Thursday, April 30, 2009


Television that offers you no way out

By Alex Ricciuti
There are some TV shows that require a slowly accruing investment on the part of the viewer and that take time for you to warm to. There are others you know right away you won't like, notwithstanding the rave reviews and recommendations from friends and colleagues. Rarely, though, is there a show that you take an instant devotion to as a viewer. That's not to say that Lost is necessarily such a show, except that it really doesn't afford you any other option.

Lost is one of those often-derided, sometimes highly praised, mystery-driven “mythology” shows that somehow breed as much contempt as they do legions of devotees. Yes, the ambition in scope that Lost has can smack of pretense to some (not this author) and it does demand a serious commitment. Miss one episode and you need to do some catching up. Miss a few and the show has left you behind. It's not like a Mad Men, say, where, even if you skip a couple of episodes you can easily get a grasp of the various story arcs and conduct the catching up at a later date, but you can't do that with Lost. Its intricate plotting is pretty unforgiving. It will slip away and leave you with a pile of “work” to do which you can come to resent. Screw you ABC, I have a life.

To the serious critic, Lost can seem like (at best) middle-brow fare, with its plot-driven stories and action-centered grand finales. Characters on Lost don't behave in a rational or even realistic way. If they did, they'd constantly be asking each other questions like, “What the hell happened?” and “What is going on here?” which would make for pretty bad television. No, you have to accept the parameters of the genre here. It's part of how the story needs to be told. That doesn't mean that Lost isn't a great show. Lost is written in a “classical”-style of storytelling, as in the Greek mythologies, in the way it weaves intricate plots and character arcs over the course of its seasons. The show constantly raises moral and philosophical questions, as it is currently doing in Season 5 by having the characters contend with the moral and temporal implications of time travel, but it is an excellent piece of work and the Lost writers have created an authentic mythology, one worthy of literary merit. Just have a look at the scholars who have tasked themselves with studying the show. One philosophy professor in Italy has recently written a book about Lost, as has one of the best bloggers on the show, J. Wood's, whose musings at are definitely worth a look. (Sadly, Wood hasn't been posting lately due to his workload and illness).

An incredibly fun game

Lost's producers are engaged in a delicate relationship with their audience. They have to tease us without ever being too coy, or overly mischievous or pretentious at all and that balance has to be struck in everything that they do. For example, Lost's literary references are not layered into the show to make the writers look smart. They're done too obviously for that. Instead, they are meant to inspire us, to look up great works of the past, from The Wizard of Oz to Alice in Wonderland to Virgil's Aeneid, and find connections to the current storyline. They are laid out as an homage and to be taken as either a clue or a red herring or, more metaphorically, as a parallel (sometimes ironic) to the story on screen. They're not there for us to feel smug or superior by “getting the reference” as, for example, the Russian running through the cold, wintry forests of New Jersey in The Sopranos. It's not about the writers patting themselves on the back for being so educated. In fact, they don't hide the fact that they've conducted this grand literary and scientific research for the purposes of the show. And the game is open, almost like a conversation with the fan base. It's very inviting.

Lost plays with genre

Lost has its forefathers in television, and they are many. Genre, stylistic and format references loom on Lost from the anthology series of the 1950s and 1960s (The Twilight Zone and Alfred Hitchcock Presents) to 1970s sci-fi such as The Six Million Dollar Man (just check out those Dharma stations with '70s “computers” running in the background). But Lost is not formulaic. Or, when it does adopt a formula, it can use it and then drop at will in exchange for another. That is one of surprising things about the show, its flexibility with formula and genre.

Certain episodes in Season 5 have been pure sci-fi, while others in previous seasons have indulged anything from noir to melodrama while the myriad of characters and stories often makes the show feel like an anthology series. Kate's back story in Season 1, for example, was pure noir — the bad seed who kills her alcoholic and abusive stepfather, who is actually her biological father too, and is then pursued by the incessant lawman. The way that Nikki and Paolo kill each other off with a paralyzing spider's poison that leads to them to both being buried alive worked as a grand homage to Alfred Hitchcock Presents, despite the mistake that grafting those two characters onto the show was.

While the current fifth season started out as pure sci-fi, it has now morphed into a melodrama with characters coming to terms with the philosophical and paradoxical questions posed by the time travel they have experienced. Already there are clues that the time-travel stuff will be left behind next season and the show will become something utterly different again.

Even that sci-fi element was something that was eased into from the show's previous incarnation as mainly a mystery show. After a couple of seasons of toying with the idea, Lost embraced the science fiction genre unabashedly. Of course, it had to. From the pilot episode it was clear that this mystery show about a supernatural island would have to supply us with at least some explanation as to its nature. The writers were careful to ease us into it, though, and have used the science fiction genre for what it does best — exploring certain ontological and moral themes only it can.

The intelligence of the storytelling is evident in how Lost dealt with the concept of time travel. They, wisely, have not defined the physical laws of time travel in a way that drains dramatic tension from the show. After all, if you can just go back in time and change any outcome you don't like, then there really are no consequences to your actions which doesn't make for good storytelling. So the writers have kept those parameters deliberately obscure. In fact, they made that yet another mystery of the show. Posing the questions: Can you change the past? Should you change the past if you could? What if there are unintended consequences? By posing it as yet another mystery they've turned the narrative dilemma on its head. Until, of course, they have to resolve the question. Maybe they will screw that up. They have left themselves ample room for an answer that remains satisfying while remaining true to the philosophical and moral parameters that have been set.

Paradox of unprecedented TV

Yes, there is a central paradox to Lost that must be acknowledged, even if the show overcomes this flaw by its sheer strength in storytelling. A show that is all about the mysteries can become too much of a contrivance, and one that takes away from the actual drama. But without the mysteries to drive the ratings in the first place, the show would never have lasted long enough to tell this type of elaborate, intricate story it is doing now — they type of storytelling perfectly suited to the medium of television.

The producers of the show have obviously learned lessons about this from previous TV phenomenon such as Twin Peaks, shows which lost their dramatic momentum once their central plot elements were resolved. So they keep us guessing almost as a distraction while providing us with a great story that is really the heart of Lost. The game of guessing what explains what and what will happen next, despite all the cliffhangers and mind-blowing finales, is not really what Lost is about. The show is about the human condition and makes us reflect on perspective (how do you know what you see is true?) or how to define good and evil (is Ben Linus purely bad, or a misguided, self-serving mortal who believes he's doing something for the greater good?), or asks whether we should put our faith in science or in religion? Some heady philosophical delights that can make for great drama when done right.

Finally, Lost is worth watching if only for this reason:

Lost is the first show in the history of television whose entire run will consist of a coherent narrative. A single, plot-driven story, elaborate as it is, told over 6 seasons. That has never before been accomplished on television before and Lost is about to do it. (There is still one season left to go.) The writers have promised a resolution to the show that explains everything that has gone on before. And they had better deliver.

There will be no cut to a black screen here. Expectations have been raised so high for the series that the writers have no choice but to deliver something really spectacular. They just might do it too.

Alex Ricciuti is a freelance writer.

