The remorseless sense of detail is what first captures your attention. Set in the Missouri Ozarks, based on a novel by Daniel Woodrell, who calls that area home, Winter’s Bone inhabits a world of bare trees and stray dogs, lined faces and tumbledown shacks. The impoverished rural community where heroine Ree Dolly lives is not the kind of locale that usually turns up on movie screens, so at first, that setting is all you can see. But once you acclimate, the story’s mythic arc becomes visible—strong and tense and enormously compelling.
Woodrell’s work is sometimes described as “country noir” (the subtitle of one of his books is, in fact, “A Country Noir”), but that doesn’t seem quite right here. Tonally speaking, Winter’s Bone is less criminal underworld and more hellish Underworld. Like Orpheus, Ree plunges down, ignoring all advice against doing so, resolute in the way of one who believes she has no other choice, because she is on a mission to find someone lost. Ree’s quest is not romantic, not even particularly affectionate (at least not toward the man she seeks), but she holds to it doggedly. She is an epic hero in a painfully realistic world.
Sean wanted to see magic and explosions in addition to dark dreamscapes this past weekend, so we spent a lot of time at the movie theater. I wasn’t nearly as excited about The Sorcerer’s Apprentice as I was about Inception, but I can compromise. Besides, the preview reminded me a bit of Pirates of the Caribbean, for which I have perhaps too soft a spot, so I figured, what the hell. Broad, campy performance at the center; arch, knowing humor; grand but goofy special effects—I can be into that.
Unfortunately for me, I was too optimistic. Oh, sure, Nicolas Cage is game, giving his kooky all, and that’s fun enough, but the movie itself is shambling and lifeless. Six people share credit for the screenplay, and it shows. The movie is packed with tacked-on character motivations and poorly conceived backstory, and the previews give away all the best special effects, so even that bright spot has been aggressively dimmed. Pirates, I think, is dumb in a fun, clever, energetic way; Sorcerer is dumb in a dumb way, which isn’t much fun at all.
Is this how writer-director Christopher Nolan dreams? My own dreams are chaotic, flotsam-and-jetsam ordeals, so the systematic, clockwork dreams of Nolan’s Inception leave me puzzled, not so much because of their complexity but because of their weirdly antiseptic, rational nature. Like an android’s explanation of love, the movie is coolly fascinating, compelling in its own odd way, yet fundamentally flawed: It isn’t wrong, per se, but neither is it whole. I spent a couple days turning Nolan’s movie over in my mind, trying to figure out why it left me intrigued but utterly unmoved, and I finally concluded that it’s that seemingly alien quality that keeps Inception at a remove. Straightforward narratives have no place in dreams. By hewing to one, Inception makes itself a mere curiosity.
The story is remarkably straightforward, with barely half a dozen characters, no subplots to speak of, no meta-narratives or endless riffs on pop culture. The ostensibly villainous hero might disguise the movie’s nature, but underneath that, Despicable Me is retelling the simplest of fables: It is a tale about the power of love to make us better people.
Such fables can come across as naive. As one who once wrote an essay lambasting the message of the classic Beatles’ song “All You Need Is Love,” I know that well (and, for the record, I stand by that essay). But I think the slickly animated Despicable Me manages to avoid insufferable rosiness. The details in the story’s arc feel specific and true, and the protagonist’s incremental transformation feels earned in its own fairy-tale sort of way.
Shakespeare in the Park, presented by the Public Theater, on Wednesday, July 7.
Shakespeare’s Winter’s Tale is a strange play—a sometimes ungainly mash-up of Othello and Romeo and Juliet with a dash of The Tempest for good measure—and I, for one, consider the Tempest elements the most alluring. Storms and shipwrecks, curses and prophesies and seemingly impossible restorations, give The Winter’s Tale a fantastical, fairy tale quality.
Aesthetically, Michael Greif’s production captures that quality well, leaping off the play’s whimsical mishmash of cultural and historical references (the Emperor of Russia and the Oracle of Delphi together at last!) with gorgeous costumes, sets, and props of no particular time, blending the West and Middle East with glorious abandon. The Oracle is accompanied by both thuribles of incense and a pair of Whirling Dervishes. Breathtaking puppets bring to life flocks of birds and predatory bears. The production looks like a fairy tale made flesh, but doesn’t feel like one, not really. Despite the compelling performances, the Tale stays earthbound precisely when it should take flight.
Now playing at New World Stages off-Broadway.
Avenue Q made its Broadway debut in 2003, but when the economic downturn hit, it downsized back to an off-Broadway theater, for which it is well suited. I never saw it in one of the grander theaters, but its scrappy striving seems to belong in a more cozy, modest space.
Not that the musical is modest in any sense. It’s hilariously crude, for starters, and it doesn’t lack for ambition. It could have been just one dumb joke—just the giddy shock value of a warped, gleefully perverse Sesame Street—and maybe sometimes it is just that. But taken as a whole, Avenue Q features more than enough wit and insight to elevate it above the baseness of its base. Like the best episodes of South Park, Avenue Q manages to be both jubilantly childish and darkly mature, shamelessly ribald and quietly profound.
When Brooke mentioned she might like to see a Bollywood movie during her visit, I was delighted. I hadn’t seen one of those Hindi-language musical extravaganzas since a binge back in grad school, but I knew one of the theaters in Times Square nearly always features a single Bollywood film on its roster, so we went there—not knowing anything about the movie in question—to check it out.
As Bollywood roulette goes, we could have done far worse. I Hate Luv Storys [sic] is a harmless little modern-day romance—not half as clever as it thinks it is, but sweet, with its heart in the right place. Much of the humor involves tweaking Bollywood conventions, so Brooke and I would have gotten more out of that if we were better acquainted with the genre (it took me ages to place the several references to Devdas), yet the meta-ness of it all wasn’t as much of an obstacle as I feared. A climactic dash to the airport, for example, is a rom-com cliché in any language.
Now playing at the Daryl Roth Theatre off-Broadway.
Does Fuerza Bruta mean anything? The title, to be sure, translates from the Spanish as “brute force,” but does the show itself have any particular meaning? It has its share of striking images—a man running to nowhere on a treadmill, a ceiling torn down in a flurry of confetti, a quartet of women immersed in the water of a shallow pool—but these don’t seem to add up to more than, perhaps, a meandering dream of escaping the malaise of everyday life.
I won’t be writing much, if at all, this weekend because Sean and I are playing host to his niece Brooke, who is visiting New York for her sixteenth birthday.