Frank J. Avella's April
(and some other stuff) Column
Photo Evan Rachel Wood in Across the Universe)
One of the essential, seemingly-eternal
cinema questions asked is if film is an art form
or a business. Should movies be viewed as the sacred
expressions of its creators or commercial ventures
designed to make money. To say it’s both is
rather a cop-out.
As an writer myself,
it seems ludicrous to even consider any answer but
the sacred one, yet there are sometimes extenuating
circumstances that go into these literal star wars.
Across the Universe
The latest controversy, as reported
in the New York Times, involves the celebrated director
Julie Taymor (Titus, Frida) in
a battle with producer Joe Roth. Apparently, Mr.
Roth saw fit to recut Taymor’s 150-minute
print of Across the Universe (starring
Evan Rachel Wood and Salma Hayek), shaving thirty
minutes off the running time. The mogul has been
test screening his bastardized version and Taymor
is publicly threatening to take her name off the
This brings up many questions.
Does a producer have a right to
do this? Well, one can argue that contractually
she did not have final cut. But that’s bullshit,
read-the-fine-print argument since no one but Woody
Allen, Steven Spielberg (and a few others) actually
have final cut in their contracts! Yet, usually
there is little problem when the director is a respected
Oh, don’t get me wrong,
there are major battles that are fought and sometimes
major filmmakers lose these battles.
Martin Scorsese presented a 3-hour
plus version of Gangs of New York to Harvey
Weinstein in 2002 and was browbeaten into cutting
his film down by close to one hour. Many believe
that this resulted in a good film that should have
been great. It may have cost him that Oscar as well.
Hopefully, one day, we will get to see Scorsese’s
original cut on DVD.
Two years ago, Oliver Stone, heeded
to pressure from Warner Brothers to trim down Alexander,
mostly for its homosexual content. He did so and
the film tanked with critics and audiences. Alexander
Revisited, The Final Cut was recently released
on DVD. It’s a sprawling 214-minute version
that moves about time quite freely. It also happens
to be an extraordinary film.
DVD has allowed for many a filmmaker
to release his “director’s cut”,
and the result is usually a much better film. Francis
Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now Redux is
a perfect example of a great film entering the classic
pantheon due to the added footage.
Is Taymor’s film too arty?
Is it self-indulgent? Don’t we have a right
to see her version? And if the Roth version hits
screens instead, doesn’t Taymor have a right
to remove her name since it really is no longer
One of the most notorious events
in the last few decades occurred with Terry Gilliam’s
edgy film Brazil. Universal refused to
release it. Gilliam refused to make changes. Universal
recut the film to incoherent shreds. Gilliam got
the LA film critics on his side. Gilliam won the
This is nothing new in Hollywood,
the best directors from genius Orson Welles (who
had The Magnificent Ambersons taken away
from him and recut) to the maverick Robert Altman
(with The Gingerbread Man), the conflict
seems eternal. And the ending isn’t always
a happy one. Altman won. Welles lost and went a
Ah, but what if we are dealing
with an eccentric, egocentric and self-indulgent
auteur? The best example: Michael Cimino. Coming
off the tremendous success of The Deer Hunter,
Cimino ceremoniously bowed his self-proclaimed masterpiece,
Heaven’s Gate, in December of 1980.
The movie was a master mess, critics and audiences
agreed. Heaven’s Gate was pulled
from distribution, recut, shortened and released
later in 1981. It was even worse. Looking at the
film today, it’s not bad at all, a bit muddled
and ponderous, but folks wanted The Deer Hunter.
Cimino has never quite recovered as an artist.
Does Roth have a right to test
screen another version? Well, of course he does,
he is the producer. But Taymor has a right to despise
him for it.
My favorite (and I am being highly
sarcastic) incident of test screening that changed
a film and totally fucked it up is Fatal Attraction
Sherry Lansing and the Paramount
powers-that-be at the time tested the film and it
received lackluster scores because of the ending.
Adrian Lyne, the spineless director, re-shot the
finale. Paramount re-screened and everyone was happy--it
was a box office smash and received multiple Oscar
nominations including Best Picture. The only problem:
the new ending destroyed the film’s credibility
and turned it into a misogynistic slasher film!
The original ending had Alex,
the Glenn Close character, slitting her throat and
blaming Michael Douglas for it. Pretty genius when
you think about it. But it was too anti-climactic
for the bonehead screener audiences--mostly young
males--who didn’t like this form of retribution.
She should pay for what she did. He shouldn’t.
After all, he only cheated on his wife!!! So, now
we have Close being drowned, coming back to life
and being shot dead. Her character is no longer
human; she’s Jason in Friday the 13th!
Is there any proof that the film
would have been less financially or Academy successful
without the changes? We’ll never know.
I do applaud Taymor for sticking
to her guns, especially with Roth’s dismal
filmmaking track record (Christmas with the
Kranks anyone?) I only hope we get to see her
cut of Across the Universe and judge for
Random Rants: Cool, New
York and Otherwise
On the NYC stage scene: Frost/Nixon
is the best play I have seen since The History Boys
last year. It’s exciting, riveting theatre
that tells an important story in the most entertaining
way! Written by the suddenly ubiquitous Peter Morgan
(The Queen, The Last King of Scotland)
and starring the male-stage-equivalent to the Notes
on a Scandal acting tour de force: Frank Langella
and Michael Sheen, Frost/Nixon keeps you
spellbound from beginning to end, Noteworthy among
the supporting players is Stephen Kunken’s
terrific turn as Jim Reston. Frost/Nixon
is a London West End import. Leave it to the Brits
to brilliantly comment on a seminal time in recent
American history. This will be the hot ticket of
the season. Go now!
Also on the theatre scene and
all the way out in Montville, NJ--if you can imagine--The
Barn Theatre’s production of Rupert Holmes’
Accomplice turned out to be quite a delight.
The play opened on Broadway in 1990 and even then
it was near impossible to write a murder mystery
that can keep audiences guessing (although the new
musical Curtains attempts it as well).
Holmes very cleverly demolishes the fourth wall
and then does so again. And while his gimmick may
not completely work, the Barn production, nicely
directed by Jeff Knapp, was enjoyable and featured
solid acting turns--especially the women (Liza Harris
and Kym Frank).
If you are looking for a great
pre-or-post-theatre eatery look no further than
The Brooklyn Diner Times Square on West 43rd Street.
The manager, Holly, couldn’t be nicer, our
server Jason was a sweetie, the ambiance is fantastic
and the desserts are to die for! I happened to sit
at Marshall Brickman’s favorite table which
gave me an extra added incentive to work on my new
If a fancier seafood dinner is
more your speed, visit Blue Fin Restaurant located
in the W Hotel (1567 Broadway @ 47th Street). The
food was phenomenal, our server David was beyond
fast and incredibly pleasant AND, most importantly,
the seafood was fresh. I suggest the lobster!
Over on the boob box we have the
most popular ‘reality’ show on TV, American
Idol, keeping up it’s ratings with the
whole Sanjaya controversy. So much has been written
and reported, online, and in the news and telemedia
about how bad a singer he is and how Idol is losing
all credibility. Now, I do not think Sanjaya’s
a good singer, but what I want to know is where
the hell were all these naysayer critics when Ruben
Studdard and the evil Taylor Hicks warbled their
way to victories? Neither of them could sing and
America chose them (with a LOT of help from the
judges TELLING them how great these two idiots were
each week). Ruben, at least could get through an
R&B song pretty well, but Taylor had no talent
whatsoever! And he beat Katharine McPhee and Chris
Daughtry (who is having the last laugh with his
chart-topping CD). So to all the Sanjaya haters
out there: Chill. It shouldn’t be THAT surprising
that America is voting for the mediocre. My money
is still on the fab Melinda Doolittle (Mindy-doo).
All she needs to win is a nice mohawk.
Elsewhere on TV, HBO is usually
to be applauded for its daring. But the creators
and writers of the 2nd season of the mini-series
Rome (which has mercifully NOT been renewed)
should be burned on a pyre for the excrement they
have turned the show into. Losing all credibility
as the season wore on, Rome misfired early
on by making two fictional characters the MAIN focus
of the saga: Lucius Verenas and Titas Pullo. Not
that creating working class Roman heroes was a bad
idea, but funneling their characterizations through
modern day sensibilities was a terrible one. Instead
of real ancient Romans, we got Bruce Willis and
Arnold Schwarzenegger, impenetrable he-men heroes
no one could believe or care about.
And the liberties Rome
took with history is appalling. How HBO let them
get away with such bullshit like implying that Pullo
was the real father of Cleopatra’s child AND
actually was NOT killed by Octavian, is beyond me.
Also, to portray Octavian as a complete, cold villain
is to forget that he became the first and best Emperor
of Rome. Finally, to not show ANY of one of the
greatest battles in history, the battle of Actium
where Octavian crushed Marc Antony and furthered
his ambitions as future Emperor is egregious. I
was initially upset that the series was canceled,
since the real excitement begins once Octavian becomes
Augustus. But after seeing the crap they filmed
this season, I am grateful. Thank God, we still
have I, Claudius for now, although someone
needs to tell the stories of the Roman Emperors--and
do them justice!
Two VERY diverse CD’s were
released in March. One is a brand new singer/songwriter
who is one of the more interesting vocalists to
come around in a while. The other is an icon who
is rightly considered one of greatest artists of
Conceived by Gordon
Jenkins, ‘The Letter’ was a highly ambitious
undertaking in its day (1959). The album tells a
story of one woman’s romance in New York via
a series of letters. The vocal interpreter of the
material: Judy Garland. Ms. Garland’s voice
has never been stronger. Each track has the Garland
magic along with terrific letter readings by the
actor John Ireland. Garland’s voice particularly
soars on “Love in Central Park”, “At
the Stroke of Midnight” and “Come Back.”
Check out this gem from the vaults. Kudos to DRG
Records for releasing this masterwork. (http://www.drgrecords.com)
‘Life in Cartoon Motion’
is the title of the Euro-pop sensation Mika’s
debut CD. (His NYC concert at the Gramercy on March
29th was a sell-out!) The singer brings to mind
a hybrid of Robbie Williams, Freddie Mercury, Annie
Lennox, Jake Spears (of Scissor Sisters) and, yes,
even Judy Garland, but like the best appropriation
artists, he’s also quite madly original. The
fantastically infectious “Grace Kelly”
is currently number one on the Euro charts.
‘Cartoon Motion’ is
filled with marvelous confections but “Billy
Brown” is, by far, the best track. Bursting
with a poppy, Broadway sound, it tells the story
of a married man with children who falls in love
with another man. Mika is unafraid to fuck with
sexuality in his music. Now, whether we can accept
that here in the US is another matter. Poor Robbie
Williams has yet to splash here because Americans
have no clue what to make of him. Let’s hope
we’ve matured, because Mika is one of the
most exciting new artists to emerge in the last