Monday, August 31, 2015

The Phantom Of The Opera At The Orpheum

This review originally appeared on

Since its premier in 1986, Andrew Lloyd Weber's The Phantom of the Opera has broken records as the longest-running Broadway musical of all time, and has played San Francisco more than once. It returns to the Orpheum for a six week engagement via SHN through October 4th.

This latest touring incarnation has been pared down a bit from the original production, with fewer elaborate props (no giant elephant during the Hannibal scene), and a simpler set. But what's replaced those sets is still pretty neat: a kind of rolling cylinder that can serve as a spooky backdrop, opens up to reveal various inner sets, and sprouts stairs that lead characters down to the Phantom's subterranean lair. And yes, the chandelier is still there, although this time around it doesn't so much threaten to crush the cast on stage as kill the audience below it. (Those orchestra seats will earn their cost in thrills).

So, while smaller, this Phantom is still a spectacle, which is a good thing. It's not the type of show you could give a minimalist Sweeney Todd approach to because, save for the best —
and most popular songs — a lot of the music is just plain boring, and without the elaborate sets and costumes to back them, would likely put audiences to sleep.

The story remains the same: Christine (Katie Travis), is an opera ingenue who gets her big break when the resident diva storms off the set, in fear of the "ghost" who haunts the opera house. This ghost is, of course, the Phantom (Chris Mann, in the performance I saw), the mysterious masked figure who has been tutoring Christine in music. Christine isn't even sure if the Phantom is real, or all in her mind, but she comes to reality once Raoul (Storm Lineberger), her childhood love, enters the picture.

The Phantom is a little younger in this version, so he's clearly meant to be more of a potential love interest than any kind of father figure for Christine. But the love triangle doesn't completely work. I never bought that Christine was ever torn between the two guys, mainly because the Phantom is, well, a total dick, and kind of a creepy drip as well. I wanted to take the guy aside and tell him to just own that mask! Go the Daft Punk route and never take that thing off. Or just follow Mariah Carey's lead, and only allow your good side to be photographed! The point is, Phantom, if you want the world to accept you, don't be the creepy guy who enters the party in a cloud of smoke, with a fancy mask on, basically confronting people with "WHAT ARE YOU LOOKING AT?!"

The show's biggest problem is it blows its wad in Act One. It's this first act that contains the introduction of the Phantom, the boat trip to his underground home, and the two best songs, "The Music of the Night," and "The Phantom of the Opera." Thankfully, orchestration for the latter hasn't changed much since its very obvious 1986 production, complete with synthesizers and electric guitar chords. It's insanely cheesy, and also completely catchy. I still find myself humming it to myself, days later. Act One also ends with the chandelier scene, and the show never again reaches that moment's fun intensity.

As one would gather from the setting, there's also a lot of opera sung. And while it's all in English, it's at times impossible to understand. I'm not sure if this is the fault of the performers, the compositions themselves, (several include three or more people singing at once, but not in harmony), or the sound production. Regardless, large chunks of the lyrics were unintelligible. Still, The Phantom remains a fun, albeit slightly silly show. But, much like the titular character's cursed mug, one half is a lot more fun than the other.

Friday, August 28, 2015

Women Of A Certain Age Rule 'Grandma' And 'Learning To Drive'

This review originally appeared on

Unless you're Meryl Streep or Diane Keaton, good, complex lead roles for Actresses of a Certain Age can be hard to come by. Which is why it's refreshing that we have two movies opening this week, Learning To Drive and Grandma, that don't star either Diane Keaton or Meryl Streep--that are centered on and starring women who said goodbye to their 20's a while ago.

Of course, the other truism is that once an actress hits forty they are no longer cast as love interests and are instead cast as mothers. So, naturally, anything over 50 must means it's time for the grandma roles! Enter Lily Tomlin in Grandma. She plays a lesbian poet named Ellie Reid. Still grieving over the death of her partner of over 30 years, she's depressed, angry, and at times, cruel, especially to her current, younger girlfriend (Judy Greer), who's had enough and is leaving her. An already bad day gets worse when her teenage granddaughter, Sage (Julia Garner) shows up at her door needing $600 to help pay for an abortion she's already scheduled for later in the day.

In a (in)convenient twist, Ellie has just paid off and cut up all her credit cards, and currently only has forty bucks to her name, and neither women wants to go to Sage's mother for help. This dilemma sends the two of them on a Los Angeles-based road trip in an attempt to scrounge up the money by cashing in some old debts, selling some old books, and forcing the jerky boyfriend to pay a share of the responsibility.

Abortion is obviously a controversial topic, but the movie doesn't dance around it, and also doesn't skirt the issue by giving the teenager a convenient miscarriage. Instead, the emotions around such a decision are represented honestly, and respectfully.

Lily Tomlin is simply phenomenal as the very liberal, short-tempered grandma. She hasn't been in a lot of movies of late, so it's easy to forget that while she's best known for her comedic work, she's always been a fine dramatic actress--even garnering a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination for her role in Robert Altman's Nashville. And if there's any justice to the Academy's nominations this year (wishful thinking!) she'll get a Best Actress nod for Grandma. I'd also love writer and director Paul Weitz to get some kind of nomination as well, if only because it's seems impossible that a movie like this could from the director of American Pie.

