Thursday, December 12, 2013

Completely Crazy: Cirque Dreams Holidaze

This review originally appeared on the San Francisco Appeal.

Before attending the San Francisco premiere of Cirque Dreams Holidaze, I had dinner down the street at Cafe Royale. (Just OK; my coq au vin was very dry and needed salt.) While leaving the restaurant, I slipped down a short flight of stairs, and my spike heel tore through the hem of my dress.

Yes, I was on my way to watch people walk tightropes, flip through the air, and balance on shaky objects, and I couldn't even leave a restaurant without falling down. But my pratfall was not the evening's most cringe-inducing moment.

What can be said about the Cirque Dreams series of shows that can truly explain how jaw-dropping they are? They have eleven of these, touring around the world, all with different themes, (I'm dying to see Cirque Dreams Dinner!), with this one themed around Christmas.

In short, it's what I imagine a meth addict might dream were he to pass out under the Christmas decorations in a strip club.

Before the start of the performance, an announcement comes over the PA asking that the audience not film or take flash photos, lest they distract the performers as they go about their death-defying routines. What they don't say is that those performers are going to be distracted enough by the endless stream of insanity that prances before and behind them on stage.

As the curtain opens, you see a stage filled with inflatable candy canes, a larger than life toy train, glittery stars, a Christmas tree of lights and crystals, a backdrop featuring a crescent moon, giant presents, and a constant stream of costumed characters of various crazy creations.

Three singing performers are the "hosts" through the fever dream, singing both classic and not-so-classic Christmas carols.

Also, the painted ceiling over the stage looked like vaginas with faces. And yet, that's NOT the craziest thing to appear on stage that night!

Actually, it's hard to pin down just what WAS the craziest thing on stage. Perhaps it was the weird guy with a giant crescent moon head, who crept onto the stage during one of the female acrobat's performances, climbed the Christmas tree, and leered down at her performance, only to silently slink off once she was done.

Or maybe it was the slithering candy canes that looked like crunched up drinking straw wrappers come to life, doing this weird, worm-like crawl across the stage, behind the leaping gingerbread men.

Or maybe it was the 10-foot-tall bopping snowmen with weirdly phallic bouncing carrot noses.

The point is, there is such a constant, CONSTANT parade of action going on during the entire show--along with non-stop music straight out of a 90's direct-to-video movie--that it's often hard to concentrate on the real stars of the show: the amazing acrobats.

And they really are amazing. I was able to keep my eyes on a few long enough to pick out some favorites. The standouts were definitely the younger performers, including the two "gingerbread men," (Samail Haftu and Amanual Hayle), who did some terrific paired leaps, flips, and twists. Another standout was a young girl, (Alexandra Koroleva), who played a marionette and a child who visits Santa. (I'm convinced she has no bones or cartilage in her body. That's the only explanation for such flexibility.)

I also loved the "fashionista" (Olga Smirnova) who did about a dozen instantaneous costume changes that were spectacular. I know it's just well placed Velcro and quick release straps, but "magic" costume changes will never cease to delight me.

Not everything went off without a hitch. One of the performers (Victor Dodonov), dressed as a sparkly penguin, piled up a number of wobbly items he had to balance on, reaching a pinnacle of about six. His first attempt failed, so the audience cheered for a second attempt. And, bless that sparkly penguin, but that second try failed as well. I'm pretty sure the audience was willing to just let this stunt pass, but the penguin wasn't, so he went for it one more time.

Which leads me to believe that Cirque Dreams performers must be shot after the show if they don't perform up to snuff, so adamant was that penguin to get that stunt done. (Don't worry, the penguin's still alive; third time's the charm!)

The show ends with the most inappropriate use of the song "O Holy Night," ever. Unless a song about the birth of the baby Jesus is standard musical backdrop for creepily sexual man/woman trapeze routines. I don't know, maybe it's just me, but I don't like looking at a shiny, half naked man (granted, an amazingly well built shiny, half naked man), while hearing about our dear savior's birth.

On Jerry Seinfeld's web series "Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee," guest Brian Regan has a bit about how the Cirque du Soleil boss has basically never said no to any idea ever tossed at him. "Elephants painted gold, and they come in with helicopter launching pads on their backs, and helicopters land, and monkeys come out and play kazoos?" "...YES!"

So, while there are no elephants or monkeys in Cirque Dreams Holidaze, there is more than enough stuff almost as crazy. You won't be bored. But keep in mind, this ain't a chamber drama. This is more like the theatrical performance John Merrick gets taken to in The Elephant Man.

Basically, Liberace would likely have come away from it saying, "You know what guys? Take it down a notch."

Friday, November 29, 2013

Amazing Grace: Philomena

This review originally appeared on the San Francisco Appeal.

Philomena is one of those "based on a true story" movies that seem to flood theaters at the end of the year. The majority of them are Oscar-ready, and Philomena is no different. After all, it features Dame Judi Dench as an elderly Irish woman on a quest to find the son she was forced to give up for adoption 50 years prior. Can't get more Oscar "for your consideration" than that, right? Steve Coogan costars as the cynical journalist who agrees to help her out, hopefully resulting in a "human interest story" that might get him back into print after a political and journalistic scandal.

I'll admit I didn't have high hopes going into the movie, which is ironic since I basically had the same shortsighted misgivings Coogan's Martin Sixsmith has when the story is first pitched to him. To Sixsmith, human interest stories are simple tales about "weak-minded and ignorant people," written for the same weak-minded and ignorant people to read.

But almost as quickly as Sixsmith changes his mind about writing Philomena's story (and it's pretty quick indeed), I knew the movie was going to be better than mere sappy Oscar bait. And it's thanks to Dench and Coogan that it is.

Judi Dench's Philomena is an Irish Catholic who still attends church, goes to confession, and suffers the guilt of her youthful indiscretion. As a teenager she gots pregnant, and her father sent her to a convent where she gives birth, (in a breech delivery, without painkillers), and then has to work seven days a week in the laundry room to "atone" for her sin. Her son is given up for adoption, and Philomena was never allowed to say goodbye, or learn anything about her child's adopted family.

It turns out hers is an all-to-common story, as Catholic organizations in Ireland were basically selling the children of unwed mothers for decades, all under the blessing of the Catholic church.

Dench plays Philomena as simple, on the surface--with a love of romance novels, salad bars, and the amenities found in your average hotel room--but just below, she's full of contradictions, and is much more worldly than either the audience or Sixsmith suspects.

Steve Coogan co-wrote the screenplay and produced the film, and he was smart to recognize how his comedic presence would help balance a movie that could easily fall into maudlin territory. His droll sense of humor plays perfectly against Dench's wide-eyed whimsy.

If I'm being vague about the details of their journey to find Philomena's son--which eventually takes them to America--it's because the story takes a lot of unexpected turns, and the surprises are worth keeping under wraps. But I will say it is at times very sad, but is tempered by some genuine moments of comedy. Sure, some of those are the kinds of laughs you'd expect from an "old lady and younger guy go on a road trip together" scenario. But the better laughs come from Philomena and the unexpected revelations of her character.

If there's one area the story falters, it's when Sixsmith stands firmly in his atheist shoes, mocking Philomena's steadfast faith in the face of utter evil and hypocrisy in the Catholic church. Unsurprisingly, the San Francisco audience I viewed it with clapped any time Martin cut down the church. But they were silent when Philomena demonstrates an amazing moment of forgiveness.

Make no mistake, the so-called Catholics Philomena had to deal with were evil. But Philomena is living proof that amazing grace can still be found within the realms of religious faith.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Controversial Classic: Porgy and Bess

This review originally appeared on the San Francisco Appeal.

Ira and George Gershwin's Porgy and Bess is a classic and historical opera not without its share of controversies, dating back to its 1935 premiere. In some ways, it was a very bold bit of theater, featuring a cast of almost entirely African American characters, performing a musical style of singing (opera) normally dominated by white performers, in a score created by a white guy, utilizing a black form of music (jazz).

George Gershwin also insisted that the lead roles only ever be played by black actors, at least in U.S. productions. While kind of an obvious insistence to make, it was still pretty ballsy for its time.

Still, we're dealing with a story about black characters, written by white men in the 1930s. Racist undertones are going to exist, which is why for many years, very prominent black artists were loath to perform in it. (Harry Belefonte famously refused the role of Porgy in the 1959 movie version, so the role went to Sydney Poitier instead.)

