Friday, December 21, 2012

Why I walked out of 'Django Unchained'

I have had an up-and-down appreciation for Quentin Tarantino over 20 years, ever since "Reservoir Dogs." It goes up when his movies are driven by characters I want to know more about ("Pulp Fiction," "Jackie Brown") and down when the director mainly wants us to delight in sadistic behavior ("Kill Bill," "Death Proof").

The opening 40 minutes of "Django Unchained" seemed to put it in the first group: The characters were often funny, and stars Christoph Waltz and Jamie Foxx had charisma. I overlooked the fountains of blood -- which I'm sure Tarantino would describe as "stylized," rather than crude -- to see where his latest revenge fantasy would take us. (Have you noticed? Every one of his movies over the last 15 years has been a bloody revenge fantasy. I'll let his shrink work on that.)

Then came a scene where two black slaves were wrestling to the death for the amusement of their owners. One finally broke the other's arm, then gouged out his eyes, then splintered his skull with a hammer. At that moment, the film became torture porn, a movie whose main function is for us to enjoy the suffering of others. I don't watch torture porn, so I left. We will run a review from a wire service when the film opens, and someone else will choose it.

(A side thought: Tarantino has been rebuked for throwing the word "nigger" around, so he set this film in 1858 -- "two years before the Civil War," as the title card erroneously states -- and shoves the word down our throats dozens of times. But how can we object? It's period realism, right? The naughty little boy has done a clever thing!)

Violence in the hands of a master can be cathartic or give us insight into the human soul. Sophocles, Shakespeare, Dostoevsky, John Ford, Alfred Hitchcock and Michael Haneke all introduce violence into stories to make us better understand the human condition. But torture-porn artists want to titillate, not illuminate. I'd guess Tarantino would claim to be exposing the horrors of slavery, showing how evil it really was, as if that hadn't been done countless times before. But he's not enough of an artist to get us to think, just enough of one to get us to flinch -- or, if we're twisted, to open our eyes wider in glee.

The movie, TV and video game industries have long played down the links between dehumanizing violence onscreen and acts of extreme violence in our societies, although virtually every medical group that's not in their pay contradicts them. But the show business magazine Variety reported yesterday that Chris Dodd, head of the Motion Picture Association of America, has finally admitted his industry needs to be part of "the national conversation about violence."

I'd guess he was motivated by the murders of more than two dozen people at an elementary school in Connecticut, the state he represented in Congress for 36 years. But as long as Tarantino's movies top $100 million at the domestic box office, I don't believe Hollywood's contribution to that conversation will be worth a wooden nickel.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Five Oscars that should be taken back by force

Some people finally get an Academy Award at the end of a long career, as recognition for good work that has never been honored. (That would be Alan Arkin, who won for "Little Miss Sunshine" at 72.) And some get an Academy Award early and spend the rest of their careers making you wonder what voters were thinking in the first place. This blog post is about them. And I'm going to be a nice guy and leave Cuba Gooding Jr. off the list, because he's too easy a target..

Adrien Brody -- After winning for "The Pianist" in 2002, a year when all four other nominees were more memorable (well, maybe not Nicolas Cage), he played leading roles in overblown duds ("King Kong," "The Village") and has settled back into work as a character actor in movies hardly anybody sees ("Detachment," "Predators"). Brody, the ultimate one-shot wonder, will next play Flirty Harry in "InAPPropriate Comedy.".

Nicolas Cage -- Speaking of The Rolling Cheeseball, he now careens from starring parts in junk ("Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance") to blah roles in franchises that can't be re-written to exclude him (the upcoming "National Treasure 3" and "Kick-Ass 2"). Nowadays, he rarely even shows the manic energy that earned him the nickname "Nicolas Rage," and he NEVER shows the depths that won him the 1995 Oscar for "Leaving Las Vegas."

Mel Gibson -- Speaking of 1995, that was the year Gibson won as director for "Braveheart." You can debate whether it was the best-directed film that year (I'd put "Babe" above it), but what has he directed since then? The violent, one-note "Passion of the Christ," the incomprehensible "Apocalypto" and...nothing. There may BE a good director somewhere inside Gibson's head, but we're probably never going to find out.

Christopher McQuarrie -- "The Usual Suspects" remains one of the cleverest thrillers I've seen and justly won best original screenplay for 1995. I looked forward intently to the things he would do next. And they were: "The Way of the Gun," some TV and the dreadful "The Tourist." Otherwise, he has mostly nestled in Tom Cruise's pocket, from "Valkyrie" and "Jack Reacher" to the proposed "Top Gun 2" and "Mission: Impossible 5." Zzzzzzz.

Renee Zellweger -- The supporting actress category offers many people who didn't live up to potential, from Mira Sorvino to Marcia Gay Harden. But I'm going with Big Z, who won the 2003 award for her Granny Clampett knock-off in "Cold Mountain." Except for animation ("Shark's Tale," "Monsters vs. Aliens") and the first "Bridget Jones' Diary," Zellweger and her movies have consistently redefined "mediocrity" over the last decade.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Shameless plug for a friend

One of journalism's cardinal rules of ethics: You don't write articles boosting your friends. But there's no way on Earth I can profit by this blog entry -- in fact, I'm out $200 already -- so I'm going to post it.

Charlotte acting coach J.D. Lewis and his sons, Jackson and Buck, came back from a round-the-world trip this year. But I doubt you'd visit the places they went on any traditional itinerary: They trekked through 12 countries in 12 months, exploring issues from famine to HIV/AIDS treatment to water rights.

They worked with Buddhist monks and howler monkeys. They worked at the New Hope Foundation for disabled children in Beijng and SCOPE (School Communities Offering Projects that Empower), a group bringing resources to children in Kenya. You and I would have gone to the nearby Masai Mara game preserve to see wild animals, as they did. But we wouldn't have walked through tuberculosis-infested Kibera, Nairobi's infamous slum.

They'd need a book to explain all the profound differences the trip caused in their lives. (And J.D. is writing one with his kids.) They came back fired up with a missionary zeal that led them to create a Twelve in Twelve Foundation that will assist projects in 12 countries, including our own (a program to feed children in Mississippi).

Donors can direct their money toward one of these or give to the foundation in general. To learn more, go to; the site was down when I visited today, but you can also go to to read the blog they kept or learn more about them.

And the $200? Well, last week's launch party for the foundation included a silent auction, and I bought a small Australian painting that showed an aboriginal deity creating the stars and kangaroos. That's kind of an apt metaphor, right? Twelve in Twelve aims to show that we can all slightly remake the universe, day by day, with acts of kindness. The amount of time, money and love we invest is up to us.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

People who need an Oscar right away

The subtitle to this post could be "but won't get one this year." Four of these five have gotten nominations, but the big prize has eluded them so far. This list is in alphabetic order, because I can't measure the degrees of the ripoffs:

Leonardo DiCaprio. He's done good work as a teen ("This Boy's Life"), a young leading man ("Titanic") and an adult ("The Aviator"). He can make mediocre pictures look better when given his head ("J. Edgar," "Revolutionary Road"), and he takes risks by appearing in movies that won't be hits. What he'll have to do to win: Just keep working. By 50, he'll make his acceptance speech.

Tina Fey. Only a fourth of the writers working in Hollywood are women -- the majority of those are in TV -- but Fey will someday cross over to movies and stay there, as a double-threat actor-comedian (and maybe a dramatic actor, for all I know). She's smart, funny and adaptable. What she'll have to do to win: Write or play a serio-comic role that flirts with tragedy but ends happily.

David Fincher. His best shot to date was "The Social Network," which for my money was the best picture of 2010. (Loved "The King's Speech, He can direct horror, drama, romance and dark comedy, and he's one of the few directors ever who can sustain a pace that's fast or slow, tense or relaxed, with equal skill. What he'll have to do to win: Direct a large-scale epic.

Anne Hathaway. Anyone who can make Catwoman smart and sensual without a hint of silliness deserves acclaim. She can handle heavy drama, romantic comedy, action, musicals and pure fluff, all with apparent ease, and she can make unsympathetic people interesting enough to watch. What she'll have to do to win: Play a dying character in a better movie than "Love and Other Drugs."

Christopher Nolan. He's the only person in Hollywood who has yet to make a sub-par movie over a career of any length. (Fincher had "Alien³.") His Batman trilogy is the best exploration of a fantasy world since "The Lord of the Rings." But Academy voters find him too dark or complex, neither of which they like or understand. What he'll have to do to win: Make a heartfelt, realistic drama.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Why do movies suck?

The simplest answer is filmmakers' lack of imagination, of course. But as Robert Ben Garant and Thomas Lennon explain in their memoir -- an indispensable Christmas present for any would-be screenwriter who'd sell his grandmother and soul to get a Lexus -- the most successful writers TRY to be unimaginative. They live to sell concepts that can be expressed in a dozen words or less, and Hollywood producers revere them.

The book's title is "Writing Movies for Fun and Profit," and the words "Fun and" have been crossed out with a red pencil. (It comes from Touchstone Books and costs $23.99. Even if you have no intention of prostituting yourself in Hollywood, you'll get $24 worth of laughs.)

These guys know whereof they speak. They have worked on "Night at the Museum" and its sequel, the Jimmy Fallon/Queen Latifah turkey "Taxi," "Herbie Fully Loaded" and "The Pacifier," which along with their other films have collectively grossed more than a billion dollars. They're now collaborating on "Hell Baby," described this way on IMDB: "An expectant couple who move into the most haunted house in New Orleans call upon the services of the Vatican's elite exorcism team to save them from a demonic baby." Nuff said!

What makes their book so entertaining is that they speak truth so bluntly. Most of us assume moronic movies are failed attempts to do better work, but their theory is the opposite: Hollywood strives to make movies as bland, derivative and free of novelty or daring as possible, in order to appeal to the widest possible audience. That audience often can't tell the difference or doesn't care, so everyone involved goes home rich. (An example: The $177 million U.S. gross for the brain-dead "Night at the Museum 2.")

Their book offers frank, funny advice about real situations: joining the Writers Guild of America, entering arbitration over credits, what to do when your movie goes into turnaround (i.e. the person who fought for you at the studio gets fired, and his replacement hates you). You could use it as a guide to breaking into the business, while laughing over chapters with titles such as "I'm Drinking Too Much: Is That a Problem?" and "Why Does Almost Every Studio Movie Suck Donkey Balls?"

The book's depressing if you take it seriously, because it implies that thousands of people who might otherwise be at least slightly creative have devoted themselves to feeding you junk food. But as long as audiences buy that junk food cheerfully, why should they make anything else?

Friday, December 7, 2012

Oscars: The five greatest actors who never won

I don't mean people like Leonardo DiCaprio, who are still active and will almost certainly find a role that earns them an Academy Award. (The National Board of Review thinks he's already found one; it named him best supporting actor for playing the psychotic slave owner in "Django Unchained.") I mean folks like this quintet, listed in reverse order according to how badly they were ripped off:

5) Edward G. Robinson -- He gave a ferocious performance in the first memorable gangster movie of the sound era, "Little Caesar," in 1931. Over the next four decades he played men who were savage or sympathetic, shrewd or stupid, but always complex. And the Academy never saw fit to give him a nomination of any kind, lead or supporting. His wife accepted a posthumous honorary award for him in 1973. 

4) Cary Grant -- Like John Wayne, he was accused of playing a version of himself in film after film, whoever the character might be. Even if that had been true (and it wasn't), it took skill to portray murderers and dupes and playboys and thieves as well as he did. He was nominated twice in the 1940s, but his best work (including two collaborations with Alfred Hitchcock) earned nothing. At least he was alive to accept his honorary prize.

3) Kirk Douglas -- He was nominated three times, one of them for his portrayal of Vincent Van Gogh in "Lust for Life." That title embodied the quality he brought to a remarkably diverse series of heroes and villains (and, once in a while, weaklings and fools). And he wasn't afraid to star in and produce movies with controversial subjects ("Paths of Glory") or collaborators ("Spartacus," written by blacklisted Dalton Trumbo). Another honorary nominee. 

2) Richard Burton -- From 1964 through 1966, he earned three of his seven career nominations for "Becket," "The Spy Who Came in From the Cold" and "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" I can't think of another actor who has given three stronger, more diverse interpretations back to back than Burton. He never got an honorary statuette, because he died at 58; I think Academy voters expected him to turn in more terrific performances someday.  

1) Peter O'Toole -- The versatile Irishman remains the all-time record-holder for acting futility: He has been nominated eight times, always in leading roles. (He first refused an honorary award in 2002, then accepted it.) O'Toole must have the unluckiest timing among nominees, too: His dazzling work in "Lawrence of Arabia" lost to Gregory Peck's iconic Atticus Finch in "To Kill a Mockingbird," and his jaw-dropping performance in "The Ruling Class" was eclipsed by Marlon Brando's mumblings in "The Godfather." The 80-year-old O'Toole isn't dead yet, but his career has dwindled down to cameos in religious dramas and narration for the likes of the upcoming "Highway to Hell." This is like using an actual Oscar as a toilet paper holder.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Two theaters, no waiting!

Sorry for the reference to "The Andy Griffith Show," but Charlotte sometimes seems like a small town, culturally speaking. Yet we're breaking ground this week: For the first time since I came back to the theater beat in 2008 -- and for the first time ever, as far as I know -- a local theater company is giving multi-week productions to two shows at the same time.

Blumenthal Performing Arts has imported or co-sponsored simultaneous productions by other companies at its venues. Various theaters have scheduled benefits or staged readings on dark nights during runs of their big shows. But Carolina Actors Studio Theatre is producing two fully staged  plays at the same time.

"33 Variations," Moises Kaufman's worthy meditation on Beethoven's creativity and the dying musicologist who attempts to explain it, runs through Dec. 23. "Death Tax," Lucas Hnath's comedy about a woman who suspects her daughter wishes to whack her before an inheritance diminishes, runs through Dec. 16. (I haven't seen it yet.) Each features one of the community's strongest actresses: Cynthia Farbman Harris as the musicologist and Polly Adkins as the suspicious matron.

When CAST moved to its new facility at 2424 N. Davidson St. last year, it took over three rehearsal/performance spaces N.C. Dance Theatre had left behind. CAST has rented those out to other tenants and kept up a busy Second Stage series since June, giving those shows space when the main stage was dark.

Now CAST has gotten into the double-production business, risking some dilution of its audience -- or, maybe, hoping that satisfied customers at either play will come back the following week to the other one. I wish them luck.

Monday, December 3, 2012

'Messiah' complex

Nutcracker Princes, Amahl and his mom and prune-faced Scrooge are descending upon us again, as they do every Christmas, and no tradition endures more lastingly than Handel's "Messiah." On Sunday, the Charlotte Music Club performed the Advent portion of that oratorio for the 60th time, and I sang along with the basses for the first time since the early 1990s.

You can't sing great sacred music without at least thinking about God, whatever your religious persuasion (or lack thereof) may be. For the first time, I really considered what every word I was singing meant.

The initial word of the oratorio is "comfort." The final word of the Advent section is "light." Virtually every moment in between is an affirmation of glory or a shout of joy. The second part, which includes the scourging of Christ and the contemplation of evil, has darker moments -- though the chorus "All we like sheep (have gone astray)" has a jaunty tone for music contemplating our propensity to sin! The third portion deals with resurrection and salvation.

Librettist Charles Jennens selected biblical texts that depict a God who brings hope, who's patient with mankind. Except for a brief part near the end of the second section, where "the nations so furiously rage together" against God's anointed and the Lord is encouraged to "dash them in pieces, like a potter's vessel," humankind doesn't get rebuked or punished. Nobody's threatened with eternal damnation. Nobody gets  excluded from the good graces of the Lord or the church, unless he violently seeks exclusion himself.

Handel's musical "sermon" has been preached at Christmas (and frequently at Easter) for two and a half centuries. We're so used to it that we can sit through it without taking in the text, line by line. But we should bring a set of fresh ears every time to a message of compassion that's too rare in our modern world. 

Friday, November 30, 2012

The five worst Oscar-winning movies

We've entered the season where would-be Academy Award nominees crowd into theaters, trying to please voters whose memories don't go back farther than six weeks. In honor of this mad rush, I'll devote one State of the Art blog entry to the Oscars every week, up to the nominations on January 10 (except for Christmas week, when I'll be wassailing at home).

I'll start with the five least-justified choices for best picture. Technically, I can't include "Mrs. Miniver," which was so sappy I left midway through to avoid killing more brain cells. I saw "Cimarron" and "Cavalcade" too long ago to make a clear judgment now, but I still have more than 80 to choose from. Here are the duds, in ever-increasing order of awfulness, followed by the nominees that should have beaten them:

5) "The Departed" (2006) -- The prize was a sop to Martin Scorsese, who has made a dozen movies better than this nonsensical mishmash about a cop and a crook who infiltrate each other's organizations. An affront not only to fans of the Hong Kong original ("Infernal Affairs") but to anyone with a brain, right down to the tacked-on happy ending. Should have won: "Little Miss Sunshine" or "The Queen."

4) "Ordinary People" (1980 -- Well-intentioned, competently made soap opera about a family that comes apart when a prized son dies. But when I rewatched it a few years ago, it seemed arid, obvious and gently preachy, like most movies directed by Robert Redford. The acting holds up well, but this didn't deserve the big enchilada. Should have won: "Raging Bull" or "The Elephant Man."

3) "Oliver!" (1968) -- The apex of the grandiose, over-the-top musicals of the 1960s ("My Fair Lady," "Dr. Dolittle," etc.) and the one that killed this sub-genre, except for Monty Python spoofs. (See the "Every Sperm is Sacred" number in "The Meaning of Life.") The exclamation point in the title indicates that everything must be BIG, including the hammy acting. Should have won: "Romeo and Juliet" or "The Lion in Winter."   

2) "Around the World in 80 Days" (1956) -- The movie seemed to last 80 days, as it crammed celebrity cameos into flaccid sequences detailing the journey of Phileas Fogg (a miscast David Niven) around the globe. In a decade famous for movie bloat, producer Mike Todd was rewarded for setting the bar higher.Should have won: "Friendly Persuasion." or "The King and I."

1) "Crash" (2006)  -- A strident, inconclusive harangue about racism, crippled by absurd coincidences (apparently only two cops patrol all of Los Angeles), ludicrous situations and painfully shallow characters: (My favorite: The omni-bigoted white millionaire played by Sandra Bullock, who underwent such a miraculous transformation that she hugged her Mexican maid and blurted, "Maria, you are my best friend!")Should have won: Any other nominee in the category: "Brokeback Mountain," "Capote," "Good Night, and Good Luck" or "Munich." Or almost any other 2004 release, possibly excepting "Van Helsing" and "Exorcist: The Beginning."

Monday, November 26, 2012

Dreams pursued, dreams achieved

Good news about two remarkable performers landed on my desk just before the holiday week.

Merwin Foard, who cut his musical eyeteeth in Charlotte as Merwin Foard Jr., has made a Broadway career out of understudying or standing by for leads in some of the biggest musicals of the last 25 years: Javert in "Les Miserables," Gaston in "Beauty and the Beast," Fred Graham in "Kiss Me, Kate,"  the title character in "Sweeney Todd," Gomez in "The Addams Family."

As of Nov. 9, he's been understudying Australian opera singer Anthony Warlow as Daddy Warbucks in the revival of "Annie," but he's also playing a pivotal supporting role as President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Terry Teachout, drama critic for The Wall Street Journal, said, "The smaller roles are also well done, with top honors going to Merwin Foard, whose impersonation of FDR (complete with leg braces, a nicely realistic touch) is dead on the mark." Warlow leaves the Warbucks role after 12 months, so you have to wonder if Foard has a shot at taking over.

Meanwhile, Joan Burton's CD "The Long Road" arrived in the mail. If you were lucky enough to hear her lead vocals in the nostalgia show "This is The '60s," which played Ovens Auditorium in July, you'll know why I looked forward to getting it. (Quoting myself now: "Smoky-voiced vocalist Joan Burton plays a mean rhythm guitar on the Yardbirds' "Heart Full of Soul" and sings with plenty of heart: Her version of Melanie's "Candles in the Rain" is even more powerful than the original.") Charlotte launched a tour of that show, which comes back to Knight Theater Dec. 15.

"Yes, it's been a long road," Burton writes in the brief liner notes. "Some of the songs reflect struggles I've dealt with in life and as a musician. The musician's road is not easy, but I do it for the love of it." The 15 cuts, compiled from her first three albums, include intense covers (The Doors' "Crystal Ship," The Beatles' "Oh! Darling") and originals. Those range from a reflection about romance ("For Love") to a wistful song about abused animals ("Weary Eyes") to a meditation on Patricia Krenwinkel's motives for joining Charles Manson in the Tate-LaBianca murders of 1969. (Learn more at

Neither Foard nor Burton (who's headquartered in Myrtle Beach) has achieved top marquee status after decades in the business, but they plug happily away. They've made satisfying lives for themselves in show business, and they get to do what they love -- and were born to do -- night after night. How many of us can say the same?

Monday, November 12, 2012

IMDB voting is a joke

I go to the Internet Movie Data Base today to see how voters take to "The House I Live In," an Oscar-contending documentary about the vast amount of money spent prosecuting non-violent drug users in America. I see it has an unspectacular voter rating of 6.3 out of 10.

Then I look at the voter breakdown. 129 out of 235 voters (55 percent) have given the movie a 10.  62 voters (another 26 percent) have given it an 8 or a 9. So more than four out of five voters have given it a rating of 8 or above, yet the overall "weighted" rating is 6.3. How can this be?

The explanation on IMDB is a combination of obfuscation and gobbledygook. The site won't explain how it assigns different weights to votes, though some users have speculated in message boards that it automatically throws out 1s and 10s or devalues them until a certain number of people have voted. There's also speculation that people who regularly vote on films get their votes counted more heavily, as if prolific voters were more honest or intelligent.

When you search the FAQ section for an explanation, you get a longer version of the paragraph below:

IMDb publishes weighted vote averages rather than raw data averages. Various filters are applied to the raw data in order to eliminate and reduce attempts at 'vote stuffing' by individuals more interested in changing the current rating of a movie than giving their true opinion of it. The exact methods we use will not be disclosed. This should ensure that the policy remains effective.

The site justifies weighting answers by comparing its ratings to those used in assessing automobiles: A car that gets a 5 for looks, a 5 for gas mileage, a 5 for price and a 1 for safety may not get an overall average of 4, because safety is more important than the other factors. But how does one distinguish among people who are rating only one thing, the overall effectiveness of a movie?

Nobody wants a ballot box to be stuffed. (Well, Vladimir Putin and certain African dictators do, I guess.) I never vote on IMDB myself, because my reviews give my opinions, should anyone want them. No doubt rabid fanboys toss 10s around like confetti when the latest Batman or Avengers movies come out, and clever hackers can confound almost any system.

But when the mast majority of voters give a grade of 8 or higher to a serious documentary, and the overall grade is 6.3, something's wrong here. Do we need to get the electoral college involved?

Friday, November 9, 2012

Not James Bond -- ISRAEL Bond

As we note the opening of "Skyfall," the best James Bond movie since "Goldfinger," let's take a moment to pay tribute to the first great James Bond spoof: "Loxfinger."

It came out in 1965, the year after "Goldfinger" made Bond the most popular action hero in films. According to the book, author Sol Weinstein gained his knowledge of the subject by working for the CIA (Catskills Institute of Acne); he appeared in a trenchcoat on the back cover, smoking a cigarette and holding a very dangerous-looking slingshot.

The title character, Lazarus Loxfinger, was an alleged humanitarian with a suspiciously Germanic accent who talked about finding a "final solution" to the Israeli-Arab conflict. He was investigated by Oy-Oy-Seven, the Hebraic secret agent Israel Bond. (That was a 1960s joke: American Jews were expected to buy bonds to support their counterparts in Israel.)

The book riffs merrily on Bond conventions: Israel Bond beds lovelies with names such as Poontang Plenty, answers to a boss named Emma -- sometimes called M -- and fights off assassins from world-dominating organizations with tortuous acronyms, like the Syrian Corps of Heroes for Murdering Unmercifully Craven Kikes. (Work it out for yourself.) There's even a genetically altered dolphin, Agent D, who speaks in one-liners.