Patricia Clarkson hasn't reached grandma-roles status yet, but she's definitely had her fair share of mom roles, and she plays another in Learning to Drive. (Her daughter is played by Grace Gummer, whose mother is, yes, Meryl Streep. We can't escape!) Like Tomlin in Grandma, Clarkson is facing a difficult situation--a divorce, after her husband falls in love with a younger woman--and deals with it by getting in a car. As a New Yorker, she's never learned to drive, and has always relied on public transportation and her husband to get her where she needs to go.

Enter Ben Kingsley as Darwan, and Indian Sikh who works as a cab driver and a driving instructor. Darwan has some life challenges as well: the every day racism and harassment associated with being a Sikh in America, and his newly arranged marriage to a woman (Sarita Choudhury) his sister picked out for him.

In Grandma, the act of sitting and driving in a car leads to funny, intense, and often revelatory conversation between the women of two generations. But in Learning to Drive, the conversations and "lessons" exchanged by both feel too scripted; life lessons disguised as driving lessons, deliberate and contrived. When Lily Tomlin learns something about herself in Grandma we believe it, and it feels genuine. Learning to Drive is pleasant enough, and Patricia Clarkson is always fun to watch. But when it comes to ladies of a certain age steering their own movies? Grandma's the better ride.

No Escape

This review originally appeared on

The jokes about this movie and its title — "No escape from this garbage!" — are easy, and not entirely true. There is an escape: just don't see it, because it's terrible.

A failed entrepreneur (Owen Wilson, how could you?) moves his wife (Lake Bell) and two daughters to an unnamed East Asian country that borders Vietnam, (the movie was filmed in Thailand), for an unnamed job having to do with the local water supply. While there, a coup breaks out, and masked rebels decide to take out all Americans and anyone else who crosses their paths. Pierce Brosnan has a supporting role as a mysterious Brit who's good with a gun and hand-to-hand combat.

If you watched the trailer, you've already seen the movie's best and most ridiculous moment: Owen Wilson tossing one of his daughters across a rooftop. I'll grant that the movie does have some suspenseful moments. But it's all wrapped up in some murky politics and crystal clear xenophobia that I just felt gross sitting through it.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Mistress America

This review originally appeared on

I fell in love with Greta Gerwig the minute I saw her make a face while eating bad pizza in the horror movie The House of the Devil. Since then, I've seen almost all her movies, and even in the bad ones, she's been enjoyable. She's immensely watchable, and her performances always feel completely authentic. When she teamed up with writer and director Noah Baumbach (they're also romantically involved) for Frances Ha, it felt like a perfect melding; this century's Annie Hall. So I was eager to see their latest team-up, Mistress America.

Unfortunately, it's a misfire, and Gerwig gives her first performance that feels like a performance.

Gerwig plays 30-year-old Brooke, a New Yorker who "does everything and nothing." Tracy Fishko (Lola Kirke) is a freshman at Barnard College, and her divorced mom (Kathryn "Law and Order: Criminal Intent" Erbe!) is set to marry Brooke's widower dad. Tracy is reluctant to give her soon-to-be-step-sister a call, but after a few lonely months at school, she does, and very quickly falls under Brooke's manic spell.

Brooke is everything enviable to the naive writing student, and soon she becomes inspiration for Tracy's latest short story. Brooke lives in an apartment that's zoned commercial, is a part time singer, interior decorator, math tutor, and enthusiastic home cook. She has dreams of creating a TV show, writing short stories ("but longer"), and developing an app. But her big dream is to open a restaurant/hair salon/community hangout called Mom's, with help from her boyfriend of whom she says "he's everything I hate except I love him." Problem is, Brooke is 90% dreamer, 10% doer, and her boyfriend is soon out of the picture.

We're supposed to understand why Tracy would be so drawn to Brooke, and this is where the movie — and Gerwig — falters. Brooke is, frankly, annoying as hell, and Gerwig is never able to get her Brooke to rise above that fatal character flaw.

It also doesn't help that much of the dialogue feels stilted and mannered — like it was written to be a stage play. This style dominates the middle portion, an extended sequence with an ever-increasing number of superfluous characters that's supposed to come off as screwball and quirky, but instead grinds the movie to a halt. What had felt slightly like a stage play turns into something that feels like the dress rehearsal for a play desperately in need of a final rewrite.

Friday, August 14, 2015

'The Diary Of A Teenage Girl' Is Perfect, Frank, And True

This review originally appeared on

The media was having a field day trying to figure out why Alexander Skarsgard showed up in drag to the San Francisco premiere of The Diary of a Teenage Girl at the Castro Theatre last Monday. Some wondered if it was because he plays a gay or drag character in the movie (he doesn't). Others thought it was a tribute to "costar" Josh Grannell, AKA Peaches Christ, (yeah Grannell is in the movie, but blink and you'll miss him). But the truth is closer to what I figured all along: half the audience was in drag, and when in Rome--or the Castro--well, why not wear a dress? So, sure it was part tribute, but it was also just solidarity.

Director Marielle Heller took to the stage at the same premiere and introduced Skarsgard and costar Bel Powley; all three looked fabulous in their 1970's dresses. But before anyone could really say anything, Cousin Wonderlette--acting as MC--ushered them all off stage to make way for a bunch of Rocky Horror Picture Show performers to lead the audience in a round of the Time Warp. It was pretty obvious the majority of the audience was not ready to do the Time Warp again; they wanted to see the movie...

..which opens exuberantly, with young Minnie (Bel Powley) walking through Golden Gate Park, a smile on her face, "Looking for the Magic" playing on the soundtrack. "I had sex today," we hear Minnie say. "Holy shit!" It's a perfect, frank opening for what lies ahead: a movie that recognizes that teenage girls can be just as sex-obsessed and horny as teenage boys.

Minnie is fifteen and lives in San Francisco with her divorced mother Charlotte (Kristen Wiig) and her younger sister Gretel (Abigal Wait). It's 1976. They all live in flat in Laurel Heights, (actually filmed at a house on Haight Street), and Minnie goes to a private school in the neighborhood (the Presidio Library poses as the high school). She doesn't think herself very beautiful, even using the word ugly to describe herself, so having someone actually desire her feels momentous. She starts to document this pivotal change in her life via an audio diary, recorded on a cassette recorder she hides under her bed. These recordings serve as the film's narration.

As she tells her diary, having sex for the first time officially makes her an adult, although she can't talk about this sexual encounter with anyone aside from her blue-eyed, blonde feathered-haired best friend Kimmie (Madeline Waters). (Minnie's mother deems Kimmie kind of white trash, "but in a good way.")

Minnie's losing her virginity is a bit....complicated, because the man she's sleeping with is her mother's 35-year-old boyfriend, Monroe (Alexander Skarsgard), "the most handsome man in the world." Most of the film's summaries describe this relationship as "an affair," glossing over the whole pesky statutory rape angle. It's certainly an easier way to describe the situation, and in many ways, the two of them are more equal than any two people with that age difference should be. And it also makes sense within the context of the film's setting. Of course, a 35-year-old man having sex with a fifteen-year-old can't be excused with "It was the 1970s; things were different then!" But it can be explained with that.

Minnie is not a victim. She's not a victim of Monroe, or of her own sexuality. If she's a victim of anything, it's the era. The 70's were tough — perhaps even tougher for San Franciscans. Many parents were barely out of their teenage hippie phase before they were faced with the daunting task of raising the next generation. And a lot of time, they didn't do much raising. Sure, many kids had a lot more freedom than they do now, which can be a good thing, but it also meant a lot of learning had to come from painful experience, and not from parental guidance. All of this is illustrated in Diary to tremendous effect, from Minnie's sexual experience, to having a mother who is more of a buddy who shares her drugs than a parent who pays much attention to her kids' welfare.

And yet, Minnie's mother isn't a villain, and neither is Monroe. Skarsgard portrays him perfectly: he's a tad pathetic, basically weak, and is playing at being an adult as much as Minnie is. Wiig is also great as Minnie's mom. She's never a caricature. Moments where she's being a, frankly, terrible parent, feel very real. You don't hate her, but you do wish she'd just get her shit together already.

Minnie's and Monroe's relationship is fun for a while, but then it isn't, and the main reasons it isn't is because it's not right. Which isn't to say it's only wrong, and isn't to say Minnie can't learn from it. Minnie is able to embrace her own sexual needs, accept that wanting to feel another person's body against hers is natural, and go out and get what she wants, and needs.

I'm reluctant to call this presentation of female sexuality "brave," because I don't think it's brave so much as just plain true. Yes, it's rare for a movie to explore it, though it's not unheard of. Some comparisons have been made to 1980's Little Darlings, (a personal fave), but I was also reminded of the 1987 British film Wish You Were Here, which also focused on a teenage girl with a sexual appetite, and little to no shame about it.

And while sex does take up much of Minnie's thoughts, she has other passions that blossom at the same time. It being 1970's San Francisco, Minnie is familiar with the local underground comics scene, and styles her own drawings after them, and her personal hero Aline Kominsky. Minnie's drawings show up as occasional animations in the movie, illustrating her inner thoughts, and giving the movie an extra kick of 1970's nostalgia.

Minnie's fondness for drawing is more than just a passing hobby. Towards the film's end, as Minnie's choices turn a little dark, we know she's going to be OK, because she has an artistic talent and a passion for it that will be able to pull her out life's darkest moments.

Let me end with praise for Bel Powley's performance. She's British, and in her early 20's, but she pulls off playing an American teen perfectly. (It also helps that she's tiny and Alexander Skarsgard is like 7 feet tall.) She's able to appear naive and innocent in one moment, and sexual and eager in the next; not just scene to scene, but sentence to sentence. It's quite remarkable.

Her performance and the film's message were summed up perfectly for me in one brief moment. As Minnie is leaving school one day, a fellow student walks by her and mutters "slut," under her breath. Minnie hears this, and her reaction is: a brief look of puzzlement, followed by a laugh, and a slight shrug of her shoulders.

And she keeps on walking.