Sunday, February 7, 2016

Native Gardens Wins at The Playhouse

     Native Gardens by Karen Zacarias moves swiftly in its world premiere at The Playhouse in the Park.  We decided to see it for a number of reasons, not the least being that award winning Broadway triple threat Karen Ziemba is in the cast.  Zacarias is hot right now, having five premieres at major venues around the country this year, but she has been writing and been produced for over two decades.  It’s the type of play and production where an audience may wish it last another ten minutes or even delve deeper into the issues it raises.

     The premise is classic:  a young, liberal Chilean-Hispanic American couple move into a fixer-upper next door to a middle-aged, conservative Caucasian American couple in a beautifully restored and landscaped (by the husband) Italianate in a Washington suburb.  The new couple find out that their property line actually extends two feet into the garden next door; the younger wife wants to plant a garden of native varieties whereas the older husband’s garden focuses on ornamentals.  The situation could take place, however, in Mt. Adams or Mt. Lookout or the Historic district of Newport.  The specifics in locale, personalities, and conflicts reverberate for anyone with neighbors.  

The Neighbors*
     The Playhouse administration was smart to commission this script after the success it experienced with the earlier The Book Club Play by Zacarias.  In this new work, Zacarias offers a master class in one act comedy structure:  current world, inciting incident, complications and reversals, crisis-climax, (very quick) denouement, new world.  The denouement felt slightly off-kilter because I’m thinking there was an early light cue call, which caught the actors before they were on their marks.  They reacted professionally, but the show felt like it was suddenly over.

Varela and Ziemba*
     The cast worked tightly and in concert.  Ziemba, who could pass for a decade younger than her and her character’s age, provides smooth professionalism and support in the least showy role.  She has a great bit with a chain saw and a contentious oak tree that looked incredibly realistic.  Gabriel Ruiz displays an elegance and intelligence that are attractive until they shade subtly into condescension.  The most intriguing roles are those of the gardeners:  the younger Hispanic woman and the older Caucasian man.  Sabina Zuniga Varela plays a very pregnant force of pragmatic Nature with a brightness that foreshadows a hopeful ending.  
Ruiz and Lescault*
However, it’s John Lescault whose portrait of an aging, unknowingly entitled yet clear-eyed husband that is most indelible.  Lescault moves with an exactness that borders on fastidiousness before exploding.  His background in opera lends itself to the vocal notes he hits for laughs.  These were debuts at The Playhouse.  Here’s hoping they’ll return in the future.

The Jaw-dropping Set*
     Blake Robison directs seamlessly and stages one terrific scene where both couples are simultaneously strategizing like middlebrow, suburban Macbeths and use the same gestures.  Joseph P. Tilford’s set and Mary Louise Geiger’s lighting are gorgeous.  It’s a breath-taking moment walking into the Robert Marx auditorium.

*Photos from Playhouse in the Park Website
Native Gardens runs through Sunday, February 21, 2016.

Monday, February 1, 2016

Does TV get much better than WAR AND PEACE?

The Cast of War and Peace
     We decided to tape War and Peace because it was going to be long and we weren’t sure we’d like it.  We started watching the first episode and thought we’d give it ten minutes or so.  After half an hour, we decided to keep watching and finished the first hour, then watched the second hour the following evening.  It plays simultaneously on The History Channel and, surprisingly, Lifetime and A&E.  I thought A&E had given up on quality fictional programming.  Produced by The Weinstein Company, it’s playing here a couple of weeks after being on the BBC.  

The Sweeping Napoleonic War
     The format is two hours each Monday at 9 p.m., though Lifetime shows the previous week’s episode right beforehand.  Covering an over 1,200-page novel in eight hours with commercials requires some concision (the BBC’s 1972 version was fifteen hours), but it captures the sweep of Tolstoy’s epic of the Russian aristocracy during the Napoleonic Wars and details of the family relationships that defined the culture of that era.  Tolstoy presented an entire world through his characters without a trace of sentimentality or condescension.  

Natasha and Andrei
     Besides the thrilling battle scenes that cleverly suggested even more soldiers than they showed and the elegant, serpentine camera movement during the key ball scenes, there have also been suggestive dream sequences, a wild incestuous relationship between two of the most selfish characters in popular culture right now, a quickly glimpsed yet graphic childbirth scene, and richly delineated scenes of rural life.  Filmed in Lithuania, it strongly resembles St. Petersburg and Moscow and George Steel’s cinematography utilizes as much natural light as possible.  

