Beehive the 60’s musical – Theatre Review: Phoenix Theatre, Phoenix

Watching the final production of Phoenix Theatre’s 2016/17 season is like powering up the turntable and playing your favorite all-girl sixties greatest hits live double-album, except here you get the pleasure of actually seeing those live performances for yourself.

Larry Gallagher’s Beehive the 60’s musical, directed and choreographed by Michael Jenkinson, is not exactly a jukebox musical, even though with the exception of two songs written for the show almost everything else was heard from a jukebox at diners, coffee shops, and bowling alleys. And it’s definitely not a series of tribute performances, the kind you might see at a nightclub or at one of the local valley gambling casinos; it’s a theatrical, musical journey that takes its audience from one end of an undeniably volatile decade to the other; one where tastes in fashion, music and the overall landscape of American culture changed at regular intervals, sometimes seemingly overnight, often alarmingly.

Even though the sixties was certainly a decade of unrest that re-shaped attitudes, values, and, in some cases, even divided families, Beehive is less concerned with its serious aspects – even though it lightly touches on them in a brief narration from time to time – it’s more interested in two things: fun and partying, as reflected in the pop/rock songs of those ever-changing ten years, beginning with a musical fashion hung over from the late fifties and ending with a style no Bobby Darin fan could ever imagine would ever get air-play on the radio.

Performed by six talented ladies, three black, three white, backed by Alan Ruch’s outstanding band on a set that effectively looks like something you might have once seen on Hullabaloo, American Bandstand, or any prime-time TV show when celebrity variety dominated sixties television schedules, Beehive’s first half is a musical revue, while the second, shorter half is something quite different.

Once the scene is set with an original song inviting us to turn back the clock sung by the show’s engaging narrator, Teshomech Olenja, the musical dives headfirst into its party atmosphere with the 1964 Shirley Ellis nonsense number, The Name Game. The cast waste no time in stepping off the stage and walking the aisles, looking for volunteers to submit their first name so that the ensemble could create their own rhyming game, away from the original song lyrics. From Friday’s opening night audience, Larry, Kathy with a ‘K,’ and Mimi were game for submitting their names, though, amusingly, one approached audience member refused to respond or even look up. In a hilarious ad-lib from Brittney Mack, who stood there, mic in hand, she declared, “I know you’re there. I’m looking at you.” Clearly not everyone wants a moment in the spotlight.

Once the audience warm-up is done, the show really begins. Teshomech sets the scene, telling us it’s 1960, the year Elvis was released from the army and Sandra Dee became engaged to (swoon) Bobby Darin, and we’re off on a series of high-energy, back to back renditions of 1963’s My Boyfriend’s Back, sung by Ashley Stults, 1966’s Sweet Talkin’ Guy lead by Teshomech, and 1963’s One Fine Day sung by Brittney.

From there, the show gives shape to the varying changes that occurred throughout the decade, with commentary from Teshomech setting the scene, adding a little perspective to the placement of the songs. Early Motown is represented by Brittney leading the girls with three songs associated with The Supremes; Where Did Our Love Go, Come See About Me and I Hear a Symphony. The commercial genius of Motown was the creation of songs sung by black artists so distinctive in their sound that, while appealing to whites, could not be replicated by them. Artists like Fats Domino and Little Richard fell victim to bland, white-bread Pat Boone versions of their songs receiving airplay over their more soulful, fifties rock originals. Watching Brittney backed by Chanel Bragg and Teshomech performing those three numbers of The Supremes reminds you that with the Motown sound, white cover versions could never work.

Amusingly, from there, the show segues to a color-blind telling of a young girl’s fantasy, a belief that she’s close and personal friends to singers she hears on the radio, something many a teenager did, and presumably still does. In Teshomech’s case, she talks of listening to the radio in her bedroom, imagining herself in the company of best girlfriends Lesley Gore (a funny rendition of It’s My Party sung by Alyssa Chiarello), Brenda Lee (Ashley), Annette Funicello (Brittney, complete with Mickey Mouse ears) and Connie Francis (again, Alyssa).

