Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Ginger and Rosa Come of Age in 1962

Ginger and Rosa is a subdued film in its story-telling style and cinematography.  The England of 1962 apparently had little sunshine and what there was of it was filtered through fog and dreary lives filled alternately with fear of the bomb and post-war numbness.  People here have accepted their lot, however grudgingly, and it feels like most are unlikely to climb out of the muck that sucks at them. 

The film starts in 1945, with the bombing of Hiroshima followed by a bird’s eye view of two young women in a London hospital.  Labor pain was mushrooming for the roaring red-headed Natalie, and the brunette Anoushka reached her hand out from the next bed to comfort her.  Women’s hands, girls’ hands open the film as we watch the brunette and redheaded children holding hands as they grow up. 

Christina Hendricks as Natalie (c) 2012 A24 Film.
The new mothers of 1945 become the exhausted mothers of teenage girls in 1962.  Without words, we see Natalie (Christina Hendricks) and husband Roland (Alessandro Nivola) in a dark if homey scene with young daughter Ginger (Elle Fanning); in contrast, we see young Rosa (Alice Englert) looking out the window as her father leaves the family.

Ginger and Rosa is the story of two teenage girls going through their rites of passage, exploring politics and religion, sex and passion, and discovering trust and betrayal.  Natalie and Anoushka’s daughters are the closest of friends.  Ginger and Rosa are inseparable, and, like all 16-year-old girls in every era, they question everything.  They experiment, explore, play hooky, practice kissing, sneak out at night, do all sorts of foolish things (hitchhiking to the beach, learning to smoke, getting in cars with strange men).  Rosa is a slim and pretty brunette, her crucifix clearly displayed on her chest even as she tries on clothing to look more grown-up. 
Ginger has no chance of looking grown-up — tall and slim she may be, but she has a child’s face, a child’s innocence, a child’s heart that fears and breaks.  She asks her questions of the world in her poetry and wonders if she’s going to live to the next day because talk of the Bomb on the radio is non-stop.  Governments threaten to retaliate, always assuming someone else will launch their nuclear armaments first.  It’s the Cold War and the year of the Cuban Missile Crisis.  Annihilation appears imminent, and apocalyptic self destruction weighs heavily on many, especially Ginger.  Ginger leads Rosa to meetings where a young man tries to rally those seeking an alternate to immolation by the Bomb.  This activism becomes Ginger’s lifeblood — and escape. 

Ginger and Rosa at a Ban the Bomb rally.  (c) 2012 A24 Film.
While Ginger’s father Roland still lives with the family, he doesn’t play by the rules (as he proudly pronounces later), including the rules of marriage.  He has young students, and just as he preferred Natalie when she was a teenager, so he clearly prefers girls younger than himself and therefore in awe of him.  Roland is a pacifist writer and professor who was jailed for his conscientious objector status during the War which still hovers over everyone’s lives.  Also in this vaguely left-wing community is Ginger’s godfather Mark (Timothy Spall), who also conscientiously objected during the War but chose to drive an ambulance and take part rather than enjoy his righteous sacrifice in a jail cell like Roland.  There’s also Mark 2, Mark’s American partner (Oliver Platt).  These gentlemen live in a much nicer flat than their friends, and sitting with them one might believe that everything can be solved over a nice cup of tea.  They also have an American friend, Bella (played with a frosty intellect by Annette Bening).  These three encourage young Ginger to explore, to talk, to learn.  It is when she is separated from Bella at a sit-in against the Bomb that Ginger is arrested, refuses to speak as she sits alone in a jail cell (she’s clearly a child, what were the police thinking?) that things come to a head.

Ginger with her godfather Mark (Spall), Bella (Bening) and Mark 2 (Platt).  (c) 2012 A24 Film.
After enough arguments, eventually Roland moves out of the household, and not long thereafter, the husband/wife fight is reflected in a mother/daughter confrontation.  The outcome is the same, and Ginger moves into a dingy spare room at the flat of Roland’s friend. It’s a cluttered storage room with paper thin walls, through which Ginger will eventually hear more than she can bear.

