Wednesday, December 28, 2011

The Boys Are Back

Sometimes it’s about expectations.  The current Sherlock Holmes franchise merely borrows the names and the most readily identifiable characteristics of its famous protagonists and almost-as-famous antagonist.  This 21st century revamping is an action picture with a bit of bromance, inspired by steampunk graphic novels.  You know, where there are modern attitudes in the romanticized past with spectacular fireworks, explosions, lots of weapons, and a few attractive women thrown in the mix.  Is the plot a bit muddled?  Sure. Was a great plot on my list of expectations?  No.
Yes, the boys are back!  ((c) 2011 Warner Bros. Pictures)

Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows is a lot of fun.  It moves swiftly, if somewhat jumpily (it is Guy Ritchie directing, after all) into the jumbled plot.  There’s some espionage — or is it just business?  Or….OK, plot is not the film’s strength.

A Game of Shadows is, more than anything else, a witty and brisk buddy film.  Robert Downey Jr.’s brilliant, petulant, slightly mad Sherlock Holmes cannot do without his friend Dr. Watson, and Jude Law plays the long-suffering sidekick with grace, charm, and occasional exasperation.  These are Downey’s films, but the pairing with Jude Law is practically genius.
Downey as Holmes and Law as Watson  (c) 2011 Warner Bros. Pictures

The first film was a typical Ritchie romp in which men dominate and women are neglected at best.  It’s happened again here, but at least there’s a new female character, and I don’t mean Downey in drag.  Noomi Rapace plays Madame Simza, a gypsy fortune-telling reformed anarchist that Sherlock is determined to save despite herself.  That’s all of her, by the way.  Ms. Rapace brings nothing more to the role than disheveled hair.  
Rapace and the Boys (c) 2011 Warner Bros. Pictures

Mind you, I wasn't fond of Rachel McAdams as Irene Adler, even though I admire her work greatly elsewhere.  Hmmm.  Could the women be underwritten in these films?  Tosh.

This quest conflicts only slightly with Holmes’ attempt to protect Watson and his new bride-who-almost-wasn’t from the unscrupulous Professor Moriarty and right-hand-man Colonel Moran.  Moriarty is more and more interesting as Jared Harris plays him. Understatement is an understatement for what Harris does, and he pulls my attention away from Downey, which is no easy feat.  Perhaps it’s those cold eyes that freeze the blood.  Or his cold logic, which is difficult to argue with until you remember you’re a human.
Jared Harris as Professor Moriarty, and Downey.  (c) 2011 Warner Bros. Pictures.

While Harris actually gives Downey a run for his money, the main power of these films is the lusciously layered relationship between Downey’s Sherlock (or Sherley, as his brother Mycroft calls him) and Law’s Watson.  The two are so in synch, it’s gorgeous.  The looks that pass between them, and the eyes that don’t quite meet, speak volumes of their understanding.  And the dancing!  So don’t go thinking there won’t be a third “Sherlock Holmes and another adventure.”  Chemistry like this is priceless, and Messrs. Downey and Law and Ritchie are no fools.  Dr. Watson would make book on it.

The perversely delightful Stephen Fry appears in a very strange interpretation of brother Mycroft, sometimes in the nude.  Not full frontal as Michael Fassbender is purported to do in Shame, but quite enough to fluster Mrs. Watson and give us a few good laughs.

What with Ritchie’s penchant for replaying, in slow motion and voiceover, his lightning fast action scenes, there’s never a worry in the film.  When Sherlock does something absolutely dreadful, that should be shocking, we feel secure that it’s not an ending.  Only Moriarty ends things.  In lesser hands, this lack of suspense could be seen as a flaw.  But Ritchie does it all so skillfully that even knowing exactly where he’s going does not lessen the nail-biting, gasping audience from wondering Oh no, What Next???

As always, in her all-too-brief appearance Geraldine James is spot on as Mrs. Hudson, and Kelly Reilly has a bit more to do now that she’s married Dr. Watson.  More please.

Rachel McAdams makes a brief, nerve-wracking reappearance as Irene Adler. To say more would be a spoiler.  Which is, in itself, a spoiler….

Paul Anderson is chillingly efficient and loyal as Colonel Moran, stalwart of Professor Moriarty. 

And if all that weren’t enough, there’s a fantastical run through the woods with trees exploding around our heroes, rather like films showing Bastogne in the Battle of the Bulge.  Effects are awe-inspiring and James Herbert’s editing is sharp-edged.  All elements of this film are extremely well crafted, like cinematography by Philippe Rousselot and the production design by Sarah Greenwood, which is just gorgeous, and costumes by Jenny Beavan.  What the film may lack in plot it has in high production values.  Could it have been better?  Sure.  Will that keep me – or Ritchie, or Downey, or Law – up at night?  No.

Just to be clear:  You are not required or expected to think during this film.  You are not to wonder if it resembles the original stories.  Purists beware.  This is a new Holmes and Watson, a new way of looking at them, and it’s really all about Robert Downey Jr and the joy of watching him work.  So just have fun.

