Saturday, December 31, 2016


Adam Chanler-Berat and Phillipa Soo star in "Amelie"
"Amalie", the new musical based on the film of the same name, is like a French macaron – deliciously light with a sweet filling. When the show premiered last year at Berkeley Rep, it was still finding its soft center. The book is by Craig Lucas, award-winning playwright (Prelude to a Kiss) with music by Daniel Messe and lyrics by Nathan Tysen and Messe. But with the addition of “Hamilton” leading lady Philippa Soo as the gamine star, along with a strong ensemble cast directed by Pam McKinnon, this current production at the Ahmanson is now heading for a Broadway engagement in Spring 2017.

Will audiences there be as taken with this whimsical tale of a shy girl who discovers her path in life is to lead others to happiness? If the opening night audience at the Ahmanson is any indication, the show should charm the pantalons off Broadway theatre-goers.

The show calls to mind the musical “Matilda” in its use of colorful sets, eccentric costumes and exaggerated characters, and also includes a delightfully sassy little girl (Savvy Crawford) as the young Amelie who re-appears to converse with her older self at key moments in the show.

Phillipa Soo, Savvy Crawford in "Amelie"
For those who may have forgotten the plot of the 2001 film, which made a star of Audrey Tatou, Amelie is an only child born to a detached physician father (played by Manoel Felciano) and a schoolteacher mother (played by Alison Cimmet) who are unprepared to deal with this imaginative and gifted daughter.

Papa only touches Amelie during her annual physical exam and, when her heart races with excitement, he concludes she has a heart condition and must be closely monitored. They are so protective that she ends up home schooled and grows up unable to form deep emotional connections to others. Even her pet goldfish Fluffy (Paul Whitty) must be given up for her health’s sake.

Phillipa Soo, Adam Chanler-Berat in "Amelie"
After her devout mother’s untimely and ironic death, and her father’s retreat to the serenity of his garden and its denizens, Amelie learns to take care of herself and eventually moves to the big city: Paris. She finds a small apartment with an eccentric retired painter (Tony Sheldon) and soon finds work at a local cafĂ© owned by ex-circus artist Suzanne (Harriet D. Foy), where she listens and learns about the longings of her co-workers and others; it is also there she discovers her true calling in life – to bring happy endings to the people she meets.

A chance encounter with Nino (an appealing Adam Chanler-Berat) at a metro station photo booth affects her in a most personal way - she is instantly smitten with this young man whose hobby is collecting discarded photos from the booth and turning them into collages. Despite the meet cute, the path to love is not smooth; it takes the good part of the 90-minute show to finally give these two soul mates their own happy ending.

The hardworking ensemble of "Amelie"
The talented supporting actors play multiple roles and kudos to each of them for creating unforgettable characters. The ensemble is completed by David Andino, Randy Blair, Heath Calvert, and Maria-Christina Oliveras.

The technical wizardry involved is so inventive that it almost proved distracting to some audience members, who spent so much time trying to figure out “how they did that”, often missing the action on stage.

Bringing the magic to glorious Technicolor life are scenic and costume designer David Zinn, co-lighting design by Jane Cox and Mark Barton, sound design by Kai Harada, wig design by Charles G. LaPointe and production design by Peter Nigrini.

The live orchestra sounds great under the direction of Kimberly Grigsby and the fast-paced and amusing musical numbers are staged and choreographed by Sam Pinkleton.

One inherent problem with the show is that the main character of Amelie is somewhat of a cipher. Things happen to her but we never really understand her deeper motivations, as she is always the instigator of cascading events. Perhaps one more solo number where Amelie can reveal what lives in the depth of her heart would flesh her out more. Philippa Soo has a lovely soprano voice and a bubbly energy in this star turn; with a little extra push, she could erase all memories of Audrey Tatou’s portrayal and make this Amelie her own.

Amelie is at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles until January 15. Come and wish the production “Bon Voyage” on its trip to Broadway.

-- Lisa Lyons

Friday, December 23, 2016


As the year 2016 comes closer to becoming the year 2017, it may be a good time to sample three genres that that hopefully scored with its fan base, perhaps luring new fans that the writers, producers, and directors have been trying to reach and seduce.

America’s movie going public has definitely undergone changing demographics over the last ten years to a point where films and their stories are less linear and less narrative-driven.  Now more emphasis is placed on warp-speed visuals, CGI actions sequences, along with ear-splitting sound tracks and dialogue delivered in mumbled, whispered tones by the actors, and I’m guessing here, in order to give the impression of danger, urgency, or menace, that is, if we’re talking thriller, drama, mystery, or action genres.

A great number of films released today are apparently not being produced as a way of enlightening their viewers through understanding the spoken dialogue, or the clarity of story points, or communicating to the viewers in general. They’re meant to be merely chewing gum for the eyes and ears.  And people wonder why no one reads books or newspapers anymore.  We’ve been dumbing down our society for years to the point that critical thinking and challenging the status quo is for fuddy-duddies, and bygone generations.  Which brings us to the three films I’ve seen this week.  All three films are in general release. In no particular order they are: “Allied”, “Arrival” and “The Accountant”.

“Allied” is an old fashion WW II espionage thriller starring Hollywood power actors Brad Pitt and Marion Cotillard. Pitt plays Canadian RAF Wing Commander and Intelligence Officer Max Vatan who has been sent to Casablanca, French Morocco on a deadly mission behind enemy lines. Once there he meets up with French resistance fighter Marianne Beausejour played by Marion Cotillard, and the two spies plan their mission to assassinate the German Ambassador. Max and Marianne grow closer to one another as they plot the details of their mission and end up falling for each other.

