LET IT BE: A CELEBRATION OF THE MUSIC OF THE BEATLES

March 10, 2017

Dallas Summer Musicals at Fair Park

March 8, 2017

This is one of my rare forays from the big screen to the big stage. The touring production of this world famous musical came to Dallas, and will soon play Ft Worth before heading off to the next stop.

 The Beatles’ first big UK hit was in 1962 (“Love Me Do”) and their first U.S. tour occurred in 1964. The band’s final live performance was in 1969 on a rooftop in London, and they officially broke up in 1970. During this unprecedented run (and since), The Beatles sold more records than any band in history, and changed the face and sound of popular music at least a couple of times. Because of this unparalleled success and popularity, it’s not surprising that the band and its music have now generated THREE stage productions – Rain: A Tribute to The Beatles, Beatlemania, and most recently, Let it Be: A Celebration of the Music of The Beatles.

Revamped after successful runs in London’s West End and on Broadway, this touring version is split into two parts: Act 1 hits some of the highlights of the band’s career, while Act 2 provides a look at what might have been – a reunion of the band in 1980. One could describe this as ‘What was’ versus ‘What if?’.

Kicking off with the first appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show”, the familiar music immediately lights the warm fire of nostalgia in the audience. The other segments in this first Act include the Shea Stadium concert, the Sgt Pepper era, and finally Abbey Road – replete with a barefoot Paul. What is immediately apparent is that the four lads on stage may not closely resemble the original band in looks, but they certainly are talented musicians and singers. The banter with the audience is not especially a highlight as the exaggerated speaking voices meant to mimic Paul and John are at times cringe-inducing, but this in no way impacts the enjoyment and expert versions of the songs that are permanently imbedded in our DNA.

The difference maker in this show is the ‘What if?’ second Act, as the ultimate fan fantasy occurs – the four lads from Liverpool reunite for a concert on John’s 40th birthday, October 9, 1980. This is ten years after they disbanded, and there are some musical chills as they play a blend of their hits from “the good old days” and meld their talents on songs from their individual projects. Selections include George’s “What is Life”, John’s “Starting Over”, Ringo’s “It Don’t Come Easy”, and Paul’s “Band on the Run”. There is also “Blackbird” in the stage style of Crosby, Stills and Nash; while John’s “Imagine” truly hits the right note. Though the encore is predictable and necessary and crowd-pleasing, the musical highlight of the show is George’s searing version of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”.

With an emphasis on the music, the stage props were minimal. Either side featured a retro dial radio and television. While the band played, the familiar clips of actual Beatles audiences were shown; during the costume changes, we were treated to music from the era, news clips, and the always good-for-a-laugh Carnation Instant Breakfast commercial. Complementing the fine music were the spot on costumes. Evolving from the early suits, mop-tops and Beatle boots to the spectacular Sgt Pepper psychedelic colors, and culminating in Lennon’s iconic New York City t-shirt, the clothes and facial hair leave no doubt as to the era. Neil Candelora plays Paul with the perfect amount of fake stage pep and constant need for audience feedback, and JT Curtis as George gets to flash his prolific musical expertise periodically while struggling to maintain the mostly still nature of the quiet one. Chris McBurney handles Ringo’s drums with relative ease, and Michael Gagliano adds the Lennon edge necessary to capture the band’s stage presence. It may not be a true “Revolution” but everything does “Come Together” for an extremely fun and crowd-pleasing time.


OSCARS 2017 recap

February 27, 2017

oscars-2017  In a year when Viola Davis urged us to “exhume those bodies” from the graveyard because that’s where the potential is, it wouldn’t be shocking to learn that long-ago-deceased Rod Serling actually produced the 2017 Academy Awards ceremony. Of course he didn’t, but … at the sign post up ahead …

In no particular order (other than the obvious #1), here are just some of the oddities – some pleasant, others head-scratchers:

  1. Re-defining ‘public debacle’, a confluence of factors caused the erroneous announcement of LA LA LAND as Best Picture, when in fact, MOONLIGHT was the actual winner. The correction occurred after a couple of acceptance speeches from the wrong film’s producers.
  2. A tour bus of surprised tourists was ushered into the Dolby Theatre leading to Denzel Washington unofficially marring Gary from Chicago and his fiancé.
  3. The “In Memoriam” section included a photo of the much-alive Jan Chapman, rather than the deceased Costume Designer Janet Patterson
  4. Amazon films won 4 Oscars (THE SALESMAN, THE WHITE HELMETS, 2 for MANCHESTER BY THE SEA)
  5. Sound Mixer Kevin O’Connell finally won an Oscar … he had previously been nominated 20 times without winning.
  6. A flag from the dance group whacked singer Auli’I Cravalho in the head as she sang the Oscar nominated song from MOANA.
  7. SUICIDE SQUAD, Oscar winner
  8. Brother and sister Warren Beatty and Shirley MacLaine were part of two separate memorable moments … 250,000 years apart.
  9. Jimmy Kimmel treating the ceremony as an all-out roast of Matt Damon
  10. Nicole Kidman clapping (Google it)
  11. The aforementioned Viola Davis being allowed to speak for almost 4 minutes, while others “played off” at 46 seconds.
  12. Damien Chazelle (age 32) becoming the youngest Best Director Oscar winner
  13. MOONLIGHT becomes one of the least expensive productions ($1.5 million) and lowest grossing movies ($22 million) to win Best Picture Oscar.
  14. O.J.: MADE IN AMERICA becomes the longest Oscar winner (7 hours 47 minutes) surpassing the 1969 Best Foreign Language Winner WAR AND PEACE (6 hours 36 minutes)
  15. 98 year old Katherine Johnson was brought on stage with the lead actresses from HIDDEN FIGURES. It was a wonderful moment that became slightly awkward as they weren’t sure whether to keep her onstage or help her off prior to the next award announcement.
  16. John Cho and Leslie Mann teamed up for a humorous overview of the Science and Technology awards from the prior day.
  17. Sarah Bareilles’ beautiful voice singing Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now” during the In Memoriam section
  18. Justin Timberlake proving once again that he is one of the best contemporary performers, as his show opener of the Oscar nominated “Can’t Stop the Feeling” got the entire crowd up – dancing, singing, and clapping.
  19. A series of three Wal-Mart commercials directed by Hollywood stalwarts Antoine Fuqua, Marc Foster, and Seth Rogen/Evan Goldberg put the Super Bowl ads to shame.

Maybe the only thing missing was Rob Lowe singing to Snow White!

It was nice to see the gold statuettes spread over quite a few films: La La Land won 6, Moonlight 3, Hacksaw Ridge and Manchester By the Sea each won 2, and one Oscar went to Arrival, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, and The Jungle Book.

Fortunately, political views only snuck in a few times: Jimmy Kimmel’s opening monologue and a couple of other times through the evening (including a failed Twitter bit), and the statements from Iranian director Asghar Farhadi (The Salesman), the producer of The White Helmets, and the confusing remarks from the director of O.J.: Made in America.

At times it did feel like a long lost episode of “The Twilight Zone“, though there were enough moments to remind us that the ceremony, at its core, is a celebration of cinema – and the magic it brings.

oscars-2017b

 


BEST OF 2016 link

January 8, 2017

best-of-2016

The BEST OF 2016 list has been posted and can be reached at the following link:

https://moviereviewsfromthedark.com/annual-bests-2/best-of-2016/

This year’s list is dedicated to my friend Adam, who spent his entire life finding reasons to enjoy the moment, despite challenges that would have been too great for anyone without his courage and strength.  Adam and I periodically exchanged opinions on movies and music, and he generously shared his knowledge on film scores. I will miss my friend.

