March 09, 2015

Virtual Fiction

I've played around with Google Cardboard a bit and I've watched a few experiments and the content at JauntVR.  As far as "Virtual Reality" goes, it's fun but I wonder if the best use-cases are educational rather than story-telling. Flying above a fast-flowing river watching bears catch salmon is neat yet Discover channel/National Geographic has better close-up and slow-motion shots of the action. It's one thing to fly 20 yards away from the action and quite another to get a look at just the paws and jaws snapping up a tasty meal. Hanging out on-stage watching Paul McCartney play Live & Let Die is fun for one song; might get exhausting for a whole concert. And the JauntVR trailer for a fake WWII movie is a great premise, but I had to watch it several times - the first couple times I was always looking in the wrong direction and missed the action. Maybe I just have attention-deficit disorder, but in the VR simulation, I was looking at my environment - the trees, mountains, sky - while the Nazis were killing my platoon-mates. On the other hand, reality dictates I take stock of my position before determining situational tactics; meanwhile, well, sorry guys. There's also a "BlackMass" horror sequence which works well, especially when moving your head to watch someone running past you.

The 3-D part of the experience is great, as is the (somewhat) surround-view capability. But if the brilliant fiction over the past several hundred years relies on authors picking and choosing what to describe (or in movies what to show), perhaps giving me 360-degree views of that world will be more distraction than engaging. The contrary argument is that new story-telling forms will emerge. Great; keep at it.

N.B. more reviews/science/computer bits are tweeted from @netrc

Posted by netrc at 08:39 AM

May 30, 2014

JCVD

JCVD

JCVD (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Had a wierd movie experience this week for which I need to tell you a story as prologue. Back in the day, as movie reviewer at The Michigan Daily, I went to go see and review The Gods Must Be Crazy a movie about which I knew absolutely nothing. First, it was my job and vocation to go to movies, but also there was a faint buzz that it was a comedy.(Yes, there was something like "buzz" even before Facebook, twitter, and blogs). The movie was cheaply made (in South Africa), but delightful and amazing and I loved it. Its comedy was broad and slapstick and its themes were generous and heartfelt.

When writing the review I wanted to sing its praises, but I couldn't figure out how to do that without raising expectations. What I wanted was for people (especially people who cared about movies) to discover the film on their own. I ended up writing the review without mentioning the movie's name: I talked about its wonder and innocence and humor, etc, but I hoped that by not going in to the normal review factoids about cast and crew, I could keep the mystery alive a bit. There was just a large publicity still from the picture in the review to help people figure out what the movie was called.

So, speaking of seeing movies without any expectations....

The other night, while the downstairs TV was busy with celebrity dancing, I was upstairs flicking through channels and I came across an actor facing the camera speaking a monologue. Oh, Jean-Claude Van Damme. Never cared about him much, only disappointed he never really made a good enough action pic that was worth seeing as far as I was concerned. He kept talking and it seemed to be biographical. In fact, it was fascinating and heart-wrenching. Huh?

Of course, these days (as you all know), you just hit the "info" button on the remote to find out what the show is: In this case, JCVD, and the info said "Based on an incident in which Jean-Claude Van Damme is caught up in a bank robbery in Brussels...". Huh? JCVD was in a bank robbery? That didn't ring a bell, but why would it?

His monologue went on and on - an obviously personal catharsis of his rise and decline as a movie star, a plea to understand that he's just a regular guy caught up in celebrity. What the hell is this movie?

At the end of the monologue, his returns (as it were) to the present action of the plot, and resumes his arguments with the robbers and the police. It's coming across a bit of a Dog Day Afternoon, and the police aren't sure if JCVD is part of the burglary or not.

And I'm totally confused. The faux-documentary style and the "info" suggest this is a retelling of a real incident, but that seems pretty far-fetched. On the other hand, JCVD is acting far beyond what I would have expected; It's possible something like this did happen and that is the springboard or background to the film?

The movie ends with JCVD in prison, as an after-the-fact accomplice to the crime (or whatever) and has an emotional meeting with his mother and kid.

It's actually stunning. I finally picked up my tablet (which was all the way across the room getting charged) and started going through wikipedia's JCVD article - nothing about a robbery. It took me several minutes of IMDB and other googl'ng to really be convinced that the whole thing was, yes, just a movie. Whoever wrote the "info" blurb was definitely trying to trick the audience, and I fell for it.

Unfortunately, there's no way I can recommend the movie based solely on my experience, especially after you've read this article. But it was an interesting moment for me, a reminder that expectations of a movie, based on buzz about the plot, effects, stars, budget, can really get in the way of pure enjoyment. And also a reminder that surprises such as this are hard to come by and should be treasured. If the person who wrote the blurb was trying to trick me, thanks!

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Posted by netrc at 01:31 PM

April 10, 2014

Late Night Goodnight

No, I'm not a fan of Stephen Colbert, which doesn't matter of course, as I stopped watching Letterman over a decade ago. I loved getting my first DVR in the early 2000s as that allowed me to easily get back to watching his Late Night show. Sadly, when I did, I found a faded star, painful to watch.

I started watching him when he had his oddly-timeslotted 10am morning show, with Edwin Newman at a little news-desk. The show was a successful failure in that even the suits at NBC could see that Letterman's gifts were suited for something around a later hour.

Given that late night show, Letterman was able to focus his sarcasm and self-deprecation to reinvent the talk show format as a sit-com, totally irreverant and brash. The first night (along with Bill Murray), he had home-run king Hank Aaron on - after the chat at the desk, a faux-sportscaster interviewed Hank on his reaction to the interview. That show, and the eleven years that followed, could very well mark the invention of the hipster era with its smart-alecy break-the-fourth-wall meta-consciousness

Letterman was also the best interviewer of the talk show circuit (Jay Leno, sorry, can't even do a good interview on his autoshop web-site), but he always made sure to followup any star with his own talk-show-about-nothing wierdness. Let's do a pretend Top-10 list! Let's drop watermelons from a crane! Let's do anything but take this seriously! Next up, a man-on-the-street interview with Larry "Bud" Melman!

Brilliant.

Brush with greatness: When I worked in midtown Manhattan in the early '90s, I tried to get standby tickets to his show, never made the cut. Then, after he left NBC (and I loved the TV movie The Late Shift about this), I was walking down Broadway past the Ed Sullivan theater when someone passed out tickets to his new show. It turns out that I was able to see his very first rehearsal show for the new CBS timeslot. (Guests were the great David Brenner, The Blues Travellers).

The next week, I was on vacation in the wild backwoods of Maine, and had to watch the premiere show while sitting next to a 13" black-and-white TV, holding the rabbit ears the whole time in order to juice up the reception. Take that, you fancy-pants internet noobs.

So what happened? Some of it may be that the rest of the culture caught up to his shtick, so what was once irreverent just became grouchy. But for all that, he seemed to stop trying. Rather than being wide-eyed with wonder that he got away with antics, it was too hard to pretend that he was anything but hugely successful. The glitz of the tiffany network undercut his performance, and he began to phone it in.

Nothing can compare to the king, Carson, but Letterman had, at least, a great decade and a lasting influence. None of the current crop – your O’Briens, your Fallons, your Kimmels – would be here without Letterman. (Conan came close, but Kimmel may get the nod now).

Posted by netrc at 03:29 PM

January 08, 2014

Goldberg Gold

Open Goldberg Variations on iPad

Open Goldberg Variations on iPad (Photo credit: musescore)

Excellent online open-source/free edition of the great Bach's Goldberg Variations, along with a phenomenal performance by Kimiko Ishizaka available for download. The open process for peer review of the score is interesting, though from the online comments it's not clear whether this is a great advantage or just a neat one. I've also found lots of good classical recordings at the International Music Score Library Project - http://www.imslp.org/, that allows viewing/listening/downloading of sheet music and recordings.
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Posted by netrc at 01:12 PM

September 18, 2013

Something Rotton

While going through my mother's collection of brass rubbings, I came across this very pretty memorial for Elisabeth Rotton, who died in 1638 aged 20, located in the parish church of Meriden, the town next door to Hampton-In-Arden, where we lived while in England.  

Elizabeth Rotton

The figure is quite large and detailed, especially for a person not of the clergy or nobility.  The inscription also indicates that Elisabeth must have been highly regarded in her town, for it includes an anagram apparently composed by herself:

The Text at her Funerall - Math. 9 24: The maide is not dead but sleepeth

Anagram {  Elisabeth Rotton // I to A blest Throne }

Friends weepe noe more, when this NIGHTS SLEEPE is gone I shall arise and goe TO A BLEST THRONE.

The anagram has a quite specific notation: it is marked "Anagram" and has the two versions, one above the other, surrounded by curly brackets.

While researching this brass, I found another mention of Elisabeth Rotton, this time a marginal inscription in an original second quarto edition of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, printed in 1599 by Thomas Creede. As you can see here, someone has written in to the side of the text at Act III, Scene V another anagram, with the same notation and curly brackets: Anagr. { Elisabeth Rotton // Her lot is to be neat }}. The text of the play nearby does not seem to have anything to do with neatness; it may be that it refers to various typesetting errors that have been corrected, such as is seen on the same page, where a line mis-marked for "Ro(meo)" has the name inked out and "Iul" (for Julia) is written in.

The quarto is currently owned by The Elizabethan Club at Yale. According to "A Census of Shakespeare Quartos", the earliest known owner was George Stevens, in 1800. 

There's no way of knowing but I'd suggest that the marginalia in the quarto was written by the real Elisabeth Rotton. It's easy to imagine that the girl was known for her intelligence and reading (and for her ability to create anagrams), and was lent or had the Shakespeare quarto in her hands when she added another of her anagrams.

Posted by netrc at 09:10 AM

September 17, 2013

Digital Cinema

Saw a neat documentary on digital movie making Side By Side, produced by the real (non-Matrix) Keanu Reeves. It was interesting to see Keanu interview dozens of well-known cinematographers and directors about the transformation of the movie-making ecosystem from celluloid to digital cinema. Only an hour or so long, it could have been a dozen different shows on film, lighting, aspect ratios, wide-screen, 3-D, animation, etc, etc. Still, a wonderful review of the revolution by the very people fighting the battles - both pro- and anti-digital. The producers did a very good job showing that the debate is still active, letting one person make a passionate argument on why something is better, then rebutting that with another expert talking head. (At one point, a new digital camera design is discussed with pride, followed by a cinematographer sarcastically noting that you have to remove the storage "magazine" before you can look at the take - most other digital cameras allow multiple output devices with live views). a DLP chip

I would have loved more of a discussion of the CMOS (whatever) chip technology business in contrast to the old school film companies (Fuji, Kodak, etc) with their alchemical formulas for emulsions and their artistic advocates who knew how to use that particular film to make a movie look great. The new digital tools are different indeed and it will still take some time to understand how lighting, atmosphere, sets and costumes look how you want them to look using a chip. On the other hand, they no longer have to reload the camera every 10 minutes with a new roll of stock.

The only lapse was not talking about projection and distribution. It's been an amazing journey and a confluence of technology to get not only an entire new universe of digital special effects, but to get the front end product made digitally, there's also the serendipitous rise of DLP projectors enabling theaters to show the movies correctly (and also to show special-event broadcasts (and targeted ads!)), and even home theater systems capable of high-definition display.

It's an amazing story, well told by the passionate people behind the camera.

Posted by netrc at 01:48 PM

May 08, 2013

2013 TV

Game of Thrones (soundtrack)

Game of Thrones (soundtrack) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

My random thoughts on current tv:

I've stopped watching Mad Men; just too boring. Loved the first couple seasons, but the soap opera and biz scenarios are just boring to me now. I did just read that the last episode was supposed to be fantastic - don't care. Some of the series creators also did The Soprano's and I have the same problem here as I did there: The show just doesn't mean anything. And even worse than "The Sopranos", which was slightly about modern society, "Mad Men" seeks to critique not only the now but also the past. Yet the characters flop around from one flaw to another, whatever is needed to move to the next scene. It's all very cool and observational. Worse, this year we're getting more flashbacks to "explain" Don Draper's immorality. Still, as with the other series, the acting and design are impeccable. But that's not enough to keep me interested anymore.

While "The Bachelor" was running a couple months ago, I was kicked out of the family room for (I'm told) inappropriate comments, and with nothing to watch (and I rarely have enough time to watch a complete movie), I started to watch Game of Thrones on video-on-demand. ("video-on-demand" will soon be a phrase like "dial the phone", a technical term that shows its age). I ripped through the previous two seasons in a couple weeks. Overblown, fantastical, silly, over acted, etc, etc. So now, I'm happy to be caught up and watching season three. I can't imagine what the books are like - and I can barely keep track of the seemingly infinite families, tribes, cities, and armies. But this is miles ahead of "Mad Men" in terms of narrative drive - and thank god! (Though, perhaps "Mad Men" would better for me as a novel?). Great theme music too. It's often difficult for the series to have a coherent episode what with all the plot arcs, but the most recent show, culminating in the wonderful "Chaos is a Ladder" soliloquy, was great. Except no dragons!

Finally, the best show I've been watching is Donald Kagan's online course lectures on Greek history. He's vastly informed and even-handed in these historical reviews, and his presentation skills are nicely engaging and light-hearted. A brilliant exegesis.

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Posted by netrc at 07:37 PM

April 16, 2013

Hidden Clue

LeParmentier as Admiral Motti in ''Star Wars E...

LeParmentier as Admiral Motti in ''Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One of the fun things about the Star Wars bi-trilogy has been the great casting of secondary characters. While I've never been to a fan convention, it sure sounds like many of these actors have enjoyed connecting with their fanbase - even when their SW notoriety is based on only one or two lines of dialog. From Shelagh Fraser (Aunt Beru - "He's got too much of his father in him"), to Caroline Blakiston (Mon Mothma - "Many Bothans died to bring us this information"), etc, etc.

One of the first character actors that captured our attention was Richard LaParmentier as Admiral Motti, who had another wonderfully bad line "Your sad devotion to that ancient religion has not helped you conjure up the stolen data tapes or given you clairvoyance enough to find the Rebels' hidden fort....". Sadly, LaParmentier passed away this week.

I mention this with respects, and to point out the little secret footnote George Lucas put in to his script: Motti's last words before Vader's force-choke were "hidden fortress", a clue to a major influence for the film, Akira Kurosawa's Hidden Fortress. Lucas even provided an interview on Kurosawa's and the film's influence on the The Hidden Fortress (The Criterion Collection) DVD.

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Posted by netrc at 07:52 PM

March 06, 2013

Bachanalia

A six-part fugue from The Musical Offering, in...

A six-part fugue from The Musical Offering, in the hand of Johann Sebastian Bach. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I've been on a Bach sprint lately. Christoph Wolff's Johann Sebastian Bach: The Learned Musician is wonderful, though a bit dry. Except for the length, I found it similar to the marvelous William Shakespeare: A Compact Documentary Life, in that it focused on (seemingly) all the known and documented details of JSB's life with little psychological or otherwise fictional interpretation. That's fine, but it thus also lacks historical atmosphere; while we may not know much about Bach the man, we surely know more about the general goings-on and lives of Europeans in the 17th-18th century. Still, a masterful work by a leading Bach scholar and humbling to discover that we only know of some half or even less of Bach's original works.