Successfully accomplishing their mission and their escape, Max asks Marianne to come back to London with him so they can marry and have a life after the war living in England. After a year they have a daughter Anna, and then, one morning Max is ordered to report to his superiors where he is confronted with the knowledge that Marianne may be a German double agent. If true, he must execute her himself or face the gallows as a traitor.Talk about being on the horns of a dilemma.

“Allied”, written by Steven Knight and directed by Robert Zemeckis has two huge stars in Pitt and Cotillard who heat up the screen in their love scenes, but director Zemeckis, despite some wonderful camera magic by cinematographer Don Burgess, fails to breathe any life into his film. It lacks energy and pacing, which is not only glacial, at times, it also fails to engage from the get-go. However, the special effects are first rate. This is definitely not a remake of the 1943 Bogart/Bergman classic romantic drama “Casablanca”. That story written by the Epstein brothers and Howard Koch in 1943, hit the Oscar jackpot when it came to WW II romantic movie dramas, and it is still considered the gold standard of WW II romantic dramas. “Allied”, as a wartime espionage story however, is a different kettle of fish.
Rating:  Two and a half stars out of five.

“Arrival”, the 2016 Sci-Fi film starring Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner and Forest Whitaker, is an intelligent, sophisticated, film and story premise about aliens visiting planet Earth. Instead of a film about alien abduction, “Arrival” is a film about alien visitation and the attempt to communicate with one another that is front and center in Canadian director Denis Villenueve’s intriguing film. Some viewers probably will compare it as a sort of a modern take on “Close Encounters of a Third Kind”, without the music and harmonic clues being offered by the extraterrestrials in an effort to communicate with humans. But “Arrival” is more than just that. It’s a thinking person’s sci-fi movie that leaves its viewers musing about the ‘what if’ factors.

When a movie’s premise is strong and plausible, no matter the time period or setting in which it’s placed, the more universally accepted it becomes by the viewers. The story of “Arrival” revolves around linguistics professor Louise Banks, wonderfully and sensitively played by Amy Adams who is called upon by the U.S. Government to assist in translating alien communications from 12 spaceships that have simultaneously landed in 12 countries around the globe. (Adams is being touted as a short-list candidate for 2016’s Best Lead Female nomination and a possible win at the upcoming 89th Oscar ceremony to be held on February 26, 2017).

Adams is believable and tender in the home and family sequences, yet firm, level-headed, and strong in the sequences when dealing with the military and the politicians who are very quick to jump to conclusions about the 12 alien space ships that have simultaneously landed in their various countries.

Jeremy Renner plays Ian Donnelly, a military theoretical physicist whom the government has assigned to assist Louise in her urgent pursuit to communicate with the aliens before the other 12 nations decide to attack their space ships. It’s a bit of a thankless role because of Adams’ potent performance, but Renner solidly soldiers on and, in the end, marries the beautiful redheaded Adams to then raise their own family.

Forest Whitaker as Colonel G.T. Weber, the senior military officer in charge of the assignment, delivers a nice performance as the harried, sympathetic, but dedicated military officer who must carry out his orders.

My suggestion to potential viewers is to pay attention to the story for the answers to the questions you are thinking about while viewing it. The movie is non-linear. It goes back and forth, but the underlying message of hope and shared understanding that one gleans from the movie are well worth the effort.

“Arrival”, written by Eric Heissere, is auteur director Villeneuve’s baby, and like any father, he makes sure that you like his family. The technical credits shine, especially the camera work of cinematographer Bradford Young. This film will definitely be part of the Oscar mix come February 2017.
Rating: Four stars out of five.

“The Accountant”  a 2016 action thriller directed by Gavin O’Connor and written by Bill Debuque, stars Ben Affleck, Anna Kendrick, J.K.Simons, John Bernthal, John Lithgow, Jeffery Tambor and Cynthia Addai-Robinson. The film is a typical martial arts, high body-count popcorn flick that has more than enough blood and collateral damage to satisfy even the most jaded of millennials who attend movies today.

The story is not only simplistic, but really strains one’s credulity. We’re expected to buy into a film about one Christian Wolff (Ben Affleck), a high-functioning autistic mathematics savant, and an accountant to shady corporate clients who need Christian to ‘uncook’ their books to fend off the U.S. Treasury Department from performing those pesky tax audits. In between clients, Christian gets to reduce the bad guy population via AK-14 weapons that appear to shoot thousands of rounds of ammo in a few seconds. It’s like thumbing through a comic book in order to follow the story line with such obvious cardboard characters.

Like most of these action films, the story gets overly complicated in making sure the viewers get lots of narrative threads and action scenes in the hope that we don’t realize how weak and thin the story really is.“The Accountant” is a formulaic plot film with few surprises that waste the talents of Affleck, who is a fine actor that deserves better material. Simmons, an Oscar winner for his riveting performance in 2015's “Whiplash”, also deserves better. Kendrick plays a character who wouldn’t be missed if she wasn’t in the script. The film also gives the appearance of solid actors, like Lithgow and Tambor, performing as a favor to the producers. However, the villain (as usual) gets the-over-the-top plum role; in this case, that plum falls to John Bernthal as Brax, Christian’s young brother who gets to chew the scenery.

All action movies need the services of many creative people. One creative professional that all action films definitely require, beside the director, is a cinematographer who knows how to deliver the magic to the screen. Seamus Mc Garvey is that man for “The Accountant”. Rating: Two stars out of five.

All three films can be seen in a movie Cineplex near you. Happy Holidays!
-- Jack Lyons