Thursday, February 26, 2015

The blog is moving....

Hi, readers --

Thanks for following me at for the last three years. McClatchy, which owns The Charlotte Observer, has decreed that all its newspapers should have websites that look exactly alike and function in exactly the same way. So my blog posts will now run only within the Observer's website at Hope to see you there.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Why you should've skipped the Oscars (Chita Rivera)

Less than an hour ago, I was watching one of the great theatrical shows of my 50-year playgoing experience, as 82-year-old Chita Rivera and a three-piece band did a set at McGlohon Theater. To see her in action -- an opportunity I doubt Charlotteans will have again -- was to get a masterclass in how to hold an audience. She even did "Nowadays" from "Chicago," singing both her part and original co-star Gwen Verdon's. (She does a fine impression of Verdon.) As a refresher, here's what they looked like together on "The Mike Douglas Show," circa 1975:

Every performer has an ego; otherwise, none would get onstage. But the difference between Rivera and Jerry Lewis or Carol Channing (both of whom I saw in musicals in their 70s) is that she pours her energy into characters. Her memories are about her luck in having John Kander write "All That Jazz" for her or give her a great role as a weary mother in "The Rink." She didn't mention the Tony she won for the latter; in fact, she didn't mention a single award or accolade from any part of her career.

When I interviewed her a couple of weeks ago, she said she has always defined herself as a dancer. Perhaps that explains her work ethic and her outlook: Even great dancers usually take back seats to choreographers and, in musical theater, to directors and composers. We love them less for their personalities than their skill sets.

And she still has a skill set, more than six decades after her career began. She maximizes the physical and vocal ranges left to her and uses her face and upper body to convey details. She interacts cleverly with her talented trio: percussionist/music director Michael Croiter, bassist Jim Donica and pianist Michael Patrick Walker (yes, one of the composer-lyricists of "Altar Boyz"). She sings "Carousel" (from "Jacques Brel") almost without moving her lower torso and casts a spell.

She's magnetic and funny and has a rare star quality, the kind that doesn't say "Love me" or even "Look at me" but "Let me recreate great places I've been and great stuff I've been a part of along the way." If you skipped this show to watch Hollywood's orgy of self-congratulation tonight, you made the biggest error of the current arts season.

Friday, February 20, 2015

The 2015 Oscars offer one upset -- maybe

In recent years, guessing who’ll win an Academy Award is about as tough as predicting who’ll become king at a coronation. Oddsmakers lay sophisticated betting lines, front-runners garner other awards in advance, the media begins to trumpet one candidate -- which feeds the frenzy of voters – and the tension on the big night is reserved for best sound effects editing and documentary feature.

Luckily, 2015 is different. Kinda. Three of the races, all dominated by veterans, seem to be over. The others? Still up in the air.

The three that hardly anyone has doubts about are best actress, supporting actor and actress. Fayetteville-born Julianne Moore (whose father was in the U.S Army Judge Advocate General's Corps at Fort Bragg) seems a lock as best actress; she’s not only playing the kind of role that wins awards (a woman suffering from early onset Alzheimer’s disease) but has been nominated five times.

J.K. Simmons is even more secure for best supporting actor. His appropriately showy performance as a sadistic teacher in “Whiplash” caught all eyes. Patricia Arquette will be best supporting actress, because she provided even more of the emotional core of “Boyhood” than the young actor at the center of the film.

The likeliest surprise of the night comes in the best actor category. Conventional wisdom leans toward Eddie Redmayne for “The Theory of Everything,” where he gives a body-contorting performance as Stephen Hawking, or Michael Keaton for “Birdman,” mainly because he has never been nominated before. (Both are good, of course.) I think Bradley Cooper may win on his third try: He’s tremendous in “American Sniper, which has become a massive hit ($300 million in North America alone), and he has the momentum at the moment – unless political controversy around the film drives voters away.

Best director and best picture have divided more often recently, but they won’t in 2015. Voters will reward Alejandro González Iñárritu for audacity in “Birdman” or Richard Linklater for tenacity in “Boyhood,” which he filmed over 12 years. I think they’ll want Richard Linklater and “Boyhood” – which happened to be my favorite film last year.

