By Robin E. Simmons
Not unlike BIRDMAN in exploring themes of performance, madness and identity, Pacino’s latest big screen offering plays loose with his actual persona as a gifted stage actor who discovers he’s inexplicably lost his grip on the audience.
We first meet over the hill actor Simon Axler (Pacino) in his dressing room applying make-up and lecturing about Shakespeare. As he argues with his mirror image about the “all the world’s a stage” speech from “As You Like It,” he repeats the line over and over wondering if his reading is believable. We in the audience recognize that the line reading is a fail. In short order, Axler collapses on stage. Next thing we see him announce from his hospital bed that he’s never again going onstage. He confesses to his fellow psychiatric patients that he has lost his mysterious connection with the audience. And further, since acting has been his entire life, he has been set adrift. Now what?
The great irony here, as in BIRDMAN, is the lead actor is anything but washed-up! Pacino’s retreat to his rural Connecticut home and the strange encounters he has with visitors, especially his lesbian goddaughter Pageen (Greta Gerwig) who admits a lifelong crush on Pacino’s Axler. I was not fully engaged in the first half of this uneven farce, but about halfway through, it got really interesting. I thought of John Garfield famous line: “Life is rehearsal. Only performance is real.”
Whether intentional or not, it occurred to me that this modest artistic exercise suggests that life is performance and, at the same time, it’s all rehearsal. Reality is somewhere in-between. And that’s Axler’s dilemma: he can no longer parse reality. But make no mistake, Pacino still holds the gaze of the audience in this sometimes thoughtful, often funny drama about stagecraft as a life force. Pacino’s mature performance imbues this theme with a sly nod to Shakespeare’s “Lear.” Or so it seems to me.
Barry Levinson directs with a light touch. The exceptional cast, besides Pacino and Gerwig, includes Dianne Wiest, Many Pitankin, Charles Grodin and Kyra Sedgwick as an unhinged ex lover of Gerwig’s Pageen. Adapted from Philip Roth’s book by Roth, Buck Henry and Michal Zebed. Definitely worth a look. Now playing. Palme d’Or.
NEW FOR THE HOME THEATER:
DOWNTON ABBEY: SEASON 5
Now that the good folks of Downton Abbey are back on PBS, it’s a solid bet that the Bly-ray Season 5 collection will fly off Amazon’s shelves as our craving for binge watching remains unabated. Or, if you have the will power, go ahead; see if you can watch this mesmerizing series in drawn-out bits on subsequent Sunday evenings until March 1.
Returning stars include all our favorites and guest stars feature Harriet Walter (“Atonement”), reprising her role as Lady Shackleton, and Peter Egan (“Death at a Funeral”), who returns as Lord Flintshire, together with completely new characters played by Richard E. Grant (“Girls”), Anna Chancellor (“The Hour”), and Rade Sherbedgia (“24”).
The storyline will follow plot threads left dangling from last season, including Lady Mary’s courtship contest, Lady Edith’s trials as a secret single mom, Thomas’ scheming against Bates, Robert’s battles against modernity, Tom’s quest to be true to his ideals, Violet’s one-line zingers, and much, much more. Season 5 begins in 1924. The Britain has its first Labor Party prime minister. The radio is the latest miracle of the times. Downton’s traditional ways are assaulted on all fronts. Head housekeeper, Mrs. Hughes, says to and butler Carson: “We’re catching up, Mr. Carson. Whether you like it or not, Downton is catching up with the times we live in.” Mr. Carson replies, “That’s exactly what I’m afraid of!” The Blu-ray and DVD sets contain all of Season 5 plus the finale. There’s 40 minutes of bonus material. The 3-disc set is the original edition that aired in the UK. Masterpiece/NBCUniversal/PBS. Blu-ray.
BROTHERHOOD OF BLADES
Set in 1627 during the late Ming Dynasty, this gripping martial arts action drama is about a young emperor who takes measures to end the powerful influence of eunuch Wei and destroy his supporters. Wei was a real historical character but director and co-writer Lu Yang (with Chen Shu) have reimagined his fate and created a fresh storyline that is filled with action and a welcome ambiguous morality. Tense and complex, the plot has conspiracies within conspiracies. The up-close swordplay is jolting and the production, though not lavish, nicely evokes another era. There’s an option for a nice English language dub. Well Go USA. Blu-ray
From writer/director Luc Besson (LA FEMME NIKITA, THE PROFESSIONAL and THE FIFTH ELEMENT), comes this fast-paced, crazy-good sci-fi action film that has Scarlett Johansson on the run with a surgically embedded but leaking bag of a mind and body enhancing synthetic designer drug. Johansson is terrific as a cold-blooded warrior operating beyond human logic, running from very bad guys and toward vengeance, rescue and maybe redemption. The big fail of Johnny Depp’s TRANSCENDENCE that attempts a story that merges the human mind with cyber space is fully realized here in big, bold strokes. Morgan Freeman costars. Nice extras include the featurette “Cerebral Capacity: The Science of LUCY.” Recommended. Universal. Blu-ray.