Paul Dano
    The acting leads really bring it especially Paul Dano as Pierre, looking for a way to use his intellect and help his serfs; James Norton as Andrei, looking for a way to explore the depths of love after a near-death experience and a tragic first marriage; and Jack Lowden as Nikolai, always trying to reconcile his impetuousness with a stumbling strength. Are they the Scarecrow, Tin Man, and Cowardly Lion of 19th century Russian literature? It’s good to see Greta Scacchi 
Greta Scacchi's TV Family
after a long dry spell since Countess Rostova displays a sharpness that tempers her initial kindness, though as Neil said, “Gillian Anderson seems to be giving that Eleanor Parker performance” (Cate Blanchett seems to be resuscitating that acting style in Carol.  What’s with actresses lately moving into middle age and trading emotional grit for technical polish?)

    For those viewers that aren’t able to recap from the beginning, here’s hoping that War and Peace will be repeated in the near future.
Tuppence Middleton as Helene Kuragin

Thursday, January 28, 2016

It Follows (veeerrrrrrrrry sloooooooooowly)

     David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows was released to very positive reviews earlier in 2015.  It sounded like an update of a 1980s teen slasher flick with arty overtones.  Neil’s not a fan of horror (cheap ass or art house) so I hoped it would still be on Movies On Demand for when my Mother visited.  Fortunately, it was still available so we watched it on a drizzly afternoon.

Sex Is the Culprit
     If you have sex with someone, then someone you may or may not know, who’s generally only half-dressed, but is still showing too much skin, will follow and kill you unless you can pass this situation on to someone else by having sex.  It’s a great set-up, but it took almost half an hour to get to that being explained.  Instead, we dragged around with Jay, her sister, and her friends.  After she was ‘infected,’ we dragged around some more with her just waiting with dreadful anticipation – the primary emotional response to a horror movie – for someone/something to get her.  

Maika Monroe
     The acting was pretty good.  Maika Monroe, who played Jay, looks and has a manner reminiscent of Chloë Sevigny, but without the sullenness.  The details of the situation didn’t add up.  Though only the infected person could see the force slowly pursuing her, it could still break windows and climb on things, but it couldn’t pass through doors without busting them down first.

     The music was great at setting mood, but then the story didn’t really pay off.  I liked the Detroit setting because we’d just visited there.  Mike Gioulakis’ cinematography had a depth of color, especially in its emerald greens and blues, and clarity of line that was elegant.  It reminded me a little of the color in Antonioni’s Blow-Up (1967); this felt a little like what a teen slasher flick would have been like if he’d directed one.  And it would have had the same funereal pace.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham by Selina Hastings

     Somerset Maugham (1874 – 1965) was one of the most popular and well-paid writers in the world from the 1920s through the 1940s.  He experienced an unhappy childhood, became a doctor, and wrote on the side until it could pay him more than medicine.  This happened quite quickly and by thirty, he was already a novelist to watch whose plays were being produced in London and New York.  The real money at the turn of the 20th century was in playwriting and especially in adapting one’s novels to the stage.

The Novelist at Work 
     From there, he went on to success after success, though he was never taken as seriously by critics and by the guardians of the canon as ‘the mandarins,’ which was his term for Joyce, Woolf, etc.  His personal life was fascinating and it’s that aspect which is the engine for Hastings’ work.  Not only was he gay at a time when it was illegal in England and the U.S., which was part of the reason he resided in the south of France for much of his life, but he worked for the British intelligence service during both world wars.  He was probably one of the most well traveled authors of any era and it was those experiences that played into his work.

     Maugham’s highly disciplined writing method depended upon him working four hours each morning on fiction culled from stories told to him by various friends, acquaintances, and strangers during his travels.  He was incredibly prolific, writing hundreds of stories (he felt this was his métier), and dozens of novels and plays over a sixty-five year period.  He had something acerbic to say about many things, including drunks, which makes sense since his most significant partner was an alcoholic.  However, he was also very supportive of younger writers.  He started an award – still given annually – for future generations of authors to travel and thereby enrich their work.  

     Selina Hastings’ research was extensive and Maugham lived a very, very long time.  I felt I was dragging along month by month with him.  It doesn’t help that although the binding on this Canadian edition is smooth and durable, the font seemed archaic and the point size miniscule.  Yeah, I know I sound middle-aged with that comment.  My biggest compliment to Hastings is that her 2009 biography has encouraged me to check out some of Maugham’s writing.  Both The Casaurina Tree:  Six Stories (1926) and Cakes and Ale (1930) sound enticing, especially after I disliked the script of The Constant Wife (1926) in The Shaw Festival’s smart 2005 production.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

When Will We Get Mad About The Big Short?