For all the comedy, most of which is 1960s-centric, there's a serious undertone about the jeopardy of being Jewish in a volatile part of the world: Israel had been founded just 17 years earlier, and the turmoil in the Middle East would erupt in a famous war two years later. The book's not meant as social commentary, but it turns out to be.

Like the Bond movie series, Weinstein continued to crank out sequels that were less and less necessary. (Although "Matzohball," his "Thunderball" parody, sustains the premise decently.) He eventually ended up writing comedy for TV ("The Jeffersons," "The Love Boat") and, according to the Internet Movie Data Base, turned 84 in July. The 11-year-old boy who laughed over "Loxfinger" when it first came out -- and missed all the double entendres -- still holds a fond thought for him.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Music for the day after the election

After looking at the results at 1 a.m. today -- some of which cheered me, some of which didn't, like all of you -- I settled into my recliner to listen to a CD titled "American Weekend."

It contained music by patricians and populists. It spoke of the bustle of New York, the common-sense values of the Midwest, quiet days of remembrance for fallen veterans in New England. Quite by accident, the conductors were a little melting pot of their own, men born in India and Germany and Hungary.

Charles Ives, the wealthy insurance salesman for whom classical composition was a hobby, weighed in with his variations on "America." George Gershwin, the son of Ukrainian immigrants, captured the swagger and romance of Manhattan with "Rhapsody in Blue." Samuel Barber, born to a prosperous and cultured family in West Chester, Pa., provided a restrained sense of mourning with his "Adagio for Strings."

The most moving contribution came from Aaron Copland, another immigrant's boy who captured the spirit of the American prairie like nobody else. It was "Lincoln Portrait," his 15-minute tribute to the man many of us consider our greatest president. Gregory Peck read the narration in a voice that was almost certainly more sonorous than Lincoln's, but the words hit home.

They rang out like this: "We of this congress and this administration will be remembered in spite of ourselves. No personal significance or insignificance can spare one or another of us. The fiery trial through which we pass will light us down in honor or dishonor to the latest generation." 

And this: "The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we will save our country." 

Lincoln was speaking about America 150 years ago, in the grip of a declared civil war, but his words are just as true today. Will anybody listen to them now?

Monday, November 5, 2012

Jackass at the symphony

So I'm enjoying the return of conductor Christof Perick to the podium of the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra Saturday night. And midway through the first piece, the overture to Carl Maria von Weber's opera "Der Freischutz," a cell phone goes off during a moment of absolute silence.

The ring was that old-fashioned sound phones used to have when they had dials. It was as loud as the phone in the hall of my college dorm, which was meant to be audible the length of the building. (I waited, reflexively, for someone to scream, "Hey, Toppman, it's for you.") A guy down front sheepishly got up and sidled out of Belk Theater.

Maybe this was my cue to abandon hope that people at arts events will learn how to USE THEIR *&^%$#@! TECHNOLOGY! True, the symphony didn't make a "Turn off your devices" announcement just before the concert, which could have helped. But I wonder whether anyone listens to those any more, or whether they've passed into the "heard but not received" category, along with instructions on airplanes about seat cushion flotation.

Concertgoers have learned not to talk or eat during a show  Why can't they learn -- reflexively, as they're first sitting down -- to turn off their phones, which are every bit as annoying and even more disruptive during classical music?

Unlike talking or eating, the cell phone offender also disrupts the experience for himself. He has to search his pockets, wearing a "Yes, I'm a dope" look, or get up and walk away to take the call. And when he comes back to his seat, people give him the fish eye.

This may be a lost cause. But by heaven and the spirit of Beethoven, it's worth fighting for!

Friday, October 26, 2012

A letter from a U.S. Marine

A reader sent me a letter recently, by which I knew him to be of my generation or an older one. He was writing from Spindale with kind words for my review of "Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo" at Carolina Actor's Studio Theatre. He signed his note Col. Thomas Paul Graham, USMC (ret).

More interesting than the compliments was a poem he enclosed. He'd dedicated it to the late George Will Curtis, a U.S. Army captain and newspaperman he'd befriended. He titled it "A Photograph From Kosovo," but the snapshot of wailing women he describes in the first verses triggered memories of his time in Vietnam decades before:

"Doi dai! Doi dai! Their black pajama arms fly up
Or clutch tightly around themselves or enfold
Their Viet kin or friends. Their accusing eyes, brimming cups
Of black, biting, bitter tears cry...cry cold...."

War has often inspired powerful poetry, from Homer's epics of ancient Greece through my own generation. My favorite British poet of the 20th century, Wilfred Owen, died one week before the end of World War I, while storming a German stronghold. Benjamin Britten's War Requiem incorporates Owen's devastatingly sad work, including the most touching poem I know about battle: "Anthem for Doomed Youth."

But most great war poems have come from people who were already poets (or, at least, writers) before they went off to fight. Col. Graham was not, as far as anything on the Internet tells me. He has written from the heart and from a sense of horror at what he saw, and he shared those reactions not for acclaim but for understanding -- or as much understanding as someone who hasn't entered battle can give him. (I was in the last round of the draft for the Vietnam War but was not selected to go.)

The poem reminded me, for the thousandth time, not to let preconceptions run away with me: Col. Graham also enclosed a picture of himself in uniform, wearing what my Air Force dad would have called a "fruit salad of medals," and I didn't expect a poetic side.

And I realized again that the desire to make art out of our experiences lies in all of us. Sometimes it lies dormant, because it doesn't get the right intellectual or emotional encouragement. Sometimes the minutiae of our daily lives bury it too deeply to grow. As William Wordsworth warned, "The world is too much with us, late and soon,/Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers." But those powers are in every human being.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Straight Charlotte needs to get 'Bent'

In an ideal North Carolina, I would not be writing this column, and there’d be no need for Queen City Theatre to open Martin Sherman’s “Bent” in Charlotte Thursday.– except, perhaps, as a period piece, the way we now watch plays about slavery.

But this is the state we’re in:

A 22-year-old man has accused his former Rutherford County church of holding him against his will, while he was physically and emotionally abused because he is gay.

The pastor of Providence Road Baptist Church in Maiden recently gave a sermon about his plan to eliminate homosexuals: Isolate them behind an electric fence, feed them and wait for them to die.

Opponents of gay marriage complain that, if homosexuals are allowed to wed, people may next ask to marry beasts of the field. (And their view of Amendment One prevailed.)

Martin Sherman’s 1982 play, nominated for a Tony Award when Richard Gere starred in it, takes place in Nazi Germany during and after the Knight of the Long Knives, the three-day period in 1934 when the Nazi regime carried out a series of politically inspired murders.

Though Sherman is Jewish, this isn’t another play about Jews suffering during the Holocaust. It’s about a different group that was systematically brutalized: Homosexuals, whose behavior was against the law and who were forced to wear pink triangles for identification. (That law hadn’t been enforced much before Hitler, but he used it to eliminate “undesirables.”)

Max (whom Gere played) is a wealthy gay Berliner whose “deviant” lifestyle gets him assigned to the Dachau concentration camp. There he identifies himself as a Jew, believing that will make him less likely to be killed, but falls in love with a male prisoner.

The play opened on Broadway at the height of the Gay Rights Movement. Glenn Griffin, who’s directing this production, plans to take “a modern approach to (it).

“The play will be set during Nazi Germany, but there will be a modern tone. This play still speaks to a modern audience: Homosexuals are still trying to find equal rights in America. In other countries such as Uganda, homosexuals are being tortured and killed just trying to get a foothold in equal rights.” (

He believes “Bent” will be as relevant now as when it was first produced. Sadly, I have to agree. We couch our disapproval of homosexuals in politer terms, but we’re comfortable expressing it.

And here’s a final thought: Virtually all the non-Jewish people in Nazi Germany would have identified themselves as Christians. How they managed to align their brutality with the teachings of Jesus I have no idea, but they worshipped in his churches and praised his name.

Monday, October 22, 2012

The worst people in the world?

