Review: ‘The Duke’ (2021), starring Jim Broadbent and Helen Mirren

May 9, 2022

by Carla Hay

Helen Mirren and Jim Broadbent in “The Duke” (Photo courtesy of Pathé UK/Sony Pictures Classics)

“The Duke” (2021)

Directed by Roger Michell

Culture Representation: Taking place primarily in the United Kingdom cities of Newcastle and London, in 1961 and briefly in 1965, the comedy/drama film “The Duke” features a cast of nearly all-white characters (with one person of Pakistani heritage) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: An anti-establishment senior citizen, who is grieving over the years-ago death of his teenage daughter, pleads not guilty in his trial for stealing Francisco Goya’s portrait of the Duke of Wellington from the National Gallery in London.

Culture Audience: “The Duke” will appeal primarily to people interested in old-fashioned but well-acted period dramas about feisty and opinionated British people that explore issues of rebelling against society and dealing with personal grief.

Fionn Whitehead and Jack Bandeira in “The Duke” (Photo by Nick Wall/Pathé UK/Sony Pictures Classics)

“The Duke” is more than just a traditionally made movie about a man who goes on trial for stealing a valuable painting from London’s National Gallery. It’s also a witty and emotional drama about a family coping with grief. Based on a true story, “The Duke” is not as predictable as it might seem. The cast members greatly elevate the material, which might have become too lackluster or misguided with the wrong people cast in the roles.

Directed by Roger Michell (who passed away in 2021, at the age of 65), “The Duke” (which takes place in England, mostly in 1961) is really three stories in one, in telling what happened in the year of the life of 60-year-old Kempton Bunton (played Jim Broadbent) before, during and after he was put on trial for a famous art theft. The movie (written by Richard Bean and Clive Coleman) focuses mostly on the “before” part of the story, which is somewhat a detriment to the flow of the narrative, which needed to give more screen time to the trial.

Kempton, who lives in Newcastle, is a spunky nonconformist with a keen sense of questioning government authority and wanting to be a champion for underdogs and underprivileged people. He is a taxi driver by trade, but early on in the story, he gets fired from his taxi job. On the day that Kempton gets fired, his no-nonsense supervisor Freda (played by Val McLane, in a scene-stealing cameo) starts off by telling Kempton that she’s been getting customer complaints that he talks too much. More importantly to the boss, Kempton has also been falling short of handing over the company’s commission for his taxi cash earnings. He’s not exactly accused of stealing, but Kempton’s excuses aren’t good explanations for the missing commission money.

Kempton mumbles something about how he took pity on a cab rider who couldn’t afford to pay the fare. Freda tells Kempton, “I might have the body of a weak and feeble woman, but I’ve got the testicles of Henry VIII … I am running a taxi firm, not a charity!” When Freda decides to fire Kempton without paying him the salary that he’s owed, he disagrees with her, and she barks at him: “Sue me then. But fuck off first!”

Kempton’s loyal but frustrated wife Dorothy Bunton (played by Helen Mirren) has gotten fed up with Kempton’s erratic employment. Dorothy is essentially the main breadwinner for the household. She works as a housekeeper for a wealthy middle-aged couple, whose husband is a prominent doctor in the area. Kempton and Dorothy have two sons, both in their 20s.

Younger son Jackie (played by Fionn Whitehead), who is kind and obedient, works as a boat repairer/builder at a shipyard, and he lives with Kempton and Dorothy. Jackie has a crush on a young woman who’s close to his age named Irene Boslover (played by Aimée Kelly), and they have a sweet romance that starts off a little hesitantly, because Jackie is shy when it comes to dating. Jackie greatly admires his eccentric father Kempton, but Dorothy worries that Jackie will be influenced too much by Kempton’s disruptor ways.

Older son Kenny (played by Jack Bandeira), who is rebellious and outspoken, no longer lives with his parents. Kenny is involved in shady and illegal activities that he won’t discuss with his family. And much to Dorothy’s disapproval, Kenny plans to start living with his lover Pamela (played by Charlotte Spencer), nicknamed Pammy, who is legally married but separated from her husband. When Kenny and Pamela visit his parents, it leads to arguments and hard feelings between Kenny and his mother Dorothy.

Kempton and Dorothy are parents to a third child—a daughter named Marian—who died in 1948, at the age 18. She was killed in a car accident while riding a bicycle that Kempton gave her as a gift. Kempton feels tremendous guilt over Marian’s death and visits her grave on a regular basis. Kempton also likes to talk about Marian and reminisce about happy memories that he has of her.

By contrast, Dorothy refuses to discuss Marian and her death. She treats Marian’s death as if it’s a closed door that she doesn’t ever want to open again. She won’t even visit Marian’s grave. Because Kempton and Dorothy have handled Marian’s death in extremely different ways, it’s caused a strain in their marriage.

Kempton has written a drama manuscript, inspired by Marian, called “The Girl on a Bicycle” that he hopes will be produced for television. Later in the movie, Dorothy is horrified when she finds out about this manuscript. “Grief is private!” Dorothy gruffly tells Kempton.

One day, Kempton watches the TV news and sees a report announcing that the National Gallery in London has purchased a Francisco Goya portrait painting of the Duke of Wellington, also known as former U.K. prime minister Arthur Wellesley. The painting is worth £140,000 in 1961 money. Adjusted for inflation, that would be about £267 million in early 2020s money. Kempton scoffs at the extravagant purchase, because he thinks the U.K. government could have put the money to better use.

Kempton is more than a little irritated about it. In a typical Kempton Bunton comment, he remarks to Dorothy about the National Gallery’s purchase of this painting: “You know what’s going on here. Toffs looking after their own. Spending our hard-earned money on a half-baked board rate, by some Spanish drunk, of a duke who was a bastard to his men and was against universal suffrage.” The irony of this comment is that Kempton has not paid his taxes in years.

Later, Kempton goes to London, in an attempt to get media and government attention for his quest to make TV in the United Kingdom free for old age pensioners (OAPs), who are usually on a fixed and limited income. While in London, he sees a newspaper article about the painting where the National Gallery has issued this invitation to visitors who want to see the Duke of Wellington painting: “Line up to meet the Duke!”

And not long after that, the painting is stolen and hidden in the Bunton household. It’s the first time that any art has been stolen from the National Gallery. (And to this day, it remains the only major theft that the National Gallery has experienced.) An anonymous ransom note written and mailed by Kempton announces that the painting is being held “hostage” until the U.K. government agrees to give £140,000 (the price paid for the painting) to worthy causes supporting the elderly and military veterans.

Police commissioner Sir Joseph Simpson (played by Charles Edwards) leads the investigation, but “The Duke” predictably has two bumbling police detectives—DI (Detective Inspector) Macpherson (played by Dorian Lough) and DI Brompton (played by Sam Swansbury)—who do a lot of the grunt work. Commissioner Simpson has a public relations role of giving updates to the media about the investigation. He seems to want all the publicity and glory for solving the case.

The police make the mistake of dismissing the correct suspect profile that a handwriting expert named Dr. Unsworth (played by Sian Clifford) deduced from studying the ransom note and figuring out what type of person wrote it. These detectives are convinced by their own theory that the painting was stolen by an unknown sophisticated gang from another nation, probably from Italy. The detectives also say amongst themselves that a woman who’s a handwriting expert could not possibly know more than these experienced cops.

Through a series of events that won’t be revealed in this review, the painting is discovered in the Bunton house. It’s enough to say that Kempton decides to turn himself in and admit that he “borrowed” the painting, to point out wasteful government spending and to demand that the U.K. government invest in better care for the elderly and military veterans. He pleads not guilty to the theft. None of this is spoiler information, because the movie’s trailer already reveals that Kempton goes on trial for stealing the painting.

Kempton’s trial doesn’t happen until the last third of the movie. Kempton’s defense attorney Jeremy Hutchinson (played by Matthew Goode) sometimes clashes with Kempton behind the scenes, but they both want to win the case. And so, Kempton and Jeremy find some common ground of agreement. The story has a real-life plot twist revealed in the movie’s last 15 minutes, which show how far Kempton is willing to go to stand by his beliefs, even if it’s at great personal risk to himself.

With a working-class man in his 60s as the protagonist, “The Duke” is the type of British drama movie that doesn’t get made very much anymore. Dorothy is a formidable and strong-willed person in this story (and Mirren performs well in the role, as expected), but she’s really a supporting character who reacts to whatever chaos Kempton has created. Broadbent brings roguish charm to this role, and his performance (which is both amusing and heartbreaking) is the main reason to see this film.

“The Duke” is not perfect by any means. The movie takes a little too long to get to the trial, which is somewhat crammed in toward the end of the film. There are several scenes that over-explain how Kempton has trouble keeping a job because of his tendency to question authority. And there’s a repeated cycle of Dorothy getting upset by Kempton’s mischief, and Kempton promising that he won’t cause any more problems and won’t keep secrets from her. And then, he inevitably breaks his promise.

As an example of Kempton’s unstable employment, there’s a section of the movie showing Kempton in a job as an assembly line worker at a bread factory. He befriends a Pakistani co-worker named Javid Akram (played by Ashley Kumar), who is the only employee in that department who isn’t white. Kempton eventually gets fired for standing up to his racist boss Mr. Walker (played by Craig Conway), who bullies Javid by calling him a racial slur and singling him out for unfair treatment.

“The Duke” also tends to be a little too repetitive with Kempton’s bootlegging of the ITV network (which, unlike the BBC, requires payment to receive) on the TV set in his household’s living room. He tries to dodge the authorities he encounters who attempt to fine him for non-payment, but he eventually spends 13 jays in jail when he gets into a scuffle over it. During his ongoing dispute over this issue, Kempton stages protests on the street with “Free TV for OAP” signs, with Jackie recruited as Kempton’s protest companion. Most people who pass Kempton and Jackie on the street just don’t care—and neither will viewers after a while, since the stolen painting is the more interesting part of the movie.

When Kempton’s legal entanglements make the news, Dorothy is embarrassed, makes profuse apologies to her employer Dolly Gowling (played by Anna Maxwell Martin), and promises that she’s not as “unstable” has her husband. Mrs. Gowling, who is married to a difficult and domineering man, has empathy for Kempton. Because she is a supporter of Kempton’s anti-establishment ways, Mrs. Gowling attends his trial as an eager spectator.

