Saturday, January 30, 2010

A Critic Squirms on Broadway

“NY Times” theater critic Ben Brantley’s reviews are a must-read for me. Like the best of the best whether I agree or disagree with his takes is irrelevant. I always come away feeling that I’ve learned something new – because even after all these years Brantley himself seems to be discovering something fresh from each and every show he analyzes.

And then at the other end of the “Times” spectrum is critic Charles Isherwood, whose byline shouldn’t even be gracing the same page as Brantley’s. Normally I avoid Isherwood’s predictable, clich├ęd non-think pieces but the title Feeling Unsettled At a Feel-Good Show in this past Sunday’s “Times” (1/31/10) caught my eye. The essay is the result of Isherwood’s conflicted response to the Broadway hit “Fela!” about Nigeria’s iconic Afrobeat creator and political activist, directed and choreographed by the legendary Bill T. Jones. Four paragraphs into the piece Isherwood explains, “As much as I enjoyed the show…it left me with lingering questions about the depiction of the African milieu it evoked. In short, the emphasis in ‘Fela!’ on the spectacle of African culture tilted the show a little too closely toward minstrelsy.”

In short, Isherwood is upset that he was forced to think, to confront a reaction he didn’t expect, instead of being merely entertained. (Which led me to wonder, did he not get the memo that thinking is part of his job requirement?) But instead of looking in the mirror and asking himself why he’s disturbed that “the way the dancers weave in and out of the audience repeatedly seems ingratiating, a sort of seduction that almost sexualizes the performers,” as Isherwood puts it (and what is wrong with this sexualizing other than the fact that it makes a particular theater critic uncomfortable?) he does something even more outrageous than any touchy-feely performer would dare. He blames the show!

After expounding upon the production’s women in their “flesh-baring ensembles” who “strut around the stage and the theater looking exotic, imperious and sexy” Isherwood adds that, “So too do the male members of the ensemble, who also bare a lot of flesh but have little to do other than sing and dance. Hence my discomfort.” Considering “Fela!” is a show directed and choreographed by a gifted and unapologetic dance man Isherwood’s attitude is damn condescending. “Little to do other than sing and dance” implies that singing and dancing are a step below the speaking of dialogue. Isherwood complains that only the title character gets to have his say, while ignoring the fact that all those hardworking performers rendered mute are actually emoting through their bodies. Which he’d realize if he’d chosen to set aside his preconceived notions of what a musical should be and simply watch this form of theater through its choreographer’s lens. Isherwood is only freaked out because “Fela!” doesn’t adhere to what he believes a Broadway show to be – with spoken words privileged above body language. (He later adds, “Although some of the dancers have individual moments, none are given individual voices.” Only if by “voices” Isherwood means actual words. My guess is that Isherwood is not listening to distinct voices emerging through a physical form because he can’t transcend his own limited way of seeing.)

Indeed, Isherwood admits as much when he writes, “Would I feel any discomfort if I were attending an African dance recital at Dance Theater Workshop? Probably not.” But for Isherwood the Broadway setting is “a little like being in a Disneyland version of Africa.” Since Disney seems to own most of Broadway these days (has he not heard of the Disneyland version of Africa called “The Lion King”?) one wonders why Isherwood is overly sensitive only to “Fela!” being Disney-fied – so much so that he faults the production for the context he’s seeing it in. “’Fela!’ sometimes seems to turn its ostensible characters into flashy sideshow entertainments, to elevate sensation over substance,” he even laments. But isn’t this what Fela Kuti himself did? First came the sensation (his music) followed by his substance (his politics). Isherwood couldn’t even get past his own unnerving sensations – so how could he ever hope to experience the substance within “Fela!”? Now that I think of it, perhaps I did learn something from Isherwood after all. When it comes to a critic like this it’s best to blame the messenger.

Friday, January 29, 2010

“A View from the Bridge” at the Cort Theater

In a time when Broadway, like Hollywood, is all about bigger and flashier, spectacle over substance, avatars over actors, it’s a minor miracle that a throwback drama centered around a family of Italian immigrants in 1950s Red Hook, Brooklyn can even get staged. Sure, star power is essential, and it’s hard to imagine director Gregory Mosher’s riveting production of Arthur Miller’s “A View from the Bridge” landing at the Cort Theatre without names like Liev Schreiber and Scarlett Johansson attached. Yet it might just be the perfect show for these recessionary times: Mosher and his flawless crew seem to be doing twice the work with half the effort, and like the striving blue-collar characters they play, his hardworking cast takes nothing for granted, busting their collective ass to bring Miller’s work to life.

