Super Troopers 2 – Film Review

How time flies when you’re having fun. Then, after seventeen years, there’s a sequel to Super Troopers.

It would be easy to come up with one of those snarky film reviewer quips, like; after seventeen years, it’s the sequel no one was waiting for. That would be really easy. But it would also be wrong. Super Troopers 2 is exactly what fans have been waiting for. They even paid for it to be that way.

Once followers of the original 2001 comedy heard that a new script was finished and that the filmmakers would have to finance it themselves, fans stood in line, on-line. The five-man Broken Lizard comedy troupe started an Indiegogo Crowdfunding campaign for anyone who wanted to contribute. Within 26 hours, they’d not only reached the target figure, contributions continued. And there were incentives. Those who wanted a producer credit or even a walk-on speaking role, the cost was $10,000. Those who craved a director title could donate $12,500. And a trip for a day at the ballpark with the troupe was $15,000. And it was all sold, in hours. Like it or not, Super Troopers 2 was a go. And now it’s here, but it should come with a warning. For Fans Only, ‘Cause This Is What We Want.

Despite the generation and a half gap since the idiot Vermont state troopers wrecked havoc in 2001, the sequel takes place just three months later. There’s a dispute along the border between the U.S. and Canada. It appears that a small town, thought for years to be French Canadian, is, in fact, American. The maps drew the line in the wrong place. While the legal paperwork goes through the system, Lynda Carter as Vermont Governor Jessman hires the troopers to guard the border, maintain law and order, and try to keep the peace while some French Canadians come to terms with the idea that they are now Americans. “Can I still listen to Rush, or Barenaked Ladies?” asks one.

It might help if you know the original; large chunks of the sequel constantly refer to it, as with the Fred Savage jokes that never quit, until – plot spoiler? What plot? – Fred eventually turns up and continues the joke.

There are also jokes about Canada, the Canadian accent, and Canadian pancakes. There’s a joke about the tradition of shaving the balls of the new guy, there’s another about firing an automatic weapon at a bald eagle (and killing it), and there are jokes about drugs. And it’s dumb. It’s all dumb. In fact, it’s dumber than you can imagine. Except, of course, that’s the idea.

It’s a comedy that intentionally starts at the bottom and works its way down. And with hardly a moment that looks as though it was ever filmed or written by real filmmakers, or acted by real actors, Super Troopers 2 succeeds in looking nothing like a real film. It’s a 100 minutes of outtakes not good enough for a movie, yet it is the movie.

And that’s all that can be said. That adage about not giving audiences what they want, give them something better doesn’t apply. Super Troopers 2 is what they want, so leave it be, make room, and let the fans enjoy. After all, that’s what they paid for. That’s what they’ll get.

MPAA Rating: R    Length: 100 Minutes     Overall Rating: 1 (out of 10)

Posted in Film

The Color Purple – Theatre Review: National Touring Production, ASU Gammage, Tempe

When the Broadway musical, The Color Purple, first came to the valley, it was part of the original national tour that began in 2007 and ended 2010.  Like its Broadway presentation, the original tour mounted a large scale production with a huge cast of 34 performers, recreating as much of midtown Manhattan’s The Broadway Theatre presentation as possible. The Color Purple that opened last evening at ASU Gammage in Tempe and will continue until this Sunday, April 22, is not that production. And more power to it. With its revamped, scaled-back look, and a cast reduced to 17, the focus is entirely on the actors, and the improvements are startling.

Despite the original production’s commercial success, including its eleven Tony Award nominations (it won only one: Best Actress in a Musical) its critical reception was mixed, and with good reason. The production that came to ASU Gammage more than a decade ago was less than memorable, with a book by Marsha Norman that, while recreating all the key elements of Alice Walker’s original novel, never quite captured the essence of what made Walker’s real-life tale so emotionally involving. If anything, the huge, Oprah Winfrey backed production felt over-produced; its presentation dwarfed the narrative. Even the score felt lacking. The whole affair, while impressive to view, kept audiences’ involvement at bay. Nothing fully stirred in the way it was intended.

What you’ll see now at ASU Gammage is a production that began life in 2013 at a fringe theatre in London, The Menier Chocolate Factory, then transferred to Broadway. This minimalist presentation removed set and scenery, cut the cast, and focused everything solely on the players. While Norman’s book adaptation remains the same, by having nothing extra to divert attention away from actors, the overall effect is considerably different. The plight of Celie, her abuse, her problems of fighting not only a racist white culture, but also a black patriarchal culture, and eventually overcoming them in unexpected and inspiring ways, is now front and center; her conflicts feel far more affecting.

