Stammering through ‘The King’s Speech’

As far as problems go, not being able to speak without a stutter is a pretty embarrassing one. Especially if you’re King George VI (Colin Firth); radio speeches are pretty routine for rulers, after all (even for figureheads). Especially after Marconi invented the radio.

“This devilish device will change everything,” says his father, King George V (Michael Gambon). “In the past, all the king had to do was look respectable in uniform and not fall off his horse. Now we must invade people’s homes and ingratiate ourselves with them. This family’s been reduced to those lowest, basest of all creatures. We’ve become actors.”

That’s the premise of Tom Hooper’s (director of “Les Miserables“) 2011 Academy Award-winning picture, “The King’s Speech.”

When the film begins, it’s 1925 and Prince Albert “Bertie” Frederick Arthur George (Firth), the Duke of York, was to make a radio broadcast from Wembly Stadium for his father’s subjects.

It’s long and difficult. But as painful as this poor bloke’s pitiful plight is, “The King’s Speech” isn’t a comedy. None of his subjects laugh as he chokes out the words, st-st-stammering; we don’t even see (or hear) the whole speech.

After years of speech therapy, unconventional speech pathologist and an amateur Shakespearean actor Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush) tries to conquer the Duke of York’s life-long speech impediment.

“I can assure you that no infant starts to speak with a stammer,” says Logue.

Logue angers Bertie, leading him through songs, nursery rhymes, tongue twisters, and other exercises.

“Anyone who can shout vowels outside an open window can learn to deliver a speech,” Logue says decisively.

“The King’s Speech” is a fascinating period piece into the private life of a monarch. And that’s one of the film’s real strengths. David Seidler’s screenplay lets us into a world hidden behind closed palace gates. Bertie reluctantly relinquishes his manners and control, getting into shouting and swearing matches with his instructor. Logue expertly eggs him on, and not just on matters of speech. He makes sure Bertie also flourishes with his newfound voice. That’s seen in one brilliant scene when Logue sits on King George VI’s coronation throne, watching as the angry and reluctant king stammers at him.

“I have a voice!” Bertie eventually shouts.

“Yes, you do,” Logue answers.

“The King’s Speech” was directed by Tom Hooper and written by David Seidler. The film won 2011 Academy Awards for Best Motion Picture of the Year, Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role, Best Achievement in Directing and Best Original Screenplay. “The King’s Speech” also won the 2011 BAFTA Award for Best British Film. 


Growing up in a ‘Broken’ world

Ian McEwan’s “Atonement” makes your heart hurt. In case you haven’t read it (or seen the BAFTA-winning film the novel’s based on), “Atonement’s” about a young girl with a wild imagination; 13-year-0ld Briony Tallis thinks more than she sees — and what she sees she doesn’t fully understand. She falsely accuses her sister’s love interest, Robbie Turner, of rape and has to live with the consequences for the rest of her life.

While Rufus Norris’ impressive debut picture, “Broken,” also features a precocious pre-adolescent girl and a visually striking opening scene, Emily “Spunk” Cunningham (played by the talented Eloise Lawrence) isn’t Briony Tallis. Spunk resembles another literary heroine, the tomboyish Scout Finch from Harper Lee’s “To Kill A Mockingbird.”

Like “To Kill A Mockingbird,” “Broken” deals with a child’s loss of innocence as she learns about the troubling grown-up world around her. Within the first five minutes of the film, she sees Mr. Oswald (Rory Kinnear) beat up Rick Buckley (Robert Emms), their harmless mentally unstable neighbor.

“I don’t get it,” says her older brother, Jed (Bill Milner), as they watch from their second story window across the street. “Why’s Rick the one they arrest?”

The next scene takes us inside the Oswald’s single parent home, where Bob (Kinnear) struggles to raise his three rebellious teenaged daughters Saskia (Faye Daveney), Susan (Rosalie Kosky-Hensman) and Sunrise (Martha Bryant). Mr. Oswald finds the condom Susan’s flushed down the toilet and asks for a name.

“Rick Buckley,” she answers after a moment’s hesitation.

These are, of course, serious allegations, but Susan doesn’t ask for atonement. She’s a ticking time bomb — an Oleanna among a school of poor schmucks. (Later, she and her sisters insouciantly house a party while their father’s in jail.)

