New York, I Love You

Composed like a mini festival of short films on the subject of love, “New York, I Love You,” the second installment in the city-based anthology series, starts off strong before coming to a screeching halt. A majority of the best segments not only occupy the first half of the film, but they also have the most star power, including one by Jiang Wen starring Hayden Christensen and Andy Garcia as two men vying for the attention of a beautiful girl (Rachel Bilson); Yvan Attal’s playful two-parter (featuring Ethan Hawke, Maggie Q, Chris Cooper and Robin Wright Penn) about flirting with strangers; and perhaps most surprisingly, Brett Ratner’s charming tale of a young kid (Anton Yelchin) whose last-minute prom date (Olivia Thirlby) turns out to be more than meets the eye. Mira Nair’s segment about a Jain gem merchant (Ifran Khan) and Chassidic dealer (Natalie Portman) haggling over the price of a diamond (and bonding over religion) is also cute, but it probably would have made for a better full-length feature.

Portman also directs a segment that is easily one of the weaker entries in the anthology, while Shekhar Kapur’s story about a retired opera singer (Julie Christie) just doesn’t fit tonally with the rest of the film. The same can be said about Scarlett Johansson’s contribution, which was deleted from the theatrical cut and appears only as a special feature on the DVD. It’s probably a good thing it was removed, because with the exception of a hilarious final segment starring Eli Wallach and Cloris Leachman as an old married couple making their way to Coney Island for their anniversary, the second half of the film is a bore. It’s also a little strange to see Woody Allen, Martin Scorsese and Spike Lee sitting on the sidelines, because no one knows New York better than these guys. Maybe the producers will be smart enough to recruit them during their next visit to the Big Apple.

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RIP Larry Gelbart

large_LarryGelbart photo web

An important chunk of entertainment history left us yesterday with the death of Larry Gelbart at 81. Gelbart was gifted both working alone and as a collaborator with other writers. It probably helped that relatively early in his career he labored alongside Carl Reiner, Mel Brooks, Woody Allen, and Neil Simon on comedian Sid Caesar’s classic early variety shows. In the sixties he graduated to Broadway and the movies. With Burt Shevelove, he cowrote the book for the Broadway musical/Zero Mostel vehicle, “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” (later filmed by Richard Lester) and the hard to find all-star cult British comedy, “The Wrong Box.” A Chicago-born graduate of L.A.’s Fairfax High (right across the street from Cantor’s Deli), he lived in England for a time, working with another nice Jewish boy named Marty Feldman at the height of his English television fame.

He became much better known in the seventies as the primary writer during the early, funnier and more politically pointed days on the television version of “M*A*S*H.” I get to write about him because he made a mark in movies that’s too important to ignore, writing several good ones, and some not so good. He’ll probably be most commonly remembered for his work on “Oh, God” with George Burns in the title role, and what is probably Dustin Hoffman’s best performance in “Tootsie,” which is something of a comedy classic. He also co-wrote with Sheldon Keller the vastly underrated and all but impossible to see spoof of early Hollywood (specifically Warner Brothers) films, “Movie, Movie,” directed by Stanley Donen and starring George C. Scott, Eli Wallach, Trish van Devere, and Barry Bostwick. (A likely model for “Grindhouse,” in that it was also a double-feature complete with fake trailers.) It more than made up for the regrettable but profitable “Blame it On Rio,” written by Gelbart and also directed by Donen, which starred Michael Caine, Joseph Bologna and an extremely young Demi Moore.

In the nineties, he divided his time between Broadway plays like “City of Angels,” a musical spoof of classic hard-boiled detective novels, and pointed TV movies like “Barbarians at the Gate” — a tongue in cheek version of a nonfiction book about the buyout of Nabisco — and 1992’s “Mastergate,” an unbelievably witty parody of the hearings that invariably follow major Washington scandals.

Mr. Gelbart never stopped writing until almost the end, and was easily one of the most respected and beloved writers in all of show business. 81 isn’t exactly young, but we could’ve used a few more years of his presence. It’s a sad weekend for the world of funny.

Below, a great moment from “Tootsie.”

More about Mr. Gelbart’s illustrious career here, here, here, and here.

  

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A Chat with “Harper’s Island” Victim #1

If you watched the premiere of CBS’s new murder-mystery series, “Harper’s Island,” either last night at 10 PM, where it won its timeslot against the stiff competition of NBC’s “Southland,” or online, where it was CBS.com’s biggest online premiere ever, then you already know who the show claimed as its first victim. But in case the episode is currently sitting on your DVR, waiting for an hour to free up on your busy schedule, we wouldn’t want to spoil their identity for you, so we’ll wait ’til after the jump to do any namedropping. We will, however, offer up a bit of an in-joke for those of you who are in the know:

This person may not be “sixteen, clumsy, and shy” at this point in their career, but the Smiths song in which those words are featured says a great deal about how their character was left at the end of the first episode of “Harper’s Island.”

Victim #1, would you sign in, please?

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Brand Upon the Brain

It’s over-simplifying, but there’s no way around it: Winnipeg surrealist Guy Maddin works the same general territory as David Lynch. But while Lynch is still, in his unique way, a creature of Hollywood, Maddin has remained a Manitoba miniaturist whose films are both overtly psychological and proudly melodramatic. Oddly enough, Maddin’s movies are often more accessible than Lynch’s – at least partly because the filmmaker is an unabashed fan of the primal storytelling style of silent movies. “Brand Upon the Brain” builds upon the director’s fandom by being Maddin’s second actual silent film, and was originally presented as a theatrical event with a live orchestra, sound effects artists, and narrators. This typically lavish Criterion DVD includes both studio recordings and crisp live audio tracks with seven different narrators, including Isabella Rossellini (“Blue Velvet”), professional weirdo Crispin Glover, and the great nonagenarian character actor Eli Wallach (“The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly”).

The movie itself combines elaborate fantasy and confessional filmmaking, at least on the level of metaphor – the main character is named “Guy Maddin” and the director has described the film as “97% true.” It’s not a drag, though – there’s a pleasing and funny jumble of genre elements ranging from teen detective to grand guignol horror, some nudity (both the sexy kind and the not so sexy kind, in this case involving a male corpse) and Ms. Rossellini’s narration is literally a scream. Featuring a deliberately herky-jerky editorial approach (a new wrinkle for Maddin that I’m not wild about), “Brand Upon the Brain” works for the most part, but for me this doesn’t quite add up to Class A insanity. I would have happier with a bit more melodrama and a bit less psychosexual metaphor.

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