Monday, May 17, 2010

This year's 2nd Robert Downey Jr. Movie

My initial response to “Iron Man 2” was “What a hoot!” This is a summer movie of a comic book, yet another installment of the growing Marvel franchise. Nothing was terribly awe inspiring (I am grateful it was not in 3-D), no one’s trying to make the viewers think let alone take action. This film’s objective is to make us chill out and enjoy it, and it succeeds.

Jon Favreau may not be in the full action mode he was in for Iron Man the first, but he tells a story cluttered with set-up reasonably well, directing briskly if not deeply. Can’t really speak well of Justin Theroux’s screenplay for this, but one gets the feeling there were too many cooks tossing salt into this pot. Favreau also shows up several times as Happy, Stark’s chauffeur and who knows what else. Perhaps too many times.

Robert Downey, Jr., is a courageous actor, playing Tony Stark accurately as an arrogant ass, with impeccable timing, and total focus. His Tony Stark has some comeuppance due and gets it, but not enough to presage the end of the world nor to humble him in the slightest. I love watching Downey work no matter the material, so whenever he’s on screen, I’m there with him.

In addition to Downey, IM2 gives us two villains: Mickey Rourke -- with his incomprehensible Russian and no more comprehensible English – as the emotional primary villain; and the delightful Sam Rockwell as the more comprehensible, standard business rival, fast-talking slimy villain. Rockwell doesn’t do much different here than he did in Galaxy Quest back in 1999 or on Broadway this year in “A Behanding in Spokane,” but he sure does it well. My favorite of his moments was at the Grand Prixe, when Rourke’s villain is trouncing Tony Stark, Rockwell’s eyes light up and a smile jerks up the corner of his mouth. Delightful.

And then there’s Queens. Once again, just as Flushing Meadow Park made a guest appearance in Men In Black (“why else would they hold it –that is, the 1964 Worlds Fair -- in Queens” indeed), in Iron Man 2 Flushing Meadow Park is dressed up as the Stark Expo back in the 1970s and bedecked and bedazzled again in the present. As a Queens girl, I just get a kick out of that. We can also enjoy an appearance by Mad Men’s John Slattery as Tony’s long dead father, Walter Stark.

I believe reading the star-studded cast list should tell you this is just for laughs – Downey, Rourke, Rockwell, Gwyneth Paltrow as ‘Pepper,’ the good girl Stark can’t live without; Scarlett Johanssen as the girl we can’t quite figure; Garry Shandling as an obnoxious Senator; Don Cheadle as the steadfast loyal and true best friend Colonel “Rhodey” (played in the first film by Terrence Howard); Samuel L. Jackson relaxing into his Nick Fury role for the continuing franchise; and Clark Gregg returning as Agent Coulson (quite fun and yes, you must watch all the ending credits to get to the teaser at the end); not to mention guest appearances as themselves by Stan Lee, Bill O’Reilly, and Christiane Amanpour.

I am happily unfamiliar enough with the story’s history in the comics so that combinations of characters did not bother me – this may bother purists. Really the storyline was a bit thin, but for me, it was a brisk comic book movie, invigoratingly good fun that inspired me to go home and watch my DVD of the first film. If you’re looking for depth, topicality, or importance, pick another movie. For a bit of tomfoolery? Iron Man 2 does the trick.

Mind you, if you want to read a review of the film from someone who is extremely familiar with Iron Man’s history, every single character over decades, and probably any alternative histories, in fact any Marvel comic character, storyline, universe, etc., read Horvendile’s blog here:

~ Molly Matera, turning off the computer but not the light. I have a “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” comic to read.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

TiMER opens in New York!

At the 2009 Tribeca Film Festival, I saw a fun, smart, non-misogynistic romantic comedy called TiMER. This is a science fiction romantic comedy, if you can imagine that. Happily Jac Schaeffer could. TiMER was written, directed, and produced by women, and probably for that reason – I stubbornly believe – it had a hard time finding a distribution deal. Well, those women (writer and director Jac Schaeffer, and producers Jennifer Flynn, Rikki Jarrett, and Schaeffer) persevered, and yesterday TiMER opened in New York City. Only one theatre so far – City Cinemas Village East Cinema on 2nd Avenue -- but it’s a start! I had yet to create this blog when I first saw the film, so couldn’t complain online last spring that TiMER didn’t have a distributor. This spring I'm happy to say Congrats to the film’s creative team for finding a distributor, and to Capewatch Pictures for releasing TiMER. This film is delightful. Emma Caulfield (that’s Anya for Buffy the Vampire Slayer fans) and Michelle Borth star. I’ll certainly be going for a second viewing. Watch this space!

Bad news of the day – the Empire Diner is closing today. Unimaginable.

~ Thanks for stopping by ~ Molly Matera -- signing off to trek into Manhattan to see TiMER!

Monday, May 10, 2010

Strindbergian Archetypes in Brooklyn

Creditors is a three-character play by August Strindberg written circa 1888. The version I saw at BAM is by playwright David Greig as presented by the ubiquitous Donmar Warehouse. Since I’ve not read the Strindberg, I couldn’t say how much of the evening’s entertainment was Strindberg and how much Greig. But entertaining it was, in a guilty sort of way, which befits the play’s classification as Dark Comedy. Alan Rickman – yes, Snape in the Harry Potter series, the ultimate Eurotrash villain in the first Die Hard, and the best Vicomte de Valmont I’ve seen, and I’ve seen many -- directed this mostly brisk production.

The scene is set for us as we enter the BAM Harvey Theatre. Curtainless, seemingly lit only by the ambient light of the auditorium, it is white. Not searing, screaming white. The white of faded age, of wood that has survived wear and tear, of fabrics not dingy but not bright, having been washed too many times. This space, a public room in a hotel, will be used as a private room by all three characters. It has a door up center that leads outside to a vacation spot. An exit down right leads to unknown unpeopled rooms in the hotel. High windows let in pale sunlight. Two divans await guests. Ben Stone’s set is inviting while offering a somehow dirty sterility. Howard Harrison lights it subtly, naturalistically but without warmth. It is winter light.

The play is in thirds, each third a two-person scene. A play of two-person scenes screams ‘amateur!’ to me, yet this is polished, precise Strindberg. This structure was a choice. Certainly the meeting of all three characters in the same room at the same time would be catastrophic, like the same people from parallel universes coming together in the same time/place/dimension. Strindberg did not allow that to happen until the last minutes of the play.

Creditors is performed without intermission. The first third gives us a confessional conversation. An older, sophisticated gentlemen, well dressed, precise, confident, enters the colorless scene. A younger, sloppy, quivering man, ill equipped for life among grownups, follows, pushing a wheeled white cart with something hidden under an off-white drape.

These men have only just met, yet the younger man, Adolph, tells the older man all manner of things about himself, his wife, their marriage. He reveals a sculpture under the drape, a nude of a woman leaning back, her legs spread. The older man guesses this is the young man’s wife. This and other of the angst-ridden Adolph’s innermost secrets are gathered, manipulated, and spewed back at him by the older man. It’s initially amusing, then increasingly virulent and vicious. The audience becomes complicit with the older man’s witty skewering of Adolph’s world. We laugh at the clever cruelty.

In this unequal match between Adolph (believably if rather annoyingly played to his neurotic edge by Tom Burke) and Gustav (coldly witty, brilliantly played by Owen Teale), Mr. Teale has the advantage of playing the sharp and angry character who acts upon the others. We don’t know Gustav’s name, of course, until the third third. But more on that anon.

Gustav’s manipulation of Adolph during the first scene led to a perfect enactment of the older man’s predictions in the second. Gustav exits the stage, leaving the young man alone (visually at least) to greet his wife, a woman some years his senior, far more sophisticated and confident, behaving precisely as Gustav had predicted she would.

Anna Chancellor’s Tekla spends much of the time on her back on one or the other of those divans. Strindberg posits that human relations are driven primarily by sexual urges, and Tekla is his most blatant archetype for this position. Both men, at different times, lie on top of her, fondling; no victim, she, Tekla invites and encourages this. At no time is she put upon. She is strong and free, going from responsive to passionate to gleefully lustful when she’s on top.

Both husband and wife refer to Tekla’s first husband as an idiot. As a novelist, it appears Tekla had been less than discreet about her past with her first husband, and certainly less than kind. The audience is free to guess that this will come back to haunt them. Upon seeing his wife’s behavior precisely as Gustav predicted it would be, Adolph behaves like a betrayed man. It took less than an hour for this marriage to be destroyed. Adolph stormed out, leaving Tekla alone and confused.

At some point during the Tekla/Adolph scene, the play dipped. The couple’s energy dissipated and dimmed. The tautness lost, Burke and Chancellor plodded along until they broke free of the quicksand they toiled in. The audience patiently waited for Teale to return.

At last, in the third third, the older man entered and began a new charade with Tekla. As he entered, she said, “Gustav!” as if she was shocked, even weak at the knees upon seeing him. He was suddenly soft spoken, gentle, perhaps embarrassed. Finally we are told this is his ex wife. Yes that older gent that verbally lacerated the young Adolph was that first husband betrayed by the younger couple.

If this was supposed to be a surprise, it wasn’t.

Adolph had left behind his rather tasteless sculpture of his wife. Gustav disdainfully covered it with its moist drape. In a brilliant moment, he showed his ex-wife his own sensitivity and her second husband’s lack thereof. Gustav seduces his ex-wife knowing her second husband is listening at the door. Somehow the younger man dies of … we know not what, also as predicted by Gustav.

It sounds absurd. No one dies when he eavesdrops on a man seducing his wife. Absurd and overblown as it sounds, this play works rather well, no detours are taken in the story, it just builds to its semi-logical conclusion (logical in 1888, at any rate). On the way, it bludgeons, it cuts and tickles, and finally it explodes. Not unusually, the most interesting and entertaining character is malicious and funny, searing like ice.

In summary --
Owen Teale kept the play afloat for me. The controlled fury in his Gustav, the hate, the humiliation that never leaves him, shaped him to a very fine, sharp instrument. He sliced and diced his ex-wife and her new husband’s hopes, their trust, their faith. Teale’s Gustav was a fabulously mean intellectual Darwinist ready to kill the second husband right in front of Tekla.

Tekla was desperately looking for more than Adolph or Gustav could give her, and Ms. Chancellor struggled to discover what it was she was after. Tekla had done questionable things, and paid for them in the second and third thirds of the play, yet Chancellor did not make me feel for her despite the character’s obvious pain and despair.

Adolph is an extremely difficult role. I just couldn’t tell if Adolph was Johnny One Note or Mr. Burke was. Burke was in some ways splendid yet he was such a whining juvenile, there was no moment he was on stage that he was not annoying. Poor Adolph. He’s merely the weapon for Gustav to use against Tekla. This seemingly grown man is really more like the child of divorce who believes the mother’s story, unconditionally, despite the missing facts of the father’s point of view. Still, I would have wished for some variations in Burke’s Adolph.

[If I wanted to shrink the playwright, perhaps I’d wonder at these three characters. Strindberg wasn’t good at marriage, no matter how many times he tried it. Perhaps this trio was really husband, wife and child.]

I think the play, in 2010, shows its dramatic flaws. Perhaps more importantly, the actors weren’t entirely in the same production: Anna Chancellor was in a serious play; Owen Teale was in a dark comedy with serious content and consequences; Burke’s Adolph was in a deeply serious play. And when that happens, the responsibility falls on the director, Mr. Rickman.

Nevertheless, cheers to Alan Rickman for a highly entertaining if imperfect production. And one quibble about the sound effect at the opening: The dripping water. When one is seeing a 90-minute play without an intermission, the sound of dripping water will make the audience wish the play was shorter. And, call me dense (you wouldn’t be the first), I don’t get it. What were the drips about?

According to Germaine Greer, these three characters weren’t people at all, but archetypes. Can one really empathize with an archetype? Strindberg wouldn't have cared, but I should think Mr. Rickman would.

~ Molly Matera, turning off the computer but not the light. There’s always reading to be done.