Monday, January 22, 2018

Normal Theater Six-Week Film School Focuses on "Wonder Women Directors"


Professor William McBride will be starting a new six-week film school at the Normal Theater tomorrow night. You may recall previous offerings centered on film noir, Hitchcock and Martin Scorsese. This time, McBride will be looking at films directed by women, starting with Dorothy Arzner’s Christopher Strong (1933), starring Katharine Hepburn as an independent-minded aviator, January 24 at 7 pm, and in subsequent weeks moving on to Ida Lupino’s thriller The Hitch-Hiker (1953); A League of Their Own (1992), Penny Marshall’s love letter to professional women’s baseball during World War II; Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation (2003), a highly cinematic look at two lost souls navigating the modern world; Selma (2014), Ava DuVernay’s take on Martin Luther King Jr. and the struggle for voting rights; and the superhero phenomenon Wonder Woman (2017), directed by Patty Jenkins.

That's quite a range of styles and themes, but Professor McBride is clear on why he chose them:
"On my way out of the Normal Theater following the post-screen discussion of one of Scorsese’s films, a female patron approached me and asked why not do a series of female directors? I have been working on our new series ever since—and given the current cultural moment regarding harassment and gender inequality in Hollywood, Washington, and everywhere else, the timing of Wonder Women Directors seems perfect. Joining me for individual screenings will be Shari Zeck, Interim Dean, Milner Library, Illinois State University; Li Zeng, Head of Theatre and Film Studies and Film Minor, Illinois State University; Chamere Poole, Dept. of English Ph.D. candidate, Illinois State University; and Ann Johnson, Dept. of Sociology Masters student, Illinois State University, who will discuss the overarching cultural concepts of sex, power, history, and film style in these six films directed by women."
Although it's called a film school, there are no tests and no assignments. McBride will be there to introduce each movie and lead the post-show discussion, and he also offers hand-outs and extra material to supplement your viewing, but anyone is free to attend the films for free at the Normal Theater, Tuesday nights at 7 pm from January 24 to March 7, with a week off for Valentine's Day.

This time out, McBride and the Normal Theater are asking you to RSVP or reserve a seat, with a link to do just that on the program's page at the Normal Theater website. You'll find details on each film there, and that's also where the extra materials will go once they're up.

Christopher Strong alone has generated pages and pages of commentary on what it says about gender, feminism, professional women, culture, romance, and what a girl had to do to get by in the 1930s, as well as its sensational costume design, so I know you'll enjoy hearing what McBride and his experts have to say on that one!

Friday, January 12, 2018

MARVELOUS MRS. MAISEL Streaming Free All Weekend at Amazon.com

The sprightly Amazon comedy known as The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel is having a very happy new year. It's already been named the best comedy series on TV by Golden Globes and Critics Choice voters, with Rachel Brosnahan, who really is marvelous as Mrs. Maisel, nabbing Best Actress awards from both groups. To celebrate all that awards success, Amazon is now making The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel available to everyone (not just Amazon Prime subscribers, in other words) this weekend, so that everyone can share the joy. You can stream it for free starting at 12:01 am today and ending at 11:59 pm Monday January 15.

All eight episodes of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel bowed on Amazon last November. I admit: I binged the minute they were available. The series looks great -- no surprise costume designer Donna Zakowska is nominated for awards of her own --  and it has enough humor and heart to really sell its story.

What story? When we first meet Miriam "Midge" Maisel, she's enjoying her life as a housewife on the Upper West Side in the late 1950s. Nice Jewish husband, two babies, lovely apartment in the same building as her parents... Midge Maisel has it all under control. She can hire Broadway dancers and give the perfect speech to make her wedding zing, she can make the perfect brisket to get her wannabe standup comedian husband a slot in a club (he has a cushy day job but longs to don a turtleneck and do standup in Greenwich Village) and she can perform the perfect calisthenics necessary to keep her perfect figure. Unfortunately, her husband shows pretty quickly he isn't really up to all that perfection. He's gone, her parents are having a meltdown, and her whole identity is on the line. And, at that moment, with her well-ordered life tipped upside-down, Midge discovers her talents may be very different from what she expected. After a couple of meetings with Lenny Bruce (winningly played by Luke Kirby of Slings and Arrows fame) and some help from a scruffy comedy manager (very funny Alex Borstein), Mrs. Maisel is on her way.

The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel has all the rapid-fire, breezy dialogue you'd expect from an Amy Sherman-Palladino project. Rachel Brosnahan doesn't exactly offer a Jewish 1958 version of Lorelai Gilmore, but she's close. Her Midge is also funny, smart, complicated and beautiful. And again, that wardrobe!

I am not all that into standup comedy as a milieu, but it doesn't really matter. It's Midge and how she steamrolls her life that makes it magic. Brosnahan carries the show beautifully, with all kinds of help from a terrific supporting cast. Borstein and Kirby are part of that, with Marin Hinkle and Tony Shalhoub making a huge contribution -- they're crazy and infuriating, but fiercely funny -- as Midge's neurotic parents, with guest actors like Nate Cordrry, Joe Grifasi, Jane Lynch, David Paymer, Kevin Pollak, Wallace Shawn and Mary Testa making vivid impressions along the way. And then there's Michael Zegen, given the unenviable task of bringing to life limp noodle Joel Maisel, Midge's husband. He is successful at making Joel a weasel, but it seems like a no-brainer that she's better off without him.

It remains to be seen in Season Two just how independent Mrs. Maisel will become with her newfound standup confidence and whether Mr. Maisel will appear as anything more than a distant memory. Given that she's still got his name and his kids, I have to think Joel will be sticking around in some capacity. But there's plenty of conflict left to explore with her parents and how they'll react to the new downtown Midge, how she manages being a mother while she's on stage, where she lives and how she keeps brisket on the table, and where, if anywhere, Midge looks for romance. Who needs Joel?

You'll find The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel streaming this weekend at Amazon.com.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Opening Tonight: COMPLETE WORKS (ABRIDGED) at Community Players


As you might expect from the name of the theatrical organization itself, the Reduced Shakespeare Company's first in a collection of various kinds of "works" sewn together in a fast, funny and "abridged" condition was the one about Shakespeare. I've seen it called The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged), The Compleat Wrks of Wllm Shkspr (Abridged) and a few other variations on that theme.

The basic idea is that three actors (in early days, Adam Long, Daniel Singer and Jess Winfield, who are also credited with the script) perform a very abbreviated romp through all of Shakespeare's plays, done up with silly wigs, goofy props, lots of physical and verbal humor that generally aims for the lowest common denominator, and a certain amount of audience interaction. Puns! Football! Julia Child! And even a little Shakespeare. It's good stuff for performers with lots of energy and very little shame. 

The Reduced Shakespeare Company's Complete Works is a popular choice -- it appeared twice in four seasons on the Illinois Shakespeare Festival schedule -- plus it's been done in pieces by a long parade of high school actors in speech and theater competitions and it's even toured through these parts by the Reduced Shakespeare guys themselves. Each trio that performs it makes it new, dependent upon the skills and special talents they bring to the table. Will it a be a grad-school-hangover Reduced Works, a hillbilly Reduced Works, a serious-actors-stuck-in-purgatory Reduced Works, or something completely different?

Community Players opens its very own version of the "cultural touchstone" that is The Reduced Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged) with a preview performance tonight at 7:30 pm, directed by Brett Cottone, with Dave Montague, Chris Stevenson and Missy Freese standing in for Daniel, Adam and Jess, in that order. It's a little unusual to see a woman taking part in a Reduced Work, but, hey, girls want to have fun, too.

This Reduced Works continues through January 21, with all Thursday, Friday and Saturday performances at 7:30 pm and Sunday matinees at 2:30 pm.

For more information, click here for the Players webpage on this production or here to purchase tickets. You can also call the box office at 309-663-2121 for more information.

Saturday, December 30, 2017

Normal Theater Ends 2017 and Begins 2018 with BOMBSHELL and Hedy Lamarr

The Normal Theater has chosen to close out 2017 and open 2018 with three movies that trace the career of one of the most beautiful women ever to grace a Hollywood screen. Hedy Lamarr's luminous beauty jumps off the screen in both Ziegfeld Girl, a potboiler from 1941 with Judy Garland and Lana Turner alongside Lamarr as women chasing rainbows and putting their virtue on the line to make it in show biz, and The Conspirators, a 1944 spy thriller starring Paul Henreid and Lamarr against a backdrop of Nazis and the Resistance in Lisbon during World War II.  

Ziegfeld Girl played Thursday night at the Normal Theater and it's repeated this afternoon at 1 pm, while The Conspirators is up January 4th and 6th at 7pm.

If you need proof that Lamarr was gorgeous, you'll find it in either of those films as well as any number of images scattered across the internet. But there was a lot more to Hedy Lamarr than her stunning looks, and that's what a documentary called Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story is all about.

It's hard to be taken seriously as an inventor when you look like Hedy Lamarr, Vienna-born actress and Hollywood star. In fact, the story goes that when Lamarr tried to join the National Inventors Council to help the American effort in World War II, she was basically patted on the head and told she should stick to being pretty and selling war bonds and leave important war stuff to the big boys.

But that didn't stop her. And she and a "bad boy" pianist named George Antheil came up with something called "frequency hopping spread spectrum" broadcasting that scholars have deemed the forerunner to current GPS, Bluetooth and Wifi technology. Hedy called it "tinkering." We call it "genius." Whatever you call it, it meant that Hedy Lamarr was a pioneer -- an unsung, unwanted pioneer -- on the electronic frontier.

Lamarr's off-screen brilliance -- as well as the intriguing fact that nobody really paid any attention to it -- is the premise of Bombshell, with director /writer Alexandra Dean striving to paint a more complete picture of this enigmatic, complex "icon, immigrant, inventor." And all-around amazing woman.

Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story is on screen at the Normal Theater tonight at 7 pm, with repeat showings on January 5 and 7 at 7 pm.

Thursday, December 28, 2017

Grable, Hutton, Kelly, Astaire and Powell: TCM Goes Musical All Night Long

On this, the last Thursday of December 2017, Turner Classic Movies offers one last selection of "Great American Songbook" films. Or, in other words, musicals! Musicals to brighten your evening and make you forget just how horribilis this annus has been. It's hard to be grumpy when people are singing and dancing all over your TV.  Got no mansion, got no yacht... Still I'm happy with what I got...

The marquee movie airing at 8 pm Eastern/7 pm Central is The Dolly Sisters, the 1945 pseudo-bio-pic from 20th Century Fox, starring Betty Grable and June Haver as a highly fictionalized version of Jenny and Rosie Dolly, Hungarian-American twin sisters who were major stars in the U.S. and Europe in the early 20th century. John Payne plays Harry Fox, Jenny Dolly's dancer husband, but it's S.Z. "Cuddles" Sakall who steals the show every time he appears as the adorable but irresponsible Uncle Latsie. Standards that qualify for the Great American Songbook like "Carolina in the Morning" and "I'm Always Chasing Rainbows" are performed in the movie.

After the Dolly Sisters take a bow, Miss Annie Oakley is up in Annie Get Your Gun, the big, boffo 1950 Hollywood version of Irving Berlin's stage musical. With "more bounce per ounce" Betty Hutton as Annie instead of Broadway's Ethel Merman, this technicolor extravaganza definitely has energy to burn. Howard Keel is handsome and tuneful as Annie's husband and shooting rival, Frank Butler, and Berlin's dandy score, stuffed with hits like "There's No Business Like Show Business," "You Can't Get a Man with a Gun" and "Anything You Can Do" can't be beat. Annie Get Your Gun airs at 9:15 pm Central time tonight on TCM.

The Bronx is up and the Battery's down when Gene Kelly, Frank Sinatra and Jules Munshin dance all over Manhattan in On the Town, the 1949 film musical based on the Broadway show with music by Leonard Bernstein and book and lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green. Kelly, Sinatra and Munshin play sailors looking for fun and romance during their 24 hours of leave, with Vera-Ellen, Betty Garrett and Ann Miller providing the romance part. "New York, New York" is the song you'll know from this one, which begins tonight at 11:15 pm Central time.

The Band Wagon, often listed as one of the best movies ever made about theater, follows at 1 am Central time. Fred Astaire plays Tony Hunter, a star with his best years behind him, cast in a new Broadway show with a much younger, more serious leading lady, played by Cyd Charisse, with Jack Buchanan as an artiste of a director who plagues them with strange ideas. Nanette Fabray and Oscar Levant are Lily and Les Marton, stand-ins for Comden and Green, who got story credit for the film. The soundtrack is first-class, with gems from Arthur Schwartz and Howard Dietz like "That's Entertainment," "A Shine on Your Shoes" and "I Guess I'll Have to Change My Plan." This 1953 Band Wagon, directed by Vincente Minnelli, took its name from a 1931 Broadway revue with a Dietz/Schwartz score that starred Fred and Adele Astaire. Other than borrowing a few songs like "New Sun in the Sky," "I Love Louisa" and "Dancing in the Dark," the film Band Wagon is a new cinematic creation.

After a short called MGM Jubilee Overture, TCM's Great American Songbook ends in the wee hours of morning with Broadway Melody of 1936, scheduled to begin at 3:30 am Central time. The plot is convoluted, circling around Eleanor Powell as a dancer who wants to be in Robert Taylor's new show, but they were sweethearts in the past and he doesn't want her anywhere near Broadway, so she falls in with a crazy scheme concocted by meanie show biz columnist Jack Benny but hijacked by Taylor's snappy secretary Una Merkel, who likes Powell. To get her chance, Powell pretends to be a made-up French star visiting New York, complete with terrible accent. It's all pretty crazy, but it's backed up by music like "You Are My Lucky Star," "I've Got a Feelin' You're Foolin'" and "Broadway Rhythm," as performed by the likes of Buddy and Vilma Ebsen, Frances Langford, June Knight and, of course, Eleanor Powell.

When Broadway Melody of 1936 is over, TCM moves on to The Beast with Five Fingers and other decidedly non-musical fare. As we celebrate the death of net neutrality and skyrocketing cable bills, we'll have to content ourselves with these last moments of 2017. Got no diamonds, got no pearls...

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Kennedy Center Honors Tonight on CBS

Tonight's the night to see the annual broadcast of the Kennedy Center Honors. It's always a good show, as honorees from various walks of the entertainment business are celebrated through clips, performances and laudatory speeches from their peers, who are also show biz greats.

This year's honorees are actress, dancer and choreographer Carmen de Lavallade; "singer-songwriter, actress, philanthropist, author, and overall hyphenate" -- as well as seven-time Grammy Award winner and the subject of a Broadway musical -- Gloria Estefan; rapper L L Cool J, who also stars in NCIS: Los Angeles, hosts and produces the TV show Lip Sync Battle, and has his own radio station in the works; TV legend Norman Lear, probably best-known for developing and writing hugely influential series like All in the Family, Good Times, One Day at a Time and Sanford and Son, but he's also produced movies, including The Princess Bride; and music icon Lionel Richie, who has written and performed his way to over 100 million albums sold as well as an Oscar, a Golden Globe, and four Grammy Awards, with songs like "Endless Love," "Hello," "Say You, Say Me" and "We Are the World" on his glittery resume.

Left to right in the image below, you'll find Richie, Lear, de Lavallade, LL Cool J and Estefan. To read more about these megastars and their accomplishments, click here.


If you'd like to check out a video preview of tonight's event, click here. You can expect to see artists like Luke Bryan, Misty Copeland, Becky G, Chaka Khan, Queen Latifah, Rob Reiner, Busta Rhymes, Meryl Streep and Stevie Wonder on hand to offer tributes.

Kennedy Center Honors air tonight, December 26, at 9 pm Eastern and 8 pm Central Time, on CBS.

Friday, December 22, 2017

Peter Capaldi's Last DOCTOR WHO in Movie Theaters Dec 27 and 28

Peter Capaldi has brought a different energy to Doctor Who, that's for sure. He will go out (or regenerate) in style in Doctor Who: "Twice Upon a Time," a special Who movie screened in theaters nationwide next week. It's also the end of the Who road for Stephen Moffat, who has been executive producer and head writer since 2008. He wrote this episode.

As a send-off for both Capaldi and Moffat, "Twice Upon a Time" has earned a big-screen splash. Here's the official tagline: "The epic finale to the Peter Capaldi era of Doctor Who, 'Twice Upon a Time,' is coming to cinemas for only one night, featuring the return of Pearl Mackie and special guests Mark Gatiss (Sherlock) and David Bradley (Filch in the Harry Potter movies)."

It's actually in cinemas two nights -- December 27 and 28 -- here in Bloomington, but if you can't wait for the big screen treatment or you want to see it more than once, it will be screened on television on Christmas Day. In the UK, it airs at 5:30 pm, while in the United States, it's scheduled for 8 and 11:40 pm Central time on BBC America.

As you can tell from the poster, the current Doctor, Peter Capaldi, will have to match wits with the very first Doctor, now played by David Bradley. It's fitting to put Bradley in the role since he played William Hartnell, who really was the first Doctor, in a 2013 TV movie about the beginnings of the Who universe.

We are promised tears, joy and a moving farewell in this meeting of alpha and omega doctors, neither of whom wants to say goodbye, set against a World War I story about two soldiers on opposite sides. If you'd like some a few hints or even minor spoilers, you can click under those links. And the trailer, as well as the cast list and more info about the plot, are available here and here.

In Bloomington, Doctor Who: "Twice Upon a Time" will play at 7 pm on December 27 and 28 at the Ovation Cinema Grill and the Bloomington Galaxy Cine 14. You can buy tickets ahead at the Fathom Events site if you're so inclined.