Nivola as Roland rowing Fanning and Englert (c) 2012 A24 Film
Although Ginger and Rosa still see quite a lot of one another, they grow apart as their duo becomes a trio with Roland (who refuses to be called “dad”).  The three go sailing together.  Rosa is clearly developing a crush on this handsome, smooth older man.  Ginger looks on with consternation, not understanding her friend’s lack of interest in those things they once did passionately together, and takes a while to recognize that Rosa is infatuated with Roland.  As I said earlier, Roland doesn’t play by any rules. 

Sally Potter draws with a fine point pen, pencils the shadings, setting the scene for these girls to live on the screen.  Ms. Potter’s attention to detail both as a writer and director brings us directly into the lives of these best friends — Rosa clutches her crucifix and wants to pray against the Bomb, while Ginger wants to march against it.  Rosa chooses to make out with boys at a bus stop while Ginger writes poetry.  Rosa suddenly starts wearing eyeliner, making Ginger appear even younger.  And yet, she still shares the liner with Ginger, who just doesn’t look the same in it.  

Alice Englert as Rosa and Elle Fanning as Ginger.  (c) 2012 A24 Film.
Elle Fanning as Ginger and Alice Englert as Rosa work beautifully together, opposites who fit each curve of the other.  It is a splendid cast, with Alessandro Nivola’s handsome Roland a shallow narcissist who has his good points, Mr. Spall and Mr. Platt as warm and loving godfathers as anyone would wish to have.  Annette Bening's chilly exterior is belied by her clear affection for Ginger.  Jodhi May is sad and drawn as Anoushka, the bereft mother of Rosa.  Christina Hendricks has some nice moments but isn’t quite as believable as the others.  Accents are uneven (even Ms.Bening’s American accent is odd and she’s American) but that rarely detracts.  Ms. Englert is very interesting as Rosa, even though the story’s clearly about Ginger and told from Ginger’s point of view.  Ms. Fanning, of course, is magical, heart-breaking, adorable.  When Ginger finally breaks down, her emotion is raw and honest, the truth pouring from her not to inflict pain but to share what’s been inflicted more subtly on her.

The music supervisor for the film was Amy Ashworth, and she has compiled a moody playlist for the time, with jazz ranging from Basie to Bechet to Bird and Brubeck to Monk.  The mostly smoky jazz steps aside for the occasional early rock and roll.  The music is often played on a small turntable, then made most personal when Natalie sits alone in the dark by the fire, playing on her accordion and singing  “The Man I Love.  (OK, rather obvious, but sweet and truthful.  We women do things like that when the man we love breaks our heart.) So far I see no indication that a CD of the soundtrack is planned for release, but I hope it will be. 

Ms. Potter and her panoply of producers brought together a fabulous group of artists who provided fine results in the production design by Carlos Conti, cinematography by Robbie Ryan, and film editing by Anders Refn.

The film is not perfect.  It starts in a leisurely fashion, and we are mere observers of the 1962 Britain Ms. Potter recalls.  Ginger and Rosa sometimes dips from leisurely into slow, and takes a while to engage the audience.  It is Ms. Fanning and Ms. Englert who draw us into Ginger and Rosa’s world of hope and fear, love and despair.  Maybe even forgiveness. 

Although the film opens with a mushroom cloud, there are no gunfights, no fighter planes, no video games.  Ginger and Rosa draws us quietly into Cold War Britain and reminds us that the good old days were just as difficult as today.

~ Molly Matera, signing off, recommending the film to patient film and jazz lovers.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Pretty Much Your Grandmother's Jack

Jack the Giant Slayer is not a feminist retelling of Jack and the Beanstalk or Jack the Giant Killer.  Just because it has “slayer” in the title doesn’t mean this is a Whedonesque female empowerment story.  Quite the opposite.  This is a combination of two tales that shows us a gold harp but doesn’t use it.  A lot about this movie is a tease, come to think of it.  Princess Isabelle is a bit of a rebel, but it all turns on Jack.  The movie is fun, it moves fast, it has pretty young people.  But the protagonist is the guy.  Jack rescues the princess more than once.  It has a tiny egalitarian bent, but that’s as far as it goes.

I believe this film has received less than stellar reviews, but the audience when I saw it had a good time — although I felt rather alone the several times I laughed out loud, but I was one of the oldest people in the house.  I guess they put a few jokes in for people like me. In any case, I’m sure it’ll have a good long run on DVD.