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Saturday, April 25, 2009


Beatrice Arthur (1922-2009)

By Edward Copeland
And then there was Bea. It was hard to mistake the incomparable Beatrice Arthur, her height hovering over her co-stars with her deep, throaty voice as another actress, but that's what made her work all the more special, be it on stage, screen or the medium for which she's best known, television. Arthur has died at the age of 86.

She appeared in various television shows throughout the 1950s, including as a regular on Caesar's Hour and later The Sid Caesar Show. She made her Broadway debut in a revival of The Threepenny Opera as Lucy Brown, a role she returned to in another revival of the show the following year. She created the role of Yente, the matchmaker in Fiddler on the Roof. In 1966, she co-starred as Vera to Angela Lansbury's Mame and both won Tonys as a result. In 2002, Arthur tread the boards again in a one-woman show that earned a Tony nomination.

Her movie work was sparse, the most notable ones being 1970's Lovers and Other Strangers and playing Vera once again, only opposite Lucille Ball in the 1974 movie version of Mame. The 1970s though was when television brought Bea Arthur to superstardom. A couple of guest appearances on All in the Family as Edith's cousin Maude, as left wing as Archie was right, created a character for the ages. The hilarious anti-chemistry between her and Carroll O'Connor's character was a joy to behold and Norman Lear recognized Maude's brilliance as she soon got her own show and became All in the Family's first spinoff. She also was the first spinoff to begat its own spinoff as her maid Florida (Esther Rolle) went on to Good Times. Like the show that spawned it, Maude tackled many topical issues, often ones even more controversial than its predecessor such as the legendary episode where Maude found herself pregnant late in life and decides to have an abortion. Maude earned Arthur five Emmy nominations and one win. Arthur also made lots of guest appearances (earning Emmy nominations for appearances on Laugh-In and Malcolm in the Middle) including a lengthy one as Jessica's heavenly guide on Soap's 4th season recap. The series always included an episode at the beginning of each season recapping what had happened before. Jessica Tate (Katherine Helmond) had flatlined from a mystery disease she'd contracted. Arthur was supposed to take her to her heavenly reward, but Jessica bent her ear over all her family's woes and how they still needed her. Arthur had a heavenly cameo on another show where she didn't turned up in the afterlife as Larry David's mother, berating his actions. If you haven't seen it, rent Curb Your Enthusiasm Season Five.

Perhaps, thanks to the practically unavoidable repeats, what Arthur will probably end up being best known for is her role as Dorothy Zbornak on The Golden Girls. I haven't checked it out, but the four-member cast must be the only series cast in history where every member won an Emmy during the show's run. (A would-be commenter, not noticing that I don't publish anonymous comments, did remind me that All in the Family and Will & Grace also achieved this feat.) With Arthur joined by former Maude co-star Rue McClanahan, versatile pro Betty White and the relatively unknown Estelle Getty, even the weakest episodes and the lamest jokes came off like a well-oiled machine in their talented hands. Dorothy wasn't remotely a Maude retread. She was a completely different character, but she was still funny as hell as was Arthur in almost everything she did. I just wish I could have seen what she was like on stage in a musical in her prime.

Since I've never learned the knack for embedding videos, I'd direct you to Forward to Yesterday and The House Next Door for many good ones. RIP Ms. Arthur.

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Rhapsody in Black and White

By Jonathan Pacheco
Many describe Manhattan as more of a love story between a man and his city than a traditional love story between a man and a woman. I disagree with that, as I feel the plot of Isaac and Mary and Tracy really is the story being told. However, I do interpret the film itself, and the way it was made, not as Isaac’s relationship with Manhattan, but the director’s. Even the less-than-stellar Woody Allen films feature beautiful cinematography (I first noticed it in Small Time Crooks), but Manhattan, at 30 years old today, really goes out of its way to spotlight the beauty of this city.

The beginning sequence shows none of the film’s characters, just shot after shot after shot of locations in the city that Woody loves. The film shoves characters to a corner of the frame to make more room for the city in the background, creating memorable, breathtaking moments. With the cinematography, it’s almost like a pornography film that always gives more screen time and space to the most beautiful woman in the room; only, here, the most beautiful “she” around, as far as Woody is concerned, is the city of New York.

The story sounds familiar to anyone who’s ever watched a Woody Allen film or two. Isaac (Woody), a 42-year-old writer in Manhattan, dates a 17-year-old high schooler, Tracy (Mariel Hemingway, in an Oscar-nominated performance) while his married friend, Yale (Michael Murphy), takes on a mistress, Mary (Diane Keaton). Soon, Yale falls out of love with Mary while Isaac falls in love with her, and around and around we go. Isaac is the typical, neurotic, narcissistic “Woody Allen Persona” that was perfected in the '70s and '80s (when accused of thinking he was God, Isaac comes back with, “I gotta model myself after someone!”), while Keaton’s Mary plays as the polar opposite of her title character in Annie Hall, released just two years prior in 1977. Vocal, opinionated, and intelligent, Mary constantly clashes with Isaac (never insult Bergman around that man), and soon enough, the conflicting, “verbal joust”-nature of their relationship leads to attraction.

Something I’ve always loved about Woody Allen’s films from the period is the portrayal of his main characters, specifically the men. Woody just about always plays himself, but surrounds himself with taller, slightly balding 40-something year old academic white men usually wearing big, thick-framed glasses and a tie. They spend their evenings dining with their wives (who they cheat on) and girlfriends (who are either too young for them or are their mistresses), talking openly and casually about art, sex, and philosophy. Oh, and they all have psychoanalysts, of course. Sure, occasionally Woody’s characters will want to watch the Knicks game on TV, but his sports team doesn’t dominate his dinner conversation as I suspect mine or yours does. Things are much more cerebral for these characters (compare that to Woody’s later movies, where most of his characters would rather drink soda or beer than wine). I love it because these characters always surround themselves with vocal, intelligent friends more than willing to debate what it means to be an artist or spout off phrases like, “Gossip is the new pornography,” while I’ve personally found that, at least in my fair burg, those friends are not as easy to come by; maybe that’s what makes Woody’s New York City so great.

Seeing Manhattan’s opening sequence again, it astounded me how much it reminded me of the short-lived series, The Critic (a show that, after a brilliant first season, ruined its second season by trying too hard to make us care about the characters). Either they’re both spot-on in their portrayals of the Big Apple, or The Critic merely took its inspiration from Woody Allen’s films. The Gershwin-style of music that each plays, the shots of the city, they all match up. So many films and TV shows use NYC as merely a backdrop (or a name-drop), and they use it so poorly that the story’s setting could be any other U.S. city and it wouldn’t make a difference. The Critic knew how to use the city, and as we know and have come to expect from Woody Allen films, Manhattan certainly knew as well. For Isaac in Manhattan and Jay in The Critic, this place is their town, and you can just feel it.

As a clever touch, capitalizing on the black and white classical nature of Manhattan’s look, the film features small, soundless interludes that almost serve as mini silent films. Usually as transitions, these sequences show events such as Isaac moving into a new apartment or spending a day with his son. The actions are always a little exaggerated, and just like any silent film worth a lick, it’s brilliantly easy to tell what’s going on. You know what Isaac’s thinking by the way the movers carelessly toss his boxes on the floor. You see him desperately try to convince his son that he doesn’t want the really big sailboat, but rather the smaller, no-doubt cheaper sailboat right next to it. Each scene was a tiny, pleasant, unofficial break in the storytelling.

