Short but Not Sweet: An Oscar Interlude

It was only coincidental that I went to see a program of five Oscar-nominated short films last weekend, just after the Motion Picture Academy backtracked on its plan to relegate that and three other awards to a commercial break on Sunday’s Oscar telecast.  Now I see what a travesty it would have been. Collectively, the five dramatic shorts — from Spain, Canada, Ireland and the U.S., each running between 15 and 30 minutes — were easily the most rewarding evening I’ve spent in a movie theater in the past year. They are intense, often disturbing viewing; four of the five films involve children in peril or witnessing horrific things. Close to a quarter of the older audience in the theater where I saw it walked out at some point during the evening. And not because they were bored.

The first film, Madre, from Spanish writer-director Rodrigo Sorogoyen, has a brilliantly simple premise — a mother on the phone with her six-year-old son, who is lost and alone at a beach — and plays out in just one scene, shot without even (so far as I can recall) a single edit. Yet it builds almost excruciating tension, ends ambiguously, and leaves you shaken. My first thought, after it ended, was that it should not have led off the program, because none of the films that followed could possibly match its impact. And then nearly every one did.

Fauve, from French-Canadian director Jeremy Comte, about two boys on an afternoon spree whose pranking and power games go terribly awry, is even more harrowing and hard to shake. Marguerite, about an elderly woman and her home-care nurse, qualifies as a quietly touching reprieve. But it is followed by Detainment, a dramatic re-creation of the interrogation of two 10-year-old boys accused of kidnapping and murdering a two-year-old child in Liverpool in 1993. The film, based on actual police transcripts, has drawn objections from the mother of the real-life murdered boy. But it is gripping without being graphic, and so credibly acted (particularly by the two child suspects) that at times it is hard to realize it’s not a documentary.

The final film in the program, Skin, is the slickest and most conventionally melodramatic of the bunch. A morality tale of race and retribution, focusing on a family of gun-obsessed, militia-style rednecks, the film (from Israeli-born director Guy Native) is perhaps a little too pat in the dramatic irony of its denouement. But it packs more potent, uncomfortable truth about racial hatred into its taut 20 minutes than Spike Lee does in two hours of his facile (and Oscar-nominated) BlacKkKlansman.

Some have predicted that Skin will take the Oscar, and given its topical subject matter, it just might. But any one of these five little gems is deserving. Catch them if you can.

 

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Colin Quinn: Political Satire Minus Trump

Is anyone else getting a little tired of Trump jokes? I was one of the first — in a 2016 cover story for Time — to celebrate the new political humor on late-night TV.  I still look forward to Seth Meyers’ pointed “A Closer Look” segments, and Bill Maher, after a couple of months’ absence, is back firing on all cylinders.  But Stephen Colbert’s nightly lampooning of the President, from his bright-red ties to his bald-faced lies, has grown so strident and relentless that I find myself turning to Jimmy Kimmel, just for an occasional joke about The Bachelor.

So I was not exactly looking forward to Colin Quinn’s new one-man show, Red State, Blue State (playing through March at the Minetta Lane Theater). And, to be sure, his 80-minute state-of-the-nation monologue is not as fresh or consistently engaging as some of his earlier shows, especially Long Story Short, his 2011 satirical survey of world history. Yet it’s smart and refreshingly above the fray, a nice break from the partisan predictability that is starting to weigh down the genre.

Quinn is no fan of Trump’s — “a totalitarian psychopath,” he calls him at one point, almost as a throwaway — but he’s not here to pile on. His complaints are directed more at the divisions in the country that go way beyond simply Democrat vs. Republican. (Why do we have just two parties, Quinn muses. “You got 15 genders.”) From sea to shining sea, he suggests, the country is a muddle of warring constituencies; by all rights, we should be divided up like Balkanized Eastern Europe, or the city-states of ancient Greece.

His plague-on-both-your houses attitude can get a little glib: “The Republicans got too greedy, the Democrats got too needy.” But he’s a sharp writer, and his aphoristic observations often hit the mark. “People with the most time on their hands and the fastest fingers are setting the agenda,” he laments, neatly summing up the social-media landscape. His closing bit, a survey of all 50 states with a one-line put-down for each, is a smart-alecky tour-de-force. Wyoming: “You peaked in 1870.”  New Hampshire: “Just a liquor store for Massachusetts.”  Alaska: “We left you alone too long when you were growing up. Now you’re a bit odd.”

