Monday, April 30, 2007
To err is human, to forgive canine
Mike White dwells in the realm of the uncomfortable as a writer, from his strange sleeper Chuck and Buck to an episode of TV's Freaks and Geeks, "Kim Kelly Is My Friend," that made NBC so nervous, it refused to ever air it. He's also written more palatable fare such as the script for the fun School of Rock.
Now, White makes his directing debut with Year of the Dog, a mixed bag that's more Chuck than Rock.
Saturday Night Live alum Molly Shannon stars as Peggy and while I could always take or leave her work before, she unquestionably is the glue that holds Year of the Dog together as well as it can be.
Peggy's life revolves around her precious beagle Pencil and it is torn apart when Pencil unexpectedly dies, the victim of toxic poisoning, spinning the solitary Peggy out of control. As with most of White's writing, Year of the Dog mixes satire and the darkly comic with pathos and here, the mix doesn't quite hold together except for Shannon, who seems to be the only performer in the talented cast who grounds the entire enterprise in reality.
She's definitely a believer when animal rescue worker Newt (Peter Sarsgaard) tells her he understands her grief because animals aren't petty and they don't backstab the way people do. (I'm not one of the borderline crazy animal rights activists, but it's harder to argue with the fact that I've been fucked over far more often by humans than by animals.)
Of course, Newt is as damaged as Peggy (and most of the characters in a Mike White universe). Really, is Peggy's sister-in-law Bret (Laura Dern) any crazier in her obsession with her children's safety than others are shown in their concerns about animals? (A delousing incident isn't just tearing apart the first grade, as her husband Pier (Thomas McCarthy) says, but "the entire community," she insists.)
When Peggy gives her niece the gift of a DVD of Babe, Bret worries that it might be "too dramatic" for the child. The problem is that it's not clear what White's attitude toward his characters really is. They all seem to be being held up for ridicule, but Shannon is the only actor whose character remains consistent throughout.
Dern is shrill and silly at most points, but then is expected to be taken as a truly concerned person later. Sarsgaard suffers from the same problem. The only members of the cast who seem to create a character and stay true to it throughout are Josh Pais as Peggy's boss, John C. Reilly as her neighbor and, most especially, Regina King as Peggy's co-worker, who thinks she just needs a good lay.
Shannon's Peggy almost manages to save the entire enterprise, truly creating a sympathetic character who fills the loneliness of her life with the unconditional love of her pet while not sacrificing her character's essential instability.
It is too bad that White's entire film couldn't hold together as well as Peggy, because her tale is a touching one and could have easily managed the right recipe of laughs and tears. Instead, after it's over, you're more likely to leave scratching your head as if you've got a bad case of fleas. Then again, maybe it's that first-grade lice outbreak. Either way, Year of the Dog needs some kind of treatment.
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Sunday, April 29, 2007
Centennial Tributes: Fred Zinnemann
By Edward Copeland
If someone asks, "What is a Fred Zinnemann film like?" How would you respond? It's not that Zinnemann, who would turn 100 years old today, didn't make quite a few good and great films and at least one bona fide classic, but is there something you can point to as a Zinnemannesque film the way you might say Hitchcockian or Hawksian? Not really. This isn't to disparage Zinnemann at all. He simply was a solid, workman-like director who ended up making movies worth watching far more often than he made clunkers. He earned seven Oscar nominations as director between 1948 and 1977 and won twice. He also won an Oscar for producing A Man for All Seasons and for the documentary short Benjy in 1951. Some might call him colorless, but his body of work certainly deserves reflection today on the anniversary of his birth.
Zinnemann has directing credits stretching all the way back to 1929, but this is the earliest one I've been able to see and what a pleasant surprise it turned out to be. A simple B programmer about a blind detective (the great Edward Arnold), the mystery may be more complicated than necessary (and easy to guess what's going on in general, if not in specific), but it's a lot of fun. Arnold is great and Donna Reed gives a performance unlike any I've seen from her as a bitter, manipulative young woman at odds with her stepmother. There are some slightly racist scenes involving Arnold's butler that made me uncomfortable, but they are so few that I was able to look aside. Besides, that dog! Friday may well be the most talented dog in the history of film, being a true partner to his blind owner. In fact, in one scene where Friday ends up with the gun of a bad guy in his mouth, I was surprised the canine didn't actually know how to fire it.
Zinnemann scored his first Oscar nomination as director for this moving drama set in post-World War II Berlin where an Army private (Montgomery Clift) tries to help a lost Czech boy find his mother while she similarly searches refugee camps for him. It's a simple, stark tale, but quite compelling, painting a vivid portrait of the desolation of the German city after the war and the timeless tale of people separated by events trying to find their way back together again.
The Search brought Zinnemann his Oscar nomination for 1948, but this taut thriller may be the better film. The always-great Robert Ryan plays a wounded WWII veteran on a mission to kill his former CO (Van Heflin), whom he holds responsible for his misfortune. The film holds the details close to its vest for awhile, and to good effect. Eventually, the stench of vengeance and violence contaminates most of the characters in the film so you're really not certain who will be on the receiving end of the film's title. Unfortunately, the payoff wimps out slightly, but until then the film is riveting, led by Ryan, Heflin and able supporting work, including Mary Astor as a hooker with a heart of stone.
More than anything else, this melodramatic portrait of recovering war veterans remains best known for marking the feature film debut of Marlon Brando. Brando plays an embittered soldier paralyzed from his war injuries. Much of the dramatics do go over the top, but The Men also contains surprising frankness, given when it was made, in terms of sexuality and balancing an antiwar message with a supportive one for fighting men, something that really rings true today, both in terms of the Iraq mess our troops find themselves embroiled in as well as the recent revelations of the piss-poor medical treatment they've received when they've returned home.
In the 2003 documentary All the Presidents' Movies, it was amazing how many occupants of the Oval Office picked Zinnemann's Western classic as one of the films they watched in the White House screening room multiple times. (In fact, since Eisenhower, it's been the film requested most often by all presidents.) Regardless of your political persuasion, it's easy to see why this tale of one man standing alone against a cadre of villains while all his supposed allies turn tail and run would appeal to commanders-in-chief. Of all Zinnemann's movies, this one remains my favorite. Really, it's the perfect role for the stoic Gary Cooper and having its action play out in real time works better than just about any other attempt to imitate that pattern. (Come on 24 fans, you can't get anywhere in Los Angeles in an hour let alone have all the things that happen on the show in 60 minutes occur.) High Noon works as well even if you don't know or notice its allegorical background of the blacklist. It's a classic that should never be forsaken.
While The Member of the Wedding still entertains after all these years, its stage origins remain painfully apparent. Julie Harris is quite good in her Oscar-nominated turn as the tomboy Frankie Addams unhappy with her lot in life and dreaming of something more. (You almost believe that Harris, in her late 20s at the time, is a 12-year-old.) However, the performance that stands out for me is Ethel Waters, the sensible maid who becomes Frankie's confidant. She grounds the film in a realism that some of its more theatrical flairs threaten to unravel. Waters should have been the one up for an Oscar that year.
It's interesting to note that with all the people questioning whether it was too soon for films such as United 93 and World Trade Center to tackle the events of 9/11 that From Here to Eternity re-created the attack on Pearl Harbor a mere 12 years after it occurred, albeit as a glorified soap opera. (Actually, movies began referring to the attack on Pearl Harbor within months of December 1941, but I believe this is the first to actually depict the attack.) Thankfully though, Zinnemann was no Michael Bay and the film still has some teeth (and earned Zinnemann his first directing Oscar). Most importantly though, it has great performances from Burt Lancaster, Montgomery Clift, Deborah Kerr, Ernest Borgnine and Frank Sinatra's Oscar-winning turn as the doomed Pvt. Maggio. How Donna Reed won her Oscar I'm not certain. (As Josh R is fond of pointing out, she plays what must be the most virginal prostitute ever put on film.) However, enough remains to make it stand the test of time.
Zinnemann ventured into musicals and he went BIG, i.e. in full-blooded Technicolor, Todd-AO glory transferring this landmark Rodgers and Hammerstein musical to the truly big screen. In a way, Oklahoma! really is a stage show that should be opened up since a stage is too limiting for this tale of early settlers. Zinnemann takes true advantage of this with some nice shots, particularly the opening which moves the camera through the stalks of a corn field before coming upon Gordon MacRae singing "Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin.'" While the film is good enough, the importance of its stage version doesn't exactly transfer since Hollywood already had produced its own much better musical originals for the screen (such as Singin' in the Rain three years earlier). Despite that, there is much to admire in the songs and some of the performances, specifically Gloria Grahame's fun turn as Ado Annie. This is the performance that should have earned her an Oscar nomination and/or win, not her blink-or-you'll-miss-it work in The Bad and the Beautiful. Rod Steiger is good as the dark Jud, but his performance (and really the character himself) always has seemed somewhat out of place in what is essentially a musical comedy. Eddie Albert does what he can as Persian peddler Ali Hakim, but he's about as much a Persian as Mickey Rooney was Chinese in Breakfast at Tiffany's. (Well, Albert isn't offensive at least).