A favorite, brilliantly shot sequence takes place in a space exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art as Isaac and Mary, not yet a couple, duck in from a rainstorm. They walk through the exhibit, sometimes in total darkness, sometimes as MST3K-style silhouettes, and sometimes looking as if they’re standing on the moon. It was a joy to anticipate how the next shot would play with the shadows and the darkness, as sequences like this just wouldn’t have the same effect in color. The triumph of the sequence, a two-shot of Isaac and Mary face to face, only shows the highlights of their eyes, cheeks, noses, and mouths, the dark, starry backdrop engulfing them.

The critical breakup scene between Isaac and Tracy moves me as much as it does thanks to the wise cinematography. In this scene the shots move to close-ups of each character, particularly Tracy — closer than they’ll be on any character for the rest of the film. We’re allowed to see Isaac’s face as he tries to justify his actions, and we see every expression on the face of his 17-year-old girlfriend as she tries to understand how she’s supposed to be the benefactor in the breakup (according to Isaac). The scene ends with a heartbreaking shot of Tracy crying quietly, Isaac’s hand in frame, massaging her shoulder, trying to comfort her as she asks him to leave her alone. There’s a special little moment at the tail end of that shot as Isaac’s hand, unsure of how to console Tracy, hesitates and wipes one of her tears away. Not a typical, romantic film tear wipe with the thumb, but a tentative, almost accidental touch with the forefinger. Look for it next time you see the film. It blew me away.

It’s a little strange to watch Manhattan now, knowing where Woody is in his career these days. In the mid 2000s, he stopped filming in New York and shot his next four features (Match Point, Scoop, Cassandra’s Dream, Vicky Cristina Barcelona) in Europe — three in London. It was almost universally understood that Woody would never — could never — film anywhere but New York, especially after doing it for so long. Yet, a moment in Manhattan now seems slightly foreboding. Almost a throwaway line, Isaac comments to Mary that the city is really changing. In the moment, you think that Isaac could never leave the town. His friends simply don’t believe he could survive anywhere else. I don’t think Woody has fallen out of love with New York City, but with all the changes he’s seen for the past 30 years, and knowing this man’s nature, is it really that surprising that he’d be willing to try to fall in love with some other cities? As Tracy states at the end of the film, “Everybody gets corrupted.” So now Woody has gone off to Europe, just like Isaac kept telling Tracy to do (until he asks her not to, that is). I see Woody today as an older version of Isaac, finally taking his own advice.

There’s a Seinfeld episode in which George single-handedly ruins the production shoot of a Woody Allen film. One of the punch-lines of the situation was that after this specific incident caused by George, Woody was doing the unthinkable: he was wondering if his days of shooting in New York were over. Over a decade after that episode, the situation came true, but it wasn’t because of George Costanza’s incompetence. With every studio looking for the next $500 million blockbuster, it gets harder and harder to find money for a filmmaker whose movies rarely cash in $20 million domestically. Europe has apparently made things financially easier for Woody, and I think it could be good for him creatively. With new cities and countries to explore and personify, I think Woody’s having a blast in this new location. In a review of Vicky Cristina Barcelona, I wrote that Woody was portraying “the Spain of my dreams: passionate artists, tragic poets, beautiful countryside homes, and couples fighting in the streets.” In a way, you could even say that the characters played by Javier Bardem and Penélope Cruz are personifications of Barcelona in the same way that Isaac personifies New York City. Are they entirely accurate portrayals? No, but they’re not meant to be. They are Woody’s romanticized versions of Barcelona, just as Manhattan, as stated in its opening monologue, is a romanticized version of the Big Apple. This is the world through Woody’s infatuated eyes.

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Thursday, April 23, 2009


Jack Cardiff (1914-2009)

By Edward Copeland
Granted, I've been under the weather of late, but I don't know how someone or something didn't alert me to the passing of the great cinematographer Jack Cardiff yesterday at 94. Perusing the headlines of Web versions of major newspapers and Google's conglomeration, there has been no mention. By God, we can find plenty of space to go on about that 47-year-old woman who shocked Simon Cowell because she knew how to sing. This is pathetic and sad. A true great artist has died, but the mainstream media has determined that a short segment on a British reality show is more important. Screw them. I'm here to salute a Brit with decades of evidence of real talent.

In the AP story on Cardiff's passing, they mentioned what Martin Scorsese once said about Cardiff being able "to paint with the camera." As it would happen, yesterday I was watching director Albert Lewin's Pandora and the Flying Dutchman for a long-term project I'm working on. I didn't pay much attention to the credits, but I was immediately struck by the look, which almost reminded me of some of the Powell-Pressburger masterpieces. There was a good reason for that. Jack Cardiff was the d.p. Of course, his true crowning achievements were his work with Powell and Pressburger, specifically the great 1947 Black Narcissus and the exquisite 1948 The Red Shoes. His first collaboration with the fabled team was A Matter of Life and Death also known as Stairway to Heaven. It isn't that much of an overstatement to say that Cardiff contributed to the Powell-Pressburger reputation as much as the filmmakers themselves. They made countless other great films that Cardiff didn't film, but his contribution to Black Narcissus and The Red Shoes were in many ways greater than the filmmakers themselves. The pure beauty of the images were so hypnotizing in their colors and light, shadow and shadings, that at times they could overwhelm the stories in a way I can't think of cinematography doing in any other great films. Sure, that's easy to do in lesser films when a viewer is trying to find distractions, but when the film doesn't suffer and keeps its high quality, that's a feat. He truly showed off what you could do with Technicolor.

Cardiff's great work wasn't limited to that directing team. He worked with Hitchcock on Under Capricorn and Huston on The African Queen. He worked with Mankiewicz on The Barefoot Contessa and Vidor on War and Peace.

His lengthy career included work on films that I would have never connected him to such as Death on the Nile, Conan the Destroyer and Rambo: First Blood Part II.

Cardiff also directed a good number of films, the most notable of which was probably 1960's Sons and Lovers, which was nominated for best picture and earned Cardiff a directing nomination. Cinematographer Freddie Francis even won for his work on it.

Cardiff's cinematography only earned Oscar nominations three times, though he did win for Black Narcissus. His other nominations were for War and Peace and 1961's Fanny. The Academy did bestow an honorary Oscar upon Cardiff as a "master of color of light" at its 73rd ceremony.

RIP Mr. Cardiff.

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Monday, April 20, 2009


NY theater flashbacks: 1994

By Edward Copeland
I'd thought of doing something like this for a long time and since I have long-term projects and other complications preventing me from seeing new things to write about, it seemed as good as time a time as any. Of course, I'm relying on memory, so forgive any mistakes I may make along the way. My theater obsession was primarily New York and primarily Broadway. I had been to the city before on movie junkets, but never had enough free time to see a show. So, in March 1994, I planned my first trip to the Big Apple to specifically see a show. In this case, it actually was two shows or one show in two parts. In other words, it was both halves of Tony Kushner's Angels in America on consecutive nights.

