Friday, August 29, 2014

The Trip To Italy

This review originally appeared on the San Francisco Appeal.

Sequel to 2010's The Trip, starring Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon as fictionalized versions of themselves taking a road trip through the Italian coast, sampling various hotels and gourmet meals. If you saw the first one, and liked it, you're going to like this one, too. In fact, I liked this one a bit more, but maybe that's just because I prefer Italian food and scenery over the offerings of the U.K.

The same might hold true for those who did not like that first movie (who are you?). This one features Coogan and Brydon dueling with their Michael Caine impressions right off the bat, and there are plenty more impressions and vocal shenanigans to follow. If you didn't find that funny the first time, you won't this time either. This one also kind of takes the roles of the two men and switches them, making Brydon a bit of a jerk, and Coogan the sympathetic one. (Some might not be able to forgive Brydon's transgressions.)

An argument can be made that since The Trip to Italy is, like The Trip, an edited version of the six episode series that aired in the U.K., it should be passed up in favor of a viewing of the series. However, the series isn't as of yet (legally) available here. Director Michael Winterbottom is responsible for all versions--it's not like it was taken by the studio and chopped beyond recognition. I prefer to think of the movie version as a nice little amuse bouche; something tasty to consume before the banquet of an eventual DVD release of the series.

Speaking of eating, don't see this hungry. Or, if you do see it hungry, have a firm plan to eat Italian food after the movie. I mean it. A firm plan--otherwise, out of desperation, you may find yourself at Fuzio across from the Embarcadero theater because you can't think of any other place to go and goddammit you need some pasta in your face ASAP, even if it is mediocre pasta (at best). The Embarcadero is walking distance from North Beach. Make a reservation at Tosca, or any of the other amazing Italian eateries out there, order four courses, some good wine, and savor every bite. (Michael Caine impersonations are optional.)

Friday, August 22, 2014


This review originally appeared on the San Francisco Appeal.

When I first heard of the movie Frank, back when it played the SFIFF, I thought it was a pretty insane concept for a movie: Michael Fassbender as the lead singer of an indie band who is always--always--wearing a giant paper mache head? I mean, ridiculous, right? Turns out, yes, it's still kind of ridiculous. But it's also partly based on fact! Writer Jon Ronson, (who is hilarious; read his books), was recruited in the 90's to join up with the band backing Chris Sievey, AKA Frank Sidebottom, a man with a giant paper mache head. Ronson later wrote about his experience, and that article has been adapted into the fictionalized Frank.

Alas, aside from the singer with the giant fake head, much of Frank is standard rags-to-near-riches-to-rags storytelling, with the indie band making terrible music, going viral, getting booked at SXSW, and then imploding. Michael Fassbender does a pretty good job of acting without a face, and Maggie Gyllenhaal is suitably pissed off and passionate as one of the band's keyboardists. And when you have a guy wearing a giant head, bits of slapstick are bound to happen; whether or not that counts as comedy depends on where you stand on the slapstick front, (I am vehemently pro). It's just too bad much of the music in the film, (aside from a great closing number), is entirely forgettable, and the answer behind the mystery of Frank and his head is a bit of a let-down.

Completely Believable Barbra: Buyer & Cellar

This review originally appeared on the San Francisco Appeal.

Barbra Streisand has a basement full of crap she's collected over the years. Really, who doesn't, in some form or another? But Barbra's basement is a little different. You see, it's been designed to look like a small town street full of quaint little shops. Her old costumes can be found in the antique clothing store. Dolls are in Bee's Doll Shop. And of course, let's not forget the Gift Shoppe, full of mementos and tiny bars of soap. Don't believe me? Here:

This is something you'll learn right off the bat at Buyer & Cellar, the one-man-tour-de-force that has made a move from off-Broadway to San Francisco. Yet that bit of insanity is in fact the only true thing in the play, and this is made perfectly clear from the beginning, when star Michael Urie sits on the stage, a copy of Barbra Streisand's book My Passion For Design in his hands.

During the short introduction, he explains how playwright Jonathan Tolins was inspired by the book--and Barbra Streisand's Oprah appearance promoting it--and imagined what it would be like to work in that quaint personal mini mall. Urie goes one to tell us everything else we are about to hear is fake--just to make sure the very famous and "litigious" Streisand understands, should she ever actually come and see the play.

He also makes it clear that he's not an impressionist, and that enough people--"even some women!"--have "done" Streisand before, so his interpretation is less impression, and more impressionistic. After this introduction--which includes readings of choice passages from the Streisand book--the play begins, with Urie now Alex Moore, a struggling actor in Los Angeles who, after being fired as mayor of Disneyland's Toontown over an unfortunate churro incident, goes on a job interview in Malibu, at a huge ranch house, guarded by "brand new barn doors that look old."

After meeting the assistant in charge, he learns that the job involves working in a basement full of "shops." He will be the sole shop worker, and he'll only have one customer, the "lady of the house," who enjoys the immersive experience of "shopping" her own things. Of course, he thinks it all sounds horrible and a bit insane. Until he learns who the lady of the house actually is.

He admits he's not a stereotypical gay Barbra Streisand fan, but that he is well aware of her, and considers her part of his "gay heritage." So when offered the job, be dives right in, manning the shops while wearing a uniform, days spent dusting French dolls and listening to the incessant "whir-ir-ir" of the frozen yogurt machine. Until one day, Barbra actually shows up.

Urie's Streisand isn't dead on, as he warns, but it's still kind of perfect, and he transitions from Alex to Barbra seamlessly. The play's best laughs come the unexpected things Barbra does and says in that cellar full of shops, so I won't spoil it. But know that it's completely ridiculous, and yet, somehow, completely believable.

Urie is just stupendous. He's probably best known for his role as one of Betty's nemeses on "Ugly Betty," and he was certainly funny, if a tad stereotypical in that, but his comedic talent are on full display here, and he doesn't disappoint. Playing Alex, Alex's failed screenwriter boyfriend Barry, Barbra's assistant, and Barbra herself, he makes every character completely recognizable through body language and cadence, while never going completely over board. His comedic timing is so dead on, I can't imagine anyone else ever being able to play the part as well. (Apparently, it was originally written with Jesse Tyler Ferguson in mind, but should he ever take over, he'll have some huge and hilarious shoes to fill.)

It's not all laughs. There are some genuinely moving moments between Alex and Barbra, and the inevitable end is both poignant and brilliantly comedic. Going into Buyer & Cellar I had my doubts. It seemed too on-the-nose in its subject matter: A gay man making fun of Barbra Streisand? Come on now. But turns out it's a truly funny and insightful look into fame, fans, and the desire create to one's own personal utopia.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Entertaining And Slightly Exhausting: Motown: The Musical

This review originally appeared on the San Francisco Appeal.

It's too bad Berry Gordy can't make an on-stage appearance at the end of every performance of Motown: The Musical, as he did at San Francisco's Orpheum Theater on Tuesday night, because the 84-year-old legend nearly brought the house down dancing jubilantly with the cast. It was a hell of an end to the entertaining and slightly exhausting jukebox musical.

Gordy wrote the show's book, and it's loosely based on his 1994 autobiography, detailing the rise of his music empire, from 1938 to 1983. The legendary 25th anniversary TV show serves as the musical's framing device. Act one opens with energetic dueling performances by The Temptations and The Four Tops as they rehearse for the show, while an aging Gordy (Clifton Oliver) is home, lamenting the loss of so many of the names he helped create as they moved away from Motown and on to bigger paychecks. Will he actually show up at the anniversary show?

The time then moves to the past, making a quick stop in Gordy's childhood (the fight between Joe Louis and Max Schmeling was a pivotal point for Gordy as a child), eventually settling on Gordy as a young man and songwriter. After writing some songs for Jackie Wilson ("Reet Petite" and "Lonely Teardrops") Gordy decides to pursue songwriting and producing full-time, and "Motown" (the naming of the company is an amusing moment) is born.

The pace of the show is breakneck, with over 50 songs from Motown (and other Berry labels) performed. Of course, not all of the songs are done in full, so one song often blends into another, and the groups performing those songs aren't always clear (for instance, if you aren't a fan of The Temptations and The Four Tops you probably won't know just which is which).

A lot of groups and singers are portrayed over the course of the almost three-hour musical, with much of the cast playing three or more different roles. The show's major focus is the relationship between Gordy and Diana Ross (Allison Semmes), who Gordy meets when she's still in high school, and hanging around Motown with her group, The Primettes. He sees something in the group, and especially the one "with the big eyes." The Primettes become The Supremes, and after many failed songs, eventually ends up as Motown's biggest act.

Semmes does a good job of mimicking Diana Ross's smile-filled singing style, and her voice is dead on, though the big eyes everyone keeps talking about...aren't. Smokey Robinson (Nicholas Christopher), Gordy's best friend, and Marvin Gaye (Jarran Muse), his brother-in-law (at least for a while) are the two other main characters, and both actors are great, particularly during the songs. Of course, the whole cast does a lot of singing, so much so that there's not a lot of room for plot. Events happen at breakneck speed. Hit records are being made, groups split up, Kennedy gets shot, and then war protest breaks out in what seems like 10 minutes time. Die-hard Motown nerds will probably have a hard time with all the liberties taken with the musical timeline.

Because there are so many songs, there are a few times when tunes are used in an expository way. Sometimes this works, (when Smokey Robinson must face angry Alabama police on stage while singing "I don't like you/but I love you" from "You Really Got a Hold on Me"), and sometimes it doesn't, (Diana Ross sings "I Hear a Symphony" while laying in bed next to an impotent Berry Gordy; but perhaps the awkwardness of that scene was amplified because Berry Gordy was sitting in the row in front of me).

A lot of ground is covered in the first act, while act two focuses on Gordy's move to Los Angeles, the discovery of the Jackson 5 (Reed Lorenzo Shannon is fantastic as young Michael Jackson), disco, and the looming threat that the label will have to fold as more and more artists--including his beloved Diana--move on to bigger things. But Gordy vows to fight, releasing even more hits. (He seems to remember he's got Stevie Wonder in a closet somewhere, as Wonder makes a brief appearance as a child in act one, and isn't heard from again until the end of act two).

By the time the finale and the 25th anniversary reunion arrived, I was just plain tired, and couldn't blame them for completely overlooking Michael Jackson's immortal performance during that show. Who'd have the energy for that?

Well, maybe Berry Gordy would.