Thursday, December 18, 2014

Magic Meryl, INTO THE WOODS

I had a wonderful Thanksgiving Day here in New York City.  One of the highlights of that day was attending a special screening of Into The Woods early that afternoon.  What a thrill it was to see the movie version of a Broadway musical starring actors who can really sing!  AND it stars a dazzling Meryl Streep as The Witch.  She's a female who is frightening and funny, a female who goes from ugly to glamorous.  This role was done on Broadway by Bernadette Peters.

How is Meryl Streep in the acting and singing department here?  I think she's got a great shot at an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress.  She could have an equally great shot at tying the late Katharine Hepburn's record number of Oscar victories.  For Into The Woods, Meryl Streep could win her fourth Oscar.  She's that good in it.
She sang in the movie Ironweed (1987) with Jack Nicholson, performance that brought her one of her Best Actress Oscar nominations.  She sang the closing number in the Hollywood mother/daughter comedy, Postcards From The Edge (1990).  She and the song got Oscar nominations for that.   She sang in Death Becomes Her (1992).  She sang a lot in 2008's huge box office hit Mamma Mia!  Her singing left me awestruck in Into The Woods.  I've been a Streep fan since she was new to movies in the 1980s.  I knew she could sing -- she wanted to do the film version of Evita had it been offered to her -- but I didn't realize she could sing so well.  I saw Into The Woods on Broadway.  When Streep sang "Stay With Me," I felt like I was hearing it for the first time.  In her performance, and in the film overall, you really hear the wit and wisdom, the absolute genius of the Stephen Sondheim lyrics.  "Stay With Me" is about letting to.  I had those same child/parent conflicts with my mother when I was young.  I'm lucky my mother is still with me.  All our conflicts have been grown out of and resolved.  Meryl Streep is marvelous as The Witch.
As her character sings to her daughter, Streep reveals the heartbreak in The Witch.  We see what turned her into a witch.  She makes the witch human.  We can relate to this fantasy character.  It is a touching monologue set to music.  Here's a sample:
I was skeptical that this musical would work on film.  Mainly because Disney got involved.  I was afraid Disney would dilute the emotional essence of it and make it basically a movie version of ABC's Once Upon a Time.  Core emotions and some of the darkness of the second half have been kept intact.  This is essentially a tale of parent/child relationships at the heart of beloved fairy tales.  All those stories have a moral.   As kids, maybe we didn't realize the depth of these stories by the Brothers Grimm as we were swept up in the fantasy and thrills of them.  But think about.  Jack and the Beanstalk.  What makes him climb up that beanstalk and face danger in the form of a giant?  He's burdened.  He's got the frozen dreams of his frustrated single mother on his back.  She wants things -- material things to make her happy.  She's angry at life because she's got nothing but a cow that can't give milk.  She takes her frustrations out on her son.  Jack puts his life at risk trying to make her happy instead of being able to enjoy his youth.  Jack's mother will get the things she wants.  But at what cost?  Tracey Ullman plays the mother.

The cast is excellent.  As I wrote in an earlier blog post, Chris Pine  a major surprise.  Who knew the drop-dead handsome dude from Star Trek movies had such a terrific singing voice?  He's perfectly shallow as Cinderella's Prince Charming, storybook eye candy.  Emily Blunt and Meryl Streep were assistant and boss in The Devil Wears Prada.  Now they're Baker's Wife and Witch.  Blunt shines in a lead role.  So does James Corden as The Baker, a man who has father abandonment issues and is nervous about becoming a father himself.  He had the same kind of strained relationship with his father that I had with mine.  Again, I connected to the human side of a fantasy character.  I loved Corden and Blunt together.  James Corden will soon be a CBS late night host.
If any part really got Disney-fied, it was The Wolf as played by Johnny Depp.  That character was more sexual in attitude and costume design on the Broadway stage opposite greedy Little Red Riding Hood.  Here, he looks like a Hollywood wolf in a 1940s Tex Avery cartoon.

Parents will dig Into The Woods and so will the kids.  Unlike the new movie remake of Annie, this musical will entertain boys and girls under the age of 12 and well over the age of 12.  There's enough action/adventure, wit and special effects to hold their interest.  Parents on a date night will also love it.  If someone asked me out on a date, I'd dig seeing Into The Woods again.

Directed by Rob Marshall, I feel this is Marshall's best film since Chicago, the winner of the Oscar for Best Picture of 2008.  Into The Woods opens on Christmas Day.  I think it'll land a Best Picture Oscar nomination.  I got so much new meaning out of and appreciation for Sondheim's score when I saw this fine film that it makes me wonder how happy his relationship with his parents was.  Especially the relationship with his mother.


Wednesday, December 17, 2014

ANNIE Number 3

A history-making Oscar nominee makes her movie musical debut this month.
There were three acclaimed film directors who did great work with dramas but probably should never have attempted to direct the film version of a hit Broadway musical -- a musical with comedy elements. They were Sidney Lumet, director of The Wiz, Sir Richard Attenborough, director of A Chorus Line and John Huston, director of Annie.

Early in my TV career, I interviewed a sitcom actress who was one of the many dancers in the movie version of Annie.   Off-camera, I asked her what it was like to work with John Huston.  He was older then and not in tip-top health.  She said that he needed a breathing apparatus on set, he was pretty much chair-bound as he worked, and he looked and sounded like he did in the movie Chinatown as he directed a big budget musical comedy.  She said that the sight of him "scared some of the kids."
I didn't care for Huston's Annie overall.  I'd seen the play, which had great heart and charm.  The 1982 movie was overblown, but I loved the performances by Carol Burnett as boozy, mean Miss Hannigan and Albert Finney as bald, rich Daddy Warbucks.  And I loved the songs from the Broadway show.

The 1999 made-for-ABC TV remake directed by Rob Marshall got it right.  It was wonderful.  Kathy Bates, as a non-boozy Miss Hannigan (in keeping with the politically correct times), was an unexpected hoot in the role.
Now we have a new Annie.  This is very lightly based on the Broadway show and the famed comic strip.  Annie is no longer an orphan in danger of becoming another lost person in dark, harsh days of America's Great Depression.  She's been rebooted and relocated from the 1930s to the New York City of today.  In a way, it's like a better than average made-for-TV production that made it to the big screen.

Quvenzhan√© Wallis made Academy Awards history.  She was 9 years old when Beasts of the Southern Wild earned her an Oscar nomination for Best Actress, making her the youngest person ever to be nominated for Best Actress.  She was so young, she probably would've been happy being awarded with cake, toys and a pony ride.  But she was in the running to win an Oscar.  She's appeared in two Oscar nominees for Best Picture -- Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012) and 12 Years a Slave (2013).

Is this new Annie as good a musical as the best of Fred Astaire and Judy Garland in Hollywood's Golden Era?  Is it great like Singin' in the Rain, An American in Paris, The King and I, West Side Story, Funny Girl, The Sound of Music or Disney's Mary Poppins?  No.  Is it entertaining?  Yes.  This new Annie works well for a parent or parents with kids 12 years of age and younger who seek entertainment for weekend family time.

It's easy on the eye thanks to some lovely production design.  The songs retained from the original Broadway musical are reinterpreted in an imaginative way for today's pop beat and there's the lead actress -- Miss Wallis.  She sings well, she handles the choreography smoothly and she is absolutely charming.  She's not a precocious kid character -- the kind we see way too often, the kind of kid who's smarter than the grown-ups and acts more like an adult midget than a regular kid.  Wallis is truly charismatic and lovable.  She gives Annie what the audience needs to feel.  She makes you wish Annie was in your family and you can't believe that someone has not already adopted her.

Another update.  In the first movie version, there were dozens of singing and dancing orphans in Miss Hannigan's boarding house.  Now there's only about half a dozen.  And they're not orphans.  They're foster kids now.  This is a scaled back, more intimate and, again, politically correct Annie.  Cameron Diaz is the new Miss Hannigan.  She doesn't drink.  She doesn't hit.  She's cranky and klutzy and untalented.  She had dreams of MTV stardom that never came true.

Jamie Foxx  is the Daddy Warbucks type.  He plays Will Stacks, a multi-millionaire bachelor who'd like to be Mayor of New York City.  Annie softens the career-driven millionaire's heart.
I think the movie works best in musical moments with new arrangements of songs from the classic Broadway musical, songs such as "It's a Hard-Knock Life," "Maybe" and "Tomorrow."  Those are sweet moments.  It's not at its best with added new songs.  They were not written by the two men who did the Broadway score.

I read some snarky reviews of the movie.  To be honest, I was fully prepared to hate it.  Now I'd rather see this Annie again than sit through Ridley Scott's Prometheus a second time.  Or Horrible Bosses 2.

This is for the working parents or single parent with kids 12 years of age and younger who want to take the kids to a safe, fun movie for some weekend family entertainment.  It's pleasant pink cotton candy movie entertainment that little girls may enjoy -- especially if they show an interest in the performing arts.  

This Annie embraces racial diversity in New York City and in relationships.  As for the snarky reviews -- for those guys  in their 30s to those of baby boomer age like I am, how many times have you seen a big studio release in which the sophisticated and rich lead male character in New York City was played by a black actor and his leading lady was a black actress?  To some critics, that fact may not be significant.  To me, it is.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Harry Belafonte as THE ANGEL LEVINE

He's a singer, an actor and an extraordinary social activist.  You will see network news footage of his 1960s Civil Rights marching in the powerful new film, Selma.  He was a friend to Dr. Martin Luther King, the leader of the Selma march for racial equality.  And he is a great inspiration to me.  I'm just wild about Harry Belafonte.  I have been since I was a kid in South Central L.A. watching him network TV entertainment shows.  Back when Bob Hope hosted the Academy Awards, Harry performed on an Oscars telecast.

In early November, the dapper 87 year old became an Oscar recipient.  His honorary Oscar came for his humanitarian efforts, such as his work with Unicef.  His activism goes back over decades.  He and his longtime friend, actor Sidney Poitier, were present with Dr. Martin Luther King at the historic 1963 March on Washington for Civil Rights.  Harry spoke at the march.
Sidney was with him there in Washington.
Sidney took the stage to honor Harry that night in Hollywood when he got his Oscar.
This was at the Governor's Awards.  Highlights will be aired in next year's Oscars telecast.
Veteran film actress Maureen O'Hara, now 94, also received a lifetime Oscar.

Belafonte's friendship with Dr. King carried over to a very special night on NBC.                          

That night in early 1968 had a connection to Belafonte's satirical comedy/drama, The Angel Levine, made two years later.  Here's my short 2011 podcast on the movie and the NBC entertainment connection:
bobbyrivers.podomatic.com/entry/2011-01-17T06_20_08-08_00.

The Tonight Show is now back in New York City, hosted by Jimmy Fallon.  Dr. Martin Luther King is now portrayed brilliantly in Selma by British actor David David Oyelowo.
You must see the film directed by Ava DuVernay.  It opens in selected cities on Christmas Day.  It opens nationwide on January 9th.  I will be stunned if Selma does not get an Oscar nomination for Best Picture.



Monday, December 15, 2014

Julianne Moore Is STILL ALICE

Julianne Moore has long been one of my favorite actresses, one who really stretches herself in independent films.  She knocked me out when I saw her as the suburban California housewife who is allergic to just about everything around her in the 1995 movie, Safe.  Moore was excellent as the maternal member of a dysfunctional family of West Coast porn stars in Boogie Nights (1997), the privileged 1950s Connecticut housewife with a fractured marriage who begins a tender yet taboo friendship with a black man in Far From Heaven (2002), the lovably insecure and dorky lesbian mom in The Kids Are All Right (2010) and she hit a bullseye on HBO as Sarah Palin in Game Change (2012).

Those are a few of the fine performance Julianne Moore has delivered.  There are others.  Moore's performance in Still Alice is some of her finest film work ever.

You may be able to find Still Alice in arthouse movie theaters.  It's not a big studio nationwide release like her other current film, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay starring Jennifer Lawrence.  In Still Alice, Julianne Moore stars as a university professor in New York City, a vibrant intellectual of middle age, who is diagnosed with Alzheimer's Disease.  The professor has a husband and three grown children.  Alec Baldwin plays her husband.  Kristen Stewart plays her youngest daughter, an aspiring actress with a touch of the rebel about her.  Alice and her husband are both cosmopolitan professionals.
Moore doesn't have huge, theatrical scenes.  She just gradually shows you a relatively young, active and vital woman empty out and mentally wither away yet appear to be herself.  She breaks your heart.  Instead of big scenes there are smaller moments that pack a greater punch because of their realism.  You see the slight occasional instances of forgetting which could be passed off as common.  Those instances slowly snowball into a big mental blank.  Like the moment where Alice stands in complete humiliation because she couldn't remember where the bathroom is in her house.  Alice is a good mother.

I know that Kristen Stewart is a new young star but I couldn't really heat up to the star of Twilight vampire tales because of her constant Sad Sack face.  Here, that face is utilized to great effect.  It's totally right for her rebellious yet loyal character.  There's a mist of Terms of Endearment in this mother-daughter relationship.  In the relationship with her children after Alice reveals her health challenge, we see how immediate family members can treat one's crisis as an inconvenience to their leisure time rather than as an opportunity for them to be of service and help.  It's as if they want their lives to be one long piece of linen and your misfortune puts a wrinkle in it.  They resent that wrinkle.

Someone who's been very sweet to me for a long time was recently diagnosed with Alzheimer's.  B. Smith is the groundbreaking former model who went on to host her own syndicated home entertainment and style info show.  She wrote books.  She was a contributor on local WNBC news and ran a very popular restaurant in  New York City's Broadway theatre district.  B. Smith's, her restaurant, had great food and I took visiting friends there frequently.  Most of the times I chatted with the charming, charismatic and gracious Barbara was in her restaurant.


I had been wondering why I'd not seen her for quite a long time in the restaurant.
She went public this year with her diagnosis on CBS Sunday Morning.  We tend to think of the illness as one that strikes senior citizens -- people well over 70.  B. Smith is not a senior over 70.  Neither is the happily married Alice as portrayed by Julianne Moore.

Moore has that talent for being able to play upscale women with a working class approach to the character.  With a hightone actress, you might not care as much.  Alice and her Manhattan family members are so upscale and privileged that you might not feel a connection to them.  Alice and her husband are the kind of folks who'd specifically go to Whole Foods because they're out of kale and quinoa.  They have a summer home.  But Moore is an actress who gives off an affection for the moviegoer whose summer home is also his or her winter, spring and fall home.  You get the feeling that Julianne Moore has known nights of Hamburger Helper meals for dinner.  Dinners that she made.  You feel that she's basically one of us.  We feel like we know her.  We connect to her.  In this performance, you really don't see her acting.  You see her being Alice.

If you're also a Julianne Moore fan, put this one on your must-see list.  But be prepared to be heartbroken.  Moore gives an absolutely beautiful, touching performance in Still Alice.



Thursday, December 11, 2014

A GIRL WALKS HOME ALONE AT NIGHT

My totally cool friend, Justine Browning, and I have reviewed movies together for Arise On Screen on cable's Arise TV.  For days, Justine kept urging me to see a new independent thriller -- a modern day vampire movie called A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night.

I really didn't want to go see another modern vampire story like a Twilight adventure.  I was tired of twinkie teen vampires who sparkled like they were dusted with disco glitter.  But I promised Justine I'd go.  She was positive it would appeal to my classic film-loving heart.  She was right.

I was a bit grumpy when I took a seat in the theater.  Then this black and white feature started.  A ruthless female vampire in Iran who wears sneakers, rides a skateboard and listens to Lionel Richie?  OK.  I was hooked.  The movie was fascinating.  This vampire was fascinating.  A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night is one of the most original fright movies I've seen in years.  The story takes place in a culturally arid and financially depressed Iranian city.  Loneliness and despair are in the air.  Death is present.                                          
I've heard that director/screenwriter Ana Lily Amirpour did not purposely set out to make a feminist film.  But I could not help but notice that the vampire's victims were abusive men in a society that treats women like second or third class citizens.
                                                        
                                                                         
If you liked this book --
...I think you will totally dig this low-budget, highly entertaining, smart movie.

This story works best in black and white.  The cinematography has a rich, striking, classic film look to it -- like the work of cinematographer Haskell Wexler whose credits include Mike Nichols' Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Elia Kazan's America, America.  Both of those classics were filmed in black and white.  A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night was shot with the economy and compassion of a 1950s Italian film by De Sica or Fellini.

The screenplay is tight and witty.  Instead of trying to be hip and edgy, the visuals present a new look at what we've seen before.  She's a Middle Eastern woman whose burka doubles as her vampire's cape.  Brilliant.  This vampire is a terror.  She's done bad things.  But she's also lonely.  The movie gives us a the kind of imaginative "meet cute" that Ernst Lubitsch, Preston Sturges and Billy Wilder would've loved.  While walking the streets in search of a victim, she sees a gentle young man.  Having left a costume party, he's whacked out on Ecstasy and is standing on a sidewalk, staring up at a street light.
He's still in his party costume.  He speaks to her.  He's respectful.  He's kind.  He's dressed as Dracula and wearing a cape.  For her, it's love at first sight.  That's all I'm going to tell you about the story.  This is an odd couple that you captures your attention.  He's a sweet guy with some emotional distress in his home life.  He likes the mysterious girl he met one night and wants to see her again.  Will she reveal her real self?
Keep your eye on this filmmaker.  Her vampire thriller, A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night, does not suck at all.  (Sorry about that.)  Was it shot in Iran?  No. Ms. Amirpour would've been artistically and politically restricted.  So she shot it in Bakersfield, California.  It was the perfect location.

Great work, Ana Lily Amirpour.  You wrote and directed one of the best female-focused vampire movies I've seen since Tony Scott's The Hunger in 1983.
If I ran a revival movie theater, I would put this fine on a double bill with the 1931 classic, Dracula, starring Bela Lugosi.

Seeing this famous old Hollywood horror feature adds to the appreciation and enjoyment of A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night.