To read the rest visit The House Next Door (now at Slant Magazine!)

Monday, January 25, 2010

Screw Clooney! (Actors Whose Sex Appeal Transcends Their Non-Leading Man Looks)

Hollywood history doesn’t include many stars like Sal Mineo, a character actor whose feral cat charisma enabled him to hold his own onscreen against no lesser an icon of otherworldly beauty than the equally tragic James Dean. In “Who Killed Teddy Bear?,” Joseph Cates’s riveting sexploitation film noir – which recently screened in a rare 35mm print at NYC’s Anthology Film Archives – about a Times Square disco hostess (the always stunning Juliet Prowse) being stalked by an obscene caller Mineo plays Lawrence, a quiet busboy caring for his mentally retarded younger sister. Quite early on we learn he’s also deeply disturbed. Yet when Prowse’s character Norah unaware of Lawrence’s distasteful predilections compliments him on his toned body after a swim in the local gym’s pool we buy that she might be attracted to this creep. The average looking Mineo could make even a perverted weirdo sexy.

Which brings us to the myth of modern Hollywood – reflected in 21st century life – that beauty and sexiness always go hand in hand. I find this utterly ridiculous. Though I wouldn’t necessarily kick Brad Pitt out of bed, I certainly would grab a one-night-stand with Willem Dafoe over sex with Angelina’s leading man hubby anytime anyplace (of course, the seedier the better). In the good old movie days nondescript manly men like Humphrey Bogart could land vixens like Lauren Bacall without having to resemble Clark Gable; and while the women didn’t do quite so well in Tinseltown an Italian siren such as Anna Magnani looked to be every bit as good a lay as knockout Sophia Loren.

So, with all due respect, to George Clooney, Matt Damon, Will Smith and all those other A-list handsome nice guys, here are five lesser mortals who I’d green light over you in the sack. Beauty is only skin deep, after all, while sexiness comes from the mind and soul.

Willem Dafoe

Bobby Peru. The two words that sealed the Dafoe deal for me. Watching Dafoe as Bobby meticulously mentally disassemble then mind-fuck Laura Dern’s Lula in David Lynch’s warped “Wild At Heart” changed my life. Dafoe tapped into the dirty little secret that you don’t have to look like Nic Cage if you’ve got the X-ray vision to discern another’s most secret desires, and the balls to coax that taboo out into the light of day. Bobby tells Lula he likes a woman with nice tits who talks tough “and looks like she can fuck like a bunny.” “Do you fuck like that, huh?" he teasingly whispers from across the room. Even when Dafoe is playing the good guy (like in “Mississippi Burning” two decades ago) his fiery sinister sexuality can’t be extinguished. Bunny jump fast!

Peter Mullan

I last saw Peter Mullan playing a less than chaste priest at a press screening of the “Red Riding Trilogy” (due out in February) and it was like running into an old lover you hadn’t thought about in years. The Scottish actor first came to my attention for his riveting performance as a struggling alcoholic in “My Name Is Joe,” and though he may not have the classic studio looks of fellow countryman Sean Connery, he’s got the same aggressive and magnetic masculinity. Mullan doesn’t light up the screen so much as render it null and void, with those lascivious voyeuristic eyes that are forever roving and calculating. Indeed, it’s possible to leave the theater wondering who was watching whom.

Tim Roth

Whether it’s “Made in Britain,” “Little Odessa” or “Reservoir Dogs” Roth has a bad boy habit of seducing us with his primal intensity. He commands attention even when in a terrible made-for-TV movie like “Tsunami: The Aftermath,” in which he played a tousled roguish journalist. There’s a striking scene in that otherwise forgettable flick where Roth’s character, fed up with an incompetent bureaucracy, orders a drink at a bar. The camera lingers a tad too long in the uncomfortable tension emanating from Roth’s journo as he doesn’t ask but absolutely demands. Roth knows the line between need and desire is fluid, and he walks it with the sultry skill of a tight-wire artist.

John Malkovich

What Spike Jonze captured in “Being John Malkovich” was the same sexy quality apparent in “Dangerous Liaisons,” “Ripley’s Game” and even “Shadow of the Vampire” (opposite fellow sinister hottie Willem Dafoe) – the aspect of being an enigma. The elusive Malkovich compels us with his unreadable, hence unattainable, demeanor, forever creating secretive characters to toy with us. Unlike hot-blooded Roth Malkovich is an ice prince, a cool tease. Rather than give us what we want he’ll always leave us begging for more.

