Seen at the Movies:

The 41st New York Film Festival closes Sunday night with Alejandro González Iñárritu’s 21 Grams, a complex, exceedingly heavy work from the director of Amores Perros. This first English-language film from the Mexican filmmaker stars Sean Penn, Naomi Watts, and Benicio Del Toro, and like Amores Perros, it brings three distinct storylines together through a central auto accident. The non-linear structure keeps you on your toes, and the movie is undeniably gripping, though Iñárritu’s style and concerns (the title, for instance, refers to the amount of weight a person loses on death—is it the weight of the soul?) are a bit fancy for my taste. But, if for no other reason, 21 Grams demands to be seen for the acting: the three principals deliver blistering, tour-de-force performances. Watts in particular seems to be baring her insides for all to see.

21 Grams. Photo: Focus Features

The film is mostly shot in Memphis, which remains unidentified, but provides an interestingly unfamiliar backdrop to the story. DP Rodrigo Prieto, who also shot Amores Perros, and has gone on to do sensational work in such American productions as Frida, 8 Mile, and 25th Hour, gives 21 Grams a visual structure almost as complicated as the narrative. Predictably, the film was processed in bleach bypass fashion, but what Prieto and production designer Brigitte Broch do with color schemes and textures is often strikingly unpredictable. Costume designer Marlene Stewart does an excellent job of delineating the three main characters’ very different class and social backgrounds.

Briefly, other films in the concluding week of the New York Film Festival have included: Crimson Gold, from Iranian director Jafar Panahi, a disturbing story of socioeconomic inequities shot with great immediacy by Hossain Jafarian; Turkish writer-director-cinematographer Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Distant, a Cannes prize winner that tells a city cousin/country cousin story in extremely laconic style and with handsomely composed images; Denys Arcand’s The Barbarian Invasions, the Canadian director’s follow-up to his 1986 The Decline of the American Empire, shot in similar icy style by Guy Dufaux, and with a cast of Montreal intellectuals that has grown even more annoying over the intervening years; and Julie Bertuccelli’s charming Since Otar Left, a beautifully acted French film about the loving yet deceitful relationship between three generations of Georgian women who eventually converge on Paris. Emmanuel de Chauvigny, one of France’s top production designers, does a particularly fine job conveying Tbilisi’s very faded Old World grace.

Distant. Photo: New Yorker Films.

In addition to festival Centerpiece The Fog of War, two other documentaries are well worth seeing when they receive American distribution. Sebastian Dehnhardt’s Stalingrad, made for German television, is a comprehensive two-and-a-half-hour look at the decisive Eastern front World War II battle, marred only by a hastily slapped-on English-language narration. And Bright Leaves, the new personal essay by Sherman’s March director Ross McElwee, is a thoroughly engaging (if rambling) consideration of the tobacco industry in the filmmaker’s native North Carolina. In his own idiosyncratic fashion, McElwee, who shot the movie himself, delves into everything from family history to smoking-related illnesses to the romance between Gary Cooper and Patricia Neal (who appears briefly). Bright Leaves is shot on film, a fact that drew applause—which McElwee jokingly attributed to Kodak representatives--during the public screening’s Q&A session.

Moving away from Lincoln Center, it’s time to weigh in on Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill: Vol. 1. As you may have heard, the director’s long-awaited fourth feature was divided in half due to length (Vol. 2 will appear in early 2004). As you also may have heard, Kill Bill is outlandishly gory, entirely movie-referential, and fairly disreputable—and I more or less loved every minute of it. Uma Thurman is the unnamed hot-under-the-collar yet cooler-than-cool Bride seeing out the assassins who mowed down her wedding party and left her for dead. She chases down Vivica A. Fox to suburban L.A., and she follows Lucy Liu’s trail to Tokyo; still to come are co-assassins Daryl Hannah and Michael Madsen, not to mention head honcho Bill (David Carradine). The movie is all about kung fu and samurai movies, spaghetti westerns and sexploitation—a stew of genres given that secret Tarantino spice for freshness. Hating it would be a perfectly valid response, but the filmmaker’s flair cannot be denied. And who else would give such loving attention to Uma Thurman’s tootsies?

Uma Thurman is the bride of vengeance in Kill Bill. Photo: Andrew Cooper/Miramax

Technical credits are top-notch all the way. DP Robert Richardson does indulge his trademark hotspot style to some extent, but the film is mostly a marvel of clean, pop-art imagery. Production designer David Wasco does a great job with the American scenes, but the heart of this chapter is designed by Yohei Tanada, a Japanese designer who oversaw construction of the film’s beautiful, stylized House of Blue Leaves and snow garden sets in Beijing Film Studio. It is here that the climactic marathon battle between Thurman and yakuza leader Lucy Liu’s numerous minions takes place, and fight choreographer Yuen Woo-ping gets to really strut his dizzying stuff. This is also the goriest sequence, courtesy of special makeup effects company K.N.B. EFX Group, which hits the perfect note of lurid cartoonishness with decapitations, limb hackings, and voluminous blood sprays. Speaking of cartoons, one whole sequence was created by Japanese anime company Production I.G., apparently with Tarantino’s close participation. The fantastic work by costume designers Kumiko Ogawa and Catherine Marie Thomas deserves special mention, from Thurman’s sleek one-piece fighting outfits to Liu’s misleadingly demure traditional Japanese garb and Hannah’s bizarre white ensemble outlined in black Magic Marker. Also, dig the RZA’s eclectic score, cobbled together from obscure soundtracks and even more obscure international bands.

From the ridiculously sublime to the merely ridiculous, Runaway Jury is standard John Grisham fodder enlivened by such actors as John Cusack, Dustin Hoffman, Gene Hackman, and many others in smaller roles. This time the courtroom drama revolves around a civil suit against a gun company, which dips into deep pockets to hire an unscrupulous jury “consultant” (Hackman). The high-tech surveillance center set up by this enemy of American freedoms and fair play has to be seen to be believed. Let’s just say I didn’t buy one moment of this overplotted film, but director Gary Fleder does keep it moving, and the New Orleans setting is, as ever, colorful. The highly professional craftsmanship on display is also thanks to DP Robert Elswit, production designer Nelson Coates, and costume designer Abigail Murray.--John Calhoun

Seen Off Broadway: The new show at the Century Center for the Performing Arts is called Beckett/Albee, but an equally good title might be Seldes/Murray; one guesses that few theatergoers are interested so much in revisiting these one-acts by Samuel Beckett and Edward Albee as they in basking in the tart, invigorating wit of stars Marian Seldes and Brian Murray (both of whom, not so long ago, had a triumph in this very theatre starring in Albee’s The Play About the Baby.) Seldes is often viewed as a high-comedy camp, but here she’s riveting in Not I, Beckett’s stream-of-consciousness monologue, performed only her lips visible to the audience. Her grand way with a gesture is put to good use in Footfalls, an eerie piece in which an elderly woman appears to confront the ghost of her mother. (In one way, Seldes is a bit of an undermining presence here; Beckett’s plays are about loss, death, the gradual wearing away of everything; at 75, Seldes is such a lively, physical, hilarious presence that she seems to have defied the strictures of time.) Murray is less convincing in A Piece of Monologue, though his shattering cries of “Birth!” certainly reverberate through the theatre. The main event of the evening is Albee’s Counting the Ways, a series of tiny, but witty, scenes depicting a marriage in late-middle age—it’s essentially a vehicle for the two stars to exercise the same arch comedy that powered The Play About the Baby and they do not disappoint. Seldes, in particular, makes Albee’s minimalist dialogue reverberate with hilarity. The star’s partnership is a pure pleasure; these are brilliant technicians, the likes of which we may never see again.

Beckett/Albee. Photo: Carol Rosegg

Catherine Zuber provided the scenery as well as the costumes; her scenic work, a collection of panels, arches, and platforms, seems to come from the school of Douglas Stein. She has come up with a bizarre-looking yet thoroughly appropriate outfit for Seldes to wear in Footfalls--think of medieval rags made of sea foam, and you’re on the right track--and has dressed both stars in flattering, haute-WASP clothing for Counting the Ways. Michael Chybowski’s’s lighting casts an eerie gray pall in the Beckett works; for Albee, the look is crisp and bright. Mark Bennett and Ken Travis’ sound design creates the unsettling sound of footfalls for Footfalls; they also bridge the many scenes of Counting the Ways with music. I can guarantee that these difficult playwrights have never been so much fun.--David Barbour

Seen in Brooklyn: The 2004 Next Wave Festival is in full swing at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) and this year’s program is full of wonderful performances of old favorites and newcomers. I was delighted to see Ballett Frankfurt in the BAM Opera House, although the exuberance of their performance was somewhat dampened by the news that the city of Frankfurt has cut their funding and the company might disband. I hope that doesn’t happen, for, as the BAM performances showed, this is one of the best contemporary ballet companies on the planet. Choreographer William Forsythe designs his own stage and lighting design with costumes by Stephen Galloway, or in one case by Forsythe himself. This is not your traditional ballet company and it is not traditional dance lighting either. In fact, the opening piece The Room As It Was, was performed on a set with side panels that seemingly blocked all side light. Instead, there were ETC Source Fours in the upper-box-boom positions to light the downstage portion of the stage, leaving upstage less bright in comparison. A black drop hung at mid-stage raises well into the piece when the music begins, revealing a gray drop upstage, and there seems to be more overhead light at this point. In Duo two dancers wear sexy black costumes and perform their duet under three fluorescent fixtures near the front edge of the stage (the lights also illuminate the front rows of seats). N.N.N.N. was performed on the same stage configuration as The Room As It Was with a gray background and the dancers once again under high side light and casual clothes, almost as if they were on a playground practicing their moves. The closing piece One Flat Thing, reproduced had a large ensemble of dancers with 20 long tables (four deep by five across), as if in a classroom or factory setting. Accompanied by throbbing electronic music, the dancers fling themselves over, under, and across the tables with alarming speed and physical dexterity, and are lit by two giant single sources hung at either end of a truss just in front of the proscenium top edge.

Ballett Frankfurt. Photo: Jack Vartoogian.

Over at The Harvey Theatre, I saw two productions so far: an odd take on Shakespeare’s Henry IV directed by Richard Maxwell, and Bobrauschenbergamerica, by Charles Mee, directed by Anne Bogart. The Henry IV is a boiled-down version the two plays (I would have sworn it was rewritten as well but Maxwell claims every word is in the original script, except one... but the editing gives it a very contemporary air). The sets were designed by Stephanie Nelson and consist of a series of at least seven very simply painted drops that set the scenes. These range from a tavern interior to army marquees out under the trees. The lighting by Jane Cox is unusual as well, as the house lights never go off, and there are very few cues in the lighting which consists of a large square truss over the stage with rows of just large striplights. The costumes by Kaye Voyce are vaguely from some historical period, with velvet and gold braid, but Falstaff’s costume sets the tone for the entire production: you first see him lying on the floor with a belly as large as a pregnant woman. When he stands up and turns around, you see that his tunic does not close in the back and that the thick white fat padding is showing. No pretense, not really rooted in reality; this production is rather tongue-in-cheek. Unfortunately many people walked out the night I was there, but they missed an evening of good fun. The deadpan delivery of the text actually clarified a rather confusing plot and if you let them amuse you, the actors were very amusing.

Henry IV. Photo: Richard Termine.

Also surprisingly amusing was Bobrauschenbergamerica. a piece which premiered at the Humana Festival in March 2001. Anne Bogart is not always light and humorous but this piece makes the most of Mee’s script--the concept being that this is a slice of Americana pie, a look at the people and places that would have influenced artist Bob Rauschenberg in his formative years. The set by James Schuette is a giant American flag that runs across the floor and up to create the facade of a clapboard house in Texas, with a single lightbulb placed in each of the star field. For the preset, the flag is covered by drop cloths, as if in an artist’s studio. Various props include a bathtub and a stuffed deer wearing a pink tulle tutu. Schuette’s costumes range from a flowered bikini for a young woman to a flowered housedress with apron for Mom, who is forever whipping up the next meal, and who reminds us that art was not a part of their lives (yet son Bob clearly saw a collage of objects that in his mind was art). Lighting designer Brian H. Scott used various colors and intensities to change the mood of the scenes, often going to a bright white that echoed the bright mood of the piece. There are also more reflective moments about relationships, love, and the question of time and space when the light becomes softer, and embraces the characters. The sound design by Darron L. West includes some great songs, from country to disco (I think they could sell CDs of the soundtrack) and the characters are often dancing to the music. One of the funniest scenes features the bikini-clad woman as she spreads a large, clear plastic sheet on the stage, then pours an entire bottle of gin onto it, followed by a whisper of vermouth, and a jar of olives. She then dives into her giant martini and her trucker boyfriend rips off his jeans and Harley Davidson T-shirt and joins her rolling around on the wet plastic and eating the olives. Another scene depicts a yard sale, with a shiny chrome toaster playing a leading role. Mee and Bogart have distilled a period in American life into a one hour and 45 minute (no intermission) piece that is at once funny and thoughtful.