Sunday, June 26, 2011

MOVIES: "BAD TEACHER"


ALERT!!! Disregard the GLOBE's review. BAD TEACHER is GOOD! Cameron Diaz gives a go-for-broke performance in the role she was born to play: Ms. Elizabeth Halsey a smokin' hot middle school teacher whose one goal in life is to marry a rich man who'll support her penchant for weed, hot cars, and high-heeled designer ankle boots. The quickest way to snag the right guy? Boob job--and she'll stop at nothing to raise the cash to get one. The 7th grade car wash turns into a soft-core porn video with Ms. Halsey in high heels, short shorts, and suds. The story she invents about why she broke off her engagement plays like an increasingly obscene and hysterically funny leitmotif; it seems Ms. Halsey's imagination is as purple as her vocabulary.

The rest of the cast is equally hysterical-- Lucy Punch literally so, as Ms. Squirrel the goody-two-shoes teacher across the hall who's wound a little too tight, and who competes with Ms. Halsey for the cute, rich, but dweeby new sub ironically played by Justin Timberlake (Diaz's real life ex!). Watching Timberlake sing and dance like a dork, not to mention his orchestration of one mindblowingly funny, fully-clothed sex scene, gave me new respect for the performer's comedy chops. Phyllis Smith ("The Office") plays Halsey's dowdy colleague/wannabe girlfriend with goofy ardor, while the coolest guy at school is the overweight gym teacher--played by Jason Segel who's got Ms. Halsey's number--even though she won't give it to him.

It's downright refreshing to see a female character acting like an shallow, foul-mouthed moron-- and because the script is so funny, and Diaz plays with such abandon, I laughed my head off! Ultimately, she and the film have their hearts in the right place-- It's just silly summer funny! BAD TEACHER has really BAD LANGUAGE (the above trailer is cleaned up.) So leave the kids to their computers.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

WORDS.

Just tonight, having concluded several intense rounds of my favorite word game BOGGLE, I flipped on the TV and started clicking through the channels when I landed on Leno and heard comedian Louis CK say he was so hooked on Percocet that if he dropped some on the ground and someone picked it up, he'd "suck (that person's) d**k to get it back." The censors barely bleeped the offending word and Leno reeled backward in mock shock; the show went on.

I however, reeled back in time to a Friday evening some 30 years ago when I was doing my nightly entertainment report on the 11 O'Clock news. I had raced back from covering popular young local comedian Jay Leno who was doing his stand up act at a comedy club in Boston. In our rush to make the deadline and get the story on the air, the editor and I accidentally let one of Jay's jokes go on too long, and Jay's use of the expression "pissed off" ended up on TV. When the tape ended and the camera came back to me live on the news set, I wrapped up quickly, and anchorman Jack Williams, stricken, concluded the newscast. There was genuine shock in the air. Before I could make my way off the set and back to my desk, the newsroom phones started ringing off the hook; Freddy the guard started getting swamped with angry calls at the front desk, while BZ radio's switchboard lit up with outraged viewers calling in to complain about the offensive language they had heard on the air.

I remember feeling dizzy, as though it were all surreal, and thinking, "This is it. I'm finished. I'll never work again. " In a state of near apoplexy I stumbled toward the phone when they said my news director was on the line. He was livid, asked how I could have done such a thing, and told me to go home. I don't remember driving there. I do know that I arrived, took to my bed, and didn't leave for two days. On Sunday night, the news director called me at home and told me to report to work on Monday, that it would all blow over, but that hundreds of callers had complained, some threatening to never watch again. I vowed to be scrupulously careful, and felt as though I'd been spared a horrible death.

So tonight I found myself recoiling at the crudeness of this comedian, whose words were surely a low on a show once hosted by the witty Johnny Carson. But it was all tossed off with a laugh. I thought about how much has changed, how people go to the theater like they're dressed for a car wash, how jokes about oral sex casually appear on prime time sitcoms.

Maybe none of this really matters. But I'll keep playing BOGGLE-- and continue to choose my words carefully.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

THEATER: "WEST SIDE STORY"


It doesn't get any better than Bernstein's jazzy, expressive music and Sondheim's endlessly inventive lyrics. In "West Side Story," a latter day Romeo and Juliet fall in love as Tony and Maria; the Montagues and Capulets have become the Jets and the Sharks-- rival American and Puerto Rican gangs on the streets of New York. In this Broadway revival now playing at Boston's Colonial Theatre, the spark is pretty much there, with a few updates and despite some less than stellar performances.
First the updates-- Some lyrics are translated into Spanish: "I Feel Pretty" ("Me Siento Hermosa"), but I missed the snap-crackle-pop of Sondheim's perfect lyrics. And while it makes literal sense to have the Sharks speak Spanish to each other, it cheats the audience in several ways. One, by suspending disbelief, we understand the Puerto Ricans are of course speaking Spanish as easily as we are hearing them, and thus everyone-- non-Spanish speakers included, can understand exactly what's being said. And two, we're robbed of the experience of these warring factions sharing the same universal "emotional" language after all, which is the point of the show; in a sense, a whole symbolic layer is lost. The production also means to be grittier than the original, but the sets and lighting looked too cartoony and clean.

As for the performances? Tony and Maria have great chemistry; together their voices are combustible, the sound curling up to the rafters, especially ignited by Maria's (Ali Ewoldt) smokin' soprano. Michelle Aravena underplays the firey Anita until she's ready to explode-- and then she does in "America" and "A Boy Like That." Would that Riff had more anger, and the Jets seemed more dangerous.

Finally after all the supercharged choreography, opera sized emotion, and passion-fueled songs and embraces, the last scene wrapped up too quickly and fell oddly flat.

But there's plenty here to love, moments of real exhilaration, and the experience of a groundbreaking American classic that still feels painfully real today. See WEST SIDE STORY at the Colonial Theatre thru July 9!

Monday, June 20, 2011

MOVIE: THE TREE OF LIFE


THE TREE OF LIFE is a visually stunning Christian allegory that seeks to answer the ultimate question: "What is the meaning of life?" Terrence Malick has a history with heaven; he wrote and directed the exquisite 1978 DAYS OF HEAVEN. The images from that film have never left me and neither will THE TREE OF LIFE which won this year's Cannes Film Festival Palme D'or.

The film attempts to describe the beginning of time and life, through the lens of the old and new testaments, creation, evolution, birth and death, good and evil, redemption, and the afterlife. The film pivots on one archetypal family and these scenes are viscerally powerful, disturbing, transportingly beautiful -- and extraordinarily well-acted. We meet this family at a crossroads--they have just learned of the death of their son. Brad Pitt is especially good as the stern Father ultimately chastened and humanized by his son's death; Jessica Chastain is the sensual but dutiful Mother through whom the Son came; Sean Penn is one of the three sons looking back at his life in this family, he especially among his brothers, questioning the father's authority, wondering why they should be good if he is not. And then he moves forward after the sacrifice of his brother to a new realization. A final voice-over is an invocation of love; without love our lives merely flash by.

Malick has found a visual rhythm and rhetoric so inevitable, we feel as though these images spring from our deepest selves; we absorb them through our ears and eyes and psyches and souls. Wind blowing through a lace curtain on a spring day; a glimpse of sunlight through a mother's hair, the restless feeling of being a child, the mystery of our parents--as Malick says, always warring within us ... I can hardly articulate the power of what is conveyed here about who we are, the loneliness of life, and mortality. James Agee's "Knoxville Summer of 1915" comes close.

Ultimately THE TREE OF LIFE leans on an explicitly religious agenda to give meaning to the question of our existence. It diminishes the scope of what is otherwise, and surely--a cinematic masterpiece.

You must see it and tell me what you think.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

CALDWELL TITCOMB 1926-2011

August 16,1926-July 12,2011

Our dear President of the Elliot Norton Awards, Caldwell Titcomb, died early this past Monday morning from leukemia. His sister Camilla said he died peacefully, and was sure he had just watched the Tony Awards that night.

That was Caldwell-- or "Caldy" as some of us liked to call him! He adored theater and his last public appearance was last month at the "Norties"-- Boston's version of the Tony's, where he on behalf of the Boston Theater Critics Association presented the big prize of the evening. He took the stage with his walker, and delivered his presentation in the dignified, understated, and articulate way he always had. A learned man, kind and genteel, Caldwell received three degrees from Harvard including his Ph.D. He was a professor emeritus at Brandeis, and a composer of music for theater. I remember getting postcards from him in London when he'd fly over every summer and see 10 or 15 productions at a clip and send back encapsulated reviews penned in his tiny, elegant script.

What I will always admire most about Caldwell was his even temper, good humor, and strength of character. Though he'd been battling the disease for some time, he exercised daily, kept up with correspondence, edited text from his computer, and attended as many theater critics' meetings and productions as possible. He'd invite us to his birthday celebrations, but never wanted a fuss and would be truly upset if anyone crossed his threshold with a gift.

The last time I saw Caldwell was last week when I picked him up for our theater critics' meeting in town. He was waiting punctually at the appointed hour, outside, in a jacket and collared shirt, with his walker; as I pulled up, and made my way out of the car, he had already folded up his walker, put it in the back seat, and was halfway in the passenger side before I could even get to him to offer help. He never complained. He just got on with it.

Now we must get on without him, but his strength and sweetness will always inspire me.
We love you, Caldy.

Monday, June 13, 2011

TIP--According to FLAVIN



(courtesy Paul SZEP)
Just saw my old pal Emmy award-winning TV commentator and political observer Dick Flavin in a new role yesterday: he took the stage as the inimitable Boston Pol and, by the way, Speaker of the House--Thomas P. "Tip" O'Neill. The one-speaker show is called ACCORDING TO TIP and had its last incarnation onstage here in Boston when the burly, bulbous-nosed Ken Howard took on the role a few seasons back. Dick is slighter in stature, but conveys the heft of the man's character and "man of the people" warmth and good humor. The script immediately draws you in, despite it's lack of salacious tidbits that pass for memoir these days. This is NOT an expose, but rather a charming look at a kinder gentler era when political enemies would put aside their differences and pal around after hours over cards and a few drinks.

Flavin fully inhabits the Irish character from his humble Cambridge beginnings to his rise through the ranks of the democratic party rubbing shoulders with everyone from JFK to Reagan. TIP does save a few harsh words for Newt Gingrich and Bobby Kennedy, and a few funny quips about Sophia Loren and Warren Beatty. Flavin is believeable in the role, with a natural born raconteur's charm and ease as he dispenses TIP's ("Tom" to his friends) hard-won political wisdom: always ask for a vote, be honest if you take a controversial stand, and the classic: All politics is local.


Dick holds the stage alone for two hours with intermission; I was in awe of the number of words this 74 year old-- and recent throat-cancer survivor (!) commanded; but then, he wrote them, too!
Congrats Dick! See ACCORDING TO TIP June 9-July 3 at the Lyric Stage Co. of Boston!

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

"THE HELP" is on the way!!

THE HELP is one of the most enjoyable books I've ever read -- deceptively simple, very moving, about the power of narrative to release the truth and the tension of lives deeply divided and deeply connected in the deep south on the cusp of the civil rights movement.

THE HELP the movie is due out this summer-- August 12! But here's a little build-up to the event with Mary J. Blige giving splendid voice to the story which found the words to say what needed to be said.