Thursday, November 29, 2007

Should "Ratatouille" Go For The Best Picture Oscar?

There's a lengthy article in the New York Times about Ratatouille. It's arguably the best-reviewed movie of the year and in a year of lengthy, darker movies, it's a pure delight. (And while being a huge blockbuster can be a problem for a nominee -- despite Titanic -- in this case, I don't think Hollywood would care at all that it made $200 mil here and a massive $400 mil overseas.) It has a shot at being the first animated movie since Beauty and the Beast to get nominated for Best Picture. The big debate? Should Ratatouille go for Best Picture and risk squandering its chance at Best Animated Film, especially in a year with very worthy competitors like Persepolis, The Simpsons Movie and Shrek The Third? Duh. The Best Animated Film Oscar is a ghettoized category that is literally meaningless at the box office and in prestige. Except for winning your office Oscar pool, it's a joke. Frankly, the category was created because animated films like Toy Story and The Incredibles were so clearly superior to their live action competitors that Hollywood was finding it increasingly difficult to explain away why cartoons didn't count when it came to Best Picture. If Ratatouille has a shot -- and it does -- Disney should go all in. Make absolutely clear they are pushing for a Best Picture nomination and don't even talk about the consolation prize of Best Animated Film. Disney has never won a Best Picture Oscar and this film has the accolades and the struggling artist tale that would make it catnip for voters. Why settle for a dull secondary category when you've got a shot at history? Even snagging a nomination would be historic and once that happens anything is possible.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

The Man From U.N.C.L.E.

My latest DVD column for Huffington Post is out and it covers The Man From U.N.C.L.E. TV series boxed set, among other releases. The question of the day: what's your favorite Bond film rip-off? (I would like to thank the United Network Command for Law and Enforcement without whose assistance this blog post would not be possible.)

One of the Best Movies of the Year

That would be The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. Check out my story on the film for the NY Daily News.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Lauren Ambrose, Mekhi Phifer and Hitchcock

Here are my newest stories: profiles of Lauren Ambrose (of Six feet Under) and Mekhi Phifer of ER and This Christmas for the NY Daily News and my latest DVD review column for Huffington Post -- this one covers The Lady Vanishes, I Am Cuba, Helvetica, Hairspray and more.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Defending "The Golden Compass" and Denouncing William Donohue

My latest Huffington Post talks about "The Golden Compass" and hopefully sheds light for people about the disreputable William Donohue and his partisan political group Catholic League.

Cassandra Wilson at the Blue Note

Here's my latest NY Daily News piece, a profile of jazz singer Cassandra Wilson. She was poorly named: Cassandra tells the truth but we definitely listen and believe. I just saw her show Thursday night and it was a very good set indeed. They played with "Caravan" until it disintegrated into shards of sound, she sang much of "The Very Thought Of You" with only the bass providing quiet support, "Wichita Lineman" was wonderfully focused, and some blues I didn't know called "Dust Broom" (she was NOT going to put up with a man who had a wandering eye for any downtown girl that crossed his path) was tremendous fun. Loose, engaging, Wilson sounds revitalized by her recent toying with non-jazz effects like drum loops on her last album nd her diving back into standard standards ("The Very Thought Of You," "Till There Was You," "Wouldn't It Be Loverly") on the new one coming out in February. Saw her for the first time and she met my expectations. The only way it could be better was if it were longer and the schmuck sitting behind me had stopped talking during the musical interludes connecting different songs.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Scandanavian Boy Singing About His Two Fathers

The end of the world -- or the beginning -- depending on your point of view. But catchy, you can't deny that.

It's Fiddy Cent, By The Way

My friend Sam in Florida was at the record store with his son. All the kid wanted was Soulja Boy, Soulja Boy. So Sam dutifully went with the kid (who's like 11 years old) to the S's at the music store and kept looking up "soldier" and couldn't find the damn CD and when he spoke to an employee he felt so OLD because he wasn't cool enough (or more specifically young enough) to simply know that it was spelled S-O-U-L-J-A-H.

I told this story to my friend Joe and he emailed back:

If only he would have dug up the single from “Billy Jack,” “One Tin Soldier (Rides Away).”

And I emailed back:

That would have been under "c" for Coven, the demonic sounding band that had their one and only hit with "One Tin Soldier (The Legend Of Billy Jack" - not to be confused with "Invincible (Theme from The Legend of Billy Jean)" by Pat Benatar -- not to be confused with "Legend of Wooley Swamp" by the Charlie Daniels Band -- not to be confused with "The Legend of Jesse James," the multi-artist country concept album created and written by Paul Kennerly and championed by Emmylou Harris on her new boxed set -- not to be confused with "Legend of The Pianist" from "The Legend of 1900" by Ennio Morricne -- not to be confused with Legend, the Tom Cruise fairy movie with a score by Jerry Goldsmith that replaced a far superior score by Tangerine Dream that was used in the European release of the film but dumped in America.

Yes, I need a life.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Sports On DVD

My latest DVD column for Huffington Post covers the explosion of sports available on DVD, as well as the usual releases like Shrek The Third, Ocean's Thirteen, La Vie En Rose, Killer Of Sheep, Berlin Alexanerplatz and so on. For the love of God, leave a comment on their website! Mock me, belittle me, but at least talk to me! Like this friendly comment left a few days ago on The Advocate's blog about my coverage of the Emir Kusturica film "Promise Me This" at Cannes back in May:
Mr. Guiltz, you are so clever and I am so admiring you brightness and cineastic capability! Have you ever seen any other Kusturicas movie? I think not. If you have seen "When Father Was Away on Business", "Do You Remember Dolly Bell?", "Arizona Dream" and other Kusturicas movies you would notice that there is no "endless gypsy music, lusty laughter, breast-y women, slapstick humor, chases, gunshots, animals" and other crap you have mentioned. Its a pity that you even have chance to write about movies and share yours sick observations and idiotic thoughts with normal people. Yours articles are totaly waste of time and your brain is waste of space. Have you been retarded all your life or it just happend lately? You shold apear in next Kusturicas movie (he is filming remake of "Planet of the Apes ").

Sincearly Yours,
Stupid hater

Now that's feedback! I replied:

Hey Stupid hater,

You're quite right: When Father Was Away On Business (1985) and to a lesser degree Do You Remember Dolly Bell? (1981) were both very good films and the reason Kusturica came to international attention in the first place. Like most people, I thought Arizona Dream was a flop. Then came the bursting with vitality, black-humored, overwhelming and sweeping energy of Underground, which was a worthy Palm D'Or winner. I love that he challenges the far right nationalists of Serbia. I've had a great time seeing his band the No Smoking Orchestra perform. His soundtracks are invariably exuberant. But since Underground he has made Black Cat, White Cat and Life is A Miracle and Promise Me This, ALL of which do indeed feature non-stop boisterous music, chase scenes, breast-y women and so on to numbing effect. Once with Underground it was exhilirating. Again and again and again in his next three movies? That's formula. The second Promise Me This began, I knew he hadn't strayed an iota from his last three movies and could predict the madcap adventures and broad brush strokes of the movie. If they worked, I wouldn't mind. I don't care if Ford kept making Westerns and Hitchcock thrillers. But it hasn't worked in these movies. They seem interchangeable. It's always good to acknowledge the fine work a director has done in the past and blogging doesn't always allow that. So if you pointed someone in the direction of When Father Was Away On Business, I'm glad. But dulling repetition for four movies in a row is indeed something to be dismayed over. And if he DID make a remake of Planet of the Apes, I'm certain it would be far better than Tim Burton's misbegotten film. At the very least, it would have great gypsy music.

Michael Giltz

P.S.

Oh and no, I haven't been retarded all my life. It's only kicked in since I turned 40.|

Monday, November 12, 2007

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Pixar's Amazing Hitting Streak

My latest Huffington DVD column talks about Pixar's Ratatouille and the amazing streak of critical and commercial successes they are enjoying.

