Thursday, May 20, 2010

Many A Life, Interrupted

Long before "the doldrums" became a psychological buzzword used to describe despondency and depression, it was a nautical phenomenon in which the wind disappeared across patches of the ocean. Sailing ships that had been becalmed were often left stranded at sea for days or weeks at a time.

While popular references to "getting the wind knocked out of your sails" usually apply to personal or career setbacks, the term can also be used to describe what happens when fate leaves a person deprived of any forward momentum.

From terrorist attacks to natural disasters, from automobile accidents to nervous breakdowns, life has a strange way of sabotaging our plans. Sometimes we're left treading water (like a person who can't decide in which direction he should swim). At other times, acute depression can keep us in bed, refusing to face the daily challenges of life. When current events (or our personal frailty) put our personal dreams on an indefinite hold, some people adapt to change more easily than others.

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As Paper Man opens, the audience sees Richard Dunn (Jeff Daniels) and his wife Claire (Lisa Kudrow) driving out to Montauk (a small community on the eastern tip of Long Island), where Richard hopes he will be able to write his next novel. A successful vascular surgeon, Claire is trying very hard to be a supportive wife -- even if doing so requires her to put up with the annoying presence of Richard's imaginary friend, the handsome, bleached-blond, muscular superhero that Richard concocted in his childhood and dutifully named Captain Excellent (Ryan Reynolds).

Richard (Jeff Daniels) and Captain Excellent (Ryan Reynolds)

Written and directed by Kieran and Michele Mulroney, Paper Man explores the anguish experienced by a seemingly mature man who, although he has every physical and financial comfort anyone could desire, suffers from a devastating lack of confidence. An affable, if insecure and unsuccessful novelist, Richard (who desperately clings to his trusty old Smith Corona electric typewriter instead of using the new computer Claire has given him as a gift) is battling yet another attack of writer's block.

Nervously looking everywhere for ill omens and signs of potential trouble (who knew a couch might provoke such fears?), Richard's neuroses could easily cost him his marriage. His feigned interest in the history of the heath hen (one of the first species of birds that Americans tried to save from extinction) does little to hold the film's plot together.

The extinct heath hen.

One afternoon, after riding an undersized bicycle into town, he encounters Abby (Emma Stone), a local girl who has some sizable emotional baggage of her own. Although Abby's boyfriend, Bryce (Hunter Parrish) , whom she has appropriately nicknamed "Chickenshit," treats her like dirt, it turns out that Abby has an imaginary friend of her own. Not only does her Christopher (Kieran Culkin) follow Abby everywhere, he's madly in love with her and intent on saving her from manipulative douchebags like Bryce.

While Abby and Richard are both seeking genuine friendship, each has deep emotional scars that could lead to trouble. When Richard hires Abby as a babysitter (even though he has no baby on board), Christopher and Captain Excellent instantly recognize a disaster in the making. Richard is overwhelmed by the fact that Abby made soup for him. Abby is willing to tolerate Richard's social clumsiness until he becomes too creepy for words.

After "borrowing" a copy of Richard's book, Abby starts to fall in love with his writing. As their friendship begins to deepen, she takes Richard to the spot on the beach where she once stood helpless and confused as her twin sister drowned in the surf.

When Richard good-naturedly offers to let Bryce and his friends have a party at the house he is renting, the situation quickly starts to deteriorate. The next morning, when Claire arrives with some friends and discovers Abby sleeping in Richard's arms, all hell breaks loose.

The basic problem with Paper Man is easy to identify. It's hard for the audience to care about any of the characters in this film. Richard and Abby are on a downward spiral that can only be reversed when they decide to kiss their imaginary friends good-bye (I doubt audiences will be shocked or even care when Christopher gets taken out of the picture).

That's not to diminish the talents of Jeff Daniels, Lisa Kudrow, Hunter Parrish, and Kieran Culkin -- or the direction by the husband-and-wife Mulroney team. As Captain Excellent, Ryan Reynolds is the best thing about this film (the story noticeably comes to life when he is onscreen and pretty much implodes when he is not).

In the final analysis, Paper Man is a very intimate film about loneliness and low self esteem in which Lisa Kudrow is basically required to mother an extremely immature man-boy of a husband. There's absolutely no way she (or anyone else in the film) can compete with a studly, sarcastic superhero in tights and a cape. Here's the trailer:

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Recently shown at the 53rd San Francisco International Film Festival, Bodyguards and Assassins is a martial arts film rooted in a specific moment in Hong Kong's history: the brief, highly secretive visit of Sun Yat-Sen (Zhang Hanyu) to see his ailing mother (Lu Zhong) and meet with regional representatives of the Tongmenghui (Chinese Revolutionary Alliance) to plan the overthrow of the corrupt Qing Dynasty.

