Monday, May 29, 2006

Come back, Kim Staunton

Remember when Ben Affleck made good movies? Changing Lanes is a superb one, grossly overlooked and underrated at the time of its release. It reminds us that Affleck is a good actor, that Sam Jackson has more than one note in his repertoire, and that movies can dig deep into the vagaries of humanity while still entertaining the crap out of us. But most of all, it gave us a glimpse of a fine actor who hasn't been seen since it was released four years ago: Kim Staunton. She has two knockout scenes -- one cautiously conciliatory and one piping mad -- as Jackson's estranged wife. Her presence and delivery are so elegant, so pure and gripping and compassionate, that you'd think she would've done at least a couple projects since. She hasn't. Come back, Kim Staunton.

Friday, May 26, 2006

Even the Star-Bellies would be pissed

Take a look at Beast and you'll see how I was feeling after the midnight showing of X-Men: The Last Stand. I wanted to tear apart the foam seating with my blue claws. Or, better yet, soar to Los Angeles in the womb of a fiery phoenix, find the Dude and his witless scribes, and use my cosmic powers to pulverize their souls into ash.

In other news, the third movie blows. Let's just say it's a messy, insulting, witless adapation of The Sneetches. I don't have the time (or the will) to substantiate my opinion right now. I am on assignment for the entire weekend, starting now. So stay tuned. In the meantime, feel free to leave your condolences or opinions as the holiday weekend surfs through.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

You're still beautiful to me, Faye


The left photo is from Cannes 2006. The right is from the '60s. Cringe all you want. You know my feelings on Faye.

The Last Stand: the last straw?

I envisioned writing a long treatise on how the X-Men franchise was driven into the ground in its first installment, flung toward greatness in X2, and left to plummet back to the Earth regardless of what happens in The Last Stand. But J.J.'s got a job, and no Internet at home, so there will be no point-by-point dissection of the the Great Franchise Flameout.

But I will say this: The X-Men saga cannot be contained in the medium of movies. This was a comic book enterprise through and through -- hundreds of characters and storylines that span millennia and galaxies. The first film buckled under its own weight, which was shocking, considering it was only, like, 88 unforgivable minutes long. I, an aggrieved 16-year-old in 2000, was close to tears after it. To wait so long for a cinematic visualization of my childhood and adolescent fixation, and then to have it shredded into processed multiplex fast-food dregs...

The shrieking disappointment of X-Men made X2 an extraordinary experience. Focusing solely on the mutant-vs.-human theme -- a potent and perpetual social allegory -- was the right choice. The franchise moved away from pastiche and toward some sort of cogent action film thesis. Introducing the Dark Phoenix factor at the climax was a bold move, and one that moved me to tears of gladness. The stakes were raised, and suddenly the next sequel seemed like it had to be ecstasy. How could it not be with X2 as a springboard? It's war, for chrissakes, with the soul of humanity at stake!

Reality checks in. Bryan Singer goes to work for Superman. Fox brings in the Dude and his dude baggage to direct. A rash of new mutants are introduced, further diluting the pool. Although Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellen, Brian Cox and Hugh Jackman were perfect choices, the rest of the mutants have ill-fitting avatars (Paquin and Marsden in particular were catastrophic missteps) who have only gotten more awkward. It doesn't help when Storm (one of the richly rendered X-Men characters in the comics) says she's got nothing to do, or when people are more concerned about a Wolverine spinoff.

So I am nervous. Will The Last Stand be a spattered hodgepodge of criss-crossed intentions, or an exciting and eloquent close to a bipolar trilogy? Does it really matter? Is The Last Stand really the last one? Who knows. Whatever makes money keeps getting made, so I doubt it.

In a perfect world: I would've wanted a live-action TV series, not a movie franchise. Think about it. Sunday nights, one-hour drama, a devoted and intelligent writing staff, ample opportunity for dovetailing storylines and tantalizing guest stars (Dennis Haysbert as Bishop? Kristin Chenoweth as Emma Frost? Josh Holloway as Gambit? Chris Meloni and Mariska Hargitay [right] as Havok and Polaris [left]? David Hasselhoff as Mr. Sinister?). I think it really would've been something. It would've saved us from watching movie execs shoehorn the vast world of X-Men into 100-minute blocks every three years.

When I see the movie at 12:01 a.m. tonight, perhaps my fears will be allayed. But I will still be yearning for that fuller live-action treatment -- one that cinema can't accomplish.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Immigration blues? Slip into something more corruptible

"Susan, one of the longest borders on Earth is right here between your country and mine. Open border. Fourteen hundred miles without a single machine gun in place."

