Yesterday – 7.9

Two hours of Lily James as the new generation’s Keira Knightley is reason enough to watch Yesterday. Then there is the music of the Beatles, never better, even though sung by Himesh Patel rather than John and Paul. And the cherry on top is Kate McKinnon, chewing scenery like it’s cotton candy. Nothing in the plot makes any sense – so this can’t be rated as a serious film – but once you accept the nonsense premise, the ride is totally enjoyable. One could do a term paper on “How Not to Be a Rock Star’s Parent” with examples now from Yesterday, Rocketman and Bohemian Rhapsody.

Late Night – 7.5

Emma Thompson is eminently watchable and typically impeccable as an imperious but fading late-night talk-show host, and the humor is practically non-stop and of my favorite variety: mocking frat-boy, white-male privilege. Having Paul Walter Hauser in the cast is a good start, and the film slips in a few substantive issues to consider along the way. On the downside, I didn’t need John Lithgow or his portrayal of Parkinson’s Disease. The cigarette scenes were wildly gratuitous (see Movie Butts). And I could have done without the manufactured happy ending – the entire last 20 minutes, in fact – topped off by Thompson’s year-later hairdo.

Booksmart – 3

Bookstupid is more like it. Every line tries hard to be funny, but very few are. The characters and situations are absurd, from the initial premise to every scene I saw before I walked out.

The Biggest Little Farm – 6.5

A sweet, family-friendly parable of doing well by doing good, as natural, organic farming methods restore barren earth and, fertilized by patience and love, make it bountiful. Coyotes a problem? Redirect them from your chickens – bad – to your gophers – good! Throw in a baleful-eyed dog and an Earth Mother pig and the story becomes even more personal (or anthropomorphic). If this movie were a fiction, I’d dismiss it as unbelievable. As it is, I couldn’t get over the logistical hurdles that simply disappear – starting with where the money is coming from (selling eggs only gets you so far) and then the time and manpower. The chronology also threw me for a loop, a la Rocketman. The nature photography is lovely (if a bit hokey), and who can’t appreciate the message and admire this couple for embarking on such a project and sharing it with us.

Gloria Bell – 7

Smartly edited small movie about not much: Gloria has a job, goes dancing, meets a guy, deals with her grown-up kids and her ex-husband; then things are resolved, in not terribly satisfactory or exciting fashion, and life goes on. The movie is all about Julianne Moore’s performance, which is fine, except she is much too pretty for the plain-Jane role. The music is good, especially the final, full-length rendition of Laura Branigan’s title song.

New York Theater

Seeing eleven plays (with one rain-out) in four weeks gave me, if nothing else, a better sense of my taste in theater. If only I could relate that to reviews I read, going forward.

There were two shows I left without a complaint, Kiss Me, Kate and Caroline’s Kitchen – one a relatively straightforward revival of a classic Broadway musical, the other a typically old-fashioned British farce. The latter was part of the Brits off Broadway series at 59E59 Theater, where we also saw Instructions for American Servicemen in Britain, which was cringe-worthy amateurish, easily the most forgettable of our theater experiences. In contrast, Caroline’s Kitchen had a slew of interesting characters, a topical plot with manageable tangles and new laughs for every actor who entered the single set. Being British, the play was wonderfully acted, of course.

One might have hoped the same for King Lear, imported from London with Glenda Jackson (and Ruth Wilson), but here the director wasn’t content to let Shakespeare be Shakespeare. He mixed Elizabethan costumes with a handgun and made one duke a deaf-mute, requiring an aide to be constantly signing onstage. Even more central, Lear was played by an 82-year-old woman, shrunken from her small stature to begin with; so we never believed that this could have been a king commanding a country. Without that tragic fall from power, what is Lear?

Ink was another disappointing import. In place of characters were caricatures. I felt I was watching a graphic novel (not that I’ve ever actually read a graphic novel), or a script designed to get us from one musical number to the next – except there was only one musical number. The story was devoid of surprise or suspense. It was a simple morality tale that we were already too familiar with. It also suffered from unintelligible dialogue (at least until we got hearing-assist devices at intermission) and an over-the-top screaming performance by Jonny Lee Miller as editor Larry Lamb.

