CurtainUp
CurtainUp

The Internet Theater Magazine of Reviews, Features, Annotated Listings
www.curtainup.com


Archived Stage-Related Film and TV Talk

No Pay, Nudity
Fences
Manchester by the Sea
La La Land
Close to the Enemy- Post WWII Drama- 7 episodes
Downton Abbey's Final Season. . . a grand and thoroughly satisfying finale
Christine
London Road
Florence Foster Jenkins

Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me
Live Sound of Music
HBO's The Normal Heart
August: Osage County The film adaptation of Tracy Letts'Pulitzer Prize winning play
Blue Jasmine Woody Allen's Homage to the poet of the Contemporary American theater, Tennessee Williams
Last Tango in Halifax An endearing, comfort foot senior citizen romance series.
Tales of the City 20th Anniversary Edition of the 1993 Mini Series based on Amistead Maupin's Novels
Maigret: Complete Collection This is a wonderful old-fashioned mystery series starring the "Great Gabon".
House of Cards & Margaret
DVD Reviews
Private Romeo
Coriolanus
War Horse
Anonymous
Smash
Justin Kurzel's Macbeth comes to US Screens

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
Olivia Colman, the film adaptation's Julie


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.
Background Notes by Elyse Sommer
The strange but true career of Florence Foster Jenkins on the concert stage has had quite an after life on stage and screen. The Stephen Temperly's Souvenier mentioned in the review below was an economically effective and very stageworthy 2-actor play. Judy Kaye who created the role for that production, had to hide her genuinely thrilling voice (except for a wonderful end scene). I saw and reviewed that production three times (all 3 reviews ). Curtainup also reviewed Souvenier in New Jersey and Connecticut ( New Jersey review, Connecticut Review)
.


Christine
Rebecca Hall
If you're looking for easy entertainment, The just released bio-drama Christine is too dark to fit the bill. It does, however, offer the kind of close-up views of some of the theater's best actors that only the movies can provide. Every name in the cast will be a familiar, ticket selling draw for live theater enthusiasts. Good as they all are, the star of this starry cast is Rebecca Hall, who was so riveting in the 2014 Broadway revival of
Machinal . Hall's performance in the title role has "Oscar nominee" written all over it.

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.


duncan
Leslie Duncan and Alfre Molina
Close to the Enemy
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.

La La Land
lalaland
Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling
Emma Stone left the film studio world long enough to step into the role of Sally Bowles in last year's revival of
Cabaret on Broadway. She was enough of a hit to extend the run of the show. That live musical theater debut probably won her the starring role in La La Land, the movie musical that just collected enough Golden Globe awards to support the buzz about this new ode to old movie musicals with song-and-dance super stars (think Ginger Rogers, Cyd Charisse, Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly) being this year's multiple Oscar winner.

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.


Manchester By the Sea
affleck
Ben Affleck
Manchester by the Sea
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.

No Pay, Nudity
no pay
Gabriel Byrne and Nathan Lane in No Pay, Nudity Fences
If I asked you to name a famous show biz guy who's grown a beard and donned a fat suit to play a part, you'd probably have no problem coming up with the correct answer. That beard and fat suit have turned Josh Groban, the super star of the concert stage into a Broadway musical stage star sure to at least be nominated for a Tony and numerous other theater awards.

Nathan Lane is also likely to nab a nomination for his performance as Walter Burns in the Broadway revival of
Front Page . But while he was beardless as the scoop chasing editor of that production, he sports a beard, an enormous fat suit and glasses and a beard for No Pay, Nudity, a heart-warming Indie movie that too many people have never heard of. That's even though Lane is just one of this charming little film's cast top drawer stage, film and tv thespians.

In moving from on to off-stage for his directing debut, Lee Wilcof has followed the "write about what you know" advice usually given to fledgling authors. After many years of performing live and in front of the camera — singing as well as acting as with his terrific rendition of "Brush Up Your Shakespeare" in the musical Kiss Me Kate— Wilcof certainly knows the ups and downs of an actor's life.

In No Pay, Nudity Wilkof and script writer Adam Sandler (also an actor) have created an unflinching yet sympathetic and charming tragi-comedy about a group of thespians whose salad days are mostly past history. As in Eugene O'Neill's The Iceman Cometh (in which both Lane and Wilkof have appeared) these aging actors still haven't given up their pipe dreams of a gig to validate their clinging to their identities as actors and the possibility of another chance to reactivate a stalled career. And so, they spend their days hanging out in the Actors Equity Lounge putting up with the insults of the facility's bad-tempered manager.

The little circle of regulars is comprised of Lester Rosenthal, (Gabriel Byrne) who could be living a comfortable life running his father's Ohio cement company if he weren't still convnced acting was his calling; the always cheerful Andrea and her toy poodle (Frances Conroy); Stephan (Boyd Gaines) who is more reality focused the others; and Hershel (Nathan Lane).

Readers who are regular theater goers will have fun spotting top tier stage thespiens in cameo roles; for example Jeremy Shamos as a veterinarian; J. Smith Cameron as Lester's critical ex-wife; Donna Murphy as a more sympathetic new romantic interest; Valerie Mahaffey as a flatteringly admring friend from his high school days and her husband John Bedford Lloyd.

Lane is the chief kibitzer and also occasionally narrates via voice-over. The back story explaining why he's been condemned to a life sentence of unemployment is not especially believable, especially since it includes no clue as to how manages to eat and pay rent when not pontificating to his cronies. More importantly, however, Lane is hilarious and also manages to be the linchpin holding this little family together when one dreamer's success and another's despair collide.

Outstanding as Lane is, the film's centerpiece is Gabriel Byrne's Lester Rosenthal. Byrne, like Director Wilkof and Nathan Lane has inhabited major Eugene O'Neill characters on stage (most recently as the self-destructive James Tyrone in Long Day's Journey Into Night ) and also enjoyed much success on TV. As the far less successful Lester Mr. Byrne is riveting as a man for whom everything that could go wrong does: His dog dies. . . his best and steadiest acting job on a TV soap opera ended years ago when they killed off his character. . . . his only steady job is reading the newspaper to a blind man. . .he experiences a sudden and demoralizing memory loss during an audition to play King Lear in an out of town production.

Lester's marriage to an actress who settled for a more practical life is also over. And while his daughter loves him, she feels he'd be better off as a waiter than clinging to his dream. No wonder that when the Equity Lounge group's Stefan gets a big break, Lester's simmering despair and jealousy erupts into an almost too painful to watch mental meltdown.

The director with the help of cinematographer keeps the main characters equity lounge scenes from being too static. Thus we follow Byrne's depressing encounters all around Manhattan and eventually to Ohio. It turns out that the title role audition he flubbed so miserably led to an offer to play but the minor role of King Lear's Fool and the production happens to be in his home town.

