Thursday, April 30, 2015

2015 Tony Nominations

In the midst of everything, I somehow let this year's Tony nominations slip by me. It's really my own fault - even less than normal, I haven't paid much attention to the Great White Way this year, so most of these shows are new to me. So, unfortunately, I don't have much to say about any of them; perhaps some of you can offer recommendations?

Overall, musicals An American in Paris (based on the 1951 Best Picture winner starring Gene Kelly) and Fun Home (based on Alison Bechdel's powerful graphic novel/memoir) lead all shows with 12 nominations apiece, while Wolf Hall Parts One & Two was the most-nominated play with 8. In a welcome change from recent years, only one of this year's Best Musical nominees is based on a movie; the other three boast substantially original music.

Below is a complete list of this year's nominees, with my shamefully sparse commentary provided. You can learn more about the nominated shows here.


Fun Home

An American in Paris
Fun Home
Something Rotten!
The Visit

In addition to the previously-mentioned An American in Paris and Fun Home, Something Rotten! is a  new snarky musical about the (fictional) creation of the world's first musical, while The Visit stars the inimitable Chita Rivera as a wealthy woman who returns to her hometown. Truth be told, all of these sound excellent on paper, and the reviews for Paris and Fun Home in particular have been ecstatic. Either of those will likely end up winning.


Hand to God

The Curious Case of the Dog in the Night-Time; author: Simon Stephens
Disgraced; author: Ayad Akhtar
Hand to God; author: Robert Askins
Wolf Hall Parts One & Two; authors: Hilary Mantel and Mike Poulton

The Curious Case... is based on Mark Haddon's terrific 2003 novel of the same name, following an autistic teenager as he tries to solve the mystery of his neighbor's dog's death. Based on the available information, it looks inventive onstage. Disgraced won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2013, having only recently found its way to the stage. It centers on a Muslim-American man and his wife who have an explosive dinner conversation with another couple. Hand to God hits really close-to-home with me; it's about a young man, Jason (he even shares my name!), who finds an outlet for his creativity in his deeply-religious town's Christian Puppet Ministry. And Wolf Hall is based on Mantel's novels about the volatile court of King Henry VIII. All of these sound fascinating; I suspect, however, that Wolf Hall or The Curious Case... will take the prize.


The King and I

The King and I
On the Town
On the Twentieth Century

The King and I is perhaps best known to the general public, thanks to the classic 1956 film version starring Yul Brynner and Deborah Kerr. In this revival, Oscar nominee Ken Watanabe (The Last Samurai) stars as the King of Siam, while Broadway darling Kelli O'Hara takes on the role of the English schoolteacher for whom he swoons. On the Town and On the Twentieth Century, on the other hand, are both lighthearted comedies with roots in the Golden Age of Broadway (the former first premiered in 1947, the latter is set in the 1930s). I suspect, however, that The King and I will prevail.


The Elephant Man

The Elephant Man
This Is Our Youth
You Can't Take It With You

The big-name ticket here is The Elephant Man, which starred Bradley Cooper as John Merrick, a man with severe genetic facial disfiguration. Skylight starred Carey Mulligan and Bill Nighy as a schoolteacher and her former lover, while This Is Our Youth is a Kenneth Lonergan (You Can Count on Me, Margaret) play starring Michael Cera, Kieran Culkin, and Rookie Magazine editor Tavi Gevinson. And You Can't Take It With You is best remembered for the classic 1938 film directed by Frank Capra. I suspect that The Elephant Man will win, but You Can't Take It With You likely has a good shot as well.

The rest of the categories, including the acting honors, after the jump.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Hit Me With Your Best Shot: "Bright Star" (2009)

*This post is part of the "Hit Me With Your Best Shot" blogathon at The Film Experience*

When I first wrote about Bright Star nearly five years ago, I spent most of my (very brief) review praising director/writer Jane Campion for her masterful work on the film's visual splendor. Those feelings haven't changed in the interim; if anything, I'm even more impressed by those visuals on this recent viewing. Here is a film that pulls off the nigh-impossible trick of being beautiful to look at without that beauty ever calling attention to itself; it doesn't cry "look at these pretty pictures!" but you can't help but gawk anyway. Several others have already commented on how difficult it would be to pull a single shot to name as "best" from this film, and indeed, it's a tough one.

