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Burton at MoMA - a Multimedia Masterpiece

It’s not often that the Museum of Modern Art presents an exhibition of a film director that comprises more than mere screenings, but rarely has there been one as thorough (and thoroughly multi-media) as Tim Burton.

A director just outside the mainstream with his visually thrilling and fantastical tales of outsiders and misunderstood monsters, Burton has become a genre unto himself, from the willful silliness of Pee Wee’s Big Adventure and Beetlejuice to the fairy tale-like Edward Scissorhands and The Nightmare Before Christmas, with such splendid one-offs as his biopic Ed Wood and the surprisingly moving tragicomedy Big Fish thrown in for good measure. (Let’s ignore such lavish duds as Sleepy Hollow and the unnecessary Planet of the Apes remake.) His recent adaptations of the musical Sweeney Todd and Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory have divided fans; surely his next film, based on Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, will do the same.

The MOMA exhibit displays artifacts of all kinds from Burton’s long career. (He likens it to rummaging through his closet and discovering things he’d forgotten existed.) From his teenage days making 8mm shorts in his Southern California backyard—which we can watch—we are privy to the unending frenzy of Burton’s imagination.

There are innumerable photographs, paintings and drawings, including amusingly deadpan sketches that visualize his punning wordplay, with a whimsicality reminiscent of both Frederico Fellini and John Lennon. There are also many objects taken from film projects both made and unmade, like miniaturized Martians from the loony parody Mars Attacks! and wondrous stop-motion puppets from Nightmare and the more sinister Corpse Bride.

Of course, there’s also a full slate of film screenings of all the features and shorts that Burton has made (including the classic six-minute Vincent, narrated by Price himself).

For me, the must-see day is April 5, 2010, when both of Burton’s underrated but gruesomely entertaining Batman movies will be shown, along with the wondrously warped Frankenweenie.

There’s also a series of films chosen by Burton himself as an example of his influences, Tim Burton and the Lurid Beauty of Monsters, which run the gamut from James Whale’s original Frankenstein (with Boris Karloff) and F.W. Murnau’s silent classic Nosferatu to the likes of Plan 9 from Outer Space, Glen or Glenda and Bride of the Monster, all made by none other than—you guessed it—Ed Wood himself.

In its wide-ranging approach to a director who started out in Disney’s animation department and then went on to cult status thanks to fourteen feature films that could be considered anti-Disney as a whole, MOMA’s Tim Burton will please his fans and maybe even make skeptics reconsider their opinion of one of Hollywood’s true iconoclasts.

For more info go to:

Tim Burton Exhibit at the MoMA
Sunday, Nov. 22 - Monday, April 26
Museum of Modern Art
11 West 53rd Street
New York, NY 10019

Kevin’s Digital Week 5 - Busting Foodies

Blu-Ray of the Week:
The General
One of Buster Keaton’s greatest comedies — and one of the very best silent films ever made — is a hilarious Civil War-era farce about a Confederate Army reject who becomes a hero after the Union Army hijacks his beloved locomotive. This is a movie that you can’t look away from, or even blink while watching, because there is so much going on in every shot that you don’t want to miss anything. The stunts are astounding, even by Keaton’s daring and exacting standards, and the Blu-ray version gives an added clarity and much detail that wasn’t noticed on VHS tapes or beat-up 16mm prints.

If you didn’t think that an 80-year-old film could look spectacular in high-definition, then The General is here to prove you wrong. Extras are plentiful, starting with three separate soundtracks — Carl Davis’ orchestral score performed by the Thames Silents Orchestra, Emmy nominee Robert Israel’s score and an organ score by Lee Erwin recorded at Carnegie Hall — and continuing with introductions by Orson Welles and Gloria Swanson, on-the-set footage and a montage of train sequences in Keaton’s films.

DVD of the Week
Food Beware
(First Run)
Jean-Paul Jaud
’s enlightening documentary about the perils of non-organic food is set mainly in a small French village, where the school menus, comprising locally-grown produce and meats, are completely organic. Jaud then widens his net by speaking with an array of people about growing, harvesting and eating organic food, from farmers and politicians to everyday folk, like the parents of children who have gotten ill due to pesticides. 

Jaud can’t help but step up onto his soapbox at times, as when he hears from a mother whose daughter was stricken, and never presents any incontrovertible evidence that environmental factors were definitely to blame for her illness: they surely are the cause, but a little more fact-checking would have helped seal the case. Food Beware (the French title is more euphonic: Nos enfants nous accuseront, or Our Children Will Accuse Us) is primarily an emotional call to arms that’s also a thought-provoking treatise on what the 21st century might be like.


“So Help Me God!” -- a Sardonic Look at Stage Divas

So Help Me God!
Written by Maurine Dallas Watkins
Directed by Jonathan Bank
Starring Kristen Johnston, Ned Noyes, Anna Chlumsky, Kevin O’Donnell, Matthew Waterson
When theater actress Lily Darnley (Johnston) kisses her image in the mirror, it might be taken as an exaggeration. It's not. It’s the quintessential moment in this droll backstage comedy about self-absorbed celebrity divas who, alas, were just as much among us in the 1920s as today.Off-Broadway:

Watkins' 80-year-old play, directed with satirical smarts and verve by Bank, was written with the eye of a journalist who was noted for her sardonic humor. Watkins had covered crime for the Chicago Tribune; she would go on to write film scripts in the '30s and '40s for directors such as John Ford.

We don't know much about her today, except for her 1927 play Chicago, the basis for the musical. So Help Me God! would have premiered in 1929, but then the stock market crashed. The Mint Theatre Company, which Bank heads, is noted for salvaging such gems of the past.

The scene of Me God! is the rehearsal for a play called Empty Hands which has been penned by a stiff college professor (Noyes).  Darnley – so self-absorbed that even in the acting world she is a caricature — is less taken with her role than with the clothes she may wear and the supporting actors she might seduce. (Her lipstick gets increasingly smudged as the play goes on.) In fact, she insists on changing the script to allow her to improve the stage wardrobe: She will be a lady of the manor, of nobility, instead of a professor's wife.

And she acts that way, pushing the cast out into the rain so she can speak on the phone in privacy. She is manipulative, arrogant, cut-throat and outraged if anyone else gets noticed. She’s also a bit of a lush. One wonders how she has succeeded on stage. But Johnston succeeds very well on the stage of the Lucille Lortel Theater as she/Darley systematically destroys the interior play and, to the extent she can, the actors who threaten her.

The challenge is taken up by Karren-Keppuch Lane (Chlumsky), the neophyte ingénue from Cincinnati, who slips in through the stage door and manages to become Darnly’s understudy. She is in Darnley’s shadow, but it won’t be for long. She transforms herself from a sweet young innocent to a driven wannabe star, which she will achieve by any means necessary.

Watkins also makes it clear that the other actors will suck up and to do anything to keep their parts, including betraying whoever they’ve said to love. Jules Meredith (O’Donnell) who Karren falls for, is ready in a moment to be a lap dog for Darnly, who had just fired him, then changed her mind. The Brit Desmond Armstrong (Waterson) is equally adept at sleeping with the star and getting his name in the promotional billing. Her writer, producer, and directors fall into place.

The cast, who Darnly tells her press agent should be identified just as "supporting" actors, delivers very well on that account. Catherine Curtin is a hoot as the in-your-face wise-cracking Brooklyn-accented company member, Belle, who reminds one of the ladies of Chicago. Kraig Swartz does a memorable campy Glenn, her second director.

The play may be old but it's up to the minute on the story.

For tiimes and ticket details go to:

So Help Me God!
Mint Theater Company
Lucille Lortel Theater
121 Christopher Street
New York City
Opened December 7, 2009; Closes December 20, 2009

For more by Lucy Komisar:

Kevin’s Digital Week #4

Blu-Ray of the Week:
Rome: The Complete Series

One of HBO’s most expensive and expansive series, Rome From the costumes to the sets — much of the series was shot at Rome’s famed Cinecittà Studios—the viewer is thrown into the middle of the republic, whether it’s a slum area, a meeting of the senate or Julius Caesar’s vast villa. These 22 hour-long episodes introduce us to characters that run the gamut from the highest master to the lowest slave, with a pair of soldiers are guides through the stories of love and hate, friendship and betrayal, that escapes soap opera levels thanks to the superb production values, mostly competent filmmaking (the first three episodes were helmed by veteran director Michael Apted) and a superb cast of mainly British and Irish actors like Lindsey Duncan, Polly Walker and Ciaran Hinds, who plays Caesar.

The Blu-Ray release includes 13 audio commentaries by cats and crew, which give an overview of the epic scale of the production, as do several featurettes. An interactive feature that resembles VH1’s pop-up videos shows pertinent historical information onscreen while you watch the episodes. Historical inaccuracies aside, Rome—like Showtime’s The Tudors—is a costume epic worth immersing oneself in. recreates the great Roman Empire in so lavish a fashion that it seems to have been made specifically for the Blu-Ray format.

DVD of the Week:
Paul McCartney: Good Evening New York City

(Hear Music)
Paul McCartney’s concerts at Citi Field in New York City in July were the unquestioned musical highlights of the summer, and this release presents the concert in full: over 2-1/2 hours’ worth of some of the greatest tunes ever written, with a heavy emphasis on the Beatles (21 songs) over his solo work (14 songs), and a guest superstar, Billy Joel, who’s younger than Paul but looks several years older. A youthful 67 years old, the legendary McCartney still has a stage presence lacking in rockers and other pop idols less than half his age, whether he’s playing bass, guitar, mandolin, ukulele or piano. And his willingness to play his underrated and high-quality newer stuff—including two songs from last year’s Electric Arguments album by The Fireman and a pair from 2007’s Memory Almost Full—is a good sign, even though the second half of the concert is a torrid run-through some of the high points of his Fab Four catalog. And who else would be so brazen as to juxtapose the ultimate ballad, “Yesterday,” with the ultimate screaming rocker, “Helter Skelter”?

The DVD concert film includes a DTS 5.1 surround sound mix, which makes you feel like you’re back at CitiField the night of the show. (The two CDs also included also have the entire 35-song set, and if you buy a limited edition package, an extra DVD features a backstage documentary.) My lone quibble with all McCartney concert DVDs is their insistence on showing fans singing along, fooling around for the cameras, and other such nonsense. We get it, Paul: you were a Beatle and everyone loves you. But I’d rather see the musicians onstage all the time, and keep the cutesy visual gimmicks to a minimum.

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