Thursday, December 18, 2014

FILM REVIEW: THE CIRCLE

A scene from The Circle.

 
Round and round history blows

By Ed Rampell

Switzerland's Official Submission for Best Foreign Language Film at the 87th Academy Awards, Swiss co-writer/director Stefan Haupt’s The Circle (Der Kreis) is a fact-based, strong drama about the struggle for gay rights in Switzerland.

The film’s title refers to an actual gay self-help organization that arose in 1930s Zurich, founded by the renowned St. Gallen-born actor Karl Meir (who used the pseudonym “Rolf” and is portrayed onscreen by an avuncular Stephan Witschi). The group’s activities included publishing a multi-lingual magazine called The Circle and operating a gay bar which provided a regular meeting place and venue for annual costume balls which took place during the 1950s (when most of the story is set), attended by up to 800 gay men who traveled from all around Europe to dress up and dance.

At the heart of The Circle is a true life love story between teacher Ernest Ostertag (Matthias Hungerbuhler) and cross dressing performer Robi Rapp (Sven Schelker). Throughout Haupt’s film the narrative is intercut (or, some might say, “disrupted”) by contemporary interviews with the actual Ostertag and Rapp, talking heads who are now elderly gentlemen. The departure from feature format to documentary style was due to financial constraints, according to helmer Haupt. Some may find Haupt’s mixture of techniques to be jarring while other viewers will presumably think it enhances this gay liberation saga’s veracity.

During The Circle the organization experiences ups and downs, as do Ostertag and Rapp and their relationship. The long term romance of the educator and drag artist, through thick and thin, appears to be admirable and is reminiscent of the love between John Lithgow and Alfred Molina’s characters in the recent feature, Love is Strange, as well as 1978’s La Cage aux Folles and its 1996 Hollywood version The Birdcage, starring Robin Williams, Nathan Lane and Gene Hackman.

The Circle also calls to mind a great pro-gay play presented in 2011 at L.A.’s Blank Theatre called The Temperamentals. In that drama American gay rights pioneer Harry Hay is also shown to have been a card carrying, dues paying Communist Party member. Similarly, in The Circle motorcycle riding Felix (played by Anatole Taubman, who has matinee idol looks) is a hothead pushing for equality and a Marxist, whose confrontational tactics clash with those of the more moderate, older Rolf.

As The Circle was “the Mother of European gay organizations," why did it thrive for decades in Switzerland? Because this Alpine nation is a bastion of neutrality and democracy that was never conquered by Hitler’s hordes. Of course, that doesn’t mean this Swiss pro-gay group didn’t run into its fair share of, shall we say, circle jerks.

The people of The Circle endured many hardships, including a few homophobic-inspired murders that went unpunished (sound familiar?). But, at least, history went on to be kinder to our star couple when Ostertag and Rapp became the first gay married couple in Switzerland.

             
 

Friday, December 5, 2014

FILM REVIEW: WILD

Cheryl Strayed (Reese Witherspoon) in Wild.
Strayed on the path

By John Esther

Things are tough for Cheryl Strayed (Reese Witherspoon).  A smart, well-read and married person, Strayed falls into a spiral of heroin use and random sexual encounters after her mother, Bobbi (Laura Dern), dies of cancer at the age of 45.

Knowing, accepting somewhere in the back of her mind and the front of books that this behavior is no good, Strayed decides to clean up her act, find herself, challenger her being, etc., by walking the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT).

Stretching over 1,100 miles from the U.S.-Mexico border to British Columbia, Canada, making the journey is no small feat. But Strayed decided to do it solo. While she did not exactly walk the entire distance, Strayed made it from one end to the other, on her own without a man to guide her -- although Strayed does meet a few nice men (as well as a few menacing ones) along the way.

Directed by Jean-Marc Vallee (Dallas Buyers Club) and written by Nick Hornsby (About a Boy), Wild is surprisingly a very entertaining film. Filled with drama, some good jokes -- including a very funny conversation about hobos -- and strong performances by Witherspoon (who seems to be on a small role this year) and Dern, Wild is an unabashedly feminist film. Some people say Strayed was crazy walking in the woods alone as a woman, suggesting she belonged at home in the city. As if home and the city are necessarily safe havens for women.

The film does have have two noticeable flaws.  One is the CGI Fox who seems to meet up with Strayed at certain points. It looks very fake (and we already have one fake Fox in America -- Bu dump chhh). The other shortcoming, though maybe less apparent, is the casting insofar as the genetic makeup of the actor playing Strayed (Witherspoon) could hardly come from the actors playing her mother (Dern) and father (Jason Newell). In other words, if this mother and father had a girl it would not resemble this daughter.

Oh, the film does have its share of blatantly obvious product placements, too. But I guess you have to raise the money for a film about an independent woman somewhere.

Also worth mentioning is the varied soundtrack. Clearly the highlight -- at least in terms of smarts -- is First Aid Kit's cover of R.E.M.'s "Walk Unafraid." Somebody did his or her research. The soundtrack also includes Portishead, and select, albeit unoriginal, Leonard Cohen songs. The rest of the soundtrack is pretty, softcore aural junk.

But those are minor quibbles. Wild runs a little under a brisk two hours, offering some beautiful elements of the California trail along with one woman's inspiring DIY courage, redemption and salvation.

You may want to go hiking afterward.





FILM REVIEW: PIONEER

Mike (Wes Bentley) and Knut (André Eriksen) in Pioneer.

You can go Norway

By Miranda Inganni

After a deadly accident on the sea bed, a Norwegian diver intent on completing his risky deep sea mission encounters intrigue and subterfuge in Erik Skoldbjærg’s latest release, Pioneer.

In the early 1980s, scientists discover a huge oil field in the North Sea off the coast of Norway. The only trick is figuring out how to build the pipelines deep below. Enter the Americans, who have much greater experience and resources when it comes to such matters. The governments of both countries know there is the potential to make a great sum of money. But at what cost?

Petter (Aksel Hennie) and his brother, Knut (André Eriksen), are sent on a test dive down to 360 meters below the ocean’s surface with anther crew member, Jørgen (David A. Jørgensen). Tragedy strikes and one of them is killed. Petter is convinced that his breathing gas line was cut, causing him to briefly blackout and ultimately do the damage that killed his fellow diver. But how can he prove it when it becomes clear that there is a coverup?

Both the Norwegian Petroleum Directorate and the American company, Deep Sea Diving (who they are working alongside, but not necessarily with), try to deflect the investigation. There is huge money to be made and neither company wants their name to be sullied nor to be found at fault.

As Petter tries to discover the truth about what happened at the bottom of the sea, dead bodies keep piling up. Will Petter discover the truth and try to right some of the wrongs, or will he be drowned by the greedy corporations and their minions?

Co-starring Wes Bentley (recently seen in The Hunger Games), Stephen Lang, and Jonathan LaPaglia as the American team; and Jørgen Langhelle, Ane Dahl Torp and Stephanie Sigman helping to round out the Norwegian players, Pioneer features some great acting. Additionally, cinematographer Jallo Faber captures the claustrophobia and bleak hopefulness  of deep sea diving (the penultimate shot is fantastic).
 
However, I could have done with a lot less of the Darth Vader-esque underwater breathing. We get it. Petter is isolated, cold, and completely dependent on artificial apparatus to stay alive., but the score by Air is annoyingly (but successfully!) complementary.
 
Lastly, the organization who winds up with the oil at the film is particularly, politically telling, considering Norway's current status as one of the best places, if not the best, place in the world to live. (Thanks to Norway's "welfare state" of high taxes Norwegians have the second-highest level of satisfaction with their standards of living. It also has the largest government surplus in the world. Norway's per capita GDP is $57,000 a year. It is ranked number one in the world for the best place to grow old. It also has the highest gender equality in the economy. And, perhaps most importantly, Norway now has the highest Human Development Index.)