Nicholas Hoult as Jack is sweet, wholesomely cute, defers to his elders, a very old fashioned hero.  The love story is rated G.
Hoult as Jack and Tomlinson as Isabelle.  (c) 2013 Warner Brothers.

Eleanor Tomlinson as Isabelle is lovely, doesn’t quite make it to feisty.  I could wish she’d had more to do because what she did was very good.
Ewan McGregor as Elmont was a fair-minded knight doing right by his betters and lessers, a charming fellow, stalwart and brave.  Fun.
McGregor as Elmont and Marsan as Crawe.  (c) 2013 Warner Brothers.
Eddie Marsan as Crawe, Elmont’s second in command, is funny, sleepily sharp and a fine fellow.
Stanley Tucci as the nasty Roderick.  (c) 2013 Warner Brothers.

Stanley Tucci as Roderick, the vaguely creepy nobleman Princess Isabelle is betrothed to, is delightful as ever. 
 Ewen Bremner as Wicke is wussily wicked, a doofus with a nasty mind and manner.
Ian McShane. 
Ian McShane plays King Brahmwell — a far cry from Al Swearengen, but a charming king and dad.
Christopher Fairbank as Jack’s uncle is a good solid character.  OK, maybe caricature, but that’s the writing.  In fact, a lot of the characters are caricatures, but I don’t think that was an accident.
Ralph Brown as General Entin was really entertaining.  I had hopes for more villainy, but the story kept him on a tight leash.
Bill Nighy as General Fallon was fun in a predictable way for General Fallon, but less fun than I would have expected from the great Mr. Nighy.
John Kassir, left, and Bill Nighy, right.  Sort of.  (c) 2013 Warner Brothers.
John Kassir as General Fallon’s Small Head played off his elder well.  A welcome oddity.

Rockerick and Wicke could have gone further in their villainy as could Generals Fallon and Entin, but then it could have been a less unrealistic movie and directed toward adults instead of the 7-12 year olds it’s really meant for.  Everyone behaved predictably and in scope of this sort of story.  The ending is cute but not inspiring. 

Costume Design by Joanna Johnston was nifty.  Director Bryan Singer had a good time with his animation/CGI budget, and his actors did their jobs well. The screenplay by Darren Lemke, Christopher McQuarrie, and Dan Studney did not soar to new heights despite the beanstalk, but it was serviceable.

That’s it.  There’s no Prince Charming here because the hero’s a farmboy.  The film is a muddy sort of charming.  This is a kids’ movie — there are some cool effects, some gross-out jokes, even some visual puns.  Don’t look for sophistication or originality, and you’ll have a nice afternoon. 

Oh, and about that damned 3D?  It does not improve the film in any way and it makes my eyeballs ache. 

~ Molly Matera, having seen quite enough 3D to boycott it.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Did Jackie O Color Outside the Lines?

My musing continues on Elfriede Jelinek’s Jackie a week later.  I find myself still pondering its form, its message, and the fact that it’s still riffing in my head.

Tina Benko is vaguely creepy and very amusing in Elfriede Jelinek’s Jackie playing at the Women’s Project Theater at City Center.  But is she Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis, or merely a vehicle for the themes Ms. Jelinek’s been writing for most of her career?  Ms. Jelinek’s script is obsessed with the clothing, the look, the public figure hiding behind the men in her life like a properly brought up society matron.

The excellent lighting design by Brian H Scott is compelling, sound design by Jane Shaw startling.  The scenic design by Marsha Ginsberg is … not pretty.  It might have been a neglected basement pool in a shuttered YMCA or a lost subway station.  It is unkempt, dried autumn leaves and other detritus having made their way in.  It may stink of death.

A metal trap door is lifted upstage.  Tina Benko climbs into the set wearing a neatly pressed trench coat, a silk scarf perfectly covering her perfectly coiffed wig, large Jackie-style sunglasses camouflaging her face.  She is in disguise but in such a Jackie way we know it’s her.  The outfit by costume designer Susan Hilferty is quintessential Jackie O, as is the wig by Tom Watson.  This Jackie is mischievous; it’s almost as if she’s escaped (the nanny?  paparazzi?) and stolen away for a moment to talk with us.  From the trap door, she drags a duct-taped covered faceless dummy, then another, and another, bound together by strips of fabric.  Then we see three small dummies, infant-sized, and now we know that, not unlike Jacob Marley’s chain that he forged in life, Jackie wears Death.

