Category Archives: Film

‘WEST SIDE STORY’ DROPS GRANDIOSE TRAILER FOR SPIELBERG REMAKE ·

(Ryan Parker’s article appeared in the Hollywood Reporter, 9/15;  

The 20th Century film is due in theaters Dec. 10.

West Side Story dropped its official trailer Wednesday, and the Steven Spielberg remake looks as epic as the Oscar-winning original musical.

A little more than two minutes in length, the preview outlines the classic story of forbidden love between Tony (Ansel Elgort) and Maria (Rachel Zegler) and the hatred the rival Jets and Sharks gangs have for one another.

Although a remake of the 1961 film, Spielberg’s version is not a shot-for-shot copy, as can be seen in the bold, stylish trailer, which has new scenes and different dialogue.

West Side Story also stars Ariana DeBose, David Alvarez, Mike Faist, Josh Andrés Rivera, Corey Stoll and Brian d’Arcy James. Rita Moreno, who won an Oscar for her performance in the original film, also appears in the remake.

The 20th Century film wrapped in October 2019 but has been awaiting release after being delayed a few times due to the pandemic.

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REVIEW: ‘COME FROM AWAY’ LOSES NONE OF ITS FOLKSY CHARM ON SCREEN ·

(Charles McNulty’s article appeared in the Lost Angeles Times, 9/9; Petrina Bromley, from left, Emily Walton, Jenn Colella, Sharon Wheatley, Astrid Van Wieren and Q. Smith in the musical “Come From Away.” (Sarah Shatz / Apple TV+)

On the 20th anniversary of 9/11, as the world confronts another zeitgeist-defining emergency, it’s good to be reminded of simple human kindness, the kind of charity too modest for fanfare, something as basic yet profound as a stranger bearing a blanket or plate of food in an hour of need.

“Come From Away,” the 2017 Broadway musical with a heartwarming story set in the immediate aftermath of that September day, follows the advice that young Fred Rogers received from his mother when frightened by events in the news: “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.”

Written by Irene Sankoff and David Hein, this lovably hokey show, which has been successfully recorded on film, is available for streaming on Apple TV+ starting Sept. 10. It turns out that the screen provides a surprisingly hospitable frame for a musical that is quite purely and unabashedly — at times even downright earnestly — a work of theater.

The staging, which earned Christopher Ashley a Tony Award, retains its gallop even on a laptop. Despite my slight fatigue with a musical that has tenaciously hung around longer than I would have expected, I was stirred once again by a real-life 9/11 tale that takes place far away from ground zero, the Pentagon and the field in Pennsylvania where brave passengers brought the final hijacked plane down.

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ICONIC FRENCH NEW WAVE ACTOR JEAN-PAUL BELMONDO DIES AGED 88 ·

(from France24, 6/9; via the Drudge Report; Photo: French actor Jean-Paul Belmondo poses at the 23rd Lumières awards ceremony in Paris on February 5, 2018. © Francois Mori, AP.)

Actor Jean-Paul Belmondo, one of postwar French cinema’s biggest stars, whose charismatic smile illuminated the screen for half a century, has died aged 88 in his Paris home.

With his devil-may-care charm, Belmondo was the poster boy of the New Wave, France’s James Dean and Humphrey Bogart rolled into one irresistible man. With his boxer’s physique and broken nose, his restless insouciance chimed with the mould-breaking French cinema of the 1960s.

Director Jean-Luc Godard, the New Wave’s brilliant enfant terrible, cast Belmondo in his breakout role as a doomed thug who falls in love with Jean Seberg’s pixie-like American in Paris in “Breathless” (1960).

The film floored critics and audiences worldwide and, with François Truffaut’s “The 400 Blows”, changed the history of cinema.

Time magazine in 1964 declared Belmondo the face of modern France. 

“The Tricolour, a snifter of cognac, a flaring hem – these have been demoted to secondary symbols of France,” it said.

“The primary symbol is an image of a young man slouching in a cafe chair … he is Jean-Paul Belmondo – the natural son of the Existentialist conception, standing for everything and nothing at 738 mph.”

A boxer’s charm

Yet Belmondo was far from a sauve intellectual and spent most of his career in he-man roles that played on his raw sex appeal.

Despite making his name as a charming gangster, the actor was brought up in the bourgeois Paris suburb of Neuilly-sur-Seine, the son of a renowned sculptor, Paul Belmondo. 

Born in 1933, he performed poorly at school during World War II but was a talented boxer, winning three straight round-one knockouts in a brief amateur career.

He then trained at the National Conservatory of Dramatic Art.

