Friday, November 30, 2007

Plays: Glorious Ones, and not so much

Broadway's back on but I'm still Off, with a commedia dell'arte musical, more on the Frankenstein tuner, and a Hamlet that moves, from the Live Design website.

The Winter Cineaste, online and on sale

In the print edition, my 7,000-word powwow with Brian De Palma on Redacted and other matters, plus Todd Haynes on I'm No There, a supplement on French-Maghrebi cinema, and much, much more. Online exclusively, a chat with director Marc Forster on The Kite Runner, reviews of DVDs of Breathless and Inland Empire, and, available on the page or as pixels, James Mangold revisiting the Old West in his 3:10 to Yuma remake, with an introduction by yours truly. Saddle up, pardners.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Protagonist, with puppets

One of the funniest scenes in Being John Malkovich is when Catherine Keener asks John Cusack what he does for a living, then abruptly turns tail when he responds, "Puppeteer." As an art, puppeteering is about a half-step up from mime in the popular imagination, no matter how many folks see The Lion King on Broadway or on tour. I, too, am guilty of slagging our little wood and cloth friends, joking with a colleague who wrote on Off Off Broadway theater that she was stuck with the "puppet beat," little shows with little, hand-crafted and hand-animated actors.

Who's laughing now? I've seen Protagonist, which IFC Films opens Nov. 30, and my respect for puppeteering has gone up tenfold. Jessica Yu, the Oscar-winning documentarian of 1997's short film Breathing Lessons, and the director of the captivating portrait of naive artist Henry Darger, In the Realms of the Unreal (one of my favorite films of 2004), has given wooden-rod puppets pride of place in her latest work, which is easier to watch, and enjoy, than it is to classify and summarize. I'll cheat (it's a blog entry, not a paying assignment, after all) and borrow the short synopsis from the press kit, which says, "Protagonist explores extremism and the limits of certainty. Inspired by Greek drama, this visually inventive (I concur wholeheartedly--RC) documentary weaves the story of four men--a German terrorist, a bank robber, an 'ex-gay' evangelist, and a martial arts student--consumed by personal odysseys."

If that's not good enough, consult the website, but really, just see the movie, where the stories and the technique with which they are told (the "visually inventive" bit) are readily apparent. In 2003 Yu was approached by the Carr Foundation about making a film about Euripides, the fifth century B.C. playwright, and this is her eventual, well-crafted response. The four stories are told in parallel, with quotes from the plays used as chapter headings. The puppets, designed by Janie Geiser, are based on ancient Greek theater masks and are used to illustrate excerpts from the works, and incidents from the lives of its human subjects. Superb title animation by Robert Conner, an evocative score by Jeff Beal, and ancient Greek voiceover by former Star Trek-ker Marina Sirtis and Chris Diamantopolous accentuate the mood of the past and present overlapping in a timeless choreographer.

All of this would likely be quite precious if it weren't for the candor of her four male subjects. Yu's husband, Iron and Silk author and filmmaker Mark Salzman, is the martial artist, and the use of him as a subject might be nepotistic if his own journey through an ancient culture via suburban Connecticut weren't directly relevant to Yu's aims. It is, however, a warm-up to the more insurmountable problems faced by Mark Pierpont, who denied his homosexuality and donned a missionary's cloak to bring other men into his cloistered fold; Joe Loya, whose terror-fraught childhood reasserted itself in a criminal spree of bank robbery; and, most disturbingly, German terrorist Hans-Joachim Klein, whose own rebellion against parental authority took place on the world stage in the 1970s, when he joined an offshoot of the Baader-Meinhof gang and engineered the kidnapping of 11 OPEC ministers. (Klein's representation is pictured.)

Protagonist is a unique treatment of an unlikely subject, one that manages to be quite compelling even if you're at first a little resistant to its unorthodox aesthetic. But this was all, ahem, Greek to Yu as well, and that she approached the various aspects of the production with an open mind and heart makes for an absorbing, and fully cinematic, experience. She has pulled the strings extremely well.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Starting Out for the holiday

With Thanksgiving and the holidays upon us I urge filmgoers to treat themselves to Andrew Wagner's Starting Out in the Evening, which Roadside Attractions opens Nov. 23. There are many fine and thoughtful qualities to this adaptation of Brian Morton's novel but chief among them are Frank Langella's magnificent portrayal of an aging and faltering New York novelist, who is resuscitated in unexpected ways by an ambitious grad student, well-played by Lauren Ambrose, and the daughter who has always somewhat disappointed him, an engaging turn by Lili Taylor. (Adrian Lester brings increasing dimension to the fourth main character, Taylor's ex-boyfriend.) Langella may be our finest stage actor, a joy to watch in any vehicle, but he has never altogether clicked on film, at least not as much as he does here, where he surprises with the quietest, most hemmed-in performance I've ever seen him give. His body language, so sinuous as Dracula or awkward as Nixon in the play and soon film Frost/Nixon, seems to change entirely, drawing in on itself in carefully poised constriction, until circumstances force a change of habit.

Starting Out in the Evening is unabashedly literary in its overall tone but never dead on the screen, and is in welcome contrast to the more bombastic entertainments being offered up for seasonal distraction. If only there were more films like this one, a showcase for an extraordinary talent finally correctly applied for the medium, and not the completely dull and overrated American Gangster, the kind of blast from the past no one needs. Also worth viewing: The Coen Brothers' No Country for Old Men, but that doesn't need my modest soupcon of support as much as this sterling chamber piece.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Plays: Young Frankenstein, old Albee

The biggest, strike-unaffected musical on the planet, and a fusion of old and new from the venerable Edward Albee, at the New York Theater News website.