She knows she’s dead.  She knows everybody’s dead, including people who died after she did.  She talks to us for almost an hour and a half about herself, about Jack, about Teddy, and the other Kennedy wives.  We explore as much of her life as she chooses to share.  It’s not new. We’ve heard all the names before and most of the rumors.  Why is she here?

Jackie is not traditional.  Throughout the evening, I listened for a theme, a through-line, but only heard the elements, connected, disconnected, that ramble and run and repeat in the soundtrack of this woman’s memory.  Clothing, death, the babies, Jack, Bobby, Ari.  Clothing.  The dresses.  The design.  The appearance.  Appearance, that fallback position of the female, the way society expects her to look. 

While I’m not strictly a traditionalist, I do take comfort in established forms.  Jackie isn’t really a play in the traditional sense.  It’s a one-woman show offering Ms. Benko the opportunity for a bravura performance which will be remembered and spoken of for seasons to come.  Ms. Benko relishes the musical quality of the words, the conversation, the occasional rant — from which Jackie reins herself back into a well-mannered society girl.  The script is brisk, flowing, poetic, so I must assume Gitta Honegger’s translation is sterling, and director Téa Alagic has staged the work very well. 

Thing is, a play, to me, has a beginning, middle, and end. Structure matters, just as the structure of a good genre novel keeps people reading their predictable suspense, romance, crime, and mystery novels and reaching for more.  While enjoying a twist and a turn, they expect the story to eventually conform to the traditional form.  Ms. Jelinek does not oblige.  Jackie has a beginning, but the rest is essentially the same tune. It made me think of a roundelay, the words repeating with new and overlapping voices, the chorus always about the clothes.  Whatever this form is — musical terms come to mind, which makes a certain sense, since Ms. Jelinek was trained in music in her youth — Jackie’s hypnotic hold is aural. 

Jackie’s meanderings and driven crosses — often back to that intriguing trap door — hold our interest and are not forced, even if we don’t know the wherefores.  What could we know, after all, of Jackie’s No Exit?  And wherever she goes, they go, those odd duct-taped dummies Jackie lugs around the playing area.  One is labeled Jack, one Bobby, one Telis — apparently a pet name for Onassis. 

The most interesting aspect of Jackie’s growth after death is the change in her feelings toward Marilyn Monroe.  “Marilyn” is first referred to and not named while clearly disparaged, then the name is fairly growled and spat. By the end of the evening, though, Jackie commiserates with Marilyn as one who was trampled underfoot by the masculine society that bound Jackie herself.  Jackie was stronger, maybe smarter and not as soft, so she survived longer. 

By including Jackie O in her dramatic series “Death of the Maiden – Princess Plays,” Jelinek compares, even equates Jackie with fairytale princesses like Snow White and Sleeping Beauty, as well as Marilyn. Ms. Jelinek’s work is rarely done in the U.S., nor is it included in university curricula.  What’s that about?  Might she be feared?  Contrarily, I’ve already ordered the only English language translations I found online (also translated by Ms. Honegger), a few of the Princess Plays in a theatre magazine.  Modern retellings of fairy tales (there are so many modern feminist interpretations of fairytale heroines and villains, I almost don’t need to know Ms. Jelinek’s in particular) deal with the female self image, submission to societal powers (that is, men) that control the life and death of females; most try to clarify that men wrote down those old stories, those are men’s teachings and interpretations of women’s actions:  disapproving, frightened, insecure men.  The retellings sometimes explain what those horrid old women were doing and why.  Scholarly men’s views and fears are stamped on all the old stories, and thereby stomp on the females in the stories, not to mention the females reading them.  This subject is interesting enough to make me wish to read all five of Jelinek’s princess plays — but not while I’m at the theatre.  And that’s my point.  That’s what’s been buzzing around in my head.

Should the audience be expected to be well versed in the prior writings of a playwright in order to fully understand and appreciate the play viewed at the moment?  Me, I think not.  Knowing a little something more than I did before about Elfriede Jelinek makes Jackie appear a better play, but should it?  Is it? 

