Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Ghostly Follies

After years of listening to the extraordinary score of Stephen Sondheim’s “Follies” on various albums and PBS programs, I have finally seen a full production.  This production of “Follies” directed by Eric Schaeffer was presented earlier this year at Kennedy Center and is now running at the Marriott Marquis on Broadway. 

All that listening, and certain songs never seemed to fit.  Now at last I’ve seen the flow of the story, in the present, in the past, and in the actual “Follies” sections of the second act, and I get it.  
Mind you, that second act was theoretical the night I saw it.  On entering the theatre we were told that, despite the printed program proclaiming one fifteen-minute intermission, the play would run two hours and twenty minutes with no intermission.  Artistically this is a valid choice.  However, it does make concentration on the second half of the show more difficult for many people in the audience.  Producers will have to weigh their choices — if they continue the run without intermission, send a forewarning:  "At your pre-theatre dinner, eat light, drink less!" 
 The story — this old theatre, the Weismann, is being torn down to make way for a parking lot, its former showgirl stars are coming together for a reunion, and among them are Sally and Phyllis, who were wooed, bedded, and wedded, in various orders, by Buddy and Ben.  In the intervening thirty years, these couples, like the other former “Weismann Girls,” have had full lives, but reunions have been known to shatter the status quo.  What memories are accurate, which romanticized, who were they then, who are they now?  One might expect a different story from book writer James Goldman and Sondheim, and yet…. many a simple, if tangled, storyline of primary romance, secondary romance, and comedic romance have occasioned some great, great show tunes in the past.  The “Follies” score does not disappoint.

The show is a bit too long, but most of the performances are top notch.  The house is hung in a funereal manner and blends into the stage set by Derek McLane.  “Follies girls” from 30, 40, and 50 years before return in 1971, dressed to the nines (mostly) with their spouses (mostly).  The women, ranging in age from 49 to 79, make their entrances down a staircase wearing beauty pageant banners proclaiming the year of their reign:  1919, 1926, 1931, all the way into the early 1940s.  They are shadowed by their ghosts…. beautiful young women dressed as “Ziegfeld girls” (or in this case, “Weismann”) moving as they did in the past, accompanying the women’s entrances, songs, dances….The present day women are aging, but clearly some still dance, as evidenced in my favorite song-and-dance number, “Who’s That Woman” (which I think of as “Mirror, Mirror”) led by a joyously boisterous Terri White as Stella.

A stunning use of the ghost girls was “One More Kiss,” a very old-fashioned operetta number sung by Heidi (opera singer Rosalind Elias) and the ghost of the girl she was (Leah Horowitz) in an absolutely fabulous dress (one of many perfect outfits by costume designer Gregg Barnes).  It was a beautiful duet from another time, or two.

One of the most famous songs from the show, “Broadway Baby,” sung elsewhere by everyone from Betty Garrett to Elaine Stritch, is here sung by Jayne Houdyshell.  Ms. Houdyshell doesn’t quite have the pipes for it, but she’s got the acting chops, so it works.

Could I Leave You” is a show stopper in this show full of numbers that can bring down any house. I’ve heard it sung by men and by women, and Jan Maxwell wins. 

Jan Maxwell as Phyllis Rogers Stone owns this show.  It’s not just that she’s tall and sleek and has a fabulous dress.  She is a goddess, she sings, she dances, and her acting notes are perfection.  She has emotional responses to people, she’s relating to them while she’s singing and dancing.  And she’s having a helluva good time. 

Elaine Paige is just fabulous as Carlotta — having listened to her for years, I’m happy to finally see her in action.  She most certainly is “still here,” as she sells “I’m Still Here” with emotion, cynicism, and a still solid voice breaking through any limitations of time and space. 

Alas, Bernadette Peters is not at the top of her game as Sally.  She’s overacting here and there, and her upper register was not serving her in the performance I saw.  Bernadette was too turned into herself, her Sally.  She telegraphed her frantic emotions from the moment Sally entered.  I was in the back of the house, how false must that have appeared to those in the front?  Then in her most important song, “Losing My Mind” in Sally’s Folly, she internalized too much.  She not only didn’t move left or right, she didn’t move us, either.

I’ve barely mentioned the men.  Well, while the women performed functions of plot, they were also fully fleshed out.  This is not just the actors, this is Sondheim and Goldman.  The men, on the other hand, could be traded in for other men in similar stories — the sincere second choice guy, the one you rely upon but don’t love; the ambitious insincere guy that women fall for blindly or with clear vision.  While Danny Burstein as Buddy Plummer (the sincere guy, Sally’s husband) and Ron Raines (the insincere guy, Phyllis’s husband Benjamin Stone) did their jobs more than adequately, still those guys are not memorable or distinct from characters in countless black-and-white movies seen in my (and probably Sondheim’s and Goldman’s!) youth. 

The section of the show I least understood aurally was delightful onstage, the outlandish Follies.  Throughout the play, the younger versions of Ben (Nick Verina), Sally (Lora Lee Gayer), Phyllis (Kirsten Scott), and Buddy (Christian Delcroix) had shown us what really happened in the past.  Finally they have their own folly, “You’re Gonna Love Tomorrow.”  As the “Folly of Youth,” it’s sweet and hopeful, leading in to the Follies of the same people thirty years later, which are neither. 

I particularly enjoyed Buddy’s Folly (“The God-Why-Don’t-You-Love-Me Blues”), which was much better than his earlier number (“The Right Girl,” which was one long note no matter how athletic the choreography), and Phyllis’ Folly, the quirky “The Story of Lucy and Jessie.  These numbers were significant to the characters’ problems, but neither self-indulgent nor maudlin.  On the other hand, Sally’s number was dull and Ben’s went on much too long. 

James Moore’s musical direction of the show is just marvelous, the music gorgeously grand and lush with a full orchestra in the pit.  It’s one of the traditions of Broadway musicals that should be revived more often.  Visually the show gave us the remains of old show business, including those gorgeous ghosts …. showgirls dressed in impossibly high headdresses, high heels and scanties, moved slowly along the catwalks, steep staircases, sometimes in tandem with the modern women, sometimes drawing attention from the center stage action.  This production is very well done, just not perfect.  But what is?  The play’s last moments were lovely — a lone “ghost” reaches toward the last living beings to leave the theatre, leaving us to wonder what happens to all those graceful ghosts when the parking lot paves over the theatre.

And then I start thinking of Joni Mitchell…..

~ Molly Matera, signing off to sing and dance to an old recording…..

Sunday, August 28, 2011

He Protects and Defends

The Guard” stars three of my favorite modern actors: Brendan Gleeson, Don Cheadle, and Mark Strong.  Imagine my dismay, then, when the first six or seven minutes of the film left me uninspired by the initial actions of the odd character Gleeson plays. It’s only later that the reasoning behind them — and there is reasoning — becomes clear. By fifteen minutes in, the language and attitudes that are initially so appalling become funnier and funnier as we get to know Sergeant Gerry Boyle of the Garda, a.k.a. the police force of western Ireland. 

The Guard” is an odd mix of cops and drug traffickers, social drama, and a little family drama that cooks up to a hilarious and filling brew.  It’s quirky, it’s crass, and it’s a blast.
(c) 2011 Sony Pictures Classic

The acting is just terrific throughout, so the best way to tell you a little something about the film is to tell you about the characters these wonderful actors play:

Brendan Gleeson as Sergeant Gerry Boyle uses his sad-sack face to hide all the emotions roiling inside, his humor and caustic comments a guard in themselves.  Gleeson’s Boyle is an endearing everyman, tired, disappointed, but unswervingly honest — perhaps too much so for his own good. Don Cheadle as visiting FBI agent Wendell Everett does fine work as Gleeson’s straight man, shocked by the blatant racism and cynicism, yet alert enough to what lies beneath the surface to find some connection.  He has some hilarious scenes with Gaelic speaking natives, and sweet scenes of doing what comes naturally in Ireland — drinking with Sergeant Boyle.

The trio of criminals, two Irish and one English, are sharp and stupid at the same time, international drug dealers, looking for an easy life, and failing miserably.  Liam Cunningham plays the seeming leader, Francis Sheehy, who is snarky, funny, and thinks he’s smart. Cunningham gives a wonderfully sleazy performance.  David Wilmot plays Liam O'Leary, who understands he’s a sociopath, not a psychopath, but can’t quite recall the difference.  As the unwelcome Englishman of the team, Mark Strong is tough and witty as Clive Cornell, his distaste for his colleagues displayed by his acid comments.  He is also, as usual, luscious. There’s terrific chemistry between these three, with a healthy mix of animosity and rapport. 

There’s also a pair of call girls come to town for Sergeant Boyle’s rare day off, dressed as police women in a hooker kind of way. This Mutt and Jeff team are sassy and very funny.  Dominique McElligott is charming and disarming as the tall blonde hooker, Aoife, in a witty visual contrast to Sarah Green, who is adorable as the smaller and softer Sinead.

Rory Keenan is intense and sincere as Garda Aidan McBride.  He’s as appalled as I was at Sergeant Boyle’s cavalier attitudes toward police work.  He’s right and wrong, smart and naïve.  He's got the disadvantage, of course, of being a newbie in town -- a "foreigner" from Dublin.

Fionnula Flanagan’s Eileen. Boyle gives us our first intimate look at Gerry, showing his softer side. As Gerry's ailing mother, she reveals a relationship that makes us even more curious about him.  Their scenes together are just delightful.  As the wife of the rookie Garda Aidan McBride, Katarina Cas does deep quiet work.  Her Gabriela McBride is sensitive and interesting, and we, along with Gerry, would like to know her better.

There are good cops and there are bad cops, and a totally realistic, seemingly inept, Garda Inspector Gerry Stanton is well played by Gary Lydon.

