Tag Archives: screen

Dee Rees’ American odyssey ‘Mudbound’ captivates Sundance

Director Dee Rees wanted to get to the big questions in her enthralling period epic Mudbound. Specifically: What is it to be a citizen and what is it to fight for a country that doesn’t fight for you?

The film, which premiered Saturday night at the Sundance Film Festival, had audiences raving and some already speculating about Oscar chances.

Based on Hillary Jordan’s 2008 novel Mudbound, chronicles the lives of two families in the WWII-era South — one white and one black, and the complicated intersectionality of their paths. There’s the McAllans, Laura (Carey Mulligan), her husband Henry (Jason Clarke), his brother Jamie (Garrett Hedlund) and their father Pappy (Jonathan Banks), and the Jacksons, Florence (Mary J. Blige), her husband Hap (Rob Morgan) and their son Ronsel (Jason Mitchell).

They’re tied together by a rental agreement — the Jackson’s rent their land and home from the McAllans — and the deeply complicated racial relationships in the segregated South in which Henry can demand help from Hap at any moment and Pappy can insist that Ronsel exit the local store from the back entrance.

It’s a sprawling and deeply American story about women, men, race and personhood that defies a simple summary.

“It’s not didactic, it’s not preachy,” Rees said. “The thing I love about it is it’s multiple points of view.”

Both Jamie and Ronsel go off to fight in WWII, where Jamie’s once shiny life becomes clouded by the horrors of war and alcohol. Ronsel finds freedom and acceptance that he’d never had in the U.S. embodied in his appointment to Sergeant status and a relationship with a German girl. But back at home, nothing has changed.

“I wanted to juxtapose the battle at home versus the battle abroad with the battle at home sometimes being even bloodier than the battle abroad — to show these two families fighting on the front lines,” Rees said, whose grandfathers both fought in wars, one in WWII and one in Korea.

“Both went away and came back and both didn’t quite get what they should have gotten,” she said.

Rees, who directed Pariah and the HBO movie Bessie, found in the story a deep resonance with her grandmother too. She integrated images and truths from her grandmother’s life in the Louisiana into the story, like how she wanted to be a stenographer and not a sharecropper (one of the Jackson children declares this her dream) and how she remembered as a child being pulled on the back of a cotton sack.

Blige, who is earning raves for her subtle and deeply powerful performance as the Jackson family matriarch, also had a grandmother who grew up in the South in Savannah, Georgia. She channeled her to embody Florence.

“She was so strong and silent. She never really said a lot, but when she said something it meant something … She planted her own food, she killed her own chickens, she killed her own cows. (She) and my grandfather were Hap and Florence,” Blige said. “Southern people are really all about love, and that’s what I took. I’m born and raised in the Bronx in New York, and as a child I went down South every summer so I saw my grandmother give love. I was raised with ‘yes ma’am’ and ‘no ma’am.’ “

Though it’s been less than a day, so far the response has been rapturous. The audience at the premiere gave Rees and the cast a long standing ovation, and subsequent screenings have elicited similar praise. Mudbound does not yet have distribution, but it is expected to be one of the Festival’s hottest properties, and, one that people will be talking about long after Sundance comes to a close.

Henry Winkler dreams of a Tony, stars in new NBC reality series

During an hour-long chat at his Los Angeles home, Henry Winkler does impressions of George Foreman, Terry Bradshaw and William Shatner (his co-stars in the new NBC reality series Better Late Than Never), walks like a ninja who suddenly sports jazz hands, and improvises a scene as the intolerant acting coach he plays in a new HBO comedy.

The 70-year-old entertainer is visibly animated as he discusses his career, which spans four decades and counting. But the overriding vibe from the former Fonz is one of gratitude. It’s not long before he launches into how thankful he is for the opportunities and success he continues to enjoy.

“I live by tenacity and gratitude,” he said. “I am grateful for every inch of earth that I tread on in my life.”