 

 

 

 


THUNDERBOLT AND LIGHTFOOT (1974) revisited

September 10, 2016

thunderbolt Greetings again from the darkness. The 1970’s brought a wave of new filmmakers who not only changed the way films were made, but also the type and style of stories for the big screen. Due to the abundance of interesting movies from this era, it’s easy to see how, over time, a few gems can slip and fall into the ‘forgotten’ category. One of these is this personal favorite from the infamous writer/director Michael Cimino, who passed away just a couple of months ago (July 2016).

The opening shot has a car in the distance kicking up dust on a country road as it approaches a small rural church seemingly plopped in the middle of pasture. Once parked, the driver of the car steps inside the church and begins spraying bullets throughout the intimate wooden structure – his target being a bespectacled slow talking preacher played by Clint Eastwood who ducks out a side door.

As you might guess, John Doherty, nicknamed The Thunderbolt, (Eastwood’s character) is no real preacher. The man shooting at him is one of his old partners in crime, and he’s seeking revenge on Doherty for stealing the gang’s money from their last job. While Eastwood is dodging bullets in the pasture, a young wise-cracking Jeff Bridges is stealing a car from a local dealership. In short order Bridges (Lightfoot) has run over the guy shooting at Eastwood, and Clint is hanging onto the car for dear life as Bridges speeds off. And that’s how this inauspicious titular partnership begins.

What follows is a blend of buddy flick, road trip and heist movie. It’s spiced up with Thunderbolt’s other partners (played by George Kennedy and Geoffrey Lewis) first chasing them down, and then reluctantly agreeing to partner up again to repeat their previous robbery. In the process, we travel through Hell’s Canyon along the Snake River in Idaho and listen to a lot of tough talk between the four key players. Kennedy’s character is especially hard on the young Bridges, and that’s what kicks off the pseudo father-son relationship at the core of the film – tough guy and loner Thunderbolt genuinely grows to like the fast-talking Lightfoot, who manages to quell a bit of Thunderbolt’s world weary bitterness.

The dialogue is filled with put-downs, smack-downs and threats, and is accompanied by some unusual visuals. In addition to the stunning countryside, seeing Kennedy and Lewis co-occupy a small ice cream truck is itself entirely worth the effort of tracking this one down. But that’s not all … how about Jeff Bridges in full dress, wig, heels and make-up? It’s all for his part in the heist, but it certainly nails down the closeness of he and Eastwood and they hide as a couple at a drive-in movie theatre … that is, until they are forced into a high-speed chase scene over the familiar speed humps that anyone from the drive-in era will recall. We also get the colorful wardrobe – Eastwood and Bridges spend much of the film in disco-type clothes stolen from the back of a car. Other standout visual moments include a woman on a motorcycle using a hammer to pound on Bridges’ van while both are driving over a bridge; comedian Don Rickles on TV; and a woman exposing herself to Bridges through a sliding glass door as he works his manual labor job.

These fabulous moments all fit perfectly into 1970’s cinema and are courtesy of the terrific cast, as well as the vision of writer/director Michael Cimino in his first feature film. Cimino’s story is the ultimate fall-from-grace. As a Yale graduate, he became a Madison Avenue advertising star with his unique and creative TV commercials. His script polishing of Magnum Force (the second Dirty Harry movie) so impressed Eastwood, that it led to the two collaborating on Thunderbolt and Lightfoot. With the success of this first film, Cimino moved on to the Vietnam picture The Deer Hunter, released in 1978. That film won 4 Oscars including Best Picture and Best Director (for Cimino). This propelled him to the top of the Hollywood mountain, and the rare opportunity for full control of his next project. The result was the legendary critical and box office flop Heaven’s Gate. It’s the flop by which all others are measured, and very nearly destroyed United Artists (a studio founded in 1919 by Mary Pickford, Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks and DW Griffith). Cimino’s reputation and career never fully recovered and though he only made five more films, he did write two successful novels. Upon hearing of his passing, many of those he worked with had nothing but praise for Cimino as a writer, director and artist … especially Eastwood and Robert DeNiro.

