The Transporter Refueled – Film Review

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Here’s the problem.  In a film as bad, as crass and as clearly preposterous as this fourth installment of The Transporter is – and, oh my gosh, it really is – you’d think it would recognize its awfulness and have fun with it, but no.  It plays it straight.  That’s not to say you won’t laugh, but you’ll do it for reasons producer/co-writer Luc Besson didn’t quite intend.

Gone is Jason Statham.  He’s replaced by Game of Thrones actor Ed Skrein who supplies not only the car but the same, low-pitched, whispery growl in that Statham styled cockney accent.  He’s bland, but he’ll do.  Now, ponder the following.

Skrien is thirty.  His age is mentioned only because of a curious observation regarding the movie’s timeline.  The film begins with an episode regarding the action of the bad guys as pimps that takes place twenty years ago in 1995, then we jump fifteen years later to 2010 which, for some unexplained reason, is where the rest of the film takes place.  I guess it’s meant to be a period piece.  Later we learn that Skrein’s character, driver Frank Martin, was in the same military unit as the main villain back in the day.  Really?  Back when?  At what age did Frank don his fatigues and pick up a rifle?  When he was five?  Moving on.

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Like almost all of Luc Besson’s curiously kinky fantasies that keep turning into films, The Transporter Refueled revolves around killer pimps, prostitutes, human trafficking, lots of guns spraying endless supplies of bullets, shiney vehicles, and French police who’re generally portrayed as clueless.  As with every other Besson penned action/thriller, they’re the continental version of The Keystone Cops, but instead of running around, comically bumping into each other, it’s their cars that do the bashing, and usually to each other or to some poor innocent bystander who just happens to be in the way.

Frank is hired by Anna (Loan Chabanol) for a job.  “The deal is for one passenger,” Anna explains.  “You pick me up, you drop me off.”   It’s that simple, though, of course, this is a Transporter movie; it’s never that simple.   Anna double-crosses Frank by having his father (Ray Stevenson) kidnapped and held captive by one of her female conspirators, while two more ladies join Anna in Frank’s car.  Without getting bogged in detail, basically the four women are out for revenge.  They were once child sex slaves of the movies’ main bad guy (Raivoje Bukvic) and now they’re going to financially ruin him by committing a series of heists, with Frank doing the driving.  Frank, of course, is not happy, but as Anna tells him, “Once you understand what we’re up to, you might even like it.”  As far as I can tell, he never does.

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For some reason, the four bewigged, gun-toting femme fatales have this thing about The Three Musketeers.  “All for one and one for all,” they quote after one of the jobs.  They even have a conversation with Frank about it’s author, Alexandre Dumas, and just in case you missed all of these literary references, there’s even a copy of the book lying around in the old warehouse where they’re keeping Frank’s dad hostage just in case someone fancies a quick read in between bank heists.

As you would expect, the fights are well choreographed and the car chases with all of those nice, shiny black vehicles are well executed in the way only expert stunt drivers could drive them.  But like many over-the-top thrillers of late, the action never really excites, there’s never a feeling that martial arts expert Frank is ever in danger, it just occurs before us, and we have to go along for the ride, passive observers, while continually wondering when those four former child sex slaves now seeking revenge had time to read classic 19th century French literature.

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As with just about every Luc Besson inspired work, the women are there for men to salivate over.  They’re either mini-skirted, leggy hookers or mini-skirted, leggy killers.  Considering those four ladies have supposed to have suffered a life harder than anyone in the real world could ever imagine since childhood, it’s amazing they still look like they could grace the cover of Cosmopolitan.  At one point, one of the ladies takes a crippling bullet in the stomach during a shoot out.  There’s a life or death moment when Frank’s dad has to extract the metal from her body then mop up the blood.  An hour or so later that same woman is engaged in a threesome under the covers with Frank’s dad and one of the other girls.  Evidently, she heals quickly.  Once again, moving on.

