Tuesday, June 28, 2011

We are all "Beginners"

Writer/director Mike Mills charms us with the tale of two people who don’t know how to have a relationship, but are loved by a wise dog who knows better than both of them. “Beginners” is a sweetly sad romantic comedy. 

The premise:  Oliver is a graphic artist, played by Ewan McGregor.  He draws cartoons, and he will do portraits if his business partner Shauna (China Shavers) twists his arm.  Oliver’s parents were married in 1955.  After 45 years of marriage, Oliver’s mother Georgia died, at which time his father Hal came out of the closet.  This was quite a surprise to Oliver, but he accepted it and saw his father fall in love for the first time, proving that one can be a beginner at age 75.  Hal lived his new life to the fullest, showing us all what consummate joy looks like.

Then Hal (a subtle, broad, outrageous, lovely performance by Christopher Plummer) gets cancer, lives happily in denial, then dies, leaving Oliver alone again, except for Arthur, who is a Jack Russell with a far more outgoing personality than Oliver.  Arthur (brilliantly played by Cosmo) is part of the family, gazing lovingly at Hal, expectantly at Oliver. 
Ewan McGregor as Oliver and Cosmo as Arthur.  (C) 2010 Focus Features

Beginners” goes back and forth in time, with illustrations of what the world looked like in these various eras to Oliver’s artistic eye:  pictures of the sun, the stars, the sky, the President of the United States, regular people, including his parents.  We see Oliver’s own time (the “present” of 2003), we see his parents’ time (a little 1938, a little late 1960s, early 1970s), and we see Oliver himself as a hardy young boy looking after his mother while the pair are neglected by his museum director father.

Oliver’s mother Georgia is a little prickly, a little sad, and very funny as played by Mary Page Keller.  She’s artistic and outrageous, loves her husband and her son, and is unbound by convention.  Young Oliver is well played by Keegan Boos.  This sophisticated young fellow is one of those children who are often the most responsible member of a household. 

Goran Visnjic is sweet and gentle, irresponsible and irrepressible as Andy, Hal’s younger lover.  We see this fascinating relationship in flashbacks, always through Oliver’s eyes.  The buoyant spontaneity of Andy and Hal dancing together, laughing, loving, is enough to spread happiness throughout the theatre.

Oliver’s sadness after his father’s death affects his work and his friendships. His mother’s gone, his father’s gone, and Arthur is a non-verbal conversationalist.  Oliver draws a cartoon about his sadness, which becomes the saddest running gag I’ve ever seen, and yet it’s funny.  No one but Oliver gets it, because no one is sad in just the same way that he is.  Yes, our hero is having a hard time getting over not only his father’s death, but his own complicated life.

Oliver’s friend Elliot (Kai Lennox) drags him to a masquerade party, where he meets Anna, who is dressed as Charlie Chaplin and writes questions on a pad since she has laryngitis.  Anna is a French actress who lives in hotels except when in New York, where she has a realistically small apartment.  She is delightfully, naturalistically, sensuously yet simply played by Mélanie Laurent. Arthur immediately approves, but the road to romance is rockier for humans than for canines.

I’m not giving away any spoilers here because I think everyone should see this film. The chemistry between Laurent and McGregor is not the stuff of torn clothing and scenes of slick sensuality.  These people are having fun, they’re children exploring and discovering, they’re frightened, and they’re exhilarated, all at the same time.  They’re beginners.

The film shows us old and new Los Angeles, alternately spare and lush.  Oliver draws cartoons illustrating his state of mind.  We see his dark little house, which is sparsely furnished and not visually interesting.  This is in direct contrast to his father’s lush home with pieces of art and vegetation everywhere, radiant light streaming through wide windows.  Mr. Mills showed us a good deal about his characters by letting us see them in real places instead of sets.

The soundtrack is wonderful, lighting evocative, settings just right.  An excellent production with the right people doing the right jobs — film editor was Olivier Bugge Coutté, production design was by Shane Valentino. Kasper Tuxen was Director of Photography, and of course the film was written and directed by Mike Mills.  Oh, and Cosmo was trained by Mathilde de Cagny.

Beginners” is the inventive, funny, original, unexpected story of Oliver’s quest for life and the pursuit of happiness. To achieve a new beginning, he looks at his past to see how he got here.  Happily, we get to go along for the ride.  The night I saw the film (which was the very night the New York State Senate approved the same-sex marriage bill, but before any of us knew that), some young members of the audience broke out in spontaneous applause at the end, a joyous sound I haven’t heard in quite some time.  "Beginners" is a charming romantic comedy with a neat twist and an irresistible Jack Russell.  As Arthur would say if he could talk:  Look up its showtimes and go see it.
(c) 2011 Focus Features

~ Molly Matera, who usually hates romantic comedies but loved this one, signing off.  Sweet dreams.

Monday, June 27, 2011

The Tree of Life is not your typical summer movie

The advertisements for Terrence Malick’s new film,“The Tree of Life,” smacked of “Art” with a capital “A,” which is not encouragement for me to see a film.  In the past, I’ve felt there was something amiss if I didn’t enjoy “Art” films, that messages that the filmmaker had put out there in plain sight went right over my head.  So it was with some apprehension that I joined a small audience for a late afternoon showing.  Everyone was quiet — it felt respectful, like the hush of people who were chatting a moment ago, but now they’re in church.  Throughout the film’s 139 minutes, we were all careful about making noise with our popcorn or slurping our soda.  When it was over, I sat watching the credits, but before the door closed on a departing woman I heard her say, “What was that?  I mean it was beautiful, but what was it?”  Not a wayward response, but probably not Mr. Malick’s ideal.

Terrence Malick wrote and directed “The Tree of Life,” which is more beautiful than I can comprehend.  It not only gives us a family, a truthful, flawed, confused, questing family, living in the 1950s and 1960s south; it goes beyond human history into the birth of the universe.  To ask questions, to ask why, apparently requires Mr. Malick to go back to the beginning of time, and show us where the world came from, how life started, how we got here.  Although I may not understand why, I’m rather glad, since what Mr. Malick has given us is an extraordinary combination of images, light and dark, movement and sound, to which he added ordinary yet interesting human beings.  The history of the world, the history of a family.  All presumably to answer whispered questions of faith. 
Laramie Eppler, Jessica Chastain, and Hunter McCracken.  (c) 2011 Fox Searchlight/Merie Wallace

In the opening we meet Jessica Chastain playing Mrs. O’Brien as she receives a telegram at the front door of her upscale suburban house.  We are immediately aware someone has died and something inside Mrs. O’Brien has therefore broken.  She telephones someone, it is Brad Pitt as Mr. O’Brien, and he too breaks down, differently.  In an entirely separate time and place of glittering tall buildings we see Sean Penn.  I had no idea who he was.  I had no idea who started whispering.  Sometimes I thought it was Mrs. O’Brien, who seemed to be the person of faith.  Other times I assumed it was one of the three O’Brien sons.  The whispering goes on throughout the film, starting with wondering: Since the son of the O’Briens has always been in the hands of God, why is that son dead?  The whispering voice tells us that it is his brother who has died at the age of 19.  We gradually realize which of these three boys died young and brought about this contemplation, but nothing is free in this film.

