Thursday, February 28, 2008


Clouzot did drive '55

By Edward Copeland
The French director Henri-Georges Clouzot is known mostly for a mere two films: The great thriller Diabolique and the tension-filled ride The Wages of Fear. For whatever reason, I never got around to seeing The Wages of Fear until recently and its reputation is more than deserved, but what I found even more amazing is that both Wages, which was released in France in 1953, and Diabolique opened in the U.S. in 1955. That's an impressive feat for a director anywhere.

For such a simple premise and a lengthy running time (the original cut was even longer), it's amazing how compelling Wages remains, nearly from beginning to end. The premise, for the uninitiated, involves an American oil company's operations in South America.

Needing to transport a huge amount of nitroglycerin to a remote site, the company hires four of the work-starved inhabitants of a poor village to deliver two trucks of the deadly cargo. Among the drivers chosen is Mario (played by the great Yves Montand) and what's really interesting is how many languages this French director's film employs.

In addition to French, there are large passages in English and Spanish as well. Once the initial setup is out of the way, namely drawing a picture of life in the village and the American selecting his drivers, the bulk of the film is exactly what I've described: Two trucks, full of explosives, on a long and winding road. If there is anything to criticize about the film, I saw the ending coming a mile away, so it saps it of the sting it really should have.

That aside, Clouzot's taut direction is just as good as in his other 1955 masterpiece Diabolique.

The two films do have something other than suspense in common: Both feature Vera Clouzot, wife of the director, though her role in Wages is nowhere near as juicy as the one in Diabolique. If you haven't seen either film, they both are worth checking out.

Labels: , , ,


Wednesday, February 27, 2008


From the Vault: Last Action Hero

Chuckles often ripple across a room when someone compares a new film to Ishtar or Hudson Hawk, usually followed by a knowing nod that the comparison indicates a new low in big budget Hollywood filmmaking.

Last Action Hero has drawn comparisons to those earlier films but while none of the three can be called good or successful, not one of them deserves to be labeled the most atrocious example of moviemaking gone awry.

To be fair, Hero, the latest offering from Arnold Schwarzenegger, lands a notch or two above both Ishtar and Hudson Hawk. In fact, if Arnold's movie were shorter, had less obvious jokes and tightened its ending, it could have been a thoroughly enjoyable fusion of The Purple Rose of Cairo, The Player and the action genre.

While Arnold gets top billing, 13-year-old Austin O'Brien really has the film's lead role as Danny Madigan, a New York lad whose world revolves around the action character Jack Slater, who in the film's context is supposed to be played by Arnold himself.

One night, Danny sneaks out of his house for a special screening of "Jack Slater IV," courtesy of his best friend Nick (Robert Prosky), the projectionist at his favorite movie house. Thanks to a ticket Houdini gave Nick as a youngster, Danny finds himself magically transported into the world of "Jack Slater IV," where he understands that he is in a movie while Slater buys the outrageous action that surrounds him.

Much of the remainder of the film exists within "Jack Slater IV," where Danny helps Slater outwit the crooks because he knows information Slater doesn't and because he's seen so many of these action flicks, he can predict every turn.

Last Action Hero's major drawback, other than its excessive length, comes from its insistence of going for the obvious satirical points and underlining them in case the audience misses them. The overexplanation of why things are funny sap them of their humor.

Also, as it starts to lose steam toward the end, it also begins to cheat on its own premise in ways that can't be explained without giving too much away.

What Last Action Hero does have going for it are an often good-natured sense of humor and a wonderful performance by Charles Dance, who treads the line between self-awareness and ignorance perfectly as the film-within-the-film's villain.

So why has the reaction to this film been so universally vicious? It has a lot to do with its cost: the lowest estimate places the budget at $80 million. Still, many worse films have been made with less money and lower aims.

One gets the impression that Arnold almost wishes this was his last action film, to show he's achieved great things in the genre at the same time he admits doing horrid things in the genre. The truth as to why audiences aren't too pleased with the film may be the film's underlying message. They come to see the usual Arnold shoot-'em-up and find a movie that seems to be making fun of them for enjoying those types of films.

Perhaps that's what they were being told, but I doubt that was Arnold or the filmmaker's intention. While Last Action Hero doesn't succeed overall, people should recognize its true message — "It's only a movie."

Labels: ,


Monday, February 25, 2008


It's meant to be funny?

By Edward Copeland
At one point in Margot at the Wedding, a frustrated Malcolm (Jack Black) tells his fiancee Pauline (Jennifer Jason Leigh) that both she and her sister Margot (Nicole Kidman) are "fucking morons." When Jack Black is the voice of reason, you know you are probably in trouble and Noah Baumbach's film is the most excruciatingly bad moviegoing experience I've had among 2007 releases.

I can't imagine how much time Baumbach has spent in therapy in his life, but the bills must be astronomical. (If he hasn't been in therapy at all, The Squid and the Whale and this piece of shit are strong evidence that perhaps he should be sent forcibly to a mental health facility.)

While Squid worked to some extent thanks to the solid acting by Laura Linney, Jeff Daniels, Jesse Eisenberg and Owen Kline, there is no such luck with Margot at the Wedding. Baumbach even manages to drag down the talent of his wife, Leigh, whom we don't see that often anymore.

Kidman is flat-out bad and Black seems as if he dropped in from another film, a film I certainly would have rather been watching.

Ciaran Hinds shows up as Kidman's lover and as much as I disliked There Will Be Blood, I hoped that somehow Hinds could teleport the cast of Margot back to Daniel Plainview's bowling alley.

Few films I can recall have created such an array of repulsive, hateful and boring characters such as those Baumbach assembles here. The motivations for what they do don't seem to spring from their characters' inner wounds but solely from a desire on Baumbach's part to drag audiences into his own dysfunctional misery.

I have to ask Baumbach, "What did we ever do to you to deserve this?" I didn't think that anything could top Colour Me Kubrick as the worst 2007 film I saw, but Baumbach managed to pull that off with Margot at the Wedding. It's really the only superlative this film deserves.

Labels: , , , ,


Saturday, February 23, 2008


The weight of the world on his shoulders

By Edward Copeland
There's a stillness, a rigidity in Tommy Lee Jones' portrait of Hank Deerfield in In the Valley of Elah, a seeming paralysis that makes any time Hank actually moves, whether it's rocking during a phone call or revealing a bottle of booze, mesmerizing. Unfortunately, one great performance does not a good movie make and as spellbinding as Jones is here, his talent alone can't support the film's inner flimsiness.

Writer-director Paul Haggis' In the Valley of Elah strives to be both personal and profound as it tells the story of a father's search for answers when his soldier son ends up slain following his unit's return from Iraq.

I was not one of the many who reacted so violently against Haggis' Oscar-winning directing debut Crash, but in Elah, Haggis' attempt at "being important" comes off as hamhanded and awkward. It doesn't help that while the story wanders through the desert, most moviegoers will be far ahead of where it's going.

The film doesn't really have anything new to say about war, Iraq or post-traumatic stress that hasn't been said better in other countless works. In fact, when it gets to the "revelation" at the end, the first thing I thought of was not the horrors of the Iraq war but the finale of TV's M*A*S*H, where you ask yourself how, after all the terrible things Hawkeye had seen over the years, that is what finally pushes him over the edge.

Haggis also loads down the film with a by-the-numbers "woman struggles in a man's world" subplot involving Charlize Theron as a police detective whose male colleagues assume slept her way to her position. At times, if Theron weren't brunette in Valley of Elah, you might think you were watching deleted scenes from North Country.

All of this is a shame because Tommy Lee Jones is so damn good in this film. When his name was called on Oscar nomination day, I was surprised since In the Valley of Elah had seemed to sink like a rock. Now that I've seen it, I shouldn't have been, because Jones delivers one of his very best performances here. Unfortunately, it comes in a movie that really doesn't deserve it.

Labels: ,


Friday, February 22, 2008


The best Malick film Malick never made

By Edward Copeland
I've never made it a secret that the films of Terrence Malick aren't my cup of tea. So when many reviews of Andrew Dominik's The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford compared the film to Malick last fall, it dampened my enthusiasm for rushing out to see this 160 minute movie. That was a mistake, because now that I've caught up with it on DVD, I wish I could have seen it in a theater, not only because it is as beautiful as most Malick films, but because it's a near-great film with solid writing and acting that wears its length spectacularly well, something Malick films haven't done for me.

First and foremost, I have to cite the greatest asset of Jesse James: Roger Deakins' remarkable cinematography, for which he received an Oscar nomination alongside his separate nomination for No Country for Old Men.

This year's crop of cinematography nominees may be the strongest in the category I've seen in a long time. In addition to Deakins' nominations, there also is great work by Janusz Kaminski for The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Seamus McGarvey for Atonement and Robert Elswit's magnificent work in the otherwise blah There Will Be Blood.

I think Elswit likely will win Sunday, but Deakins' work on Jesse James really deserves the prize, especially since Deakins now holds seven Oscar nominations without a win. I hope I'm wrong Sunday, because his work on The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford stands heads and shoulders above the others in this brutally strong field.

However, unlike your typical Malick feature, there is more than meets the eye in Jesse James. Director Dominik adapted the script from the novel by Ron Hansen, and he uses a free-flowing narrative, punctuated frequently by an omniscient yet unidentified narrator, to tell the story of the man who killed the famous outlaw.

As the first title character, Brad Pitt gives one of his best performances, an alternately charming and chilling turn that is as tightly coiled as Joe Pesci as Tommy in Goodfellas.

Casey Affleck does well as the title's other name as well, though the Academy's decision to place him in supporting is questionable at best, though not nearly one of its worst lead/supporting categorization mistakes. Affleck nicely mixes the naive and calculating parts of the young Robert Ford, who, as Jesse points out, is either a lot like James or merely wants to be the legend.

The rest of the ensemble does equally well, including Paul Schneider, Jeremy Renner and Sam Rockwell as various members of the James gang and Sam Shepard as Jesse's older brother Frank.

What makes The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford so compelling is its entire construction. For a film that runs 2 hours and 40 minutes, it never lags and its stylistic flourishes only enhance the tale, never distracting from the narrative itself.

Also, unlike most Westerns of the past few decades, the film's mission doesn't seem to include deconstructing the myths to say something larger about the genre. Instead, it just dazzles the eye, entrances the viewer and tells a fine, oft-told tale.

One final note about a great aspect of the film: In a time where more often than not, musical scores tend to stomp on the movies they serve, the music by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis is subtle, evocative and one of the finest movie scores I've heard in some time.

Labels: , , , , , , , ,


Thursday, February 21, 2008


Art Isn't Easy

By Josh R
When something is described as being interesting, it’s usually in the spirit of a backhanded compliment. If you ask a theatergoer point-blank whether or not they liked a particular show, and the query is met with a hedging response of “It was interesting,” it essentially boils down to a no. This should in no way mitigate the fact that, in most cases, the book or play under discussion is, in point of truth, quite interesting (it’s one of those nifty all-purpose words that can be applied in any number of different contexts — Hegel’s Theory of Dialectic is interesting, and so is a train wreck). Unless you’re the kind of person who wonders why The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences persists in nominating boring, talky movies as opposed to those which can actually hold your attention — and if you’re of the persuasion that Transformers was hands down the best picture of 2007, you belong in this category — you’re not going to balk at the kind of artistic enterprise that requires you to think. That being said, the theater is more than just a classroom, and not unlike the millions of moviegoers who flooded multiplexes nationwide for the simple pleasure of witnessing big CGI-generated robots beating the hell out of one another, theater audiences are looking to respond to what they see on more than a purely intellectual level.

Sunday in the Park with George, the 1984 musical receiving its first major Broadway revival under the auspices of The Roundabout Theatre Company, labors mightily to fit the bill, and its intentions are strictly honorable. If it comes up short, the result is still, as you may have already guessed, interesting.

There is a lot to like and still more to admire about the Stephen Sondheim/James Lapine-penned work, which won the Pulitzer Prize for drama at the time of its premiere and has endured as a favorite of repertory companies and college theater departments in the years to follow. It’s reappearance on Broadway after an absence of more than two decades may even come as welcome relief to musical theater audiences who have had their fill of the cotton candy they’ve been force-fed since last summer; so far, the season’s three new musical offerings (if they can be called “new”) have been Xanadu, Young Frankenstein and Grease! Those hungering for a tuner offering actual substance need look no further than Studio 54, where the first-rate production of Sunday in the Park with George helmed by 32-year-old British wunderkind Sam Buntrock opens today. The attributes that accounted for its critical popularity back in 1984 are still very much in evidence; it is original, challenging, and yes (I promise not to say it again), interesting. As to whether or not these qualities add up to a great work of theater — well, no. In the second act, an elderly woman advises her struggling grandson to rely on “a little less thinking, a little more feeling” in the creation of his art — counsel that Sunday in the Park’s creators respect in theory, if not in practice.

The show is essentially a consideration of the artistic process and its peculiar challenges, with the 19th century painter Georges (or, if you prefer the anglicized version, George) Seurat serving as a stand-in for Sondheim himself. The first act chronicles the creation of “Sunday Afternoon on The Island of La Grande Jatte,” the neo-impressionist masterpiece which took more than two years to paint and was initially met with a decidedly less-than-enthusiastic response by the artistic establishment. While observing the painstaking process that went into the creation of the painting, Sondheim and Lapine contend that Seurat’s obsessive devotion to his craft consumed him to extent that he had nothing left to give to the people in his life — specifically, to his vivacious mistress and muse, Dot, who eventually leaves him when she realizes that their relationship will always come second to his work. The second act, which is set in the present day, examines the personal and creative crisis experienced by Seurat’s great-grandson, also named George, a post-modern artist specializing in elaborate light installations that are high on commercial appeal but short on inspiration. By returning to the Island of La Grande Jatte and encountering the spirit of Dot, who gives him the musical equivalent of a pep talk, George resolves to trust his artistic impulses and take risks, regardless of whether or not his efforts are understood and appreciated by the commercial establishment or the world at large.

If the basic premise doesn’t suggest much in the way of entertainment value, that’s probably true of any high-concept work of theater where the drama basically exists in service to the expression of ideas. The problem with Sunday in the Park with George isn’t that it fails as a work of entertainment (it succeeds, albeit fitfully); the difficulty stems from the fact that the creators approach their subject in a way that feels dryly academic, even when they’re trying to imbue it with emotional resonance. When I reviewed the Broadway revival of Sondheim’s Company last year, I was pleasantly surprised by the extent to which John Doyle’s brilliant staging raised my opinion of the show itself. While Buntrock’s production deserves all the praise it will inevitably receive, it doesn’t make a case for Sunday in the Park with George as a work of theater that works as theater. Ultimately, not even the best rendering has the power to transform a washed-out watercolor — admittedly one executed with fine, painterly strokes — into a vibrant impressionist masterpiece.

The general consensus has always been that the first act is the stronger of the two, which is not to say it doesn’t have its share of weaknesses. There is something very coldly analytical in the way that Sondheim and Lapine methodically break Seurat’s painting down to its basic components, addressing each element in turn, and then slapping them back together again (it’s almost like watching the assembly of jigsaw puzzle by someone whose interest in jigsaw puzzles is purely scientific). Rather than bringing each figure to three-dimensional life, they provide us with only the skeletal outline of personalities; these people hold no real interest for George except as things he can use to put in his painting, and that’s pretty much how the composer and librettist view them as well (the flatness of Lapine’s dialogue doesn’t help matters much). Similarly, the main characters don’t really register as more than impressionist sketches, less flesh-and-blood characters than somewhat amorphous shapes composed of color and light. Dot tells us that she loves George, while George hints in his own, somewhat oblique way that he loves Dot — but the relationship is not fleshed out in a way that would seem to support either contention. The two characters remain separate and distinct entities, occupying the same space but curiously disconnected throughout the entirety of the first act. The effect may be by design, since George’s passion is reserved for his painting, but it makes it difficult to feel emotionally invested in the conflict.