After finishing the book and listening to more full Cantatas - q.v. http://www.bach-cantatas.com/Intro.htm for your weekly listening pleasure - I then stumbled on The Cello Suites: J.S. Bach, Pablo Casals, and the Search for a Baroque Masterpiece by Eric Siblin; this explicates Bach's fabulous composition and interleaves a biography of the composer and Casals, his 20th Century cello disciple. I knew about Casals' repertoire, but his life story is fascinating amid myriad details of the suites individual movements and themes. The books structure attempts to mimic each suite and movements; you'd do well to prepare your music player of choice and listen to each suite in its proper place.

Finally, I picked up Evening in the Palace of Reason: Bach Meets Frederich the Great in the Age of Enlightenment by James R. Gaines. Again, there's a retelling of the Bach biography, this time in fugue with the story of the Frederichs (father and son) of Prussia. My Prussian/German history is very shaky, so this was very interesting; Gaines does a great job at this popular history of how 18th century Prussia came to be, with many, many unbelievable anecdotes of Frederich The Great's life. The crux of the book is to describe the genesis of Bach's Musical Offering, a set of canons, suite, and ricercars, set to a theme chosen by the musically inclined (flute player) Frederich. The book makes a somewhat overly dramatic point of the meeting of the classical "harmony of the spheres" musicianship of Bach, versus the more florid/"French" stylings and outlook of Frederich, but there are wonderfully thought-provoking points about Bach's music, his compositions, and the general swirl of intellectual philosophy of the era.

One final link: There's apparently a modern (2003) German movie of the Frederich/Bach musical meeting, My Name Is Bach.

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Posted by netrc at 04:34 PM

January 22, 2013

Les gens joyeux

English: Javert from original publication of L...

English: Javert from original publication of Les Misérables (1862). Additional information found at Les Miserables Gallery. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Finally got out of the house to see a movie, Les Miserables. Turns out I've been on a Les Miz kick recently - Turner Classic Movies recently showed the 1935 Frederic March version with Charles Laughton as Javert and the 1952 Michael Rennie (The Day The Earth Stood Still) version. And I've been listening to Orson Welles' radio version.

I remember hearing the music on my car radio some 25 years ago, not knowing it was a musical, and thinking that the music was melodically repetitive and yet lyrically soaring. The movie has a lot of great parts going for it, but it is hard to capture the grand theatrical experience on film - in a theater, seeing dozens of people giving full voice to the crowd scenes is fantastic, on film, the closeups help to pinpoint the drama, but it's not quite as much fun. In fact, the film does a great job at keeping the storyline clear, and the expanded 'revolution', complete with soldiers, calvary, and the infamous Elephant of the Bastile is quite impressive.

It has been much mentioned that the actors sang their roles live, thus explaining the over-emoting and hammy stuttering during many songs, as if to prove the point. Someone said that pre-recorded singing in a musical is "unreal", forgetting that people singing non-stop about their fate while being shot at isn't exactly true-to-life either. (And one of the points of pre-recording the singing in a nice studio versus a movie set: Hugh Jackman relates his final scene was shot in a frigid church at 1am, almost ruining his voice.) Anyway, for the most part the singing is quite good; for me it is the incessant camera gymnastics, hand-held vibrations, and quick cutting that keep the film from being great. As an opera, having Javert stand stock-still on stage and demand your attention is mesmerizing; here, it's easy to forgive Russell Crowes less-than-Broadway singing and instead to appreciate his acting, but the camera keeps swooping away and up and across. Very distracting when I'm trying to focus on the emotional impact of the character's song. (Though I did like the edge-of-the-railing footwork business they gave Javert, which is of course tragically replayed at the end).

Misc: Great to see Colm Wilson as The Bishop, still with great scene-stealing charisma; Eddie Redmayne's (also good in My Week With Marilyn) made the movie with an outstanding Marius; Jackman's new song "Suddenly" is played out very nicely, describing Valjean's reaction to his quick adoption of Cosette; Amanda Seyfried's singing as Cosette sadly reminds you that while the picture of her as a little girl is on the movie poster, the movie isn't about her - the character is quite the stereotype.

After all that, still hard to beat for those people, like myself, who like musical theater.

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Posted by netrc at 08:23 PM

November 17, 2012

Episode 7

George Lucas

George Lucas (Photo credit: Talk Radio News Service)

Many people have asked me for my thoughts on the Disney/Ep7 news, so here goes. It's great! I'm all for more stuff, more movies, more arts, more jobs, more growth. Do I think that the movies will be good? I have no idea, and no real expectations. To be clear: I'm a big fan of George Lucas, his movies (let's not forget American Grafitti and THX-1138), his technology (ILM, SkywalkerSound, founder of Pixar, etc), and his business skills. I'm a big fan of Star Wars, and yes I'm happy with the prequels - I like Qui-Gon, Darth Maul, the Duel of the Fates, and yes, even the Buster-Keaton-inspired battle scene on Naboo; I like Ewen McGregor and Hayden Christensen and Natalie Portman and Christopher Lee, I like the good guys versus the critters in the Geonossian arena, the Jedi battle, the massive Clone Troops vs. Separatists battle, and Yoda vs Dukoo; I like Palpatine, Mace Windu, the fight on Mustafar, and the rise of Darth Vader. There are sure things that didn't work great, but them's the breaks. Remember, a lot of people didn't like the Ewoks either.

Lucas has not been consistent (or predictable) in his pronouncements about the Star Wars franchise but I always assumed there would somehow, someway be more movies no matter what he has said. Selling off the franchise is probably the best and cleanest answer to how that will happen - There will always be the original Lucas movies, and now there will be a new, different franchise with the same name. And it will be a lot easier to like or dislike the new movies knowing that Lucas has an arms-length relationship with them. Given that the movie industry has embraced the repeatable franchise model (q.v. Batman, Spiderman), it stands to reason that Disney wants to buy the SW machine and crank out movies. I fully expect some movies to be good and then more to be bad, until they squeeze out of all creativity, art, and fun. And then they'll be rebooted again.

The thing I don't get is the expectation that we need new actors to play Han and Luke etc. I'd be surprised if the new sequels start where Ep6 ended; I'd opt to have new characters, probably Han/Leia's kids, etc, be the stars. C-3PO & R2-D2 of course should be the exception and the anchors of the series (I suppose the Millenium Falcon and maybe Chewie too?). The most interesting facet will be the story arc. Lucas' great conceit was to write a hero story based on a father-son relationship, which he famously split up into two trilogies. But with the six existing movies representing a great transformative symphony from child to adult and good to evil and back, what the heck is next? The Clone Wars satisfies my needs for SW artistry and light-saber fights in nice little episodes, but once you've re-imagined the "Hero With A Thousand Faces" myths as a space-opera, I don't see what could possibly fill the narrative drive. So, some new SW movies may be "good" but I don't see how they could be worthwhile. But then, I'm not a fiction writer.

Meanwhile, Liam and Caroline have watched Episode IV a few times and are learning their lines well ("If you strike me down, I shall become more powerful than you could possibly imagine.") And I want to stress that this has been done with very little (believe me!) prodding on my part. But I thought I had many years ahead to gradually get them through their SW homework, from IV to V, back to the beginning with I, II, and III, then finishing with the Ep VI finale. Now, it seems like I've got to go on a forced-march, getting through all these before the new Episodes begin. Tough work I know! That said, I never really thought I'd get to see a live, new SW episode from scratch with my kids. The great adventure continues.

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Posted by netrc at 01:17 PM

June 06, 2012

Rememberance

President Reagan's 40th Anniversary rememberance of D-Day at Pointe du Hoc, France:

Posted by netrc at 01:37 PM

June 04, 2012

A long time ago...

I missed posting this anniversary rememberence: A week or so ago was the 35th Anniversary of the release of Star Wars, as you surely know a personal favorite of mine. I managed to attend all opening-day showing of all the episodes (including The Clone Wars!), except for the original. At the time, I was a young teenager, trying to find a movie for my Dad and I to see. My parents had recently divorced, and for weekend visits, Dad and I usually just went to a movie. I remember seeing a blurb in Time magazine (back then it was an influential weeky magazine) saying that “Star Wars” was the best movie of the year. I had no idea what it was about. While I read science fiction, I was more of an Asimov fan, interested in the science, rather than random whiz-bang space-mongery. But it seemed like a decent enough flick, so off we went to the Americana, a close enough theater that happened to have a gigantic main screen and seating for almost a thousand. When we got in to the theater, an usher was handing out buttons with the saying “May The Force Be With You” – my first reaction was that that was pretty weak writing, “force” being a pretty neutral term. We settled in, and then, of course, the great jaw-dropping opening began: The 20th Century Fox fanfare, the quiet ellipsis of “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…”, the crash of the great John Willliams theme-music, that crazy prefatory text crawl to infinity, the majestic panorama of stars, and then the stunning visual graphics of that first spaceship chase. Astonishing. (And a hat tip to Tom Snyder – it was only a few days later, staying up way too late for the Tomorrow show, that Tom mentioned seeing the movie and specifically called out the fantastic and rish orchestral score throughout the film. I knew the moviewas good, but hadn’t been able to focus on the music. It took a few more viewings to figure out how right Tom was).

My favorite poster from the original. I have a slightly used version of this. Should be above Liam's bed in a few years. (Caroline can have the 'Empire' poster).

Posted by netrc at 09:40 PM

May 23, 2012

Thanks for all the fish...

When I moved back to London in 1992 working for Morgan-Stanley, I was subjected to awful evenings of BBC TV watching. One bright spot was re-runs of A Bit of Fry & Laurie.

When FOX announced yet-another hospital TV show, I didn't care much. But the lead looked awfully familiar, even unkempt and unshaven. I told several people that this guy was very talented, funny, was in a couple movies, and to give it a shot. I was absolutely floored to find out that not only was Hugh Laurie brilliant and the character of Dr. Gregory House iconic, but that the whole show was compelling. And through 8 seasons, it was also maddening, predictable, and fearless. After the first couple of years of intriguing and cleverly-contrived medical mysteries, the show lurched in to endless how-far-can-we-go with House's inhumane behavior. But there were still plenty of jaw-dropping dramatic moments - Amber's Death, House's Psychosis - that literally took my breath away. Good to see that the last episodes kept up the ridiculous aspects of plotting while simultaneously bringing the story to a satisfying close without having the characters learn much of anything. There was the faintest hint that House has changed for the better, but given he did that whilst committing felonies and immoralities (stealing a dead body, etc), I think we can call that a draw. I'll just say, that along with "Hill Street Blues" and "Twin Peaks", "House" has been one of my favorite curl-up-in-a-chair, phone-off-the-hook, manhattan-on-the-rocks-in-my-hand TV shows. When comes such another? As they say, "Soupy Twists".

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Posted by netrc at 07:41 PM

February 21, 2012

SW:TPM-3D

Saw SW:TPM-3D . The 3D was pretty good, especially, of course, the action sequences. The "Star Wars" movies are such a visual design treat that that they practically beg for the 3-D effect - from the opening episode crawl, to flying in to canyons or trenches, etc. George Lucas is said to have looked in to 3-D for the original series, but the technology wasn't up to it, and of course, he had his hands full with just the 2-D special effects. In terms of the movie itself, let it be said, I'm just fine with it. For good or bad, it's a children's movie with slapstick and kiddie humor throughout; if you can accept that, it's a romp, even with the more than usual wooden acting. One flaw though is that the Real-D polarization mechanism results in a dimming of the picture. The darker look to sunny Tatooine was especially noticeable. (The franchise probably won't catch up to the #1 franchise, but still has almost $2 billion in total sales!) If you're going to see it, be sure to check out way too much hidden sights to see - I especially liked the ETs in the Senate and the 2001:Space Oddysey pod!
Posted by netrc at 07:31 PM

December 23, 2011

On Avon

UK-Mar71-017.jpg When my mom, dad, brother and I lived in England, from 1968 to 1972, we lived in Hampton-In-Arden, a few miles from Coventry where my Dad worked. Fortunately, we were only some 15 miles north of Stratford-upon-Avon, and we regularly visited the shops and the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. I saw many productions at the theatre, including Julius Ceasar, and Peter Brook’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (with Ben Kingsley). We visited Stratford whenever friends and relatives from “the States” came over; I spent a good deal of time playing with toy boats in the Avon River on the Theatre riverbank. We all came away from that experience with a love of theatre, especially my brother Robert who later became a lighting and sound designer, and stage manager in Michigan and New York City.

As a kind of thanks to my mother and to the RSC, I’ve purchased a seat in the newly renovated theater – L46 – inscribed “Virginia Lee, Robert, and Richard Campbell”. See the seating plan .

Posted by netrc at 11:27 AM

December 05, 2011

Beethoven

It's coming up on the 241st birthday of Ludwig Van and I'm finishing "The Ninth" , my first foray into Beethoven biography. A little overwritten, but more the fun for it. And a very broad review of the master’s life and times. Puts his life and music into context, especially with respect to Napoleaon and The Congress of Vienna and Concert of Europe, and how this relates to Lord Byron (not the golfer), Pushkin, Heine, etc., and the “romantic” tradition. Great stuff. And, I’ve realized I’ve got great gaps in my Beethoven musical exposure – many of the late string quartets, late piano sonatas (esp. Op.111), Diabelli variations, and more. I’ve had the Symphonies memorized ever since my Dad’s Toscanini set (on vinyl of course). Lots more to go through! Apparently, Charles Rosen’s "The Classical Style: Haydyn, Mozart, Beethoven" is the indespensible guide (for lay types like myself).

(For the golfer "Lord" Byron Nelson, see "The Match" . Good quick bios of Hogan, Nelson, Venturi, an unknown amateur, and Cypress Point)

Reminder, latest books and things available through the Amazon store link at left. (You may need to disable ad-blocker for this site. Thanks!)

Posted by netrc at 12:45 PM

May 01, 2011

WWII * 3

Three WWII books:

Helmet for My Pillow: From Parris Island to the Pacific - Robert Leckie's personal account of Guadalcanaland more. Overwritten, purplish prose, showing off the brashness of youth. The battle scenes are vivid but the hell-raising hijinx and cameraderie are a constant counterpoint. This was the basis for the first half of HBO's The Pacific.

With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa - E.B. Sledge's vivid story covers the harrowing island battles of Peleliuand Okinawa. Apparently based on a diary kept during the war, the book is nevertheless written with a far drier, unblinking, and more mature viewpoint. A terrifying read of horror.

Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption - Lauren Hillenbrand's account of the life and Louie Zemperini, teenage terror, Olympic runner, Pacific bomber, and then, the flip-side of the previous books, castaway survivor of a plane crash and prisoner of war. Hillenbrand, as in Seabiscuit, digs deep in to the story, bringing to life every character and detail. The plot will amaze you with coincidence, luck, and courage. Check out the Amazon widget on the left....

