Archive for the ‘Movies’ Category

AFI’s Top 100 Greatest American Films of All Time–A Parody
Written by Shualee Cook, Roger Erb, Chris Jones, and Ben Ritchie
Concept and Direction by Suki Peters
Magic Smoking Monkey Theatre
July 8, 2017

Ben Ritchie, Roger Erb
Photo: Magic Smoking Monkey Theatre

I’m really glad there’s a list in the program for this show, just so it was easier to keep track. In typical Magic Smoking Monkey fashion, the company’s latest production, AFI’s Top 100 Greatest American Films of All Time–A Parody is fast-moving and wildly inventive. It’s also extremely funny.

Here, the AFI’s list is taken and given the Magic Smoking Monkey treatment, as the energetic, enthusiastic cast races through the list in reverse order, from Ben-Hur to Citizen Kane, with a bell ringing to indicate the changing of films.  Some are given more time than others, and the presentations range from the literal the more symbolic. It’s a fun experience to watch, and with films as well-known as most of these are, it’s fairly easy to understand the scenes even when I haven’t seen all the films (I checked off the list–I’ve seen 54 of them). The pace is quick, and there are even occasional jokes about that ringing bell, and some crossover jokes between some of the movie parodies. It’s a lot of fun, as usual.

There’s a great cast here, too, making the most of every joke and creating some memorable impressions–figuratively and literally. One of the fun conceits this show uses is to have the same performers reappear when the same actors appear in several different films. Alyssa Ward as Katharine Hepburn and Brennan Eller as Jimmy Stewart are special standouts, but the whole cast is great. Kudos to Rachel Bailey, Roger Erb, Chris Jones, Ben Ritchie, Fox Smith, and Ron Strawbridge for their versatile takes on a variety of film characters. There are also special appearances by Nate Cummings and Morgan Maul-Smith.

The creative team has done a great job as well, with great costumes by Carla Landis Evans, lighting by Justin Chaipet, sound design by Ted Drury, and slides by Dan Foster. It’s all kind of unpolished, but that’s part of the charm of these shows. Also, with the quick pacing, anything can happen, and that element of surprise lends a lot to the humor.

This show is great fun for film buffs and casual filmgoers alike. It’s an uproarious blend of movies and theatre, as well. With Magic Smoking Monkey’s usual wit, style, and goofy charm, this parody is an ideal comic tribute to classic American Film

Alyssa Ward
Photo: Magic Smoking Monkey Theatre

Magic Smoking Monkey Theatre presents AFI’s Top 100 Greatest Films of Al Time–A Parody, until July 7, 2015.

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Much Ado About Nothing

A Film of William Shakespeare’s Play

Adapted and Directed by Joss Whedon


It’s Shakespeare at Joss Whedon’s house. That’s a big deal for a lot of fans of Whedon, Shakespeare, or both. Me, I’m in the second category. I’ve liked some of Whedon’s projects (The Avengers, Dr. Horrible’s Sing-a-Long Blog), but despite my best efforts was never able to become a fan of perhaps his most famous work, Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I know, I know. Maybe I have to turn in my “geek card” right now, but still, I have a lot of respect for Whedon and I absolutely love Shakespeare, so I was very curious to see this adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing. It’s a collaboration of one of the most prominent creative artists of today and one of the most celebrated writers of all time, and that’s exciting no matter what. I just hoped that the movie would live up to my very lofty expectations, and for the most part, it did.

Much Ado is one of Shakepeare’s most popular comedies, famously filmed before (excellently) by Kenneth Branagh in 1994.  The approach here, though, is different—updating the story to the present day and setting it in and around the grounds of one elegantly appointed house as opposed to the Italian villa of the play and previous film.  The story of soldiers Don Pedro (Reed Diamond), Benedick (Alexis Denisof), Claudio (Fran Kranz ) and company has been styled with more of a celebrity flair, with paparazzi and news cameras recording the arrival of the “soldiers” from an undefined “war” that is presented as some kind of big business deal instead of actual combat.  The “warriors” arrive from “battle” to relax and mingle at Don Pedro’s tony mansion  and there the action ensues in the forms of assorted romances, battles of wits, extravagant dinner parties and attempted revenge.  Beatrice (Amy Acker) and Benedick verbally spar and Claudio woos Hero (Jillian Morgese), while Don Pedro’s vengeful brother Don John (Sean Maher) plots to get even with his brother any way possible, and police constable Dogberry (Nathan Fillion) and his crew of officers try in a hilariously bumbling fashion to maintain order. It’s a story full of comedy, genuine sentiment, romance, sexual tension, and simmering anger, all presented ideally in the modern setting by a strong cast containing many Whedon “regulars” who have been in several of his productions before, and it’s an excellent troupe.

Amy Acker and Alexis Denisof work together exceptionally well as Beatrice and Benedick.  Acker brings all the depth to the role of Beatrice that is needed, bringing out the character’s pain and sadness as well as her sharp wit, and Denisof makes a suitably preening Benedick.  Their scenes together crackle with energy, and their animosity and eventual romance are both eminently believable. Reed Diamond is a stable presence as Don Pedro, and Kranz has all the earnestness mingled with self-doubt necessary to be an ideal Claudio.  His scenes with Morgese as Hero are alternately touching, infuriating, heartbreaking and ultimately heartwarming.  Maher is a truly menacing Don John, and the added dynamic in this film of casting his crony Conrade as a woman (Riki Lindhome) adds a unique twist.  Fillion, in the clownish role of Dogberry, was also ideally cast, bringing both charm and ridiculousness to the role in equal measure. Overall, it was an extremely strong ensemble that brought out all the comedy and drama of the material with a sense of style and bravado that was matched perfectly by the filming.

This film was made on a reportedly very low budget,  but doesn’t look it. It was also filmed on location almost entirely at Whedon’s actual house, so in the hands of a lesser director this movie could easily end up looking like an elaborate real estate ad, and even though it doesn’t go that far, the house–along with its elaborate grounds–really is one of the major “stars” of this film. The black-and-white filming showcases the setting ideally, bringing out the details in every scene and adding a stylized air to the proceedings.  The audience is left to imagine the colors of the furniture, the greenery in the garden, the food in the kitchen, and for this reason these items are made to appear all the more colorful in the imagining. The excellent filming and sophisticated soundtrack sets an upcsale, classy atmosphere for these proceedings, helping in bringing Shakespeare’s text into the modern day and allowing the audience to approach the material in a fresh light.

There are so many great elements to this film, and the overall air is one of sophistication, intelligence and real wit.  It’s a Shakespeare adaptation for the 21st Century that manages to be both timeless and current at the same time. It reaffirms my love of Shakespeare and makes me want to check out more of Whedon’s work.  It’s a winning collaboration that I think will stand up even better on repeated viewings.  It looks like Joss Whedon not only invited Shakespeare to his house, but he lets his audience join in for the party, and the experience is more than worthwhile.

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So here it is–after a wait of over 20 years, the musical Les Miserables has been made into a movie, directed by Tom Hooper. There are so many things I want to say about this film, so at the risk of rivaling Victor Hugo’s novel in length, here are my thoughts, as thoroughly as possible:

First, it’s no secret to anyone who knows me (or has read my last blog entry) that I love Les Mis!  The stage musical has been a favorite of mine since I first heard the Original London Cast album in 1986 when I was in high school, and since then I’ve heard several cast albums, seen the stage show four times and seen many clips of various productions on YouTube.  I also finally read the novel in the past year and loved it as well.  I got very excited when I heard this movie was finally being made.  I followed all the spoilers and production reports I could find online, and I was glad when it finally opened and I was able to see it.

Since I love the stage show so much, I had to remind myself when I saw this film that it wasn’t going to be exactly like the stage musical.  Actually, it’s impossible for them to be too similar since the medium of film is very different and what works on stage might not work on film and vice versa.  I was all right with the changes, for the most part, especially since I knew I could always see or listen to the stage version again, and when the songs played in my head after I saw the film, they have mostly been the stage versions, because the song order and some of the lyrics of some songs have been changed for the film.  Sometimes the lyric changes work, such as when they’ve been adjusted to fit the new situations in the film, such as “today” vs. “tonight” in “Red and Black”, when Marius is describing meeting Cosette).  Other times, however, the changes are less satisfactory, such as in “At the End of the Day” when Valjean sings about being the Mayor of the town and the lines are the same but have been inexplicably reversed to remove the rhyme.  There have also been some sections of recitative added to further clarify events and changes that reflect the way things happened in the original novel (such as some scenes with Javert and with Eponine).

I noticed that there was more of a sense of gritty realism in the movie, and that’s to be expected onscreen, but the tone of the film is also more consistently grim than that of the stage show.  Darkly comic numbers like “Lovely Ladies” and “Master of the House” have been made even darker on the screen, and some of the placement of other songs such as “I Dreamed a Dream” has been altered to affect the tone of the film and to highlight the misery all the more.  In the film, Fantine (the brilliant Anne Hathaway), sings her signature song after she has sold her hair, her teeth (a feature of the novel that was not in the stage musical), and finally her body as a prostitute, as opposed to onstage when she sings it right after losing her job at the factory.  This lends an extra sense of anger and desperation to Hathaway’s version of the song, and I think this scene is one of the standout scenes in the film, and probably the one scene that is most remembered from this movie in future years.

The performances in this film are, for the most part, excellent. Hugh Jackman gives a solid performance as Jean Valjean, and his voice is strong if not as “pure” as some of the stage Valjeans I have heard. His transformation from convict to mayor to adoptive father is very believable, and his scene with Javert at the barricade is particularly moving, as is the finale. The only moment of his that disappointed me was “Bring Him Home”, which is one of my favorite songs from the show, and Jackman’s version was somewhat jarring and harsh in contrast with the simpler, purer, prayerful tone of previous versions. Otherwise I was impressed by Jackman’s performance. Russell Crowe as Javert is more uneven in his portrayal. I thought he was most effective in his scenes with Valjean, particularly in “The Confontation” and at the barricade, where his more rock-sounding voice didn’t sound as out of place as it does in much of the rest of the film. Acting-wise, I believed his performance but I wish he could have been a little more imposing and authoritative.

The real standouts in this cast for me were Anne Hathaway as Fantine, Eddie Redmayne as Marius and Aaron Tveit as student revolutionary leader Enjolras. Hathaway brought out all the raw emotional energy of Fantine’s plight, and in addition to “I Dreamed a Dream” I loved the scene where she explains who she is to Valjean, and her death scene is heartwrenching as well.  Redmayne brought out a real charm and sympathy to the student Marius, and his lovesick pronouncements upon meeting Cosette (Amanda Seyfried) were convincing and not overly hokey. His “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables’ was another dramatic highlight as well. I loved Aaron Tveit as Enjolras—he had just the right air of a charismatic leader and his voice was strong and clear. Samantha Barks (an Andrew Lloyd Webber casting show alum) played Eponine very well and truer to the novel version than she had in the 25th Anniversary concert, but I think the shifting of songs and shortening of her role was a detriment, almost making the character seem irrelevant, though Barks does her best with what she is given. I also thought that Seyfried made a very good Cosette, even if her voice sounded a little thin in places. Her chemistry with Redmayne was excellent and I thought their love story was believable and compelling.Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter were both funny and appropriately slimy as the villainous Thenardiers, although sometimes it seemed like they belonged in a different movie than the rest of the cast, and their scenes seemed more over-the-top grotesque than they usually do onstage.  I was also impressed by the great performances of the child actors in this film–Daniel Huttlestone as the gutsy urchin Gavroche and Isabelle Allen as the young Cosette, and I also particularly enjoyed the scenes with the students and the real sense of friendship between them.

In terms of filming, I have heard a lot of complaints about the frequent use of close-ups and tilted camera angles. I wasn’t bothered by any of this, although occasionally in the group numbers I wish there had been more wide shots of all the singers. Still, I thought the angles and close-ups worked to highlight the stark realism of the situations. I also liked that the barricade, which seems impossibly huge onstage, was more claustrophobic and kind of crammed into a small alley like it was described in the novel. The prominently place coffins on the front of the barricade also serve as a striking bit of foreshadowing.

Overall, I think the whole look of the movie was just right. It put me into the time and place and brought little moments from the novel to life that hadn’t been in the stage musical. What didn’t always work, though, was the re-structuring of the song order. Some numbers, like “I Dreamed a Dream” and “Do You Hear the People Sing” benefited from being moved, at least in terms of the film, but other songs like “On My Own” didn’t work as well in their new positions, I thought.  I was also slightly disappointed that several of the songs have been severely shortened for the film, although I understand why they had to do that, for the most part.

I love how the themes of the novel–law vs. grace, redemption and love, as well as the revolutionary spirit and class struggles–are so vividly represented in the film, with the religious imagery and icons like the cross on the mountain as Valjean starts on his journey from the chain gang and is given sanctuary, first in the house of the Bishop (played wonderfully by original stage Valjean Colm Wilkinson) and, later in the story, in a convent, and the revolutionary images of the red flags and red-white-and-blue badges of the students.  It’s a visually striking film, with a vivid representation of 19th Century France and a Paris that looks very different than it does today, with the giant plaster Elephant of the Bastille as the centerpiece in some of the later scenes.

Another thing I loved about this film, as a theatre fan, is that so many of the extras and minor roles are played by West End theatre veterans, including many former Les Mis cast members, such as Wilkinson and original stage Eponine Frances Ruffelle (who plays one of the prostitutes).  It was fun playing “spot the theatre people” and also seeing all their names in the credits at the end of the film.  There are many former Eponines, Cosettes and students in particular, and it’s great that producer Cameron Mackintosh and director Hooper have included them in the film.

In a sense, I think this material will always work best onstage and it did feel a bit odd at times to see what is essentially an opera represented on film, with just a few bits of dialogue thrown in, presumably to make it more accessible to audience members who aren’t as familiar with the form of the stage show, as opposed to old-school Les Mis geeks like me.  For the most part, I think the transition works very well but I personally will always prefer the stage show.  Still, I think this movie will serve as an excellent introduction to the material for people unfamiliar with the stage version, as well as an enjoyable entertainment in and of itself.  I love that the filmmakers did not forget the history of the show or the novel on which it is based, and that they celebrate that history.  For me, the film version of Les Miserables is a worthy adaptation and a more than worthwhile cinematic experience.

