San Andreas – Film Review

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Remember those L.A. buildings and historic landmarks that spectacularly crashed and burned when the world was coming to an end in 2012?  They crash and burn again.  Unlike that earlier disaster flick that presented its earthquakes globally, as the title of the new disaster suggests, San Andreas concentrates on California.  The rest of the country will feel it, plus there’s always a chance that Yuma, Arizona may suddenly possess beach front property, but the action this time is solely within state.

After an impressive opening where a young girl’s vehicle is hit by falling debris on a Californian mountain roadside – the car’s flip and plunge is particularly harrowing – we’re introduced to Chief Ray Gaines (Dwayne Johnson), an ex-military pilot now flying search and rescue helicopters for the L.A. Fire Department.  Once he rescues the girl from her car a fraction of a second before it finally falls all the way – nobody is rescued with seconds to spare anymore; now it’s always a fraction of a second – we cut to Cal Tech seismologist Lawrence (Paul Giamatti), and he’s not happy about those quakes by the Hoover Dam, particularly as its an area where there are supposed to be no fault lines.  With regards to the big one that he predicts will follow, he earnestly states, “It’s not a matter of if.  It’s a matter of when.”

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What follows is just as the trailer showed.  Los Angeles is hit by a massive quake; not just your regular, earth splitting tremor with some damage here and there, but a monstrous, end-of-the-world catastrophe where skyscrapers topple, flyovers collapse and there is literally nowhere to run.  As you would expect – and as the trailer that contains most of the money shots and the rescue surprises show – the CGI effects are spectacular; the bigger the screen, the better.

But despite the updated ability to present disasters in a way that the makers of The Poseidon Adventure, The Towering Inferno or even Earthquake could never imagine, the character makeup is pretty much the same.  Had San Andreas appeared on screens during the seventies when disaster movies were the fashion and developed into the new style epic, you can imagine the poster.  In a row, each character would have had a boxed profile shot with a brief description of their conflicts and character traits printed below.  Posters no longer do that, but the style continues on screen.  Even though countless millions will perish along the fault line, the film concentrates on just a small group of characters, each with a conflict or flaw that will add to the tension of their survival.

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Johnson’s pilot receives his divorce papers.  He’s still married to Emma (Carla Gugino), but Emma is about to marry a successful millionaire whose company builds (gulp) skyscrapers.  Then there’s the gorgeous daughter, Blake (Alexandra Daddario) who has a special relationship with dad but is forced to fly to San Francisco with her potential step-father.  There’s also the issue of another daughter who previously died in a river raft accident, an event that continues to haunt the family, particularly as dad watched her drown and was unable to save her.  Will the pilot and his wife reunite?  Will the daughter survive San Francisco and a tense underwater scene that echoes the fate of her departed sister?  Will the potential step-father turn out to be a Richard Chamberlain type weasel in need of a come-uppance?  You bet, but unlike those earlier seventies disasters where character conflicts and special effects went hand in hand, in San Andreas it’s the dazzling effects and action that matters; that other stuff about families sticking together are merely hurdles that get in the way of watching buildings crash, cars demolish, highways crack, and gigantic tidal waves wash everything away.

When Roland Emmerich made 2012, his intention was to film the disaster movie to end disaster movies.  He threw everything in.  He also made it intentionally funny.  Knowing only too well the absurdity of it all, 2012 had its disasters presented with straight-faced humor and a cast of several way larger-than-life characters as they made their way through Emmerich’s over-the-top mayhem.  San Andreas, with all of its crumbling towers, looks like 2012 but it’s just like the seventies when it comes to characters.  These people are playing it straight.  “What are we going to do?” asks mom after surviving another hair-raising moment.  “We’re gonna get our daughter,” replies dad with steely determination, and when it’s all over, the dust has settled and fires are slowing burning out, dad surveys the scene, sees the stars and stripes flapping in the wind and states as if speaking for all mankind, “Now we rebuild.”

