Saturday, June 15, 2013

Back to High School: The Great Gatsby

Leonardo DiCaprio in The Great Gatsby

Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby bears little resemblance to the slender masterpiece on which it is based – F. Scott Fitzgerald’s now iconic 1925 novel – but that probably won’t come as much of a surprise to anyone who has followed this director’s career. While his critics see him as a sort of Andrew Lloyd Webber of movies whose histrionic period pieces (Moulin Rouge!Romeo + Juliet) put one in mind, to borrow a phrase from Pauline Kael, of “a dog with the broken bones of a cat sticking out,” few of Luhrmann’s fans would likely contest that characterization. To them, Luhrmann’s movies are carnival sensations, romances to excess that celebrate the hysterical pace of the modern age in brazen, trashy style (and anyone who doesn’t like their cats grafted messily onto dogs is just a purist, patrician snob). There’s a faint odor of schoolyard allegiance that clings to the debate around Baz Luhrmann, and it never fails to make me feel like the teenager who chooses to stay home with a book while all her friends go out to a rave.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Flamboyant Disguise: Behind the Candelabra

Michael Douglas and Matt Damon in Behind the Candelabra

Last Sunday night I saw Michael Douglas and Matt Damon in a position I never imagined I would see. They were in the throes of passion, with each other! These two action film heroes portrayed Liberace and his chauffeur lover Scott Thorson in Steven Soderbergh’s biopic Behind the Candelabra. Based on Thorson’s memoirs of the same name, this made for HBO film was a brilliant evocation of a more innocent era, when people just didn’t believe what was staring them in the face. In one of the first scenes, Matt Damon (as Thorson) attends a Liberace show in Vegas and comments to his date, “It’s all so gay!” and his friend says, “The ladies don’t think so.” As Thorson looks around, sure enough, it’s confirmed, the ladies are in love with this flamboyant piano player.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Quest for Pryor: No Pryor Restraint and Omit the Logic

Richard Pryor in Omit the Logic

For about ten years—basically, the 1970s—Richard Pryor was the funniest man in the world. That might sound subjective, but it’s more accurate than calling him a comedian. When Pryor was flying high, he didn’t tell jokes. He told the truth. And because he was funny at it, he got people who might have seemed to have little in common with him to see the world through the eyes of someone who had grown up in a whorehouse run by his grandmother, developing (in the words of his friend Paul Mooney) “a pimp’s mentality” that co-existed alongside the needy romanticism of someone who was abandoned by his mother as a child and never outgrew his need to be accepted and cuddled.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Wankfest: The Giacomo Variations

Ingeborga Dapkünaitë and John Malkovitch in The Giacomo Variations (Photo by Nathalie Bauer)

At one point in The Giacomo Variations, a character waves around a rubber and asks for its meaning. This being a work based on the life of Casanova – the Giacomo in the title – the question is perhaps apt because the famous Venetian-born seducer popularized the use of prophylactics when gallivanting through most of the 18th century. But this also being a work in which nuance or subtleties of text are almost entirely missing, and where the actors themselves appear to be sleepwalking through their lines, only the obvious fact that it is a condom, used to prevent the spreading of disease and offspring, is offered.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Setting the Template: The Original Star Trek

The crew of the original Star Trek.

It’s too bad the makers of Star Trek Into Darkness didn’t actually pay attention to the TV series the new movie is based on. If they had they might have recognized that what made the original Star Trek so special was its originality. So why on earth did they decide to not only revisit the premise of the terrific season one episode “Space Seed” that introduced Khan (Ricardo Montalbán), a genetically altered super-solider, from the Starship Enterprise’s past, but also to crib so much of the excellent second movie in the Star Trek film franchise, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, which brought Khan back to face Captain Kirk and his crew anew? The result: a pale film, one that failed to do justice to the show and even the first new re-boot of Star Trek (2009).

What made the original TV series so lasting, I think, is that it really was like no science fiction series that came before. Prior to Star Trek’s debut in 1966 (it ran for three seasons until 1969), the few glimmers of intelligent science fiction on TV were manifest in the original Twilight Zone (1959-64) anthology show and little else. Thus when Gene Roddenberry conceived of the series, which he initially pitched to NBC as “a Wagon Train to the stars,” figuring the suits would respond better to the western TV show reference, he made sure it was an intelligent, complex show that spoke, in disguised futuristic science fiction terms, to the issues of its time, like racism, war and gender differences. So lasting was the show’s groundbreaking impact, in fact, including in its depiction of American television's first interracial (albeit tame) kiss, that when Nichelle Nichols, the African-American actress who played Lt. Uhura on the show, and whom I once had the great pleasure of meeting, mused about leaving it, none other than the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. urged her to stay with Star Trek, citing Uhura’s value as a role model for young African-Americans.

Monday, June 10, 2013


John Logan's Peter and Alice, designed by Christopher Oram (Photo by Johan Persson)

John Logan’s Peter and Alice, which just concluded a run in London’s West End, spins out of a fact he gleaned from a biography of Alice Liddell Hargreaves, the inspiration for Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass. In 1932, Hargreaves was invited to open a centenary celebration of Carroll at the Bumpus Bookshop in London, where she was accompanied by Peter Llewelyn Davies, the model for James Barrie’s Peter Pan. “I wondered what they said to each other,” Logan writes in the epigraph to the published script. What he’s come up to answer his own question is a sort of fantasia – part biography, part imagination; part surrealist, part absurdist. The bookstore back room where Alice (Dame Judi Dench) and Peter (Ben Whishaw) are waiting to be introduced out front flies up to reveal a series of two-dimensional drops (beautifully designed by Christopher Oram) that emulate the famous John Tenniel and Arthur Rackham illustrations for the original stories. Here Peter and Alice interact with their fictional counterparts (Olly Alexander and Ruby Bentall) as well as with Carroll (a.k.a. Reverend Charles Dodgson (Nicholas Farrell) and Barrie (Derek Riddell).

Sunday, June 9, 2013

A Winter's Tale: Before Midnight

Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy in Before Midnight (2013)

The warm breezes, poetic ruins and pure, sun-soaked hues of the southern Peloponnese at summer’s end is the setting for Before Midnight, the third in a series of films made by Richard Linklater and starring Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy as the Franco-American lovers Jesse and Celine. (It opened in Toronto on Friday.) As far as I can tell, there are no fans of these movies, only devotees. Distinctly American in their frank, colloquial style, but inspired by the intimacy and spontaneous, kinetic realism of the French and Italian New Wave, Before Sunrise (1995) and Before Sunset (2004) quietly invited their audience to listen in on an unfolding conversation between two lovers that explored the substance of romantic connection. They meet (in Before Sunrise) on a train and get off together in Vienna to fall in love during a sleepless night before Jesse has to catch his next train, and meet again (in Before Sunset) in Paris, where Celine lives, on the last leg of Jesse’s book tour for a novel about their one-night love affair, having lost track of each other for nine years. In Before Sunset, Jesse was married with a two year-old son, Hank, back in New York, but the implication at the end of the film, which was set in real time in the ninety minutes before Jesse had to catch his plane back to the States, was that having found one another again, Jesse and Celine would stay together.