Wednesday, March 30, 2011

The Duck Pond

About a city block from my old workplace there’s a duck pond. A manmade duck pond in which large goldfish swim and real ducks settle in awaiting whatever they can cadge from visitors. They dive in that cartoonish way they have, tailfeathers waggling in the air. Come May or so, there’ll be ducklings.

Today there were three residents, two aggressive males with gorgeous green throats, the mallard masters of the pond.

One dull little brown duck, the female. A man tossed the universal food, Cheerios, one by one, to the female, then the males came charging over for their – and her – share.

The pond had little islands interspersed between the waterfall and the low rim of the pond where people and dogs sat. Each island was strewn with stones, clearly seen in March since the sheltering plants had been shorn, cut back for winter. In a few months, though, the plants will grow back to fullness with their long and broad shafts and fluffy tops. Hidden within will be the ducklings that would be tended by both males and female.

The little islands in the pond, perhaps five or six feet across, were strewn with stones and bound by what looked like barrel staves sliced to a height of a foot or so. They were wrapped with rusting metal bands, but surely they were stone, under the water, not wood.

This is real, not a decoy!

“No,” my friend said, “come closer and look.” We stepped closer to the edge and bent over, our tailfeathers less entertaining than those of the ducks, and peered under the water. “Wood. Coated with something to avoid rot? Creosote?”

I visited my friend today because I felt she needed a trip to the duck pond. At least I thought that I thought she needed it. As it turns out, I’m the one who needed the duck pond. Its quiet. Its movement. Its promise of new life.

~ Molly Matera, turning off the computer, the lights, everything.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

"Win Win" Does Neither

Win Win” is a sweet if slight film. Its characters are likeable, even when annoying (except for one, who, while played by winsome and likeable actress, is just plain unlikable), its set-up interesting, its action forward-moving at all times. Its potential heft is in the undeniably wrong action by its main character; its greatest weakness in the complete lack of retribution for that act.

Mike Flaherty (Paul Giamatti) is a middle class attorney practicing in a middle class neighborhood, his shared offices part of a house for which he and his partner have responsibility (for the ready-to-blow boiler and the backed up toilet, for instance, things that cost money). The day we meet him, Mike has two clients. The first is an elderly man who believes his son has kidnapped his orange tabby cat. The second is a senior citizen living alone in his own house, who is not indigent, but upon whom dementia is creeping. He’s been picked up by the police more than once, not knowing where he was, and is in danger of becoming a ward of the State. This is Leo, played winningly by Burt Young. While Leo can no longer safely live alone at home, he does have money – enough to endow some parks in his neighborhood in his will, and enough to pay a monthly fee to a guardian. And Leo, of course, wants to live in his house, not in an old folks home.

Mike’s home life is happy if presently house-poor. His wife Jackie (Amy Ryan) is at home with their two young daughters. She’s smart, loving, and not likely to put up with any nonsense. The tree out front is dead and endangering the house. The health insurance premium check is written out but not yet mailed. And Mike has only two clients. He is stressed, reaching out to friends for overflow work from other practices, but having no luck. He jogs with his polar-opposite friend Terry (an endearing performance by Bobby Cannavale), but it’s not helping. It doesn’t solve his money problems, and he takes clear note of all the people jogging right past him. Giamatti is, after all, our Everyman – he is overweight, a tad whiny, with non-descript features but for the huge eyes always ready to tear up. All those fit people in spandex run past us, too, so we’re right there on his side.

Giamatti’s Mike and his business partner Vigman (the always authentic Jeffrey Tambor) also team up to coach the high school wrestling team, which is on a long losing streak. It is at this point that Mike essentially breaks – after doing an unsuccessful search for Leo’s daughter, with whom Leo’s had no contact in twenty years, he takes on the guardianship of the man, telling the court that it’s so the old man can stay in his house; but then Mike drops him off at the local assisted living facility while pocketing the monthly check. Suddenly he’s relaxed, pushing the guilt of his action to the back closet of his mind. The excuse he gives himself to not be a real guardian to Leo is that he hasn’t time. The man has two clients, he’s got time.

