Yes Sir, That’s My Baby

Do you remember the Cabbage Patch kids—that ubiquitous fad of the 1980s? The “kids” were a series of dolls that came with names and birth certificates and their own individual scrunched-up faces.

Well, apparently there is a whole industry that takes that process one step further. Becoming popular at the end of the 20th century, it’s called “reborning” and its purpose is to provide dolls that are so human-looking that they are coveted, purchased, and loved by collectors around the world. And by mothers, too.

In fact, if a doll-maker is talented enough she can duplicate the face of a dead infant and provide comfort to a bereaved mother.

And that’s the plot of Reborning, Zayd Dohrn’s drama now making its Los Angeles debut at the Fountain Theater.

Expertly directed by the Fountain’s Simon Levy, and well acted by the three-person cast, the play, unfortunately, doesn’t live up to its initial promise. It’s uneven, and draggy in spots, and even though it is billed as a comedy/drama, there isn’t much to laugh at.

Jeff McLaughlin’s set design, cluttered with vinyl baby parts, gives life to the studio of sculptress Kelly (Joanna Strapp) and her boyfriend Daizy (Ryan Doucette). Having met as students at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISDE), they have set up shop together in Queens, and while she makes the dolls and paints their faces to match the photographs supplied by her clients, he makes outrageously oversized dildos for his.

Everything runs smoothly until a client named Emily (Kristin Carey) turns up to collect her “baby”. She praises Kelly’s work, but is not quite satisfied that the baby looks exactly like her dead daughter. “There’s something about the eyes…” she says.

And so Kelly continues to work on the doll for another week. But Emily still isn’t satisfied and Kelly becomes obsessed with getting it right.

Daizy, who seems to be the only participant who isn’t totally crazy, tries to talk Kelly out of her obsession, but by this time Kelly has convinced herself that Emily is the mother who abandoned her at birth and that the baby is actually Kelly herself.

While well presented, the play somehow hangs unfinished. There is no discussion of the motivations or behaviors of the people who order the dolls. If they are not seeking to replace a dead baby are there other issues they’re dealing with? A need to be in control and to have complete power over another “human being”? A need to keep their grown children as perpetual infants? A need to assuage their loneliness?

While these questions are beside the point, perhaps alluding to them, or introducing an additional character or two, might serve to open up a play that otherwise feels a little one-note and somewhat claustrophobic.

Reborning will continue at The Fountain Theatre, 5060 Fountain Ave. (at Normandie) Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 8pm and Sundays at 2 through March 15th.

Call (323) 663-1525 for tickets.

An Exceptional Performance By Julianne Moore

In the new film Still Alice we watch the beautiful and vivacious Julianne Moore deteriorate, disintegrate, and disappear right before our eyes.

A celebrated linguistics professor at Columbia University, Moore prides herself on being articulate, innovative, and well respected by her colleagues. Her life is built around her love of words. But at the age of 50 she is suddenly and unexpectedly assaulted by a rare form of early-onset Alzheimer’s disease.

Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland, who wrote and directed the film from a novel by Lisa Genova, handle the accelerated pace of the disease with delicacy and sensitivity, but even so, it is a heart-breaking experience to watch.

Bolstered by the tender support of her husband, Alec Baldwin, and her three grown children, Kristen Stewart, Kate Bosworth, and Hunter Parrish, Moore struggles with her fears, her frustration, and her desire not to burden her family. But of course the inherent family disagreements become exaggerated as she attempts to guide her family in directions that she believes will be beneficial to them.

For example, she continues to badger her daughter Lydia (Kristen Stewart), an actress, to go to college to acquire “a skill that she can fall back on” if her acting career doesn’t work out. Lydia, who is in love with her chosen profession, sees Moore’s beseeching as a sign that her mother doesn’t believe in her ability to make a successful life in the theater and, full of resentment, she leaves New York for Hollywood.

Meanwhile, Moore’s mental deterioration has become apparent to her students and, in their evaluation of her teaching skills many deliver a devastating critique. Shocked that they are aware of her deteriorating condition, she accepts the inevitable and eventually allows herself to be dismissed from the university.

Although the film treats her symptoms gently, she exhibits many that those who care for Alzheimer’s patients will recognize. She periodically becomes hostile, and she asks the same questions again and again just minutes after she has received the answer.

In the end, this vibrant woman has become the ghost of her former self. She can barely talk and she is nearly unrecognizable physically. And so the question subliminally posed by the film’s title becomes significantly relevant: Is Alice still Alice if she is no longer present?

Still Alice is playing in a few select theaters in Los Angeles in time to be considered for the Oscars which, despite an exceptionally strong group of contenders, Julianne Moore deserves to win.

The film will open wide in a few weeks.

If It isn’t War, It’s A Bore

In the summer after she graduated from college, my daughter Dena volunteered for a short stint with the Israel Defense Force. She was posted to a naval base outside Haifa, but because she didn’t speak Hebrew she was assigned to applying bright red paint to the curbs on the edge of the sidewalks of the base so that nobody would dare to park there. And in the afternoon she went to the beach.

I couldn’t help thinking of this as I watched Talya Lavie’s brilliant new film Zero Motivation. The biggest hit of the year in Israel, nominated for 12 Ophirs, the Israeli equivalent of American Oscars, and named the Best Narrative Feature Award at the Tribeca Film Festival, Zero Motivation is a wry and poignant look at the tedious work done by the women behind the lines.

Way behind the lines. The movie is set at a small military base a million miles from nowhere, with nothing around in the bleak southern desert but the distant mountains, some dried-out fauna, and a lone camel. Even the color-saturated photography can’t make these surroundings appealing.

Stuffed into a crowded, seedy office are five young women serving their mandatory two-year term in the military. They are the staff of the Human Resources Office, and each one has an official title that is more nonsensical than the last. For example, Daffi, our ditzy heroine, brightly played by Nelly Tagar, has a high-falutin title that identifies her as the office’s commander in chief in charge of document shredding.

Daffi’s best friend, Zohar (a tough, mean-spirited kibbutznick played by Dana Ivgy), willfully promotes havoc when she isn’t being mesmerized by the games on her computer. Or dying of boredom.

As writer/director Lavie has explained, “Israeli women may of course serve in more glamorous roles…but I wanted to focus on us office girls, the unseen and mostly-ignored majority whose contribution is lacking any social or symbolic value.” (See my daughter’s job description, above.)

But they have their dreams. Daffi is obsessed with trying to get posted to Tel Aviv, but she is thwarted at every turn. Zohar is humiliated by being the only woman she knows who is still a virgin. And Rama (Shani Klein), their platoon commander who aspires to be promoted and to have a significant military career, has two things working against her: she is useless as a commander, and Zohar and Daffi keep screwing things up.

The story is told in a straightforward style, moving through life in chronological order. No flashbacks or sudden surprises. But Lavie has divided the action into three distinct vignettes. The first is about a new recruit whom Daffi latches onto, insisting that the girl is meant to be her replacement when she (Daffi) transfers to Tel Aviv. But the girl has an agenda of her own which leads to tragedy.

In the second episode Zohar decides to do something about her virginity and she approaches a young man who is happily obliging. It’s a hilarious episode, but it also ends badly.

Having followed the women through their enlistment, the film ends with their return to the rest of their lives. Each receives her appropriate desserts, but Daffi, with her relentless determination to be transferred to Tel Aviv, transforms herself, almost inadvertently, into something she neither anticipated nor particularly craved: a professional soldier in the IDF.

Zero Motivation is a beautifully realized film. Most definitely a “must see”. It makes its Los Angeles debut at the Nuart Theater, 11272 Santa Monica Blvd. in West Los Angeles, on January 16th.

A Very Jolie Weekend

I spent the weekend with Angelina Jolie.

On Friday night I watched her transform herself from a wicked witch into a fairy godmother. It was Disney’s version of Sleeping Beauty, complete with monsters and sassy creatures with gossamer wings, and ever-sparkling skies.

The film was Maleficent, and the beautiful Ms. Jolie was less than magnificent. She was also less than beautiful, with her massive black horns, Spock-like ears, and cheekbones implanted with what looked like chopsticks. She also wore lipstick that was too red for her face and made her lips look abnormally bloated. Moreover, she pouted a lot and her smile was never anything but sinister.

Maleficent was okay if you like fairy tales, and it was certainly more engaging than A Walk in the Woods.

On Saturday night I saw a spectacular movie that Angelina Jolie wasn’t in. Instead, she did a masterful job of directing it.

The film was Unbroken, and it was actually a Holocaust story transposed to the Far East. It was the true story of Louis Zamperini and the horrors he endured on his way to, and in, Japanese prison camps during World War II.

A biography, written by Laura Hillenbrand, called A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption became a harrowing screenplay by the multiple award-winning Coen brothers, and the film was shot in Australia with a band of actors mostly unknown in the United States.

Playing Zamperini was a handsome, earnest Jack O’Connell as an Army bombardier being shot out of the skies—twice. The second time he and two crew members survived, struggling to board a yellow lifeboat. The rest of the crew sank with the crippled plane.

Flashbacks interspersed throughout the film indicate the kind of boy Zamperini was. He was a troublemaker, picked on by his schoolmates because his parents spoke only Italian. But fortunately, he had an older brother who set him straight and worked ceaselessly to help him become a champion runner. That training paid off when Louie went to Germany to compete in the 1936 Olympics.

Meanwhile, back in the lifeboat, Louie and his two crewmates boiled in the unrelenting sun, caught fish and sharks and albatrosses and ate them raw, trapped rainwater for drinking, and drifted in the Pacific Ocean for 47 days.

One of the men eventually died, but Louie and his buddy Phil lived to be rescued by Japanese sailors. Although “rescued” is hardly the word for it, as they were trundled to prison camps where the guards rivaled the Nazis in their cruelty.

The head guard, Sgt. Watanabe, especially resented Louie for his prowess as an Olympic athlete and took every opportunity to beat him and leave him unconscious, lying in the dirt with his wounds.

Ironically, the man who played Watanabe is a Japanese rock star who had never acted before, but Jolie saw in him a presence that would fit perfectly into the role. His name is Miyavi, and he became the very personification of a vindictive psychotic.

Eventually, Zamperini came home, but he took many years to get over his PTSD and during that time he lived as a drunkard and a ne’er-do-well. Finally, at an assembly run by Billy Graham, he changed his life and became a born-again Christian. From that time on he spent the rest of his life devoted to his faith and seeking redemption.

He also returned to Japan to forgive and reconcile with his one-time torturers. Except for Watanabe, who refused to see him.

He also returned at the age of 80 to carry the torch on the last leg of the Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan.

Louis Zamperini died on July 2, 2014, at the age of 97.

Unbroken opened in Los Angeles on Christmas Day and can currently be seen in theaters all over the city.