Christopher Walken

From the start of his career the gangly song and dance man was just too weird to be a lead. As good as he was in “The Deer Hunter” Walken’s striking physicality and creepy charisma often overtake the character of Nick, and it wouldn’t be until madman Abel Ferrara came along to cast him in “King of New York” that his offbeat air of sexual menace was allowed to fully shine through. Even weirder Ferrara did the same for unconventional Harvey Keitel in “Bad Lieutenant.” Walken like Keitel makes you feel dirty just by watching him, as if there’s a pornographic subtext hidden inside his every line.

Interview with "Fish Tank" director Andrea Arnold

Andrea Arnold, along with Shane Meadows, is part of an exciting tide of British directors who are redefining the kitchen sink realism of Ken Loach and Mike Leigh for a new post-punk generation. I sat down with the critically acclaimed director of “Fish Tank,” the follow up to her Cannes-winning debut “Red Road,” at the Soho Grand to briefly discuss the importance of detail, female insight and listening to imaginary horses.

LW: First off, one of the things that most impresses me is how concise and precise the images are in your films. You say everything you need to say within the least amount of frames. Obviously a lot of people are going to think of the kitchen sink realism of Loach and Leigh but there’s also a poetic, nearly Neorealist quality to your work. Can you talk a bit about your filmmaking influences?

AA: Ooh, I have quite a lot. Everyone from Terence Malick to the Dardenne brothers to David Lynch, Michael Haneke –

LW: “The White Ribbon.” Everyone hated it but me. (laughs)

AA: Yeah, I saw it at Telluride. I don’t know if I was just in a funny mood that day, but it was the first time during a Haneke film that I wanted to leave the cinema.

LW: That’s good!

AA: Yeah, I know. He wants me to feel that way.

LW: Well, you direct in a similar way. I mean, you don’t have a comfortable filmmaking style at all. That seduction scene between older man Connor played by Michael Fassbender and Katie Jarvis’s teenage Mia, which is the centerpiece of “Fish Tank” – that’s damn hard to watch.

AA: Yeah, one of my friends described it as “everything I didn’t want and everything I wanted.”

LW: Let’s talk a little bit about that disturbing scene, because interestingly, I found myself smiling during it.

AA: (laughs surprised) Oh, really?

LW: Yes, but what made me smile was the realization that this is a director who actually “gets it” – how seduction can turn to coercion in the blink of an eye. I can’t remember when I’ve seen this rite-of-passage aspect even depicted onscreen and yet it’s something a lot of teenage girls go through. It was like a catharsis for me to see it. It’s also a situation few teenage boys ever experience, which is maybe why male filmmakers wouldn’t think to depict it. Can you talk a bit about its importance and how you developed it? It also happens to be the most visually stylized scene in the film.

AA: Well, I think a lot of it just starts with the writing. When I’m writing I try hard to imagine that situation and how it would really be. And a lot of the details, I think it goes back to what you were saying about being precise. I’m able to concentrate on details, to really think them through, to really imagine them. Quite often there will be some strange detail that I don’t even understand. There was an earlier short where I wanted a shot of a balloon floating across this wasteland. And I’m getting everyone to do the shot, and I don’t think they understood quite what I was getting at, but I somehow knew it was really important.

LW: David Lynch works that way.

AA: Oh really? Does he? (laughs flattered) Well, like with the horse in this film. When I was writing about the horse –

LW: Was that the first image that you had when you started writing?

AA: No, it wasn’t the first. But when I started writing at the beginning always there was that horse. I actually wrote two different beginnings, just trying to find my way into the story, to try to see this person, to ask, “What is she doing on this day?” Yet every time I started writing about her, every time I came at it a different way, the story still came from the horse. And the horse in the script was always an old, dirty brown horse. It wasn’t a white one. But she just kept meeting that horse so I thought, well, the horse is supposed to be there. I didn’t question it. A couple people said it was a metaphor – a heavy-handed metaphor – but I never meant for it to be a metaphor for her situation. The horse just wanted to be there.

LW: Sometimes a horse is just a horse.

AA: Maybe so.

“Fish Tank” is now playing at a theater near you. My review and interview with lead actor Michael Fassbender is now playing at Slant Magazine.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Interview with Michael Fassbender

With his combination of fearless physicality and intense intellect, Michael Fassbender is poised to become the next Daniel Day-Lewis. Not surprisingly, he also turned out to be the most engaging and humble interview subject that one could hope for. We spoke at length about the differences between working with “Fish Tank” director Andrea Arnold versus Steve McQueen (“Hunger”) and Quentin Tarantino (“Inglourious Basterds”); about applying theatrical training to film; and, yes, even about that highly disturbing centerpiece of “Fish Tank.”