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

STAGE REVIEW: TRAIN TO ZAKOPANE

Semyon (Mike Falkow) and Katia (Tanna Frederick) in Train to Zakopane.
Nursing the hatred

By Ed Rampell
Before the world premiere of Train To Zakopane, playwright Henry Jaglom briefly introduced the drama. The noted indie filmmaker of such films as Eating and Festival in Cannes stated that the play was based on a true story his father had told him. South African surfer-turned-thespian Mike Falkow portrays the protagonist based on Jaglom`s dad, here named Semyon Sapir, in this tale set in 1928 Poland.
Act I is set on the titular train, as Semyon beats the crowd and joins a sleeper inhabited by three other passengers. Among them is the priest Father Alexandrov (Stephen Howard) and the young blonde virginal Polish beauty, Katia Wampusyk (Tanna Frederick, a regular in Jaglom's recent films). Katia is a delightful traveling companion -- excellent for one, shall we say, personality quirk and flaw: Wampusyk is a vicious anti-Semite.
Like most Jew haters her bigotry is based on a sheer ignorance Wampusyk believes is the gospel truth, which Father Alexandrov basically seconds the motion. Among other things, the Polish nurse proclaims she can spot a Jew from a mile away. Semyon debate the points, with no success. So, to teach her a lesson, Semyon -- who is reluctantly smitten by his fellow commuter -- hides the fact that he is himself Jewish and romantically pursues Wampusyk.
In Act II the two youthful lovebirds disembark at the eponymous Zakopane, a resort town in southern Poland where Wampusyk had previously worked as a nurse at an important clinic for typhoid victims. Romance ensues at an upscale hotel, as Semyon continues to hide his Jewish background from his lovely, if prejudiced, lover.
Train To Zakopane makes the powerful point that prior to the Nazis coming to power in Germany, the Poles were Europe`s – no, the world`s -- worst anti-Semites. Is this true? I don`t know, but it`s food for thought.
In any case, Train To Zakopane is probably one of the most hard hitting plays about bigotry to appear onstage in ages. Among other things, the drama ponders the notion of hiding one`s identity as a survival mechanism. In addition to Semyon`s deception, fellow passenger Nadia Selmeczy (Cathy Arden), and actress, and her brother, Nahum Gruenbaum (Jeff Elam), a doctor, are self-denying Jews who conceal their heritage. As the old saying goes, “To get along you have to go along.”
Train To Zakopane is a bit talky like, well, a Jaglom film, but it`s well-directed by Gary Imhoff, who has previously directed other Jaglom works for the theater. The drama is also well-acted; Falkow has that 1930s/1940s matinee idol appeal, with the looks and mannerisms of the suave, continental Paul Henreid and Franchot Tone, which is ideal for this period piece. Frederick manages to conjure up a character who is, at the same time, paradoxically hateful and yet so loving. Set designer Chris Stone effectively and literally sets the scene with his train and then resort hotel scenery.
This tale of strangers on a train is a thought provoking, poignant plea for tolerance. The plight of Jews in 1928 Poland, with the rise of the Nazis lurking and looming in the background, is strong stuff.(Once Hitler invaded Poland in 1939, it was out of the frying pan and literally into the fire for Poland and Europe`s Jews.) Jaglom`s play also made this Jewish reviewer reflect that that old bromide “Misery ennobles those who suffer” is a lie. If anything, misery loves company. Instead of learning from our tragic past, full of man`s inhumanity to man, just consider the ongoing pain of cosmic proportions that ultra-extremist, militaristic Zionists continue to inflict upon today`s wretched of the Earth: The Palestinians.
Will they ever learn?
 

Train To Zakopane runs through March 29  at Edgemar Center for the Arts, 2437 Main St., Santa Monica, CA, 90405. Reservations: 310-392-7327; www.edgemarcenter.org.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

STAGE REVIEW: FLORENCIA EN EL AMAZONAS

Rosalba (Lisetta Oropesa) in Florencia en el Amazonas. Photo Credit: Craig T. Mathew.

Take me to the river

By Ed Rampell

Who says the operatic art form is dead? Simply put, Florencia en el Amazonas is among the finest operas this reviewer has ever seen. Certainly, in terms of stagecraft and theatrical special effects, Daniel Catán’s Florencia en el Amazonas is the best, and it even exceeds the Broadway production of Phantom (which is, of course, set largely in an opera house) in terms of onstage visual wizardry. However, regarding plot, it is more like Joseph Conrad’s 1899 novella, Heart of Darkness, with its tale of ivory traders embarking on an odyssey into the jungle.

But instead of floating down the Congo River on a steamboat into “deepest, darkest” Central Africa, the opera’s El Dorado (as the paddle wheeler is symbolically named) traverses the Amazon River, from Leticia to Manaus. Located in northeastern Brazil, according to Lonely Planet, Manaus is Amazon’s largest city and a major port for ocean vessels, although it is about 1000 miles from the Atlantic. However, Florencia en el Amazonas thematically departs from Conrad’s meditation on imperialism and reversion to savagery -- instead of seeking ivory this work composed in 1997 by Catán, with a libretto by Marcela Fuentes-Berain, is about that elusive quest for “a crazy little thing called love,” as Freddie Mercury and Queen so eloquently put it.

The passengers aboard this ship of fools for love are inspired by Colombian literary lion Gabriel García Márquez, although this work is not an operatic adaptation of any of the novels, per se, by that winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature. The dramatis persona include: The title character (soprano Veronica Villarroel), Florencia Grimaldi, a renowned diva traveling incognito, en route to reopen Manaus’ opera house and seeking her long lost love Cristobal, a butterfly hunter. Paula (mezzo-soprano Nancy Fabiola Herrera) and Alvaro (baritone Gordon Hawkins) are a middle aged couple who hope the flame of their passion will be relit by hearing Florencia’s stirring arias. The lovely, youthful Rosalba (soprano Lisette Oropesa) is a would-be writer.

En route Rosalba encounters the young sailor Arcadio (Sonora tenor Arturo Chacon-Cruz), who expresses ennui regarding his job to his uncle, the straight arrow Captain (bass-baritone David Pittsinger). Having set sail on numerous voyages himself, this reviewer knows that crewmates can be colorful characters, and in Act I baritone Jose Carbo perfectly captures this piquant quality as Riolobo. But, unfortunately, in the second act this character -- whom Performances Magazine calls the “spirit of the river” -- all but floats away, offstage.

Florencia en el Amazonas real “star” is the El Dorado -- kudos to scenery designer Robert Israel and director Francesco Zambello, whose recent evocation of a man o’ war at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in last season’s Melvillean Billy Budd also featured a maritime theme. The trials and tribulations that befall the El Dorado during its river sojourn are spectacular to watch onstage, with a grand finale which recalls the title of a Márquez novel. Lighting designer Mark McCullough does yeoman’s work to assist in rendering these FX, along with Israel and spellbinding projections (more below).

At times the paddle wheeler actually moves onstage, especially starboard to portside and back. As for going full steam ahead, the charming images rendered on scrims and backdrops by projections designer S. Katy Tucker provide the illusion of frontal movement down (or up?) the river. The projections of the Amazon’s flora and fauna are lovely to behold in this enchanting production, enhancing its magical realist vibe, with imagery that has an Henri Rousseau dreamlike quality.

A quintet of dancers who may be Amazonian indigenous people, such as the Yanomamö or water sprites, performing balletic movements choreographed by American Eric Sean Fogel, enhances the opera’s ambiance of enchantment.

Like librettist Fuentes-Berain (who is also an acclaimed screenwriter mentored by Márquez), Catán hailed from Mexico City, which probably explains why their opera is sung in Spanish, instead of Portuguese, Brazil’s national language (overhead English supertitles translate the libretto). Catán, who taught music at Santa Clarita’s College of the Canyons, helped to bring the operatic medium into the 21st century and to enthusiastically infuse it with new blood, utilizing up-to-date technology for artistic purposes. His opera version of Frank Capra’s 1941 populist picture Meet John Doe is -- due to the lamented Catán’s untimely death in 2011 -- presumably not completed.

Fuentas-Berain’s lyrics, Catán’s music, ably conducted by Grant Gershon, combined with soaring performances expressing the meaning of romance, plus eye-popping sets and special effects that are aerial, as well as nautical, combine and conspire to make Florencia en el Amazonas a voyage of the blessed. El Dorado’s gold, but of course, is true love. So take someone you love to see a tour de force down the Amazon that never loses its head of steam.


Florencia en el Amazonas runs through December 20 at 7:30 p.m. at LA Opera at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave. For more info: 213-972-8001; www.laopera.com.

 

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

FILM REVIEW: ONCE UPON A TIME, VERONICA

Veronica (Hermila Guedes) and Gustavo (Joao Miguel) in Once Upon a Time, Veronica.
Examining a life worth living

By Ed Rampell

Despite its fairy tale title, Brazilian writer-director Marcelo Gomes’ Once Upon a Time, Veronica is a realistic look at contemporary urban South America. What’s engrossing about this film is that it takes viewers behind the scenes into the psyche and even soul of its protagonist, Veronica da Silva Fernandes (Hermila Guedes). Who are these women? By going beyond the celluloid stereotypes of countless Carmen Miranda movies, 1959’s mythic Black Orpheus, etc., and revealing Veronica’s inner life, we have a fully fleshed out picture of a 21st century women living in Recife, on Brazil’s northeastern coast.

Much of the truthfully drawn film is concerned with Veronica’s private life; its nudity and sex acts are fairly graphic by puritanical Yankee standards, where couples often make love beneath blankets. But our heroine is far more than a beach blanket bimbo or just another “hot Latin Lover.” In fact, Veronica is a doctor, with much of this feature detailing her work inside of a city hospital and the related stresses of trying to treat, and perhaps heal, psychologically suffering patients (some of whom abuse Veronica).

In the classic “physician heal thyself” mode, Veronica, too experiences existential angst and ponders the meaning of life, so she is often simpatico with her clientele. In this sense, Once Upon a Time, Veronica is reminiscent of European sixties cinema by Michelangelo Antonioni and Ingmar Bergman, with those estranged characters seeking purpose and connection. As developing countries undergo development, part of the process seems to incur these psychological crises that once seemed reserved for we denizens of the developed world, with our materialistic, consumer societies. One could find analogy to adding to global warming -- welcome to the monkey house!

Veronica finds release from her daily grind in carefree sex and water. Whether romping in the surf (alone or with friends or as part of an orgy) or in her shower, water is a recurring motif that provides our heroine with a form of hydrotherapy. Perhaps it can be argued that the sea in particular is what connects Veronica most to her Brazilian-ness.

As for her sexuality, Veronica confides that her problem isn’t having sex or finding partners, but rather discovering true love. So there’s a conflict as to whether Gustavo (Joao Miguel) will remain solely a sex partner, her boy toy -- or, on a more intimate level, become Veronica’s “official boyfriend.”

Perhaps this is because Veronica still lives with her ailing, aging father, Zé Maria (W. J. Solha) -- who loves frevo music and has a book by Lenin on his shelf -- with whom she has a very warm, nurturing relationship. Maybe she’s channeling those loving feelings into her father, instead of a romantic partner. (Paging Dr. Freud!)

Guedes’ performance always rings true. Her Veronica is not a classic beauty; rather, her attractiveness is derived from the character’s realistic earthiness. Veronica is physically (and mentally) poised somewhere between youth, which is fading, and the onset of early middle age; she’s apparently around 35 years old or so. Indeed, the film begins with Veronica sitting her medical exams, as she transitions from student to entering the workplace as a professional.

Veronica is busty, but beginning to sag -- you know, like a real woman, not a pre-fab Hollywood movie starlet. In a sense, sans (presumably) Botox, breast augmentation surgery and other artifice, we experience a natural instead of artificial woman, which makes her all the more sexier and endearing. Likewise some of Veronica’s gal pals -- one of whom is very overweight but not burdened by Melissa McCarthy-type fat girl jokes.

Gomes combines Neo-realist and more arty cinematic styles, with lots of close-ups. We get a real slice of life as it seems to be lived by 21st century real residents of Recife. But a shot that lingers on Veronica’s grief stricken visage goes on far too long and one almost wants to shout “cut!” at the screen at this affectation.

Overall, Once Upon a Time, Veronica is a candid, absorbing film that sheds light on 21st century Brazil through the life of a vibrant, bright woman full of longing, striving for hope -- and, perhaps, an insouciant state of grace that is joie de vivre. 

 

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

STAGE REVIEW: THE VORTEX

Nicky (Craig Robert Young) and Florence (Shannon Holt) in The Vortex.

 
Windbag of goodies

By Ed Rampell

Methinks that in much of the public’s mind, Noël Coward is mainly considered to be the consummate sophisticate, a Britty witty wordsmith and wag able to sling lyrics and bon mots along with the best playwrights and songwriters with Cole Porter-esque ease. While all this is quite true, Coward’s groundbreaking hit, The Vortex -- which he not only wrote but co-starred in as Nicky Lancaster and made him an overnight sensation in 1924 -- proves that there was much more to Coward than the ability to render droll repartee and songs. Indeed, he also created superb anti-Nazi plays and movies.

While The Vortex certainly has more than its fair share of sharp banter, it is also a powerful dramedy about vanity, adultery, repressed homosexuality, substance abuse and more among an upper class milieu, with its hangers-on. The interactions of Nicky (Craig Robert Young) with his emasculated father, David (John Mawson), and clashes with his mother, Florence (Shannon Holt), may call to mind Eugene O’Neill’s tragedies and James Dean’s tortured relationships with his onscreen 1950s’ fathers. Nicky’s confrontation with the vapid materialism of his pretentious mother and most of her crowd could even be said to presage Benjamin’s (Dustin Hoffman) predicament in 1967’s countercultural classic, The Graduate (“Plastics” indeed!).

Florence is a fading beauty whose obsession with her looks and age overshadows all else in her life, which is full of pretensions. This single-minded fixation on eternal youth and attractiveness greatly impacts upon her family and friends. Daniel Jimenez plays Florence’s gigolo Tom Veryan as a bland bloke whose main virtues are his relative youthfulness and generic handsomeness. In a bit of nontraditional casting, Skye LaFontaine plays the English “lady” Bunty Mainwaring whom Nicky is courting (perhaps, subconsciously, to be his beard). Cameron Mitchell, Jr. plays the effeminate Paunceforth “Pawnie” Quentin, who favors maroon and kerchiefs. As the savvy Helen Saville, Florence’s best friend, Victoria Hoffman has the unenviable task of being a truth teller amidst this not-so-rarefied realm of gossamer glitter, glitz and artifice.

In Matrix Theatre’s reprise of last spring’s Malibu Playhouse production (with much of the same cast), the action -- which Coward set during the post-World War I Jazz Age -- has been reset to London during the swinging sixties. As readers of this reviewer’s oeuvre (talk about “pretentiousness”!) may recall, this critic often looks askance at updating and relocating plays, such as all those Greek classics staged without a toga in sight. But here the transition of Coward’s original text works well. England during that period of the Beatles, Cream, Stones, etc., was extremely interesting, and The Vortex’s themes of promiscuity, drugs and the breakdown of classes provides a natural background for Coward’s piece de resistance. And this iconic era gives director Gene Franklin Smith, sound designer Joe Calarco and choreographer Anna Safar a legitimate excuse to play snippets of those fab sixties tunes listeners still love to hum along and tap their tootsies to.

Scenic designer Erin Walley also captures the mod spirit of the times in acts one and two, although the third and final act is aptly universal and ageless, as its overriding theme can be traced right back to Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex (with or without togas). Smith’s direction of his ensemble of gifted thespians is spot on, and Young’s depiction of Nicky’s struggle to rise above being just a callow upper class lad in the role that made Sir Noël famous (and rightfully so) is moving to watch. However, during the denouement his declamation of the title word was hard to hear, so this critic had to look up Nicky’s line vis-à-vis his mother and her infidelity: “We swirl around in a vortex of beastliness.” But this is a mere quibble as the Matrix’s three-acter is well worth seeing and eminently worthy of its creator.


The Vortex runs through Dec. 14 at the Matrix Theatre, 7657 Melrose Avenue, L.A., California, 90048. For info: 323-960-7735. For tickets: www.plays411.com/vortex.

 


     

 

Friday, November 14, 2014

FILM REVIEW: BESIDE STILL WATERS

A "Whiskey Slap" scene in Beside Still Waters.
Drunk slap love

By Miranda Inganni

A group of friends gather for a final weekend at Daniel's (Ryan Eggold) recently departed parents' lake house in Chris Lowell's flick, Beside Still Waters. Drunken revelry ensues.

Despite having been close as kids, the clique has not convened since high school, not even for Daniels's parents' funeral. Self-pitying Daniel, who insists that he is fine with his parents' accidental (potentially violent) deaths, reunites the whole (easily categorized) gang: Tom (Beck Bennett), the class clown -- gay, drunk joker recently fired from his dad's law firm; Martin (Will Brill) and Abby (Erin Darke), the high school sweethearts -- unhappily married couple who are not having sex; Charley (Jessy Hodges), the bohemian --  fun-loving, free spirited, "anything goes" hippie chick; James (Brett Dalton), mister popular -- the Porsche-driving star of a crappy "reality" show; and Olivia (Britt Lower), the object of Daniel's unrequited love, and her fiancé, Henry (Reid Scott).

Using Henry as the fall guy (obviously he is a bad person, as he stole Daniel's true love and must be punished and stopped!), the gang gets extremely wasted, playing a terrible sounding and violent "game" called whiskey slaps, capturing the moments on Super 8 film, skinny dipping, etc. How they do not all end up drowned or in the hospital I do not know. Old flames are rekindled and crushes re-explored. Feelings are hurt. Relationships are damaged. But like most mainstream ensemble buddy movies, it all works out in the end.

Look, the acting is fine, the writing (by Lowell and Mohit Narang) is commendable in parts (I admit I chuckled here and there), namely the genuinely cleverly written/edited scene recollecting the previous night's adventures. But there are some oversights too. After Olivia yells at Daniel to stop acting like a child, he goes out and follows in his father's footsteps, or, more accurately, car tracks. Not exactly a mature way to handle his emotions. It would have been nice (and responsible!) if some mention had been made about alcoholism (a disease that, according to the NCAAD, affects over 17 million Americans) and the effects it can have. I am not asking for some preachy conversion conversation, but it goes completely unrecognized.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

FILM REVIEW: FOXCATCHER

A scene from Foxcatcher.
Chemical ro(am)Mance
 
By John Esther
 
In 1996 recluse millionaire madman John du Pont assassinated a man who was arguably the greatest American wrestler ever. It was not supposed to happen. After all, du Pont invited the wrestling extraordinaire brothers Dave and Mark Schultz to come to du Point’s Foxcatcher estate to create a great American wrestling team. Great things were supposed to be accomplished, and sometimes they were. But wrestling on the mat and wrestling with one’s own and another’s psyche are two different phenomena – yet not necessarily distinct.
 
Inspired by the events leading up to the senseless murder, director Bennett Miller (Capote; Moneyball) and company bring forth a plethora of information, detail and skill in order to recreate the “truth” about those involved in Foxcatcher.
 
A seemingly nobody in working-class Wisconsin, Olympic Gold winner Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) is training for the upcoming world wrestling championships. An Olympic champion reduced to living hand to mouth in near-poverty squalor, Mark is a loner barely recognized by his fellow citizens. His existence would be essentially ephemeral if it were not for his older brother, Dave Schultz (Mark Ruffalo). While hardly living the grand life, Dave does have a wife (Sienna Miller) and two kids, a steady job, and is on a regular relationship with USA Wrestling (USAW).
 
In a highly memorable scene, Foxcather precisely and aggressively establishes the relationship between the two brothers during their first encounter in the film.
 
Then, without warning, Mark’s seemingly bleak existence is disrupted by a call from a man calling on behalf of a man from one of the richest and most powerful American families since America’s Civil War.
 
Like a dream he never had coming true, Mark is lifted out of his dismal apartment and onto the 800-acre du Pont estate located in the Philadelphia suburbs. His benefactor, John du Pont (Steve Carell) a man of many interests, influences and eccentricities, wants to build a great American wrestling team. (We are talking authentic, athletic, amateur wrestling here, not the homoerotic, choreographed, steroid-fueled show known as professional wrestling.)
 
With relish and determination, the two start to build a formidable force. Training, meals and salaries are provided to Mark and the rest of wrestling team. Meanwhile, Dave remains back in Wisconsin, happy to do what he is doing.
 
As the training continues, Mark and du Pont begin to form a sort of son-father relationship. As someone who lived without his father and under his brother’s wings growing up, Mark has found a father surrogate in du Pont. Du Pont never had much of a father either.
 
Then drugs and alcohol enter the mix. The paternalistic dynamic becomes one of friendship, perhaps the only real one du Pont ever had. Well, his mother, Jean du Pont (Vanessa Redgrave), did buy her son a friend many years ago.
 
However, that friendship becomes restrained, too. Mark lashes out. John, with vastly superior intellectual skills, responds by systematically dismantling Mark by seducing Dave and his family out to the estate.
 