The dialog is minimal but what there is consists of either lengthy exposition or sentences from the school of the bleeding obvious.  At a certain point after a confusing climactic shootout on a boat, Frank spells out to Anna what we’ve just seen but didn’t necessarily understand.  It comes out something like, “You did this knowing I’d do that, but what you didn’t know was… “ and so on, and so on.  He’s like an instant Sherlock Holmes conveniently explaining after the event in a few sentences everything that previously made no sense.  Perhaps there was some Sir Arthur Conan Doyle hidden under that copy of The Three Musketeers back at the warehouse and we just didn’t notice it.

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The best lines, however, are both uttered by the same character.  French actress Noemie Lenoir plays bad girl Maissa.  When watching those revenge seeking women in matching blonde wigs on a surveillance video camera, she states, “They look exactly the same,” then adds, just in case we missed her powers of observation, “You cannot tell them apart.”  Then later, when observing the same women in another video but wearing different outfits, she remarks, “They’re the same girls,” then adds, “Wearing different outfits.”  Frank’s not the only Sherlock in the cast.

If you’re a fan of The Transporter movies and snarky comments from a movie reviewer are not what you want to hear, then, sorry, but The Transporter Refueled begs for snarky comments.  The franchise will continue.  Luc Besson has already stated that he’ll be writing a fifth and a sixth.

Luc.  Please.  Don’t.

MPAA Rating:  PG-13     Length:  96 Minutes    Overall Rating:  1 (out of 10)

 

Posted in Film

A Walk in the Woods – Film Review

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There’s a book by travel writer Bill Bryson called The Lost Continent.  It chronicles Bryson’s trip he made traveling throughout the small towns of America starting from his childhood home of Des Moines, Iowa.  If you get a chance, look for a copy.  It’s pleasant, humorous, and even though it’s low on facts and history, because of Bryson’s likeable, observant style, it’s a nice, mild way to spend a few hours.  In other words, it’s a fun read.

In the new Robert Redford film based on another Bryson book, A Walk in the Woods, Redford plays Bryson, and the style of the film is the same as the writer’s prose – it’s pleasant, humorous, and even though it’s low on facts and history, it’s a mildly fun way to pass an hour or so.

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When we first meet Bill Bryson (Redford) he’s being interviewed for television and it’s not going well.  The somewhat smarmy studio interviewer is posing his questions to Bryson in such a way that after a pause, a confused Bryson has to ask, “Is that a question?”  When the interviewer asks Bryson what do writers do when they have writer’s block, the author responds with, “We either drink ourselves to death or blow our brains out.”  He then adds, “After this interview, maybe I’ll do both.”

The problem with Bryson is that he hasn’t written anything substantial for nearly four years and he feels he needs to do something; not necessarily write a book, just do something.  For whatever reason, the idea of walking the Appalachian Trail, all two thousand, one hundred and eighteen miles of it with a backpack, appeals to him.  His wife, Cathy (Emma Thompson) is appalled.  “Seriously,” she states, “For you Bill, it’s ridiculous.”  But it’s something he has to do.  “Can’t you just do this in the Volvo?” Cathy asks.

If Cathy can’t talk her husband out of doing the trek, she can at least insist on him having a companion.  So, Bryson calls everyone he knows.  No surprise; no takers.  Then, just at the moment when the whole deal seems like it’s a no-go, Bryson receives a call from an old, grizzled Iowan acquaintance, Stephen Katz (Nick Nolte).  He’s interested.

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When Katz flies in to meet the Brysons, he practically falls off the plane.  He’s disheveled, overweight, ruddy-faced and looks like a prime target for a heart attack, but he’s certainly game, and for reasons later revealed, he really wants to disappear for a few months.

For the remainder of the film, the two men stumble through the trail where they encounter, among other things, bears, heavy rain, thick snow, and an enraged, jealous husband who wants to know what Katz was doing with the husband’s amorous wife.  “She’s got a beautiful body,” Katz later informs Bryson, adding, “… Buried under two hundred pounds of fat.”

Evidently, A Walk in the Woods is a project Redford has wanted to get off the ground for years.  Initially it was intended as a way of reuniting him with his Butch Cassidy partner, Paul Newman, but sadly, with Newman’s passing, things stalled.  Nick Nolte brings a different quality to the role, and because of his manner and overall appearance, the thought that Nolte’s character might pass out at any minute is forever present.  Nolte’s gravel-pit of a voice has become so hoarse that when we first hear him over the phone, it sounds as though he’s talking from the inside of a water-logged scuba mask.  Surprisingly, Nolte and Redford work well together.

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The events encountered along the way are, like the film itself, mild mannered and relatively inconsequential.  Funny lady Kristen Schaal plays a Chatty-Cathy backpacker whose mouth never quits.  When the annoying woman guesses that Nolte’s Katz is a Libra, Katz is impressed.  “I am a Libra,” Katz tells Bryson.  “What are the chances?” “One in twelve,” Bryson dryly responds.

There’s also an appearance from Mary Steenburgen who runs a small motel near the trail, and even though it’s pleasant to see her, nothing really occurs, and the two men move on.  And so it goes.

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There’s a running joke throughout that Bryson is doing this for the fun and not for any literary purposes.  “I’m not writing a book,” he continually repeats, but of course, that’s exactly what he’ll be doing, and something we’ll see him start at the fade out.  That’s not a spoiler; the film is based on his book.

There isn’t a great deal more that can be said.  The film is an effortless way of passing time, the humor is gentle with the occasional big laugh, and the pairing of Redford with Nolte makes for good company.  You’d think that with two men of such differing character spending more than a couple of months backpacking together there’d be more conflict to grapple, but that’s not Bryson’s style, and it’s not the film’s either.

MPAA Rating:  R       Length:  98 Minutes    Overall Rating:  6 (out of 10)

Posted in Film

Lucky Stiff – Theatre Review, Arizona Broadway Theatre, Peoria

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In the musical farce Lucky Stiff, if you listen closely to what’s being sung during the opening number it’ll tell you everything you’re about to see.   There’s a chase in a lovely foreign place.  There’s a murder in New Jersey, there’s a body and a gun, and there’s a fortune to be won.  In fact, there’s something funny going on at Arizona Broadway Theatre and there are two good reasons to find out why; the songs and the voices that sing them.

Lucky Stiff is the final show of ABT’s current season, and it was the least known title on the lineup.   The show opened off-Broadway in 1988, and even though it ran for only fifteen performances, it found success elsewhere, including award winning performances in Maryland and a staging in London.  There’s even a movie that completed production last year with showings at various film festivals around the country, but, to date, no general release.

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Mild mannered Harry Witherspoon (Seth Tucker) is an English shoe salesman who wishes for a better life.  Just at the moment when he feels he’s going nowhere he receives a telegram and it changes everything.  Apparently, Harry had an American uncle he never knew, and that uncle has left Harry six million dollars, but there’s a catch.  In order to receive the money, Harry has to take the embalmed corpse of the dead uncle on a trip to Monte Carlo in a wheelchair and fulfill specific tasks at specific times, including sky diving, fishing, scuba diving, visiting museums and gambling.  It’s all spelled out in the will.  If Harry fails in any of those areas, the money goes to Uncle Harry’s favorite charity; the Universal Dog Home of Brooklyn, all six million dollars of it.

In theatre circles, a general issue considered to be a problem with musical farce is that farce with music doesn’t always work.  Where the regular construction of the stylized comedy and its exaggerated sense of humor requires a buildup that becomes more manic as it goes along with physical humor, broad delivery and a complete sense of the absurd, critics of the genre insist that songs slows things down; they simply get in the way.  That’s what they say.  Not so with Lucky Stiff.  In fact, the songs are the saving grace; it’s writer Lynn Ahrens’ book that gets in the way.

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The plot is as it should be, full of nonsense, broad humor, lots of mugging and occasionally a little incomprehensible; everything you would expect in a farce.  The issue here is the humor and the padding.  The show moves at a breakneck speed, often leaving the audience, and presumably the cast, frequently breathless, and it’s all undeniable fun, but it’s not always easy to laugh; the dialog isn’t quite as witty as you might hope.  Plus, there are moments when the script feels as though it’s propping itself up, particularly in the shorter second half where Harry’s unnecessary nightmare sequence does nothing other than make the production last five minutes longer.  The score, however, is a different matter.

Where Ahrens’ script sometimes falters, her punchy, clever lyrics never do, and neither does Stephen Flaherty’s bright and exceptionally tuneful score.  There’s a faint echo of Sondheim’s Comedy Tonight in the opening number – not in the tune but in the humorous vein of story-telling content – and it’s that style that continues throughout.  The score is akin to early Stephen Sondheim permanently locked in comic mode; the show doesn’t stop for songs, they further the plot.

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In many respects, the lively and often very clever score is so surprisingly good, had writers Ahrens and Flaherty presented the whole thing as a comic operetta told exclusively in song it might have worked better.  As it stands, most of the important plot points are expressed in lyrics and music and that’s where the show really works.

There are ten in the ensemble with some playing several roles, and they’re a great looking, talented bunch.  Seth Tucker’s Harry might stumble on the English accent from time to time, but he makes a wonderful nerdy and continually bemused foil to all the comically well-timed mayhem and black humor swirling around him.  Even Tim Shawver’s immobile and embalmed dead body in the wheelchair makes a presence.  But the real strength of the show is its two leading ladies.

Trisha Hart Ditsworth plays Annabel Glick, the rep from the Brooklyn dog home, and it’s Annabel’s job to shadow Harry everywhere he goes.  One slip on the time table and the six million goes to the dogs.  Annabel’s duet with Harry, Dogs Versus You, is funny enough, but her solo Times Like This where we learn a dog can be a woman’s best friend as much as a man’s is a thing of genuine beauty and it’s Trisha’s powerhouse voice, one that actually seems to grow stronger with every new production, that makes it so.

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ABT audiences may remember Abigail Raye’s funny turn in the supporting role of Paulette in the recent production of Legally Blonde, but in Lucky Stiff, the leggy comedienne takes center stage.  You can’t miss her.  She’s like Carol Burnett on speed but better looking with a voice that can really belt.  Her bizarrely dangerous and legally blind Rita La Porta, the woman who killed Uncle Anthony – it’s complicated – is a truly funny comic creation, and Abigail’s spiky high-heels runs with it.

In a show with high production values that are actually better than the book, director Evan Pappas keeps his cast sharp while music director Mark 4Man’s tight arrangements brings the best out of his orchestra.  The whole thing looks and sounds great.  As a show, Lucky Stiff may not compare as well or as grand as previous productions, but when the score surprises as much as this one does and it’s sung so well as it is here, it remains a perfectly satisfying way to end the season.  Besides, hearing Trisha sing and watching Abigail mug are alone worth the price of admission.

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

Posted in Theatre

42nd Street – Theatre Review, Spotlight Youth Theatre, Glendale

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Based on the classic Warner Brothers 1933 musical of the same name, 42nd Street is a nostalgic look at the backstage shenanigans of a Broadway musical, even though it’s not technically about the real Broadway at all.  It’s a fantasy version of the Great White Way as seen through the prism of Hollywood.  That’s why when you first enter the house at Spotlight Youth Theater, the large white screen framed by black curtains that face you are perfectly appropriate; it actually has the feel of entering a small town, period movie theater.

The 1980 musical version came at a time when Broadway was beginning to tap in to the idea of revivals as a way of filling theaters, only in this case, instead of reviving a show, the producers turned to the movies for their source of nostalgia.  In the same way that the film aimed at helping audiences temporarily forget the Depression, Spotlight Youth Theatre’s opening production at its home base in Glendale is a wonderful way of helping audiences temporarily escape the late summer doldrums; it’s the theater’s season opener and it’s great fun.

