A silent Sunday with Buster


I work directly across the street from Shea’s Performing Arts Center on Main Street in Buffalo, and I never tire of its glowing sign. It is unquestionably a Western New York treasure, a venue that can book everything from Once and Sesame Street Live to R. Kelly and Bob Weir. (All four together would be fascinating.)

This Sunday, Shea’s continues its Free Family Film Series with a very cool selection: Buster Keaton’s Our Hospitality (1923). I love that Shea’s continues to run this series. It’s not easy to find free, truly-family-friendly events, and even if the other films in the 2013–14 lineup are not quite as interesting — Rise of the Guardians screened in September, while Oz: The Great and Powerful is March 2 and Hop is April 6.

Our Hospitality is, of course, a silent film, but the screening will feature accompaniment by Bruce Woody on the “Mighty Wurlitzer Organ.” It is yet another opportunity to appreciate the greatness of Buster Keaton.

All films in the series are shown on Sundays at 2 p.m., with doors open one hour before show time. Tickets are available one week before each film at Wegmans.

A late addition to my 2013 top 10: Lake Bell’s “In a World”


I’m not sure the first time I saw the wonderful, endearingly offbeat, perennially sexy Lake Bell onscreen, but I recall the moment I took notice: an episode of Rob Corddry’s brilliant Children’s Hospital, the one in which Bell’s Dr. Cat Black fell for a six-year-old with aging disease, played by Nick Kroll. It was hilarious, and she played it perfectly.

I did not see too much of her post-Hospital work, although I did find her to be the best and most convincing actor in Katie Aselton’s off-putting Black Rock.

About a year ago, I was intrigued to see she wrote, directed, and starred in a film premiering at Sundance, In a World, and the rave reviews made me even more interested. I never had a chance to catch up with the film in theaters, but finally watched it on DVD last week. Wow. This story of a voice-over artist one of the best films of the year.

Here are some reasons why:

  • The script: Bell received Best Screenplay honors at Sundance 2013, and indeed, her script is bursting with original, well-rounded characters; hilarious dialogue; and a real sense of progression.
  • The cast: Bell is wonderful as Carol Solomon, but the entire cast is strong. No one stands out more than Fred Melamed, whose performance in A Serious Man is one of my favorites of the last decade, as Carol’s father. But the entire cast — Michaela Watkins, Ken Marino, Demetri Martin, Rob Corddry, Alexandra Holden, the always welcome Nick Offerman — is impressive.
  • The pace: This is a film that moves quickly, but manages to stay not just light and funny, but downright warm, as well. That’s not easy to pull off, and it makes me think Bell will be a director to watch.

On Twitter, I said it was “my late pick as 2013’s most purely enjoyable directorial debut,” and that is certainly true. (Bell herself re-Tweeted that comment, which makes me even more thrilled about her.) I’ll be posting a slightly revised top 10 list soon, and In a World will make the cut.

Cocteau, Cassavetes, and Anderson highlight the latest Buffalo Film Seminars lineup


Like increased traffic around UB’s North Campus and stories of South Campus revelry, the start of the school’s spring semester also means the Buffalo Film Seminars are back. And as usual, the weekly film series (7 p.m. at the Market Arcade) run by the great Bruce Jackson and Diane Christian features a diverse mix of established classics and intriguing newbies.

Kicking off tomorrow night with the silent film Underworld, the lineup includes one of my favorite films, Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums, but what excites me are the films on the list I’ve never had a chance to watch: The Life of Oharu, Ray’s Charulata, Varda’s Vagabond, Malle’s Vanya on 42nd Street. I’m a bit surprised at the inclusion of Tommy Lee Jones’s Melquiades Estrada and José Padilha’s Elite Squad, two good films that I would not quite have on this list. But both are relatively underseen, so it’s nice to see their inclusion.

Here’s the full schedule:

  • January 28: Underworld (1927, directed by Josef von Sternberg; screening features electronic piano accompaniment by Philip Carli)
  • February 4: Orpheus (1950, directed by Jean Cocteau)
  • February 11: The Life of Oharu (1952, Kenji Mizoguchi)
  • February 18: Charulata (1964, Satyajit Ray)
  • February 25: Dry Summer, (1964, Metin Erksan)
  • March 4: Two-Lane Blacktop (1971, Monte Hellman)
  • March 11: Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976, John Cassavetes)
  • March 25: Vagabond (1985, Agnes Varda)
  • April 1: Babette’s Feast (1987, Gabriel Axel)
  • April 8: Vanya on 42nd Street (1994, Louis Malle)
  • April 15: The Royal Tenenbaums (2001, Wes Anderson)
  • April 22: The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (2005, Tommy Lee Jones)
  • April 29: Elite Squad (2007, José Padilha)
  • May 6: The Dead (1987, John Huston).

