Green Book – Film Review

There are two people you should know. One is Donald Shirley, a Jamaican born classically trained jazz pianist. He began playing when he was two-years-old and first performed in public at the age of three. He held a Doctorate of Music, a Doctorate of Psychology, and a Doctorate in Liturgical Arts. Plus, he spoke eight languages. He passed away in 2013.

The other is Anthony Vallelonga, better known as Tony Lip because of his persuasive talent for talking people into doing things they didn’t necessarily want to do. He was born in Pennsylvania but raised in The Bronx. Among his many jobs, Tony worked as a bouncer at the Copacabana Nightclub in New York. It was there he once met Francis Ford Coppola who gave him a part as a wedding guest in The Godfather. If you watched HBO’s The Sopranos you might remember him as Carmine Lupertazzi. Tony also passed away in 2013. But long before his acting career took off, back when he was a bouncer in 1962, Dr. Donald Shirley hired Tony to be his personal driver and security on a concert tour of the Jim Crow South. The new comedy-drama from director Peter Farrelly – yes, that Peter Farrelly of the Farrelly brothers fame – Green Book tells what happened.

When the film opens, the same nightclub that inspired the Barry Manilow hit is about to close for two months of renovations. Tony (Viggo Mortensen) needs a job, but when offered one by some local hoods, he turns it down. The bouncer needs the money to keep his family afloat but shadowy jobs on the side are not his thing. So when there’s a message that someone called Dr. Shirely (Mahershala Ali) needs a driver, Tony turns up at the given address for an interview. But it’s not what he expected.

The address is Carnegie Hall and the doctor isn’t the man Tony assumed. As he later tells his wife Delores (Linda Cardellini), “He ain’t no doctor. He’s a piano boy.” The musician has planned a tour of the deep south. His driver would have no breaks for up to eight weeks, returning to New York by Christmas Eve. He would be expected not only to drive but to be a bodyguard, to carry the performer’s bags, polish his shoes, and to make sure each venue supply a Steinway on which to play, as per the contract. Plus, each night there’s to be a bottle of Cutty Sark in the hotel or motel room, wherever they stay.

Tony says no. “I ain’t gonna be no one’s butler, and I ain’t gonna shine shoes,” he says. But later, when the doctor ups the salary a little and agrees to Tony’s new terms, as long as he adheres to the rules about the Steinway and the bottle of whiskey, the job is still his. Tony Lip agrees, and the tour begins.

The film’s title refers to The Negro Motorist Green Book, a traveler’s guide published annually at a time when discrimination against American blacks was legally rampant. It listed hotels, motels, and restaurants around the country that would be deemed safe for African-Americans. As Tony explains to his wife, “It’s for traveling while black.” The outcome is that though they’re traveling together, once out of the North East, Tony can sleep where he chooses but the doctor has to stick to the places designated safe for ‘Coloreds Only.’ Even though the musician was aware of how things might be once out of his comfort zone, the culture shock is alarming. And not only for the performer. Tony’s eyes of what life is like upon entering the south are also widened.

In a reversal of Driving Miss Daisy roles, considering how much time they’ll spend together, the two men inevitably get to know each other. Among the many new things learned, the performer helps the driver write expressive letters to his wife, while the driver exposes the performer to the music of Little Richard, Chubby Checker and Aretha Franklin via the car radio. The musician doesn’t know the music. “Come on, doc,” states Tony. “These are your people!

There’s a lot of good humor along the way. When Tony tells the musician that his wife even bought the doctor’s album, Orphans, the one with the cover of the kids sitting around a campfire, Dr. Shirley has to tell the driver that its correct title is Orpheus In the Underworld and that those children are really demons. “Must’ve been naughty kids,” responds Tony.

But as you’d expect, and as the doctor knew, there’s repulsive conflict on the road involving a bar beating in Kentucky, an arrest by racist cops in Tennessee, and the indignity of having to use a decrepit outhouse instead of a regular bathroom at a venue in North Carolina, even though the doctor is the guest of honor. And that’s just for starters. But the man’s ability to play is superb. “He doesn’t play like a colored boy,” Tony writes with admiration in another letter to his wife. “He plays like Liberace, only better.”

When a film states that what you’re about to see is a true story, generally that’s what occurs. When it says it’s based on a true story, you know there’s fiction along the way. Green Book says it’s inspired by a true story. Usually, that’s an indication of a story with an authentic premise but showing events that have little to do with actual occurrences. Yet, even though Green Book is an inspiration and the last fifteen minutes or so in the Orange Bar and Grill and the Christmas Eve reunion feel way too neat in the way a writer would tidy up all narrative loose ends to conclude on a fictional crowd-pleasing, hugs and kisses note, the screenplay was co-written by Tony’s real-life son Nick Vallelonga. Even the family members back at Tony’s house keeping guard on Delores while Tony is away were played by his real-life family members.

The dialog crackles. Almost everything Mortensen’s Tony says is both honest and often extremely funny. His delight of seeing a billboard for Kentucky Fried Chicken while in the actual state is priceless. “When’s that ever gonna happen!” he cheerfully declares. And when he writes to his wife about the spaghetti he’s eating at a diner somewhere in Indiana he describes its taste as ketchup on a plate of Chinese noodles. Plus, the performances of Mortensen and Ali are truly Oscar noteworthy, while Linda Cardellini in the supporting role of Delores is thoroughly engaging.

Though the shame of what the film depicts is all ours, and there’s probable cause to believe there’s a far more serious drama to be made of how ugly things really were for the two, Green Book remains a hugely entertaining crowd-pleaser of that time on the road with two men who went on to become lifelong friends, despite all polarizing cultural differences. And there’s just enough of the oncoming Christmas holiday depicted in the final act to warrant a Thanksgiving and seasonal end of the year release.

MPAA Rating: PG-13          Length: 130 Minutes

Posted in Film

Overlord – Film Review

Julius Avery may get the directing credit, but when it comes to marketing the action-adventure/horror with a WWII setting, one set for release on Veterans Day weekend, it’s the star producer’s name you’ll hear. With a solid reputation for creating, writing, developing, and often directing high-profile action thrillers, little wonder it’s J.J. Abrams at the forefront of publicity for Overlord. Look at the poster.  It’s right at the top. Makes perfect sense.

It’s June 1944. With D-Day about to be launched, a team of American paratroopers flies across the English Channel with a specific mission. They’re to drop into Nazi-occupied France, locate a certain church in a small French village and destroy the tower. There’s a radio transmitter at the top that’s blocking messages. The men have until 06:00 to get it done.

Beginning with both the Paramount Pictures and the Bad Robot Productions logos presented in black and white, including the opening moments of the film itself, knowing things start just ahead of D-Day and the allied Normandy Invasion, the look of the widescreen, colorless image evokes an immediate memory of The Longest Day and how we often recall seeing pictures taken during the second world war; in black and white. But as credits begin, color soon bleeds in.

No sooner has the plane reached the French shoreline when firing from German guns below begins. In a breathtakingly startling sequence, explosions, firebombs, and bullets rip through the plane’s fuselage, killing most of the paratroopers and causing the plane to nosedive, crashing a distance away from the target landing. Those few that survive eventually meet up, group together, and with the help of a local French woman scavenging for anything she can find in the nearby woods, make their way to where they think the village and tower is.

At this point, having helplessly watched their sergeant machine-gunned by the Germans, the guys turn to explosives expert Corporal Ford (Wyatt Russell) to assume command. When hothead paratrooper Tibbet (John Magaro) insists on getting revenge on the sarge’s murder, the no-nonsense Ford pulls him back with orders to stay focused. “The sergeant wasn’t the mission,” he insists. “We’ve gotta get that tower down by oh-six hundred.”

But something weird is going on. The first sign is the discovery of a body that looks as though it was set on fire in the woods. It could be an animal or it could be human. It’s difficult to tell. “I can see an eye,” says Tibbet. The second sign is in the village by the church and its tower. The young French woman (Mathilde Ollivier) hides the troopers in her attic, a home she shares with her little brother and her aunt. But the aunt is not well, and she’s hidden away in her room where she can be heard wheezing and hacking. Looking at the woman through a crack in the open door, Private Boyce (Jovan Adepo) can’t quite make out what he’s seeing, but whatever it is, it’s enough to startle and make him gasp. At a quick glance, the aunt looks as though she might possess the worst case of leprosy on record. And for anyone who knows their genre, it looks more as though the woman might actually be mutating. “She hasn’t spoken since she came back from the church,” the young French woman explains.

If you’ve seen the trailer, there’ll be little to follow that’s going to surprise. In a matter of a few promotional seconds, it’s amazing how so much information, things usually associated with being plot-spoilers, is revealed. Once you’ve seen the teasers, you’ve pretty much seen the film. If you haven’t, avoid clips and trailers as much as possible. And as far as a synopsis in a review goes, let’s just say, with a well-documented history of medical experiments performed on prisoners by psychotic German doctors and scientists, something rotten is going on in the basement below the church, involving suspicious looking serums administered with long pointy syringes, and dead bodies. As the villainous Nazi officer Wafner states, “Germany will have an invincible army.”

The episode inside the plane as the bodies of paratroopers are ripped apart by gunfire or burnt alive by firebombs is unexpected and shocking in its execution. It’s like being slapped repeatedly in the face out of nowhere and stunned into silence by someone you didn’t even know was there. The realism is overwhelming, worthy of any serious telling of a WWII real-life tale, but made all the more surprising knowing that the film you’re watching is really a fantasy horror adventure. Since the filming of that shockingly realistic and abrupt battle of Normandy opening sequence as presented twenty years ago in Saving Private Ryan, there’s no soft-peddling the presentation of war for audiences any longer, even in a fantasy.

As events and the horror elements develop – as if the real-life fright of plunging headfirst into a war isn’t horrifying enough – the film becomes more graphically violent and brutal. Despite the realism of that opening sequence in the skies and Boyce’s all too real and thoroughly scary parachute jump, there’s a large dose of midnight-movie cult favorite fun about the film, conveyed by the dismayed paratroopers as they come across one what-the-hell moment after another. That is to say, at first. But unless you’re a hardcore horror aficionado and revel in the borderline obscenity of in-your-face gore, what might have seemed fun starts turning sour. Sights and scenes that would have shocked an earlier generation and had them fainting in the aisles – remember how The Exorcist actually had first-aid paramedics on alert at some theatres? – are nothing compared with Overlord. Even something as straightforward as an interrogation of a Nazi is depicted as an act of over-the-top brutality.

In the end, it’s all escapism, albeit exceptionally chaotically violent escapism with emphasis on the gore. With its tale of re-animation, villainous Nazis (including one who even has the nerve to spit on an American baseball), and beyond-the-call-of-duty heroism by a small band of American paratroopers on foreign soil, fans of fantasy horror should be satisfied. Though one thing: releasing the film on a weekend that in England is Remembrance Day and in America is Veteran’s Day, a time for honoring the fallen and the brave who gave their lives in the real war, is questionable. Its teenage audience and followers of horror presumably won’t give it a second thought, but older audiences might. The studio could receive some flak. It’s possible. There have already been reports. Don’t be surprised if you read a generic PR statement saying it meant no disrespect and that Overload was timed to honor the brave men and women who fought and died. If the film was, say, A Bridge Too Far, that would be fine. But Overlord? That’s pushing it.

MPAA Rating: R    Length: 109 Minutes

Posted in Film

On Your Feet! – Theatre Review, National Touring Production, ASU Gammage, Tempe

After a successful two-year run in New York and a hugely popular international production in The Netherlands, the national touring production of the jukebox musical On Your Feet! the biographical story of Gloria and Emilio Estefan, hit the road last year and arrives in Tempe with a burst of explosive high-energy, backed by a kaleidoscopic array of ever flashing color at ASU Gammage, playing now until November 11.

Beginning with an on-stage 1990 performance, the set reverses and we’re immediately backstage as Gloria (a vivacious Christie Prades, just as she should be) readies herself to join the dancers and musicians. Underlining the show’s theme of family and its importance no matter where you are or what you’re doing, Gloria’s young son, Nayib is told to stop peering at the concert from the wings and go do his homework. When dad, Emilio (Ektor Rivera) complains that he’s already told his boy three times to do the same thing yet it only took his mother the once for the child to obey, Gloria responds with humor, “It’s the accent.”

From there, with the use of on-screen projections and scenic designer David Rockwell’s tall, moving panels that slide both on and off stage and occasionally rotate, plus some split-second timing from the performers themselves, the show flashbacks to a younger Gloria, singing, playing the guitar, and recording a tape for her father.

Like the cinematic technique of a fade in/fade out, a moving panel dissolves the girl from sight almost as soon as we’ve seen her, and she’s gone. But her voice continues on the tape that her father (Eddie Noel) is listening to while serving a tour in sixties Vietnam. “Hearing your voice is like having you next to me,” he says. Then, no sooner have we arrived, we’re gone again. The projected backscreen of a dull gray Vietnam setting changes to the bright, colorful backdrop of a vibrant Little Havana neighborhood of Miami where Gloria, now older and doing the chores, lives with her mother (Nancy Ticotin) and her grandmother (Alma Cuervo). At this point, her father is housebound, continuing his battle with Multiple Sclerosis.

Once the leader of a local band, Emilio Estefan, arrives asking Gloria if she’d like to tryout and sing with the guys at a rehearsal, the story takes flight at a breathless pace, jumping from conflict to conflict almost as fast as those opening scenes of the flashback to Gloria as a child, to Vietnam, and back again to Miami. There’s a lot to get through. First, there’s the need for a hesitant Gloria, a psychology major, to overcome her resistance to being under a spotlight. Plus, her mother, for reasons later revealed, is not so keen on her daughter following a musical career. But the hugely likable figure of grandma sees things in a different light. “This is what you are meant to do,” she tells the seventeen-year-old girl, “Only you don’t know it yet.” And, of course, grandma is right.

The show’s first half covers all the ups and downs of the band as they try to get radio airplay, something they do by going personally from station to station making deals. “It’s not about the sales,” Emilio insists. “It’s about the exposure.”

The second half covers their biggest conflict; the devastating collision of the band’s tour bus with a truck during a snowstorm in Pennsylvania. “Will she walk again?” asks Emilio of the doctors once it’s revealed that Gloria’s back is broken and that she might not survive the nine-hour surgery.

The Estefan catalog of songs is used in two ways – in performance and as an emotional backdrop in the narrative. When the band performs Rhythm is Gonna Get You or Conga, it’s on a stage in front of a crowd, making the Gammage audience not only viewers but players in the show.  When a song is part of the story, Don’t Wanna Lose You is a heartfelt number sung by Emilio at Gloria’s bedside when he fears her life is in danger.

Curiously, some of Gloria’s biggest hits of the eighties, Bad Boy, Words Get in the Way, and Falling in Love (Uh-Oh) are missing, which at first seems peculiar, particularly knowing how huge they were. You’d think they would be an essential part of the biographical tale. But, thinking again, maybe not so curious. Unlike, say, Mamma Mia! where a whole scene might be created to conclude with a specific Abba hit, On Your Feet! is based around real-life moments. In keeping with the Latin-flavored crossover songs of the in-performance scenes where two styles of music combine to underline the meeting of two cultures, those missing FM-friendlies wouldn’t work.  And in the narrative, there’d be no place where the quirky Bad Boy or a catchy Falling in Love (Uh-Oh) would fit.  In the end, there was nowhere to put them.

Writer Alexander Dinelaris’ book is heavily fragmented in the story’s telling, and the conflicts with a band trying to get its musical career off the ground are not altogether that remarkable. The accents, the immigration background, and the Miami setting certainly make things appear fresh, but the conflicts themselves can’t overcome the notion of familiarity; it’s like seeing things you think you’ve seen before but in a different, less spirited setting. The first half, while always full of life, fabulous choreography by Sergio Trujillo, and all scenes moving from one to another at breakneck speed, goes through the motions. It’s in the second half with the conflicts of the horrendous crash and the relationship with Gloria’s mother plus the reasons behind the woman’s constant refusal to support her daughter’s career where the show finds its own individual footing.

The show may end with Gloria’s triumphant re-appearance on stage at the American Music Awards, but in reality, the Estefan story hasn’t stopped. Success continues, even now. There was the Greatest Hits CD, Gloria’s teaming up with Jon Secada’s on his hit Just Another Day, the enormously successful Christmas Through Your Eyes CD, and her Spanish language album Mi Tierra. And that’s just the tip of the ever-developing iceberg. The jukebox musical itself has its own behind-the-scenes story to tell with more international productions planned, and a London West End opening due next summer at the prestigious London Coliseum.

After a night at ASU Gammage in Tempe, if there’s one thing you leave knowing about the Estefans it’s that Gloria and Emilio did things their way. They had to. There was no choice. Without their relentless insistence, there would never have been a Miami Sound Machine, and there would never have been an internationally successful career. Which is why it’s no surprise to learn just how involved they were with the Latin-flavored pop/rock musical that tells the story of their lives. It was their idea, their pitch to Broadway, and their approval on how things would be done. The slickly efficient production may not be for all followers of musical theatre, but it’s certainly one for the fans of Gloria Estefan, the same ones who sent all that adoring mail and that mountain of red roses to the singer after she was flown to NYC for emergency spinal surgery. On Your Feet! is exactly what they want.

On Your Feet! continues at ASU Gammage in Tempe until. Sunday, November 11

Picture Courtesy of Matthew Murphy

Posted in Theatre

Lez Bomb – Film Review

After a successful run to full houses on the film festival circuit, most notably at the Bentonville Film Festival where it premiered and won the jury award, Gravitas Ventures acquired the North American rights to the coming out comedy Lez Bomb. The film, written, directed, and starring Jenna Laurenzo is now set for a wider theatrical release, giving mainstream audiences around the country the chance to see what worked so well earlier this year at the festivals.

For the past three years, Lauren (Jenna Laurenzo) has shared an apartment with Austin (Brandon Micheal Hall). But they’re not partners. They’re friends. They share the apartment and they split the rent. That’s it. Lauren is in a relationship with Hailey (Caitlin Mehner) and it’s clear that after six months of being together, things are serious. Serious enough for Lauren to decide that it’s time to come clean with her family and finally drop the lez bomb. With Hailey by her side, Lauren intends to let everyone in the family know that she’s gay. And with the holidays approaching when everyone will be together, now’s the perfect time to do it. Sounds like a plan.

Had this been a drama, Lauren’s well-conceived idea to announce what needs to be told would have occurred from the outset. The closeted young woman would have called for everyone’s attention, the family would have listened, Lauren would have taken a deep breath, perhaps she would have held Hailey’s hand for support, then said what she needed to say. But this is a comedy. More specifically, it’s a farcical family comedy. Had things gone the way Lauren planned, there would have been no film. At least, not the one director Laurenzo intended to make. In this one, no one listens.

It’s Thanksgiving. Mom (Deirdre O’Connell) is getting the food ready in the kitchen while waiting for everyone to turn up. “I want grandchildren,” she declares while inspecting the turkey, though probably no one heard her. Lauren’s relatives, like many regular families at a holiday get-together, all speak at the same time. They half-hear things while immediately jumping to conclusions, and everyone has a comment. And they never stick to one topic. Conversations leap from one subject to another at the drop of a new remark. They’re not exactly dysfunctional in the way we often consider the word to mean; they’re maladaptive. In other words, they’re like most normal families: they hear what they want and make assumptions based on what they thought they heard, which basically means they’re always getting the wrong idea.

Trying to let everyone know that she’s in a serious relationship is bad enough when everyone thinks she’s talking about Austin, her roommate, but matters for Lauren spiral out of control when her roommate makes a surprise appearance. “What are you doing here?” Lauren demands. “You’re parents invited me,” Austin replies.

Lez Bomb’s comedy is constructed like a French farce without the revolving doors. People talk of one thing when thought to be talking of something else, assumptions are always wrong, identities are mistaken, and characters lie to cover up things they didn’t mean to say in the first place. And everyone has something to say, usually at the wrong time. And like the best of farces, the truth is revealed in the final segment, even if you have no idea how it’ll get there, and it all ends on an upbeat, positive note. Plus, it’s very funny. But it’s the kind of humor best enjoyed when shared with others in a packed house, the kind where laughter begets laughter.