Since this was the second season in which Kushner's play had run, though the first for the second half, two members of the original cast already had left. F. Murray Abraham had succeeded Ron Leibman in Leibman's Tony-winning role of Roy Cohn (in addition to some other roles). I'd seen bits of Leibman, but I felt Abraham was more than a worthy substitution. Marcia Gay Harden had departed from her Tony-nominated role as Harper Pitt (among others). Cynthia Nixon had yet to assume the role, so I got to see Harden's understudy, Susan Bruce, who was fine. One other interesting casting note that few get to experience is the chance to see both the understudy for a role and the actor who was cast in the part. When I saw Millennium Approaches on Friday night, Jeffrey Wright was off, so his understudy played Belize and his other roles. The actor was Darnell Williams, known to All My Children fans as Jesse Hubbard. He was quite good. Saturday, Wright returned for Perestroika. As good as I thought Williams was, Wright was a revelation. I wanted to leap to the stage and give him a Tony right then and, sure enough, months later Wright would win the Tony for featured actor in a play for Angels in America: Perestroika. Seeing this two-part play was a wonder; it makes perfect sense why I developed an addiction to New York theater, specifically Broadway. An expensive habit. I should have taken up heroin. The power and magic of Angels in America still resonates. What a work of imagination, blending fantasy, history, current events, real people, fictional characters and churning them all into a glorious theatrical fest. Now, 15 years and more than 100 productions later, Angels in America remains the best show I ever saw on Broadway. I was such a theater neophyte when I ordered the tickets for the show over the phone, I didn't know the difference between orchestra and mezzanine, so first row mezzanine center sounded better than ninth row orchestra center. Actually though, I think my lack of knowledge served me well. When Ellen McLaughlin's angel came crashing through the ceiling of the bedroom of Prior Walter (the magnificent Stephen Spinella who won Tonys for both halves), I was more or less even with her. Since the play was split into two halves, it won the Tony for best play in two consecutive seasons but it only won the Pulitzer Prize for part 1, Millennium Approaches. I really don't know how you can separate it like that because for me both parts make a whole and you can't have one without the other without it seeming incomplete. I fell in love with the play so much (and I'm a straight man) that I bought book copies of both halves of the play and performed them in the living room of my friend Wagstaff, playing all the parts, so he could get a sense of the play that I thought just reading the play wouldn't do. (The only other time I did this was to perform The Seagull, which I was reading for the first time when I performed it.) As Angels in America became a cultural phenomenon, there was immediate talk of a film version. I still would love to have seen what Robert Altman would have done if his plan to make it as two films had come to fruition. As much as I loved Altman, Angels in America seemed to be a uniquely theatrical experience to me and a lot of its magic and spectacle would be lost on the big screen. Now though, most people probably know Angels in America based on Mike Nichols' HBO miniseries version of it. It is very good but I was right: While it's a good thing that it doesn't seem like a filmed play, a lot of the spirit is lost. You also inevitably get into the performance comparison game since Jeffrey Wright was the only member of the Broadway cast to reprise his role in the TV version (and he got an Emmy to go with his Tony). Al Pacino put a handle on some of his worst late-career traits and was great as Roy Cohn. I can't compare him to Leibman and, of course, it's difficult sizing up performances trying to reach the balcony with the toned-down ones of film or television. Most of the miniseries and stage counterparts seem fairly evenly matched, though I actually preferred the underrated Kathleen Chalfant in all her many roles to Meryl Streep. While Justin Kirk was fine as Prior on TV, he had a helluva act to follow in Spinella (Kirk would shone for me in a later theater season on stage). Ben Shenkman's Louis on TV actually was better than Joe Mantello's on stage. (Mantello turned primarily to directing after Angels, winning several Tonys and having mixed results, in my opinion.) The biggest mistake of the miniseries though was the casting of the ultrabland Patrick Wilson as Joe Pitt. Sure, the character was supposed to be a closeted, Mormon Republican, but David Marshall Grant had no problem bringing him to life on stage. On the whole, the TV miniseries was good, but I'll probably never watch it again because my memories of the Broadway incarnation are too precious to me.


Before I ever saw a show on Broadway, I was a fan of Broadway musicals and I had a collection of original cast recordings that might seem suspiciously too large for a heterosexual, especially since the collection was dominated by my adoration of Stephen Sondheim. A planned junket for a couple of movies (I can't even remember which ones) happened to coincide with the opening of a new Sondheim musical on Broadway. Hallelujah. I booked my flight for a day early and spent the night with a friend so I could see the 2 p.m. Saturday matinee (7th row, right orchestra) of Passion before having to show up at the junket hotel for my job. The show was still in previews, which had been extended, so I wasn't seeing the finished project but I didn't care. It's evolution was interesting. It began life as an idea of two one-act musicals, the other half being something called Muscle about bodybuilders. That would have been strange. Instead, Passion grew to a 2-hour, intermission-free show based on an Italian film from the 1970s I actually had seen accidentally late one night on Showtime or Cinemax when I was in junior high. So I had a vague idea of the plot, but I didn't care: I was going to hear a Sondheim score I'd never heard before. Passion divided its audiences in half. Many hated it, others loved it, but for me, especially upon many times listening to the score, it's the same case as with many Sondheim shows: The score is better than the show itself and Passion is one of Sondheim lushest, most beautiful scores of love and longing. The critics of the show whom I found ridiculous were the ones who mocked Donna Murphy's performance as Fosca, the sickly soldier's sister whose face and demeanor leaves a lot to be desired but whose obsession with another soldier manipulates him into loving him despite his love for a married woman. Murphy won a well-deserved Tony because she is amazing. She practically overpowers everyone else on stage with her. Some pros such as Tom Aldredge and Gregg Edelman hold their own, but Jere Shea as Giorgio, was the show's weak link and he was supposed to be the lead and every other performer got the better of him, be it Marin Mazzie as the married woman he's having an affair with to the various soldiers to Murphy. Passion is a problematic show with a great score and I'm grateful I saw it because it seems highly unlikely at this point that Sondheim will ever premiere another new score on Broadway, even if he ever solves the problem of Wise Guys/Bounce/Road Show; it's played so many different places and I doubt the entire score would go in the trash can even if it did somehow ever make it to Broadway.