Into this situation walks a bleached blond teenage boy named Kyle, quietly and convincingly played by Alex Shaffer. He is the grandson Leo didn't know he had, he’s got a shiner, he took the bus alone from Ohio to New Jersey to the front stoop of his grandfather’s house. Jackie’s mother instincts kick in all over the place – protect the boy, but also protect her little girls from this unknown teenager. Kyle’s mother’s in a rehab facility in Ohio, and he’d been left with the mother’s boyfriend, which sends Jackie on the warpath against Kyle’s mother. Naturally she becomes the mother Kyle has always needed – mind you, Kyle’s turned out pretty well for having a mother in rehab and no stable father image. Amy Ryan’s terrific here, a wild cat protecting whatever child needs her help.

Meanwhile, in the primary plot, now Mike has to lie to everyone – the boy, the grandfather Leo, his wife, his daughters, as well as the court. Because this is Giamatti, we see the inner torment over the one criminal act that snowballs into many lies. Giamatti’s Mike is kind, tolerant of just about everyone, and a good man despite his imperfections.

Things seem to be going right – no one guesses that Mike’s cheating the client and the system, Kyle is settling in nicely with Mike’s family, and then turns out to be a wrestling champ. Now he can even resuscitate Mike’s losing wrestling team while making a best friend. Cannavale’s character Terry, who’s miserable over his breakup with his wife (in which she seems to have gotten their house as well as their contractor) begs to join the team as another assistant coach, so now everybody’s a big happy family. Until …. you guessed it, the long-lost daughter shows up. Sullenly played by the charming Melanie Lynskey, Cindy is still a junkie, looking for what she can get, wheedling her father, trying to regain the affection of her estranged son, and hiring a lawyer (the estimable Margo Martindale) to help. This is where Mike could get into trouble, and if there was a moment of reality in this film, he would have. But he doesn’t. Everything’s settled discreetly, out of court, he has a big new extended family since Cindy willingly leaves her son with the Flahertys for the monthly guardianship fee, and Mike’s money problems are solved by his getting a second job. Which he should have done in the first place, right? But then we couldn’t have watched Tambor, Giamatti, and Cannavale being guys going nuts about high school wrestling matches. They do this very well, but as it’s March Madness time, aren’t we all seeing quite enough of guys going gaga over school sports?

Thomas McCarthy directed his own screenplay lovingly. It’s all about love, it’s all charming, the stumbles along the road dismaying. The primary stumbling block is, of course, the boy’s mother showing up – her very presence makes Kyle, a good kid, go crazy and do bad things. Just as a really bad situation made Mike Flaherty do bad things. We don’t know anything about what sent Leo’s daughter Cindy off the rails, but since she’s a junkie, she’s not likely to get much sympathy. Few actresses could have made us almost feel sorry for Cindy, but Lynskey pulls it off.

All of things that could go seriously wrong in this story do not because this just isn’t that kind of movie. It all ends up a step away from where you’d expect with confrontations, guilt, forgiveness, and pleasing resolutions, none of which involve the courts or the police or the Bar Association. “Win Win” is perhaps not a good film but seems to be due to its good acting. Structurally sound, well-paced, it’s the story’s absurdity and falseness pretending to be realism that bothers me. I doubt it’ll be out there on the big screen for long – but take heart, in a little while, it can be part of a pleasing evening at home.

~ Molly Matera, turning off the computer, but not the light.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Awakened by Sounds of the Sixties

When Dr. Oliver Sacks (“Awakenings”) worked with a young man whose brain tumor had severely impaired his memory, the boy’s responses revolving around sixties rock and the slang of the time inspired Dr. Sacks to describe the young man as “The Last Hippie.”

This essay in Dr. Sacks’ book “An Anthropologist on Mars” inspired director Jim Kohlberg and screenwriters Gwyn Lurie and Gary Marks to create their film “The Music Never Stopped.” While drawing on the analysis and experience of Dr. Sacks with his patient, the film is a story taking place, as all stories must, over a shorter period of time than the facts of the real patient and his family. The director and writers have given us a quiet film with simple, real characters. “The Music Never Stopped” allows us to know Gabriel Sawyer, his father Henry and his mother Helen as they reacquaint themselves after an estrangement of almost twenty years.

