Sunday, June 23, 2013

Much Ado About Nothing--Movie Review

Joss Whedon has famously filmed Shakespeare's comedy in 12 days at his home, using actor friends from previous projects. Done in modern dress using Shakespeare's language, filmed in black and white, scored with smooth guitar jazz, it's a pleasant diversion and a lovely valentine to language.

But oh my goodness, does that plot creak!

This is the hazard of updating the presentation at all, and really, somebody has got to be brave and do something about it. For those of you who have a hard time remembering which plot goes with which generic play title (I'm looking at you As You Like It, Twelfth Night, and All's Well That Ends Well) I will summarize.

The prince, Don Pedro is home from war with an entourage of warriors, including the young and callow Claudio and the bitter Benedick. They arrive at the home of Leonato (played here by Agent Coulson from the Avengers movies), where Claudio falls in love at first sight with Leonato's daughter Hero. Also present is Hero's cousin Beatrice, who has a sketchy past with Benedick--they bicker so they must be in love!

Don Pedro has defeated his brother, Don John, and John is nursing a major grudge. Instead of accepting his brother's mercy, John plots with his few accomplices to spoil everybody's happiness. The night before the wedding of Claudio and Hero, he arranges for Claudio and Don Pedro to see a woman in Hero's bedroom "entertaining" a man. (Of course, it's the maid, not Hero at all, as the audience knows.) Claudio accuses Hero of being unchaste at the altar in front of the entire assembled wedding guests and she faints from shame. It is decided to put out the rumor that Hero has died, the plot gets uncovered, Claudio accepts his punishment is to marry one of Leonato's nieces, who turns out to be Hero. Benedick and Beatrice also admit they are in love, and Don John gets captured. Happiness abounds!

Except--it is nearly impossible to swallow this plot these days. Claudio might as well be dressed in red flags from the Bad Boyfriend department at Sears--he's rash, jealous, intemperate, and rude. When he first falls for Hero, he's unwilling to court her himself, so he lets Don Pedro do it on his behalf. Then it takes just a whisper from Don John for him to become convinced that Don Pedro is going to keep Hero for himself. So he rushes in, accuses everyone of playing him for a fool, and that isn't enough to alienate Hero? No, it isn't.

Now, to be fair, it's got to be awful to see your fiancee messing around with another man on your wedding night, even today. But the shock isn't that she's no longer a virgin--which is the substance of the Shakespeare text. No, the shock is that she's sleeping with somebody else, which has got to make you think twice about whether this marriage has any chance at all. But then, Claudio the Clod doesn't bring it up with Hero, or Leonato, he doesn't do anything sensible. Instead, he goes for the biggest humiliation he can arrange, by waiting until Hero has already said "I do" before he goes at her for being a "common stale." Don Pedro joins in, and even her father accepts the accusations at face value.

That poor girl. Nobody asks her "where were you last night?" Nobody talks to her at all. They do ask Beatrice if she was Hero's "bedfellow" last night, and for some reason--and for the first time ever--she wasn't. Nobody asks why, or where anybody was, or how Don John knew about this, or even questioned whether it might possibly be some other woman they saw. (Ashley Johnson, who plays the maid Margaret, is a solid 6 inches shorter than Jillian Morgese's Hero, and is an entirely different body type.) No, let's just get all the old, white, privileged men to scream at the scared girl, disown her, humiliate her, and then they can go on their merry way--back to their rooms in Leonato's house, because that's not awkward at all.

And then, the "punishment!" Claudio feels bad that Hero died, but only after he finds out that he had been duped, because under those circumstances, her death is unmerited. Because, whaaaa? Deflowered girls are apparently universally considered to be better off dead, I guess, depending on the whim of the men around her. (Beatrice, however, is shown to have slept with Benedick in the unspecified past, and Margaret seems to be allowed to live as well.) Anyway, Claudio's "punishment" for having "unjustly" caused Hero's death is that he has to agree to marry some other female relation of Leonato's, who he is promised looks exactly like Hero. Of course, she turns out to be Hero, revealed only when he agrees to marry whoever Leonato puts in front of him.

Does anybody ask Hero if she still wants to be married to this idiot? Does anybody foresee anything but domestic violence and unwarranted jealousy in this relationship's future?  This is where a reaaaaaaly long engagement would be a really good idea. Even better? Kick him out of your house and get a restraining order.