Any supporting characters outside of Dorothy and Jackie tend to be drawn in broad strokes that are a little stereotypical. They include the “law and order” characters, such as the aforementioned main detectives; Judge Aarvold (played by James Wilby); prosecutor Edward Cussen (played by John Heffernan); and junior counsel Eric Crowther (played by Joshua McGuire), who works with Jeremy on Kempton’s defense team. Despite some of these narrative flaws, “The Duke” has enough amusing banter, heartfelt moments and well-played scenes to hold the interest of people who are open to watching movies set in 1960s England and that have a retro filmmaking style that matches this era.

Sony Pictures Classics released “The Duke” in select U.S. cinemas on April 22, 2022. The movie was released in Canada and Australia in 2021, and in the United Kingdom, Ireland and Japan on February 25, 2022.

Review: ‘On Broadway’ (2021), starring Ian McKellen, Helen Mirren, George C. Wolfe, Hugh Jackman, Tommy Tune, John Lithgow and Alexandra Billings

September 26, 2021

by Carla Hay

Ian McKellen in “On Broadway” (Photo courtesy of Kino Lorber)

“On Broadway” (2021)

Directed by Oren Jacoby

Culture Representation: The documentary “On Broadway” features a nearly all-white group of people (with one African American, one mixed-race person and one Asian) discussing the history of Broadway theater productions, from the 1950s to the 2010s.

Culture Clash: Broadway has weathered its share of ups and downs, including theater shutdowns due to the COVID-19 pandemic and ibeing in crime-ridden areas; the AIDS crisis devastating the Broadway community; and criticism that Broadway shows are too elitist and too expensive.

Culture Audience: “On Broadway” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in a documentary that presents a very optimistic view of Broadway without delving too deeply into controversial subject matter.

Broadway theaters in New York City in “On Broadway” (Photo courtesy of Kino Lorber)

“On Broadway” is everything that you might expect a documentary to be that celebrates the history of Broadway shows from the 1950s to the 2010s. Expect to hear stories about Broadway’s highs and lows, but don’t expect to hear anything too scandalous. Directed by Oren Jacoby (an Oscar-nominated documentarian), “On Broadway” probably won’t be revealing enough for people who are Broadway trivia fanatics. This documentary is for people who want to see a selective history of Broadway, presented like a love letter instead of a scathing exposé of the dark sides of the business.

It’s a traditionally made documentary that mixes archival footage with exclusive documentary interviews. It looks like some of these interviews happened about 10 to 15 years before this 2021 documentary was released, while other interviews took place in or close to 2018/early 2019, when this documentary was completed. And a few of the people who were interviewed for the film have since passed away. For example, the documentary has exclusive interviews with celebrated playwright August Wilson (who died in 2005, at the age of 60) and Broadway producer/director extraordinaire Hal Prince, who died in 2019, at the age of 91.

“On Broadway” had its world premiere at the 2019 DOC NYC film festival, so this movie does not include any extensive coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on Broadway, when theaters were shut down from March 2020 to August 2021. However, the movie’s epilogue does have a brief mention of the pandemic shutdowns and New York City’s long-delayed plans to re-open Broadway theaters in September 2021. It fits the tone and messaging of the rest of the documentary: Broadway, also known as Great White Way, is also the Great Comeback Kid.

“On Broadway” begins with testimonials from actors and other creators who’ve made their marks on Broadway, which consists of a cluster of designated theaters in New York City’s midtown Manhattan. Tony-winning actress Helen Mirren (“The Audience”) says that the first time that she went to New York City to rehearse for her Broadway debut (a 1994 production of “A Month in the Country”), she remembers looking at the Manhattan skyline and thinking: “‘Will I conquer New York? Will I survive it, even?’ The whole concept of Broadway has this very romantic, very heroic, very legendary kind of feel to it.”

Alec Baldwin (who earned a Tony nomination for his portrayal of Stanley Kowalski in the 1992 Broadway production of “A Streetcar Named Desire”) has this to say about Broadway: “New York is a place that when 8 o’clock at night rolls around, the curtain is opening on some of the greatest performances around the world, in one city. It is almost incomprehensible the amount of talent that is on display at that one moment.”

Tony-winning actor Hugh Jackman (“The Boy From Oz”), who has also won an Emmy Award for hosting the 2005 Tony Awards ceremony, comments: “As a performer, Broadway is different from anywhere else on the planet. You feel the audience are leaning in, they’re wanting to have a great time, they’re ready to enjoy it. It’s the most palpable I’ve ever felt—that connection with an audience.”

The documentary includes the expected footage and commentary about how influential Broadway is to actors and actresses. Tony-winning actress Christine Baranski (“The Real Thing,” “Rumors”) says with great fondness: “‘Company’ was the first musical I saw on Broadway. And I just thought, ‘Okay, this is the New York theater!” The documentary has brief archival clips of several stars who starred in Broadway shows before they became famous for their work in movies, such as Lithgow, McKellen, Mirren, Viola Davis and Courtney B. Vance.

Tony-winning director George C. Wolfe (“Angels in America: Millennium Approaches” and “Bring in ‘da Noise/Bring in ‘da Funk”) says that Broadway is more than just a bunch of buildings. “Something that ends up resonating with people ends up inhabiting those buildings. And it creates a kind of strange, odd, wonderful energy.”