The British invasion is represented by Ashley’s mini-skirted Petula Clark, Katie Hart’s red-wigged Lulu and Alyssa’s big-haired with flips Dusty Springfield. Springfield may be London-born, but her singing voice was husky and soulful, and her most popular hits were American written. Lulu’s Scottish brogue was Americanized when singing, and Petula Clark’s southern Surrey origins have nothing to do with singing about Downtown, an American-only expression of a city area, nor advising an ex-lover not to sleep in the subway – the American underground transit system, not the English pedestrian underpass.

All three Phoenix theatre cast members nicely convey the essence of Lulu, Dusty and Pet, though when Ashley performs Petula Clark, she’s using Clark’s clipped speaking voice, not her singing. It might surprise American listeners to learn that British audiences actually complained that Petula Clark often sounded either too nasally French when singing My Song (not in the show), or too American when performing Downtown and Don’t Sleep in the Subway. The irony of the whole British invasion sequence, as good as it is, is that while the singers were all British born, their material and style remained heavily American influenced.

It’s then, after the intermission, where things change, and the change is abrupt. It’s not only the pop music style of the Beehive days that fade, it’s the whole sound and presentation. By the late sixties, pop/rock had evolved to such a degree that the Beehive period was almost as nostalgic a memory as it is today. Instead of a musical revue, the show delivers three mini-concerts presenting three very different style of performers who, each in their own, individual way, steal the show and practically overshadow everything you’ve seen before.

Chanel’s Aretha Franklin sings an electrifying duet with Alyssa, and Katie practically tears the roof off with her Janis Joplin. But the crowd favorite was clearly Brittney’s powerhouse Tina Turner. While she doesn’t sound like Tina (it’s not an impression, which is just as it should be) her whole being in style, movement and stance is fully emblazoned with the Tennessee queen of rock ‘n roll. Long before Turner’s nice and rough rendition of CCR’s Proud Mary concludes, the opening night audience was already applauding and cheering, and it’s no surprise; backed by the appropriately aggressive dance moves of Chanel and Teshomech, Brittney’s kick-ass Tina Turner is alone worth the price of admission. You’ll leave the theatre beaming while wondering where you hid all your old sixties singles and whether that dusty ol’ turntable in storage still works.

Pictures Courtesy of Reg Madison Photography

Posted in Theatre

King Arthur: Legend of the Sword – Film Review

In the slight chance there are still those who consider King Arthur a true historical figure, let’s get the record straight. He’s fantasy; stories derived from folklore from around 5 or 6 AD; a legend that grew in the telling with the passing of years. Arthur, the Knights of the Round Table, even Camelot itself, are no more real than the Loch Ness monster.

The stories that we now know of King Arthur is largely due to author T.H. White’s romantic, whimsical fantasy The Once and Future King. The book took all of the rumors, the legends, and the traditions, joined the dots, and put everything in order. It’s what Walt Disney’s The Sword and the Stone is based upon, plus it inspired the musical Camelot. Director Guy Ritchie, who co-wrote the screenplay to his new medieval action/thriller King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, has gone back to the drawing board, re-developed the Arthur stories, thrown in some Lord of the Rings sensibilities, sprinkled a flavoring of Game of Thrones, added his own adrenaline-fueled style of cocksure cinematic, rock ‘n roll flash, mixed them together, and made a complete, unmitigated mess of the whole thing.

That mess is obvious from the get-go when a super-charged, chaotically presented, attack on King Uther Pendragon’s castle by Mordred’s dark, evil, supernatural forces occurs. It comes in the shape of massive, elephantine monsters with spikes in their tusks, and they appear out of the darkness and smoke, stomping over all the king’s men and violently sweeping them aside as if they were skittles. First, it’s hard to tell what’s going on; second, it really doesn’t make sense. We can see amid all the chaos and running around within the castle walls that England’s once and future king is at this point a child, yet those who know the Arthur legends will also know that Mordred was Arthur’s illegitimate son; he’s yet to be born. Already, you’re asking, now, wait a minute.

The king is played by Eric Bana, and it’s his death that begins the film’s own game of thrones. During a sword fight between family, his villainous brother, Vortigem (Jude Law) somehow appears to have developed instant, magical powers. The king dies with what looks like a suicide throw of his own sword. Vortigem takes the crown and becomes the new king. At the same time, the now orphaned boy Arthur is hidden under furry blankets in a boat and floats to safety along the Thames, away from the castle. He’s eventually found by a small group of women up river, though unlike Moses discovered by the Pharaoh’s daughter and her handmaidens, Arthur is discovered by Londinium prostitutes. Yes, the boy Arthur is raised to manhood in a brothel. For the record, Londinium, the settlement along the Thames that would later become the City of London, didn’t appear until 43 AD. If Arthur’s story is supposed to be somewhere around 5 or 6 AD, there’s another one of those time-leaping, now, wait-a-minute, moments.

The issue with all of those early narrative elements where a great deal occurs in a short space of time is not so much what happens, but how. Chunks of information are absent; the overall picture puzzle is missing several pieces. Later, in a series of blink-and-you’ll-miss-’em flashbacks, those missing pieces appear, but they don’t come as clever reveals to satisfy a sense of suspense that has kept you guessing, they just fill in the blanks of something that should have been shown when they first occurred. Evidently, director Ritchie has lost the art of story-telling.

Besides Ritchie’s familiar signature-style of slow-mo’s, lightning speed edits, fast forwards, speeded up re-winds, flashbacks within flashbacks, and other assorted box of cinematic visual tricks, all working at complete odds against the time and subject, the cast appears to be made up of characters who would sound completely at home in present day London’s East End. They’re the cockney geezers straight out of 1998’s Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, 2000’s Snatch, and 2008’s RocknRolla. Substitute the suits for medieval costumes, the hit men for archers, and throw in names like Mischief John, Kung Fu George and the infamous Goosefat Bill, plus have all the gang refer to Arthur as Boss, and you’ve got ye olde Londinium version of Lock, Stock and A Few Smoking Arrows. When one of Arthur’s Jack-the-lads asks, “How d’you get money back from a viking?” Arthur (Charlie Hunman) replies with, “I feel a joke coming on.

That rhythm of modern-day accents and misplaced humor runs throughout the whole film. “There’s not a bollock between ‘em,” declares Arthur when referring to the king’s men, plus that East End habit of pronouncing Th as an F and dropping aitches before words that require them is made unintentionally funnier by, of all people, footballer David Beckham in a brief role as one of the king’s soldiers. When told to grab Excalibur out of the stone, Arthur reaches down with a single palm. “Oi!” Beckham’s soldier shouts. “I said boaf ‘ands.”

There’s no harm in trying a new, more realistic, grittier approach if it works, but this King Arthur: Legend of the Sword is as obnoxious and as slimy as that repulsive, tentacled, slithery, unexplained something that emerges out of the river and talks to Jude Law in the voice of Lorraine Bruce as though channeling Hackney lad, Ray Winstone. King Arthur’s story remains far more effective as a magical fairy tale, the way English folklore has always told it.

Camelot had better music than the ear-punishing, present-day rock of Ritchie’s soundtrack, Disney’s animated Sword in the Stone told the boy’s story better, and Monty Python and the Holy Grail was funnier. There’s talk of this being the first of a six-part series. That’s either another one of those misplaced time-leaping, now, wait-a-minute, moments, or someone’s being really optimistic.

MPAA Rating:  PG-13    Length: 127 Minutes    Overall rating: 3 (out of 10)

Posted in Film

The Wall – Film Review

As the opening titles tell us, it’s 2007 and the war in Iraq is winding down. The president has declared victory, and arrangements are being made to leave. But some of our military remains, including two American army snipers, Staff Sergeant Matthews (John Cena) and his spotter, Sergeant Allan Issac (Aaron Taylor-Johnson).

In this taut, ninety minute war film, The Wall from director Doug Liman, the two soldiers have answered a distress call from a small group of civilian contractors, there to help construct a pipeline and get the country’s economy back into gear. They’re under attack from an enemy sniper who is picking them off, one by one.

When the film begins, the two military men have already answered the call. They’re there on site, hiding under camouflage from a safe distance, lying in the same position for more than twenty hours. From what they can tell, and from what they’ve been looking at for the whole twenty hours, the contractors are dead, their bodies lying lifelessly by the unfinished pipeline. There’s a crumbling stone wall in the distance, the remains of an ancient Iraqi building perhaps, and Issac is concerned that there might still be an enemy sniper hiding behind it, patiently waiting for someone to appear. Matthews is not so sure. “War’s gone,” the staff sergeant says. “They got the memo.

Unable to rest in the same position for any longer, Matthews stands up, stretches, and decides he’s going to walk down to the scene to collect the radios of the dead contractors. “No way Hajji is sitting there behind that wall,” he states. And he’s right; there’s no one behind that wall. But there is someone hiding in a different area, and while walking away, after twenty hours of nothing, sniper fire hits its target, and the soldier goes down.

Isaac leaps to his wounded staff sergeant’s rescue and runs to his aid, but the sniper fires again. There are three expert shots, each hitting its intended target; one to Isaac’s radio antenna, one to his water bottle and one to his leg. Managing to drag himself behind that decaying wall, Issac takes cover, and that’s where the film really begins.

Less an action picture and more a psychological drama, yet always exciting, The Wall depicts what could be viewed as the thin line between enemies; the weak and decrepit wall itself perhaps a metaphor for the defenses of the two opposing sides crumbling down. When trying to make a distress call from his weak radio, the voice on the other end turns out not to be American but that of the sniper, hiding somewhere out there, able to communicate directly with the soldier on a local frequency. “You Americans, you think you know it all,” the enemy declares. “You are the one who comes to another man’s country. From where I’m sitting, you very much look like the terrorist.”

The setup and the setting could easily have been the groundwork for a play, with Sergeant Isaac, pinned behind a stone wall that is slowly falling apart, The majority of the film’s dialog is a conversation between the American and the off screen, disembodied voice of the English speaking Iraqi. We learn that the enemy sniper was once a school teacher who was in his class when the bombs dropped and killed many of his students. The wall that temporarily protects Issac is itself the remains of what was once a school.

More for his amusement than anything else, the educated sniper engages in references to Robert Frost, Shakespeare and from time to time even quotes Edgar Allan Poe. It’s as if he’s playing a game with the American, getting him to reveal things about himself, toying with him as if lulling the army sergeant into a false sense of security while simply passing the time until the sniper can eventually take his shot. The Iraqi is in no rush. No one’s coming to the rescue. And all the while, Issac’s wounded staff sergeant remains lying still, in full view of the sniper, slowly dying under the baking desert sun.

Aaron Taylor-Johnson might be the most unrecognizable face with a recognizable name in movies today. Like the camouflage his character wears during the opening moments, he hides in plain sight, morphing from one performance to another without anyone realizing who it is they’re watching. As he writhes in agony behind that wall, attempting with his knife to pry the bullet that tore into his knee, it’s hard to see the teenager that was once Kick-Ass, or the man who played a young John Lennon in Nowhere Boy, or even the power-gifted Quicksilver in Avengers: Age of Ultron, and most won’t realize it’s him until the end credits roll. Here, the English born actor thoroughly convinces as American soldier, Issac, and carries practically the whole film on his shoulders. He’s Hollywood’s number one chameleon, and it’s extraordinary how he makes it work every time.

As director of several large scale thrillers, such as the The Bourne Identity and more recently, Edge of Tomorrow, there’s something refreshing about Doug Liman making a widescreen film as small and as short as The Wall, yet managing to achieve an edge-of-your-seat nail-biter that is every bit as engaging and powerful as something several sizes bigger. At a time when all action flicks are over-stuffed with a bloated running length, Liman shows how less really can still be more. In fact, with minimal action and lengthy dialog exchanges that keep you leaning forward in your seat for practically the run of the film, The Wall is a more exciting thriller than most.

But that doesn’t mean you’ll necessarily be leaving the theatre satisfied. Perceptions of what is traditional in a good guy versus a bad guy war film don’t apply; at least, not in the way mainstream audiences might want. And don’t jump to conclusions that you think you’ll know what will happen, either. But as you look back and ponder its meaning and what you’ve just witnessed, even though you may feel – wrongly – that the carpet was pulled from beneath you in those final moments, there really wasn’t any other way to conclude things. And in the end, that’s really the strength behind The Wall.

MPAA Rating: R    Length: 90 Minutes     Overall Rating: 8 (out of 10)

Posted in Film

Macbeth – Theatre Review: Scottsdale Desert Stages Theatre, Actor’s Cafe

Where there’s often an artistic tendency for a director to either re-design, re-invent or completely re-imagine a classic Shakespearean play and make it his or her own, there’s something refreshing about seeing a basic, no-frills production of William Shakespeare’s tragedy, Macbeth as currently performed at Scottsdale Desert Stages Theatre. It’s like experiencing a faint echo of what audiences may have witnessed at London’s Globe when actors entered on a mostly empty stage and declared their lines with as much projection without amplification as possible in order for everyone on every level in the open-roofed city theatre to hear.

In director Gary Zaro’s new production of The Tragedy of Macbeth, now performing in the Actor’s Cafe at Scottsdale Desert Stages Theatre until June 4, actors are not required to project in quite the same way as in the Globe, downgrading the potential to overact, and lines don’t have to sound like declarations, but comparisons can still be drawn, and enjoyed. The setting in this production is mostly empty, the exception being one centrally raised platform with a few steps either side, a curtain entrance stage left, and a doorway stage right, nothing more. And the whole thing is painted black, a reflection of the darkness and doom that pervades even the story’s daylight hours.

In the sixteen hundreds, audiences didn’t say they were going to see a new play by Shakespeare, they said they were going to hear a new play. Listen to any Shakespearean BBC audio production recorded from a radio drama and you’ll understand what was meant. With just a few scene-setting sound effects to establish atmosphere, it’s very easy to follow what’s happening with the Barb’s descriptive text alone. And so it is here with Zaro’s Desert Stages low-budget production. Actors enter in period costumes with personal props, but scene changes offer no new set designs, neither tables nor chairs, or anything else reflecting a different location. With just a few recorded sound effects, such as thunder, a distant clanging bell, a trumpet fanfare, and some background nature sounds, you could close your eyes and simply listen, losing nothing in the narrative, though by doing so, in this case, you’d be missing the sight of four extremely good, expressive performances.

Desert Stages’ Actor’s Cafe is essentially a large performance room where the seating is redesigned with every new production. For Macbeth there are four rows before the raised stage area. This creates an atmosphere of intimacy not always afforded audiences in regular theatres; no matter where you sit, everyone in the house has a close-up view of the actors. Such a setting comes with both its pluses and minuses. By being right there with a practical in-your-face view of all the performers, weaknesses of a less experienced actor are more easily revealed, though at the same time, having such close proximity to performers fully immersed in their characters can also highlight their professional strengths. With this Macbeth, both occur.

With just a few exceptions, many of the supporting cast do double duty, often more. Occasionally, with only a change of costume to indicate a difference in character, by neglecting a change of voice or altering the expressive delivery of Elizabethan English, some audiences less familiar with Shakespeare’s play might be forgiven for becoming somewhat confused, thinking that a character believed gone had suddenly returned. Plus, due to the closeness of seating, it’s clear that a couple of stylishly shaved hairstyles and a pair of wire-rimmed glasses are anything but seventeenth century. Special mention, though, to J. Kevin Tallent for conveying Shakespeare’s intended brief moment of levity with Porter, the keeper of the keys to Macbeth’s home, speaking as though he’s the gatekeeper to hell – which, in fact, he is – and the actor’s ability to recreate a different performance as Lady Macbeth’s concerned doctor.

The three weird sisters, the witches, are also effective, even if their black-lined makeup channels community theatre. In fairness, the look is another victim of the Actor’s Cafe intimacy; those same designs would appear more effective if viewed from a distance. But the three performers themselves, Megan Holcomb, Autumn Alton and Diana Meyer, nicely convey a sense of glee with their evil, particularly Meyer, as they plant their seeds of ambition into Macbeth’s mind. Whether their words are truly prophesy with supernatural knowledge of oncoming events when they tell of Macbeth being king has been a point of debate since the play was first performed. If they had kept their distance and said nothing, would Macbeth had acted the murderous way he did, the result of seeking power for power’s own sake, or would he have continued on as the noble, likable warrior that he was? What was really the witches’ intent? The giveaway is in the famous line, “Double, double, toil and trouble.” They’re there to cause mischief for their own demented pleasure. By telling him what is, what he will soon discover, and what he will eventually become, as though things are already preordained, Macbeth is seduced, intoxicated. Murder, cruelty and madness follows, and that’s what the witches were wanting all along.

Jason Barth and Bryan N. Stewart as Banquo and Macduff respectively posses natural qualities in their delivery that makes their performances both convincing and likable, plus Virginia Olivieri’s Lady Macbeth captures her character’s lustful ambition without ever overstepping into histrionics. With the gritting of teeth and the look of fire behind her eyes, her character’s single-minded, power hungry determination is effectively funneled in the same way that her callous nature is exposed. When Lady Macbeth reveals that she would have killed the king herself had he not resembled her father, both her coldness and her weakness surface. She has no overall problem with committing murder, but by thinking of her father, we see there’s still some humanity within, and it’s this reveal, this weakness that infects and festers her very being. Guilt emerges and causes madness, illustrated in the sleepwalking scene where the blood that was washed away with water in the first half is now a permanent, symbolic stain that can’t be removed in the second. Olivieri convinces when expressing the determination as well as the guilt-induced madness.

But this is Rick Davis’ play. As Macbeth, Davis conveys the Scottish nobleman’s initial friendly nature, then his puzzled, introspective reasoning, his developing and dangerous self-absorbed manner, and finally his complete embracement of his spiraling descent into an unyielding, murderous lust, from which he can never return. It’s a significant performance on any level, but seen in such an intimate setting as Actor’s Cafe, there’s never a chance to escape the spell Davis casts. “Is this a dagger I see before me?’ he asks. Actually, no; look closer. It’s a spellbound audience who, in an otherwise bare-bones production, can’t turn away.

Pictures Courtesy of Dana and Heather Butcher

Posted in Theatre

The Dinner – Film Review

It never bodes well when the author of the book upon which a film is based gives the end result a thumbs down. In this case the author was Dutch writer Herman Koch, the book is his 2009 drama Het Diner, and the film is the third version of the same story, The Dinner with Richard Gere, Steve Coogan, Rebecca Hall, and Laura Linney.

Besides transferring Het Diner’s setting from The Netherlands to America, Moverman has taken a further step by adding extra psychological layers to the characters and their backgrounds. Even though the setup is essentially the same as in both the novel and in the previous two big screen incarnations, it’s these added Americanized elements that shape character motivation in a way the author never intended. It caused Koch to avoid the after-party gathering in Berlin at the film’s European premiere this past February. He later declared the film to be the worst of the three, a statement admirable in its honesty, but not necessarily true; at least, not when viewed through the prism of a different culture, and therein lies the issue of alternate viewpoints.

The previous two versions began with the 2013 Dutch film which closely followed Koch’s novel; the second, a 2014 Italian production that altered plot points but kept the tone and the overall sense of Koch’s intended European cynicism. The third is the new American version, adapted and directed by Oren Moverman who worked with Gere on the recent drama Time Out of Mind in addition to writing the screenplay to the excellent Love & Mercy. Both of those films explored the issue of mental illness and how that stigma affected the motivations and actions of not only the lead characters, but of those around them. Moverman has done something similar with The Dinner, and it’s this approach to re-shaping motive and its resulting drive that not only angered the author but underlines the difference between story-telling in continental Europe and here in America; one can draw conclusions from a cultivation of immorality, the other needs a satisfying sense of reason to explain the behavior.

I’m not going,” declares ex-history teacher, Paul Lohman (Steve Coogan) to his wife, Claire (Laura Linney). He’s referring to the dinner engagement at a swanky restaurant that his congressman brother, Stan (Richard Gere) has arranged for the evening. “It takes three months to get a reservation,” responds Claire, reminding her husband that strings were pulled to get a table. Paul remains unimpressed. “Can we just get pizza?

Once both couples, Paul and Claire, and Stan and his wife Katelyn (Rebecca Hall) are seated, it’s obvious there’s more going on than just a small family gathering. “We’re gonna talk tonight,” states the congressman. “We’re gonna put it all on the table.” It soon becomes apparent that the issue of the evening revolves around their sons, two boys, age sixteen. Even though the brothers rarely see each other, their boys are both friends, and both have done something that needs to be discussed.

We don’t know what the boys have done at this point, but with a series of flashbacks, slowly their crime is revealed, and it’s horrendous; an obscene act of violence recorded on a cell then later uploaded by an unknown source on-line. The thing is, the boys can’t be identified, and so far, no one knows who they are. The point of the dinner is for the parents to discuss what occurred and to find out what their next move is going to be. As the evening continues, through more flashbacks and glimpses of past actions, family secrets are unveiled, Paul’s developing mental illness increases, and tempers flare.

What surprises the most is the reaction of the wives rather than the men. When Gere’s congressman appears to be taking an honest and realistic approach to what should be done, even though a political career could be at stake, Hall’s Katelyn is adamant that secrets need to be kept. And when Coogan’s psychologically damaged Paul asks, “What were they thinking?” Linney’s Claire is having none of it. “It doesn’t matter now,” she vehemently insists. “They are good kids and they took a wrong turn.” You can see with every fiber in her body, Claire wants this kept secret, ignoring the depth of her son’s depravity and intending to convince the other three that they should do the same. Katelyn, for different reasons, needs no convincing.

Of course, when we see the crime and how the boys committed it, plus their reaction to it, it was never a case of good kids taking a wrong turn. From the beginning, it was a savage, evil act, and the boys need to pay. But the film, like the book, is ultimately asking its audience the same question it’s asking its characters. In a civilized culture, four educated people are now faced with a problem that challenges their own sense of what is right, what is decent, and what is moral. If the parents speak out, the boys would go to prison, or worse. If they say nothing, no one would ever know. The question is, what would you do?

Author Koch’s objections has to do with this version’s outcome and how it gets there, its comment on American violence and the addition of mental illness affecting long-term conduct. It’s not what he intended, and his objections, if seen from his European point-of-view, are valid. But in an American society, which is decidedly different from its foreign, continental counterpart, behavior patterns and attitudes are simply not the same. It’s an uncomfortable, unsettling experience, and not one all audiences are going to enjoy, but director Moverman’s The Dinner works, and it works not only because of those narrative changes made in its telling from one foreign culture to another but because of four great performances from its principle leads.

MPAA Rating: R    Length: 120 Minutes    Overall rating: 8 (out of 10)

Posted in Film

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 – Film Review

As with most sequels, especially those that tend to be either eccentric or unexpectedly a little off-beat, there’s an obvious disadvantage when compared to the original. In the case of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, there’s three. One: it’s not as fresh. Two: the surprise is gone. And three: It doesn’t have 10CC’s I’m Not In Love to kick things off.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 comes at the screen in full throttle, balls to the wall, and even though that impressive element of surprise, even delight, can’t be replicated – how can it when we’re already aware? – there’s a lot of fun to be had, mostly in the first half. The second is a different matter.

In Vol. 2 that motley gang of assorted and unlikely comic book, intergalactic oddballs are now officially The Guardians. They’re for hire, and they have a job. They’re to retrieve some valuable stolen batteries from some inter-dimensional, over-sized monster, all teeth and tentacles, and hand them back to their rightful owners; in this case, the head-to-toe, golden-hued, Sovereign people, lead by Ayesha (Elizabeth Debicki).

Payment from the Sovereigns is more of an exchange: the batteries for Gamora’s (Zoe Saldana) unpredictably troublesome sister, Nebula (Karen Gillan) whom the Sovereigns have as a prisoner. At first, everything goes well. The Guardians kill the beast, retrieve the batteries, hand them over, and get Nebula back. It’s just that the genetically engineered bounty hunter raccoon, Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper) can’t keep his thieving furry hands to himself; he walks away with some of those valuable batteries hidden in his bag. The Sovereigns give chase, another battle in space ensues, and the real story begins. And that’s just the first ten minutes, which even includes a prologue on Earth back in 1980. And if that sounds exhausting, wait until you get passed the sixty minute mark.