But, if you can overlook that horrible plot--and I couldn't really--the rest of the production is a delight. The lines are delivered crisply and the Beatrice/Benedick banter is worth the price of admission.

The Great Gatsby, A Movie Review

So Baz Luhrman bit at the biggest, gaudiest, showiest piece of literature out there, and managed to out-Moulin Rouge his own Moulin Rouge. This version of Gatsby is shinier, louder, brighter and more gaudy than you might have thought possible. As a movie it both slavishly adheres to the novel while simultaneously betraying everything the book stands for. It's a hot mess and I kind of loved it.

This is notable, because I hate everything.

I won't rehearse the plot, because you should know it by now.

The movie doesn't try to recreate the 1920s in any faithful way, but evokes our dreams about it. As such, it kind of falls midway between two other historical film pastiches: Joe Wright's Anna Karenina  (which I feel didn't quite cohere in any meaningful way), and Sofia Coppela's Marie Antoinette (which I do love). Luhrmann's Gatsby  isn't quite as successful as Coppela's Marie Antoinette,  but it is doing some of the same things stylistically while also working with a famously difficult text.

I would totally go see this again, and expect that any time it turns up on television I will be sucked into it for at least the first 2/3s. The last third, as the snares close around Gatsby, are well done, but nothing special. The visual flair of the first part of the movie dissipates as the machinery of the plot has to take precedence. But until then, it is gorgeous to look at.

I saw this in 3D, and the forced perspective gives the whole a faint feeling as though it's all being enacted on a model train set--not quite realistic, with odd details emphasized, making the whole more dream-like and odd, which seems appropriate as Carraway tries to explain to himself just what happened and why he is still haunted by that summer.

Let us address the framing device. The movie opens in 1927, winter at a sanitarium, where Carraway is being treated for a list of ailments, including "morbid alcoholism." He begins to tell the attending doctor about that summer of 1922, and finds he can't talk about it. "Then write it" the doctor says, launching Carraway into creating a typescript that he calls "The Great Gatsby." It's a little bit hokey, of course, and the rich and homey interior doesn't really seem anything like what a sanitorium would have been, even back in the early 20th century. Critics have near universally hated it, but I don't. I think it gives the movie the chance to honestly invoke the elegiac nostalgia of Fitzgerald's novel, that fragile and sensitive mix of longing and revulsion that makes the novel work. Because, face it, stripped of the delicacy of language, that ambivalence of narration, the story is lurid melodrama and trashy spectacle. Using the framing device, Luhrmann is able to use descriptive passages from the book, language that would otherwise be risible if delivered as dialogue. He is able to describe things he would never have seen, like Gatsby and Daisy's first kiss, back in Alabama, when Gatsby paused on the edge of falling in love, knowing that if he fell for this girl, "his mind would never again romp like God's." (Or something like that.) I allow that, because this is not a report, this is a story Carraway is telling himself, as he tries to make sense of something that touched his emotions and that his logic can't entirely understand.

The movie owes an enormous and unacknowledged (so far as I have seen) debt to Citizen Kane. Leonardo DiCaprio even looks like Orson Welles, as if they are long separated siblings.

Honestly, I can't be the only one who sees the resemblance.

Both movies are reconstructions of the protagonists' lives after their death. And Gatsby dies whispering "Daisy" just as Kane says "Rosebud." I'm sure there's more, but that's enough for now.

The first two thirds of the movie are visually overwhelming, a design aesthetic that can only be described as "More is Not Enough." It's frenzied, it's ridiculous, and while it might technically fit the descriptions of the book, it kind of misses the point. Because Luhrmann so patently adores filming the excess, he kind of misses the fact that the excess is tawdry and misguided. Gatsby throws these enormous parties hoping that Daisy will hear about them and wander in, never recognizing that these are precisely the kinds of things that are too common, too nouveau riche for Daisy to actually come to voluntarily. Furthermore, they are the kind of bacchanals that Tom will prevent her from attending, even if he himself is willing to go--alone.

Luhrmann's film doesn't really seem to grasp the ways in which Gatsby is performing his own dream of what wealth looks like. Like Gatsby, Luhrmann seems to believe that Daisy would find this sort of thing exciting and appropriate. So the movie indulges in that excess, exactly as Gatsby does, and misses the edge of disapproval that permeates the novel.

