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Reviews

"A View from the Bridge": It's Miller Time

Written by Arthur Miller
Directed by Gregory Mosher
Starring Liev Schreiber, Scarlett Johansson, Jessica Hecht

Arthur Miller's story of the betrayal that tears apart a longshore family in Brooklyn was a metaphor for the treachery of the people who "named names" in the anti-communist witch hunts of the 1950s. Miller was particularly angry at director Elia Kazan, with whom he had worked. In 1956, Miller was subpoenaed by the House Un-American Activities Committee and cited for contempt of Congress for refusing to identify writers he had met at one of two communist writers' meetings he had attended years before. That same year, A View From the Bridge opened on Broadway.

In this powerful revival directed by Gregory Mosher, we witness the inexorable downfall of Eddie Carbone (Liev Schreiber), a longshoreman, who forgets the sense of honor and loyalty that is the glue that holds together the hard-working Italian community in Red Hook, on the Brooklyn waterfront, where he and his wife Beatrice (Jessica Hecht) live. His self-interest is not the careerism of the film and theater people who betrayed colleagues to HUAC, but jealousy ignited by the illicit passion he feels for his niece Catherine (Scarlett Johansson).

Catherine has lived with them since the death of her mother, Beatrice's sister, but the child is now 17 and nubile. Eddie tries to keep her at home so that she can't meet young men. He says he's looking out for her. But there's something else going on. Beatrice warns Catherine that it's not proper anymore to sit on the bathtub in her slip while Eddie is shaving.

The impending crisis is ignited by the arrival of Beatrice's two cousins, illegal immigrants from Sicily, who have come to find work. Such immigrants, known as "submarines," were supported by the Italian community, which found jobs for them on the docks. Marco (Corey Stoll) is stolid and serious; he has come to earn money to support his family, particularly to buy medicine for his children.

His brother Rodolpho (Morgan Spector) is a charmer, blonde, a singer, and single. Catherine immediately falls for him. Eddie's hostility to Rodolpho reveals the depth of his obsession with his niece which keeps him from sleeping with his own wife. The lawyer, Alfieri (Michael Cristofer), advises Eddie, "Somebody had to come for her."

Schreiber, one of the best actors appearing on the stage today, exhibits a cool surface that slowly disintegrates to reveal the conflagration building below. When he picks on Rodolpho for singing and cooking and making dresses, he explains, "The guy aint right." It's Miller's way of saying "homosexual" for "communist," a ready target.

Jessica Hecht and Michael Cristofer, with strong Brooklyn accents that enforce their sense of place, of belonging to Red Hook and its culture, are brilliant in their roles. Cristofer speaks in a slow sometimes staccato voice as befits the local wise man, or perhaps oracle.

Johansson does well as the naïve Catherine, girlish and unaware of the effect she has. Spector and Solli are excellent as Rodolpho and Marco, the first light-hearted at the life possibilities before him, the other dark and troubled, weighed down by his responsibilities in Sicily.

Designer John Lee Beatty recreates the dreary world of the Carbones in their non-descript living room with  light brown walls, a round wood table and chairs, and a fake fireplace.

The bridge in the title is the Brooklyn Bridge, visible to the north, connecting Lower Manhattan and Brooklyn Heights. In a work that Miller meant to be allegorical, it can be a bridge to and from the rest of the world. Some productions have put the waterfront and distant bridge in the set. Beatty doesn't. He creates a line of rich brown brick tenements, which represents the family's self-enclosed limited world and community.

"I want my respect," Eddie declares, but as people from the neighborhood gather around him in the final scene, he appears to have forgotten what their code for earning respect entails.

A View From the Bridge
Cort Theatre
138 West 48th Street

New York, NY
212-239-6200
Opened January 24, 2010, Closes April 4, 2010.

For more by Lucy Komisar: TheKomisarScoop.com

Photo credit: Joan Marcus

 

"Brooklyn’s Finest" Is Just Okay

Brooklyn’s FinestRichard Gere Stars in Brooklyn's Finest
directed by Antoine Fuqua
starring Don Cheadle, Wesley Snipes, Richard Gere, Will Patton, Ellen Barkin and Ethan Hawke  

The New York City cop drama was once a staple in both television (Naked City, NYPD Blue, and the sadly underwatched Life On Mars) and on film (Internal Affairs, Serpico, The French Connection and Fort Apache). In recent years there has not been that much in the genre probably because the cost of filming in New York is not cheap, particularly in light of the recent repeal of certain New York State tax credits, and because audiences are too sophisticated to have film studios try to pass off Toronto or Vancouver for the Big Apple.

Brooklyn’s Finest is a decent attempt to revive the gritty urban crime drama and features a highly respected cast. Shot in an economical 41 days, most of the action in Brooklyn’s Finest takes place in Brownsville. Astute observers will recognize Brighton Beach’s Oceania Theater while an uncredited Rego Park is the exterior for the small house where officer Sal Procida (Hawke) and his large family live.

Pittsburgh native Fuqua, who directed 2001's Training Day, clearly knows his way around New York. He wisely keeps scenes from dragging but for some reason refuses to allow levity in any of them. A few laughs would not have added, rather than detracted, from this police drama.

The film follows the complicated lives of three officers, the about-to-retire Eddie Dugan (Gere); Clarence “Tango” Butler (Cheadle) who has been an undercover cop so long that he is actually friends with a drug kingpin named Caz (Snipes) who he met in prison when he was establishing his false identity; and finally, the aforementioned Sal Procida, a narcotics officer who feels that he has to become dirty in order to be able to give his ever-growing family a better life.

There is almost no interaction between the three policemen lead characters as their stories are told in separate arcs. The easiest to follow is Sal, who for all of his gruffness and willingness to break the law, is a determined family man who is overwhelmed by his wife’s chronic health problems and his guilt over not giving his kids a better life. It is impossible not to root for him even as he is bending and overtly breaking the law.

Tango is a bit more complex. He is a guy who knows right from wrong despite hobnobbing with drug dealers and pimps but is only motivated by moving up in the law enforcement ranks. His goal is to be a lieutenant and wear a suit to work a la his NYPD mentor, Bill (Patton).

As expected, the hardest character to figure out is Gere’s Dugan. We met Eddie as he wakes up alone in his dingy apartment with a bottle of booze next to his bed. He also seems a bit too fond of Russian Roulette. Despite these unmistakable signs of depression, Eddie exhibits an almost Zen-like calm during his shift. Avoiding drama and needlessly sticking one’s neck out have been his modus operandi for putting in his time to get his pension. Eddie is a loner whose female companionship consists of a prostitute that he fantasizes will leave “the life” and live with him in his Connecticut cottage when he retires.

The acting by nearly everyone is superb with the exception of Barkin who plays a tough-talking higher up in the NYPD who is more concerned with the department’s public relations than with justice. It is sad to watch this once respected actress chew up scenery in a rather obnoxious and hard-to-watch manner.

The entire film is shot in depressing earth tones and the ending is anything but uplifting. There is also an anachronistic feel to Brooklyn’s Finest. The level of drug-related violent crime in housing projects is more fitting with 1991's New Jack City than with 2010 New York City. Not a bad movie by any means but if you really want to see Brooklyn’s Finest then wait for the DVD or even when it's on cable.

What's Up? Docs: Oscar-Nominated Shorts at MoMA

Nature documentaries are boring.

If you believe that, set aside 40 minutes and prepare to be astonished. It's the running time for Rabbit à la Berlin, a history of the Wall told from the POV of wild rabbits who lived between East and West Berlin. Heavily guarded, grassy and predator-free, the Death Zone they called home for 28 years let them to do what rabbits do. They flourished.

But in time some tried escaping their safe animal farm for West Berlin. And since the fall of the Wall, the furry rodents have been struggling to survive under freedom — just like former citizens of the Soviet Bloc.

Directed by Bartek Konopka and Anna Wydra, the film (Królik po berlinsku in Polish and Mauerhase in German), was produced by Polish broadcaster TVP. It's one of five short documentaries vying for this year's Oscar.

