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

Blockers – Film Review

Those who greenlight movies love a single sentence pitch. It’s easy to understand and it wastes no time at the table. This is probably how the meeting went.

Okay, so it’s prom night, and three parents do whatever they can to stop their daughters from having sex after it’s discovered the girls have made a sexpact. That’s the pitch. That’s the setup. But here’s the clincher, and it’s on the poster. The film is called Blockers, but look closely and you’ll see a picture of a rooster (a cock) perched over the letter E. Remember in that other raunchy teen comedy back in 2007, Superbad, where a couple of cops never realized it, but they were stopping the leads from having sex? They called it ‘rooster blocking,’ only they used the other word. That’s what this film is really called. That’s who the parents are. It’s right there on the poster, hiding in plain sight.”

And there’s the synopsis, short and to the point. Three parents follow their daughters to the prom, and later to the hotel intending to c##kblock their teenagers from losing their virginity. And as anyone over the age of, let’s say, forty might think as they roll their eyes at the thought of sitting through another ‘R’ rated teenage sex comedy, just as you’d expect, Blockers is rude, crude, and raunchy. And it’s raunchy in that way you wouldn’t want to think of your teenage daughter acting raunchy. But what you might not expect is this: it’s also very funny. Among the smiles of constant amusement, the lewd though comical situations, the surprisingly witty dialog, and the butt-chug sequence (don’t ask), by the end of the film, you might count somewhere around six big laughs, and frankly that’s six more than expected.

The three girls in question have been best buddies from day one. When Lisa (Leslie Mann) films her daughter’s first day at school, two other little girls join the frame, greet each other, and enter the school together, ready to face the adventure of their lives. It’s a sweet and funny beginning, made all the more humorous by the comically tearful reaction of the on-looking parents having to say goodbye to their children for the first time. But cut to the final year before college and those three, sweet girls are now grown, and they have other things on their mind. “I’m having sex!” declares Lisa’s daughter, Julie (Kathryn Newton) to her two friends, Sam (Gideon Adlon) and Kayla (Geraldine Viswanathan). Clearly, they all saw Superbad when their parents were out of the house. They lost their innocence years ago. Now they’re up for losing their virginity.

What makes Blockers so consistently comical is not so much the premise but the characters. In addition to the three girls, who each possess distinct, individual traits with their own agendas and expectations of what the night might bring, there are the three parents who are flat out funny. The perpetually girlie-voiced Leslie Mann is, as you would expect, immensely likable, even when her interfering though well-meaning character annoys; big guy John Cena plays against type as the muscle-bound, over protective, sensitive father, Mitchell, who can’t stop shedding tears of emotion at every opportunity; and Ike Barinhotlz as Hunter, the idiot, knuckle-head divorced dad with the Wallace & Gromit teeth who surprises all by occasionally coming across as the parent with the healthiest and most understanding attitude.

But perhaps best of all, under Kay Cannon’s direction, her first feature, what really makes Blockers work so surprisingly well is that all of the characters, even the minor walk-ons, have something likable about them, each with a funny line or an unexpectedly intelligent comical payoff. When young Julie drops red flower petals over the bed sheets in the way she says she saw it done in American Beauty, her boyfriend, Austin (Graham Phillips) asks, “You watched the whole thing?

MPAA Rating:  R    Length: 102 Minutes    Overall Rating: 7 (out of 10)

Posted in Film

A Conversation with the 2018 International Horror & Sci-fi Film Festival Director, Monte Yazzie

Phoenix Film Festival (April 5-15, 2018) has announced the International Horror and Sci-Fi Film Festival lineup, which will feature competition films, short films, filmmaking panels, and more. Now in it’s 14th year, International Horror and Sci-Fi Film Festival will take place April 6-15 at Harkins Theatres Scottsdale 101, 700 E Mayo Boulevard, Phoenix.

Recently, I had the opportunity of talking with the International Horror and Sci-Fi Film Festival managing director, Monte Yazzie to discuss not only this year’s festival and what you can expect to see, but also his thoughts on the horror and sci-fi genres, including what he’s looking for in a horror or sci-fi film. 

Plus, scroll to the bottom of the page for links that will take you directly to the schedules for both Phoenix Film Festival and International Horror and Sci-Fi Film Festival.

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This is the 14th year of International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival. Today, it’s part of Phoenix Film Festival, but if I remember, it used to run later in the year, isn’t that right?

Correct. It used to be it’s own entity for quite a few years, from year one to almost year nine, or year ten. It was in October of every year. But the partnership we have with Phoenix Film Festival was something necessary in order to keep us thriving, and it’s also great for our growth. It’s allowed us to reach a greater audience, and it’s given us a home with Harkins Cinemas. And the festival’s executive director, Jason Carney has been fantastic with allowing us to grow.

Were you with it from the beginning, or did you join later?

I joined later, but I had been to both Phoenix Film Festival and International Horror and Sci-Fi Film Festival since the start as a fan.

How did you get involved?

I was a fan for many, many years until finally, I think, because of me being around from the start of the day until the end of the night, Jason Carney probably said, this guy ain’t going anywhere anytime soon, so let’s bring him on. So, I started as a VIP, a liaison for the guests, and then slowly moved my way into judging for some of the short films and the feature films. Then I moved my way into management, and I’ve been the festival manager now for four years.

Do you personally see every film?

I don’t see every film submitted, but I do see… hmm, I would say, seventy-five percent of the movies that are in our showcase.

How many is that in actual numbers?

If we’re talking about the films admitted for submission, it’s anywhere between thirty or forty films for submission. And then for the competition films, I usually just see the winners that our programmers pick.

When it comes to the horror genre, I can usually tell within the first ten minutes, often earlier, whether this is going to work. Is that the same for you?

I usually give it the ten to fifteen minutes test, too, but there are some horror movies I saw all the way through that I might have quit, then look back and say, wow, if didn’t stick around until the very end I would have missed something really special. I often think about this 1999 movie called Audition. Now, Audition has the most awful… almost sixty to seventy-five minutes of some of the most awful filmmaking you’ve ever seen. It’s a terrible love story. Just crummy characters. And then all of a sudden it turns into some of the most depraved horror you’ve ever seen. It becomes such a shock. The last fifteen minutes of that movie really came to life. So, I often think of that one as one you wouldn’t have been able to judge in the first fifteen minutes. But for the majority of these films, you pretty much get the foundation for what you’re going to see early on.

Are there specific qualities in a horror or sci-fi that you’re looking for, something that makes them stand out among the others?

Well, for horror and sci-fi, the genre is so versatile, it almost changes year to year, especially for the horror side. A few years ago, the short film and the features had everything to do with zombies. And then when The Conjuring and Insidious came out, we started getting these ghost stories. But because there are so many sub-genres, we do see a lot of, you know, waves of what’s popular from year to year, so I often talk to the programmers about quality within the genre, maybe something we haven’t seen before, or something that approaches it from a perspective that’s unique. That’s what’s going to make the most impact. But I do have to say, when you’ve seen so many zombie films, it’s difficult to see something that’s going to entice you in a different way.

Now, this year, your opening night film on April 6 is ‘Downrange.’ What can you tell us about that?

Downrange has the most basic premise you’re going to get. It has to do with a group of college kids whose car breaks down. Their tire blows. And in the process of changing their tire they realize it wasn’t debris on the road, or, you know, a malfunction with the tire, but it was, in fact, a bullet. The rest of the movie is about a sniper in a tree. From there the kids are taken out, one by one. A simple premise but done with exceptional style from a really good director, Ryuhei Kitamura. He made a movie back in early 2000 called Versus, a zombie possession film with a Samurai lead character. And he made a movie a few years ago called The Midnight Meat Train. He’s an innovative horror master and just a phenomenal director. He makes a simple premise in Downrange really come to life. And it’s super gory.

You also have a world premiere later that evening, with special guests in attendance. I know the film is called ‘Cynthia,’ but that’s all I know.

Cynthia is a kind of cross-between The Unborn and Basket Case, movies from the eighties. It’s about a woman who tries to get pregnant with her husband. She ends up giving birth to something that is truly… er, atrocious. That little creature comes to life, and starts to torment people around this young girl. But there’s an aspect of humor that’s on every frame of this film, and it’s done with some very recognizable actors. There’s Sid Haig and Bill Mosley who are often featured in Rod Zombie movies. There’s a lead performance from Scout Taylor-Compton who was in the remakes of Halloween, parts one and two. She’s sowed her seed in horror and has become quite the scream queen in recent years. She’ll actually be in attendance at this world premiere, as well as the director and the producer.

Another of the films showing this year is a documentary called ‘To Hell and Back: The Kane Hodder Story.’ Who is Kane Hodder, and why does he have a documentary?

Kane Hodder is the… I would say he’s the most iconic version of Jason you’re going to get. That’s Jason Voorhees from the Friday the 13th films. He’s been entrenched in horror for years, since the late seventies. He was a stunt man for many, many years. He was Jason, then Victor Crowley and The Hatchet films. He’s a go-to guy for being a monster in the movies. But I’ve often expressed this sentiment to many people that, you know, these guys who bring these grotesque images alive are often the most gentle and really kind people. And Kane Hodder is one of those guys. He may play this terrible killer – I think he has has the record for the most kills on screen – but underneath all that he’s a most interesting, introspective character. He cares deeply about the people he works with. To Hell and Back documents his life, but it also documents a tragedy he went through. He was severely burned, and there’s the torment he went through life as a child being bullied. The film shows how all of that brought him to where he is today, and it’s filled with a ton of cameos,

Aside from the films we’ve already mentioned, is there a particular movie you saw when previewing that took you by complete surprise?

There’s a science-fiction film we have called Imitation Girl, and it’s a very interesting film. It has a duel lead performance from a very interesting actress. Lauren Ashley Carter plays an alien and an actress. The premise of the movie is where an alien materializes in the middle of a desert, and she interacts with the world by taking the form of an actress she sees on a billboard. It has so many layers to it with themes about sexuality, identity, about human interaction, and the disconnection we have with ourselves and the world. There’s this quality about the movie that took me by surprise. The lead is so good, and the premise is so competently executed by the director. And it’s directed by a female, too, Natasha Kermani. We have about four or five films directed by female directors, and that’s something that I think is important because having that female perspective for the genre is only going to make things more interesting. It brings a whole new depth to the films.

When the festival is over, how soon do you start working on next year’s schedule?

Almost immediately. It’s something you have to keep up on. A lot of these filmmakers are already starting work on their next projects, or they’re near completion of their next project. These films will take time to come out for their audiences. Sometimes a filmmaker may have finished his or her film in 2016, so a lot of them are getting ready to put their new film on display, and I’m out there, getting ready to put their films on my list and keeping movies on the radar that I may want to program later. And we do a showcase in October, too, where we have the opportunity to screen three films over three nights, so we start planning for that immediately.

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For times, dates, and tickets CLICK HERE for International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival, and CLICK HERE for Phoenix Film Festival

Posted in Special Report

Ready Player One – Film Review

It was director Steven Spielberg himself who made the distinction. When introducing his new science fiction adventure, Ready Player One at the 25th SXSW Film Festival in Austin, Texas, on March 11 he stated that what audiences were about to see was not a film. It was a movie. A hardcore, popcorn, multiplex, white-knuckle ride movie. And he’s right. That’s exactly what it is. Schindler’s List, Bridge of Spies, Lincoln, and more recently The Post were all films. But Ready Player One is a movie. And like the Rock ‘N Roller Coaster ride of the Disney theme parks, all anyone needs to do is to buckle down, take a deep breath, hold on, and get ready for blast off.

Based on the hugely popular 2011 debut novel of Ernest Cline, Ready Player One is set in the year 2045. In the way an earlier generation slipped on a pair of headphones from their Sony Walkman to become lost in a world of music, most from this futuristic, dystopian society slip on the goggles and gloves to escape their desolate, slum-like existence and enter the virtual reality world of OASIS. It stands for Ontologically Anthropocentric Sensory Immersive Simulation, or as the story’s central character, young Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) tells us in an introductory voice-over, accompanied by Van Halen’s Jump on the soundtrack, it’s a place where everyone goes to do all the things they can do, and stay for all the things they can be.

Wade was born in 2027, after the bandwidth wars. His parents are dead. He lives in the slums of Columbus, Ohio with his aunt, and like everyone else around him, his escape from reality is to enter the world of OASIS at every opportunity. Naturally, once within this fantasy, high-tech world of sheen, color, and light, Wade is not himself; that’s way too ordinary. He’s Parzival, an avatar, who befriends other avatars representing people he’s never actually met in the real world. Within OASIS, he works as a virtual mechanic, and is a master behind the steering wheel of his Back To The Future DeLorean.

That’s the setup, but the story revolves around the recently deceased inventor of OASIS, an eccentric, practically inarticulate genius nerd called James Halliday (Mark Rylance). Like Willy Wonka looking for the right person to inherit his chocolate factory, before his passing, Halliday invented a game that requires Gunters – a contraction of Easter Egg Hunters – to find three keys hidden somewhere in his VR world. Whoever finds them and can unlock the secrets will inherit all of OASIS, along with a ton of money. Of course, the games and the clues to find them are so outrageously difficult, the task is virtually unwinnable, but someone will eventually win, and Wade, with help from his small group of avatar friends known as the High-Five, intends to be that someone. “Let the hunt for Halliday’s Easter Egg begin,” is the rallying cry, and they’re off.

If you saw the TV trailer and thought, well, that looks chaotic, you’d be right. The film is exhausting and, for some, continually in danger of sensory overload. Images shift shapes in a flash, characters and machines zip all over the place, crashing into each other at dazzling speeds seemingly faster than light, while players within the VR world do whatever they can to stop themselves from being ‘zeroed out,’ a term for losing everything that would wipe their avatar and everything they have from OASIS altogether.

It’s eye-catching to say the least, but among the chaos and the endless cacophony, the real fun is spotting all the pop culture movie references that whiz by, and how the film uses 70s and 80s hits, like Van Halen’s Jump, Blondies’s One Way or Another, and Twisted Sister’s We’re Not Gonna Take It to support or punctuate the action. Even the Bee Gees’ Stayin’ Alive is put to good use when Wade and fellow Gunter, Samantha (Olivia Cooke) take to the dance floor. Though Wade has never actually met the real Samantha and knows her only by her avatar name, Art3mis, he professes his love. “This is not my real body,” she points out, “This is not my face.” “I don’t care,” the stricken teenager responds. They’re Romeo and Juliet gamer style; on-line fantasy lovers who never remove their VR goggles or actually venture out into the world to meet and go on a real date.

Among the countless film pop culture references, including King Kong, the ship from Silent Running, the pods of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Betelgeuse, The Iron Giant, the Alien chest exploder, Buckaroo Banzai, a knife wielding Chucky, and so, so many more, the gamer award for Best Movie Sequence goes to Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. The High-Five team enter a virtual Overlook Hotel in search for another hidden key while walking around the familiar looking sets of the classic 1980 horror. It’s a genuine, eye-popping sequence, full of cinematic creativity where the Gunters become part of Kubrick’s film, exploring the hotel hallways, encountering those two creepy girls who want Danny to come and play, and finding a pathway to the decaying occupant of Room 237.

The Cline novel acknowledges many of Speilberg’s own films, but once the celebrated director came on board to direct, he removed most of his personal references, though look closely and you’ll glimpse a brief Jurassic Park moment. And technically, as a producer of Back to the Future, the DeLorean is a kind of Speilberg reference.

During the late seventies and eighties, filmmakers like Speilberg and George Lucas were held responsible for developing a new generation of moviegoers with low attention spans. For them, action was required from the get-go. By comparison with Ready Player One, Luke Skywalker and Indiana Jones are taking a slow boat to China. Watching the High-Five and their competitors attempt to gain those elusive three keys that will hand over the Wonka kingdom is nothing short of breathtaking, in a literal sense.

Teenagers, adolescents, and those older who refuse to let go of their controllers until you take it from their cold dead hands, will have no problem. Older generations, those who actually once owned a Sony Walkman but are not so interested in playing video games yet keen to see what Steven Speilberg has done, are going to need oxygen masks.

MPAA Rating: PG-13    Length: 140 Minutes    Overall rating: 7 (out of 10)

Posted in Film

Henry IV, Part 1 – Theatre Review: Southwest Shakespeare Company, Mesa Arts Center, Mesa

Here’s an important tip before seeing one of Shakespeare’s history plays: do some homework. Not a lot. It doesn’t have to be on the level of a college paper, or even a high-school essay. Simply go on-line or pick up a book and catch a glance of who’s who; perhaps even a brief outline of what you’re about to see. It will help. Unlike his comedies, tragedies, or his dramas, where the only obstacle for the casual Shakespeare visitor is adjusting to the Elizabethan language, a history play by William Shakespeare seen for the first time might prove a challenge.

The stories can feel sprawling. Scenes jump from one to another with settings that are months apart, but you might never realize it unless you already know. Plus there’re the names. When characters are referenced by different titles, you start asking questions, such as how come a certain character is called this when others are calling him that? If someone is known as Hotspur, then who is Harry, and why does someone else call him Cousin Percy? And how confusing it must be to suddenly realize that another Harry, then Hal, then Prince of Wales, and eventually Henry are all the same person.

Plus, there’re the locations. It may not be of vital importance to have heard of Shrewsbury, or York, or Northumberland, or even where an area called Eastcheap is supposed to be, but it helps. Going in to see a Shakespeare history play armed with a little advanced knowledge puts things into perspective. It’ll make all the difference to your enjoyment. And there’s no better example of this than watching Southwest Shakespeare Company’s new, inventive production of Henry IV, Part 1.

Like all of Shakespeare’s history plays, the dates and settings in Part 1 may be historical, but it’s not history. Fictional characters mix with real-life royalty. Though, perhaps because Shakespeare knew that Queen Elizabeth 1 would be in attendance at his Globe Theatre on the south side of the River Thames, members of her lineage were generally presented in a positive light, even if, in reality, they were often the villains, or vice versa. It was insurance for the author against being arrested. The best example is King Richard III, a man who by most accounts was an okay guy, but being out of favor with Queen Elizabeth’s bloodline, was written by Shakespeare as an ugly hunchback with a vindictive, villainous streak. No doubt, the queen was amused, but it wasn’t history.

When referring to Henry IV, Part 1, students of Shakespeare will want to discuss the subjects of honor, the British culture, its languages, and the duality of settings and character. Under director Asia Osborne guidance, all of these themes and production designs are clearly evident, thus scenes depicting the serious nature of war and vengeance in a stately setting are balanced by comedic, bawdy scenes of drunken frivolity in a pub.

The theme of honor comes in the shape of Hotspur (Joshua Murphy) whose defense of his family name is of paramount importance, while King Henry lV (Eric Shoen) is tormented by the belief that his act of insurrection against Richard II at the beginning of the play was dishonorable. The bufoonish Falstaff (Keath Hall) questions the very nature of honor, concluding that it’s all a waste of time.

And the difference of languages within the great British isles are delivered not only with regional dialects, as with Archibald, leader of the Scottish rebels (Alexis Baigue) whose brogue is nicely conveyed, and with the more difficult Welsh accent, successfully conquered by James Cougar Canfield as Glendower, but also with Bonnie Beus Romney whose Lady Mortimer knows no English and can speak only in her native language of welsh.

In addition to the original Elizabethan text, director Osborne has introduced some new directorial flourishes, including singing that, first, introduces the play; second, brings us neatly to the intermission; and third, concludes the story. There’s also amusement, particularly when it comes to Falstaff and his cohorts and the way they enter from the theatre aisles, or the bumbling manner with which they execute a robbery, reminiscent of something The Three Stooges might have once performed. After waking up in a pub, the fat, boastful Falstaff refreshes himself under the arms and around the neck with flecks of beer from a silver mug.

What doesn’t work quite so well is Falstaff’s modern military marching cadence and his ‘Boom Shaka Laka’ call, which comes across as simply jarring. Though oddly, Seth Scott’s guitar playing bass line to The Beatles’ Come Together, or Jethro Tull’s Aqualung, used as musical scene transitions, works surprisingly better than you might think.

The production also benefits from a vigorous and highly-spirited cast where the energy of every member never flags. Plus, it’s gender-blind. Some characters traditionally male are played by Megan Lindsay, Libby Mueller, Hilary Kelman and Bonnie Beus Romney, and they never feel out of place. Keath Hall’s Falstaff embodies both the bloated, physical appearance and the comedic characteristics of a vain, cowardly knight, while Joshua Murphy’s Hotspur is nothing short of adrenaline-fueled; the man talks with such excitement as he plots against the reigning king, his feet practically leave the floor with every new idea that springs to mind.

Eric Schoen makes for an effectively solemn and troubled King Henry, though curiously this is not really the king’s story. He’s absent for long stretches to the point that his character becomes a subplot in his own play. The central figure is really Tony Latham’s Prince Hal, the future king, whose performance balances the mischievous prankster with the seriousness of royal duties extremely well; another example of the duality of character that students of Shakespeare should note and recognize.

Something to keep in mind if you’re unaware.  The play is the first part of a two part story that comes in the middle of a succession of history plays, beginning with Richard II and ending with Henry V. But don’t panic. Henry IV, Part 1 is a stand-alone story that works on its own terms, but it begins where Richard II ends, and at its conclusion, sets things up that will eventually fall into place in Henry IV, Part 2. Confused? You won’t be, not if you do a little homework before taking your seat at the Nesbitt/Elliot Playhouse at Mesa Arts Center. You’ll be glad you did.