This was the point when someone should have staged an intervention, but alas I was in New York for a junket and the only people I knew were fellow entertainment journalists, and none too well. They scheduled interviews extremely late on a Sunday afternoon for some reason, so I scanned the Broadway listings. As usual, most Sunday matinees didn't start until 3 p.m., too late for me. However, one show had a 1 p.m. starting time and to get my fix, I bought tickets to the Grease revival with Rosie O'Donnell. I assure you, Rosie was not the attraction. As a kid, and even today, I love the movie version. I'd only seen one production of the stage version, a summer stock version starring Eddie Mekka of Laverne & Shirley fame and it sucked. Still, I could not be deterred. The pre-show actually got me in a good mood. The guy playing Vince Fontaine already was on stage acting as a disc jockey, bantering with the audience and playing classic 1950s songs. Unfortunately, that eventually stopped and the curtains opened. My seat was on the very front row, so much so that part of the stage extended out past my seat. This proved to be particularly odd seating when they staged Danny and Sandy's trip to the drive-in and his car literally drove over me where I had to crook my head to see some of the number, but mainly I saw a tire and the undercarriage of the fake car. Despite the fact that the show generally sucked, especially because they kept trying to insert Rosie's Rizzo into numbers in which she didn't belong, including a reprise of "Greased Lightning." What the fuck? Though since Rosie was in it, it would have made sense if she'd sang the line, "You know that I ain't braggin'/she's a real pussy wagon." Still, there were some good performances. It was a minor performance, but Megan Mullally got to play Marty. Marcia Lewis, the show's sole Tony nominee for acting, was fun as Miss Lynch, the Rydell teacher. Sam Harris showed real promise as Doody, especially in his big number "Those Magic Changes." Without a doubt though, the performance the brought the house down was the great Billy Porter as the Teen Angel really bringing "Beauty School Dropout." The original Grease at one time was the longest-running show in Broadway history. I never saw it, but it's a bit of a head-scratcher to me since the movie seemed to improve so much. This revival, which opened in May 1994, lasted until January 1998. This was largely due to its producers, the infamous Weisslers, who kept it alive and have kept Chicago alive by inserting one bit of stunt casting after another. A short list of names who went into Grease for a time following Rosie: Linda Blair (Rizzo vomits pea soup! No, but that would have been fun), Debby Boone, Chubby Checker, Mickey Dolenz, Sheena Easton, Joely Fisher, Debbie Gibson, Dody Goodman, Jasmine Guy, Jennifer Holliday, Al Jarreau, Lucy Lawless, Maureen McCormick, Mackenzie Phillips, Joe Piscopo, Jon Secada, Brooke Shields, Sally Struthers, Jody Watley, Jo Anne Worley and Adrian Zmed. Obviously, they didn't all play Rizzo. There were some Dannys, Teen Angels, Miss Lynches and Vince Fontaines thrown in as well. Of course, this revival had nothing on stunt casting compared to the Grease revival that ran from August 1997 through January of this year that picked its leads from a TV reality show.


My job at work had switched to an interesting schedule of 10 hour days where every third week we would have three-day weekends and every third week we'd get four-day weekends. It certainly proved to be a nice schedule, but not so much for my credit card and my Broadway obsession, which you think that Grease would have slowed. So I planned my first three-play trip in June and I lucked out that they were all winners. One thing I found: I was disappointed far fewer times by Broadway plays than by Broadway musicals. The first play of the weekend amazed me and was the closest to casting the spell on me that Angels in America did. Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 was a one-woman show performed by Anna Deavere Smith. Now, this wasn't the type of one-person show most people think of where an actor assumes one persona for an evening. No, Smith portrays dozens of people, people she interviewed as a journalist would to get their take on what happened to them during and after the Los Angeles riots. Very few of the people are well known, but it doesn't make Smith's performance any less riveting as she assumes every gender, ethnicity, etc., to paint a portrait of a staggering event in this nation's history as well as an intimate look at a major city that still has characteristics of a small town. It's brilliant. I only saw two of the four nominated lead actresses in a play (the other was the winner that same weekend), but I still believe that Smith deserved the prize, especially since there was no way Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 was going to (or should have) beat Perestroika for play.


You don't often come out of a play feeling cool and wet, but if you were close enough to the awesome set by Ian MacNeil working in tandem with Rick Fisher's lighting and Gregory Meeh's special effects, you were likely to exit the theater with tangible evidence of a night's entertainment with Stephen Daldry's revival of J.B. Priestley's An Inspector Calls. Now, if you go to the theater as often as I did, you are going to run into celebrities eventually. This show marked my first experience as the late Madeline Kahn and her husband sat in the row behind me. They seemed to enjoy the play as well, an old-style mystery as a mysterious inspector (Kenneth Cranham) upends family secrets while investigating a death. The family, a rich industrial clan led by Philip Bosco and Rosemary Harris, has many members and are far from functional. The entire cast excelled, the pros such as Bosco, Cranham and Harris, as well as newer finds such as Marcus D'Amico and especially Jane Adams as the clan's daughter and she won a Tony for the role, one of 5 Tonys it won, though it amazingly lost scenic design which still boggles my mind. Granted, I didn't see the show that won (Carousel), but it had to be stunning to top McNiece's set.


Emma Peel, meet Euripides. Diana Rigg brought her London stage triumph to the states for a limited engagement in a new translation by Alistair Elliott that seemed to draw Tonys to actresses like a magnet and it did so with Rigg in director Jonathan Kent's production. This time, I was back in the mezzanine, not by choice, but because the play was a limited engagement, it was the best I could get. Medea was the third and final play in my three-play weekend and since it was a quick 90 minutes, I had my carryon duffle bag (I travel light) under my seat so when the show ended I could grab a cab to the airport and catch my plane home. That is one advantage of going from the Eastern time zone back to the Central: Time is on your side. Back to the play. Don't get me wrong. Rigg was superb, even though Anna Deavere Smith's achievement impressed me more. Medea has to be placed in the hands of a really lousy actress to fail and Rigg doesn't fit that definition. This is a wronged woman whose idea of revenge on her husband is to kill her own children, yet somehow you still manage not to hate her or view her as a complete monster. Rigg pulls this off magnificently, making her Medea a woman of intelligence as well as sadness. She hates what she is doing yet she's certain it's the course she must follow. The play itself was set on a very sparse set of loud, clanging metal doors, ringing through the audience with appropriately echoing dins that must have driven theatergoers with assisted listening devices crazy at times. Peter J. Davidson's set along with the revival itself were the only Tony nominations besides Rigg the show received and I think that was what sort of made the production feel lopsided. Except for some occasional nice moments from the women of Corinth who serve as a chorus, everything is designed as a showcase for Medea/Rigg. Any other characters or actors seem to be an afterthought. As a result, I think that's why Rigg's performance loomed so large. Everyone else was designed to be minimized.


The shows I saw in 1994 (with the exception of Millennium Approaches, which was really a holdover from the 1992-93 season) were really all from the 1993-94 season in terms of the Tony Awards. The final Broadway show that I saw from that season was the revival of Damn Yankees. Bebe Neuwirth took on Gwen Verdon's famous role of Lola, the Devil's temptress trying to keep a man's soul for the Devil's collection. Victor Garber played the Devil who offered a middle-age man (Dennis Kelly) a chance for a sprint at youth and baseball glory in the form of a gifted player (Tony winner Jarrod Emick, by far the show's highlight). The cast also had some other soon-to-be familiar faces in Vicki Lewis (of NewsRadio fame), Dick LaTessa (who would win a Tony as the dad in Hairspray) and Gregory Jbara (currently playing Billy's father in the musical version of Billy Elliott.) As I said earlier, I was disappointed much more often by musicals than by plays and that was the case here. The cast certainly had talent to spare, but the production never seemed to come together for me. Emick truly shone, but Neuwirth seemed as if she were in a different show and Garber projected himself as too much of a pushover to be much of a formidable devil. It also launched what I called the "Marquis curse." The Marquis Theatre is located within the Marriott Marquis hotel and I didn't have much of a good track record with the shows I saw there. The theater itself was odd. It didn't feel like a Broadway house in the way every other theater I'd go to did. It look and felt more like a high school auditorium, more suitable for a commencement ceremony than a multimillion musical production. Now, I didn't go on this trip to New York for one show, but the other two shows I saw were my first ventures to that state of mind known as "off-Broadway," where better things often play but they are forbidden from Tony recognition because their theaters fail to have enough seats or fall between certain streets.


Edward Albee received the third of his three Pulitzer Prizes for Three Tall Women (and who knows if he's done. He turned 80 last year, but he's still working). Two of his plays have won Tonys for best plays (surprisingly, neither one was one of the Pulitzer winners) and last year he got a special Tony for lifetime achievement. Three Tall Women was my first off-Broadway visit, venturing further up the upper west side of Manhattan to see the play at the Promenade Theatre. Usually, I'm a big Albee fan, but what I think hurt this production was that it revolved around three actresses, two of whom were magnificent and one who was fairly bad. The actresses play characters named simply A, B and C. Carter was quite wonderful as the nonagenarian A, in faltering health and fuzzier memory and Seldes is nearly as good as B, her caretaker. Baker, however, fumbles as C, a young lawyer sent to try to get A's estate in order. Part of the problem could be attributed to her role, but to me it seemed to emanate from Baker. In the second act, the three actresses, all become A at different ages while a mannequin in a bed beneath an oxygen mask comes to represent the real woman. The problem with the play is that, unlike the very best Albee plays, Three Tall Women is too on the nose, missing Albee's famous obliqueness with an unfortunate tendency to spell everything out. Still, Carter and Seldes and long stretches of the dialogue made the trek worthwhile.


I began my 1994 theater journey with the greatest theatrical experiences I've ever had and I ended that season with another of the best theatrical experiences, only this one took place in Lincoln Center's off-Broadway house, the Mitzi E. Newhouse, located below its Broadway showcase, the Vivian Beaumont. No curtain hid the set from the audience before the show began. My seat was on the front row of the pseudo-in-the-round theater. The play was Eric Bogosian's Suburbia, which Richard Linklater made a fairly good film version of later. The only member of the stage cast to repeat in the movie was the hysterical Steve Zahn as the stoned, skateboarding, Buff. The play cross-breeds your usual look at aimless youth in a small town with Waiting for Godot as several of the young adult await a reunion with a former member of their pack who has found that first taste of fame and fortune as a rock musician outside of their world. Sitting so close to the action, at times it felt as if the actors were in my lap and it was a great cast that included, in addition to Zahn, Josh Hamilton, Martha Plimpton, Tim Guinee and Zak Orth. Most of the action takes place in the parking lot of a 7-Eleven and that miniature 7-Eleven was a wonder to behold. Large enough for the actors to walk through its aisles, it was fully stocked with the products you'd expect to find in a convenience store. Before the play started, it was tempting to hop the bar and walk on in and buy a cold Coke from the fridge (if they were really cold) and have a nice refreshment. Bogosian's style, as seen in his one-man shows, is often an in-your-face, electric sort of dialogue that brings its truths in stings and that was the case with Suburbia as well but, like most Bogosian works, it's also very funny. There is something about great works of art, be they plays, musicals or movies, when they are really good, afterward, you feel energized, as if you should be dancing a dance of joy as you exit, no matter what the subject matter was. That's what I discovered in the best of New York theater, a love affair that was no longer unrequited beginning in 1994.

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Tuesday, April 07, 2009


Playing Catch-up

By Josh R
Here he is, boys….here he is, world….after an ungodly absence of damn near a year, Mr. Broadway is back on the beat. While an unrelenting schedule has prevented me from contributing many major theater pieces since the 2008-2009 season began (did I say many? read: any), it fortunately hasn’t curbed my theatergoing to a significant degree. Faced with the daunting prospect of trying to bring Copeland’s readers up to speed, I’ve decided to do a sort of overview piece addressing many of the shows I’ve seen in brief — I’d love to be able to devote more attention to the things that deserve it, but with the Tony Awards looming on the not-too-distant horizon, it’s probably better to face the beast and discuss everything that needs to covered here and now. With respect to the many wonderful off-Broadway productions I’ve seen this year, I’ve decided to limit myself to the main stem entries, so as to provide you awards junkies out with your annual fix without too much digression. Toward this end, the overview will consist of two installments. First up, The Musicals.

The story of the season — in showbiz and in real life — can be summed up in three words: Recession, Recession, Recession. Still reeling from what has come to be know as Black Sunday…a day in which a record nine Broadway shows simultaneously shuttered …the theater industry takes no small degree of comfort and encouragement from the arrival of a genuine monster hit — even it is does make things tougher from the other productions that will languish in its shadow.

To that end, Billy Elliot must feel like manna from heaven to all those anxious bean-counters in the front office wondering if a sickly economy can allow for the birth of a blockbuster. When I first read the rave reviews pouring out of London upon the occasion of the show’s West End premiere — including one from the notoriously cranky New York Times critic Ben Brantley — I was a bit taken aback (when I hear the name Elton John, I naturally assume the worst). Now that the toe-shoe toting tot has made it to these shores, I am willing to concede that the bulk of the praise has been earned. I don’t think Billy Elliot is a masterpiece, but it’s a solidly crafted, eminently entertaining piece of show business hokum, with enough in the way of actual substance to satisfy those who feared that it would exist as little more than empty spectacle set to cruddy pop music. The reason I think Billy succeeds where so many screen-to-stage adaptations fall is short is that it isn’t merely trying to re-create the experience of the movie. The creative team is the same — namely, screenwriter Lee Hall, who penned the show’s libretto, and director Stephen Daldry. Because they have a more instinctive feel for the material than someone who would have been afraid to tamper with a winning formula, they feel free to take liberties — which they do, without in any way violating the spirit of the original. Rather than feeling reigned in by the source material, or the feeling to adopt an overly reverential stance toward it, they use the film as a jumping off place to create something different — Billy Elliot, The Musical, has a look and feel all its own. While faithful in many respects, enough has been tweaked, re-imagined and re-interpreted that the end product feels like a separate and distinct entity from the film on which it’s based. It’s a smart approach, and an effective one — measuring it against the film is almost a nonissue, because it’s like comparing apples and oranges.

That said, the show is not without its flaws. The score, by Elton John, is not an asset — it says something about the soundness of the production as a whole that this doesn’t seem to matter very much (and if your only exposure to the show was the original cast recording, you could be forgiven for mistaking it for a piece of shit). On the credit side, it makes more sense for an audience to be hearing banal '80s-inflected pop tunes in a show that is set precisely in the era of banal '80s pop — it seems more fitting and natural in this context than it would in a show set, say, in the animal kingdom, ancient Egypt, or the plushly appointed salons of 19th century French vampires. While the production features many breathtaking set pieces — Billy’s pas de deux with his older self in a fantasy sequence has to be one of the most magical, ingeniously staged dance sequences in recent memory — the proliferation of eye-popping, show-stopping numbers does begin to feel like overkill after you’ve seen three or four of them in succession. I was also none too fond of Haydn Gwynne’s sharp, aggressively sweet-and-sour turn as Billy’s mentor — the remainder of the cast, which includes Gregory Jbara and Carole Shelley as Billy’s father and grandmother, is very solid. The title role is being performed in rotation by three young actors — understandable, given that the part involves some of the most ambitious and exacting choreography ever assigned to a child performer (and there’s a lot of it…ballet, tap, gymnastic tumbling passes….). On the night I saw it, the role was played by the freakishly talented David Alvarez, who carried the 500 pound gorilla of a production as easily as if it were a bunch of balloons.

