Friday, May 30, 2014

Guns good, nipples bad

The Motion Picture Association of America has forbidden Dimension Films to release this poster of Eva Green, showing an image from the "Sin City" sequel coming to theaters Aug. 22:

The reason? "Curve of under breast and dark nipple/areola circle visible through sheer gown."

Dimension, which is run by the Weinstein Brothers, is delighted by the fuss and making as much hay with it as possible. The MPAA is saying nothing. Without making snarky comments about boobs, I have two thoughts.

First, movie posters have been showing racy images for years. Here's one of Jane Russell in the 1943 film "The Outlaw," produced by Howard Hughes (another guy who liked to capitalize on controversy):

Second, the MPAA wasn't put off by the gun in Green's hand. (Based on my memories of "Sin City," it has just been put to some heinous use or is about to be). So it's acceptable to show people preparing to take life in a movie poster but unacceptable to show them preparing to make love.


Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Why didn't 'Angels' fly higher this time?

A reader asked recently why performances of Carolina Actors Studio Theatre's "Angels in America" weren't packed. Michael SImmons, CAST's artistic director, confirmed that crowds have been good but not selling the place out, which he'd hoped they would.

When I heard CAST was doing this play, I was afraid this was going to happen. It's 20-plus years old; it was filmed for an HBO broadcast that was reportedly terrific, though I never saw it; thousands of Charlotteans already did see the live version when Charlotte Repertory Theatre did it in the 1990s. The current outing, which is extremely worthwhile and runs through Saturday, doesn't have the buzz of that initial outing. (To get tickets, call 704-455-8542 or go to

The first one became a must-see event for people (straight or gay) who loved theater and people who simply wanted to be in the know about Charlotte culture. I met at least a dozen people who weren't regular playgoers but bought tickets out of curiosity, to see what the firestorm of protest was about.

Now Tony Kushner's drama is just a long play -- two long plays, actually -- and while they have great merit, that's a disadvantage: "Angels" has lost its event status.

If you're going to it now, you're buying a ticket not to support the gay community or thumb your nose at right-wingers who protested the show in the '90s. You're going because you wish to enjoy this as a piece of theater, rather than something that puts you among the cognoscenti. It's like choosing to see a three-hour play by Eugene O'Neill or George Bernard Shaw. How many theatergoers would want to do that? Sadly, in Charlotte, not many.

I don't think it has anything to do with the subject matter now. A friend who enjoyed both halves tremendously the first time said to me, "I was moved by it, but I don't need to have that same experience again." I assume many theatergoers took her view. But if you're curious at all, you should go before it's gone.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

The Prince of Darkness is gone

First, a clip:

Now a homage: Gordon Willis, who shot all three of "The Godfather" movies and is the greatest cinematographer never to win an Academy Award, died Sunday at 82. He shot 10 of the best-looking movies from the 1970s, from "Klute" through "Manhattan," and he became famous for using just enough light to illuminate faces and a few other details in a darkened room. (Hence his nickname, "The Prince of Darkness.") Yet not one of those 10 earned him an Oscar nomination.

He seldom got a chance to work in black and white (who does nowadays?), yet look how delicately he lit the most romantic scene in Woody Allen's "Manhattan:"

Willis worked into his mid-60s and retired in 1997, troubled by ill health, after "The Devil's Own." He was finally nominated for an Oscar in 1984 for "Zelig" (where he found a way to insert Allen into historical scenes with real people) and in 1991 for "Godfather III." He won an honorary award in 2010 for "unsurpassed mastery of light, shadow, color and motion."

So why did he never win an Oscar voted by his peers? Rumor always had it that he was hard to work with, demanding in his collaborations (though Allen and Francis Ford Coppola used him multiple times) and not much of a mentor to young artists or a chummy guy with others in his field. As only cinematographers can nominate cinematographers, that's a handicap.

If the Oscars were purely about skill, he would have won a handful. But as they're Hollywood's equivalent of an election for high school prom king, he didn't fare well in that kind of popularity contest. No matter: His beautifully detailed work will speak for him as long as movies can be seen on a big screen.

Monday, May 19, 2014

&^%$#@! Rubik's cube

Today is the 40th anniversary of the most frustrating invention on Earth, the Rubik's Cube. It is also known variously as the Magic Cube, the Hungarian Magic Cube or (in my case) something completely unprintable. It made Hungarian inventor Erno Rubik a millionaire and me a wreck. I once spent a transcontinental flight in the early 1980s trying to align the colored sides without success, though I suppose two helpings of Bailey's Irish Cream didn't improve my chances.

Obviously, it doesn't faze these guys, the 2014 supercubers who can solve the puzzle in the same amount of time it takes me to set the alarm on my house and lock the front door:

I notice two things about these masters. First, they all operate in some kind of purely intuitive state; none of them is trying to work out the problem intellectually, and their fingers and brain synapses seem to be operating at the same phenomenal speed. Even when we got a slow-motion version of the winner at the end of the video, I had no idea how he was doing what he did.

