a.k.a. "The Oscar Messenger"


Kenneth Branagh’s classy, glossy re-make of Agatha Christie’s classic mystery “Murder on the Orient Express” is great, grand fun. It’s considered perhaps second only to  her “And Then There Were None,” it keeps being brought back to us each time with more style than ever. No matter how glossy, it’s “Orient Express”s superior and unique plot and plotting that holds us all enthralled and trapped by its’ ingenuity, as Christie’s characters are trapped by a snowy landslide somewhere in Eastern Europe in the 1930s.

Kenneth Branagh has decided to have fun with it, and so we do, too. I would say David Suchet’s TV version of it was the darkest one, also great. And Sydney Lumet’s glamourous film version with Lauren Bacall, Vanessa Redgrave, Rachel Roberts and Ingrid Bergman  all on board with Albert Finney at the helm as the beefiest Poirot in 1974.

Bergman seemed terribly mis-cast and under-used in the small part of the Missionary, but she was so incongruous as the plain, ex-governess who loved her “little brown babies, she won her third Oscar. This time in Supporting. And shocked everyone Oscar night that year.

I don’t know if Penelope Cruz, now cast here as a Spanish missionary, is going to repeat that hat-trick. But Michelle Pfeiffer might. Pfeiffer’s part has considerably been built up, and indeed, she has enough scene stealing and scenery chewing moments to qualify as this year’s Best Supporting Actress.

She is Mrs. Hubbard, an aging film star on the decline, who shrieks and cries and over-acts her way through “Express,” to the point where I almost thought that Branagh had re-written this adaption to make her the guilty party. She certainly ACTS, or over-acts her way to jail, if indeed she is the one who did it.

IT, being the murder of Johnny Depp’s horrible henchman, but no, Branagh didn’t touch the bed-rock of Christie’s great murderous conceit. Depp is perfectly vile as the soon to be dispensed with Ratchet. Josh Gad has a very large part, too, as Depp’s vile, scheming secretary. Branagh even get to chase Gad as he tries to escape at one point in the movie.

I’ve never seen Hercule Poirot move as much as he does in this movie, and Josh Gad, too, for that matter. Poirot has fight scenes, incongruous as they may be, and a broken heart from an ex-girl friend. Strict students of Christie and Poirot may object to these *gasp* liberties that Branagh has taken.His ridiculously gigantic moustaches that seems so heavy and overdone, he might at any moment fall face forward from its weight.

But while I noted these disparities, they did not stop my enjoyment of this very enjoyable romp.

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The great, essential New York Film Festival continues to top itself.I can’t stop talking about all the wonderful films I saw there this season.

It was an incredible year that it was having. now reveals their Centerpiece Film to be one of the best of the year, and the one film to emerge that may just end up  not only the most beloved but the most acclaimed. Haynes has had an amazing career to date with his legendary team of producer Christine Vachon and cinematographer Ed Lachman. His films are never quite embraced as they should be by the mainstream. Haynes is Out and Gay and so is Vachon, but here in “Wondersruck” the brilliant Centerpiece film of this amazing festival, they have eschewed gay themes entirely and turned to a serious subject that you would never think their twinkling talents would ever touch – deafness.

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There has never been a film that has addressed this terrible affliction head on, and with such grace and style and heart and heart-break. “The Miracle Worker” comes to mind as the only film to really face this disease. But Helen Keller was both blind as well as deaf and both Patty Duke as Keller and Anne Bancroft as her soul saving teacher both got Oscars. “Wonderstruck” should be showered with awards in every category that it is eligible for. Julianne Moore may be heading towards her second Oscar and her sixth(or is it seventh?) nomination for sure in a duel role that is head-spinning as well as heart-breaking. Her range is tested and she proves more than equal to the daunting task. She is Haynes’ muse, and is more than up to the double challenges these two roles face her with. She is for sure one of our greatest actress. Always amazing, in “Wonderstuck” she astounded me. Julianne Moore 2

Also unforgettable is the wan, fey, first time performer, deaf actress Millicent Simmonds(pictured above). She plays the pivotal role of the non-hearing Rose, who wants to break out of her restrictive home in Hoboken, in the silent film black and white half of Haynes’ stunning cinematic coup du cinema. Just like Soirse Ronan’s “Lady Bird,” she wants to spread her wings and fly as Lady Bird does, to New York City. She is first seen as simply a lost little girl, wandering the streets of 1920s New York all by herself.

