Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Film Review: 'The Theory of Everything'

Anchored by a superb central performance, The Theory of Everything is a well-executed and moving portrait of Stephen Hawking, a man who refused to let a debilitating disease stop him from finding love, happiness and fame as one of the world's most respected physicists.

The story begins in 1963, when Hawking (Eddie Redmayne) is a grad student majoring in cosmology at Cambridge. He’s twitchy, socially inept and seemingly lost in his own world, yet he attracts the attention of Jane Wilde (Felicity Jones), a beautiful arts major. A courtship ensues, with Jane drawing the misfit out of his shell and Hawking enlightening Jane with his dazzling theories about the creation of the universe.

He begins to notice that he's having  increasing difficulty walking and performing the most basic tasks, however, and when he collapses on campus, he’s taken to the hospital where he is diagnosed with motor neurone disease. His doctor explains that he will continue to lose his ability to move and eventually even breathe on his own, and will probably survive only a couple of years. Faced with this death sentence, Hawking retreats to his room and tries to push Jane away, but she vows to stay with him regardless of how much time they may have.

They marry, and over the course of the next 30 years, have children, celebrate holidays, cope with his continuing infirmities, experience jealousies and temptations — and finally separate. The point that director James Marsh and screenwriter Anthony McCarten make here is that Hawking, whom most people view as a withered genius in a wheelchair, is also a man like any other, with admirable qualities as well as shortcomings.

Marsh’s film moves with a balletic grace, enhanced by Benoit Delhomme’s lush cinematography. Johann Johannsson’s score is rich but not overly sentimental, meshing well with McCarten’s screenplay that wisely keeps Hawking’s famous sense of humor in the forefront.

Redmayne is a revelation as Hawking, contorting his body ever so gradually throughout the film until the uncanny transformation is complete. It’s an admirably subtle performance, one that makes a plea for understanding without begging for pity. He’s matched by Jones’ portrayal of Jane, whose own transformation from happy young wife to embittered caregiver is equally effective. Charlie Cox is wonderful as Jonathan, a lonely choirmaster who becomes emotionally involved with the family, and Maxine Peake is devilishly amusing as the saucy nurse Elaine, who wants Hawking all to herself.

As Jane’s mother, Beryl, Emily Watson appears only in a few scenes, but she does set up the best line in the film. Rightly assuming that Jane needs a diversion from the stress of caring for Hawking, she sits her daughter down with a cup of tea and says, “Jane, I think you should join the church choir,” to which Jane responds, “That’s the most English thing anyone has ever said."

It’s moments like this that give The Theory of Everything its spark.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Book Review: 'Mad Movies with the L.A. Connection' by Mike White

Ah, L.A. in the mid-1980s — what a magical place. The punk rock scene was going strong, KROQ ruled the radio dial, Elvira's Movie Macabre was a Saturday night must-see on KHJ-TV, and I was working at a down-at-its-heels TV distribution company called Four Star Television.

Founded by Hollywood stars Dick Powell, David Niven, Charles Boyer and Ida Lupino in 1952, Four Star had been a leader in television production through the 1960s, selling such hits as Wanted: Dead or Alive, Burke's Law and The Big Valley to the networks. But by 1984, with nothing in the pipeline and a dusty library of forgotten black and white shows, the company had slowed down considerably. A new regime was brought in to juice up the joint, and that's how Mad Movies with the L.A. Connection was born.

But let's step back a bit. The L.A. Connection improvisation troupe had been successfully performing live redubs (called "Improvision") of movies like Plan 9 from Outer Space at theaters around town, which led to a brief stint doing the same thing for "Flicke of the Night" segments on Alan Thicke's 1983-84 talk show, Thicke of the Night.

Meanwhile, Four Star had acquired the questionable assets of another syndication company, Gold Key Entertainment, and with that purchase had gotten a library of what today would be a goldmine of cult classics, but back then was just a bunch of unsellable bad movies.

It was destiny that the dubbers of bad movies should join forces with the purveyors of bad movies...and therein lies the tale.

In his new book, Mad Movies with the L.A. Connection, author Mike White chronicles the colorful history of the L.A. Connection and the development of the show that was ahead of its time — and still has a following today.

Ample behind-the-scenes reminiscences are provided by L.A. Connection founder Kent Skov and cast members and writers Bob Buchholz, Connie Sue Cook, Stephen Rollman, Steve Pinto and April Winchell, as well as the show's producer, Randy Ridges. They describe how Mad Movies was pitched and produced (including the making of the first pilot, Dungeon Women, that was scuttled for being too racy), researching appropriate properties, scouting locations for the wraparounds — and delivering 26 half-hours on a budget that wouldn't even pay for craft services nowadays. It truly was guerrilla television. As Four Star's Director of Promotions at the time, I provide some recollections from the corporate perspective.

