May 18, 2015

thYou probably have to be a certain age to really appreciate the effect David Letterman has had on late-night comedy — no, on comedy period. And you have to be lots younger, intense and distractable now, to understand without much pondering why it is that he has to go.

You gotta know the rules to break ‘em, they say, and the rules were set by the former king of late-night, Letterman’s idol, Johnny Carson. A shy, guarded man off camera, Carson was most comfortable in two places: standing on his star-marker to deliver the nightly TONIGHT SHOW monologue, and behind the protective barrier of his desk, from which he would inquire and admire. The list of guests who sat on the couch to Johnny’s right for his thirty years on the air is matched only by those of Dave’s thirty-three. At first glance, the format remains: monologue, band, desk, guest. But the difference between the two men is what was in the background, behind them, out in the country at large.

Carson’s thirty-year reign began in 1962, when New York was still the center of the television industry; he didn’t move to California until ten years later. He came from that era of show business in which the audience still gave a damn about whatever Buddy Hackett and George Burns had for lunch at the Friars Club, and guys, women take so doggone long to get ready, am I right? Because there was so little “candid” repartee on the air, Johnny Carson’s brand of chitchat was trailblazing. He managed to maintain his stance as a wide-eyed Nebraska boy (the surrogate for his audience) even when he’d already become a bigger star than most of his guests. And think about that ten-year period in America, beginning with a healthy JFK and ending with Nixon’s creepy henchmen: almost alone among showbizzers, Johnny remained vital and relevant through it all.

thHollywood seemed to suit Carson. Everything was in color now, and he continued to dress in the height of fashion, even as it changed around him. Those ties with knots as big as your fist don’t look all that silly on old video of Johnny, like the Nehru jackets do on Sammy Davis Jr. (Can you imagine a David Letterman men’s apparel line? Carson had one.) In the early Seventies I managed a small group of writers at my graduate-school job, and one of them was a rabid fan of THE TONIGHT SHOW STARRING JOHNNY CARSON (that was the official name of the program in NBC press materials; I knew that from my college-era stint on the local Sunday newspaper). This was the first time I’d encountered somebody younger than I whose day was not complete until he’d watched Johnny, who missed the show when it went on hiatus, who could quote every Art Fern or Aunt Blabby sketch by heart. In his adulation for the Rat-Pack school of show business, this man seemed caught out of his time, like, say, Leon Redbone. But to him, the coolest guy on tv, far and away, was Johnny Carson.

The studio system had imploded and the kids were taking over film sets and recording studios. They were reacting — if not quite rebelling — against however the powers that be used to do things, no matter what that was. During Johnny’s second decade a group of young comedians caught up in that same artistic wave began to question the nature of comedy itself. While National Lampoon magazine extended sophomoric humor to the mainstream by allowing college weisenheimers to continue placing whoopee cushions well after graduation, standups openly wondered why they were still using the Borscht Belt as a template. The most obvious was George Carlin, who decided to ditch the suit and tie, grow his hair long, and employ his genius for wordplay as candidly as he could. He became a funny, raunchy hippie, embodying the “Al Sleet, the Hippy-Dippy Weatherman” character he had once jeered on the Ed Sullivan show. This same ironic distance was emerging in every aspect of the performing arts, and in television it manifested itself in SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE, SCTV and wee-hour rock-concert shows. All these outliers were programmed late, late, for that was presumably when bleary-eyed hipsters were stumbling back to the apartment or the dorm.

250px-LatenightdllogoJohnny’s third decade began in 1982, the same year NBC opened up a new comedy slot immediately following his broadcast, to be mounted by his own Carson Productions. They didn’t have to look far for a host. One of those young pranksters was a TONIGHT SHOW favorite and Johnny’s personal choice for heir apparent. This was LATE NIGHT WITH DAVID LETTERMAN, and its guiding principle was, we’re on after most of Johnny’s fans have already turned in, so we’ll have some fun with the format and deconstruct it for those night owls who are still up.

Although there was still a monologue, desk and band (the brilliant Paul Shaffer has kept Letterman musically vital all this time but still favors the classic rock that Dave’s original fans grew up on), the best parts of LATE NIGHT ventured out from Johnny’s safety zone, way farther than the few steps of the “Mighty Carson Art Players.” Letterman’s “field pieces” from that era (for example, taking over a Taco Bell drive-through station and messing with the unwitting customers) are still funny today: in fact, they’re being revived one by one on the last few shows. They’ve always played a remote piece or two to rev the live studio audience as part of the warmup routine. There’s only one man who can do a field piece as well as Letterman, and that’s Conan O’Brien — but, of course, Conan went to school watching Dave, as did today’s DAILY SHOW correspondents, who march down the same well-whacked jungle lanes.

You could sum up LATE NIGHT with one simple fact. It was self-aware: it knew it was a tv talk show. Writer/performer Chris Elliott might pop up from a trap door as “The Guy Under The Seats,” later plop into the guest chair as an unctuous celebrity, skewering the very type of shameless promotion that had just aired on Carson. They might strap a minicam onto a monkey’s back and let the beast run loose, for no good reason at all. Then there were irresistible stunts, like Dave testing suits made of Alka-Seltzer or Velcro, or dropping stuff off a five-story tower to watch it burst. Don’t forget the legendary Stupid Pet Tricks and their offshoot, Stupid Human Tricks. It was as if the hell-raisingest class clown somehow glommed the keys to a tv studio and figured out how to turn everything on. The churlish NBC insisted all this was their “intellectual property” when Letterman was passed over as TONIGHT SHOW host on Johnny’s retirement, so the show had to start over when it decamped to CBS.

220px-The_Late_ShowThe NBC show kind of had the writers trapped in their offices at 30 Rock; they had to leave midtown for most of the field pieces, though they did find themselves playing around with a Simon & Schuster publicist whose office at 1230 Avenue of the Americas happened to be right across from theirs. (Because of this informal relationship, S&S wound up publishing books of the writers’ Top Ten Lists.) Once CBS served them up an entire building, the old Ed Sullivan Theater on Broadway, the rechristened LATE SHOW WITH DAVID LETTERMAN was able to stretch out. Now they dropped stuff from their own place onto 53rd Street, where they also rode horses, shot guys out of a cannon, held batting practice, etc. And they made friends with their new neighbors in what in 1993 was a rather run-down neighborhood (it’s not any more). Soon souvenir salesmen Mujibur and Sirajul and deli owner Rupert Gee were semi-regulars on the show, and charmingly bizarre field pieces could happen right next door (such as cramming dozens of people all wearing Spider-Man costumes into the local Jamba Juice).

Letterman himself had always been viewed as aloof and cranky when off camera, self-critical to a fault (journalist Bill Carter reported that Letterman scribbled the note “I hate myself” and showed it to Teri Garr during a commercial break). Opinions differ among those who know him well. But then two earthshaking events changed everything. In January 2000, he underwent emergency quintuple bypass heart surgery, which saved his life. And in November 2003, he and longtime partner Regina Lasko welcomed a son, Harry. Even casual fans can tell that Letterman has mellowed, softened, grown into a new kind of responsibility that has nothing to do with comedy. Parenthood may be a prime reason Dave decided to step down when he did.

We’ve been in the Letterman audience several times over the years, starting with the old NBC show in 1990. The guests that night at 30 Rock were Rush Limbaugh — a conservative curiosity stepping into the lions’ den six years before Fox News went on the air — and a young starlet named Sharon Stone, who was in a new movie, TOTAL RECALL. “Tell us a little about yourself.” “Well, I was born in Meadville, Pennsylvania…” etc., then a few moments later Letterman fished out a copy of the current issue of PLAYBOY with a, um, healthy pictorial. “What do they think of this back in Meadville?” A CBS taping years later featured Howard Stern, who came on already livid because Dave had been giving too much airtime to his then-rival, Don Imus. Stern was blowing a gasket, actually turning red, not letting Letterman get a word in edgewise. Cut to commercial. Stern immediately deflated, the two guys talked and grinned. It was an act, all of it. As the countdown back to air happened, Stern puffed himself up and made it look like he’d been yelling all the way through the break. You know the talk-show world is artifice in your brain, but now you get to see it with your eyes. Of course, the overpreparation makes it even juicier when the host does lose control unexpectedly, such as Drew Barrymore’s spontaneous upstage flashing, or the infamous interview with Joaquin Phoenix who was “in character” as a sullen rapper without Letterman’s knowledge. (Phoenix came on later to apologize.)

th-1I’ve always been amazed at the attention to detail in Shaffer’s musical direction: each piece of walk-in music has something to do with the guest. For example, George Clooney was on last Thursday night, and his newest project is a movie called TOMORROWLAND. So Shaffer and the “CBS Orchestra” struck up Jimi Hendrix’s “Wait Till Tomorrow.” This same thing happens every night, every time. (A couple nights ago, Shaffer buttoned a Top Ten list having to do with Thomas A. Edison with a familiar guitar solo. After the break, Dave said from the desk, “Todd Rundgren.” Paul replied, “I Saw The Light.” Dave said, “Perfect!” It’s gone that way for 33 years.) Then one night when I was in the audience Chuck Leavell, that keyboard master, happened to be in town with the Rolling Stones. So Shaffer asked him to come sit in with the “CBS Orchestra.” They did pick a couple Stones tunes, and I think an Allmans piece, but what impressed me was that Chuck held his own with these grizzled sight-readers — probably the most versatile house band on television — on anything they wanted to play.