The film stars Abbie Cornish as Fanny Brawne, best remembered by history as the lover and muse of Romantic English poet John Keats (Ben Whishaw). Brawne is almost instantly infatuated with Keats, purchasing his latest, poor-selling poetry collection, only to find it lacking. Keats, too, is taken by Brawne, a crafty woman who fashions her own outfits with homemade materials. However, Keats' best friend, Charlie (Paul Schneider), isn't quite as impressed by Fanny, and is convinced that she has ulterior motives. The couple's romance, of course, is doomed; Keats died at the age of 25 from tuberculosis.

Now, since it would be unseemly to just post every frame of the film in this space, let's take a look at one of Campion's more interesting visual motifs: the equation of Fanny with Keats.

More after the jump.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Sight & Sound Sunday: Bicycle Thieves (1948)

*In 2012, Sight & Sound published its decennial list of the greatest films of all time, from critics and directors. "Sight & Sound Sunday" is a biweekly weekly feature that investigates the top 50 films from this list, exploring how they came to be regarded as classics.*

2012 poll rank: #33

Italian neorealism - a cinematic movement that would define Italian cinema on the international scene  and would become hugely influential throughout film history - was born in the ashes of World War II. After the Italian military had been thoroughly defeated, the nation was left in a state of disrepair, embarrassed both by the regrettable reign of fascism and their humiliating defeat in the war. In the midst of all of this turmoil, the Italian film industry struggled to recuperate, losing its center and becoming adrift. A group of filmmakers and film critics together, over the next few years, laid down the tenets of the neorealist movement: a focus on the middle and lower classes, the use of non-professional actors and on-location shooting, and stories about economic struggles in post-war Italy. Luchino Visconti's Ossessione (1943) and Roberto Rossellini's Rome, Open City (1946) were among the first major works of the movement, with the latter earning international attention at that year's Cannes Film Festival.

Actor/director Vittorio De Sica's Bicycle Thieves, however, may be the seminal work of Italian neorealism. Based loosely on a novel by Luigi Bartolini, the film follows the plight of Antonio Ricci (Lamberto Maggiorani), who at the beginning of the film is looking for work to support his wife Maria (Lianella Carell), young son Bruno (Enzo Staiola), and newborn child in post-war Rome. Antonio uses the money made from hocking his wife's dowry bedsheets to purchase a bicycle in order to commute to work, but one day his bicycle is stolen by a petty thief, leading him on a search across Rome with Bruno to recover the bike and, with it, his employment.

In many ways, Bicycle Thieves functions as a "rosetta stone" for the Italian neorealism movement, cataloging all of its major tenets within its brief 93 minute running time. More so, it provides a primer in how "independent" cinema movements spawned across the world ever since, each of which can at least draw some line back to neorealism and this film.

More after the jump.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Hit Me With Your Best Shot: "Nine to Five" (1980)

*This post is part of the "Hit Me With Your Best Shot" blogathon at The Film Experience*

Nine to Five, the feminist revenge comedy starring Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin, and Dolly Parton, has the unfair reputation of being remembered mostly for Parton's title song. This isn't meant to be a knock on either. Parton's song is as catchy as any of her greatest work, landing her the first of her two Best Original Song Oscar nominations, and the lyrics - loaded with blue-collar weariness, her specialty - are presciently critical of the "greed is good" Reaganomics that would dominate the decade. By all measures, its a terrific tune, a pop song that will rightfully lodge itself in your head long after the movie is over.