Friday, February 13, 2015

"Fifty Shades of Grey" -- an inspiration to us all

Movie parodies appear nowadays as soon as trailers hit the Internet, sometimes even as soon as a film gets announced. But I have never seen people react as quickly and savagely as they have for "Fifty Shades of Grey," a picture that has triggered innumerable mashups and knockoffs. The one starring Steve Buscemi seems to have gotten ahead of the pack:

Or perhaps you'd prefer "Fifty Shades of Frozen:"

Or the take by Ellen DeGeneres, who does a lot of fake trailers for films:

There's also a short film called "Fifty Shades of Grey Gardens," in which Christian Grey tries to evict Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis' relatives from a decrepit mansion on "Long Island." I'm still waiting for "Fifty Shades of The Grey," in which man-eating wolves chase the young lovers around until Liam Neeson saves them (thanks to my friend Matt Brunson for that idea) and "Fifty Shades of Gru," in which the hero of "Despicable Me" -- who is rich, domineering and generous, after all -- ties up female Minions and has his way with them. Or do Minions even have a gender?

The original movie, which opens today nationwide, is a turgid story of dominance and submission that doesn't raise the erotic temperature in the theater one degree. But anything that inspires wit in others, however witless it may be itself, can't be all bad.

Monday, February 2, 2015

Former Charlotte actor MacLachlan pays movie dues

If you want to find someone who's having a typical Hollywood career outside the star circuit, consider Angus MacLachlan. The UNC School of the Arts graduate, who acted for Charlotte Repertory Theatre in the late '80s and early '90s, shot a short film called "Tater Tomater" in 1990.

He kept acting and writing plays, but filmmaking called. He wrote the script for "Junebug," which introduced Amy Adams to fans 10 years ago and earned her the first of five Oscar nominations. Five years later, another script ("Stone") finally got made. Three years after that, he wrote the screenplay for the Norwegian psychological drama "Förtroligheten."

Finally, he made his writing-directing debut with "Goodbye To All That," which broke out at last year's Tribeca International Film Festival in April. Paul Schneider won the fest's prize as best actor by playing a man whose wife (Melanie Lynskey) startles him with her announcement that she wants a divorce; he embarks on ill-advised encounters with women his age (late 30s) and younger, while trying to keep the respect of his young daughter. Here's Angus (right) with fellow director Justin Weinstein at Tribeca:

The supporting cast included Heather Graham, Heather Lawless and Anna Camp. But in a crowded marketplace of first-run theaters, "Goodbye" more or less disappeared. IFC films gave it a limited release in late December; it hasn't played Charlotte theatrically, because the Regal and AMC chains (which own almost all the theaters here) prefer not to show films that have a simultaneous release on DVD or video, as this one did.

"So far we have about 15 markets," MacLachlan wrote me last month. "We've done NYC, L.A., Pittsburgh, Sante Fe, Winston-Salem" -- where he lives and shot the movie -- "and other odd, obscure ones: Coral Gables, Fla., Waynesville, N.C. Go figure.

"It is on all other platforms, and I think that's the way small indies are going. No one can make any money off of theatrical. It feels like in 4-5 years, this size film won't get any theatrical release at all."

By "all other platforms," he means Video on Demand, iTunes, Amazon and the usual suspects. And if he's right about his prognosis, 2020 will be a sad time in movie distribution. There should always be room for a heartfelt, gentle film about a person you or I might know -- or even be -- who's struggling to hit one of life's curveballs. We can't spend our entire entertainment-based lives watching aliens and sorcerers and teen boys or girls coming of age with mighty feats.

Or can we? More and more, movie distributors seem to think we can. 

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Elvis, Gandhi and 'Star Trek'

I've been buried with work over the last two weeks, or I'd have taken time to notice three crucial January anniversaries.

First, Elvis Presley was born 80 years ago this month on January 8. Say what you want about his borrowings from black singers, country music and gospel: He remains one of the greatest entertainers of the last 100 years. As proof, here's an excerpt from "Jailhouse Rock:"

The ninth of January marked Pravasi Bharatiya Divas (Nonresident Indian Day), which commemorates the contribution of the overseas Indian community to the development of India. It celebrates the return of Mahatma Gandhi from South Africa to Bombay 100 years ago. Without his ideas about nonviolent protest, the life of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. might have been very different. We might not be wondering today if "Selma" was going to win an Oscar, because the march in that troubled Alabama town might have taken a very different turn.

And the third? The pilot episode of "Star Trek" -- "The Cage" -- was completed 50 years ago last Friday, with a very different leader of the Enterprise: Captain Pike, played by Jeffrey Hunter. NBC executives reportedly dismissed it as too slow and cerebral; the series debuted in 1966 with William Shatner commanding the ship as James T. Kirk, and this episode wasn't seen for two decades. Only Leonard Nimoy (as a more animated Spock than we came to know) and Majel Barrett made it to the series; she played "Number One" in the pilot under her real name, M. Leigh Hudec, but is best known as Nurse Christine Chapel to "Star Trek" fans. Here's the long-buried pilot in its entirety: