Joyce's Choices Thu, 19 Jan 2017 06:06:54 +0000 en-US hourly 1 THEATER: WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF Thu, 19 Jan 2017 05:25:40 +0000 THEATER: WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF

“Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” George chants low in the darkness. “I am, George. I am,” intones a hollow-eyed Martha in the Lyric Stage’s merciless yet moving production of Albee’s classic. As the light slowly fades on this bitter couple in the final scene, I felt a chill. The moment is forever seared in my mind, a moment of sheer existential terror and loneliness in a production not to be missed.

Edward Albee’s three hour saga was a fearsome thing when it debuted in 1962. So controversial was its plot, language, and emotional brutality that it was denied the Pulitzer, and the movie version wreaked havoc on its

Liz Taylor & Richard Burton “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” (1966 film)

stars: Sandy Dennis suffered a miscarriage during filming, and it may have contributed to the break up of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton’s marriage. More than a half century later and 3 months after the death of its playwright, the cold-war overtones of George and Martha battling it out in “New Carthage” remain as relevant as ever in this “post truth” era of divisiveness and fake news, where illusion and truth have as slippery and combative a relationship as ever.

Here Steven Barkhimer as history professor George and Paula Plum as his alcoholic wife Martha –daughter of the university president– give it their ruthless best. Plum bursts through the door a coiffed and voluptuous hen, pecking nonstop at her relentlessly heckled husband. It’s 2 o-clock in the morning, George and Martha are already plowed and cranking it up, AND they’re  expecting guests!! Soon, a young couple (another George and Martha in the making) arrive: Nick (a stilted Dan Whelton) a new science teacher at the university who married his “delicate” wife Honey (a perfectly pale and pert Erica Spyres) under false pretenses. She can’t hold her liquor or much of anything else down. George and Martha will eat them for breakfast. 

But before the sun comes up, the night will devolve, scene by scene, from “Fun and Games,” to a bacchanalian “Walpurgisnacht,” culminating in “The Exorcism.” Albee’s aptly-named alcohol-fueled cyclone of abuse and pain will screw itself up and suck them all in on Janie E. Howland’s worn-out living room of a set; only George and Martha will remain standing. Plum goes at it full throttle, by turns bawdy, cruel, acid-tongued, and hyper-sexualized, chewing men up and spitting them out, further humiliating George.  He retaliates by alternately baiting her and keeping her at bay; he reserves the cruelest blow for the climactic third act which will eviscerate the illusions on which they’ve hung their spikey union. They are also dangerously, corrosively funny and we understand that these battles are their substitute for real intimacy, which they won’t get anywhere near until the play’s final fearsome showdown.

Plum and Barkhimer are magnificent together. Repellant as their drinking and bickering is, we are always aware of the psychic wounds beneath these characters’ surface hostility; they pull us in and hold us there.

“Martha: … I cry allllll the time; but deep inside, so no one can see me. I cry all the time. And Georgie cries all the time, too. We both cry all the time, and then what we do, we cry, and we take our tears, and we put ’em in the ice box, in the goddamn ice trays until they’re all frozen and then… we put them… in our… drinks.”

Scott Edmiston directs this wicked roller coaster of a night with extraordinary control over every perilous twist and turn. George and Martha’s interchanges never go so far off the rails that we and they can’t turn back. In its transcendent final moments this production devastates, the staging and lighting stunning here. There’s a tinge of warmth in the light that slowly wanes on this couple; in these moments we fear for them as they stand in the teeth of the wolf, ALMOST facing each other, fully exposed for the first time. DO NOT MISS “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” at the Lyric Stage Company through February 12.


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What a FASCINATING week for theater in town—I saw three plays this week: a one-man show, one classic, and one Tony-nominated play having its New England premiere all of which left me thinking, laughing, scratching my head, and utterly engaged. You gotta love theater! Here goes.

SpeakEasy Stage is presenting the New England premiere of Robert Askins Tony-nominated play “HAND TO GOD” billed as a cross between “The Exorcist” and “Sesame Street.” Despite a superb cast, I think the play comes up short on both counts providing neither the shock of the former nor the wit of the latter. It actually reminds me of a movie Mel Gibson starred in years ago called THE BEAVER in which Gibson’s character channels his depression through a “therapy” puppet. Here, it seems the puppet may be calling the shots.

In HAND TO GOD, a texas teenager named Jason (Eliott Purcell in a tour de force dual performance as puppet master and puppet!) belongs to “The Christ Cateers” (like “Mouseketeers”) a youth puppet troupe housed in a church basement. Suddenly Jason’s hand puppet, Tyrone, begins acting up and out. In fact, this foul-mouthed little handsock begins voicing all of Jason’s repressed sexual urges and anger, and igniting a loaded situation. There’s Jason’s frustrated, widowed mom Margery (Marianna Bassham strung out and hilarious in the part), rambunctious young romeo Timothy who’s hot for Margery (an excellent Dario Ladani Sanchez), Pastor Greg who’s also hot for Margery (Lewis D. Wheeler funny and appealing in the part) and the comely young Jessica (a fine Josephine Elwood) on whom Jason’s crushing.

The play spends two acts (one act too many) whipping these characters into frenzy at the mercy of Tyrone, the demonic puppet who embodies their sublimated, animal impulses. We are ultimately asked to see this mini “Sodom and Gomorrah” in the context of the central Christian myth of the Crucifixion, i.e. the externalized purging of all that is sinful or bad in human nature by way of an external sacrifice. The play ultimately asks, “Wouldn’t it be great if one day we didn’t need to cast out or divide ourselves from our baser instincts, but rather accept,  absorb, forgive, and redeem these feelings within ourselves and each other?”  Ya think? I think this play spends too  much time indulging the dark side, the superficial nastiness, sexual mayhem, and physical destruction it says we shouldn’t be demonizing. For me the humor extracted was tortured at best, but kudos to this cast who do their best beating a dead horse of a script which died in Act I. At SpeakEasy Stage company through February 4!

I also saw the Huntington Theatre Company’s latest, Henrik Ibsen’s classic A DOLL’S HOUSE. Wow. This take on A DOLL’S HOUSE was a shock and a revelation! A frisky interpretation of a classic that will rattle your cage, crack you up, and leave you hanging from the rafters by the time Nora slams the door. It’s not that it’s a perfect production; there were jarring notes and moments that I’m not sure worked. But it shook me up and I looked with fresh eyes at a play I’ve loved and seen many times.

First, British dramatist Bryony Lavery’s vibrant, contemporary translation jolts the play into the 21st century, re-injecting it with the shock of the new. Here the cadences are short, sharp, funny, and overlapping the way people talk in real life. The words land with some of the impact I imagine was felt when audiences saw it for the first time at its premiere in Copenhagen on Dec 21, 1879. It was controversial, provocative, and apparently disrupted many a household and dinner party in challenging the relationship of wife to husband and family. Melia Bensussen directs the action with dangerous abandon, a rough romp through a household rife with false joy, tension, and hidden agendas. James Noone’s “doll house” of a set has the flimsiness of a cartoon and gives way to Edvard “The Scream” Munch’s angst-y expressionist palate. So as you settle yourself in your seat, “Fasten your seat belts; it’s going to be a bumpy night.”

Andrea Syglowski and Sekou Laidlow

In “A Doll’s House” (literal translation “A Doll Home”), Nora Helmer (Andrea Syglowski) is the childlike wife and mother of three, and is treated like a plaything by her shallow, egocentric husband Torvald (Sekou Laidlow). That Syglowski is white and Laidlow is black emphasizes the division between the couple; she playacts for him and he is besotted with her performance. Their marriage is superficially based on masks which separate them from each other and their true selves; neither sees the other clearly. Thus they are poised for a simmering tragedy that will boil over as the play unfolds. It seems that Nora has unwittingly done something illegal, for good reason, and hides this from her husband for fear he and the relationship will suffer. But she is now being blackmailed by another man who is, in turn, being squeezed by his past mistakes. Money, social status, and power are the currency here, and Ibsen is measuring that currency’s relationship to true worth and a genuine exchange between human beings.