Just as overproduced, if nowhere near as satisfying, is the musical adaptation of the high-grossing animated film Shrek — whose presence on Broadway constitutes Dreamworks Studios’ maiden attempt to claim a piece of the Disney market. Unlike Billy Elliot, Shrek isn’t really trying to be different — the production design (sets, costumes, everything) is so faithfully reproduced that it occasionally feels as though you’re watching the film in 3D. There’s nothing horrifically wrong with Shrek — in some ways, its complete lack of creative ambition lends it a refreshing sense of modesty —
but beyond a delightful lead performance by Sutton Foster and a hysterical supporting one by Christopher Sieber, who spends the entire show on his knees as the diminutive, unctuous Prince Fahrquar, there’s nothing particularly memorable about it either.

The titular ogre is played by Broadway stalwart Brian D’Arcy James, who does as much as he can whilst buried under several pounds of green latex. Had Mr. James known that an off-Broadway production he appeared in last year would be making the big move to the beltway, I doubt he would have been so eager to sign on for his current gig. Next to Normal, with a score by Tom Kitt and book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey, is a show that I find difficult to approach with any objectivity, since I had the opportunity to work on it (albeit in a very limited way) during its off-Broadway engagement last winter. An examination of a family in crisis — the mother suffers from bipolar disorder, and eventually embarks on a course of electroshock therapy with life-altering consequences — it is the kind of small-scale, serious-minded show that may have difficulty connecting with a mainstream audience. Having seen the show probably about 14 times or so, I became very fond of it — there are those who find the show too dark while others feel it’s not dark enough, but the majority of those I’ve spoken to find it to be a uniquely moving experience.

Many changes have gone into effect since the show has come to Broadway — among other things, Kitt and Yorkey have done much to streamline the narrative and clarify the tone of a work that once seemed uncertainly poised between straight-laced drama and a satire of an over-analyzed, over-medicated psychopharmacological culture. What remains unaltered is richness of its pop-rock score and the power of its central performance. As the shellshocked Diana, Alice Ripley delivers a deeply felt, beautifully measured star turn which skillfully navigates the character’s hairpin transitions from bouts of defiant, uncomprehending madness to moments of grief-stricken, heartrending clarity. As impressive as that is, it’s her ability to bring flashes of subversive humor to even the most harrowing of situations that keep the character from existing as a tragic, doomed soul in a movie-of-the-week. “I ain’t no Frances Farmer,” she sings, and she’s right — she has too much spirit and character to exist as a mere victim. It’s a brilliant performance — no, better than that — and one that will hopefully guarantee Next to Normal an extended life. The rest of the cast is not always as strong, although Aaron Tveit has star presence to burn and some hair-raising moments as the angry son determined to make his presence felt in his parents’ life, one way or another.

Sadly, not many new musicals have shown much sticking power this year. Part of this can be attributed to the economy — it’s also because the shows have been nothing to write home about. The largely well-received title of show — a musical about four people writing a musical, performed by the four people who wrote the musical — was perhaps a bit too self-referential for its own good, and closed up shop after about three months of performances. While I was more amused than impressed by title of show’s uneven blend of self-mocking humor and heart-on-sleeve earnestness, it’s easy to see why the show accumulated such a devoted following, particularly among theater insiders; a stronger economy might have insured it a longer run. Equally short-lived was Jason Robert Brown’s 13, a gentle look at the ups and downs, fears and dreams, foibles and frolics of the junior high set. While the score was a beaut and the pre-teen cast was downright adorable, the substance never fully materialized. A show by Richard Maltby Jr. called The Story of My Life died so quickly that only one person I know had the chance to see it — and only because she happened to be a friend of Richard Maltby Jr.

On the revival front, the results have been equally mixed. Joe Mantello’s heavy-handed reworking of Pal Joey had some welcome flashes of wry, brittle humor courtesy of Stockard Channing’s martini-swilling socialite…would that she had managed to hit a note during the singing portion of her performance. Would also that the man charged with leaving her “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered” had been charismatic enough to merit that degree of fascination. On a happier note, the production did furnish a marvelous showcase for the heretofore unsuspected musical talents of Martha Plimpton, outstanding as a hardbitten floozy straight out of vintage Warner Brothers gangster flicks — her rendition of the strip-tease parody “Zip” easily qualified as the evening’s high point. Less successful — if not quite as dreary — was Des McAnuff’s decidedly bland recapitulation of Guys and Dolls, with talented performers such as Oliver Platt and Lauren Graham (of Gilmore Girls fame) failing conspicuously in roles that required more in the way of outsize personality-driven comedy than their talents could comfortably accommodate. Musical comedy demands an element of shamelessness; one can only imagine what the effect might have been with performers more suited to the assignment — say, Norbert Leo Butz and Kristin Chenoweth. As the slick high roller and his starchy mission doll, Craig Bierko and Kate Jennings Grant are somewhat more appropriately cast, if just as personality-deficient.

Two other Broadway revivals fared markedly better, although only one qualified as an outright triumph. Hair is one of those shows that has always seemed like a such an artifact of the tie-die era that expecting it to retain its potency so many years after The Summer of Love seemed about as reasonable as hoping to get a smooth high off a 40-year old joint. That high — as smooth as you please — kicked in right away in Diane Paulus’ exuberant Central Park staging for The Public Theatre, and was beautifully sustained by the energetic and talented ensemble for the duration of its fleet-footed 2½ hour running time. Newly ensconsed at The Hirschfeld Theatre, with most of the outdoor cast intact (original lead Jonathan Groff has been replaced by the equally fine — and ladies, I mean FINE — Gavin Creel), it continues to prove that while Hair may not exactly qualify as a truly timeless work of musical theatre, it still has enough juice to make for a celebratory, and occasionally sobering, feat of entertainment. As I say, the show itself is not a classic; the production feels so vibrant and vital that it transcends whatever limitations the material may have.

Somewhat surprisingly, that venerated warhorse West Side Story, regstaged by origininal librettist Arthur Laurents, shows the wear of age a bit more conspicuously than the show with all the hippies. While its depiction of tough street life in the 1950s feels curiously quaint from a modern standpoint, the Bernstein-Sondheim score is as gorgeous as ever, Jerome Robbins choreography remains a wonder to behold, and beguiling Argentine newcomer Josefina Scaglione delivers a beautifully sung and acted performance as Maria (she brings much more depth and shading to a one-dimensional character than her co-star, Matt Cavenaugh, is able to do). Top performance honors, however, must be conferred upon the sultry firecracker Karen Olivo, very good in In the Heights but even more thoroughly in her element here — a triple threat in the truest sense of the word, she scores one knockout punch after another with her dynamic turn as Anita. I never imagined anyone could make me forget the Oscar-winning performance of Rita Moreno, but Ms. Olivo’s electrifying interpretation comes astonishingly close. Individual triumphs like these aside, this West Side Story lacks something in terms of danger and excitement — it’s a faithful, reverential staging that doesn’t reveal anything new about the show itself, or solve the problem of a heavy-handed book that strains for Shakespearean grandeur and lyricism and inevitably falls short.

