Broadway’s best salute their movie brethren
Alex Timbers on ‘Black Swan’
Directed by Darren Aronofsky
“Black Swan” is a dizzying, terrifying psychological head-trip evidencing the work of a master director at the top of his craft. The tight color control, compressed shot compositions and the DePalma-esque motif of fractured mirrors throughout bolster the shocking and disturbing story that Darren Aronofsky has set out to unravel. Even in early films like “Pi” and “Requiem for a Dream,” you could see the work of a filmmaker not only in complete control of the camera and technique but a sensitive, empathic director of actors. Here, the performances Aronofsky evinces from Natalie Portman and the rest of his corps are fearless and sidestep the pitfalls of the cliched characters usually roaming the backstage halls of performing arts-centered movies. Indeed, that Aronofsky so nails the minute details of rehearsal and performance life draws us ever deeper into his hallucinatory world. Portman’s transformation from white swan to black, and the ingenious way the third act parallels our protagonist’s inner journey with the actual story of “Swan Lake,” are simultaneously exhilarating and heart-breaking. But what is perhaps most staggering about Aronofsky’s “Black Swan,” given its apparent high-brow, arthouse gloss, is how giddily entertaining it all is.
Alex Timbers made his Broadway helmer debut in 2010 with “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson,” followed by “The Pee-wee Herman Show.”
Stephen Daldry on ‘True Grit’
Directed by Joel Coen and Ethan Coen
Joel and Ethan Coen are my favorite directors. “True Grit” is a film whose formalness feels familiar — it’s pure cinema, a classical Western that’s as grand and finely built an entertainment as any that’s come before it — only until you realize that it’s anything but. Only until you realize that Matt Damon, whose LaBoeuf is its own tiny revolution, isn’t just a blowhard — he’s a blowhard with nobility and dignity. Only until you realize that Hailee Steinfeld’s Mattie isn’t just a little girl on a great adventure, and only until you realize that Jeff Bridges’ mammoth Rooster Cogburn isn’t just a cranky old mercenary — though, of course, he’s that too. But Rooster is really a man who’s done wrong all his life, and here comes a little girl promising him the chance to do one good thing before he dies. The story of retribution remains on the surface when in reality it is a story of redemption. Because that’s what the Coens do, like no one else can. They take the conventions of film and twist them to tell us something specific and true and threatening and beautiful about the way in which they see the world. And thankfully, no one sees the world like the Coens do. Hoo-rah.
Stephen Daldry won a Tony for directing “Billy Elliot: The Musical.”
Michael Mayer on ‘The Kids Are All Right’
Directed by Lisa Cholodenko
One of the chief pleasures I received from the many pleasures of Lisa Cholodenko’s “The Kids Are All Right” is the masterful ease with which she sets up her characters, her mise-en-scene and her story. Every element feels completely fresh and yet somehow appropriately familiar and inevitable. A host of wonderful surprises keep us engaged and emotionally invested. Gorgeously natural and keenly observed, even the smallest gestures and turns of phrase are delicious, not just the wonderful twists and turns of the plot. And none of it feels forced. The film radiates the joy of storytelling, the personal connection Cholodenko must have felt while making it and a set which was clearly a playpen for superb actors at the top of their game doing some of the finest acting of the year. (Annette Bening deserves all of the awards that, God willing, she will receive.) And Cholodenko works wonders with the young actors, grounding the story in that most ungrounded of territories: adolescent uncertainty. Directors are notoriously envious creatures. We all see work that we admire and jealousy takes over. Lisa Cholodenko certainly inspired some jealousy in me, but mostly she just inspired me. And for that I am truly grateful.
Michael Mayer, a Tony winner for “Spring Awakening,” directed the current Broadway musical “American Idiot.”
Robert Falls on ‘I Am Love’
Directed by Luca Guadagnino
I confess, I’m a theater director whose work is unabashedly “theatrical.” Maybe that’s why I was blown away by the sheer audaciousness and skill of writer-director Luca Guadagnino’s remarkable film “I Am Love”: the beautiful, sweeping story of an Italian industrialist’s wife’s struggle to free herself from the tightly structured and ritualized lifestyle of her wealthy Milanese family. It is tremendously realized and struck me with its unabashed emotion, its performances and its lush camerawork, all of which come together to send audiences into an engrossing swirl of sensuality accompanied by John Adams’ moving score. Every moment is also built around the presence of its star, Tilda Swinton, who in a year of wonderful women’s performances stands out with her translucent gifts for subtlety, grace and bracing honesty. I liked every minute — for Guadagnino’s courage and heart, and especially for his ability to tell a story using subtle tools of cinema so rarely seen in contemporary film. While it could be said that it shares a kinship with the work of Douglas Sirk, “I Am Love” comes together as a highly original and vibrant film built around truly sensuous imagery. Having seen it, will anyone ever forget the wildly erotic sequence of the Swinton’s sexual awakening while enjoying a fork of perfectly prepared prawn? And where can I find that recipe?
Robert Falls, artistic director of Chi’s Goodman Theater, won a Tony for helming the 1999 Broadway revival of “Death of a Salesman.”
Michael Grandage on ‘The Social Network’
Directed by David Fincher
If shorts ever get any shorter, the pre-credit sequence of “The Social Network” could well qualify as one of the most perfect pieces of simple cinematic narrative ever committed to film. Two dating students having a drink together … a wrong turn in the conversation … end of relationship. Cut. Credits. Bliss. Aaron Sorkin’s brilliant dialogue and the focused, honest acting of Jesse Eisenberg and Rooney Mara make the opening so compelling that we are all hooked like fish from the first moment, and director David Fincher doesn’t throw us back into the water for nearly two hours. The whole thing is a testament to great acting, great storytelling and great direction. As a Broadway theater director whose job it is to try and control a production in as skillful way as possible, I find that this film represents a serious challenge. Trying to control something getting out of control from the passive position of a cinema seat is exhausting, and Fincher’s brilliant manipulation of his audience is one of the most satisfying things about this movie.
Michael Grandage, artistic director of London’s Donmar Warehouse, won a Tony last season for helming “Red.”
Mike Nichols on ‘The Social Network’
Directed by David Fincher
It’s been clear since “Fight Club” and “Seven” that David Fincher is an outstanding film maker. “The Social Network” is his masterpiece, and for him and everyone else it will be hard to match for a long time. In this immensely entertaining, scary and finally exhilarating film, Fincher and writer Aaron Sorkin have found the perfect metaphor for a sea change that is happening all over the globe. Fincher’s brilliant images, the shocking speed of the talking, walking, dealing, stealing, the lightning-fast writing of code and the betrayal that were involved in the creation of Facebook, the wit of both the screenplay and the camera, the electric performances and the unforgettable images of the film all point to a master and that is Fincher. This triumph is so enjoyable that it is beyond envy and can only give rise to applause.
Mike Nichols, a seven-time Tony winner for his helmer efforts, directs a Broadway revival of “Death of a Salesman” this autumn.
Jack O’Brien on ‘The Ghost Writer’
Directed by Roman Polanski
When you come right down to it, it’s all basically storytelling, isn’t it? Despite the star power, the boggling special effects, the extra-added invented dimensions? Because without the skill of the storyteller, what do we have, anyway? Roman Polanski, frozen in Europe, stands with the likes of Spielberg, Almodovar and a handful of others in that most essential category. His “Ghost Writer,” slight material hung on the slender sensation of a scandal involving a Tony Blair-like prime minister, a CIA link, and muffled war crimes, and which has already garnered a passel of European awards, seems on the surface to work despite ragged logic, a slice of Scandinavia pretending to be Massachusetts and a nearly comically divergent set of accents, because in the hands of a mesmerizing storyteller, you finally just don’t give a damn about the details. With the likes of Ewan McGregor and Olivia Williams firmly committed to the material, and Tom Wilkinson and even Eli Wallach spicily tucked into a few spare corners, Polanski can make a BMW silently waiting in the woods or the hair-breadth’s escape from a ferryboat as chilling as anything in “Rosemary’s Baby.” Add a delicious twist of events in the final few frames, and that’s some storyteller!