Quirky characters of the neighborhood include the town chronicler, a young man who shows up and photographs crime scenes and everything else. Laurence Kinlan is eager and enthusiastic as the photographer who appears to like gore, but also shows us that he knows the people of his town quite well.  And of course, there’s a boy and his dog (and bicycle) who’s everywhere he oughtn’t be.  Eugene Moloney is a cheeky child with very odd speech patterns, and is delightfully portrayed by Michael Og Lane.

John Michael McDonagh directed his own script, in which inconsequential bits and pieces eventually gel subtly into plot points.  The criminal plot is interwoven with personal plots and attempts at relationships in a sadly amusing manner.  In addition to the humor and human connections, he even throws in some gunplay and explosions exactly where they belong.  There’s also a sweet scene between Cheadle and a white horse that made me think of “Into the West,” doubtless as intended. I like this movie quite a lot, and will keep an eye and ear out for other work by this McDonagh. 

The Guard” catches you off guard, goes where you don’t expect, and leaves you wondering — in a good way.  Recommended at a theatre near you.  It’s a limited release so far, but look out for it.

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

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Go Ape for "Rise of the Planet of the Apes"

Before I saw “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” I thought its problem was that the entire plot of the movie was told in the trailers.  And of course, our collective memory knows all the earlier movies from 1968 on, so why go see this prequel when we know how it ends?

(c) 2011 Twentieth Century Fox Films
I was so wrong.  Director Rupert Wyatt keeps this story running and bouncing and leaping, and we eagerly follow along.  The incredible visual effects team made a lot of actors into apes, chimps, orangutans — they are real.  Of course, the visual effects team has already won Oscars for creating the extraordinary worlds of Avatar and Lord of the Rings.  “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” is filled with terrific stunts and effects by a very long list of people, as well as moving music by Patrick Doyle.

The film opens on an idyllic scene, mountains, forests, green everywhere.  Chimps and apes travel through the tall trees, perfectly happy as they were, where they were.  Once rounded up by humans, they become prisoners and victims.  We see the frightened eyes of one peering through a hole in a crate as she looks back at her friends and family in the forest.  Thus the film begins, from the apes’ point of view.
These particular humans were so irresponsible and inept that they didn’t know “Bright Eyes” was pregnant and proceeded to do drug experimentation on her.  Her brown eyes take on green specks as the miracle drug, ALZ112, is administered to her.  Everything goes from sparkling success to woefully wrong, and Bright Eyes is killed just as the board of the evil pharmaceutical company was being convinced by the passionate young scientist Will Rodman that ALZ112 is the cure for Alzheimer’s.  The murder of the chimp leaves her baby an orphan, and Will Rodman (James Franco) brings the baby home where he and his father, an Alzheimer's victim, care for it and teach it as they would a human child.  While not Rodman’s first mistake, this is a big one.  This is Caesar.
John Lithgow and baby Caesar

Caesar is a brilliant invention of screenwriters Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver, brought to magical life by Andy Serkis (previously not-exactly-seen as Gollum in the Lord of the Rings trilogy) and top-notch makeup and CGI artists.  This is what all that special effects technology is for, to aid in the story-telling so as to become inseparable from the narrative of an exciting and terribly sad tale of how human kind sets itself up for destruction.  Even the seemingly nice human, Franco’s Will Rodman, is a monster.  Those arrogant humans keep trying to excuse animal experimentation by making it about curing something terrifying like Alzheimer’s (think “Deep Blue Sea” with its super smart sharks), as if that far-off dream makes the torture of blatantly sentient beings acceptable.  There is an overwhelming sadness in this film, some of it quite unexpected.  Eventually betrayal and broken hearts make for the inevitable rebellion that arrogant humans do not expect.  Humankind’s hubris will be our own destruction.

I won’t spell out the plot points because I don’t want to spoil your enjoyment of this ride.  Despite my assumption from the trailers that I knew everything that would happen in the film, I did not.  This was much more fun than I expected since all I really “knew” was quite a long way into the future of our planet and species.  Our stupid species.  It seems that the moral of the story is, “What god hath wrought, let no man screw around with.” 

While I liked all the actors playing humans, the real kudos go to the hidden actors:  those playing apes in jumpsuits, the actors’ body language, eyes, facial expressions somehow magically transformed by make-up and CGI artists into totally real apes, orangutans, and chimpanzees. 
Andy Serkis is deep inside there as Caesar.
Andy Serkis is nothing short of brilliant as Caesar, from adolescent to adult, from adored to abandoned.  He is so hurt at his treatment by humans, even the man who called himself his “father,” that he must, when finally surrounded by his own kind, become the Alpha that the humans made him.  Karin Konoval becomes Maurice, the retired circus orangutan (perhaps named for Maurice Evans in the original film) who signs with Caesar in ape prison and has a funny “line” that gives Caesar, the son of Bright Eyes, a bright idea.  Terry Notary creates two separate chimps, Rocket and Bright Eyes; Richard Ridings plays the great ape Buck with fury and sensitivity; and Christopher Gordon is achingly menacing as Koba, a much abused and scarred lab ape who’s way smarter than humans can comprehend even before he’s given any drugs. 

