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April 11, 2006

Oak Street woes

I've been haphazardly following the saga of the Oak Street Cinema over the last few months, as it has struggled not to go under. I think of the Oak Street fondly, since some of Dr. Dregs's and my earliest "dates" involved seeing a movie at the Oak Street. We saw Michael Moore speak there years ago, when he was only known for Roger & Me, and Bowling for Columbine and Fahrenheit 9/11 were not even twinkles in his eye. My first exposure to many great classic and foreign films was at the Oak Street -- and even the movies we saw there that we didn't particularly like still always offered plenty of fodder for discussion (and post-film drunken laughter).

So I was a little saddened to read that the Oak Street has (at least temporarily) gone dark. But only a little saddened. We haven't actually been to a movie at the Oak Street in a long, long time. I'm sorry to admit that, on the one hand, but on the other hand, we've run out of reasons in recent years to go there. The facilities are substandard, with uncomfortable seats, a small screen, and (the last few times we were there) indifferent projection. And it costs $8 a pop to get in -- which means we could see a first-run film in a nice theater for the same amount of cash.

But it isn't just the Oak Street's flaws that caused us to stop seeing films there. It was also the advent of DVD and Netflix, which have made it possible for us to see classic, foreign, and art films in high quality on our big-screen HDTV in the comfort of our own home. This just wasn't an option back in the mid-late 90s, when we used to go to the Oak Street with some regularity. Seeing a poor-quality VHS copy of a film on a small screen could not compare to any movie theater, even one as modest as the Oak Street.

It's clear that the Oak Street's problems have been brought on by a combination of circumstances, many of which have nothing to do with the ability of the audience to simply rent a DVD and watch films at home. But rep theaters everywhere must be suffering because of DVD and the ready availability of high-quality transfers of the kinds of films that have been their bread and butter. I know that the Oak Street and its parent organization, Minnesota Film Arts, have done very good work in sponsoring and providing venues for local film festivals -- and these festivals continue to show films that often can't be seen elsewhere. But when there isn't a festival, a theater like the Oak Street has to find another way to attract audiences, and I'm sorry to say that I don't think they've done a very good job of that in recent years.

Posted by at 8:34 PM

June 11, 2005

Behold the power of cheese!

Ahh, a match made in heaven! Star Trek:The Next Generation veteran Jonathan Frakes (Will Riker, for those of you who aren't up on your Star Trek cast members) will be directing the sequel to last fall's made-for-TV The Librarian: Quest for the Spear, which is apparently set to air in April 2006. That's a long time to wait for another fix -- but I'm in luck, because the original movie is now on DVD. Life is good.

Posted by at 10:09 AM

January 1, 2005

December 7, 2004

Made-for-TV movies, and other diversions

With me stressed out and working all the time, and Dr. Dregs coming up on the end of the semester, he and I have needed a little quiet relaxation. So we've spent the past two evenings relaxing at home watching movies. Two nights, two movies, and boy howdy, they couldn't be more different.

Last night we watched the eagerly anticipated The Librarian: Quest for the Spear. We were not disappointed. Or to put it more exactly, we were not disappointed since the movie was, in fact, just as laughably bad as it promised to be. A few highlights:

  • Shameless, repeated third-rate ripoffs of Raiders of the Lost Ark, its sequels, and its imitators. You know you're watching something truly terrible when you're forced to admit that the same thing was done so much better in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. The saddest thing is, the writers didn't even have enough wit to poke fun at themselves for their thefts.

  • Noah Wyle's perpetual student character -- not yet the brilliant, adventurous, and resourceful Librarian he will become -- meets a girl early in the film. Immediately upon hearing that he's a student, the girl freaks out: "You're still a college student in your thirties?" That ought to be a great reassurance to grad students everywhere: yes, somewhere out there, someone really does think you're a loser if you're still in school at your advanced age.

  • The graduate advisor who kicks Noah Wyle out of his department (even though he's supposedly the most brilliant student ever) turns out to be a member of the evil cult the Librarian and his allies must thwart in order to save the world. Nice touch.

