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Saturday, November 26, 2011

On the Road with Martha Marcy May Marlene

Road trip! Yes, there's a film review in here somewhere, but please enjoy the travelogue first.

For the Thanksgiving holiday, we at Weird Movie Village decided to take a break and drive from our corporate headquarters up to Morro Bay, a beautiful little seaside community about 200 miles north of Los Angeles.

Just in case you don't know, Morro Bay's most distinguishing characteristic is a huge round rock jutting 576 feet out of the water just offshore. It's one of the "nine sisters": a series of rocks and/or hills that were formed by volcanic activity at least 20 million years ago, but the Bay's rock is the only one that's out in the ocean. It's quite a striking sight. Morro Bay is also home to a small estuary where local species of fish and birds are able to thrive, and the rock is the protected home of the Peregrine Falcon. Quarrying gave it its distinctive round shape and the rocks were used to build the bay's breakwater.

For Weird Movie Village, not only is Morro Bay a relatively close, relatively inexpensive getaway, it's also home to one of the last single-screen, independently owned movie houses in California, the Bay. Sadly, it was closed for some minor refurbishments, but it was good to see that it'd be reopening in early December. The posters in the windows indicated that J. Edgar had been its last feature—or that it was coming up next. Can't be sure, but I'm glad it's still in business.

Anyhow, Thanksgiving Day in a small community can mean limited opportunities for entertainment. Once you've gone out to the rock, toured the Embarcadero, checked out the goofy aquarium (those Moray eels are scary!), jogged by the seashore and rented a bike for a sprint through town, you're pretty much done.

Fortunately, we discovered an arthouse in nearby San Luis Obispo, the Palm Theatre. It was playing a film we'd wanted to see—Martha Marcy May Marlene, so off we went. On the way, and with time to kill, we were surprised and delighted to see a record store open on Morro Bay Boulevard, Vinyl Isle, so we stopped in for a browse.

Vinyl Isle is tiny but packed to the rafters with used and collectible records of all genres. We looked at the soundtracks and found a nice mono original of Mondo Cane and a stereo version of John Barry's majestic score for The Lion In Winter. Another fun acquisition was Disneyland Records' 1964 Chilling, Thrilling Sounds of the Haunted House.

A quick 20 minute drive and we were in San Luis Obispo. The theater was easy to find, located in the city's tiny Chinatown. Clean and small, it consisted of three little auditoriums with real film projection, not video. And in 2004, it was outfitted with solar panels and the electricity sold to Pacific Gas and Electric rather than being fed directly into the theater, which allows it to continue operating during the stormy seasons.

Martha Marcy May Marlene—so named for its lead character's many personalities, is a complex film. At first blush, I thought it was rather dull with a few moments of interest, but it's one of those movies that creeps up on you. I've found myself thinking about it for the last couple of days, recalling scenes that make me say, "Oh, yeah! That's why that happened!"

Elizabeth Olsen is amazing as the title character(s), a mysterious young woman who's just escaped from a cult led by the creepily charismatic Patrick (John Hawkes) and comes back to live with her estranged sister, Lucy (Sarah Paulson) and her husband, Ted (Hugh Dancy). Ironically, life with her sibling is as difficult as the one she'd just left, and she has trouble coping with normalcy after the physical and emotional abuse she'd just experienced.

Her life has been split in two: pre- and post-cult, and it causes her to behave rather oddly. When Ted suggests they take a swim in the lake, she nonchalantly takes off all of her clothes to her sister's horror. And when she hears the sound of them making love in their bedroom, she wanders in and lies down next to them as if drawing some sort of comfort from their activity.

The soundtrack is subtly sinister—windblown leaves, falling stones and footsteps all bring back memories to Martha (who's been renamed Marcy May by Patrick), and we get enough glimpses of her life there to allow us to put together the puzzle that causes her strangeness and paranoia.

As I mentioned earlier, this is a deliberately paced film that you'll think about for days afterward. It's an assured feature debut from Sean Durkin, who won the Best Director award at the Sundance Film Festival. Olsen, the younger sister of the "Full House" twins, is simply astonishing, and it's unbelievable to realize that this is her first film role. Paulson's character is frankly a bitch and she plays it that way. She's an emotionless control freak, and it's clear that she really doesn't like her sister; she just feels that it is her duty to take care of her. A telling moment occurs when Martha learns that Lucy and Ted are trying to make a baby and she tells Lucy point-blank: "You're going to be a terrible mother." Dancy is wasted in a role that could have been played by anyone, which is a shame after his standout turn in Showtime's "The Big C" this year.