As for those pesky humans,
John Lithgow is wonderful as Will Rodman’s father, an Alzheimer victim.  Clearly once a fine pianist, the disease stole that from him, until his son experiments on him.  Then the music pours out of him, for a while.  Lithgow does beautiful work with Franco and Serkis.

James Franco’s Will Rodman is sweet and loving, but ultimately Rodman does not take responsibility for his actions, and thus begins a series of events that leads to disaster.  It’s impossible to not like Will, especially with Franco’s warm eyes, filled with pain, longing, and love.  But even at the end, he has no idea what he’s done, nor does he regret it.
Caesar with James Franco as Will Rodman in the Redwoods.
Freida Pinto is very good as the intelligent, compassionate, practical, realistic veterinarian Caroline Aran.  Too bad Will doesn’t learn from her.

David Oyelowo seemed a bit young for his role as Steven Jacobs, CEO of the evil pharmaceuticals company, Gen-Sys, but he was suitably charming, smarmy, and cold-hearted.

Tyler Labine does good work as the primate handler in the Gen-Sys labs who becomes the accidental human experiment of the next generation of Will Rodman’s potential cure for Alzheimer’s — and then Patient Zero.

David Hewlett, an actor who plays whiny roles very well, is the Rodman’s neighbor Hunsiker, an airline pilot.  It’s not that he’s a bad man, he responds to his unconventional neighbors in a quite understandable manner throughout the film.  It’s just that he’s not a very good neighbor, and whatever he does turns out wrong. 

Brian Cox runs a prison deceptively called a “primate center” and hires rotten people to look after the apes, including his own nasty son.  Cox gives the easily caricatured John Landon dimensions, creating a less than conventional “villain” in this minor role.
Bad boy Tom.

And who do we get to hate as the lowest lowlife of the humans?  While there’s more than one qualified candidate for that status, a standout is Dodge Landon as played by Tom Felton, formerly that bad boy Draco Malfoy.  Landon is a grown-up scumbag we can only hope is torn to pieces by apes.  That was not a spoiler, not to worry.  Sweet revenge on Landon is much cleverer than such crude violence.

Some things never change:  We always root for the apes.  Who wasn’t on the side of King Kong or Mighty Joe Young, huge apes abused by humans while fighting for their loves and their lives?  It was only in the original “Planet of the Apes,” where the apes, orangutans and chimpanzees all behaved like nasty humans, that we could fear or despise them as the villains of a story.  The apes are only just beginning to rise here, and we’re still on their side.  Go Apes! 

For its entire two hours, “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” is engrossing, then thrilling, filling viewers like me with dread.  The ending leaves us with hope for some characters, despair for others, and a really nice-set up of spreading a virus in a visually clever way that is also believable in terms of plot.  Fans of the original 1968 film, fear not — it is referenced with reverence. 

~ Molly Matera, turning off the computer to hang out among some trees.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Sarah's Key

Sarah’s Key,” a starkly photographed French film (subtitled in English), is compelling for most of its 111 minutes running time.  Each of its two storylines is a microcosm focusing on individuals living through their time:  Paris, summer 1942, the Vel’ d’Hiv Round-up and its victims; Paris sixty years later when the French must live with that ugly bit of history and its consequences.  While the screenplay by Gilles Paquet-Brenner and Serge Joncour is probably faithful to the novel on which it is based (by Tatiana De Rosnay), half its story (that set in the present day) is just not as engaging as the other half. 

A little history:  One year into the Nazi occupation of France, the Nazis pushed forward their “Operation Spring Wind,” in which they instructed the French to round up adult, foreign-born Jews and deport them.  The conquered French were overly enthusiastic in their implementation, and dragged men, women, and children, including French-born Jews, first to the Vélodrome d’Hiver (an indoor cycle track and stadium with no water, no functioning toilets, insufficient medical personnel and supplies, and far too many people), thence to transit camps and finally to the concentration camps, primarily Auschwitz.
Kristin Scott Thomas as Julia Jarmond in present-day Paris.

The film opens delightfully. Warm white light, children playing, their laughter is the film’s soundtrack.  The end of the film showing a silent child is devastating.  The present day section is brilliantly led by Kristin Scott Thomas, but even she cannot make journalist Julia Jarmond and her family as engrossing as Sarah Starzynski and her family.  What’s interesting is the history Julia’s researching, in which she discovers that the former residents of her in-laws’ apartment were a Jewish family deported during the Vel’ d’Hiv Round-up in the summer of 1942.  She learns about the Starzynskis and becomes obsessed with little Sarah.

