Arts

Movie Review: Hell or High Water

No, it’s not a war movie. It’s a western, of which I’m not particularly a big fan. The thing about Hell or High Water is it may be the best picture of 2016.

The story of the Howard brothers, one a manic, recently released convict, the other more laid back and going through a brutal divorce, is one for the ages. They team up to take revenge against the Texas Midland bank about to foreclose on their recently deceased mother’s family home.

How and why they do this is not force fed to us by exposition, but slowly unfolds in terse, tight and often dryly humorous dialogue. When about-to-retire Texas lawman Marcus Hamilton (a great Jeff Bridges) and his Mexican-Comanche partner Alberto try to figure out the brothers’ next move, it leads to an inevitable, jarring showdown between the two teams of men.

There’s no clear hero or villain, even the violent Tanner Howard (Ben Foster), who finally seems to be having fun and doing something vaguely righteous in his hardscrabble life. His brighter, more introspective brother Toby (Chris Pine) has violence simmering beneath his generally low key exterior pose.

When Alberto tells the benignly bigoted (if there is such a thing) Sheriff Hamilton how the white men stole Comanche land with guns, he points across the street at a Midland Branch, and observes “Then they stole your land with just the stoke of a pen.”

This movie has subtle layers and life lessons for those who pay careful attention (I used sub-titles–sometimes the Texas accents were hard to decipher). If you look closely, you can even understand why Trump got so many votes from people who feel  shafted by greater forces than themselves. I think they picked the wrong avenger (who has already betrayed them), but I had a deeper understanding of why they voted as they did, even though politics was never discussed once in this intriguing film.

Moonlight justifiably won the Oscar for best picture. But a strong argument can also be made for the underrated, overlooked Hell or High Water. It’s a true gem.

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Movie Review:: The Witness

Fifty years ago the murder of Catherine (“Kitty”) Genovese while 38 witnesses ignored her screams for help provoked national outrage. How could people be so callous? The name Kitty Genovese is associated with public apathy to this day. But her younger brother Bill thought there was more to this story, and he was more right than he could imagine.

The shocking tale of 38 Queens residents who shut their windows and went to sleep, as told by the NY Times right after the murders, was basically bullshit. People did respond. And the picture painted of the young barmaid coming home alone at 3 in the morning, which brought up unfair questions about her character and speculation that she knew her attacker, was totally off.

Bill Genovese’s story is something in itself. The supposed public apathy toward his sister’s murder inspired him at the age of 18 to enlist in the Army and be sent to Vietnam, where he lost both his legs. His spirit remains vibrant, and what he discovers in this riveting documentary about his beloved sister Kitty is stunning. Don’t miss it

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Movie Review: Café Society:

Woody Allen is now being treated by the critics the way he was treated by Midwood High School, which we both attended. When I went there, Woody was already an accomplished filmmaker, but the school treated him with indifference, lauding alumni we’d never heard of while ignoring Allen’s major accomplishments.

Perhaps this was because Woody made fun of Midwood in one of his movies. Now Allen is held in contempt by his inferiors for numerous reasons, supposedly because his movies are no longer good, or because he’s become irrelevant, or worst of all, because people accept Mia Farrow’s accusations of child molestation at face value.

Café Society is not one of Allen’s major achievements. It was ok, at best.  I thought Midnight in Paris was wonderful, and Blue Jasmine brilliant, but this isn’t even close. The story of Bobby Dorfman (Jesse Eisenberg), who goes out to Hollywood from NYC to get a job with his mega-successful, stereotypical uncle Phil (Steve Carrell),  Cafe Society involves a love triangle that I could see coming a mile away.

The story is mildly entertaining, with few if any laugh out loud moments. The ending just drifts away. Not Allen’s best effort.

And I understand. As a playwright and columnist, what you do is what you love. Sometimes your efforts result in mediocrity, and once in a while you turn out a gem. Woody has been plugging away for 50 years, churning out a movie a year, many of them treasures. Whatever you think of him, Allen is one of the greatest filmmakers of our time. So let’s forgive his occasional clunkers__one of which is certainly Cafe Society.

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TV Review: Mad Dogs

An all-expenses-paid long weekend in a Belize seaside villa, courtesy of a wealthy childhood friend. What could be better? If you watch Mad Dogs, you’ll quickly discover the answer: Anything.

Like “Deliverance” on steroids, this startling series brings four regular guys ready to kick back with their old pal Milo (Billy Zane) to quickly realize they’re in way over their heads and soon, running for their lives. Michael Imperioli (The Sopranos), Steve Zahn, Romany Malco and Ben Chaplin play four old pals who find they don’t have much in common anymore__ except the desire to escape this “paradise” and get back to America.

Animals, local citizens, an exotic female cop (or is she?), preppy looking drug dealers, little people with cat masks and others combine to terrify these all-too-human underachievers. The 10-episode thriller with comedy overtones flew under the radar when it debuted on Amazon Prime, but is worth watching. The cast is strong, the location both gorgeous and foreboding, and the twists and turns heart-pounding. Ready to journey into the heart of darkness? Give Mad Dogs a shot.

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Theater Review: A View from the Bridge

Arthur Miller is America’s greatest playwright. While most are familiar with Death of A Salesman and The Crucible, A View From the Bridge is right up there with his best.

Revived on Broadway merely five years ago (with a wonderful Liev Schreiber and Scarlett Johansson), this is the stripped down London production, running at the Lyceum Theater through 2-21-16. And while the NY Times’ Ben Brantley raved about it (the Times loves anything British), some veteran theatergoers had problems with this year’s version, thinking it more about the director (Ivo van Hove) than the story. Some found it pretentious.

I disagree. Perhaps it’s because this great play is not only, as they say, “actor proof”, it is also director proof. A View from the Bridge is a master class in playwriting, with the tension building throughout until the last explosion leaves you breathless.

The staging here is minimal (one setting, no scenery, one chair) yet it still works magnificently. Lead actor Mark Strong is aptly named, giving a fierce performance as Eddie Carbone, a working class Brooklyn longshoreman in the 1950s who is incredibly close to and protective of the niece (Catherine) he and his wife Beatrice brought up when Beatrice’s sister died.

But Catherine is no longer a little girl, and at age 17, her jumping on and wrapping her legs around Eddie makes Beatrice understandably nervous. (Beatrice is played by Nicola Walker, the actress who did such a terrific job on the six part TV mini-series River).

When Beatrice’s Sicilian nephews Marco and Rodolpho come to NY illegally to find work, desperate to send money back to their starving relatives in Italy, it brings the play right up to 2016. And when Rodolpho and Catherine have an instant chemistry, it makes Eddie uneasy, to say the least.

Rather than have them speak with Italian accents, the director has the nephews sound more like they’re from Kansas. And even the dimmest audience member senses what’s coming at the end rather early. That being said, everyone left the theater thunderstruck. That’s what great playwriting will do to you.

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Movie Review: Bridge of Spies

Any of my readers remember the Cold War? Ok, hear about it? Cold War–anyone? No, I’m not talking about climate change–I mean the days of mutual paranoia and spying between the U.S. and Russia. Sort of like today.

Bridge of Spies is a true story that opens in 1957, with a shot of Russian spy Rudolf Abel (a terrific Mark Rylance)  sitting in a dank Brooklyn studio apartment, dolefully staring into the mirror. He is soon arrested, and insurance lawyer James Donovan (Jimmy Stewart–oops, I mean Tom Hanks) is roped in to give him a perfunctory defense before Abel is giving the death sentence. But Donovan believes in the Constitution and wants to make sure Abel gets a fair trial. Suddenly, Donovan is a hated man.

When American spy plane pilot Francis Gary Powers is shot down by the Russians, Donovan proposes an exchange: Abel for Powers__much more practical than sending Abel to the gas chamber, he believes.  But when an oblivious American student is caught behind the new wall in East Germany, Donovan tries a daring two-for-one swap.

The movie is much better than the synopsis, with gripping direction by Steven Spielberg. Like Billy Joel in music and Neil Simon in theater, Spielberg is often criticized by artsy-fartsy types as creative hacks. Obviously anyone who has tremendous success (unlike them) must be sellouts, right?

Bridge of Spies is a terrific movie, and I’d be surprised if Mark Rylance doesn’t pick up an Oscar for this. Definitely worth seeing.

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Theater Review:  Fun Home

If I see one more Broadway musical revival, I’ll scream. Safe, stale rehashes from decades past that keep out fresh voices. That’s why I’m boycotting them.

Fun Home is anything but stale. This timely, heart-wrenching musical wouldn’t have a chance in hell of making it to Broadway decades ago. From the novel by Alison Bechdel, Fun Home tells the story of Alison Bechdel (go figure), a lesbian cartoonist/graphic artist who uses her craft to try to come to terms with her past.

As she gazes upon the journals of Alisons past (there are three Alisions in the play: the child, the college student, and the  43 year old narrator), she conjures up the Victorian house/funeral home (“Fun Home”) in which she grew up, watching herself, watching her mom, and most poignantly, her tormented, in-the-closet dad Bruce.

