Tuesday, May 28, 2013

The Not Great Gatsby

The best thing about Baz Lurhmann’s film of The Great Gatsby is that it inspires me to re-read F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel for the first time in decades. I remember quite well that it was about much more than Lurhmann got or portrayed, despite his florid and opulent style of filmmaking. Much of the screenplay by Lurhmann and Craig Pearce comes straight from the novel, but without understanding and with a jumbled structure. The framework that they used as an excuse to tell the story is false and overdone as is most of Mr. Luhrmann’s work. Just tell the story.

Great Visuals, Lacking in Depth

Mostly I found Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby boring. In the same vein, Tobey Maguire as Nick Carraway was boring. Carraway shouldn’t steal the limelight, of course, but he need not belong nowhere to the extent Maguire’s Nick did.

The good bits:  
Myrtle and Tom standing, Nick and Catherine (c) 2013 Warner Brothers and Village Roadshow

Joel Edgerton was revolting as Tom Buchanan, therefore excellent. Tom Buchanan is a thug, born to old money or not, on the page and on the screen. Real emotion plays over his hard face, and much as I dislike Tom, Mr. Edgerton made me feel for him – just a smidge.  

Elizabeth Debicki appears sleek and smooth as Jordan Baker, with depths and humor peeking out from her eyes. She is the one character we don’t see enough of. There’s so much more going on with Jordan than we get to see, but that’s probably because Gatsby and Daisy are just not as interesting as she is. More Jordan would throw the picture out whatever balance it has.  
Jordan and Nick (c) 2013 Warner Brothers and Village Roadshow

Isla Fisher was striking as Myrtle, almost as vulgar as Tom. Her desperation came through every moment she was onscreen. As her sad husband George, Jason Clarke lived in the time and the town and the muddy dead end all too convincingly.

 Leonardo DiCaprio does a good job as Gatsby, making him untrustworthy while endearing, and perhaps slightly mad.

Gatsby, Daisy, Tom, and Nick.  (c) 2013 Warner Brothers and Village Roadshow
 I’m a Carey Mulligan fan, and she did a good job as Daisy, but Daisy is so boring it’s hard to recognize it. Daisy is pretty, shallow, helpless, and utterly unlikeable. Somehow that didn’t make the novel difficult to bear, but it does this movie.

 As Myrtle’s sister Catherine, Adelaide Clemens looked like an overly made up Carey Mulligan, so I did wonder what Luhrmann was up to. But he didn’t follow through, so I suppose he wasn’t up to much of anything interesting at all.

This film is full of throwaway characters, famous names, and hints that the story may have a point. Mr. Luhrmann doesn’t get it, so he didn’t give it. I’m tired of filmmakers taking books and leading people to believe the shallow films coming out of Hollywood and Australia and wherever else are actually related to the original books on which they’re allegedly, very loosely based (but from which they clearly have merely stolen the titles).

Reason to be glad to have seen it:  an actress I hadn't seen before but will remember:  Elizabeth Debicki.

~ Molly Matera, wishing she’d chosen to see Iron Man 3 instead.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

First of Three Evenings of One Acts at EST

The Ensemble Studio Theatre’s 34th Marathon of One Act Plays begins with Series A, running from May 18th through June 2nd. 

The first half of the evening includes three one-act plays.  First up, a short play that John Patrick Shanley probably had lying around on a floppy disc for years.  Poison, directed by John Giampietro, is cute and ends with a joke.  It’s merely a sketch, with Jacqueline Antaramian funny as the Gypsy, Aaron Serotsky put upon and impatient as Kenny, and Alicia Goranson mostly manic.

Next up was presumably an excerpt from a longer work, dramatic or otherwise.  Kandahar to Canada by Dan O’Brien, directed by Mark Armstrong, was rather pointless and lazy, but at least it was brief.  It is not a one-act anything, rather a chronology going nowhere but Ottawa.

