Seen at the Movies: Much like it opened, The New York Film Festival closes this weekend on a graceful note with Alexander Payne’s wonderful new film Sideways. This tale of two middle-aged pals (Paul Giamatti and Thomas Haden Church, both super, in complementary Mutt-and-Jeff style) on a California winery tour reminded me a bit of the festival’s French opening night film, Look at Me, and I heard several audience members remarking on its European tone. In a press conference, the director (who shares co-writing duties, as always, with Jim Taylor) also talked about his instinctual desire to give the movie a vaguely 1970s feel, specifically through encouraging DP Phedon Papamichael to evoke the era’s predominant soft-lit visual style. In any case, this melancholy, funny, and somewhat elusive story of two men at a crossroads, and the women (Virginia Madsen and Sandra Oh) they encounter there, largely leaves behind the satiric thrust of Payne’s earlier Citizen Ruth and Election, settling into a humanist groove that you don’t encounter much in contemporary American cinema. Production designer Jane Ann Stewart and costume designer Wendy Chuck capture the relaxed wine country mood perfectly.
Also showing this weekend is the film that 86-year-old Ingmar Bergman vows will absolutely, positively be his last, the typically morose Saraband. A sequel of sorts to Scenes From a Marriage, this chamber piece finds Liv Ullmann and Erland Josephson’s characters meeting up again after 30 years, but shifts its emphasis to the tortured relationship between Josephson’s son (Borje Ahlstedt) and granddaughter (Julia Dufvenius). The film, which is shot on HD, is divided into ten chapters, each of which is a two-hander between various combinations of the four principals. The stagy feel of the drama is perhaps inescapable, but the bright images (lit by Per Sundin) of the high-definition camera seem somewhat at odds with the material. The setting is a remote country home, given a spare rendering on a soundstage by set designer Goran Wassberg. I wish I could say Saraband is a final masterpiece, but it seems both thin and overwrought, an weak echo of Bergman’s greater works.
One highlight of last weekend’s festival schedule was Mike Leigh’s Vera Drake, which has since opened commercially. Imelda Staunton stars as the kindly title character, a middle-aged London housekeeper circa 1950 who ministers to the elderly, the infirm, and "young girls in trouble." In other words, Vera is your friendly neighborhood abortionist, and when one of her ministrations with syringe and noxious fluid goes wrong, the weight of the law comes down on her meek head. Staunton gives a lovely accounting of Vera, and the rest of the cast is top-notch in the organically evolved Leigh manner. What’s perhaps less expected is the physical beauty of the production. DP Dick Pope establishes a gray-and-dun, postwar-London atmosphere illuminated by the glow of the actor’s faces, and production designer Eve Stewart gives the cramped council flat Vera shares with her husband and two grown children an almost cheerful feeling (love the wallpaper) that mirrors the protagonist’s spirit. Jacqueline Durran’s costumes are so perfectly molded to the characters that they seem like second skins.
Women’s issues in another part of the world are addressed in Senegalese director Ousmane Sembene’s Moolaade, set in a Burkina Faso village where female circumcision is the rule. When several young girls escape from the rite, a headstrong woman puts them under her protection, facing down the village men as well as the women who enact the procedure. It may sound grim, but the movie is a vibrant thing, brimming with music and dance and folk tales and color. The cinematography, which typically takes in a wide view of the life of the village, is by Dominique Gentil. The style’s polar opposite was on view in another festival film, Lodge Kerrigan’s Keane, wherein John Foster’s camera stays in close to Damian Lewis’ title character as he searches Port Authority for a lost daughter and helps out a destitute woman who has a daughter of her own. The lack of distance and perspective on the character is somewhat discomforting, because Keane’s ramblings and anguish often seem the product of mental illness rather than grief. The movie keeps you on edge throughout, and never answers the key question of whether Keane ever had a daughter to lose.
Elsewhere, the question of whether Billy Crudup makes a convincing woman is hardly the point of Richard Eyre’s Stage Beauty, though there have been many opinions expressed yea and nay. This muddled account of Ned Kynaston, a 17th-century English actor specializing in women’s parts, tries to capture a frolicsome Shakespeare in Love spirit, and does stimulate some interest in the early going. Eventually, though, it descends into a morass of anachronistic and poorly thought-out sexual issues—can Ned learn to play a proper man, both on stage and in Claire Danes’ bed, it asks, as if the two matters were inextricably joined. Tim Hatley’s cross-dressing costumes are very tantalizing, and production designer Jim Clay convincingly conjures Charles II-era London’s back alleys, theatres, and palaces. The highly variable cinematography is by Andrew Dunn.
The London theatre scene of 1938 is the setting for Istvan Szabo’s Being Julia, starring Annette Bening as a mercurial middle-aged stage star who embarks on an affair with a callow young man (Shaun Evans). The movie only works well as a vehicle for Bening—Szabo is too heavy a cook for this kind of soufflé. DP Lajos Koltai does a fine job lighting Bening, who is stunningly outfitted both onstage and off by costume designer John Bloomfield. Production designer Luciana Arrighi pulls off the task of transforming Hungary into prewar England with aplomb. At the heart of Dylan Kidd’s P.S. is another transcendently variegated actress, Laura Linney. She plays a Columbia art history program admissions officer who becomes involved with a prospective student (a charmingly offbeat Topher Grace). It seems this young man is the spitting image of Linney’s late high-school love. The movie, which is based on a Helen Schulman novel, starts delightfully, but loses its way somewhat in the second half. Joaquin Baca-Asay’s cinematography is no more than adequate, and the film is nothing special in technical or design terms. But Linney and Grace are a great team, and they enact one of the sexiest, funniest love scenes I’ve ever seen in a movie. What more can you ask for?--John Calhoun
Seen Off Broadway: Golda’s Balcony, Broadway’s longest-running one-woman show, originated at Manhattan Ensemble Theater. With any luck, Nine Parts of Desire, its latest production, will enjoy similar success, which it richly deserves. It couldn’t be any timelier. Writer and performer Heather Raffo, an Iraqi American, spent 11 years researching the lives of women who live, or live in exile from, that perpetual war zone, and a more moving and impassioned piece you are unlikely to see this year. Her writing has the richness, sharpness, even-handedness, and humor of the best New Yorker magazine profiles, and the collage she has assembled from their lives makes for a breathtaking 90 minutes of pure theatre.
Raffo begins the piece cloaked in a thick black shawl, washing "dead shoes" in a river that runs jaggedly through the set. Though interested, particularly in that placidly arresting waterscape, I admit I feared for a lost evening as she went through her incantations in this elderly guise. Before long, however, she throws off the garment to reveal bright contemporary clothes, one of many coups de theatre the design team (including costumer Mattie Ullrich and props designer Kathy Fabian) has in store. In quick succession, she plays a gallery of characters. These include an artist seemingly happy to collaborate with the Hussein regime; an NSYNC-loving girl with a dark family secret; an obstetrician dismayed by a rash of horrendous birth defects; a grieving mother who lost her family to a "bunker buster" bomb during the Kuwait war; a whiskey-soaked expat, a Hussein hater, who rages against antiwar protests; and an Iraqi American woman, not unlike herself, who watches the current conflict, and looks for her relatives, on TV. By the time we return to the old woman and her curious task by the river, much of the audience had added their tears to the water. My only quibble is that sometimes, in her zeal to tell their stories, Raffo (who literally leaps into character at certain points, flinging herself across the stage and into a new persona) moves too quickly for us; characters and chronology become slightly confused. The raw essence of the piece, however, comes through thrillingly. Whether your politics are red or blue, Raffo, under the precise and exacting direction of Joanna Settle, colors the women of Iraq in multiple emotional hues.
Like Golda’s Balcony, Nine Parts of Desire surprises with an elaborate and well-considered design, gradually and compellingly revealed by LD Peter West in shafts and shimmers of light. From scene to scene, I kept picking out little details in Antje Ellerman’s set, whose highlight is its river, but which also encompasses a blasted archway and plastic sheeting to convey a war-torn landscape that still has some beauty, like a lovely mosaic floor, peeking through. Obadiah Eavescontributes a forceful sound design and score. In concept, design, and execution, Nine Parts of Desire is one of the best plays of the year.--Robert Cashill
Seen In New York City: Big Dance Theatre’s Plan B premiered at DTW (Dance Theatre Workshop), September 23 through October 9. This 90-minute multi-media dance-theatre piece, created by Annie-B Parson and Paul Lazar, is an intriguing look at corruption and innocence with characters loosely based on the Richard Nixon of the Watergate era and Kaspar Hauser, a child who grew up alone in the woods of 19th-century Germany until he was 16. While these characters are not actually seen on stage, they "inform" the actions and intentions of the piece. The combination of sets by Joanne Howard and props by Seth Williamson are a moving panoply of odd things, including a transparent plastic house lined with fluorescent tubes: this is moved about the stage with the performers sometimes in it, under it, or outside of it. Other set pieces and props range from trees and a toy metal horse to headphones, telephones and tape recorders (remember Rosemary Woods?), and echo the non-narrative form of the piece. The lighting by Jay Ryan is particularly effective, from the fluorescent tubes in the plastic house to tightly enveloping the action and creating atmosphere that is often quite chilling. The soundscape includes source material from the "secret tapes" of Richard Nixon, the Bible, the biography and diary of Kaspar Hauser, and Taiwanese movie scores. Jane Shaw is credited with sound, and Claudia Stephens with assistant Wendy Yang for costumes, which are an eclectic mix of the 19th and 20th centuries. It may seem like a lot of disparate elements went into the creation of Plan B but the pieces fit together in a coherent manner and the end result is a successful mix of technology, imagery, and ultimately, a text that resonates with the evil of politicians and the effect that evil has on innocence. Sound familiar?–Ellen Lampert-Gréaux