A self-aware, self-deprecating, anything-goes tv show. (The host once described LATE NIGHT as “a comedy show disguised as a talk show,” but lately there have been a helluva lot of things for guests to plug; it can be wearying.) The ultra-ironic is not so unusual any more, because David Letterman’s DNA has been absorbed into the culture. A pure talk show like Carson’s is anachronistic these days; now you shoot for YouTube clips, something which Letterman admits he has trouble wrapping his mind around. The game has changed once again, as a new generational shift takes hold. The day after tomorrow, when Dave finishes his final show, the senior late-night host in time on the air will be Jimmy Kimmel — at 47 he’ll be the oldest too, but Stephen Colbert, 50, will edge him out when his show replaces Dave’s in September.

Nobody better deserves a happy retirement than David Letterman. I’d say it’ll be fun seeing him in interesting places, but Johnny virtually vanished after he left THE TONIGHT SHOW and enjoyed the rest of his life largely in private. There are many similarities between the two men, and holding their lives close to the vest is one of them. Frankly, I just wish one thing for Dave above all else. I want him to get to a place where he never feels like scribbling such an anguished note, ever again.

Cassandra Channels Billie

April 25, 2015

61D3iXftobL._AA160_She was just billed as “Cassandra” back in Jackson, Mississippi in the 70s-80s, when she was the featured singer with Sergio Fernandez and his band at local spots like POETS in “The Quarter” on Lakeland Drive. All caps because the name was (rumored to be) a response to the overly cheerful T.G.I. Friday’s: it (supposedly) stood for “Piss On Everything, Today’s Saturday.” At first you said, Cassandra? I just want a pint or two; I don’t want to hear about how everything’s falling apart.

But this Cassandra melted you down within five minutes. Her worst quality, I have been told by more than one POETS server, was that her voice made customers forget to keep drinking. That’s how smitten we all were. Most decent-sized cities with local music scenes have one or two standouts who make you think, this individual is good enough to go pro. Well, ours went and did it. Her name was, and is, Cassandra Wilson, and she’s been a shining light among jazz vocalists in the wider world for more than 25 years.

After all that time and all that adulation, Cassandra has become so confident in the recording studio that she’s willing to take a few chances, and has it ever paid off on her latest release, COMING FORTH BY DAY. It’s an album of mostly covers of, and a tribute or two to, Billie Holliday, a singer whom Cassandra respects, admires, even adores. But this is no impression, not an attempt to resurrect a style or a voice. This is Billie through Cassandra, and she had the guts to engage Nick Launay, the longtime producer of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. (Did anybody else see that documentary, 20,000 DAYS ON EARTH?) The supporting musicians thus range from T Bone Burnett to Nick Zinner, with Van Dyke Parks supplying the string arrangements.

The best way I can describe the result is, it’s as if Billie Holliday were sitting next to you and singing softly into your ear. Yes, there are some out-front dynamics, but in most cases Cassandra makes you lean in to her; the only other producer I might have trusted to get a similar ambience would be Daniel Lanois. You will never consider “All of Me,” “You Go To My Head,” “These Foolish Things,” or even “Strange Fruit,” the same way again. It’s the midnight set after the playboys and their girls have all gone home.

This album is not for everybody; Cassandra has plenty for you jumpin’ jivers in her catalog. But in a way, it’s a wonderful summation of her career, and never have I been prouder of Jackson’s knock-em-dead chanteuse.

Some Moss Gathers

April 10, 2015

politifact-photos-141205175643-rolling-stone-uva-rape-on-campus-story-topThis has to be the all-time low point in the 48-year history of Rolling Stone. One of the last remaining outlets for long-form journalism, which used to be everywhere, the magazine has been forced to retract one of its biggest stories, and it has nobody to blame but itself for the great damage it has done to the fight against sexual assault on the college campus.

A loudly publicized RS article by Sabrina Rubin Erdely purported to document a shocking instantce of gang rape during a fraternity party at the University of Virginia, using it to highlight a very serious — and very real — nationwide problem. But Ms. Erdely’s scoop began unraveling almost as soon as it was published. It was, it developed, based on interviews with one traumatized victim, and the rest of her story didn’t hold up to scrutiny. Potential corroborators disputed the main witness’s version of events, and the fraternity in question hadn’t even held a party that night. Other journalists are shaking their heads at RS’s utter failure to double-check its reporting, at every step of the process, even after its fact-checking department warned that the factual backup was unusually flimsy. An independent review by the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism (in fairness, itself commissioned by an appalled Rolling Stone) ripped the magazine for ignoring basic rules of reporting. Soon, RS was reduced to the butt of a Jon Stewart bit.

There is plenty of blame to go around. Ms. Erdely and her editors evidently committed the logical error called “confirmation bias,” which means they began with a proposition and searched for real-life support. In their victim, known as “Jackie,” they felt they had found what they needed and, in deference to her psychological trauma (or so the editors say), they failed to subject her story to the scrutiny that would have been employed by any decent high-school newspaper. A journalist reports verifiable facts.

It’s a delicate subject, to say the least, about which we definitely don’t know enough. A few weeks ago, two activists told Bill Maher that on average, one in five college women would face sexual assault by the time they graduated. That number sounded way high to me, so I did some digging around. The stat comes from the Centers for Disease Control, which says: “In a study of undergraduate women, 19% experienced attempted or completed sexual assault since entering college.” Wow. Amazing. In my defense, though, I submit that I was way off in my estimation for one simple reason. I’m a man.

A long-ago girlfriend, with whom I worked in the same professional setting, years later casually mentioned the gauntlet of potential hit-ons she’d had to endure when we were together, mostly from older gents who were also part of that setting. I had been absolutely oblivious. Nor had she cried on my shoulder about it; to her, it was just an annoying part of everyday life as an attractive young woman. You guys have no idea, bub. Let’s take that same dynamic and dial back the maturity level so that both people are in college. Now the one-in-five starts to look much closer.

If you’re not a rock star, jock star or movie star, it’s hard to imagine having to fend off potential suitors, but women (adjust for LGBT relationships however you wish; let’s just say, the “naturally pursued”) do it all the time. And pursuers have to stick their necks out every so often and face casual rebuke: most women I know have many ways to clearly indicate they’re not interested in a romantic relationship, because life forces them to develop those signals. (Or hmmm: was it just me?) You may wind up feeling foolish for trying, but by me, that’s not sexual assault. When you don’t yet know enough to (or are too drunk to) read a NO THANKS signal, you’re getting into some deep water that no amount of “Boy, did we get hammered!” can bail. And even if a woman gets used in the worst way by some budding Stanley Kowalski, it’s still up to her to report the damn thing and go through the humiliation all over again. Because little lady, the burden of proof is on you.

Columbia J-School Academic Affairs Dean Sheila Coronel and Dean Steve Coll present their report.

Columbia J-School Academic Affairs Dean Sheila Coronel and Dean Steve Coll present their report.

The worst part of this is that many — especially our pals on the pale, male and stale far right — don’t believe in college sexual assault any more than they do in climate change or evolution. It’s just a bunch of gals getting too tipsy and marijuanaed up and regretting the hookup the next day. And this false alarm is going to set societal awareness back even more. Red-state pinup Ann Coulter has already begun: “From the Duke lacrosse team, the Columbia mattress girl and the University of Virginia, the left has not been able to produce one actual rape on a college campus. It’s beginning to look as if the rape of the Sabine women never happened, either.” College rape is nothing but another left-wing canard.

I also have trouble squaring Rolling Stone’s decision to go to the mats for its employees with my natural outrage that no Wall Street bankers are in jail for ruining the economy, no Cheney-Bush goombahs were punished for torturing human beings and inspiring legions of terrorists, and cop after cop walks away clean unless a camera lens is stuck in his snoot while he’s committing murder (and sometimes even then). Seems like if you’re in for a penny, you’d be in for a pound.

It’s a tragedy all around: for an unjustly pilloried fraternity and university, for any serious response to assault on campus, and for the journalistic reputation of a paper that should never have let this one get sent to layout.

7/30/15: The Times reports today that RS managing editor Will Dana will be leaving. It’s almost certainly related to the mishandling of this story. So here, at least one head did roll.

10 Things I Learned In Argentina (With A Bonus!)

April 8, 2015

1) You know you want a slab of lean Argentine beef, right? Order the sirloin, called in most restaurants the “Bife De Chorizo.” They also have ribeye, filet, even succulent tenderloin, but this New-York-strip-steakish cut is not only cheaper, it’s also exactly what you want and is their best expression of mid-day, siesta-inducing beef. Tell them to cook it however they would enjoy it best themselves. Get the steak frites.