Wolfe continues, “And all of a sudden, those buildings become kind of a church that attracts these devotees who become empowered by what’s on that stage. But at the same time, it’s a commercial landscape. And every day, you have to pay your rent. That’s the key to Broadway.”

The debate over art versus commerce certainly applies to Broadway, which is a tough business for a production to make a profit. Most Broadway productions end up being money-losing investments. The Broadway shows that run for years are the ones that are like winning the lottery.

In addition to having a narrative history of Broadway, the documentary includes an all-access profile of “The Nap,” a British imported play about snooker players that debuted on Broadway during the 2018-2019 season. “The Nap” (which had a limited run from September to November 2018) was considered financially riskier than a typical Broadway show, since it didn’t have any big-name stars and because snooker is a game that’s largely unfamiliar to American audiences. “On Broadway” followed the Broadway production of “The Nap” from its rehearsals to opening night.

The documentary includes interviews with “The Nap” playwright Richard Bean, “The Nap” Broadway director Daniel Sullivan and “The Nap” co-star Alexandra Billings, who made her Broadway debut in the show. As one of the first transgender actors to portray a transgender character on Broadway, Billings expresses gratitude and amazement at how far she’s come in overcoming personal setbacks (including drug addiction and homelessness) to end up starring in a Broadway show. She says, “The Broadway journey: There’s so much history attached. We need to remember our history.”

“On Broadway” takes viewers through a chronological history of Broadway with an impressive array of archival footage and various commentaries from Broadway insiders. The 1950s through the mid-1960s are described as the Golden Age of Broadway. Business was booming, and Broadway shows often influenced pop culture in music and in movies.

However, by the late 1960s, with the counterculture movement becoming a major force in society, Broadway was considered old-fashioned and out-of-touch by many people. In addition, the streets of midtown Manhattan’s Times Square, where almost all Broadway theaters are located, became increasingly crime-infested. As a result, by the mid-1970s, many Broadway theaters were shut down, and Broadway experienced a major slump. New York City was also on the verge of declaring bankruptcy.

Tony-winning actor John Lithgow (“The Changing Room” and “The Sweet Smell of Success”) remembers, “The theater district in those days: You can’t believe how different it was. It was so down on its luck.” The documentary mentions that Broadway attendance dropped from 10 million people in 1969 to 4.8 million people in 1972.

However, during this economically depressed period of time for Broadway, new talent emerged that pushed Broadway to new levels of creativity. Musical composer Stephen Sondheim and the aforementioned groundbreaking producer/director Prince are named as the two luminaries who had the most influence on the new and original Broadway shows that emerged from the late 1960s through the 1970s.

Prince and Sondheim worked separately for most of ther projects. However, their collaborations included “Company” and “Pacific Overtures,” which are named as examples of Broadway musicals that were reactions to criticism that Broadway was outdated and playing it too safe. Plays and musicals began to include topics that were once considered taboo on Broadway, including war protests, the feminist movement, LGBTQ rights and abortion.

The documentary notes how the majority of the theaters were dominated by three theater owners in the 1970s: The Shubert Organization, the Nederlander Organization and Jujamcyn Theaters. Out of financial desperation, the Shubert family let attorneys Gerald Schoenfeld and Bernard B. Jacobs take over the Shubert Organization in 1972.

The leadership change at the Shubert Organization led to a rethinking of investment strategies, by doing something that was groundbreaking at the time: Giving more freedom to the artistic people in Broadway, such as allowing them to spend time workshopping a production instead of just rehearsing. Broadway icons such as director/choreographer Bob Fosse and choreographer Michael Bennett were among those who benefited from this strategy.

Nederlander Organization managing director Elizabeth McCann says of this period of time when Broadway was in an economic decline: “They were all desperate for product.” One of the first new productions that Shubert invested in was Fosse’s “Pippin,” because the company believed in him.

New York City’s slow but eventual clean-up of Times Square led to closures of strip clubs and porn theaters and the arrival of more family-friendly businesses. In 1995, the Walt Disney Company began leasing the New Amsterdam Theater in a deal that’s considered a game changer in Broadway. In collaboration with the 42nd Street Development Project, Disney agreed to renovate the theater, which re-opened in 1997. As part of the deal, the New Amsterdam Theater is the exclusive home of Broadway productions that are based on Disney intellectual property.

The documentary singles out several Broadway productions as groundbreaking in their own ways. In the 1970s, “A Chorus Line” broke Broadway box-office records at the time and was the first Broadway show to be owned by a nonprofit group: the Public Theater. “Ain’t Misbehavin'” broke racial barriers on Broadway for having African Americans as a majority of its cast. “Annie” broke the stereotype that a Broadway show needed a rave review from the New York Times to be a long-running hit. The smash hit “Nicholas Nickleby,” with its eight-hour running time, broke the conventional practice of limiting a Broadway show’s running time to two or three hours.

By the late 1970s, Broadway was in full comeback mode, aided by the “I Love New York” ad campaign that featured Broadway shows. Popular shows on Broadway, such as “Grease” and “The Wiz,” were made into movies. Broadway in the 1970s and the 1980s had a British invasion, led by composer/producer Andrew Lloyd Webber and producer Cameron Mackintosh. Separately and together, Webber and Mackintosh brought numerous hits to Broadway, such as their collaborations on “Cats” and “The Phantom of the Opera.” (The documentary includes brief clips of an interview with Mackintosh.) The 1980s also saw a rise of acclaimed Broadway plays by and about LGBTQ people, most notably Harvey Fierstein’s “Torch Song Trilogy.”

The 1990s ushered in a resurgence in Broadway’s popularity with young people, thanks largely to Jonathan Larson’s “Rent.” “Angels in America” (from playwright Tony Kushner) and “Rent” also brought frank depictions of the AIDS crisis into major storylines for Broadway shows. The 1990s was also the decade where the Disney-fication of Broadway began to take hold in the trend of turning movies into long-running Broadway musicals. The smash hit “The Lion King” was an obvious standout. Also in the 1990s, a Broadway trend began that isn’t going away anytime soon: jukebox musicals built around the hit songs of famous music artists. “Mamma Mia!,” based on ABBA songs, is considered the first blockbuster in this jukebox musical trend.

Even with several Broadway hits being churned out that are based on pre-existing entertainment, the phenomenal success of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “Hamilton” proves that Broadway audiences are still hungry for completely original productions. In the documentary, “Hamilton” is credited with bringing more multiracial audiences than ever before to Broadway. “Hamilton’s” race-swapping of historical figures and incorporation of rap/hip-hop are also cited as groundbreaking for a Broadway show.

“On Broadway” wants to have such a relentlessly “cheerleader” attitude about the Broadway industry that it tends to ignore some uncomfortable topics, such as racism. Instead, the movie’s way of discussing Broadway’s race relations is to focus more on the accomplishments of Broadway’s prolific people of color (such as Wolfe, Wilson and Miranda) who were able to break racial barriers in the world of Broadway. Sexism and the #MeToo movement aren’t mentioned at all. The movie’s epilogue acts as if the abuse scandals that led to the 2021 downfall of Broadway mega-producer Scott Rudin just didn’t exist. The documentary gives no acknowledgement that Rudin’s fall from grace was big news that shook the Broadway industry.

Although the documentary does acknowledge the devastation that the AIDS crisis inflicted on the Broadway community, one of the movie’s flaws is that it could have had more coverage on what the Broadway community has done in response to the AIDS crisis. The documentary gives more screen time to Broadway people protesting and crying over the 1982 demolishment of the Morosco Theater, the Helen Hayes Theater and the Bijou (to make way for the Marriott Marquis in Times Square) than it gives to Broadway people doing something about the AIDS crisis. For example, “On Broadway” could have had a segment about the work of the nonprofit group Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS. It’s a glaring omission.

Although “On Broadway” overlooks several social justice issues that directly impact Broadway, the documentary gives some recognition to the fact that Broadway gets a lot of criticism for being overpriced and elitist. At the same time, Broadway has also gotten backlash from the other end of the spectrum: Some people think that Broadway is catering too much to unsophisticated audiences, by relying heavily on movie adaptations and jukebox musicals for new Broadway shows.

Broadway producer Robert Fox comments on overpriced Broadway tickets: “I find gouging people unappealing. And I think people are being gouged. The amounts of money that people ar being asked to see things are insane. But it’s not called ‘show charity.’ It’s called ‘show business.'”

“The Nap” Broadway director Sullivan says that the high cost of putting on a Broadway show and the high risk of the show being a money-losing failure are aspects of the business that won’t change anytime soon: “Paying the kind of money you have to pay to put anything on a Broadway stage is almost foolhardy. But the excitement can’t be about the money. The excitement is about finding fascinating new work and taking that chance of putting it before the public.”

While “old school” Broadway people might gripe about the increasing number of movie adaptations and jukebox musicals that end up on Broadway, the general consensus by people interviewed in the documentary is that these adapted Broadway shows won’t replace the need for original content. Tony-winning actor James Corden (“One Man, Two Guvnors”) comments: “You’ve just always got to keep an eye on what’s new, what’s fresh, what’s going to inspire the next kid who thinks, ‘Oh my God. I’m going to write a play.'”

“On Broadway” includes interviews with people representing a cross-section of various jobs in Broadway—mostly people who are actors, producers, directors and theater officials. Among those interviewed are director/producer Lynne Meadow, director Jack O’Brien, the Public Theater artistic director Oskar Eustis, producer Manny Azenberg, director Nicholas Hytner, producer Sonia Friedman, producer Albert Poland and producer Nelle Nugent. Other people interviewed include playwright David Henry Hwang, theatrical ad agency director Nancy Coyne, city planner Carl Weisbrod, lighting designer Natasha Katz, former Jujamcyn Theaters president Rocco Landesman, The New 42nd Street founding president Cora Cahan, Sardi’s maître d’ Gianni Felidi, and theater journalists Michael Riedel, Jeremy Gerard and Michael Paulson.

Even though “On Broadway” glosses over many of the ongoing problems in the business of Broadway, the documentary is entertaining and can be informative to people who have limited or average knowledge of this great American platform of performing arts. Broadway has been written off as “dead” many times, but the message of the documentary is that when Broadway is in a rut, Broadway should not be underestimated to climb out of that rut to thrive once again.