Second, all of them are guys, apparently between their early teen years and their early 20s. (Maybe, as I encountered the cube when approaching 30, it was already too late for me.)

This may mean their hand-eye connections work more efficiently for this purpose than girls' do, or some kind of cerebral hardwiring makes it easier for them than for young women. Or maybe girls can simply think of better things to dedicate themselves to day after day.

Either way, their skill -- can one call it a skill? -- is extraordinary. And I can be *&^%$#@! sure that, even if I labored at one of these plastic cubes until the summer breeze turned to an autumnal blast, I'd never master it.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

When an Oscar can't keep you alive

Last year, Malik Bendjelloul accepted the Academy Award for best documentary for "Searching for Sugar Man." This week, he committed suicide. In his memory, here's the title track from the film he co-produced, directed, wrote and edited.

The movie profiled Sixto Rodriqguez, a folk musician from the 1970s who by chance became one of the most popular recording artists in South African history -- and never knew that or saw any royalties from his success. When Bendjelloul caught up with him in Detroit, Rodriguez was nearing 70 and tearing down abandoned houses for a living. He seemed a happy guy, one who didn't worry about lost dreams or feelings of failure.

Bendjelloul, apparently, was the opposite. Despite universal acclaim for "Sugar Man," which earned awards from 20 festivals and critics' associations, the Swedish-born director never began another project before taking his life in Stockholm. Here's a photo of him:

Online comments have varied from idiotic to dismissive to sympathetic, but most of them end up asking how this could have happened. How could anyone who earned an Oscar at 35 not go on to a long and happy career as a filmmaker?

His brother Johar told the Swedish paper Aftonbladet that Malik had been depressed for a short time and added "Life is not always so easy." I was reminded again of the heartbreaking note a San Francisco man left a few years ago, on the day he leaped off the Golden Gate Bridge: "I'm going to walk to the bridge. If one person smiles at me on the way, I will not jump." None of us can know exactly how close anyone else is to taking that last, most drastic step.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Farewell to an old library friend

I'm a used-media addict, someone who drops in at Manifest Records and The Last Word to cheer himself up with old CDs or DVDs when he's feeling low. (The high you get lasts longer than the one that comes from liquor. It's cheaper, too.)

I used to start drooling a week ahead of the annual Friends of the Library blowout, where volunteers took over an empty store or office for a week and filled it with used books and other media. I never spent less than $75 to $100, filling paper sacks with books, music and films I enjoyed all year (and often donated to be sold again).

So I was saddened to see that those are "on hiatus," a term I equate with "dead." They have been replaced by pop-up book sales, one of which I attended Saturday morning at Atherton Mill. The volunteers were as friendly as ever, but the pickings were slim: Half a dozen outdoor tables about the size of the one in my dining room, augmented by boxes of books underneath.

A volunteer told me one early buyer had found an autographed autobiography of Muhammad Ali, the day's big score. Other offerings were modest: A few classics (including "How Green Was My Valley" and an omnibus of Leslie Charteris' Saint stories, both now on my bookshelf), some current mysteries mixed in with older gems, a biography table, one table full of kids' books. A box about the size of a hardback dictionary held a dozen DVDs and one compact disc, the soundtrack from "Forrest Gump."

A volunteer explained that these pop-ups make it possible for the library to serve people around the county more easily; the next comes June 21 at Birkdale Village. I wondered at that: Was it really too hard for people to drive 15 miles to Charlotte once a year for the city's best media bargains? The big sales lasted a week, providing many opportunities to shop and reconsider things you'd skipped the first time. This sale lasted four hours, and rain would have washed it out completely.

The larger problem, he explained, was the enormous amount of labor required under the old system to get media from the storage facility, load it into the empty space, repack the unsold items and cart them away. I do sympathize with that.

Maybe the availability of used items on the Internet also decreased demand at library sales. But the Internet works best if you know what you want, and the beauty of the library sale was that you could find things you never knew existed. There's no treasure as great as the one you come across by accident, and that's going to be a lot less common these days.

Friday, May 9, 2014

'World-class'? It's true! (But in Columbia.)

When I hear "world-class," I usually wince. The South has no world-class cities (possibly excepting Atlanta, though I'd say not), and I always think of Henery the Chicken Hawk trying to prove he can take down Foghorn Leghorn, who's five times his size. But for once, the adjective fits. Unfortunately, it applies to something 90 miles away.

The University of South Carolina will hold its Southeastern Piano Festival in Columbia June 15-21. The honoree is 85-year-old Leon Fleisher, who launched his career 62 years ago by winning the Queen Elisabeth Competition in Belgium and had an impressive run before injuring his right hand severely. (He regained use of it much later.) Here's what he sounded like four years ago, giving a master class and playing a sample of Brahms' Piano Concerto No. 1:

Fleisher won't perform at USC. He'll give the Marian Stanley Tucker guest lecture June 19 and master classes during the week. But many young pianists will go to the keyboard.

