(*homocinematically inclined)

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Reverend’s Reviews: The President and The Spy

This presidential election season has already given Americans plenty to laugh — and cry — about.  Los Angeles’ Center Theatre Group is weighing in with their local premiere production of David Mamet’s 2007 satire, November.  Now running at the Mark Taper Forum through November 4th, it is a scattershot but frequently amusing work… so long as one can tolerate Mamet’s generous use of the F-word.

Ed Begley, Jr. headlines the LA production as President Charles “Chuck” Smith.  As Smith’s failed first term is drawing to a close, he’s less interested in being re-elected than in ensuring he has enough cash with which to build and furnish an impressive presidential library.  When Smith learns he only has $4,000 in his library fund, he begins to concoct far-fetched fundraising schemes with the help of his closest advisor, Archer Brown (played by Rod McLachlan).  Their most immediate target becomes the National Association of Turkey and Turkey By-Products Manufacturers, whose chief representative (the very funny Todd Weeks) happens to be waiting at the moment outside the Oval Office along with two turkeys waiting to be pardoned for Thanksgiving.
Smith also enlists the help of his longtime speechwriter, Clarice Bernstein (former Desperate Housewife and Transamerica Oscar nominee Felicity Huffman), to craft an alternate Thanksgiving Day mascot and menu item should the turkey rep fail to meet the President’s extortionist demands.  Bernstein is an out lesbian who has just returned with her partner from a trip to China, where the pair adopted a baby girl.  She also may have brought back an infection with highly-contagious bird flu.

While November is full of ripe ingredients for an effective satire, Mamet’s dish ultimately feels under-baked.  The cast works hard (especially Begley, who suffered a frog in his throat and some resultant poor delivery during his first scene on opening night but triumphed through the remainder of the performance) and Takeshi Kata’s Oval Office set is excellent, but too much of the play’s humor is dependent on unoriginal swipes at Jews, the Chinese and, yes, GLBT people.  Huffman is a hoot in the final scene, wherein she sashays about in a lavish wedding dress waiting for the President to marry her and her partner on national television (an arrangement she has herself extorted), and the play ends up taking a strong stance for same-sex marriage.  GLBT members of the audience, however, have to endure more than a few references to gay love as “disgusting” and “unnatural” along the way.

November is minor Mamet and hardly a play for the ages, unlike most of his other works.  If the satirically-minded among us aren’t getting enough kicks out of the current debates, though, this big-name LA production may be just the ticket to comedy heaven.

Speaking of presidential elections, the last time a James Bond adventure hit the big screen was just after Barack Obama's victory in 2008.  Now, 50 years after the debut of Dr. No -- the first feature movie adapted from one of Ian Fleming's classic novels -- and just prior to next month's premiere of the Sam Mendes-directed Skyfall, there is a terrific new documentary detailing the long-running film series' history.  Everything or Nothing: The Untold Story of 007 is now playing theatrically in the UK and on the EPIX satellite channel here in the US.

Writer-director Stevan Riley (Fire in Babylon, Rave Against the Machine) expertly distills five decades' worth of backstage and onscreen drama into 98 rapid-fire minutes.  He incorporates interviews with Fleming and those who knew him, including distant cousin and horror film star Christopher Lee, who played the villain Scaramanga in The Man with the Golden Gun; footage from Fleming's home movies; snippets from the 22 Bond features; and, most effectively, excerpts from the various Bond movie scores as the documentary's soundtrack.

"Fleming put his own struggles on the page," says current Bond Daniel Craig, while another commentator refers to the British superspy's creator as "a man of infinite contradictions."  Whereas Bond actually made his first appearance off the page in an American (and Americanized) TV adaptation of Casino Royale, it was producers Albert "Cubby" Broccoli and former circus showman Harry Saltzman who transferred Bond to the silver screen in 1962, and in the iconic form of Sean Connery.

Everything or Nothing (which was Broccoli's and Saltzman's motto as producers, the initials of whichEONcomposed the name of their production company) recounts the Connery years, as well as the one-time appearance of George Lazenby in the role.  Lazenby gives a great interview in the doc, during which he reveals that he had to convince Broccoli and Saltman he wasn't gay since his only prior experience on camera was as a male model.  Subsequent Bonds Roger Moore, Timothy Dalton and Pierce Brosnan also give illuminating interviews.  

Saltzman eventually had to sell his share in the franchise in order to pay off debts, which made Broccoli the sole proprietor behind the Bond films from 1976 until his death twenty years later.  His daughter, Barbara, and son-in-law Michael Wilson are the current custodians of the Bond name.  "Cubby," Wilson states, "never took the audience for granted."  This shows, I believe, in the series' remarkable consistency and endurance.

Moore's last appearance as Bond in 1985's A View to a Kill is strangely omitted, but Everything or Nothing is otherwise a thoroughly, captivatingly comprehensive tour of 50 years of cinema and cultural history.  It's also one of the best, most uniquely crafted documentaries I've seen this year.

Reverend’s Ratings:
November: B
Everything or Nothing: A-
Review by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and Rage Monthly Magazine.

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