As it turns out he does the Fool brilliantly and since the Bring in that this is his home town so its somehow not just a catharthis in terms of his triumph in a minor role but reconnecting with his father his roots genera(an old girl friend sho opens his eyes to how to tailor a dream to leave room for being able to love more day-to-day dreams, and live fully off as well as on stage.allow for dreams of other dreams his father, and -- of working out a way to a happy ending that makes this rather specialized milieur a universal story of how to aaccept ourselves even if we haven't realized all our ambitions, but manage to love what we do anyway because it also enables us to live life fully an joyfully off stage as well as onl. Wonderful indie comedy-drama one of those very special low-budget films that outshine major studio fare made for many millions of dollars. and tive the credit line the press girl gave me dramatized in a range of encounters. There’s the hale, hearty, job-offering visit of a theater-world friend (Loudon Wainwright), the increasingly high-profile opportunities for a more focused lounge habitue (Boyd Gaines), and the wowed admiration of a former high-school classmate (Valerie Mahaffey). Yet however enthralled she is with Lester’s showbiz stories, his unfashionable friend from unfashionable Ohio is unequivocally happier than he is. Back in New York, Lester gets a romantic interest (Donna Murphy) whose idea of success is bracingly self-defined. Byrne’s performance is a masterful symphony of illuminating off-key chords as Lester confronts the painfully late-in-life question of whether acting is his true calling. It’s a fascinating and difficult wisecracking his permanent unemployment he's hilarious not paying off. The matter of success and its flip side, professional jealousy, is dramatized in a range of encounters. of a group of has-been thespians who hang out in the Actors Equity lounge If you see him at the awards Josh Groban isn't the only famous show biz guy to sport a beard and a fat suit these days.

Fences
The late August Wilson's ten-play chronicle of the African-American Experience was a remarkable achievement. Outstanding as each of these plays was, if you happened to see one a second time, it inevitably seemed even better and more impressive.

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 interior 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 productuon go here.

For more about August Wilson and his work see Curtainup's August Wilson Backgrounder

Justin Kurzel's Macbeth comes to US Screens
The Australian director and screenwriter Justin Kurzel premiered his Macbeth at Cannes in May and now brings it to the U. S. in time for the holidays. Following in the vein of Roman Polanski's 1971 film of the same name, it is a gritty retelling of Shakespeare's Scottish Play. And with two big name actors on board — Oscar nominated actor Michael Fassbender as the Thane and Oscar award-winning actress Marion Cotillard as the Queen — this new film is bound to create buzz around the eggnog bowl this season.

The cinematography is stunning! It was shot on location in Scotland and England, and captures the fair and foul weather that sweeps over those rugged landscapes. You can practically smell the Scottish highlands and English countryside in some sequences, and feel the gusty winds and rain pelting down in various outdoor scenes. And to add even more atmosphere and mystery, there's a wash of reddish light in pivotal frames that serves as a visual metaphor for the bloody tragedy in progress under the tyrant Macbeth.

This is Kurzel's first go at Shakespeare. But it's no accident that he's chosen Macbeth out of the canon. After all, his first film Snowtown (based on the true life story of the Snowtown murders), was a grisly but fascinating study of a serial murderer in Australia. It brought him much critical acclaim, and marked him as a rising star in the film world. Kurzel has an uncanny talent for creating menacing portraits of murderers on the big screen. And his new Macbeth is sure to cement his reputation. What's more, Kurzel has a modern-day spin—and diagnosis—for the Bard's deranged protagonist: post-traumatic stress disorder. No, the term hadn't been coined yet in 11th - century Scotland. But Macbeth certainly manifests many of the symptoms of this mental condition that is now widely accepted by the medical world, seriously researched, and treated.

Although Kurzel is faithful to Shakespeare's text, he takes creative license, now and then, to drive home his own vision. In fact, the film opens, not with the Weird Sisters gathering on the heath, but Macbeth and Lady Macbeth at a burial rite for a stillborn child. Whether it is their child remains unclear. But it clearly brings to the fore that the Macbeths are grieving over a child and later resonates with the witches' prediction that Macbeth will wear a barren crown. Kurzel threads the plot with more innovations: Duncan's brutal murder happens on screen and the Porter scene gets jettisoned, along with its wit and levity. In short, Kurzel gives you a relentlessly dark look at the ancient myth and forces you to confront its discomfiting elements through a new prism.

German actor Fassbender and French actress Cotillard have the right chemistry to bring Shakespeare's most famous power couple alive on screen. Fassbender is commanding as Macbeth, and Cotillard (Natalie Portman was originally slated for the role but bowed out when funding for a film she was directing came through) is well-matched as his ambitious wife. No, they don't come to this project with a background in Shakespearean acting and don't affect Scottish burrs to define their characters. And though their delivery of the verse (flavored with in their native accents) might not measure up to the polished thespians at the Royal Shakespeare Company, they surely pass muster with their cinematic chops here. The rest of the cast hold their own but it is definitely Fassbender and Cotillard who are the most mesmerizing on screen.

There's no question that Kurzel has scored with his new Shakespearean film. You might nitpick over some of his directorial choices at times, but his retooled Scottish Play gives a fresh pioneer spirit and badlands flavor to the classic.

Macbeth opens in selected theaters across the U.S. on December 4, 2015. Running time is 1 hour; 53 minutes. Reviewed by Deirdre Donovan based on preview filming on 11/23/15
Downtown Abbey's Final Season. . .
March 7, 2016- Update. You couldn't wish for a happier and more festive finale for a hit that was as much of a phenomenon for television as Hamilton has been for the theater. It left me in such a good mood that I'm not quite ready to look into the new and sure to be much darker House of Cards season

Yes, Lady Edith finally got married, thanks to Lady Mary who previously put the kabosh on it. And what a wedding! The only sad note was that Carsons could no longer perform per his own rigid standards. But not to worry. He remains semi-employed, cared for by his ever sensible wife, and his main butler's functions will now be handled by trembly hands brought back Barrows now worthy of the butler's post. Anna delivered a healthy baby, right in Lady Mary's bed, thus further showing the ever diminishing divide between upstairs and downstairs. The senior romances also blossomed, and the mother/daughter-in-law tensions over Lady Grantham's taking over the hospital ended. Sir Fellowes outdid himself in bringing everyone who ever appeared back for the wedding, which included Lady Rose and even Lady Grantham's American mom via a congratulary letter. Leave it to Tom to help Lady Mary's husband Henry find a career to satisfy his love of cars without the danger of racing them. And who better than the former chauffeur to partner with Henry. As for Tom's own non-existent love life, this too is taken care of by having Lady Edith's editor not only a wedding guest, but catching the bouquet. If this weren't the end, we'd see her and Tom walking down the aisle in the next episode.

And speaking of the next episode. . . Downton may be finished on the home screen but there's talk of a movie. Stay tuned!

February 21, 2016 Update: A mea culpa about my pevious comments. With the penultimate episode Sir Julian Fellowes got his mojo back. So much so, with so many wonderful moments (especially for Lady Mary and the Dowager) that I found myself wishing the episode would go on and on. . .and that somehow the next episode was the finale.


The dowager's stubborn, wrong-headed and, yes, tedious fight to keep the local hospital independent as it's always been comes on top of seeing Maggie Smith in a quite different role — as the crusty, complicated bag lady of the best picture/actress/director/adapted screenplay nominated The Lady In The Van. Smith is a theatrical treasure!

The glimpse of Lord Grantham once again clenching his stomach struck me as an ominous hint that there'll come a time when Lady Violet wished the local hospital were better equipped and staffed as it would be if she'd just stop fighting to keep it in the past.

The best of this week's continually evolving sub-plots revolves around the return of former housemaid Gwen (Rose Leslie) to Downton as an accomplished and happily married woman. She’s there because Rosamund (Samantha Bond) wants Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael) to become a trustee of a college for women, for which Gwen’s husband is treasurer. The Crawleys don’t recognize Gwen, because obviously the only one who bothered to really look at and talk to all but key servants was Sybil. Gwen prefers to keep her Downton connection to herself, probably a combination of tact and lingering discomfort at finding herself a luncheon guest.