Acting remains a passion. Winkler is also a successful author of children’s books (his 32nd was just published) and travels the country as a motivational speaker. And he’s a doting grandfather of four, including 4 1/2-year-old Ace, a redheaded sprite who calls him “Papa” and stays close to him during this interview.

(Ace just started requesting Winkler’s Here’s Hank books as bedtime stories. “I think I’m about to faint,” Winkler said.)

His next television endeavor is Better Late Than Never.

The four-episode reality series follows Winkler, Foreman, Bradshaw, Shatner and comedian Jeff Dye on various cultural and culinary adventures in Asia.

As an executive producer, Winkler helped assemble the quintet, who barely knew one another before embarking on the 35-day trip through Japan, Korea, Hong Kong and Thailand. But talk about your bonding experiences: Together, they appeared on a Japanese game show, studied with samurai warriors, danced in a K-pop video and befriended elephants at an animal sanctuary.

Now “it’s friends for life,” Winkler said. “It might have been the trip of a lifetime.”

He’s so confident about the show — “to the point that I will come to your house and do the dishes” — if each episode isn’t better than the last.

“The reason that it gets better and better is — if you feel us being a tight unit in the first (episode) — it gets tighter and tighter and we get looser and looser and more outrageous with each other,” he said.

Winkler is also embracing the outrageous in scripted form with Barry, a new HBO series that starts production in January. Saturday Night Live alum Bill Hader stars as a middling hit man who finds unexpected community among a group of theater hopefuls in Los Angeles. Winkler is their cantankerous acting coach.

Rather than describe the role, he breaks into character.

Winkler studied drama at Yale and has pursued the craft with vigor since he graduated. He only started writing children’s books when he had difficulty shedding the Fonz persona after Happy Days ended its 10-year run. But he’s never stopped looking for the next great part. Even now, he still goes out on auditions and dreams big.

“It makes me so happy,” he said. “And now that I’m getting better, that I’m more relaxed, that I’m more in touch with what I’m doing, it’s like I step into nirvana.

“My favorite role is the next role I do,” he continued. “I love going to work.”

Winkler’s joy and gratitude is palpable. He knocks on the wooden table when he mentions his hopes and blessings. He’s kept every single script from Happy Days (and every other show and film he’s done) and had them bound in hardback leather like a treasured collection of encyclopedias.

“You cannot take for granted one single second,” he said.

Though he is still yearning for one particular piece of hardware.

“Here’s my bucket list,” Winkler said. “I would like to see my grandchildren thrive. I would like to work until I absolutely cannot anymore. I would like to win a Tony. I watch the Tony Awards and cry every year. I love it. That is my dream. That is my dream. Whatever it is, that is my dream: to win a Tony.”

His thank-you speech may already be written.

A decade after ‘Wicked,’ Kristin Chenoweth remains ‘popular’ — and at the top of her craft

Whoever said good things come in small packages must have been thinking of Kristin Chenoweth. At 4 feet 11 inches, the singer/actress best known for her role as Glinda the Good Witch in the original production of Wicked has a height inversely proportional to her towering talent on the stage.

On Oct. 4, the Tony Award-winner will blend personal stories along with those powerhouse vocals during her first-ever Madison appearance at Overture Center.

Chenoweth, 47, an adopted daughter and native of Broken Arrow, Oklahoma, received a bachelor’s degree in musical theater and master’s in opera performance at Oklahoma City University, studying with famed vocal coach and mentor Florence Birdwell.

Chenoweth rarely slows down these days between stage, screen and television roles. Her Overture Hall appearance marks an infrequent departure that allows her to get up close and personal with fans while singing some of her favorite songs to audiences old and new. She stopped long enough to fill in WiG on her personal impressions and favorite projects.

