The Idea of Manhood – Film Review

Chances are you know the guy. If you haven’t met him, you know the kind. He’s the one from your past who you kind of like, but nowadays it’s perfectly okay that he lives somewhere else. Then, without warning, he turns up on your doorstep and thinks there’s no problem with moving in for a day or two.

In writer/director Serge Kushnier’s bittersweet indie comedy The Idea of Manhood, a freelance writer from D.C. called Sandy (Karl Bury) has had a moment of clarity. He’s finally called it quits. “I’m done with people,” he’ll later explain. He intends to disappear; explore the country. He’ll be a present-day, middle-aged Easy Rider on four wheels looking for America. But before he does that, he’ll stop off in NYC to pay a weekend visit to an old buddy he hasn’t seen for a while.

His buddy is Jacob (Jeremy Kushnier), now married with two girls and living what should be a contented life in Manhattan. From the opening shots showing the state of the kitchen – empty beer bottles on the kitchen counter, slices of lemon drying up, an empty liquor glass on a table-top – Jacob has had a really late night. Having someone ringing the doorbell and calling, “Morning, princess. Guess who,” in the speaker during the early hours doesn’t help.

After forcing himself out of bed and wiping the sleep from his eyes, Jacob opens the door and lets Sandy in. “You’re here for the whole weekend?” asks Jacob, still in a sleepy stupor. “That’s all right, isn’t it?” says Sandy, a statement more than a question as he helps himself to an early morning beer from the fridge, which, in addition to housing more beer, is full of restaurant left-overs and carry-outs. If there’s one thing clear from the look of things, and from the look of Jacob, the guy is currently alone and living the bachelor life. As far as Sandy is concerned, with his buddy’s wife and the kids gone, turning up on this particular weekend is perfect; the timing couldn’t be better.

What follows is a day spent with two friends from the past catching up with their stories-so-far, talking through their differences, arguing the pros and cons of where they currently stand, often disputing each others’ theories on what needs to be done, and ultimately pondering the next step.

In addition to winning the Best Picture award at the 2018 Phoenix Film Festival, it also won the festival’s Best Screenplay award, and it’s easy to see why. Kushnier’s writing incorporates elements of good wit among the observations of two grown men coming to terms with what’s required when needing to be honest with themselves. When Jacob asks Sandy if he has any naked pictures of the last girlfriend, Sandy answers, “She’s a thirty-two-year-old woman who I dated for three weeks. Of course I do.”

The Idea of Manhood is essentially a two-man play, beginning and ending with the conversational conflicts between Jacob, who repeatedly insists he’s happily married when it’s clear he’s not, and the single Sandy, who believes he’s finally getting a handle on things while feeling the need to continually share his points of view. “I’m a freelance writer,” he states, “Why not be a freelance person?” There’s also a brief inclusion of Jacob’s wife Carly, seen temporarily on a cell phone (Melanie Merkosky, who also co-produced the film). During a call, the humorless Carly berates her husband for not getting the drier fixed quick enough. She even calls him an idiot. “I want my drier fixed before I get home,” she declares.

But in between the unwarranted opinions of Jacob and the defensive returns of Sandy, Kushnier opens up the middle with the introduction of the younger and altogether pleasant Molly (Elizabeth Masucci) and her two equally younger friends, Hannah (Meg McCrossen) and Andrew (Thomas Sullivan) who drop by Jacob’s place for an afternoon backyard party of Beer-Pong. A lot of Kushnier’s good humor emerges during the conversations when all five characters get together.

For his personal amusement, while knocking back the beer, Sandy engages the younger three in a supposed true story he’d heard about a young kid called Kevin who was left behind by accident in his Chicago home while the rest of the family flew to Paris for a vacation. “And this is where it gets insane,” he adds when he knows he has their attention. “There were these two burglars, and they were casing Kevin’s parents’ place for, like, two weeks.” It’s only when he uses the words home and alone that Molly realizes they’re being played. The somewhat less-than-aware Hannah remains confused, while Andrew appears unconcerned either way, preferring to check his phone for messages rather than listen to a story, leading Sandy on to another mini-rant. “What the hell’s with the phone?” he asks, wanting to know what’s the younger sets obsession with checking messages every time there’s a lull in the conversation, or the taking pictures of feet dangling in the pool and needing to share them with others.

Particularly effective is the film’s use of compare and contrast. Sandy and Jacob could not be more opposite when it comes to outlook. Carly’s bitching at her husband makes Molly’s pleasant demeanor all the more attractive. Molly’s sharp mind is made evident by the overall clueless nature of her friend Hannah. There’s even contrast in the film’s sound that director Kushnier uses to good effect. The noises of a bustling city run as a backdrop to the lighter conversations played out in the backyard, but when Jacob and Sandy close that door for a more private and serious heart to heart, all noises are blocked out.

In the true spirit of independent film making, The Idea of Manhood was shot over a nine-day period in New York. Plus, two days before shooting her scenes, Elizabeth Masucci broke her foot, which is why you’ll see her Molly hobbling on crutches. But instead of delaying a schedule, director Kushnier used the accident to its best advantage. When Molly excuses herself from the backyard party, Jacob lends support by holding her waist with both hands as she steps up through the door. The move is considerably more intimate than that of someone who was simply a casual friend, further advancing Sandy’s theory that Jacob is sleeping with the young woman while his wife was away.

With a running time of only 72 minutes, there’s not a moment of padding in the script. By the film’s conclusion, not only do you like the two lead characters (and the men who play them) but you find yourself wanting to know more. Ultimately, even though he may annoy and his honest observations are not always what you want to hear, if Jacob needed anyone to turn up unannounced on his doorstep in the early hours of the morning, he could not have asked for a more necessary friend at that point in his life than Sandy.

MPAA Rating: Not Rated           Length: 72 Minutes

Posted in Film

Miss Bala – Film Review

In 2008, a Mexican model and beauty queen called Laura Zúñiga became the center of a drug trafficking scandal. She had won a national pageant and was automatically selected to represent Mexico internationally. But before that happened, Laura was arrested.

Along with seven other men, she was caught by the state police while carrying $53,000 in cash and a large assortment of weapons, cartridges, and cell phones. In her defense, she insisted she was kidnapped and forced by gang members to traffic American dollars for weapons and drugs. Eventually, after a long stay at a detention center, having found no evidence that tied her to the criminals, a judge ordered her release. For Laura, the nightmare was finally over. A year later she started over and picked up on her modeling career.

In 2011, Laura’s story inspired a Spanish language drama called Miss Bala. The word ‘bala’ is Spanish for ‘bullet.’ Events were altered, but the overall plot was the same – a model enters a beauty pageant, she’s kidnapped, family members are held hostage, and the model is forced into transporting drugs for cash across the border. Filmmakers even called her Laura. On its home turf, Miss Bala was a critical and box-office success. And even though it never made the shortlist, the film was selected as the Mexican entry for Best Foreign Language Film for the 84th Academy Awards.

2019 now sees the release of the American remake directed by Catherine Hardwicke (Twilight, The Nativity Story). Like the 2011 original, Hardwicke’s English language version not only retains the title but sticks close to the plot, albeit with some tweaking. Laura is now Gloria (Gina Rodriguez) and she’s no longer a model. She’s a makeup artist from Los Angeles who crosses the border into Tijuana to visit her childhood friend Suzu (Cristina Rodio). Suzu is about to enter the Miss Baja California pageant. Laura’s there to help with her friend’s makeup and to offer support. But while partying at a nightclub, a local gang bursts in brandishing automatic weapons. Hell breaks loose, resulting in a dance floor massacre.

During the mayhem, Suzu disappears. Gloria, who survives the attack, tries desperately to find her best friend. She even seeks the help of a local cop, telling him that she witnessed the event. If he helps her locate the missing Suzu she could give vital information to the authorities regarding descriptions of the gang members. She went to the wrong cop.

Instead of taking her to the police station, he takes her straight to the leader of the gang, Lino (Ismael Cruz Cordova). From there, Gloria’s world spirals out of control. If she wants to see her missing friend again she’ll have to traffic cash for guns and drugs across the border into San Diego and back again. Eventually, she finds herself caught between the murderous gang, known as Los Estrellas (English: The Stars) and American DEA agents whose operational tactics in enlisting Gloria to help them is equally threatening and questionable. Even though it’s clear that Gloria is no criminal drug runner, she’s threatened with 50 years in prison if she doesn’t cooperate with the DEA.

From the trailer and the determined, no-nonsense look on the face of the gun-wielding female displayed on the poster, Miss Bala looks to be a fast-paced, revenge action thriller with an attractive woman at the center forced into being a one-woman army taking matters into her own hands. It’s not. Like the 2011 original, the remake is really a drama, putting an ordinary woman into an extraordinary nightmare situation with no special skills of her own. The hype is misleading.