This is it.

This is it.

2) The famous Malbec grape, star of the Mendoza wine region, is more versatile than you may have imagined, especially in blends with Cabernet and Franc or yummy Tempranillo. The stuff we get in the States is generally the mass-produced dregs, hence the low regard. It’s like being in the Duoro: these really beautiful wines are so good that the locals drink them all up! But this could be changing as French winemakers move into the region and marry two styles, with international sales in mind. There are now pure Malbec bottles that can make your hair stand up, but the blends are still the absolute grooviest.

The tank room at Bodega (winery) Alta Vista near Mendoza.

The tank room at Bodega (winery) Alta Vista near Mendoza.

3) Eva Peron is tucked away in her famous cemetery, La Recoleta in Buenos Aires; it takes some footwork to find the memorial to her mortal remains. Fortunately, Airbnb led us to a great place in the charming Recoleta neighborhood, so we felt like we had plenty of time to wander around.

Evita and family.

Evita and family.

4) If you want to go to Uruguay, it’s a simple ferry ride, which we took, to Colonia del Sacramento. Some people on both sides take this ride for visa reasons: you have to leave the country every few months, etc. We were thrilled to be in another country. It looks like Cuba b/c of all the antique American cars passionately (and otherwise) maintained.

IMG_06545) US$ are more prized than AR pesos. This is because there is an official exchange rate and a “blue market” exchange rate. “Blue” instead of “black” because airbody knows about it, and individual stores will even offer the “blue” rate to your face if you’ll only pay in US$.

6) Mendoza is primed to explode. It’s like Napa a generation ago. They’re even selling plots wherever you go. The main problem is WATER. Don’t buy a plot unless you know you have this problem nicely solved, but if so, you’re betting on one of the world’s next trendy wine regions, so the dice would seem to be loaded in your favor.

This is the cellar at O. Fournier in the soon-to-be-trendy Uco Valley. You may peg it as a sanctuary. You would be correct.

This is the cellar at O. Fournier in the soon-to-be-trendy Uco Valley. You may peg it as a sanctuary. You would be correct.

7) The Vines Of Mendoza is a great place to settle down and taste. They know what they’re doing there, and although they’re obviously promoting, they listen to you too.

First thing you wanna do in Mendoza is head down to Vines Of. They are great.

First thing you wanna do in Mendoza is head down to Vines Of. They are great.

8) The non-tourist-serving Argentine people know just enough English: maybe a tad less than Europeans, but they make up for it in friendliness. You can communicate in a pinch with flailing hands and pointing fingers. Waiters and such are by and large fine: they have menus in English so all you have to do is point. A typical taxi driver may speak just a few English words, which matches my Spanish precisely. I made a couple of ’em laugh with my pitiful attempts. Write down your destination ahead of time and you’re bueno.

The first few days of fall were just perfect for al fresco steak snarfing.

The first few days of fall were just perfect for al fresco steak snarfing.

9) The stars are all different in the Southern Hemisphere. I should have noted this in Australia twenty years ago. We stayed in a top-floor place in B.A., but I never got a really close look at them. I imagined seeing the Southern Cross — or maybe I actually did! — and took a swig of Malbec. It was as if I had, so I was happy.

10) I turned on my pad and saw a Google Doodle made up of gourds: squash, pumpkin, etc. Curious, I clicked to get the significance, and — in Spanish — found it was the First Day Of Autumn. In other words, Sergei and Larry and Eric, along with the entire Apple staff, knew exactly where I was.

IMG_0645That is molto creepando, but I still owe a hearty muchas gracias to Ricardo (Mendoza Wine Tours), Andreas (The Vines of Mendoza), Alejandro (at our B.A. apartment), and all the other terrific people who made us feel right at home. Note to self: quit falling in love with these places. The return list is getting too long!

The actual second course (of seven) at our i Latina dinner. Don't miss it.

The actual second course (of seven) at our i Latina dinner. Don’t miss it.

BONUS TIP: Before you go to Buenos Aires, check out http://www.ilatinabuenosaires.com. This was the best place we ate in the entire Southern Hemisphere. Go all out for the wine tasting menu.

All About The Hamiltons

March 9, 2015

About fifteen minutes into the performance, the hairs on my arms and neck started to tingle. I looked around at the stage, the theater. I wanted a really good mental picture of this place and time, because I knew I was amid something amazing, and so did the cast and crew who were performing it. By the end of the first act, I still had the same unreal fervor. Now it almost felt like guilt, that I was watching something so transgressive that I shouldn’t even be there. As we filed out at show’s end, I realized I’d been clenching my body for the inevitable breaking of the spell, which always, always happens, even to the most promising Act I hopes.

Nope. Not this time. I had just witnessed the most rule-breaking, game-changing, crowd-thrilling piece of theater since the original Broadway production of HAIR — which was realized by this same Public Theater. In other words, HAMILTON punched me harder than anything in nearly fifty years. As we were walking out, Linda said, “I’d go back in there and see it again right now,” and that goes double for me. The last time I felt that way was GATZ, also at this selfsame Public.

th-2More than one friend of mine had been skeptical after the word of mouth and then the reviews were all unrealistically fervid. HAMILTON was the hottest ticket in New York before it even opened. Hey, we sneered, nothing’s that good. Besides, our murky understanding was that this was some kind of “hip-hop musical,” and by me you can keep most hip-hop music: I’m too old and too Caucasian. (I think Eminem’s “Stan” is a compact noir masterpiece, but to me it’s the exception that proves the rule.) Still, knowledgeable people were falling all over themselves trying to explain how miraculous this thing is. Now I’ve seen it, and it’s my turn to try.

After the Tony-winning success of IN THE HEIGHTS (we were lucky enough to attend the ceremony the night Lin-Manuel Miranda won the biggest award, Best Musical), the writer-composer read Ron Chernow’s biography ALEXANDER HAMILTON and made the indelible connections that brought his story to the stage. Here was an illegitimate child, an abandoned orphan, a Caribbean immigrant to whom Revolutionary-era British-American society was as alien as was the slaves’ native Africa to their owners, a guy who pulled himself up by the bootstraps and through courage, smarts and sheer chutzpah insinuated himself into the snobby cabal of the Founding Fathers. Hamilton was no saint — he was hard-headed, loose-lipped and lustily robust; a lurid sex scandal probably prevented any serious run at the Presidency — and one of the great strengths of this piece is that he is presented candidly: at some points you sympathize with his opponents and wish the title character would just shut the hell up.

hamiltonAs for the music, there’s far more variety than I expected. There are ballads, traditional belters, musical winks and nods ranging from Gilbert & Sullivan to Led Zeppelin. But, yes, the beating heart of HAMILTON is that relentless hip-hop groove, an instant behind James Brown’s “the One,” which the best rhymers can cram with truth: here boasting, there spitting with rage. You don’t have to know a thing about Alexander Hamilton when you sit down. All those biographical facts and much more will be taught you with self-asserting lyrics that tear away all anachronism and make the historical characters as relevant as a smartphone.

In a program note, the Public’s Artistic Director, Oskar Eustis, compares the sound of hip-hop to Shakespeare’s use of iambic pentameter, and I couldn’t shake that feeling. Whenever I sit down for a Shakespeare play, there’s an initial period in which I have to get used to the ornate 16th-century language. After five minutes or so I can “sync in,” relax and enjoy the Bard’s beat. Here, we’re held by the hand as the opening number introduces the hip-hop cadence softly, clearly, the beat defined only by snapping fingers. (The orchestra is silent while we “sync in.”) Hamilton’s pre-Revolutionary backstory is presented as a group of song lyrics — the show is “sung through,” meaning there’s no dialogue — which lets us teach ourselves how to listen. As the orchestration later grows more complex (a superb sound mix never allows it to overpower the lyrics), we retain that comfort level, and even though rhymes will soon be flying by as fast as we can register them, we still feel comfortable within the form because of that early tutelage.

hamilton_public-theaterThis has all been tried before; HAMILTON is simply the most successful at it. BLOODY BLOODY ANDREW JACKSON, billed as an “emo” show, also depicted classic events through a contemporary filter. So did RENT, and even though Jonathan Larson’s songs were a high point of Nineties musical theater, we still got the feeling that the characters were Lower East Side dilettantes roaming through the milieu of LA BOHEME, that they were interpreting Puccini in the light of their own experiences: wow, we’re just like those bohemians. HAMILTON takes things a crucial step farther. Its players inhabit the historical characters. We’re not just like these immigrants, these outcasts mishandled by the plutocrats of their own empire: we ARE them.

HAMILTON is (very nicely) costumed for the period, as was ANDREW JACKSON. The set depends on vaguely period-specific carpentry and director Thomas Kail’s continually clever use of a turntable, which can make the stage appear for dramatic purposes many times larger than it is: 360-degree “camera moves”; a pedestrian approaching from afar, walking past, and disappearing in the distance, etc. What rocks us is the people inside the costumes: they’re all of African, Hispanic, Asian descent. The immigrants have busted open the American creation myth! That Thomas Jefferson…he’s…a black man! (And in Act I, he played Lafayette!) Public Theater founder Joe Papp championed race-(even gender-)neutral casting fifty years ago, which opened the Shakespeare canon to a new generation of actors. HAMILTON says, this isn’t a stunt: the Founding Fathers had more in common with us than you were taught. Then, while we’re busy pondering all that heavy ethnic stuff, a white man walks onstage. Wearing a crown.

thWe were lucky enough to see Brian d’Arcy James on his last day as King George. (Jonathan Groff, of HAIR and SPRING AWAKENING, took over, so the role is in good hands.) Mr. Miranda has given the British king only three appearances, but they each rock the house so hard — in imperious taunting style until late in the piece, when George joins the hip-hopping others in celebrating the fact that Hamilton will never become president — that we want more of that British royal crimson among HAMILTON’s other colors. The snarky monarch will go down in theater lore as an all-time coveted part when HAMILTON finally descends to community and educational venues.

So much is illuminated through this strange prism. As might be familiar to any follower of Maker Studios’ hilarious Web series EPIC RAP BATTLES OF HISTORY, the fierce debates between Jefferson and Hamilton over our republic’s financial system are presented as hip-hop battles, complete with dropped-microphone swagger. Throughout, it’s amazing how much actual historical info these beats are beating into our minds. (On this issue, Hamilton won: the little orphan bastard devised America’s monetary system as Secretary of the Treasury, battling Jefferson all the way.)

Duels. Hamilton was slain by his career-long rival Aaron Burr in a duel, every schoolchild knows that. There are actually three duels staged in HAMILTON, and the first one gives us the “ten rules” atop a whirring turntable. By the time the climactic Burr-Hamilton shootout arrives, we know how to watch, and as we walk out of the Public’s Newman Theater in pistol range between two life-sized statues of the combatants, they mean much more to us than they did when we entered three hours before.

Nothing’s perfect, of course, and HAMILTON could have benefited from more solid realization of its few female characters: right now, they’re largely window dressing and the higher voices on some pretty duets. But an intricately choreographed chorus of singer/dancers, evenly divided by gender, keep the stage flashing and insert themselves into the story where needed. Don’t stare too hard, though: you need to keep sharp and pay attention.

hamilton-21To my retrospective sorrow, I have not seen IN THE HEIGHTS. (At the Tony afterparty, I literally ran into a still-walking-on-air Mr. Miranda down a long, thin corridor to the restroom: “Sorry.” “Nice going!” “Thanks, man!”) I hate that because I think HAMILTON might be remembered as a keystone in the reinstatement of live theatre to its rightful place as a vital part of popular culture, much the role HAIR served in the late Sixties. (And, in fairness, RENT in the Nineties.) Now I wish I had taken the effort to see its progenitor. HAIR, that Medicare-aged pioneer, really doesn’t date all that well. I saw the recent revival and had tears streaming down my face, but they were chasing the beauty of the melodies, not any particular symbolism that survives. It’s a period piece, nostalgia, even a tad corny by now. But those songs — and on Broadway, no less! By contrast, HAMILTON forces reconsideration of history. It’s not a contemporary record: it’s a bridge between cultures, the first one to span this particular pathway.

I saw HEDWIG AND THE ANGRY INCH, THE 25th ANNUAL PUTNAM COUNTY SPELLING BEE, HAIR, THE MERCHANT OF VENICE, BLOODY BLOODY ANDREW JACKSON, HAMILTON and others in their original “downtown” (or Central Park) engagements. Few (HEDWIG, HAIR) really prospered after their transition to larger Broadway houses. HAMILTON will try its luck when it begins Broadway performances on July 13. I have no idea how the piece will translate to a bigger room, but I’ll tell you this much: when we saw the NYTimes ad, we hustled to find Broadway dates. Yes, we’re clawing for tickets — and homes, we’ve already seen it.

Aaron Burr (l.) and Alexander Hamilton in permanent dueling position at the theater entrance at the Public's Astor Place HQ.

Aaron Burr (l.) and Alexander Hamilton in permanent dueling position at the theater entrance at the Public’s Astor Place HQ.

3/10/15: Thanks to my friend David Morgan of CBS for telling me about the great piece CBS SUNDAY MORNING did on the show last Sunday.

8/7/15: And Ben Brantley welcomes the show’s Broadway transition with one of the most gushing reviews he’s ever written. We’ll be back to see the Broadway production in November, but you can already start inscribing the 2016 Tony plaque, my friend.

The State Of Late

February 13, 2015

Everybody’s talking about tv this week, which makes it pretty much like every other week of the year, only right now they’re talking less about what’s on it, more about who’s on it. On Tuesday morning, Brian Williams, the jovial but “trusted” face of ratings-leading NBC News, was suspended without pay for six months over a bit of erroneous reporting about his own experiences during the Iraq war. Then, late that same afternoon, Jon Stewart announced at a taping of THE DAILY SHOW that he intended to leave his job of 16 years within the next few months. By Tuesday night, the two men’s roles had shifted. Brian Williams was revealed as a serial resume-fluffing showboat, and Jon Stewart, a former stand-up comic, was now arguably, if only temporarily, the most trusted name in tv news, by virtue of abdication.

Brian Williams.

Brian Williams.

I feel for Williams. He seems to be a nice guy who was blessed with the looks and the voice, and also with the rare ability to poke fun at his own profession without disrespecting it. These qualities made him, and they may also break him. The first time I was ever aware of him was at a 2004 preview screening of ANCHORMAN at which Will Ferrell was interviewed in character afterward. Ferrell’s SNL castmates turned out in force to whoop and holler and sat in the rows just in front of and behind us: Tina Fey, Rachel Dratch, Jimmy Fallon, Ana Gasteyer, Amy Poehler, Chris Parnell, etc., probably some writers too. Somebody pointed out this tall, distinguished guy who looked like a Hollywood casting director’s idea of an anchorman, being escorted down to a very close seat. “That’s Brian Williams…he just took over for Tom Brokaw.” They even made a crack about him from the stage, but time has erased the details. A jolly occasion. (I met Tim Robbins, who has a cameo, in the lobby…he’s basketball tall.)

The fullness of time instructs that it’s probably right and proper that I first beheld Williams at a movie-studio event featuring a parody of a newscaster. He has always wanted to straddle the news and entertainment divisions. After all, his idol Brokaw graduated from light (THE TODAY SHOW) to heavy (NBC NIGHTLY NEWS), but those were the days when NBC News supervised both shows; TODAY is now so louche that I wouldn’t be surprised to find out that’s not true any more. Williams himself went further. He became The Coolest Anchorman Ever, chatting with Letterman, sparring with Stewart, slow-jamming the news with Fallon, even hosting an episode of SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE: not since Ron Nessen had SNL strayed so far into the real world that you and I inhabit. The most amazing fact I learned out of this whole kerfuffle was that when it looked like Jay Leno was leaving for sure, Williams raised his hand: he seriously wanted to be considered for the TONIGHT SHOW hosting gig. That, I didn’t know about him.

What could turn a King Of The World, aware enough to be a self-deprecator, into a craven self-aggrandizer? After all, he got the facts right when he first reported about the Iraq choppers at the time. (The one ahead of his was hit by an RPG, not the one he was in. Still admittedly very scary, but not the same, as the vets who were with him kept pointing out and pointing out and pointing out.) You might as well ask O.J. or Tiger or Nixon why they risked their earthly royalty with, let’s just say, ill-considered behavior. And exactly how rare is this phenomenon? Haven’t you exaggerated something in your past to make yourself look better? I know I have, and before you righteously peg me as an aberration, I must point out that this is common enough to be a sitcom trope: hubby is happily pontificating, and the wife jabs him with the pinprick of truth that deflates him, har har har. Also, keep repeating the same harmless fabrication in public for years and years and years and even you may come to believe it. My uninformed guess is, that’s exactly what happened to Brian Williams.

As this was “breaking” over the weekend, somebody asked me, “Do you think he’ll lose his job over this?” I said, “Yes.” “Do you think he should?” I said, “Yes.” That’s cold, turkey, especially because I still like the guy. But if I’m his boss, I have to cut him away. (The question was asked at the point when Williams had decided on his own to take some time off. NBC News, shamefully, had not yet officially weighed in.) I replied, “Look at what he does for a living.” He has to stare into a camera and tell people, this is what happened today, I swear it is, forget about that Iraq stuff, I’m rehabilitated now. Most thoughtful people will look at him askance. Viewers of the verbal geek-shows on Fox News won’t even be that kind. NBC has no choice but to find another way forward. I’ve read that Williams is “shattered,” and that hurts me too. But news is news and trust is trust, and that’s precisely how NBC has marketed him, for cryin out loud. On the other hand, let’s not forget that NBC NIGHTLY NEWS is on top in the ratings right now because of Brian Williams, and if there’s any possible way to weasel out of this and preserve that advantage, perhaps by cloning an Iraq-fudging-free duplicate, the NBC suits will be on it like white on rice. Whatever brings the eyeballs.