To be fair, at first, Nick is also excited and charmed by this world, even if he ultimately rejects it. He starts out with that very American belief that the rich are somehow better than everybody else, that their money is proof of some sort of divine merit--like titles in Europe, the rich are the elect and to be accepted by them is to prove to yourself that you too are finer than the average man. Over the course of the summer, he learns that the rich are no better than the rest of us, and are in some ways infinitely worse. Jordan Baker cheats at golf (a detail left out of the movie), Tom cheats on his wife, Daisy can hit a woman with her car and retreat into her money and leave the mess to others to clean up. Wealth is not proof of worth.

I keep recalling Edith Wharton's The Custom of the Country as I watched this film. In that novel, the unutterably lovely and grossly common Undine Spragg erupts onto the New York social scene. She has gotten it into her head that she wants to sit atop the social hierarchy, and so she marries a man who is utterly inappropriate for her. Because there are two, parallel New York societies--the old Knickerbockers who have old money and don't spend it. Theirs is a live of inherited furniture and dining at home, good works and stolid values. Undine doesn't understand this world and doesn't like it. She craves the fast cars and flashy nightlife of the new demimonde, and is much happier when she is sneaking away from her husband to party.

Gatsby has some of the same DNA (the character, the novel and the movie). Daisy is a girl in an expensive white dress, lounging on a sofa as the breeze moves the gauzy curtains--not the flapper guzzling illegal alcohol while dancing the Charleston at a crowded party full of strangers. Gatsby doesn't really know who she is, in fact, he doesn't see her at all as a person, rather she is just the trophy that would seal his success in life. Charlie Sheen is not the first to mistake frantic activity for "winning."

And what about Daisy? Carey Mulligan is delightful (always) and fun to watch, but there really isn't very much there there with Daisy. Personally, I blame Fitzgerald. I don't think he ever understood Zelda either, and Fitzgerald's Daisy is kind of like Gatsby's Daisy--a symbol rather than a full person. Mulligan is winsome, and has some backbone--especially when she refuses to do what Gatsby wants and tell Tom that she never loved him. She is unhappy, but isn't willing to be Jay's puppet. Her decision to stay with tome is communicated as fear. She's killed a woman, she's afraid of what she's done, and Tom opportunistically uses that fear as a tool to keep her with him. It's a devil's bargain she is making, one she accepts from a position of weakness and social pressure. She knows better, but she's too frail to stand independently--she's never been allowed to before, why should we think she could now?

It's a gorgeous movie, full of fabulous set pieces and over the top visuals. The first full image of Gatsby is typical of the movie. It's Leo DiCaprio looking as beautiful as he has in years (apparently beauty is inconsistent with being a Serious Actor), toasting us as fireworks frame his golden head and the strains of Rhapsody in Blue swell. It's ridiculous, it's campy, it's too over the top, and that's why it works.

Alan Cumming's Macbeth--A Review

For my first ever Girls' Weekend, my friend and I went to New York for some serious Shakespeare immersion. We had tickets for Sleep No More, as well as Alan Cumming's Macbeth. We kicked off the time with Joss Whedon's new Much Ado About Nothing as well, because we are nerds like that.

Macbeth was at the Barrymore Theater, a block away from our hotel (the Marriott Marquis, which I can recommend as a lovely hotel in the center of Times Square). The doors seriously caution you against saying the name of the play while inside.

Once inside, Friend and I fortified ourselves with vodka-soda-&-limes in Broadway approved sippy-cups and found our seats. They were marvelous--center of the row, eight rows from the stage. I must remember to commend her seat selection.

The stage is open--no curtain. It's obviously a terribly neglected medical facility of some sort, tiled in that bilious institutional green that looks like being nauseous feels. The lower three rows of tile are dingy and the grout is stained, speaking to the years of indifferent mopping of the equally appalling linoleum floor. The tile runs up two or three stories, interrupted in the back by a large curtained window. There is a crummy sink and a small mirror to the right side, three bays for institutional beds, although only two hold beds. A tub sits just below and to the right of the observation window, oddly cantilevered so that it doesn't require any feet--presumably easier to sluice the floor underneath it then.

For a medical ward, there is some odd detritus--toppled and mismatched chairs, a baby doll on the floor. A door sits up on the right hand wall, with eleven metal steps descending. A keypad operates the door, and three television screens hang over the top of the stage.