There are action sequences, and director Hardwicke handles them well. The early massacre in the nightclub is explosive, the battle between the DEA and the gang, with Gloria stuck in the crossfire, is an effective nail-biter – “Sorry, Gloria, you’re on your own,” radios an unsympathetic DEA agent who could not care less about her safety – and the final face-off involving the gang, the authorities, and a corrupt chief of local police with Gloria running frantically between them all, is effectively tense. But this is not a story told through action, and it’s good to know this before going in. Those looking for a chick-with-a-gun flick as marketed may be in for a surprise, and a not altogether welcomed one.

But in its favor, there’s a surprising sense of realism conveyed when Gloria attempts her escapes. She has no plan. Unlike action heroes of this form, there’s no long term design behind her drive, she simply makes things up as she goes along, invariably leading to her being captured again. Plus, it has two good performances from its leads. As Gloria, in her first leading role and her name above the title, Rodrigeuz has great cinematic appeal. And as the murderous gang leader Lino, Cruz Cordova is so authentically convincing, you forget that this is the same actor who parents might recall as Mando on TV’s Sesame Street or as David Rizzio, the doomed gay confidant to Saoirse Ronan’s Mary, Queen of Scots. If Miss Bala does anything, it acts as a showcase for two emerging talents. But neither performers can do enough to save the film.

Those who saw the original may want to compare. While the Spanish language version received acclaim, the remake won’t. Yet Hardwicke’s newer version is the better film. It’s technically slicker, and when the moments of action come, it’s taut and well shot. But for whatever reason, English speaking audiences often see more ‘art’ in a foreign language film than is really there, often believing that what they’re watching is somehow a more worthy product. In reality, what they’re witnessing are the conventions of the American movie factory imitated in a foreign language. The new Miss Bala is not deserving of an Academy Award nomination, but neither was the original, despite its submission.

It should be noted that Miss Bala is a barrier-breaking movie, and that’s a good thing. In last year’s top 100 films, there was no Latina in a lead role. The casting of Rodrigeuz and Cruz Cordova is commendable. But the film’s slow-paced rhythms throughout while establishing its scene-setting conflicts, often developing into situations contrived rather than natural, are constantly in danger of grinding things to a halt. Worse, it commits the cardinal sin of all the movies: It’s ultimately boring.

MPAA Rating: PG-13     Length: 104 Minutes

Posted in Film

Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks – Theatre Review: Scottsdale Desert Stages Theatre, Scottsdale

Currently performing until March 3 at the Scottsdale Desert Stages Theatre is the bittersweet comedy from Richard Alfieri, Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks. It’s a two person, two-act, one set piece, and for the smaller and more intimate setting of DST’s Actor’s Cafe, it’s a perfect fit.

The plot is in the title. It’s also the name of a fictional Florida dance company. Barbara McBain plays Lily, a retiree in her early seventies who lives on the upper level of a condo-with-a-view in St. Petersburg Beach. Below her lives Ida, and though we never see Ida, her presence is often felt; she always seems to call at the wrong time. Lily, the wife of a Baptist minister, now lives alone, though she doesn’t immediately reveal her status when her dance instructor arrives. She’d prefer to give the impression that her husband was still alive.

Roger Prenger plays Micheal, the dance instructor, hired to give private lessons in the comfort of a customer’s home. He’s single, gay, and in his early forties, plus he has a caustic tongue; he’s not above dropping the occasional f-bomb. When he first arrives at Lily’s place with a floor map of his dance steps along with a plug-in, portable stereo, he mistakenly describes the subject of lesson number one, the Swing, as a dance invented for horny G.I.s and loose women of World War 2. Neither his description nor his expletives go down well with Lily. She opens the door and wants him to leave. “We got off on the wrong foot, so to speak,” says Michael while pleading for a second chance. He also asks Lily not to call his boss. This is, after all, his first job with the dance company, and it really wouldn’t look good to be sent packing in the first few minutes of his initial assignment.

From there, a certain rhythm to not only the dancing but to the individual scenes is established. There’s a formula. Like the events of the first lesson, each week, Michael arrives at Lily’s. They exchange differences where Michael’s direct points-of-view don’t always sit well with the woman who openly describes herself as “A tight-assed ol’ biddy.” Conversational conflict follows. Then a cooling. Then the nosy neighbor from down below, Ida, makes a complaining call about the noise on her ceiling. Then once Lily puts the receiver down, the music from the stereo and the dancing begins. Fade out.