Hawkes is good as Patrick, whose manipulation of his flock is quietly horrible, and Brady Corbet is also memorable as Watts, Patrick's sadistic underling. What at first seems like a big open marriage, with all the female members available to the men for sex, abruptly takes on more sinister tones when the cult's home invasion robberies escalate to murder, and we realize we're seeing the beginnings of a Manson family.

And the final scene is absolutely chilling.

Durkin is definitely a talent to keep an eye on, and so is Olsen. Here's hoping she continues to take the challenging roles and doesn't end up a glassy-eyed fashion manque like her sisters, who ironically seem like cult members!

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Tennessee Williams' Baby Doll Hits the Stage in LA

Article first published as Theatre Review (LA): Tennessee WIlliams' Baby Doll on Blogcritics.

Truly a giant of the American stage, Tennessee Williams wrote plays that featured indelible characters, including Blanche DuBois and Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire, Amanda Wingfield in The Glass Menagerie, and the lustful Maggie in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, all of which are still performed regularly throughout the world.

In 1956, he teamed up with director Elia Kazan to adapt his one-act play, 27 Wagons Full of Cotton, into Baby Doll, a film that introduced another indelible character of sorts—the image of a young woman, lying in a crib, provocatively dressed in a shorty nightgown and sucking her thumb. With its undisguised depictions of lust and sensuality, Baby Doll sent conservative critics into a tizzy, and it was condemned by the Catholic Legion of Decency, which managed to have it pulled from many U.S. theaters. Even Time Magazine called it "the dirtiest American-made motion picture that has ever been legally exhibited."

Standards have changed greatly over the past five decades, of course, and the furor that the film caused has been all but forgotten.

What remains is Williams' story, which still makes for entertaining drama, and Joel Daavid's new production at the Lillian Theatre certainly bears that out. Set in a small town in Mississippi in the late 1950s, it's the tale of a middle-aged cotton gin owner, Archie Lee Meighan, and his 19-year-old virgin bride, Baby Doll, who refuses to consummate their marriage until she reaches her 20th birthday.

Archie is too poor to afford to repair his cotton gin, the source of his livelihood, and when the loan company comes to collect the houseful of unpaid-for furniture, Baby Doll makes it clear she will continue to refuse any sexual favors until it is returned. Desperate for money (and Baby Doll), Archie burns down the gin mill of his competitor, Sicilian immigrant Silva Vacarro, in the hopes that the business he lost when Vacarro came to town will be his again. Vacarro catches wind of Archie's misdeed and comes a-calling, turning on the charm to manipulate Baby Doll into confessing her husband's guilt. The exotic stranger's attentions prove too much for her to resist, and she succumbs.

Under Daavid's insightful direction, Tony Gatto plays Archie with the right amount of foolish bluster and pent-up rage. Jacque Lynn Colton is amusing as Baby Doll's doddering Aunt Rose Comfort. Ronnie Marmo brings a smooth seductiveness to his portrayal of Vacarro. And Lulu Brud is terrific as Baby Doll, a young woman who is just beginning to realize that she can use her looks to bend men to her will.

Daavid's evocative set design is attractive and makes good use of the Lillian's space. Matt Richter's sound design gives the production a welcome cinematic feel, as does Nick Block's original score. Noelle Rafferty's costumes are right for the impoverished milieu, and Adam Haas Hunter has given the supporting cast choreographed movements that afford them a balletic grace.

Perhaps the most pleasurable aspect of the production is that we can really sit back and enjoy Williams' dialogue, much of which is barbed and quite funny. In fact, Baby Doll can be viewed as a steamy Southern drama of the type Williams specialized in—or a parody of the same—and it's entertaining either way.

Baby Doll plays at the Lillian Theatre, 1076 N. Lillian Way, Hollywood, California, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 7 p.m., until December 18th. Reservations can be made online or by calling (323) 960-4420.