The current retelling, which makes its San Francisco debut at the Golden Gate Theater, first premiered on Broadway in 2012, and went on to win a Tony for best revival. But this retelling has its own set of controversies. Director Diane Paulus and writer Suzan-Lori Parks abridged the opera, and changed the all-singing aspect by adding some spoken parts, making it more of a theatrical musical than an opera.

They also added some depth to the character of Bess, who could often come across as a one note victim, and they've done their best to update the more blatantly caricatured aspects for some of the characters and dialogue. But some of these changes didn't sit well with some purists, who deemed it sacrilege to mess with the Gershwins' work.

But, a faithful adaptation done today could be laughable at best, and downright offensive at worst. I understand the desire to respect an artist's original work. But history changes, and sometimes art should reflect those changes. It's easier to appreciate a work as being "of its time," when it's actually from that time, like a movie. But when you are reproducing that work, and don't have to repeat the embarrassing caricatures of its day, why should you have to?

All that said, I can still see the basic plot raising hackles. Set in 1930's South Carolina, on a waterside stretch of housing known as Catfish Row, the musical focuses on a community that consists of husbands, wives, and fishermen, but also drunks, drug pushers, and beggars.

Porgy is the beggar. Deformed since birth, he walks with a limp and a cane. At the time, begging is the only real option a man like him would have to earn a living.

Bess falls into the "drunk" category, or, as one of the Catfish Row denizens deems her, "a liquor-guzzling slut." She's beholden to a heavy drinker and drug user named Crown, and they both get their "happy dust," (the almost too precious nickname for cocaine) from the pusher and player named Sportin' Life.

When Crown kills a man, Bess seeks solace in the arms of Porgy, and the two broken souls fall in love. But Crown isn't gone for good, and Sportin' Life always seems to be lurking just around the corner...

Audra McDonald won a Tony for her portrayal as Bess on Broadway, but Alicia Hall Moran has taken on the role for the touring production, and while she doesn't quite have the acting chops of McDonald, she's definitely got a terrific voice. Her duets with Porgy are some of the best moments of the show, particularly during "I Loves You, Porgy."

Nathaniel Stampley is Porgy, and he's heartbreaking. He definitely conveys Porgy's sadness and "smiling in the face of hardship" demeanor, but he can be a bit unconvincing when it comes to showing his bubbling rage. As a result, a moment of violence feels more like an accident than something that's been brewing up inside of him.

The supporting cast is large, but a stand-out is Danielle Lee Greaves as the tough-talking Mariah. Her condemnation of Sportin' Life in the form of the song "I Hate Your Strutting Style" was probably the biggest crowd-pleaser of the night.

There are moments when the blend of opera and musical theatricality become an odd fit. This usually occurs when you have the entire cast just standing there, singing; that's the opera. Then there are other moments when the entire cast will bust out a (genuinely terrific) dance routine; that's the musical. There's a separation of styles, when it really should be blended a bit more seamlessly.

And there are also moments that are just plain slow, and if it's slow in a paired down two-plus-hours version, I'd be a little apprehensive to see the full-fledged operatic version. Purists may come away from this production shaking their head, but I think it's a fine way to be introduced to this classic and spend an evening listening to some of the most memorable "showtunes" ever written.

Friday, November 8, 2013

A Real Sense Of Magic: Peter And The Starcatcher

This review originally appeared on the San Francisco Appeal.

Peter and the Starcatcher is an odd bit of theater. Not exactly a musical, although it has a few musical numbers. Not exactly a child's play, although it is a prequel to the classic tale of Peter Pan. It fits in an odd space between "serious" theater and light comedy.

Set on a minimal stage, with the large cast of twelve serving as characters, props, special effects, and narrators, the first act takes place on two ships. The exposition for this first act is a little murky, and it took me a good 15 minutes before I could get what was going on, but the gist is: on one ship there is the precocious young Molly, (Megan Stern), her nanny, (Benjamin Schrader--aside from Stern, the cast is all male), and three orphans who are being kept on board as slaves. On another ship is Molly's father, Lord Astor, (Nathan Hosner), and the soon-to-be-revealed villain. And both ships are filled with your requisite crew of salty seamen or nasty pirates.

I am not quite sure why Molly and her father are on two separate ships, but it has something to do with a precious cargo trunk the father is trying to keep out of evil hands. Molly is well aware that this trunk contains "starstuff," a magical MacGuffin that manages to do basically any kind of magic that is required by the play at any given moment, and vows to keep it safe.

One of the three orphaned boys is simply known as Boy (Joey deBettencourt), and Molly takes a fancy to him. Eventually he gets a name--guess what it is--and joins Molly on her quest to save the starstuff.

While Peter may be the hero of that later, better-known story, the stand-out characters here are Molly--a plucky, smart young heroine--and the villain, known, at least for the majority of the play, as Black Stache. He's the comedic center of the show, and as played by John Sanders, he's like a dandy Groucho Marx, often breaking the fourth wall, (and in one of the show's comedic highlights, freaking out behind it), spouting malapropisms, and tossing out anachronistic, pop culture-filled punch lines.

It's there that the comedy can often fall flat, delving very closely into Robin Williams in Aladdin territory. Some of these jokes are so stale--a Kelis "Milkshake" reference? Really?--I just hope that if the show continues to run for years to come, they refresh those references a bit.

One thing I hope they never change is the second act's opening number, featuring the cast as singing mermaids, dressed in ingenious costumes featuring fans-as-fins, and other kinds of junk one might find at home (or floating in the sea), including a crown of baby doll legs and bras made out of juicers and tea cups.

While I'll always be a bigger fan of movies than I am of live theater, I do appreciate when theater does things that just can't be done in a movie. Casting adults as kids, for example, is something that you can get away with in the distance of theater, but in a film would likely come across as creepy and off-putting, requiring the casting of real children who probably wouldn't have the chops to handle the comedy.

And having the cast create waves out of shaking ropes, a giant crocodile out of a string of white flags and red lanterns, and creaking doors with their bodies is something that could only be done in theater. It's things like this that give live theater a real sense of magic--a throwback to childhood play and storytelling that fits perfectly in Peter and the Starcatcher.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Beat It: Kill Your Darlings and Big Sur

This review originally appeared on the San Francisco Appeal.

Fascination with the Beat Generation seems to come in waves. I remember the first time I experienced a resurgence in interest and popularity: It was the early 90's and San Francisco was awash with slam poetry readings and jazz clubs. I wasn't immune, and Rhino Records' Beat Generation box set was on constant CD rotation.

William S. Burroughs appeared in the Beat-influenced Drugstore Cowboy in 1989, and David Cronenberg released his adaptation of Burroughs' novel Naked Lunch in 1991, to some acclaim, though it probably confused the hell of out more people than it entertained.

But interest seemed to fade, and Hollywood looked elsewhere for inspiration for a number of years. But now, the Beats are back. In the past two years we've had adaptations of On the Road and Howl, and this week finds two more Beat-inspired films opening in Bay Area theaters.

The first, and probably more accessible of the two, is Kill Your Darlings, starring Daniel Radcliffe as a young Allen Ginsberg, in a story about a shocking murder that clouded the birth of the Beat heroes.

The film follows Ginsberg as he escapes his rocky home life--his mother (Jennifer Jason Leigh), is schizophrenic and his father (David Cross--who, coincidentally also played Allen Ginsberg in the movie I'm Not There)--hasn't the will to do much more than commit her--for college.

Once at Columbia, Ginsberg meets and develops an infatuation with fellow student Lucien Carr (Dane DeHaan). Carr is no stranger to infatuations, and is dealing with someone he basically sees as a stalker: David Kammerer, a former teacher-turned janitor (Michael C. Hall) who has followed Carr across the country. It's clear Kammerer is in love with Carr, but Carr maintains he is straight...

Carr introduces Ginsberg to his friends, William Burroughs (Ben Foster) and Jack Kerouac (Jack Huston), and they get into a variety of escapades disguised as art, in an attempt to challenge the collegiate status quo. But things between Carr and Kammerer get dark and eventually, Kammerer ends up dead.

It's a pretty shocking story, and a surprisingly under-known one. Bring up the Beats and murder, and you'll probably hear about Burroughs and his wife before you'd hear about this one.

Director John Krokidas has a neat way of presenting the amphetamine fueled antics of the crew, although his use of modern alt-rock on the soundtrack is annoying. And while Daniel Radcliffe isn't the first actor I'd think to cast as Ginsberg, he does a commendable job in a role that might shock some of his younger Harry Potter followers.

Jump ahead about 20 years in the Beat timeline, and we arrive at Big Sur, featuring a fictionalized version of Jack Kerouac, who is now an alcoholic writer trying to stay sober by camping out at friend Lawrence Ferlinghetti's cabin in Big Sur, California.

The problem with adapting some of the books by the Beats is the same problem you might run into trying to turn a painting into a movie: the art is in the medium. Beat books are about manipulating language, and about the craft of writing itself. So what directors often resort to is adding lots of voice over, with words taken directly from the work. And director Michael Polish is no exception.

There are some beautiful visuals accompanying the monologues--Big Sur could use parts of the movie as tourism promotion. And much of the movie includes scenes shot in San Francisco, (although annoying anachronisms in architecture and locations abound). But attempts to include plot, featuring Kerouac's longtime friend Neal Cassady (Josh Lucas) and a new girlfriend (played by the director's wife, Kate Bosworth) who was also Cassady's girlfriend, get muddled.

But there is one moment where the voice over and visuals come together and almost reach the poetic heights achieved by the Beats--and that's at the very end, with Kerouac's words rushing non-stop, like a wave onto the beaches at Big Sur, and shots of his surroundings perfectly synched to the rhythm of star Jean-Marc Barr's delivery. That moment left me a little breathless, which is how I imagine many fans of the Beats have felt over the years when confronted with their work.

Friday, October 18, 2013

For The Fans: The Wizard of Oz

This review originally appeared on the San Francisco Appeal.

In the past three weeks, I've gone to see three live musicals, which, for someone who isn't exactly musical theater's biggest fan, is a lot. One of these reminded me why I don't tend to like musicals, (see: Carrie); another surprised me by how enjoyable it was, (see: Beautiful); and the latest made me ponder whether it's something only true musical fanatics can love.

That musical is The Wizard of Oz, a revamped version adapted by Andrew Lloyd Weber. Unlike the recent movie Oz the Great and Powerful, which was essentially a prequel, but couldn't use anything featured in the 1939 movie that wasn't also in the book, this musical is basically the 1939 movie put to stage. Most of the original songs are retained, with the addition of a few new compositions.

One of those additional songs starts off the show, with Dorothy lamenting that "Nobody Understands Me." As a song, it's not too memorable, and made me wonder why the team of Weber and Tim Rice--together for the first time since 1986's Evita--were so heralded in the first place. But it does give lead Danielle Wade something to sing before launching into "Somewhere Over the Rainbow." (Because really, you kind of have to prove yourself a bit before tackling such an iconic song.)

The first act isn't very subtle when it comes to all the things and people that will soon be transformed into the land and characters of Oz, but I guess you don't really look to musicals for subtlety. Dorothy runs away from the farm, meets the Wizard Professor Marvel (Cedric Smith), and returns home just in time to be swept up into that twister and carried into the Technicolor land of Oz.

I was looking forward to seeing how they'd handle that tornado, and was a bit disappointed to see the whole effect projected onto a screen that lowers in front of the stage. In fact, most of the trickier effects scenes are handled this way, which is a bit of a letdown.

Once Dorothy gets to Oz, the set turns colorful, almost garishly so. Glinda's entrance is probably one of the show's best moments, and man alive but I wish I could get a copy of her dress. Aside from Dorothy's blue gingham dress, most of the costumes and character designs differ vastly from the film. The aforementioned Glinda (Robin Evan Willis) is decked in shades of blue and grey, not pink, and the Wicked Witch of the West (Jacquelyn Piro Donovan) is far vampier (and leggier) than her Margaret Hamilton counterpart. And the Munchkins? Well, they're far less...munchkiny.

Of Dorothy's three traveling companions--the Scarecrow (Jamie McKnight), the Tin Man (Mike Jackson), and the Cowardly Lion (Lee MacDougall)--the Scarecrow probably gets the most laughs, playing up the fact that he doesn't have a brain with line deliveries like "I HAVE AN IDEA NOPE GONE!" Falling close behind is the Lion, although the number of gay jokes tossed in is either total pandering or just plain overkill.

Getting back to Danielle Wade's Dorothy, she's very good, and I can see why she won the role on that Canadian reality show. She gives her performance enough call-back to Judy Garland without coming across as nothing but imitation; she's got some of the Garland mannerisms and tics down, and knows when to use them for comedic effect. And she's really, really good with Toto.

Did I mention there's an actual dog that plays Toto? And he's a cairn terrier, just like the original Toto? And he's amazing? And that I couldn't take my eyes off of him whenever he was on stage?

Although when you're watching a stage show that features melting witches, flying monkeys, and a few of the most memorable songs ever written, I'm not sure being enraptured by a dog who's sitting still--LIKEAGOODBOY!--is such a good thing.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Some Kind of Wonderful: Beautiful: The Carole King Musical

This review originally appeared on the San Francisco Appeal.

Beautiful: The Carole King Musical is, as the title would suggest, about Carole King, the singer and songwriter whose career began as a teenage songwriter, and pinnacled with the release of her 1971 solo album that ended up staying on the charts longer than any other female artist in history, (a record she held until 1993, when it was broken by Whitney Houston and the soundtrack to The Bodyguard).

Carole King's story works so well as a jukebox musical, it's a surprise it's taken this long to happen. (Although fictionalized versions of her story have appeared in two movies I know and love: 1978's American Hot Wax--in which the teenage songwriter is played by Laraine Newman--and the excellent 1996 release Grace of My Heart, starring Illeanna Douglas.) Of course, Carole King had a lot to do with the hold-up, as it's really her story to tell. But perhaps her releasing an autobiography earlier this year had something to do with her decision to give the musical her blessing.

Luckily, it's a great piece of entertainment, and definitely a must-see for Carole King fans, as well as fans of 1960's rock and pop. Because even though the title suggests it's all about her, she's actually just the lead in an entertaining ensemble.

Framed by King's 1971 Carnegie Hall appearance, the musical opens with a long-haired King, (played eerily well by Tony-nominated Jessie Mueller), performing "Home Again" at a grand piano, and then jumps back in time to 1959, when she was a pony-tailed sixteen-year-old Brooklyn college student (she skipped some grades) and aspiring songwriter. She ventures to the Brill Building in New York, and convinces producer Don Kirshner (an amusing Jeb Brown) to buy a song ("It Might as Well Rain Until September") and release it as a single. But what he really wants is for her to write songs for other artists...

At school she meets cute with fellow student and aspiring playwright Gerry Goffin (Jake Epstein), and they decide to collaborate on some songs, starting with "Some Kind of Wonderful" for the Drifters, and eventually scoring a huge hit for the Shirelles with "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?"

This particular collaboration is one of the highlights of the show, with King and Goffin composing and singing on a piano, then trying to convince the Shirelles to perform it. Which they eventually do, in a moment I still can't quite believe: as the singers walk across the stage in normal everyday wear, they pass behind a lit-up backdrop, and reemerge, seconds later, in a complete costume change of glittery pink cocktail dresses with chiffon shoulder sashes. I wanted to give the costume designer a standing ovation for that one.

Several numbers are set up this way, seeing the composers writing the songs, and the finished products performed by musical acts representing the Drifters, the Chiffons, and the Righteous Brothers. All these performances are well choreographed and excellently mimicked, although the beautiful simplicity of the original arrangements is set aside several times for grander theatricality.

But King and Goffin aren't the only songwriters in the story. Before long, they are joined by Cynthia Weill and Barry Mann, (Anika Larsen and Jarod Spector, both excellent), another songwriting pair, and their friendship and friendly rivalry results in the two teams writing some of the best pop songs of the decade. (Seriously. Check out the show's song list.)

Of course, it's not all hit pop songs and Pleasant Valley Sundays. Carole and Gerry, facing a pregnancy, decide to get married, which, for a while, works out for them, even scoring them another hit when they get their babysitter Little Eva to perform their song "Locomotion." But bourgeois married life is not to Gerry's liking, and soon he begins to stray. Eventually he has an all-out emotional breakdown, forcing Carole to face life on her own.

The show is broken up into two acts, roughly based around Carole's life with Gerry, and without him. The show's biggest fault is that the second act, which actually follows King's biggest success, is given short shrift, and seems a bit rushed through. This might be because presenting her solo songs doesn't have quite the entertainment factor of her previous hit-making career since they are, well, solo songs. But keep in mind the show is getting its preview run here in San Francisco, before making its Broadway debut, and I imagine some of these pacing kinks may be worked out in the future.

Despite its faults, it's an entertaining, surprisingly funny musical that will likely have you humming the music for days, all while marveling, "I can't believe she wrote all of those amazing songs!"

Monday, October 7, 2013

There Won't Be Blood: Carrie: The Musical

This review originally appeared on the San Francisco Appeal.

I've been obsessed with the Carrie musical since its brief and disastrous Broadway run way back in 1988. There was no Internet then, so I'm not sure just how I heard about it, but I knew it closed after a few performances, was supposed to be completely laughable and met with boos--and that I wished more than anything that I could have seen it.

For years it lived in the land of legends, at least until the creation of YouTube, when, at last, we could all be witness to some of its ridiculousness. (The Awl has an amazing rundown of the musical complete with clips here.) Turns out, it really was as bad as everyone said it was, with costumes that included shiny unitards, an opening number featuring aerobics, and a climax filled with lasers instead of fire.

After it closed, the musical's original creators (Lawrence D. Cohen, Dean Pitchford, and Michael Gore) didn't allow licensing, so no one was able to stage a legitimate version of it.

But years passed, and in 2012, those original creators decided to take another look at Carrie. They cut some songs, added some new ones, changed the staging, and gave the musical another shot, off Broadway.

While this one wasn't the disaster the original was, it didn't exactly take the theater world by storm. It closed after 80 performances, never making it to Broadway. But it was successful enough that the writers decided to open up licensing, and it's this version of Carrie that Ray of Light Theater is currently running at the Victoria Theater.

This isn't a campy retelling of the Stephen King classic. Instead, it's played straight, with all the earnestness you might expect from musical theater. Set in a modern day high school (the set consists of a minimal wood frame that looks like the inside of a barn, with location changes done via projections, turning the set into classrooms, the gym, and Carrie's gothic home), the basic plot remains the same as the book and film: Carrie is the class outcast and is bullied by mean girls, which we see as the show opens and she gets her period in gym class, but has no idea what it is.

But this opening bit sets up what becomes the musical's central problem: dramatic moments are rushed through --Carrie is pelted by maybe four Tampax tampons before the scene moves on -- to make way for way too many songs sung by her classmates.

The highlight of the musical is the duet "Eve Was Weak," sung by Carrie and her ultra-religious mother, Margaret White. Heather Orth plays Margaret, and she has a larger than life presence, and a powerful voice. Cristina Ann Oeschger plays Carrie, and for someone who is herself still a junior in high school, she has a great voice. She is a convincingly mousy Carrie since she's tiny, and the rest of the cast seems to tower over her.

The scenes between them are the musical's strongest, but they are woefully limited. Additionally, the character of Margaret is made to be a little more sympathetic than she should be, since she's the person truly responsible for making Carrie's life a living hell.

There's a large ensemble cast, and they do several numbers, most of them pretty forgettable, because really, they're nothing but set-up for the main event: the worst prom night ever.

Unfortunately, the ending lacks any real suspense, and everything happens way too fast. Sure, the 1976 movie is a tough act to follow. The moments leading up to that fateful blood dumping are probably the most insanely prolonged moments of suspense ever seen in a horror movie. And while you can't do slow-motion in a staged musical, you can at least not rush through the climax, and make it clear that the people responsible for the mayhem are actually in the same room.

And if the climax involves blood, and the posters for the show feature Carrie covered in blood, you would probably expect...blood! Alas, while something is dumped on Carrie's head, there's no way to tell what it is, because it certainly isn't red.

The original musical became a legend, and were that version to be performed today, I believe it would be a campy hit. I understand the desire to treat the story of Carrie with respect, but it's still a story that ends in fire and blood. At least give us that.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Thoroughly Engaging: Populaire

This review originally appeared on the San Francisco Appeal.

While I don't shy away from French films as a rule, I can understand the oft-lobbed criticism that they can be slow, and pretentious, and “good for you.” But Populaire is proof that the French can make romantic comedies just as light and silly as we Americans can.

The film has been referred to as a French “Mad Men,” and while the era (1959) and protagonists (a businessman and his secretary) certainly do bring the American show to mind, Populaire is much lighter stuff. Blonde gamine Déborah François is Rose Pamphyle, a young woman from a small Normandy town who dreams of escaping her father and an arranged marriage, and moving to the big city to become a secretary. When she applies for a job with insurance salesman Louis Echard, (the delightfully beau laid ), he is ready to blow her off for her lack of experience. Until he sees how fast she can type.

Seeing a potential speed-typing champion on his hands, (prior to the war, he was once an aspiring athlete and trainer), he decides to take her under his wing, house her, and train her to increase her typing speed--the first step being moving her away from her two-fingered approach, and on to ten-fingered touch-typing.

As you can imagine, what starts out as purely business turns into romance, with Rose falling hopelessly in love, while Louis remains hung up on the past love (played by The Artist's ) who married his best friend, an American soldier ().

Will Rose win the world-wide championship? Will she and Louis see past their differences and end up together? If you think there's any question as to how this movie plays out, you don't know romantic comedies. No, Populaire doesn't offer anything new in terms of story-telling, but it still manages to be thoroughly engaging through the strength of charming performances, a beautifully Technicolor-esque palate, and amazing costume and set design.

If you know me, you know I have a soft spot for mid-century decor and clothing, so watching Populaire was like scrolling through my dream Pinterest board, something, granted, I could probably do for hours. I'm not sure if this is a movie the masses will take to, but for anyone whose interests may include pretty clothes, the 1950s, and, well, typing, you probably can't go wrong with Populaire.

Friday, August 30, 2013

Slow And Beautiful: Thérèse

This review originally appeared on the San Francisco Appeal.

Audrey Tautou, who will forever be known for Amélie, and identified with that film's happy pixie female lead, is a beautiful woman. But in the film Thérèse, she does something rather amazing: she gets un-beautiful. And not via a bad haircut, fake nose, or unflattering make-up. She's unattractive because she plays a character who's miserable, and as such, rarely smiles. She is fighting against a life that gives her no joy, and Tautou, through the sheer act of, well, acting, transforms her face into something sad and homely. It's, frankly, kind of amazing.

It's too bad the movie itself isn't really worthy of such a great performance.

Based on the 1927 novel Thérèse Desqueyroux, Thérèse is set in 1920s France, in a coastal area surrounded by pines, home to two wealthy families. As a teen, Thérèse () develops a close friendship with Anne, (), the daughter of the neighboring family, and is told at a young age that she will eventually marry Anne's brother Bernard, (, thus joining the two wealthy families--and their acres of pine-filled lands--together.

When the time for marriage comes, Thérèse goes into it with little objection--but no real passion for it either. A cerebral woman, she doesn't much believe in romantic or passionate love--and her wedding night does nothing to change her mind. Resigned to a life of boring comfort, Thérèse finds little joy in anything--not in her marriage and not in the child she eventually bears. But when Anne falls madly in love with a boy the family doesn't approve of--and writes Thérèse incessantly about her new-found passion-- this brings up something in Thérèse. And she starts to react in a very dangerous way.

The movie is a bit frustrating. Because Thérèse is SO filled with ennui, it's a little hard to truly understand why she gets so worked up about her friend's happiness. Jealously is the obvious reasoning, but there's also the hint of something more. She's attracted to Anne's lover, Jean (), but more to his freedom than to his looks. If Thérèse had found love in her marriage, would she have been satisfied with her stiff, upper-class life? Or is freedom from all of it the only thing she wants?

Not a lot happens in Thérèse, and is certainly not the movie for people who don't like foreign films. It's slow. But it's also beautiful. This is director Claude Miller's final film--he died in 2012--and if you have no desire to visit coastal France after seeing the stunning cinematography in this picture, you may want to get your eyes checked.

But, again, the truly stunning aspect of the movie is how Miller and Tautou are able to create the opposite of something beautiful, in the character of Thérèse.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Sparkly But Standard: Priscilla, Queen of the Desert: The Musical

This review originally appeared on the San Francisco Appeal.

If you saw the 1994 movie The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, liked the costumes, but felt the actual drag performances were kind of stiff, well, you're probably why this Broadway musical adaptation exists.

Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, which plays the Orpheum Theater through Sunday, is based on the movie, and follows the film's basic plot. A drag performer named Mitzi Mitosis (Wade McCollum), recruits two fellow performers--the aging Bernadette (Scott Willis), and the young Felicia (Bryan West), to join him on a bus trip through the Australian outback. The final destination is Alice Springs, where they will be the entertainment in a local casino.

What Mitzi's friends don't know is Mitzi--aka "Tick"--has a wife and young son in Alice Springs, and seeing his son for the first time in years is the real impetus for the trip. (This differs from the film, as the existence of this son isn't revealed until the end.) Along the way, they meet some friendly and not-so friendly, but always colorful, locals, finding opportunities to perform every chance they get.

Priscilla is a jukebox musical, meaning none of the musical numbers are original, and are instead pre-existing songs, most of them pretty standard drag show fare, like "It's Raining Men," "I Will Survive," and numerous Madonna numbers. When the characters sing, it's often because they are performing a show within the show, although occasionally there will be songs here and there just for the sake of it, like the elaborate number performed to "MacArthur Park," sung merely because someone left a cake out (though not in the rain).

Most of the performers sing the songs themselves, so there's not the usual lip-syncing found at most drag shows. And, in fact, there is comment made by the eldest performer, Bernadette, regarding the dying art of the drag show lip sync.

But all of the the singing is impressive, especially the vocals coming from the three women who hover, literally, above the stage, as a kind of Greek chorus. What's slightly less impressive are the "Australian" accents, which go from passable (Mitzi), to cringe-worthy (his wife), to oh, let's not even try (his son).

Also less than stellar is the drama placed on top of the fun. Whenever Mitzi's son Benji is on stage, the show grinds to a halt. When they go for heart, it turns maudlin, and at times, just plain dumb.

But really, the main reason to see the show is the spectacle of it. Dancing cupcakes and paintbrushes. A dress made out of flip-flops. Cheerleader outfits with pompons that also serve as wigs. It's all amazing to behold. The original movie won an Oscar for Best Costume Design, and the show has taken some of those original concepts, and multiplied them by 100. (It earned a Tony award for best costumes as well.)

Also impressive is Priscilla, the bus at the center of the action. It revolves around the stage, showing the interior from one angle, then spinning around to show its shiny chrome exterior, an exterior that also gets its fair share of drag adornments, glowing pink at times, and at other times providing a video backdrop to the dancing and singing taking place in front of it.

Basically, Priscilla, Queen of the Desert is the most elaborate, shiny, sparkly, and expensive drag show you're likely to ever see.

Friday, August 23, 2013

You Want Kick-Ass? THIS Is Kick-Ass: You're Next

This review originally appeared on the San Francisco Appeal.

I first saw You're Next at the San Francisco International Film Festival back in April, and loved it. I knew I wanted to experience it again, to see if it holds up to a second viewing, after knowing ahead of time its twists and turns.

I'm happy to say, it does.

Back in April, the film had, almost two years after it was completed, finally gotten a distributor. It's hard to believe a horror movie this good would have such a struggle getting released, but I suppose one major factor is the lack of big name stars, both in front of and behind the camera. It comes from director Adam Wingard, who has experience in the "mumblecore" film movement as well as in its sub-genre, "mumblegore." (He directed segments in V/H/S and V/H/S/2.)

The premise is pretty simple, and on the surface doesn't look like it will be much different from any number of home-invasion horror movies released of late. Four siblings and their respective significant others gather at their parents' country mansion, (the parents are, thanks to dad's job with a major defense contractor, very rich), for their 35th wedding anniversary. But unbeknownst to them, their closest neighbors were murdered the night before by masked invaders who are still on the loose.

At the center of story is son Crispian, (AJ Bowen), who is bringing home his girlfriend Erin, (Sharni Vinson), to meet his parents for the first time. She's Australian, pretty, and was once his TA. He's an all-around struggling kind of guy: a professor who hasn't published in a long time, and the chubby brother who still gets called fat and picked on by his douchey sibling.

It doesn't take long for night to settle in, the guests to gather around a celebratory dinner table, and all hell to break loose. In true slasher movie fashion, the guests are picked off one-by-one, Ten Little Indians style. And also in true slasher movie fashion, there's one girl who decides to put up a fight.

And this is where the movie distinguishes itself, giving us perhaps the ultimate Final Girl in Erin, played with perfect intensity by Vinson. You want kick-ass? THIS is kick-ass. Vinson's Erin isn't the kind of girl who will stab a villain once, drop the knife, and then run away crying. She will...well, I don't want to give anything away. But let's just say she makes sure the bad guy is really down before moving on. She's a heroine that had audience members yelling "I LOVE YOU!" followed by "WHO DOESN'T!?"

Thankfully, this isn't an overly serious horror. It's not Funny Games. There's wicked humor throughout, and much of the dialogue has an improvised feel (another mumblecore staple). The low-budget helps to make the everything feel a little off-center, adding to the tension. And while there is some annoying shaky-cam cinematography here and there, for the most part, Wingard uses the widescreen well, revealing things in subtle shadows, and utilizing close-ups to build up suspense.

As mentioned before, there aren't any big stars here, and perhaps the most recognizable face is that of mother Aubrey, played by Barbara Crampton, who starred in the classic 1980's horror film Re-Animator. That bit of casting is a big tip off that the filmmakers know and love their horror movies, and there are many more homages and references to horror movies past to be found, including Halloween, Carrie, Night of the Living Dead, The Shining, Rear Window, and Spirits of the Dead.

Ultimately, You're Next is the best horror movie I've seen in years, and has everything you want out of the genre--and then some. The film offers up some twists that, on first viewing, did take me by surprise, which was refreshing. And while I think the ending has the potential to disappoint some viewers, all I can say is, pay close attention to those first ending credits. That ending may not be what you think it is.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Passing Witness: Lee Daniels' The Butler

This review originally appeared on the San Francisco Appeal.

Lee Daniels' The Butler (which from here on out, shall merely be called The Butler because seriously Warner Bros. how petty can you be?) is one of those movies you appreciate, and are entertained by, but just wish was a little bit better.

The Butler is based, very loosely, on the true story of Eugene Allen, a butler who worked at the White House for several decades. In the film he's Cecil Gaines. Working on a cotton plantation in Georgia, he witnesses the rape of his mother, and the murder of his father. The plantation matriarch, (Vanessa Redgrave), decides to extend some kindness his way, and moves him into the home, training him to be a "house nigger." (And yes, the irony that granting anyone the status of house nigger could be considered a kindness is not lost in the film.)

Eventually he takes his experience as a domestic away from the plantation, and into a series of hotels, eventually landing a spot in Washington D.C. It's here that he's noticed by the head of the White House's serving staff, and is hired on as a butler. (And it's from this point on that he's played by Forest Whitaker, in a very, very subdued performance.)

At times, the movie comes close to becoming an African-American Forrest Gump, as Cecil serves a series of presidents, from Truman to Reagan, all played by very recognizable actors. Meanwhile, his eldest son, Louis, (David Oyelowo), resents his father's adherence to the status quo, rebels, and joins the civil rights movement in almost all of its incarnations, from lunch counter sit-ins, to freedom buses, to Martin Luther King Jr. marches, to the Black Panthers.

Director Daniels doesn't shy away from the brutal history of the civil rights movement, although having Louis go through so much of its horrors--without ever losing his faith or conviction--makes him come across, at times, as more of a passing witness than fierce advocate.

Which is kind of the problem with this sort of movie as a whole. Because of its epic nature, spanning many, many years, not a lot of time can be spent during any one historic era, or on one historic event. Elections; losses; assignations; incarcerations; retribution. It's all there, but it feels more like flipping through a history book than it does actually absorbing one family's true experience in that history.

Still, there's a certain amount of entertainment to be had in seeing things like John Cusack as Richard Nixon, sweating as always, or Liev Schreiber as LBJ, barking orders from the toilet. (Best is probably Jane Fonda as Nancy Reagan. Don't think there isn't some commentary in THAT bit of casting.)

Of course, you can't discuss the movie without discussing Oprah Winfrey, as her bigger-than-life persona is helping to fuel the film's publicity, and at times, almost threatens to derail the movie. She play's Cecil's hard-drinking, not always faithful wife, Gloria.

She's good. But she's Oprah Winfrey. Watching her act is almost as hard, at this point in her life, as it would be watching the Queen of England take on a gritty role in a kitchen sink drama. You just can't ever really get past the fact that that's Oprah up there, in a series of changing hairdos and increasingly unfortunate wardrobe changes. (Though seeing her dance around in a Lurex disco jumpsuit is quite possibly worth the price of admission.)

The film ends with the first election of Barack Obama, something one could argue happened in large part because of Oprah Winfrey. And I walked away from the movie not thinking so much about it, as I was thinking how great it would have been to see Oprah actually sit down and talk to that real butler during that very momentousness year, and how an interview like that might have been a much better historical record than The Butler.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Real Life Tragedy: Fruitvale Station

This review originally appeared on the San Francisco Appeal.

Fruitvale Station tells the story of Oscar Grant's last day of life, from the morning of December 31st, 2008, to the morning of January 1st, 2009. The focus is purely on him, his final hours, and his interactions with his family and friends.

Being that this is a San Francisco newspaper, and the likelihood that you, dear reader, are from the Bay Area (or at least have an interest in local news) I'm going to assume you know the story of Oscar Grant and his death at the hands of BART police. I won't rehash the details here. If you need to know more, Wikipedia can probably help.

For those who don't know the story, and fear some kind of spoiler in regards to the movie, well, bad news. The ending begins the film, as it opens with the real footage of Grant being shot in the back, as recorded by one of a number of witnesses to that horrible night.

It's a jarring way to begin a movie, and the footage is no less shocking, four years later. But I think it's important that it's there, because ultimately, the real horror of that death is much more effective--indeed SHOULD be more effective--than any amount of dramatization that is ultimately placed on the story.

Michael B. Jordan, who has been outstanding in a series of roles on "The Wire," "Friday Night Lights," and "Parenthood," is just as outstanding here as Oscar Grant. Grant is a young man obviously worn down by a life of little opportunity and bad choices. As the movie begins, he sees the start of a new year as a chance to make some changes in his life, promising to stay faithful to Sophina, (Melonie Diaz), his girlfriend and mother of his daughter, Tatiana, (Ariana Neal), and to stop selling weed.

As the day progresses, with Oscar dropping off his daughter at daycare and his girlfriend at her job, we learn it's his mother's birthday, (she's played by Octavia Spencer, in a nice post-Oscar performance), and a party is planned for the evening. We also learn he's recently been fired from his job at a grocery store, for being consistently late. When he asks to get his job back, we also see the a bubbling anger beneath the friendly demeanor we've been witness to thus far.

Later in the day, we see Oscar continuing to wrestle with his promised resolutions. We also see a flashback to a stint he did in prison, for a crime that isn't defined.

Over the course of the film, we witness certain ham-fisted events. There's a completely gratuitous scene involving a dog; Oscar meets and helps a woman at the grocery store, who ends up being on the same BART train later that night; his daughter tells him she's afraid of gunshots in the neighborhood; his mother tells him to take BART instead of driving, as it will be safer.

I don't know if any or all of these events did happen on that day. I find it hard to believe they all did, but regardless, the way the film handles them is just way too melodramatic and fortuitous. If these events were real, they certainly aren't made to feel real.

Fruitvale Station isn't a bad movie. It's just an emotionally manipulative one. But, even with that said, I'd still say it's worth seeing, especially for local audiences. It's one of the rare Bay Area-set movies that really does feel like it knows the Bay Area, and gets it right. Even if there is way too liberal a use of the word "Frisco."

I will admit to crying, a LOT during the film's final moments. But I still felt like the movie was amping up the maudlin when the real life tragedy was enough.

And really, the story doesn't need any of that melodrama. Oscar's death is no more tragic because his mother suggested BART, or he was kind to a stranger who ended up witnessing his death, or he saw a dog get hurt.

His death would be just as tragic if he had spent the entire day in bed, only to be shot on BART later that night. His death is tragic because he didn't deserve to die that night, period.

Friday, June 7, 2013

A Weekend-Long Party: Much Ado About Nothing

This review originally appeared on the San Francisco Appeal.

I wrote previously of Joss Whedon's Much Ado About Nothing when it played the San Francisco International Film Festival, and mentioned my history with Shakespeare and cinematic adaptations. In short, I tend to prefer those movies that simply adapt the stories (think West Side Story) over those that reproduce them faithfully (like Kenneth Branagh's Hamlet).

Whedon's take is in between. While there have been several Shakespearean adaptations that retain his texts but update the setting, Whedon's immediately brought to mind that 2000 version of Hamlet starring Ethan Hawk and Bill Murray, because both films are respectful of Shakespeare, while also recognizing and poking fun at some of the plays' more...dated aspects.

Whedon shot Much Ado in black and white, on a very low budget, in his own home with a lot of his friends as the cast. So isn't it lucky that he's got an amazing, mountainside Southern California house (designed by his wife), and friends who also happen to be amazing actors who have, for the most part, all appeared in previous Joss Whedon ventures?

Amy Acker, ("Angel"; "Dollhouse"), is Beatrice, who appears to be the complete opposite of a romantic, forever poo-pooing the very notion of love and marriage. Alexis Denisof, ("Buffy the Vampire Slayer") is Benedict, her male match, at least in terms of dismissing love. They, are gathered at the home of Beatrice's uncle, Leonato, (played by Clark Gregg of The Avengers), to welcome the arrival of Prince Don Pedro (Reed Diamond, "Dollhouse"), and his (evil) brother Don John, (Sean Maher, Serenity). At Don Pedro's side is his officer, Claudio, (Fran Kranz, "Dollhouse;" The Cabin in the Woods), who falls in almost immediate love with Leonato's daughter--and Beatrice's cousin--Hero, (newcomer Jillian Morgese, who can be seen briefly in an exploding restaurant scene in The Avengers.)

They're all there to...well, that really doesn't matter. The thing that matters is, it's a weekend-long party, with wine ever-flowing, nameless guests forever wandering about, and villains endlessly plotting. They want nothing more than to see Don John and Claudio miserable, so they conspire to put an end to the burgeoning love and inevitable wedding. Will the bumbling security guard Dogberry, save the day?

(Dogberry is played by Nathan Fillion, who's basically been in at least half of everything Whedon's ever done, and he gives the funniest performance in the movie. The whole thing is worth seeing just for his never-ending outrage over being called an ass.)

Shakespeare would seem an odd choice for a filmmaker who's much more heralded for his dialogue than he is his direction. What's Whedon without his trademarked quips and pop-culture-filled exchanges? Well, he's a damned good comedic director, is what he is, and he peppers the film with several moments of deft physical comedy, drunken line-deliveries, and a fair amount of sex.

The one place in which the adaptation falters a bit is in the final act's wedding, where Hero's "purity" is put into doubt, and Claudio basically slut-shames her into unconsciousness. If that sounds ridiculous, it is. It's one thing to have such a sexist plot development in Shakespeare's era. But it's much harder to swallow when presented in a modern setting,

But, as (spoiler alert?) the whole thing proves, within the play, to be much ado about nothing, so do any objections I may have had with it. Ultimately, Joss Whedon has crafted one of the most enjoyable Shakespeare adaptions I have ever seen.

Friday, May 31, 2013

Deft Illusion: Now You See Me

This review originally appeared on the San Francisco Appeal.

Here's the thing about magicians: They're kind of insufferable. Either they take themselves waaaay too seriously, or they're irreverent, but come off as thinking they're smarter than the rest of the world. (OK. Maybe there are only two magicians who fall into the latter category.)

And here's the thing about movies about magicians: Magic loses its, well, magic, when it isn't seen live. The minute TV or movies come into play, there's none of the "Wow! How did they just do that?!" wonder because so much can easily be done via editing, camera trickery, or just plain special effects.

Now You See Me is filled with insufferable magicians, and no real magic. And yet...I kind of liked it.

Maybe I should qualify that. Mark Ruffalo is in it, and I will like, at least a little bit, anything he's in. I can't help it. I'm flesh and blood, people! But he's not the only thing likable about the movie.

The other things are, alas, not the four magicians at the center. When the movie begins, they are the fairly well-known street magician, J. Daniel Atlas, (Jesse Eisenberg); a washed up "mentalist," (Woody Harrelson); a nightclub magician whose act includes a tank of piranhas, (Isla Fisher); and a pickpocket and break-in artist who deflects from his crimes by doing well-worn tricks, like bending spoons with his mind, (Dave Franco).

They're brought together by a mysterious stranger, and before you can say abracadabra, they've become The Four Horsemen (because The Three Horsemen and One Horsewoman was too cumbersome, I guess), a magic act performing for a huge crowd in Las Vegas.

During the course of this show, they (appear to) rob a bank by teleporting an audience member into a bank vault in Paris, opening an air shaft in the vault, that then sucks all the money out of it and into the Las Vegas theater, where it rains down on the audience.

Illusion? Or actual robbery? The fact that a vault of money in Paris does indeed go missing the same time the show is going on leads the FBI--and Interpol!--to believe the magicians--somehow--robbed the bank, and they're taken into custody, where they are questioned by an FBI agent reluctantly assigned to the case, (Mark Ruffalo), and a French Interpol agent, (Melanie Laurent), who, well, kinda digs magic.

Also in the audience is legendary magic debunker Thaddeus Bradley, (Morgan Freeman), who hopes to expose the magicians' secrets, and make a ton of money in the process, because apparently there's a huge market for magic debunking DVDs.

Alas, the FBI doesn't have enough to hold The Four Horseman, and they're set free to move on to their next act. But not without the agents and debunkers hot on their trail.

Now, there's some fun to be had in the moments where the Horsemens' tricks are explained, because they're clever set-ups. But there's a bit of frustration in knowing that much of it could never actually be done in real life. And when it comes to their stage tricks, it's all heavily CG reliant, and therefore not really very magical.

But it you cast that aside, and concentrate on the caper aspect of it all, it becomes more enjoyable, because, let's face it. The robberies pulled off in an average caper movie could never really happen in real life, either. It's just fun seeing how a big, elaborate crime can work in the world of movie make-believe. And if the audience in the preview screening is any indication, people love--to the point of screaming about it--when movie magicians give tons of money to their fake audiences.

And while the magicians are the heroes of the movie, they're not actually in it that much. I don't know if it's because trying to give real depth and personality to four magicians is just too cumbersome a task to attempt for a caper movie, or because the personalities they are given are, for the most part, too annoying to showcase for long.

Instead, more time is spent with the agents trying ensnare them, and while the growing relationship between the FBI and Interpol agents is, admittedly, a bit hokey at times, Ruffalo and Laurent are good enough actors that the eye-rolling was minimal.

I'll give no spoilers, but it's obvious that Now You See Me wants to be one of those, "WHAT?? I need to watch that whole thing again, now!" movies, but frankly, I don't think its tricks would hold up to a second viewing. Instead, take it for what it is, a simple but deft illusion that, were you to see it done again, would lose what little magic it had.

Way Past The Honeymoon Stage: Before Midnight

This review originally appeared on the San Francisco Appeal.

I'm going to come right out and say it: If you haven't seen Before Sunrise and Before Sunset, do not--DO NOT--go see Before Midnight. It will be a miserable experience. You don't even need to continue reading this review. The decision is made. You're not going to go see Before Midnight. Go see France Ha. Or heck, how about Fast and Furious 6? Or better yet, you can watch the first two movies and THEN go see Before Midnight.

But even if you HAVE seen the first two movies, be prepared, as you may still find Before Midnight to be a miserable experience.

I'm roughly the same age as the characters of Celine (Julie Delpy) and Jesse (Ethan Hawke), which means I was a young romantic full of philosophical life questions when I saw Before Sunrise, and a heartbroken and slightly jaded thirtysomething when I saw its sequel, Before Midnight. It's a unique experience to see movie characters grow and change at the same rate and ways that you do, and that's why I will always appreciate these movies, even if I don't always love them.

Before Midnight picks up nine years after the last movie. As that one ended on a slightly ambiguous note--you don't know if they get together or not--it's slightly spoilery to reveal that, yes, they did get together, and they've been together ever since. (They are not, however, married, as I've seen reported in some stories about the movie.) Not only that, but they've got two kids--twin girls-- while Jesse is also father to a teenage boy, from a previous marriage.

The movie takes place during the last night of a summer vacation in Greece, and over the course of much conversation with friends they're vacationing with, and between Jesse and Celine, we learn what happened in those nine years since their reunion in Paris.

Nine years is way past the honeymoon phase of a relationship, and the wear and tear is showing in the fabric of Jesse and Celine's romance. Where the past two movies had the two of them essentially getting to know each other through conversation, this one shows that while they certainly know each other very well--in some cases too well, as aspects of the relationship have become routine--they can still be surprised by truths that are revealed.

When I saw the movie, I hadn't seen the second one since it came out in 2004, and it was about that long since I'd seen the first one. I will admit I found Before Midnight to be a bit of a chore to sit through. It's not an exaggeration to say the majority of the movie is Celine and Jesse arguing. And as true to life as that may be, it's still not exactly an enjoyable night at the movies.

But I didn't want this third entry in the series to sully my appreciation of the first two, so I went home and re-watched them. And it made me appreciate Before Midnight a bit more. When you see them close together, you are more able to recognize callbacks to previous conversations, and see how these callbacks are important to the characters. (The ending of Before Midnight involves a bit of storytelling by Jesse that is very similar to a conversation he had with Celine when he first met her on that train oh so many years ago.)

So, while I can't recommend Before Midnight as a standalone movie, I can say that, as an entry in the series, it is an important, if not exactly enjoyable, entry. And I hope against hope that it is not the last visit we have with Jesse and Celine, and that in nine years from now, I'll be back here reviewing Before Dusk.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Luminous Gerwig: Frances Ha

This review originally appeared on the San Francisco Appeal.

Frances Ha, the latest collaboration between director and writer Noah Baumbach, and actress and writer Greta Gerwig, played the San Francisco International Film festival earlier this month, and they were both in attendance for a Q&A after the screening. They spoke about their collaboration process--in which Gerwig did a lot of the writing solo--and how Baumbach approached directing her script. Interestingly, there wasn't a lot of on-set improvisation, as Baumbach prefers that everything be solid in the script beforehand. That approach is a lot more evident in his past collaborations with Wes Anderson, (The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and Fantastic Mr. Fox), than it is in France Ha, which has a very low-budget, loose, and borderline mumblecore feel to it.

What the two of them didn't really discuss was their personal relationship. They are, in fact, a couple, and while that doesn't necessarily have any baring on the work they do together, I think in Frances Ha, it's very important.

The film is centered Frances (Gerwig), a post-college woman who's a bit adrift. She aspires to be a professional dancer, (modern dance is her form of choice), but doesn't get the breaks she hopes for with her company. She has a best friend, Sophie (played by Mickey Sumner, Sting's daughter), and theirs is one of those twentysomething friendships that has all the intensity of romance, while being strictly platonic. (It brought to mind the similarly-themed Walking and Talking, although the characters in that movie are slightly older.)

When Sophie decides to get serious with her boyfriend, the friendship starts to fracture, and this sends Frances into a bit of a tailspin, as she attempts to face adulthood alone.

Greta Gerwig is in every scene of this movie, which, if you're a Gerwig fan, is a good thing. She's always had a very quirky and engaging screen presence, and in every movie she's in, no matter how big or small the role, she stands out.

The movie's black and white photography, New York setting, and concentration on smart but neurotic white people may bring to mind the work of Woody Allen. And that's also where the relationship between Gerwig and Baumbach comes into play.

Allen's Annie Hall and Manhattan are both love letters to Diane Keaton--who he was romantically involved with for several years--and the city of New York. There's a similar love on display in Frances Ha. Gerwig has never looked more luminous in a movie, and her character is made to be very sympathetic, despite her some serious character flaws. It's not enough to say the camera loves her; it's very clear the man behind that camera does too.

At the festival's post-screening Q&A, Gerwig answered a question about the film's ultimate resolution, and I really wish I could quote her, but it's kind of a big spoiler. So I'll just paraphrase. Frances Ha isn't about huge triumphs. Instead, it's about how little life changes, and accepting some truths about yourself, can lead to tremendous happiness.

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

SFIFF: Steven Soderbergh's State of Cinema Address Takes On Studios, Calls Out Online Piracy

Steven Soderbergh, the director of such diverse films as Oceans 11-13, Out of Sight, Che, Bubble, Magic Mike, and Behind the Candelabra, announced his impending retirement first in 2011. Then he kind of took it back and said it was just a sabbatical. Since then, he's directed four more films, and has once again stated that that's that.

Every year, the San Francisco International Film Festival invites "a well-known public figure to talk about the intersecting worlds of contemporary cinema and visual arts, culture and society, images and ideas." Past speakers have included Jonathan Lethem, Walter Murch, and Brad Bird. This year, Soderbergh took the stage to give a 45 minute talk that, while not a direct discussion of his "retirement," did pretty much serve as one long explanation for why he would want to walk away.

Key take-away: the movie business blows.

He tossed out a lot of numbers during the talk, mostly centered on film costs--but not the costs you'd think would be the issue. The money spent to make the movies seems to be less of a factor to studios than what's spent to distribute them. Since the basic cost to distribute a movie is the same regardless of production price, studios are more likely to spend that $60 million on a huge tent pole release that is almost guaranteed huge box office than on a smaller, riskier movie.

He also spoke about "cinema" versus "movies," which, the way he puts it, almost sounds like "auteurs" versus "studios," and why art will always be a human need: we've always needed to tell stories.

And while he didn't talk much about alternative distribution of films (something he was actually one of the first directors to try, with his simultaneous release of Bubble in theaters and On Demand), he did acknowledge that movies face stiff competition from television these days, and made no bones about calling online piracy out as theft.

You can hear the entire talk below. It's well worth a listen, if only for his final tip to future filmmakers on how to pitch a movie.

SFIFF: You're Next

This review originally appeared on the San Francisco Appeal.

Saturday's late night screening of the horror movie You're Next was an evening filled with tension for a couple of reasons. First, while it was scheduled to start at 11:30pm, it actually didn't start until about midnight. Anxious waiting! In the meantime, some of the cast and the film's director were posing for pictures, along with a trio of girls wearing very creepy animal masks. Spooky!

Once we filed in to the theater--girls in masks included--I became even more anxious for the movie to start. The garage at the Kabuki closes at 1:30am, and since the movie is just a tad over 90 minutes long, it meant I'd be cutting it real close if I stayed for the whole thing. Real tense!

But stay I did, and I gotta say, the underlying tension I was feeling about having my car locked up overnight before I could get to it actually kind of added to the intense experience of the movie, in a good way.

You may have heard some buzz about You're Next from other festival showings. It killed at Toronto and SXSW, got a special write up in Entertainment Weekly, and yet, for over two years, it couldn't find a distributor. Director Adam Wingard was at the SFIFF to introduce the movie, and he said that finally, they had found one in Lionsgate, and the movie will get a wide release on August 23rd.

The movie is pure "mumblegore," which is to say, a hybrid of mumblecore and horror. The director is also an actor, and I instantly recognized him and several other cast members from the (terrible) mumblecore comedy Autoerotic. Ti West, director of one of my favorite recent horror movies, House of the Devil--another movie I'd classify as mumblegore mainly because of the presence of mumblcore mainstay Greta Gerwig-- also appears in the movie as a boyfriend.

The film is in the "home invasion" genre of horror, ala Funny Games and The Strangers, with a simple plot set-up: Four siblings, and their romantic partners, gather together at the family's vacation home to celebrate the 35th wedding anniversary of their parents. Before long, they are under attack, and have to fight off some masked villains (yes, that's what the animals masks were about), with one member of the group leading the charge.

It's a truly great entry into the genre and it had the audience screaming, laughing--it's wickedly funny--and cheering throughout. But what really makes it stand out is how it does some things you ALWAYS wish would happen in a horror movie, but never do, and offers up one of the greatest horror heroines since Ripley and her flamethrower-wielding turn in Aliens.

It also knows and respects the genre. Look close and you'll see references to Carrie, the original Night of the Living Dead, Rear Window, The Shining, and Re-Animator, (Barbara Crampton, star of that 1980s classic, has a role in this). There are probably a few more I missed, which is fine by me, as that just gives me an excuse to see it again.

I also want to see it again because I had to leave during the credits, and I'm one of those crazies who always has to stay to the very end of a movie; you never know when a director will leave a little something extra for those diehards there.

And while I DID get my car, (barely), I had to miss the post-film Q&A, which featured director Adam Wingard, and actors Barbara Crampton and If there's anyone out there who saw it, tell us about it in the comments!


Saturday, April 27, 2013

SFIFF: Much Ado About Nothing

This review originally appeared on the San Francisco Appeal.

When I was in high school, I took a Shakespeare class, and we read about six plays. After we finished a play, the teacher would screen a movie version. He would take votes as to which version we wanted to watch, and when it came to The Tempest, I suggested we watch Forbidden Planet. He had never actually heard of it, but agreed to screen it for us.

And when it was finished, he was kind of pissed.

That wasn't a faithful adaption! What was I thinking? He made me write an essay explaining every connection between the film and the play, and I am proud to say, I got a B+. (And frankly, I think he was just trying to save some face by not giving me an A.)

I bring this up because when it comes to adaptations of Shakespeare, I still prefer more..."modern" takes on the Bard. And I mean really modern; the kind that doesn't use the original text as much as general plot. Which is why I found it surprising how enjoyable I found Joss Whedon's Much Ado About Nothing to be.

The basic story behind its production is that it was filmed (in lovely black-and-white) in about two weeks at Joss Whedon's house in Santa Monica, featuring many from his usual cadre of talent, including Amy Acker, Alexis Denisof, Clark Gregg, Fran Kranz, Tom Lenk, and Nathan Fillion, (who, by far, gives the funniest performance in the film).

While it is set in modern day, the movie's dialogue comes strictly from the play (more or less). This can take a little getting used to at first, but eventually, as tends to be the case with Shakespeare, you adjust, and it makes perfect and delightful sense. Yes, this is a Shakespeare adaption both I and my former English teacher would approve of.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Woefully Thin: To The Wonder

This review originally appeared on the San Francisco Appeal.

Coming out of the latest Terence Malick film, I realized it may be the only Malick movie thus far that can be perfectly summed up in a mere tweet's worth of words:

To the Wonder is two hours of a manic pixie girl twirling around with diaphanous scarves in her hands. Also: Fields of wheat.

I saw the film on April Fools' Day, and being that Malick has normally waited many years between movies, and those he has released of late have been epically long, I was sure this 114-minute event was just an elaborate April Fools prank. Alas, as laughable as the movie was at the time, it's no joke.

Malick had mesmerized me in the past, and for a while, he was one of my favorite directors. I can still watch Badlands and Days of Heaven any time they're on, and never get bored. When I saw The Thin Red Line, (at the Coronet, may it rest in peace), I was completely hooked, and would have gladly sat through three more hours of it.

But when The New World came out, I felt him falter. He was treading familiar ground--oh, those fields of wheat!--but all that beauty was beginning to feel hollow.

I'm not a huge fan of his last film, The Tree of Life, but I did feel like he was at least mixing in some new things with his usual meditations on the human condition. Instead of wheat, we got dinosaurs.

But To the Wonder is like a parody of Malick, and has all the emotional depth of your average perfume commercial.

Behind all the gauzy scarves and fields of wheat is a woefully thin story:

Neil (Ben Affleck) and Mariana (Olga Kurylenko) are in love. Neil is American, and Marina is French. She has a pre-teen daughter named Tatiana. They roam around France. They move to Oklahoma. Neil's job involves gathering test tubes of water and soil samples. Marina is...French.

Neil won't marry her. She moves back to France. Neil reconnects with a former flame, Jane, (Rachel McAdams), who is blonde, owns a ranch, and is a tad religious. Marina writes and tells Neil she's lonely and wants to come back. He agrees, breaks it with the blonde, and marries Marina.

Things don't work out.

Oh, and there's a Catholic priest, (Javier Bardem), who wanders around, visiting poor parishioners in their homes, though rarely getting up the nerve to actually knock on their doors and go inside. He wrestles with his faith.

There is hardly any dialogue in the movie, and poor Ben Affleck has, maybe, six lines in the whole thing. Instead, the Marina character, in voiceover, and in French, does the majority of the speaking. It includes lines like, "What is this love that loves us?," and, "Newborn. I open my eyes. I melt," lines that, because they are spoken in French, sound a lot more poetic than the actually are.

I can understand placing undeveloped characters into a love story. By doing so, the characters represent something bigger than their story. They represent: Love, with a capital L.

And yes, Ben Affleck's woefully silent and stilted Man is likely very much like an ex-boyfriend many have in their back pocket. But the Woman. The twirling Woman---god how she constantly twirls, through fields of wheat, across muddy shores, down the aisles of Oklahoma supermarkets--is not a woman any sane person would want to know, let alone be.

Running around in grassy plains during the magic hour is not a relationship. It's beautiful backdrop. The Malick of Days of Heaven knew this. To the Wonder is the first of his films to be fully set in modern times, and perhaps that's part of the problem. Characters in his other films had the weight of history backing them. But To the Wonder is filled with modern ciphers.

It goes without saying that the movie is gorgeous. It's not like Malick is suddenly going to NOT make fields of wheat look amazing. And the people in it are gorgeous too. But you can't fall in true love with a person who is simply beautiful, and nothing else. And the same holds true for movies.