~ Molly Matera, signing off, already looking forward to the next one.  I freely admit to greatly enjoying this guiltily pleasurable franchise.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

BAM's Last Tape

Samuel Beckett was a mathematical guy. His plays are concise, his stage directions precise, he doesn’t like anyone taking any liberties with his instructions, and it’s all in the timing.  Lighting, settings, and properties are explicitly stated in his scripts. He knows exactly what he wants the audience to see and hear, and how. 

The production of Krapp’s Last Tape playing at BAM is from The Gate Theatre (Dublin) directed by Michael Colgan.  Lighting is perfect.  Setting is excellent.  John Hurt is excellent.  It is an intellectual exercise, however, not an emotional one.  Despite the analysis of the play itself in Gerry Dukes’ program notes, and his assertion that its intent was to show “regret, loss, and self-loathing,” it did not quite succeed for me.  It left me sad for the fellow, but more impressed with the technical aspects of the production and the acting than anything else. 

So closes (for me at least) the Fall 2011 Next Wave Season at BAM.  Happy Holidays to all, and I look forward to Richard III at BAM in 2012.

~ Molly Matera, closing the 2011 book – except for the next few things to squeeze in this December!

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

The Terrible Three?

See Milo, the last of my elderly gentlemen, who was daft, dysfunctional and, in his later years, deaf.  See his water bowl.  It has sat on that sideboard by the window surrounded by rocks – brought home mostly from Montauk, but some other beaches as well – for more than a decade.  

 In Milo’s decrepitude, I set up a stepstool so he could more easily reach the window and his water bowl until his death in 2010.  Set in my ways, I left it all as he had.

Despite the two small bowls of water I put on their food tray, all three “new” cats prefer Milo’s water bowl.  See old shelf bridging the gap between the sideboard and the windowsill.  See cat bed I have placed on the cool slate for my kitties’ comfort for the past year.

As they say in episodic television, “four days earlier” (that is, Sunday), I was out back raking leaves.  I raked, I swept, I piled, then stuffed them into trash bags.  Essentially I was winterizing during the last weekend I expect to have time for such things.  This week it’s raining, so I’m glad I raked it all up.  Why the delay, you ask, until December?  I like the sound of crunchy autumn leaves underfoot.  I like the sound when it’s not my foot it’s under, thereby alerting me to any presence out back.  Saturday night it was a possum. 

I confess it, I find possums butt ugly. Really, that sickly pale long snout, sluggish body, and a rat’s tail the length of three rats… what was Mother Nature thinking?  Dozing off into a nightmare, that’s what she was doing, no thinking involved.
Anyway, Millie watched him (her?) carefully from inside the screen door.  “Glad you’re inside now, aren’t you?” I asked. She did not respond.  She often ignores me, as did Milo, but he had an excuse.  He was deaf.  Millie’s been a little antsy lately.  She meets me most days when I come in the front door — which I love, don’t get me wrong — but sometimes just a little too close to that opening door.  I’m keeping as watchful an eye on her as she does the possum.

Back to Sunday:  While I was raking, I heard a clunk.  The sound was unfamiliar enough for me to put the rake aside and walk to the window.  Crikey.  SOMEBODY had knocked over the glass water vase.  Spilled maybe 1/3 of it over the sideboard and bridge-to-the-window, and down below onto the baseboard heater.  Happily the vase was not broken; it was not even cracked.  I yelled anyway.  “What were you THINKing?!”  Although the cats had been watching me work out back, none were around to answer.
Chick and Wilbur
They gallop, my three kitties.  From the bedroom window on the street side, under or over the bed, through the room divider, across the furniture, and onto either the kitchen window perch (remember last week?) or the sideboard, and back.  Sometimes they’re chasing one another; sometimes they’re just galloping for the joy of it.  Sometimes this results in the window perch crashing to the ground.  This time it seemed to have led to SOMEONE knocking over the water vase.  The glass water vase.  Worrisome.

Tuesday morning I got up as dawn filtered in drearily, dragged myself to the kitchen, and stopped at what I saw on the way.

The water vase was on its side again, leaning against the stones.  Water soaked the bridge to the windowsill and the cat bed I’d put there for the silly creatures’ comfort as they keep watch by the window.

I cleared up the mess.  I just adore mornings that start with extra chores before I leave for work, don’t you?  As I refilled the vase that had survived these many years, but might not survive another day, I recalled a story I heard on NPR during Monday’s commute.  It was something about Cup o’Noodles and burns sending people to emergency rooms, all because the base of the Cup o’Noodles container was so much narrower than the top.

This set me to musing….Maybe during my Christmas shopping I’ll find a broad-based bowl (glass preferably, for the play of light through the water; ceramic if necessary; no plastic) that’s almost as tall….

Wednesday morning dawned as dull as Tuesday.  It’s a different day, though, so the water vase was tipped in a different direction.  Although upheld by stones, its peril was apparent.  
Who, me?

Coming home from work Wednesday evening, I was relieved to see the vase in its proper place.  The window perch in the kitchen, however, was upended over the food tray.

Every day is an adventure, courtesy Millie, Wilbur, and Chick.  After a year of ease, are these the terrible two’s?

~ Molly Matera, signing off – I hear a disturbing sound from the other room…again.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Alkestis Unfettered

Classics teachers who want their students to understand and enjoy Greek theatre should have brought them to Big Dance Theatre’s production of Supernatural Wife that played BAM’s Harvey Theatre last weekend.  This adaptation showed lucky audiences how it should be done.

Anne Carson interpreted EuripidesAlkestis simply and freely, and the Big Dance Theatre has joined her sparse script to music, dance, silent film, still pictures on television screens, voiceover, dance, drums, song, and just plain acting to tell the story clearly with passion and great humor.  Yes, humor.  And joy.

Paul Lazar and Annie-B Parsons, co-artistic directors of the Big Dance Theatre and co-directors of Supernatural Wife, do not separate theatre and dance.  They know better.  Annie-B choreographed the six performers in a modern yet timeless style that sang Zorba the Greek to the uninitiated.  Even the costume changes were clever.

The story briefly:  King Admetos is scheduled to die and doesn’t want to.  He asks many people, including his parents, to die by proxy for him.  No takers, except his loyal wife Alkestis.  Thanks, honey.

Molly Hickok is a hoot, dancing in the opening, hiding behind a curtain to emerge with a man’s traditional Greek costume. She dips below the curtain again to re-emerge with a long dark moustache to transform herself into King Admetos.

His wife Alkestis is danced and beautifully acted by Tymberly Canale with some languor, then energy, wit, anger, and finally, calm.

Pete Simpson played Apollo as laid back even in anger, then was downright hilarious as Heracles (a.k.a. Hercules) in the second half of the play.

Chris Giarmo’s gorgeous tenor gives us the woeful cries of a traditional mourner (Ai!).  The captions for the songs are as funny as the cries are aching.

Elizabeth DeMent is the loyal household servant, providing comfort and commentary, through dance.  Her body is a powerful messenger.

Aaron Mattocks is Death.  His verbal duel with Apollo at the opening is marvelous, his flippant treatment of Alkestis an introduction to the irreverent style of Anne Carson’s translation,

A Greek chorus is not easy to make palatable to a modern audience, but Giarmo, DeMent, Mattocks, Simpson, and a few televisions screens make it work.

Supernatural Wife is a gorgeous creation, a bold collaboration between Lazar, Parsons, Carson, and the cast, as credited in the program.  Pulling it all even more closely together are brilliant design and technical work by Jane Shaw (sound), Joanne Howard (gorgeous set, almost alive), Jeff Larson’s clever videos, and Joe Levasseur’s flowing lighting design.  These are complemented by Oana Botez-Ban's perfect costumes (which evoked, for me, the traditionally dressed dolls I was given as a child by family friends who’d visited Greece). Music flows through the piece, challenging, soothing, energizing, particularly Chris Giarmo’s choral music.

The ending was creepily reminiscent not just of Orpheus and Eurydice but of the last act of The Winter’s Tale, with a dead queen standing still as a statue before her bemused king.

Everything about Supernatural Wife is a tour de force, the only shame being its short run.  Keep an eye out for another production elsewhere, anywhere.

~ Molly Matera, signing off, her faith in BAM, dance, and theatre renewed.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Kitchen Window Dramedy

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you may recall that when I’m not writing reviews of movies, plays, and other theatre programs, I write about my cats.  Last year around this time I was kitten-proofing my apartment. The woman who’d rescued my kitties (whom we consider their foster mother) surveyed my apartment and pointed to potential downfalls.  I did my research, and aloe and philodendron are not varieties of plants that poison silly kitties who eat things that are bad for them.  So they stayed.  Up high.  Like this.

They get the morning light, they're happy where they are, and the cats ... well the cats.

The philodendron vine has been growing and growing so I tacked it up along the kitchen’s soffit.  Over the last year, it's reached all the way around to the opposite wall.  Pretty, no?

The cats love their window perches.  Wilbur is particularly fond of this one.

Sometimes he’s displaced by his mother.  She likes to sunbathe there too.

It took a year, but the cats — one, or two, or all three — finally decided the hanging plants were going down.

In the wee small hours of Wednesday, I was awakened by a clunk and a clutter and it wasn’t Santa Claus.  A bump bump da dump.  Nothing high pitched or sharp, no tinkling or crashing of broken glass or china, and I was tired. So I drowsily decided nothing was broken, muttered something like ‘oh what did you guys do now?’ and went back to sleep.

Wednesday morning I woke congested, but that’s too ordinary of late to stop me.  I stumbled into the kitchen to start the morning routine when what to my wondering eyes did appear but, instead of two brackets and three plants, a mere one, lonely aloe plant.