Jon Stewart.

Jon Stewart.

Time was displaced weirdly on that strange day. At the top of his show Tuesday night, Jon Stewart said he had some business to get to, that you (we, the tv viewers) probably know something the studio audience (the ones who had stood outside shivering in the cold) did not, but we’d take care of that later. This is because THE DAILY SHOW rolls tape in the late afternoon: I think around 4, maybe 5. (I was there once, but the weather was much better.) So anybody who was physically in the studio with him (and, to be fair, the publicity department, painfully aware of all this too) had heard Jon’s announcement by, say, 6pm at the latest, in time to tweet all their friends/bosses. By the time the episode aired at 11pm, the whole country already knew Jon was resigning. At air, the studio audience, trapped in late-afternoon real-time, was actually the last to know. Calling Christopher Nolan!

As he fought away tears, the finest thing Jon told his audience was: “this show doesn’t deserve an even slightly restless host, and neither do you.” What were we to make of the fact that Jon took summer 2013 off to direct (evidently rather credibly; I’ve not seen it yet) a movie? Or that he tapped John Oliver to fill in for him? (One of the all-time greatest DAILY SHOW episodes ever was Oliver’s first, when the whole “correspondent” infrastructure seemed to break down over petty jealousy. Every joke topped the previous one. Classic.) What you, I, Glenn Beck, everybody, has to take away is that Jon Stewart has skin in THE DAILY SHOW. It’s not a berth, as with Hannity or O’Reilly. To him, it’s a lifestyle. The Times ran a piece Wednesday on how politicians are crying alligator tears upon seeing Jon go. I can tell you that book publicists are crying real tears. We can only hope that Colbert finds a way to open 11:35 to more books, as he’s hinted he might. The Stewart-Colbert hour was the last stand for authors who deserved tv time in a culture that doesn’t seem to care. You could tell when Jon had been really rocked by a book, not just pro-forma politeness, and that earnest look to camera could make a TBR bestseller.

John Oliver.

John Oliver.

Could John Oliver take over now? The conventional wisdom was that he’d been a victim of poor timing: he got his weekly HBO show before Colbert split for CBS, otherwise he would have been a shoo-in for the 11:30 spot. (Remember: Colbert battled the monologues of Jay, Jimmy and Dave among younger viewers, and, over time, stared them all down.) But now Oliver’s a hit, and can afford to tell Comedy Central that he doesn’t care to host a four-night-a-week clambake. What he and his writers on LAST WEEK TONIGHT have managed to do is to stretch out the DAILY SHOW format and, after the monologue and such, air a ten-minute, meticulously researched piece each week on a single topic. FIFA. Beauty pageants. The India election. Etc. LAST WEEK TONIGHT blurs satire and journalism in a way the others can’t — plus, the host gets to vent his spleen unbleeped. I can’t imagine him going back to basic cable.

Larry Wilmore.

Larry Wilmore.

In the Colbert slot is Larry Wilmore, and after less than a month behind the desk, he’s already proven that he can carry a show. I’m glad the title changed from THE MINORITY REPORT to THE NIGHTLY SHOW, because the former monicker seemed to marginalize the show too severely. (Although it’s great that black culture has its own comedy show once again — Larry was one of the writers on IN LIVING COLOR — and who else would be able to hone in so hard on the Bill Cosby scandal?) Improving on LAST WEEK’s lead, THE NIGHTLY SHOW usually sticks to one topic for the full half hour. It’s still grasping toward its format: the four-person panel segments feel too rushed, albeit while introducing us to a bunch of bright under-the-radar comics, and the “Keep It 100” segment, in which the host asks absurd what-if questions to his guests, may wear out its welcome sooner than intended. But the show is current as hell: the last moment each night is a Tweeted question to the host, one that he sees for the first time on the spot. On Wednesday, the surprise question was, “Would you go back to host THE DAILY SHOW?” (He said no.)

Stephen Colbert.

Stephen Colbert.

Of course, the big question mark in all this ruckus is Stephen Colbert. The wailing and gnashing of teeth at the demise of THE COLBERT REPORT wasn’t over a fear of losing this great improvisational master; we’ll actually see more of him as he does a whole hour on CBS, five nights a week. It was about losing the character he played, the right-wing buffoon who poked holes in the conservative mass media by pretending to be one of them. This near-decade-long bit of performance art fooled everyone at first, especially whoever booked Colbert for the White House Correspondents’ Dinner in 2006 (early reports were that he bombed and people walked out. Then we noticed that the reports were all coming from Bushies, and when we actually saw the speech, it was brave and hilarious). Colbert’s right-wing gasbag character was able to speak truth to power in a new, visceral way, which we’ll all miss. But just as David Letterman deconstructed the talk show format, maybe an out-of-character Colbert and his very fine writers will be able to do the same.

James Corden.

James Corden.

And then there’s the guy nobody’s talking about, the man who will take over for the departing Colin Ferguson in CBS late-late-night land: British actor James Corden, whose lightning-fast improv skills are no secret to anyone who saw him in ONE MAN, TWO GUVNORS — as I did. So much change in such a short time. Think about it: by the end of this year, the senior guy in late-night will be…Jimmy Kimmel.

By now, THE DAILY SHOW is as much a format as THE TONIGHT SHOW, which has survived the loss of Jack Paar, Johnny Carson and Jay Leno. Most of the people just named have come up as possible replacements for Jon Stewart in the past few days, along with a chorus of feminists who think it’s past time for a Sarah Silverman or Amy Schumer to be sitting behind one of those desks. If the show were on NBC, I’d even throw Brian Williams’s name into the hat. The show won’t be the same. It can’t be. But somebody will step up, and there’s no reason this franchise can’t survive for a good long time, unless powerful people suddenly stop doing and saying stupid things. Ya think?

2/17/15: HBO has moved quickly. Today they picked up LAST WEEK TONIGHT for two more seasons, through 2017, taking John Oliver out of the DAILY SHOW replacement sweepstakes. I think LAST WEEK is a better gig for him, and evidently he agrees.

2/25/15: And now we’re enjoying a little dustup involving Fox News blowhard Bill O’Reilly. Seems this bilious gasbag was nowhere near the Falkland Islands when he “covered” the war for CBS News per his frequent and loud boasting. Unlike Brian Williams, though, this actually works in O’Reilly’s favor. He’s no longer a newsman. He’s long since become a one-sided pundit: nobody particularly trusts him on anything at all. Not only won’t O’Reilly lose his job for serial lying, he’ll be able to paint it as one more example of continuing persecution by the “haters” of the “liberal media.” He’s already begun that defensive campaign in his trademark boorish, bullying style.

4/7/15: And now the newly-designated anchor of THE DAILY SHOW, South African comic Trevor Noah, is feeling some heat over years-old tweets of some less-than-sensitive gags. Man, the news just keeps getting weirder.

8/12/15: As if late night weren’t already crowded enough, we learned today that starting January 1, Antenna TV will broadcast complete episodes of THE TONIGHT SHOW from the Hollywood period, 1972-1992. So the latest 11pm competitor will be none other than…Johnny Carson himself.

My Sundance 2015

February 7, 2015

thThis year we nearly didn’t make to our annual movie-binge-orgy at Sundance. We’ve had some close calls and hastily rebooked flights before — after all, it is the dead of winter — but now the entire trip was in jeopardy. A storm-of-the-century Nor’easter threatened to dump an all-time record helping of snow onto New York City, so Mayor de Blasio and city officials decided to hunker down. As the blizzard began on Monday, basically all NYC transportation ceased and we were told to stay indoors and batten down against some seriously howling winds. Hold up a tick, weather gods: I got some flicks to watch! Fortunately, the brunt of the storm passed Manhattan by, and on Tuesday the same bloviating idiots who’d castigated Mayor Bloomberg for under-preparedness after a 2010 snowplop were all over the current mayor for freaking out when it wasn’t needed (this wisdom only evident in hindsight, which is any bloviator’s warm security blanket). Man, I’ll take over-prepared over the alternative any ole time. But still: movies!

So, with winter conditions temporarily at bay, our Wednesday morning flight took off on sked. It was much warmer when we got to Park City, and judging from the mountains on the way up from Salt Lake, I guess the snow must have skedaddled back east. For a ski resort in late January (they’ve permanently adjusted the festival so it will never again conflict with the Martin Luther King holiday, which is to them — get this — a huge three-day skiing weekend too often made redundant when all the pasty North-Faced Hollywood suits are hogging the hotel rooms and eatery tables), Park City was downright balmy. But the Lord works in mysterious ways: the snow was nice and puffy and white on the ski runs themselves, even if the rest of the mountain looked brownish. Getting it to snow only where you need it: that’s Harvey Weinstein pull!