The O’Brien family’s story is touching, powerfully written, performed and photographed.  The evocation of 1950s suburban Texas is lulling as a summer breeze — you can smell the dusty streets, the dew, you marvel at how simple and pretty everything was.  And then the trucks spraying DDT drive through the idyllic neighborhood, and children play in it.  Appearances can be deceiving.  The O’Briens are typical and appear happy, but there is dissension, there are moments of fear, moments of hatred, moments of withdrawal.  On the other hand, there were moments when I felt I had to work too hard to understand what was going on, when we were, where we were, who we were.  Scenes of family life — contentment and discord — are mixed with whispered biblical references, simple scenes of nature contrasted with the grandeur of spiral swirls of stained glass. 

Brad Pitt does gorgeous work as Mr. O’Brien, the dad.  This is a strong and sensitive performance of a disappointed man — from a young man marveling at the birth of his son, aging as he tries to teach his children, tries to excel, tries to meet his own expectations, sometimes succeeding, sometimes failing.  His own crises come, bringing harsh impact to his family, yet still he keeps our sympathy.  Hunter McCracken was intense and heartbreakingly real as young Jack in the throes of adolescence.  We felt his pain, we were furious with him, we loved him.  Jessica Chastain is a revelation as Mrs. O’Brien, living this woman’s life from early joys through years of conflict to tragedy.  The two younger sons were played sweetly by Laramie Eppler as the middle son, R.L., always benevolent, patient with his elder brother, as if he understood the displacement his birth caused even while a young child; Tye Sheridan played the youngest son Steve with a gentleness, fragility on some occasions, exuberance in others.  All three boys were totally believable — as was the toddler playing the young Jack discovering, when R.L. is born, a world in which he is no longer its center.  Fiona Shaw drops in a few times as “Grandmother” — whose mother she is was unclear, but I’d guess she was Mr. O’Brien’s mother.  Mr. Malick’s direction of the children in particular was marvelous, the several young boys who played the three O’Brien sons, as well as Jack’s friends in the neighborhood.  The scenes of those difficult years, of Jack’s rebellion, Jack’s uncertainty, Jack’s hating of what he was doing despite the need to do it, these were revelatory scenes of coming of age.  I believe Sean Penn as the grown-up eldest son, Jack, performed a function of tying the film together from beginning to end, but I freely admit I did not understand the ending, the where, the when, the how, who’s dead, who’s alive.  I just didn’t know for certain.  I don’t necessarily need to know to enjoy the film, but I expect that will be a frustration for many. 

The cinematography of Emmanuel Lubezki is a triumph — it is compelling, moving, beautiful, and finally edited with respect and rhythm by the five-man editing team credited:  Hank Corwin, Jay Rabinowitz, Daniel Rezende, Billy Weber, and Mark Yoshikawa.  Additionally, the scoring by Alexandre Desplat was sometimes glorious, sometimes sweet, always right on.

Don’t have a coffee before you go, don’t have a drink.  Just go into the darkness and accept whatever comes.  And don’t ask me what happens at the end.  I don’t know what Mr. Malick wanted me to hear, to see, to feel.  No matter — I may have missed many of his points, but I was thoroughly involved in and intrigued by the lives of the O’Briens, as well as the creation of the world, which was terrifying and exhilarating.  Visually transcendent and augmented with deep work done by Brad Pitt and Hunter McCracken and the happy introduction (at least to me) of the radiant Jessica Chastain, this film is well worth your time.  I’m glad I listened to my friends and went to see it despite my forebodings that it might be Art.  Which, by the way, it is.

~ Molly Matera, signing off …. In case you wondered, this is not your typical summer movie….

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Beginning: A; Middle: B+; End: C

The opening scene of “Super 8 is deceptively simple. The scene focuses on an old, manual sign stating how many days it’s been since the last accident in this factory setting. A man climbs a ladder and removes all three digits. He puts up a 1. This is vital exposition in less than a minute without a word spoken, yet a punch delivered.  Someone has had an accident, and we are transported to the house, a simple house, where that accident victim is being waked.  It is the home of Deputy Jackson Lamb, now a widower, and his 13-year-old son Joe.  Young Joe sits outside on a swing, fingering a locket.  His mother’s locket, we learn, and he will treasure it throughout the film. 

The neighbors from right across the street (parents of Joe’s best friend Charles) worry about how well Deputy Lamb (Kyle Chandler) can take care of Joe now that he’s a single parent.  They’re the Kaznyks, who have a rowdy houseful of normal, happy, healthy kids.  Jessica Tuck as Mrs. Kaznyk has enough on her hands but would still play second mother to Joe when needed.  Mr. Kaznyck, as played by Joel McKinnon Miller, is a good dad, a good neighbor, and keeps an eye out for Joe as well.  Young Joe’s friends gather around a table of food and talk around the accident that killed their friend’s mother, dramatize it, and eat.  This is about human beings, their lives, and a life cut short.

A yellow mustang pulls up and a scraggly Ron Eldard as Louis Dainard gets out and hesitantly approaches then enters the house.  There is a bellowing roar from inside, and Dainard is hustled out again by a furious Deputy Lamb.

Death and discord.  The scene is set.

This neighborhood, while not cookie-cutter like Steven Spielberg’s California developments in “E.T.” and “Poltergeist,” is an ideal setting, a great place to grow up, disrupted by death.  The Lambs’ town has the charming name Lillian and is in the middle of Ohio where nothing out of the ordinary is expected to happen.

Joe Lamb is played with simplicity, grace and truth by Joel Courtney. He’s got lots of hair and soulful eyes, and a straightforward, shy manner.  He is likeable even without the sympathy due him for his loss. Kyle Chandler is spot on as his widowed father, showing the stoicism fitting his time and character, with pain behind the eyes. And he’s a very good law enforcement officer.  The only time Deputy Lamb shows his emotion is when he doesn’t think his son is home. When Joe catches his father in the bathroom crying, Deputy Lamb closes the door on him. 