You don't want to be here. Nobody wants to be here.

Lights go out, come back on, and three people are on stage. A older woman doctor. A large bearded orderly. Alan Cumming. Alan (or "Alan"--since he plays a nameless character, but we'll dispense with the quotation marks) is being gently wrangled. The orderly asks for his suit jacket, and Alan gives it up. It is folded and placed in a large paper bag marked "Evidence." The doctor swabs the inside of Alan's cheek. With a kind smile, the orderly asks Alan for his dress shirt. (The characters are obviously speaking, but the audience can't hear anything, as the eerie music/static blurs out their words.)

 The doctor sees the bloody "M" carved on Alan's clavicle, and swabs it with disinfectant, which obviously hurts. The orderly needs Alan's pants now, leaving him in just a pair of grey briefs. The doctor carefully  cleans under the nails of Alan's left hand. The orderly hands him a pair of ivory scrub pants, which he puts on. Alan seems docile, co-operative, tractable, grateful that someone is taking care of him.  Something terrible has happened, and the business with collecting the matter under his nails indicates that he is the suspect. Murder?

Oddly, the orderly gathers up the scrub shirt and surprises Alan by forcing it over his head. Until now, the orderly has been entirely respectful, apparently kind. Both the medical professionals have treated him as someone who is voluntarily present, willingly subjecting himself to their attention. Perhaps this is not true. Alan refuses to relinquish a paper evidence bag that apparently holds some object of importance, and the orderly does not insist.

Alan sits on the bed at the far left as the medics gather their items and start up the stairs. Alan calls out "When will we three meet again?" The tone is plaintive; he does not wish to be left alone. They stop, look at him with some pity, then leave the room.

"In thunderrrrr, lightning, and in RAIN!" Alan continues, and the show is underway.

What follows is an hour and 45 minute version of Macbeth performed at breakneck speed, almost entirely by Alan Cumming. The performance is impressive, as there are many different characters to be conveyed, and the actor uses voice, accent, posture, and props to make them distinct. It mostly works. Some of the stagecraft is very clever. When the three witches speak, three security cameras whirr awake, and the actor faces each one in turn so the three screens above the stage give three different perspectives, augmenting the illusion of three speakers. Banquo is denoted by the way he shifts an apple from one hand to the other. Lady Macbeth is generally given a slightly higher voice and a subtle posture shift which seems to give Cumming (who is a lean and wiry man) more feminine curves.

It's quite a feat, of course, and the sort of thing that audiobook narrators are often called upon to achieve--creating different characters with their voices. (I can't help but think about the achievement of Jim Dale's Harry Potter narrations--literally hundreds of different characters who are identifiable solely from how he voices them.) Cumming has the advantage of being able to use props as well, creating the characters visually as well. Lady Macbeth's "unsex me now" speech takes place in the bathtub (yes, technically a "nude scene" but entirely SFW) which leads to his use of a towel to denote the two Macbeths in the following scene: clutched to his chest as the Lady, draped casually at waist level for the Lord.

The doll is used for Malcolm, with Cumming as the ventriloquist. 
Perhaps the most impressive scene is as Lady Macbeth urges her husband to "screw your courage to the sticking point" as she climbs atop him, using sex as a weapon to get her way. Cumming flops onto his back, now the man underneath, all but orgasming as he cries "You should bear only sons!" 

Other parts of this setting work very very well. Sounds that are referred to in the text--Lady Macbeth hears an owl while waiting for her husband to kill the king, and the sound comes from an air vent in the wall. The famous sleepwalking scene gives the doctor and orderly a chance to speak lines, as they play the parts of the doctor and the gentlewoman from the observation window, viewing Alan's antics.

But on the whole, the framing device of the mental ward sits uneasily atop the Shakespearean story, and doesn't really provide anything new to that tale. Macbeth is rashly ambitious, and wades into murder without realizing the domino effect he has unleashed. The play shows how he has to pile murder on top of murder in an endless quest to feel safe, as the mounting horrors rattle his sanity. Starting the story with a man who is already "insane" robs the play of some of its subtle progression. Macbeth starts with an honorable warrior who falls into a madness of his own making, the consequences of his own hubris. Alan Cumming's Macbeth skips straight to the madness.

And the connection between the patient "Alan" and Macbeth is not explained at all, and is quite jarring to begin with. The docile patient of the silent prologue flips like a switch into a megalomaniacal declaimer of Shakespeare as soon as the security door slams shut on his medical team. So was he faking his cooperation? If so, then why doesn't he hide his posturing self when he sees himself being observed from the window? This isn't Edward Norton in Primal Fear, gaming the judicial system, because Alan continues his re-enactment regardless of whether he is watched or not.

Macbeth doesn't illuminate the patient's situation. He doesn't see himself as Macbeth any more than he sees himself as Banquo or Duncan or Lady Macbeth either. He fully inhabits each character while they speak, then moves on to inhabit the next one. There is no reason to think that by reciting Macbeth he is reciting the events of his own life--if he has committed a murder, one that has left traces under his nails, it wasn't by murdering a king. 

This is also not real mental illness either. This is "theatrical mental illness"--like "Ali MacGraw disease" from Love Story in which no actual, identifiable symptoms are present, only what is demanded by the plot. More egregiously, this is not mental health care either. The medics saunter casually back and forth across the observation window, only randomly glancing in to see what he's up to. There is no attempt to talk with him, offer him psychiatric care, therapy. Why would there even be an abandoned baby doll for him to use for Malcolm? Why would there be a bathtub left unlocked and unguarded? (Like Chekov's gun, it's not really a surprise that he tries to drown himself late in the play--that's exactly why it wouldn't be allowed.)

The witches' second prophesy is enacted with a bird he finds by unscrewing the cover to the air vent. Why would there be a bird there, and how would he know he would find it there? Plot necessity/ theatrical requirement isn't really an answer.

After he "murders" Duncan, Alan's hands are covered with blood, and the medical team responds as they should, treating it like a real emergency, washing his hands and looking for signs of injury. But there aren't any. There is no discoverable source for the blood. But it is real, they see it, they deal with it, this is not the imaginary spot that Lady Macbeth alone can see. So what is going on here? The production doesn't say.

There is no visible injury--so where did the blood come from?

The conceit continues to break down as the play progresses. Banquo's ghost appears, a large male figure (probably the same actor who plays the orderly) stalking about the stage in a suit and bondage mask. Why would there be anybody there? Why would Alan conjure up something like that, so inescapably real? Especially since just after that, he lies on a bed and the security camera comes on, showing him on the bed with a shadowy figure lurking at the foot--a figure that exists only on the screen because the stage is otherwise empty. That is a scary ghost, more genuinely eerie than the cartoonish horror figure from earlier.

(But then, as the masked figure comes around to the side of the bed, looming ominously, it suddenly looks up into the camera, the mask disappears, and it's Alan Cumming looking into the camera. What is this supposed to mean? He has killed himself? He is watching himself? It's a nifty effect without any meaning.)

In the end, I gave up trying to make any sense of the "reality" of the hospital. It's just a setting, just a stage design in order to invoke a frisson of horror around insanity. Which is irresponsible, really, because mental illness is a real condition that affects large numbers of people on a daily basis. To represent it on stage like this is to stigmatize it without explaining anything. 

Alan Cumming's character is not a "mental patient," despite what the publicity and reviews might say--he doesn't have a real mental illness, and he's no "patient" since he's not receiving any care either. It's a cliched use of out-of-date notions of what mental illness is, used for a cheap thrill, that doesn't illuminate anything new about the play or the characters in it.

It's too bad, because the framing device Baz Luhrman uses in The Great Gatsby has been largely criticized as maudlin and off-putting, as outside the scope of the book, or even laughable. Yet that device, of Nick Carroway narrating his memories of the fateful summer, allows the film to recreate the elegaic tone of the novel and to use some of Fitzgerald's beautiful language that would frankly sound silly if simply presented as dialogue. Yet the far less thoughtful framing device of this play is routinely praised as a "radical re-imagining" of Shakespeare.

Let's be honest, it's not. It doesn't really do anything new to Shakespeare, but it doesn't do any harm either. If you go, go because it's exciting to see a human being work so hard to tell this story, because Cumming's Scottish burr is lovely to listen to as it wraps itself around the poetry of the play. Go because it's a good production of Macbeth, and it is entertaining. Go because you are in the city, and you are a Shakespeare nerd, and you have just seen Sleep No More and you want to catch up on the language of the play as well.

It's a worthwhile two hours, because Shakespeare is always worth your time.