Archive for November, 2013

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire: Katniss Still Has ‘It’—Movie

November 24, 2013

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire,” the second in the”Hunger Games” trilogy, is back in competitive form. Directed by Francis Lawrence and based on Suzanne Collins’ novel, Catching Fire, with screenplay by Simon Beaufoy and Michael Arndt, the film is a worthy sequel to the 2012 “Hunger Games.” Although abetted by terrific supporting cast, make no mistake, the glue that holds “Catching Fire” together is its star, Jennifer Lawrence, in all of her girl-power mojo.Hunger Games

When the first film ended, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson ) were declared winners of the 74th Hunger Games. In Games past, the winner was the sole survivor of a fight to the death finish. However, in the 74th Game, Katniss and Peeta refused to kill one another. They pretended to be lovers, vowing to eat poisonous berries and die together. However, they were stopped from so doing and were declared joint winners.

“Catching Fire” begins with Katniss and Peeta preparing for their victory tour. Katniss is still harboring some after-effects from what took place during the 74th Games and isn’t overly eager for the tour. Following her goodbye to real boyfriend, Gale (Liam Hemsworth), she has a meeting with President Snow (Donald Sutherland). Concerned that the country isn’t totally buying her and Peeta’s relationship, he “urges” her to make their love convincing…to the citizens and him…or else harm will come to her friends and family.

The tour isn’t a complete success. Rebellion is in the air. To silence the threat, President Snow declares the 75th Hunger Games, pitting past winners against one another. Alliances are formed and the Games begin.

“Catching Fire” allows for the introduction of new characters and actors as well as the return of familiar faces. Two newcomer standouts are Jena Malone and Sam Claflin as Johanna and Finnick,winners from their districts. Malone is especially good, as she always is. Also new to the film is Philip Seymour Hoffman as Plutarch Heavensbee, the gamemaker, who adds just the right touch of mystery to his role.

In all truth, the returning  older male actors steal the movie right from under their younger male co-stars. Donald Sutherland can out malevolent anyone with his voice alone. When he is on the screen it’s hard to notice anyone else. Stanley Tucci as Caesar Flickerman, the Game’s host, repeats his sublimely over the top performance. And Woody Harrelson’s Haymitch is once again fabulous as Katniss’ and Peeta’s advisor (honestly, when you watched “Cheers” did you ever expect him to be the actor he’s become?). Elizabeth Banks, back as Effie Trinket, the stylist, has more to do this go-round and she is terrific.

In her short movie career, Jennifer Lawrence has yet to make a false step. She is perfect as the multi-dimensional Katniss—tough, vulnerable—and she still rocks that bow and arrow. Josh Hutcherson has proven to be a good actor, but he’s just not convincing as Katniss’ love interest. Liam Hemsworth isn’t given much to do in this installment, but supposedly has a larger role in the next film.

The Games are set around a lake and the special effects are wonderful. The fog scenes are especially good and the monkeys…let’s just say you won’t get as close to the monkey cage next time you visit the zoo…they are that fearsome. Trish Summerville’s costume design are utterly breathtaking. They are nearly characters in and of themselves.

“Hunger Games: Catching Fire” drags a bit in the middle, but does pick up once the Game is in full-throttle mode. If you haven’t read the books, it leaves you in enough suspense to make you want to see what comes next.

2 ¾ nuggets out of 4

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Appropriate: Family Battle is a Must—Theatre

November 19, 2013

Appropriate1Appropriate,” the Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company‘s latest offering, written by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins and directed by Liesl Tommy, is a gripping drama sprinkled with very dark, pointed humor throughout. One thing is certain—after watching the play’s Lafayette family rip one another apart, “Appropriate” certainly made me feel better about my parents, siblings and our relationships.

Often family secrets, slights and hurts come out into the open at funerals or readings of a loved one’s will. Such is the case of the Lafayette family. They’ve come from New York, DC and Oregon to Arkansas to clean up their late father’s home so it can be auctioned off. A chance retrieval of a never-before-seen photo album full of horrific photos is the spark that lights the fuse, as the Lafayette family explodes before our very eyes.

