Whiplash

J.K.Simmons, Miles Teller, Whiplash

J.K.Simmons and Miles Teller in Whiplash

Another Oscar movie (trailer) with a Princeton connection. Director Damien Chazelle was “inspired by” his musical experience at Princeton High School to explore how the drive to excel can become all-consuming. Not that the character Fletcher, superbly played by Oscar-winner J. K. Simmons, the tightly wound and sadistic studio band leader, mirrored Chazelle’s own band leader (“fear inspires greatness”), he is at pains to say, but still . . . Chazelle wanted the film to explore the line between a healthy passion and an obsession, and, boy, did he do that, garnering five Oscar nominations in the process.

Miles Teller is terrific as the young drummer pushed to the limits of his skills and endurance—and beyond—by teacher Fletcher, “sworn enemy of the merely O.K.,” says Anthony Lane in The New Yorker. Characteristically, Fletcher says, “There are no two words in the English language more harmful than ‘good job.’” The Hank Levy tune “Whiplash” is the rack of a tune upon which the drummers in Fletcher’s jazz band are broken.

Here’s a movie where I really felt the tension—it made me clench my fists to the point where my hands, too, were almost bleeding. The playing of the drums enters your skull, and your heart must keep time. If you missed it in theaters, Netflix has it!

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating 95%; viewers, 96%. “Bring a welder’s mask to ward off sparks,” advised critic Donald Clarke in the Irish Times.

Birdman (or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

Michael Keaton, Birdman

Michael Keaton in “Birdman”

Given this movie’s underlying premise, I should say up-front that I have a love-not-love relationship with it. Yes, the acting is terrific. Given a script with substance, Michael Keaton, Ed Norton (truly amazing), and Emma Stone all received Oscar nods. I’m also big fan of Amy Ryan, who plays Keaton’s wife in one of her trademark low-key performances, of the kind she perfected in The Wire. The story itself, however, of a middle-aged man’s struggle to find himself amidst the debris of his messy family affairs and dwindling career is, for me, less interesting. (Trailer here)

In telling it, Mexican director Alejandro G. Iñárritu pays homage to magical realism of the South American kind (an armful of calla lilies appears on a monument somewhere to Gabriel García Márquez at every showing of this movie). What appears to be happening on the screen—Michael Keaton levitating in the lotus position or, yes, flying—can be accepted on either a literal or a metaphorical basis, or both, depending on the viewer’s taste and tolerance.

In the story, Keaton is a Hollywood has-been (a former superhero called Birdman) tackling Broadway for the first time, directing and starring in a production of the Raymond Carver short story, “What we talk about when we talk about love.” The play is in rehearsal, and whether it will be successful is a toss-up. It looks unlikely. Meanwhile, Birdman himself keeps appearing like a nudgy pal, alternately flattering and browbeating Keaton and trying to lure him back into the gloriously popular action movies of his youth.

The Carver story recounts an alcohol-soaked evening when two couples try to sort out what love is, a question that has baffled sober people from time immemorial. Because of his own extreme vision of love, the ex-husband of one of the characters shot himself but “bungled it,” says the play. Later, he died. This might be a clue to the movie’s unwinding or not, because the extent to which the play-in-production is supposed to illuminate the movie is deliberately ambiguous. (I didn’t understand the subtitle, either, as it seemed to me that the characters were all too knowing.)

Numerous possible explanations (waking dreams, fevered thoughts, daydreams) could explain some of the action—especially the Michael Keaton character’s flying—which if you’re not overly hung up on trying to explain it rationally is thrilling. This is a movie that you have to decide to “just go with it” or face frustration. But the acting—and the bird costume!—is worth the price of admission. Liked the drumming. Rotten tomatoes critics rating 92%; audiences 84%.

N.J. Theaters Surviving (Thriving in!) Winter

playbills

(photo: Vicki Weisfeld)

Caught revivals of two 1972 plays at two of New Jersey’s fine local theatres last weekend for completely different experiences.

In partnership with Syracuse Stage, Princeton’s McCarter Theatre brought to the United States the production of Sizwe Banzi is Dead as recently remounted by Johannesburg’s Market Theatre. McCarter has presented several other South African plays in the past few decades, and this work, written by John Kani, Athol Fugard, and Winston Ntshona is much livelier than I remember those created by Fugard alone.

In two main parts, the play illustrates through humor the frustrations of life in an autocratic system and how the only solution, when one is painted into a corner by rules and regulations, is to leap over them and start life anew. Thus, Sizwe Banzi, the pass book holder is dead, but Sizwe Banzi, the man, lives free. The actors, whom Emily Mann says are “two of the most promising young actors in South Africa”—Atandwa Kani (son of the playwright) and Mncedisi Shabangu—gave unforgettable performances. The play was most effective when it worked by humor, rather than harangue, and there was a bit of that, but not much.