That would be the Ik, a tribe in northern Uganda, according to anthropologist Colin Turnbull, who wrote a 1972 book about them titled "The Mountain People." It depicted them as a tribe which abandoned children as soon as they could walk and let the elderly starve. Turnbull apparently came to believe they represented human nature at its most base and basic: They lived in near-starvation conditions, and terms such as "goodness" and "virtue" had become irrelevant.

Writer-director Cevin Soling read Turnbull's book in high school. Nearly four decades later, he took a documentary crew to Uganda to find out whether the Ik really lived without music or humor or a sense of play, whether they really could be "the worst people in the world." He recorded his journey in "Ikland."

The film is as much about the process of making a documentary -- especially under adverse conditions -- as the results of the search. He and his crew deal with an irate elephant, bribe-taking officials, gun-toting men who may be part of the nefarious Lord's Resistance Army, dysentery and a wasp that can reportedly bore through a human skull.

His team finally reaches the Ik, subsistence farmers who don't raise cattle (rural Africa's traditional standard of wealth) and whose crops regularly get raided by other tribes. They turn out to be as compassionate and philosophic as anyone else under their circumstances; you and I wouldn't want to share their fragile, nomadic existence, but we can identify with their sentiments. (So much for Turnbull.)

I learned about "Ikland" by pure chance: Someone I interviewed months ago sent me a copy. Otherwise, this quietly revelatory film might have passed unnoticed in the immense mass of releases I never even hear about. As I watched, I wondered how many other enjoyable documentaries have vanished into the mist unseen.

The blessing of the Internet is that one can find almost everything there. But the Internet also reminds us of the infinite size of world culture. It's like having a telescope that reaches far into the universe in all directions: It's a thrill to stumble upon a new star, but it's frustrating to know there are millions of stars we'll never encounter.

Monday, October 15, 2012

I'm scribbling on the side of a parked van...

...and thinking "This is great. Here's a guy, parked at the curb on North Davidson Street, and people have written and drawn pictures all over his vehicle. I'm not gonna be left out."

But my conscience was clear, because the owner had printed "The Roaming Chalkboard -- Draw Something!" on the side of the van, which had been painted black (or perhaps stripped of its original paint) so passers-by could leave their marks. He (or she) had thoughtfully clipped cups full of colored chalk to the front windows on both sides.

Folks had written obvious stuff ("Tarheels #1") bnt mostly attempted to be bizarre ("I have a mermaid costume for my cat") or philosophic: "Though dreams be sweet and imagination divine, reality returns." I wrote "Not all learning can be quantified," as a tribute to teachers everywhere drowned by inane testing regulations.

I waited a bit, but the owner/driver didn't come back. I salute him in absentia: He liberates people to write anonymously, inspires creativity and gives pleasure, which is more than most of us can say. And he fit right in with his location: NoDa remains the place in Charlotte most likely to hold a creative surprise like this.

As I drifted in and out of nearby art galleries, I was struck not just by the quality of the work -- one can see high-quality art all over Charlotte -- but by its imaginative elements. Creators had found ways to repurpose everyday objects, to find utility or beauty in things cast aside or overlooked. They saw differently from the rest of us and made us see, too. If there's a better definition of an artist, I don't know it.

Friday, October 12, 2012

James Bond must hate America

I understand why "Skyfall," the new James Bond adventure with Daniel Craig, will premiere in London on Oct. 23. The first Bond film, "Dr. No," opened there 50 years ago this month. What I don't get is why the United States will be one of the last territories on Earth to see it, on Nov 9.

We're coming in after Bahrain and Bulgaria, Iceland and Iraq, Poland and Portugal, to name just some of the 28 countries where it will open Oct. 26. In fact, the United States will snag the movie ahead of only Australia, Cambodia, the Dominican Republic, Japan, New Zealand and South Africa. We are outranked even by Estonia, Nigeria, Uruguay and Vietnam.

There are many reasons such a release pattern could make sense for a movie, but none apply to "Skyfall." Producers aren't trying to build favorable word of mouth (and don't need any). These aren't test screenings for an unfinished film that will be re-cut by the time it gets here. Nor are they festival screenings meant to garner critics' awards before general release.

A conspiracy theorist would argue this is part of a 50-year Bondian degradation of the United States. The American characters in Bond movies are almost always greedy, doltish, rude or unhelpful. CIA agent Felix Leiter, who has appeared in various incarnations throughout the series, is useful but never allowed to take the most important role in any operation. I suppose that's because, in real life, the CIA has always been led by the nose by Britain's MI6. (Not.)

Hey, maybe we should be grateful the studio isn't making us wait longer for "Skyfall." We got "Dr. No" seven months after it came out in England, "From Russia With Love" six months after its London premiere -- and then only in a limited New York engagement -- and the immortal "Goldfinger" four months after the Brits saw it. When you're a second-class nation, I suppose you'd better get used to the soggy end of the crumpet.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Why I like Teddy Roosevelt

Every once in a while, some disgruntled reader sends me the extracted quote from President Roosevelt that begins "It is not the critic who counts -- not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena..."

Usually, the sender is trying to say that arts critics are idiots (often because he has disagreed with me) or have no value. This isn't what Roosevelt was saying at all, if you read the whole quote. But today, I decided to read the whole speech. It's an address from April 23, 1910, to the Sorbonne titled "Citizenship in a Republic." And it's one of the most commonsensical, intelligent definitions of the rights and responsibilities of those of us who live in a republic that I have ever read.

I hope folks of all political persuasions will take the time to consider it. (Here's the text: But in the spirit of a critic judging a work of literature -- one he never thought to read but much enjoyed -- here are three of my favorite excerpts.

"The average citizen must be a good citizen, if our republics are to succeed. The stream will not permanently rise higher than the main source; and the main source of national power and national
greatness is found in the average citizenship of the nation. Therefore it behooves us to do our best to see that the standard of the average citizen is kept high; and the average cannot be kept high unless the standard of the leaders is very much higher."

"In every civilized society, property rights must be carefully safeguarded. Ordinarily, and in the great majority of cases, human rights and property rights are fundamentally and in the long run identical. But when it clearly appears that there is a real conflict between them, human rights must have the upper hand, for property belongs to man and not man to property."

"Perhaps the most important thing the ordinary citizen, and, above all, the leader of ordinary citizens, has to remember in political life is that he must not be a sheer doctrinaire...The one-sided fanatic, and still more the mob-leader, and the insincere man who to achieve power promises what by no possibility can be performed, are not merely useless but noxious."

A wise man, TR.

Monday, October 8, 2012

The $30 play ticket

You may have heard that Actor's Theatre of Charlotte signed a contract with Actors Equity Association to pay all its performers a minimum salary, according to union rules. This is good news for a lot of reasons, and you'll find out why here:

At the same time, it has led to a $2 bump in single ticket prices: ATC is now charging $31 on weekend nights for seats. As far as I know, it's the first local theater to get that price for all shows throughout a season. (The Broadway Lights touring productions that come to the Belk and Ovens cost a lot more, of course.)

I used to hear scuttlebutt that theaters wanted to keep the first digit of the ticket price a "2," for fear of scaring patrons away. ATC is in the middle of its first show under the new contract, "God of Carnage," so the company won't know for a while how single ticket sales are affected. But I can't imagine people saying, "$58 for my wife and me was perfectly fine, but $62 is outrageous!"

The shows still seem like a bargain to me. You can pay a lot more for a lot less entertainment (insert Panthers joke here), and you'd spend $31 these days on two-thirds of a carton of cigarettes or an average steak at an upscale restaurant. Both would probably be forgotten as soon as they were consumed.

How does one put a "value" on theater, anyhow? If we remember it for a day, is it "worth" $10? For a week, $20? For a decade, $100? I saw Lynn Redgrave in George Bernard Shaw's "Saint Joan" 35 years ago; I can still remember the emotions that rocked me and the speeches that left me thinking about war and male-female relations and the nature of Christianity. I think $30 is a small price to pay for any experience that might just last a lifetime.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Lawrence of Arabia sez...get off your butt

Maybe you have a pressing engagement. Maybe you think $12.50 is always too much to pay for a movie ticket. But if you claim to love movies, those are the only acceptable reasons to blow off the screenings of "Lawrence of Arabia" on Thursday at Concord Mills or Stonecrest. I wish the run lasted more than one day, because I have work during both the matinee and evening screenings and can't figure a way to skip out.

The full title now appears to be "Lawrence of Arabia 50th Anniversary Event: Digitally Restored." The key words are the last two. A New York Times article ( explains in depth why the digital cleanup of this re-release makes it imperative to watch in theaters: The Blu-Ray disc released later this year won't compare, no matter how grand your home system may be.

I saw the last re-release almost 25 years ago at SouthPark Cinemas, which had the biggest screen in Charlotte at the time. My parents never took me to the original, because I was 8 when it came out, and they knew I couldn't sit through a 227-minute movie without snoring or crying. I had seen the film many times on VHS by then, but the sight of camels marching in single file across the desert under a monstrous red sun took my breath away.

For me, "Lawrence" will always be the most spectacular meeting point between blockbuster opulence and narrative skill. Almost every technical aspect of the film won an Oscar: score, editing, cinematography, art direction, sound. The picture and director David Lean also won. Peter O'Toole should have joined them in the winners' circle for the title role, but Gregory Peck swiped the best actor Oscar for "To Kill a Mockingbird." (He was a great Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch, but O'Toole was a great Lawrence.)

The film doesn't worship the man who attempted to organize and liberate Arabs from colonial domination during World War I. He's shrewd yet foolish, tough yet broken, heroic yet misguided and finally unknowable on some level: He has not a single friend in the movie except Sherif Ali (Omar Sharif), whom he regularly exasperates.

As a movie biography, this has no equal. As a work of sheer visual dazzlement, it has few peers. As an excuse to get off your couch and see a film as it was meant to be seen, it's at the top right now.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

How everybody screwed up

You have only two more days to see "Compliance," a drama by Charlotte writer-director Craig Zobel that has gotten positive buzz everywhere from Sundance to The New Yorker. But then, so do I, because I didn't learn it was in town until yesterday afternoon.

That's right: One of the year's most important indie films crept into town invisibly and will depart the same way Friday. So what went wrong?

Magnolia Pictures brought the movie to town without informing anyone in the media, let along offering a chance to review it -- even though I asked a Magnolia press rep months ago to keep me in the loop, because Zobel comes from Charlotte and shot the memorable "Great World of Sound" here.

Nobody at Regal Cinemas' Ballantyne Village thought to tell me it was showing there exclusively. That's not their job; distributors are supposed to be on top of public relations. But employees at BV didn't put two and two together, either.

"Compliance" wasn't listed among the new movies in the film guide in last Friday's CLT section. Why? Because no one at The Observer puts that guide together from scratch any more; we buy it from an out-of-town service, which doesn't always know what's opening here, then update it as best we can.

I could have leafed through movie ads underneath the CLT reviews myself, knowing the fallibility of that guide. Had I done so, I'd have seen an ad for "Compliance" that listed the BV run. But even if I had seen it on Friday, I couldn't have gotten a review into the features section until Tuesday. (Saturday and Sunday sections get printed in advance, and there's no Features section Monday.) Exhibitors decide by Tuesday morning whether or not to hang onto a picture. So "Compliance" would already have been on the way out, whatever I wrote.

This breakdown in communication happens over and over on small indie films that desperately need attention to draw an audience. I don't know that a favorable opening-day review would have boosted the box office enough for "Compliance" to stay at Ballantyne an extra week, but it might have.

I don't expect anything to change: Whether or not a small movie succeeds here doesn't seem to matter much to anyone, including the people who put it into the marketplace. I just thought you might want to know what happened.

Monday, September 24, 2012

From Bollywood to Beethoven

Last Saturday, I had the kind of day that reminds me why Charlotte really does qualify now as a city I might boast about to distant friends.

My wife and I parked uptown to the strains of Indian music and walked down Tryon Street to see gorgeously costumed girls performing classical dance moves. The smell of paneer tikka and tandoori chicken hung over the pavement. Vendors offered clothing, jewelry and handicrafts you rarely see in stores.

The 18th annual Festival of India was in full swing inside the Knight Theater: short movies downstairs, cultural exhibits upstairs – including mehndi painting, where women dyed their hands with henna in elaborate patterns – and a tribute to Bollywood in the auditorium itself. Host Divakar Shukla, editor of Saathee magazine, kicked that off almost exactly as we had to leave; we had bought tickets long ago to the Charlotte Symphony’s season-opener.

So we walked five blocks north to enter a world that was both older and newer than parts of the festival: early 19th-century Vienna, where a genius who had realized he was inevitably going deaf had written two masterpieces, his Fourth Piano Concerto and Fourth Symphony. We made a discovery at Belk Theater, too: Brazilian-born Arnaldo Cohen, a pianist in his 60s who has romantic flair, sensitivity and technique to burn.

Even 20 years ago, such a day would have been unimaginable in Charlotte. Neither the Belk nor Knight theaters existed. Charlotte’s ethnic communities hadn’t begun to assert themselves publicly in cultural extravaganzas. The idea of coming uptown for anything on the weekend seemed odd, unless you were taking the kids to Discovery Place. (Neither Time-Warner Arena nor Bank of America Stadium had been erected.)

Now we have become what any first-rank American city ought to be: Multi-ethnic, proud of all elements of its culture, able to balance soul-nourishing music by dead white guys with stimulating dances performed by living brown kids. Even if we only eat samosas and drink lassi once a year, we’re reminded that Charlotte can hold onto its Caucasian-European roots while benefiting from things the newer arrivals bring us.

To get to the parking deck, my wife and I passed the construction site for the new BB&T Ballpark on Graham Street, where the Charlotte Knights will play as of spring 2014. Now that would be a perfect outing: baseball, then Bollywood, then Beethoven. I like my adopted home town more and more these days.

Friday, September 21, 2012

The funniest man of the 20th century

There are about a hundred serious contenders for that spot, but only one was hilarious for exactly seven minutes every time. If he still lived, he'd be celebrating his 100th birthday today.

When you ask for "Chuck Jones" on the Internet Movie Data Base, the search engine assumes you're likelier to mean Chuck Connors, Chuck Norris, Chuck Zito or Chuck Lorre. This is like asking about Francis Ford Coppola and being referred to Francis the Talking Mule. Well, people forget; Jones' last masterpiece as director came in 1970, when he made "The Phantom Tollbooth."

He's best known as the top man at Termite Terrace, the Warner Bros.' animation team responsible for the greatest cartoons ever produced. Jones' classics include two shorts which generally battle for the top spot on best-of lists: "One Froggy Evening" and "What's Opera, Doc?" He also produced classic cartoons about Daffy Duck, Pepe LePew and especially Road Runner -- and, when people thought his creative powers had dimmed, directed the animated version of "How the Grinch Stole Christmas."

His cartoons were "adult" in the best way: not manically paced or violent or oversexed, but aimed at a point of comprehension somewhere between children and the average grownup. He produced them in an era when it was OK to know that not every member of the target audience would get every joke. The folks at Termite Terrace wanted children to think upward, so to speak: If a young viewer didn't get a reference, he was expected to look it up or figure it out in context, coming out of the cartoon a bit smarter than he went in.

Other directors consulted Jones even after he stopped directing: He advised about animation on "Who Framed Roger Rabbit?" and "Mrs. Doubtfire" before dying at 89 in 2002. His work can be sampled on YouTube and other outlets, but the best of it can be found in the Looney Tunes Golden Collections, volumes 1 and 2. Used copies sell on Amazon for less than $20; at $4.50 a disc, this is the animation bargain of the year.

Now if you'll excuse me, I have to go watch "Duck Dodgers in the 24 and 1/2th Century" and see Marvin the Martian employ his Illudium Q-36 Explosive Space Modulator. Funnier than this, cartoons do not get.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Why Hickory is cooler than Charlotte

We can debate the overall merits of the two cities, but our neighbor to the northwest beats us in at least one regard: It has Emerging Pictures' new season. In fact, Columbia, Greensboro and Greenville, S.C., all  offer this amazing program. Winston-Salem has it in TWO locations. But we don't.