The second act, which in previous productions has always seemed a bit of a tacked-on afterthought, has more resonance in the context of this production than it did in the original, but still creates a bit of a chill. Certainly, Sunday in the Park with George is Sondheim’s response to critics of his work — those who charge with being too high-fillutin’ for his own good — but how can you tender such a stern repudiation of art which is purely cerebral within the framework of a show that is so purely cerebral? Some have suggested that the show is basically Sondheim’s defense of his own loner status and inability to forge lasting “love” relationships, but if so, what exactly is he trying to communicate to the audience in that regard? That the relationship between artist and his work must take precedence over interpersonal contact in order for the art to matter? The character of Dot reappears at the end and seems to be telling George “I understand now why you shut me out, and I applaud you for it” — but if that’s the case, how does one account for the second act’s implicit suggestion that the younger George’s art is suffering precisely because of the fact that he has isolated himself from those closest to him?

In a way, it’s almost appropriate that the human element takes a back seat to the technical wizardry on display in Buntrock’s staging; using an innovative mixed-media approach involving breathtaking lighting effects and computer animation, the stage transforms itself in a manner that truly does suggest an artist’s canvas teeming with life. The actors make less of an impression, but serve the demands of their roles, albeit in qualified ways. The Olivier-winning stars of Buntrock’s original London staging at The Mernier Chocolate Factory have crossed the pond to reprise their roles at Studio 54, and while both deliver impressive performances, neither really seems ideally suited to his or her role. The slight, bright-eyed Daniel Evans is too boyish a presence for the remote, guarded George of Act One — in the second, he’s downright sprightly (while he’s bouncing around the stage for “Putting It Together”, the ADD mothers in the audience may find themselves inadvertently reaching into their purses for the Ritalin). Mandy Patinkin, the role’s originator, came across as a bit of a gloomy drone, but at least managed to convey the intense self-absorption of someone unable to make room for anyone else in his own little world; Evans’ George seems more like the sort of guy a girl could fall in love with, but is not particularly convincing as the kind a woman would have no choice but to walk out on. Jenna Russell’s singing voice sounds to an uncanny degree like that of Bernadette Peters, who created the role of Dot in 1984; the effect is a little unsettling, especially when coupled with a flowery north-English accent. From an acting perspective, Russell is slightly more credible as a woman experiencing an emotional crisis — Ms. Peters is the type of performer who has always seemed more comfortable with personality-driven comedy than in character-driven drama — but she doesn’t have the brash element of showmanship that her predecessor brought to the part. Ms. Peters’ insouciant Broadway-baby spark, while entirely at odds with the tone of the show in which it was featured, provided the original Sunday with its only real flashes of energy; paradoxically, with a better actress in the role, the character doesn't register as strongly as before. These considerations aside, Russell and Evans do complement each other in the way that the role’s originators — who often seemed to be performing in two very different shows — didn’t quite manage. They don’t really have any more chemistry than Patinkin and Peters did, but they do a better job of fleshing out their roles, and bring something more specific to the flimsy, rather generic psychology on which their character arcs are based. The supporting cast, which includes Michael Cumpsty, Jessica Molaskey, Mary Beth Peil and Alexander Gemignani, bring some welcome flourishes of originality to the cardboard characters they are playing, but are reigned in by the limitations of their roles.

Sondheim cultists never tire of praising the show’s score, which is lush and melodic even if its use of discordant harmonies is likely to drive old-school showtune lovers bonkers. Musically, it isn’t as memorable as some of Sondheim’s earlier works — the recurring motifs grow repetitive quickly, and his attempts to approximate Seurat’s pointillistic style in musical terms are too literal-minded by half — but the lyrics are, as always, meticulously crafted and astonishingly clever. Despite the pleasures of Buntrock’s fluid production, which is as pleasing visually as it is musically, one can’t quite shake the sense that the show, like its protagonist, is keeping emotion at arm’s length. “You’re an artist, not a scientist,” a friend admonishes the intransigent hero midway through the first act. Sunday in the Park with George is a far cry from painting-by-the-numbers — it’s much too inventive and unique to be charged with anything of the kind — but in spite of the obvious thought and care that went into its creation, it stops well short of being a great work of art.

But it’s certainly interesting.

Labels: , ,


Tuesday, February 19, 2008


The Wire Season 5: Eps. 51-56

BLOGGER'S NOTE: Spoilers lie below, so don't venture further unless you've seen the first six episodes of season five or don't care if you know what's happened.

By Edward Copeland
Thanks to a friend who still has HBO here and the ability to videotape it, I've seen the first six episodes of The Wire's final season. This post won't be like last season's recaps, but I thought I'd share what I think so far.

There is a risk that inevitably comes with being routinely called the best of something. Look how common it is for first-time viewers of Citizen Kane to think it's not that great.

In a way, David Simon's great HBO series The Wire has become a victim of its own high expectations, especially since each season seemed to build on top what had come before. Unfortunately, at least in my opinion, season four's excellence (perhaps the most sustained season of a TV series in terms of quality ever) may have made it a bit inevitable that season five would suffer by comparison.

Don't get me wrong: The Wire still is among the best TV has to offer, but having seen all but the final four episodes of its last season, I see more things that aren't working than things that are.

Season five picks up about two years after the events of season four as Baltimore Mayor Thomas Carcetti still has his sights on the Maryland gubernatorial race but he's been hit by a budget and school crisis that has led him to make brutal cutbacks to the police department. There is no longer overtime for the cops and the Major Crimes Unit reunited in the season four finale to take down drug kingpin Marlo Stanfield has been dismantled once again, sending McNulty back to the homicide department and to the bottle as well.

This is one of the things that struck me as underdeveloped. McNulty was making such great strides to be on the straight-and-narrow thanks to his relationship with Officer Beatrice Russell, that his fall from grace seems puzzling. Even worse, the scheme he develops to keep the investigation going into all the bodies Marlo's people had left in abandoned rowhouses seems a bit over-the-top for a series that has focused on being painfully real.
He dreams up a serial killer preying on homeless men (with the help of Lester Freamon) to keep the pursuit of Marlo going. This strand also brings in yet another cast of characters and a new setting into the crowded landscape of The Wire: a fictionalized version of The Baltimore Sun newspaper.

While it is great to see Homicide veteran Clark Johnson in the role of city editor Gus Haynes, the newspaper scenes seem as if they belong in another series. (Speaking of Homicide, they crib a little from things used in that series, including using the department copier as a lie detector test to fool a suspect and McNulty hunting for which department car a set of keys match.)

Since season 5 is a short one (only 10 episodes long), it's eating up a lot of screen time for a show that literally is overflowing with characters who come back from the past. It reminds me of some of those Woody Allen films like Shadows and Fog, where there are so many names in the cast, you have a hard time spotting them all. Is that Kate Nelligan in the window? Say, could that be Nick Sobotka heckling Carcetti? Don't blink or you'll miss young Randy Wagstaff. Here comes Avon Barksdale again.

While I love this element of The Wire, dumping in the Sun characters on top of everything else deprives the characters we have known of screen time. Granted, I do recognize a lot of things in the newspaper scenes. I can recall many a time I've stood with co-workers glancing at far-away smoke out the office window. On the other hand, if only newspapers still existed where line editors took such an interest in the use of language in a reporter's story instead of dumping all the problems on the copy desk for them to fix.

With only four episodes left, I wonder how they can get to any sort of satisfying wrapup for such a great series. Still, many of the other elements are great. Watching the potential fall of state Sen. Clay Davis is fun. He even lets out a "sheeeet" with more syllables than usual.