Monday, May 22, 2006

GET OFF MY PLANE and/or GIVE ME BACK MY WIFE

A colleague just showed me this. It proves today's most impressive artistic work is being done via YouTube, while its least impressive is being done by Harrison Ford.

Friday, May 19, 2006

Musical theatre wasn't destroyed in a day

Like every other known motion picture, Gladiator is being made into a musical -- potentially starring the strapping and profound Brian Stokes Mitchell (right) as Maximus Decimus Meridius Epididymus, the role played to snarling, "You killed my wife!" perfection by snarler laureate Russell Crowe. Now, in the style of my previous take on the musical version of The Lord of the Rings, I forecast the particulars of Glad!, or How to Succeed in Lion-Wrestling without Really Trying:

Stokes as Maximus, of course. Bruce Vilanch as Commodus ("I'm vexed, I'm terribly vexed. Circle gets the square.") Robert Goulet at Marcus Aurelius. And as Maximus' slaughtered wife and child? Rosie O'Donnell and Dakota Fanning. Fierstein in the Oliver Reed role. And we can import Julie Taymor's wicker animals from the New Amsterdam.

Song selections: "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Coliseum." "Gotta Lance." "Singin' through the Pain." "There Is Nothing Like a Slaughtered Christian." "Greece Lightning" (I know, I know, but I'm going for the pun). Other ideas?

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Tony rightfully spurns Julia

by Maria Pendolino
ALAP correspondent and artistic director of The Almost Knew Theatre Co.

NEW YORK -- What is it about Julia Roberts? Why does everyone in America love her so much? It's been reported time and time again that she is so gosh-darned "likeable." Even in the trickiest of situations, she brings critics to their knees.

I had the not-so-extreme pleasure of seeing Ms. Roberts in the flesh a few Fridays ago in her Broadway debut, Three Days of Rain, a relatively un-remarkable play by Richard Greenberg at the Jacobs Theater. Flanked by two reputable stage actors, Paul Rudd and Bradley Cooper, Julia delivered a performance worthy of a high school scene study class. Every line was calculated and fraught with pregnant pauses. It seemed like she believed someone would edit out the awkwardness, as they do in her films. In normal conversation, we frequently repeat what we say in rapid succession. However, one of her lines came out: "I know. [PAUSE] [PAUSE] I know." In the front row of the mezzanine, I struggled to hear her and, when I did, it sounded as if she was shouting. Her performance was as forgettable as what I had for lunch last Tuesday.

But, back to the question at hand: What is it about her? Even Ben Brantley, the vicious theatre critic for The New York Times, could not rip her apart. At the beginning of his review, he proclaimed himself a Julia-phile and continued making excuses about the play, and did whatever else he could do to justify her barely acceptable performance. I myself made excuses for her when people would ask me about the show. "She wasn't great," I would say, quickly followed by, "but it was so great to see her live!" Was it? Is it sad that during intermission I wondered how her understudy, Michelle Federer (who finally took her claws out of the role of Nessarose in Wicked), would have done?

The show ended, of course, with the completely overused standing ovation. Trying to make my way out of the theater was useless, as the doors were jammed with people trying to wedge their way near the barricades at the stage door. The entire street was flooded by people with video and disposable cameras. I wondered how many of them saw the show and how many were raging super-fans who tried every night to steal a glance. I walked right by a plastic-looking Barbara Walters -- who took in the show with a few friends who actually look 75 years old -- and even she seemed disappointed.

When the Tony nominations were announced yesterday, I was not shocked to see Julia's name missing from the canon of other respectable New York theatre folk. She may be nice, and likeable, and have the brightest smile in show business, but for this theatre devotee, I'd rather she stay on the big screen surrounded by Hugh Grant and Richard Gere. I'd prefer to pay $10.25 to spend two hours with her two-dimensional screen persona rather than $101.25 for two hours with her equally flat onstage self.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

You should be watching Boston Legal

Occasionally this blog teeters into the fickle realm of television. Witness my devotionals to Reno 911! and Arrested Development (at the risk of sounding five-minutes-ago: if you haven't watched every single episode from season one to season three, you are depriving yourself of one of mankind's greatest artistic creations; I am not essing around). But with the show finally punted into oblivion, we need to swing to another TV monkey bar lest we drop into the yawning chasm of broadcast dreck:

That bar (pun!) is Boston Legal, David E. Kelley's current crazy-lawyers show that was born out of the squirming guts of The Practice. It's vicious, hilarious and smart. And socially conscious. And has the best cast on TV (I have no words to describe William Shatner's blinding brilliance, and how exquisitely James Spader subverts it). I am compelled to tout the show because of last Tuesday's episode ("Squid Pro Quo"), which was one of the best blocks of serial television I've ever seen. What other creative team can use the global gag rule as a plot backdrop, mix in debate about international aid and Internet privacy, introduce a perfect Parker Posey as the newest cast member (Marlene "The Squid" Stanger), and be so very wacky and eloquent and level-headed all at once? I urge you to watch the two-hour season finale tonight. Starts at 9 p.m. on ABC. It will be rip-roaring.

Link buffet: A superb BL fan site. And, in other TV news, Dick & Pop-Pop become the greatest middle-aged man combo since, well, Shatner & Spader.

Saturday, May 13, 2006

Linda & Lauren and the dearth of dangerous women

If you had caught The Last Seduction in 1994 -- after it unsuccessfully toured the festival circuit, played on cable, was finally picked up by a distributor, and won raves -- you might have thought this: "Linda Fiorentino will be our Lauren Bacall. A Bacall for the '90s and the aughts. A post-feminism cinevixen to lead us into temptation for years to come."

Didn't quite happen that way. But after a recent viewing of Seduction, I thought, "Why the hell not?" Fiorentino plays Bridget Gregory -- deadlier than Stanwyck's Phyllis Dietrichson and more calculating than Stone's Catherine Trammel. In terms of blind ambition, ruthlessness and lethal sexuality (and the ability to disguise all three), only Kathleen Turner's Matty Walker approaches Bridget Gregory, though no one has subsequently challenged her for the crown. How come we haven't had a memorable femme fatale in the past decade, especially now that "sex sells" has become more of an institution than a cultural vagary? (I happen to think Brian De Palma's 2002 eponymous homage is a great movie, but it certainly does not have an effective dangerous woman as its axis.)

Where art thou, dangerous ladies of the silver screen? What happened to sophisticated sexual subterfuge?

The point is: Linda, come back. Take the torch from Bacall already. Your voice is a wonderful riff on Bacall's playful huskiness. Like Bacall, you know how to hold and smoke a cigarette. You are as beautiful as Bacall, and as threatening to masculinity (and therefore to the medium of film itself). The camera loves you, and you love how the camera loves you. But you haven't made a movie in four years, and you haven't made an impression in 12. You are 45 now. What's the hold up? Here are suggestions to start the reclamation of your rightful place in filmdom:

1. If your absence from the spotlight is not by choice, start at square one with a fellow Hollywood outsider: chauvinist writer-director James Toback, who would probably love to "work" with you. If he can get some zip out of Neve Campbell, I'm sure the two of you could whip up some mean onscreen fireworks. I'd expect nothing else from a fiercely independent woman and a fiercely domineering man.

2. Ease yourself back into the biz with a smart TV show. Perhaps a cop drama, or something fringe-y on HBO or Showtime. Get hooked up with a Sorkin or a Bochco or a Milch or a David E. Kelley, someone who can write snappy lines deserving of you. Think of what fellow fortysomething Kyra Sedgwick is doing with The Closer.

3. Hell, actually do a movie with Bacall. She's still working. Get a script about a femme fatale mother-daughter team. I can't imagine how thrilling it would be to see the two of you in action, sharing the same frame. Call it Flared Eyes & Vodka Gimlets:

LAUREN: "You know how to whistle, don't you, dear?"
LINDA: (stubbing cigarette on Lauren's forearm) "F*ck off, mother, he's mine."

Upcoming posts: Why you should be watching Boston Legal. How Broadway (and the Tonys) handle Julia. X-Men: The Last Stand or the last straw?

Friday, May 12, 2006

Rogue wave! Rogue wave! Rogue wave!

Apparently, they exist. They're just not widely reported. Between David Blaine and Poseidon's cast, which is whale-like in lung capacity, I'm sick of holding my breath. If you're looking for fun, see M:I:III. Poseidon is like Titanic -- but upside down, with Richard Dreyfuss, and without any idea of what constitutes a watchable motion picture.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Wiegel Watch: How do you say 'I'm gonna go jump in the f*cking ocean' in Arabic?

