Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Upstairs Downstairs in French, Spanish, and Polka Dot Bikinis

The Women on the Sixth Floor” is a delight.  It’s sweet, it’s funny, it’s light and fluffy.  It takes place in 1962, and you know early on how much fun this is going to be when the women on the sixth floor (who are all Spanish) sing along with the radio that’s playing a French cover of "Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini."

The fabulous Fabrice Luchini is Monsieur Jean-Louis Joubert and Sandrine Kiberlain is his taut wife Suzanne. These well to do, too comfortable people lead dull lives, their adolescent sons dispatched to boarding school much of the time.  He goes off daily to work in the family brokerage house, she engages in social events, charitable events, visits to the dressmaker, just exhausting stuff.  One day the Jouberts’ long-time family maid Germaine leaves in a huff when Madame Joubert chooses to change a few things her deceased mother-in-law had done in the household.  Michèle Gleizer is pouty and put-upon but still amusing as Germaine, especially when her neighbors upstairs on the chilly sixth floor treat her to a good time and cheap wine. 
(C) Vendome Production
The Jouberts are utterly incompetent — she cannot wash a dish or iron a shirt, he doesn’t know how to function without someone taking care of him.  It’s an emergency, and there are plenty of Spanish women in town to work as maids from early in the morning until late at night for the bourgeoisie.  El patron.  The boss. 

Mr. Joubert is introduced to life on the 6th floor, where all the maids for the wealthy families in the building live.  His “exhausted” wife sends him upstairs on an errand, and it’s as if he’s gone through a forbidden door.  The 6th floor has small rooms for the maids to live in, a stopped-up toilet, a communal sink that has only cold water, and no heat.  The world of the 6th floor is alien to Mr. Joubert, and consequently fascinating.  He spends more and more time with these women, and begins to discover unknown aspects of real life and of himself.  And, of course, he falls in love with Maria.

Natalie Verbeke is the new maid, Maria Gonzalez, who gives as good as she gets with courtesy and grace. She has a calm and restful face, and then breaks into a breathtaking smile.
Carmen Maura is her aunt, Concepión, full of love for family, sending her money home to her husband, who’s building a house for her, which will have a grand bathtub.  She also has more than a smattering of good sense.
Berta Ojea is Dolores, stout and simple, devout and sweet-natured.
Concha Galán is Pilar, abused by her husband, leading M. Joubert to take extraordinary steps. 
Lola Dueñas is Carmen, an angry yet warm Communist — and you can’t blame her for the latter.
Annie Mercier is dour and rather scary as the deep-voiced, mean-spirited landlady, Mme. Triboulet.

These actresses are scrumptious, simple, clear, inhabiting their characters with a lust for life, embodying women who are forthright while they appear submissive.  They’re alive, and glad of it.  So are we.
Natalie Verbekeas Maria.  (C) Vendome Production
A delightful aspect of this story is that not only is Mr. Joubert transformed by these 6th floor friends — and love.  His wife Suzanne is as well, once she realizes he’s not having an affair with the man-eating widow client, but rather living a different sort of life with these new friends.  She recognizes the warmth he’s drawn to and tries to find it in herself.  It’s almost conceivable that the two obnoxious Joubert sons might eventually learn something from their parents’ discoveries. 

Writer/Director Philippe Le Guay does not make the smallest misstep.  His script with Jérôme Tonnerre is lively and good-hearted.  In another film, the rich widow in the red dress would be a black widow, having had three husbands and not missing a one.  Here Audrey Fleurot gives a brash performance that somehow makes us believe the widow’s a person, not a caricature at all.
Suzanne and Jean-Louis Joubert and the Man-Eating Widow.

Cinematographer Jean-Claude Larrieu provides soft lighting, keeping the frames warm even when some of Jean-Louis’ behavior might make us uneasy.  Between Mr. Larrieu, though, and the innocent and beneficent Monsieur Joubert created by Mr. Luchini, what would be creepy from another actor is almost cute and certainly harmless here.

This film does not try to break ground, to change minds, to do anything more than perhaps encourage some reflection on the world, on ourselves.  With a glass of wine and a nice biscuit.  Or maybe some paella.  In a traditional romantic comedy, a man rescues a woman.  “The Women on the Sixth Floor” together save the man.  This film is a latté, it’s rich and frothy and light as a feather.  It’s a guiltless pleasure, so go indulge.

~ Molly Matera, signing off but not logging off – I must download “Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini.”

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Fiasco Theatre’s Tuneful "Cymbeline" at the Barrow Street Theatre

 “Cymbeline” is a very strange play.  It’s Shakespeare’s most bizarre kaleidoscope of styles and periods.  Not that he didn’t mix it up on occasion, but this one’s a doozy.  It’s part romance, part mythology, part bad history, part theatre of the absurd.  It’s set in Roman-occupied Britain and Rome occupied by cosmopolitan courtiers of another millennium.  Rather than attempt to make rational sense of the piece, the Fiasco Theatre has sensibly embraced its irrationality and created an imaginative one-set wonder performed in under 2.5 hours.

Productions of “Cymbeline” over the years have generally disappointed — sometimes awful with one shining moment (think Joan Cusack’s Imogen slugging Posthumous in the final act), or pleasant and fun until a disastrous choice decimates it, then decimates it again and again until nothing’s left.  In that part of the play where each absurd revelation comes hard upon the last, this production just keeps getting more frenetic.  Funnier and faster.  Faster and funnier.  The more ridiculous the plot point, jab, and stab, the more ridiculous the performers recognize it to be and just have a jolly old time.  And so do we. 

The company of players here numbers six.  The characters in this play (as they’ve edited it) number 15.  There are no puppets, no supernumeraries.  These fantabulous six actors make short work of the overlapping plotlines, multiple roles, nationalities, and voices, not to mention multiple musical instruments.

These actors are highly skilled, the verse work is very fine, and vocally the players are multi-faceted, sometimes mellow, sometimes ringing, always distinct to the characters.  Their talent and innate gifts were apparently augmented by the coaching of Cicely Berry, the renowned voice and text coach.  Clarity of voice, clarity of vision, clarity of silly storylines.  The Fiasco Theatre makes it all work.

The Company:  Jessie Austrian played Imogen with sweetness, anger, innocence, and strength. 
Noah Brody played Posthumus staunchly, a Roman Captain, choreographed the fights (consulting with J. Allen Suddeth), and co-directed with Ben Steinfeld.
Paul L. Coffey was Pisanio, Philario, Caius Lucius, and Guiderius, turning on a dime from a put-upon servant to a Roman statesman.
Andy Grotelueschen played Cymbeline callously, Cloten cloddishly, and Cornelius cleverly.
Ben Steinfeld co-directed, played Iachimo wickedly and Ariragus innocently, and was musical director — the music wooed the audience into joy.
Sweet-voiced Emily Young played the mean Queen wittily, and aged herself into Belaria.

There can be no spoilers in a Shakespeare play, except for the personal touches an inspired company can make.  For the uninitiated, Cymbeline is a doddering old fool who has fallen for a nasty woman, so naturally he’s the king.  He had three children by his first queen — two boys who disappeared twenty years before the story starts, and his daughter Imogen.  The mean queen (Cymbeline’s second) has an oafish son, Cloten, whom she wants to inherit the crown, by marriage to Imogen … or however.

Imogen has fallen in love with and married a penniless young man named Posthumus — although he is of good birth, he carelessly lost his parents.  He has a loyal and highly moral servant named Pisanio, whom he orders to stay behind to protect Imogen when the king banishes Posthumous from England.  Cymbeline likes to banish people who annoy him.

In Rome, Posthumous hangs out with a slug named Iachimo and not surprisingly becomes a slug himself, after Iachimo betrays his tenuous friendship with Posthumous by telling him that Imogen betrayed their marriage bed.  Then Posthumous betrays Imogen by ordering Pisanio to kill what he considers his inconstant wife.  Follow so far?  Meanwhile … oh, there’s just too much.  But it’s important to know that the mean queen without a name gives gullible Pisanio a “healing” potion that isn’t really.  He gives it to Imogen, she appears dead, wakes to find a headless dead body and mistakes it for her husband… Again, too much. 

Eventually there’s war, atonement, revenge, reunited families, and along the way there’s some charming foot-tapping bluegrass. 

Suffice to say, this company of players really knows its stuff.  The threesome who came up with the notion of this production — Jessie Austrian, Noah Brody, and Ben Steinfeld — have given us a great gift of a damned good “Cymbeline.”  Staging is terribly clever, the ubiquitous trunk used exceptionally well throughout the play.  Jacques Roy created the Fabulous Trunk that is the centerpiece of the action, along with scenic designer Jean-Guy Lecat. 