(Pictured: a photo from Matt Zoller Seitz’s “The Wes Anderson Collection,” which I wrote about for The Film Stage in December.)

Book Review: Jack Nicholson is interesting; Marc Eliot’s biography of him is a bit less so


There is no way to make Jack Nicholson dull. And Marc Eliot’s new bio does not succeed in that regard, happily. Still, it does not add much to the field of Jack-lit. I reviewed “Nicholson: A Biography” for the Buffalo News.

At the Kennedy Center ceremony honoring Jack Nicholson in 2001, one George W. Bush called the actor “one of the true greats of this or any other generation of actors. America cannot resist the mystery, the hint of menace, and of course, that killer smile.”

Although “W” was never known for his profundity, that quote, included in Marc Eliot’s “Nicholson: A Biography,” zeroes in on what continues to intrigue us about Nicholson, Warren Beatty, Robert Redford, Dustin Hoffman and several other actors who became stars in the ’60s, icons in the ’70s, and kingpins in the ’80s and ’90s: their air of mystery.

If Nicholson and Beatty, especially, had become stars in the Internet age, perhaps the zeitgeist would have been turned off by their sexual peccadilloes and cockeyed idiosyncrasies. The mysteries of who exactly they are is a chief element of their continuing allure.

Perhaps that is also why Eliot’s new Nicholson biography, or Peter Biskind’s flop tome on Beatty, are simply not that interesting.

They attempt to psychoanalyze figures who rarely discuss themselves in detail, and wind up following a dull line from film to film and girlfriend to girlfriend. They tell us things we already know, and attempt to explain things that don’t interest us.

That does not mean, however, that such bios are a complete bore. Eliot, after all, knows his way around a celeb bio, having previously documented the lives of Steve McQueen, Clint Eastwood, Cary Grant and even Michael Douglas.

Therefore, he dutifully hits the highs and lows of Nicholson’s life starting from childhood, including the shocking, almost “Chinatown”-ian secret of his parentage:

“According to [film students and journalists] Robert David Crane and Christopher Fryer [who had researched Nicholson’s background for a thesis project] … ‘Jack’s mother was, in fact, the woman Jack thought was his much older sister, June. His ‘Mom,’ Ethel May, was really his grandmother and his older sister Lorraine was really his aunt.”

It’s fascinating stuff, but also well-known by any movie-brat scholar. The same is true of Nicholson’s Roger Corman years, the long stretch of time in which the wannabe worked as a writer and actor for the venerable B-movie master. (The anecdotes in Chris Nashawaty’s recently released “Crab Monsters, Teenage Cavemen, and Candy Stripe Nurses – Roger Corman: King of the B Movie” are far more memorable than what is included in Eliot’s text.)

There is an unquestionable feeling of déjà-vu throughout the book. From the story of the disastrous first days of the “Easy Rider” shoot in New Orleans to the battles between Polanski and Faye Dunaway on the set of “Chinatown,” little feels fresh.

Eliot smartly spends time on a few of the more unique films in the actor’s canon, including the Nicholson-directed flop “Drive, He Said” (at Cannes, “it was hooted at by angry audiences”); the dark, bold, Bruce Dern-co-starring “King of Marvin Gardens”; and the flawed but fascinating Nicholson-helmed “Chinatown” sequel “The Two Jakes.” (Eliot rather churlishly opines that “everybody involved with ‘The Two Jakes’ knew the film was not very good.”)

Every so often, Eliot drops in a humorous bit of embarrassing material — “The next day, Jack underwent another round of hair transplants,” or, “Early in 1987, strictly for a lark, Jack, encouraged by U2’s Bono, decided to make a talking children’s album, with Bobby McFerrin supplying the musical background.”

But other than bringing us up to date, what’s the point? There are certainly no critical breakthroughs here, or insights into what makes the actor tick. It’s all armchair theorizing and backstage gossip. (Jack’s Winnebago was rockin’ on the Albany set of “Ironweed” – and Meryl Streep was the other party! Beanpole Lara Flynn Boyle started seeing Bruce Willis – when she was still with Jack! Etc.)

Hearsay and plot description dominates, and that’s a waste. For Jack Nicholson is an actor who worked with Corman, Kubrick, Antonioni, Forman and Scorsese. Those films, and the occasional sight of him grinning courtside at a Lakers game, tell us more about who he is and why we love him than one more bio.

The reader’s time would be better spent rewatching “The Passenger” or “The Shining,” and savoring the mystery that is Jack Nicholson.

2014 Oscar nominations are out: How’d I do?


I predicted the nominations in some major categories last week, and with the nominations out, it’s time to see how I did.


I came pretty darn close here. In fact, my only miss was predicting 10, including Saving Mr. Banks; the Academy only chose nine. Kudos to me for correctly calling Dallas Buyers Club and Philomena. From the second I saw the film at TIFF, I knew it would make its way into this category.