Then there are other characters we haven't seen at all. I for one would like to know how Namond is doing living with the Colvins. Is Prez making any progress in teaching? If they are going to tell us, it's going to be in the final four episodes. Finally, I do have to say, "Say it ain't so, Joe." It was sad to see the great Robert F. Chew's character of Proposition Joe fall to Marlo's power grab. Chew's role, which started out so small, really filled out the screen (in more ways the one) every time he was on. At least it's the final season, but I miss Prop Joe already.

Labels: , , , ,


Monday, February 18, 2008


I Can't Give You Anything But Love, Baby

By Odienator
On this day in 1938, Bringing Up Baby was unleashed on movie screens by RKO and director Howard Hawks. The public didn’t get it, the critics were less than kind, and Hepburn's status as "box office poison" was cemented. Seventy years later, Baby's been brought up three different times on AFI's 100 Years lists and on at least three "Best Comedies of All Time" lists. It continues to make money and shows up on Turner Classic Movies whenever Ted Turner feels like pimping it out to us. While its vindication is well deserved, I completely understand why the public ran away from this movie. It's exhausting, demanding and crazier than the screwball comedies they had become accustomed to by 1938. Its skewered targets are numerous, it is paced at breakneck speed and it twists and turns to the point of absurdity. It's a full-on attack on the viewer and audiences weren't ready for the assault.

Howard Hawks allegedly said that to get the full effect of Bringing Up Baby one had to realize that everyone in the film was crazy. The first time I saw it, I realized Kate Hepburn's Susan Vance character was off her rocker, and her performance threatened to send me off mine. Hepburn is fearless in her portrayal, but her character is exasperating to the point where one wishes her pet leopard, Baby, would turn her into Meow Mix. Fortunately for Hepburn, this is exactly what is required of the role. Her job is to drive co-star Cary Grant bonkers until he either falls in love with her or brings her a glass of poisoned milk. She makes us feel what Grant feels whenever she's done something annoying to him. Bringing Up Baby is a comedy of aggravation, and much of the comedy stems from Grant's reactions to whatever it is that's frustrating him.

Grant's Dr. David Huxley is a bespectacled nerd of a paleontologist, engaged to an asexual woman with a very sexual name, and waiting for the symbolic delivery of a bone that will make him happy. He's building a complete Brontosaurus skeleton and the one missing piece, an intercostal clavicle, is finally being delivered to him. His fiancée, Alice Swallow (Virginia Walker), reminds him that he has a golf game with Mr. Peabody, the lawyer of a rich benefactor who may give Huxley's museum $1 million to continue his work.

At the golf game, he meets Susan, who mistakenly plays his ball, crashes up his car and drives off with him on it. Later, he meets her again at a swanky supper club at which he is entertaining Mr. Peabody in an attempt to make up for abandoning him earlier. After some funny physical comedy, David accidentally rips the back of Susan's dress off. Susan misinterprets David's attempt to inform her that her ass is being advertised to the public as a romantic gesture, made more misinterpreted by her conversation with an inattentive shrink who tells her "the love impulse in men frequently reveals itself in terms of conflict." Every time she runs into David, he winds up angry and aggravated, so this must be because he has "a fixation" on her. After she realizes her situation, she allows David to help her maintain modesty.

Susan also misunderstands David's occupation. She thinks he's a zoologist, which results in her calling him about her pet leopard. David, quite fed up with Susan after her plan to sweet talk Peabody (whom she knows) backfires with comic violence, isn't interested in hearing about any leopard. Besides, he's getting married in a few hours. Susan tricks him into showing up at her place, upon which she presents him with Baby. Baby is a tame leopard who loves the song "I Can't Give You Anything But Love, Baby" because it features its name. Susan's plan is to keep David as long as possible to prevent him from marrying Alice, and she's aided and abetted by her dog George (Asta from The Thin Man) who runs off with the intercostal clavicle bone David conveniently has brought to Susan's place. George buries it, and isn't telling anyone where it is. Susan is also assisted in her plan by Baby, who escapes from her house, presumably in pursuit of copies of "Baby Got Back" and "I Love to Love You Baby."

Did I mention that Susan's aunt is Mr. Peabody's client, Mrs. Random, the woman who holds David's million dollar check? Or that, for reasons I dare not explain, Mrs. Random meets David while he's wearing Susan's negligee, leading to the most argued about line in Bringing Up Baby? ("Because I've just gone gay all of a sudden!" David replies when Mrs. Random asks why he is dressed in Susan's lingerie.)

The plot is so full of zany antics that recounting them here would be too time-consuming. Instead, I'll confess that I really didn't care for this movie the first time I saw it. Hepburn's character tried my last nerve, and I would rather have seen Grant choke her to death after what she does in the last scene of this movie than fall in love with her. Some years later, I stumbled upon this movie on cable and couldn't stop laughing. I still found Susan Vance frustrating, but I enjoyed seeing Hepburn go for broke. Grant gives a great comic performance, physical one moment and verbal the next, with no regard for how silly he may look. He and Hepburn make a fine comedy team where they both alternate being the straight man. I found myself drawn to how the movie is constructed, and finding much to enjoy about Hawks' sense of timing and the script's rapid fire dialogue. Perhaps subconsciously I'd absorbed Hawks' "they're all crazy" comment, though I vaguely remember the film's shrink saying "all people who behave strangely are not insane." Maybe my taste just got better.

Labels: , , , ,


The bottom's a perfect place to start

By Edward Copeland
When you think of the great De Niro-Scorsese collaborations, one immediately recalls Travis Bickle or Jake La Motta. It seems sort of appropriate that Rupert Pupkin slips through the cracks in these conversations, but he shouldn't and neither should his film, The King of Comedy, which was released 25 years ago today.

Re-visiting the film for this post, it seemed to me as if The King of Comedy serves as a bridge between the intense, psychological dramas that had given Scorsese his reputation and his next film, After Hours, among the darkest and tensest comedies ever made. De Niro's Rupert Pupkin may seem a lot less dangerous than Travis Bickle, but he is a man willing to kidnap a talk show host at gunpoint to achieve his dream of being a stand-up comic. The essentially comic bent of The King of Comedy allows you to laugh at Rupert in a way you'd never dare laugh at Travis. Still, the taxi driver and the comic wanna-be do have many similarities.

Compare the two awkward dates in their respective films: Travis may not realize that it's a bad idea to take Betsy (Cybill Shepherd) to a porn film for a date, but Rupert is so self-absorbed he spends his date with Rita (Diahanne Abbott) showing off his autograph collection and warning Rita not to "become a Marilyn." Both achieve positive notoriety as a result of their criminal acts, though Travis is still driving that cab while Rupert achieves his dream of success following a prison term. You can even see a little bit of a future Scorsese-De Niro psycho. When Rupert laughs maniacally during a fake talk show he's holding in his basement, there are echoes of the sounds Max Cady will emit in 1991's Cape Fear while watching Problem Child. If Pupkin had just waited a while longer, he could have been among the many weird "celebrities" our culture sprouts now without having to break the law. Aside from criminal intent, what really separates a Pupkin from a Sanjaya or William Hung? At its core, The King of Comedy, as well as the ending of Taxi Driver, are about the nature of celebrity. The crucial difference: Travis didn't have a hunger for fame while Rupert certainly does. The target of Rupert's obsession, whom he views as the key to success, is late-night talk show host Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis).

The role originally was offered to Johnny Carson, who turned it down for obvious reasons, though his real-life producer Fred DeCordova plays Langford's producer, but I don't think the film would have worked nearly as well as it does with Lewis. Lewis really has to play multiple versions of Langford: There is the on-air jokester, the man who does his best to appease fans, the complete fantasy version that Rupert imagines and the real Jerry Langford, a sheltered asshole who wishes he could avoid public contact as much as possible. Lewis excels at all of these. It's easy to see how Langford could get so tired of adulation as in one case where a woman on a N.Y. street asks for his autograph and he gladly complies. However, when she then tries to get him on the phone with a relative and he cites time constraints, she shouts that she hopes he gets cancer. There is a real level of hostility lurking beneath the admiration of many so-called fans. If Lewis ever deserved an Oscar nomination, this should have been the film that got him one.

