Theater 1, Film 0
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 actorsnot just the brave lead actress Suzette Azariah Gunn but, even more so, the exemplary artists who embody her historically-derived alter egosare 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 irrealas in some of screenwriter Kazuo Ishiguro's more dreamlike novels, like The Unconsoledthen 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 Fridayquite 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.