Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Theater 1, Film 0

Okay, so I'm officially back in Hartford after a month away. There is nothing in my fridge or pantry, there is next-to-nothing in my checking account, and there are only five days before the next semester gallops apace. How is any of this possible?

I did get to spend a good long weekend in New York City on my way back up here, during which I saw five movies, but none of them were as good as the production of Adrienne Kennedy's Funnyhouse of a Negro that Derek and I saw at the Classical Theatre of Harlem, up on St. Nicholas Ave and 141st. Admittedly, Funnyhouse of a Negro is probably my favorite American play, top five easy, and yet it's so rarely staged that I probably would have been tickled by any production. But director Billie Allen, the star of the original 1964 off-Broadway production, has done exquisite justice to the rich figures, the starkly beautiful language, the brutal historical kaleidoscopes, and the frightening Artaudian cruelties of the piece. How many American plays are this rich in narrative and character but also invite, even require, such stunning attention to movement, voice, sound, masking, and makeup? The full cast of actors—not just the brave lead actress Suzette Azariah Gunn but, even more so, the exemplary artists who embody her historically-derived alter egos—are in stunning control of the text and its ritualistic choreographies. The piece is perfectly suited to the small, dark space of the Harlem School for the Arts, and the play's heavy demands on the lighting and tech crews are fully met across the board. New Yorkers and nearby outliers, you have until Feb. 12 to buy a ticket and better your life.

In the wake of this event, the movies I caught were bound to be also-rans, although Michael Haneke's Caché (which I was lucky to catch with Nathaniel) works very proficiently as a paranoid thriller and a probing character study. Eventually, the thematic implications become a bit cut-and-dry, not as textured as what Haneke achieved in The Piano Teacher or as chilling as his underrated Time of the Wolf. Still, Haneke's images retain their formidable obstinacy, somehow implying that they are staring you down much more forcefully than you are staring at them. Watching the movie at Lincoln Plaza Cinemas is sort of a kick, because the social caste that Caché critiques is basically the same one plunked down in front of it; I was fascinated to sense the moments when the audience's enervated glee paled into a kind of nervous disavowal of the film.

In other news, I found Duncan Tucker's Transamerica to be a rather winning experience, without too much of the mushy sentiment that adheres to adjectives like "winning." The actors are good, even when creaky story-motivations require some surmounting, and the pressure to affirm the heroism of the protagonist or to simplify the perspectives of the people who surround her is much less than this kind of movie often demands. Moving down the ladder of value, Merchant-Ivory's The White Countess boasts a very strong performance by Ralph Fiennes, a bewitching sound mix, a typically good score by Richard Robbins, and a preposterous screenplay that keeps threatening to sink the whole thing. If Ivory had directed the verbal repetitions, stock figures, and clunky social collage so that they felt more purposefully irreal—as in some of screenwriter Kazuo Ishiguro's more dreamlike novels, like The Unconsoled—then things might have hung together. Unhappily, The White Countess starts as a polished film with quaintly banal notions of history, before lowering itself into the truly unpardonable dialogues and contrivances of its finish.

It gets worse from there. Mrs. Henderson Presents sells out its virtues to its inanities in an even more galling way than The White Countess does, because at least what works in The White Countess is unexpected, idiosyncratic. Mrs. Henderson Presents is much more conventionally dispiriting: a period comedy with luscious costumes and make-up and an agreeable song score, all vainly recruited into the kind of movie that espouses nude vaudeville as a soulful protest to the indignities of global war. Judi Dench's protagonist isn't a character so much as a machine for prodding guffaws at her faux-outrageous quips. Jennifer Aniston puts much more effort into her lead turn in Rumor Has It, but without the slightest wisp of anything to play, she can only sell individual lines and moments. There isn't a single thing tying this movie together except its uniform garishness of tone, look, and scenario, all of them bordering on the lewd. You know the kind of "romantic comedy" where you wish the beleaguered boyfriend would file a restraining order against the protagonist instead of reconciling with her? This is that sort of gig.

Tim R. has correctly diagnosed me as an "Oscar completist," which is the only reason I would pay to see a movie like Mrs. Henderson Presents, and why I'll almost certainly squeeze in Memoirs of a Geisha, Casanova, and, God help me, The Producers before the nomination announcements January 31. (Note: "Oscar completism" transcends the high-profile categories and requires seeing anything short of The Polar Express or Bicentennial Man that might swipe even an Art Direction or Original Song nod.) The only major milestone of 2005 still to arrive to my eyes is Terrence Malick's The New World, which finally opens in Hartford this Friday—quite possibly in a re-edited version, given that the film was yanked from all of its metropolitan screens early this month and that rumors have run rampant about Malick and/or the studio tinkering with the tepidly-received epic. As a dyed-in-the-wool Malick devoté, I'm hoping for the best. In any event, my Top 10 list for 2005 will be posted once I've seen it, with the Nick's Flick Picks honorees in all categories soon to follow.

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7 Comments:

Blogger Dr. S said...

I want you to know that you can borrow my having seen Memoirs of a Geisha.

8:08 PM, January 18, 2006  
Blogger Nick Davis said...

If only it worked that way.

8:15 PM, January 18, 2006  
Blogger Dr. S said...

Okay, and also: in Rumor Has It, did you love the Titanic (though hardly titanic) anachronism? They set that movie in 1997, right, presumably to try and mask the fact that all those people are pretty much too young to be playing people upon whom The Graduate was based, but then Mark Ruffalo's character bursts out with something about how Titanic was based on his family, blah blah, except that that movie didn't come out until December 1997, something I remember acutely because I read the NYTimes review of it while waiting at LaGuardia to fly home for Christmas during my first year of grad school. So: not only did they choose an utterly inauspicious year for their setting--and then mostly flout that choice by having everybody dress just the same as they would now--but they didn't even stay consistent with references to their own GD industry. Jesus. I realize that that was hardly that film's greatest flaw. But still.

11:39 PM, January 18, 2006  
Blogger Nick Davis said...

Indeed, quite galling. Also, you can't expect your actors, even if they are as good as Jennifer Aniston and Mark Ruffalo, to act the cramped smallness of an airplane bathroom. You might need to actually build a set that is cramped and figure out a way to light it, rather than put them in what looks like a beige studio apartment and confine all the discomfort to the dialogue.

12:19 AM, January 19, 2006  
Anonymous goatdog said...

I'm trying to think up a way to explain Rumor Has It's (I refuse to include the superfluous ellipsis) anachronisms: maybe, since everybody knew about Titanic long before its release, that's why Ruffalo could mention it. Maybe the first-class airplane bathrooms are actually beige studio apartments. Maybe... maybe, because I enjoyed the film anyway, I was willing to forgive a lot of it--until Kevin Costner's son came walking in with a decidedly 2005 haircut. Why was that the tipping point for me?

10:45 AM, January 19, 2006  
Blogger findfinishfreedom said...

Yay!!! Nick's Back! Since you've been gone, I've acquired a wicked case of O.R.D. -- Obsessive Reloading Disorder -- for your unafflicted fans of your blog. I'll reckon that they've suffered gladly , too, since I for one am happiest to know you've taken an bona fide VACATION from work. Congratulations, you've crossed into Real World dom!

Lastly, does espousing nude vaudeville, or nudity period, as a soulful protest to the indignities of global war in *this* day and age work? Haven't seen MHP , but peeps we been in need of some solution.

11:25 PM, January 19, 2006  
Blogger findfinishfreedom said...

p.s. - How jealous am that you and Derek trekked up to Harlem's Sugar Hill to see this Adrienne Kennedy Play. Tell me you stopped by Dinosaur's for ribs while in transit.

BTW. I've got Black Arts Movement, on my 2006 list of periods to grasp outside my self-designated 19th c. Af. Am areas of expertise. Wish me luck as I crack open Neal, Baraka, and Co. manifestos under the shade of embarrassment that I'm just getting around to this now.

11:37 PM, January 19, 2006  

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