You can probably count on one hand the number of films about Catholic priests or nuns that still have them in their religious vocation by the time the film ends, and this bloated work isn't one of them. Audrey Hepburn does her best as the conflicted nun-in-training, but it's really Peter Finch who steals the show as a feisty doctor that Hepburn works with during some missionary work. It's not only an obscenely long film, it's also an eminently forgettable one.
Also too long, but immensely more fun was Zinnemann's next film, with Robert Mitchum and Deborah Kerr struggling to make ends meet in the outback as sheep drovers, with Kerr trying to be the sensible one and Mitchum's gambling spirit always getting the best of him (and their nest egg). She's tired of their wandering ways and wants to settle down, but his rambunctioness always gets in the way. There also are fine supporting performances by Peter Ustinov and Glynis Johns. Still, the cinematography by Jack Hildyard is stunning and there are some great set pieces, particularly a sheep-shearing competition. To say that its Oscar nomination for best picture was more than generous is no understatement.
Zinnemann truly created an odd one with this film that has Gregory Peck (?) playing an exiled Spanish revolutionary and Anthony Quinn as the Spanish official hoping to lure him back to the country to kill him with the news that his mother (Mildred Dunnock) is dying 20 years after the end of the Spanish civil war. Things get complicated further by a young boy named Paco (Marietto Angeleletti) who wants Peck to go back to kill Quinn to avenge his own father's death, but Peck also is torn by a possible traitor within his ranks. Despite the fact that Peck is even a less-convincing Spaniard than Eddie Albert was a Persian, the movie's overriding problem is that it's a world-class bore. It drags on and on to a truly anticlimactic ending. The most interesting thing about it is that it was based on a novel by Emeric Pressburger.
It had been a long time since I'd seen this best picture winner that earned Zinnemann his final two Oscars, one for directing and one for producing, and it plays even better than I remembered. While Robert Bolt's screenplay does show its stage origins, Zinnemann has turned this story of Sir Thomas More's stance on principle against the will of King Henry VIII into a sleek, compelling enterprise with the look and feel of an epic but a running time of a mere two hours. Central to the film's success of course is Paul Scofield's Oscar-winning turn as More, but Zinnemann does add a lot of nice touches as well, particularly in the great opening sequence showing the travel of a message from Cardinal Wolsey to More. There's also stunning cinematography by Ted Moore and a top-notch supporting cast that includes Wendy Hiller, Leo McKern, a young John Hurt and Robert Shaw in his Oscar-nominated turn as Henry VIII, which is a much smaller role than I recall. My 1966 Oscar preferences still lean to Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? but this film's win is not an embarrassment.
As Fred Zinnemann began his sixth decade as a filmmaker, he turned to yet another genre with this taut thriller starring the cool Edward Fox as a hired gun whose services are employed by embittered former members of the French Foreign Legion to assassinate French President Charles De Gaulle. The story moves on two tracks as Fox, code name The Jackal, pursues his plot and the French authorities, led by Col. Rolland (Michel Auclair) try to determine the killer's identity and to stop him before he is able to act. The film is a bit overlong, but Zinnemann does build quite a bit of suspense, even though we know De Gaulle won't be killed, and Fox is superb as the cold and calculating mercenary.
I saw Julia when it was originally released and I was in grade school, hardly the ideal audience. All I remembered really was that I was bored silly and the scene where a frustrated Lillian Hellman (Jane Fonda) tosses her typewriter out a window (I miss typewriters). So, in fairness, I decided I needed to take a new look, hoping that age would make me have a new view on the film the way I did a turnaround on Reds recently. Alas, 30 years later, I find Julia as boring as I did as an elementary school student. Its awards puzzle me more now than they did when I only had vague memories. Fonda at times is pretty bad. Jason Robards in his second consecutive Oscar-winning supporting turn is fine, but really doesn't have anything to do to deserve the prize. Maximilian Schell's presence is so fleeting that his nomination is a headscratcher. What shocked me the most was Vanessa Redgrave. While she is one of our finest actresses, there was more drama and suspense surrounding her nomination and her winning speech than she gets to create in the film itself. This was Zinnemann's final Oscar nomination as director (though he did direct one more film, which I haven't seen), but Julia is a bore. Pure and simple. Despite his less successful works, Zinnemann produced a lot of good and great movies in his time and I still salute him on his centennial.
Labels: A. Hepburn, blacklist, Borgnine, Brando, Clift, Cooper, Deborah Kerr, Gregory Peck, Hammerstein, Lancaster, Mary Astor, Mitchum, Robards, Robert Ryan, Rodgers, Sinatra, Vanessa Redgrave, Van Hefiin, W. Hiller
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Thursday, April 26, 2007
The Sopranos: The past is prologue
By Edward Copeland
Now that we are one-third of the way through the final batch of Sopranos episodes (and since I don't have anything else ready to post for today), I thought I'd do a little analysis of what we've seen so far and what it might mean for where the show is headed. Needless to say, after this, there will be spoilers galore, so if you haven't seen the new episodes, read no further (Josh R, I'm looking in your general direction).
While I still don't buy the idea that this batch of episodes is just a continuation of Season 6, it is becoming clearer how the first part of last year's episodes set up for these, at the least the three that I've seen so far. Tony's shooting made him reassess his life, even if he's fallen back into old habits. As one of the malaprop-afflicted Bada Bing crew might say, "a leopard can't change his stripes." As a result, nearly every character so far is getting moments of looking back at where they came from and wondering where they are going. Even though Tony might say that "Remember when is the lowest form of conversation," we know that he doesn't mean it, because Tony always has been about the past. Hell, that's what sent him to Melfi in the first place. So far, past deeds have been coming back in each episode to bite him as he marks his 47th birthday and his inevitable physical decline, hastened by Junior's shooting last year. Dropped guns, past tension with Christopher, the body of the very first guy he whacked (who his father made him whack no less) — they've all resurfaced as Carmela keeps asking why they haven't overcome these problems at this point in their lives (and she keeps raising the specter of the "missing" Adriana as well).
Despite Tony's insistence last year that every day is a gift, he still has a vindictive streak (and James Gandolfini is as great as ever). In the season's tense premiere, "Sopranos Home Movies," Tony takes out his anger at Bobby for beating the shit out of him for insulting Janice by making Bobby perform a hit, the first ever for the mostly sweet-natured Bacala, whom you suspect might have wished that Tony killed him instead. It did give Steven Schirippa his strongest episode ever. Tony also has showed annoyance with Paulie's nature when forced to take a road trip with him, though the episode's attempts to imply that Tony might consider whacking Paulie (Tony Sirico) never flew because you knew he wouldn't do it, despite all the allusions to Big Pussy's final exit. It did paint a portrait of Paulie though as an even sadder man than has been shown before. Paulie is trying to perpetuate his image as a lean, young tough guy, when nothing is further from the truth. Paulie is getting old. He says he's beat cancer, but he's still alone and knows that will be how he ends up. It's a shame that come awards time Sirico has never received the notice he so rightly deserved.
One person who didn't beat cancer, sadly, is Johnny Sack and Vincent Curatola got a great final episode as the deposed New York crime boss, literally rotting in prison, wondering how he will be remembered and worrying over the fate of his wife and family once he's gone. One thing The Sopranos always has excelled at though is keeping the humor coming, to prevent the proceedings from becoming too maudlin. When Johnny expresses pessimism about his outlook, his wife Ginny says, "You know it's that kind of attitude that probably brought this on in the first place" to which Johnny replies, "You gonna start with that again? What about all these 6-year-olds with leukemia? What's that from? All their negative thinking?"
"Stage 5" also featured a great cameo by actor-director Sydney Pollack as one of Johnny's fellow prisoners, an oncologist in his pre-convict life. When Johnny asks the doctor what he's in for, he admits to murdering his wife because she was cheating on him, but then extends the story into the drollest of punchlines by saying, "I killed her aunt too, I didn't know she was there... And the mailman. At that point, I had to fully commit." Watching the final hours of Sack's life were oddly touching. One side effect though is that I'm starting to be puzzled by the increased prevalence of stories concerning the New York family. I'm hoping they are heading somewhere with all this screen time of the final nine hours being spent on characters we barely know, but I have to wonder. We want to know what's going to happen to the characters we've followed since Season 1 on the Jersey side of things, not characters who are introduced for one or two episodes. However, questions about how they've spent their life predominate on the other side of the river as well. Phil Leotardo (Frank Vincent) wonders if there really were a point to being a good soldier and keeping his mouth shut while he was in prison for 20 years as he still laments his lost brother. When Tony reaches out to Carmine Jr. (Ray Abruzzo) to try to take hold of the New York family, Carmine wants no part of it, content to pursue moviemaking with Christopher and a more secure family life.
Thankfully, we have been given at least one more great episode for Dominic Chianese as Uncle Junior, who has fallen too frequently on the sidelines in recent seasons. Stuck in a psychiatric hospital, Junior looked better than we'd seen him in awhile, with a bit more of his faculties and trying to relive past glories by staging poker games using buttons for chips. He also provided the season's biggest laugh so far as he writes to Dick Cheney for help, since Cheney knows what it's like to pay a price for accidental gunplay. The ending of his episode though definitely is bittersweet, as it appears that given a choice between freedom and overmedication, Junior may opt for the medicine if it means he won't piss himself.
