Woman Around Town’s Editor Charlene Giannetti and writers for the website talk with the women and men making news in New York, Washington, D.C., and other cities around the world. Thanks to Ian Herman for his wonderful piano introduction.
The 1993 film Groundhog Day is something of a cult classic. When masterfully wry Bill Murray (as weatherman Phil Connors) is forced to relive the ersatz holiday (until he gets a heart and gets it right) in mawkishly chipper Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, audiences reveled in every quip and Machiavellian move.
The good news is that Andy Karl is up to the task in this, a musical version. Not since 2015’s On the Twentieth Century has Karl had the opportunity to showcase his comic chops as well as leading man vocals. Despite a knee injury that briefly sidelined the actor, he adroitly employs physical humor as well as superb timing. At one point this evening, the actor lays his thoroughly braced leg across a counter stool attempting to seduce the character’s associate producer Rita Hanson (the capable, but undistinguished Barrett Doss). Onstage virtually throughout, Karl holds the piece together with unflagging charisma.
The Company- Andy Karl, center
Also in Column A, book (and earlier screenplay) writer Danny Rubin maintains his hero’s dark disposition and wit, Rita’s resistance (somewhat updated with a mourned loss of sweetness), and the loopy friendliness of townspeople.
The look of this production under Rob Howell’s stewardship, is often inspired. “It just better be a big van,” Connors snaps when told he won’t be traveling south by limousine. We next see an irresistible, toy-sized conveyance spot-lit on the empty stage as it makes its way through night fog. A credible truck frame is literally built around Connors and two locals out on a bender. Chased by police in their own faux car-fronts replete with flashing lights, three vehicles shrink to 16” versions racing through a town of streets with seemingly floating houses.
The six-foot plus groundhog never fails to amuse. A revolving stage is used with great success as is the rotating set piece revealing Connor’s bed and breakfast bedroom. (Caveats: local women with whom the weatherman briefly frolics wear out of place, glow-in-the-dark lingerie and two townspeople wear obvious fat suits .)
Video by Andrzej Goulding, impressionistic Lighting Design by Hugh Vanstone, and nifty illusions by Paul Kieve add to delight.
Now for the disappointing and unfortunately prevailing Column B. Songwriter Tim Minchin, who in my opinion did a brilliant job with Matilda, offers mostly tuneless numbers with prose that unsuccessfully fights to fit music. Though lyrics can be extremely clever, they don’t sing. Several rock n’roll numbers arrive cacophonous and as if in the wrong show. (Generic choreography by Peter Darling doesn’t help.)
Both ostensibly misjudged town hottie Nancy (Rebecca Faulenberry) and Phil’s former schoolmate Ned (John Sanders), minor characters, are given entirely superfluous numbers. The visit to a doctor in the film is blown out of proportion into a long, forced number featuring attempts by practitioners from faith healers to psychologists. A carnival ride is added without logic or context.
Barrett Doss, Andy Karl
Some of the blame falls squarely on the shoulders of Director Michael Warchus whose skill and imagination with Matilda plus a long list of other material, promised way better. To give him his due, Warchus deftly conveys repetition and Phil’s radically changing activity/attitude over the passing of days – though a parentheses of successive suicide attempts by company members dressed as Phil seems excessive as we’ve already seen the hero himself try and fail.
The only person with developed personality traits, however, is Connors. Brief character turns feel walked-through, eschewing opportunities for bright cameos. Ned isn’t geeky enough, the landlady lacks cliché coziness. Rita’s tough cookie persona is one dimensional. Exceptions: Gus (Andrew Call) and Ralph (Raymond J. Lee) showcase appealing quirk in a bar number with Phil and Josh Lamon flickers in and out with some brio.
Judging by audible reaction, not all audience members are familiar with the story which remains appealing, but the work is not up to its creators.
Photos by Joan Marcus Opening: Andy Karl
Groundhog Day-The Musical Book by Danny Rubin Music & Lyrics by Tim Minchin Directed by Matthew Warchus August Wilson Theatre 245 West 52 Street
International Women’s Day is March 8th. In the spirit of the occasion, it seems appropriate to consider watching a movie with a woman director. Sadly, at present, this is a limited field, nevertheless we have found five worthy contenders and hope to see far, FAR more in the future.
The Piano (1993) Written and directed by New Zealand’s own Jane Campion, this romantic drama starring Holly Hunter as a mute piano player and widowed mother who becomes entangled in a convoluted love triangle with Sam Neill and Harvey Keitel. It made over $140 million worldwide on a seven million dollar budget, was nominated for eight Academy Awards and won three; Best Actress for Holly Hunter, Best Supporting Actress for Anna Paquin, and Best Original Screenplay for Campion. Campion also became the first and thus far only woman to win the Palme d’Or at Cannes. She would later go on to direct the award winning romantic drama Bright Star, as well as write and direct the TV mystery/drama series Top Of the Lake starring Elisabeth Moss in a role that’s won her a Golden Globe and Critics Choice Award.
Monsoon Wedding (2001) Directed by Indian born Mira Nair this romantic comedy details various entanglements and dramas taking place during a traditional Punjabi Hindu wedding in Delhi. Along the way we are treated to song and dance numbers as well as a number of observations about life in Modern 21st Century India and Punjabi culture. The movie was nominated for a BAFTA and a Golden Globe. It won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival making Nair only the second Indian to win in that category. Nair would go on to direct such films as The Namesake (nominated for a Gotham Award and Independent Spirit Award), The Reluctant Fundamentalist (for which Nair won The Bridge, The German Film Award for Peace), and Queen of Katwe (nominated for four NAACP Image Awards and Winner of Best Family Film by Women Film Critics Circle.)
Lost In Translation (2003) Written and directed by Sofia Coppola (daughter of the legendary Francis Ford Coppola), this bittersweet comedy starring Bill Murray (in a role that many considered to be his best work to date and which launched a career renaissance for him) as a washed up movie star who connects with young, unhappy, newlywed Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson in her breakout role). The movie was a huge breakout success earning over a $100 million on a four million dollar budget. Johannson and Murray each received BAFTA Awards. The film garnered four Oscar nominations including Best Picture, Best Actor, and Best Director. Coppola actually won an Oscar for Best Screenplay. Sofia would later become the first American woman to win the Golden Lion the top prize at the Venice International Film Festival for 2010’s Somewhere which she also wrote and directed.
The Hurt Locker (2009) Directed by Kathryn Bigelow (Point Break, Strange Days). This war thriller about an Iraqi bomb squad starring Jeremy Renner, Anthony Mackie, and Brian Geraghty is one of the most suspenseful and grittiest war movies ever made with an incredible emphasis on the psychological toll of combat. It’s so intense and realistic you can almost taste sand in your mouth during one particular sequence. It was universally acclaimed by critics and went on to win six Academy Awards including Best Picture. Bigelow won the award for Best Director and as of this date The Hurt Locker remains the first movie directed by a woman to win either Best Director or Best Picture. Bigelow would go on to direct Zero Dark Thirty which would be nominated for five Oscar awards including Best Picture.
Selma (2014) Directed by Ava DuVernay. While DuVernay was the first African American woman to win the Sundance Film Festival Award for Best Director for her feature film Middle of Nowhere, it was this historical drama starring David Oyelowo as Martin Luther King, Jr. based on the real life voting marches from Selma to Montgomery,that helped her truly rise to prominence. With Selma, DuVernay became the first African American woman to be nominated for the Golden Globe for Best Director as well as the black female director to have her film nominated by the Academy for Best Picture. In 2017, she was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature for her film 13th examining race and mass incarceration in the U.S. She’s currently working on directing on an adaption of A Wrinkle in Time for Disney with a budget exceeding $100 million making DuVernay the first black woman to direct a live action film with a budget of such size.
It’s not as bad as some (mostly male) critics have predicted. But it’s not as good as it might have been. By including scenes, themes, the logo, settings, even spirits from the original Ghostbusters, the new Ghostbusters misses an opportunity to present something fresh and innovative and even – dare we say – go on to become a cult hit on its own merits. While the all female cast has been touted, what does it say that perhaps the best performance in the film is by a guy? Chris Hemsworth seems to be having the time of his life playing the ditsy receptionist, Kevin, hired not for his skills but for his hunky eye candy appeal.
That’s not to say that this film isn’t fun and enjoyable. (Particularly this summer when so many hyped sequels have fallen flat.) Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig, Kate McKinnon, and Leslie Jones have chemistry and superb comic timing. Yet these talented actresses are hamstrung by a script that often falls flat and doesn’t allow them to truly bring their characters alive. McKinnon, who never lets what’s on the page hold her back, manages to stand out as the quirky, eccentric scientist Jillian Holtzmann. McCarthy and Wiig are fine, but at times seem to be walking through their parts. As for Jones, casting her as a blue-collar worker, is probably not what Jada Pinkett Smith had in mind when she was arguing for more high profile roles for black actors. Jones is terrific as a bad ass MTA worker, but why couldn’t she have been a bad ass scientist?
