Monday, February 18, 2019

Call Me Madam: Turn Up the Brio

Jason Gotay and Carmen Cusack in Call Me Madam. (Photo: Stephanie Berger)

When Irving Berlin’s musicals entered the realm of political comedy, he and his collaborators tended to keep the mood light; Face the Music (1932), Louisiana Purchase (1940) and Call Me Madam (1950) are more on the order of spoofs than satires. All three boast delightful scores, so it isn’t surprising that Encores! has produced all three – and, fortunately for us, released cast recordings of them. Its current season began the weekend before last with a revival of its 1995 revival of Call Me Madam, marking only the second time the series has remounted a show. Typically, Encores! has met the musical and choreographic demands of the material. Under the expert musical direction of Rob Berman, a veteran of more than thirty of these productions, the orchestra plays exuberantly and the vocal performances are generally as satisfying as comfort food prepared with a loving hand. That’s equally true of the dance numbers, staged adroitly by Denis Jones, who makes the reduced performing space of the City Center stage (which the cast has to share with the musicians) feel like the expanse space of a large Broadway house. Yet the show, particularly in the first act, is a little lackluster.

Saturday, February 16, 2019

Neglected Gem: Life with Mikey (1993)

Nathan Lane, Christina Vidal and Michael J. Fox in Life with Mikey (1993).

Life with Mikey was director James Lapine’s second movie, released two years after Impromptu, a 1991 high-toned farce with a dream cast that included Judy Davis, Hugh Grant, Mandy Patinkin, Bernadette Peters, and Emma Thompson. Lapine was previously known as a prominent Broadway director and librettist, who had collaborated with both Stephen Sondheim (Into the Woods, Sunday in the Park with George) and William Finn (Falsettos). Impromptu was well-received, although it didn’t set the box office afire. Life with Mikey’s budget was a third of what Impromptu cost, yet it grossed more than three times that first film. That would seem to qualify as a success, yet Lapine has never made another film. (He did direct an adaptation of novelist Anne Tyler’s Earthly Possessions for HBO in 1999.)

It’s a bit of a stretch to call Life with Mikey a “gem.” (All right, more than a bit.) The screenplay, by journeyman Marc Lawrence, who’s written some movies I’ve liked (Music and Lyrics) and many I haven’t (Miss Congeniality, the remake of The Out of Towners), is sitcom fodder glazed with an almost opaque sentimentality, featuring a pot-holed plot that strains credulity. But the movie has lingered in my memory since I first saw it, due to the perfect casting of Michael J. Fox in the title role and the generous, quirky milieu that surrounds him.

Monday, February 11, 2019

Puzzle Pieces

Kelly Macdonald in Puzzle.

Agnes, the Bridgeport, Connecticut working-class housewife played by Kelly Macdonald in Puzzle, seems to live on the periphery of her family. We don’t know how long she’s felt remote from her husband Louie (David Denman) and (to a lesser degree) from her two sons, Ziggy (Bubba Weiler), who works with his dad in his car repair shop, and Gabe (Austin Abrams), who is revving up for college and whose forthright – and somewhat irritating – girlfriend (Liv Hewson) professes to be a Buddhist. Agnes loves her sons; she’s the parent who exercises sensitivity with them, while Louie’s immediate response to anything they do that doesn’t fit into his old-school masculine vision is a mixture of bafflement and stubborn opposition. It’s clear that she cares for Louie, too, but his stubbornness wears her down. When he throws a birthday party for her, she does all the work, and he doesn’t make a fuss over her; if it weren’t for the birthday cake (which she has baked) and candles, you’d think it was just a get-together of friends and family.

Sunday, February 10, 2019

A Contrarian View: Blackkklansman, The Sisters Brothers, Shoplifters and Burning

Adam Driver and John David Washington in BlacKkKlansman.

The following contains a spoiler for the film Shoplifters.
It’s always illuminating to read film critics’ year end best-of lists in specialty magazines like Film Comment and Sight & Sound as well as mainstream mags and newspapers like Time and The New York Times. Overall, the critical community tends to hew to a predictable pattern, extolling art-house films, both foreign and English-language movies, much more than accessible (but quality) American or Hollywood fare. I’m not referring to Alfonso CuarĂ³n’s superb Roma, his semi-autobiographical tale of his family maid in the '70s, which is a masterpiece and deserves all its accolades, but to other films whose rave reviews leave me cold. Here are four movies that don’t deserve the love they’re getting from critics.

