Monday, November 18, 2013

New Fillums

BLUE JASMINE is the latest film to be subtitled 'Woody Allen's comeback'.  After the delight of MIDNIGHT IN PARIS Woody has gone serious on us again with this riff on A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE (only without the genius).

Cate Blanchett stakes a claim for the Best Actress Academy Award with her performance as the titular Jasmine, a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown.  Once the pampered wife of a Wall Street investment advisor, she has now seen her East Side existence vanish with her husband's imprisonment for embezzlement and the loss of everything to pay his debts.  At her wit's end she flies (first class of course) to San Francisco to live with her sister Ginger.  It turns out that they were both adopted and have never been particularly close.

Several years earlier, Ginger and her then-husband Augie had visited New York to celebrate a sizeable lottery win.  Jasmine had suggested her husband invest the money rather than use it to set up Augie in his own business.  The resultant loss of their money ruined Ginger's marriage although she is magnanimous enough not to blame Jasmine.  She is now preparing to marry her mechanic boyfriend Chilli who, needless to say, Jasmine views with distaste.

Jasmine dominates life in Ginger's small apartment above a fast food joint although she loathes living there.  While working as a doctor's receptionist she also attends an evening class in computing which she believes will lead to a career as an interior designer.  Through a classmate she and Ginger are invited to a swanky housewarming party.  At the party Jasmine and Ginger both meet new men: Dwight, a wealthy widower with political aspirations, believes Jasmine's line about being a designer and invites her to work on his new apartment while Ginger is drawn to Al, a sound engineer.  Needless to say Jasmine and Dwight are soon a couple which she hopes will return her to the highlife while encouraging Ginger to dump Chilli for Al.

Yes Blanchett is an absolute tour-de-force as Jasmine, crackling nervous energy from every pore but at no time do you ever feel sympathy for her predicament, so that when she looks set to marry Peter Sarsgaard's unlikely Dwight you simply wait for her comeuppance.  As the plot's homage (shall we call it that?) to STREETCAR is so strong this attitude to the main character is strange as this is a feeling you never feel towards Blanche Du Bois, no matter who is playing her.  Cate Blanchett deserves the praise she has been given but I agree when friend Andrew opined that if it had been Lindsay Lohan playing the role then that would be a genius performance!

Woody Allen stores up all the audience's sympathy on Sally Hawkins as Stella - sorry - Ginger and she turns in a very likeable performance.  Alec Baldwin is excellent as Hal, Jasmine's husband who is as slippery with women as he is with money and there are surprisingly effective performances from comedians Louis C.K. as Ginger's pursuer Al and Andrew Dice Clay as Augie, her embittered ex-husband.  Although I had problems with the tonal quality of his script, Woody Allen kept the tension building and it's good to see him still delivering films of this quality.  No one wants to see a return to the nadir of HOLLYWOOD ENDING.  Oh and he has compiled an excellent soundtrack too.

I had expectations of what THE BUTLER would be like and sure enough director Lee Daniels went that extra yard to match them.  Sadly.

The film was inspired by Eugene Allen, a staff member at the White House from 1952 to 1980 who buttled for seven presidents.  The key word is 'inspired' as they have taken the premise and shoehorned it into a clichéd script of The Individual (And By Osmosis The Race) Triumphing Over Adversity.  Oddly for a film about the empowerment of black workers it doesn't stretch to scriptwriters as it's written by Danny Strong, a white actor-cum-writer.

Forest Whitaker plays the adult Cecil Gaines who by the time we meet him has endured seeing his father shot by a racist farmer who had just raped his mother into a state of catatonia.  His move from "field nigger" to "house nigger" is courtesy of the farmer's mother (Vanessa Redgrave in a spit and a cough) who impresses on him that when serving it should be like the room is empty.

Sadly this is how the part is seen by the scriptwriter too as Whitaker, while always interesting to watch. is given nothing to chew on, he always seems to be backing out of rooms saying "Thank ye sir".  To THE BUTLER's detriment, all the way through it I was comparing it to THE REMAINS OF THE DAY where again a butler is seen against the political events of the day.  But where Stevens' wilful ignorance of his appeasing employer is a facet of the devastating emptiness in his life, Cecil is seen to admire all his employers while the personal reactions are given to his loving but dissatisfied wife and his two sons but here screenwriter goes into pure cypher mode.

The older son is there to personify the various threads of black civil rights struggle so he joins the Freedom Riders then finds himself sitting on Martin Luther King's bed in a certain motel room.  After MLK checks out, as 'twere, he becomes a Black Panther only to find out that they are quite aggressive and so becomes a college graduate and a Congressman.  Just like that.  Meanwhile his younger brother is one of those adorable sons who studies hard, is cheeky but in a cute way and smilingly tells his brother that he's going to Vietnam.  I bet he loved reading that page of the script.

Oprah Winfrey was effective as the bored and boozing housewife - it was like a not-so-dry run for a possible stab at Martha in WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF - David Oyelowo did what he could with the older cypher son and there are nice supporting turns from Cuba Gooding Jnr. as a fellow White House staffer and Colman Domingo as the senior staffer who teaches our hero the works.  The parade of stars as the presidents is a bit like an Equity costume party: Robin Williams, James Marsden, Liev Schreiber, John Cusack and Alan Rickman shuffle on say a few lines (on the toilet if you are Schreiber) while Jane Fonda as Nancy Reagan has to be seen to be believed.  Needless to say it ends with the Obama Presidency, I was half-convinced he would play himself at the end but I guess his agent asked for too much money.

Andrew provided the screening tickets for THE BUTLER and also for RUSH.  Not the most obvious of viewing for me but I thought I would give it a go after having seen the excellent SENNA documentary recently.
Maybe it was a bit too close to seeing SENNA as again we were given the framework of two rivals going head-to-head with a growing antagonism building between them.  And once again it turns out that the truth has been cut to fit the fictional length in Peter Morgan's script as Niki Lauda and James Hunt actually had a good relationship off the track.  But that isn't good for drama is it?  So we have a replay of the ol' AMADEUS clash between the gifted but undisciplined person against the technically exact but dull one.  I think I have sussed the Peter Morgan schtick - substitute new brash ideas vs. old hand and you have Peter Morgan's THE QUEEN. FROST/NIXON, THE AUDIENCE, THE DAMNED UNITED, THE DEAL, LONGFORD, THE SPECIAL RELATIONSHIP... let's face it, you could stage a Peter Morgan retrospective and all the scenery you would need would be a table and two chairs.
Ron Howard, not a director I am overly keen on, ramps up the track action with much whizzing, air streams flattening grass verges etc. and seat-shuddering revvings and gear-changes.  The sound design carries off-track as well - a champagne bottle doesn't just pop it EXPLODES, doors SLAM, shoes CLACK.  We get it... it's a testosterone existence.  Hans Zimmer's score is also outrageously over-the-top.
Good performances from Daniel Brühl as Lauda, Chris Hemsworth (taking a rest from Thor duty) as Hunt and Alexandra Maria Lara as Lauda's wife Marlene sustain the interest although the film could do with taking a few lessons from it's subject matter as it sometimes seems to drag.

By the way, when exactly did actors become so superfluous to the films they are in?  With no opening credits in RUSH, there are 13 - 13! - end credits before the first actor's name appears.  When exactly did this start?  Is it a way of producers and directors putting their stars in their place?  "Yes we paid you more than you're worth so you will have to wait for your name on the screen bitch". 

I don't know about you Constant Reader but I don't go to see a film for the Executive Producers.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Ghost Light documentaries

I had two visits to the recent London Film Festival but in an odd twist, it was to see two documentaries that took Broadway legends as it's subjects: Marvin Hamlisch and Elaine Stritch.  With similar subject matter, it was also interesting to compare the two styles of documentary.

MARVIN HAMLISCH: WHAT HE DID FOR LOVE was directed by Dori Berinstein who was also the director of the wonderful SHOW BUSINESS: THE ROAD TO BROADWAY which chronicled the fortunes of four shows during the 2003-4 Broadway season.  Dori was at the screening and told us that she had finished editing it only a few days before.  Also in the audience was Maria Friedman who featured in the latter part of the film.

Dori Berinstein knew Hamlisch personally and her documentary is a loving tribute to the composer who in the space of three years won 3 Academy Awards (all in one night!), a Tony Award, the Pulitzer Prize and a Grammy Award.  His later Emmy Award made him one of only eleven performers who have won all these major performance honours.  A Julliard-trained pianist, he went from being a child prodigy to a career on Broadway and in films rather than into the expected classical concert halls.

Although shy when growing up, with his fame came a new bravura which made Hamlisch a popular chat-show guest on both sides of the pond which provides Berinstein with a wealth of footage, an odd occurrence for a composer.  She has also interviewed a wide-ranging group of artists that Hamlisch worked with over the years: Barbra Streisand, Liza Minnelli, Carly Simon, Ann-Margret, Quincy Jones, Tim Rice, John Lithgow, Carole Bayer Sager, Alan & Marilyn Bergman, Idina Menzel, Steven Soderbergh, Christopher Walken... they're all here.

Dori Berinstein covers his career in a fluid and involving style, from a cossetted Jewish upbringing to his Julliard years, and his stint as the FUNNY GIRL rehearsal pianist which led to his lifelong friendship with Barbra Streisand.  His moonlighting as a pianist at private parties led to meeting film producer Sam Spiegel and an entrée into composing for films but his first love was the Broadway musical.  After the massive success of A CHORUS LINE and the popular THEY'RE PLAYING OUR SONG Hamlisch found it difficult to keep up the momentum and the film covers his despondency over this.  Interviews with his wife Terre Blair give us an insight into the private man and his sudden death in 2012 is obviously deeply felt by her and colleagues.

Later on in the day, while crossing Waterloo Bridge, we bumped into Dori Berinstein so I took the opportunity to tell her how much I had enjoyed the film!  I also told her how much I had enjoyed SHOW BUSINESS and we had a lovely long chat about theatre in NY and London.  She was very interested in my memories of Hamlisch's musical JEAN SEBERG at the National Theatre which I had seen 5 times - never seeing the same show twice.  She said "I should have had you in the film"!  I was thrilled.

The second documentary was ELAINE STRITCH: SHOOT ME, a film by Chiemi Karasawa on the unstoppable Broadway star.  The director was at the screening as well as Stritch's music director Rob Bowman and her friend Julie Keyes.  We arrived at the ICA in the middle of a torrential downpour so watching the film was a very clammy experience as the audience was a mass of leaking shoes and steaming clothes.

Karasawa's film is sometimes hilarious, sometimes queasy, always fascinating look at how an 88 year old woman is still pursuing a career in show business, despite failing faculties and beset by fluctuating blood sugar levels.

The film covers the year 2011 when Stritch had just finished appearing in the revival of A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC opposite Bernadette Peters, filmed her last appearance in 30 ROCK and started rehearsing for her cabaret turn SINGING SONDHEIM... ONE SONG AT A TIME at the Carlyle Hotel (where she was a resident) - a full schedule for even someone half her age.  I think it is telling that of her 5 Tony Award nominations, she managed to finally win for her one-woman show.  She is her best performance.

We watch as Stritch paces the show out in rehearsal with her patient m.d. Rob Bowman which is at times painful to watch as she grows more angry with each forgotten song lyric.  Bowman truly displays the patience of Job but, with a career that has already encompassed 5 Tony nominations, 8 Emmy nominations, working with Bela Lugosi, originating roles in musicals from Coward to Sondheim, Stritch has high professional standards that refuse to compromise to piffling things such as health and age.  She also keeps up a series of one-nighter appearances and it is during one of these out-of-town that she is hospitalised.  But she refuses to compromise: tickets have been sold for the Carlyle show as well as a one-nighter at New York Town Hall and she must deliver the goods.

When we finally see the shows it is a revelation: what to the audience are jokes about forgetting lines and the running order etc. are actually the truth.  Stritch even tells the Carlyle audience that the reason the show is called ONE SONG AT A TIME is because that's all she can hope to remember.  Needless to say the audience roars with laughter.  But having seen the rehearsals we know that it's not just a schtick, she is telling them the truth.  It comes as no surprise that, after another hospitalisation after her Carlyle shows, that she confesses that the only real love she has ever felt is the audience's.

Indeed the level of access the director has had at times seems intrusive but Chiemi Karasawa said afterwards that although Stritch was very disappointed with the film when she first saw it - "the honeymoon period was over" quipped Julie Keyes, "we've all been there" - now she is very happy with it, possibly because she has seen how positive the reactions are of audiences to it.  Karasawa said Stritch had given her notes on what to edit out but she hasn't touched it! 

As with the Hamlisch film, there are many fans of her work interviewed: Tina Fey, Alec Baldwin, George C. Woolf, Cherry Jones, Hal Prince, John Turturro and the late James Gandolfini (who would have thought he would be the first to go?) all praise her.  Chiemi Karasawa said after it that the one person who wouldn't appear was Sondheim.  She said that they have a loving but wary relationship - we see his telegram on her opening night at the Carlyle excusing his absence but ruefully noting she can change his lyrics now.  Karasawa said that after his refusals to appear, she had been worried about using his music in the concert footage as the film's budget was miniscule but she said they managed to get all they wanted. 

Both these documentaries are highly recommended and worth seeking out.

Saturday, November 02, 2013

Let's Hear It For The Boys!

Two American theatrical imports, two different styles of telling true stories through a musical form.
Constant Reader, no one was more surprised than me to find myself sitting in the Prince Edward last Saturday about to watch JERSEY BOYS, a production I thought I would never see.
Jukebox musicals don't do it for me and The Four Seasons never made any impression on me so I was happy to avoid it.  I was surprised when I read in the programme that the production opened FIVE years ago - I thought it had been running for about two!
What surprised me too was the sinewy and punchy script that placed us firmly in New Jersey and the blue-collar and mob-friendly background that the group sprang from.  Former Woody Allen co-writer Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice's script may skimp on real characterisation but they have hit on the idea of having the four members of the group each take a turn narrating the plot which gives each of them a definite identity.  It's also funny to think that of all the pop groups who have cultivated a bad-boy image, that it was the squeaky clean Four Seasons who actually had real criminal backgrounds.  I also learnt something new in that a young Joe Pesci used to be a gopher for the band!
The production zooms through the group's genesis and fitting the final jigsaw-piece that was Bob Gaudio and his facilty for penning a memorable pop song.  What was a bit irksome about the show was the relegating of Gaudio's song-writing partner Bob Crewe to a walk-on as the band's camp record producer.  Another major contribution to the show's success however is that you are never too far away from a song and the production is so sure of itself that it sometimes gives you just a verse and chorus of a song so it can plough on.
Des McAnuff's polished and slick production gives us success and failure, compromise and triumph, life and death.  Of course we get a handy telescoping of time.  According to the show, Tony DeVito's massive gambling and personal debts to the mob result in a forced relocation to Las Vegas and having to quit the band which also motivates Nick Massi to quit, whereas in real life Massi left the band five years before DeVito!  The show also takes in the death of Valli's daughter which in reality happened in 1980 and their induction into the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame which happened in 1990 - all with no signs of aging among the cast at all.
A simple set of an elevated metal walkway and dodgy Lichtenstein-esque projections leaves the stage clear for the performers to hurtle around and although it would be asking too much for good acting too, there were lively and engaging performances from Jon Boydon as Tony DeVito, Edd Post as Bob Gaudio and - yes I really am writing this - ex-S Club 7 member Jon Lee as Frankie Valli.
Although I have never bought any of their records, the songs were immediately familiar - SHERRY, WALK LIKE A MAN, BIG GIRLS DON'T CRY, RAG DOLL, LET'S HANG ON, CAN'T TAKE MY EYES OFF YOU, BEGGIN',  DECEMBER 1963 (OH WHAT A NIGHT) and WHO LOVES YOU are all socked over the footlights to haunt you out onto the street and all the way home.  I guess the show did it's trick as I now have a compilation thanks to Owen!  Another major-plus for the show was there was no dreaded post-curtain-call megamix.  This probably annoyed the punters around me who were eager to clap along off-the-beat to anything played onstage but not me.
My only real titty-lip about JERSEY BOYS was the exclusion of their signing to Motown in the early '70s.  Although they had no hits while briefly on the label, it was where they recorded THE NIGHT, later a huge UK hit for them when reissued three years later in 1975.  But I must say thank you to Owen's brother and sister-in-law for wanting to see the show on their visit to London as I would otherwise not have seen this example of how a jukebox musical can be made enjoyable.
After this it was time to journey south - over the river to the Young Vic and from Jersey to Alabama with John Kander and the late Fred Ebb's THE SCOTTSBORO BOYS.
The show opened off-Broadway in 2010 for a two month limited run and received very good reviews.  Later that year it opened on Broadway in a bigger theatre but couldn't find an audience and closed, again after only two months.  The Tony Award committee recognised it with a staggering 12 nominations but it didn't win any of them, losing out mostly to THE BOOK OF MORMON juggernaut. 
Now director/choreographer Susan Stroman and her creative team have revived the production at the Young Vic and have given us an involving, inventive show that shocks as it delights.  In their two greatest scores Kander & Ebb have used showbiz forms to comment on uncomfortable events: The Kit-Kat Klub illustrates the growing power of the Nazis in CABARET while within CHICAGO's Vaudeville format lies a caustic look at the corrupt US justice system and tawdry celebrity.  THE SCOTTSBORO BOYS also deals with the US justice system but also how, to quote Richard Pryor (and David Thompson's book), when black Americans look for justice that's all they find, "just us". 
In 1931 nine black teenagers, travelling through Alabama to Memphis, were falsely accused of raping two white girls Victoria Price & Ruby Bates and sentenced to death.  For the next six years, they saw their sentences commuted only to be re-tried and found guilty again - despite one of the women admitting in court that she lied.  Their defence was funded by the American Communist Party and a successful New York lawyer defended them for free.  But he too was confronted by the racism that the boys were subjected to - the prosecution asked the re-trial jury "Is justice in the case going to be bought and sold in Alabama with Jew money from New York?"  In 1937, the four youngest defendants were allowed their freedom and bizarrely they were booked onto a vaudeville tour.  The remaining five either escaped or were paroled - the last being Andy Wright, paroled in 1950 after 19 years of wrongful imprisonment.