Photos by Joel Daavid

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Now on Showtime: The Last Play at Shea

I guess I'm behind the times, but I just caught the 2010 documentary The Last Play at Shea on Showtime, and I was blown away by this film, which melds the seemingly disparate stories of Shea Stadium, the Mets, Billy Joel, the Beatles and New York City itself into a coherent—and quite moving—portrait.

The origins of Shea Stadium go back to the departure of the Brooklyn Dodgers for Los Angeles in 1959. New York City "master builder" Robert Moses was anxious to get a baseball team back in New York for his new stadium, to be constructed in Queens. Enter attorney William Shea, who tried to bring existing franchise teams to town, but they all refused. His threat to establish a third major league (the Continental League) caused Major League Baseball to blink, allowing two new teams into the National League, one of which became known as the New York Mets.

And they were terrible. Fortunately for them they had a built-in audience: former Dodger fans who were now excited to root for their new New York team, no matter how bad it might be. When Shea finally opened in Spring 1964, after many construction setbacks, it was packed throughout the season with enthusiastic attendees.

Happily, the Mets' fortunes began to improve and they're now, of course, one of the League's leading teams, with the bankroll required to get the players they want. And after 9/11, Shea served as a relief center. Ten days later, Mike Piazza hit a home run against the Braves in the first game since the tragedy, providing a sense of healing for traumatized New Yorkers.

And there wasn't just baseball played there. The New York Jets football team played there from 1964 to 1983. And in one unprecedented season, two baseball teams (the Mets and the Yankees) and two football teams (the Jets and the Giants) all called Shea home.

Shea also hosted many musical events, and much of the documentary is devoted to that aspect, including the Beatles' first U.S. appearance in 1965 and culminating with Billy Joel's closing concerts in July of 2008. The film tells the story of the stadium, paralleling its history with Joel's career, and it works beautifully. After all, what singer represents New York better than Joel? My favorite Joel album is 1977's "The Stranger," and it has my favorite Joel song—"Scenes from an Italian Restaurant." Many interviewees in the film say they personally know a Brenda and Eddie (the high school sweethearts referred to in the lyrics).



Oh...and the Pope showed up at Shea in 1979.

For those of a certain age (ahem), watching Last Play is like watching an encapsulation of your life. The footage of the Beatles concert is amazingly good—I'm used to seeing contrasty black and white kinescope with almost inaudible sound, but the Shea stuff is in color and looks great. McCartney reminisces about the crowd being so carried away and vociferous that their music couldn't even be heard, so they just went a little nuts themselves and had fun. You can see it. At one point, Lennon even stops playing the keyboard and just drags his elbow back and forth across it.

On August 6, 1970, the day-long Festival for Peace fundraiser (organized by Peter, Paul & Mary's Peter Yarrow) was held at Shea, with such legendary acts as Janis Joplin, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Paul Simon, Johnny Winter, Steppenwolf, and Miles Davis, among others. Amazingly, despite the list of high-caliber performers—who all donated their time—no footage or audio of the concert has ever surfaced.

And in 1983, the red-hot Police played Shea, and Sting admits in the film that it was while he was onstage at the stadium he made up his mind to quit the band and go out on his own. Ironically, the reunited Police closed for REM in 2007, a band which, 24 years earlier, was one of its opening acts and didn't even get a mention on the ticket.

In Last Play, Shea's history is interwoven with Billy Joel's story, which is New York through-and-through. His family moved from Manhattan to Levittown, the country's first planned community, at a time when the New York suburbs were becoming a destination for blue-collar workers who couldn't afford the high costs of the city.

And how does Joel's story intersect with that of the polarizing Robert Moses? The "master builder" had been facilitating the growth of the suburbs outside of town for years by building roads and bridges (giving birth to places like Levittown), and his motivation for placing Shea Stadium in Queens was a practical business reason: a built-in fan base.

Joel is such a hometown boy. His support of New York City is unequivocal, and he tells the story of moving away from Manhattan for a short time in the 1970s to escape bad management, only to hear West Coasters denigrate his beloved metropolis, which at the time was suffering some of its most destitute conditions. So what did he do? He moved back home and set up his company there as a gesture of support and devotion.