His first foray into cinema in 1957 in the forgettable comedy “On Foot, on Horse and on Wheels”, ended up on the cutting-room floor.

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THE AFGHAN FEMALE ARTISTS ESCAPING TO FRANCE ·

(Eve Jackson’s article appeared on France24, 8/27.)

When the Taliban swept back into power in Afghanistan on August 16, Kabul-based artist and curator Rada Akbar felt she had no other option than to leave. Last week, she managed to escape to France, where she is now in quarantine. In an exclusive interview with FRANCE 24’s culture editor Eve Jackson, Akbar describes the Taliban’s bloody crackdown on female artists. “They would either put me in prison or kill me,” she said.

Over the past few months, Akbar had been working with French authorities to try to get her artwork out of Kabul. When she felt she could no longer stay in Afghanistan, the authorities helped her evacuate.

Akbar is known for her striking self-portraits that represent independence and heritage, and has an annual exhibition called Abarzanan, which translates as “Superwomen”.

The installation honours Afghan women who’ve shown strength and resilience in the face of misogyny and patriarchal oppression. Earlier this year, however, the exhibition was forced online after the artist received death threats.

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‘RESPECT’ FILM REVIEW: JENNIFER HUDSON BRINGS SOUL TO ARETHA FRANKLIN BIOPIC ·

(Elizabeth Weitzman’s article appeared in the Wrap 8/8. Photo:  Quantrell D. Colbert/MGM.)

It’s more effective as a jukebox musical than a character piece, but the central performance and those amazing songs pull it all

It has not been an easy year for theater lovers, who have mostly made do with well-filmed performances of shows like “Hamilton” and “David Byrne’s American Utopia.”

In contrast to those projects, Liesl Tommy’s Aretha Franklin biopic “Respect” was created as an original film, but it works best when envisioned as a Broadway-style jukebox musical.

Tommy and writer Tracey Scott Wilson are making their cinematic debuts with this sturdy retelling of Franklin’s early life and career. However, they come to the project with impressive stage backgrounds, which inform every aspect of their approach. Any stage, of course, needs a star who can command the space. That the story intermittently recedes into the background might be problematic, were it not for the fact that the spotlight remains resolutely focused on a captivating Jennifer Hudson, who was chosen for the role by Franklin herself, before she passed away in 2018.

“Respect” actually begins with a 9-year-old Aretha (Skye Dakota Turner) just starting to understand her own gifts. Re, as she’s called, lives with her father (Forest Whitaker), the celebrated minister and civil rights activist C.L. Franklin. Life is busy — Re is often enlisted to sing at his Saturday night parties and Sunday services — but troubling.

Wilson and Tommy make delicate but undeniable reference to a childhood rape, which is soon followed by the death of Re’s mostly absent mother (Audra McDonald, underused). This is where her “demons” take hold, and soon the script skips ahead to the years when Aretha (now played by Hudson) begins pushing back against her controlling father and her husband, Ted (Marlon Wayans). Hudson, an Oscar winner for “Dreamgirls,” calibrates her performance with a lovely subtlety, so there are scenes when Re realistically embodies a shy church singer, rebellious young woman and confident musician all within minutes.

Realism, though, is not the filmmakers’ artistic priority. There’s a notable theatricality to most of the movie’s elements, beginning with a script that takes us from Big Moment to Big Moment. If Ted is holding a bottle of liquor, we know he’s about to get mean. When the phone rings, bad news will almost certainly follow. If Aretha stops to talk to someone at a party, it’s likely to be Smokey Robinson (Lodric D. Collins), who will say, “We are trying to put Detroit on the map. You gotta be a part of it!”

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BELGIUM: ARTDOCFEST FILM FESTIVAL: AN OPPORTUNITY FOR VOICING THE TRUTH ·

(Nicolai Khalezin’s article appeared in The Brussels Times, 6/2; Photo: Nicolai Khalezin performing in Generation Jeans, an autobiographical duologue about rock music and resistance.)

This is an opinion article by an external contributor. The views belong to the writer.

Wear your mask over your nose and mouth and not over your eyes.” That was the motto of Artdocfest, Russia’s largest documentary film festival in Russia, which took place in April. Russian authorities, however, have firmly shown they want the mask over the public’s eyes. 

 Over the course of the film festival, showings were disrupted by the police, the consumer protection agency, homophobic Chechen nationalists and Kremlin loyalists. In St. Petersburg, authorities shut down viewings by sealing entryways into two screening halls. After the police came and didn’t allow any films to be presented, the festival moved on to Zoom and those who bought tickets were able to see films online.

