The Internet Theater Magazine of Reviews, Features, Annotated Listings
A CurtainUp Review
Stage-Related Film, TV and DVD Talk
By Elyse Sommer
Except for Ma Rainey's Black Bottom all the plays in the cycle were set in the Pittsburgh Hill District of Wilson's own youth; thus their being referred to as the Pittsburgh Cycle. And, while the stories were specific to the lives of poor and often embittered black characters, their focus on the struggle for dignity, love, security and happiness despite often overwhelming obstacles was universal.
Set as it is in the '50s, Fences is #8 in the cycle, but it's probably #1 in terms of popularity with audiences. The play, an emotionally powerful family drama, had its first Broadway revival in 2010. With Denzel Washington in the leading role of Troy Madsen a garbageman whose dreams of playing professional baseball got sidetracked by a youthful incident that landed him in prison, that revival was a sellout.
Though Washington was the ticket selling magnet, the entire cast was superb, especially the extaordinary Viola Davis as Troy's wife Rose. So movie goers are in luck. All except the little girl who joins the family towards the end, are present in the recently released film adaptation.
Denzel Washington, now directs as well as stars; and, in that second job, he's managed to make Fences not just one of August Wilson's best plays, but one of the best adaptations of a straight play I've seen in a long time. No overly dark filmic scenes! No meaningless expansion of the cast!
Washington opens things up just enough for a glimpse of Troy and his pal Bono working their garbage jobs, and the interier of the modest Madsen home, without losing the focus on that home's back yard where the titular fence is constructed and the major interactions play out.
Since the film so beautifully brings all the virtues of the stage production, rather than read a rehash here, you might as well click over to my review of the 2010 production of Fences .
This film is a wonderful way for August Wilson newbies to become acquainted with his work. For his many fans it's a not to be missed chance to see how well his work transfers to the screen. The release is also timely, in that Jitney, the first of the Pittsburgh plays he wrote is being given its first Broadway revival, also with a stellar cast and director. To read my review of that productlon go here.
For more about August Wilson and his work see Curtainup's August Wilson Backgrounder
Curtainup was launched the same year that Kenneth Lonergan's breakthrough play This is Our Youth premiered Off-Broadway. I've admired and followed his work ever since, seeing some of his plays several times (for example, I revisited This is Our Youth when it was revived on Broadway-- my review.
His movies — You Can Count on Me, Margaret, and now Manchester by the Sea — tackle the same often devastating themes as his plays (death, loss of a loved one and guilt). But sad as the stories he tells can be, they're never without laughs.
Naturally, someone turning out an impressive body of stage and screen plays is bound to disappoint sometimes; which was the case with in 2009, an Medieval Play in 2012. But Lonergan fans rejoice. He's now back at the top of his game both on stage and screen. Hold On To Me Darling was a highlight of last year's Atlantic Theater season, and Manchester by the Sea is a highlight of the current film season.
Set in a Massachussetts coastal town and occasionally in Boston, Manchester . . . is a major star turn for Casey Affleck as Lee Chandler, a depressed, anti-social handyman. It takes a while to sort through the many flashbacks Lonergan uses to reveal the cause for Lee's depressed persona. Without ever resorting to a facile happy, or at least happier, finale.
If you give those flashbacks a chance to make sense and get a handle on the emotional depth of Lee's crippling grief and guilt, you'll be privvy to a compelling, beautifully filmed psychological drama. while the focus is on Affleck's Lee coming to terms with the tragedy that destroyed his happy life in Manchester with his wife, Randi (Michelle Williams), the story enriched by a number of well realized and performed characters.
Of the people who are part of Lee's story, the most interesting is his sixteen-year-old nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges). He's the son who his older brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) willed to him since the boy's mom (Gretchen Moll) has been out of their lives for a while. Lee is thus forced to reconnect with his Manchester life. Though Lee's unwilling guardianship is prompted by Joe's sudden death, both Chandler and absentee mom Gretchen Moll get chances to shine via the flashbacks.
