Friday, October 9, 2015

Reverend's Reviews: Alienated


I apologize for being away a few weeks, dear readers, but Reverend was busy doing something he never thought he'd do: I got married! It was a lovely celebration in my now-husband's home state of Connecticut followed by a nice, if too brief, honeymoon in a nearly 300-year old haunted inn. And yes, a ghost paid us a visit our second night there, rifling curiously through our wedding gift bag at 2:30 AM.

The honeymoon really came to an end though, theatrically speaking, on October 4th when I attended the West Coast premiere of Branden Jacobs-Jenkins' Appropriate. Hard-hitting but incorporating considerable humor, it shines a glaring light on the long-hidden secrets, contemporary controversies and general dysfunction plaguing an Arkansas family, the Lafayettes. The production is running now through November 1st at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles. Like Long Day's Journey Into Night and August: Osage County before it, the play practically encourages viewers to avoid marriage and family altogether.

Long-estranged siblings Bo, Toni and Frank (who prefers to be referred to as "Franz") are reunited at their childhood plantation house in the wake of their father's death. Toni and Bo are looking to sell the estate and its related property ASAP in order to pay off daddy's sizable debts. They are thrown a curve ball when Frank appears for the first time in ten years, having done time and lived off the radar after having sex with an underage girl. His current, psychically-sensitive girlfriend, River, is in tow. Also on the scene are Bo's Jewish wife and their two children as well as Toni's secretly gay teenaged son Rhys.

Whereas family relations are tense from the get-go, they only worsen with the discovery of an album containing shocking photos of racist atrocities that apparently belonged to dear old dad. Everyone has their own opinion about what should be done with the album, and this provides much of the dramatic fuel for Appropriate's nearly 3-hour running time. Meanwhile, Mimi Lien's fantastic, massive set of the main plantation house slowly crumbles and is essentially destroyed before the audience's eyes during the play's climax.

Author Jacobs-Jenkins doesn't offer much new in terms of Southern-set explorations of human nature or family dynamics, and one can't help but to compare his plot to Tracy Lett's similar yet superior August: Osage County. The saving grace of the current production, aside from its scenic design, is the excellent cast assembled by director Eric Ting. Melora Hardin of TV's Transparent and The Office dominates as the wounded, over-compensating Toni, but David Bishins as Bo and Robert Beitzel as Frank give ultimately heartbreaking performances. Beitzel's nervous reading of a letter making amends to his siblings is a highlight, as is the sight of young Rhys (played by Will Tranfo) masturbating to gay porn on the sofa while, unaware to Rhys, Frank watches embarrassedly. Some older audience members, apparently themselves embarrassed, left during the second intermission following this scene.

Appropriate, as a word and title, can be pronounced two different ways with two different meanings. Neither is completely accurate when applied to this play, although the meaning could be somewhere in between the two. Sounds kind of like the love-hate relationships often found among siblings, don't you think?

If Appropriate is to some extent about feeling alienated within one's own family, the current movie blockbuster The Martian takes the subject of alienation to an ultimate extreme: being left alone on another planet. Matt Damon's astronaut botanist, Mark Watney, isn't abandoned there intentionally. Rather, the rest of his exploratory crew is forced to leave him for dead on Mars in the midst of a fierce sudden storm.

Initially cut off from contact with Earth and faced with a limited supply of food and water, Watney must rely on his botany skills and ingenuity to survive. Once the NASA powers-that-be (personified by Jeff Daniels, Chiwetel Ejiofor and... Kristen Wiig?) learn he is still alive, they initiate an ambitious rescue plan. However, when that fails it falls to his almost-home crew to slingshot around the Earth and make a somewhat speedier return to Mars before Watney runs out of potatoes.

The Martian is effectively and entertainingly adapted by Drew Goddard (The Cabin in the Woods, World War Z) from Andy Weir's bestselling novel. The film's somewhat surprising wild card (aside from Wiig's casting) turns out to be its veteran director, Ridley Scott. Sure, Scott has successfully helmed sci-fi scenarios before, notably Alien, Blade Runner and Prometheus. But he has never made a movie as conventionally crowd-pleasing and optimistic as his latest. He previously came closest with 1985's Legend, which was unfortunately doomed by behind-the-scenes battles with its studio. Lots of people, myself included, love Scott's rowdy Thelma & Louise (1991) but its title heroines die in the end.

The Martian is an exercise in pure, unabashed American patriotism with a nod to multi-national cooperation. It runs a bit long at 140 minutes and isn't as original as some may think (check out 1964's Robinson Crusoe on Mars for comparison's sake). I also question the film's social stance, since it implies its OK to spend billions of dollars on rescuing one man from another planet while millions here at home flounder. Fox also spent an arguably excessive $150 million on the movie. Still, its fun to see Ridley Scott finally having some fun.

While we were back east getting hitched, Pope Francis was in the vicinity stirring up the Catholic faithful as well as plenty of other folks. (We asked him to officiate at our nuptials but he was understandably overbooked.) To mark the occasion of his visit, a 1989 film biography of his papal namesake was released for the first time on Blu-ray in September. Liliani Cavani's Francesco is now available courtesy of Film Movement.

The newly-restored movie, which is included among the Vatican's list of the 15 top religious films of all time, features a mostly Italian cast and crew but boasts the decidedly unconventional Mickey Rourke as the poverty-loving St. Francis of Assisi and Helena Bonham Carter as his beloved St. Clare. Both are quite good, with Bonham Carter the most naturalistic she has been on screen before or since. The film offers a refreshingly gritty and unsanitized (with plentiful male nudity), occasionally hokey take on the lives of these beloved saints and their original devotees. Whether you are religious or not, Francesco is worth checking out.

Reverend's Ratings:
Appropriate: C+
The Martian: B
Francesco: B

Francesco is now available on Blu-ray:

Review by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and Rage Monthly Magazine.

1 comment:

Penelope Sanchez said...

This movie was excellent. As always a great performance by Matt Damon playing the lead role of Astronaut Mark Watney. Watney was presumed dead, but was actually left behind on Mars. This brilliant adaptation of the book is believable and draws you in. For two and a half hours I was focused on the struggle of Watney to stay alive while his team struggled with leaving him behind. A must watch. I will certainly watch it again and again.

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