Friday, December 19, 2014

The Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies

This review originally appeared on the San Francisco Appeal.

The Hobbit did not need to be three movies. I suspected as much when the trilogy was first announced, and the third movie just hammers home that fact. The Hobbit would have been an amazing, thrilling, emotional, action-packed set-up to the Lord of the Rings. Instead it's a bloated, boring, and contrived mess.

Story wise, it probably makes more sense to end the second movie with the awakening of Smaug and his subsequent rampage. But methinks they realized saving that bit for the beginning of movie number three would guarantee more butts in seats. It's certainly the best part of the The Battle of the Five Armies. Too bad it only lasts about 10 minutes.

Everything after is a long slog towards Lonely Mountain, where the dwarves are walled up with an ever-increasingly crazy Thorin, who refuses to relinquish the gold. But where there lies gold, there comes those who want a little/some/all of that gold, and thus the five armies of the title gather to battle.

And really, that's the majority of the movie. An ever-increasing war of thousands, that becomes ever-increasingly boring. The ridiculous subplot about star-crossed lovers, the elf Tauriel (Evangeline Lily) and dwarf Kili (Aidan Turner), which feels nothing but contrived and pandering, (let's give the ladies something to cry about!), finds its conclusion, and includes some of the most ridiculous dialogue in a genre that has its fair share of it.

Which brings me back to the magic that was the original trilogy. If it could keep someone like me, who has no interest in the fantasy genre at all, enraptured for over 10 hours, it just doubly proves that The Hobbit--which was the only book in the Middle Earth series that I read as a kid, and whose animated version I then watched dozens of times--is nothing but a failure. At 48 frames per second.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Preaching To The Choir: Kinky Boots

This review originally appeared on the San Francisco Appeal.

Kinky Boots, based on the 2005 movie, with a book by Harvey Fierstein and music and lyrics by Cyndi Lauper, tells the story of a family-run shoe factory in Northampton, England that is facing changing times, and possible bankruptcy. Son, and only heir, Charlie (Steven Booth) hopes to start a new career in London, but returns home upon the death of his father. A chance meeting with a drag queen named Lola (Kyle Taylor Parker)--who accidentally breaks a shoe over Charlie's head--gives Charlie the idea to revamp his shoe biz, creating quality women's boots for men, or more specifically, drag queens. (Although the insistence that no woman's shoe can hold a man's weight is, well, specious.)

Is there a musical called Where Do I Belong? or Who's My True Family?, because I have yet to see a musical that isn't essentially about one or both of those two things. Kinky Boots is no different, and in fact has one song, "Charlie's Soliloquy" that opens with the lyrics, "Do I belong here?" That would seem a ripe topic for satire, but Lauper's lyrics are completely earnest, as is too much of the musical.

Other numbers fair better. Lola's introduction, "Land of Lola," complete with backup dancers, definitely charged up the audience. Lindsay Nicole's solo "History of Wrong Guys" includes some nice bits of prop comedy. And the second act ensemble number, "In This Corner," involving a slow-motion boxing match, is clever and original.

It's when the show slows down to get serious, such as when Lola, nee Simon, tells his "it gets better story," and pleas with an ignorant factory worker to accept him as he is, that it begins to suffer under the weight of its own earnestness. There's nothing wrong with the message, of course. It's just that in SF, they're definitely preaching to the choir.

Kinky Boots is at its most fun when Lola and her energetic band of colorful drag queens (The Angels) take over the stage. The dancing, at times, borders on the gymnastic, and Kyle Taylor Parker's got a great voice and a great pair of legs. I'm glad this musical exists, happy it was a hit, but really hope it gets some more play in cities less likely to pack the opening house with local drag stars. They need it more than San Francisco does.

Friday, December 5, 2014


This review originally appeared on the San Francisco Appeal.

The wildly popular book gets the movie treatment, produced by and starring Reese Witherspoon. Being a fan of the book, I had fears that Hollywood would turn the often difficult, albeit ultimately inspiring memoir, into another insipid Eat Pray Love. I'm happy to say, that isn't the case. For the most part.

Like the book, the movie opens with a graphic bit of toenail removal, followed by some pissed off boot tossing. Almost immediately, we are also shown flashes of events out of context, though clearly featuring our protagonist, Cheryl Strayed (Reese Witherspoon). The rest of this film follows the same kind of structure, showing us scenes from the past as Cheryl walks forward; 1,000 miles forward, along the Pacific Crest Trail, to be specific.

Soon, we begin to see that Strayed is not so much trying to leave a painful past behind as to make sense of it. At the center of that pain is her mother: poor, domestic violence survivor, and eternally optimistic Bobbi, played by Laura Dern. (It's not a spoiler to say she dies; that becomes clear pretty early on.)

This death, while Strayed is in her 20's, becomes too much to handle, and she finds herself falling into a pit of adultery with strangers and increasingly dangerous drug use. I won't say Witherspoon is "brave" for seeking out a role that includes some graphic sex scenes and unpleasant character traits, because bravery has nothing to do with it. But I do think she's pretty savvy to know that her main movie persona, as a romantic comedy actress, gives extra punch to the film's seedier moments. How could someone so pretty and smart allow that stuff to happen to her? Pretty sure a lot of Cheryl Strayed's real life friends said the same thing.

The movie does take some liberties with the book. Strayed now has one brother instead of a brother and a sister, and her non-abusive stepfather is gone completely. I can understand these liberties since so much of her history is told in short flashbacks; shorthand is needed to get some points across. (Which I suppose also explains the scene involving a gang bang in an alley, something definitely not in the book.)

I found it refreshing that the scenery, while often quite beautiful, doesn't become a distraction; the movie isn't a travelogue and director Jean-Marc Vallée refrains from showing too many beautiful sunsets. Strayed's walk in the woods is filled with beautiful things, as well as dangerous ones. But it's ultimately the walk through her own mind that matters the most.