Friday, January 23, 2015

A Fine Balance Between Dark And Light: Blithe Spirit

This review originally appeared on the San Francisco Appeal.

Blithe Spirit, Noel Coward's classic comedy about marriage, mortality, and spirits has landed in San Francisco for a brief twelve night run, featuring Angela Lansbury in the role that won her a fifth Tony award in 2009.

Let's be honest. This revival could co-star the cast of "Saved By the Bell" and it would still be worth seeing because that's Angela-Frickin'-Lansbury up there, she's 89 years old, and she's amazing. But, thankfully, the cast proves to be much better than a Screech and Slater production.

Lansbury's role is really a supporting one, but her character, Madame Arcati, is the comedic lead upon which everything else follows. The entire play takes places in the 1940s English countryside home of the Condomines. Charles is a mystery writer working on a new novel about a homicidal medium. Ruth is his proper English wife. Second wife, to be exact, and the play opens as they discuss the evening's upcoming dinner party/seance. Neither believes in the possibility of actual spiritual contact, but oh, won't it be a hoot to give it a shot?

The guests include another proper English couple--Dr. and Mrs. Bradman--and, of course, Madame Arcati, the medium who tools around town on a bicycle, and has a fondness for cucumber sandwiches and a dry martini.

While the evening is supposed to all be in good fun, it soon turns out Madame Arcati is no charlatan, and the ghost of the first Mrs. Condomine, Elvira, materializes...But only Charles can see her.

Lansbury is delightful in every scene she's in, but the highlight is certainly those times that Madam Arcati must go into a "trance." This trance usually accompanies a recording of Irving Berlin's "Always," and always involves a solo dance that...well, is a little hard to describe, but oh so perfectly executed.

Charles Edwards--perhaps best known in the States as Lady Edith's baby daddy on "Downtown Abbey"--plays Charles as both completely freaked out and helplessly entranced. Jemina Rooper is the ghostly Elvira. Rooper is no stranger to playing ghosts, having also played one on the British series "Hex." She's a small spitfire of a spirit, and you can tell why, if presented with a choice between her and the new Mrs. Condomine, Charles might go for the ghost.

Charlotte Parry's Ruth Condomine is ironically and appropriately icy as the living wife, and she gets to stretch and play a more comedic side of her character in the second act. And special mention must be made of Susan Louise O'Connor's excellent physical comedy in the role of the Condomines' ditsy and manic maid, Edith.

The play, at first glance, seems rather silly; uptight English, daft old ladies, and horny ghosts? But it is the genius of Noel Coward that pushes it into darker territory, with a hero that doesn't seem too concerned with the death of loved ones, and an ending that, viewed through modern eyes, is a tad misogynistic. But it's that fine balance between dark and light that makes the play the classic it is, worthy of revival, and worth seeing. And Angela Lansbury is that little extra icing on the cake.

Blithe Spirit plays the Golden Gate Theatre through February 1st.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Print The Legend: American Sniper

This review originally appeared on the San Francisco Appeal.

There's a famous quote in the classic Western The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, in which a reporter says, "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend." Clint Eastwood, who got his start in Westerns, has created a modern take on that classic American genre, while also doing his best to make sure that the legend of Christopher Kyle becomes fact.

American Sniper is based on the autobiography of Kyle, a Navy SEAL who went through four tours in Iraq as a sniper, ending up with more confirmed kills than any other sniper in American military history. He was such a legend in his own time that his nickname was, in fact, The Legend.

Kyle is played by Bradley Cooper, who transforms himself into a beefy, mumbling Texan with either an under bite or a gum perpetually filled with chaw. (Perhaps it's both.) At a young age, Kyle's father tells him and his brother that you are one of three things in life: a wolf, a sheep, or a sheep dog. After some shiftless years as a rodeo cowboy, Kyle sees a news report about the terrorist bombings in Nairobi, and decides to enlist in the Navy, to become that proverbial sheep dog, protecting his flock.

Soon after marrying his wife Taya (Sienna Miller), and following the 9/11 attacks, Kyle ships out to Iraq, and joins a war that, through Eastwood's steadfast eyes, is pretty devoid of any moral ambiguity, even when it comes to killing women and children. Oh sure, Kyle has some trepidation at times when pulling that trigger. But don't ever doubt that when he does, it's a righteous kill.

The majority of the movie focuses on Kyle's tours, his hours spent looking through that sniper rifle's eyesight, and his eventual move into more boots-on-the-ground combat. Meanwhile, Sienna Miller's role is reduced to screaming into cell phones "CHRIS!!! ARE YOU OK?" and then being sad and annoyed when Chris comes off a tour and is "changed."

I'll give Eastwood this: He films the action with a steady hand, avoiding the dreaded shaky cam too often utilized in modern action sequences, and he isn't afraid to leave some things literally murky and unclear. (For example, a pivotal shootout takes place during an impending sand storm.)

Eventually, Kyle decides to come home for good, and I would venture to say about 20 minutes of the two-hour-plus movie is devoted to his life as a veteran, his PTSD, and his eventual work helping fellow veterans cope with their own PTSD.

And then the movie ends with a title card and credit sequence that feels like a slap in the face.

I won't spoil it here, although this is a "true story," so the ending isn't that hard to stumble upon. But here's the thing: what happens right before the ending? THAT'S a movie I'd want to see; THAT'S a story that's worth telling--not the aggrandizing of a "legend" and war-as-first-person-shooter that American Sniper turned out to be.

Friday, January 9, 2015

As Close As You Can Get To Watching A Movie Stoned Without Actually Getting Stoned: Inherent Vice

This review originally appeared on the San Francisco Appeal.

Paul Thomas Anderson won me over with his first four movies, (Hard Eight; Boogie Nights; Magnolia; Punch Drunk Love), so much so that I've been able to give a pass to the subsequent movies that didn't win me over as much, (mainly, The Master, and to a lesser extent, There Will Be Blood). As a result, I'll always go into any P.T. Anderson movie willingly and excitedly. And I'm happy to say Inherent Vice joins the list of movies I don't have to give a begrudging pass to.

Based on the novel by Thomas Pynchon, (an author as notoriously difficult to adapt as he is to actually meet, although rumor has it he has a cameo in the movie), Inherent Vice is a film noir on pot. If you come out of it a little confused about the intricacies of the mystery, the plot, or basically, all of it, that's probably the exact reaction you should have. It's as close as you can get to watching a movie stoned without actually getting stoned.

Set in 1970 Southern California, in the fictional town of Gordita Beach, the story centers on "Doc" Sportello, (Joaquin Phoenix), an unlikely private detective who spends most of his day partially, if not completely high. He's full-on hippie, or "hippie scum" as his frequent nemesis "Bigfoot" Bjornsen (Josh Brolin), an ultra straight-laced LA cop, calls him.

As is the case in many a film noir tale, the story opens with a woman in need of some detective work. This particular woman turns out to be Doc's ex, Shasta, (Katherine Waterson), and she's involved in a scheme to get her current boyfriend, a rich real estate mogul named Mickey Wolfmann, (Eric Roberts) locked up in a looney bin, in order to snag his money, all in cahoots with Wolfmann's wife and her boyfriend. She wants Doc's help to get her out of it.

That part's pretty clear. But from then on, the mystery get weird, and then weirder. There's also a Nazi motorcycle gang; a saxophone player for a series of surf bands who may or may not be dead; a drug conglomerate called the Golden Fang, which is also the name of a boat that may have floated off with Shasta; and some very corrupt dentists.

The 60's are over, and hippies have had their heyday. Now every last one of them could just as easily be the next Manson or one of his minions, at least according to the cops and the feds that are constantly floating around Doc. Some of Inherent Vice may seem familiar. There are definitely apt comparisons to be made to Robert Altman's The Long Goodbye and the Coen Brothers' The Big Lebowski. But I think the main similarity in all three is lead characters who are clearly not made for their respective times. And poor Doc hasn't quit fully grasped that his time has ended yet.

As funny and weird and memorable as the plot, setting, and supporting cast may be, (and they include Owen Wilson, Martin Short, Reese Witherspoon, Benicio del Toro, Jean Malone, Maya Rudolph, Martin Donovan, former porn star Belladonna, and Joanna Newsom, who also narrates), the movie has to succeed or fail based on the strength of Joaquin Phoenix's performance. And he…is…stupendous. He plays stoned better than any actor I've ever seen. There are moments in the film that just hold on his face, as he's looking at someone, doing his best to comprehend what he's seeing, not getting it, and then trying again, that are so on point, and funny, and perfect, that I'm sure a lot of people will be convinced it's not acting at all. While the movie itself isn't perfect--there are times when the plot really needs to make sense, but doesn't, and the ending is both drawn out and abrupt--I'd have no problem watching it again, just to get another chance to look at Joaquin looking.