As it turns out, the jealous Barrow's vindictively letting that paricular cat out of the bag delights the Crawleys, giving Julian Fellowes another chance to show how much less insular these spoiled aristocrats have become over the years. It also results in a lovely opportunity to pay tribute to Lady Sybil who during Season 1 helped Gwen move out of service and into a job as a secretary. This opens the door to another tribute to a beloved but dead character, the love of Lady Mary's life (Dan Stevens) be far behind — perhaps when she finally settles on a new husband (a rather dull Matthew Goode who I liked a lot better in The Good Wife).

While Lily James's Lady Rose is still very much alive, she too is unlikely to get more than a mention as the season continues. You see, she's now the major female character, Natasha Rostova, in the latest adaptation of Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace. Andrew Davies of the Netflix binge hit House of Cards has managed to tell this epic saga in six episodes (probably because the huge cast and opulent costumes and scenery are too expensive for a longer binge fest).

I won't go into all Downton's other rather predictable plot threads that have been picked up. Suffice it to say that as the last episode ended with the Carson-Hughes wedding, this culminates in their return, apparently having survived the "full marriage" conundrum successfully. I can't say this episode left me in a "can't wait" state about any of this, but I remain committed to staying on board.

Downtown Abbey's Final Season
Dare I say it. So far, the farewell season is kind of boring. Even if I could binge on the whole season at once, I'd be unlikely to do so. An hour at a time is more than enough.

Still, I've committed too much time getting to know all these characters not to hang in there. Carson and Mrs. Hughes ARE finally married. No unpleasant surprises as at Jane Eyre and Mr. Rochester's wedding, just Tom Branson arriving at the wedding breakfast apparently ready to become a fully committed member of the Grantham family. Besides stealing some of the thunder from the bride and groom (but happily not before Mr. Carson could make this poignant toast to his bride: "That a woman of such grace and charm should entrust her life’s happiness to my unworthy charge passeth all understanding."

Tom's arrival opens the door to questions about what this will do to Mary's job as the estate manager. I'm sure Julian Fellowes will, a usual, milk this for some clunky plot developments.

With Anna pregnant and a Harley Street doctor standing buy to help her carry the child to full term, and Edith taking charge of her magazine with the help of a new suitor, could Fellowes really give these consistent sad sack ladies a happy ending?

And how I can not stay the course for the full season to see how the no longer nasty Barrows fares in his search for a new job. His interview for a job with a somewhat demented lord of a once grand manor was a highlight of the last episode as it proved the design team can do delapidated as well as elegant and stately. I'm keeping my fingers crossed for Barrows to find a partner and come up with an idea for another kind of work, maybe as a maitre de in a posh restaurant?

At any rate the clothes are gorgeous as ever.

Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me by Elyse Sommer
The shooting in this documentary, now available on DVD and for streaming via itunes and Netflic, is of course done by a camera trained on the leggy, raspy-voiced Broadway legend, also known to younger audiences as the mother of 30Rock's Alec Baldwin who's also one of the film's producers. It's a combination of tribute to Stritch by director Chiemi Karasawa and Stritch's own last hurrah in the limelight.

Her often recorded Stephen Sondheim song "I'm Still Here" applied during The three years that the film followed her around cinema vérité style began in 2011 as Stritch was preparing a cabaret show (Elaine Stritch Singin'Sondheim). Fortunately, the 89-year-old Stritch, is with us to sing "I'm Still Here" even after the DVD and streaming release of this no-holds-barred documentary. But it's clear that she allowed this often painfully intimate close-up to keep the flame of her legend burning. Given that she's a consummate entertainer who's most alive when in front of an audience, that unrestricted "shot me" invitation makes "being on" as much an addiction as alcohol once was. And watching her "being on" for the camera is also addictive.

Since the film's time frame includes Stritch's leaving her photo and memory stuffed apartment at the Carlyle Hotel to move back to her hometown in Michigan to be with relatives this is as much a poignant look at aging as a colorful theatrical memoir. The shots revealing that even the feisty Stritch is not immune to the assaults by Father Time see her struggling to remember lyrics, walking gingerly (she's had hip surgery) and have her eyes examined (those huge glasses are as much necessity as stylish trademark).

The camera jumps back and forth between Manhattan walks, rehearsal sessions, as well as various performances which have a mostly adoring audience wondering just how much of Sondhheim's never easy to remember lyrics she can handle. As that live audience is won over by the way she lets them in on her struggle, so will most of those watching this film be.

Karasaway uses snippets from archived performances (which includes her hit solo show Elaine Stritch at Liberty but doesn't reprise any of its content) and Stritch going through her collection of photographs and other memorabilia with her assistant to fill in the highlights of her eventful life and career. Her impact as a performer is memorably captured with her rehearsing "Ladies Who Lunch" which is interspersed with producer Hal Prince's astute sum"-up of her irresistible complexity with "she has the guts of a jailbird — but the convent girl is still there, always." Besides Prince, others like Cherry Jones, the late James Gandolfini and George C. Wolf who directed Elaine Stritch at Liberty provide talking head commentary. Happily, often overused documentary device is kept to a minimum

Stritch ruefully agrees with Bette Davis about old age not being for sissies. But she also approaches being on the brink of exiting the stage on which we all live as well as the many stages on which she has entertained, with her usual determination: "This is a time of my life when I'm going to behave like an elegant human being - or not." Here's hoping she'll continue to be around a while to practice her unique brand of elegance.

Live Sound of Music -NBC brings back made-for-tv musicals
According to Nielsen's ratings, some 18.5 million viewers tuned to NBC's live telecast of the 3-hour "Live" version of Rodgers and Hammerstein's beloved musical The Sound of Music. Clearly the powers that be at NBC weren't wrong to go up against memories of iconic Marias and Captain Von Trapps, and believe that there was an audience for a "live" TV musical despite regular revivals, the still available DVD with Julie Andrews and even sing-alongs.

Carrie Underwood had the needed new audience drawing appeal. But she's is unlikely to erase memories of the original stage Maria (Mary Martin) or Andrews, the movie Maria. Her singing isn't bad but it's hardly glorious and the last part of her name best describes the American Idol born star's acting. In fact, in a clever bit of casting, the most memorable and charismatic performance in this production was by Laura Benanti as Maria's rival, the glamorous older woman Elsa. You see Benanti, a recent high school graduate, made her Broadway stage debut in the 1998 revival when she realized the understudy's dream and took over for Rebecca Luker opposite Richard Chamberlain. Her acting and singing was impressive enough for me to see another Julie Andrews in the making (Review of 1998 production ). Now, a mature and sophisticated star who's lived up to my prediction she's made Elsa the most interesting to watch and listen to character.

Another reason that brought the home screens to life with music was Audra MacDonald as the Mother Superior. MacDonald's gorgeous voice did indeed "Climb Ev’ry Mountain" thrillingly.

As for Stephen Moyer's Captain Von Trapp, he was okay but unlikely to eclipse predecessars like Theodore Bikel and Chamberlain. Still, given that this Sound of Music was NBC's most successful evening since the last episode of Frasier in 2004 or the 2007 Golden Globe broadcast. It was also the first musical staged live for the home screen since the '50s, complete with lavish set and costume changes, live orchestra and everything timed to coordinate with the commercials.

Though I prefer my musicals live, I also yearn for more and better live for TV programming so maybe this Sound of Music will be a first step in this direction. it's a first of more and better such shows to come. half-century.

HBO's The Normal Heart by Elyse Sommer
Joe Mantello and Jim Parsons
There was no Curtainup for me to write about the the shock I experienced when I entered the Public Theater in 1985 to see Larry Kramer's The Normal Heart. But I don't need to have anything I would have written to recall the punch-to-the-gut feeling that intensified as I watched this all too real and ongoing horror story unfold.

The 2004 revival, was another gut wrencher despite the progress being made in treating and preventing AIDS and the progress in matters of acceptance and equality for Gay men and women. Yet, my third viewing, just a few seasons ago, still left me with tears for incredible number of lost lives— and with them the books, plays, ballets and musicals never written and other valuable work left undone.

 HBP Normal Heart
Mark Ruffalo and Taylor Kitsch
I wish I could say that HBO's film version of The Normal Heart is a case of too late and too dated. Unfortunately AIDS is far from a dead issue with the medicines available for the HIV infected costly both in terms of dollars and physical problems. Nor are narrow-minded, self-protective bureaucrats dinosaurs.

What happened in the 1980s is a critical and still relevant slice of history and HBO should be commended for giving it the sort of star-studded production that will attract a large audience — most especially young gay men who think condoms are no longer a necessity who know little about the heroism of those who fought to obtain help for preventing the tragedy that was killing them daily from worsening.

That said Kramer is a polemicist and The Normal Heart is not history transformed into a poetic drama like Tony Kushner's Angels in America, also filmed by HBO. The HBO film adaptation does downplay the stridency of Kramer's alter ego Ned Weeks and makes it a more personal story by emphasizing the tenderness of his relationship with a doomed lover. However, director Ryan Murphy making, like the playwright, is an in-your-face, fearless schock master. Thus there's no attempt to soften the more horrendous details of the grim trajectory of AIDS, from the first appearance of the soon to multiply dark purple lesions to the horrendous pain, loss of bodily function control to the heartbreaking memorial services. The film also includes some of the more realistic sex scenes between men seen on any screen to date.

The reality of this play makes it hard for even the opportunities to offset the opportunity for a film to take the action to various locations to offset the impact of having living, breathing actors portray these people drawn from real life. Fortunately, the actors in this ensemble are so extraordinarily moving that even fourth time around, without live performances, and some over-indulgence in melodramatic close-ups, I was hooked almost instantly.

All are well known for their stage and screen work, several also appeared in the splendid 2011 Broadway revival. Mark Ruffalo brings rage, passion and pain to the role of Ed Weeks and Matt Bomer breaks your heart as Ed's lover. The Big Bang's Jim Parsons is remarkable in a reprise of his 2011 role as the loving and lovable Tommy Boatwright one of the main men in the activist group that eventually tosses Weeks out for the abrasiveness that they feel is harming their cause. He poignantly refers to his saving of the Rolodex cards of friends who die as "a collection of cardboard tombstones, bound together with a rubber band."

Joe Mantello, currently best known as a high profile stage director who played Weeks in that production now gives a powerhouse performance as Mickey Marcus. Julia Roberts may never be convincingly plain looking, but she is more than convincingly passionate as Dr. Emma Brookner whose frustration and anger about the government's lack of support for her research matches that of Weeks. There's a wonderful scene between her and Weeks when both step out of their abrasive personas long enough for him to get her out of her wheechair to attempt a dance.

For more details about the plot and past productions, see Review of the 2004 production and Review of the 2011 Broadway revival .

Following a list of the cast and character's of the HBOfilm: Mark Ruffalo (Ned Weeks), Matt Bomer (Felix Turner), Taylor Kitsch (Bruce Niles), Jim Parsons (Tommy Boatwright), Alfred Molina (Ben Weeks), Julia Roberts (Dr. Emma Brookner), Joe Mantello (Mickey Marcus), Jonathan Groff (Craig), Denis O’Hare (Hiram Keebler), Stephen Spinella (Sanford), Corey Stoll (John Bruno), Finn Wittrock (Albert) and B. D. Wong (Buzzy).

August: Osage County by Elyse Sommer -
August: Osage
Julia Roberts, Meryl Streep and Julianne Nicholson
Turning a play, even a multi-prize winning one, into a movie that's true to the original, is no mean feat. Trimming it to a third of its original three hours yet untethering it from the single set of its stage version adds to that challenge.

With Tracy Letts, the play's author, writing the screenplay for the movie, deals with the stage-to-screen challenges quite effectively. The streamlined story remains essentially intact, despite some loss of nuance and character detail. The elements of the play that really matter are there and as good as ever, notably the no hold barred funeral dinner. Therefore, instead of going into a lot of detail about what it's about, here's a link Curtainup's coverage of the stage production: August: Osage County, the play .

Having the film include the expansive yet barren Oklahoma scene outside the Weston clan's home sidesteps the danger of a movie feeling too much like a filmed version of its source. The views and scenes on a seemingly endless ribbon of highway, at the local church and at the bus station make the background a motivating character rather than just a way to open things up.

Director John Wells, makes the most of a film's big advantage over a play: The close-up views of the actors' faces and set details available only to theater goers sitting in the front section of the orchestra, but to every audience member in a movie theater. That said, much as I enjoyed watching the film at last Monday's screening at the Paris Theater, nothing can quite compare to the thrill of seeing the Steppenwolf Company production at Broadway's Imperial Theatre.

The stage actors who originated the various Westons and members of their extended family were perfection. But as my second viewing of that production proved, they were not irreplacable. The new cast, with Estelle Parsons giving her interpretation of the unrelentingly appalling family matriarch, attested to this play being potent enough to be a gift not just to audiences hungry for involving, mature dramas but for a variety of actors as well.

Superb as the actors I saw on Broadway were, being well known and regarded by theater audiences doesn't translate into a box office bonanza. For a film to have a chance in the Oscar sweepstakes, it needs movie stars. Fortunately, the movie stars heading the film cast are Meryl Streep as the pill-popping, cancer stricken Violet Weston and Julia Roberts as the oldest and most contentious of the three daughters summoned to the homestead upon the disappearance of Violet's husband for whom that homestead (or, as it turns out, any place) is no longer endurable.

As the original actors made the three hours (plus 2 intermissions) of the Broadway production fly by, Streep and Roberts, as well as the rest of the film's ensemble, make you able to forget that the stage is probably the more natural habitat for Letts's drama (truth be told, melodrama) than the screen.

Streep, whose very name evokes visions of Oscar statuettes (she's won 3 and been nominated 17 times), can start making room on whatever shelf she keeps them on for a fourth one. She may be named Violet in this film, but there's nothing shrinking about Streeps take on her. She may be racked by pain, her beauty ravaged by cancer and substance abuse, but that pain and the regrets about her life have given an extra sharp razor's edge to her always sharp tongue. As noted in my review of the stage version, this makes for an ironic metaphor, given that it's mouth cancer Violet suffers from.

Though Streep's role is the showiest and most likely to nab the best actor Oscar, Letts considers daughter Barbara his protagonist. And Roberts makes an equally strong showing as the bitter and unhappy eldest daughter whose failing marriage and fraught relationship with her own daughter explodes during this family crisis. Forget about her Pretty Woman. No irresistible smile and glamour for her embittered, unhappy menopausal woman who is dangerously close to turning into her mother. But it's a powerhouse performance.

Standouts in the ensemble include Margo Martindale, Chris Cooper and Benedict Cumberbatch. Martindale as Violet's sister Mattie Fae comes on as warm but flighty, but her remarkable insensitivity to her prone to failure son, aptly called Little Charlie, matches her sister's unmotherly persona. It also adds another touch of melodrama to the family dynamic. Cumberbatch, who for many viewers as much of a star as Streep and Roberts (Sherlock Holmes, The Hobbitt, War Horse, Parade's End, etc.) is terrific as the awkward Charlie who's the secret boyfriend of middle daughter Ivy (a wonderfully understated Julianne Nicholson). His many fans will be pleased to hear that he even sings during one brief but memorable scene.

Chris Cooper, a consistently reliable actor, is an invaluable presence as Mattie Fae's husband and Little Charlie's loving father. The scene when he finally blows up over his wife's incomprehensible to him treatment of their son is another of the film's highlights.

Juliette Lewis captures the desperate hopefulness of third sister Karen's poor choices in men. Dermot Mulroney's Steve Heidebrecht, the much-married, lecherous smoothie who accompanies her from Florida to Oklahoma gets his just dues from the Native American Johanna Monevata who was hired by Beverly Weston to take care of Violet and the house before his departure. With the movie's move beyond the interior of the house, the weapon Johanna uses is now a shovel instead of a frying pan. The patriarch who sets this family reunion in motion, the role created by Tracy Letts' father (and taken over by John Cullum after his death), is now very ably played by Sam Shepherd.

August: Osage County, like so many plays, features three sisters and the effect of their pasts on their present and future lives. But its kinship e is less to Chekhov's Prozov sisters than Edward Albee's George and Martha and Tennessee Williams's Big Daddy and family. Like those plays and their film adaptations, this one is definitely not for anyone under sixteen. In fact, it's most likely to find its most responsive audience among those over thirty and not averse to unhappy endings.

Cast:Meryl Streep(Violet Weston),Julia Roberts (Barbara Fordham), Chris Cooper (Charlie Aiken), Margo Martindale(Mattie Fae Aiken), Benedict Cumberbatch("Little Charles" Atkins), Ewan McGregor (Bill Fordham), Sam Shepard (Beverly Weston), Juliette Lewis (Karen Weston), Abigail Breslin(Jean Fordham), Julianne Nicholson (Ivy Weston), Dermot Mulroney (Steve Heidebrecht), Misty Upham(Johnna Monevata), Will Coffey(Sheriff Deon Gilbeau).

Blue Jasmine - Woody Allen's homage to the poet of the Contemporary American theater, Tennessee Williams
 Cate Blanchett as Blanche DuBois
Cate Blanchett
No this picture isn't of Cate Blanchett in Woddie Allen's sublime Blue Jasmine. It's a production shot of her as Blanche DuBois in an equally sublime live production of Tennessee Williams's classic A Street Car Named Desire four years ago. It was the first time I'd seen Blanchett on stage rather than on the screen, and that memorable experience made seeing her portray Allen's Blanche-like title character especially special.

Blue Jasmine is different from other Allen's films. For one thing it spends lesstime in his favorite city, New York, but takes place mostly in San Francisco. And yet it's very much an Allen film in that it rounds out a whole gallery of memorable but troubled female characters.

For anyone familiar with Streetcar Named Desire (and most people are, given the many productions and available DVDs that include the original with MarlonBrando and Vivien Leigh) this may seem like an adaptation more than an Allen original. Indeed, the film does does follow the basic story of a middle-aged beauty who's fallen on hard times and must, per one of Williams's most famous lines, "rely on the kindness of strangers." Nonetheless Blue Jasmine is a completely original enterprise that manages to evoke the characters and scenes from a classic play as well as the real life perpetrators and victims of the Bernad Madoff Ponzi scheme scandal.

Even without the link to one of the contemporary theater's most lauded and well-known plays, Blue Jasmine would be a treat for theater lovers since the cast features a number of actors with outstanding stage resumes; most notably Sally Hawkins, Bobby Canavale, Alec Baldwin, Peter Scarsgaard Michael Stuhlbarg

Sally Hawkins, who like the Australian Blanchett, speaks in a flawlessly American accent. More important, she's terrific as Ginger, the sister whose lower class life style and choice of men Jasmine disdains but whose cramped San Francisco apartment is this financially and emotionally bankrupt woman's temporary haven of last resort. Also outstanding is Bobby Canavale, one of the theater's dynamic and prominent young actors, as Ginger's current sexy but lower class boyfriend Chilli. He doesn't rape Jasmine as Stanley Kowalski does Blanche but there's plenty of hostility between them. Max Casella is well cast as one of Chilli's noisy pals, Michael Sthlbarg delightfully creepy as the dentist for whom Jasmine temporarily works to pay for the skills needed for a career more to her still deluded sense of being above the more humble jobs held by the people in her sister's world. of grandeur. This is as much a portrait of the class divide as that of a woman not just on the verge of a nervous breakdown, but in full-fledged over-the-top mode.

As the original white knight who caused Jasmine to drop out of college to become a trophy wife, Alec Baldwin embodies the slick personification of greed is good, and cheating as easy to do as knotting your expensive ties. Unlike the not very appealing Mitch who Blanche DuBois is willing to settle for, Jasmine lucks out by finding another rich and attractive man, this one played by Peter Saarsgard. The trouble is that Saarsgard's Dwight isn't a crook, but a man of honor and political ambition and only a madwoman would imagine that she wouldn't get tripped up by her false identity and pretenses. If the way this happens is a bit too contrived, so what, it's a mere quibble given the overall quality of the film.


Tales of the City
At 83 Olympia Dukakis is still an imposing presence on stage. However, her always somewhat raspy voice was strained in her recent appearance at Shakespeare & Company in Lenox as that survivor of survivors, Brecht's camp follower known as Mother Courage. ( Her performance, the fifth in this role, was somewhat disappointing so it was a welcome coincidence to be able to see her in one of her most memorable roles, as the mysterious San Francisco landlord in the 1993 mini series based on Amistead Maupin's Tales of the City. The 20th Anniversary edition from Acorn Media features six episodes on 2 disks. Besides its serendipidous arrival just as the Lenox Company's revival of Mother Courage and Her Children began its run, it also tied in with another Berkshire production, this one Southern Comfort a musical about a transgender community in Georgia at Barrington Stage in Pittsfield.

Dukakis is indeed terrific. She brings nuance, warmth and charm to the mysterious Anna Madrigal. It takes a bit to get used to the way the episodes jump back and forth between the large cast of fascinating characters. Large and small screen and live theater film buffs will be enchanged by an adorable young Laura Linney as the Ohio girl who visits San Francisco and stays to experience life in Mrs. Madrigal's boarding house that's decidedly different from life in Cleveland. Fellow residents include Acorn best selling Slings and Arrow star Paul Gross, as a gorgeous, pot-smoking young womanizer. Prestigious stage actors making brief appearances include Ian McKellen and Rod Steiger.


Maigret
The name Michael Gabon above a title makes it a must see for any theater enthusiasts. And so, even if you're not one to regularly dip into the seemingly bottomless well of mystery series, you'll want to have a look at the series based on author George Simenon's Inspector Maigret novels. Gambon came aboard for the second round of the series that's available from Acorn Media.

Forget about lots of action and technological wizardly. This is Paris and its outlying villages with Maigret and his small, loyal staff solving murders using psychological and leisurely deliberation. The stories are awash in the atmosphere of long-ago Paris and rural French villages.

Gambon, with droll charm and great flair blends Maigret's intuitive detection style with a sympathetic and very Gallic sensibility.

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Smash
Everybody seems to be talking about Smash which, after millions of dollars spent on ads and a marketing campaign that included access to viewings the pilot on line, finally aired its first segment on February 6th. The new series certainly provided plenty of fodder courtesy of the buzz-triggering folks (actors, script and song writers, not to mention director and producer) to ratchet up high expectation for Smash to become a more adult audience geared Glee and eventually turn its basic premise —- the inside look at the making of a Broadway musical about Marilyn Monroe — into an actual Broadway musical.

But not to put that cart before the horse let's look at Smash in its current permutation — as a weekly TV show about show business that aims to be irresistible not just to Broadway Theater buffs to the couch potatoes who watch a lot of television but for whom live theater is an occasional experience which means they're going to miss a lot of the insider stuff sure to make it a must-see for a large but not large enough to make another behind the scenes story fly into the multi-season stratosphere. I'll therefore do as script Theresa Rebeck did, borrow from another cliche to sum up the first Smash episode with a caveat: Don't judge a series show by its initial installment!

Smash, like any first episode of a series is basically an introduction to everything to follow. In short, it's a set-up to establish who's who and what and the various plot thread s to propel us through the weekly episodes. And while the Smash creative team accomplished this goal quite proficiently it added up to a rather hop, skip and ump all over the place hour (actually closer to 40 minutes) that was somewhat too reminiscent of every backstage story staged or flmed to absorb even a theater and movie enthusiast like yours truly. Of course a cast that's literally a Who's Who of Hollywood, TV and Broadway and Off-Broadway was great fun. And with musical interludes by Hairspray's song writing duo Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman it looks as if the musical numbers will be fun, original and well integrated. In fact, the most original, enjoyable and, hopefully often used, directorial twist by Director Michael Mayer (who most recently helmed American Idiot) is to intersperse the auditioning wannabe stars' presentations to the fictional producer (a terrific Anelica Huston), astute but lecherous director (ack Davenport) and songwriting team (Debra Messing and Chrisian Borle) with a dreamlike vision of the full dress Broadway version.

It's easy to see that there wll be plenty of opportunities for guest appearances which will be welcome gigs for others besides this line-up of regular players: Debra Messing (Julia Houston), Jack Davenport (Derek Wills), Christian Borle (Tom Levitt), Megan Hilty (Ivy Lynn), Katharine McPhee (Karen Cartwright), Raza Jaffrey (Dev), Brian d’Arcy James (Frank), Jaime Cepero (Ellis) and Anjelica Huston (Eileen Rand). So, if you were a bit unerwhelmed, as I was, by this introductory episode, remember, some of the biggest hit serials like the similarly named but quite different Mash and Seinfeld, were not instant must-sees.


DVD Reviews
Brideshead Revisited
The popularity of the PBS TV series , with a marathon replay of the first season paving the way for a second season beginning January 8th, stirs memories of another between the two great World Wars series with splendid scenes in a grand old British mansion — the 1981 Granada TV adaptation of Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited. As Downton Abbey has proved to be a welcome escape from a period of extreme economic austerity, so the immense wealth and luxury of Brideshead Revisited had a special resonance.

The 11 episodes, totalling 659 minutes was the biggest ever television project ever attempted. While its leisurely pace caused some viewers to abandon the series before the final episode and the making of the series was beset with problems, it earned an iconic, award winning place chapter in television history. In addition to numerous awards (Best Drama Series, Best Film Sound and Best Actor for Anthony Andrews and in the US, two Golden Globes and an Emmy Award), and the gorgeous cinematography triggered a tourist boom of the locales Castle Howard and Tatton Park).

If you never saw it or were disappointed by the 2008 film which, despite a star-studded cast failed to resonate like the TV version, you can now, like its narrator Charles Ryder (a painter whose life is forever changed by his involvement with the aristocratic Marchmain famiyl, a star making role for Jeremy Irons), revisit the complete series via Acorn Media's 30th anniversary Brideshead DVD, complete with a fascinating background section.

My revisit with Ryder and the charismatic but self-destructive Sebastian (Anthony Andrews in another star is born role) once again had me occasionally wish those 659 minutes didn't move quite so slowly, especially during the final death scene of the senior Lord Marchmains (Laurene Olivier). Ad yet, the sumptuousness of the scenery and costumes and the splendid cast had me hooked once again. In addition to Olivier's guest spots, there's Claire Bloom as the very Catholic Lady Marchmains, and John Gielgud as Ryder's distant father. My revisit clarified the homosexual subtext of Charles and Sebastian's friendship (the sexual aspects of the friendship don't require a psychology degree to see, even though there's nothing). Most of all it was clearer than ever that this was not just the story of a young man being drawn to the beauty and charm of someone very different from him -- but his being enamored of (and emotionlly damaged) by the entire family and their way of life.

For readers unfamiliar with the plot of the series: It begins with Charles Ryder, now a middle-aged Army Captain finding himself stationed in the grounds of Brideshead Castle on the Marchmain Estate in Wiltshire during the final days of World War Two. He is no stranger to the place and tis "revisit" evokes memories of his youth: His fascination with Sebastian Flyte the son of an aristocratic Catholic famil extends to the whole Marchmain clan even though they're hardly a happy, loving bunch. Catholicism hangs heavily over all and it is his crisis of faith that turns Sebastian into a self-destructive, drunken exile. Though Ryder becomes a successful painter and eventually marries, the Marchmains keep reappearing in his life, notably via a love affair with Sebastian's sister Julia (Diana Quick -- (like him, unhappily married). Given the Catholicism's heavy hold on even the non-believers, it's a doomed romance This is NOT Pride and Prejudice!. . .but it is television at its grandest!

DVD News
Lost Empires
When the Masterpiece series mounted Lost Empires, a 7-episode, 8-hour saga based on bildumgsroman by J B Priestley, a novelist and playwright (most famously An Inspector Calls), Colin Firth's star was still very much in the ascendancy. His award winning performance as the stuttering King in The King's Speech and his smoldering Mr. Darcy of the Jane Austin mini-series were still on the distant horizon.

Now part of Acorn Media's ever expanding DVD catalogue you can see a young and gorgeous Firth as Richard Herncasle, a young wannabe landscape painter's coming of age adventures as the assistant in his Uncle Nick's (John Castle) Gunga Din illusionist act touring the great music halls of England from 1913 and through World War I. The Merchant-Ivory adaptation has plenty of gorgeous images and is loaded with the flavor of a by-gone era. Despite Firth, a show- stealing performance by Castle and a first episode guest appearance by an aging Laurence Olivier (he plays a sad clown in a sadly awful clown act) -- the series inches along rather slowly, especially at the beginning. However, if you stick with it, this is a gorgeous tapestry -- a romance filled portrait of waning illusions, an empire's far-reaching powers as well as a popular entertainment genre illustrated here with lots of authentic song and dance numbers will draw you in -- to the point where you're likely to watch it in one or two marathon sittings.


Garrow's Law. Who but the British can turn a real legal eagle of another era into a vivid, eminently watchable courtroom drama and throw in a romance? Garrow's Law, which was first broadcast on the BBC in 2009 is now available as a 2-disk series (again from Acorn) is a case in point. The story of the fiery barrister William Garrow who battledd the injustices of the 18th century English legal system and coined the phrase "innocent until proven guilty " is chock-a-block full of subplots. At its center is the personal story of Garrow (Andrew Buchan), and Lady Sarah (Lindsay Marshal)the wife of a powerful aristocrat Sir Arthur Hill (Rupert Graves). All three of these actors, as well as Alun Armstrung who plays Garrow's older mentor-partner-friend, have distinguished themselves on stage as well as screen. Curtainup's British critic was much more enthusiastic about Lindsay Marshal's performance in Richard Greenberg's Three Days of Rain, than New York critics (including yours truly) were about Julia Roberts in the last Broadway revival. While I've never seen Buchan, Marshal or Armstrong on a New York stage I did catch the versatile Rupert Graves (he plays heroes and villains like Sir Arthur in
Garrow's Law with equal panache), several times in Broadway productions. Stars in their own right in this entertaining series are the costumes and sets.

The Far Pavilions. Another entertaining old classis from Acorn: The Masterpiece theater adaptation of M.M. Kaye's best seller
The Far Paviions. Yes, it's a romantic potboiler about treachery and intrigue in British ruled India. but it's also a chance to see a historic chapter in history done with the breathtaking scenery and action scenes that modern budgets have made as obsolete as the British Raj. The cast included Ben Cross best known for Chariots of Fire, Omar Sharif, John Gelgud, Ruperg Everett and an at first unrecognizeable Amy Irving (thanks to make-up that seems to have beenlaid on with a trowel) as the noble Cross's one and only love. Pot boiler it may be but the picture of British India is stunning and some of the scenes focusing on tribal wars in Afghanistan are amazingly (and depressingly) timely). The epic story unfolds over six episodes on 2 disks. Don't be surprised if you find yourself so hooked that you'll want to watch it all in one big, eye-popping meal.

Audiences flocked to the 2008 and 2009 marathon stage production of Alan Ayckbourn's The Norman Conquests in London and New York. Next month fans of everything Ayckbourn and this triptych in particular will have a chance to see the original Emmy Award nominated television version which is being released in a 3-DVD set by by Acorn Media on March 1, 2011. In addition to filmed versions of the plays, the DVDs will contain such bonus material as a biography of Ayckbourn and background on the trilogy.

It's also to Acorn Media, distributor of all these goodies that we're indebted for the terrific Slings & Arrows (See the image and purchasing click through in the gray box at the right of the page) series about a charismatic actor/director whose great passion is to do King Lear. I'm waiting for my next at-home day to re-visit Derek Jacobi and Kenneth Branagh, two of Britain's great stage actors Discovering Hamlet.

Reviews of Stage Actor Heavy Films -

Coriolanus
"There is a world elsewhere." So intones the Roman general Coriolanus in his famous speech to the plebeians who banish him from his city. In the new modern film adaptation of Shakespeare’s, Coriolanus, shot on location in Belgrade, Ralph Fiennes makes his directorial debut and stars in the eponymous role. And though you probably won’t shed a tear for its flinty protagonist, this film will hold your attention.

Since the Coriolanus myth is really about the grooming of a war-hero for a high public office. And what better time than now to see this dynamic on the big screen. John Logan's screenplay follows the original text but sometimes quite compellingly transposes portions of dialogue to talking heads on television shows.

A few caveats: The blood-drenched warfare requires a strong stomach and, anyone unfamiliar with the play would benefit from reading it before seeing this film. not only to better understand the conflict between the Volscians and Romans, but to better appreciate the subtleties of Shakespeare’s version and Logan’s modern innovations.

Ralph Fiennes gives contemporary verve to the surly patrician who lacks political instincts and his directing intelligently retools the story to appropriate modern war strategies and weaponry. The thematic preoccupation with names comes through powerfully. Apart from Fiennes’s star turn, Vanessa Redgraves’s Volumnia is stunningly austere and the best scenes revolve around the mother-son relationship. Gerard Butler’s Tullus Aufidius is spot on, and Jessica Chastain’s Virgilia is the epitome of domestic virtue.

Fiennes is probably not expecting his film to be a commercial hit, but with all these classically-trained actors on board, Shakespeare buffs should beat a path to the box office. Of course, you can wait to watch it at home on DVD or Netflix. But, honestly, this film, with its spectacular battle scenes, is best appreciated on the big screen.

Ultimately, Coriolanus is a thriller brimming with strident poetry and tirades. — Reviewed by Deirdre Donovan. Back to the Index of Topics

Private Romeo It is 16 years since Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo and Juliet sharpened the edge of Shakespeare’s tragedy. Now writer-director Alan Brown retools the old classic as a contemporary gay love story. And it is anything but out of character with the Bard’s drama of “forbidden love.”

The film is above all adventurous and daring. The action begins when the school’s faculty and most of the students leave the campus for a land navigation exercise. The eight cadets left behind are instructed to follow their ordinary routines. And there’s the rub. The cadets, who have been studying Romeo and Juliet in their English lit class, begin to re-enact scenes in the school’s dimly-lit corridors, stairwells, mess halls, and deserted basketball courts. And as they deftly tackle the iambic pentameter, they miraculously discover that the romantic myth can be midwife to their own suppressed desires and sexual identity.

Brown is not decorating Shakespeare’s drama but exploring it. The film makes the Renaissance tragedy resonate with our same-sex marriage era. Brown also updates the story by peppering in YouTube videos and lip-synched Indie rock music. Although conceived as a kind of social critique on the don’t-ask-don’t-tell military world, Private Romeo also serves as fertile commentary on personal freedom pitted against any rigid institution. In short, the film shows us that Shakespeare is the dramatist of no fixed abode, and that he’s forever re-inventing our culture and ourselves.

Seth Numrich (War Horse.The Merchant of Venice) and Matt Doyle (War Horse. Bye, Bye Birdie, >Spring Awakening) are ienchanting as the star-cross’d lovers, and Hale Appleman all but upstages them as the bawdy Mercutio, especially in his fantastic Queen Mab monologue. But when the genuine poignancy of the romance has to be expressed, it is Numrich’s Romeo and Doyle’s Juliet that will tug at your heartstrings.

Interestingly, there’s no full-blown tragedy in Private Romeo. Although Brown renders scenes from Romeo and Juliet pretty much verbatim, the shadow of death never seeps in. Mercutio survives, as do Romeo and Juliet. In lightening the tale Brown makes love, not death the center of his film's power. The buried message of the film is that Shakespeare’s language can be used as a catalyst to express the inexpressible. There is sad poetry that comes and goes here. But in its 98 fleeting minutes, Private Romeo can persuade you that our contemporary world is changing, and changing for the better.

Private Romeo opened on 2/10/12 at Cinema Village Theatre, 22 East 12th Street. Reviewed by Deirdre Donovan based on press screening of 2/06/12 Back to the Index of Topics

Steven Spielberg's War Horse
War Horse
Albert (Jeremy Irvine) and his horse Joey
War Horse the play that's been a Wow! in London and New York, as its touring production is bound to be. Steven Spielberg's War Horse, also based on Michael Morpurgo's pre-teen novel is likely to reach an even larger audience.

If you've seen the play, comparisons are inevitable even though it's one of those apples and oranges situations. Both are works of art. The play qualifies as art via its imaginative and original approach to casting it's main character, Joey the horse, as a giant puppet. The result is a breathtaking stage spectacle. The film, on the other hand, exemplifies the art of old-fashioned, sweeping cinematography that no one does better than Steven Spielberg, especially if the characters are seen against the epic backdrop of war.

War Horse
A scene from War Horse the Play
War Horse is as epic but not quite on a par with Schindler's List and Saving Private Ryan. It's too shamelessly manipulative in pulling at your heartstrings. It's also abundantly derivative in its evocation of bits and pieces from other film. To cite just a few that come to mind: There's the separation and inevitable reunion of boy and beloved four-legged friend as in Lassie Come Home; a scene showing the matching humanity of combatants is reminiscent of All Quiet on the Western Front; some of the scenes are lit much like the Atlanta is burning scene from Gone With the Wind; a bucolic interlude with a French farmer and his young granddaughter evokes Heidi and her Swiss grandfather.

