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.