     Peter Finch’s Howard Beale proclaimed in the prophetic Network (1976), “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore.”  The Big Short, which was adapted from Michael Lewis’s 2010 book, should make audiences furious – at least the 99% of the population that was screwed over by the top 1% and their investment bankers.  The media’s obsession with celebrities and sports overrides the two major stories of the past decade: our wars with Iraq and Afghanistan and the rising tide of international terrorism; and the continuing financial crisis in this country which exists because of greed, ignorance, and an over-preening sense of entitlement.   

     Director Adam McKay co-wrote the script with Charles Randolph and, though he usually makes comedies, the issues of how working and middle class families have been cheated by the financial industry’s greed, a continued lack of federal oversight, and the minimal punishment of those who ruined millions of lives worldwide were first addressed in his The Other Guys (2010).  The Big Short, however, is anything but a comedy.  It’s fueled by outrage and it never backs off.  McKay and Randolph have laid out the complex elements and history that created the CDO (collateralized debt obligation) bubble in a way that makes it understandable.  Tellingly, they don’t underline that the federal government led by Presidents from both parties were trying to give opportunities for more people to own their homes.

Steve Carell and Ryan Gosling
     The movie’s tone feels like it’s possessed by attention deficit disorder, which reflects the situation where many took their eye off the ball of new investment products and the bizarre ways in which they made then lost money, such as derivatives, and didn’t give it much of a thought thereby initiating the financial crisis.  McKay explains the products through self-serving narration by the most cynical character and celebrities and some experts breaking the fourth wall to instruct the viewer quickly.  It’s clever and funny, but it feels like a leftover idea from one of his Will Ferrell vehicles, though those are much sharper and intelligent than their enormous box office receipts might lead a non-viewer to assume.  That, along with Barry Ackroyd’s surprisingly tacky cinematography – there’s no visual point of view in the Vegas sequence; it looks like the Chamber of Commerce sprang for a second-rate photographer – gives it the sense of a prestigious cable movie as Neil said presenting a serious subject, but also trying to be adventurously satirical, while ending up like a series of smirking sketches (1992’s Barbarians at the Gate and 2008’s Recount immediately come to mind). 

Christian Bale
     It has a Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines (1965) structure with a load of excellent actors in various groupings all after the same thing. Instead of a race to the finish, it’s hold on to the hedge fund investors until the housing market collapses.  Some reviewers have said that spectators will root for the main performers until it understands that the worldwide economy collapses.  How naïve do these reviewers think audiences are?  I felt like everyone got it at the screening we attended and were stunned when they realized from the beginning how this catastrophe – and potential future ones – occurred.  By cutting the real-life Meredith Whitney, who was in the book, the movie feels like a bunch of over-grown white frat boys and former academics jostling for money and validation.  There’s tons of shouting, cursing, and worrying, but none of these characters does anything that seems remotely useful or necessary to society.  However, I bet Ayn Rand would have loved them and she’s probably the only 
Brad Pitt
novelist most of them read.  I was relieved whenever co-producer Brad Pitt showed up because he was the only character that saw how toxic the culture was and realized he could only change it by leaving; he also didn’t yell or preen the way the others do.  Christian Bale’s performance is interesting because the character is on the autism scale, but it’s nothing I haven’t seen Bale do before.  Overall, the subject is fascinating, but the race made me sick, and the results were infuriating because they made me feel powerless.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Two Great Singers: Adele and Darlene Love

Yin and Yang – 
One’s an unlikely superstar, 
the other a legendary heroine

Adele
     Doesn’t everyone love Adele?  Would she have taken off in the U.S. if not for an appearance on Saturday Night Live in late 2008 and a profile on CBS News Sunday Morning in 2009?  That combination is one of the best arbiters of the next big thing and it’s aimed squarely at the middlebrow that will take a chance on something new.  19 quietly built a major audience and 21 (2011) became a phenomenon.  Not only did she possess an instantly identifiable contralto voice with the phrasing of a mature jazz singer, she also wrote her own 
Adele's More
Vulnerable Side
songs.  After people realized she could be simultaneously bawdy and shy, she became a superstar.  If only Sam Smith had a sense of humor, the hype about him would make a little more sense.  

Adele's 2015 NBC Special
     Adele’s pre-eminence was evidenced in her Holiday special from Radio City Music Hall this past December, which backed up 25, the biggest selling album of the year and the fastest selling since electronic tracking began in 1991.  That special lived up to its name; she held an audience in her palm by remaining almost completely still.  It was also the perfect length – one hour – for presenting her strengths.  It’s obvious from that show and from her liner notes that Adele loves her fans.  25 provides just what her many fans want:  mid-tempo ballads about break-ups, getting over break-ups, hoping for another guy that are delivered by a big voice with scrupulous production, whether it’s in a symphonic pop setting or in a grittier R&B one.  She’s sort of our contemporary Dusty Springfield.  It’s a shame that the famously insecure and generous Springfield couldn’t have had a major popular success like one of Adele’s.  

     When I first saw the video “Hello,” I thought it was amazing there were still the traditional scarlet phone boxes in England.  If there aren’t, then perhaps Adele is so big a star they found her one.  She sounded great, though the song is a little mopey.  Even though SNL did a funny “Thanks, Adele” skit, I had to agree with the woman working at the BMV who said, when the song came on the radio, “this is the song you hear as you’re jumping off a bridge,” then immediately apologized because she hadn’t meant to say it aloud.  

Adele 25
     Perusing the album’s song titles made me wonder if Adele needs to talk with someone because things don’t sound good for her (“I Miss You,” “When We Were Young,” “Water Under The Bridge,” “Can’t Let Go,” “Why Do You Love Me”).  The gorgeous “Million Years Ago,” reminded me of Charles Aznavour’s “Yesterday When I Was Young,” in terms of its theme and lyrics and the time signature.  She sings it with ferocious regret, however, which is nothing like Aznavour, but does recall Shirley Bassey’s cover.  Okay, I realize for Americans Aznavour and Bassey are – at best – footnotes, but they’re enormous in Britain.  In some ways, Bassey is to the British what Aretha is to Americans as a representative cultural icon, though their repertoire and styles of singing have little in common.  I’m certain either Adele or her intriguing mother are acquainted with Bassey’s work, though she doesn’t list her as an influence.

     Adele will continue with a great career, there’s no doubt about it.  That voice is still maturing and she has developed an even richer tone since recuperating from surgery.  Her songwriting has also grown over the past eight years.  However, I wish she’d try different types of songs in terms of tempo and lightness; there’s never a throwaway track on her albums, which means there’s never a moment for a listener to catch a breath.  Fourteen tracks on the Target version of 25 is generous, but three could have been cut.  There were a number of producers and it amazes me that they were able to maintain such a consistent tone.  Did they have to subsume their individual artistic personalities to the juggernaut that is That Voice?   Perhaps, but the album would have been stronger if someone had said, “No, let’s keep this for the next album or let’s not use it.”   

     The most exhilarating album I heard this year was Introducing Darlene Love, which covers a range of genres in American pop since the late ‘50s by one of the great voices of the last sixty years in an electrifying collaboration with producer Steven Van Zandt (yes, the guitarist of the E Street Band and Silvio Dante from The Sopranos).  To anyone that 
Christmas on Letterman
loved the girl groups produced by Phil Spector in the early ‘60s or Letterman’s Christmas shows from 1986 on, Love needs no introduction.  But radio, streaming, iTunes, and media publicists aren’t too interested in a 74 year old with a clear mezzo chest voice, which is a shameful indictment of American popular culture.  “Still Too Soon To Know,” a duet with The Righteous Brothers’ Bill Medley should be a new standard if those running the music business had any memory or sense of excellence. 

     Love’s career has been about resilience and an optimistic attitude.  She could have settled many scores (especially with Spector), but has refrained from doing so and has always taken the higher road.  Most tellingly, she first thanks her backup singers in the liner notes.  On disc and on screen, she emanates warmth and genuine humanity. There’s a smoky tone to Love’s singing that’s reminiscent of Etta James, but without the baroque phrasing that James employed in her later career.  Rather than calling her a soul singer, I’d say she’s of the Spirit – her roots in the church as a minister’s daughter played into the call and response that Spector was the first white guy to turn into top 40 pop in the late ‘50s in New York while Berry Gordy was doing the same thing at the same time in Detroit.  

     Van Zandt’s three decade long friendship with Love has resulted in a work that moves from gospel tinged pop to an evocation of Spector’s Wall of Sound, R&B, ‘80s rock, contemporary rock, contemporary covers of some Brill era songs (where most famously Otis Blackwell, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, Jerry Goffin and Carole King, Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich, and Barry Mann and Cynthia Weill, composed) and closes with traditional Gospel.  I’m not certain how Van Zandt did it, but he’s somehow reproduced the Wall of Sound, which involved recording all the musicians and singers on mono because recording technology did not involve multiple tracks until the mid-60s.  However, the clarity on that Mount Everest of Brill Building songs “River Deep, Mountain High” indicates that he must have employed multiple tracks; I’m just not certain how many.  

