Seen at the Movies:

Unlike other Coen Bros. movies, Intolerable Cruelty has several names listed under the story and screenplay credits; apparently, rather than an idea they originated, it’s a somewhat more commercial movie-for-hire for the filmmakers. Yet this extremely entertaining, cold-blooded romantic comedy is filled with touches bearing the unmistakable mark of Ethan and Joel Coen’s brand of sick slapstick. The story, co-authored by Robert Ramsey, Matthew Stone, and John Romano, is of a crack L.A. divorce lawyer (George Clooney) who meets his match in golddigging husband collector Catherine Zeta-Jones. The beautiful stars spar and romance in high style, drafting and tearing up several prenuptial agreements in the process, while cuckolded costars like Edward Herrmann and Billy Bob Thornton are picked off one by one. The great cast also includes Geoffrey Rush as a ponytailed soap producer, Cedric the Entertainer as a hilariously indiscreet P.I., Richard Jenkins as a rival attorney, and Jonathan Hadary as one of Clooney’s trusty surprise witnesses.

Intolerable Cruelty. Photo: Melinda Sue Gordon/Universal Pictures.

Intolerable Cruelty, like all Coen Bros. movies, looks great, though here Roger Deakins’ cinematography is more conventionally high-key than usual. Production designer Leslie McDonald provides a parade of swank settings, from elegant law offices to Beverly Hills mansions on the decidedly gauche side of town. Costume designer Mary Zophres looks to have raided every Rodeo Drive boutique to dress the cast, though the series of sleek, low-slung, and glittering creations for Zeta-Jones’ character would clearly fit nobody else. Intolerable Cruelty also boasts the best sight gag I’ve seen in a very long time, and its black wit is pure Coen Bros.

Meanwhile, at the New York Film Festival, Centerpiece entry The Fog of War will highlight this weekend. This Errol Morris documentary is aptly billed as a “cinematic dialogue with the conscience of Robert S. McNamara,” Secretary of Defense under Kennedy and Johnson during the Vietnam years. Morris sits the 85-year-old McNamara down in front of his Interrotron—the director’s patented interviewing machine, which allows the subject to maintain eye contact with both the camera and interviewer—and lets him talk. And talk he does, not only about Vietnam, but about the World War II firebombing of Tokyo, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and other 20th-century benchmarks. What emerges is a portrait of brilliant mind struggling with the moral ramifications of his participation in some of America’s darker moments, and a rather despairing look at humanity’s inexorable pull towards war. Though Morris engages in some standard formal fanciness, dividing the film into 11 “lessons,” and ladling Philip Glass over the soundtrack, for me this is by far his most effective work. Directors of photography on this clean, handsome piece of film are Peter Donahue and Robert Chappell.

The Fog of War. Photo: Sony Pictures Classics.

Meanwhile, my vote for the most astoundingly beautiful cinematography so far this year goes to Harris Savides, for his work on Gus Van Sant’s Elephant, the Cannes Palme d’Or winner that also plays the festival this weekend. This impressionistic day-in-the-life of a high school has engendered most of its attention and controversy because the day it’s depicting just happens to erupt into Columbine-style violence. Van Sant is not interested in providing explanations for this contemporary social phenomenon. He views the tragedy as it must seem while unraveling—a visitation of the inexplicable on the mundane. And most of Elephant is concerned with the mundane, as Savides’ camera follows the non-professional young cast members in long, long tracking shots through the halls, classrooms, and playing fields of a Portland school. The movie, shot in 1.33:1 format, the more squarish aspect ratio of pre-1950s filmmaking, is like a poeticized version of Frederick Wiseman’s great documentary High School.

Elephant. Photo: HBO Films.

Another strikingly shot festival film is David Mackenzie’s Young Adam, based on Scottish writer Alexander Trocchi’s Beat Generation classic. The 1950s-set story is of a drifter (Ewan McGregor) who obtains work on a canal barge and commences an affair with the wife (Tilda Swinton) of the bargeman (Peter Mullan). The film opens with a woman’s body being fished from the Glasgow waterway, and through a series of abruptly introduced flashbacks, we come to understand that the dead woman is McGregor’s former girlfriend (played by the exceedingly lovely Emily Mortimer). Though Mackenzie conjures a great mood, and it’s interesting to watch the talented cast enacting a series of morose sex scenes, something has been lost in translation from page to screen—I never felt like I “got” it. DP Giles Nuttgens does a superb, painterly job with the night mists on the canals, the barge interiors, and the wet Glasgow back streets, and the late postwar rationing period is conveyed with admirable subtlety by production designer Laurence Dorman and costume designer Jacqueline Durran. The plaintive music is by David Byrne.

Finally, Claude Chabrol’s The Flower of Evil is a so-so entry from the French master. It’s a portrait of a prominent provincial family with a shadowy past dating back to the Occupation, about which more than one secret lies hidden behind the benevolent façade of old Aunt Line (Suzanne Flon). The movie’s present focuses on a run for local office by Line’s niece Anne (Nathalie Baye), the scoundrel doings of Anne’s second husband Gérard (Bernard Le Coq), and the return from America of Gérard’s son Francois (Benoit Magimel), who picks up where he left off with Anne’s daughter Michèle (Melanie Doutey). There’s a lot of plot and character history here, and for much of the film’s length I was vaguely bored and wondering what Chabrol was up to. Never fear—the maestro of bourgeois blood-letting does not let us down in the end. The film is nothing special to look at, though DP Eduardo Serra achieves Chabrol’s desired sun-dappled mood that turns pitch black. The family house is decorated in appropriately fussy style by art director Francoise Benoit-Fresco, and the oh-so-tasteful costumes are by Mic Cheminal.--John Calhoun

Flower of Evil. Photo: Palm Pictures.