She keeps grasping articles and ads about a glamourous stage actress, Lillian Mayhew, who turns out to be her mother. So her seemingly pointless mission leads her to a theater and to Mom, here played by an almost unrecognizable Julianne Moore in the first of her two wildly divergent roles. To reveal her second would be to spoil the movie. So don’t let anyone tell you anything about it.Wonderstruck 2

Her vain diva of a mother is a parent who wants nothing to do with her deaf child. She’s ashamed that her child is deaf.  “Wonderstruck” is the name of a book about museums that brings both halves of this bifurcated film together. The other half is set  50 years later in 1977 New York (and in color, with sound) and involves another runaway child, this time a boy, Oakes Fegley. His mother, the only parent he’s ever known (played beautifully in a cameo appearance by Michelle Williams) is killed at “Wonderstruck”s outset in a car crash.  Ben has nightmares about wolves. And flees his Gunflint, Minnesota home when  lightning strikes him deaf.

So we have two deaf 12 year-old children running from what they see as  unbearable situations, to New York City, to find a new home, one that will hopefully heal them, simultaneously, one in black and white and silent in the ’20s, to one contemporary and in color with sound. This seemingly impossible to connect or reconcile story, Haynes (and cinematographer Lachman) manage to pull off in a grand manner. Culminating with both twelve year olds finding their way to the Museum of Natural History. I will reveal no more.

The sound work by a huge team under the super vision of Drew Kunin is simply astounding. Silence and foley affects and sound mixing and sound editing have never played such an integral part in a feature film. But here the sound department just shines in creating a world where there is no sound whatsoever. The deaf lead a very hard life and “Wonderstuck” reveals its’ woes and complex challenges quite beautifully with a style and grace that is unparalleled.

The dizzying editing between past and present and black and white and silent and color and sound is by the wizardly of Affonso Gonclaves. The impeccable period and modern costumes are by the great Sandy Powell and the production design is by Mark Friedberg.
“Wonderstruck” is based on Brian Selznick’s book, from which he also wrote the moving screenplay.

I hope “Wonderstruck” isn’t too sentimental for our jaded times, but audiences and families can bring their children to this and enjoy it and be educated by it. The Museum of Natural History is really a character in this film and its’ great dioramas of wildlife are shown to full and wonderful effect. “Wonderstruck” is wonderful, that’s all there is to it.

Liz Smith 1Legendary Gossip Colunmist Liz Smith passed earlier today at 94. A great lady, and a great journalist and a great writer. She will be missed.