The evening picked up a bit with Something Fine by Eric Dufault, directed by Larissa Lury.  Beth is a trucker, and her truck’s cab is depicted on the stage adorned with a balloon, a cooler with cake and ice cream for her daughter’s birthday, and a pair of statuettes on the dashboard:  a bobble-hipped hula girl and a Virgin Mary.  Beth (Cathy Curtin) is brash and crass and sleepless, chugging 5-hour energy drinks.  Hula Girl (Lucy Devito) and Virgin Mary (Diana Ruppe) also appear as full grown people – they sway and jiggle with the truck’s journey.  Hula girl chats happily, while Virgin Mary is furious that they’re merely plastic statuettes.  Beth has been driving for 36 hours without sleep, so we are in constant fear she’ll drive herself off the road before she makes it home.  Instead she comes to a different crisis.  Something Fine was quirkily entertaining, going from hilarious to almost poignant.

You Belong to Me by Daniel Reitz, directed by Marcia Jean Kurtz, opened the second half of the evening with a New York story that included gorgeous performances by Patricia Randell as Susan and Scott Parkinson as Robby.  Ms. Randell’s stark white face is frozen in horror as the lights come up on a subway car setting.  In a spring dress and lightweight cardigan, she stares at a man a few seats away, a rather messy man in a winter coat, his thin arms wrapped around his backpack.  He is apparently homeless.  Ms. Randell’s character finally speaks:  “Robby?”  The man recognizes his name, perhaps the voice, and turns to look at her.  “Susan?” he says.  Thus begins a surreal portrayal of a New Yorker’s nightmare, that we know the homeless man we are trying desperately to not see or hear or smell.  Susan and Robby knew one another well, when they were both at Columbia University.  Their lives took different turnings, his more obvious than hers, although Susan is lost in her way, too.  It’s a heartbreaking exchange between them, and Patricia Randell and Scott Parkinson both shine through.

The final play of the evening has a perfect title:  Curmudgeons in Love by Joshua Conkel, directed by Ralph Peña.  Curmudgeon #1 is Ralph (the wonderful David Margulies), a grumpy old man in a nice assisted living facility, who yells at his nurse (tough and tender Daniela was well played by Veronica Cruz), who yells back.  Ralph’s granddaughter Robin (Nina Hellman, who looks frail but can hold her own) comes to visit and he yells at her. When she yells back, it becomes clear that yelling means love.  Ralph is not a happy fellow, though.  After a 30-year marriage with children and grandchildren then years alone, at 80 he fell in love.  All he wants now is to live with Jackie, but he’s told he cannot.  Jackie’s grandson Brant (Alex Manette) comes to visit, and Ralph yells at him, too, so we know how he feels about Brant.  Finally someone else is yelling from outside, and Brant runs out to wheel in his grandfather, dressed in a tux but confined to a wheelchair.  This is Jackie (Martin Shakar), and all becomes clear.  Two old widowers fell in love, and their grandchildren connive to have them married now that same sex marriage is legal in New York. The old men who discovered true love late in life can live together in wedded bliss.  Totally believable robust characters give us the sweetest moment of the evening, when Jackie’s grandson dances as proxy with Ralph. 

Everyone left the theatre happy — smart programming.  Five plays in two hours (including a 10-minute intermission) is an auspicious start to this year’s marathon.  List of plays and playwrights at:  http://www.ensemblestudiotheatre.org/node/2009

~ Molly Matera, signing off, drying off, hoping everyone has a fabulous Memorial Day Weekend. 

Sunday, May 19, 2013

The Next Generation's Star Trek, Take Two

It’s not that I’m a Trekkie, but I did read Stephen E. Whitfield & Gene Roddenberry’s book Making of Star Trek when I was in high school.  I learned spiffy things like how the doors were made to slide open and closed in that swooshing way, and that the phasers were made from salt and pepper shakers.  I watched most (not all) of the spin-offs of the original program (which I own in its original state — no fixing up of those cheesy effects for me).

When, in 2008 or so, I heard that a new movie was coming out with all the original characters in their youth, I said please!  That’s ridiculous.  They didn’t know one another at the beginnings of their careers, every body knows that Chekhov wasn’t even there until the 2nd season, that Bones wasn’t the first doctor on board, and that Spock had ties to his former captain, Christopher Pike.  I was offended at the concept.  Yet somehow, director J.J. Abrams and writers Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman pulled it off.  They came up with a twist that changed the universe as we had known it just enough to throw our beloved original characters — Kirk, Spock, Uhura, Chekhov and Sulu, Doctor Leonard “Bones” McCoy, and Commander Scott — onto a magnificent starship Enterprise much earlier in their formation than in the former universe, essentially starting the relationships from scratch, with a difference.  And then another twist.  The 2009 Star Trek was a blast.

