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Angels on Chicago Avenue
by Marty & Martha Roth
Due to technical difficulties our column didnt appear last month, and we regret the delay in praising Pillsbury House Theaters production of Perestroika, the second part of Tony Kushners Angels in America and the closest well probably come to a contemporary theatrical masterpiece. Directed by Noel Raymond, it plays through May 5. You may still have time: see this play!
For those who dont know the reach and power of this marvelous piece of theater, Angels is a dramatic vaudeville of forces from the recent past that are usually kept separate: (1) decimation of the gay community by AIDS (the plague); (2) the end of the Cold War, marked by Mikhail Gorbachevs policy of perestroika and the death from AIDS of Roy Cohn, Sen. Joseph McCarthy's fierce cold warrior (in the play as in life, Cohn's furious anti-communism, homophobia, and racism are fueled by his sexual repression. He is also an ambivalent Jew proud of his role in condemning and executing Julius and Ethel Rosenberg); and (3) Kushner's foundational story of American nationhoodnot the familiar tale of Pilgrims or the U. S. cavalry but the Mormon myth of the visitation of the angel to Joseph Smith. The besieged and persecuted gay community is likened to the westering Mormons and Prior Walter, the HIV-positive hero, to their prophet.
Out of this and much more Kushner offers a radical reading of the recent past in the form of a magnificent hodgepodge of realism, agitprop, and theological fantasy, and he is always funny: as he dies, Cohn hisses, It was never the money, it was the moxie! From Pillsbury's generally impressive cast we would single out Cathleen Fuller in multiple roles including Ethel Rosenberg, Steven Hendrickson for a terrifying Roy Cohn, and above all Blayn Lemke as Prior Walter, unworthy prophet of a new and thrilling dispensation. The play is long and often a strain but great art aint for softies.
One of the functions of film is to give virtual reality to our shaky sense of history. Films always simplify and usually falsify the past, but when cinema is grand and powerful the lie will serve. Jean-Jacques Annaud's Enemy at the Gates brings to life with amazing force that corner of the second great war centered on the Battle of Stalingrad. Although the film is set in the context of the Soviet defense of the motherland, its imagery testifies to the devastation and dishonor of war, in a lineage of films like All Quiet on the Western Front and Cross of Iron. Enemy shows an entire city reduced to ruins; within this city armies clash; and within this clash a German and a Russian sniper play at cat-and-mouse. The battle scenes are breathtakingSoviet war posters come to lifeand the opening, devoted to the rushed mobilization of raw Soviet troops under attack, puts Saving Private Ryan to shame. For the most part, the film is free of cold-war mentality.
The principal actors are marvelous, especially Jude Law playing a natural marksman from the Urals. Ron Perlman displays impressive steel teeth; Rachel Weisz is lovely as a volunteer sniper; Bob Hoskins is suitably grotesque as a young Nikita Kruschev; Joe Fiennes convinces as a fanatical but loving political officer; and Ed Harris chills the blood as the aristocratic German marksman.
After the grand historical spectacles, we have two entries in the damaged male categoryboth, to our eyes, flawed but excellent: Ed Harris again, as both director and star of Pollock, and Kasi Lemmons's The Caveman's Valentine. Biopics are a doomed genre because it's so hard to squeeze a life into two hours, much less a personality. Also, painter Jackson Pollock was maniacally extreme, a dysfunctional taciturn alcoholic who could be sent into a rage by any random turn of events. Still, the obsessive fit between Harris and Pollock makes for fascinating viewing, and he has mastered the whole-body dance that goes into the production of a drip painting. Marcia Gay Harden acts her heart out as Lee Krasner, and the film also has an uncanny Forties feelmusic, cars, clothes, even landscape.
Valentine is a welcome reminder that a film can be a bit of a mess and still radiant. This is due to a bold director and cinematographer, a powerful and eccentric performance by the star, Samuel Jackson, and a narrative that strikes fire whichever way the sometimes silly plot turns: Jackson is a Juilliard graduate, an accomplished musician whose career has ended because of a mental condition. He is now a street person, living in a cave in a park in greater New York City. Forced to investigate the murder of an angel, a beautiful young man who models for a Mapplethorpe-type photographer, he has the unwilling aid of his daughter, a policeperson whom he drives crazy with grief. Jackson's caveman unravels a dense puzzle that ties street people, the art world and Wall Street in a single garment, and with his hip-length dreads and layered rags this fine actor moves with authority from nightmarish madness to pathos to simple human warmth.
Terence Davies' film of Edith Wharton's novel, The House of Mirth, moves with deliberation through a pitiless spiral of downward mobility: a proud, intelligent woman (Gillian Anderson) without family or fortune is treated badly by her rich society friends (Dan Ackroyd and Laura Linney, among others), and her refusal to treat them in kind leads to her destruction. The world of the film is an overstuffed nightmare; women are confined in corsets and men in starched collars; society's rules are as rigid as whalebone. Excellent acting keeps this from being a totally depressing experience.
We split on Series 7: The Contenders, a slickly made, engrossing and repulsive parody thriller written and directed by Daniel Minahan. Its deliberately ugly, shot on videotape, and critiques reality shows like Survivor, only the hook here is that contestants are armed and must actually kill one another. Marty thought it was awful, but Martha found it had the cheap thrill of a TV show combined with smug satisfaction at putting down cheap thrillsan irresistible combination.
Fifty Foot Penguin, a theater group that almost always amuses, mounted a crisp production of Joe Ortons seminal farce, Loot, at the Peoples Center in April. Matt Sciple directed a strong cast that included Erik Steen, Kate Eifrig, Matthew G. Anderson, and Steven B. Young. The role of the policeman, expertly played by Edwin Strout, contains the genesis of John Cleeses Monty Python persona; in fact, the Pythons are probably Children of Orton.
We found gold at this years International Film Festival: Human Resources, a 1999 film by first-time director Laurent Cantet, shows that it is possible to make a wholly engrossing film about modern work. Franck (Jalil Lespert), a bright young student finishing a degree in industrial relations, gets a summer job at the factory where his father has worked for thirty years. As all of France prepares to implement a 35-hour work week the managers of this small provincial plant try to maximize their profits, and Franck's father (Jean-Claude Vallod, in a heartbreaking performance) is one of the workers caught in a squeeze between the unions demands and the bosses greed.
This is a French film in which the most important women are over 50, and it doesn't have a single sex scene. Danielle Mélador, as the union shop steward, gives a performance of piercing clarity, matched only by Lucien Longueville as the factory boss. We have never seen such accurate observation of class differences and such respect for dialogue. Rent this one if you can.
Ken Loachs Bread and Roses disappointed us slightly; its no Land and Freedom, but it is a refreshing departure from Hollywood nonetheless. A pair of Mexican migrant sisters are cleaning their office building when a smart Jewish organizer (Adrien Brody, looking good but the guy can't act) brings the Justice for Janitors campaign to their doorstep. One joins and the other doesn't. Among the film's strengths are a party scene, in which several well-known actors play themselves, and a smashing monolog by the non-union sister (Elpidia Carrillo), who gives eloquent voice to the classic Mexican tragic figure, La Chingada, the woman who gets screwed.
New Waterford Girl, a quirky Canadian teenage comedy set on Cape Breton, allowed us to pass a pleasant couple of hours engaging in Canadian anti-provincial humor, while Mozart in Turkey went down like cotton candy. For opera lovers only, it's a film of The Abduction from the Harem set in Istanbul's Topkapi Palace, with running commentary by Opera Man Elijah Moshinsky about the history of Turkish-European relations, Mozart's life (he gave the heroine the same name as his wife, Costanze), and how to fit a film crew into the palace architecture. Sheer delight.