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Friday, March 31, 2017

The Movie Report #913, March 31, 2017

The Movie Report

#913, March 31, 2017

  • The Boss Baby ***
  • Ghost in the Shell ** 1/2
  • The Zookeeper's Wife ** 1/2

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Saturday, March 25, 2017

F3Stage Review: An American in Paris sings when it dances

Film Flam Flummox

An American in Paris

Given its (deserved) status as a classic of the movie musical format, it's a bit shocking that it's taken more than a half-century wait for there to be a major live theatrical adaptation of An American in Paris. For some ardent, purist fans of the landmark 1951 Gene Kelly/Vincente Minnelli/George and Ira Gershwin collaboration, it would not be unfair to say that the wait continues, for book writer Craig Lucas and director/choreographer Christopher Wheeldon take a very free hand in fashioning the film for the stage. But however many liberties they and the rest of the creative team take with the source material, they just as accurately capture the boundary-breaking creative essence of the film while being its own distinct, imaginative, and satisfying entertainment on its own terms.

On the stage as it was on screen, the show's primary narrative focus is on the love that blossoms between the titular American in Paris, artist Jerry (Garen Scribner) and young French woman Lise (Sara Esty). Also present are Milo (Emily Ferranti), a rich woman who takes a shine to Jerry; and Jerry's buddies Adam (Etai Benson), a songwriter; and Henri (Nick Spangler), a singer. The film's love triangle between Jerry, Lise, and Henri becomes a quadrangle here, with a now-Lise-besotted Adam more than just a comic sidekick and more firmly entrenched in the main action. But from those basic elements from Alan Jay Lerner's screenplay Lucas builds his own thing, which is clear right after the curtain rises, filling out Jerry's backstory with a prologue that also moves this story's setting into the more immediate WWII aftermath, detailing how this American soldier came to take residence in Paris.

That opening sequence also boldly announces Wheeldon's overriding approach to the entire production, which is to have words and even the Gershwins' music come distinctly secondary to the expression and narrative propulsion of dance. While that may not come as a surprise given that the original film is a vehicle for iconic screen hoofer Kelly, Wheeldon takes less inspiration from the well-known screen persona of the movie's beloved star than its rightfully legendary 17-minute, all-dance fantasy sequence climax, where Minnelli bravely--and spectacularly--adopted the old school stage convention of an extended "ballet" interlude for the cinema. Wheeldon's 11-o'clock stage analogue to that sequence is, predictably, the highlight of his show, but with his long, illustrious background in classical ballet turning the figurative "ballet" into a literal one that showcase the remarkable control, coordination, and fluid grace of Scribner and especially Esty, whose Lise is here is not just a simple shopgirl but a ballerina. But that's just the tip of the iceberg as far as how Wheeldon makes his true inspiration come alive on his stage. The simple, sometimes schematic paintings that serve as backdrops for portions of the movie's big ballet largely informs Bob Crowley's fairly minimalist but effective scenic design, with projections and animations of paintings and sketches serving as an ongoing manifestation and connection to Jerry's artistic pursuits. Most prominently and boldly of all, however, is how Wheeldon injects and intertwines ballet into the proceedings even when Lise's character is neither rehearsing nor performing, often using ballet interludes in a way akin to montage is employed in cinema, creatively creating an effect that merges movie and theater technique into something both practical and highly imaginative.

If these descriptions make this An American in Paris sound like it's merely inspired by, rather than more closely adapts, its filmic namesake, this is only the half of it. The emphasis on ballet means only a token nod to Gene Kelly's famous tap dancing skills, and even then the big tap number is centered around the Henri character, with the Kelly-originated Jerry nowhere to be found in the scene. Perhaps even more offensive to purists is that only five of the ten Gershwin compositions in the film are used here, not including what is arguably the film's central love theme, "Love Is Here to Stay." While there is a valid reasoning behind the differences in the song listing--the original film is, after all, a jukebox musical of pre-existing Gershwin songs, so Wheeldon and Lucas used others as they saw fit for their vision--not having the Jerry character do any tap dancing at all does indeed feel like a (bad pun intended) misstep.

But that's only one in a lovely production that gets it right where it needs to be: in crafting an irresistible musical, magical tribute to the swooningly romantic spell of the City of Lights. As much credit for that goes to Wheeldon, his vision would not have been fulfilled were it not for the truly multi-talented cast, most of whom must dance, sing, act, and emote--often all at once--with equal dexterity and conviction. They--especially the combustible couple of of Scribner and Esty--are what turn Wheeldon's radical concept into an involving and fully realized piece of theatrical art.

An American in Paris is now playing at the Pantages Theatre in Hollywood in a limited engagement through Sunday, April 9; it the returns to the Southern California area at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa on Tuesday, April 25 through Sunday, May 7.

Buy the An American in Paris Original Broadway Cast album CD here.
Buy the An American in Paris movie Blu-ray here.
Buy the An American in Paris movie DVD here.
Buy the An American in Paris movie soundtrack CD here.

(Special thanks to Hollywood Pantages Theatre)

The Movie Report wants to attend and cover all your live stage productions! Please send any and all invitations to this address. Thanks!

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Friday, March 3, 2017

Press Junket Potluck: Octavia Spencer & William Paul Young's spiritual trip to The Shack

Film Flam Flummox

The Shack movie poster

Stuart Hazeldine's adaptation of William Paul Young's bestselling novel The Shack is, by textbook definition, a Christian film, centering around the crisis of faith of one Mack Phillips (Sam Worthington) after he loses one of his children--and himself--in an unspeakable tragedy. But as seen in Young's novel and now Hazeldine's film, Mack's journey to greater spiritual understanding and enlightenment is unlike most depictions of such stories and explorations of such themes, for it comes by way of a weekend trip to the secluded shack of the title, where no less than God Himself--or, rather, Herself, in the very female form of Octavia Spencer, going by the name of "Papa"--resides with Jesus (Avraham Aviv Alush) and the Holy Spirit (Sumire). Young and Spencer discussed that atypical approach along with the overarching universal themes and intent of its story at a press day last month in Beverly Hills.

Divine Inspiration

"I've always been a writer, but like anybody you write stuff for your friends and family, poetry, short stories. [My wife] had been saying for about four years, "Someday, as a gift for our children, just write something that puts in one place how you think because you think outside the box." And I really didn't feel healthy enough until the year I turned 50. I was working three jobs, and I had 40 minutes on the train, and I had nothing for Christmas. We were at a very great place of contentedness in not having anything, which was a huge journey in itself. I wrote [the novel] mostly on the train and got it done, made my 15 copies at Office Depot as a gift for Christmas. I'm not a trained writer. I learned to write by reading; that's where I learned. I've never taken the classes. I never intended to be a published author. So when I wrote this, it was simply a way to say--because my kids love story, because I think everybody loves story--let me tell you about the God who showed up and filled my heart, and not the religious God I grew up with."
--William Paul Young

Building the Shack, Literally and Metaphorically

"We camped with the kids. I wrote it for them, so I used all kinds of places they're familiar with. We'd run into this thing in the woods, some hunter's cabin or whatever. So I started [writing the novel] with the conversations, all of the questions that I had, and this dialogue between me and God about loss and forgiveness, and those conversations became living. But then it became time [to figure out] who's asking and why, and that's where Mackenzie, who embodies my own losses, came about. So what's the setting? And in thinking about the setting, the shack suddenly made perfect sense. It's a place where you get stuck; it's our house on the inside; it's our broken soul. It's a place where I believe God has inhabited the entire time because God dwells with us. And what we do is we want to avoid the place of our darkness, where we hide our secrets, where we store our addictions. We don't want to deal with it. Our unforgiveness is there. Our shame is there. It's this broken down place we never want to go back into. But for our healing--we have to go back into that place. It is your soul, and that's what God loves, who God loves. He does not love our presentation of our best performance somewhere outside. We have to go back in here and co-create some healing, so that you can be free to be comfortable inside your own skin and at home inside your own soul."
--William Paul Young

Papa Does Preach

"For me, it was a huge undertaking, and I actually had to try to figure out a way into the character. So what I did was basically boil it down to the relationship between Mack and Papa, and it felt very parental to me. So I basically did the work as if I were his foster mom who failed him, and then it was about building those bridges so that he could trust me again."
--Octavia Spencer

"I cannot even imagine Papa not being Octavia. She embodies what I was wanting: this embrace but still in-your-face. It's the true understanding of what a parent's love is all about, that will constantly pursue you and won't stop even though you're pushing back, and filling up all the holes of the things we've lost along the way in maybe our own relationships with our own parents. Octavia is fantastic."
--William Paul Young

The Shack's Other Residents

"I have no second thoughts or regrets about any of the choices that were made, and I thought [they] just come across so powerfully. They really put their hearts into it. Tim McGraw [as Mack's best friend], Sam Worthington, Radha Mitchell [as Mack's wife], Sumire as the Holy Spirit, Aviv Alush--we have a Jew playing Jesus; who'd have thought, you know? [laughs] "
--William Paul Young

"I'm very glad that they cast an Israeli as Jesus, and the thing about Aviv is that he has this beautiful personality. If you believe that Jesus is the light of the world, Aviv is definitely the man you want to play him because he has just this everyman light, and when you're around him he just fills the room with joy. He's devout. He's just a beautiful, beautiful person. I'm glad that I got to meet him and work together, and he was a lot of fun to work with, he and Sumire. It was wonderful working with Sam. He was a brand new father when we were doing this. I think the baby was only about six to eight weeks old; tiny. [The baby] being so young, he was exhausted because he wasn't really on a sleep schedule. And he was very vulnerable, which is what the character had to be. He was a sweetheart and very open to finding the truth in the scenes--and that's what you want in a scene partner: a person who's ready to go everywhere to get to the truth."
--Octavia Spencer

The Guiding Spirit of Director Stuart Hazeldine

"Stuart is a great collaborator. We didn't have a lot of rehearsal time because we were all coming from different sets and different periods, so there was not a lot of rehearsal time prior to shooting. But while we were there, we took our time and worked on the scenes that required it. He was very collaborative and allowed us to find our footing in the scenes."
--Octavia Spencer

A Story for Everyone

"I wouldn't be doing the movie if I didn't believe in the messages of it. I think we all face challenges, and I think agnostics can approach this film and learn from it as well. You realize that we all face challenges, and Mack has a huge challenge that he's facing: the loss of a child. I'm not a parent, but for my friends and family that are, their nightmare is to lose a child. So you have a man who suffers this tremendous loss; he had such a tumultuous childhood; and he loses a child, and so he loses faith. He loses faith in himself. He loses faith in God. And by doing that, he basically becomes paralyzed in his own life and shuts down. And so his family suffers from that; his daughter also shuts down. So it's about learning to forgive yourself and also learning that if you are ever a person who ever questions God, there's also a way to be able to forgive God. I don't think you necessarily have to be a religious person to understand the message about grief and guilt being a paralytic. If you don't correct that course, you will stay in a state of distress and be unable to grow. And I think that is something anybody can identify with."
--Octavia Spencer

The Last Word

"Everything that matters to me--identity, work, value, significance, security, meaning, purpose, destiny, community, love--those were all in place before I wrote the book. The book didn't give me those things, for which I am so grateful because I can see what a black hole that can be. But what it did give me is it gave me an invitation into the holy ground of other people's stories. I tell people I think that's why we're born barefoot. We're designed to be inside the story of the other, and that invitation and ripples of it--I am so grateful [for that]. It is a kindness and a generosity to me that is too beautiful for words."
--William Paul Young

The Shack opens today, Friday, March 3, in cinemas nationwide, from Summit Entertainment.

Buy The Shack movie poster here.
Buy The Shack soundtrack here.
Buy The Shack novel here.
Buy The Shack audiobook here.

Octavia Spencer
Octavia Spencer
(photo by Michael Dequina)

(Special thanks to Lionsgate)

The Movie Report wants to attend and cover all your film press junkets! Please send any and all invitations to this address. Thanks!

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