Posted by netrc at 09:45 AM

October 30, 2010

Welles/Shakespeare

Orson Welles

Image by andy z via Flickr

Two quick notes: Here you can find recordings of Orson Welles (mostly) Mercury Theater Company performing several of Shakespeare's plays. There's some editing, but nonetheless, Wow.

Second, note Terry Teachout's notes on the movie Me and Orson Welles. Disregard the kiddie romance - there's an important re-staging of Welle's modern-dress Julius Caesar. I missed the movie but have only heard great things about the actor mimicing Welles. Another Wow.

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Posted by netrc at 03:20 PM

February 21, 2010

Recent Reading.....

Finished a nice World War II true adventure story, We Die Alone, relating the trevails of Jan Baalsrud's escape and rescue after a failed espionage attempt in way northern Norway. Great stuff, but the one flaw in the book describing the hiking, swimming, sailing, sledding, doesn't include a map of the trek. Here's one. And the movie, Ni Liv, is apparently great, and a staple on TV in that area, but not available on DVD over here.
In fiction, The First Assasin, is a well-told Jackal-like attempt on President Lincoln early on in his first administration. The real highlight of the book is the evocative recreation of a panicky and defenseless Washington, D.C. sorting out who was on what side during the days before the Civil War began. Again, while the book is careful at getting the details right and setting incidents in real locales in D.C., no map!
Finally, From Tiny Acorns, the Kenny Baker story. (To put it simply, the guy inside R2-D2). An odd, light-hearted biography that manages to convey the hardships, successes, and love of life of Kenny. While we don't need quite as many details of which English pantomine show's he performed in, it's amazing how hard-working the man was. And I had no idea of his decades-long relationship with Jack Purvis and their cabaret act, The Minitones. Alas, there may be no film of that - can't find any original clips on youtube.
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Posted by netrc at 10:12 AM

December 11, 2009

reading pleasures

goodreads.com - possibly a neat site for bibliophiles. But then, does it add enough over just posting reviews here? (which i'm pretty bad at updating) Or why not just get a 'list' or blog over at Amazon.com? Then again, something for the green bike crowd back in Ann Arbor: bookcrossing.com
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Posted by netrc at 09:20 AM

December 05, 2009

Wine and Gaseous Permeability

Assorted wine corks

Image via Wikipedia

Google Reader has helped me find what seems to be a decent wine blog - http://www.wineloverspage.com/. While the recommendations and commentary look fun, I was also interested to read the article on a new brand of composite cork. Which led me to this summary report on the recent findings concerning various permeability rates of wine in bottle. What surfing the net is all about!
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Posted by netrc at 01:08 PM

November 25, 2009

String Music

Appalachia Waltz album cover

Image via Wikipedia

Driving home from work the other day, I heard some beautiful symphonic music on XM/Sirius - mostly strings, melodic, thematic, gorgeous. It took a bit of internet sleuthing to find out what it was: Mark O'Connor's Appalachia Waltz (last song on the playlist). I've since bought various MP3 albums of his. A great find for those interested in contemporary classically-minded, bluegrass-tinged music.
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Posted by netrc at 12:39 PM

October 04, 2009

Art and Weddings

Great ex-DailyPhotographer Paul Engstrom has set up a studio in Grosse Pointe, Michigan. Look for marvelous work from him and his colleagues; and he's also available for hire. Not sure when I'll get there - I'll be happy to post reviews if anyone visits. http://paulengstromfineart.com
Posted by netrc at 01:28 PM

September 19, 2009

South Pacific

A month ago, before leaving the island, we went to see South Pacific, a gorgeous, honest revival. No clever restaging, no subtext, just Rogers and Hammerstein's glorious music - and apparently based on the original orchestrations. Bravura performance of a rightfully beloved musical.

Can't show you what I saw, but here are some online clips:

Posted by netrc at 09:16 AM

April 18, 2009

Robertson Davies

I'm just about done with Robertson Davies "The Cornish Trilogy ". I'd read "The Lyre of Orpheus" (the finale) years ago, but never the preceding two book, "The Rebel Angels", "What's Bred In The Bone". Amazing stuff; rich, rewarding, a great, thoughtful book to absorb. A tough read if you don't care about Rabelais, the theatre, or Toronto's religious background. Once you're done with this, by all means continue with the just as good, just as erudite, and just as long (!) "The Deptford Trilogy"
Posted by netrc at 12:38 PM

October 21, 2008

Spotlight on Crime

Joseph Wambaugh's Hollywood Station is a fun, semi-procedural crime novel. Though there are a couple of narrative threads, it all serves to thrust you into the seamy world of modern crime, LA style. A good fast read. (Also available from my Amazon store, visible on the left side of the page).

Posted by netrc at 12:12 PM

This Season's Man

Roundabout Theatre put on A Man For All Season's starring Frank Langella as the martyr Thomas More. This is a solid production, but essentially a one-man show. Someone said that the reason that this play hasn't been revived on Broadway was that the movie was so good - not a great reason, but true enough. Except for Langella's portrayal, all of the other characters (Henry VIII, Wolsey, Rich, Norfolk) are serviceable yet it's hard not to imagine Robert Shaw,  Orson Welles, John Hurt, Nigel Davenport in their roles.

Of some interest - the original script (via Wikipedia's entry on the play) by Robert Bolt is quite modern, theatrically speaking. There is a "Common Man" narrating the play and taking on different subsidiary roles as required. This explains, to some extent, the care with which those roles were written.

This production (and the movie) do away with that Brechtian touch, which I imagine is for the better. For while the play is a marvelous scholarly quotation of More's writings, conscience, and tragic defense, there's not much to the endeavor except that the main character is saint while all the rest are sinners. But as long as the saint is played by actors of the caliber of Langella (or Scofield), that's more than good enough.

(The only flaw is that the Ambassador to Spain reminds one too much of a Monty Python character!)

Posted by netrc at 11:04 AM

August 18, 2008

Double Danger

Saw The Roundabout Theatre's production of Les Liaisons Dangereuses . Pretty good stuff, with Laura Linney and Ben Daniels. And then, odd coincidence, we had just gotten digital cable hooked up in our lake house, and we saw that Dangerous Liasons was available for free. Interestingly, the movie played out the more romantic of the two; for whatever reason, this theatrical version makes the odd choice of playing the script for laughs. Daniels deserves a lot of credit for being on stage for just about the entire 3-hour running time, but his change from heartlessness to heart-brokenness is undermined by the whole casts' exaggerated slap-stick. Only Linney retains some semblance of propriety in the midst of the amorous cruelties. John Malkovich and Glenn Close are able to make the wrenching denouement work better simply by playing it straight.
Posted by netrc at 04:28 PM

August 05, 2008

Wall-E

Some day, I'll have to put together a spreadsheet calculating the average star rating for various studios. One of the reasons to procrastinate would be that the top studio can be guessed -- What is it about Pixar that they can't seem to make a bad movie? Wall-E is great fun, and manages to balance sweetness with goofy, message with mayhem, and anti-commericialism and technophilia with a level of perfection.

What is a simple robot-screwball-romance seems to morph and grow before our eyes: old-fashioned throw-back (complete with references to Hello, Dolly ), chase movie, man's inhumanity to himself, etc. And, as if to top it all off, mostly silent (except for the sound effects, music, and android beep-boops).

I'm only disappointed that, with all the references to the film-in-a-film, they didn't finish off the atmospheric production with the cast singing Hello, Wall-E.

Posted by netrc at 03:12 PM

June 23, 2008

Iron Man

I got to the second highest global boxoffice film of 2008 whilst Kristen was at Sex And The City. Iron Man is certainly one of the best comic-book-to-movies adaptations out there (though I confess, I never even knew the source material existed before now). As with "Indiana Jones", the plot of course is meaningless. The key is to have a great, natural lead and effortlessly quick and imaginative storytelling. As the lead, Robert Downey Jr. is out-and-out fantastic, bringing hard-work, obsessiveness, and quirkyness to the role. For story-telling, Jon Favreau (and Industrial Light & Magic) have produced another great summer action ride. Added to the mix, Jeff Bridges - of all people - handles the role of evil corporate boss with larger-than-life bravado (and lots of basso yelling). Much fun.
Posted by netrc at 04:49 PM

Indy's Back

I haven't posted in a long time, but at least not as long as Indy's been away. Spielberg's latest smash ( 2008 global box office champ ) has the daunting task of trying to live up to our memories of the past. There's no escaping that this new trek has a different tone and a couple of clunky scenes, yet it is a joyful ride nevertheless.

This time, we've got a few new characters with Sean Connery noticeably absent. I think that's a good thing; recall how Lethal Weapon became a bloated sit-com as it added second-bananas with every outing. Now, we add a new kid on the block, Shia LaBeouf, and resurrect Karen Allen as the long-suffering girlfriend. LeBeouf's fine - it's not like a Jones movie is strong on introspection anyway - but Allen doesn't do much more than smile at Indy or the camera the whole time. Thankfully, the one main scene where the two talk-it-out hits the mark.

The whole picture is more measured in its pacing than the early pics, an indication of everyone's age, perhaps. As we pick up the pieces of this episodes puzzles, we never quite reach manic levels of adventure, and the mix of Soviet spies, Incan (or whoever's) ruins, and aliens, never really makes any sense. And who cares? You'd think that after finding the Holy Grail, Indy would become a confirmed Roman Catholic - so it's easy to take the gang's gee-whiz response to aliens in stride.

At the end, it may be diminished expectations (one friend actually despises the movie), but the rest of my gang liked it just fine.

Posted by netrc at 03:50 PM

March 20, 2008

Kings

Two Shakespearean tragedies, two damn fine performance, and two annoying productions. A few months back, we went overseas (over the East River, that is) to Brooklyn's BAM to see King Lear with Ian McKellan. It was a long, ponderous show -- starting out with the cast parading out on stage to the sound of a loud and portentious orchestral anthem. After then parading back off stage and re-entering to take their places for Act I, Scene I, we were able to settle in to the extraordinarily uncomfortable seats and watch four hours of royal backstabbing.

Whilst the overall effect was fine, the recent habit of British Shakespearean actors to overact, ham up each line, and add arbitrary snarkiness to every meter of prose, grows exhausting. There was a time when the tradition was to speak the lines plainly, letting the beauty of the words shine. (Not to mention way back in the day, when musicality of speech was rewarded). Now, lines are overwrought exaggerations, with shaking body parts, and all innuendo graphically displayed. Oddly enough, over a decade ago, McKellan's Richard III was a far more evenly modulated performance that brought novel insights into the play to the fore.

Still, by the time you get to Lear carrying in dead Cordelia, you're still transported by the ageless drama. And even an overbaked Ian McKellan is better than most anyone else.

After Lear, I thought that Macbeth would be a sure thing. It's the shortest play, and really quite straightforward. Patrick Stewart can manage this sort of thing with ease. But again, the production just wouldn't let the play be the thing. This time, we're set in a modern army of some sort -- nothing too wrong with that. Then we lather on Soviet imagery -- ok, I get it, Macbeth's assassination is akin to totalitarian regime change. But then again, every little character is encouraged to turn small parts and lines into bravura showstoppers. Never would you have guessed the sturm-und-drang brought to bear on the simple, quick comic sketch that should be the Porter's scene.

Oh well. Both evenings were put on by very talented people and there is much to recall with pleasure. But seriously, too too much effort put in to almost ruining the classics. Take it easy, next time.

Posted by netrc at 05:33 PM

February 26, 2008

Coen Brothers Redux

No Country For Old Men is a wonderful Tommy Lee Jones vehicle built on top of yet-another Coen brothers horror/noir film. Whilst the Academy handed it the top award, I can't go that far. I don't mind the film wandering off in the last half-hour, upsetting audience expectations. It's just that on reflection I don't find Javier Bardem's hit-man that interesting -- and I sure don't much care to spend as much time as the Coen's do on his self-surgical abilities. (Is there much point to these scenes except to demonstrate good practical special effects?).

Once you get past that characters' violence, he's just another lone-biker-of-the-apocalypse representing implacable fate. And the coin-tossing and stun-gun, while prominent in other reviews, are not particularly relevant to the plot.

The normative cast - Josh Brolin and Kelly MacDonald - are quite fine, but their fine acting only serves to further the story rather than illuminate much of anything.

Which leaves me with Tommy Lee Jone's monolgues and panoramas of the Texas wilderness. And I like that just fine.

Posted by netrc at 06:14 PM

February 25, 2008

Cat On A Hot Tin Roof

All-star theater casts are often as not a disaster. Cat On A Hot Tin Roof is not a disaster, but its punctuated successes are enough for a memorable evening. The audience seemed to care less about the sad drama and was overly restless in the warm house. Debbie Allen's direction and stage-craft leaned toward kitch (why a lone saxaphone wandered the stage to open each act is a mystery). And even the always reliable Phylicia Rashad veered toward caricature.

But once the leads were warmed up, and once James Earl Jones took command of the stage as Big Daddy, all was forgiven. Jone's, of course, was the most experienced actor of the evening, and besides his talent, it was clear that he was also the hardest working person on stage. His monologues were delivered with that unforgettable voice, but also with dazzling shades of emotion and a clear performance.

His co-star, Terence Howard, as Brick, spent the first act testing the audience's patience, never showing much character. (It must be said that Brick's first act has precious little to go on, a terribly hard job). With Jones to work with through out the second act, the team mesmerized. While the play itself is dated, the script's poetry still comes through; Jones and Howard's battles were fascinating.

So, this was an evening of trying to ignore the crowd's inopportune giggling at jokes that weren't in the script and instead just enjoying the part of the evening when two great actors delivered the goods.

Posted by netrc at 09:56 PM

February 11, 2008

Best Picture

Two reviews in one....

Likely AMPAS Best Picture winner, Atonement , is really wonderful from beginning to end. The tragic tale of love is told as a writer would tell it, a comment which has a lot to do with the original novel on which the film is based. But the film adds another layer of expressiveness which miraculously helps the novel's tale - most movies about writers aren't nearly as clever. The story jumps around a bit, but again, the story actually demands it rather than this just being a random creation of the screenplay. And the sound design is practically perfect, myriad details and typewriter clacking adding layers of substance and diagetic detail, about which, unfortunately, little can be said without spoiling the film. (And no, I've not used the word 'diagetic' since University days.) It's the kind of film that should repay a second viewing. It's also the kind of film, in an English Patient sort of way, that the Academy should love.

We also saw another Best Picture, but this is from the Soviet Union circa 1970. About four years ago, I was in Moscow and went on a business lunch to a theme restaurant: white-washed adobe, desert outpost style. Our host told us that it was based on the beloved film White Sun of the Desert. Apparently, this is the Star Wars of Russia, a western (their term is Ostern), with a wry, smart, quick draw hero of the civil war (reds v. white, recall) taking on local (asiatic) desperados in order to save the day, in this case a harem of nine women. And by "beloved" I mean that almost every line is now a Russian catch-phrase, a character's folk song was a hit, and the film was voted favorite movie in 1995.