As Bruce plays wiseass lyrics to “Heart and Soul” on the piano, grown up Alison plaintively tells him there’s an original,  upbeat version of that song, a happily-ever after version. But not for Bruce, born into a different time and struggling desperately to appear “normal” while living a secret life.

One of the most moving moments in the play is when 9-year-old Alison sings about an ordinary day when she sees a butch lesbian casually stroll into a diner with her “Ring of Keys.” Featured on the Tonys, the song clinched my getting tickets, but unfortunately too late to see the incredible Sydney Lucas in the role (Gabriella Pazollo was fine, but after seeing Lucas, frankly disappointing). The rest of the cast is terrific, including Michael Cerveris as Bruce, Judy Kuhn as Helen, and a particularly stellar Emily Skeggs as the teen “medium Alison.”

The music is totally original and poetic, which also perfectly describes the entire show. But  is “Fun Home” fun theater? At times, but a moving, original work of art is more accurate. See it.

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Theater Review: Hand to God

If you haven’t seen Hand to God and are easily offended, I might think twice (make that 10 times) before getting tickets. The play’s foul language, blasphemy and sexual content makes The Book of Mormon seem like The Sound of Music.

I entered the theater not knowing what to expect, and when a lone hand puppet opened the show blabbering away, I buckled up for a tedious evening. But it didn’t take long for that perception to change radically.

Seems the puppet (Tyrone) was attached to the arm of Jason, a meek, insecure teenager and one of the students in a Christian puppet ministry in Texas. While the alter-ego puppet idea is far from new, Hand to God takes it to new heights__or depths, depending on your perspective. Both played by Steven Boyer, Jason and Tyrone clash when it comes to Jason’s mousy classmate Jessica (Sarah Stiles), the object of Jason’s desire. While Jason hems and haws, Tyrone is all id, foul-mouthed and telling Jessica exactly what sexual extremes he has in store for her, as Jason desperately tries to shut him up.

Meanwhile Jason’s mom Margery (Geneva Carr), who recently lost her husband, runs the pathetic puppet ministry. She is pursued by the syrupy Pastor Greg (Marc Kudisch), as well as Jason’s totally unhinged teenage classmate Timothy, played by a hilarious Michael Oberholtzer. When Timothy finally gets what he wants in a wild, wanton scene, he is thrilled beyond belief while also frightened to death by Margery’s unleased libido and extreme S&M challenges.

As someone sick of revivals, it’s refreshing to see a truly original work on Broadway. Is this play a comedy? Absolutely. Is this a horror play that will make you scream with fear? Yes it is. Is this play worth seeing? Most definitely.

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Theater Review: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

A murdered dog. A difficult teenager and a train that almost crushes him. Sounds like a great evening of theater, doesn’t it? In many ways, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is exactly that.

Adapted from the novel of the same name, the play tells of a troubled boy’s search to find who murdered Wellington, the neighbor’s dog speared with a garden fork. Christopher Boone is a 15 year old boy with autism spectrum syndrome, and he’s far from what one would call low maintenance. His mom died two years earlier (or did she?), and his father is doing his best to raise him.

When the police investigate the dog’s murder and a cop touches Christopher, the teenager strikes him, is arrested, then released with a warning. A math whiz but socially awkward, Christopher takes everything literally, can’t be touched and hates the color yellow. But he is intent on solving this crime.

Siobhan, one of Christopher’s teachers, narrates the piece by reading from Christopher’s journal. The show is dazzlingly staged, hitting every one of your senses. Yes, I liked this Tony nominated play, no I didn’t love it and most definitely couldn’t look away for a second. Whatever you think after seeing The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, one thing is certain: you will leave knowing what the term “theatrical” truly means. ————————————————————————————

Movie Review: Birdman

Those who say there’s really nothing new at the movies haven’t seen Birdman, a mind-blowing dramedy about theater, fame and redemption. Michael Keaton, long one of America’s most underrated actors, plays Riggan Thomson, an almost forgotten screen actor trying a comeback__in other words, a man very much like Michael Keaton.

While Thomson’s defining role was Birdman, Keaton’s was Batman. If the role wasn’t written with Keaton in mind, it should have been. He gives the best performance of his life, and that’s saying something (I’m thinking more Clean and Sober than Batman). Meanwhile Edward Norton, another underappreciated American actor, gives a terrific performance as yes, an actor who narcissism is only matched by his near psychotic insistence on authenticity.

The supporting actors, particularly Emma Stone and Zach Galifinakis, are wonderful as well. Directed by Alejandro G. Inarrito, this movie about a play and the wrenching backstage drama behind it seems to be one long. mesmerizing tracking shot__think Martin Scorcese’s great 10 minute tracking shot in Goodfellas extended to  2+ hours.

The scene with the NY Times reviewer driven by her own petty reasons to destroy the play’s future certainly resonated (those who can’t, review?) While I have a hunch it will go over the head of much of the Academy Award voting crowd, this is the best movie of the year. ———————————————————————–

Theater Review: Stalking the Bogeyman

“Give me a child when he’s seven and he’s mine forever.” The bogeyman in the gripping play Stalking the Bogeyman is a 17 year old jock who probably never heard Adolph Hitler’s chilling quote, but what he did to seven year old David Holthouse shaped and haunted the young boy for the rest of his life. No, he didn’t “inappropriately touch” young David; he brutually raped him. The play centers around the adult Holthouse’s  plot for revenge against this monster__now a family man with kids of his own__who not only stole David’s childhood but contaminated his adult life.

Stalking the Bogeyman is based on a true story, first told in an article by the journalist David Holthouse and then on the radio program This American Life. David is ashamed to tell his parents what happened, trying to protect them from the trauma he experienced. They befriended a couple (here called “The Crawfords”) when they moved to Anchorage, Alaska, and had no idea what would happen to David when he went off to “have fun” with the Crawford’s son, whom David idolized.

As David grows to manhood, his early trauma haunts his dreams__and his future. The only way to end this nightmare, he believes, is to kill his attacker. He wonders how many other children are sitting in psychologist’s offices telling similar stories of their childhood horror.

Stalking the Bogeyman is riveting from start to finish, told in one hour and twenty minutes without an intermission. The play is tightly scripted, expertly directed and well acted. When David’s parents learn the truth about what happened to their son, the play races to its stunning conclusion. Did David do the right thing? You’ll be the judge.

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Film Review: The Other Son

We all have our religious beliefs, or lack of them__but it’s no accident that 98% of our devout “beliefs” are the same as those of our parents. Christian, Jewish, Muslim, atheist__most of us blindly follow the beliefs, traditions, and yes, hatreds that have been handed down to us.

The Other Son, a unique movie that came out  under the radar in 2012, deals with that reality: What happens when your basic assumptions are shattered, and you find out you belong to a group your family always considered your bitter enemy?

While preparing to enter the Israeli military, teenage Joseph Silberg finds out he was accidently switched at birth with the son of a Palestinian couple from the West Bank. The “switched at birth” plot is far from new, but resonates particularly strongly in this situation. The father of Yacine, the Arab Muslim who is really Jewish, can’t deal with the discovery. Neither can Joseph’s father, who is a high-ranking Israeli officer.

But the mothers have a different reaction, and yearn to connect with their real son, while not abandoning the one they raised and love. Who is Jewish? Who is Muslim? Who is angry? The two loving families (the Palestinian family is portrayed in nearly an Ozzie and Harriet fashion) deal with this as well as anyone can, with the expected flareups from other family members. The two sons are extremely likeable, one an outgoing, future physician, one a more dreamy artist. As one says to the other “My father would have loved to have a son like you.” How much is nature, how much nurture is gently explored.

The French-made film (subtitled, with certain exchanges in English) is well-made and holds your attention throughout. While a tad preachy, the acting is first rate, and the film is compelling and often moving. Definitely worth seeing.

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Theater Review: All The Way

How does a three hour play about the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 grab you? Don’t worry, it will.

Bryan Cranston solidifies his position as one of America’s finest actors in this role, playing a crafty, vulgar and angry Lyndon Johnson, who will charm, manipulate, bully and whatever else it takes to get the 1964 Civil Rights Act passed when he is thrust into the Presidency after the assassignation of John F. Kennedy.

Resentful of the sophisticated Kennedys, whom he feels looked down on him, Johnson is determined to drag his fellow southern politicians along with him in this groundbreaking bill’s passage, charming, twisting arms, even blackmailing outraged Southern Democrats. He knows there will be a heavy price to pay, including virtually the entire south turning Republican, but he knows the importance of the bill to America, and is relentless in his pursuit of its passage.

The huge cast includes Robert Petkoff as earnest Senator Hubert Humphrey, Michael McKean as FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, smarmy and humorless as he attempts to blackmail Dr. Martin Luther King, who is himself caught between the conservative, dignified NAACP leader Roy Williams and the fiery new breed of young black firebrand, represented by Stokely Carmichael.