“Appropriate” will make you feel uncomfortable at times because the battles between siblings and significant others are so intense. Sometimes you’ll feel like a child caught between two unhappily married parents. Other times viewing the play is like being a fly on the wall, but unlike the insect, you can’t just fly from the uncomfortable situation.

But in truth, you won’t want to flee, because, as usual, the Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company has brought together a terrific cast of actors. Deborah Hazlett, as Toni, the oldest sibling, is a force of nature. Toni spent many years taking care of their father along with her own family, and has a huge chip on her shoulder for so doing. Hazlett is the embodiment of years of simmering frustration, resentment and anger which finally boil over.  David Bishins is very good as the middle sibling, Bo, who has kept his distance and as a result, at first blush, seems to have raised a normal family. Beth Hylton as Bo’s wife, Rachael, gives a powerful performance as woman with her own deep-seated family resentments. Finally, Tim Getman is terrific as the youngest Lafayette sibling, Frank, who went off to Oregon to get away from his troubled youth. The supporting cast is also exceptional—Caitlin McColl as River Rayner, Frank’s much younger girlfriend; Josh Adams as Rhys, Toni’s son who’ll soon be going off to live with his father; and most especially, Maya Brettell as Cassie, Bo and Rachael’s 13-year-old daughter.  She is fabulous as the teenager with the heart of an old soul.

Once again, Woolly’s sets are amazing and for “Appropriate” are designed by Clint Ramos, a newcomer to the Company. What he’s done to create chaos in the home is phenomenal.

Branden Jacobs-Jenkins has written a powerful play with many memorable lines of dialogue that will stay with you, long after you’ve left  the Woolly. If you love theatre, you owe it to yourself to pay the Lafayettes a visit. Just stay out of the line of fire.

Runs through December 1.

Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, 641 D Street, NW, Washington, DC 20004

3 ½ nuggets out of 4

Last Vegas: Some Aces to be Had—Movie

November 18, 2013

Just judging from the title, one might think that “Last Vegas” is “The Hangover” for seniors. One would be wrong. Yes, it’s a gathering of friends for a Las Vegas bachelor party, but that is where the similarity ends. Directed by Jon Turteltaub and written by Dan Fogelman, “Last Vegas is a gentle, comedic look at friendship.Last Vegas

The movie begins with a fun look at the group of friends in 1955 Brooklyn, where they dubbed themselves the Flatbush Four, and then jumps to present day. Although once close, the four have gone their separate ways, keeping in touch by phone. Living in complete boredom is Sam (Kevin Kline), who has retired to Florida with his wife (Joanna Gleason). Morgan Freeman’s Archie lives in New Jersey under the watchful eye of his over-protective son (Michael Ealy). There’s reason for some concern, since Archie has had severe medical problems; but he’s feeling like a prisoner in his own home, with the life being slowly sucked out of him. Robert De Niro’s Paddy is a recent widower who is still grieving over the death of his wife and spends much of his day in his bathrobe. The fourth member of the group is Billy (Michael Douglas).  Never married, he’s living a successful life in Southern California. Now in his late 60s, he’s decided to get married to a 30-something woman, and it’s his engagement that is the reason for the Las Vegas gathering.

With the exception of Billy, today’s Las Vegas is a revelation to the group. While checking out one of the older hotels, where they initially feel more comfortable, the four meet lounge singer, Diana (Mary Steenburgen). Both Billy and Paddy are immediately taken with her. How will that play out? We learn that the two were once in love with the same woman, who ended up marrying Paddy. Paddy is still upset with Billy for not coming to her funeral, and the serious aspect of the film is spent working out those feelings.

Much has been made of the fact that all of the male leads and Steenburgen are Academy Award winners. But if the writing isn’t on the page, even the best actor can’t do much. However, the writing is solid. By no means is “Last Vegas” the next coming of Shakespeare. But the script doesn’t disrespect the characters and never condescends to them or their age.  The characters are the first to make fun of themselves. There is a dance scene with Morgan Freeman which could have gone horribly wrong and doesn’t, thanks to that respect. One running gag involves Kevin Kline’s Sam. His marriage, much like his life, has gotten a little stale. Hoping to add some zip and spice to it, his wife very lovingly gives him permission to cheat; arming him with a condom and Viagra before he leaves for Las Vegas. Watching Sam trying to make the most of this freedom never gets old.