Director John Doyle’s new set design is an incomplete mosaic of splintered wood that reaches from the floor to the ceiling. There’s a raw, harsh reality to the unfinished look that acts as a visual reminder to the harsh and incomplete life that Celie (Adrianna Hicks) lives, submitting to her father in his bed so that her younger sister, Nettie (N’Jameh Camara) doesn’t have to, then later, married to the cruel, whip-cracking, abusive husband known only as Mister (Gavin Gregory), a marriage endured only because it saves Celie’s sister from having to experience the same thing.

But some of those elements that never quite clicked with the original production still remain. If you’re familiar with Alice Walker’s book (or the Steven Speilberg film, for that matter) the story’s first half, while establishing Celie’s life, that marriage, and her relationship with Juke Joint singer Shug Avery (Carla R. Stewart), tells its tale, but goes through the motions without the emotional hook you should be feeling. To be fair, part of the problem might be less with the show or the adaptation but the witnessing of these events while seated in a large auditorium rather than experiencing them in smaller, more intimate surroundings. There’s still a distance felt. It’s the second half where satisfaction and the emotional resolutions finally payoff. As you leave, its the events of the second half that leave with you.

Another issue that can’t be completely resolved is the score. The songs of the ensemble are serviceable and suit the individual moments, but are hardly memorable. Things are more effective with the solos. Shrug’s salacious Push Da Button, sung at the Juke Joint, is raunchy fun, while Mister’s reflective ballad, Celie’s Curse, succeeds in actually finding a moment of sympathy for a character who is largely objectionable. But it’s Celie’s empowering I’m Here that brings the big applause.

Like the rest of the score, it’s not so much the writing of the song, it’s the performance behind it. When Celie sings of finding a love within after having lived a life of hell, Adrianna Hicks’ delivery hits every emotional button. It’s a song performed with such a fiery passion, so full of energy and drama, that by the end, you may feel as exhausted when watching it as Hicks must feel when performing it.

Other than the chairs unhooked from that wooden backdrop used to suggest characters seated around a dinner table, at a church, in a living room, or at a Juke Joint, there are no other sets or props used; it’s all down to theatrical suggestion, performance, and musical presentation. And it’s by having your attention intentionally narrowed in this way that makes director Doyle’s redesigned production such an improvement over the original. As musical theatre, The Color Purple now works better than it ever did.

The Color Purple continues at ASU Gammage in Tempe until Sunday, Aprill 22

Posted in Theatre

Rampage – Film Review

Keeping in mind that those most excited about seeing Dwayne Johnson’s big screen video-game adaptation of Rampage have little interest in reading any kind of lengthy analysis or film critique longer than a few sentences, let’s go straight to the heart of the matter. Rampage is an awful film. Really. If all you want to see are giant monsters destroying buildings, then go ahead, have at it. The computer imagery is, as always expected in today’s world of CGI, excellent, and the last act of constant destruction never seems to end, so you’ll certainly get your money’s worth. Visually, it’s undeniably great.

But technology and fantastical imagery have created a laziness in the storytelling. Unleashing mutated monsters in major cities is an old fashioned, fun idea, that will never grow old – we’ll always enjoy seeing things blown up or knocked down; it’s in our moviegoing DNA – but there still has to be a decent reason for things to happen. Rampage had four writers working on the screenplay; two worked together, the other two individually, presumably correcting what the previous writer had done and adding a little extra nonsense of their own in the process. But between the four of these knuckleheads they still couldn’t come up with something that, at the very least, gave the impression of someone trying to tell a story.

During the development period, director Brad Peyton was quoted as saying that the film would be a lot more emotional, a lot scarier, and lot more real than we’d expect. He got the scary part right. During the screening it wasn’t hard to observe a few parents quickly scuttling their little ones out of the theatre during the first act. But in their favor, at least they didn’t pay for the tickets. Parents going to see it after the film’s theatrical opening won’t be quite so lucky. The amiable Dwayne Johnson may have developed a family friendly audience with his voice work in Disney’s Moana, and more recently in the hugely popular adventure, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, but Rampage is not the same thing.