It was warmer inside as well. This, our twelfth Sundance, was the most artistically cheerful slate we’ve yet encountered. Yes, it partially depends on the luck of the draw — you can peep as hard as you like for ten solid days (I had 4 1/2) and still not come close to seeing everything — but you can also infer a festival sense beyond what you yourself witness by talking to others waiting in line or sitting next to you just before a screening. The typical Sundance movie has become stereotypical: hardscrabble this dealing with opposing that, colorless gray or hospital-green filters, “brave” performances, etc. But today’s indie creative palette is much broader, and I attribute the growth both to a generational handoff and to the stripped-down digital technology that makes damn near all things possible, even on a budget. “Serious” movies are more playful. Homage now extends to films many of us remember fondly without a trace of irony.

Is it all getting too commercial? Gee, I dunno. Before I got there, Warner Bros. inexplicably hosted a surprise screening of the Wachowskis’ JUPITER ASCENDING at the venerable Egyptian Theater on Main Street, 3-D glasses and all. I read that the iconic Park City venue wasn’t even full, but if I’d been there, I’d have been there, if you know what I mean. Still, what were you Warnerians thinking? You abandoned indie budgets TEN YEARS AGO, so how could you possibly expect the parkascenti to give a shit about your new $175 million plaything?

Just before our final screening, THE STANFORD PRISON EXPERIMENT, we had the good fortune to stand in line behind Sundance juror (World Dramatic; they chose SLOW WEST; see below) Col Needham. Col is the founder, and still CEO, of IMDb (the Internet Movie Database, as if you didn’t already know), and I tried to bow down as low as you all would have done in my place. I also found out some stuff about the Sundance jury process which I can’t reveal, since it involves a few eldritch incantations that would burn up your screen if I invoked them. Since he’s a Brit, I assumed Col would know all about my mates at the Four Word Film Review — same country, right? — and he seemed mildly (actually politely) aware. As we were filing in, he challenged me: “OK then, give me a four-word film review after you see this.” I summoned all my skills, and while the credits were rolling I came up with one. It made Col and his lady both laugh, thank goodness. It was…

Non-pros become cons.

Here are my knee-jerk capsule thoughts, written for remembrance as much as for reportage, on the twenty flicks I saw this year, in order of screening, rated on a five-star scale:

th-3DON VERDEAN*** (World Premiere) This one was eagerly anticipated by the Utah crowd, since it’s by Salt Lake’s (and LDS’s) own Jared Hess, maker of NAPOLEON DYNAMITE, and was filmed in the state. Mr. Verdean of the title (Sam Rockwell) is a Biblical archaeologist who makes his living by selling books and DVDs of his many travels. He gets on the radar of a rich evangelist (Danny McBride) who offers to bankroll ever greater expeditions: Verdean comes up with the remains of Lot’s petrified wife and claims to know the location of the Holy Grail. This is potentially interesting farcical stuff, but Hess’s tone is much too polite. Not even Will Forte as Verdean’s former-Satanist arch-enemy can pull this one out of the quicksand. For that we need Hess veteran Jemaine Clement (the tall one in FLIGHT OF THE CONCHORDS), who steals every scene he’s in as Verdean’s Middle East co-conspirator, who blackmails his way back to America and bumbles into their biggest looming score. Great potential is wasted here; it’s as if LIFE OF BRIAN had had all its teeth removed. Some funny moments, mostly from Forte and especially Clement (who could probably play Sacha Baron Cohen in a biopic), but in general a letdown.

th-2TIG***** (World Premiere) Tig Notaro is a supremely confident stand-up comedian, has a nice career, a little “alternative,” but coming on strong, a real comic’s comic. Then in a mere four months, she suffers one existential blow after another: her beloved mother dies, she goes through an agonizing breakup, and it’s all bookended by two life-threatening diagnoses. After the second one, as she’s leaving her oncologist’s office with the devastating news, the owner of L.A.’s Largo club idly texts to make sure she’ll be doing her scheduled set the next night. In that 2012 gig, Tig makes comedy history by coming out on stage and saying, “Good evening, I have cancer,” surprising everyone who knows her, and then proceeds to do 30 minutes of comedy on the subject. Comics like Louis C.K., who was present, were open-mouthed. This world-beating documentary takes on all that, with plenty of onstage footage to nail Tig’s comedy persona, and adds yet another drama, her sole and single attempt — she won’t get another try — to have a biological child through a surrogate. It is nearly impossible to describe how brave and resilient this woman is: any one of her trials would scar most people, any two of them would be really tough to take, but four? And the baby too? We even get to hear part of the legendary Largo set (club policy forbids any recording because the comics are working out their material, but before she came out Tig quietly asked the audio engineer to get this down) and we watch as, amazingly, that performance begins a process by which she pulls her life back together, one shitstorm at a time. Do not miss. I got to shake Tig’s hand and say thanks after the screening, for probably my favorite 2015 moment. (Meeting Col was #2.)

UnknownTRUE STORY*** (World Premiere) I didn’t realize this actually was a true story until some end-title cards revealed the principals’ fates. New York Times Magazine writer Mike Finkel gets caught fudging some details in a printed cover story. The paper has to cut him away and he’s instantly unhireable, sending him into a deep depression. Meanwhile, a man accused of murdering his family is arrested in Mexico; he’s been posing as “Mike Finkel of the New York Times.” Finkel goes to meet the defendant, Christian Longo (turns out he’s a fan), who offers to give him exclusive access if he promises not to publish anything until after the trial. Longo claims he’s protecting the real guilty party, and Finkel senses a huge true-crime book with an exclusive revelation, not to mention a path toward recovery of his sputtering career. The bulk of the movie is jailhouse interviews between Finkel (Jonah Hill) and Longo (a superb James Franco). Is he guilty or not? How much of this exercise is journalism, and how much is celebrity? Has Finkel sold his soul to the devil, or will his carefully cultivated friendship produce a truthful inside look at an accused murderer? Franco keeps us guessing: one minute he’s Hannibal Lecter, the next he’s Andy Dufresne, and he’s constantly wrong-footing us like a pro boxer. It’s fairly talky, but Franco earns our ticket money.

th-4ADVANTAGEOUS*** (U.S. Dramatic Special Jury Award for Collaborative Vision) In the near future, Gwen Koh is the spokesperson for the Center for Advanced Health and Living, a company that can transfer a client‘s personality and memories into a new body. When the Center tells Gwen they want to replace her with someone younger, she volunteers for the procedure herself. That’s all the premise writer-director Jennifer Phang needs for this soft, thoughtful meditation on relationships and family values. The science-fictional aspects are understated; we can see an occasional air-car whiz by and the procedure itself is a soothing visual impression in light blue, but this is almost completely a human-level story. A wonderful cast is led by co-writer Jacqueline Kim as the older Gwen and Freya Adams as “Gwen 2.0,” struggling to re-establish her relationship with a daughter who can no longer recognize her. This is a quiet festival-type film, sedate and haunting, which has precious few explosions (yes, there are some), but will reward patient attentive viewing. Edit, 7/15: You can stream it on Netflix.

western-ross-brothersWESTERN**** (U.S. Documentary Special Jury Award for Verite Filmmaking) A gorgeous, profound, instructive, ultimately heartbreaking documentary on the border towns of Eagle Pass, Texas and Piedras Negras, Mexico. The only thing that separates them is the Rio Grande. For years the sister cities have been living together in peaceful symbiosis: cattle are raised in Mexico and brought to market in America. Citizens of the two towns know each other, party together, have parades and celebrations together. Longtime Eagle Pass mayor Chad Foster sets the tone: he speaks fluent Spanish and presides over the harmony and happiness that he helps instill and preserve. Martin Wall is a fifth-generation cattleman who agrees that they’re living next door to paradise. Then wolves appear at that door, as Mexican drug cartels begin a vicious turf war and the unthinkable happens: ordinary citizens, not just rival dealers, are murdered, and the carnage moves ever closer. Before long a border fence goes up, USDA inspectors are warned not to venture into Mexico to do their jobs, thus halting the cattle trade, and the sister cities’ idyllic existence moves ever closer to ruin. Directors Bill and Turner Ross make films about places, showing us what it feels like to live there. Although interviewees have plenty of opinions (Mayor Foster notes the obvious fact that you can simply walk around any fence that doesn’t cover the entire border), the Ross brothers remain apolitical and let their subjects speak for themselves. At the q&a afterward, they steadfastly resisted being goaded into expressing a political opinion, but it’s obvious that they encourage audience members to make up their own minds. I wish certain particular members of Congress could be forced to watch this beauty. Thing is, another viewer might agree with me, but pick entirely different members.

