Award-Nominated Movies: The Shape of Water & The Greatest Showman

Shape of WaterThe Shape of Water
The acting alone is a good reason to see writer-director Guillermo del Toro’s romantic fantasy (trailer), written with Vanessa Taylor, although the origins of the story are now in dispute. The film received 13 Academy Award nominations, the most for any 2017 movie, including best picture, writing, directing, best actress, best supporting actor and actress (Jenkins and Spencer), cinematography, and costumes.

Elisa Esposito (played by Sally Hawkins, who was terrific last year in Maudie) plays a mute young woman who, with her friend Zelda (Octavia Spencer), is a cleaner at a sketchy 1960s military research facility. The researchers bring in a merman-like creature (the unrecognizable Doug Jones) found in the Amazon, whom they mistreat, believing him violent, but whom Elisa befriends. If you’ve seen the previews, you get the idea.

Playing the heavy is a furious Michael Shannon,  Elisa’s neighbor and friend is Richard Jenkins, and a scientist more interested in saving the “monster” than killing him is Michael Stuhlbarg. All three are super!

Even if you aren’t a fantasy fan, there’s lots of drama and a warm core to this film you may enjoy. I did. As “an enchanting reimagining of ‘Beauty and the Beast,’ it is an unforgettably romantic, utterly sublime, dazzling phantasmagoria,” said Colin Covert, reviewer for the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 92%; audiences, 78%.

Greatest Showman The Greatest Showman
By contrast, this movie musical of the P.T. Barnum story (trailer) directed by Michael Gracey disappointed, especially because the songs were by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (fellow U-Mich grads!) who wrote lyrics for La La Land and music and lyrics for the Tony-winning Broadway hit, Dear Evan Hansen.

Talented Hugh Jackman (as Barnum) sells it, but there’s little “it” there. He apparently wanted to do Barnum’s story for some time, but couldn’t get backing. Although the film received three Golden Globe nominations (best musical or comedy, best actor in a musical or comedy for Jackman) and won for best song (Pasek and Paul), Oscar took a pass.

You may enjoy the movie’s spectacle aspects, but it will require you to pause your brain. Plot holes make it hard to stay interested in the story, which is in part Barnum’s highly fictionalized career and in part the love story between him and his wife (nicely played by Michelle Williams).

OK, it’s a musical, so it’s the musical numbers that should shine. The pop-music songs were just bearable until Barnum met The Swedish Nightingale, Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson). She has an eye-roller of a pop number (lip-synced, by the way; the real singer is Loren Allred), so contrary to how an internationally famous singer in 1850 would have sounded that the artifice of the whole production collapses under its own absurdity. As San Francisco Chronicle reviewer Mick LaSalle wrote, “It’s an awful mess, but it’s flashy,” calling it “The perfect realization of a really bad idea.”

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 55%; audiences: 89%.

The Band’s Visit

The Band's VisitIf you saw the award-winning 2007 Israeli movie The Band’s Visit, you’ll recall what a charming story lies behind this new musical, directed by David Cromer, playing at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre (video clip).

The eight-man Ceremonial Police Orchestra from Alexandria, Egypt, is invited to Israel to play at the opening of a new Arab cultural center in Petah Tikva. Due to a language mix-up, the band members end up in the desolate, nothing-happening-here desert town of Beit Hatikva.

There is no hotel, only a tiny restaurant, and no transportation to their correct destination until for another day. With varying degrees of wariness and acceptance, the townspeople take them in and, suffice it to say, everyone learns something. The leading roles are played by Tony Shalhoub as the band leader and Karina Lenk as the bored restaurant owner, with a large and accomplished supporting cast of actors and actor-musicians.

As it’s a musical, with music and lyrics by David Yazbek and a book by Itamar Moses, there are the requisite singing numbers, as well as numerous opportunities for one or two or three of the band members to play in background, often a folk-derived tune. Those are especially nice.

The production is receiving much positive attention and already considered a shoo-in for several Tony awards, perhaps partly because of its heartwarming message, as well as some endearing performances. The movie was funnier, though, and at times the background music overpowered the singing, so I couldn’t catch the lyrics. Lenk sits awkwardly and undulates a little too much a little too often in some scenes (is she feeling the music?). The contrast between her sensuality and the stiffly upright band leader is evident without that.

This is one of the new 90-minute, no intermission entertainments that are increasingly popular and a good-hearted, pleasing hour and half it is. But you say you’re not in New York? Watch for the touring production already booked in major cities around the country, starting next year.

Hollywood in the White House

LBJ - Harrelson

Woody Harrelson as LBJ (2017)

Most of the time, Hollywood moguls and the pols inside the Washington Beltway hold each other “in mutual contempt,” said film historian Max Alvarez in an entertaining talk this week at the Princeton library. Yet politicians need Hollywood’s money and clout, and filmmakers need the government for such things as copyright and First Amendment protections and favorable trade regulations. And occasionally, they look to Washington—and the White House—for juicy story lines.

Screenwriters don’t overlook our Presidents who’ve been tragic characters worthy of Shakespeare. Lincoln has been most often portrayed, with Nixon second-most. Alvarez showed three clips back-to-back from movies about our 37th President: Anthony Hopkins in Nixon, Frank Langella in Frost/Nixon, and Kevin Spacey in the comedy Elvis and Nixon. Hopkins was the smarmiest, Langella the most tightly wound, and Spacey (I know, I know)—hilarious.

At least until recently, films about presidents and the presidency mostly flopped at the box office, and early on, not many were made. There was a bit of a burst in World War II, in films that had a propaganda message. If a president did appear in these early films, he was an upstanding, respected figure. That’s sure changed.

Alvarez suggested that because Presidents Kennedy and Clinton were younger and “cooler,” the creative types in Hollywood were drawn to material that included a president or presidential candidate in the early 60s and again in the 90s. (Note that the industry insider—Ronald Reagan—did not spark such ideas.) Television contributed, too, with 156 episodes of The West Wing from 1999 to 2006. Now we have Veep.

The movies have stopped treating presidents as paragons, with Wag the Dog, Primary Colors, Absolute Power, and Clear and Present Danger examples Alvarez cited. Why the shift? A scene from the Netflix program The Crown suggests an answer. In an episode set in 1957, Lord Altrincham, a small-time newspaper publisher, editorializes against Queen Elizabeth for being priggish and out of touch. In a meeting with her, he explains that the root of the problem is that, since the war, everything has changed, but the monarchy hasn’t. “What’s changed?” she asks, and he replies, “Deference.”


Kevin Spacey’s bloody hands in House of Cards.

Does exposure to charismatic, but dysfunctional characters on, say, House of Cards (not to mention such shows as Dexter, Breaking Bad, and Mad Men) normalize dysfunctional behavior? Alvarez thinks it may. Not that we have to go to the cinema or watch tv for that.

From the Department of Free Association . . .

. . . and so we have this recent Atlantic article about how continued exposure to the perfidies of the current administration is causing ‘outrage fatigue.’ Say it isn’t so.


The Rouge: Industrial Architecture Icon

The Rouge, Michael Kenna

photo used wall-size to open the exhibit – © Michael Kenna

The Princeton University Art Museum’s exhibit of evocative photos of the Ford Rouge plant in Dearborn, Michigan, remains on display through February 11. British photographer Michael Kenna became enamored of the Rouge in the early 1990s—past the time when auto manufacturing there was at its peak. At that time and before automation, the plant employed some 100,000 workers a day—including my grandfather, his neighbors, and several of my uncles.

Kenna especially liked to photograph the Rouge at night and in frigid weather, when the temperature turns the heat and steam into clouds whose buoyancy contrasts with the solidity of the structures. The museum has a large collection of these photographs, which, in documenting this famous landmark by industrial architect Albert Kahn (“the architect of Detroit”), shows today’s Rouge and its “complicated status as a symbol of industrial decay and endurance.”

The Rouge was a mile long and took in raw materials from massive Great Lakes freighters at one end, and finished automobiles rolled out the other. It had its own steel- and glass-making plants, and its eight-towered Powerhouse produced enough electricity to serve a city of a million residents. My grandfather walked to work at the Rouge every day, and my father and his sibs swam in the Rouge River (not recommended).