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The important thing is, audiences who enjoy disaster movies will enjoy the surprisingly bloodless San Andreas as much as any previous adventure from this genre, perhaps even more considering how well effects now appear, and, let’s face it, that’s what they’re going for.  The giant container ship raised by a tsunami and thrown at the Golden Gate Bridge is as impressively spectacular as it gets.  The film nicely affirms once and for all the hulking Dwayne Johnson as a leading man movie star, and Alexandra Daddario may finally get some big screen attention, but in the end, no one’s going for the soap opera and no one will care; it’s the wide screen spectacle that matters and in that area San Andreas undeniably delivers.

MPAA Rating:  PG-13     Length:  123 Minutes    Overall Rating:  7 (out of 10)

Posted in Film

Aloha – Film Review

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It’s difficult not to mention a couple of things at the outset when reviewing Cameron Crowe’s romantic comedy-drama Aloha.  First, there’s the issue of native Hawaiians.  According to reports, many are insulted by the use of the film’s title.  Calling it Aloha has stirred resentment.  As reported by Access Hollywood, the use of the word in this manner shows a disrespectful misappropriation of culture, not to mention that something so rich with meaning should become so simplified.  That’s one of the issues.

Then, whether Sony likes to be reminded of it or not, there’re those hacked e-mails. Internal work memos in almost any other industry would be of little concern to the general public – as long as everything is legal, how organizations run things is generally up to them – but the movie biz is something different; we all know the employees.  Discovering that industry execs considered the film wrong from the start doesn’t help the already fragile ego of a filmmaker.  Then, that criticism becomes worse when systems are hacked and private memos become public.  No one is seen in a good light.

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So sensitive has the issue of Aloha become that an embargo on reviews was put in to place.  No one could print an opinion until just before the film opened.  If you’ve tried a Google search for an advanced word, forget it; there’s nothing there.  But that hasn’t stopped the Internet trolls.  Some have expressed negative comments in social media, and others have even condemned the movie, which is all odd when you consider one thing: other than those Sony execs whose job it is to watch early prints and give opinions on how their money was spent, no one else has actually seen it.  Until now.

Bradley Cooper is Brian Gilcrest, ex-military now a civilian defense contractor who is employed by multi-millionaire eccentric Carson Welch (Bill Murray, still nutty) to oversee the launch of a communications satellite from Hawaii.  Or, we think it’s a communications satellite. There’s a murky feel to what Brian is actually doing there, particularly when he checks in to a for-your-eyes-only page and spies something else suspiciously attached to the plans for the on-coming rocket launch.

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But that’s not the focus; that’s the reason to get the character to Hawaii. The main thing is the love triangle, or perhaps more accurately, the flirty triangle, between Brian, an ex-girlfriend living on the island now married with children and an ever curious air force pilot assigned by the military to watch over Brian and escort him every step of the way.  The ex is Tracy (Rachel McAdams) and the pilot is Captain Allison Ng (Emma Stone).

Being a Cameron Crowe film, music and pop culture references become integral in supporting emotions or highlighting events, thus in a flashback when Brian talks of his childhood and how he looked to the stars and “Saw the future, and it belonged to me,” The Who’s I can See For Miles plays gently in the background.  Christmas on the island is established with Elvis’ Blue Christmas, and Rachel McAdams’ youngest has a poster of Jane Fonda’s Barbarella on his bedroom wall alongside the maps of stars and planets.  Plus, when Alec Baldwin as U.S. Air Force General Dixon explains to Brian that nowadays what was once a private, governmental operation, such as a rocket launch, could now be financed by anyone, he states, “If Ke$ha wanted to fund and launch, she could.”  Teenagers are one thing, but adults interested in a Bradley Cooper romance will have no clue who Ke$ha is, and neither, I suspect, would General Dixon.

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The dialog, while often amusing, as in several of the bickering exchanges between Brain and his ever ebullient air force minder, Emma Stone, never once has the ring of truth.  When they speak, characters talk as they would on the page of a novel, sounding as though written by someone who had only written books but never the more natural flow of a play or a movie script.  On the other extreme, there’s also a wordless exchange between Brain and his ex’s nice guy husband, John (John Krasinski) as they silently nod at each other and give reassuring shoulder grips while subtitles below explain what they’re communicating.  It’s a funny moment, and anywhere else it might be good, creative comedy, but somehow within the context of the film it still doesn’t work.  In a different and more obviously comedic movie, yes, but here where Aloha is grounded in the real world, the moment doesn’t fit.

But if there’s one thing that all Crowe movies have is heart.  Despite its narrative faults – and, really, you won’t believe any of it, neither the characters nor the situations – it does have heart and it expresses its feelings well.  Emma Stone is hugely likable as the ever curious Air Force pilot with Hawaiian family connections, and it’s her character more than anyone that draws your focus.  It’s a sure thing from the beginning that Cooper’s Brian needs to be with her, but we have to go through the motions of the contractor exorcising his feelings for the equally likable McAdams before fulfilling the obvious.  Audiences should also be grateful for finally seeing a film where characters and not effects are the driving force.

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As for being disrespectful to Hawaiian culture, for an outsider who has never been there – and that’s the majority of us – that’s a difficult one.  On the surface, to most, it won’t appear so, but then again, most of us are not Hawaiian.  If anything, the film seems to go out of its way to acknowledge home-grown resentment.  At one point, during property negotiations, a Hawaiian chief states that the islands may be in America but they’re under military occupation.  Plus, Emma Stone’s character absolutely loves everything Hawaiian and fully embraces her heritage, the ethnicity and the way of life.  If anything, Aloha actually paints a positive picture of a wonderful part of the world.  After seeing this, who wouldn’t want to live there?

In the end, the film with its romance, its tropical setting and the Christmas decorations that have nothing to do with the season, or the story for that matter, is the big screen equivalent of getting lost for a few hours in an involving though unlikely paperback novel on the beach during vacation.  That’s the forum where these characters, their dialog and their conflicts work best.  Perhaps Cameron Crowe should have written a book.

MPAA Rating:  PG-13   Length:  105 Minutes    Overall Rating:  6 (out of 10)

Posted in Film

Sold – Special Report: Film Review

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In a recent interview with Danette Wolpert , the founder and Executive Director of the four-day Illuminate Film Festival in Sedona, Danette described the opening night film on Thursday, May 28, as extraordinary.  (Click Here to read the full interview)

Based on a well received novel by Patricia McCormick, Sold, directed by Jeffrey D. Brown, follows its source material surprisingly close, with only some minor changes made to its narrative in order to make it work from page to screen.

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To describe the film as entertainment is a difficult call – the theme of a child sold into sexual slavery is hardly a subject to be taken as a way of passing a couple of hours at the movies – but Danette is correct when she describes the film as extraordinary.  Considering what the film’s leading character lives through, and at such a young age, Sold truly is an extraordinary story, not to mention a fitting opening night film for Sedona’s Illuminate Film Festival.

Lakshmi (Niyar Saika) is a thirteen year-old girl living in a village in Nepal with her parents.  “All joy in life comes from giving to others,” her mother tells her daughter.  Then the monsoons come and crops are ruined.  Out of desperation, the father sells Lakshmi to a woman from the city.  The girl is then smuggled out of the country and across the border into India where she is forced into prostitution, presided over by the cruel Mumtaz (Sushmita Mukherjee).

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One of the strengths of the film is how it refuses to shy away from some of the more harrowing moments that happen to the young girl while at the Happiness House, the name given to the grimy, main street brothel in which Lakshmi is forced to work and kept prisoner.  Rapes and beatings occur, yet director Brown doesn’t soften the impact by cutting away.  Instead he focuses on another object in the room while we hear the event.  Thus, when Lakshmi is first raped, we focus instead on the door handle that has closed the area, catching only a distorted glimpse of the unfolding horror as reflected on the surface of the metal.  “From now on it will get easier and easier,” Lakshmi is told, as if those words are meant to comfort.

Surprisingly, despite the horrors, the film manages to incorporate moments of humor.  Lakshmi befriends a young boy who lives at the Happiness House with his working mother.  Unlike the young girl held captive, the soccer-loving boy – referred to in the book as the David Beckham boy – has a semi-normal life; he goes to school each day and has a certain amount of freedom.  When he smuggles in a bottle of coke, Lakshmi and the boy share the drink.  For Lakshmi it’s the first time she has ever tasted soda, and the scene plays out like a light-hearted moment of discovery.  As if acting her age for the first time in a long while, Lakshmi and the boy try to out-burp each other. It’s as though her innocence has returned, if only for a few minutes.

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Hope for Lakshmi’s rescue comes in the form of Gillian Anderson and David Arquette who aid in the exposure of child trafficking.  While posing as a nun from the street below, Anderson takes pictures of the desperate child she spies peering out with tearful eyes from behind the restraining bars in a window of the brothel.  The camera is snatched from Anderson and crushed to the floor, but the woman manages to retrieve the undamaged chip within and transfers the shots of the child to an I-pad.

Running at a trim ninety-three minutes, there’s never a lapse in rhythm.  Sold progresses to its conclusion at a brisk pace as Lakshmi does what she can to survive the trauma, supported by some outstanding widescreen cinematography by Seamus Tierney.  The opening shots of Nepal as the camera sweeps over the mountainous region to Laksmi’s village are breathtaking in their beauty and act as a direct contrast to the nightmarish squalor of Kolkata, India, where Lakshmi will soon be taken.

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Characters talk in English throughout.  In the novel, the young soccer-loving boy volunteers to teach Lakshmi how to speak English in secret, but in the film, considering she’s already doing that, he teaches her how to read and write instead.  It’s understandable why the film would have English as its predominant language – not everyone warms to subtitles – but artistically having characters talk in their native tongue with English spoken only by the Americans would have supported the film’s authenticity further.

The story is fiction, but author McCormick researched her novel thoroughly and based her character’s conflicts on real events.  What you’ll see is shocking, but even more shocking is the knowledge that what you see is also all for real.  Film has the power to move and inspire in ways that the same story, when presented on a different forum, might have a lesser impact; you’re moved when reading about child trafficking from the pages of a book or a newspaper article but the emotional impact achieved by an involving feature film is difficult to equal.   It can change perspective in ways that other forms of story-telling can’t.

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Those going to the opening night showing of Sold at the Illuminate Film Festival should stay after the film’s conclusion for a special Q&A session with the film’s director, Jeffrey D. Brown and one of its stars, Gillian Anderson.  The film may be a harrowing experience but it’s clear that Sold was a labor of love for its makers, a film of great importance with a message and a story that demands to be seen.  Whether it has the potential for a wider release in the multiplexes is difficult to say, but kudos to the Illuminate Film Festival for giving Arizona festival audiences a chance to see Sold for themselves.

For more information regarding times and tickets for Sold and other scheduled showings, CLICK HERE for the official Illuminate Film Festival website,

To read our interview with Danette Wolpert, founder and Executive Director of Sedona’s Illuminate Film Festival, CLICK HERE.

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Posted in Film

Disney’s The Little Mermaid – Theatre Review: Arizona Broadway Theatre, Peoria

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The fun for families, particularly children, when watching Arizona Broadway Theatre’s colorful and expansive musical version of Disney’s The Little Mermaid extends way beyond the stage.

