Monday, November 2, 2009

You Can Run, But You Can't Hide

Other than the folks who get off on being bound and gagged, nobody likes the feeling of being trapped.
  • Trapped in a bad relationship.
  • Trapped in a conversation you can't escape.
  • Trapped in a seminar that is boring you to death.
  • Trapped in a crowded, noisy bar when you're not even having a good time.
  • Trapped in circumstances that prevent you from moving on with your life.
  • Trapped on a plane that's been waiting on the tarmac for an unreasonable length of time.
  • Trapped in the kind of nightmare where, as hard as you keep trying to escape from the person (or thing) that is coming after you, you can never seem to leave them behind.
When the pressure starts to build, it's easy to think that the world is conspiring against you, and that your paranoia is fully justified. More often than not, the odds really are stacked against you. Consider the following:

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The Coen Brothers are known for writing and directing quirky films that reek of paranoia. From the ominous and creepy Barton Fink (1991) to the riotously deadpan Fargo (1996); from the epic scale of O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000) to the barren landscapes of No Country For Old Men (2007) and the sheer idiocy of Burn After Reading (2008), they have a proven track record as highly effective storytellers. Whether writing tragedy or the blackest of comedies -- even when their films mystify audiences -- the Coen Brothers sure do know how to entertain people.

Their latest offering, A Serious Man, begins so strangely that it is easy to question whether you accidentally sat down in the wrong cinema. As a lonely Jew and his horse walk through the snow gently falling near a Polish shtetl, the Coens explore a classic Yiddish fable about the man who met a learned rabbi and invited him over for some soup only to be told by his wife that the rabbi had, in fact, died several years ago and that the person he met was actually a dybbuk.

Shot with exquisite beauty, performed in Yiddish with English surtitles, and blessed with Fyvush Finkel's radiant performance as the dybbuk, this segment alone is worth the price of admission. The fact that the rest of the movie is brilliant is almost beside the point. As the final credits scroll by on the screen, those who have stayed behind will notice a line that reads: "No Jews were harmed during the making of this motion picture."

Like many Coen Brothers films in which insult is constantly added to injury, Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) is a rather bland Midwestern schlemiel who has done absolutely nothing to merit the serial miseries that fall on his tired shoulders.
  • Larry is waiting to find out whether or not he will get tenure at the university where he teaches science.
  • Larry has an Asian student named Clive (David Kang) who, in his refusal to accept a failing grade, keeps uttering cryptic comments like "Mere surmise, sir," which, if he spoke better English, might contain a veiled threat.
  • Larry's brother Arthur (Richard Kind), who suffers from a sebaceous cyst on the back of his neck, is under surveillance by the police.
  • Larry's 13-year-old son Danny (Aaron Wolff), is fast approaching the day of his bar mitzvah. Danny, who is constantly complaining about the poor reception that prevents him from watching F Troop, has also secretly been placing orders with the Columbia Record Club.
  • Larry's bratty daughter Sarah (Jessica McManus) desperately wants a nose job.
  • Larry's sullen wife Judith (Sari Lennick) wants a divorce so she can marry their recently widowed friend, Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed). When Ableman dies in an accident, Judith thinks Larry should pay for the funeral. She also insists that Larry and Arthur move out of the home and live at the nearby Jolly Roger Motel.
  • Larry's doctor expects the x-rays he's taking to be negative, but just wants to be sure.
  • Larry's search for guidance leads him to three supposedly wise men who offer him no help whatsoever: Rabbi Marshak (Allan Mandel), Rabbi Nachtner (George Wyner), and Rabbi Scott (Simon Helberg). Rabbi Nachtner, however, does share with him the bizarre and mysterious tale of "The Goy's Teeth."
While much has been written about the film's surprising lack of self-loathing, a few points should be made about A Serious Man. As it moves from the poverty of a Jewish shtetl to the blandness of the Midwestern plains -- and from the tacky 1960s interiors of the homes and offices in Larry's community to the vividness of Gopnik's tortured dreams -- the cinematography by Roger Deakins is simply glorious. Jess Gonchor's production design coupled with Deborah Jensen's art direction add stunning layers of texture to each shot.

Most actors relish an opportunity to work with the Coens, and the results are obvious in the beautiful performances delivered by Michael Lerner as Solomon Schlutz, Adam Arkin as a divorce attorney, and Amy Landecker as the pot-smoking, deadpan seductress, Mrs. Samsky.

Rachel Tenner's superb casting of local Minnesotans provides some magnificent cameos from Andrew S. Lentz as an adolescent boy who can't stop cursing, Ronald Schultz as a Hebrew school teacher, and Claudia Wilkens as Rabbi Marshak's secretary.

A Serious Man is a film of rare beauty, surprising depth, and the kind of blatant theatricality that proves as mystifying and mystical in its moments of silence as it is heartbreaking and hilarious when people speak. The Coens do a stunning job of framing suburban alienation and contrasting it to Jewish hysteria. Here's the trailer:

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Far more poignant -- and not the slightest bit funny -- is Philippe Lioret's Welcome, which was recently introduced to Bay area audiences by the San Francisco Film Society during its French Cinema Now mini-festival. Set in the French port of Calais, Welcome puts a human face on the plight of Arab refugees struggling to find a future.

The protagonist is a 17-year-old Iraqi Kurd (Firat Ayverdi) who is trying to get to London so he can be with his girlfriend, Mina (Derya Ayverdi). When his attempt to be smuggled into England in a truck along with fellow refugees Zoran (Selim Akgul) and Koban (Firat Celik) fails, Bilal comes up with an alternate plan: he'll swim across the English Channel for the sake of love.

Bilal soon catches the attention of Simon (Vincent Lindon), a lifeguard at a community pool who agrees to teach him how to swim. When Simon learns about Bilal's plan he tries to discourage the young man, stressing the physical challenges he would face in the water. But as a friendship develops between the two, Simon decides to help the boy in any way he can.

Some of his concern is spurred by his ex-wife's comments when another refugee is refused admission to a local supermarket. After Marion asks Simon why he doesn't do something about the situation, he decides to go out on a limb to help Bilal, even though doing so will get him in trouble with local police and immigration authorities. Underlying his decision is the sad realization that, whereas Bilal is willing to risk swimming the English Channel to be with his girlfriend, Simon can barely bring himself to cross the street to be with his wife (Audrey Dana), a teacher and community activist who is also a volunteer at an outdoor soup kitchen for the homeless.

Meanwhile, in London, Mina's father (Mouafaq Rushdie) has decided to marry her off to a wealthy restaurateur. Although Bilal has been in touch with Mina's brother Mirko (Murat Subasi) by phone -- and Mina even manages to reach Bilal on Simon's cell phone -- the chances of love triumphing are slim indeed.

Because French law allows authorities to detain people who are caught helping illegal immigrants, Simon soon ends up in trouble with the law. As the filmmaker explains:
"Ten years ago, when all these young immigrants began arriving in the north of France, they came from Kosovo. The Calaisiens today still call the illegal immigrants Kosovars except that there’s not a Kosovar among them. They’ve gone back to Kosovo because, at last, there’s peace. It’s their country, it’s their culture, their families, their roots, and so they have returned home and everything’s fine! The day when there is no longer a Taliban regime in Afghanistan, the Afghans will return home, too, and the problem will be solved.

All the reporting we see on television is slanted because, whenever a television camera is present, everything takes place so politely. But when there aren’t TV cameras, what happens isn’t polite. Out come the tear gas and the night sticks, the humiliation and incessant, incessant persecution.

While in Calais, I met a 17 year old boy who later left for England to join his girlfriend. He was the inspiration for Bilal. The humanitarian volunteers who worked there told me that there had been countless attempts by immigrants to swim across the channel. Most of them are returned to the French coast by the currents (they are usually found in an extremely weak condition, but alive). The volunteers also told me a story about a young man who had left one day to make an attempt and no one heard any news. He never telephoned to say that he made it, so they feared the worst.