Monday, November 05, 2007

"Alien Vs. Predator: Requiem"

That's the title of the latest film in this cross-over franchise. My cranky friend's reaction:
What the hell is that, a goddamn Mozart reference? Do the Alien and Predator sit together at the Alien’s bed to write the Alien’s final symphony, with the Predator taking notes frantically and the Alien feverishly dictating the notes, what the instruments are, where the oboe comes gently in??? Does the Alien wear a powdered wig?? Does the Predator rage at God and anoint himself the patron saint of alien predator mediocrities? WILL THE AUDIENCE EVEN BE ABLE TO SPELL OR SAY “REQUIEM”?? I remember watching people over 40 trip on their tongues as they asked for a ticket to “Dangerous LIE-AY-SONS” in 1988.

AND WHAT WILL THE VIDEOGAME AUDIENCE THINK????
Now that's funny.

The Brides Of "Young Frankenstein"

Here's my latest NY Daily News piece. This one profiles the three leading ladies in the new Mel Brooks musical Young Frankenstein: Megan Mullally, Sutton Foster and Andrea Martin.

"Black Watch" At St. Ann's Warehouse

With the clock falling back, a rave in the New York Times, sold out shows and the constant, almost hectoring reminders of St. Ann's that people arriving late for "Black Watch" simply would NOT get in, we made sure to arrive very early indeed for this Scottish play about the fabled military regiment -- think of it as their Marines, perhaps. The form, indeed the story itself, is very familiar. Vets back from a punishing war are wary of talking to a writer, who wins them over by offering to pay for their beer even if he does ask banally obvious questions and keeps insisting "I understand" when of course the whole point is that he doesn't understand and needs to ask questions so he can start. Then we flash back to their time in Iraq, with soldiers salivating over the various food they'll eat when back home, taking turns ordering their meals at a Chinese restaurant and then an Indian one while riding in the back of a transport vehicle. They fight, they curse, they look at porn, they show little interest in the politics back home, they duck when the shelling comes too close and sometimes they die.

So the content for me was familiar, as it would be to anyone who's done a modicum of reading about soldiers during war. But what was genuinely thrilling was the direction and choreography of "Black Watch." Director John Tiffany makes full use of the space, with actors roaring about from one end to the other. A constantly shifting perspective has actors up in the scaffolding at one moment followed by others across the room on the ground at the next. Scenes flow seamlessly into one another, costume changes sometimes take place in full view, and something as simple as three men leaning back in their chairs and slamming down onto the ground in unison can be quietly mesmerizing. Two especially vivid moments stick out. The first was the scene of soldiers reading letters from home (one after another reads mutely, lets their letter fall to the ground and then begins to perform in sign language what they're feeling or what they've read or what they want to say in response). Just beautiful. The other was an extended sequence in which our hero details the history of Scotland's Black Watch, all while being dressed and undressed in the uniforms of that fabled unit from the very beginning to the present. The speaker is lifted up and turned over and bent backwards by others and clothed and unclothed again and again in a delightful bit of stagecraft that is a master class in how to engage an audience while delivering reams of background info. It's a true ensemble that Tiffany molds well -- I can't wait to see what he does next.

The show was followed by a panel on veterans and the war. Typical of most panel discussions, the people in the audience didn't ask questions so much as hold forth, as if to say, okay the show had its chance and you guys have spoken, now it's MY turn. My friend Noam suggested politely that the endless talking of people called on to ask a question reflected the impotence and powerlessnss people feel when dealing with the war, but I can't be that kind. They're just bores.

