Friday, July 15, 2005

Before Charlie, Finding Neverland Posted by Picasa
Films About Theatre: A DVD Friday Collection

Supplementing what has become a nightly diet of "Six Feet Under" episodes on DVD (an HBO series we've never seen because we didn't have HBO even when we had cable---we're into the second season now), I rented two movies that just got off the "new" list, and by complete accident they both were films about the theatre (the first two in the list below).

Films about theatre happen to form one of my favorite subgenres, and so these two new additions inspire the first of the DVD Friday lists of personal favorites. All are available on DVD unless otherwise noted, though I haven't yet seen them all on DVD.

1. '>BEING JULIA (2004) From a novel by Somerset Magham, scripted by playwright and theatre explainer Ronald Harwood, this story about a famous but aging actress in London of 1938 is smart, stylish, funny and moving. Annette Benning deserved the Oscar she was robbed of, for this film, and the other performances---from Jeremy Irons to the wonderful Juliet Stevenson to relative newcomers, at least to film in America---are uniformly excellent. And in dealing with youthful ambition (somewhat reminiscent of "All About Eve"-see below) the resolution is wonderfully theatrical.

2. '>FINDING NEVERLAND (2004) Johnny Depp plays J.M Barrie in London as the nineteenth century becomes the 20th, when after his latest play fails he meets the woman and her children who will inspire "Peter Pan," which as a play has a double role in the film's climax. Depp and Kate Winslet are outstanding, supported by perfectly pitched performances from Julie Christie and Dustin Hoffman. The whole cast is very good, especially the boys who play the boys (proving that not all the talented English children are in the Harry Potter movies.)

The story is based on real events, though of course reality was much messier. Barrie did in fact write his play for the sons of a woman he met, and did later become guardian to the boys. But the woman's husband was still alive (he's conveniently dead in the movie), and for all the faith in the power of magic Barrie may have instilled in them, the boys came to bad ends: one killed in World War I, one drowned in the embrace of another man, and Peter killed himself, although he was an adult by then, and in publishing, but may have felt himself a prisoner of Barrie's imaginings.

Still, it's a very good movie, if a little saccarine about imagination and unimaginative about faith. But it has lovely touches about theatre, especially the relationships between actors, trying to support each other in the midst of not having a clue why they are dressed up as a pirate and a dog. The DVD extras are great---the deleted scenes are as good as any in the movie, and the outtakes are funny. There's one of Johnny Depp doing a scene in the park with a dog that decides to take a dump, and Depp talks to him in the same Scottish accent he employs for Barrie.

All About Eve Posted by Picasa
3. '>STAGE DOOR (1937). The struggling actor or most often actress who makes good is a staple of dozens of filmed stories: musicals, comedies, dramas and melodramas. This is one of the best, which seems to incorporate all possibilities, veering from screwball comedy to melodrama and ending up a fairly authentic kind of human comedy. It's singular for the appearance of star actresses who seldom worked together, so it's a treat to see Katharine Hepburn trade barbs with Ginger Rogers, while Eve Arden, Lucille Ball and Ann Miller wisecrack around them. It's also one of the better roles for Gail Patrick, who is seldom remembered now but excelled at playing cold manipulative women with just a touch of vulnerability.

Though the film tends to sag where the story does, Gregory La Cava keeps it moving briskly most of the time. (La Cava, a very busy silent movie actor who became a prodigious producer and director, had just directed his best film, the classic comedy '>My Man Godfrey---with Gail Patrick's most memorable performance. "Stage Door" was not only about the theatre, it started out as a play, by the formidable team of Edna Ferber and George S. Kaufman.

4.'>ALL ABOUT EVE (1950) The dark side of "Stage Door" and one of the best written movies of all time (written and directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz). Famous as a Bette Davis vehicle, it also features outstanding performances by George Sanders, Gary Merill, Celeste Holm and Anne Baxter. Also an early appearance by Marilyn Monroe.

Looking for Richard in Manhattan Posted by Picasa
5. '>SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE (1998). Then there are films about the actual process of creating theatre, the heart of this subgenre. This has to be the ultimate, not just because it's a romantic comedy about the young William Shakespeare writing Romeo and Juliet, with lively and passionate performances by Joseph Fiennes and Gwyneth Paltrow (both their best, in my opinion) and some scenes stolen with relish by Dame Judi Dench.

The script by Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard incorporates so many delicious theatrical in-jokes (for instance, actors always describe the play as being about their character. "What's Romeo and Juliet about?" "Well, it's about this nurse...") as well as delightful bits of throwaway anachronisms. But the real heart of it is the performance of the play that leads to one gorgeous climax after another. Not only is the movie within the play within the movie handled brilliantly, but we get an idea of why Elizabethan theatre was so vital: the audience crowded against the stage, totally involved in every moment. Yes, and it's a mystery.

