Showing posts with label Academy Awards. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Academy Awards. Show all posts

Monday, February 27, 2017

Fake News in La La Land

As they say, you can’t make this stuff up.  I speak of the Academy Awards’ embarrassing mistake of naming La La Land Best Picture, only to have to retract that in the middle of La La’s acceptance speech, naming Moonlight.  This is all because Price Waterhouse Coopers gave the presenters the wrong envelope.  Perhaps the Academy is shopping for a new accounting firm?  In this era of “fake news” the mistake only feeds the Zeitgeist.  Maybe it was Russian hacking?  It's one thing to tamper with the election and it’s quite another to mess with the Academy!

I have not seen Moonlight, but it does sound like award-winning material, adapted from a play.  However, I loved La La Land, particularly Emma Stone’s rendition of the song “The Audition” which I have made part of my piano repertoire.  I also admired the film as a throwback to filmed musicals of the past, albeit updated for our times. 

Our friends Betty and Claudia were visiting this weekend, both movie buffs, and they had not seen Fences (nor had we) and I was surprised to find the film being offered on pay-per-view so we watched it before the Academy Awards yesterday.  I was stunned.  August Wilson stands among the greatest American playwrights.  Although the movie rights to the Pulitzer Prize winning play were bought soon after the play opened in 1987, it was only recently produced as Wilson had insisted that the film have a black director.  His wishes continued to be honored after his death in 2005.  It was Denzel Washington, one of our finest actors, who finally was chosen to direct and star in the play – he was in the 2010 revival of the play on Broadway with Viola Davis as well.  I was surprised that Washington was not even nominated for best director, although he was up for best actor.  Until I see Moonlight, which won for the “best” film, I can’t comment, but what Washington accomplished as a director and as an actor has to be greatly admired.  Viola Davis was spectacular as well.  I will not easily forget this film, Wilson’s writing, or the performances.

When you think about it, how does one chose between a La La Land, Fences, or Moonlight – all award deserving in their own right?  It’s one of the reasons why the Academy Awards doesn’t resonate with me.  I watched part of it, but did not see the controversial ending; both Moonlight and La La Land deserved better.  But so did Fences and Denzel Washington.

I mentioned this before, but never went into any detail.  We attended the 1980 Academy Awards as a guest of the Academy.  Their Annual Motion Picture Credits Database was published by my firm at the time.  In those days, such information was in reference book form.  I used to visit the Academy and the American Film Institute searching for publishable material.

When I received an invitation to attend the Awards, I was able to combine the trip to LA with one of my editorial efforts, and, of course, Ann wanted to join me so I accepted.  Unfortunately, this is way before cell phone cameras and I thought it a little tacky to arrive with my full-size Nikon hanging from my shoulder, so I have no photographs to record the experience.

I had a rented car (not very fancy) and wore just a plain suit.  Ann was dressed nicely but no designer dress or even borrowed jewels.  A valet took our car and in spite of being unknowns (and looking the part), we walked down the red carpet to some applause.  No one asked for our autograph, though : - ).

This was Johnny Carson’s second year as host and the big film, winning most of the awards was Kramer vs. Kramer.  Coincidentally I had met the author of the book on which the film was based, Avery Corman, a year or two before.  He politely autographed a pre-production copy at the American Booksellers Association meeting after we discussed why I felt a special connection with his book: I had been divorced ten years earlier with similar custody issues.

Back to the Academy Awards, I remember standing next to Gregory Peck during one of the brief breaks, I wanted to say something, but felt it would be intrusive.  So we just stood there, admiring all the screen actors I recognized and he knew well.  It was a lot of fun to attend this major Hollywood event, but Ann and I were outsiders, looking in.

After watching the film Fences we took Betty and Claudia to our favorite Sunday night place, Double Roads Tavern in Jupiter to listen to the Jupiter Jazz Society’s weekly jam session.  Professionals play but other musicians can sit in for a set or two.  I’d like to do that myself but as most of my piano playing has been solo; I don’t have the skills for impromptu jazz accompaniment.  So, we go just to enjoy and support such a worthwhile effort.  Organizer Rick Moore, who plays the keyboard with the best of them, gathers a wide range of musicians, ones just starting out, but oh so talented, to retired and seasoned professionals who just like to jam.  It is Rick (and his wife, Cherie, a co-founder of the Society) who drive the mission to preserve jazz for future generations.  And future generations are responding.  Ava Faith, a 13 year old singer, made a surprise appearance last night after singing the National Anthem at the Marlins’ spring training game.  She already has the right stuff, a great young jazz voice and a personality that is impressive.  Wonderful to hear that generation perform the Great American Songbook and to know it will endure.  I tried to capture a brief clip with my twitter feed…
To round out yesterday, in the morning Claudia and I took a walk on the beach in Juno, watching the sun rising over the pier…

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Carver and Birdman

I don’t see many movies in the theater.  I’ll tape (well, DVR nowadays) an occasional classic on Turner Classic Movies, and see a Woody Allen film, or one of that genre, but I prefer live theatre and reading. However, I made an exception for Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) as central to its story is Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, a short story that resonated so much with me that I  decided several years ago to adapt it into play form along with a couple of other short stores, as part of a larger dramatic work, When We Talk About Carver. 

I had thought the time had come for this little known writer (to the general populace) to be acknowledged, celebrated as one of the finest short story writers of our time.  What better way to do it than by developing a dramatization of some of his works, centered on his masterpiece, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.   This was no small feat for me.  I love the theatre but adapting a short story to the structure of a drama is not for amateurs.  So I loaded up my bookshelves with guides to playwriting and installed some good software, Word.doc templates for dramatic structure and presentation.

Then, when it came to dramatizing the story, there was the conflict of deciding on which version to use, the one Carver originally wrote “The Beginners” and later edited by his editor at Esquire (and later Knopf), Gordon Lish, and then edited again by Lish, under the new title we now know the story. Lish’s version distills the story to the bare essentials, including the dialogue.  It was the better version to work with as part of the collection I envisioned.  The Carver estate had granted permission to do this but after a year of trying to place the work, and not having the right connections, it has languished.

So, given this background, I had to see Birdman as soon as it opened nearby.  Very little of the short story’s dialogue is actually used in the movie, but it anchors the film in many ways.  (It was nice to see the set though, a 1970’s kitchen, exactly the way I envisioned it.) The Carver short story is about love in all its manifestations, from spiritual love to obsessive, violent love, but is set in its time, alcoholism as the primary social lubricant, and in literary realism. Birdman is about love as well, updated for the 21st century, which now includes self-obsessive love strongly influenced by the power and effect of social media along with “magical surrealism” dominating the canvas of the story.

Fascinating for me, the film opens with a quote from Carver, one of the last poems he ever wrote as he was dying of cancer -- his epitaph -- “Late Fragment,” published in a collection A New Path to the Waterfall with an introduction by his wife, also a poet, Tess Gallagher.  .  One thinks of Carver only as a short story writer, but he wrote poetry as well.  As Gallagher put it “…Ray’s new poems blurred the boundaries between poem and story, just as his stories had often taken strength from dramatic and poetic strategies.”


And did you get what

you wanted from this life, even so?

I did.

And what did you want?

To call myself beloved, to feel myself

beloved on the earth.

And that is the theme of this movie – wanting to be beloved on earth.  All the characters are struggling in their own way to find approbation and love. Aren't we all?

The plot in a nutshell involves a has-been superhero (The Birdman) film actor, Riggan Thomson (played brilliantly by Michael Keaton), who seeks “legitimacy” on the Broadway stage by adapting Carver’s short story, and then producing, directing and starring in it.  He is haunted by his alter ego, Birdman (this is where the surrealistic element emerges), who declares him as still having superpowers (he is seen levitating in a yoga pose in the first frame).  His struggle with his past self and what he envisions as his future artistic self is what propels this frenetic film from its beginning to its end.  Also in the cast is his sympathetic former wife, Sylvia (Amy Ryan), their daughter, Sam (Emma Stone) a  recovering addict, and the co-stars in the play, one of which he was recently involved with, Laura (Andrea Riseborough) and Lesley (Naomi Watts) a girlfriend of a well-known Broadway method actor, Mike Shiner (Edward Norton). Riggan’s only friend and business manager, Jake (Zach Galifianakis) persuades Riggan to hire Mike at the last minute for the other male character part in the play.  Mike and Riggan come to blows and yet the show goes on. All the ingredients are here for love relationships in all their variations, good and bad, not unlike the heart of the Carver story.  I’m trying to avoid spoilers here. 

I mentioned that the Carver quote is the central theme of the movie.  There is one exchange between Riggan and his daughter Sam where this resounds loudly.  I remember tapping my wife Ann on the shoulder as Sam was in the middle of delivering her monologue. After that climatic moment, Riggan is on track to shred his “unexpected virtue of ignorance”:

Riggan:  "This is my chance to finally do some work that actually means something."

Sam: "That means something to who? You had a career, Dad, before the third comic book movie, before people started to forget who was inside that bird costume. You are doing a play based on a book that was written 60 years ago for a thousand rich old white people whose only real concern is going to be where they have their cake and coffee when it's over. Nobody gives a shit but you! And let's face it, Dad; you are not doing this for the sake of art. You are doing this because you want to feel relevant again. Well guess what? There is an entire world out there where people fight to be relevant every single day and you act like it doesn't exist. This is happening in a place that you ignore, a place that, by the way, has already forgotten about you. I mean, who the fuck are you? You hate bloggers. You mock Twitter. You don't even have a Facebook page. You're the one who doesn't exist. You're doing this because you're scared to death, like the rest of us, that you don't matter and, you know what, you're right. You don't! It's not important, okay? You're not important! Get used to it."

Where did Riggan get the idea of adapting a Carver short story?  It’s revealed that when he was a young actor, Carver was in the audience and wrote a note to him on a cocktail napkin to say that he admired the performance.  Decades later he still carries the napkin, presents it as his trump card to the New York Times critic who says she’s going to pan the play as she doesn’t admire movie actors who try to cross the line into legitimate theatre. 

And so still another theme unfolds in the film.  Movie actors are celebrities, have fame but do they have the right stuff?  How does live theatre stack up against film? There is no contest as each art form functions on a different plane.  Carver’s short story could make great theatre, but Birdman needs to soar on film, and what a film it is.  Ironically, as Riggan is the writer, producer, and director of the Carver play in the film, Birdman was co-written, produced, and directed by one person as well, Alejandro González Iñárritu.  The only thing he did not do as the main character in the film, was to become a character. 

The movie has the feeling of being filmed as one long continuous take.  It is two hours of breathtaking cinematography perfectly accompanied by music selections, mostly the pulsating drums of Antonio Sánchez who even makes a brief passing appearance in the film.  One can imagine those beating in Riggan’s head.   Nothing is out of bounds for this film and only film could capture the gestalt, the play within the film, the character’s intense relationships, Riggan’s journey, and the alternative universe of the Birdman which, no pun intended, gives this film breathtaking wings. It is also a love poem to the New York City theatre district, something that reverberates with me.

This film is revolutionary and expect to hear it nominated for a host of Academy Awards, best picture, screenplay, directing, not to mention best actor as Michael Keaton gives a once-in-a-lifetime performance, best supporting actor (Edward Norton was outstanding as a foil to Riggan), best supporting actress, Emma Stone (who can forget her mesmerizing eyes as well), best cinematography, best original soundtrack, and I could go on and on.

Come to think of it, except for the protagonist, I’m the only person (to my knowledge) that has completed a dramatization of Carver’s story.  And it’s good.  Maybe it will take” wings” yet. Nonetheless, this is not a movie to be missed.  And if Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love is never produced as a play, read the story, and then think about the movie.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

All My Sons at Dramaworks' New Home

Life imitating art, the American Dream laid threadbare, the relationship of fathers and sons, themes of individual responsibility to society, all resonate at the new home of Dramaworks, a complete remake of the old Cuillo Theatre on Clematis Street in West Palm Beach, renamed the Don & Ann Brown Theatre. All the credit for maintaining the high quality of Dramaworks' offerings goes to the founders, the Producing Artistic Director, William Hayes, the Managing Director, Sue Ellen Beryl and the Company Manager, Nanique Gheridian. Their vision, dedication, and no doubt huge sacrifices during the formative years of Dramaworks is what gave birth to what is, today, one of the leading regional theatres in the country. Their winning formula, while extremely difficult to execute so professionally, is to focus on classic, award-winning plays, and produce them on a level on par with Broadway or the West End.

We were fortunate enough to have tickets to attend opening night, the first production in the beautifully renovated theatre, now seating 218 vs. the 84 in Dramaworks' theatre on Banyan Street. It was a special moment to be there for the opening, and attend the celebratory reception afterwards with crew and cast. It was reminiscent of the time we attended the Academy Awards and were guests of the Academy when I published The Annual Motion Picture Credits Database.