In an inspired artistic choice, THE SCOTTSBORO BOYS is told through the form of a minstrel show.  The minstrel form - white performers blacked-up - is subverted here by black performers playing white characters while still under the guidance of a white Interlocutor and refracts the racism of the real story through the accepted racism of the minstrel form.
On a bare stage apart from a pile of chairs, a white Interlocutor introduces his company of eleven black performers.  One of them asks if this time they can present the story as it happened while the Interlocutor assigns the roles of white authority to the company's two resident clowns Mr. Tambo and Mr. Bones.  All the while a woman, unseen by them all, shadows the action, watching as it unfolds.  She provides the coda to the show in a scene that I had guessed might be coming up after her first appearance at the top of the evening but according to the programme notes it does have a bearing with the Scotsboro case.
David Thompson's fine book has the minstrel performers slowly find their own voice through the retelling of the Scotsboro case - when the genial but threatening Interlocutor insists on hearing a good ol' soothing negro song the company duly deliver but slowly the lyrics change to take in lynchings and the Klan.  By the time of the finale, with his performers performing in blackface, the Interlocutor demands they join him in a traditional cakewalk but they refuse.
Kander & Ebb's score vibrates with various styles such as cakewalks, tap dances, point numbers and plaintive ballads, some of which homage their back catalogue e.g. a big comedy production number when Ruby Bates, the penitent white girl, changes her story in the courtroom echoes "When Velma Takes The Stand" from CHICAGO but the score is solid and each song adds depth to the story while propelling it forward.
Susan Stroman's excellent cast includes six American performers, five of whom have appeared in the show before.  Colman Domingo and Forrest McClendon reprise their Tony-nominated roles of Messrs. Bones and Tambo, Christian Dante White and James T. Lane ('Ritchie' in the recent revival of A CHORUS LINE) are riotous when playing Victoria Price and Ruby Bates and the lead role of Haywood Paterson, who refused to lie even if it meant the possibility of early release, is powerfully played by Kyle Scatliffe.
Julian Glover was an amiable but threatening Interlocutor, Dawn Hope had little to do as The Woman but did it with grace and Adebayo Bolaji ('Harpo' in the Menier COLOR PURPLE) was good as the combative Clarence Norris.
Beowulf Boritt's set design and Toni-Leslie James' costume designs are major contributors to the show's success as is Ken Billington's lighting design.  Stroman's choreography is inventive and insightful and she directs the show with clarity and power. 
In 2010 Susan Stroman co-directed and Beowulf Boritt designed the almighty dog-show that was PARADISE FOUND at the Menier but at the Young Vic with a remarkable cast and the genius team of John Kander and Freb Ebb they have triumphed in one of the shows of the year.
Do the clicky on the picture below to book tickets: