Saturday, December 27, 2014

The Best Movies of 2014

The Rosendale Theatre, where I saw the movies on my list

This is the first year I’ve created a best-movie-of-the-year list, and I’m likely to change my mind even before I’ve finished. It’s even possible that in years to come I’ll remember some film as my favorite of the year and discover I forgot to put it on the list. In the jumble of my memories, there are movies that stand out over time, movies I can see over and over, all-time favorites that I might not have recognized as such on the first viewing.

That said, these movies strike me today as the best I’ve seen in 2014. Bear in mind there are several outstanding ones made this year that I’ve yet to see.

1.     Birdman—a tour de force for both Michael Keaton and Ed Norton. This was worth seeing for its dark and yet funny look at a mid-life crisis, the magical realism of fantasy, interwoven with madness and overlaid with humor. That sounds complicated, and, yes, the movie was pretty complicated. A simple retelling of the plot doesn’t reach the places in the heart that this film does. Setting it backstage in a Broadway theater was a genius stroke—an actor trying to surpass his greatest success with a truly new creation of his own, as he battles poor actors, great actors, offstage dramas, and his own fragile grip on sanity. Keaton will probably win an Oscar, and in this case I agree. I expect the same for Ed Norton in the Best Supporting Actor category.

2.     The Immigrant was on so long ago I didn’t know if I’d seen it this year or last year, but it turns out it was this year. A beautiful film of the heartbreak of coming to the United States in the early 20th century with all the high hopes and unrealistic dreams of its time and place, riding the great wave of the poor who had every reason to expect better things. Marion Cotilliard shimmers with her unique blend of physical and spiritual beauty, seeking a successful life and exploited by the very men who would rescue her.

3.     Boyhood—This one is on everybody’s list, for its sheer chutzpah of concept. Twelve years in the making, focusing on one family and watching them evolve. I was less moved than I was intrigued by the device of time itself, which in this case was almost enough to put this film in the category of greatness. Certainly it was one of the best of the year.

4.     Anita Hill/ Speaking Truth To Power is a powerful documentary of a situation   within my memory, but about which the truth was not spoken at the time. Miss Hill was portrayed by the media as something totally different from her reality. The movie is factual, enlightening, and Hill comes over in all three dimensions as we watch the truth unfold. If only there had been fair and balanced coverage of events as they happened we might be living in a different country today. A most compelling use of news footage and interviews, this is a must-see documentary.

5.     Life Itself—my second favorite documentary tells the story of Roger Ebert, newspaperman and movie fan. It traces Ebert’s path as a suburban Chicago bright kid reporter through alcoholic, self-indulgent sybarite, all the while excelling in prowess as a movie lover-critic. It ends with his final days in bed with a cancer that will finally take his life. The early part of this movie is free-wheeling and fun, right up through Ebert’s feuds and make-ups with his partner in movie criticism-on-television, Gene Siskel, who reveals how the pair really felt about each other. As it ends we see the bedridden Ebert, unable to talk or eat, still writing reviews, and communicating with the extraordinary woman who loved and married him.

6.     Love Is Strange is a tender, touching story of an aging homosexual couple who are forced to sell their beloved apartment and live apart until they can manage to support each other again. The performances by John Lithgow and Alfred Molina are nothing short of superb. I left the theater knowing two men as if they were beloved old friends of mine whose bittersweet story had been revealed for the first time.

7.     Bicycling With Molière—I loved this pretty French film, with its disagreeable characters, its bicycling sequences and references to Molière. Two older actors decide to work together on a production of Le Misanthrope, but it is indeed a bumpy trip as they vie for the leading role, meet up with a difficult but appealing lady, cross swords and double cross one another--and ultimately end the association all around. It is a movie full of happiness that ends rather sadly, but, along the way introduces some well-wrought characters and situations. I’m surprised it didn’t make more Best Picture lists.

8.     Land Ho! An old-buddy movie, two old guys who take a tour of Iceland together. Well made and picturesque, the film shows two very complicated men getting to know each other on an unlikely road trip and revealing more than meets the eye even when the eyes are dazzled with unknown landscapes. A very likable movie—perhaps not one of the all-time greats, but unforgettable in its mood and pictorial elegance.

I have a few honorable mention movies, but try as I might I couldn’t come up with a list of ten for the best-of-the-year. My runners-up were The Skeleton Twins, Magic in the Moonlight, Words and Pictures, Rosewater, and Elaine Stritch/Shoot Me. The only one on the whole list that I rented rather than seeing at The Rosendale was Words and Pictures, a happy romance that worked for me.

My list is brief, but then I didn’t see all the pictures the real critics did. Still on my list to see of 2014 movies are: Mr. Turner, Whiplash, The Imitation Game, Selma, Foxcatcher, Wild, and The Theory of Everything. I gave The Grand Budapest Hotel a miss but I’m beginning to regret that. For now my list will have to serve.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Christmases Past

A view from my chair. Lights from the tree reflected to the window glass.
Howard Kissel
Christmas always brings back memories. This morning while my last batch of cookies baked I sat in my living room with NPR in the background playing a beautiful choral version of "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear" and I looked at my little tree. Its lights reflected in the window glass to the left, creating an illusion of another lighted tree--the bare tree outside the window looked to be lit as well. The magic of the moment--music, Christmas, and lights that were not there--transported me to a long past conversation about Christmas with one of the dearest hearts I've ever known, the very Jewish, very knowledgeable-about-everything Howard Kissel.

It was 1996. Howard was in Alabama directing a play for Jubilee Fish Theater--my theater--and I had just received a letter from my stepdaughter in Vermont who complained that her children's school had put a ban on the singing of Christmas carols for the first time that year. Howard and I were shocked and saddened to learn about this. He related how, growing up in a largely Gentile suburb of Milwaukee, he had attended an almost-entirely Gentile grammar school. Christmas was celebrated at school, and he had, as he said, "always been interested in that story," (he had a way of italicizing verbally, without the need for air quotes). Anyway, little Howard sang the carols with his classmates without a second thought. He loved music of all kinds and was very moved by the elegant old carols, particularly the religious ones about the star and the babe in the manger.

"I was in no danger of being converted, or anything of the sort," I remember him saying in that gentle, professorial tone of his. "No one would have thought the Christmas music would be bad for me." He related that recently he had been to a Broadway fund-raiser around Christmastime. It was held in one of the major theaters and the house was full of actors, producers, and high-level theatrical types. "They sang those songs," he said. These were, for the most part, professionals with magnificent voices, but what touched him most was their commitment to the carols themselves. "I realized it was their music, music they had known as children, music that warmed their hearts and meant the best of the Christmas spirit. It was possibly the most moving experience I'd ever had. I loved singing with them."

I sat there this morning, listening to the carol, looking at my magical little tree sharing its light with another tree outside, and thought, not only of how much I miss Howard, who died in 2012, but of how Christmas has power to bring us happiness through the ages. I don't worry about the commercialization of the holiday--that's out of my control anyway. I regret that the beautiful carols are no longer on the public school agenda, for some misguided reason or other. But I have seen so many transformations in the culture in my lifetime that I can only accept the changes as the way of the world. And I am glad to have special Christmas memories of my own and to have vicariously, through one of the most spiritual Jewish men I have ever known, been privileged to experience exalted Christmases in years past. The holiday invites beautiful memories. Today, mine are of a very special friend.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

A Night in the Freezer

You know how people say, "In an old house, it's just one problem after another..."? I've lived in a lot of them, and I can testify. It's true.  
The old house I grew up in, Montrose, Alabama

 I remember my mama with her winter-long mantra, "This is the coldest old house there ever was..." wandering from room to room with a blanket wrapped around her. Southern homes of a certain age (this one was built in the 19th century) were never properly heated, and picked up drafts through the window frames and various cracks throughout. But I'll say this for that one, it was full of tall windows and the natural cross-ventilation was practically as good as air conditioning in the summer.

I'll wager that house never got as cold as this one in the Northeast was last night when I realized the problem with the boiler was not going to be fixed until morning. Heat and hot water went out early in the day and I called every plumber I knew or knew of but got no help until my ex-son-in-law, a plumber showed up at 8 P.M. He worked for an hour and a half, talking with another plumber on a cell phone as he tried to work out the problem. When he left at 9:30 he advised me that there was probably a faulty part, and not something he could repair. He told me to call a boiler technician and said my oil-supply guy would have one on call.

His last words as he walked out the door were, "This house doesn't know you yet."

I love that. Something about an old house feels like a new friend, someone palpable, someone who one is getting to know and trying to win over as soon as possible. Knowing old houses as I do I understood his remark perfectly.

I called the number of my oil supplier and was referred to the number of a boiler repair expert. He said he could come out immediately for an extra fee of $60 or if I could wait he'd come today. I'm expecting him any minute. The world of oil heat (expensive), boilers, basements, and constant flow of plumbers and men who service equipment is new to me. After all, it's my new life. And I expect it. It's an old house!

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

A Visit from Peter Pan

Betty Bronson as in the 1924 silent film

Okay, there was a bright, musical version of the old J.M. Barrie play Peter Pan on television last week. I didn't watch much of it--missed Christopher Walken's turn as Captain Hook almost altogether. But what I did see had little of the magic I remembered from past productions, and I was thrilled to have the opportunity to see the silent film version at a matinee Sunday at the Rosendale.

Peter Pan is part of my story, as it is of practically every child born in the English-speaking world since it was first staged in 1904. A childhood memory is of looking at a peanut-butter jar with the name Peter Pan on it and a picture of a grown woman in an elf costume and asking my mother, "How can that be Peter Pan? Wasn't Peter Pan a boy?"

She didn't know the real answer to that, but she did the best she could. She explained that yes, Peter Pan was a boy, but he was usually played on the stage by a woman. Why, she didn't really know. I have the answer to that one now, thanks to a few hours research on the Internet of all thing Barrie and all things Peter Pan. I'll get to it later.

My inordinate recent interest in Peter Pan was stimulated by the awe-inspiring beauty of the early film, in which Barrie himself had a hand. I'd forgotten what an excellent writer Barrie was, once one wades through the treacle and whimsy. His work is so original and mesmerizing, it borders on the profound. With the new technology of cinema, he was able to create magic in ways the stage could not. His children flying must have been unfathomable to audiences young and old in the 1920s--and the spectacle is no less fresh today. I heard many say that they
Maude Adams as Peter Pan.
only stayed with the NBC version last week in hopes something untoward would happen like a rope breaking. In the silent film there was no possibility of that happening. By the time the children flew, we were all flying with them.

Maude Adams made the role of Peter famous in the U.S. in the early 20th century. Producer Charles Frohman, in love with the production he had seen in London, bought it for her and she played it on Broadway and toured the country in the role for over a decade. Her interpretation was apparently unassailable. Mark Twain sent her a fan letter, saying, "It is my belief that Peter Pan is a great and refining and uplifting benefaction to this sordid and money-mad age; and that the next best play on the boards is a long way behind it as long as you play Peter."

Mary Brian, Betty Bronson
The first film of the play stuck closely to the original script. In it, Peter is a stubborn little boy committed to the prospect of being a child forever. He is direct, bossy, an eternal bad-boy of the type who has enormous appeal to the opposite sex. Wendy is enchanted at once, and wants to give him a kiss. This charming scene foreshadows the theme of the play, as Peter doesn't know what a kiss is but is happy to receive a thimble, for which he gives her an acorn in return (which magically saves her life in a later scene). The play has survived criticism, analysis and deconstruction, but the validity of this character transcends time and crosses societal boundaries. He is more than the sum of his parts.
The recurring theme of Peter asking Wendy to be his mother and that of the Lost Boys--and her retorting with a request that the relationship be something more--got downplayed in later productions to be almost non-existent. Peter is all boy, complex and confounding, subject to change only at the whim of succeeding generations.

Of all the incarnations I have seen of Peter Pan, the 1924 silent version affected me most. Barrie himself cast the graceful young Betty Bronson, a bit player at Paramount, and she captures the essence of Peter Pan as well as any female could, in my estimation. She is a wonder to behold in the role.

As to my question as a child to my own mother, Peter Pan is usually played by a woman because in 1904 in London, when the play was first produced, it was illegal for youngsters under the age of 14 to be on the stage. This might not have prevented a 14-year-old lad to play Peter, but the Lost Boys would all have to be younger than he. A young woman, Nina Boucicault, created the role and the boys cast all looked convincingly younger. In the movie the Lost Boys are perfect--they are children.

I hope you get a chance to see this film. I intend to do all I can to ensure it runs again at the Rosendale. It is a work of art. And it's wicked fun.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

A Streetcar Named Despond

Gillian Anderson as Blanche Dubois
Vivien Leigh as Blanche Dubois

I had high hopes for the National Theatre of London's new production of A Streetcar Named Desire, but that does not mean that I had high expectations. I want to love every film and play I go to, even a production of a play I've seen before and have loved in other productions, or a remake of a favorite movie. That said, there is something sacred about the work of Tennessee Williams, something vivid and haunting in the poetry of the words, the truth of the characters, the inevitability of the stories they tell. Maybe it's just me (but I don't think it is), but I feel the genius of this man was unique, and the voice he gave to the assortment of odd, lost, tragic people bears listening to. Streetcar was his masterpiece.