Joe’s buddies are just what you’d expect of junior high school kids. Ryan Lee is Cary, the boy who is overly fond of fires and explosions but can be relied upon to have sparklers, firecrackers, and a Zippo; Zach Mills is Preston, who thinks too much; Gabriel Basso is Martin, the tallest and clumsiest, as well as the male lead in Charles’ zombie movie; and Riley Griffiths is Charles Kaznyk, the budding filmmaker with one big sister and multiple younger siblings. Joe is his make-up man, among other things, and best friend.  The group has been working on Charles’ zombie movie for a regional contest.  It is being shot on Super 8 film, of course.  This is, after all, 1979, a time that might be considered simpler, easier.  Of course, every era, decade, before the present felt simpler and easier.

Not surprisingly, this film makes you think of Steven Spielberg, and he’s one of the producers.  He’s also an idol of writer and director J.J. Abrams.  Abrams and Spielberg are a match made in Hollywood Heaven. The kids sound and act like kids, just like in a Spielberg movie. This is more than one kid, though. This movie needs that tight knit group of 13 year olds, reminiscent of the boys in “Stand By Me,” “E.T.,” and “The Goonies” — make that "boys and girls" in "The Goonies." 

This group of misfits is making a movie because young filmmaker Charles is pretty good at manipulating people to do as he pleases.  Charles has written a girl into his movie script, to the seeming dismay of his cohorts.  She’s to be a wife for the detective investigating the zombie murders. He’s asked Alice Dainard to do it, and she has agreed. Every boy’s mouth drops open. Alice Dainard!  Clearly the stuff of junior high school fantasy, Alice Dainard is even going to drive them to the set. Drive? These kids are all 13. Elle Fanning pulls up in her father’s yellow car, and balks at Joe Lamb, the deputy’s kid. She is blatantly too young to be driving, and even her father doesn’t know she has the car. But earnest young Joe convinces her that neither of their fathers will ever know. The show — that is, Charles’ movie — must go on. Scenes between Joel Courtney and Elle Fanning are utterly charming — these two kids will go far. 

Our gaggle of adventurers now complete, they drive to a derelict train station outside of town to shoot, and Charles is thrilled when a huge freight train comes their way to create a realistic backdrop for his scene. The freight train, however, runs into a pick-up truck on the tracks and there’s a massive accident, with strange little white “rubik cubes” flying about. What are they, what’s in the train, and what has it to do with the junior high school science teacher driving that pick-up? Dogs run away and disperse from the area of the train crash. Lights flicker, power goes down, and appliances are somehow depleted from store shelves and warehouses en masse, and engine blocks impossibly disappear from under car hoods. Mysteries abound, and then people disappear as well as the dogs and the machines. Deputy Lamb knows something’s not right, but his boss Sheriff Pruitt (Brett Rice) pays no attention.  Silly fellow. The kids, of course, tell no one of their misadventure.

Our ingredients, then, are a smallish Ohio town where nothing happens and most everyone knows everyone else; a train crash; the mysterious science teacher the kids all know (Glynn Turman), a nasty Air Force Colonel Nelec whom you just know is less than honorable (nifty Noah Emmerich), his next-in-line guy Overmyer (Richard T. Jones); and a couple of comfortably recognizable faces populating the town (including Dan Castellaneta and Dale Dickey).

Super 8 moves along well enough through the middle and does not allow for much thinking, as is appropriate. Toward the end, though, the story collapses on itself. Things just got too easy for our young heroes and heroine, and the collection of bricabrac became something very much neater than made sense, considering the speed at which it was constructed. Our adventurers save the day, and that’s swell, but the action — primarily special effects — at the end are a jumble, as visually illogical and unappealing as the fights in “Transformer 2.” This film builds and promises but the end is so cluttered and rushed that finally it just doesn’t deliver.  I’m not saying don’t see "Super 8"  — I enjoyed myself.  But I expected more from Abrams than he gave me.

To those of you born after the time in which the film is set, there are some things you may not understand — like waiting. Cameras held film, which, once exposed (that is, pictures were taken), had to be physically removed from said camera, dropped off at a store to be developed, and finally played back, then edited with scissors and razors and tape. The development alone took days at least. Phone calls went over wires, just like electricity, and might not be possible when those lines went down. A town could be cut off from its neighboring communities quite easily. And yes, some kids did communicate via walkie talkie. 
Imperfect as it is, this is a fun monster movie, mostly for kids, telling us that summer is officially here.  And do stay for the credits — Charles Kaznyk’s zombie movie deserves an audience!

~ Molly Matera, signing off to watch a 1950s horror flick. Just for fun.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Larry Kert Spoiled Me Forever

Last week my local moviehouse showed the film version of a slightly staged concert production of Stephen Sondheim’s “Company.”  The auditorium was a small one, doubtless because the other filmed plays I’d seen had been shown in the theatre’s largest auditorium to too many empty seats. The house for “Company” was so packed that I had to sit much closer to the screen than I like.  Additionally, films never start when they’re stated — there are commercials, then there are 7-15 minutes of trailers.  Even the other filmed performances of plays I’d seen so far had introductions.  Therefore when “Company” started at one o’clock just like it said in the schedule, not everyone was even there yet.  People kept coming in, searching for seats in the back, then climbing over those of us in the front. Once settled, though, that audience had a fine time.  Mostly.

My basic understanding of this production was that it had four performances at the New York Philharmonic, and its minimal staging was probably to make the filming appear less static.  Director Lonny Price did what he could in a short space of time, but this production of a great Broadway show with TV stars looked like what it was:  a vanity production.  The music, as conducted by Paul Gemignani, was swell.  The performance was more than flawed.

Full disclosure:  I saw the original production of “Company” on Broadway back in the 1970s, albeit not with the entire original cast.  Dean Jones had moved on, and the incomparable Larry Kert had taken over the role of Bobby.  PBS Great Performances broadcast the 2008 revival in which the producers avoided paying any musicians by casting actors who could play instruments.  While I’m not sure that was the point, I did find the intrusion of an instrument before and between actors diminished the impact and the relationships. 

All this is to explain that I’m familiar with this musical play, the score, and I was disappointed with this production.  One of the things I love about Sondheim is that he writes songs for actors.  This does not mean, however, that the actors should not be equally adept at singing.  Really adept, I mean good singers.  No one need be a triple threat.  But too many of the cast of this production were not good singers.  They were competent to different degrees, but some of them weren’t as good as the singers in my college production of “Company” (for which I was a dresser for the Bobby, as part of my costume design credits that semester).