the-forbidden-roomTHE FORBIDDEN ROOM*** (World Premiere) As one of the most revered auteurs in avant-garde cinema, Guy Maddin is an acquired taste. He specializes in kneading and shifting the film form, as did the great first wave of underground filmmakers in the Sixties: Emshwiller, Mekas, Brakhage and the like. He is particularly fascinated with the silent and early sound eras of film and works their tropes into his features and art installations. This film, shown in Sundance’s “New Frontier” program as a kind of warning, tells a group of nested stories: for example, some men trapped in a submarine are interrupted by a woodsman(!) who has his own tale, etc. The film stock is sometimes black and white, sometimes color, sometimes distressed, sometimes crisp. In a scene with two characters, one of them might use silent-film title cards while the other speaks in sync sound. It’s like looking at a constantly moving kaleidoscope fashioned around 1930. Each of the credit cards at the top is presented twice, in the style of old movies: the card might resemble GONE WITH THE WIND, then the same info as if seen in MRS. MINIVER. The film opens with a deadpan bit of absurd instruction on how to take a bath, and a great deal of humor flies by: for instance, a group of apprentice woodsmen are only yet “saplingjacks.” To say this isn’t for everyone would be the understatement of the year. At 2:08 it’s far too long, but by then about a quarter of the audience at my screening had already walked out. Those who remained, the true Maddinheads, clapped their hands off. Among Maddin’s actors are Charlotte Rampling, Geraldine Chaplin, and Udo Kier.

cq5dam.web.1280.1280I AM MICHAEL*** (World Premiere) Michael Glatze was a gay-rights activist and founder of Young Gay America when he startled the movement in 2007 by announcing that he no longer identified as homosexual. A health scare had shocked him into reexamining his faith and his sexuality, and he became a Christian pastor, renouncing his former life. This dramatization of Michael’s journey, clearly made by people who believe he had come to deny himself, is nonetheless careful not to point fingers or make fun, and that is its main strength. James Franco (again!) does a terrific job of eliciting sympathy for Michael, even as his life’s contradictions are tearing him apart and he flails for something to believe in: Buddhism, anything. The first few minutes, confined to Michael’s activist group, are the weakest: the men seem to be mouthing talking points that we’ve all heard before. But as Michael’s quest becomes more complicated, even to the point of attracting sweet young Emma Roberts at a Bible college, the issues are less black and white — except to his former boyfriend, nicely played by Zachary Quinto. Writer-director Justin Kelly deserves a hand for leaving the issue open to the viewer’s own conclusions, and delivers a nifty final shot that can be taken two ways as well.

th-6WHAT HAPPENED, MISS SIMONE?***** (World Premiere) A great documentary by Sundance veteran Liz Garbus on jazz and blues legend Nina Simone. A classically trained pianist destined for the concert hall, she found her way into vocals out of necessity, playing dingy clubs to make ends meet. She became incredibly popular, known as the “High Priestess of Soul,” but her genius had its downside. She could be sullen to audiences, the female Miles Davis; after watching this film, I believe she felt she deserved the same type of silent attention that is given to classical artists, and resented being treated otherwise. She lived through the civil rights movement in America, and racism made her so angry that she began to speak out and sing out; she wrote “Mississippi Goddam,” one of the most searing songs of the era, and gave no thought to how her activism might affect her career. (She once told Martin Luther King, “I am not nonviolent.”) This beautifully researched film gives us plenty of concert footage, some of it newly unearthed, and an unvarnished look at her mercurial personality from Simone herself and from the people closest to her, including her daughter. Even viewers familiar with her work will learn something about Nina Simone; those to whom her name is new may well be flabbergasted. This movie was co-produced by Netflix (of particular help in obtaining the many music clearances needed), which will stream it beginning in June after a token, Academy-qualifying theatrical run in New York and Los Angeles.

th-7GLASSLAND* (World Dramatic Special Jury Award for Acting: Jack Reynor) I saw this movie and I’m still not sure what happened in it. This kid drives a taxi in Dublin. His mother is drinking herself to death. That is all I’m positive about. I don’t know what’s in the mysterious package he delivers in an early scene. I’m not sure who his customers are, but I think they may be pimps. I don’t know how he got the money to send his mom to an expensive dry-out clinic. I don’t know who called him to drive to a mysterious house, or why. I don’t understand what was resolved in the end. Jack Reynor won an award for acting, and Toni Collette gave it everything as his mom. Will Poulter, he of the eyebrows, is also in it. Beyond that, I just do not know.

grandma1GRANDMA**** (World Premiere, Festival Closing Night) A very good dramedy by the dependable Paul Weitz that I predict will earn Lily Tomlin an Academy Award nomination next year. She plays Elle Reid, a misanthropic grandmother who has just broken up with her girlfriend of four months (Judy Greer), herself a rebound after the death of Elle’s lifelong love. But there’s no time to mope, because Sage (Julia Garner), her 18-year-old granddaughter, shows up with a ticking-clock emergency. They’ll have to drive all over town, stopping in on various pieces of Elle’s past. Marcia Gay Harden shines as Sage’s distracted tycoon of a mother, and Sam Elliott makes the most of a ten-minute appearance, but Lily Tomlin is in every single scene, growling out the wisecracks one minute and suffering through pain and loss the next, a very human being that we’re glad to have met.

lilaandeveLILA & EVE*** (World Premiere) THELMA & LOUISE meet RAMBO. After her son’s horrifying drive-by murder, a grieving mother joins a support group. There she meets a friend who is also frustrated by the police’s inability to provide justice, and together they determine to find and punish the killers, no matter what it takes. You’ve seen it all before, even down to a critical plot point (I can’t identify the movie without giving it away). But Viola Davis, in the lead, is spectacular, registering all the colors of grief and determination, never veering into self-parody. Jennifer Lopez keeps up as the hotheaded partner who eggs her on, but this is Davis’s movie and it’s a master class in performance.

th-8PEOPLE, PLACES, THINGS**** Jemaine Clement again, but this time he gets to carry a picture as the leading man. The knowing script by writer-director Jim Strouse is funny and wistful too, as a cartoonist and father of adorable twin girls must put his life back together after breaking up with the girls’ mother. In his natural New Zealand accent, Clement offers droll commentary (to a woman who judges his country beautiful because she saw the HOBBIT movies, he replies, “So you know our ways.”) and charming gangly unease as a solitary artist and teacher with a heart of gold; you’d love him as a friend or a father. THE DAILY SHOW’s Jessica Williams is great as one of his students at New York’s School of Visual Art, and it’s fun to sit in on his classes, especially as he deconstructs the medium of panel art (it’s straight out of Scott McCloud’s UNDERSTANDING COMICS, including some illustrations). We made sure to see this one because Jemaine Clement had the lead; I hope more and more people will develop the same preference and Jemaine becomes a household name, as has already happened to Steve Carell.

th-9THE OVERNIGHT*** A mildly amusing trifle about a couple new to Los Angeles who are invited to the neighbors’ for a get-to-know-you pizza dinner. Once the kids are put to bed, the hosting couple gradually reveal themselves to be farther and farther and farther out there. Adam Scott and Taylor Schilling are the “normal” couple and the audience’s proxies. The main reason to see this movie is Jason Schwartzman, who revels in his increasingly bizarre role: he’s next to nuts, but it’s a lovable kind of nuts, the charming-rogue type a la Jack Nicholson or Bill Murray. Warning to prudes: the same kind of special makeup effect used toward the end of BOOGIE NIGHTS is seen here too. In fact, I counted two of ‘em.

th-10RACING EXTINCTION*** Before we saw it, I kept calling this “COVE II,” after one of my favorite films of the 2009 festival. Louie Psihoyos is one of the world’s greatest nature photographers, and when he turned to polemical filmmaking against savage dolphin hunting with the Oscar-winning THE COVE, I was riveted. Now the subject is the wanton extinction of species, far beyond the rate allowed by natural selection; we could lose half of all species within a century. This is perhaps the greatest obscenity perpetuated by those who refuse to lift a finger against climate change, simply because it is in many cases revokable. However, though indisputably gorgeous, this film is far less powerful than THE COVE. There, we were limited to a specific crime against nature, not to mention the deflatingly banal end result, the amusement of humans. Here, the subject is so huge that we are forced to dart around too much. The last bird of its species sings for a female who will never answer: that’s poetic, Shakespearean. But then we are pulled back into the illegal sale of whale meat in a restaurant (exposed by a COVEian sting which helps shutter the joint), or the harvesting of manta rays to be used in Eastern folk remedies, or the communicative powers of whalesong, or the unsustainability of exotic fare like shark-fin soup, or the dangers of depending upon animal protein for nourishment (livestock damage the worldwide atmosphere more than all forms of transportation combined). Then there are unintended consequences to consider: I wanted to know what the filmmakers would do with the people in the manta-ray village whose sole livelihood had now been cut off. We heard some muttering about “tourism,” but nothing concrete. The finale looses a tricked-out Tesla with state-of-the-art gear that can project video images onto the sides of buildings for a few multimedia joyrides in New York City, culminating with a spectacular show at the United Nations complex. (Not too green, maybe, but what the heck.) This film should be required viewing in schools everywhere — after all, it’s school-age kids who will have to live with our filth — and producing it was a fine service, but as a work of art it pales next to its predecessor.

