Tuesday, July 29, 2014

All That Glitters: 'Velvet Goldmine'

Last night, my sister and I went to the Alamo Drafthouse in San Antonio to see Todd Haynes' paean to glam rock, Velvet Goldmine (1998), as part of its "Turn it Up to 11" series. It was fun to see it on the big screen again. I was surprised that there were only about a dozen people in the audience. Well, two of them showed up in glam drag at least.

Velvet Goldmine is the story of Brian Slade (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), an ambitious young musician who wants more than just stardom — he wants to change the world. Along the way, he meets and marries adoring Mandy (Toni Collette), but is knocked for a loop by the uninhibited Curt Wild (Ewan McGregor). An intense love affair and creative collaboration ensues, but it's doomed from the start. And when Brian kills off his Maxwell Demon stage persona in a publicity stunt, earning the enmity of both his fans and associates, he decides to disappear altogether.

Ten years later, in 1984, Arthur Stuart (Christian Bale),  a journalist with a glam rock past of his own, is assigned by an American tabloid to find out whatever happened to Slade. In more than just a nod to Citizen Kane, he sets off to interview those who circled in Slade's orbit, including Mandy, Curt and former manager Cecil (Michael Feast).

Cecil is wheelchair-bound, just like Joseph Cotten in Kane, and Mandy is found drowning her sorrows, Susan Alexander-style, in a dimly-lit dive bar. Their recollections spark flashbacks replete with visually sumptuous musical numbers, and we are taken along on a glitter-infused odyssey to try to understand the enigma that is Brian Slade.

A bomb upon its initial release, Goldmine is remembered more fondly by audiences than by most critics, who declared it visually interesting but deficient story-wise. I don't agree — I find it easy to follow, and the way Haynes constructs scenes from Brian's life builds an increasing feeling of melancholy, of yearning for an era that was far too short and was gone much too soon.

With his hypnotic blue eyes, Meyers makes for an otherworldly Slade. Even though his self-serving agenda is simple to spot even from space, it's also easy to see why Mandy and Curt fall for him.

Maxwell Demon is based on David Bowie's Ziggy Stardust, right down to the killing off his character. And even though the film shares its title with a Bowie song, the depiction of Slade as being a vapid opportunist evidently so displeased the glam legend that he refused to allow any of his songs to be used on the soundtrack.

McGregor's Curt is an amalgam of Iggy Pop and Lou Reed, two of Bowie's close associates back in the day, although his blond locks make him look a lot like Kurt Cobain. Collette brings humanity to Mandy, Brian's social-climbing wife, who obviously worships the ground he walks on. Both have a good onscreen rapport with Meyers, which is essential.

Bale is a mournful Arthur, and he's got good reason. As Brian's star ascends, Arthur lives in a gloomy suburb and must content himself with fantasizing over the singer's image while concealing his real self from his strict, disapproving parents. He manages to snatch a few fleeting moments of freedom in the glam scene before it all implodes, but when we meet him again in the '80s, his light has clearly gone out. Arthur is truly the broken heart of the film.

The score is great, with Radiohead's Thom Yorke standing in for Brian Ferry on a couple of numbers. The new tunes blend seamlessly with the originals by T. Rex, Roxy Music and Lou Reed. Rhys Meyers does quite a respectable job on his songs, including Eno's "Baby's On Fire," and McGregor gets the opportunity to get his kit off for Pop's "T.V. Eye". Gee, it doesn't seem that long ago that you'd go to see one of his films prepared for the inevitable full-frontal nudity (Trainspotting, The Pillow Book, Young Adam). That rascal. Here's the clip for your NSFW amusement.

Haynes stages the musical numbers with flair, strangely earning the wrath of some reviewers who thought that they were derivative. A cranky Roger Ebert complained that there were too many nods to films like A Hard Day's Night and A Clockwork Orange, which puzzles me. What better way to establish a milieu than by evoking images from such iconic cultural artifacts as these?

The Blu-Ray is available at Amazon.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Covering the Hollywood Fringe Fest

I'm embarrassed to say it's been an entire month since I've been heard from here at the Village, but I've been quite busy.

As a member of the press for the Hollywood Fringe Festival, which ran from June 12 to June 29, I took in no fewer than 15 productions, writing reviews and providing exclusive interviews with some of the gifted companies who presented terrific work at the Fringe.