For me, I can almost get it; the one-liners don't really translate well with sub-titles, and the old-fashioned '60s fight-scenes and shoot-em-ups are not well done. I imagine if I had seen it back in the day, on a late-night movie show, it would make more sense. But the great spaghetti westerns and real U.S. westerns are, for me of course, superior.

Posted by netrc at 02:53 PM

January 23, 2008

Juno

Juno is sort of a younger, hipper version of Waitress . We saw Juno at the multiplex; Waitress on DVD. Both are comical treatments of accidental pregnancy, veering from precocious to whimsical=. And both are almost entirely sustained by their leading actress - Ellen Page and Keri Russel, respectively. If you can get over the hyperbolic writing (and Juno is almost cloyingly sardonic), the films are pleasant enough. Where they differ is with the different take on the father - Juno's high-school senior mate is earnest but quiet, while Waitress's is a minor monster. But everyone ends up happily every after (except the bad guy).
Posted by netrc at 05:04 PM

January 15, 2008

The Little Sparrow

And speaking of voices, La Vie En Rose just won a Golden Globe for Marion Cotillard's performance as Edith Piaf. Whilst this is a standard musical bio-pic, the story is somewhat randomly chopped into pieces, taking quite an effort to make out the time period of certain scenes.

But whatever, the point is, Edith grew up in extreme hardship, poverty, and sickness; became an overnight smash success; partied too hard, loved too much, etc, etc. And practically invented the over-the-top, melodramatic French cabaret song. As usual in these affairs, the film ends with her breathtaking come-back concert and that quintessential performance of Non, je ne regrette rien.

(For more Cotillard, you could check out the goofy A Good Year ; it's mostly an odd Russell Crowe vehicle, which tries too hard to be fun, but Cotillard's brightness and spirit makes the romantic finale almost plausible.)

Posted by netrc at 01:06 PM

Blood/Oil

Daniel Day-Lewis channels the voice of John Huston for his portrayal of the nasty oil-baron Daniel Plainview. And for the first half of There Will Be Blood that's all you care about; whenever he's on screen, watching and listening to him is mesmerizing. After that, you start to wonder where the plot is going, and realize that there's not much there. Apart from a rather arbitrary antagonism between Plainview and a superficially pure preacher ( Little Miss Sunshine's Paul Dano), it's not story but the character of Plainview alone that is the purpose of the film. There are great settings and set pieces, but ultimately, there's nothing in the film that can stand up to that magnificent baritone.
Posted by netrc at 12:47 PM

January 02, 2008

Happy New Year

So much for posting more....But let's start the year off with a link to a new pedia site: http://www.whiskipedia.org. Look for additions in the over-priced, cool-shaped bottle categories from yours truly. I expect the gang reading this to contribute as well.

Cheers!

Posted by netrc at 11:12 AM

December 05, 2007

It is loverly

Shaw's Pygmalion is a delight with strong performances all around. Of course, with the brilliant musical and movie versions ever fresh in our memory, it's hard to watch the show and not make comparisons. The play is profound and chatty, but we're getting close to the point where the simplified issues of class-struggle and the gender gap are so far behind us that while the humor of the comedy comes through, the length of discourse devoted to the drama seems to overwhelm the production.

This is compounded by the choice to play Professor Henry Higgins as a teenager. A true enough characterization, well-played by Jefferson Mays, that also undermines the audiences suspension-of-disbelief. Higgins is alway a jerk, but as a mature Englishman, someone we can somehow try and believe in -- as an immature adolescent, we just don't care.

Claire Danes does very well with the tricky accents of the before and after Eliza. It is, of course, a shame that the key scenes of Eliza's triumph at a Royal Ball (a classic treat of the justly admired George Cukor film, with Cecil Beaton's designs and costumes) are unseen in Shaw's version. Her after-party argument with Higgins, though, does give us the right amount of indignation and new-found self-confidence.

As proof of the age of the play, the ending may need a 21st century rewrite. As it is, instead of letting Higgin's win big (in the script) or even battle to a draw (as in the movie), this version speaks the lines, but leaves Higgins on stage alone with a dawning realization he may well have lost. A bit of a letdown after all the snappy to-and-fro.

Posted by netrc at 02:18 PM

December 04, 2007

Important Stuff

What a way to start the day ! The new release of The Secret History Of Star Wars! One fan's 583page (4.9MB PDF) definitive guide to the story of how Maestro Lucas invented and wrote the scripts to our fave duo-trilogy.
Posted by netrc at 10:00 AM

December 03, 2007

Heads up....Sweeney Todd

Terry Teachout, arts correspondent for various papers, writes that the upcoming Tim Burton/Johnny Depp Sweeney Todd film is "without exception, and by a considerable margin--the best film ever to have been made from a Broadway musical."

Wow.

Posted by netrc at 09:26 AM

December 02, 2007

Dan In Real Life

Seve Carell is astonishingly good in Dan In Real Life , a situation comedy played straight with none of his Office (US) mugging or incredulity. Though the whole is somewhat less than its parts, the film does manage to keep it sweet without cloying, and funny despite the dumb melodrama. A great break-out dramatic role (on the heels of last years Little Miss Sunshine , and possibly showing he's a better actor than comedian.
Posted by netrc at 01:28 PM

December 01, 2007

Ben

(Editor's Note - trying out some new items on the blog. For what it is worth, this may help get me writing more and will, it is hoped, be a bit more entertaining for y'all)
Just finished Benjamin Franklin: An American Life. Shapiro's biography is a fascinating overview but feels like more of a history lesson than an in-depth bio. There's plenty of details of when and where, but not as much perspective on living in the time. While Shapiro isn't a science writer, he does seem to fancy himself an expert on religious matters - for some reason, there is copious discussion of Franklin's theology, which oddly concludes that he didn't have much of a formal religious outlook. That and the odd use of modern political terms ("conservative", "trickle-down theory") to describe certain of Ben's policies make for a slightly bumpy ride -- but then again, Franklin's extensive travels and involvement in all aspects of late-18th century American life was rambunctious. All in all, great stuff.
Note - Mr. Shapiro was a fellow editor at The Michigan Daily
Posted by netrc at 11:21 AM

June 11, 2007

Pointless

The Soprano's famous opening sequence ends with Tony looking cool and the theme song ending abruptly with a screech. That's pretty much how the entire series ended, not with a bang but with an quick quiet blackout.

The hip crowd will cherish this as a brave defiance of audience expectations as if frustrating one's audience were anything more than mere adolescence. Yes, I'm frustrated, but not at unfulfilled assassinations, it's the realization that there's nothing to care about, that the show was a waste of time.

The question was never just, will Tony die? The question is, What is the point of the show, why am I watching this? If we're just watching mobsters whack each other, we're not much better off than the human animals depicted in the show itself. In the final episode, Chase is smart enough to include a character, an FBI agent, who reacts with glee -- like many in the audience -- when Tony's nemesis Phil Leotardo is off'd leaving the Sopranos as the last man standing. Those who cheered along are guilty of siding with depravity: we can't honestly side against one ugly repugnant mobster just because we are smitten by another cute-as-a-teddy-bear repugnant mobster.

The show concludes with a paean to moral relativism; everyone's been corrupted and no one cares. Carmela is a willing participant in Tony' s illicit money deals and abets his murders, helping him hideout during a mob-war; A.J. finally stops whining about the state of the world, and gets a job in the movie business complete with Mercedes-Benz; Meadow is in law-school but apparently about to give-up her poverty-law project for a job in a high-powered law firm and by-the-way marrying the son of one of Tony's capos.

Great, now what does Chase have to say about this morally bankrupt universe? Apparently, nothing. Tony goes to visit his uncle one last time; though his uncle was similarly criminal and powerful, his dementia is now almost total. Tony sees that in the end, no matter how powerful you are, you're going to wind up staring vacantly into the void. Whatever, fuggedaboutit.

Do I want to spend hours watching a show teach me that the universe has no meaning? I don't need 7 years, mind-numbing dream sequences, and graphic violence to make that point. More importantly, if the universe has no meaning, what choices are we supposed to make in our lives? I guess running northern New Jersey is as reasonable a choice as any?

It's oh-so post-modern to say that it's up to the audience to complete the picture. That's just a cop-out: for any civilized person the outcome is simple -- Tony goes to jail for hundreds of years. Unfortunately, that's not very dramatic. I'd like to pay to see an artist depict that kind of moral judgement for me, and in a creative and vital manner. That's the job.

Is the show then just a testament to Chase's power to tease the audience? The point was to see if he could end a 7-year series with a pie-in-the-face joke? Frankly, I get frustrated when the toothpaste doesn't come out of the tube in the morning -- stopping a story in mid-climax and making me testy isn't a particularly impressive feat. There are plenty of shows/movies with great acting, smart writing, and technically proficient directing. But there's more to great art than those attributes. Even pure-technicians such as Quenten Tarantino have a sense of moral order.

Not to compare the great and profane too closely, but how does "The Godfather" deal with morality? Turns out, very clearly and cleanly. In each episode, Michael Corleone makes increasingly evil pacts with the devil and, though a fascinating and compelling character, there's never any doubt in our mind that he's making bad choices. Coppola's genius shows us that Michael is despicable; notably, though Tony is the far grislier criminal (Michael's only personal murder is faintly justified as revenge for Vito's attempted murder), our final glimpses of Michael depict an increasingly isolated figure, facing his immorality alone. Tony, on the other hand, though his crew has been decimated, is on the top of the world business-wise and he's even got a finally happy nuclear family.

There's supposed to be tension in that a hit-man may or may not be in the diner about to kill Tony. If true, this would apparently be a mod-hit; again, what do I care if one mobster kills another? There's simply nothing to be learned from this.

One of the original advertising posters for the show summed up the basic dramtic conflict: It showed Tony flanked on his left by his mob family and on his right his real family, with the tag line, "One of these families will kill him". Cute, but in the end, no one kills him.

Some have said the show is thus just about (biological) family. Really? As in, stay with a morally bankrupt and criminal husband no matter what? As in, don't ask too many questions about Dad's business, even though you're a lawyer? If the show is about family, then it is apparently endorsing the view that family trumps ethics.

What has been so aggravating to me is the absence of anyone directly confronting Tony with his mis-deeds and refusing to go along with him. The penultimate episode finally showed his shrink saying "no more", but that stand was then subverted by the successes Tony had in the final episode. I thought that her position was going to be reinforced with more active rejection of Tony's lifestyle by others but his family (though they didn't like living in fear) does nothing but support him. Again, as a civilized person, the rational response to this is easy: that they are making the wrong decision.

One critic writes "I think this may be Chase's way of showing how strange it is that the audience is with Tony, too. We have forgotten that he is a remorseless killer." What an odd thing to suggest. Does the critic think that the audience is composed of idiots? It's not "strange" that the audience is with Tony - that's a deliberate choice of Chase's. He and Gandolfini have used every trick they know of (and several they invented) to make us like Tony. Is Chase just playing us for fools - How long can I make them enjoy Tony before they realize that they are wrong?

But then why not show some sort of comeupance? Wouldn't that, more than anything, explain to the idiotic audience that they had their xxx on the wrong horse? So the reason Chase doesn't do this is because he respects us, and we can figure out our own ending? As I said, that's what I'm paying him for.

So the show ends, teasing us with a self-centered, show off's send off. There's arrogance in its amorality - Chase can show us terrible acts of human behavior in a world where few come to justice and actions rarely have consequences so long as your family loves you (and your buddy in the FBI tells you where your enemy's hanging out).

Chase leaves it up to me to finish the show? The attractive to look at, creatively marvelous show has, at the end nothing that should be finished. A pointless waste of time.

Posted by netrc at 04:43 PM

April 26, 2007

Musicals

Catching up on a few musicals.....

Saw The Apple Tree at Studio 54, c/o The Roundabout. This cute production -- three one-act musical fables -- was great fun, due to the leads, Kristin Chenoweth and Brian d'Arcy James. Chenoweth has been in some TV and was the original Glinda in Wicked. She should be an even bigger star soon, as she can act, sing, and make 'em laugh. Trivia: in the first act, based on Mark Twain's The Diary of Adam and Eve, the voice of God was spoken by Alan Alda, who starred as Adam in the original 1966 production.

The New York Philharmonic hosted a short benefit production of My Fair Lady starring a thankfully wonderful Kelsey Grammer as Prof. Higgins. Though there were several shades of "Frasier" to the performance, Grammer made it clear that was more by choice than laziness - Higgins is almost as pompous and self-centered as Frasier, after all. The star of the production was Kelli O'Hara, who we last saw in the beautiful Light In The Piazza . Her Eliza was great and her performance of "I Could Have Danced All Night" was practically perfect, getting a standing ovation from the Lincoln Center audience. The rollicking character of Alfred P. Doolittle was exuberantly played by the burly Brian Dennehy. All in all, a great evening for a great musical.

Finally, New York City Opera's production of "Pirates of Penzance" was a real disappointment. Insisting on a post-modern staging with distracting sets and miscellaneous characters running around on stage served only to diminish and undermine the sweetness and glory of the music. After the Act I ending hymn "Hail, Poetry" was ruined by some comedy business involving a moving backdrop, we left at the intermission. True, the cast, including Brian d'Arcy James (again!) as the Pirate King, was excellent, but the production was a mess.

Posted by netrc at 11:41 AM

January 25, 2007

Reds

One of my all-time favorites and, don't forget, multiple Oscar winner including Best Picture of 1984. Reds was finally released on DVD and I took an evening to show it on my big screen. And I was only slightly surprised to find that it beats the test of time handily.

Frankly, it's got it all: expert casting, great dialogue, fascinating history, powerful dramatic encounters, and yes, a fine love story.

Good thing this is only a blog, because I can talk about the backstory and the making of for hours. This was a labor of love for producer/director/star/left-wing-extremist Warren Beatty; good for him that every frame of the film shows his deep love and care.

For those that don't know the story, the film follows the radical socialist/communist movement in the US in the late teens, from before to just after The Great War. That may not sound like the prescription for a blockbuster flick, but by focusing on the marvelous characters and lives of those promoting that movement, the movie is alive with emotion and intellect. It focuses on the life of journalist (or politician?) Jack Reed, one of the few US citizens to be so respected by the Soviets as to be immortalized with burial in the Kremlin Wall.

Can you watch such shenanigans for three hours? Believe me, it's absolutely compelling. And by the time that you're not sure just how much more infighting between the Communist Worker's Party versus the Communist Labor Party (splitters!!) you can take, you find yourself swept away in a revolutionary montage storming the Winter Palace with Beatty and Diane Keaton as they overthrow the Czarist government all to the driving music of the Soviet Army Chorus singing the communist party anthem, The Internationale. (again, believe me, it's absolutely thrilling.)