Based on Daniel Clay’s novel, “Broken” is a modern retelling of “To Kill A Mockingbird” (this one takes place in North London rather than the sleepy Alabama town of Maycomb).

The parallels become apparent as we examine the film. Boo Radley’s Rick Buckley, who becomes a social recluse following his arrest and release. Atticus Finch is Spunk and Jed’s father, Archie Cunningham (Tim Roth), a local solicitor and Spunk’s hero. Calpurnia’s in the Cunningham’s nanny Kasia (Zana Marjanovic) and Scout and Jem’s childhood friend Dill Harris is Dillon (George Sergeant). Scout and Jem’s hole in a tree is a neighborhood junkyard that houses an abandoned RV. Last but not least, our Tom Robinson is schoolteacher Mike Kiernan (Cillian Murphy), whose altruistic endeavors puts him in the wrong place at the wrong time.

While Irish playwright Mark O’Rowe’s script takes these pieces and assembles them in a succinct, coherent and seamless narrative, Norris directs a captivating and visually-striking coming-of-age story. Like “Atonement,” the film teases us, giving us front row seats to an isolated and unforgiving act of violence before pulling back the curtain and revealing the full picture.

This couldn’t have been done without Rob Hardy’s close-up shots, Victoria Boydell’s editing, the excellent ensemble’s acting and the more than two dozen musicians and sound mixers, providing the distant ringing, buzzing, melodies and techno beats.

Lawrence draws us in with her lovely voice, singing Electric Wave Bureau’s “Colours” in the film’s title sequence. We’re privy to a kalidascope of shots and sounds: a baby crying in an incubator, a father’s watchful gaze, a girl’s infectious laughter as she’s running through green fields. In a few short seconds, Norris invokes an array of emotions, including love and nostalgia. Who doesn’t remember those short carefree days of childhood?

It’s unfortunate how fast kids have to grow up.

“Broken” was directed by Rufus Norris and written by Mark O’Rowe, based on Daniel Clay’s novel. The film won the 2012 BAFTA for the Best British Independent Film. 

Remembering ‘The Graduate’

For a few seconds in Mike Nichols’ 1968 Oscar-winning picture, “The Graduate,” Benjamin Braddock’s (Dustin Hoffman) got his head in a fishbowl. Quite literally. In one scene, you can see a close up of his head; the fish tank bubbles behind him. In another shot, Braddock’s behind the tank, looking at the fish.

It isn’t an understatement to say that Braddock’s got his head underwater and he’s just trying to keep afloat. A few weeks ago, he was captain of the track team, head of the debating club, managing editor in his school’s paper and a Frank Halpingham scholar. Now, he’s just another confused college graduate, unsure of what to do for the rest of his life.

Nichols’ picture holds the same resonance it did when it first came out in 1967. Hoffman’s palpitations are palpable. Adults still ask you “What are you going to do?” and “Are you going to grad school?” — as if you have your whole life figured out. That’s enough to make any young person sweat with anxiety.

Braddock’s fears are personified when his father’s business partner’s wife, Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft), propositions him.

“Mrs. Robinson, you’re trying to seduce me, aren’t you?” Braddock says — which was voted as one of the American Film Institute’s top 100 movie quotes.

Perhaps Braddock’s story is a cautionary tale for us young folk. The metaphors are there; he’s drifting and dying from suffocation. His life’s literally being flushed down the drain.

Nichols’, who passed away from a heart attack at 83 years old yesterday, shows this through his visually striking shots (filmed by Robert Surtees and edited by Sam O’Steen). On his 21st birthday, Braddock’s underwater in scuba gear. The camera shows the scene from his point of view, as if he had a GoPro strapped to his head. The pool’s square container’s like that of an aquarium. Braddock’s the main spectacle of his parents’ private party, after all — like a caged animal at a zoo exhibit.

This trapped feeling is conveyed with other editing effects. In another scene, Surtees overlays the pool’s watery aqua-blue reflective surface over Hoffman’s tan skin, creating the illusion that he’s drowning underwater. In the opening sequence, Hoffman’s at an airport; his body stays stage left of the screen as everyone hurries pass him.

Hoffman’s very sympathetic as Braddock. The camera captures his sad Bambi eyes and his frowns with close ups of his face. In one scene, his head is framed by the dark black headboard he’s resting against, before zooming out to reveal his nakedness on a bed.

Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel’s harmonies provide bookends in the film, reflecting the sad contemplative atmosphere of Braddock’s life. “April Come She Will’s” the soundtrack to Braddock and Mrs. Robinson’s sordid affair. “Scarborough Fair/Canticle’s” Braddock’s road trip song as he drives to meet Mrs. Robinson’s daughter and his love interest, Elaine (Katharine Ross). Simon and Garfunkel’s “Mrs. Robinson” (which was coincidently released on their “Bookends” CD) narrates Braddock’s quest for purpose. While “Sounds of Silence” opens and closes the film.

“The Graduate,” which is based on Charles Webb’s 1963 novel, is a messy story without bookends. Although there’s a certain symmetry to the script, the ending’s unsettling. That’s because Buck Henry and Calder Willingham’s screenplay doesn’t answer the initial questions posed at Braddock: What are you going to do? Hoffman still looks fearful in the last scene of the film as he rides off in the distance. He has the rest of his life ahead of him, after all.

“The Graduate” was directed by Mike Nichols and written by Buck Henry and Calder Willingham based on Charles Webb’s novel. Nichols won the 1968 Academy Award for “best director” for his work on “The Graduate.” 

Former Disney animator’s lyrical ‘Duet’ displays life’s dance

Sometimes we need art to show us the immense beauty in the world. That’s what animator Glen Keane gives us with his breathtakingly beautiful three-minute short, “Duet.”

Directed and animated by Keane (whose credits include Disney’s “Paperman,” “Tangled,” “Tarzan,” “Pocahontas,” “Beauty and the Beast” and “The Little Mermaid”), “Duet” features the dance between a boy and a girl.

Their song is one with many codas. The boy and girl meet again and again (not in as many lifetimes as the characters in “Cloud Atlas,” but at different stages of their lives), circling the same axis.

The boy somersaults through the grass. The girl performs perfect pirouettes. He catches her when she stumbles, and can’t seem to let go.

Their’s a fluid simplicity in Keane’s animation. The boy and girl are outlined in a ghostly blue, yet their world is full of color. We see it in their movements. We hear it in Zack Lydon’s music. It makes our eyes spin around them with jealousy and admiration. If this is the circle of life, we want to be a part of it.

RTI presents LaBute’s one-man-play ‘Wrecks’ this Friday

If you’re a regular patron of the Readers’ Theatre of Ithaca, you’ve probably seen a Neil LaBute play before. The Readers’ Theatre has performed several dramas over the years, including “In a Forest Dark and Deep,” “Mercy Seat” and “Fat Pig.”

This Friday through Sunday at Cinemapolis, the Readers’ Theatre will perform LaBute’s one-man-play “Wrecks,” starring Chris Nickerson as recent widow Edward Carr.

What makes this 80-minute play unique, though, is that it exists solely inside Carr’s head. Nickerson plays his stream of consciousness during his wife’s eulogy. This allows the playwright to subvert social conventions, giving his character leeway to say what he really means.

“I think the whole stream of consciousness writing is really fascinating, too, in this piece,” says Nickerson.  “How he goes from one thing to another and his thoughts are just rolling and rolling and rolling. It’s full of commas.” 

LaBute rationalizes the vices in his character by making Carr an older widow diagnosed with cancer. Our sympathies allow him to get away with anything, including chain smoking a pack of cigarettes in front of us.

“It’s unusual, a play like this,” says director Anne Marie Cummings. “And I don’t think it gets done a lot, either. It takes a very committed actor.”

Months of commitment

Nickerson started preparing for this role more than two months ago.

“When I first came in for the audition, Anne Marie wasn’t sure about putting it on the schedule,” he said.

But as the Readers’ Theatre begins its fifth season, Cummings decided that she wanted to take a lot of risks, including presenting RTI’s first off-book play.

“When I saw him, ‘I was like, he can do it,’” Cummings said.

To help with the memorization, Cummings incorporated more rehearsals. While RTI averages 14 rehearsals per play, there are about 19 intense four-hour rehearsals to gear up for “Wrecks.”

“It’s really been about developing this character,” said Cummings. “It’s about this guy, and Chris is not like this guy at all.”

Conquering challenges

Memorization isn’t the only challenge, says Nickerson.

Edward Carr is a successful business man and a heavy smoker. Chris Nickerson’s never smoked a day in his life.

To prepare, Nickerson and Cummings spent rehearsals sitting across from each other; Nickerson would mimic Cummings’ movements with a cigarette.

“Suddenly he went from someone who didn’t know how to hold a cigarette to within one week, he was a smoker,” said Cummings.

Because Cinemapolis doesn’t allow smoking within its premises, Nickerson has to pretend to smoke.

“It would have been easier for me if I could just start smoking, and then just do it when I started the play,” Nickerson said, “but to pretend smoke when I have never smoked, but not really smoke… I was really nervous because I don’t know how to smoke.”

That’s not the only challenge Nickerson faced.

“I’m naturally a very airy type of person, light on my feet, and we both felt that Ed was a more grounded person,” said Nickerson.

Nickerson started wearing bright green three-pound weights on his ankles during rehearsals. He also started wearing a back brace, glasses, a suit and a tie to help him feel more confident and successful.

“Like he said, he’s a very airy person and he was just bouncing around,” said Cummings.

Standing out from the crowd

Since the Readers’ Theatre is an independent not-for-profit, RTI doesn’t have to deal with commercial pressures when choosing its plays. Cummings said she chooses great plays that she can live with and talk about passionately.

“When I first read this play, I was just like, ‘What a beautiful love story. This is so unlike Neil LaBute. Where is this going?’” said Cummings. “And I got to the end, I was like… ‘He’s done it again!'”

That independent mentality’s like the central message of “Wrecks.”

“[LaBute] limns the boundaries of exploring the views society thinks is acceptable and his heart’s desires,” Cummings said. “The message of this play is to do what you think, not what society thinks.”

“Wrecks″ was written by Neil LaBute and directed by Anne Marie Cummings, starring Chris Nickerson; with music by Hank Roberts and the band Phonetix. It will be performed from Nov. 21-23 at Cinemapolis on 120 East Green Street in Ithaca, N.Y. 

A 15-minute pre-recorded interview session with playwright Neil LaBute will be screened following each performance. Niles Gourmet owner Sandie Becker will be serving samples of her chocolate sweet potato ravioli with a brown butter sage in the lobby of Cinemapolis on Nov. 23.

Tickets can be purchased at Advance tickets are $10 for students and $12 for adults. 

'wrecks' by neil labute, presented by the readers' theatre of ithaca

Staring into the abyss of ‘American Horror Story: Asylum’

It’s “The Blair Witch Project” meets “The X-Files” meets “The Poltergeist” meets “A Clockwork Orange” meets “One Flew Over a Cuckoo’s Nest” meets “The Exorcist” meets “I Know What You Did Last Summer” meets “Saw,” with lots of blood and fortification in between. And that’s just the first couple episodes of Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk’s second season of their macabre freak show, “American Horror Story: Asylum.”

This time, we’re guests at Briarcliff Manor, a mid-1960s Massachusetts insane asylum.

Like season one, “Asylum” is told through flashbacks and multiple interconnected narratives. Present-day couple Leo (Adam Levine) and Teresa Morrison (Jenna Dewan Tatum) are celebrating their honeymoon with a self-guided tour of every haunted happening across America. Their stumble through the Manor’s steps awaken monsters from its past.

Dr. Arthur Arden (James Cromwell), a anti-semitic doctor who believes in electroshock therapy; Dr. Oliver Thredson (Zachary Quinto), a removed state psychiatrist assigned to diagnose Bloody Face’s mental condition; and Sister Mary Eunice (Lily Rabe), a weak-willed nun who enjoys little sins, used to roam the sanitarium’s halls.

But the warden of this prison was Sister Jude (Jessica Lange), who plays Briarcliff Manor’s Nurse Ratched.

When Kit Walker (Evan Peters) is admitted into Briarcliff as the infamous local serial killer, “Bloody Face” during the mid-1960s, investigative reporter Lana Winters (Sarah Paulson), who fancies herself after Nellie Bly, sneaks into the mental ward to profile him; what she uncovers there is more horrific than her nightmares, especially when she finds herself admitted as a homosexual.

Murphy and Falchuk’s amalgamation of slasher flicks is a bloody mess. At times, it feels like they’re squeezing as many horror film allusions into an episode as possible. (“Nightmare Before Christmas” is even referenced more than halfway through the season in the “Unholy Night” episode). At other times, it’s like we’ve stepped into an episode of “Glee” (during a hallucination, Lange’s character sings “The Name Game” as the cast performs a choreographed musical number).

That doesn’t mean “American Horror Story” isn’t addictive. In fact, we can’t look away from this sensational and deliciously sacrilegious train wreck.

Perhaps that’s the problem.

As Sister Jude warns in the show’s finale, paraphrasing Nietzsche: “If you look into the face of Evil, Evil is going to look right back at you.”

Country a cappella heartthrobs ‘Home Free’ perform at UB

They’re a little bit silly, a little bit sappy and very, very skilled. Not a bad combination, especially when these attributes landed them a Columbia Record deal.

Of course, I’m talking about Home Free, the Minnesota-based country a cappella group that won the fourth season of NBC’s “The Sing-Off.” Last night, Home Free performed a potpourri of a cappella country and pop covers at the University at Buffalo’s Center for the Arts stage — their third last stop on their “Crazy Life” CD tour.

While this is their first national tour since “The Sing-Off,” these boys are polished and professional performers. And they should be. They have years of technical musical training and on-the-road practice above their cowboy boots.

Brothers Chris (baritone) and Adam Rupp (percussion) started the group during their years at Gustavus Adolphus College 14 years ago. With the addition of tenor Rob Lundquist, bassist Tim Foust and high tenor Austin Brown, they’ve sang at hundreds of concerts — through fairs, colleges and cruise ships.

They know their audience too.

Although last night’s show was their second time at Center for the Arts (they were here last year on “The Sing-Off” tour), most of the audience was seeing them live for the first time.

“How many people are here because your wives dragged you here?” they asked, followed by a showing of hands.

This opprotunity allowed them to showcase their strengths while addressing the skeptics. Adam Rupp, the group’s resident beat-box, performed a one-man drum solo, mixing and re-mixing sounds and genres with his lips.

It rivals the technical genius of Bo Burnham’s “We Think We Know You.”

Foust showed off his impressive almost five-octave range with a cover of Josh Turner’s “Your Man.” During a particularly high note, Lundquist and Brown berate Foust for overstepping and dipping into their range as tenors.

What makes Home Free hit home is beyond their vocal range though. It’s their performance, self-aware talent, and maybe a little bit of their looks too. Brown and Foust shamelessly give the crowd smoldering stares before the intermission break, hoping to sell some CDs. (Their Holiday CD, “Full of Cheer,” was released on iTunes Sept. 30; “Crazy Life” was released Jan. 13.)

Foust demonstrates his skills as a lyricist. The group performed a few original songs, penned by Foust, including the sweet and sentimental country crooner “I’ve Seen”; and the comedic hit “Champagne Taste (On A Beer Budget).” Foust’s low voice and the high backup vocals makes the latter song seem like a slower musical parody of “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” (minus the violin, of course).

Like fellow country star Taylor Swift, they can effortlessly cover everything from country to pop, adding their unique country twang. This includes One Direction’s “The Story of My Life,” Meghan Trainor’s “All About That Bass,” Avicii’s “Wake Me Up” and Bobby Day’s 1957 single “Rockin’ Robin.”

Their specialty, of course, is their country harmonies, and they showcase them with Kenny Chesney’s “American Kids,” Scotty McCreery’s “Feelin’ It,” Florida Georgia Line’s “Cruise,” Rascal Flatts’ “Life Is A Highway,” Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire,” the Zac Brown Band’s “Warmer Weather,” and ending with the most ‘country’ classic of all, “God Bless America.”

Now that’s something America can love.

Holocaust survivor’s sunny outlook saved lives

Alice Herz-Sommer is the star of “The Lady in Number 6: Music Saved My Life,” the 2014 Academy Award-winning short documentary.

The 38-minute biopic documentary directed by Malcolm Clarke, filmed by Kieran Crilly, edited by Carle Freed, and written by Clarke and Freed stars an 109-year-old Holocaust survivor that lives alone in a London flat.

