Thursday, November 22, 2012

Spies Like Us: Skyfall and Argo

(reflections on two movies, SKYFALL directed by Sam Mendes, and ARGO, directed by Ben Affleck.)

Affleck in ARGO; Bardem, Craig and Dench in SKYFALL
How refreshing it is to see two Hollywood movies that focus on personal struggles and leave the rest of the planet intact!   I once counted three different versions of the apocalypse during previews, before the feature film handed me a world-wide conspiracy that would end life as we know it. But let us give thanks this Thanksgiving for two tension-packed spy movies that give us more character than CGI effects. 

SKYFALL focuses on just a handful of characters.  Daniel Craig as James Bond has a face worth the close attention.  Craggy and a little goofy, it's the face of a boy in middle age, registering amusement, determination, fleeting self-doubt, and hurt disillusionment, even in the absence of dialogue.  Bond's boyhood is emphasized throughout this movie.  His past figures importantly in the plot, and he shares the film's focus with the character he jocularly calls "Mum," Judi Dench as "M."  She is the object of a personal animus from the villain, played by Javier Bardem, who tries to seduce Bond away from her. 

Director Mendes gives us lots of action choreographed for story first, spectacle second.  We get lots of laughs, including the chuckles of recognition whenever there's reference to a Bond trademark -- girl, the line "Bond, James Bond," the car, the gadgets, and the martini, the cocky theme: they're all here.   But affection and sympathy are the main line through the story, the action being incidental -- where other movies have been the opposite, injecting sympathy at intervals to relieve the monotony of mayhem. 

ARGO tells a real spy-story, the de-classified account of how six Americans made it back home from Iran via Canada in 1980.   Comic - book style story boards remind us how the US and UK raised up the Shah in 1952 to reclaim oil fields that a secular, democratically-elected president had nationalized, how the Shah enforced his regime, and how the religious revolution led to bloody and violent recrimination.  Seeing the storming of the US embassy from the inside, we appreciate how it feels that forces beyond anyone's control are engulfing the mild-mannered personnel inside.   Director Affleck thus gives us a broad view of how Iranians have legitimate gripes against the US, but we also see American individuals doing their best -- low-level diplomats, high-level bureaucrats, and humane soldiers. One officer goes out alone, unarmed, to "reason" with the mob, a valiant effort that fails. 

After that tumultuous start, Affleck draws us into the true story of how a CIA agent named Menendez comes up with a plan to rescue the Americans.  Estranged from wife and young son, he has his brainstorm when he shares a long-distance moment of bonding with his son, watching a sci - fi movie together.  He concocts the scheme of rescuing the Americans by posing as Canadian producer of a sci-fi film to be called "Argo."  How he convinces the Brass that this is the "best bad idea they've got" and how he convinces dubious Hollywood professionals (played by John Goodman and Alan Arkin) to commit to pretending to make a movie that will never exist, make for high comedy.  Even then, we get one of the many touching moments in the movie -- when Arkin, as a director, dubious about the plot, glances at a TV clip of a blindfolded hostage, and his humanity overrides skepticism.

The rest of the movie is about relationships and trust.  Besides Affleck and his collaborators, we see the six Americans, holed up in the Canadian ambassador's residence, barely holding up under the pressure of hiding, watched with suspicion by their Iranian housekeeper.  Menendez as movie producer "Harkins" has to win them over, and then teach them to act.   Tension builds, even though we know how the story turns out, because new obstacles arise as the moment of escape approaches.  The pace quickens as we jump from locations around Tehran to offices in DC and a movie set in Hollywood, watching members of the team fight for the success of the mission.

The whole story is so unlikely that laughs come easily, even in the midst of real-life tension.  Iranian guards, earnest and frightening, are also fascinated by the sillly sci-fi story.  There's an extended sequence juxtaposing two media events across the globe:  a trumped-up reading of "Argo" by actors in cheesy Star Wars ripoff costumes alternating a reading of a revolutionary's indictment of the US. 

A student of mine recently disagreed with me when I said "the incidents of a story are nothing; it's about character." He said, "Wrong, incidents are everything."  In these movies, the incidents certainly had me kicking the railing in front of me at the local multi-plex, but characters and their choices are what remain with me.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Little Women, Big Voices

(reflection on a performance of LITTLE WOMEN, a musical.  Book by Allan Knee, Music by Jason Howland, Lyrics by Mindi Dickstein. Production at The Walker School, Marietta, GA, directed by Mrs. Katie Arjona.  I saw the show at its opening, November 1, 2012.  Pictured:  Alex Catlin as "Jo" and Eleni Demestihas as "Aunt March," a screen cap from YouTube.)

More than the story, more than the songs, it's the sound of LITTLE WOMEN that has stayed with me since I saw it opening night.

As "Jo," the ambitious and loving eldest sister, senior Alex Catlin warmed the room with a pure, golden tone.  Whether she was singing all the parts in an imagined "operatic tragedy," mock-Donizetti in a duet with overbearing "Aunt March" (played by Eleni Demestihas, whose Broadway contralto voice brings to mind Kaye Ballard), or Jo's personal declaration of independence and ambition, "Astounding," Miss Catlin's voice was a supple instrument that expressed her character's thoughts.   (I heard her in a preview performance when a technical glitch prevented the orchestra from playing the first few bars -- and Alex was poised and pitch-perfect singing the part, as if it had been written a cappella)

The director, Mrs. Katie Arjona, chose this show because, in her words, "This year, we have the girls who have the pipes for it."   How right she was!   Each of the other leading women had distinctive sounds that reflected their characters.

Georgie Wilkins as frail "Beth" sang with a silvery sweet sound, affecting in "Some Things Are Meant To Be" about leaving life young, and delightful in a pastiche parlor duet, "Off to Massachusetts." Seated at a piano with elderly Mr. Laurence (Alex LaDue),  they began their relationship with that song -- we never see them together again -- but just their harmonizing generates a sense of mutual affection.   That's the magic of musical theatre!

As the mother, Rachel Novak responded to a letter from the absent father in the song "Here Alone" with a mature sound and quiet passion, more feeling than the absent patriarch deserves.  Younger sisters Meg and Amy (Shannon Keegan and Liane Houde), possessing strong voices with wide ranges, blended with the other women in a quartet early in the show that cast a glow over the whole evening.  The audience knew, even if the story turned out to be a bit thin, the evening would be beautiful.

Credit goes to vocal director Samantha Walker, who coached these young voices since September, teaching them technique to support the sound and to smooth out the highs and lows.   Individually, the men blended well with the powerful-voiced women in their characters' lives.  Senior McLain McKinney played the role of young Mr. Laurence (a.k.a. "Laurie"), a mostly comical juvenile role.  McKinney projected exuberance, whether he was dancing (and boxing!) to attract "Jo's" attention, or standing still to receive her scorn.   Junior Matt Zibanejadrad played "Professor Baer" with a strong voice and a slight German accent, generating sympathy for this stodgy character in his solo "How Am I," a self-disgusted response to Jo's question in a letter, "How are you?"  The youngest singer in the bunch, freshman David Simpson, sang a vocally demanding duet with Shannon Keegan, "More Than I Am," and the two of them sang this rangy ballad with more self-assurance than we would expect, and made us believe that their relationship was going to grow and last.

When the whole ensemble sang together, as in "The Weekly Volcano Press," counter-melodies intertwining and voices blending in rich harmony, they generated a wonderful sound. 

In the school's production, all of this was made clear with staging by director Mrs. Katie Arjona on a vast two-tiered set by designer Mr.  Bill Schreiner.  The set efficiently suggested a number of different Victorian homes merely by re-positioning a staircase, a bookcase, and some furniture.  

Heard but unseen, the orchestra supported the cast's luscious voices and brought different colors -- solo strings and sunny brass -- to the mix.  Mr. Todd Motter conducted the orchestra and also cued the singers via closed-circuit video monitors concealed in the "footlights" of the stage.