a.k.a. "The Oscar Messenger"

Selma 1The astonishing “Selma” is the film that could stop “Boyhood”s seeming march to the Oscars. About Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights movement of the ‘6os, African-American director Ava DuVernay, has done the seemingly impossible and created a moving, tumultuous film that is so right on and right now, Oscar with his gleaming social conscience can not in all good conscience ignore “Selma”, DuVernay for Best Director and the superb British actor David Oyelowo unforgettable, searing performance in the leading role.

I could go on and on. And you know what? I will. There is so much to praise about “Selma” and it’s got the sweeping scale and scope that Oscar appreciates and a message that is very, very important for audiences to see TODAY. RIGHT NOW.

As I reported earlier, it got a standing ovation at its first public screening in LA at the AFI festival. And Oprah(who’s also in the film) and Brad Pitt are the producers of it.I saw it this week and was just blown away by its’ power.

And Martin Luther King is painted as a Christ-like figure. He was a minister after all. But the film doesn’t gloss over his humanity. Oyelowo is allowed to go to the dark side with him. They show his infidelity, his troubled marriage to Coretta Scott King, who is the real saintly figure in his relationship, the film makes clear. He makes mistakes. He makes wrong calls. People are killed on his watch. Violence erupts everywhere. For injustices that seem ludicrous to contemplate today, but of course, race in the United States is still a very serious issue. The trouble in Ferguson, Missouri reflects in this incredible, important way.

Martin Luther King would not be surprised by today’s headlines. In a way “Selma” predicts them or foreshadows them. And Oyelowo and Ava Du Vernay and the film itself are all going to be nominated for Oscars. “Selma” is so strong, it makes films like “Boyhood” and “Birdman” seem mere piffle, when compared against them.

I saw Dr. Martin Luther King speak. He was at my college to deliver a speech on race, talking about what students could do to change things.

I remember being impressed by his great, eloquent voice, and the fact that he seemed younger than I had expected. He spoke also completely extemporaneously, with no notes or papers of any kind on his podium.

Of course, as “Selma” makes abundantly clear, he was ALWAYS speaking out on the topic of race, and so he needed no notes to guide him. He knew what he wanted to say and said it.

I was seated up in a balcony and to the side, so I could see that he had no papers in front of him. I knew I was witnessing a historic moment.

And a year later, he was assassinated, while I was still in college. I remember the day so well. “It was unbelievable” I thought “How could this be happening?” He was so young and vital. And then I remember looking out my dorm window at the nearby football field, and seeing the all-white football team practicing, as if nothing of import effecting their lives at the University of Rhode Island had happened.

“Selma” brings back all those memories and creates a world of its’ own incredibly vivid and important ones.

See this film. By all means, see it.

 

Top Ten Movies of 2014

Fiennes 1Marion 2Selma 2Theory 1Gone Girl 1This year has been a rather thin one for movies as the most talented bail for writing/directing series TV. I was barely ably to scrape up ten films I could really get behind but here they are below.

1. Theory of Everything

2. Selma

3. Two Days, One Night

4, Gone Girl

5. Whiplash

6. Nightcrawler

7. Grand Budapest Hotel

8. I-Origins

9. Calvary

10. Belle

 

Woods PrincesInto the Woods 1Yes, that’s right “Into the Woods” is in 4D. Not 3D. The D’s being Drab, Disappointing,  Depressing, and yes, Disneyfied. What a great waste of a Great What-Might-Have-Been. A golden opportunity squandered and cheapened like the Golden Egg that the Giant’s Golden Goose lays (off-screen in Giantland) and that Jack (of Beanstalk fame) steals. It looks more like a giant basketball, than an egg. But it serves as a metaphor to represent what the makers of this mess have turned a great musical into. A Golden Basketball. Or something that the whole family can use and bounce around, hurting or offending no one.

Except perhaps those of us who saw the ORIGINAL Broadway production in the ’80s. I can barely describe the power it had in that first incarnation.

The niftiness( and shiftiness) of combining all those great Grimm fairy-tales of childhood lore into one complicated Jungian mash-up.

And then, and THEN, because all these presumptuous fairy tale characters, Jack main among them, have caused the death of the giant, his wife, a giantess, descends to stalk the land and squishes half of the cast to death.

Believe it or not, this was a musical that I always felt was Stephen Sondheim’s reflection of the AIDS crisis, which was at its’ fever peak, at the time of the original Broadway production. Suddenly, for almost no reason, half the characters we had come to like, some of them a lot, like the Baker’s Wife, just DIED.

And this was a metaphor for the AIDS crisis. Half or more of all the people I knew, mostly gay, although some not, phfft, were gone never to return.

So in that sense the original ’80s “Woods” was heart-breaking, soul-searing and profound and when Cinderella, beautiful beyond description, sang “No One Is Alone” to the survivors of the Giantess’ wrathful apocalypse, it was utterly moving and I remember it to this day, a jewel-like, ineffable Broadway musical moment. It was cathartic.

I was waiting to feel SOMEthing like that in this facockta movie version. But no. I didn’t get it. Although they had the super, sharp Anna Kendrick sing it. Not a traditional beauty with her hawk-like, aquiline features, she radiates intelligence, which is all to the good and she sings beautifully, but THEY KEPT CUTTING AWAY FROM HER!?! Which in this case ruined the impact of the iconic song and the film’s climatic moment utterly diluted and lost.

This is just one small example I can pull from MANY in this film, trying to illustrate just how watered-down, and MILD. Nearly pure pablum this disappointing Disneyfication is.

What a shame!

The death of one of the central characters was absolutely pivotal to the original and her death by gigantic squashing was traumatic in the original because she was the one really decent character (spoiler alert!) the Baker’s Wife, who you really cared about. The role was considered a lead and won Johanna Gleeson a Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical, no mean feat, in any year.

Here played by Emily Blunt, the part seems curtailed, and well, blunt-er. And certainly her death is. She sort of falls out of frame, slowly, like she was simply, well, falling. A little girl in the row where I sat said “Mommy, what’s happened to her?” In fact, the child kept voicing simply confusions all the way through the movie.

Emily Blunt’s part has been curtailed in its’ impact to feature more of her co-star Meryl Streep as the Wicked Witch. And thank goodness they have Meryl in this movie! SHE’S terrific in it. She sings and screams and cackles up a storm, and casts spells with the help of perfectly executed special effects. Her performance seems larger than life and it is! It should be. And she’ll get her 19th Oscar nomination and then lose to Patricia Arquette for “Boyhood.”

But as good as she is when she’s all made up in horror garb and face-to-give-you-nightmares, when she transforms into the beauty she once was about half-way through the film (and of course, loses all her magical powers), she plays it as a blue-and-green version of Kim Kardashian, which makes her not at all the heroine she turns into in the stage version. She’s a reality show joke. So the film loses its’ moral compass there, too.

British comedian James Corden is mis-used too as the Baker. He seems ten years too young to be Blunt’s hubby, and he just over does or over-bakes all that he has to do. He’s too much of a muchness. Whereas Blunt in what should be the leading role, is just not enough.

There are high-points, though. Main among, the surprisingly comic duet of the two Princes, Cinderella’s Prince, and Rupunzel’s Prince, wailing about “Agony” on the rocky outcroppings of a stream. Chris Pine, as the really sleazy Prince Charming, shows you just why Cinderella keeps running away from him, couldn’t be better in this scene. And Broadway’s Billy Magnusson matches him beat for bare-bresting bro beat, as they keep trying to out do, or out-complain or out-splash each other, as each claims to have the greater “Agony”, and they both end up soaking wet! Hilarious. Billy for those who don’t know was Spike in Christopher Durang’s Tony-Winning play “Vanya, Sonia, Masha and Spike.”

And then the film settles down to its’ gobbledygook of a book. And the tedium layer in this lonnnng film gets higher and higher.

Broken thankfully, by Meryl, chewing as much scenery as she can fit in her green mouth, as she knocks both “The Last Midnight” and “Children Will Listen”(the other great Sondheim song) out of the ball-park, hitting high-notes you never thought were in her register. Such a shame that she never got to do “Evita” when she was the right age for it. And MADONNA got to do the screen version! What a sad story that turned out to be!

And yes, a lot of the Sondheim score is present and accounted for, but a lot also seems to be missing, replaced by even inane-er dialogue by James Lapine, who simply should be shot at dawn for participating in the tragic abortion of a film musical.

And they think THIS is going to appeal to a family audience?!?! It’s going to give little children nightmares. Like Lilla Crawford’s performance as Little Red Riding Hood will surely do for the rest of my life. For all the wrong reasons.

Johnny Depp is great in a VERY small part of the Big Bad Wolf. In this case, I WANTED him to devour Lilla Crawford completely. But no such luck, she is saved, and alas we have to endure looking at her and listening to her sing(flat) for the rest of this overlong, un-fulfilling movie.

So the dueling, vain Princes, and Meryl’s Witch-for-the-Ages, make the unbearable bearable.On my Top Ten List, it’s not.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Fiennes 1One critics group after another this week! Tis’ the season! Now the Online Film Critics Society have named the wonderful “Grand Budapest Hotel” as Best Picture. Out of the three most awarded contenders so far “Grand Budapest…”, “Boyhood” and “Birdman” I’d pick “Grand Budapest” myself. Their Best Actor was Michael Keaton. Best Actress was the scintillating Rosamund Pike for “Gone Girl.” Supporting honors went to Edward Norton for “Birdman” and Patricia Arquette for “Boyhood.”

Complete list at http://www.hitfix.com

 

The Broadcast Film Critics, sometimes known as the Critics Choice Awards announced this AM and “Birdman”(13 nominations),Budapest 1 then “The Grand Budapest Hotel”(11) led the pack followed by, of course, “Boyhood”(8).

The most interesting thing is that Steve Carrell was snubbed for Best Actor for “Foxcatcher” in a field of six actors! As I prediceted BTW. And “Foxcatcher” also did not make it in to the Best Picture category in a field of ten…very big blow to its’ Oscar chances, which now seem limited to Mark Ruffalo in Supporting Actor, who did nominated.

However, Marion Cotillard DID make it into Best Actress and Tilda Swinton was in in Supporting Actress for “Snowpiercer.” Again both in a field of six.

Also left out of Best Picture was “Into the Woods” but Meryl Streep was IN in Supporting Actress. I’m seeing tonight and will give a full report back.

Also “Gone Girl” was in as was “Nightcrawler.” The Broadcast Film Critics are considered the MOST predictive of the Oscar precursors, but they’re muddying the waters a bit with their fields of six nominees in many categories where they Oscars, of course only have five

BEST PICTURE
Birdman
Boyhood
Gone Girl
The Grand Budapest Hotel
The Imitation Game
Nightcrawler
Selma
The Theory of Everything
Unbroken
Whiplash

BEST ACTOR
Benedict Cumberbatch – The Imitation Game
Ralph Fiennes – The Grand Budapest Hotel
Jake Gyllenhaal – Nightcrawler
Michael Keaton – Birdman
David Oyelowo – Selma
Eddie Redmayne – The Theory of Everything

BEST ACTRESS
Jennifer Aniston – Cake
Marion Cotillard – Two Days, One Night
Felicity Jones – The Theory of Everything
Julianne Moore – Still Alice
Rosamund Pike – Gone Girl
Reese Witherspoon – Wild

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
Josh Brolin – Inherent Vice
Robert Duvall – The Judge
Ethan Hawke – Boyhood
Edward Norton – Birdman
Mark Ruffalo – Foxcatcher
J.K. Simmons – Whiplash

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
Patricia Arquette – Boyhood
Jessica Chastain – A Most Violent Year
Keira Knightley – The Imitation Game
Emma Stone – Birdman
Meryl Streep – Into the Woods
Tilda Swinton – Snowpiercer

For complete list see http://www.awardsdaily.com

Tempest 1Taking Amtrak down to Washington DC from New York(and back) is really a delightful way to spend a holiday day away from Mad Manhattan. Even though I was on the Northeast Regional NOT the super-fast Acela, the trip seemed to fly and it was a canny, apt prediction of the delightful flights of fancy Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” I was to witness when I got there.

At Washington’s Harmon Theater, right in the heart of their Chinatown, the Shakespeare Theater Company is now presenting a very creditable, and sometimes absolutely delightful production of Shakespeare’s late comedy “The Tempest.” Often thought of as Shakespeare’s retirement play, it revolves, of course, around the famous character of Prospero, an aging magician and former and now deposed Duke of Milan, who has been exiled to this tropical, semi -Caribbean isle, where he has taught himself all of the black arts of mystery and enchantment and magic.

Talented young director Ethan McSweeney does bring the magic to his production of “The Tempest,” especially in Act Two when he has interpolated the role of “The Voice” for the beautiful, talented Broadway vet Nancy Anderson to sing as larger than life (and almost this stage) iridescent puppets of the goddesses of Juno, Ceres, etc. who seem to dwarf and devour the island. Designed and coached by James Ortiz, this triumvirate parade of monumental myths is proceeded in Act II by Sofia Jean Gomez’ Ariel descending from the heights all in black as an ominous Lady Gaga/Spiderwoman figure with huge black, drapery wings.

In fact, this is the only production of “The Tempest” I have ever seen where Ariel, Prospero’s imprisoned sprite, dominates the story. As performed by Ms. Gomez, this Ariel is CONSTANTLY in flight, literally and figuratively, under the astounding flight direction of Stu Cox, and the flying effects of ZFX, Inc. Sometimes butch as can be, sometimes as light as air, Ms. Gomez’ memorable fairy nymph flies into our hearts and memories.

Part punk-rocker, part gymnast, and part Tinkerbell and all girl, Gomez has an especially strong moment at the end, when her master Prospero frees her and the golden rope she has been suspended from falls to the ground with a thud, as her white, silk robe transforms from something athletic and imprisoning into something feminine, stately and beautiful, and she turns on her former master and doesn’t even look back or say good-bye. Not even a glance backward, she is no one’s slave now. And brava to Ms. Gomez, I say.

In fact, it is the supporting players  and the dazzling Special Effects and Jenny Giering’s ethereal just-right music, that seize this “Tempest” and makes it as magical as magic can be.

Main among the delights is the great young actor Dave Quay’s hilarious turn as the drunken butler Stephano, a role I have never remembered from any previous “Tempest.” In fact, the play barely has a pulse until he arrives stumbling and bumbling and bellowing to great comic effect to wake up the audience towards the end of Act One.

Quay doesn’t miss a beat or a laugh, and he put me in mind of the great Oliver Hardy of the early screen duo of Laurel and Hardy, though he is not stout in the least. He was comically paired with Liam Craig as Trinculo, the also ship-wrecked and also drunk Jester, who was bedecked in jingle-bells so you always knew when they were coming, or leaving, or moving, or anything.(Costumes designed by Jennifer Moeller). It had a very Christmas-y effect.

Less unfortunate is the casting of the central figure of Prospero, the Welsh actor and Stratford Festival regular Geraint Wyn Davies, who was simply too young and too robust for the part of the aging, about-to-retire wizard. I had seen and admired greatly Davies’ performance as the bastard in “King Lear” supporting Christopher Plummer’s great Lear at Lincoln Center a few seasons back.

And this Tempest put me in mind of the problems always associated with casting King Lear, the other great End-of-Life character in Shakespeare. If you have someone who is the right age for Lear, he invariably may be too old or too frail to do it.

There needs to be at least SOME of that frailty in Prospero. In Wyn Davies’, extremely healthy, hearty and hale performance, there was no hint of “The End.” And there should’ve been.

But around him is this great frame of a set by Lee Savage, a great ship-wreck scene that starts the play with a vertiable tempest at sea, and the best use I have ever seen of a chorus of spirits, and I’m going to mention them all! Ross Destiche, Freddie Bennett, Asia Kate Dillon, Ben Henderson, Dan Jones, Matthew Pauli, Stephanie Schmalzle, Kendren Spencer, Jessica Thorne, and Katherine Renee Turner, under the  spirited direction of choreographer Matthew Gardiner. These are the noble, able-bodied and adept souls animating those gigantic puppets under the direction of Puppetry Captain Dan Jones.

 

Theory 3Eddie Redmayne has had two very happy days in a row! First his SAG(Screen Actors Guild) nomination yesterday for Best Actor in “The Theory of Everything.” And today, ANOTHER Best Actor nod from the Golden Globes for Best Actor in a Drama. The announcements were made early in the AM Pacific Time, waking the nominees up with the good news, but Eddie was in London, where it was the middle of the day, and he was Christmas shopping! He says, dear readers, dear cineastes, and I quote,

“I was in the middle of attempting to do all my holiday shopping in a day when I got the call.  I am beyond thrilled to be nominated alongside such a stunning quartet of actors.  The fact that Felicity, Jóhann, and the film are nominated means the world.  I am hugely grateful to the HFPA – and to Professor Stephen Hawking for his personal support in helping me to share his story with the world.”

Johann is the composer of the beautiful score. And Felicity of course, is his co-star who plays his brave wife Jane Hawking, on whose book the film is based. Who also happily got a double nomination from both SAG and the Golden Globes and well as the film being cited by both organizations.

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