  • Best line: "No one slaps The Librarian! No one!"

  • Second best line: Bob Newhart (playing the Library Director), kicking some serious butt in the climactic fight scene: "You wanna piece of me?"

Anyway, some seriously bad stuff going on there. We were moderately amused (when we weren't trying to control our gag reflexes), but I can't help but see this as an opportunity lost. If this movie had half of the humor and wit of, say, a second-tier episode of Buffy, it might have approached campy greatness. Larry tells me there's talk of sequel, so maybe the writers and cast will have another chance to reach that exalted place.

For something completely different, tonight we watched Errol Morris's The Fog of War, his stunning film about Robert McNamara. Whatever McNamara's naivete and mistakes during Vietnam, it's hard not to sympathize with the man in the documentary, who comes across and principled, tortured by his conscience, and who clearly grasps the enormity of the tragedy caused by many of his decisions. Factual inaccuracies aside, McNamara's account is fascinating, moving, and really brings home how easily even those with both intelligence and good intentions can fail. And then I fired up my web browser to this piece of news about Iraq.

"Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it..."

Posted by at 11:21 PM

December 4, 2004

Seriously, though -- my job IS this exciting!

On a lighter note, TNT will air their new movie The Librarian: Quest for the Spear Sunday night at 7 PM. I posted on this topic before, but now more exciting details about the film have been revealed.

A few highlights: "nerdish bookworm" Flynn Carsen (Noah Wyle), who has earned 22 (!!) degrees at the age of 30, receives a mysterious job offer from the Metropolitan Public Library. After Carsen accepts the job from the Head Librarian (Bob Newhart), he learns that the library is home to some of history's greatest treasures, including the real Mona Lisa, Excalibur, and (well, you knew this had to be included, right?) the Ark of the Covenant. One of these priceless artifacts is the "Spear of Destiny," which has the fabulous power to grants its owner control over the world's destiny. (You can't make this stuff up. Well, okay, obviously someone can, but not I). A piece of the Spear is stolen by the evil Serpent Brotherhood, who, with a name like that, just can't be up to anything good. It's up to Carsen to recapture the Spear from the Snake People, and action, adventure, and romance ensue.

Hmm. I'm sorry to say that I think most Dungeons & Dragons modules have less ridiculous and hackneyed plots, but then, I'm a sucker, so I'll definitely be TiVO-ing this. Here's hoping it falls into the "so-bad-it's-good" category.

Posted by at 11:20 AM

September 10, 2004

The glamorous life of a librarian, immortalized in film

Had enough movies about doctors and lawyers? Well, you're in luck, because TNT is making a movie about a librarian, creatively titled The Librarian. The film, which will supposedly be an "action-packed" sci-fi thriller, stars Noah Wyle, Kyle MacLachlan, Olympia Dukakis, and Jane Curtin.

IMDB's plot summary makes it sound like a real gem:

When a magical artifact is lifted from his library, a meek librarian sets out to ensure its safe return. To do so, however, he enlists the service of a woman with exceptional martial arts skills.

Yikes. I love how the librarian is (naturally) described as "meek." The stereotype lives on! Not that you'd expect anything else from a made-for-cable movie. I may have to TiVo this when it airs later this fall to see just how bad it is.

Posted by at 5:12 PM

August 21, 2004

A swell party

A bunch of us saw De-Lovely last night at the Heights. Since I was the one who most wanted to see the film, I was a little afraid, since the film's reviews were all over the map: many middling reviews, a few raves, but more than just a couple of brutal pans. I was curious, though -- and also never had any hope of resisting a couple of hours of even badly performed Cole Porter songs. So my expectations were low. But what were the critics thinking? Despite some problems, De-Lovely was an extremely pleasant surprise.

