Wednesday, June 20, 2012

The Adjustment Bureau, A Review

Yeah, yeah, yeah, this is an ooooooold movie and nobody bothered to go see it in the theaters so why review it now, get over it and move on. Ooooo, look! Prometheus!

Fine. Yes. So it's a year old and I saw it on HBO. Too bad--I'm posting about it!

The story. Matt Damon plays a young rising political star, who meets Emily Blunt and immediately recognizes her as The One. She may feel the same way. But! There are Men in Hats, lead by the dapper John Slattery/Roger Sterling who are some kind of bureaucratic heavenly host, who have to keep steering humankind back onto track. Turns out that if Matt and Emily stay together, the Plan will be thwarted and. . .what, exactly? Who knows, but kind of bad, apparently. (We get hints--when the Adjusters stepped back, the world got the Dark Ages. So they intervened, gave humanity the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, spent 400 years teaching us how to grow properly. They stepped back and we invented WWI, the Great Depression, the Holocaust and the Cuban Missile Crisis. They forgot to mention the mullet and Nickleback.) The Men in Hats won't let it happen.

There are also carrots to go with that stick--if he gives her up, Matt Damon will eventually be president, and Emily Blunt will be the leading choreographer of the age. If he doesn't give her up, Matt will destroy his own dreams and hers as well. So he tries giving her up, but it political success isn't fulfilling enough. But she's getting married! Matt Damon has to enlist his own personal Man in Hat to help him evade all the other Men in Hats. Can he get to her in time?

But of course. True Love Always Conquers All in Hollywood Movies.

Love Emily Blunt. Too bad she's more an accessory than a full human being, a kind of manic pixie dream girl who at least gets some token dreams of her own. However, she is of interest to the Men in Hats only in so far as she either helps or hinders Matt Damon from becoming President. She inspires him to go off message in a concession speech early in the movie which allows him to continue to be a viable candidate four years later. But then the Men in Hats see that she will make him happy and he won't have that drive to fill his empty center caused by the deaths of all his immediate family--so they have to keep them apart.

Bechdel test? I don't see it passing--even when she's performing with her experimental dance troupe, Emily Blunt is the only female. There may be a technical pass, as she's heading into her wedding at the courthouse, she turns to her maid of honor and excuses herself to go to the bathroom. Hey--at least it's not about a man!

Matt Damon--still youthful looking, but not the most charismatic I've seen him.

John Slattery--dapperly ominous. Not something you see from a lot of villains generally. He's got a lovely weariness to him, but I don't really buy him as a bureaucrat.

Terence Stamp as the District Manager of the Men in Hats. (Yes, I made up that title. He's higher up in the hierarchy, but not by much.) Is he the go-to when you can't get Malcolm MacDowell? Are they Two Stars, One Slot? Discuss

Final summation? Acting is fine, writing is not up to par. The "ordinary reality" doesn't ring quite true, so the fact that there's surreal disruption isn't as jarring as it should be--it all feels slightly off. The concept that angels have to constantly intercede with humanity to keep God's plan on track is so high concept, but fails to really conform to mainstream theology about the nature of humanity, the nature of God, and the limits of free will. So the theology is off, the "reality" is off, the idea is a hoot but the last 15 minutes feels like the "race for your love" cliche.

B-, but Emily Blunt gets an A.

Moonrise Kingdom, A Review

Saw Wes Anderson's latest movie Moonrise Kingdom on a whim last weekend. I might best be described as "agnostic" about his work--I have seen The Royal Tennenbaums and The Fantastic Mr. Fox, and liked them well enough, but not so much that I was compelled to devour his entire oeuvre. I am a fan of Bill Murray, which might make you think I would have gone out of my way to see The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, but then you would be wrong. And I have never seen Rushmore, although I have an idea that Murray might be in it?

So, I'm not in a position to completely explicate the precise location of this latest movie in Anderson's development as an artiste. On the other hand, I am not jaded about his quirks and tropes. I am a casual movie-goer who likes the discipline of sitting in a dark room where I cannot be interrupted, and I go to be told a story. Moonrise Kingdom entertained me and gave me some lovely things to look at and told me a story about people I had not already seen. Plus there was a refreshing lack of car crashes, fireballs, and snarky one-liners delivered before murdering another human being.

The story is simple: In September of 1965,  twelve year old Suzy Bishop lives on the Maine-like island of "New Penzance" with her distant parents (Frances McDormand and Bill Murray) and three younger brothers. Twelve year old Sam Shukusky is on the island as a "Khaki Scout"--highly decorated and disliked by all the other boys. The two met the previous year, at a performance of Benjamin Britten's "Noye's Fludd" where Suzy played a raven. They wrote letters to each other and plotted to run away together. Sam brings his survivalist knowledge acquired during his years as a Khaki Scout, as well as the requisite gear. Suzy brings half a dozen large library books and a battery operated record player. Plus extra batteries. Between them, they make an idyllic existence that lasts only a short while. But while it lasts, they live with a sureness of purpose and an unshakeable belief in their love for each other that is both highly stylized and fundamentally true about first love.

In contrast, the adults in the movie are at best befuddled, all of them more than a little lost in their own lives. Suzy's parents share a roof and little else. Bruce Willis plays the chief of the Island police force: he seems ill equipped to handle the case of the missing children, and his "affair" with Frances McDormand seems to consist of sharing cigarettes and the occasional handshake. Edward Norton is the Khaki Scout leader who "loses" first Sam, and ultimately his entire troop. The only truly competent adult is Tilda Swinton, as "Social Services" who is dispatched to the island to "intake" Sam and find him a new placement--most probably an orphanage.

So what happens? Sam and Suzy run away and camp for a few days across the island. The Khaki Scouts and police mobilize to find them. Suzy is sent home, and Sam is sent to bunk with Bruce Willis until he can be sent to Social Services on the mainland. However, the rest of the scouts have a change of heart, and decide to re-unite the young lovers and help them escape. They enlist the help of Cousin Ben (Jason Schwartzman) who also marries them in a brief Scout-Jamboree type ceremony, while explicitly acknowledging that due to their youth, lack of parental consent, and other problems, the ceremony has no legal force but may have some moral effect. The kids then sail to a larger island, where the Khaki Scouts are assembling for a summer's end celebration. There is another chase, a major storm, flooding, some heroic saves, and ultimately resolution. Suzy remains at home, where Sam visits her, driven surreptitiously by his new [foster? adoptive?] father, Bruce Willis.

The joy in the movie is in the details--which is probably self-evident, given that it is a Wes Anderson film. The opening scene pans through Suzy's home, each room as squared and tidy as a doll house. When Sam is discovered missing from his tiny tent, Scout Master Edward Norton finds a hole cut in the canvas and covered by a map, like the escape route from Shawshank Redemption. One night, as the scouts are helping them escape, Suzy reads to the whole troop from one of her books, in a scene reminiscent of Wendy telling bedtime stories to the Lost Boys in Peter Pan.

The island is lovely, the acting is extremely low key, the plot is largely incidental to the visual beauty--even the campsites Sam sets up make little objective sense. Why put Suzy's suitcase there? But the style is in service to the overarching nostalgia of the theme--this is what a first love feels like, and these are the artifacts of that time that evoke that memory. So the period props--the record player, the library books, the clumsy suitcase, the badly stenciled scouting equipment--are deployed as totems of a time that exists only in memory, that can only be roughly re-created, just as the feeling of being twelve and on an adventure can only be vaguely understood by the adults in the movie or communicated to a movie-going audience.

Worth seeing? I'd recommend it--it's lovely storytelling in a highly fictive fashion, using the inherent realism of movies to de-familiarize the visual and making it all feel like the stories Suzy reads aloud around the campfire.

Also--the charming official website for the movie is worth exploring.

Saturday, June 02, 2012

Amen Corner at the Guthrie Theater, a review

First--let's acknowledge that I am apparently dead to joy. My cold dead heart keeps interfering with my ability to engage emotionally with movies, books, and now theater. I am also informed that the fact that I don't care for lychee is further evidence of my emotional stuntedness. Or maybe I am just too old and crotchety to do anything but yell at the kids these days to get off my lawn. Either one.

Second--my quarrel is with the play, and possibly the decision to stage it at all. The acting was uniformly excellent, and the music was outstanding. The stage set was detailed and effective, the costumes were perfect. As a period piece, as a cultural artifact of African-American experience, it was a perfectly presented 1954 play.

That said--this is the first play James Baldwin wrote, and it focuses on a pivotal week in the life of Margaret Alexander, a pastor in a tiny church in 1954 Harlem. Margaret, called Maggie, is a charismatic leader of a "praise Jesus" testifying type of church, who seems to have a truly sanctified life. She preaches against cards, liquor, and jazz music, even specifically warning one of the congregants not to take a job driving a truck for a liquor company so as not to enable alcoholism in others and not to jeopardize his own salvation. Her 18 year old son David plays piano for the services, and they live downstairs in the building with Maggie's sister Odessa. As the play opens, we see a church service that ends with a collection taken to send Maggie to spend a week in Philadelphia ministering to a sister church with a dying pastor.

Into this situation comes Maggie's husband and David's father, a jazz trumpeter named Luke, who is dying of tuberculosis. In front of several members of the board of elders, Luke reveals that Maggie is the one who left him, rather than the other way around. He then collapses, and gets installed in a bedroom where he is expected to die within days. Maggie leaves for Philadelphia, and in her absence everything changes.

The congregation begins to question her leadership, sparked by the situation with her husband. What kind of woman leaves her marriage? What kind of woman leaves her dying husband--and if she couldn't bring him to accept Jesus and the sanctified life, why were they allowing her to lead them? And just how much does it cost to go to Philadelphia anyway--that collection was over $40, and it only costs $3 if you go by bus. Maggie's obligation to her family should take precedence over her job, even if her job is God, shouldn't it? The bitterness grows--Brother Boxer is only trying to provide for his family, why shouldn't he take that truck driving job?

Meanwhile, David is facing his own crisis of conscience. He's nearly adult now, and studying music, and his mother's circumscribed world of church and home is no longer enough for him. The appearance of his father gives him a tangible model for a different kind of life, and he longs to go out into the world. He doesn't want to hurt his mother, but he also can't live the life she envisions for him, where he stays forever and eventually takes over the church.

At three and a half hours, this is just too much play. The structure shows its age, and it creaks more than a little bit. The testifyin' and amenin' at the beginning goes on well beyond what the audience needs to get the context. The self-satisfaction of the congregation smells hypocritical well before the cracks start to appear, which unbalances the message. These people aren't struggling with profound questions and self-doubt. They are spoiled and self-satisfied, angry at being berated by a woman, eager to turn on her and seize power and control from her at the first sign of weakness. Which makes the whole "give you life to God" appear less like a legitimate spiritual quest and more like self-medication to deal with the pain of life.  The cracks in Maggie's facade of holiness don't occasion any soul searching--it's more like "Mean Girls Goes to Church." It's purely a power struggle for tiny stakes (the leadership of an impoverished organization) rather than a search for the transcendent.

Luke's appearance raises a kind of weird dichotomy, that's hard to really take seriously in 2012. Can contemporary audiences really take seriously a claim that jazz is "devil's music" and even listening to it is to risk damnation? Seriously? I understand that may have been a real issue back when the play was written--the strict divide between church music and popular music made Ray Charles deeply controversial, bringing gospel tropes to his music the way he did. Now, it just seems like a quaint belief that carries no moral force.

Ultimately, the play works through several layers of superficial conflict to the real question--do you live in the world and accept all the joy and pain, or do you hide from it--and find out that hiding doesn't protect you like you thought it would. Maggie and Luke had a second child who died as a baby, and the pain of that loss was more than Maggie could bear. She fled to New York and struck a bargain with God--she would deny herself anything remotely connected to worldly pleasure, and he would keep her safe from pain.

Of course, God doesn't work like that, and so David grew up anyway and Maggie couldn't keep him "out of the world." He leaves to join a combo, touring and playing music. The congregation rejects Maggie's total control over their lives, and vote her out as pastor. Luke dies, and Maggie realizes that she never stopped loving him. She confronts her own deepest fears, and wonders whether she threw her life away, now that she has lost her church, her husband and her son--couldn't she have done better living some other way? She mounts the pulpit at the (hostile) church and recognizes that loving God means loving "all his Children" with all their faults. She goes back downstairs and curls up against Luke's body as the lights go out.

The play owes great debts to Eugene O'Neill and Tennessee Williams. The entire David plot is basically The Glass Menagerie in Harlem--the domineering mother, the son's need to establish his independent identity. I guess the church plays the role of the crippled sister. Everybody has a monologue moment of crisis, a series of set pieces that follow each other like pearls on a string, and the play ain't over until everybody has had their solo. The creakiness of the format just gets louder the longer the play carries on.

Nor is it possible to swallow some of the basic assumptions that fuel the plot--at least for me. Apparently it's acceptable for a woman to have a career if her husband has left her; it is not acceptable for a woman to have a career if she leaves her husband. That betrays a fundamental failure as a woman, and marks her as unworthy to be a pastor. The sinfulness of jazz music is not explained, just assumed, and so it comes off as a silly prejudice equivalent to the kind of things mocked in The Music Man:

Mothers of River City! Heed the warning before it's too late! 
Watch for the tell-tale sign of corruption! The moment your son leaves the house, 
Does he rebuckle his knickerbockers below the knee? 
Is there a nicotine stain on his index finger? 
A dime novel hidden in the corn crib? 
Is he starting to memorize jokes from Capt. Billy's Whiz Bang? 
Are certain words creeping into his conversation? Words like "swell?"  
And "so's your old man?"
 I mean, the music they sing in church is syncopated and swinging, not all that far removed from jazz, a point underscored by the fact that Luke is able to play along at least once.

The issues here are big ones, and they continue to affect us. How does one deal with the loss of a child? It's obvious that the pain of that was so great that Maggie literally could not face going through it again and in a era where birth control was probably sketchy at best, it's not clear that she could have avoided another pregnancy if she had stayed. She felt that she couldn't rely on Luke--and there is evidence that he did his best, but she wanted him to be more consistent that he was. When she couldn't take his inconsistency, she turned to religion--who is more reliable than the omniscient, omnipotent God?

The problem for contemporary understanding is that the play doesn't really get all the way down to Maggie's character, on her specific issues. I would be interested in a play that explored the deep divide between what she needed from her husband and what he was able to give her--and how she responded to that. What were her options, realistically? Luke claimed that he still loved her, and Maggie seemed to feel that she had never stopped loving him, and their decade apart was caused by her fear and pain, based on the text of the play. Was that really a waste? Where is she going to go from here? Those are the real questions of the play, and by asking them but not answering them, Amen Corner seems to be making an argument that African-American church life is merely the opiate of the oppressed and powerless, a place to hide that will ultimately fail its members. Kind of bleak, really, but also something the play told us in the first scene, with all the congregants and their posturing sanctity. The message had been delivered in the first ten minutes--the extra three and a quarter hours wasn't really necessary.

But the music? The music was GREAT!