As you can see from those snapshots above, both Millie and Wilbur favor this window perch.  What you don’t see is that Millie is fascinated by water, and the sink is quite near this perch.  Millie is also fascinated when I slightly overwater the hanging philodendron and the excess drips out the bottom onto her perch.  Months ago I had to cut off the tassles of the hangers to remove their tempting sway; but even that didn’t stop someone Tuesday night.  I don’t know that it was Millie.  It might have been Wilbur.  It could even have been Chick.

Still believing I’d make it to work, I did not take the time to photograph the philodendron in its plastic pot sitting on the floor, much of its dirt scattered around, and the broken shards of clay that had housed the second aloe plant.  Instead I yelled at the cats who were gathering in the kitchen for their breakfast, and bent over to sweep it all up.  My sinuses objected strenuously to this position and I almost keeled over.  After I held onto the counter for a while, I swept up the mess.  Only then did I notice the other mess.

This is everybody’s favorite perch on the other kitchen window.  There are squirrels out there, birds, and a black cat who taunts my cats from the other side of the screen.  This is a nice little jump up for the cats, but jumping no longer suffices.  They like to gallop through the apartment and leap from a dozen feet away.  It’s really cool.  Alas, that perch has been up there a year and it’s tired.  Kaboom, down it came, scattering the cat food below it around the floor.  Good morning.

I cleaned, I fed, I called in to work and went back to bed with drugs for my head and my sinuses — they’re all connected.

The philodendron isn’t dead, but its pretty tendrils have been torn from their little hooks, leaving a lone leaf at one end.  So sad. 

I’ll bring the philodendron back to life, then I'll figure out how to plug the holes in the wall and set up a new bracket.  One hanging plant on just one side of the window is too lonely. 

Sigh.  Life with old farts of cats was easy.  Young energetic cats are another story.  It’s a good thing they’re cute.

~ Molly Matera, signing off.  I’ve got to go see what they’re doing in the other room.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Tower Heist Crumbles at its Foundations

It’s two days since I saw Tower Heist and I haven’t thought of it once.  Not in annoyance, not for a smile.  Color me grumpy.  Granted, I’ve had a few other things of greater import on my mind, but a remembered smile or chuckle would have been welcome.

Generally speaking, I like Ben Stiller, Eddie Murphy, Matthew Broderick, and I love Alan Alda.  And I like heist films.  Therein lies the problem, methinks.

The set up:  Alan Alda plays a sleazeball Wall Streeter named Arthur Shaw who rips off friends and foe alike à la Madoff, which is rather the more disturbing because he professes to be a Queens boy who worked his way up.  Gives Queens natives a bad name. Shaw is a slimy charmer who lives in the penthouse of the most expensive apartment building in New York City called just “The Tower.”  When he is arrested by the FBI for a Ponzi scheme, it comes out that building manager Ben Stiller had asked him to take the “small” account of the Tower’s workers’ pension fund.  Everything Shaw “invested” is allegedly gone, even the tiny retirement account of the beloved (of course ready to retire) doorman Lester played winningly by Stephen Henderson.  Now it’s personal.

Ben Stiller plays Josh Kovacs, the building manager, as an intelligent sad sack with a sad job. He thinks he has a relationship with Shaw, initially believing him to be falsely accused. When he figures it out, he loses his temper and his job, and starts to plot against the white collar criminal.  Josh recruits the dull Casey Affleck (sometimes underplaying is too subtle), Matthew Broderick as Mr. Fitzhugh, who’s so bland it’s uncomfortable to watch, and eventually some others.  He even calls upon a neighbor from Queens, a petty criminal called “Slide” played superficially by Eddie Murphy.  Superficial.  That’s a word that describes much of this film. 

That’s not always a bad thing, if the film were a fun romp, a mile a minute laugh fest.  But it’s not.  Some parts are excruciatingly slow, and one thing a heist comedy does not need is breathing room for the audience to wonder anything.

I could go point to point on the plot, and mathematically there’s nothing glaringly wrong with it.  Well, don’t think too hard.  The thing is, this is a heist film, and heist films require more than a serviceable plot, they need characters, charming oddballs, misfits, not just down-and-out victims.  Interesting characters.  Tower Heist misses the mark here since most of its characters come out bland, dull, perfectly nice people, one supposes (except for Alda, of course), and it’s not that we don’t sympathize and empathize with their plight, it’s not that we don’t care. 

It’s that they’re boring.  Even when people are dangling outside of a penthouse apartment window, there’s no tension in this film.  It’s clearly a feel good movie, slightly enlivened by Eddie Murphy’s irreverence for anything and anyone.

And Téa Leoni as the Queens-born FBI agent. She is very good, her timing perfect, and she’s wasted here.