'Tis a frabjous day when such people come together, take mad risks with an impossible play, and make a theatreful of people happy for an evening.  Get thee to the Barrow Street Theatre for this delightful funny tuneful production of “Cymbeline.”  You won’t regret it and you won’t forget it.

~ Molly Matera, signing off, listening to a bluegrass lullaby.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Re-setting my clock

This is the end of my first weekend following a full five-day work week in over a year.  Five days of normal hours, with a bit of a cold coming on, and I accomplished only what was absolutely necessary these past two days.  Must learn to manage my time better.  Note, I was doing some things on my weekend that could have been accomplished, piece by piece, weeknights after work.  Really must learn to manage my time better.

Today, while I was working on some things around the house (and "house" is a misnomer -- it's a just a 1-bedroom apartment; how anyone maintains a whole house while working full time is beyond my ken), I had the television on, tuned to AMC.  I don't know why.  It just happened that way.  Perhaps it was fate.  So I saw today most of the first season of the series "The Walking Dead.

It's violent.  It's distressing.  It's depressing.  It's exciting.  It's thrilling.  It's damned riveting.  The series is well written, really well structured, spiffy cliffhangers that don't let you down at the opening of the next episode, and the casting and acting are terrific.  This is a horror series that's scary as all get out. Watching the Season 1 Marathon forced me into lots of gasps, lots of covering of my eyes, clutching my kitties to me until they squirmed away. 

When I went outside -- outside! -- to the store in the twilight (I know, what was I thinking!), I wondered if people in Queens had always walked slightly off kilter, with that shuffle.  To and from the store I kept my eyes open, and my walk brisk. 

I'm at the beginning of Season Two and I'm gasping and jumping and talking to and gesticulating at the characters onscreen.  Oh yes.  I'm scared. And I'm hooked.

~ Molly Matera, thinking I'll keep some lights on tonight.....

Monday, October 3, 2011

"Moneyball" is a Story of Faith

During the first half of the first decade of the 21st century, I watched a lot of baseball, mostly Yankees, mostly -- OK, practically all -- in bars, and once or twice at the old Yankee Stadium.  There was even a point when, after working late every night (at some point, of course, one must acknowledge that those are the hours, it’s no longer “working late” if you do it every day), I would walk into a bar where far too many people knew my name, and if the Yankees were losing, they’d turn it around and win.  If I went home and didn’t watch the game, the Yankees would lose.  Clearly the deciding factor was me-- if the Yankees lost, it was my fault.  Just ask my friend Dave.

Baseball can do that to you.  It’s a very superstitious game.  Ask Billy Beane.

The second post-season game between the New York Yankees and the Detroit Tigers crackled on my car radio Sunday, the Connecticut station’s signal straining to reach the south shore of Long Island.  When I arrived at my destination, I searched for the game on television.  I was on vacation, and I needed a walk along the shore I’d driven more than two hours to reach.  But it’s impossible to turn away, since the Yankees might do what they indeed did:  They galvanized, too late, in the 9th, so we believed we could win it. 

Here in the post-season, “Moneyball” tackles difficult questions about the game of baseball.  Is the way to pick your team to go one by one and find the best individuals out there, potential stars; or is it the time of the computer and math nerds who will use statistical analysis to pick a group of players who will function as a quirky sort of whole, without stars?  I am not an aficionado of baseball (or any other sport), so I’ll not pontificate on that subject.
(c) 2011 Sony Pictures
However, “Moneyball” is a movie, a sports movie, an end-of summer movie.  Like the game of baseball itself, the film moves along at a leisurely pace in its beginning — in 2001, the rich teams poach the stars from the poor Oakland Athletics (NY took Giambi, Boston Johnny Damon, St. Louis took Isringhausen) and we watch General Manager Billy Beane, a former player himself, try to rebuild a new team.  Like this hot-weather game, the film’s rhythms start off lazy, gradually warm, and move forward in the summer breeze, speeding up until the audience is ready to leap out of their seats, as if they were at a neck-and-neck play-off game.  Rather like the last inning of the Yankees/Detroit post-season game 2.

