Doodad Kind of Town

Lazy Post on "Nine"
September 30, 2009, 2:02 am
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All the buzz over the upcoming release of Rob Marshall’s “Nine” (which is, of course, the musical version of Fellini’s “8 1/2”) has made me nostalgic. As I’ve mentioned, I was in a 1993 Indianapolis production of “Nine” – what I may not have mentioned is that the show was the best stage experience I ever had.

Inspired by those happy memories – as well as Ryan Kelly’s recent post on some of his own acting experiences, I offer a few photos:

First, here’s a look at the set and most of the cast. Not the best quality picture, but looks fairly Felliniesque, huh? I loved our all-white set and all-black costumes. Not to land a spoiler on you (and God only knows what Marshall is going to do with the film), but in the finale, the entire cast appear in all-white costumes to allow them to blend into the background and out of Guido’s mind – all except Guido and Luisa, who remain clothed in black. In case you can’t tell, these are all women. The Guidos – adult and nine-year-old versions – are the only males in the cast.

That’s me on the right. The actress on my left (the wonderful Wendy Haydock) and I were two of the show’s four cartoonish German women – roles which you can be pretty sure will be eliminated in the film version. They were already cut from the show in the 2004 Broadway revival, and as we all know, they aren’t based on any of the characters from “8 1/2.”

Here are all four Germans (to my right are my very dear friend Cindy and the delightful Tam DeBolt). These are really just glorified chorus parts, but we each got some fun bits to do, plus we were featured in our own big production number, “The Germans at the Spa.”

More production number fun:

And finally, here we are with Guido,being taught how to dance the tarantella, which we’re meant to perform in his musical biopic on Casanova. Have I mentioned that “Nine” takes some huge liberties with Fellini’s original script? I can’t tell from the trailer if Marshall is keeping the Casanova production numbers, but I hope he does. They’re a whole lot of fun, even if their connection to “8 1/2” is a little tenuous.

Where I’ve Been, What I’ve Seen
September 23, 2009, 11:28 pm
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I hate to start yet another post with an explanation for a prolonged absence from the blogosphere, but here goes…

My job continue to entail long hours and high stress, and there is no end in sight. After working a 10 or 11 hour day, I can’t bring myself to come home and get on a computer again, much as I might like to write something. And, you know, every once in a while you have to pay bills or do some laundry.

Even so, I was able to get away to New York for a couple of days last week, and it was a much needed – and truly refreshing – break with the routine. Not only did I have the pleasure of meeting a fellow film blogger face-to-face (the very genial Sam Juliano of Wonders in the Dark), but I also got to see some great stuff, cinematic and otherwise.

If a gal’s gonna go to New York, she’s gotta take in a Broadway show, right? I was fortunate to see the impeccably acted and directed comedy “God of Carnage.” Two couples meet to determine how they’ll handle the aftermath of their respective sons’ playground fight. In just 90 minutes, their strained but cordial evening descends into heavy drinking, hysterics and the kind of unhinged bad behavior that suggests the parents have far worse problems than their squabbling sons. Confessions are made, large quantities of rum are consumed, and – in one particularly shocking moment – copious quantities are vomit are spewed. It’s sort of like “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” on laughing gas.

And make no mistake, it is very, very funny.

Which is particularly miraculous, because “God of Carnage” is the kind of over-the-top play that could easily become unbearably goofy and shrill in the wrong hands. Thankfully, the actors (a dream cast consisting of Marcia Gay Harden, Hope Davis, Jeff Daniels and James Gandolfini) and the director (Matthew Warchus, who won the Tony) are all dazzlingly on top of their games. The quartet of performers have been in these roles for a while, and their comfort with their own characters and with one another is apparent; the roles feel lived-in and the comic timing and interactions are dead-on.

I have no formal education in art; everything I’ve learned about painting and sculpture, I’ve gleaned from museum placards and audio tours. I’d be hard pressed to tell you why or how I fell in love with Vasilly Kandinsky’s paintings on a visit to the MoMA three years ago, only that something about the purity and immediacy of his abstract images really spoke to my soul. I purchased a copy of the artist’s treatise “Concerning the Spiritual in Art” at the museum gift store, skimmed it, brought it home and relegated to the growing pile of Books I’m Going to Get Around to Reading Someday.

Yet I was thrilled when I discovered I’d hit town just in time to catch the opening day of a major Kandinsky retrospective at the Guggenheim. And the exhibit did not disappoint me. As I wandered through, reading and listening to the story of the artist’s life, I couldn’t help but think “Someone ought to make a movie about this guy.” He lived through the Russian Revolution and two World Wars, endured long years in exile from his native Russia, worked with and loved his muse/partner for many years (though they ultimately parted), then fell in love with another woman just from hearing her voice on the phone. That’s a lot of drama before you even get around to his paitings and his role in major artistic movements. Who would we trust to make the film of Kandinsky’s life? Julie Taymor did a pretty great job with “Frida,” Julian Schnabel’s film on “Basquiat” was pretty good, Ed Harris directed himself pretty capably playing Jackson Pollock…. Hmmmm.