Though Lee's life shattering tragedy and its lingering aftermath is the foundation stone on which the film is built, the most complex and intriguing relationship is with his orphaned nephew. There's a clearly deepening affection between them, despite their running battle as to whether Patrick will finish high school in Boston or if Lee can stay in a place so painful for him to be in beyond the current term. While Patrick seems cooler and more able to move on with his life of the two, there are subtle indications that he too is in deep grief. Lee's involvement in Patrick's complicated social life also opens things up for some much needed very funny moments.
This is a breakout role for Hedges who's currently become another actor navigating both screen and stage work, when he makes his stage debut in the MCC company's the world premiere of Yen (our review after its official opening on January 31st).
C. W. Wilson last seen in Lonergan's Hold On To Me Darling, again makes a major contribution as Joe's close friend and business partners. Josh Hamilton, a frequent Lonergan interpreter shows up in a minor role, as does Matthew Broderick.
Lonergan's finely detailed direction is abetted and enhanced by cinematographer's beautiful images of the locale, especially the scenes on Joe's boat.
If you've never seen a Lonergan play or film, don't miss this one.
La La Land
The accolades showered on Stone for her musical theater debut were not really for the vivid acting that made her not being an outstanding singer immaterial. She evolved into a big belter or a superb dancer as Mia, an ambitious but still unsuccessful young actress. But again, it doesn't matter.
What's true for Stone is equally true for Ryan Gosling as Sebastian, the equally ambitious jazz musician and the other half of La La Land's familiar yet fresh and endearing love story.
Stone and Gosling are loaded with charisma. They believably convey both the romantic sizzle between Mia and Sebastian as well as the equally overpowering intensity of their individual creative dreams — hers to be a successful actress, his to own his own club dedicated to classic jazz.
As Stone and Gosling successfully navigate the traditional man-woman love story and an individual's passionate commitment to a creative dream, so script writer/director Damien Chazelle and cinematographer Linus Sandgren have managed a double feat: He makes La La Land work as a homage to the golden oldie musicals only audiences of a certain age are likely to have grown up with. And to his great credit, he's freshened his nostalgic love letter with a somewhat astringent twist on the de rigeur style happy endings. In fact, that ending is what validates all the ecstatic buzz.
Chazelle and Sandgren's fantasy sequences are enchanting enough to give Stone and Gosling and almost Fred and Ginger like glow. That said, it's as a musical that La La Land falls short. Casting movie stars whose chief assets don't include singing and dancing typifies the pragmatism that also prevails on Broadway — Casting with a performer's box office magnetism the first cnsideration. The LA highway traffic jam that serves as the peppy ensemble opening number is certainly lively and supportive of a plot revolving around a place that's still a magnet for people eager to live the dream that Hollywood or La La Land. But Justin Hurwitz's "City of Stars" theme song is repeated to ad nauseum and the rest of the score and the Benj Pasek/Justin Paul lyrics are more serviceable than really memorable.
Yes, La La Land, is enjoyable but claims to being a genuine game changer with a really meaningful book, casting, music and lyrics made me wonder if Chazelle had ever seen Hamilton. I doubt Lyn Manual Miranda or director Thomas Kail would have sidelined the black jazz men Gosling's Sebastion so admires but upstages. Here's hoping you won't have to wait too long for the movie version of that deserved Tony and Pulitzer Prize winner.
This 7-episode post World War II British period drama is billed as a thriller. The concept, time frame and atmospheric setting certainly have all the earmarks of that genre.
But, given that it's written and directed by David Poliakoff, you can count on something much more than the usual mainstream escape fare — in the case of Close to the Enemy that means a thoughtful and diverse psychological exploration of the unique post World War II period when a peaceful and successful future entailed complex choices of dealing with the past and moving on.
Despite an over-stuffed and often credibility challenging plot and meandering detours, Close to the Enemy demonstrates how even an imperfect project can hook you into compulsively binging your way through the whole series.
