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A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder

22 Sep

Shortly after his mother’s funeral, Montague “Monty” Navarro is visited by one of her oldest friends, Miss Shingle, who informs him that his late mother was actually a member of the wealthy D’Ysquith family (pronounced “Deskwith”), disowned by her father when she fell in love with Monty’s father. In fact, she tells him, Monty is 9th in line to be the Earl of Highhurst.

When he reaches out to the D’Ysquiths for a job, he is summarily and cruelly rejected. His unrequited love/sometime lover Sibella rejects his proposal as well, due to his lack of prospects. Feeling doubly spurned, Monty vows revenge on the D’Ysquiths and determines what he now believes is his rightful title.

Since the 2014 Tony Award Best Musical winner A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder begins with Monty in prison composing his memoir (the Guide of the title), it’s apparent that something goes wrong. We don’t get to that point until late in Act Two. Getting there, we meet multiple members of the D’Ysquith family who stand between Monty and his earldom, as well as one who doesn’t, the beautiful Phoebe, a distant cousin who Monty becomes enamored of, much to the consternation of Sibella. The majority of the play involves these D’Ysquiths meeting their dooms, in creative and creatively staged ways. If this sounds at all familiar, it’s probably because the play is based on the same novel as the classic British movie Kind Hearts and Coronets, starring Obi Wan himself, Alec Guiness.

As Monty, Kevin Massey is easily up to the task of carrying the show. He has a fantastic singing voice, and can veer quickly from the earnest up-and-comer he presents to the D’Ysquiths, the schemer that he reveals only to the audience, and the somewhat louche rake he affects with Sibella.

Kristen Beth Williams presents Sibella as a self-absorbed social climber until she discovers that Monty might not always be there as her “back-up” plan, at which point she becomes into a woman scorned. As Phoebe, Kristen Hahn is lovely and intelligent, suddenly liberated as a result of her brother’s death. The marvelous “I’ve Decided to Marry You”, in which she declares her true feelings to (and for) Monty (while he tries to hide the fact that Sibella is in the next room) is easily the best number in the show, and brought the house down.

The real scene stealer in the cast, however, is John Rapson, who plays all of the D’Ysquiths who stand between Monty and the Highhurst title. Despite the danger of such a performance descending into “look what funny wigs and makeup I can wear”, Rapson embodies each D’Ysquith as a distinct character. Some of them certainly are dependent upon outlandish costumes or affectations, but a couple are more subtly delineated. It’s fun to anticipate what Rapson is going to do with each character, and he does not disappoint.

A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder is playing at the Fox Theater in St. Louis through September 25. Tickets in all price ranges are still available.

On the Fat Guys scale, it’s a solid

8 Cheeseburgers

The following clip is from the 2014 Tony Awards, featuring the original cast performing “I’ve Decided to Marry You”, introduced by the actor who plays the D’Ysquith family (as a few of his characters), since he isn’t in the number.

You, Me, Her

11 Jun

309130-2This review really isn’t fair. I’ll tell you why at the end.

This spring, almost unnoticed, a new comedy debuted called You, Me, Her. The setup was simple: a not-quite-young married couple, Emma (Rachel Blanchard) and Jack (Greg Poehler), are moving up in their professional relationship — he’s in line to become dean at a prestigious private school and her architecture firm is bidding to build a new fine arts building for that same school — but their personal life is in a rut. They’re seeing a marriage counselor for help, but Jack takes the advice of his older brother and makes an appointment with an escort. The escort he finds is Izzie (Priscilla Faia), a college student who’s trying to make her rent money.

Nothing happens (well, nothing much), but when Jack confesses to Emma, she is more curious than mad, to the point of making her own appointment with Izzie, then confessing to Jack that she felt a spark with the younger woman. Eventually, Jack and Emma come to believe that Izzie might be the solution to their problems. They attempt to make a financial agreement with Izzie but soon, as so often happens in these stories, the feels get in the way. The first season (two more have already been ordered) follows the trio as they try to figure out what they mean to each other, what their relationship means to the world around them, and how to balance everything.

