Fine China and Steak Knives

In David Mamet’s new play, China Doll, Al Pacino owned the stage. His acting was dynamic as he took his audience with him on an emotive grand tour, from whimpering sincere remorse to booming rancorous anger, from doting older-gent gallantry to cutthroat business tycoon-ery. From serene to severe, Pacino can project all levels of fervency, but while he effectively plays placid his calling is intensity.

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He nailed the mostly likeable role of the past-his-prime but kindhearted Danny Collins in the 2015 Dan Fogelman aging rock star movie. He was suave and persuasive as Ricky Roma, the top hotshot salesman in the 1992 movie adaptation of David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross. Twenty years later in the Broadway run of Glengarry, Pacino effectively played the part of the washed up salesman Shelley Levine previously played by Jack Lemmon. Some critics hammered him in that role but what do they know, I thought he was great.

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However, for me, he truly shines in the crazier, more manic roles, such as the hapless Sonny Wortzik in Dog Day Afternoon or the calculating Michael Corleone in The Godfather. And certainly he had many manic moments in Mamet’s rambling, what-the-hell-was-he-thinking play, China Doll. How an experienced playwright can go from the creative, captivating brilliance of Glengarry to the infertile desert of China Doll I do not know. But Pacino made it fascinating and entertaining: He held it together.

Maybe the differences between superb and second-rate are actually incredibly small, as in genome sequencing, where only one percent is the disparity between King George and Curious George. Perhaps Glengarry was just a chromosome away from failure as China Doll is from perfection. But clearly Glengarry gets the Cadillac and China gets the steak knives.

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So I’ve had a bit of an Al Pacino fest this past month. After seeing him from the first row in China Doll on Broadway I re-watched a few of his movies. Although, most unfortunately, my daughter made me watch that lowbrow Adam Sandler flick Jack and Jill where Pacino fabulously makes a fool of himself as Dunkaccino. Then in Sicily I had to go to where it all started: the real-life rustic town of Corleone. It’s a bit of a trek over dodgy roads but when you get there it’s worth it—there’s an old Godfather poster hanging outside a bar next to the town square and inside you can order a drink called the Pacino. But I prefer something with caffeine, because coffee is for closers. For food, I like revenge, a dish that tastes best when served cold.

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Less than Stellar

Movie Review: Interstellar touches on the space-time continuum and the theory of relativity, which we all give a knowing nod to but really we have no idea what any of that means. Our understandable lack of demonstrable galactic knowledge sanctions creative film directors to make up all sorts of stuff knowing that Stephen Hawking will probably give this one a miss. When I went to see it I must have sat close to the edge of a large black hole as time rapidly came to a complete standstill. I felt that outside of the theater people were being born, living full and wholesome lives and then dying surrounded by their extended families, as I sat through this mournful movie marathon.

Now they did have some pretty good actors in the movie. If someone were to ask me generally to name my favorite actors I would rapidly attempt to manufacture a list in my mind, as I always seem to struggle with those types of queries. Same goes for my favorite city or preference in music, I am always seemingly completely unprepared and feel irrationally blindsided by the inquiry. Just like Sarah Palin when asked what newspapers she reads. I’m not sure why that is, but I always grasp around figuratively for answers as images go sequentially through my mind at a fair clip as I try to pluck those I like and compile them into some hierarchical sense. I really should formulate some catalogued lists so that next time I can hand them out upon request. Preparation, that is. Michael Caine is always in my mind’s slide show but I hesitate to mutter his name, especially first in an intended list of favorites, which for some reason I feel is an non-retractable and unchangeable commitment, like pressing “confirm” on Expedia. Now Caine is not a bad actor but he was in most movies recently, hey including this one! That’s my mind making self-governing cognitive associations.

After taking a seemingly inordinate amount of time to respond to the inquiry I would probably default to an alphabetical sequence and start trotting out Al Pacino, Bill Nighy, and so on but I wouldn’t get much past the first few letters before stumbling or attempting to change the subject. Now as I near the destination at the end of this rambling road—even if I made it to M I wouldn’t utter Matthew McConaughey. Again, not that I don’t think he is a fine actor, but he is just one of those many “good” actors that wouldn’t make it to my A-list should I ever organize one. As in Interstellar he seems to over-ooze the drama in his characters regardless of his surroundings or the overall context of the film. There could be interplanetary war and global decimation or a crippling world plague going on and Matthew’s character would be dealing with some pervasive personal issue such as a momentary slighting by his daughter a half-century earlier. And boy would he play that out in every scene.

In the Carl Sagan hit, Contact, he played a priest. Yes a priest in a space movie. I eagerly awaited the release of that film, based on Sagan’s thoroughly enjoyable and fascinating 1980s novel of the same name. And this guy plays a pastor? That’s him in a nutshell—he probably loved the idea of being a spiritual, sensitive ecclesiastical gentleman in a groundbreaking blockbuster about interplanetary travel and astronomical discovery. Now, if I were an actor and I was handed the script to a movie based on Sagan’s seminal work covering space, alien encounters and the like, I would be so thrilled as imagery of Skywalker and Spock shot through my mind’s eye. And then when informed of my clerical character role I would be like, “are you shitting me?” Though his character did have sex with her character but now we know she is not necessarily interested in that kinda thing. None of that stuff was in the novel thank goodness.

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Scene from one of the planets in Interstellar, had I directed the movie. (Courtesy C. Blackshear)

Caution: Contains scenes that were dropped from Inception and suggestive references to particle physics.

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