Brought up on the likes of the late great Donald Westlake, I know I’m spoiled but I accept that not everybody is him.  Not everyone can write a dull dogsbody like Dortmunder and keep the story moving.  This film is barely amusing let alone funny, no one’s endearing.  Something’s wrong here, and since the actors are mostly competent, something’s crumbling at the very foundations of this tower of fluff.

I suspect the script by Ted Griffin and Jeff Nathanson, with a disappointing job by director Brett Ratner.

For pulling herself above her material, kudos to Téa Leoni.  I would like to say Alan Alda, but since he can play this role in this sleep, I’m afraid I’ve seen it before.

~  Molly Matera, signing off and wondering what went wrong.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

A Stormy Next Wave

It’s been a rough season at BAM (a.k.a. Brooklyn Academy of Music).  My theatre-going buddies and I expect a dud or two in the course of a good Next Wave festival, but fall 2011 has been different. 

It started well in September with an extraordinary performance by Kronos of their show, Awakening.  Kronos used found objects to make music the way sculptors use found objects to make visual art. It was an exhilarating evening.

Then the season started its downhill trend.  We’d looked forward to something exciting and new from the young Beijing Dance Company in their three-part program called Haze. Alas it was hazy. The first third was almost excellent, young dancers leaping to the floor and springing up, bounding across and around the stage.  The energy they created bounced off the walls and enveloped us.  Unfortunately the second two pieces were tepid, old-fashioned, and overwrought. Beware of the director/choreographer writing her intentions in the program — if you must explain, it isn’t working.

Then there was the betrayal of 69 Degrees South by Phantom Limb. We were excited for what promised to be an innovative piece, and came away disappointed. The recorded background music was Kronos; live music was by a talented yet often jarring band called “Skeleton Key.” The light show enlivening the still and moving photography on the back wall of the Harvey Theatre was quite beautiful, and sometimes frightening. The miraculous survival of the majority of Ernest Shackleton’s crew after their ship, Endurance, was iced in, crushed, and then sank in Antarctica is a fascinating and heroic story. But if you didn’t already know it, what appeared on the stage was meaningless. There were strange red-clad not-dancers rolling around in the beginning, their existence a mystery, and when the marionettes finally came on, they were slowly manipulated by creepy-looking people on stilts with costumes reminiscent of jellyfish. Shackleton deserved better.

That was the good, the bad, the ugly. Then The Infernal Comedy broke the bad streak as it broke the mold. More on that anon.  Last weekend Canyon, a total disaster choreographed by John Jasperse, seemed to revive that nasty streak.  Initially the dancers energized me enough to make me want to go home and exercise.  Within twelve minutes, they made me just want to go home. 

And now for Anon:  I am not an opera fan, although I try it out once or twice a year in my ongoing quest to understand the continued survival of the form.  The Infernal Comedy is not an opera but it is operatic.  That is, three sopranos sing fantastical arias (a little Mozart, a little Beethoven, some Hayden, Vivaldi, and Gluck) most of which appear to be about their poor to atrocious taste in untrustworthy men and subsequent suicidal thoughts. 

These women — Marie Arnert, Kirsten Blaise, and Louise Fribo — are brilliant sopranos, but they don’t just stand there singing opera.  They created characters who feel, react, throw themselves to the floor and roll around, one crouches under a table. These women were alive, full of emotion, needs, responding to their surroundings as well as their memories. This was exciting theatre.

The 32-piece Orchester Wiener Akademie was onstage and the conductor Martin Haselböck played along with the evening’s conceit, that Jack Unterweger, a dead Austrian serial killer, was on a posthumous book tour.  Stage director Michael Sturminger wrote the libretto based on an idea developed by Haselböck and Birgit Hutter, the insightful costume designer.

John Malkovich as Jack Unterweger oozes onto the stage, uncomfortable with the formal proceedings. Everything is apparently the idea of his editor or his publisher. He is beguiling in a creepy way, talks directly to people in the orchestra section of the BAM Opera House.  He engages us in his afterlife on his final book tour. Only after life, he pronounces, might the truth be told, since certainly none was told in his lifetime by him or journalists or anyone else.  This the lying serial killer himself tells us.  What should we believe?

A tall woman with short blonde hair in a bright blue strapless dress sings of her child. Malkovich’s Unterweger is mesmerized and ever so slowly approaches her. He embraces her on his knees, his lost mother, and then he reaches up to fondle her breast. OK. All three women (who are legion) are angry with Unterweger and yet drawn to him, as if he exudes pheromones. The real women in Unterweger’s life after his first stay in prison found it hard to believe this charming man was a serial killer even after the evidence was laid out and he was convicted of eleven more killings. He had that kind of unctuous savoir-faire. He tells the audience what a man must do with a woman, for a woman: Listen to her.  And he does listen to each of the three women, intermittently hawking his book to us, returning to his enthralled women, then slyly acknowledging his audience.  It’s an audacious bit of theatre.