The film tells the story of a man’s memory, its lapses and lacks, its vagaries and weaknesses, and surprising strengths. Back in 1968, Gabriel was a teenage boy, in a band, possibly in love, whose friend and bandmate had just received his letter from the government, and his number (112). At the height of Gabriel’s feelings about the Vietnam War, he clashes with his father’s feelings about protesters and rock music. Their inevitable argument escalates, and Gabriel leaves home to live his musical dream in Greenwich Village. Not an unusual story to this point. The Sawyers don’t hear from their son again until 1986, when he is found with a debilitating brain tumor and irretrievable memory loss. That no one will ever know any more about Gabriel’s life between 1970 and 1986 is known from the outset, and yet we hang onto every word, every moment, hoping against hope that somehow the Gabriel his parents once knew will reappear.

Part of the total willingness to wait this out is J.K. Simmons, here playing Gabriel’s father Henry Sawyer. I recognized Henry Sawyer. He was of the “Great” generation, he hated rock music, he hated the war protestors, he had worked hard for his American dream and couldn’t understand those who didn’t appreciate the status quo and sacrifice, having served in one war himself, and lost a brother to another. In essence, though, he was the father of a teenager. Simmons is pitch perfect here, every grimace, every smile, every repressed emotion was on target. He’s one of those character actors we know very well long before we know his name -- the father in “Juno,” Will Pope in “The Closer” TV series, a psychiatrist on at least two iterations of “Law & Order,” among many, many others. You know him when you see him, which can doubtless be said of several actors in this film, like Cara Seymour as Gabriel’s mother Helen – she also played Carey Mulligan’s mother in “An Education.” Here (as then!) she is wonderful, strong, often silent, and standing and speaking up when it’s time.

The music that is a part of Gabriel is also a part of the audience that surrounded me when I saw the film. It is “our” music just as the ballads and waltzes of the forties and fifties was the music of Gabriel’s parents. We had the same arguments about music and politics that the Sawyers had. “We” are older than the demographic Hollywood films generally aim at, but I tend to think that every generation has the music argument – to the parents, whatever the younger generation likes is just “loud.”

The music is all important here – Gabriel is not communicative even after the tumor is removed from his brain, and his father reads whatever he can find searching for help. He finds it in the person of Dianne Daly, a music therapist played with sweetness and strength by Julia Ormond. Dianne explores what’s left of Gabriel’s memory with music, discovering his love of sixties rock – the Beatles, Cream, Dylan, and most particularly the Grateful Dead. Gabriel is so set in that time that he is unaware that certain of his musical icons have been dead for years. But when he is informed of such facts, he cannot retain the new memories for more than a few minutes.

Despite his detestation of the music his son loved, Henry educates himself on rock music of the sixties so he can talk to Gabriel. The past is revived when no future is possible. This is not a long film, and it is not overpopulated with characters, so each scene is carefully crafted and carved out of life – Gabriel talking to his father about the music, about Vietnam, Gabriel developing a crush on the girl who serves him lunch in the café; Henry and Helen remembering the past differently until Helen reminds him that his memory is not the only memory of any given moment. Helen, the mother, as usual stuck in the middle in the 1980s as in the 1960s, always the inner strength of the family.

The highlight of the film is Henry’s determination to win tickets to a Grateful Dead concert, so he’s always listening to the rock radio stations, even in his hospital bed after he’s suffered a heart attack. The journey that brings father and son in tie-dyed T-shirts to a Dead concert is bumpy and real, making the joy of connection even greater when Gabriel finally does form that new memory of learning a "new" Grateful Dead song along with his father.

Everyone in this film shines, but most notable are Simmons and Seymour noted above; Lou Taylor Pucci as Gabriel, ever a child, emotional, always seemingly just a little bit stoned; Mia Maestro, charming as Celia, a kind server in the café of the rehab facility on whom Gabriel develops a crush; and Scott Adsit as the rather dour Doctor Biscow who gives only bad news on Gabriel.