If Quinn has a weakness, it’s his gruff, purposeful stage delivery, which can get monotonous over a full evening. Though he occasionally addresses a remark to a member of the audience, he never really engages or reacts to the crowd.  On the other hand, it’s a relief these days to hear a political comedian whose zingers elicit laughs, not preaching-to-the-choir applause. That comes, deservedly, at the end.

Atticus Finch Gets the Sorkin Treatment

I hate to dwell too long on To Kill a Mockingbird, Aaron Sorkin’s new Broadway adaptation of the Harper Lee novel, because it inevitably means making comparisons with the classic 1962 movie version, starring Gregory Peck — and I just finished doing the same thing with Broadway’s Network. Yes, a theatrical work should be judged on its own merits, without having to “measure up” to a better-known version from another medium. Still, a play has work on its own terms on stage, and I think some comparisons help pinpoint the reasons where this one does and doesn’t. 

On the plus side, I’m happy that Sorkin resisted the temptation to give us a revisionist take on Atticus Finch, the small-town Alabama lawyer who defends a black man unjustly accused of rape (ignoring the more conflicted portrayal in Go Set a Watchman, Lee’s long-secret companion novel, published in 2015). Atticus is still a heroic figure, a wise father and a brave fighter for racial justice in a bigoted southern town — though Jeff Daniels’ edgier, more earthbound portrayal takes him down a peg or two from Gregory Peck’s exalted beacon of moral rectitude. 

And I think Sorkin made a defensible choice in juggling the story’s timeline, opening with the rape trial and presenting much of the surrounding story in flashback — narrated by his six-year-old daughter Scout (played by Celia Keenan-Bolger, one of three adult actors who play the child characters). This frames the play more neatly as a courtroom drama, which is Sorkin’s comfort zone, and he gives the trial scenes more verisimilitude than those in the movie, which were hokey and oversimplified even by Hollywood standards. On the other hand, Sorkin — known for his dense, hyper-verbal dialogue in TV dramas like The West Wing and Newsroom — can’t helping putting new, explicitly anti-racist speeches in the mouths of  the black characters (the accused rapist Tom Robinson and family maid Calpurnia), surely less true to the period, but more satisfying for a contemporary audience of liberal New York theatergoers.  

My main complaint, however, is that most of the scenes outside the courtroom —  Scout’s coming-of-age, my-most-memorable-summer story — simply don’t have the flavor or impact of the movie. Despite director Bartlett Sher’s elegant, well-paced production, too much of the action has to be narrated, rather than dramatized. The children’s obsession with the town’s mysterious outcast Boo Radley, most especially, doesn’t really play at all. The climactic violent encounter, in which Boo finally reveals himself, is a touching and entirely fitting denouement for the movie. Onstage it’s a cumbersome, very talky, almost extraneous coda. The movie always brings me to tears; the stage version left me (and I suspect even the audience members who give it the inevitable standing ovation) dry-eyed.

‘Network’ on Broadway: Faithful to a Fault

I’m going to be a little unfair to Network, the new Broadway play based on Paddy Chayefsky and Sidney Lumet’s acclaimed 1976 movie. Unfair because, in many ways, the stage version is impressive on its own terms. Adapter Lee Hall has kept much of Chayefsky’s pungent, literate dialogue and resisted the temptation to update his ’70s-era satire for a much different media age.  (Remember the days when the worst threat to TV news was “happy talk”?)  Director Ivo Van Hove has contributed his usual inventive staging, with an environmental newsroom set and video cameras projecting much of the action on a large screen at center stage. And Brian Cranston is possibly the only actor who could come close to matching Peter Finch’s Oscar-winning performance as Howard Beale, the deranged anchorman who becomes the “mad prophet of the airwaves.” The play is intelligent, relevant (in a way Chayefsky could not have imagined), and so dense that it makes most other “serous” Broadway plays — American Son, Lifespan of a Fact — look like first-grade primers.

And yet Network is one of the great American films of the ‘70s, and anyone who treasures it, as I do, has to be disappointed.   

Casting is part of the problem. With the exception of Cranston, almost all of the key actors are pale replicas of their screen counterparts. As the principled news president Max Schumacher, Tony Goldwyn has none of William Holden’s craggy charisma; Tatiana Maslany, as the predatory programming chief Diana Christiansen, none of Faye Dunaway’s coiled sexiness. And Joshua Boone, as the corporate hatchet man so memorably played by Robert Duvall in the film, does little but shout. 

Then again, they are asked to do the near impossible: reproduce the very filmic blend of apocalyptic satire and New York soap opera that made the movie so memorable. In some ways, the play is too faithful. The extramarital affair between Max and Diana, in particular, doesn’t really register at all, unable to convey the sexual and emotional tension that provided the human undercurrent for a cold and caustic film. As for Alyssa Bresnahan’s spurned-wife monologue (the speech that won Beatrice Straight an Oscar), it seems like a bolt from the blue, entirely extraneous.

Even Cranston’s riveting performance gave me qualms. His breakdown on camera (with a minute or so of agonizing silence as he gropes for words), is beautifully played, and probably more realistic psychologically than Finch’s more flamboyant turn in the movie. But it smacks too much of an actor’s showpiece for Tony voters (his Best Actor award is all but sewn up). Moreover, it’s primarily played to the camera — his facial contortions blown up so all can see them on the big video screen — rather than to the theater audience. And it actually throws the play a little out of whack. Though he’s the animating character, Network is not the story of Howard Beale.  Just as the fictional UBS network exploits his breakdown for its own crass commercial purposes, so Chayefsky used him as merely the pretext for a larger and more potent critique of corporate amorality. The centerpiece of the film is not Beale’s famous “mad as hell” rant,  but the thundering boardroom lecture that CEO Arthur Jensen delivers, urging Beale to put his messianic rage in service of the new corporate gospel.   

That scene falls flat too. In the film, Ned Beatty boomed out his commandments    “You have meddled with the primary forces of nature, Mr. Beale!” —in a darkened boardroom, his face obscured and viewed from a godlike distance. Here, Jensen (Nick Wyman) simply stands on a raised platform and shouts to Beale below. If ever there was an opportunity, in this video-happy production, for the dramatic use of video (Jensen as a disembodied Big Brother!), this was it. An odd missed opportunity.  

Still, I wouldn’t discourage anyone from seeing Broadway’s new Network. And then going back to watch the movie again, as a reminder of what made it great — and what has been lost. 

‘King Kong’: Can It Stomp the Critics?

“He’s not a film,” cries director Carl Denham, vowing to bring the giant ape he’s discovered on Skull Island back to New York City. “He’s theater!” 

The guardians of New York theater, it seems, would beg to differ.  King Kong, the new $35 million musical from Australia that has just arrived on Broadway, has been stomped on by nearly all the critics. The New York Times was so appalled that the show is taking up precious space on the Great White Way (instead of, say, a pavilion at Disney World) that it assigned both its Broadway critics to do a tag-team envisceration. Ben Brantley called it “spirit-crushing.” 

Well, it lifted my spirits. Maybe I was primed for some relief after enduring two of Broadway’s recent “serious” plays: Lifespan of a Fact, a ham-handed and witless issue-play about a journalist who fudges facts in pursuit of a ‘higher truth,” and American Son, Christopher Demos-Brown’s contrived, sledgehammer-subtle topical drama about an interracial couple whose son has had a run-in with the police. Good intentions don’t necessarily make good drama.

So it was refreshing, for a change, to bask in the pleasures of the big, brainless Broadway spectacle.

Spectacular it surely is. Kong is a 20-foot-high animatronic puppet, designed by Sonny Tilders, and manipulated with ropes and guy-wires by a team of a dozen puppeteers, many of them visible onstage. (A nod of thanks, once again, to Julie Taymor, who started it all in The Lion King.) He’s got a muscled, mobile, lifelike body and a face that can scrunch into anger, open in surprise, or plunge into sorrow. He’s massive enough to be credible, expressive enough to be lovable, scary enough to cause a few gasps in the front row when he busts his chains, rises to full height and stomps to the apron of the stage. Nor is he the show’s only impressive stage effect: from the opening girder-and-grit scenes of Depression era New York City (where the Empire State Building is just being built — nice touch), to the seasick-inducing waves that rock the ship on its voyage to Skull Island, the show is a visual treat. 

And did I say brainless? Actually, writer Jack Thorne (who won a Tony for Harry Potter and the Cursed Child) has made a number of shrewd choices in adapting the old monster story for the modern stage. He focuses, appropriately, on Ann Darrow (Christiani Pitts), the down-on-her-luck actress, who jumps when a film director (Eric William Morris) promises her stardom, accompanied by a few screams and the ape of her dreams. Thorne has wisely dumped the island’s tom-tom-beating natives (instead, the island appears to be populated by invisible spirits, cavorting amid the hanging vines), and any extraneous love interest for Ann. The focus is entirely on the beauty-and-the-beast story, with a feminist-environmentalist update — a little more politically correct, but no hokier than it was back in 1933.

I won’t make any great claims for the score by Eddie Prefect (additional music by Marius de Vries), a so-so mix of 1930s Tin Pan Alley and pop empowerment ballads. The kindly lug who befriends Ann onboard the ship, unfortunately named Lumpy, is too much of a stock sidekick in what seems a rather underpopulated cast. But I smiled all the way through King Kong, happy just to be in the company of a band of talented, innovative theater artists, taking on a near-impossible stunt and pulling it off. King Kong is enormous fun.

‘The Ferryman’: Broadway’s Wannabe Masterpiece

No need for me to add to the ecstatic praise (“thrilling,” “a masterpiece,” “best play of the century”) that has poured in from nearly every critic for The Ferryman, the Jez Butterworth play that has just opened on Broadway after a much-lauded, award-laden run in London. I can understand some of the enthusiasm. The play has the sort of heft and ambition that is all too rare in New York theater these days: three and a quarter hours long, nearly two dozen characters, a mix of political drama and family soap opera, with interludes of Irish folk songs and step-dancing, and a live goose onstage.  (The last inserted, I half-suspect, just so critics like me will mention it.)  But I had problems with the play. The Ferryman has all the trappings of greatness, without actually being great. 

We’re in the bustling household of Quinn Carney, a farmer in rural northern Ireland in 1981, in the midst of the “troubles.”  It’s harvest day, a traditional celebration for the locals, and Quinn has just learned that the body of his missing brother, Seamus, has been found in a bog — apparently murdered 10 years earlier by the Irish Republican Army for being a suspected informant. The news complicates the already complicated relationship between Quinn and Seamus’s wife, Caitlin, who moved in with the family after her husband’s disappearance. And it sparks a tense confrontation with a local IRA bigwig, who warns the family not to publicly blame the group for his death.

The first act (of three) labors through a lot of exposition, as each member of the family — seven children, a sickly mother, assorted aunts, nephews and uncles — is introduced, usually with a helpful, character-identifying greeting (“Morning, Aunt Cait; morning, Aunt Maggie; morning, Pat”).  If one more kid trooped down those stairs  I was ready to report the theater for fire-code violations. More seriously, the hearty bustle of this very Irish clan — the drinking, the storytelling, the political arguments, the folksy good cheer tinged by melancholy — has a distinctly potted, second-hand feel. The fact that Butterworth (Jerusalem, Mojo) is English should not disqualify him from writing an Irish play. But even Martin McDonagh, another Londoner who has set many of his fine plays on the Emerald Isle, seems to capture the milieu with more authenticity — and less sentimentality.  

The literary allusions and mythic conceits, too, seem a little tired and overdone. There’s not one but two feeble-minded characters who function as seers or dispensers of folk wisdom. One is a hulking, slow-witted English farmhand, who pulls rabbits out of his coat and collects rainbows. The other is a silent, wheelchair-bound aunt lost in dementia, who recovers her senses and voice just long enough to provide spurts of revelatory backstory. As for the uncle who quotes The Aeneid in between swigs of Bushmill’s— well, somebody has to explain the play’s title. 

I found the political melodrama more effective than the family scenes,  and the violent (and somewhat surprising) ending provides a powerful closing kick.  But even here, Butterworth’s plot contrivances strain credulity at several points — particularly the supposed betrayal of the family priest, and an offstage act of violence stolen from Of Mice and Men.  Director Sam Mendes does his usual fine job in managing the stage clutter, and the cast (especially Paddy Considine as Quinn and Laura Donnelly as Caitlin) is uniformly first-rate. I was never bored. But is The Ferryman a masterpiece? Not by a long shot.  

Moviegoing in the Time of Trump

A brief movie interlude: 

I’ve seen a bunch of new films lately — many of them at last weekend’s Hamptons International Film Festival — and what has struck me is how thoroughly my reaction to them, even films that have little or no political content, has been infused by the Trump presidency. Also how inspiring many of them are, at least in raising hope that our current political nightmare will eventually be ended by the basic decency, humanity and good sense of the American people. Am I being too starry-eyed? Perhaps, but a few examples:   

Time for Ilhan is an affecting little documentary about the successful 2016 campaign for the Minnesota state legislature by Ilhan Omar, a hijab-wearing Somali immigrant — the first Somali-born Muslim elected to statewide office in this country. The fly-on-the-wall chronicle of her amateur campaign operation, her delicate juggling of home and family life, and her interaction with a Somali community that defies every cruel stereotype perpetrated by our immigrant-bashing President, is both heartwarming and uplifting. When filmmaker Norah Shapiro turned on her cameras, she had no way of knowing that Ilhan would win — or that her victory would be overshadowed, on election day, by the shocking national rejection of everything her campaign stood for. But the juxtaposition gives the film an extra dose of poignance and relevance.

Roma, Mexican director Alfonso Cuaron’s semi-autobiographical film, set in Mexico City circa 1971, has already won a top award at the Venice Film Festival, and is sure to be in the running for Best Foreign Film Oscar when it opens in U.S. theaters in December. The film is both epic and intimate, focusing on the relationship between an upper-middle-class family and their devoted native-Mexican maid, against the backdrop of the violent political protests that roiled Mexico in the early ’70s. Along with the masterly filmmaking (Cuaron not only wrote and directed, but also shot the film himself in lush black-and-white), the film celebrates the quiet determination of these good people to survive amid the crises and chaos that threaten to engulf them. A beautiful and hopeful film. 

22 July, which has just opened in theaters, is director Paul Greengrass’s riveting re-creation of the terrorist attack by a rightwing gunman who killed 77 teenagers at a political youth camp on Utoya Island off the coast of Norway in 2011. Greengrass (United 93, Captain Phillips) deploys his usual tense and visceral style to convey the horror of the attack, but concentrates most of the film on the aftermath. What stands out is the methodical progress of the legal system to bring the evildoer to justice, the sincere effort by the government to investigate the tragedy — and the absence of partisan bickering or blame casting.  The comparisons are too obvious to belabor. 

Watergate, a new four-hour-plus documentary from filmmaker Charles Ferguson (Inside Job), offers no real surprises or revelations — just a thorough recounting of the Nixon-era scandals, with ample archival footage, fresh interviews (with John Dean, Carl Bernstein, Elizabeth Holtzman and others), and some rather clumsy re-creations of Nixon’s taped Oval Office conversations. Nowhere is Donald Trump mentioned. But comparisons are implicit in almost every scene. On the one hand, Nixon’s crimes seem, in retrospect, even more brazen and nefarious than Trump’s bumbling bad acts. (It’s hard to imagine this President, for all his “lock her up” bluster, actually ordering a burglary.)  On the other hand, Nixon’s misdeeds were at least motivated by what he thought was the national interest (for Nixon, the Democrats really were endangering the country by opposing the Vietnam War). Trump, of course, has no real agenda beyond his own self-interest.   

But what the film illuminates most starkly is how much better the system worked back then. Congressional hearings were conducted in good faith. (The Democrats, significantly, controlled both houses.) Tough questions were asked by Senators on both sides of the aisle. The President used every trick in the book to evade justice — but in the end acceded to court orders, Supreme Court decisions, and the rule of law. The contrast to today, once again, is hard to miss. But Watergate could provide a guide out of our current mess. After a theatrical run, it will air on the History Channel over three nights starting Nov. 2.