There are several fine performances in this film, but three are exceptional:
-         The radiant Ms. Scott Thomas as Julia Jarmond, an American in Paris for two decades, she is a journalist married to a Frenchman, with an adolescent daughter.  Her research for an article on the Vel’ d’Hiv leads to a quest to find, or at least find out what happened to the child Sarah.
-         Mélusine Mayance is splendid as 10-year-old Sarah Starzynski, a French Jew living in Paris with her parents and younger brother Michel.  She’s a terrific kid, strong and brave and resolute in her own quest to return to her brother.
-         Natasha Mashkevich is just superb as Sarah’s mother. She’s heard the rumors that the French police plan a mass arrest of Jews, so the moment that pounding on the door begins, she starts a freefall into panic.  She acquiesces to her daughter’s calm plan, gathers most of her family to her, and slowly shatters as the French police -- not the Nazis -- tear husbands from wives and mothers from children.  Beautiful, heart-wrenching work.
Mélusine Mayance as Sarah Starzynski in 1942.

This is not to say these are the only ones, but they stand out in a good cast.  The farm couple who aid Sarah are just wonderful.  The set of their shoulders tells all about the year of Nazi occupation and collaborators among their neighbors.  Dominique Frot as Mme Dufaure has a wonderful face, careworn and warm.  I’ll be interested in seeing her other side in another role.  Niels Arestrup as Jules Dufaure is gruff and grandfatherly and quietly heroic. It was also a pleasant surprise to see Aidan Quinn as an American living in Italy.  I'll say no more than that.

English speaking sections seem stilted, as if director Gilles Paquet-Brenner didn’t quite get what the actors were saying.  I imagine that the NY and Italy sections read better than they play here.  As the film switches back and forth between Sarah’s story in the past and the secondary one having to do with Julia’s own life and family, I kept yearning to go back to Sarah’s as, I suspect, did Julia.
(c) 2010 Hugo Productions, Studio 37, and the Weinstein Co.

While the particular story of Sarah Starzynski is fiction, the Vel’ d’Hiv Round-up of July 1942 was real.  The French police overzealously complied with the instructions of their Nazi occupiers.  Sarah’s Key” is worth your time, so I’m not going to tell the whole plot here.  Suffice it to say Sarah’s story is riveting and representative of the horrors of that time, when the human face of France looked in a mirror and saw monsters in addition to the better-known heroes of the Resistance.

~ Molly Matera, signing off.  Think I’ll go read a book.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Sagebrush, Horses, and a Dog Are Not Enough

Cowboys & Aliens” was fast-moving, fun, and sometimes funny, and as long as that’s all anyone expects, fine.  Not all films based on comic books, though, feel as emotionally empty as this one.   
(c) 2011 Universal Studios and Dreamworks

A pathetic but accurate description of human behavior is that for us to all get along and work together, we need an external enemy.  Here they’re buggy and reptile-like aliens with flying machines and stuff that doesn’t belong in New Mexico desert canyons.  And what do they want?  Not to experiment with us, and certainly not to learn from or about us.  They just want what countless humans have wanted before them:  filthy lucre.

It’s a clever idea with seemingly lots of potential:  Take your standard western elements (like big rancher, bad son, pacifistic storekeeper, preacher, sheriff, boy, dog, horses and sagebrush), add aliens, mix well.  So what went wrong?  I haven’t read the original comic book, and its writer isn’t credited…. So did someone like the idea and the artwork and ditch the rest but never quite finish?  Director Jon Favreau is, of course, the director of “Iron Man,” which is a splendid example of an excellent film adaptation of a comic book series.  There are five quite competent screenwriters credited and all of them — generally working in pairs — know what they’re doing:  Roberto Orci & Alex Kurtzman & Damon Lindelof and Mark Fergus & Hawk Ostby.  Is five the magic number that equals too many cooks?

The film opens with a guy in the middle of nowhere. He wakes up without knowing who or where he is, with an odd metal bracelet locked on his wrist and a bloody wound in his side.  Since it’s Daniel Craig, this could be a James Bond movie.  Three guys on horseback are somehow silent until they’re right on top of him.  Craig as the man without a memory is stoic and quiet — not a stretch for him.  When asked his name, he doesn’t know.  When asked what he does know, his answer is “English.”  Whatever he may not recall, he remembers how to be a smartass.

Soon we meet Clancy Brown as Preacher Meacham, who has some of the best lines, but there are a lot of snappy one-liners in the film.  Brown brings to Meacham a depth of humanity that’s barely written.  Sam Rockwell does his usual good work as Doc, the saloonkeeper who is simply a decent man trying to live non-violently with his neighbors.

Once in town, the man without a memory is discovered to be Jake Lonergan, a stagecoach robber and possibly murderer.  This saddens some people, since he did stop the bullying of Doc by Percy Dolarhyde.  Paul Dano is that arrogant and incompetent son of the rich and powerful man of the territory.  One could either say he serves no useful purpose on the planet or that “he’s young, he’ll grow out of it.”  Under normal circumstances, no he wouldn’t. 

Adam Beach does good work as Nat Colorado, the sometime babysitter of Percy, and the guy who would have been a better son of the same powerful man — but he’s an Indian and it’s not as if he could really be treated decently by the rancher Harrison Ford plays, Woodrow Dolarhyde.  Dolarhyde, rich rancher, is no Ben Cartwright.  He’s a bad man, in fact, and leverages his wealth against his neighbors and protects instead of teaching his son. 

When Lonergan and Percy are cuffed into the same tiny wagon to be handed over to the federal marshal in Santa Fe, Dolarhyde and his men, as well as the townspeople, are on hand and so view the attack by alien flying machines, which shoot out explosions as well as hinged metal lasso-things that grab up captives.  A couple nice people and some not so nice are swiped up in a way that would probably shatter their spines. (Please note, I did suspend my disbelief.)  These flying machines and lassoings look swell yet somehow do not terrorize the populace as they ought.  

Attacks by night by unknown enemies create allies of all humans. Colonel Dolarhyde rounds up a few people to go after the strange attackers who grabbed his son, including his ranch hands and cowboys; Nat Colorado; Emmett Taggert, the required boy (well played by Noah Ringer), whose grandfather the Sheriff (Keith Carradine) was also taken; Doc (Sam Rockwell), whose wife Maria was taken (very nice characterization by Ana de la Reguera); the Preacher, of course; the dog; and Ella (Olivia Wilde), a rail-thin woman who keeps trying to talk to Lonergan.  She wears a holster slung across her poplin dress, rides a horse as well as any man (as all Western heroines must), and doesn’t quite seem to belong.

Ella is one thing that went very right in this film.  She’s called “whore” more than once (by criminals), but otherwise the women aren’t treated badly here.  Doc loves his wife, Black Knife, the chief of the Apaches (Raoul Trujillo), loves his, and Jake Lonergan loved his Alice (Abigail Spencer).  With a common enemy, there’s lots of heroism on the part of people who didn’t know they had it in them, but no one holds a candle to Ella.  She was the one character who was truly more than she seemed, not to mention she performed the most heroic action.  (Unfortunately Mr. Favreau didn’t get this moment quite right.  He needs to read more comics.)
Cowboys, rustlers, ranchers and Apache warriors join forces, people who hated each other save each other, big fight scenes have dynamite, bows and arrows, and Harrison Ford gets to hold a spear like a lance as if he were a knight of olde.  Good people die, as do bad people.  So how come there’s no emotional resonance? 

I like Daniel Craig, and I’m perfectly pleased to watch his neat butt running up a craggy hill, swimming, whatever.  But somehow those pale blue eyes aren’t as sharp — or squinty — as Clint Eastwood’s would have been….And much as I like Harrison Ford, if I could have had Eastwood as Jake and Robert Ryan as Dolarhyde, well, then, what sparks might have flown….
See what I mean?

The film offers a nifty production design by Scott Chambliss and fine art direction by Christopher Burian-Mohr and Daniel T. Dorrance, as well as fitting set decoration by Karen Manthey. Visually the film is swell.  The actors are fine, the pace excellent.  The script offers some snarky lines for everybody, and I particularly enjoyed the upside down riverboat in the middle of the plains of New Mexico. 

C&A” is a good ride, it’s got its gasps and jumps and guns and explosions plus a boy and a dog.  Is everybody who survives the better for the experience?  Well, yes.  Story-wise it appears to have hit the right notes.  Guys who weren’t particularly good or brave do the right thing when it’s time.  Guys who were downright bad do the same.  So what went wrong here?  Can you tell I'm frustrated?

Is it that the aliens are not interesting?  Even when we meet one in Lonergan’s memory and again at the climax (or one of them, there are several climaxes), we get it — the big ugly dude Lonergan scarred in his escape remembers Lonergan’s actions and he’s pissed off, etc.  This should personalize it as a sentient being and all that. Somehow it’s just not effective.
Harrison Ford as Dolarhyde and Daniel Craig as Lonergan.  (c) 2011 Universal and DreamWorks

If you expect no more than a traditional Saturday afternoon “B” western with added weaponry and explosives, you’ll be fine.  If, however, you’re looking for characters who are known by more than their function in the plot, this isn’t the movie for you.

Note to Society:  Remember, visually the film works.  Characters are appropriately dressed (by Mary Zophres), the town, the horses, everything looks right.  And lots of cowboys smoked.  The apology for smoking at the end of the film was offensively funny.

~ Molly Matera, signing off.  Almost – but not quite – wishing I still smoked, just for spite.

Friday, August 5, 2011

The End of an Era

Fans of Harry Potter books and films will see “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (Part 2)” no matter what reviewers say, as they should.  Nevertheless, I must grouse a smidgen.  There are good things and bad things about this, the eighth and last of the series of films based on the seven Harry Potter novels by J.K. Rowling.  One of the delightful things about those novels for the readers was observing the children grow up as they struggled through each year at Hogwarts.  The movies gave us the extra pleasure of watching the child actors playing them grow into adults.  That’s been so much fun that no matter how annoyed I may be at aspects of any of the films — including this one — I cannot say I didn’t have a good time.  I did.

The thing is, “…Deathly Hallows (Part 2)” is not part of a miniseries.  Its previous episode did not air last Monday night on television.  It should be a standalone movie, but it is not.  While understandable — this was an exceedingly difficult task to master — I’m afraid Steve Kloves’ script directed by David Yates just didn’t quite do it.  They dropped us into the middle of the action, picking up where we left off at the end of “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (Part 1),” which, however seemingly logical, leaves many viewers confounded.  The last of Rowling’s Potter books pulled together elements, themes, and people from the previous six books.  That’s a lot of characters, places, and history that the audience is expected to remember.  The first film devoted to telling the story of the last book was very well done, with a cliffhanger ending leading to anticipation for this year’s finale.  However, no one viewing a movie should be required to re-view the previous film or to reread the book to understand what’s going on in the beginning.  I doubt anyone without a solid grasp of the stories will ever find their way past the confusion of the first fifteen minutes of this final film.  Of course, once the action starts, most will not care.
(c) 2011 Warner Brothers Entertainment, Inc.

The opening of the film is stark and jumps right into the story, scenes all bleak and gray and shadowed.  John Hurt reflects everyone’s feelings of sadness with a touch of despair as Ollivander, providing some much needed reminders of the story so far.  He looks haunted, perhaps foreshadowing the ghosts to come.  Soon Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson) lead us to explosive action at the famous goblin bank, Gringott’s, affording Helena Bonham Carter the fun of playing her mad character Bellatrix as if Hermione were impersonating her.  With magical manipulation, goblins and heroes make their way into the catacombs of the bank, through twisting turning rail rides down to the vaults.  This is all enough fun to make you forget you may not quite recall why you’re here.  (It’s about the Horcruxes.)  And then comes the dragon.  A most fabulous dragon in a rip-roaringly good series of shadowy scenes bursting into light and flame. 

“Deathly Hallows Part 2” brings us to the final battle between the remaining stalwarts at Hogwarts (now under the rule of the deceptively wicked Severus Snape) against evil personified (snakefied?) by Lord Voldemort.  Hogwarts as we’ve known it is defended but destroyed, our beloved Neville Longbottom (Matthew Lewis) gets his due at last, Harry and Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) fight it out a couple times, and the long-suffering Severus Snape (Alan Rickman) is finally vindicated.  Unfortunately that exposition of Snape’s hidden history — in which Harry, Ron, and Hermione finally see the truth behind Snape’s extraordinarily brave actions while they misjudged his every move — was just plain long.  However valuable the information, you can’t, in one segment of the last movie, go back and retell an entire story that took seven films to tell in the first place.  Well, they did, but it certainly stopped the flow.

Matthew Lewis, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint, and Daniel Radcliffe.
  (c) 2011 Warner Brothers Entertainment, Inc.
The huge cast of well defined characters makes performance analysis beyond the scope of this review, however: Helen McCrory shows us the human face of the wrong side; Jason Isaac is unusually subdued as the broken Lucius Malfoy; and Draco, well Tom Fenton does a fine job of making us feel sorry for the bully we’ve hated all these years.  All three of our usual suspects are as much fun as ever, lovely looney Luna Lovegood is again personified simply and truly by Evanna Lynch, while Maggie Smith’s Professor McGonagal put me in mind of Miss Jean Brodie — another film to see again.  Ciaran Hinds snuck in as testy Albeforth Dumbledore in a heartwarming scene.  Seeing (almost) everybody one last time was bittersweet as they fought for their shattered world.  I could natter on about everybody, but a reasonably complete list to remind you of the actors playing these well-known characters is on IMDB .

There’s fun to be had in this movie, as well as disappointment in two flavors.  One: that the last film does not live up to the expectations of the second to last.  Two (and more importantly): that it’s the last film.  Alas and sigh.  The epilogue of J.K. Rowling’s final book on Harry Potter, his friends, enemies, and their adventures, was a tad tedious, obviously written so it would be clear she wasn’t writing any more of them.  It’s a bit tedious here, too, but it does tie everything up with hope, more than real life can guarantee.  Now I want to go back and read the entire series of books all over again, then watch all eight movies. 

In the future when we have Harry Potter DVD nights and watch Parts 1 and 2 back to back, none of my niggling will matter.  This one’s mighty dark, but it’s still fun.

~ Molly Matera, signing off and moving on.  Sigh.

Monday, August 1, 2011

He Sings, He Dances, He Punches Out Hitler!

Captain America: The First Avenger.” The very title implies this is the precursor for next summer’s Marvel film, “The Avengers,” but “Captain America” is a terrific ride all by itself, with laughs, friendship, thrills and chills. And look at that cool poster!
(c) 2011 Paramount Pictures

The opening and closing scenes are in the present, with most of the story taking place during an artfully depicted World War II, starting in Norway: night, a church. Outside: Snow, Nazi storm troopers, tanks and the head of Hitler’s weapons division (HYDRA), Johann Schmidt, malevolently and joyfully played by Hugo Weaving. Inside the church is David Bradley (Filch from Harry Potter films) as the towerkeeper trying to protect a magical glowing thing of legend. Is it a spoiler to say the bad guys win this battle?

