Monday, February 27, 2012


I went to see the production, in San Antonio, of Rent, the Tony-award winning musical* from the mid-1990s. Written by Jonathan Larson, who died the day before the show opened off Broadway, Rent is a re-telling of La bohème, with AIDS filling in for tuberculosis and New York's Alphabet City filling in for the slums of Paris. 

I have to wonder: I've never seen La bohème; are the characters in Puccini's opera as individually repulsive as their counterparts are in Rent? We have Angel, the pathetic drag queen who is the neighbourhood's soul; he takes in a young man who's been mugged, kills another man's dog out of spite, and then dies of AIDS. We're supposed to mourn his passing. We have Maureen, the inconsiderate, self-absorbed bisexual who uses sex as a weapon with both male and female partners. She is supposed to represent something good. We have Mimi, the crack whore who seduces her neighbour, then dumps him (despite being in love with him, as he is with her) to sleep with Benny, the landlord. We have Benny, who used to be one of the bohemian artists at the center of the play, but he turned traitor by marrying money and buying the building they all lived in. He is the villian of the piece at the beginning, but after Angel kills his dog ("I never liked that dog anyway") he is redeemed by cheating on his wife with the crack whore. We have Roger, who falls in love with Mimi, then runs away to open a restaurant in Santa Fe when things get hairy. When he fails at that, as he has failed at everything else (at the start of the play, he's been writing one song for a year), he comes back to New York to start a rock band. We have Joanne, the sassy public-interest lawyer who's wrapped around Maureen's finger, even as she knows she's being manipulated. And we have Mark, the narrator, Maureen's jilted lover who still has a soft spot in his heart for her. He wants to be a video-journalist or something, and insists on shoving his camera in everybody's face. He gets lucky, captures a small local riot on video, and is offered a paying job in television, which he takes, then quits because he wants to live the bohemian life with his sleazy friends. It really makes me appreciate the virtues of bourgeois living. 

That aside, it's a well-written story. The music is passable despite its overblown operatic style, and the harmonies are well made, and at times compelling; there is, though, no song that stays with you after you leave the show. Seasons of Love, the opening song of the second act, comes closest, but its lyrics are, unfortunately, inane compared to most of the book. 

And as a bonus, everyone in the local cast can actually sing, for real; not a frequent experience in San Antonio theater. (It is, despite its population, a small town.)

The Woodlawn Theater is one of several in town that operate on shoestring budgets, and with that consideration in the forefront of my mind I will admit that this production was something of a triumph of will, as most such ventures are around here. Still, there are things that could have been done much better.

The stage at the Woodlawn is too large for the director's imagination. This results in a lot of wandering around by the cast, as they have such a long way to go to get on and off the stage, and at times they seem to be simply milling around as though lost in the vastness of the space. The set is overly elaborate, and seems to have been designed and built before the staging was decided. There are a lot of things on stage that seem to have no purpose; I don't know: maybe they're just there in a vain attempt to cut down on the space with strategic clutter. The lighting was effective but uninspired, and the sound (the music was all recorded; live musicians are too expensive for small theaters like this) was blared too loudly for comfort, by maybe two clicks on the volume control. Not a serious problem, except in scenes where several songs are being sung at once. The loudness of the music in those instances made it impossible to understand any of the words.

* It's not a musical; it's a damn opera.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Quem deus vult perdere dementat prius

starring Dane deHaan, Alex Russell and Michael B. Jordan
directed by Josh Trank

I realize I'm not in the target demographic for this movie, which is aimed at pubescent boys and girls who are considering getting slut-tagged, or already are. Went to see it anyway, because there wasn't anything particularly interesting available.

It actually wasn't a bad little movie. The plot is simple: it's a Greek tragedy set in a Seattle, Washington high school. The gimmick of presenting a Hollywood movie as though it were filmed by an amateur with a new videocamera was already hackneyed by the time The Blair Witch Project ended its first run, but it's appropriate to the story and not as irritating as it could have been, especially towards the end when nobody's holding a camera. It's pretty well written, leaving you unable to predict with any confidence what's going to happen next; and there's reasonably good acting from everyone, and great special effects throughout, but one scene in particular I have to applaud: the scene where the three high school boys first learn to fly. (I'm not going to bother explaining how they are able to fly. The plot device used to propel these boys into the air and into the conflict and resolution of the movie is considerably better done than, say, having a radioactive spider bite each one on the ass, but it's just a device, and has no meaning beyond its mere occurrence.) 

But in that one scene, as you see Andrew, Matt and Steve exploring their new-found abilities in the clouds above Seattle, you actually will sense a surge of freedom, of joy, of ecstasy, and of yearning as you watch. In that moment you begin to identify with these three ordinary high-school boys and the improbable developments that bring the move to its crisis. 

Would have been nice, though, if Andrew could have at least gotten laid.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

On the Allocation of Resources

Red Tails
 Cuba Gooding, Jr.
 Terence Howard
 Nate Parker
 David Oyelowo
Directed by
 Anthony Hemingway

I saw a trailer for this movie some months ago, and formed the preliminary opinion that it was a film I wanted to see. Then I saw George Lucas on the Daily Show, telling Jon Stewart how he had wanted for oh, so long to make this movie, and thought maybe I wouldn't like it after all, that it would be simply too preciously cloying in its "courage has no colour" sensibilities, and heavy-handed in its We-Are-All-Americans message.

Well, as is usual for my prejudices (in the literal sense of "judgement before the facts"), the kernel of accuracy was borne out, but that's all.

It actually is an enjoyable movie, in the Saturday-Afternoon-Matinee-serial style that Lucas seems so indelibly smitten with. There is plenty of action of the war-movie variety, and, as one would expect from the people that gave us Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark, the special effects are so convincing that we wonder at times how it's possible they could be anything other than real. The plot is straightforward, as is the love-story subplot involving one of the pilots; though I thought the subplot involving another pilot who is captured by the Germans could have been left out. It seemed to serve no real purpose except to (a) give the actor playing that character something to do for his pay, and (b) give us a small happy moment near the end. 

The movie (based on a true story, meaning they took bare facts and made up a lot of stuff) is about the Tuskegee Airmen, the group of black pilots got up as an experiment during World War II. It begins with them flying routine patrols behind the front lines in Italy and ends with them doing more exciting stuff. That part of the story is true, and very well told.

The race-relations undertone of the movie was embodied by the white characters, some of whom were Klan types with nice uniforms, and some of whom were Radar O'Reilly types who, yes, see no blacks or whites but only Americans. Throw in the stereotypical blond Aryan Nazi villain, and you complete the roster of cardboard cut-outs masquerading as characters. The black characters were the focus of the movie, so their characters were more developed, though none very fully. The performers do well enough with what they were given, but, as is so often the case with George Lucas productions, the dialog sounds like it's being read off the back of a cereal box, or the pages of a comic book.

All in all, I think that if Mr Lucas is strapped for cash to invest in his films, he should spend a little more on good writers, even if it means he has less available to make the smoke look real.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

And Worst of All, It's Full of Parisians

Midnight in Paris
starring Owen Wilson, Rachel McAdams, and Marion Cotillard
directed by Woody Allen

Sometimes it's a good thing to re-state something we all know.

In this film, a gratifyingly intelligent exploration of the yearning we all feel at one time or another, Owen Wilson plays Gil, a somewhat successful "hack Hollywood screenwriter" with literary ambitions and the draft of a first novel. Visiting Paris with his fiancée Inez (Rachel McAdams) and her loathsome parents (Kurt Fuller and Mimi Kennedy), we are immediately struck by the incompatibility of the romantic Gil and the pragmatic Inez. He idolizes jazz-age Paris; she wants a house in Malibu.

Invited to go dancing with a couple from back home, Gil wants instead to walk the mystical streets of the French capital. Inez, though, wants to party, so they go their separate ways that night, and, increasingly, in life. We follow Gil, who gets lost in the dark streets and finds himself swept up by a limousine containing Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald (Tom Hiddleston and the delightful Allison Pill). He becomes, from the stroke of midnight, a part of his idealized life. He meets Hemingway (Corey Stoll), he discusses literature with Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates, an inspired casting choice), he pours out his heart to Salvadore Dalí (Adrien Brody), he encounters all the leading artistic personalities of Paris after the First World War. He even falls in love, with Adriana (Marion Cotillard), a student of haute-couture who is the object of desire for every artist in Paris. She, though, finds jazz-age Paris boring: she wishes she lived in la belle époque, Paris in the 1890s.

The theme of the movie lies not far beneath the surface, but that doesn't matter. In the richness and artistry of Woody Allen's still fertile imagination, it becomes a magical tale: the surreal made real, more real than life itself, until Gil embraces it, and re-makes his own reality. He does what we all wish we could do.

Unfortunately for the rest of us, and as Gil discovers before he returns to the present, the Golden Age ain't all it's cracked up to be. The co-operation of the Parisian authorities and the budget of a major motion picture can make 21st-Century Paris, jazz-age Paris, and belle-époque Paris all look a pretty nice place. But it's just a movie. Watching this film, I recalled the last time I was there, sitting in a sidewalk café and wishing Paris was as beautiful, romantic and charming as it is in this movie. But Paris today, despite the architecture, the money, the culture, the history, is as loud, dirty, crass and impersonal as any modern city, just with nicer shoes. The romance of the place lies in our own hearts, and the romance Gil finds at last on the Pont Neuf, I can find with no great effort on Houston Street or Main Plaza.