Of course, Rupert isn't the only psycho Langford has to deal with: There is also his partner in delusion, Masha (Sandra Bernhard), whose obsession with Jerry seems to be purely a warped sexual one, something she tries to indulge in when she's given the task to guard him while Rupert extorts his way on to national TV. What's particularly interesting in looking at the film again is not only a degree of prescience about the celebrity culture to come, but also other touches that would show up elsewhere. All the scenes of "The Jerry Langford Show" seem to be on video while the other scenes are on film, a technique eventually used on the late, great HBO comedy The Larry Sanders Show.

Scorsese's direction is top notch as always with many memorable shots and sequences. Watch Jerry's stage door exit, which is filmed as if it's that slow-motion footage of the Reagan assassination attempt. Then there is a scene where Rupert is doing his routine to massive laughs, leading to a long pullback revealing a wall-size photo of an audience. One thing that isn't as apparent unless you watch the deleted scene of Langford's full monologue is that his material isn't that markedly better or funnier than the jokes Rupert is eager to tell. The King of Comedy isn't a perfect Scorsese, but it is a very good one and looking at it again and thinking about After Hours, which came next, it really makes me wish that sometime Scorsese would try his hand at more purely comic material again. Certainly, nearly all of his films have ample humor (Goodfellas especially), but I'd love to see him explore that realm again.

Labels: , , , , , , , ,


Friday, February 15, 2008


Choosing roads, not paving them

By Edward Copeland
Twenty years ago today, the first great original HBO series premiered. Tanner '88, a collaboration between "Doonesbury" creator Garry Trudeau and director Robert Altman, seems even more timely today than when the fictional Democratic presidential candidate Jack Tanner sought his party's nomination in 1988.

Re-watching the series 20 years later, it's amazing how many of the details still ring true, not only in regard to political campaigns but in the mark it left on other series as well. The short-lived HBO misfire K Street with James Carville and Mary Matalin playing themselves in a fictional lobbying office definitely bore the Tanner lineage in its attempts to capitalize on recent news events. What surprised me though is seeing the seeds of ideas explored in the great HBO series The Wire. Tanner '88 didn't stop to make clear introductions to its large cast of characters: It just jumped in and let the viewer figure it out, just as The Wire has.

The strongest similarity between the two series occurs in the episode "The Girlfriend Factor," where Tanner's tour of a rough inner-city Detroit neighborhood ends with his discovery of a slain child. Still, the most striking resemblance is its huge ensemble cast (Altman loved them) of characters including the Tanner campaign team, his family and the press assigned to cover his candidacy as well as extended cameos by celebrities and real-life politicians. Since Altman and Trudeau filmed and wrote the series while the real-life 1988 campaign was going on, their paths crossed with the real race and real candidates such as Bruce Babbitt, Gary Hart, Bob Dole, and Pat Robertson. You even see many real-life pundits and media types such as a young Chris Matthews and Linda Ellerbee. Ellerbee serves as the moderator for a fictional debate between Tanner, Jesse Jackson and Michael Dukakis, a well-edited piece of filmmaking magic that interspersed real debate footage with the fake stuff. Ellerbee also makes some of the most cogent comments of the entire series when it comes to coverage of presidential campaigns, thoughts that still ring true today. Television can't cover change well, Ellerbee says, and that is what any election is ultimately about.

Unfortunately, campaigns then and now turn out to be more about what makes great TV. It's a long, tedious process (and that was 20 years ago! Today's endless campaign makes past ones look like a commercial break). Ellerbee wonders if anyone willing to put themselves through that is someone you should really want as president. Given the task of embodying the former three-term U.S. representative from Michigan was longtime Altman collaborator Michael Murphy and he makes a very believable candidate. Murphy, who played the political operative in Altman's masterpiece Nashville, gets to be the candidate here. He even gets his own, smaller scale Nashville fundraiser which includes the late Waylon Jennings, offering advice on his campaign and jokingly telling a reporter that he will vote "as soon as I pay my poll taxes."

If Murphy is the solid center of the series' universe, Pamela Reed's great work as campaign manager T.J. Cavanaugh gives the show its forceful momentum. T.J. is an absolutely marvelous creation and it's a shame Reed didn't get any Emmy recognition for her work. Whether it's putting out fires or starting new ones, lashing out at underlings or listening to frantic late-night calls from former client then-U.S. Rep. Joe Kennedy, Reed creates a foul-mouthed, chain-smoking wonder. When someone suggests she take a desk job as an assistant to an elected official, T.J. dismisses it out of hand: For her, it's all about the action of the campaign. For those out there who think that Sex and the City was Cynthia Nixon's first great HBO series, they need to check her out here playing Tanner's 19-year-old daughter Alex, whose enthusiasm for causes and desire to be a crucial part of her father's campaign often makes more problems than they solve. While many of the issues discussed in Tanner '88 are still relevant today, it's interesting to see the ones that are gone now. In 1988, Alex Tanner was actively involved in the fight against apartheid in South Africa, which today is thankfully a bad memory. Other lines of dialogue do betray the series' age. When discussing an odd quote by then-President Reagan, T.J. observes that his lines haven't been as good since the Writers Guild strike that was taking place back then. Jack even gets to ape Reagan when a scandal erupts because he's dating the deputy campaign manager for the Dukakis campaign (Wendy Crewson), so he ducks reporters the way Reagan used to, heading to a helicopter and acting as if he can't hear their questions. It's also odd to see people communicating via walkie talkies with nary a cell phone in sight. When Tanner communications director Stringer Kincaid (Daniel Jenkins) is surprised to learn that the Dukakis campaign monitors all TV coverage of other candidates, it seems quaint in the age of YouTube.

The period nature of the piece also shows up at a Hollywood fundraiser when enthusiastic Tanner volunteer Andrea Spinelli (Ilana Levine) informs her boss that Molly Ringwald starred in Pretty in Pink, which made an "amazing" $7 million in its opening weekend. Andrea's character really is the one who develops the most over the course of the Tanner episodes. She transforms from a dizzy, spoiled young woman paying her own way to join the campaign into a miniature tyrant. When a journalist starts to tell her that he's noticed a change, she replies that it's because she's "no longer a nice person."

Altman's direction perfectly suits the material with his fly-on-the-wall approach. There are some nice touches, such as the unsavory photographer Deke (Matt Malloy) capturing an inspired Tanner by filming him through the bottom of a glass coffee table and, with T.J.'s urging, turning the footage into a campaign commercial. Tanner 88 also gets into the nitty gritty of a campaign's mechanics, especially one as underfinanced as Jack Tanner's. After the campaign is over, they face FEC audits and unpaid bills. The same dependence on polls and focus groups that exist today, existed then. A question asked in one focus group ("If ideas are his currency, let's see the color of his money") seems to be asked often today. At the same time, thoughts, usually voiced by the campaign's pollster Emile (Jim Fyfe), could be being said about the amazing rise of the candidacy of Barack Obama today. "More than ever," Emile says, "People want a leader they can believe in. A leader who can lift them up, who can cast a spell." Tanner '88 makes the case that the singer is more important than the song. "Leadership isn't about management," Emile says at another point. "It's about values." What's interesting is that the characters view non-political matters in much the same way. When Tanner's girlfriend meets with the real Kitty Dukakis following the scandal, Kitty tells her that she has to "poll her own heart" about whether her romance with Tanner was worth it. It's a question Tanner asks himself often, since he confides at one point that every day, he feels as if he gives up a little of his soul.

