Every Act of Life


The play’s the thing.

(2018) Documentary (The Orchard) Terrance McNally, Don Roos, Nathan Lane, Peter McNally, Christine Baranski, Chita Rivera, Richard Thomas, Angela Lansbury, F. Murray Abraham, John Slattery, Tyne Daly, Rita Moreno, John Kander, Anthony Heald, Lynn Ahrens, Jon Robin Baitz, Audra McDonald, John Benjamin Hickey, John Glover, Edie Falco. Directed by Jeff Kaufman

 

Terrance McNally is without question one of the most important playwrights of the late 20th century and on into the 21st century. Even now, pushing 80, he remains a vital creative force. He was one of the first Broadway writers to put openly gay characters in his plays; he was also among the first to come out himself.

This documentary is an attempt to capture the life of McNally, from his beginnings in Corpus Christi, Texas where he was hopelessly bullied, to Columbia University where he essentially majored in Broadway, Eventually he took an interest in writing stage plays instead of novels (which under his beloved English teacher in Corpus Christi Mrs. Maurine McElroy who encouraged him when both his alcoholic parents did not). He took up clandestine boyfriend Edward Albee whose career was just starting to take off at the time; McNally, on the other hand, was struggling especially when his first work was roundly panned by the critics.

Since then, McNally has written such gems as Frankie and Johnnie in the Claire de Lune, The Ritz, Master Class, Lips Together Teeth Apart, and the musical version of Kiss of the Spider Woman. He has won four Tony Awards and countless other honors. Jeff Kaufman rounds up a battalion of his friends to talk about the various facets of his personality and the highlights of his career. Broadway greats like Lan, Abraham, Lansbury, Roberts and Glover have all had their careers positively impacted by McNally and they are generous in their praise of the writer.

The film is a little bit over-fawning, rarely admitting to any warts or disfigurements, although they mention his bout with alcoholism which Lansbury apparently talked him down from. He has had a fairly large and diverse group of boyfriends, ending up with current husband Tom Kirdahy with whom he has a stable relationship so far as can be seen. Still, while some of the relationships get some coverage, others are almost mentioned in passing.

We hear about how generous he is, how insecure he is about his own work but we don’t really dive deep into the work itself. It feels at times we’re just getting a greatest hits version of his plays and the meaning of them and what they mean to others gets little interest from the filmmakers. I would have liked to see more analysis and less anecdotes but in the whole, this feels more like a group of friends gossiping rather than a truly academic study of McNally’s work. Frankly, this really will only appeal to those who live and breathe Broadway and kind of ignores everyone else.

REASONS TO GO: A very informative film for those unfamiliar with McNally. McNally’s gayness is emphasized, something a lot of films are afraid to do even now.
REASONS TO STAY: There are too many talking heads. There’s also a little bit too much hero-worship going on.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some sexual content as well as profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie made its world premiere at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/11/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 86% positive reviews: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Wrestling With Angels
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Life Feels Good

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Beauty and the Beast (2017)


Shall we dance?

(2017) Fantasy (Disney) Emma Watson, Dan Stevens, Kevin Kline, Luke Evans, Josh Gad, Ewan McGregor, Ian McKellen, Emma Thompson, Hattie Morahan, Stanley Tucci, Audra McDonald, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Ray Fearon, Haydn Gwynne, Gerald Horan, Nathan Mack, Clive Rowe, Thomas Padden, Gizmo, Rita Davies, Adrian Schiller, Harriet Jones, Zoe Rainey. Directed by Bill Condon

 

Disney has of late taken the strategy of remaking animated classics as live action films. It has thus far been successful for them; Maleficent, Jungle Book and Cinderella have both been moneymakers for the studio. Now comes the most lavish and most recent of the animated classics to get a live action version.

The tale’s as old as time; Belle (Watson) is a bookish, intelligent young woman growing up in a provincial town in France in the 18th century. The daughter of Maurice (Kline), a widowed inventor, she happily borrows every book she can get her hands on and cheerfully ignores the advances of the young men of the town, particularly Gaston (Evans), a former soldier chafing in his idleness in a life of hunting and drinking, assisted by the loyal LeFou (Gad).

On the way to the market, Maurice gets chased by wolves onto the grounds of a creepy looking castle. It turns out to be inhabited by a dreadful Beast (Stevens) and living furniture who used to be the servants of the castle. When Maurice’s horse comes home without him, Belle knows something is wrong and races out to rescue her father. When she finds him locked up in a prison cell in the castle, shivering and sick, she offers to take his place and the Beast agrees.

What she doesn’t know is that the Beast and all who lived with him are victims of a curse leveled by a witch (Morahan) who was refused hospitality on a cold stormy night because she was ugly. Now time is running out on the curse which can only be broken by someone who loves the Beast and is loved by him. But Belle is beautiful; she can have any man she wants. Why would she want a Beast?

Although roughly based on the French fairy tale, this version more closely adheres to the 1991 Disney animated version and includes the songs written by the Oscar-winning duo of the late Howard Ashman and Alan Mencken and includes four new songs written by Mencken and lyricist Tim Rice. The results are lush and elegant, gathering many of the elements that worked so well in the original and transferring them note-perfectly into live action.

