School Girls; Or, The African Mean Girls’ Play (Round House Theatre-Bethesda): SEPT 18-OCT 20

Pretty, popular H.S. senior, Paulina (Kashayna Johnson), longs to become Miss Ghana 1988; she’ll do whatever it takes to win the crown. Suddenly, there is a new student at the Aburi Girls Boarding School, Ericka (Claire Saunders), who arrives from America w/ dresses from Macy’s and the latest beauty products. With humorous lines, deep insight, and timeless themes, Jocelyn Bioh’s award-winning comedy (sold out last year off-Broadway) reveals much about all of us, not just teenage girls.

The teen girls are the focus of the story. Paulina is the “queen bee” who takes charge of her peers, yet carries deep insecurities. Ama (Awa Sal Secka) is a very smart senior looking forward to college w/ a serious boyfriend. All the girls are part of a choir; some ’80s music is featured in the play. Cousins Mercy (Debra Crabbe) and Gifty (Moriamo Temidayo Akibu) provide moments of humor. Mercy’s father is a doctor, but very careful w/ money; the girls want new clothes and shoes. Nana (Jade Jones) is the girl w/ a heart of gold who (eventually) finds a way to stand up for herself. Her stepmother put her on a strict diet, disapproving of her weight.

The adults in the story are former classmates- Headmistress Francis (Theresa Cunningham)- a motherly, no-nonsense woman and self-serving, elegant Miss Ghana 1968- Eloise Amponsah (Shirine Babb, a theater veteran). The headmistress wears traditional clothes, incl. headwraps; Miss Amponsah wears high heels and Western skirt suits. Though all her girls are excited re: the beauty pageant, Headmistress Francis insists that education comes first. Only one girl will be chosen to represent this school- everyone is sure it will be Paulina.

Acceptance, standards of beauty, colorism (experienced outside Africa as well), and pains of growing up are the main themes of this play. It starts out like a broad comedy, then you get to know the girls, and realize just how layered their lives are (as we find in real life). This play is being put on by a team of all women- how rare! Also, Round House Bethesda was renovated recently (w/ a upper level of seats); check it out for yourself if in the DMV area. I went to see this play on one of the PWYC nights and really enjoyed it!

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The Women (1939) starring Norma Shearer, Joan Crawford, & Rosalind Russell

There are over 130 roles in this movie, all played by women. Several actresses, incl. Marjorie Main (the Reno housekeeper- Lucy), originated their roles in the play (written by Claire Boothe Luce), which opened in the Fall of 1937 and had over 600 performances on Broadway. This fun, witty, and fast-paced movie follows a group of NYC society women (20s-50s), most whom are married (and some have kids, too). The center of this story, Mary Haines (Norma Shearer), has her perfect marriage shattered by her husband’s infidelity w/ a beautiful/manipulative shop girl, Crystal Allen (Joan Crawford). She has to break the news (as gently as she can) to her bright, sensitive daughter (Virginia Weidler- she appeared in The Philadelphia Story the following year). Mary makes the journey from marriage to divorce and back with dignity and intelligence.

You know, the first man that can think up a good explanation how he can be in love with his wife and another woman is gonna win that prize they’re always giving out in Sweden. -Maggie (the Haines’ family cook) explains to the maid

Mary’s cousin/frenemy, Sylvia Fowler (Rosalind Russell) steals the show and gets many of the best lines (as well as some of the wildest costumes). Director George Cukor told Russell to play Sylvia very broadly: “Sylvia’s breaking up a family, and there’s a child involved, and if you’re a heavy, audiences will hate you. Don’t play it like a heavy, just be ridiculous.” Russell is very fun to watch; she’s snobby, gossipy, gawky, yet very confident of her own marriage. There is also some physical comedy- Russell was noted for that in her early carer.