Let me say that in general, I really like Neil Patrick Harris.  However, as with many actors who have the power and wherewithal to create a production or a film around themselves (and I don’t know that he did so here, but I have my suspicions), I don’t think he knows his strengths or weaknesses.  I noticed on the Tony broadcast this year that he cannot dance as well as Hugh Jackman, but I give him credit for working at it.  I really wish he could dance, though, because “What Would We Do Without You” was quite a dull number, which was exacerbated by the poor camera direction.  Harris is charming, and he can sing to a certain extent, in a sweet, natural way.  He does not, however, have the vocal chops to sing Bobby.  He can act it, but Bobby’s the lead and the actor should be able to sing my favorite song from this (and many another) show, “Being Alive,” to the heavens.  Rafters.  Nosebleed seats.  Wherever, the entire story — such as it is — leads up to this song.  It should blow me away.  It did not.  Scroll up to the title of this review if I’ve confused you. 

Not everyone was a disappointment, and much of this casting is good, as were all members of “The Vocal Minority.”  In alphabetical order:
Craig Bierko as Peter overacted a bit in terms of the cameras, but his speaking and singing voice is powerful and gorgeous.  And his final scene with Bobby, after his "divorce," was hilarious.
Stephen Colbert as Harry was very good until he sang.  Please hit the note, don’t slide up to it, it’s not a difficult note.  He did this every time he sang the word “always” in “Sorry Grateful,” which is often.  Other than that, he was physically fabulous with Martha Plimpton, great timing, very funny.
Jon Cryer as David also slid to his notes and sang “always” as “ah ah always.”  Good work from an acting point of view, but not a good enough singer for Sondheim in particular, musical theatre in general. 
Katie Finneran as Amy was downright fabulous.  The only real emotion of the entire evening was her heart-rending statement to Paul, “I just don’t love you enough” (followed by his silent devastation).  She didn’t do her song, “Getting Married Today,” as I have come to expect it, but she was so good I didn’t care if she was veering off the standard.  A glowing performance.
Neil Patrick Harris as Bobby I’ve discussed above.  I’m a fan of Dr. Horrible, I enjoyed him in “Assassins,” I just don’t think he has the stuff — although he certainly has the charm to act it — to sing Bobby. 
Christina Hendricks as April.  Well. Much as I like Ms. Hendricks as an actor, she can’t sing.  Or dance.  She can act April terrifically.  Except she really cannot sing.  Hitting the notes in the right order, even if you don’t slide up or down to it as she and Colbert and Cryer did, does not qualify as singing.
Aaron Lazar as Paul was warm and lovely. He and Katie Finneran as Amy had the best scene, fully focused, honest, heartfelt, just gorgeous.  He’s a lovely Paul.
Patti LuPone as Joanne.  This is a good role for her, she should play it in a full production.  No surprises, she does just what you’d expect her to do, and does it well. 
Jill Paice as Susan was very funny, terrific voice and presence.  Such a legit voice, while necessary for Susan, is not needed for the whole show, but everyone should be as good a singer as Paice is, in their own way.
Martha Plimpton as Sarah has terrific comic timing and her physical humor with partner Colbert was a delight.  Their scene was the high point of first act.
Anika Noni Rose as Marta was initially kind of off and then got better.  The first few verses of “Another Hundred People,” although vocally adept, weren’t full of the excitement and joy Marta has, but as Anika progressed I enjoyed her Marta more and more. 
Jennifer Laura Thompson was very good as Jenny, a good combination of actor and singer.
Jim Walton as Larry did some lovely acting, clearly devoted to his acerbic wife Joanne.
Chrissie Whitehead as Kathy was adequate in the acting, nice dancing of mediocre choreography. 

The stoned scene (which felt surprisingly dated) highlighted some interesting unpleasantness in George Furth’s book.  “Dumb” comes up about a few of the women, in both the book and lyrics.  The women characters all have their strengths; yet the men — who are barely distinguishable from one another — don’t speak well of women, specifically and generally.  Not all of this musical play ages as well as the score. 

What can I say.  I’m glad I didn’t spend a lot of money going to see this at the New York Philharmonic.  I’ll just stick with my original score recording — even though it lacks Larry Kert until the final, bonus track!

~ Molly Matera, turning off the computer, turning up the stereo.  Any Sondheim will do.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

I'll Take Manhattan(s) and Short Stories and ... Coincidences?

There’s an old saying that you will always meet someone you know when walking along the Champs Elysées.  Perhaps that’s so, but one of the things I love about New York City is that it is Convergence Central. 

Almost twenty years ago I worked briefly for an eminent man at a firm where I was perma-temping.  He was an anomaly at the firm, almost of another time, his manner gentle and gentlemanly.  I respected and liked him. While I never doubted his genius, I didn’t understand what he wrote about — I’m a literature/history person, not a mathematics/science person, and he was an economist.  A friend of mine at that firm edited his writings, so she presumably did understand what he was talking about.

Fast forward to 2009-2010.  I was introduced to literary evenings at the Players Club when New River Dramatists presented special performances in which actors read the prose works — sometimes short stories, sometimes chapters of longer works — of writers who also wrote plays and/or poetry.  Several evenings featured stories written by Alethea Black, as I wrote in my blog back in January of 2010. Her stories are what all writers aspire to: Alethea writes the right words in the right order. She pulls us, her readers, into the lives of her characters; we weep with them, we laugh with them. Sometimes we are them. 

This year, Random House/Broadway Paperbacks is publishing a collection of Alethea Black’s stories in a volume titled: “I Knew You’d Be Lovely.”  I pre-ordered it from Amazon ages ago, but as it won’t be published until July 5th, my impatient friend Matthew picked up bound galleys at the Strand.  I’m not complaining – I’ve now had the pleasure of reading stories I’ve heard as well as some I haven’t.  This past Monday night at the Players Club, the anticipated publication was celebrated with three wonderful actors reading stories from the collection:  Lisa Bostnar read “Someday is Today” so intuitively that one might have thought she was reading from her own diary.  Next up, Patricia Randell read a funny and touching story called “Good in a Crisis,” with wit and poignancy.  Michael Cerveris read a particularly striking story titled “The Only Way Out Is Through.”  Although I’d read it and knew how it ended, his reading brought the story to vibrant life, and the final scene punched me in the chest.  Figuratively, of course.  It was a wonderful evening, and I encourage anyone who cares about the American short story to get a copy of “I Knew You’d Be Lovely” when it’s published on the 5th of July.