Directed with great flare by Teddy Chen, the film's prologue begins with the shocking murder of Yang Quyun (Jacky Cheung), a university professor whose death was the first political assassination in Hong Kong's history. The film then begins a deadly countdown to Sun Yat-Sen's arrival in Hong Kong on October 15, 1905, with bodies dropping right and left. Among the innocents are are:
  • Chen Shaobai (Tony Leung Ka-fai), the chief editor of a Hong Kong newspaper who is kidnapped early in the film by a group of assassins, but manages to escape and rejoin his revolutionary comrades.
  • Li Yutang (Wang Xueqi), a successful businessman who has been a long-time friend of Chen Shaobai. After a history of helping the revolutionaries financially, he pulls together a group of bodyguards to protect Sun Yat-Sen during his visit to Hong Kong.
  • Li Chongguang (Wang Po-chieh), Li Yutang's 17-year-old son who is preparing to head off to college in America. Filled with youthful ardor and the idealistic belief that he is no more important than any other citizen, Chongguang makes the fatal mistake of entering a lottery to determine who will pull the rickshaw carrying Sun Yat-Sen. To his father's horror, Chongguang wins the draw and refuses to shirk his newfound responsibility.
Wang Po-chiech as Li Chongguang
  • Yueru (Fan Bingbing), Li Yutang's fourth mistress and the former wife of police officer Chen Shongyang. The daughter she had by Chen Shongyang does not know the identity of its biological father.
  • A'si (Nicholas Tse), the young, loyal, facially scarred, and illiterate servant who pulls the rickshaw for the Li family, A'si hopes to marry to A'chun (Zhou Yun), the daughter of a local photographer. Although the marriage is blessed by Li Yutang, fate declares that this wedding will never take place.
Nicholas Tse as A'si

The good guys include:
  • Fang Tian (Simon Yam), a former general of the Qing forces who is murdered in the theatre where he and his colleagues have been living in disguise as a Chinese opera troupe.
  • Fang Hong (Li Yuchun), Fang Tian's daughter who, after her father is murdered by assassins, uses her knowledge of martial arts to prevent an explosion from unnecessarily killing many innocent people.
  • Wang Fuming (Mengke Bateer), a former Shaolin monk who stands 6'11" tall. After being cast out of his monastery, he has supported himself by selling stinky tofu on the streets of Hong Kong.
  • Liu Yubai (Leon Lai), a street beggar who once belonged to one of Hong Kong's wealthy families. An accomplished martial arts fighter, he singlehandedly manages to prevent the assassins from entering the home of Sun-Yat Sen's mother as he fights them off with the help of his iron fan.
Leon Lai as Lin Yubai
  • Smith (Eric Tsang), Hong Kong's police chief who takes his orders from the local British authorities. Smith provides unexpected cover for Sun Yat-Sen's rickshaw as it attempts to return the revolutionary leader to his ship.
  • Chen Shongyang (Donnie Yen), a corrupt police officer who, in the midst of a martial arts battle, slits the throat of an assassin played by Cung Le. A man with a severe gambling problem who would like to redeem himself in the eyes of his daughter (who does not know him), he commits suicide by hurling his body against an oncoming horse during a major battle scene.
Donnie Yen as Cheng Shongyang

The two main villains in the martial arts sequences are:
  • Yan Xiaoguo (Hu Jun), a former student of Chen Shaobai who has become the leader of the assassins.
  • His henchman (Cung Le).
Although the buildup to Sun Yat-sen's tense race back to his ship takes a while, once the fight scenes begin the film becomes a visually rich, gripping, and magnificent spectacle. Bodyguards and Assassins delivers time and time again, leaving the audience both exhilarated and exhausted by the end of the movie.

From a dramatic perspective, the performances I enjoyed the most came from Wang Po-chieh as Li Chongguang and from Nicholas Tse (who won the award for Best Supporting Actor at both the 29th Hong Kong Film Awards and the Fourth Asian Film Awards).

