Friday, June 22, 2018

Ocean’s Eight: Things to Do in Denver When You’re Wet

 I was recently in Denver, a beautiful state but (at least during my visit) a rainy one. On my last day, I ran out of museums and historic sites to visit, and it was too wet for outdoor recreation. That’s why I found myself in a large, posh Cherry Creek shopping mall, watching some of Hollywood’s grandest dames commit major larceny. In the process of stealing a fabulous diamond necklace, they walked off with my heart too. I admit it: I’m a sucker for clever heist movies, and this one is a lulu.

For one thing, it makes fabulous use of its New York settings. There is, of course, the museum of museums: the awe-inspiring Metropolitan Museum of Art, on the occasion of its fabled high-fashion gala. (Some of the world’s most storied real-life movers and shakers can be glimpsed as guests.)  We also see one of New York’s grandest jewelry stores in all its glory. But, by way of contrast, we also get a glimpse of hipster New York and grunge New York, fire escapes and food trucks. Our characters get to dress up and dress down, posing as glamour queens and as the humbler folk who serve them.

I’m not always a fan of movies that re-work male starring vehicles as a statement of female empowerment. Ocean’s Eight of course borrows from the 2001 George Clooney/Brad Pitt Ocean’s Eleven, itself a more modernized version of the old Rat Pack flick released 40 years earlier. The premise here is that the departed Danny Ocean’s sister, played by Sandra Bullock, gets out of prison, determined to make herself rich while righting a few wrongs. (Yes, it’s possible to consider her behavior as a kind of over-the-top #metoo statement.) She’s an expert con artist, with an admirable talent for taking things to which she’s not entitled. Of course part of the fun is seeing her assemble her team, which includes a sensible second-in-command (a punked-out Cate Blanchett), a computer whiz (Rihanna), a jewelry expert (Mindy Kalin), a light-fingered homegirl (the intriguing Awkwafina), and a suburban mom with a secret (Sarah Paulson). Helena Bonham Carter, always a treat in ditsy roles, plays an out-of-fashion fashionista with delicious aplomb. And then there’s Anne Hathaway as the dim-bulb Hollywood star whose swan-like neck will bear the fabled Toussaint necklace that has been escorted out of the Cartier vault for the occasion.

What’s fun about the gender switch here is that it makes a sly comment on women’s social role as creatures of beauty and fashion. The conspirators are so darned attractive that most of the folks they encounter don’t think them capable of major chicanery. There’s also the fact that the three characters of color (those played by Kalin and her two single-named castmates) are able to forward the scheme by blending in as janitors, kitchen workers, and servers. (They also eventually get to blossom like butterflies in fabulous gowns.) But it’s especially pertinent that greed is not the group’s only motivation. We’re left with an ending in which we realize that what Bullock’s character wants most of all is the emotional satisfaction of staying true to her brother’s memory.

The movie smartly makes room for the actresses’ idiosyncratic talents, like Bullock’s comfort with the German language and Bonham Carter’s lovely French. And it provides a delightful role for James Corden as an insurance investigator who’s more complicated than he seems. So is one of the other main characters, which makes for yet another of the film’s nice surprises. Bravissima! This is hardly a deep film, but surely worth coming out of the rain.

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Long Play’s Journey into Night

Updated poster;
See below for an original poster remarkable for its trashiness. 

That’s one thing about big-name movies: they introduce us to stage actors we normally wouldn’t get a chance to see in action. Most of us know of Jeremy Irons, especially for his Oscar-winning portrayal of Claus von Bulow in 1990’s Reversal of Fortune. He’s also played such varied roles as Alfred in various Batman flicks, Humbert Humbert in the latest incarnation of Lolita, and (as a voice actor) Scar in The Lion King. But Lesley Manville, despite her appearance in several Mike Leigh movies, was completely unknown to me until last year’s Phantom Thread. As Daniel Day-Lewis’s devoted sister and business partner, Cyril, she was one leg of a triangle breathtaking in its complexity. Not for nothing was she honored with an Oscar nomination as Best Supporting Actress.

Recently, I was lucky to see Irons and Manville together on stage in the Bristol Old Vic production of Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night. (Funny how Broadway flips over plays imported from England, while the Brits keep re-discovering American theatrical masterpieces. Now that most English actors can do credible American accents—which wasn’t always true in the past—there’s nothing to stop them from reveling in  classic American material.) The New York critics weren’t 100% kind to this production, but I was thrilled to witness a play I’d never seen on stage. It’s a powerful piece, closely based on O’Neill’s own family, in which each of the four main characters fights his or her personal demons while simultaneously lashing out against the others. Theatre historians have seen in Long Day’s Journey (which O’Neill did not allow to be presented in his lifetime) a precursor to other famous plays, like Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf and Tracy Letts’ August: Osage County that dissect vicious family discord.