I was four for five here, expecting the undeserving but highly respected Greengrass would make the cut over Alexander Payne. What a strong category this was. (After seeing Inside Llewyn Davis, I’m particularly disappointed to see the Coens miss out.)


Three for five. I predicted Redford — how did he not get nominated?! — and Hanks. I’m very surprised to see Bale here, although I loved the performance. DiCaprio is a great selection. He might even win.


Like most of the world, I expected Emma Thompson to get nominated, but Streep is never a shock. Four for five.


I’m excited to see Cooper and Hill here, but thought they would get aced out by Hanks and Gandolfini. It would have been nice to see the latter receive a posthumous nod.


Sally Hawkins! Great news. But it meant I went four of five, since Oprah missed out.


How, how, how did the Coen Bros. fail to receive at least a screenplay nomination? A stunner. Dallas Buyers Club made the list instead; four for five yet again.

Finally! Five for five.


This is always a tough category to predict, so I am happy with four of five. I thought Harvey Weinstein would push The Grandmaster to a nom here, but Cambodia’s The Missing Picture is on the list instead.


Well, this was my worst showing, with only two correct. I had The Act of Killing, Cutie and the Boxer, and Dirty Wars on my second-tier list, but all three made it here, nudging out Stories We Tell (which is a bummer), Blackfish, and Tim’s Vermeer. The buzz on the latter makes its omission a surprise, for sure.


I ended things respectably with a four. Somewhat surprisingly, Pixar’s Monsters University missed out, with Ernest & Celestine taking its place. Now I have to track that one down …

TOTAL: I finished up with 46 correct out of 60, which I am pretty pleased with. We’ll see how I do with the winners in a few weeks …

My top 10 of 2013: The Wolf of Wall Street (#1)



More from my Film Stage top 10 list. 

The debate over Martin Scorsese’s masterpiece already feels tired. No, The Wolf of Wall Street does not glamorize the antics of Jordan Belfort. But it does revel in them, just like the bloodsuckers who loved him. Leonardo DiCaprio gives his best performance as one of cinema’s great irredeemable assholes, a Quaalude-popping destroyer who, in some ways, feels like the ultimate American businessman. When Wolf finally comes to a close, at nearly the three-hour-marker, this feeling crystallizes. We watch a post-prison Belfort work his magic to a new group of wannabes, and as Scorsese’s camera lingers on their wide-eyed expressions, realize why this film, the director’s later-period classic, is so important: because it captures the allure of money and power in a manner that feels fresh, vital, and now. Everyone involved — Scorsese, DiCaprio,Jonah HillThelma Schoonmaker — are at the top of their game. And the result is a film that will feel as relevant in 20 years as Goodfellas does today. What filmgoer could have hoped for more?

My top 10 of 2013: 12 Years a Slave (#2)


More from my Film Stage top 10 list. 

As the end credits rolled during TIFF’s first press and industry screening of Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave, a peculiar thing occurred: very few people moved. Some quickly sprinted down the stairs, hurrying for their next screening, but many, like yours truly, just sat and stared, feeling emotionally overwhelmed by the experience. The film is that kind of success, a stunningly realized achievement that sees McQueen bring America’s most shameful period to the screen with a fury and authenticity the likes of which audiences have never seen. It’s rare to say a movie has no false notes, but such is the case with 12 Years a Slave, a film that, days later, may still leave viewers shaking.

My top 10 of 2013: Stories We Tell (#3)


More from my Film Stage top 10 list. 

Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell, the actor-director’s documentary exploration of her family and lineage, is one of the finest works about family and memory in recent years. Yet it’s a difficult film to discuss, as every detail seems like a spoiler. I noticed, in the time between the film’s TIFF 2012 premiere and my seeing it, that almost every review or piece about the film referenced “spoilers” or included a “spoiler alert.” I found that rather obnoxious, but now I see why that was so important. There are unforgettable moments throughout, including one that left me confused, breathless, and exhilarated, and that is the feeling that has lingered for me. Even discussing what Polley is actually up to here as a storyteller feels like a reveal, and that makes for an incredible cinematic experience.

My last-minute, based-on-nothing-but-my-own-intuition Oscar nomination predictions


Oscar nominations are announced on Thursday, and much has changed since my last set of predictions. Some of my more ambitious picks now seem … well, pretty unlikely. Here are my current selections, and note that these are what I THINK they will be — not what I WANT them to be.



12 Years a Slave (Steve McQueen)

American Hustle (David O. Russell)

Captain Phillips (Paul Greengrass)

Dallas Buyers Club (Jean-Marc Vallee)

Gravity (Alfonso Cuarón)

Her (Spike Jonze)

Nebraska (Alexander Payne)

Philomena (Stephen Frears)

Saving Mr. Banks (John Lee Hancock)

The Wolf of Wall Street (Martin Scorsese)


If one of the above should fall … :

All Is Lost (JC Chandor)

August: Osage County (John Wells)

Blue Jasmine (Woody Allen)

Inside Llewyn Davis (Joel & Ethan Coen)

Lee Daniels’ The Butler (Lee Daniels)



Alfonso Cuarón, Gravity

Paul Greengrass, Captain Phillips

Steve McQueen, 12 Years a Slave

David O. Russell, American Hustle

Martin Scorsese, The Wolf of Wall Street


If one of the above should fall … :

Woody Allen, Blue Jasmine

Joel & Ethan Coen, Inside Llewyn Davis

Lee Daniels, Lee Daniels’ The Butler

Spike Jonze, Her

Alexander Payne, Nebraska



Bruce Dern (Nebraska)

Chiwetel Ejiofer (12 Years a Slave)

Tom Hanks (Captain Phillips)

Matthew McConaughey (Dallas Buyers Club)

Robert Redford (All Is Lost)


If one of the above should fall … :

Christian Bale (American Hustle)

Leonardo DiCaprio (The Wolf of Wall Street)

Oscar Isaac (Inside Llewyn Davis)

Joaquin Phoenix (Her)

Forest Whitaker (The Butler)



Amy Adams (American Hustle)

Cate Blanchett (Blue Jasmine)

Sandra Bullock (Gravity)

Judi Dench (Philomena)

Emma Thompson (Saving Mr. Banks)


If one of the above should fall … :

Julie Delpy (Before Midnight)

Adèle Exarchopoulos (Blue is the Warmest Color)

Brie Larson (Short Term 12)

Meryl Streep (August: Osage County)



Barkhad Abdi (Captain Phillips)

Michael Fassbender (12 Years a Slave)

Tom Hanks (Saving Mr. Banks)

James Gandolfini (Enough Said)

Jared Leto (Dallas Buyers Club)


If one of the above should fall … :

Daniel Bruhl (Rush)

Bradley Cooper (American Hustle)

Will Forte (Nebraska)

James Franco (Spring Breakers)

Jonah Hill (The Wolf of Wall Street)



Jennifer Lawrence (American Hustle)

Lupita Nyong’o (12 Years a Slave)

Julia Roberts (August: Osage County)

June Squibb (Nebraska)

Oprah Winfrey (Lee Daniels’ The Butler)


If one of the above should fall … :

Sally Hawkins (Blue Jasmine)

Scarlett Johannson (Her)

Margo Martindale (August: Osage County)

Margot Robbie (The Wolf of Wall Street)

Octavia Spencer (Fruitvale Station)



Woody Allen, Blue Jasmine

Joel & Ethan Coen, Inside Llewyn Davis

Spike Jonze, Her

Bob Nelson, Nebraska

David O. Russell and Eric Singer, American Hustle


If one of the above should fall … :

Craig Borten & Melisa Wallack, Dallas Buyers Club

Ryan Coogler, Fruitvale Station

Alfonso Cuaron and Jonas Cuaron, Gravity

Nicole Holofcener, Enough Said

Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith, Saving Mr. Banks



Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope, Philomena

Julie Delpy, Ethan Hawke & Richard Linklater, Before Midnight

Billy Ray, Captain Phillips

John Ridley, 12 Years a Slave

Terence Winter, The Wolf of Wall Street


If one of the above should fall … :

Peter Berg, Lone Survivor

Daniel Cretton, Short Term 12

Ghalia Lacroix and Abdellatif Kechiche, Blue Is The Warmest  Color

Tracy Letts, August: Osage County



Belgium, “The Broken Circle Breakdown,” Felix van Groeningen

Denmark, “The Hunt,” Thomas Vinterberg

Hong Kong, “The Grandmaster,” Wong Kar-wai

Italy, “The Great Beauty,” Paolo Sorrentino

Palestine, “Omar,” Hany Abu-Assad



20 Feet from Stardom


The Square

Stories We Tell

Tim’s Vermeer


If one of the above should fall … :

The Act of Killing

Cutie and the Boxer

Dirty Wars



The Croods

Despicable Me 2


Monsters University

The Wind Rises

My top 10 of 2013: American Hustle (#4)


More from my Film Stage top 10 list. 

David O. Russell’s latest success has been brushed off as “Scorsese-lite” in some circles, but that’s a silly, baseless criticism. In fact, American Hustle feels as wonderfully free-form as Soderbergh or Altman, a character study more interested in mise-en-scene and dramatic fakery than plot. Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, and, especially, Jennifer Lawrencehave never had such meaty parts, and all have never been stronger. It’s a glorious high, and one can imagine Russell smirking on the sidelines, as exhilarated as we are.