It might be PG-13, but in early days, when youngsters were perhaps less hardened to visual, violent monster horrors, it might have earned an R. As for calling it more real, or even emotional; yeah, right. Among all the human bodies killed, ripped apart, or munched upon, the only character for whom you’ll feel any emotion is the golden retriever, the one that’s about to become lunch for the mutated wolf.

The film is loosely based on the mid-eighties video game with the simple premise. Because of problems in the research laboratory, a human transformed into a giant monster escaped and went on a rampage. The idea was to knock down as many buildings as possible. The film goes in the other direction. Johnson’s job as a primatologist is to stop the creatures from knocking down those buildings.

The film’s villains – not the mutated creatures, the human ones – are Claire Wyden (Malin Akerman) and her idiot brother, Brett (Jake Lacy). They’ve invested in research so dangerous that it had to be performed on a space station worth billions upon billions of dollars, far away from Earth. We know it cost billions upon billions because the idiot brother tells us so. But it all goes wrong, and a giant, mutated rat kills everyone on the station except for Dr. Kerry Atkins (Marley Shelton). She tries to escape in a pod, but the pod bay doors won’t open. “Either you don’t come home with my research,” the evil Claire tells the doctor over a radio intercom, “Or you don’t come home at all.

At great personal risk, the good doctor grabs a canister of the gaseous research and lets the evil Claire know that she has what the dastardly CEO wants. The pod bay doors open, the doctor with the canister climbs in and escapes into space, just as the space station blows. But the escape pod has its own problems, and blows once entering Earth’s atmosphere, causing chunks of that research to fall in three different parts of the US. There’s a grey wolf in Wyoming who becomes infected, a crocodile in Florida’s Everglades, and an albino gorilla in San Diego. Interestingly, while the wolf and the crocodile develop into giant mutations of their former selves, sprouting all kinds of pointy things with killer, giant jaws (and in the wolf’s case, wings) the gorilla just gets bigger and angrier, no pointy things.

Had the film kept to some good, old-fashioned horror roots and, just like the game, had humans turn into mutated monsters, things might have become more interesting, but it doesn’t. Instead, the story tells of a couple of greedy and incredibly, over-the-top villains who, with the help of a radio signal, lure the creatures to Chicago so that they can extract the DNA from their bodies, then sell it to the highest bidder, caring nothing for the millions who will die or the city buildings that will crumble. Thus, the giant wolf runs from Wyoming, the croc swims from Florida, and the likable gorilla escapes from San Diego, and they all meet up in Chicago. What adventures they had crossing the country, state to state, city to city, in order to get to Illinois is never seen, but their timing is impeccable; regardless of the varying distances the creatures travel, they all arrive in Chicago at the same time. Go figure.

The idiocy of the whole thing is down to the brother and sister bad guys. If they already had billions upon billions in their accounts to spend on a private space station, exactly how much more do they need? I know that for the greedy rich, enough is never enough, but come on. And how were either of these two ever going to extract the DNA from the mutated creatures once they arrived in Chicago? Wouldn’t someone, somewhere ask, now, wait a minute. Who’s responsible for all of this? I know, I realize nothing plausible was ever intended, but surely there was a better reason to be found to get these giant creatures to go on a city rampage. Akerman’s CEO is so unbelievably evil with a total disregard for doing anything that actually makes sense, give her a twirling mustache and she wouldn’t look out of place laughing at the body stretched across a train track in a silent movie, as long as she made a profit.

The situations and the last second escapes are skull-scratchingly dumb, characters introduced at length in the first act inexplicably disappear for the rest of the film, and the continually absurd dialog has to come from the school of the painfully obvious. “They can’t stop them,” declares Johnson’s primatologist. “We’ve gotta get that antidote!” Though admittedly, Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s secret government agent with the good ol’ boy drawl, who talks whimsically of things his gran’pappy used to say, is a welcome hoot.

Johnson himself is his usual likable persona. Plus, he’s now big enough to survive the occasional cinematic bomb, as long as there’s another Jumanji or Moana on the horizon. But one thing that might cross your mind throughout Rampage is this: For a film that warns of messing with the DNA of larger than life creatures, isn’t it pause for thought that the central human character is also oversized from the norm? To call Johnson mutated would be an insult (and I wouldn’t dare) but with his unnatural, bulking frame, muscles that look as though they might burst out of his stretched, tight skin at any moment, and an overall look of a body by Bowflex, you can’t help being amused at the thought that maybe at some earlier time, this primatolgist himself might have got a small whiff of some of that experimental gas.

MPAA Rating: PG-13    Length: 107 Minutes    Overall Rating: 4 (out of 10)

Posted in Film

Little Women – Theatre Review: Valley Youth Theatre, Phoenix

It was a year ago this month when Valley Youth Theatre surprised us all with an ambitious production of the Broadway musical, The Secret Garden. The surprise wasn’t necessarily due to the youthful company’s professional approach, though it’s fair to say that audiences new to VYT are usually astonished when attending one of its larger musical productions for the first time. It was due more to the fact that the unedited, musical play was mounted at its smaller, home-based theatre on North First Street rather than across town at the larger Herberger Theater Center. With its high-standard of production and VYT’s ability to cast the show so well, The Secret Garden was beyond a doubt deserving of the grander and more prestigious setting of the Herberger. For the record, that end-of-season honor this year goes to the perennial favorite, Annie.

In many ways, this year’s VYT April production mirrors its 2017 counterpart. The Broadway musical Little Women, with its high-production values and a talented cast (frankly, something startling for a group of young, local actors all in the same production) is equally deserving of a Herberger Theater Center setting.

Though Louisa May Alcott’s sprawling nineteenth century novel is part of America’s literary fabric, a work that has inspired several films, plays, radio, and television productions, it might surprise many to discover there was ever a Broadway musical. Even though the show toured the country in 2005, the original production received only mixed reviews at best when it opened in New York, and closed after just four months. And for good reasons.

Allan Knee’s book adaptation of Alcott’s sizable, two-part novel never quite captured the overall warmth of the characters and the love they had for each other in the way that other adapted works achieved it. The highlights are there, but that’s what they are; highlights. Watching the show is like seeing a lengthy trailer, clipped scenes from a much larger work. Plus, Knee created a new opening, a scene that takes place much later in the novel, and its introduction feels abrupt.

When the show begins, the story’s central little woman, Jo (Lily Castle) is already an aspiring writer and living in New York, trying unsuccessfully to get her work published. When she asks the kindly Professor Bhaer (Steven Enriquez) for professional advice but doesn’t like what she hears, she turns on him like a petulant child in the playground with alarming aggression. If you’re new to Little Women and know little of Jo’s passionate character, there’s a danger of taking an instant dislike to her manner. The musical needs to open as the book does, at Christmas, three years earlier, when everyone is together, so that we can see the connection of the four sisters, their love for each other, their family alliance, and their differences. Once we come to know Jo, who, as her mother, Marmee (Tatum Dial) states, acts on every whim rather than thinks, then her childish insults to the good professor become easier to understand. As presented in the musical, that angry, verbal assault makes you want to keep the character at bay from the outset.

But once the show circles back three years earlier to that Christmas setting, and all members of the family, with its absent father, are properly introduced and seen interacting with each other, then the story begins to feel as it should.

Dori Brown’s scenic design makes great use of VYT’s stage by creating a set that includes the family living quarters, winding stairs to the attic, the wealthy Aunt March’s residence, and a small room in Mrs. Kirk’s New York Boarding House, all flanked by a yellow painted porch stage right and a barn with an awning overhanging a door stage left. When the action takes place further afield, a scrim drops, hiding the set and creating the feel of being outside, as when Jo first meets Laurie (Vincent Pugliese) or when Jo and her sister, Beth (Sarah Pansing) fly a kite together. A single garden trellis works wonders when suggesting an exterior setting, though the absence of anything suggesting rain during a rainy scene, despite the sparkling glisten on an umbrella, makes the event seem oddly empty.

With some exceptions, most of the score tends to evaporate once concluded. With music by Jason Howland and lyrics by Mindi Dickstein, the songs work pleasantly well within the context of the scene, but there’s little you’ll remember once the show is over; there’ll be no melody bouncing in your head during the drive home. But what does work is the energy behind the performances and the voices that sing them. The duet, Some Things Are Meant To Be, with Jo and Beth is pleasing, Tatum Dial as the mother telling Jo how she copes with the death of one her little women, Days of Plenty, is moving and made all the more effective by Tatum’s depth of emotion, and the upbeat Our Finest Dreams, where all the sisters, the fiery Jo, the likable Beth, the pretentious and sometimes jealous Amy (Kendra Richards) and the oldest sister, Meg (Stephanie Larson) sing of making their next Christmas the best one ever, is the one ensemble number that actually feels as if its musical roots are part of a Broadway show.