So apparently opera works in snippets in a dramatic production that’s not an opera.  Alas for audiences, this show was three nights only (four sopranos switching some of the roles over the three nights), so I can’t tell you "run to see this show, take standing room, anything," although I really would. The Infernal Comedy was imaginative, quirky, and on top of all that, brilliantly executed, so that I have forgotten my disappointment with the rest of the season and am once again filled with hope and anticipation for the remaining productions of the Next Wave in December. 

~ Molly Matera, signing off, relishing the memory of operatic highlights, even though she still doesn’t like opera.  

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

An Incomplete Title for an Incomplete Film

J. Edgar was disappointing. I had no expectation of any revelations that might make the title character sympathetic: He was a disturbing and disturbingly powerful man. I had no particular expectation of DiCaprio in the role, largely because my image of Hoover was always in his later years, not in his youth. I suppose what I wanted was a good story well told, and from director Clint Eastwood I had cause to expect that. Unfortunately, the chronologically challenged script by Dustin Lance Black did not cast light on the muddled mystery that was John Edgar Hoover, and Mr. Eastwood didn’t enlighten us either.

There is a poorly constructed and pedestrian framework of a memoir being dictated by an aged Hoover to a series of young FBI agents over the course of…what?  A year, a decade?  The young men all look alike. Hair short, suits undistinguished, they personified the meaning of the word “Suit” when applied to a Fed. Even the fact that the last one was an unfriendly young black man didn’t inform. 

Were these the memoirs of a man or an agency? Was J. Edgar Hoover always bonkers, or only in his later years? Clearly he should have been made to retire at the mandatory age, but the filmmakers wished to imply that all presidents feared Hoover’s secret files and kept him on, when in fact LBJ and Hoover were friends. (By the way, some of us would have considered Hoover opening a secret file on us to be a great honor.)

The film opens in 1919 during the Palmer Raids. These bombings inside the United States by home-grown Bolsheviks clearly show the formation of Hoover’s views. The film moves backwards and forwards, the Twenties, the Thirties, the Sixties and finally 1972. In all this bouncing about, the film clarifies nothing later than the Twenties.  It explicates nothing beyond Hoover’s beginnings. Although we see where he came from and where he went, nothing about the main character grabs us. 

The actors did good work, including those who don’t get top billing (for instance, Denis O’Hare and Stephen Root as intense scientists taking baby steps to create the first scientific laboratory of the Bureau; Ken Howard as the Attorney General who made J. Edgar the director of the DoJ’s bureau of investigation).  As for the more famous characters:
 -        Leonardo DiCaprio as J. Edgar Hoover did fine work as the earnest, righteous young man. As he aged, DiCaprio’s body language was fine, but the excessive makeup was distracting and he occasionally veered toward caricature – or, of course, Hoover could really have been an incoherent hysteric.
-         Armie Hammer as Edgar’s lifelong friend/colleague/partner Clyde Tolson had some effective scenes, but much of his performance was marred by even more age makeup than DiCaprio wore, and since Mr. Hammer’s primary charm is in his boyish good looks, this was a shame.
-    Naomi Watts as lifelong private secretary Helen Gandy was as detached as Hoover himself. I wondered what went on with Helen (who aged better than her boss), but apparently no one writing or directing the film knew either.
-      The great Dame Judi Dench as Annie Hoover, J. Edgar’s mother, was thoroughly dislikeable but even she didn’t stand out from the dark dullness of this film.  A cold-hearted woman who doted on and emotionally crippled her son, I should have hated her, but did not. Detachment was the order of the day, it seems. Hoover’s rumored cross-dressing and vaguely homosexual relationship with Clyde Tolson was obliquely referenced more as something to show how mean Mrs. Hoover was than to show any depth of emotion in Edgar or Clyde. Certainly neither showed anything resembling courage.
-      Jeffrey Donovan as Attorney General Bobby Kennedy was, unusually both for the actor and the character, a bit of a cipher.
-         Josh Lucas was not Charles Lindbergh but he looked good in the role.
-         Christopher Shyer as Richard Nixon was merely profane and had way too much hair.

To sum it up, the film is disjointed, it’s not emotionally involving, and it doesn’t seem to have a point. I’ve even caught myself wondering if the filmmakers didn’t deliberately confound us with switching time frames so we wouldn’t see Nixon come onscreen and say, “Oh thank goodness, it’s almost over.”

~ Molly Matera, signing off before someone opens a file on me. 

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Scary Stuff

A few weeks back, I wrote about a television series I’d just seen. It was scary and potentially profound, as many horror or science fiction stories can be, could be if they tried. It’s The Walking Dead and it’s about zombies. Or perhaps it’s about zombies the way Buffy the Vampire Slayer was about vampires. For the uninitiated, that would be “not.”

