ADRIFT – WASTED OPPORTUNITY

SHORT TAKE:

Wooden cookie cutter rendition of the harrowing real life experiences of Tami Oldham and Richard Sharp lost at sea for 41 days after being caught in Hurricane Raymond, missing every opportunity to reveal any eternal truths.

WHO COULD SEE IT:

Any older teen and up who enjoys a disaster/endurance movie. Some language and a non-sexual full nudity female scene. No point in scaring younger kids with the genuinely frightening hurricane scenes in this vapid soap opera disaster movie.

LONG TAKE:

The famous classic – Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe – a man marooned on an island – is ultimately about his spiritual conversion from a materialist and slaver, disobedient to both his Earthly father and his Heavenly one, to a devout Christian. His external trials make him suceptible when faced with internal struggles as well, to turn to God and the Bible. Only in his newly redisovered faith does he find the peace and contentment he had sought and becomes a better man as he comes to appreciate God's love and know he is under his Creator's watchful eye even when apparently desolate and alone on an island. The island represents Crusoe's spiritual aloneness and, much like in Groundhog Day, (which comparison would make a great blog for another day), he is not rescued until he learns true altruism and his place in God's plans.  He accepts his massive and repeated tribulations as a reading on the Bible tells us in Hebrews that: "the Lord disciplines the one He loves".

Adrift is an open set up for a re-creation of this scenario. A troubled young woman, who drifted through life long before she was set "adrift" by Hurricane Raymond, has a difficult childhood, irresponsible parents and an anchorless way of life – leaving home at 18 to hop her way via odd jobs to Tahiti. There she meets Richard and the two leave for a "jaunt" to San Diego on a job to transport a friend’s yacht. On the way they encounter a CAT 5 hurricane, which I personally know is terrifying on land. Even seeing the movie, I can not truly imagine the trauma they must have endured on the open ocean. I frankly, having survived Hurricane Rita on land, had trouble watching some of their ordeal in the boat.

The film does a horrifically good job reenacting their desperate struggle to stay alive in the belly of this mountain sized monster with waves moaning and rising above them like the "angry giant" of many prayers entreating God’s protection against these very phenomena. Miraculously the boat survives with Tami still on it. She finds Richard severely injured and seeks to nurse both him and the boat in a 1500 mile trek through the Pacific Ocean.

While I understand this is based on a true story, there was every opportunity for the scriptwriters to use her ordeal and miraculous arrival in Hawaii to tell more than just an action adventure story of survival. A documentary or reality episode or a newspaper clipping could have done that. If we are to endure, with Tami, her terrible struggles, it behooves a good writer to do so with a purpose. Instead we are treated to a fact sheet: She meets Richard – check. They fall in love – check. They go on the boat – check. They endure a Hurricane – check. She manages to acquire enough food and water to survive through luck and ingenuity – check. She gets to Hawaii – check. And……?

After spending 96 minutes with this young woman in a recounting of the most traumatic experience of her life (and more traumatic than I hope most of us ever have to endure) we are left knowing no more about her than we started at the credits. A few odds and ends of trivia about the way she grew up, but no more.

I can not imagine anyone not changed by such a deeply churning experience. Sadly, we do not know, based upon this movie, what those meaningful and core maturations might be.

What we are left with is a two person version of Tom Hanks’ Castaway – which suffered from the same flaw. All "event" with no substance. Much like having spaghetti with no sauce – filling but not satisfying.

As I said, the special effects of the hurricane were very well done – a bit too good frankly. The acting of Shailene Woodley (Divergent series) kind of amounted to a lot of vapid shallow smiles and giggles during the courtship and sunburnt glowering/angry/determined to survive faces during the tribulations part. Sam Claflin (Hunger Games veteran) wasn’t given a lot to do other than be "in love" or stoically be in pain.

And while I understand this is based on a true story, the portions where the movie shows their meeting and relationship, shown in flashback, are pedantically slow. The audience frequently was reduced to the third wheel watching the slow pace of an actual dinner.

During one such date Richard explains how unpleasant sailing can be – "You’re usually sleep deprived and delusional, wet, hungry or all three." She asks why he sails and, perking up, I expected some important philosophical epiphany which might guide us, like her sextant through the rest of the movie. Instead he sort of mumbles about how infinite the horizon looks. And? I thought. And? But nothing. So his whole raison d'etre, the entire reason he is out there with this young woman, the reason they end up risking their lives in a painfully unrelenting endurance marathon was because —– the ocean is so very pretty.

There is so much more that could have been done with this movie – just with that moment. But they let it flit by like Tami’s early years – objectless and purposeless.

Captain Dan in Forrest Gump (click the picture to watch the clip) gives us more philosophical musings and a better insight into the meaning of life during his one rant to God on board Gump's ship during a hurricane as he screams "Come on! You call this a storm?" than the entire script of Adrift. Bogie and Hepburn simmered with more chemistry in one glance on The African Queen during their struggles as they make it up a river to confront a German gunboat during World War I and a storm, than Claflin and Woodley managed in the entire movie. This is because we were introduced to Captain Dan and Rose and Charlie, respectively, in substantive ways and so we come to care about them. But Tami and Richard, as portrayed in the movie, are two dimensional lovers in a cookie-cutter romance. This is a shame because I'm sure there was more to the real people involved in that.

Aside from – don't cross the ocean in hurricane season – the audience did not learn much, either about the main characters or from their experiences.

I feel badly for the ordeal that Tami and Richard went through but that is not enough to carry a movie. A movie has between 80 and 120 minutes to tell you a story. It behooves the writer to make it worth your while to sit through whatever they are going to tell you. Movies are supposed to be a condensed version of real life and the best of them will make you a better person for having seen it. It is inadequate for a movie to be a moment-by-moment blow-by-blow exposition without direction or purpose.

In short and unfortunately Adrift is most aptly and appropriately named.

Mild warnings: There's no reason NOT to see this film if you are an older teen and up. There is a bit of language, no gratuitous sexuality although there is one non-sexual gratuitously naked scene where Woodley bares absolutely all in order to happily writhe about on deck in the fresh water of rain. The hurricane scenes alone are horrifying and way too scary for younger kids, much less are the views of eggregious injuries endured by Richard and exposed to the audience.

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CLEO – WHERE REEL LIFE AND REAL LIFE EXPLOSIVELY COLLIDE ON THE ALLEY THEATER STAGE

SHORT TAKE:

Cleo is a brilliant stage dramedy, playing through April 29, 2018 at the Alley Theater in Houston, Texas – written by Lawrence Wright and directed by Bob Balaban, about the filming of the movie Cleopatra as seen from the perspective of the explosive affair between Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, who play the cinematic lovers Cleopatra and Marc Antony.

WHO SHOULD GO:

Adults. Burton, Taylor and their relationship became the short hand definition of a passionate, torrid love affair. In addition, the movie they were filming, Cleopatra, pushed the MPAA ratings of that time to the edge of the envelope. So to show less than Mr. Balaban does would be like trying to demonstrate an atomic bomb with a birthday candle. But this means it is not appropriate for youths.

LONG TAKE:

I have rarely seen life so poetically and entertainingly imitate art and that art so analogously reflected back than in the play Cleo currently running at the Alley Theatre in Houston, Texas. And I have NEVER seen such a story more skillfully manifested. Masterfully written by Lawrence Wright and brilliantly directed by the multi-talented Bob Balaban, Cleo is about the romance that volcanically erupted between Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton during the shooting of the movie Cleopatra.

Cleopatra, for anyone under 40 and not an old movie aficionado, is a classic, epic, bombastic, spectacular that was filmed in 1963 with three of the heaviest hitting stars in Hollywood at the time – Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, and Rex Harrison, and populated with some of the most solid and talented supporting actors of their era including   Martin Landau, Carroll O'Connor, Roddy MacDowell and Hume Cronyn.

The stories surrounding this legendary moving disaster area are legion. However, Messieurs Wright & Balaban tackle the central fuse that wove its way through the making of the movie – the romance that began between the couple who for the next two decades would be known in one breath, almost as one word – Liz and Dick. Married and divorced twice to each other and many times to others they became inseparable. Toxic to each other but unable to stay away from each other, they remained close for the rest of their lives, whether married to each other or not. Cleo tells the story of the beginning of this incendiary relationship.

Cleo is funny, bittersweet, bawdy, fascinating, historically interesting, and somehow also whimsically endearing. Lisa Birnbaum, as Elizabeth Taylor, radiates all of the subtleties of Taylor's voice and body mannerisms without creating the caricature that could have so easily emerged. The same for Richard Short as Richard Burton. I loved the accents Short was able to swing into and out of – Burton's normal Welsh versus the high British posh that we are so used to hearing him speak. 

All the subtlety but unmistakable familiarity of these personalities reincarnated on stage for us is a massive credit to both the skillful writing of Mr. Wright whose dialogue lends itself to revelations and foretelling, and to the insightful direction by Mr Balaban. In other hands this could have ended up as a farce. But the affection and respect Wright and Balaban have for these subjects shines through. Mr. Balaban's understanding and perceptive observation of these creatures of Hollywood who are also deeply human beings is personified in the choices which he has made with these actors in particular and the production in general.

Mark Capri portrays Rex Harrison and is given a bit broader license to portray the man who was both Dr. Dolittle and Henry Higgins. Capri's larger than life performance offers a counterpoint and some comic relief to the intense proceedings sparking around him. Brian Dykstra as Joe Mankiewicz occupies a Machiavellian type father position, who both struggles to keep peace amongst his cast but also tends to stir the pot just enough to elicit the dialogue and performance of which he knows these intensely talented movie stars are capable. Adam Gibbs as the cuckolded clueless Eddie Fisher, the man who left his wife Debbie Reynolds for Elizabeth Taylor, provides just the right combination of posturing famous singer and schlemiel who is the last one on the train to recognize that he has lost his wife. Gibbs' Fisher reminds me of the sad clown husband character from Chicago who devotedly would have kept his straying wife but is ultimately abandoned. But unlike the husband in Chicago we know Fisher's hands are not at all clean and that there is a certain poetic justice to the affair lighting up between his erring wife and the Welsh actor.

Bob Balaban, the director, is one of those faces you recognize but don't always remember his name. He has been in a wide range of movies, as a wide range of characters – from the oddly named but sweetly thoughtful Dr. Chandra in 2010, to the corrupt federal investigator in Absence of Malice, to the charmingly out of his depth cartographer in Close Encounters, to the ill-fated film critic in Lady in the Water and the art connoisseur in The Monuments Men. Mr Balaban has had a long career in Hollywood as a gifted actor, director, writer and producer. He even has a singing credit in Woody Allen's Deconstructing Harry. But this directorial outing of Cleo will stand out as one of his best works.

There is no whitewashing or lionizing of Taylor and Burton's scandalous behavior, the drunkenness, or the betrayal of their spouses. There is a scene in the stage play Lion in Winter in which Queen Eleanor reminisces to her son Richard about the first meeting between herself and his father, Henry II. Eleanor had been married, at the time, to King Louis of France. However, Eleanor recounts of Henry: "He came down from the North to Paris with a mind like Aristotle and a form like mortal sin. We shattered the commandments on the spot." This line echoed in my head as I watched Cleo. The violent passion between Taylor and Burton washes over the audience, exposing both their strengths as well as their all too human weaknesses. We see behind the Wizard's curtain and much like the fascination one might have for a slow motion train wreck, it is not always pleasant to see but it is absolutely captivating and mesmerizing to watch.

The movie, Cleopatra, destroyed the careers and health of two directors, wrecked at least two marriages and almost bankrupted 20th Century Fox. Cleopatra was drastically behind schedule and grostesquely over-budget when Joseph Mankiewicz took over the director's chair from Rouben Mamoulian. Without a viable shooting script to this disaster on wheels, rewrites were occasionally not completed until the night before, organization was poor and money was thrown willy-nilly at problems that should never have arisen. The entire cast and crew, trying to recreate the hot dry Egyptian climate in chilly damp London was moved to Rome. One scene was to be shot on the beach at Anzio. Rights were obtained, permissions were granted, and construction workers were killed from the detonation of a live mine left over from World War II. Shooting was once again delayed as a minesweeper had to be hired to prevent another tragedy. Elizabeth Taylor almost died from double pneumonia during the shoot. Established famous character actors had to be hired and paid for, in some cases months beyond the time for which they were originally contracted, as delays mounted one upon another.

BUT, as amusing as these scenarios and anecdotes are, most are wisely not addressed in Cleo. They do, howeverprovide a fitting backdrop of catastrophic ambiance to the Ground Zero of this nuclear romance.

During a Q&A before the performance, Mr. Bob Balaban spent an hour giving generously of his time to provide some background about the making of this play, spin stories about his personal life in New York as his family founded a string of movie houses, and field questions from an appreciative audience. He was extremely gracious, patient, open, warm, articulate, and friendly. Sort of like how you might imagine Mr. Rogers were he a theatrical director. He very kindly agreed to allow photos, videos and audios be made of the mini seminar. He also waited for anyone who wished afterwards to have a word and a photo. I was one of those who benefited from his affability, and assuming my technical crew can make the transfer, I will have audio and video excerpts up soon.

For the record, I used to think Elizabeth Taylor was a bubble-headed movie star. And to some extent, yes, she was. She made some very bad choices in her life, she drank, she took drugs, she lived to excess. However there was another part of her which I did not know about until doing research in anticipation of seeing the play and writing this blog. Elizabeth Taylor was a convert to Judaism. She was quite devoted to Israel and her outspokenness actually got her banned from Egypt even for the production of Cleopatra so that scenes were filmed in Rome with her and exterior shots only were filmed in Egypt without her. She spent the latter part of her life, after her film career, in well known philanthropic projects, including AIDS research, children's education, and raising money for Israel. However the most astonishing and courageous thing that I discovered she did was something I had never even heard a whisper about before. 

In 1976 Muslims hijacked an airline carrying 248 passengers. They rerouted to Entebbe, Uganda and threatened all the passengers with murder unless fellow terrorists were released. All of the non-Jewish passengers were released. Elizabeth Taylor, then one of the most famous faces on Earth, offered herself in exchange for the remaining 100 Jewish hostages. The terrorists refused the offer. Not just a PR stunt, the Israli Ambassador to the United States, Simcha Dinitz publically thanked her at the Jewish National Fund Gala, presenting her and her then husband Jack Warner with a certificate for a forest which would be planted in her honor, saying: "The Jewish people will always remember." It was an extremely brave thing to do. Had these Muslim terrorists accepted there is no telling what they would have done to her. Instead Israeli Defense Forces successfully released almost all of the hostages safely and took out the terrorists.

While the events in the play Cleo take place over a decade before this real life drama at Entebbe, Cleo's backstage pass look at one of the most infamously known, adulterous affairs in history, reminds us that there is often much more to the players involved than is commonly known. Thanks to Mr. Wright and Mr. Balaban, we have an opportunity to warm our hands by a still shot, an intimate and affectionately humorous peek, at the megaton conflagration that was Taylor and Burton

In 90 minutes the craft of this play is such that we, as the audience, come away feeling we have known these people for years, not just because we have read critiques, seen the movies, scanned articles and sadly noted obituaries about them. But we know these people because we have been given a look at them in their smallness, in the sinful activities of which we are all subject in this Fallen World. Great literature makes one feel that one is a better person after having seen it. That can come in two forms. The story can be of either a good example or a horrible warning. I think you can probably guess into which category this amusing, sad, bittersweet and mesmerizing play falls. As the play Cleo demonstrates, in this backstage pass look at one of the most infamously well known adulterous affairs in history, there is often much more to the players involved than is commonly known.

I predict Misters Wright and Balaban have a justifiably massive hit on their hands. Cleo will only be playing at the Alley Theater through April 29, 2018 so hurry to see it there. It will, undoubtedly find a national run in the near future as word gets out about this emotionally expressive and delightful play, but why wait??!! Treat yourself to a one-of-a-kind experience in Cleo as stars in reel life and real life collide on the Alley Theater stage.