Sunday, August 2, 2009

"Orphan" update and "Nevermore"

A few posts ago, I complained about how the advertising campaign for "Orphan" was annoying me wherever I went. I even suggested that the film may be...well, stoopid. I caught it at a screening last weekend and I really must revise my opinion.

Although I didn't necessarily slam the film, since I hadn't seen it yet, I may have been prematurely unkind about its plot and the fashion sense of its titular character. Turns out it's a damn effective thriller with some fine performances.

Vera Farmiga ("The Departed") is all raw nerves as Kate, an unhappy wife and mother whose husband, John (the reliable Peter Saarsgard), seems to be out of touch with her suffering. She is heartbroken over the loss of her third baby, who died in the womb, rendering her unable to bear another. Anxious to transfer her pent-up affection to an adopted child, she sets her sights on an orphanage for older chiildren, even though they already have two of their own at home: hearing-impaired daughter Max (Aryana Engineer) and preteen son Daniel (Jimmy Bennett). This is already one messed-up family unit, and it's about to get a whole lot worse.

Enter Esther (Isabelle Fuhrman), a seemingly ideal nine-year-old Russian orphan, whose friendliness and talent with a paintbrush wins the hearts of everyone except Daniel, who can sense there's something nasty about her.

This is a cult star-making turn for Fuhrman. Only 12 years old when the film was shot, she delivers an assured, precocious and downright brutal performance as the kid whose outward sweetness and talents conceal a truly black heart and brutal agenda. Engineer, who is hearing-impaired in real life, is also sensational as she transitions from a happy little sister to an unwilling co-conspirator in Esther's horrible deeds. Many of the plot twists involve sign language and lip reading, and they are clever.

I'm still not going to give away any spoilers, but I have to admit, for the record: her bizarre clothing is sufficiently explained; the twist ending, even though I knew it was coming, is still suitably mind-blowing; and she could probably kick the shit out of Rhoda Penmark.

Last night I was honored to attend a performance of "Nevermore" at the Steve Allen Theatre here in Los Angeles. Subtitled "an evening with Edgar Allan Poe," this one-man show stars the sublime Jeffrey Combs as the tortured author, giving a reading of some of his latest work—and laying his agonized soul bare in the process.

The play's director, Stuart Gordon, who helped propel Combs to fame with "Re-Animator," was actually there working the boards, which certainly gave new meaning to a "hands-on" approach. Gordon's background is in Chicago theater, so he must be really enjoying this success, particularly since all indicators, like last week's love letter in the L.A. Times, point to a continued run, including a visit to Manhattan.

Certainly his film work has been much celebrated by those of us who reside in Weird Movie Village: the aforementioned "Re-Animator," "From Beyond" and "Dolls"; and the recent "King of the Ants" and "Stuck" display his evolving talent and capacity for more contemporary subjects.

Combs previously portrayed Poe in the Gordon-directed "Masters of Horror" segment "The Black Cat," and he has surely found his special live theater niche as much as Hal Holbrook did with "Mark Twain Tonight" in the 1970s.

The play, by "Re-Animator" co-scribe Dennis Paoli, finds Poe on a cross-country speaking tour as his fame and health are dissipating, accelerated by the death of his beloved Virginia as well as his various addictions. Surreptitiously sneaking a couple of sips as he begins, he eventually belts down a pint of whiskey in full view of the audience while begging their indulgence, wavering between sharp coherence and flights of deluded fancy.

My fellow viewers unfortunately decided that "drunk means funny" and carried on their laughter for far too long, but Combs stayed determinedly in character, depicting the frenzy of a man who is simultaneously suffering the loss of his great love and the derision of his literary peers. And he performs two pieces, "The Tell-Tale Heart" and "The Raven," in their entirety.

has been extended through August, so if you're in the Los Angeles area—or anticipate being there—get your tickets right away!

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