Saturday, March 29, 2014

Cabaret: The Crooked Frame in “The Attack on Modern Art in Germany 1937”

Alan Cumming in the 1998 production of Cabaret.

Indulge me in serving up what might appear as an improbable conceit: that the current New York production of Sam Mendes’s Cabaret, that (as I write) is in previews on Broadway, could have been included in the Degenerate Art Exhibition of avant-garde paintings and sculptures on display uptown at the Neue Galerie. The Mendes production is a revival of his own 1998 reinterpretation of the 1966 Harold Prince Broadway blockbuster and the 1972 celebrated Bob Fosse film, all of which are loosely based on Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin Stories and his experiences in Berlin during the early 1930s when he befriended a cabaret singer who became the inspiration for Sally Bowles. If Prince and, to a greater extent, Fosse’s glossy sheen and honky-tonk gaiety were inspired by the garishly-coloured and provocative subject matter depicted in the paintings of George Grosz, Otto Dix, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner and Max Beckmann, Mendes offers a grungier, economically desperate and grimmer look. Both the characters and the set – the Kit Kat Klub alternates with a dowdy rooming house without any evidence of conspicuous wealth – communicate a sense of impending danger, false hope, resignation and the threat of radical change that will forever alter their lives and designate the cabaret as degenerate just like the modernist artworks that provided some of the cinematographic cornucopia in the Fosse film.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Doubles: The Face of Love & Enemy

Ed Harris and Annette Bening in  The Face of Love

As a woman who can’t get over the death of her husband in The Face of Love, Annette Bening does her best acting in years. Bening still has the old-Hollywood glamour that made her such a luscious camera subject in Bugsy and The Grifters nearly two and a half decades ago, but the pussycat brittleness has been replaced by elegance: as Nikki, who “stages” empty L.A. houses for resale, she has the aura of a southern California countess. Nikki’s husband Garrett died in a drowning accident during their thirtieth-anniversary vacation in Mexico, and even now, five years later, she hasn’t moved past her grief. The only friend she seems to have retained is her neighbor Roger (Robin Williams), who has also lost his spouse, and her response to the on-again, off-again relationship her daughter Summer (Jess Weixler), who lives up in Seattle, has with her boy friend is to urge her to cut it off rather than set herself up for more pain. Then one day Nikki sees a man who’s a dead ringer for Garrett, and she’s hypnotized. His name is Tom, and he’s a painter. (Ed Harris plays both Tom and, in flashbacks, Garrett.) When she finds out that he teaches studio art classes at a local college she tries to enroll in one, but it’s already halfway through the semester, so she persuades him to give her private lessons at home. Though it quickly becomes clear that she’s not really interested in learning how to paint, by that time he’s begun to fall for her and they become lovers.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Dry Wells: Believe and Crisis

Johnny Sequoyah and Delroy Lindo in Believe, on NBC

The new NBC TV series Believe is about a magic little girl, Bo (Johnny Sequoyah), who has psychic and telekinetic powers. She is sought after by powerful men—chiefly, Kyle MacLachlan—who would use her for sinister purposes, and there ends any resemblance this show has to Brian De Palma’s The Fury. Delroy Lindo has the Carrie Snodgress role of the villain’s former associate who helped raise Bo and tutored her in harnessing her powers but now works to keep her safe, so that she can be used only as a power for good. He breaks a sullen convict named Tate (Jake McLaughlin) out of a cell on Death Row so that he can become Bo’s new protector and traveling companion, the previous holder of that position having been run off the road and murdered by a female assassin (Sienna Guillory) in Kyle MacLachlan’s employ. Tate is a natural choice for the job, because he’s actually Bo’s biological father, though he doesn’t know it, and for some reason, Lindo doesn’t see any possible advantage in telling him. Instead, he’s just along for the ride, spending most of his screen time acting grumpy about having this kid joined to him at the hip. On other occasions, he stands on the sidelines open-mouthed at Bo’s displays of her superpowers, such as when she summons a cheesy-looking CGI swarm of doves to overpower Sienna Guillory.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Refinement: Norma Winstone's Dance Without Answers

