Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Like a Hurricane (It Blows)

Wind in the Wallows: Nights in Rodanthe

Never do I admire the craft of acting more than when I see good actors giving everything they’ve got to make bad material work. It must take uncommon dedication to resist shredding the script into bitty pieces and stomping upon them screaming, “This is bullshit!”

In the case of Nights in Rodanthe, the hard-working actors are Diane Lane and Richard Gere, and the sow’s ear is a screenplay based on a book by Nicholas Sparks, an author known for a string of terrible — which is to say insanely popular — romantic novels

Sparks’ first manuscript, The Notebook, was plucked off the slush pile to net him a $1 million advance and propel him into the bestseller stratosphere. The book, later made into a weepy movie, launched a lucrative industry of Sparks novels aimed at sentimental women. The novels — Message in a Bottle, A Walk to Remember, also filmed — feature heart-tugging variations on a basic Love Story plot, often told in flashback: boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy or girl dies. Woven throughout the sappy prose are ideas about Christianity and fate. Sparks has found a winning formula, and it has made him very, very wealthy.

Does it matter that no one in the galaxy talks the way the author’s characters do? Of course not, because Sparks’ writing caters to a persistent romantic fantasy. His readers long for their men, who are likely to be found slouching in Barcaloungers, to spout poetry and say things like, “I know you’re hurting.”

Nights in Rodanthe tells the story of Adrienne (Lane), a middle-aged mother of two whose husband left her for another woman but now wants to return. Adrienne decides to think it over during a trip to look after a beachfront inn in North Carolina’s Outer Banks owned by her friend, lively African-American artist Jean (Viola Davis). Her children, meanwhile, are brattily pestering her to give Dad another chance.

The only guest at the inn that weekend is Paul Flanner (Gere), a wealthy dreamboat doctor with a troubled past. Having just left his marriage and sold his house, Paul has come to coastal Rodanthe to talk to an old man named Torrelson (Scott Glenn), who is suing Paul over the death of his wife on his operating table.

Paul continues on his path of redemption by joining his noble doctor son working in a clinic in Ecuador. It isn’t clear why Paul needs absolution, since the patient’s death wasn’t his fault, but according to the Sparks ethos, it’s because he didn’t care enough. “What color were her eyes?” the grieving Torrelson demands, as if any doctor would remember such a detail.

While in Ecuador, Paul writes long, romantic letters (letters -- how quaint!) to Adrienne every day, promising her a beautiful future with him. If you are familiar with Sparks’ books, you know that this blissful reunion can never be, but far be it from me to spoil the surprise as to which character joins the Choir Invisible.

Sparks’ novel tells its drippy tale in flashback, but screenwriters Ann Peacock and Joe Romano have set the story in the present, making it even less interesting, if that’s possible. What’s remarkable about the movie is the gulf between the skill of cast and crew and the banality of the material. It is the screen debut of the esteemed African-American theater director George C. Wolfe, who seems to have tried to make something lovely of the story, gracing it with a nicely windswept atmosphere, fine vintage music (Count Basie, Dinah Washington) and a grandiose hurricane scene that looks like something from a monster movie. But, like that precariously perched inn on sticks, these efforts are inadequate to defend against the gale-force winds of Sparks schmaltz.

Originally published in the Cleveland Scene. Visit them here.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Critical Mass

I wrote the article below in 2005 for the Cleveland Free Times; it earned an award in 2006 for Best Media Criticism from the Society of Professional Journalists.


Conduct Unbecoming : Plain Dealer Music Critic Spins Orchestra's West Coast Press

It's no secret to Plain Dealer readers that the paper's classical music critic, Donald Rosenberg, is not a fan of Cleveland Orchestra music director Franz Welser-Möst. Ever since the Austrian conductor assumed the post in 2002, Rosenberg has spilled copious ink lamenting the orchestra's supposed error in judgment. After the end of Welser-Möst's first season, Rosenberg wrote a year-end review listing Welser-Möst's numerous perceived failures. Observers in the music community were taken aback by the vociferousness of the criticism, especially so early in Welser-Möst's tenure.

The years seem to have increased, rather than tempered, Rosenberg's choler. In a June 19 column, Rosenberg released another fusillade, this time questioning the conductor's worthiness to continue through 2012, the length of his recently extended contract. “That's a long time for a Cleveland treasure to be guided by a conductor of high proficiency and low inspiration,” Rosenberg caviled.

Rosenberg supported his criticism with a rather creative reading of reviews garnered by the Cleveland Orchestra on its recent West Coast tour.

For example, Rosenberg paraphrased the Los Angeles Times' Mark Swed thusly: “Swed heard something new in Welser-Möst's conducting, though he couldn't pinpoint exactly what. Of a performance of Bartók's Concerto for Orchestra, Swed wrote that he was “still trying to figure it out. It wasn't explicable.”

Swed did write that. But he also wrote this:
“The tightness of ensemble, the depth of playing in every section (what's to say about those violas but “wow'?), the transparency of textures, the athletically smooth muscle of not just brass and percussion but even the delicate harp was all there to hear and savor Welser-Möst can drive the orchestra hard and he can relax in and relish its sweetness, but there is always a kind of restlessness to his performances. His rhythms have a lilt. He seductively anticipates or hesitates after the beat. These are fraction-of-a-second anticipations and hesitations, but they lead to a complex, fluid, grainy sound.

“I was continually taken aback by his Dvorák, by the stridency in the first and last movements and by his ability to make the winds steely when I thought the Czech way would be to make them burble. Welser-Most was not showing off the orchestra; he let the sound thicken, clot. The [Bartók] concerto's middle movement, an elegy with its weird sound effects and big tune, became haunted-sounding. The fugue at the end, based on a near-jazz riff, wasn't jazzy but something else.

“What else? I'm still trying to figure it out. That's what keeps people wondering about Welser-Möst. And for those who don't like to wonder when they hear a great orchestra play familiar music, he can be, I suppose, alienating. New tastes often are — until you start to crave them.”

So while Swed's review questions some of Welser-Möst's musical choices, it's hardly the unmitigated pan Rosenberg's selective abridgement suggests.

The Orange County Register 's Timothy Mangan wrote: “The jury would seem to be still out on this conductor. At least on this occasion, he proved to be neither the most charismatic of podium personalities nor a particularly imposing one. His interpretations were warm and genial and eminently flowing, their detail natural not forced.” And, a bit further into the review: “The reading [of Dvorák's Fifth] was smooth, flowing and properly flowery — the woodwinds extolling in ripe colors, the strings exhibiting a flawless sheen and evenness and never overplayed the exotic Slavic colorings.”

Rosenberg, however, quoted only this from Mangan: “[A] listener felt no strong individual point of view emanating from the podium, or from anywhere else for that matter. How much this mattered to the individual listener, in the face of such supreme orchestral talent, depended upon his or her focus. As for these ears, they remember when conductors had faces.”

Again, a mixed, mostly positive assessment was interpreted as a negative one by Rosenberg. Mangan's positive review of the orchestra's performance at the Ojai festival: “[In Mozart's ‘Linz’ Symphony], Welser-Möst worked with greater intensity of expression, coaxing from his eloquent Clevelanders a reading lacy in texture and delicate in poetry.”

Also unmentioned by Rosenberg were enthusiastic reviews in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer , Seattle Times, San Jose Mercury News and Ventura County Star.

Last Sunday, the Plain Dealer 's new “reader representative," Ted Diadiun, took up cudgels in Rosenberg's defense (though he didn't reveal who had complained to the PD). Diadiun's column reiterated the old trope about how critics are entitled to their opinions, that they know more than the rest of us do, especially when it comes to highbrow stuff like classical music ( “He hears things in the music I do not hear, and recognizes possibilities beyond my ken.”)
Perhaps he didn't know that Rosenberg has offered not just his opinions — to which he is indeed entitled — but also distortions of other critics' opinions. --- Pamela Zoslov

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Body of War

Who pays the price for an unjustified war of choice?

Former talk-show host Phil Donahue first met paralyzed Iraq War veteran Tomas Young while visiting Walter Reed Army Medical Center with his friend Ralph Nader.

Donahue, whose highly rated MSNBC talk show was an early media casualty of war in 2003, decided to tell Young’s story in a documentary. He teamed up with filmmaker Ellen Spiro to co-direct and co-produce Body of War, a deeply moving account of the 27-year-old Young’s difficult adjustment to life in a damaged body, and his growing involvement in the antiwar movement.

Young was a 22-year-old from Kansas City who was inspired to enlist when he saw George Bush standing in the smoking rubble of the Twin Towers vowing to get the bad guys. He wanted to go to Afghanistan but was sent to Iraq, and within a month was shot while riding in an unarmored vehicle. The bullet struck just above his left collarbone, severing his spine and leaving him unable not only to walk, but also to cough, urinate, regulate his body temperature, or have sexual intercourse.

