Queen of Katwe – Film Review

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Am I ready?” asks an apprehensive fifteen year old Ugandan chess player.  Her name is Phiona Mutesi (Madina Nalwanga) and she’s about to play the most important game of her life so far. She could become the next national chess champion.  But she’s understandably nervous. “You belong here,” states her coach, Robert Katende (David Oyelow) with warm assurance.  It’s all she needs to hear.

The scene is the opening moment to the new sports drama Queen of Katwe, the real-life story from Disney of a Ugandan chess prodigy raised by her mother in the shantytown slums of Katwe, an area close to the country’s capital, Kampala. At this point the year is 2011, but once Phiona enters the hall to begin her game, the film circles back to the beginning in 2007, the moment when the poverty-stricken girl first discovered what the game of kings and queens was all about.

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Phiona’s father died when she was only three.  That left her mother Harriet (Lupita Nyong’o) to do whatever she could to raise Phiona, her sister Night (Taryn “Kay” Kyaze) and her two younger brothers.  “Young girl,” calls one-time soccer playing coach of the local missionary, Robert.  “Come and sit.”  Robert runs a chess club for children and notices Phiona peering through the opened doorway.  After beckoning her in, he immediately observes how the girl stands up for herself when picked on by boys.  “A fighter,” he smiles.  “This is a place for fighters.”

It’s not long before Robert notices Phiona’s natural ability to play.  Forced to drop out of school because her mother could not afford to send her there, Phiona’s lack of education proves to be little hindrance in learning the rules of the game.  “What do they do?” she asks another young girl, indicating the chess pieces on the board.  “They kill each other,” the more experienced player tells her, then holds up a pawn.  “The small one can become the big one,” the player explains.  “That’s why I like it.”

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It’s not long before Phiona is playing, and playing well.  “What I’m seeing cannot be true,” declares a young boy as he and others watch Phiona win.  But her mother is suspicious and pulls Phiona out of the club, insisting that her daughter return to the streets and sell spices and vegetables to help support the family.  It’s coach Robert who has to assure the feisty and suspicious mother that he’s not taking advantage of the girl and using her for gambling. Phiona has already become the champion of the missionary.  It’s obvious to all that she’s no ordinary player.  “You can see eight moves ahead?” Robert asks after Phiona beats him in yet another game.  “Only champions can see that.”

Based on an article for ESPN then a book titled The Queen of Katwe: A Story of Life, Chess, and One Extraordinary Girl’s Dream of becoming a Grandmaster by former senior writer for Sports Illustrated, Tim Crothers, Queen of Katwe may be somewhat formula driven in it’s big screen Disney telling – there’s always that feeling you know what’s coming next and what the outcome will be – but that never stops Phiona’s story from being anything less than genuinely inspirational.  Her astonishing achievements against all odds becomes all the more remarkable when you consider where the film is taking place.

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Its Uganda slum town setting portrays a hopeless, desolate existence where the harshness of inescapable poverty is a challenge no one could possibly overcome, yet as viewed through Phiona’s teenage and inexperienced eyes, even an area as raw as the slums of Katwe can appear vibrant and full of life.  Cinematographer Sean Bobbitt fills his widescreen with vivacious color in a way that the local children might see it, especially if a shantytown existence is the only one they’ve ever known.  In one powerfully effective moment when the Katwe chess club rides the rickety missionary bus into the nearby capital of Kampala for the first time, the children happily sing throughout the duration of the short trip, just as children on a bus might.  But once they cross city limits into the capital and suddenly view life different from the one they’ve ever known showing smartly dressed people playing cricket or uniformed school children going about their schoolyard business, the singing fades, then stops.  The remainder of the ride is done in silence.

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Queen of Katwe is never anything less than engrossing.  It will raise spirits, and that’s how director Mira Nair (herself a Kampala resident) and screenwriter William Wheeler have designed it.  Some of the harshness of Ugandan slum life as described in Crothers’ book may be toned down for a PG Disney studio palate, but the overall quality of playing out a story of a young, uneducated girl raised in abject poverty, who thinks, plays and eventually becomes a champion and performed by a faultless ensemble such as it is here, the film is hard to resist.

