Seen at the Movies:

Clint Eastwood’s dark new drama Mystic River opens the 41st New York Film Festival tonight. The film, which will debut in theatres next week, is an adaptation of Dennis Lehane’s gripping novel about three boyhood friends in an working-class Irish-American enclave of Boston. As children, their paths diverge when one is kidnapped and sexually molested; as adults, the three are brought together when another’s teenage daughter is murdered. Sean Penn is grieving father Jimmy, the former neighborhood gang leader and ex-con who has rebuilt his life only to see it fall apart in a moment; Kevin Bacon is Sean, now a detective assigned to solve the murder of his friend’s daughter; and Tim Robbins is Dave, whose existence has been clouded by the abuse he suffered as a boy. The movie’s strong cast also includes Laura Linney and Marcia Gay Harden as, respectively, Jimmy and Dave’s wives, and Laurence Fishburne as Sean’s partner.

Sean Penn in Mystic River. Photo: Merie W. Wallace/Warner Bros.

Lehane’s novel provides potent, uncompromising material, faithfully reproduced here by screenwriter Brian Helgeland. Eastwood doesn’t pull any punches in his filming of Mystic River--you want dark, you want down, you get Clint. No matter the DP, the director likes his movies to be shot with as little light and contrast as possible, as if the world were permanently overcast. Filming in autumn on location, with veteran production designer Henry Bumstead furnishing the meticulously tatty interiors, cinematographer Tom Stern makes the universe of the characters look like a dank and dreary place indeed. For me, Eastwood’s relentlessly dour approach robs Lehane’s story of some of its complexity and richness. The movie is well done, with great acting moments (Penn’s cry of anguish when his daughter is found, Laura Linney’s startling, Lady Macbeth-like delivery of the film’s coup de grace) and seamless crosscutting by Eastwood’s editor Joel Cox during the climax, but it never seems to come up for air. It’s also marred in minor ways by peculiarly Eastwoodian flaws: why, for example, did the director cast a freckle-faced redhead as 11-year-old Jimmy, when Penn looks to have inherited his thick black mane from the actor cast as 11-year-old Sean?

This first weekend of the festival, presented by the Film Society of Lincoln Center, also includes a movie that is certain to provoke as much comment here as it did at Cannes: Lars von Trier’s Dogville, starring Nicole Kidman as a woman hiding out in a Colorado town during the Depression. I missed the screening of the three-hour film, which will reportedly be released early next year in a 140-minute cut, but I heard various reports of walkouts and nod-offs during its unspooling. The film’s style, as usual for von Trier, is experimental, with “Our Town”-style presentation on a minimalist stage set demarcated mostly by markings on the floor. Peter Grant is credited as production designer, with “production design creative consultant” credit given to Karl Juliusson. The costumes, by Manon Rasmussen, are more detailed, and much of the film’s creation of time and place is left to cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle and “light designer” Asa Frankenberg. There has been some argument over Dogville’s perceived anti-Americanism, especially given the fact that the travel-shy von Trier has never visited the country, but I’ll have to wait until I see it to weigh in on the matter.

Another festival film I have seen is A Thousand Months, Moroccan director Faouzi Bensaidi’s beautifully photographed (by Antoine Héberlé), episodic story of a seven-year-old Atlas Mountains village boy whose father has been imprisoned. The film’s widescreen images are both rhapsodic and wrenching, a result of Bensaidi’s great subtlety of craft. Also, S21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine is a grueling documentary by Cambodian Rithy Panh that examines the country’s dark years of the late 70s; one of the director’s tactics, endlessly repeated, is to have former Khmer Rouge prison guards re-enact their horrible mistreatment of victims—perhaps as a way of expiating guilt, they’re only too willing to comply. I’ll have reports on many more New York Film Festival movies over the next two weeks.

On to cheerier matters: The School of Rock is the most invigorating movie I’ve seen in a long time. To say that it’s also the best studio film (that studio being Paramount) so far this year isn’t really high enough praise, given the dismal quality of the majors’ 2003 output. But director Richard Linklater (Slacker, Dazed and Confused) and writer Mike White (Chuck & Buck, The Good Girl), two vets of the American indie scene, demonstrate that you can go mainstream and retain your artistic integrity. Jack Black stars as the archetypal Jack Black character, an overage, none-too-talented garage band rocker who takes on a private school substitute teaching gig to pay the rent. At first, he’s inclined to give his students all-day recess, until he hits upon the idea of organizing them into a band. In the process, he inadvertently provides the kids with an education not only in rock, but in self-confidence and healthy youthful rebellion.

