Monday, March 31, 2008


R-E-S-P-E-C-T? Not as far as I can see.

By Josh R
Forget whatever Mom and Dad told you. Respect is not always a good thing. Not everyone — or everything — deserves it. Sometimes it’s only right to be disrespectful.

Before anyone accuses me of being a bad influence, please note the use of qualifying adverbs to mitigate these statements. Apart from the high-ranking hawks who regard those sissy Geneva Convention mandates as impediments to achieving World Peace, no one is claiming that respect — for international law, the social compact or one’s fellow man — is an overrated virtue. That said, when it comes to the process of adapting a film into a musical, assuming an overly reverential stance toward one’s source material can not only be foolish — it can be fatal. If treating the original like the Holy Grail makes for a work of theater that feels like a pale imitation (*cough*Young Frankenstein*cough*), it’s best to rethink the soundness of the concept. If the source material isn’t very good to begin with (*cough*Footloose*cough*…drat these allergies), then by all means, don't treat it with reverence. Don’t be tolerant or considerate — don’t spare people’s feelings. Tear that sucker down. Be brutal.

As a film, the 1980 musical Xanadu was, and remains, virtually unwatchable. Perhaps best remembered as the vehicle which brought Olivia Newton-John’s acting career to a crashing halt, there's very little to be said in either its favor or its defense (if pushed, I'll grant that the art direction is borderline acceptable, in its tacky, Dance Party USA kind of way). The lame-brained plot — presumably devised at a slumber party and written out in glitter-pen with a smiley face in each O and a heart atop each i — told the story of a Greek muse taking human form to help a hapless hunk realize his artistic potential by opening up a roller disco. Tongue in cheek? Try tongue in place. Not even the presence of Gene Kelly in a supporting role lent an iota of credibility to the concept, or brought any redeeming value to the entire lunatic enterprise; it was always destined to be less Singin’ in the Rain than Singing to Cause Pain. Even at the dawn of the '80s, an era not exactly known for good taste, the moviegoing public still knew a stinker when they smelled one.

Understandably, the news that Xanadu was being adapted for the Broadway stage did not initially inspire a great deal of confidence. For all those who wondered if the people behind the decision to retrieve this glittery corpse from its mirror-balled, midnight movie grave were actually serious, the answer is — and for this we must all give thanks — of course not. The creators of Xanadu not only acknowledge how bad their source material is; in holding it up for ridicule, they subject it to the sort of skewering that goes well beyond innocuous parody. While the silly, peripatetic spectacle cutting a broad swath across the stage of the Helen Hayes Theatre in pastel-colored spandex is an affectionate send-up, it strives above all other objects to impress upon audiences just how remarkably bad the original film is. To that end, it succeeds, and the result is never less than trashy, snarky fun. As to whether or not a silk purse has been made out of a sow’s ear, I’m inclined to think not. That the jokers behind the stage incarnation have managed to get a brightly colored polyester handbag out of the most unprepossessing specimen in the pen is victory enough, and theatergoers who expect nothing more than a good time aren’t apt to leave feeling short-changed.

Any fear that the librettist Douglas Carter-Beane (The Little Dog Laughed) will be approaching his source material with anything other than the lack of respect it so richly deserves is dispelled early on, when the heroine chirpily declares her intention to take human form, don rollers skates with pink leg warmers, and speak with an Australian accent — in this case, so thick it practically bleeds Vegemite. Kerry Butler, the bright-eyed, angel-faced comedienne who memorably created the role of drippy tagalong Penny Pingleton in the Broadway production of Hairspray, delivers a merciless parody of her cinematic predecessor — her cheerful evisceration of Newton-John is spot on, right down to the infamously breathy delivery. Even if the actress’s performance is bit too knowing to fully capture the dreamy, slightly dazed quality that made the Aussie singing sensation such a soft-focus antidote to the flashy excesses of the glam-rock era, she’s still about as sunny as Dorothy Hamill doing a toothpaste commercial, with a vapid wholesomeness that shimmers with the same synthetic twinkle as her frosted lipstick. Like Ms. Hamill, she is also incredibly adept on skates — so much so that the 4.8s posted by some members of the Greek chorus during her spiral sequence seemed criminally low. Needless to say, Ms. Butler’s Clio/Kira is drawn less from the realm of Greek mythology than Me decade American kitsch; she’s unmistakably Olivia Newton-John, but as if played by Marcia Brady during open mike night on The Love Boat. If the characterization seems more in keeping with the sort of broad, shtick-laden impersonations of Forbidden Broadway sketches than the sort you’d expect to see in a full-length book musical, that’s in keeping with the tone of the show itself; she’s amusing enough to make you overlook the fact that everything she does exists on a purely one-dimensional level.

The same came be said of her strapping leading man, Cheyenne Jackson, who speaks in perpetual tones of dawning awareness as the embodiment of sensitive-hunk cluelessness. He’s the All-American boy as a sweet-natured simpleton; his super-short, super-tight jean cut-offs have apparently cut off all circulation to his brain. Perhaps because the tone of the show is so broad, and the rest of its cast favor a style so exaggerated, Tony Roberts seems a bit too restrained in the silver fox role originated by Kelly — his breezy, dapper charm is out of place in a show that seems pitched squarely over the top. Restraint is not a term that could applied to the scenery-chewing antics of Mary Testa and Jackie Hoffman, who steal the show every time they appear onstage as Clio’s scheming sisters, Melpomene and Calliope. A bosomy, brass-lunged belter in the Lainie Kazan mold and a shrunken troll-doll reminiscent of Jack Gilford in drag, this wonderfully mismatched duo provide the evening with its musical and comedic highpoint, a shrieking, cackling rendition of “Evil Woman” that is delivered in a key best described as Screaming Queen.

It’s really only when these two shameless hams are center stage that Xanadu rises to the level of a guilty pleasure. That it doesn’t manage to stay there for the entirety of its 90-minute running time has more to do with how simple its ambitions are, as opposed to the extent to which they are realized. While Xanadu hits its mark with perfect aim, it must be acknowledged that the mark has been set awfully low. The entire point of the show is to demonstrate how entertaining stupid can be — but smart humor is ultimately more nourishing than the brainless variety, and one can only consume so many Little Debbie’s snack cakes before the stomach, and the mind, begin to rebel. Calliope remarks in an aside to the audience that the show is basically “like children’s theater for 40-year old gay men”; that’s an apt assessment of the level on which it functions, and the degree to which the proceedings plays out like a live-action cartoon. While the right part of my brain had a perfectly good time laughing along with Xanadu’s silly gags and one-liners, the left part was rolling its eyes and marvelling at the fact that so many grown-up people in the audience were apparently willing to pay good money for pure, unadulterated schlock. There's a market for Statue of Liberty paperweights and I Love New York ties in Times Square; Xanadu is likely to appeal to the same demographic.

Still, I'm not a complete snob, and there’s something to be said for a show that keeps an audience laughing, and has no pretensions to be anything other than what it is: Junk Food. That being the case, Xanadu is at its best when it’s slathering on the cheez whiz and having fun at the expense of bad '80s movies. When the action moves to Mount Olympus, where Zeus and the other Greek Gods hold court, its no accident that they look and sound like Laurence Olivier, Maggie Smith and Ursula Andress in Clash of the Titans. The Electric Light Orchestra’s easy-listening score, consisting of disco-inflected compositions reminiscent of B-sides of Bee Gees albums, is infernally catchy, and director Christopher Ashley’s clever use of space is, in many ways, the show’s best asset. By the time the onstage audience members are called upon to crack their glo-sticks and dance along to the titular anthem, it’s clear that good sense has no place in Xanadu. It’s stupid and silly — perhaps too much so for my taste — but neither of those terms are used in the spirit of an insult or a reproach. For fashioning its audiences with a good time, Xanadu actually deserves a measure of respect.

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Friday, March 28, 2008


I'm about to egg Tino's car

By Edward Copeland
When I saw Boyz N the Hood back in 1991, it was an eye-opening, great movie. Two years later, Menace II Society came out and shone a light on the weaknesses of Boyz that I didn't fully grasp the first time. This may seem like an odd way to start a post about the great DVD set of My So-Called Life, but as much as I loved the series, in the years since came Freaks and Geeks and while My So-Called Life still has much to offer, Freaks really made its deficiencies more apparent.

