Monday, July 28, 2008

Capturing (and detaining) the American Teen

A good friend of mine wrote a long, ponderous, didactic think piece on the new documentary American Teen and its place in both fiction and non-fiction films about high school. You can read the article here or -- if you hate clicking through "pages" of an online story -- here. It's a tad term-paperish, but it's dense with ideas. Try to stick with it til the end.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

The Dark Knight is damn dark

For the last third of The Dark Knight, I was on the verge of tears, and at the very end, a couple squeaked their way out. Perhaps it's because my emotions have been rawer than usual lately. Perhaps it's because the film has characters I grew to care about, scenes that soaked my heart in adrenaline and sociological themes that range from the unsettling to the horrifying. This movie moves beyond good and evil and enters into our world, which is much more complicated than comic books. This is the first film-with-terrorism-metaphor that our age of terrorism deserves. And it will stop your heart. Ten items for now:

1. Everything you hear about Heath Ledger is true. And we should've expected it. He was the best actor of his generation, and his ability to mash depravity and hilarity into something compulsively watchable is aided and abetted by:

2. The script by the Nolan brothers, Christopher (the director) and Jonathan. It's a beauty, with subplots dovetailing sweetly, with grand ideas rendered in sharp, graceful dialogue. In a movie bursting with ambition on all fronts, perhaps the greatest achievement are its words. How many action films can boast that?

3. It's relentless: both in action and in drama. There is little room to breathe, for better and worse. It is a subtle film, except when it's not. And when it's not, it's over-the-top. But who the fuck cares.

4. The Joker has never made more sense than he does here. In a battle of existential villains, he would drive Anton Chigurh mad. As played by Ledger and as written by the Nolans, the Joker is walking anarchy, cackling sadism, crime for the sake of crime. He is a terrorist without a god to kill for. His actions are beyond random; they are perpetrated not in the name of something but solely for the consequences. And he is capable of understanding (and exploiting) our suppressed desires for this type of anarchy. Ledger makes you root for him, then, inexplicably, makes you feel utterly depraved for doing so.

5. The film does not have much to say about the goodness of humanity. There is an instance that demonstrates the people of Gotham are essentially good, but you won't leave the theater with your faith renewed in humanity. This is a dark movie with complex emotions. Unlike other superhero movies, The Dark Knight is almost redemptionless. It ends on a high -- not because we witness the triumph of the human spirit but because we're shown our world refracted through a damn superhero movie. It's breathtaking.

6. The supporting cast does well. As my friend Tony pointed out, it's tricky to have two villains in one movie, but The Dark Knight deftly handles the introduction of Harvey "Two Face" Dent. Aaron Eckhart spends most of the film as a noble district attorney, and his transition to a grief-stricken madman near the end is believable, for the most part. And there is a logical relationship between Dent, the Joker and Two Face. No contrivances here. And I don't know what I love about Gary Oldman, but it's all here in full view as he transitions from Lieutenant to Commissioner Gordon. Love me some Oldman. He's got this pedestrian dignity about him.

7. The first word out of my mouth, post-screening: "upsetting." The second? "Horrifying."

8. By the end of The Dark Knight, after its 15 or so climaxes, Ledger, Christian Bale and the Nolans have ennobled and redefined one of the great fictional rivalries. It is a small tragedy that this rivalry cannot be continued, even if there is a sequel.

9. Christopher Nolan has yet to make a bad film. He's still batting .1000.

10. My brother, who was a production assistant on the Chicago shoot, is in the credits. Not a bad first film to have one's name attached.

Monday, July 07, 2008

Everything's coming up Rose

And now, I attempt to disengorge my foot from my mouth. I saw the revival of Gypsy on Broadway over the weekend. I've badmouthed Patti LuPone to no end (to start: her Mrs. Lovett a couple years ago was irresponsible and awful), and even called her perhaps "the greatest scam perpetrated on the American people." You know I tend toward superlatives and absolutes. But I thought she was perfect perfect perfect and fabulous as crazy stage mother, Mama Rose, in this latest incarnation of the ultimate backstage musical. The show was uneven, but when it was on it was on. I especially relished the last third of the show, and the choices made by LuPone (and Laura Benanti as Louise). I think it's a classic case of actor and role being perfect for each other.

It's a lengthy, epic musical that builds to one of the best numbers in the canon: "Rose's Turn," wherein Mama Rose barbecues her ego and snacks on her id for dessert. Few climactic solo numbers have since lived up to this (except for maybe "Lot's Wife" from 2003's "Caroline, or Change"). Since Rose is on my brain, and since we've gotten a different version of her every decade since the '50s (including two in the past five years), here is a rundown of "Rose's Turn" with video and commentary. What's your favorite, and why?

Ethel Merman, Imperial Theatre, 1959

From the vantage point of 2008, she sounds like a parody of herself ("MAAA-mah"), but you can't deny her chops and how fresh this feels, even though it is an original cast recording from almost 50 years ago. It would've been so killer to see this live. I'd like to imagine her tearing apart the stage, but something tells me she probably stuck in one place and poured everything into the vocals. Merman's voice is prototypical Rose: big, brassy, demanding, deranged.

Rosalind Russell, Warner Bros., 1962

Russell barks most of the song (except when dubber Lisa Kirk sings for her), and the tricky emotional transitions are handled clumsily by director Mervyn LeRoy. Could've used a Steadicam, and less theatricality. But film does highlight the isolation of Rose: here, there simply is no audience. No one is around to give a rousing ovation, which happens every time in live theatre.

Angela Lansbury, Winter Garden Theatre, 1974

Stiff in movement, but manic in pacing, volume and facial acting, Lansbury hits the "Everything's coming up Rose" line with more speed than anyone before or since, and because of this we get a clear sense of her pathology. Whereas some actresses treat this climax as a chance to sell Rose's true-and-buried talent, Lansbury uses it to suggest Rose is maniacally delusional.

Tyne Daly, Marquis Theatre, 1989

Yikes. The first ever no-singing, no-acting performance of "Rose's Turn."

Bette Midler, CBS, 1993

Midler was, on paper, a smart choice for the TV version. She's a diva even before she begins to act. Here, she wails and flails. She stumbles in a daze and prowls with turn-turn-kick-turns. She tries every trick in the book and none of it feels exactly right.

Bernadette Peters, Shubert Theatre, 2003

This is an abbreviated version for the Tonys, and it gives us closeups we can't get in theater, but oh well. I saw this one in person at the Shubert. It was a crisp, clean show, and Peters' Rose was different than all who came before her: more coquettish, more vulnerable and spritely, more fragile than forceful. This Rose is pleading with us to right a wrong instead of demanding our attention or crumbling in a self-destructive heap. "Rose's Turn" here means "she wants this turn right now," not "I should've gotten a shot back then."

Patti LuPone, St. James Theatre, 2008

No video here, but you can imagine (if there's one thing the iterations of Gypsy are guilty of, it's relentlessly copycatting each other's look). There's a lot going on here, and it all works (unlike Midler's). Listen to her cackle and whisper. Listen to her shriek, "My name's ROSE." Listen to her mock Louise, then the audience, then herself. There's serious muscle behind this performance (unlike Bernadette's). And unlike Merman, Russell, Daly and all the traditional Roses she borrows bits from, LuPone's interpretation of the song feels most organic, like the lyrics are coming to her on the spot (the intentional vocal imperfections help). The song is a very bitter stream of consciousness, and this is the first time I can see and hear it as it was written.

There. Foot out of mouth.