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%.

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.”

House-of-Cards

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.

 

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.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Three Billboards outside Ebbing, MissouriOn a drive through the American South some years ago, British writer-director Martin McDonagh saw a set of billboards that challenged the authorities similar to the way the sheriff of Ebbing, Missouri, is challenged in this film (trailer). The rage they embodied stayed with him, and although this film is billed as a black comedy, don’t go looking for belly laughs. Its true subject is heartbreak.

With an intelligent script that’s perhaps a few minutes too long, McDonagh’s characters’ actions impinge on others like billiard balls knocking about on the table. Mildred Hayes (played by Frances McDormand—a genius at portraying tough, uncompromising women) intends for her actions to affect others when she pays for three billboards to be pasted up on a remote stretch of road outside town, blood red and anger-filled: “Raped While Dying. And Still No Arrests? How Come, Sheriff Willoughby?” Guilt and anger are written just as clearly on her unsmiling face.

The sheriff’s deputies, accustomed to have their way in all local matters, great and small, are offended. They want her to take them down. Of course she won’t. One of them, Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell) is an overgrown boy, prey to his every violent whim and McDonagh gives him a complex character arc.

Sheriff Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) has other troubles on his mind and, while it’s true he hasn’t made progress in solving Angela Hayes’s murder, it isn’t true that he hasn’t tried. Although his place in their world is the slipperiest, he has the best sense of what that place is.

Several supporting roles are equally powerful (I especially liked Mildred’s ex-husband’s new girlfriend), and there are some laughs—people being their natural selves can be hilarious, usually without realizing it. Though a broken heart manifests itself differently in all three main characters, it’s Sheriff Willoughby who points the way to healing. Already the film has received numerous awards and nominations, including the Golden Globe for best motion picture drama, with Frances McDormand, Sam Rockwell, and Martin McDonagh (screenplay) winners too. Well worth the time.

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 93%; audiences: 87%.

A Fresh Crop of Movies Based on 2017 Books

Los Angeles, Hollywood

photo: James Gubera, creative commons license

I wish a bang-up movie would be made from James Joyce’s Ulysses, so I could watch it and no longer feel guilty I’ve never read this nearly 700-page classic. OK, I’m a heretic.

As for lesser works, this same time-saving compulsion makes me glad Paula Hawkins’s new book, Into the Water, is among the 2017 novels being prepped for the tv or the movies. Having seen the film of her so-so debut, The Girl on the Train, I don’t want to spend more than two hours on the new story, if that.

Shayna Murphy in the BookBub Blog has compiled a list of 22 recent books en route to screens large and small. No surprise that Stephen King’s 700+ page Sleeping Beauties, written with his younger son Owen, is on the list, despite tepid reviews. Ditto James Patterson and David Ellis’s Black Book, whose protagonists and plot Kirkus Reviews deemed “more memorable than Patterson’s managed in quite a while.”

I’m delighted that Reese Witherspoon’s production company snapped up Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere for television. Like her remarkable earlier mystery, Everything I Never Told You, it’s about family secrets under the deceptively placid surface of suburbia. I’m also excited about plans for a movie of Artemis—another futuristic tale by Andy Weir, whose book The Martian translated so effectively to film in 2015—and George Saunders’s Lincoln in the Bardo, set in our Civil War past, which won this year’s Man Booker Prize. I hope Hollywood doesn’t make a hash of them.

Some critics considered Don Winslow’s disappointing book The Force to have been a victim of early interest in making a movie out of it. The characters turned to cardboard and the complexity of his much better The Cartel went out the window. In his story, Manhattan reveals itself to be top-to-bottom corrupt, unbelievably so. And, yes, that movie is coming 3/1/19. Maybe playwright David Mamet can save it.

Two fine literary authors are in the movie mix: Alice McDermott for The Ninth Hour and Jennifer Egan for Manhattan Beach. About this book, Alexandra Schwartz writes that, to Egan, 9/11 felt “like the end of something—the United States’ sense of itself as king of the world” and the new book, set in Brooklyn in the 1930s and 40s, was a backwards look to “what was the beginning of that something.” My book group loved Fredrik Backman’s A Man called Ove, which I didn’t have a chance to read (or see on film), and now a television series is planned for his book, Beartown.

All in all, some tantalizing screen-time coming up.

WINK

Wink, Joshua de Jesus

Joshua de Jesus as Wink

We braved the Amtrak/New Jersey Transit/Penn Station debacle last Sunday to go into New York to see an off-off-(perhaps a third off is needed here, I’m not sure)-Broadway play in which our nephew-in-law is appearing.

It was fun to rub elbows with intrepid theater-goers, trying a performance that might be a little risky, perhaps hoping for something a little risqué and figuring out which cast member they are related to. The play is Neil Koenigsberg’s WINK, directed amiably by Ron Beverly, and playing at the Theater for the New City, 155 First Avenue, just south of 10th Street through May 7.

Since we’d allowed so much extra time for train delays, we had ample time for a long cross-town walk and fortification with blood marys at the bar across the street from the theater, where a baby shower was in full swing.

The cast did a terrific job (nephew-in-law included), but the play itself is problematic. It takes place in Hollywood today, and its major conflict is between the desire of a teenage character, the eponymous Wink, to not declare a gender—“I’m just Wink”—and the determination of a Hollywood agent to find out. If Koenigsberg—a former Hollywood public relations luminary-turned-playwright—had set the play in 1950 or somewhere other than Hollywood, this obsession might be more believable. The gender identity wars are being fought on different ground.

A good reason to see this play, though, is to see Joshua de Jesus as Wink. He does a heartfelt job on territory that’s pretty well trodden. Joe Maruzzo is engaging as a past-his-prime actor, Jose Joaquin Perez is a homeless counselor, and Nikole Williams a public relations consultant struggling with how to describe Wink and getting no help from anyone. The awful agent is our nephew, Joe Isenberg.

As Director Beverly told me after the show, “Joe has to be willing to be not liked,” and he paraphrased a reviewer who said, “you may not like this character, but you can admire Joe’s portrayal.” We did! And we liked all the do-wop music too.

The CIA: A Commitment to Illusion

lipstick, makeup

photo: Maria Morri, creative commons license

This week The Cipher Brief offered an inside look at one of the more arcane activities of the CIA’s Office of Technical Services (OTS) through an interview with Jonna Mendez, who worked as the OTS Chief of Disguise, retiring in 1993.

Although she began as a secretary with the Agency, when she took some photography lessons from the OTS, a new career was born. At that time, she was the only woman on the technical side at the Agency, and her first role was as a clandestine photographer. “I had cameras in lipsticks. I had them in key fobs. I’d put a camera in just about anything,” she said. When she started in the OTS, it was creating much of its hardware, like hidden cameras, but today it can buy a lot of what it needs off-the-shelf and upgrade from there.

Mendez later worked in the disguise unit, with the goal of enabling officers “to instantly change the way they looked.” Initially, the staff learned the art and tricks of making masks from the experts in Hollywood and, again, adapted them to CIA requirements. They also worked with Hollywood magicians to deconstruct the sleight-of-hand and distraction methods they use “to consistently and successfully deceive you.” (Read several startlingly entertaining anecdotes about the power of these illusion and distraction tools here.)

The office created a mask for Mendez, in which she “became about 15 years younger, much prettier, with a fabulous hairdo.” Wearing the mask, she met President George H.W. Bush and a group of high administration officials in the Oval Office. The mask was so realistic, no one realized she was wearing one, and she said they were shocked when she took it off.

When agents were given a mask or a disguise, they might initially be reluctant to wear it—“You don’t meet many men who want to put on a wig”—but they’d send them out into the community where they’d learn no one noticed, and they’d seat them near their colleagues in the cafeteria where they’d see no one recognized them. That usually convinced them, Mendez said.

