A rabbi, a Mormon and an angel walk into a bar

I’m not a big fan of Meryl Streep. Obviously she’s a good actress and has done some very fine work – but I find it difficult to watch many of her performances without thinking that they are too visible, too clearly acted for my tastes. Streep is too much of an institution to vanish behind her roles, something that I also feel with respect to many of Robert de Niro’s performances in the last ten years or so.

Having said that, though, I very much liked Streep’s performance in the HBO miniseries Angels in America – or should I say, her performances? As was the case in the original stage play by Tony Kushner, most of the roles were doubled, with actors playing two or three different parts. It’s something I enjoy in stage plays, but it rarely works in film, which tends to be too caught up in presenting a realistic surface while sneaking the most outrageously unrealistic plot elements by us. Angels in America, Part I: “Millennium Approaches” starts with a funeral sermon delivered by an ancient, doddering rabbi, played by Ms. Streep. Yes, it’s showy – we can make up one of the preeminent American actresses so she looks like nothing like herself! – but it works.

There’s a lot about “Millennium Approaches” that works. The cast is pretty much perfect, my favourites probably being Patrick Wilson’s Joe (I’ve liked him in every role I’ve seen him in so far), Mary Louise Parker’s Harper and Jeffrey Wright’s Belize. Under Mike Nichols’ direction the play translates very well to the small screen; the humour and the pathos are all there and highly effective. After watching the first part, I was all geared up for part II, “Perestroika”.

I’d read both plays years ago; I did an amateur production of “Millennium Approaches” in 2000, and afterwards we did a reading of “Perestroika”. Back then I thought it was the weaker of the two, failing to do a satisfying pay-off to the cliffhanger ending of the first play. However, I didn’t expect “Perestroika” to fall on its face with quite as resounding a thud. Yes, there were elements of camp melodrama in the first three hours of Angels in America, but they were pulled off well. Part II, however, descends into scenes that would have made Ken Russell embarrassed. The actors try their best, but some scenes – especially the ones featuring the angel whose appearance “Millennium Approaches” leads up to – are cringeworthy. There may be some way to make lines such as “The blood-pump of creation! Holy estrus! Holy orifice!” and groin-bumping scenes between Meryl Streep and Emma Thompson work, but if there is, Nichols hasn’t found it.

It’s not just the HBO production, mind you; Kushner’s original play falters badly in the second part. There are still some strong scenes (especially the ones that eschew operatic metaphysics), but the script becomes prone to hamfisted speechifying.

I’ve rarely seen a play, film or series that does so well in the first part and fails so badly in the second part. And based on what I’ve seen, I am very glad that we decided to leave it at the evocative cliffhanger at the end of “Millennium Approaches”. The thought of making people I like deliver those lines… Nothing angelic about that.

P.S.: One thing I liked from beginning to end, though: Thomas Newman’s score.

Suffer the little children

I missed Monster’s Ball when it was on at the cinema, and I never really went out of my way to see it on TV. There’s no particular reason for this – except, perhaps, that there seemed to be more talk about the fairly explicit sex scene between Halle Berry and Billy Bob Thornton than about anything else. Okay, a good sex scene can make a film better (Don’t Look Now, I’m ogling you!), but there’d better be something beyond copulatory goodness.

Marc Forster, the director of Monster’s Ball, is one of the few Swiss people who’ve made it big in Hollywood – so big in fact that he’s now doing the new James Bond movie. He seems to be comfortable in many different genres and he gets in the good actors.

Stranger than Fiction

And yet. I wasn’t too keen on Stranger than Fiction, a film that desperately wanted to be more clever than it really was. True, Will Ferrell put in a fairly poignant performance, and I always enjoy watching Maggie Gyllenhaal, but all in all the movie felt like Charlie Kaufman Light, turning its metafictional veneer to the service of an essentially trite Carpe Diem story. And what was worse (at least for me): the book that the critically acclaimed author played by Emma Thompson was writing was drivel of the worst sort. It wasn’t even a parody of literary fiction – it was the sort of thing that a decidedly mediocre first-term creative writing student might cobble together, feeling awfully proud of himself.

Last week we watched Finding Neverland. Again, Forster’s assembled a lovely cast of actors: Johnny Depp, Kate Winslet, Julie Christie, Dustin Hoffman. The film is well crafted, obviously. But the story and dialogues render their work disappointingly toothless. Most of the performances are adequate, but let’s face it: it doesn’t take much to get an adequate performance from these actors. It’s more difficult to get a bad performance from them. But what can they do, when their characters can all be summarised in two sentences without being reductive?

Finding Neverland

There are small joys in both films. Dustin Hoffman is understated but great fun, both as the theatre impressario and as Stranger than Fiction’s literary critic. (I just wish he’d say what is so blatantly obvious – that the book Will Ferrell’s character is in is badly written rubbish.) And Freddy Highmore (who went on to play with Johnny Depp yet again in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) is great. Not only is his acting subtle and moving, his character is probably the only one in the film who is ambivalent, who has depth, who doesn’t fit comfortably into a well-worn cliché.

Talking of children: perhaps the strangest, sweetest sight in any Deadwood episode is that of the school children lined up behind Joanie Stubbs and Calamity Jane holding hands, walking down the thoroughfare to their new school. For a few moments, the scheming and bloodshed comes to a complete halt as the inhabitants of Deadwood come out to watch the children. I have a feeling, though, that “Amateur Night” will be the last episode of the season (and, sadly, series) that will allow for such peace and quiet. Something is going to happen, and it’s going to happen sooner rather than later. I’ve rarely seen a series that managed as well to ratch up the tension. Somehow I have the distinct impression that the title of a recent P.T. Anderson film will describe the last three episodes of the series quite accurately.

And no, I don’t mean Punch Drunk Love.