Like a TV sit-com that needs that studio or canned laughter to add atmosphere and to prompt a viewer when to laugh, in Lez Bomb, the same joke with the same delivery that had a packed film festival house roaring might get a lesser response when seen alone in the home or in a theatre with a small attendance, completely altering the viewer’s perspective. Ask any actor in a live show where on one night, an audience might fall about in continuous laughter, and yet on another night, that same play with the same lines might receive no response at all, making the whole affair seem like a completely different play. Lez Bomb’s style of gentle wit delivered at a fast pace falls into that category.

In fact, Laurenzo’s screenplay has all the framework of a live play where it might work better. Act One would take place at mom and dad’s house, while Act Two, after an intermission, would move the action to the motel that mom and dad own. Watching these characters and all the misunderstandings established in the first half, culminating with everything falling apart then characters finally getting it and making up in the second is pure theatre. It’s as if writer Laurenzo adapted her own original play and expanded it for cinema.

Ironically, the film’s most effective single moment has no humor at all. It’s where Lauren and Hailey’s relationship is on the verge of falling apart. Without the laughs or the mistaken character assumptions, the scene is played for real, and it works extremely well, indicating that as a writer and a filmmaker, comedy may not be Lorenzo’s only genre of storytelling.

What works overall is how easily identifiable the characters are. “Do you think she’s pregnant?” asks mom still under the assumption that her daughter is in a relationship with the roommate. “Where’s my sharpener?” responds dad (Kevin Pollak) holding the kitchen knife. They’re not exactly relatable, they just seem as though they are in the way you view a comedy and say, “That’s just like my family.” And that’s the strength of the film; everyone is likable, played by an equally likable cast with several recognizable faces, including Cloris Leachman, Bruce Dern, and Steve Guttenberg.  Though the most likable of all is its lead, Jenna Laurenzo.

There’s a heartfelt speech that Lorenzo’s character, Lauren makes to Hailey in the final moments. If anyone finds themselves in a similar situation and needs to make up but can’t find the right words, memorize Lorenzo’s dialog. It’s perfect and it’ll work every time.

MPAA Rating: NR     For VOD: TV-14     Length: 90 Minutes

The film opens in Phoenix Friday, November 9th exclusively at AMC Arizona Center 24.

Posted in Film

The Girl in the Spider’s Web – Film Review

If you go into The Girl in the Spider’s Web without knowledge of the original Lisbeth Salander novels by Stieg Larsson, you never saw the Swedish movie trilogy based on the novels, and you can’t recall the 2015 American remake with Daniel Craig and Rooney Mara, then there’s a good chance you’ll enjoy this adventure. It’s taut, slick, and like most thrillers, full of high-tech gadgetry and breathless if implausible last second escapes.

However, if you’re familiar with the books, the Swedish films, and you’re well aware of Salander and her journalist partner, Mikael Blomkvist, then you’re going to wonder, what on earth were they thinking? The girl who hurts men who hurts women is not what she was, and neither is her story.

Since author Larson passed away in 2004 having completed only three of his intended ten book series, clearly there were more stories to tell. Author David Lagercrantz wrote a new fourth installment, it’s original Swedish title being That Which Does Not Kill Us, but changed to The Girl in the Spider’s Web for English language readers, which, from a commercial angle, makes perfect sense. It was a best seller, but again, those who read Lagercrantz’s book are going to be somewhat surprised by how it’s adapted for the screen. It’s quite the departure.

This new story picks up where the original three ended, though Hollywood is calling it a sequel to the 2015 remake but without its cast, ignoring the events of parts 2 and 3. None of that really matters. Spider’s Web is so different in tone and style that it’s really a stand-alone thriller.

Things begin well. After an opening credit sequence that resembles the stylistic Bond titles – not so much the earlier Maurice Binder designs but from the more recent sheen-polished Daniel Craig reboots – Salander (Claire Foy) is fulfilling her role as the girl with the dragon tattoo who seeks revenge on abusive men. She’s found one; a guy who beats his wife. After stringing him up by his ankles, she transfers twenty percent of his bank account to two prostitutes he beat sometime earlier with the remainder going to his wife and child. It’s a good, satisfying sequence, and it feels in line with what we know about Lisbeth Salander. It’s just the kind of thing we want to see her doing. “I just want to say, thank you,” says a female voice overheard on a radio call-in.

But then, the real story starts, and we’re suddenly thrust into a world of spies, government agents, organized crime syndicates, ruthless villains, and a piece of missile-controlling software called Firewall where a single user would be imbued with a God-like power, something Blofeld would have killed for.

And that’s the thing. Ernst Stavro Blofeld of the Bond novels and films really would have gone after this practically impenetrable program to hold the world at ransom. But those stories are told with humor and a sense of heightened reality. Salander’s tales are in the real world; here there’s little to laugh at. Turning Larsson’s anti-heroine into a Jane Bond on a motorbike doesn’t feel right. Had Daniel Craig returned as the journalist instead of Swedish actor Sverrir Gudnason, with all the Bond-styled shenanigans occurring, presumably Barbara Broccoli would have been none too happy.

While Claire Foy makes a fine Salander – she’s all the more remarkable when you consider that this is the same actor who recently played Neil Armstrong’s wife in First Man and Queen Elizabeth II in the Netflix series The Crown – the script calls for her to jump, leap, kick, punch, and run around at such a breakneck speed for most of the film, there’s no room for any level of character study. It’s all about keeping those launch codes out of the hands of a maniac while frantically typing faster than the speed of light to find instant answers in lieu of any real detective work. Plus Salander, with the aid of tracking devices, cell phones, laptops, and anything else that has a keyboard, manages to trap her prey in ways so incredibly well-timed, there’s no possible way she could have found the time to plan or predict a person’s movement so thoroughly as she does here. In Bond’s quirky world, sure; as Salander, heck no.

There’s a moment when Salander finally faces her psychopathic sister, Camilla (Sylvia Hoeks). Tears are shed by both parties as they reflect on the sadness and regrets of their pasts, but while the film may want you to think it’s adding depth, you don’t buy it for a second. Camilla is such a ruthless, brutal killer – she just tried to murder Salander in a most sadistic manner involving a kinky looking black rubber vacuum device – that having them suddenly share an emotional moment of family intimacy amounts to nothing more than an are-you-kidding-me? moment.

Had this same film changed the names of the characters, removed the tattoos, and called it something closer to the book’s original title, this might have seemed a perfectly okay, if regular, high-tech thriller, which is why those going in with no prior knowledge should have a good time at the movies. But with Lisbeth Salander at its center, it’s like accidentally bumping into someone you haven’t seen for a few years, looking her up and down and thinking, what the hell happened to you?

MPAA Rating: R     Length: 117 Minutes

Posted in Film

The Girl Who Swallowed a Cactus – Childsplay; Herberger Theater Center, Phoenix

For its 2018/19 season opener, Childsplay chose a favorite, Charlotte’s Web. As a followup, the company has gone with something completely different. It’s an Arizona premiere. In fact, it’s a world premiere, a one-woman show by Eric Coble featuring Kate Haas who tells the tale of The Girl Who Swallowed a Cactus. And she does. The girl really does swallow a cactus. But there’s a lot that happens before that cactus eating moment arrives and it’s Haas whose on hand to tell everyone about it.

The setting is a desert area junkyard, courtesy of scenic designer Jeff Thompson. It’s a place full of bits and bobs; a motley collection of abandoned artifacts, some rusty, some not. On their own, they amount to nothing at all, but with a little imagination and lots of enthusiasm, when carefully assembled and slotted together, they can resemble anything you want. In the case of the play, the pieces can become the front of a vehicle, or a monument, a pair of stilts, and best of all, a fortress castle tree house in which the soon-to-be-introduced gang of five can play.

Kate is credited as playing Dust Cloud. At least, that’s her nickname. Like many of the play’s reveals, the real name will come later. But that’s not important. The important thing is, Dust Cloud has a tale of the desert to tell and she’s thrilled to see that everyone has turned up to hear it. Down the road, she’ll eventually need our help, but it comes with an explanation. “You’ve got to understand what you’re getting into,” she tells us, and the story begins.

Told with all the ebullience of a wide-eyed fifth grader who has so much to say she can’t wait to blurt it out, Dust Cloud proceeds with the story of eight-year-old Sheila, a young girl so bright “… You can get a suntan from just standing in front of her.”

As Haas proceeds with the story, she’s constantly on the move, picking up and choosing pieces of left-overs laying around that might help with the telling of the tale. And she builds. She’s a storytelling junkyard Caractacus Potts. And as she builds she introduces us to the rest of the gang who’ll be a part of Sheila’s oncoming desert adventure, one that promises to include “… Jaw dropping excitement of terror and wonder,” adding, “It’s true. I know. I because I was there. Well, sorta.”

First, there was Dennis, a boy who was as strong as three third-graders put together. Then there was Leon, the possessor of the cleverest hands and fingers you’ll ever meet. And finally, the twins. “They must have had names, but no one knew what it was,” Dust Cloud explains, though they’re referred to as Eager and Shy.

It’s summer and there’s no school. In the case of the five, there’s also no summer camp, and no parents around to tell them what to do. They’re left alone with just their imaginations. Nearby is that disheveled area that Sheila’s mom observed was full of nothing but useless junk. But Sheila saw something else. She saw the makings of a city that needed to be built. So with the help of Dennis, Leon and the twins, they build. And the best part of the day was the desert sunset period when the purple sky turned to black. “And that’s the moment when everything changed!” Dust Cloud announces.

From there, the story takes an unexpected, surreal turn, and that’s where the real theme of writer Coble’s play begins. A coyote turns up. But not on all fours, sniffing around. This one drives a truck. And when the children hide among the artifacts they’ve built, they see that the coyote can walk on two legs, plus it wears cowboy boots and even sunglasses, “At night!” Dust Cloud declares, adding, “The twins may or may not have pee’d at this point.”

What follows is a tale of what’s required when humans encroach on land populated by animals, and what can happen when animals emerge and roam on newly built land populated by humans. There’s only one answer; we need to work together. And it’s Sheila and her crew with several surprises along the way that show us how it can be done.

Eric Coble’s script is a good one and succeeds well in creating that sense of wide-eyed playfulness and imagination. It’s clear his memories of what it’s like to be a child remain. But the play’s overall theme doesn’t come across as effectively as you might hope. The meaning should be obvious to an adult, but a child might not grasp it’s full implications, even though the five children within the story spell it out, followed by a summary from its narrator. Mom and dad may need to go over why it is that the coyote in the cowboy boots and the sunglasses has an issue with the humans.

The play is presented in collaboration with Metro Theater Company in Saint Louis as a Rolling World Premiere. Later next year, the Missouri based company will present its own production, but while the play and its presentation will be essentially the same, there’s an advantage the valley has that Saint Louis does not: Kate Haas. The play is an entrancing 60 minutes brought alive under director Debra K. Stevens’ guidance with a performance from Kate that is constantly full of surprises. She moves and talks with such an uninterrupted, boundless energy it’s like watching an actor having an hour-long workout. You’re breathless just watching her. And with a change of voice and an adjustment of stance, she makes the characters of the five children so vivid that at the final fade out you half expect to have Sheila, Dennis, Leon, and the twins take a bow along with Kate.

If you remember to do this, take a short break and glance around you. There’s nothing so satisfying as seeing a theatre full of children whose faces show how mesmerized they are as they hang on to every word Dust Cloud tells them. And they’re concerned. When our narrator climbed some shaky looking rungs on a ladder, a young girl seated nearby whispered into her father’s ear, “I don’t think she’s safe up there.”

And as for that swallowing of a cactus, it happens. She really eats a cactus. But during the ten minute Q&A with the cast that always follows a Childsplay production, raise your hand and ask Kate how it’s done. Like Penn & Teller who’ve made a career of revealing their tricks, Kate will be only too happy to pull the curtain back and reveal a moment of theatre magic. It’s quite impressive.

The Girl Who Swallowed a Cactus continues at Herberger Theater Center until November 18

Pictures Courtesy of Tim Trumble

Posted in Theatre