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Peggy Sawyer (Katie Czajkowski) is the wide-eyed innocent fresh off the bus from Allentown, Pennsylvania.  She’s in New York to follow her dreams at a time when money and employment, not to mention food, were hard to come by.  She does what many other young women of New York did at the time – as a way escaping the reality of starving on the streets she auditions for the chorus of a Broadway show.  Fortunately for Peggy, she’s actually better than many of the girls already dancing, and in true wish-fulfillment Hollywood style, it’s not long before she’s hired.  You’re familiar with the rest; the prima donna star, Dorothy Brock (Kira Kadel) breaks an ankle and it’s young Peggy, the chorus girl, who goes on in her place.  “You’re going out there as a youngster,” declares director Julian Marsh (Michael Schultz), “But you’ve got to come back a star!”

The show uses the Harry Warren and Al Dubin songs from the film but adds several additional Warren-Dubin numbers of its own.  If you remember the film, you might recall there are surprisingly long periods between songs; the best ones saved for the final twenty minutes or so.  The show is different.  The score continues throughout.  It even begins with one of the best dancing sequences in the live presentation.  After hearing several voices declaring with excitement that there’s about to be a new show in town, the curtain rises on rows of tap dancing feet then fully reveals a cast of hoofers eagerly auditioning for the new production, Pretty Lady.  It’s a great beginning and a treat for lovers of musical theater who constantly bemoan the absence of tap-dancing in modern shows.

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The young cast tackles Alicia Frazier’s demanding tap-dancing choreography with the same kind of energy displayed by those Hollywood hoofers of the time.  As mentioned above, many of the penniless chorus girls during the Depression turned to both Broadway and Hollywood to escape the streets.  As a consequence, several were hired for their looks rather than ability which is why when you see some of those old black and white Hollywood movies of the early thirties or newsreel clips of Broadway, much of the dancing and its timing are suspect.  Within a few years, as talkies began to rule, the standard soon changed, but in 1933 when 42nd Street takes place, that’s how it was.

Even though the Spotlight Youth Theatre production doesn’t have early thirties realism on its mind, when some of the cast, particularly younger members, forget to smile or they quickly glance down to check their steps, or they simply lose their rhythm for a moment when everyone should be dancing as one, in many respects, the look takes on a certain moment of surprising realism that truly reflects the time. Perhaps the production could be called out for a lack of tightness, or that an extra rehearsal or two might have helped make a couple of the big set pieces such as Lullaby of Broadway or the climactic Forty-Second Street appear stronger, but if viewed from the way things used to be, you’re happy to overlook the occasional timing misstep or a technical flub; that’s sort of how it was.

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Kira Kadel as prima donna Dorothy has a standout duet with Peggy with About a Quarter to Nine, while Sydnie Greger comically shines as chorus girl Anytime Annie.  Phoenix Briggs delivers the right amount of eager, boyish charm as Billy, but the two you’ll remember are Michael Schulz as demanding director Julian Marsh and Katie Czajkowski as Peggy.

Over the last few years of attending Spotlight it’s good to see local young talent develop season by season in a direction suggesting a future career, and in this production both Michael and Katie have taken the casting opportunity afforded and, under director Kenny Grossman’s guidance, delivered the kind of performances deserving of extra future attention. Those individual moments when both actors share the stage, working together, help elevate the overall production to another level.  And if together they can’t help you forget the late summer doldrums, nothing will.

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For more regarding times, dates and tickets, CLICK HERE for the Spotlight Youth Theatre website.

 

Posted in Theatre

Wicked – Theatre Review: The National Tour, ASU Gammage, Tempe

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One of the most enjoyable aspects of experiencing a large scale touring Broadway production at ASU Gammage in Tempe is the response of the audience.  Point in question: Wicked: The Untold Story of the Witches of Oz.  Everything about it is big.  The score is epic, the stage required is huge, and the packed house is overwhelmingly vocally responsive.  Without question, valley audiences love grand scale musicals, and more importantly they love to show it.

From the opening bars of the Overture right up until the final moment when two important characters walk off to face their uncertain future together, ASU’s opening week audience did what it always does.  It cheered, it roared, it occasionally screamed and it thunderously applauded.  The whole affair is practically gladiatorial, and there’s four more weeks to go.  Here’s my bet, and it’s the safest one I’ll ever make: it’ll be like that every night, guaranteed.  Valley audiences are among the most demonstrative in the country, and being a part of it only adds to the fun of turning a show into a large scale event.

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Another safe bet: chunks of the audience will have seen Wicked before.  At this point, most should be familiar with the setup of the musical and how it tells the story of what happened in the Land of Oz, seen not from the point of view of a certain little girl from Kansas and her dog Toto but from the Wicked Witch of the West.  Evidently, original author Frank L. Baum must have got it wrong; the famous green witch wasn’t necessarily bad, just misunderstood.

The show opened on Broadway in 2003.  This is the second national touring production – it’s called The Munchkinland Tour – and it’s the third time the show has appeared on the expansive Gammage stage.  Considering the high level of energy continually required to make it work you might forgive the production if you noticed the occasional sign of a cutback, or perhaps some trimming in the book here and there, but no, not only is that vigor totally intact, this current production on our local stage actually works better than the last visit, and a lot of that has to do with its two leads.

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A theatre colleague once said that the trick to playing Glinda is getting that opening line right.  As long as audiences laugh the moment Glinda floats in on her bubble and declares, “It’s good to see me, isn’t it?” followed by “No need to respond – that was rhetorical,” then it’s working.  The ASU audience didn’t laugh, it roared.  Carrie St. Louis wins you over the moment she floats down.  The performer injects Glinda with such a fresh sense of playful energy, not to mention a new burst of great comic timing, that after awhile if you’re among those who’ve seen the show before, you tend to forget that the role wasn’t always played that way.  Carrie has made it her own.  Perhaps for some, there are times when that playful energy might appear in danger of becoming a little too broad, but when you think that in a huge auditorium as vast as Gammage where you have to play to the back row, that over-the-top delivery is just right.  Plus, she’s very funny.

Same with Alyssa Fox as Elphaba.  Being perpetually green has its challenges when trying to get audiences on your side – facial expressions are not always as easy to determine, plus there was always the original concern that the character’s novelty factor might actually block the ability to fully connect – but that’s nowhere near the case here.  Employing everything from fluid body movement often used to good comic effect to an appropriate maniacal laugh when needed, not to mention a wonderful singing voice – she brings the house down with both the The Wizard and I and Defying Gravity – Alyssa does with Elphaba what Carrie does with Glinda; she makes it her own.  Considering the amount of famous names and previously known talent who have played these two characters over the years since 2003, that’s impressive.

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There’s also solid support from the rest of the colorful and high-energy cast, but something special happened with the opening week lineup, and of all times it happened on Press Night.  On this current tour, Elphaba’s wheelchair bound sister, Nessarose is usually played by Broadway talent Liana Hunt, but for whatever reason, on the night that much of the media and many local reviewers were present, Liana was absent and the understudy was brought in.

Local Apache Junction talent, Beka Burnham graduated from college just last year and has been with the ensemble of the Munchkinland Tour ever since. But Beka is also the understudy for both Glinda and Nessarose.  On Press Night the audience was treated to a local Maricopa County talent appearing in a major Broadway role.  With a sympathetic delivery and an outstanding singing voice, Beka played the role with the accomplished expertise of an actor who owns it every night.  It was here on the ASU Gammage stage that Beka first saw a production of Wicked when she was a season ticket holder.  Now she’s in the show.   I can only imagine the thrill for Beka being on the stage where it all started and for those in the audience aware of the significance of what had happened.  After all, there’s no place like home.

