Great performances

It’s not a spectacularly interesting week in local comic shops, so I’ve decided I’d rather talk about two extraordinary performances by actresses that I enjoyed over the weekend.

I saw Follies at the Kennedy Center on Friday. It’s a musical about a reunion of showgirls with a score by Stephen (Sweeney Todd, A Little Night Music, etc.) Sondheim and a book by William (The Lion in Winter) Goldman, and the original production was directed by Harold (Evita) Prince and choreographed by Michael (A Chorus Line) Bennett, and it could hardly have a more prestigious pedigree. I’d never actually seen a full production of it, though I watched and enjoyed a concert version that ran on PBS a couple of decades ago. Seeing it unfold from beginning to end forces me to conclude that it’s got some great songs, some very effective moments, and isn’t very good in terms of sustained storytelling.

The first act sketchily introduces the four leads – two former showgirls and their husbands, one pair being resolutely middle class, the other wealthy and elite – and gives a number of actresses of a certain age (in this case, Linda Lavin, Elaine Paige, Terri White, and others) the chance to bring down the house. The second act focuses more intently on the disintegration of the two marriages, and the piece ends on a spectacular note with a sequence, “Loveland,” where the protagonists each get a dazzling number that articulates their angst in song and dance.

Ostensibly, the biggest draw to the production should be Bernadette Peters, who plays middle-class Sally, the emotionally fragile ex-showgirl who has completely unrealistic hopes for the reunion, most of them centered on her unresolved feelings for rich, elite Ben (played by Ron Raines of Guiding Light fame). You would think the role would be right in her wheelhouse, but maybe she was cast too well. I rarely found myself thinking about the character (who isn’t particularly sympathetic to begin with) as much as the ways Peters’ own narrative intersects with the role.

For me, the knockout, starring performance came from Jan Maxwell as Phyllis, the chorine turned high-society matron who harbors deep (and justified) dissatisfactions under her pristine exterior. I vaguely remember liking Maxwell in some episodes of Law and Order, but I wouldn’t trade the experience of seeing her perform live for anything, even in a show as problematic as Follies. Fairness demands that I acknowledge that Phyllis is probably the best written character in the show, and she certainly gets to perform my favorite numbers (“Could I Leave You?” and “The Ballad of Lucy and Jessie”). All the same, she rips into the role with a seriousness of purpose and a focus that are marvelous to witness. While she’s hardly the best singer and dancer on the stage, her musical numbers are informed by her acting choices, particularly the sense that Phyllis is rediscovering the joy of performing and what it brings to her as an independent entity. Of the “Loveland Numbers,” hers was the one that brought down the house, even with Peters doing a creditable job with the lachrymose cabaret standard “Losing My Mind.”

As for the rest of the cast, their relative success depends on how invested they are in playing a role rather than performing a number. The audience loved Lavin’s “Broadway Baby,” but it seemed to me more of a lively night-club number than an organic part of Follies. Paige’s take on “I’m Still Here” seemed to demonstrate a mighty (and unsuccessful) struggle to make an iconic number personal. White’s “Who’s that Woman?” deservedly stopped the show, partly for the force of her performance and because it’s one of the rare moments when the show’s core concept actually coheres perfectly. White and the other showgirls perform an old favorite as ghosts of their former selves perform with varying degrees of synchronicity, at times displaying the indignities of age. (And, great as White is, the number gave Maxwell the first opportunity to show Phyllis rediscovering herself through performance.)

Raines sings wonderfully well, but his performance isn’t sufficiently complex to make selfish bastard Ben particularly involving. Danny Burstein is close to great as Sally’s long-suffering husband, Buddy. I was delighted to see the actors playing younger versions of the central quartet rewarded for their hard work in thankless roles with spot-on performances terrific songs in the “Loveland” sequence, the wittily written “You’re Gonna Love Tomorrow” and “Love Will See Us Through.” (In truth, I think Lora Lee Gayer gave a better performance as Sally than Peters did, and she gave a pretty good performance as Peters at the same time.)

Because it was devastatingly hot in our nation’s capital, we spent part of the next day in the cool comfort of a movie theatre watching Super 8. Let me tell you, there are a number of worse ways you could spend a hot afternoon. The overall narrative doesn’t offer any surprises, but the execution is packed with craft and grace notes. Sure, it’s basically J.J. Abrams writing and directing a mash note to the films of Stephen Spielberg, but Abrams avoids the worst of his inspiration and executive producer’s tendency towards cheap sentiment while crafting what’s ultimately a really entertaining, nicely paced movie. (I’ve whined before about filmmakers’ tendencies to pad out the final act of a film with totally needless hullaballoo, but there’s none of that here.)

The whole cast is strong, but I was mesmerized by Elle Fanning as I was several summers ago by her older sister, Dakota, in director Spielberg’s War of the Worlds. (Of course, Dakota Fanning was the only thing worth watching in that movie, which made the performance that much more magical.) In Super 8, Elle Fanning plays the generally thankless role of the only girl in a group of boys. I’m not quite sure if it’s because of her performance or due to Abrams’ design, but “the girl” in this case actually has agency and doesn’t just end up being a catalyst for the boys’ reactions. There’s some of that, and the boys are all good at playing their respective archetypes, but Elle Fanning is endlessly watchable and sympathetic. Honestly, I’d like to see her nominated for an Academy Award. She’s just that good.

Random weekend question: flicks

It’s Oscar night! Can you feel the excitement? I can’t, but I’m kind of a bad gay in that respect. Still, I’ll take the occasion of the movie industry’s biggest night of self-adulation to ask the following: what comic would you like to see adapted into a film that could claim Oscar gold? Put aside your memories of Astro Boy and your fears about Akira and emphasize the positive, if you can.

I think Fumi Yoshinaga’s Ichigenme: The First Class Is Civil Law (DMP) could be made into one of those independent sleeper films that draw unexpected commercial and critical acclaim. And it has hot, smart gays getting it on and none of that maudlin, problem-movie nonsense of Brokeback Mountain. Of course, I can also imagine Makoto Yukimura’s Planetes (Tokyopop) getting turned into some overblown James Cameron thing that doesn’t really resemble the source material but still makes a ton of money.


Not-so-deathly Hallows

I went to see part one of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows over the weekend, and I was surprised by how much I enjoyed it. I thought the last two films, both of which were directed by David Yates, who assumes helming duties for this one, were gloomy and terrible, neither faithful enough to the source material to please fans of the property nor engaging enough as films to interest people who were coming in fresh. (I suspect that latter group would also be totally lost in terms of plot.)

Looked at independently as a movie-going experience, I doubt that the first half of Deathly Hallows would be satisfying for someone who isn’t already steeped in the series. My husband has read all the books, but he’s hardly as detail-oriented as I am, and he thought people who hadn’t read the books would be completely lost watching the movie. But, again, at this point, how many people are going into the movie theatre fresh for the seventh part of a movie series based on a seven-book fantasy series? It’s interesting to me as someone who used to watch soap operas and read more serial super-hero comics, where the argument was always that every issue or episode was possibly someone’s first, so there should be a fair amount of exposition to help those newcomers get comfortable. I don’t know that this is possible with Deathly Hallows.

It’s packed in terms of event. I was surprised at how much of the novel Yates and screenwriter Steve Kloves managed to include in the movie without any drastic cuts or marginalization of the events’ import. And they still found a lot of time for moping in the back country, even though those sequences didn’t do the young actors any favors.

Speaking of the young actors, I’m always a little confused when critics talk about how marvelous they are and how fascinating it will be to see their careers evolve. I think in the case of Emma (Hermione) Watson and Daniel (Harry) Radcliffe, they were cast very well. Of the three, I think Rupert (Ron) Grint is the best actor by a fairly wide margin. Radcliffe may be more comfortable on stage, and Harry is kind of a thankless role and character to begin with, so it’s hard to tell how good he could be under other circumstances. I’m convinced that Watson has been badly directed since fairly early on in the franchise.

