Wednesday, September 30, 2009

"HAMLET" at the Broadhurst Theatre, 29 Sep 09

Last night I saw a movie star play Hamlet. He wasn’t the first movie star I’ve seen attempt it, and I honor all who try. It’s not just a great role; it’s a killer -- generally over three hours of leading a story along, carrying that burden with very little offstage time, of total exhaustion after each performance. If you’re doing your job.

Last night Jude Law did an exemplary job. His Hamlet is surly, angry, hopeful, juvenile, responsible, dramatic, powerful, virile, funny. He cowers like a child, he glides like a panther, he’s hot, he’s cold, he’s cool.

Law’s Hamlet connects, he engages, and for any actor who wants to join in the fun, he’s right there. For instance, conversations between Hamlet, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are the best I’ve seen. The three sit cross-legged on the floor as if in a college dorm room, comfortable, relaxed. He pauses after his first “Were you sent for?” honestly awaiting an answer. Simply, conversationally. The agonizing silence extends as his old friends know not how to respond without hurting or angering him. Understanding comes, and disappointment. This is the way Law’s Hamlet plays a scene. He is just a guy, unsuited to his fate, taking action only when he must: a man without a plan. As he says – “Time is out of joint; O cursed spite, That ever I was born to set it right.”

The play opens on the cold dark ramparts of Elsinore, with a pleasingly good Barnardo (Michael Hadley, who also plays the Priest, both men warm living beings), Marcellus (Henry Pettigrew playing multiple roles very well), and Matt Ryan’s pure Horatio. Their interaction is realistic, clean, and the beginning of the story they offer us is clearer than usual, without sounding like exposition. This augurs well.

The opening court scene is nicely staged, and we all search out the main characters. Geraldine James as Gertrude is center with Kevin R. McNally’s stately Claudius. Polonius, delightfully played by Ron Cook, is deferentially upstage of them, awaiting his summons. The Laertes is serviceable, the courtiers more so – Osric is introduced, so we know we’ll see him again. The predicted 3.5 hour length leads us to believe we’ll have close to full text tonight, and so far so good. There are a few women onstage, but it’s easy to find the youngest, sweetest-looking as Ophelia, and we look for her eyes to seek out Hamlet as ours do. He stands with his back to the audience, facing his mother, who directs all her looks and words to him. The Ophelia, oddly, is disengaged.

Law’s Hamlet converses softly, fiercely, tragically, comically, pastorally. He connects with all – except the Ophelia, but more on that anon. He takes the stage for his soliloquies, and into each he breathes fresh air, clean lines, vivid images. This man does not merely know how to woo a camera. This man’s voice and mind and body gather a live audience into his heart, and we will go with him anywhere. I find myself smiling at his gorgeous deliveries, happy to experience them. I’ve seen him onstage before, but hell, this is Hamlet he’s assaying. Hot damn.

Ophelia, as played by the RADA-trained (read Juilliard in an English accent) Gugu Mbatha-Raw, is a disconnect. She has no relationship with her brother Laertes. She has no relationship with her father Polonius, and she has no feelings for anyone around her, including Hamlet. She is a puzzlement. I go to every Hamlet with the desire to like the Ophelia. Alas, I missed Lauren Ambrose’s turn in the Park last summer, but I did see Pernilla Ostergren’s Ophelia in Bergman’s Hamlet at BAM in the late 1980s. She was marvelous, gutsy, thoroughly believable. Of course the play was also in Swedish, so I couldn’t hear any mangling of verse that so oft offends. Ms. Mbatha-Raw did not mangle the verse. She is merely … not there. There is no there there. She has clearly had proper schooling in scansion; she knows how to speak the verse. From the moment we see that she doesn’t even look toward Hamlet in the opening scene, we could feel the emptiness there. Is this young love? No, Claudius seems right on that point. Not with Mbatha-Raw as Ophelia, there is no love or feeling of any kind. Her mad scene was a schoolgirl’s attempt to not overact, so she merely showed off a well trained voice and sang. Perfectly, clearly, to underscoring!!! Who underscores Ophelia’s mad song? Clearly this is director Michael Grandage's choice, but it is an inauspicious one and stands out in this otherwise strong production. Appalling scene. A great disservice has been done to all future audiences, for Ms. Mbatha-Raw can always state that she played Ophelia to Jude Law’s Hamlet at the Donmar Warehouse and on Broadway. Why why why.