This undefined theatrical evening was entertaining and thought-provoking, thanks to the material and to the hypnotic Tina Benko.  However good, though, I cannot say riveting.  Now and then I’d wander off in my mind.  (That was where the terrific sound and light effects came in handy.)  I heard the repetitions but they didn’t build to go anywhere, to mean something.  These are my expectations.  Should anyone care if Jackie doesn’t fall inside the traditional theatrical definitions? Should anyone care if Ms. Jelinek colors outside the lines?  Mightn’t “outside” mean “beyond?” Considering Ms. Jelinek’s professional defiance of traditional roles, mores, and forms, perhaps I shouldn’t be setting too much store by Aristotle’s Poetics from whence I long ago derived my modified definition of a “play.”

Would you look at that.  I’m questioning my pre-conceptions, my training, my definitions, my society.  Clearly something in Ms. Jelinek’s “play” has succeeded.  In any case, and whatever Jackie is, I am intrigued by Ms. Jelinek’s mind and Ms. Benko’s method.  If you ever wanted to or did color outside the lines, you might want to try this:  http://www.womensproject.org/jackie_team.html

And then there are the Barbie® dolls.  Not all productions can claim an effective use of Barbie dolls; this one can.

~ Molly Matera, signing off, recommending the Women’s Project Theater’s production of JACKIE  to people who like to open up new cowpaths.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

A Good Title Masks a Missed Opportunity

The Radiant is a clever title for a play about Madame Marie Salomea Skłodowska-Curie, a brilliant and courageous woman who discovered the element radium and the science of radioactivity, and was the first person to win two Nobel prizes.  Unfortunately the play by Shirley Lauro performed by the Red Fern Theatre Company does not live up to its title.  We tend to forgive geniuses their poor social skills, but all we saw on stage in the Madame Curie enacted by Diana LaMar was a self-centered, cold woman who was unpleasant to all around her, without evidence of the brilliance.

Ms. LaMar is tentative, stiff, and puts her hands in her pockets far too often.  While one might expect her parchment skin to take on a pallor or a blush, it remained resolutely unchanged while rough seas presumably roiled within.  Ms. LaMar is not a generous actor, sharing neither an intellectual nor an emotional passion for science or for people.

AJ Cedeno as Paul Langevin was the only actor who used his voice well in the space and at least appeared enthused by his character’s desires.  This is not to say he was good.  His professions of love for science, teaching, or Mme. Curie herself were not convincing.  However, his voice was not unpleasant.

Rachel Berger as Madame Curie’s niece Katarina (sometimes Katya) had a voice to shatter windows.  However, while undeveloped as an actor, she showed more honesty in her characterization than the others onstage.  The only truthful behavior in the production was provided by Katya, whose actions sprang from her love and respect for her aunt. 

Timothy Doyle played three roles, each one better than the last.  This is not to say he rose to great heights, just that he improved as the evening wore on.  His clumsy paymaster with a dreadful French accent moved on to his overly foppish Lord Kelvin with an unrecognizable accent; both were gratefully forgotten in his most sensitive role of Wilbois, the poor old scientist who had the unwelcome task of telling Marie Curie she had not been accepted into the French Académie des Sciences.

Shirley Lauro’s script is skittish, jerkily moving from one scene to another, without taking the time to develop her characters.  It’s rather like a child’s book report — Lauro wants to show us that she knows the pertinent facts, and lays some out for us, but apparently doesn’t understand them well enough to flesh out this drama.  Some scenes are too short, some too long; and none draw us into Mme. Curie’s world.

Toward the end of the play, the widowed Mme. Curie’s affair with her assistant — the married, Catholic Paul Langevin — hit the front page of several Paris newspapers.  People with nothing better to do hurried to break her windows (not his), and call out profanities and accusations.  Although such catcalling did occur in Mme. Curie’s life, the incident did not move the story forward, and in the theatre, the “crowd” was so very loud that the audience could not hear Katarina and her aunt in what was probably a significant conversation about the possibility that the family was Jewish.  Were they?  I could not tell from this production. Nor could I tell, through all the noise, if there was any dramatic purpose to bringing it up where Ms. Lauro inserted it.

Mme. Curie’s affair with a younger, married man became Ms. Lauro’s focal point, instead of the woman’s mind and her drive and her work.  I am unfamiliar with Ms. Lauro’s earlier work, but she appears as undisciplined a writer as Melanie Moyer Williams is a director.