To read the interview visit Slant Magazine.

Fish Tank

Film criticism is like solving a cinematic mystery - figuring out how and why something moved you or failed to. With Andrea Arnold's mesmerizing “Fish Tank,” the follow-up to her acclaimed debut, “Red Road,” the answer lies in what's smartly missing. The British director's filmmaking style is precise and concise, as tight and lean as her teenage heroine. Because this coming-of-age tale contains not one extraneous word or image, its strong visceral atmosphere is allowed to organically emerge.

To read the rest visit Slant Magazine.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

The Ninja Cherry Orchard

The night I went to see “The Ninja Cherry Orchard” over at The Brick Theater in Williamsburg its leading ninja Jason Liebman, called away to a national commercial shoot, was replaced with two other actors (the battle ready Stephen Heskett and Alexis Black. Hey, nunchucks don’t pay the bills!) Yet the stellar cast and crew managed to pull off this classic Russian drama meets circular Monty Python sketch without a hitch. Perhaps because “the show must go on” also happened to be the theme of “The Ninja Cherry Orchard,” its plot an actor’s ultimate Freudian nightmare. After all, what can be worse than performing Chekhov’s somber study of a dying aristocracy when your fellow thespians are continually being annihilated by a stealthy, sword-wielding Japanese assassin?

Writer/director Michael Gardner has struck high/low art gold in much the same way the scholarly Pythons did with their infamous dead parrot skit – only in this case it’s the “dead” actors that the remaining “living” cast must pretend are fine and dandy. Beginning with a fairly standard “Cherry Orchard” that introduces us to grand dame Lubov Andreyevna Ranevsky (a luminous and hilarious Kelley Rae O’Donnell) and her long-suffering relatives and servants Gardner’s play soon drops hints – “We used to run free in the ninja cherry orchard…with the ninjas” – that we’re not in Chekhov territory anymore. Nevertheless all runs smoothly until suddenly a line is interrupted mid sentence by the thumping sound of heavy metal music. The lights dim, a masked man in black bearing a sword appears. Within minutes he’s dispensed of half the cast in a deftly choreographed slaughter. Then he vanishes as quickly as he came, leaving only screaming horrified witnesses. It’s now the job of the old footman Friers (a delightfully dry Aaron Butler) to calm the cast and to get them to carry on like true professionals. Shuffling over to each of the “deceased” he says their lines while animating their limbs as if manipulating ventriloquist’s dummies. The “living” tentatively fall in step and continue with the show – or at least until the end of the act when the “dead” can be replaced with fresh thespians. New updates to the program – which include such dubious credits as Constantin Stanislavski in the role of Gaev and my favorite Ukrainian director Kira Muratova as Charlotta Ivanovna – are passed out. (Well, until the helpful crew member herself becomes a ninja casualty.) Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. Until this audience member was laughing so hard I could barely breathe.

By the time the absurdist comedy spirals into characters arming themselves with rifles, multiple ninjas attacking, the revelation of Fiers as a master destroyer of ancient Japanese warriors, and the “Karate Kid” style training of Lubov (who, of course, must chop down the ninja cherry orchard in order to kill the ninja) and the remaining villagers swaddled in white martial arts garb, we’re far, far away from the Russian playwright’s grave chamber piece. Or are we? Maybe the existential dread that hangs over “The Cherry Orchard” has finally found form in an actual tangible serial killer. Besides, the ante will be upped in any slow moving drama if there’s a ninja to keep at bay. Now if only “Life of Brian” had been around back in Chekhov’s day.

Monday, January 4, 2010

"Flooding" opens Friday!


32 SECOND AVENUE NEW YORK, NY 10003; (212) 505-5181 fax (212) 477-2714


Zachary Oberzan
January 8 – 14

“An outsider-cinema masterpiece.” – Time Out NY

“An absolutely amazing concept. Wildly creative and energetic.” –David Morrell, author of FIRST BLOOD