You'll find the whole story at But here are the basics: Theaters that contract this service offer a literal season of opera and ballet performances on their screens. Ticket-buyers will see Nederlands Dans Theater this Sunday at 2 p.m. and Tuesday at 7 p.m. Then come the Bolshoi Ballet, the Royal Ballet, a "Marriage of Figaro" by the Royal Opera House and many more.

The series includes films of live performances, documentaries about the arts and events that were staged specifically to be filmed. Tickets cost $20 per event, roughly what Regal charges to show the Metropolitan Opera at Stonecrest in Charlotte.

So why isn't this series available to us? Emerging signed a contract with Carmike Cinemas, and that chain hasn't operated here for at least 20 years. Emerging's list of locations shows a few independent cinemas, but independent theaters in our market have never aggressively pursued unusual programming.

Regal Cinemas has its own gig with the Met and other suppliers, though those are far more sporadic and don't constitute a season. And AMC has never been known for alternative programming, either. So there's nothing to do but bite the bullet, gas up the car and take a Sunday drive....

Monday, September 17, 2012

Richard Gere -- but not here

A caller asked me today why "Arbitrage," the well-reviewed new movie about a corrupt hedge fund magnate, doesn't seem to be playing any Charlotte-area theaters. At first, I thought this was merely a case of ageism: Gere and co-star Susan Sarandon appeal to a demographic that rarely buys movie tickets these days -- I know, because I'm in it -- and the younger actors in the film (Brit Marling, Nate Parker) aren't big enough names to turn the box office tide. There's nothing about this movie to reach men aged 18-to-35, Hollywood's largest target audience.

Then I found out Lionsgate had released the movie to theaters at the same time it was available  through video on demand. You can get it on iTunes or Amazon or other outlets at $6.99 a showing whenever you like. That's the real reason it's unlikely to play theaters here.

Big exhibitors (Regal and AMC around here) don't want to devote a screen to a movie you can order the same day on your TV or computer. Executives for the chains are willing to show a picture with a short theatrical window -- that is, an exclusive run in theaters before coming out on DVD or video on demand -- but not willing to split the potential audience from day one.

Movie distributors have a different point of view. They argue that people will find films wherever they were going to find them in the first place. Folks who like to go out to theaters will do so; folks who like to watch in their living rooms were never going to a theater anyway, so where's the lost income?

Both sides make valid points. Right now, multiplexes are still clinging to summer releases that are just taking up space ("The Candidate," "Total Recall"), so I'd side with Lionsgate on this one: Why not devote one screen out of 22 or 24 to "Arbitrage" and earn whatever you can? But nobody's likely to break the impasse, so all of us will be the losers.

Friday, September 14, 2012

The 'Christian,' the jihadists and the junkyard dog

Let's agree that this week's violent Muslim rioters in Libya, Egypt and Yemen are contemptible lunatics. What else can you call people who attack or kill others over the posting of a 14-minute film clip on YouTube?

Then let's ask a question: What are we to say about the people who made and paid for such a film?

The offensive excerpt shows the prophet Muhammad having sex and ordering massacres. It comes from "Innocence of Muslims," which has had a checkered history. Actors in it reported this week that it was initially filmed as "Desert Warriors" and contained no derogatory references to Islam. The director, who called himself Sam Bacile during the shooting, claimed to be an Israeli Jew.

The Associated Press revealed that he is actually a Coptic Christian named Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, who's on probation in Southern California after conviction for financial crimes. The source of his funding is unclear. Apparently, he dubbed Muhammad's name into the film in post-production, eliminating the harmless dialogue that had originally been shot.

Why would he do this? To provide some keen analysis of Muhammad's character or investigate some element of the Muslim religion that would account for extremists' current behavior? Hardly. He did it to pour gasoline on a fire that was out of control before his cameras rolled.

American free speech laws probably protect even his vile behavior, though there may be some hate-crime legislation under which he could be prosecuted. But I'm reminded of the dog in an auto junkyard I used to drive by on the way to pick-up basketball games in high school.

That German shepherd barked at every shadow, probably because he stood outdoors all day in the hot sun. Once, I saw a bunch of kids throwing gravel at the dog, infuriating the beast to amuse themselves while standing safely on the other side of a high fence. I chased them off, though they probably went back the next day.

Nothing excuses the derangement of the Muslims who are willing to kill because someone made a nasty movie. But the behavior of the people who provoke them, like the cruelty of the kids who harassed the enraged dog, can be just as inexcusable. I think, as I often do, of an axiom I learned as a boy: "Just because you CAN do something doesn't mean you SHOULD." 

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

The one thing I liked about the DNC

Well, technically, there were two things: Our editors generously bought food for reporters, so I saved money on meals. But I'm thinking of the artists who came from thousands of miles away to make their points.

Local artists were everywhere, as you'd expect, and their work at Legacy Village grabbed the eye. Yet people came from across America to try to be heard over the din of protesters and politicos.

I'm talking about Julie Winokur, a Montclair, N.J., documentary-maker who interviewed people throughout the  RNC and DNC for "Bring it to the Table." She wants that piece, which will be accompanied by Webisodes, a participatory online platform and a community campaign, to "bridge America's political divide and inspire civic engagement." (Details:

Or Andrew Purchin, an artist and psychotherapist from Santa Cruz, Cal., who hopes that "on Inauguration Day on the Washington Mall, 1,000 or more people in white jumpsuits and orange hats will be quietly making art, no matter who is president and no matter what the weather is. These artists will neither be attacking nor defending. They will be...reflecting, innovating and creating." (Details: )

Or the pair from West Los Angeles, one of whom dressed up as a gopher to speak for a project that has been years in the making: to persuade the federal government that land donated in 1888 specifically to house and assist U.S. veterans should indeed be used for that purpose now. Metabolic Studio has linked political activism and art in ways too numerous to mention here; see for details.

Two things strike me about these and similar projects I encountered. First, they're non-partisan: They want to get members of both parties behind what they perceive as useful goals.

Second, these folks are filled with hope and want to share it. That, too, has been in short supply in a political arena filled with bickering, degradation, dirty tactics and obstructionism. But these artists understand what America is supposed to be about: optimism and a search for common ground. More power to them.

Monday, September 10, 2012

A living local treasure gets her due

A small group of admirers paid tribute to Gladys Lavitan Sunday at Theatre Charlotte, after the matinee of "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum." I know this because I was the MC of this celebration, which began with accolades and ended with roses.

When I came to Charlotte in 1980, I was in time to enjoy Lavitan's work near the end of her extraordinary career. (She'll turn 96 this week.) As a middle schooler, she had taken part in the first endeavor by the Charlotte Drama League on June 1, 1928: a reading of Sutton Vane's "Outward Bound" at Carnegie Free Library. The League became Little Theatre of Charlotte, then Theatre Charlotte, now the oldest continuously operating theater in North Carolina. She officially bid farewell to the stage there in 2007, with another reading of "Outward Bound."

Lavitan was actually present at the creation of two theaters: She met Dorothy Masterson as that grande dame was starting the Golden Circle Theatre at the Mint Museum of Art and worked for her. (And with her: The two taught elocution lessons for children and adults through that group.) At the same time, she had a radio gig at WAYS-AM in the 1940s and '50s; she interviewed celebrities, reviewed books and talked about local topics on her "Woman's World" show.

Sunday's tribute found her onstage, basking in the recitation of her deeds and the recollections of fans, fellow thespians and friends. Veteran actors and directors remembered her dedication, her professionalism, her quick mind and flexible presence onstage. People not easily moved to tears let them flow. One man recalled that his father had called Lavitan "Charlotte's answer to Helen Hayes."

I learned doing research that her favorite roles included "On Golden Pond," "Anastasia" and "The Lion in Winter," indomitable matriarchs all. But she could do comedy as well as drama, and the twinkle in her eye Sunday showed that her sense of humor has not been quenched. We too seldom honor folks this way while they're still around to hear us, and it was a pleasure to watch her realize the pleasure she'd given to so many others.

Photo: Gladys Lavitan, in a 2009 file photo with caregiver Rebecca Littlejohn.