There isn't anything I don't like about this movie, from the color to the music. I'm looking forward to seeing the Collector's Series DVD with the commentaries, but it looks like I'll have to buy it---the ones for rent here are the extraless version.

6. A MIDWINTER'S TALE (1995) (also known as IN THE BLEAK MIDWINTER). In contrast to "Shakespeare in Love" which won the Best Picture Oscar, this little movie about a ragtag group of actors in England putting on a Christmas production of "Hamlet" is unknown. But it is also funny, with lots of heart and lots of theatre texture. It was written and directed by Kenneth Branagh around the time he directed his huge "Hamlet" for the screen. It's filled with affection, yet Michael Maloney's frenetic performance as the neurotic director and star of the play keeps it moving at a fast pace. And unlike Albert Finney's A MAN OF NO IMPORTANCE (1994), another excellent film about a provincial man who tries to find himself through theatre, this one has a theatrically happy ending.

7. '>LOOKING FOR RICHARD(1996). This is a completely unique film---part documentary in which Al Pacino lead us through his attempts to understand Shakespeare's Richard III and mount a production, culminating in Pacino and his cast performing key scenes of the play. It is entertaining from start to finish, thanks to Pacino's personality, the skillful editing of the cinema verite glimpses of the process (Pacino also directed) and the other oddballs he gathers in, and the power, complexity and ultimately the simplicity of Shakespeare's play. Much of it was shot in Manhattan, so it's Shakespeare with true contemporary grit. It ends up being a great film about the process of actors "finding" the play and performing what they find.

Tim Roth, Gary Oldman, R& G in perpetual immobility Posted by Picasa
8. '>ROSENCRANTZ AND GILDENSTERN ARE DEAD (1990). Then there are films about theatre within theatre. Tom Stoppard directed this film version of his famous play about two minor characters in Hamlet, and what they do when everybody else is watching the Prince of Denmark. The play is a classic, though its echoes of Beckett are now a bit jarring in view of Stoppard's later work. The movie is visually interesting and moves along at a goodly pace, but its chief virtue is the performances of Gary Oldman and Tim Roth, and Richard Dreyfuss as the Player. Oldman and Roth play R & G like a literate Laurel and Hardy, and there are numerous anachronistic sight gags that suggest Stoppard was responsible for that brand of humor in "Shakespeare in Love."

The DVD bonus disk is amazing, featuring an interview with Tom Stoppard of over an hour, and exceptionally revealing (but shorter) interviews with Gary Oldman and Richard Dreyfuss. Trust me, you've never heard actors talk like this in public.

Of course, there are lots of film versions of famous plays, with waves of contemporary Shakespeare still washing over us, but that’s another list. Still it’s worth mentioning here that Gary Oldman said that he and Roth had so much fun being R & G that they rehearsed continually, and in public—they would even do scenes in the pub that they had already shot. Plus, when Mel Gibson did his “Hamlet” they volunteered to play R & G in it, wearing the same costumes as in this movie. Apparently the Gibson folks didn’t get it.

9. '>VANYA ON 42ND STREET (1994). This is another collaboration between Wallace Shawn, Andre Gregory and Louis Malle, the team that created the unique "'>MY DINNER WITH ANDRE" (1981), an apparently spontaneous but in fact scripted conversation that was largely about theatre and its connections to contemporary life.

This time, we watch a group of New York actors gather one morning in an abandoned Ziegfield Follies theatre. They chat, get coffee, and suddenly, seamlessly, their chat becomes Chekov's "Uncle Vanya," and you are utterly hooked. Shawn plays Vanya, and Gregory directs from a script he adapted from David Mamet's very contemporary translation. This group of actors in fact had gathered periodically for years and years to simply work on this play with no thought of performance. Thanks to Malle's intimate camera work, we are privileged witnesses.

And with this, we have come full circle, to a film that is not only about theatre, but is theatre.

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

speed, quickness and lightness Posted by Picasa
From the Basketball Diary

This was the first in many years I didn't watch a single NBA game on TV until the finals, and then only parts of the last three. There's nothing much to watch---not when I've got old tapes of Michael Jordan and those Bulls teams, the Lakers of Shaq and Kobe championships, and even some of the Magic Johnson Lakers. So from time to time I watch them.

But I can't turn off the writer completely, so I do wonder what those announcers are talking about. If you know anything about the game, you know that some of what seems like dumb redundancy really isn't, like "He's got speed and quickness." They really are two different things. Speed means running fast: foot speed. Quickness means reflexes and all kinds of movement--lateral, up and down. It takes quick feet to play tight defense, quick hands to strip the ball or change the shot. You get the idea.

But then there are other habitual expressions that always bother me... The one that comes to mind is "shot attempt." Certain announcers are always talking about shot attempts. How many shot attempts. What I wonder is the difference between a shot attempt and a shot?
A made shot is a score. He shoots, he scores. Not---he executes a shot attempt, the attempt is successful, the shot is off, and it fulfills the requirements of the rules such that two points ensue.

They really should ask me about these things.