movie: Heartworn Highways

heartworn highwaysOh, man, what a treat. This 1976 documentary showed at the Pickford a few weeks ago, and Husband and I really enjoyed it.

We were not expecting such a departure from the documentary as I know it, which tends to splice in interviews, voice-overs, text captions to identify players, and the like. Instead, this was just 90 minutes of footage strung together. Which is not to say that it wasn’t artful; transitions felt natural and it was edited, of course, but there was no guide to the experience, which is different from what I’d imagined. So we were just bystanders to the action: Larry Jon Wilson records “Ohoopee River Bottomland” in the studio; Townes van Zandt takes the camera on a tour of his home in Austin and chats with Seymour Washington; David Allen Coe road-trips to the Tennessee State Pen and performs there; Gamble Rogers gives an outstanding spoken-word performance between songs at a bar; Charlie Daniels plays a high school gym; a teenaged-looking Steve Earle sings around a table with Guy Clark, Rodney Crowell and others. As you can just imagine, it’s all very atmospheric, alternately very funny and touching. Guy Clark’s “Texas Cooking” really got to me.

I had no idea Townes van Zandt was such a riot, and now I want to see Be Here to Love Me. This was great. If you’re a fan of “outlaw country” or regional flavor, check it out.


Rating: 8 holes.

National Theatre Live at the Pickford presents Les Liaisons Dangereuses

liaisons

I am so glad this is a text format and I don’t have to try to pronounce this title for you.

NT Live always does an amazing job, and Les Liaisons Dangereuses is no exception. The play by Christopher Hampton is based on the 1782 epistolary novel by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos, and I came in with little prior knowledge of either play or novel: I did see a certain 1999 Hollywood movie based on the same plot, which I’m a little embarrassed to admit, but that’s the background I had coming in. And actually, the feel of the thing was recognizable, although the sumptuous costuming of NT Live’s period-appropriate version was a decided improvement.

In brief: this is a very sexual and sexy play. I find the Pickford‘s plot summary too perfect not to simply repost here.

Former lovers, the Marquise de Merteuil and Vicomte de Valmont now compete in games of seduction and revenge. Merteuil incites Valmont to corrupt the innocent Cecile de Volanges before her wedding night but Valmont has targeted the peerlessly virtuous and beautiful Madame de Tourvel. While these merciless aristocrats toy with others’ hearts and reputations, their own may prove more fragile than they supposed.

It is a story of sex, power, gender politics, revenge and spite. I have said before that the NT Live screenings sometimes come with too much exposition – that is, speechifying before the play and during intermission – but in this case I enjoyed and benefited from the background. Playwright Hampton makes some interesting points about the original being a feminist novel; I saw this interpretation in his strong female star, who may not be always likeable but certainly knows her own mind, and works with great awareness against the confines of her society.

This is more than a simple soap opera of who slept with whom and who was angry about it. Although I think it works, and titillates, on that level, I found it rather more political than shallow. And visually gorgeous, and emotive, and affecting; and as always with NT Live, the acting was outstanding and the cinematography perfect. Sorry, I’m raving again. But again, catch some NT Live if you can!


Rating: 8 letters.

iDiOM Theatre presents The Love of the Nightingale

nightingaleAnother perfectly lovely, intimate performance from iDiOM. (See an earlier one here.)

The Love of the Nightingale is a play by Timberlake Wertenbaker based on the Greek myth of Philomele. The iDiOM describes it as “a tale of sisterhood, betrayal, and revenge, in a poetic, beautiful, funny and modern retelling.” I’m not so sure about the modern part – it seems the play was written so that it could have been staged with or without modern dressings, but this version was fairly stripped down. There were a few moments of commentary on modern times by comparison to the tragedies of Philomele’s story. Essentially, it felt very Greek to me: deeply tragic, gory, inexorability revolving around a fatal flaw; willing and inevitable murdering of immediate family members. Wonderful stuff, if you’re in the mindset for a really dark storyline.

The acting was as wonderful as ever. These are extraordinary players, and I feel lucky to see them. Not that there weren’t a few faults: when the chorus speaks in unison (particularly the male chorus), they are not quite in unison, so their words are garbled; and the set’s steps and platforms, constructed of wood, squeaked and creaked loudly enough to obscure some of the actors’ speech. (Also, we found use of a ventriloquist-style dummy for the young child an odd choice. I think it would have been less distracting to just have an adult actor take the part.) As I’ve said before, though, these small imperfections just remind me that we are part of a small community watching incredibly talented but basically amateur performers do what they love.


Rating: 7 questions.

movie: The Hateful Eight

hateful eight

In a word: not Tarantino’s best. I felt pretty quickly bombarded with heavy-handed racial slurs (Tarantino loves the n-word) and racial conflict – not that this stuff is not rich source material for drama and social critique, but that’s not really what’s going on here. No, this felt gratuitous. As in, tapping straight in to such grotesque subjects is an easy and direct route to the kind of shock value that Tarantino is known for. I prefer when he writes it into the script, though, rather than access it via well-established societal pain pathways.

Husband’s less convoluted criticism was that this movie never got exciting in the way that Tarantino’s best work does. There were few-to-none of those gasp-and-jump moments. The gore was slightly less well done, more cartoonish, and less prodigious than his best (I’m remembering a few key scenes from Pulp Fiction). Almost all the action takes place in closed-room settings, which as we know can be highly effective, but here contributed to a feeling Husband and I shared, that not much happened. And finally, the classic Tarantino dialog – wordy and long-winded, sarcastic and highly explicative – felt a little timeworn here. I can’t account for this feeling: am I just getting sick of hearing this kind of hot air? (I think not, as the Tarantino classics still appeal, even after many viewings.) I suspect this script is simply less well-written.

Graphic violence, rampant obscenity, and discomfiting racism are among Tarantino’s best-known themes. And I’m no Puritan when it comes to that stuff (for example, I loved Django Unchained). But here – and with the added misogyny, which he is not so well-known for – it felt like he was merely wielding those tools (violence, racism, etc.) for their own inherent powers to harm, rather than contributing the wisdom and humor in interpretation that I come for.


Rating: 5 blood spatters.

movie: Breakfast at Tiffany’s

breakfastFinally got around to the movie! This 1961 adaptation of the Truman Capote novel was an enjoyable visual and emotional experience – not quite the same feat the novel achieved, but what else is new? Perhaps the main point – not that you didn’t know it – is that Audrey Hepburn is a doll. Movies this old generally feel slow-paced to today’s audiences, and while this was true here, the appealing visuals – Audrey, as well as historic New York – and intrigue of the story were plenty engaging for me. Husband went to bed before it was over, though. I wonder if it would have been more interesting if he had also read the book first.

audrey

It should not be surprising that the gender roles of the time were hard to watch sometimes, but again, what’s new. There were a few twists from the story Capote wrote (that’s why they call it an ‘adaptation’), but I felt that the feeling was faithful. Holly Golightly is an airhead, a dingbat, obnoxiously needy; but on another level, surprisingly self-aware and conniving, even wise. This is what I interpret O.J. Berman means when he calls her a “real phony.” The emotional effect of this character – dingy, ditzy, defiant, vulnerable, both an object and the vehicle of her own existence, both stupid and clever – is the strongest element of the film, despite certain weaknesses. For example, Mickey Rooney’s portrayal of Mr. Yunioshi is obviously, cringingly racist to today’s eyes. It can be hard to reconcile these things. But there it is; I watched the movie anyway.

This is a historic and iconic adaptation of a fine novella, and well worth viewing.


Rating: 7 cigarettes.

National Theatre Live presents As You Like It

Back to the Pickford for a very fine production of As You Like It, a romantic comedy by Shakespeare which showcases his playfulness with gender reversals. This play introduces the line, “all the world’s a stage.”

photo credit: Mads Perch

photo credit: Mads Perch


I did not remember this one until we met Celia and Rosalind, and then I knew it. The plot, very briefly: Orlando is a frustrated younger son. Celia is the daughter of the new duke; her cousin Rosalind is the daughter of the banished duke. Thus they are both friends, and the respective daughters of rival brothers. Orlando makes a brave and foolhardy challenge, which he wins, but which puts him out of favor with several powers that be; he exchanges meaningful eye contact with Rosalind; the duke sends Rosalind away, and loyal Celia decides to go with her. Orlando and companion escape into the forest. Celia, Rosalind and their companion the court fool Touchstone likewise escape into the forest, in search of Rosalind’s father, the banished duke. Rosalind dresses up as a boy to help protect their little group. When she next encounters Orlando, then, he meets her as a boy named Ganymede. Ganymede convinces Orlando to court Rosalind with “him”self – Ganymede – as stand-in. In Shakespeare’s time these parts would all have been played by boys. So this is a boy actor playing a girl disguised as a boy pretending to be a girl. The play ends in the forest with a quadruple-wedding and a fascinating epilogue.

Shakespeare is a treasure, and this production was great fun. It begins modernized by an office setting, which I didn’t love but which was amusing in its own ways; but once we get into the forest it feels purely Shakespeare again, which is not to say dated so much as timeless. (National Theatre Live as usual gave us some expository narrative, which can get tiresome. But in this case I have to say: everyone who repeated over and over that Shakespeare is timeless and ever-relevant was perhaps not original, but absolutely correct.) The acting was great. Celia was played by Patsy Ferran, who starred so beautifully as Jim in NT Live’s Treasure Island. Celia is an interesting character, and Ferran is a joy to watch: she has a wonderfully expressive face. Rosalie Craig was outstanding as Rosalind/Ganymede, perhaps equally attractive in both roles.

But Orlando was my favorite, played by Joe Bannister who was too adorable as well as passionate, expressive, silly and dreamy. It’s a deep cast, both of great characters (Touchstone, Jacques, the Duke, Phoebe and Silvius – wonderful! – Audrey, on and on) and of fine acting. The singing Amiens was handsome and talented.

I like to study the plots of these plays before I see them. I think of that as being the right preparation for fully appreciating all the nuance. This time, I just fell down, and went in nearly blind: I had read this play before but it had been many years. But it cost me nothing. Shakespeare’s themes, emotions, passions and politics always feel fresh, and his work with language – well, he helped make English as we know it.* He coined or popularized many figures of speech we all take for granted today; and the dialog in his works, which sounds awkward to the modern ear for the first ten minutes, lapses into a very easily absorbed dialect in the next ten. He is still so funny – laugh out loud funny, which we don’t see all that often. (Mark Benton as Touchstone contributes significantly to that, too.)

A National Theatre Live review wouldn’t be complete without me mentioning, again, the cinematography. The more of these productions I see, the more I feel glad that I am sitting in a movie theatre, getting all the benefits of close-up shots and artistic angles, rather than the (considerably more expensive) single-angle view of the live audience. I’m not saying I wouldn’t attend live: I would love to. But I really appreciate the affordability as well as the high quality of this hybrid form. Oh, and set design: the transition from modern office to spooky forest is surprising, arty and intriguing, and surprisingly effective. I won’t ruin it for you.

Shakespeare and NT Live continue to make a winning combination. Don’t hesitate.


Rating: 8 necklaces.

*If you haven’t already, check out Bernard Levin’s “You Are Quoting Shakespeare” (text here; performed by Christopher Gaze here). There is also the perspective of this grumpy guy, who points out that Shakespeare was not the originator of every one of these phrases. I still think it matters to us that Shakespeare gave them to the world. For example: The Telegraph acknowledges the concept.

movie: Les Misérables

You know the title, of course. It began as a novel by Victor Hugo in 1862, with the original (French) version coming in somewhere near 2,000 pages long: fewer in English, but no, I have not read this one. (I listened to the audiobook of The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Also long.) It became a sung-through Broadway musical to great success (Wikipedia says it was the second-longest-running musical in the world), and I am now reviewing the 2012 movie, which I saw at home with Husband and Pops, courtesy of our local library.

I was pretty unfamiliar with the story: I read a quick synopsis online just before viewing. It wasn’t hard to follow, though. I’ll make it extra quick for you, since there are plenty of plot summaries out there and you may already know it, anyway. In 1815 France, Jean Valjean is finally released from a 19-year forced-labor sentence for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his sister, nephew and self. He is, unsurprisingly, resentful. He violates parole and disappears, reappearing to us some years later as a good man, mayor and factory owner who cares about the people he holds power over. Inspector Javert, who knew Valjean as a prisoner, continues to seek him out, hoping to hold him responsible for the crime of skipping parole. Valjean’s continued attempts to do good do him no good. He adopts the orphaned daughter of a local citizen, and goes on the run with his newly formed family. The evil innkeeper & wife who had been fostering the girl repeatedly offer comic relief from an otherwise tragic and horrifying plot. The story’s central conflict crescendos with the Paris Uprising of 1832.

This movie is packed with stars: Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway, Amanda Seyfriend (one of the ditzes from Mean Girls), Sacha Baron Cohen (Borat), Helena Bonham Carter, and Eddie Redmayne (The Danish Girl). Samantha Barks plays a beautiful Éponine. The imagery is gorgeous; all the costuming, scenery, etc., and of course all those beautiful people. I found the story evocative. And the singing! Who knew Crowe, Jackman, Hathaway, et al had such voices on them? The music was rousing and emotive: it’s not hard to see why the Broadway show did so well.

Am I inspired to read ~1500 pages of English-translated Hugo? No, not just yet. But I will gladly see a stage production of this musical story. It was a great and involving time.


Rating: 8 loaves of bread.
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