brooklynBROOKLYN**** (World Premiere) Money in the bank, mates: a sumptuous period piece that’s largely set in 1950s New York. A young Irish girl (Saoirse Roman) decamps for a more promising life in Brooklyn. Her deep homesickness is only alleviated when she meets a young Italian lad. But even though she’s romantically attached, a family emergency forces her back to Ireland, where a divergent potential life awaits. John Crowley directs an adaptation by Nick Hornby, and is it ever beautiful. Each period detail is perfectly rendered, and Yves Belanger’s drop-dead-gorgeous cinematography, on both sides of the Atlantic, is thrilling in its ability to nail a place with just a couple of setups. Ms. Roman is splendid: her early sad-sack face morphs into radiance once she finds her footing in New York and then surrenders to a love affair: the production design and particularly the costumes mirror her burgeoning emotional maturity, and by the time she goes back to Ireland, she’s become a rather sophisticated colleen, both in dress and manner. Too girly? Not by me, and I don’t watch most of that BBC stuff. It’s an exemplary job, well written, acted, and shot. I predict great things.

th-1ME AND EARL AND THE DYING GIRL***** (Grand Jury Prize, U.S. Dramatic; Audience Award, U.S. Dramatic) It starts as a knowing movie about “the real high school,” but that’s just to gird your grid for some serious stuff to come. Greg (Thomas Mann, who will also show up in THE STANFORD PRISON EXPERIMENT, below) assiduously avoids becoming a member of any clique, only close enough to fist-bump them all. He makes wise-ass movie parodies with his childhood friend Earl. You get to see a few clips from these beauties: my favorite was A SOCKWORK ORANGE, using sock puppets against Purcell’s now-iconic Queen Mary Funeral music. His mother (Connie Britton) forces girl-shy Greg to spend some time with classmate Rachel (Olivia Cooke), who is dying of leukemia. Those are the basics. Now the movie spreads its wings far beyond the expected. Part of the enjoyment is how director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon realizes a brilliant script by Jesse Andrews that upends your smug knowingness at every turn. It all comes down to a bravura ten minutes at the end that raises you up and down on the emotional scale through sight and sound alone, because the camera’s locked. Bring hankies. I’m not sure how this may be received commercially, but we loved it. This movie exudes great respect not only for its fully-drawn characters, but also for cinema in general. Watch and hear what’s playing on tv in the background. If you’ve seen THE 400 BLOWS, you’ll receive something even deeper. This is the third straight year that the audience and the jury have agreed on the U.S. Dramatic winner: PRECIOUS, WHIPLASH, and now this one.

Unknown-1SLOW WEST**** (Grand Jury Prize, World Dramatic) Remember how strange the Western vistas used to look in those classic Sergio Leone movies? Just like the craggy mugs shown so close-up that you could see facial pores, the background off-kilter, as alien as those long dusters that billowed in the wind. That’s because we were actually rolling film half a world away from John Ford’s Monument Valley: we were in Spain, amigo. This very fine movie gives the production globe another twirl, to the wide-open spaces of New Zealand, d/b/a the American West. A lovestruck teenage Scot travels to America to find his former squeeze. He is nearly killed along the way but is saved by a highwayman (excuse me, a bounty hunter), played to perfection by Michael Fassbender. (Is there anything he can’t do?) The scofflaw offers to escort the lad for a fee, but he has a darker reason, and thereby hangs a tale. Now we are down to stunning vistas and superb closeup eye candy from writer/director John Maclean and DP Robbie Ryan. This is an old-fashioned Western quest in many ways, but it possesses an arch attitude that renders it contemporary. G’day to my favorite Aussie character actor, Ben Mendelsohn, who joined the canon here at Sundance with ANIMAL KINGDOM, and to Rory McCann, the Hound of GAME OF THRONES, who gets a sympathetic part. It was wonderful to see a terrific frontier film at a time when I thought they’d all gone away.

Unknown-2THE WOLFPACK*** (Grand Jury Prize, U.S. Documentary) I dimly remember reading about the Angulo family in the New York Times, probably in a report on the start of production on this film. Six brothers (and one sister, who barely appears) live with their parents on the Lower East Side. They have been home-schooled by their state-accredited mom and are quite articulate, but they have been largely kept insulated from society by their monomaniacal father, who ruled everything when his kids were younger and rarely let them leave the house for fear of contamination by the evils outside. Instructed to fear everything beyond the front door, they are culturally feral — or would be if it weren’t for the movies. They watch tapes and disks ravenously and produce their own homages (not unlike ME AND EARL, only these boys are serious, and several of them are fairly good mimics) by painstakingly copying down dialogue and faking the production design. But now they’re adolescents, and their worthless, alcoholic father suddenly looms less large. One boy breaks the ultimate rule, then everybody else wants to go outside too. We watch as they attend their first film in a real theater, head over to Coney Island, and enjoy a day in the park, making connections to scenes or locations in their favorite movies. You tend to feel for these boys and want a case worker over tout de suite, but this way-alternative lifestyle is a very strange and slippery form of child abuse: one or two of the brothers might even contest that description if you confronted them. They adore their mother, who has been complicit at the very least, but the household is full of blankness rather than authenticity, and it’s thus as dank and depressing as a Poe story. For these boys, “you need to get out more” isn’t just a catchphrase, it’s a life-or-death diagnosis. We fear for them, and we hope they can find the necessary courage before it’s too late.

_80675246_dream-with-jan-and-brian-crDARK HORSE**** (Audience Award, World Cinema Documentary) ANIMAL HOUSE meets SEABISCUIT. The remarkable story of a racehorse owned by a ragtag syndicate of pub denizens in a tiny Welsh village. In 2000, barmaid Jan Vokes decides to breed a contender and enlists locals to, um, pony up 10 pounds a week. The mare and stud fees are both on a tight budget; not an auspicious start. What emerges is a goofy foal, all spindly legs whose coloration looks like it has donned two pair of white kneesocks. But the village’s new beast — named “Dream Alliance” to represent his unusual ownership — has heart and a street-scrappiness which will take it far past hobbydom, to everyone else’s amazement and delight. The fun is in watching these yobbos and yobbettes gradually assert themselves as owners in the overly snooty world of racing: it’s the slobs versus the snobs, thanks to the determination of Ms. Vokes and a tight circle of people who actually know what they’re doing. The filmmaking carries us along with thunderous coverage of some big events, announced within the first few seconds (while watching I felt it a mistake to begin with The Big Race and interrupt to tell the backstory, but I was wrong, as the full tale reveals). These scenes are interspersed with contemporary footage of principals, all looking back now, which allows you to meet, know, and love them. And then there is “Dream,” a natural who follows his own trail, even galloping past a near-death experience. It’s all just adorable: as uplifting, in its own way, as is SEARCHING FOR SUGAR MAN.

Stanford.Prison.Experiment.Sundance1THE STANFORD PRISON EXPERIMENT***** (Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award, Alfred P. Sloan Feature Film Prize) A chilling dramatization of the notorious 1971 experiment in group psychology and situational ethics, which was conducted just as I was leaving college for graduate school; I was pretty much the same age as the Stanford students who agreed (for a fee) to populate and administer a “prison” setting for two weeks. The roles of “prisoners” and “guards” were assigned randomly. The hypothesis was that even simulated authority could attain actual dominance when wielded in psychological isolation. “I’d rather be a prisoner,” one prospect blithely muses at his pre-screening session. “Wouldn’t have so much to do.” You really haven’t thought this through, kid. As with most “true stories,” we have no idea if it actually went down this way, but here it takes no time at all for the “guards” — who may not strike or otherwise physically harm their prisoners, but can use any psychological means of control necessary — to channel their inner sadists. Just as remarkably, the “prisoners” also revert to stages of pathetic subordination or scheming. Tim Talbott’s award-winning script is tight as a drum, and director Kyle Patrick Alvarez keeps it so sweaty and claustrophobic that you can feel the temperature change whenever we have to leave the “prison” to watch the watchers. The film depicts mastermind Dr. Philip Zimbardo, played by Billy Crudup, as a bit of a mad scientist, which may be a tad too harsh. But a troupe of terrific young actors laps up these roles like pudding, especially an incendiary Michael Angarano as a “guard” who decides his template will be Strother Martin in COOL HAND LUKE, shitkicker accent and all. At the screening I attended, you could hear a pin drop whenever we were in “prison”; you may well find this film too intense to “enjoy,” so consider yourself warned. I had to keep in mind that it was only a movie about only an experiment, for it’s as armrest-clenching as any thriller. When I read about the Stanford prison experiment at the time, I thought the takeaway was that a uniform changed everything, made it possible for you to follow any crazy-ass order you received. (Another Sundance feature which I missed, EXPERIMENTER, dramatized the equally notorious 1961 Milgram experiment, which set out to prove exactly that.) But as the Stanford kids found out, the uniform can affect behavior in the wearer as well as the beholder. It was a surprise only because until now, they’d never been to prison.


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