and logical and with no other choice but.  Her fiercely honest performance helps to bulldoze over the limitations of the script in an above-and-beyond the call way.  It helps that Charlie McDermott is also quite good as her older son and Misty Upham as the young Mohawk.  McDermott seems to be channeling his inner Jesse Eisenberg from The Squid and the Whale, and that's a good thing.  Upham shares a lot of screen time with Leo, and it's a bit unfair for both of them not to be nominated because they're equally good and equally able to give conviction to the script when the words on the page aren't actually there.  Courtney Hunt also directed and deserves a lot of credit for getting such strong performances from her leads.  Perhaps inevitably for an independently financed film, the depth of the cast isn't ideal, and the further you go from the lead the less compelling I found the performances to be.  The state trooper who stops Leo's car rings false notes with every utterance,the other Mohawk roles tend toward cliche, etc.  Hunt also tries too hard to demonstrate that yes, she really is filming the movie in upstate New York in the bitter cold, and I'm not sure she needed to.

But on balance, definitely worth renting, and it's good to see this little indie movie getting some Oscar love ahead of other movies with bigger names and bigger bankrolls behind them.

Freedom Films with English Subtitles, Part II

The Class, seen Saturday February 14 2009 at the City Cinemas Angelika 6, Theatre #1.  1.5 slithy toads.

Beware of French Films!  Every once in a while there's a genuinely good one, and in fact this director Lauren Cantet even made one of them several years back.  It was called Human Resources.  It played at the New Directors New Films festival in NYC nine years ago, and I seem to recall its actual theatrical release was in the dead of night -- OK, forget the "I seem to recall,"  I can check in my Quicken file that goes back to 2000 that I saw this at the Loews State, so yes...  it's one of those new ideas that everyone recreates every once in a while where you take a bunch of art films that haven't found a distributor and do an entire release program of a bunch of them together in hopes that you can get a brand that will keep people coming back for more.  This was some program in 2000 that rented out space in quiet little Loews theatres across the country, the ones nobody went to and that were closed immediately when the chain went into bankruptcy, and this was actually a pretty good one.  But none of the programs ever last very long because it only takes one bad movie in the bunc for people to wonder about the rest of them.  So in any event this was one of the films that had me going to the Loews State.

Now since I'm off on digressions and tangents, let me go off a bit on the Loews State.  This was one of the grand old theatres on Times Square, upstairs/downstairs twinned by the time I was old enough to see movies.  It had a steeply raked old-style balcony theater, and then the main level theatre which used the old screen location.  Both had very very big screens, both seated over 1000 people, both had 70mm which was a must before Dolby Digital/DTS/SDDS to get an immersive sound experience. it wasn't the fanciest of the Loews lobbies in the world but it was still kind of big and grand especially if you were heading upstairs and could get the view from the top.  I saw Kramer vs. Kramer there with my family when I was young; I guess we really wanted to see that badly to make  a special trip into Manhattan to see it.  I went there occasionally by myself on other trips into Manhattan as a teen or college student.  I saw Star Trek III, The Search for Spock which was supposed to be in 70mm but wasn't because of projector problems so I got a pass.  Scott Meredith was on the mailing list for some film company freebies  and I saw Running Scared with Gregory Hines and Billy Crystal for free in the balcony.  I saw the turgid Out of Africa there.  The last film I saw at the State, and one of its last movies ever, was Star Trek IV.

The theatre closed to make way for a big office tower.  There were development incentives in Times Square in those days that helped pave the way for the demolition of a lot of old theatres in the area because if your foundation was in place by date X you got to build a bigger building.  So this particular office building ran into trouble because construction started during the economic downturn of the late 1980s, and the developer went broke.  The building languished empty for quite a while, and then was actually bailed out by the publishing industry because Bertelsmann came in and occupied the building with its Bantam Dell and Random House publishing operations and its BMG music group operations.  That filled the top of the building.  The bottom of the building was even more difficult, though, because it was supposed to have some kind of fancy schmant retail/entertainment who knows what going on in it, and those plans fell through as well.  While it was intended for the basement of the building to have a Loews theatre to replace the State, and that was no doubt part of the term of sale for the  original building, the access to the new theatre was thru this retail space that was sitting empty and unused.  It was even longer before Virgin came in to put a Virgin Megastore into the retail space (so now if you've been to NYC and walked Times Square, you know where the Loews State was, because you've seen the Virgin Megastore.  If you're coming to NYC in the summer tough tooties because that's closing in April.) and finally once that opened it was possible for Loews to open the Loews State Quad in the basement of 1540 Broadway on the site of the original Loews State.

So the Loews State Quad...

... quick digression, reading the Cinema Treasures page as I cut and paste the link for the link reminds me that Human Resources was part of the Shooting Gallery film series...

... opened in May 1996, almost ten years after the old Loews State had been closed, certainly ten years or more after the original sale of the building had been arranged and the details of the new Loews State agreed upon.  It opened very annoyingly with all four of its screens showing Mission Impossible, which I would much rather have seen opening at my beloved Loews Astor Plaza.  

And it was obsolete the day it opened.