Of course, being in a foreign environment and blending involves more than appearance. She’d teach agents the characteristic behavior of people in the places where they would be operating and what behavior to watch for and mimic.

Jonna is married to Tony Mendez, the CIA’s exfiltration expert who masterminded the escape of six American diplomats from Tehran in 1980, portrayed by Ben Affleck in the movie Argo. Their 2003 books about espionage in the waning days of the Cold War is Spy Dust. Tony’s book about his experiences, The Master of Disguise, contains the episode turned into Argo. You can order them with the affiliate links below.

From the Netflix Movie Vault

Shirley MacLaine, Meryl Streep, Postcards from the EdgeThese two interesting movies couldn’t be more different, though both are based on best-selling books and turn on the unlikely matter of insurance. The more fun was Postcards from the Edge (1990), which, through a horrible coincidence, arrived just after Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds died. Postcards is based very loosely on Fisher’s semi-autobiographical novel, and the obvious question is whether Reynolds was “really like that.”  Fisher said not and, suffice it to say, when Reynolds wanted to play the mother in the movie, director Mike Nichols told her she wasn’t right for it. (Nice Vanity Fair story here about the real mother-daughter relationship.)

I was apprehensive about sitting through another Hollywood druggie movie, even one billed as a comedy-drama (trailer), but in the first moments Meryl Streep walks into the frame, and I knew I’d be in good hands. Not only her performance as Suzanne Vale (Fisher), but Shirley MacLaine’s as Suzanne’s wine-drinking, self-absorbed, hyper-critical mother make the film worth seeing. Small roles for Annette Bening, Richard Dreyfuss, Gene Hackman, and Dennis Quaid are fun too. The strength of the performances means the movie holds up, nearly 30 years after it was made.

After a disastrous overdose, a stint in rehab helps Suzanne get her act together, but the only way anyone will give her another role is if she lives “supervised”—that is, with Mom. Otherwise, the studio will never be able get insurance for her. Returning to Mom ain’t easy. While you can see she totally adores her mother, she fears being “sucked into her massive orbit,” as Hunter Harris said in Vulture. Despite Suzanne’s shaky grip on herself, Streep plays it so you can’t help rooting for her, and you know she’ll come out all right.

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 90%; audiences 66%. (Interesting split there.)

In-The-Heart-Of-The-SeaBy contrast, 2015’s In the Heart of the Sea (trailer) is pretty darn depressing, if less emotionally engaging. It’s a seafaring adventure film about the 1819, real-life voyage of the Essex, a whaler out of Nantucket. While hunting whales in the South Pacific, the hunters enrage an enormous white sperm whale—virtually as long as the Essex itself—that takes its revenge on the ship, its whaleboats, and the crew. The Essex sinks, and the three remaining whaleboats struggle toward the coast of South America. Eventually, only eight crewmen make it back to Nantucket. Sound familiar?

The framing device of the story is that young author Herman Melville has an all-night interview with Thomas Nickerson, the Essex’s cabin boy and last surviving crew member. For decades, he has been keeping the secret of what actually occurred on the voyage and the desperate return trip. The ship owners, rather than have the world think whaling is too dangerous to invest in or insure (!) maintain the ship was lost when it ran aground.

But Melville is following rumors there’s more to the story, and by the time he leaves Nickerson’s company is determined to write what becomes The Great American Novel, Moby Dick (1851). In real life, both Nickerson and the first mate, Owen Chase, published accounts of the ill-fated trip, and these did inspire Melville’s book.

The film has exciting special effects—storms at sea, overhead views of the ship and the whales. Whale-killing is an unsavory business, and viewers can only be glad smellovision has not been invented. Good performances from Ben Whishaw as Melville and Brendan Gleeson as the aging sailor. Unfortunately, I didn’t find the Essex’s captain (Benjamin Walker) and first mate (Chris Hemsworth) very compelling, and I don’t know whether that was because of wooden performances or a bad script. Director Ron Howard clearly aspired for more here. As a fan of seagoing adventures, I wish he’d achieved it.

