11 for ’11: Favorite Theatre of the Year

A photographic look back at my favorite evenings of theatre in 2011.

1) Follies
The Marquis Theatre

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2) Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Arena Stage, Washington D.C.

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3) By The Way, Meet Vera Stark
Second Stage Theatre

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4) Jerusalem
The Music Box Theatre

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5) Venus in Fur
Manhattan Theatre Club at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre

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6) The School for Lies
Classic Stage Company

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7) Good People
Manhattan Theatre Club at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre

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8 ) The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures
The Public Theater

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9) The Book of Mormon
The Eugene O’Neil Theatre

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10) Other Desert Cities
Lincoln Center Theatre at the Booth Theatre

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11) The Lyons
The Vineyard Theatre

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  • Plus A Few Must-Mention Performances:

Jen Harris in Silence! The Musical

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Lily Rabe and Hamish Linklater in Seminar

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Edie Falco in The House of Blue Leaves

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Varla Jean Merman and Leslie Jordan in Lucky Guy

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Alan Rickman in John Gabriel Borkman

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Oscar Catch-Up #7: They Shoot Seabiscuit, Don’t They

So this weeks had nothing to do with each other thematically, only titles that were very close to each other on my Netflix queue and had a giggle-inducing juxtaposition…

Seabiscuit (2003) Directed and Written by Gary Ross
Starring Tobey Maguire, Jeff Bridges, Chris Cooper, and Elizabeth Banks
Nominated for 7 Oscars including Picture, Adapted Screenplay, Art Direction, Cinematography, Costume Design, Editing, and Sound Mixing

They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (1969) Directed by Sydney Pollack, Written by James Poe & Robert E. Thompson
Starring Jane Fonda, Michael Sarrazin, Susannah York, Gig Young, and Red Buttons
Won 1 Oscar for Supporting Actor (Young), Nominated for 8 more including Actress (Fonda), Supporting Actress (York), Director, Adapted Screenplay, Art Direction, Costume Design, Editing, and Score

Seabiscuit is just plain bad.  I mean, really bad.  I mean, okay, it’s photographed prettily.  And horses are beautiful and majestic.  But, c’mon, this hackneyed screenplay is like a book of screenwriting cliches.  The twee performance of Tobey Maguire is consistently obnoxious, and Jeff Bridges/Chris Cooper are putting in absolutely no effort.

On the other hand, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? was absolutely wonderful.  Just a brilliant, haunting masterpiece.  The psychological torture film takes us to a dance marathon during the Great Depression; the contestants are left on the feet, exhausted and lifeless, for weeks for the promise of $1,500 and free food.  Pollack has created a film environment so tense and so pulsing that you can’t bring yourself to look away from the circus of human misery for the two hour runtime.  The ‘derby’ scenes are stunning.  Much more exciting than the racing found in Jane Fonda gives a definitive performance, leading a uniformly outstanding supporting cast.  Put this to the top of your queue if you haven’t seen it, what a trip this was!

 

Dream Cast: The All-Black Steel Magnolias

So, in some perfect collision of timing, the week after I saw Steel Magnolias the film for the first time and saw the beautiful Jen Jenkins perform in Steel Magnolias the play, an announcement is made an all-black remake of Steel Magnolias is being produced for Lifetime (directed by Kenny Leon).

Now, of course this is being made for cable television, so it will probably be a pretty C-list cast including Solange Knowles.  But on my train ride home, I couldn’t help but think of the dream cast.  So here we go…

Viola Davis as M’Lynn

One of the most talented actresses of her generation would nail the film’s central role, and that graveyard monologue like no one else.

Anika Noni Rose as Shelby

Young and bubbly with a wonderful on-screen presence, I would definitely watch her drink some juice.

Phylicia Rashad as Clairee

I mean, who else would ever play the elder stateswoman of the small Louisiana town than Ms. Rashad?

Loretta Devine as Ouiser

Loretta Devine’s reliable comic timing would nail all of Ousier’s great one-liners.

Mo’Nique as Truvy

A fun role to follow-up on her Oscar win, Mo’Nique’s natural personality could shine here.

Sanaa Lathan as Annelle

An incredibly talented actress who needs to be offered better film roles could shine in the new girl in town who becomes born again.

