Sunday, November 29, 2009

All Tied Up

As soon as someone hears the words bondage and discipline, a variety of intensely sadomasochistic images may rush through his mind. He may envision:
However, discipline can have a surprising breadth of meanings:
Two new films play with our understanding of the words "bondage" and "discipline." One is degrading, demoralizing, and extremely disappointing. The other is filled with magic, motivation, movement, and music.

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There is much about Serious Moonlight that is sinister, scary, and reeks of desperation. And that's just the film's pre-opening publicity campaign! After one has become accustomed to reading between the lines of press releases -- and easily notices gaping holes in interviews that are little more than puff pieces -- one starts to notice red flags.



As most cinema fans are aware, Adrienne Shelly was a very talented actor, writer, and director who was brutally murdered on November 1, 2006 in an apartment in lower Manhattan that she used as an office. Shelley had written, directed, and played a supporting role in Waitress (which had just been accepted as one of the films to be screened at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival). The timing of her death, as well as the circumstances surrounding her murder, were grievous, tragic, and deprived the entertainment industry of an important talent.

Although Waitress was well received at Sundance and went on to a successful theatrical release, Shelly left behind several other scripts which her husband, Andy Ostroy, has since been trying to bring to the screen. Following his wife's death, Ostroy also launched the Adrienne Shelly Foundation, whose website states that:
"Those who knew Adrienne knew her as wonderfully funky, spirited, funny, silly, and smart. She believed in spreading love wherever she went. She was a truly kind and beautiful soul, whose infectious smile illuminated everything around her. There was no one else like her.

Adrienne's passion in life was to make movies. She lived for her art; she never compromised her integrity or commitment to her vision. She always strived to help women obtain every opportunity possible to create their mark in film.

It is in the spirit of her passion and vision that The Adrienne Shelly Foundation has been established. We know that Adrienne would like us to do everything possible to help young women pursue their filmmaking dreams, and to assist others in making the same leap from acting to writing and directing as Adrienne had done so successfully.

In carrying out our mission, we've partnered with the industry's finest academic and filmmaking institutions to assist women in this journey with film school scholarships, production grants, finishing funds, and living stipends."
On August 3, 2009, thanks largely to Ostroy's efforts, the Adrienne Shelly Garden, which faces 15 Abingdon Square (the building in which Shelly was murdered) was dedicated to her memory. Ostroy was recently quoted as saying:
“When Waitress came out and was such a success, a lot of reviews referred to it as Adrienne’s ‘last film.’ So, it’s incredibly gratifying to know that audiences will now get to see another Adrienne Shelly story. When we wrapped, as we thanked everyone, I told the cast and crew how happy and proud Adrienne would’ve been, and that we made a film much in the same way she would have. And she would’ve loved that there were so many of the Waitress crew who came together to make Serious Moonlight. It was a true labor of love for so many people.”
I have no doubt that for Ostroy, director Cheryl Hines (who appeared in Waitress with Shelly), and everyone else who worked on Serious Moonlight, it was a very emotional project. But to market this movie as a comedy is nothing less than fraudulent advertising.

There may be some laughs during this movie but, for the most part, it is a very sad and angry story about some pathetically deluded people. This film is chock full of enough violence, sadism, and dysfunctional behavior to propel it into the category of marital and psychological terrorism. Far creepier than 1989's The War of the Roses (which starred Kathleen Turner, Michael Douglas, and Danny DeVito), Serious Moonlight focuses on the following four unhappy souls:
  • Louise (Meg Ryan) is a successful Manhattan attorney who is extremely feminine, aggressive, a bit of a control freak, and quite used to getting her way. A compulsive overachiever for whom failure is most definitely not an option, Louise has retained much of her physical beauty during the course of her marriage. Unfortunately, her unbearable narcissism and perfectionism have turned her into a highly successful albeit grandly unrealistic shrew.
  • Ian (Timothy Hutton) is Louise's husband, who is planning to leave her after 13 years of marriage and fly to Paris accompanied by the younger and prettier woman with whom he has fallen in love.
  • Sara (Kristen Bell) is the love object of Ian's midlife crisis: pert, pretty, and appropriately self-absorbed for her age.
  • Todd (Justin Long) is a venal, violent young man from the town near Ian and Louise's country home, who vandalizes their house and proceeds to take Ian, Louise, and Sara hostage. Todd and Louise might also share a nasty little secret.
Justin Long as Todd

The initial impression one gets from watching Serious Moonlight is that this was written and designed to be filmed on a very low budget (most of the action is limited to Louise and Ian's country house, a rural gas station, and the main street of a small town). In order to get the film financed, however, some box office names needed to be recruited for the project.

Having worked for several years as Larry David's wife on Curb Your Enthusiasm, Cheryl Hines (who had directed for television) makes her debut directing a full-length feature with Serious Moonlight. Justin Long is a rising young talent, familiar to the public from his appearances as the Mac guy in commercials for Apple computers. Kristin Bell has a strong following with the youth demographic and Timothy Hutton (the youngest person ever to win the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor) has always been a solid professional.

For much of the film, Hutton remains duct taped to a toilet in his upstairs bathroom. As Hines notes:
“We were shooting rather quickly so it wouldn’t be so taxing on him, but Tim was truly amazing. He wanted to be strapped down, even during takes where he didn’t have to be, just so he could be consistent for the other performers. He was very disciplined about staying in the moment, being that guy who’s in this ridiculous situation, so frustrated because he can’t move physically while being forced to change and deal with things emotionally.”
Facing reality can be a grim task in Hollywood, especially for women over the age of 40. It's a sure sign that bondage and discipline have gone mainstream when one of America's perkiest sweethearts, the ever adorable Meg Ryan, can't keep her hands off the duct tape.
  • There she is, using her remarkable aim to throw a flower pot across the room to knock her husband unconscious.
  • There she is, demanding that he love her again.
  • There she is, begging some trailer trash to keep fondling her tits as she dares Todd to mount her in front of her miserable, cuckolded, bound and gagged husband.
There's just one problem. Meg Ryan is horribly miscast as Louise.

The role calls for an ambitious, aggressive female attorney -- a lethally blonde bitch who firmly believes that the ends justify the means. Louise is the kind of manipulative, castrating cunt who doesn't hesitate to justify torture -- even when her husband (the object of her perverse campaign to revive the love that no longer speaks her name) is planning to leave her for a younger, prettier, and no doubt less annoying woman.

Louise (Meg Ryan) and Sara (Kristen Bell)

I found Meg Ryan simply unbelievable as Louise. Not even the film's final moments (a malicious postscript that raises a deeply disturbing question about Louise's amorality) can make her character credible as anything other than a psychotic, self-absorbed monster who will stop at nothing to get what she wants.

Should Serious Moonlight be marketed as a domestic farce? A romantic comedy? Not by a long shot.

One must then ask: Was the woman for whom this role is tailor-made unavailable? Did the director not notice her cute little beagle-like nose plastered all over television screens? Did Andy Ostroy fail to recognize the potential of her incessantly loathsome blonde media presence? Her appeal to a rabid audience, a clear demographic?

Did nobody think Liz Cheney could act? Or was no one in Hollywood willing to insure her?

Meg Ryan and Timothy Hutton

As devilishly contrived a hostage situation as Serious Moonlight might be, there are times when it feels like it would work much better onstage. Shelly's script captures the ugliest emotions of a wife who grasps that she is being replaced by a younger woman, but is determined to fight for her marriage. Unfortunately, Louise's battle of the bilge is about as credible as Captain Hook's vendetta against Peter Pan (the embodiment of youth).

While no crocodile is chasing after Meg Ryan, the Hollywood clock keeps ticking loudly as the actress nears 50 and tries to redirect her career toward more mature (and decidedly less perky) roles. I doubt Ryan's portrayal of Louise is going to help matters. Here's the trailer:

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Imagine, for a moment, that you're Gaston Leroux's legendary Phantom of the Opera. But instead of hiding in the sewers of Paris, you've discovered a way to become invisible so that no one will be terrified by your appearance or traumatized by the grotesque face that you've hidden for so many years behind a mask. What would you see as you roamed about the elegant Palais Garnier? How would the place have changed since its debut in 1875?

The answer can easily be found in Frederick Wiseman's exquisite new documentary, La danse - Le ballet de l'Opéra de Paris. While Wiseman's editing, direction, and sound design are what shape a great deal of this 158-minute behind-the-scenes exploration of one of the world's great ballet companies, it is impossible to underestimate the contribution of photographer John Davey, whose sensitivity to light, shadow, and theatrical lighting bring so much added texture and life to Wiseman's film. Watch the many still moments in which Davey captures the hidden life within this world-famous arts institution:
  • The play of light and shadow on empty stairways.
  • The eerie catacombs beneath the theater.
  • The baroque grandeur of the auditorium's furnishings.
  • The famous Chagall painting on the auditorium's ceiling.
  • The view from the stage when the theatre is empty (as well as during performance).
  • The views of Paris from the building's roof (as seen at different hours of the day during different seasons of the year).
While most audiences only experience the public spaces of the Palais Garnier while attending a performance, Wiseman's film takes viewers backstage on a tour of some surprising housekeeping details:
  • Vacuuming the individual boxes in the auditorium.
  • Mopping the lobby's marble floors.
  • Following the company's beekeeper to the roof as he empties the hives of their honey.
  • Watching dancers and administrators order lunch in the employee cafeteria.
  • Visiting the costume shops where ballet tutus are built, shirts are colored, sequins are glued to costumes, and the rat heads for a production of Tchaikovsky's famous Nutcracker are repaired.
Whereas most documentaries look to expert talking heads to render commentary on the importance of a business or industry, Wiseman instead lets the company's leaders be seen interacting with the artists:
  • Artistic Director Brigitte Lefevre and chief administrator Olivier Aldeano are seen advising dancers how the company will be negotiating upcoming changes in their retirement plans with the government (both the Paris Opera and the Paris Opera Ballet are on the government payroll). Lefevere is also seen on the phone discussing plans for a memorial service for choreographer Maurice Bejart, who died in 2007.
  • A former dancer who retired at 40 and became artistic director in 1995 (she now oversees 154 dancers, as well as 40 administrative and artistic staff members), Lefevre is also seen meeting with a younger dancer who fears that she may be taking on too much responsibility.
  • The company's top administrators are seen planning a series of special events for an American tour group consisting of major benefactors. Later, they are seen regaling their guests at a special dinner at their other performance venue, the Opera Bastille.
  • A choreographer who is new to the company is seen meeting with Lefevre as they lay a foundation for how they will choose dancers and work together on a new project.
  • The company's legal obligations after purchasing the rights to perform a certain ballet are outlined in a long-range planning session (repertoire must be planned three years in advance).
"A European opera house is like a small city. The bureaucracy is huge," notes Kathryn Bennetts, who is now artistic director of the Royal Ballet of Flanders. “Many people hated Brigitte, but at the same time they admired her. You have to be a tough cookie to survive there. Brigitte has a very keen intellect and a great sense of humor. In stressful meetings, when you sometimes think she is going to stand up and scream, she’ll just make a joke and defuse things. But she can snap things into order like a general.”

Wiseman's film includes rehearsal and performance footage from seven ballets:
Many dance documentaries make use of a spoken narration to focus on:
However, what comes across so beautifully in Wiseman's latest ballet documentary is the working environment in which dances are crafted onto dancers' bodies, the blazing intelligence being lavished on an art form, and the process by which a performing tradition is handed down from one generation to another. Under the guidance of ballet master Patrice Bart, we watch students taking class, rehearsal sessions for upcoming productions, as well as footage from live performances. As part of all this, Wiseman effectively captures:
  • The often wordless language used by choreographers to communicate with dancers.
  • A choreographer's eagle-eyed vision as he instructs a dancer how to adjust minute details in the positioning of her body.
  • Candid rehearsal shots which capture alternate dancers who are covering a role as they watch from the sidelines and silently move through the same motions.
  • The process by a which a dancer constantly hones his artistry and interpretative skills through careful observation, assimilation, and the application of his own intelligence and physical technique.
La Danse is not the kind of ballet documentary that tries to impress its audience with the magnificence of ballet as an art form, the historical importance of its legacy, or the brilliance of its performers. Instead, it offers viewers a fly-on-the-wall look at the day-to-day backstage life of a world-class cultural institution whose leadership must constantly remind its artists that, in today's economic climate, they can take absolutely nothing for granted. Here's the trailer: