Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Ripeness is (almost) all: Ian McKellen stars as Lear

Royal Shakespeare Company
directed by Trevor Nunn
starring Ian McKellen, William Gaunt, Romola Garai, Jonathan Hyde, others
at UCLA's Royce Hall
through October 28

King Lear is, hands down, Shakespeare’s darkest tragedy. None of the others, with all due respect to Hamlet, Macbeth, Othello et al., comes even close. Lear, to put it elegantly, is a fucking scary nightmare vision of old age—of power turned to impotence, senility to madness, filial duty to callous ingratitude, or worse, abandonment. There’s also something almost postmodern about the play’s bleak sensibility, in its depiction of individuals trapped in their subjectivities (no one in Lear ever really connects, at least not for more than a few fleeting moments) and a universe ungoverned by any semblance of moral order or other centralizing force. Existence comes off as one cosmically absurd joke, as the hideous pain and malice the characters inflict on each other seem wildly out of proportion to either the provocation or the expected gain.

Because it taps so deeply into our subconscious fears, and because it is, in so many ways, about the breakdown of forms, Lear is a play that tends to resound more easily in the imagination than on the stage. And although I wish I could report otherwise, the touring Royal Shakespeare Company production directed by Trevor Nunn and starring Ian McKellen is no exception to the rule. Not that it isn’t a perfectly respectable production. But that’s just the problem: respectable isn’t transcendent, and am I wrong to expect a little bit of transcendence from Nunn and the RSC?

Perhaps the real disappointment is not finding it in Sir Ian’s performance, which has already received its share of raves. It’s certainly technically proficient, and Lear, make no mistake, is one of the most challenging roles ever written for the stage. It practically mandates years of experience—both in real life and in the theater—and there’s no question that McKellen has got the years, and the chops, to master it. Yet something about the character’s terrible, haunting power eludes him, or rather eluded me as I watched him. I never once lost the sense that I was watching a part being performed, and as a consequence felt oddly detached from even his most impassioned and most broken moments. Some part of this may have been due to my position in the balcony (I envied the lucky souls who’d managed to snag the seats flanking the stage) or to Royce Hall’s limitations as a performing space. Acoustically, it seemed to muffle or even swallow up the difficult late-Shakespeare syntax. Though it didn’t appear to diminish the excellent sound effects.

Still, there’s undeniable pleasure to be had in witnessing an expert at work. McKellen is particularly effective at conveying, from the outset, the peremptory, almost puerile irascibility of an aging man who may already be not quite in his perfect mind. It makes his transitions to foaming rage, childlike resignation, and back to rage again, that much more believable. As for that famous scene on the heath where McKellen drops trou, I have little to say except yes, the text supports it, though, in the words of one of my friends, “there are many bad Gandalf’s staff jokes to be made.”

The rest of the cast is capable and unexceptional, with only two standouts from this general level of competence—one good, one bad. The first, veteran William Gaunt, is outstanding as the duke of Gloucester, whose tragic arc both echoes and informs Lear’s own. The second, Romola Garai, it pains me to say, makes a rather poor Cordelia. An experienced film and TV actress for someone so young, Garai’s shown a winsome screen presence and no small talent in the acting department; indeed, there’s early Oscar buzz for her supporting turn in the upcoming “Atonement.” Here, however, she pitches the character of the dutiful daughter all wrong, falling back on a permanent tremolo to express everything from indignation to sorrow to love. Watching Cordelia’s reunion with Lear, I couldn’t help being distracted by the marked contrast between McKellen’s thespian skills (in that one scene he’s perfect, playing Lear as, all of a sudden and simply, an old, old man) and Garai’s (still just trilling away). By contrast, Lear’s last scene with Gloucester is extremely affecting, because the two actors are so well matched.

Production values are good without being elaborate: the set, in particular, is bare bones, though the costumes—suggestive of imperial Russia—are luxurious. There’s nothing particularly imaginative in the staging, although Nunn definitely imposes his own interpretation of the Fool’s fate at the end of Act V. The company proves its old-school training in the knock-down, table-turning swordfight in the last scene, which is about as close to the real thing as most of us are likely to get. It’s very well-executed, without being anything especially new or eyebrow-raising. For better or for worse, the same might be said about the production as a whole.

Monday, October 22, 2007

"Mad" About AMC

The best new show of 2007 just wrapped up its first season last week.