Meticulously adapted from David Morrell’s novel FIRST BLOOD, which introduced the world to a young man named Rambo and his one-man war against a small town and its sheriff, FLOODING WITH LOVE FOR THE KID is in itself a one-man cinematic war. Shot entirely for $96 in a 220-square-foot studio apartment in Manhattan, it was adapted, directed, filmed, acted, designed, and edited by one man. Actor and filmmaker Oberzan, performing all two dozen characters, created this monumental, transgressive experiment as a testament to the animal ingenuity and triumphant spirit of the lone artist equipped with no money, no resources, no nothing. A wild, violent, compassionate ride through the back hills and caves of Kentucky, the film and its maker embrace their harsh limitations, and in doing so, ultimately transcend them. As Rambo and Sheriff Teasle hunt each other in the woods, the audience is forced to redefine the very nature of ‘suspension of disbelief’. How and why this story is told is a statement far larger than any story itself. This film asks the questions, “What do you need to make a good film? How much money? How many actors? How much space? Can you make a great narrative film with nothing but your love for the work?” An action-filled drama, it destroys all previous notions of low-budget filmmaking with a determination lifted from Rambo’s own furious rampage.

“An outsider-cinema masterpiece…. Oberzan’s mania knows no bounds.” –David Cote, TIME OUT NY

“Oberzan has not just walked the line between irony and sincerity, he’s erased it.” –Adam Green, VOGUE

“One man’s pulp is another man’s perfection. A brilliant morsel.” –Charles Isherwood, NEW YORK TIMES

“Bat-shit insane. Disarmingly effective – a guerrilla assault on the notion that high production values are necessary for compelling storytelling.” –Ben Walters, THE GUARDIAN

–Friday, January 8 through Thursday, January 14 at 7:00 & 9:30 nightly. Additional screenings on Saturday and Sunday at 4:30.


(2009, 107 minutes, video)

All roles/credits by Zachary Oberzan: Actor, camera, editor, sound


Check out these websites:

Official Facebook page

Filmmaker’s webpage

Interview with the filmmaker

Friday, January 1, 2010

My Fave Film of The Past Decade

If I had to choose only one movie of the past ten years to be stranded with on a deserted island it would be Martin Campbell’s smart and sassy “Casino Royale.” The director and his cast and crew collectively returned a sense of fun and play not only to the Bond franchise, but to the blockbuster as well. This popcorn flick’s got something to lure practically everyone into abandoning oneself to the magic of the screen. There’s richly drawn characters embodied not by stars but by highly skilled, hardworking actors (a definition that still fits Daniel Craig despite the film’s subsequently launching him into the cinematic stratosphere). Watch the chemistry between and concentrated performances from the likes of Craig (as a thuggish Bond cut from the roguish Connery cloth), Mads Mikkelsen as Le Chiffre and Jeffrey Wright as Felix Leiter during that famous high-stakes poker tournament – they could just as easily be performing Mamet on Broadway! The film’s action sequences are actually thrilling because they are organically connected to the swift-moving script, as opposed to mere excuses to blow something up so as not to disappoint a test market audience. Not to mention the riveting storyline keeps you on the edge of your seat like Ian Fleming’s page-turners did in the first place. Heck, as an added bonus there’s even a steamy gay leather scene between (my personal fetish object) Craig and sexy Mikkelsen! “Casino Royale” is classic, feel-good, Hollywood comfort food served up with just the right amount of spice.

No Final Solution: "The White Ribbon" & No Country for Young Dissenters: "Police, Adjective"

After viewing Michael Haneke’s masterpiece The White Ribbon, I came to the conclusion that Haneke is my favorite director of the past decade. From 2001’s The Piano Teacher on he’s consistently proven himself not only as a filmmaker merely to watch, but as a director to argue about akin to Lars von Trier and Roman Polanski (before the cinematic debate turned personal). Like von Trier, Haneke trains his cold lens on people desperate to make order out of mayhem. And in a way, Haneke is an anthropological Polanski, forever concerned with the evil we can’t see, with that which lies beyond the frame. He wants us to hear the words left out of the script, to feel the heaviness of absence—to ponder that which is missing.

Haneke’s Palme d’Or winner is set in northern Germany just before WWI changes the lives of the tale’s very Protestant villagers forever. The stock characters include a nerdy narrator schoolteacher, a rich baron, a strict pastor, a sadistic doctor, a suffering midwife, poor tenant farmers and—most importantly—the offspring of these varied human sources who all suffer equally and painfully. Beginning with the doctor’s bad fall from a horse that trips over a wire strung nefariously between two trees, a string of mysterious “accidents” occur that are each more disturbing and bizarre than the last. All the while these possible crimes go halfheartedly investigated since no one ever seems to have seen or heard anything (and no good religious person would dare speak evil anyway). In other words, witnesses are never present because they don’t want to be. These townsfolk are terrified to look in the mirror and maybe see a monster staring back.

To read the rest visit The House Next Door.