Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Argo and Sweet Bird of Youth

Hello friends. Been a while. I apologize for my lack of blog entries. Life has filled up with about a million things in the past few weeks, and I have felt somewhat overwhelmed. I'm gonna try to be more consistent moving forward.

Got to see Argo last week, and, for my money, it more than lives up to the hype. Ben Affleck has, once again, proven himself to be one of the most talented new directors in the business. He's done it by embracing (and never more so than in Argo) a 70's-style ascetic. He tells stories, and allows the art and craft to be in how well, and how economically, he tells them. I tell you, when the 70's Warner Brothers logo was used to begin this film, I was over the moon.

I'm, going forward, not going to spend a lot of time on plots here. You can easily find out the plot of Argo, if you wish to, and I (perhaps egotistically) feel that my thoughts on the subject are more interesting than rehashing the storyline. Argo is the true story of a CIA operation to rescue a small group of Americans from Iran during the hostage crisis, by disguising them as a sic-fi film crew.

The story is compelling and it's astounding that such an audacious plan was put into play. Yes, it's clear that many of the third act twists and turns are likely augmented in order to ramp up tension and build to a satisfying climax. It's not unexpected, and with the sheer quality of filmmaking on display, not unwelcome. The groundwork that is established, the reportedly very accurate early scenes, give Affleck all the room in the world to stick the landing as a truly satisfying thriller. .

The cast is terrific, top to bottom. Alan Arkin and John Goodman are clearly having the time of their lives sending up every Hollywood cliche in the book. The scenes between them and Affleck, setting up the cover story for the operation, are pure gold. Affleck, too, just nails his central role. It's not flashy, it's a quiet, contemplative performance, and a reminder of why he became a star.

The simple fact is that I loved this film, and fully expect to see it nominated for Best Picture. It just simply is a terrific, old-style Hollywood thriller smart, funny, and fulfilling. It'll keep you on the edge of your seat, and not insult your intelligence.

It's a must-see.

Also saw Sweet Bird of Youth at the Goodman on Sunday.

I'm a Tennessee Williams fan, but Sweet Bird is a play that has, in the main, escaped me. I don't recall ever having read or seen this show before Sunday night. So I was not overly expecting anything, except a Tennessee Williams play. On that level, it delivered, with a suitably southern charm covering a dark underbelly, and some sharp one-liners and turns of the phrase.

However, David Cromer's production didn't score completely, for me. Some of the performances are lovely, I found Diane Lane wonderfully fun (and thankfully less take-your-breath-away gorgeous than on the Goodman's poster - which seemed wrong - the character is more worn-down than the image suggested) as Princess Kosmonopolis, and most of the supporting cast was top notch.

What I didn't like was some of the technical wiz-bang that Cromer employed. I felt that many of these bold technical choices, while I admired the audacious creativity, weren't adding up to a cohesive vision. With a ginormous live projection of Ms. Lane's face as she read lines facing out a window, as well as several other characters at various times in the show. It's a choice that worked better at some points than others, but also was not used enough to feel organic to the production.

We also had a third act set that rotated, and rotated, and rotated. The set became the show, and Finn Wittrock's Chance Wayne was lost, which is really a crime because that character is the driving force of the show. The third act is about him losing control of the web of lies and tall tales he's built around himself, and finding out that he's just a gigolo. Cromer's production, it's about a big rotating set, and a camera light that occasionally blinds the audience. Chance may be losing control, the choice may be to symbolize him becoming lost, but the audience is losing him, too.

I was especially perplexed by the odd video footage of incredibly fit men diving that was projected on the curtain between the two scenes of the first act. The imagery has a strange, soft core porn feel (which makes some sense, as it's covering a sexual encounter), but the convention never returns for the rest of the show.

The less said about the moment where turning on a lamp switches the set from (apparently) broad daylight instantly to dusk, the better. I spent probably five minutes, not paying attention to what was happening on stage, but trying to figure out why that happened.

I also felt like Finn Wittrock is a fine actor in a role that I think he's not quite right for. Chance Wayne is said, in the script, to be 29. Wittrock, whatever age he actually is, looks about 24, and a very clean, beautiful 24. I found myself thinking that we should see more of the cracks in his beauty. There's a desperation in Chance's actions that doesn't seem as motivated if he's still as beautiful as Wittrock, clearly, is.

I know that Paul Newman originated this role, and that image came to me a lot (completely unfair to Wittrock, I fully admit). Newman was beautiful, but he also had rough edges, he was worn down. Perhaps the idea that it's more Chance's fear of his decline than his actual decline, but that didn't really come across, either. It's a problem that I can't really lay at Wittrock's feet, he plays the moments well, I suspect that I'd find him to be absolutely lovely in the part a few years down the road.

I was also less than enthralled with William's final speech from Chance. It's one of those moments where the playwright feels the need to have a character explain to you how you should, ultimately, feel and react to them. Always troubling for me, because it speaks of a playwright who didn't trust the actor to get the point across.

The show is worth seeing, for the performances, and a layman audience might just let the odd visual choices just wash over as spectacle. I fully admit, as a practitioner, I likely think about this stuff way too much.

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