Posted: July 30th, 2010 | Filed under:Movies | Comments Off
There are moments in Jay Roach’s Dinner for Schmucksthat elicit deep pity. Not for the titular schmucks, mind you, but for the actors themselves. I know Steve Carell, Paul Rudd, and Jemaine Clement can be funny. Hell, Zach Galifianakis makes me laugh simply by staring at the camera. But with a cast of comedic heavyweights, long periods of silence are all the more unbearable. The problem is the script. Inspired by The Dinner Game, a popular French comedy, screenwriters David Guion and Michael Handelman drained the remake of wit or any semblance to human behavior. The jokes, such as they are, would be embarrassing even in a third-rate sitcom. Comedy writers should take heed – Dinner for Schmucks is a master-class on easily-avoidable mistakes.
Posted: July 26th, 2010 | Filed under:Movies | Comments Off
Alain Resnais’ Wild Grass is a sometimes-perplexing movie about the unexpected consequences of meaningless events. It’s well-acted and confidently directed, as well as strangely rewarding for those who don’t require straightforward explanations. There are elegant moments of filmmaking prowess, and bizarre moments that defy the most basic cinematic conventions. After directing for over sixty years, perhaps Resnais is done with simple narratives, and doesn’t care to explain himself. One thing is for sure: advanced age hasn’t shaken the director’s grasp of his craft.
Georges (André Dussollier) is a deliberate, curious man who stumbles upon someone else’s wallet. Perusing through the documents inside, he discovers the wallet belongs to Marguerite (Sabine Azéma), a middle-aged amateur pilot. Georges narrates the entire movie, and at this moment he is wistful. Marguerite appears drab in her driver’s license and stunning in her pilot’s license, so Georges imagines her as a vivacious woman who lives through her hobby. He takes the wallet to the police station, where the officer (Mathieu Amalric) takes a begrudged interest in the case. Georges declines the potential for a reward, yet he and Marguerite begin a strange tug-of-war, one that ignores societal conventions. Meanwhile Georges’ wife (Anne Consigny) and Marguerite’s best friend (Emmanuelle Devos) get wrapped up in the drama. Resnais hints at romantic developments between George and Marguerite, so when the four are later flying aboard Marguerite’s plane, the tension is palpable.
I first found Resnais’ style maddening. He would suggest complications and later disregard them completely. As an example, take Georges’ narration. Always justifying himself, Georges obliquely refers to a dark past that’s never given further explanation. Only later does the director’s purpose become clear. Like everyday life, his story is messy and full of seemingly impossible developments. While we never fully grasp precisely who these characters are, familiar actors guide us through the storytelling murk, preserving interest in what will happen next. You may recognize André Dussollier as the veteran cop from Tell No One, and here he brings the same world-weariness. His direct manner of speaking makes him easily likable, even as his behavior gets increasingly erratic. The same can also be said of Sabine Azéma. With a shock of red hair and a plucky attitude, she’s easily watchable and a good foil Dussollier’s grave tone. Resnais isn’t content to simply regard his subjects. His camera is always moving, and several long shots are elegant in how they define space. Other moments, such the insertion of unlikely music into a dramatic high point, may lose the audience with have brazen contempt for filmmaking logic.
Some critics of Inception take issue with Christopher Nolan’s interpretation of the dream world. They say, “Dreams don’t really look like that. Where’s the bizarre imagery? This subconscious looks too much like a Hollywood blockbuster.” Ironically, a similar sort of criticism can be made Resnais’ perspective of the real word. Yes, parts of Wild Grass are impossible and bear little semblance to reality, yet as with Inception, such a complaint misses the point. Wild Grass need not resemble your preconceptions; quite the opposite, Resnais expects you to conform to his. By giving him the benefit of the doubt, you may leave the after a little confused, but you’ll also leave with a pleasant smile.
Posted: July 20th, 2010 | Filed under:Theater | Comments Off
As an internet-addled urban twenty-something with a BA in English, the puppets of Avenue Q sometimes resonate with me. The Broadway musical is now playing at the Lansburgh Theatre, and unlike the puppets of Sesame Street, this particular crop impart knowledge/wisdom upon those who are on the cusp of adulthood. Sure, I learned plenty from the ‘Street – the letter J, for example, or how to count to three (Ah Ah Ah). Others like me cannot recapture the innocence from the ubiquitous public television show, but because we remember it fondly, Avenue Q‘s subversion of Sesame Street is more playful than mocking. It’s been six years since the musical made its Broadway debut, so some is satirical barbs are less sharp. Yet it raises important questions in a playfully hilarious way, and the production’s energy and craft make it easy to forgive the familiar material.