On the train to Reno, Mary meets Flora AKA The Countess De Lave (Mary Boland), a jovial divorcee in her ’50s who still believes in love (amour, as she says) after four marriages. Flora’s outfits and accessories are large and eccentric- much like herself. Miriam (Paulette Goddard, a gorgeous actress once married to Charlie Chaplin) plays a jaded/street-smart Brooklyn chorus girl who married (then divorced) for money. No doubles were used in the fight where Russell bites Goddard (after Sylvia learns that her husband has fallen in love w/ Miriam)- that bite was real! Peggy (a young Joan Fontaine- sister of Olivia de Havilland) is a naive new wife; she and her husband separated hastily. Her character is annoying to many viewers; she cries and complains a lot (b/c she doesn’t want a divorce).

All the characters are not wealthy; Crystal (as well as her fellow shopgirls and manicurists) must work for a living (esp. the ones who are single). A few of her peers sound jealous of Crystal and her supposed way w/ men; others looks down on her for acting flirtatious. Mary has a cook and a maid in her household; they are concerned re: their jobs, but still kind to their employer. We even see a young black maid (played by Butterfly McQueen from Gone With the Wind); sadly, she is the butt of a tasteless joke.

There’s a name for you ladies, but it isn’t used in high society . . . outside a kennel. -Crystal declares to Mary and her friends (at the end of the movie)

As from the dialogue, the hats, hairdos, and costumes reveal much about each character. The costume designer (Adrian) dressed the leads and also created high-fashion gowns and outfits for the (Technicolor) fashion show. The scene which was inserted into the B&W film as a surprise for the audience of that day. A classic film fan on Twitter notes that the $225 nightgown Mary admires after that fashion show would cost $4000 in 2019. The enormous square-cut ring Mary wears is the most expensive piece of jewelry in the film ($175,000).

Nocturnal Animals (2016) starring Amy Adams, Jake Gyllenhaal, & Michael Shannon

A (revenge) story inside a story follows LA-based 40-something art curator, Susan Morrow (Amy Adams), who receives a (soon to be published) book manuscript from her ex-husband, Edward Sheffield (Jake Gyllenhaal), who she left 20 years earlier. The second element follows the book itself (titled Nocturnal Animals) which revolves around a family man, Tony Hastings (also Gyllenhaal), whose vacation turns violent after his car is run off a rural Texas road. Tony, his wife (Isla Fisher), and their teen daughter India (Ellie Bamber) come face to face w/ a trio of dangerous young men. As Susan reads Edward’s engrossing book, she finds herself recalling their marriage, her loss of idealism, and confronting some hard truths about herself.

The first thing you notice re: this stylish (yet not shallow) thriller (directed by famed American fashion designer Tom Ford) is its look- it’s beautiful! The cinematographer is Irishman Seamus McGarvey; he also worked on Atonement. The costumes, hair, makeup, set decoration, etc, add to the richness of the story; however, sometimes the symbolism is too obvious. The score was inspired in Philip Glass and Bernard Herrmann; there is something familiar, yet also mysterious about the music. This tale also has something to say re: the art world (which Ford is familiar w/ being among the wealthy).

The acting is also quite good, starting w/ (Oscar nominee) Michael Shannon, who portrays a gruff Texas deputy- Bobby Andes- who’s not afraid to bend the rules to catch the bad guys. He’s a magnetic screen presence (bringing to my mind Gene Hackman). Gyllenhaal does a great job (as usual) in both his roles, esp. as Tony- the more interesting character. Laura Linney is only in once scene- she’s fabulous! Armie Hammer plays Susan’s second husband- Hutton- who is cold, distant, and worried re: the failing art gallery. Critics also loved to hate the villain- Ray (Aaron Taylor-Johnson, husband of director Sam Taylor-Johnson); I hadn’t seen him before. As for Adams, pay attention to the quiet moments (she spends a lot of time reading).

Ocean’s 8 (2018) starring Sandra Bullock, Cate Blanchett, & Anne Hathaway

NOTE: This post contains MILD SPOILERS for the film (now playing in theaters).

What seems like a fun, simple heist movie (female reboot of Ocean’s franchise), has layers (when you dig deeper). The dialogue and slow-ish directing style leaves much to be desired, BUT the actors pull off a LOT w/ the strength of their personalities, FAB fashion, confidence, and (off course) charisma. These women (mostly household names) are NOT afraid to poke fun at themselves. At one point, Debbie Ocean (Sandra Bullock) says: “A he gets noticed. A she is invisible. We want to be invisible.” Oooh, if that’s NOT a direct jab at major Hollywood film studios, I don’t know what is!

I haven’t seen Bullock (who plays recent parolee/younger sis of Danny) in a while; she’s had some hits (and quite a few misses) in her career. (Fun fact: He mom was an opera singer from Germany; she speaks some German at pivotal points in the film.) Cate Blanchett (Lou) is great, as usual; her platinum bob and menswear-inspired suits look V cool. I much prefer to see Blanchett in this type of strong/independent woman role, as opposed to Blue Jasmine (saw recently on Netflix w/ my mom). Her performance is compelling in that (rather lackluster) film, BUT I just like her kicking ass! There is an enigmatic nature to the relationship between Debbie and Lou.

Anne Hathaway (who steals the show) takes on the self-obsessed Hollywood star archetype. I think even Hathaway’s haters will have to take note of this performance! She is more of an earnest theater geek/English major, a far cry from Daphne Kluger, who swings from confident to insecure in the blink of an eye. Dahne’s designer for the Met Gala is Rose Weil (Helena Bonham-Carter), a broke Irishwoman near the end of her rope (until she meets Debbie and Lou). Bonham-Carter also makes fun of herself; take note the of the quirky touches (incl. hair, gloves, Victorian-inspired outfits). It’s great to see her (on the big screen) after MANY years. 

My friends and I were excited to see Mindy Kaling (now a mom- WOW); I wanted to know a BIT more re: her diamond-expert character, Amita. Awkwafina, a young Chinese-American actress from Queens, gets laughs for her deadpan performance of Constance (a skateboarding street hustler). Catch her later this Summer on Crazy Rich Asians. And who can forget Nine Ball, a young hacker played by Rihanna!? She just has the kind of screen presence that can’t be faked, even covered in baggy ponchos and working over a laptop. Sarah Paulson is the bored suburban mom, Tammy; she should’ve gotten more to do. 

Richard Armitage fans (like myself) will be V happy to see the Brit get more exposure; he plays Claude Becker (art dealer/con man). He recently tweeted that he got the role last-minute. Another Brit I’m also fan of (Damian Lewis- starring in Showtime’s Billions) had to drop out. Claude is Daphne’s date for the Gala; he has little interest in her (as a person), BUT seems to love being in proximity to celebs. (There are MANY celeb cameos in this film- FYI.) There are little moves and expressions to show Daphne that he cares, BUT this is all a performance. Richard does a great job in his (limited) role; he gets really great outfits, too. 

Sidenote: If you want to know more re: the Met Gala, check out the doc that the characters watch- The First Monday in May (Netflix). 

Phantom Thread (2017) starring Daniel Day-Lewis, Vicky Kreips, & Lesley Manville

WARNING: This review contains SPOILERS for the film.

Set in the glamour of 1950s post-war London, renowned dressmaker Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) and his sister Cyril (Lesley Manville) are at the center of British fashion, dressing royalty, movie stars, heiresses, socialites, debutants, and dames with the distinct style of The House of Woodcock. Women come and go through Woodcock’s life, providing the confirmed bachelor with inspiration and companionship, until he comes across a young, strong-willed woman, Alma (Vicky Krieps), who soon becomes a fixture in his life as his muse and lover. Once controlled and planned, he finds his carefully tailored life disrupted by love. -Synopsis from Focus Features

Arguably the strongest part of the film, the score possesses Paul Thomas Anderson’s signature strange aura that is found in several of his other films. While most movies nowadays would use music to heighten drama, he rejects the common norm; valuing music to form an atmosphere.