Darlene Love
     The list of great songwriters on this collection beside some of the Brill geniuses includes Springsteen, Joan Jett & Desmond Child, Elvis Costello, Jimmy Webb, and Van Zandt himself.  Love does justice to all of them especially the generation that came of age after Glam Rock.  She has the power and emotional range to actually find what Costello writes, but cannot quite sing himself and on Springsteen’s songs she sounds like the older sister who taught that scrawny white boy teenager from the Jersey shore what he needed to know about women. 

     I felt the natural ending point for the album was “Last Time,” a passionate and elegiac maybe farewell to a friend or lover or even life itself.  However, as Neil said, “they’ll pull this full circle.” They do and it’s by emphasizing the importance to Gospel both to Love and, more broadly, to American music.  I realize that the electronic chatterers are obsessed with the semi-talented, the pre-pubescent, the badly behaved, and some performers that combine all these qualities.  Therefore, whatever else happens with Introducing Darlene Love, I’m grateful that it was released at all.  And I hope that this review influences someone to try out something new that’s simply GREAT.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

David Bowie – Au Revoir to Whoever You Were

     As most anyone who cares about rock music knows by now, David Bowie died on January 10.  It was a head scratching moment because there were no public reports that he was ill.  However, Bowie’s career longevity was based on surprise and this was yet another and one that cannot be topped.  He instinctively understood that popular music in concordance with the exploding media venues of the 1960s meant that physical image was as important as the song.  He took Concept to its metaphysical end by turning his performing persona into a concept depending on what his next album required.  He displayed discretion and maturity by rarely revealing much about his own personality or background – that was usually done by those around him looking to shine in his reflected glory.

    Bowie was labeled as a chameleon so many times that it stuck even though I could always tell when he was singing.  He had a voice that always sounded like it was on the edge of strain.  His vocal tone was flat, though his gift for melody and joy in trying different production settings for his songs made up for it.  Unlike Dylan whose voice declined over time, but who tried to make up for it with phrasing that veers from the obscure to the bizarre or Neil Diamond who successfully smothered his intriguing lyrics with a third generation commercial saloon veneer that verges on glop, Bowie kept his singing very real even with – or maybe despite – the wildness of his physical appearance.  It was this incongruity that lent him power and longevity.

     As a child in England, I thought he was weird, but secretly delighted that he was so public.  I lumped him in my ten-year-old consciousness with Elton John, but I knew about half a dozen of Elton’s songs as compared with only “The Man Who Sold The World” and “Ziggy Stardust” by Bowie.  My uncle who’d recently been a DJ sent me Lodger as well as Pure Prairie League’s latest as a birthday gift in 1979.  PPR was okay, but the new Bowie was an adventure in itself.  I didn’t know quite what to make of it.  Only when I started college did I find others who felt connected to Bowie, but were already looking on to The Talking Heads, The Replacements, and R.E.M. 

      By the mid-‘80s, Bowie was enormous and everyone liked him.  I think this was most evident in his “Dancing in the Streets” cover with Mick Jagger.  He surprised again by backing off and re-thinking what else he wanted to do with his music and himself.  I sort of lost touch with his music since my attention was taken by the American Alternative rock groups of the ‘90s and various other performers of the past fifteen years.  However, I’m thankful that he was fearless in visually presenting whatever he might have been feeling or thinking about.  It wasn’t until I heard he died that I realized how much he meant to me.

Friday, January 15, 2016

Youth: Surprisingly Wondrous

     Since Youth is written and directed by Paolo Sorrentino, I expected it to be visually gorgeous and it is; since it stars Michael Caine, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, Paul Dano, and Jane Fonda, I assumed it would be well acted and it is; what I didn’t bargain for was how funny it is.  Taking place at an exclusive spa in Switzerland and presenting both those that work there and the wealthy, influential patrons visiting, it gives every character her or his due.  

At the Spa
     Taking Fellini’s concentration on the ‘interesting face’ to the next level, Sorrentino shows all types of partly or completely nude bodies.  It’s never done in a prurient way, which already tips the viewer off to the fact that this is not an American director.  The spa setting feels like a tip of a new generation to the master’s fedora in 8 ½ (1963).  Luca Bigazzi’s cinematography is exquisite, but never for the sake of mere beauty; he regards Fonda’s wig and the young masseuse’s videogame dancing with a deadpan wit even as they’re lit perfectly.  David Lang’s music provides the required sense of significance since the main character is a famous composer.  The final scenes when that character, played by Michael Caine, conducts coloratura Sumi Jo are simply magical (and, guess what kids – some of them in the midst of mid-life crises – no special effects)!  As with a number of other contemporary directors, the collaboration between Sorrentino, Bigazzi, and Lang creates a symbiosis that enriches each individual project.

