Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Top Ten Signs You've Become an Angeleno

It's come as a small shock to realize that I've now lived in Los Angeles for a full year. Seems like only yesterday that I stepped out the doors of LAX realizing that for the first time in my life, I was here to stay, not to visit. I remember vividly the mixture of trepidation and bright-eyed anticipation that made even the most familiar aspects of the city - which I'd visited numerous times, especially as a kid - seem newly minted.

I'm happy to report that I took to L.A. almost immediately, and haven't had any reason to revise my opinion. Some things about this place I'm still getting used to, and some things I'll never get used to. That said, here is my best stab at capturing the things I *have* gotten used to:


10. It's 60 degrees out and you need a jacket.
9. A 20-minute drive is "close," but a 10-minute walk is "far."
8. You know the precise difference(s) between Westwood, West Hollywood, and West L.A. (And have a definite opinion on which you prefer.)
7. You feel naked without sunglasses.
6. It feels perfectly normal to add "the" before any freeway number. (E.g., "the 10," "the 405," the 101.")
5. You change cell phones like your wardrobe. (And cell phone rings like outfits.)
4. You are completely comfortable having a 15-minute conversation on the traffic...and a 15-second conversation on the weather.
3. Sushi and burritos have displaced pizza and Chinese in your diet. (Or else, like me, you've come up with a ready-made explanation for why you don't eat sushi or burritos.)
2. You pause when a friend asks you if it's necessary to write "New York City, NY" rather than just "New York, NY."
1. Flip-flops to work. Nuff said.

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Was This the Face That Launched a Thousand "Sith"?


directed by George Lucas
starring Ewan McGregor, Hayden Christensen, Natalie Portman, Samuel Jackson, Jimmy Smits, and old friends from Episodes IV-VI (Ian McDiarmid, Kenny Baker, Anthony Daniels, Peter Mayhew, Frank Oz)

The saga is now complete, and I have this to say:

Less is more.

Oh, it’s not that “Revenge of the Sith” is a bad movie. It’s riveting in parts, especially in the last half hour, and there’s something undeniably satisfying about seeing the final piece fall into place for those of us who grew up with Episodes IV-VI. And there is actually a pretty good story lurking in this final chapter of the (d)evolution of Anakin Skywalker into Darth Vader—or the elements of a good story, anyway.

Unfortunately, they’re all but smothered by two flaws that many others have pointed out before me: (1) Lucas’s obsession with CGI, which becomes as much a liability as an asset (2) Lucas’s *complete inability* to translate a good story idea into believable character development, especially through dialogue.

The second flaw is the more obvious of the two, if the frequent guffaws I heard from the otherwise-enthusiastic opening-weekend audience around me were any indicator. I don’t think I’m spoiling anything by revealing that the catalyst for Anakin’s fall is his desire to protect his wife, Padme (Portman), from dying. Fine, okay. I’d be perfectly willing to accept the premise that Anakin loses everything for love IF Lucas had established a love—and a threat to that love—that matched the enormity of its consequences.

But Christensen and Portman continue to interact like two dolls manipulated and ventriloquized by some eight-year-old who’s arbitrarily decided they’re supposed to be in love. Their romance is further undercut by the fact that Padme’s role is reduced from proactive queen in “Phantom Menace” to static senator/love object in “Attack of the Clones” to totally passive (and pregnant) damsel in distress here. Though Portman tries gamely to convey anguish and heartbreak, Lucas’s lead-footed writing prevents her from elevating the stilted pathos of her predicament into the kind of operatic tragedy that “Star Wars” requires. She doesn’t get much help from Christensen, who glowers sexily enough but delivers his lines of passion in the same monotone that he uses when talking to Obi-Won about deflector shields.

In fact, a truer tragedy—and more compelling story—lies in the dissolution of the relationship between Obi-Won (McGregor, ripened into a pleasing maturity) and his pupil, perhaps because we see it in the light of the final confrontation between Vader and his old master in “A New Hope.” There’s also some suggestion that part of Anakin’s inner conflict is due to his own ambition, and his anger at being relegated to the role of double agent between Supreme Chancellor/future Emperor Palpatine (a delightfully slimy McDiarmid) and the mistrustful Jedi (represented by Samuel L. Jackson, who’s never looked so stiff as he does in these films). This would have been a much more interesting angle to explore than the “all for love” line we’re expected to swallow instead.

Alas, Lucas—always more of an allegorist than a psychologist—insists on tying Anakin’s lust for power back to poor little Padme, who’s just too insubstantial (both literally and figuratively) to bear this burden. To borrow an idea coined by T.S. Eliot, there’s an objective correlative lacking here. So much so that it comes as a jarring disconnect when Darth Vader rises from the ruins of his former self and demands news of his wife. It’s a long way from “Where is Padme?” to “I find your lack of faith disturbing,” though the sonorous voice is the same.

As to Lucas’s other fatal flaw—his weakness for CGI—I can only repeat, less is more. Lucas has always said that when he made the original trilogy, he didn’t have the budget or the technology to realize his vision of “Star Wars” as he wanted it to be realized. He’s been busy making up for it ever since. But, at the risk of sounding like a Luddite, I have to say the original “Star Wars” may have been better movies precisely because Lucas had to make do with less. I think at this point I’ve become inured to all the technical razzmatazz that Industrial Light & Magic can throw at me, at least when it comes to droids, clones, space battles, and yes, even lightsaber duels. (More on that in a moment.) Too much of “Sith” felt like a giant, spectacularly animated video game, and that includes the Heroism of Master Yoda.

I know many, if not most, “Star Wars” fans think the sight of Yoda bouncing off walls and whooping major ass with his lightsaber is the coolest thing to hit the franchise since Boba Fett. Surely, though, I can’t be the only one who finds every bit of it—from his lightning-fast swordplay to the narrowing of his eyes, Clint Eastwood-style, as he squares off—utterly false, even ludicrous. What made Yoda so fascinating a character was the sense that his power was rooted in something far deeper than mere physical prowess. It was better that we couldn’t see what he was fully capable of, only catching a tantalizing glimpse when he raised Luke’s submerged plane from the depths of a Dagobah swamp. At the same time, visually, the puppet-Yoda had much more tangible physical texture, depth and, well, presence—gravitas, if you will—than the smoothed-out, there-but-not-quite-there CGI-Yoda of Episodes I-III.

My curmudgeonly quibble extends beyond Yoda. The fights in the prequels generally are about ten times more physically dazzling than those in Episodes IV-VI. They’re also about ten times less emotionally charged—with the single exception of the final, furious showdown between Obi-Won and Anakin, which takes place on a lava-covered planet that puts “Lord of the Rings”’s Mount Doom to shame, and is the only fight that’s a genuine nail-biter. I couldn’t escape the feeling that a large part of what Lucas put into the prequels was to please fans of the original Star Wars who, in the interim, have come to expect much higher-level visual effects—the result being a premium on surface *cool* at the expense of *soul*. And even though Lucas supposedly conceived the prequels at the same time as, or perhaps even before, the making of the original trilogy, his attempts to integrate characters from the later episodes into the prequels are too strained to be anything but sops to the fans. (See, e.g., Boba Fett in “Attack of the Clones.”)

That tendency is at its laziest and most half-assed in “Sith.” It’s one thing to have C3PO and R2D2 as recurring minor figures that (somewhat improbably) connect the two trilogies, but then why give them next to no role of any significance in “Sith”? Same goes for the totally gratuitous appearance of Chewbacca and his fellow walking carpets as unexpected allies of Yoda. Goodness me, it just so happens that everyone who knows each other now will meet again in twenty years! I suppose one might say it’s the Force that surrounds us, penetrates us, and binds all living things together...but to me, this kind of connectedness just reinforces my sense that Episodes I-III are really sequels, not prequels. Sure, they’re worth seeing—but do your kids a favor and insist that they watch Episodes IV-VI *first*. Only then can they even begin to understand what all the fuss was about.

RATING: ** 1/4

Favorite tie-in moment with “A New Hope”: Obi-Won, throwing away a blaster he’s just used to dispatch a villain, mutters “How uncivilized.” (In “A New Hope,” he discourses to Luke on the superiority of the lightsaber to a blaster: “An elegant weapon for a more civilized time.” I just remember that because of Alec Guinness’ diction.)

Favorite tie-in moment with “The Empire Strikes Back”: Anakin to Padme, echoing a much later invitation to Luke: “Together we can rule the galaxy as king and queen.” (Or something like that.)

Ok, so I’m a closet Star Wars geek. What can I say.

Saturday, May 21, 2005

"Kontroll" Proves Elusive, "Hitchhiker" an Easy Ride


directed by Nimrod Antal
starring...oh, who am I kidding, I don’t know their names. A bunch of Hungarian actors.
released in 2003, but now showing in limited release in the United States

“Kontroll” is a hard film to describe, let alone summarize. Believe me, I’ve tried. “It’s a neat little Hungarian movie,” I say to one friend, lamely. “It’s like ‘Run Lola Run’ meets ‘The Seventh Seal’,” I say to another. The worst is when I try to explain what the movie is *about*: “See, it takes place in the subways of Budapest, and it’s about these ticket inspectors, and, uh...it’s kind of surreal. ”

Well, “Kontroll” does take place in the Budapest subway system, where it was actually filmed, and it does focus on the ticket inspectors (or controllers, as they’re called) who make their living there. These inspectors seem less like controllers, however, than like Morlocks. Divided into squads of four or five strong, they fan out into the different trains to make sure no one’s scamming the public transportation system. Wan and unshaven, sporting red-and-black armbands with a disconcerting fascist vibe that contrasts sharply with their slovenly attire, the underlings perform their duties with a mixture of weariness and zeal, swagger and skulk, insolence and subordination to the ominous “suits” in charge. Occasionally, one of them snaps, slits a throat, and sends a shiver of terrified empathy through the rest.

The film unfolds largely from the perspective of one of the grunts, Bulscu, a dark, brooding thirtysomething who seems simultaneously out of place and eerily at home in this milieu. In fact, Bulscu doesn’t appear to have a home outside of the subway; he sleeps there, furtively, at night, wanders and races down its labyrinthine passages during his off hours, and, like a vampire, never seems to see the light of day. But we get hints—though never more than hints—that Bulscu had a previous existence, and a rather successful one at that, aboveground. We also get hints of a potential romance with a fetching girl who rides the subways in a teddy bear costume. (Yes, you read that right.) And then there are Bulscu’s brushes with an array of underground antagonists, including a leering rival team leader who looks like Clive Owen’s sleazy brother; a fresh-faced, fleet-footed prankster known only as “Bootsie”; and a menacing hooded figure who may be pushing various unfortunate passengers to their deaths on the subway tracks.

But the plot is ultimately of little consequence; “Kontroll,” despite its underlying mystery and genuinely thrilling chase sequences, is more of a mood piece with vaguely metaphysical dimensions. Why exactly Bulscu is inhabiting the subways is the one question on which the movie turns, and which it deliberately leaves open. A chance encounter with someone from his past suggests that his self-imposed exile is a gesture of existential angst, the same that afflicts his fellow controllers. Yet it’s also overladen—quite self-consciously, judging from the director’s half-tongue-in-cheek, half-serious introduction to the movie—with heavily allegorical imagery, from the hooded Darth Sidious-like figure who disturbs Bulscu's solitude to the character who appears in the garb of an angel near the very end. Are Bulscu’s nemeses merely manifestations of himself, that he must vanquish before he can find his way out of the infernal regions? Is Teddy Bear girl the Beatrice to his Dante? When was the last time Bulscu had a bath? (That, sad to say, was the one thought that kept dogging me throughout the movie, especially as his fights, races, and other confrontations took increasing toll on his grooming habits.)