But the single showstopper – and it’s clearly designed to be that way – is Jo’s Astonishing, a song faintly reminiscent of Wicked’s Defying Gravity but without Elphaba’s rebel yell, sung in the family attic just before intermission, as the young woman considers her future and ponders how to achieve it.

Lily Castle made a positive impression in last year’s Spotlight Youth Theatre production of Legally Blonde as Paulette, owner of the local hair salon, but nothing in that production could have prepared audiences for the non-stop energy and sheer power behind her portrayal of Jo. Under director Bobb Cooper’s guidance, she not only elevates Little Women to something far beyond a regular youth theatre production, it’s probable that other actors sharing scenes found themselves pushing their own performances in order to compete. In the way that, from night to night, actors respond to the energy of an appreciative audience, there’s no doubt that this excellent cast responded to Lily’s energy during the rehearsal process and elevated each of their own performances.

The source material may be flawed – if you didn’t already know who the characters Aunt March (Emma Sucato) and Mrs. Kirk (Haley Hanni) were from the novel, it may take you awhile wondering why they were in a scene; they’re not introduced, they simply appear – but it’s Bobb Cooper’s VYT production and this truly capable cast that makes Little Women work. And at the center of it all is Lily Castle. She’s the standout.

Pictures Courtesy of Laura Durant of Durant Photography

Little Women Continues at Valley Youth Theatre in Phoenix until April 22

Posted in Theatre

Low Down Dirty Blues – Theatre Review: Arizona Theatre Company, Herberger Theater Center, Phoenix

When it was first performed, Low Down Dirty Blues was a musical revue of raucous, gritty, gut-bucket, good-time, dirty blues that ran for roughly 80 to 85 minutes, without intermission. It was set late at night in a Chicago Jazz joint when most of the customers had left. Its cast consisted of two female singers, two male singers, one with a guitar, and all supported by a piano player and a bass man. Since then, things have developed.

Now with two males and one female lead, and a running time of two hours, plus intermission, this Arizona Theatre Company production is currently in performance at Herberger Theater Center, Phoenix, and the first thing that strikes you is the set.

Scenic designer Vicki Smith has gutted Herberger’s traditional proscenium arch main stage and turned it into something akin to the city’s most comfortable looking black box theatre. Big Mama’s cramped South Side Chicago jazz joint, complete with lighted neon signs, a block of frosted glass windows, a mirror ball, and a worn, wooden door upstage center that’s in desperate need of some fresh paint, is there before us, all on a raised platform. The theatre’s arch is gone. There’s also a row of chairs and tables at the foot of the platform for those late night customers who just won’t go home, positioned where Herberger’s apron usually sits. The whole construction looks authentic; you can practically smell the aroma of alcohol wafting out into the main stage house from a lived-in set.

Then bass player Calvin Jones and piano player Steve Schmidt enter, followed by guitar player Jelly (Chic Street Man), all of whom start playing, paving the way for the grand entrance of Big Mama (Tony award nominee Felicia P. Fields) who, in a sparkling red dress, enters through that worn door, walks straight up to the mic center stage, and bursts into Willie Mae Thornton’s flirty, jelly rolling, They Call Me Big Mama. “Try that at home sometime,” she tells the ‘audience’ seated around the tables before her at the conclusion. The style, the setting, and the evening is set.

Low Down Dirty Blues may be a concert-styled jukebox musical in the vein of Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill or even Million Dollar Quartet, but unlike those productions where the songs were punctuated either by anecdotes or an arc of a thin story, this ATC production is interested in only one thing: a recreation of singing some low down, after-hours, dirty blues at Big Mama’s that takes us past midnight into early morning. There are no introductions that give the songs perspective; what’s spoken are mostly anecdotes previously stated by those ground-breaking blues musicians of the past. Thus, when Shake Anderson enters, before he performs his first number, Albert King’s Born Under a Bad Sign, with no introduction of who he is or why he’s there, he goes straight into the story of a boy who worked a job on a soda truck to earn enough to buy a harmonica, only he was fifty cents short. It’s a real-life tale printed on the cover of Junior Well’s 1965 album, Hoodoo Man Blues.

When Big Mama talks of having to get on her hands and knees while scrubbing floors in wealthy, North Shore homes, it’s not a fictional account written for her character, she’s quoting The Queen of the Blues, Koko Taylor, who cleaned floors for rich white folk during the day while singing the blues at night. And when Big Mama sits back in a chair for a well deserved rest and states, “I been in the blues all my life. I’m still delivering ‘cause I got a long memory,” she’s quoting Muddy Waters.

For the most part, the emphasis is on flirty humor, and some eye-rolling, very funny innuendo, all with nothing more in mind than having a good time. When Big Mama sings Denise LaSalle’s Don’t Jump My Pony she’s bouncing on a grinning Shake Anderson’s lap while declaring with a sense of comical ecstasy to the gods above, “Speak to me, Mr. Ed!

But there comes a moment of darkness in the humor regarding the music and its presentation when meant to appeal and be accepted by a largely white audience. In the way that Fats Domino’s blues influenced rock ‘n roll hits of the fifties received radio airplay only when covered by a bland, white-washed version by Pat Boone, Big Mama tells a similar story of what happened when watching The Lawrence Welk Show on TV. It took her almost two minutes to recognize a blues number sung by the wholesome sounding Lennon Sisters. “And I wrote the song!” she declares. It’s funny, but it’s also a reflection of something disgraceful.

But with that section and its laugh comes a moment of anger. Guitar player Jelly mentions Ed Sullivan, declaring him as the son-of-a-bitch who in his 40 year TV career never invited a real blues singer to perform on his show. It’s a criticism that seems perhaps overly harsh considering that Sullivan took huge, professional risks when he ignored the threats of his sponsors and his TV execs by inviting blues singer Pearl Bailey on his show, or the wrath of anger of his mostly white audience when he kissed Pearl on the cheek and shook hands with guest Nat King Cole. When Sullivan died, among his pallbearers carrying the casket was Louis Armstrong. But when Jelly states, “If I gotta sing it like somebody else, it ain’t worth me singing at all,” those bland Pat Boone song covers spring back to mind. You know exactly where that anger is coming from. And you understand.

But what you’ll leave the theatre with more than anything else is the sound of the blues ringing in your head. And it’s something quite extraordinary. In addition to songs already mentioned, when the full cast perform songs like If I Can’t Sell It (I’m Gonna Keep On Sittin’ On It Before I Give It Away), Nobody’s Fault But Mine, and I Got My Mojo Workin’, it’s like witnessing a joyous celebration that makes you feel like leaving your seat and joining in. When Jelly talks of Chicago blues and how it differs from the blues of the south, then goes into Robert Johnson’s Come On in My Kitchen on a steel guitar, it’s as if the sound – haunting, ethereal, spiritually dangerous as if the devil himself had a hand in it – seems to rise from the very depths below. “Listen to that wind howl,” he states. It’s the kind of dirty blues played when the players had no money.

Though maybe the most anguished and agonizingly effective performance of all is Shake’s version of Son House’s Death Letter, sung seated, where he tells of a letter delivered to him early in the morning, informing him of the death of the woman he loves. It’s a performance that’s nothing short of gut wrenching, one that can only be followed by Big Mama’s rendition of Billie Holiday’s Good Morning Heartache.

When you hear the blues, you’re hearing something so emotionally encompassing, it’s as if there’s no other sound in the world. And that’s how you hear it performed in Low Down Dirty Blues. Like the haunting sound of Jelly’s steel guitar rising from the depths below, observing Felicia P. Fields, Shake Anderson, and Chic Street Man perform at Big Mama’s is like being a spectator to something that has risen from the past and brought to life before you. Is it great theatre? Not really, but there’s no other forum that could present an evening like this quite so effectively. And as Big Mama asks before she makes her final exit, “Did you have a great time?” Before the sentence is even concluded, the answer is a foregone conclusion.

Picture Courtesy of Tim Fuller

Low Down Dirty Blues continues at Herberger Theater Center in Phoenix until April 22

Posted in Theatre

The Miracle Season – Film Review

If you recall director Sean McNamara’s 2011 biographical drama, Soul Surfer: A True Story of Faith, Family, and Fighting to Get Back on the Board, it won’t be difficult to see the connection with his new film, The Miracle Season. They’re not the same story, but the formula is definitely there, and The Miracle Season is nothing if not formulaic. But in this case, that’s not such a bad thing. Cynicism against thinly veiled, inspirational, faith-based movies with a sports-theme formula is understandable, but try resisting The Miracle Season whose very title expresses its outcome; it might be difficult.