I drew on all of this to tell my story. I didn’t relate anything in the film that doesn’t exist. And that’s the worst part: I wish it was fiction, but it’s all true. It’s been happening for a long time -- young people forced to swim across the sea or finish their journey by jumping off a boat (as happens every day in the Adriatic, every day at Gibraltar)."
Although much of Welcome focuses on Bilal's preparations to swim the English Channel, his actual journey -- and its unfortunate resolution -- will leave a huge lump in your throat. Lioret's film tells a powerful story which, as the filmmaker notes, is all the more tragic because it is so true. Here's the trailer:

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Like the New York City Center's popular Encores! program (which started in 1994) and the Reprise Theatre Company in Los Angeles (which began in 1997), San Francisco's 42nd Street Moon (which started performing in 1993) specializes in semi-staged readings of Broadway musicals that are considered to have been "lost" to history. Some have proven to be gems, others turn out to be genuine clunkers. The mere mention of certain musicals often provokes a curious grunt from theatre queens that may be accompanied by a suspicious leer that translates into "Whatever happened to HER?"

Such a musical is Harold Rome's rowdy western, Destry Rides Again, which opened on February 23, 1959 at the Imperial Theatre with a cast headed by Andy Griffith and Dolores Gray. Based on the famous movie starring James Stewart and Marlene Dietrich, the production was notable for Michael Kidd's energetic choreography and the star power of its two leads. Although the show toured with John Raitt and Anne Jeffreys in the leads, it was never revived on Broadway, nor has it shown up in many regional theatres.

Connie Champagne as Frenchy (Photo by: David Allen)

In order to fully appreciate why Destry Rides Again vanished into oblivion, it helps to look at the real estate situation on the Rialto during 1959.
Some friends have raved about original production of Destry Rides Again; others tell me they walked out at intermission. As a result, I was genuinely curious to see how well the show would hold up in revival. Despite the best efforts of the folks at 42nd Street Moon, the results were not very encouraging.

Steve Rhyne and Andrew Boyer (Photo by: David Allen)

A prolific songwriter with several Broadway musicals under his belt -- 1937's Pins and Needles, 1946's Call Me Mister, 1952's Wish You Were Here, 1954's Fanny, 1965's The Zulu and the Zayda, and 1970's Scarlett, a musical adaptation of Gone With The Wind that was produced in Tokyo, London, and Los Angeles (where I saw it performed at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in 1973 with Lesley Ann Warren as Scarlett O'Hara) -- in 1962 Rome wrote the comedy number "Miss Marmelstein" that helped Barbra Streisand make her historic Broadway debut in I Can Get It For You Wholesale. But the score he provided for Destry Rides Again struck me as such a dismal, tuneless mess that it gave me a new appreciation for Meredith Willson's cloying 1963 adaptation of Miracle on 34th Street entitled Here's Love!

Connie Champagne and Steve Rhyne (Photo by: David Allen)

The important things to remember when placing Destry Rides Again in context are:
  • During 1959, Broadway was up to its ears in star performers.
  • At that time, Broadway show tunes became popular on the radio, where they were played so frequently that they easily became imprinted on the public's mind. Pop artists often recorded hit songs from a new Broadway musical.
  • While Rome's lyrics are exceptionally strong, his score lacks the strength to give them their full dramatic weight. It's an interesting coincidence that Destry Rides Again and Carnival! (for which Bob Merrill wrote the music and lyrics) both have songs entitled "I Hate Him." Although both shows played at the Imperial Theatre (Carnival! opened on April 12, 1961, just two years after Destry's Broadway premiere on the same stage), Merrill's songs are far superior to Rome's.
  • With the exception of "Hoop-de-Dingle," a rather silly number for the chorus, there isn't a single song in Rome's score that ever made it into the public consciousness.
  • Considering the competition from that season's songwriting talent -- Rodgers & Hammerstein (Flower Drum Song, The Sound of Music), Lerner & Loewe (My Fair Lady) Meredith Willson (The Music Man), Jerry Bock & Sheldon Harnick (Fiorello!), Bob Merrill (Take Me Along), Albert Hague (Redhead), Jule Styne & Stephen Sondheim (Gypsy!), Rome's songs simply couldn't gain a toehold.
As directed by Dianna Shuster and choreographed by Tom Segal, 42nd Street Moon's cast put a lot of effort into making Destry a lively production. But despite the best efforts of Michael Cassidy as the villainous Kent, Robbie Cowan as Gyp Watson, Rana Weber as Clara, and the hammy antics of Tom Orr, not even such familiar Bay area talents as Steve Rhyne and Connie Champagne could make Destry Rides Again come to life. Sad to say, this was the musical comedy equivalent of beating a dead horse (which only proves that, while you can have a decent run on Broadway, you can't hide from your own mediocrity).

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