The final stretch of The Sopranos seems to be heading, if not for a definitive ending such as death or incarceration, then one that truly contemplates whether anyone can escape their past or truly change their ways. With a canvas full of so many rich characters as created by David Chase, I imagine the answer will be different in each character's case.
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Wednesday, April 25, 2007
The high cost of "democracy"
I still haven't seen Iraq in Fragments or Deliver Us From Evil, but I just caught up with My Country, My Country, another of this year's Oscar nominees for documentary feature and, as with many documentaries that didn't even make the final cut, this look at the months leading up to Iraq's "landmark" elections is a powerful, riveting documentary that damn sure deserved the prize over Al Gore's PowerPoint presentation.
Directed by Laura Poitras, originally for PBS' "P.O.V." series, My Country, My Country plays like a coherent version of Syriana, only it's all true which makes it all the more heartbreaking.
Though My Country, My Country tells the story from several angles, the main focus is on Dr. Riyadh, a Sunni physician who has spent years trying to help his fellow Iraqis both medically and financially. He even visits prisoners at the fence of Abu Ghraib to chronicle their complaints and needs. One patient tells him how her husband insists she go to work because he needs money because he's joined Moqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army. Once the woman insists that she's spending the handouts from the doctor for food, not violence, he gives her what he can.
Riyadh decides to become a candidate for the national assembly for the Iraq Islamic Party, though his run is complicated by fellow Sunnis who feel they should boycott the vote and his own family and friends who fear voting will get them killed. Dr. Riyadh tries to explain to the doubters that they must participate if they want to have any say in what happens to their country in the future, but it's a tough sell, especially when a friend's son is abducted ahead of the vote.
The documentary also looks at other aspects of the pre-election time in Iraq, focusing on preparations by the U.S. military to make sure things run smoothly to private security contractors out to acquire arms as backup to any problems.
Though the film is set more than two years ago, it's amazing how little has changed: Riyadh's family spend much of their time in the dark as electricity remains a sporadic luxury in Baghdad; bombs, kidnapping and murders are a common occurrence; everyone expresses dissatisfaction with the U.S. occupation (a common refrain is that Saddam Hussein is a virus that the country just can't shake).
The film bears striking similarities to the story shown on 60 Minutes on Sunday about another doctor who tries to stay and help as most doctors have fled the country and another Iraqi who has to arm himself just to drive his children to school.
While the film is quite illuminating, it does lag a bit in the final half-hour, especially since you know that two years later, things would only be worse.
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Tuesday, April 24, 2007
Twin Peaks Tuesdays: Episode 8
BLOGGER'S NOTE: Today, I'm beginning a new feature (or folly, depending how it goes). Since I finally got my hands on the new DVD release of Twin Peaks' second season, I've decided to pretend as if the show is airing once a week and will do episode recaps as if I'm watching them for the first time and they are airing for the first time. So please indulge me and pretend that we are suddenly back in the fall of 1990. I hope you Peaks fans out there enjoy this exercise.
By Edward Copeland
After a summer waiting for the return of David Lynch's spectacular, groundbreaking new series after a mere eight episode run last spring (the disparity in episode numbering stems from the fact that the very first episode was titled "Pilot" and the shows didn't start getting numbers until the second installment), Twin Peaks finally has returned with a two hour premiere directed by Lynch himself and filled with the show's signature deft mixture of offbeat humor, emotion and creepiness.
For those who forgot where we left off (and the only people who possibly could have forgotten were the ones who stopped watching the show), the series' main mystery of "Who killed Laura Palmer?" was just the main unanswered question as the first season finale fit the true definition of a cliffhanger with the following events
1. Someone attacked Dr. Jacoby in the park.
2. Laura's father Leland smothered drug smuggler Jacques Renault to death.
3. Leo tied up Shelly in the Packard Saw Mill and lured Catherine there, before setting it ablaze for Ben Horne; Pete braved the flames try to save his wife.
4. Leo found Bobby at home and was about to kill him when Hank Jennings shot Leo.
5. Audrey, undercover at One Eyed Jack's, was about to be discovered by her father who owns the Canadian brothel.
6. Big Ed discovered that Nadine had taken an overdose of pills in an attempt to commit suicide.
7. Bobby and Mike had framed James by putting cocaine in his motorcycle and he was arrested.
8. Lucy shocked Deputy Andy with the news that she's pregnant.
9. Agent Cooper opened his hotel room door at the Great Northern only to be shot three times.
Shew. That's a lot of loose ends to tie up and even with two hours, they don't get to most of them. First up, in a scene certain to delight fans and frustrate casual viewers, we begin with a wounded Coop (Kyle MacLachlan) lying on his hotel room floor as a decrepit waiter (played by veteran character actor Hank Worden) doesn't seem to notice the severity of his condition and is more intent on just delivering the milk Coop ordered and having him sign the bill. He also notices the phone that was left off the hook with Andy speaking on it when Cooper went to answer the door and the waiter was kind enough to hang it up. "I hung up the phone for ya," the decrepit old man tells the prone and bleeding agent, who meekly replies, "OK." The waiter does take time to add as he's leaving, "I've heard about you" several times and gives Coop the thumbs up. It's funny and frustrating, but eventually it gives way to the introduction of another character who appears to be from another world, a giant (Carel Struycken) who delivers Cooper three puzzling clues and takes his ring, promising to return it once Coop learns that what he says is true: 1) there's a man in a smiling bag; 2) the owls are not what they seem; and 3) without chemicals, he points. He also tosses in "Leo locked inside a hungry horse" before vanishing and leaving Cooper bleeding on the floor.
The episode leaves Cooper as well, switching to the situation across the border at One Eyed Jack's where Ben Horne (Richard Beymer) is anxious to break in "the new girl," unaware that it is his own daughter Audrey (Sherilyn Fenn), sleuthing undercover hoping to find out more about Laura's murder. She does her best to fend off Ben's advances while his brother Jerry (David Patrick Kelly) is outside taunting One Eyed Jack's manager Blackie (Victoria Catlin) by denying her a needed fix of heroin. Soon though, Jerry comes knocking to inform Ben that a situation has arisen and Audrey escapes though Ben tells her as he leaves, "You know how to interest a man" and promises to come back. Before the brothers Horne have returned to the Great Northern, the still-bleeding Agent Cooper starts dictating to Diane on his tape recorder, hoping he left it on voice activation (The dialogue is contained on the audio cassettes of Cooper's notes put on sale earlier this year). Before Coop gets too far, Harry, Hawk and Andy (Michael Ontkean, Michael Horse, Harry Goaz) arrive and Cooper loses consciousness before awakening at the hospital, mumbling about the wood tick he was trying to get when he lifted his bulletproof vest that enabled his injuries.
Once awake, Harry asks Lucy (Kimmy Robertson, now listed in the main credits) to bring Cooper up to speed and she informs him that Leo (Eric Da Re) was shot and is in a coma, Nadine (Wendy Robie) took an overdose of pills and was in a coma, the mill burned, Shelly and Pete (Madchen Amick, Jack Nance) have smoke inhalation, Josie and Catherine (Joan Chen, Piper Laurie) are missing and that Jacques Renault (Walter Olkewicz) was murdered, prompting Cooper to understandbly ask, "How long was I out?" Doc Hayward (Warren Frost) tells Cooper that hospital hasn't seen this much activity since a fabled fire back in 1959. Despite Doc's objections, Cooper insists that he's well enough to get back on the job, merely asking for a couple hours to get dressed before they go to search Leo's house.
Meanwhile, things remain off-kilter at the Palmer household where Maddie (Sheryl Lee) tells her Aunt Sarah (Grace Zabriskie) that she had a dream about a certain part of the living room carpet before Leland (Ray Wise), apparently having had a restful night's sleep after smothering Jacques to death, emerges for the day energetically singing "Marzie Doats" and sporting a full head of white hair. Leland's good mood and singing follows him to the Great Northern, ready to return to work and even getting Ben and Jerry to dance along as he continues to sing. Later, Ben and Jerry find Hank Jennings (Chris Mulkey) standing in the dark of Ben's office and push him for answers as to why Leo isn't dead, whether Catherine could be and where are Josie's whereabouts. Hank tries to offer an explanation, but Ben reminds him that he and his brother are the brains and that he's merely a bicep who is to flex for them when he's told to.
Donna (Lara Flynn Boyle) is undergoing a personality change, having Maddie fetch Laura's sunglasses for her and turning dark and seductive as she wears them. She visits dim bulb James (James Marshall) in the jail and surprises him with her moves, including suddenly smoking cigarettes. James asks when she picked up the habit and Donna says she only smokes when she's tense. James, missing a lot of obvious reasons why she might be tense, asks when she got so tense to which she replies, "When I started smoking." Donna also receives a note urging her to check into the Meals on Wheels program in which Laura participated.
As the still recuperating Cooper resumes his investigative duties, the delightful asshole of an FBI agent, Albert Rosenfeld, (Miguel Ferrer) arrives to unload fresh new insults and to look into Dale's shooting. Ferrer's brief appearances in season one were a treat, but he's on fire upon his return as he alienates sweet Andy and tries to stifle a laugh as Cooper encounters Big Ed (Everett McGill) in the hospital, who tells of his history with Nadine and how she lost her eye. Albert also brings Coop some unwelcome news: his ex-partner Windom Earle, who went insane and was locked up in a mental hospital, has escaped. While still at the hospital, Coop also spots the late Jacques Renault hanging in a body bag that resembles a smile, answering one of the giant's first clues. Andy solves another puzzler for him when he discovers that Leo had been jailed in Hungry Horse, Montana, on the same day Teresa Banks was murdered, making him unlikely as Laura's killer.
One of the most touching scenes in the season two premiere happens when Major Briggs (Don S. Davis) encounters his son Bobby (Dana Ashbrook) at the Double R Diner. The major, who was portrayed in season one almost exclusively as a strict disciplinarian, shares with his son a calming dream he had about Bobby's future and how hopeful it made him. His sincerity almost brings the stunned Bobby to tears, though he's brought back to reality as he spots Hank and remembers that he saw him shoot Leo, though he keeps the information to himself.
The Palmers pay a dinner visit to the Haywards where Leland continues in his good mood as Doc grills him about the sudden change in his hair color. Leland can't explain it, but says he feels as if a giant burden has been lifted from his shoulders. He's still grieving for his slain daughter, but something has changed. He then proceeds to engage in another song, this time "Get Happy" with perhaps a potentially important lyric: Get ready for judgment day. As he sings though, Leland faints, much to Sarah's embarrassment and as Doc brings him back around, Leland is ready for the show to go on urging them to "Begin the Beguine."
Back at One Eyed Jack's, Audrey, having escaped her encounter with her father and endured a tongue lashing from Blackie, prays to Agent Cooper that he find the note she left him, which slid under the hotel bed when he was shot. As Cooper prepares to go back to sleep after his extremely long and eventful day, the giant pays him another visit to tell him that three people have seen "him," but only one his body and that person is ready to talk. The giant also tells Cooper he forgot something, presumably reminding him about Audrey's note. Back at the hospital, Ronette Pulaski (Phoebe Augustine) begins to stir out of her coma, having flashbacks to the Laura's murder in the train car and, in one of the most frightening, quickly edited sequences the series has produced yet, she relives the crime and sees horrifying glimpses of the long-haired man that popped up in Cooper's dream and Sarah's vision. I'm sure some will complain, but I found the second season premiere to be great and I'm grateful for the show's return.
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Monday, April 23, 2007
Tales Told By Idiots: Bad Bard, Bad Bard, Whatchagonnado?
This post is part of the Shakespeare Blog-a-Thon being coordinated at Coffee, Coffee and More Coffee. Check there for links to other posts.
Shakespeare wrote some of the most stirring and beautiful lines trapped in paper, but you wouldn't know it listening to some of the actors who tried to speak them. For every Gielgud, O'Toole and Olivier, there are double the number of actors who just couldn't get their mouths around that iambic pentameter. Why do they even try? Is it the paycheck? Or the notion that reciting Shakespeare will win you an Oscar, as it did for Sir Larry O and Richard Dreyfuss?
In honor of the Shakespeare-Blog-a-Thon, here is a brief list of actors who should never have attempted to tell us what a piece of work man is, or who did so for nefarious Oscar purposes. Who should have taken Shakespeare's "and the rest is silence" seriously?
Stunt Casting, Thy Name is Kenneth Branagh
I used to think Kenneth Branagh was a great Shakespearean actor, but I am starting to question if he seemed so good because he cast people who were so bad and played scenes with them. I appreciate how he tries to bring Shakespeare to the groundlings of today, and I've liked most of his adaptations, but he sure likes his stunt casting. The phenomenon is not new — John Wayne as Genghis Khan, anyone? — but Shakespeare's dialogue is a perilous mixture of rhythm, elocution and emotion. It is not about the physicality of the actor, it is about their vocal delivery. Director Branagh, in his admirable desire to make the teenagers saddled with reading Shakespeare grow to love it, apparently ignored the train wrecks he witnessed in his viewfinder. For every great performance he recorded (Derek Jacobi, Emma Thompson), Branagh gave us:
Believe it or not, Keanu Reeves can be an effective actor. I'm not one of those people who pick on "Mr. Whoa" because it's fashionable; credit is deserved where it is due. While he is nowhere as bad as some have reported, he is still out of his league. Reeves has a perpetual scowl and a flat delivery; he is a verbal deer caught in the Bard's headlights. Reeves would have benefited greatly if Ted Logan had met Shakespeare in that time-travelling phone booth. I had an easier time buying that Reeves and Denzel Washington were brothers than anything coming out of Reeves' mouth.
Jack Lemmon was so effective in Glengarry Glen Ross because his vocal pauses, stammers and ticks fit well with Mamet's "cuss cuss cuss pause cuss cuss pause pause cuss cuss cuss cuss pause" style of writing. Like the Bard, Mamet's dialogue is musical and needs the right interpreter to make it sing. Can you imagine Bob Newhart doing Marc Antony's speech in Julius Caesar or Christopher Walken doing Hamlet? ("What ... a piece of work is man How noble ... in reason...") Lemmon's tics and Shakespeare's verse fit as well as Slowpoke Rodriguez singing a rap by Krayzie Bone, or Shirley Bassey doing Metallica. Every line is delivered differently as Lemmon tries in vain to bend the Bard toward his Lemmon-isms. It's painful to watch him flail. As much as I love Jack Lemmon, his performance here lives up to his last name.
In the court of Hollywood, I propose the Cruz-Depardieu Law, which states that Gerard Depardieu and Penélope Cruz should NEVER act in English. In Hamlet, Depardieu becomes Depar-don't, an amazing feat since all he has to say is "Yes, my lord" about 12 times. While I'm proposing laws, might I add the "Williams Anti-Caricature Law," which states that, if clueless on how to play a role, Robin Williams must never fall back on stereotypical racial and homosexual voices. Williams' Osric has an odd gay vibe that thankfully distracts from his horrendous line readings. Perhaps he was trying to get an Oscar; it worked for Richard Dreyfuss' Chelsea boy Richard III.
As Felix Unger Would say: Oscar! Oscar! Oscar!
Sometimes actors think they can tackle Shakespeare simply because they have been praised or honored for other work. Others believe their star is so big that they are invincible. Still others believe that Shakespeare is the way to that elusive Oscar. This is why some of these actors tried their luck at the Bard.
Look up "feast or famine" in the dictionary and you'll find a picture of Jessica Lange. Either she's superb (Men Don't Leave, All That Jazz, Frances, Tootsie) or superbad (God, where do I start? Hush, Big Fish, King Kong). The failure of Titus rests on the shoulders of director Julie Taymor whose film completely misses the point of the Bard's play: this is a sick parody. She turns it into a sick ABC Afterschool Special Done by MTV. The play's violence is so gruesome and over-the-top, and the situations so telenovela-dramatic that it is impossible to take with the seriousness and the underlying social commentary Taymor tries to push. If any Bard adaptation screamed out for the geeky, caressing hands of Quentin Tarantino, it's this one. After Lange played Blanche DuBois opposite daughter cusser-outer Alec Baldwin, she started adding Blanche to almost every role she played afterward. As the Queen of the Goths, she looks less Goth and more Glam, like Ziggy Stardust crossed with Divine, and she attacks her lines as if she were the Queen of the Southern Gothics. Vengeful lines come out goofy, seductive lines come out cold, and she is histrionic in all the wrong places. There is no rhythm nor rhyme to her performance, and for Shakespeare, that's the kiss of death.
I once heard this anecdote about A Double Life: during the course of the film, one of the audience members turned to his wife and said "So when does he sing 'Mammy?'" Whether this is true I've no idea, but Colman's performance as an actor driven mad by his performance in Othello couldn't have been any worse had he done Jolson's signature tune. While there is less Shakespeare in this film than in the aforementioned adaptations, what's here plays an integral part in this loony film noir directed by George Cukor. Colman plays the original Method Actor, a man who becomes the characters he plays. Knowing this, someone still suggests he tackle Othello. (Why not Joan of Arc? At least he wouldn't kill anybody.) Colman starts spouting Othello's lines at inopportune moments, then takes his delusion to its logical conclusion by giving Shelley Winters a really effective neck rub. Colman's Othello is so hammy it makes Vincent Price's turn in the superior Theater of Blood look like vintage Gielgud, and I found myself feeling envious for Shelley — at least she didn't have to listen to him anymore. Oscar fell for it, and they gave him Best Actor. Colman strangled the Oscar onstage during the ceremony. (Just kidding.)