Wednesday, February 6, 2019

Falling: Free Solo

Alex Honnold in Free Solo. (Photo courtesy of National Geographic)

Feature movies about mountain climbing generally fail because they feel the need to gin up an already dramatic situation and trumpet the themes of Man vs. Nature, the Indomitable Human Spirit, etc. The 2004 documentary Touching the Void understood that these themes were implicit in its telling of the ascent of two climbers up the face of the Andean mountain Siula Grande, and thus there was no need to make them explicit. Touching the Void did court controversy because it reenacted its true tale in the Alps, using actors who were also climbers, while an interview of the real climbers recounting their horrific experience provided the movie’s narration. The film was poised between a documentary and a feature film, and some cried foul. Those who did missed out on an amazing film-going experience.

The new film Free Solo, about the climber Alex Honnold’s attempt to “free solo” (climb without the aid of ropes or tools except his own hands and feet and a bag of chalk clipped to his back) the sheer face of Yosemite’s grand El Capitan mountain, a rise of about 3,000 feet, uses actual footage of Honnold’s climb, supplemented with Google Earth shots of the mighty peak to show us Alex’s path. It also shows us something of Alex’s life and the preparation needed to accomplish his goal. This Oscar-nominated documentary doesn’t have the artistic wonder that director Kevin Macdonald brought to Touching the Void, but El Capitan provides its own grandeur, and on a scale smaller yet perhaps equally awe-inspiring, so does Hannold.

Monday, February 4, 2019

To Kill a Mockingbird: Atticus Finch on Broadway

Jeff Daniels and Gbenga Akinnagbe in To Kill a Mockingbird. (Photo: Julieta Cervantes)

Aaron Sorkin’s To Kill a Mockingbird, now on Broadway in a production expertly helmed by Bartlett Sher, is only the latest of several stage adaptations of Harper Lee’s well-loved 1960 novel, but it may be the first one by a distinguished dramatic writer with a distinctive style. That turns out to be both a good thing and a bad thing. Sorkin has done a fine job of shaping the material dramatically. Instead of leaving it in the emotional point of view of the little girl, Scout Finch, he’s divided the narrative voice among the three children – Scout, her older brother Jem, and their summertime companion Dill (who is Jem’s best friend) – who witness the trial of Tom Robinson, a black man falsely accused of raping and beating a young white woman, and defended by Scout and Jem’s father Atticus. It’s effective because it operates simultaneously as a reminder that we’re watching the tale unfold through the eyes of impressionable kids – that it’s a coming-of-age story – and as a Brechtian device. The children take turns relaying the information to the audience as the play moves back and forth between Tom’s trial, which they view as spectators, and their lives in and around the Finch household, including their fascination with their reclusive, never-seen neighbor, Boo Radley. (In the book, Boo is also a source of terror, but Sorkin downplays that element in the service of dramatic economy.) Courtroom settings are notoriously static for stage plays; here the continual shift of focus solves the problem while the narrative jumping around feels right for a story related by young kids. Sorkin, who has an acute ear, extends the dialogue – much of it is straight from the novel – to translate Lee’s wry southern humor and folksiness, which can be as dry as a corn husk and as tart and stinging as bourbon. And he’s toughened up Atticus Finch (played by Jeff Daniels), who now has a surprising forcefulness when he’s cross-examining the alleged rape victim, Mayella Ewell (Erin Wilhelmi), and an even more surprising temper when he’s dealing with her vindictive father Bob (Frederick Weller).

Thursday, January 31, 2019

Rage Against the Dying of the Light: Dealt (2017)

Richard Turner in Dealt. (Photo: Geoff Duncan)

I thought I’d just about finished reviewing documentaries after that last piece. After all, documentaries aren’t usually known for their aesthetic innovations. But then along comes Dealt (2017), about Richard Turner, the world’s most renowned card mechanic (i.e., white-hat card shark), who just happens to have 100% vision loss, and the way that it introduces its subject, follows him through a turning point in his life, and conveys it all with a purposeful cinematicity just begs to be unpacked.