Friday, January 11, 2008

There Will Be Oscars

That headline is too flip, but it's late. I saw this movie tonight, and I'm still digesting it, but I can say this: if culture is your religion, there is a new holy book, and it is There Will Be Blood. Seldom do movies live up to this kind of hype. The reviews have been over the top, and it's on most top 10 lists for '07.

I don't gush. Well sometimes I do, but I never use words like "masterful." But that's what I kept thinking as every shot unfolded, every scene added layer after layer of complexity and interest. Walking out of this film, people were buzzing, trying to figure out subtle plot points and the characters' deeper motivations. I saw it with Mike, and I'm sure we could have talked about it all night.

Daniel Day Lewis is 100% committed to the character Daniel Plainview. It's a physical, visceral performance; comparisons to Citizen Kane abound, but for me it evoked the best of Coppola--The Godfather or Apocalypse Now, and the best classic westerns, the way the meaning and themes hinge on the moral and spiritual ambiguity of the main character. These characters are diabolical, but acting out some ancient (unknowable) wound, and not without a certain amount of grace and affection, however despicable their actions. You will hate Plainview at times, but I guarantee his conniving ways will beguile you, and his relationship to his son will move you. It will be forever hard to imagine him as a fictional character.

Over the years I have admired Paul Thomas Anderson (Boogie Nights, Magnolia, Punch Drunk Love), but often found him slightly self-indulgent. Usually his movies are just a bit too long and could use a disciplined cut here and there, but this one is different. He earns every minute, and his occasional indulgences (the ministers' histrionics, the derrick fire--an apocalyptic vision of hell) work well.

If I were nitpicking, I might single out the soundtrack. Sometimes minimalist in a Philip Glass way, and sometimes symphonic, but often intrusive, it was composed by Jonny Greenwood from Radiohead, so it's getting a lot of attention. That factoid is just cocktail party chatter. Judge it on its own merits. I guarantee you'll notice it, and I'm not sure that's a good thing.

What a great year it was for movies: Juno, There Will Be Blood, Michael Clayton, The Bourne Ultimatum, Superbad, Lars and the Single Girl, Across the Universe, Into the Wild, Zodiac, and No Country For Old Men. Those are my top 10 in no particular order. Thanks to my loyal blog readers!

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Speed the Plow? No. Sow the material.

I don't have the opportunity to blog about theater that often, though it is by far my favorite cultural pastime. I'm confess to being a bit of a snob about theater, and I don't see local, San Francisco theater that often finding it too usually too safe or entirely too avant-garde. (Or in the cast of Berkeley Rep, very hit and miss, often too esoteric). I admit, I'm picky. My favorite theater company is Manhattan Theater Club in New York. They seem to get it right most of the time.

So with some trepidation I went to the opening night of Speed The Plow at ACT in San Francisco. I was a guest of the Hafner's, who magnanimously have donated wine for the entire season.

I saw Speed the Plow years ago on Broadway. Madonna starred along with Joe Montegna and Ron Silver, consummate interpreters of Mamet. Madonna was excoriated in the press, at least that's what I remember, but I just went back and read the New York Times Review, and they were kind. But I remember the play being serious and intense, and this review confirms that.

I heard Carey Perloff, ACT Artistic Director and the director Loretta Greco speak about the play at the dinner beforehand, and they spoke about how Mamet's misogyny is apparent in most of his work and indeed in this work, unless of course you interpreted the character of the naive secretary as being as powerful as the men. Hmmm, I thought. This is going to be interesting. (I will also note that Perloff went on and on about how terrible Madonna was. "I saw it in previews," she said. "She couldn't even remember her lines." I also overheard Perloff talking to someone at my table earlier in the evening, saying she had just been to USC to speak with some art journalism majors (critics in training). "What could I tell them, I thought? That they were about to join the most odious group of people. . . " or something to that effect. I wonder how she would feel if someone criticized her production based on a preview performance. But I digress.)