MPAA rating: PG    Length: 124 Minutes    Overall Rating: 8 (out of 10)

Posted in Film

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children – Film Review

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It began with a set of old photographs. They were vintage, black and white and slightly worn. The images portrayed unusual looking children in settings that appeared either mysterious, haunted or just plain peculiar. Author Ransom Riggs thought they could be published together as a picture book, but his editor had another idea. Why not write a fictional story and use the pictures as a plot device? The book became Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children and it went on to become a New York Times best seller.  Written as something Tim Burton would naturally gravitate towards, the book is now a film, and just like the story’s origins, it begins with a set of old photographs.

All of his life, sixteen year-old Jacob (Asa Butterfield) has heard stories from his eccentric grandfather (Terrence Stamp) about an overseas orphanage, home for special children with peculiar talents.  Most think grandfather suffers from dementia which is why no one, other than maybe Jacob, believes the old man, even though he has a box of old black and white pictures of those special children to prove it.  One child is said to make fire with her hands, another stores bees in his stomach, while another is lighter than air and would float away if it wasn’t for the hefty, gravity inducing boots she has to wear.  And there are more of them.

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Then something terrible happens.  Grandfather is killed by the unexplainable; a monstrous looking creature that only young Jacob could see. “I know you think I’m crazy,” a dying grandfather mutters to the boy after advising his grandson to look for the orphanage, “But the bird will tell you everything.”

Following the advice of Jacob’s psychiatrist (Allison Janney) who convinces the boy’s family to allow the teenager to finally investigate grandfather’s claims, Jacob and his less than tolerant father (Chris O’Dowd) fly to a village in Wales, the place where grandfather had always claimed to be home to the orphanage. What follows is an adventure involving time loops, creepy monsters, undead human creatures with a taste for eyeballs, World War ll German air raids, and some very peculiar children; and right at the center is the mistress to the orphanage, Miss Peregrine (Eva Green), a woman who among her many talents (like turning into a peregrine falcon at will) is also a dead shot with a crossbow.

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Another of Miss Peregrine’s talents is creating time loops where the events of a day are continually repeated. In 1943 during a German Luftwaffe air raid on Britain, a bomb was about to be dropped on the orphanage. In a hurried moment seconds before the damage was about to be done, Miss Peregrine stopped time and created a loop that could never be altered. In a situation not unlike Groundhog Day, time for the orphanage and all the children within the loop will now and forever be a single day in 1943, always ending with Miss Peregrine stopping that bomb from dropping. And that’s the world Jacob stumbles upon.

Colleagues who have read the book insist that on the page it all makes sense, but on film things tend to get messy.  Whether that’s a problem of Jane Goldman’s script or Tim Burton’s direction is difficult to say, but with a story this involved and with so many oddball characters continually stepping in and out of time loops from present day to 1943 and back again it’s often difficult to know where you are.  Clarity is not one of the film’s peculiar talents.  And yet, there’s a heart at the center of the film that keeps you intrigued.  Even if a world of logic has no place in Miss Peregrine’s manipulation of time, there are moments of humor and even a feel of lyrical beauty that keeps you engaged, even charmed.

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When those German planes fly overhead, in a moment of theatrical eccentricity, Miss Peregrine plays an old gramophone recording of the Flanagan and Allen classic Run Rabbit Run. It sounds like a child’s song but was, in fact, a satirical poke at the Luftwaffe who on its first ineffectual air raid over England was said to have killed only two rabbits. There’s the evening entertainment where the children gather in the orphanage parlor to watch what looks like home movies but are really the prophetic dreams of one of the children projected from his mind through a lens as moving images on a screen. Then there’s the gallows humor of a child who can give temporary life to dead or inanimate objects. “You should have seen some of the fights at my uncle’s funeral parlor,” he proudly states.

But once the plot revolving around why Jacob’s grandfather was killed, the unveiling of the monsters responsible and why they want the children in Miss Peregrine’s orphanage, everything suddenly feels cluttered and unfocused.  It’s as if a combination of books and a bottomless pit of freaky ideas were adapted and unsuccessfully compressed into one murky narrative.

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As you might expect, director Burton’s overall dark scenic design is heavily detailed and eye-catching, plus the climactic chase in England’s present-day seaside town of Blackpool, the ballroom dancing capital of the world, is a genuine, end-of-the pier thrill ride.  But it’s that plot and its many layers that bog things down.  As a film, the story requires streamlining, but by doing so, the very thing that readers of the popular novel loved would be lost.  Despite some scenes of genuine movie magic – the underwater scene with Jacob and Emma (Ella Purnell) is particularly imaginative – and a script that really tries, maybe in the end Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children is not really one meant for the screen.  Perhaps it should have remained where it began, with those atmospheric and just a little creepy archival photographs.