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Plus, there’s one more thing, and it’s great news.  It will alter the enjoyment of not only Wicked but all future ASU Gammage touring productions – the theatre’s sound system.  If anyone had a complaint regarding the auditorium it was always the lack of clarity.  Depending where you were seated, lyrics weren’t always heard and dialog was occasionally lost.  The new and well publicized ASU system is now in place and it’s good.  There’s a rich quality to the sound that now enables everyone in the house, no matter where you’re seated, to enjoy a superior clarity of audio previously absent.  It really does make all the difference.

To read a special Q&A with local talent Beka Burnham, CLICK HERE

For more regarding time, dates and tickets CLICK HERE for the ASU Gammge website.

Posted in Theatre

Learning to Drive – Film Review

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When living in the middle of a major city like New York, knowing how to drive and owning a car doesn’t always take on the same form of necessity as it would somewhere else.

There are trains, buses, and taxis all over the place.  And if you’re the kind that rarely leaves the city, why would you need to drive anywhere?  This is how NYC book critic and all-round intellectual Wendy Shields (Patricia Clarkson) has always seen it.  She doesn’t drive.  She’s never needed to.  Besides, whenever there’s been a need, her husband did all the driving.  But then it happens.

At the beginning of the new independent film Learning to Drive from director Isabel Coixet, Wendy’s husband of twenty-one years leaves her for another.  “Is she one of your students?” Wendy asks.  When Ted (Jake Weber) remains silent, Wendy has her answer.

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The separation is difficult for Wendy.  “I don’t know what I believe about marriage,” Wendy will later say, “Except that it would always be there.”  She really doesn’t it take it well, but she clings to the hope that it’s all just a temporary thing.  Maybe Ted is simply taking a break, thinking about things, working out a few personal details.  He’ll be back.  Sure he will.  Then Wendy’s daughter Tasha (Grace Gummer) visits.  “He said he filed for separation yesterday,” Tasha tells her mom.  Not only is Wendy now officially alone, she’s stranded in the middle of a city and she can’t get out, not even to visit her daughter; she can’t drive.

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Mr. Darwan Singh Tur (Ben Kingsley) is an Indian Sikh who drives a cab in the evening and gives driving lessons during the day.  He’s a gentle, patient man, a naturalized American citizen who fled his country after an arrest and torture.  His crime?  He was born Sikh.

Once a distinguished college professor in his homeland, now he lives the single life in a foreign city.  Every day he suffers the indignity of racial slurs.  Plus, he’s having marriage issues, but his concern is the opposite of Wendy’s.  He’s about to get married, and it’s an arranged one.  When we first meet Darwan he has never met his bride-to-be.  “My sister picked her out for me,” the man explains.

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What follows is the meeting of two people who help each other.  Wendy signs up for lessons, Darwan instructs.  Together the two form a relationship during a critical period in their lives when they probably need each other the most. Timing is everything.  They both have something to teach and they both have something to learn.  When Wendy fails her first test after losing her concentration at key moments and not breaking for Stop signs until it’s too late, it’s an indication that not only is she not ready to drive, she’s still not ready to accept what’s happened at home.  When she’s truly at peace, or at least comfortably adapted to an attitude outside of her previous comfort zone, then maybe she’ll get her license.

Despite Wendy’s rage and the occasional and understandable moment of anger, Learning to Drive is not an angry film.  It’s a pleasant, non-threatening ride with gentle humor.  There are conflicts to overcome yet you never feel the danger that anything is ever going to get out of hand, even when a couple of local yobs declare, “Hey, Osama!” in the streets and bang with fists on Darwan’s student driving vehicle.

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Like Darwan’s overall calm and composed manner, the film has the same gentle nature and calming rhythm throughout.  But it also makes Learning to Drive ultimately as unexceptional as its title, even though both leads are terrific when they’re together and equally so when apart.  In fact, above all else, it’s Clarkson and Kingsley’s authenticity that anchors this modest film.  They give it the weight it needs.

MPAA Rating:  R     Length:  90 Minutes     Overall Rating:  7 (out of 10)

Posted in Film