STAGE TO SCREEN: Fall Films and Festivals

News   STAGE TO SCREEN: Fall Films and Festivals As I write this, the worst moviegoing year in at least a decade is two-thirds over. Why have so many movies been so bad in 2001? The most likely excuse I've heard was the pre-strike rush to get something — anything — shot and ready for release in case Hollywood shut down. Well, the strike never happened. And we're stuck with the results: casting decisions based entirely on availability, shooting scripts that ordinarily have been first drafts (if that), cheap-looking and poorly edited visuals. I often defend Hollywood product, but virtually the only high points this year? "Ghost World," "In the Mood for Love," "Hedwig and the Angry Inch," "Sexy Beast," "With a Friend Like Harry..." — have been independent, foreign and/or art-house releases.

As I write this, the worst moviegoing year in at least a decade is two-thirds over. Why have so many movies been so bad in 2001? The most likely excuse I've heard was the pre-strike rush to get something — anything — shot and ready for release in case Hollywood shut down. Well, the strike never happened. And we're stuck with the results: casting decisions based entirely on availability, shooting scripts that ordinarily have been first drafts (if that), cheap-looking and poorly edited visuals. I often defend Hollywood product, but virtually the only high points this year? "Ghost World," "In the Mood for Love," "Hedwig and the Angry Inch," "Sexy Beast," "With a Friend Like Harry..." — have been independent, foreign and/or art-house releases.

What does this have to do with the theater business? Not much, I suppose. But it puts this year's fall/winter movie preview in context. Discerning moviegoers have learned to save much of their enthusiasm until after Labor Day, since that's where the studios put just about all their prime material. And given the dismal state of the first eight months, the burden is that much heavier this year. Judging from the passel of slated releases, at least some of these should be enough to lure us away from our burgeoning DVD collections and back into theaters.

I'd be happy to chat about "Gangs of New York," "Ali," "The Royal Tenenbaums" and "A Beautiful Mind," but I'll focus on the few offerings with connections to the stage. (Actually, Kenneth Lonergan is one of several credited writers on "Gangs of New York," but that's a bit of a reach.) A few other offerings will be seen on the film festival circuit in the next few weeks (see below), but I'm focusing solely on the films slated to get at least a platform release by the end of the year, in time for Oscar consideration. Here goes:

As enjoyable as "State and Main" was, a lot of people prefer their David Mamet chilly and twisty. (That bogus courtroom doesn't really count.) "Heist" (Oct. 19) appears to be more along the lines of "House of Games" and American Buffalo. Gene Hackman leads a band of thieves through a series of double-and triple-crosses, with Danny DeVito joining such Mamet mainstays as Ricky Jay, Patti LuPone and the ubiquitous Rebecca Pidgeon. Meanwhile, Mamet fans will be curious to check out "The Prime Gig" (Sept. 14), the directorial debut of longtime Mamet producer Gregory Mosher. The plot — a love triangle threatens to wreck a shady telemarketing scheme — clearly seems to tip its hat to Glengarry Glen Ross. Ed Harris, a veteran of the "Glengarry" film, stars with Julia Ormond and Vince Vaughn.

Anyone interested in a very early glimpse of Arthur Miller will be curious to see "Focus" (Oct. 10), an adaptation of a novel Miller wrote two years before hitting it big on Broadway with All My Sons. William H. Macy and Laura Dern play a Brooklyn couple mistaken for Jews circa World War II. The pedigree sounds pretty lofty, but what's Meat Loaf doing in this? I've mentioned "Piñero" (Dec. 7) on several occasions, but advance word — along with the December placement by the award-savvy Miramax — seems to indicate it could be one of the season's more prestigious offerings. TV hunk Benjamin Bratt hopes to gain a bit more credibility by playing the tempestuous poet/thief/inmate/playwright; Rita Moreno and Mandy Patinkin play Piñero's mother and Joseph Papp, respectively. For an altogether different take on another playwright's prison experiences, "Borstal Boy" (December) looks at Brendan Behan's reform-school experiences as a teenager.

Smaller stuff: The indie film "Haiku Tunnel" (Sept. 14) has been expanded from a one-man play by Josh Kornbluth. Harry Shearer costars in the film, about a would-be novelist who either can't or won't mail a stack of letters at the job where he temps. ... If you can't snag tickets to The Producers but are dying to see prisoners put on a musical, check out "Lucky Break" (October), in which a group of U.K. inmates stage a musical about Lord Nelson in order to cover up a prison break. Christopher Plummer and Olivia Williams are among the stars. ... And as I've mentioned before, "Jails, Hospitals & Hip-Hop" has been re-re-scheduled to Sept. 21.

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As the film festivals begin to unveil their programs, Toronto is clearly the place to be this year. New York had a fairly solid slate in 2000 — Fugard and Beckett adaptations, plus an Ingmar Bergman screenplay ("Faithless") and the Racine-themed "The Taste of Others" — but this year's program is fairly light on theatre-based fare.