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MPAA Rating: PG-13      Length: 127 Minutes     Overall Rating:  6 (out of 10)

Posted in Film

Deepwater Horizon – Film Review

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It gushed for 87 days.  In 2010 the estimated outpouring of oil into the Gulf of Mexico was 210 million US gallons.  It is, to date, the largest marine oil spill in the history of the petroleum industry.

Because of gross negligence and reckless conduct, BP (British Petroleum) was ruled principally responsible. The corporate settlement became the largest in U.S. history. It’s a fascinating story, and the more you know, the angrier you’ll get, but it’s not the one covered by director Peter Berg’s action/thriller, Deepwater Horizon.  The events of the aftermath may be better served sometime down the road with a new, factually thorough documentary. Berg’s film is centered squarely on the oil rig disaster, the moments leading up to it, the event itself and the bravery of those selflessly helping each other to safety while trying to escape the raging fire.  True to its disaster movie roots, the film sticks to the conventions of its genre. And more importantly, unlike those fictional disaster movie thrillers of burning skyscrapers and overturned, sinking cruises, the fact that this one is based on a real event makes it pack an even more emotional punch.

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Even though the men of the nine year-old offshore drilling unit were clueless at the time, the years of looking back and investigating the records and uncovering the causes, hindsight is suddenly 20/20.  The answers are there, and as a result, movie audiences become privvy to sights unknown and unseen by the Deepwater Horizon crew.  A single bubble escaping from a crack on the ocean floor heralds the beginning. All it needs is a pressured push and it’s obvious; the whole floor will open up.

Here, director Berg’s story-telling presentation is not unlike that of Paul Greengrass’ United 93 where a real life disaster and a difficult watch is tastefully approached with a documentary, rough-around-the-edges look.  The major difference is that unlike the earlier film where largely unknowns were cast, Deepwater Horizon has some marquee-value names, though in both films we’re really flies-on-the-wall, peering in, listening to what’s unfolding and attempting to understand the technical jargon as fast as it’s barked.  While not possessing quite the chaotic hand-held visuals of Greengrass’ urgent, faux doc style, Berg’s camera still spins, turns and rushes in and out among the pandemonium resulting with a rush of constant adrenaline.  With the speed of action and the high-velocity editing, it’s not always easy to determine what’s happening, but you get the idea while catching your breath.  The same with the technical jargon. In moments leading up to the explosion, a lot of complicated things are said about pressure testing and re-testing the integrity of the production casing.  Most of it will go over your head.  But the characters know what they’re talking about and it’s delivered with such earnest passion and concern for what could go wrong that, again, you get the overall idea.

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The projectiles were coming from everywhere,” states the weary, off-screen voice of oil rig worker Mike Williams (Mark Wahlberg) at a hearing. “The heat was overwhelming,” he adds. The voices come from a Q&A session played out during the opening credits.  Once the question, “Do you know why you never heard that alarm?” is asked, followed by a lengthy pause, the film begins and we backtrack to the that morning when Williams, safely at home with his wife (Kate Hudson) and family, is dragging himself out of bed to face the day.

After a moment of comical foreboding – a can of soda under pressure explodes on the family kitchen table and gushes its contents – Williams and his crew captain, Jimmy Harrell (a constantly grumpy Kurt Russell, but grumpy for good reason), are on a helicopter with other employees and two BP representatives heading out across the Gulf of Mexico, forty-one miles off the Louisiana coast to the floating drilling unit, Deepwater Horizon.

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The explosion doesn’t occur for approximately fifty minutes into the film, but until then we’re treated to life of normalcy on a working oil rig as the workers gossip, sing, play air-guitar and generally pass the time amusing themselves as they twist knobs, tighten bolts and go about their daily business of general maintenance.  The senior staff in the offices discuss safety concerns with BP operative Donald Vidrine (John Malkovich) who is there to oversee and cover all company concerns, like maximizing profits and minimizing costs.  While Mr. Jimmy, as Kurt Russell’s character is always addressed, and Williams want another, more thorough test on the cement casing around the pipe, the BP company man is not concerned, stating, “We are confident in the question of our cement,” pronounced see-ment.  When Williams makes a critical though valid remark about the cheap, corner-cutting practices of a 186 billion dollar company, Malkovich’s operative, smiles. “That’s why we’re a 186 billion dollar company,” he states with a grin.  Then it happens.

Mud leaks, the pipe gives, oil gushes and one heck of an explosion follows, sending workers’ bodies flying.  The widescreen becomes a chaotic, frantic mess as men pull each other to safety, going above and beyond the call of duty in order to do whatever they can to save each others’ lives. From bottom to the top, the rig is a blazing, fiery furnace.  “Deepwater Horizon has exploded and is on fire!” declares the frenzied, emergency radio call.

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The concern of who falls victim and who survives is minimized when we know that Wahlberg’s Williams is the one reflecting back on the events, but that doesn’t stop the overall, gut-wrenching effect taking hold, created effectively by director Berg’s dizzying camera work; he puts us right there in the middle of everything.  When those who finally survive and stagger back to the mainland where concerned family members anxiously await any news of their missing loved ones, the emotional impact is overwhelming.  We may not fully understand all the whys and wherefores, but if Deepwater Horizon does anything, it makes what was a devastating event seen only as a headlining story between the commercials on the evening news something all too real.

A word on its big screen IMAX presentation.  Deepwater Horizon is all close-ups, fast edits and hand-held camerawork that ducks and dives around the characters as if in a frantic state of constantly searching for something to focus upon and never finding it.  And that style is not reduced to just the action.  Simple, non-action scenes like the extreme close-up of Walhberg getting out of bed or the camera following him closely around the kitchen, shadowing his every move as he reaches down for the drawer or up to a wall cabinet are not conducive to IMAX.  Even the helicopter flight where employees pass quick remarks to each other as they fly over the gulf is shot with close-ups and fast edits.  The film may be about a massive, spectacular disaster, but it’s not shot like one.  By thrusting us in the middle of things, the film becomes an intimate, visceral telling of a terrible event; the spectacle is seen in brief glances. See it by all means, but see it on a smaller screen.  The smaller, the better.

MPAA Rating:  PG-13    Length: 99 Minutes     Overall Rating: 8 (out of 10)

Posted in Film

Reparation – Film Review: Special Valley Engagement

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The review below is a re-print of the film Reparation.  It was first published in February of this year when director Kyle Ham’s drama was shown at the 2016 Sedona International Film Festival.  After two sold-out screenings, the film went on to win the Audience Choice/Best Feature: Drama award.  This week, local valley audiences will get the chance to see the film for themselves outside of the festival circuit.   Reparation will be shown Wednesday, September 28, 7:30 pm at  Studio Movie Grill (15515 N Hayden Rd, Scottsdale, AZ 85260)
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In the new psychological drama Reparation from director Kyle Ham, when we first meet Bob Stevens (Marc Menchaca) he’s in a bad way. We’re not exactly sure what’s happened or why but one thing’s for certain, he’s certainly in need of help.

You can see one thing at a time, but you can’t see the whole thing,” narrates the voice of Charlotte (Dale Dye Thomas), Bob’s eight year-old daughter through whom we see many of the events that follow. We don’t know a lot about Bob, but through quick flashbacks, long before Charlotte arrived, and even before Bob met his wife, Lucy, evidently something disturbing happened to cause the man to lose his memory. He hasn’t lost all of it, just three years.

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Listen, Stephens,” threatens someone in a military officer’s uniform, “You can fool the doctors, but you can’t fool me.” We only catch a glimpse of the officer, but it’s enough to let us know that whatever Bob’s issue was, it must have had something to do with the Air Force. Later, we’ll find out who that officer is, but for the time being, we’re still in the dark.

Then there’s the mysterious little boy who appears by Bob’s side just at the moment when the man needs encouragement the most. “I’ve got your back,” the boy (Brody Behr) tells him. The odd thing about this child is that it’s obvious he’s not really there. When he speaks he sounds wise beyond his years, but why he keeps appearing is just another element to the story’s mystery. The boy is Jiminy Cricket to Bob’s conscience and he’s trying to be the man’s guide, if only Bob took notice.

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The strength to Reparation is that it pulls you in from practically the opening frame. There’s so much you want to know and so many questions to ask. What is that gun shot we see on Bob’s face in the flash of a moment? Who was the threatening officer? And why is that mysterious young boy offering sage advice to an older man? And most important, why has Bob lost his memory or, at least, his recollection of what happened during his time in the Air Force? The narrative does a smart job of raising all of these issues within just a few minutes, and you’re immediately hooked.

The bulk of the action takes place in rural Indiana where Bob now lives and works selling fruit and vegetables from a roadside stand, and it’s here where some time after having been discharged from the Air Force he meets the woman who will soon be his wife. Virginia Newcomb plays Lucy and she’s quite the spitfire. But it’s the arrival of another character that brings the problems. Jon Huertas plays Jerome, someone from Bob’s past. Like everything else in the film, there’s not a lot we know about Jerome – and Bob has no recollection of the man – but Jerome knows a lot about Bob and his days as a cop in the Air Force, and whatever it is that he’s now doing in Indiana, we instinctively know it’s not good.

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But perhaps the most mysterious element of all is one that you never expect and it’s all to do with the daughter. At a time when Bob struggles to recall whatever it was that happened to him back in the Air Force, back before he met his wife and certainly back before his daughter was born, Charlotte suddenly remembers things – they come to her as nightmares – only they’re not her memories; they’re her fathers’. The young girl has inherited her father’s lost memory, only she’s too young to know what she’s seeing.

Based on a play called The Activist by Steve Trim who also co-wrote the script with director Ham, Reparation holds you firmly in its grip right up until the satisfying fade where every question you’ve asked yourself throughout is finally answered. But it’s not just the story and the way in which intriguing issues are revealed that keep you glued, it’s the performances of a solid cast with convincing portrayals that makes things tick. Plus, director Ham does a nice job of moving the events of a drama into an eventual thriller as daughter Charlotte creepily declares in the middle of the night, “The people in my dreams are showing up at my house.” The events of Bob and Lucy’s Indiana home under siege are tense and exciting, then ultimately and unexpectedly heartbreaking as the truth behind the mysteries finally falls into place.

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Well told and well played, Reparation is a festival must-see. Through some detective work of your own you’ll piece parts of the mystery together yourself, but there are a few secrets you won’t see coming, and ultimately that’s what makes this widescreen film work as well as it does.

MPAA Rating:  NR      Length: 105 Minutes

To find out more about the film CLICK HERE for the official Reparation Film Website

Posted in Film

Liberace! – Theatre Review: Phoenix Theatre’s Hormel Theatre, Phoenix

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Throughout a remarkable career that spanned more than four generations he was known simply by the one name. Most never questioned whether it was his first, last or middle, and it didn’t matter.  In 1919 he was born Wladziu Valentino Liberace.  At home, his family called him Walter, or sometimes Wally.  The world knew him as Liberace.

In the one-man, biographical musical Liberace! now playing at the intimate Phoenix Theatre’s Hormel Theatre and running until October 9, composer, arranger, producer and all-round musical talent, Jeff Kennedy, plays the excessively flamboyant entertainer as a man returned from above to perform for one last time. Liberace died in 1987, something the character acknowledges from the outset.  “I’m dead,” he cheerfully declares with the broadest of customary grins, and explains why he’s back.  His role as entertainer in heaven is redundant; everyone around him is already happy.  So he’s returned to do what he does best, and that’s to entertain the rest of us with the story of his life, and as often the case, what you thought you knew about Mr. Showmanship is only the tip of the iceberg.  “Tonight we deal with the truth,” he announces.

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With a set that looks something like the lobby of a celestial afterlife – covered mannequins on one side, a chair and a small table on the other, a trio of lush, red curtains in the background and a piano standing prominently in the middle – Liberace take us back to the beginning, a time long before the grand concerts, the television appearances, films, the controversial court case in London and, of course, Las Vegas.  The glittering capes, the sparkling jewelry, the white Cadillac limousine and the indulgent, piano-shaped swimming pool come later. In the show’s first half, Liberace is dressed as he would during the earlier years of his career, in a black tuxedo.

Between performances of everything from Prelude in C-Sharp Minor, Minuet in G to Scott Joplin’s The Entertainer and even Beer Barrel Polka (lyrics in the program in case you want to sing along) Liberace walks us through the highlights of his life, beginning with his first name, Wladziu.  “My mother liked it when she saw it on the doctor’s eye-chart,” he jokes. Stories of his father, however, were less humorous.  Slavatore Liberace was an Italian immigrant with a profound love of classical music.  To him music was either “… Classical or garbage. There is no in-between.”  When his son ventured from classical to something more popular, his father came down on him hard, indicated by the sound effect of a sudden and severe hand-slap across the face that stuns the audience into an unexpected moment of silence.  And there’ll be more moments like that.

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While playwright Brent Hazelton keeps Liberace’s overall demeanor upbeat and even playful – while performing a difficult movement, Kennedy’s Liberace looks up at his audience, smiles and winks suggesting that in the end it’s all just for fun – the play will occasionally turn to darker, more upsetting moments that might have brought a screeching halt to the career of another.  Despite audience adoration, he was clearly hurt by the avalanche of negative remarks from critics, calling them, “Dozens of clones of my father, each with their own column.” One episode with a London newspaper reviewer in the nationally published Daily Mirror is such a fascinating story there’s even another play devoted to the affair called Liberace’s Suit by T.K. Light. Here in Hazelton’s script, the scenario covering the much publicized 50’s civil action against both the paper and the critic is told in minutes, but it remains a fascinating chapter, all the same.  To quote columnist William Connor, Liberace was a “… Deadly, winking, sniggering, snuggling, chromium-plated, scent-impregnated, luminous, quivering, giggling, fruit-flavored, mincing, ice-covered heap of mother love.”  It did everything to suggest Liberace was homosexual.  Liberace won the case, stating he was not homosexual and had never engaged in homosexual acts.  It was the origin of the American slang ‘fruit-flavored’ quote that did it, a term that the English writer had to prove was unknown to him as a derogatory term.  As Liberace stated after winning the suit, “I cried all the way to the bank.”

The second half takes on the glitzier Las Vegas years up until his death from complications of Aids in ‘87. While the majority of us remember Liberace, it’s as the Vegas entertainer that most readily springs to mind.  Those previous decades of bad films, a TV series, classical concerts and a succession of endorsements are a distant, fading memory, even though at the time he was the highest paid and most popular personality in the country.  It’s the excess we recall; the image of a classical pianist who didn’t give concerts but put on a sparkling show.  It wasn’t the real Liberace.  It was an intentionally gaudy, lavish invention created to stand out under the spotlight above the others and do nothing but entertain.  And it did, though as writer Hazelton has his Liberace state when thinking about his competition, why Danke Schoen‘s Wayne Newton was referred to as the King of Las Vegas is something “… I’ll never know.”

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The play entertains though remains ultimately lightweight, relying more on great piano playing, which is something this Michael Barnard directed, Phoenix Theatre production has. The facts between the music can’t fail to interest, but they’re highlights that move swiftly from one short anecdote to another with only the more revealing, dramatic moments of sad, self-reflection left to give the show its depth.  It’s more like skimming through a Wikipedia report online than reading a full in-depth autobiography.  Jeff Kennedy is a better musician than an actor, but with the help of Kelly Yurko’s wig design and Connie Furr-Solomon’s costumes, Jeff helps us suspend disbelief with a change of accent and a fun delivery of Liberace’s winks, smiles, nervous giggles and laughs.  It’s not an impression, and Jeff would never convince as a professional Liberace impersonator in Las Vegas, but within the confines of a theatrical setting, the illusion is set, and Jeff Kennedy’s piano playing is, as expected from the man recently honored with the ‘Champion of the Arts’ Award from the West Valley Arts Council, glorious.

Pictures courtesy of Reg Madison Photography

For more regarding times, dates and tickets CLICK HERE for the official Phoenix Theatre website

Posted in Theatre

The Magnificent Seven – Film Review

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Other than a few name changes and the principle action moved from a Mexican village to the fictional American town of Rose Creek, most of what you’ll see in the Antoine Fuqua remake of The Magnificent Seven will seem familiar. Certainly the story’s original framework is there and the overall plot follows the same route taken in 1960 – which, in turn, was a western remake of the ‘54 Japanese film Seven Samurai – but what’s more important is the film’s form; in looks, style and sound it remains true to the big screen, colorful wide frame western of yesterday, and that’s the most welcoming part of all.

