Archive for March, 2014

Bad Words: How Do You Spell Outrageously Funny?—Movie

March 24, 2014

Funny, foul and yes, charming, “Bad Words” is a winner.  Directed by Jason Bateman and written by Andrew Dodge, “Bad Words” takes a hysterical look at the National Spelling Bee and one man’s quest to win at all costs.

Bad WordsJason Bateman is Guy Trilby, who, through a loophole, is able to enter the Golden Quill National Spelling Bee, beginning with his hometown of Columbus, Ohio. Needless to say, the younger contestants and especially their parents aren’t thrilled with his participation, but there isn’t much they can do about it. With the local Bee out of the way, Trilby is off to California for the Nationals, accompanied by reporter, Jenny Widgeon (Kathryn Hahn). Her online publication is sponsoring him in exchange for a story about why competing is so important to him, although getting a story out of him proves harder than she thought it would be.

Trilby is a middle-school dropout, but his genius becomes apparent almost immediately. With a huge chip on his shoulder, he’s let no one come close to him. It’s clear that Jenny is fascinated by him…personally and professionally… and would like to know him better. Once in California, the two make their way to the Bee headquarters and are met by Golden Quill Director, Dr. Bernice Deagan (a ridiculously bewigged Allison Janney). Her goal…to make Guy’s stay a miserable one, and to somehow get him out of the competition as soon as possible.

Enroute to the Bee, Guy meets one of his fellow competitors, adorable 10-year-old Chaitanya Chopra (Rohan Chand), who, for whatever reason, takes a liking to Guy. At heart, Guy and Chaitanya are two lonely souls and the two form a most unusual bond. In some ways, the film becomes a coming of age story for both Guy and Chaitanya. This is not to say that Guy becomes all warm and fuzzy…far from it. Guy is a man on a mission and there is a real purpose to his participation in the Bee.  And, oh, the head games he plays with the competition…cruel, but oh so funny.

Confession—I was the runner-up in my city-wide spelling bee many years ago, so this movie hits a little close to home. I’m not sure what I would have done if I found myself sitting next to someone like Guy Trilby and I’m not sure what the reaction of my parents would have been.  I don’t know whether to be proud or horrified, but my guess is that we would have behaved much the same way the parents and competitors in the film did. Okay, I feel better now, getting that off my chest.

Bateman is perfectly suited to playing a sadistically droll, witty character who has a heart buried deep inside him.  He doesn’t need the help, but Bateman’s butch haircut only serves to make him seem even meaner. If there has ever been a more adorable child actor in recent times than Rohan Chand, I haven’t seen him…and this little boy can act. Bateman has assembled a great supporting cast in addition to Chand. Veteran actor Philip Baker Hall is very good as the Golden Quill’s President, Dr. Bowman. Kathryn Hahn is terrific as the reporter who’s fallen for Guy and Allison Janney is just fabulous as the haughty Bee Director. Rounding out this cast are great character actors in small parts and the young featured competitors are especially good.

Making his directorial debut, Bateman displays a firm hand behind the camera and shows himself to be especially good in working with young actors. One looks forward to seeing what he does next.

“Bad Words” is full of just that…bad words and some very raunchy, crude, cruel humor. But it is well-written, well acted, well directed and well, just plain, all-out funny.

3 ½ nuggets out of 4

The Grand Budapest Hotel: Wonderfully Weird Place to Visit—Movie

March 24, 2014

Sometimes it takes a small movie to showcase the extraordinary talents of an actor we sometimes take for granted. Such is the “The Grand Budapest Hotel” and Ralph Fiennes. Directed by Wes Anderson, inspired by the works of Stefan Zweig, with screenplay by Anderson and story by Anderson and Hugo Guinness, “The Budapest Grand Hotel is the story of the hotel’s concierge, M. Gustave (Fiennes), and his delightful relationship with the lobby boy, Zero Moustafa (Tony Revolori).The-Grand-Budapest-Hotel-Poster

The tale is told through the eyes of a variety of narrators—the Young Writer, (Jude Law) who in his later years is portrayed by Tom Wilkinson, and Zero, played  in his adult years by F. Murray Abraham. The Writer interviews Mr. Moustafa, now the hotel’s owner, in the 1960s, and wonders why he’s kept the hotel all these years, since it no longer is doing much business. Mr. Moustafa then proceeds to fill him on the hotel’s back-story and why the hotel holds so much meaning for him.

In the 1930s, the hotel was in its zenith, but these were to be the last few years of its grandeur. At the time Gustave was its concierge extraordinaire. He was a mentor and hero to Zero, and the two were very close…almost like father and son. Gustave treated all guests like royalty. He was especially “kind” to the older women, one of whom took a special liking to him, an unrecognizable Tilda Swinton, as Madame D. She dies mysteriously and at the reading of her will, it’s announced that she has left a very valuable painting, Boy With Apple, to Gustave, angering her family a great deal. Gustave takes possession of the painting and with the help of Zero, makes his way back to the hotel with it and puts the painting in the hotel safe. For his help, Gustave makes Zero his heir. Gustave’s happiness is short-lived when he is arrested and imprisoned for Madame D.’s murder. The rest of the film deals with Gustave’s imprisonment and escape.

“The Grand Budapest Hotel” is full of Wes Anderson’s company of actors…some having larger parts than others. Edward Norton, Adrien Brody, and Jeff Goldblum are especially terrific. But the real stars of this film are Fiennes, Tony Revolori, the cinematography, the dialogue and the lyrical score.

Fiennes has a way with the rapid-fire dialogue that is hysterically fantastic. It’s a side to him that we rarely, if ever, see and it is most welcome and absolutely makes “The Grand Budapest Hotel” the success it is. Tony Revolori, as his deadpan sidekick, is quite good and his scenes with Fiennes positively crackle.

The art and set direction are magical. It’s like watching a toy factory full of dolls, trains, and toy soldiers come to life. And the pastries…they are stunning. Completing the picture is Alexandre Desplat’s music,as light and mischievous as the dialogue it accompanies.

“The Grand Budapest Hotel” is not all sunshine and lollipops. The film is set against the backdrop of the horrors that are yet to come to Europe. And while fun to watch, one can’t help notice the difference between the have’s and have not’s. It’s to Anderson’s credit that he is able to incorporate all of this creditably.

Wes Anderson’s films are often described as “precious”… a bit too cute. That criticism may have some merit, but “The Grand Budapest Hotel” has less “cuteness” than his other works. And that is what makes “The Grand Budapest Hotel” even more delightful and a place you will want to visit.

3 ½ nuggets out of 4

 

 

Elaine Stritch—Shoot Me: A True Treasure—Documentary

March 17, 2014

Elaine Stritch—what an utterly fascinating, talented force of nature she is. Frankly, I want to be her when I finally grow up. If you love the performing arts and its artists, then the documentary, “Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me,” is a must see for an inside, no-holds barred, vanity-free look at this hard-working performer.ela-poster-v2

Director Chiemi Karasawa appears to have been given unfettered access to Stritch, whether it is in rehearsal for “30 Rock,” preparation for one of her one-woman shows, or even a stint in the hospital. It’s a decidedly unglamorous view, but one in which you come away with a greater appreciation and understanding of the woman and what it means to be a “Broadway Baby.”

The documentary opens with one of Stritch’s regular walks on the Manhattan streets and the first of her many quips, “I wish I could f**king drive. Then I’d really be a menace.” Thankfully she doesn’t drive, because not being able to watch her navigate the NYC landscape with her hulk-like stride, dressed in her fur coat, hat, black stockings and shirt, would deprive New Yorkers of quite the sight. How she has managed not to get hit by a car is a mystery and blessing in and of itself, but somehow she hasn’t. It’s wonderful to watch NYC natives and tourists stop her to say “hello” and just chat in general, and you can see that she derives a great deal of pleasure from it as well.

As the documentary notes, Stritch has many film and television credits to her name and certainly has guest-starred in many television shows, even winning Emmys along the way, but she is best known for her work on Broadway…as either part of an ensemble or for her one-woman shows.  “Shoot Me” takes us behind the scenes as she prepares what is probably her last show, “Elaine Stritch: Singin’ Sondheim…One Song at a Time.” Stritch is no Bernadette Peters, but in her own way she is the perfect person to sing his music.  When she sings…belts is more like it… she tells a story and makes the song her own. Poignant and funny, her rendition of “I Feel Pretty” gives new meaning to the song. The only problem…her memory is failing and she’s not always able to remember the lyrics. Watching her work with her longtime musical director, Rob Bowman, melts your heart…he is so patient with her. And when she forgets the words in concert, it matters not. She’s such a performer that she makes it work.

Alec Baldwin, who played her son on “30 Rock,” is one of the film’s producers, and in interviews, their love for one another is evident. When he’s late to rehearsal she starts calling him Joan Crawford. It’s probably only something Stritch could get away with. Among many, there are other conversations with John Turturro, Nathan Lane,  Cherry Jones, Tina Fey and most poignantly, James Gandolfini, to whom the film is dedicated. All simply admire and adore her.

Stritch is a recovering alcoholic. She makes no excuses, saying she just enjoys drinking. Now she has one drink a day and says that if she was on a desert island and could have just one item, it would be a stocked bar. She’s also diabetic and is constantly monitoring herself. The most dramatic part of the documentary is when we see her experience a hypoglycemic attack and watch her being taken to the hospital.

Residing for years in NYC’s Carlyle Hotel, Stritch was 86 when filming the documentary began. At that time she was contemplating a move back to her Detroit hometown where her family resides, and taking life a little easier.  After completion of the film, as her eyesight worsened and her memory continued to fail, she did make the transition.

But somehow it seems wrong to say she’s done with NYC and all that it’s meant to her. As the documentary and Stritch point out, she’s faced debilitating diabetes, alcoholism and dare one say it, old age, and “she’s still here.” Praise the Lord.

4 nuggets out of 4

Le Week-End: You’ll Want to Extend Your Stay—Movie

March 10, 2014

Sometimes love means never having to say you’re sorry…BUT… sometimes it does. As Roger Michell’s new movie, “Le Week-End” charmingly illustrates, sometimes it’s important for your significant other to know how you feel, even after 30 years of marriage. Perhaps even more important then.

Written by Hanif Kureishi and directed by Michell, “Le Week-End” is the love story of Meg and Nick Burrows (Lindsay Duncan and Jim Broadbent), English 60-something couple, celebrating their 30th wedding anniversary with a week-end in Paris, the site of their honeymoon. Will this be the week-end from hell or something else? Only time will tell.hr_Le_Week-End_6

We first meet the couple on the train to Paris. They seem to have settled comfortably into old, familiar, hurtful habits, each jabbing sarcastically at the other for the duration of the trip. But there is something in Meg’s eyes that says she is tiring of this kind of relationship.

The week-end gets off to a rough start when the former little honeymoon hotel that Nick has booked is not what Meg remembers. She  reacts violently to the “the beige, coffin-like room.” Running out, with Nick chasing after her, she hails a cab to look for grander hotels, and they end up at one of the best Parisian hotels in a suite with an unbelievable view of the Eiffel Tower—to hell with the cost. Isn’t that what credit cards are for?

Eating and drinking at the cafes, there are times that the romance seems to have come back into their marriage. It’s obvious that they once loved one another deeply…but time, disappointments, lapses in judgment and even children…all have definitely taken their toll, especially in the intimate part of their relationship. It’s during one especially carefree evening that they run into a former colleague of Nick’s, Morgan (Jeff Goldblum), who’s now living in Paris. That chance meeting proves to have a have major impact on their future.

“Le Week-End’s” two leads are absolutely phenomenal. Is Jim Broadbent ever bad? He should be declared an English national treasure. He is so wonderful in this movie…funny, sheepish, sad…there is just no emotion he can’t portray. Lindsay Duncan is equally terrific in a less charitable role. But somehow she manages to convey that there is a loving person beneath her shrewish exterior.  Also quite good in small, but important roles are Goldblum and Olly Alexander as his son, Michael.

Is “Le Week-End” that different from other movies about couples trying to reconnect? Not really. What makes the movie unique is the tone…the joie de vivre with which Michell infuses the film. From the opening scene’s delightful score, “Le Week-End” has the feel of a genial Woody Allen movie. Michell captures the Paris that most of us dream about and despite the ups and downs of Meg’s and Nick’s relationship, gives us a twosome with whom we enjoy spending time and want to succeed.

A cautionary note, Michell’s Paris is so inviting, you’ll want to book your flight as soon as you leave the theatre.

3 ½ nuggets out of 4

We Are Proud to Present: An Explosive Insight—Theatre

March 9, 2014

The Woolly Mammoth Theatre production, “We Are Proud to Present a Presentation About the Herero of Namibia, Formerly Known as South West Africa, From the German Sudwestafrika, Between the Years 1884-1915,” is very much an in-your-face play about race relations and the creative process.

WAP-web-imageWritten by Jackie Sibblies and directed by Michael John Garcés, “We Are Proud to Present” takes place in a warehouse-like setting where six actors are developing a play about the German colonization of South West Africa and the atrocities that occurred during that colonization. The actors are only known as Black Man, Black Woman, White Man and White Woman. As they attempt to find the voice of the characters and the play through the use of real letters written by a soldier to his wife, Sarah, their own feelings about race bubble to the surface, resulting in an explosive finale.

What happened in South West Africa and its people was horrific. But while the acting in the play is phenomenal, somehow the plight of the country gets lost amidst the device used to tell its story—the thought process. We’re actually watching the thinking that goes into putting on a play…we get to see what normally goes on behind closed doors, before we get the final product on stage. For me, as an audience member, that became more interesting. How does an actor get into character? Do they take the work home with them? Do feelings linger? How do actors make the characters real to themselves? “We Are Proud to Present” showcases all these questions and this is the part of the play I found utterly fascinating, even though that wasn’t supposed to be my takeaway, I am sure. Adding to my conundrum was the ending. To be honest, I didn’t understand the change in the actors and in talking to other audience members…they didn’t either.

Each actor gets his or her chance to shine and all are terrific. Dawn Ursula seems to be the director/actor for the play within the play and is wonderful. She has the most expressive face and voice and “We Are Proud to Present” showcases her talent. Holly Twyford is wonderful when playing Sarah. Joe Isenberg and Andreu Honeycutt are ferociously and scarily brilliant as the younger male actors and Michael Anthony Williams and Peter Howard are both great as the voices of reason throughout the play.

As one has come to expect from a Woolly Mammoth production, the set design from Misha Kachman, while sparse, is outstanding and works beautifully.  Meghan E. Healey’s costumes are also spot-on.

Perhaps “We Are Proud to Present” tries to accomplish too much. Although it will give you something to think about, it ultimately misses the mark.

2 ½ nuggets out of 4

 

 

Non-Stop: Hits its Mark—Movie

March 7, 2014

“Am I in your way a** h**e?” may have just replaced “yippee ki-yay mother***er” as my favorite movie phrase. Thank you, “Non-Stop.”

Taut, explosive and surprisingly well-done, “Non-Stop” is everything you want from an action thriller and more. Star Liam Neeson has described the film as Hitchcockian. That’s going a tad too far, but “Non-Stop” is highly entertaining and keeps you on your toes throughout.non_stop_poster

Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra, with screenplay by John W. Richardson, Christopher Roach and Ryan Engle, “Non-Stop” stars Neeson as Bill Marks, an air marshal working a non-stop flight to London. It’s not a good sign when before boarding the plane we see him mixing alcohol with his coffee. As he strolls through the airport, he definitely gives off an attitude while scanning the surroundings for possible threats. He seems to soften only when helping a young girl traveling alone face her last-minute fears about flying. We’ve had earlier hints that something is wrong in his personal life and that it might center on a child.

Once the plane is in the air, Bill strikes up a conversation with fellow passenger, Jen (Julianne Moore),and seems to have an easy-going, collegial relationship with senior flight attendant, Nancy (Michelle Dockery). It’s when Bill begins to relax a bit that he receives an anonymous threat over a supposed secure phone line. The remainder of the film is spent trying to figure out who sent the message and why, and, of course, stopping the threat. This is the point when “Non-Stop” shifts into high gear and separates itself from other action movies…it has brains behind it. “Non-Stop” illustrates that on a plane you really come face to face with as a diverse group of people as one can imagine. When something goes wrong, everyone becomes a suspect and in turn suspects everyone else. The script handles this aspect to perfection and really has you guessing as to who the guilty party is. In Bill’s eyes and ours, almost everyone seems suspicious at some point…and with good reason.

What also makes “Non-Stop” better than most films in this genre is its actors—they can really act. Liam Neeson is always good in portraying a man of action with something seething underneath and this film is no exception for him. In addition to the scenes with the little girl, he really shines in his work with Moore and Dockery. There is also some terrific character acting from Corey Stoll, Linus Roach, Jason Butler Harner and Scoot McNairy. Recent Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o has a small role as a flight attendant. Filmed right after wrapping up “12 Years a Slave,” this is probably the last time we’ll see her in such a minor role. What is also refreshing about “Non-Stop” is hearing actors speak in their native accents. Since this is an international flight, no one is pretending to have an American accent…and doing it poorly.

The downside to “Non-Stop” is that you may start eyeing your fellow passengers more cautiously the next time you fly. But, at least in this film, the pilot isn’t an alcoholic, just the air marshal. In that spirit, go and enjoy.

3 nuggets out of 4

 


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