Michael Caine and Harvey Keitel
     Caine and Keitel, as a movie director working on a script with a group of young up-and-coming writers, make a great comic duo as friends, who’ve known each other for decades and who also happen to be in-laws.  The composer has retired, but can hear music everywhere; like it or not, he cannot escape composing.  The director is blocked, but willing to consider every possibility.  The relationship is the linchpin for the movie’s themes and the plot.  There are a couple of very significant lines:  Caine’s “we have a good relationship; we only tell each other the good things” and Keitel’s “all we have are emotions.”  Caine deliberately slows his movements to seem older than his actual age, while Keitel is both physically frisky and as off beat sexy as he was in The Piano (1993).

Rachel Weisz
     Weisz delivers a blistering monologue about her growing up with aplomb, torn between her parents and simultaneously loyal to and betrayed by her husband and father.  It’s great to see her spirited since the last time we viewed her was as the depressing wife in The Deep Blue Sea (2011).  Paul Dano performs as a young actor researching a role he might play and when we see the test make-up, it’s both shocking because of its accuracy, but also hilarious because of the other spa guests’ reactions.  Fonda’s make-up is 
Jane Fonda
also funny and chilling; she nails her scene with Keitel in which she’s imperious, self-serving, and ruthlessly honest.


Orchestra with Sumi Jo
     It’s one of those movies where at the end, when the theatre remained in darkness, as Lang’s music continued, I was so glad.  Well, until I heard the aged suburban couple behind me.  He:  It was good, but I preferred Spotlight.  She:  This was arty, but that was more real.  I hope they don't choke on an apple and an orange.

Saturday, January 9, 2016

Trumbo: How Fragile was the First Amendment?

     Trumbo received pretty good reviews, but little business.  Currently playing in the shoebox screen at The Esquire, it may not even be here when this review gets uploaded.  It’s a solid biographical drama about leading Hollywood golden age screenwriter Dalton Trumbo.  Written by John McNamara and directed by Jay Roach in a realistic, straightforward style, it cogently explores how the Hollywood Blacklist of the ‘40s and ‘50s was the highest profile manifestation of HUAC (the House Un-American Activities Committee).  

The Hollywood 10 Protest
     It was fueled by fear of the Russian Soviets, the potential for communist infiltration of American institutions, and the self-interest of a number of ambitious people to keep or increase their power at the expense of others’ careers and lives.  Hollywood moguls were intimidated by their fear of declining box office receipts and their desperation to keep their humble backgrounds discreet.  I felt a wide streak of anti-Semitism on the part of the U.S. Congressmen and those Americans including John Wayne and Hedda Hopper who defended American values by denying some Americans their right to free speech and the opportunity to work.  This was an era where bad publicity could kill literally a performer and her/his career.  Nowadays, most performers including politicians seem to have been crossbred with cockroaches: the only bad publicity is no publicity.  

The Real Trumbos vs. Trumbo's Trumbos
     Although the subject raises my ire, Dalton Trumbo himself maintained an almost Zen-like equanimity in the face of brutal chicanery and cowardice.  He received incredible support from his family, but could be tyrannical in running them as hard as the moguls ran their studio personnel.  The movie answers a question I’ve had for years about what people do to survive when they’ve been labeled as political dissidents and aren’t allowed to pursue their livelihoods.  Trumbo got around it in an extremely creative way by using other writers as fronts for A-list work and writing hack screenplays for the Poverty Row exploitation producers the King brothers.  The Kings displayed real guts in keeping blacklisted writers working.  It was tougher on actors, who couldn’t hide.  Many gave up when they couldn’t find work in the New York theatre.  
Bryan Cranston
     Bryan Cranston gives a powerful land technically accomplished performance as Trumbo.  However, when actual footage of Trumbo is shown during the end credits, it provides a contrast that subtly diminishes Cranston’s work.  Trumbo comes across as feisty and tough, whereas Cranston embodies a patrician, avuncular man.  I can see why the actual Trumbo was such a threat, but with Cranston it’s a little mystifying because he has such good manners.  Diane Lane 
Mirren as Hedda Hopper
and Helen Mirren do their usual exemplary work as, respectively, Trumbo’s quiet wife, who finally comes into her own defending their children and Hedda Hopper, who really was vicious, though the final image of her face cracks through the evil.  John Goodman and Stephen Root are like a middle-aged Katzenjammer Kids as the Kings and Louis C.K. provides heart as a composite of a number of communist screenwriters.  I wish they hadn’t had to depart from the real details when there was so much drama in that era and this subject.  Elle Fanning as Trumbo’s loyal but searching older daughter nails her two big scenes; her performance foretells wonders.
Elle Fanning