One of the most fun aspects of the event for me was that I could take my bike on the Metro from Universal City and ride around Hollywood, making the experience as "green" as possible.

But now onto some of my Fringe favorites. Click on the links to be taken to my reviews and more.

Paul Hoan Ziedler's Woof-Woof was a dynamic, foul-mouthed kick in the teeth, telling the story of a severely traumatized Iraq war vet who, just released from the army psychiatric hospital, decides to go visit his childhood friend in New York, even though he's in no way prepared to re-enter society. The actors — Jay Seals, Devin Skrade and especially Brett Donaldson — really delivered.

Benjamin Durham (face covered) and Jonny Rodgers in No Homo.
Also good was two-time Fringe Fest award-winner No Homo: A Bromantic Tragedy, which skirted potential clichés and offfered up a scenario with fully-developed characters everyone in Los Angeles can relate to. And it was funny, too!

Another happy surprise was The Best of 25 Plays Per Hour, which consisted of sketches running around two minutes apiece. This sort of format runs the risk of becoming tedious, but the enormously talented company, Theater Unleashed, knew just how to present the pieces for maximum impact. Naturally, most of them were comedy skits, but there were a few poignant ones thrown in to break it up.

Brendan Weinhold and Dawn Alden in Four Tree Plays
There was even an entertaining avant-garde theater piece, Four Tree Plays, consisting of a quartet of environmentally-themed pieces performed by actors who played trees, animals and even the occasional human. It had humor, it had movement, and it felt...oh, so avant-garde.

The Lost Moon Radio troupe, a Fringe favorite, came loaded for bear with Million Dollar Hair, a riotous musical tribute to a fictitious record producer, hosted by his malapropism-afflicted daughter, who introduces the acts that helped to make her father rich throughout the years. The genre spoofing is mostly dead-on, with some hilarious lyrics — and appreciably fine musicianship.

David Haverty, Kyle Nudo, Leigh Wulff and Michael Shaw Fisher.
Adding to the musical fun was Orgasmico Theatre Company's The Werewolves of Hollywood Blvd., and this one was really ambitious. With some more spit and polish (and budget), I can easily see it playing successfully off-Broadway.

It's about an entertainment agent who, when fired by the new owner of his firm, is urged by actual "werewolves" throughout history to get in touch with his animal side. And unlike those musicals whose songs merely set to music the dialogue the characters have just spoken (cough—Wicked), the tunes here actually advance the plot and develop the characters.

Among the other shows I enjoyed, Meet & Greet was a comedy about the "business" that features four actresses who meet in a San Fernando Valley casting office to compete for a lousy role in a trashy series about a "cougar" and her young lover.

Writers Stan Zimmerman and Christian McLaughlin, who've both been in the scene for a while, create a knowing and hilarious send-up of the dreadful Hollywood casting process. Carolyn Hennesy (True Blood) and '80s goofy blond (and game show favorite) Teresa Ganzel brought the star power, ably supported by Vicki Lewis, Daniele Gaither and Paul Iacano. Easy to stage and funny as hell, I can see this becoming a regional theater favorite.

One-person shows were big at the Fringe, and I saw some good ones. I Want to Bury My Testimony was the intimate coming-out story of a former Mormon (Scott Hislop) who describes the challenges of growing up a "girly-boy" in Salt Lake City and Reno. Hislop's charm and energy really put it over. 

The Wake, written and performed by a riveting Ben Moroski, was a dark and strange piece about a guy getting over being dumped by falling in love with a dead girl. Now who hasn't done that?  

Linden Arden Stole the Highlights was written and performed by Colin Mitchell (whose Bitter Lemons site I also write for), and it's a truly galvanizing work. Taking the lyrics of a rather obscure Van Morrison song as a starting point, Mitchell creates a legendary character — an expatriate gangster hiding out in Scotland — and it results in a forceful evening of theater.

If you've never experienced the Fringe, one thing to keep in mind is that there's a scant 30 minutes downtime between shows, with several of them playing each day at each venue. So when one finishes, its company must rush out to let the next one come in, set up, do a lighting and sound check, and be ready to perform. Tick tick tick. Given these time constraints, it makes their accomplishments even more impressive.

I miss the Fringe already. Since shows were happening every day, I could hop the Metro on a Monday or Tuesday night if I felt like it — and go see a play. Now we're back to a less-sparkling beginning of the week. It feels like the lights have gone out.


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