Each of the remaining five lessons, with one bonus lesson, follows a similar pattern. But by the conclusion of each week, we learn just a little more about each character. And as expected, by the end of the play, when everything we need to know about Lily and Michael is finally revealed, we get to understand why this mismatched, unlikely couple met and needed each other at exactly the right time.

Surprisingly, in 2014 Alfieri adapted his play for the movies. Gina Rowlands played Lily, and because the movies tend to open things up a little, Rita Morena played nosy neighbor Ida. But the film bombed, exposing the limitations of a predictable plot while critics described the script as a creaky, listless affair suited only to an undemanding senior set. Six Dance Lesson in Six Weeks works considerably better on stage, as this DST production shows. But for anyone who has ever been in the audience during a recording of a TV sit-com you may experience a similar feeling here.

With a bright colored living room design and lighting to match, all that’s missing from a TV set are those pesky cameramen getting in the way. Even Alfieri’s writing uses a TV dialog formula to get laughs. When Lily is on the phone with her complaining neighbor, we can’t hear what Ida is saying, but we don’t have to. Like any television comedy, Lily unnaturally repeats verbatim what Ida has just said. “No, I don’t sound like the dancing elephants in Fantasia,” or “No, the Budweiser Clydesdales are not putting on a performance in my living room.” The sheen of TV influenced comedy is definitely showing. But while the play hardly pushes the envelope on creative theatre anymore, it does have two things in its favor.

Both McBain and Prenger are experienced performers. They work well together and help elevate writer Alfieri’s somewhat ordinary and no longer compelling material. Because of their timing and delivery, the occasional sharp observations on aging and friendship, including an eventual touching nod to what it’s like to be alone, are nicely defined, even if the play no longer has the same weight it might have had when it first opened on Broadway in 2001.

Director Joy Bingham Strimple has produced a smart production that uses the Actor’s Cafe stage well. Because all the action takes place in one location and the area is shared by only two players, what can often appear cramped with limited chance for natural movement if four or more are on set at the same time, works to the play’s advantage at Actor’s Cafe. Eighteen years after its Broadway opening, it may be showing a definite creak, but with Bingham Strimple efficiently guiding the action and McBain and Prenger doing the moves, Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks remains an entertaining if undemanding evening of live theatre.

Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks continues at DST’s Actor’s Cafe in Scottsdale until March 3

Pictures Courtesy of Ashley Ann Photography

Posted in Theatre

Jersey Boys – Theatre Review: The Phoenix Theatre Company, Phoenix

There’s a reaction from an audience member that was overheard at the end of Friday evening’s opening performance of Jersey Boys. “I never knew,” remarked a Phoenix Theatre Company patron. It’s safe to guess that the same thing was probably said by many as they filed out of the theatre on Friday night. They never knew, and why would they?

During the early sixties when the boys from Jersey rose to fame as The Four Seasons, press, magazines, and the media in general were not the same as they are today. Fans who grew up hearing a string of number one AM radio hits such as Sherry, Walk Like A Man, and Big Girls Don’t Cry saw the projection of four, clean-cut, teen idols, competing for the same market that the equally clean-cut, wholesome teen idols The Beach Boys were enjoying. The behind-the-scenes affairs painted an altogether different picture. Had the prison records of the boys who began as a threesome harmonizing under a street corner lamp become public, it’s doubtful that Sherry would have even cracked the Top 100, let alone become an international hit.

It was songwriter and keyboardist Bob Gaudio who first had the idea. Witnessing the surge in popularity of the jukebox musical, it was he who suggested developing a musical revolving around the hits. But unlike Mamma Mia! or All Shook Up where a fictional plot was written around the music, Gaudio wanted the show to be biographical; a musical history of The Four Seasons. Heaven knows, there was enough real-life conflict to be explored without the need for making things up.

The problems for writers Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice were twofold: what to put in and how to present it. The lineup changed considerably and too much information, including all the name changes, would only confuse. Even today, younger rock ‘n roll historians tend to mix Nick DeVito with Nick Massi. Plus, separate interviews with Frankie Valli, Bob Gaudio, Nick Massi, and Tommy DeVito confused matters even further. Each singer would contradict what the other had explained. It was when the writers talked with the expressively colorful Tommy DeVito – he told them to forget what the others might have said; he’ll tell the truth – that the show’s approach to how things happened suddenly clicked into place. Jersey Boys would be split into four sections, four seasons in two acts, with each member narrating each season from their own particular point-of-view. And it works wonderfully.

During the first season when fellow Jersey boy Joe Pesci (Eric Zaklukiewicz) introduces Tommy DeVito (Anthony Fortino) to an unknown singer/songwriter Bob Gaudio (James D. Gish), De Vito turns to the audience and confides, “Joe Pesci. Yeah. That Joe Pesci. Who Knew?” But in the next season when Gaudio takes over the narration, he tells the audience that no matter what DeVito has just said about him, he wasn’t unknown. He’d already had a hit when The Royal Teens recorded the ‘58 hit Short Shorts.

True to its neighborhood roots and its working-class Jersey location, the language is continually salty. F-bombs are lobbed like free handouts. But the language, its delivery, and the show’s streetwise sensibilities often make the dialog all the funnier. When a young Frankie Valli (Justin Albinder) takes local neighborhood girl Mary Delgado (Merissa Haddad) on a date to a pizza joint, he talks of how classy the place is. “Yeah. They don’t sell slices,” Delgado sardonically responds. “That’s how you can tell.”

Beginning curiously with a French hip-hop version of December, 1963 called Ces soirées-là, a European hit in 2000 by rapper Yannick, the fast-paced show immediately takes off on a virtually breathless account of the rag doll-to-riches-and-back-to-rags-again story. As DeVito narrates, the only way to escape the neighborhood was either by joining the army, getting mobbed, or getting famous. It’s when a young Francesco Castelluccio sings in a club that DeVito sees his ticket out of there.

It’s true that the boys, who were previously called The Four Lovers, hit upon calling themselves The Four Seasons after seeing a flickering neon sign of a Jersey cocktail lounge. “I love the new name,” declares flamboyantly gay record producer Bob Crewe (Terry Gadaire) adding, “So did Vivaldi.” But while the show gives the impression that from there things really took off, in reality, it was different. After a flop single called Bermuda, the band renamed themselves The Four Lovers and went back to clubs and knocking on doors. It was some time much later when writer Gaudio came up with Sherry. After securing a spot on TV’s American Bandstand and seeing how audiences responded to the song and their special sound, the band returned to being The Four Seasons. But knowing this only adds as an example as to how well writers Brickman and Elice have condensed the book without compromising the overall arc of the story. In the way that a program director’s forward motion music sweep on an FM top 40 radio is designed, the show never looks back. Once The Four Seasons adopt the new name, as far as the show’s concerned, they’re off and running.

Rarely off-stage, director Raben’s excellent cast have barely a moment to catch their breath as they pass through what has to be an ever-revolving door, exiting as one character then re-entering moments later as another. While the energy of the men alone deserves applause – Matt Zimmerer is particularly effective as mob boss Gyp DeCarlo – special mention has to go to the three ladies of the ensemble. Between them, Caelan Creaser, Lynzee Foreman, and Merissa Haddad play not only Francine Valli, Lorraine, and Mary Delgado respectively but every other female character throughout the production, often exiting and returning with a new costume, a new wig, and a new Jersey accent within seconds. They must rank as the hardest working women currently appearing on any valley stage at the moment. But it’s the four boys that will ultimately draw your focus.

Fortino’s Tommy DeVito is a force to be reckoned with. DeVito’s real-life personality may have been toxic to the fortunes of the band, but the actor’s non-stop energy is so much fun to observe, he makes the lead guitarist from Belleville almost likable. James D. Gish, who scored a big success in the theatre’s recent production of West Side Story, is both an outstanding actor and singer. His Cry For Me, which acts as an audition piece to secure a place in the boy’s band, brings the house down. Tommy McDowell’s strength as Nick is not so much in the singing, it’s during a scene where he breaks into an epic rant about having to share hotel rooms while on the road with DeVito. His raving monologue where he describes DeVito’s bathroom habits, including dirty underwear and wet towels, is exceptionally funny. It stopped the show and resulted with an opening night audience bursting into applause.

The most difficult role, for obvious reasons, is playing the singer whose three-octave range and falsetto became the hallmark of The Four Seasons. Frankie Valli’s sound is what made him unique. He was truly one of a kind, which makes the task for whoever is going to play him all the more difficult. Justin Albinder’s voice doesn’t necessarily sound like Valli but he hits those notes and recreates the overall spirit of what Valli was all about. With Albinder we couldn’t possibly ask for anything more. And his rendition of Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You, complete with music director Alan Ruch’s brass backup, is exactly what you want it to be – outstanding.

As directed by Larry Raben, The Phoenix Theatre Company’s high-energy, slick, and overall exhilarating new production of the Broadway hit jukebox musical serves as a perfect reminder where and why the Hollywood 2014 movie version went wrong. Director Clint Eastwood made the music secondary to the story. Until Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You was performed, almost no song in the film was sung in its entirety, and Eyes doesn’t come into play until well into the story’s second half. Hollywood neglected to realize that it’s the music to Jersey Boys that was always its reason for being. The show isn’t just a streamlined biographical account of The Four Seasons, it’s a celebration of the songs. Even if you weren’t necessarily a fan, after leaving the theatre with December, 1963 and Who Loves You repeating in a loop in your head, audiences will have the strongest desire to beg, steal, or borrow a copy of The Four Seasons’ greatest hits CD from whoever has one, just to relive those key moments of the show once again.

The Phoenix Theatre Company’s production of Jersey Boys continues until March 10

Pictures Courtesy of Reg Madison Photography

Posted in Theatre

Serenity – Film Review

In writer/director Steven Knight’s new slow burn, mystery thriller Serenity, there’s a blue sky paradise somewhere in the Atlantic, presumably off the coast of Florida but you’re never quite sure where. It’s called Plymouth Island. It’s small, tropical, and surrounded by endless miles of ocean. And there’s something strange going on.

No, wait. Scratch that. There’s something weird going on.

The unlikely named Baker Dill (Matthew McConaughey) is a grizzled, down-on-his-luck captain of a fishing boat. By night he lives alone in an abandoned commercial ship’s container, converted into a rusty looking metallic cabin by a cliff. By day he takes tourists out onto the ocean to fish. But when a certain oversized tuna swims alongside and bites the hook, Dill has an annoying habit of suddenly grabbing the rod from the tourist and doing the fishing himself. He’s an unshaven, sun-bleached Captain Ahab, obsessing over something he calls ‘The Beast,’ and it really annoys the tourists.

There’s a routine to his day. Each morning he drives to the shore, listening to the island’s only radio station where the DJ (Redd Pepper) wraps the weather forecast by saying that the conditions are “Perfect to go out there on the ocean and catch that damn fish.” It’s as if the announcer is talking directly to Dill.

The work, however, is not always there. Constance (Diane Lane) occasionally helps by giving Dill a few bills after he’s given her a little something himself at the end of the day. “I am increasingly fond of the way you say hello,” she says before exchanging cash as Dill gets out of the bed and starts to dress.

But then, in the tradition of all the intentionally trashy film noirs, the ones adapted from a drug store dime novel with sexy interludes, shadowy things going on, and sprinklings of salty dialog, the plot thickens. Karen (Anne Hathaway) is a blonde femme-fatale with a huge diamond ring on her wedding finger; it glistens under a light as she walks into the island’s only bar. She enters and approaches Dill with an offer he should really refuse. Karen knows Dill from a previous time before he vanished and hid away on a tropical island. Back then he had a different name. “I’m just waiting for a few things back home to lose their significance,” he explains.

Karen even has a son by him. But she married. She may now be rich, but she’s unhappy. The guy that Karen lives with back on the mainland is a repellent pig of a violent abuser called Frank (Jason Clarke). He beats her and bullies their son.

Here’s her deal. Karen wants Dill to take Frank out fishing, get him drunk on booze that shouldn’t be on the boat, then throw him overboard for the sharks to finish off. For that, she’ll pay $10 million in cash. No questions. But like those fish on a bad day, Dill doesn’t bite. At least, not at first.

So far, so regular. But Steven Wright is a clever man. He wrote not only the outstanding 2003 mystery/drama Dirty Pretty Things, the recent yet-to-be-released sequel World War Z 2, directed Tom Hardy in the unusual though gripping one-man-in-a-car drama Locke, and even created the phenomenally successful TV quiz show Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? you instinctively know there’s something else going on other than simply trouble in paradise. And Dill’s beginning to notice.

For some reason, everyone on the island, from the bartender to the woman behind the counter at the store, even Constance, knows what’s happening in Dill’s life, and they constantly pass a remark. It’s as if the Islanders are all wired to each other with a toll-free secret gossip hotline, and all they talk about is Dill.

Then there’s the fastidious guy in a suit carrying a briefcase (Jeremy Strong) who, like Alice’s time-chasing rabbit, always seems to be late by just a few seconds in catching Dill before the man heads out to sea. There’s also the map of the island. Like Patrick McGoohan in The Prisoner, every time Dill tries to find out exactly where he is on the map, all that he can find is the island surrounded by water. There’s nothing else. It’s all beginning to seem odd. Though, perhaps the oddest of all is the sudden realization he has a connection with his son somewhere back on the mainland that borders on supernatural. Karen tells Dill that the boy can often hear Dill’s thoughts as he thinks them. “There’s weird stuff going on right now,” Dill tells the blonde.

What it all means, how it plays out, and how you respond will depend on your own level of tolerance. There’ll be two distinct camps with nothing in between. Once the pieces fall into place and the big reveal arrives, you’ll either think, well, that was ingenious, or like the twist in M.Night Shyamalan’s The Happening, you’ll ultimately think the whole thing has gone completely off the rails. The latter camp for me.

But at least, it’s unpredictable. There’s almost nothing that hints what’s really going on, even though you know there has to be a con in the works somewhere, whether it’s Hathaway’s blonde who just might be setting Dill up for a spectacular fall, or whether this is really another magical island in the vein of TV’s Lost. And where does Duke (Djimon Hounsou) fit in, particularly when everything he says sounds as if he’s really Dill’s Jiminy Cricket rather than a ship’s first mate?

There’s a kind of clue, and it occurs right at the opening. In the way that Renee Zellweger’s Roxie at the beginning of Chicago viewed all of the musical numbers in her mind’s eye, there’s a similar shot here at the beginning of Serenity. The camera closes in on a pair of eyes – we don’t know who – until we’re close enough to see right into the pupil. Reflected within the rounded black lens is Dill’s fishing boat bobbing in the water. But before you think, ah, I’ve got it; it’s all in someone’s imagination, just as those musical sequences were for Roxie – slow down. You’re not even scratching the surface.

Technically, there are things to admire as long as you’re attuned to Wright’s intentions. Jess Hall’s widescreen cinematography is an eye-catcher, the performances are either deliberately underplayed or, as in the case of Jason Clarke’s abusive husband, deliciously overripe, and the sometimes colorful Chandler-esque dialog is fun, particularly as it’s all spoken straight, which only adds to the preposterous nature of the whole affair. But in the end, all most moviegoers will want to know before going in is, is it any good and who’s in it? When they come out disappointed and feeling tricked, technical achievements and style will mean nothing.

What begins as a neo-noir – a throwback to the 40s and 50s hardboiled, tawdry crime and passion mysteries but with a present-day setting – ends up as being something annoying and, frankly, unforgivably loony.

MPAA Rating: R     Length: 106 Minutes

Posted in Film

Hostage – Theatre Review: iTheatre Collaborative, Herberger Theater Center’s Kax Theatre, Phoenix

At the beginning of playwright Michelle Kholos Brooks’ real-life drama Hostage, once his hood is removed by his Iranian captors, the first face Sgt. Kevin Hermening sees is his mother’s, and he can’t believe it. “Can’t you untie his hands?” the distraught mother asks his guard.

The enlisted marine from Wisconsin was the youngest of the hostages held captive for 444 days from November 4, 1979, to January 20, 1981, during the Iran Hostage Crisis. His mother Barbara Timm ignored the wishes of President Carter and flew to Tehran on her own accord to see if his captors, the Iranian college students who supported the Revolution, would allow her to visit her son. They did. The meeting, under strict supervision, lasted 45 minutes.

While based on fact, Kholos Brooks’ play is an imagined account of what was said during that exchange, and every second is emotionally charged. But the play, now in performance at Herberger Theater Center’s intimate Kax Theatre until February 2 and presented by iTheatre Collaborative, isn’t simply about those 45 minutes. There’s so much more to consider, making the impact of what Hostage is really about all the more important. Here’s why.

Presented with a small cast of six who never leave the stage, Hostage takes place in two settings at two different times, yet their telling runs parallel. The first setting is in Tehran where Barbara (Marlene Galan-Woods) is taken to see her marine son Kevin (Jacob Nichols). The second is sometime later, back at the Timm’s Oak Creek home where angry mobs, motivated by a surging sense of patriotism and anti-Iranian feelings, have gathered outside of the house to protest and to throw bricks through Barbara’s windows. The reason for their anger has nothing to do with her going against the government’s wishes by flying to Iran, it’s what Barbara said on television once she returned.

Barbara’s knowledge of what was happening on the other side of the world came from the same source as everyone else’s – either through government announcements or the commentary of the media. She was not political. From her point-of-view, the Iranian students were terrorists and anarchists; their actions evil and unjust. All that concerned her was the welfare of her son, nothing more. “It’s not my revolution,” she tells the machine gun wielding guard, Ebrahim (Xavier Morris). “I’m from Wisconsin.”

But if there’s one thing that Barbara learned from her overseas flight, other than her son was still alive, was that no situation is ever as black and white as initially perceived. By seeing Iran for herself and meeting the angry students, she was able to put a human face to what was portrayed as a faceless vengeful mob. Plus it was painfully evident that what was happening now was the end result of years of western support to the Shah, a man who lived in opulence at the expense of his subjects and who ruled by cruelty and fear with the aid of his secret police.

Though not expressed in the play, when those students surged the U.S. Embassy and took the hostages, an act inspired by President Carter’s willingness to accept the deposed Shah into the country for cancer treatment, they raided top secret papers and files and declared they had proof that the cruel tactics of the Shah’s secret police involving kidnapping, torture, and often murder, were trained by the United States. Aware of our years of involvement, Barbara declared on American TV her views on what she considered to be the ineptitude of the United States Government. The woman who spat on Barbara at the supermarket and the angry mob that threw bricks through her window called her a traitor, angered with what they viewed as the mother’s newfound sympathy for the Iranian students.

But make no mistake. Seeing her son with a hood over his head and his hands tied while being pushed around by guards with guns shouting at both him and her in a language that made the Iranians sound perpetually angry and dangerous did not elicit sympathy. And it didn’t help that they insisted her son was a ‘guest’ and not a hostage. But she had an understanding, and there’s a huge difference. “The final insult is you give refuge to the Shah,” states the student’s female interpreter Masoumeh Ebtekar dubbed Tehran Mary by the media (Elizabeth Broeder). “Your pain justifies my son’s pain?” asks the distraught mother. “Yes,” replies the interpreter.

By having everyone on stage at the same time, the play can jump from one time to another in an instant, giving us the ability to draw immediate parallels between the events of the two locations – the mobs in the streets of Tehran, their wrath fueled by an anger against a superpower whose influence in their country benefited a dictator at the expense of the people, and those in a Milwaukee suburb, their anger fueled by an unquestioning patriotism, with Barbara, her husband Kenny (Glenn Parker) and Barbara’s not altogether understanding ex-husband Richard (Walt Pedano) in the middle.

But amid the anger, there’s often humor. Through theatrical creativity and invention, characters seated in one setting occasionally comment on what they’re witnessing in the other. When Barbara’s ex-husband in Wisconsin talks of the female interpreter he’s seen on television news, he describes her as “The bitch who speaks good English.” “I can see why you divorced him,” responds a sardonic Tehran Mary.

Another of the play’s strength is how writer Kholos Brooks manages to instill a constant sense of tension. We know that the hostages will eventually be freed and that Sgt. Kevin Hermening returned, but somehow during those moments in the darkened room where a bound, disheveled, and shoeless hostage is pushed around, there’s always an ever-present sense of danger, an uncomfortable feeling that at any moment, something horrible is about to happen to him.

With a running time of 85 minutes, no intermission, Christopher Haines directs with clear, unfussy blocking. Even though the scenes jump from one location to another and characters either face the audience with a statement that is being read on TV or they comment to each other from one time setting to the other, there’s never a doubt as to what is being said, where, and to whom.

All six performers are well cast. Jacob Nichols as the marine is particularly convincing. As a lover of baseball, his single moment of joy when his mother tells him that Bud Selig, the general manager of the Milwaukee Brewers, has declared that upon his return he could throw out the first ball is hugely effective. His delight in knowing that the famous GM of his favorite team has actually talked about him is almost palpable. It’s as if for just a moment he’s forgotten where he is.

But this is beyond a doubt Marlene Galan-Woods’ play. Last year, valley audiences were treated to the actor as the wife of a southern politician in Church and State. There she was great. Here she’s extraordinary in a role that any and every mother will relate. In Mrs. Timm’s understanding of Iran, with a performance that persuasively displays anger, frustration, fear, confusion, and even heartache without the histrionics that a lesser talent could have so easily fallen back upon, Galan-Woods makes us understand Mrs. Timm. The real Barbara Timm saw the play when it was premiered last year in Los Angeles.  There’s no way of knowing if she’ll ever see herself portrayed in this excellent Phoenix valley production before it closes. I suspect that if she does, she’ll be as impressed by Marlen Galan-Woods as you will be.

Hostage presented by iTheatre Collaborative continues at Herberger Theater Center’s Kax Theatre until February 2

Pictures Courtesy of Christopher Haines

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