“Call Me By Your Name” One of the Best of the Year!
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The New York Film Festival  is having a stellar year. It is just about to reveal that “Call Me By Your Name” by Italian Director Luca Gaudagnino is one of the best films of the year and one of the most beautiful films you’ll ever see and the greatest gay film of all time. Or one of them. It’s right up there in terms of majesty and courage  with “Brokeback Mountain.” Just as we’ve never been able to get the star-crossed lovers of Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal out of our collective minds, so will newcomer Timothee Chalamet and Armie Hammer(“The Social Network”) be linked together for eternity, so beautiful, so tender is their love story. And in Gaudagnino’s hands so casual, so comfortable, so engaging and so absolutely irresistible. Bravo to all!
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In this difficult time we now live in, how welcome is a sweet,peaceful film about love? We NEED to see this simple affirmation of human dignity and ROMANCE.
Starting off an a very natural note of casual shyness, Elio (Chalamet) wanders around this parents’ sun-dappled villa in Liguria in Northern Italy in 1983, shirtless, lazy and lost. He finds himself when a summer guest, who is a strapping American, who is joining the professional American/Italian intellectual enclave that Elio’s parents belong to, as a research assistant. Oliver is at first a colleague of his father’s (the always excellent Michael Stuhlbarg) and then gradually becomes a playmate and true friend to teenaged Elio.Call Me By your Name 2
If I have one quarrel with “Call Me By Your Name” it is the deep longeur of the meandering first hour. But when sparks start to fly, they FLY!
Unlike in “Brokeback” there is no great societal force keeping Elio and Oliver away from each other. In fact, Elio’s parents ENCOURAGE the developing relationship, which does turn in to a deep erotic bond,  the likes of which we’ve never really seen portrayed on screen in this subtlety, depth and beauty. Chalamet and Hammer are off the charts erotic, and yes, there are many, many loves scenes, so beautiful I can barely describe them. Use your imagination and you’ll be right!Call Me By Your Name 4
As the summer progresses so does Elio’s experience of his own body. Everything around him becomes sexually charged. There is a scene in bed, where Elio alone regards a luscious, large peach as if it were Oliver. and as the juice as he squeezes it runs all over  his shirtless, hairless chest and down into  his pants and — Well, I’ll stop there. Suffice it say, you’ve never be able to see a peach again without thinking of Oliver. And Elio….
Chalamet and Hammer could both end up nominated for the Oscars this year and well they should be. Elio and Oliver are iconic roles. And Guadagnino, as director, has never been better. He approaches everything so slowly, so carefully, so delicately, it’s almost unbearable, until the two lovers come together in a  delicious, exquisite slow burn.
And in bed, they have the sensuous, intimate moment when Oliver tells Elio to “Call me by your name.” In other words, he wants Elio to call him, Elio. And he’ll call Elio Oliver. It sounds ridiculous, but it’s swoon-worthy. It’s like the transmigration of souls when true love is at its’ ultimate moment, and identity is shared and also obliterated by one-ness.
There are no heavy scenes in this movie of stillness and caresses, and love, love, love.
I never wanted “Call Me By Your Name” to end. I want to see it again IMMEDIATELY! And so will you!
“Call Me By Your Name” is sublime.

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French Oscar Contender Blistering, Magnificent AIDS Drama”BPM” Scorches the Screen @NYFF
The blistering, magnificent “BPM” or Beats Per Minute is like enduring a two and half hour atomic blast. It’s a movie that blew my head off and shook me to my core, and evidently had the same impact at Cannes where it was given the prestigious Grand Prix and was officially named as the French Oscar Entry for Best Foreign Film.  An angry, militant look at the early 1990s ACT-UP in France, it was shocking to me on so many levels. That it is almost a documentary, but it’s not. It’s a scripted firebrand of a drama. And it’s almost an exact replica of what we were all going through in the United States. Except for the language, French, its’ the same frightening story.

Of government and corporate indifference to the plight of people who were sick and dying of this disease that nearly wiped out my entire generation of gay men. Almost everyone I knew is gone. I wrote the first full-length play about AIDS in Sept.1984, when people didn’t believe that this sickness even existed.  People thought it was some temporary illness that the gays were blowing out of proportion.It was difficult at the time to get actors to play the roles of people with AIDS. It was called “Fever of Unknown Origin” and nobody wanted to hear about it. I was one of the first “Buddies” who were trained to help the sick and dying. The Gay Men’s Health Crisis consisted then of folding chairs in an empty room. My friends were dying all around me, as in a war.BPM 2

“BPM” brought all the anger and revolutionary fervor back to me with a shock. In 1990s Paris ten years later, when the fiery, superb “BPM” is set, the world knows by then that it was a world wide epidemic, but it was still falling to the militant homosexuals, in this case the members Parisian ACT-UP to keep fighting and picketing and yes, dying, to get the word out, and change things. The indifference of the French drug companies were equivalent to the lack of interest of the Koch administration in NYC. They throw false blood into board rooms and disrupt in any and every way they can. Pamphlets, fog horns, picketing, parading and screaming at the top of the lungs that “Silence=Death.”

In Robin Campillo’s “BPM,” the scene keeps shifting between the turbulent ACT-UP meetings, held in a college class room, and the tender love affair that develops between the angriest little queen you’ve ever seen Argentinean actor  Nanuel  Perez Biscayart and a newcomer to the movement handsome, studly, sensitive Arnaud Valois. Their relationship is between someone who is dying of AIDS right before our eyes(Biscayart) and a HIV-Negative political innocent Valois, who comes to love and care for the diminutive Biscayart, no matter what stage of the disease is ravaging his tiny body.

There are multiple and plenty of gay sex scenes, even as Biscayart lies dying in the hospital. Valois inserts his hand into his lovers pajama pants and brings him to orgasm in a scene that you’ll never forget.

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Campillo shies away from nothing in “BPM.” When Biscayart’s character inevitably passes, he wishes his ashes to be thrown into the faces of the suits of the drug company that has neglected getting him the proper medication. “BPM” is shattering as that is exactly what his angry ACT-UP compatriots do as they disrupt a swanky banquet in the last scene of the movie.

“BPM” reminds us that AIDS is still very much with us. It has not gone away. While there is better medication, there is still no cure. You must see “BPM.” It’s a tribute to those who fought and died and those still fighting.

 

How much do I love Gilbert and Sullivan? Let me count the ways! Every time I see that GASP or the Gilbert and Sullivan Players are putting on their EXTREMELY limited performances, I immediately run to get tickets no matter where in the City they may be.  And they move around from location to location.This September they ended up at the YMCA! I’m not kidding! And inside NYC’s oldest and most legendary facility ( James Dean stayed there when he first got to NY. ) is The Marjorie S. Dean Little Theater. It was a perfect little jewel box surprise, an Art Deco boite.

And so was the recent NYGASP production of the rarely seen “The Sorcerer.” A cut version sped by and the Little Theater seemed built to show off this particularly charming and mostly forgotten G&S tuner.

GASP, to its everlasting credit, regularly unearths these little-seen treasures, and their September, late summer “Sorcerer” has to be my favorite one to date.

Paired down to fit the usually thirty-something cast, this “Sorcerer” of only ten terrific singers, with no mikes, made the Marjorie S. Dean shake and shiver with delight. It was the perfect summer divertissement. I’ve saved this review til now because with Hallowe’en upon us, and holiday season just around the corner,  I’m giving you plenty o’time to get it together to see their “H.M.S Pinafore,” which is coming up next. Quickly, go to their website http://www.nygasp.com for full details. Haste! I’m giving you plenty of warning! Don’t miss this one!

Before I leave you with sweet memories of the summer “Sorcerer,” I must mention it’s outstanding cast and James Mills who as John Wellington Wells did a pixie-ish turn in the title role. He did indeed cast a spell, not just over the villagers, but also the audience.

Mills was aided and abetted in his hypnotic musical magic by full–throated GASP veterans  Carter Lynch, Caitlin Burke and Matthew Wages as Sir Marmaduke Poindexter. Direction, as usual, by the redoubtable Allen Bergeret, who is also the artistic director of GASP.

If you happen to have access to the wonderful Mike Leigh movie of “Topsy Turvy, “The Sorcerer” plays a large role in the beginning of the picture. The fact that once again Lyricist and Librettist Gilbert has chosen to plot his new musical around a magic love potion sends composer Sir Arthur Sullivan to nearly break up with his collaborator of many years.

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And did I mention that there was only ONE piano playing instead of the full orchestra GASP so gainfully employs? The one, brave woman attempting (and succeeding) playing this epic score was Andrea Stryker- Rodda, The full title of this little known gem is “The Sorcecer:or the Vicar’s Reduction of Tea.”

 

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Lustrous, luminous, transcendent Kate Winslet is the wonder of Woody Allen’s new “Wonder Wheel.”
Is there any American filmmaker alive today who writes  such great roles for women? No. There simply isn’t. And as photographed by cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, Kate Winslet seems to be a cinematic miracle of color and light, majesty and emotion,

You simply can’t take your eyes off her. Storaro and Allen have combined to give her a cinematic beauty that makes you gasp, in a multi-faceted role that makes you applaud. She is playing Ginny, a Brooklyn waitress, who works in a Coney Island Clam House. I have known SOOOO many Ginnys in my lifetime, and British though she is, Winslet absolutely nails her Ginny to the Coney Island boardwalk. And it’s  stirring performance in the grand tradition. She’s every woman. And every woman I’ve known, from Brooklyn, trying to make a better life for herself and her family. And trying to find love at the same time, having given up her dreams of being an actress earlier in her life.

Winslet’s Ginny seems the simplest of creatures.. But Allen’s writing and her bravura performance proves that every woman is as complex as a whirlwind. Or a rollercoaster. Or a Wonder Wheel at  Coney Island, to use this film’s great metaphor. Winslet has never seemed so bedeviled and so bewitching at the same time. She’s a housewife in waitress’ outfit that she wears like a queen, as she goes about her frantic daily work of cooking and cleaning for the whole of Brooklyn it seems.

Allen and Storaro capture the ordinary woman’s extraordinariness. She is married to a lout (James Belushi) and having a torrid affair with Justin Timberlake, the local lifeguard. Timberlake’s string-bean-ness seems out of place as a life guard, but he, too, has movie star charisma in buckets instead of muscles, that make all the women in the film falling for him make sense.Justin Timberlake Wonder Wheel He and Belushi have both never been better.Kate Winslet 1

She is playing Ginny, a common-as-they-come Brooklyn waitress, who is as uncommon, as she is earth-bound. Winslet’s a fiery red-head this time. And in Storaro’s use of orange and amber light, she seems so on fire, she is burning up the screen. It is no surprise then that her red-headed son is an arsonist, setting  a fire every time he’s left alone. The fires remind him of his mother.

And Juno Temple is Belushi’s neglected daughter, who turns up as a “Marked” woman, being chased by the mob, because she married a gansta, and became a “canary” who sang on her husband, making her a woman on the run for her life. She hides  out in Winslet’s and Belushi’s  humble household underneath the ever-present Wonder Wheel. Young, blonde Temple has the role of her career here, too, and is doomed from the first seconds we see her taking her first tentative steps under the Wonder Wheel.

In a simple car ride in a romantic rain storm with Timberlake, she becomes, as he says “as beautiful as the rain light.”Storaro has lit her in golds and blues to emphasize her beauty as well as her melancholy. She, too, is magnificent in this film.

Storaro  and set designer Santo Loquasto make more magic by making Coney Island in the ’50s look like the Riviera.

Winslet’s performance is so heart-breaking and towering it immediately recalls the great screen performances of screen queens past. Joan Crawford in particular. The shop girl who was not a shop girl.  The waitress who was not a waitress. And reminds you that not since the ’40s have actresses consistently seen parts like this. Winslet’s Ginny is the  working class version of Cate Blanchett’s Jasmine in Allen’s recent Oscar winner “Blue Jasmine.” “Wonder Wheel” is his best film since “Midnight in Paris” and is now one of my favorite Woody Allen movies. It’s right up there with the best. It reminds me why I love Brooklyn. And New York City.

“Wonder Wheel” is a movie movie about romance and melodrama and great actresses playing great roles. And it ends this year’s superlative NYFF with a BANG!

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