[Originally written for Mr. Showbiz, December 4, 1998]
Set the wayback machine to 1998. Parallax View
presents reviews of films released 20 years ago, written by our contributors
for various papers and websites. Most of these have not been available for
there anybody on this planet who doesn’t know Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960
horror-suspense classic Psycho? Or
hasn’t been exposed to its sundry bastard offspring (name any slasher movie), hommage-y imitations (the collected
works of Brian De Palma), and sequels (none of them Hitch’s); or the hundreds
of jokes it has inspired; or the earnest insistence of any number of aunts,
neighbors, or co-workers that, no sirree, they haven’t felt comfortable taking
a shower ever since. So there won’t be lots of folks who’ll wander innocently
into a theater where Gus Van Sant’s virtually line-for-line, shot-for-shot
remake is playing, experience the story of Marion Crane, Norman Bates, and the
dark doings at the Bates Motel as something brand-new, and say, “Heavens to
Betsy, that took me by surprise!”
It’s possible that the author of Death of a Salesman might have fathered a child with a gift for the rapid-fire style of screwball comedy. But in her films as writer/director, Arthur Miller’s daughter has remained true to his somber mood. Rebecca Miller seems entirely at home in the heaviness of her 2005 drama The Ballad of Jack and Rose (which starred her husband, Daniel Day-Lewis, no laugh riot himself). And when hilarity breaks out in Miller’s Private Lives of Pippa Lee (2009), it’s like a desperate bark from someone drowning.
Miller’s new film, Maggie’s Plan, has the contours—and the far-fetched storyline—of a screwball comedy, and although it misses the happy rhythm of that ditzy film subgenre, it substitutes something intriguing.
Still Alice (Sony, Blu-ray, DVD, VOD) – Julianne Moore won her first Academy Award (after four nominations since Boogie Nights in 1998) playing a renowned linguistics professor who is diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease and starts to experience her identity, her sense of self, slipping away. It’s the kind of performance that doesn’t just support a film, it gives the film its breath of life.
Dr. Alice Howland is in the prime of life: happily married to a fellow academic (Alec Baldwin), the mother of three grown children, an expert in her field, and a professor at a respected university where she enjoys teaching. It comes on slowly: losing a word while giving a lecture, misplacing items, forgetting appointments, and finally getting lost on a routine jog across the campus that’s a second home to her. When the worst is confirmed by a neurologist, the denial is replaced with coping mechanisms, though even those are a temporary measure as the decline speeds up and that sharp intellect softens and falters, along with her own body. As she loses her identity along with her memories and her attention span, her eyes start to fog over and her body seems to collapse into itself, deflating like fragile old woman aging before her time. She becomes something of a ghost of her former self and it is heartbreaking, thanks to the depth and nuance with which Moore inhabits the mental and physical deterioration.
The most famous children to spring from the pen of Henry James are the brother and sister from The Turn of the Screw, that celebrated and oft-filmed ghost story. The young heroine of James’ What Maisie Knew is about to receive her most prominent film exposure, albeit in a setting the author could not have imagined. Directing team Scott McGehee and David Siegel (The Deep End) place the 1897 novel smack in the 21st-century urban jungle. Here, the ghosts in 6-year-old Maisie’s life are her parents: Julianne Moore plays the mother, an irresponsible singer trying to revive her career; Steve Coogan plays the father, a sarcastic art dealer.
They’re splitting up, and Maisie (Onata Aprile) is the club with which they can hammer each other. The fact that Maisie’s nanny (Joanna Vanderham) has moved in with Dad gives Mom an excuse to retaliate with an abrupt marriage to a genial bartender (Alexander Skarsgård of True Blood) in her bohemian circle. The audience is quick to spot how these younger stepparents behave more lovingly toward the kid than her own flesh and blood does.
Theater and cinema are so often at odds when attempting to bring the stage experience to the screen. The stage is intimacy and immediacy, losing oneself in words and performances. The movies are images and stars, losing oneself in the rhythm of editing and camerawork. Big screen adaptations of plays are so often static and stiff when a director remains “true” to the construction of the material, or they “open them up” with action sequences or outdoor scenes (because that’s what movies do) that just as often lose the intensity and focus of the play. That’s not to say the two are incompatible — there are many wonderful film versions of plays — but that the experiences are, for all their obvious similarities (actors, scripts, dialogue, narratives), diametrically opposed in so many ways.
Vanya on 42nd Street bridges the two artforms for an experience that is something else altogether, a cinematic engagement with a play performed for the pleasure of the actors and a select audience of friends. This version of Anton Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya,” from a translation by David Mamet that brings American rhythms and vernacular to Chekhov’s 19th century Russian dialogue, comes out of a production that director and playwright Andre Gregory had been staging as a private rehearsal with a select group of actors. Over the course of years, as their schedules would permit, they would gather to explore the play, the characters, and the relationships for the benefit of no one but themselves. Gregory and Wallace Shawn, who plays Uncle Vanya in this project, invited director Louis Malle, who had collaborated with them on My Dinner With Andre (itself a unique piece of cinema theater), to make a film of it. Not a restaging for the cameras, but an exploration of their entire approach to the play. Vanya on 42nd Streetis neither a screen adaptation of a play nor a film recording of a stage production. What Malle captures in the rehearsal space of an abandoned theater is a record of a creative collaboration that has a life of its own, at once documentary, filmed rehearsal, play within a play, and private production restaged for a camera that becomes almost another member of the ensemble.