McCarthy and Wiig play Abby Yates and Erin Gilbert, former colleagues who once wrote a book on the paranormal. Now that Gilbert is up for tenure at Columbia University, she goes to Yates’ lab, asking her to stop selling the book on Amazon, fearing it will damage her reputation as a serious scientist. When Yates and Holtzmann receive a call to investigate the paranormal activity at a Manhattan mansion, Gilbert can’t resist going along. After the ghost makes an appearance, Gilbert’s fate is sealed. The event makes it onto the internet, she’s fired from Columbia and agrees to join Yates and Holtzmann’s lab. Jones’ character, Patty Tolan, comes on board after witnessing ghostly activity on the subway tracks.
What the film lacks is a compelling plot and a real villain. The bad guy here is Rowan North (Neil Casey), a hotel worker who is somehow collecting bad spirits to create chaos with a big attack. (How and why he’s doing this is never fully explained.) Rowan comes off as a sad sack who is disgruntled but never appears very threatening. He does manage, however, to unleash a firestorm which manifests itself on the screen with an unending barrage of ghosts. There’s a lot of activity, but never a center for the attack. It just appears as computer imaging run amok. Once Rowan disappears, there’s no real villain to take his place. (One longs for the more creative plot in the original which at least made it clear who and what Bill Murray and company were fighting.)
Speaking of Murray, he makes the obligatory cameo as a professor out to discredit this new all-woman team. Dan Ackroyd turns up as a cab driver who refuses to take Wiig’s Gilbert to Chinatown and gets to deliver the expected line: “I ain’t afraid of no ghosts.” Ernie Hudson appears as Tolan’s uncle whose hearse the team has been using. The fourth member of the original crew, Harold Ramis, died last year. (Stay for the credits to catch Sigourney Weaver.)
While all these star turns are fun to watch (Annie Potts, the original receptionist, is seen here as a hotel clerk), they keep reminding us that this Ghostbusters is not that Ghostbusters. Director Paul Feig, who co-wrote the screenplay with Katie Dippold, seems to be trying too hard to appease those critics who trashed this reboot based solely on the all-female cast. Feig worked with McCarthy and Wiig on Bridesmaids while Dippold delivered a terrific script for The Heat’s female pair of McCarthy and Sandra Bullock. Both films were critical and box office winners. They missed an opportunity to create another winner here.
Jon Favreau has become something of a Hollywood It Man (again) with recent films including the Iron Man movies and 2014’s raw Chef. With Disney’s new release The Jungle Book, he will undoubtedly add another hit to this list. In this latest directorial effort, Favreau brings us the familiar story of Mowgli (Neel Sethi), a young boy orphaned in the jungle as just a baby, saved from the savagery of the elements by Bagheera (Ben Kingsley), a panther with his best interests at heart. Mowgli spends his childhood living comfortably as just another pup in a wolf pack, being taught the code of the pack and the essentials of survival.
One of these lessons is co-existing all manner of species, everything from alligators to peacocks to water buffalo. This “man cub” is surprisingly successful at this comingling, with the exception of a particularly nasty Bengal tiger, the intimidating Shere Khan (voiced by a perfect Idris Elba, whom I love, even when his character is this evil). Despite the passing of several years, Shere Khan harbors a deep grudge against our young protagonist, and goes to great and sad lengths to even a perceived score. Ultimately, Mowgli must leave his pack and all that he knows.
In the adventures that follow, Mowgli encounters a menagerie of new friends and foes as he makes his way through uncharted (figurative and literal) terrain. This allows Disney to surprise us with an array of celebrity voices, everyone from Bill Murray as the bumbling bear Baloo to Scarlett Johansson as a sinister reptile. All of the voices are well done here, but it’s Bill Murray and Christopher Walken – as King Louie, a power-hungry orangutan – who really shine. Baloo’s character almost seems made for Murray, pairing his lackadaisical attitude with an inexorable charm. He gets all of the laughs of the film and he deserves them.
But the true star of this version is the lush, deeply-hued animation. When Mowgli glides through thick jungle canopy, we can almost feel the humidity hanging on our skin. When he and Baloo playfully splash each other in the river, or when he runs his hands through his wolf mother’s fur, there’s no need to suspend disbelief. It’s as if they are together, that the entire film’s scenery is indeed that lush and dramatic, that flames lapping at tree branches might burn. While in hindsight you recognize these all as computer-generated images, you won’t think a thing of it in the moment. It’s all that vivid.
Which is also why younger children will find this a scary film to watch, particularly in IMAX 3D (as we viewed it). The speed with which the dark action unfurls does not lend itself to such grand projection; it was almost as if our eyes had trouble keeping pace. The callous and intimidating Shere Khan would be so on a flat screen TV – now imagine him being 50 feet tall. At times, it was just too intense.
But if you’ve a soft spot for the epic and the nostalgic, and dark, scary scenes don’t rattle you, you will appreciate this film and the rich world Favreau has created. Enjoy the journey.