Thursday, February 28, 2008


“I see nothing worth liking.”

Right, whatever. I can’t be surprised that this year’s Oscar telecast was the lowest rated ever. It had been so clear for so long that NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN was going to win the Big Prize that there was just no reason to watch. It certainly did continue the current Oscar tradition of honoring the Safest Picture rather than the Best Picture.

For my money, THERE WILL BE BLOOD was the best and most interesting and effective and memorable of the nominated films that I’ve seen. MICHAEL CLAYTON is the only one I haven’t seen, due largely to a long-standing allergy I have to George Clooney, way too much of whose performances seem to depend on him peering out from under those admittedly gorgeous eyebrows while he sets somebody straight about something. For the rest of my money, SWEENEY TODD was the film of the year. Tim Burton’s non-nomination as Best Director, and consequent non-win, is yet another in an apparently endless series of Irrefutable Proofs that these Oscar things are just a waste.

Worse movies than NO COUNTRY have won more awards. Of course, better movies than NO COUNTRY have won fewer. The whole fuss over the film continues to amaze me: what was the big deal? Don't get me wrong, a perfectly fine movie, easily the Coens' best film since RAISING ARIZONA, well made and acted, and with only glimmers of the stylish smartass nonsense that has made so much of the Coen Brothers work so chokingly awful over the years. I remember enjoying watching Tommy Lee Jones’ sherriff putting all the pieces together, and Javier Bardem’s performance as an apparently unstoppable hit man has really stayed with me. His final scene with Kelly McDonald as a potential victim who turns the tables on him is easily the film’s high point. Stylish but not too stylish, you could feel the Coens backing off from their usual excess in what was apparently intended as a return to the cooler style of their first film BLOOD SIMPLE but which, as with the surrealistically over-rated FARGO, ultimately comes off more as Bleak Chic.

It wasn’t long before I started to find the film's ongoing parade of carefully convoluted but not too convoluted events rather tiresome, and was ready for the end long before Tommy Lee Jones’ final Salute To His Father’s Memory. Was I really supposed to give a damn about that Llewelyn guy? And are the Coens really so shocked, shocked! to find that there is evil in the world? I think I might have shared their assumed horror if I’d seen a little more actual evil in the proceedings. I got more out of Tommy Lee Jones’ monologue about the casual murderer he sent to the chair; there seemed to be more of the abyss in that little bit of voice-over narration than in the plots that tie up the film’s running time. The fact that the evil in the film is consistently presented as being the actions of non-white non-Americans seems to have been overlooked in the rush to acclaim this movie a masterpiece, which reminds of the wild acclaim that seems to follow the films of Clint Eastwood. I have to say that I just don’t get it. I enjoyed the film well enough, I guess, but a masterpiece it just plain ain't. I don't think it has anywhere near the weight of Tim Burton's SWEENEY TODD, or the brainsmashing impact of THERE WILL BE BLOOD.

As for THERE WILL BE BLOOD. Basically, you get to sit and watch Daniel Day-Lewis hit bold new lows of human awfulness for nearly three hours, and impossibly it never gets boring. The action is lively and focused, as opposed to the Altmanathons of crisscrossing storylines and characters that director Paul Thomas Anderson has churned out before. Day-Lewis' performance as the impossibly driven Daniel Plainview is one for the ages, a harrowing picture of a man who has no loves lusts or appetites apart from the ruthless acquisition of oil properties, but who finds himself frantically trying to paper up certain emotional cracks when things don't quite go his way. There's a lot more to this performance than an extended John Huston impression. All in all, the film is a hugely ambitious, wildly exhilarating film that at first glance feels like a major statement about Greed and the costs thereof, sort of TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE without the bandits, and with Charles Foster Kane instead of Fred C. Dobbs.

But what exactly is it a major statement about? It doesn't necessarily have to be a Major Statement, I guess; it is certainly enough for it to be a beautifully executed portrait of a man so incredibly driven that he manages to destroy pretty much everything in his life, a la RAGING BULL. But there's none of the redemption that Scorsese manages to suggest in his film. BLOOD ends with a now-notorious sequence that feels somehow inevitable and tacked-on at the same time.

I can’t quite banish a certain distrust of the film. I’m concerned that I’m so dazzled by the very very high quality of the acting (not just Daniel Day-Lewis’, there isn’t a weak performance in the film) and the brilliance of the production itself that I’m missing out on larger problems that I’ll catch on to later. After all, THERE WILL BE BLOOD is the work of Paul Thomas Anderson, the Altman protégé/wannabe whose earlier films include the vile BOOGIE NIGHTS (a film that only gets more repellent with each passing year) and the epic self-indulgent compendium of Big Scenes for Actors-in-search-of-a-subject MAGNOLIA. If THERE WILL BE BLOOD is as good as I think it may be, it will be the biggest turn-around in a previously dreadful director’s work I’ve experienced since Fincher’s ZODIAC.

As for the show: I thought it was as close to ideal as we're going to get. Swifter, with none of the nonsense of irrelevant self-congratulatory montages and Chris Connelly leading in to each commercial break by telling us what we've just seen. I like seeing Robert Boyle get an honorary Oscar, and hope they keep going with honoring people behind the scenes with Lifetime Achievement awards.

And John Stewart can come back as permanent host, as far as I'm concerned.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008


"No life."

At one point in the chilly current British revival of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine's SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE, a pair of grossly conceived and tastelessly performed Stock Caricature American Tourists (complete with big fluffy creamy pastries) wonder aloud "Where's all the passion? This is supposed to be Paris." I was brought up short by the remark, as I had been wondering much the same thing myself. Whatever else there was on that stage, there was nothing in the way of passion, or even very much in the way of emotion at all.

The play is basically a pair of connected one acts. Act One centers on the painter Georges Seurat and his struggles to complete his painting SUNDAY AFTERNOON ON THE GRAND JATTE, while juggling a relationship with his model Dot. It takes place on a series of Sundays, as Georges sketches assorted people who wind up occupying places in his great work. Georges' relationship with Dot deteriorates because he can only concentrate on his work, she leaves him, and all that. Act Two centers on Georges' great grandson George, who is an artist himself and is having something of a meltdown of his own: his artworks are becoming sterile and repetitive.

As I remembered, the big problems with this show are pretty straightforward. In Act One it is perfectly plain that Georges and Dot do not belong together. The point is made over and over again that Dot will never come first with Georges, and that Georges is struggling with his feelings for Dot versus his need to work on his painting. I need to find something interesting and maybe even likable about these people if the first act is going to be anything other than a bunch of Dysfunctional Relationship Cliches. Also, the other little storylines of the assorted people in the park need to be played with some kind of energy, or they are just needless distractions. Act Two can just seem completely irrelevant except as a meditation on the difficulties facing artists today, trying to find funding, keeping work fresh and alive; you know, all those things that you just can't wait to see a Broadway musical about.

For this to work at all, you need to have really exciting people in the cast, and this revival simply does not have them. British actor Daniel Evans plays Georges Seurat like a particularly strident schoolmaster from the Harry Potter films, brisk and efficient with Teddibly Precise Enunciation; I kept expecting him to take ten points from Dot. His George in Act Two is just plain bizarre, all bright eyed and bushy tailed, like some giant over-eager chipmunk. Jenna Russell seems to have been directed to play Dot like one of the maids in MARY POPPINS: cutesy British sitcom "ooo-er guv" energy and not the barest whisper of anything even remotely resembling the slightest possible whiff of sexuality. There was not a single moment of chemistry between these two actors, and Dot's Act One pregnancy had me awaiting the arrival of Three Wise Men. And the rest of the cast, unforgivably in a supposedly major revival, fade into a blur of costumes, with only Michael Cumpsty standing out for the really first-rate Jim Broadbent impression he uses to walk through Act One.

All of this is terribly disappointing, especially to one who saw the original production which featured the sublime Bernadette Peters and such splendid actors as Dana Ivey, Nancy Opel, Charles Kimbrough, and Barbara Bryne. Even Danielle Ferland made an impression as the little girl. No one but no one in this production comes within several hundred miles of approaching the original cast. This is appalling but it must be said: I never ever thought I would compare anyone unfavorably with Mandy Patinkin.

And to make matters even worse: the orchestra for this revival has been reduced to a mere 5 musicians. What should be gorgeous is now merely tinny. And the vocals are no help, generally flat and uninspired. For my money there are few things in this world as beautiful as the great Act One closer "Sunday," but it simply didn't come together here. The singing was muddy, the lyrics were too often unintelligible, and what should have been a tear-inducing marvel was a flat combo of tableaux vivante and fancy digital projections.

As for the digital projections: they're pretty cool, yeah. The stage is basically a white box with some vaguely period French-looking design details, and through the magic of computer technology and the wonders of animation we can see Seurat's painting gradually come to life on the walls. Seurat-style rowers go by on the river, little animated dogs frolic on strategically placed canvases, things like that. It works quite well, for the most part, but it can start to get arch: at one point the real George pours a digital projection of himself a glass of champagne.

A shame, overall.