Sunday, March 31, 2013
Although known for her ingenue roles in the movie musicals Oklahoma, Carousel, The Music Man and several others, Shirley Jones won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for a drama, Elmer Gantry (1960), playing a prostitute. While I love that performance, I will always think of Shirley as this divine songbird. In my teen years, she became the mother hen of her TV brood of singing kids in The Partridge Family. To me, she's nothing short of an icon.
- by Jonathan Lewis
Wednesday, October 31, 2012
I have spent 16 years as a film critic, but I always resisted writing reviews of stage productions. As a former musical comedy actor myself, I just couldn’t bear to be negative, if necessary, about all the hard work that actors, creative types and crew put into a stage show. So this is not a review of the Kinky Boots musical, but just my emotional reactions to the material and my logical considerations as a writer who loves to ponder narrative structure.
As recounted in my 2005 review of the film (posted yesterday on the blog), the show follows Charlie (played by Stark Sands) as he attempts to keep open the shoe factory run by his late father. When he meets nightclub drag queen Lola, born Simon (Billy Porter), who has broken yet another stiletto heel, Charlie gets the idea to revamp the factory’s product line and rebrand the company. Fierstein’s book follows the film almost exactly, but with new dialogue and expanded themes of family, love, following one’s heart, finding a calling, and acceptance. There is a prologue showing both Charlie and Simon as kids of roughly the same age, dealing with issues with their respective families, a plot device which comes into play during a song toward the end of the first act.
While Sands is a pleasing presence, capable actor and good singer, the show’s heart and soul is the vivacious spirit of Lola and Porter’s exuberant portrayal of her. Unfortunately, the prologue, plot exposition and prerequisite opening number delay Lola’s entrance for a full 15 minutes. I don’t have a problem with children on stage when the show makes good use of them (Annie, The Sound of Music, etc.), but they feel like a fairly unnecessary device to tug at our heartstrings by the finale. My first suggestion is to cut the two kids entirely. Fierstein uses them to highlight the vast differences and yet similarities between Charlie and Simon, but a wonderfully revealing duet between them as adults, “I’m Not My Father’s Son,” does everything the prologue set out to do and with far greater emotional impact. Kill the kids, please.
The show’s opening number, “The Most Beautiful Thing,” sets up the world of the shoe factory and the family connection between Charlie, his father and the long-time factory workers. By delaying Lola’s entrance to a chronological necessity when the plot finally gets around to incorporating her into the story, the writers don’t state their plot premise for the slow-moving first 15 minutes. What I wanted was a juxtaposition of the factory workers’ anthem “The Most Beautiful Thing” with an ironic statement of “sensible shoes” from the stylish Lola and her cadre of performing “Angels.” Then Fierstein can have Charlie and Lola actually meet at the same point they currently do. But for heaven's sake, get Porter's Lola on stage quicker.
Finally, Spark’s Act Two solo “The Soul of A Man” may be a good character piece, but I could hardly tell because I couldn’t understand a single word of the lyrics. Get rid of the awful and loud rock orchestrations and overly hot sound mixing. When are Broadway sound engineers going to learn that we didn’t pay to see a rock concert, we came to see a show? I realize that these are just MY good ideas. The show is fine as it is, but I feel it could be so much better with some additional retooling. I’m always in favor of tightening the focus of any show, with fewer characters given more opportunities to sing. I love Sparks, Porter and Ashford; Lauper's songs are fantastic; Mitchell's staging is quite good, and the comedy is not too forced. I like Kinky Boots a lot; I want to love it more.
Monday, October 15, 2012
The film is based on the Canadian Caper, which had been unknown to the public until 1997 when President Bill Clinton finally declassified the CIA documents of the operation. Screenwriter Chris Terrio based his script on the Joshuah Bearman’s 2007 Wired article “How the CIA Used a Fake Sci-Fi Flick to Rescue Americans from Tehran.” The first half plays like a showbiz satire as Washington and Hollywood collide in comical negotiations to iron out the specifics of Mendez’s crazy plan. Some CIA officials ask for something better, but O’Donnell calls it the “best bad idea we’ve got.” Once the story shifts to Iran, the film becomes a nail-biting political thriller, where everyone faces an uncertain fate. Director Ben Affleck and editor William Goldenberg skillfully manipulate the pace so that you never have a moment to remember how this actually turned out.
This is a complex film with a huge cast numbering 120 speaking parts, large and small. Every actor makes an impact, from the unremarkable embassy staffers who escape capture (Tate Donovan, Clea DuVall, Christopher Denham, Scoot McNairy, Kerry Bishé, Rory Cochrane) and Garber’s trusting ambassador to the various Hollywood and D.C. power brokers played by familiar faces (if not exactly household names) Kyle Chandler, Michael Parks, Chris Messina, Richard Kind, Titus Welliver, Bob Gunton, Philip Baker Hall, and Adrienne Barbeau. The three scene stealers are Goodman, Cranston, and Alan Arkin as the dyspeptic has-been movie director. Their performances underscore the film’s theme of acceptable deception since all of their characters work in environment where lying is an encouraged skill.
As director, Affleck shows a total command of his craft, knowing how to balance the comedy with the tension, working with Rodrigo Prieto to frame each shot beautifully but with narrative purpose, and allowing the actors to fuel the excitement instead of relying artificially ramped up action sequences. As an actor, Affleck doesn’t get enough credit for what he is good at – fully inhabiting his character without bells or whistles. By underplaying, he will probably never win an Oscar for acting, but he may just do that as director. With superb period production values, the film is a welcome throwback to the political thrillers of the 1970s, when All the President’s Men, Three Days of the Condor, The Parallax View and State of Siege managed to be both smart and entertaining.
The film received 7 Academy Award nominations for Best Picture, Supporting Actor (Arkin), Adapted Screenplay, Film Editing, Music Score, Sound Mixing and Sound Editing. However, the Academy changed their timeline and decided to move up the date of their nomination announcement, earlier than usual and before the guilds had weighed in. Typically, the Academy looks to the guilds for guidance as to what they should nominate but they didn't have that this year, so Ben Affleck was not nominated for Best Director as most expected he would be. The subsequent uproar that he had been wrongfully snubbed changed the Oscar race, and the film, which was well-liked as a solid political thriller but not really a masterpiece, became the unexpected frontrunner. In the run-up to Oscar night, it won awards from the Golden Globes, BAFTAs, Critics Choice Awards, Producers Guild, Writers Guild, Directors Guild and Screen Actors Guild. On Oscar night, it won Best Picture, Adapted Screenplay and Film Editing. It won three Academy Awards for Best Picture, Adapted Screenplay and Film Editing.
OTHER NUMINEES: Amour / Beasts of the Southern Wild / Django Unchained / Les Misèrables / Life of Pi / Lincoln / Silver Linings Playbook / Zero Dark Thirty
- by Jonathan Lewis
Saturday, September 22, 2012
Some British films require a glossary to understand what’s being said and The Full Monty is one of them. The title is slang meaning 1. a three piece suit, 2. a full English breakfast, 3. to go the whole way. In this case it means to shuck one’s clothes. This hilarious comedy follows six laid-off Yorkshire steelworkers who are inspired by a visit of Chippendales dancers to their town and try to turn things around by forming an unlikely strip act.
Gaz (Robert Carlyle) drags his best friend Dave (Mark Addy) into the money-making scheme after spending months in a “queue” (a line, waiting for something) at the “Job Club” (government agency for the chronically unemployed). Other desperate workers on the “dole” (hand-out, free money) willing to “doff” (lose, shuck, cast off) their “kegs” (pants, undies) include a suicidal security guard, a handyman with an enormous “lunchbox” (male genitalia, penis, talliwacker) and an old “bloke” (man, fellow, geezer) inappropriately named Horse. Their former plant foreman Gerald (Tom Wilkinson) is an amateur ballroom dancer and,reluctantly becomes their “Torvil” (choreographer, female half of famous skating team).
Having joined forces, they have more enthusiasm than talent, lacking only teamwork, coordination and a sense of rhythm. As their big moment arrives, they are filled with mixed emotions—excitement at having something to focus on once again and sheer terror at what they propose to do. Horse worries about his size and buys a vacuum pump (to enlarge, to engorge) while Gerald is “nutters” (crazy, beside himself) that he’ll get a “stiffie” (erection, woodie, crotch protrubance) in front of an audience.
The screenplay by Simon Beaufroy looks unflinchingly at the hopeless future these men face—having worked most of their adult lives in the steel mill, they have few options left open to them. It provides reason enough to understand how these men could be reduced to such a low point. The film does not belittle their circumstances but it is their very despair that provides much of the humor. Doing something as potentially demeaning as stripping, these men manage to find a sense of pride they had not known before while coming together as a group. Chippendales dancers may not have anything to worry about, but you have admire their “balls” (testicles, guts) in trying something so “cheeky” (impudent, daring, totally unexpected).
- by Jonathan Lewis
Friday, September 21, 2012
The period setting and artistic premise should have been a natural for producer Saul Zaentz and director Milos Forman, who collaborated on the Oscar-winning Amadeus. Unfortunately, they are stymied by the historical scale and indeterminate focus of the script by Forman and Jean-Claude Carriere. One would think the story had Attention Deficit Disorder for all the jumping around that it does. At first, the film looks to be a standard biopic of Goya, when it get sidetracked by Inés and her travails with the Inquisition. On top of that, the story jumps ahead 15 years, when Lorenzo returns inexplicably as a French Reformist out to crush the Spanish Inquisition.
As played by Skarsgård, Goya is too passive to hold interest for too long, failing to rise to the occasion to express an opinion or do anything close to a definitive action. Bardem seems to be channeling the set-chewing histrionics of Basil Rathbone in the first act, only to turn into socially conscious Spencer Tracy in the latter half. Portman has to contend with the impossibility of playing a madwoman without inducing giggles. Although the ornate costumes, grand sets, and sweeping musical score are gorgeous, the film plays like a second rate historical romance novel, with far too much bosom-heaving and not enough history.
- by Jonathan Lewis
Sunday, August 19, 2012
The score begins with a slow, almost ethereal sound that increases in pace, volume and pitch until it explodes into a single bursting note. The majority of the Close Encounters score is a slow build-up to the awesome climax of the mothership and end credits music. Director Steven Spielberg wanted to create a sense of wonder regarding mankind's meeting with aliens, so he held back offering us a glimpse or even a hint until near the very end. Williams follows suit, by gently urging the story along without resorting to ominously agitated string sections or low rumbling of deep brass.
The score was vastly under-represented on two previous releases, the original 1977 Arista release and subsequent Varèse Sarabande release in 1990. To coincide with the movie's 20th anniversary in 1998, Arista re-mastered, re-edited and re-released the score in its full and complete version, unreleased cues and all, and restored the music cues to their original chronological order. Laurent Bouzereau's liner notes offered an interesting view of a composer's profession from an insightful interview with John Williams and plenty of photos.
As to the music itself, much of the first 20 minutes are somewhat difficult to listen to as pure music, again the atonal qualities were crafted to enhance the film not necessarily to be scrutinized for music sake. Williams obviously made a conscious decision to withhold the overly melodic strains from the first half of the film, so that they would have much greater impact dramatically and emotionally when used toward the film's conclusion.
Lacking the rousing anthems of Star Wars, this is a less pleasing score to listen to, but it represents a more cohesive work truly representative of its source material by Williams and it does include possibly the one composition that should be considered his musical peak. The finale alone is what we all expect of him. The music rises to almost operatic, religious proportions, using full orchestra and choir to pile on the emotions as thickly as possible, even incorporating "When You Wish Upon A Star". Close Encounters can be disturbing, at times too infuriatingly clever for its own good, but most often it seems simply inspired and ethereal.
- by Jonathan Lewis
Sunday, July 15, 2012
She only made about 20 films and she was one of the first to realize that television could prove a lucrative career for aging actresses. Even in the midst of her film career, she started making appearances in TV variety shows during the 1950s, which extended into regular guest roles on countless TV dramas and comedies. Her most famous TV role was the Fairy Godmother in the 1965 remake of the TV musical Rodgers and Hammerstein's Cinderella.
However, her greatest claim to fame may be her Broadway career. Her first Broadway show was the comedy Gloriana in 1938, which she followed up with the original production of the Pulitzer Prize-winning play The Time of Your Life. She made a little bit of theatrical history, creating the role of Ado Annie in the original landmark Broadway production of Oklahoma. She was the lead in the Harold Arlen musical Bloomer Girl. In all she starred in 27 Broadway productions from the 1930s to the 1990s.
- by Jonathan Lewis