I know you started singing at an early age. How and when did you know that you would sing professionally? I began singing in church at a young age and felt I would never leave the stage. I fell in love with ballet and theater and spent most of my extra time doing that. I also did all the normal childhood things, like the school plays and choir. I was a cheerleader and in the French club. I wanted to grow up in a normal high school environment, but I think I felt somewhere down deep I was going to work the rest of my life in show business, so I just wanted to learn and grow and have fun.  

You have a wide-ranging career onstage, in film, in the recording studio and on television. Which medium do you most enjoy working in and why? I love the feeling I get from being with an audience. There is nothing better. It’s my drug of choice. (My other one is Coca-Cola.) 

I can’t imagine not being an artist. Sometimes I think how lucky I am to get to do what I love, because so many people don’t do that and are miserable. I have a true passion for what I do and it’s never waned. If anything, that passion has grown and become more intense over the years.   

What factors do you consider when choosing new material or a new role to perform? Any role I agree to play must be multi-layered. Playing a one-note character isn’t interesting to me. I am really a “character woman.” I love playing interesting women who seem OK, but are slightly off. But the aspect I like best in a role like that is making the audience understand why someone is the way she is. It’s more complicated, but more fun.  

In the same vein, how do you define “good music?” Is it based on clinical or technical criteria, or is there a distinct emotional characteristic that must been present? I love so many types of music, so many genres.  I love opera, as it was my training and I train that way still. It’s like an Olympic athlete staying in shape. Singing everyday in some capacity is so important to me.   

I adore country music because those are my roots. Obviously, Broadway and American standards are big with me. My parents love all kinds of music and I think that influenced me. All of this and more are part of my concerts, because it represents who I am. Well maybe not rap, although I do love Eminem. There is a new rap Broadway musical called Hamilton that I’m obsessed with.  

Who had the greatest influence over you and who do you most appreciate for the life lessons you received? This is a loaded question. (Ha ha.) I hope the life lessons that I continue to learn are passed through to all my kids who I am close with. They know who they are. I hope to always be a good influence by giving positive feedback, but also telling the truth! I want all the kids I work with to follow their passion, whatever it is! A kid with self-esteem who has passion for their art is unstoppable.

My teacher Florence Birdwell showed me that. I learned a lot of my core singing technique while I was under her teaching. I learned how to prepare a song, and what songs were right for me. I also learned about some songs that weren’t right for me, just so we could work on them.

What do you consider your breakthrough performance? The role I look back on and feel happiest about was Cunégonde in Candide, the operetta by Leonard Bernstein. I worked on it throughout my whole college life, and I finally performed it with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra at age 33. I was doing Wicked at the time and took a week off to do this role, which the producers had filmed for the PBS series Great Performances. I feel like all my training came into play at the exact right time with the right role. The role itself is vocal gymnastics and very hard. I also had to be a comedienne, so I loved performing it.  

An entirely new audience was introduced to Broadway and its stars through Glee. What was it like performing as guest star April Rhodes on the show? I’m just glad (Glee co-creator) Ryan Murphy made the glee club cool. It never was cool in my school. I loved getting to sing a (John) Kander and (Fred) Ebb piece, a Carrie Underwood song and song from the band Heart, all on one show. So many people of all ages learned what the musical Cabaret was and introduced that era to a new era. And now kids want to learn. This is amazing.

If you could only sing only a few songs for the rest of your life, which songs would those be? There are a few songs I will always sing, for reasons well-known to me. 

“Till There Was You” (from The Music Man) is finally back in my repertoire. I had to stop singing it for a few years and heal a broken heart.

“Bring Him Home” from Les Miserables to me is a prayer. It applies to me in a different way, a desire to bring people that were once close to me back into my life again.

Paul Simon’s “Father and Daughter” is self-explanatory, and so is Dolly Parton’s “Little Sparrow.” And “All The Things You Are.” Jerome Kern is one of my favorite composers, if not the favorite.  

Finally, what can Madison fans expect from your Overture Center performance? I have never played Madison so I’m truly excited! I want to give it all to them. I want to sing everything, but I can’t! I may sing something written by someone from there.