All of the actors are terrific. Despite their pedigrees, none are phoning it in. Although they have never before worked together, which is surprising in and of itself, they do seem like old friends and Steenburgen fits in quite nicely with the group. Also adding elements of fun are Jerry Ferrara, Romany Malco and Roger Bart as a wise-guy hotel guest, hotel concierge-man and Vegas cross-dressing performer respectively.

If you’re just looking for an enjoyable movie that won’t hurt your head plot or sound-wise, “Last Vegas” should be on your itinerary.

2 ¾ nuggets out of 4

Dallas Buyers Club: Membership a Must—Movie

November 14, 2013

Sometimes heroes emerge from the most unlikely sources. One such hero is Ron Woodroof, founder of the Dallas Buyers Club and a fighter for the right to use unapproved, alternative drugs in the battle against HIV-AIDS. Directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, with screenplay by Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack, “Dallas Buyers Club” is the story of how that hero came to be and how far his journey took him.Dallas Buyers Club

In a frighteningly great performance, an emaciated Matthew McConaughey portrays Woodroof, a drug-using, womanizing, hard-drinking, homophobic rodeo cowboy/electrician.  An accident in 1986 sends him to the hospital where a routine blood test shows that he has AIDS. His doctors (Denis O’Hare and Jennifer Garner) tell him to get his affairs in order because he has 30 days to live–he is that far along. Unconvinced that he has the disease and, in truth, worried more about people thinking he’s a “faggot” if word gets out about the diagnosis, he discharges himself from the hospital and immediately goes on an alcoholic, drug-taking binge. But Ron is not as dumb as he would have one believe. When his nagging cough doesn’t get better, he begins to do research on the disease. In so doing, he learns about AZT, a drug that’s being tested as a cure for AIDS. When he goes to the hospital to see if he can get the drug, the doctors tell him it’s not yet considered safe. While at the hospital, Ron meets Rayon (Jared Leto), a transvestite who also has the disease. In their own way the two become friends which will take on more importance later in the story.

Ron’s efforts to get a steady supply of AZT lead him to a doctor in Mexico. The doctor, however, warns him off AZT as a cure-all and introduces Ron to a combination of other drugs which are not approved by the FDA, but more successful and less harmful than AZT. At first, Ron, with the help of Rayon who has access to the gay community which Ron does not, sells these drugs out of a motel room. Ron literally goes global to find the drugs he needs. When attempts to bring the drugs into the U.S. and sell them to other victims of AIDS run into legal obstacles, Ron happens on a news article about the creation of buyer clubs to distribute AIDS-related drugs. Forming the Dallas Buyers Club, he begins selling memberships in the club, which gives members access to the drugs as a way around the drug sale problem.

The making of the “Dallas Buyers Club” could be a movie in and of itself. Ron Woodroof first came to the attention of the public in a 1992 article, “Buying Time,” by Bill Minutaglio, in the Dallas Life Magazine. A then young Craig Borten thought this story would make a terrific film and interviewed Woodroof for several days with that in mind. He wrote a screenplay that had many fits and starts, but finally came to fruition nearly 20 years later, in the resulting “Dallas Buyers Club.”

McConaughey and Leto make the 20 years to get the story to the screen well worth the wait. They give positively brilliant performances as Woodroof and Rayon respectively. Both actors have literally transformed themselves, but their portrayals are much more than mere physical changes. Woodroof’s and Rayon’s personalities are way over the top, but in different ways so that their depictions never overlap or overwhelm. McConaughey has always excelled at playing good-old-boys, but in “Buyers Club” that persona has a real edge to it. Leto hasn’t been on the screen in some time, but his performance shows us what we’ve been missing.

AIDS is still frightening, but much of the hysteria and discrimination associated with it have ebbed. “Buyers Club” brings back all of those feelings as we experience the fear and shunning of Woodroof’s former friends once his disease becomes public. “Dallas Buyers Club” is a reminder of how far we’ve come thanks to the courage and determination of people like Ron Woodroof. The film does him proud.