The other disappointment was American, albeit adapted from the Greek: Hadestown. It was what it was, and my disappointment was more due to the Times review calling it the best musical of the season. Had I seen it Off-Broadway without expectations I might have felt differently. (I do note, however, that it wasn’t even nominated as Best Musical by the Drama Desk panel.) One problem was the music, which wasn’t melodic and didn’t appeal to me. Since this was basically an opera, that was a big issue. Second was the frenetic pace: every moment people were jumping around, lights were going off, stagecraft was being displayed. Hadestown is in the lineage of Rent and American Idiot, but without the good music.

For good music, nothing beat Kiss Me, Kate. Cole Porter’s score, I don’t have to say, is “wunderbar,” and Kelli O’Hara is the musical comedy standard for our decade. The plot shows its age, but in a charming way – particularly the pair of gangsters collecting a gambling debt – and the love/hate relationship between the leads is timeless. Best of all was the clever choreography (deservedly the Drama Desk winner), which further made Hadestown (and Rocketman) look mediocre.

All My Sons was the dramatic equivalent, vintage-wise, of Kiss Me, Kate; and unlike Lear (or last season’s Oklahoma!), I suspect it was presented pretty much the way Arthur Miller intended, the reason for its revival being the presence of Annette Bening and Tracy Letts in the lead roles. They were both superb, and the son has been nominated for a Tony, as well. The rest of the cast was not as uniformly good, but this was a play of ideas, and the ideas came through loud and clear.  Responsibility to your family vs. society played out slowly and thoughtfully here, whereas responsibility vs. pandering to society was presented glibly in Ink.

The other classic revival we saw was Sean O’Casey’s The Plough and the Stars at the Irish Rep. Here was a history lesson (abetted by the exhibition in the upstairs lobby), a jaundiced view of Irish republican uprising and a searing view of human nature. I felt almost as though I were back in college, and all the better for it.

Perhaps it was having seen the O’Casey, or perhaps it was the new all-American cast, but The Ferryman somehow seemed less authentic than other plays about Irish troubles I have encountered. This is not to say it was not enthralling, from opening to close, and the way the story unfolded to a dramatic finish was masterful. I came away with a list of quibbles, however (detailed elsewhere on Riffs). Watching the children perform was an unalloyed pleasure.

The other play in the league of The Ferryman, at least in terms of commercial firepower, was Aaron Sorkind’s To Kill A Mockingbird. The story is powerful (I needn’t say), and the book has been translated to the stage adroitly. Celia Keenan-Bolger, despite the age issue (41-to-6), is captivating as Scout; and the race relations issue, unfortunately, seems just as relevant today as 1935 or 1960. Jeff Daniels, also unfortunately, is no Gregory Peck, which kept me from going over the moon over our $375-ticket evening. Someone who loves Jeff Daniels might feel quite differently.

Faced with an empty weekend, we followed that day’s Times review to Something Clean, a Roundabout black stage production, our furthest venture off-Broadway this season. It was just what you look for in small theater: three actors, all excellent, playing characters trying to make sense of their lives and their relationships, in this case dealing with the aftermath of sexual abuse by their (offstage) college son. Selina Fillinger is a playwright to watch, and Kathryn Erbe’s performance, always onstage, acting one way toward her husband, another, a split-second later, to the assault center counselor, was pitch-perfect.

So, what did I learn? I liked the slower plays, where there was space between the lines and characters, where I wasn’t constantly assaulted and wasn’t straining to hear what someone said. All My Sons and Kiss Me, Kate were written in an era where attention spans were longer and visual gimmicks weren’t required. Hadestown and Ink were the other end of the razzmatazz spectrum. Call me old-fashioned, I guess. Or, maybe, just old.



Rocketman – 6

Disappointing. There’s no attempt at rock history, as Elton John’s songs are shoehorned into the plot wherever a lyric suggests relevance, regardless of chronology. OK, so it’s a fantasy (a la Baz Luhrmann), not a biopic. But there’s not much of a plot, either; it’s a therapy session in which Elton relives his unhappy childhood, lack of love and addiction to drugs and alcohol. It would be nice if there were a cathartic denouement, in which rock’n’roll triumphs, Elton discovers himself and becomes a star. But no, he’s a star from the start; his performances seem more forced than euphoric; and the big finale number is “I’m Still Standing” – probably the 53rd best song in his catalogue. By that point, we are fully tired of the Busby Berkeley dance numbers, which are repetitive, uninventive and not always appropriate. Do we really need a choreographed dance sequence in the hospital following a suicide attempt? Taron Egerton’s singing is fine, but the songs carry surprisingly little emotional heft: I couldn’t help but compare how I felt hearing “Tiny Dancer” here, with semi-naked bodies gyrating a la Woodstock at Mama Cass’s Laurel Canyon retreat, to the scene on the touring bus in Almost Famous. I was never a fan of Queen, while I purchased four of Elton’s first five albums on release; but Rocketman can’t hold a candle, in the wind or otherwise, to Bohemian Rhapsody.