But the more pressing question is: How do you say "I'm gonna go jump in the f*cking ocean" in Arabic and take it seriously? If you're looking for something to articulate just how different our culture is from a good portion of the Middle East's, consider this, from PageSix in The New York Post:

Who knew they got Comedy Central in Iraq? The cable network's honchos were shocked when they got a request from Iraqi troops stationed in Baghdad for merchandise from the spoof cop show "Reno 911!" So Comedy Central sent over a load of stuff, and they're sponsoring a photo-essay contest that apparently involves placing the short-shorts worn by the Lt. Dangle character on old statues of Saddam Hussein. Even weirder: "The show is shown on an Arab station with Arabic subtitles," said network rep, "and the Iraqis think it is a serious police drama."
I am speechless. And completely captivated by how two peoples who share the same globe could love this wonderful show for completely inverted reasons. In other news: the movie version of Reno 911! is irrefutably in production with a 2006 release date, and the third season DVD comes out July 11. Iraqis: get your Kleenex ready.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Pearl & potpurri

Two upcoming films on Daniel Pearl, the Wall Street Journal writer who was slain in Pakistan in 2002? At the very least, one of them stars the capable Josh Lucas (lovingly rendered in oil paint at right by this person; please don't sue me) and will be directed by Jean Grey's former beau Tod "Kip" Williams, who helmed the underappreciated The Door in the Floor. But still -- two? Is it in poor taste to cry "overkill"?

In other news, I'm looking for topics about which to blog. If you'd be so kind, leave any suggestions (snarky or otherwise) in the comments. Fermenting ideas include: A final pre-release rumination on X-Men: The Last Stand (and how I'll cease to exist if it's a crapfest, and how the franchise was grievously mismanaged). The three trans-generational outings of Bobby & Mary Louise (in anticipation of next year's First Man). More Sidney Lumet worshipping and delayed thoughts on the Controversial Classics Vol. 2 box set. A list of overlooked actors (Fry, Strathairn, Thigpen, Woodard) who've narrated must-listen audio books. An essay on the splendor and vagaries of Jeff Bridges, who time and again reminds me that he will be regarded posthumously as the greatest film actor of his generation (like his predecessor was).

Sunday, May 07, 2006

M:I:III: not just I's, M's and colons

Yeah, if you're allergic to Tom Cruise, don't go. There are plenty of lines and situations to misread and guffaw at (like the pack of teenage asshats did in the front two rows whenever the movie leaned toward the romantic). But if you have the proper degree of maturity and want a little bang for your buck, then get thee to M:I:III, which is an old-fashioned, high-octane, relentlessly suspenseful action film which manages to be clever and compulsive at once. Thoughts:

1. Surprise, surprise! This is a D.C. movie. Ethan Hunt's cover is the Department of Transportation, and he and fiancee Julia (the unfortunately Katie Holmesish Michelle Monaghan) live in Arlington (or somewhere with a rooftop view of the Capitol and Washington Monument). Julia works at Virginia Regional Hospital, which (zounds!) is not an invention of the filmmakers but an actual place. There is also a spectacular ambush sequence on the Chesapeake Bay Bridge (pictured at left).

2. Writer-director J.J. Abrams -- whom Cruise wisely handpicked and who gives the film serious panache, pacing and wit -- slips in deliciously timed digs at the nation's intelligence network. Laurence Fishburne, who appears to be the only guy in Hollywood with a real set of teeth, is given some great zingers as head of the CIA's IMF force: "I shit you not. I will bleed on the flag to make the stripes stay red." Abrams also works in a funny reference to H.G. Wells and Ralph Ellison. An Invisible Man allusion in a Mission: Impossible movie? Great stuff.

3. Abrams knows how good action films are made: by layering the suspense until it is unbearable, then relieving it, then quickly adding more. It compounds beautifully. Take the first action sequence: Cruise and company are retreating from a reconnaisance mission in a helicopter -- through giant spinning wind turbines, while being pursued and fired at -- as one of the agents writhes because there is an electronic bomb in her brain that will go off at any minute unless it is diffused with a defibrillator, which takes an agonizing 30 seconds to charge. Meanwhile, another agent is dangling out of the helicopter.

4. PSH makes for a slovenly sadistic villain. It's also nice to see Billy Crudup working. For all the lengthy delays and creative switcheroos, the film is remarkably cogent and put-together. For all the screenplay revisions and dropped directors, you might expect ground chuck. What you get is a nice juicy burger.

5. Yes, the end is a bit too cute and the whole premise is wafer-thin (MacGuffins and single-mindedness galore). And although the movie's got everything we've come to expect -- double crosses, mistaken identities, a lone man in a network of corruption, the rat on the inside, man vs. woman vs. work, gasp-worthy stunts, terrific gadgetry (Cruise's latex transformation into PSH is very cool) -- it all feels fresh, not dredged. And that's purely a function of Abrams.

In short, this third installment is clearer than the first (whose plot was Rubik's cubish) and grittier than the second (which was a tad too Woo). Now if only the filmmakers had passed on Kanye West's insipid and laughable Mission: Impossible rap, which clatters over the end credits.

P.S. I hate to feed into the "Cruise is crazy" frenzy, but this is really funny. He really made that guy's day.

Saturday, May 06, 2006

I listen to the audio commentary so you don't have to

I'm standing next to Spencer thinking "Oh my God I'm so sweaty." Yeah Freddy! Wipe off and go get 'em girl. There they are, the guys! Here we go. And they stood up! I nearly fell down. They stood up, just, that was it! Nobody's telling anybody to do anything. This is the live performance. He caught everything just then, when Neil looked at me like, "Wow!" See look at them standing, I couldn't believe it. I'm so relieved. I thought, "Oh I did a good job. Fosse'll be happy, Freddy'll be happy. I did 'em proud." Yeah guys! Huh! I want to step off the stage, but no. Now right here I want to step off the stage and Fosse is yelling, "Stay there! Stay there!" And they brought the curtain up again! ... Thank God for people. ... And thank you you guys for buying this. I hope I was able to just tell a little bit about what it felt like to be there. I get all excited and stumble over my words. But you know what? That's O.K.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

The greatest love dashes of all time

love dash (n) the act of a character running to his or her soul mate or object of affection at the climax of a film, esp. when accompanied by swelling music and an overflowing sense of destiny.

After seeing The Apartment, and again exulting in Shirley MacLaine's mad sprint through the West 60s, I decided the phenomenon of the love dash would be an excellent blog topic. After some serious pondering, I discovered one problem: I can't name too many. The love dash seems to be the most typical and enduring cinematic convention, yet I can hardly come up with a decent list.

So, readers, I solicit you for submissions. What are the greatest love dashes of all time? Here are my top three:

1. Manhattan (1979). Woody Allen lies on his couch, despondent over his girlfriend's imminent exodus to London. To cheer himself up, he starts to list all the things he loves about life. Soon, he comes to the realization that he loves his girlfriend more than anything on the list. He must see her and stop her from leaving before it's too late! Woody lopes down a Manhattan street as Gershwin's spirited "Strike up the Band" blares away. He gets to her in time, but she greets him with a life lesson, not a passionate embrace.

2. Rocky (1976). The fight is over, and the Italian Stallion couldn't care less about his purpled eye sockets and the media frenzy. He wants Adrian, who is hugging the wall at the rear of the auditorium, concerned but unsure of what to do. As soon as she hears him call, she starts cleaving her way through the crowd. As the clamor intensifies, Rocky screams her name louder. Gosh, he really needs me, Adrian thinks. He actually needs me. She starts barrelling her way through the crowd. The two are drawn together like magnets. Eventually, Adrian worms her way into the ring, and we are treated to one of the sweetest releases in movies: "I love you!" she cries, shocked at both her wild emotion and her ability to convey it. "I love you!"

3. It's a Wonderful Life (1946). "Merry Christmas!" George Bailey shrieks as he runs through the snow-clogged streets of Bedford Falls. He has been spared a lifetime of emptiness; wouldn't you dash, too? (Note: I couldn't find a photo of a love dash in progress, so I offer Jimmy Stewart awash in the aftermath of his love dash, above.)

I considered: Lost in Translation (didn't like the movie, so didn't like Bill Murray's last-minute love dash and the inaudible last line [cop out!]), Forrest Gump (bounding through the Reflecting Pool is a nice, if schmaltzy, touch), Life Is Beautiful (oh that end, with the mother, and the son, and "We won!"), What Dreams May Come (Annabella Sciorra and Robin Williams dash through, like, paint in, like, heaven), and I have a feeling there's some sort of love dash in The Sound of Music, but I'm forgetful. No doubt there are a baker's dozen in Love, Actually, but I don't want to hear about them. And do the elderly Mel Gibson and Isabel Glasser hobble quickly at the end of Forever Young? Again, I'm forgetful.

Now, what are your ideas? What am I forgetting? Requirements: The dash has to have a good pace, or at least a sense of urgency (so no Shawshank Redemption, for example), and it has to cover some ground (at least more than what Fredric March and Myrna Loy cover in The Best Years of Our Lives). Obviously, it's a double love dash if both characters are rushing toward each other (examples?). And what if a character is dashing toward an abstraction (JMR, I expect you to enlighten us on that final tracking shot in When the Cat's Away)?