In New York City, the runt of the litter, Steve Rogers, is trying to enlist in the US Army — again. He’s like that guy in the old Charles Atlas ads — the skinny youth getting sand kicked in his face by the thick-necked pea-brained strongman. Young Steve is not merely scrawny, he’s got all sorts of ailments that make him 4F. His buddy Buck drags him to a double date at the World’s Fair, at which Howard Stark is demonstrating some magical machine of the future that doesn’t quite work yet. Dominic Cooper as Stark is suave yet courageous, a bit sleazier than slick, a genius nonetheless.
Stanley Tucci as Dr. Erskine

Stanley Tucci is wonderful, warm, and wounded as Dr. Abraham Erskine, the immigrant scientist who lives in Queens and commutes to his Brooklyn lab. It is he who perceives the inner hero in Steve Rogers. Erskine’s serum may give Steve the physique to enable him to fight the good fight and beat down the Nazi bullies. That Steve is the opposite of the megalomaniacal man on whom an earlier version of the serum has worked but failed — that would be Johann Schmidt, a.k.a. Red Skull  — might even the odds between Allied and Axis powers.

Chris Evans does a sterling job in this film, ranging from computer enhanced (diminished?) “before” pictures pre-injections and “vita-rays” to a helluva specimen, retaining his sweetness, his simplicity, his straightforwardness. Steve Rogers is the boy next door, and his alter ego Captain America the least vainglorious of the comic book superheroes. It will be fun to see him counter the behavior of the other Avengers next summer.

As Colonel Chester Phillips, Tommy Lee Jones is at the top of his form with a script that gives him full rein. Every team of scientists needs a growling military type, and Jones’ Colonel Phillips is bullheaded but resigned to being proven wrong on occasion. Jones is wry, sarcastic, sincere, aw he’s just swell.
Colonel Phillips and Private Lorraine

As that most unusual heroine, Agent Peggy Carter, Hayley Atwell plays it totally straight and it works. Carter’s strong, skilled, susceptible to a true hero, not just the he-men flexing muscles (like the hilarious Gilmore Hodge played by an actor with a 1940s Hollywood-style name, Lex Shrapnel). Atwell looks like a British soldier/scientist from the 1940s (kudos to the designers for everyone’s clothing and hair). No damsel in distress, this is one superhero’s almost-girlfriend you want fighting at your side.

Hugo Weaving is a swell villain as both the mad Nazi Johann Schmidt and the failed experiment and supervillain Red Skull. He is menacing, he’s witty, he is scarily logical, and he’s pure evil. Fabulous work with or without the mask.
Hugo Weaving as Johann Schmidt
The deft Toby Jones plays creepy Nazi doctor Arnim Zola, who probably thought he was pretty nasty stuff until he started working with Johann Schmidt and his “tesseract.” Jones oozes contempt, fear, avarice, and ambition as Zola, and I anticipate more fun stuff in future outings.

German and Brooklyn laboratories make for fun with knobs and meters and needles and cranks and levers and all sorts of things more visually entertaining than modern computers. But what really makes “Captain America” magical is the actors. The entire production is taken seriously, from director to make-up, and every actor plays it straight. In one scene, a portrait painter cringes between Dr. Zola and Red Skull as they argue. His subject’s a mad monster, the scientist not much better, and the portrait painter knows it — his fear is silently and perfectly played by David McKail.

The terrific cast includes Sebastian Stan as Steve’s best buddy Bucky Barnes, Michael Brandon as Senator Brandt, Neal McDonough as ‘Dum Dum’ Dugan, Derek Luke as Gabe Jones, Kenneth Choi as Jim Morita, JJ Field as James Montgomery Falsworth, Natalie Dormer as Private Lorraine, and (spoiler!) Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury.

Director Joe Johnston has done an outstanding job bringing to vibrant life the script by writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely (based on the comic books by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby).

This let’s-get-together-and-beat-the-Nazi-bullies film is polished to a high gloss with a vibrant and uplifting score by Alan Silvestri. There are also some hilarious USO numbers with Captain America and the “Star-Spangled Singers” doing a pitch perfect patriotic song written by Alan Menken with terrific lyrics by David Zippel.

Captain America” is fun from first to last, and that includes the Easter egg with trailer scenes for next summer’s “The Avengers.” The film’s final sequence (pre Easter egg) might leave you with the feeling that this movie is just one huge teaser for the next Marvel studio blockbuster, but that would mean you were thinking way too much. Not to mention, would that all teasers were half as good as this movie.

~ Molly Matera, urging you to do yourself and the movie houses a favor by using their air conditioning -- they’re running on high with or without you!