Sunday, November 30, 2014


If any further proof were needed that fairy tales are taking over our popular culture, consider this—a new trailer for the movie version of Into the Woods!

While this musical fairy tale mashup from composer Stephen Sondheim and scriptwriter James Lapine wowed Broadway in 1987, it's taken almost 30 years for the show to make it to the big screen. But now, at last, the timing seems to be right.

For one thing, Disney's live-action Once Upon a Time TV series (or, as we like to call it around my house, the mosh pit where old Disney characters go to die) continues to be a big hit.

Yes, I despair of them ever giving their Captain Hook character anything to do besides trail around in Emma's wake, pining for her.

 Still, I hear from many readers of Alias Hook how much they adore Colin O'Donoghue in the role, so I'm grateful to him and the show for helping to make the character sympathetic to the mass audience.

Anyway, it's no coincidence that the Disney company is also responsible for getting Into the Woods up on the big screen. (There must be a Faustian bargain inked in blood somewhere that no fairy tale spinoff can ever again be produced without Disney participation.)

And it's interesting that the director is Rob Marshall, famed for his film adaptation of Chicago. More recently Marshall directed the fourth Pirates of the Caribbean movie, On Stranger Tides, which no doubt accounts for Woods securing Johnny Depp in the featured role of The Wolf.

I understand there's some distress in the blogosphere over this casting, that some fans were hoping for a wolfier, perhaps CGI version of this character in all his scary beastliness. (Although I do think it would sort of break the illusion when he bursts into song.

But wolves exist in fairy tales to symbolize the dangers of the outside (read: grown-up) world to supposedly innocent children like Red Riding Hood. And what more dangerous predator is there than Man?

Besides, look how cool Depp looks in his Zoot Suit and big, furry ears! I can't help but think of the slick, anthropomorphic wolves in the old Warner Brothers cartoons drawn by Tex Avery.

The rest of the cast is not exactly chopped liver either: Meryl Streep as the Witch, James Corden and Emily Blunt as the pivotal Baker and his Wife, Anna Kendrick as Cinderella, and Chris Pine (newly discovered—by me—as an entertaining comic actor) as Cinderella's Prince, to name but a few.

Onstage, Into the Woods was a sardonic meditation on what happens after Happily Ever After, and a wistful cautionary tale to be careful what you wish for.

If you've never seen the stage production do what I did: nip off to the library and borrow the original Broadway cast production on DVD.

So when the film version opens Christmas Day, you'll be all set to marvel at how enduring, alluring, and open to endless interpretations fairy tales continue to be.

Monday, November 24, 2014


Terrific acting highlights gripping Hawking bio "Theory of Everything'

Stephen Hawking is one of the most famous and admired figures in the world.

A brilliant mathematician, cosmologist, and researcher into the relativity of space and time, he's a university professor, a popular guest on the lecture circuit, and the author of many non-fiction books that make complex science comprehensible to lay readers. (His A Brief History of Time was on the bestseller charts for five years.)

He's such a pop culture icon, he's even appeared as himself in episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation, and The Simpsons.
Young Prof. Hawking

And almost all of the above was accomplished with Hawking confined to a wheelchair during the inexorable progression of a motor neuron disease related to ALS. The image of Hawking slouched in his motorized wheelchair, communicating through his robotic voice synthesizer, is so well-known, it's difficult to imagine him any other way.

But that changes with The Theory of Everything. A smart, funny, and tender biographical drama that begins with Hawking as a vigorous young grad student at Cambridge, it also tells the enduring love story of Hawking and his first wife, Jane.
Attn Oscar voters: Redmayne as Hawking
Scripted by Anthony McCarten (from a memoir written by Jane Hawking), the film is directed by James Marsh, who made the absorbing documentary Man On Wire. Marsh proves to be just as adept with narrative drama, abetted here by his two stars, the exceptional Eddie Redmayne as Stephen (yes, the Oscar race starts here), and the formidable Felicity Jones as Jane.

Redmayne is terrific at every stage of Stephen's life. Gradually robbed of an actors usual tools—movement, voice, facial expression —he still manages to convey Stephen's lively intelligence, his active participation in the life around him, his dry sense of humor.

