Friday, February 20, 2015

Bring On The Dancing Boys: Newsies

This review originally appeared on the San Francisco Appeal.

I'm about ten years too old to have been overcome with Newsies fever in the early 90's, but will admit it's always seemed an odd phenomenon. A Disney movie musical that flopped upon initial release, but gained a huge following on video and subsequent airings on the Disney Channel? And it's about turn of the 20th century New York news boys? Who go on strike? And Christian Bale sings and dances? WHUT?

In retrospect, it kind of makes sense. It's filled with a cast of dozens of cute boys in newsboy caps and knickers, who despite the New Yawk accents are about as threatening as your average boy band. Of course tweens loved it.

The stage musical is also a Disney production, and like the movie, I imagine the key attraction is the large cast of dancing boys (although, most seem to have past their teens years by a while ago). There's so many of them, it can be hard to keep track of who's who but I do know this: Jack Kelley (Dan DeLuca) is the defacto newsie leader, and Crutchie (Zachary Sayle) is the one with the crutch.

The industrial set, made up of steel stairs, runners, and scaffolding, rolls around the stage to create the various settings including the slums, newspaper headquarters, a vaudeville theater, and rich newspaper tycoon Joseph Pulitzer's office. While the plot involves price gauging, child labor, unions, and strikes, it's presented rather simply: the newspaper bigwigs decide to increase the cost of the "papes" they sell to the newsies by 10 cents per bundle, and the newsies, already poor and virtually homeless, fight back by going on strike.

Yes. This is a socialist musical, centered on child workers, produced by Disney. My head nearly exploded too.

There's a subplot about a young reporter named Katherine (Stephanie Styles) who falls in love with Jack Kelley while writing about the boys, but frankly, I found their story kind of snoozeville. The musical is at its most fun and entertaining when the large cast of newsies are doing their group dances, which often include moments of tap, and lots of leaps and somersaults, all perfectly synchronized.

The musical's highlight is probably "Seize the Day," which features an ingenious use of newspapers as dance props, (and provides super fans a change to seize some of those papes, as they're tossed into the audience). And while some of the slower numbers are pretty enough, ("Santa Fe;" "Something to Believe In"), I found myself wishing those songs would end so we could get back to some newsie dancing.

That's one advantage those young movie fans had back in the 90's: a fast forward button.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Suckers For Punishment: Fifty Shades of Grey

This review originally appeared on the San Francisco Appeal.

Let's be honest. It doesn't matter what any critic has to say about Fifty Shades of Grey, women are going to flock to it. It's not like the book was met with rave reviews, and still, millions read it! And yeah, I read the book too. The first one. Barely. I found it such a boring slog that towards the end, it was a chore just having to turn the pages. Clearly, I don't get its appeal. There are way hotter books out there, with heroines who don't forget to eat, say things much more emotive than "Oh my!" and "ARRGH!" during sex, and, most importantly, don't surrender themselves to abusive stalkers.

Let's get the plot, as thin as it is, out of the way. Anastasia Steele is a naive, virginal college student about to graduate with a degree in English literature. She helps out her journalism major roommate, who has the flu, by agreeing to fill in and interview rich, hot, single business sensation Christian Grey for a school newspaper article. (What's his line of business? "Telecommunications." Oh, and also feeding the entire continent of Africa, apparently).

Anastasia's introduction to Grey begins with her literally stumbling in the door and falling to the floor. See? Just like the innocent newborn fawn she is! Of course, this moment of humiliation is no doubt what immediately sets Mr. Grey's loins a-stirring.

So, he wants her because she's innocent, and...well, that's kind of the main thing. And she wants him because he's hot, rich, mysterious, and powerful. But what they both want most of all is to change each other, getting rid of the things that they are most drawn to in the process. Doomed romance!

And oh yeah, Christian Grey is a "dominant" who can't get off unless he's with a submissive woman whom he can shackle, spank, whip, and occasionally tickle with peacock feathers. Why is he like this? It's just the way he is, OK?!?!...Also, he was seduced by an older woman at age 15, and his birth mother was a crack whore. (The scene where he confesses the latter to a sleeping Ana reminded me so much of this scene from The Jerk, I couldn't help but laugh.)

The most that can be said about the casting here is they aren't terrible. Dakota Johnson, (daughter of Melanie Griffith and Don Johnson, and once you know that, you can't unsee it), is suitably innocent, and provides some wry line deliveries that help sell dialogue that would otherwise be ridiculous. And Jamie Dornan is just a solidly good actor; he's proven that with his work on the British series "The Fall." (I hope all the fans who come away from the movie seeking out his other work enjoy seeing the logical extension of where someone like Christian Grey would end up.)

And, yes, they both look good naked. She perhaps more than him, since his naked chest is marred by scars that remain a mystery. (Gotta save some things for the sequels!) Of course, you also get to see more of her than you do of him. There is no appearance by Jamie's Dornan herein, which just doesn't make any sense to me. I'm pretty sure the majority of the audience would prefer to see some penis than another look at Johnson's (or her body double's) naked breasts.

As for the sex scenes themselves, whatever. Beyonce is usually the soundtrack. There's lots of tying of knots, close-ups of whips and floggers, visions of Ana in ecstasy, and very little that hasn't been seen before on Cinemax or better movies. (A lot is owed to 9 1/2 Weeks, both the book and the movie. You've got a mysterious rich guy in a suit who's into domination and role playing, and a woman who's at first turned on by it, but then questions it. The big difference is the woman in 9 1/2 Weeks has an actual life and career, and when she walks away at the end, she doesn't come back for more.)

If women are able to watch this movie, and then go home and have terrific sex because they'd never even thought about being tied up before, that's not a bad thing. Rock on with your sexy self. But the MAIN thing I hope women come away with is this: If a guy tells you up front he's an asshole, believe him. Don't waste your time on a "project" that will, 99 PERCENT OF THE TIME, not turn out the way you hope it will. There are plenty of guys out there who are into sexy fun times, but aren't damaged narcissists you will have to center your life around.

And another thing. Guys? Just because you tell someone up front you're an asshole, it doesn't suddenly make being an asshole OK. The behavior is still wrong. You can't get away with murder just because you warned someone ahead of time that you're a murderer.

Throughout the movie Ana questions Christian. "Why are you like this? Why won't you sleep in the same bed as me? Why can't we have a real relationship? Why do like like to see me in pain?" His answers to almost all of her questions is usually, "It's just who I am," which, let's face it, just translates to, "Because I'm an asshole." (Ironically, the only question she asks that probably wouldn't have that answer is, "What's a butt plug?," a question she never does, ahem, get to the bottom of.)

Of course some kind of autonomy has to be given to Ana, or there would be no one to root for. So, spoiler alert, she does seem to ultimately leave Christian, in an abrupt ending that had half of the audience laughing, and the other half groaning. But we all know she, and the rest of the movie's fan base, are suckers for punishment. They'll be back for more.

And maybe then they'll all get an answer to that butt plug question.