All right, enough of her.

My attention wandered on occasion, and I snapped back to the stage feeling great guilt. But why. It’s their job to hold it, not mine to force it. The Claudius was quite disappointing. It’s a marvelous role, so full, so many choices that could be made. McNally began well in the opening, a politico, classy with a touch of smarmy. The audience needs to see why the election went to him instead of the son of the late king, and he gives us that. And for a moment (note, a silent moment) in the play-within-a-play, I thought he was finally taking a stand. But the moment we saw him alone in the magnificent chapel scene, my mind wandered. All the way back 30, or was it 40 years to Richard Johnson playing the role so well in the Hallmark Hall of Fame production of 1970 or so with Richard Chamberlain fresh from his Dr. Kildare scrubs. Richard Johnson was riveting.

Mr. McNally was not, at any time, riveting.

Mr. Law was. And not just because he’s gorgeous. Of course he is, and from the first mezzanine his perfectly lit face’s bone structure is even better than it is close up on screen – honestly. His voice fills the Broadhurst, his body slinks and struts and slumps and collapses and rears up – it’s a fine body.

OK, enough of that, too.

I’m a fan of Geraldine James, but after that well-rehearsed opening court scene, I knew her choices for Gertrude because she telegraphed them. She even blew her lines when announcing (not in a frighteningly chilly way, just plain cold) Ophelia’s death. The woman was thinking on stage instead of being on stage, and I was quite surprised. She was not the original Gertrude of the Donmar production (that was Penelope Wilton), but surely she should know her lines. Throughout, she felt decidedly under-rehearsed.

The main problem of this production was that when Hamlet left the scene, so did the light and the life. The scenes lacking Law’s presence were merely educational, filler, ‘this is what happens what Hamlet’s not here.’ The verse was always clear, the language beautiful, the story continued, but as if with narration, not action. Even if Law's Hamlet was not the focus of a scene, as long as he was there, the other actors woke up and smelled strong coffee brewing. Except Ophelia. I don’t even want to talk about the nunnery scene.

Ah, the Gravedigger scene – so often this “clown” scene falls flat. Not this production. The First Gravedigger is played by Ron Cook after his Polonius' guts were dragged to the nether room. Here he comes, shoveling up skulls from an ingeniously created grave center stage. His last appearance was also among clever scenic executions – the arras behind which Polonius listened to Hamlet and Gertrude’s ‘closet scene’ was translucently downstage of the prince and queen so that we and Polonius looked through the curtain to eavesdrop. On his death, Polonius pulled the curtain down, and after I had a quick flash of Janet Leigh in Psycho, the white curtain tumbled around Polonius like a soft fall of snow. Beautiful.

Throughout, the scenic design was striking – simple, clean lines, texture, light, and dark, and smoke, no mirrors. And snow. Six or so months back, I saw it rain on the Broadhurst stage. Last night it snowed on Hamlet. Lighting was sometimes mysterious, always the right angle, shadowed what and who belonged in shadow. Doors would slide open and closed, tall and short, confining and releasing the characters, dividing them, closing them in. Denmark is, after all, a prison.

I’ve mentioned some negatives here, but may I assure you, I was exhilarated leaving the theatre. This production had the effect of making us stay together to talk about it for something like an hour afterward, as good theatre should. This Hamlet was joyous, it was marvelous. A flawed production – when are they not – but with so many excellent moments and scenes, I’d happily see it again to see how this cast settles in.

Especially if Ophelia’s understudy goes on.

~ Molly Matera, turning off the computer, but not the light. I have reading to do....a play called "Hamlet, Prince of Denmark."

Sunday, September 27, 2009

“In-I” at BAM Harvey Theatre, 23 Sep2009

Directed and performed by Juliette Binoche and Akram Khan
Set design by Anish Kapoor
Lighting design by Michael Hulls
Music by Philip Sheppard
Ms. Binoche’s costume by Alber Elbaz
Mr. Khan’s costume by Kei Ito
Sound design by Nicolas Faure

Remember all those names. Everything about this production was as close to perfect as a live performance – hell, any performance – is going to get. “In-I” is a dance/theatre piece created by the very familiar actress Juliette Binoche and the, to me unknown until now, dancer/choreographer Akram Khan. Theatre is a communal art, and the community that gave us this piece tonight is stunning. A deceptively simple set, extraordinary subtle and enticing lighting design, discreet and emotional music designed flawlessly in conjunction with all the other elements.