Perhaps the most striking story strand in relationship to issues going on right now is when they get to the Democratic National Convention in Atlanta and Tanner decides to challenge the apportionment of superdelegates on "principle." Assisting him in this task is a great guest spot by Harry Anderson as the supertracker who knows all the delegations inside and out. His episode is the magnificent "Boiler Room," one of the most viscerally exciting half-hours of TV ever filmed and one that won Robert Altman an Emmy for best directing in a drama series, one of the first Emmys HBO ever won and the first in a series category. The series ends on a cliffhanger of sorts with Tanner contemplating a run as an independent candidate, one that might have happened if the series had been renewed for more episodes. Altman and Trudeau did do a sequel of sorts years later for The Sundance Channel called Tanner on Tanner, focusing on a now-grown Alex making a documentary about her father's campaign. It was a mixed bag, but the original remains peerless and worth watching to this day. As someone who soured on The West Wing over the long haul, I can't help but fantasize what that series could have been like if Altman and Trudeau had helmed it. Their characters all were cast in shades of gray and had distinctive voices. I'd loved to have seen a drama series about a Jack Tanner presidency.

Labels: , , , , ,


Thursday, February 14, 2008


Let the costume do the acting

By Edward Copeland
I liked Cate Blanchett's performance in Elizabeth better than I liked the movie itself. I was somewhat surprised that she managed to snag an Oscar nomination for Elizabeth: The Golden Age, given the tepid reviews and box office. Now that I've seen it, while I think it might be more fun than its predecessor and Blanchett is fine, it's still more a case of great costume design and art direction than it is great filmmaking.

One thing that I think hurts Shekhar Kapur's film is the bountiful number of projects about Elizabeth I over the past decade or so, especially the recent HBO miniseries Elizabeth I with the great Helen Mirren.

Kapur's film is campier than his first one, but there really isn't a lot in the way of characterization to offer his cast, be it Clive Owen as Walter Raleigh or Blanchett herself who, quite literally, often blends into the background. She pulls off seeming like an older version of the woman she played so well in 1998, but the entire film ends up being of limited effect.

Blanchett probably deserved the Oscar nomination more than Angelina Jolie in A Mighty Heart, but I still think there were other, better choices out there.

As eye candy, Elizabeth: The Golden Age has its moments, but as a film, it's a nonentity.

Labels: , , , , , ,


Wednesday, February 13, 2008


Delayed enthusiasm

By Edward Copeland
Usually, HBO waits awhile to release the DVD sets of one of their series' most recent seasons, but thankfully they got season six of Curb Your Enthusiasm out fast, since I only got to see the first four episodes before my evil cable operator banished HBO to the digital ghetto where I couldn't get it. It was worth the wait though, because after a weak season five, Larry David was mostly back on track for the entire sixth season.

Except for its finale, season 5 of Curb Your Enthusiasm was a bit of a disappointment. The formula started to prove more predictable than the laughs it might generate. For the most part, season 6 really revitalized the show and (SPOILERS AHEAD IF YOU HAVEN'T SEEN SEASON 6) even managed to come up with a truly surprising season capper that seems completely out-of-character for such a cynical series.

The main arc of this season involved the Davids taking in a family of African-American hurricane evacuees and, as in the past, some of the best and most uncomfortable humor on the series has stemmed from the interaction of Larry with African-American characters. Though all the performers playing the family (named the Blacks) are good, especially Vivica A. Fox, the standout from a hilarity standpoint is the character of Leon (J.B. Smoove), who becomes a hysterical partner-in-bad ideas with Larry.

Also continuing to prove strong is the willingness of other celebrities to play themselves in an unflattering light. In many respects, Ted Danson's version of Ted Danson on Curb Your Enthusiasm may be his best performance ever. The supporting cast of characters have grown into solid laugh riots as well (though I missed not having any Wanda Sykes appearance this season), especially Bob "Super Dave" Einstein who has turned his role as Marty Funkhouser into an absolute deadpan delight. Of course, if you are really in a jam, all you have to do is wind Susie Essman up and watch her go.

If Curb does have a weakness other than the tendency to know how its formula will unwind throughout the half-hour, it's when it casts recognizable actors into character roles. This is especially the case this year with appearances by Tim Meadows and Michael McKean. When you first see them, you assume they are playing themselves, but once you realize they aren't, it's sort of broken the spell. Now is when the spoilers really come into play, so you've been warned again.

The highlight of this season is the decision (some could say long overdue) of Cheryl David (Cheryl Hines) to leave Larry once and for all. The divorce of the real-life Davids made this idea look probable, but unlike the real-life breakup, the straw that breaks the TV couple's back is an inspired one that only Curb would try to pull off.

This also leads to the most hopeful surprise ending that the series has ever attempted, where it appears as if Larry has found happiness in the most unlikely of places and ways. If there is a seventh season, I'll be curious how they move this story twist forward.

Labels: , , ,


Tuesday, February 12, 2008


I Have a Feeling We’re Not in Kansas Anymore

By Josh R
Doesn’t everyone get a bit homesick now and then?

The notion of homecoming, the act of returning to one’s roots and the soil in which they were cultivated, has always been fertile ground for easy sentimentality. The very word inspires automatic feelings of cozy nostalgia, conjuring up a cherished scrapbook of sun-dappled childhood memories — or at least the warm, albeit artificial glow cast by memories of a seemingly endless succession of Campbell’s soup commercials. Consider the folksy truisms, of the sort that you’d expect to see embroidered on samplers framed by needlepoint rosebuds, that have sprung up around the concept of home: “Home is where the heart is”; “East, West, Home’s Best”; and of course, “There’s no place like home.” When L. Frank Baum’s heel-clicking heroine, Dorothy Gale, uttered those immortal words whilst hightailing it back to Kansas sans benefit of earthly transportation, she knew she was returning to an atmosphere of safety and security. Had she suspected otherwise — unsavory as it may be, assume for a moment that life on the farm with Hank and Em wasn’t quite as wholesome as surface appearances would indicate — she might well have decided to stay put.

There is a perverse, if more intriguing alternative — nothing that ever would have perturbed the thoughts of the grandfatherly Mr. Baum, mind you, but perhaps one that someone with a more piquant imagination might have entertained. Suppose, just for a moment, that having enjoyed a taste of life on the wild side, and facing a future as predictably flat as the dry Kansas prairie, Dorothy decided to suspend her travel plans. The wonderful, terrible Land of Oz, with its mystical dangers and undercurrents of depravity, might not look so bad to an adolescent girl secretly itching for a bit of excitement.

Mightn’t she be tempted to explore the dark and unspeakable powers, so coveted by witches, of those potent ruby-red pumps before they whisked her back to the suburbs of Topeka? Moreover, with an exotic trio of male cohorts, embodying the qualities of both man and beast and attending her with a devotion verging on rapturous idolatry…well, even squeaky-clean farmers’ daughters have been known to test the waters at the deep end of the pool.

If such ruminations engender feelings of shock and outrage (for the puritanical, as well as Oz-purists, they may be tantamount to sacrilege), the sensational production of The Homecoming currently in residence at The Cort Theatre is probably not the show for you. For those with more adventurous tastes than can be satisfied by the it’s-OK-to-be-different sanctimony of the Oz-riffing Wicked, Daniel Sullivan’s superlative revival of Harold Pinter’s 1964 masterpiece is a theatrical experience not to be missed. If the title suggests a degree of sentimentality, those familiar with the work of the play’s Nobel Prize-winning author are apt to know better. Featuring superb performances by Ian McShane and Raul Esparza, and a truly astonishing one by the stunningly sphinx-like Eve Best, The Homecoming posits the cautionary assertion that while you can go home again, you’d do well to consider what you’re letting yourself in for.