Yet the film is so much more than its catchy opening ditty. It's earned its reputation as both a kitschy classic and a feminist credo: Violet (Tomlin), Doralee (Parton), and new hire Judy (Fonda) are sick of the way their sexist, egotistical, lying, hypocritical bigot of a boss, Mr. Hart (Dabney Coleman), treats them at work. He denies Violet a promotion while taking credit for her ideas on efficiency, shamelessly comes on to Doralee (and is quick to ensure the rest of the office believes they are having an affair, despite Doralee's rejections), and does little to help Judy feel more comfortable at work. So, one night after a few drinks and a little reefer, the women fantasize about how they would punish Hart for his behavior. But when it appears that Violet may have accidentally poisoned Hart's coffee, the scenario becomes all-too-real. It gets even worse when Hart turns out to not be dead at all, making revenge even harder to come by.

It's a pretty dark premise to hang a lighthearted comedy on: sexual harassment and misogyny in the workplace countered by (attempted) murder, kidnapping, and other forms of mayhem. None of this is too surprising, given that director Colin Higgins had made his break in the film industry with his screenplay for Hal Ashby's morbidly-droll classic Harold and Maude (sadly, Nine to Five was the second of only three films Higgins directed before succumbing to AIDS in 1988). But lighthearted it is, as best seen in the film's best sequence: the fantasies of killing Hart.

More after the jump.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Sight & Sound Sunday: Some Like It Hot (1959)

*In 2012, Sight & Sound published its decennial list of the greatest films of all time, from critics and directors. "Sight & Sound Sunday" is a biweekly weekly feature that investigates the top 50 films from this list, exploring how they came to be regarded as classics.*

2012 poll rank: #43 (tied with Pather Panchali, Gertrud, Pierrot le Fou, Close-Up, and Play Time)

Director Billy Wilder made quite the splash when he arrived in Hollywood in the mid-1930s. A screenwriter in Austria-Hungary, he fled his native country to escape the rise of Nazism, and quickly found a home in the filmmaking capital of the world. He made his name working a variety of genres, from film noir (Double Indemnity) to harrowing melodramas (The Lost Weekend, Sunset Blvd.). But he is perhaps best-known for his comedies: screwballs like Ninotchka (a collaboration with fellow expatriate Ernst Lubitsch) and farces such as The Seven-Year Itch. Wilder's sense of humor was markedly darker and more cynical than most Hollywood comedies, which easily made him a critical favorite and a beloved filmmaker for tackling such difficult material.

Some Like It Hot is a terrific example of his talents. Joe (Tony Curtis) and Jerry (Jack Lemmon) are jazz musicians in 1929 who accidentally witness the St. Valentine's Day Massacre, recognized by notorious gangster "Spats" Colombo (George Raft). They make their escape by disguising themselves as women - adopting the names "Josephine" (Joe) and "Daphne" (Jerry) - and joining an all-female band. However, they both end up falling for the band's ditzy, attractive ukulele player, Sugar Kane (Marilyn Monroe); once they arrive in Miami, Joe takes on another persona, young oil millionaire Junior, to woo Sugar, while Jerry-as-Daphne draws the attention of daffy old millionaire Osgood (Joe E. Brown).

Like many of Wilder's films, the story is built upon a premise that could just as easily work for a thriller or a film noir. However, unlike many of the Hollywood farces of its day, the film doesn't merely set up scenes for hijinks to ensue. Wilder constantly subverts the conventions of the day, and having his main characters in drag for most of the film makes it one of the most transgressively progressive films of the 1950s.

More after the jump.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Hit Me With Your Best Shot: "Taxi Driver" (1976)

*This post is part of the "Hit Me With Your Best Shot" blogathon at The Film Experience*

For most of my "Hit Me..." contributions, I like to real dig deep into analyzing the selected film each week. How could I not, when the whole premise of the series is essentially shot analysis, picking out one image and explaining why it works in the context of the film. And I'm going to do it again this week, because Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver - arguably his best film - is really easy to get academic about. In fact, I did just that about seven months ago in my "Sight & Sound Sunday" series.