The acting is very strong, as the film’s performances can feel slightly subdued and low-key before creeping up on the viewer to create a sharp but simple impact. The movie’s script is a delight, managing to pull of a genuine hat-trick by feeling both simple and complex at the same time. 

Ms. Krieps goes toe-to-toe with Daniel Day-Lewis in their scenes. Her blushy cheeks and determined eye of observation bely an inner strength that isn’t necessarily obvious at first glance. 

-Excerpts from IMDB reviews

Director Paul Thomas (P.T.) Anderson got the initial idea for this film while he was sick in bed one day. His wife, actress Maya Rudolph, was tending to him and gave him a look that made him realize that she had NOT looked at him with such tenderness and love in a long time. P.T. Anderson wrote the script in collaboration with Daniel Day-Lewis (DDL). The actor suggested the name of his character be Reynolds Woodcock as a joke, BUT Anderson found that hilarious and kept it. To prep for his role, DDL (renown as a method actor) watched footage of ’40s and ’50s fashion shows, studied famous designers, consulted with the curator of fashion and textiles (Victoria and Albert Museum), and apprenticed under Marc Happel (head of the costume department at the NYC Ballet). DDL also learned how to sew. He said that this would be his final film. 

When I was a boy, I started to hide things in the lining of the garments. Things only I knew were there. Secrets. -Reynolds explains to Alma on their first date

Fastidious fashion designer, Reynolds Woodcock (DDL) meets waitress Alma (Vicky Kreips- an actress who comes from Luxembourg) when he stops for breakfast at a little restaurant on the way to his country house. He orders a huge breakfast; it’s obvious that they’re interested in each other. After dinner at a fancy restaurant, Reynolds takes Alma to his house where he puts her on a pedestal (literally) and begins to measure her for a dress. She is surprised, yet intrigued. 

I cannot start my day with a confrontation. I simply have no time for confrontations. -Reynolds explains to Alma over breakfast 

The tea is going out. The interruption is staying right here with me. -Reynolds complains to Alma when she comes to his workroom to serve him tea.

In no time, Alma is living in Reynolds’ London house; she has her own room (next door to his). It turns out that Reynolds and his business partner/sister, Cyril (Lesley Manville- a British character actress), are a package deal. It’s NOT an ideal situation for Alma, though she gets used to this unique life. The domestic space is also a business, so there are people around most of the time (servants, seamstresses, etc.) Alma is fitted for fine dresses, serves as a model, and meets famous clients of the House of Woodcock. However, she grows dissatisfied w/ her (undefined) role in Reynolds’ life. He puts his work first and doesn’t apologize for it; she wants him to be nicer (instead of critical and demanding). Alma wants to get married; Reynolds thinks of himself as “a confirmed bachelor.” Eventually, he realizes Alma is different than his past girlfriends; he loves her and needs her around. 

Some have embraced this film warmly; after all, it deals w/ compromise in romantic relationships, the everyday trials of domestic life, and challenges of being involved w/ an artist. This film has problematic elements (esp. for modern/feminist viewers), though it’s well-made and finely acted. As some critics pointed out, Alma (who is in her 30s) doesn’t really have much power in the relationship; Reynolds (older/wealthier/influential) could throw her out on the street at any time. We don’t learn where Alma comes from (she has a vague/European accent), if she has any family, or what her life was like (before she met Reynolds). 

Does Alma take back some of the power in their relationship? Well, she decides to use the poison mushrooms to slow Reynolds down. He becomes sick temporarily, yet also emotionally vulnerable. She admits that she likes this side of him. The second time, Reynolds consents to being poisoned, eating the omelet she serves w/ great relish. Hmmm… NOT exactly the kind of ending you’d expect from the typical period drama/romance!