The Homecoming is a play about power — where the balance lies, the manner in which it shifts, and how to wrest it away from opponents and exploit it to maximum advantage. Encounters which have the outward appearance of routine exchanges — typical familial squabbles over who ate the late biscuit, who’s responsible for making the dinner, and the manner in which people contribute to the household expenses — are actually tense, charged skirmishes in an ongoing battle for supremacy which observes neither the traditional rules of conduct nor the conventional morality by which they are defined. Accepted gender roles, class distinctions, and the sexual boundaries that govern and restrict familial interactions are put up for grabs, dismantled and demolished in ways that are as appallingly funny as they are disquieting. The vivisection of sacred cows begins innocuously enough with the return of a prodigal son (James Frain), a professor at an American university, to his dilapidated childhood home after a long period of estrangement. He brings in tow his genteel, apprehensive wife (Best), the mother of his three sons, to meet his blue collar relatives — his retired butcher father (McShane), his browbeaten chauffeur uncle (Michael McKean), and two brothers, a cocksure pimp (Esparza) and a dull-witted pugilist (Gareth Saxe). By the end of the play, taboos have been broken, bonds have been breached, and everything society regards as sacred on the subject of family has been more or less turned on its ear. This particular reunion is enacted without much heed for anything so prosaic as the common moral code; whether observing filial, fraternal, parental, or spousal relationships and the weight that they carry, the playwright arrives at the subversive if not heretical conclusion that anything can be used as a bargaining point.

No more shrewdly is this lesson registered and applied than by Ms. Best’s Ruth, who ventures into the sinister unknown with halting steps but confidently hits her stride upon familiarizing herself with the rules of the game. The protean British actress, who received a Tony nomination for last season’s revival of A Moon for the Misbegotten, morphs convincingly from a withdrawn, hesitant onlooker to a fully engaged combatant — one who is totally cognizant of the power she wields and a canny appraiser of its effect on the other players. Playing a woman who begins as a tentative, somewhat passive figure and convincingly (and very sneakily) ripens into the one holding all the cards, Best brings a palpable, slow-burning erotic charge to one of the most intricately layered, subtly executed power plays ever attempted in contemporary drama. With her impenetrable Mona Lisa smile and sinuous, cat-like movements, the actress is a marvelously enigmatic presence, suggesting the infinite range of possibilities inherent to the madonna-whore dichotomy. When the men engage in a bidding war to determine Ruth’s fate — deciding whether she returns to mother her children back in America, or stays to sexually service her in-laws while earning her keep as a prostitute — the lady in question is more than willing to assume her place at the bargaining table, smugly negotiating the terms of surrender (or is it victory?). The biblical character of Ruth, who famously embodied the concept of wifely devotion, is credited with the line “whither thou goest, I shall go…thy people shall be my people.” Best’s Ruth certainly takes her husband’s people to her bosom, both figuratively and literally, but there’s nothing accommodational about it. Rather than being along for the ride, she winds up leading everyone by the nose.

Lest it be thought that the men orbiting around this dazzling satellite are nothing more than helpless patsies being sucked in by the gravitational pull of something they are powerless to resist, the actors portraying them register as more-than-worthy adversaries. The great Mr. McShane, best known on these shores for his galvanizing stint on HBO’s now-defunct revisionist Western Deadwood, brings his trademark combination of mesmeric charisma and visceral menace to the irascible father, Max, who while physically constricted by the ravages of age has lost none of his ability to inflict damage on those who think they can get around him. As the unscrupulous Lenny, Mr. Esparza is a marvelously lurid figure, booth smoothly seductive and shockingly repellent — somewhat paradoxically, he embodies both characteristics at the same time, and in such a way that each seems to be informed by the other. In the scene that provides the catalyst for Ruth’s transformation, he and Ms. Best enact a dazzling pas de deux of erotic tension, all the more remarkable for its disarming subtlety. James Frain strikes the right notes of smug self-satisfaction as the arrogant Teddy, while the hulk-like Mr. Saxe offers a compelling consideration of a child-man driven by primitive instinct and an acute need for nurturing. Mr. McKean, known primarily as a comic actor, is hampered by a rather uncertain working-class British accent that comes and goes, but convincingly registers the horrific realization of what is going on once the playwright unceremoniously chucks the baby out with the bathwater.

And baby, does the bathwater fly. Contrary to what one might expect, this does not entail yelling, shouting, melodramatic plot points or any other devices of strenuously executed theatricality. The cagiest of dramatists, Pinter is much more interested in the aggression in stillness, and the queasy sense of discomfort than can be achieved through silence and withholding. While he builds tension with remarkable economy, the stakes are never less than gargantuan; when a father warns his son that he may “drown in his own blood,” the metaphorical significance is not lost on the audience; at any family gathering haunted by unresolved feelings, the ties that bind can cut right through the skin. No literal blood is spilled onstage, but the play itself is still as provocative and unsettling as it must have been to audiences of the mid-sixties, and as such is not to be recommended for the faint of heart. For those who’d like to retreat to the comfortable safety of Kansas, the interval between acts would serve as good a time as any for the clicking of heels and hoping for the best. For everyone else — including any Dorothy Gales out there who are fascinated by what the seamy side of life has to offer — sit back and enjoy the ride.

Labels: , , ,


Monday, February 11, 2008


Roy Scheider (1932-2008)

"We're gonna need a bigger boat." Just reading those words doesn't indicate that it would be one of the most famous lines of dialogue from a classic movie, but when you hear Roy Scheider's voice as Chief Brody speaking it with a mixture of fear and resignation, you know why it's worth repeating. It wasn't a shark that got the great actor, it was a long struggle with multiple myeloma before a staph infection took his life Sunday in Little Rock, Ark.

Jaws may be Scheider's lasting legacy, but his career went far beyond that. He was nominated for an Oscar twice, in 1971 as Popeye Doyle's partner in The French Connection and in 1979 as Bob Fosse's alter ego Joe Gideon in All That Jazz.

There could be an air of the sinister in his roles such as in Klute or as Dustin Hoffman's brother in Marathon Man, where Scheider took part in one of the great life-and-death struggles ever put on film.

Scheider also brought gravity to films that didn't really deserve them such as Blue Thunder or Listen to Me. He even helped the misguided sequel Jaws 2 work better than it should (as long as the teens weren't alone on the screen anyway). He even dared to take the lead in 2010, the sequel to 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Still, it's his first outing as Martin Brody, police chief of Amity Island, that's going to be the dearest in my heart and mind. An exiled N.Y. cop with a fear of water who moves to an island, which of course is only an island if you are looking at it from the ocean. No matter how you looked at Roy Scheider, he was an actor, and one of the most underrated.

RIP Mr. Scheider.

To read The New York Times obit, click here.

Labels: , , , ,


Not selling us short

By Edward Copeland
No Country for Old Men wasn't the only comeback the Coen brothers made with me in 2007. They also scored with a film that was only a few minutes long. What's more amazing, Paris, je t'aime turns out be that rare film made up of episodes that truly works.

Most films that string together shorter films within them usually end up failing because, inevitably, some are going to be stronger than others and the frequent stopping-and-starting sometimes ends up breaking a viewer's momentum in a way that's hard to recapture.

When I first started watching Paris, je t'aime, I feared that would happen here as well since the early shorts didn't really grab me much, but then Joel and Ethan Coen's inspired "Tuileries" arrives with its great deadpan performance by Steve Buscemi as an Amerian tourist trying to get his bearings in a Paris subway station.

From that point on, nearly all the shorts contain something worthwhile and the assemblage is constructed in a way that benefits the film as a whole. Though all the stories are set in Paris, they couldn't be more different in tone and genre.

From director Vincenzo Natali's atmospheric vampire love story "Quartier de la Madeleine" to Wes Craven's "Pere-Lachaise" featuring Rufus Sewell and Emily Mortimer as a couple having a spat in the famous cemetery and from the wonderful reunion of Ben Gazzara and Gena Rowlands as a long-separated couple in "Quartier Latin," directed by Gerard Depardieu and Frederic Auburtin to the touching and beautiful closer "14th arrondissement" directed by Alexander Payne and starring the great Margo Martindale as a lonely American visiting Paris for the first time in hopes of finding some meaning to her life.

