10 May 2012

Where Would You Rather Vacation?

Recent theatrical experiences have shown me two places I would not like to visit with my next bit of time off. Julia Loktev's The Loneliest Planet is a muted travelogue full of the unpleasantries one might encounter in the former Soviet republic of Georgia and Drew Goddard's The Cabin in the Woods is about how everything that could go wrong will go wrong at a certain abandoned, rural cabin in, let's say for the sake of argument, Georgia (the one south of South Carolina).

The Loneliest Planet opens with a deceptively exciting frame around extreme ginger pixie Nica (Hani Furstenberg). She's taking what appears to be an unintentionally cold shower--strands of wet hair clump like the tentacles of a pacific octopus (I'm not speaking of her pubic hair here but that's also en vue). She's rescued by her boyfriend Alex and his pitcherfull of hot water. The gentleman is played by Gael Garcia Bernal, who badly needs to find a good film and hasn't done it here. Though I see what Loktev was thinking when she cast him--he has a great face for bullshitting along and that's what he'll do for the next 90 minutes.

Alex and Nica successfully search a dusty town for a guide whose name is also a trochee. Dato (Bidzine Gujabidze) is dude who can be counted on to understand the little things: "goat is smart, sheep is stupid." He wears a worn camouflage jacket, he's seen some things, he's heard some jokes about the draconian manner in which the Chinese control their population. It's possible he's even read "The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber" or Jennifer Egan's "Safari".

The film is good in some small details, giving us lingering looks at a rock faces patterned like Cezanne or snakebacks. And, as Nica and Alex demonstrate in their lessons, the preterit tense is the toughest to conjugate in Spanish. But this is very much a short story lengthened. The director disguises her lack of ideas as subtlety. Is that crackling in the distance gunfire, a factory, a road? The most significant piece of dialogue in the film, where Dato discusses Nica with a peasant bearing an automatic weapon and malicious nose, is unsubtitled. There's a deliberate contextual opacity that, combined with a plot that features exactly noteworthy event, made me a little sleepy.

The only thing that might hold interest (the underlying reasons that would possess two people to go on this unnecessary trip (Bryce Canyon's nice!)) is not addressed at all. It's just people out walking.

You are unlikely to fall asleep watching The Cabin in the Woods. As a hilariously energetic California Theatre staffperson asked us before the screening, "Are there any Joss Whedon fans in the heezy?" There were several. And the first five minutes have more juice than all of The Loneliest Planet.

While the doomed kids are attractively archetypal lot (in contrast to some reviewers I would say the true categories represented are Whore, Jock, Virgin, Nerd (Stoner) and Nerd (Non-Stoner)), the catalysts are Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford as two quasi-governmental officials who serve as MCs for the chaos in the cabin. To keep the world safe from "a great evil" they help maintain a billion dollar black site where young blood is harvested. They have at their disposal more wonderful tricks than I imagine at Gitmo, like pheromone mist (which is little predictable) and brain leeching hair dye (which is not).

The brain leeched Whore figure, played by Anna Hutchison, really does some wonderful work in toplessness, taxidermy makeout and Stanwyck-in-Double-Indemnity anklet channeling before her soul departs. We were prepared for her hasty demise because the control center revealed that "Zombie Redneck Torture Family" was the winner of the human sacrifice lottery this time. I had a huge belly laugh when Whitford lamented "I'm never gonna see a Merman."

(I hope that my handful of readers are already aware that my reviews contain spoilers but I perhaps, since this film is so good and still in theaters, I should throw an alert in here.)

As you do, the group tries to escape the undead rednecks. Things follow the standard horror film escape scenario until the Jock (Chris Hemsworth, surely disappointed to have a varsity jacket covering those Asgardian pecs) decides to leave the group and bring back men with guns. Coincidentally, his leaving involves jumping a crevasse on a motorcycle. He gives what I believe to be the best ever film speech interrupted by disintegration against an invisible electric force field.