Ms. Moyer Williams’ direction made it impossible to know what was important, what was not, and whether or not her cast could act.  She did no favors for Ms. LaMar, who needs to open up to the audience so we can experience her pain, not merely suspect her of having some.  She did not assist Ms. Berger in modulating her voice to fit the space, nor did she clarify the play, focus the audience view, or encourage her actors to go an extra foot let alone a mile. In short, the direction was lazy.

This play is amateurishly written, performed, produced, and directed.  The structure is jagged and arrhythmic, is not about science as one might hope, nor does it give us the human drama we’d gladly take in exchange.  Points were made as in a term paper, and that’s where this play belongs:  in a high school.  I’m all for combining the arts and education and social causes, but bad theatre serves no one.

~ Molly Matera, looking fora good biography of Madame Curie

Sunday, March 3, 2013

The Joy of Reading

The best thing about commuting by public transportation is the opportunity to read.

I am, once again, utterly enamored of Michael Ondaatje.  When I first read The English Patient back in the early 1990s, I remember thinking, on the very first page, “this man is a expletive deleted poet.”  I soon learned that he is a poet as well as novelist, and immediately read one of his books of poetry, The Collected Works of Billy the Kid.  

 Ondaatje’s interests range wide through the human experience, and his focus and dedication to his subject draw his readers into the stories he writes, and along whatever pathways he chooses.  We are powerless to do other than follow along, listening and watching.
I recently read two books from my “still unread” stack, both by Ondaatje.  The first was The Cat’s Table, about a child’s journey from Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) on a ship with a few other children and a wide range of adults, to England, where the narrator would grow up to be a writer.  Ondaatje dips into the present, then goes back to the past, and introduces us to characters with such depth we believe we know them, and hope to know them when the narrator grows up.  Seeing the world through the eyes, and heart, of Mr. Ondaatje's young and adult narrator is an education and a joy.

 It’s a riveting piece of work, which I relived with delight at a friend’s apartment whose bathtub shower curtain is a world map!  I could follow the route from Colombo across the Arabian Sea to the Gulf of Aden, Red Sea, and through the Suez Canal and into the Mediterranean.   I love maps almost as much as I love books.

The next was Divisadero, a story of a fractured family, some blood-related, some not, their lives together and apart.  The continuing stories of Claire and Coop over decades in the western United States are obliquely contrasted with the life of Anna, who ran away from a family tragedy, winding up in France studying a French poet in the house he lived in for his final years. I believe the most wondrous thing about Divisadero is that, although I’d never heard of the French poet Lucien Segura, I assumed he was real.  Then I looked him up and every reference to him on the internet was in Mr. Ondaatje’s novel.  While this was disappointing, in that I could not read the poetry, it was far more hilarious that a character in a novel had seemed so real to so many readers that internet search engines continue to explore the world wide web in vain to find Lucien Segura outside Mr. Ondaatje’s novel.  Beyond the poet, though, scenes of the other characters’ lives, their connections, broken and unbroken, continue to step forward to the front of my consciousness even when unbidden.

Today I was gathering together all the slips of paper and post-it notes on my desk, hoping to consolidate them in some kind of order.  One of the slips of paper was a post-it with numbers and words.  Just looking at them, I could readily deduce that this had been my bookmark for Wolf Hall.  It is apt that I’ve just re-discovered this post-it (and will look up all of these words, names, phrases again) since I’m now reading Hilary Mantel’s sequel to Wolf Hall,  Bring Up the Bodies.  I am thrilled to read that this is intended as a trilogy, so I have yet another to look forward to once I’ve finished Thomas Cromwell’s and Henry the VIII's and Anne Boleyn’s adventures in Bring Up the Bodies.

When I read Ms. Mantel’s work, I feel I’m reading history, even while fully aware that her work — told from the point of view of Thomas Cromwell — is fiction.  Just so with Mr. Ondaatje’s prose.  I believe it’s all true.  This is the power of finely wrought fiction.  These are the joys of reading good books.

 Next:  to dip into the stack of non-fiction books awaiting my attention.

~ Molly Matera, readily ignoring the laundry and mopping that I really intended to do this weekend.