Saturday, August 11, 2018

Moulin Rouge! Really Leans Into its Exclamation Point

Danny Burstein in Alex Timbers' 2018 staging of Moulin Rouge! (Photo: Matthew Murphy)

The “new” musical Moulin Rouge! is very keen for you to know what an exuberant, exciting show it is! From the moment you walk into the theatre, there is a lot going on! You get a whole bunch of set (courtesy of scenic designer Derek McLane) for your money! There’s a large, lightbulb-studded windmill! An enormous elephant looms from one of the boxes! Below that, a scantily-clad performer dances on a pole! Two other dancers come down front and center to swallow swords! And the show hasn’t even technically started yet!

If you were hoping the show would include the cover version of “Lady Marmalade” from the original 2001 Baz Luhrmann movie, good news: it starts out with that number! It goes on for a very long time! Sonya Tayeh’s choreography is very intense and fun to watch, and it’s performed by a diverse, energetic cast of performers! Catherine Zuber has designed lots of bright costumes, including a dazzling array of multicolored can-can dresses!

Friday, August 10, 2018

Neglected Gem: Moon Over Parador (1988)

Richard Dreyfuss in Moon Over Parador. (Photo: IMDB)

In Moon Over Parador, a New York actor named Jack Noah (Richard Dreyfuss), who’s just completed a spy thriller on location in a mythical Central American nation called Parador, is kidnapped and forced to impersonate the country's dictator, Simms, who has just keeled over from a heart attack. With the help of his double’s mistress (Sonia Braga), Noah outwits the Secretary of the Interior, Roberto Strausmann (Raul Julia), who runs the secret police and thinks he’s still pulling the dictator’s strings, and ushers in a new, humanistic regime. Paul Mazursky’s film, which he co-wrote with Leon Capetanos, was probably suggested by a 1939 comedy called The Magnificent Fraud, starring Akim Tamiroff and Lloyd Nolan, and it bears some resemblance to Roberto Rossellini’s General della Rovere, in which Vittorio De Sica gave an unforgettable performance as a con man, hired by the Nazis to imitate an executed Resistance fighter, who undermines them by turning into the man he’s playing. But the absurdist-farce style of Moon Over Parador is entirely Mazursky’s, and so is the sensibility. In his movie, the emphasis isn’t on politics or even on character transformations; it’s on role-playing. Moon Over Parador is a comedy built around an actor’s vision of the way the world works.

Thursday, August 9, 2018

Improving on Perfection: Mission: Impossible – Fallout

Simon Pegg, Rebecca Ferguson, Tom Cruise, and Ving Rhames in Mission: Impossible – Fallout. (Photo: Polygon)

Tom Cruise was always instrumental to the Mission: Impossible series, right from the jump, not just as its star but as its primary producer. He collaborated with some of the greats of genre cinema, using the distinct cinematic voices of creators like Brian de Palma, John Woo, JJ Abrams, Brad Bird, and Christopher McQuarrie to create new visions of action-oriented spycraft. Ethan Hunt was his answer to 007, and in crafting this franchise at both the macro and micro scales – he’s involved at every level, from script to stunt choreography – he has made sure to execute it at such a high degree of quality that it’s now James Bond who’s running to catch up with Cruise’s signature straight-backed sprint, and not the other way around. While Daniel Craig’s tenure as 007 hit its lowest point with the regrettable misfire that was SPECTRE, Cruise’s run as Ethan Hunt is approaching its zenith, with 2015's Rogue Nation setting the bar so high, I wasn't sure it could be surpassed. Fans of action cinema miss the latest installment, Mission: Impossible – Fallout, at their peril: it’s the spy thriller honed to its deadliest razor-sharp edge, about as perfect an action movie as you could ask for. I've never been happier to have my skepticism proved wrong.

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Chamber Folks: All the Things That I Did and All the Things That I Didn't Do

The Milk Carton Kids. (Photo: Joshua Black Wilkins)

In the prologue of Robert Hilburn’s new biography of Paul Simon, he tells the story of Simon’s early working method as a composer, relaying how “Simon took his acoustic guitar into the family bathroom, where the tile made the sound all the more alluring, and he turned off the lights so that he could relax and feel totally at one with the music . . . as he sat alone, these words eventually burst forward: ‘Hello darkness, my old friend.’” I’m going to review Hilburn’s book in a few weeks but I couldn’t help but think of this description in appreciation for the alluring and introspective music of The Milk Carton Kids, an American duo featuring Kenneth Pattengale and Joey Ryan. Their new album on ANTI, produced by Joe Henry, has a long, explanatory title, All The Things That I Did and All The Things That I Didn’t Do  which brought to mind William Blake’s “Songs of Innocence and Experience,” and it consists of twelve carefully written and arranged songs about adulthood. Ironically, the California duo has only been together for seven years, yet seem like old souls addressing the perils of aging.