How could it not, with stage as well as screen favorites Alfred Molina, Leslie Duncan and Phoebe Fox among the many characters poopping up regularly in the multitude of subplots to provide scene stealing and emotionally potent moments.
As for the main story line, it revolves around a secret Ministry of Defence government unit. Their mission is to capture defeated Germany's technical wizards and harness their knowledge to compete with its former allies for future dominance in science and technology.
To oversee the process and charm these people into cooperating, we have Captain Callum Ferguson (Jim Sturgess). His prime assignment is Dieter (August Diehl), an aeronautical engineer who, along with his young daughter, Lotte (Lucy Ward), has been forcibly brought from Germany and is essentially the Brits' prisoner.
Intriguing as all these people and their connection to the Defense Department's operation are, the real star of this series is its main location — The Connington Hotel, an imposing ruin sitting on the government's property. You couldn't ask for a more soaked in atmosphere setting than this remarkably unbombed architectural survivor sitting amidst the otherwise bombed-out rubble. Its restaurant still looks grand but dishes up post-war fare. The long, narrow hallways are perfect for characters to slink about mysteriously. A newly reopened basement ballroom serves as a good excuse for true to the period musical interludes by biographical movie star Angela Bassett as an American lounge singer and her band.
While Ferguson does win over Dieter fairly early on in the seven episodes, the was-he-or-wasn't he the kind of Nazi who should be tried as a war criminal rather than embraced question lingers over all that follows. The Captain also has to deal with another involuntary guest of the Defence Department, the terrific Leslie Duncan, as the imperious Frau Bellinghausen, who actually was born a Brit; that was before she married a German industrialist whose secret perfume formula is apparently a desirable asset for the nation's economic future. When not securing these secrets.
Ferguson is also busy dealing with his war-damaged brother, Victor (Freddie Highmore) his romance with Rachel Lombard (Charlotte Riley) the rich American wife of his best friend. As if that's not enough, there's his growing friendship wartime foreign service officer Harold Lindsay-Jones (Alfred Molina) whose secret past keeps lurking around the hotel.
The most interesting and thought provoking of all these sub-plots involves Phoebe Fox as Kathy Griffith (the wonderful Phoebe Fox-- who live theater goers will remember from last season's ground breaking revival of Arthur Miller's A View From the Bridge ). Since Kathy works for a government unit that seeks to track down and prosecutes war criminals. Thus Kathy and the Cullum represent a struggle between two points of view: Kathy is on the side of the uncompromising morality that brings war criminals to justice. Cullum is with the pragmatists who are willing to not dig too deeply into the pasts of those able to help prevent future wars — shades of the he current Syrian crisis with one side willing to keep President Assad in power in the interest of a cease fire.
While I seem to be singling out the secondary characters (Molina, Duncan and Fox), I also enjoyed the deft performances of the other new to me actors. The performances, the atmosphere rich Connaught made it easy to forgive the contrivances and keep binging along.
Australia's own Downton Abbey was supposed to end with Season 2. So unlike the preceding epis the concluding episode was scripted without any hints of more to come. But then came a reprieve which required a new finale to Season 2. The subsequent new ending saw George Bligh (Brett Climo) shot. How that it happened and how he survived established laid the groundwork for more melodramatic complications in the Bligh family's life and that of Nurse Sarah Adams (Marta Dusseldorp) and her seriously shell-shocked ex-war prisoner husband René Nordman (Benjamin Winspear).
The end of Season 3 was again a cliff hanger. It left things looking pretty bad for Nurse Sarah, courtesy of rat poison sent her way by dragon lady Regina (Jenni Baird). Things were no better for Elizabeth Bligh, Ash Park's manipulator in chief. Just as she was morphing into a near saintly persona, her bad heart threatened to do her in.