Special mention must be made of Jack Nicholson's bitter portrayal of Eugene O'Neil and Maureen Stapleton's fanatical Emma Goldman mother-figure. But there are so many interesting performances and details - e.g. When Jack Reed is supposed to be interviewing the Russian parliaments prime minister Kerensky, the actor is actually Kerensky's real grandson; WWII survivor and author Jerzy Kosinksi portrays bolshevik politician Zinoviev; etc; etc; - that the sum is a profoundly memorable experience.

And finally, regarding the cold war against Soviet totalitarianism, won a mere five years after the film's release, Beatty (and Reed) may just be quoting Tom Lehrer, "though they may have won all the battles, we had all the good songs!"

Posted by netrc at 04:34 PM

Dream Song

Better than the theatrical production, which is saying a lot. On-stage, the music was evocative of the decades long backlot story of the Supremes-like Motown singing group, but the film's ability to show settings, exteriors, costumes, and faux-video clips from the '60s through '80s makes the entire production pop and zing.

The story itself is conventional, jealousy and backstabbing relationships in show-biz, but the semi-biographical hook and the up-and-downs of each characters career is compelling.

It's always a bit funny in musicals to hear one person comment about a just written song, 'that'g going to be a hit', when the song itself is not particularly memorable. Dreamgirls songs , save one, are not great, but they comment on the storyline in inventive ways.

And how nice for the filmmakers to know that the success or failure of the entire production rests on that one song. Thanks to lip-syncing, they may have spent days or weeks in the studio getting "And I Am Telling You, I'm Not Going" exactly right, cutting and splicing the best phrasings together. Then filmng that scene's arguing quartet leading to Jennifer Hudson's on screen dramatic performance. And putting it together into one emotionally explosive aria. They knew they had to get it right and they absolutely succeeded.

The fact that the entire cast and setting are all as carefully engineered as that song just adds to the total package. (And yes, it's bizarre that it didn't get a Best Picture nod.)

Posted by netrc at 04:28 PM

The Good Enough Shepherd

The film starts with shots of gray-suited Matt Damon going to his office in an anonymous Washington D.C. building. That the movie is serious and dramatic we know because of the timpanic soundtrack banging away through the slightest of moments in the film - he's actually getting on the bus to go to work, dum dum dum!

While The Good Shepherd takes itself too seriously, it's also a decent if grim spy caper. Based on an original novel, it comes across as a US version of LeCarre, as we see Damon mature from his father's suicide, join the OSS during WWII and thence come to head covert ops at the CIA. Without giving too much away, our hero's stuggle to prove himself worthy to his dead father causes an inevitable lapse of involvement in his own son's life while the cold war's real battles over Cuba result in embarassment and failure. Is the point of the film that Castro's dictatorship might have been overthrown in the early days if only father's would pay more attention to their son's choral recitals?

Whatever the character analysis, the entire cast and atmospheric production provides enough of a hook that you'll forgive the film's in-your-face dare: Can you be engaged by a lead character who (just as with LeCarre's Smiley) shows practically no emotion or character throughout the almost three-hour running time?

Posted by netrc at 04:08 PM

November 29, 2006

Shaken Up

Poor Timothy Dalton. When he appeared in The Living Daylights back in 1987 (!), he was hailed as the new, more intense, less glamorous Bond. Unfortunately, his 007 films were still produced to the same level of cookie-cutter girls/gadgets/locations as all the others. The new new Bond of Casino Royale is also intense and hard-edged, but in a film that eschews most of the glamourous cliches of the genre - e.g. there's no wacky-tech killing machine from which he must escape, just the bad guy beating him up.

That's good news for the series as there's actually a reason to see this film at a real movie theater rather than just waiting for its appearance on cable. But it doesn't mean that this is the apogee of spy films. It's still silly and predictable and overstuffed with pointless characters and loose-ends.

As mentioned, there are no wierd tech gadgets that get in the way of the plot, but the texas hold'em poker game (What! No chemin de fer?) that is the centerpiece of the Bond/BadGuy duel seems to take two or three days to play, and almost that long to watch.

And while Daniel Craig's Bond is properly described as a "blunt" instrument, his acting is too with dramatic readings just this side of wooden.

But still and all, the new writers and producers of this film have done well at reinvigorating our old friend. Cheers.

Posted by netrc at 02:19 PM

November 20, 2006

RSC Posters for sale

Clearing out room in the apartment. Thanks to my parents interest in 'theatre', I've been holding on to these 5 RSC posters for the past 30 years. And, frankly, never even unrolled them until the obvious thought struck me a week ago, Aha, sell them on eBay!
Posted by netrc at 09:15 PM

November 02, 2006

Flag-waving

According to the IMDB, when The Queen premiered at the Venice Film Festival, Helen Mirren receieved a 5-minute standing ovation for her performance. Mirren deserves many acting accolades and we wish her well. But the 5-minute ovation paralles all too neatly the emotional over-reaction to the death of Diana, the central plot of the film itself.

The film does capture in a kind of upstairs-downstairs fashion the personl/political/monarchical intersections of fate during that week in late August 1997. All of which is somewhat interesting, though mostly to Anglophiles and Royal-watchers. But the film never gets too far beyond Mirren's fascinating characterization of Elizabeth.

While the world goes crazy over the tragedy, Elizabeth repeatedly says that the children should stay with the family in Balmoral. But then the film never shows us the children at all. Perhaps Elizabeth was right, and Philips' deer-hunting excursions (though of course laden with irony) may have been a reasonable outlet for Harry and William -- we never know. In fact, there's not a single line of dialogue from the kids or shot of their faces at all.

And then we barely see Charles do anything either. This seems more likely to be one of the points of the film, silently giving in to his mother's wishes with hardly a comment. But then that isn't very dramatic either. In fact, there are hints of something going on - Charles comments to Blair about being "modern", and then Blair mention that to his team. At which point we never hear from Chas again.

And of course, the complex character of Diana is also missing. Was she a true saint, a royal rebel, or just a party girl? All we see is the increasingly fervid reaction to her demise.

So we're left with the trivial issues of whether a flag should fly over Buckingham Palace. Reasonable people may disagree about that. But while one or two issues of that nature are of slight interest to the Queen's subjects, they don't really amount to a hill-of-beans. There's just not much relevent human drama in the film.

It's a neat behind-the-scenes evocation of the people and their time, but at the end of the day, it's more a documentary of celebrity hysteria than an interesting character study. (Though we're relieved from seeing Elton John's emotional pianism at the funeral).

To end on a joke - we liked Mirren in the prequel better.

Posted by netrc at 03:15 PM

October 20, 2006

The Bleat

James Lileks, author and columnist, publishes amusing takes on American. His entry for Fri Oct 20 2006 can be found here . He's got a great collection of mid-century advertisements, jingles, and popular song which he writes about and includes in his weekly on-line audio-cast - this week, ruminations on luck, baseball, and phobias.

Posted by netrc at 12:13 PM

October 16, 2006

Marty's Latest

There was an interesting review of an independent movie director of the '70s in last week's New York Sun wherein the filmmaker talked at length about how casting is everything - everything - when it comes to making movies. He's probably right; thinking back on the greatest films of the past, they certainly all seem like they couldn't have been made with anyone else acting any of the roles from Gone With The Wind to Apocalypse Now.

Scorsese's The Departed is getting accolades for his bravura cast. Indeed the filmmaker just mentioned singles out The Departed for exactly that point.

I'd have to respectfully disagree. While the film is slam-bang entertainment, and while the roles are acted within an inch of their preposterousness, there's just not enough story or character there to put the film in the first ranks of Scorsese's works.

The story of dueling rats in the Boston P.D. and the local Irish mob makes for many frantic moments - will our twisted heroes get caught?! - but except for that, there's only random elements of local color (and vividly colorful language) to flesh the film out. Extremism for the purpose of character histrionics turns into the sin of lapsed story-telling.

I was reminded of John Woo's Face-Off, a somewhat similar character duel where you couldn't keep who-was-who straight and by the end of the film didn't even care. That was an honest B-movie. The original Hong Kong flick Internal Affairs , upon which The Departed was based, is also a straight-forward B-movie. For me, Scorsese's attempt to drag the script into the A-list just falls short of the mark.

Rather than drama or character being the star of the film, what you're left with is Scorsese's direction and, more specifically, his longtime colleague Thelma Schoonmaker's editing. Crackling edits, snappy action, and a lot of swearing make for a fun night at the movies, but I figure we'll rather be watching Goodfellas , Taxi Driver , and a half-dozen of his other films again in the future.

Posted by netrc at 05:23 PM

August 29, 2006

Newport

Just had a nice trip to Newport to celebrate our birthdays. Very cute village in the middle of the Rhode Island bays; lots of tourists, restaurants, and trinkets. Also, three very nice beaches - easy quahog clam digging too. There are about a dozen mansions of the rich and famous (and dead) to tour. Well worth a day or two. Selected pics at Picassa/Google.
Posted by netrc at 10:17 PM

June 27, 2006

Best Musical ?

Jersey Boys got the Tony for Best Musical, but I just saw The Drowsy Chaperone (which won 5 awards itself) and I can't imagine a more delightful evening on Broadway. The musical-within-a-musical is presented as the yearning re-imaginings of a sad "Man In Chair". He opens the show with a monolgue during the blackout before curtain up. He accurately reflects on all of our apprehension about the show to come - will it be tedious? will it be too long?

The Man then puts on a recording of the '20s Broadway show, 'The Drowsy Chaperone' and we see the production come to life. The story is a trivial farce, with light and witty musical numbers. The whole enterprise is funny and droll and just the thing to chase the narrator's blues away.

Watching it, you can almost see how the show evolved from a comedy sketch in Toronto. From there it's been expanded, but not too much, keeping the charm of the original, and it's simple message alive. And, as the Man In Chair would note, it's not too long, just shy of two hours.

The cast includes the brilliantly inane Georgia Engel , of course from The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and Frasier's Edward Hibbert . But the luckiest man on Broadway has to be our sad hero Bob Martin, who wrote the book, won a Tony, and gets to enact the whole thing seven times a week.

One inside joke: The Drowsy Chaperone is said to have been produced on Broadway in the '20s at the Morosco Theater which was (paraphrase) "torn down to put up an ugly hotel". This show is taking place at the Marquis Theatre which indeed is part of the hotel built upon the old Morsosco site.

Posted by netrc at 12:23 PM

June 13, 2006

Screw It

Zarqawi is dead; Rove is innocent; Alberto never became a hurricane....and all the Ann Arbor crowd can do is change the subject and come out *in favor* of cork. They're even selling T-shirts with their extremist conservative message.

Why not do it right and go back to the Roman method of stuffing the top with straw and pine-tar?

Let's get reality-based on this: wine is a straight-forward agricultural product which should be packaged using something inexpensive, trivial to use, non-threatening, and which preserves the contents best. For 99.99% of all wine made and consumed, that means screw-tops.

If screw-tops are good enough for my gin, vermouth, and scotch, it's good enough for my wine.

Meanwhile, check out the EncycloWine Wiki . Looks like we got a lot of wiki'ng to do. (And we'll get the job done faster if we aren't spending precious time helically uncorking wine!)

Posted by netrc at 10:24 AM

May 17, 2006

MI:III

The Cruise-produced Mission Impossible:III works well as mindless fun, but maybe someday someone will actually put together a movie based on the old TV show. This version is solely concerned with three (or so) distinct action scenes which could of course be in any order and still make sense. As action scenes go, they are fine -- and, hard as it is to admit, they work because of the energetic focus of Tom Cruise (who's apparently trying to take over the mantle of wierdest celebrity now that Michael Jackson is unavailable).

The only real let-down is that character development is so pared down that Philip Seymour Hoffman's evil overlord has barely anything to do. Hoffman dead-pans his lines perfectly and then is shuffled off-screen so that we can get to the next explosion. We saw Hoffman and Cruise together (almost) in the melodramatic Magnolia ; since nothing in this film's plot is there to make sense, why not have a throwaway scene where the two stars can actually have a dialog?

Still and all, probably the best of the three....

Posted by netrc at 11:06 AM

April 25, 2006

Maestros

A few months ago, we purchased tickets to a New York Philharmonic concert of John Williams music expecting some fun entertainment. Upon arrival at the show, we discovered we were in the front row and that, not only was John Williams conducting, but Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg would be introducing some of the pieces.

The evening was presented in two parts: the first was devoted to the film music of Bernard Herrmann , which spanned most of cinema's history from Citizen Kane, Psycho , and North by Northwest to Scorsese's masterpiece, Taxi Driver . Scorsese was visibly moved as he told stories of Herrmann's brusque composing attitudes -- in fact, Herrmann died the night after the last audio mixing on "Taxi Driver" was finished.

The second part of the evening focused on the collaboration between Spielberg and Williams. This ranged from the sacred Schindler's List and Munich , to the spectacular Close Encounters of the Third Kind . Showing the power of film and music together, the finale of the movie E.T. was shown with the orchestra performing the score live. Speilberg sat near the podium watching the crowd relive the honest sentimentality of that small epic. While I'm sure the crowd was partisan, it was amazing to see Lincoln Center's Avery Fischer Hall roar with applause at the conclusion.

The evening ended with several encores: the magnificent Star Wars themes, the complete "NBC Evening News" orchestral arrangement (sounds wierd but played with elegance), and a brief birthday gift to Leonard Bernstein that Williams wrote in the late '70s.

A quite exceptional evening and great showcase of three American masters of film arts.

update: updated to change "I" to "We" -- the lovely Kristen accompanied Richard.

Posted by netrc at 10:35 AM

April 18, 2006

16 Blocks

A bit late for first-run movie houses, but if you're looking for something on cable....

16 Blocks is a crackling, tightly written cop movie. Director Richard Donner has had fun movies in the past but seemed to be running out of steam - this film shows he can still make a compelling (though escapist) film with the best. The keys, of course, are the great characterizations by the leads Bruce Willis, Mos Def, and David Morse. Our aging cop-hero is over-the-hill, but sets out to redeem himself defending a minor criminal, who needs to get to a Grand Jury hearing across town. While this could have been larded up into latter-"Die Hard"-movie boredom, it actually comes across more like a snappy off-Broadway play (with just enough bullets and buses to keep it fun).

Posted by netrc at 11:23 AM

April 17, 2006

Tony's House

Went to New Jersey for Easter and stopped by Kristen's parents. Turns out, Tony Soprano's house is right between her mom's and her dad's house. The address isn't easily available on the net, but some sleuthing with Google Earth found it. (Looks like the folks have added a west-wing guest-house.)

Posted by netrc at 11:45 AM

January 24, 2006

Trivial Earthquake

Simon Winchester's A Crack In The Edge Of The World is the most fascinating and simultaneously frustrating book I've ever read. Chock full of scientific info and trivia concerning the San Francisco earthquake of 1906, the book is also written in the most annoying self-agrandizing fashion imaginable and rambles on and over itself as if the prose were never touched by an editor. The convoluted story-telling is interspersed with personal factoids and a lack of concern for structure -- minor items in the text should be in footnotes, other plot-points in footnotes ought to be part of the narrative. (Example: after pages of foreshadowing the California Gold Rush, we read about the famous Sutter's Mill discovery of 1848. A footnote then mentions that gold was actually discovered six years earlier!)