Tony-winning actor/director/choreographer Tommy Tune sums up the resilience of Broadway by saying: “Broadway is like some old 42nd Street hooker. She just keeps plugging. And sometimes, she has new shoes on. And sometimes, she has old, broken-down shoes.”

Kino Lorber released “On Broadway” in select U.S. cinemas and in virtual cinemas on August 20, 2021. The movie’s release date on digital and DVD is on October 19, 2021.

Review: ‘F9,’ starring Vin Diesel, John Cena, Michelle Rodriguez, Tyrese Gibson, Chris ‘Ludacris’ Bridges, Nathalie Emmanuel and Jordana Brewster

June 25, 2021

by Carla Hay

Michelle Rodriguez and Vin Diesel in “F9” (Photo courtesy of Universal Pictures)

“F9”

Directed by Justin Lin

Culture Representation: Taking place in the United States, Spain, the United Kingdom, Japan, Germany, Azerbaijan and the nation of Georgia, the action flick “F9” features a racially diverse cast of characters (black, white, Latino and Asian) representing the middle-class and wealthy in law enforcement and the criminal underground.

Culture Clash: A daredevil team tries to save the world from a group of criminals that includes an assassin who is the estranged brother of the daredevil leader. 

Culture Audience: Besides appealing to fans of the “Fast and the Furious” movie franchise, “F9” (the ninth movie in the series) will appeal primarily to people who want to a predictable action flick with high-budget stunts and low-quality screenwriting.

Pictured in front, from left to right: Vin Diesel, Thue Ersted Rasmussen and John Cena in “F9” (Photo courtesy of Unviersal Pictures)

At this point, movies in the “Fast” movie franchise (which began with 2001’s “The Fast and the Furious”) are no longer rooted in reality and have become over-the-top spectacles for people who want to shut their brains off for a couple of hours while they watch. And that’s okay, if there’s a coherent plot and the stunts are truly creative. But “F9” (the ninth film in the series) is an example of a sequel that’s too bloated, too self-satisfied and too lazy. This movie needed less stunt casting and more impressive stunts that don’t insult people’s intelligence.

Directed by Justin Lin (who co-wrote the abysmal “F9” screenplay with Daniel Casey), “F9” is best described as a live-action movie written and directed like a sloppy cartoon for people with no attention span and no expectations to see an intriguing thriller beyond predictable chase scenes, shootouts and explosions. It’s another “we have to save the world from a power-hungry villain” story, but there’s no real creativity or suspense in this overstuffed, 145-minute movie that tries to distract viewers from the weak plot by zipping around the world to different locations. Too bad with all that globetrotting in search of the villain, the “F9” team couldn’t find anything resembling a suspenseful story, because almost every twist and turn can be easily predicted.

The main characters in the “Fast” saga have become so egotistical and conceited that there are multiple times in the movie where they wonder out loud to each other if their death-defying luck might be because they aren’t mere mortals but might in fact have superpowers. “F9” is not a superhero movie, although it would be a better explanation for some of the ridiculous outcomes of battles where real human beings would die, but these “heroes” just get injuries that are never fatal and they recover in ways that are too quick to believe.

And this wouldn’t be a “Fast” movie without constant use of the word “family.” It can become a drinking game to take a drink every time the word “family” is said in a “Fast” movie. This time around, “F9” is especially enamored with adding more people to the “family,” with some unnecessary stunt casting that looks very out of place. If “F9” is the first movie that people see in the “Fast” series, they might be a little confused, because the movie assumes that viewers will already know a lot of the characters’ backstories. It’s best to watch 2017’s “The Fate of the Furious,” because most of the main characters in that movie are in “F9.”

Here’s a handy summary of who’s in the movie and how their screen time is used in “F9.”

The Heroes

  • Dominic “Dom” Toretto (played by Vin Diesel) is the leader of the daredevil crew that started out as outlaw drag racers and now have vague duties a security/spy team hired to help out government officials and elite business people who are targets of villains who want to take over the world. Vinnie Bennett portrays a young Dom in the movie’s several flashbacks to when Dom was in his late teens.
  • Letty Ortiz (played by Michelle Rodriguez) is Dom’s on-again, off-again girlfriend. In “F9,” Dom and Letty are happily living together with Dom’s son Brian, who’s about 4 or 5 years old in this movie. Brian’s mother Elena Neves (played by Elsa Pataky) was a Diplomatic Security Service agent who died in “The Fate of the Furious.”
  • Mia Toretto (played by Jordana Brewster) is Dom’s loyal younger sister who goes along with whatever Dom wants. Mia is the love partner of Dom’s best friend Brian O’Conner (played by Paul Walker), who is the father of their son Jack. Walker died in real life in 2013, but Brian is supposed to be happily retired.
  • Roman Pearce (Tyrese Gibson) is a nervous and talkative member of Dom’s team. The running joke with Roman is that he’s always anxious about getting into dangerous situtations. Expect Roman to scream at least twice in every “Fast” movie.
  • Tej Parker (played by Chris “Ludacris” Bridges) is Roman’s level-headed best friend who has skills as a mechanic and a computer technician.
  • Ramsey (played by Nathalie Emmanuel) is a British computer hacker who has essentially taken over from Tej as being the “computer whiz” on Dom’s team.
  • Han Lue (played by Sung Kang) supposedly died in 2013’s “Fast & Furious 6,” but he makes a notable but brief return in “F9.” Han’s return is not spoiler information, since it’s part of this movie’s publicity, and his re-appearance has this explanation: He faked his own death.

The Villains

  • Otto (played by Thue Ersted Rasmussen), a wealthy German mogul with vast political connections who wants to take over the world.
  • Jakob Toretto (played by John Cena), Dom’s estranged younger brother, who works with Otto as Otto’s top assassin. Finn Cole portrays a young Jakob in his late teens in the movie’s flashback scenes.
  • Cypher (played by Charlize Theron), a cyberterrorist who was the chief villain in “The Fate of the Furious.” In “F9,” she spends most of her screen time literally locked up in a glass cage.

The Rest

  • Sean (played by Lucas Black), Twinkie (played by Shad Moss, also known as Bow Wow) and Santos (played by Don Omar) are three mechanics who are in the movie mostly for comic relief. They’re like the Three Stooges of the “Fast” movie franchise.
  • Mr. Nobody (played by Kurt Russell) is a powerful undercover operative who works with Dom’s team. A plane hijacking involving Mr. Nobody sets off the rescue mission in the movie.
  • Elle (played by Anna Sawai) is an associate of Han’s who plays a key role in this mission.
  • Stasiak (played by Shea Whigham) is an FBI agent who works with Mr. Nobody.
  • Buddy (played by Michael Rooker) is a mechanic who raised Jakob after Jakob’s father died.
  • Queenie Shaw (played by Helen Mirren) is the mother of Deckard Shaw (played by Jason Statham), a longtime nemesis of Dom’s team.

Through a distress video found in Mr. Nobody’s hijacked plane, Dom and his team find out that Jakob was one of the chief people behind the hijacking. Otto and Jakob are after a device called Aries, which has the ability to hack into defense and banking systems around the world. It’s the type of device that any self-respecting villain with world domination goals would want to have.

Aries has been split into two. Jakob and Otto have one half of Aries, and they’re in a race against time with Dom and his team to get the other half of Aries. Cypher is being held captive by Otto and Jakob, who try to get her advice on how to find Aries and thwart Dom and his team. The stakes are more personal for Dom and Jakob because of their family feud.

The origin of this brotherly vendetta is shown through flashbacks. It has to do with the death of Dom and Jakob’s father Jack Toretto (played by JD Pardo), who died during a car race witnessed by Dom and Jakob. Siena Agudong plays a young Mia in these flashbacks.

Various parts of Dom’s team travel to different parts of the world to find the missing half of Aries. Cardi B has a very quick cameo as Leysa, someone from Dom’s past. People might laugh when they see what type of role she has in this movie. (No, she isn’t a stripper.) Along the way, Roman and Tej go into space using a rocket car that was built by Sean, Twinkie and Santos. Now, try say all of that out loud with a straight face.

The Pontiac Fiero that goes into space (by having a cheap-looking rocket launcher attached) is the most ridiculous part of this movie’s dumb plot. But to the movie’s credit, “F9” even knows how stupid this space rocket car gimmick is, because Roman and Tej keep saying while they’re in outer space that they have no idea what they’re doing there. In real life, Roman and Tej would also be dead in space, based on the flimsy-looking spacesuits they wear in this movie. But when a movie is self-aware of how idiotic it is, it doesn’t make the idiocy any better.

There are many examples of how “F9” is wasteful, including how it squanders the great talent of Oscar-winning actresses Mirren and Theron. Mirren’s Queenie character (who is a jewel thief) literally does nothing in the movie but drive Dom somewhere after she’s committed a jewelry heist. The movie makes a point of showing how Queenie is wearing animal print boots underneath her elegant gown and high-priced jewelry. Mirren might as well have been wearing a T-shirt that says, “I’m Just Here for the Paycheck.”

Theron spends most of her “F9” screen time as a prisoner in a glass cage, which is the type of cage that people have for large animals. And speaking of sexist depictions of women, the movie has a mansion party scene where only modelesque, scantily clad women wearing white are gathered on the front lawn, as if they’re only there to be sex objects on display. “F9” villain Otto is the host of the party, so “F9” filmmakers can shift the blame to the evil character being responsible for objectifying women. But it just comes across as director Lin deciding to objectify women in this scene just because he could.

Of course, Letty, Mia and Ramsey all embody what it means to be good and strong women. But make no mistake: The men are in charge in these movies. No matter how much Letty, Mia and Ramsey are given to do, all three women are ultimately under Dom’s leadership. So much for female empowerment.

“F9” is one of the worst of the “Fast” franchise because even the chief villain Otto is forgettable and badly written. He comes across as a spoiled wimp, with the wardrobe of a dorky playboy, including wearing tacky leisure suits with loafers and no socks. There’s absolutely nothing scary about Otto. However, look for Statham’s Shaw character to make a mid-credits cameo in “F9.” Statham’s appearance is a reminder of how much better this movie series is when it has a truly menacing villain.

As for Jakob, he’s all brawn and very little brain, just like many characters Cena tends to play in action movies. The flashback scenes take up a lot of time and some could easily have been cut out of the film and still made their point. Diesel continues to display wooden acting. The rest of the cast members are serviceable in their roles. The movie’s flashbacks serve as the emotional core of the over-used theme in “Fast” movies: family.

And the return of Han doesn’t happen until the last third of the movie. The not-very-believable explanation for Han’s “return from the dead” is so cringeworthy, even actor Kang seems a little embarrassed to utter the lines. You’d have to believe that Han (who supposedly died in a car explosion) had a similar-looking replacement corpse nearby before the car exploded, and that he was not only able to jump out of the car in time but also put another corpse in the car instead. You’d also have to believe that a medical examiner wouldn’t be able to detect through DNA or dental records that Han’s body wasn’t the body that was found in the car.

With all that being said, die-hard fans won’t care how bad “F9” is because they just want to see fight scenes, car chases and explosions. And in that respect, “F9” does deliver, but not as well as previous “Fast” films that Lim directed. He also directed 2006’s “The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift,” 2009’s “Fast & Furious,” 2011’s “Fast Five” and “Fast & Furious 6.” Those other four movies have something that “F9” severely lacks: a story with some genuine and unique surprises, not coasting entirely on past glories.

Universal Pictures released “F9” in U.S. cinemas on June 25, 2021. The movie was released in various other countries, beginning on June 19, 2021.

2019 Academy Awards: performers and presenters announced

February 11, 2019

by Carla Hay

Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga
Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga at the 76th Annual Golden Globe Awards on January 6, 2019. (Photo by Paul Drinkwater/NBC)

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has announced several entertainers who will be performers and presenters at the 91st Annual Academy Awards ceremony, which will take place at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles. ABC will have the U.S. telecast of the show, which will not have a host. As previously reported, comedian/actor Kevin Hart was going to host the show, but he backed out after the show’s producers demanded that he make a public apology for homophobic remarks that he made several years ago. After getting a  firestorm of backlash for the homophobic remarks, Hart later made several public apologies but remained adamant that he would still not host the Oscars this year.

The celebrities who will be on stage at the Oscars this year are several of those whose songs are nominated for Best Original Song. Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper will perform their duet “Shallow” from their movie remake of “A Star Is Born.” Jennifer Hudson will perform “I’ll Fight” from the Ruth Bader Ginsburg documentary “RBG.” David Rawlings and Gillian Welch will team up for the duet “When a Cowboy Trades His Spurs for Wings” from the Western film “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs.” It has not yet been announced who will perform “The Place Where Lost Things Go” from the Disney musical sequel “Mary Poppins Returns.”** It also hasn’t been announced yet if Kendrick Lamar and SZA will take the stage for “All the Stars” from the superhero flick “Black Panther.”

Gustavo Dudamel and the L.A. Philharmonic do the music for the “In Memoriam” segment, which spotlights notable people in the film industry who have died in the year since the previous Oscar ceremony.

Meanwhile, the following celebrities have been announced as presenters at the ceremony: Whoopi Goldberg (who has hosted the Oscars twice in the past), Awkwafina, Daniel Craig, Chris Evans, Tina Fey, Jennifer Lopez, Amy Poehler, Maya Rudolph, Amandla Stenberg, Tessa Thompson Constance Wu, Javier Bardem, Angela Bassett, Chadwick Boseman, Emilia Clarke, Laura Dern, Samuel L. Jackson, Stephan James, Keegan-Michael Key, KiKi Layne, James McAvoy, Melissa McCarthy, Jason Momoa and Sarah Paulson. Goldberg and Bardem are previous Oscar winners.

Other previous Oscar winners taking the stage will be Gary Oldman, Frances McDormand, Sam Rockwell and Allison Janney, who won the actor and actress prizes at the 2018 Academy Awards.

Donna Gigliotti (who won an Oscar for Best Picture for 1998’s “Shakespeare in Love) and Emmy-winning director Glenn Weiss are the producers of the 2019 Academy Awards. This will be the first time that Gigliotti is producing the Oscar ceremony. Weiss has directed several major award shows, including the Oscars and the Tonys. He will direct the Oscar ceremony again in 2019.

**February 18, 2019 UPDATE: Bette Midler will perform “The Place Where Los Things Go,” the Oscar-nominated song from “Mary Poppins Returns.” British rock band Queen, whose official biopic is the Oscar-nominated film “Bohemian Rhapsody,” will also perform on the show with lead singer Adam Lambert. It has not been revealed which song(s) Queen will perform at the Oscars.

February 19, 2019 UPDATE: These presenters have been added to the Oscar telecast: Elsie Fisher, Danai Gurira, Brian Tyree Henry, Michael B. Jordan, Michael Keaton, Helen Mirren, John Mulaney, Tyler Perry, Pharrell Williams, Krysten Ritter, Paul Rudd and Michelle Yeoh.

February 21, 2019 UPDATE: These celebrities will present the Best Picture nominees: José Andrés, Dana Carvey, Queen Latifah, Congressman John Lewis, Diego Luna, Tom Morello, Mike Myers, Trevor Noah, Amandla Stenberg, Barbra Streisand and Serena Williams.

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