It is essentially a Southern story, and it is crucial that its setting is steamy New Orleans, where lonely, artistic outsiders seek to find themselves in its raffish, dangerous, dark corners. New Orleans was and is that rare thing, a world-class American city with a European history and a cosmopolitan sophistication--an authentic character that beckons, "I am authentic. You can be authentic here." Young Southerners traditionally moved to New Orleans to find themselves. Streetcar is about New Orleans, old New Orleans, run-down, broken, crummy New Orleans, waiting for salvation or rescue, both of which were to come years after the play takes place. If they have come at all. New Orleans is like a character in the play.

There is not a "small" part in the play. Everybody in it is part of the story. It is the story of Stella, a small-town Mississippi girl who moved to New Orleans to have fun in the city's spirit of revelry and dark adventures. It is the story of Stanley, who sweeps her off her feet and awakens her sexual nature with the irresistible force of his own. It is the story of Blanche, Stella's fragile sister who lives in a fantasy of her own life--a state of denial that is very often a Southern way of life. Blanche is deluded, yes, afraid of losing her youth and beauty, the only currency she has ever had. Raised to be a classic lady, she is in conflict about her sexual nature, and the only way she sees to resolve that conflict is to split herself in two -- the virgin and the whore. The inevitable confrontation with reality in the guise of Stanley Kowalski is too much for her tenuous hold on sanity before the close of the play.

Benedict Andrews, director of the National Theatre's production, missed all this. His New Orleans apartment, rather than a squalid, fringe-of-the-French-quarter in the 1940s, hovel, was more like an overpriced, undersized London flat--all white and minimalist and totally without character. No reason on earth for Blanche to exclaim in revulsion, "Never, never, never in my worst dreams could I picture--only Poe, only Mr. Edgar Allan Poe could do it justice!" She might not like Stella's choice of domicile, but nobody could describe that institutional box of a place in such terms. Either drop the line or have your set designer create an atmosphere as Williams described it. Andrews got that it was about sex, and brought that point home time and again with kettle drums when the characters were going for a romp between the sheets. I got the impression that his Stella, rather than being a healthy normal young woman with an overactive sex drive, was a slave to certain sex acts this Stanley seemed to need. Whenever she gave in to him, Stanley was on his knees in front of her. In Williams' play the couple are bound to each other with a wild, extreme sexuality--and they see nothing wrong with it. I can't quite accept that a man like Stanley would be that eager to give oral sex, but it would not be impossible. It did cast a slightly different light on his relationship with Stella.

When Gillian Anderson as Blanche, made her first entrance, I was confused at what she was wearing. It seemed to be something from the 1960s, and Stella too had a frock from that period--hers was a micro-mini. I wondered why anyone would choose to set this play in the 1960s. After a while I saw that it was meant to be contemporary, 21st century. I don't know why that either. The play is a classic but it certainly belongs in a particular place at at specific time. And Blanche would not have been stylishly or conservatively dressed at any period. She was trying to hold on to her youth--and her clothes would be fussy, frilly, and a bit out of style. She would be wearing something a girl in her 20s might have worn, 20 years earlier. She says over and over that she doesn't want to look old, and it's clear she would not have noticed that dressing young if you're not makes one look older. Anderson played Blanche at top volume and always with top force. She did not put on airs, as Blanche does constantly in the script. She did not soften, simper, or flirt. She demanded. She practically bellowed. Maybe this is more contemporary, but it is not the play I went to see.

Stanley, of course, was not Marlon Brando, but Ben Foster.
Ben Foster as Stanley Kowalski
Marlon Brando as Stanley Kowalski
He was not the Stanley I knew, not a sexy thug, not an animal out of a cage, capable of unbridled emotions and rampant passions. He was calculated menace, tough, to be sure, but I didn't see a hint of vulnerability and fear, the emotions Stanley is devoted to suppressing if he has to rape somebody to do it.

I'm not saying the roles can only be done by Vivien Leigh and Marlon Brando. They were unforgettable, but I like seeing new generations get the chance at a superb play like this. I'm sure there are some valid reasons to ignore the New Orleans setting, to update the costumes and maybe even, as Woody Allen did in Blue Jasmine, downplay Stanley altogether and make it Blanche's story, changing her to a rich and stylish snob. If you're going to do that, at least change the title, change everybody's name--and face the fact that your script isn't up to Williams'.  

To be fair, I'll say that other critics found the National Theatre's production powerful and magnificent. I don't know what they saw in it, but maybe I missed something. I left after the first act. I couldn't bear it any more.