Friday, August 31, 2012

Queen CharIotte's back -- in not-so-basic black

Now that we’ve gotten used to the notion of a mixed-race president, can we accept the idea that our city is named for a mixed-race queen? I ask that question with President Obama preparing to speak uptown and Ken Aptekar’s painting “Charlotte’s Charlotte” hanging a few blocks away, on the fourth floor of the Mint Museum of Art.

Aptekar deconstructed Allan Ramsay’s 1772 coronation portrait at the Randolph Road Mint and based his six panels on interviews with local residents and the queen’s genealogy. Says a wall text: “She was of “North African, Portuguese and German descent.”

I'd already heard about that from Mario Valdes, a researcher who works for "PBS Frontline." He sent me Queen Charlotte's genealogical chart with appropriate annotations; though nobody has portraits of all the members, I don't doubt that various ethnic strains met in her. (He's sort of a specialist in this field: He also told me about St. Moritz, the soldier/protector of the Holy Roman Empire -- and a third-century African who, he says, inspired the 3-D video game "Spear of Destiny.")

And no doubt, someone will need to deny her link, many generations before, to a family of Moorish blood (as in “Othello”). But should we?

Scientists tell us we’re all descended from a woman in the Rift Valley of East Africa. So 400,000 generations ago, we all had a black ancestor. Classifying us – even Obama or the queen – as any one thing seems pointless, except in terms of meeting a quota.

The sixth of Aptekar’s panels depicts the queen as a pink-skinned European, a woman who might once have been called a “mulatto” because of some African blood, and a character of ambiguous shades. The text reads “Yours Mine Ours,” Aptekar’s way of saying she belongs to all of us.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Charlotte's coolest new magazine

"Speak Up" has burst onto the Charlotte media scene with handsome graphics printed on heavy paper, an easy-to-read layout, appealing articles -- about religion, music, little-known local resources, immigration -- and a scan code for more online content. Its goal, says the contents page, is to create jobs and give hope. And it's about...the needy.

I've seen folks hand out weekly newspapers on street corners in New York and Toronto, earning money for themselves by selling similar (and flimsier) publications. This is the first time I've seen a magazine-quality publication tackle similar issues. I read its 32 pages literally from cover to cover.

I ran across it in the 7th Street Public Market while waiting for a drink at Not Just Coffee. The distribution box asked for a $3 donation, which would go to the woman responsible for it. (She bought copies for $1 and sells them for $3, or whatever you care to give above that.)

The cover shot, a picture of a woman climbing avidly down into a dumpster, caught my eye. In that article, "Dumpster Diving for Awareness (and dinner)," writer Kaitlyn Tokay explained why she has spent the last year -- by choice -- gathering and eating the majority of her food from among the things stores throw away. I was hooked.

The topic made me wonder if the stories would be downbeat, sanctimonious or asking for donations. They weren't. I learned about artist David Alan Goldberg and musician Denison Witmer, Buskapalooza organizer April Denee, a soccer World Cup for homeless players and urban pioneers who started the Free Store in Charlotte with the motto "Give what you want, take what you need."

All the articles were connected to life on the street or among the poor in some matter-of-fact way, but they were diverse and never maudlin. (Go to to see what I'm talking about.) They reminded me that, even in a crowded and diverse media market like this one, there's always room for a smart niche publication.

And I am going to find out what's up with that Free Store when the smoke from the DNC clears....

Monday, August 27, 2012

Read blog comments? Hell, no!

Someone recently asked me whether I looked at readers' comments below my blog. Answer: Never. Here's a little secret: I bet many people at this newspaper and others feel the same way.

Before anyone posts a response telling me how elitist I am, let me add that I write back politely and with interest to everyone who sends me an e-mail to ask a question, disagree with an opinion or present an alternative point of view. But back when I DID read blog comments faithfully, the vast majority seemed to be generated by folks who fell into three categories:

1) People who have an agenda, read one trigger word (such as "schools" or "Islam") and then deliver the same diatribe, regardless of what the rest of the blog says.

2) People who "disagree" by being boorish and advancing no contrary argument. When I wrote a piece saying I thought Woody Guthrie's "This Land Is Your Land" would make a better national anthem than "The Star-Spangled Banner," responders called me a Communist -- yes, people still use that as an insult -- and suggested that, if I didn't like living in America, I could go somewhere else. I hadn't said anything about disliking America; in fact, I had suggested a song that showed why I APPRECIATE America. But you can't reason with idiots.

3) People who post comments that have nothing to do with what I've written. I wrote another entry explaining how we ought to separate the artist and the art, using Mel Gibson (who seems to be a jerk but certainly has skills as an actor-director) as an example. One reader, totally missing the point, went on about why Mel Gibson should never be allowed to work again in Hollywood -- or, perhaps, on Earth.

Many of these comments are anonymous, aptly enough: Even the posters don't want to be known for who they are. I'm sure intelligent responses get posted from time to time, too. But looking for those often seems to be like looking for a diamond ring in a dumpster.

Friday, August 24, 2012

God doesn't love ugly (but He'll allow it)

The word "amateur" means "one who loves something." But as we know, love can kill.

The latest proof can be found here, in which Time magazine recounts what happened when an amateur painter attempted to restore a 19th-century church fresco in Borja, Spain:

"Ecce Homo," the title of the painting by Elias Garcia Martinez, means "Behold man." (It's a picture of Jesus wearing a crown of thorns, so it's Christ as man.) It had faded over nearly two centuries on the wall of Santuario de la Misericordia, so Cecilia Gimenez touched it up. The final product resembles, as a Time writer remarked, "A hairy monkey wearing a baggy velvet suit and sporting what seems to be a rolled-up carpet for an arm."

Now, this might represent her true vision of mankind: Perhaps we are all beasts, especially without God's benediction. But I suspect it's simply the result of ill-advised affection for a painting she had come to admire. So what morals can we draw from this incident?

The oft-heard phrase, "Aaaahhh, my grandmother could paint something better than this!" is rarely accurate. 

Reverence and talent don't go together. (The priest reportedly gave her permission.) The song "God Doesn't Love Ugly" may be true, but the Lord isn't going to prevent even a devout woman from wreaking havoc.

Maybe the final conclusion we should draw is not just that this retiree should never have touched the painting -- which is obvious -- but that she acted from a good heart. We like to say the road to Hell is paved with good intentions. Defacing a fresco doesn't lead to damnation, but that's a proverb we ought to keep in mind.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

From beyond the grave...Charlotte Rep!

E-mails tell me two former managing directors of the defunct Charlotte Repertory Theatre both have big projects underway, one in Boone and one in New York City. Lovers of drama, take note.

Keith Martin, who helmed the Rep during the "Angels in America" fracas of the 1990s, now teaches theater at Appalachian State University and will oversee the larger and nearer of these endeavors: a tribute to semi-native son Romulus Linney, born in Philadelphia but raised in Boone and Tennessee. "Romulus Linney: From Page to Stage" celebrates the mountain region's cultural heritage through Linney's literature, poetry and plays.

It has already begun with the processing of Linney's papers, which have been turned over to the university, and it continues with community talks and an art exhibit. But the big public deal comes Sept. 20-21, with panels, readings, a tribute to Linney and theater master classes by Tony nominees Kathleen Chalfant ("Angels in America") and the playwright's daughter, Laura Linney ("Time Stands Still"). You'll learn more by searching for events at

Meanwhile, Martin's 2001 successor at the Rep has been busy. Matt Olin has been overseeing two newborns: daughter Mirabelle, born June 12, and "The Other Place," a play by Sharr White born last year at MCC Theatre in New York. It's an 80-minute psychological thriller in one act; Emmy-winner Laurie Metcalf earned terrific reviews as a drug-industry businesswoman who unravels emotionally.

Now Manhattan Theatre Club will bring the show, which Olin conceived and developed, to Broadway. Previews start in December, and the official opening is set for January 10, with Metcalf starring again and Tony-winner Joe Mantello ("Wicked") directing again. You'll find details at

Meanwhile, longtime Rep artistic director Steve Umberger continues to produce and direct plays at N.C. Shakespeare Festival in High Point (aka N.C. Shakes) and its offshoot, Festival Stage of Winston-Salem. Though there's no life left in the Rep, its component parts have flown out of town to do good work elsewhere