Seen Off Broadway: It’s male-bonding week Off Broadway. In The Night Heron, at Atlantic Theatre Company, English playwright Jez Butterworth presents the case of Wattmore and Griffin, a pair of losers living in a tumbledown shack on the fens near Cambridge. Both have left their jobs gardeners at Cambridge University under mysterious circumstances. They’re hard up for money, so Griffin takes in Bolla, an intense, overweight, female ex-con, who upsets their lives. I see that this is a rather thin plot description—I’ve left out the blackmail, the pedophilia, the violent offstage attack, the holy icon, the religious cult, the cub scouts, the title bird, the Scandinavian tourists, the verse contest, the poems by Marvell and Shelley, and the naked young man lying comatose on the floor. That’s because, even though I more or less followed Butterworth’s tale, I haven’t the faintest idea of what it all means. According to the press release, it is “a searing and compassionate tragicomedy about the possibility of salvation.” Fine with me: I can say that the dialogue is often amusing in a prickly, Harold-Pinter kind of way, and there are strong performances from Chris Bauer as the lost-soul Wattmore, Clark Gregg as the ever-enterprising Griffin, and an unrecognizable Mary McCann, outfitted in bulging blue jeans and a rat’s-tail shag haircut, as Bolla. Neil Pepe’s production features one of the most notable designs I’ve seen this season: Walt Spangler’s setting, a rotting, claustrophobic woodpile, tilts menacingly in face of the audience (there are also occasional onstage rainstorms) and Tyler Micoleau’s eerie lighting uses low-level beams from strange angles to heighten the mood. Scott Myers’ superbly detailed sound design blends various effects (bird wings fluttering through the auditorium, dogs barking, cars) to create a sense of the world beyond the setting. Laura Bauer’s costumes feel accurately authentic to the location. If you see The Night Heron, drop me a line and let me know what it was about.

The Night Heron. Photo: Carol Rosegg.

From the opaque to the transparent: Richard Dresser’s easygoing, crowd-pleasing comedy Rounding Third is a study of middle-aged men who escape from life’s disappointments by coaching Little League baseball. Don (Robert Clohessy) is the head coach, an unhappily married housepainter and former high school star who channels all his energy into building a winning team; Don is overbearing, superstitious, obsessional (he won’t change his socks during a winning streak), and he’s not above a little cheating now and then. Matthew Arkin is his new assistant, Michael, a khaki-clad suburbanite who thinks the kids should play for fun, and who never misses a chance to deliver a neatly framed life lesson the assembled team. It’s a match made in Purgatory as these two proceed to get on each other’s nerves. Nothing much happens, however; Dresser is mostly interested in getting laughs by making odd-couple comparisons between the two men. Act II neatly reverses the situation as Don must attend to his collapsing marriage and his son’s defection to the school musical, while Michael gets a major case of baseball fever. What’s unusual, and admirable, is Dresser’s refusal to sentimentalize the relationship—over the course of two hours many secrets are revealed involving death, loneliness, and broken marriages, but tears are not encouraged, and this is one comedy that isn’t going to end in a big hug. Rounding Third is a fairly routine two-hander, but least you’re in the care of professionals: John Rando’s fluent direction keeps a tight rein on the sentiment and both Clohessy and Arkin are superbly at ease in their roles, earning their laughs with a minimum of fuss. Derek McLane’s Astrotuf-covered setting is an evocative and melancholy creation and F. Mitchell Dana’s lighting efficiently reconfigures the stage from scene to scene. There are some nicely understated sound effects by Jill B. C. DuBoff. Linda Gordon is credited (way in the back of the Playbill) as costumer coordinator and her work is most appropriate. Overall, not a home run, but a solid ground-rule double.

Rounding Third. Photo: Bruce Glikas.

There’s male bonding, too, in Touch, at Women’s Project and Productions, but it plays second fiddle to the main action of Toni Press-Coffman’s play: Tom Everett Scott stars as Kyle, an astronomer whose life spins out of control when his wife, Zoe, is murdered. Kyle’s best friend Bennie, his sister-in-law Serena, and a helpful prostitute named Kathleen all try to help him mourn, but it’s a tough job, as Kyle is caught in a limbo of grief and guilt. Unfortunately, Press-Coffman’s writing has an ickily sentimental New Age spin, which makes everything in this tale seem false. Kyle’s lengthy account of his idyllic marriage is barely plausible (they married at 18, then he went on, with no money, to a brilliant academic career), and the action gets less and less likely: the scene, late in Act I, in which Kyle reads the poetry of Keats while Bennie digs up Zoe’s body (don’t ask where the police are) is positively repellent. That the play remains watchable at all is entirely due to Loretta Greco’s no-nonsense direction and finely detailed work by Matthew Del Nigro, Yetta Gottesman, and Michele Ammon, as, respectively, Bennie, Serena, and Kathleen, respectively. Scott deploys his considerable charm and technical skill in the all-but-impossible role of Kyle; he even does well with the punishing half-hour monologue that begins the piece. It’s all for naught: Touch, is a precious bore. Michael Brown’s set, a black box with hanging globes representing, I guess, the planets, seems awfully drab at first, then makes a lovely transformation when the action moves to the desert and a night sky is revealed. Similarly, James Vermeulen’s lighting (which is almost entirely from side positions) takes a while to come into its own. Costume designer Jeff Mahshie, a Seventh Ave professional here taking a flyer on Off Broadway; has done very attractive work. Robert Kaplowitz’s music and sound effects are capably done. Touch wants to give you a good cry, but it gave me the creeps.--David Barbour

Touch. Photo: Carol Rosegg.