Vocalist Norma Winstone (Photo by Petra Kemper)

There are some artists that defy explanation and description. Vocalist Norma Winstone is one of them. Considered by many as the “singer’s singer” the British chanteuse will probably never enter the mainstream and, considering her history, most likely prefers to seek out her own artistic path. But with the release of her new album, Dance Without Answers (ECM), she may well enter the mainstream on her terms, rather than make the compromises many singers; many female singers have to make to be successful. Namely repertoire. Winstone has often avoided the pitfalls of category by writing her own words and music and by being highly selective regarding standards in the jazz idiom.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

L’Air de Panache: Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel

In The Grand Budapest Hotel, Wes Anderson tries his hand at something new: he jumps into comedy with both feet, and I think it suits him much better than the drab navel-gazing he’s known for. In his Critics at Large review of Moonrise Kingdom (2012), Shlomo Schwartzberg pointed out (quite rightly) how the rigidly-constructed artificiality of Wes Anderson’s films works against them – nothing feels true or honest or real, and in the case of Kingdom it doesn’t even really succeed at being original.  The result of his tonal shift in The Grand Budapest Hotel is a madcap, zany, hilarious film that plays on Anderson’s limited strengths. The plot is a madcap crime caper that bounces along at a brisk pace. The central story, about the titular hotel’s refined, roguish, sweet-scented concierge M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes) being framed for the murder of an elderly patron, is nestled Russian doll-style in a series of layered flashbacks that tell a broader and more touching story than the trailers might suggest, without ever becoming convoluted or confusing. Anderson draws generously from his now-impressive stable of regular collaborators; actors such as Willem Dafoe (as a comically lugubrious hitman) or F. Murray Abraham (as one of the story's multiple narrators) and they chew through their almost cameo-sized roles with abandon.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Showboating: The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window

Ron Menzel and Sofia Jean Gomez in The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window (Photo by Jenny Graham)

The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window, receiving a rare revival at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, was the last play written by Lorraine Hansberry (A Raisin in the Sun); she died, at thirty-five, during its Broadway run in 1964. Set among Greenwich Village bohemians, it’s a bald, generalized and often preposterous attack on corruption and compromise. Sidney, the hero (played by Ron Menzel), a hard-drinking dilettante in search of a venue for his undefined artistic and communal aspirations, buys a local newspaper (his last property, a jazz and folk club, went belly-up) and opts to put its clout behind a politician, Wally O’Hara (Danforth Comins). But by the time O’Hara wins the election, the political machine he opposed has bought him. Sidney’s wife Iris (Sofia Jean Gomez), a would-be actress, lands a gig in a TV commercial for a hair product that doesn’t work. When their playwright neighbor, David Ragin (Benjamin Pelteson), opens his first show to enthusiastic notices, Sidney, panicked because Iris has left him, begs David to write a role for her in his next play; he even tries to bribe him with the promise of a rave review in his paper. Their friend Alton Scales (Armando McClain) wants to marry Iris’s sister Gloria (Vivia Font), until he discovers that she’s a high-class hooker.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Veronica Mars: You Can Go Home Again

Kristen Bell in Veronica Mars, now in theatres (Photo: Robert Voet/Warner Bros. Entertainment)

Last Friday, the much-anticipated Veronica Mars film appeared in movie theatres, Video on Demand, and for direct download on iTunes and Amazon. Last March, when series creator Rob Thomas' famous Kickstarter campaign was in full swing, I expressed some mixed feelings about the project: both because the strength of the TV series was always so dependent on the television format, and because its third (and final) season had demonstrated some real signs of decline. Still, whatever reservations I may have had, I eagerly marked March 14, 2014 on my calendar, and, with my expectations not-so-firmly in check, couldn't help counting the days until the film's release. The verdict? As neo-noir filmmaking goes, this isn't The Usual Suspects; despite the ten-year high school reunion plot element, it isn't even Grosse Pointe Blank. What it is is Veronica Mars, simpliciter. And for this long-time fan, that turned out to be more than enough.