Which is only to caution against etherealizing a movie that is pretty firmly rooted in the gritty, offhand violence of post-Tarantino noir. “Kontroll” is also grounded by Bulscu’s ragtag team of misfits (there’s the big goofy guy, the wise geezer, the sardonic little guy, and the youngun who bears a faint resemblance to Chad Michael Murray), by the pulsing Euro-rock soundtrack, and, of course, by the subway system itself. Dank, grimy, and unforgivingly lit, it makes all the revolutionary forays of today’s CGI junkies look as artificial as they really are. Yet the subway also takes on a meaning and identity of its own, far more enigmatic than any of the absurdist human players who flit like lost souls through its seemingly endless corridors, which elevates “Kontroll” to something greater than the sum of its parts.




directed by Garth Jennings
starring Martin Freeman, Mos Def, Sam Rockwell, Zooey Deschanel, Alan Rickman (voice), John Malkovich, Bill Nighy, others

Despite my earlier rants on the subject, I concede that CGI-heavy movies can still be most entertaining, as “Hitchhiker” proves. That said, the reason “Hitchhiker” flies is not its effects, which look well enough without overwhelming, but its easy, freewheeling faithfulness to the veddy British, half-wry, half-lunatic humor of its source. Viewers should understand, from the outset, that it this in no way, shape, or form an action/adventure flick. Rather, it’s a romping verbal and existential comedy dressed up for fun in the guise of a galactic fantasy. As someone who read the first three books in the Douglas Adams series when I was about twelve, and haven’t read (or reread) any of them since, I can’t speak to either its accuracy of adaptation for the devotee or its accessibility to complete neophytes. What I can say is it’s a hoot, thanks in large part to the spirited performances of its cast (Rockwell and Malkovich are particular standouts) and its fearless embrace of the Improbability Drive. Sure, it flags a little towards the end, and sure, the romance cooked up between Freeman’s perpetually bemused Arthur Dent and Deschanel’s free-spirited Trillian, was probably unnecessary. But “Hitchhiker”’s great virtue is that it never makes the mistake of taking itself too seriously. No critic should, either.

RATING: ** 1/2

Friday, May 20, 2005

The O.C: Final Report

Well, ya know what they say about seeing a gun in the first act...

Why does "The O.C." always end its season on a downer? This one was at least more dramatic and less lugubrious than last year's, but still...Just when you thought it was safe to go into the Cooper family, or to breathe easy for Ryan and Marissa, BANG! Literally.

Not that there was much doubt Trey was dead meat as soon as Ryan found out what he did. The twist, of course, was that it was Marissa who pulled the trigger. I think I've abandoned all hope of those two ever having a normal, well-balanced romantic relationship. It just ain't happening. Twisted romantic relationships make better TV, I guess.

As do unhappy families. What did Tolstoy say about happy vs. unhappy families? (I seem to be quoting the Russians a lot today. Well, they did know a thing or two about drama and byzantine familial relationships.) How ironic is it that season 2 should end with the Coopers as the unified, well-adjusted family, and the Cohens torn apart at the seams? Seth's preemptive comment notwithstanding, the whole rehab plotline really did feel like an after-school special. It was SO obvious that Seth would end up joining in the intervention, and that Kirsten would capitulate when he did. I think we can count on her being safely detoxed by the end of the summer, though who knows...She's looking like skin and bone these days, somehow, though she was always thin.

Speaking of unhealthy thinness - plus a lot more trashiness - the most disturbing moment by far in tonight's episode came during a commercial break. I'm referring to Paris Hilton's ad for Carl's, Jr., which, to me, truly signals the end of western civilization. I won't even try to describe it - it has to be seen to be disbelieved.

Tonight also marked the end of an era in T.V. drama, as Dr. Carter (Noah Wyle) doffed his scrubs, for good, on the season finale of "E.R." It was a quiet, almost anticlimactic exit, but I liked it that way. It seemed more realistic, somehow: the E.R. doesn't stop just because one doctor leaves. I also liked the way the writers incorporated memories and stories from Carter's earliest days in the E.R. - all the way back to 1994, when he was a total greenhorn. Hearing Anthony Edwards' voice and seeing glimpses of George Clooney et al. made me all misty-eyed with mid-late '90s "E.R." nostalgia. The show's still good, mind you. But those days - the days when "E.R." was hands-down the best show on T.V., and a kind of religion with me - are gone. Even after my devotion faded, I always said I'd watch the show until Carter left. And so, good night, "E.R." It's been a great run.

N.B: I would like to point out that Noah Wyle is NOT the last member of the original cast to leave "E.R." Sherry Stringfield hangs on as Dr. Susan Lewis. But Susan was never the same when she returned after the hiatus. The old Susan was my favorite character on the show; I never really warmed to the one who came back.

Saturday, May 07, 2005

California Dreamers Strike Derby Gold

I begin this entry with a quote from Bobby Frankel, trainer of one of the horses that ran in this year's Kentucky Derby.

"Can a Santa Anita Derby horse win this race?" Frankel was asked.

[Note for the uninformed: Santa Anita is the most famous race track in California, and the Santa Anita Derby one of the more high-profile prep races for the Kentucky Derby.]

"I don't want to hurt anybody's feelings, but the answer is no," Frankel replied. "That race was like everything else in California racing, subpar."

The quote was part of a longer Los Angeles Times article headlined "It's Looking More Like West Toast...Santa Anita Horses May Be in Over Their Heads," discussing the weakness of the California horses this year that were running in the Derby. There were four of them in a total field of 20. None of them was considered to be an even remotely likely contender; all were running at odds of over 20-1.

Well, whaddya know: one of the reviled Santa Anita Four came from behind to dominate Churchill Downs this afternoon. Giacomo, who went in at 50-1 odds, scored one of the biggest upsets in Derby history, having previously won only once in six starts. (He was apparently promising as a maiden, but never met expectations...until today, when he wildly exceeded them.) The other three Californians came on strong in the homestretch, and though none of them were on the board, they all finished in the top six.

The heavy favorite to win, Bellamy Road, owned by George Steinbrenner (grr), faded to seventh. First the Red Sox, now a California upstart - guess there really are some things money can't buy. :-) (Oh wait, that's the Master Card tagline, not Visa. Whatever.) I feel bad for Nick Zito, though...five entries and he came up empty-handed. But to my mind, that's what happens when you spread yourself that thin...

Of course, conventional wisdom has it that the best horse *doesn't* always win. Favorites almost never win. And I'm no expert on horse racing - what little knowledge I have comes from reading far too many Black Stallion books between the ages of 8-12. But I do watch the Triple Crown every year (on T.V. anyway: some day I hope to go to the actual races, especially the Derby), and I *have* developed a little California pride, despite being an East Coast emigrant. So all I have to say is: go Giacomo!

Oh, and how did Bobby Frankel do? His horse, High Limit, finished dead last.

No hard feelings at all, pal. None at all.

SIDE NOTE: One of the finest Kentucky Derby books ever, in my humble opinion, happens to be one of the aforementioned Black Stallion books: The Black Stallion's Filly by Walter Farley. Yes, it really is that good. As you might guess, it's about the Black Stallion's first daughter - a temperamental, undersized, unraced thing - who's trained by the Black Stallion's trainer & jockey as a long shot for the Derby...and, well, you can guess where this is going. But it's still a surprisingly riveting read, and builds high drama right up to and through the most grueling two minutes of a young horse's life. It's also a highly informative inside view of the horse racing world, despite having been published over fifty years ago. Ironically, the favorite to win the Derby in "The Black Stallion's Filly" is a flashy California horse, who of course crashes and burns spectacularly in the last quarter. Anyway, it's a worthwhile read, and not just for girls going through a horse phase: I'd recommend it for adults, too, who either enjoyed "Seabiscuit" or are curious about all the work, drama, and preparation that goes into the oldest and most celebrated horse race in America.

Friday, May 06, 2005

The O.C. Report

Oh, Trey, Trey, Trey...I wanted so much to like you, but instead they're sending you down the Oliver path...Just what we need, another psycho. Things are gonna get ugly - especially once Ryan finds out the truth.

(You'd think, incidentally, that Caleb Nichols would have better security around his house. But evidently not.)

So "The O.C." goes all dark on us now. Tonight's double-header should've been called "Secrets and Lies." (Or: "It Must Be Sweeps Month.") Lots of people hiding lots of bad things. Lots of suspicions and doubts being the predictable result.

Kirsten's crash - literally - wasn't nearly as much of a shock as it was calculated to be. Her drinking's been a red flag since day one, and it was just a matter of time before it precipitated a plot crisis. It's when she shifted from wine to vodka that you knew she was approaching the edge. Sandy to the rescue!

No, the real shock was Marissa's near-rape. That was a genuinely disturbing sequence, as was the later scene of her making out with Ryan. As if she hasn't gone through enough to mess her up for two lifetimes. That girl just seems to attract drama...or rather, trauma. And now it looks like she's going to be thrown out of her own house, along with Madame Cooper-Nichols, unless the latter successfully seduces or poisons her husband. Never underestimate la Julie - she'd make a fine Clytemnestra. However, the previews have teased us before on her criminal capacity: she didn't really shoot the porn-video guy, so I doubt she'll actually bump off her own husband. Rather, it sounds like she may try to drug him for long enough to make their marriage pass the one-year mark. The one thing of which I'm certain is that neither Julie nor Caleb will go quietly. I read somewhere that Jimmy Cooper makes an appearance in the season finale, so maybe that will throw another wrench into the works.

Meanwhile, battle is pitched between Seth and Zach, as the latter goes over to the dark side. That one may smile, and smile, and be a villain...I'm disappointed, I have to say. I liked Zach, much more than I liked Trey, and now both are turning out to be evil.

On a lighter note, the spring break in Miami had to be one of the more clumsily contrived plot threads this season, even for "The O.C." But it was still amusing, even if it failed to deliver on what looked like a sure bet for a knockdown brawl on South Beach. Instead, we're left with no more than a whipped-cream facial for Seth (who deserved it for sheer stupidity alone) and a gratuitous swipe at Bob Jones University. However, I did love the sight of Seth yukking it up with the seniors on the shuffleboard court...and Sandy being a good watchdog for his mama.

Line of the week: "Miami. Miami? Miami. Miami."

In other TV news of the week: Scott Savol finally exits "American Idol." Good riddance. Looks like the final two will probably be Bo and Carrie - though I'm proud of my girl Vonzell for bringing it this far.

Also, an excellent episode of "Lost" Wednesday night - well worth the wait. Nice parallelism between Sayeed's past and present, and a thoughtful use of topical themes, i.e., the psychology of terrorism, divided loyalties, etc. I liked that Sayeed didn't make the same choice (mistake?) twice. Naveen Andrews is an awesome actor, and I thought that the actress who plays Shannon was better than usual. (Even if she still looks like she's at the spa rather than stranded on a desert island. With what, pray, does she keep her eyebrows so well trimmed?) And I loved the whole silly little plot thread involving Claire's baby and Sawyer's voice. It was just the right level of comic relief.

Ok, enough from me. In the words of the immortal Ryan Seacrest...LYLEE OUT.

Tuesday, May 03, 2005

She Walks in "Beauty" Like a Man...

I recently joined Netflix, and a natural side effect is going to be the occasional full-length DVD review. Emphasis on *occasional*. When it strikes my fancy. When work's not a biatch, as it was last week...


directed by Richard Eyre
starring Billy Crudup, Claire Danes, Rupert Everett, Tom Wilkinson, Ben Chaplin, and a buncha other Brits

“Stage Beauty” slipped into theaters last fall with little fanfare and exited with even less. Its greatest claim to Hollywood fame (or notoriety, which often comes to the same thing) was the reported off-set affair between its two stars, Billy Crudup and Claire Danes, which resulted in Crudup splitting up with his longtime girlfriend—the incomparable Mary-Louise Parker—when the latter was seven months pregnant. The ill-timed romance may have alienated at least some portion of the movie’s target audience. Which is a shame, because that audience was small enough to begin with.