A bright and determined young man, Young persists in trying to have a normal life. He marries his fiancée, and the two struggle, along with Tomas’ devoted mom, to overcome enormous challenges, among them getting the medical care today’s returning vets are now having to fight for. The marriage, understandably, suffers.

The film juxtaposes Tomas’ story with footage of the historic Congressional floor debate on the Iraq War Resolution. It’s instructive to see Senate and House members parroting the White House talking points and ginned-up intelligence about “smoking guns,” “mushroom clouds” and Saddam’s supposed deadly-weapon capabilities, contrasted with the stirring, emotional oratory of the elderly Sen. Robert Byrd and the passion of others denouncing the reckless war of choice, including Ted Kennedy, Dennis Kucinich, and Ohio's recently departed congresswoman, Stephanie Tubbs Jones.

Body of War documents Tomas’ growing sense of betrayal and his decision, despite considerable physical discomfort, to travel around the U.S. speaking out against the war. It's a monument to courage, an indictment of a corrupt Administration, and a human story that is both sad and inspiring.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

O Canada! Adventures at the Toronto Film Festival

Posted 9.24.08

Here is a guest column by my colleague Milan Paurich, who recently returned from the 2008 Toronto Film Festival.

Toronto's reputation as a launching pad for award-winning films takes a serious beating in 2008.

By Milan Paurich

I've never walked out of a movie at the Toronto International Film Festival before, not even Golden Turkey Hall of Shame bow-wows like The Human Stain or Revolver. The sheer investment of time and energy that it takes to get into any TIFF screening (upwards of two hours for the really hot titles) discourages auditorium-hopping.

But when you see people fleeing in the middle of a brutally bad flick — and there were plenty this year, trust me — your mind begins to play tricks on you. Do they know something you don't?

As it turns out, nobody knows anything at TIFF. Everyone is capable of (repeatedly) making the same boneheaded decisions that you are. Some folks are just better at playing movie Russian roulette. I'm sure that it was possible to
have had a great time at the recently concluded 33rd edition of the Toronto Film Festival. That just wasn't my experience this annum.

Sure, there were plenty of good films to see, but even the best ones were overshadowed by the soul-crushing disappointments and flat-out stinkers, many of which, ironically, were the most difficult to get into.

The few "big" studio films to premiere at TIFF (Spike Lee's WWII epic The Miracle of Saint Anna; Oprah-endorsed The Secret Life of Bees; Pride and Glory with Colin Farrell and Edward Norton; Ed Harris' oater Appaloosa; supernatural romantic comedy Ghost Town; Greg Kinnear's Oscar wannabe Flash of Genius) sank without a trace, leaving the Great White North without the requisite bounce they were hoping for, and that many desperately need to make any sort of commercial inroads.

Toronto's reputation for being the official launching pad for the upcoming awards season took a serious beating in 2008. Conspicuous by their absence were such heavily touted Oscar contenders as Milk, The Road, The Soloist, Revolu
tionary Road and Doubt. The official line was that they weren't ready in time, but conspiracy theorists like me spent the entire festival debating the veracity of that claim. Anything to keep our minds off the (generally) underwhelming movies that did manage to show up.

With his shot-in-Pittsburgh romantic comedy Zack and Miri Make a Porno, former Sundance whiz kid Kevin Smith officially became culturally irrelevant. Like John Waters, whose shock-at-all-costs approach became passé once gross-out comedy went mainstream with the Farrelly Brothers, Smith's potty-mouthed, pop-culture-referencing schtick seems positively antiquated in the Judd Apatow era. Maybe Smith should do a Broadway musical version of Clerks (à la Waters' Hairspray) for his next act.

Any hopes that Sony's Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist might become this year's Juno died halfway through the TIFF press screening when it became apparent that director Peter Sollett (of Raising Victor Vargas fame) was more interested in sophomoric toilet humor than pathos or insight. The only thing Juno and Nick and Norah have in common is the same leading man-child, Michael Cera.