Who did I leave out?  Who would you swap out?

Oscar Catch-Up #6: All That Southern Nostalgia

So last week brought me two movies that I’ve had recommended to me for over a decade, and somehow have never seen.  When it comes to films about the South, they are either offensively simple or attract my affections instantaneously.  These two are Southern classics, so glad to finally catch them.

Steel Magnolias (1989) Directed by Hebert Ross, Written by Robert Harling
Starring Sally Field, Dolly Parton, Olympia Dukakis, Shirley MacLaine, Julia Roberts & Daryl Hannah
Nominated for 1 Oscar, Best Supporting Actress (Roberts)

The Last Picture Show (1971) Directed by Peter Bogdanovich, Written by Bogdanovich & Larry McMurtry
Starring Timothy Bottoms, Jeff Bridges, Cybil Shepherd, Ben Johnson, Cloris Leachman & Ellen Burstyn
Won 2 Oscars including Supporting Actor (Johnson) and Supporting Actress (Leachman); Nominated for 6 more including Picture, Director, Supporting Actor (Bridges), Supporting Actress (Burstyn), Adapted Screenplay & Cinematography

What can one even say about Steel Magnolias? To those of us partial to our southern women.  While I know few of them with as many one-liners are these six–something about this film is like instantly going home.  Surpassing the humor though is the unrepressed heart of this film.  These women who have been poised to take care of each other through marriage, children, and death are a wonderfully simple tribute to the power of friendship.  Often the film that has the simplest thing to say delivers it the best.  Oscar like his women young, which is why I supposed Julia Roberts walked away with the sole nomination (she DOES drink her juice very well) though I would give best in show to Olympia Dukakis as Clairee.  Though Sally Field and Shirley MacLaine would be not far behind.

The Last Picture Show was a genuine masterpiece, it’s like a meditation on nostalgia and small town America.  In fact, I’m pretty sure The Tree of Life wanted to have an ounce of truthfulness that this had in spades.  I honestly have very little to say about it, my feelings were all visceral and felt in the gut instead of the head, so it’s tough to describe its genius.  Just go see it if you haven’t, and then let’s talk.

After my week of this, and discovering during a night of cocktails that a friend hadn’t seen it, I had one of my semi-annual rewatchings of Fried Green Tomatoes, one of my favorite films of all time.  Some of my cinephile friends have never understood its inclusion among my very favorites.  It’s this: I have seen it easily over 50 times and it never grabs anything less than my absolute undivided attention.  I can’t think of another movie that grips by the heart so strongly.

 

 

 

 

 

Oscar Catch-Up #5: Evan’s Picks

A lot of entries this week–as I finally get caught up on all the Netflix envelopes sitting around the house.  This weekend I started my first friend picks–where I will let other people choose the two Oscar nominees that I absolutely should have seen by now.  If you want to help me pick out a couple, just shout.  But this week we focus on the picks of Evan Stewart–friend, Kentucky native, med student, and cinephile.  He chose…

Moonstruck (1987) Directed by Norman Jewison, Written by John Patrick Shanley
Starring Cher, Nicholas Cage, Olympia Dukakis, Vincent Gardenia, Danny Aiello
Won 3 Oscars for Actress (Cher), Supporting Actress (Dukakis), Original Screenplay; nominated for 3 others including Picture, Director, Supporting Actor (Gardenia)

On Golden Pond (1981) Directed by Mark Rydell, Written by Ernest Thompson
Starring Katherine Hepburn, Henry Fonda, Jane Fonda, Doug McKeon, Dabney Coleman
Won 3 Oscars for Actress (Hepburn), Actor (H. Fonda), Adapted Screenplay; nominated for 7 others including Picture, Director, Supporting Actress (J. Fonda), Cinematography, Editing, Original Score, Sound

I was instantly curious when Evan gave me his choices as to why he picked these too–I didn’t see a thematic connection.  However, after seeing them they clearly have something strong in common–they are victims of their time.  Oh, the curse of the 1980s.

Moonstruck has a very strong central performance from Cher–and a wonderful supporting turn from a great character actress for the ages, Olympa Dukakis.  Yet everything around them is utterly apathetic.  The late 80s (in addition to producing me) was cranking out ‘dramedys’ by the handful.  A genre that works far better for television, as a feature it isn’t particularly funny, and isn’t particularly engaging as a drama.  It’s just kinda there.  In fact, I struggled to find anything to say about it at all.  It was 90 minutes of my life that happened, but aside from that iconic slap (“SNAP OUT OF IT!”), the other 89.5 minutes were a bit of a bore.  Sorry, Evan!

On Golden Pond is a particularly sad case of 80s ruin, as it has two film legends giving INCREDIBLE performances, while Jane Fonda is equally wonderfully and looking hotter than ever in a skimpy bathing suit on the dock of Golden Pond.  The three of them, in an elegantly simple script by Ernest Thopmson, should have been cinema catnip for me.  And then the time period kicks in.  Can we talk about that ovebearing synthesizer/piano score people?  When did composers think that was an appropriate choice for mood setting?  And on top of that, there is the all-too-frequent cutting from character to character that undermines so much potent emotion, and the slow fades from house to duck to lake to Henry Fonda.  I guess it’s a chicken-and-egg thing, I don’t know if On Golden Pond was made to look like a life insurance commercial, or if all life insurance commercials since 1981 have strived to look like Golden Pond.  In any case it takes what should be iconic and timeless to a level of schmaltz that comes close to ruining it.  Nevertheless, seeing those Fondas and Hepburn makes the film well worth a visit.  Thanks, Evan!

Oscar Catch-Up #4: Mad As Hell

This week I also decided to go with two dramas thematically similar (the backroom politics of network television news) but very difference in style and craft.  And for the first time since starting this project, I loved them both.  So, lights, camera, your review in 3, 2, 1…

The Insider (1999) Directed by Michael Mann, Written by Eric Roth & Michael Mann
Starring Al Pacino, Russell Crowe, Christopher Plummer, and Philip Baker Hall
7 Oscar nominations including Picture, Director, Actor (Crowe), Adapted Screenplay, Cinematography, Editing, Sound

Network (1976) Directed by Sidney Lumet, Written by Paddy Chayefsky
Starring Faye Dunaway, William  Holden, Peter Finch, Robert Duvall, Ned Beatty, and Beatrice Straight
Won 4 Oscars including Actor (Finch), Actress (Dunaway), Supporting Actress (Straight), Original Screenplay; nominated for 6 more including Picture, Director, Actor (Holden), Supporting Actor (Beatty), Cinematography, Editing

The Insider is a masterfully crafted political thriller about Jeffrey Wigand (Crowe), a Louisville tobacco executive who is approached by 60 Minutes producer Lowell Bergman (Pacino) into being in an expose on the perjury of tobacco executives who swore in front of Congress they had no knowledge of cigarettes harmful effects.  The film, based on a Vanity Fair article about the real-life incident, looks at the smear campaigns, corporate blackmailing, and death threat terrorism used to shut up Wigand.  It is edge-of-your-seat fascinating from beginning to end.  The Insider scored big with Oscar nominations–7 total–but ultimately was overshadowed by American Beauty, in all the big races.  But what a fantastic also-ran.  Now, I do take some issue with Crowe being nominated over Pacino, who gave a FAR more intense, nuanced, and developed a performance than Crowe–who is fine, but rather droll.  Also sadly snubbed was Christopher Plummer who gives an incredible performance as Mike Wallace.  It is an extraordinarily rare example of a person who plays a public personality with both note-perfect voice and mannerism mimicry and a full, motivated character.  All in all, The Insider is a formulaic Hollywood take on the issue, but boy does it use that formula well.