These actions disrupted or stopped stories from being told: about the suffering of locals who opposed Russia’s annexation of Crimea, the government orchestrated torture of gay men in Chechnya, and the repressive measures taken against protestors in Belarus (where 354 political prisoners remain in custody) made possible by Russian support. It is erasure in its purest form.

That erasure is something I know personally. In 2010, I founded the Belarus Free Theatre in response to Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko’s crackdown on freedom of speech. To ensure security, people who wanted to see our shows had to call a phone number to learn its physical location. Even that precaution was not enough; authorities still arrested or harassed every single member of our company. After the authorities brought five baseless criminal charges against my wife and I, we were forced to leave the country and become refugees.

This experience of living with organized harassment is why spaces like Artdocfest are so important to me. That is why we entered two films into the festival, Alone and Okrestin Sisters. They provide an opportunity for voicing the truth when the authorities are silencing it.

For a long time, Russia remained a place where Belarussian creatives were able to showcase their talents. However, the Russian regime is increasingly copying the Belarusian regime and is tightening its control over the world of art and culture. This includes the recently adopted amendments to the education law that requires Russian state permission for educational activities to prevent “foreign interference.” Authentic real- life documentaries, aimed at adults, fall under this category.

Everywhere, authoritarian regimes are locking step in an autocratic push-back against democracy. These regimes want to tell grand stories about states and leaders, which only work if the public cannot see the effects of the government’s policies

Russia, like Belarus, has been increasingly defined by what isn’t televised. Belarus continues to plough ahead in this arena banning the European news channel Euronews and making it easier to block other media.

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CHARLES GRODIN, STAR OF ‘BEETHOVEN’ AND ‘HEARTBREAK KID,’ DIES AT 86 ·

(Neil Genzlinger’s article appeared in The New York Times, 5/18; Photo: The actor Charles Grodin with the title dog in the hit 1992 family movie “Beethoven.” “I don’t complain,” he said, “when the editor chooses my worst take because it’s the dog’s best take.”Credit…via Photofest.)

A familiar face who was especially adept at deadpan comedy, he also appeared on Broadway in “Same Time, Next Year,” wrote books and had his own talk show.

Charles Grodin, the versatile actor familiar from “Same Time, Next Year” on Broadway, popular movies like “The Heartbreak Kid,” “Midnight Run” and “Beethoven” and numerous television appearances, died on Tuesday at his home in Wilton, Conn. He was 86.

His son, Nicholas, said the cause was bone marrow cancer.

With a great sense of deadpan comedy and the kind of Everyman good looks that lend themselves to playing businessmen or curmudgeonly fathers, Mr. Grodin found plenty of work as a supporting player and the occasional lead. He also had his own talk show for a time in the 1990s and was a frequent guest on the talk shows of others, making 36 appearances on “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson” and 17 on “Late Night With David Letterman.”

Mr. Grodin was a writer as well, with a number of plays and books to his credit. Though he never won a prestige acting award, he did win a writing Emmy for a 1977 Paul Simon television special, sharing it with Mr. Simon and six others.

Mr. Grodin, who dropped out of the University of Miami to pursue acting, had managed to land a smattering of stage and television roles when, in 1962, he received his first big break, landing a part in a Broadway comedy called “Tchin-Tchin” that starred Anthony Quinn and Margaret Leighton.

“Walter Kerr called me impeccable,” Mr. Grodin wrote years later, recalling a review of the show that appeared in The New York Times. “It took a trip to the dictionary to understand he meant more than clean.”

Another Broadway appearance came in 1964 in “Absence of a Cello.” Mr. Grodin’s next two Broadway credits were as a director, of “Lovers and Other Strangers” in 1968 and “Thieves” in 1974. Then, in 1975, came a breakthrough Broadway role opposite Ellen Burstyn in Bernard Slade’s “Same Time, Next Year,” a durable two-hander about a man and woman, each married to someone else, who meet once a year in the same inn room.

“The play needs actors of grace, depth and accomplishment, and has found them in Ellen Burstyn and Charles Grodin,” Clive Barnes wrote in a rave in The Times. “Miss Burstyn is so real, so lovely and so womanly that a man wants to hug her, and you hardly notice the exquisite finesse of her acting. It is underplaying of sheer virtuosity. Mr. Grodin is every bit her equal — a monument to male insecurity, gorgeously inept, and the kind of masculine dunderhead that every decent man aspires to be.”