For the Peoria dinner theatre, all productions usually begin and end in the lobby where the theme of any given production is often highlighted with some theatrically connected artifacts in one way or another.  It all adds to the atmosphere of the show.  With The Little Mermaid, entering the ABT building is not unlike entering a Disney theatre in one of the theme parks.  The lobby is decorated with undersea backdrops, netting, and articles retrieved from sunken ships, and in one particularly nice design, as you hand your ticket over, it’s as if you’ve stepped into a small, undersea labyrinth, populated by theatre ushers.  Then you enter the house.

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Throughout your meal as you decide between “Flounder’s Tomato Bisque” or “Scuttle’s Salad” – there’s even Fish & Chips on the menu – the reflective ocean from the curtain drop bathes the theatre in blue.  Even before the show begins, children will love it.  It gives the feel of having spent a magical day in Disneyland and now the evening meal and entertainment is about to begin, and we’re already under the sea.

As for the show itself, the version now licensed for regional theatres is not quite the one that played on Broadway.  Despite running for over a year, the elaborate production never quite took off in the way Disney had hoped.  A new, redesigned show that ran on the continent with alterations to the undersea style of character movements, some trims here and there and some song changes has become the standard style of presentation, and it’s this somewhat revamped show that has now become the official version.

With some changes from the film that might have proved too challenging, or perhaps simply too busy for the stage, Prince Eric (Patton Chandler with perfectly appropriate boyish good looks) doesn’t fall overboard or become rescued by Ariel (a totally engaging Jill-Christine Wiley), there are no shark chases, and the evil Ursula (Cassandra Norville Klaphake relishing every moment of her cartoon villainy) doesn’t grow to grotesque proportions during the climactic confrontation, though in one neat effect, her octopus-like tentacles become monstrously huge, enveloping King Triton ( a commanding Mark DiConzo) and keeping him prisoner within her grasp.

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The good news, particularly for younger theatre-goers who probably have no interest in new creative or artistic additions, will find that things flow pretty much in the same way as they did in the animated feature with little ambition to develop further.  Unlike Beauty and the Beast or the more theatrically elaborate The Lion King, as it now stands, the most effective forum for Disney’s The Little Mermaid is not Broadway but regional, and when seen through this prism your enjoyment should increase substantially.

Technically, ABT does great things.  With wires and good use of Paul A. Black’s scenic and lighting design, the theatrical illusion of being undersea is nicely achieved.  Particularly effective is the moment when Ariel spirals up to the ocean’s surface like an aerial acrobat as her mermaid’s tail falls off and legs are revealed.  The toady eels Flotsam and Jetsam (Tyler J. Gasper and Joey Anchondo) expertly glide along the stage on foot wheelies creating the illusion of slithering on the ocean floor while Scuttle the seagull (Gerard Lanzerotti, sounding less Buddy Hackett and more Gilbert Gottfried) flies around above the ocean like a clumsy Peter Pan who can’t quite get the landing procedure right.  Also, Tim Shawyer’s Grimsby, guardian to the prince, is appropriately fussy and funny, who, with his period white wig and costume, echoes Hugh Laurie as he appeared in TV’s Blackadder.  There’s also great support throughout from a large ensemble doubling as crowds, various undersea mer-people and King Triton’s daughters, plus a gathering of local school children, all of whom appear to have found their inner Nemo. The part of Flounder, Ariel’s young guppy friend, is played by not one but four actors who will rotate the role on alternating nights.

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Under the leadership of music director Mark 4Man, the band is this time around particularly outstanding with keyboard arrangements creating the impression of a full blown orchestra, while Kurtis W. Overby’s choreography and staging brings the two big numbers, Under The Sea and Kiss The Girl to memorable life.