Re-watching MSCL, I was struck as I was never struck before by how Claire Danes' Angela actually is the least interesting character in the series. Even in its original run, I dreaded the scenes involving her parents Patty and Graham (Bess Armstrong, Tom Irwin), despite how great Irwin is. This time, Angela sort of wore on me as well. The series seemed to be at its best when it put its other characters together in scenes, be it Rayanne and Sharon (A.J. Langer, Devon Odessa) or Rickie and Brian (Wilson Cruz, Devon Gummersall) or any other permutation you can devise. No episode better illustrated this than "Halloween," which put together Rayanne and Brian, Rickie and Jordan (Jared Leto) and even Sharon and Angela's little sister Danielle (Lisa Wilhoit), who mocks her sister by dressing as her. While all those scenes were interesting (even Graham and Patty playing dressup wasn't the bad), Angela is left to wander alone through the school's vacant halls, imagining the ghost of a long-dead student and bringing the episode to dead halt with each of her scenes. In fact, it's when MSCL went for something different that it most often strayed off course. The story of Rickie getting kicked out of his house because he came out would have been powerful enough, but did they have to load it down with Juliana Hatfield as an ethereal angel to give lessons to Angela and her mom? My So-Called Life deserves a lot of credit for the courage it took to even put the character of a gay teenager in prime time, so loading it up with holiday-theme bunk undercut their work. The best part of that episode ends up being the comic relief of Rayanne working with Sharon on the teen problem hot line. Then again, A.J. Langer provided most of the series' greatest moments.

When MSCL got the axe by ABC, it was reported that part of the reason was that Claire Danes wanted out. Watching the series again, I'm more convinced than ever that the series might have been stronger if they'd written out the Chases entirely. Don't get me wrong: It's not that I dislike the show. I still like it more than I don't (except for that awful "Weekend" episode which I thought was bad the first time I saw it). However, when I look at it again in the wake of Freaks and Geeks, MSCL really suffers. Granted, Freaks was a period piece aimed more toward the comic side of life than the tragic, but it still produced a lot more realism than MSCL managed to do. I'll take Linda Cardellini's Lindsay Weir over Danes' Angela any day. What did work on MSCL originally though does seem even stronger now.

My favorite episode then and now remains the exquisite "Life of Brian," the first episode that abandoned Angela's point-of-view for one of the other characters. Every minute of it rings painfully true and successfully intertwines the funny with the sad in ways the series often failed to do. It also had one of the best examples of the series producing lines that were so right yet still managed to surprise you. After messing up Brian's dance experience as well as her own, Angela asks Brian if he wants to dance and he replies, "Not with you." Ouch. I love it and she deserved it. When MSCL did moments like that, it was truly great as in the episode where Angela asks Sharon about whether to surrender her virginity, assuming Sharon still had hers only to have Sharon reply nonchalantly that she and her boyfriend had sex all the time. If only more of MSCL had more moments like that.

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Thursday, March 27, 2008


No cure for Cholera

By Edward Copeland
Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez is one of the best books I've ever read. It also had an unusual quality (at least for me) in that as I read it, I could visualize making a film out of it. Usually, my reading seldom conjures images of possible movie versions. The only other example I can think of is A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole, and there I didn't imagine how to make a movie of it but thought that I was the only person in the world suitably for playing Ignatius J. Reilly. Needless to say, when I heard a movie was being made of Marquez's masterpiece, I had great trepidation and the lukewarm reviews the Mike Newell's film discouraged me from seeing it in the theater, choosing to wait for the DVD.

The way Newell opens the film almost matches what I visualized in the movie in my mind, with one big exception: Part of the joy of the book is its mixture of romantic longing and dark comedy and in the opening and throughout the entire film, Newell botches the laughs. When he goes for them, the jokes land with a thud.

He has a bit more success with the other elements, but overall the entire film seems tone deaf. Of course, the whole effort could have been worse.

I remember when the news of a film adaptation was first floated with the ugly rumor that they were going to cast Jude Law and Nicole Kidman. Thankfully, they went with Javier Bardem as the lead (my own choice) and an actress I wasn't familiar with (Giovanna Mezzogiorno) as the object of his romantic obsession.

The film also pulls off the difficult trick of aging actors without making the makeup look silly. They also did a great job casting the young version of Bardem's character with Unax Ugalde, who bears a startling resemblance to Bardem.

Most of the other performances are good as well, particularly Hector Elizondo as Bardem's uncle and the great Fernanda Montenegro in the first film I've seen her in since Central Station.

If I could have made the film though, one other thing I would have done was actually film it in Spanish, to get another sense of its language since I read the book in its English translation. Nice try overall, but read the book.

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Wednesday, March 26, 2008


Richard Widmark (1914-2008)

By Edward Copeland
Tommy Udo is one helluva way to announce yourself to movie audiences and Richard Widmark got such a debut in 1947's Kiss of Death, earning an Oscar nomination and stardom as a result. Widmark has passed away at the age of 93.

When I wrote the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences several years ago, suggesting a list of honorary Oscar possibilities after years of rewarding people who had already won, Widmark was near the top of my list. Alas, the Academy never got around to giving Widmark the richly deserved honor.

For as prolific a career as Widmark had, somehow he seemed to be a star easily neglected and forgot. In fact, I can already hear people reacting to news of his death with "I didn't know he was still alive." Widmark excelled as a tough guy or a streetwise man who liked to make himself out as smarter and tougher than he really was such as in 1950's Night and the City.

My personal favorite role of his may be in Samuel Fuller's great Pickup on South Street with another Oscar orphan, Thelma Ritter, giving one of her very best turns. He could be an out-and-out villain such as Spencer Tracy's no good son in the Western Broken Lance. He could also be heroic, such as Jim Bowie in John Wayne's bloated telling of The Alamo, or as a simple military prosecutor as in Judgment at Nuremberg. He played a man so reprehensible in Murder on the Orient Express that Agatha Christie's Belgian sleuth Hercule Poirot was willing to let his murder go unpunished. In his later years, he was often a staple in 1970s disaster films or would appear playing a tough type in a light (read bad) comedy such as Hanky Panky or used as a connection to Hollywood's Golden Age such as Taylor Hackford's remake of Out of the Past, Against All Odds.

RIP Mr. Widmark.

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Snow White and the Boro of Manhattan

By Edward Copeland
Full of charm with froth to spare, Enchanted doesn't cast an unbreakable spell on a moviegoer, but it does provide more than enough entertainment to pass the time.

Amy Adams' deceptively simple performance as Giselle, a would-be princess from a 2D fairy tale dimension who finds herself sent to New York by an evil queen (Susan Sarandon) determined to hang on to her throne and prevent Adams' marriage to her stepson (James Marsden), the heir to the cartoon kingdom.

By their very nature, fairy tales are a bit retro, but that aspect of the film is nearly as retro as the portrait of New York it paints. It's as if it's set in the '70s or '80s instead of now, where everyone is cynical, all parts are filthy and no one helps anyone out. It's especially odd to see a grimy Times Square in a Disney film that barely shows the Disneyfication that has happened to the fabled area.

While it's true that New Yorkers probably wouldn't bat an eye at a clueless young lady in a huge flowing gown traipsing through Times Square, that's still the part that kept me at a distance.

Robert, the lawyer who reluctantly helps Giselle (Patrick Dempsey), is painted as insanely pragmatic and cynical, yet he doesn't seem to be bothered when he sees packs of rats, pigeons and cockroaches helping to clean his apartment. (I did wish that Danielle Ferland's Little Red Riding Hood in Sondheim's Into the Woods would show up at some point to ask quizically, "You talk to birds?")

There is a brief mention of problems associated with Giselle having no evidence of existence (birth certificate, Social Security number, etc.), but his transformation is even less convincing than Giselle's and would be the film's least acceptable character switch if it weren't for the late-inning change in Robert's girlfriend (Idina Menzel).

Despite these reservations, Enchanted entertains despite itself thanks largely to most of the performances. Adams is pitch perfect and makes her subtle change entirely plausible without losing her character's essential essence.

Marsden also has fun as the 2D prince and it's probably the most fun Sarandon has had on screen in ages. There also is solid support from Timothy Spall as the prince's helper who is secretly in cahoots with the queen.

Overall, Enchanted was enjoyable fluff despite its anachronistic mocking of the best city in the world. Of course, I'm partial to New York, even though I'm cynical enough to accept that happily-ever-afters are rare, even there.

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Tuesday, March 25, 2008


Centennial Tributes: David Lean

By Peter Nellhaus
In honor of David Lean’s 100th birthday, I had finally gotten around to seeing Ryan’s Daughter. I had put off seeing this film because of the largely negative response from the critics I paid attention to at the time of release. Being better acquainted with Lean’s films now, I thought that I would be more receptive to the film than I would have been in 1970. The answer is no. In fact there were moments when I struggled to stay awake during the first half of this more than three hour epic. I had originally started to write something rather arch about Ryan’s Daughter, but thought more and more about how this misconceived film fit within the rest of Lean’s career.

Looking back on Lean’s filmography, I was struck by how many films deal with war or romance. In Which We Serve and Brief Encounter not only are the titles for two of Lean’s earlier films, but could also act as titles for his latter films as well. The more interesting part of Ryan’s Daughter is actually the subplot about “the troubles” — British occupation of Ireland during World War I, the conflicting senses of loyalty concerning the Germans and the paramilitary efforts of the IRA. It is the romantic element of Ryan’s Daughter that fails in part because Sarah Miles was incapable of conveying erotic longing, and Christopher Jones' lack of acting ability was made even more obvious in 70mm. If there is a reason to see Ryan’s Daughter, and I recommend it only to completists, it is to see Robert Mitchum in an uncharacteristic role as the cerebral schoolteacher who initially wins Sarah Miles' heart, Leo McKern as Miles’ father, caught between the demands of his community and his role as a father, Trevor Howard as the village priest and John Mills as the deformed mute who looks for friendship where ever it may be offered. In a way, Mills' performance may be something of his tribute to Charles Laughton’s performance in The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Mills and Laughton starred together in Hobson’s Choice, Lean’s last film in black and white.

There were times when I wish that Ryan’s Daughter had been shot in black and white. Yes, there are the gorgeous shots of the waves beating against the rocks, and the clouds Lean waited days for to shoot, back in the days before CGI would do what nature wouldn’t or couldn’t. There are also too many shots of small characters in vast landscapes. What David Lean seemed to forget was that he was not filming Lawrence of Arabia and that the character of Rosy Ryan was not T.E. Lawrence, or even Yuri Zhivago’s Lara. Too often, Ryan’s Daughter appears to have been overproduced simply to justify the budget that was at Lean’s disposal.

My own favorite Lean films are Great Expectations, still one of the most watchable film adaptations of Charles Dickens, and Brief Encounter, a story of unfulfilled love that generates more heat than its description would indicate. Of Lean’s later films, I did like A Passage to India. Perhaps because after almost 14 years I started to miss David Lean without knowing exactly why, or simply because Lean was able to create a film combining the epic with the personal in just the right proportion, but A Passage to India succeeded with me in a way that his films from Bridge on the River Kwai had not. It is not coincidental that Lean also edited A Passage to India. In his final film, Lean combined what had initially distinguished him in the British film industry with his career as the director of epics shot in remote locations. A reworking of Madame Bovary got lost in the bloated, boring Ryan’s Daughter. With A Passage to India, David Lean regained control of the best parts of his films.


Peter Nellhaus' writings on film can be found at his blog Coffee Coffee and More Coffee.

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Monday, March 24, 2008


(Mother's) Day of Reckoning

By Josh R
Have you told your mother you love her lately? With Mother’s Day looming on the horizon, mass-market treacle merchants like The Hallmark Company will be looking to do a brisk business in mass-produced declarations of filial affection; even in the midst of a recession, there’s no denying the profits to be made off of love and guilt. When it comes to how people feel about their aging parents, those two particular emotions mix more smoothly than vodka and orange juice.

If you think some cozy article of stationery sugared with precious poetry will be enough to keep mom appeased for the next 12 months, I wish you the best of luck; experience has taught me that the dear old things require more attention than can be neatly tucked into a six by eight inch envelope. Now, I must state for the record that my mother is a wonderful, beautiful, extraordinary human being whom I love more dearly than anyone on the planet … but she does get cranky if I don’t call, and crankiness can lead to acting out. Leaving the nest doesn’t automatically extricate you from those apron strings, and no matter how far you roam, there really isn’t anywhere to hide. A mother will always make her presence known, one way or another. Ignore her at your own peril.

In the case of Violet Weston, the cancer-riddled, chain-smoking, pill-popping matriarch of August: Osage County, ignoring Mom isn’t really much of an option. Coming anywhere within a mile radius of her toxic force field is the equivalent of getting sucked into a tornado, and it’s perfectly understandable why the kids would choose to send a card as opposed to having to spend a minute longer than necessary in her poisonous presence. As played by the wiry, petite Deanna Dunagan, Violet has the angelic, porcelain doll-like features of Lillian Gish, the shrill crack-voice of The Beverly Hillbillies’ Granny Clampett, a pixie haircut and a deceptively charming smile; she’s adorable right up until the point when she opens her mouth. “Nothing gets by me,” she declares with an air of chipper self-satisfaction, and she ain’t just whistling Dixie; possessed of an uncanny knack for sussing out where others' Achilles heels are, she always knows exactly where to plant the knife. Even through her chemically induced haze, there’s something alive and alert in those beady little eyes, like a cat ready to pounce on a mouse — and pounce she does, usually without warning and with a deadly sense of accuracy. Certain species have been known to eat their young, but never in a fashion so gleefully sadistic; they don’t all enjoy toying with their prey to the same extent Violet does. When one of her three daughters tells her she loves her — mainly as a preemptive maneuver to shield herself from mother’s wrath — Violet murmurs “Oh, that’s sweet,” but there’s a hint of wary implacability in her voice. Letting Mom know she’s loved doesn’t really change the object of the game, which is to see how far she can push her nearest and dearest until she pushes them over the edge. The Weston family ship may be going down in flames, but Violet won’t be handing out life preserver rings to any of her imperiled brood — nasty, prankish little demon that she is, she’s taking everyone else down with her.

You see, Mom doesn’t believe in sparing people’s feelings, regardless of what the consequences may be. A self-professed lover of “truth-telling,” she’ll drag family skeletons into the open without much heed for the fallout. In Tracy Letts’ savagely funny black comedy of family dysfunction, by far the most devilishly entertaining new American play to come down the pike in many a year, there are plenty of skeletons tucked into the dark recesses of the rambling Pawhuska, Okla., house which serves as the launching pad for the Weston family fireworks. When they come flying out of the closet, in projectile Raiders of the Lost Ark fashion, it’s all too clear who’s pulling the strings. If this sounds as tortuous for an audience as it does for the onstage characters being put through the ringer, think again. Improbable as it may seem, there may be no more heartening, riotously engaging spectacle on Broadway right now than the sight of those bones in flight.

Now that I’ve showered it with superlatives, let’s pause for a mild reality check. August: Osage County, which wraps up its limited run at The Imperial Theatre on April 20 before transferring to the adjacent Music Box Theatre on April 29, is not a revolutionary work of theater, or even a particularly deep one. Even when the catalog of horrors on display pushes beyond the norm (a little incest, anyone?), it isn’t really breaking any new ground, and it doesn’t offer substantially more insight into the human condition than a particularly great episode of Tales from the Crypt. Even when it’s not particularly original, the traditions it harks back to are oldies but goodies; the playwright borrows liberally from, among others, Sam Shepard, Eugene O’Neill and Lillian Hellman — there’s even a touch of Ibsen’s Ghosts in the mix. What makes it such a triumphant feat of entertainment is the way in which the playwright reinvigorates the tried-and-true machinery of melodrama with such brazen, jolting theatricality. August is Letts’ fourth effort as a playwright — Killer Joe and Bug having also been produced on the New York stage — and even more so than in his earlier efforts, he displays a canny understanding of how to go for the jugular without resorting to heavy-handedness. What happens onstage is harrowing — heck, a lot of it is downright unsavory — but it’s also scabrously funny. More remarkably still, Letts’ most fully realized work to date is the rare three act, three hour-plus play that positively flies by, courtesy of dialogue just as wickedly sharp as any of the verbal brickbats Albee’s George and Martha ever hurled at one another’s heads, and a crackerjack plot that twists and turns with the breakneck velocity of a hard-charging roller coaster. Like any great thrill ride, it careens violently, prompting screams of horror and delight, but such is the soundness of its engineering that there is never any danger of it going off the rails. There’s something incredibly satisfying — even life-affirming — that comes in hearing an audience of 1,400 people strong gasp in collective shock when a startling revelation comes to light, or laugh uproariously at words and behavior so appalling that no other response seems quite appropriate. When I saw the play for the second time, the gasps were blessedly still firmly in place, and the laughter was enthusiastic to the point of seeming celebratory. When theater is at its very best — and August: Osage County belongs in that category — it exists as a participatory experience. Over the course of three fleet-footed hours, August fires on all cylinders — and it takes its audience along for the ride.

What sets the ride in motion is the mysterious disappearance of Beverly Weston, the craggy, alcoholic patriarch of an extended clan that includes three daughters, one grandchild and an assortment of in-laws. A noted poet whose output didn’t extend beyond one fledgling success, Beverly has a habit of going missing without so much a heads up to his nearest and dearest (given what he has to deal with at home, it’s not hard to understand why). This time, however, his absence has an unmistakable air of finality; no one can be quite certain whether he’s alive or dead, but the likelihood of his coming back seems slim to none. One by one, the far-flung Weston children, two of whom have wisely chosen to get themselves as far away from Mom and Dad as humanly possible, descend upon the family homestead en masse to try to piece together exactly what happened to Dad, and what in hell to do about Mom, an ailing gorgon who shows no signs of becoming more manageable now that her chief antagonist has vanished without a trace. Of course, when you start digging for answers, there’s no telling what sort of horrors you may uncover; as it turns out, there are good and plenty festering away in the crypt of family secrets, and dear Violet is perfectly willing to invite them out to dance.

Violet is, naturally, a full-blown meal of a part, and Dunagan digs into it with carnivorous relish. That she does not, as one might be inclined to expect, blow everyone else off the stage and into the orchestra pit is a testament to how strong and balanced director Anna D. Shapiro’s 14-member cast is. All but two, it must be noted, are members of Chicago’s esteemed The Steppenwolf Theatre Company, where the production began in the summer of 2007. When I originally saw the play back in the fall, the role of Beverly was played (beautifully) by the wry and weathered Dennis Letts, the playwright’s father; Mr. Letts died a few months into the run, and has been succeeded by Michael McGuire, a performer who captures much of the grizzled, laconic charm of the role’s originator. Sally Murphy expertly communicates the quiet resolve that informs the willful detachment of the middle child, Ivy, while as her younger sister Karen, Maryann Mayberry talks as if she’s read over a hundred self-help books and taken the wrong things from each one, mining her character’s cheerful obliviousness for well-deserved laughs. Funnier still is the bellowing, doughy-featured Rondi Reed, as the vulgar, overbearing Aunt Mattie Fae; she is well-matched with the stolidly submissive Francis Guinan as her henpecked husband, who can put up with his wife's insensitivity as long as he remains its sole object. Best of all is Amy Morton as the pragmatic, sardonic Barbara, the oldest of the Weston sisters, and the only one prepared to stand toe to toe with Mama in a knockdown, drag-out fight. The actress offers a brilliant study in rueful exasperation, and gets many of the show’s choicest comic lines, made even sharper by the hilariously deadpan spin she places on each one (looking out over the Oklahoma prairie from the front porch, she wonders “Who was the asshole who took a look at this flat, hot nothing and planted his flag? We fucked the Indians for this?”). As the sisters’ male companions — estranged husband, shady fiancé and sad sack suitor — Jeff Perry, Brian Kerwin and Ian Barford each convincingly register the discomfort and horror of having wandered into the middle of hornet’s nest. Rounding out the cast are Madeleine Martin as the 14 year-old pot-smoking granddaughter too precocious for her own good, Troy West as the town sheriff and the bearer of bad tidings, and Kimberly Guerrero as the Native American housekeeper navigating the extremes of life with the warring Westons while trying not to get caught in the crossfire.

As to which one will be the last man (or woman) standing when Violet starts doing what she does best — namely pulling people apart, limb by limb — I’m not going to give anything away…although I will say that, once she gets the ball rolling, not even Violet herself has complete control over the circuitous path it travels or who gets crushed in its wake. Irish playwright Martin McDonagh, who has cited Letts’ Killer Joe as one of his early influences, supplied Broadway with a monstrous maternal figure 10 years ago with The Beauty Queen of Leenane; in retrospect, the goings-on in that blood-stained mother/daughter smackdown look like a quaint form of child’s play. Even Euripides’ Medea could probably learn a few things from Violet Weston — a woman who doesn’t even have to resort to literal infanticide to reduce her offspring to rubble. "Thank God we don't know what's coming," one character observes; "we'd never get out of bed in the morning."

In a perverse sort of way, it seems somehow fitting that Broadway performance schedules have now been expanded to include Sunday matinees, meaning there will in fact be a 3 p.m. performance of August: Osage County this coming Mother’s Day. Instead of sending Mom that generic card this year, why not treat her to a deliciously warped afternoon in the company of the Westons?

Just pray to God it doesn’t give her any ideas.

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Thursday, March 20, 2008


Paul Scofield (1922-2008)

I've always used the running gag that "All British actors are whores" though I always qualified that with one exception: Paul Scofield. The Oscar-winning actor has passed away at 86. He didn't make a lot of films: He concentrated on the stage where, alas, I never saw him. However, most of the times when he did venture in front of the camera, it was a worthy effort.

His most famous film role is certainly the one that won him the Oscar: Sir Thomas More in 1966's A Man for All Seasons. His nobility and wit raised the best picture winner to a higher level as the man who challenged Henry VIII's desire to form a new church just so he could dump a wife.

Two years prior, he played the villainous Nazi trying to make off with Hitler's looted art as Burt Lancaster tried to stop the shipment in John Frankenheimer's The Train.

In 1971, he made a film version of King Lear which I haven't seen but with his passing I want to more than ever. In the 1973 film of Edward Albee's brilliant play A Delicate Balance, he co-starred with Katharine Hepburn. Reviews of the film are mostly tepid, but I've still wanted to see it due to my love of Albee, Scofield and Hepburn.

Shakespeare managed to lure Scofield in front of the camera some other times: as the French king in Kenneth Branagh's Henry V and as the Ghost in Franco Zeffirelli's Hamlet.

Scofield received his second Oscar nomination for his great turn as the elder Van Doren whose son cheated on a Quiz Show just to try to live up to his father's reputation. His last venture on the big screen, as far as I'm concerned, was one of his very best: Playing the harsh Judge Thomas Danforth in Nicholas Hytner's 1996 film version of Arthur Miller's The Crucible. Scofield managed to seem righteous and terrifying while never letting Danforth slip into the realm of simple villainy.

Scofield also famously became one of the first British actors to turn down a knighthood from the queen, refusing the honor on three separate occasions. "If you want a title, what's wrong with mister? If you have always been that, then why lose your title?" Scofield was quoted as saying.

RIP Mr. Scofield.

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A harmless (sometimes) form of mental illness

By Edward Copeland
Among many of the best foreign language films that made our Ray Memorial List, it seems that they don't try anything fancy. They just tell a simple story and do it exceedingly well. That's certainly the case with The Cranes Are Flying, which landed at No. 100 on the list and which I recently saw for the first time.

Mikhail Kalatozov's film tells a story of love and war, particularly in Russia during World War II. Boris and Veronika (Aleksey Batalov and Tatyana Samojlova) are young and in love, hoping to get married.

However, Boris is soon drafted into the Army, the day before her birthday. Boris leaves a note begging Veronika to stay true to him and inserts it into a gift, but interruptions leave Veronika believing Boris forgot her birthday entirely.

Sensing the opportunity, Boris' cousin Mark (Aleksandr Shvorin) lays plan to make Veronika his own. Mark is a musician who has finagled his way out of service in the war. As Mark says, "Only fools will fight."

After basically seducing Veronika by way of rape, Veronika, still thinking Boris has spurned her, marries Mark, only soon to regret it. At the same time, Boris fights the war and is seriously injured to the point that it's mistakenly thought he's been killed.

As Veronika eventually realizes the mistakes she's made, she longs to reunite with Boris, building to a very powerful ending. Kalatozov directs with confidence and crafts a beautiful story, with solid support from Viktor Rozov, adapting his own play, and Sergei Urusevsky's photography.

The real strength of the film though lies in Samojlova's beautiful performance. It's at times a work of perfect stillness, but when she reacts, the effect is as spellbinding as the film itself.

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Wednesday, March 19, 2008


A good 10 cent drunk

By Edward Copeland
If there has been a film that's a bigger triumph of innuendo than Lover Come Back, I haven't seen it. While as a movie, it's not as good as the Rock Hudson-Doris Day collaboration Pillow Talk, it's so kooky and full of double meanings, that it's hard not to love it. I have to wonder if it played the same way for audiences in 1961 who didn't know the truth about Rock Hudson's offscreen life.

Now, the none-too-subtle hints about Hudson's sexuality have been discussed before, most notably in the documentary Rock Hudson's Home Movies, which I've never seen. Still, I can't help but wonder how 1961 audiences could have missed them, though obviously they stand out more now going into a film such as Lover Come Back.

The plot is a rather simple one: Doris Day plays Carol Templeton, an ad executive who has recently been hired by a New York firm. Carol, as you'd expect, is prim and proper and likes to play by the rules.

Hudson is Jerry Webster, a rival ad exec as well as a hard-drinking lothario. When Webster manages to steal an account out from under her, Carol is determined to get even. Her boss advises her that Webster is like the common cold: Sooner or later, you catch it and it's best not to fight. "There are two ways to fight a cold," Carol replies. "You can fight it or you can go to bed with it." Of course, Carol doesn't recognize the double meaning of her words.

Webster has other problems to deal with: the ne'er-do-well son of his firm's founder. Peter Ramsey (Tony Randall) is determined to get more involved in the firm's operations, even though he's a coward with a spine of jelly. When Carol files a complaint with an ad board, Ramsey goes ballistic until Webster talks sense to him. To get around the board, Webster convinces Carol's prime witness, one of Webster's good time girls, Rebel Davis, to testify. Webster tells Rebel (Edie Adams) he'd been planning to use her for a brand new campaign, only there is no such thing. He shoots commercials for the nonexistent product VIP only to have Ramsey buy multiple ad time for the fraud.

Determined not to be beaten by Carol, Webster gets Nobel Prize-winning scientist Dr. Linus Tyler (Jack Kruschen) to come up with something that can become VIP. Tyler is a bit of a recluse who stays in his basement lab and despises humanity. When Carol catches wind of it, she's determined to steal the VIP account from Webster, only when she goes to see the scientist, she instead finds Webster.

Having no idea what Tyler really looks like, she accepts it as fact as Webster pretends to be the scientist to stall Carol. Once the charade begins, that's when the reading between the lines hits hyperdrive. Webster's Tyler is less a recluse than a shy man, unschooled in romance and the opposite sex. When Carol decides to hide him out in her apartment (under the pretense of keeping him from Webster), the innuendo gets to a hysterical level. Just a few samples of the lines the fake Tyler offers up: "Now you know why I'm afraid to be married, I'm afraid to be a failure." "What does a kiss mean? It's like being able to light a stove, it doesn't mean I know how to cook." "You deserve a man, not a mess of neurotic doubts." "I'd trade all my knowledge to learn one thing — how to make a woman love me!" The scene also ends up being hysterical as Day performs what is essentially a pantomime as a song asking whether "to surrender to love" plays. Carol has said before that alcohol undoes her, but she shows that she's ready for love herself as she brings out the champagne. No, nothing phallic in this screenshot.

The supporting cast is full of reliable fun including Ann B. Davis, Joe Flynn and the aforementioned Kruschen. There is even the running gag of two businessmen (Jack Albertson, Jack Oakie) who always spot Webster with various women and are green with envy. When circumstances force Webster to don a full-length fur coat, the pair comment that he's the last guy they'd ever expect to go that way.

The title of this post comes from what the real Dr. Tyler invents as VIP. It appears to be a mint, but it's really pure alcohol, prompting all who gobble them down to get sloshed, and no one does this better than Randall.

As I said, Lover Come Back isn't nearly as good as Pillow Talk, but director Delbert Mann keeps it moving fast and furious and it never stops entertaining. There is just one thing that doesn't fit to me and that's the title: Lover Come Back doesn't really seem to have anything to do with the story. Then again, there are lots of things hidden here, so maybe its meaning is as well.

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Tuesday, March 18, 2008


It means what it means

By Edward Copeland
I've always been lukewarm to the works of Jean-Luc Godard until I saw Band of Outsiders, when suddenly I started to warm to him. That feeling filled me again while seeing A Woman Is a Woman for the first time. To be quite honest, I have no idea what Godard is really trying to do here, but I don't care because the film is so undeniably infectious and entertaining, I can only say that I enjoyed it.

While the characters in A Woman Is a Woman repeatedly ask whether they are in a comedy or a tragedy, it's very clearly a comedy, nearly a musical comedy, albeit one in a bent Godardian way.

It's also very referrential, acknowledging other films of its early '60s time period. It even goes so far as to have one of its leads played by Jean-Paul Belmondo and has a scene where it's brought up that Breathless will be on TV that night, with nary a wink among the actors.

The other two-thirds of the film's pseudo-triangle are played by Anna Karina and Jean-Claude Brialy. The plot (as much as there is one) concerns Angela (Karina) and her wish to have a child, but the film isn't a story per se. It's just one strange but light nonsequitur after another.

It's colorful and charming and doesn't add up to much, though I still had a ball. It baffles me about how to describe it or review it. A woman may be a woman, but A Woman Is A Woman is what it is.

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Monday, March 17, 2008


Tennessee schmaltz

By Edward Copeland
With the exception of Elia Kazan's film of A Streetcar Named Desire, has there been any truly good film adaptation of a Tennessee Williams play? I can't say definitively that that is the case but after suffering through 1961 film of Summer and Smoke, I certainly hope there hasn't been a worse one.

Despite some fairly good performances (including Oscar nominees Geraldine Page and Una Merkel), Summer and Smoke is practically a convention for bad Southern accents. Page, a reliably good actress, is fairly mannered and bad except for late in the film, when her repressed spinster character undergoes a change that makes her interesting.

Merkel is solid throughout as Page's bonkers mother, though her character just seems to vanish late in the film with no sense of what happened to her. Perhaps Peter Glenville's film did address this, but the movie is so bad and dull that I could only watch it in fits and starts, so I might have missed something when I zoned out.

The tale seems to be stitched together from many of Williams' usual interests: crazy moms, stern fathers (in this case both a doctor and a minister) and a callow cad. Laurence Harvey gets the cad role, playing the son of a town's noble doctor (John McIntire). Harvey's John Buchanan Jr. followed in his father's professional footsteps, but he's a reprobate with a strong taste for lust and liquor, especially for the fiery daughter of a local "house of sin" (played by Rita Moreno, the same year she won the Oscar for West Side Story, but she really doesn't get much to do here.)

Page is the minister's daughter who lives next door and can't face her own desires for the young doctor and his lifestyle. I've never seen Summer and Smoke on stage, but I assume it's been de-fanged as most film adaptations of Williams' plays were.

Still, when you see the films of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof or Sweet Bird of Youth or even Suddenly, Last Summer or Night of the Iguana, you can still read between the absent lines to some extent.

Watching Summer and Smoke, I have a hard time imagining how the play could be much better except possibly on the acting side. It's just a Southern fried mess.

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Friday, March 14, 2008


Daddy's little girl

By Edward Copeland
As the 2007 movie award season has drawn to a close, I've been able to go back to my attempt to see as many of the films that made our Satayajit Ray Memorial Anything-But-Definitive List of Non-English Language Films as possible. Recently, I caught up with the No. 74 film on the list, Georges Franju's Eyes Without a Face.

For the uninitiated, Eyes Without a Face is essentially a horror piece, telling the story of Dr. Genessier (Pierre Brasseur) and his quest to help his daughter Christiane (Edith Scob) restore a horribly disfigured face.

Unfortunately, the project drives the good doctor a bit mad since it involves abducting young women and attempting to surgically remove their face and attach it to his daughter's. Part of me wondered if Leatherface of Texas Chainsaw Massacre might have been a foreign film connoisseur and developed his habit after seeing this film.

Assisting Dr. Genessier is his faithful assistant Louise (Alida Valli), herself a beneficiary of his experiments. Being a child of the 1980s, I have to admit that it was difficult watching the film at times without Billy Idol's tune of the same name running through my head, but thankfully Franju's atmospherics along with Maurice Jarre's musical score kept Idol at bay most of the time.

What's particularly interesting about Jarre's score is that it seems specifically to use Valli's association with Carol Reed's masterpiece The Third Man to accompany Louise's errands with a tune that strongly evokes Anton Karas' incomparable score from Reed's film.

Clocking in at a brisk 90 minutes, Eyes Without a Face is suitably spooky and has wonderful cinematography by Eugen Schufftan, but after seeing it, I admit I'm surprised that it made the Ray Memorial List as high as No. 74. It's good, but not startlingly good and seems more like an expanded episode of The Twilight Zone.

On top of that, it's fairly clear how the tale will wind up, so its suspense factor is lacking. It is certainly creepy and worth watching, but not something I'd label as one of the best non-English language films of all time.

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Wednesday, March 12, 2008


Last wake for The Wire

BLOGGER'S NOTE: Spoilers lie below for Season 5 episodes 57-60, so don't venture further unless you've seen the final four episodes of The Wire's final season or don't care if you know what happened.

By Edward Copeland
Having now seen the final four episodes of the final season of HBO's great drama The Wire, it seems as if I should be writing a eulogy for a type of television I'll wonder if we will ever see the likes of again. Raise your drinks high fellow Wire lovers to David Simon and what is perhaps the most diverse and interesting ensembles ever assembled. Even if Season 5 was a bit of a letdown overall compared to the ever-growing brilliance of its first four seasons, it's still sad to bid adieu to its depiction of Baltimore.

Though I was disappointed by the first six episodes of season five, the final four did make up for a lot of it even if the finale had almost as many possible endings as Lord of the Rings: Return of the King and the newspaper story never did seem a natural fit or as realistic as the series' portraits of the political, criminal, educational and blue collar segments of Baltimore. While Simon has more than admitted his portrayal of The Baltimore Sun was a bit of sour grapes, the storyline unfortunately played exactly as that at the expense of drama.

The newspaper's characters, unlike all the others that The Wire covered in such great detail, were portrayed in stark black and white, with very little shades of gray. The worst offense is the Jayson Blair-esque reporter Scott Templeton (Tom McCarthy). Even the coldest of street thugs like Marlo or the worst bureaucrats like Burrell or Rawls were allowed a sense of humanity. Scott Templeton is a cartoon which further hampers this season's story since you can be pretty sure where it's headed. Even though the fake serial killer idea seems too gimmicky for a series as grounded in realism as The Wire, its fine cast of actors make the story work from McNulty (Dominic West) and Lester (Clarke Peters) to Kima (Sonja Sohn) and Bunk (Wendell Pierce), who really become the moral center of the show. The shortened season (a mere 10 episodes versus the usual 12 or 13) also works against it since it adds a lot of new characters to the mix making some of the most significant players from past seasons into glorified cameos. Now, I must take a moment to bitch about Entertainment Weekly. Since I had to watch this season on a delayed basis, I was furious when the magazine revealed the demise of the great character Omar (Michael K. Williams) in a feature that you wouldn't have any reason to suspect would involve The Wire. Still, even though I knew Omar's death was coming, the show still managed to pull it off in a startling and surprising way. Still, from the moment Omar got capped and the signs of Michael (Tristan Wilds) questioning the way Marlo conducted his business, I saw the ending of Michael as a new Omar coming from a mile away. Perhaps that's my greatest disappointment about this season. As great as this series has been, its cynicism runs so deep that by this go-around, pretty much every plot twist could be predicted. Still, the acting was so great and the series offered so many memorable moments (McNulty's reactions to the FBI profile of his fake serial killer was particularly fun), it's difficult to complain too much.

As has been said many times by many people, The Wire was more novel than television and even if the final chapter lagged a bit, overall it was so great that it's being stingy not to love it, warts and all.

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Tuesday, March 11, 2008


The music of diplomacy

By Edward Copeland
High-stakes diplomacy conjures images of tense negotiations between countries. However, writer-director Eran Kolirin's film The Band's Visit shows how the smallest, simplest gestures in situations where peace and security aren't on the line often can accomplish the most lasting and important steps.

Seeing The Band's Visit offered one of those rarest of opportunities for a filmgoer: Going into a movie with very little knowledge of what it's about ahead of time. I never read any reviews of the film prior to seeing it and all I really knew was the Israeli film had appeared on the list for best foreign film at the 2007 Independent Spirit Awards.

In fact, by the time I saw The Band's Visit, I'd even forgot what country it came from. (Seeing a film blind doesn't always end up well: I remember walking ignorantly into a screening of Relentless decades ago only to suffer through one of Judd Nelson's most grating performances.)

It's risky to shower too much praise on a film as delicate as The Band's Visit. It isn't a great film, but it accomplishes its modest aims just about as well as you could hope. Too often, reviews suck the work in question toward either the very best or the very worst when sometimes films should just be lauded for what they are.

If I used a 4-star scale, The Band's Visit would be one of those perfect 3-star movies. The film tells the story of a ceremonial police orchestra from Alexandria, Egypt, which is heading to Israel for a cultural exchange when the simple misunderstanding of the name of their destination lands them instead in an Israeli town whose residents describe it as culture free.

The leader of the musicians is Tewfiq, a proud colonel (Sasson Gabai) who not only views his ceremonial role as an important one but finds the lack of a similar sense of dignity among younger members of the group particularly disconcerting. He's also further worried by the possibility that budget cuts will bring the orchestra to an end because the importance of music has diminished in time.

Tewfiq finds unexpected charity from Dina, an Israeli restaurant owner (Ronit Elkabetz) in the small town where the band find itself stranded. Dina is more or less a free spirit, who feels many are still living in the "stone age" and she brings out parts of Tewfiq he's long since repressed.

What's fascinating is that while aspects of Arab-Israeli conflict continually float near the surface, Kolirin never allows them to overwhelm the simple slice of life he's depicting.

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Monday, March 10, 2008


A moon with a view

By Edward Copeland
Each year seems to bring a higher and higher volume of quality documentaries. Almost as routinely, many of the best fail to even make the short list for Oscar consideration. I finally caught up with another of 2007's "rejects," In the Shadow of the Moon, and it's another notable omission. Then again, three of the five 2007 nominees for documentary feature I haven't seen, so maybe it's not a case of the Academy ignoring the best but a situation where there were just too many damn good documentaries from which to choose.

In a strange way, In the Shadow of the Moon reminds me of No End in Sight: it's basically a "talking heads" documentary recounting many things I already knew but doing so in a way that makes it riveting and fresh.

Listening to the first-hand accounts of most of the Apollo astronauts still alive, Shadow manages to recapture that sense of wonder that used to be a given when thinking of the early U.S. space program. In fact, it's not even an easy movie to talk about in great detail since its power comes purely from the act of watching it.

There are fascinating nuggets here and there, such as the former jet fighter pilot who became an astronaut and still carries guilt that he was exploring space while his former colleagues were fighting and dying in Vietnam. It's one of the many points where In the Shadow of the Moon goes beyond just being about space exploration and paints a vivid portrait of what was happening on Earth at the same time.

There really isn't anything groundbreaking about In the Shadow of the Moon but it does what any great documentary should: Make you feel as if you've got a new perspective, even if the subject is a well-traveled one. Really, you shouldn't ask for anything more.

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Friday, March 07, 2008


Centennial Tributes: Anna Magnani

By Josh R
Of the nearly 50 films that Anna Magnani made during her storied career, only a handful are available for viewing by the general public. I can therefore lay claim to having seen only but a fraction of her life's work (would that I could rectify the situation by being granted unfettered access to the vaults of Cinecitta Roma or the archives at UCLA). As it is, Magnani fans can only be grateful that many of her most celebrated performances remain readily accessible, given what a remarkable and singular talent she was, and what an impressive career she had.

While there is a fair argument to be made for the fiery yet tender leading lady as the cinema’s first truly naturalistic actress, it is also worth noting than no other performer from her country — not even the great Mastroianni — occupies a more important place in the history of global cinema. Italy’s cinematic output before the advent of the neo-realist movement had been negligible; Magnani was the face of that movement, and the impact of her work was immediate and far-reaching. She was the first Italian actor to achieve global stardom, with crossover success working in foreign productions and in other languages. These facts, while impressive, do not fully account for what qualified her as a pioneer, firing off the first and most penetrating shots in an ongoing campaign that, even now, is still being waged. In breaking the rules, she nearly succeeded in changing them.

Put simply, Anna Magnani was not beautiful, thin or young. She was over 40 by the time she achieved her widest stardom, with a Rubenesque figure, coarse features and a throaty voice. There was some precedent for this: Marie Dressler, a portly character actress of the early sound era with the countenance of a St. Bernard, had risen to the rank of leading lady and marquee attraction not before she was 60. Dressler was a star, to be sure, but envisioning her in a revealing negligee playing out a slow-burning, erotically charged seduction scene with some bare-chested, brawny buck 10 years her junior — say Lancaster, Brando or Franciosa — gives you some sense of how radically different Magnani was from anyone who’d come before, or many who have come since. Not even Italy’s premier sex symbol, Sophia Loren, ever exuded as much earthy sensuality, or expressed carnal desire as freely or as frankly as Magnani did. In The Rose Tattoo, Wild Is the Wind and a handful of other films, Anna Magnani was not only cast as an object of male desire; she was so persuasive to that end that she made slim, fine-featured young things like Marisa Pavan and Dolores Hart look pallid, prissy and frigid in comparison. In film after film, she was an irresistible source of fascination for the opposite sex, and why wouldn’t she be? Pretty girls are often no more than just that; passionate women are harder to forget.

The daughter of an Italian father and an Egyptian mother, she was brought up in the slums of Rome — that she displayed such a keen understanding of the hard-edged survival instincts of working class women was the product of firsthand experience. She began her career as a singer, performing in nightclubs. By the late 1930s, she was almost as famous as Piaf was in France; their backgrounds and career trajectories were strikingly similar. She made many poor, time-marking films before being cast by Vittorio De Sica in Teresa Venerdi, the film that launched her acting career in earnest. Roberto Rossellini’s Open City, in which she was the aching soul of a war-ravaged Rome, paved the way for international stardom. For that film, she received the best actress award from the National Board of Review — the first time any major American prize had been bestowed upon a foreign language performance. She worked for Rossellini again as the peasant woman convinced she is carrying the child of Christ in L’Amore, which cast her opposite the young actor who had also written the film’s screenplay, Federico Fellini. In Bellissima, directed by Luchino Visconti, she was tough, testy and ultimately heartbreaking as the stage mother determined to get her tiny daughter into films. The scene in which she observes, unnoticed, as her daughter’s screen test is being mercilessly ridiculed by studio executives showed how effortlessly she could segue from forceful bravado to quiet humiliation and despair. While Magnani was almost always cast as hardy, hearty women, she invariably managed to locate the fragile, wounded soul beneath the armor; audiences were always provided glimpses of the nagging self-doubts, irrational fears and easily bruised feelings that can reduce even the toughest of cookies to a state of naked vulnerability.

The world took notice, and a somewhat reluctant Magnani found herself a sought-after commodity on the international scene. She was the tempestuous star of a commedia del arte troupe in The Golden Coach, giving a grandly operatic performance; the film’s director, Jean Renoir, declared her to be “the greatest actress (he’d) ever worked with”. A star struck Tennessee Williams wrote The Rose Tattoo, a raucous comedy-drama about an Italian widow coming to terms with her late husband’s infidelity, specifically for her. Magnani declined the invitation to appear in the stage version, fearing her English wasn’t up to the task; her decision to opt out effectively launched the career of the unknown actress chosen to replace her. While Maureen Stapleton earned much praise (and a Tony) for her Broadway triumph, by the time the film version was being cast, Magnani had decided to reclaim the property. As Serefina Della Rose, her volcanic fits of fury were juxtaposed with moments of aching tenderness and grief — not even the clowny showboating of Burt Lancaster could derail her intensity, and the raw emotionalism of the performance was astonishing. She won the Oscar for the film, but the American career never really took off; not many scripts were being written with middle-age women with heavy accents in mind. She was very good — actually, too good — for the pulpy Wild Is the Wind, which brought her a second best actress nomination. If George Cukor seemed at a loss for how to temper the hamminess of Anthony Quinn, he didn’t allow it to upset the balance of the film too badly, and Magnani’s scenes with Anthony Franciosa generated more erotic heat than her ones with Lancaster had. Sidney Lumet cast her opposite Brando in The Fugitive Kind, a reworking of Williams’ Orpheus Descending — the film, while a flop, actually was better overall The Rose Tattoo, and featured a performance by Magnani that was, in some ways, superior. Her failure to receive an Oscar nomination for that film is somewhat baffling in retrospect, considering how a lean a year 1959 was for leading ladies; but Magnani lacked the transformative abilities of Marion Cotillard, Charlize Theron and Nicole Kidman, and Oscar voters tune out when actors don’t exhibit enough range. As great as she was in The Fugitive Kind, some critics carped that, since her arrival in Hollywood, she’d been giving the same performance over and over again.

The Hollywood phase of her career behind her, she returned to Italy, probably somewhat relieved to get away from the type of films that were inclined to view her as an exotic; Magnani was too salt-of-the-earth to be considered anything of the kind, least of all by herself. Mario Monicelli’s The Passionate Thief provided her with a rare foray into the realm of comedy, while Pier Paolo Passolini’s Mamma Roma, in which she played a streetwise prostitute trying to give her teenage son a better life, was deemed too controversial to be released in the United States until 1995 (it’s not hard to see why). She was outstanding in a film that didn’t shy away from revealing her capacity for ruthlessness, or wondering how quickly unabashed, unapologetic sexuality can pave the way to madness. Stanley Kramer’s The Secret of Santa Vittoria was a reunion with an unrepentantly florid Anthony Quinn, allegedly a comedy, and definitely a mistake.

While Magnani got a late start in the world of film, her death from pancreatic cancer at the age of 65 was sadly premature. The conventionally pretty girls born around the same time had ceased to be interesting by the time they reached middle age; but at the age of 40, Anna Magnani was only getting warmed up. In her 70s, or even in her 80s, she might well have retained her ability to generate heat.

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Thursday, March 06, 2008


Where have you gone Winona Ryder?

By Edward Copeland
Winona Ryder will turn 37 in October. How is this possible? Of course, we all age, but when I stumble upon a classic Winona Ryder film, her youthful greatness makes it seem impossible that the actress I had a major crush on decades ago is now closing in on 40, something that isn't helped by her near disappearance from the cultural radar. What prompted this post was catching her in the mixed bag of a 2007 film called The Ten and happening upon the ending of Beetlejuice on cable and falling for the Goth goddess once again.

I first noticed Ryder as the shy, tomboyish friend of Corey Haim in Lucas, but it was her performance in Tim Burton's Beetlejuice that really injected her into my consciousness. When I happened upon the ending of that film on cable last week, with her floating in midair, lip-synching Harry Belafonte, all those old feelings came rushing back.

Of course, my passion for Winona also was very dependent on hair color. As a result, I've never watched Burton's Edward Scissorhands. My Winona should NOT be a blonde. As luck would have it, the film The Ten arrived the same day I caught a bit of Beetlejuice. Ryder is pretty great in the film as a woman who becomes obsessed with a ventriloquist's dummy, even if the film itself (made by some of the same people responsible for the underrated gem Wet Hot American Summer) doesn't quite hold together.

Still, it was good to see Ryder again, able to be both funny, charming and a little bent. I know her run-in with the law over shoplifting derailed her career a bit, but it still makes no sense to me why her career stalled the way it did. Ryder managed Oscar nominations in two consecutive years (1993 and 1994) for Martin Scorsese's The Age of Innocence and Little Women.

She starred in and produced Girl, Interrupted in 1999, which won Angelina Jolie an Oscar but did little for Ryder herself. Where did the talent who propelled the brilliant dark satire Heathers (released the same year she soared as Jerry Lee Lewis' teen cousin/bride in Great Balls of Fire) go?

Even in lesser films such as Mermaids and Welcome Home, Roxy Carmichael, she was a pleasure to watch. The same year she scored an Oscar nomination for Little Women she also starred in the extremely underrated Reality Bites, which still stands as one of the best depictions of the post-baby boom generation ever put on screen. (I refuse to use the term Generation X, since the media tried to use a lousy novel by a Canadian to pigeonhole an American generational phenomenon.)

She made other films ranging from the so-so (How to Make an American Quilt) to the great (Looking for Richard and The Crucible), but somehow it seemed as if she were receding from view. By the time Girl, Interrupted came out, it was as if she were a star from days long past.

Ryder is an actress who was able to bridge the gap between modern tales to long-ago period pieces, something that not many of her peers can say. I have to wonder if the tale is true about her former friend Gwyneth Paltrow snatching the Shakespeare in Love screenplay from her coffee table and stealing the part as well. If she'd made Shakespeare, would things be different now instead of most of her work seeming to go straight to DVD?

Then there is the question asked by numerous film buffs: What if she didn't drop out of Francis Ford Coppola's Godfather Part III and she had played the role Coppola unfortunately ended up using his daughter Sofia for. Who knows? I do know though that Winona still holds a special place in my heart and I hope she gets the comeback she deserves.

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Wednesday, March 05, 2008


Not Much Bark, Even Less Bite

By Josh R
Posterity is not always a particularly kind mistress, and any reputation based on first impressions may turn out to be built on a foundation made of sand. For those doubting the extent to which the process of erosion can wreak havoc on a playwright’s legacy, it must therefore be asserted that there was a time when William Inge, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Picnic, Bus Stop and The Dark at the Top of the Stairs, was considered the equal of Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller. Needless to say, the moment was short-lived; by the late 1960s, Inge had been widely written off as a minor talent, and by the time of his death, had seen his reputation downgraded almost to the point of obscurity. If it seems difficult to account for such a stunning reversal of fortune — for surely no American playwright has fallen so far in the estimation of theater critics and scholars, relative to where he began — one need look no further than the plays themselves. For starters, there is Come Back, Little Sheba, the 1950 domestic drama that put Inge on the map and has recently been revived on Broadway by Manhattan Theatre Club.

It’s not hard to see why Come Back, Little Sheba would be warmly received by critics of the post-war era; it is, first and foremost, a well-made play that deals with serious issues in a sensitive and realistic fashion. There is nothing pretentious or overreaching about it — it knows exactly where it’s going and how to get there, and even if it never soars it seldom ever stalls. In that respect, it’s sort of like your first car — if not the ride of your dreams, then the one that served its function reasonably well in the absence of a better option, and got you where you needed to go if providing few thrills in the process. The title of the play refers to the beloved pet canine belonging to one Mrs. Lola Delaney, the lovably disheveled, rather simple-minded housewife played to near-perfection by stage and television veteran S. Epatha Merkerson. As the title suggests, the puppy has made like a pigeon and flown the coop — which is not surprising given how cumbersome it must be have been for one small dog to bear the full weight of the heavy symbolism foisted upon her by the playwright (Little Sheba’s absence represents Lola’s lost youth and the death of idealism, among other things). The good news for pet and/or Inge lovers alike is that, after an absence of nearly 60 years, Little Sheba has indeed come back to Broadway and the owner who loves her. The bad news for theatergoers is that she’s looking a bit the worse for wear. Even if this pooch still shows some faint signs of life, she arrives on the stage of The Biltmore Theatre practically wheezing.

Now I, for one, have never had any moral qualms about the practice of putting ailing animals to sleep if prolonging their lives constitutes inhumane treatment. Little Sheba’s condition hasn’t worsened to the point that it cries out for euthanizing — still, it seems a bit cruel to ask her to jump through hoops to give audiences the false impression of witnessing something interesting, relevant and fresh. Moreover, it is worth wondering why exactly Manhattan Theatre Club, a company which has built its reputation on the presentation of new works — including Proof, Doubt and Rabbit Hole, three of the last five Pulitzer Prize winners — has chosen to dredge such a moldy old chestnut out of the mothballs when there are so many infinitely more worthwhile plays to revisit (Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls, MTC’s announced spring production, seems a much more adventurous and, consequently, appropriate choice). There are plays from the '50s and earlier which still have the ability to sing; this one can barely woof.

Enough about the dog. Little Sheba is, of course, not the central character of Inge’s play — she is but a metaphor for the extent to which the boat has sailed for her downtrodden keepers. Slovenly hausfrau Lola’s world revolves around her husband Doc, a recovering alcoholic played by Kevin Anderson with a forced cheerfulness that does suggest someone diligently endeavoring to keep despair at bay. The impetus for the marriage was Lola’s pregnancy; Doc had to give up his medical studies, and by extension his lifelong dream of becoming a doctor, in order to support her. Now working as a chiropractor, he tries not to acknowledge the extent to which he blames Lola for his missed opportunities; she, in turn, is achingly aware of his unspoken recrimination but tries to convince herself that nothing is broken which can’t be mended — just as she persists in thinking that blasted dog is gonna turn up. The disruptive presence of Marie, a young female boarder, upsets the delicate balancing act by which tensions are kept in check, and Doc falls off the wagon in spectacular fashion. The play ends on a hopeful note, but concludes, as voiced by its heroine, that Little Sheba is pretty much gone for good.

If the plot sounds a bit like something out of a movie-of-the-week, that more or less how it plays — everything is spelled out in capital letters, and with a minimum of subtlety. With its simplistic attitudes, helplessly stilted dialogue, labored central metaphor, paper-thin psychology and the numbing functionality of its devices (when the doorbell rings, it’s always on cue), Inge’s work is mechanical to the point that it feels almost like a blueprint for a play instead the real deal. To say it’s dated would be an understatement; you keep waiting for someone to say something along the lines of “Gee whiz, that’s swell!” — which they usually do, at regular intervals and without a trace of irony. While Michael Pressman’s production has been termed a revival, given the state of the play, it might be more accurately referred to as an excavation. Back in 1950, this kind of thing might have been perceived thought-provoking and insightful; from a modern standpoint, it’s hard to tell what the original effect might have been just by viewing the fossils.

If my tone seems unnecessarily harsh, it’s a reflection of the fact that I rarely leave a Broadway show wondering what, exactly, it happens to be doing on Broadway (even the uninspired Young Frankenstein has arrived with a clearly discernible purpose — to make money). Come Back, Little Sheba is not a classic, nor, like the lesser plays of Miller or Williams, does it have enough substance or complexity to lend itself to any kind of reinterpretation. If you can’t uncover some new wrinkle in the text, or approach it from a different standpoint, then why bring it back when it’s not a particularly play good to begin with?

The answer to that query may be found, to some degree, in the performances; the play is remembered primarily as an actor’s showcase, and Ms. Merkerson’s fine, nuanced performance succeeds, against very stiff odds, in making a case for it on that level. The role’s originator, Shirley Booth, was showered with praise for her Tony-winning turn as Lola; she reprised the role for the 1952 film version, and was rewarded with an Oscar. Although her performance as an “ordinary” housewife featured many touching moments, it was a bit too much of a tour-de-force to be entirely credible (and there are many, like our own Odienator, who find her fussiness grating in the extreme.) Ms. Merkerson, making her first Broadway appearance since her Tony-nominated stint in August Wilson’s The Piano Lesson some 18 years ago, wisely elects for a less showy approach; she seems at once less self-preoccupied than Ms. Booth did, and entirely true to life. The delicacy and restraint that characterize her work makes much more sense from a dramatic standpoint; there is a sweetness and modesty, tinged with subtle shades of sadness and regret, that explain why, in spite of his resentment toward her, Doc genuinely loves and needs Lola, as well as why she is able to endear herself to others in their midst. The most touching moments in the production are those in which Ms. Merkerson reacts to the random acts of kindness paid to her by strangers; she is less a woman consumed by her own inner life than one wanting and needing to reach out to others.

Unfortunately, she also is the only person onstage whose efforts aren’t defeated by the limitations of the text. Mr. Anderson gives a very intelligent, finely judged performance, but can’t find ways (as Ms. Merkerson does) of delivering his painfully stilted lines in a way that sounds natural. This is not really the actor’s fault, since he's saddled with what is by far the more awkwardly written character of the two; Inge insists that Doc is a smart man, but he doesn’t provide him with smart things to say. As Marie, the cutie-pie coed who inadvertently sends her landlords’ marriage into a state of crisis, Zoe Kazan delivers all of her lines in a high-pitched sort of baby talk that is meant to suggest winsomeness — instead she winds up sounding like a more animated version of Melanie Griffith. Brian J. Smith overdoes the boorishness of the musclebound jock vying for Marie’s affections, while the majority of the other supporting cast members simply fade into the background. A notable exception is Brenda Wehle, who seems to enjoy herself playing an ethnic type as a harried neighbor, even if she’s not really any more believable than any of the other featured players, all of whom seem to be rolling in and out of view like comically exaggerated stock figures in a '30s screwball comedy.

The casting and/or direction of Kazan and Smith notwithstanding, it’s hard to lay the blame for Come Back, Little Sheba's failure at the feet of director Michael Pressman, who exhibits a sure sense of staging and resists the temptation to take the play’s more melodramatic moments over the top. Great directors have been known to mine lesser material for gold; recent Broadway productions of Company (John Doyle), The Pajama Game (Kathleen Marshall) and Is He Dead? (Michael Blakemore) bear this out. Could another helmer have engineered a similar feat of alchemy with Come Back, Little Sheba? I’m skeptical. Even with a wellspring of talent to choose from, the result probably would have been pretty much the same no matter who had wound up with the assignment. There’s only so much you can do when the play is a dog.

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