So what’s left on the horizon? Dolly Parton’s multimillion-dollar musicalization of her film hit 9 to 5 hits the Marquis Theatre in matter of weeks — advance word is not great, although the prospect of Allison Janney stepping into Lily Tomlin’s secretarial pumps is initially intriguing. As it is, I think Billy Elliot has already won best musical and is poised to crush nearly everyone and everything in its path come Tony time…but hey, they said the same thing about Wicked.

So I tried to be brief. It didn’t work out so well, but I tried. I get points for effort, right? Next up, The Plays — which is terrifying, considering how many more of them there are. I may have to do this in three installments…stay tuned…..

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Monday, April 06, 2009


Bite is worse than his bark

By Edward Copeland
Samuel Fuller was one of America's original and longest dwellers in the world of independent cinema. Even though he had achieved a notable reputation, one of his final films never got a real U.S. theatrical release because of perceived controversy over its subject matter, going instead straight to video until getting a proper Criterion Collection DVD release last year. Now that I've seen White Dog, it's hard to see what all the commotion was about, either in terms of the controversy or in the idea that a masterpiece was lost in the hubbub.

Kristy McNichol stars as a struggling actress who accidentally hits a white German shepherd with her car. She takes the injured dog to a vet and pays the expensive bills to save his life. She posts bills reporting the lost dog, but finds herself growing attached to the gorgeous creature.

There are little signs though, that's something is a little off with the canine. She's grateful when he saves her from an attempted rapist. However, the dog seems to have a hair trigger when it comes to attacking people, especially people with black skin. McNichol visits a company that trains animals for movies in the hopes that the dog can be reprogrammed. The main trainer (a rascally Burl Ives blaming his business plight on Star Wars) recommends just putting the dog down but his partner Paul Winfield wants a shot at removing the racism from the dog and making him whole again. That's pretty much the rest of the movie. Winfield works to get the dog not to attack black people until you get the expected twists of the original dog's racist owner turning up and how the deprogramming might go wrong to happen. Everything happens pretty much the way I expected and there wasn't anything I found particularly shocking in White Dog. Ives provides the best moments, but McNichol is a bore as a lead. There also is way too much reliance on slow-motion. The film is only 90 minutes long as it is, take away the slow-mo, you'd probably lose another 15 minutes. Fuller deserves to be remembered for better than this.

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Friday, April 03, 2009


Morality is relative

By Edward Copeland
Moviegoers love vampires and filmmakers are more than willing to fill that void, even though sometime it's hard to come up with something that hasn't been done before. First-time filmmaker Phil Messerer with a budget around $200,000 pulls off a fun, accomplished original feat with Thicker Than Water: The Vampire Diaries Part I.

Messerer not only directed the film, he wrote, produced and edited it and served as director of photography. For such a relatively low budget, the production values are quite impressive.

The story centers on a family with twin teen daughters, one goth (Eilis Cahill), one wholesome (Devon Bailey), a closeted and strange older brother (Michael Strelow) and their parents (JoJo Hristova, Anthony Morelli).

Mom (Hristova) a devout Bulgarian immigrant finally proves enough for dad, who leaves just in the nick of the time. Lara (Cahill) sees her resentment of her sister Helen (Bailey) grow as the two mark their 16th birthday and she casts a dark spell upon her. Helen wakes up in the middle of the night with an out-of-control nose bleed and is soon dead. Lara is understandably guilty but during a stormy night, there's a knock on the door and Helen is back, covered in blood, dressed in her funeral garb and rambling about something happening to the mortician.

Lara didn't intend it, but her sister is back and she's a vampire, only she's uncomfortable with that whole killing aspect of the species. Through much discussion, the family decides to capture the victims for Helen and keep her as part of the family. It doesn't seem to matter to mom that it isn't really following her religious upbringing, because a mother's love is more important.

In one scene as they are discussing the Helen problem, the brother confesses that he's gay and mom downs a bottle of liquor. It's a funny bit, but it seems to me that some more laughs and points could be made from a religious woman who compromises for vampirism but not homosexuality. It's a minor criticism, because most of Thicker Than Water: The Vampire Diaries Part I (Messerer intends to make it a trilogy) moves fleetly and is campy entertainment.

There are a few too many musical montages for my taste and the music steps on an early dinner scene, but otherwise I enjoyed it. Some of the performances are over-the-top or wooden, but that seems perfectly appropriate for the material. The film has been playing festivals, but still doesn't have a distributor. If you'd like to learn more about the film click here.



Thursday, April 02, 2009


The Abel Vuillards

By Edward Copeland
Sometimes films can remind you of other films when they really couldn't be less alike. Still, as I watched Arnaud Desplechin's A Christmas Tale again and again I was reminded of Wes Anderson's The Royal Tenenbaums.

Jean-Paul Roussillon and Catherine Deneuve star as Abel and Junon Vuillard, the head of an extended family forever haunted by the death of the first born as a child to a form of leukemia. Early on, the film is a bit confusing as it tries to establish the major characters and events through a series of chapters that form one of the many similarities to Tenenbaums.

All the Vuillard children seem to have some sort of creative outlet: Elizabeth, the only girl (Anne Consigny), writes plays; Henri, the black sheep (Mathieu Almaric), tries theater among other things; and Ivan (Melvil Poupaud) paints with his cousin Simon (Laurent Capelluto). For some reason, Elizabeth, a dour, unhappy woman, used an occasion to pay off some of Henri's criminal debts by making a deal with him to be banned from all family occasions. He can still see the others separately, but not together. It's unclear what caused Elizabeth's hatred toward Henri, but she seems generally unhappy with her work-obsessed lawyer husband (Hippolyte Girardot) and her troubled teenage son Paul (Emile Berling) who ends up in a mental institution though later gets out and stumbles upon his uncle Henri and tries to reunite the entire family for Christmas, especially when Junon turns out to be deathly ill with the same ailment that killed their first born and the relatives need to be tested for a dangerous bone marrow match that might not even work and poses risk for the donor.

Where A Christmas Tale diverges from any similarity to Anderson's film is tone. There's nothing whimsical about what's going on here, though there are laughs. It's slow at times, but it does have a great ensemble.

Roussillon is good with nearly a constant smile who just wants everyone to be happy and well. Deneuve is great as a mother who can seem warm, but really has a chilly interior and exterior. Emmanuelle Devos is a delight as Faunia, Henri's perpetually bemused girlfriend. Chiara Mastroianni, the daughter of Marcello Mastroianni and Deneuve, has some great scenes as Ivan's wife after she learns a secret.

The film's standout though is Almaric, who makes Henri a completely unpredictable force. You feel sorry for him one minute, understand the hate for him the next. Almaric is brilliant. I wish I could say the same for the film.

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