Coupled with the colorful, imaginative costumes of sea horses, jelly fish, snails and various other undersea creatures, Under the Sea, lead by the excellent voice of Aaron Ronelle’s Sebastian the crab (who actually looks more like a walking lobster, resplendent in red) the illusion of some aquatic, crowd-pleasing Mardi Gras is achieved.  Special note also to Greg Kalafatas as the exceptionally rotund Chef Louis in a funny scene where the kitchen dweller becomes a psychotic killer while singing Les Poissons.  He does what mothers have told every child throughout history never to do: he plays with his food.  Ironically, the song’s speeded reprise echoes more Beauty and the Beast’s Be Our Guest than The Little Mermaid.

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Director Kiel Klaphake’s stage direction is assured for most of the production, though given Doug Wright’s new theatrical book, even Kiel can’t make the climactic conflicts work as well as they should.  Ursula’s booming voice interrupts the all important kiss between Ariel and the prince, yet with nothing to see, the clunky staging of having characters stand around, listening, looking as though they’re wondering what they should do next, is treading incoherent, murky waters at best.

But ultimately, The Little Mermaid ends on that upbeat, colorful conclusion that will have youngsters leaving the theatre with thoughts of mermaids, prince and princesses and all kinds of magical looking creatures swimming in their heads, kicking off the family summer in grand, theatrical style.  And in case you think that the show’s finale ends the evening, hold that thought.  All those artifacts in the lobby suddenly become backdrops to photo opportunities with the cast.  In the way that Disney characters at the theme parks meet and greet patrons for pictures, so, too, do the cast of ABT.  After having a picture taken with Ariel and Prince Eric, or maybe cowering in a shot with Ursula, you’ll feel as though you’ve spent the day in the Magic Kingdom but at ABT prices, and from a child’s perspective, no theatre in town can beat value like that.

For more regarding times, dates and tickets, CLICK HERE for the ABT website.

Posted in Theatre

One Man, Two Guvnors – Theatre Review, Phoenix Theatre, Phoenix

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The town of Brighton has always been a popular place for Londoners.  With its famous pier, its seaside entertainment and its crowds, it’s a town where people go south from the capital to meet, to bathe and, for certain Londoners with a few secrets that need to remain secret, to hide.

What a stroke of brilliance, then, that playwright Richard Bean should use the coastal town as an early sixties period setting for his riotous adaptation of Carlo Goldoni’s Italian comedy, The Servant of Two Masters.  It couldn’t be more perfect.  With its slapstick, its abundance of physical humor and its occasional moment of improvisation, it could easily have been called Carry On Brighton, but it’s not; its title is as clever as the play itself.  Using the parlance of its cockney transplants, hiding from whatever they’ve done up in the big city, masters become guv’nors and the servant is one bloke running at breakneck speed between the two.  One Man, Two Guvnors, now playing at Phoenix Theatre, is hilarious,

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If you get the chance, do yourself a favor.  Ten minutes before the show, grab a program, take your seat and read director Pasha Yamotahri’s director’s notes regarding the origins of Italy’s Commedia Del Arte.  In a concise paragraph, you’ll be briefed on the improvisational style of the play’s cultural origins, the inclusion of musical interludes and the importance of popular characters, such as man servants.  It’s not required but it helps, and gives a nice perspective on the structure of what you’re about to see.  One Man, Two Guvnors isn’t simply a typical British farce based on an Italian play, it’s a celebration of all Brit music hall comedy, the kind that inspired Benny Hill, the Carry On team and Brian Rix.

The manic plot is not an easy sell, but basically, as the title suggests, Francis Henshall (Ron May) is a servant employed by two men.  One, a gangster, the other, a criminal, and both in hiding, away from the madding crowd of London.  Francis is hungry, literally and figuratively, and takes on the double duty of serving two men hoping it will eventually lead to a full meal.  It’s the manic energy of doing his best to keep the two guv’nors apart that keeps the play rolling until everyone collapses from sheer exhaustion by the final bow.

