James and the Giant Peach – Theatre Review, Valley Youth Theatre, Phoenix

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For the second show of its current season, and the first back on its home base on North First Street, Valley Youth Theatre premiered a new musical version of Roald Dahl’s James and the Giant Peach, the story of a young boy, his insect friends, and, just as it says in the title, a freaky, oversized peach.

Unlike the book, which, true to Roald Dahl’s style, has a macabre and occasionally bleak Dickensian manner to its beginning, in the musical when we first meet young James Henry Trotter (a perfectly appropriate Owen Watson with a nice accent) he’s already an orphan and he’s wondering what his future life might be.  With no parents and no immediate family to speak of, the orphanage locates two of James’ aunts who live together in Dover down by the English Channel, and it’s there where everything changes for the little English boy.


As evidenced in his other works, author Dahl’s style often employed somewhat dark and often frightening instances in his stories.  He had a knack for tapping into a child’s worst fear then creating an adventure out of it.  Parents didn’t always get it.  It’s as if they’d forgotten what can happen in a child’s mind.  But Dahl knew, and even though some of what made up his stories may have seemed to push the envelope on surreal, scary stuff, when it came to a child’s point of view, he got things exactly right.

The frightening elements that make up James’ story is mostly gone from the musical, but the essence of Dahl’s plot and the adventures in that giant peach are all there.  James is forced to live with his aunts by the sea who not only possess the oddest of names but turn out to be the most despicable two people in Dover.

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Spiker (Addison Bowman) and Sponge (Haley Hanni) are two of the most selfish, greedy and repulsive characters in the south of England, and they’re not exactly overjoyed with the prospect of having to look after a little boy, until, that is, they discover they’ll earn twenty-seven pounds a week for their efforts.  “Welcome to the family, moron!” declares Sponge.  Addison and Haley play the ladies with an intentional, over-the-top, arm-waving broadness.  Played any other way, their malicious and never ending cruelty would be too much, but the comic tone they deliver in this handsome looking production makes them considerably more palatable.  It’s as if they jumped off the pages of a strip cartoon and found themselves in the real world and have no clue how to blend in.

Throughout the show we’re treated to a character called Ladahlord (Clark Shaeffer) who here acts as a kind of Master of Ceremonies.  He’s not exactly a narrator, but when he appears he becomes the glue that holds the story together.  In the book he’s simply The Old Man, but in the show, Ladahlord continually drops by, pointing out things we’re about to witness right before our eyes.  Clark is a welcoming presence who, like his character, gives the comforting impression that no matter what disaster is about to unfold for the innocent young James, it’s going to be all right in the end.

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The effect of traveling across the ocean inside a giant peach is done well.  Once the fruit near the sea magically grows in size, James crawls inside to escape the taunts of his horrible relatives and finds himself surrounded by five insects who, just like the peach, have increased in height to the point where every one now towers over James.  These are the new adults in his life, and even though Centipede (the always reliable Connor Baker) is not exactly the friendliest of insects, the others – Ladybug (Isabella Conner), Grasshopper (Nathan Franzke), Earthworm (Sam Primack) and Glow Worm (Avery Strachan) – take to James as they float their way across the English Channel together in their makeshift, edible raft and out into the Atlantic towards New York.

There are other players who make up a surprisingly large ensemble and it’s during the opening number where we get to meet them.  Lead by our evening’s MC, the cast introduce themselves to us in a well-staged and nicely choreographed opener reminiscent in content of a mix between Pippin’s Magic To Do and Sondheim’s Comedy Tonight.  The new score from Benj Paek and Justin Paul is full of pleasant, upbeat numbers that here appear to work better in the quieter solo moments rather than when the whole cast join in.  James’ haunting On Your Way Home sung by Owen from his orphanage bed sets the tone for both his wants and desires, and when Isabella’s Ladybug soothes a worried James by beginning an ensemble song as an introductory solo, the moment and Isabella’s voice is both as sweet and as comforting for us as it is to the little boy.

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The opening night production was marred by some technical difficulties with sound and mics – all easily fixable for future performances – plus a few of the scene transitions left audiences occasionally sitting in the dark for periods longer than normally expected.  The recorded music – here very effective and never in danger of drowning the cast – plays as scenes change from one to another so that we’re never left in silence, but the production falters by having some of those moments feel as though we’re really watching a good  final rehearsal rather than the finished production.

Daniel Davisson’s lighting design coupled with Karol Coopers delightful costumes give the production a healthy, colorful glow throughout.  Director Bobb Cooper, who here doubles as choreographer, has a well established knack for fleshing out the best in young performers, and even though there’s a tendency for some to shout their lines rather than project, his Valley Youth cast delivers.  Plus, music director Rebecca Joslin brings out the best in all the young voices, as evidenced in the two above-mentioned examples.

With a running time of seventy minutes, plus intermission, James and the Giant Peach never overstays its welcome, and true to its Roald Dahl origins, inspires the imagination to look beyond what we see before our eyes.  And if this happens to be the first live production your child has ever seen on the VYT stage, they’ll be transfixed.

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

Posted in Theatre

99 Homes – Film Review

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There’s a good chance that many reading this column either know of a friend or maybe even a co-worker who has been in this situation.  Perhaps it happened to you and worse, you have yet to weather the full effects of the damaging storm.  The 2008 housing market catastrophe hit many and even now it’s not unusual to see foreclosure signs littered throughout the neighborhood.

In the new drama from writer/director Ramin Bahrani, 99 Homes, Michael Shannon plays opportunist real estate agent Rick Carver.  Up until about three years ago, Carver sold homes.  Now with foreclosures in full swing, he takes them.   When we first meet Carver he’s in the middle of an uncomfortable situation, but it’s nothing he can’t handle, particularly with his hired hands and a couple of local sheriff deputies by his side.  He’s evicting a family.  The father, unable to face a future with no one to help him and nowhere to go, has just shot himself in full view of his wife and children.  Carver’s disturbed, but not out of sympathy; he’s annoyed because the event is slowing things down.  He has more families to evict and now he’s behind schedule.  When a policeman asks for a statement, Shannon angrily dismisses the lawman as he climbs into his car.  “I can’t bring him back to life,” Carver declares.  “Stop wasting my time.”

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Andrew Garfield plays out-of-work handyman Dennis Nash.  Dennis is a single father who lives with his son Connor (Noah Lomax) and his widowed mother, Lynn (Laura Dern) and they’re about to be evicted.  After a tense moment in court where an unsympathetic judge treats eviction cases as though they’re just one of many on a never ending factory line, Nash is given thirty days to appeal.  But it’s the next day when Carver and his team turn up with the legal paperwork to seize property and toss the family into the street.  He gives them no more than two minutes to grab essentials and get out before the locks are changed.  “This is not happening,” Nash says to himself as he helps his son and mom retrieve whatever they can before they’re forcibly moved.

Like many families before him, all Nash can do for his son and mother is a room at a nearby motel.  “Just for a couple of nights,” Nash tells them, but when a motel neighbor hears what he said, she tells the family, “That’s what we said two years ago.”  Half the rooms at the motel are occupied by evicted families and they’ve been there for some time.

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Once both the characters and their situations are established, 99 Homes follows the path of Nash as he finds himself taken under the wing by the very man who evicted him.  Carver must see something in Nash he likes.  Perhaps it was the assertive way the unemployed handyman handled himself, or maybe it was the adaptable way he was willing to do anything in order to earn a living.  We’re never quite sure, but whatever it was that the real estate shark saw, he likes it, and he offers the desperate man a job.  Nash can aid Carver and his team in future evictions, and as the younger man soon discovers, there’s big money to be made from other peoples’ misery.

Director Bahrani tells his story with broad strokes.  He’s angry, you can tell, and his film is an angry film; there’s little subtlety going on.  Carver is beyond a doubt the devil.  When Nash signs on for employment to do unto others what was previously done to him, it’s as if he’s sealed the deal in blood.  “When you work for me, you’re mine,” Carver tells the young man, adding, “Toughen up.  Everyone’s got a sob story.”

The film is undeniably uncomfortable throughout.  Watching these horrendous people do horrendous things to others for personal gain but with a legal stamp of governmental approval, you can’t help but somehow feel less secure in your own situation, and that’s exactly how director Bahrani wants you to feel.  Everything is stacked against us, the director is saying, and everyone – the judge, the sheriff, the lawyers, the whole system – is in one way or another in on the highly profitable scam, but it’s all at our expense.  Young Nash embraces the opportunity to earn cash way too quickly.  He knows what he’s doing.  His new job is kept a secret from his mother and son still living back at the motel, so he’s aware that what he’s up to is not altogether right, but he keeps going, all the same, evicting family after family, until it’s all too late.

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There’s a moment where we see Nash passed out on a tiled floor of an empty new palatial size home he’s just bought, a house rejected by both his mother and son once they discover how he earned the money to acquire it.  The man is viewed through a sliding glass door window, the reflection of the outside pool glistening on the glass.  The image appears as though Nash has sunk underwater and is lying on the bottom of an ocean bed.   Even though the allusion is obvious, it’s also effective: he’s not just in way over his head, he’s finally drowned.

Despite some questionable narrative drawbacks – would someone like Carver really hire the younger Nash so quickly, and would Nash sell his soul quite so willingly? – the film draws you in on the strength of its two leads.  Michael Shannon can be effectively scary in any role, and here, in spite of the character’s obvious parallel with ol’ Nick, he still finds ways to give his character more shadings than what was written.   Same with Andrew Garfield, who here is given something meatier to do than zip around in a Spiderman costume.

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There are scenes that will emotionally drain.  Watching an elderly man who has signed for a reverse mortgage yet still finds himself evicted with a just a two minute warning is heartbreaking.  And watching Shannon’s Carver justify his actions without ever questioning his absence of morals may turn your stomach.  It’s ok for him to state that up until three years ago he was a regular real estate agent before the housing market catastrophe kicked in, but the way he dismisses everything that gets in the way of his personal earnings indicates he was always a heartless shark.

The American Dream is no longer for those who work hard and expect a just reward, the film is saying; it’s for those who simply take, except it’s not a dream at all.  When Carver is forced to carry a weapon and constantly looks over his shoulder in case an angry evictee comes after him, he’s in the middle of a self-inflicted nightmare, and nothing is more pathetic than watching a drowning shark.

MPAA Rating:  R      Length:  112 Minutes    Overall Rating:  7 (out of 10)

Posted in Film

Labyrinth of Lies – Film Review

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The opening scene of the new German language film Labyrinth of Lies from director Giulio Ricciarelli lasts a little more than a minute, but by its conclusion, you’re hooked.

It’s Frankfurt, 1958.  An elderly gentleman walks by a school playground, an unlit cigarette in hand.  He fumbles for a match.  A school teacher standing in the yard notices the old man.  He offers his lighter through the school railings.  Appreciating the kind act, the elderly man leans in, cigarette in mouth.  As he goes to take the flame, the gentleman glances up to see the face of the school teacher, and he freezes.  It’s as if the blood had suddenly drained from his face.  The man is a survivor of Auschwitz.   The school teacher was a Nazi officer at the camp.  And this is a true story.

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Even though the international courts of the Nuremberg trials were long gone, Germany, we learn, had yet to cover the same ground.  But, as one young prosecuting lawyer is about to discover, bringing the subject of Nazi war crimes to light was never going to be easy.  Even though thirteen years had passed since the war, there were two problems a prosecutor had to face.  A younger generation was not only unaware of its country’s past, most had never even heard of Auschwitz or what had happened there.  An older generation didn’t want to talk about it or acknowledge that anything had ever taken place.  Mankind’s biggest atrocity was unknown by a modern, late fifties Germany, and the complacency of those who did know was startling.

When that elderly gentleman with the unlit cigarette tries to tell the authorities that an S.S. officer was now teaching children, no one is interested.  Johann Radmann (Alexander Fehling) overhears the protests of the old man and decides to help.  Radmann is a dedicated lawyer with a keen sense of fairness.  To date, most of his cases were traffic offenses.  Meeting the concentration camp survivor was something different.  The young man’s idealistic tendencies were suddenly stoked.  He agrees to help and takes the case, but it’s an uphill battle.  “This country wants sugar-coating,” another camp survivor tells the young lawyer.  “It doesn’t want the truth.”

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Even when Radmann visits the American Embassy and looks for any kind of documented proof of German involvement in the camps, the American military office states, “Are you out of your mind?  Hitler is gone.  It’s the Russians you should be worried about.”

Through perseverance and a lot of file searching, Radmann manages to get that particular school teacher suspended, but a trip back to the play yard shows that the teacher is still there.  Nothing changed and it appears that nothing ever will.  But that doesn’t stop the lawyer.  If anything, it inspires him to investigate further.

By German law, at this point, all the lawyer needs is one witness to state that a murder was committed.  The young prosecutor will then have something to act upon.  With the aid of a middle-aged secretary, Radmann takes the testimony of any Auschwitz camp survivor willing to talk.  When a survivor is asked whether he saw someone killed at the hands of a Nazi officer or not, the man answers, “Yes.”  When the lawyer asks how many killings the survivor witnessed, the young man follows through with, “How many?  One?  Two?”  With a cold, matter-of-fact stare, the survivor calmly replies, “Hundreds… of thousands.”  The silence that follows as both lawyer and secretary try to correctly process that piece of information is stunning.  And what makes that astonishing moment all the more compelling is that we as an audience are already aware of these facts.  It’s watching the reaction of those who are unaware and their hearing of these horrifying details for the first time that makes the scene so overwhelmingly powerful.  After listening to testimony after testimony as more survivors come forward, the secretary has to put down her pen and notepad and leave the room.  Outside in the hallway she leans against the wall and weeps.

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The hurdles that follow as the lawyer tries to bring justice are all consuming.  As his sympathetic Attorney General (Gert Voss) warns, “This is a labyrinth.  Don’t lose yourself in it.”

But besides being a film of discovery and the attempts to bring justice against those who deserve it, Labyrinth of Lies is also a story of an ambitious young man whose determination and often pious nature occasionally gets the better of him.  His girlfriend Marlene (Friederike Becht) suffers, as does several of his colleagues, but the young man can’t help himself.  When he works he wants nothing to get in his way as he plows through file after file looking for anything that will help his cause, and when he dreams, he’s plagued by nightmares of following Dr. Josef Mengele along a hallway, stopping only when reaching an operating table.

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It’s difficult to pinpoint how much time has passed since watching a film so emotionally upsetting.  Its power rests not so much in what we learn of Germany’s war days – as already stated, most of us are already aware – but the witnessing of what a new generation of Germans will come to learn.  As each Auschwitz survivor opens up to Radmann we don’t hear their words; we don’t need to, we can imagine what they’re saying.  All we need to see are the looks on the faces of those listening.  “None of us were thinking,” Radmann states.  “All we had to do was open our eyes.”  In Labyrinth of Lies, yours will be open, and like that secretary who had to leave the room, they may also weep.

MPAA Rating:  R      Length:  122 Minutes    Overall Rating:  9 (out of 10)


Posted in Film

Pan – Film Review

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Author J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan first emerged as a character in a book called The Little White Bird.  That was in 1902, and Peter didn’t arrive until chapter thirteen.  The author then wrote a full length book called Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens.  That was published in 1906.

With this backstory in mind, it’s curious how the new big screen adventure from director Joe Wright called simply Pan is intended as a prequel to what we already know of the boy.  In Pan, a baby boy called Peter is left by his mother (Amanda Seyfried) on the doorsteps of the Lambeth Home for Boys. It’s just twelve years before the Second World War.  The curious timeline is only one of the many oddities that turn up in this new, high-energy filled fantasy adventure.  Perhaps the best way to enjoy it is to either forget everything you’ve ever known, or think of it as taking place in some sort of parallel world that kind of looks like London; a place where reality and logic don’t always mix.

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Once the abandoned child is taken in by the nuns of Lambeth, we skip years ahead to the middle of the war where outside, the Blitz is raging.  Peter (Australia’s Levi Miller) is still waiting for his mother to return, but the vindictive and child hating Mother Barnabas (Kathy Burke in full villainous, pantomime mode) has other plans for the boy.

During the night, children disappear.  The nun is trading war-time rations for boys.  The orphaned youngsters are snatched from their beds in the middle of the night and whisked away for a life of slavery by airborne pirates.

After a spectacular night ride in a pirate sailing ship that zips and zaps at an unexplainable top speed among the attacking war planes over London, Peter and the other kidnapped children arrive at their final destination; the second star on the right.  It’s Neverland, and currently Neverland is a place where boys are slaves to Blackbeard the Pirate (Hugh Jackman).  Blackbeard needs the pixie dust that’s buried in the walls of the island’s mountains and caves.  In Pan, the valuable dust is called Pixum and Blackbeard needs it to stop aging.  He smokes the stuff.  It’s the boys and anyone else unlucky enough to be plucked by the pirates that do all the work.


From there, Pan never quits.  The film moves at speeds faster than Blackbeard’s flying pirate ship as Peter does whatever he can to escape the chains of slavery, encountering mermaids, oversized, monstrous looking crocodiles, island natives, including a friendly Tiger Lily (Rooney Mara) and an Indiana Jones type adventurer known simply as Hook (Garrett Hedlund).  Oddly, these characters as presented here are nothing like the characters we’ve come to know.  This isn’t just a prequel, it’s a whole new world where Hook and Peter are friends.

Pan is a colorful blast of adrenaline that throws everything into the pot, as long as it looks or sounds good.  When Blackbeard makes his entrance to his gallery of youthful slaves it’s to the accompaniment of children singing Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit.  Considering the date, the setting and the fact that Pan is not a musical, it doesn’t really make sense.  But it does sound great as those children’s voices bounce off the walls of the surrounding mountains insisting that Blackbeard entertains us, and it makes for one spectacular entrance by Hugh Jackman.

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Director Wright has mounted a handsome looking package full of lavish CGI induced magic and glittering spectacle that often moves so fast, the whole thing is in danger of outpacing itself.  As stunning as many of the airborne battles are, the split-second editing and dazzling, non-stop pace makes for one busy film; you’re not always sure what you’ve just seen, plus if you’re seeing Pan in 3D, the constant change of visuals overwhelm more than they should; before your mind has time to focus on something, it’s already gone.

The set designs throughout are quite magnificent.  The huts and homes of the colorful natives look like a cross between an Ewok village and a place where Disney’s Kon Tiki birds would feel at home.  The pirate ship is full of interesting details and artifacts, while the battles during both the London Blitz and over the mountains of Neverland are dazzling.  That monstrous crocodile is pretty impressive, too.

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Hugh Jackman’s Blackbeard is played with relish, though he reins things in when a moment may be in danger over going over the top, unlike Kathy Burke’s mother superior whose snarling villainy is played at full tilt.  Young Levi Miller is perfectly fine as Peter while Garett Hedlund’s Hook is a genuine curiosity.  With dialog delivered on a deliberately low level, he shows nothing even remotely close to what we would expect a future Captain Hook to be.  As an adventurer captured by Blackbeard and forced to dig the mines, he looks as though he’d be more at home raiding lost arks.  Rooney Mara’s native islander Tiger Lily is equally curious.  In a production that does everything possible to avoid the word Indian, Tiger Lilly talks not with a broken accent as if English was a second language but with a pure American one.  It’s strangely jarring, at least at first, but in a world absent of logic where the timeline makes no sense and the kids sing Nirvana, in the end you accept almost anything, and Mara makes her Tiger Lily thoroughly likable.

The conclusion doesn’t quite reach the point where what we know of Peter Pan has occurred.  Hook is nowhere near the captain he’ll eventually become, Peter hasn’t quite developed those flying skills to full capacity, and characters like Tinkerbell or the Darling family are yet to be mentioned.  Potentially, there’s still more prequel to tell.  The world hardly needs additional versions of Peter Pan, but depending on box-office, don’t be surprised if Hollywood does what author J.M. Barrie did.  After his Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens was so well received, he then wrote a play for his character where nothing resembled the book.  Director Wright appears to be doing the same.

MPAA Rating:  PG      Length:  111 Minutes   Overall Rating: 8 (out of 10)

Posted in Film

He Named Me Malala – Film Review

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At the beginning of the new and genuinely inspiring documentary from Davis Guggenheim, He Named Me Malala, we learn of a story that took place in 1880.

It was the Battle of Maiwand and it told of a clash between the invading British and the defending fighters of Afghanistan.  At a moment when all looked lost, a young, local girl took up her flag and galvanized the Pushtun fighters to overcome the Brits, declaring that, “It is better to live like a lion for one day than to live like a slave for eternity.”   The girl’s name was Malala, and that’s what Ziauddin Yousafzai of Pakistan named his daughter.  The flag waving girl in the story was killed.  Fortunately for the Yousafzai family, and, in fact, for the world, her present day namesake remains very much alive.

He Named Me Malala is the story of the young Pakistani female activist and Nobel Peace Prize laureate who was shot in the head by the bullying Taliban for speaking out on behalf of education for girls.  When her father, who is as much a part of this story as his daughter, was asked who shot Malala, he replied, “It was not a person, it was an ideology.”

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Both the aftermath of the shooting and the media coverage that followed are swiftly presented at the beginning of the film.  Malala is whisked from her Swat Valley home in Pakistan to a hospital in Birmingham, England where she remained on life support while in a coma.  The event remerges later in the film, though this time the tragic affair is covered in closer detail.  Despite what we already know, it remains shocking.

A Taliban fighter stops her school bus and shoots Malala in the head.  Shots of the blood-stained vehicle are presented in a deafening silence as we look and wonder, trying to fathom the depths of this insanity while attempting to focus on the images before us.  Who are these horrendous bullies who wrap themselves in the flag of their religion yet subvert its teachings and shoehorn whatever meanings they desire to correspond with their own twisted beliefs?  They’re the male dominated Taliban, and through the use of news footage and recordings, we see how the insidious movement moved into Malala’s village.  “They’re not about faith,” Malala’s father states, “They’re about power,” adding, “They’re the enemy of Islam.”

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Using radio broadcasts, a feared militant called Fazlullah regularly voiced dissent against those in the village who would oppose the will of the Islamist Taliban.  At first the broadcasts appear to be welcomed as Fazlullah talks of peace and bringing a form of order to the area.  Then things turn.  Fazlullah orders the destruction of ‘vulgar’ western influences, such as posters, CDs, DVDs and books.  Then TVs are destroyed.  If a home was heard watching television, Taliban soldiers would break down the door and forcibly drag the set from the home and out onto the street.  Then schools are destroyed, and soon the ability for girls to find education in the Swat Valley becomes impossible.  The Taliban even destroys the police station and mercilessly kills the local force.  “Not one single girl should go to school,” announces Fazlullah.

The Taliban knows Malala has voiced dissenting opinions, and it’s Fazlullah on the radio who lets the village know where he stands.  “When I am willing to kill myself,” the man angrily declares, “Others are nothing to me.”

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Despite the cowardly attempt to silence a defenseless teenage girl, Malala survives.  The bullet caused considerable damage – her left ear drum was destroyed rendering her deaf on one side while bone that was driven into her brain was successfully removed – but now under the protection of a British society, away from her village, Malala and her family – mom, dad, two younger brothers – are seen playfully exchanging conversation and friendly jabs in their new home.  There’s a moment of telling humor when the family drives the streets of Birmingham looking for a certain house, but they’re having trouble finding it.  As Malala’s father remarks on the row of British dwellings, “They all look the same.”

The difference of educational levels in Malala’s family is an appropriate illustration of the very thing Malala is now championing around the world.  Her father is an educated man of strong opinion who has instilled in his daughter a love of discovery and a need to continually ask questions.  Her mother, on the other hand, is seen struggling with a foreign language in a foreign land and is having trouble finding friends and simply fitting in.  As Malala observes, “She’s not independent or free because she’s not educated.”

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Through the use of animation, TV news clips and fresh footage of Malala addressing world leaders, the documentary covers a wealth of material that can’t help but fascinate throughout all of its 87 minutes.  There’s a glimpse of the interview Jon Stewart conducted on The Daily Show with Malala.  We see but a fraction of that broadcast, though if you have seen the full conversation – I’m assuming someone’s posted it on You Tube – you’d agree that the documentary would have benefited from showing a lot more.

The notion that you can never go back has a literal meaning for Malala: The Taliban has declared it will kill her if she returns.  But that doesn’t stop the filmmakers.  Occasionally the documentary revisits the Swat village to see how things are and how certain locals perceive the now famous young girl from their area who now lives in England and travels the world.  One young man states that she should have stayed in Swat while another simply dismisses her, stating, “She’s a girl.  She doesn’t know anything.”

MPAA Rating:  PG-13    Length:  87 Minutes    Overall Rating:  8 (out of 10)

Posted in Film

Yakuza Apocalypse – Film Review

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The Yakuza films have a history that date back to the silent era.  The original Yakuza were the Robin Hoods of Japan, outlaws who lived on the outside but longed to return to society.  Today, the Yakuza movies represent Japanese organized crime syndicates.  One of the most famous and certainly one of the most prolific Yakuza film directors is the notorious and controversial Takashi Miike, a man whose career runs the gamut of styles ranging from comedy and drama to sexual perversion and graphic bloodshed.  In his new film, Yakuza Apocalypse, he throws everything into the bowl.  It’s one, giant, over-the-top, cartoonish potpourri of an adventure with an end result that is nothing short of a disaster.  This is a complete mess.

For someone who has never seen a Takashi Miike film, or, for that matter, anything to do with the Yakuza, there’s a long period of adjustment required when watching this new opus.  In fact, you may never become adjusted.  Even if you know a little of the style or the setup, trying to work out what’s happening in this Yakuza world and why will prove tough.

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My life was like lukewarm water,” narrates gang member Kageyama (Hayato Ichihara), “Then I met him.”   The young Yakuza is referring to The Boss (Lily Franky), a vampire leader who is mean with a samurai-sword and not adverse to slicing and dicing anyone in his way while protecting local villagers from having their businesses taken over by larger corporations.

But the Boss has enemies.  One of them is a traveling priest who turns up with the intention of wiping him out.  It all has something to do with a larger, organized federation of vampires that the Boss is ignoring, but the reasoning is never quite clear.  Whatever the problem is, the priest – who for some odd reason speaks fractured English, understood by all surrounding Japanese characters – has the Boss killed.  But not just killed; this is a Takashi Miike movie.  The Boss is beaten, sliced, then his head is twisted, then it’s twisted again, and then once more for luck until the neck is loose enough to have the top ripped by hand from the rest of his body.

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The anguished Kageyama hugs the boss’ head in a display of loss and affection, but this is no normal head.  Don’t forget, it’s the head of a vampire, and the power of the Boss is not quite done.  In a moment designed to get laughs but simply looks gross, the head bites the neck of the grieving young man.  The undead powers of the vampire are immediately passed from one to the other.  Kageyama’s hands become so red hot once the blood of the vampire flows through his body that he breaks open a shell and fries an egg on his open palm, over-easy.  And after biting the neck of yet another victim, he suddenly discovers he not only has fangs but he’s become prone to stating the painfully obvious.  “Not again,” he declares.  “I’m bad… not good.”

From there the whole thing seems like a giant free-for-all as characters speak a line or two of dialog before kicking and pummeling each other to death in a never ending series of battles and confrontations.  Whose side anyone is on is up for grabs.  They just keep fighting.  “Yakuza don’t care about winning or losing,” states one, blood-stained character.  “We just fight.”  Now, there’s logic.

Yak 3

Plus, in addition to the weirdness of having kidnapped locals held prisoner down in the basement, preserved for vampire food but kept busy by knitting woolen sweaters to pass the time before they’re eaten, there’s also the arrival of a peculiar, kung-fu kicking frog.  The character is intended as a bizarre distortion of a Japanese mascot.  It’s actually a guy dressed in a cheap looking clumsy green costume, the kind you might see waving to you outside of a downtown strip mall at a new store opening surrounded by balloons for the kids.

Sadly, not even the big showdown between two fighters has any fun to it, and when it’s over, there’s no sense of satisfaction, just relief that it’s over.  When an enemy fighter declares that all Yakuza are stupid, a defending Yakuza gang member replies, “Subtract stupid from Yakuza and you’ve got nothing left.”  I think he might be on to something.

MPAA Rating:  R     Length:  115 Minutes    Overall Rating:  1 (out of 10)

Posted in Film