The opening images of Jane Campion’s “Bright Star” are instructive: close-up shots of a needle making painstakingly even stitches in coarse fabric, a reminder that creating things of beauty – whether they be ruffled collars, poems or deep, loving relationships – takes time and patience.

Such is the leisurely pace of “Bright Star,” a film about the doomed love between the young poet, John Keats (Ben Whishaw) and his darling Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish). Fanny is the seamstress of the opening shots; she’s also sharp-witted and slow to fall for Keats. She acknowledges the perfection of the opening lines of his “Endymion”(“A thing of beauty is a joy forever…”) but isn’t afraid to tell him that the rest of it isn’t up to snuff. Yet their mutual attraction builds as Keats becomes a friend to Fanny’s family, and ultimately to her.

Campion’s film may be slow, but slow does not equal dull in this case. It’s no surprise to encounter the director’s painstaking attention to period details or her talent for creating charming scenes of early 19th century families at leisure. What is remarkable, however, is how she presents a compelling, tragic love story in a manner that does not play to conventional expectations. Rather she finds and depicts the rhythms of a life too often lived in interminable waiting – for the post to arrive, for a lover to appear. “Bright Star” is the stuff of which tearjerkers are made; I left the theatre dry-eyed, but no less moved for that fact.

Fall marks the start of “serious” movie (i.e. Oscar-bait) season, and with it generally comes at least one corporate malfeasance/whistle-blower drama. I guess we can give Steven Soderbergh points for originality for delivering his true-life film “The Informant!” as a zany comedy, although I’m not sure what the point was. Matt Damon, chunked up and badly toupeed in the title role does a nice job, but the most indelible part of the film is not his performance, but rather Marvin Hamlisch’s annoying, intrusive score – a sixties-style pastiche that sounds like a mash-up of leftover incidental music from “The Beverly Hillbillies,” “Mannix,” and “Love American Style.” The point of such a score is also lost on me – as are the retro-groovy titles (reminiscent of that from the egregious Hugo Stiglitz moment in “Inglourious Basterds”) – since “The Informant!” takes place in the 199os.

I wanted to like this, but it mostly just annoyed and confused me. Was the agri-business firm of Archer Daniels Midland seriously corrupt – or just Damon’s character? Was Damon meant to be a sociopath or a goofball or a little of both? And why is he shown walking into ADM headquarters in Decatur, Illinois on March 17, 1993 wearing no topcoat or gloves and walking past trees that are abundantly full of green leaves? (Note to Mr. Soderbergh – you might catch a balmy St. Patrick’s Day once every few years in Illinois, but you’ll NEVER see leaves on the trees in March! )

And seeing Melanie Lynskey as Damon’s prim, sprayed-and-coiffed wifey made me wonder again: Why can’t someone give this woman a role worthy of her talents? Despite some mildly interesting but disappointingly brief turns in “Shattered Glass” and this year’s “Away We Go,” the ferociously talented Lynskey seems doomed to an endless procession of baby-voiced dingbat roles. Does anyone else remember her stunning debut in”Heavenly Creatures” – frizzy-haired, baby-fatted, husky-voiced and almost demonically sulky, she unabashedly embraced her character’s awkwardness and darkness. Her performance blew me away, and was at least the equal of her co-star, Kate Winslet. Where’s that Melanie now? There’s got to be a whole lot more to her than what she’s showing us on “Two and Half Men.” Or here.

I’ts TOERIFC Time!
September 12, 2009, 2:32 pm
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Come join the discussion on Lindsay Anderson’s 1969 classic “if…..” led by the other Pat -that’d be Mr. Pat Piper – at Lazy Eye Theatre. It all starts Monday morning around 10 am EST.

And BTW, the Criterion disc is 10% off at Barnes and Noble this week; if you’re a Reader’s Advantage member, you’ll get an additional 10% off.

(Not that I’m shillin’ for B&N mind you, but they have had some great Criterion Collection sales this year.)

The LIttle Details that Make a Movie
September 10, 2009, 12:19 am
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This blog has been a pretty quiet place for most of the summer. I’ve let long hours at work and other stresses keep me from doing much writing. I’ve seen movies, I just haven’t felt particularly motivated to write about most of them.

Over the recent holiday weekend, I saw no less than three movies, all of which I liked: “Cold Souls,” “Away We Go,” and “World’s Greatest Dad.” Two days later the only one I’m still Check Spellingthinking about is “World’s Greatest Dad.” And I’m pretty fixated on one scene in particular.

In “World’s Greatest Dad,” the usually insufferable Robin Williams turns in a painfully brilliant performance as the father of a deviant, dimwitted and thoroughly reprehensible teenage son. His character, Lance Clayton, is a guy who can’t catch a break: a unpopular high school English teacher and would-be writer with a stack of rejected manuscripts on his desk, a sort-of girlfriend who manages to make him feel cared for without ever quite managing to go on a date with him, and a son who routinely calls him a ‘fag’ and a ‘dumb ass.’ There isn’t a bright spot in Lance’s life (except for maybe the secret stash of pot in his kitchen cabinet), and Williams shows us the character’s loneliness and pain without ever once being cloying, cuddly or obvious.

And nowhere more devastatingly than in a scene set in the teacher’s lunch room, early in the film. Allow me to set the scene.

In the course of one morning, Lance has discovered his son engaging in auto erotic asphyxiation, learned that his poetry class in being dropped from the school curriculum and been asked by the principal to consider enrolling his son in special education. And then at lunch period comes the worst blow of all: the school’s much more popular creative writing instructor has had an article published. In the New Yorker. On his very first try.

Poor, unpublished Lance learns this from his sometime girlfriend, as she bounces and squeals and gets all touchy-feely with the successful author, a handsome, athletic type named Mike. She’s soon joined by other teachers who insist that he read the article at the next student assembly. Lance makes a great show of congratulatory support for his colleague but the pain behind Williams’ eyes is almost unbearable to watch. He reacts to each revelation (“The New Yorker!” “His first try!”) as if he’s being stabbed and pretending to really enjoy it.

And through it all, he keeps fiddling with his “Fresh and Fit” lunch kit, folding and refolding his paper napkin, endlessly arranging and re-arranging little plastic containers of unidentifiable food on the lunch table. There’s something about that lunch kit and the way Williams can’t stop fussing with it, the way he fixates on the lunch kit whenever there’s an new outpouring of praise for Mike, that makes the scene even sadder to me. It’s a deceptively simple little bit of business that deepens the pathos of the scene.

Writer/director Bobcat Goldthwait (yes, the helium-voiced, lunatic comedian) adds a lot of telling little details like these throughout “World’s Greatest Dad.” I especially like the stack of Lance’s rejected novels with titles like “Darwin’s Pool” and”The Narcissist’s Life Vest.” Wouldn’t you love to know what those books were about? I know I would.

The (Ten or) Fifteen Favorite Dancers Meme
September 2, 2009, 12:10 am
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Marilyn has tagged me in a new meme. The mission? Name my fifteen favorite dancers.

Much as I love musicals, naming 15 favorite hoofers may be more than I can manage. But I can for sure come up with at least 10. (The fact that most of them are also on Marilyn’s original list is kind of unavoidable, because we all know who the greats are, right? Besides even if I name the same dancers, I’m sure I can come up with a whole different set of clips.)

Here goes….

1. Fred Astaire
2. Elanor Powell

Two great dancers who belong on everyone’s lists. As far as I know, they only made one film together, Broadway Melody of 1940. And the highlight of that film is their spirited “tap off” to Cole Porter’s Begin the Beguine.

3. Vera Ellen
4. Danny Kaye

Christmas just isn’t Christmas if I don’t get to see this production number. Vera Ellen’s high kicks just blow my mind (especially the backwards ones!) And while Danny Kaye isn’t a dancer per se, I love watching his moves in “White Christmas.” (Bing Crosby, meanwhile, just barely manages to hold his own.)

5. Gene Kelly

What list of dancers would be complete without him? I love this dance on roller skates from “It’s Always Fair Weather.” (And the French subtitles just make it that much more fun.)

6. Chita Rivera
7. Gwen Verdon

Move over Zellwegger and Zeta-Jones. They were the first Velma and Roxie, they’re dance legends, and in this clip (from “The Mike Douglas Show”!) they tear up the joint with The Hot Honey Rag from the finale of Chicago. The really good part starts about four minutes into the clip -watch for a cameo appearance by Hal Linden.

8. Cyd Charisse

Another essential to any list of great dancers, and another clip from It’s Always Fair Weather.

9. Kay Thompson

She’s not especially known for her dancing, but OMG – just look at this number from Funny Face! Did you even notice that Fred Astaire was there? There just isn’t enough of Kay Thompson in the movies, if you ask me.

10. Mikhail Baryshnikov
11. Gregory Hines

I’d almost forgotten about this movie – and this dance scene. But then I went looking for Baryshnikov clips and it all came back to me. I haven’t seen White Nights in years and years, but I clearly recall this scene.

And now comes the part where I get to ask others to play!

I tag: Miranda Wilding at Cinematic Passions
Fox at Tractor Facts
Daniel at Getafilm
Sam Juliano at Wonders in the Dark

Have fun!