Oh, the convergence thing?  On Monday evening at the Players Club, as I sat talking with friends from my theatre life before the readings began, who should walk in but that very friend — from my corporate life — who had edited that brilliant man whom I had liked and respected all those years ago. I wondered how she came to be there, and she told me that Alethea Black is the daughter of that memorable man. Mathematics from the father, literature from the daughter. I just get a kick out of the disparate parts of my life suddenly overlapping, like a Venn diagram.  I love New York.
(C) Natalie Dee

~ Molly Matera, turning off the computer, but not the light.  The printed book calling to me is not backlit.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Cats Disapprove Summer Previews

The cats have had quite a week.  They don't like hot days.  They loll about, don’t eat their food, and look at me as if it’s my fault.  They don’t mind the fans, but when I turn on the A/C in the bedroom, the kids skedaddle.  It’s not a noisy air conditioner; I don’t know what their issues are.  Put up with the A/C or live in 90 something heat, kids.  It is, after all, the first summer for Chick and Wilbur – and it’s not even summer yet.  But even the normally ravenous Millie’s not eating much in her third summer.

I'm trying to move them from the scoopable clay litter they've always used to corn. The regular clay litter (normal, non-scoopable that I've used for years for every other cat I’ve known) is what's in the bathroom box, and that's fine. They use it occasionally; it’s easy to keep clean, and doesn’t stink.  The two boxes of scoopable litter in the living room, though, no matter what the advertisements claim, cause lots and lots and lots of gross dust. (Yes, three litter boxes.  Three cats.  They’re so spoiled, I know.)  I changed one box to all corn litter (scoopable, ground fine so that it’s soft and fluffy, most importantly it doesn't create dust), and they checked it out, but barely used it.  Texturally it’s quite different from the clay, and they just don’t like change. They kept using the dusty clay.  So I tried mixing corn litter into the clay litter.  They did not object and continued using it.  Eureka, the corn litter made it much less dusty.  When I mixed some clay into the corn box, they started using both.  Perhaps eventually I'll get rid of the dusty clay scoopable litter entirely, but this is a better set-up already. 

The cats chase a fly.  I’m not sure if the fly is all over the apartment, but the two little ones are galloping from the front window to the back door, leaping over each other and the furniture and their tunnel, but it’s funniest when they leap over one another and crash in midair.  Millie leaps into the fray, but Chick is really fast.  The fly probably got in through one of the holes they’ve made in the screens when chasing prey that is outside.  They don’t go outside, but that doesn’t stop them from attacking the barrier.  Any one of the three will leap up on the back door and hang from his or her claws, and I can hear the screen lurch and ping.  Little holes get a little bigger, in comes the fly, there go the cats. 

By the end of the week it’s less oppressive, but today is surprisingly warm, appearing stormy at first, with NY1 promising a fairly May-like day, which would not have been unwelcome.  The morning sped by, what with waiting to see if my main computer was alive after crashing from a Malware attack last night – would it have been so difficult for the remote technician to have typed “issue resolved, reboot” in the dialogue box instead of just that he’d broken the connection?  Really, so difficult?  And what if I didn’t have another computer on which to check email, how would they have expected me to find out that it was safe to try the sick one.  Sigh.  Then at the last minute I changed a box of cat litter, mixing approximately one part clay to two parts corn to keep the clay dust down.  I managed to leave five minutes later than planned after my daily reconnaissance mission:   
Search the apartment for one (there’s Chick in a box), two (there’s Millie in the window), three cats before heading out.   
Wilbur had to be difficult.  It’s as if he knows I’m going to search.  In the bedroom closet I push hangers right, left, then split them down the middle and see him back there, hiding in those hanging shoe shelves that no longer hold anything but him and his sister.  So much for my clothes – it’s become his castle keep.

Suddenly it went all over muggy, and instead of walking the mile and a half to the moviehouse, I waited for the bus.  Big mistake.  Twenty aggravating minutes later, three buses showed up at the same time at the same stop.  This is not per alleged schedule and is why I hate the MTA.  The lateness of the bus left me no time to walk the second half of the way, so I took the train two stops, arriving at the Midway in time for trailers.  Once again, the trailer for “Cowboys and Aliens” looks just terrific – why can’t I help worrying the film will let me down?  But that’s not what I’m here for today.  Today it’s time for “Super 8,” a partnership of J.J. Abrams and Steven Spielberg, science fiction + kids with those two guys is a match made in Hollywood Heaven.  More on that anon.

After the film, I wandered around the corner to see 71st Avenue closed to traffic, which was bound to be disappointing to the people standing in the bus stops.  Down on Austin, a street fair was in progress.  I was accustomed to these in Manhattan, on wider streets, and had never run into one here before, although I’ve since learned that there is a “Forest Hills Festival of the Arts” every year, with music and vendors along Austin Street.  The usual sort of thing – jewelry, food, booths of local businesses, massages, more food, and the sound of music around the corner.  An Americana style band sang songs by Lucinda Williams and others of that style.   
The side street was filled with folding chairs, and some women rose from them and started to dance.  I snapped a picture with my not smartphone and sent it to the cell of the only person in the neighborhood whose number I had.  He texted right back saying his wife was down the street, past the Rite Aid, at their Temple’s booth.  I headed on over.  My friend, who always wears hats out in the sun, was hatless and sunglassless.  Sometimes one should not listen to NY1 Weather on the Ones.

We watched the world go by, adults, children in strollers – the kind with a smaller child in a seat, and a bigger one standing behind would never have worked in my family.  My brother would have kicked me in the butt for certain.  Austin is a narrow street for a street fair, but still it worked, lots of people, and the occasional little dog being carried above the too many feet on Austin Street today. 

It is evening now, and sitting on the patio as I type this I can see someone on the counter.  “Hey, get off there!” I yell through the window screen.  Too late. Wilbur has found an empty Ziploc bag that formerly held the last of the turkey franks, and now it’s his.  He will share this peculiarly scented plastic with his sister, and I’ll eventually find it inside the tunnel.

As for “Super 8,” I’m still gathering my thoughts, one of which is to see it again, since I enjoyed it so much. 

~ Molly Matera, signing off for Tony Time.

Friday, June 10, 2011

History + Film + Robert Redford = A Story Well Told

Generally I don't think people should learn their history from films.  "The Conspirator" is the exception that proves my rule.  “The Conspirator” is intense, driving ever forward into a dark time in American history.  This intricate and intimate film tells more than the story of Mary Surratt, the lone female charged with seven men in the conspiracy to murder the U.S. President, the Vice President, and the Secretary of State in 1865.  The film’s tag line is “One bullet killed the President, but not one man.”  We only ever hear about John Wilkes Booth.  This film assures that no one will ever forget the conspiracy – or Mary Surratt -- again.