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 42%; audiences 53%.

****What Remains of Me

Los Angeles, Hollywood

photo: James Gubera, creative commons license

By Alison Gaylin , narrated by Ann Marie Lee – If, as the Bible says, the sins of the fathers will be visited on their children (or more colorfully “The fathers have eaten a sour grape, and the children’s teeth are set on edge”), this story is the proof of it. It’s set in two time periods—1980 and 2010—among a small group of Hollywood teenagers. They’re about 17 in 1980 and nearing 50 in 2010, with a whole lot of water under the bridge in between.

The three friends—Kelly, Bellamy, and Vee—come from vastly different backgrounds. Kelly, the principal point-of-view character, is barely middle class, while Bellamy and Vee are children of “tinseltown royalty,” rich kids whose actions bring few consequences. They all smoke, drink, use drugs, and skip school. Gaylin dwells on the substance abuse and resultant bad decision-making more than necessary, as there was not much new there. But even so, it’s the parents whose problems run deepest, under the shiny surface.

Teenage Kelly Michelle Lund—as she is forever known in the media—after ingesting more than a few illegal substances, goes to a movie wrap party at Vee’s home. Before the party ends, his director-father is murdered—shot three times, once right between the eyes. Thanks to a weak defense effort, Kelly is convicted of the crime.

After a quarter-century in prison, Kelly has been out for five years and is trying to rebuild her life. When Bellamy’s father is murdered in much the same way Vee’s was, the media and the police immediately suspect Kelly. In Gaylin’s twisting plot, every significant character has secrets, and they are ingeniously linked, While the plot mostly holds, a late confrontation between Kelly and Bellamy felt excessively contrived.

Hollywood is the perfect backdrop for a story in which nothing is as it seems—a place where you shouldn’t peer behind the curtain or, perhaps, for your own good, you’d better!. Throughout the story, characters repeatedly suggest that powerful Hollywood folk can do whatever they please, without consequences. That certainly was true when the studios’ star system was in place and bad behavior was aggressively covered up, but it’s less true since (with Bill Cosby a prominent exception). Yet that presumption makes so many characters’ secrets easier to keep.

Ann Marie Lee’s narration nicely evokes both the teens and the parents. She might have used more mature voices for Kelly and Bellamy at age 47, but that’s a minor quibble regarding an overall fine reading.

Café Society

Cafe_Society, Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart, Woody Allen

Eisenberg & Stewart with the director

In the new film written, directed, and narrated by Woody Allen (trailer), actor Jesse Eisenberg gets the Allen role and at times, early in the film, appears to be channeling his klutz persona. But the part requires something more, and Eisenberg delivers that as well.

In the 1930s, Bronx-raised Bobby Dorfman (Eisenberg) travels to Hollywood to look for work with his big cheese uncle (Steve Carell). He keeps semi-busy, but mostly falls in love with his uncle’s assistant Vonnie (Kristen Stewart). Alas, she says her heart is spoken for, though Bobby gives romancing her an energetic, hopeful shot.

Missing New York, Bobby returns to Manhattan to work for his sleazy older brother’s new nightclub, which he helps turn into The Place To Be. Bobby becomes a smooth and sophisticated operator in that world. You know he’ll meet Vonnie again, though what will happen . . . Eisenberg and Stewart add real substance to these characters, and her performance has been widely, rightly praised.

If you like Woody Allen’s humor, the scenes with Bobby’s parents (Jeannie Berlin and Ken Stott) are classic and hilarious. There’s not much story to hold the whole schmear together, but perfect moments of Hollywood hype and Manhattan glitz make it fun to watch. Fantastic score of 1930s jazz, beautiful and atmospheric cinematography, and big dose of nostalgia for a pre-digital age.

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 72%; audiences: 68%.