Kendall brings great films to the neighborhood
Kendall Square Theater, One Kendall Square, Cambridge
By Stephen Brophy
If the opportunity to contemplate great acting is what makes you go to movies, then you should visit the Kendall Square Theater a few times next week. Even The City of Lost Children, valuable for the fantastic fable at the center of its plot and its special effects, makes room for a sensitive performance by Ron Perlman (Beauty and the Beast). But the prize for abundance of great acting must surely go to Henry Jaglom's Last Summer in the Hamptons.
Jaglom generally creates films around an ensemble cast which is given a basic situation and directed to improvise. Sometimes it works, sometimes it's embarrassing to watch. But nothing in his past work prepares you for the magic that grows from this particular ensemble reacting to this particular situation. Working with his wife, Victoria Foyt, Jaglom has concocted a story about a family of theatrical actors, directors, and playwrights who are spending a last summer in a grand old estate on Long Island which its owner, the family matriarch, is going to sell.
Most of the roles in Last Summer in the Hamptons were written with specific actors in mind, and incorporate a lot of their biographical information. Viveca Lindfors plays the matriarch, and when she watches her old movies, we see a younger Viveca Lindfors emoting with a younger Ronald Reagan and Errol Flynn. The matriarch left Hollywood to return to the stage and eventually became a successful teacher of acting. Every summer her students accompany her family to the estate, perform most of the menial chores, and put on a backyard play at the end of the season. We understand that invitations to see this play are very highly prized.
Given their various theatrical occupations, the family and friends gathered together here possess almost every egocentricity and/or emotional frailty that has ever been cataloged by the psychiatric priesthood. But they are not satirized, sneered at, turned into melodramatic examples of family disfunction, or otherwise abused. Instead, along with their various frailties, we become intimate with their grit and determination, their fortitude, and their commitment.
Victoria Foyt, the co-writer, plays a Hollywood actress who wants to be taken seriously. Andre Gregory and Brooke Smith, last seen together in Vanya on 42nd Street, play a randy stage director and one of his best pupils. And gay playwright Jon Robin Baitz plays a gay playwright in whose next play all present want to participate.
Jaglom borrows liberally from Anton Chekhov - not only from the Cherry Orchard and Uncle Vanya, but also the Seagull (when a gun is introduced in the first act, it must be fired by the third). And there's a great quote from Jean Renoir's masterpiece, The Rules of the Game. But Jaglom doesn't only steal their best bits, he recreates some of their sad and funny contemplation of the human comedy. If you can relax into this movie and hear what is said and unsaid in the many dialogs that tie it together, you will almost definitely come out feeling a little wiser.
Three of the most impressive film performances of the past year are available at the Kendall - Jennifer Jason Leigh in Georgia, and Elizabeth Shue and Nicholas Cage in Leaving Las Vegas. In Georgia the title character is a successful country-rock singer played by Mare Winningham, but the true protagonist is Georgia's little sister Sadie, played with harrowing genius by Jennifer Jason Leigh. Georgia can be intensely uncomfortable to watch at some points, as Leigh strips herself emotionally naked, or slides back into some self-destructive behavior again and again, all the time believing that the big break is just around the corner.
Nicholas Cage plays a similar character in Leaving Las Vegas, except that his character has given up all hope, and intends to drink himself to death. Elizabeth Shue, previously most famous for Adventures in Babysitting, delivers an amazing performance as the prostitute who hooks up with him for his last days. The film is populated with other interesting actors, including Julian Lennon and Lou Rawls. And the cinematography uses Las Vegas in ways that Scorcese should have in his disappointing Casino. Don't wait for the video release - Leaving Las Vegas one deserves to be seen in its proper aspect ratio on a big screen.
William Shakespeare contributes two proto-screenplays with two memorable villains to this acting sweepstakes, Richard III and Othello. Richard III is by far the better movie, with a visually splendid 1930's art-deco setting, which tones very subtly into a crypto-fascist design about midway through. In an international ensemble Sir Ian McKellan stands out in the title role, relishing every opportunity to share his villainy with his audience. The only clinker in the cast is Annette Bening; usually a capable actor, she is a little too wooden here.
Othello is one of those productions that assumes we can't get Shakespeare without a lot of help, so it fills in so much it leaves us nothing to imagine. There is good acting overall, especially by Branagh, whose fresh, open-faced demeanor shows us the charm of the villain Iago; most other actors revel more in the evilness if this character. Lawrence Fishburne also convinces as the tormented Moor. The film seems as ambivalent about its themes as Shakespeare once was, and shares the disgust of onlookers at the "unnatural passion" which links Othello and Desdemona across the barriers of race.
Persuasion seems mousy in comparison to the radiant version of Sense and Sensibility recently delivered by Emma Thompson and Ang Lee, but like its heroine, there is more there than first meets the eye. As carefully put together as any quality Masterpiece Theatre production, Persuasion ultimately surprises us with the passion smoldering underneath its surface calm.
Like Richard III, French Twist is a production put together by its major actor, Josianne Balasko. She portrays a very butch lesbian who accidentally meets a frustrated housewife, played by Victoria Abril, and moves in with her and her philandering, bigot husband. The movie takes place in Southern France, and has a generally sunny disposition. It's also a great exposition of bisexual family values, showing how families should exist for children and how concern for children can help people get over their petty little jealousies and hatreds.
The City of Lost Children is a fantasy/fable with a great scary tone. It lets you know right away it's going to be about dreams and nightmares, and weaves them into its intricate plot. This is the latest movie by the creators of Delicatessen, and a much more coherent, because less satirical, work.
Finally, Zhang Yimou's Shanghai Triad showcases the beauty and talent of Gong Li. She has been in every film made so far by Zhang, but rumor has it that this will be her last. It's a crime story set in the 1930s, and seen through the eyes of an adolescent boy who comes to work for the boss who is Gong Li's paramour. It has all the lovely cinematography we have come to expect from mainland China.
Next week four new films will join the schedule, and four will drop off, the most likely candidates being Othello, French Twist, Persuasion and Shanghai Triad. Among the new releases will be a twentieth anniversary re-release of Taxi Driver. Watch this space for more details.