Brad Pitt eases into the role of Billy Beane, his fit body showing an athlete’s grace despite Billy’s 44 years -- that’s practically proof that his time as a professional athlete was limited.  He appears in no way crippled.  One of Billy's stops looking for new blood for his depleted team is Cleveland, where Reed Diamond plays some guy who mispronounces Shapiro (his name is pronounced with a long I unlike any Shapiro I've ever known).  Diamond is smug as the mean-spirited alpha guy in a roomful of mean-spirited man-boy sports types.  It looks rather like the Sopranos in pinstripes.  The roomful of aging jocks are as one in their deprecation of Billy, who handles it all with aplomb.

Jonah Hill as "Peter Brand"  (c) 2011 SonyPictures
The most important thing that happened in Cleveland was that Billy was smart enough to spot an anomaly, a young guy in his father’s suit that all those ex-jocks -- guys who would have pushed that math nerd fat boy's head into the toilet in high school -- actually listen to the young man’s whispered counsel.  This is Yale-educated economics geek Peter Brand, quietly played by Jonah Hill.  This is the subtlest performance I’ve seen Hill give, and I like it. 

Philip Seymour Hoffman is slow, pugnacious, and really obnoxious as Coach Art Howe, who ignores and belittles Billy’s plans for his odd new hires, until his hand is forced.  I assume Howe happily took the credit for the wins generated by Billy and Pete’s non-traditional, outlandish team-building plan.  Hoffman is brilliant as Howe without pulling focus from the story.

Philip Seymour Hoffman as Coach Howe

Women don’t play much of a role in this world.  The traditional scouts judged a ball player not only on his own prowess and appearance, but on the prettiness of his wife.  If she’s merely average or less, they say, the player lacks confidence, so he’s in the discard pile.  I’m stating this politely, which they did not.

In terms of this story, Robin Wright is on the mark yet wasted as Sharon, Billy’s ex-wife; Kerry Dorsey is sweet as his daughter Casey, with an even sweeter singing voice and a 21st century style.  A female sports reporter is a total bitch when she’s in the enemy territory of the clubhouse -- the testosterone presumably nauseated her.  Yes, it’s a boys’ club.  Nevertheless, though Billy’s secretary has little to do, Takayo Fischer does it with the fullness of a life story behind her character.

Does anyone care about the rotten attitude toward women in this story, or do we just expect and accept this petrified belief system from jocks?  Does high school never end? 

Not that this antipathy toward the female of the species diverts from the story.  It sneaks up on you, “Moneyball” does, just like baseball.  I had the advantage of not remembering the 2001-2002 baseball season.  For me, the suspense and excitement of “Moneyball” built as the crew of guys without star power but rather oddball qualities, metamorphosed into the amazing team that won twenty games in a row.  Cheers of joy flutter through the NY audience at the magical possibilities of baseball.  Who could ask for more?  Billy Beane, that’s who, because he knows that, no matter how brilliant the season, if you lose the last game, the season is forgotten.

Luckily for baseball fans and moviegoers, Michael Lewis didn’t let that happen when he wrote his book, Moneyball:  The Art of Winning an Unfair Game, which Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin translated into a screenplay (based on a story idea by Stan Ghervin) for a very satisfying baseball film.  The underdog wins, at least for a while.  That’s baseball.  That’s America.  Creating a team of oddball castoff players, using math and computers and modern economic theories was an incredibly ballsy move — if you’ll forgive the pun — for Billy Beane and Peter Brand (that’s the character name, not the real guy’s name) that should keep them in the record books for a good long time.

Director Bennett Miller does a fine job, keeping even the leisurely parts of the story moving swiftly.  Attention never flags.  Pitt’s Billy Beane is cute and charming and passionate and superstitious and totally believable.  We are with him all the way as he drives this film, and Jonah Hill is a quiet but rock-solid co-pilot. 

Pitt and Hill

Stephen Bishop gives a standout performance as David Justice, an angry 30-something traded from the Yankees to the badlands of Oakland.  Chris Pratt does sensitive work as Scott Hatteburg, a young yet washed-up catcher Billy wants on first base.

Arliss Howard gives a quirky performance as John Henry, the new owner of the 2002 Boston Red Sox.  His is one of two particularly odd but utterly believable performances in this film — Howard as a part of baseball, and Spike Jonze as the rather effete current husband of Billy’s ex-wife, whose tentative kindness shows a complete lack of understanding of baseball, or any other sport. 

Moneyball” is a film that makes people applaud.  Baseball is still the great American pastime, and early autumn does not diminish our love for the boys of summer.

~ Molly Matera, signing off to go watch some kids play -- I hear the crack of a ball on a wooden bat…