Monday, February 29, 2016

Someone Should Put 'Dirty Dancing: The Classic Story On Stage' In A Corn

This review originally appeared on

I was never a huge fan of the movie Dirty Dancing, mainly because its mix of period pop and contemporary songs always bugged the hell out of me, and its story was a very thin romantic cliche. But that doesn't mean I didn't understand its appeal. Jennifer Grey and Patrick Swayze were incredibly charismatic, and had a definite chemistry. The two of them helped the movie rise above its shortcomings. Which is why a live musical version makes about as much sense as a remake.

And yet, Dirty Dancing: The Classic Story on Stage has been touring around the world since 2004, (though tellingly, it hasn't had a Broadway run as of yet), and is now playing San Francisco's Golden Gate Theater though March 20th.

Rachel Boone takes on the role of Baby, and has some passing resemblance to Jennifer Grey. She's pleasantly dorky, but never convincingly makes the transition to blossomed dirty dancer. Christopher Tierney plays Johnny Castle, and does his best to sound like Patrick Swayze; he certainly looks just as good in a black tank top. But, unsurprisingly, he doesn't have Swayze's charm, and never really sizzles with Boone's Baby.

His dance numbers with Penny (played by San Francisco native and SF Ballet School alum Jenny Winton) are the show's best bits of dancing in a musical that has, shockingly, not a whole lot of dancing! There were certainly no numbers that brought the house down, and only two large group dance numbers, neither particularly memorable.

The whole production feels cheap and cobbled together, almost like something a high school would put on. The sets are primarily plain white boards that looks like window shutters, and video projection is used to indicate changes of location, with some of the video coming directly from the movie itself (showing images of the camp grounds, for instance). Sometimes these video "sets" are used to purposeful comedic effect, (the famous practice in the lake has the two leads falling "into" the water, and then flipping their hair back, as if they were soaking wet), but sometimes the laughs don't seem intentional, (a "driving" scene where Johnny mimes driving while standing up is just flat out silly).

The show is filled with music, but not a lot of musical numbers. While there is a live band that often appears on stage, the show utilizes both live and pre-recorded originals, although roughly half of the songs in the show aren't played to completion. The two leads don't do any singing either. Instead vocals are left to two ensemble players, Adrienne Walker and Doug Carpenter, including the singing of the show's closing number "Time of My Life."

The film's dramatic moments are kept in, (but don't worry, there isn't a botched-abortion-musical number), and some more are even added, like a clunky group-listen to Martin Luther King's "I have a dream speech." But none of the story's drama is ever allowed to sink in, because dialogue is rushed through, with some scenes seeming to last mere seconds, as if the actors were afraid they'd get hit by furniture changes should they linger on stage too long.

The show also manages to mangle the one moment that should have the most kick: the delivering of the line "Nobody puts baby in a corner." A moment that should feel like time standing still instead comes across as an off-handed remark that doesn't make a lot of sense within the context of the scene, since no one has put Baby in any kind of proverbial or physical corner.

And for that, the entire show should just go sit in an actual corner, and think about what its done.

Friday, February 19, 2016

The Witch

This review originally appeared on

The Witch is a tough sell. While it has both the creepiest and most beautiful imagery I've seen in a horror movie in many years, it's also pretty slow, and filled with dialogue I could only understand maybe half the time. This isn't the kind of movie most horror fans are going to flock to.
The story centers on a family of 17th century Puritans in New England who are banished from their village and forced to live alone on their own farm, right outside an imposing woods. When their newborn baby disappears right before the eyes of eldest daughter, Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), the logical conclusion is he was kidnapped by a witch.

The film takes place several years before any of the Salem Witch Trials took place, and director Robert Eggers presents the idea of witchcraft as it was viewed by those early Puritan settlers. To them, witches were as real as the elements, and as real as God. Evil was not to be doubted. What was to be doubted was the innocence of those accused of it.

What happens to the family is like a mini-version of the later witch trials, as accusations are tossed around, and the family begins to turn on each other, convinced the real witch is among them. And therein lies the real horror: The rejection of family and the safety of home.

Much of the dialogue in the film is taken from actual journals and writings from the era. This, along with impeccable costuming, and the dead on-look of a sad and dilapidated farmstead, gives the film some admirable authenticity. But combining that dialogue and its unfamiliar sentence structure with the thick English accents of the cast meant I spent a lot of the movie wishing it had a subtitle option. (This will definitely be getting a second viewing come its video release.)

If we are to take the presentation of the witch in the movie to be as real as the characters believe it to be, (and the movie does leave this a bit ambiguous), then we might also have to accept that said witches were evil, and the subsequent witch trials were completely justified. On the other hand, to see the abject misery the women in this family are subjected to, well, who the hell wouldn't want to leave all that to go dance naked in the woods and fly across the sky on a broomstick?

Friday, February 12, 2016

Zoolander 2 and Where To Invade Next

This review originally appeared on

It's been fifteen years since the original Zoolander opened, which means it's been fifteen years since the one and only time I've seen it. Honestly, it didn't leave much of an impression on me, although for years I've been wondering if the fictional model's signature "Blue Steel" pose can ultimately be blamed for the existence of the ubiquitous duck-faced Instagram selfie that everyone has in their respective feeds.
Luckily, any knowledge of the first movie is unneeded to understand the sequel, which begins with about 15 minutes of back-story and catch-up. Zoolander (Ben Stiller) and Hansel (Owen Wilson) have gone into hiding, but an international crisis centered on the deaths of several celebrities, an offer to star in a high-profile fashion show in Rome, and the possible discovery of Derek's long-lost son means a reunion for the once-hot-but-now-not supermodels.

The movie's at its funniest when it isn't centered on Derek or Hansel, and frankly could have used more of Kristen Wiig's insane designer Alexanya Atoz, who looks like Donatella Versace and Lady Gaga had a baby and raised it in a tanning bed, and her head designer Don Atari (Kyle Mooney) an insufferable hipster whose every-other-word is an insult that's really a compliment. Zoolander 2 is unquestionably stupid, but I have to admit, I laughed a lot.

Besides, any movie that opens with the violent murder of Justin Bieber can't be all bad, right?

Michael Moore dials back the vitriol for his latest documentary. Warmongering isn't the topic of this one; instead Moore "conquers" (visits) several different countries around the world, finds out how those countries have been able to succeed in ways that America hasn't, and then claims those resources (ideas) for the U.S.

Among the discoveries are free nutritional meals for schoolchildren in France; 30 days paid vacation and two-hour lunches in Italy — with no loss in production; prisons in Norway where rehabilitation is the goal, not punishment — with some of the lowest recidivism rates in the world; college education, tuition-free, for everyone — including American foreigners; and free healthcare for women in Tunisia, a country with an Islamic government.

Of course none of those countries are without their own problems, and Moore admits in the movie that he set out to "pick the flowers, not the weeds." This is a kinder, gentler Moore, and if anything, the movie is at least a lovely travelogue. But the take-away message — that so many of these successful foreign programs actually have their roots in American ideals, but we just can't get it together enough to make them work — is as infuriating as anything in any of his other movies.

Friday, February 5, 2016

Hail, Caesar!

This review originally appeared on

My opinion of Coen brothers movies tend to fall into one of four categories:
  • I immediately love it and want to have its babies. (Raising Arizona; True Grit.)
  • I see it, am entertained, but not really sure it completely worked; upon second viewing, I love it. (Fargo; The Big Lebowski; O Brother Where Art Thou?)
  • I see it, am entertained but upon second viewing, I can definitely say I don't like it. (The Hudsucker Proxy; The Man Who Wasn't There.)
  • I dislike like it so much on first viewing that I never bother to give it a second chance. (Intolerable Cruelty; The Ladykillers.)
I can definitely say Hail, Caesar! doesn't fall into the first or the fourth category; but until I get a second viewing I can't be sure whether it falls into the second or third.

Set in very early 1950s Hollywood, the story centers on Capitol Pictures "fixer" Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), a man whose main job is getting the studios' stars out of the jams they inevitably find themselves in.

Eddie Mannix was, in reality, an actual Hollywood fixer, who worked for MGM for over four decades. He was also a notorious philanderer, wife-beater, and possible murderer. (For the full Eddie Mannix story, I highly recommend this episode of the podcast You Must Remember This.)

The Coen brothers' version of Mannix is, appropriately enough, a bit whitewashed, as though he went through the "Mannix fixing machine" himself. He goes to confession, is faithful to his wife, and is very devoted to his job. Of course, most of his day is centered around lying to cover up the so-called moral failings of the actors, producers, and directors that work for the studio, but that's on them, you see, not him.

The film follows Eddie during a hectic 24 hours on the studio lot. He's got to figure out how to cover-up the illegitimate pregnancy of the studio's Esther Williams-esque star Deanna Moran (Scarlett Johansson); help the studio change the image of their singing cowboy star Hobie Doyle (terrific newcomer Alden Ehrenreich) by setting him up with Carmen Miranda-esque star Carlotta Valdez (heh) and aiding his transition into a sophisticated drawing room comedy directed by the very British Laurence Lorentz (Ralph Fiennes); and, in the film's central plot, find Baird Whitlock, the kidnapped star of the studio's Biblical tent-pole epic Hail, Caesar! A Tale of the Christ. He's played by George Clooney, (thus completing his "Idiot Trilogy" collaboration with the Coens). Eddie must do all this while also weighing a job offer from Lockheed to get out of the Hollywood business and into a "real" career.

The Coens have tremendous fun recreating the elaborate spectacles of MGM productions. The water ballet rivals anything seen in any of Esther Williams' movies, and the scene featuring Channing Tatum in a Gene Kelly-esque On the Town tap-dancing number full of sailors singing about shipping out and the resulting lack of "dames," is played totally straight, until, of course, it isn't. Are they lamenting or celebrating that "no dames" situation? (By the end of the number, it's pretty clear.)

It's eventually revealed that the group that has kidnapped Whitlock, and who call themselves "The Future," are a cadre of communist screenwriters who basically want to do exactly what the Hollywood blacklisters always feared the commies wanted to do: Spread their agenda through their Hollywood screenplays. It's with this plotline that the Coens ultimately falter, and its resolution falls so flat that even two characters in the movie can only react to it with a shrug and a slight, "Hunh."

There are many, many moments in Hail, Caesar! that work great, are funny in the way that only the Coens can be funny, and capture the mood of the era perfectly, enough that I came out of it, as I so often do with them, wanting to see it again. But until I do, I can't be sure if the parts that work will make the parts that don't seem better, or worse.