Andrea Syglowski who wowed as “Venus In Fur” here puts a screwball spin on Mrs. Helmer; Nora has never seemed livelier, funnier, or more contemporary. What’s more, she evinces a silly lack of self-awareness that mirrors Torvald’s transparent narcissism, and his almost ludicrous condescension to the little lady. But these performances were also a bit odd.  Laidlow’s exaggerated delivery and his slim, tall, youthful appearance made his Torvald less believable and less daunting a figure. At one point people laughed out loud at his fatuous delivery of a line that usually signals serious trouble in paradise. It threw me and the tone a bit off. Also, given the contemporary setting and translation, Syglowski’s frivolous housewife seems somewhat anachronistic and makes her sudden desperation and final earth-shattering decision feel too abrupt; I wish she’d given us more than an inkling of what was to come.

That said, I found myself always engaged, wanting to see where these two would take us; though I’d covered this ground before, I felt like I had a new map. By that last scene, when Nora sheds her costume and gets real, I was riveted by her conviction and his shock at her audacity. Though it seems impossible that he and she could have ever been together, somehow this dynamic denouement took my breath away and made the urgency of being an authentic human being as powerful and relevant as it ever was and continues to be. SEE IT at the HUNTINGTON through February 5!

Johnny Lee Davenport as Thurgood Marshall

Finally– check out THURGOOD at New Rep Black Box Theater and treat yourself to an especially timely history lesson about Thurgood Marshall the first African-American appointed to the Supreme Court. The compelling and charismatic Johnny Lee Davenport plays Marshall with great warmth and authority, but was not yet in possession of his lines the night I saw this solo show. Written by George Stevens, Jr. and directed by Benny Sato Ambush, the evening is an education nonetheless, with Thurgood himself taking us through his own personal history as a lawyer, as well as the various landmark cases which have shaped race relations under the law in this country. The script guides us from Plessy vs. Ferguson in 1896 which first justified state laws sanctioning “separate but equal” public facilities, to Brown vs. Board of Education in which Marshall successfully argued that segregated schools were unconstitutional, thus opening the door to the civil rights movement in 1954.

Direction, pacing, use of visuals and music all could be sharpened, refined, and pumped up to punctuate the anecdotes, and help us digest the legal reasoning and principles which pack the show. Davenport is the actor for the job; he has the chops, stamina, and power to persuade. I think the show just needs a little more time to incubate its argument. See THURGOOD as part of New Rep’s Prophetic Portrait Series: Examining History at the Level of the Individual through February 5!





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HURRY! FREE ADVANCE SCREENING for an IMAX screening of a Paramount Pictures release: “xXx: RETURN OF XANDER CAGE

For the chance to receive two tickets to the screening please go to

Wednesday, January 18, 2017 at 8:00 PM in Boston (Theater will be named on your ticket)


Running Time: 107 minutes

Rated: “PG-13”

Opening Date: January 20, 2017


Vin Diesel, Donnie Yen, Deepika Padukone, Toni Collette, Ruby Rose, Nina Dobrev, Tony Jaa, Kris Wu, Michael Bisping, Rory McCann, Nicky Jam, Neymar Jr., Samuel L. Jackson


The third explosive chapter of the blockbuster franchise that redefined the spy thriller finds extreme athlete turned government operative Xander Cage (Vin Diesel) coming out of self-imposed exile and on a collision course with deadly alpha warrior Xiang and his team in a race to recover a sinister and seemingly unstoppable weapon known as Pandora’s Box. Recruiting an all-new group of thrill-seeking cohorts, Xander finds himself enmeshed in a deadly conspiracy that points to collusion at the highest levels of world governments. Packed with the series’ signature deadpan wit and bad-ass attitude, “xXx:  RETURN OF XANDER CAGE” will raise the bar on extreme action with some of the most mind-blowing stunts to ever be caught on film.