All of this is to say that what I really want to do is post a bunch of shots, because Scorsese proves his ability as a dynamic director early on with this, his fifth narrative feature. He displays total command of every element of the mise en scene, which helps bring the film's violent parable of Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) to life.

Make no mistake, Taxi Driver is, at heart, a parable, the story of "God's Lonely Man" taking it upon himself to cleanse the "filth" off the streets of New York. Bickle is a 26-year-old Vietnam veteran, and takes up driving a cab because he can't sleep at night. He drives around the city brooding about the way things are, and is attracted to Betsy (Cybill Shepard), a campaign worker for presidential candidate Senator Charles Palantine (Leonard Harris). She rejects him after a disastrous date, sending him further over the edge. He turns his attention on two, mostly unrelated tasks: attacking the senator and rescuing a twelve-year-old prostitute, Iris (Jodie Foster). Though screenwriter Paul Schrader has stated that he drew inspiration from Fyodor Dostoevsky's novella Notes from the Underground, but Bickle plays more like a PTSD-afflicted wannabe messiah, a would-be Jesus washing away sins with a .44 Magnum. 

More after the jump.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Sight & Sound Sunday: Mulholland Dr. (2001)

*In 2012, Sight & Sound published its decennial list of the greatest films of all time, from critics and directors. "Sight & Sound Sunday" is a biweekly feature that investigates the top 50 films from this list, exploring how they came to be regarded as classics.*

2012 poll rank: #28

For many years, there was arguably a very clear division between film and television as mediums, at least in the popular consciousness. Television was the lesser of the two, the place where those who couldn't cut it as movie stars (or, more often, movie-stars-in-training) found work and writers and directors cranked out weekly self-contained stories, often involving the same characters. Film, however, was glamorous, the stories and characters capable of being larger-than-life and deeply intimate, and the actors were somehow better than human, glowing just a little bit brighter than everyone else. Never mind that the processes behind the two were very similar, and that both were visual mediums still testing the limits of their capabilities; for at least 30 years, film reigned superior to television, and it was understood that the two mediums mingled only on the rarest of occasions.

However, this wasn't always the case; in fact, it may not have been true at all. A number of prominent television actors and filmmakers dabbled in film, and especially in the 1980s, television began maturing into a medium that was significantly more cinematic. Michael Mann pushed those boundaries with Miami Vice (1984-89) before making the leap to film with stylish thrillers like Thief (1981) and Manhunter (1986), while Polish filmmaker Krzysztof Kieslowski's The Decalogue (1989) made him a famous name among cinephiles before his Three Colors trilogy (1993-94) became his breakthrough.

David Lynch is, perhaps, one of the most well-known filmmakers whose work was entangled in both mediums at a time when such a thing was still a nascent idea. Coming off the commercial bomb Dune (1984) and critical comeback Blue Velvet (1986), and at the same time as his Palme d'Or-winning road movie Wild at Heart (1990), Lynch came to broadcast network ABC with a pilot called Twin Peaks (1990-91). The show was, surprisingly, a huge hit in its first season, with viewers hooked on the central mystery of "who killed Laura Palmer?," the show's oddball surrealism, and the eclectic performances. Even though Lynch only directed six episodes of the show (and only co-wrote four), there was no question that this was his show - defined entirely by his aesthetic and ideas.

Toward the end of the decade, Lynch made another attempt at television with a pilot called Mulholland Dr. Filmed in 1999, Lynch took it to ABC for pitch, only to have the network reject it. Rather than cast it aside, Lynch reworked it into a feature film, adding new scenes and providing it with a "closed" ending. The resulting film has been hailed as Lynch's masterpiece, as evidenced by its placement on Sight & Sound's decennial poll (one of only two films from the 2000s to make the list) and its esteemed reputation among critics.

That it started as a television project only seems natural, since the film straddles so many different boundaries of identity, consciousness, and narrative structure that it seems to exist in a space of its own.

More after the jump.