The Music Never Stopped” is low-key and heartfelt, sweet and sensitive. The soundtrack is dynamic and includes the Beatles, Crosby Stills & Nash, Bob Dylan, and more in addition to, obviously, the Grateful Dead. While the film was apparently a favorite at Sundance, I’m guessing its distribution is limited, so get out there and see it now.

~ Molly Matera, turning off the computer but neither the light nor the stereo….

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Slapstick Shakespeare

A delightful mariachi band greets the entering audience in the BAM Harvey Theatre. The scene is more like Tijuana than an ancient Roman/Greek city, but the pleasure of the setting overrides any purist hankerings. And of course, any purists in the audience of a Propeller production had best put on their seatbelts – they’re in for a bumpy ride, despite the all-male company.

In “The Comedy of Errors,” the errors are made by everyone in Ephesus about the identities of two sets of twins in their midst. The comedy is … rather brutal. Think “Animal House” via the Three Stooges. As a play, “The Comedy of Errors” is slight – a smidgen more than a one-joke show. That said, the vigor and energy and acrobatics of Propeller and the Touring Company in this production -- already sold out at BAM -- keeps its audience laughing for most of its two hours and odd minutes.

As with all the plays depending upon mistaken identity and twins, “The Comedy of Errors” must move swiftly so as to avoid the audience having a moment to think. The premise: Aegeon, a Syracusan merchant, had twin sons with his wife Aemelia. He bought another pair of twin boys to be their servants. Then they were separated by a storm at sea, leaving Aegeon with one of each (one son, one slave), and the mother missing with the other boys. Some twenty or thirty (depending on who’s speaking) years later, the father’s pair take on the names of their missing siblings and go off in search of them. That presents us with two characters named Antipholus, one of Syracuse, one of Ephesus, and two slaves named Dromio, ditto. As theatrics require, the Syracusan Antipholus and Dromio arrive in Ephesus, and are immediately mistaken for their resident twins. No one figures this out, of course, until a tedious scene at the end. Many comedies require as much suspension of disbelief as a musical, and this is one of them.

That bit of backstory may appear long, but it is much shorter than the exposition the character Aegeon delivers in the painful opening of this play. Richard Clothier (an excellent Shylock in Propeller’s flawed production of “The Merchant of Venice” two years back) plays the Duke of Ephesus with marbles in his mouth. He and Aegeon (John Dougall) open the play with the exposition above, plus the overwrought trade war between Ephesus and Syracuse, slowing the pace the musicians had set. They almost lost the audience between being unintelligible and dull in their pseudo-realism in a farcical story. Luckily, as Aegeon spoke of his sons and slaves, the characters introduced themselves in a manner more befitting a farce by way of a window in the back wall. Two Antipholuses (Antipholi?), wearing identical costumes, two Dromios, wearing costumes identical to each other's as well.

This production by the madcap Propeller company, directed by Edward Hall, is non-stop hilarity of the juvenile and generally vulgar sort. Don’t get me wrong, I laughed like hell. Although I started disliking the Three Stooges decades ago, this company of players is so skilled at such antics – and clearly Shakespeare would never have tired of the Three Stooges – that my “matured” sense of humor was replaced with the puerile. This is a bawdy Elizabethan comedy via many, many stooges. Nonetheless, I consider the best part of the show to be the mariachi band (don’t think these are separate people – they’re members of the company who appear as characters as well) that sets the pace and tone from the get go, and comments on the action as a musical chorus ought.

What does this play need? Shortening. Cut the beatings by half and the lines by a quarter, and this difficult play could work for a broader audience. As it is, Propeller’s production moves swiftly, contains lots of laughs, excellent integration of musical humor, and some good performances, particularly:

- Dugald Bruce-Lockhart as the more charming Antipholus of Syracuse. Not that he doesn’t beat his Dromio, just not as much;
- Sam Swainsbury as the resident Antipholus of Ephesus, who is cruder, drunker, and has a fantastical long monologue to the Duke in the latter half of the play that is hilarious;
- Richard Frame as Dromio of Syracuse with the biggest, longest fat joke in the world;
- Jon Trenchard as Dromio of Ephesus, whose monologue “I am an ass indeed” becomes a dancelike solo as he enacts every blow dealt him by his master, mistress, and anyone else who feels like it;
- Robert Hands as Adriana, wife of Antipholus of Ephesus, is very funny, way over the top, on occasion grating, but then so is Adriana;
- David Newman as Luciana, Adriana’s virginal sister who’s just as prone to violence as the rest of Ephesus. Newman’s interpretation is not at all virginal.
- Tony Bell as Pinch, a “conjurer” à la southern Evangelical con man. He had one of the most vulgar physical jokes of the evening, but handled himself well.

The players of Propeller are brazen, brave, clever, and talented actors and musicians. The play is, however, repetitive at best. Still, since most productions fall short, and this one keeps the energy high and thought processes minimal, I can safely say this is the best production of “The Comedy of Errors” I’ve seen.

~ Molly Matera, signing off to read some Shakespearean verse

Friday, March 18, 2011

Hey There Li'l Red Riding Hood.....

On St. Patrick’s Day I avoided drunken crowds by going to the movies. I chose “Red Riding Hood” because I felt it would be foolishness requiring no thought. I like a good fairy tale as well as the next person, very possibly more. I have the Yellow and Blue Fairy Books at home and will pick up the other colors as I come across them. I like the Grimms, Perrault, “Fractured Fairy Tales,” and enjoy the use of old folktales as fodder for re-tellings customized to our own times.

Red Riding Hood” had almost enough budget to be shot for the big screen, but retains the look and feel of the small screen. It includes many an interesting visual element, but that is largely all it is – a series of shots, moments, images. While it has a beginning, middle, and end, with some satisfaction in that last, the film missed many marks.

This is not the Little Red Riding Hood who, at 8, skips along collecting flowers on the way to Grandmother’s house. At 8, this Red Riding Hood, Valerie, is trapping a rabbit with her friend Peter, and she’s the one who carries the knife. This Peter has some relationship to Tchaikovsky’s Peter, with a twist; the red riding hood, played in this film by Amanda Seyfried, is that “Li’l Red Riding Hood” that Sam the Sham and the Pharoahs were singing to in the Sixties. (And just for a little fun, here it is: )

Director Catherine Hardwicke opens with the vastness of snow-covered forests and mountains. It could be the Black Forest, site of many a frightening tale. It has green trees and leaves and undergrowth like any other forest; its blackness is about the closeness of the trees, the darkness due to lack of light. It’s magnificent, but terrifying to humans. Small clearings are made near water sources so that people may live, clustered together in a small spot of light inside the darkness. That’s where so many of the stories of fairy tales come from, the homes shut tight against the night, and its monsters. Hardwicke makes good use of the shadows in darkness, something running past the camera too fast to be identified. Rustlings in the straw. Animal or human? Benign or evil?

In this story the town is made up of little straw houses with pikes sticking out of the sides. Since these have never kept the wolf at bay, one wonders why the people would endanger their livestock and children with such spears all around, but this is the movies. The little straw houses look fake and flimsy, and at one point, during a party/dance scene, someone even sings of the little pigs and the wolf blowing the house down. This bit of sly humor upped my hopes for the film. But then it moved on.

Peter, the boy and man Valerie has always loved, is played by Shiloh Fernandez (fifteen years ago he would have been played by Joaquin Phoenix – looks like a bad guy, but is he?). Fernandez does the job, but there are no sparks here. Then there’s Henry, the nice moneyed boy (that is, the one whose father is the town blacksmith) to whom her family has engaged Valerie. Henry is sincerely played by Max Irons, but he’s rather dull, except in one smoldering scene with Julie Christie.

Amanda Seyfried’s Valerie is the porcelain heroine with a knife in her boot. She has very large blue eyes and she widens them. A lot. She, too, is rather dull. Pretty, looks good in the big red cape. But that’s what she is – “the pretty one.”

