Friday, December 17, 2021

Short Takes: December V

Reviews: Flying Over Sunset, Nightmare Alley, The Hand of God 

Flying Over Sunset (c) Joan Marcus

Theater: Flying Over Sunset 
At Lincoln Center Theater 

What does Cary Grant, Clare Boothe Luce and Aldous Huxley have in common? They lived in Hollywood in the 1950s and in the new musical, “Flying Over Sunset,” they also (fictitiously) dropped LSD together at Luce’s Southern California home. Before their joint “flight,” the musical, with music by Tom Kitt (“Next to Normal”), lyrics by Michael Korie (“Grey Gardens”) and a book and direction by James Lapine (“Sunday in the Park with George”), shows each having their first solo experience with the drug. Actor Grant (Tony Yazbeck) wants to try the drug that his wife is using in his therapy session, author Huxley (Harry Hadden-Paton) is trying to get over the death of his wife and congresswoman Luce (Carmen Cusack) just wants to try something new and exciting (even though she is politically conservative). Despite its bold approach and good intentions, this production is a jumble of contradictions. The songs are experimental in nature, and in their first collaboration, Kitt and Korie have written some of their best songs in years. But by the end of the almost three-hour show, not much of the music, save the title song, stays in one’s memory. The storytelling is solid with its deliciously bold “what if” plot keeping the audience on its toes, but the trips these three ultimately take become sort of predictable as they don’t vary much in their Freudian subject matters. The choreography by Michelle Dorrance is modern and interesting, except she relies too heavily on the same walking tap moments that get tiresome. And the acting by the core four (Robert Sella is their LSD enabler) is quite engaging, but the rest of the company doesn’t have much to do. Even the cavernous Vivian Beaumont stage occasionally feels both empty and overstuffed in Beowulf Boritt’s mostly inventive sets. I wanted so much to love this musical. Although I admire it immensely, once it was over, the promised flight of the title was unfortunately no more transporting than the local IRT train at the nearby 66th St. Station. 

Nightmare Alley (c) Searchlight Pictures

Film: Nightmare Alley 
In Cinemas 

Guillermo del Toro goes back to his horror roots with “Nightmare Alley” after winning Oscars for Best Picture and Director in 2018 for his fantasy film, “The Shape of Water.” Not that “Nightmare Alley” is really a horror movie. It’s more of a noir love letter with horror imagery steming from the 1940s circus setting of the first half and the occult overtones of the second. Bradley Cooper plays Stan, our mostly mute anti-hero, who joins the carnivals of “freaks” in hopes of disappearing. He starts to learn the tricks of the trade from a kindly old mind-reader (David Strathairn) and his wife (Toni Collette) before leaving the circus for a more upscale act in the city with Molly (Rooney Mara), the electricity conduit, in tow. In his act as “The Great Stanton,” he meets a femme fatale psychologist (Cate Blanchett), and their partnership leads to some big money and dangerous clients. Based on a novel that was made into a movie in 1947 with Tyrone Powers, the new version has style to spare. Using horror tropes that fans of his “Pan’s Labyrinth” will find familiar, the movie feels weighed down by its plot, but thankfully it’s never too dull. This is del Toro having fun and his cast plays the heightened drama with delicious relish, especially Collette and Blanchett. I don’t see a lot of Oscar nominations besides the technical categories, especially the knockout production designs by Tamara Deverell. Leave your brains at the door and enjoy the twists and turns of this noir thriller. 

The Hand of God (c) Daria D'Antonio

Film: The Hand of God 
In Cinemas and Netflix 

Maybe it’s the early 1980s Italian setting or the fact that our hero has the same curly locks and sexual curiosity, but Paolo Sorrentino’s film about his teenhood feels like a close cousin to “Call Me By Your Name.” Fabietto (Flippo Scotti) is a young man who is enjoying his summer in Naples with his huge family, dealing with one drama (please pound your chest towards God for full effect) after another, usually dealing with one of two things: a cheating spouse or soccer. Fabietto is at that age where he is staring at the opposite sex (mostly in his own family) so intensely that his father and brother recommend he have his first sexual experience and get it over and done with. As for the soccer drama, there are rumors that Argentine superstar Diego Maradona might join the Naples club, which is a dream of most of the men in Naples. The film’s episodic nature was tiresome after a while, although some kept me engaged more than others. Sorrentino also drops us in the middle of this huge family with the same names and overacting tendencies as the characters in “House of Gucci” (his oversexed aunt is named Patrizia), and they enter and exit the story as the story needs them. Fabietto’s sexual awakening moment is cringy, his love of movies feels like the real story that keeps getting sidelined, although the tragedy that befalls his family is handled in an honest and brutal way. Like Sorrentino’s Oscar-winning “The Great Beauty,” the film is gorgeously shot, and Naples has never looked more inviting. As with most biographical films, the stories have an air of authenticity to them, but Sorrentino seems more interested in recreating an era instead of fully immersing us in it. The title is a reference to Maradona’s goal in a historic World’s Cup match against England, but I liked when a character says the title in a different context that I found moving.

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