The production design here is intense and we feel that we are given a glimpse not necessarily into 18th century France so much as a France of myth and legend. It’s an idealized version that is at odds with the suffering amongst the poorer classes that was so great that they rose up and slaughtered their own ruling class. Here however, the ruling class in their rococo Versailles is beloved by the simple folk despite the cruelty and conspicuous consumption displayed by the palace’s occupant that was so egregious that he and all around him were cursed. Well, he had some daddy issues so I suppose he can be excused, right?

There also was much made over the “outing” of LeFou as Disney’s first outright gay character, but even that is a bit of a tempest in Mrs. Potts (Thompson). LeFou’s coming out consists of him dancing with another man (who is dressed as a woman for reasons I won’t get into here) for a few seconds of screen time at the movie’s conclusion. Considering the brouhaha it created in the religious right, I’m not surprised Disney is taking baby steps towards inclusion (there are also a couple of interracial couples among the castle’s inhabitants) but it does feel like the studio didn’t have the courage of their convictions here.

Still, one must commend them for at least trying and for not bending to pressure, refusing to re-cut the movie for Malaysian censors who banned the film from their country based on those few seconds of screen time. Personally, I think the studio should have cut the film a little more judiciously; it runs over two hours long which is about 45 minutes longer than the original animated feature. Condon and writers Stephen Chbosky and Evan Spillotopoulos flesh out the backstory, explaining why Belle’s mother is out of the picture and why the Beast’s human prince was such a rotten individual among other things and it makes the movie a little too ponderous for its own good. Several little princesses in full regalia at the screening Da Queen and I attended got extremely restless during the movie’s final half hour.

But the ending is definitely worth it. It is slightly different than the animated version and the difference is enough to really tug at the heartstrings and create an emotional catharsis that warms the cockles even as you’re wiping away the tears. I didn’t expect to like this as much as I did; everything I heard about it made me fear that it was a bloated mess and in some ways it is, but there is enough heart here that it actually becomes a worthwhile viewing. Plenty of little princesses are going to be demanding that their parents add this to their video collection not too long down the line when it becomes available.

Chances are, you’ve already seen this and if you haven’t, I strongly urge you see it on the big screen while you still can. The amazing special effects deserve the best possible presentation. Even if you aren’t required to see it by a child in your life, this is actually a fine motion picture for adults, if for no other reason the nostalgia that it evokes. It truly is a tale old as time.

REASONS TO GO: The special effects are gorgeous. The film has a lot more heart than you’d expect from an effects-heavy fantasy.
REASONS TO STAY: There’s a little too much ephemera.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some violence and action sequences, scenes of peril and a few frightening images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Ian McKellen was originally offered the part of Cogsworth for the 1991 animated version and turned it down (David Ogden Stiers eventually took the role) but he chose to accept it this time out.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/4/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 71% positive reviews. Metacritic: 65/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Cinderella
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: The Dinner

Ricki and the Flash


Rick Springfield and Meryl Streep are getting lost in the rock and roll.

Rick Springfield and Meryl Streep are getting lost in the rock and roll.

(2015) Dramedy (Tri-Star) Meryl Streep, Kevin Kline, Mamie Gummer, Rick Springfield, Sebastian Stan, Nick Westrate, Rick Rosas, Bernie Worrell, Joe Vitale, Ben Platt, Audra McDonald, Big Jim Wheeler, Keala Settle, Joe Toutebon, Aaron Clifton Moten, Peter C. Demme, Adam Shulman, Charlotte Rae, Bill Irwin, Gabriel Ebert, Lisa Joyce, Hailey Gates. Directed by Jonathan Demme

I was a rock critic in the Bay Area for more than a decade and in that time I spent a whole lot of time in bars seeing a whole lot of bands. It was during this time that I developed a healthy respect, even an appreciation for bar bands. This is generally used as a derogatory term, but there is a kind of nobility about bar bands that the big stadium bands often lack. I’ve had more fun listening to a bar band do covers than listening to the bands that originated them in a big, impersonal arena.

Ricki Rendazzo (Streep) didn’t always want to front a bar band. She went to L.A. with dreams of becoming a rock star, and even made a single album – on vinyl, to give you an idea of how long ago this was – which sank like a stone. She’s never really given up on her rock and roll dream but she has more or less come to terms that she is never going to open for the Rolling Stones, but now middle aged, she clerks at a grocery store to make ends meet and pays gigs at a local bar to keep her from going insane. She is having a relationship with Greg (Springfield), her lead guitarist, although she doesn’t like to acknowledge it publicly.

Then again, Ricki has a history with relationships and it isn’t good. She has a family – an ex-husband and three kids – but she abandoned them to chase her rock and roll dream and another woman raised them. Her relationship with her children is pretty rocky to say the least.

Then she gets a call from her ex, Pete (Kline) – her daughter Julie (Gummer) was deserted by her husband who left her for another woman, and she’s taken it hard. She hasn’t changed clothes in days, hasn’t bathed, mopes in her room, hasn’t eaten and barely talks to anyone. Pete is desperate; his wife Maureen (McDonald) is away tending to her own father who is in the end stage of Alzheimer’s and he needs help with Julie. So despite being bankrupt, she scrapes together what little cash she has – all of it – and buys a ticket to Indianapolis.