The incandescent Julie Christie as Valerie’s grandmother is much better than her material, with inconsistencies that shout “directorial choice.” Virginia Madsen tries hard as the girl's mother, Billy Burke better as the father. The young people are attractive in their various ways, but otherwise uninteresting, with the exceptions of Kacey Rohl as Prudence and Shauna Kain as Roxanne.

Lucas Haas was wasted (as usual) as Father Augustine. The doors to his odd little church depict a haloed saint on one side, and a wolf on the other. This mixture of Christianity and animal worship – after all, the terribly feared wolf could have been worshipped in an earlier society, and the town still does sacrifice animals to it -- is an element that deserved some exploration. Alas, it was left right there on the church step. It was Father Augustine who called in The Church to save the town from the wolf after it killed Lucy, Valerie’s sister. The Church is represented by an Inquisitor type named Father Solomon, who is also father of two little girls who ride with him in his brig-like carriage and are never seen again.

Father Solomon is played by Gary Oldman, who can generally be relied upon to be creepy and/or funny. Here he is neither. He’s just a run-of-the-mill nasty church guy with silver fingernails.

Creepiest bit is the torture device Father Solomon brought to town. It’s somewhere between the Trojan Horse and the storybook wolf itself with victims in its belly. Except this huge elephant is based on the Bronze Bull of ancient Greece, and its victims are baked alive.

Elements of the many versions of the original tale are employed here – Valerie’s grandmother’s house is outside of town (oooh, why??), there are woodcutters, the church is holy ground so the wolf cannot pass there, and finally inserting stones in the belly of the wolf, an idea from a related story. Elements of the old story come from different time periods and places, and their use depended on the story’s purpose, and the moral it was used to teach.

In this story, there’s really no moral. It centers around one family – one rather drunken woodcutter, one wife, two daughters, with the older daughter Lucy the first killed by the local wolf in some time. Said daughter was in love with younger daughter Valerie’s betrothed, and eventually the truth of the elder daughter’s patrimony comes out…. Well it’s a soap with more serious consequences than most.

Director Catherine Hardwicke made pretty, atmospheric shots. There is, of course, snow so as to show off the red, red cloak. Not to mention the blood of the wolf attacks and the nasty churchmen. That red hooded cape grows as long and wide as the biggest bridal train you can imagine.

My favorite sequence in the film is seen through Valerie’s mask, when Father Solomon has bound her as a sacrificial offering in the town square. Her friend Prudence comes to speak to her after Valerie's been denounced as a witch. We see Prudence’s face through the eyeholes of Valerie’s mask, and the scene is quite effective. For the moment. Unfortunately the director doesn’t keep such energies flowing for long, and the scene moves on to the rather expected.

I would guess the screenwriter David Johnson had a fine time researching many a tale to pick elements for this one, but alas, the script is pedestrian in spots and predictable in others.

This does not mean the actors couldn’t have done better work. That they so consistently did not means that Ms. Hardwicke was more concerned with getting the shot than finding the characters, or expanding on the story into more than a period romance. While the film moves along at a good pace, shot by shot, storyboard frame by frame, Hardwicke didn’t direct her actors to be anything but costumed puppets hitting their spots. Some of the actors have their moments, but most (and some surprisingly) do not.

Interestingly – meaning I think she had had something in mind -- Hardwicke brought the camera very frequently to the town’s women, in particular the mothers – Julie Christie as the Grandmother to Valerie and Lucy, Virginia Madsen as their mother, the wonderful and slightly scary Christine Willes as fiancé Henry’s grandmother; even Shauna Kain as motherly sister to Claude. (Claude was a mentally challenged boy who could barely speak, but who was clearly sweetness and light. Just the type Inquisitor types like to call witch.) If in this focus Hardwicke had had something in mind, however, she forgot along the way.

Red Riding Hood” felt to me like a basket of opportunities missed, as well as the point.

~ Molly Matera, signing off to get out there into a 70 degree day!