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

Moral Quagmires: Kate Plays Christine (2016) and American Animals (2018)

Kate Lyn Sheil as Christine Chubbuck in Kate Plays Christine. (Photo: Variety)

My last week's piece on The Disaster Artist (2017) brought to mind two other films in the genre of quasi-documentary: Kate Plays Christine (2016) and American Animals (2018). All three films place the viewer in a morally awkward position – for The Disaster Artist, the position is that of identifying with not Tommy Wiseau but those working for him.

Kate Plays Christine is a case of docudrama as moral entrapment. Director Robert Greene hires Kate Lyn Sheil to prepare to play Christine Chubbuck, a real-life newscaster in the '70s who shot herself in the head during a live broadcast and later died. But though it's made in documentary style by Greene (a documentarian), it's not strictly a documentary, because it documents the making of a film that was, in fact, never made. That nonexistent film serves as the MacGuffin for the whole enterprise. (Coincidentally, a biopic of Chubbuck called Christine was made the same year.)

Monday, August 6, 2018

Something New, Something Old: Seared & The Petrified Forest

Michael Esper and Hoon Lee in Seared. (Photo: Daniel Rader)

The glimpse of the restaurant world proffered by Theresa Rebeck’s new play Seared (at Williamstown Theatre Festival) is just as delicious as the dishes credited to the chef, Harry (Hoon Lee). Harry is misanthropic, egotistical and neurotic. His partner in this small but impressive Brooklyn restaurant, Mike (Michael Esper), who furnished the cash for the venture and handles the finances, has to put up with his endless quibbling, his eruptions of temper, his perverseness (the moment a critic praises his scallops Harry stops cooking them), his anxiety (Mike avoids telling him they’re expecting a major food critic until the last possible minute – and then the results are disastrous), his expectations of privilege, and his endless pseudo-philosophizing. Mike does so because Harry is a culinary genius – but his partner’s conduct, in addition to the stress of keeping a restaurant afloat, is making him crazy and preventing him from sleeping at night. When he hires a consultant named Emily (Krysta Rodriguez) to, as they say, take the place to the next level – adding more tables, printing menus rather than settling for a chalkboard so that Harry can make last-minute decisions about the offerings – Harry views it as a betrayal and an outrage. But she stays, and it’s clear that her contributions are having the desired effect, even if everything she suggests strikes Harry as pandering. The fourth member of the crew is the waiter, Rodney (W. Tré Davis), who is almost always in the impossible position of trying to stay loyal to both Harry and Mike when they’re on different sides of an argument.

Sunday, August 5, 2018

Challenging Intellectual Deprivation and Fundamentalist Ideology in Tara Westover's Educated

Author Tara Westover at her alma mater, Brigham Young University. (Photo: Tes / Russell Sach)

Even before reading Tara Westover's Educated: A Memoir (HarperCollins, 2018), I guessed from its enthusiastic critical and popular reception that it would be a good book. But I was not prepared for how riveting, insightful and well-written it would turn out to be. Westover's multi-layered memoir narrates an astonishing story that begins with her childhood years on an isolated mountain in Idaho, as the seventh child of fundamentalist parents who subscribed to a set of beliefs that she makes clear are far outside the mainstream of the Mormon religion. Home-schooled in the loosest definition of the term, she received no academic education for the first seventeen years of her life and knew little about the outside world. Her learning consisted of reading the Bible, The Book of Mormon and the speeches of Joseph Smith and Brigham Young. Yet she did well enough on the ACT to gain admission to Brigham Young University. That begins the second layer of her memoir, which charts her extraordinary progress in acquiring a formal education that resulted in her achieving a Ph.D. in history. But it is the third layer, which explores the tensions between family and outside life, her sensitivity to the unreliable power of memory, and her difficulty in challenging the patriarchal worldview of her father, that lifts her memoir from a remarkable coming-of-age account to a landmark contribution to that genre. It truly astounds.