Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Movie Review: 'Into the Woods' with Meryl Streep, Emily Blunt, Anna Kendrick and Chris Pine

Chris Pine as the Prince (Walt Disney Studios).
Sondheim purists always wince when a film adaptation of one of his musicals is planned, mainly due to the disastrous reception A Little Night Music (1977), featuring an unfortunately-cast Elizabeth Taylor, received upon its release.

When it was announced that Tim Burton would be helming an adaptation of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street back in 2006, with Johnny Depp as the murderous Todd, fans of the stage version groaned. Happily, Burton delivered an R-rated, gore-drenched black comedy wallowing in the filth and disease prevalent in 1800s London, and Depp — though light of voice — was a fine Todd.

Into the Woods is another piece that had been promised for years, so when Disney finally got around to actually putting it into production with Meryl Streep as the Witch and Rob Marshall as director, fans and industry insiders alike were forced to pause and consider — well, Streep can sing, after all, and Marshall is an Oscar nominee for Chicago — so let’s wait and see.

Critics are always going to be polarized by any film adaptation of a beloved stage production. If they admired the original, they’re going to hold the film version up to the world’s most powerful microscope and howl over every missing detail. But we're talking about two distinctly different animals here.

I first saw the show in L.A. in 1989, and have watched the PBS “Great Performances” version several times since, so I was initially skeptical, especially upon hearing that Disney had lightened the material and cut some songs. However, I can happily give this film version a hearty recommendation, provided the viewer: a) is familiar with the show and knows what to expect; b) loves movie musicals; and c) is open-minded about changes that need to happen in order to make the transition from stage to screen.
Emily Blunt and James Corden (Walt Disney Studios).

As you may or may not know, Woods is a mashup of familiar fairy tale tropes — Cinderella, Red Riding Hood, Jack and the Beanstalk, Rapunzel, the Baker, his Wife and — of course — the Witch. The story follows them to their separate happy endings — and then shows what happens afterward.
Woods features a strong cast with good singing voices. Anna Kendrick makes for a lovely Cinderella, Emily Blunt and James Corden are great as the baker and his wife, and Lilla Crawford brings the smarts and sass as Red Riding Hood. Young Daniel Huttlestone and Tracey Ullman are also a delight as Jack and his mother. Chris Pine and Billy Magnussen are hilarious as the handsome, posturing princes, and their shirt-ripping duet of “Agony” is splendidly staged.

Critics are smacking Depp around for phoning in his performance as Red Riding Hood’s Wolf, but give him a break. The Wolf has always been a campy secondary character, and points must be given to Depp for emphasizing the salaciousness directed toward the young, virginal and underage Red. He even opens his coat to “expose” a tempting selection of candy. If anything, his costume isn't as amusingly lewd as the stage version, in which the wolf's — ahem — gender is clear to see.

Filmed at the venerable Shepperton Studios in Surrey, Woods looks just beautiful, perfectly capturing the ethereal fairytale world. Dion Beebe’s cinematography is luminous, and Dennis Gassner’s handsome production design brings the kingdom to vivid life. There are some well-used special effects, which actually help to elevate the lyrics in some songs, whose recurring themes of exploring and venturing outside one’s own gate become rather redundant onstage with its limited visuals. Here, we can actually see where they’re going and it expands the experience.
Meryl Streep as the Witch (Peter Mountain, Walt Disney Studios).

That said, these effects are almost all piled into Disney’s trailer, convincing some audiences that this is a fantasy rather than a full-on musical. I saw probably 20 people leave the theater about half an hour in, but that's bound to happen. And I didn't see the validity in complaints about lightening the material. Characters still die, and there a couple of nasty blindings and amputations thrown in for good measure. If anything, the minor trimming helped to streamline Act Two, which frankly dragged onstage.

As for Streep? She remains the star here. Ageless, timeless and genre-less, she continues to give everything she’s involved in everything she’s got, whether it’s an embarrassment like the execrable Mamma Mia or a knockout like the small but beautiful Marvin’s Room. With Into the Woods, she delivers the witch that Sondheim — and audiences — deserve.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

The Best in Television of 2014

It's hard to believe that another year has breezed by, and it's time to look back on the wide world of entertainment. Here are my picks for the year in television.

The big four networks continued to make strides toward irrelevance as they continued to offer such earth-shaking fare as Dancing with the Has-Beens, American Shrieker, Modern Smug and Unfunny Family and Three and a Half Douchebags. Cable, as always, was the place to see imaginative and innovative work.

With Breaking Bad all done and The Walking Dead deteriorating into a bloody bore, FX rushed in to grab the edgy programming mantle from AMC, and brought some good stuff to the screen this year.  

The Master in The Strain
The Strain is enjoyably bizarre sci-fi from Guillermo Del Toro, chronicling an outbreak of alien vampirism in New York.

Multi-layered and constantly shifting through locations and time periods, it's packed with so many ideas that you'd think your eyes would roll into the back of your head from the complexity of it all, but Del Toro and Chuck Hogan, working from their novels, manage to keep it all fitting together like the world's most complicated jigsaw puzzle. And we get trademark Del Toro creepy flourishes, too. I can't wait for Season Two.

Back for its fourth season on FX is American Horror Story: Freak Show. Unless this season makes some serious missteps, it will stand as one of the most unique and moving testaments to "otherness" that television has ever offered. In one fell swoop, creator Ryan Murphy takes on prejudice — against minorities, the LGBT community, and people who just happen to look different — and grabs it by the throat, throttling it until it's (hopefully) dead.

AHS: Freak Show's pinheads
Not to mention how far Freak Show is pushing the envelope in terms of violence and sexuality. Almost every episode has a scene or an incident that shocks with its extremism. The sex is "R" territory, the violence is bloody. Kathy Bates is sure to get an Emmy nom as the hilariously Baltimore-accented Bearded Lady, as will Finn Wittrock as the seriously sick Dandy.

I just hope it resists kitchen sinking in the way the first and third seasons did. Murphy needs to trust the plot and character decisions he's made, and resist the temptation to heap incident upon incident until it all comes crashing down. Coven, after a hilarious "who's come back to life now?" season, devolved into a ridiculous Bewitched episode for the finalé. Let's hope that fate doesn't befall Freak Show. Some wags are already complaining, but it hasn't jumped the shark for me yet.

The Silicon Valley gang
Mike Judge came back to the small(er) screen this year with HBO's Silicon Valley, a scathing and absolutely hilarious skewering of the world of tech start ups.

Packed with turtleneck-wearing Steve Jobs wannabes touching their fingertips together and endlessly harping about "making the world a better place," the show centers on a small company, Pied Piper, and its first experiences navigating the treacherous waters of Palo Alto.

Having worked in the Valley himself in the late '80s, Judge has a feel for how these characters talk and behave — and all the inherent pretentiousness. This is another series I'm looking forward to continuing with next year.

Neil deGrasse Tyson, host of Cosmos
Thirty years after Carl Sagan's original, executive producer Seth McFarlane and host Neil deGrasse Tyson were back to blow the minds of a new generation with Cosmos: A SpaceTime Odyssey, demonstrating that reality can be much more awe-inspiring than fiction. Quality education and entertainment in one smart package!

Tackling such heady subjects as black holes, the expansion of the universe and the way light works, Tyson made them comprehensible but no less "whooaahhh"-inducing. And the fact that it made so many creationists' heads explode was an added bonus. They even petitioned deGrasse to give them equal time on the program in order to present a "fair and balanced" view of how the universe began. Fair and balanced? Where have I heard that before? ...

Jamie Bell and Seth Numrich in Turn
Speaking of education, AMC did manage to offer something good this year — Turn, the true story of America's first counterspy ring during the Revolutionary War.  It's got intrigue, hissably bad Brits and a look at American history that's not only entertaining but damn fascinating as well. It's also pretty nice to watch, with its lush Virginia locations and convincing CG effects.

Veteran shows that I'm looking forward to continuing with next year are Shameless, Nurse Jackie and Episodes. They all finished strong this year and it looks like the shit is really going to hit the fan for the two aforementioned titles. And what will Sean and Beverly do next? Masters of Sex is another one I'll look in on in 2015, but as I mentioned earlier, The Walking Dead appears to be living up to its title — if the 2014 season is any indication.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Film Review: 'The Theory of Everything'

Anchored by a superb central performance, The Theory of Everything is a well-executed and moving portrait of Stephen Hawking, a man who refused to let a debilitating disease stop him from finding love, happiness and fame as one of the world's most respected physicists.

The story begins in 1963, when Hawking (Eddie Redmayne) is a grad student majoring in cosmology at Cambridge. He’s twitchy, socially inept and seemingly lost in his own world, yet he attracts the attention of Jane Wilde (Felicity Jones), a beautiful arts major. A courtship ensues, with Jane drawing the misfit out of his shell and Hawking enlightening Jane with his dazzling theories about the creation of the universe.

He begins to notice that he's having  increasing difficulty walking and performing the most basic tasks, however, and when he collapses on campus, he’s taken to the hospital where he is diagnosed with motor neurone disease. His doctor explains that he will continue to lose his ability to move and eventually even breathe on his own, and will probably survive only a couple of years. Faced with this death sentence, Hawking retreats to his room and tries to push Jane away, but she vows to stay with him regardless of how much time they may have.

They marry, and over the course of the next 30 years, have children, celebrate holidays, cope with his continuing infirmities, experience jealousies and temptations — and finally separate. The point that director James Marsh and screenwriter Anthony McCarten make here is that Hawking, whom most people view as a withered genius in a wheelchair, is also a man like any other, with admirable qualities as well as shortcomings.

Marsh’s film moves with a balletic grace, enhanced by Benoit Delhomme’s lush cinematography. Johann Johannsson’s score is rich but not overly sentimental, meshing well with McCarten’s screenplay that wisely keeps Hawking’s famous sense of humor in the forefront.

Redmayne is a revelation as Hawking, contorting his body ever so gradually throughout the film until the uncanny transformation is complete. It’s an admirably subtle performance, one that makes a plea for understanding without begging for pity. He’s matched by Jones’ portrayal of Jane, whose own transformation from happy young wife to embittered caregiver is equally effective. Charlie Cox is wonderful as Jonathan, a lonely choirmaster who becomes emotionally involved with the family, and Maxine Peake is devilishly amusing as the saucy nurse Elaine, who wants Hawking all to herself.

As Jane’s mother, Beryl, Emily Watson appears only in a few scenes, but she does set up the best line in the film. Rightly assuming that Jane needs a diversion from the stress of caring for Hawking, she sits her daughter down with a cup of tea and says, “Jane, I think you should join the church choir,” to which Jane responds, “That’s the most English thing anyone has ever said."

It’s moments like this that give The Theory of Everything its spark.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Book Review: 'Mad Movies with the L.A. Connection' by Mike White

Ah, L.A. in the mid-1980s — what a magical place. The punk rock scene was going strong, KROQ ruled the radio dial, Elvira's Movie Macabre was a Saturday night must-see on KHJ-TV, and I was working at a down-at-its-heels TV distribution company called Four Star Television.

Founded by Hollywood stars Dick Powell, David Niven, Charles Boyer and Ida Lupino in 1952, Four Star had been a leader in television production through the 1960s, selling such hits as Wanted: Dead or Alive, Burke's Law and The Big Valley to the networks. But by 1984, with nothing in the pipeline and a dusty library of forgotten black and white shows, the company had slowed down considerably. A new regime was brought in to juice up the joint, and that's how Mad Movies with the L.A. Connection was born.

But let's step back a bit. The L.A. Connection improvisation troupe had been successfully performing live redubs (called "Improvision") of movies like Plan 9 from Outer Space at theaters around town, which led to a brief stint doing the same thing for "Flicke of the Night" segments on Alan Thicke's 1983-84 talk show, Thicke of the Night.

Meanwhile, Four Star had acquired the questionable assets of another syndication company, Gold Key Entertainment, and with that purchase had gotten a library of what today would be a goldmine of cult classics, but back then was just a bunch of unsellable bad movies.

It was destiny that the dubbers of bad movies should join forces with the purveyors of bad movies...and therein lies the tale.

In his new book, Mad Movies with the L.A. Connection, author Mike White chronicles the colorful history of the L.A. Connection and the development of the show that was ahead of its time — and still has a following today.

Ample behind-the-scenes reminiscences are provided by L.A. Connection founder Kent Skov and cast members and writers Bob Buchholz, Connie Sue Cook, Stephen Rollman, Steve Pinto and April Winchell, as well as the show's producer, Randy Ridges. They describe how Mad Movies was pitched and produced (including the making of the first pilot, Dungeon Women, that was scuttled for being too racy), researching appropriate properties, scouting locations for the wraparounds — and delivering 26 half-hours on a budget that wouldn't even pay for craft services nowadays. It truly was guerrilla television. As Four Star's Director of Promotions at the time, I provide some recollections from the corporate perspective.

Fans of the show will appreciate the book's complete episode guide, rare production photos and the "after Mad Movies" section. As for me, it brought back great memories of a time when we were all so young and L.A. was a town that represented limitless possibilities.

Mad Movies with the L.A. Connection is available from Amazon.

Monday, November 17, 2014

'Birdman': Keaton's Revenge

Michael Keaton and Edward Norton in "Birdman"
Keaton and Norton
In the 1970s and early ‘80s, Michael Keaton worked his way up the showbiz ladder, paying his dues in such now-forgotten television shows as Working Stiffs and Report to Murphy before soaring into the stratosphere with films like Mr. Mom, Night Shift and especially Beetlejuice. But when he put on the cowl to play Batman, his career — for better or worse — was never the same.

Now, playing Riggan Thomson in Alejandro Inarritu’s brilliant new comedy/drama, Birdman (or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), Keaton takes on a role that very nearly mirrors his own life — and he runs with it. Riggan is a fllm star who lost momentum after playing superhero Birdman in a series of blockbusters back in the ‘90s, and is now trying to gain recognition as a serious actor by staging an adaptation of a Raymond Carver short story on Broadway. He’s put everything he has into it, serving as writer, producer, director and star.

Michael Keaton in Birdman

When his terrible male lead (Jeremy Shamos) exits the production after being brained by a falling arc light, co-star Lesley (Naomi Watts), offers to bring in her man, Mike Shiner (Edward Norton), a hotshot Broadway actor, as a replacement. Riggan is thrilled at first, but is soon plagued by feelings of inadequacy when faced with a legitimate stage professional. Worse still, he feels that the more experienced actor is attempting to steal the show away. And when Mike is gushingly profiled on page one of the New York Times arts section, his suspicions are seemingly confirmed.

Fueling his paranoia is the voice of his alter ego, Birdman, constantly ringing in his head. He tells Riggin that he’s better than all of this, urging him to just run way from it all and go back to Hollywood. As opening day draws near and they run through a series of disastrous previews, Riggan begins second-guesses everything and gives in to bouts of fury, even as his producer (Zach Galifianakis) assures him that the show is getting good buzz.

He’s also afflicted by hallucinations that make it difficult to comprehend the real world. He’s out of synch with his fresh-out-of-rehab daughter, Sam (Emma Stone), who is serving as his assistant, and it barely registers when Laura (Andrea Riseborough), his femme lead and offstage lover, tells him that she may be pregnant with his child. Thankfully, as Birdman takes pains to remind him, he has telekinetic powers and the ability to fly…or does he?

In a film populated by fine performances, Keaton shines, providing layered and sympathetic work. He’s still manic, but the years have softened his edginess — perfect for this role. He’s nearly matched by Norton, whose arrogant Mike is a symbol of Broadway’s “superiority” to film as the only true art form. Stone, Watts and Riseborough are all given their memorable moments, and Galifianakis plays against type as the voice of reason. Amy Ryan is also wonderful as Riggan’s ex-wife, Sylvia, who clearly still adores him and mourns the death of their marriage.

The sharp screenplay by Inarritu, Nicolas Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris Jr. and Armando Bo, pits not only the stage against film but also old versus new. Indeed, Riggan behaves as if his life stalled out along with his career back in the ‘90s. His refusal to participate in social media as a way of marketing himself to the new generation while hungering for legitimacy in the ancient world of the theater is a useless pursuit that Sam decries in an explosive rant (wonderfully delivered by the doe-eyed Stone).

Birdman is certainly the lightest film the gritty Inarritu has made to date, and yet it’s also his most satisfying. Working with Oscar-winning cinematographer Emmanuel Lubeski (Gravity) and editors Douglas Crise and Stephen Mirrone, he makes the film flow as if it’s been shot in one continuous take. Lubeski’s camera constantly roves around the actors and slithers through the corridors of the St. James Theatre, where much of the action takes place. Adding to this sensation of nonstop movement is the unusual but effective all-percussion score provided by jazz drummer Antonio Sanchez.

The much-discussed fantasy sequences are well-integrated and even essential to the story. Who among us has never imagined, when things got really tough, that we could vanquish our enemies with a snap of our fingers or suddenly soar high into the air, leaving our problems far below us? That’s the universal message of Birdman, one of the year’s best and a sure contender come Oscar time.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Movie Review: 'Nightcrawler'

Louis Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a small-time thief who drives a junkheap and sells stolen goods to get by. When he brings a load of hot metal to a construction foreman, he inquires about a job, outlining his qualifications as if he's an upstanding young professional as opposed to a two-bit hustler. Clearly considering him to be delusional, the appalled man tells Bloom that he doesn't hire thieves. Unperturbed, he moves calmly on to his next opportunity.

He passes a car accident on the freeway and is intrigued by camera crews recording the action, so he pulls over. He catches up to one of the videographers, Joe Loder (Bill Paxton), and asks him what he’s doing. Loder explains that he runs a freelance operation that  monitors the police band overnight and rushes to scenes of crime and violence that they capture on video and sell to local stations for their morning news shows.

Bloom decides that this could be a good job for him, so he steals a bicycle, pawns it for a camcorder and police scanner, and sets to work. The first scene he arrives at is a carjacking, and he is able to capture gory, close-up footage of the dying victim before being pushed away by the police. Loder is also ordered to stand back, and when he sees that Bloom is the reason for his ejection, he's furious.

Bloom goes to KWLA, the lowest-rated station in town, and talks his way into the office of the overnight news director, Nina Romina (Rene Russo), who at first brushes him off, saying they’ve already acquired Loder’s stuff. But he insists that he was able to get closer than Loder, so she agrees to take a look. Although the quality is low, his footage is indeed more compelling, so she makes the purchase.

As weeks pass, Bloom continues to supply superior footage to an eager Nina, who compliments his "style," and his economic situation improves. He takes on an assistant, the desperate and homeless Rick (Riz Ahmed). He also acquires a new vehicle, a cherry-red Mustang that he races at harrowingly high speeds to crime scenes, and better video equipment. His reputation in the business increases as well, so much that Loder comes to offer him a partnership, which he — of course — refuses.

Constantly pressured over ratings, Nina is willing to air the most egregious content, and the morals-free Bloom has no problem manipulating accident scenes to make them more dramatic. But as he descends into the pit, his confidence continues to increase.

Screenwriter/director Dan Gilroy takes a jaded view of Los Angeles that recalls Nicolas Winding Refn’s 2011 Drive. As captured by cinematographer Robert Elswit, the streets are dark and dangerous, and the city is populated with characters who are either corrupt or corruptible. Bloom is a blatant misanthrope — at one point he even admits to a chronic dislike of humankind — but he provides the juice that other, equally opportunistic people are desperate for.

It’s always admirable to see an actor take a character with no redeeming qualities whatsoever and make him fascinating to watch, and that’s something Gyllenhaal has achieved here. Having dropped nearly 30 pounds to portray this parasite, he’s acquired a hungry, feral mien, and his already large eyes become positively enormous and unblinking.

Bloom is a kind of brethren to De Niro’s Travis Bickle, yet even Bickle had altruistic motives. Bloom is a total sociopath, having created his own persona via online study. His self-righteous diatribes alternate between hilarity and hideousness, and the fact that others even take him seriously is a telling condemnation of society.

Russo’s Nina is similarly tainted. Bouncing from job to job and realizing she’s not getting any younger, she enters into a devil’s pact with Bloom to make sure she’ll continue to be first in line for his footage. Her producer, Frank Kruse (Kevin Rahm), attempts to stand in as the voice of reason, but his quiet objections are easily drowned out by the yowling madness of the news machine. Ahmed's Rick is equally appalled at the things he's being forced to do, but his situation and genuine terror of his clearly unhinged employer prevents him from doing anything about it.

Darkly satiric and relentlessly grim, Nightcrawler plays like the bastard child of Lumet's Network and Scorsese's Taxi Driver. It's bleak stuff indeed, but stylishly compelling.

Friday, October 24, 2014

What's the Matter with 'Carrie'?

The curiosity factor is high when it comes to Carrie: the Musical, whose status as a legendary flop still resonates. Its 1988 Broadway debut was met with scathing reviews, and it closed after only five performances with a loss of $7 million dollars. Since then, it's been revised, retooled and updated, but the question remains — "What's the matter with Carrie?"

The Woodlawn Theatre is hoping to answer that question with a production that preserves the essence of the story while peppering the script with modern references to texting and selfies. The familiar cast of characters is here — good girl Sue Snell (Megan McCarthy) and her all-star boyfriend, Tommy Ross (Cody Jones); mean girl Chris Hargensen (Alison Hinojosa) and her asshole boyfriend Billy Nolan (Walter Songer); Chris’s stooge, Norma (Tamara Brem); the compassionate gym teacher, Miss Gardner (Katie Benson); and, of course, Carrie White (Elise Pardue) and her fanatical mother, Margaret (Rebecca Trinidad).

As directed and choreographed by Christopher Rodriguez, Carrie looks and sounds good. Benjamin Grabill’s utilitarian set properly evokes a high school gymnasium, with sections of Carrie’s house on either side to serve as backdrops for key scenes at home. The five-piece band, under the direction of Josh Pepper, sounds great — and the vocal performances are fine.
Elise Pardue as Carrie

The problem lies within composer Michael Gore and lyricist Dean Pitchford’s score. When you’re working with such familiar territory as Stephen King's horror classic, you really need to bring your A-game. Alas, among the 20 songs in the show, only five or six of them really resonate. Too many seem to be treading water, as if they exist merely to fulfill the qualifications of a musical. And since special effects onstage are limited out of necessity, even more pressure is put on the performances to convey the drama.

Here again is where Rodriguez's production comes through. Pardue is fine as Carrie, morphing from timid geek to self-assured young woman with exceptional powers. Hinojosa and Songer are perfect as the high school couple you love to hate, and
McCarthy and Jones effectively represent the other side. Benson brings a lot of heart to the role of Miss Gardner, but it's Trinidad who really stands out as Margaret White. It certainly doesn’t hurt that some of the best songs in the show are given to her, and she delivers them with the emotion and ferocity that the piece needs much more of.
Pardue and Rebecca Trinidad

Carrie: the Musical plays Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 3 p.m. through November 9th at the Woodlawn Theatre, 1920 Fredericksburg Road, San Antonio 78201. Tickets can be acquired online or by calling (210) 267-8388. There will also be a teen version of the show playing October 26-28 at 8 p.m.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Rocky Horror Hits Texas

Each October, the Woodlawn Theatre becomes home for RuPaul’s Drag Race stars as they participate in its annual production of The Rocky Horror Show. After 2012’s successful steampunk staging and last year’s S&M theme, the theater’s artistic director, Greg Hinojosa, has set the musical in a circus milieu this time around — and the results are terrific.

The carny atmosphere, with its colorful lights, garish make-up and general seediness, provides the perfect backdrop for the story of Frank N. Furter.

Having played Magenta last year, Drag Race judge Michelle Visage returns to the Woodlawn stage, this time doing some gender-bending in her portrayal of Riff Raff, cast alongside Season Six winner Bianca Del Rio as sinister sibling Magenta. Season Six runner-up Courtney Act joins the production for the first time this year as Frank, and it's more than just stunt casting. Both Act and Visage possess fine singing voices, and Act makes the most of the iconic role. Del Rio also captures the essence of the perverse Magenta while delivering the kind of campy comedy the audience expects to see.

Rocky Horror Show
Some Woodlawn vets are also returning in different roles this time around. Melissa Zarb-Cousin, who portrayed Janet for the past three years, is stepping into Columbia’s shoes. Sean Hagdorn, who played Riff Raff and Brad in the past, takes on the role of Eddie. Another former Riff Raff,

Matthew Lieber, squeezes into the gold lamé shorts this time to play Rocky. They all know their way around this show and therefore provide solid support.

Kurt Wehner and Carla Sankey capably handle the roles of squeaky-clean Brad and Janet, while Dave Cortez hams it up as the wheelchair-bound Dr. Scott. David Blazer is also fun as The Narrator, transformed into a carny barker in this new staging.

Speaking of staging, Wehner and Benjamin Grabill’s set looks great, evoking the feel of a small-town traveling carnival with a sinister edge. Hinojosa has designed an array of appropriately flamboyant costumes for the large cast, and everything sparkles under Chris Muenchow’s fine lighting. The performers are nicely choreographed by Sankey, and the aerial acrobats contribute to the atmospherics.

It’s always great to hear live music in a production such as this, and Hector Serna’s six-piece band provides solid backup for the singing. Alas, the singing was not always audible, as there were some opening night sound glitches which will hopefully be mended in future performances.

As a newbie to the Woodlawn Rocky Horror experience, I was impressed by this production, and I plan to make it a regular part of my Halloween season entertainment.

The Rocky Horror Show plays Thursdays at 8 p.m. and Fridays and Saturdays at 11 p.m. at the Woodlawn Theatre, 1920 Fredricksburg Road, San Antonio 78201. Tickets can be acquired online or by calling the box office at (210) 267-8388.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Movie Review: 'Calvary'

Kelly Reilly and Brendan Gleeson
Calvary opens with Father James (Brendan Gleeson), the parish priest of a coastal Irish village, sitting in the confessional, listening. He's listening to the words of an unseen parishioner who tells him the shocking and heart-rending story of the sexual molestation he’d suffered at the hands of another priest from age seven until he was 12. When Father James suggests that he report it to the authorities or seek professional help, he is told that the guilty priest is long dead. The parishioner still wants his revenge, though, and announces his intention to murder Father James himself in a week's time. “There’s no point killing a bad priest,” he reasons. Murdering an innocent man would be far more dramatic, and it’s just what he plans to do.

Father James goes to the local bishop and tells him that he recognized the threatening man's voice, but refuses to break the sanctity of the confessional. Rather, he makes the decision to go about his normal pastoral work in the hopes of changing the mind o
f his would-be assassin. He tries to intervene when he sees that the promiscuous wife (Orla O’Rourke) of the village butcher (Chris O’Dowd) has been physically abused by either him or the immigrant (Isaach De Bankolé) she’s been seeing, but he is mocked and rebuked by them all. He also attempts to counsel a sexually inexperienced youth (Killian Scott) who thinks that his pent-up impulses would be more effectively released as a soldier in combat, but bristles when the priest suggests that there's something psychopathic about wanting to join the army in peacetime. Tact is obviously not one of the good Father's gifts.

Gleeson and Chris O'Dowd
When he reports the death threat to the local police inspector (Gary Lydon), who is just concluding a dalliance with the local male prostitute (Owen Sharpe), the officer is surprisingly disinterested. In fact, cynicism and antipathy are the general reactions Father James receives throughout the town, from the virulently atheistic doctor at the hospital (Aiden Gillen) to the local millionaire (Dylan Moran) who wants to use his ill-gotten wealth to buy his way into heaven. Even the priest's own daughter, Fiona (Kelly Reilly), coming from London to recover after a botched suicide attempt, arrives with a suitcase loaded with hostility. Only the elderly American writer (M. Emmet Walsh) living out his last days in hermit-like seclusion, seems glad to see him, and that’s because he wants his help in obtaining a gun so that he may put himself out of his misery when his time comes.

Gleeson, who is onscreen for virtually the entire film, provides a masterful depiction of a man whose faith and compassion are profoundly tested. His facial expressions are deliberately kept to a minimum, but one can see the emotions working just below the surface. His interactions with the village's disbelievers and miscreants are marvelous, but his scenes with Reilly have a special resonance. One in particular — a cliffside stroll during which Fiona reveals her long-standing resentment for having been abandoned by both him and her mother (after she died, he joined the priesthood) — really hits home. “ I lost two parents for the price of one,” she laments, and his tender reaction is one of the film’s best moments.

And when a convicted serial killer and cannibal (played in a perversely fun bit of casting by Gleeson’s own son Domhnall) asks him to visit him in prison, the young man, rather than seeking repentance, explains that he just wanted “someone to talk to.” As he reminisces wistfully about watching the light going out of his victims’ eyes and feeling like God, Father James explodes, retorting “You’re not God; no — you’re not.” And when circumstances finally drive the priest to the very edge, Gleeson's meltdown is shocking and spectacular.

Writer-director John Michael McDonagh, who'd earlier teamed with Gleeson in 2011’s well-received The Guard, provides a scenario that succeeds in merging themes of faith and religion, the corruption of the church and the strange behavior of small, insular communities. And McDonagh’s decision to structure the film with a ticking-clock countdown to the fateful day is a wise one, giving it a drive that would otherwise be lacking in a story that is essentially a collection of character sketches. It’s far from a mere murder mystery, however — McDonagh is far more interested in the lives of these people than merely revealing "whodunit."

Enhanced by Larry Smith’s beautiful cinematography of the commanding Irish coastline, as well as Patrick Cassidy’s unobtrusive score, Calvary presents a powerful, mournful portrait of an earnest man of the cloth who continues to bear his cross in an atmosphere of increasing apathy and faithlessness.

Monday, August 25, 2014

'True Blood' Finale: One Last Suck

Spoilers ahead if you haven't watched yet.

Last night was the series finale of the frustratingly bad True Blood, and — as I expected — it went out with a whimper. This show has been limping along ever since Season Three, so it really came as no surprise that it would maintain its consistent level of dullness.

The producers had one last chance to inject some excitement into the climax, so what do they decide to do? That's right...have a wedding. Nothing spells excitement like a marriage ceremony. And in keeping with the style of the last 300 seasons or so, characters talked...and talked...and talked.

Bill wants Sookie to kill him with her fairie light so that he would know the True Death and she would lose her power and stop being catnip for vampires. Hoyt goes back to Jessica (even though his memory of their original relationship has been glammed from him). Handily, Hoyt's Alaskan girlfriend switches over to Jason so that he can perfunctorily settle down to a normal life and stop being a whore. Eric and Pam save the Hep V antidote-carrying Sarah Newlin from Mr. Gus and the Yakuza, only to keep her chained up in the basement to sell her blood for the rest of her life (probably the only decent part of the episode).

Then Hoyt and Jess go to Bill's house to say their goodbyes. The topic of a wedding is brought up and the action screeches to a halt while last-minute plans are made. I kept looking at the clock, refusing to believe that they were really going to burn up the rest of the episode on something so boring. Hell, I don't want to go to weddings in real-life, so I certainly don't want to be dragged into one on a show that's supposed to be all about blood and kinky sex.

For years True Blood was coasting along on its reputation as a sexy shocker, something the writers of the increasingly dull and verbose storylines forgot to inject into the proceedings. Yet stubborn viewers like myself kept coming back to the coffin, thinking, "Maybe this year it'll be back." But it never did.

Let's face it — after Maryann the Maenad got done in by Dionysus at the end of Season Two, the show became the real Walking Dead — or should I say Talking Dead — despite the stunt casting of actors like Rutger Hauer, Christopher Meloni and Evan Rachel Wood — and the flashy evil of Denis O'Hare's Russell Edgington.

It was clear the series had nowhere to go by Season Four, with the perpetually irritating Marnie character played by Fiona Shaw. Then, in Season Five, Bill gets promoted by the Authority and becomes obsessed with the naked, blood-covered Lilith. And just think about all the werewolves and shape-shifters that have run around the show throughout the years — they mostly served as red herrings to provide gratuitous shots of the actors' naked butts when they reverted to human form.

And my God, all the talking. I can just see the directions in the scripts: "Bill and Sookie go into the living room and talk." "Jason and Jessica go out onto the porch and talk." "Lafayette and James sit down on the couch and talk." You get the idea.

In the finale, so much time was spent on that flipping wedding that characters who were once so important to the show made wordless cameos in the final scene — if they showed up at all!

And the characters we're left with — the long suffering Bill and Sookeh, Hoyt and Jess, Arlene and Holly, Jason and his new squeeze — are like the last guests at a boring party you can't wait to leave.

Speaking of parties, we get an abrupt three-year time leap at the end of the episode, with all the surviving characters sitting down to Thanksgiving dinner with their human (or vampire) mates, including Sookie, who has settled down and produced progeny with a mystery man (who keeps his back to the camera). At least we get Eric and Pam triumphantly marketing the Sarah-derived New Blood and opening the New York Stock Exchange. A little more of that stuff would've gone a long way.

Today the web is abuzz with fans and ex-fans criticizing this episode, comparing the disappointment to the Dexter series finale. The difference between True Blood and Dexter, however, is that Dexter kept trying to get its mojo back while this show seemed content to sink into inanity. I really thought they would have tried harder to create a memorable final season, but the fatigue had really set in...and it was terminal.

Friday, August 15, 2014

'Boyhood' is Transformatory Cinema

Ellar Coltrane
Requiring an impressive long-term commitment from the talent involved, Richard Linklater’s Boyhood captures the passage of time in a wholly unique and memorable fashion. Shot in 39 days over the course of 12 years, the film follows the same cast of characters as they grow up, grow older, and change. This is no mere gimmick — Boyhood also has a compelling and deeply moving narrative.

Six-year-old Mason, Jr. (Ellar Coltrane) is the son of hard-working, divorced Olivia (Patricia Arquette) and the younger brother of sassy Samantha (Lorelei Linklater). When we first meet them, their charming but perpetually adolescent father (Ethan Hawke) is roaring back into their lives, having been absent for the past year and a half. Gifts in tow, he promises to be a more devoted father. Olivia, who is holding down a full-time job while attending college to get her teaching degree, bounces from man to man in search of the perfect mate who will help complete her idealized view of “family.” Her quest takes her all around Texas, moving from Houston to San Marcos, a small town near Austin, with Mason, Sr., always bringing up the rear to stay near his kids.

Unfortunately, Olivia’s choices are pretty bad ones, as her two subsequent husbands turn out to be abusive alcoholics with control issues. Mason, Sr. starts a new family with a woman who comes from rather religious parents, tamping down his wild streak. Here, Linklater shows how the parents’ decisions affect their children — Olivia’s terrifying second husband threatens their very lives, and Mason, Sr.’s new life precludes the ownership of his beloved muscle car, the GTO he’d promised to give to his son on his sixteenth birthday.

Still, as they move from town to town and school to school, the kids continue to roll with the punches, each forming their own distinct and independent personalities. Surrounded by adults eager to dispense advice — his father included — Mason, Jr., has a pretty good sense of self by the time he’s reached his teenage years, and the bemused expression he frequently wears indicates his general outlook on life — it’s all kind of silly. Samantha changes, too, becoming less of a complainer and more of a responsible big sister.
Arquette and Coltrane

The passage of time in the film is realistic and subtle — no spinning headlines or leaves flying off of calendars here. Well-chosen songs from different eras within the 12-year time span, occasional references to current events and changes in the appearances of the actors themselves give viewers the cues they need to know where they are. And by setting the action in Texas, where time moves at its own rhythm, Linklater has the luxury to tell the story at his own leisurely pace — but even at 164 minutes, the film never wears out its welcome.

The casting is ideal. Hawke (who starred in Linklater’s similarly time-tripping Before Sunrise series) is great as the erstwhile Mason, Sr., and Arquette brings a lot of heart to Olivia. Their ability to jump back into these characters for a few days each year is something to admire. Also fine is Linklater’s daughter as Samantha. The real find here is Coltrane, whose transformation from typical kid to artistic teen is a marvel to behold. One hopes that in the future Linklater will give us a glimpse of the adult that Mason, Jr., has become.

Thanks to the fine work of cinematographers Lee Daniel and Shane Kelly, Boyhood looks great and flows seamlessly, despite its more-than-a-decade production schedule. It’s a landmark in many ways, and one that will be analyzed and appreciated by aficionados for generations to come.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

All That Glitters: 'Velvet Goldmine'

Last night, my sister and I went to the Alamo Drafthouse in San Antonio to see Todd Haynes' paean to glam rock, Velvet Goldmine (1998), as part of its "Turn it Up to 11" series. It was fun to see it on the big screen again. I was surprised that there were only about a dozen people in the audience. Well, two of them showed up in glam drag at least.

Velvet Goldmine is the story of Brian Slade (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), an ambitious young musician who wants more than just stardom — he wants to change the world. Along the way, he meets and marries adoring Mandy (Toni Collette), but is knocked for a loop by the uninhibited Curt Wild (Ewan McGregor). An intense love affair and creative collaboration ensues, but it's doomed from the start. And when Brian kills off his Maxwell Demon stage persona in a publicity stunt, earning the enmity of both his fans and associates, he decides to disappear altogether.

Ten years later, in 1984, Arthur Stuart (Christian Bale),  a journalist with a glam rock past of his own, is assigned by an American tabloid to find out whatever happened to Slade. In more than just a nod to Citizen Kane, he sets off to interview those who circled in Slade's orbit, including Mandy, Curt and former manager Cecil (Michael Feast).

Cecil is wheelchair-bound, just like Joseph Cotten in Kane, and Mandy is found drowning her sorrows, Susan Alexander-style, in a dimly-lit dive bar. Their recollections spark flashbacks replete with visually sumptuous musical numbers, and we are taken along on a glitter-infused odyssey to try to understand the enigma that is Brian Slade.

A bomb upon its initial release, Goldmine is remembered more fondly by audiences than by most critics, who declared it visually interesting but deficient story-wise. I don't agree — I find it easy to follow, and the way Haynes constructs scenes from Brian's life builds an increasing feeling of melancholy, of yearning for an era that was far too short and was gone much too soon.

With his hypnotic blue eyes, Meyers makes for an otherworldly Slade. Even though his self-serving agenda is simple to spot even from space, it's also easy to see why Mandy and Curt fall for him.

Maxwell Demon is based on David Bowie's Ziggy Stardust, right down to the killing off his character. And even though the film shares its title with a Bowie song, the depiction of Slade as being a vapid opportunist evidently so displeased the glam legend that he refused to allow any of his songs to be used on the soundtrack.

McGregor's Curt is an amalgam of Iggy Pop and Lou Reed, two of Bowie's close associates back in the day, although his blond locks make him look a lot like Kurt Cobain. Collette brings humanity to Mandy, Brian's social-climbing wife, who obviously worships the ground he walks on. Both have a good onscreen rapport with Meyers, which is essential.

Bale is a mournful Arthur, and he's got good reason. As Brian's star ascends, Arthur lives in a gloomy suburb and must content himself with fantasizing over the singer's image while concealing his real self from his strict, disapproving parents. He manages to snatch a few fleeting moments of freedom in the glam scene before it all implodes, but when we meet him again in the '80s, his light has clearly gone out. Arthur is truly the broken heart of the film.

The score is great, with Radiohead's Thom Yorke standing in for Brian Ferry on a couple of numbers. The new tunes blend seamlessly with the originals by T. Rex, Roxy Music and Lou Reed. Rhys Meyers does quite a respectable job on his songs, including Eno's "Baby's On Fire," and McGregor gets the opportunity to get his kit off for Pop's "T.V. Eye". Gee, it doesn't seem that long ago that you'd go to see one of his films prepared for the inevitable full-frontal nudity (Trainspotting, The Pillow Book, Young Adam). That rascal. Here's the clip for your NSFW amusement.

Haynes stages the musical numbers with flair, strangely earning the wrath of some reviewers who thought that they were derivative. A cranky Roger Ebert complained that there were too many nods to films like A Hard Day's Night and A Clockwork Orange, which puzzles me. What better way to establish a milieu than by evoking images from such iconic cultural artifacts as these?

The Blu-Ray is available at Amazon.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Covering the Hollywood Fringe Fest

I'm embarrassed to say it's been an entire month since I've been heard from here at the Village, but I've been quite busy.

As a member of the press for the Hollywood Fringe Festival, which ran from June 12 to June 29, I took in no fewer than 15 productions, writing reviews and providing exclusive interviews with some of the gifted companies who presented terrific work at the Fringe.

One of the most fun aspects of the event for me was that I could take my bike on the Metro from Universal City and ride around Hollywood, making the experience as "green" as possible.

But now onto some of my Fringe favorites. Click on the links to be taken to my reviews and more.

Paul Hoan Ziedler's Woof-Woof was a dynamic, foul-mouthed kick in the teeth, telling the story of a severely traumatized Iraq war vet who, just released from the army psychiatric hospital, decides to go visit his childhood friend in New York, even though he's in no way prepared to re-enter society. The actors — Jay Seals, Devin Skrade and especially Brett Donaldson — really delivered.

Benjamin Durham (face covered) and Jonny Rodgers in No Homo.
Also good was two-time Fringe Fest award-winner No Homo: A Bromantic Tragedy, which skirted potential clichés and offfered up a scenario with fully-developed characters everyone in Los Angeles can relate to. And it was funny, too!

Another happy surprise was The Best of 25 Plays Per Hour, which consisted of sketches running around two minutes apiece. This sort of format runs the risk of becoming tedious, but the enormously talented company, Theater Unleashed, knew just how to present the pieces for maximum impact. Naturally, most of them were comedy skits, but there were a few poignant ones thrown in to break it up.

Brendan Weinhold and Dawn Alden in Four Tree Plays
There was even an entertaining avant-garde theater piece, Four Tree Plays, consisting of a quartet of environmentally-themed pieces performed by actors who played trees, animals and even the occasional human. It had humor, it had movement, and it felt...oh, so avant-garde.

The Lost Moon Radio troupe, a Fringe favorite, came loaded for bear with Million Dollar Hair, a riotous musical tribute to a fictitious record producer, hosted by his malapropism-afflicted daughter, who introduces the acts that helped to make her father rich throughout the years. The genre spoofing is mostly dead-on, with some hilarious lyrics — and appreciably fine musicianship.

David Haverty, Kyle Nudo, Leigh Wulff and Michael Shaw Fisher.
Adding to the musical fun was Orgasmico Theatre Company's The Werewolves of Hollywood Blvd., and this one was really ambitious. With some more spit and polish (and budget), I can easily see it playing successfully off-Broadway.

It's about an entertainment agent who, when fired by the new owner of his firm, is urged by actual "werewolves" throughout history to get in touch with his animal side. And unlike those musicals whose songs merely set to music the dialogue the characters have just spoken (cough—Wicked), the tunes here actually advance the plot and develop the characters.

Among the other shows I enjoyed, Meet & Greet was a comedy about the "business" that features four actresses who meet in a San Fernando Valley casting office to compete for a lousy role in a trashy series about a "cougar" and her young lover.

Writers Stan Zimmerman and Christian McLaughlin, who've both been in the scene for a while, create a knowing and hilarious send-up of the dreadful Hollywood casting process. Carolyn Hennesy (True Blood) and '80s goofy blond (and game show favorite) Teresa Ganzel brought the star power, ably supported by Vicki Lewis, Daniele Gaither and Paul Iacano. Easy to stage and funny as hell, I can see this becoming a regional theater favorite.

One-person shows were big at the Fringe, and I saw some good ones. I Want to Bury My Testimony was the intimate coming-out story of a former Mormon (Scott Hislop) who describes the challenges of growing up a "girly-boy" in Salt Lake City and Reno. Hislop's charm and energy really put it over. 

The Wake, written and performed by a riveting Ben Moroski, was a dark and strange piece about a guy getting over being dumped by falling in love with a dead girl. Now who hasn't done that?  

Linden Arden Stole the Highlights was written and performed by Colin Mitchell (whose Bitter Lemons site I also write for), and it's a truly galvanizing work. Taking the lyrics of a rather obscure Van Morrison song as a starting point, Mitchell creates a legendary character — an expatriate gangster hiding out in Scotland — and it results in a forceful evening of theater.

If you've never experienced the Fringe, one thing to keep in mind is that there's a scant 30 minutes downtime between shows, with several of them playing each day at each venue. So when one finishes, its company must rush out to let the next one come in, set up, do a lighting and sound check, and be ready to perform. Tick tick tick. Given these time constraints, it makes their accomplishments even more impressive.

I miss the Fringe already. Since shows were happening every day, I could hop the Metro on a Monday or Tuesday night if I felt like it — and go see a play. Now we're back to a less-sparkling beginning of the week. It feels like the lights have gone out.

Friday, June 6, 2014

Three Legends of the Actors Studio

The Actors Studio, founded in New York in 1947, gave professional actors, directors and playwrights a place to work on Method acting, a technique developed by Constantin Stanislavski from 1911-15 and adapted by Lee Strasberg beginning in the 1950s. The list of Method actors is legendary, but today in the Village we're giving the shout-out to three memorable stars who emerged from the Studio to make their mark in tragically short careers.

The inimitable Geraldine Page was a confirmed Method actor whose unbridled intensity enhanced the larger-than-life characters she frequently played. Onstage, she appeared in a legendary production of Tennessee Williams's Summer and Smoke at Circle in the Square Theatre in Greenwich Village. She also worked with James Dean in The Immoralist in 1954 (ah, New York in the '50s...what a great time that must've been).

In 1959, she famously co-starred with Paul Newman in Williams's Sweet Bird of Youth, also appearing with him in the 1962 film version. In 1964, she played Olga in Chekhov's Three Sisters, with Sandy Dennis playing the youngest sister Irina at one point in the run — but more about her later. Page played Mary Todd Lincoln in 1973 opposite Maya Angelou in the two-character Look Away. And she certainly must have made a great Mother Superior in the original Broadway run of Agnes of God in 1982, a production I would love to have seen.

Page's style was unmistakable. Her voice was rather sing-songy; she could be twitchy; and, like Susan Tyrrell, she could project a stately beauty or coarsen her features as needed for a role. I first became aware of her via the '70s Rod Serling series Night Gallery, and her two episodes — "Something in the Woodwork" and "Sins of the Fathers" — were unforgettable. Even as a kid, I thought, "Who is this bizarre woman with such a mannered acting style?"

An unusual role for her was playing a widowed mother opposite John Wayne in the 1953 3D Western Hondo. Casting a New York Method actor alongside "the Duke" is such a bizarre notion. But it wouldn't be her only appearance with an action star. Far more fitting was her appearance in The Beguiled as the headmistresss of a girl's school in the Antebellum South during the grueling last days of the Civil War. Clint Eastwood played a wounded Yankee soldier who's taken in by Page and nursed to health while all the repressed women in the house become obsessed with him. Not a success upon its release, it's actually one of my favorite Eastwood films because it's so weird.

I first discovered Page's performance as Sookie in Truman Capote's 1966 A Christmas Memory when my local PBS station broadcast it in the 1980s. It's become mandatory holiday viewing ever since. Made by future Mommie Dearest director Frank Perry for ABC, it featured Capote himself as narrator — and won Page an Emmy.

She did her time as a "horror hag" in Whatever Happened To Aunt Alice?, appearing with the equally bizarre Ruth Gordon, who actually played her role more-or-less straight. But as a down-on-her-luck widow who hires housekeepers for the sole purpose of killing them for their money, Page has a field day.

And, of course, her swan song as Carrie Watts in the film version of Horton Foote's The Trip to Bountiful brought her the Academy Award she so richly deserved. And speaking of Method acting — this film and A Christmas Memory are the two Page works I've watched most frequently, and as Sookie, she writes left-handed, but as Mother Watts, she writes with her right hand! Now, that's commitment to character. She was married to actor Rip Torn from 1963 until her death at 62 years of age.

In the 1960s, certain actresses were branded as "kooks" (Goldie Hawn being one of them) for their freewheeling acting style. Certainly one of the kookiest was Sandy Dennis, who most famously played Honey in the daring 1966 film version of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, starring Taylor and Burton. Long-faced, sharp-nosed, and possessing a mouthful of gigantic teeth, she was a twitcher, yet she had that elusive something that captivated audiences.

She was a young, idealistic teacher trying to aid troubled teens in an overcrowded New York high school in 1967's Up the Down Staircase. Of course, later that year, another movie about a teacher — To Sir, With Love — blew this one out of the water, but I still remember it because of her. She played a (gasp!) lesbian in The Fox that same year, co-starring with 2001's Keir Dullea. Released just after the dissolution of the Production Code (brought on by Virginia Woolf!), it was originally rated R and featured frank scenes of nudity and sexuality.

Dennis was hilarious as Jack Lemmon's wife in 1970's The Out-of-Towners. As an Ohio couple visiting the Big Apple for the first time, they encounter every horror the big city can dish out, and her reactions to the ever-increasing indignities are a hoot.

And, of course, her Mona in Robert Altman's 1982 film version of Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean is priceless. And what co-stars — Cher, Karen Black and Kathy Bates? Weird movie nirvana! Cher even gets to make fun of Dennis's quirkiness at one point: "I just don't uh-uh-uh-understand h-h-how p-p-people can b-be so uh-uh-uh cruel!"

She played Stephen Geoffrey's religious nut mother in 976-EVIL (1988), directed by Freddy Kreuger himself, Robert Englund. It's very much a product of its time. A much stranger piece was Bob Balaban's 1989 black comedy Parents, starring Randy Quaid and Mary Beth Hurt as a '50s-style couple who also happen to be cannibals. Dennis plays the guidance counselor hoping to break through to the aforementioned parents' son (Bryan Madorsky) who is understandably upset by what he thinks his folks may be up to. Playing like the bastard child of David Lynch and Samuel Fuller, this is a dark one.

Dennis's final film performance was in The Indian Runner, Sean Penn's directorial debut, in 1991. She died of cancer the following year at only 54 years of age. She lived with jazz musician Gerry Mulligan for over 10 years and with Eric Roberts (brother of Julia) from 1980-85.

Lee Remick's girl-next-door good looks made people forget about how truly subversive her career was. She played icy blondes, naive schoolgirls, victims and crusaders. She also possessed a fine singing voice and was pals with Stephen Sondheim.

She made her debut as Andy Griffith's child bride in Elia Kazan's excoriating A Face in the Crowd (also with the great Patricia Neal). In 1959, she played a rape victim in Otto Preminger's Anatomy of a Murder, which featured rather racy language and subject matter for its time.

1962's The Days of Wine and Roses, directed by Blake Edwards, co-starred Remick and Jack Lemmon as a young couple whose marriage is torn apart by alcohol. She starts out as a teetotalling secretary introduced to social drinking by Lemmon, finally ending up leaving him after he sobers up, saying she can't live without alcohol because she can't stand "how ugly everything looks." Both actors give tremendous performances in this agonizing film.

She played the love interest of Rod Steiger's serial killer in the 1968 dark comedy No Way to Treat a Lady, That same year, she played the wife of Frank Sinatra in The Detective, another "adult" film that tackled such themes as homosexuality in a graphic manner. In 1970, she participated in a film version of Joe Orton's Loot, which remains rightfully obscure. In 1973, she played Julia in the American Film Theater adaptation of Edward Albee's A Delicate Balance, starring Katharine Hepburn as the family matriarch.

On television, she played a crusading reporter who investigates the prostitution racket in New York in 1975's Hustling. She was nominated for an Emmy playing doomed actress Margaret Sullivan in Haywire. And in keeping with her habit of doing stage work in other media, she appeared with Hal Linden in a 1982 television version of Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt's I Do! I Do!, which takes place entirely in bed.

Today, most people remember her as the wife of Gregory Peck's Ambassador Thorn and unwitting mother of the Antichrist in 1976's The Omen, which saw her toppling off of balconies and getting thrown out of a hospital window by that evil Billie Whitelaw.

Surprisingly, her only notable stage appearance was her Tony-nominated role as blind Suzy Hendrix in the Broadway run of Wait Until Dark, a role that would be taken by Audrey Hepburn in the film version. She appeared in Sondheim's short-lived Anyone Can Whistle in 1964, and played Phyllis in a PBS concert adaptation of his Follies. She was set to play Desiree Armfelt in a Los Angeles theatrical production of A Little Night Music but sadly had to withdraw due to a relapse of the kidney cancer that took her life that same year. She was 55.

Friday, May 23, 2014

TV Review: 'The Normal Heart'

Matt Bomer, Mark Ruffalo and Jim Parsons. Photo: Jojo Whilden/HBO.
Originally produced off-Broadway in 1985, Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart arrived onstage as a howl of anger: against the mysterious disease that struck the gay community without warning; against the blasé government that sat idly by for years as the disease took its toll; and against the medical professionals who refused to treat the sick and dying for fear of becoming ill themselves.

In the intervening years, important films have been made on the subject, with 1991’s Longtime Companion and HBO’s own 2003 adaptation of Angels in America standing out. Nevertheless, a record of this landmark deserves to be made, and Ryan Murphy has done a fine job on the film version (with a screenplay by Kramer) making its broadcast debut this coming Sunday. And the casting of some of today’s hottest stars assures it will actually be seen, hopefully reaching a young adult audience whose knowledge of the history of AIDS and governmental denial might be rather slim — if they’re aware at all.

Star Mark Ruffalo delivers an abrasive portrayal of Ned Weeks, the gay activist (and Kramer avatar) who organized his brethren and railed against the system as the scourge began to take its toll. Taylor Kitsch plays against type as Bruce, a more conservative activist who bristles at Ned’s righteous anger. Jim Parsons brings an appealing warmth to the fatalistic Tommy in the role he also played on Broadway. And the always welcome Alfred Molina provides excellent support as Ned’s aloof attorney brother, whose change of heart about his younger sibling’s “lifestyle” almost comes too late.

Matt Bomer
Julia Roberts is a revelation as Emma Bruckner, the polio-crippled doctor who is just as furious as Ned, aligning with him to force the establishment to recognize the crisis. And Matt Bomer is heartbreaking as Felix, the love of Ned’s life, who succumbs to the disease. Bomer lost 40 pounds during production to depict his character’s final days, and his appearance is shocking.

Murphy’s direction propels the story forward with the same relentless urgency that Ned is feeling. Even at 132 minutes, it never wavers in its determination. And Murphy depicts the ravages of the disease and complacency of the system in blunt, shocking scenes entirely appropriate for conveying Kramer’s rage.

Since the timeline in the film extends only to 1984, it makes for a rather bleak story — no revelations or happy endings here. But Murphy and Kramer have accomplished something more important — memorializing this dark era in American history to make sure that no one will ever forget it.

The Normal Heart premieres Sunday, May 25, at 9 p.m. on HBO.

This article originally appeared on Blogcritics.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Gordon Willis: Master Cinematographer

Some of the most memorable films of the 1970s and '80s have a dramatic, distinctive look, giving them an immediacy that resonates for viewers even today. And when you think of that look, you’re probably visualizing the films shot by cinematographer Gordon Willis, who sadly died last Sunday at age 82, marking the end of an era. He worked with some of the top directors of the past five decades, creating visual styles for their films that propelled them to iconic status.

Alan J. Pakula’s Klute (1971), which won an Academy Award for Jane Fonda, was Willis’ first foray into the low-light moodiness that would characterize his most notable achievements. But on Coppola’s The Godfather (1972), he really let the risky creativity flow. He worked with a high-contrast, yellow color palette, which enhanced the film’s queasy intensity, and he also shrouded star Marlon Brando’s eyes in darkness, a controversial but smart decision that made Don Corleone an inscrutable enigma — and a legendary character.

1974’s Godfather II was the one of the last major American films to have release prints struck in Technicolor’s three-strip IB, or “dye transfer” process, until the end of the century. This process provided the film a lush saturation and gave the sepia flashback scenes a preternatural glow.

Pakula’s All the President’s Men (1976) was also well-served by the Willis touch. In telling the story of Washington Post journalists Bob Woodward (Robert Redford) and Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman) investigating the Watergate scandal, he uses the stark contrast of  the brightly-lit, workaday Post newsroom against the dark, secretive corridors of Washington locales where covers-ups and conspiracies are allowed to grow like mold.

Willis became a frequent collaborator with filmmaker Woody Allen, beginning with 1977’s Academy Award-winning Annie Hall. His work on 1979’s Manhattan remains one of the most spectacular pieces of black and white filmmaking since nitrate lent its silver sheen to the silent classics. The opening montage of the city, with its booming Gershwin score and widescreen shots of the magical skyline, is just spectacular. Equally good are the more intimate scenes of the town’s inhabitants and their dwellings. The monochrome photography of the bars, restaurants and museums provides intimacy and evokes a yearning for the Manhattan of a bygone era, even though it was set in the present-day.

1983’s Zelig starred Allen as a chameleonic character with the ability to adapt to his surroundings. For this newsreel-style mockumentary, Willis utilized different stocks, lenses and antique film cameras to reproduce the looks of various eras, even crinkling and scratching the negatives to achieve the desired effect. It's just as much a study in film history as it is a comedy.

The cinematographer’s final credit was 1997’s The Devil’s Own, directed — fittingly — by Pakula. Willis retired because, as he put it, he got “tired of trying to get actors out of trailers, and standing in the rain.” Unbelievably, he was only nominated twice for an Academy Award and was finally presented an honorary Oscar in 2009.

Today’s digital cinematography, with its impossibly fast lenses and a myriad of effects, can achieve an almost limitless variety of looks, but Willis did it all the master’s way — marrying light and celluloid to create a visual language that permanently transformed the industry.


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