A Brief PSA About "Sight & Sound Sunday"

If you've been avidly reading this blog, you may have noticed that it's been over two months now since The Entertainment Junkie's biweekly series "Sight & Sound Sunday" has appeared. Unfortunately, there's been a lot of hectic changes in the interim, and I haven't been able to keep up with that schedule.

But here's the good news! "Sight & Sound Sunday" is back on, starting later today with David Lynch's 2001 masterpiece Mulholland Dr. Instead of being a biweekly series, we'll now be posting - at least scheduled - weekly, in an effort to move through the rest of the list in a timely manner (there's some big news I'm excited to share with you all when the time is right, and that's the impetus for the rush). So get excited, because there's still some goodies left in this project, including several films by French New Wave icons Jean-Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut, Orson Welles' legendary Citizen Kane, The Godfather Part II, and the new film in the penthouse position, Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo.

Let's finish this journey together, shall we?

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Hit Me With Your Best Shot: Johnny Guitar (1954)

*This post is part of the "Hit Me With Your Best Shot" blogathon at The Film Experience*

When Johnny Guitar first premiered in 1954, American audiences didn't know what to make of it. It was a Trucolor (similar to Technicolor) Western, but not like the other Westerns of the era. The two main adversaries weren't the law and the criminal, but rather saloon owner Vienna (Joan Crawford) and her rival Emma (Mercedes McCambridge), who opposes Vienna's efforts to bring the railroad through the town. Caught between them is Johnny Guitar (Sterling Hayden), Vienna's ex-lover who carries a guitar instead of guns, and the Dancin' Kid (Scott Brady), whose posse is blamed for the murder of Emma's husband.

Though critics savaged the film, it went on to be a decent box office success domestically. However, it was a smash with international audiences, with French director Francois Truffaut being a major early fan. It would go on to be hugely influential in the countercultural scene, with numerous rock groups covering Peggy Lee's title song during the 1960s and onward and filmmakers ranging from Pedro Almodovar to Martin Scorsese paying homage to it.

The film's director, Nicholas Ray, would follow-up Johnny Guitar with his most famous film, the James Dean-starring counterculture landmark Rebel Without a Cause (1955). However, Johnny Guitar shows the first strands of Ray working within the studio system to make something that's almost anti-Hollywood. And he does so from the very first scene, as excavators make way for the impending railroad.

It may be a little on-the-nose, but Ray is literally blowing up the Western.

More after the jump.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Hit Me With Your Best Shot: Mommie Dearest (1981)

*This post is part of the "Hit Me With Your Best Shot" blogathon at The Film Experience*

Last year, when we covered the Village People-starring flop Can't Stop the Music for the "April Fools" edition of "Hit Me With Your Best Shot," I talked about what it means to be a "great bad" movie. You can click over there to see the full discussion, but the basic idea is that a "great bad" movie is one in which every element of the film fails so spectacularly that it turns around into something that's actually entertaining. It's not exactly failing upward, just failing so thoroughly that the failure becomes spectacle itself.

This year's selection, however, is something different. Mommie Dearest, the 1981 camp classic starring Faye Dunaway as Hollywood legend Joan Crawford, isn't a failure so much as it is a significant miscalculation. Adapted from the memoir of the same name by Christina Crawford, Joan's adopted daughter, the film follows Joan from the height of her career to her inevitable downfall, as well as her contentious relationship with Christina, her fits of insane behavior, and her questionable parenting skills. As in the memoir, the film does not exactly present Joan in a favorable light, and like the memoir it has sparked animosity between Christina and her brother, Christopher.

I call it a miscalculation because, at the time, it seemed like a surefire hit: one of the era's most exciting actresses playing a Hollywood icon, based on a popular and much-discussed book. And to be fair, the film did succeed at the box office, finishing with $19 million domestically (against a $5 million budget, reportedly). However, the film was convinced of greatness, yet showed ineptitude in just about every way, except for one crucial element.

More after the jump.