In designing the new theatre, a special effort was made by Dramaworks to retain the intimacy of the old theatre, still bringing the audience into the production in a visceral way.

In the case of their first play, Arthur Miller's All My Sons, Dramaworks could not have chosen a more appropriate offering, for our times and for their new theatre. The production demands of this play, in particular with its larger cast and two story set, would have been impossible in Dramaworks' former home, both technically and financially.

Furthermore, one cannot help but think of the numerous parallels to real life situations such as the Madoff scandal leaving the family with the shame brought on by the father, or the ignored cries of the helpless Kitty Genovese who was murdered in the neighborhood where I grew up, or the most recent failure of assuming individual responsibility in the Penn State debacle. These themes are played out in life and in art. No doubt Madoff, in the process of destroying countless individuals, thought, as Joe Keller, that he was doing something "for family and for his sons," thus justifying his actions. And how do ordinary citizens become bystanders while their neighbor is being murdered or a child sexually assaulted? Miller deals with similar issues in a play written decades before.

Miller once said "The American Dream is the largely unacknowledged screen in front of which all American writing plays itself out," and what is more American than dreaming of riches and the so called "good life." Some men kill for that, some do it with Ponzi schemes and others with defective parts sold to the government at huge profits which cost American servicemen their lives. Or to paraphrase Balzac, "behind every great fortune lies a great crime."

And part of the "Dream" is living with illusions that try to make life more bearable. The mother, Kate, voices this facet of the play believing that her son, Larry, is still alive and will miraculously return home three and a half years after the war has ended. When Ann Deever, the daughter of Joe Keller's former partner who is now in prison, paying for a crime Joe is also guilty of, questions why Kate still believes that Larry is alive, she answers: "Because certain things have to be, and certain things can never be. Like the sun has to rise, it has to be. That’s why there’s God. Otherwise anything could happen. But there’s God, so certain things can never happen." The drama heightens to the inevitable converging lines of fantasy and reality, when Kate admonishes her other son, Chris: "Your brother’s alive, darling, because if he’s dead, your father killed him. Do you understand me now? As long as you live, that boy is alive. God does not let a son be killed by his father."

Dramaworks' production powerfully captures Miller's modern telling of the elements of a Greek tragedy, characters making choices that lead to their own downfall, leaving the audience feeling pity on the one hand and fearing this could be any person, including themselves or their own neighbor. My wife, Ann, was surprised that she didn't cry at the ending but instead we both felt as if we had a blow to our solar plexus. The acting, directing, every element was close to perfection.

All My Sons has the largest cast we've ever seen in a Dramaworks production, ten highly capable actors, some of whom are Dramaworks veterans. All were excellent, but the especially heavy lifting was done by Kenneth Tigar (Joe Keller), Jim Ballard (Chris Keller), Elizabeth Dimon (Kate Keller), and Kersti Bryan (Ann Deever). Their performances were amazing, physical and emotional, resonating with the full force of Miller's words. One wonders how these actors can sustain such emotional levels and then do it again the next day!

The remainder of the cast supported the leads with fine performances: Cliff Burgess (George Deever), Nanique Gheridian (Sue Bayliss), Dave Hyland (Frank Lubey), Kenneth Kay (Dr. Jim Bayliss), Margery Lowe (Lydia Lubey), and Kaden Cohen alternating with Leandre Thivierge (Bert).

The production was directed by another Dramaworks veteran, J. Barry Lewis. Lewis used the larger stage, as well as the lighting and the set, to bring out the best in his actors. I would imagine if Arthur Miller was sitting next to us he would have turned and said," this is precisely what I had envisioned."

The meticulous stage settings which have characterized Dramaworks' past productions, endures now on a larger scale -- a much larger scale in fact, a two story house on stage and its backyard -- thanks to the scenic design of Michael Amico. We felt as if we were sitting in the backyard of Anywhere, Midwest, USA. When the play opens the audience is drawn to a fallen tree, one that was planted in memory of the Keller's son, Larry, which now lies toppled by a storm in the night, a symbol of another encroaching storm that culminates in the powerful dramatic resolution. The scenic architecture perfectly connects the audience to the play, the same kind of intimacy that characterized Dramaworks' productions in their former venue.

Congratulations Dramaworks, the crew and cast, and best wishes to you all in your new home.