Grade: B+

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So here are two movies I liked so much, I saw them twice:

True Grit

Adapted and directed by Joel Coen and Ethan Coen

Sure, this was filmed before in 1969 with the legendary John Wayne, but hey, it’s been 40 years and the Coen brothers wanted to film their own version of the story, based on the novel by Charles Portis.  I actually hadn’t seen the earlier film when I first saw this new version, but the AMC cable channel conveniently showed it on TV, and now I’ve seen both.  In my opinion, they’re both good films, but I liked this newer version better.  The focus was shifted in the 1969 version to the character of US Marshal  Rooster Cogburn, because he was played by THE John Wayne, and the role won Wayne his only Academy Award for Best Actor.  This version has Jeff Bridges delivering a great, very un-Wayne-like performance as Rooster Cogburn, but the focus of the film has been returned to the 14-year-old Mattie Ross, who enlists Cogburn to help her track down the man who killed her father.  Mattie was played in the 1969 version by Kim Darby, and I didn’t find her performance as annoying as some people seem to have—I thought it was a good performance, but she was noticeably an older actress (22, I think) trying to play 14 and only partially succeeding.  In this version, 13-year-old Hailee Steinfeld plays Mattie and more than holds her own alongside established stars  Bridges and Matt Damon (as LeBeouf, a Texas Ranger who tags along with Rooster and Mattie on their journey).  It’s a much talked-about performance that I think lives up to the hype.  Her scenes with Damon (also superb) in particular are remarkable.   The rest of the ensemble is uniformly excellent, with Barry Pepper and Josh Brolin as the main “bad guys”, and Dakin Matthews as a horse trader who butts heads with Mattie in a fun scene.

The film also “feels” just right—as one (well me, anyway) might imagine the real Old West might have felt, with the stilted language and quotes from the Bible, and a haunting soundtrack based on old hymns such as “Leaning On the Everlasting Arms” and “What a Friend We Have in Jesus”.    I thought the epilogue-ending was a little bit of a letdown from the main story, but for the most part, I thought this was an excellent film with some truly wonderful performances.

The King’s Speech

screenplay by David Seidler, directed by Tom Hooper

I’ve always found the story of King George VI of Great Britain (father of the current Queen Elizabeth II) a lot  more interesting than that of his older brother, Edward VIII (who abdicated in order to marry an American divorcee), but more films have been made about Edward (called David by his family).  Well, now there is a wonderful film about George, whose real name was Albert and was called “Bertie” by his family.  Colin Firth plays Bertie, who suffers from a stammer and has been to many specialists without much success, until his wife Elizabeth (the future Queen Mother, played here by Helena Bonham Carter), brings him to an unorthodox Australian speech therapist named Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), who wants not only to treat the physical conditions that contribute to Bertie’s speech impediment, but to delve into the emotional roots behind it as well.  Bertie is resistant at first, but gradually trust is built and a friendship grows.  The film also deals with the abdication, as Bertie is forced to become King against his wishes, and also with the onset of World War II, as he is called to give a radio broadcast in order to reassure his subjects in the coming time of crisis.

This is an actors’ movie.  It hinges on the performances of its two leads, Firth and Rush, and both performers deliver.  Firth does a great job of making me forget that he doesn’t really resemble King George VI physically at all.  I believe he is the Duke of York and later the King.  He is a complex mixture of determination, duty, compassion, temper and self-doubt.  His scenes with his family are particularly touching, and every scene with Rush as Logue is a treat.  Rush delivers a remarkable performance as well, as a commoner who is called on to treat a royal patient and insists on treating him as an equal.  His Logue is every bit as stubborn and determined as Firth’s Bertie, and the growth of their working relationship into a real friendship is a joy to watch.  Bonham Carter is also excellent as Elizabeth, and she and Firth have great chemistry as a couple.  There are also very good performances by Guy Pearce as the conflicted Edward VIII and Michael Gambon as his father King George V.

Also, for trivia buffs and fans of the 1995 BBC/A&E adaptation of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, this film is notable in that it briefly re-unites Firth (who played Mr. Darcy) with his Elizabeth Bennet, Jennifer Ehle, who appears here as Lionel Logue’s wife, Myrtle.  Sorry, though–there’s no lake diving or long, meaningful brooding-romantic glances in this one.

This is the time of year when I try to see as many of the “Oscar bait” films as I can.  I’m not sure how many I will get to see before the awards are presented, but I’m very glad I was able to see these two.  I think both films are very deserving of the various award nominations they have received.

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