Unless you can give me another reason why the Washington Wizards player even attempted Shakespeare in this film, I'm going to have to go with the Dreyfuss Defense: Quoting Shakespeare gets you an Oscar nomination! At least he didn't play a rapping genie like that OTHER basketball player.
in A Midsummer Night's Dream
Both Flockhart and the usually reliable David Straithairn have a hard time convincingly spouting their dialogue. Straithairn is stiff and uncomfortable and Flockhart is an 18th century Ally McBeal clone, as if that series had been reimagined as Black Adder. Her last scene in the film made me want to poke my eyes out and ram Q-tips into my ears.
Peter O'Toole CAN do Shakespeare. My beef (and I realize I'm cheating here) is that he does it solely to get an Oscar nomination. There is no need for him to do it in this film, and considering that we already know how great he is at it, I saw his Venus recitation as a shameful pander. There really is nothing here that is Oscar worthy — O'Toole playing a dirty old boozy pussy hound actor is akin to me playing someone with a Y-chromosome — so this is thrown in to remind us how good O'Toole once was and why Oscar should be shamed into giving him the Oscar he so richly deserved elsewhere. Thankfully, it didn't work.
There are many others (Bruce Willis in Moonlighting's "Atomic Shakespeare" episode, to name one) but as Polonius said, "brevity is the soul of wit," so I shall exeunt here. Parting is such sweet sorrow.
Labels: Blog-a-thons, Branagh, Cukor, Denzel, Emma Thompson, Gielgud, J. Lange, Lemmon, Mamet, O'Toole, Olivier, Penélope Cruz, R. Colman, Robin, Shakespeare, Shelley Winters, Television, Walken, Willis
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The Shakespeare Riots by Nigel Cliff
This post is part of the Shakespeare Blog-a-Thon being coordinated at Coffee, Coffee and More Coffee. Check there for links to other posts.
By Edward Copeland
One thing I've always puzzled over is how Shakespeare, once beloved by everyone, even the least-educated groundlings of the Globe Theatre, transformed over the centuries into someone whose works were considered suitable only for the "elites." I remember the disdain many fellow students had when we were required to read the great plays in high school and that attitude usually followed into adulthood.
An answer to this mystery may be found in an insightful new book called The Shakespeare Riots: Revenge, Drama and Death in Nineteenth-Century America by Nigel Cliff. The book tells the history of the event which gives the work its title, namely unrest in New York in the 1840s that started over a dispute about two leading Shakespearean actors of the time. It seems extraordinary to imagine that kind of violent passion erupting today, but it did, its spark originating in the same Five Points area of Manhattan that later produced the even deadlier Draft Riots depicted in Martin Scorsese's Gangs of New York. As Cliff sees it, and his case is fairly convincing, the Shakespeare Riots led to the fissure in views of The Bard that continues to this very day.
The book recounts the history that led up to the Astor Place Riots in New York in 1849, when the feud between two of the top Shakespearean actors in England, William Charles Macready, and the leading American performer of the Bard, Edwin Forrest, escalated to the point of actual fighting and death. Cliff's book doesn't just cover the specific event but takes a more panoramic view of the events that led up to the conflict that ended up with more than 30 dead on New York's streets.
It's fascinating to read of the time where many of the elite looked down on Shakespeare while the common man embraced his work, even out in the newly settled American West, though often by taking liberties with the works themselves. It also recounts the tension between English writers and America with a little bit of history I also was unaware of concerning U.S. copyright laws.
Back then, the U.S. didn't recognize foreign copyrights on any works written in the English language so prominent writers such as Charles Dickens couldn't earn a dime from the dissemination of their works in America — a law that amazingly stayed on the books until 1986.
While I won't recount the specifics of the events that led to the riots because I hope people will seek out this book and read it for themselves. I will add though that, in Cliff's opinion, this is the key event that led to the common man's rejection of Shakespeare and his image as that for only the highly educated.
Once the smoke and blood had been cleared following the violence, the rich of the time built sparkling new theaters further up in Manhattan so they would no longer have to mingle with the riffraff — complete with prices that made sure that those lower on the economic scale would stay away and they did, not even bothering much to continue staging the Bard themselves in their own areas.
It's a shame, because Shakespeare is timeless and no matter your social or economic status, everyone would be better served by exposure to his great and timeless works.
TO READ ON, CLICK HERE
Friday, April 20, 2007
Touch my heart — with your film
By Edward Copeland
I'm not certain what year it was when I first saw Annie Hall, which turns 30 years old today, but I do remember the circumstance. I was still in grade school and a local TV station was showing it late one Friday night. I decided to watch, though I'd never seen a Woody Allen film at this point and all I knew was that this was the movie that stopped my beloved Star Wars from winning the Oscar for best picture. I thought it was funny and I liked it, though it would take years for me to truly appreciate all of its charms and jokes (and about the same time before I finally admitted that yes, the best picture had won for 1977).
"I feel that life is divided into the horrible and the miserable. That's the two categories. The horrible are like, I don't know, terminal cases, you know, and blind people, crippled. I don't know how they get through life. It's amazing to me. And the miserable is everyone else. So you should be thankful that you're miserable, because that's very lucky, to be miserable."
It seems odd to me now how strongly I identified with the Woody Allen persona when I was young. Sure, I was funny and cynical, but I certainly wasn't middle-age, Jewish or a New Yorker and I hadn't endured a series of painful relationships. Hell, I was in grade school, really I had no relationship experience at all (though like Alvy Singer, I too never had a latency period). I think a great deal of my identification with Alvy came with the way I was introduced to him and, by extension, Allen: With him talking directly to the screen (i.e., me) and telling two funny jokes about relationships that seemed to make perfect sense to me even at the time. ("And such small portions" and "I would never belong to any club that would have someone like me for a member" seemed to ring particularly true to even my young self.)
Even the gags I didn't truly get upon first viewing (such as the classic Marshall McLuhan moment) were still funny, whether you knew who McLuhan was or what he stood for. The funny thing is that when I re-watched Annie Hall prior to writing this piece, I realized for the first time that the blowhard standing behind Alvy and Annie in line actually is right about Fellini being overly indulgent in terms of films such as Juliet of the Spirits and Satyricon. I could go on endlessly repeating the famous lines and memorable scenes, but I'll try to refrain myself as much as possible on the chance that some people who read this still might not have seen Annie Hall.
Instead, let me just recount some of the many reasons I love this movie. First and foremost, there is Diane Keaton in her Oscar-winning role and at her most effervescent as the charming, infuriating mess that is Annie Hall. Allen always has worked best when he has had a talented muse to center his films around. Keaton was his first great one, Mia Farrow his second. Now, Allen flounders, since Soon-Yi can't fit that bill and, as much as I like Scarlett Johansson, I don't believe she can fill that void either.
Then there are the hilarious flashbacks to his childhood though they could be anyone's childhood, to some extent). Who didn't think many of their classmates were jerks and idiots and who didn't have run-ins with teachers that you just knew intuitively didn't quite have enough on the ball? That attitude extends to adults as well (I still laugh every time Alvy describes intellectuals as people who can be completely brilliant and still not know anything). Then there is this: "Can I confess something? I tell you this as an artist, I think you'll understand. Sometimes when I'm driving... on the road at night... I see two headlights coming toward me. Fast. I have this sudden impulse to turn the wheel quickly, head-on into the oncoming car. I can anticipate the explosion. The sound of shattering glass. The... flames rising out of the flowing gasoline," which may well be the first in a seemingly endless series of great Christopher Walken movie monologues in his role as Annie's brother Duane.
Annie Hall marks the transition of Woody Allen's filmmaking from his flat-out early comedies (most of which are still priceless) to his ventures into other realms. (Allen once famously said that Annie Hall was hardly his 8½, more like his 2½. Who knew how right he was?) As great as Annie Hall was and still is, it really just laid the foundation for some of his greater works to come such as The Purple Rose of Cairo, Hannah and Her Sisters and Crimes and Misdemeanors. Even if he's been in a cinematic slump for awhile, with a few exceptions, his work from 1977-1989 is astounding.
With Annie Hall, he also experimented with the medium, not in any remarkable ways really, but still in ways that impress, from the scene where subtitles translate characters' inner thoughts, to frequent, contrasting split screens and even an animated sequence. Unlike many films from the 1970s, Annie Hall seems fairly timeless (though you do have to gulp when Alvy is outraged to learn that Annie pays $400 a month for a lousy Manhattan apartment. Those were the days...) As Roger Ebert once wrote about Citizen Kane, that film's structure is such that no matter how often you've seen it, if you come in after it's started, you are never quite certain what scene comes next. Annie Hall works much the same way. While Annie Hall above all else is a comedy (and one of the rare times the Academy saw fit to honor a comedy), Alvy Singer does, if you look hard enough, share some superficial similarities to Charles Foster Kane. Both men are described as islands unto themselves and both just want to be loved, though Woody Allen got to speak frankly about sex in a way Orson Welles couldn't be allowed. ("Don't knock masturbation — it's sex with someone I love"; "As Balzac said, 'There goes another novel.'"; "That's the most fun I've had without laughing." Alvy also has his sexual prowess described as a "Kafkaesque experience," which the woman played by Shelley Duvall insists is a compliment.)
In Alvy's final joke, again spoken directly to the audience, he tells of a man who tells a psychiatrist that his brother thinks he's a chicken. The doctor asks why the man doesn't turn him in, to which the man replies, "I would, but I need the eggs." We need eggs such as Annie Hall and I still hold out hope that Woody Allen can rebound with some more great films before his moviemaking career ends, but even if he doesn't, he's left us more than enough quality eggs with which to cook some tasty cinematic omelettes.
TO READ ON, CLICK HERE
Thursday, April 19, 2007
The Curtain by Milan Kundera
"Is is true that the period people are living through now in Bohemia cries out for its Balzac? Maybe. Maybe it would be enlightening for the Czechs to read novels about the return of capitalism to their country, a broad rich novel cycle, with many characters, written like Balzac? But no novelist worthy of the name will write such a novel. ... Because while History (mankind's History) might have the poor taste to repeat itself, the history of an art will not stand for repetitions. Art isn't there to be some great mirror registering all of History's ups and downs, variations, endless repetitions. Art is not a village band marching dutifully along at History's heels. It is there to create its own history. What will ultimately remain of Europe is not the repetitive history, which in itself represents no value. The one thing that has some chance of enduring is the history of its arts."
By Edward Copeland
So ends the first part of Milan Kundera's fascinating book The Curtain: An Essay in Seven Parts exploring the evolution of novels and making a case along the way for the importance of each new writer building upon the foundation of what writers had left before.
The preceding quote came from an exchange he had with a friend who remained in Czechoslovakia long after Kundera had fled for France and who expressed a need for writers who could explore the new state of the post-communist Czech Republic. Kundera, one of my favorite novelists whose works include The Unbearable Lightness of Being, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting and The Joke, proves just as strong writing on theory as he does spinning fictional webs.
Though Czech by birth, most of Kundera's works have been written in French and I so wish I knew that language so I could read his words the way he truly wrote them, because if they prove this memorable in an English translation I can only imagine they would be even more powerful as he wrote them. Still, as translated by Linda Asher, whom I believe has translated the majority of Kundera's works that I have read, he definitely exhibits exceptional prose powers.
As the title indicates, The Curtain is divided into seven sections: "The Consciousness of Continuity," "Die Weltliteratur," "Getting Into the Soul of Things," "What Is a Novelist?" "Aesthetics and Existence," "The Torn Curtain" and "The Novel, Memory, Forgetting."
Kundera seems a perfect choice for the theoretical exploration he takes the reader on. The Joke, his very first novel, remains one of the greatest reading experiences of my life. Its structure even inspired me with an idea for one of my many unwritten novels, though as his book suggests, I wasn't planning on straight-forward plundering, I would have tweaked the framework he built into my own creation, had I (or if I) ever finish it.
Granted, Kundera certainly has read more works than I ever could hope to, even not knowing the specifics of some of the novels he cites, the case he makes still comes through clearly. One of his most telling example, at least for me, is when he repeats a legendary story regarding Flaubert and Madame Bovary.
"Even when no one reads Flaubert anymore, the phrase 'Madame Bovary is me' will not be forgotten. That famous line: Flaubert never wrote it. We owe it to a Miss Amelie Bosquet, a mediocre novelist ... To some person whose name remains unknown, that Amelie confided a very precious bit of information: that she once asked Flaubert what woman was the model for Emma Bovary, and that he supposedly replied, 'Madame Bovary is me!' Much struck by this, the unknown person passed along the information to a certain M. Deschermes who, also much struck, spread it about. The mountains of commentary inspired by that apocryphal item say a great deal about the futility of literary theory which, helpless before a work of art, endlessly spout platitudes about the author's psyche."
This leads Kundera to explore the importance of memory to a reader's perception of a work, whether a book is read in a single setting or over the course of weeks, and how common it is to misremember the details of novels, even the ones you love, as you progress forward in time.
At another point, he laments the tendency to try to make the fictional real, regretting that he ever heard that Albertine in Proust's Remembrance of Things Past actually was based on a man. It may come off sounding slightly homophobic, but it is perfectly understandable how knowing the reality that inspired a writer can wreck the images the novelist evoked in a reader.
Kundera raises so many great ideas (and it is a short book as well, a mere 168 pages), that it's impossible to go over them all, but The Curtain should be read by anyone who loves novels or contemplates writing them.
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Wednesday, April 18, 2007
Kitty Carlisle Hart (1910-2007)
With the passing of Kitty Carlisle Hart at the age of 96, a large database of entertainment history has gone with her. Her work spanned Broadway, movies and television, working with everyone from the Marx Brothers in A Night at the Opera, Woody Allen in Radio Days and Will Smith in Six Degrees of Separation as well as being a staple of classic TV game shows such as To Tell the Truth and What's My Line? She was married to the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Moss Hart, co-writer of such classics as You Can't Take It With You and The Man Who Came to Dinner. Her stories that spanned nearly the entire 20th century of Broadway theater were included in the great documentaries Broadway: The American Musical and Broadway: The Golden Age As Told By The Legends Who Were There. She even appeared as a guest on the short-lived Howard Stern Show that ran in the early 1990s. Her last Broadway appearance came in 1984 in a revival of On Your Toes and she continued to tour in her one-woman show Here's to Life up until she contracted pneumonia in December of last year.
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Did you hear the one about the blonde who went to law school?
By Josh R
Ladies and Gentlemen of the Jury…
Before hearing evidence in the matter of Legally Blonde vs. The Court of Public Opinion, I’d like to take this opportunity to make a few opening statements. It is true that we live in fractious, divided times. Despite the heroic efforts of my colleague, Mr. Edward Copeland, there are many denizens of cyberspace who will never have occasion, or the inclination, to seek out an inaccurately named blog with several voices and looks at TV, theater, books and music as well (at this point, we would like to enter Edward Copeland on Film into evidence as Exhibit A).
The reasons for this are two-fold. In the first place, some people just have no taste. Secondly, there are many who, for reasons that remain inexplicable to me, would rather spend the hours they log in front of the monitor seeking out baseball scores, trolling for porn or engaging in spirited chat room debate centered around the latest ejection from American Idol. These people have about as much vested interest in the fate of a Broadway musical as I do in whether or not Barry Bonds has enough human growth hormone coursing through his veins to give Shamu a heart attack. We are a country divided by values, interests, and conflicting notions of what is important.
Enough is enough…let us put an end to this discouraging trend of cultural divergence! The time has come for us, as a people, to find common ground, and embrace the simple truth that the things that unite as are far greater than those which divide us. In spite of our seeming incompatibility, we all have one glorious thing in common: We all love watching other people fail.
Oh, c’mon, you know it’s true. What sports fan doesn’t chuckle malevolently when the opposing team gets routed, to the tune of an embarrassingly lopsided scoreline? Who doesn’t chortle with glee at the ongoing trials of Britney Spears, whose increasingly bizarre lapses in sanity seem specifically engineered to make Liza Minnelli seem like a functional human being in comparison? Who doesn’t love a train wreck? (At this point, we would like to enter the mere existence of The Razzie Awards — and indeed, the entire film career of Pia Zadora, such as it is — into evidence as Exhibit B.)
And so it is on Broadway, where the arrival of a genuine, cubic-zirconia-studded disaster is greeted with about as much enthusiasm by the New York drama critics as a visit from St. Nick. When it was announced that a musicalization of the featherbrained popcorn movie Legally Blonde was Broadway bound, a sense of craven, bloodthirsty anticipation pervaded the air. You could practically hear the knives being sharpened.
Well, the knives are going to have to go back into their sheaths, at least for now. As a card-carrying member of the cult of disaster, it is with regret I must report that there is more that is right than is wrong with Legally Blonde, the enjoyably silly new musical currently in previews at The Palace Theatre. Frivolous though it may be, it keeps its platinum-highlighted head on its shoulders even when playing it dumb.
By now, everyone who hasn’t been living under a rock for the past several years is familiar with the story of the smart-dumb-blonde Elle Woods, a sort of latter-day Private Benjamin who becomes an unlikely success in the hallowed halls of Harvard Law School. The 2001 film version, which catapulted Reese Witherspoon onto the A-List while grossing more than $100 million in the process, caught the public’s attention by offering a dippy new twist on the classic tale of the underdog. Elle Woods — sorority sweetheart, homecoming queen, and the living embodiment of the MTV Barbie Doll fantasy tragically misguided teenage girls eagerly aspire to — is a born winner who winds up on the losing end of the stick. Shunned by her callow boyfriend, who doesn’t take her seriously enough to regard her as marriage material, she has to learn to retool her act, find her inner brainiac, and prove to all the doubters that she has what it takes to be more than just a cutie-pie with great fashion sense, a killer bod and follicular flair.