Given that Sarah and Elizabeth are the two most crucial to the plot characters, it didn't take a super optimist to assume that they would survive for Season 4. But the devil being in the details, what was once again harder to know was just how this would happen and how George would react when he found out just how nasty a piece of work Regina, his former sister-in-law and now wife was.
And sure enough, Sarah and Elizabeth are alive in Season 4, the first two episodes of which arrived in time to enjoy the continuing saga of the Blighs and Nurse Sara and assorted others along with our Thanksgiving leftovers. The talented writers who've taken over for Bevan Lee, the show's creator, have added new plot lines with the same appreciation of the rewards of the melodramatic genre which Lee explained in an interview as follows: "I want to fight the rise of melodrama being viewed as a somehow lesser form. To me a good melodrama is a big plum pudding of a show, full of fruit, flavour and the odd surprise threepence." Elizabeth Bligh, the initially nominal villainess has become more and more llikeable; actually, lovable. But that doesn't leave the saga without the vital ingredient of a villain. Regina, the anti-Semitic schemer, has morphed into an Über-villain. She's like ten of Rebecca's Mrs. Danvers rolled into one poisonous package. As a runner up in the bad guys making trouble for everyone, there's also Sir Richard (a deliciously odious Mark Lee). That's the full of dirty tricks publisher who got George to go into politics and almost destroyed the rekindled love of his sister Carolyn Bligh (Sara Wiseman) and Dr. Jack Duncan (Craig Hall).
The marriage of the homosexual James Bligh (David Berry), his wife Olivia (Arianwen Parkes-Lockwood) is still very much front and center, as is that of Anna Bligh (Abby Earl) and Gino Poletti (Aldo Mignone) who overcame the cultural clashes of Italian farmers and landed Aussie gentry.
Since the complete series is archived at Acorn, readers who are new to it can do a marathon binge, starting with Sarah's first meeting with the Blighs while she's working as a nurse on a luxury ship carrying them home from a wedding. That sets things up for the soon to unfold central events, the main one seeing George Bligh, the attractive, widowed head of the Bligh sheep farm's business, smitten with Sarah —and so will you be with the terrific Marta Dusseldorp playing this woman who has her own past to contend with.
Though the autocratic Bligh matriarch was pretty much a dominating bitch in the early series, she was so fully dimensioned that there was plenty of room for the superb Noni Hazlehurst to make her a decidedly human villain.
While most of the gradually revealed surprises were — and still are — fairly predictable, I was once again hooked. This is a pungently atmospheric, thematically potent depiction of 1950s Australia still dealing with the aftermath of the painful World War II years, lingering Anti-semitism and mistreatment of homosexuals. Even when some of the action goes over the top, there's the top to bottom wonderful cast to make it all work.
I'll leave it to you to decide if the end of episode end is really the end. Having had a chance to preview all 12 episodes, I think that, like Downton Abbey, it's had it's day. Still, moving beyond the 1950s to the next generation is not without its melodramatic possibilities.
Director Antonio Campos' and scriptwriter Craig Shilowich's fictionalized account of the year culminates in a headline making 1974 event. That event had the 29-going-on-30 Ohio born Christine Chubbuck take her seat before the cameras and follow a few news announcements with one that sent shock waves through the Sarasota, Florida TV station's audience — and throughout the world.
If you're familiar with the case, you may be put off by what you know is coming. Too dark. Too predictable. More than a whiff of exploitation. Chances are you never heard of it since Chabbuck's story is only now re-surfacing again via this movie and a documentary about Chabbuck. Consequently , the ending will be doubly shocking. (For details about the real back story, check out this link).
Privvy to the ending or not, watching the mounting tension in this complex, volatile young woman's professional and personal life has you prepped for something explosive is going to happen. At times it felt to me like that famous French film, The 400 Blows, but from an adult perspective.
In any case, Christine, for all it's sadness, is fascinating with much to recommend it: The places and finely nuanced interactions to which the film takes us. . . an interesting group of subsidiary characters . . .the authentic 1970s details. . . and, above all, Hall's stunningly layered portrayal of a complex, emotionally troubled young woman teetering on the verge of a horrendous meltdown.
Christine's struggle to succeed as a TV journalist on her own terms and and in spite of her inability to connect is woven into a vivid tapestry. It's never clear just how and why she moved to Florida and ende up in this newsroom but it's quite clear that she and Michael the station head honcho (Pulitzer-winning playwright Tracey Letts who once again proves himself to be a terrfic actor) are on different tracks. But of course, he's in charge and that means he decides who to promote to a bigger station in Baltimore that's been opened up by Bob Anderson, a wealthy mogul (John Cullum as usual making much of a minor part).
Other relationships that go predictably wrong are Christine's friendship with Jean (a lovely, gentle performance Maria Dizzia) and George (the terrific Michael C. Hall), the anchor with his own emotional background on whom she has a secret crush. Her date with George is downright painful to watch.
As for Christine's loving but ineffective mother, there's the always wonderful J. Smith Cameron. And as if Christine's plate wasn't piled high enough with frustrations, she has an ovarian cyst that might end her chance to ever have a baby (pretty unlikely anyway, since she's still a virgin).
Ultimately, this is not just one woman's tragedy, but one of many that should have been possible to prevent. It's also a media story that's ongoing: — about journalists who cater to violence and gossip for the sake of the bottom line. Not an easy sell in a tough movie market. But definitely worth seeing if you appreciate outstanding acting.
London Road, the Musical On Screen
Elyse Sommer's View of the Film, Without Having Seen the Stage Version. . . and London Critic Lizzie Loveridge's Double View
Elyse's Film Only Take
I didn't see the stage version of London Road as my colleague Lizzie Loveridge did, but it's clear that director Rufus Norris has expanded that production to give viewers a broader picture of this torn from the headlines musical about how a 2006 serial murder case ane its effect on the residents of Ipswich where it happend. What Norris has not done is to transform it into a film more true to the musical genre with hummable tunes. Despite one quite catchy number called "It Could Be Him" delivered by two teenagers the overall new music sound is more about tapping into emotions than showing off vocal talent. But then this is not a feel-good musical. Even though the case of the Ipswitch murders was familiar to London theater goers, Alec Blythe and Adam Cork's focus on the authentically recorded testimonies of the Ipswich residents was a risky proposition for the National Theater to undertake. Yet, it was an unlikely success, and so seeded this even riskier film adaptation, now officially released by BBC.
Lizzi Loveridge's review in 2011 pointed out both London Road's limitations in terms of wide audience appeal and the strengths that confirmed the National Theater in putting it on. For her review go here .
While the film sticks to the play's plot and verbatim structure, I suspect that the performers suddenly bursting into song and taking on various roles worked better on stage. Yet its operatic quality and the expanded street scenes are quite mesmerizing, and the situation and its effect on ordinary people is univeral.
Since Lizzie liked the leading character she saw very much, obviously casting Olivia Colman as the pivotal character and Tom Hardy as the mysterious taxi driver was a case of adding some well known, ticket selling names. Colman, though not a singer, is quite fine (as she always is) but Hardy seems under utilized. Like all the film's male characters he somehow comes across as a likely perpetrator.
At this point, I'm going to turn this over to Lizzie Loveridge.
Lizzie's Double View Perspective . . .
My first thoughts: I didn't love it as a play because of the mundanity of the man in the street reaction although it also bears on phenomenon like the Brexit vote — the man in the street having their say. I really don't know how it will go down in America, whether they will "get" the context. It will need a long introduction to cinema audiences
Stage or screen, an almost documentary record of the reaction of a local community to a series of murders. is a curiosity. The film for worldwide distribution by the BBC has an only slightly changed cast from the stage production at the National Theatre in 2011. The concept is verbatim theatre, using only the words that Alecky Blythe has collected from those who lived in the road in Ipswich, Suffolk where the man accused of murdering the five prostitutes had lived for just ten weeks.
The film is unique because the participants are ordinary and their comments are often mundane. The score is sung as if the person speaking has just decided to repeat their words in a singsong tune so, now as then, this is a far cry from a musical star breaking into a melodic song that we can go home singing. The film has a different impact from the stage show since it shows shots of the dismal street of terraced houses that is London Road, dominated by the giant gas holders that immediately make a place soulless.
The Ipswich murders took place over six weeks from 30 October to 10th December 2006 but their bodies were discovered in under a fortnight from 2nd December to the 14th. Before the murderer is identified, we see the Ipswich residents speculating about who he might be.
While Olivia Coleman, best known for her roles in Broadchurch and The Night Manager, takes over the role of Julie. Kate Fleetwood is still on board with a memorable cameo as Vicky, one of the members of the oldest profession struggling with drug addiction. Paul Hilton (Tim) and Anita Dobson (June) also join the cast. Tom Hardy as the taxi driver, Mark, with an inordinate interest in serial murderers and their likely profiles is mostly seen in the taxi's mirror as he would be seen by the fare in the back. Paul Thornley, currently playing the adult Ron Weasley in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is Dodge.
My feeling on seeing London Road on screens is pretty much the same: The ugliness and selfishness of the locals who appear to have no empathy for the girls who lives were lost is not a pretty picture of small town England. London Road
Florence Foster Jenkins Reviewed By Simon Saltzman
It is quite remarkable how many stories have recently surfaced about this self-deluding, self-aggrandizing patron of the arts in New York during the mid 20th century. Jenkins not only imagined herself a world class singer with operatic aspirations but remained remarkably oblivious to her own state of being completely tone-deaf. Made famous by the now legendary concert at Carnegie Hall in 1944 at which she sang a selection of arias with stunning inaccuracy and with ear-piercing screeches was also notable for being filled to capacity with bribed critics, curious attendees, as well as members of the armed forces who were given comps through the generosity of her devoted and caring husband.
Who else to play this lovable if lamentable loony on the screen but the equally legendary but unquestionably gifted Meryl Streep who creates a complex and conflicted character that far exceeds the minimalist text that has been given her by screen writer Nicholas Martin. Director Stephen Friers gives free rein to Streep's gift for nuance if not in giving much dramatic weight to the story.
For those who only know Jenkins from Stephen Temperley's play "Souvenir that starred Judy Kaye on Broadway and others in regional theaters (see background note below), it is curious how Martin's screenplay adds characters and events to Foster's story but doesn't really expand upon them, that is except for bringing to light the debilitating syphilis that Foster lived with for fifty years. She contracted the disease at eighteen on her wedding night ending her career as a pianist.
In the film, we have to make our own assumption as to the extent the syphilis may have created a form of selective dementia that may have only altered her hearing. There is no other explanation to how she could not have known how awful the sounds were when she sang. However, her strength wanes as her body also fails her for most of the film. When Streep speaks, the voice is generally soft but never wimpy and she has ample opportunities in the film to be emotionally stirring. This, especially in her tender scenes with Hugh Grant, as her second and very kind husband St. Clair Bayfield, a second rate Shakespearean actor who had a more successful second career as her manager. Though he has a secreted live-in mistress (Rebecca Ferguson), we may attribute the depth of his devotion to his knowing where his bread is buttered.
A major lift to the film comes from Simon Helberg who plays Cosme McMoon, the young pianist hired to accompany Foster. Virtually dumbstruck at first by what he hears coming out of her mouth, he nevertheless evolves with a touching complicity through the film and especially in that climactic scene in which he realizes that he has actually played Carnegie Hall. The film leaves us with more questions than answers, but many will be satisfied with the eye-filling decor and the costumes and the sound of Streep warbling like a chicken in heat.
Search CurtainUp in the box below
Manchester by the Sea
La La Land
Close to the Enemy
A Place to Call Home
Christine, starring Rebecca Hall
London Road, the film