I like science fiction, some fantasy (think Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth), for the story underneath the story of aliens or futuristic societies or past societies if things had gone differently — the way those stories reflect upon our own society, asking questions we too often do not ask in life, obliquely urging us to step back, have a look, maybe even a think. Or a ponder. I like horror when it’s really scary, which is not synonymous with gory, as most horror films are. I grew to like these separate genres in the days of black-and-white television, so blood is not of interest to me. I am not, after all, a vampire.

Continuing in the vein of horror and/or science fiction films/stories/television programs, which often overlap, it’s that time of year when scary movies abound. For Halloween, sure, but perhaps it’s just a chilly weather thing. A scary movie lets us snuggle with our honeys even more on cold evenings than warm.

Are film or TV studios trying to make us ponder? I think not. They just want us to jump and scream and clutch at one another — and pay admission. Recently I tried to oblige. Last week I saw Paranormal Activity 3. At home I watched a DVD of the first film in that series. Why? They both have their startling moments and frights, sure. Is that enough? Paranormal Activity 3 makes a big mistake by explaining the paranormal activity with witches. Really? Give me Poltergeist, where the explanations do not lessen the fear.

The other day I read that William Peter Blatty had been invited to revise and expand his hastily written novel, The Exorcist. Back then he was invited to write the screenplay for the very scary film version before he’d even finished his draft of the novel, so he welcomed the opportunity to refine the book. I cannot say that I remember it well enough to recognize what he changed, but I walked briskly to a bookstore the day I read about the 40th anniversary revised edition, and finished it in three commutes. I’m a slow reader but it’s a fast read. Alas, sad as I was for the fortunes and fates of the characters, I was not afraid.

I watched scads of movies Halloween weekend, looking for something truly scary. Why? I’ve been trying to write a scary story myself, and it’s like the exceedingly unpleasant idea of pounding my head against the wall. What’s scary? I tried making a list of what frightens me, and my rational mind was certainly able to do that. But nothing I wrote was coming out scary. Nothing I see comes out scary. Nothing I read comes out scary.

Decades ago I can remember being unable to sleep as I read through Stephen King’s book of short stories, Night Shift (“The Boogeyman” particularly got me). And the original William Castle film, The House on Haunted Hill — not the remake, the remake’s not scary at all, it’s just gross. But in the original, black-and-white, when that old lady with the crazy hair and the clawed fingers glided across the room into the glow of the candle light, I screamed. Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, that’s one scary book, as was the original 1960 William Wise film version, The Haunting — although, as usual, not the remake.

So I racked my brain trying to figure it out. I found no answers, but recalled that some years back, an actor friend proposed that his — and my — dislike of improvisation was merely a mask to hide our fear of the paucity of our own imaginations. Is that what it is? Has my imagination dwindled down so far as to disallow the conjuring part of my mind to believe? Would I now let Tinker Bell die? Surely not. That would be scary stuff indeed. In these unsatisfactory stories and films, there are moments that are startling, moments that are creepy, but are we really afraid of what’s next? Of what’s behind the curtain, beyond the door, inside the darkness?

Ah, the darkness.

The scariest movie I’ve seen of late was Mr. Klein. A 1976 French film (actually titled Monsieur Klein) directed by Joseph Losey and produced by and starring Alain Delon, my introduction to it was when I was reading posts about the film  Sarah's Key and the Vél’ d’Hiv round-up. Some posters (that is, people who post comments on web sites, as opposed to advertisements plastered around town — some of which are works of art, but that's another subject entirely) applauded Sarah’s Key as the first depiction of Vel’ d’Hiv onscreen, while others offered Mr. Klein as proof that it was already out there.

In Mr. Klein, Alain Delon plays Robert Klein, an art dealer, a businessman. He buys art, he sells art, he advises people at auctions. He’s a member of Society. In 1942, we meet him buying things at obscene discounts from Jews trying to gather cash to leave Vichy France. They are forced to sell at low prices; he is not forced to buy at the prices the articles are worth. [Potential spoiler: Actually, I felt the film’s only flaw was the repetition of some lines from the opening scene at the end. They were already echoing in my mind.] Mr. Klein receives some mail that is not his. It is addressed to his name at his well-appointed home, but it’s a newspaper printed for and by Jews — to tell them what rights they have lost, to tell them what they must do, where they must go. Mr. Klein tries to get his name off this distribution list (and we all know how impossible that is), and complains to the police, which of course puts him on their radar where he had not been before. The film tracks Mr. Klein’s attempts to find the other Mr. Klein, who is a Jew in hiding. Delon’s Mr. Klein has to deal with French bureaucracy and find official paperwork proving that his grandparents and their parents were Christian. Eventually he must sell his belongings and his home, for less than they are worth, but of course, while he is forced to sell, no one is forced to buy.

By the end of the film, that paperwork is gathered, but Delon’s Mr. Klein has already been shoved into a bus with people wearing yellow stars on their clothing, herded into the Vélodrome d’Hiver, where he hears someone else respond to his name. He feverishly pushes his way through the crowd to accost that man, then finds himself shoved onto the train with the other Mr. Klein, the train heading east out of France to the camps.