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The physical humor full of pratfalls, slaps across the face, a burning plate and even a fire extinguisher is funny enough, but Bean’s script incorporates such continual, rapid fire witty dialog among the visual gags – burnt iron marks on two white shirts is side-splitting – that audiences are treated to the best of all comedic worlds.  When characters talk of someone risen from the dead, it’s followed by an explanation of how long the miracle took; “Two days. Better than the previous record.”  Plus, as this is 1963, Ringo Starr is mentioned as a drummer for some current, popular beat combo, Margaret Thatcher is slyly referenced for her failed policies yet to come, and Jenny Hintze as Rachel Crabbe disguised as her twin brother Roscoe (don’t ask) talks of telephones of the future that might ring anywhere.  “It might even ring in the theatre,” she states while pointing an accusing finger down at someone in the first row.

There’s also improvisation when Ron May enlists the help of audience members to help him on stage.  When calling out for a sandwich, someone in the house responded that they had a granola bar.  “This is 1963,” ad-libbed May without missing a beat.  “I don’t know much about those future foods.”  Needless to say, the exchange will be different each night.  The play’s biggest laugh – and it’s a genuine gut buster – just before the intermission evolves out of yet more audience participation, but to explain further would be criminal.   See it for yourself.

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The musical interludes are toned down from the London and Broadway original.  Instead of a skiffle band or trumpeters standing in a row, the production uses its cast members to join music director Alan Tuch around The Cricketers Arms pub piano for sing-alongs while incorporating all kinds of different music hall (vaudeville) styles.  There’s even a Lonnie Donegan My Ol’ Man’s a Dustman type ditty, plus some nice keyboard and trumpet accompaniment from one of the two guv’nors, Michael Kary.  When May accompanies one number on the xylophone, pay close attention; the payoff is a hoot.

The sizeable cast all bring that abundance of energy needed to make the show work as they race around while trying to keep out of each other’s way.  English southern accents prove difficult for some, though the awfulness of certain cockney pronunciations add to the absurdity of events rather than hinder them.  However, special mention to both David Vining (Harry Dangle) and Michael Kary (Stanley Stubbers) both of whom would fool a London audience in thinking they were locals.

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The scene stealer is David Barker as Alfie, the eighty-seven year old bumbling waiter who mistakenly thinks he’s eighty-six.  The character was a late addition that playwright Bean added after the need to boost the dinner scene, and it becomes comedy gold.  Complete with mad scientist hair, a clueless, open mouthed, eager to please smile and a pacemaker that when properly tuned makes him move faster, Barker is a joy to watch.

But at the center of it all is Ron May recreating the role that made James Corden the toast of both London and New York, and it’s perfect casting.  There’s an obvious physical similarity between the two actors, but May brings a different kind of energy to the role of the servant; it’s one fueled by nerves.  With eyes that constantly dart from left to right, a brow that continually needs wiping and a face that can neither relax nor smile, May looks like an overweight ball of stress; you can see his mind never stops.

The play suffers from a weaker second half that can’t quite reach the giddy heights of the first, plus there’s a danger amongst the mayhem as things begin to wrap that it may at any moment all fall apart.  But somehow it doesn’t.  After watching the cleverness of One Man, Two Guvnors, a regular British farce with all its banging doors, its PG-rated sexual innuendo, the mistaken identities and the trouser-dropping will no longer seem enough.

For more information, CLICK HERE for the Phoenix Theatre website.

 

Posted in Theatre

Poltergeist – Film Review

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It was thirty-three years ago when the original Poltergeist hit the screens.  For some, that’s a lifetime-plus.  For others, it’s last Thursday.  And that’s the problem with the remake – or is it series reboot? – of Poltergeist; whether anyone in the industry likes it or not, in the way that producer Steven Spielberg haunted practically every frame of director Tobe Hooper’s 1982 original,  it’s that same original that haunts every moment of director Gil Kenan’s new 2015 version, begging the question: Was a remake really necessary?