Like Soul Surfer, there’s an upbeat, exuberant, and perhaps even more importantly, an ever-present virtuous heroine at its center, except in The Miracle Season that inspirational presence is mostly spiritual. Caroline Found, known as Line or Liner to her friends, was the popular team leader of the Iowa City West High School volleyball team. But tragedy struck. In 2011, Caroline died in a moped accident. Her teammates were understandably distraught, even though there was a championship to defend. The girls of Iowa City West were the 2010 State Volleyball champions. But now, with the emotional loss of the team’s most popular girl, they simply lost interest in playing.

Then inspiration came. After losing games through forfeit, the team united, and after a shaky start, they played. But their playing wasn’t just a need to win, it was a need to win for Caroline. And at this point it doesn’t need a reviewer to plow head-first through plot-spoiler after plot-spoiler to tell you what happened. Even if you’re unfamiliar with the real-life story, and have never before heard of Caroline Found, you know going in how it ends, the faith-based title tells you. As the voice-over narration from Caroline’s best friend, Kelly (Erin Moriarty) informs us, “Winning for Line was everything. So, losing for Line was unthinkable.”

This is our year, Kell,” Caroline (Danika Yarosh) tells her childhood friend and fellow volleyball teammate. “Our year.” As portrayed, Caroline is that unrelenting ball of positive energy whose batteries never flag. She practically skips along the sidewalk while others walk. With her long, flowing blonde hair, her blue eyes, and that athletic frame, she looks like a Scandinavian teenage beauty whose very demeanor screams wholesome health. But at the twenty-five minute mark, she’s gone. We don’t see what happens, which is good, but like all key, emotional moments throughout the film, we feel the impact. “There’s been a terrible accident,” the police tell Caroline’s father, Dr. Ernie Found (William Hurt). “It’s Caroline.”

The film then centers around best friend Kelly, who needs every word of motivation she can get in order to carry on. And in a film like this, those tear-jerking, motivational platitudes come at every opportunity. Coach, Kathy Bresnahan (Helen Hunt) continues holding the after-school volleyball practice because, “It’s what Line would have liked us to do.” When Kelly looks to the wholesome boy-next-door (Burkely Duffield) for inspiration before a game, he tells her, “Win or lose, you’re making her proud. I know it.” And when Caroline’s team captain position is awarded to Kelly, she confesses to Caroline’s father of her remorse for taking her friend’s spot. The good Dr. Found assures the girl there’s nothing to feel guilty about, “You took a position and you made it your own.”

Though the climactic state final is an edge-of-your-seat, thrillingly staged game, the several wins leading up to that championship finale are less so, presented more as a seemingly non-stop series of repetitive highlights consisting mostly of powerful ball pounds whacked over the net. You never really know where you are in the game, but at least it’s edited in a way that makes things appear exciting. It’s up to the broadcasting commentator with the mic and the headphones to fill us in. “The girls are letting it slip away from them!” he declares in case we haven’t noticed. And if those quick cuts to the electronic score board mean nothing, then the commentator helps us out by telling us, “If they win this set, then they win the match.” Good to know.

The faith-based movie comes from an industry that starts with good intentions but often ends with mixed results. The target audience for these comfort-food-for-the-soul stories may watch them with a less than critical eye, but having an inspirational message at its center is not enough to make a lame tale with average performances rise to something worthwhile just because there’s a religious theme involved.

Some may argue that this is what its audience wants, but why take the easy route and settle for giving them what they want when filmmakers can give them something better? The Miracle Season is something better. It manipulates the tears, sure, but then again all films manipulate emotions in one way or another. That’s what they’re designed for. And in Caroline Round’s story, what you see and what you might perceive as cinematic poetic license to heighten the inspirational factor actually happened, as evidenced by the clips of the real events that run during the end credits. In the way that the Iowa City West High School volleyball team won, against all sensible odds, the film itself eventually wins you over.

The gauntlet is thrown. I dare you not to cry, or to join in with a chorus of Neil Diamond’s Sweet Caroline after the game.  Good times never felt so good. So good! So good! So good!

MPAA Rating: PG    Length: 99 Minutes    Overall Rating: 6 (out of 10)

Posted in Film