The city has since experienced a miraculous recovery, but even today, people say to me, "Oh, how can you love going to New York? It's so dangerous!" Give me a break. I'd much rather be alone on subway line number one than in downtown Los Angeles at midnight, I can tell you.

Joel, of course, had been at Shea many times, the last appearances being his two stadium-closing concerts in 2008 with guests Roger Daltrey, Steven Tyler, Jon Mellencamp, Tony Bennett and Paul McCartney. McCartney made it to the stadium by the skin of his teeth, the documentary relates, and joined Joel onstage to perform "I Saw Her Standing There" to a screaming crowd. Fittingly, the last song of the evening was "Let it Be."

Did I convince you that I'm crazy about New York? I usually make it there a couple of times a year for business, but I'd like to go a lot more frequently. In 2007, I caught a game at old Yankee Stadium before it closed in 2008, and I had the opportunity to go to Shea for the first and only time in April of 2008 for the final season. They played the Pirates—and they won!

And on that memorable final night in July, Joel told the standing-room-only audience, “They’re tearing this house down. I want to thank you for letting me do the job and keep doing it—the best job in the world.”

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Clooney, Gosling and The Ides of March

The Ides of March, the new political thriller directed by and starring George Clooney, is ready-made for America's current political climate, with plenty of behind-the-scenes skulduggery and—as the title suggests—some serious betrayal.

Clooney stars as Mike Morris, a plain-spoken, liberal governor running for the highest office in the land. He pushes all the right buttons with voters: green energy, more jobs and no more tax cuts for the wealthy. With the help of his campaign manager, Paul Zara (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and spokesman Stephen Meyers (Ryan Gosling), he's surging in the polls and looks like he's got a good shot. Zara has been through it all before and is much more matter-of-fact than Meyers, who's got stars in his eyes and truly believes Morris will be able to make a difference.

Much of the first half of the film is spent showing the workings of Morris' campaign: debates with his main opponent, Senator Pullman (Michael Mantell), television interviews and various appearances across the battleground state of Ohio during the primaries.

Enter Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti), Pullman's campaign manager, who likes what he sees in Meyers and offers him a job on his team. Molly Stearns (Evan Rachel Wood), the daughter of the chairman of the DNC and an intern on Morris' campaign, makes no bones about her sexual attraction to Meyers, and they fall into bed together. As a result, Meyers makes some bad decisions and engineers some cover-ups that come to the attention of Ida Horowicz (Marisa Tomei), a New York Times reporter who threatens to blackmail him unless he delivers the big scoop.

The screenplay (by Clooney, Grant Heslov and former aide to Hillary Clinton, Beau Willimon, whose play it is based upon) has a lot of choice material for the high-powered cast to sink its teeth into, but this is not a film packed with oversized dramatic incident. Quite the contrary—it's a quietly chilling look at the manipulation and corruption inherent in modern politics.

Clooney, who is well-known (and loathed by some) for his liberal leanings, crafts a bleakly cynical vision of the political system—liberals and conservatives alike. For example, when Morris refuses an important senator's endorsement in exchange for a high-level cabinet post, Duffy sees his opportunity to swoop in for the kill. And when Meyers finds out about a dalliance Morris had with Molly, he works furiously to hush it up. Corruption breeds corruption, and no one is left untainted.

As I mentioned earlier, the film features a real dream cast. Hoffman and Giamatti play well off each other as the world-weary Zara and the manipulative Duffy. Wood continues to impress me after roles in 2008's The Wrestler and last season's True Blood. Marisa Tomei is appropriately cold-blooded as the reporter, Clooney is smooth as silk as Morris, and Gosling, well...

This is my third review this year of a film featuring Gosling for which I must give his performance a thumbs-up. Like Leonardo DiCaprio, he's got that special presence that makes it easy for you to become totally invested in the character he's playing, and watching Meyers' transformation from idealistic supporter to cold-eyed Washington operative is a wonder to behold.

Thumbs up, too, for Alexandre Desplat's fine score, and Phedon Papamichael's cinematography gives the Midwestern locations caught in the grip of winter an appropriate chilliness. Understated and intelligent, The Ides of March is sophisticated entertainment for discriminating viewers.

Speaking of DiCaprio, I'll be seeing Clint Eastwood's J. Edgar later this month, for which I'm sure I'll also be offering a review.

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