Even casual movie watchers are somewhat familiar with the long (more than 60 years) and decorated career of Clint Eastwood. His impact on the entertainment world has come via acting, writing, directing, producing and composing. He has won four Oscars (two each for Million Dollar Baby and Unforgiven), while being nominated eleven times. His last acting role was Trouble with the Curve (2012), but he continues to direct films … including the recently released Sully, with Tom Hanks playing Captain Chesley Sullenberger who piloted the “miracle on the Hudson”. Eastwood’s big break came with the TV show “Rawhide”, which led to the spaghetti westerns of the 1960’s, and then to the 1970’s-80’s tough guy and action star Dirty Harry, before mixing in action/comedy with Every Which Way But Loose (1978) and the like. Although he continued to act, it seemed Eastwood’s passion lay behind the camera, where he has been able to make the films he wanted and include some of his personal views (not always popular with the Hollywood elite). Given the two high profile lawsuits, he probably wishes he had never met Sondra Locke, but Eastwood’s influence and legacy stretches across decades and multiple genres in the movie world.

In 1974, Jeff Bridges was still known mostly as the son of Lloyd Bridges, though he had also made a name for himself with a Best Supporting Oscar nomination for The Last Picture Show (McMurtry, Bogdanovich, 1971). As Lightfoot, Bridges dons leather pants and a brash attitude while flaunting his acting style of just making everything look so darn easy … and receiving another Best Supporting Oscar nomination. Since then, Bridges has received Oscar nominations for Starman (1984), The Contender (2001), True Grit (2010) and of course for his Oscar winning performance in Crazy Heart (2009). Beyond these, Bridges has brought life to some incredibly unique and interesting characters: Kevin Flynn/Clu in Tron (1982), former NFL’er Terry Brogan in Against All Odds (1984), Preston Tucker in the underrated Tucker: The Man and his Dream (1988), with brother Beau in The Fabulous Baker Boys (1989), another lost gem The Fischer King (1991), the “highly” popular Dude in The Big Lebowski (1998), the suspicious neighbor in Arlington Road (1999), Tony Stark’s nemesis Obadiah Stone in Iron Man (2008), and most recently as the retiring Texas Ranger in Hell or High Water … one of the best films of 2016. And yes, he did appear in Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate.

george-kennedy In addition to Eastwood and Bridges, another key to why the film works is the presence of George Kennedy as Red, the grumpy, burly, hayfever-stricken guy who trusts no one. Prior to acting, Kennedy served under General George S Patton and was awarded 2 bronze stars. Like Eastwood, he broke in during the era of Westerns and moved on to tough guy roles in the 1960’s. The difference, of course, was that Eastwood was one of the biggest movie stars on the planet, while Kennedy was simply one of the best character actors in Hollywood history. He won a Best Supporting Oscar for his memorable work opposite Paul Newman in Cool Hand Luke (1967). In the 1970’s Kennedy appeared in the popular disaster films (the “Airport” franchise, Earthquake, etc), before turning his career on its ear by jumping into the Naked Gun spoof films. Never one to shy away from work, whether TV or movies, Kennedy appeared in 74 episodes (1988-91) of the immensely popular TV series “Dallas”. His role of Carter McKay breathed new life into the series. As a rancher/oilman from Colorado who bought a ranch from viewer favorite Ray Krebbs, Kennedy’s McKay became the ultimate nemesis for J.R. Ewing. Watching Kennedy and Larry Hagman go head-to-head was some of the best TV viewers could ask for. In fact it was Kennedy’s character who tricked J.R. into losing control of Ewing Oil. Kennedy also appeared in the two CBS “Dallas” movies that followed the end of the series. His final role was that of Mark Wahlberg’s grandfather in The Gambler (2014). Mr. Kennedy died in February 2016 at the age of 91, after more than 50 years of acting and nearly 200 screen credits. Fans of his work may remember his often gruff persona, but those who worked with him claim Kennedy was just about the nicest guy they had known.

The fourth cog in this Thunderbolt and Lightfoot wheel was Eddie played by familiar face Geoffrey Lewis. In the film, he was the good-hearted guy who seemed to be out of place, which allowed for the perfect contrast with hard-nosed George Kennedy. Mr. Lewis appeared in many movies with Clint Eastwood, and TV audiences may remember his as part of the series “Flo” (1980). Lewis, who is the father of actress Juliette Lewis, died in 2015 after more than 200 acting roles … including Heaven’s Gate.

The rest of Cimino’s first film is literally filled with one scene appearances by faces we either recognized at the time, or would come to know very well in the near future. These include: a 20 year old Catherine Bach, known also as Daisy Duke in “The Dukes of Hazzard”; Gary Busey in a quick scene with Bridges; Burton Gilliam of Blazing Saddles fames; Dub Taylor (appeared in multiple films by both Sam Peckinpah and Robert Zemekis) is the gas station attendant who rants about US economics; Bill McKinney (much too memorable in Deliverance, numerous films with Eastwood) is the crazy driver who, along with his pooping raccoon, picks up a hitchhiking Eastwood and Bridges; Claudia Lennear (the inspiration for The Rolling Stones “Brown Sugar”, part of Twenty Feet from Stardom) is the secretary who asks Eastwood for his social security number; Jack Dodson (Howard Sprague on “The Andy Griffith Show”) plays the vault manager and home invasion victim; Roy Jenson (in Chinatown, he’s the guy holding Nicholson when Polanski slices his nose) is Dunlop, the early church shooter; Gregory Walcott (Plan 9 From Outer Space) is the car salesman who Bridges dupes; Scott Eastwood (Clint’s kid) is the 5 year old boy at the ice cream truck; and Vic Tayback and Beth Howland, known for their work as Mel and Vera on “Alice”. Should you need more, that’s Paul Williams singing the theme song (that he wrote).

Admittedly, Michael Cimino’s directorial debut Thunderbolt and Lightfoot does not rank among the best of the truly great films released during the 1970’s: The Godfather I and II, Jaws, Chinatown, Taxi Driver, All the President’s Men, Annie Hall, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Star Wars … just to name a few. However, it does belong on a list of forgotten gems – movies from the 1970’s that are still worth watching today. Where else can you watch Clint Eastwood preaching the gospel or George Kennedy bullying Jeff Bridges?

***This is part of theDarlin’ Dallas Blogathanrunning September 21-23, 2016 at https://weegiemidget.wordpress.com/

darlin-dallasers

 

 

 

 


STAGECOACH (1939) revisited

August 21, 2016

stagecoach Imagine you are 25 year old Orson Welles, and you are obsessed with creating cinematic history with your next film. You have spent hour after hour studying the best and most creative works of the finest filmmakers from all over the world. You come across a particular John Ford western, and are so inspired by its technical precision that you watch it at least three dozen times while working on your masterpiece … Citizen Kane (1941). Such is the influence of Ford’s Stagecoach. It may or may not be the greatest western film of all-time (a matter of preference), but it’s inarguably the most influential.

More than 75 years later, it’s difficult to imagine a time when John Ford and John Wayne were not joined at the swaggering hip making movies together. By 1939, Ford had won an Oscar for The Informer (1935) but had not directed a western in more than a decade, while John Wayne’s career to this point consisted of bit parts and B movies. The “firsts” here include: John Ford’s first movie with John Wayne, the first movie filmed in Monument Valley, Ford’s first talkie-western, and the first starring role in a major motion picture for John Wayne

It’s difficult to think of a more iconic star-making screen introduction than that first shot of John Wayne twirling and cocking the rifle as the camera zooms in on his face (see photo below). It should be noted that The Duke (as he was often referred) was 32 years old in the film and is wearing his own cowboy hat – one he would wear in many movies over the years (until it finally was in such bad shape, it was placed in a glass display case at Mr. Wayne’s home).

The film hit while the industry was still experiencing some of the pains of leaving the “silent” world behind and taking advantage of “talkies”. Additionally, the technology of color film was just beginning to be used more frequently, but many studios and directors were clinging to the traditional black and white look. As a genre, westerns had never been able to make that step into the mainstream … that is, until Ford and Wayne came stampeding to the forefront with Stagecoach.

Dudley Nichols (Oscar winning screenwriter for Ford’s The Informer) adapted the original story from Ernest Haycox (a prolific writer who helped elevate westerns from dime story pulp to respectability and box office profitability) into a screenplay that examines the early attempts at transitioning the “wild west” into a more civilized society. Social commentary abounds as several characters from disparate background are crammed into a confined space (the titular stagecoach) for an extended period of time. Some viewers may complain about the use of clichés, but in fairness, what we have come to label as cliché, was anything but at the time.

Adding their own special touch to the wide range of characters were some of the finest actors of the era. Claire Trevor was the best known star in the cast at the time, and she plays Dallas, the good-hearted woman whose past/profession causes her to be treated as an outcast by most in the group. Ms. Trevor would go on to accept the unofficial title of Film Noir Queen, win a Best Supporting Oscar for Key Largo (1948), and have the School of Arts at UC-Irvine named for her. Donald Meek plays the meek (yes his name often fit his character) travelling salesman ironically named Peacock. Contrary to what one would guess given his diminutive physical stature, Mr. Meek fought in the Spanish-American War. John Carradine is perfectly cast as Hatfield, the elegant gambler carrying a secret. Mr. Carradine is the father of the acting Carradine brothers (including David and Keith), and enjoyed a 65 year career with more than 350 projects. Drunken Doc Boone is played by Thomas Mitchell, who many will recognize as memory-challenged Uncle Billy in It’s a Wonderful Life. He also appeared in such top shelf films as Gone with the Wind, High Noon and Lost Horizon. Louise Platt plays Lucy Mallory, the pregnant wife who is on a mission to reunite with her soldier husband. The villainous banker is played with gusto by Berton Churchill, and the only thing he’s missing is a twirly mustache. Mr. Churchill was a co-founder of the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) in 1933. Law Enforcement is represented by Marshal Wilcox, played by George Bancroft, and the stagecoach is driven by the great Andy Devine (as Buck). Mr. Devine manages to create a bit of comedy relief by the use of his trademark high-pitched raspy voice, as well as his underrated physical acting movements. Other notables making an appearance are Tom Tyler (once known as the strongest man in America) whose initial shaky transition from silent film to talkies is readily apparent in his few scenes; Woody Strode (one of the saloon patrons) who is known best for his fight scene in Spartacus; and Tim Holt who brings the charging Calvary to the rescue, and is best known as one of the prospectors in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948).

Of course, it’s John Ford and John Wayne who draw most of the attention when this film is discussed. Born Marion Morrison, The Duke played football at USC before turning his full attention to acting. Here he plays bad-guy-with-a-heart Ringo Kid, and gets to show a pretty full spectrum of machismo, humanity, dignity and sensitivity. His extraordinary physical screen presence led him to the top of the film world with roles in some of the most popular films over the next 4 decades, capped by a Best Actor Oscar for True Grit (1969). John Ford, who was 45 years old at the time of Stagecoach, won 4 Best Director Oscars (plus two special Oscars for his WWII documentaries): The Informer (1935), The Grapes of Wrath (1940), How Green was my Valley (1942), and The Quiet Man (1952).

Two others deserve special mention. Stuntman extraordinaire Yakima Canutt (a World Champion rodeo cowboy) was seemingly involved in just about every risky stunt in Hollywood during the 1920’s, 30’s and 40’s. Stagecoach provided the opportunity for what may be his best and most daring stunt – leaping onto the moving stagecoach and its 6 horse team and then sliding down under the carriage and out the back … all at breakneck speed! It’s fascinating to watch, and in this age of computerized special effects, it demands a level of awe and respect. While this film provided the first on screen glimpse of Monument Valley, it was Cinematographer Bert Glennon who figured out the best ways to take advantage of this breathtaking setting. Mr. Glennon was nominated for 3 Oscars (including Stagecoach), and was a frequent collaborator with both John Ford and Cecil B DeMille. The second half of his career was devoted mostly to TV series, rather than movies.