The inadvertence, and the humor, not to mention Black’s manic energy, are what make The School of Rock such a high. Throw in Joan Cusack as the uptight principal with a sneaker for Stevie Nicks, a class full of superbly directed child actors, and a score that takes in everything from Led Zeppelin to Andrew Lloyd Webber, and what more could you ask for? The movie is more technically polished looking than your average comedy, with cinematography by Rogier Stoffers, production design by Jeremy Conway, on-target costumes by Karen Patch (Black’s dress-up clothes for work are perfect), and concert lighting by, you guessed it, Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer.

An inspiring teacher-pupil movie of a wholly different stripe is the French documentary To Be and to Have, in which director/DP Nicolas Philibert follows several months in the life of a one-room rural school, where teacher Georges Lopez instructs students ages 3 to 10. Among other reasons to see the picture is that it’s a real pleasure to view a documentary not only shot on film, but 35mm film at that. Philibert and co-cinematographers Laurent Didier, Katell Djian, and Hugues Gemignani shoot some stunning footage of the wet, hilly Auvergne landscape over changing seasons.

Also opening this week is Carl Franklin’s diverting yet silly and hole-ridden thriller Out of Time, starring Denzel Washington as a Florida Keys cop in fetching short pants (courtesy costume designer Sharen Davis). The sultry cinematography, which encompasses erotic interludes as well as gruesome crime scenes, is by Theo van de Sande, and Paul Peters is the production designer. If you want even sleazier, drug-fueled crime scenes, see James Cox’s Wonderland, which recounts legendarily endowed porn star John Holmes’ 1980s downfall via addiction and murder implication. Val Kilmer, whose own endowment remains a mystery, is otherwise well cast as Holmes, and Lisa Kudrow delivers a change-of-pace dramatic performance as his estranged wife. The harsh, jittery cinematography by Michael Grady is at times hard to take, but there is good period work by production designer Franco-Giacomo Carbone and costume designers Kate Healey and Maryam Malakpour.

Wonderland. Photo:Richard Foreman/Lions Gate Films.

But if you’re just in the mood for a nice, quiet character piece, you might want to check out Tom McCarthy’s The Station Agent, a Sundance hit starring Peter Dinklage as a 4’ 5” loner and train aficionado who befriends fellow misfits Patricia Clarkson and Bobby Canavale. DP Oliver Bokelberg shoots in classic unadorned indie style on Super 16, and the main location, a recently renovated historic New Jersey train depot, was successfully “dirtied up” by production designer John Paino.--John Calhoun

Seen Off Broadway: This week, two plays dealing, in different ways with the events of 9/11/. (A third effort, Portraits, put up its closing notice before I could get to it.)

The better of the is two Omnium Gatherum, at the Variety Arts, in which playwrights Theresa Rebeck and Alexandra Gersten-Vassilaros have taken a long, hard look at the mess we’re all in and reimagined it s a dinner party in Hell. The hostess closely resembles Martha Stewart and the guest list includes stand-ins for Christopher Hitchens, Edward Said, Tom Clancy, and (I think) Mariian Wright Edelman and Catharine MacKinnon, plus a New York fireman. In the course of 90 tumultuous minutes, nearly every hot-button issue of our day (terrorism, the Middle East, globalization, feminism, and more) is debated, as our hostess serves ever-more-refined delicacies, while the fires of Hell burn just offstage and the courses are occasionally interrupted by the sound of low-flying planes. You have to admire the authors’ guts and imagination, not to mention the lucidity with which the construct every argument. But, as in last season’s O Jerusalem, there is only so much ground that can be covered in an hour and a half. As a kind of briefing on the issues that threaten to spin the world off its axis, Omnium Gatherum is certainly valuable, but I found it a bit unsatisfying.

Dinner is served in Omnium Gatherum. Photo: Joan Marcus

Will Frears’ production is top-notch, however, with an accomplished cast of debaters making their points forcefully. As the hostess, Kristine Nielsen deploys her mannerisms—she’s like a windup doll whose springs are about to burst—to good effect, although one of these days she’s going to have to rein herself in. David Rockwell’s highly imaginative setting—with its long dinner table, overbearing modernist chandelier, and textured walls—is a very stylish Hell, and Vincent Olivieri’s accomplished sound design fills the air with the sound of destruction. Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer’s lighting is notably restrained, providing a backdrop of satanically saturated colors. The costumes by Junghyun Georgia Lee are fine if not particularly noteworthy.