Unquestionably, it's a flawed film. To begin with, it plays maybe just a little too fast and loose with history. The casting of Ashley Judd as Linda Porter opposite Kevin Kline's Cole was hard to swallow, since Linda was actually significantly older than Cole. Still, Judd turned in a more than adequate (if short of brilliant) performance. Also disappointing if not unexpected is De-Lovely's adherence to the boilerplate generic biopic narrative, in which one aspect is depicted as the single most important force in the subject's life. De-Lovely portrays the relationship of the Porters that way, which is certainly an oversimplification of the facts. But though it would have been exciting to see the film take a different approach, this device does work fairly well here, if only because it's closer to the truth than in many biopics: Linda Porter really was the driving force through much of Cole's professional success, and their personal relationship did have deep (if not always positive) significance for both of them, despite Porter's homosexuality.

The script has other problems too, unfortunately not managing to rise above competent mediocrity in either narrative or dialogue. This is a real shame, since Porter as a personality is perhaps best remembered for his sophisticated wit. A few bright spots aren't quite enough to make the dialogue shine, as it really should in a film about this man and his world. The script is full of missed opportunities.

Probably the worst thing about De-Lovely is the of insertion pop stars (including Elvis Costello, Diana Krall, Sheryl Crow, and Alanis Morissette) to perform Porter songs in context. At best, this reeks of stunt casting, and really takes the viewer out of the story. At worst (Morissette), this makes for an excruciating five or so minutes. Costello, Krall, and even Crow did reasonably well, and Natalie Cole turned in an especially lovely rendition of "Ev'ry Time We Say Goodbye," but it's simply impossible to get the classic recordings of these songs out of your head if you know them. I suspect the filmmakers were trying to remedy that by distracting us with modern stars singing lush, not-quite-period arrangements, but the tactic has mixed success.

But enough of the bad. In spite of the problems just enumerated, De-Lovely succeeds because when it is good, it is very, very good. Certainly the best thing about the film is Kevin Kline's brilliant performance as Porter. He manages to convey just the right amounts of carelessness, insouciance, and wit, even though the dialogue is working against him. Kline's portrayal of Porter as a man of his era at peace with his homosexuality is refreshing, and fits Porter, whose wealth and standing gave him the luxury to be exactly who he wanted to be. I think Kline deserves an Oscar nomination, though he probably won't get it.

Another thing De-Lovely has going for it is its look: art direction, sets, costumes, and makeup are all exquisitely done, if not always spot-on for the period. But if anything, those departures almost make the film work better, since the framing device sets up the action of the film as filtered through the memories of the aged and bitter Porter. The gloss of unreality contributes mightily to the subtle evocation of a distantly-remembered past.

But finally, it's the music that has the most to do with De-Lovely's success. The film is jam-packed with Porter classics, songs whose greatness is matched in American popular music only by the songs of Gershwin -- and in my opinion, Porter was the more consistently great of the two (though that's a little like trying to state definitively whether Bach or Mozart was the greater composer). Some reviews have criticized the amount of music in the film, but the songs save the film from itself, emotionally involving the audience where the script does not, filling in the blanks of Porter's internal struggles. The songs survive even the pop-star stunt casting, which distracts but in all cases but one does not diminish either the outstanding visual presentation or the pure genius of the songs themselves. A film about Cole Porter -- whose life was not really all that interesting, after all -- should be primarily about those astonishing, ravishing songs, and in this, De-Lovely is pitch-perfect.

Posted by at 1:39 PM

August 19, 2004

Elmer Bernstein dead at 82

Another great film composer is gone. Elmer Bernstein has died at age 82. My favorite work of Bernstein's is his wonderfully down-and-dirty sounding jazz score for 1957'sThe Sweet Smell of Success, a terrific film starring Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis that not enough people have seen ("I'd hate to take a bite out of you. You're like a cookie full of arsenic.")

Bernstein's best-known work is probably his score for The Magnificent Seven, widely regarded as one of the great American film scores. Bernstein's music manages to exceed the typical Copland-lite sound that the scores of so many westerns end up with -- probably because Bernstein studied composition with Copland. More recently, Bernstein wrote a lovely score for the heartbreakingly pretty and unbearably sad Julianne Moore film Far From Heaven.

I think I'll watch The Sweet Smell of Success soon in Bernstein's honor. Farewell.

Posted by at 9:04 AM

August 15, 2004

Fake Bands R Us

Check out the Rocklopedia Fakebandica, a website (and forthcoming book) that documents fake bands in movies and TV shows. The site is a kick to browse through -- enough fun that I may have to buy the book when it comes out. This is just the kind of screwball reference source that probably fills a real (if trivial) need. Enjoy.

Posted by at 5:33 PM

August 9, 2004

Nifty alternative to movie posters

Once again, I'm on Dr. Dregs's territory here, but this is a cool if not particularly useful resource: captured title screens from a few thousand movies. I'll have to look through it when I have some time and take a few of my favorites.

Posted by at 11:40 AM

August 5, 2004

News from beyond the muggle world

Ralph Fiennes will play Voldemort in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. And I guess I'm not paying close enough attention, but I didn't realize that shooting is already underway. Yippee!

I think Fiennes will make an excellent Voldemort. He's mastered the kind of urbane evil that Voldemort requires. I just hope he doesn't overact, which has been one of his failings in some of his films. I note also with approval that Miranda Richardson will play Rita Skeeter. She should knock that one out of the park, if she's true to form.

I also had not realized that yet another director is taking the helm for Goblet: Mike Newell, who also directed Pushing Tin, Donnie Brasco, and of course Four Weddings and a Funeral. I'm sorry to learn that Cuaron is not doing another HP film, since I thought Prisoner of Azkaban was the best of the series so far. We'll have to hope for the best.

Posted by at 2:58 PM

July 22, 2004

Jerry Goldsmith, 1929-2004

Film composer Jerry Goldsmith has died. While Goldsmith has not been one of my favorite film composers, I do admire many of his scores, especially Planet of the Apes, which uses experimental performance techniques and percussion to great effect, and L.A. Confidential, where the understated piano and percussion motives set the perfect tone for the dark, sophisticated crime drama and then build perfectly, along with the dramatic tension, to a devastating conclusion. And unlike many of his peers, Goldsmith never succumbed to the temptation to repeat a single successful style ad infinitum, ad nauseam in all of his film scores.

Let's all raise a virtual glass to the composer of the immortal Star Trek: The Next Generation theme. Farewell, Mr. Goldsmith. Boldly go!

Posted by at 10:52 AM

July 12, 2004

Is there a Trekkie in the house?

A couple of disclaimers/warnings: 1) I'm treading on Dr. Dregs's territory here, so I hope he can forgive me, and 2) I'm not really a Trekkie -- just a casual fan, and therefore not really qualified to comment on anything Trek-related. But I can't resist. Slashdot led me to this little nugget from TrekToday. Apparently, Enterprise won't be dealing with the Romulan Wars, since Rick Berman is plotting the next Star Trek movie around them -- and he says it won't intersect at all with Enterprise.

I have mixed feelings about this. The last couple of Trek movies have been pretty depressing experiences overall, despite the fact that I more or less enjoyed them and will certainly watch them again (and yes, I can already feel the many pathetically to-be-wasted hours of my life ticking away in that sentence). So I've been half hoping that Paramount et al. would be ready to throw in the towel on Trek films, since the last couple of installments have been critical and box office disappointments. On the other hand, hope springs eternal -- maybe, just maybe, freed from the constraints of pre-established characters, time periods, technology, etc., the Trek Powers That Be can come up with something really interesting and original -- even (dare I suggest it?) good.

I'm just trying not to remember that I hoped for the same thing before Enterprise began. What a disappointment. I didn't even make it all the way through the first season (Dr. Dregs, however, remains rather sweetly if hopelessly loyal to it, so I do catch a few minutes of it here and there). Maybe Berman and company can pull this off, but I'm not optimistic. We'll have to see.

(Self-reflection kicks in) But ... uh, wait, does it say something about me that I get burned over and over again but still go back to Star Trek? (End self-reflection) Don't say it -- I told you, I'm not a Trekkie!

Posted by at 4:40 PM

June 30, 2004