As written by Rowling, Hermione doesn’t have the dour gravitas Watson conveys in the films. Book Hermione is intelligent, task-oriented, and purposeful. She doesn’t seem to view the fact that she’s vastly smarter than her companions as a grievous burden, and the delight of the books’ version of the character is that she isn’t troubled by it. She’s just smarter; it’s what she brings to the table, and, more than any other character, she understands that Ron and Harry have their own strengths. Movie Hermione always feels like she’s hauling the others along, trying not to hurt their feelings with her higher skill level and more advanced understanding of their grim circumstances. It robs the audience of the fun of realizing that Hermione is hauling the other two along because of the conscious burden it places on the character.

And speaking of unsuccessful interpretations of a well-written character, when did Helena Bonham-Carter forget how to act? Or who decided that vicious, unprincipled Bellatrix LeStrange should be such a dull caricature? Of all of the dozens of characters translated from page to film, Bellatrix is the biggest failure, and I attribute a lot of that to Bonham-Carter’s bug-eyed take. The character’s purposeful savagery becomes an obnoxious stunt. There’s no passion to her cruelty, just noise. I think her performance as Bellatrix is even more unsatisfying than her portrayal of Mrs. Lovett in Sweeney Todd, which was just lazy. (I did watch Alice in Wonderland over the weekend, and I was relieved to actually like her in that movie.)

But I was surprised at how much better certain moments worked in the film adaptation than the novel. A death in the opening chase sequence is miles better than Rowling’s original writing of it. Briskness helps a caper sequence in the Ministry of Magic, along with the terrific, possibly satirical work of three adult actors playing Harry, Ron and Hermione in disguise, particularly David O’Hara as the wizard Harry is impersonating. And the earlier introduction of house-elf Dobby makes his later appearance work even better than it did in the book, though I was disappointed that he was costumed in a dishrag rather than in one of his more dapper ensembles indicating his status.

On the down side, I still like Evanna (Luna) Lynch very much as a presence, but I think the character is being marginalized. I’m not sure if there’s anything Bonnie Wright could do with the character of Ginny. If Harry is a thankless role, Ginny is even worse.

But overall, I enjoyed the movie. I don’t think any new arrivals to the franchise will find it remotely satisfying, but for a Potter nerd like myself, it was a definite improvement on previous installments from Yates.

Random Saturday question: top Potter?

So, assuming you’ve seen more than one of the movie adaptations of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter novels, which one is your favorite? I think mine is probably The Prisoner of Azkaban, directed by Alfonso Cuarón.

That said, I thought part one of The Deathly Hallows was a vast improvement over The Order of the Phoenix and The Half-Blood Prince, both directed by David Yates, who I think kind of sucks. In my opinion, both of his previous films would be confusing to people who hadn’t read the books and unsatisfying to people who had. This one did a nice job of capturing the important plot elements while still being sort of a movie.

Anecdote: a tween-aged girl sitting next to us started sobbing before a really sad thing happened, because she knew it was coming from the book, and, fortunately for her dignity, the movie actually managed to pull the really sad thing off rather nicely. So she wasn’t just crying at something she’d read months ago and could actually have legitimately reacted the same way to the movie’s interpretation.

Upcoming 9/15/2010

It’s precision vulgarity week on the ComicList! By this I mean that there are a bunch of comics out this week that use shocking, potentially distasteful material to very good effect.

First up is the second volume of Felipe Smith’s Peepo Choo (Vertical). I agreed with Kate (The Manga Critic) Dacey on virtually every point regarding the first volume, but especially this one:

“Yet for all its technical virtuosity, there’s a hole at the center of Peepo Choo where its heart should be.”

Smith rectifies that in the second volume, and he endows his ensemble of losers and freaks with a level of sympathy notable in part for its near-total absence the first time around. It’s not that he’s any kinder to his cast. He dangles possibility in their paths only to yank it away. But their pains and disappointments feel more like a properly moving experience than a dazzling exercise in narrative cruelty, and Smith rounds out even the type-iest of members of his cast. The characters in Peepo Choo – the nerd who finally gets to go to his otaku holy land, the creepy jerk who just wants to lose his virginity, the spree killer who yearns to embody American phrases he doesn’t even understand, the smartest girl in class who’s undermined by her own body – all edge closer to a full, possibly crushing understanding of and liberation from their own misery (or at least the teasing promise of liberation).

The book is still brutally violent and creepily sexed up, but there’s nothing clumsy about the application of this kind of content. Smith knows exactly what he’s doing when a character spits a tooth in someone’s eye and another gets aroused watching it happen. I had my doubts that he was going anywhere particularly, peculiarly interesting with this kind of effect based on the first volume, but the tone really clicks this time around, and I’m abidingly curious as to how things will wrap up in the third and final book. For me, good satire, especially satire of individual obsessions and cultural fetishes, has to have a beating heart, something that pushes the reader past pity and into empathy, however limited, with the satire’s objects and victims. Smith makes that leap. (These remarks are based on a complimentary copy provided by the publisher. Oh, and Melinda [Manga Bookshelf] Beasi agrees with me, which I always take as a good sign.)

It isn’t nearly as dense or ambitious as Peepo Choo, but the sixth volume of Kiminori Wakasugi’s Detroit Metal City (Viz) is likely to be as coarse and funny as the previous installments. If you’re in the San Francisco area on Saturday, Sept. 18, you can catch the live-action movie adaptation of the death-metal satire, which is supposed to be pretty great.

It’s not on the ComicList, but the shop in my area lists the sixth volume of Adam Warren’s hilarious and smutty super-hero satire, Empowered (Dark Horse), as due to arrive tomorrow. This time around, Warren looks at the often transitory nature of death among the spandex set.

And the 11th volume of The Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service (Dark Horse), written by Eiji Otsuka and illustrated by Housui Yamazaki, is a very welcome arrival indeed. This series takes a satirical look at ghost stories, people who help the dead reach their final reward, and pokes fun at the ambivalent ways we respond to the shuffling off of our mortal coil.

What looks good to you?

Hit and miss

I saw Scott Pilgrim vs. the World on Saturday and really enjoyed it. I think the best movie adaptations of other properties are ones that capture the spirit of the original material while still functioning as an entertaining movie independent of that source material. I think Edgar Wright got it exactly right while still doing his own creative thing. (There’s a great interview with Wright in Time Magazine, which is one of the many major media outlets to give the apparent flop a very positive review.)

I also loved the supporting cast, particularly Ellen (Knives Chau) Wong, Kieran (Wallace Wells) Culkin, Alison (Kim Pine) Pill, and Ben (Other Scott) Lewis. The evil exes were all fun to varying degrees, and my only major complaint would be that things dragged a little at the end. But movies almost always drag a little bit at the end anymore.

I’m a little shocked at all of the schadenfreude over the movie’s box office performance, like coming in fifth – out of all of the movies in current release in the United States – is a bad thing. It doesn’t strike me as an instant blockbuster by design but as a movie that gains in reputation over time. Maybe Hollywood just hates sleeper hits or cult hits or whatever it is that I suspect the movie will become, but I don’t think the people who made the movie have anything to worry about in the long run. Shaun of the Dead didn’t rake it in right out of the gate either.


Speaking of movies adapted from other media, I could barely sit through Peter Jackson’s adaptation of Alice Sebold’s terrific novel, The Lovely Bones. It was painfully overwrought and grindingly slow at the same time. I did appreciate the presence of Susan Sarandon, doing that thing where actors of a certain stature give a performance that would fit the kind of movie they’d rather be making than the one they happen to be in.

My favorite Pilgrim pieces

I think I’m going to have to overcome my aversion to seeing movies in theaters for Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, since two of my favorite writers seem to be encouraging me to do so.

First of all, you have to go read this piece by Linda Holmes in NPR’s Monkey See blog, which examines some of the “get off my lawn” responses to the movie:

“Hating Scott Pilgrim vs. The World is perfectly fine. It’s got a style; you sort of embrace it and dig it or you don’t. But when there’s too much effort given to tut-tutting the people you imagine to be enjoying it, or declaring and promising that only narrow categories of losers and non-life-havers and other stupid annoying hipsters could possibly be having a good time when you’re not, it sounds pinched and ungenerous. And, not to put too fine a point on it, a little bit jealous and fearful of obsolescence.”

Then there’s A.O. Scott’s review for The New York Times, who neatly sidesteps the pitfalls that Holmes identifies:

“There are some movies about youth that just make you feel old, even if you aren’t. “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World,” based on a series of sprightly graphic novels by Bryan Lee O’Malley, has the opposite effect. Its speedy, funny, happy-sad spirit is so infectious that the movie makes you feel at home in its world even if the landscape is, at first glance, unfamiliar.”

Beyond the fact that I enjoy Scott’s writing enormously, I generally agree with his critical assessments. He also gets extra points for crediting the source material, which seems to be something of a block for people writing about the movie.

The movie I wasn't watching

Maybe it’s the fact that I don’t really watch very many movies that randomly results in me seeing ones from the competent-to-awful end of the quality rainbow. The Proposal certainly could have been worse, and it certainly could have been better.

Right up front I’ll say that I almost always like Sandra Bullock. I haven’t seen every movie she’s made, because some of them look perfectly terrible, and there’s not that much free time in life, but she’s a comforting presence. She’s fine here as a brittle book executive who faces deportation to Canada because she’s let her visa paperwork lapse. Because that’s what demanding executives do… put major aspects of their professional life in jeopardy because they’re so bad with details.

She tries to bully her executive assistant, Ryan Reynolds, into marrying her so she can get back on the citizenship track. It isn’t quite that simple. He wants to be a book editor, so he’s got his own set of demands, and he also wouldn’t mind a little payback for putting up with three years of her bitchery. He brings her along to a family weekend in Alaska so they can prep for the upcoming interview with the mysteriously vindictive immigration agent who suspects their motives. (The agent is played by the guy who’s really good at playing off-their-meds crazy people and mild-mannered racist conspirators on Law and Order. Updated: I should have mentioned his name; that was just lazy of me. He’s Denis O’Hare, and he’s a very accomplished actor beyond his ability to bat kook clean-up on police procedurals.)

In Alaska, we meet Reynolds’s controlling father, played by Craig T. Nelson, who wants his son to give up this damned fool book editor dream and come back to Alaska to run the family empire. There’s also Reynolds’s mother, played Mary Steenburgen, looking composed and beautiful and just slightly quirky enough to keep you alert, which is what you hire Mary Steenburgen to do, because there’s really nobody better at it. And… sigh… there’s Betty White, forced to move through a bunch of “rapping granny” set pieces where old people are portrayed as being hilarious because they don’t sit in chairs and talk sentimentally about “the war.” I love Betty White, don’t get me wrong, but the nicest thing I can say about her character here is that she looks younger than her son. Props to Nelson for not succumbing to a Botox-addicted culture of youth, but wow, dude looks rough.

Here’s why the movie is just kind of competent for me. It feels like it was originally written to be about a woman and her gay male assistant concocting a sham marriage instead of a woman and her straight male assistant falling in unlikely love. It doesn’t seem like anyone made much effort to shift the narrative from straight-gay frenemy picture to opposites-attract romance. I have no idea if this actually happened, but that’s how it reads on screen, particularly Reynolds’s relationship with his parents. He resents his father for not supporting who he is, and his mother is angry at her husband’s inflexibility for necessitating so much distance from their son.

I’m not really sure what to make of Reynolds. Lots of reviews talked about the great chemistry he and Bullock had in this movie, and I didn’t really see it. They were amiable enough together, but Bullock can muster chemistry with just about anyone. Also, Reynolds’s eyes are kind of strange in that emotion doesn’t seem to reach them all the time. They’re a little dead. On an unrelated but gross note, there’s a line at the end where some background character urges Reynolds to “show [Bullock] who’s boss,” which almost manages to undo the fact that the rest of the movie didn’t totally degrade Bullock’s character for being a competent if aggressive professional.

As everyone knows, he’ll be playing Green Lantern in a big action movie. I don’t really have an opinion about this, because super-hero movies are almost always boring, and I’ve never had much interest in Green Lantern to begin with, unless we’re talking about the dive-y, bear-friendly bar in Washington, D.C. Speaking of Green Lantern’s trip to cinemas, I think that’s pretty much one of the big two accomplishments of DC’s Diane Nelson, which is among the big comic stories Tom Spurgeon identifies for the next few months. Well, that and hacking away at DC’s imprints and product variety, but that’s a topic for another day.

Weekend reading, viewing

A quick overview of some of the entertainment consumed over the weekend:

The Graveyard Book, written by Neil Gaiman with illustrations by Dave McKean, HarperCollins: I don’t know why I tend to forget that Gaiman is a very successful prose author in addition to a lionized comics creator. I’ve read some of his novels and liked them very much. Maybe I just have a fixed impression of him as a comics creator, or maybe I just don’t read that much prose fantasy. The Graveyard Book is about a human boy whose family is murdered and who’s subsequently raised by the denizens of a rustic local resting place. Nobody Owens, as his ghostly guardians name him, has a childhood populated with vampires, werewolves, ghouls, witches and malevolent human forces, though it feels perfectly normal to him. That’s the key to the book’s appeal for me; “Bod” doesn’t know how weird his life is, so he tends not to overreact. The plot feels casual, almost lazy, which fits right in with the novel’s undemanding charm. It’s a great choice for a rainy afternoon.

Julie and Julia, directed by Nora Ephron, based on a book by Julie Powell, Sony Pictures: I have an abiding fondness for Julia Child. As a result, I have an abiding dislike of much of what passes for food television these days. So any opportunity to celebrate this culinary icon is welcome, even if Meryl Streep’s performance seems more like an impersonation than the creation of a character. It’s a good impersonation, capturing Child’s fluty charm and imposing sturdiness. As I suspected, I could have been perfectly happy skipping over the parts of Julie Powell, who kept a blog about her attempts to cook every recipe in Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Powell’s blog turned into a book, which turned into this movie, though not without a great deal of mewling self-pity, apparently. I couldn’t make it through more than a third of Powell’s book, and I strongly suspect Ephron and company didn’t care for it much more than I did. Amy Adams, who is a fine and versatile actress, has been criticized for not holding up her end of the film, and that strikes me as unfair. She’s playing Powell as a selfish, immature opportunist, which can’t be accidental, and she’s doing it well. How entertaining could such accuracy possibly be?

Only One Wish, written and illustrated by Mia Ikumi, Del Rey: If you’re absolutely manic about episodic comics that suggest you be careful what you wish for, then perhaps completism will demand that you give this bland outing a whirl. Completism has its costs, though, and subjecting yourself to dull manga may be one of them. Anyway, there’s this complicated urban legend about text-messaging and getting your wish, and teen-agers here do a number of predictable things with their good fortune. Absolutely nothing unexpected happens, though Ikumi seems convinced that her twists and turns will startle. Maybe I’ve read too much manga of this kind and my startle threshold is higher. I must give thumbs up to the great design on the wish-granting witch, though. (Review based on a complimentary copy provided by the publisher.)

Riveting, the verb

I’m so glad I rarely, if ever, see movies in theaters, because I’m already a cranky old man, and I find myself getting outraged over money I might theoretically have spent to see it in a theater instead of watching the DVD for next to nothing.

I also wonder if I might not be completely out of touch with what constitutes an entertaining film, because I thought Iron Man was really boring. It made tons of money, and it got good reviews. I mean, it got good reviews beyond the “not bad for a super-hero movie” standard, almost like it was a film, or something.

I don’t really understand that. Aside from a cast with several Oscar winners and nominees and a script with snappier dialogue than usual (which isn’t a very high bar to vault over), I thought it was just as laborious as every other recent movie based on a super-hero property. Maybe I’m too nostalgic for the economy with which super-hero origin stories were originally told, but it seemed like it took forever for Tony Stark to do anything. Given the apparent complexity of the technology, I guess that’s fair, but had nobody ever heard of the montage? Or would that have been too cheesy for a movie about a drunken billionaire with a magnet in his sternum? (Of course, such economical measures might have resulted in the elimination of one of my favorite characters, the robot that kept spraying fire suppressant. I want a spin-off franchise, and I want it now.)

Why do all of these movies seem to plod? Why do they all seem so methodical and overly reverent when they should be snappy and fast-paced and fun?