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‘THE SALESMAN’: ARTHUR MILLER’S AMERICAN CLASSIC REFRAMED IN IRAN ·

(Chris Wiegand’s article appeared in the Guardian, 5/11; Photo: Cracks in a marriage … Shahab Hosseini and Taraneh Alidoosti in The Salesman. Photograph: Allstar/Memento Films Production. )

Asghar Farhadi’s Oscar-winning film about two married actors has intriguing parallels with the play they are performing

At the start of Death of a Salesman, Arthur Miller devotes a full page of notes to describe the house where the long-married Willy and Linda Loman live in New York. It is, he writes, a “small, fragile-seeming home”. In his 2016 film The Salesman, Iranian writer-director Asghar Farhadi cranks up that symbolism. When we first meet the central couple, amateur-theatre actors Emad and Rana Etesami (played by Shahab Hosseini and Taraneh Alidoosti), their flat in Tehran is crumbling around them. Building work has made the structure unsafe, and they are suddenly forced to evacuate. This large-scale get-out is the first of several pertinent exits and entrances in Farhadi’s film about theatre. Emad and Rana initially weather the disruption with kindness and good humour, but before long the cracks in their marriage begin to show too.

Emad and Rana’s domestic disaster occurs as they are rehearsing Miller’s Pulitzer winner, in which they portray Willy and Linda respectively. The opening shot in the film is of the Lomans’ bed and Farhadi’s expertly paced account of the actors’ personal dramas lives up to Miller’s subtitle: “Certain private conversations in two acts and a requiem.” Farhadi intersperses scenes from Miller’s play – both in rehearsals and the production – and cleverly captures the fragility of theatre performance. He does this by conveying not just the nervous tension crackling between actors relying upon each other on a stage – which he achieves by up-close camerawork – but also a sense of fragility in the very sets that surround them.

The Salesman is a film best seen without knowing too much about the plot. To be brief: the Etesamis move into a new apartment thanks to a favour from fellow actor Babak, the previous occupant was a sex worker, and a double case of mistaken identity leaves Rana traumatised and Emad obsessed with revenge. It would be a mistake to draw too many comparisons between their story and Miller’s play. There is no equivalent merging of real and dream worlds in Farhadi’s film, and the Etesamis are younger than the Lomans and as yet childless, but Farhadi teases out similar themes to Miller such as a particularly masculine sense of pride, ambition and shame.

Emad is a literature teacher (the film invites us to see teaching as a performance style too) and none of his class has heard of Death of a Salesman. Viewers who do know Miller’s play will spot details in the film that parallel the world of the Lomans. When Rana and Emad arrive to look around their new top-floor flat, the city of Tehran is framed as if by a replacement proscenium arch. The shot is specifically designed to show a similarity with the Lomans’ house, described in Miller’s notes as surrounded on all sides by “towering, angular shapes” and an “angry glow of orange”. The very personal struggles of both Miller and Farhadi’s couples are played out against the constant proximity of their neighbours and, by extension, the judgment of wider society. Rana and Emad have a constant audience even offstage. This is a recurrent feature in Farhadi’s other films, summed up by the title of his 2018 Spanish kidnapping drama Everybody Knows.

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STEPHEN SONDHEIM & JOHN WEIDMAN’S ‘ASSASSINS’ GATHERS A KILLER ROSTER OF PERFORMERS ·

(Charles McNulty’s article appeared in the LA Times, 4/16; via Pam Green.)

Members of three “Assassins” casts perform “Everybody’s Got the Right” during the Classic Stage Company’s filmed benefit.

(Classic Stage Company)

“Assassins” is a hard musical to love, but maybe even a harder one to forget.

This show by Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman is built around a rogue’s gallery of infamous Americans who tried, in some cases successfully, to kill the president of the United States. As a description, “audacious” seems far too tame for a musical that searches for the pep in pathological and even makes treason tuneful.

Cognitive dissonance is built into a work that saves some of its prettiest melodies for the most murderous maniacs. Frank Rich, in his review of the 1991 off-Broadway premiere at Playwrights Horizons, called it “an antimusical about antiheroes.” The show was a hit off-Broadway, but it took 13 years for this disturbing vaudeville to make it to Broadway.

A planned 2001 Broadway production, directed by Joe Mantello, was postponed because of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. With the country still smoldering, how could audiences be expected to turn out for a musical that includes one attempted assassin who wanted to hijack a plane and crash it into the White House?

If history always seems to be bumping into “Assassins,” it’s probably because the dark cultural currents that give rise to John Wilkes Booth, Lee Harvey Oswald and their copycat kind are continually being replenished in a nation that enjoys dividing its citizens into winners and losers.