4 nuggets out of 4

If/Then: Maybe Not—Theatre

November 13, 2013

If/Then,” the new musical starring Idina Menzel, comes to DC’s National Theatre with high expectations for Broadway. Based on previews, those expectations might need to be tempered.ifthen2

Directed by Michael Greif, with book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey and music by Tom Kitt, “If/Then” is the story of 40-year-old Elizabeth, who has moved back to New York City following the breakup of her marriage. Her new life kicks into gear in a New York City park. But which life? And therein lays the tale.

“If/Then” is a form of the movie, “Sliding Doors.” If this path is taken, then this will happen. If the other path is taken, then that will happen. As the story first unfolds, it’s not readily apparent that two different stories are being told almost simultaneously. Once that is understood, you begin to relax and appreciate…or not…what is happening on stage.

There’s a reason Idina Menzel won a Tony for “Wicked.” She has a wonderfully powerful voice and that voice holds her in good stead as Elizabeth. She’s also a first-rate actress and the fact that you can feel and sense her emotions clear up in the balcony is testament to that. Unfortunately the score doesn’t provide enough great songs worthy of her voice. She has one clever number in the middle and a truly terrific number near the end of the play, but the rest of her songs are rather ho-hum.

I’m not certain why LaChanze was cast as Elizabeth’s friend, Kate. A  Tony award winner for “The Color Purple,” she really isn’t given much to do and her songs are not memorable. Anthony Rapp as Lucas is very good as Kate’s best friend from college. He, too, has a few songs, and while his voice is fine, is not anything you will remember once you leave the theatre. James Snyder is very convincing as Elizabeth’s love interest, Josh. At first his voice seems nice enough, but then he takes it to another level when he hits some high notes. His “My Kid” is a show-stopper.

The idea of showing us life’s “what if’s” is intriguing. The problem with “If/Then’s” execution is that we see not only Elizabeth’s two paths, but also fully developed stories for the two supporting characters in her life…in both paths. It adds a lot of time to the play and, frankly, her friends’ romantic stories aren’t very compelling and neither are their songs.

For a musical, there’s not a lot of musicality to “If/When.” The play is meant to be “real” which can explain the lack of dancing and the rather ordinariness of the songs.

Other than Menzel, the real stars of the show are the sets.  Mark Wendland’s designs are spectacular. The parks, the subway, the buildings…all are wonderfully imaginative.

Considering that “If/Then’s” creative crew– Brian Yorkey and Tom Kitt–are Tony winners for prior work, this play is disappointing. Overall, “If/When” underwhelms and in its present form, I don’t see how it settles in to a long Broadway run.

“If/Then” runs through December at the National Theatre.

2 nuggets out of 4

 

John Oliver: Stands and Delivers at DC’s Warner Theatre—Comedy

November 13, 2013

John OliverSubbing for Jon Stewart as the host of “The Daily Show,” John Oliver was a smash. But was that a fluke…the result of good “Daily Show” writers? Judging from the non-stop laughter at his Friday, November 8 standup performance, John Oliver is one wittily funny man all on his own. Playing to a very diverse audience at D.C.’s Warner Theatre, Oliver provided gentle digs at everyone, including himself.  He immediately had the audience on his side with just his self-introduction. From there the rest of the evening was a piece of cake.

Born in England, but living in the U.S. for the past seven years, Oliver has a unique perspective from which to do standup. He’s one of us, but he’s not one of us. He pokes with affection at the blunders of his birth nation—“how could they send their most hardened criminals to Australia, paradise on Earth? What was the thinking?”  But then he goes off on a riff of U.S. political foibles—Congress has a 10% approval rating…however, polls don’t record sarcasm…badaboom.  No one is spared…not White House Press Secretary Jay Carney, Rick Perry or others too numerous to mention. Many American “traditions”—t-shirt cannons, home-run derbies…the list goes on and on—come in for their share of jabs. But to our credit, Oliver says that while America may be a bad boyfriend, the rest of the world is a bad girlfriend.

Many comedians come to the District and flatter us by saying that DC audiences are the smartest. While I like to think that is true, I live here and know that might not be exactly correct.  It’s possible that we’re more up to speed on politics, but otherwise we’re pretty much like everyone. Case in point—in starting a story, Oliver threw out the question to a woman in the front row—“What first comes to mind when you think of Egypt?” Her response? “Sand.” That was definitely not the answer he was expecting. It sent him into peals of laughter. When he recovered, he went off on that response for a good 10 minutes. And with the dexterity of a skilled comedian, came back to that response over and over again.

While Oliver’s routine is splattered with f**k’s throughout, his commentary is clean, good-natured comedy. An evening with John Oliver is like sitting next to your high-school class clown for about 90 minutes of just all-out fun. If you love Oliver on “The Daily Show,” you’ll love and appreciate him even more after seeing his show.

Future performance dates can be found at iamjohnoliver.com.

4 nuggets out of 4

Kill Your Darlings: Just Killing Time—Movie

November 6, 2013

If you know nothing much about Allen Ginsberg before seeing “Kill Your Darlings,” despite good performances from all involved, you won’t know a whole lot more after leaving the theatre.Kill Your Darlings

Directed by John Krokidas and written by Krokidas and Austin Bunn, “Kill Your Darlings” is about the early college days of Allen Ginsberg (Daniel Radcliffe). Coming from a slightly dysfunctional New Jersey home with a mentally disturbed mother (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and a caring father, but not so caring husband, poet and teacher Louis (David Cross), Ginsberg is eager to begin his journey as a writer at Columbia University.

During a school tour, Ginsberg “meets cute” with Lucien Carr (Dane DeHaan) and is soon thrust into his circle of future literary giants for friends—Jack Kerouac (Jack Huston) and  William Burroughs (Ben Foster)—the most prominent. Casting a shadow over this group is David Kammerer (Michael C. Hall). Kammerer is a former teacher of Carr’s who follows him from St. Louis to New York City and is a key figure in the “Kill Your Darlings” story.

Set in the mid 1940s, “Kill Your Darlings” is ostensibly about the early members of the Beat Generation told through the eyes of Allen Ginsberg. While that much is true, the real star of the movie is Dane DeHaan’s Lucien Carr. As David Kammerer says to Ginsberg, “We’re the ones he needs, but never wants.” It’s impossible to take your eyes off him and no one does. Carr always seems to be at the center of the action. Whether or not DeHaan looks anything like Carr is hard to say, but DeHaan’s Carr throws off an indolent charm and his blue/grey eyes are hard to resist.

All of the acting is terrific. Daniel Radcliffe shines as the somewhat shy, but open to anything Ginsberg. Michael C. Hall is very credible as the creepy Kammerer and, as noted, DeHaan is especially convincing. David Cross and Jennifer Jason Leigh in smaller roles are very good.

For a movie about the founders of the Beat Generation, we just don’t learn very much about them and their movement. Why was this group so influential? Surely it was more than about non-rhyming poetry. What was it?  What made Ginsberg special? “Kill Your Darlings” is an interesting teaser, but I want more.

2 nuggets out of 4

 

The Fifth Estate: Not Transparent Enough—Movie

November 5, 2013

“The tyrants of the world should beware…but what about the others?” Guardian journalist Nick Davies and WikiLeaks co-founder Daniel Berg ponder this question at the end of “The Fifth Estate.” This question really goes to the heart of the film. Directed by Bill Condon, based on books by  Daniel Domscheit-Berg and David Leigh and Luke Harding  and adapted by Josh Singer, “The Fifth Estate” is not so much a biography of Julian Assange, WikiLeaks founder, but is more about the growth of WikiLeaks and the power it had for good and evil.The_Fifth_Estate_poster

“The Fifth Estate” begins with the early days of WikiLeaks and the meeting of Assange (Benedict Cumberbatch) and Daniel Berg (Daniel Brühl). During that get-together they discover that they have similar ideals and goals. The two form a partnership, which in  Berg’s eyes is a partnership of equals. Working with Berg opens Assange up to a network of like-minded cohorts, bent on bringing transparency to the inner workings of corporations and governments. Through Berg’s computer pals, WikiLeaks is able to download information much faster and provide more immediacy to their work. It’s that immediacy and sense of urgency at all cost which eventually causes Berg to rethink what WikiLeaks is doing. Has its original intent gotten out of control?