Like the 2014 original, Vol. 2 continues with the expected self-deprecating, self-referential humor, full of Earth bound junk culture references made mostly by Chris Pratt’s Peter Quill, and much of it is genuinely funny, made all the funnier when the other Guardians have no clue what he’s talking about. When Quill has a lover’s spat with Gamora, he equates them both to TV’s Diane and Sam, to which the green colored alien declares, “I have no idea what Cheers is!” There’s also a Mary Poppins reference when Quill compares Michael Rooker’s buccaneer Yondu to the Edwardian flying nanny. “Is he cool?’ asks the blue-skinned alien. When Quill answers, yes, he is, Yondu declares, “Hey, y’all. I’m Mary Poppins!

Like some comedies of late, there’s even some Python inspired humor in the mix. When the villainous idiot leader of the Ravagers declares himself to be called Taserface (Chris Sullivan) because he believes the sound of the name will strike fear in all his enemies, his crew look at each other, shrug, mumble among themselves, and ponder whether that’s actually true. “It’s metaphorical!” the leader angrily declares. Though, director/writer James Gunn overdoes it with the David Hasselhoff jokes. They’re funny at first, particularly when Quill reveals an aged, folded picture of Hasselhoff from his pocket, one that he carries around with him, pretending to others that the Knight Rider driver is really his dad back on Earth. But later, during a funeral service, the reference is repeated, and repeated, and repeated yet again. Enough with the Hoff.

Also, as with the original, the seventies/eighties music mix is often used to great comic effect. For personal taste, the awesome volume 2 cassette mix for Quill’s Sony Walkman, the one that he carries in his pocket (presumably next to his Hasselhoff picture) is not as good as volume 1, but there’s plenty to enjoy.

Quill and Gamora do a slow, romantic dance to Sam Cooke’s Bring It On Home, George Harrison’s My Sweet Lord is played when the Guardians enter the colorful realm of an idyllic Garden of Eden type planet, a seemingly peaceful Shangri-La of outta space, and Silver’s Wham Bam Shang-A-Lang provides the soundtrack to one of the many explosive space battles. ELO’s Mr. Blue Sky runs through the opening credits, danced to by the adorably cute Baby Groot who steals the movie (again, voiced by Vin Deisel, though this time at an appropriately speeded-up, higher pitch). Funniest of all is when Quill and his real father, Kurt Russell as a cosmic Celestial god called Ego (not a spoiler; it’s in the trailer and it’s what the film is really about) discuss the lyrics and the meaning behind Looking Glass’ Brandy (You’re a Fine Girl) as if it’s an inspiring and important work of English literature. Though the most effective is Cat Stevens’ Father and Son that comes across as an unexpectedly touching moment that – don’t laugh – may even move you.

The second half is more a case of overdoing everything. What story there is left to tell is told through the action, and while it may all be eye-poppingly spectacular, courtesy of everything CGI, it’s also waaay too much. Like those Hasselhoff jokes, writer Gunn doesn’t know when to stop. At one point, when things looked as though they might be wrapping up and there was little conflict in the narrative left, a quick glance at the watch indicated that – yikes! – there was still another forty-five minutes to go. Clearly, the studio wanted more of what made the first one work, but at a running time of 137 minutes, that’s really an indulgence. It’s as though Gunn poured everything in and forgot to say when. 2001: A Space Odyssey was only five minutes longer, and that was a large-scale epic.

The adventures will continue with a third; the end credits tell us so. The characters are eccentric and colorful, the music is good, and the humor is often laugh-out-loud funny. Marvel has a good thing going with the Guardians, and it constantly makes fun of itself, which is just how this kind of nonsense material should be. But don’t ruin it, and don’t over-do it with the action and it’s gluttonous length; use some brevity next time. That way, fingers crossed, what was fresh in Vol. 1 won’t become stale by Vol. 3.

MPAA rating: PG-13   Length: 137 Minutes  Overall Rating: 7 (out of 10)

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