There she discovers that Pete has done very well for himself with a beautiful house in a gated community. Ricki, being Ricki, comes dressed like an 80s rocker chick – which is what she is – with an oddball braided hair style that no decade would be willing to claim as its own. She’s a bit like a tornado, inflicting damage indiscriminately and impossible to ignore. Her sons Adam (Westrate) who is gay and wants nothing to do with her, and Josh (Stan) who is relatively warm to her but is getting married soon and hasn’t invited her, make obligatory appearances. Ricki though starts to connect with Julie somewhat, at least bringing her out of her funk. Then Maureen returns, and Ricki is summarily dismissed.

Back at home, she goes back to her life of weekly gigs, working at the grocery store and living on almost nothing. However, her time back in Indy has given her an appreciation for not being alone and her relationship with Greg begins to flower as a result of it. Out of the blue she gets an invitation to Josh’s wedding; part of her wants to go, part of her is scared that she’s not wanted and most of her knows that she couldn’t afford a plane ticket even if she wanted to go. Can rock and roll save Ricki Rendazzo?

As I said, I’ve spent a lot of time in bars and I’m guessing Diablo Cody, who wrote this thing based on the experiences of her mother-in-law, has as well. She gets the vibe perfectly, although bands with the talent that the Flash have are pretty few and far between – that’s one of the charms of a bar band is that for the most part they have more passion than talent. The world’s best bar band is Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band, a fact that the movie gives a respectful nod to. However, few bar bands have the pedigree of the Flash – with Springfield on guitar, Parliament/Funkadelic keyboardist Bernie Worrell, session drummer Joe Vitale and Neil Young’s bass player Rick Rosas who sadly passed away after this was filmed. The movie has the advantage of using these musicians, and Streep showed in Mamma Mia that she’s a good singer and while she is more of a Bonnie Raitt kind of vocalist and less of a belter, she holds her own vocally.

Streep isn’t afraid to show she’s getting on; clearly Ricki’s best days are behind her but she still is a handsome woman who looks pretty damn good in a leather catsuit. Streep’s creation of this character is dead on; I’ve met many women like her who are kind of a stuck in an era and for whom the music is everything. Ricki is through and through a rocker chick and would not think that an unfair description. She wears her allegiance proudly.

Kline is one of my favorite actors and here he plays a bit of a square, but when he’s around Ricki he actually blossoms a bit. Usually in pictures of this sort the gender roles are reversed but Pete realizes that he has to be the responsible one for his kids and when he’s left holding the bag at last, he finds himself the most stable woman he can to be their mom. Kline is at his best when he’s playing characters that are a little bit oblivious to the world around them and Pete carries that quality as well. Streep and Kline are two of the best actors in the business and watching them together is a rare treat.

Streep also gets to act with her real life daughter who plays her onscreen daughter and Gummer shows that she didn’t get the part through any sort of nepotism; the lady can act as well and while there will always be her mom’s shadow looming around her, one has to admit that Streep’s shadow really covers nearly every actress of the last 20 years – that’s how good she is – and Gummer handles it extraordinarily well. We darn tootin’ will see more of Gummer and in, I predict, some higher profile roles.

The music here is mainly covers, which is as it should be. The Flash are as I’ve explained above a lot better than the average bar band in covering these songs, and they certainly don’t disgrace any of them. That’s a plus for a movie like this.

Where the movie falters the most is that the cliche monster is actively working on some of the scenes and plot points. We know how this is going to end almost from the moment the movie kicks into gear with Ricki singing Tom Petty’s “American Girl” and to be honest, the characters are so compelling that you don’t mind that the movie is heading to an obligatory feel good vibe. The point the movie is trying to make I guess is that family is family, even when they make horrible mistakes. There is redemption even for the most unforgivable errors within family and that is true enough. Demme, who is into his 70s now and has had a hell of a career of his own, understands that. This really isn’t typical of a Jonathan Demme film, but then again he’s made a career out of keeping audiences guessing.

This isn’t disposable entertainment exactly, but it is as close as you can get to it in a movie that Meryl Streep is in. Like the local bar with the local cover band playing on a Thursday night, it is a movie that demands you have a good time whether you want to or not. It is a movie that reeks of stale beer, desperate women with too much perfume and too much make-up, working class men who are desperate to relive their glory days, and the soundtrack of a generation that is now, as your critic is, a bit long in the tooth. And Amen, Amen, Amen to all that.

REASONS TO GO: Streep and Kline are always worth seeing. Gets the bar band vibe right.
REASONS TO STAY: A little too cliche a little too often. Tends to use a sledgehammer to make its points.
FAMILY VALUES: Here you will find some drug use, foul language, sexuality and adult content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Streep and Kline previously starred together in Sophie’s Choice, for which Streep won her second Oscar. At the time, Streep was pregnant with her daughter Mamie who would play her daughter in this film, 33 years later.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/29/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 61% positive reviews. Metacritic: 54/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: It’s Complicated
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Sinister 2