Jack O’Brien, a Tony winner for “Hairspray,” helms the upcoming Broadway musical “Catch Me if You Can.”
Leonard Foglia on ‘The King’s Speech’
Directed by Tom Hooper
Everything happens in the silences. In the opening sequence of “The King’s Speech,” director Tom Hopper pulls us into the terrified mind of Colin Firth’s Prince Albert before he even makes that first attempt to open his mouth to speak. The microphone itself appears to be a missile set on his — and by extension our — annihilation. Throughout the film we feel as if we are swimming in the very consciousness of the characters — looking out through Helena Bonham Carter’s loving eyes as she silently waits to see if the husband she loves unconditionally will slay his inner demon, and as Geoffrey Rush pauses to evaluate whether this new patient indeed really wants to conquer his affliction. But the story is truly told in the spaces between the words and syllables that are so painful for Bertie to produce. It is in those spaces that we are pulled inside the anger, frustration and fear caught in the throat of this reluctant future King of England. It takes confidence and bravery to trust silences, spaces, pauses. But Mr. Hooper does trust them. And he trusts his audience to take that frightening journey into the silence with him.
Leonard Foglia directs the new Broadway musical “The People in the Picture” this spring.
David Esbjournson on ‘Fair Game’
Directed by Doug Liman
If “Fair Game” were a piece of Hollywood fiction, it might rightfully earn the label “political thriller.” Sadly, it is not. In a country where there are so many efforts to intentionally keep average Americans off-balanced and confused about their government, films like “Fair Game” may be our best hope of achieving some clarity. The world that director Doug Liman presents is both exotic and familiar. One moment we on a fact-finding mission to Niger with Joe Wilson (Sean Penn) or a secret trip to Baghdad with Valerie Plame (Naomi Watts), then we are shown complacent Americans in an airport, sleeping through the state of the union address that will eventually send us to war. As some of the most powerful men in history systematically attempt to obliterate her career and family, Plame must finally recognize that patriotism to her country means that she must stand and publicly fight the lies. Sean Penn provides the emotional catalyst for the film. Quietly desperate in his marriage and completely outspoken politically, Penn provides a perfect counterbalance to the cool, nuanced portrayal created by Naomi Watts. Throughout her character’s ordeal, Ms. Watts seems to be holding onto so much inner tension that she might just explode in front of us. It is a superb and definitive performance.
As I got up to leave the movie theater, the man in front of me turned and asked if I believed what I had just seen. I responded that unfortunately I did. “Good,” he said. “I’m a former agent, and I’m telling you they got it right!”
David Esbjournson directed the current Broadway revival of “Driving Miss Daisy.”
Thomas Kail on ‘Toy Story 3’
Directed by Lee Unkrich
Let’s face facts: If you watched “Toy Story 3,” you wept. I heard it in the theater. I heard it from my friends. I heard it from their enemies. Director Lee Unkrich’s marvelous storytelling provides ample opportunity for a good cry. I stayed strong when our magnificent gang, led by Woody and Buzz, grabbed hands, uniting as they faced their fate. Later, when Andy picks up his toys and introduces them to their new owner, little Bonnie, I braced myself. As their introduction grows into one last adventure, where we see both Andy and his toys, spring back to life, my tears were falling at a remarkably consistent rate. Before Andy gets into his car to leave for college, he looks back and waves to Bonnie, who returns the favor, surrounded by her new toys. Then, as she gently holds Woody in her arms, Bonnie helps the beloved cowboy also wave goodbye. Andy’s quick intake of breath took mine away, and his simple last line to his old pals echoed my thoughts about the filmmaker and his team, “Thanks guys.”
“In the Heights” helmer Thomas Kail returned to Broadway this season with the new play “Lombardi.”
Bartlett Sher on ‘Somewhere’
Directed by Sofia Coppola
Sofia Coppola is an artist who is unafraid of making a real film in real time. Hooked up to a Blackberry or tied to a computer, I wonder how different we have become where everything is at a higher rate, and operating on some virtual level. Her new film, “Somewhere,” is an antidote, it is the equivalent of the slow food movement. It’s like a meal with real ingredients where you feel like having eaten so much processed food you are surprised to realize how incredible it is to experience something actual, real, full or just enough. The rhythm of her film casts a spell in its slow unfolding. We are truly mesmerized watching Steven Dorff, trapped in the airless loneliness of his fame and need for attention, as he is led into the light by the joyful intervention of his innocent, unassuming daughter, played with a vivid honesty by Elle Fanning. This simple action makes for the most acutely observed film in a decade. Ms. Coppola deeply understands how increasingly cut off we are from real life. The two most moving moments in the film come when Elle Fanning makes her dad eggs benedict. The sweetness with which she poaches eggs, carefully adds a slice of ham and adds a lovingly made sauce are the very acts of love that slowly pull her lost father back into life. And when her father, learning from his child by the end of the film, makes himself a simple pasta and pours hot water into a sink, and then sits down to eat, you think this is the first real meal and real act of life this man has attempted in a very long time. The film is like some kind of time travel, back to when artists made films in an attempt to capture something human in a film, and when all that mattered was the effort to shed light on the problems of how we really live now. That effort, and that accomplishment, makes this one of the best films of the year.
Bartlett Sher, artistic director of Seattle’s Intiman Theater, won a 2008 Tony for his direction of “South Pacific,” and he helmed “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown” this Broadway season.
Casey Nicholaw on ‘Blue Valentine’
Directed by Derek Cianfrance
Blue Valentine” is about two people and how their differences are what bring them together but what ultimately drives them apart. It’s such an unflinchling view of a relationship. I could barely watch the scene in the hotel room, knowing where it was going. He (Ryan Gosling) is trying to be romantic with her and trying to get some excitement back into their faltering relationship, and she (Michelle Williams) is clearly not interested and wants nothing to do with it. I like that the beginning of their romance is quirky, offbeat, honest and not overly sentimental: He’s moving an older gentleman into a nursing home, and he can’t let the guy move in without making it feel like home for him. It shows what a dreamer he is when they meet, and when that part of him is later crushed in his relationship, he can’t cope. He wants to resurrect the sweet and intimate relationship that they had before, and she knows it can’t be salvaged. The film jumps back and forth in time beautifully and heartbreakingly. I liked that I wasn’t clear we were going back in time at first, and then the jumps were completely integrated and clear. It’s not that we haven’t seen this story before (or lived it), but what makes the film work is the attention to detail from director Derek Cianfrance. Clearly, it’s a very personal film for him and it’s heartbreaking and moving.
Casey Nicholaw directed “Elf” on Broadway this season, and returns in the spring to helm “The Book of Mormon.”
Michael Pressman on ‘Tangled’
Directed by Nathan Greno and Byron Howard
Tangled” is breathtaking. And not quite simply so. It combines both remarkably complex and inventive, visual storytelling, with quite possibly the most beautifully rendered CGI animation I’ve ever seen. That is in and of itself no mean trick, but it is one of the most emotionally engaging films, live action or animated, that’s come out this year. It seems to me to represent a new genre: the modern fairy tale, with a sensibility adults readily embrace. The characters are real, and yet fantastical at the same time. What particularly impresses me is the sure-handed direction of two relatively new directors, Nathan Greno and Byron Howard. It appears they’ve satisfyingly, and finally, found a way to update that sincere, unmistakable Disney-of-yesteryear way of telling an animated story we can as adults get lost in. It’s been a while for that. And Alan Menken’s score, and songs, add such contextual and emotional depth to the storytelling, that I found myself simply transported, as I would be at the best Broadway musicals. It’s lavish, and romantic, menacing, traditional while feeling new and surprising, and funny. Very funny. This is one film I will watch again. I loved it.
Michael Pressman directed the first Broadway revival of “Come Back, Little Sheba,” in 2008.
Neil Pepe on ‘The Way Back’
Directed by Peter Weir
There is a reason to pay attention anytime there’s new work from Peter Weir. And in an age of digital technology and big-budget action pictures, there is something particularly refreshing about the truthful, simplicity of Weir’s outstanding new film “The Way Back.” In telling the story of seven men attempting to escape from a Soviet Gulag prison in 1940, the film distills its characters down to their essences and explores powerfully and forcefully the strength of the human will in almost impossible circumstances. The action follows these men as they attempt to trek out of Siberia, into Mongolia with the hopes of getting through the Himalayas to freedom in India. Stunningly shot and directed, Weir is somehow able to maintain a riveting tension as we watch these characters heroically trudging through the extreme elements of nature, slowly stripped of all pretense and coming face to face with the truth of themselves and their will to survive. With an extraordinary ensemble cast which includes Jim Sturgess, Colin Farrell, Saoirse Ronan and Ed Harris among others, one is reminded of the power of simple, essential storytelling. Weir has an uncanny ability to truly explore and celebrate human resilience in times of war and turmoil.
Neil Pepe, artistic director of Gotham’s Atlantic Theater Co., directed “A Life in the Theater” on Broadway this season.
Daniel Sullivan on ‘The Fighter’
Directed by David O. Russell
With “The Fighter,” David O. Russell has not so much reinvented the come-from-behind story as he has given it dimension and texture. He’s managed to unlock the besieged, joyous spirit of this struggling Boston neighborhood and the life that seems to spill accidentally onto the screen is utterly spontaneous and unforced. Mr. Russell’s “Three Kings,” though its sardonic tone shares nothing with “The Fighter’s” goofy hopefulness, is pushed along by a similar feeling of out-of-control energy. That feeling is synthesized here by Christian Bale’s hypnotic turn as Dickie, Mark Wahlberg’s crackhead brother and coach. He is the disturbing and hilarious heart of the film, and Russell’s affection for his delusions, his refusal to judge him, gives this potentially predictable story real weight. Amy Adams’ tough, steely and uncompromising portrait is the real surprise of the film. And the subtlety of Mark Wahlberg’s Micky, quietly shaped in the shadow of his outsized brother, is moving in its restraint. In what I feel is a rather dismal year for filmmaking, “The Fighter” triumphs by sheer life force.
Daniel Sullivan, a Tony winner for “Proof,” directed “The Merchant of Venice” and “Time Stands Still” on Broadway this season, and returns in March with the new play “Good People.”
Christopher Ashley on ‘Inception’
Directed by Christopher Nolan
Dreams are overrated. You forget them as soon as you wake up. They can make you talk out loud, ruining your relationship or at least making you look ridiculous. They bore friends over breakfast. And they make little sense. The enlightenment experienced by the dreamer quickly evaporates upon waking. Christopher Nolan’s film “Inception,” on the other hand, is supremely satisfying. The film explodes with symbolic imagination, but also sets up rules and follows them. The film is dense as only a screenplay 10 years in the making can be, and also manages the rare feat of being simultaneously substantial and entertaining.If the measure of a great movie is whether you keep replaying it in your mind, this film is a masterpiece. In the weeks after seeing it, I found myself pondering my relationship with my own father, the psychology of suicide bombers, how Freud’s ideas are both discredited and inescapable, and if five minutes in real-world time takes an hour of dream time, is the same true for a dog, or is it seven hours? The film makes a case for the power of an idea as “resilient and highly contagious.” I admire any film that takes ideas this seriously, and if it’s true that a strong idea is a virus, I’m urging all my friends to come down with this film immediately.
Christopher Ashley, artistic director of La Jolla Playhouse, directed the new Broadway musical “Memphis.”
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