Both Cumberbatch and Brühl are very good as Assange and Berg respectively. Cumberbatch obviously has the showier role and he does a terrific job in displaying the sheer ego and dedication to what Assange believes is his calling. Brühl’s performance is more understated and nuanced as it needs to be.

According to the film, much of the planning and recruiting for WikiLeaks takes place in underground venues all over the world. If true, I find this part of the of the WikiLeaks story fascinating. Where once grand ideas and uber planning took place in smoke-filled, staid rooms and clubs, the new world order for plotting is now done against the backdrop of a backbeat. The setting does give a somewhat hipster feel to the idea of document leaking…deserved or not. Leaking has become cool.

Every now and then “The Fifth Estate” has the spirit of “The Social Network”—two young men expanding the role of new media. But as the film goes on to show the resulting collateral damage of leaks, “The Fifth Estate” shifts in tone. Sometimes it feels like “Argo;” sometimes it’s “All the President’s Men.” And therein lays the problem. Despite strong acting, “The Fifth Estate”  doesn’t succeed ultimately because it isn’t quite sure of what kind of film it wants to be.  What it should be is the Julian Assange story. For someone who is so dynamic and driven and manages to outwit major companies and countries, we are told very little of his back story.  We are teased with information, but never learn why becomes such a crusader. We actually find out more about Berg (maybe that’s because the movie uses his book), but frankly, he’s not the interesting character. I left the film wanting to know a lot more about Assange.  That’s the film I want to see.

2 nuggets out of 4

 

Nebraska: Heart as Large as the State—Movie

November 2, 2013

When was the last time you wanted to give a gigantic hug to a movie’s leading man? If you’re like me, probably never. However, “Nebraska” and Bruce Dern will change your thinking completely. Directed by Alexander Payne and written by Bob Nelson, “Nebraska” is made with so much love and affection, it’s hard not to reciprocate the good feelings.nebraska-poster

“Nebraska” is about 80-something Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) who is convinced that he has won one million dollars in a Publisher’s Clearinghouse-type sweepstakes. Armed with his “winning” letter, he is determined to go from his home in Billings, Montana, to Lincoln, Nebraska, to claim his prize. What will he do with his winnings? Buy a truck and an air compressor…or is there more to it? Following Woody’s several failed attempts in going it alone on foot, his youngest son, David (Will Forte), decides to humor his father and drive him to Lincoln. In one of the oddest road-trips in movie history, the two break up their travel with a stop in Hawthorne, Nebraska—Woody’s hometown—for a visit with relatives and old friends.

Bruce Dern is simply perfect as Woody. Woody is cantankerous, decrepit, slightly senile and, for the most part, a man of few words. But his eyes and body language convey so much you’ll think he’s saying more than he actually is. We’ve known Bruce Dern for years, but we’ve never known or seen him like this.

Will Forte is a revelation as David. His character is at a cross-road personally and professionally. Taking his father to Lincoln might be as much for himself as it is for Woody. Forte’s scenes with Dern are so believable, they will make you laugh and break your heart at the same time. There’s not a trace of SNL in Forte’s performance. With “Nebraska” he shows that in the right role, he’s an actor with whom to be reckoned.

The rest of the cast is fantastic. June Squibb as Woody’s exasperated and exasperating wife, Kate, is terrific. Just when you think Woody might have married the wrong woman all those years ago, she gives such a rousing defense of her husband culminating in, “you can all go f**k yourselves,” that you’ll want to cheer (my audience actually applauded). Stacey Keach as Woody’s shady former business partner, Ed Pegram, and Bob Odenkirk as Woody’s oldest son, Ross, are very good in smaller, but important roles. The rest of the supporting cast comprising relatives and friends are equally good.

Filmed in black and white, “Nebraska” has a bare-bones, true-to-life feel to it. Mark Orton’s simple, but memorable score complements the film perfectly.

“Nebraska’s” story is as big as its heart. Family, family secrets, growing old, small-town America—all play a part and more. Movies as complete and full of the human spirit as “Nebraska” don’t come along that often. Funny and sad, but never dull or cloying, this is one film that should not be missed.

4 nuggets out of 4


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