Monday, November 28, 2011

Tower Heist Crumbles at its Foundations

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

A Stormy Next Wave

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

An Incomplete Title for an Incomplete Film

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Scary Stuff

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ah, the darkness.

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

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

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

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

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

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