The Souvenir – 5; Photograph – 7.5

Both these movies, which we saw back-to-back one afternoon, are primarily about a relationship: a callow and sneakily beautiful young woman falls in love with an older, more experienced and perhaps inappropriate man. Except one relationship is toxic, while the other is sweet. Needless to say, the latter movie, Photograph, is the enjoyable one.

The Souvenir moved with the pace and misdirection of Last Year at Marienbad. Maybe there weren’t dream sequences or movies-within-the-movie, but I never knew for sure what was going on. All I knew for sure was that the male love interest, “Anthony,” was thoroughly despicable, on the surface and below. Yes, we know love may be blind, but we still won’t enjoy its making a fool of someone, in this case the wonderful Honor Swinton Byrne. Hearing he had died of an overdose was the only happy moment of the two-hour slog.

By contrast – restoring our faith in movie-going – Photograph was easy to follow, with a plot you’ve seen many times before. The film admits as much when, in the last scene, the lovers walk out in the middle of a movie and the man says he knows how the story ends, even though he hasn’t seen that particular film before. We are left to wonder whether this story, against all odds, will have that predictable happy ending, but ultimately we don’t care. We like the characters so much – they are both so thoughtful, with just the right amount of spunk and a palpable connection – that if this flirtation turns out to be just one bright, shining moment in otherwise humdrum lives we are grateful to have shared it with them. Even India, for the moment, doesn’t seem quite so grim.

Non-Fiction – 7

If your idea of a good French movie is lots of intellectual conversation, some red wine and multiple affairs, then Non-Fiction (or more to the point, Doubles Vies, its French title) is up your alley. And if, like me, you think anything Juliette Binoche does is worth watching, then this is time well spent. It does goes slowly, though. The characters are convincingly real, and the issues they bring up – mostly about the future of publishing – are good teases.

Movie Butts

Why does almost every movie have to have a scene, or more, of characters smoking? At one point I used a cigarette rating at the end of every review, to comment on how extensive or unnecessary the smoking was – e.g., obviously a film taking place in the 1930s had more reason to show smoking than a movie taking place today – but that became tiresome and distracted,  I admit, from more important critical judgments.  I have decided, therefore, to set up this separate post as a resting place for my comments about smoking in films, as I see them.

Long Shot. Set in modern-day Washington, apparently, there is no reason to have a character smoke; yet Secretary of State Charlize Theron spots a pack of Gauloises in the Situation Room and bums a fag from one of the Chiefs of Staff to smoke while negotiating a hostage release on the phone with a Middle East leader. Would a Federal building, let alone the War Room of the Chiefs of Staff (or whatever it was), not be a No-Smoking area?

The Souvenir. This may set the mark for 2019 for constant, distracting fagging. The loathsome male lead apparently can’t breathe without a cigarette in his hand or his face. Plenty of others indulge, too, to show that this is all taking place in the distant past of 1983.

Non-Fiction. Here, at least, the characters are slightly guilty about their cigarettes – making apologies and stepping out-of-doors to light up – and usually not doing much more than that. Of course, why even that is necessary to the plot or the characterizations is not evident.

Gloria Bell. Julianne Moore becomes a chimney half-way through the film. At least she looks uncomfortable holding her cigarette.

Late Night. Cigarettes appear wildly out of the blue on two occasions: late in the game when Emma Thompson’s three-year-old affair is revealed, she lights up in bed; and in a meta moment, Mindy Kaling’s colleague has a smoke on the street while she tells him of a benefit for lung cancer she is about to emcee.

Yesterday. This film pulls off the cleverest obligatory but gratuitous  smoking reference: when the lead character, out of the blue, says if he smoked he’d need a cigarette, his companion expresses bewilderment because cigarettes, like Coke, Harry Potter and the Beatles, were erased from human consciousness during a global 12-second electric grid collapse.