For those that can bear this, the book is mostly concerned with the tectonic machinations of the North American Plate rather than the Quake itself. As the book struggles to connect the science with the sociological, the author's foreign antipathies become clear: he imagines the Quake's psychological effects as inducing the rise of fundementalism, amongst other evils. And near the end, as he travels through Alaska and the Yukon, the sight of a Wal-Mart make the author "fret about the state of the world". It's yet another unnecessary detour to Winchester's personal foibles that interrupts the otherwise fascinating science of a natural and human disaster.

Posted by netrc at 04:10 PM

January 14, 2006

Rumormongering

A Rumor Has It is a failure of a movie. The premise is that the classic The Graduate is actually based on our heroine's (Jennifer Anniston's) family. Hijinks and lack of hilarity ensue as she goes back home for her sister's wedding and confronts this myth, personified via her grandmother (Shirly MacLaine) and possible father (Kevin Costner).

In fact, the myth is not true - well, it is true that their tryst was the basis for The Graduate, but not in that way, not with those motivations, not with that ending. Note the structural flaw: the big revelation is that our heroine's life is not based (to any meaningful degree) on The Graduate. This is less than dramatic news. In addition to the bland characters and wasted energies, director Rob Reiner feels the need to inject labored politics into the proceedings. You see, Anniston never felt like she was a part of her family's white-bread Pasadena conservative existence (insert standard caricatures of Orange County, CA). Instead, she's much more inclined to be swept off her feet by the charismatic liberal billionaire Costner. And just to make sure you get it, let's see Costner speechify about the "scientist" Che Geuvera and lovingly pass over photos of Castro on his bookshelf, as if to say who wouldn't want to be seduced by this romantic ideologue?! All of which might be forgiven if the film were funny. Except for far too few scenes of a tipsy Maclaine, it's not.

Posted by netrc at 12:26 PM

January 13, 2006

Narnia

What more can one say except that The Chronicles of Narnia (etc) is a children's movie? I've never read the books, and only somewhat recall the old BBC versions, so it's a bit of a surprise to see so much energy expended on so slight a show. But as they say, not that there's anything wrong with that. Though the graphic design is magical and the performances adequate, there's just barely enough to keep one's interest going. Liam Neeson's vocal performance as the lion-savior Aslan does give the film all its gravity: the feline's walk to martyrdom is well played. And then it is resolved all too soon, without much more dramatic payoff.

Posted by netrc at 11:28 AM

December 06, 2005

TV Tapings

I've been to a couple tapings of TV shows this week:

Sunday, I attended "The Actor's Studio" interview of Ralph Fiennes. The whole show took about three hours to tape, a bit of an ordeal as Fiennes is not particularly extroverted (or funny). And it doesn't help that he's still somewhat young (a year younger than me!) and has frankly catapulted to fame pretty early in his career. Interesting anecdotes of the making of "Schindler's List", "Spider", "Constant Gardner", and others. He seemed nervous and uncomfortable on stage, very much still an English schoolboy with, alas, no role to play. Of course, when he does play a role (and I saw him on Broadway in Hamlet), he's great. I guess I'll have to see him in the latest Harry Potter film now.

Also, I was in the audience for a taping of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?.

If you've ever been to a talk-show or game-show taping, you know it is a pretty grueling affair. You are constantly being hounded to applaud, laugh, smile, applaud, whoop-it-up, etc. By the end of the hour or so, you're exhausted.

Kristen had gotten me the ticket to go attend the show. I was able to fill out the trial trivia test and .... I passed! That got me a one-on-one interview with one of the production assistants. Clearly, they're looking for some fascinating anecdotes and perky contestants. If they need someone who's out-of-work and has written a boring book, I'm in!! On the other hand, I'm sure I would choke on one of their first easy questions -- it does not look easy to sit in that chair and play the game well.

I'll let you know.

UPDATE: 'Millionaire' has declined to offer me a spot on their show. Two theories for this: first, during the personal audition, I did not come off as sufficiently "perky" nor did I have funny-ha-ha stories to tell. Or, second, they were too scared that I'd cost them $1,000,000. Perhaps both??? Oh well.

MillionaireChair.jpg

Posted by netrc at 05:44 PM

December 04, 2005

Ring Of Fire

Some have pointed out that the Johnny Cash bio-pic Walk The Line ought to be named after a different hit song, "Ring of Fire". Apparently, "Walk The Line" was dedicated to Cash's first wife, while "Ring of Fire" concerned his turmoil with pain-killers and his affair with June Carter -- and the movie is definitely about the latter.

Like "Ray", the movie is a warts-and-all portrayal of a musician driven to live his life on his own terms. And both plots turn on the detail of the star's reaction the early death of a brother. But where "Ray" bordered on pop-psychology in equating guilt with drug addiction, "Walk The Line" never wavers in showing Cash's own responsibility for his actions.

James Mangold's direction helps give Joaqin Phoenix's Cash time to breath; we can feel Cash's slow-burning anger. Though Phoenix doesn't have the fearsome physical presence Cash did, he's able to convince us that whoever he is, he's quick to anger and insanely in love with June. Reese Witherspoon performs wonderfully as June Carter, using her well-known perkiness to good effect, never letting her natural optimism hide the fact that her character knows full well what's going on with her relationshop to Cash.

Robert Patrick, as Cash's father, is similarly well directed. Patrick's been on TV a lot and had seemed to have settled in to a very limited range of acting; here's he's very different, a mean-spririted, beaten father who has no idea how to relate to his famous son.

Final note: no bio-pic can show an entire life story in detail. Cash was profoundly more religious than the move allows. In fact, he produced and co-wrote Gospel Road, a personal version of the passion of Christ (with June Carter as Mary Magdalene!). A few clips from that film are used to strong effect in the haunting video for Cash's rendition of the Ninch-Inch-Nail's song Hurt.

Posted by netrc at 04:45 PM

December 02, 2005

Capote

It's bio-pic season. Capote eschews the standard birth-to-death story arc, instead concentrating on the critical years when Truman Capote worked on his non-fiction masterpiece, "In Cold Blood". The difficult task of humanizing our hero is handled wonderfully by Philip Seymour Hall -- one of those impersonations which seems to transcend acting, as Jamie Foxx's "Ray" did too.

Previous versions of "In Cold Blood" (a 1967 movie (starring apparently real-life killer Robert Blake) and a 1996 TV version ) chose to simply tell the story of the fruitless robbery, capture, and execution of the uncaring murderers. The real story, which comes across as you read the book, is Capote's relationship to one of them, Perry Smith.

But the film makes abundently clear that Truman's insterest was not that of a friend; rather, he manipulates Perry (and his friends) in order to get what he wants. Capote is, like Mozart in "Amadeus", not that nice a person.

The only problem with the film is it's consistently down-beat tone. Granted this is the stuff of serious sadness. And we do see flashes of the witty, funny, entertaining Capote as he holds sway at parties. Still, the eventual execution of the killers, which mirrors Capote's self-discovery of is own corruption, is moody and drawn-out, to say the least.

Posted by netrc at 10:56 AM

October 13, 2005

SpamSpamSpamSpam

Spamalot is great fun, though a badly fractured second act is almost a letdown. The inimitable Python film "...and the Holy Grail" has been transformed into broad slapstick on Broadway with extended music, etc by Eric Idle, and stuffed with visual humor by director Mike Nichols.

The good news, for Python fans, is that the critical scenes of dialogue translate quite well to the stage. In fact, hard to believe, a few, such as the "French Taunting" are actually better than in the film -- by the end of the taunting, the actors had the audience totally cracked up, a more effusive response than the filmed version has ever gotten. And for a good reason....the actors do their jobs well and are able to draw on the audiences' energy to build up the comedic potential far more than the static film could ever hope to do.

Another case in point: The King of Swamp Castle's instructions to the guards is sheer Abbot & Costello (or Morcomb&Wise for the Brits) tomfoolery, that shoudln't really work at all. But, again given good performances (in this case helped out by David Hyde Pierce, as Guard #1) and the ability to adjust the timing to the responses, the audience was rolling in the aisles laughing.

Unfortunately, by the second act, things get to be a bit dumbed-down - there's an unfunny song-and-dance as Sir Lancelot is outed (definitely not from the film) and the ending, rather than being an in-joke about film-making itself, revolves around the particular needs of getting the musical itself onto Broadway (where certain ethnic groups must be courted).

But all in all, great fun, and a surprisingly successful translation. (And the Playbill cast-list includes the complete cast and production info for the Finnish Moosical "Dik Od Triannenen Fol").

Posted by netrc at 05:54 PM

September 29, 2005

Salesmanship

A belated review of Mamet's Glengarry Glen Ross. Saw this about two months ago; great cast that was able to put across the difficult Mamet dialogue with strong characterizations. Like other works by the author, the text is repetitive and requires a forced, staccato delivery -- if done well, this comes across not only natural but critical to the plot and personalities. In this production, particularly in the role played by Alan Alda, the delivery is almost musical.

While fellow cast-member Liev Shreiber won the Tony for his role, it is Alda's character that drives the play. Alda manages to make the broken arcs of plot that could be hidden by profanity quite clear; and his naturally engaging persona is a great balance to the pity that we eventually feel for him.

Finally, students of writing should read this play very carefully as it is a masterwork of plotting, yet is so clear and simple in its delivery that it is very hard to see exactly how it was put together. From the first act setting in a Chinese restaurant, with its triptych of two-person dialogues, to the second act after-the-burglary chaos and resolution, there's barely a sentence or a plot-point which isn't singularly crafted to add to the play's impact.

Posted by netrc at 11:10 AM

September 18, 2005

March Madness

The March of the Penguins is a great nature documentary. The film shows, dramatically and with yet another 'voice-of-god' narration by Morgan Freeman, how Emporer Penguins manage to sustain themselves whilst caring for their new family through the blasts of an Antartic Winter.

Two notes: The documentary doesn't really explain how many penguins there are or where they breed. Apparently, there are many large colonies all around the Antartic shoreline, totaling about 195,000 breeding pairs.

And the Internet Movie Database notes that "The original French version features dialog for the penguins and a pop music soundtrack." How puerile.

Posted by netrc at 10:50 AM

August 12, 2005

Primo

Antony Sher's one-man Primo is a marvel to behold but not aptly titled. The text is from Primo Levi's narrative of his stay at the Auschwitz concentration camp and is, of course, harrowing and amazing. Sher is perfectly natural on stage, huddling against the set's grey walls, highlighted by changing spotlights to depict the 9-months of existence before liberation.

Yet while the text and narration are first rate, there is very little sense of who Primo Levi was. Perhaps one shouldn't criticize "yet another" tale of the Holocaust, but I was drawn to the play by the sense that, while Auschwitz would of course be a major event in the character's life, we would be seeing a dramatic reincarnation of a whole human being.

For example, Primo Levi was educated as a chemist just after WWII broke out and he naively joined an Italian partisan group, being captured quite easily. I'd like to hear about that man's thoughts and actions. The play, however, strictly begins with his imprisonment and ends with his release.

Some few moments in the play give us a hint of the outside world and the character's other life -- he is selected as a "specialist" and sent to work in a laboratory where is longingly recalls the chemical smells of such places.

Saved by a wonderfully clear performance by Sher, "Primo" is not ambitious or broad enough to deal with anything outside it's chosen timeframe. That focus certainly make us pay attention to the historical details brought out in Levi's eloquent descriptions, but sadly limits our personal relationship to a fascinating story.

Posted by netrc at 11:01 AM

May 13, 2005

It Is Finished

I attended the charity premiere (benefitting The Children's Health Fund) for Star Wars - Revenge of the Sith last night. Wow. Not too many stars in the audience, but a lot of fun.

A more detailed analysis of the film, the trilogy, and the entire series will follow. For now, a very positive afterglow, though a (necessarily) depressing ending, and extremely well executed.

Some pics; Samuel L. Jackson can just be see arriving in one. Later on Frank Oz was at the post-party at 21 Club.

Posted by netrc at 12:53 PM

May 01, 2005

Half-Hearted

Another American classic, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf (which includes several quotes from "Streetcar Named Desire"), is a half-hearted affair, a quintessential bickering couple drama lacking strong enough casting in the male half to pull off the caustic back-and-forth needed to make the tour-de-foce worthwhile.

Kathleen Turner is a good choice for Martha, the brutally delusional hen who feeds on failure (and gin). Like Streetcar, we have a great cinematic version to compare all productions (unfair, but true); Turner is up to the pace set by Elizabeth Turner and manages to be both frumpy and smarmy, strong and shallow.

But Bill Irwin's George, the picked-on loser, erudite, and milquetoast, simply can't put over a character with a similar facade of bravado. Irwin, as we know, is a gifted clown -- his performance has interesting postural affectations -- but simply can't stand up to Turner's Martha. You could say that as a clown, he lacks the acting chops, but I'd just say that he can't tell a joke; too many of his monologues, which should end with withering punchlines, simply fall flat on the stage. And then compared (again unfortunately) with Richard Burton's performance...well, just rent the film.

In other news, though I seem to have put my copy of the stage play in storage, I'm pretty sure that the play has been padded quite a bit for this production. Any confirmation from other reviews??

Update: Bill Irwin won the Tony Award for Best Actor in a Play. I still stand by my comments that his performance was soulless and robbed the production of much needed acidity. However, Congrats.

Posted by netrc at 09:46 PM

April 26, 2005

Clang, Clang, Clang Went the Trolley

A Streetcar Named Desire - The previous Broadway incarnation of Streetcar, starring Alec Baldwin and Jessica Lange was a disaster, with an outclassed Baldwin-brother squeaking at a timid and practically mute Lange.

This production with John C. Reilly and Natasha Richardson is much better though doesn't reach the highest ideal of this great American tragedy. Sadly for all actors, Brando's performance on film is still the epitome of method acting. Reilly doesn't have the magnetism which really explains the fatal attraction between Stanley and Blanche, but he does have the stage presence to command attention and drive the story forward.

Richardson's Blanche is similarly on key yet misses some of the grace notes of the character -- she seems not nearly exhausted or worn down by her lies, nor repelled enough by Stanley.

Still, a very worthy production.

Posted by netrc at 04:21 PM

February 08, 2005

Sideways

Decent buddy-pic that, though overly earnest, earns respect for its emotional shadings. Sideways tells of the weeklong bachelor walkabout of two college buddies, both of whom have fallen into mid-life mediocrity. They travel to California wine country (not Napa, but Monterey), find new relationships (serious and casual), and, as these things are wont to do, learn a few things along the way (or not).

Paul Giamatti is an unpublished author and amateur connoisseur, a stock lovable loser, ; as you know, Giamatti is about to take over William H. Macy's position as first casting choice for such roles. Thomas Hayden Church is his simple-minded sidekick, a couple I.Q. points above his previous version of sidekick from the Wings TV show. Both are great in their respective roles, neither quite smart enough to figure out how their behavior causes the problems in their lives.