Sufjan Stevens at BAM

Well, one definite goal was reached at the Sufjan Stevens concert at BAM: we learned how to pronounce his name. It's Suf-e-yan, apparently. I've wanted to see him in concert for years, certainly since his brilliant album centered on the state of Illinois. But this was more than a concert. Stevens debuted his orchestral piece inspired by The BQE, the Bronx Queens Expressway. There was a full orchestra, filled with the youngest, best-looking musicians you'll ever see in a pit. Since the music of Stevens is already very grand and orchestral, a symphony hardly seemed like a stretch and it certainly wasn't a surprise to see the performance included multi-media. It began with the orchestra behind a scrim, backlit to create a shadowy, lurking effect. Three giant video screens above it played stills and video shot along the BQE. Then the scrim lifted and there were the musicians, soon joined by five performers at the front of the stage who began to hula hoop. Why not? They left eventually (to delighted applause), the music continued and then they returned in darkness with glow in the dark neon hula hoops and danced some more. A rock band -- especially a full drum kit -- added a color I've rarely heard with an orchestra, there was a "Rhapsody in Blue" flourish on the keyboards towards the finale and it ended grandly. Accessible and enjoyable, the piece was most impressive for me during the quiet, almost sad lyrical passages at the beginning, perhaps because I didn't know if Stevens had that in him. The rest was filled with strong melodic sequences, often building to a dischordant epic climax before giving way to another strong melody. Very accessible and enjoyable (hence the Gershwin nod). I have no idea how the piece will stand up to repeated listening and whether it has the shape and cohesiveness of a symphony, whether it works as a whole. But I can't wait to hear it again. The multi-media portion was fine, something to watch while the music played, but it was far from necessary. This was not a multi-media work, it was a symphony with some images tossed in for good measure. That's a compliment.

After strong applause, they took a short break and Stevens came out and performed an 80 minute set with his band and the full orchestra. I'd missed earlier concerts of his at Town Hall and I'd wondered how they went. I knew the songs were strong enough that he could come out with just a guitar and perform. But the music was so grand that I thought some synths might not quite fit the bill. I don't know if he's ever been able to perform with a full orchestra before but certainly it was a treat. Here too they tossed in video loops and other artworks to complement the songs -- I loved the grainy, shadowy footage during one song that showed crowds of people on a beach milling about and rushing towards a globe-like ball of light whenever it landed among them. And the songs were sensational. Stevens had a sense of humor but didn't try and undercut or downplay the pain or seriousness of many of his songs. After "John Wayne Gacy," a terribly beautiful and sad song inspired by the serial kiler, I wondered for a second if people would actually clap. It seemed almost inappropriate after the pain of the song, which ends with Stevens comparing himself to Gacy. But it's a great, great song and the audience whooped. Then Stevens said almost with embarrassment that sometimes writing and singing that song bothers him and that some of the lines creeped him out while he was singing. (I thought he said he skipped over some lines, but playing the original back again, it doesn't seem so.) He said he might just have to retire that number. Overall, there was a wry seriousness to him, funny but committed. A friend described the show as the greatest school project ever: he gave facts about the BQE, showed some slides, read a paper (this one a faux childlike story about he and his siblings selling "Toilet Paper Dolls, Collectors Edition" to make money) and performed some songs. I already knew Stevens was a special talent but seeing him spread his wings with an orchestral piece and finally perform live, enjoying his dry wit and the nervous tic he employs of clapping along whenever the audience applauds between songs, well, it just made me eager even more for his next CD, his next symphony, his first film score. I know I'll be listening to him for a long time to come and now I even know how to pronounce his name.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

Yank! WW II Musical Is A Real Find

Going to any play or musical Off Broadway or Off Off Broadway is always a risk. Most of the time, when you're checking out a new work that doesn't have the stamp of approval of being acclaimed in London or major artists attached, you're in for a bumpy night. This is especially true if you're going to a gay-themed play. Since I write for The Advocate, I check out those works even more frequently than most and therefore I see a lot more bad gay plays than other types. So being inherently interested in the subject matter doesn't make you easier on them; it makes you a lot harder. (I assume the same is true for people who regularly attend plays by or about blacks, Latinos, Asians, etc. They've seen every cliche a million times before.)

So despite some friendly reviews from theater websites, my expectations were low when heading to Park Slope in Brooklyn to see a new musical, "Yank!" about gay soldiers in World War II by two brothers, Joseph and David Zellnick. The bare bones "set" -- no set to speak of -- didn't inspire confidence either. So what a delightful surprise to say that the show is entertaining as it is, could easily get better and deserves a future life Off Broadway.

The discovery of a journal in an antique store in San Francisco bookends the story of wide-eyed Stu (a very charming Bobby Steggert) joining the Army after Pearl Harbor and finding himself drawn to Mitch (Maxime de Toledo), another grunt who is so strapping his nickname is "Hollywood." (Stu's nickname becomes a play on "light in the loafers," though the guys in his squad don't really think that.) They go through the stress of basic training, Stu finds fellow travelers in the steno pool and gets recruited for "Yank!" magazine by a more defiantly open gay man who takes Stu under his wing. Misunderstandings, witch hunts, a supportive lesbian in the upper ranks and Iwo Jima all come into play during the two and a half hour show (including intermission).