The play is about two Hollywood producers, one of which, Gould, just got promoted to be "head of production" of his studio. He can "greenlight" any film under $30 million. The other producer, Fox, brings him a blockbuster project and the two spend the first act getting ready to go pitch it to the head of the studio (we assume it's a project that is way over $30 million). Karen, the secretary brings them coffee, and they start playing with her like a little kitten. Long story short, they make a bet on whether Gould can bed her. Gould lures her to his apartment by asking her to give a "courtesy" read to an obscure, but critically acclaimed, eastern novel. He says she should read it then come to his place and report on it. She does.

But she ends up being utterly moved by the book and convinces him to make it instead of the blockbuster he was going to pitch. This of course causes a serious rift between Gould and Fox.

The plot doesn't matter. The dialogue matters, and it's packed with meaning. It's supposed to show just how "venal" Hollywood is. That's the word Perloff kept using in her introduction to the play.

Mamet is difficult (and fun) to act. Page after pay of incomplete sentences, interruptions, eruptions, profanity. Watch Glengarry Glen Ross.

The director made a few choices that I found really questionable. But all day long I've been thinking about it, and I've softened my position which started as "she got it all wrong. What a missed opportunity" to "I would have done it differently."

The choice I refer to are her decision to play it for broad comedy and her decision to present Karen as every bit as conniving as the men (that's how you show women are equal? Oh brother!). I don't believe the play is written to be comedic, or perhaps only slightly so. But in this production the actors are mugging and rolling their eyes and going for the belly laugh. These actors are extraordinarily talented. They really worked the audience. Way too much. The audience should find itself conflicted, not completely siding with Fox who just wants to make money. An interesting play interpretation would be (and I believe Mamet intended this) where we find ourselves in the audience sort of thinking that maybe this pretentious eastern European novel might just in fact be worthy. Certainly the themes of the novel seem grand and true even if the snippets we hear are horribly wooden.

If you see this play, imagine how it would sound, how it would feel if you were laughing less and thinking more. Imagine if Karen were truly naive and not insidiously ambitious. Imagine if the director had allowed the character of Karen to seduce Gould only with her words and with ideas and not her perky breasts.

Monday, January 7, 2008

No Film for Young Men

It's not much of a spoiler to say that No Country For Old Men ends with one character relating a dream he had to another character. It ends almost mid-sentence, and you will hear people around you go "what the fuck?" But it's a suitable ending, in my mind, to a film that is, in some ways is like one long dream, or nightmare. It sticks with you, like an intense dream you had, and the Coen brothers touches are very dreamlike, from the very unusual murder weapon (an air tank cattle gun), the repetitive, quirky dialogue ("that's a dead dog." "they even shot the dog."), and a plot that somehow just doesn't make sense sometimes (who was that guy in the highrise, anyway? and who were those three Mexicans in the hotel, and how did the Javier Bardem character know everything).

More than anything, the dreamy aura is created by the long stretches of silence and almost complete lack of soundtrack. In fact, I thought there was zero music period until I read the New York Times piece about the sound design. There is a good guy, Llewelyn Moss (played by Josh Brolin) and a bad guy, Anton Chigurh (played by Javier Bardem, brilliantly cast) in this film. The good guy is intensely appealing: intelligent but not intellectual, laconic, sexy, loyal, wry, and the bad guy is almost like the Dennis Hopper character in Blue Velvet in his utter evil-incarnateness. The film is made by the Coen brothers. It's darker than Dakota, and not as funny as O Brother Where Art Thou, but it's more important somehow than at least the latter and most of their other films.

The film proves my verymarkmccormick theory, stated many times here, that a good film requires a sympathetic protagonist. This film has two, and when one of them doesn't quite make it to the end (honestly that's not a spoiler) the film pretty much sputters, but doesn't entirely die.

I liked the look and sound of this film a lot. It's crafted like a poem that has a lot to say, metaphorically, about desolate landscapes and the characters that live in them. It's like Brokeback Mountain in that way. Long shots of the landscape, the sound of the prairie wind, enigmatic, weathered, characters dying of boredom who somehow endure and are not quite as stupid as they first seem, but nonetheless die in senseless ways all the time, as vulnerable to evil as dry greasewood in a lightning storm. I come from Idaho. I know this shit is true.