Monday, January 4, 2016

Female Friendship: Stage Door, The World of Henry Orient, Swing Shift, La Cérémonie

Tiffany Vazquez Hosting Turner Classic Movies
      Turner Classic Movies (yes, they show more excellent movies than any other channel) recently asked super fan Tiffany Vazquez to guest program works centering on female friendship.  If TCM gets really smart, Vazquez will remain in a long-term capacity with the network.  She’s young, smart, and offers some intriguing insights into the specific movies.  We checked out some of the selections:

     Stage Door (1937), one of those wise-cracking, heartfelt comedy-dramas that Hollywood produced like sliced bread during the zenith of the studio era – in this case, RKO – gave an opportunity for an extraordinary ensemble of young actresses to strut their stuff.  Not revived as much as The Women (1939), it’s far more positive about the support and genuine camaraderie that female friendship entails.  Competing in the alienating world of the Broadway theatre, the women share joy, hardships, personal hopes and dreams, and are there for each other in the best and toughest of times.

The Women of Stage Door
     Although RKO isn’t lauded now to the degree shown to other major studios, executives could assemble the following cast:  Katharine Hepburn, Ginger Rogers, Andrea Leeds, Ann Miller, Eve Arden, Lucille Ball, Constance Collier, Gail Patrick, Adolphe Menjou, Jack Carson, and many others.  Leeds married and retired soon after its release to breed racehorses, but she’s lovely as the young actress, who’s experienced success, but is already being overlooked for the next model.  If this doesn’t presage the current TV singing shows and the eagerness to find the next thirteen year old with a thirty year 
Ann Miller and Ginger Rogers
old’s voice, then I don’t know what does.  Ann Miller, incidentally, was fourteen during filming, but she looks at least five years older and more than holds her own in a nifty tap number with Rogers, set in a swanky nightclub where Patrick sneers at them while trying to capture producer Menjou’s long-term romantic attention.

     There’s nothing dated about the movie, except for how fast, funny, and sarcastic the characters are.  Oh yes, and they seem like grown-ups dealing with unemployment, sexual exploitation, aging, balancing work and love lives, depression, and suicide.  They get all of this across in ninety minutes without cursing or showing much skin, though everything is suggested.  If only Judd Apatow and Tina Fey could edit their genius to move at such a pace.

     The World of Henry Orient (1964), directed by George Roy Hill (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Sting), felt a little like a live action Disney movie from that period to Neil.  
Merrie Spaeth and Tippy Walker
That’s probably because it’s most focused on the two fourteen year old private school girls Val and Gil, played by Tippy Walker and Merrie Spaeth, and because New York City feels like a big playground, rather than the dangerous and alienated metropolis it had become – this was the same year as the murder of Kitty Genovese.  Hill was known as a ‘buddy’ director and that already shone forth in the uninhibited friendship of the two girls, who play make believe games and display a naturalness that seems unscripted.  Fortunately, this friendship doesn’t turn sinister as the similar one in Heavenly Creatures (1994) between the girls played by Kate Winslet and Melanie Lynskey.  Walker and Spaeth are the leads and they carry the production with their high spirits and honesty.

Spying on Peter Sellers (Henry Orient)
     Where Henry Orient went a little wrong initially on its release was in making a big deal of Peter Sellers playing Orient.  He’s a second-rate concert pianist trying to hide his Brooklyn background with what would later be termed a Eurotrash accent.  Sellers is very funny playing a two-faced jerk; where he’s not as successful is in tying his character’s paranoia about the affair he’s having with a young, wealthy married woman, played winningly by Paula Prentiss.  He believes the girls are stalking him.  At first, they’re not, but coincidence turns into a new game and they look at him as a new fad.  Sellers’ performance is not big enough or maybe the story of the girls is more compelling.  

Angela Lansbury
     Angela Lansbury, however, in a small role about halfway into the story, may be a revelation for those who only know her from Murder, She Wrote (1984 – 1996), her cozy amateur sleuth detective series on which she employed either has-beens from Hollywood’s Golden Age that older viewers may have thought were already dead and intriguing newcomers who got a solid TV start.  In 1963, she was sick of the harpy roles she’d played incredibly well from her teens and was disappointed that her great performance in The Manchurian Candidate (1962) was nominated for but didn’t win the Oscar.  Yeah, I know Patty Duke was convincing as Helen Keller in The Miracle Worker, but I’ve seen others also play the role as well.  However, Meryl Streep didn’t do as well in the Manchurian remake (2004).  It’s because Lansbury could play yakky and daffy before turning it around to show Mrs. Iselin’s evil genius, while in the vulnerable spot of having to answer to the Soviet Politburo.  Lansbury’s frustration comes across as the ice queen mother, who’s emotionally withholding, but quick to pursue a meaningless fling out of boredom and spite.  

     Within two years, Lansbury became a major star while in Mame on Broadway.  Side note:  The Wiz!  Live on NBC a couple of weeks ago is the first of that annual series to work because they hired a cast that knew exactly how to perform.  We think Mame should be revived live and we nominate Anna Faris and Alison Janney as Mame and Vera Charles (Mayim Bialik would be a good Agnes Gooch too).  I don’t know if they can sing, but they can act, which is the most important element of performing in musicals, believe it or not.  Anyway, Mame features female friendships in a complex manner. 

     Swing Shift (1984), directed by Jonathan Demme, but produced by and starring Goldie Hawn, came out a couple of years after Connie Field’s Oscar-winning documentary The Life and Times of Rosie the Riveter (1980).  When you see the non-fiction, you can tell what Demme was going after and when you remember Private Benjamin (1980) and The Sugarland Express (1974), you can see what he hoped for and almost got from her.  Hawn has a sharp-eyed, cutting edge that can be a tonic for her commercial daffiness.  However, she wanted the movie to be a cute comedy set during World War II when women built the machinery that basically saved democracy.  

Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell
     Hawn does a funny bit with a tablecloth in one scene, which was probably where she wanted things to go tonally.  She looks great and could pass for late twenties, though she was ten years older.  The problem is that both she and Ed Harris as her husband, who goes off to war, look and seem more mature than the high school sweethearts that haven’t been married very long.  In trying to seem young in the early scenes, their acting ends up one note and shallow.  When things become more complicated in a friendship with a tough neighbor trying to make it as a singer, played with conviction and heart by Christine Lahti, Hawn is up for the challenge.  She also has real chemistry with Kurt Russell as her supervisor and also trying to make it as a musician; Russell looks like he could be the right age.

Christine Lahti
     The relationship between Lahti’s character and Fred Ward as a music impresario, who uses her, has more levels than the other romances.  The other problem is that most viewers will hope that Hawn and Russell’s characters will end up together because they bring out so much in each other.  The ending is more about bringing together Hawn and Lahti’s characters instead.  Because the movie doesn’t work, it’s sort of fascinating.  Lahti projects depth, but there are scenes where she looks like she’s in the mid-80s, rather than the ‘40s so no element works consistently.

     Claude Chabrol adapted Ruth Rendell’s A Judgement in Stone (1977) with Caroline Eliacheff for his La Cérémonie (1995).  Sandrine Bonnaire and Isabelle Huppert, both contemporary French cinema legends, give deeply unsettling performances, respectively, as a newly hired maid for a wealthy family and a small town’s bubbly and surly postmistress.  Huppert, especially, can do things with her eyes and mouth that work against the rest of her body language.  I’ve seen her in three or four films and she never moves, looks, or repeats her performances.  Only the tone of her voice – more patrician and elegant than expected – remains a common element.

Sandrine Bonnaire and Isabelle Huppert
     The major difference between the book and the movie is that Rendell tells what will happen in the first sentence and the suspense builds because the reader keeps putting the clues together towards what will be a tragic and shocking conclusion.  The key element is illiteracy.  Chabrol doesn’t do that.  He drops hints in the plot and Bonnaire masterfully shows that her character has no imagination and, more importantly, very little empathy.  Since Chabrol directs, the viewer probably expects that this will be a thriller of some kind and there seems to be an element of class struggle.  

     What Chabrol does instead and it’s chilling is to show the banality of evil and the curt, casual nature of murderous violence.  I wish he had used a flash-forward of the final image, which involves a tape recording that inadvertently picks up the killings, at the very beginning of the movie.  I think it would have intensified the viewer’s identification with the characters and the nature of the class conflict.

    Anyway, cheers to TCM and Tammy Vazquez for going off the main line to check out some lesser-known or overlooked works that aren’t perfect, but deserve attention.