The songs range from serviceable to memorable, all in the vein of music of the Forties, with big band ballad "Remembering You" as a touchstone. The title song "Yank" is a highlight, as is "Tap" where tap-dancing becomes a metaphor for realizing you're gay (or rather, celebrating it), and "Your Squad Is Your Squad" uses the full ensemble to terrific effect. The cast is solid, with everyone cast for their acting first and singing second. Steggert is a good foot shorter than Toledo, and they get a lot of mileage out of Mitch towering over and enveloping Stu to great old Hollywood effect. Nancy Anderson plays all the women in the show, including a clever first scene where the guys say goodbye to their gals before basic training and she switches from one soldier's sweetheart to the next. Her highlight is a Hollywood musical spoof on movie night. Jefrey Denman is v good in a supporting role as Artie, the Yank! writer who shows Stu the ropes and doubles as the choreographer for the show. The two leads are very able, with Steggert easily shouldering the central, dominating role of Stu. I'd seen him once before in "The Music Teacher," a poor play/opera by Wallace and Allen Shawn. If the show has any future life, Steggert should be a part of it.

As for improvements, there's a second act ballet a la "Carousel" that nudges the story forward a bit but is entirely unnecessary. Given the constraints, it's decently done, but it slows the show down dramatically. Eliminating that would also mean hopefully eliminating the scene of the three steno pool male secretaries dressed in 'Gone With The Wind" garb to introduce the dance and make all too clear that the dancer performing the piece is meant to be Stu; it's very out of tone with the rest of the show, even if amusing on its own. This isn't Charles Busch territory -- otherwise the show is quite realistic and any flights of fantasy are limited to the character's dreams.

Finally, I'm not a fan of intermissions -- I think most plays and musicals would benefit without having one. In this case, if it's not cut, I'd move the intermission up and have it take place right when Stu insists on heading out to Iwo Jima, perhaps w a further musical number there using the whole cast about heading off to battle. That would let the more "obvious" break that they used be part of the second act momentum and add to the tension, rather than having it dissipate during the break.

Yes, when you see a show at this early stage in its life, everyone's a show doctor. But it's a sign of the show's promise that you can't help thinking about how to make it even better. And as is, it's entertaining with a solid cast and well worth the $18 -- it's far better than any new musical I've seen since "Spring Awakening." Catch it before it ends Nov 11.

Back Door Slam Return To Mercury Lounge

Amazingly, despite the collapse of the record industry and the feeling that all the rules have been thrown out the window, rock and roll can still happen just the way it always did. I saw the UK power trio Back Door Slam a few months ago at the insistence of their publicist. Three young white guys -- 20 to 21 years old -- who play the blues a la Cream and Jimi Hendrix with a lead singer who looks 17 and sounds like a weathered bluesman (he has a terrific voice) and plays like a flashy guitar god. In other words, they were terrific. The space had maybe 25 people in it at the most, including a grey-haired lady who stood near the front who was either one of their moms or just a hardcore older fan.

When they returned, I invited a bunch of friends to the show, something I've never really done -- but with a $10 admission and convenient early showtime, it made sense. To my shock, eight people joined me and I suddenly felt the weight of responsibility. Would all these different people like the band? Mercury Lounge was much more crowded this night. I don't think any of the four other acts were the draw, but who knows? I'd like to think it was word of mouth. The first time I showed up in a party of two; this time I showed up with a party of eight. The room was filled about twice as much, the band exploded again and was sensational and everyone with me really liked it. Suddenly, I was going to be emailing them when the band returned in January. Maybe I'll bring a party of 16 that time? But the main storyline is as old as rock: you tour, wow the fans and keep returning to a town again and again and every time you play to bigger crowds and win more fans. It still works! By the way, their debut CD is okay but doesn't begin to capture the power of the band live. Check them out if you can.