ON STAGE

Kristin Chenoweth will perform at Overture Hall in Madison’s Overture Center for the Arts, 201 State St., on Oct. 4. Tickets are $40 to $150 and can be ordered at 608-258-4141 or overturecenter.org.

McConaughey unabashed in ‘Dallas Buyers Club’

In 1986, Texan Ron Woodroof was diagnosed with HIV and given 30 days to live. When receiving the news, the rodeo-lover argued with the doctor, saying only gays got such a disease-and he was as straight as they came.

Matthew McConaughey, as Woodroof in the based-on-a-true-story “Dallas Buyers Club,” out this Friday, is magnificently cringe-worthy as this very scene plays out in the film.

“We had to go all the way unabashed with that,” said McConaughey in a recent interview to promote the film. “I would go as far as I could with the stuff that Ron thought, which was the stuff that made people go ‘You bigot, racist.'”

But the beauty of Woodroof’s story, and McConaughey’s ability to portray him, is in its arc: Following his diagnosis, Woodroof illegally imported drugs from other countries to counteract the effects of HIV and AIDS because of the lack of treatments in the U.S. approved by the Food and Drug Administration. He also became friends with transgender business partner Rayon, played by Jared Leto.

To immerse himself in this role, McConaughey read Woodroof’s diary and listened to hours of taped conversations between Woodroof and “Dallas Buyers Club” screenwriter Craig Borten.

“I saw a guy who was a dreamer and who was lonely, isolated, and who could never finish anything,” said McConaughey. “He was aimless and the irony is it took him having HIV to help him find a goal.”

To look the part of the gaunt Woodroof, McConaughey lost over 45 pounds. The first time the actor saw himself on-screen, he thought, `”Whoa, you look like a reptile, man.’ I didn’t feel like I was watching me.”

But sacrificing his good looks for the role “was not a huge concern,” said the 43-year-old. “There is something valuable to not being able to use certain things that may be a strength. You use other instruments.”

While losing the weight, the actor said his family’s reaction was subtle. “They saw me every day. But there was one day when Vidy goes `Why is your neck like a giraffe?'” he added with a chuckle, remembering his 3-year-old daughter’s reaction to his shrinking physique.

Wife Camilla Alves “helped me stay controlled,” added McConaughey of his minimalist diet, which included meals like a 5 oz. piece of fish and a cup of vegetables. “But I found some sort of sick pleasure in doing all the cooking. I also needed less sleep and my memory was incredibly sharp.”

But McConaughey was soon back to his 182-pound frame to play a finance fast-talker in Martin Scorsese’s upcoming “The Wolf of Wall Street” and a detective in the HBO series “True Detective,” premiering in January.

Grittier roles, including 2011’s “Killer Joe,” and 2012’s “The Paperboy” and “Mud,” demonstrate McConaughey’s versatility, and there’s talk “Dallas Buyers Club” could score him an Oscar nomination.

“I’m very excited about that possibility,” he said. “I feel that it is more than fair to judge art. If that happened that’s wonderful.”

Streisand might do film of ‘Gypsy’

Barbra Streisand is working to secure the film rights to “Gypsy,” the New York Post reports. According to the newspaper’s source, Streisand would direct the movie and star as Mama Rose, the pushy mother of legendary stripper Gypsy Rose Lee.

The 1962 big-screen version of the Broadway classic by Arthur Laurents starred Rosalind Russell as Mama Rose and Natalie Wood as Gypsy Rose Lee. It flopped with critics and audiences alike.

But the show, with music by Jule Styne and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, is frequently reprised on the stage. A 2008 Broadway revival of “Gypsy” won a Tony Award for Patti LuPone and two other cast members.

Laurents, who famously guards his work, told the Post he’s all in favor of having Streisand interpret “Gypsy.”

“Barbra and I have been getting along very well now for some time,” he said. “We’ve talked about it a lot, and she knows what she’s doing. She has my approval.”