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Final 2007 Reviews

It's a mad dash to get to the final few movies released this holiday season. Unfortunately, what I'm quite sure will be the movie to see this season, There Will Be Blood, will not be open in San Francisco until next weekend. Of course it is open in New York and LA. We are just a little backwash of a town, here on this lonely peninsula. We are always a few weeks behind. Meanwhile, I managed to catch Sweeney Todd, Charlie Wilson's War, and Youth Without Youth. So herewith a few verymarkmccormick mini reviews:

I hesitate to say a word against Sweeney Todd, and mostly I found it remarkably creative, well- crafted, and well-acted. Johnny Depp is in my highest pantheon (with Susan Sarandon, Jessica Lange, Tim Norton, and a few others) of actors who I admire most. Sweeney Todd is a Tim Burton joint, of course, and in case you don't know about their collaboration (Charlie and Chocolate Factory, Edward Scissorhands, Ed Wood, and a few others) there's a mini-trailer preceding the film (so odd) which tells you all about why they are so brilliant together; it's all "we have one mind; we are family" folderal. Fine fluff, but should have stayed a DVD extra.

Anyway, my small complaint is that Helen Bonham Carter can't sing. Having seen Patti Lupone twice perform the role of Mrs. Lovett, and heard recordings of Angela Lansbury singing the same, any Sondheim queen would have high standards. What she did, though, was enunciate, and I appreciated that, and she acted with unique and tender subtlety (she's Merchant/Ivory trained, after all) towards the ward, Toby (played by a brilliant child actor Ed Sanders, whose perfect singing really made Bonham's sound wispy). But she was miscast, and that's that.

And more generally, and my Sondheim friends have threatened to disown me if I put this in print, albeit digital, I just don't think Sweeney is his best work. I think it's really high camp ("at last my arm is complete again!" Ugh. Embarrassing. Why couldn't he have just said "At last I am complete again," which is really the point), and the very best songs (Pretty Women, Joanna, Nothing's Going to Harm You) actually sound like they were originally written for Company or Into the Woods, in my opinion. Yes, I know Into the Woods came later, but my point is still that musically they sound different to me, lighter and of a different era.

But there's no denying the genius of A Little Priest. I swear you can listen to that song 100 times and hear new lyrics every time. It is as funny, intricate, insightful as anything Shakespeare ever wrote.

But Sweeney is just a major downer. It's an operatic tragedy, but it's hopeless at the end, and so for me there's no genuine catharsis. Apologies to Sondheim fans everywhere, but that's how I feel.

I liked Charlie Wilson's war. It's like a good episode of West Wing. You learn a lot about the covert war against the USSR we fought through Afghanistan in the 1980's. Julia Roberts is fantastic, but I had a problem with the glibness of her monologues. It was not believable to me that a Houston socialite could be quite so articulate. Aaron Sorkin writes speeches, not dialogue, more often than not. Oh I guess Philip Seymour Hoffman was okay. I'm not going to crap on his performance, like I did in an earlier post about The Savages, but I will say that once again he's playing a snarly misanthrope, and he looks even grosser than usual. I'm sorry, but I'm not on the PSH train. I almost didn't see the movie, because it had Tom Hanks, who I find repulsive most of the time for his smug all-American do-goody persona, but don't let it stop you this time. He's trying to play against type, kinda sorta. I mean he's still the hero; Hanks always has to be the hero.

Youth Without Youth is the most challenging movie I've seen in a long time. It's Coppola's new movie, his first in 10 years. The plot is impossible to describe, but watching I thought: "if T. S. Elliot wrote a screenplay, this would be it." It's full of polemics--political, academic, psychological, metaphysical. It's absolutely gorgeous to look at--all Coppola movies are, because he works with only the very best, most legendary cinematographers. The movie spans several decades, and he tries to imitate the filmmaking style of the decade, so there's a little noir, a little agitprop (the 4o's) , a little Bergmanesque existentialism (the 60's). This movie will make you think, but probably not make you feel. Who it's for: cinephiles, Coppola fans, graduate students in theology or philosophy.