“My world is music,” she says. “I’m not interested in anything else.”

That’s a good thing. As the film’s subtitle aptly says, music saved her life.

Born in 1903, Herz-Sommer, a Jew living in Prague, was the oldest known Holocaust survivor until she died last February at 110 years old. She survived because she was a musician, a classical pianist. When the German Nazis invaded Prague in 1939, music got her and others through the Holocaust.

“At any case, I played a lot at this time,” Sommer-Herz said. “And once, the woman who take care of our house said to me, ‘Mrs. Sommer, Mr. Herman,’ the name of this German man, ‘asked me, suddenly you didn’t play. He asked me why. He asked me whether you were already deported. He told me he loved your playing.'”

Because of her musical gifts, Herz-Sommer was stationed at Therensienstadt, a concentration camp used for German propaganda. There, she played more than 100 concerts, including all of Chopin’s “Etudes” from memory.

“I knew we could play,” said Herz-Sommer. “And when we can play, I thought it can’t be so terrible.”

Music became a conduit to a happier alternate lifetime.

“Even thinking about music makes me happy,” she says.

Herz-Sommer’s inspirational story gives us hope in horror.

“It depends on me whether life is good or not,” she says. “Not on life. On me. Everything is either good or bad. I look at the good side.”

She played piano until she died on February 23, 2014.

“The Lady in Number 6: Music Saved My Life” was directed by Malcolm Clarke and won the 2014 Academy Award for documentary short. 

Moving into an ‘American Horror Story’: season one review

Ryan Murphy is known for creating freaks. His melodramatic hit television dramedy “Glee” stars the teenaged rejects of the McKinley High School show choir.

His newest Frankensteins are even better. I’m talking about the revolving cast of characters in FX’s “American Horror Story” (2011).

At the center of its 12-episode pilot season is troubled couple Ben (Dylan McDermott) and Vivien Harmon (Connie Britton). After Ben cheated on his wife with his student Hayden McClaine (played by the wonderful Kate Mara of “House of Cards”), Ben, Vivien and their teenaged daughter Violet (played by Vera Farmiga’s younger sister Taissa) decide to literally “move on” from the affair, taking up residence in a beautiful 1920s Victorian-style Los Angeles mansion.

Of course, the Harmons aren’t the only ones residing in what’s dubbed the “Murder House.” Its tenants include the house’s founders and former residents including surgeon Charles Montgomery (Matt Ross) and his wife Nora (Lily Rabe); housekeeper Moira O’Hara (played by Frances Conroy and Alexandra Breckenridge); gay couple Chad (Zachary Quinto) and Patrick (Teddy Sears); and next-door neighbors Constance (Jessica Lange) and Addie Langdon (Jamie Brewer).

“American Horror Story” is a culmination of spooky ghost stories from campfire tales like Bloody Mary to scary film creations including Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho,” Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining” and Roman Polanski’s “Rosemary’s Baby.”

Murphy and co-creator Brad Falchuk also draw inspiration from real-life murders including the unsolved Black Dahlia case and the Columbine massacre.

Evan Peters, who plays a deeply disturbed teenager who falls in love with Violet, channels a young Christian Slater from Michael Lehmann’s dark comedy “Heathers.” Constance’s a southern Sue Sylvester — biting, racist and cruel, but also a little sad.

“One of the many comforts of having children is knowing one’s youth has not fled but merely been passed down to a new generation,” she says. “They say when a parent dies, a child feels his own mortality. But when a child dies, it’s immortality that a parent loses.”

“American Horror Story” is chilling and creepy, feeding off our insecurities. But that’s what makes it so addictive. We want to see who or what’s behind that door or under that floorboard if only to ease our pounding hearts and racing minds.

While “American Horror Story” is an exaggerated and perverse reflection of humanity, we see bits of ourselves in murderers and psychopaths. We begin to understand their wants and motives. And how easy it is to lose one’s mind. That’s perhaps the scariest thing of all.

But like stumbling through a “haunted” attraction on Halloween, “American Horror Story” is scary good fun. Because in the back of our minds, we know these actors can’t reach beyond your tiny television or laptop screens. They can’t grab you and take you into their world. This mirror into death only makes you feel alive.