The pictures are bright or stormy out of doors, dim and soft inside, with light flickering through curtains, halos around candles, and deep shadows in the corners.  There is a mustiness, a layer of dust, dirt and muck as director Robert Redford, writers James D. Solomon and Gregory Bernstein and the American Film Company pull us back in time.  The film’s performances are deep, crisp, with familiar actors becoming less so when embedded in the mid 19th century -- and I don’t merely mean costumes and haircuts.

For me to give many details would do the film a disservice.  It is a riveting story, extremely well told.  It is deep without slogging or slowing down. The characters are multi-faceted real people, the prices paid to personal relationships, not to mention life, severe.  This is history, so it is no spoiler when I say that the film ends with the statement that, after Mary Surratt was hanged by the military tribunal, a law was passed that all citizens of the United States deserved civil trials, not military.

The film starts on a Civil War battlefield, with Union soldiers and officers suffering in the aftermath of a bloody fight.  Some lay dying, and we meet Union Captain Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy), wounded himself, trying to keep his friend Baker (a tad overplayed by Justin Long) alive by keeping him awake.  The battle over, Union soldiers search the field for survivors, and Aiken’s and Baker’s friend Hamilton (James Badge Dale in a quiet performance of an earnest, sensible, and loyal friend) finds the wounded pair.  We next see them all healed but still in uniform for a party.  Everyone is dressed to the nines, and an abundance of candles light the night.  A lawyer by profession, Aiken has a career and a pretty girl (Alexis Bledel) in his future, and plans for networking on his mind.  

A pleasant evening of social positioning is interrupted by the actions of the conspirators, Confederates attempting to throw the Union government into chaos and turn the tide of the war they had already lost.  Some of the scenes in the early part of this film will be surprising – and somewhat shocking – to many.  The assassination of President Lincoln was one act; the attempted murders of Secretary of State William H. Seward and Vice President Andrew Johnson were also on the bill.  We see the young conspirators building their courage, sweating, pushing forward -- or running away.  We see some inexpert and frightening violence.  All that the writers and director throw at us brings us to the height of emotion felt in the capital city in April 1865 and prepares us for the political and legal wrangling to come.  It’s an interesting and stirring story, true to its own time, but also to ours.

Robin Wright is in rare form as Mary Surratt, drawn, dried out and silent, with an extraordinary core of strength.  Catholic, Confederate, and female, everything is against her in Washington, DC.  It was her boarding house where several of the conspirators, including John Wilkes Booth (Toby Kebbel) and Mary’s son John (Johnny Simmons), met and plotted.  The question in her trial was whether or not she knew that, or was just a landlady.  Evan Rachel Wood plays Anna Surratt, Mary’s daughter, sullen, romantic, stubborn, and loyal.  Very fine work, I believed every moment.

James McAvoy is totally true as Aiken.  He is like everyone else – he survives the war and is preparing for civilian life, riding his popularity and connections to a successful career.  He sees not only his President but his Commander-in-Chief murdered and naturally wants all the guilty parties brought to justice.  It just doesn’t occur to him that the law requires that all parties accused of a crime be defended competently, even if in the wrong court of law.  He does not want the duty foisted on him by his employer, Reverdy Johnson, to defend a woman accused of conspiring to kill the President.  Day by day, though, as he does his job as best he can, he questions himself, he opens his mind, he learns, and then he must question others.  Questioning popular opinion as well as those in authority makes for a doubtful future.  McAvoy passionately engages us so that we see what he sees, feel what he feels; we watch his face and understand what he is coming to understand.  Very nice work.

Tom Wilkinson is the Maryland lawyer Reverdy Johnson for whom Aiken works.  Johnson insists that Mary Surratt is entitled to an adequate defense even in time of war, national exhaustion, and hatred of the conspirators.  He leaves it to Aiken to carry forward the defense, perhaps honestly thinking this young officer will be viewed more fairly than the southern-sounding Marylander.  Perhaps not.  Wilkinson is not at the top of his game here, but rather a smidgen over it.

Kevin Kline lives the part of Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, staunch, determined, sure of himself.  He’s an extraordinary actor, brilliant in his youth, and steadily more so as he ages.  Long may he reign.

Colm Meaney is the leader of the military tribunal that tries Mary Surratt, Danny Huston the prosecutor Joseph Holt. Both are interesting players, making it clear that what’s behind what sometimes appears to be a witch hunt may be a little more complex.  This was not the writers trying to be even handed.  This was a fair presentation of different points of view of the people trying to hold the country together in a time of crisis.  These two actors were up to the task.

Aiken’s girlfriend Sarah Weston clearly hoped for a settled future with a war hero and a lawyer, until he actually did his best to follow the law and defend his unpopular client.  Alexis Bledel is a rather quirky, charming actress, but doesn’t quite fit in this role. 

Jonathan Groff gives an odd performance as Louis Weichmann, a friend of the Surratt household who turned against Mary.  Although it was clear he lied through his testimony, as did others, his disposition was so off-kilter that he distracted from the story.  I thought of him not as Weichmann, but as Groff the actor making strange choices that, whatever they were, might have worked on stage, but which were not working on film.

None of the testimonies mattered, of course.  The military tribunal had essentially decided on Mrs. Surratt’s guilt – the only disagreement was about hanging her.  All they wanted was her son, John, but he remained in hiding out of the country.  However the audience might have felt in the beginning of the film, when politics overrules law, even those who stood with Secretary of War Stanton might waver.

John Cullum has a small but choice role as Judge Wylie, who stands for the law and the rights of citizens instead of following the hysteria and short-term vengeance of other leaders of the nation. Cullum is simple and straightforward and gravelly as a tired old man who pulls what he requires from young Aiken.

Frederick Aiken believed in the law, but the law did not prevail at this moment in history.  Perfectly understandable political vengeance prevailed, our divided country was wounded in a way it did not even notice, and Frederick Aiken left the profession of law as if it were a mistress who had betrayed him.

Beginning to end, Robert Redford’s direction is flawless, the story moves forward, pauses for a moment’s reflection, then moves forward again to its inevitable climax.  This is history, after all. While people and quotes from primary research sources are bound to be left out to keep the story moving and uncluttered, these filmmakers were clearly determined on deep research and accuracy.  "The Conspirator" tells the story of the people as they were and their actions, all in a well-structured and -performed film.  We follow Frederick Aiken on his emotional and intellectual journey, we feel with him, we rage with him, we change with him.  The solid, crisp, yet deeply felt script by James D. Solomon and Gregory Bernstein is expertly handled by Mr. Redford.  I’d be interested in any story these three might venture to tell together in future.

The viewer’s mind is riveted to this shocking story in the past, but finally flashes forward to our present conflicts and issues.  Nothing really changes, does it.

~ Molly Matera, turning off the computer, but not the light.  Lots of reading to do…

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Ah, To Be In Paris at Midnight

How generous is Woody Allen!  The filmmaker gives us Paris, romantic street scenes in the sun, in rain, at twilight, into Parisian evenings.  He doesn’t rush.  He envelopes us in Paris, wraps us in the flowing shawls of her cafes, her cobblestones, her great edifices, her odd conjunctions of ancient and modern, lights on the Seine, the Paris of dreams. Allen knows quite well that his audience is full of hopeless romantics who wish that the Paris he offers was real.  Absurd imaginings of fantastical and fanciful artistic life in Paris, this is his promise. 

Having conditioned his audience to be in love with Paris in the springtime, the title “Midnight in Paris” flashes on the screen.  As always, Woody Allen directs his own screenplay with precision and freedom, creating his best film in years.  We meet Mr. Allen’s traditional alter ego, this time in the person of ...a writer.  Owen Wilson is his avatar, if you will, a screenwriter who wishes to be a novelist à la F. Scott Fitzgerald (one cannot imagine him as a Hemingway), stumbling through pre-marital rites with a spoiled fiancée and her right-wing parents.  Ah, to be rich in Paris in the springtime.  Well, not necessarily.  They weren’t having any fun.

Owen Wilson has Woody Allen down pat without merely imitating him – he has drunk Allen’s rhythms in, he inhabits the exemplary soundtrack, he is a nebbish via Hollywood, who somehow speaks in a California twangy drawl with Woody Allen’s inflections and timing.  Physically, you might think Woody played the scene and said to Wilson “Do it like this,” except that Wilson has absolutely made this guy his own.  All of it works. 

Wilson’s Gil Pender is a successful screenwriter for some reason engaged to a mercenary little rich girl named Inez, who is brilliantly embodied by Rachel McAdams.  I wouldn’t have seen McAdams in this role but she’s so on, pitch perfect with her pauses and her takes. Her disrespectful control of her father and fiancé are lazily flawless. 

As McAdam’s rich Republican father, Kurt Fuller is constantly agitated in a low-key way, his dark circled eyes always sad even when he’s excited.  The man never learned to live and would prefer the world suffered as he does.  Fuller is fantastic.  His equally mean-spirited wife, whose disdain for future son-in-law Gil she doesn’t even attempt to hide, is acerbically well played by Mimi Kennedy.  You just know McAdam’s Inez is going to grow up to be her mother, sharing their rolling eyes and manner of manipulating their men.

Inez’s pedantic friend Paul is smarmily played by Michael Sheen, his eager and adoring wife by Nina Arianda.  The threesome of Carol, Paul, and Inez is so antithetical to Gil that he can barely breathe when they’re onscreen together.  He’s not allowed.

There is an escape.  It is not explained.  It needs no explanation any more than Jeff Daniels stepping off the screen in “The Purple Rose of Cairo” needed an explanation.  Explanations are for science fiction; “Midnight in Paris” dips and tangos into fantasy.  Walking the streets of Paris in the night, a little drunk, a little lost, as a church bell tolls midnight, Gil is picked up by the most beautiful cab you ever saw, a 1920 Peugeot Landaulet. It is yellow, it is shiny, it is driven by an impeccable chauffeur, and exquisitely dressed drunken people happily drag Gil in to their cab, their lives, and their decade. 

Paris in the Twenties.  What American who writes anything and doubtless majored in literature doesn’t dream of stepping into a shiny Parisian night in the 1920s.  Gil meets Scott and Zelda – yes, that Scott and Zelda -- who introduce him to just everyone.  Tom Hiddleston steps up, charming, loving, embodying a dreamy, untroubled version of F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Alison Pill’s little round face is so petulantly Zelda, she’s marvelous.  With Cole Porter at the piano, these partying people don’t sound like they’re drunk, they are all still clever and witty and look swell.  Then there’s Hemingway, quietly hilarious as played by Corey Stoll, who brings Gil along to meet Gertrude Stein, utterly believably played by Kathy Bates.  These two icons of Paris in the Twenties become Gil’s friends and literary mentors.  Quite a dream world.

We come upon Ms. Stein critiquing a painting by Picasso to Picasso, claiming it does not in fact capture this lovely woman leaning in the doorway -- Adriana as embodied by Marion Cotillard.  She is perfection, with shapely legs below her flapper dress, her soft face and the most amazing eyes.  They’re not more beautiful than anyone else’s eyes, but they are dark and stormy, starry, reflective of her every feeling and thought, from curiosity to hurt to disappointment to determination.  Unlike many films in which all the men are stumbling over each other for some charisma free mannequin , it is perfectly clear why Cotillard’s Adriana draws all eyes, downright sensible that everyone wishes to hear her speak or watch her listen as he speaks.  She is the muse of great painters of the time, and perhaps, just perhaps, she might be Gil’s.  Paris in the Twenties is her time, the fantasy of Gil.  Her idea of the perfect Paris, though, is the Belle Epoque.  The fantasy dances on. 

In the present in daylight, Léa Seydoux as Gabrielle sells memorabilia in an open-air market, rather like the protagonist of Gil’s novel-in-progress, who runs a “nostalgia shop.”  Their chats about Cole Porter show her to be much more compatible with Gil than Inez.  Carla Bruni is equally charming as a museum tour guide who recognizes Paul’s pedantry, which earns a guffaw from the audience.  This is Paris, and possibilities abound.

All of the casting is unerring, Mr. Allen’s direction so true, that everyone might be ad-libbing, but we all know they’re not.  This is a symphony, and everyone is sounding the right notes at the right time and achieving Mr. Allen’s goals.  This is not another treatise on death and misery.  “Midnight in Paris” is a celebration, a diversion into another time that seems golden only in hindsight.

Note:  While not a chick flick, this isn’t your typical guy’s summer movie either.  There are no car chases, although there is one very classy classic car.  There are no gunfights, although war and shooting things are discussed in passing.  There’s lots of drinking but no sex, the beautiful women are smartly dressed, and nobody but nobody in this film is in a hurry.  So if you need quick cuts, fast cars, semi-naked bimbettes, loud noises and ignorant characters, this movie is not for you.  If, however, you might enjoy a romantic evening’s entertainment with charming and amusing characters, beautiful scenery, chilly air conditioning and, as we have come to expect in a Woody Allen film, a superb soundtrack, stroll on over -- through a light rain -- to your local cinema and revive in Woody Allen’s Paris.

~ Molly Matera, signing off for cocktails on the back patio and some cleverly mellow Cole Porter.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

What's In A Name?

Oscar Wilde’s utterly delightful and perhaps most accessible play, “The Importance of Being Earnest,” has been playing to great acclaim at the Roundabout Theatre Company, earnings its director/star Brian Bedford accolades of all sorts. Not having seen the live production, I went for what I thought would be the next best thing, a filming in HD of a live performance.

Let us bear in mind that I don’t know that a camera can capture “The Importance of Being Earnest” even when it’s staged for film. Despite what had seemed like a dream cast for the 2002 film – Rupert Everett, Colin Firth, Dame Judi Dench – the final product was dreary and slow. Perhaps cameras just ain’t got rhythm, and Oscar Wilde’s words require, of all things, rhythm. As long as each actor individually and all the actors together are in synch, theatergoers will happily journey to the heights of absurdity with them.

To film live theatre is a challenge. In the past often there was a camera merely filming the two-dimensional rectangle that is a proscenium stage. Others zoom in and have a bunch of close-ups. The National Theatre took the filming of a live performance to a new level of artistry with their recent production of “Frankenstein” (http://mollyismusing.blogspot.com/2011/04/not-your-grandmothers-frankenstein.html) where the cameras gave the filmgoers a view from the auditorium, from the wings, from the flies. Viewers were intimately involved in the story, seeing things the live audience in the theatre could not see, perhaps as fair a trade off as can be had for those unable to be present in the theatre.

Spatial relations matter onstage and cannot be seen in a close shot. I can only state this was not a problem in the “Live HD” filming at the National, so I cannot be sure which partner in the tri-party effort dropped the ball with “Earnest.” The three companies that produced the “Live HD” film of the production -- Roundabout Theatre Company, LA Theatre Works and BY Experience – missed the mark, even though BY Experience also worked with the National. “Direction” of the filming is attributed to David Stern. I hope not to see his name again. Although the director allegedly filmed three performances of the play with seven cameras and picked the best, it appeared more like he had merely read the script with the blocking marked out, and set up his shots based on something other than an understanding and passion for the play and players. His choices and pacing of close ups to longer shots showed a complete lack of rhythm, and there were too many close-ups for a play. He clearly loved Brian Bedford’s Lady Bracknell – and who wouldn’t – but instead of getting the cast’s response to Lady B, he kept doing close-ups of her/his/her face. A boring camera director cannot do justice to the work of a stage director.

As for the play itself: Brian Bedford directed this production and played the luscious role of Lady Bracknell. When asked what he thought about playing an extraordinary female role, Bedford said it was someone else’s idea that he’d initially thought a silly one. But then he’d just done Lear, and what does an actor do when he’s done Lear? Happily Bedford chose not to go camp and rather to play it straight – if I may use the term.

It’s my belief that an actor (male or female) directing himself on film may accomplish both his directing and acting jobs efficiently without diminishing one or the other; but that same actor (male or female) directing him/herself on stage is likely to diminish the accomplishment of one or the other work. After all, if he’s up there onstage acting, he’s not giving 100% of himself to the directing, and if he’s onstage directing the others, he’s not giving 100% as an actor. A dilemma. Mr. Bedford’s performance is marvelous, but this production did not seem up to his level as an actor.

That Brian Bedford’s Lady Bracknell is a delicious delight deserves repeating any number of times. He is haughty, he is stern, he is ridiculous, a perfectly marvelous Lady Bracknell.

Opposite styles are played by the two gentlemen in the play, Jack Worthing (David Furr playing it straight and stolid) and Algernon Moncrief (Santino Fontana mugging and milking). For the first time, and I’m quite familiar with the play, I wondered why the two men were friends. The point is that no one should think while watching Oscar Wilde, so clearly their disparate styles did not work well together in Act I, although they were much better in the second half of the evening, when Jack had the opportunity to be a little nuttier and Algy pulled back a bit, having met his mad match in Cecily.

As Lady Bracknell’s daughter Gwendolen, Sara Topham is upright, uptight, and prissy and, as happens in this play, perhaps a little mad, not to mention magnificently dressed. The always interesting Dana Ivey opens the second act in a state of high dudgeon, but then her Miss Prism seems always to be in that state. She is rather too broad in relation to Paxton Whitehead’s more naturalistic Dr. Chasuble. Paxton’s reverend was not a stuffy or stern churchman, but a sweet, oddly dressed, kind and practically sane character. Charlotte Parry as Cecily Cardew is right on, walking that wiggly line between absurdity and madness, believing everything she does and says makes perfect sense. Which it does, of course, in her world. She graciously invites others to join her because she’s been brought up so well.

Act I did not open auspiciously. The set (by Desmond Heeley, who also designed the gorgeous costumes) was witty and swell, a play within a play, a jolly game of a stage set as a stage set. But manservant Lane and his employer Algernon Moncrief started off in a rather effete fashion, playing caricatures of old theatrical types. Then on came Jack Worthing playing it straight. Once Lady Bracknell and Gwendolen arrived, the actors caught up with themselves and the timing began to work, as if the director’s entrance was necessary to shake or stir the other actors into the same mixture. This is a matter of style, and the director must choose one universe for all to inhabit, even the crazy people. This was not evident in Act I, but Acts II and III were very much better.

Two extremely difficult scenes are very well played here – the young ladies’ tea scene and the young gentlemen’s muffin scene. This is Wilde at his most hilarious, making mountains of molehills, character revelations out of muffins and teacakes. Timing is everything, and each duo – Topham as Gwendolen and Parry as Cecily; Furr as Jack and Fontana as Algernon – performed a perfect pas de deux.

Without the distraction of camera choices, the play may have appeared more pulled together. As it was, there was one more problem with the results on film – the play was not acted naturalistically (for the most part), or in a low-key manner. It’s high farce, and on film that comes off as rather loud and overacted. Mr. Bedford’s production is lots of fun but far from perfect, yet doubtless much better than the “film” of it attests.

~ Molly Matera, signing off on a beautiful Sunday afternoon, with miles to go before I .... see another film!