The performances of the three main cast members are fantastic. All three are not only able but allowed to convey complex emotions without dialogue. Poehler, the brother of SNL and Parks and Rec standout Amy, gives Jack a somewhat confused air, as though he’s not always quite sure of what’s happening, but is game to go along. Blanchard’s Emma is a bit more worldly than her husband, and generally seems to know what she wants, even if she’s afraid to express it. Faia’s Izzie is at least as complex, walking a thin line between determined and fragile, and out of her depth as she falls for this married couple.

The show isn’t as laugh-out-loud funny as a lot of the more mainstream sitcoms; it’s more like an indy romcom compared to a Katherine Heigl chick flick. But I found it touching and endearing.

The reason this review is unfair is manifold: You, Me, Her aired on the Audience Network, which is owned by AT&T. Which means, as far as I can tell, it’s only available on DirecTV and Uverse. In addition, the first season wrapped on May 24, and it’s not showing either on the OnDemand listings or as airing in the next couple of weeks. The good news (such as it is) is that they’ll probably broadcast a marathon of the 10 episodes before Season 2 starts (I recorded 8 of the 10 episodes during a marathon showing). The bad news is, there’s no indication yet of when that will be. I strongly recommend keeping an eye on Netflix and on your local listings, and catching it when it pops up again.

I give You, Me, Her 7 Cheeseburgers

Oscar Preview – Best Actress/Best Supporting Actress

28 Feb

A rundown of the distaff nominees. I’ll post some general observations/witticisms tomorrow before the ceremony.

Best Actress

Cate Blanchett (Carol)

One of the premier actresses working, this nomination may be one of those “I didn’t see the movie, but Cate Blanchett is always great” nominations that have been discussed recently, in light of the #OscarsSoWhite controversy. Blanchett is good as the society woman torn between the conventions of propriety and her sexual inclinations, but she’s always so good that this didn’t strike me as anything special. Still, I don’t have a particular problem with the nomination.

Brie Larson (Room)

If Leonardo DiCaprio is this year’s surest bet, Brie Larson is probably a close #2. With a turn-on-a-dime performance as a woman who is well and truly a victim but who is trying to make the best of things for her son, Larson’s performance should elevate her to the first ranks of young actresses.

Jennifer Lawrence (Joy)

Same evaluation as Cate Blanchett above, although I have more of a problem with this nomination. I just wasn’t overly impressed by either Joy the movie or Joy the character, as embodied by Jennifer Lawrence. A meh performance in a meh movie.

Charlotte Rampling (45 Years)

Rampling is a veteran actress giving an understated performance in a little-seen movie. It didn’t do much for me. I would have been happy with Charlize Theron for Mad Max, even though I didn’t care much for the movie.

Saoirse Ronan (Brooklyn)

I actually liked Ronan’s performance better than Brie Larson’s. Her Eilis was quieter and less showy than Larson’s Ma, but went through a wider range of emotions. Of course, the flatness was a part of Larson’s character’s circumstance, but I was just drawn more to Eilis. Like Larson, Ronan will be a name we’ll be seeing quite often in nomination lists.

My Pick: Saoirse Ronan (Seer-sha, for those pronouncing at home)

My Prediction: Brie Larson

Best Supporting Actress

JENNIFER JASON LEIGH (The Hateful Eight)

IMO, the worst nomination of the 20 actors. Leigh’s Domergue served primarily as the recipient of a whole lot of cartoon violence and a whole lot of misogyny, and I didn’t see the performance particularly rise above it. This nomination should have gone to Tessa Thompson for Creed.

ROONEY MARA (Carol)

Category Fraud, case 1: Carol is a lesbian romance, and Rooney Mara’s Therese is an equal partner to Cate Blanchett’s Carol. But someone figured that nominating both as leads would split votes, so the non-title character is considered supporting. Regardless, Mara does fine work as a 1950s shopgirl exploring a new aspect to her sexuality.