Upstate New Yorkers—this production starts at Syracuse Stage 2/25. And if it comes your way, don’t miss it! The struggle for dignity belongs to us all.

Pure comedy was on stage at Two River Theater in Red Bank, New Jersey, with Alan Ayckbourn’s classic, Absurd Person Singular. Its three acts takes place on three successive Christmas Eves in the kitchens of the three couples who form the cast: one on the way up in society and life, one on the way down, and one decidedly mixed. Much of the comedy comes from Ayckbourn’s wry and exact observations of human behavior and motivation and his characters’ obliviousness to it. Jessica Stone directed the cast’s six members, who were uniformly up to the precise timing, physical agility, and intelligence needed to make this play work so well

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The Last Sentence

The Last Sentence, Jesper Christensen, Torgny Segerstedt It was troubling to view Swedish director Jan Troell’s 2012 film (trailer) based on the experience of crusading journalist Torgny Segerstedt, so soon after the recent tragic events in Paris. Segerstedt was editor-in-chief of one of Sweden’s leading newspapers, and between 1933 when Hitler came to power and his own death in 1945, Segerstedt was a fierce opponent of Naziism, even though much of Sweden’s leadership, including the king, was determined to remain neutral and out of the war. The struggle for journalists’ right—some would say duty—to speak out despite risks to themselves and others has not ended.

Beautifully played by Jesper Christensen, Segerstedt left himself open to criticism and to the devaluing of his motivations by his long affair with a Jewish woman, wife of his publisher. Hollywood’s crusading journalists are noble and flawless (think All the President’s Men), their presumed moral authority overshadowing any rough spots in their personalities, whereas Segerstedt’s uncompromising character is pompous at times and unpleasant at others, he basks in his celebrity, and he’s downright cruel to his wife. “Easy to admire, but very hard to like,” said RogerEbert.com reviewer Glenn Kenny. Truth told, he loves his dogs best.

Producing this film in black and white may have symbolic significance or may be just the preferred Scandinavian style—the film is Swedish, after all. In another Bergman-like touch, Segerstedt sees and converses with the black-clad ghosts of his mother and other women. Slow-moving, like the clear stream (of words?) against which the opening and closing credits appear, there is only a fleeting soundtrack to support the action.

The film left me with a lot of unanswered questions. What happened with his writing? When the authorities demanded that a particular edition not be distributed because of its anti-Nazi editorial (which suggests they had imposed some censorship regime), Segerstedt printed it with a big white space where the editorial would have been. Nice. But we never learn whether he was allowed to continue writing after that (or how he was stopped) until a scene that takes place years later. How did the war affect the Swedish people? There’s little hint of that, beyond putting up blackout curtains. It seems they had electricity, they had food, petrol, champagne at New Year’s. It’s primarily the awareness of Nazi behavior that the viewer brings to the film that explains and justifies both Segerstedt’s simmering outrage and his country’s policy of appeasement. He and his mistress both have suicide plans, if it came to that, but in the absence of any tangible, on-screen threat, their preparations seem self-dramatizing and almost childish.

Segerstedt in a sense provides his own epitaph, which is also the Swedish title of the movie—“Judgment on the Dead”— based on a line from a famous Old Norse poem, which says the judgment on the dead is everlasting. History’s judgment on Segerstedt would be that he was of course right about the Nazis. And if, as the King believed, it would have been his fault if the Germans invaded the country, he would have been among the first to die. NPR’s Ella Taylor called the film “A richly detailed portrait of a great man riddled with flaws and undone by adulation.” Rotten Tomatoes critics rating 76%, audience score 44%.

 

Selma

Selma, Martin Luther King, civil rights

David Oyelowo as Rev. Martin Luther King

The movie Selma (trailer), directed by Ava DuVernay is a beautifully realized reminder of the struggle for black voting rights half a century ago. Casting was so perfect that viewers who know the real-life characters can easily identify Andy Young (André Holland), John Lewis (Stephan James), and other era heroes. (As a Detroit native, I’m glad the movie remembered murdered Viola Liuzzo.)

Some commenters have quibbled with the movie’s historical accuracy—especially the portrayal of President Lyndon Johnson—but it isn’t a documentary, after all, and the presentation is probably more accurate than not. In a personal conversation, a White House insider at the time told me he heard Johnson said to King, “You have to force me to do what I want to do.” The political risks were too great (and chances of success too small) for Johnson to act unilaterally on voting rights, but if the pressure and public outrage became strong enough—as it did become after Bloody Sunday—he would act and did.