Stagecoach received 7 Oscar nominations including wins for Thomas Mitchell as Best Supporting Actor and Best Music (score) for Richard Hagerman, W Frank Harling, John Leipold, and Leo Shuken. The other nominees were for Best Picture, Best Director (Ford), Best Cinematographer, Best Art Direction and Best Editing. While it might seem implausible that such a ground-breaking film could only win two Oscars, it’s a reminder why 1939 is considered by many to be the best ever year for movies. Check out this list of other releases that same year: Gone with the Wind; Mr Smith Goes to Washington; Wuthering Heights; Goodbye, Mr Chips; Ninotchka; The Wizard of Oz; Of Mice and Men; The Hunchback of Notre Dame; Young Mr Lincoln.

Despite being the first movie to feature the “dead man’s hand” – a pair of black aces and a pair of black eights (the hand Wild Bill Hickok was holding when he was gunned down), this film continues to live on in cinematic lore. Often included in the discussion of the best westerns of all-time – along with High Noon, Shane, Unforgiven, Once Upon a Time in the West, The Wild Bunch, The Good The Bad and the Ugly, and The Searchers – it was a joyful experience to finally get to see this one on the big screen in a theatre setting (thanks to Dallas Film Society and Chris Vognar). It’s clear how this film elevated the western genre, and it certainly deserved recognition by the National Film Registry in 1995.

stagecoach2

 


OAK CLIFF FILM FESTIVAL 2016 Preview

June 10, 2016

June 16 – June 19, 2016

OCFF16 For anyone who still believes Dallas is all concrete and glass, take note that it’s almost time for the 5th annual Oak Cliff Film Festival. Founded by local folks who are committed to the independent creative spirit of film, music and art; the festival is based in the historic Texas Theatre, and showcases multiple venues along Jefferson Boulevard and in the Bishop Arts Districts.

The diversity and rare opportunities afforded by this festival is difficult to explain, but intoxicating to experience. The unusual film programming includes documentaries, student films, shorts, reparatory films, a narrative competition, and even workshops for students. Additionally, those behind the festival are quite serious about the parties – live music and DJ’s are often tied into the themes of the screenings from that evening.

Including the Texas Theatre, this year’s events are spread out over ten different venues: Kessler Theatre, Bishop Arts Theatre Center, Oak Cliff Cultural Center, Turner House, Spinster Records, The Majestic Theatre, 29 Pieces, Basement Gallery, and the ultra cool Wild Detectives (bookstore/coffee shop/bar/patio). The incredible range of films goes from Brian DePalma’s 1974 Phantom of the Paradise to the new documentary Author: The JT Leroy Story. On a personal note, I’m especially excited for the Opening Night screening of the restored film version of Last Night at the Alamo (1983). This is being presented by SXSW co-founder Louis Black, who was a T.A. in a film class I took at the University of Texas so many years ago.

If you are a lover of independent film and community events, this is the festival for you. While Cannes, Toronto and Sundance can be a bit overwhelming and intimidating, the Oak Cliff Film Festival is welcoming to all and easy to navigate. Plus … it’s the FIFTH year and that’s a reason to celebrate!

Scheduling, Festival Passes, and individual tickets can be found at: http://oakclifffilmfestival.com/

 


BEAUTIFUL: THE CAROLE KING MUSICAL (Theatre Review, 2016)

June 9, 2016

beautiful A piano sits center stage under a low beam spotlight. No other set decorations are present. The simplicity is symbolic of the public image of Carole King – a grounded artist whose prolific songwriting skills weave a tapestry of hit songs that began in the late 1950’s. In a somewhat awkward opening, Abby Mueller takes the stage as Ms. King and sheepishly admits that, as a Brooklyn girl, she feels like she is ‘home’ and breaks into her mega-hit “So Far Away”. The song sets the feel good tone for the audience, and by the end of the evening, we learn that’s her on stage at Carnegie Hall, and the rest of the story is in flashback form.