Toronto, on the other hand, will unveil "The Grey Zone," "Piñero" and "The Heist," all mentioned above, plus a few other films of interest. "Grey Zone" star Harvey Keitel plays another conflicted World War II character in the film version of Ronald Harwood's 1996 drama "Taking Sides," with Stellan Skarsgard costarring as the collaborationist German conductor Wilhelm Furtwangler. Mira Sorvino, who also appears in "Grey Zone," takes on the central role in "The Triumph of Love," based on the Marivaux play (and presumably not the underrated Broadway musical). Fiona Shaw and Ben Kingsley play two of the characters ensnared in Sorvino's various personas; husband-and-wife team Claire Peploe (who directed) and Bernardo Bertolucci (who produced) shot the film last fall in Tuscany. Finally, look for "My Kingdom," a modern-day retelling of "King Lear" starring Richard Harris as a drug-dealing underworld boss in Liverpool. Lynn Redgrave plays his wife. The Toronto Film Festival runs from Sept. 6 to 15. "Triumph of Love" is also showing at the Venice Film Fest, currently under way.

The New York Film Festival does have plenty of notable films, including documentaries from Martin Scorsese and Claude Lanzmann, but the only theatre-themed offerings pop up in the first three days of the festival. As I've mentioned previously, Jacques Rivette's "Va Savoir (Who Knows?)" is the opening-night selection on Sept. 28. A production of Pirandello's As You Desire Me plays a central role in the romantic drama, which opens in New York theatres the day after the premiere. Back-stage drama is also central to "I'm Going Home" (Sept. 29-30), which stars Michel Piccoli as an acclaimed actor starring in Ionesco's Exit the King. (In a serendipitous twist, the actual Ionesco play opens at off-Broadway's Pearl Theatre earlier that week.)
That's it for stage-based offerings, although the Egyptian/French film "Silence, We're Rolling" (Oct. 6-8) takes this year's "Dancer in the Dark" role of self-referential movie-musical deconstruction, but in a much sweeter way.

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Cutting-Room Floor: Speaking of "The Taste of Others," Agnes Jaoui, who wrote, directed and costarred in the acclaimed French film, has replaced Kristin Scott Thomas in the soon-to-shoot "24 Hours in the Life of a Woman." Scott Thomas dropped out to appear on stage at the Avignon Festival in Racine's Berenice — the very same play that "The Taste of Others" centers around. Freaky, huh? ... In case anyone hasn't heard, the "Rent" movie is apparently off. Miramax reportedly pulled the plug for budgetary reasons. If the film ever does happen, I predict it will happen with a far younger and "edgier" (read: lower-budget) cast and crew. ... Sexaholix, John Leguizamo's Broadway-bound one-man show, has already been filmed for a possible feature. It's unclear whether this would go to HBO, like his previous pieces, or the big screen.

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My Favorite Thought: As promised, I'm catching up on my mail here. Matt made a legitimate request for me to shift my focus a little bit:

"I could use a little less 'Hedwig,' not because I don't admire it?I do, I do, but because no project merits so much comment. We like it, we're going, please leave us alone. I may have missed it, but you seem to have neglected 'Sexy Beast,' which is based on a play, and is quite cinematic and wonderful. I believe you discussed the amazing 'Urbania' when it was released, but I could use another mention now that the DVD and VHS is out. I hear it's found a larger audience now but deserves as much support as possible. The movie was on lots of ten-best lists in major papers yet seems to be thought of as that arty little gay film. I at least found it much, much more."

I couldn't agree more about "Urbania," a smart and creepy movie that didn't get enough attention last year. And "Sexy Beast" is one of my absolute favorite films this year, but I had no idea that it was based on a play. Upon doing a bit of research, it appears that Matt is half right: Screenwriters Louis Mellis and David Scinto did, in fact, premiere Gangster No. 1 at London's Almeida Theatre in 1995. The plan had originally been to make a film of the play, but Mellis, Scinto and director Jonathan Glazer decided to work with a different, unproduced play by the duo after casting battles resulted in the departure of the original producers. So "Sexy Beast" clearly gets an honorable mention. Thanks for the heads-up, Matt.

Meanwhile, Brad, a college student from Arkansas, was one of many to weigh in on Broadway Television Network:

"Theatre is obviously intended to be seen live; however, I am very enthusiastic of the possibilities surrounding BTN. I saw both 'Smokey Joe's Café' and 'Jekyll and Hyde.' I was hesitant at first to go for the pay-per-view showing, as I would have much rather have seen Ragtime. I broke down and ordered, and I was pleased. The quality was excellent, and I await receiving my DVD versions of both shows.

"The thought of future BTN shows are exciting. I am a fan of Sondheim and look forward to 'Putting It Together,' if for no other reason than the music. I hope the company continues to record and might bring us such revivals as Chicago or Kiss Me, Kate.

"My main complaint of their efforts is the fact that each show has been taped at the end of its run. I would have much rather watched the original cast of 'Jekyll and Hyde' than David Hasselhoff. They could possibly tape new shows as they open and then save them for broadcast (similar to the video release of 'Victor/Victoria')."

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Your Thoughts: So what interests you for this fall/winter? Do any of these projects appear to have any Oscar potential?

Eric Grode is New York bureau chief of Show Music magazine, assistant editor of The Sondheim Review and a theatre critic for Back Stage.