Henry lV, Part 1 continues at Mesa Arts Center in Mesa until April 7

Pictures courtesy of Laura Durant, Durant Photography

Posted in Theatre

The Death of Stalin – Film Review

Director and writer Armando Ianucci’s politcal comic satire, The Death of Stalin, is probably more noteworthy for those who will not be able see the film than those who will. US audiences are limited at best, and if filmgoers in smaller markets have an interest, it’s more than likely they won’t find a theatre at the multiplex showing it; they’ll have to wait for the DVD, or stream the film once it becomes available to subscribers. But at least, in one format or another, they’ll eventually have the chance to judge things for themselves. Not so in Russia or some of its former Soviet Union member countries.

When seen at private screenings, the head of the Russian Great Fatherland Party considered the British comedy as an unfriendly act by the “British Intellectual class.” Two days before its official release, the film was withdrawn for public showing. For the record, a few theatres actually went ahead and screened the film, claiming they were unaware of a ban. A lawsuit by Russia’s culture ministry filed a lawsuit against them. Perhaps a curiosity you never had before is now piqued. If so, read on. If not, The Death of Stalin is not for you.

Despite the satirical approach, the film depicts real events with a screenplay based on a French graphic novel of the same name. In Moscow, 1953, dictator Joseph Stalin (Adrian Mcloughlin) was paralyzed by a cerebral hemorrhage. He suffered a massive stroke and died days later. What follows is the behind-the-scenes power struggle between the high-ranking members of the Soviet security and secret police, plus Moscow’s associate leading rulers, all vying for power, or at the very least, making sure their backsides are covered.

You have a nice long sleep, ol’ man,” whispers the head of the security forces, Lavrentiy Beria (Simon Russell Beale) to the comatose Stalin, adding, “So many changes to come.”

Like the Keystone Cops bumping into each other with every move, the bumbling members of the Central Committee discuss, argue, and take whatever action they deem necessary to keep the country moving, including saving their own skins. Once Stalin finally dies, the NKVD (People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs) execute witnesses while guiding Deputy General Secretary Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor) to take leadership, believing he could be used as a puppet in order to bring about the kind of changes the NKVD desires.

Perhaps the film’s major problem is having audiences know who all of these real-life characters are. Their personal conflicts as they attempt to either grab power or simply keep themselves alive is initially funny, but having to constantly remind yourself who’s who, and trying to work out exactly what their personal motives are, is taxing; you’re too busy trying to make sense of things.

The humor comes in the absurdity of what the committee members are trying to achieve and how they go about it. Monty Python’s Michael Palin plays Vyacheslav Molotov, once a protege of Stalin and now Foreign Minister. At the beginning of the film, he doesn’t know it, but he’s on one of Stalin’s enemy lists and will soon be executed. Once Stalin dies, the NKVD makes its own enemies list, saving Molotov’s life, yet when Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi) tries to enlist Molotov’s support for the changes to come, Molotov resists. As a true believer in Stalinism (despite being aware that the dictator was about to have him disappear), the Foreign Minister opposes any changes within the party. It’s only when his wife is released from internal exile, sent there for treason by the secret police, that the minister changes his mind, though as portrayed in the film, he’s not altogether comfortable with her freedom.

There’s an improvisational style to the f-bomb laden film, much of which comes about by director Iannucci allowing the actors to speak in their English regional dialects rather than having them imitate comic Russian ones. Besides Tambor and Buscemi’s American accents, having Stalin bark orders in London’s East End cockney simply sounds funny.

Best of all, however, is Jason Issacs, perhaps more popularly known as the villainous Malfoy in the Harry Potter films. It’s practically an hour into the movie until Isaacs makes his entrance as Soviet Red Army officer, Field Marshall Georgy Zhukov, but when he does, he bursts through the doors and into the scene with the power of a whirling cyclone, injecting a fresh sense of energy into the proceedings just at the moment when the sagging and somewhat confusing narrative needs it the most. Though the actor’s background is Liverpool, Issacs delivers Zhukov’s dialog with the thick, unrelenting accent of Yorkshire, and it’s hilarious. Even British audiences, once they’ve stopped laughing, will need a moment or two of adjustment to the sound. If only he had burst through those doors sooner.

MPAA Rating: R    Length: 107 Minutes    Overall Rating: 5 (out of 10)

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