Tickets are FREE but expected to go quickly. You must have a ticket to attend this screening but a ticket does not guarantee seating–seating is first come, first served — GET THERE EARLY!

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HURRY! FREE ADVANCE SCREENING for a Weinstein Company release “THE FOUNDER”

For the chance to receive two tickets to the screening please go to

Wednesday, January 18, 2017 at 7:00 PM in Boston (Theater will be named on your ticket)


Running Time: 115 minutes

Rated: “PG-13”

Opening Date: January 20, 2017


Directed by John Lee Hancock (SAVING MR. BANKS, THE BLIDE SIDE), THE FOUNDER features the true story of how Ray Kroc (Michael Keaton), a struggling salesman from Illinois, met Mac and Dick McDonald, who were running a burger operation in 1950s Southern California. Kroc was impressed by the brothers’ speedy system of making the food and saw franchise potential. Writer Robert Siegel (THE WRESTLER) details how Kroc maneuvered himself into a position to be able to pull the company from the brothers and create a billion-dollar empire. The film also stars Laura Dern as Ray Kroc’s first wife Ethel; John Carroll Lynch as Mac McDonald and Nick Offerman as Dick McDonald. 

Tickets are FREE but expected to go quickly. You must have a ticket to attend this screening but a ticket does not guarantee seating–seating is first come, first served — GET THERE EARLY!



HIDDEN FIGURES brings a hidden gem of a true story to the big screen with a top notch cast in a movie that’s not as groundbreaking as the tale it tells—but accomplishes what it sets out to do with verve, humor, warmth and intelligence. “Hidden Figures” adapted from the book by Margot Lee Shetterly will leave you feeling inspired and wondering what other true stories must be told.

Imagine three women in the late 1950’s early 60’s working at NASA in the nascent stages of the U.S. space program. Imagine them corralled in an office pool, doing the work of computers–“human” computers before there were computers–crunching the numbers by hand behind the scenes, all under the purview of a deeply entrenched hierarchy of male scientists who also expected women not only to keep their “figures” in trim, but also to make the coffee.

My dander is already up. Now imagine those women are black. In addition to the second class treatment they receive as women, they are additionally relegated as black women to segregated work areas, dining rooms, restrooms, etc. Imagine they are also competing for professional advancement with their white co-workers lugging this racist, socio-cultural-political load.

Who are these “hidden figures”? They are math wiz Katherine G. Johnson played by the glorious Taraji P. Henson with sly wit and stunning restraint. Her character brings a prodigious way with “figures” to the very heart of the problems that must be solved in order to put a man in space. Ms. Johnson eventually “calculated the trajectories for the Mercury and Apollo missions.”

Then there’s Dorothy Vaughan computer genius played by Oscar-winning Octavia Spencer. She immediately conveys the quiet, rock solid confidence and vision of a leader, brilliant and prescient as a pioneering computer scientist who taught herself and her team how to program Nasa’s IBM computer and became the “first African-American manager” at NASA.

And then there’s aerospace engineer Mary Jackson whose technical calculations and social conscience helped pave the way for women and minorities to professionally advance at NASA. Musician Janelle Monae (also seen in “Moonlight,” this season) brings sass and sparkle to Jackson’s pioneering spirit especially in one pivotal scene before a judge, arguing her right to take classes at a local, segregated college.

The film does a fine job of storytelling, shaping each scene to draw us into these women’s lives at work, at home, and with each other. Kevin Costner provides the necessary ballast to this formidable trio as the no-nonsense Al Harrison, the guy who runs the show at NASA. Initially somewhat oblivious to the women’s struggles and what it’s costing NASA, Al ends up being instrumental in the climax of a literal running subplot involving the ½ mile Taraji’s character has to run in order to use the “colored” bathroom.

It’s not quite as straightforward for co-worker Paul Stafford played by Jim Parsons who struggles with his own biases, competitive streak, and common sense in the face of Katherine’s obvious talent.

The movie breaks no new ground cinematically—we know where this story is going and pretty much how it’s going to get there. There may be one too many predictable showdowns, but these moments make sense dramatically and this cast carries it off with conviction and emotional intelligence.

What is most important about HIDDEN FIGURES is that this eye-opening story is told at all. The title refers not only to these unacknowledged women and their hidden mathematical contributions, but to all the figures STILL missing from the equation. Those left out by intolerance and systemic bias are, more than ever, essential to our collective effort to make progress, and solving for that x-factor is no mystery– those figures are hiding in plain sight.


Here’s a rewarding artistic excursion for the new year– an erotic crime thriller two ways, one onscreen, the other onstage. Both are based on the devilishly byzantine novel and Mann Booker finalist by Sarah Waters called “FINGERSMITH.” (Also a 2005 BBC mini series.)

The staged version called FINGERSMITH and adapted by Alexa Junge is now in its final week at the American Repertory Theater. Set in the shadows of Victorian England, the labyrinthine plot involves a gifted pickpocket or “fingersmith” by the name of Sue Tringer (Tracee Chimo) who takes part in a scheme conceived by  “Gentleman” to con a wealthy heiress out of her fortune by posing as the lady’s maid. The lady– Maud Lilly (Christina Bennett Lind)– is literally caged in her hoop skirts and gloves by her creepy old uncle whose proclivities extend to his meticulously compiled porn-filled library.

The plot begins to take an unexpected twist when the two ladies–each under the control of a man–fall in love with each other! Suddenly we find ourselves awhirl in a tale of rebellion, betrayal, shifting power, identity, and sexual freedom especially as we remember that the title is not only a synonym for “pickpocket” but also a more veiled reference to the dexterity of the female hand in eliciting sexual pleasure.

This dynamo of a plot gathers even more steam in ACT II and builds to climax after climax as layer upon layer of plot is revealed, details mount, and we are left breathless trying to keep track. The murky set and stagecraft dazzle, as do the lead actresses who come shining through despite the pile up of revelations and motivations which threaten to overwhelm in Act II. See FINGERSMITH through January 8! 

Then, compare the play to the movie THE HANDMAIDEN by acclaimed writer/director Chan-wook Park which was named best foreign language film by the Boston Society of Film Critics. The action is now transposed to Japanese occupied Korea, but despite this socio-political overlay re: who’s in charge, the machinations of the plot are streamlined while its sensuality is amplified and its title remains erotically loaded.

The film is immediately gorgeous to look at– formally composed frame by frame with brilliant, saturated color. The actresses (Tae-ri Kim as the Handmaiden and Min-hee Kim as the Lady) are exceptionally beautiful- their pale faces brought to carnal life by rosebud lips and slick jet hair. They are ensconced in a remote and elegant mansion at the edge of a wood.  The filmmaker has fetishized every inch of their entrapment, including drawers full of gloves, elaborate silk clothing, and the deep, dark library where the books are kept; it is there that the rituals are enacted before an audience of hungry, effete men listening hard, as the lady reads.

I saw the film before I saw the play and was whipsawed by shock as the women fell into bed and in love with each other. Their scenes together are rapturous. As the film continues to open up, we are turned this way and that until a final, liberating denouement, unburdened by the additional curlicues of plot which nearly strangle the second half of the staged version.

The few jarring notes in the film come from a miscalculation of tone– the injection of some very crude comedy. The perverse uncle is played much too broadly and pulls us out of the movie right up until the punishing “Grand Guignol” of an ending, which of course involves a hand. But see it for the ravishments it affords, as well as the opportunity to observe what different artists can weave from the same ripe material.