This is opening night at the Dallas Winspear Opera House as the national tour continues for the production of the 2014 Broadway hit … one that ended with Abby’s sister Jessie Mueller winning a Tony Award. The house is full, and the audience is as friendly as they come – ready to be reminded of the happy life times when Ms. King’s songs spoke for their emotions. The sound glitch present in that opening number is quickly resolved, and for the rest of the evening there is no shortage of toe-tapping and lip-synching.

Playwright and filmmaker (Emma, Bullets over Broadway, Nicholas Nickelby) Douglas McGrath follows the familiar path of another recent jukebox musical and mega Broadway hit “Jersey Boys”. He keeps the steady rain of hit songs coming, while mixing in just enough backstory for us to appreciate the artistic struggles and understand the times. We see the humble beginnings of a very smart teenage Carole Klein (later King) and her festering dream of becoming a professional songwriter – conflicting with the wishes of her mother who deemed teaching to be the profession of choice. Her early meetings at 1650 Broadway (not the Brill Building!) with music producer Don Kirshner (played by Curt Kouril) make it clear that female composers were mostly non-existent during the late 1950’s, and that Carole was a somewhat below-the-radar groundbreaker.

Rather than skim through Ms. King’s now more than 50 year career, the focus remains mostly on those early years writing with her wordsmith husband Gerry Goffin (played by Liam Tobin). The challenges of marrying young, having a daughter, and working multiple jobs are all touched upon, but it’s Carole’s long fight to keep her marriage to Goffin together that takes up most of the non-song time … this in despite of his drugs, philandering, and extreme mood swings. Goffin is portrayed as the tortured artist, while Ms. King is presented as a dowdy do-gooder who also happens to be an immensely talented composer. For much of the production, she looks similar to Elisabeth Moss during the first couple of seasons of “Mad Men”.

Between Goffin/King and their friendly rivalry with Barry Mann (a terrific Ben Fankhauser) and Cynthia Weil (Becky Gulsvig), the hit songs just keep coming. Many are performed by the writers themselves, while others evolve into full production numbers featuring numerous talented ensemble performers in the role of such acts as Neil Sedaka, The Shirelles, The Drifters, Little Eva and The Righteous Brothers. The latter group has one of the audience-favorite moments as they sing “You’ve Lost that Lovin’ Feeling” (John Michael Dias is a standout vocalist as Bobby Hatfield).

The emotional sincerity of the times is captured by these writers and their songs, but Mr. McGrath does toss in plenty of cornball comedy to make sure everyone is paying attention between musical numbers. Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil could be considered comic relief were it not for their own prodigious writing talent: “On Broadway”, “You’ve Lost that Lovin’ Feeling”, “Walking in the Rain”, and “We Gotta Get Out of This Place”.

The Goffin/King numbers included here are numerous and impressive: “Will You Love Me Tomorrow?”, “Up on the Roof”, “One Fine Day”, “Pleasant Valley Sunday”, “Take Good Care of my Baby”, “Loco-Motion”.

The real story here is the blossoming of a shy woman into an artist who trusts her talent and believes she has something to sing about. Once her marriage to Goffin finally ended, Ms. King moved to Los Angeles and worked with super producer Lou Adler (known today as Jack Nicholson’s Lakers buddy). Her 1971 solo album Tapestry featured such hits as “So Far Away”, “You’ve Got a Friend” (a huge hit for James Taylor), “It’s Too Late”, “(You Make Me Feel) Like a Natural Woman”, and this show’s title track and finale, “Beautiful”.

Unlike many musicals, this show doesn’t have a true “showstopper”, but the sheer number of hit songs familiar to the crowd provide the feel-good atmosphere that leaves those attending feeling joyous and well entertained. A very nice performance from Abby Mueller allows us to take in the music, while also respecting the long road and accomplishments of the great Carole King … winner of Grammy awards, and inductee into both the Songwriter Hall of Fame, and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The production is also a reminder that nice people can succeed in an industry that thrives on ‘bad boys’ and artists with an edge.