Yes, that's right. And given the stats, it's more than likely you weren't watching it. But you should have been.

I'm talking about AMC's original series (yep, you read that right), "Mad Men," about a group of men and women employed at a fictional New York advertising agency circa 1960. What's the big deal? Well, first and most obviously, it captures the flavor and look of the period down to the smallest detail, from the super-slicked hair of the men to the dress curvatures of the women to the ubiquitous cigarettes and martinis in the hands of both. Everything looks crisper than crisp, exquisitely stylized and at the same time vibrantly alive. Yet it keeps nostalgia in check by depicting with equal sharpness the less attractive aspects of a world on the verge of massive and still-unanticipated social changes - a world where sexual harassment and condescending treatment of women were de rigueur, minorities were invisible, homosexuality deeply closeted, the Surgeon General's warning a distant prospect, and children allowed to put plastic bags over their heads and left unattended in cars while their parents ran errands.

Perhaps more importantly, "Mad Men" (created by Matthew Weiner, a writer and executive producer for "The Sopranoes") creates characters who are flawed, often unlikable, yet intriguing, multilayered, and recognizably human, and weaves their storylines seamlessly into the historical and cultural backdrop of their times. (Among other things, season 1 spins some fascinating variations on themes from Ayn Rand and the Nixon-Kennedy election runoff, giving them a subtle and thought-provoking resonance with the character arcs of the ad men.) The show's writers aren't afraid to give us entire episodes that are rather quiet, perhaps even a little inert in terms of plot, but teeming with unspoken undercurrents and character development just beneath the surface. And for every "slow" episode, there's at least one that crackles or even explodes; I've yet to see a finer hour of TV this year than the penultimate episode of season 1, "Nixon Versus Kennedy."

So first chance you get - I believe season 1 begins re-airing on AMC in November - you should eat this one up, before it's time to tune in next summer for season 2. If you're not hooked right away, give it time; this is definitely a series that creeps up on you.

In other news

...never thought I'd ever write this, but I'm a little sad that the Red Sox are headed for the World Series. My loyalties were divided from the start of the ALCS, as I was born in Boston, raised near Cleveland, then returned to Beantown for college and, later, for law school. But ten happy childhood years living by the "Mistake on the Lake" had their impact, and all other things being equal, I tend to root for the underdog. So deep down I was pulling for the Tribe, politically incorrect mascot and all.

Still, now that it's a done deal, I can resume cheering for Curt Schilling and crew. Sorry, Colorado, yours is an inspiring tale, but my heart beats for the Bosox. Except when they're playing the Indians.

Who is "Michael Clayton"?


directed and written by Tony Gilroy
starring George Clooney, Tom Wilkinson, Tilda Swinton, Sydney Pollack

Although no one could possibly call “Michael Clayton” an adult film (though a man – not George Clooney, alas – does get naked), there’s no question that it’s a film made for adults. As such, it feels oddly out of sync with a Hollywood culture that seems increasingly obsessed with the fantasies and fixations of adolescence, especially male adolescence. At the same time, it doesn’t quite belong to this fall’s bumper crop of political movies (“In the Valley of Elah,” “Rendition,” “Lions for Lambs,” etc.) that tackle thorny moral issues raised by terrorism and the Iraqi war, though some critics have put it in this group and labeled the entire group a throwback to post-Watergate conspiracy theory classics like “The Parallax View,” “Three Days of the Condor,” and “All the President’s Men.”

“Michael Clayton” is the closest in spirit and style to those ’70s milestones, and writer-director Tony Gilroy has made no secret of their influence. Indeed, one of the main characters (played by Tom Wilkinson) is clearly a reworking of Howard Beale, the mad oracle of “Network.” But “Michael Clayton” isn’t really a paranoid thriller—or to the extent it attempts to be, it’s serviceable but not nearly as effective as the films it invokes. At its heart, and where it works best, it’s a psychological portrait of a man who’s all but succumbed to the Man, when external events force him to reconsider.