Throughout the film we root for Alain Delon (but of course). We root for him to get this all sorted out, because we know how dangerous it is to be a Jew in 1942. He tries to save himself by proving he is not a Jew, and cannot. Until finally he, and we, wonder what we were thinking.

That’s scary. Human activity, not paranormal. Not things that go bump in the night. What ordinary people do to one another, and sometimes what they do not do — now that is terrifying.

~ Molly Matera, signing off, watching the cat watch the wall, which is also a bit unnerving.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Upstairs Downstairs in French, Spanish, and Polka Dot Bikinis

The Women on the Sixth Floor” is a delight.  It’s sweet, it’s funny, it’s light and fluffy.  It takes place in 1962, and you know early on how much fun this is going to be when the women on the sixth floor (who are all Spanish) sing along with the radio that’s playing a French cover of "Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini."

The fabulous Fabrice Luchini is Monsieur Jean-Louis Joubert and Sandrine Kiberlain is his taut wife Suzanne. These well to do, too comfortable people lead dull lives, their adolescent sons dispatched to boarding school much of the time.  He goes off daily to work in the family brokerage house, she engages in social events, charitable events, visits to the dressmaker, just exhausting stuff.  One day the Jouberts’ long-time family maid Germaine leaves in a huff when Madame Joubert chooses to change a few things her deceased mother-in-law had done in the household.  Michèle Gleizer is pouty and put-upon but still amusing as Germaine, especially when her neighbors upstairs on the chilly sixth floor treat her to a good time and cheap wine. 
(C) Vendome Production
The Jouberts are utterly incompetent — she cannot wash a dish or iron a shirt, he doesn’t know how to function without someone taking care of him.  It’s an emergency, and there are plenty of Spanish women in town to work as maids from early in the morning until late at night for the bourgeoisie.  El patron.  The boss. 

Mr. Joubert is introduced to life on the 6th floor, where all the maids for the wealthy families in the building live.  His “exhausted” wife sends him upstairs on an errand, and it’s as if he’s gone through a forbidden door.  The 6th floor has small rooms for the maids to live in, a stopped-up toilet, a communal sink that has only cold water, and no heat.  The world of the 6th floor is alien to Mr. Joubert, and consequently fascinating.  He spends more and more time with these women, and begins to discover unknown aspects of real life and of himself.  And, of course, he falls in love with Maria.

Natalie Verbeke is the new maid, Maria Gonzalez, who gives as good as she gets with courtesy and grace. She has a calm and restful face, and then breaks into a breathtaking smile.
Carmen Maura is her aunt, Concepión, full of love for family, sending her money home to her husband, who’s building a house for her, which will have a grand bathtub.  She also has more than a smattering of good sense.
Berta Ojea is Dolores, stout and simple, devout and sweet-natured.
Concha Galán is Pilar, abused by her husband, leading M. Joubert to take extraordinary steps. 
Lola Dueñas is Carmen, an angry yet warm Communist — and you can’t blame her for the latter.
Annie Mercier is dour and rather scary as the deep-voiced, mean-spirited landlady, Mme. Triboulet.

These actresses are scrumptious, simple, clear, inhabiting their characters with a lust for life, embodying women who are forthright while they appear submissive.  They’re alive, and glad of it.  So are we.
Natalie Verbekeas Maria.  (C) Vendome Production
A delightful aspect of this story is that not only is Mr. Joubert transformed by these 6th floor friends — and love.  His wife Suzanne is as well, once she realizes he’s not having an affair with the man-eating widow client, but rather living a different sort of life with these new friends.  She recognizes the warmth he’s drawn to and tries to find it in herself.  It’s almost conceivable that the two obnoxious Joubert sons might eventually learn something from their parents’ discoveries. 

Writer/Director Philippe Le Guay does not make the smallest misstep.  His script with Jérôme Tonnerre is lively and good-hearted.  In another film, the rich widow in the red dress would be a black widow, having had three husbands and not missing a one.  Here Audrey Fleurot gives a brash performance that somehow makes us believe the widow’s a person, not a caricature at all.
Suzanne and Jean-Louis Joubert and the Man-Eating Widow.

Cinematographer Jean-Claude Larrieu provides soft lighting, keeping the frames warm even when some of Jean-Louis’ behavior might make us uneasy.  Between Mr. Larrieu, though, and the innocent and beneficent Monsieur Joubert created by Mr. Luchini, what would be creepy from another actor is almost cute and certainly harmless here.

This film does not try to break ground, to change minds, to do anything more than perhaps encourage some reflection on the world, on ourselves.  With a glass of wine and a nice biscuit.  Or maybe some paella.  In a traditional romantic comedy, a man rescues a woman.  “The Women on the Sixth Floor” together save the man.  This film is a latté, it’s rich and frothy and light as a feather.  It’s a guiltless pleasure, so go indulge.

~ Molly Matera, signing off but not logging off – I must download “Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini.”