For “Stage Beauty” is clearly aimed at the same sector of moviegoers who fell hard for the dazzlingly witty wordplay, literary self-referentiality, and pan-sexual gender-benders of “Shakespeare in Love.” Set in 17th century England, during the reign of Charles II (Rupert Everett, dapper as always), the film centers on the rise and fall of Ned Kynaston (Crudup), an actor celebrated in his day for playing women onstage—Desdemona being his particular specialty. This, of course, was when the women’s roles were still played by men. But then one day, at the urging of his saucy mistress, King Charles (yes, he of the spaniels) reverses the edict, ordering that women’s roles be played by women—and only by women, leaving poor Ned high and dry. He can’t play a man; he’s been trained since boyhood to play women, and the quasi-feminine gestures and mannerisms he’s learned by heart have become so ingrained in him that he actually sees himself as a woman trapped in a man’s body. The film probes the question of whether in fact it’s the other way around. Not that Ned is gay, exactly: “Stage Beauty” subscribes to the notion that sexuality was more fluid in those times, and his is less a function of his natural “orientation” than his theatrical role-playing.

Meanwhile, it’s an ill wind that blows no good to someone, and that someone is Ned’s devoted dresser, Maria (Danes), who’s spent her life watching him and longing to act herself. She seizes her chance, only to find that she’s an abysmally bad actress. And why? Because she doesn’t so much act as imitate Kynaston in monkey see, monkey do fashion. She’s a woman playing a man playing a woman. Only when Kynaston is enlisted, unwillingly, to coach her, do they begin successfully exploring the dynamics of masculinity and femininity and how that might translate onstage.

This is juicy stuff for anyone who’s ever studied English literature or theater, or both. That said, what sounds absolutely fascinating as a conceit on paper comes across as somewhat cramped and plodding in execution. Partly because it lacks the dippy charm and breathless romanticism of “Shakespeare in Love,” “Stage Beauty” never really takes off. It feels like an adaptation of a B+ senior thesis on gender and metatheatricality in English drama. As such, it suffers by comparison with Stoppard and Norman's inspired fantasia on those same themes. Maybe that's why I hardly raised an eyebrow at the way “Shakespeare in Love” played fast and loose with its historical and biographical facts, yet while watching “Stage Beauty,” I just couldn’t swallow its central proposition—namely, that Ned shifts overnight from the most mannered, artificial acting style possible (what we today would consider “bad” acting) to the kind of “naturalistic,” Method-esque approach that he develops through working (and playing) with Maria. Brando lives—over two hundred years before he was born.

My unwillingness to suspend disbelief is no fault of the actors, who are all quite good. Crudup’s name may now be Crud in the books of Mary-Louise Parker fans (and I count myself among them), but he delivers a remarkable performance here, considering he’s not quite pretty enough to be a convincing woman. Don’t get me wrong, he’s a good-looking, delicate-featured guy, but he’s just not really androgynous. Still, there's real poignancy and grace in his portrayal of a man struggling to define his own identity. Danes acquits herself well, even if her accent is a bit too refined for someone of her presumably modest social station. (Though who knows what the Brits actually sounded like back then.) The other players, especially Everett and Tom Wilkinson as Ned’s costar and business partner, provide solid support and a touch of dry wit that’s conspicuously absent in the deadly earnestness of the leads.

There’s much to admire about “Stage Beauty,” and perhaps I shouldn’t compare it to “Shakespeare in Love.” It’s a meditation of a soberer hue, though there’s an overripeness, almost a rottenness, about its milieu that again contrasts sharply with the cheerfully dirty, freewheeling exuberance of the Rose and Curtain. Perhaps it reflects the difference between the Elizabethan and Restoration eras; I don’t know enough about either period to say. I do know that as a portrait of transition—artistic, historical, and individual—“Stage Beauty” is as thought-provoking as it is ultimately unsatisfying.

RATING: ** 1/2