Friday, December 28, 2012

History and Art Make Movie Magic

Since his TV-movie Duel 40 years ago, we’ve known director Steven Spielberg as a master manipulator, but he left his bag of tricks at home for his new film, Lincoln.  Mr. Spielberg directs this film with restraint, his presence subtle; he lets the words and the pictures and the actors tell this sadly joyous story.  Tony Kushner’s script is warm, deep, and utterly brilliant.  Messrs. Spielberg and Kushner worked with Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, focusing the film on the last four months of Lincoln’s life, when the most important thing in the world to him was to abolish slavery permanently, through a constitutional amendment.  Passing the amendment before the end of the war was vital, since the Confederate states, once reunited with the Union, would never allow it to stand.  But this is not a documentary.  Lincoln does with history what good films and plays must:  It condenses people, time, events, and cuts to the chase.
Daniel Day-Lewis as President Lincoln.

Lincoln is a work of art.  Its scenes are filmed and lit with a painter’s palette of natural and somber hues, as if a gray gauze lay over the land and the people, inside and out.  Cinematography by Janusz Kaminski is beautifully composed and moving.  The enormously talented group of people who put Lincoln together left me awestruck — from the costuming by Joanna Johnston, to the production design by Rick Carter that complements the art direction and set direction and the whole.  John William’s music is discreet and fitting, film editing by Michael Kahn is masterful, casting by Avy Kaufman was piercingly on the mark.

Daniel Day-Lewis was Abraham Lincoln.  He was possessed — in a good way — as if Lincoln had heard this man searching for him, and said, “At last.  Someone who really gets me,” and proceeded to inhabit Mr. Day-Lewis and speak through him for the duration of the film.  I could listen to Daniel Day-Lewis channeling Lincoln via Kushner all day long.
Sally Field as Mary Todd Lincoln.  (C)2012 DreamWorks Pictures and 20th Century Fox

Sally Field gave us a Mary Todd Lincoln with whom we could empathize even when Mrs. Lincoln grated. Bruce McGill inhabited a stressed and tough Secretary of War Edwin Stanton. The elder statesman of our theatre and film worlds, Hal Holbrook, was a tough old bird, Preston Blair, whose behind-the-scenes machinations for a negotiated peace brought the story to crisis.  
David Straithairn as William Seward.  (c) 2012 DreamWorks and 20th Century Fox

David Strathairn was the wise and restrained Secretary of State, William Seward.  Seward handles the political manipulation that Lincoln doesn’t want to touch, the trading of positions for votes, employing three slightly scurvy wretches gorgeously played by the highly skilled and unexpected instruments of James Spader (in the most delightful impersonation I can recall seeing him take on), Tim Blake Nelson, and John Hawkes.  Fighting the fight on the legislature floor, his sad basset hound face heavily lined beneath a heavy wig, Tommy Lee Jones had a fine time playing irascible and intimidating Thaddeus Stevens.  Jared Harris’ Ulysses S. Grant was subdued and powerful.  Lee Pace is a furious opponent of the amendment as Democrat Fernando Wood of New York, and Michael Stuhlbarg gives a finely tuned performance as George Yeaman, a Kentucky representative torn between what he fears will be the long-term results of passing the amendment, and his certainty that its passage is morally right. 
Tommy Lee Jones as  Thaddeus Stevens.  (c) 2012 DreamWorks and 20th Century Fox.

There are no lackluster performances.  There are no lesser scenes.  This film is gripping from beginning to end.  The night I saw it, the audience applauded as the credits rolled.  Still not a documentary, Lincoln nevertheless is an excellent lesson in how politics works, in how compromise makes change possible.  Yet  the film does not let us forget the horrors of war — the hands-on and hand-to-hand kind.  We see President Lincoln torn between a possibility that he might negotiate a peace, potentially saving thousands of lives, or passing a monumental amendment that would save many thousands more — as well as the American soul.

Lincoln used Euclid’s axiom “Things equal to the same thing are equal” to prove, logically, that all people are equal to one another — this in a late night conversation with young men in his employ.  Not politicians.  Not statesmen.  Just people.  This is the man the film is about, and this the moment that evokes the man…..

The only audience to whom I would not recommend this film are young children.  It was not made to excite with guts and gore.  Its scenes of war evoke horror as they ought.  I cannot emphasize enough how brilliant and serious this film is.  Go see it on a big screen. Then see it again.

It's time for me to go. But I would rather stay,” Lincoln says to his cabinet as he leaves for Ford's Theatre.  We’d rather he’d stayed as well.

~ Molly Matera, signing off, looking for the next showing of Lincoln.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

A Phantasmagoria

Faust:  A Love Story, a wild and witty production by the Icelandic theatre companies Vesturport Theatre and Reykjavík City Theatre, has two flaws: 
  1. The first act, despite quirky performances, falls a bit flat after the initial set up. 
  2.  The smoke.

Gísli Örn Gardarsson looked at the Faust story and its appearance in literature through the ages and said, we need to rework this for now, and our particular way of doing theatre.  Which includes climbing and leaping and crawling and generally freaking people out.  So Nina Dögg Filippusdottir, Gísli Örn Gardarsson, Carl Grose, Björn Hlynur Haraldsson, and Vikingur Kristjansson created a new take on an old tale.  This phantasmagoria of Faust:  A Love Story was grown, wrought of fire and smoke, heat and lust.  This Faust is pedestrian in his desires, but the playing of it is fun.

For those of you who don’t know it, the story is generally one of a disappointed or sad human made a pawn in a contest between God and the Devil.  Think Job, think Crossroad Blues, or even the Aesop Fable of the Sun and the Wind.  What wins the lowly human, kindness or harshness, good or evil?  Promises, promises. The wind blows harshly but cannot dislodge the traveler’s cloak; the sun shines warmly to make the traveler willingly remove his cloak.  Darken your thoughts and see the sad and lonely man at a crossroads — real or virtual — so desperate he makes a deal with a demon for whatever it is he wants, in return for his soul after a period of time.  The Faust story varies, particularly in the ending, between Goethe and Marlowe and the old tales on which they based their works. 

In this acrobatic version, Faust is Johann the retired old actor, whose seemingly glamorous life has left him alone and poor in a nursing home on Christmas Eve.  He never played Faust, and at the bidding of his fellow residents, he begins the tale of Lucifer and God battling or betting over Faust’s soul.  The insensitive male nurse, Valentin (Runar Freyr Gislason), interrupts and sends them all off to bed.  Valentin’s sister, Greta (Unnur Osp Stefansdottir), is a much kinder nurse, and Johann would be happy to go off to bed with her, but he’s an old man and she treats him as such.

The interruption came too late, though, as if speaking the words has brought forth the Devil’s minions to torment and tease Johann.  One elderly resident dies while Johann speaks to him, and miserable Johann wraps Christmas lights around his neck to commit suicide.  Enter — or rather, rise from his wheelchair — Mephistopheles, Mephisto to his chums, wickedly played by Magnus Jonsson.  Let’s not forget the demons Lilith (Nina Dogg Filippusdottir) and Asmodeus (Bjorn Hlynur Haraldsson), who join the fun.
Magnus Jonsson as Mephisto

The sets by Axel Johannesson included a transparent fence that appeared to be the windowed wall of a common room in a nursing home, allowing for effective and suspenseful happenings in and out of the common room.  Then the net:  A full-blown circus net, sturdy enough to appear under a trapeze act, was strung from the balcony to the stage of the BAM Harvey Theatre.  Billowing into the orchestra was smoke.  We get it, hellfire would cause smoke, and it’s an interesting visual effect onstage.  Nevertheless, it made members of the audience (including myself) cough and the stink of it remained in the theatre even when it wasn’t floating about.  Lose the smoke.  Keep the music by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis.  And the net.

The daring exploits of the company are a highlight of the evening’s entertainment.  Hell opens up in the trapdoors of the stage, devils climb the walls and leap from the balcony into the net.  It’s startling, it’s funny, and occasionally poignant.  The cast is more than competent and sometimes marvelous — Thorsteinn Gunnarsson as Johann is a sad old man, then a sprightly and menacing demon Asmodeus.  The transformation of Johann into Asmodeus was a marvelous display, with the suddenly young Johann well played by Mr. Haraldsson.  As a young man, Johann starts an affair with his nurse Greta, destroying her innocence in the process.  Count this as among the dark versions of the story.

Alas, it appears this production’s brief run at the BAM Harvey Theatre was the end of a two-year worldwide tour, but keep an eye out for the Vesturport Theatre and Reykjavík City Theatre companies. 

~ Molly Matera, signing off to re-read some mythology….