Friday, November 28, 2014

INTO THE WOODS, Look for Pine

Thanksgiving Day, I was invited to see a special screening of Into The Woods here in New York City. This will not be a long-form review.  But I will tell you that director Rob Marshall should be proud of himself.  It's his best film since Chicago, Oscar winner for Best Picture of 2002.

Will Meryl Streep get her 65th Oscar nomination?  I strongly believe so.  She's thrilling, touching, frightening and funny as The Witch.  The big revelation in this film version of a Stephen Sondheim Broadway musical comedy is Chris Pine as The Prince.  He's currently in Horrible Bosses 2.  When he was promoting that comedy sequel as a guest on Jimmy Kimmel's late night ABC show this week, Kimmel complimented Pine on his singing talent.  Kimmel said that Pine's singing voice is so good that it's a surprise.
It sure is.  Man, that dude can sing!  His comedy duet with a rival handsome prince ("Agony") is a highlight in a movie that has several highlights.
Also, let's face it -- Chris Pine is so handsome that he looks like a Disney factory creation.  And he sits a horse well.  Into The Woods is a Disney production.
I bet Into The Woods, which opens on Christmas Day, will put the movie career of Chris Pine on the fast track and make him a hot guy to get on the Red Carpet.  Pine is perfect as Cinderella's Prince.  His character is movie star gorgeous and delightfully shallow ("I was raised to be charming, not sincere.")  This Pine stands out in the woods.
As for Meryl Streep, she's also surprising.  I'm pretty sure that, in her youth, she wanted to be an opera singer before she settled on acting.  She has sung in previous films.  She sings a rousing barroom number in Ironweed, her 1987 drama co-starring Jack Nicholson.  She sings again in 1989's Postcards From The  Edge.  In Mike Nichols' film adaptation of the Carrie Fisher novel, with a screenplay by Carrie Fisher, Streep sang the tune that got an Oscar nomination for Best Song -- "I'm Checkin' Out."  I believe that Streep was eager to star in a film version of the hit Broadway musical drama, Evita.  But producers eventually decided to cast a non-actress in the lead.

I saw Into The Woods with its original Broadway cast here in New York City back in the 1980s.  Hearing Streep sing "Stay With Me" was like hearing it for the first time.  And hearing the power of her singing voice -- wow.  Watch this Disney trailer.
James Corden and Emily Blunt give shining performances as The Baker and his wife.  They're a childless couple.  The Witch can make their parenthood dreams come true.

Emily Blunt -- what lovely performance!  This film reunited her with Meryl Streep.  They previously played intimidating boss and snarky assistant in The Devil Wears Prada.

Using fairy tales and their lessons as its foundation, Sondheim's genius and wise lyrics direct our attention to parent/child relationships.  This is done so movingly that, ever since the Broadway show, I've listened to songs from it and wondered what Stephen Sondheim's relationship with his mother and father was like.  Were they loving?  Were they distant?  Were they supportive?  Into The Woods may introduce a new generation to the brilliance of Stephen Sondheim, brilliance we are lucky still to have with us.

Rob Marshall's Into The Woods opens on Christmas Day.  I will be seeing it again.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Birds, Brains, Bosses at the Movies

If you get Arise TV on your cable channel (Time Warner or Verizon), watch me talk movies on this coming weekend's edition of Arise On Screen hosted by Mike Sargent.  Because of the holiday, some features come out before Friday this week.  Here are my notes on films you can see at the cineplex this week before or after you get your lips on that turkey.

If you've got kids 13 years of age or younger, you can laugh with them at a new animated feature.  Chill out with The Penguins of Madagascar.  Four penguins with a weakness for crunchy cheese-flavored snacks are not the most sophisticated team of elite spies, but they somehow get the job done while fighting a foe and helping fellow penguins.

It's a 3D feature.  The animation of good, colorful and witty on its own.  There really wasn't any need for the added 3D effect.  There's plenty of action to keep the kids interested and it has enough hipster gags to make the grown-ups giggle.  One sly element:  Rico the Penguin seems to be the gay member of the penguin quartet.  Notice the kiss.  I loved the big bear undercover agent who has a fondness for cuddly penguins.  John Malkovich is a hoot as he voices the villain character.

Benedict Cumberbatch supplies the rich voice for the ace wolf, head of the slick and the coordinated undercover unit trying to work with the less-coordinated penguins.

The Penguins of Madagascar is totally cool and fine family fun.

Cumberbatch plays the head of another intellectual team in The Imitation Game.
I wrote about The Imitation Game earlier this month.  Based on the life of war hero Alan Turing, this fascinating thriller has World War II history and gay history that deserve attention.  This 1940s story is relevant today.  Keira Knightley co-stars and does some of the best film work of her career here as Turing's supportive, independent team member.
Nowadays we see entertainers, network journalists and sports stars come out of the closet and get celebrated.  In the 1980s, people like actor Neil Patrick Harris, news anchor Anderson Cooper, and NFL player Michael Sam might have been afraid to come out for fear of never working again.  Things are different now.  Very different.  Gay people are popular celebrities who attend top entertainment functions and pose with their partners on red carpets for press photographs.  Today's young gays and lesbians should never, ever think that this freedom, this embrace of diversity was always present.
Benedict Cumberbatch splendidly plays Alan Turing, a brilliant mathematician who was the godfather of today's computers.  His brain was a great computer.  In his youth, he was ostracized and bullied for being different.  As a man -- a gentleman who saved many lives -- he was ostracized and bullied after he broke Hitler's Enigma code which prevented the evil leader from killing more innocent people during World War II.
Turing was persecuted for revealing that he was homosexual.  The way society was at that time, being openly gay was illegal and his sexual revelation eclipsed this genius' phenomenal contributions to help Britain fight Hitler.  Read my earlier piece about this movie, if you have time.  See this film. The Imitation Game deserves an Oscar nomination for Best Picture of 2014.

Jason Bateman gives us a third movie this year.  His first of 2014 was Bad Words.  That comedy, which he directed and starred in, was followed by This Is Where I Leave You, a comedy/drama about family love and loss.  Horrible Bosses 2 is, obviously, a sequel.  The previous installment was pretty popular at the box office.

The story of a horrible boss is nothing new.  In the 1940s, there was The Devil and Miss Jones starring Jean Arthur as a department store clerk and Charles Coburn as her mean boss.  In the 1980s, there was 9 to 5.  Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin and Dolly Parton played secretaries who got their revenge on a horrible boss.  There's also the beloved yuletide story of a horrible boss, 1951's A Christmas Carol starring Alastair Sim as Charles Dickens' famed literary character, Ebenezer Scrooge.

All three of those classics are better than this sequel.  The three lead actors are very good.  They have excellent comic acting rhythm and chemistry together.  Unfortunately, they have a screenplay that runs out of steam about 45 minutes into the story.  Horrible Bosses 2 opens as the trio of losers promotes a shower invention on a way-too-perky morning TV news program.  The guys keep pitching their idea to whomever will listen.
The awesomely handsome Chris Pine plays a sleazy corporate exec who takes advantage of them -- and he's really good at playing a real sleaze.
I hear that Chris Pine just about steals the upcoming musical, Into The Woods, as Prince Charming. That's huge when you consider the musical fantasy also stars Meryl Streep.

Two time Best Supporting Actor Oscar winner Christoph Waltz also stars as a mean boss.  Best Actor Oscar winner Jamie Foxx plays a tough dude advisor.  Foxx and Waltz starred in Django Unchained, the western drama for which Waltz won his second Oscar.  If you saw Christoph Waltz on Saturday Night Live, you know that he was one of the funniest guest hosts SNL had this year.  He killed in comedy sketches.  He and Foxx have no scenes together in this comedy sequel.  That was a missed opportunity.

Jennifer Aniston is in it.  She's oversexed, she's got dark hair, she talks dirty and she dresses as a dominatrix.  Her role seems like a planned movie move to take a giant step away from her wholesome Friends television image.  Yeah...she's a nasty girl with her kooky X-rated mouth in Horrible Bosses 2.

This is not a "date night" comedy movie.  It's more a "boys night out" movie due to the frat house-like humor.  Jason Bateman, Jason Sudeikis and Charlie Day are sort of a modern day answer to The Three Stooges with Bateman as Moe.
I love the way Bateman does comedy.  Rent his Bad Words.  That summer feature deserved more attention than it got.  There's a nice emotional depth to that movie and a very good performance from Bateman.  There's a reason for the inappropriate language and his character's Scrooge-like verbal behavior.  Bateman was making a smart statement on the power of words and how we choose to use words as power tools.  Like his new sequel, Bad Words is also a revenge comedy -- and a much better one.  In Horrible Bosses 2, the crude language is there just to be crude and to get quick, easy laughs.  There are some laughs but the non-stop stupidity, especially from bearded Charlie Day's character, wears thin into the second hour.  You watch a bunch of talented actors work hard to lift a script that doesn't match their talents.

Happy Thanksgiving Day and have fun at the movies.

Sunday, November 23, 2014


This was the comedian's most serious and best screen performance, in my opinion.
There was a poster of this movie on a restaurant wall during a key scene with Ben Affleck on John Goodman in the Best Picture Oscar winner for 2012, Argo.  I thought the choice of that movie poster was an inspired piece of set decoration.
Why?  Because in that 1979 movie, like in Argo, senior citizens proved that gray hair doesn't mean a loss of toughness, wit and street smarts.  The two veteran Hollywood insiders in Argo helped Affleck's character hatch a major scheme.  A rescue plot.   The three old men in Going In Style also hatch a clever plot.
George Burns, in the 1970s, was a movie star.  He was in his 70s.  After winning an Oscar, he had a big box office hit playing the title character in Carl Reiner's Oh, God!  That 1977 comedy co-starred John Denver.  I'm surprised it wasn't remade ten or fifteen years ago starring Betty White as the Supreme Being.
Burns, one of America's most beloved comedians, first won national fame as half of the comedy team, Burns and Allen.  He and his wife, Gracie Allen, were a successful comedy couple for decades.

After a long absence from films, his 1975 return -- Neil Simon's comedy, The Sunshine Boys -- won him the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor.  It revived his film career.  In that comedy, Walter Matthau played the other, shabbier half of a bickering comedy team.

In his 1979 dramatic role, Burns played a tough, lonely old man who plans a caper with his two friends.

Last week, Variety reported plans for a remake starring Dustin Hoffman, Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman.  Here's my short podcast on why you should rent the original Going In Style.  (Note: The Sunshine Boys was 1975.  I mistakenly say "1985."):

George Burns died in 1996 at age 100.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Morgan Freeman Makes You Laugh

Millions of us moviegoers loved seeing him as the chauffeur in 1989's hit film, Driving Miss Daisy.  Oscar-winning screen and stage actor Morgan Freeman has been nominated for the Academy Award five times. The films -- Street Smart, Driving Miss Daisy, The Shawshank Redemption, Million Dollar Baby and Invictus -- were all dramas.
This week, Hollywood's Academy of Motion Pictures Arts & Sciences celebrated the 20th anniversary of The Shawshank Redemption with a special screening.  Attending the celebration were Morgan Freeman, the film's director/screenwriter Frank Darabont and Mr. Freeman's co-star, Tim Robbins.
One of my top five favorite Freeman film performances is in a comedy.  He's the star.  We all totally dug him driving that dear little old white lady down South.  In 10 Items or Less,  Morgan Freeman plays a Hollywood movie star who has a young white dude driving him to a location for film research.

The show biz veteran will have a slightly dizzy adventure on the road.  It starts at a supermarket in a low-rent, working class section of Southern California.
Unlikely and lovely friendships form along the way.  The movie star discovers new things about life on this loopy trip outside of his Hollywood comfort zone.

Here's my short 2011 podcast review of 10 Items or Less:

I paid to see this breezy feature during its short theatrical run.  All of us in the audience loved it.  Folks left the theater with smiles on their faces and commented and how enjoyable the movie was.  Consider this DVD for a weekend rental.
10 Items or Less co-stars beautiful Paz Vega, Danny De Vito and Jonah Hill.  In a small and funny role, you'll see a then-unknown actor named Jim Parsons.  This was just one year before the premiere of The Big Bang Theory on CBS. He's now a star too.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

A Mike Nichols Moment

Mike Nichols was genius.  Absolute genius.  I've felt that ever since I was kid.  I saw his comedy work on TV variety shows.  Brilliantly written and performed stand-up comedy work with Elaine May, his partner who would also go on to direct films -- and direct actors to Oscar nominations.
For many of us baby boomers, the work of Mike Nichols was a strong, golden thread woven into the fabric of our youth.  His landmark films -- The Graduate and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? -- are prime examples.

Those two excellent films are still quoted today and are referenced in the pop culture of modern TV shows.  Young America connected to The Graduate.  The acting, the script, the visual style, and the soundtrack caught the emotional pulse of the changing, intense 1960s.  Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? challenged production code restrictions on language in Hollywood films.  Folks today forget how revolutionary and controversial that remarkable 1966 film was.  The film brought Elizabeth Taylor her second Best Actress Oscar.

Today came news that Mike Nichols died at age 83.  There will be a lot of "mourn porn" on social media.  Film bloggers will write obituary tributes with overviews of his career.  People will search YouTube for clips of his work to post on Twitter and Facebook.

A whole new generation probably discovered today that he did comedy and played comedy clubs with a female partner.  Younger viewers will know Nichols from his work as director of The Birdcage (also quoted frequently).  1996's The Birdcage, starring Robin Williams and Nathan Lane, was the hit American version of a hit French film.  Young viewers know this Nichols feature...
...and his magnificent 2003 adaptation of Angels in America for HBO.  They'll know 1988's Working Girl, the comedy that made Melanie Griffith an Oscar contender.  It's another Mike Nichols that was nominated for Best Picture.  He also directed Broadway plays -- The Odd Couple, Spamalot and the revival of Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman starring Philip Seymour Hoffman.  He brought Whoopi Goldberg to Broadway and started her rise to fame.

Not all the films he directed were classics like The Graduate and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?  But there was something special even in the ones that didn't fully work.  I think the first half of Catch-22 is wonderful.  Critics may not hold Postcards From The Edge in the same esteem as The Graduate but I love that movie.  Just love it.  I still think Shirley MacLaine should've been up for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar and Carrie Fisher should've received an Oscar nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay.
What Planet Are You From? is a guilty pleasure of mine -- especially Ben Kingsley's broad comedy performance in that goofy Mike Nichols sci-fi story.  Critics panned the movie.  But Kingsley makes me laugh in it.
I also greatly enjoy his critically panned 1975 comedy, The Fortune.  I love how he got Jack Nicholson to play such of dork of a con man that Jack almost seemed like Larry in The Three Stooges.  This film starred Jack Nicholson and Warren Beatty as loser con men trying to swindle money out of an heiress played by Stockard Channing.  She's fabulous in this film.

Maybe The Fortune didn't make money at the box office, but, to me, it had something.  It has that unmistakable Mike Nichols touch and wit.

Mike Nichols showed Hollywood that two female entertainers who were queens with the teens -- Ann-Margret (Bye Bye Birdie and Viva Las Vegas) and pop music star Cher Bono of Sonny & Cher -- had mature dramatic acting chops.  Ann-Margret graduated to a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination in Nichols' Carnal Knowledge and Cher got her first Oscar nomination in that same category for Nichols' Silkwood  starring Meryl Streep.

Back in the early 1990s, my late partner took me to a function at a non-profit organization that was very special to him here in New York City.  It's called Friends in Deed.  It helps people with life-threatening illness.  Richard, my guy, was a Friends in Deed volunteer.

While he was chatting with one of the staff members, I had a drink, standing by myself.  I turned around to get an appetizer --- and there was Mike Nichols smack dab in front of me.  I had the same exact expression on my face that Lucy Ricardo had when she saw William Holden up close and personal at The Brown Derby.

I was in complete awe, slack-jawed, and speechless.  Well, not totally speechless.  I awkwardly blurted something like "I have all of your albums with Elaine May."
He smiled politely and then started talking enthusiastically about the fine work done by Friends in Deed.  (I'll post the link.)

Coming face-to-face with genius was an unexpected -- and memorable -- moment.  Mike Nichols truly was a gift to America's fine arts.

One final note:  This year, we lost two directors who got shining film performances out of Robin Williams.  Nichols directed him in The Birdcage and Paul Mazursky directed him Moscow on the Hudson.  We also lost Robin.