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REVIEW: Stage Beauty

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Randy and romantic in 1660s England, Billy Crudup, stage star and the golden god of Almost Famous, plays Edward “Ned” Kynaston, stage star and the finest female on the London boards, whose dying Desdemona makes men shiver, gasp and grab her ass after the show. The film begins at Kynaston’s height, when all the world admires his beauty — and just before King Charles II decrees that women will finally play themselves, putting old Ned out of a job.

    “Where’s the art in that?” snaps Kynaston. And, in this film, perhaps he’s right. Claire Danes, who began an affair with Crudup during the production, plays Kynaston’s assistant and rival with a kind of bland petulance. As she moves from stitching costumes backstage to swooning for the audience, her dormant performance does little to refute Kynaston’s argument. She’s plain and merely passable, while Crudup is brilliant — no more so than when he is on stage, reinventing Kynaston’s wild theatrics, splaying his arms and fingers in learned, geometric precision. Then there’s a ferocious, over-the-top stage scene toward the end that requires Crudup to play out from this precious femininity and into something much more brutal, a twist perhaps only he, or maybe Johnny Depp, could have pulled off.

    This is a Stage Film, and Stage Films are typically double romances: films about the love affair on screen, and the love affair with the Art. Kynaston’s romance with the Duke of Buckingham (Ben Chaplin), who makes love to him only if he wears his wig, gets short shrift, while Crudup and Danes indulge their passion for Theater like giddy sisters at theater camp. The film plays a bit musty, largely when Danes dominates the screen, or when it moves from the confines of the theater, a haven from a world where nasty fat men make dumb passes and moronic teenage girls ask to see “your thingie.” (It’s as if Eyre knew he needed to dust off this material and spice things up a bit, but didn’t quite know how to do so organically.) Similarly, the gender-play is all very romantic and contemporary — perhaps too contemporary: King Charles II, played with wild camp by Rupert Everett, comes off more as a randy Rupert Everett than a king.

    But flaws aside, if, night after night, Restoration audiences came from miles round to see Kynaston’s brilliant Desdemona dying, and dying, and dying — there’s no reason not to see Crudup’s brilliant theatric Kynaston living, and living, and living. — Logan Hill

REVIEW: Last Life in the Universe
Thai director Pen-Ek Ratanaruang’s latest film unfurls its characters’ inner lives the way cigarette smoke reveals the secret shape of breathing — through a slow-burning, bitter beauty. An unlikely love story about an Asian odd couple, Last Life in the Universe flirts with familiar conventions: the opposites-attract screwball-comedy, the violent poetry of yakuza-flick shootouts, rescue fantasies, cultural malapropisms. But with the aid of famed cinematographer Christopher Doyle, (Hero, In the Mood for Love), Ratanaruang upends expectations, leaves us disoriented, and then shows us what he’s really after: a narrative that makes innermost thoughts manifest on the screen, a dream rendered with open eyes.

    Ratanaruang starts his cinematic sleight of hand from the beginning — is the first shot real or fantasy? We meet the emotionally deadened librarian Kenji (Japanese superstar Asano Tadanobu) in his immaculate apartment, done up in cool blues and shadows. Rather, we meet his feet, which are dangling over a sprawl of books. “This could be me in three hours,” he says in voiceover, before the camera cuts to him tying a noose and affixing a Post-It note reading, “This is bliss” to his hand. He perches on top of his books, preparing to take flight . . . and then his front-door buzzer starts blaring.

    Suicidus interruptus. Kenji’s death wish is continually confounded by alarms, bells, the hell that is other people. None of his mortality aids — the gun stuffed in a teddy bear, the crushing wheels of a car — work. For Kenji, faux suicide is Mishima-esque performance art, existential ennui and a habitual tic rolled into one, the sort of thing that compels him to label his outfits by day and line up beer cans. Unfortunately, as much as he tries, he can’t bring himself off. Then, in a bit of black-hearted irony, everyone else around him starts dying.

    Kenji takes up with Noi (the volcanic yet vulnerable Sinitta Boonyasak) after one of these bloody convulsions, a traffic accident that leaves both of them stunned. In the aftermath of the accident, Kenji insinuates himself into the squalid beauty of her beach house, washing piles of laundry and crusty dishes, and suffering through the scatological tendencies of the house’s mistress, who overcomes their lack of a common language with enough English to ask him — when she’s not too stoned to speak — if he masturbates a lot.

    As the Death and the Maiden setup makes clear, Ratanaruang traffics in extremes. The slow, lovely idyll of Kenji and Noi’s relationship is sandwiched between eruptions of mayhem, and while Ratanaruang has dialed back the cack factor from his previous films (most recently the musical morality play Mon Rak Transistor), he still can’t help following up a poignant moment with accusations of farting.

    The house has its own duality — it’s a rotting Eden that is miraculously resurrected through Kenji’s ministrations. Doyle’s expressionistic camera work reveals the characters’ growing tenderness through the house’s transformation, lays out their most intimate dreams more clearly than their broken conversations can. An elegy to two people who help each other struggle out of numbness and grief, the film would be intolerably maudlin were it not for the restraint with which Ratanaruang measures his characters’ transformations. By the end, the film grants Kenji a sort of post-coital cigarette, which this fastidious man surprisingly lights up without the benefit of an ashtray. His Post-It note lies in front of him — “This is bliss.” This time, the suicide note reads like a bittersweet valentine. — Noy Thrupkaew
Date DVD #2: Saved!
Every teen movie, in its own way, is a date movie. And some — the ones that aren’t too stupid or locker-room crude — play even better outside the Clearasil demographic. The right teen movie, like Mean Girls or Saved!, may actually be a better date DVD for adults: an optimistic contrast to the divorce-and-adultery plots of so-called adult dramas.

    Set in a fundamentalist Christian high school, Brian Dannelly’s film is an earnest comic charmer. Mandy Moore plays a wacko born-again girl with her hair all blown out, in a battle with her impure, misfit peers. Jena Malone plays Moore’s pale and lovely protagonist, a shy, good girl who gets pregnant by a dumb jock and has to decide whether or not to keep the baby. There’s only a bit of actual romance in the film, between Eva Amurri (who plays a bad girl) and Macaulay Culkin (who plays Moore’s brother, in a wheelchair); then between Malone and sensitive guy Patrick Fugit (still not famous after Almost Famous). Mostly, the film pits Moore’s righteousness against Malone’s pragmatic confusion. There’s a giant Jesus in the parking lot and a loud-and-proud gay sidekick, some mostly harmless satire and a heavy dose of uplifting sentiment: In the hugs-and-kisses finale, we learn we’re all God’s children and whatnot.

    I’ve got a feeling I would have hated this movie as a teenager; it would have been too sappy and too earnest for me then, especially because Amurri, dressed in a outfit intended to make her look punk, comes off more like a mall rat with bangs. In fact, the film did better in arthouse towns than multiplexes — a little ironic distance enabled it to deliver a kick of nostalgia. Thankfully, Dannelly tweaks teen-movie conventions as he tugs at your heartstrings. He touches on teen pregnancy, gay bashing and church corruption, but basically, gently, he conveys the sense of what it felt like when you were a little bit younger and hornier. Dating requires irrational optimism — and this film delivers plenty. — Logan Hill



 
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