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.