Friday, October 31, 2014

The curse of the standing 'ovation'

Are you one of those parents who think each child in a competition deserves a special medal for taking part? Do you believe every employee in a workplace should get a raise, regardless of accomplishment? I think I saw you at the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra concert Thursday night.

You plodded dutifully to your feet at the end of Beethoven's "Emperor" Concerto to applaud pianist Abdel Rahman El Bacha, who had played with staid competence. You didn't leap to your feet. You stood, zombie-like, and clapped long enough for him to return to the stage once, though barely long enough for him to get off again. 

You do this with such regularity that neither I nor the longtime symphony fan next to me could remember the last artist who didn't get a standing O at the Belk. I thought back over 32 years in the Opera Carolina chorus and couldn't remember the last time that audience didn't stand.

Do you really think every performance deserves such a tribute? Performers, myself included, know better; we can tell when we've had a blah night. Do you think it's bad manners not to stand, because you're saluting a guest in our city? Are you trying to justify the cost of the ticket? ("I spent $89. This MUST be great!") 

I'm not knocking El Bacha: You may have responded more strongly to his playing than I. But to rise at every concert means you can't distinguish between magnificent and mediocre performances or don't choose to.

If you're compelled to rise by playing far above the norm, more power to you. I do that myself: Wu Man's CSO appearance this month in a pipa concerto shot me out of my seat. But please don't do it as a ritual, because that devalues performances that really deserve a standing O.

To paraphrase country singer Aaron Tippin, you've got to stand for something special -- or you'll fall for anything.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Boo! Give me your money, sucker!

"Ouija" earned $19.9 million Friday through Sunday, making it the top-grossing movie in America for its first weekend of release. This happened despite almost unanimously bad reviews (a 90% "rotten" rating on and negative word-of-mouth (a paltry 4.2 out of 10 from the notoriously easygoing voters at the Internet Movie Data Base). Observer entertainment editor Theoden Janes, a knowledgeable and avid fan of all kinds of horror, said he couldn't remember seeing a worse movie this year. A sample:

What can we deduce from this?

1) Horror audiences are so desperate and/or grateful for product that they will see anything at all. Literally anything, including a movie about a demonic spirit in a Ouija board that destroys people who use it. They don't wait to hear opinions from anybody else, including their friends: They bolt to theaters on opening weekend.

2) If you can make a movie for $5 million or less in this genre, you're virtually certain to get rich. The people behind "Ouija" have already quadrupled their investment before fans could circulate the word that the movie's a dud.

3) One key to box-office success with horror is a PG-13 rating. Would-be horror fans whose parents keep them out of R-rated movies demand tickets, boosting the take. Older fans may balk, believing the picture won't be terrifying enough, but younger ones will make up for them.

4) And the saddest conclusion of all: There's no need to make treasures if people will pay for trash. "Pan's Labyrinth," "The Orphanage," "Mama" and "The Others," my four favorite horror films of the 21st century, all scare me while making me feel something for the characters. (And all four come from Spanish-speaking directors. Hmmm....)

They don't rely entirely on bogeymen jumping out of dark corners, a fright so easy to achieve that any first-time filmmaker can manage it. They spook us by making us think about our own mortality, about what it means to risk death in a meaningful way. Nor does a film have to be deep to be good: "The Cabin in the Woods," another of my favorites, has plenty of screams but turns horror conventions on their heads.

I know I'm in the minority. "Pan's Labyrinth," which won three Oscars, took six months to gross less than the disposable "Ouija" will make in three weeks. As long as Americans are willing to buy junk, filmmakers and distributors will flood the market with it.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Barry Manilow sings with dead people

Let me begin by saying I'm a Barry Manilow fan, in a mild way. "Mandy" got me through all-nighters my senior year in college, when disc jockeys scheduled it incessantly, and I always let him play when I'm radio-surfing in the car and come across his songs. But his new album "My Dream Duets," which landed on my desk Friday, has me puzzled.

It consists entirely of duets with 11 people who have died, some as far back as the 1960s (Frankie Lymon, Judy Garland) and some as recently as 2012 (Whitney Houston, Andy Williams). Manilow was 70 when he made his contributions to these recordings, and even fans who admire his voice can admit it has a noticeable quaver.

Now I'm wondering if this is a trend. And if so, where does it stop? With Tom Cruise inserting himself alongside Humphrey Bogart in "Casablanca"? With a "pairing" of Jascha Heifetz and, say, the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra? The idea seems pernicious to me.

In the first place, I'm not convinced Dusty Springfield or Mama Cass would have wanted to re-do "The Look of Love" or "Dream a Little Dream of Me" with Manilow or anyone else. Louis Armstrong might have agreed to a duet, but I wonder whether he'd have approved this strange overlapping medley of "What a Wonderful World" and "What a Wonderful Life."

People who control the estates of these artists did have to sign on to the project. But as Dr. Seuss' widow showed by green-lighting atrocious adaptations of his books -- see Mike Myers' film of "The Cat in the Hat" -- an heir's compliance is no proof the original artist would have said yes.

In the second place, some songs can't be improved. Williams' immaculate "Moon River" and Jimmy Durante's ebullient "The Song's Gotta Come From the Heart" (initially a duet with Frank Sinatra) don't benefit from tampering, however much Manilow's sentiments are in the right place.

The technology to do this has been around for a long time. I recall the bizarre union of Jim Reeves and Patsy Cline, who were both dead by 1981 when a remixed "Have You Ever Been Lonely?" went to No. 5 on the country charts. (They never recorded together but had each made solo versions before dying in plane crashes, Cline in 1963 and Reeves in 1964.)

Any artist might be tempted into a recording studio by the chance to "perform" with people he respected, and it's easy to do that when they no longer have any control over their music. But as my mom used to say, "Just because you can do something doesn't mean you should."

Friday, October 24, 2014

It's never too late to declare your love

A couple of years ago, I wrote a profile of potter Herb Cohen and painter Jose Fumero, who were both in their 80s and living happily together in Charlotte after a long span in the N.C. mountains. (You'll find it here:

A friend e-mailed me this week to tell me that Herb and Jose surprised folks by getting married Monday at the house of a friend. Here's a photo, with Jose on the left:

I don't have anything profound to say about gay marriage being a good thing. I just celebrate two acquaintances who have finally been able to legalize a relationship that began decades ago and has brought both men joy.

You can love another human being openly or secretly, loudly or quietly. But if you mean to spend your life with that person, you want to declare your commitment to the world. As someone who knew his wife for 12 years before he married her, I know whereof I speak.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Has plastic surgery helped ANY actress?

The Internet seems to be abuzz about Renee Zellweger, who no longer looks as she did for the first 44 years of her life. Here are the old Renee and new Renee::

Zellweger has attributed the change to a healthier lifestyle, which pushes credulity past the breaking point. (A healthier lifestyle doesn't fundamentally change the look of your face, unless you were obese or rail-thin.)

I'm not interested in debating whether she should have had work done; she has the right to change her looks if her self-esteem depends on them. But I wonder whether jobs depend on them.

I'm aware that male Hollywood producers and actors think 45-year-old men can be rugged and sexy, while 45-year-old women have passed their primes. (I just saw a trailer for "The Gambler," starring 43-year-old Mark Wahlberg and 25-year-old Brie Larson. I don't think she's playing his daughter.)

I'm merely wondering whether plastic surgery has ever helped an actress' career. Has some producer said, "Wow, that 45-year-old used to be dowdy, but now I want her to star opposite Brad Pitt in my epic about the Revolutionary War"?

Jennifer Gray modified her Semitic looks after "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" and "Dirty Dancing" and headed straight for obscurity. Meg Ryan had work done a few years back and has appeared in just one feature film since: the upcoming "Ithaca," which she herself directed. I can't think of a single actress whose career became busier or more significant after noticeable plastic surgery.

Though I have mixed feelings about Renee Zellweger as an actress, I always thought she looked uniquely appealing. Now she looks generically attractive, interchangeable with other shiny blondes. (When I first saw the photo above, I thought she might be Kristin Chenoweth.) I wish her well, but what was the point?

Monday, October 20, 2014

Why no American studio would make "Pride"

I saw just one movie last week on my vacation, the British import "Pride." I'd say Roger Moore, the critic we often use for wire-service reviews when I don't see a film, undervalued it a bit; I enjoyed this early-'80s tale, inspired by a real-life alliance between gay rights activists in London and Welsh coal miners. But the realization that struck me afterward made me sad: Nobody in America would have made this movie.

Why? Three reasons.

First, it shows obvious pro-union sympathies. We like to think of Hollywood power players as unregenerate leftists, but how often do they make films about labor movements? "Little man/woman takes on the system" stories are always popular. But a movie about striking miners being starved out by their government? Not bloody likely.

Second, one of the heroines is fat. And smart. And bold. In America, fat women in movies can be objects of hilarity, sassy best friends, maternal types or desperate loners. They can't be intelligent leaders who also have well-adjusted lives as moms or wives.

Third, the picture doesn't end with the lonely lesbian finding a girlfriend and the just-out-of-the-closet guy marching off to a happy future. (He's happier because he is out of the closet, but he's on his own and nearly broke.) Nor does the main bigoted character have an epiphany.

We don't deal in ambiguity in America; we like stories tied off with neat bows, with the virtuous people all rewarded and the wicked punished. Hollywood knows that and keeps them coming.

Friday, October 3, 2014

America's newest movie critic: Satan!

Reviewers often end up in quote-filled ads, but this is the first time I've seen the Prince of Darkness weigh in on a film:

I personally don't want to see Nicolas Cage's "Left Behind," which opens today. I'm convinced that, after a decade of hilariously awful films interspersed with "National Treasure" sequels, Lucifer will be able to fill the Hell Plaza 12-plex exclusively with the likes of "The Wicker Man," "Drive Angry," "Season of the Witch" and other Cage mistakes.

But I'm fascinated that The Horned One chose this movie to criticize: not "The Passion of the Christ," "The Book of John," "Jesus" or countless other biblical movies. Apparently, this one will provide inarguable proof that some people will be taken to heaven during the rapture, while the rest will be dropped into the clutches of The Father of Lies. And if we see "Left Behind," we'll know that.

If you go to the film's Facebook page, you find that Satan's pronouncement has stirred up hornets:

"Time is running out, but the good Lord will exhaust every opportunity for the lost. I think many will be saved. I plan to invite and pay for several people to come with me. Take that, Satan!"

Or this:

"It was signed "Satan". Meaning he doesn't want unbelievers to go! We are in the last days and he's doing everything he can to pull souls onto his side and creating havoc by destroying mankind!"

This isn't the first time a film distributor fabricated a critic's quote. Sony Pictures famously invented "David Manning" in 2000, inserting his fictitious comments (all raves) in its ads as if he actually worked at a media outlet. The hoax, exposed after a few months, forced Sony to refund $5 to anyone who claimed to have attended one of the movies because Manning extolled it.

But this is the first time anyone has snuck Beelzebub into a blurb, as far as I know. Who's next: Jehovah?