Andrew Tyson won the 2011 Young Concert Artists International Auditions and a 2013 Avery Fisher Career Grant; he'll play June 17Ingrid Jacoby, winner of the Steinway Hall Artists Prize and Baldwin National Piano Competition, solos on June 18. Alexander Korsantia won the gold medal in the Arthur Rubinstein Piano Master Competition and will Rach the house on June 19. And the cheapest tickets are -- wait for it -- five dollars. (Fleisher's master classes are free!)

The Arthur Fraser International Piano Competition offers 20 young pianists a chance to play on Friday the 20th, and the top-rated ones will give a concert on the 21st. I wish this event were closer to home, but I can't imagine a more soul-satisfying road trip nearby in the last week of spring.

Monday, May 5, 2014

Why my father never met Godzilla

The most famous Japanese monster of all time turns 60 this year, and he returns to the big screen next week in the mega-budget "Godzilla." The film stars Bryan Cranston, Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Elizabeth Olsen; eagle-eyed fans will spot 80-year-old Akira Takarada, one of the main players in the original 1954 movie now known as "Gojira."

The special effects in the new one, which is meant to be seen on IMAX screens, look impressive. But it hasn't always been this way. Contemplate the last dust-up between the title characters in the 1962 "King Kong vs. Godzilla" and marvel at the rubber-suit shenanigans. (The quality of the video itself is as bad as the costuming, but that suits the film.)

The version released in America had Kong winning, while the Japanese ending had Godzilla triumphant: He has always been a hero over there, as he will be in the movie that's about to open. I thought of this film again today, because it represented my dad's one brush with cinematic fame.

If I remember the story correctly, Toho Studios wanted to shoot a scene where U.S. servicemen were seen fleeing from the thunder lizard; he was so terrifying that even Americans ran away when he appeared. We were living in Japan while the film was being shot, and somehow my dad was invited to be an extra.

He asked permission from a commanding officer to be part of the shooting for one day and was turned down flatly. "Air Force personnel," he was told, "run from nothing -- not even dragons, no matter how damn big they are." That'll be a comfort to remember, should any invade our shores.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Bob Hoskins and Joe Young -- two acquaintances gone

Bob Hoskins and Joe Young probably had nothing in common, except that they died within 24 hours of each other this week, they both worked in show business (neither at the center of it), and I interviewed both of them and found them to be unpretentious guys who loved what they did. I saw only one of them naked, however.

I interviewed Hoskins exactly one hour after that event, in fact, coming from a screening of "Mrs. Henderson Presents" at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2006. He would go on to get a Golden Globe nomination for the supporting role of a theatrical impresario who encourages female artists to disrobe by showing his all.

"It's GREAT, innit?" he said of that scene. "I'm not a brave man. But the girls had stripped off, and they were complete tyrants: 'You just ACT in this film. We're artistes. We show everything!' I said, 'I'll just get us into this scene, don't worry about that!' "

The cockney actor, who accurately defined himself as "5-foot-6 and cubic," gave many memorable film performances, including an Oscar-nominated role as a low-level gangster who fell in love with an elegant call girl in the 1987 "Mona Lisa." Here's the trailer from his best-known outing, "Who Framed Roger Rabbit?

I met Joe Young more than 30 years ago, when Antiseen -- at the time, one of the most hardcore bands ever to play the region -- did its second concert, at an "entertainment center" in Gaston County. He was driving the band's van down Interstate 85 and changing lanes nonchalantly, despite having no rear-view mirror. When I pointed that out and said we'd be in trouble if a cop pulled us over, he laughed. "If we get pulled, I have bigger problems than that," he said. "I don't have a valid driver's license!"

I'd been told to locate the least musically accomplished group in Charlotte for an arts series The Charlotte Observer was running. I tried to find a friendlier way to express that idea, but Joe got the point. "I know only three chords on guitar," he said proudly. "I'm working up to a fourth." But they were power chords, and that bewildered group in Gastonia was responsive once it got the point: This band functioned purely on energy and wildness, rather than musical sophistication.
Guitarist Young and lead singer Jeff Clayton anchored the band for three decades and through many changes in personnel. For all the T-shirts with profane emblems and bottles smashed against the forehead (a Clayton specialty), the two leaders were quiet and pleasant on the rare occasions I ran into them over the years. Here's a sample of their sound, taken from a 20th-anniversary concert I attended in 2003.

Hoskins got rich; Young did not. Hoskins became famous in Hollywood and London; Young drew fans to smaller clubs in the Carolinas. (Though Antiseen also toured German and Japanese clubs in its heyday.) Hoskins died of pneumonia in his 70s after a battle with Parkinson's; Young succumbed to a heart attack in his 50s.

But maybe they had one more thing in common: They never stopped loving what they did. They found a way to combine work and play, and I bet we'd all be a little happier if we could do that.