Whatever it's weaknesses, Omnium Gatherum towers over Recent Tragic Events, now at Playwrights Horizons. Craig Wright has ostensibly written a comedy about a blind date set on September 12, 2001: He is Andrew, an uptight bookstore manager; she is Waverly, a kooky ad exec who’s on edge because her twin sister, a New York resident, can’t be accounted for. But be warned: the play begins with a stage manager informing us that the events of the play are determined by a coin toss, but that is a lie, as she informs us at the top of Act II. This kicks off a long debate about free will vs. determinism, which is refereed by a sock puppet representing the novelist Joyce Carol Oates. (You read that right). In other words, Wright has constructed an intentionally forced, unbelievable dramatic situation, using it as a metaphor for a universe in which individual choice is trumped by destiny—it’s a technique that weds bad philosophy with bad writing, resulting in a really bad, bad time. Most critics have found fault with leading lady Heather Graham but even if she had the combined skills of Maggie Smith, Nicole Kidman, and Meryl Streep, she’d be hard-pressed to make Waverly into a plausible or appealing character; Linklater is remarkably good, underplaying Andrew to strong effect. As an annoying neighbor, Jesse Perez certainly is annoying.

Joyce Carol Oates, as you've never seen her before, in Recent Tragic Events. Photo: Joan Marcus.

Interestingly, Michael John Garces’ production is very well-designed. Adam Stockhausen’s setting is a fine example of naturalism that deconstructs spectacularly in the final moments. Kirk Bookman’s lighting is sensitively modulated throughout and Elizabeth Hope Clancy’s costumes are ideal for the characters. Scott Myers’ sound design includes a terrifying cacophony of voices and music at the top of Act I.

On to other social problems: An uneasy mix of satire and drama, Living Out focuses on an upwardly mobile Los Angeles couple who hire Ana, an illegal Latino immigrant to care for their infant daughter. In the view of playwright Lisa Loomer, this arrangement is the nicest, sincerest, friendliest form of exploitation. While lawyers Nancy (Kathryn Meisle) and Richard (Joseph Urla) worry about their careers and the mortgage on their Santa Monica home, Ana (Zilah Mendoza) and her husband Bobby (Gary Perez) struggle to make ends meet and to get their citizenship papers. Loomer constructs her story as a series of parallels--both ladies neglect their children and husbands for their jobs--as Nancy says sadly, “I have the right to do it all, and not do any of it very well.” In addition, their lives are riddled with lies—Ana doesn’t admit to Nancy that she has a son living with her; Nancy doesn’t tell Richard that Ana is illegal; Bobby hides his criminal record from Ana, and Nancy purchases a “nanny-cam” to spy on Ana. Loomer provides plenty of hilarious observations from both sides of the class divide: (“Everyone’s from El Salvador these days—what happened to all the Mexicans?” wonders one of Ana’s potential employers, while two of Ana’s colleagues offer devastating assessments of the different ethnicities of their employers). But Living Out suffers from repetition--there are far too many scenes of wealthy Gringos patronizing disempowered Latinas and Act II turns all too predictable, especially in a climax that turns on Ana’s son who (we have been told several times) suffers from asthma.

Zilah Mendoza and Kathryn Meisle deal with the servant problem in Living Out. Photo: Joan Marcus

Nevertheless, under Jo Bonney’s polished, confident staging, Living Out has plenty going for it. Mendoza is a knockout as Ana, using her radiant smile to cover an array of darker emotions. Meisle does a lot to humanize Nancy, a character who could easily grate on one’s nerves. Neil Patel’s setting, using orange scrims and modern furniture pieces, comes from the Playskool school of design—it facilitates the fast-paced staging, although it can’t provide any details about Nancy and Ana's relative standards of living. Anyway, it is appropriately lit by David Weiner. Emilio Sosa provides both wickedly, satirically chic costumes for the wealthy characters and seemingly authentic dress for the Latinos. John Gromada’s sound design provides bouncy Latin music and excerpts from PBS broadcasts to bridge the scenes. Overall, you have to admire the intelligence and tough-mindedness of Living Out, even when you’re a step ahead of its story.