RACHEL MCADAMS (Spotlight)

The temptation is to say that as the only woman in a cast full of guys, McAdams holds her own with the big boys. That sounds sexist, but it’s kind of true. McAdams does just fine here, but honestly, this nomination and Mark Ruffalo’s on the male side seem almost like “Well, if Spotlight is a Best Picture nominee, there have to be some actors nominated”. This could have gone to someone else pretty easily.

ALICIA VIKANDER (The Danish Girl)

Right nomination, wrong movie. Category Fraud, case 2: Vikander was the female lead in The Danish Girl. In fact, technically, she is the Danish Girl. At least, she’s the one being referred to when the phrase is spoken in the film. She should have been nominated for Ex Machina where, again, the role was the female lead, but the case could be made that the two leads were the male characters and she was support. She’s having a really good year (despite The Man from UNCLE tanking), and I think she’ll win.

KATE WINSLET (Steve Jobs)

Another “Actor x is in a movie I haven’t seen, but they’re always good” nomination. Kate Winslet was the best thing about the movie, but that’s not saying a whole lot.

My Pick: Alicia Vikander for Ex Machina

My Prediction: Alicia Vikander for The Danish Girl

Oscar Preview – Best Actor/Best Supporting Actor

28 Feb

I’m going to run through the actors in slightly less detail than I did the Best Pictures, so I’ll combine the Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor in one post, and the Best Actress/Supporting Actress in another. In the spirit of #OscarSoWhite, I’m also going to offer a couple of suggestions for worthy alternate nominees who aren’t white guys.

Best Actor

BRYAN CRANSTON (Trumbo)

A good performance by (IMO) one of our greatest actors, but fairly one-note. There doesn’t seem to be a lot of growth or development of the character, a Hollywood writer who was part of the anti-Communist blacklist of the mid-20th Century.

MATT DAMON (The Martian)

Damon’s charm and wit as stranded astronaut Mark Watney carries the film, and in any year that didn’t have him up against Leonardo DiCaprio in The Revenant, he might have a chance of winning. (Note: In my Best Picture writeup for The Martian, I said that Damon was robbed of a nomination. Obviously, his inclusion on this list means that he wasn’t.)

LEONARDO DICAPRIO (The Revenant)

A gutsy performance and a “he’s due” sentiment make DiCaprio the prohibitive favorite in this race. There’s not a lot of character development, and the dialogue is sparse, so this may turn out to be the Best Actor winning performance with the largest amount of grunting and groaning in Oscar history.

MICHAEL FASSBENDER (Steve Jobs)

An interesting actor in a not-so-interesting performance. This slot should have gone to Michael B. Jordan for Creed.

EDDIE REDMAYNE (The Danish Girl)

See above. Interesting actor in an almost caricature  performance. This slot could easily gone to someone like Domnhall Gleason (who had a huge year) for Ex Machina. (Okay, he’s a white guy. But I couldn’t decide which Compton guy was a lead, and wasn’t all that impressed with Samuel L. Jackson in The Hateful Eight.)

My Choice: Leo

Prediction: Leo

Best Supporting Actor

Christian Bale (The Big Short)

Bale’s performance as one part of what was really an ensemble cast did very little for me. The character was quirky, but outside the fake glass eye and the unconventional-for-an-investment-genius wardrobe, there really wasn’t much there. I would have had less trouble with Brad Pitt being nominated for the same movie, as his role was more against type. This spot could have gone to Oscar Isaac for Ex Machina.

Tom Hardy (The Revenant)

A brash and rough-hewn turn, almost the opposite of the laconic Max Rockatansky (who he also played), Hardy’s Fitzgerald provided a worthy adversary for DiCaprio’s nigh-on-indestructable mountain man. My favorite of the nominated performances in this category.

