“I barely even know what to order for lunch.” Carol (2015)

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Director Todd Haynes (he of artisanally crafted, spotlessly curated, hermetically sealed art-house fare like Far from Heaven, I’m Not There, Velvet Goldmine, and Safe) and Cate Blanchett (she of Oscar-winning, delicately-nuanced, steely, and cat-like turns in Blue Jasmine, Notes on a Scandal, Oscar and Lucinda, and Elizabeth) would seem to be a match made in cinematic heaven. In fact, they have worked together once before on the Bob Dylan biopic I’m Not There in which Blanchett was acclaimed for her portrayal of Dylan. (That film is an ensemble effort in which a number of actors play allegorical aspects of the famed troubadour at different stages of his life…at least that’s the simplest explanation I can give of that knotty flick.)

Haynes and Blanchett collaborate again on Carol, a film treatment of Patricia Highsmith’s novel The Price of Salt (a much more interesting title if you ask me). Interestingly, Blanchett entered the popular consciousness in another Highsmith adaptation, Anthony Minghella’s The Talented Mr. Ripley. Blanchett had already been nominated for the Academy Award for Elizabeth when she appeared as the memorably nosy Meredith in Ripley, but Ripley is likely the first time mainstream audiences sat up and took notice of her crackerjack blend of Golden Age moxie and arch feminism.

Ripley is a Hitchcockian potboiler (akin to Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train, which was adapted by Hitchcock) and translates mid-century Freudian psychosexual turmoil into high-crime intrigue; conversely, Carol keeps its heartache and indiscretions grounded in the crushing civility of Atomic Age Americana.

Blanchett’s Carol Aird is a moneyed Manhattan suburbanite, married to a doting and suffocating husband, Harge (Super 8‘s Kyle Chandler, an Arrow Collar/James Garner-paper doll of a fellow). However, she worships their only daughter, Rindy. (Yes, this is the kind of movie where characters have names like Harge and Rindy, smoke cigarettes from silver cases, drink martinis at lunch, and wear driving gloves. all. the. time.)

We learn that Carol has recently had an affair with childhood friend (and Rindy’s godmother) Abby (an ever-luminous Sarah Paulson – 12 Years a Slave, American Horror Story), a fling that has sent Harge into a male ego death spiral, even though the relationship is over and Abby has transitioned from paramour back to confidante. This sets the stage for Carol, while purchasing a Christmas present for her daughter, to “meet cute” with a darling department store clerk (and amateur photographer) Therese Belivet (deftly portrayed by The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo‘s Rooney Mara – imagine an alternate universe where Audrey Hepburn plays a Sapphic “Rory Gilmore” who happens to work at Bloomingdale’s and is partial to wearing multi-colored tam hats).

What the film delivers is a claustrophobic yet sophisticated era, in which decorum rules the day to the detriment of one’s soul. The film moves at a glacial pace, which I suspect is entirely by design, as these two women circle each other, transfixed by their forbidden attraction.

I will add, though, that I had zero understanding of why these women loved one another, other than that the film’s narrative required it. Both Blanchett and Mara have such delicious presence, but neither of them seem to be having one damn bit of fun. There is just no joy here. Again, maybe that’s the point, but rounding into the second hour when this dynamic duo launches into an aimless road trip (that ends up in Waterloo, Iowa, of all places), I just didn’t feel the spark.

The love Carol has for daughter Rindy is palpable (I dare you to keep a dry eye when Chandler and Blanchett have a pas de deux in their lawyers’ office over custody of the child), but I was ambivalent about the connection between Carol and Therese.

Haynes’ films are chilly and soapy. That’s part of his Douglas Sirk schtick, and he uses that retro frame as postmodern commentary on what we have gained and what we have lost as a society. In Haynes’ world, there is always a price for liberty, but, part of the issue with Carol, is that I never found myself invested enough in the main characters to feel their pain.

Blanchett and Mara are doing great actorly work, particularly in their early scenes. Blanchett strikes a delicate balance of detached heartache and predatory lust, while Mara offers a loving portrayal of a kid coming to grips with her place in a world that can be devastatingly cruel to women of any stripe. Yet, I never totally buy them as people. The first lunch date between Carol and Therese is a hoot; Carol confidently orders creamed spinach, poached eggs, and a dry martini, and Therese blankly looks at the server as says, “I’ll have the same,” later wailing, “I barely even know what to order for lunch!” as a comic indicator of the deep waters in which she now finds herself.

I wish Haynes had the willingness to give us more of that movie, one in which two humans find a confidence and a comfort through the wit and humor of shared experience and mutual anxiety. As it is, Carol feels a bit like a film trapped in the amber of nostalgic male panic.

NERD

NERD

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Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital). In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by BookboundCommon Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan. My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

“The right accessory can change your life.” Two Muses production of new musical “At the Bistro Garden”

At the Bistro Garden Cast  (Photo by Melissa Tremblay of Platinum Imagery)

At the Bistro Garden Cast (Photo by Melissa Tremblay of Platinum Imagery)

The 1980s are hot again. I guess nostalgia must have a 25-to-30-year sell-by date when it really kicks in. Fifteen years ago, the 1970s were the rage, and we may be on the cusp of the 90s making their grungy resurgence, but right now the 80s are where it’s at.

Perhaps it’s because, like that bygone day-glo era, we still live under a perpetual shroud of Armageddon, be it chemical or nuclear or viral. Perhaps it’s because we again exist in a politically divisive age where neither political party nor our president seem terribly interested in what any of us day-to-day schmucks think or feel. Perhaps it’s because our celebrities from then and today seem interchangeable, wearing outfits that look like they were designed by circus carnies.

Regardless, the 1980s are au courant, which is perfect timing for Two Muses Theatre’s Midwestern debut of the big-haired/shoulder-padded musical At the Bistro Garden. (In the spirit of open disclosure, I know personally many of the folks involved with this production and even helped with some of their marketing, including this interview with the show’s creative team.)

Nonetheless and perhaps in part because of this, I enjoyed the show a great deal. In similar fashion to two other beloved broadly comic artifacts from my youth – Designing Women and Steel Magnolias – the show recounts the trials and tribulations of three women caught between a rock and a hard place, proto-feminists whose formative years may have been haunted by Donna Reed and Gidget but whose present days are shaped by Gloria Steinem and Madonna.

The three ladies who lunch – Abigail, Cheyenne, and B.J. – have more money and time on their hands than they should and meet every Friday at Beverly Hills’ famed Bistro Garden restaurant to kvetch and kvell about family and friends. The plot wouldn’t have been out-of-place in a very special episode of the aforementioned Designing Women but offers enough meaningful complications to give this talented trio some great scenery to chew. As expected for a show set in this era, there’s much talk of divorce and alimony, illegitimate children … and shopping. An early number – the zippy “A Sale at Neiman’s” – celebrates the joys of retail excess, offering the bon mot “the right accessory can change your life.”

At times, the cartoonish whimsy of life in the 80s takes on an almost allegorical quality, highlighting the disconnect between narcissistic artifice and the very real pain (and reward) friendship and family can bring. The lilting tunes and snappy patter neatly propel the show and its themes.

The cast functions very well as an ensemble, each shining particularly in the more poignant moments. Sometimes the rat-a-tat dialogue gets a little lost in translation, where the wit should come from speed not emphasis, but when this cast clicks, they really click.

At the Bistro Garden

At the Bistro Garden

Carrie Jay Sayer as “Lady of the Canyon” Cheyenne and AlissaBeth Morton as her daughter Destiny (yeah, those names are a time warped hoot) steal every scene with a believable familial dynamic that engenders laughter and tears. They really do a solid job finding the humor in the pathos.

Amy Lauter as Abigail, a sweet-natured if misguided women-done-wrong, and Diane Hill as B.J., a not-as-sweet-natured but equally misguided woman-done-wrong, both have many touching moments as they explore the betrayal of a dream deferred. Both actresses excel in their plaintive solo numbers, plumbing new depths of heartache.

John DeMerell as master of ceremonies and the restaurant’s maître d’ sparkles – the catalyst that gives the production forward momentum and a refreshing lightness. He has a ball playing several additional bit parts throughout the show, aided and abetted by clever costuming and no end of silly accents. Miles Bond and Rusty Daugherty are fun as a sort of campy Greek chorus, offering arch commentary as waiters, moving men, clerks who float through the proceedings.

Indeed, the costuming by Barbie Amann Weisserman is perfection, loving and warmly funny but never satirical, which is a tricky balance to pull off. Lesser costumers end up making fun of a garish era such as this one, forgetting that people actually intend to look attractive (usually) and it’s only later in time when we realize how odd some of our fashion choices actually might have been. Everyone in the show does in fact look gorgeous, even if the styles and patterns and prints make us giggle with knowing recognition.

A narrative highlight – musically and acting-wise – is the number “Just Another Baby.” A scorched-earth, toxic meltdown that B.J. (Hill) delivers at a baby shower, ridiculing our nation’s unyielding mania for infants and our collective fixation on insipid names, miniaturized fashion, and corrosive parental competition. Hill nails it, and, as the show’s creative team (Deborah Pearl on book, David Kole on music/lyrics) continues to refine this work, they might consider sprinkling a bit of that second act’s number’s funny-as-h*ll venom throughout the softer/gentler first act.

(One minor quibble is the use of a pre-recorded accompaniment in this production. There is a live keyboard for some of the numbers, and those particular songs/performances had a warmer, more organic quality. No doubt this hybrid approach was driven by resource availability, but, at times it is a bit distracting.)

Jules Aaron’s direction is efficient and witty and makes effective use of the tight space with multi-functional set pieces and clever blocking. He has done a fabulous job forging a tight ensemble with rich stage life and believable connections, clearly key to making this show sing (pun intended).

As a new work, this show is worth catching to see how it continues to develop. The first act could use a trim here or there as it serves chiefly to set up the soap opera-esque fireworks of the second act (think Douglas Sirk meets The Carol Burnett Show – and that’s a good thing). After the intermission, the show speeds along as all of the puzzle pieces established in the first act come together. The show has one more weekend so be sure to stop by The Bistro Garden, to reminisce about a bygone era that is still surprisingly and perhaps sadly relevant today. Tickets can be purchased at www.twomusestheatre.org.

Two Muses Theatre performs in the Barnes & Noble Booksellers Theatre Space, 6800 Orchard Lake Rd, West Bloomfield, MI  48322, South of Maple (15 Mile). Enter the bookstore, and the theatre is on the left.

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Tomfoolery

Tomfoolery

Reel Roy Reviews is now a book! Thanks to BroadwayWorld for this coverage – click here to view.

In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the book currently is being carried by Bookbound, Common Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan.

My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

Rich people problems: Endless Love (2014)

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

I had low expectations going into the 2014 remake of Endless Love, the 1981 original of which I had never seen nor ever cared to see and which had a title song that always made my scalp itch.

(Seriously, Brooke Shields, who starred in the first film, made her career on one boringly naughty movie after another. Why is it that she now hates on young up-and-comers who have swiped and amped-up her career-making playbook in their own ironically postmodern way? I suspect I just answered my own question.)

How is this latest unnecessary remake of a 1980s film that already lives in perpetuity through the HBO/VHS generation onto the YouTube/Netflix era? Not bad, actually.

The story is Romeo and Juliet if it were written by Nicholas Sparks and directed by Douglas Sirk. It’s a hot mess melodrama replete with all kinds of rich people problems – including but certainly not limited to …

  • Mysterious death of a high school football star son on-track to attend an Ivy League school and whose memory is preserved by his vintage Mercedes left rotting exquisitely in the exquisitely landscaped driveway
  • Lonely youngest daughter who tries to honor her OCD heart-surgeon daddy by following in her dead brother’s Ivy League-bound footsteps which apparently means looking and acting like Taylor Swift’s fabulous trust-fund cousin yet having no friends whatsoever
  • Prized daughter disappointing her papa by falling for the sheepish bad boy slab of beef with a heart of gold whose sheer inappropriateness is represented by his love of flannel shirts and by his decorating his bedroom walls with license plates
  • A mother whose writing career was derailed by familial tragedy (and possibly a preoccupation with decor from Pottery Barn) but who rediscovers her inner muse when this saucy lad turns her family’s WASPy world right ’round, baby, ‘right round like a record, baby
  • And, finally, a twiggy middle brother who disappoints his stern father at every turn by declaring his college major as “communications” (apparently a dirty word in this rarefied air), by listening to his dead brother’s vinyl (!) records and not putting them back in their sleeves, and likely also by constantly rocking a Bermuda shorts/blazer/sockless loafer sartorial combo.

All that aside, director Shana Feste, who approaches the material in a workmanlike After-School Special way, wisely stacks her cast with pros who treat the hyperbolic material with as much nuance and heart as they can muster. Leading the way (and arguably saving the film) is Bruce Greenwood as the aforementioned patriarch. He recycles the wounded well-heeled-dad-calcified-by-familial-tragedy routine he applied so remarkably to last fall’s Ghost Brothers of Darkland County.

Don’t get me wrong – there is nothing derivative in his performance here. He offers just the right gravitas and stays within a razor’s edge of Snidely Whiplash territory, giving the film just the perfect amount of tension, discomfort, and propulsion.

By his side in the acting department is the underrated Joely Richardson as his wife. She takes what could have otherwise been a thankless role as the pampered “lady who lunches” and conveys (primarily with those eyes of hers) a world of hurt, confusion, and misplaced optimism.

As the third parent of the piece, Robert Patrick is perfectly fine as the requisite single-father-of-the-boy-from-the-wrong-side-of-the-tracks. Patrick has left his Terminator 2 days far behind him and has evolved into a decent character actor. And, of course, the film in its sloppy shorthand has him run a gas station/garage … which, if you’ve ever paid for a car repair, means he should be as wealthy as anybody in that d*mn town on whatever Hollywood-planet this movie takes place.

The kids around whom the narrative revolves are fine as well. Apparently, those best-suited to play American teenagers are British actors in their mid-to-late-20s, but Alex Pettyfer (Magic Mike, I Am Number Four) and Gabriella Wilde (who played the Amy Irving role in last fall’s Carrie remake – virtually the same character as this… hairstyle, wardrobe, mannerisms, and all) acquit themselves quite well.

I’m not one for movies depicting young love – all those dappled-sunlit montages of two beautiful people doing beautiful people fun things like swimming in lakes, setting off fireworks, riding around in art-designed dilapidated pick-up trucks, or going to rock concerts in the rain.

However, Pettyfer particularly rises above these cliches (if not always rising above his own vanity – you can tell the dude loves the way he looks). He brings a subtle quality of menace and obsession to his role. It is nicely disarming. You aren’t quite sure if Greenwood isn’t kinda sorta right to throw one Wile E. Coyote speed-trap after another in Pettyfer’s unyielding path to wooing/stealing his daughter away.

I enjoyed myself much more than I thought I should, and this one is worth catching at the dollar theatre or on TV, if for no other reason than seeing some well-trained actors traffic in some sudsy melodrama. And, blessedly, that sappy title song is nowhere to be found. Sorry Ms. Ross and Mr. Richie, but color me relieved.

Fun escapist trifle far better than it deserves to be: Sparkle

Description: Film poster; Source: Wikipedia [linked]; Portion used: Film poster only; Low resolution? Sufficient resolution for illustration, but considerably lower resolution than original. Other information: Intellectual property by film studio. Non-free media use rationales: Non-free media use rationale - Article/review; Purpose of use: Used for purposes of critical commentary and illustration in an educational article about the film. The poster is used as the primary means of visual identification of this article topic. Replaceable? Protected by copyright, therefore a free use alternative won't exist.

[Image source: Wikipedia]

I have foggy half-remembered impressions of the original Sparkle with Irene Cara and Philip Michael Thomas. I, like so many others, am more keenly aware of all the films and musicals that came in its wake, paying homage (or swiping) its central conceit, including both stage and film versions of Dreamgirls. But, probably my most memorable exposure to the film was hearing En Vogue’s hit remake of the original Sparklesoundtrack cut “Giving Him Something He Can Feel” in the early 90s.

Consequently, this remake is no doubt going to land with an anti-climactic thud, which is a bit unfair. Yes, the film manages somehow to outdo both Douglas Sirk AND Tyler Perry in overwrought, under-scripted, over-accessorized, oddly-bewigged melodrama. Yes, it is yet another in the strange new subgenre of cheaply made, kinda junky, shamefully enjoyable Hollywood film musical featuring pop divas at odd way-stations in their careers (see: Cher and Xtina in Thanksgiving turkey Burlesque).

HOWEVER, a key difference is that the generally winning cast here overcomes limited material and an unfortunate Lifetime TV-movie approach to direction and screenplay to deliver a pretty compelling and always entertaining two hours. The specter of Whitney Houston’s passing hangs heavy on the production but also gives it an emotional heft it might not have otherwise had. Never an actress of great depth but always a presence, Houston, in this case, gives a nuanced performance, providing the film its emotional center. She plays a matriarch whose misspent youth has left her living in fear that her daughters will repeat her sordid deeds (which one of them does) and overcompensating through religious zealotry. If you can make it through Houston’s singing “His Eye is on the Sparrow” at a key moment in the film without becoming a puddle, well, you’re a stronger soul than I…or you’re a cyborg.

The other performers all turn in credible performances, and keep the enterprise moving along. Mike Epps is quite effective as a charmingly smarmy and eventually rabidly mean comedian who woos (and worse) Houston’s eldest daughter, the equally good Carmen Ejogo. Ejogo is kinda like a less-scenery-chewing Thandie Newton. As Houston’s middle daughter, Tika Sumpter has great fun with an otherwise thankless role – I looked forward to every line she zippily delivered. There was far too little of her in the film.

I’m not a fan of American Idol Jordin Sparks who played Houston’s song-writing title character daughter, and she and fellow romantic lead Derek Luke were a bit too cloyingly wholesome to be endured at times. BUT she dutifully served her purpose as a pleasant cipher upon whom we as audience members could project our own reactions to the, at times, goofy “movie logical” moments that would never actually happen in reality. (For example, not to spoil anything, but at one point a key figure is, yes, murdered with a fireplace poker, and, while the murder is in self-defense and no court in the land would debate it…all the other characters cover it up, while another nobly takes the rap. That’s what I call “movie logic.”)

Catch this one at the dollar theatre or on DVD/online. It’s a fun escapist trifle that is far better than it deserves to be because the ensemble is so devoted and engaged. Whitney Houston’s passing broke my heart for many reasons, though not necessarily because of her prior film performances. After seeing her in this, though, I think we have been deprived of what could have been a very interesting third act in her remarkable, challenged, and challenging career.