I’ve always had a thing for Eugene O’Neill, who was America’s first great playwright, and the only one to be awarded a Nobel Prize. The son of an actor famous for collaborations with Edmund Booth and for florid productions of The Count of Monte Cristo, O’Neill started his playwriting career with an emphasis on realism. He won his first of four Pulitzer Prizes in 1920 for Beyond the Horizon, a realistic play mirroring  his own experience at sea. Later he went through a period of experimentation, trying out masks, tribal drums, contorting scenery, and characters speaking their thoughts aloud. Fascinated by Greek tragedy, he made this the basis of his Mourning Becomes Electra. Then, late in his life, he went back to realism, but with a tragic overlay.

Groucho Marx makes fun of the interior monologues from Strange Interlude in 1930’s Animal Crackers. Among the O’Neill plays that were made into movies, Anna Christie (starring Greta Garbo) is a standout. Paul Robeson starred in a Hollywood version of The Emperor Jones,  O’Neill’s impressionistic tale of a Pullman porter who flees to the West Indies and declares himself a god. The American Film Theatre, which between 1973 and 1975 adapted great American dramas into films, produced a cinematic version of The Iceman Cometh, with Lee Marvin leading an all-star cast. (Denzel Washington recently competed for a Tony Award for his Broadway performance of the starring role.) . And in 1962, Sidney Lumet directed Katharine Hepburn, Ralph Richardson, Jason Robards, and Dean Stockwell in a faithful cinematic rendition of Long Day’s Journey. All four received acting awards at the Cannes Film Festival, and Hepburn nabbed an Oscar nomination as well. 

Hepburn was memorable, but Manville gave me a vivid reminder of the girlish charmer that Mary Tyrone started out to be. 

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Earning an Easy A

It’s exciting to think that a contemporary high school student could find relevance in a classic work of literature written centuries ago.  But screenwriters, who are generally overeducated for the requirements of their profession, like to mix it up occasionally by turning to their literary heroes for subject matter. Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, that classic story of love and heartbreak, has appeared in all sorts of modern settings. (See Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 Romeo + Juliet, set in Verona Beach, for one of the wildest.)  A more comic Shakespearean tale, The Taming of the Shrew, was turned into a 1999 high school romance, 10 Things I Hate About You. Yes, the writers of the latter eventually stopped trying to impose Shakespearean references onto their story, but it was fun while it lasted. And with Heath Ledger and Julia Stiles in the leads, who cared, anyway?

High school movies (the list keeps getting longer all the time) have been popular since the John Hughes days in the 1980s. Maybe that’s because teenagers are much more frequent moviegoers than their elders. And whereas in my era the big life decisions (like whom to fall for and when to first experience sex) came in the college years, high school now seems to be the place for that crucial experimentation. The 1995 high school comedy Clueless, based on Jane Austen’s witty Emma, had much more to do with shopping and matchmaking than with serious hooking up. But in slightly more recent films, the whole idea of teenagers doing the nasty is front and center.

Easy A takes its title and some of its plot from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1850 classroom staple,  The Scarlet Letter, in which a woman is publicly punished for adultery while her lover’s identity remains hidden. The Hawthorne novel, a shocker in its day, was first filmed by Hollywood back in 1926, when sweet Lillian Gish campaigned to play the leading role of Hester Prynne. In 1995, Roland Joffé attempted a more frank and “modern” version, which was described as “freely adapted” from the original. Its stars were Demi Moore, Gary Oldman, and Robert Duvall, and it won plenty of Razzie awards, including the top prize for “worst remake or sequel.” There’ve been plenty of other attempts too, some of them foreign language versions. But Easy A is, I believe, the first time this story has had a high school setting.

Not that Easy A is about adultery, exactly. Mostly it deals with the power of rumor-mongering and how school kids can’t wait to think the worst of one another. Yes, there’s an off-camera—and highly inappropriate—adulterous encounter that becomes one of the film’s more serious strands. Still, at the center of the action is a virginal but feisty young woman (a mesmerizing Emma Stone) who decides to embrace wholeheartedly the rumor that she’s slept around. Stone’s Olive is a highly original creation, someone both smart and naïve, both good-hearted and self-absorbed. (I suspect she and Saiorse Ronan’s Lady Bird would get along great.) The boys who flock to her are often misfits who don’t want sex so much as a boost to their shaky reputations for machismo. Yes, the film’s view of high school seems right on target.

Easy A is on unsteady ground, aesthetically speaking, because it can’t decide how comedic (or how realistic) it wants to be. Still, I have to put in a plug for Olive’s outrageously outspoken parents, played by Patricia Clarkson and Stanley Tucci. Both hilariously funny, they also help explain how Olive evolved into the most unusual young woman she’s turning out to be.