Strong direction by Bill Rauch of Robert Schenkkan’s well-researched play subtlely shows how President Johnson and Dr. King, though far from friends, thread the needle between opposing forces on them as they drag the Civil Rights bill over the finish line by sheer persistence and will.

From playing the goofy dad on the tv comedy “Malcolm in the Middle,” to his iconic role as benign next door neighbor/dangerous sociopath Walter White on “Breaking Bad” to uber-politician Lyndon Johnson in All The Way, Bryan Cranston has taken on a trifecta of roles that couldn’t be more different and that very few (if any) actors could successfully pull off. In fact, if you saw clips of all three roles, you probably wouldn’t think they were played by the same actor__and it’s not about makeup.

Cranston inhabits these characters, and after playing menacing White and menacing-in-a-different-way Johnson, it is somewhat startling to see a light-hearted Cranston cracking wise and dancing on Stephen Colbert and other shows. The play is riveting, and I’d be shocked if Cranston doesn’t add a Tony to his Emmy collection. All The Way will run until the last week in June. Try not to miss it.

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Film Review: Dallas Buyers Club

Set deep in the guts of Texas in the 1980s, Dallas Buyers Club is the story of Ron Woodruff, a redneck homophobe turned medical activist with a heart__and Matthew McConaughey makes it all very believable.

Far from the shallow beach boy character he often plays (on screen and in real life), the actor shows he’s the real deal in this challenging role of a macho electrician/rodeo rider who discovers he has H.I.V. At first in disbelief, he tears out of the hospital, in denial and furious that doctors there could confuse him with “some faggot.”

But as he learns more about the disease, he realizes that the strong doses of AZT administered to patients do more harm than good, and heads down to Mexico to get a combination of FDA unapproved drugs and dietary supplements that actually help.

Unable to sell the drugs legally in the U.S., he starts a subscription service (Dallas Buyers Club), where desperate users pay a $400 monthly fee and then get the medications they need for free. Hunted by FDA administrators (the film’s villains) and helped by a sympathetic doctor Eva Saks (Jennifer Garner), Woodruff turns out to be a savvy marketer and smooth charmer with a cauldron of righteous anger always at the ready.

His unlikely business partner in this venture is Rayon (Jared Leto), a transexual who seems to have Ron’s number. Woodroof’s initial scorn for Rayon eventually turns to respect, then caring. Leto is a revelation, and both actors justly deserve the Oscars they received for their respective roles. Is this a perfect movie? No. Slow at times, and with some aspects not quite explained, it is nonetheless an uncompromising and brave film that should not be missed.

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Film Review: 20 Feet From Stardom

Did you ever hear of Merry Clayton? Lisa Fischer? No? How about Darlene Love? These women, as much as Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry and Mick Jagger, originated the sound of rock and roll. No, check that__they are the sound of rock and roll.

20 Feet From Stardom,  a documentary about the largely unknown so-called backup singers (they more often then not blew away the lead singers when given the chance)  for such stars as Jagger, is a gem. Darlene Love and her group The Blossoms were the first black backup group in rock. If one person symbolizes the sound of rock through the decades, it is Darlene. She was also the lead singer on He’s a Rebel__and countless songs that had a generic “girl group” name, but were really  Darlene Love songs  She is the answer to the trivia question “Who sang with Frank Sinatra, Tom Jones, David Bowie and Bruce Springsteen?”

Love was under contract to the great but venal producer Phil Spector, who refused to put her name on the songs she sang. She would be told by friends “Did you hear that great new song by the Crystals?” and think “The Crystals? That’s me!” She finally got out from under the thumb of Spector, and was ready and eager to start her belated solo career. Weeks later, she learned that her contract had been sold back to Spector.

Unable to cope with being treated like chattel by the arrogant producer, one of the greatest voices in music history quit the business and began cleaning homes. While doing so during the winter holidays, she happened to hear a song playing on her employer’s kitchen radio: her own great “Christmas/Baby Please Come Home.” She decided to give the music business another try, and has since become a lead performer on her own.

Some of the others weren’t so lucky. Merry Clayton, who gave what is arguably the best backup performance in rock history on Mick Jagger’s “Gimme Shelter” (“It’s just a shot away!), tells the story about how she got the gig. I  won’t spoil it for you, but this segment alone makes the movie unforgettable.  Clayton later tried to break free and move the “20 feet to stardom” to the lead microphone, with less success. The same with the great Lisa Fischer.

The movie includes rare performance footage and great interviews with Jagger, Springsteen, Stevie Wonder, Bette Midler, and others who appreciate the amazing talent of these and other backup singers who gave their songs their unique sounds. 20 Feet From Stardom is not only the best documentary I’ve seen this year, it is the best movie, period. It was released this week on DVD.  Don’t miss it. _____________________________________________________

Captain Phillips Has Gravity

Saw two Oscar bait films recently: Gravity and Captain Phillips. While the former is doing better box office, the latter is a better film. Not to say Gravity is bad. Maybe the rave reviews it got made it impossible for me not to have a little letdown seeing it. The visuals are stunning (if you don’t see it in 3D, don’t  see it), and the “Houston, we have a problem” situation in Apollo 13 is nothing compared to the disasters facing Sandra Bullock and George Clooney in this movie. While the story is captivating, the backstory of mission specialist Ryan Stone (Bullock) was a little too manipulative and soap opera-y for my taste (you’ll know when you see it). Meanwhile, Clooney’s Matt Kowalski character goes from regular guy likeable to never-shuts-up-with-the-stupid jokes annoying__even after we think he’s long gone. Gravity is like an unusual, exciting restaurant and meal that you forget about the next day. Not so Captain Phillips. The story, which went from 2009’s real life capture of a container ship by Somali pirates to a novel to a movie in record time, holds your interest from its moderately paced start to its heart-pounding conclusion. Paul Greengrass is one of the top movie directors we have (the Bourne movies and particularly United 93).  Greengrass casts mainly unknowns in this movie (as he did in United 93__a great movie few saw), which gives it a feeling that you are dealing with real people. Those cast as Somali pirates are particularly raw, complex and engaging. That being said, one well known actor carries this film__Tom Hanks. Our modern day Jimmy Stewart, Hanks proves he still has the chops that have won him multiple Oscars, and then some. I can’t recall seeing Hanks display such raw emotion as he does in Captain Phillips, and if he’s not nominated for yet another Oscar, I’d be stunned. Don’t be put off by recent stories saying the real Captain Phillips wasn’t such a great guy. Of course the movie takes license with his character__it’s a movie! And a terrific one that, unlike Gravity,will stay with you for more than an hour. See it. You won’t be sorry. —————————————————————————————————————-

TV Review: Breaking Bad

The finale of Breaking Bad was perfection. If you are one of those people who are only up to season 2 or whatever, stop reading now. Or maybe this will teach you to stop procrastinating, because (spoiler alert!): Walt is dead. But the way he went out! “Heisenberg” systematially tied up loose ends, justifying Hank’s final words of Walt being “the smartest guy  he’s ever met.” He dealt with each nemesis in ascending order of evil: starting with the billionaire yuppie Schwartzes who may or may not have stolen his idea, proceeding to the odious Lydia and finally disposing of the neo-Nazis. But it was Walt’s quiet, final scene with wife Skyler that may have been the finest moment of the episode. “If I have to hear one more time that you did this for the family…” warns Skyler. But Walt is finally honest: “I did it for me,” he admits. “I liked it. I was good at it. And I was really…I was alive.” This scene traces back to season one, when Walt temporarily gives up the meth business and returns to normal life. He is lost, bored, a non-entity again. When he sees two tough dudes who are moving in on his turf outside a big box store, he brazenly confronts them: “This is my territory,” he warns. “Stay out.” Heisenberg is back for good, and Walt, who knows he is living on borrowed time, feels alive again. The finale of Breaking Bad should put David Chase to shame for putting on such a cop out, pseudo-artsy finale of The Sopranos, cheating the fans of any closure. “When you’re telling a very serialized story, you want to tie up all your loose ends,” said Breaking Bad series creator Vince Gilligan. He sure did. Breaking Bad was a show for the ages. Thank you, Mr. Gilligan.

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Movie Review: Blue Jasmine

Blue Jasmine could well have been titled Crimes and Misdemeanors, perhaps Woody Allen’s finest film. How culpable is the protagonist Jasmine (nee Janette) in the misery endured by her family? Is she victim or victimizer? The answers unravel slowly in a movie that cements Allen’s place as one of the finest filmmakers of his time. Kate Blanchett is stunning as Jasmine, a privileged Park Avenue socialite married to smooth, smiling and sociopathic Wall Street wheeler-dealer Hal (a perfectly cast Alex Baldwin). Hal evokes Bernie Madoff, with Jasmine his willfully ignorant other half who, much like Mafia wives, casts a blind eye to how her husband manages to provide her with such a lavish lifestyle. We learn how down on her luck,  mumbling to herself Jasmine came to fly out to San Francisco to live with her working class sister Ginger (a winning Sally Hawkins) in a serious of deft flashbacks. While Jasmine may no longer be living on Park Avenue with her now departed husband, her sense of entitlement remains (she somehow flies out first class). Appalled by Ginger’s modest digs (“I don’t know how anyone can breathe with low ceilings”) and choice in men, Jasmine has to somehow make do with them, along with Ginger’s boisterous young boys. Andrew Dice Clay is a revelation as Ginger’s ex-husband Augie, who’s life was ruined when Jasmine and Hal seduce him to “invest” in one of Hal’s high-yield scams. Bobby Cannavalle as Ginger’s current, rough-around-the-edges boyfriend Chili is a more benign, sensitive version of Stanley Kowalski. Both desperately warn Ginger that her sister is a phony, but the words fall upon deaf ears__at least initially. Blanchett’s masterful acting makes perpetual victim Jasmine sympathetic, but in a stunning confrontation with Hal, we get an inkling of how much she really knows__and her obliviousness/indifference to whom her vindicative actions will really hurt. I once knew a wealthy woman who would cry “People don’t understand–I have no money!” while dramatically waving her hand around, blinding me with her mult-carat diamond ring. While Jasmine is slightly more subtle, she has a similar lack of empathy, and is astonished and offended when anyone calls her out on her insensitivity/hypocrisy. This is one of Woody Allen’s best and, although few have mentioned it,  his most political. Blue Jasmine flies by, and by the end you may find yourself being moved to tears by someone who is a toxic, tragic beauty. Blue Jasmine is a masterpiece.

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Movie Review: Temple Grandin

In 2010, Temple Grandin appeared on HBO. I wasn’t in the mood for a film about a majestic Buddist temple, so I skipped it. Yes I was an idiot, but if you did the same, get on Netflix immediately after reading this and slot it at #1. A true story, Temple Grandin is the name of a young woman coping with autism in the 1960s. Misdiagnosed and abused by fellow students, Temple is a high-strung mess. But with the help of a caring teacher and understanding aunt who lives on a cattle ranch, Temple learns to blaze an independent trail until she becomes a famed animal behaviorist and pathfinder in the field of autism. Sounds preachy and pedantic? Far from it! Claire Danes is a revelation in the lead role. Her outstanding work in Showtime’s Homeland pales beside this stunning performance. Danes is believable as both an awkward teenager and no nonsense young woman, as is Julia Ormond as her stressed out mom, David Strathairn as her insightful teacher and a non-comic, winning Catherine O’Hara as her empathic aunt. When someone taunted Temple, I wanted to punch him. When she took a step forward, I cheered. A great story, Claire Danes transforms Temple Grandin into one of the 10 best films I’ve ever seen. Really.

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Theater: William Shakespeare Lands in NYC (Before Heading to China!)

Austin Pendleton is playing William Shakespeare in Abingdon Theater Company’s Off-Broadway premiere of Robert Brustein’s The Last Will. Pendleton also serves double duty as the play’s director. Running now through May 5th, The Last Will is Brustein’s final installment of his  trilogy examining the life of Shakespeare. In this installment, the retired Shakespeare suffers from a fatal illness which causes his mind to deteriorate, as paranoia and delusions torment the great playwright. The Last Will had its world premiere in February 2013 at Commonwealth Shakespeare Company of Boston at Suffolk University. In his Boston Globe review, Joel Brown called the play “a brisk and compelling 80 minutes.” Brustein was inducted into the American Theatre Hall of Fame in 2002 and received a 2010 National Medal of Arts from President Barack Obama. After its current run (June Havoc Theatre, 312 West 36th Street), The Last Will is set to be presented by Abingdon Theatre Company at the first ever Wuzhen Theatre Festival in China ten days after this NYC production concludes. So if you want to see it, now’s your chance!

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TV Review: When the Suits Get Involved

While The Voice is still a smash, Smash is about to lose its voice. I rarely watch network TV, and certainly never wasted time on a show like American Idol, where sadistic judges like Simon Cowell relish tearing auditioners apart. But The Voice always had generally likeable, knowledgable, and most important, supportive judges. This year’s crop is even better, with the down to earth Shakira replacing the forever preening Christina Aguilera. When I saw on the first season of The Voice that contestants were judged strictly on their vocal prowess as opposed to their appearance or schtick, I was hooked. But suddenly the show took on the look of a glitzy, overproduced Las Vegas extravaganza, with Chippendales-like male strippers dancing around bewildered contestants and blasting music drowning out their voices. But just as I was about to give up in disgust, it suddenly stopped. I think a major reason was that the judges were obviously also disgusted and not afraid to say so. “What is this crap?” screamed judge Blake Shelton  as the show began to turn south, and I think the fear of losing him and other popular judges scared the suits into abandoning this awful idea. Executive input, directives and other “notes” have ruined many a decent TV show. These non-creative types depend on flow charts, focus groups and ill formed notions about  “conflict”, then insist their brilliant ideas be carried out to make the shows “even better” (right). And so The Voice took another wrong turn last year. Some NBC higher ups had the bright idea to force exploitative “human interest” sob stories into every contestant’s presentation. Now we have a continual flow of contestants blubbering about everything from their dad’s terminal illness to when they were (sob!) bullied in school because they were (pick one) fat, ugly, or “different.” It has become so unbearable I’m about to throw in the towel. Maybe Blake will puke during one of these sickening sob-fests and this will end as well. Meanwhile Smash also had a promising beginning, telling the inside story (more or less) of how a show makes its way to Broadway. While many in the business mocked it, much of it was real and compelling, with terrific production values. That’s over. The show has became more and more schmaltzy, thanks once again to the NBC suits. Someone made the brilliant decision to start season two by dumping playwright Theresa Reybeck as show runner and making Smash even more sappy. The result? The now unwatchable show is about to move to Saturday evening, the ICU of network shows, before being put out its misery in the near future. As in politics, it is disasterous in creative ventures when those with money and power think they know it all and try to impose their will. The first year of Survivor was great, with a real people and a novel concept. Now the contestants all look like they were sent from central casting with “tribes” of preening, wannabe actors,  and the show is beyond unwatchable. When will they learn? Ooh, I know. Never!

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Movie Review: Silver Linings Playbook

If you’ve ever dealt with a manic-depressive (or are one, or played one in a movie) you know the extensive mood swings, charm, danger and narcissism associated with the bi-polar experience. Silver Linings Playbook perfectly captures this experience in a funny, moving and often unsettling two hours. The ultimate screwball comedy, the film begins with bi-polar Pat Solatano (convincingly played by Bradley Cooper) freshly released from a mental hospital and about to wreak havoc on his family. His parents Delores and Pat Sr (a terrific Jacki Weaver and Robert DeNiro) hope against the evidence that their son is ready for the outside world. Pat Jr is one of those people so self-righteously certain about what’s right that he is oblivious to the wrongs he visits on others. Intent on following a fanatical physical and spiritual regime that he is convinced will lead him back into the arms of his estranged wife Nikki (who has taken out a restaining order on him), he drives his dad (who has serious problems of his own) up a wall. Pat’s obsessive quest is both disturbed and helped by the beautiful, spirited Tiffany, his equally unbalanced but far more self-assured nymphomanic neighbor (Jennifer Lawrence), who censors herself less than Pat, if that’s possible. Tiffany offers to help Pat win Nikki back, if he in turn will be her partner in a dance contest. The agreement brings about a gangbusters, exhilerating finale. Playing Tiffany in this film after stellar performances in The Hunger Games and especially the underrated Winter’s Bone, 22 year old Jennifer Lawrence firmly establishes herself as the best actress of her generation__an astounding talent. Not only is the quirky Silver Linings Playbook worth seeing, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it sneaks past Lincoln, Argo and Zero Dark Thirty to snatch up the best picture Oscar. After a brief period of recovery, I plan to see it again.

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Movie Review: Zero Dark Thirty

Zero Dark Thirty, the controversial, compelling Kathryn Bigelow film about the hunt for Osama Bin Laden, has elicted two streams of commentary: one about the film itself and the other about the use of torture to gain information. Maya, the film’s central character, is based on a real CIA agent instrumental in tracking down Bin Laden. Well acted by Jessica Chastain, Maya is portrayed as a classic Hollywood loner in the mold of Gary Cooper in High Noon: the strong, silent outsider who comes into town to straighten things out. But Chastain is very fragile looking, and when she unemotionally watches someone being tortured or orders the violence be stepped up, it is a bit jarring. Maya has no life except her pursuit of Bin Laden. When a fellow female CIA operative asks “Do you have a boyfriend? Do you have any friends at all?” we can surmise the answer. The movie is very well done, with no big name actors except a brief turn by James Gandolfini. Although we all know the ending, it is suspense-filled nonetheless. Bigelow has been accused of endorsing torture, and the movie does make it look like a primary cause of Bin Laden’s capture, even though that wasn’t the case. Many say the film is deliberately ambiguous and doesn’t at all promote its use. The fact that Liz Cheney endorsed this movie should give you a clue about which view is more accurate. That being said, I think those bashing Bigelow and friends for cannily promoting torture as an effective tool are giving Hollywood too much credit. Violence and torture are simply more cinematic than painstaking detective work, which is what this movie and the tracking of Bin Laden are really about. But the real problem isn’t if torture works or if it doesn’t. It is, as shown in a quick shot of President Obama in the movie, something that causes us to lose our moral standing in the world. While it is a joke to compare waterboarding to get information to what terrorists do to those captured just for the sheer sadism of it (such as gouging out their eyes with a spoon), its tougher to preach against torture when we take part in any form of it. And we lose not only the moral high ground but leverage when one of our own troops or an American civilian is captured abroad. A big chunk of the first parts of the movie shows such “enhanced interrogation”, with appealing actor Jason Clarke playing Dan, the charming American tormenter. But the rest of it shows the false leads, the frustration and finally, the efficiency of the admirable, regular guy Navy Seal team. It’s a definitely a film worth seeing. But does it really endorse torture? Watch it and form your own conclusion.

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Movie Review: Argo

November 1979. The American Embassy in Iran is breached and more than 50 Americans taken hostage. Six escape through a back exit and hide in the Canadian ambassador’s home. How can they be rescued? Back in America, the CIA debates various options, one lamer than the next, including that the six Americans escape by bike. The only problem is that the nearest border is hundreds of miles away, it’s winter, and the CIA isn’t sure if all can even ride bikes. “Why not fly in training wheels?” suggests poker-faced operative Tony Mendez, who then comes up with an even stranger plan: they will pose as a Canadian movie crew on assignment in Iran and he will sneak the six out of the heavily guarded Iranian airport by jet. Somehow the CIA is convinced to buy this idea. Mendez (Ben Affleck) brings in old friend and Hollywood makeup artist John Chambers (the always likeable John Goodman), who in turn recruits cantankerous Hollywood producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) to help make the ruse plausible. Along the way of this unbelievable yet true slice of history, Mendez assigns roles (actor, director) to the six hostages, making sure they know them inside and out. He asks the Goodman character if anyone can really be taught to direct movies in a day. “A rhesus monkey can be taught to be a director in a day,” deadpans Goodman. Such lines and levity help lighten what is otherwise a very serious, and at times (especially during the climax) heart-pounding plot. The movie is definitely worth seeing. Affleck’s direction is sharp, and the cast first rate (including Breaking Bad refuge Bryan Cranston and particularly Goodman and Arkin). If I hadn’t read all the Oscar buzz before seeing it, I probably would have been pleasantly surprised about what a solid film it is. But I did. And it’s not an Oscar caliber movie, just a very good one (Please don’t tell me I’m wrong when the film’s nominated for an Oscar. So was The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.) There is also a lame, annoying and cliched sub plot about Mendez’ home life, trying to win his wife back and see his child again. It’s totally underdeveloped and a waste of time. But overall, Argo is definitely worthwhile, and the ending will make you’re heart race. Walk in expecting an epic, and you’ll be disapppointed. Walk in with slightly lowered expectations (and without reading the over-the-top raves), and you’ll leave quite satisfied.

TV Review: Homeland

With all the garbage on network TV, many have failed to notice that this is the golden age of TV drama. Breaking Bad (AMC) and Justified (FX) are two of the most compelling shows I’ve ever seen. Add a third, and possibly the best, drama to that list: Homeland. I watched the first episode and was so taken with it that I signed up with Showtime just so I could watch the rest. Created by the same people who made 24, Homeland seems like an apology for their earlier series. While 24 was a well-executed and acted show, it was almost cartoonish in its simplicity, too often justifying and even romanticizing torture. Homeland does no such thing. This post 9-11 look at the real threat of terrorism and those trying to prevent another strike on the U.S. is subtle, thoughtful, and gives the audience credit for seeing that heroes don’t usually emerge unscathed after serious trauma, but as fragile, damaged human beings__which makes their efforts to do right even more heroic. Clare Danes is terrific as lonely, bipolar C.I.A officer Carrie Mathison, whose obsessive traits are the key to her unique professional abilities as well as to her personal suffering. Damian Lewis is compelling as Sgt. Nicholas Brody, a damaged P.O.W. who may or may not have been “turned” when in captivity. Mathison is determined to discover just how much of a threat Brody is (she suspects a huge one), and she will do anything to find out the truth about this returning war hero. But it is Mandy Patinkin who stuns in his subtle role as Saul, Carrie’s C.I.A. boss and mentor. Giving less to work with than Danes or Lewis and virtually no action scenes, he makes his character memorable nonetheless. Homeland has ended its first season with a breathtaking final episode that leaves me waiting anxiously for season two to begin on September 30th. I won’t ruin it for you by revealing any of the series’ many twists and turns, but will tell you one thing: make sure you don’t miss Homeland, perhaps the best drama in TV history.

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TV Review: Justified

Except for Mad Men, I don’t watch many shows on the more obscure networks. Maybe I’m just too lazy to explore that far up on the remote. But a friend told me about Breaking Bad two years after it came out on AMC, and I got hooked on it though Netflix, with the bonus of no commercials. A truly great show, though not for everyone (sometimes quite violent). Now that same trusted pal turned me on to a bit more obscure but at least as good series: Justified on FX. Based on a story by the great Elmore Leonard, the drama centers on Raylan Givens, a U.S Marshall in Miami who shoots an oily perp under questionable circumstances. Was it “Justified”, as he claims? His punishment is being relegated to the backwater Appalachian Kentucky region where he grew up. Family clans that used to run the local moonshine operation now deal in oxycontin and crystal meth, and will allow no one to mess with their lucrative business: not even old family friend Raylan. And as they say, complications ensue, big time. The first two episodes were good enough to give the next two a chance. And then it got great, strong enough to get me to the point where I would hit the mailbox before the mailman even finished his delivery to grab the next DVD. Timothy Olyphant plays Raylan with a winning cool, but it is actor Walter Goggins who steals the show. Playing Boyd Crowder, he may be the only actor in the world who can have me rooting for an ex neo-Nazi. The female roles are all incredibly strong, and the dialogue sharp and crisp. The show also has a bone dry humor, as when Raylan has to shoot his creepy criminal dad, and another lawman with an equally miserable father fantasizes himself doing the same. “It’s not as enjoyable as you might imagine,” drawls Raylan. I just finished Season Two. FX just completed Season Three, but has yet to announce the release of a DVD. Hey, what are they waiting for?

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TV Review: Smash

Unlike the increasingly sappy and shallow Glee, NBC’s Smash is an adult, entertaining and fairly accurate portrayal of what it takes to move a musical to Broadway. Unfortunately, so far “Smash” is anything but, with the show losing nearly half its lead-in audience from NBC’s popular hit The Voice, on right before its Monday 10pm slot. I was afraid Smash might be a one year wonder, but NBC’s recent announcement that it is renewing the show (although vague about when it will return) was a relief. For those who haven’t seen it, Smash shows the development of Bombshell, a musical about the life of Marilyn Monroe. While some in theater quibble about its accuracy, I can tell you as a playwright that they get pretty close, from the rehearsal studio environment to the cutthroat competition and politics involved. Broadway actress Megan Hilty and American Idol graduate Katherine McPhee are both terrific as the finalists for the life-changing role of Marilyn. As you root for one or the other to land the coveted part, you suddenly experience what actors regularly are subject to when an outside star swoops in at the last moment and shoves them both aside. Unfortunately this also rings true. Tourists are the lifeblood of Broadway and almost exclusively see musicals. And what they demand to see is a movie or tv star in the lead role, talent be damned. While I’m not sure there’s no business like show business, I’m quite positive there’s no talent like Broadway talent. Triple threats who can sing, dance and act are rare, and won’t be found in Hollywood. They can, however, be found in abundance in theater and on Smash. Unlike a faux New York show like Friends, the creators of Smash know the city and use it well, from its locations to its talent. In addition, while gays are now present on a number of other tv shows, it is only on Smash where I’ve seen not only two men kissing on the lips in a matter-of-fact fashion but the sweep of gay lifestyles, from flamboyant queens to buttoned up Republicans. It is definitely a show for sophisticated adults, a big reason why its ratings are moderate at best. The production values and direction on Smash are first rate (Steven Spielberg is executive director), and some of the effects are dazzling. One that is particularly effective is when they show a new tune being rehearsed in a bare bones rehearsal studio, flash forward to how it will look when performed on Broadway, then quickly flash back. The show isn’t perfect, sometimes resorting to soap opera cliches, but it’s pretty damn good, original, educational and entertaining. Even if you never go to the theater, you’ll recognize a lot of the actors. Because ironically, even a show about ultra-talented no-name actors struggling to be seen has to cast name actors to get them that chance.

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Film Review: The Artist:

As the Academy Awards approach it’s time to recall the truly great and unique films that never received Oscars, starting with The Wizard of Oz in 1939. Last year The Social Network lost to the good but nothing special The King’s Speech. Before that Saving Private Ryan, perhaps the best war movie ever made, was beaten by the unmemorable Shakespeare in Love in a tribute to marketing over quality. And which film would you rather watch again: Goodfellas or Dances With Wolves, the film that somehow beat it out for the Oscar? Which brings us to The Artist, which was in my opinion the only great film released in the past year. The film is funny, moving and, unlike 98% of films made in Hollywood, incredibly creative. A movie about the black and white silent film age, the film is a take on A Star is Born, where an established older star helps a talented young actress to success as her own star fades. In The Artist, Jean Dujardin plays George Valentin, a dashing silent screen star who is riding high. When Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo) kisses him on the cheek outside the theater, it starts a chain reaction which leads her up the ladder to success as Valentin peaks, then drops like a rock. Why? His refusal to participate in the new “talkies,” which he sees as a vulgar trend that will soon pass. (Hard as this may be to believe today, tv was also once thought of in the same way. Go figure.) Early in the film, we see the silent star Valentin at the glamorous opening of “The Russian Affair”, where the Russian villains attach electrodes to his skull, desperately trying to get the soldier of fortune to talk. But he won’t, on reel or in real life. In Valentin’s world, silence is art while “talkies” are crass. He is true to his beliefs and pays a heavy price for it. The movie is wonderful, and I can’t wait to see it again. But be forewarned: this is actually a silent movie, a fact that was obviously unknown to two couples in the movie theater, who loudly and crassly stormed out and demanded their money back when they discovered the awful truth. Perhaps Valentin was right. And perhaps The Artist, the most deserving film by far, will win the Oscar this year!

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Film Review: The Descendants:

Alexander Payne’s Sideways was one of my favorite films of all time–a quirky masterpiece. I also liked his underrated Election. Payne doesn’t make that many movies, so I was looking forward to seeing The Descendents. And let me tell you, it was really, really…ok. If you saw the previews, you will expect a comedy. It’s not. If you can accept George Clooney as the descendant of Hawaiian royalty, you should be fine. Clooney does give an excellent performance as a trustee over a choice tract of Hawaiian land, with entitled cousins waiting to see who he decides to sell it to and what their substantial cut will be. Clooney’s character also must assume the role of primary parent (not “back-up parent”, as he calls himself) to his two rambunctious teenage daughters when his wife has a serious boating accident. As they say, complications ensue, which are handled in a mostly mature, fair and adult manner. Excited yet? Hawaii is portrayed accurately, the ensemble acting is fine, and the acoustic Hawaiian music well chosen. I remember liking it after seeing it last week, but now I can barely remember it. Bad sign. Yes, it’s worth seeing, but the Oscar buzz around it? No way. If you don’t expect too much, you’ll probably be pleasantly surprised. But it ain’t no Sideways.

Film Review: J. Edgar.

You might expect a movie about J. Edgar Hoover (Leonardo DiCaprio) directed by Clint Eastwood to be the heart-stirring biopic of a groundbreaking patriot who put the FBI on the map, or a rip-roaring action movie,  or even an attack on a petty tyrant. While a bit of each, it will be crystal clear to you by film’s end what  J. Edgar really is: a tear-jerking love story. No, I’m not kidding. Whether you sympathize with the man who brought the FBI into the modern era with fingerprints and other innovative crime-fighting techniques, or hiss at the control-freak uber-patriot who kept secret files on JFK, Martin Luther King, Eleanor Roosevelt and others with the intent to blackmail, you will be moved by Hoover’s plight–he was a truly victim of his time. While the movie doesn’t come out (no pun intended) and say that Hoover was gay, it makes it obvious that Hoover was so closeted he couldn’t even admit his desires to himself–and his mother made it clear he’d better not even consider it. But Hoover never expected Clyde Tollson (Arnie Hammer from The Social Network in a terrific performance) to come into his life. As soon as the handsome Tollson walks through the door, Hoover breaks into a sweat. J. Edgar soon was eating every meal with Tollson, going on vacations with his now indispensable right hand man, and at the end, being buried a few feet away from him. His tortured love for Tollson informs this movie, which starts a bit slow and builds to an emotional, teary climax. The movie is well worth seeing, with DiCaprio (in an amazing makeup job) guaranteed an Oscar nomination. Who could have guessed Clint Eastwood would direct a film that is more tender about gay relationships than Brokeback Mountain–in a movie about J. Edgar Hoover?

Film Review: Martha Marcy May Marlene

If you are considering viewing this critically-acclaimed four-named film, I have four words for you: Don’t waste your time! “An impressive piece of work” (NY Times); “Far and away one the year’s best”(AP). The raves brought me to this indie movie. But unless you miss the antics of the Manson family, you’ll wonder if these reviewers have lost their minds even more than the title character. After her involvement in a creepy cult, quadruple M (Elizabeth Olsen) comes to live with her sister and her husband. Pretty and shapely (and often nude), MMMM is also nuts, cold and ruining her sister’s life. I guess we are supposed to feel for the poor, lost soul. She just got on my nerves. The writer must have read a book about not including too much exposition and tells us absolutely nothing about how MMMM came to live in this cult. John Hawkes reprises his role in the great Winter’s Bone as a gaunt, creepy nut job. This time he’s a gaunt, creepy cult leader. What next, John, a gaunt, creepy Muppet? “What nobody will forget having seen Martha Marcy May Marlene is the song (sung by Hawkes) titled “She’s Just a Picture to Me,” swoons the reviewer for The New Yorker. Not only did I forget it two seconds after hearing it, but am trying hard to forget that I spent 101 minutes of my life that I’ll never get back watching this unpleasant movie. You’ve been warned.

Film Review: The Ides of March

If you have become hopelessly cynical about our political system and are looking for relief, by all means avoid The Ides of March. Abandon hope all ye who enter American politics could be the tagline for the movie. What makes the film so good is why it won’t be a smash hit: it captures all too well the cunning, stab in the back nature of our current political scene. George Clooney plays the smooth Democratic Presidential contender about to be shafted in Ohio’s primary by Republicans voting for his opponent to get him out of the race. Enter campaign manager Paul Zara (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) and his bright young protege Stephen Meyers (Ryan Gosling) to save the day. But as they say, complications ensue, in the form of rival campaign manager Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti), flirtatious young intern Molly (Evan Rachel Wood) and ruthless NY Times reporter Ida (Marisa Tomai). Whether you are a Democrat or Republican, you will find no one to root for here. And the catatonic expression worn by an actor in the final scene will mirror your own.

Film Review: Moneyball

Moneyball is a modern day David & Goliath story, but instead of using a slingshot and rock, baseball GM Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) and his young charge Peter Brand (Jonah Hill) use a computer and flow charts. With all of baseball’s grizzled veteran scouts judging a player’s potential by such tried and true methods as size, speed, batting average and if he has an ugly girlfriend (“no confidence”), Billy and Peter judge him by how often he gets on base–no matter how he does it. Turning a story about statistics and baseball’s salary cap into compelling drama isn’t easy, but having Aaron Sorkin and Steve Zaillian as writers and Brad Pitt as your lead actor (in his finest performance since Sleepers) sure helps. If you liked The Social Network (also written by Sorkin) you’ll love this. Both of these films (Moneyball is based on the book of the same name) are about the information age and how it has changed everything from baseball to business to how we connect with each other. And despite being from opposite ends of the universe (Beane is an edgy super-jock, Brand a super-serious, chubby nerd) the two form an instant connection when Beane sees the potential in the awkward, pensive academic. Running the small market Oakland A’s, Beane knows he can’t compete with the New York Yankees and other big city, big money teams. With Brand, and despite stubborn, old-fashioned manager Art Howe (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), Beane finds a way to level the playing field. The divorced Beane’s relationship with his young, sensitive and talented daughter provides the  humanity lacking in the otherwise terrific Social Network. You don’t have to know anything about baseball to appreciate this film. It has style, sure pacing, great acting and more heart than any movie I’ve seen this year. You won’t be disappointed.

Theater: March Madness

I was fortunate to have my full-length play March Madness chosen to be part of Broadway producer Ken Davenport’s (Speed the Plow, Godspell) reading series on September 12th. Top notch actors Michael Tucker and Jill Eikenberry (LA Law, Enter Laughing) and Robert Creighton (Anything Goes) gave outstanding performances and were a pleasure to work with. Mr Davenport holds a 30 day first refusal option on March Madness, and I will wait to see what happens with that before pushing forward to a full production. In the meantime I’m doing an upgrade on the play based on the enthusiastic, thoughtful responses I received during the “Talkback” afterwards. March Madness is a timely play about Maury and his fellow reporters, who in a time of economic chaos and with newspapers dying, take a desperate step that will allow one of them to escape office hell and live their dream. Yes, a comedy. I’ll keep you informed about its progress, and hopefully when you can get tickets!

Film Review: Nowhere Boy

I resisted seeing this movie since its release last year, thinking it would be a bunch of clueless young actors portraying those they knew nothing about in painful fashion, kind of like a cinematic “Beatlemania.” Wow, was I wrong. The movie portrays John Lennon’s unusual (to say the least) childhood and teen years, torn between his stiff upper lip Aunt Mimi who raised him and his mother Julia, a sensual, fun, but also very troubled, inappropriate musician. When you find out why John is being raised by his aunt, it may not only shift your loyalties, but put a lump in your throat as certain Lennon songs such as “Mother” and “Julia” take on deeper meaning. Nowhere Boy makes clear why the bond between the angry, rebellious John Lennon and the gentler, emotionally more stable Paul McCartney was so strong. The acting is phenomenal, and you will learn more about the genesis of the Beatles here than anywhere, while the name “Beatles” is not uttered a single time. Nowhere Boy is an underappreciated gem. Beatles fan or not, do not miss this film.

Film Review: Ring of Fire: The Emile Griffith Story

I just discovered a terrific documentary I want to share with you. Ring of Fire: The Emile Griffith Story will catch you by surprise, and you don’t have to be a boxing fan–or hat designer–(Griffith was both) to appreciate it. The film explores homophobia in boxing. Being taunted as a “maricon” by opponent Benny (Kid) Paret led champion Griffith to explode in fury in the ring, and to one of the most tragic days in boxing history. With commentary by Pete Hamill, Norman Mailer and other legendary writers, this documentary of a gracious, guileless boxing great who lived with guilt for decades will captivate you from the very start to the incredibly moving ending. Don’t miss it.

Review: Girl Groups’ Spirit Doesn’t Fade With Age

Whether you are 17 or 70, you are likely familiar with the opening bam-ba-bam-bam bass drum of the classic “Be My Baby.” I first heard it sung on the stage of the Brooklyn Fox when I was 11 years old, slackjawed and feeling a strange stirring in my loins as I watched the beehived hair and otherworldly sexiness of the Ronettes gyrate to and belt out the Barry-Greenwich tune, through the smoky  haze and raucous cheers of underage Brooklyn punks like myself. Last night at Lincoln Center’s Damrosch Park, I sat in a time warp and watched Ronnie Spector belt out the tune again. Although her voice strained a bit to reach the highest notes, she did a good job singing in her distinct, New York-accented voice and yes, wriggling around the stage once more. The four hour musical marathon was not only a salute to these 60s “girl group” singers, but, touchingly, to their descendants as well. Ronnie Spector gave tribute to the gifted, tragic Amy Winehouse, who died at 27 last week, with a moving rendition of the young singer’s “Back to Black.” The highlight of the evening was the performance of LaLa Brooks of the Crystals. A teenager in the 1960’s, Brooks is now in her 60s, lean, agile, still incredibly sexy and surprisingly funny,  declaring “I just took my arthritis pill and am ready to rock!”  She performed a medley of Crystals hits, then closed with a performance of Phil Spector’s classic “River Deep, Mountain High.” I never thought anyone could do that song justice except Tina Turner, but Ms. Brooks proved me wrong. Paul Shaffer and Steve Van Zandt were among those who came by to pay tribute to the great songwriter Ellie Greenwich, with Shaffer sitting in on keyboards. The band was electric, recreating the Phil Spector “wall of sound”, and the backup singers first rate. When they closed the evening with “Be My Baby”, the packed house didn’t want the show to end. A fun evening at Lincoln Center Out of Doors.

Algonquin Seaport Theater: A Breath of Fresh Air

Looking for a great summer venue where you can take a leisurely stroll by the water, grab a great meal and end the evening with an affordable night of theater or music? Look no further than the South Street Seaport and the Algonquin Seaport Theater. Founder and artistic director Tony Sportiello has created a one-of-a-kind space on the second floor of the Seaport Mall. Plays are performed with a breathtaking backdrop view of the Brooklyn Bridge and river. Currently seating 75 to 100, the Algonquin Seaport Theater eventually will expand to a 200 seat venue for Off-Broadway productions that will also include cabaret nights and children’s theater. Now playing at the Algonquin are The Bridge Plays, a series of one-acts that will run for two weeks each month of the summer, with Saturday nights reserved for the hottest new rock artists. Tickets are $15. Go, enjoy and support a great new downtown theater experience! Algonquin Seaport Theater, 89 South Street

Midnight In Paris: Review

Ever been in a long relationship, are close to tying the knot, then get a vague, gnawing feeling that you may be making a terrible mistake–that perhaps your partner is not your true soulmate? Then you will relate to Woody Allen’s lead character Gil, a likeable writer on a trip to Paris with his fiancee and her parents who can’t stop obsessing about the city’s Golden Age” of artists. Owen Wilson gives probably his best performance as Gil, who can’t shake his vague dissatisfaction with his gorgeous, rich fiancee. When a vintage car rolls up and whisks him back in time, he is finally in his element. And there he finds his true soulmate Adrianna (a terrific Marion Cotillard), or so he believes, but although  she clearly prefers him over ardent admirers Picasso and Hemingway, she longs for an even earlier “Golden Age.” The supporting actors, including Rachel McAdams and Adrian Brody, are all first rate, with a surprisingly wonderful turn by Carla Bruni (a/k/a Mme. Sarkozy, the first lady of France). While this subtle movie may not immediately grab you, it slowly but surely will seduce you with its genuinely romantic feel and beautiful images of Paris. To appreciate it fully  one must be somewhat literate, which means Hangover 2 is in absolutely no danger of being surpassed at the box office by this modest, charming film. I won’t ruin the ending for  you, but suffice it to say that sometimes the biggest chance we can take is to remain in the here and now and see what has been right before us all along.

Source Code: Review

Who among us wouldn’t like to relive a crucial eight minutes of his or her life, with a chance to make the rest of it infinitely better? In Source Code, the exciting new sci-fi thriller, hero Colter Stevens (a terrific Jake Gyllenhaal) has a chance to make things right–for everyone but himself, it seems. Without giving much away, I can tell you Stevens is a soldier who mysteriously finds himself on a midwest commuter train with a pretty woman he’s never met. Stevens discovers he alone has eight minutes to prevent a huge tragedy. When he looks at himself in the train’s bathroom mirror, he sees another man’s face. His eight minutes are up, and he fails. He is given a second chance, then a third to find the person on that train bent on mass destruction. Stevens is getting closer, but time is running out. I won’t tell you any more. Suffice it to say Source Code will put you on the edge of your seat for its entire 93 minutes. (While the last three may confuse the hell out of you, the other 90 are well worth it.) Although this movie has been badly marketed and the theater I saw it in was half empty on its opening weekend, word of mouth should quickly change that. You won’t be disappointed.

OK, There were Two Great Movies in 2010 As I prognosticated a while back, it appears that the Academy Award for best picture will come down to either The King’s Speech or The Social Network. At the time I said that while The King’s Speech is a very good film, in my opinion The  Social Network was the only great movie of the year. I was wrong. Indie Winter’s Bone is indeed a great film. While nominated for an Oscar, the fact that hardly anyone saw it (including more Academy voters skipping it than you would imagine) means it has zero chance of winning best picture. Which doesn’t mean it isn’t. A low budget film about bone-poor poverty and crystal meth dealers might not sound appealing, but trust me, this is a great movie. In today’s Ozark Mountains, 17 year old Ree tries to keep what’s left of her family together. Her dad is a meth dealer who was caught and posted the family home as bail. If he doesn’t show up for trial, the home will be taken over by the state, and Ree and her two younger siblings tossed out. Her catatonic mom is no help. While Ree tries to locate her dad, she encounters a fierce code of silence among her shady relatives, who warn her off in no uncertain terms. They don’t want their profitable 21 century version of dealing moonshine put in jeopardy. Ree’s quest to find her dad puts her in real danger, and you root for her to overcome. As the road gets rougher and rougher, Ree considers joining the Army to escape and get some cash to care for her starving siblings. But she returns home, knowing that shooting and eating scrawny wild squirrels is the only thing standing between them and starvation. While this way of life may seem a bit farfetched to urban types, it is quite real. Those who have lived in the region vouch for its accuracy, down to the language and non-actor local musicians who play and sing the music. From the opening shot of the movie, you are drawn into its stark beauty and incredible acting. The performances of Jennifer Lawrence as Ree and John Hawkes as Uncle Teardrop are stunning. Winter’s Bone is a true work of art.

And The Winner Is… The 83rd Academy Awards will be presented on Sunday, February 22, 2011. The nominations will be announced next month. But uncertainty creates anxiety, and to eliminate one major cause of agita in your lives, I’ve decided to announce the major Oscar winners two months in advance. Spoiler alert: I’m always right (ok, often). Best Picture: The early odds favor The King’s Speech, The Social Network and Inception. The other seven nominees will be toast, although Black Swan has its advocates and The Fighter and True Grit are getting a lot of buzz. But I believe it will come down to the big three: 1) Inception is in the conversation because of its innovation and supposed brilliance–and the fact that it’s already grossed over $300 million doesn’t hurt. But I couldn’t follow the damn movie, so screw them. 2) The King’s Speech: A classic Oscar-winning recipe: High-toned, English and with a bonus physical impediment. The film is very good, moving and extremely well acted. 3) The Social Network: When you leave the theater, you’ll know that you’ve seen a special film. Incredible writing, acting and direction. (scroll down for review) The only great movie of the year. Winner: The Social Network Best Actor: This will most likely be decided among Colin Firth (The King’s Speech), Jesse Eisenberg (The Social Network) and dark horses James Franco (127 Hours) and Mark Wahlberg (The Fighter). Based on performance, it’s too close to call. But I think it will come down to Firth and Eisenberg, who were both outstanding playing real people: King George III and Mark Zuckerberg, who are often mistaken for each other. Eisenberg isn’t a full fledged star yet (he will be) and Firth’s performance as a stuttering, reluctant king is wonderful and endearing. The real life Zuckerberg is far from endearing, and in Hollywood, only if you play a serial killer do unlikeable character portrayals have a chance, so forget it this year, Jesse. Winner: Colin Firth in a landslide. Best Actress: The closest race of all. Many great performances, but I’d be stunned if it doesn’t come down to these two: Annette Benning in The Kids are All Right, and Natalie Portman in Black Swan. Benning is great, giving a nuanced, funny and moving performance. If I was a voting member of the Academy, she’d get mine. But I’m going to go with my head over my heart: Black Swan may be controversial, but Portman’s performance isn’t. She was terrific. It kills me to type this, but: Winner: Natalie Portman Cut and save. If I’m wrong, cut, save and burn. I promise you if I don’t get at least two of three correct, I will write my next blog in the nude while simultaneously eating 20 spicy Chinese dumplings in under ten minutes (wait a minute, I do that every week…)

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Black Swan–Review

If you love ballet, chick flicks, bloody horror movies and psychosexual freakiness, have I got a movie for you! Anyone left? Ok then, go see the Black Swan. Natalie Portman is terrific as Nina, an innocent, uptight perfectionist with a scary, super-controlling mother (Barbara Hershey). Nina is selected to play the White Swan/Black Swan in a Lincoln Center production of Swan Lake. She quickly nails the pure White Swan part, but is too prim to be convincing as the sensuous, seductive Black Swan. Enter Lily (Mila Kunis), born to play the Black Swan. Lily is pure sexual energy, which affects everyone from the artistic director to Nina herself (strange but true: the superhot Kunis is also the voice of Meg on TV’s The Family Guy). While Lily is not a particularly polished dancer, Nina is nonetheless worried she will steal her part, by any means necessary. How much of this is paranoia, and how much real? Beats me. The gaslighting in this movie extends from Nina right into the audience. Black Swan is compelling, freaky and definitely worth seeing, but is it a great movie? I’m not sure. Darren Aronofsky’s incredible direction certainly keeps you riveted from start to finish. He says he made it as a “companion piece to The Wrestler“, but I think he’s mistaken. While I can see his point that both of these movies he so ably directed are about struggling athletes, The Wrestler is much more genteel. Really. Without spoiling anything, I can tell you that at the end of this film, you will be in shock and frozen to your seat. Whether it’s from the movie’s greatness, its weirdness or both is for you to decide.

John Patrick Shanley Interview

On Friday night (11-5) , I went to see writer/director John Patrick Shanley interviewed at the intimate Joe’s Pub at the Public Theater. For those unfamiliar, Shanley is a Bronx-born, world renowned playwright, perhaps best known for his Tony and Pulitzer award winning play Doubt. The interview was interspersed with scenes from three other Shanley plays: Where’s My Money, Defiance and Church and State, Shanley’s latest effort. There are two New York born and bred writers who can convincingly write both comedy and drama: Shanley and Woody Allen. (Yes there are others, but these two have always had particular appeal to me as a fellow writer). Shanley talked of others constantly telling him they “know” exactly what the truth is about the priest in Doubt. “I don’t know it myself–but they do,” he noted dryly. Shanley mentioned an actor who performed the part who insisted on Shanley telling him “the real truth” about the priest. “I gave him an answer, and he was happy. But I lied.” On the tiny stage at Joe’s Pub, scenes from Shanley’s plays came alive. I had never seen Where’s My Money?, but was laughing aloud at the charged domestic scene, and will look for it when it returns to the New York stage. John Turturro rushed in from another engagement to read from Church and State. He arrived five minutes late, lost a page, finally found it, then gave a flawless reading. Shanley gave him a hug and kiss as he left the stage. For my money, anyone who could write both Doubt and the Oscar winning movie Moonstruck should be designated a national treasure. But Shanley came across as someone who wouldn’t enjoy being viewed that way. I saw him recently at a pub on 9th Avenue, having a beer and burger with a friend. No one seemed to realize that one of the most talented writers in America was sitting amongst them, and Shanley seemed to like it that way. He noted that he doesn’t try too hard to divine the motives of his many characters. “I don’t even know my own motives,” Shanley admitted. “So why would I assume to know anyone else’s?”

The Social Network–Review

Let’s get it out there up front: I hate Facebook. One of my playwriting groups uses it to establish times, dates and other info, so here I am, on only five minutes every two weeks, if that–and still someone from the past has managed to find and hound me. Do you know anyone who hasn’t had a negative experience from someone tracking them down on Facebook? Only when you stupidly agree to meet do you realize why you dumped their annoying butts in the first place. But as they say, enough about me. What do you think of Mark Zuckerberg? Perhaps the key reason Facebook pisses me off so much is that I’m not 21 anymore.   Ironically, its getting pissed off that drove Zuckerberg to eventually become the world’s youngest billionaire with his creation. Or was it his? The movie examines those (plural) who claim they had their similar/identical ideas lifted by Zuckerberg, and have the huge cash settlements to back their claims. The opening scene of the movie sharply sets the tone. After he is rejected by his girlfriend Erica, cautioning him that when he’s rejected by girls in the future, to remember that it’s not because he’s a computer nerd, it’s because he’s an asshole,  the furious Zuckerberg races back to his dorm room for his petty revenge. After blogging nasty comments about Erica, he turns his fury on the rest of Harvard’s women, setting up demeaning “Hot or Not” comparative photos. Thus the great enterprise of Facebook (then “The Facebook) was born. The movie shows us the lightning quick mind and retarded social skills of Zuckerberg, who at times seems as if he may have a form of Asperger Syndrome. Due to the skill of Aaron Sorkin’s writing, the movie zips along, as we meet Zuckerberg’s partners in the groundbreaking venture, first the totally decent (and unfortunately painfully innocent) Eduardo Saverin and later the superslick Napster creator Sean Parker, Zuckerberg’s instant man crush. Jesse Eisenberg’s portrayal of Zuckerberg is stunning, with Andrew Garfield’s Saverin sympathetic and believable. But Justin Timberlake as Sean Parker steals the show, establishing him beyond doubt as a serious actor, even as you long to choke the smugness from his pop star puss. At  its conclusion, and without giving anything away, the movie pulls off the astounding feat of making us feel a twinge of sympathy for the weird, cold and amoral Zuckerberg character that they have created for the previous two hours (which fly by). But is The Social Network a great movie? To have taken someone who hates Facebook as much as I do and totally fascinate him with its creation and world, I’d have to vote a resounding “yes.”

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Welcome to the Arts section. Today we’ll talk about what I found to be an excellent way to obtain low-priced tickets. (No, this is not an ad!) Getting theater tickets at greatly reduced prices is always appealing. Most of you know about such popular organizations as TDF. But how many of you are familiar with Theater Extras? Billed as a “seat-filling audience development organization,” Theater Extras offers virtually free tickets (with a modest $4 processing fee per ticket) to Broadway, Off and Off-Off Broadway and regional theater, as well as concerts, dance and children’s events. A “Marquis” membership is $99 per year, for which you can get up to two tickets per show. (“Premier” membership is $175, which entitles you to up to four tickets per show) Theater Extras keeps a relatively low profile, quietly filling seats (“papering” the house) for producers looking for a full house or close to it, who know they won’t reach that goal on certain nights–even to hit shows. Many lesser shows and events are also offered, but its worth sifting through the list to find the rare and precious gems. For example, my girlfriend and I recently saw In The Heights, getting great orchestra seats that usually run for about $100 per ticket for just the $4 service fee for each. (By the way, if you haven’t seen it, you’re missing something terrific!) This show alone paid for my yearly membership, and then some. Most shows won’t be of this caliber, but if you see just two or three shows a year, do the math–it’s well worth it. www.theaterextras.com

One Response to Arts

  1. Lou Russo says:

    Great Gritty!
    Hot Mila was of course sassy Jackie Berkart on “That 70’s Show”. I always knew I loved that show and it definitely was not because of Wilmer Valderrama. To be fair, (or at least blond), Laura Prepon in her Catholic schoolgirl uniform certainly helped.

    And Colin Firth?, he could have won last year for his brilliant performance in “A Single Man”. So I guess that’s why he DID win this year.
    On your recommend, I will “Bone up for winter”. Thanks– Lou

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