Sollett wasn't the only TIFF filmmaker experiencing a precipitous sophomore slump. Rain Johnson followed his brilliant 2005 high school noir Brick with The Bro
thers Bloom, a failed Wes Anderson homage that repeatedly hits the same note of arch whimsy. Even with its spectacularly gifted cast (including Mark Ruffalo and Oscar winners Adrien Brody and Rachel Weisz), Johnson's grifter farce fails on nearly every conceivable level. And Neil Burger blew whatever indie cred he earned with 2006's The Illusionist by inflicting pedestrian Iraq homefront road movie The Lucky Ones on TIFF audiences.

It wasn't just relative newbies like Sollett, Johnson and Burger who came up short. Oscar-winning director Jonathan Demme's (The Silence of the Lambs, Philadelphia) self-indulgent, multiculturalism-with-a-trowel Rachel Getting Married squanders terrific performances by Anne Hathaway, Rosemarie DeWitt and long missing-in-action Debra Winger on piddling material. The result is as wearying as spending two hours in the company of a recovering addict which, come to think of it, Hathaway's sister-of-the-bride character is.

Despite a bravura performance by Jeff Goldblum in the leading role, Paul Schrader's Holocaust drama Adam Resurrected is so unfocused, meandering and overwrought that most of the audience at a morning press screening bailed before
the end credits. Currently without a U.S. distributor, its only hope of finding an audience is via the Jewish Film Festival circuit.

British stalwart Mike Leigh was represented by one of his least satisfying films to date. Happy-Go-Lucky is a character study about a young woman (Sally Hawkins' Cockney elementary schoolteacher Polly) who's more fingernails-on-a-blackboard grating than charming or endearing. After two hours with the relentlessly chipper Polly, I felt like wringing her scrawny neck.

Richard Eyre, who directed Iris and Notes on a Scandal erred
with the decently acted, if profoundly inconsequential The Other Man. Not even a reunion of Kinsey stars Laura Linney and Liam Neeson — playing a straying wife and her cuckolded husband — could make this movie a must-see.

Larry Charles created tsunami-like waves at TIFF with Borat in 2006, but his new documentary, Religulous, made in tandem with political satirist Bill Maher, was too scattershot and overextended at 103 minutes. Perhaps it would have worked better as a one-hour HBO comedy special.

Some of my fondest TIFF memories were supplied by films that arrived either sans buzz (the lushly appointed period romance The Duchess, starring an excellent Keira Knightley and Ralph Fiennes) or suffering from bad buzz. Maybe it was diminished expectations (they flopped at Venice and Cannes respectively), but The Burning Plain (the directing debut of Amores Perros and Babel screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga, with Charlize Theron and Kim Basinger) and Synecdoche, New York (another directorial debut, this one by surrealist scenarist extraordinaire Charlie Kaufman) both seemed pretty okay to me.

I was particularly taken with Synecdoche, which features a dream cast (Philip Seymour Hoffman, Samantha Morton, Catherine Keener, Emily Watson, Hope Davis, Michelle Williams, Jennifer Jason Leigh) in a Hellzapoppin' comic phantasmagoria that felt like Kaufman's personal spin on Fellini's 8 1/2.

Most of my favorite Toronto films came from ringers — pet directors who never seem to let me down. Arnand Desplechin's A Christmas Tale, Olivier Assayas' Summer Hours and Claire Denis' 35 Shots of Rum all told beautifully nuanced stories of families in crisis. Michael Winterbottom's superb Genova also dealt with a family trauma (Colin Firth takes his two young daughters with him to Italy for a teaching gig after the tragic death of wife Hope Davis), and Terrence Davies' Liverpool memento mori Of Time and the City proved that auteur filmmaking is alive and well, at least on the international circuit.

Jia Zhang-ke's 24 City continued the award-winning Chinese director's winning streak with an artful blend of documentary and fiction. Kelly Reichardt's Wendy and Lucy, featuring an award-caliber performance by Michelle Williams, displayed the same humanist rigor as Belgium's Dardenne Brothers.

Guy Ritchie returned from the dead with RocknRolla, another boys-with-guns gangster flick, but his most larkishly entertaining and accomplished work to date. Richard Linklater's winsome life-in-the-theater fable Me and Orson Welles features an amazing simulacrum of the "Citizen Kane" genius by newcomer Christian McKay that has to be seen to be believed. Veteran Swedish director Jan Troell (1972 Best Picture Oscar nominee for The Emigrants) reclaimed his rightful place in the cinematic pantheon with the exquisite Everlasting Moments, an intimate family saga set in the early 20th century. And genre specialist Kathryn Bigelow (Point Break, Near Dark) may have finally made an Iraq movie that audiences will actually pay to see. The Hurt Locker, Bigelow's crackerjack suspense thriller about a military bomb disposal unit stationed in Baghdad, opens in theaters next spring.

I could tell you about Lovely, Still, a lugubrious gender-reversal spin on Away from Her, reimagined as a 90-minute Twilight Zone episode; the repulsive French splatter flick Martyrs; or The Loss of a Teardrop Diamond, based on a "rare original screenplay" by Tennessee Williams that had an early morning press screening audience howling with unintentional laughter, but I'd rather end things on a more positive note.

The happiest distributor leaving Toronto was undoubtedly Fox Searchlight. After wowing them at Telluride, Danny Boyle's irresistible, ingeniously structured Dickens-Meets-Bollywood Slumdog Millionaire maintained its exalted buzz status by winning TIFF's Audience Choice Award. And Twentieth Century Fox's boutique label was also the lucky winner of the "Wrestler" sweepstakes. Darren (Requiem for a Dream) Aronofsky's superbly gritty melodrama about a down-and-out pro wrestler (Mickey Rourke in a revelatory performance destined to win him at least a Best Actor nomination) parlayed its Venice Golden Lion into a $4-million acquisition deal with the company. Not surprisingly, F-S has already announced an awards-wooing December 19th release date.

Hmmm; maybe TIFF hasn't lost its Oscar-prognosticator status after all.


Another thing that made this year's festival such an ordeal was the increasingly obnoxious behavior of TIFF attendees. Blackberrys and cell phones were a routine annoyance at press and industry screenings. Jostling for a place in line — TIFF is all about queuing up — was more stressful than ever. I witnessed at least two fistfights break out during interminable waits for "Priority Press" screenings. Even Grand Poobah Roger Ebert got involved in a highly publicized fracas that made the front page of the New York Daily News. Or maybe everyone was just grumpier than usual because the movies were so bad.

Unlike TIFF '07, there was no Juno, Into the Wild, No Country for Old Men or even Atonement to make your heart beat a little faster, and give your weary bones — and even wearier posterior--a much needed shot of adrenaline. There were, however, a slew of marginal titles, most of which departed the festival still seeking a U.S. distribution deal.

Three movies that left empty-handed were Easy Virtue, a dawdling, decorous period romp starring Colin Firth, Jessica Biel (surprisingly good) and Kristin Scott Thomas, directed by Stephan Elliott (The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert); John Stockwell's clunky Middle of Nowhere that teamed real-life mother and daughter Susan Sarandon and Eva Amurri as, what else?, mother and daughter; and Uncertainty, a maddeningly opaque urban-romance-noir-whatzit by Scott McGehee and David Siegel (The Deep End). And so it goes.

Some smaller films suffered from being viewed in a pressure cooker environment like TIFF. Neither Hunger (an impressionistic look at the final days of IRA political prisoner Bobby Sands that won the Camera d'Or for best first feature at Cannes) or Norwegian minimalist Bent Hamer's low-key quirkfest O'Horten registered the way they might have in the real, i.e., non-festival, world. Hopefully I'll get the chance to take a second look when they open theatrically in 2009.

The lack of additional late-night screenings for some of the more popular movies was both confounding and irritating. Last year I was able to see Lars and the Real Girl, No Country for Old Men and The Visitor at 10:30 p.m. Sometimes it felt like the festival staff didn't want critics to see any movies at all. For example, a seemingly arbitrary last-minute scheduling change meant that I was forced to miss Lymelife, a buzzed-about Ice Storm-like drama set in late-seventies Long Island starring Alec Baldwin and Rory and Kieran Culkin. Produced by Martin Scorsese and directed by the talented Derick Martini (Goat on Fire and Smiling Fish), Lymelife is certain to find a distributor. Too bad I wasn't allowed to take an early peek.

A shorter version of this article appeared in the Cleveland Scene.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Luce Interpretation

“WOMEN..With One Prayer in their HEARTS…Gimme”
“WOMEN…With One Word on Their LIPS…”Meow”
WOMEN..With One Thought on their MINDS…”Men”

That’s the slogan on the advertising poster for The Women, the 1939 movie adaptation of Clare Boothe Luce’s stage comedy featuring an all-female cast headed by Rosalind Russell, Joan Crawford and Norma Shearer. Directed by George Cukor and written by the incomparable Anita Loos, the movie was a nicely catty bitchfest, with line after line of sharp, rapid repartee.

Diane English, who created Murphy Brown seemingly a lifetime ago, has decided to make her feature-film debut with a 21st-century remake of The Women, produced by and starring Meg Ryan. (It feels timely, since Murphy Brown is back on the radar, now that the Republican Party has decided that single motherhood is okey-dokey.) The resulting film is not nearly as bad as you might expect of an effort to redo a classic, but not nearly as good or funny as you might hope.

Ryan plays Mary Hanes, a well-heeled Connecticut wife who discovers that her husband Steven — who does not appear in the all-girl movie — is having an affair. Her female friends, played by Annette Bening, Debra Messing and Jada Pinkett Smith, rally to her defense, comforting her and then confronting the object of Steven’s affections, a sexy gold-digger named Crystal, who works behind the perfume counter at Saks Fifth Avenue.

In the original The Women, the home-wrecking perfume-spritzer was played with to bitchy perfection by Joan Crawford. English’s update offers Eva Mendes, who is undeniably more voluptuous than Crawford, but as an actress scarcely fit to carry La Crawford’s shoulder pads.

English offers a more modern version of Mary, the sweet, long-suffering homemaker played by Norma Shearer in the original. Meg Ryan’s Mary, with long blond curls that partly conceal the actress’ unfortunate plastic surgery, has a career. She designs dresses for a clothing company owned by her father, but she isn’t all that she can be, having curtailed her ambitions to raise her daughter and keep house — with the help of a housekeeper (played by Cloris Leachman) and a Danish cook.

The original play and movie depended a great deal on the repartee among the women, particularly Rosalind Russell’s sharp, confident Sylvia, who as played by Annette Bening is the only character in the movie written with any depth. Pinkett Smith seems like a politically correct afterthought; she plays Alex, a leather-jacket-wearing lesbian novelist. (Black and gay — a twofer!) Messing, of Will & Grace fame, is saddled with the worst part: Edie, an earth-mother type obsessed with having babies. This allows the movie to indulge in a cliché I fervently hope will someday be banned — the hectic “wheel-the-pregnant-woman-into-the-delivery-room” scene, with poor Messing called upon to bellow like a moose while giving birth.

The acting is passably good, particularly Bening as the stressed, conflicted Sylvia. But English’s television-honed talents don’t translate well to writing and directing for the screen. The pacing is slack and the laughs are few. The script is laden with elephantine lines like “What does she sell, Chanel Number Shit?”

Yet despite its considerable shortcomings, English’s Women does a few things well. It preserves a large portion of the original dialogue, rightly figuring that you can’t improve on lines like “there’s nothing like a good dose of another woman to make a man appreciate his wife,” said in this version by Candice Bergen as Mary’s wise mother. This version also rectifies the old movie’s most annoying, dated element: the simpering character of Mary, who waits patiently for her husband to come to his senses and welcomes the bum home with open arms — literally — at the end of the movie. 
Unlike Luce and Loos, English is not an especially witty writer, but her Murphy Brown character — said to be English’s alter ego — confronted working women’s issues with a modicum of realism, and those sensibilities inform her version of The Women. Luce’s 1936 women were Manhattan socialites who spent their days luxuriating at the spa and gossiping. In this version, feminine fulfillment comes not from relationships but from work. Rather than wring her hands over her husband’s infidelity, Mary decides to revive her career — that is, after engaging in some Eckhart Tolle “Power of Now” affirmations. Okay, so Mary’s career, like Murphy Brown’s, is a Hollywood fantasy version of a New York career: she launches her own couture line, which she debuts with an elaborate runway show, a nod to the silly Technicolor fashion show MGM stuck awkwardly in the middle of the black-and-white 1939 film. But at least she’s shown as doing something.
A word about the economic context of the film: everyone, even the extras, looks like a fashion model, and all the characters enjoy a luxurious lifestyle of shopping, spa-going and facelifts. The name “Saks” is uttered maybe a dozen times. Mary, whose husband is a Wall Street tycoon so prominent that their breakup makes the Post’s Page Six (unlikely!), has a large home in Connecticut with servants, and launches her designer line with the gift of her mother’s “inheritance.” There’s no financial collapse in a country mile of this world. It’s the usual brand of designer pornography, which moviemakers think women love. They may be right: the same consumerist ethos made this year's earlier estrogen-fest, Sex & the City a big hit among women.
The movie’s most interesting scenes focus on Sylvia, a fashion-magazine editor who has a lot in common with Murphy Brown. Sylvia’s struggles — competition from younger staffers, pressure to make editorial compromises, the wrenching choice of career over marriage and motherhood — are similar to those raised by Murphy Brown in the 1980s. Unlike the rest of the movie, Sylvia’s scenes ring fairly true.