Princeton (Brent Michael DiRoma) is a recent college graduate who moves into the titular avenue, located in an outer borough of the Big Apple. His landlord is Gary Coleman (Charles M. Baskerville), who treats the young graduate as another charity case. In addition to recently-deceased child stars, there are other odd puppets/humans on the block. Trekkie Monster (Zach Trimmer) is a homebody porn enthusiast. Rod the gay republican (DiRoma) lives with Nicky (Trimmer), an unshaven couch potato. Brian (Tim Kornblum) is a struggling comedian, and his perennially-annoyed girlfriend Christmas Eve (Julianna Lee) is a struggling therapist. Meanwhile Kate Monster (Jacqueline Grabois), a blossoming teacher, catches the eye of young Princeton. They begin a courtship, but Lucy the Slut (Grabois) threatens to derail their progress. This motley crew discuss their purpose in life and go through familiar trials, narrating their up and downs through offbeat show tunes. Of all the characters, Princeton has the biggest problem adjusting, particularly when the adorable/deranged Bad Idea Bears make an unwanted appearance.
Short on plot and high on ideas, the songs offer clever insight into the lives of youngish city dwellers. The opening “What can I do with a BA in English?” is one of the more innocent tunes, but Avenue Q gets more risqué as its first act continues. By the time “Everyone is a Little Bit Racist” and “The Internet is for Porn” rolls around, the characters launch into near-offensive tirades. The cast sings each irreverent lyric with skewed childlike innocence, so even broad caricatures cause ripples of laughter. Puppet design deliberately recalls children’s television, but here the actors are fully visible on stage (albeit in drab colors). Their cheerful expressions match the inanimate creatures they portray. Of all the puppets, Kate Monster is the easiest to accept, for her wide eyes are adorable and welcoming. Ironically, the more human-looking puppets are less compelling to watch, so focus drifts more to the respective puppeteer. It’s a minor gripe, as every performance is delightfully off-kilter. Grabois deserves special attention for her portrayal of Kate Monster and Lucy the Slut; it can’t be easy to play the town whore AND the girl-next-door, yet the verbally versatile performer makes both characters convincing. And in the dual role of Nicky and Trekkie Monster, Zach Trimmer ably mimics classic Muppets. Even when performers are far from their respective puppets, all the voices and supporting cast work together seamlessly.
With the volcanic rise of the internetz, pop culture is far different than it was when Avenue Q made its debut. Back then mocking Sesame Street was subversive and above all NEW, so telling your friend about onstage puppet fucking felt like a shared secret. Nowadays Gary Coleman is dead, and rule 34 renders Trekkie’s porn song obsolete. Because writers Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx draw from such a specific cultural blip, the musical’s inevitable obsolescence occurs quickly. That being said, there are enough warm-hearted jokes to ensure Avenue Q will please audience for at least another couple years. Its use of the stage is a tour de force, especially during a highly metaphorical, jarringly funny sight gag. Coupled with its quarter-century-crisis theme, it’s even likely a younger generation will reinvigorate the plight of Princeton and his furry friends. Until that happens, Avenue Q will feel like a months-old internet meme: still hilarious, but not entirely fresh.
Avenue Q is playing at The Lansburgh Theatre through August 15th. Buy tickets here!
I once had a dream where I was being chased. I don’t recall who pursued me or why, but I do recall outmaneuvering them. No matter how they tried to ambush me, I was always one step ahead. The dream drifted from my memory years ago, yet the chase and its concurring exhilaration returned midway through Christopher Nolan’s Inception. His latest epiclargely takes place in a dream world, one where kinetic action coincides with psychological warfare, and the stakes are more thoughtful than they initially seem. The exploration of his premise harkens back to the most brainy sci-fi writers, so there are rich ideas amidst breathtaking combat. The power of dreams is so central to the movie that you, too, may find yourself recalling your most vivid subconscious journeys. Once again, Nolan and his A-list cast outdo themselves.
Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) is an Extractor who has the ability to invade dreams. Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is the Point-man, whose primary job is background intelligence. Businessman Seito (Ken Watanabe) hires Cobb and Arthur for a sinister mission of corporate espionage: they must perform “inception,” or the undetected introduction of an idea, on Fischer (Cillian Murphy), Seito’s snoozing business rival. In addition to a reward, Seito will give Cobb legal entry into the United States (the reason for Cobb’s fugitive status is one of the more rewarding secrets). Cobb begins to recruit others. Earnes (Tom Hardy) is the Forger who specializes in disguises, Ariadne (Ellen Page) is the Architect who constructs impenetrable worlds, and Yusuf (Dileep Rao) is the Chemist who ensures dreams last as long as they must. When Cobb or others die in the dream world, they typically regain consciousness instantly. Inception requires heavier sedation, and now dream-death has more dire consequences. Complicating matters is Cobb’s wife Mal (Marion Cotillard), who has tragic motivations. With Seito in tow, the team begins the mission, but Fischer trained for such an invasion, so dangerous subconscious forces disrupt each layer of subterfuge.
Nolan’s smartest choice is to forego any explanation of the dream-invasion device. It has no name, nor does it provide a sense of how it works. Cobb notes, “Dreams feel real while we’re in them,” and his remark is for Ariadne as well as the audience. By accepting the immediacy of the dream world, absorbing experience quickly follows. The mission is Inception’s centerpiece – I was too enthralled to check its precise length, but it easily lasts for ninety minutes. During that time, Nolan flushes out the ideas introduced by the intriguing opening act, and the plot nearly becomes impenetrable. Characters exist on planes with dizzying levels of dependence and responsibility, and the suspense/complexity they generate is agonizing. Emotions are the guide through the dreams-within-dreams, and while the audience will find it difficult to recount a character’s specific goal, they will grasp its necessity.
Strong performances can be lost amidst action and a high-concept premise, but the cast adds gravity to the implausible situation. DiCaprio delivers another slow-burn performance – he conveys urgency and near-panic with a determined gaze and a razor-sharp delivery. When Cobb does raise his voice (as in the trailer), his ulterior motive suggests a penetrating intelligence. A petite frame and large eyes make Page’s Ariadne a good foil for Cobb. Few grasp the depth of her intuition, and her considerable empathy clarifies the murky morals of the team’s mission. Hardy and Gordon-Levitt are another well-suited pair. Compact and lithe, Arthur is the consummate professional of the group. The movie’s best action scene takes place in a hallway, and Gordon-Levitt maintains a steely poise as he must deal with improbable complications (I assume Nolan hired a physicist as part of his effects team). Hardy, on the other hand, delivers his lines with detached bemusement – he has the compact body of a boxer, an asset during his chaotic snowbound firefight. Wantabe and Murphy have trickier roles; as the financier and mark, respectively, they must strike an appropriate balance between sympathy and scorn. Nolan’s script eases such a balance, so the reliable actors are always on the cusp of becoming likable.
When a top director has a considerable budget for his original screenplay, there is always cause for excitement. Inception is Nolan’s first original since Following, and the growth since his modest debut is staggering. Even without the suspense and labyrinthine plotting, his movie is a visual wonder. Gravity-defying fight scenes are only a small piece – his effects are sleek and majestic, yet integrate seamlessly with the dream-world. This is never more apparent than when dreams literally collapse, for their beautiful destruction signals multiple levels of danger. Nolan filmed on six different countries, and the breadth of locations is a highlight, particularly when we enter Cobb’s otherworldly subconscious. Of all the characters, Cotillard’s Mal best personifies this connection between chaotic dreams and their real-world implications. Her existence is perplexing in a manner similar to Solaris, and the paradox she raises inspires ironic feelings of regret.
Superbly mounted and executed, Inception is one hell of a thriller, and one of the year’s best films. It is a reminder of why I love the movies, for it’s an arresting experience that provokes an intense reaction. Perhaps the physical experience of watching Inception is the best way to describe its quality, for a mere summary might make you think I’m exaggerating. In awe of its craft, I leaned forward for most of its running time. Its emotional climax caused the hair on the back of my neck to stand, and its captivating action left me slack-jawed with awe. By its end, Cobb’s complex feelings become important. His journey is cathartic, and offers a cerebral exploration of the mind’s mysteries. Note-perfect endings are hallmarks of Nolan’s work. Inception is no different, but make sure you watch closely – the object in focus may tell us one thing, but a character’s thoughts toward it are far more revelatory.
Posted: July 15th, 2010 | Filed under:Theater | Comments Off
When you were a kid, did you ever watch a movie/tv-show and later enthusiastically recount its awesomeness to anyone who would listen? If not, surely you’re familiar with how they go: “And then the good guys totally surprised the bad guys, which wasn’t a big deal AT ALL because the bad guys had no idea that…” You get the idea. Well, Charles Ross’ One Man Lord of the Rings, now playing at Wooly Mammoth Theatre Company, is The Iliad of such breathless summaries. Condensing the 683 minute trilogy into 65 minutes is no small feat, and Ross ably succeeds with athleticism, vocal dexterity, and laughs aplenty.
Armed with a microphone and kneepads, Ross’ unleashes fervent recreations at a breakneck pace. In the span of mere seconds, he rattles off strong impressions of Elijah Wood, Christopher Lee, and Ian McKellen. Impressions of Sean Astin as Sam and Andy Serkis as Gollum are particularly striking, which is no surprise, as those actors have memorable voices. Gestures define less distinctive characters – Ross’ reference to Legolas, for example, is a great running gag. Vocal interpretations of the film score are equally persuasive, and later prove a necessary reference point.
Later Ross defines battle scenes with fierce cries and orc impressions that are borderline creepy. Other moments, such as Frodo’s offering to Galadriel, are relatively more intimate. With such rapid-fire shifts, director TJ Dawe is invaluable, as lighting signals whether the audience should imagine The Shire, Mordor, or Helm’s Deep. Such manic intensity requires extreme physical exertion, and Ross is up to the task. Amidst the screams and snarls, he sprints, jumps, tumbles, and lunges. Considering Ross indulges in only two brief water breaks, his sustained energy is a feat to behold.
While not necessarily a weakness, it’s worth noting your understanding of the performance will be directly proportional to your familiarity with the story. Let me put it this way: do you remember Denethor’s poor table manners when he has Pippin sing during the battle of Minas Tirith? No? Then One Man Lord of the Rings isn’t the show for you. Sure, Ross interjects clever pop culture references and obligatory gay jokes, but I’m certain you’ll be confused if you’ve only seen the movies once. On the other hand, Ross’ work is so good you may want to refresh your Middle-earth memories beforehand. After One Man Star Wars and now this, I feel comfortable saying he is the reigning master of comically spastic reductive storytelling.
One Man Lord of the Rings is playing at Woolly through August 1st. Buy tickets here!
Posted: July 13th, 2010 | Filed under:Theater | Comments Off
Noir appeals to me more than most any other genre because it indulges my cynical side. When a weak-willed hero fails to thwart systemic corruption through sheer incompetence, it makes emotional sense because on some level, I believe this how it is. The period details are a secondary pleasure – classic noir is the perfect example of “they don’t make them like they used to.” Mad Men notwithstanding, it’s rare to see characters who wear sharp clothes as they booze/smoke leisurely. Whereas most modern noir riffs on thematic content, it often eschews mid-20th century style. In this regard, Handbook for Hosts is a pleasure for those who relish 40s cool. There’s little thematic depth, but with wit and confident performances, the show is weirdly compelling.
Far from a tight plot, the performance is instead a collection of inspired vignettes. Some riff on noir dialogue, whereas others nostalgically recall popular radio from the period. The uniting thread is the plight of two Soviet spies, Boris and Natalya, who search for hidden code in old-timey radio broadcasts. At one point, femme fatales order a cocktail in the same seductive manner, and each iteration is more absurd than the last. Other highlights include jingle recreations with charming ukulele melodies from Mark Jaster, as well as the audience’s participation in onstage crime. The cast rely on classic archetypes to fill in plot holes, and succeed through oodles of confidence. Melissa Krodman, aka BYT’s favorite H Street Guide, casts a stunning silhouette and isn’t afraid of losing herself in the action. Michael Sazonov, who looks like a skinnier Michael Fassbender, best captures the forgotten cadence from film/radio’s golden age. And as Natalya, Sabrina Mandell’s scheming Soviet offers a welcome mix of pluck and frustration.
The production shares its title with Esquire’s party-throwing guide. Excerpts are read by actors and through the speakers, and while the language feels antiquated, it is easy to notice the suggestions are still quite helpful. Vintage credits and clever costumes similarly evoke a time where gents and ladies all strove for a similar ideal. Without a tight story to ensnare the audience, Handbook for Hosts nonetheless reminds us that modern style isn’t necessarily an improvement.