David Oyelowo is perfect as Rev. Martin Luther King—thoughtful but fiery when he needed to be, and he has King’s oratorical cadences down perfectly. Tom Wilkinson is always good, but I missed Lyndon’s Texas accent. Oprah, awesome. And Wendell Pierce could just stand anywhere, and I’d be with him a hundred percent. The whole cast, sincere and convincing.

My biggest frustration about the movie is the reaction to it. I hope leaders (black and white) use the triumphal feeling it engenders to remind people how important the courage and sacrifices of the Movement were. (And those of the Suffragettes before them.) But what’s happening now? People—black and white, men and women—don’t even bother to use their vote. They may vote for President every four years, but the person at the pinnacle has a lot less influence over our daily lives than the people in the state house, the mayor’s office, the township committee, the school board. The candidates are all lousy, you say? Crackpot idealogues? Those people get picked in the primary elections which have even lower voter turnout, except among extremists. When people don’t vote in primaries, every extremist’s vote counts more.

Further, the justifiable pride being expressed regarding the accomplishments of the heroes of Selma should be turned into anger at the way the Voting Rights Act is now being chipped away in state legislatures. New restrictions on voters are transparently intended to limit the votes of minority and young people. Perhaps the movie will be popular in these groups and be an educational and motivational tool, so that effective campaigns can be mounted against these voting restrictions.

What’s the point of feeling good about this struggle of 50 years ago if we let it lapse into meaninglessness through apathy today? Rev. King believed the power of the vote was the key to changing people’s future, and I believe it would break his heart to see how that right has been degraded.

The Imitation Game

Alan Turing, codebreaking, Bletchley Park

(photo: wikimedia.org)

Eagerly awaited general release of The Imitation Game (trailer), starring Benedict Cumberbatch in a superb bit of acting, and was not disappointed. The story, hidden for almost 30 years, is by now familiar—Alan Turing, the brilliant but eccentric Oxford student admitted to Bletchley Park’s code-breaking team, figures out how to decrypt messages generated by the Nazis’ super-secret Enigma machine, shortening WWII by two years, and, oh, by the way, inventing computers in the process.

Last month Andrew Hodges, author of the book the movie’s based on, was in town for a talk—a bit dazed about this great success 30 years post-publication—and his insights (summarized here) were, frankly, helpful. He powerfully described the homophobia that pervaded the British intelligence services (and society in general) in the 1950’s that made Turing a target. Also the greater significance of the apples, alluded to only glancingly in the movie and without context. Turing was fascinated with the Snow White story, and saying more drifts into spoiler territory.

I earnestly hope someone said to him what Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley) says near the end of this film. Clarke responds to Turing’s lifelong struggle with being different from other boys and men, and says how he “saved millions of lives by never fitting in,” as Tom Long put it in The Detroit News. Or, “Sometimes it is the people no one imagines anything of who do the things that no one can imagine,” says the movie’s tagline.

There’s a little too much standing in front of the marvelous prop constructed for the movie, which the producer says is like the original Turing machine, just not in a box, so you can see the works. The secondary characters are thinly developed and no doubt worthy of greater interest. However, the scenes of Turing as a young boy (Alex Lawther), trying to come to terms with his differentness, are heartbreaking. Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 89%; audience score 95%.

The Theory of Everything

Stephen Hawking, Eddie Redmayne , Felicity Jones, The Theory of Everything

Eddie Redmayne & Felicity Jones, The Theory of Everything

The uplifting Stephen Hawking biopic The Theory of Everything (trailer) is well worth seeing. The basic outlines of the story are well known. In his student days at Cambridge, Hawking developed a neuromotor disease that affects the body, not the brain, and was given two years to live. Such a diagnosis would end the ambitions of most people, but he survived to become preeminent in the fields of theoretical physics and cosmology with numerous British and international honors, including a Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest U.S. civilian honor.

Hawking also has tried to make the complexities of the physical sciences accessible for non-scientists, and his book, A Brief History of Time, has sold more than 10 million copies. I have the Illustrated edition, and I’ve read it, picture captions and all. (So, I actually know what the Heisenberg uncertainty principle is: let’s see, you can know the speed of an object or its location, but you cannot know both at the same time. Please, no questions.)

Eddie Redmayne is superlative as Hawking, and Felicity Jones convincing as his devoted first wife, Jane. The film avoids the typical mawkishness traps, in large part because, as Rene Rodriguez says in the Miami Herald, “Redmayne keeps you focused on the soul of a man trapped inside a malfunctioning body.” The supporting cast is singularly excellent too.

The movie is based on a book written by Jane, whom Hawking met at Cambridge shortly before the neurological problems began to surface. The couple have three children, and he is portrayed as a loving father. It ends some 25 years later, in the late 1980s.

There’s only a smattering of science and mathematics in the movie; in general, it’s about coping against greater odds than a person can at all reasonably be expected to overcome. The movie suggests, not unreasonably, that Jane’s determination was a significant factor in keeping him alive. Not just surviving, thriving. Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 81%; audiences 84%.

Skylight

Bill Nighy, Carey Mulligan, David Hare, Skylight

Bill Nighy & Carey Mulligan in Skylight

If Britain’s National Theatre Live version of David Hare’s remounted play Skylight, comes to a movie theatre in your area, don’t miss it! It’s a live performance filmed last summer, and, unlike the live opera shown in movie theaters, it isn’t “live, live.” But it isn’t just a camera set up in the back of the theatre, either. There are wonderful closeups of the three actors, and given who the actors are, you want to catch every nuanced facial muscle.

Carey Mulligan plays a 30ish woman (her first stage role), Kyra Hollis, who teaches in what is apparently a rather desperate London school and lives in rather minimalist circumstances in a British public housing flat, of a type familiar from U.K. crime shows. She’s visited by a young man—played briefly and brilliantly by Matthew Beard—who is the son in a family she once lived with. The young man urges her to return to try to help his father, who he says is lost in grief and rage over his wife’s death a year before. The son departs, and the father arrives.

Played flawlessly by Bill Nighy, the father is a successful restaurateur for whom Kyra once worked, and the sparring between the two over why she left his home and her work, the new life she’s constructed, and what was and is between them carries the rest of the play. When it was first produced in 1995, Skylight won the Olivier Award for Best New Play. Many funny moments. Tears, too.

Johnny Worricker

Bill Nighy, Worricker

Bill Nighy as Worricker (photo: ichef.bbci.co.uk)

If you saw the two Masterpiece Contemporary thrillers starring Bill Nighy (perfect, as ever), chances are we agree they were terrific. If you missed them, Nighy plays MI5 agent Johnny Worricker, on the outs with his bosses and trying to bring attention to the shady dealings of Prime Minister Alec Beasley (Ralph Fiennes without much hair).

Needless to say, the Powers That Be don’t approve of Worricker’s activities and are seriously looking for him. In the first of the two dramas shown this month, “Turks and Caicos,” he’s chilling out on the islands when he’s spotted by a CIA agent played by Christopher Walken, with his typical opaque style, and you’re never quite sure who’s who and what’s what. Except that Worricker’s former girlfriend, Margo Tyrell (Helena Bonham Carter), wastes no time realigning her priorities and jetting down to the Caribbean when he needs her. In the second, “Salting the Battlefield,” Worricker and Tyrell are on the run, and doing a pretty good job of it, too, until family ties threaten to flush them out into the open.

These two productions are followups to 2011’s film with the same characters, “Page Eight,” which lacked only Bonham Carter’s Margo Tyrell. Somehow I missed that program when it was broadcast three years ago. Thanks, Neflix! What makes these dramas so good are the scripts. The screenplays and the direction are by British playwright, theater and film director, and two-time Academy Award nominee David Hare. Says Grantland reviewer Chris Ryan, “If it’s adult contemporary, it’s as good as adult contemporary gets.”

Olive Kitteridge: on TV

Olive Kitteridge, HBO, Elizabeth StroutI hope you  spared yourself the awful Death Comes to Pemberley on Masterpiece Theater last Sunday and watched HBO’s Olive Kitteridge instead. I’d read the Pemberley book, by P.D. James, and it should have been great. Huge disappointment. So I wasn’t optimistic about the television version. Talented Anna Maxwell Martin should have stuck with The Bletchley Circle, where she had an innovative, meaty role.

Olive Kitteridge will be playing on HBO (2 parts) numerous times in coming weeks, so if you missed it the first time, try to catch it. Just for the acting alone, it’s terrific, with Frances McDormand playing Olive and Richard Jenkins as Henry, her long-suffering husband. I’d read the book, so was prepared for Olive’s prickly personality. She’s likely not someone you’d want to spend a lifetime with, but Henry hung in there, and NPR reviewer Eric Deggans calls the production “maybe the best depiction of marriage on TV.”

For me, the television version posed much the same question as did the Pulitzer Prize-winning book by Elizabeth Strout. Why was Olive so unyielding, so unmoved by others’ feelings, even as she registers them? She is that rare creature—someone who truly won’t bother to be likeable. “Olive had a way about her that was absolutely without apology,” a character in the book says. Her father’s suicide is talked about on several occasions, and did that cause the big disconnect? It doesn’t seem so. And just when you’re about to give up on her, she’ll do something remarkable.