Last Sunday &mdash a week before the March 7 &mdash 2010 Award ceremony, New York's Museum of Modern Art screened the whole classy quintuple at its "Eighty-Second Academy-Nominated Documentary Shorts" program. The annual bloom is among MoMA's most highly anticipated, with tickets being snapped up the moment they go on sale. This year it clocked in at around three hours. And not one audience melee broke out, surely a Museum first.

Perhaps viewers were stunned into silence by China's Unnatural Disaster: The Tears of Sichuan Province. In the first 39-minutes of the evening, Jon Alpert and Matthew O'Neill had taken them on a journey through the emotional and physical rubble of 's 2008 earthquake, where communities mourned its young casualties and decried official negligence.

What begins as disaster coverage boils into a political diary of protest over shoddy building and relief efforts.

A collective gasp went up in the auditorium with each new horrific fact: that families were compensated $317 per dead child; that gatherings of more than three parents were forbidden at school sites; that, given China's one-child policy, most parents lost their only child. And so on.

If Rabbit à la Berlin uses nature as an allegory of totalitarian rule, China's Unnatural Disaster takes it as a platform for people to express civic rage. One bereaved mother sums up her disillusionment as "this is a lesson of blood." Another, pardon her Chinese, tells a fat cat to "search your mother's cunt."

Death and politics also coalesce in The Last Campaign of Governor Booth Gardner. The 38-minute film by Daniel Junge trails the former Washington State governor's 2008 campaign to legalize assisted-suicide. Gardner mounted the initiative while combating Parkinson's disease. 

As Woody Allen has noted, success amplifies what you already are. But what if success ends what you are? Tough to say which caused more audience squirming, this conundrum, Booth's growing incapacitation or his opponents' efforts to quash the ballot. What's plain, though, is that Junge picked a compelling hero and that his own cogency — a skill perhaps honed as creative director of campaign strategy firm Just Media — helped him construct a sturdy work of nonfiction.

Work, or lack thereof, is the focus of another entry with "Last" in the title. The Last Truck: Closing of a GM Plant gives a 40-minute insight into the final six months of General Motors' factory in Moraine, Ohio. The backstory on its shuttering involves "the slowest auto market in 15 years."

Directors Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert build the film almost entirely out of conversations with workers. Speaking to the camera between shifts, these mostly middle-aged men and women give unemployment a personal face. Will blue collar workers without computers find new jobs? Are they up for retraining? Can they hope to re-experience the pride and mastery they achieved as autoworkers? Hope is the key word here, and it's not in conspicuous supply.
 
It is in Music by Prudence.
 
The film opens with shots of the Zimbabwe bush so surreal and chords of a woman's song so rousing that what comes next is a jolt. A mangled and legless African gets stuck in a puddle with her wheelchair. She is 21-year-old Prudence Mabhena, the source of the voice, the producer of the film and the lead singer of Bulawayo-based group Liyana.

Maybe the Shona and Ndebele languages have a word for "uplifting" to suit her 35-minute story, directed by Roger Ross Williams. From the paternal grandmother who blamed her arthrogryposis on witchcraft (and wanted her killed) to the stepmother who let her marinate in three weeks' worth of bodily eliminations, Prudence thankfully made it to the King George VI School for the disabled. There she met the seven other members of Liyana and became the singer, songwriter, lyricist, arranger and choreographer who's now recognized as an emerging star.

MoMA thundered with applause after the group's climactic Afro-fusion performance of marimbas, African drums, keyboards, shakers, keyboards — and, of course, dear Prudence.

However different these five Oscar contenders, one common denominator is HBO Documentary Films. The network, which has a long history of sweeping awards, was behind all but Rabbit à la Berlin.

Interwoven news clips are another element some of the films share. China's Unnatural Disaster replays the devastating earthquake through television and cell phone footage; and The Last Campaign dusts off archival reels of Booth Gardner from the heyday of his governorship.

Rabbit à la Berlin takes the historical footage award, however. MoMA's savvy spectators ooohed at the shots of Fidel Castro and John F. Kennedy on opposing sides of the Berlin Wall, and seemed no less moved by scenes depicting armed punishment of dissidents.

Allegedly, the filmmakers only turned up six images of the original rabbits, though it's easier to guess which film will take the Oscar than which bunny was a body double.

Eighty-Second Academy-Nominated Documentary Shorts
The Museum of Modern Art
11 West 53rd Street
New York, NY 10019
February 28, 2010
http://www.moma.org/visit/calendar/films/1038

"The Crazies" for You

Directed by Breck Eisner
Written by Ray Wright and Scott Kosar, based on the screenplay by George A. Romero and Paul McCollough
Starring Timothy Olyphant, Radha Mitchell, Joe Anderson, Danielle Panabaker

Often eclipsed by his genre-changing Living Dead movies, George Romero’s 1973 The Crazies, also released as Code Name Trixie, in which a bio-weapon is accidentally unleashed on a small American town, is scary and as timely as it was during the Vietnam. And while the original holds up just fine, this slick variation on a theme proves that a sequel that pales by comparison with original does come along every once in a while.

Welcome to bucolic Ogden Marsh, Iowa, pop. 1260. The countryside is beautiful and the farmland fertile; folks are friendly and the pace of life is comfortably slow. Sheriff David Dutton (Timothy Olyphant) and his deputy, Russell Clank (Joe Anderson), rarely have more on their plate than out-of-season duck hunters, teenage mischief and the occasional drunk-and-disorderly. Dutton's wife, Dr. Judy Dutton (Radha Mitchell), is newly pregnant, and everything’s right with the world… until it isn’t.

On the opening day of high-school baseball season, longtime town drunk Rory Hamill (Mike Hickman) walks onto the field with a loaded shotgun; David fails to talk him down and is forced to kill him. The strange thing is that Rory’s wife swears Rory had been sober for two years, and the medical examiner’s report bears out her assertion. So what made Rory recklessly endanger a group of teenagers the same age as his own son?

Judy is faced with her own puzzle: Farm-wife Deardra Farnum (Christie Lynn Smith) has brought her husband, Bill (Brett Rickaby), into the office; something just isn't right with him, she insists. And though Farnum seems physically fine, Judy's nagging feeling that Deardra is right comes back to haunt her when Farnum burns his home to the ground, having first shut Deardra and their son inside. Locked up in the town’s holding cell, Farnum’s not rightness is more apparent by the hour, and David arranges to have him transferred to big-city Cedar Rapids the following day.

But the following day, some local good ol’ boys find a corpse in a nearby swamp, still harnessed to a parachute; David and Russell soon locate his plane — a big, black thing that has "military" written all over it — submerged nearby. What it was carrying is anybody’s guess, but the fact that that no one reported it missing is mighty suspicious, not to mention worrying — the swamp drains directly into Ogden Marsh’s water supply. To top it all off, when David and Russell return to the station they find all connections to the outside world severed: Landlines, cell phones, Internet... all dead. And then all hell breaks loose: Their friends and neighbors become bloodthirsty monsters and a military task force swoops in to contain the ever-worsening situation.

There was no reason to expect The Crazies would be any better than dozens of other amped-up, dumbed-down Hollywood horror remakes; Crazies co-writer Scott Kosar had a hand in the dismal do-overs of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003) and The Amityville Horror (2005); his partner, Ray Wright, helped transform J-horror classic Pulse (2001) into a generic "pretty young people in peril" picture; and of director Breck Eisner’s only other major credit, the dismal action-comedy Sahara (2005), the less said the better.

But The Crazies is scary as hell: The small town setting never feels condescendingly symbolic, the characters are actually characters (Eisner had the advantage of a stronger cast than Romero's) and the escalating tension hinges on the fact that line between abnormal behavior triggered of extreme stress and the warning signs of infection is blurred and constantly shifting. And if the notion of germ-warfare mishaps and government cover-ups is less shocking than it once was, it's because today’s reality bears an unnerving resemblance to yesterday’s paranoid fantasy.

Fans of the original will be pleased by the remake’s subtle call outs to its predecessor, notably a haunting cameo by '70s exploitation favorite Lynn Lowry and a brief mention of the toxin’s code name: "Trixie."

 For more by Maitland McDonagh: MissFlickChick.com

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