Leave the bodies where they lie,” instructs robber baron Bartholomew Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard) to the town’s corrupt sheriff. “Let them look at them for a few days.

Bogue is the bad guy – it’s the Eli Wallach role changed from a killer Mexican bandit to a murderous business opportunist in black – and he wants all of Rose Creek in order to mine the land for gold. He’s a deluded, cowardly fool who sees himself as a hard worker but in the same breath talks of taking what he wants when he wants it at the expense of others. After he and his men casually kill some of the townsfolk gathered peacefully with their families at a church meeting, including the husband of Emma Cullen (Haley Bennett), the determined young woman leaves Rose Creek on her own accord in search of anyone who could help the small town fight back. She returns with just seven men. “Seems I was the only one with balls to do something,” Emma tells the town when the men question her motives from bringing outsiders in.

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The seven are a motley crew of wild west characters that at first glance may seem like an intentional present-day attempt to make the cast as politically correct as possible, but the diverse cultures that make them a magnificent seven actually better reflects the history of the cowboy makeup than many westerns of the past. With the building of the railroads, the use of native Americans as scouts and the fact that there were considerably more black cowboys than reflected in previous films, a gang of available mercenaries hastily thrown together in a pinch may well have looked like this wild bunch of roguish good guys for hire.

Bounty hunter Sam Chisolm (Denzel Washington) is the leader who at first advises Emma that she really needs an army, but it’s her passion and the fact that she’s willing to hand over everything she has, every last penny, if only the bounty hunter would help. Chisolm agrees and starts hunting for as many men that he can find. Signing up is gambler and wise-cracking explosives expert, Farraday (Chris Pratt), sharpshooter haunted by a killer past but possessing a great name, Goodnight Robicheaux (Ethan Hawke), a Mexcian outlaw, Vasquez (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo), a Korean assassin, Billy Rocks (Byung-hun Lee), a Comanche, Red Harvest (Martin Sensmeier) and a Grizzly Adams type mountain man with a breathless high voice, Jack Horne (Vincent D’Onofrio). Some will make it, some won’t, but that’s not a plot spoiler; you knew that going in.

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Once the seven arrive, they start the process of training locals how to shoot. “I’ve never shot at anything that could shoot back,” states one citizen. Some of the townsfolk pack their wagons and leave, but many remain with nowhere else to go and decide to back the seven and fight.

Since 1960 when the theme of teaming a small group of unlikely types together as a vengeful army was new, the repeated formula has since become common place, and that tends to devalue the remake in a way the John Sturges classic never had to contend. Everything from The Expendables, Suicide Squad, The Dirty Dozen, even Guardians of the Galaxy and Disney/Pixar’s A Bug’s Life have taken that similar setup and ran with it. But it was The Magnificent Seven who did it first. Remaking it with new sensibilities while retaining the look of how films used to be shot (a path the recent Ben-Hur should have taken but didn’t, and as a consequence, failed miserably) a remade Magnificent Seven can never have the same impact with a fresh generation of moviegoers; they’ve seen it all before and many times, though not necessarily in the form of a western. Still, revisiting the seven with director Fuqua’s complete respect for the genre presented in a way that older fans who spent much of their movie-going childhood watching westerns will appreciate, the film can’t help but thrill. The freshness of story may never be repeated, but it remains an engaging and enjoyable venture into a much missed style.

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When it comes, the action is fast, furious and violent, shot and edited in the exciting, unfussy way a western always was. During shootouts you can tell where everyone is in relation to each other rather than the more modern, chaotic, free-for-all shot with a hand-held and furiously edited like a faux documentary. It’s backed by a traditional sounding score of the west complete with tubular bells clanging like musical anvils during a tense build-up and a stirring orchestral theme as the cowboys mount and ride to Rose Creek. This was composer James Horner’s final film. He died after writing only half of the film’s score. Avatar scorer and friend to Horner, Simon Franglen completed the soundtrack.

Plus, in case you were wondering, there’s a nod during the final credits to Elmer Bernstein’s original rousing classic 60s theme. Remakes are all well and good, but when it comes to The Magnificent Seven, at the closing fade you need a few bars of Bernstein to complete things. It’s mandatory.

MPAA Rating: PG-13     Length: 127 Minutes     Overall rating: 8 (out of 10)

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