It's easy to see why, at the Hong Kong Film Awards, Teddy Chen won for Best Direction, Arthur Wong for Best Cinematography, Ken Mak for Best Art Direction, and StephenTung Wai shared the award for Best Action Choreography with Lee Tat-chiu. Bodyguards and Assassins is a magnificent piece of work. Here's the trailer:

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A joint effort between the Center Theatre Group and Berkeley Repertory Theatre has led to the world premiere production of a new play by Lisa Kron entitled In The Wake. As directed by Leigh Silverman, Kron's play draws plenty of laughter from the audience but runs the risk of talking itself to death. In the following video clip, the playwright and director give a brief outline of this new dramedy:

Surprisingly, In The Wake's protagonist may be the least sympathetic character onstage. A comfortably bisexual woman who manages to support herself as a writer and lecturer, Ellen (Heidi Schreck) is an attractive blonde whose fierce passions and seemingly unlimited supply of adrenaline have made her the queen bee in her extended family. A woman who is very much in love with the sound of her own voice, it's easy to imagine one of Ellen's lovers begging her to "just shut up and fuck."

Whether one sees Ellen as a political junkie, a proud liberal, or merely a drama queen who enjoys being the center of attention, her personality inspires codependent behavior in the people she loves. Like many people, Ellen is masterful at saying things like "Oh, I understand," or "I know, I know," when it is painfully obvious to the other person how much she does not understand and how much she simply does not know.

Heidi Schreck as Ellen (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

In some ways, Ellen reminded me of a former friend who loved the challenge of a deep conversation, but was much less interested in listening to the person with whom he was speaking. As I looked into his eyes, I could see him polishing his next sentence without really hearing what was being said to him.

As In The Wake begins, Ellen and her lover, Danny (Carson Elrod), are preparing for a Thanksgiving dinner in their fifth floor walk-up apartment. Easily the most sympathetic character in the play, Danny is an elementary school teacher with outstanding people skills. As Ellen agonizes over the unresolved 2000 Presidential election, the other guests arrive for dinner. They include:
  • Danny's sister Kayla (Andrea Frankle), who lives on the third floor, often disagrees with Ellen's politics, and doesn't hesitate to question some of her liberal assumptions.
  • Kayla's wife Laurie (Danielle Skraastad), who totally disagrees with Ellen's politics but has been learning how to avoid certain kinds of confrontation that only feed Ellen's need to win an argument. Danny and Laurie have grown so close that he now thinks of his lesbian sister-in-law as "the kid brother I never had."
  • Judy (Deirdre O'Connell), a relief aide from a poor family who has just arrived back in Manhattan from Guinea in West Africa. Having recently begun an affair with a married man, she is experiencing a severe case of jet lag. En route to her mother's funeral in Kentucky, Judy's rumpled look and body language belong to a thoroughly exhausted woman whose emotions are completely shut down (and whose only pleasure in life seems likely to come from her next cigarette).
Danny (Carson Elrod) and Ellen (Heidi Schreck )
Photo by: Kevin Berne

As Kron's play progresses, a clear pattern emerges wherein Ellen's closest friends will often hold their punches rather than hurt her feelings or give her another opportunity to launch into one of her politically self-righteous diatribes. Ellen demands a lot of freedom in her relationships, but is the kind of selfish partner who takes a lot more than she gives.

It also becomes clear that Ellen (who doesn't understand why Kayla and Laurie felt the need to get married) has never experienced the kinds of homophobic discrimination that are common experiences for many lesbians. In an interview with Charlotte Stoudt, Lisa Kron explains that:
"Writing about politics and belief is difficult because those of us who want to criticize politics are caught up in the very thing we're objecting to. We are that thing, too. The right and the left are always filled with self-justification. The play spans the Bush years, but it's not about that time period. It's about the bigger question of the American character: The assumption in this country that there's only so far we can fall -- that we will always revert to prosperity and stability. Even those of us on the left, who think we see things clearly, are very invested in believing that the way we live is ultimately sustainable -- that our comfortable lives won't go away, and that we're not hurting anybody.

The play is also about what happens when your personal ethics diverge with the people you're closest to (you thought you felt the same way, but actually there's something so different between you). Ellen has an idea of herself as capable of infinite expansion. Her heart has never been broken."
That doesn't stop Ellen from breaking other people's hearts. After starting an affair with an old school chum, Ellen keeps trying to balance the attention she gives to Danny and Amy (Emily Donahoe). During sex with Amy, as she wonders why she feels "needy," Ellen is remarkably clueless about how much energy she takes from other people without ever really being "in a relationship" with them.

Ellen (Heidi Schreck) and Amy (Emily Donahoe)
Photo by: Kevin Berne

When Judy returns from her mother's funeral with her niece in tow, what should be a festive dinner at Ellen's apartment turns sour as the naive young girl starts to ask some probing questions. Despite what her aunt tells her, Tessa (Miriam F. Glover) doesn't believe there are any homosexuals where she grew up. Not only is she shocked to discover that Kayla and Laurie are lesbians who actually got married in a church, she can't understand why Danny and Ellen, who seem to be in love, aren't married.

But, as they say, denial is not just a river in Egypt. Tessa (who is clearly African American) believes that, because her mother was white, others will automatically perceive her as multiracial.

Things change dramatically in Act II. Tessa's problems at school (she believes everything she's heard from President George W. Bush) lead to friction with her classmates. When Tessa can't meet the deadline to produce the necessary papers from her previous school, she is expelled and must return to her home town in Kentucky.

Ellen is at a complete loss to understand how Judy's naive niece didn't know how to ask for help pulling strings to make things happen. Nor can she grasp Judy's rage and shame about her family (a battered sister who stays with her physically abusive husband and an ignorant mother who tried to keep the couple together at her own daughter's peril).

Kayla (Andrea Frankle), Tessa (Miriam F. Glover) and
Laurie (Danielle Skraastad) Photo by: Kevin Berne

Ironically, Kayla and Laurie are the two characters in the play most keenly in touch with their own feelings. They know who they are. After the couple announces their plans to move to Madison, Wisconsin (where Kayla has been accepted in a master's program in organizational management which will eventually help her to earn a higher salary), there is a poignant confrontation in which Kayla clearly articulates what she wants from life -- and stresses that she doesn't need Ellen to trivialize her needs.

When Danny finally tells Ellen that she must choose between him and Amy, Ellen chooses Danny but is crushed when Amy finds another woman to love. After Danny's seemingly bottomless supply of patience runs out -- and he decides he's had enough of Ellen's inability to be a true partner -- his exit is remarkably similar to the moment in Gypsy when Herbie finally gives up on Rose. All it takes is one more tiny straw on Danny's back to make him realize that there really is no hope for his relationship with Ellen.

The only person who really manages to rattle Ellen is Judy. After informing Ellen that she has never voted, Judy confronts her friend with some bitter truths about the Founding Fathers and points out all the political lies about America that Ellen has swallowed hook, line and sinker.

Judy (Deirdre O'Connell) and Ellen (Heidi Schreck)
Photo by: Kevin Berne

Ellen's lack of true understanding (which is her own personal blind spot) is best summed up when she asks Judy "How far do I have to keep falling?" It's the kind of question asked by an alcoholic who can't comprehend that he still hasn't bottomed out. Or that a substance abuser in denial might ask who simply can't accept the fact that, rather than being in control of his addiction, his addiction is in control of him.

At the end of Kron's play, the audience sees the woman who wanted to have it all -- and did for a while -- struggling with feelings of emptiness and doubt as she contemplates the wreckage left in her wake. While there is much to applaud about Kron's play (especially Leigh Silverman's astute stage direction), it also has some distinct and easily identifiable problems:
  • In The Wake needs some surgical pruning -- maybe even 45 minutes' worth. Act I's overly long seduction scene between Ellen and Amy nearly loses the audience because of its dense verbosity.
  • Although video projections accompanied by the voices of such Republican villains as George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Rudy Giuliani, Paul Wolfowitz, and Donald Rumsfeld help to set the time and tone of Ellen's politics, by Act II they start losing their impact and distracting the audience from how Ellen's confidence is being challenged and starting to fall apart. Like many people, I personally can't stand listening to George Bush's voice. Not even in a theatre.
  • It's hard for people like Ellen to understand that the passion they feel for certain causes (not to mention their constant need to be right) can bore their friends to tears. Sometimes that boredom can spread to an audience that has heard all of these talking points and chosen to move on with their lives.
The cast of In The Wake (Photo by: Ken Berne)

After a four-week run at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Los Angeles, the actors have formed a tightly knit ensemble carefully tuned to the rhythms of Kron's writing. The unit set designed by David Korins perfectly captures the tired walls of an older tenement building in Manhattan while the modern framework that surrounds the stage offers an appropriate area for projecting video and slides of the past decade's political events. In The Wake continues at Berkeley Rep's Roda Theatre through June 27 (you can order tickets here).

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