Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Roundabout Theater Company's Cabaret Is One For Our Times

This review originally appeared on SFist.com.

I would never have thought a musical that originated in 1966, became more famous as a movie in 1972, and started as a short novel published in 1939, would feel so completely and scarily relevant in 2016. But the current run of the Roundabout Theater Company's production of Cabaret is most definitely a Cabaret for our times.

Set in 1931 Berlin, the story centers on the performers at the Kit Kat Klub and the residents of a local boarding house. The show begins before the audience is completely seated, with some of the Kit Kat Klub's performers strolling and stretching around the stage. When the lights dim, the Emcee (Randy Harrison) opens the show with that most famous of introductory songs, Willkommen, urging the audience to "leave your troubles outside....In here, life is beautiful, the girls are beautiful, even the orchestra is beautiful!"

And indeed, the orchestra is pretty good looking, and not relegated to the orchestra pit. Instead, they perform on a raised stage above the action, with some of the musicians doing double duty as cast members. The stage itself is pretty stripped down, with the main set piece being a series of doors representing the entrances and exits to the Kit Kat, the boarding house, and some trains. This minimalist set allows the audience to focus on the main characters, and also notice the characters that often hover around in the background.

Our everyman hero, American writer Clifford Bradshaw (Lee Aaron Rosen), has come to Berlin hoping for inspiration. After finding lodging at a boarding house run by Fraulein Schneider (Shannon Cochran), Cliff ventures to the Kit Kat Klub. There he becomes entranced by both a former male lover and dancer/singer Sally Bowles (Andrea Goss), who enters the show with the song "Don't Tell Mama." It's a perfect piece for Goss, who is so naturally tiny that I'm not sure that cartoonishly giant chair she sits in during the number was actually all that big.

Cliff and Sally become an unlikely couple, as she basically forces her way into his lodging and bed after she's fired from the club, and he decides to try and make a go at a "normal" life after she becomes pregnant. But neither of them is living their true selves, and it's those ideas of truth and denial that affect every character in the show.

Fraulein Schneider's relationship with Jewish fruit merchant Herr Schulz (Mark Nelson) yields two of the show's most touching numbers, "It Couldn't Please Me More," where a pineapple becomes the ultimate symbol of love, and "Married," which in a heartbreaking reprise forces the characters to admit the truth about the evil overtaking the country around them.

Herr Shulz's character gets the show's most politically charged lines — some are clearly played in direct reference to our current election madness — which resulted in some very audible and extended cheers from the audience.

Goss's Sally isn't a woman who immediately commands a room. She's very slight and flighty; one thought starting before another finishes. But as the show progresses and her situation becomes more dire, she begins to command more attention. Her rendition of the title song is a far cry from Liza Minnelli's movie version. It's filled with much more despair and anger. Life may be a cabaret, old chum, but sometimes you've got to stop the party, or you'll miss the sound of those approaching goose-steps.

After the show, some of the actors gathered for an audience Q&A, and gave some interesting insight into their characters.

Shannon Cochran spoke about the backstory she gave Fraulein Schneider, and how she felt it was able to explain some of the decisions her character makes. "I felt she was a bit ahead of her time, as she's a woman alone, in 1930...She's a woman who grew up with money, who lost it. She sees that [her relationship] can't work, that no one will get out safely. And she does what she needs to survive."

When asked about Cliff's orientation and whether being with Sally was Cliff's way to deny his own homosexuality, Lee Aaron Rosen said, "Absolutely. And he also realizes that [Sally] is far more mature and wise than he gave her credit for, but that he's playing a game every bit as much as she is."

Of the Emcee, Randy Harrison said he gave him an arc and backstory centered on addiction. He also feels the Emcee was, "a little more aware than those around him. He sees what's coming, but rather than fleeing, he just despairs."

And when asked what he felt the main takeaway an audience might get from Cabaret, Harrison said, "The potential consequences of political disengagement."

And that's a truth as important now as it was in 1930's Germany.

Friday, June 24, 2016

Pretty, Disgusting: The Neon Demon

This review originally appeared on SFist.com.

You could toss any and all criticisms about Nicolas Winding Refn's new thriller The Neon Demon at me, and I'd probably agree with all of them. A preoccupation with style over story? Sure. One dimensional characters? Absolutely. Disgusting, distasteful, and disturbing? Indeed.

All of those criticisms, and plenty more, are completely valid. And yet I came out of The Neon Demon pretty sure I liked it, and a few days later, I was ordering the soundtrack and desperately wanting to watch it again.

The story, such as it is, is centered on Jessie (Elle Fanning), a 16-year-old beauty from Georgia who has come to Los Angeles to make it big. "I can't sing. I can't dance...No real talent. But I'm pretty. And I can make money off pretty," she tells her photographer/boyfriend as they sit in the Hollywood hills overlooking the glowing Los Angeles sprawl below them.

She befriends — in the loosest sense of the term "friend" — a makeup artist named Ruby (Jena Malone) and two established models named Gigi and Sarah (Bella Heathcote and Abbey Lee, both working models in real life). They, and everyone else Jessie meets — including a sleazy motel owner, played by Keanu Reeves — react to her like desperate, hungry predators eying some fresh prey.

Jessie's natural talent helps her rise quickly from amateur photoshoots to walking the runway at a hot designer's latest show, and her newfound friends aren't exactly congratulating her on her success. Perhaps they've seen All About Eve or Showgirls, and have figured out how these things usually end.

Like Showgirls, The Neon Demon could be viewed as a horribly wrongheaded attempt at making a serious thriller set within the world of female dominated entertainment, or a purposely campy and tongue-in-cheek parody of the same.

It's also like a live-action version of a Vogue editorial spread. You look at it, first admiring the pretty girls and their elaborate clothes. But then you notice they're in a room filled with really gruesome things...and that a necklace is actually blood from a throat wound; the photos are telling some kind of story, but you aren't really sure what it means...

Fashion and images of violence have a longstanding and often troubling association. Guy Bourdin and Helmut Newton were famous for their masochistic photospreads, and thrillers like The Eyes of Laura Mars and Lipstick were playing off the violent associations over 30 years ago. So, really, the world of modeling is the perfect fit for Refn, who has always preferred that one-dimensional characters inhabit his moody and violent movies. (If you want some idea what you might be getting into, check out 2011's Drive.)

The Neon Demon is Refn's moodiest movie yet. When I think back on it, unforgettable graphic images come to mind. Graphic in the horror movie sense, yes (it's like an even bloodier version of Dario Argento). But also in the design sense. Jessie's walk down a runway that turns into a red neon vortex of mirrors; a nightmare where hands attempt to push through rubbery wallpapered walls; Jessie laying in a pool of blood that may or may not be fake; a mountain lion in a motel room.

Refn films beautiful things, and ugly things that look beautiful, and combined with the perfect electronic score by frequent collaborator Cliff Martinez, it becomes something completely hypnotic. The Neon Demon may not have great dialogue, or a realistic story, or any character you can actually root for. But it's pretty. And I can watch pretty.

Friday, June 17, 2016

Friends, Family, And Growing Up: Finding Dory, Reviewed

This review originally appeared on SFist.com.

In my list of favorite Pixar movies, 2003's Finding Nemo is closer to the bottom than the top. Not because it's bad — it's actually pretty great — more because I never really felt a personal connection to the story, like I have with other Pixar films. Perhaps that's because I'm not a parent, and the fear of losing my kid (and the other trials of parenthood) aren't things I've ever had to deal with.

Still, it's a tremendously funny movie, and like many of its fans, the Ellen DeGeneres-voiced Dory was my favorite character in it.

Thirteen years later, Dory gets her own story in the slightly misleadingly-titled sequel Finding Dory. Sure, she gets lost during the course of the film — short-term memory loss will cause that — but the real story is centered on Dory's quest to find her family.

In a poignant pre-credits sequence, we meet Jenny (Diane Keaton) and Charlie (Eugene Levy), the loving and ever-patient parents to the tiny, Keane-eyed blue tang Dory. They do their best to help little Dory manage life with what could be perceived as a learning disability: Her short-term memory loss. When the worst happens, and Dory gets lost, she spends an ever-increasing number of days swimming through the ocean, asking passing fish if they've seen her family, slowly growing up to be the Dory who meets Marlin, the father in search of his son, Nemo.

The majority of Dory takes place one year after Nemo, with Dory happily co-habitating with Marlin (Albert Brooks) and Nemo (now voiced by Hayden Rolence, since the original Nemo, Alexander Gould, is now twenty-two. How is that even possible!). But when she gets a flash of memory centered on her parents — realizing she actually does have a family somewhere out there — Dory decides to find them, and Nemo and Marlin (he, reluctantly, per usual) agree to help.

The vastness of the ocean was the partial setting of the first film, adding a real sense of insurmountable odds to the quest. Most sequels tend to go bigger than the movie that preceded them, but what's bigger than the ocean? Instead, Dory makes a smart choice by going a little smaller, with the majority of the film taking place in the "jewel of Morro Bay," an aquarium closely modeled after the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

Once there, memories of her parents start to come back to Dory, and as she begins to piece together her origin story, she discovers some old friends she never knew she had, as well as some new ones. At his first camouflaged appearance, Hank, the seven-tentacled Octopus (voiced by Ed O'Neil) would appear to be the de facto villain, as Dory has something he desperately wants, but she isn't eager to part with. But in a nice change of pace from the majority of animated films, there really is no enemy to conquer; there are just odds to beat, and situations to keep swimming through. And Dory's perseverance, which stems from her "disability," becomes something to emulate.

Some of the plot gets a little a repetitive, with characters getting separated a lot, then trying to get back together, all while trying to go unnoticed by all those humans wandering around. (One of the film's funniest bits exposes those "touching tidepools" as the most terrifying place on earth for an aquatic creature, especially one as misanthropic as Hank.) And at times the story can jump around a little too much, skipping story continuity. (Just how do Dory and Hank get in that baby carriage?)

But the film's number of memorable new characters are enough to mask its story problems. My favorites were Idris Elba and Dominic West (The Wire on a rock) as a couple of territorial cockney sea lions, forever tormenting a fellow sea lion, the mono-browed, crazy-eyed Gerald. (Stick around till after the credits for more of that trio)

Finding Dory, like Finding Nemo, is about the search for missing family. But whereas Nemo really centered on a parental relationship, Dory deals more with the potential loneliness of adulthood, and the ever-fading memories of one's youth, innocence, and parents. I've cried during almost every Pixar I've seen, and while I wasn't holding back sobs like I was during last year's Inside Out, I definitely had to get my handkerchief out at least once during Finding Dory.

Finally, the movie is, as always, preceded by a Pixar-produced short. This one is called Piper, and it just may be the cutest goddamn thing I've ever seen. The animation in it is also some of the most realistic ever rendered. The animation in Dory is also leagues above that seen in Nemo, but I have to say, 3D does nothing for it, and in fact made some of the darker water scenes hopelessly murky. Save yourself those extra bucks and skip the 3D version.

Friday, June 10, 2016

Ghosts, Busted: The Conjuring 2

This review originally appeared on SFist.com.

The Conjuring was one of those rare kinds of of horror movies: An impressive cast, some solid scares, and almost universal critical praise. A sequel was inevitable, especially since there's a tall pile of stories to choose from involving real-life ghost hunters Ed and Lorraine Warren, (played by Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga).

The Conjuring 2 begins in 1977, with the Warrens' involvement in the aftermath of the "Amityville Horror" case, and them trying to fight the growing public belief that the whole thing was a hoax. They, of course, have no doubts it was all true, especially after Lorraine sees a demon that looks like Marilyn Manson in a nun habit walking around the house's basement. This demon follows them home, and its presence, and visions of Ed's death, convince Lorraine they should stop taking cases and instead stay home and continue to ignore their teenage daughter. (Seriously, I was convinced she was a ghost, there's so little attention paid to her.)

Meanwhile, in Enfield, England, newly divorced mother Peggy Hodgson (Frances O'Connor) and her four children are dealing with weird things in their new home. And I'm not talking about the house's disturbingly dirty walls, or the four foot deep bog of water in the basement. Strange noises, furniture being pushed by invisible hands, and youngest daughter Janet's (Madison Wolfe) sleepwalking/sleeptalking episodes eventually force the Hodgson family to, in one of the film's welcome moments of levity, literally run out of the house screaming.

Janet becomes the focus of a ghost named "Bill," who speaks through her in a chain smoker's rasp, claiming the house is his, and that he died in a old leather armchair in the living room. That's the kind of information that would have me instantly picking up the phone to schedule a big trash day pick-up, but of course the Hodgsons decide to keep it. (It really does tie the depressingly decrepit room together.)

The case becomes the focus of a BBC special, (you can watch the real one here), and when none of England's supernatural investigators are able to help the family rid themselves of Bill, the Warrens are called in by the Catholic church, to see if they can prove the haunting is real, so the church can do a sanctioned exorcism.

So, despite Lorraine's misgivings about taking on cases, and despite it being Christmastime, and despite them having a teenage daughter who would probably like to spend that Christmas with her creepy parents, the Warrens arrive in England to do some ghost busting.

The Enfield case has been called England's Amityville, and it's true there are similarities, the biggest being they were both eventually deemed enormous hoaxes. The real Janet was caught on film banging a broom on the ceiling, bending spoons, and hiding tape recorders. While there are several hours of audio recordings of "Bill," there are only a few seconds of film where we can see Janet speaking in his voice.

The movie doesn't ignore this skepticism. In fact, it's a central part of the plot. But it kind of wants to have its scary cake and fling it across the room too. It's easy enough to believe a kid could fake some voices and perform some slight of hand with regard to moving objects. But the film tosses in things like a giant creepy "crooked man" cartoon come to life, that ridiculous haunted bog in the basement, and, of course, a demon, that it's hard to understand how anyone, especially the Warrens, would doubt any of it.

Director James Wan is a big fan of "cat scares," those moments in horror movies when someone is walking around in the dark and then something jumps out at them, followed by a scream or loud music cue. Those moments never scare me, because despite their basis in the unexpected, they're totally expected.

What Wan does best are the slower build ups to scares, and moments that are less "BOO!" and more subtle.The best scene in the movie shows Ed, with his back turned away, interviewing "Bill." All we can see during the long take is the out-of-focus shape of Janet in the background, a shape that may or may not be...shifting. A few more moments like that, fewer jump scares, and The Conjuring 2 could have been the rarest of sequels: one that matches the excellence of the original. Instead, it falls into the old sequel trap of giving us more that actually feels like less.

Friday, June 3, 2016

Fame, Skewered: Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping

This review originally appeared on SFist.com.

When I saw Judd Apatow was a producer of Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping, a mockumentary that basically got its start as a series of Lonely Island shorts on Saturday Night Live, I was afraid he'd once again produce a comedy that stretches way beyond the breaking point; no one needs to see two-and-a-half-hours of Andy Samberg. But thankfully Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping actually does stop, and right when it should.

Samberg stars as pop sensation Conner4Real, who got his start with two high school friends in the Style Boyz, a teenage trio resembling a mash-up of the Beastie Boys and any number of boy bands. Conner becomes a break-out star, resulting in the break-up of the Boyz, with lyricist Lawrence (Akiva Schaffer, also co-director), leaving showbiz for good to go work on a Colorado farm, and Owen (Jorma Taccone, the other director), becoming Conner's on-stage DJ, (although even he admits he doesn't do much more then press "play" on an iPod).

The mockumentary follows the build-up to the release of Conner's second album, Connquest, and his subsequent world tour, which doesn't go as planned once the album's sales tank. (Pitchfork gives the record negative four stars, while Rolling Stone skips the stars all together, rating it a simple smiling shit emoji.)

Unsurprisingly, the story arc owes a lot to the best faux music doc ever made, This Is Spinal Tap, featuring the rise, fall, and redemption of an iconic music group. But in the years since that film's release, it's become harder to tell the musical mockumentaries from the real thing. Anyone who's seen Katy Perry: Part of Me, or Justin Bieber: Never Say Never can attest to that, and the influence of both are clearly evident throughout Popstar. (It's also telling that neither Perry or Bieber make an appearance as themselves in the film, while plenty of other pop stars, including Nas, Questlove, Carrie Underwood, and, most hilariously, Mariah Carey, do.)

Popstar is packed with jokes, gags, and other cameos that might pass you by on first viewing. Bill Hader shows up as the tour's guitar roadie, even though no guitars are used during the show. Maya Rudolph is a brand marketer that comes up with a unique way to get Conner's record into as many homes as possible (it involves household appliances). Will Arnett spoofs TMZ TV and its host, Harvey Levin. And Joan Cusack is Conner's mom, doing on-camera what we all secretly think those stage moms actually do in private.

Tim Meadows is a stand out as Conner's manager, a former member of Tony Toni Toné, back when there was a fourth Tony, who had a question mark at the end of his name. And Sarah Silverman totally slays as his publicist, a woman who understands Conner's music might not be everyone's cup of tea, but "it makes so much money for so many people."

I also have to applaud Apatow for once again recognizing the comedic possibilities inherent in the prolonged sight of a naked penis on screen. Pressed against glass. And getting an autograph.

I find musical comedians up there with prop comics: A genre of comedy that too often makes me want to run out of the room screaming. And while I've liked some of the Lonely Island videos a lot — I mean, how can you not love Dick in a Box? — I was glad to see Popstar go beyond just the funny songs to skewering the current states of fame and pop music as a whole. It's clear the Lonely Island guys sincerely love the entertainment they're parodying; you have to in order to do it well.

And that I'm So Humble song featuring Adam Levine's hologram really is hella catchy.