The piece begins with Ms. Binoche sitting in a chair looking at the back wall of the set. The lighting design kicks in and we’re in a movie house. She tells us that she went into the dark to find the light and herself. She sees the man she wants to love in a movie theatre, follows him – nay, stalks him – then meets him, woos him, resistant as he is. Initially. We follow them in their first ecstatic night of lovemaking to the reality of the morning after. The story is about love in all its glory, torture, hell, wonder, awfulness, awesomeness. Love sucks. And yet. Those who know me know I don’t believe in love at first sight, but that’s what happens here, for her. That I don’t believe in it tells you how extraordinary the execution of this story was. I loved this performance, production, act of courage.

Ms. Binoche is not a dancer by training until recently, and she has entered into that physical world with great gusto. It is not unreasonable to state that she threw herself into this world 100% and Mr. Khan caught her like the deft, strong, and emotive dancer he is.
Sometimes I felt like a voyeur, the ups and downs of their relationship were so clearly depicted – except real life isn’t graceful.

I’m only sorry this piece had a short run so I could barely recommend it in time for its closing weekend. Wherever it plays around the country, don’t miss it.

-- MM, turning off the computer, really this time.

Reasons to Hate Nature

I get hot flashes and PMS. It’s not fair.

  • I’ve taken to carrying a handkerchief to mop the sweat off. I feel like one of the fat villains in black-and-white movies, always mopping away the sweat of guilt and fear. For years these old clothe handkerchiefs lived, untouched, in a duct-taped cigar box, some frilly, some plain, some for men, some for women, a few that were mine as a little girl. There is still no way I’d use one to wipe anything but sweat, however. But those cloth hankies are handy now that I need them to mop the sweat from my … everywhere -- since it’s generally not considered appropriate for a female to just pull her shirt up to dry her face. Men have all the luck.

If back to nature were a good thing, it would only be hot muggy and disgusting when you’re at the beach. But no, it’s hot muggy and disgusting when we’re in the City, working, on the way to a job interview, an audition.

Nature sucks.

  • Spring = Allergies
  • Fall = Hayfever

And just generally about fall and winter --

  • It’s dark when I get up for work in the morning
  • It’s dark when I leave the office after work.

Yes. Nature sucks.

Eight Things to Remember about Wild Turkey

  1. One can smell it through a closed cup.

  2. Unlike Coca Cola (which can render a filthy grill or a gunked-up car battery clean), it overwhelms the cardboard bottom of a paper cup and seeps through.

  3. Paper napkins under a leaking cup are quickly sodden with a powerful aroma.

  4. One starts to wonder if it will seep into the wood of the desk.

  5. One hopes one has strongly scented Pledge wipes available.

  6. It makes a sore throat feel better while it’s in the throat.

  7. It enables one to feel equipped to go to a bar and continue drinking through the night, despite a sore throat.

  8. Wild Turkey can make one write an entirely different blog from that originally intended.

~ MM, turning off the computer, the light, everything.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

End-of-Summer vacation

Swimsuits cleaned and drying, cat and I are both back, and the home I cleaned before leaving for vacation welcoming. All’s well, just wish there was a pool out back. And the sound of surf instead of traffic out front.

I didn’t shop, I just walked and swam and ate and read and wrote little. The one thing I brought back with me is an earache that showed up Thursday night. I suspect it started brewing after my little body-surfing on that glorious 80-degree day, Tuesday. I dislike 80-degree days in the City, but 80 degrees is heavenly out in Montauk. After swimming in the pool, I walked southerly along the shore. The sea was so inviting as I walked past countless navy blue umbrellas on the adjoining beach resort that I turned around so I could peel off my cover-up and drop it with my hat and sunglasses closer to ‘home,’ near the child’s pool in the photo.

I walked against the tide then, and dove into the first wave threatening to break over me. It was cold, but far from frigid. I’m almost glad I wasn’t able to come in May – then the water would have been unbearable.

I body-surfed in, worked my way back out, body surfed again and again until I was out of breath. Showered the sand out in the external shower before I went back on the pool deck to sit and dry in the sun. Monday had been lovely on my arrival, but Tuesday was the perfect summer day.

After swimming again in the pool and before climbing up the stairs to my room, the tide as ever started coming in. Each day the high tides varied between 7 and 8:30, so the beach was at its widest between 1 and 2:30. In the mornings the mark of the last tide was clear.

As the afternoon grew on, one could watch the beach slowly shrink.

Wednesday, as predicted, was cooler, much cooler. I waited for the sun to warm it up a bit, but the northeast wind was wicked. I read all day, inside, outside. Didn’t go into the water at all. But got some great snaps of clouds:

Thursday afternoon I used the ‘video’ function on the Canon, still without skill. Nevertheless, posted to YouTube:

A very short week – hardly a week, just 4 nights – ending with a pleasant drive back, with one clear thought:

Since I did nothing useful on vacation – and there’s nothing wrong with that – all my work, be it research, writing, editing, outlining, will have to be done as part of my everyday life, as it should be. Nothing to be deferred to ‘when I have more time.’ That’s it, big lesson of the day.

~ MM, turning off the computer, but not the light. I have reading to do.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

(500) Days of Summer

I am not a fan of the romantic comedy genre. This because romantic comedy films and plays are historically misogynistic. Earlier this year, at the Tribeca Film Festival, I saw a fabulous film called ‘Timer.’ It was a truly clever combination of romantic comedy and science fiction. Written, directed, and produced by women, it was an utterly delightful non-misogynistic romance. I have yet to see this film picked up by a distributor, which proves misogynists dominate the industry.

I am surprised and delighted to report that I’ve seen my second non-misogynistic romantic comedy this year: ‘(500) Days of Summer.’ This was a non-linear story of Tom’s love for Summer – or was it obsession? Numbered scenes from the day Tom and Summer first meet to the moment Tom begins to (spoiler!) recover bounce around from euphoria to despair and back again.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt is Tom Hansen, a writer of greeting cards instead of the architect he wanted to be. Zooey Deschanel’s Summer is the object of Tom’s desire, love, fantasies, and disappointments. The set-up is clear from the beginning – as Tom’s colleague McKenzie (Geoffrey Arend) states on their karaoke evening out, Summer’s belief system about love and relationships is that of a “dude.” Tom is the blatant romantic. All the performances are good, but I must point out that Chloe Moretz as Tom’s sensible little sister is entrancing. Between the honesty of the scenes between Tom and Summer, and the scenes between Tom and his sister, and the marvelous soundtrack, this movie flew by too fast. And I never say that about movies.

The journey lasts under two hours but memories of the familiar moments of loves lost and found will pop up on the walk home, the next day’s commute, and whenever I put that CD in my stereo.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Vacation + Stress

My poor old cat cannot stay home alone for four days, now that he gets meds twice a day (not to mention he's not on his best behavior anymore. It's not that he doesn't know where the litter box is -- he's just inconsistent).

Meanwhile, I needs must get away and be irresponsible for four or five days. So I did it. My stomach clenches as I write that. I brought him to his vet's "Cat Condos," where no dogs abide, and nice people will look after him. Away from home. Awful. Vet handed me the tissue box when I started crying -- he made me feel even guiltier than I already did, telling me the cat's mainstays are his humans and his place, and there I was taking both away. My boy stared at me as the vet carried him away from me. He knew something was up. But really, another 'vacation' at home just wasn't going to do it for me.

I drove out to Montauk in two hours. Half an hour less than past times, despite the slower traffic at lane closures on the LIE. I didn't pass people, they passed me, but I must have been going mighty fast. In my old Dodge, I'd have noticed the noise went I went over 35. In the Toyota, I find myself suddenly going 70. And more. I'd love to slow down, but on the LIE that's not an option.

I always assume it'll storm when I'm out in Montauk, so I'm sure to get a room with a view of the ocean. This week's room wasn't my best choice -- I saved a little money, but the view is partially blocked. No matter, it's not pouring. It's gorgeous. This little efficiency will do me just fine.

When I arrived yesterday the pool was extremely inviting. I swam there, I walked along the beach and into the surf, I went back into the pool. Slept like a log last night. Now I'm waiting the appropriate amount of time before I go swimming again, since I've had my oatmeal and I'm quite full. And need to get out to the stores to pick up olive oil (to stir fry the chicken I brought from home which would not have survived another 4-5 days in the fridge) and bread (for the cheese I brought from home, ditto), and stamps and postcards to various children.

There are few things more soothing and beautiful to me than the sound of the surf. Partial view or not, that I can hear just fine.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Two Reviews from Spring 2009

Merchant of Venice at BAM – The Propeller Company.
The Propeller Company, led by Edward Hall, does Shakespeare’s plays, in one way, as they would have been done in Shakespeare’s time, and in another way, not at all the way Shakespeare’s company would have played them. As in Shakespeare’s time, all roles are played by men. I’ve seen Propeller productions before, and they’re generally quite exciting. Think of the lovers’ ‘fight scene’ in Midsummer Night’s Dream with men playing the women. It becomes a real fight and enormous fun.

But that was then. May 2009, Edward Hall’s production of Merchant of Venice is set inexplicably in a prison. It was an odd conceit -- doing all-male productions does not entail finding real places where there would be only men, so why did Hall feel a prison was needed for this? Pre-show, I’m not willing to read what the director or company say about the production – if their execution of the plan succeeds, I’d know it. It didn’t.

The cast's gradual entrances into the 2-level jail set (that resembles other sets they've used in its configuration, adding locks and bars) were intriguing, but after the initial violence, the prison setting became pointless. It doesn't work in any way for Belmont, so all the Portia scenes were forced by the irrational setting and by a fellow too young and inexperienced and annoying to be the heroine of the piece. These guys all know how to speak the speech, but some of 'em just ain't got it.

As Shylock, Richard Clothier was marvelous. Simple, clear, unsentimental. The Antonio (Bob Barrett) wasn't awfully likeable, even at the end when he's usually portrayed as someone equal to Portia. Jack Tarlton's Bassanio was cute with a Scots accent (that the silly people behind us presumably didn't get). Lancelot Gobbo appeared to be a guard reminiscent of the kapos. There was no dog but Shylock. At any rate, Gobbo was first rate. Of the men playing female roles, Jon Trenchard's Jessica was best. Simple, clear.

A noticeable number of people did not return from intermission. Some of these people had silly reasons -- like they couldn't understand the varied accents onstage.

Briefly, I didn't care for the production, but it was interesting enough to sit through and then talk through. We learn more when someone else's conceit doesn't work, I believe, than when it does.

The Cherry Orchard at BAM. The Bridge Project.
Last night I saw The Cherry Orchard. I’ve never been fond of the play, but last night I saw an entirely new Cherry Orchard at BAM’s Harvey Theatre. Tom Stoppard did not merely write a new adaptation based on a new translation. He took a new translation and wrote a new play. It has the same scenes as the old play. The same characters, the same events, the same story, it’s all the same. But he made no attempt to recreate every bit of dialogue that is in the original. He and director Sam Mendes and the members of The Bridge Project created a new play honoring Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, but bringing this new one to the new century. The company worked with a living, changeable script that grew with the nurturing cast every day of the rehearsal process. The result is vibrant, funny, pathetic, all the things Chekhov would want it to be.

Sinead Cusack glows in the lead, Ranevskaya, who is so similar to the lead ladies in most of Chekhov. A woman you want to shake. At least, as a middle class feminist, I most certainly do. Ranevskaya is not ungenerous, she’s imprudent. She gives large amounts of money away, but she’s borrowed that money. She is in debt, borrows, spends. She did not lose the Cherry Orchard on her own, but she’s the one who does lose it. She has two daughters, the younger Anya played sweetly, naively by Morven Christie, the elder Varya played by the tall and gaunt Rebecca Hall. I’ve seen Ms. Hall once before and disliked her work intensely. I do not believe in playing Pinter pauses in Shakespeare’s monologues at all, let alone in the comedies. When directed by her father Sir Peter, she is self-indulgent and untrue to the character. Last night was different. Last night she was true to Varya, the put-upon, responsible, intelligent, unloved daughter. Oh, it’s not that her mother doesn’t care about her. But Varya is the adopted daughter, not the cute one. And Ranevskaya treats her like a slave. The boss of the slaves, but a slave nonetheless. Varya is the chatelaine, with the keys a housekeeper should wear at her waist. Varya loves the risen peasant, the efficient businessman Lopakhin, played to perfection by Simon Russell Beale. It is probable that Lopakhin loves her right back, but he’s so busy working and making money and rising above the slave status of his father and grandfather, that he cannot express his feelings for Varya. Near the end of the play Ranevskaya (Cusack) tells him he ought to propose, and sets up the circumstance when he can. He tries, he even gets down on his knees. He fails. It’s a quiet, devastating scene.