Although many of English’s jokes fall flat, she brings a more sympathetic perspective on women’s issues than Luce, whose wry view of her own sex was expressed in this comment about the play: “The women who inspired this play deserved to be smacked across the head with a meat ax, and that, I flatter myself, is exactly what I smacked them with.”

At the Fair

Geauga County Fair, Burton, Ohio, August 30, 2008.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

'Tis Pity, 'Tis True

Hamlet 2: An endearing semi-failure

Why is it that so many of today’s movies start brilliantly and then go nowhere?

I think they are like certain romantic suitors: good starters but poor finishers. A good example was this summer’s Hancock, whose premise — reluctant superhero messes up everything he tries — was so attractively original. But after a promising first lap, the movie lurched abruptly into comic-book tripe.

I guess it is much easier to have a good idea than it is to sustain it over the length of a feature-length film.

The comedy Hamlet 2 suffers from the same condition. The movie, directed and co-written by Andrew Fleming, has good ideas, among them the absurd notion of a sequel to Hamlet. What it lacks, unfortunately, is the stamina to successfully develop those ideas.

It is disappointing, because the movie has the markings of a winner. It was a hit at the Sundance Film Festival, and its creators and cast have good credentials. Fleming made the likeable Watergate teen comedy Dick, and his co-writer, Pam Brady, is a South Park veteran who co-wrote the brilliantly funny South Park: Bigger Longer & Uncut. The star, Steve Coogan, who played the ill-fated movie director in Tropic Thunder, is a noted British comedian and actor, and his wife is played by the excellent Catherine Keener.

The story is about a Tucson high school drama teacher, the improbably surnamed Dana Marschz (Coogan) who directs a ridiculous musical show in hopes of saving the school’s drama program. The first half hour is filled with funny lines, most of them belonging to the flinty Keener, who plays Dana’s frustrated wife, Brie. The cash-strapped couple have taken in a boarder, dull-witted Gary (David Arquette, a specialist in dumb-guy roles). “Gary has a car,” Brie deadpans. “Maybe I can get him to run me over with it.”

These early scenes raise hopes that Hamlet 2 will be the kind of sardonic comedy so longed for by superhero-saturated summer moviegoers. But the film outlasts its laughs by a long stretch, meandering into pointless subplots — including one involving actress Elizabeth Shue playing herself — that have no comic payoff. The movie tries to parody too many things, including inspirational-teacher movies like Mr. Holland’s Opus and Dead Poets’ Society, and “let’s-put-on-a-show” student musicals.

Dana, an untalented former actor reduced to teaching for gas money, finds that his latest production — an adaptation of Erin Brockovich — has been slammed by the 9th-grade theater critic. When the school board announces plans to eliminate the theater department, Dana decides to write his magnum opus — an absurd “sequel” to Hamlet in which Dana exorcises the demons of his relationship with his father. Alongside dedicated students Rand and Epiphany (Skylar Astin and Phoebe Strole), Dana casts several of the tough, mistrustful Latino students who have been forced to take his class.

Dana’s play has Hamlet and Laertes returning from the dead to set things right and to confront Hamlet’s father. Somehow Jesus figures into the action, so the play features a show-stopping ’50s-style number called “Rock Me, Sexy Jesus,” with Dana as a studly, shirtless Savior who descends onto the stage on wires.

When the school board, parents and community hear of the blasphemous play, they try to stop the production, until a publicity-hungry ACLU lawyer (SNL’s Amy Poehler) takes up the case. During rehearsals, Dana suffers slings and arrows. His wife leaves him, his students push him off the wagon after years of sobriety by spiking his iced tea with LSD. Dana, with the benighted optimism of Candide, persists, and the show goes on.

The Hamlet 2 stage show owes a lot stylistically to Little Shop of Horrors, with a touch of "Springtime for Hitler" outrageousness. The songs, by Fleming and Brady, are mildly amusing, but the production is far too slick to be persuasively the work of high school students.

Still, there is something sweet about Hamlet 2, just as there is about some of those ineffectual suitors. It is, like its hero, an endearing, well-meaning semi-failure.