As Kenna photographed, “Parts of the Rouge were active and quite dangerous with moving cranes, trains, and enormous containers of molten steel and slag. Other parts were disused and quiet, rusting and decaying, with vegetation growing in and around long-abandoned machinery.” Some of the vegetation is purposeful. Land around the Rouge has been turned into sunflower fields, with the flower-heads harvested to make oil that is used in today’s manufacturing processes.

It isn’t a huge exhibit, but the photos are so powerful, you can almost smell hot metal and hear the hissing steam and clanking machinery.

Phantom Thread

Phantom Thread

Day-Lewis & Krieps in Phantom Thread

If this is indeed Daniel Day-Lewis’s last film, writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson’s new movie (trailer) turns out to be an odd swan song. Apparently the idea it would be his last came over Day-Lewis in reaction to this character, for reasons he can’t quite explain, but perhaps related to the draining intensity with which he prepares for his roles.

Reynolds Woodcock, the British fashion designer Day-Lewis plays, doesn’t display the physical energy of Hawkeye (in one of my favorite movies of all time, The Last of the Mohicans) or the agonizing choices facing Abraham Lincoln, or the disturbing intensity of knife-throwing Bill “The Butcher” in Gangs of New York. Woodcock’s challenge, a drive for perfection, comes not from circumstances, but eats him from within.

Woodcock is a fastidious, often languid character. Some of the dialog was included in a radio review, and I was struck by how slooowly Day-Lewis spoke and the long pauses between utterances. You’re less aware of that watching him, of course, because even when he’s not speaking, he’s doing a lot. The eyebrow, the little smile, the internal consideration, the piercing glance, the innate elegance. While the acting is wonderful, the character Woodcock is not especially likeable, and Day-Lewis is too honest an actor to try to make him so.

Woodcock runs his domain—domestic and commercial—his way, as a well turned out obsessive. He cannot abide a disturbance at breakfast or his whole day is ruined. When his new lady-love Alma (played by Vicky Krieps) scrapes the burnt bits from her toast (with a microphone hidden in the jam-pot, surely), it’s fingernails-on-the-blackboard for the entire audience.

The Fitzroy Square townhouse where he lives and conducts business is presided over by his sister Cyril (Lesley Manville), who knows exactly how to keep order. Is she a benign presence or an over-protective monster? Even she is thwarted when Alma realizes that, to keep her man, she must bring him low.

The production team had fun—Woodcock’s breakneck driving trips (an uncharacteristic unleashing of spirit), the 1950s ambience, the workshop with its dowdy middle-aged women—seamstresses in real life—producing fabulous garments they could and would never wear. Day-Lewis himself spent many months studying the craft of clothing design, and director Anderson has remarked on the actor’s fine hands, able to do work believably, to sew.

Fashion historian Alistair O’Neill has commented that the rich satin fabrics used remind him of Charles James’s post-war designs. (Luscious show about James at the Metropolitan Museum in 2014.) In its workshop and showroom scenes, the film eerily echoes the PBS mini-series, The Collection, which aired last fall. Couture in the 1950s is an infrequent setting for drama; is it the hive mind that inspires two such resonant efforts in the same few months?

The film has garnered six Academy Award nominations—best picture, actor (Day-Lewis), director, supporting actress (Manville), score, and costume design. If Mark Bridges hadn’t received that last, well-deserved nomination, surely he would have retired.

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 92%; audiences, 70%.

Murder in a Nutshell

Nutshell 1

photo: Vicki Weisfeld

Frances Glessner Lee was a wealthy divorcee who used her money, her energy, her contacts, and her passion for crime investigation to jumpstart the field of forensic medicine in the United States some 80 years ago. One of this country’s first forensic pathologists, George Burgess Magrath, was a Boston friend, and his informal tutelage piqued her interest. Denied the chance to go to college and discouraged from pursuing her rather odd interest in murder, her career didn’t get going until she was in her 50s.

According to journalist Bruce Goldfarb, on staff at the prestigious Maryland Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, Frances was the country’s only woman involved in the early development of forensic science. At a Renwick Gallery talk, he described how she gave funds to support lectures by leading European forensic medicine specialists at Harvard Medical School; donated her library of more than a thousand volumes on crime investigation; established training fellowships; endowed Harvard’s Department of Legal Medicine (the first in the country); and promoted the training of police detectives in forensic methods.

Further, she lobbied her wealthy and powerful connections to replace the outdated system of coroners with one employing trained medical examiners, thus enabling, among other things, many entertaining seasons of CSI. Coroners, an office that still exists in many parts of the United States, are often elected officials and need have no particular forensic, medical, or legal knowledge. They were known to tromp through crime scenes, take a quick look at the body, and decide on the spot whether it was homicide, suicide, or death by misadventure. A list of “causes of death” extracted from coroners’ reports in New York included the enlightened conclusion “found dead.”

Nutshell 2

photo: Vicki Weisfeld

Back in the days before virtual reality, one of her educational activities was constructing highly detailed, dollhouse-sized dioramas of crime scenes. These “nutshell studies” were used to train homicide investigators in what to look for in cases of unexplained death. Nineteen of them still exist, and this winter they were gathered at Washington, D.C.’s Renwick Gallery for an immensely popular exhibit: “Murder Is Her Hobby,” which I saw in its last days.

You may recognize CSI’s slant homage to Lee in its “Miniature Killer” episodes (season 7; see trailer). Look for a copy of the film “Murder in a Nutshell: The Frances Glessner Lee Story” (trailer) or “Of Dolls and Murder” (trailer), both directed by Susan Marks. Apparently there’s a new book coming out, too, and the 2004 book by Corinne May Botz, The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death, has been reprinted. “The Nutshells are essentially about teaching people how to see,” said Renwick curator Nora Atkinson.

Stones in His Pockets

Stones in His Pockets

Garrett Lombard & Aaron Monaghan – photo: T Charles Erickson

When a Hollywood film crew descends on a small County Kerry village, the locals are brought on as extras, a seemingly glamorous job that turns them into observers of their own lives. McCarter Theatre Center is presenting this Olivier Award-winning comedy by Belfast-based playwright Marie Jones through February 11. British Director Lindsay Posner puts the two-person cast through physically sophisticated and antic changes, as they portray 15 characters, never missing a beat.

The two principal characters, Charlie Conlon (played by Garrett Lombard) and Jake Quinn (Aaron Monaghan) are a bit down on their luck and skeptical of Hollywood, yet the allure it holds for them is almost tangible. In addition, they portray numerous townspeople, including the hyperactive, drugged-out Sean who comes to a tragic end—walking into the deep water with stones in his pockets, a literary whiff of Virginia Woolf—and Michael, whose claim to fame is that he’s the last surviving extra from the filming of John Wayne’s The Quiet Man. They also play several of the Americans—the movie’s director Clem, his effervescent assistant Ashley, and the big-time movie star Caroline, whose Irish accent needs serious work, but who manages to dazzle Jake and Charlie anyway.

Charlie, not unexpectedly, has a movie script in his back pocket and is ever-alert for opportunities to show it to members of the cast and crew, with the expected yawning reception. Jake recently returned from New York, with precious little to show for it. Increasingly, they become aware of the falsity of the portrayal of their town and their lives—a brazen example of cultural appropriation—but there’s nothing they can do about it. The bloom is really off the rose with the key conflict of the play: whether the film director will give the townspeople time off to attend Sean’s funeral.

The elegantly simple set by Beowulf Boritt is piled with trunks from which Charlie and Jake grab an occasional bit of costume, but these changes are lightning fast and often in service of what the extras themselves are asked to do. The principal way the audience distinguishes among the many characters is through the considerable skill and talent of the two actors.

It’s a story about community—a community of locals and a community of outsiders, and the actors, who trained at The Samuel Beckett Centre, Trinity College Dublin, make both these discordant communities come alive remarkably well.

McCarter Theatre is easily reached from New York by car or train (New Jersey Transit to the Princeton Junction station, then the shuttle train into Princeton. The shuttle ends a short walk from the theater and the university’s new arts district, as well as two new restaurants.

For tickets, call the box office at 609-258-2787 or visit the ticket office online.

The Post

The Post, Meryl StreepI really wanted to love this movie (trailer). It has everything I like—a story about important principles, two impeccable stars and a terrific supporting cast, a newsroom setting. Director Steven Spielberg had much so much good stuff to work with—including a decent script by Liz Hannah and Josh Singer—why wasn’t it better?

One of the team’s great decisions is to present Katherine Graham (played by Meryl Streep) not as a hard-nosed, successful businesswoman, but one growing into a not-always-comfortable role as publisher of the Washington Post (a position first held by her father, then her late husband). In 1971, when Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys) steals the Pentagon Papers, thousands of pages of documents that recount the government’s decades of deception about the Vietnam War, Graham faces a fateful choice of tremendous consequence: will the Post will publish stories based on these top secret documents?

On one hand, the paper’s editor, Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks), and the newsroom staff are pushing to publish. For them, it’s a “freedom of the press” issue, a riveting story, and they’re racing the clock to get in the game.

On the other hand, her business advisors (notably, Tracy Letts as Fritz Beebe and Bradley Whitford as Arthur Parsons) and the Nixon Administration oppose publication, which is risky on several counts. First is legal jeopardy: already the Justice Department has taken the rival New York Times to court on the matter. Barring the Times from publishing more, at least temporarily, opens the door for the Post. Then there’s financial jeopardy: the bankers who backed the Post’s recent stock offering are threatening to pull out if the paper goes ahead.

Graham’s personal relations further muddy the waters. She’s been friends for years with people who the Pentagon Papers show participated in the war deception, notably former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood). Is she respecting her family legacy by publishing or by holding back? In the end, of course, her decision sets the stage for the Post’s becoming one of the nation’s premier newspapers.

The newsroom Spielberg and the reporters create is an exciting place. As Bilge Ebiri said in the Village Voice, “I started crying the first time I saw Tom Hanks’s Ben Bradlee walk through a bustling, thriving newsroom . . . a whole world that’s been lost.” It’s also fun to see the newspaper produced the old-fashioned way: linotype machines and hot lead. Victory is in the air when the Post’s trucks roll out of the printing plant in the early morning mist.

So what’s the problem? Why isn’t this movie more satisfying? For me, it’s because the central question—will she or won’t she?—is one we already know the answer to. It’s the scenes where we don’t know the outcome, like the powerful one where Graham confronts her old friend McNamara, that are the most compelling. Given that, drawing out her dithering (despite how expertly Streep dithers) seems, finally, fake. For a contrast, consider the movie Spotlight. Again, we know the Globe reporters get the priest abuse story, but every interview had qualities of uncertainty about it. It was a puzzle painstakingly assembled in front of our eyes.

I also could have done without the tepid and too-stagy anti-war demonstrations and the bevy of eager young women waiting for Graham as she leaves the U.S. Supreme Court building. The point about her pioneering in a male world had been already made, much more effectively.

Nevertheless, in 2018, the story provides a vital reminder about the ongoing and urgent need for an unfettered news media to hold people in power to account.

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 88%; audiences 74%.

Farinelli and the King

Mark Rylance, Farinelli and the King

Mark Rylance as the King

What a treat to see Mark Rylance in this new play, written by his wife Claire Van Kampen, playing at Broadway’s Belasco Theatre. Rylance is one of those superb actors who can communicate a galaxy of information with a raised eyebrow or a stutter. (Rylance was unforgettable as Thomas Cromwell in BBC Two’s Wolf Hall and as the preternaturally calm Soviet spy in the movie Bridge of Spies).

This play is based on the maladies of Spain’s French King Philippe V (Rylance), who lived from 1683 to 1746. He stayed in power for nearly 50 years, despite crippling depression and delusions, and his psychic demons could be tamed only by the soothing sounds of music—specifically, the angelic, ethereal, and genderless voice of castrato singer Farinelli (Sam Crane)—a sound, thankfully, now lost to us. In the play, Farinelli is lured to the court by the king’s Italian wife Isabella (Melody Grove—now there’s an appropriate name!). His courtiers, not surprisingly, would far rather he abdicate. But he does not.

Iestyn Davis & Sam Crane as Farinelli

Iestyn Davis & Sam Crane as Farinelli

The actual singing is performed by countertenor Iestyn Davis (read more here), in New York after a season at the Met. He appears behind or alongside Crane in an identical costume, as a sort of corporeal alter ego, a device that works fine. It is theater, after all.

In addition to Rylance, Grove, and Crane, we enjoyed seeing Simon Jones again, a blustery Col. Pickering in McCarter Theatre Center’s My Fair Lady a few seasons back.

The play opens with the king fishing for a goldfish in a bowl. No wonder his ministers have their doubts! Isabella is devoted to him, but her devotion is constantly tested and found to have limits. The preoccupations and imaginings of the king are sometimes brilliantly on point, sometimes hilarious, sometimes clear only to himself. He seems genuinely to want to do right, but has lost the capacity to know how.

This sad and antic drama plays out in a rich setting, filled with period music. Adding to the intimate feel, a number of audience members have on-stage box seats, and the players interact a bit with audience members in the aisles. The audience plays its own part too, as the audience for a Farinelli concert. In addition to the play itself and the music, the beauty of the staging, the costumes, and the exquisite set design, with candles!, all contribute to a truly “theatrical” experience.

Lady Bird & I, Tonya

Both these movies have garnered impressive award nominations, but if you have “mommy issues,” you may want to make a different pick.

Saoirse Ronan & Laurie Metcalf in Lady Bird

Lady Bird

Written and directed by Greta Gerwig (trailer), Lady Bird is beautifully portrayed by Saoirse Ronan (Golden Globe winner) as teenage Lady Bird and painfully so by Laurie Metcalf (Golden Globe nominee) as her mother. The mother, apparently a psychiatric nurse, has a remarkably limited array of skills in dealing with her adolescent daughter. She certainly knows how to criticize and brow-beat, though, even as she hates the words coming out of her mouth.

Tracy Letts is a huggable, mostly ineffectual father, Lucas Hedges and Timothée Chalamet are Lady Bird’s early, disastrous loves, and Beanie Feldstein and Odeya Rush are sometime high school besties at opposite ends of the cool-kids spectrum.

Attending a Catholic girls school and desperate to escape Sacramento, Lady Bird’s determination to fly to more receptive, less suffocating surroundings will resonate with many (especially female) viewers. For economic and so many other reasons, her mother is determined she stay. The importance of this quest must have touched a chord with critics and with audiences, as it won the Golden Globe for best comedy, and Gerwig was nominated for the screenplay.

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: a whopping 99%; audiences: 82%.

I, Tonya

Margot Robbie as Tonya Harding

Director Craig Gillespie’s Golden Globe-nominated biopic about national figure-skating champion Tonya Harding—who never fit the little princess image of the figure skater, nor wanted to—takes the mommy problem to another level (trailer).

Tonya (Margot Robbie, Golden Globe nomination) is raised by a chain-smoking mother (Allison Janney, Golden Globe winner) who never gave an inch and wasn’t above hitting Tonya when her words didn’t cut deep enough. Tonya’s eventual “escape” was into a violent marriage with Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan).

This movie is also billed as a comedy, oddly, though Gillooly’s inept friend Shawn (Paul Walter Hauser), who’s convinced himself he’s an international terrorism expert, and the media personality played by Bobby Cannavale are hilarious. The plans to mess with Tonya’s competitor Nancy Kerrigan go wildly awry—but would be funny only to people who don’t understand the many sacrifices and tremendous effort necessary to skate at her level.

The script written by Steven Rogers is compassionate toward Tonya and based on lengthy current-day interviews with the principals—do you wonder, has she changed?—who promise to reveal what “really” happened in Tonya’s life. Their conflicting stories are, of course, riddled with self-justification, leaving you to decide whom to believe. It’s not much of a spoiler to say you won’t believe the mother.

If you remember the 1994 attack on Nancy Kerrigan at the national figure-skating championships in Detroit (I was there!), orchestrated by Gillooly, the movie may make you think differently about that incident. Tonya was never loveable; now we know why.

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 89%.