The Broadway incarnation is reasonably faithful to the template, with the same superficially amusing qualities that made the film such agreeably diverting fluff. It is by no stretch of the imagination the most interesting, adventurous or innovative show on the boards right now — in the musical category, one need look no further than Spring Awakening or Grey Gardens for evidence of that. But it preserves — and in some instances, actually improves upon — the qualities that made the original click, and there’s no law that says a show needs to be bold, challenging, or even particularly smart, in order to be good. Broadway’s Legally Blonde is the theatrical equivalent of a 20-foot miniature of the Statue of Liberty made entirely out of pink-frosted cupcakes — it’s definitely not art, but has an ersatz charm that will leave you with a stupid, silly grin on your face even if you can’t help feeling that your inner aesthete ought to know better. Entertainment value, in and of itself, is just as valuable a commodity as anything else the theater has to offer, and with all due respect to Spring and Gardens — better shows, overall — I’m guessing this crowd-pleasing confection is the one that audiences have truly been waiting for.
The process of bringing a new musical to Broadway is a treacherous journey, and the producers might have hedged their bets by contracting a commercially viable star to bolster ticket sales against the possibility of negative reviews (Exhibit C: The Boy from Oz, starring Hugh Jackman). Asking the role’s originator to reprise her pre-Oscar-winning performance might have been reaching for the stars, but they certainly could have gotten a Hilary Duff, or even (God forbid) a Jessica Simpson if they’d been willing to pony up the cash. Instead, they decided to risk it all on Laura Bell Bundy, a virtual unknown whose biggest previous credit was creating the role of teen villainess Amber von Tussle in the original cast of Hairspray. In that performance, there was nothing to suggest a presence dynamic or distinctive enough to build an entire show around; in all fairness, short of being Carol Channing, you’d need to brandish a scimitar onstage to avoid being bullied into the background by Hairspray’s collection of scene-stealers.
Anyone who feared that Ms. Bundy wouldn’t be equal to the task of carrying a show can stop worrying...the hunch has paid off. She is charming, funny and, as luck would have it, a good actress, putting her own stamp on the role while investing it with more depth of feeling than it probably required. Bundy tempers Elle’s unflappable perkiness with a wistful, goofy sweetness — even decked out in Paris Hilton’s wardrobe, she’s still wholesome enough to qualify as the girl next door (albeit one who lives next door to the Spellings). The show’s creators have made the character’s development somewhat more convincing — in the film, it was never clear what Elle responded to in the study of law that she couldn’t just as easily have gotten from going to med school, becoming a nuclear physicist or branding her own line of hair care products. Here as in the movie, she comes into her own as a confident, independent woman who the commands respect of others, but she’s also finding a genuine sense of purpose in becoming a lawyer. Being written off as a just another dumb blonde heightens her awareness of the injustices that exist in the world at large — injustices which she has the power to correct (even though the wrong to be righted may be something as trivial as helping a pet-lover regain custody of her pug). Of course, I could have done without the tepidly inspirational ballad in which Elle tells us how much she’s grown, but I suppose in the age of Wicked, songs like that — and the one in which all the female characters convene for a peppy anthem celebrating Girl Power — are to be regarded as inevitable. I object!
Given these quibbles, I suppose now is as good a time as any to put on my stern professor hat. Book writer Heather Hach goes in for a lot of obvious jokes, some too much so for my taste — in that respect, her libretto functions more or less on the same level as the screenplay on which it's based. The score, by Laurence O’Keefe and Nell Benjamin, consists mainly of the sort of generic pop that can be heard in any one of a dozen Broadway tuners of the last five years (one glorious exception is a Gilbert-and-Sullivan inspired patter number in which an entire courtroom stops to ponder whether a witness is “Gay or European”). There are a few sequences that feel like tired recapitulations of things you've seen in other shows, and others in which the silliness is overemphasized. Even in a musical that strives for irreverence, the bouncy production number in which fitness guru/alleged husband-killer Brooke Wyndham (Nikki Snelson) leads the orange-jumpsuit-clad inmate population of a women’s correctional facility in a high-octane, rope-jumping workout session is too dopey by half. Apart from occasional lapses such as these, the production rarely lags, and director-choreographer Jerry Mitchell keeps things moving along at a breezy clip. It’s too bad there isn’t a Tony Award for best employment of a golf cart in a dance sequence — he’d win in a landslide.
One of the best decisions the creative team made was to bulk up the role of Emmett, Elle’s new love interest; the creators take the time to develop an odd-couple relationship which evolves convincingly from tentative friendship into a pairing with real chemistry (as played by Luke Wilson in the film version, the character registered as little more than a handsome afterthought in a corduroy jacket). Christian Borle, an engaging performer with comically outsized features and an impish grin, makes a nice foil for Elle’s flightiness, grounding her in the realities of being a law student just as she induces him to come out of his shaggy shell — he goads her into hitting the books, she drags him to the men’s department for a new wardrobe. As the lovelorn beautician who serves as the heroine’s confidante, Orfeh can’t really match the divine weirdness of Jennifer Coolidge, the screen comedienne who always comes across as some kind of dazed visitor from another planet; nevertheless, she scores with a daffy ballad about how listening to Irish muzak stimulates her daydreams, and her side-splittingly inept interactions with a studly UPS deliveryman (Andy Karl), who struts the stage like a Chippendales dancer, make her a clear audience favorite. A trio of sorority sisters (Leslie Kritzer, DeQuina More, Annaleigh Ashford) serving as a traveling Greek chorus would steal just about every scene they were in if Bundy weren’t on her game — even if the gimmick is overused. The other principals — Richard H. Blake as the self-infatuated heartthrob who sets the story in motion by breaking Elle’s heart, Kate Shindle as his upper-crusty new girlfriend, and Michael Rupert as a smarmy professor — lend solid support. The energetic ensemble — which includes two performers of the canine variety — seems to be enjoying itself, and the audience plays right into their hands.
Audience response, it should be noted, is not an automatic guarantee of success…this is Broadway after all, not the multiplex. An infamously cranky jury of professional theater critics has yet to weigh in, and it is their verdict that will determine the show’s ultimate fate. Somehow, I suspect this blonde will emerge unscathed — if you can make it through Harvard Law, you can survive just about anything, and Ms. Woods is making a pretty good case for herself as The Girl Most Likely to Succeed. Case dismissed!
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Tuesday, April 17, 2007
Triptyching the light so-so
I'd heard many good things about Hou Hsiao-hsien's Three Times as one of 2006's unsung films and it certainly did take awhile before it became available for me to see it. A trilogy of stories linked mainly by the same two lead actors, Shu Qi and Chang Chen, it suffers from the problem that nearly every film comprised of separate, nonlinked stories suffer from: Some parts are better than others, so the end result inevitably leaves mixed feelings about the work as a whole.
The first segment, "A Time for Love" set in 1966, is the simplest and the sweetest, telling the tale of a soldier heading off to the Army (Chen) and a young woman he meets at a pool hall (Qi) before leaving for his service. Later, when he gets a brief leave, he endures an arduous path to track her back down in hopes of continuing their tentative romance.
The mood is innocent and touching, including great use of the classic American 1950s hit "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes." Very little happens, but the result is moving, getting Three Times off to a solid start.
The next segment, "A Time for Freedom," backtracks to 1911 to tell the story of a budding friendship between a prostitute in a brothel and a man who frequently visits here. What makes this story unusual is that Hou Hsiao-hsien films it as if it's a silent film.
There is continuous music, but all dialogue appears on title cards, with the actors voices never heard, except when the prostitute sings. The results ends up being more an interesting experiment than a satisfying one.
For his final tale, "A Time for Youth," the director leaps to 2005 to tell the story of a highly charged, sexual relationship between a photographer and a pop singer who also happens to be epileptic.
I suspect that Hou Hsiao-hsien is trying to say that the more things change, the more they stay the same. The relationships in all three stories involve missed opportunities or thoughtlessness on the part of one of both parties and are hampered either by the situations they are in or, in the 2005 tale, even technology.
I just wish the entire package held together better than it does. I suspect he decided to forgo chronological order by putting the 1966 tale first because he realized it was the strongest, but the side effect is that after those 45 minutes or so, boredom and impatience set in. It's well shot and acted, but as with many compendium of stories, one towers above the others.
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Monday, April 16, 2007
At 8½ hours, this playwright ain't Russian
The questions prompted by Tom Stoppard’s The Coast of Utopia, the ambitious three-play cycle being performed in repertory at Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont Theater, extend beyond those of the philosophical bent being posed by the characters onstage. This is especially true for anyone attempting to write about it — exactly how does one go about summarizing an 8½ hour work of theater, so broad in scope of purpose and meaning as to all but defy any attempt at description?
For the obdurate critic, it’s a daunting proposition. If one had the time and the inclination, the assignment might entail drawing up an outline, mapping out the overall narrative arc and the journeys of the major characters in minute detail, then endeavoring to explain how it all relates to the playwright’s observations about the nature of revolution in all its permutations, both literal and figurative. Shew.
If I sound overawed by the prospect, I think many would concur that The Coast of Utopia is a work to inspire awe — and trepidation. Well in anticipation of its Broadway premiere, the intimidation factor surrounding Stoppard’s epic treatment of the lives and loves of revolutionary thinkers in 19th-century Russia was giving advance ticketholders night sweats. The panic reached its apotheosis when The New York Times (much to the chagrin of the people involved with the production) ran a list of publications prospective theatergoers ought to read before attempting to see the show — presumably to preserve any hope of understanding it. This recommended reading list, with citations ranging from the novels of Pushkin and Turgenev to long out-of-print collections of obscurely authored letters, conveyed the impression that a trip to the Beaumont represented less a night at the theater than a sort of winnowing-out process, the intellectual equivalent of Survivor. For those who were smart or well-studied enough to hang tough, the rewards would be manifold. For those who didn’t do their homework, the titles of the three installments, when recited in order — “Voyage,” “Shipwreck” and “Salvage” — had a ring of grim prophecy.
Of course, if the trilogy had been the work of say, Neil Simon, the appearance of a suggested reading list in the Times might not have produced nearly as much anxiety. Fairly or not, the name of Stoppard has always inspired an automatic sense of dread in certain quarters. Never the most user-friendly of playwrights to begin with, the term “genius” has often been used in reference to both the writer and his work — and not always in the spirit of a compliment. His critics accuse him of talking over the heads of his audiences; I, for one, will freely admit to never having been able to make heads or tails of Jumpers, one of his more inscrutable exercises in cerebral esoterica. Those who accuse his work of being emotionally inaccessible are given to say that he writes with his head, as opposed to his heart. To some extent (even though I don’t necessarily agree with that assessment), the reputation has been earned. Even with his best works — and the recent Broadway productions of The Invention of Love and The Real Thing stand as two of the highlights of my life’s theatergoing experience — there are moments when dramatic concision gets lost in a tangle of knotty verbiage, while considerations of character and plot take a back seat to the myriad of ideas floating in the ether.
The Coast of Utopia is not immune to some of these flaws, but it is not, as it detractors have suggested, dry, dull and dramatically inert. It’s talky, to be sure — often, too much so — but behind the intellectual discourse is something real and raw, a wellspring of human emotions both beautiful and terrible. When they bubble to the surface, the result is as arresting as anything to be seen on the stage in this or any season. A panoramic view of the tumult of European history, politics and thought, Stoppard’s most ambitious work to date is as miraculous as it is maddening — but it can never be accused of lacking in passion.
Just for the record, neither is it impossible to understand. As someone who did none of the required reading on the Times syllabus, I experienced no difficulty in following the action, although I made a deliberate decision early on not to try to assimilate every piece of revolutionary theory (featuring the ruminations of Marx, Kant, Hegel and a host of others) being trotted out on display. Be grateful for the fact that these revolutionaries led such colorful lives — beneath all the high-minded talk are the workings of a juicy, multigenerational soap opera.
Rather than tackling this three-headed hydra head-on, for the purposes of this writing it’s better to distill the plot down to the barest of essentials; a prolonged discussion of the various subplots, which are legion, would only breed confusion for the reader (and even more so for the writer.) The play charts the changing fortunes of an extended circle of 19th-century Russian revolutionaries — writers, philosophers, activists and agitators — over a span of 30 years. Their personal lives follow the same chaotic path as the politics of the Russian state, with optimism giving way to disillusionment as the idealism of youth is thwarted and confused by the capricious currents of history. The tragedy of these visionaries lies in the fact that, in spite of their best intentions, their vision got away from them — so much so as to leave them bewildered. A quixotic dream of Utopian Socialism is distorted by the tumult of constant upheaval and radical revisionism to the point that it eventually mutates into a harsher strain of Bolshevism (and ultimately, Communism.) These dreamers reach the coast of utopia, but never quite set foot on land.
The action moves from a bucolic county estate in the Russian countryside to the pressure-cooker of Moscow across the politically unstable landscape of 19th-century Europe, featuring an ever-rotating merry-go-round of more than 40 major and minor characters. Anchoring the trilogy is the writer Alexander Herzen (Brian F. O’Byrne), credited as being the father of Western socialism. Exiled from his homeland, he relocates to France and later Italy with his young family, continuing his advocacy for political reform. After the death of his wife, Natalie (Jennifer Ehle), he eventually establishes a Free Russian press based out of London, and ends his life in Switzerland, if not forgotten then widely discounted by the new breed of revolutionaries who rise up in his generation’s place. If O’Byrne, who has become one of Broadway’s most prolific leading men, came across as rather stiff and oratorical in the trilogy’s middle passage (he remains on the periphery of the action in the first play), by the time I saw him in “Shipwreck” several weeks later, he seemed to have relaxed nicely into the role.
Orbiting around Herzen is a galaxy of satellites — a motley collection of aristocrats, free-thinkers, lovers and rabble-rousers — and one would be hard-pressed to recall a starrier ensemble of actors than the one currently assembled at the Beaumont. It’s impossible to single out all of the 40-odd players who comprise this gallery of historical figures, although it should be mentioned that a number of them perform double or triple duty in multiple roles. Ethan Hawke hits the right notes of arrogance and petulance in a spry, funny turn as Michael Bakunin, the spoiled scion of privileged landed gentry who pursues his revolutionary interests with the brash moral certitude of an ego unchecked. Billy Crudup is virtually unrecognizable in his finely-tuned portrayal of the nebbishy journalist and critic Vissarion Belinsky, while Josh Hamilton finds subtle shades of regret and resignation in the poet and historian Nicolas Ogarev. Richard Easton is outstanding as the Bakunin patriarch, his self-satisfied complacency being slowly eroded by the harsh winds of change, and supplies moments of unbearable poignancy later on in his depiction of a dying Polish aristocrat in exile. Amy Irving is convincing enough as the fussy matriarch in “Voyage,” which makes her full-bodied, unabashedly confrontational sensuality as Maria Ogarev in “Shipwreck” all the more unexpected. Jason Butler Harner is a droll delight as the wry, bemused Turgenev, while David Harbour is particularly memorable as an enigmatic nihilist — a fine study of coiled aggression. Martha Plimpton does nicely by “Voyage’s” dutiful Varenka, who makes a sensible marriage and lives to regret it, but is an absolute revelation in the third play as the emotionally volatile Natasha, whose vivacious, impetuous nature hardens into a mass of vacillating feelings fueled by self-recrimination. As great as she was in the recent Shining City, is it in this role that she truly confirms her status as a stage actress of remarkable presence and charisma.
As impressive as everyone in the cast is, top acting honors must be conferred upon the luminous Ms. Ehle, who excels in three strikingly different roles. The tremulous delicacy that she brings to her performance in “Voyage” as the frail, gentle Liubuv, who finds bittersweet if fleeting happiness in the blush of first romance, exists in stark contrast to the firm-minded pragmatism of “Salvage’s” Malwida, the perspicacious German governess who exerts a steadying influence on the children of the Herzen household while keeping a wary eye fixed on the reckless behavior of its elders. It is in “Shipwreck,” however, that the actress is most prominently featured, and where she makes her most indelible impression. Far from the square-shouldered, sensible spinster of Part 3, or the pale, shy ingenue of Part I, Natalie Herzen is a rose in full bloom, a ravishing, vibrant romantic heroine who follows her heart into uncharted territory even as the ground beneath her feet begins to give way. The actress creates a captivating study in contradictions; winsome yet seductive, incisive yet wrong-headed, alternately reflective and impulsive, she provides the trilogy with its richest characterization, and its most lyrical.
As evidenced by her brilliant, Tony-winning turn in The Real Thing, Ehle has an instinctive grasp of the nuances of Stoppard’s language; her delivery is so natural and assured that it doesn’t even sound scripted, but rather something being thought up freshly on the spot. This is something I haven’t observed with any other actor in a Stoppard play, or really with many stage actors in general (stage acting seemingly necessitates a certain degree of staginess). The actress’s proficiency with dialogue is made all the more remarkable by its artlessness; although her physical transformation from role to role is quite stunning, her command of the language allows her to thoroughly embody her characters to a point where the effort is no longer visible.
The production itself is top-notch. Director Jack O’Brien corrals the action with a remarkably assured hand, bringing cohesion and succinctness to an occasionally unwieldy text, while Bob Crowley and Scott Pask’s ingenious scenic designs, Brian MacDevitt’s impressionistic lighting and Catherine Zuber’s sumptuous costumes create a resplendent visual tapestry which is stunning to behold. During the intermission of another show I attended this past week, I overheard three other theater patrons describing The Coast of Utopia as a great big, thundering bore. Truth be told, there are moments when it stalls and one’s focus is given to wander —
I have a feeling that “Shipwreck,” by my estimation the weakest of the three plays, would be a rather interminable affair if not for the invaluable contribution of Ms. Ehle, who is fortuitously placed as the center of its action. Stoppard is fond of big ideas and, perhaps in an effort to give his audiences a better chance of latching onto them, stresses his points through repetition. This is not an approach that will resonate with everyone — a few seats over from where I was sitting during “Shipwreck,” Martha Stewart could be observed snoozing away on the aisle (she woke up at intermission, talked on her cell for a bit, then went right back to sleep during the second act). She’s a busy lady; she needs to take her rest where she can get it. For everyone else, staying awake through the entire 8½ hour marathon — while admittedly more taxing than the average theatergoing experience — is something to be heartily recommended.
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