Mark Ruffalo (Spotlight)

See my evaluation of Christian Bale, above. Ruffalo was part of a really outstanding ensemble, but I didn’t find much to distinguish him from the rest except for volume. This could have gone to someone else, maybe Corey Hawkins for Straight Outta Compton.

Mark Rylance (Bridge of Spies)

As a stoic Soviet spy with a Scottish (or was it Irish) brogue, Rylance brought quiet dignity to a role that could easily have been cartoonish.

Sylvester Stallone (Creed)

The sentimental choice, and probably an Oscar record for an actor being nominated for playing the same character the most years apart. There’s nothing wrong with Stallone’s performance, and this could well be viewed as sort of a “lifetime achievement award” for an actor who, while known primarily as an action star, turned in some really great performances over the course of his career.

My choice: Tom Hardy

My prediction: Sylvester Stallone

Oscar Preview – Best Picture

28 Feb

A quick look at the Best Picture nominees for 2016, in the order they were shown at AMC Theatres’ Best Picture Showcase. February 20 and 27.

Bridge of Spies

What is it?  A Steven Spielberg/Tom Hanks movie set in the 1940s. In other words, Oscar Bait.

Who’s it by? Steven Spielberg, based on true events

Who’s in it?  Tom Hanks, Mark Rylance (Best Supporting Actor Nominee)

What’s it About? During the Cold War, an American lawyer is recruited to defend an accused Soviet spy in court. Following the crash of the American U2 spy plane, he is asked to go to the newly-divided Berlin to arrange a prisoner trade.

How is it? Good in an Oscar-baity, historical drama sort of way. Hanks does his Hanks thing, and Spielberg evokes the time period and expertly plucks at the heart strings.

Will it Win? No. It’s the most traditional of the Best Picture nominees, but in a diverse field (#OscarsSoWhite notwithstanding), it doesn’t really stand a chance.

 

Room

What is it?  A wrenching drama about the relationship between a young mother and her son.

Who’s it by? Irish director Lenny Abrahamson and writer Emma Donoghue, based on her novel

Who’s in it? Brie Larson (Best Actress Nominee), Jacob Tremblay, Joan Allen, William H Macy

What’s it About? A young mother, the victim of a kidnapping and repeated abuse, lives in a single room with her son, the product of her repeated rapes. Saying much more gives away things that probably shouldn’t be given away.

How is it? Very good. A harrowing drama, with some lighter, hopeful moments (unlike certain other nominated movies…see below). Larson is the odds-on favorite to win Best Actress (although my choice would be another young actress…see my Best Actress post, coming soon). This film ties for the hardest sell for viewers (“Hey, do you want to see a movie about a girl who gets kidnapped, imprisoned, and impregnated, or one about a guy who gets mortally wounded and drags himself across the wilderness?”), but for viewers who choose it, it’s well worth the time.

Mad Max: Fury Road

What is it?  A post apocalyptic chase across a desert featuring a one-armed woman warrior, a laconic cop, and a bunch of pregnant girls on the run.

Who’s it by? George Miller (Best Director Nominee), creator of the original Mad Max movies way back when

Who’s in it? Tom Hardy (Best Supporting Actor nominee, but not for this movie), Charlize Theron

What’s it About? In the desolate future of the Mad Max movies, the kick-ass Imperator Furiosa (Theron) is tasked by tyrannical ruler Immortan Joe to drive a tanker truck from the Citabdel he rules to Fuel City for (you guessed it) fuel to power Joe’s tricked out vehicles. She has another idea, however, and absconds with Joe’s favored wives, to deliver them to the idyllic Green  Place she was stolen from as a youth. Joe sends his forces after them, and a massive desert chase ensues.

How is it? This is the only one of the Best Picture nominees I had seen before, and I was less impressed by it the first time than the vast majority of critics. I went in to this viewing determined to see what the rest (and more than one of my Facebook friends) saw in it, and what I saw was this: An outstanding action/chase movie with impressive practical effects (i.e. stunts and effects that are done physically rather than using computer effects), but not much more than that. Judging by the smattering of boos when the theater manager asked “How did we like that movie?” following the marathon airing, I’m not necessarily alone in that judgement. I’m not judging or criticizing those who loved the movie — and there were enough that it got a freakin’ BP Nom, but I’m just not one of them.