Fans of the show will appreciate the book's complete episode guide, rare production photos and the "after Mad Movies" section. As for me, it brought back great memories of a time when we were all so young and L.A. was a town that represented limitless possibilities.

Mad Movies with the L.A. Connection is available from Amazon.

Monday, November 17, 2014

'Birdman': Keaton's Revenge

Michael Keaton and Edward Norton in "Birdman"
Keaton and Norton
In the 1970s and early ‘80s, Michael Keaton worked his way up the showbiz ladder, paying his dues in such now-forgotten television shows as Working Stiffs and Report to Murphy before soaring into the stratosphere with films like Mr. Mom, Night Shift and especially Beetlejuice. But when he put on the cowl to play Batman, his career — for better or worse — was never the same.

Now, playing Riggan Thomson in Alejandro Inarritu’s brilliant new comedy/drama, Birdman (or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), Keaton takes on a role that very nearly mirrors his own life — and he runs with it. Riggan is a fllm star who lost momentum after playing superhero Birdman in a series of blockbusters back in the ‘90s, and is now trying to gain recognition as a serious actor by staging an adaptation of a Raymond Carver short story on Broadway. He’s put everything he has into it, serving as writer, producer, director and star.

Michael Keaton in Birdman

When his terrible male lead (Jeremy Shamos) exits the production after being brained by a falling arc light, co-star Lesley (Naomi Watts), offers to bring in her man, Mike Shiner (Edward Norton), a hotshot Broadway actor, as a replacement. Riggan is thrilled at first, but is soon plagued by feelings of inadequacy when faced with a legitimate stage professional. Worse still, he feels that the more experienced actor is attempting to steal the show away. And when Mike is gushingly profiled on page one of the New York Times arts section, his suspicions are seemingly confirmed.

Fueling his paranoia is the voice of his alter ego, Birdman, constantly ringing in his head. He tells Riggin that he’s better than all of this, urging him to just run way from it all and go back to Hollywood. As opening day draws near and they run through a series of disastrous previews, Riggan begins second-guesses everything and gives in to bouts of fury, even as his producer (Zach Galifianakis) assures him that the show is getting good buzz.

He’s also afflicted by hallucinations that make it difficult to comprehend the real world. He’s out of synch with his fresh-out-of-rehab daughter, Sam (Emma Stone), who is serving as his assistant, and it barely registers when Laura (Andrea Riseborough), his femme lead and offstage lover, tells him that she may be pregnant with his child. Thankfully, as Birdman takes pains to remind him, he has telekinetic powers and the ability to fly…or does he?

In a film populated by fine performances, Keaton shines, providing layered and sympathetic work. He’s still manic, but the years have softened his edginess — perfect for this role. He’s nearly matched by Norton, whose arrogant Mike is a symbol of Broadway’s “superiority” to film as the only true art form. Stone, Watts and Riseborough are all given their memorable moments, and Galifianakis plays against type as the voice of reason. Amy Ryan is also wonderful as Riggan’s ex-wife, Sylvia, who clearly still adores him and mourns the death of their marriage.

The sharp screenplay by Inarritu, Nicolas Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris Jr. and Armando Bo, pits not only the stage against film but also old versus new. Indeed, Riggan behaves as if his life stalled out along with his career back in the ‘90s. His refusal to participate in social media as a way of marketing himself to the new generation while hungering for legitimacy in the ancient world of the theater is a useless pursuit that Sam decries in an explosive rant (wonderfully delivered by the doe-eyed Stone).

Birdman is certainly the lightest film the gritty Inarritu has made to date, and yet it’s also his most satisfying. Working with Oscar-winning cinematographer Emmanuel Lubeski (Gravity) and editors Douglas Crise and Stephen Mirrone, he makes the film flow as if it’s been shot in one continuous take. Lubeski’s camera constantly roves around the actors and slithers through the corridors of the St. James Theatre, where much of the action takes place. Adding to this sensation of nonstop movement is the unusual but effective all-percussion score provided by jazz drummer Antonio Sanchez.

The much-discussed fantasy sequences are well-integrated and even essential to the story. Who among us has never imagined, when things got really tough, that we could vanquish our enemies with a snap of our fingers or suddenly soar high into the air, leaving our problems far below us? That’s the universal message of Birdman, one of the year’s best and a sure contender come Oscar time.


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