Bearing in mind that a good film director is a manipulator —Hitchcock manipulated the hell out of us, Spielberg manipulates us to feel fear, anger, hope, joy — the new Star Trek films work despite their holey scripts and bumpy (not edgy) storylines.  J.J. Abrams has manipulated us into ignoring what’s insufficient and remembering the fun.  I’ve got no problem with that.

I have issues with explosions and shoot-outs (the issue is that I'm bored) and making the Star Trek tradition just another special effects in space war movie.  Star Trek is supposed to be about the people and ideas and ideals.  Second time around for this alternate universe, and I was full of dread — according to the trailers, which of course are horrendous advertisements most of the time, and they’re certainly not directed at me — the new Star Trek promised to be overly noisy without enough character interaction.  Nevertheless, they’re trailers, so I would not allow them to stop me from seeing the new Star Trek Into Darkness, with my handy-dandy earplugs at the ready.

Zachary Quinto and Chris Pine (c) 2013 Paramount Pictures.
This second outing, written by Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman, and Damon Lindelof (all based, of course, on Gene Roddenberry’s original ideas) is another triumph of wooing the die-hard fans of the old show while inviting new fans into this new franchise.  Yes, there are explosions, but some are natural.  Yes there are “gunfights,” but they don’t take awfully long before they become interesting in a character-based way.  Characters matter, character growth occurs, relationships mature.  What a delight.  The hardest part of this post will be to avoid spoilers.  I want everyone to have as good a time when they see Star Trek Into Darkness as I had this weekend.

Chris Pine as Jim Kirk with Bruce Greenwood as Christopher Pike.  (c) 2013 Paramount Pictures
The story does still touch on a battle of ideals:  Is Starfleet a scientific organization engaged in exploratory voyages and peacekeeping, always abiding by the Prime Directive, or is it a military organization doing some science on the side?  Unfortunately it only just touches upon these important themes because the director/producer/writers do not trust the audience to live without the explosions long enough to think and question.  We all know the historical and present Kirks have nasty habits of ignoring the Prime Directive when they consider it needful, and Kirk does love to fight.  Orci, Kurtzman, Lindelof and director Abrams are trying to balance the thinking Kirk and the emotional Kirk, allowing him to learn to know himself better, but we’re losing patience with him.

Zoe Saldana as Uhura (c) 2013 Paramount Pictures
The gang from the last film is back, and each of them deserves praise, but particularly Zachary Quinto deepening his interpretation of Spock, Zoe Saldana as tough and tender Uhura, and the warm and wonderful Bruce Greenwood as Admiral Pike.  Simon Pegg’s Scotty is too good and funny and endearing (if a bit too skinny) to leave out, and then there’s the drop-dead gorgeous Karl Urban channeling DeForest Kelley as Bones.  John Cho is a powerful Sulu and Anton Yelchin is constantly on the run as Chekhov (including in one of the most absurd and overly long scenes of chaos).  New characters are Peter Weller as the leader of Starfleet, Admiral Marcus, Alice Eve as Dr. Carol Marcus (ring any bells?), and Noel Clarke (Rose’s sometime boyfriend Mickey in Doctor Who) appears as a Starfleet officer.  Of particular note, of course, is this film’s marvelous villain, Benedict Cumberbatch as John Harrison, rogue Starfleet operative.  He is lean and limber, wears long coats very well, and has a savagery and intelligence that drives him above and beyond other mere humans.  He’s a fine opponent for both Kirk and Spock, as partners and individually.

Benedict Cumberbatch and Karl Urban (c) 2013 Paramount Pictures
About Kirk, or Chris Pine…. I’m not a fan.  I’m not saying Pine’s not a good actor, I just don’t see him or hear him as James T. Kirk.  The James T. Kirk who grew up with a father in the other universe was running the Starship Enterprise before the age of 34.  This guy couldn’t run a horse at the age of 34.

The thing about this film is that it’s filled with delightful echoes, visual and aural, of the original series I grew up with, not to mention one of the better (although I can’t say “good”) early films. Thing is, I don’t want to give anything away (although we do see a tribble!).  I want each viewer to enjoy the surprises and the nods and the tugs on heartstrings as much as I did.  Go see Star Trek Into Darkness (2-D is just fine) and we’ll talk.

~ Molly Matera, signing off to watch an episode from Star Trek’s first season. No, I won’t tell you which one.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

From French Film to Norwegian Theatre

I wasn’t in the mood for explosions or wearing my rock club earplugs to the movies, so the weekend Iron Man 3 opened, I went to my local movie-house and saw François Ozon’s Dans La Maison (or In the House).  Ozon wrote the screenplay based on Juan Mayorga’s play, with which I am unfamiliar, but the action probably played well onstage.  It’s a seemingly simple story simply told and I was riveted.  Fabrice Luchini plays Germain, who teaches literature and writing at the French version of high school; his wife Jeanne (Kristin Scott Thomas) manages a small art gallery for an owner who just died.  Germain’s newest and most intriguing student is Claude (an intense Ernst Umhauer), whose writing skills grab Germain’s interest. Claude’s writing assignments are based on his visits to a schoolmate’s home as he tutors the other boy (Rapha, realistically played by Bastien Ughetto) in math.  Claude has been watching Rapha’s house from a park bench for some time, hungry for what he calls “the perfect family.”  He involves himself with Rapha and his father (also Rapha, played by Denis Ménochet) and mother Esther (the wonderful Emmanuelle Seigner), insinuating himself into the perfect family he craves.

Fabrice Luchini, Emmanuelle Seigner, and Ernst Umhauer (c) 2012 Mandarin Films
Claude writes his adventures, Germain advises him on empathizing with and developing his characters. Germain also shares Claude’s stories with wife Jeanne, involving her in this questionable journey.  As we willingly follow along, the possibilities for nasty ramifications coming of Germain’s adventures with Claude amplify — not just in terms of how others may interpret Claude’s stories, but what Germain might do to ensure Claude continues writing the stories to which Germain is addicted.  Or is he addicted to Claude, his wife wonders. All the while, of course, we see Claude’s infatuation with Esther growing — Mother?  Lover?  We watch Claude revise his stories to please Germain, then watch as the experiences at Rapha’s house change. Which scenes that Claude wrote really happened?  The originals or the revisions?  How much of what Claude shows Germain is true, how much of what Ozon shows us is true?  How does one tell the difference between fiction and non-fiction?  What is truth in fiction, what is voyeurism?

Mind you, one does not wonder such things during the film.  During the film we are experiencing what Germain experiences, questioning when he does, taking his side when others are unjust to him.  And marveling at the light touch of the delicious Monsieur Luchini, at the clear and natural behavior of Ms. Scott Thomas and Mlle. Seigner, then gleefully watching this young man, Ernst Umhauer, knowing we’re witnessing the beginning of a fascinating film career. 

By the end of the film, Germain and Claude sit on a park bench looking at the windows of an apartment bloc.  Life is taking place through each window, and stories can be assumed or made up about all of them.  Dans la Maison is a fascinating piece of work, each character fully realized by the actor.  Monsieur Ozon captures the imagination and the conscience of his audience, and makes us question our own stories.


Last night, I saw David Edgar’s adaptation of Ibsen’s The Master Builder at BAM, as directed by Andrei Belgrader.  Not fascinating.  John Turturro was a little bit of Pacino and a little bit of George C. Scott, but not particularly Halvard Solness, the egomaniacal Master Builder.  Santo Loquasto’s set was practical but disappointing, while the incidental music (by Christian Frederickson and Ryan Rumery, also credited with sound design) was lovely.  Wrenn Schmidt was alternately engaging and annoying as Hilde Wangel, the “other woman” who isn’t quite real.  The highlight of the evening, however, was watching, hearing, and delighting in Katherine Borowitz as Solness’ wife Aline.  Each time she entered the stage, the play picked up.  She was a human being, with ticks and character and a history lending her a fragility that drew us to her.  The rest of the cast paled beside her, but the most amateurish performance was by Ken Cheeseman as the local doctor.  
Katherine Borowitz, John Turturro, and Wrenn Schmidt.  Photo (c) 2013 Graeme Mitchell.

 So ends our spring season subscription to BAM.  Some good, some not, yet always worthwhile.

~ Molly Matera, signing off to get some sleep before the EST One Act Marathon starts.