The Big Short

What is it?  The story of the financial crisis of 2006-7, told through the eyes of four diverse investors who foresaw the crash and dared to bet against the housing market.

Who’s it by? Director Adam McKay (Best Director Nominee), previously known as the director of a whole bunch of Will Ferrell movies

Who’s in it?  Steve Carrell, Brad Pitt, Ryan Gosling, Christian Bale (Best Supporting Actor Nominee)

What’s it About? Eccentric investor Michael Burry (Bale) comes to believe that the US housing market is unstable and convinces major banks (who think he’s nuts) to create investment vehicles for him to bet against the banks, and a few other forward-thinking investors jump on board to ride out the coming financial crisis.

How is it? Very funny. McKay and co-writer Charles Randolph have come up with a clever way of explaining complex financial concepts, and the actors all inhabit their characters well, despite the fact that we all know how the situation they’re profiting off of turns out. I wasn’t as impressed with Bale’s performance as the Oscar voters appear to have been, though this may be one of many instances this year where an actor’s reputation carried them to a nomination rather than the actual on-screen result (see: Bridge of Spies, Jennifer Lawrence)

Brooklyn

What is it?  A young Irish woman emigrates to America and discovers love in the 1950s.

Who’s it by? Director John Crowley from a script by Nick Hornby (About a Boy), from Colm Toibin’s novel

Who’s in it?  Saoirse Ronan (Best Actress Nominee), Jim Broadbent, Julie Walters

What’s it About? A young Irish woman leaves her insular home town to live in Brooklyn, New York. She battles homesickness, discovers love, and is forced to choose between her past and her future when a family crisis causes her to return to Ireland for a temporary (?) visit.

How is it? Outstanding. My favorite movie of the BP Nominations, and Saoirse (pronounce it “Seer-sha” in your head) Ronan gives my favorite performance of any actor. Neither of which mean I think she or the movie will win; the movie’s too “small”  to be a Best Picture winner, and Ronan’s up against odds-on favorite Larson. Still, Ronan would be a wonderful upset winner, and I’d love to see the first Oscar tie in an acting category since 1968.

Spotlight

What is it?  All the attention that’s been focused on Clergy abuse around the world? This is what started it all.

Who’s it by? Director Tom McCarthy (Best Director Nominee) and screenwriters McCarthy and Josh Singer (Best Original Screenplay nominees)

Who’s in it?  Rachel McAdams, Michael Keaton, Brian D’Arcy James, Mark Ruffalo (Best Supporting Actor nominee)

What’s it About? What it’s not about: The child abuse scandal plaguing the Catholic Church. What it’s actually about is the reporting that led to the breaking of the story of the child abuse scandal plaguing the Catholic Church.

How is it? Very good. An engrossing drama that depicts the growing horror on the part of the reporting team as their investigation into a couple of abusive priests leads them to the realization of just how wide the abuse — and its cover-up — spread. Again, Ruffalo’s performance was good, but not great, but he did stand out ever so slightly from a really great ensemble cast.

The Martian

What is it?  An astronaut is left for dead on Mars and has to find a way to survive and let the world know he’s still alive.

Who’s it by? Director Ridley Scott, screenwriter Drew Goddard (Best Adapted Screenplay nominee), from Andy Weir’s book

Who’s in it?  Matt Damon (edit: Best Actor nominee), Jessica Chastain, Jeff Daniels, Michael Pena

What’s it About? An astronaut specializing in botany is stranded on Mars following an accident during a storm. While he tries to figure out how to survive, NASA has to juggle resources, publicity, and science to figure out how best to save him — or if they even should.

How is it? Very good. Damon was robbed of a Best Actor nomination (edit: no he wasn’t. it’s late, and I’ve been watching movies all day), and the movie relies heavily on his nature and personality. The effects are good, the philosophical debates are pertinent and realistic, and science rules!