Network is a completely different animal.  The first hour is a taut, insider network television drama with a canned newscaster, part warrior for the third estate–part self-aggrandizing narcissist.  This half of the film ends with the now famous monologue beckoning his viewers to get up from the television and shout out their windows “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore”.  The spirit that the film captures was haunting to watch in 2011, as much as political zeitgeist mirrors that of the Ford/Carter-era 70s.  Then comes the second half, a complete character destruction that holds a painful mirror to the selfish desires that cripple ideology.  The first hour is wonderful, the second brilliant–peppered with monologues that seem straight from Albee or Beckett, Chayefsky’s script she be taught in American literature classes beside Death of a Salesman and Catch-22.  As for the Oscars, it’s surprising to me that this was a film embraced by the establishment Academy–though I’m certainly glad they did.  Dunaway and Finch’s wins are well-deserved and give me more faith in the institution that awards Sandra Bullock and Jeff Bridges these days.  Holden is also a phenom, but sadly has the less juicy role to work with.  Beatrice Straight’s win seems an odd decision in retrospect–the briefest role to ever win an Oscar, Straight is on-screen for barely five minutes–though her monologue is pure Oscar-bait if it ever existed.  Despite it’s 3 acting and screenplay wins, the Academy went with the uplifting Rocky–which is understandable and predictable, oftentimes we don’t want a harsh mirror but just need a knock-out win.

Oscar Catch-Up #3: The Problem with Foreign

I always brace for the bit of intellectual judgment when someone suggests a foreign film, and my face gets a little squinted and I have to admit “yeah, I’m just don’t have the attention span to read for the next two hours.”  But it’s more than that—foreign films have always presented a problem for me.  It’s a similar problem to why I don’t jump on the 240 Shakespeare productions presented in New York each season—my mind has trouble working that way.  I am stimulated aurally and visually, which is why theatre and film work so well for me, words on a page often don’t evoke anything in my brain—I’m just too distracted by everything around me.  Not to say I don’t read—I read lots in short form, that doesn’t require so much concentration; and every now and then I’m at a place of mental zen and relaxation to pick up a book or pop in a foreign film.  This week’s Oscar catch-ups are two acclaimed Mexican films from the early aughts that had passed me by, but have been recommended time and time again.  My mental blocks with foreign film were heavily on mind whilst thinking about these.

Amores Perros (2000) Directed by Alejandro Gonzales Inarritu, Written by Guillermo Arriaga
Starring Gael Garcia Bernal, Emilio Echevarria, Goya Toldeo, Alvaro Guerrero, Vanessa Bauche, Jorge Salinas, and Marco Perez
Nominated for 1 Oscar: Best Foreign Language Film

Y Tu Mama Tambien (2002) Directed by Alfonso Cuaron, Written by Alfonso Cuaron & Carlos Cuaron
Starring Gael Garcia Bernal, Diego Luna and Ana Lopez Mercado
Nominated for 1 Oscar: Best Original Screenplay

Amores Perros reminded me about a certain level of emotional disconnect that inherently comes when you aren’t speaking the same language as the characters.  There is a mental distance that keeps you a step removed—constantly reminds you in every second that you are watching a film.  Sometimes it makes me get real bored real easily (A Prophet, The Secret in Their Eyes) and sometimes it really works for me—it makes something that could become cloyingly emotional suddenly palatable (Tsotsi, Pan’s Labyrinth).  The latter definitely worked in Amores Perros’ favor.  I could see the symbolism of the brutal relations of these humans being juxtaposed against the brutal world of dog fighting being too heavy handed in English.  In this case it just seemed ingeniously realized, shot after shot.  All of the performances here are incredibly strong, and the cinematography too.  Inarritu likes to wallow in the bleak and miserable.  In Babel, he was able to be ultimately uplifting in the doom and gloom.  In Biutiful, he made you want to put a gun in your mouth.  Here, like 21 Grams, there is no uplift, but he at least restrains from complete miserablism.

Y Tu Mama Tambien represents another trend I’ve noticed toward my reactions to foreign film—annoyance that something incredibly mediocre is being over-hyped when the exact same material wouldn’t receive a second glance as an English-language film in an American market.  Last year this was true with the psychological torture porn DogtoothY Tu Mama Tambien was critically claimed and launched Alfonso Cuaron’s career into Hollywood—it’s not much more than a buddy sex comedy that isn’t funny.  It desperately wants to be profound, but comes off as adolescent instead.  A very striking performance by Ana Lopez Mercado is its saving grace, this nomination for the screenplay is baffling as the dialogue (at least as translated—which I guess is how the Academy was nominating it) reads as uninspired and meandering.

With my mixed record this week, what foreign movie do I need to watch next?