This is all good fun for the first two acts but it's the last 20 minutes that raise it to near classic status. The Virgin and the Nerd (Stoner) (played by new to me actors Kristen Connolly and Fran Kranz) find their way past the last redneck zombie and descend in a mysteriously modern elevator under the cabin. At bottom is, of course, the bunker full of their tormentors, both the human and supernatural beasts...and as it turns out all of their cages can be opened at once. The giddy free-for-all that results reminded me of nothing so much as the climax of The Wild Bunch, even if Whedon's shade of blood and viscera is a darker red than Peckinpah's. With each new creature released (I was a big fan of the giant cobra) it's more apparent that The Cabin in the Woods is large and contains multitudes of other films in the horror genre.

I'm impressed enough to see Whedon's Avengers this weekend and absorb Hemsworth in more luxuriant coif.

06 May 2012

Remembering GATZ

I saw the Elevator Repair Service's GATZ two weeks ago today and I've been turning it over in my mind ever since. One thing I've been turning over in my mind is how you will want to read here my friend Katherine's definitive account of watching the play. It really is a fraught moment when Nick (Scott Shepherd) opens that Rolodex, starts reading those familiar words and you think this is happening for the next eight hours. To my ears Shepherd's voice sounded strange, a bit querulous as he labored over the opening paragraphs. By the end, hanging on every word, I realized I'll never be able to read the book again without hearing that inflection.

As a staunch Fitzgeraldian, it surprised me to recall I haven't read The Great Gatsby since I was an undergraduate about eight years ago (Tender Is the Night being my tonic of choice). With the drab office setting of the play all too reminiscent of my career in the intervening years since my last visit with James Gatz, much of the book struck me as more melancholy than I remembered. I'm always keen to notice color and the palette of this production was subdued. Beyond the dingy stage props, much of the novel's action is in a "velvet dusk" with a lavender cab and Daisy's lavender hat and Gatsby's lavender suit (in which he drinks chartreuse). The dissolution of the dog biscuit left all afternoon in a dish of milk. The clouds are made greyer by the ashes blown into them and even Gatsby's gold and silver slippers shuffle through dust.

When I heard "the silver pepper of the stars" I left the play for a moment to recollect the first time I read The Great Gatsby, sitting on a green leather couch. My family's living room got a lot of afternoon light and it was warm that afternoon after school. Now I wouldn't even put the line in the top ten Fitzgerald metaphors but then that silver pepper helped convince me I was finally reading something great in 10th grade English. Back then I hadn't spent years in writing workshops to make me sweat every adverb so I was scandalized afresh by the volume of -ly words Fitzgerald tacks on to the he saids and she saids.

If I had a problem with GATZ it was with Jordan (played by Susie Sokol). It's not just that she lacked gray, sun-strained eyes (a phrase Fitzgerald liked so much he used it twice in the novel)--it's that I could never put my finger on her role in the office. Was she an indolent cleaning lady with a passion for Golf Magazine? And I didn't love the way she flatlined Jordan's reckless driving declaration that other people could be careful for her, my favorite line in the book.

Jim Fletcher's Gatsby will never be confused with Redford or DiCaprio but in the hair left on his balding head one could sense a bit of that rubbed-in champagne. Victoria Vazquez's Daisy was excellent as well, capturing the character's air of slightly overdone glamor made to seem casual. Gary Wilmes' Tom was best of all--certainly the most commanding vocal presence of the bunch. Though consideration of the play always comes back to Shepherd's wry unreliability.

Like Katherine I felt something shift when Nick puts down the book halfway through the last chapter and begins reciting from memory (Shepherd can apparently recite Gatsby straight through if given any three consecutive words). There's probably a different section for every reader that inspires high emotion. For me it's a passage just before that boat is borne back ceaselessly into the past: Nick's college homecoming. Here we understand how Shepherd's notable lack of gravitas is a strength of the play--our emotions are allowed to swell on their own.

After eight hours of overcaffeination, drenching walks in NYC rain and peregrinations about the hurricane fenced, under renovation Public Theater lobby, I teared up for the trains going back to the Middle West from New York, Princeton, New Haven. My eyes blurred in time with the passing boxcars, flashing as yellow rectangles across that stage of life.