Earlier this evening I saw New York's other Frankenstein musical, now playing at the 37 Arts. The potential for vampire tuners has seemingly been staked but to judge from these two stiffs there's not a lot of life in Shelley's creature for the stage. Neither holds a candle to my fond memories of the non-musical Frankenstein that opened and closed one night in January 1981, a legendary bust I saw in Christmas week previews, to the undying envy of my theater-loving friends. That one had David Dukes as a dashing Romantic period doctor, John Glover, Dianne Wiest, some nifty Bran Ferren effects and the great John Carradine, a veteran of the Universal Frankenstein films, as the blind hermit; these have spoofery barely warmed over for the stage, a monster from the Crunch gym (Steve Blanchard, pictured), and the slight and petulant Hunter Foster as a none-too-Romantic doctor, and not a memorable song between them. Werewolves, anyone?

Sunday, November 18, 2007

On Redacted

The Mobius Home Video Forum has opened up a discussion on Brian De Palma's controversial new film. My interview with the director will appear in the Winter issue of Cineaste, which should be available the first week of December.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Broadway in Real Life

If you're missing Broadway due to the stagehands strike, get thee to the multiplex to see Dan in Real Life, co-written and directed by off Broadway veteran Peter Hedges. Hedges will always have a gold star affixed to his name for penning What's Eating Gilbert Grape, but the homey quality that draws people to this one is precisely the thing that repels me. A family that gets together to play competitive board games, have singalongs, and play charades? I love my family, at the holidays as much as any time, but, ugh, a true nightmare scenario for Bob in real life, include me out. (Hedges' more astringent indie take on get-togetherness, Pieces of April is more my speed.)

Selling the illusion of familial warmth and good cheer is, however, a supporting cast of stage veterans, exported to Rhode Island for the shoot. I think onscreen brothers Steve Carell (lightly charming but at the outermost region of his TV-bred talent, I suspect, as the widower Dan; his Hamlet we need not see) and Dane Cook are the only two adult castmembers without any stage experience, though Cook does hustle the crowds at comedy clubs. As their parents, Hedges has cast board treaders Dianne Wiest and John Mahoney, in full twinkle mode; as they woman they're both drawn to, the appealing but as always somewhat inscrutable Juliette Binoche, seen in the Roundabout revival of Betrayal a few seasons back. Alison Pill, currently co-starring in the still-running Mauritius, plays Dan's eldest daughter. Dan's siblings and in-laws are a clutch of Tony nominees and Tony winners: Amy Ryan, Norbert Leo Butz, Frank Wood, and the get-there-someday Jessica Hecht. (I'd pencil in their character names, but Hedges have given them little to do.) The recurring role of a taciturn comic cop is played by Light in the Piazza star Matthew Morrison.

So, not my kind of movie, though it was nice to see them. Better to see them in their natural habitat, however. As it is, the openings of The Seafarer and The Farnsworth Invention will have to be rejiggered, and as with the excellent Rock 'n' Roll, which I saw on Friday before helter-skelter came down, I suspect the UK-imported cast of the former is getting antsy. I don't know how it would conflict with the Hollywood writer's strike, but maybe Hedges has a trunk script they could all film to pass the time.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

RIP Ira Levin

I read the bulk of Levin's mega-selling output with undiluted pleasure back in the day; Rosemary's Baby, The Stepford Wives, and The Boys From Brazil are classic page-turners, and the first made for a classic film, too. (The others are, respectively, an eternal catchphrase not even a second-rate comic remake could diminish, and a guilty pleasure, itself slated for repurposing, with a peerless cast of overacting old hams.)

But like I'm sure many theatergoers of a certain age I have him to thank for my love of the medium, courtesy of the long-running comic thriller Deathtrap, the kind of play no one writes or produces anymore. The 1982 film version was a stodgy miss for Sidney Lumet but Levin's tasty Tony-nominated twists made for delectable theater, ably served up by Robert Reed (successfully shucking off Mr. Brady late in the show's run) and Tony nominee Marian Seldes, who is in the Guinness Book of World Records for not having missed one of its 1,793 performances. With material as plummy as that I wouldn't have missed one, either. The New York Times bids farewell here.

Catch the Blues

As "Guest Programmer Month" continues on Turner Classic, Simpsons creator Matt Groening has reeled in a live one for tomorrow night (Nov. 14) at 8pm EST--Anatole Litvak's delightful genre mash-up Blues in the Night (1941), which I don't think the channel has aired since I first saw it three or four years ago. Like Litvak's prior James Cagney boxing/musical melodrama City for Conquest (1940) but more unhinged it packs a whole bunch of stuff--gangsters, musicians, noir elements, "women's pictures"--into 88 breathless minutes. (Be sure, however, to record it for 100 or 105 minutes, not 90, in case the intro segment runs long).

Stay tuned for a fine cast of second-stringers (including Jack Carson, Priscilla Lane, and the pictured Lloyd Nolan as a mobster and Betty Field as the bad girl), the great, Oscar-nominated Harold Arlen/Johnny Mercer title tune (played every two scenes or so), and jaw-dropping montages directed by Don Siegel, later of Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Dirty Harry fame. In his autobiography motormouthed co-star Elia Kazan, an actor before he went behind the camera, warns "if Blues in the Night ever turns up on the late-late show I'd advise you to skip it," but don't; it's not on DVD or VHS that I know of and is a real find. I understand it's a favorite of Martin Scorsese, whose New York, New York is like a posher, molasses-slow version of its combustible predecessor.

Wish you were there

Dusk and daylight views of beautiful Harbour Island in the Bahamas, which is renowned for its pink sand beaches. We also spent time in Nassau and Paradise Island, stomping grounds of James Bond V.1 (in Thunderball and Never Say Never Again) and V.6 (last year's Casino Royale).