Because when it was conceived and designed, it was conceived and designed as a Manhattan-sized version of the typical 1980s sloped floor mall movie theatre, only not as nice as the Loews 84th St.  It had large seating capacities but was stuck in the basement with relatively low ceiling height, which meant relatively small screen sizes.  In the ten years between design and opening, AMC had successfully introduced the grand stadium seating multiplex which had become the new way of doing things, and a good half a dozen years after those started to spread around the country and even slowly into Manhattan, Loews was stuck opening a mediocre example of the 1980s sloped floor mall multiplex.  Add to that it was hard to find the State because it was stuck in the basement and had to be accessed thru the Virgin Megastore with poor signage from Times Square that got kind of lost in all the other signage.  The Loews State 4 was dead before it was born.

So suffice to say when the Shooting Gallery needed cheap theatres to rent the Loews State was a good candidate for the film series that put Human Resources into theatres.  I did somewhat misspeak about these being the kinds of theatres that closed the moment Loews went into bankruptcy, because Loews had gotten a decent deal I'm sure as part of selling the old Loews State.  So what actually happened was that the white elephant of the Cineplex Odeon Worldwide Cinemas closed when Loews went into bankruptcy, and the discount policy of the Worldwide eventually moved to the Loews State 4 as Loews went thru the motions for the duration of what must have been a ten-year lease, because the State closed in January 2006 just enough shy of the 10th anniversary of the May opening to account for time at the beginning to put the seats in and time at the end to take the seats out.

So that's where I saw Human Resources.

Which was a very good film about a college kid full of big ideas who comes into an executive position at the factory where his father worked, and the two come into conflict as the new way of doing things for a 1990s bean-counter (i.e., screw the employees as much as you can) comes into conflict with the old-fashioned ethics of his father's generation.

I liked Human Resources so much that I went to see Cantet's next film, Time Out, at the New York Film Festival.  This lavishly praised movie wasn't very good at all.  It was based on the true story of a man who lies to his family about being out of work and creates an imaginary fantasy of long drives to nowhere during the day to keep the illusion alive.  I found it dramatically inert and just quite quite dreadful.

The reviews for The Class, which won the Palm d'Or at Cannes and is an Acadamy Award nominee for Best Foreign Language Film, have been as or more rapturous as those for Time Out.  The film itself is in-between the two.  Like Time Out, this is derived from truth.  It's based on a teacher's own experiences, the teacher was involved with the script, and it's essentially a year in the life of the class. During the first 15 or 20 minutes I was inclined to think the rapture was indeed at hand, because the interplay between the students and the teacher was some really good, really high level stuff.  Some of the same dynamics as you might find in a Lean on Me, but for intellectuals.  As the students and teacher feel each other out and deal with the usual kinds of disciplinary things, they're talking on a very very high level that makes a yuppie white person like me feel oh so good about themselves.

The problem is that this doesn't go anywhere.  There's no drama or point to it,I started to get very sleepy by the midway point of the movie, and the movie ends without this sense of anyone having gone anywhere.  Essentially, the movie builds up to a major scene where the teacher calls two of the girls in his class "skanks," or whatever that is in French because this is after all French with subtitles, and this leads a student from Africa to a violent outburst, which leads to a disciplinary hearing where he's expelled, and which leads to some tension with the students.  I can see why this might appeal to high-minded critics.  There's big Ethical Debate about why they bother with the hearing which will just end as all the others do with the student being expelled, and is there Some Other Way to do things.  But in the end, none of the conversations lead to anything.  The hearing is held, the student is expelled, do we even find out if the student is sent home to Africa like his father threatens, just like I don't think (don't think, maybe I was dozing off then) we find out what happens when a parent of one student is arrested for being an illegal.  The last scene takes place on the last day of class, and everyone heads off.  But what of it?  There's no scene in which the tension between the teacher and students that resulted from The Big Scene is firmly resolved, and no clear sign even at the end that there's been a resolution to any of this.  The students will go off, the teacher will come back, it will all be the same as it was.

So tell me, please, why this is such a wonderful movie?

Yes, it is in French.  Critics always like films spoken in French more than if the exact same film were done word for word and shot for shot in English.

Yes, it does depict schools as being a place for deeply intellectual sparring.  These aren't the schools most of us go to.

Yes, it does battle with some assumptions instead of simply assuming them.

But it's a journey that goes nowhere from its beginning to end and doesn't take you anywhere very exciting in the middle.

In some ways it's like a cross between a fictional film and a Frederick Wiseman documentary.   The camerawork is purposely designed to be unobtrusive and to have a fly on the wall quality to it.  Yet it seems to me that even Wiseman in distilling his many hours of film into a documentary like High School tries to find a narrative arc or to give some sense of structure.  

I say skip it, but you can decide for yourself if the things it does have to offer are things you really really need in your life.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Woman Overboard!

Maybe I'd be more sympathetic if this wasn't the 4th iteration of this problem, but now that we fnd out Hildy Solis' husband has tax problems of his own, I don't want her in Obama's cabinet, either.  I'm just getting really really bored with all of these people who don't know how to pay their taxes.  Did we hear that Joe the Plumber might have had a tax lien, too?  So maybe Hildy Solis' husband deserves a pass, too.  But standards, people, standards!  I spend a lot of time running my business and keeping track of the books and keeping on top of my obligations to my clients and to my employees, and I just don't have much patience for all of these excuses.