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HURRY! FREE ADVANCE SCREENING for a Warner Brothers’ Pictures release: “LIVE BY NIGHT”

For the chance to receive two tickets to the screening please visit:

Monday, January 9, 2017 at 7:00 PM in Boston (Theater will be named on your ticket)


Running Time: 129 minutes

Rated: “R”

Opening Date: January 13, 2017


Ben Affleck, Elle Fanning, Brendan Gleeson, Chris Messina, Sienna Miller,

Zoe Saldana, Chris Cooper


What you put out into this world will always come back to you, but it never comes back how you predict.  Taking fatherly advice is not in Joe Coughlin’s nature.  Instead, the WWI vet is a self-proclaimed anti-establishment outlaw, despite being the son of the Boston Police Deputy Superintendent.  Joe’s not all bad, though; in fact, he’s not really bad enough for the life he’s chosen.  Unlike the gangsters he refuses to work for, he has a sense of justice and an open heart, and both work against him, leaving him vulnerable time and again—in business and in love.  Driven by a need to right the wrongs committed against him and those close to him, Joe heads down a risky path that goes against his upbringing and his own moral code.  Leaving the cold Boston winter behind, he and his reckless crew turn up the heat in Tampa.  And while revenge may taste sweeter than the molasses that infuses every drop of illegal rum he runs, Joe will learn that it comes at a price

Tickets are FREE but expected to go quickly. You must have a ticket to attend this screening but a ticket does not guarantee seating–seating is first come, first served — GET THERE EARLY!



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PATRIOTS DAY–Pointless. If you lived through the Boston Marathon bombings, nothing compares. For all its good intentions and attempts at verisimilitude, this film adds nothing and mutes the impact of that tragic week in Boston’s history. It also traffics in some pretty annoying cliches: Boston cops are, apparently, the most foul-mouthed in the country; and only the same roster of actors can manage a credible Boston accent, thus they appear in every movie set in our fair city: Kevin Bacon, Michelle Monahan, Erica McDermott in a small role, and of course Mark Wahlberg whose pugnacity is once more hitched to some sort of battle. Here he plays a composite character, a police officer who manages to be EVERYWHERE: at the scene of the bombings, behind the scenes with the FBI, and at the big shoot-out in Watertown. “They messed with the wrong city,” he threatens as he heads out of frame. I think filmmaker Peter Berg and company messed with the wrong subject.

LA LA LAND–I have NO idea why so many critics think this is the best film of the year. It was entertaining and among the most unusual offerings of the season, another from the talented Damien Chazelle who last year gave us WHIPLASH.  Some have said it “re-invents” the movie musical. Sure–by casting it with actors who can’t sing or dance. I LOVE Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone who have real chemistry here as the romantic leads seeking fame and fortune in Hollywood. The opening sequence is a splashy surprise, a sprawling production number on the sunny L.A. freeway. And the final sequence is a bittersweet mini-movie marvel all by itself. But what happens in between either goes slack or left me wanting. Whenever I saw Stone and Gosling break into a musical number, I couldn’t get Fred and Ginger and Gene Kelly and Cyd Charisse out of my head. What’s the point of this casting? That we all dream ourselves bigger and better than we actually are?  It IS beautifully shot, and cracks open the soul-killing erosion of auditioning and commercialism on aspirants with real talent. Best of the year? No way. (see my list). Worth seeing? Sure.

ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY–an exciting adventure “Once Upon a time,  in a galaxy far, far away,” that pits the Rebel Alliance against the Imperial Forces in pursuit of the plans for the death star! It’s all a prequel to the ground-breaking “Star Wars” saga and iconic characters to come. Lots of fun, and just enough action to keep you engaged, but perhaps MOST notable for having the heroine–a fearless and forthright Felicity Jones as Jyn Erso– lead the charge and all the derring-do, while her partner Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) follows her with growing admiration. Its parting shot will make your heart ache. R.I.P. Carrie.


]]> 2 MY FIVE FAVE FILMS/ 2016 Mon, 26 Dec 2016 17:31:14 +0000 MY FIVE FAVE FILMS/ 2016

This was a strange year for movies. I could barely find a thing to watch all summer, and then was inundated with a flood of excellent features in the Fall. No one mainstream film commanded our attention, but smaller, isolated gems shown brightly on a far-flung horizon. ONE of these for me stood far above the rest. Herewith my top five films, in no particular order AFTER my favorite film of the year, a true masterpiece: MOONLIGHT.

MOONLIGHT: Traces the evolution of a young gay black man from childhood to adulthood as he grows up in poverty in Miami.  Three sublime actors portray Chiron at three different stages of his life: a childhood (Alex R. Hibbert) fraught with crime,  bullies, and a crack addicted mom (Naomie Harris), his explosive, teen years (Ashton Sanders) as he discovers his sexuality, and his adulthood (Trevante Rhodes) circumscribed by a shell of protection that may yet give way. What’s extraordinary about the film is how intimate but universal, how moving but unsentimental, and how three actors so physically different could together convey the same whole human being. We are inside Chiron’s emotional and psychological experience, and always on the brink of his evolution.  The film is as incandescent as moonlight and glows with the raw poetry of a human being’s unruly truth. A masterpiece.

WEINER: What can you say about a man named Weiner who’s famous for exposing his penis to the world? All the jokes have been made, but this film is no joke. With its ridiculously perfect title, Weiner trains an unwavering lens on former U.S. Representative Anthony Weiner and his failed 2013 run for mayor of New York.  It’s a stunner. Not only does the film offer intimate access to Weiner at home and on the campaign trail, but also offers a front row seat to the explosion of a scandal, the dissipation of a marriage, and the sensationalism of political coverage in a social media-saturated, entertainment-obsessed culture. It’s a real close up, unadorned look at the man behind the appendage, with the caveat that you and I as watchers are part of his need for exposure.

ARRIVAL: Many movies reveal their secrets within the first five minutes, and it’s not until the end that we understand what we have already seen– and know.  When that moment comes in ARRIVAL, it’s like a tsunami in slow motion.  Based on an award-winning novella called “Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang, the film begins quietly, with a soothing voice over, that of Louise Banks (Amy Adams in a powerfully emotive performance) one of the world’s great linguists called upon to decode the language of extra-terrestrials who have just landed all over the earth. As she translates this  language, she herself is transformed in an extraordinary way that will help her come to grips with a personal tragedy, and arrive at a new understanding of the nature of time, free will, and the universe. ARRIVAL spills its secrets softly in a grand, goosebump-inducing sci-fi adventure that made me feel like I was tumbling through space and time.

MANCHESTER BY THE SEA: MANCHESTER BY THE SEA confirms what I saw in Casey Affleck the first time I saw him in a lead role onscreen: the man is a mesmerizing actor. In “Manchester by the Sea” he once again lures us into deep water as a man struggling to stay afloat amid the wreckage of a horrible personal tragedy. Oscar-nominated (“You Can Count On Me”) writer/director Kenneth Lonergan begins his movie with a whisper that becomes an earthquake which reverberates long after the film is over.

NOCTURNAL ANIMALS: Who better to skewer the excesses of style over substance in 21st century America than fashion designer /filmmaker Tom Ford (“A Single Man”). Here he writes and directs two movies in one–a haunting film noir-thriller-within-a-morality-tale! The opening credits alone are an eye-popping indictment of the fetishistic bloat of modern life, junk culture masquerading as art, and those who can’t tell the difference.  Amy Adams stars as a gallery owner lost in a hollow marriage and is sent a “violent and sad” manuscript by her ex-husband (Jake Gyllenhaal). If you pay attention and follow the dots to the last scene, the pieces will fall together like a bomb in reverse. Michael Shannon must be nominated for best supporting actor as a rotting west Texas lawman out for justice.


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THEATER: FENCES Sun, 25 Dec 2016 05:58:46 +0000 THEATER: FENCES

FENCES– the seminal Pulitzer Prize-winning work by August Wilson, one of a decade-by-decade 10-play cycle about the black experience in America–will rattle your bones. I’ve seen the great James Earl Jones do it onstage in a fearsome, monumental performance. Now I’ve seen two-time Oscar winner Denzel Washington do it on the big screen and my cage has been rattled and shattered again. This is a lucid, tender, and deeply humane incarnation on film which unlocks the play’s subtler rhythms and really gets under your skin.


Washington not only stars, but also directs himself and his co-star Viola Davis in performances that won them both Tony Awards for the play’s 2010 revival on Broadway.  Here they re-calibrate these performances for the more intimate medium of film in a screenplay written by Wilson himself several years before he died. Washington is Troy Maxson a onetime promising baseball player who as a “negro” who struck out in the white world of professional sports, and is now moldering as a trash collector.

In the first scene we meet Troy and his best friend Bono (Tony-nominated Stephen Henderson who also starred in the Broadway revival) on the back of a garbage truck working the streets of Pittsburgh’s run-down Hill District in the 1950’s.  Immediately the camera opens the play up and we begin to take an even closer look at these characters whose unglamorous circumstances might otherwise be easily “overlooked.”

Troy is headed home on payday to his wife the stalwart Rose (Viola Davis) of whom Bono says to Troy, “Rose will keep you straight.” Indeed. Viola Davis could keep a needle and thread straight in a hurricane, so forthright of character is her Rose; she’s luminous from the minute she walks out on the porch, throwing her light on her husband who’s off on yet another one of his rants about the racial injustice that has permanently colored his world.

Rose’s moral compass will be needed to keep Troy from coming unmoored as storms gather on the horizon. Troy’s ongoing battle with his teenage son Cory (Jovan Adepo) is coming to a head; the son’s dreams of football as a way to college tangle with his father’s bitterness and fear of his son’s failing; Cory accuses his father of jealousy, but mostly just wants to know his father loves him.

Also tugging at Troy is his older son from a previous relationship Lyons (Russell Hornsby); he’s a musician who seems shiftless to Troy. And finally there’s Troy’s brother Gabriel (Mykelti Willamson) brain-damaged from the war, who now wanders the streets, an innocent with a trumpet, and a haunting reminder of the toll life has taken, as well as the guilt Troy feels at having received compensation for the injury.

Washington directs this massive emotional load with great delicacy. There is little music, and when there is, it’s as though the sound is emanating from inside the characters themselves. There’s air in the film, and the camera finds the subtle beats in each scene.

We come upon Rose slowly from around a corner, her back to us bent over the kitchen stove, and we feel the heaviness of her life, as well as the portent of a revelation that will rock her world to its roots. In a scene near the end,when Rose cradling a baby says, “A motherless child’s got a hard time,” we see over her shoulder to her husband, and suddenly all the heartbreak of Troy’s sad, hard background comes to the fore.

That brings us back to Denzel Washington’s Troy. August Wilson’s brilliant, beautiful poetry, ripe with metaphor can barely contain the restless energy and lost dreams that keep Troy “eye-in the women”; but it’s all there in Washington’s loose-limbed gait and athletic build, his rambunctious energy and wily way with a phrase, the humor fueled by frustration, the frightening way his anger erupts when he suddenly smacks the pots and pans off the counter as he storms out of the room.

“If you can play, they oughta let you play,” Troy chants. And while he’s building a fence to keep the devil out, the film lets us quietly in, holding us fast in the poignant drama of a flawed, everyday man wrestling with disillusionment–then hits one clean out of the park.



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