As I said, some of the early shorts are misfires as are even some that occur after the Coens' contribution but, for the most part, the film holds together amazingly well as a whole.

Labels: , , , ,


Friday, February 08, 2008


Cut Out the Carbs

By Josh R
It takes more to stay in shape these days than an exercise bike and a moratorium on dessert. It wasn’t until the 1980s that the health-and-fitness craze truly began to shift into hyperspeed — you could glean as much just by watching commercials. Since neither Richard Simmons nor Jane Fonda made house calls to provide on-site coaching, people began descending upon Jack LaLanne franchise gyms like invalids to Lourdes and downing nutrient-loaded shakes with artificial flavoring in place of balanced meals. Recent times have seen the rise of a new breed of guru, known as The Nutritionist, so much so that the focus seems to have shifted from pumping iron and miracle dieting to eating right. Health is, after all, a science, and modern health nuts seem more willing to place their trust in people with Ph.D.s than in spandex-sporting drill sergeants bent on taxing their musculature to the limit.

I spent most of my high school health class doodling in the margins of my notebook and fantasizing about the yearbook editor (it wasn’t until the discussion turned to the acquisition of STDs that I bothered to pay any real attention), so I honestly have no idea what constitutes healthy practice as far as eating is concerned. I know that everything that grows out of the ground, with the exception of that which can be smoked, is presumably good for you, while everything that comes off an assembly line is more likely than not bound straight for your hips. Dr. Atkins and his apostles have impressed upon us the fact that it takes our digestive system longer to break down certain kinds of foods as opposed to others — supposedly, complex carbohydrates decompose at an only slightly more rapid rate than styrofoam, but again, when it comes to the science, I’m as much in the dark as a Bible-belting Huckabee booster at an economic summit.

Even though I’m no Ph.D., I can state with a relative degree of certainty that it may take your brain just as long to break down certain plays as it does for your digestive system to dissolve certain kinds of starches. Rock ‘N’ Roll, the nearly great, nearly indigestible new offering by the venerated British dramatist Tom Stoppard, is a complex conglomeration of history, philosophy and sociopolitical ideology dealing with the rise and fall of Czech communism, the manner in which popular culture (specifically rock music) embodies and reflects the spirit of freedom, dissidence and upheaval, and the gap between not only political theory and human practice, but the “brain” and the “mind.” It’s a full-scale banquet of a play — perhaps more than can be safely consumed within the time allotted — and even theatergoers who come to The Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre with their thinking caps on may ultimately find themselves suffering from the intellectual equivalent of heartburn.

Like his ambitious trilogy The Coast of Utopia, which was the toast of the 2006-07 season, Stoppard’s most recent work charts the intertwined fates of several characters over a period of nearly three decades, examining the manner in which their lives are shaped by the capricious currents of history and the shifting fortunes of the Communist movement in Europe. At the center of the action is Jan (Rufus Sewell), a Czech emigree in England who has become the protégée of Max (Brian Cox), a Cambridge professor and political firebrand who stubbornly clings to his hard-line Communist philosophy even as the oppressive regimes springing up behind the iron curtain undermine the ideals he espouses. Jan, a supporter of the Dubcek regime, returns to his native country after the Soviet occupation begins — his optimism gives way to disillusionment as sweeping political reform leads to the curtailing of personal freedoms. Along the way, the playwright notes the rise of the dissident movement, spearheaded by the underground rock music that fuels the spirit of defiance amongst agitators for change, led by eventual Czech president Vaclav Havel. One Czech band in particular, The Plastic People of the Universe, had a far-reaching impact; banned by the ruling Communist powers for their subversive influence, they came to represent the power of art to not only reflect the mood of political unrest, but to stimulate reform (The playwright suggests that Charter 77 — Havel’s human rights campaign and an international cause celebre — may have been a direct outgrowth of a meeting he had with The Plastic People). The play ends in 1990, after the collapse of European communism, at a Rolling Stones concert. The fact that the Stones have finally come to Prague represents a cataclysmic shift in values, and the occasion for the playwright to observe the great irony that paved the way for the dissolusion of the communist block. An overhead projection informs us that the concert has been “presented by Anheuser-Busch” — ultimately, it is capitalism, not socialism, that has made possible the kind of freedom that communism was originally intended to produce.

This skeletal outline of Rock 'N' Roll doesn’t cover so much as a quarter of the distance in terms of what is addressed within the space of the play — perhaps a generous estimation, since really, it barely makes a dent. The playwright’s interests are nothing if not far-ranging; his scheme encompasses everything from the etymological nuances of the poetry of Sappho to the life and times of Pink Floyd’s Syd Barrett, who is likened to the Greek god Pan and treated as a highly symbolic presence (he’s at once both emblematic of his era, while his subsequent decline is meant to say something about the extent to which the boomer generation has lost its bearings in the years to follow). Stoppard is a master of drawing together disparate strands of fact-based subject matter and literary allusion when tackling big themes, and Rock 'N' Roll is embellished with such copious quantities of historical, cultural, philosophical and political minutiae that it seems to come equipped with its own appendixes; everything seems cross-referenced and footnoted in a such a way that the total effect is overwhelming. There are so many ideas bouncing off one another that after a while your head begins to feel like the inside of a pinball machine — there simply isn’t time to assimilate everything, and those on the receiving end are likely to wind up feeling a bit punch-drunk.

Trevor Nunn's streamlined production, which takes place on a rotating turntable in clever tribute to the vinyl discs being spun for the enjoyment of both the people onstage and in the audience, features many of the original cast members from the play’s premiere staging at London’s Royal Court Theatre. As Jan, Rufus Sewell seems to favor a somewhat antic style when playing his character as a young man, overplaying his awkward enthusiasm, but attains a heartbreaking gravity as his youthful idealism is eroded by events that put his entire system of beliefs into question. With his booming voice and somewhat blustery delivery, Brian Cox believably creates a larger-than-life presence as a dogmatic, self-styled warrior who can’t admit the extent to which his intractable positions are out-of-step with the world beyond his door — the only character who remains immune to the charms of The Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd and their hard-rocking progeny, he turns a deaf ear to the music of change since to absorb it would be akin to acknowledging his own fallibility. Best of all is the remarkable Sinead Cusack, who doubles in two different roles and locates the warmth and the humor in both. As the scholar Eleanor, who refuses to loosen her grip on life even as her body is failing her, she provides the play with its emotional touchstone; as Eleanor’s daughter Esme, she offers an equally poignant consideration of a former flower child struggling to find her place in the modern world. The ten other cast members provide excellent support, particularly Stephen Kunken as a true believer who stays in Czechoslovakia to fight the good fight, and Nicole Ansari as his skeptic countrywoman who finds refuge in more hospitable environs.

When I reviewed The Coast of Utopia for this site last year, I remarked of Stoppard’s work that “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.” That’s true to a greater extent of Rock 'N' Roll than it was of the play which I was then writing about, which unfolded at a more leisurely pace and consequently had more time to develop the human drama at the play’s core. As it is, there’s enough material in Stoppard’s newest offering for three plays, and that’s the problem — it’s all been shoehorned into one. Whereas Utopia could be experienced on the same level as engrossing seminar course, trying to keep up with Rock 'N' Roll often feels like cramming for an exam (tellingly, the program comes equipped with its own set of Cliff’s Notes). This is not to say that Rock 'n' Roll is a bad play — on the contrary, it’s an extremely good play that simply bites off more than audiences can chew. Certainly, no other contemporary playwright gives us as much food for thought. It may therefore seem a tad ungrateful to suggest that the playwright favor a slightly less academic approach in the future, or at least simplify the intellectual content just enough so that it can be processed in bite-size morsels.

That’s a polite way of saying that it may be time to go on a diet.

Labels: , ,


This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?

Follow edcopeland on Twitter

 Subscribe in a reader