Despite a few character type changes, the arc is the same.  A young couple and their three children move in to a new home in what appears to be a nice and relatively new suburban neighborhood.  From the first night, things happen; noises from the closet, suspicious clown-dolls moving around the room, and a little girl who appears to be having a one-way conversation with something or someone through the static of the TV.  “Who are you talking to?” asks the young son, Griffin (Kyle Catlett) after spying his little sister, Maddie (Kennedi Clements) squatting in front of the living room monitor late at night when she should be in bed.  “No one” she coyly answers.  But, of course, we know different; we saw the original.

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This time around, dad (Sam Rockwell) and mom (Rosemarie DeWitt) have hit an economic stumbling block and they’ve had to downsize.  She’s an out of work writer and he’s simply out of work.  With whatever savings they still have, the family buys a new home.  “Foreclosures have hit the area hard,” the perky young realtor tells them.  “There’s some wiggle room on the price.”

What may seem like a bargain to the family proves to be the worst deal they’ve ever made.  It’s a haunted house inhabited by spirits who are there for the same reason they were there in ’82.  Unlike the first time around where the business of building new homes on a cemetery without moving the bodies, just the headstones, was the big reveal, here, that discussion occurs early.  It’s hardly a plot spoiler.  Considering that most of the audience will already be aware of this, director Kenan has wisely introduced the reasoning behind it all during the setup instead of making us wait until the end to find out something we already knew.

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The film feels short.  At just over ninety minutes there’s no padding.  As soon as we meet the kids, something happens to the two youngest, and the sun hasn’t even set.  The brother and sister discover that if they place their hand on a certain bedroom closet door handle, static will make their hair comically stand on end, except, like everything else we know about the film, we also know it’s not static.  That closet is a portal to an infernal-like spiritual world populated by all those restless spirits buried below the houses, and they reach out and snatch Maddie.  In one creative twist on the original, the young boy sends a drone with a camera into the other world to find his sister, and it’s here, on the video monitors, that we catch a glimpse of where young Maddie has gone as body after cadaverous body writhe in spiritual agony, reaching out, trying to clutch.  It’s like a peek into hell.

The oddest and perhaps most annoying moment is when one of the cameramen from the Paranormal Research team has his own close encounter with the vengeful spirits of the netherworld, involving a high-powered drill to the face.  It’s probably the most traumatic moment of his life and a genuine edge-of-your-seat moment for the audience, yet when the sequence is over and the cameraman survives and staggers away, breathless, he never mentions it to anyone.  Let me repeat: he never mentions it to anyone!

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Because of developments, the CGI effects are certainly superior to the original, plus the inclusion of new household technology like drones, I-pads, flat screen TVs and cell phones all add something new to the familiar.  When the oldest daughter, Kendra (Saxon Sharbino), hears something unusual through her ear-buds, she uses her cell as a kind of Geiger counter, searching not for radiation but for something a little more sinisterly spiritual.  Plus, during the time when the Paranormal Research gang monitors the house, every member of the family is tagged with a GPS tracker so that everyone’s presence is accounted for at all times.

If this was a stand-alone film with no knowledge of a previous edition, then at a time when horror features are enjoying a fresh lease of life due to films like The Conjuring, Insidious and Annabelle, this new Poltergeist would have been a solid addition – there are scares, good effects, some humor, plus, credit where it’s due, that one twist where we actually get to see a nightmare vision of purgatory within the home is surprisingly effective – but the film can’t exorcise the presence of the original.  How could it?  Tobe Hooper’s version was, and still remains, hugely popular.   Plus, it doesn’t help that the closing credits are accompanied not by a spooky theme, the kind that Jerry Goldsmith wrote back in ’82 for Hooper’s thriller that stayed with you as you left the theatre, but by an atmosphere destroying rock soundtrack from Spoon covering a Cramps’ 1980 punk recording.   Aiming at a teenage market is one thing, but pandering to it at the cost of everything creepy the film has built is another.

MPAA Rating:  PG-13    Length:  93 Minutes   Overall Rating:  6 (out of 10)

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