Dakin Matthews played Boris Borisovich Simeonov-Pishchik, another landowner, whom I thought might be related. Perhaps distantly he is. Matthews is hilarious. A bear of a man, he seemes to have a touch of narcolepsy in that he'll nod out mid sentence with a glass of wine in his hand. Less than a minute later he awakens and continues from where he left off. He dances, he loses money, he finds money, his life revolves about finding money to pay the interest on the mortgage. Ranevskaya and her brother and Boris Borisovich are all in the same boat with holes punched in the bottom. Pishchik will swim, not sink, because the world is like that, and some Englishman showed up on his land and found "white chalk" and paid him for use of the land.
This play is full of social issues, the audience invited to side first with one point of an argument, then the other, then both, and Stoppard and his Russians rise to the fore. There’s even a scene reminiscent of one in the first play of his Coast of Utopia trilogy – with the rich landowners (in fact the landowners in The Cherry Orchard are no longer rich, they’ve frittered away their money, and the land is up to its cherry blossoms in debt) lolling about, the back wall rises to reveal the shadows of the former slaves, now free persons, standing in darkness still, but coming forward to take their place in the new Russia. When Lopakhin actually purchases the Cherry Orchard at auction, his head spins, he is in shock; Ranevskaya slips off her chair into a ball center stage and weeps while Lopakhin runs around the stage knocking down the chairs that are now his, the chairs that represent the trees in the Cherry Orchard that he will cut down, changing the great estate into land with possibilities of working class ownership. One tract of land becomes many in his new world. Daughter Anya, in love with her dead brother’s tutor Pyotr Trofimov, is free once the land is gone. The rest of the family cannot bear it, but the family doesn’t deserve to keep what they have squandered, either.

The Servants. The servants are eating slop in the kitchen because there isn’t any money to buy better. The servants are allowing anyone, passersby, to sleep over in the servants’ quarters. This appalls Varya, her ordered world, however difficult, becoming disordered. She and Lopakhin, the workers of the play, could together create a caring transition from the old world to the new. But, as Varya says, she cannot propose to him. Only he can take that action, and he falls short.

Ranevskaya’s daughters are grown, but their governess still lives with them, and accompanied the younger daughter to Paris. The governess (Charlotta, played by Selina Cadell oddly and delightfully) performs magic tricks for the guests, and questions her place in this new world. With the dissolution of the estate, where does the governess go. She asks and gets no answer.
They who are caretakers to the landowners, who know the secrets, who know their station, who are as dependent on the landowners as the landowners are on them. The landowners, of course, Ranevskaya and her brother Gaev (an eccentric, a self-centered yet loving fool who cannot cease speaking nothings, played honestly by Paul Jesson), while never unkind, look upon the free servants as part of their inheritance, as part of their estate, until the estate is gone. Not a thought is given to what happens to them when the house is demolished and the Cherry Orchard chopped down.

Josh Hamilton plays Yasha, a footman to Ranevskaya. He is above his station. He drinks all the wine he’s supposed to be serving, while standing straight and respectful. He has been with her in Paris and he cannot bear to be here in the Russian countryside. He’s a son of a bitch who won’t even see his mother, who’s been waiting for him in the house for days. He is the ugly part of the new world that Lopakhin is bringing about. Hamilton is great. He is sly, he is quiet, he is relaxed and powerful and wry. Richard Easton plays Firs, the old servant. Really old. Remarkably old, doddering. In direct counterpoint to Hamilton’s servant, Easton’s servant is the loyal family retainer who chides the landowners as if they were children when they don’t wear a warm enough coat. He hears some things and not all so many of his answers become rambling non-sequiturs. Easton is just marvelous at this. That he cares for these people – and dislikes the new age servant, Yasha, intensely – is perfectly clear. And he is the final loser in the play. The rich have lost their land and house, the new landowner takes them to the station. The new age servant has lied and said Firs has been taken to hospital. Firs is left alone in the house. He comes out to a room empty but for one chair, into which he falls, and from which he falls to lie on the floor. The society changes, the old are discarded.

One more star I didn’t mention, because I’m not sure what to say about him. Ethan Hawke. His Pyotr Trofimov seems an extension of the character he played in Coast of Utopia. In that trilogy, he was bombastic and annoying and probably right on target for the character. In fact, his reappearance in the third play, which I found frightfully dull, was a delightful wake up call. Last night he was fine. Not special, sometimes annoying. Of all the actors on stage, he was the one who did not quite fit. But then, when Simon Russell Beale is onstage, who’d listen to Ethan Hawke.

(Not to worry, Hawke lovers. He plays Autolycus in The Winter’s Tale, and he’s alive on stage, truly delightful.)

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Questions I'd like answered someday

  1. Is the steroid scandal in sports just about Naming Names? If there were facts about who did what drugs 5 years ago, weren’t the rules in place then? Would they not have been booted off the teams until they cleaned up?
  2. How is driving too fast and quite aimlessly in circles (or ellipses) a sport?
  3. If ping pong is a sport, why isn’t bocce one?
  4. Why is it that, when you ask someone what a book//movie/play/tv show etc was about, they’ll give you a blow by blow, scene by scene recitation of what happened. Which is not what whatever-it-was was about. Yes, this is one of those reading comprehension questions from school. What a book/movie/play/tv show/what-you-will is about takes more thought after ingestion than a mere recounting of actions. (Of course, some book//movie/play/tv show etc are not about anything. Oh dear.)
  5. I heard a psychologist talking about why people confess to crimes they did not commit. Why does it take a psychologist to answer that? Sleep-, food-, water-, freedom-deprived people will say anything it takes in their attempt (however vain) to get back to their lives.

− Thanks for dropping by. MM, turning off the computer, but not the light − I have reading to do.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Labor Day Weekend including minimal labor

Three days off and I wrote nothing. I printed out snippets of stories and chapters with notes on the infamous, neglected mystery novel. I put up a mailbox to preclude the cat urinating on the mail coming through the slot. He may yet urinate on the floor, but he won’t get my mail.

But really, it was Labor Day Weekend and I could at least have watched movies about unions, or breaking unions, movies like “On the Waterfront,” “The Molly Maguires,” or even “Norma Rae.”

Instead I watched the radiant Kristin Scott Thomas try to be less lovely. In the French film, “I Have Loved You So Long,” she’s wondrous as Juliette Fontaine, subtly drawing us in to her sheltered psyche, effortlessly making us care and wonder how could she and why and will she ever have a chance at a life, a second chance after her 15 years of imprisonment. Premise: Juliette was imprisoned 15 years before the start of the film for murder. Her sentence by the state complete, she is released to serve her sentence by society. Her family cut her dead all those years before, but now her younger sister, Lea, wants to take her in with her own family: husband, two adopted daughters, and father-in-law, in a university town.

The film opens making us wait with Juliette for someone to pick her up at the airport. (One flaw here – Juliette's haircut on leaving prison is awfully good.) Ms. Scott Thomas’ Juliette grows slowly, day by day, back into life outside. It will never be her life resumed. We know that is not a possibility. Her life ended 15 years ago. We watch her uncomfortable meetings with the sad policeman assigned to her case, her meetings with her sister’s colleagues at university, social engagements, family moments, tentatively increasing friendship. Large courageous risks. A huge setback to her re-integration is shown in the tense scene with a potential employer. Of necessity, he knows that she was in prison – her first interviewer, upon learning her crime, tells her in no uncertain terms to get out. I couldn’t blame him. When she admitted her crime, I gasped aloud.

Day by day we watch her, wishing desperately to understand how she could have committed such a crime. We await further revelation in a film that politely demands our patience. As we come to know Juliette, we know there must have been special circumstances that forced her to such a choice. Ms. Scott Thomas grows increasingly lovely and lively as the film goes on to a surprisingly hopeful end once all is revealed, and her all important relationship with her sister is mending.

This is a beautiful film, inconspicuously filmed. Not a moment or actor is out of tune for a moment of our time. Because this is France, we can assume there are unions everywhere, so it may be appropriate for Labor Day. But we never hear from them. We only see and hear what writer/director Philippe Claudel wants us to. His other work requires investigation.

Michael Clayton.” Definitely no unions. No matter, I love Tom Wilkinson in everything. I’d always meant to see this on the big screen, but the story works on the small one. There are some sweeping shots, yet this is really a film of close-ups. Close ups on Wilkinson, on George Clooney, on Tilda Swinton, Sydney Pollack, Ken Howard….Given the state of film adverts and trailers (that is, dreadful: Why should we go to the movies if we see the whole story in commercials?), Ms. Swinton surprised me in the second half of the film. Good on her. Clooney was as expected (which is not unpleasant, just fairly predictable), although his final speech to Ms. Swinton was more effective than I would have thought –made more so by the reaction of Sean Cullen as Clooney’s usually angry brother (or cousin, I was never clear on that) Gene Clayton in the moments following the big scene.