Clooney stars as Clayton, a “fixer” in an elite New York corporate law firm. A former litigator, he now functions, in his own words, as the firm’s janitor, pulling strings and calling contacts to clean up problems that crop up in the course of business – whether the firm’s or its clients’. A doozy of a problem arises when a colleague, senior partner and top litigator Arthur Edens (no symbolism there, I’m sure), goes off his meds and has either a meltdown or an epiphany, depending on your point of view, in the middle of the billion-dollar class action suit he’s defending on behalf of U North, a giant agrochemical manufacturer accused of poisoning unsuspecting Midwestern farmers. After several years and thousands of billable hours, Arthur strips naked in the middle of a deposition and begins referring to himself as “Shiva, god of death” and doing everything possible to screw over U North in the case. Enter Michael Clayton, who’s called in by the firm’s managing partner (Sydney Pollack) to bring Arthur back to the fold and reassure the understandably concerned client.

Michael is supposed to be phenomenally good at his job, but we don’t see that in evidence here, perhaps because he’s approaching the end of his own personal tether. He makes no headway at all with Arthur, who soon goes awol on him, and does nothing to soothe the ruffled nerves of U North’s general counsel, Karen Crowder (Tilda Swinton). Then again, it’s doubtful anything could have soothed down that one, knowing what she knows, and what Arthur apparently also knows. It turns out, as Michael eventually discovers, that crazy Arthur may have been on to something that U North is willing to pay any price to hide.

The overall arc of the plot is nothing new, and the film’s pacing is too measured to deliver any sustained sense of urgency. Gilroy does deliver an occasional pulse-quickening jolt and some genuinely tense sequences—though nothing that comes close to the drawn-out suspense of the “Bourne” movies, which he scripted. But again, “Clayton” is less a thriller than a study of human beings as cogs in a machine, all suddenly thrown off balance when one detaches itself and falls away. Shot in cool and sober hues and less-than-flattering light, the film underscores the contrast between the sleek trappings of their lives and the grim emptiness, or worse, that yawns beneath. And even though Michael is the moral and narrative center, the story is really a foursquare portrait of the individuals most affected by Arthur’s revolt, and the choices they’re forced to make as a consequence.

For this reason, perhaps, “Clayton” in some ways feels more like a string quartet than a solo, and fortunately all parts are expertly played. Clooney, ironically, may be the weakest link, and he’s still very good. He gives fine shading to his role as a talented but flawed man who sold out over the years, only to gamble away much of the tangible rewards for doing so. I didn’t, however, quite buy him as someone whose indispensability lay in his ability to fly under the radar. Oddly, he was more convincing playing similar types in “Syriana” and “Good Night, and Good Luck.” Maybe it’s because he looked schlubbier in those films; but more than that, there’s something too abrasive, too sardonic, about his performance here, even if one assumes that Michael, too, is on the verge of a crackup. My friend Nick Davis, in a very insightful review of the movie, has suggested that an actor like David Strathairn might have been better suited to the role, and I’m inclined to agree. Weary and embittered as Michael Clayton must be, one expects from the construction of his character that he would internalize his bitterness more than Clooney does here.

Suspension of disbelief proves much easier with the rest of the cast. Pollack, who’s likely to be unjustly overlooked, is excellent as Michael’s dryly amoral boss, and looks more like a law firm partner than some law firm partners I know. Certainly more so than Wilkinson, who has to wrap his tongue around oratory that veers from unhinged to inspired and back again, and who still seems to be struggling with the American accent. But there is one scene, with Michael in an alleyway, in which Arthur snaps briefly back into focus and shows a glimpse of the ruthless litigator he once was. It’s shiver-inducingly good, and Wilkinson’s shift from vague distraction to hard-eyed lucidity in the space of those fleeting moments is masterful.

The real standout among all these standouts, however, is Swinton, who totally inhabits the persona of the corporate counsel who’s subsumed herself wholly to the corporation. We see her performing the part impeccably for the public, but we also see her offstage, sweating heavily and rehearsing obsessively for those performances. Somehow, Swinton manages to convey, simultaneously, imperturbable professional poise and the tautness of a string drawn so tight that it’s ready to snap at any moment. She may be the enemy, but she is also in some sense merely a performer who simply doesn’t know what to do when those around her stop performing. “Michael Clayton” poses the question of whether it’s ever too late to break free of a role you’ve spent your entire life perfecting. The most obvious answer is the one we’re rooting for, but perhaps the true strength of the film is the perceptiveness with which it presents the alternatives.

Clooney: B+
Wilkinson: A-
Swinton: A
Pollack: A-

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Around the World in 13 Years...

Why do I fall for guys like this?

I think it's for the same reason I love the movies. It's the irresistible attraction of adventures or other experiences that most of us, in our quietly comfortable (or uncomfortable) existences, only dream about or view from afar.