The First World War was certainly rife with horrendous carnage. That war to end all wars, like our more recent far longer than anticipated wars, began for questionable reasons. Its warriors included a million English horses sent to battle and suffering enormously (with only 62,000 coming back), Given that Murpurgo's timeless love story of a boy and his horse played out against the backdrop of that war, it was a natural to be dramatized for adults as well as children. The saga of one such noble horse serves as a potent metaphor for the madness of war. And Spielberg wrests every kernel of tear inducing heart tug from Albert and Joey's story. True to his way with presenting tragic events realistically but with upbeat endings, there's never a moment's doubt that despite the blood and suffering, Albert will keep his promise to reunite with Joey.

Spielberg's taste for corn is underscored by John Williams's treacly score, though this doesn't diminish the beauty of the visual images which owe much to the work of Janusz Kaminski, Spielberg's director of photography. The excellent cast add to the film's assets. Jeremy Irvine's Albert is especially noteworthy. But the stars of the movie are Joey and the other horses galloping their way into our hearts.

Superb as those real horses are, I was more moved by the puppet horses in the play. What's more despite the stunning bucolic vistas and crowded with man and horsepower war scenes, the more original and subtle staging of the play was more satisfying. And, while play and film have approximately the same run time, the stage version had me enthralled throughout but the film, like that terrible war, seemed to go on forever and ever.

War Horse is a family film but with its PG-13 rating limiting it to families with children at least 12 or 13-- and even for that age parents should be aware that the violence, though not as gory as some films, is extreme and unsettling. upsetting,

Production notes: War Horse, directed by Steven Spielberg; written by Lee Hall and Richard Curtis, based on the novel by Michael Morpurgo; director of photography, Janusz Kaminski; edited by Michael Kahn; music by John Williams; production design by Rick Carter; costumes by Joanna Johnston; visual-effects supervisor, Ben Morris; Running time: 2 hours 26 minutes. Cast: Emily Watson (Rosie Narracott), David Thewlis (Lyons), Peter Mullan (Ted Narracott), Niels Arestrup (Grandfather), Tom Hiddleston (Captain Nicholls), Jeremy Irvine (Albert Narracott), Benedict Cumberbatch (Major Stewart), Toby Kebbell (Geordie Soldier), Celine Buckens (Emilie), Rainer Bock (Brandt) and Patrick Kennedy (Lieutenant Waverly).
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Anonymous reviewed by Deirdre Donovan
Anyone who has a serious interest in the authorship controversy of William Shakespeare’s work is likely to find Anonymous a sugary trifle. Directed by Roland Emmerich, from a script by John Orloff, its premise is that, Edward de Vere (Rhys Ifans), 17th Earl of Oxford, wrote the plays attributed to William Shakespeare. Unfortunately, the film abounds in capricious flights of fancy, anachronisms, and historical inaccuracies that undermine its conceit.

To be sure, renegades have been trying to topple Shakespeare of Stratford off his literary pedestal since 1785, the year that an Oxford scholar James Wilmot went in search of Shakespeare’s books, papers and found nothing of consequence. Although Wilmot never published his findings, his fellow researcher James Corton Cowell took Wilmot’s research and enthusiastically embarked on a lecture circuit, becoming the first advocate for Edward de Vere’s authorship of Shakespeare’s plays. Indeed the manuscripts of Cowell’s lectures are still preserved in the University of London’s Senate House Library.

Orloff’s vision of Elizabethan England has a pleasant lyricism, which somewhat compensates for the flaws in the film. Indeed one can enjoy the quaint London atmosphere, be fascinated by the gilded treacheries of Elizabethan politics and romantic intrigues (Edward de Vere is speculated to be the lover of Queen Elizabeth here). In fact, Orloff gives us a colorful slice of the cut-throat literary world in the closing years of the 16th century. Visually (and aurally too), the film is magnificent. But its glitzy wrapping goes only so far.

In this film’s view, Edward de Vere wins out over Shakespeare of Stratford as the immortal author, largely because of his aristocratic “class.” Time and again, the film turns on the unspoken question: How could a commoner like Shakespeare, a glover’s son, pen masterpieces that bring to life a panorama of royalty, nobles, and their court life? The film’s rationale is that Edward de Vere could readily draw upon his real-life court experience and create convincing portraits of the high-born in Elizabethan society. We see in the film’s sequences how the protagonist is continually caught between a rock and a hard place, first as Queen Elizabeth’s lover and later on as a clandestine writer. And in the film’s most poignant moments, Ifans’s Oxford has the hell of anonymity etched in his face.

The speculative biographical conclusions reached in this enterprise are fun to watch in the unfolding, but one might find it hard to swallow its portraits of William Shakespeare (Rafe Spall) and Ben Jonson (Sebastian Armesto). Shakespeare is portrayed as an illiterate actor, fake playwright, social climber, blackmailer, murderer, and whoremonger. And Ben Jonson is no more than a second-rate playwright, who’s sorely infected with the green-eyed monster jealousy. Both authors must be turning in their graves to see their venerable literary lives and achievements spun into mere Elizabethan chaff here.

Strangely, the best scenes in the film don’t belong to Ifans’ Edward de Vere or Vanessa Redgrave’s Queen Elizabeth but to two notable contemporary stage actors: Derek Jacobi and Mark Rylance. Both are well-known Oxfordians, and their cameo appearances as Prologue and Condell in the film are terrific.

Ultimately, the film begs the question: Who does have the expertise to deal with such matters as the authorship of Shakespeare’s plays? And, following that inquiry, can Emmerich and Orloff deliver the literary goods without having a solid scholarly background in the subject? The Oxford position has been advocated over the years by the likes of Henry James, Malcolm X, Sigmund Freud, Charlie Chaplin, Helen Keller, Orson Welles, and Mark Twain, to mention a few. But it’s still a slippery slope. And sharp-eared audience members will surely find some historical inaccuracies in Emmerich’s and Orloff’s Anonymous. Edward de Vere, after all, died in 1604, and “Shakespeare” has quite a few plays written after this date. And if one scours the film for other incongruous facts, there are plenty to be found.

In spite of the shortfalls, Emmerich and Orloff should not be taken to task for bringing the Shakespeare authorship argument to the big screen. This new film may not be solidly grounded in its scholarship, but it’s always entertaining. To those who really want to unravel this Shakespearean mystery, however, should hie thee to a bookstore and invest in James Shapiro’s celebrated book Contested Will. Nobody draws the battle lines better than this Columbian professor and scholar. Unlike the film, he never engages in overkill. He simply presents all the claimants to Shakespeare’s plays, states his own bias (he believes the man from Stratford penn.

Cast of charaters: Rhys Ifans (Earl of Oxford), Vanessa Redgrave (Queen Elizabeth I), Joely Richardson ( young Queen Elizabeth), David Thewlis (William Cecil), Savier Samuel (Earl of Southampton), Sebastian Armesto (Ben Jonson), Rafe Spall (William Shakespeare), Sam Reid (Earl of Essex), Jamie Campbell Bower (Young Earl of Oxford), Edward Hogg (Robert Cecil), Mark Rylance (Condell) and Derek Jacobi (Prologue). Running time: 2 hours; 15 minutes


© 2012-2014  Elyse Sommer.