Now the three are wrestling on the mat, plus with fears, egos and loyalty. Mark is overwhelmed; Dave wants to keep his brother from hurting himself or others; and “Eagle” John is a man who is used to getting what he wants. The results will not be pretty.
 
Winner of Best Director at Cannes Film Festival 2014, Miller and company recreate those tragic events without mawkishness or fear. Simply put, this is well-done filmmaking with some extraordinary performances. Tatum is allowed to tap his inner emotions while Carell is breaking his comedic mold by playing a tragically pathetic character far from his comically pathetic Michael Scott on The Office. Typical Carell fans should not expect to laugh at Carell in the usual manner. Du Pont may be a virgin, but it is not for laughs. For his part, Ruffalo is excellent in an understated performance; it is the kind of nuanced acting typically overlooked during awards groups by more obvious performances.
 
As far as Redgrave’s contribution goes, sure, she does her job; but there is not much for her to do. She is simply here to add a little gravitas, which is not necessary. Running at a quick 132-minutes, Foxcatcher is a story about two brothers, one with personal demons, attached to a man who was obviously confused, spoiled, and likely sexually frustrated (some say mentally ill), who met two interests/subjects who did not serve his needs and thus had to be dispensed with extreme prejudice. (To put it Hollywoody: The Fighter meets Snowpiercer.)
 
However, there is one positive post-trope here: a one-percenter did not get away with murder. Du Pont died in prison in 2010.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

FILM REVIEW: FORCE MAJEURE

A scene from Force Majeure.
Accidents will dampen

By Ed Rampell

A French term literally translated as 'greater force,'" force majeure is a clause included in contracts to remove liability for natural and unavoidable catastrophes that interrupt the expected course of events and restrict participants from fulfilling obligations.” A so-called “act of god” is a good example of this, and one such occurrence sets the stage for the plot and theme of Force Majeure, a stylish Swedish movie written and directed by Ruben Östlund that scored the Cannes Film Festival’s Jury Prize in Un Certain Regard.

Tomas (Johannes Bah Kunke) and Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli) are a Swedish middle class couple vacationing in the French Alps with their young son and daughter. In a bit of clever casting, Vera and Harry are played by real life sister and brother, Clara and Vincent Wettergren. Some sly dialogue in passing fills us in on the fact that this ski holiday is a rarity, as Tomas is so busy with his career. These throwaway lines inform what happens next.

Your reviewer won’t tell you exactly what that is. Except to say that in this precarious world of climate change, war and the like, this morality play ponders what we’d do when faced with a force majure.

(Some reviewers, such as at least one of KPCC’s blabbermouths on FilmWeek, belong to “The Edward Snowden School of Movie Reviewing." willy-nilly revealing punchlines, plot points and the like, spoiling viewers’ own joy of discovery, because these WikiLeak-type bigmouths are probably trying to enhance their own reviews by misappropriating films’ best jokes, storylines, etc., to burnish their lackluster coverage.)

The perpetrator of the apparent misdeed is in denial over the course of action (uh, or lack of) when the titular force majeure happens, which rocks the marriage and parent-child relationships to the core. The film becomes an examination of gender roles, marital relations, parental responsibility and of this petit bourgeois couple and their children. Interaction with a janitor at the posh Alpine resort where the family is vacationing also cannily injects a class dimension into the story. As things come undone the perp seeks redemption.

As recently observed in a review of August Strindbergs The Dance of Death by L.A.’s A Noise Within theatre company, Force Majeure is also in a long line of “arts reflecting the Scandinavian psyche, including dramatists Strindberg, Henrik Ibsen, painter Edvard Munch, filmmakers Victor Sjöström, Carl Theodor Dreyer and of course Ingmar Bergman... Even the marriage of Birgitte Nyborg (Sidse Babett Knudsen), the fictionalized first female prime minister of Denmark in the stellar Danish TV series Borgen, falls apart -- not even her nation’s most powerful person can keep her marriage together.”

But for this me, Force Majeure is most in keeping with the theme of Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim. In any case, there is some stunning cinematography of ski and snow. Plus excellent use of Antonio Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons.”  Also, the ending of this highly philosophical film reminded me of Luis Bunuel’s 1972 film, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie -- but since loose lips sink ships, you can find out for yourself what is meant by that.