The plot's resolution is suitably understated as befits the general tone of aimlessness and misdirection. While some episodes of the film bear witness to Porky's, others have more than a hint of Lost In Translation. The whole is balanced between ridiculous and pathos.

Probably not a film that will age well, but precocious enough to be rewarding now.

Some related wine notes:

Merlot -- Much fun is made of this grape, which is wrong. The joke in the film is that it is an imposter, a junior grape only ordered by idiots. I'm not going to take time here to explain the relationship between varietals and the New World wine industry, but suffice to say that one of the most renowned and expensive red wines made, French Bordeaux (Pomeral) Chateau Petrus is 95% Merlot. Not sure which West Coast Merlots are worth it, but it is certainly capable of being great, and therefore, good luck to U.S. vintners trying to figure out how/where to make it and to diners trying out a bottle.

Cabernet Franc -- There may be an odd wine joke in the film, perhaps to demonstrate that the main character is more self-delusional than we know. Besides making fun of Merlot, the only other grape singled out for derision is Cabernet Franc. The odd joke is that our anti-hero is hording a great vintage for tasting at some special moment, a '61 Cheval Blanc. That Bordeaux (St. Emilion) Chateau makes wines mostly from Cabernet Franc (60-70%) topped up by, yes, Merlot.

Posted by netrc at 04:35 PM

The Aviator

The Aviator is a glossy, standard bio-pic with good performances and scenery all around, saved by Cate Blanchet's superb incarnation as Katherine Hepburn.

Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio's take on the Howard Hughes story puts the billionaire's obsessions over technology and film at center stage, and adds some peeks into his compulsive disorders for dramatic tension. As with Ray, Hughes' problems are made out to stem from childhood, with a mother's warnings about cleanliness apparently erupting into psychosis during times of stress.

Except for that explanation, there's not much to the characters in the film. Hughes is (probably) rightly shown to be a cad as he works his way through a bevy of Hollywood starlets, settling for a meaningful romance with Hepburn (who spurns him for Tracy) and then being toyed with himself by Ava Gardner.

All of which is mere prelude to Hughes political fights with the goverment over millions misspent in aircraft design which never made it into actual combat.

As I said, standard bio-pic material.

I happened to watch the first half-hour of Goodfellas and the contrast to The Aviator couldn't be clearer. The former has exuberance, humor, striking characters, and a high-voltage story. The Aviator is merely a nicely paced evocation of Hughes' time and psyche. This isn't to contrast one of Scorsese's great film with his mediocre, but to point out that his latest just isn't much fun even on its own.

Posted by netrc at 12:43 PM

January 28, 2005

Spirit Of America

Consider donating to proivide library books for Iraqi children.
Posted by netrc at 08:35 AM

January 07, 2005

Winner Takes All

Million Dollar Baby is another latter-Eastwood triumph, though not quite the "best picture" quality that some reviews might have you think. The story is essentially an expertly presented but standard young-boxer/grizzled-trainer movie. Of that genre, Rocky was one of the first to have our hero not actually win the title but merely win a moral, yet still crowd-pleasing, victory. This film takes that irony to an incredible length. That plot-twist alone (and surprisingly, I had not an inkling of that twist from any newspaper or online review) is supposed to be enough to turn the genre on its head.

I'm not convinved that the twist does anything more than add an impressive dramatic last act to the film. Of course, adding well-played dramatic twists should be a good thing, right? OK, I'll stop quibbling. It is good.

All around, the film's production values, settings, cast, acting, etc are really top-notch, quite the equal of Unforgiven and Mystic River. All the generic characters are played by fine actors who are directed to the utmost; even a throwaway bit by a clueless gym-rat is presented with dignity and spirit. The basic direction here is "underplay everything" - voices are quiet, faces slack, movements slow. The counterpoints to this understatement are the boxing scenes, which are quick and to the point rather than overlong slugfests.

Two cinematic quibbles (if I may): when the cinematography can be seen, it is clear, muted, and just right. But too often it's just plain dark. And though the music is, again, understated, the plaintive piano keys or guitar pluckings don't really work well, and when the musical theme is finished off with a soft orchestral chord, it strikes the false notes which are otherwise avoided in the film.

BTW, were you aware that Eastwood has now directed some 25 films, including the three already mentioned? Among the notable: Play Misty For Me, The Eiger Sanction, Honkytonk Man, Bird, White Hunter Black Heart, The Bridges of Madison Country, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. He's next filming Flags of Our Fathers, an Iwo Jima WWII flick, to be produced by Steven Spielberg.

Posted by netrc at 02:07 PM

December 07, 2004

Balcony Scene

Speaking of the Middle East (and of biopics), I attended the play Golda's Balcony, the life and times of Golda Meir. Fascinating, overwrought, well-done. This one-woman show stars Tovah Feldshuh as the Russian-born (oops, Ukrainian-born), Milwaukee-raised, eager socialist and Zionist, then Prime Minister of Israel.

The production is heavy on strobe lights and machine-gun sound effects -- not a light night at the theater at all. But then again, this is the story of the birth and subsequent continual struggle for existence of the Jewish state.

There's plenty of cross-cutting between Meir's failed marriage to her lukewarm-Zionist husband and her rise to power. I can't comment on the accuracy of some of the history or to Feldshus's characterization, but both strike me as reasonably true.

The critical moment is well-known: During the Yom Kippur was in 1973, Israel armed bombers with nuclear warheads to be used as a last resort. According to the play, this was more a game of chicken with the United States, in order to force Nixon to give up the necessary fighter planes with which Israel was able to achieve air dominance and carry the day. (Nixon, you might recall, had other things on his mind in '73).

And so a nation created to ensure no more genocide ("Never Again"!) was prepared to use nuclear weapons in its defense. Quite a paradox.


Note the use of the Internet Broadway Database. Modeled after the wodnerful Internet Movie Database, but without nearly as much info, at least yet. Still it's neat to see that the author of this play, William Gibson, got his start on Broadway by writing The Miracle Worker as his second play.
Posted by netrc at 05:52 PM

Ray

I recall the first time the trailer for Ray played -- seems like the entire audience held its breath, hoping that the film would live up to our apparent collective respect for Ray Charles. You can breath again, the film is very good. But, (and I know I've been doing a lot of "yes, but" recently), the film is also very formulaic with a conclusion that is oddly off-center to the main story.

Foremost, of course, is the great news that James Fox's characterization of Ray Charles is well near perfect. Most historical bio-pics concern people I wouldn't know if I passed them on the street; here, Ray's face, body language, voice, and personality are well known to everyone, and Fox goes far beyond a suspension of disbelief.

The story, also of course, is the unstartling arc of Ray's life in which he starts off poor and looked-down-upon and then manages to show the world just how much talent he has. Happily, as this is all shown juxtaposed with Ray's great musical renditions, the chestnut of a story doesn't bother us too much at all.

The two quibbles regard the sore points of Ray's life. His philandering, abuses, and general S.O.B.ness are depicted clearly enough, but as it turns out, he was even more of all that than depicted on screen. For example, we see his wife stand by her man while he undergoes withdrawal; not shown is that she divorced him soon after. More, all the misdeeds are pegged to the death of his younger brother which comes off dramatically but also a bit too neatly psychological.

Finally, the film winds up with the same conclusion as Clint Eastwood's Bird -- great musician (almost) overcome by addiction to drugs. The closing frames seem almost like a "Just Say No" ad without a caution that even though we mortals may Say No, we'll never sound like Ray anway. And again, the film's historical cop-out is to suggest that our hero overcomes his addictions at the end. In fact, while Ray foreswore the hard stuff, he continued with pot and gin, usually together.

Oh well. Good enough for the expected Best Actor award.

Posted by netrc at 03:58 PM

November 22, 2004

Averagable

Pixar has one of the longest winning streaks going of any film studio. The Incredibles continues that streak, but mostly via sheer momentum.

As others have pointed out, this is a rather stale formula, a postmodern comic book of the sort mined by TV's The Tick, and even the dreadful Mystery Men. But no matter -- that the material is second-rate isn't the flaw, it's the execution. In this, has Pixar gone above and beyond the material? Mmmmmm, no.

Cute super-powers spread around a standard sit-com of a family; a non-super villain; the inevitable call back to arms, etc. And two-hours of this! Not even any Randy Newman songs to let in some lyricism.

Still and all, there's the expected amazing animation and quick repartee. While we'll be seeing the toys at fast-food joints and Xmas's for years to come, there's little memorable here.

Posted by netrc at 04:38 PM

November 09, 2004

Gardening Time

Indie film Garden State has gotten good reviews for good reason. But that reason is really just to put us on notice to watch first-time director Zach Braff's next movie, hopefully better than this.

Braff certainly has a ear for dialog, characters, and the ability to let both have room to breathe. As the film charts the return to New Jersey of an erstwhile west coast actor, the fumblings, estrangements, and reconcilliations are neatly plotted with a fine post-modern touch -- as in, no simple answers, no big revelations, etc, etc. And therefore, no big payoff for the audience. It's all played a bit to simple.

Biggest problem is the central relationship between Braff's actor-loser character, over-prescribd by an evil father (Ian Holm, with not much to work wit) and his home-grown girl-friend (Natalie Portman). Supposedly quirky and off-center, the relationship is the least developed plot-point in the film, which sort of limits the impact their romance is supposed to have on saving Braff from his previously self-isolated world.

Compared to real tinsel-town losers, this film is a gem and is certainly worth a look. Looking forward, it could be the start of something big. On its own, well, its just ok.

Posted by netrc at 08:48 PM

August 10, 2004

/bin/sh

The Bourne Supremacy is a fine summer spy flick which shows off why we love exciting man-on-the-run mysteries and also why they are forgettable.

The contradiction between escapist air-conditioned entertainment and smartly executed thriller is happily ignored in this tightly edited film. While there are no substantial characters to speak of, good actors give some few hints that there are real people behind the rather standard plotting.

Best of all, the fact that there are no snappy comebacks during fight scenes or after obligatory killings seems to come as a shock to most people. But a most welcome one indeed.

Posted by netrc at 08:05 AM

June 23, 2004

Terminator

The Terminal's tag-line is "Life is Waiting". Actually, we're still waiting, not so much for life -- which arrives in many surprising ways in the airport terminal that is the setting for the movie -- but for a reason why the movie was made. Maestro Steven Spielberg and American Everyman Tom Hanks team to make this feel-good flick passable entertainment, but at almost 2 hours 20 minutes, it's clear that there was no real driving rationale behind the tale.

Sure, there are plenty of fun characters and mildly inventive episodes all wrapped up in a diverting tale. But one spends time watching the movie trying to figure out if the main character is an idiot savant, a lucky bumbler, or just an out of work construction laborer.

Hank's plays Victor Nagorsky, a stranded traveller from some "stan"-suffix country which has undergone a coup. Without a visa (or whatever), he is stuck in the airport waiting on the beaurocracy to sort out the paperwork. A fine premise for a film as long as we don't spend much time on the details....

So why do we spend so much time on the details? Is the story really about how one man confronts a faceless beaurocracy and a triumph of the human spirit? But it's not faceless : Stanley Tucci plays the airport's acting security manager, a by-the-book workaholic who spends his time watching Nagorsky on large monitors (too expensive for the government or JFK, I'd think) (and quite like watching Tom Cruise's detective work during "Minority Report"). Depending on the scene, Tucci is a nasty boss or maybe just a stickler for detail. Does he end the movie on an epiphany? Or does he just give up?

Same for Nagorsky. We're not told a single detail of his background, so he is a cipher to us, just as America (or at least JFK) is unknowable beyond the few words of English he can speak. However, this anti-character never adds up to someone we care about, except for the fact that he's Tom Hanks. At times he is a near idiot at other times cleverer than anyone else at the airport.

By the end of the film, his character's grand secret is revealed and it answers almost nothing about why he's acted the way he has for the previous two hours. His final denouement is a let-down, almost like "Close Encounters of the Third Kind", where Richard Dreyfuss entered the alien spaceship to an unknown journey in the original, in the re-released version we are shown the interior of the craft, which is of course just more colored, meaningless lights.

All said and done, this is passable entertainment. Spielberg keeps the episodes flowing, Hanks is of course endearing, and there's a very game cast of supporting characters. But in the end, there's little here to remember after you've left the gate.

Posted by netrc at 05:09 PM

June 17, 2004

Shwreck

I missed the first episode, and I'm getting on in years, so this may just not be my kind of move. While a pleasant enough diversion, and certainly fun for small children, I don't get it.

Shreck 2 has all comedy stylings of an average sit-com (that's not a good thing) combined with standard after-school special story-line #1. Honestly, I was surprised at how limp and artificial the whole thing was -- it's one thing to make passing homage to umpteen films and characters, it's another to just steal them to pad out a flat script.

Posted by netrc at 02:59 PM

April 13, 2004

Wagner and Wotan

My first "Ring" opera: Die Walküre.

Wonderful, traditional production conducted by James Levine with Placido Domingo as Siegmund and James Merrill as Wotan. Domingo was fine, yet Merrill has the far bigger role as the God who is trapped by his own machinations to retrieve the Ring. But typical Wagner: Three acts, each over an hour, with half-hour intermissions make for a five-hour evening. Thank goodness they started at 6:30pm!

Wagner famously created the "whole theater" experience with his Ring Cycle - it premiered in 1876 and was the first to dim lights during the performance and also to put the orchestra in a pit, out of sight of the action. This must have been mesmerizing on opening night.

He also wrote out detailed instructions for sets, costumes, and even stage directions. Apparently, those details are important, for each characters' entrance is sharply denoted in the score with even their footsteps to cross the stage rooted in particular chords or motifs. At times, to those new to the experience, this can be excruciating: Come on Brunhilde, get a move on!

Nevertheless, the drama is essentially a series of dialogs and debates that move the action along. Note these are not duets; the music and words are closer to a recitative than song. Most of these dialogs were compelling, as when Fricka vehemently argues her husband Wotan out of his corrupt plans.

Have to admit though that by the end, when daughter Brunhilde and her Father settled in to another he-said/she-said for another 20 minutes, I did begin to glaze over. Still and all a great experience.

Posted by netrc at 01:12 PM

April 10, 2004

Eternal Sunshine

Saw Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind a few weeks ago. Quite good and thoughtful. As zany as the plotting is, you really don't have to worry about it. Though you spend lots of energy trying to figure out if a scene is present time, past memory, or some combination thereof, each scene carries through the single emotional thread of the love story.

All around good stuff with even the little details becoming important by the end.

Posted by netrc at 05:01 PM

March 25, 2004

Fiddler On The Roof

A great musical, oddly (like Lear) restrained. Alfred Molina stars as the long-suffering Tevye; Molina has been in starring and secondary roles in movies for the past twenty years, including a bad sit-com; it's great to see him in such a big role. So why does he play it so subdued?

An interview with Molina mentioned that he had to fight the urge to play the part with too much reverence, reverence for both his famous predecessors (Zero Mostel and Topol) as well as for the struggles and beliefs of his character. So....now, on the other hand, he plays the part with modern casualness. His Tevye is friendly and approachable, but not a real inhabitant of the apocryphal village of Anatevka. Granted, it's a fine line between introspection and indulgence, yet to carry the show, Tevye needs to have more depth.

Meanwhile, the show itself comes off fine, even though restrained. The great score and lyrics are performed with marvelous Broadway skill, the on-stage orchetra clear and brilliant. Much of the original Jerome Robbins choreography is intact (though the Minskoff stage seems a tad smaller than you'd like).

Having not seen the show in years, you'll be stunned at the classic first act -- it seems as if every 'Fiddler' song is there. For a while, I thought the thing would run straight through -- and why not! The second act is there mostly to finish off the earlier storylines; none of the exuberance of the opening. Subdued, but a success nevertheless.

Posted by netrc at 07:49 PM

King Lear

can't talk now....pretty good, restrained production. Christopher Plummer's Lear was fine, but the whole thing seemed ill-fitting. Jonathon Miller's direction left a bit to be desired -- he doesn't care for the whole "primal" angle to Lear; the costumes were Elizabethan! Not my cup of tea.
Posted by netrc at 07:48 PM

February 03, 2004

Zeffir-ific

Tosca, New York Metropolitan Opera

Another (twenty-year old) Zeffirelli/Puccini production at the Met. Apparently, the cognescenti scoff at the luxurious productions -- but at these prices, the more the merrier. If you're going to see classic Italian opera, why not stuff the stage with spectacle?

As if the melodrama of Tosca needed any more tweaking, the scheduled soprano has been indisposed, so Jan. and early Feb. performances starred Maria Guleghina. Before this, I wouldn't have known her from Adam; suffice to say that she brought down the house. Her money-aria, Vissi d'arte went off wonderously.

In fact, everyone was in fine voice. Franco Farina, who we have seen in Boheme earlier in the season, nailed a variety of walk-off high notes. And Sam Ramey -- a frequent Scarpia -- had a grand time exulting in his character's villainy.

One final thought, if you're seeing a Zeffirelli production, take advantage of the half-hour intermissions, grab a sandwich and beer at the house bar; apparently those massive sets take a lot of time to unscrew and move back-and-forth.

Also, the Monday night series which I purchased this year is almost always sold out. But there's usually lots of vacant seats for the last act...this Monday night, especially with the long intermission, the last act didn't go up until 10:30 pm and over a hundred or so seats in the orchestra section were available.

Sadly, those people missed the exquisite finales from Franco and Guleghina.

Posted by netrc at 08:30 PM

January 29, 2004

Fish Tale

Big Fish

Tim Burton's followup to his over-wrought and unfun Planet of the Apes is a delightful romantic fantasy complete with a Wonderful-Life finale.

That said, the film's episodic nature and desperate sincerity doesn't leave much of an aftertaste to enjoy.

While the whole may be less than the sum of its parts, the parts themselves are well worth exploring. Good cast, inventive scenery, and a down-to-earth outlook at outlandish events make this a worthy successor to Burton's Ed Wood, another film which allowed us to enjoy the random quirks of its characters.

Posted by netrc at 02:45 PM

January 15, 2004

Ciao, Cio-Cio

Madama Butterfly, Metropolitan Opera

Another glorious production from the Met. Veronica Villarroel's Cio-Cio, the young woman as delicate as a butterfly, sang rapturously of her love for the American naval officer Pinkerton. In return, the Met audience gave her a rapturous ovation, complete with thrown bouquets and cherry-blosson confetti.

Pinkerton (as nasty an American such as could be written about by The Guardian or Le Monde) was the debut of Marco Berti, who has played the role at many other venues, Covent Garden, San Fran, etc. A few notes seemed rushed, but mostly his was a lush tenor. In particular, he nailed his exit hurrah, which brought about more audience 'bravos'.

To top off the evening, the performance was conducted by Placido Domingo, who, naturally, received as big an ovation as any of the stars. The Met orchestra is extraordinary to begin with; I'm not sure what Domingo brings to the table, but the end result was certainly on of the most pleasant evenings of opera I've attended.

Posted by netrc at 01:36 PM

January 10, 2004

Diane Keaton...

Somethings Gotta Give

Apparently, this is a 'high-concept' film, Hollywood making a movie about romance between post-teenagers. Who cares as long as we get to see Diane Keaton again.

The plot is Sleepless-In-Seattle meets The-Man-Who-Came-To-Dinner and though it takes a tad too long to tie up loose ends, the script manages to add variety and humor to the otherwise straightforward story.

Nancy Meyer's direction could only work with an excellent cast, and purportedly the script was written for Keaton and Jack Nicholson in mind. Happily, both take their jobs seriously resulting in deft performances which breathe honestly and intelligently, even during the plots necessary situational comedy.

In particular, it is a revelation to see Keaton playing what may just be a continuation of 'Annie Hall'. There she was an unsure young woman who matured during her relationship with Woody Allen, eventually leaving him. Here, she is a strait-jacketed older woman who needs to relearn the risk-taking needed to fully enjoy life (and to teach the same lesson to her daughter).

At one point, the parallels are quite strong -- during a rain shower on the beach, Keaton and Nicholson must run through the storm back to the house, just as she and Allen did when running through Central Park to the Natural History Museum. Her trademake 'la-di-da' doesn't reappear, but her character does stumble through her lines on occasion, as she struggles to be open and accept the relationship she's building.

The film tends to throw a few too many twists and barriers to their relationship, and those barriers tend to dissolve too easily. Fact is, we all know how the movie has to end.

I'm just thankful at having the chance to see Keaton, radiant, smart, and looking fabulous. As at the end of 'Annie Hall', it's great to see her again.

Posted by netrc at 01:51 PM

December 21, 2003

Farrelly Funny

Stuck On You

Hard not to smile at the wit and warmth of this film.

Huh? From the directors of There's Something About Mary and Me, Myself & Irene?

Well, yes. Sadly the film is not much more than an after-school special about following your dreams and sticking up for your relations. But with endearing performances as conkoined twins, Matt Damon and Gregg Kinnear manage to pull off the roles with fun.

Best of all, supporting performance by Cher and Meryl Streep are much more than cameos and make the film a wistful homage to Hollywood.

A wistful homage to Hollywood??

Yep. That and a couple of very lame and funny jokes makes an hour-and-a-half and ten bucks pass very painlessly.

Posted by netrc at 04:14 PM

December 18, 2003

Rings, Kings, and Things

Lord Of The Rings: The Return Of The King

Whew. Made it through the three movies, ten-plus hours of computer generated effects, several Yanni songs, and six or seven endings. All in all, thanks. This last segment of the Lord of the Rings trilogy finishes the tale with swashbuckling fun and overstated eagerness.

As we now expect from director Peter Jackson, this episode is packed with fantastic vistas and expertly crafted sequences and set pieces. Like the previous effort, this is mostly a war movie with good guys versus bad guys clearly demarcated -- the bad guys are spectacularly ugly or gluttonous, the good guys, wide-eyed innocents forced into their battles.

As I said, all in good fun. That is if you can take the roller-coaster-viewpoint to which Jackson apparently attached his camera. There is never a moment to pause and reflect which is not overtaken by a lurching camera's sudden swooping to encompass either the sudden appearence of dragons, eagles, or other outsized fauna, or to helicopter the viewer over and through some CGI cityscape, throne-room, or mountain. In the end this is all somewhat too tiring.

It may be that this is the new way of doing things. In fact, before this movie started, there were at least seven trailers of upcoming films. It's likely that the trailers were selected to appeal to an audience looking forward to Return of the King, but it was noteworthy that all of the new movies were effects-studded CGI extravaganzas. CGI in itself should be aesthetically neutral -- yet it seems to be put into the hands of the MTV-editing crowd that can't let the camera sit still enough to watch a real drama. Call me old-fashioned, but I believe that good Spielberg out-does most of this unnecessary hyperventilating. LOTR owes more to Moulin Rouge than to Tolkien; no matter how much Elfin language and brilliantly realised architecture, you can't get a sense of much of this when you're being whip-sawed back and forth for three-and-a-quarter hours.

Of course, when the film does stop for a moment, there are undeniable strong points which mostly more than make up for any criticisms. Case in point, unlike many sagas, by the end of this movie, Frodo and Sam truly look drained of all spirit, they're dirty, exhausted, and half-dead. That's exactly right. While we all know that it the next frame, they'll be saved, there are times when you really do wonder how they're going to have the energy to make it through to the end. That that feeling comes through is a testament to Jackson's focus even amongst all the effects.

One final quibble, unfortunately, is the multiple endings which take up the last fifteen minutes of the film. Jackson's plan of course is to put it all up there on the screen, no matter how long we've been sitting. If there's some more Tolkein, he'll do his best to show it to us. So, just as the books describe what happens afterward to most of our favorite characters, so we have to sit through some mindlessly teary-eyed mutual admiration. When even the first-night audience laughs at yet another scene of goodbye, you know you've added more than enough pages to the script. (Forgive the comparison, but Lucas manages the movie ending bows much quicker, just enough to say thanks and cue up the credits and theme music.)

Posted by netrc at 11:17 AM

December 16, 2003

Christmas Spectacular

Christmas Spectacular, Radio City Music Hall

Not my usual cup of coffee, but when guests come to visit, sacrifices must be made. Many New Yorkers - of all persuasions - have come to treat the annual Xmas show as a mandatory bit of yuletide treacle. This was my first time and, while it is mindlessly enjoyable, I doubt I'll be back next year.

The evening is spearated into about a dozen Acts, all basically centered around Santa Claus's shenanigans. As usual, great NYC performers are available, so vocalizations are belted and stage business is sharp. But Santa's personality has been commercialized to appeal to all groups, as evidenced by one Act's "Santa Can Rock" gyrations. Mercifully, this happens without laser effects yet they would not be out-of-place.

The featured performance of The Rockettes is certainly worth a viewing -- even though their kicklines are not high dance concept, their training and cheery perfomances are a joy to watch. Especially when they're forced to do this in a variety of garb.

There also a nice act showing Christmas in New York complete with a pair skating axels and lifts on a large rink on stage (the hall boasts the largest indoor theater in the world, says their press).

The finale is a tableux of the nativity with donkeys, sheep, and camels. Quite a sharp distinction from the rigorously non-religous theme of the previous hour. I assume that this is a vestige of a much more non-PC show dating back several decades.

Posted by netrc at 11:12 AM

December 14, 2003

Wonderfully Corny

Wonderful Town, Al Hirschfeld Theatre

This revival of the '53 musical more than makes up for the thin book and no hit songs with its simple exuberance and wit. While this may be second-rate Comden and Green and Bernstein, obviously that makes it first-rate Broadway.

The simple story concerns two sisters coming to New York and trying to make it in the Big Apple. One is a struggle singer, the other yearns to be a writer. Naturally -- it being the '50s -- each really wants to find love with the man of their dreams.

The show I saw had understudy Linda Mugleston perform Donna Murphy's starring role as the would be reporter. To rephrase the criticism of the show, a Broadway understudy would be a star anywhere else. Mugleston acted and sang as if she had originated the role, with plenty of spark and (seemingly) personalized moments.

One note: all the cops, played by a talented and diverse ensemble, were stereotypically Irish. During their lullaby to the other sister, a bombshell who had all the male characters wrapped around her finger, the cop chorus even broke into Riverdance-esque line dancing. All in good fun, and enjoyed
by the whole audience.

But if some other stereotype had been picked, there would be hell to pay....

Posted by netrc at 04:18 PM

December 02, 2003

The Stage Upstages Art

La Boheme, Metropolitan Opera House

Franco Zeffirelli manages to upstage the action in this opulent and overstaffed production at the Met. The scenery is gorgeous, and lit with a painter's eye, which all serves to overwhelm the singing of this perennial favorite. Yet, though somewhat unbalanced, the show -- with marvelous actors and singers -- can't fail but enthrall audiences; at the end of the day, this is exactly why you go to the Met.

Of particular note, is the second act which takes place nominally at a streetside cafe. Zefirelli's staging of this overwhelms the Met's already enormous proscenium with multiple levels of a Paris streetscape and -- honestly -- some one hundred dressed Parisiens.

Daniel Oren's conducted the orchestra through the delicate Puccini score and coaxed lush colors and tempos at just the right times. I'm not one to judge singers' voices, but to my ear Elena Evseeva's Mimi was wonderful, delicate and robust (even on her deathbed); her duets with Vincenzo La Scola's Rodolfo were quite magnificent.

Posted by netrc at 10:12 AM

November 25, 2003

Cuba Libre

Anna In The Tropics, Royale Theatre

More stars on B'way: Jimmy Smits appears as a reader to a factory of immigrant cigar rollers in Tampa of the early '30s. There, he reads to them the tragic love story of Anna Karenina. Inevitably, that love story finds parallels in
the listeners' lives....

The factory is called "Flor del Ciel", flower of the sky. But while the
language is florid and expressive -- everyone in the play appears
to have mastered metaphor as a linguistic paradigm -- the characters
and plot do not match the breadth of the vocabulary they employ.

It's easy to see why the Pulitzer jury picked this as their winner this
year based solely on their own reading. This production however, moved to
New York from Princeton's McCarter Theatre, lacks the powerful, smoldering even, performances needed to carry the play.

(Meanwhile -- it's ironic that the Royale Theatre is apparently one of the
only places in New York City where you can light up a cigar indoors
for a smoke. As the actors explain in langorous detail the pleasures of
a good cigar, I kept waiting for Mayor Bloomberg to close the play for
public health reasons.)

Posted by netrc at 10:56 PM

November 23, 2003

Masterful


Master&Commander: The Far Side of the World

It is complicated for me to talk about the film as I've been reading the O'Brien
novels for over a decade. But no matter -- The film is quite good and does what a good epic
should do: make you feel as though you've been to another world.

In this case, the world is the H.M.S. Surprise and the time is early 19th century.
Russell Crowe's Captain fights hard, drinks well, and has time to play string
duets with his particular friend the ship's doctor, Paul Bettany....

more to come

Posted by netrc at 11:11 AM

November 22, 2003

Falstaff, Kline, and more

Henry IV, Vivian Beaumont Theatre

Kevin Kline wows 'em as Falstaff. Kline plays the rotund gadabout as a drunk
Don Quixote, with a lazy grandeur well-suited to one who has few morals but
much wit.

This production brings both Parts I and II of the Henry IV plays together
in one evening and manages to elide some less interesting passages while
keeping the story of the King's decline and Prince Harry's rise succinct.

While Richard Easton's King and Michael Hayden's Prince are the nominal
subjects of the piece, the keys to the work are in the hands of two
Hollywood regulars, Kline's Falstaff and Ethen Hawke's Hotspur.

Yet though the contrast between Hotspur and Harry is the central narrative line
of the drama, the only reason to bring the two plays into one is
to illuminate the great and fated friendship between Falstaff and Harry.

Posted by netrc at 03:54 PM