What I found interesting was that most of the characters are addicted to something. And I suppose we as an audience are addicted to this quite predictable story. Clooney’s character (eponymous) is addicted to gambling. His partner in a secondary business venture (a bar, what else) is addicted to drugs and/or booze. Swinton, Howard, Pollack, all are addicted to power and/or money (not money as you and I think of it -- serious money). Even Artie, Mr. Wilkinson’s character, is addicted to the highs of his manic depression – but then who wants those lows anyway.

As ever, Shakespeare was right: “First, kill the lawyers.” I’ve known a lawyer or half a dozen, and really, they’re not all evil or amoral. In this film, they are – until Wilkinson goes off his meds.

All in all, it’s a tight, well-acted film, quite engaging throughout. And I’ll still see Tom Wilkinson in anything at all.

The Reader.” Earlier this year, my very much younger colleagues at the office were talking about people they didn’t know as if they were intimately acquainted. Our present era, in which seemingly sane responsible people reading “Page Six” or watching “Entertainment Tonight” believe they can walk up to strangers who happen to be celebrities and chat as if they're old friends, sometimes frightens, sometimes annoys, and oftentimes bores me. The ringleader of the office gossips asked whose life any of us would like to live. Generally I put on my headphones and let Sinatra block them out. That day, I answered: Kate Winslet. Fine career, gets to work with extremely talented husband Sam Mendes, has children, lives in Brooklyn, and continues fine film career. Hot damn. And the woman has guts.

Winslet and Mendes work well together in “The Reader.” The intensity of her listening, her appetites, her responses, her silences, do not reveal a lovable or even likeable character. Hannah Schmitz is a monster, in some ways as amoral (there’s that word again) as the lawyers in “Michael Clayton” and the character Winslet played (another Juliet) when I first saw her in Peter Jackson’s 1996 film “Heavenly Creatures.”

Trivia Break: Who was the other girl in “Heavenly Creatures?” Melanie Lynskey, familiar to CBS sitcom viewers as the delightful Rose in “Two and a Half Men.” Who knew.

Back to “The Reader,” in which Winslet is fearless. I not only want her life and career, I want to get into her brain and watch her figure and work through her choices. This regrettably means I’ll have to rent a film in which I have no other interest, “Revolutionary Road,” just to see her work with her husband again.

As the woman and, in the 1990s, her daughter who survived one of the many horrors of WW2, Lena Olin is frightening. Again, the honesty of this portrayal is courageous. Is it Sam Mendes we have to thank for this? Not that either actress is generally shy, but such bold statements don’t arrive often, and rarely in tandem.

The boy Michael, as played by David Kross, is delightful, totally committed to life, and to falling in love, and staying in love, and heartbreak. Much as I like him, Ralph Fiennes' portrayal of the adult Michael in the ‘present’ just didn’t do it for me as much as Kross’ personification in the past.

The Reader” is a very interesting film, leaving many unanswered questions. Just the way I like ’em.

So, three DVDs over Labor Day Weekend, but no films at the movie house (which also means no popcorn and Coke during nor beer afterward, so that’s good; but also no miles of walking to get to and from said movie houses either).

Meanwhile, the to do list grows: check out other jobs at the firm. At the firm or elsewhere, find an ‘ideal’ job, one that’s

-- 40 hours a week instead of 50+
-- an easier commute in a company that doesn’t do anything awfully offensive to the planet or the species, and
-- provides standard health care, vac time, and
-- an actual policy for volunteerism (that is, not one day a year, but potential leaves for Red Cross volunteer work, even if it’s just sandbagging. That’s the wrong word, isn’t it.), time enough to actually help, which takes more than a day within a comfortable commute.

This evening, when I walked out of my office building, the act of walking galvanized the organizing facility in my brain so that I could finally accomplish what I’d been trying to accomplish all afternoon at my desk. I took out my pad and wrote notes as I walked and figured out what to do tomorrow to get the job done. What’s that about? Do I have walk to think?

Next thought – should I create a rating system for films/plays I review? Not stars or apples or anything. I’m not into math, although I do like #2 pencils. A broad rating system like: Unendurable – Endurable – Enjoyable. Hmmm. Is “enjoyable” an appropriate word for “The Reader?”

Sometimes I think too much.

Molly Matera, turning off the computer, but not the light − I have reading, not to mention writing, to do.
8 September 2009