The Revenant

What is it?  A wilderness guide is left for dead in the 1800s and must find a way to survive his injuries, the elements, and hostile Indians as he claws his way across the landscape.

Who’s it by? Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu (Best Director nominee)

Who’s in it?  Leonardo DiCaprio (Best Actor nominee), Tom Hardy (Best Supporting Actor nominee)

What’s it About? Wilderness guide Hugh Glass (DiCaprio) and his half-Indian son are leading a fur-trapping team when it’s attacked by Indians. Decimated, the group debate on the best way to get back to their fort base. When Glass is mortally wounded, he is forced to battle nature and betrayal to find his way to aid and vengeance.

How is it? Beautiful and grueling. This is a lush movie which features the two best male acting performances of the year (DiCaprio is considered a lock for Best Actor, while Hardy is the longest of long shots). It’s also one of those movies that I’m glad I saw, because that means I don’t have to see it again. It’s the odds-on favorite to win Best Picture.

My favorite movies of the bunch: Brooklyn, The Big Short, The Martian

My choice for Best Picture: Spotlight or The Big Short

My prediction to win Best Picture: The Revenant

The End of a Bygone Era

11 May

The penultimate episode of Mad Men aired tonight, and the series will wrap up next Sunday.  To prime the pump for the last episode, AMC will be airing every episode of the series’ 7 seasons in one marathon showing, starting this Wednesday (4/13) at 6 pm, 5 Central. Looking at the schedule, it looks like each episode is set for a run time of between 64 to 66 minutes, so be aware that if you plan to tune in here and there, episodes after the first one will likely not be beginning on the hour.

2015 Oscar Nominees – Whiplash

22 Feb

Every year, the list of Best Picture nominees includes at least one or two “smaller” movies, films which the casual moviegoer might not recognize but which have distinguished themselves within the nominating community.  This year, a number of films at least partially qualify for that distinction, but Boyhood has received quite a bit of attention due to its unorthodox filming schedule, and The Theory of Everything and The Imitation Game are biographies of scientists known (at least in theory) to the public at large.  Which leaves us with Whiplash.

Whiplash is writer/director Damien Chazelle’s story of a promising drummer and his relationship with an abusive, drill-sergeant of a band director at a prestigious New York music academy.  Andrew Niemann (Miles Teller) is working in a practice studio when he’s approached by Terrance Fletcher (J.K. Simmons) to join Fletcher’s studio jazz band, the premiere band in the school.  From their first meeting, Fletcher’s style is apparent to Andrew; the director is arrogant and alternately abusive and dismissive.  In band rehearsal, this behavior is even more pronounced, as Fletcher openly berates and humiliates the band members, with special attention devoted to “squeaker” (new member) Niemann.  Still, Andrew is determined to be the best he can be, and is inspired to learn at Fletcher’s hands.

I’ve been a J.K. Simmons fan for years, from his appearances as Dr. Emil Skoda on the Law & Order shows, through to the father in Juno, and straight on to J. Jonah Jameson in the Ted Raimi Spider-Man movies.  Here, he fills Fletcher’s skin as a person who’s charming in public and a monster in private, oozing charisma in both.  His Best Supporting Actor Oscar is being viewed as something of a fait accompli, and deservedly so.  As his foil, the fresh-faced Teller makes an appealing outsider, a talented performer who evaluates the best course to achieve his goals and pursues them steadfastly, even if such a pursuit might be against his best interests.

Chazelle keeps the film moving at a breakneck pace, the percussion-heavy jazz soundtrack a beating heart and driving force.  Its naturalistic style is fitting for the subject matter, and the film even attempts to answer one of the most obvious questions that many abusive teacher/student films fail to answer: How does this guy keep his job?

I thoroughly enjoyed Whiplash.  You may not have heard of it, but you’d be very well advised to seek it out.

I give it 8 Cheeseburgers