The tumultuous history of “Assassins” is recalled in “Tell the Story: Celebrating Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman’s ‘Assassins,’” a vibrant recorded benefit for New York’s Classic Stage Company, conceived and directed by artistic director John Doyle, one of Sondheim’s most inventive contemporary interpreters.

Doyle was in rehearsal with “Assassins” last year when New York performance venues were forced to close because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The show will reopen the off-Broadway theater later this year, and this documentary (available till Monday) is both a salute to the musical and to the scrappy brilliance of theater artists, whose survival is being tested like never before.

How will the show play after the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol? Possibly no longer as an exhibition of deranged, fame-seeking extremists but as a window into widespread American grievance. “Everybody’s Got the Right,” the musical’s opening (and closing) number, looks at what can happen when the government is blamed for standing in the way of a disaffected citizen’s pursuit of happiness.

In her preface to the documentary, Hillary Clinton calls attention to the dire situation of theaters, like CSC, which are struggling to resuscitate themselves after being dark for so long. If anyone has the right to be unsettled by “Assassins,” it’s the former secretary of State, senator and first lady, who, despite all the obstacles thrown in her path, came within a hair’s breadth of becoming our first woman president. But with the authority of someone who knows the dark underbelly of American politics, she makes the case for a musical that “dares its audience to see our country and assess our national myths through the eyes of our villains instead of our heroes.”

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‘SHAKESPEARE WALLAH’: MERCHANT IVORY’S BITTERSWEET TALE OF BOLLYWOOD AND THE BARD ·

(Chris Wiegand’s article appeared in the Guardian, 3/30/2021; Photo: Shashi Kapoor and Felicity Kendal in Shakespeare Wallah, the second feature by Merchant Ivory Productions. Photograph: Allstar/Merchant Ivory Productions.)

The Kendal family of actors star in a story inspired by their travels around India, whose booming film industry upstages their theatrical troupe.

The actor Geoffrey Bragg was born in 1909 in the Lake District and later adopted the name of his birth town of Kendal but, at schools and theatres across India in the 1940s and 50s, he was recognised simply as the “Shakespeare Wallah”. The adventurous troupe of performers he led in productions of classic plays included his wife, Laura Liddell, daughter Jennifer and youngest daughter Felicity Kendal, who worked first as a stage hand then made her acting debut aged nine as Macduff’s son in Macbeth.

Geoffrey Kendal and his family star together in the film Shakespeare Wallah (1965), produced by Ismail Merchant and directed by James Ivory as the second feature for their fledgling Merchant Ivory stable. In the film, the Kendals’ theatre ensemble, which was named Shakespeareana, morphs into a troupe called the Buckingham Players. In this motley company, Geoffrey and Laura play the parents, essaying the great tragic and comic roles on stage while keeping the books for their winding third-class travels around the subcontinent. Eighteen-year-old Felicity plays their daughter, Lizzie, giving her Desdemona and Ophelia by night while embarking on a romance with playboy Sanju (Shashi Kapoor). Jennifer Kendal, who was Kapoor’s offscreen wife, has a small supporting role and designed costumes for the film.

Shakespeare Wallah is set in a rapidly modernising India whose pop culture is eclipsing English traditions and rendering the Buckingham Players an anachronism. The booming homegrown film industry is represented by Bollywood star Manjula (played by actor turned chef Madhur Jaffrey) who also has a relationship with Sanju. Lizzie finds herself directly competing against a glamorous screen icon, just as the stage views cinema as a rival.

Although the film is rooted in a specific sociocultural moment for India, the threat posed to theatre by screen entertainment remains as universal now as it did then. In his Guardian obituary for Geoffrey Kendal in 1998, Ivory wrote about the tensions during the production with the veteran actor: “He let me know how he despised the cinema – that the cinema was his enemy, causing theatres to be empty and tours to be cancelled.” But Kendal – who has an ease in front of the camera despite his lack of film experience – came to recognise that thanks to Ivory “it was the despised cinema that told the world of my existence and to a certain extent of my fight”.

And the despised cinema is here undeniably beautiful. Shot in black and white (for budgetary reasons) by Subrata Mitra, the film has a stately pace, is sensitively written by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala and comes with music by the esteemed director Satyajit Ray. The bumpy travels of theatre troupes often make for bittersweet comic escapades such as in Fellini’s Variety Lights (1950) or George Cukor’s Heller in Pink Tights (1960). But Shakespeare Wallah has a clear-eyed view of the company’s itinerant life as they veer from private performances in palaces to remote school audiences, the thrill of acting offset by umpteen card games and window gazing in between.

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