Remarkably clear-headed, yet moving, Marsh's film defies expectations of what an "uplifting" biopic can be—just as Hawking (now 72, in real life) defied all expectations. The Theory of Everything simply celebrates tenacity—in life, love, and ideas. (Read more)

Wednesday, November 12, 2014


Kate Forsyth is serious about fairy tales.

The author of several series of magic-infused children's books, she's also in the midst of earning a doctorate in fairy tale retellings. But there is nothing academic or plodding about her marvelous adult historical fantasy, Bitter Greens.

To call it a mere retelling of Rapunzel does not even begin to do justice to this ambitious, absorbing, and imaginative novel.

When I was writing Alias Hook, I didn't realize that the retold fairy tale had become a genre unto itself. I just became so obsessed with the character of James Hook, notorious villain of the Neverland, that I knew I had to tell his story in his own voice.

It seems that Forsyth's book had a similar genesis—her fascination with formidable Frenchwoman Charlotte-Rose de Caumont de la Force, a real-life writer at the court of Louis XIV who set down one of the earliest versions of the Rapunzel tale in 1697.

Indeed, Charlotte-Rose is a lively and irresistible protagonist, as imagined by Forsyth. But hers is only one of three distinct stories of three dynamic women that span two hundred years of European history in the course of the novel.

Their stories are  braided together as intricately as the strands in Rapunzel's rope of red-gold hair.

One protagonist is Margherita, daughter of a mask-maker in Renaissance Venice. At age 12, she's stolen from her parents and imprisoned alone in an impregnable tower by the hundred-year-old witch, La Strega, who uses the girl's virginal blood in black magic rituals to preserve her eternal beauty.

Another protagonist is, of course, Charlotte-Rose herself, who will ultimately write the story in French as Persinette.
A portrait of Charlotte-Rose—I hope!

 (This title, meaning "Little Parsley," refers to the Faustian bargain by which the girl's parents are lured by the witch into staking their daughter's future on a handful of bitter greens.)

Charlotte-Rose's fierce wit and scandalous romances make for compelling reading; the minute she is banished from court and incarcerated in a nunnery in the first chapter, divested of her fancy clothes, her hair, and—quelle horreur!—her writing implements, I was completely hooked!

And, perhaps most unexpectedly, Forsyth's third protagonist is La Strega herself, Selena Leonelli. Daughter of a prostitute mother brutally assaulted before her eyes, apprenticed to a witch, ageless courtesan and dangerous sorceress, she's determined to make the world pay for the injustices done to her.

While none of these women qualifies as the popular modern cliché of the "kick-ass heroine," each is wily, independent, and courageous in her own way. And each of them is worthy of redemption.

Indeed, how the tale of Persinette is revealed to Charlotte-Rose is one of the most satisfying strands in Forsyth's grand design.

Forsyth's prose is gorgeous, her storytelling layered and complex in this splendid, magical feast of a book.

* * *

The cool thing about fairy tales is how open they are to interpretations, by diverse artists as well as writers. Look at these visions of Rapunzel I found! The Arts and Crafts-era illustration (top right) was done by Heinrich Lefler, ca. 1905. Lower right is a lovely painting from a book of Grimms Fairy Tales by F. W. Darlington, ca. 1930s or 40s.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014


JTC delivers witty backstage comedy 'Enter the Guardsman'

It's a plot as old as the theatre itself: a husband disguises himself as another man to try to woo his own wife and test her fidelity. It was already a little creaky when Hungarian dramatist Ferenc Molnar made it the basis of his 1910 farce The Guardsman. But it gets a fresh update, with lively songs and an irresistible backstage setting in Enter the Guardsman, the second offering in Jewel Theatre Company's 10th Anniversary season.

With a witty script by Scott Wentworth, the show features original songs from composer Craig Bohmler and lyricist Marion Adler. JTC fans will rejoice to hear that this is the same trio whose earlier collaboration, the terrific film noir musical, Gunmetal Blues, was a popular JTC production a couple of seasons back.

The source material isn't quite as dynamic for Enter the Guardsman, but director Art Manke's impressive staging, Kent Dorsey's wonderful set and lighting design, and a great cast make for an entertaining evening of theatre.
Pizzo, Ledingham, and one grand illusion of a set!

Set in the early Downton Abbey era just before the First World War, the story unfolds entirely backstage at a theatre where a popular actor and actress hold forth every night onstage. But after six months of marriage in real life, the Actor (David Ledingham) is beginning to wonder if his wife is growing bored with him. He worries that she's reached "the maximum length of her romantic attention span." Indeed, his wife and onstage partner, the Actress (Marcia Pizzo) fears that the routine of married life may be the death of romance.

Prowling about on the edge of the action is the Playwright, played to sly and silky perfection by David Arrow. He acts as both the narrator, drawing the audience into the tale, and instigator for the drama onstage. The accomplished cast manages to turn what is basically a story of insecurity, wanderlust, and mistrust into something light and breezy.

But the real star of the show is Dorsey's brilliant set, a plain brick wall behind the actors' dressing tables on which is projected the interior of a grand theatre—its audience facing us—to which the Actor and Actress play their parts in pantomime, beyond a scrim, whenever they go "onstage" to perform. It's a nifty extra layer of illusion in show that celebrates the place where acting, art, and fantasy collide. (Read more)

Monday, November 10, 2014


Space pilots race to save humanity in thoughtful epic 'Interstellar'

Nobody has ever accused Christopher Nolan of thinking too small. A  master of the brainy action thriller, his films are as crammed with ideas and concepts as vehicle chases, and explosions (are although there are plenty of those too).

From the brilliant intricacies of Memento and The Prestige, to The Dark Knight (the best and broodiest of his Batman trilogy, with its good/evil Doppelganger undercurrent), to the wildly imaginative Inception, Nolan knows how to deliver a feast of a film that keeps viewers chewing over it for days.

His latest, the sci-fi epic, Interstellar, is no exception—although in this case, it takes a lot longer for Nolan's cool, cerebral storytelling to start pulling the viewer in. Those who categorically dislike sci-fi will find much to protest here—like lengthy sequences of gigantic pieces of hardware lumbering through space while orchestral music swells on the soundtrack.
Surf's up on one wet planet in Interstellar.

 Placing star Matthew McConaughey front and center most of the time feels like a naked stab at down-home folksiness to soften the film's cold edges.

And yet, just when the ponderousness of it all threatens to take over the film, the prickly human element that Nolan and his co-screenwriter brother, Jonathan Nolan, have been seeding into the plot from the earliest scenes finally starts to pay off.

The relationship between engineer/astronaut-turned-farmer, Coop (McConaughey), and his daughter (played first by little Mackenzie Foy, and then as an adult by Jessica Chastain, as the narrative time-loops around) is especially nicely wrought.

This work of cautionary speculative fiction begins in a too-near future where climate change is eroding Earth's resources.  Coop  gets a chance to join a team of explorers who will be flying through a newly discovered wormhole on a quest to find another habitable planet for the human race. (Read more in this week's Good Times)

Friday, November 7, 2014


Michael Keaton walked away from the first modern (ie: Tim Burton) Batman franchise after two films. So he's inspired casting for this black comedy about a movie actor named Riggan Thomson, once famed for playing an onscreen superhero called Birdman.

Now, years later, he's trying to reinvent his career and himself—and hopefully rediscover his self-respect along the way—by mounting a Broadway drama. It's a problematic project he's directing from his own adaptation from the downbeat works of Raymond Carver.

This set-up provides the chance for filmmaker Alejandro G. Iñárritu (best known for serious fare like Babel and Biutiful) to deliver his dark, but often scathingly funny observations on pop culture, celebrity, and priorities—in particular, the ongoing battle between art considered serious and substantial, and the philistine popularity of the movies.

"Popularity is the slutty little cousin of prestige," says Mike (Edward Norton), an actor hired at the last minute who might save the show with his brilliance or destroy it with his loose-cannon unpredictability.

Iñárritu brings plenty of nifty style to the table. The film unspools in a series of long, intricately connected (but not nausea-inducing) tracking shots as it follows various characters around through warrens of backstage passages, in and out of dressing rooms, on and offstage, over catwalks, and down Broadway itself.

The soundtrack is mostly edgy percussion, and the hyper-reality of the close way the camera follows characters around in their personal dramas is balanced by a touch of magic realism as Riggan tries to suppress the cynical alter ego—in full Birdman regalia—who follows him everywhere, urging him to forget about acting and become a movie star again.

A few too many false endings dull the story's impact, and the lines between metaphor and narrative get a little blurry (as Riggan may or may not occasionally fly over the Great White Way). But Iñárritu makes cogent points about media and fame and our quest to be "important." He also elicits fine performances, especially from Norton, Emma Stone, as Riggan's recovering druggie daughter, Amy Ryan, as his ex, and Keaton himself.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014


Human nature tested by circumstance in intriguing Force Majeure

The French title of the Swedish film Force Majeure literally means superior force, as in a force of nature, or what we might call and Act of God. It generally refers to an unexpected circumstance completely beyond human control, most often a natural disaster like an earthquake or tsunami. But it's used ironically in this cerebral thriller, where the drama hinges not on a natural disaster, but the split-second response of oh-so-fallible humans in its path.

Directed by Ruben Ostlund, and already Sweden's official Foreign Language entry for the 2015 Academy Awards, the film tells a simple-seeming story about a young family on a skiing vacation in the French Alps. The father, Tomas (Johannes Kuhnke), works too hard, as his wife, Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli) tells another tourist at their swanky resort hotel, high in the snowy mountains. So they've packed up their two young children, Vera and little Harry, for five days of relaxation and family time.

On the second day, while the family is having lunch on the restaurant balcony, overlooking a spectacular view, the snowpack on the nearest mountain begins to move. It's not giving too much away to reveal that the movie continues on from this point. But damage that may prove to be irreparable has been done to Tomas and Ebba's family unit, and to their relationship.

Ostlund's design is fascinating in the way the film's central incident becomes a litmus test for gender, family, and even age issues among all who witness it, including the audience. (Read more)

Tuesday, November 4, 2014


Radcliffe can't solve dilemma in Horns

It's always fun to watch Daniel Radcliffe in his post-Potter career. Not that he's been trying to shed his Harry Potter persona, exactly, so much as stretching the boundaries of what he can do—as well as testing the outer limits of his audience's expectations.

From the troubled stableboy in Equus on Broadway, to the mournful young widower in the Gothic  thriller The Woman In White, to the youthful Allen Ginsberg on the cusp of his outlaw sexuality in Kill Your Darlings, Radcliffe has taken roles that challenge prevailing ideas of who he is as an actor.

But none yet perhaps so challenging as Alexandre Aja's horror thriller, Horns, in which Radcliffe stars as Ig Perrish, the misfit protagonist. Suspected by everyone in his small, Northwestern town of the brutal murder of his girlfriend, and stalked by the sensation-hungry media, he wakes up one day with ram's horns sprouting from his head, and the gift of eliciting the truth (however tawdry) from everyone around him. An unexpected talent that sets him on a hunt for the real killer.

I bought into the first third or so of the story. Radcliffe offers up some intense, yet  sardonic moments, his American accent is pretty good, and there's a subversive, black-comedy kick to the way the newly diabolical Ig starts giving people permission to act on their favorite deadly sins. It has something to do with the way they're all compelled to reveal their most shameful, innermost desires in his presence.

But sadly, the film eventually crosses the fine line between devilish social satire and ham-fisted, cheesiness. I haven't read the source material, the horror novel by Joe (Son of Stephen King) Hill, so I don't know where to lay the blame for all the wretched excess. All I know is the film finally crumbles under its own heavy-handed good/evil symbolism, its jumbled-up Biblical metaphors (snakes, wings, crucifix, horns), and a prevailing sense of overall nastiness.

Radcliffe will emerge, of course, unscathed. Next up? He'll play Igor in a reboot of Frankenstein. Okay, I can't wait!