Wednesday, October 21, 2009

SHORT TAKES

Some short bits about stuff we’ve seen lately:

-- TWO FROM ANTHONY MANN --

THE FURIES, a Western from Anthony Mann with Barbara Stanwyck and the sublime Walter Huston and Judith Anderson and Beulah Bondi. Great randy fun, lurid and melodramatic and overheated, madly entertaining, kind of like Aeschylus’ ORESTEIA on the range. Gorgeous black and white location cinematography. Huston plays an Alpha Male cattle rancher involved in something of a power struggle with his daughter, played by Stanwyck in full Bitch Goddess mode -- there’s a lot of bickering and one-upmanship and barely contained incestuous passionate subtext. One glorious scene features Huston and Stanwyck bitching at each other, and you can feel the simultaneous hate and love these two feel for each other. You often feel that they’re just a couple of drinks away from consummating. The movie doesn’t entirely work, alas. It feels bound by some kind of Production Code rules keeping it from going as completely for broke as it would like to go: certain elements feel shoe-horned into the story to lighten the darkness a bit. You’ll know what I mean when you see it. But no quibbling can diminish the good tasty fun the film provides. I liked it a hell of a lot.

T-MEN

Another Anthony Mann, predating THE FURIES. T-MEN is a noirish cop thriller about the titular T-Men going undercover as part of an investigation into a counterfeiting ring. Again, some good gritty solid fun, but the real star here is the incredible black and white cinematography by the masterful John Alton. Even in the really cruddy DVD I got from Netflix, this film shines with a beauty that few contemporary movies can come near. If some of the film feels familiar, that’s because many shots have been used in assorted documentaries about film noir to illustrate the visual style associated with the genre. Worth seeing, by all means.

-- AND SOME THEATER --

MEMPHIS
A new musical, apparently 5 years in the making, set in 1950s Memphis detailing the rise of what was then called "race music." The kind of show set in the early years of rock and roll where a white guy walks into a black club and impresses everyone with how soulful he is, as a friend pointed out. That's only the first of the cliches on parade. We're soon treated to this little exchange, when Huey, the white guy in question, hits on the hot black female lead singer:

Hot Black Female Lead: You know how I know a man is lying to me?
Huey/White Male Lead: How?
Hot Black Female Lead: He opens his mouth.

No, really, she actually says that. There's even a poor black teenager who saw his father lynched by a white mob and hasn't spoken since, and you get no points whatsoever for figuring out that he's going to start speaking at a crucial plot juncture and that at some point later on someone will say something about how they wish he'd stop talking. The token efforts the show makes in the second act to do something with these exhausted plot and character tropes amount to too little too late -- the attempts fall as flat as the original cliches do.

The cast by and large does its best with this stuff, but all of their efforts are undone by Chad Kimball's appalling performance as Huey. He lays on the quirky country hickdom to such an extent that he winds up coming off like a spastic George W. Bush. It got to the point where I just couldn't look at him. A real shame, because Kimball was one of the reasons I was interested in seeing the show in the first place. I'd enjoyed his Milky White in the INTO THE WOODS revival, and his tiny role in GOOD VIBRATIONS was the sole positive memory I have of that catastrophe. Why on earth he's decided to make Huey into such an obnoxious ass completely escapes me. His relationship with the female lead never for a solitary second convinces: she could surely do better than that twitching poseur, whatever his status as a suddenly successful DJ/TV personality. She'd be better off without him, and she does wind up being better off without him, in fact. The play would be better off without him, too: it would at least not be agonizing.

SUPERIOR DONUTS

A new play by Tracy Letts, who won pretty much every award around for AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY, a vast splendid avalanche of a play. DONUTS is much smaller, more of a chamber piece than a full out symphony. It centers on Arthur, the emotionally reserved owner/proprietor of the titular donut shop, and his relationship with Franco, a eager young African American man he hires to help out. Boy does that sound like the most cliched set up imaginable, but DONUTS breathes actual life into the potentially overfamiliar set up and characters, in ways that MEMPHIS is never able to approach. A great evening in the theatre.

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