Sacred Journeys – Special Report: Film Review

Journey poster

Ask any visitor to Sedona and they’ll tell you; among the many breathtaking sights to enjoy, the most spectacular of all is the clarity of a cloudless, night sky. It’s where the inky blackness above looks to be literally sprayed with twinkling stars. Knowing that the nearest star is a few million light years away and it takes almost as long for that image to reach our sight, when we look above, what we’re actually seeing is the past while we remain standing in the present.

With that in mind, the opening shot of an Arizona night sky that begins the hugely likable short film from director Tracy Boyd, Sacred Journeys, underlines that same theme; when the principal characters meet, they are faced with their past and forced to deal with it in the present.

Journey 1

Jeep tour driver Marco (Glenn Scarpelli) is a slob. He sports perpetual slurp stains down the front of his tee-shirt; he uses the socks he’s wearing as emergency heating pads when taking something out of the oven; and in order to move around in his apartment, he has to navigate his way past mounting boxes of junk and plastic bags of trash that create their own in-house pathways. “I’m a mess,” he admits to his suffering tour business manager, Tom (Stephen Wallem) who wants to know if it was true that Marco stopped the tour and made everybody wait while he bought a burger for lunch.  It was true.

Tiff (Mackenzie Phillips) is a single mom to her 13-year-old son, Luke (Matthew Kosto). When we first meet them they’re just pulling in to Sedona for a brief visit. The trip is mostly for Luke’s benefit, though the real reason isn’t revealed until later in the story. “It’s to nurture and relax you,” Tiff reminds her son. As with most visitors to the mountainous area, one of the first things they do is take a jeep tour, and that’s when tourist Tiff recognizes tourist guide Marco, and by seeing each other, both are suddenly faced with a past they never knew they would have to face again.

Journey logoWhat’re you doing here?” asks Marco in a manner suggesting that the last person he would ever expect to meet after all these years was Tiff. While keeping as much of their conversation away from the ears of the boy as possible, Tiff and Marco quickly catch up with their individual stories so far. After a relationship they once shared, Marco partied too much, blew his inheritance, then moved back to Sedona to drive a jeep for sightseeing. Tiff had a child, admitted to herself that she was gay, and embraced it. “You’re gay?” asks a bemused Marco, then adds as if it all suddenly makes sense, “You always did like herbal tea and NPR.”

Running at a scant forty-seven minutes, Sacred Journeys never has a chance to wear out its welcome. In fact, the overall feel to the film is that by getting to know these likable characters as quickly as we do, once everything concludes, secrets are revealed and new beginnings are set in place, you may find yourself wishing that things lasted even longer; spending a few extra minutes with everyone would be perfectly fine.

Journey 2

Much of the fun for locals will be recognizing Sedona landmarks such as the Goldenstein Gallery, and the Tlaquepaque Arts and Crafts village. Plus there are those spectacular opening, panoramic shots of the night sky, then the sun rising over the Sedona red rock mountains. Even though these widescreen, introductory moments last just a few seconds, cinematographer Radan Popovic has created an opening worthy of any big screen, large scale epic – the larger the screen the better – proving one invaluable point to any other potential filmmaker considering Sedona as a location: In this part of the state, no matter where you point that lens, there’s no such thing as a bad shot.

All four leading cast members, Scarpelli, Phillips, Wallem, and Kosto, nicely establish their characters as people we would like to know if we were ever to meet them, and they do it in a short time, but it’s Mackenzie Phillips who shines. Seeing her again, if only for this brief period, is a reminder of how natural a performer she is and how much we never realized we missed her.

Journey cast

Length: 47 Minutes

Sacred Journeys is now available for download on Amazon. CLICK HERE for a direct link.

 

 

Posted in Film

The Children Act – Film Review

As the title suggests, The Children Act is a bill introduced in 1989 to reform British law relating to minors. Its intent is to ensure that all children are safeguarded and that their welfare should be the overriding concern of the courts, while taking into account the child’s wishes, including the harm a child may have suffered or is likely to suffer.

It’s not altogether necessary for audiences to know the legalities stated within the bill, but in order to understand the conflicts fictional High Court Judge Fiona Maye (Emma Thompson) has to face in the new Richard Eyre directed drama The Children Act, a general awareness helps. At the very least, it should give insight into the decisions she has to regularly make, and why.

Based on the novel of the same name and adapted to the screen by its author, Ian McEwan, when the film begins, Fiona is having to rule on the difficult case of conjoined ‘Siamese’ twins. If she rules in favor of the hospital that insists on operating, one child will live, the other will die. On moral grounds, the parents are refusing an operation. “The logic of the evil is clear,” Fiona begins, and proceeds to make her ruling, concluding with, “The court is a court of law, not morals.” An operation will proceed.

But before the judge has time to fully breathe or to take in how her decision was reported in the press – “I gave instructions to slaughter a baby,” she dryly states while glancing over the emotional headlines that sell Britain’s tabloids – she is immediately faced with a new and equally difficult case. A 17-year-old boy, Adam Henry (Fionn Whitehead) has leukemia. The doctors want a blood transfusion. But the boy’s parents are Jehovah’s Witnesses. “The soul, the life is in the blood,” they have heard preached in their church. “It’s God’s and it belongs to him.”

In stark detail, Professor Rodney Carter (Nicholas Jones) explains what will happen to the boy if he’s left unattended by the doctors. “One sure thing is that it’ll be a horrifying death,” the professor tells the court, adding once the judge is informed that it’s also the boy’s wish he be left untreated, “His views are his parent’s views.” But the boy’s parents cannot be swayed. “God’s word has to be obeyed,” the father (Ben Chaplin) insists.

The problem for the Honorable Mrs. Justice Maye is clear, even if the road to make her decision is not: should the hospitable be allowed to make a transfusion and go against the wishes of the parents based on their religion, or should the firmly held beliefs of the parents, including those of the boy himself, be adhered to?

Included in the film’s themes of parenting, the directness of the law and the authority of the courts, including its moral authority, there’s also a parallel story of love, infidelity, and the effects on a marriage when work for one of the partners becomes all consuming. Fiona’s husband, Jack (Stanley Tucci) openly declares he wants to have an affair with an associate at the college where he teaches. Fiona is forever working and has little time outside of the courts. When Jack leaves home, it’s for just a few days. His hope was that upon his return the two could talk about things and maybe save the marriage. After all, he still loves her and wants the relationship to work. But Fiona disregards him, forcing Jack to tell her, “I left this marriage two days. You left it years ago.

Despite Tucci’s touching performance – his portrayal makes Jack an immensely likable and sympathetic character – Fiona’s private life conflicts never feel as interesting as her work. There’s fascination to be had when hearing the judge’s legal arguments, including the energetic swiftness with which the behind-the-scenes decisions are made and orders are given. But the story of a failing marriage gets in the way; it can’t compete. Plus, with only one flashback relating to earlier, happier times, unlike the novel, there’s a curious absence of depth explored in the relationship to warrant any major investment or concern on our part. Even more curious is that no one ever mentions that Jack is an American living in London. Perhaps a scene of how they met would have helped. The cultural difference alone might have added insight into their earlier mutual attraction.

Far more interesting is Fiona’s developing relationship with the young Jehovah’s Witness at the center of her case. Surprisingly, the judge’s ruling as to whether the hospital can administer a blood transfusion or not is only the conclusion of the first act. It’s the results of that decision and its after-effects that make the bulk of the film. “Poor kid,” remarks one of Fiona’s colleagues. “He’s lost Jehovah and found you.”

While author McEwan’s adaptation of his own work keeps to the overall narrative of the original, there are changes, and perhaps it’s his streamlining of certain events that make the film flawed, and Fiona and Jack’s failing relationship less interesting. In the book, Fiona changes the locks to their home when Jack temporarily leaves. In fact, when he later returns, she’s actually disappointed that he’s back, as if the expectation of being alone was something suddenly appealing. That might have made conflicts on the screen more interesting than always giving her husband the cold shoulder every time he wants to have a discussion, as she does here.

Plus, with a film so intelligent and grounded in reality, it’s odd that its eventual conclusion doesn’t work as well as you might expect, or hope. But if one thing is clear, even if you don’t fully believe in the outcome of events, you believe in Emma Thompson. She makes her Judge Fiona a powerful character, running the gamut of believable emotions, always hitting her target. Despite the film’s failings, Thompson never fails to keep you anything less than glued.

MPAA Rating: R              Length: 105 Minutes

Posted in Film

Lizzie – Film Review

There’s a lot we know about Lizzie Borden, but there’s more we don’t. We know she was tried for the murders of her father and her stepmother in 1892. We know she never married, and we know she remained in Fall River, Massachusetts until she died of pneumonia, aged 66. Yet, despite the children’s folk rhyme that insisted Lizzie Borden took an ax and gave her mother forty whacks, we still don’t know if she did it. We can only speculate. Historians, writers, and filmmakers have speculated for years.

In director Craig William Macneill’s new slow-burn, atmospheric drama called simply Lizzie, there’s a different take on the affair. Not unlike mystery writer Ed McBain’s approach in his 1984 book, also called Lizzie, where the daughter of Andrew Borden was caught in a lesbian tryst with the maid by Lizzie’s stepmother, Abby, screenwriter Bryce Kass explores a similar theme but creates different circumstances.

The film begins with the now overused technique of starting with something alarming with an added sense of mystery in order to draw immediate attention, then cuts to an earlier time, introducing principle characters while slowly revealing events and motives that will eventually circle us back to where it began.

It’s August 4, 1892, and the murders have already occurred. “And you didn’t see anyone else enter the house?” asks a detective of Lizzie Borden (Chloë Sevigny) at the inquiry. “Did your father have any enemies?”

The film then cuts to six months earlier. Shy Bridget Sullivan (Kristen Stewart with Irish accent) is hired as a housemaid by the stern sounding lady of the house, Abby Borden (Fiona Shaw). Within minutes of her arriving and opening her bag in her small, upstairs room, daughter Lizzie enters and greets the new hire. They’ve only just met, yet in an uncommon moment of silent, uninvited intimacy, Lizzie reaches out and tenderly adjusts the maid’s hair. Though nothing further occurs, already there’s a feeling of something unspoken having just developed between them.

History has suggested that Lizzie’s father was a strict, demanding, and frugal man who kept a tight grip on his money while dictating his daughter’s every behavior. In Lizzie, Andrew Borden (Jamey Sheridan) insists, “You’ll not leave this house unaccompanied,” as his daughter readies herself for a night at the theater, alone. But the severity of his demands is matched equally by Lizzie’s stubbornness and her determination to be as independent as possible. “Midnight, no later,” he finally relents.

The film’s tone and that opening have already established that the brutal ax murders of Andrew and Abby were committed by daughter Lizzie, but what follows is a series of events suggesting why, and why housemaid Bridget was complicit. After telling the maid, “We wouldn’t want to lose you,” he enters her room at night and fondles her body through the sheets. And later, when letting Bridget know how sorry he is for the news of her mother’s passing, he leans into her. For a moment, Bridget looks away, not only to deter the man’s slow, leering advances but to glance at something on the floor. From the maid’s point of view, we see an ax, resting in a bucket.

Later, angered by overhearing her father’s future plans for what should be the inheritance of Lizzie and her sister Emma (Kim Dickens) Lizzie steals some of her step-mother’s jewelry and exchanges it for money at a pawn shop. But when her father discovers what has happened, he grabs an ax, and as punishment proceeds to chop the heads off of Lizzie’s pigeons nestled in a garden shed while Lizzie looks on, helpless to stop her father.

When Lizzie and Bridget steal a private, sexually intimate moment alone, Andrew spies them together through a window. “You’re an abomination, Lizzie,” he later tells his daughter after informing her he’ll soon be giving the maid her notice. “On what grounds?” Lizzie demands. “I don’t need grounds!” he replies.

The murders, when they eventually come, are grisly and brutal. While they’re not quite the forty whacks of the children’s folk rhyme, they remain violent, repeated blows, enough to render Andrew’s face virtually unrecognizable. History records that the stepmother suffered eighteen, maybe nineteen blows. Andrew Borden suffered eleven.

The film mixes events that were recorded as facts on that day, things the authorities know for certain had happened and seamlessly weaves its own mythical version around those confirmed occurrences to the point where it all seems perfectly logical. But rather than tell its tale in a chronological order, the film jump-cuts.

As with that unnecessary technique used at the beginning where Lizzie is already under suspicion for acts we have yet to see, the final thirty minutes skips around, cutting between the court case, the murders, back to the courtroom, Lizzie in a cell, talks with another shady family member, Uncle John (Denis O’Hare) about the whereabouts of a missing will, further reveals of the murders, then back again to the courtroom. It feels awkward. Plus, the jury’s verdict regarding Lizzie’s fate is only revealed in titles once the film is done. It removes a sense of release required after having invested the previous hour and forty-five minutes going through all the emotional ups and downs and family confrontations.

But there’s beauty to be seen in Noah Greenberg’s widescreen cinematography, and good performances from its three principle leads; Sevigny, whose rage behind her eyes tell us everything; Stewart, who here successfully, and thankfully, sheds her earlier Twilight image; and Sheridan. His persuasive portrayal of an immensely unlikable and hypocritical character convinces us that while his murder must always be considered unforgivable, the way the film frames his behavior, we nevertheless understand.

MPAA rating:  R          Length:  106 Minutes

Posted in Film

The House with a Clock in the Walls – Film Review

After his popularity with teenage horror audiences in the creepy 2015 release, Goosebumps, Jack Black returns to that same young adult market as a friendly, kimono wearing warlock of dubious magical talents in the fantasy horror, The House with a Clock in its Walls.

Based on the 1973 novel of the same by John Bellairs, the first in a series of twelve, Black plays Jonathan Barnavelt, a practicing warlock who needs to practice a little more. He lives in an appropriately dark, bleak looking mansion that, when a full moon shines above, looks like something either The Addams Family, The Munsters, or maybe even The Great Race’s Professor Fate might feel at home in.

It’s 1955. A ten-year-old Lewis Barnavelt (Owen Vaccaro) is recently orphaned. His only remaining family member is Uncle Jonathan, so young Lewis packs his bags and rides the bus to New Zebedee, a small town in Michigan where his uncle lives. “Things are quite different here,” Barnavelt tells the boy, and he’s right, the place, as Lewis will soon discover, is perfectly weird. And though it’s not quite Halloween, already there are evil looking jack-o’-lanterns decorating the gates to Barnavelt’s mansion. “I leave ‘em up all year round,” the uncle explains.

Once inside, Lewis meets Florence Zimmerman (Cate Blanchett), his uncle’s neighbor. Florence may live next door but she seems to be in the Barnavelt mansion all the time. And she’s a witch. “I melted Salvador Dali’s watch right off his wrist,” she informs the boy.

And if things didn’t feel weird enough for Lewis – clocks tick loudly, paintings move, and the lazy-boy in the living room whimpers and pants as though it was the friendliest of pups – there are noises at night that indicate his uncle is roaming the house into the early hours in constant search for something. Plus, just as the boy is trying to ignore everything he hears, as if in a dream, his recently departed mother (Lorenza Izzo) visits her son in the bedroom, hugs him, then tells him, “First you get the key, then you get the book.” It’s all rather mysterious, and with the sound of those clocks ticking away as if counting down to something, it’s also rather noisy.

As directed by hardcore gore-monger Eli Roth, The House with a Clock in its Walls. Roth’s first family-friendly feature, plus his first not be rated ‘R,’ while keeping close to the overall arc of things featured in the popular teenage novel, writer Eric Kripke has changed a few details that may surprise its YA readers. Lewis remains a shy outcast among his new school friends, but unlike the book, he’s not overweight, a plot point in the novel. Plus, when he makes a late night trek to the cemetery and commits the gravest of errors with a magic spell, it’s not the body of an evil woman called Selena he raises from the dead, but rather her equally evil husband, Issac (Kyle MacLachlan). Selena (Renee Elise Goldsberry) will make her own appearance via a different route later in the film.

Shot widescreen with a colorfully attractive set design, there are plenty of small plot surprises throughout that should work for a younger audience, even if parents will feel they’ve seen it before, just with different wrappings. Plus, there’s a lot of humor aimed specifically at the early teenage set, like the flatulent topiary griffin in the backyard that blows brown leaves when nature unexpectedly calls. Fart jokes will always work, even when done by an animal-shaped garden shrub.

There’s also a keen sense of real cinematic magic, as when the boy, his uncle, and the neighbor walk among the floating stars, planets, and revolving galaxies raised from the glittering surface of the backyard pond. And when it gets intense and threatening, which is does a great deal, there’s enough to chill the younger set without them feeling the need to duck beneath their seat. Creepy dolls come alive and reach out, those jack-o’-lanterns attack, and a decaying body raises from the dead. Some parents may feel that the film is pushing its ‘PG’ rating to the limit, perhaps a little beyond, certainly more than a Disney feature might, but view the film through the eyes of its target audience and they’ll be wowed. And with Halloween fast approaching, those seven to twelve-year-olds are already prepped to be tricked and treated. Ask a fourth or fifth-grade school teacher.

Devotees of the John Bellair novels may also be happy with the film’s conclusion. Sequels are determined by the popularity of the first, but, just in case the return is better than expected, and it should, the film introduces an open door for more without things looking obvious. Like the book, young Lewis discovers a new friend at school; a young girl called Rose Rita Pottinger (Vanessa Anne Williams). The character has nothing to do with the plot of The House with the Clock in the Wall, but her brief inclusion and a friendship yet to be developed is an indication of maybe more to come. Let’s hope.

MPAA Rating: PG        Length: 104 Minutes

Posted in Film

Fahrenheit 11/9 – Film Review

There’s every possibility that Michael Moore’s new political documentary will not be quite as you expect. The diatribe against the 45th president of the United States that the right anticipated and the left might have hoped-for is largely absent. That’s neither the theme nor the filmmaker’s intention. Though, considering the litany of social media attacks the documentary has already received from those who have yet to see it, being told that Moore uses an intentionally somber and largely sedate approach to the current state of the union – he allows quotes, facts, and figures to speak for themselves – will presumably mean little. And while there are moments that from time to time will make you laugh, unlike most of Moore’s previous films, Fahrenheit 11/9 is not particularly funny. And with good reason.

The film begins with the 2016 presidential election leading up to Trump’s surprise victory and ends with a sobering finale. But the lengthy middle goes in other directions, away from the president. And as fascinating as the journey becomes, after a while, there’s a good chance you may question what it all has to do with 45. Yet, upon reflection, it should soon become evident that everything Moore covers in that middle act has to do with the man who won the election. In order to comprehend Donald Trump and to fully grasp the concerns of his future intentions, groundwork is required.

Was it all a dream?” Moore’s customary droll, voice-over narration asks. Before the opening credits, the film covers those moments leading up to the president’s victory. Much of what is shown we’ve seen before, but in a presidency where countless new and astounding revelations can dominate the political discourse in just a few days, often in a single day, it’s good to be reminded what occurred over two years ago. After all, it now seems such a long time ago.

As seen in a montage of clips, no one believed that Donald Trump could win. Shots of pro-Hillary crowds, prematurely celebrating in the streets and in halls, dominated the news while talking heads and political pundits on cable stations and political countdown shows concurred that Trump would never be the next president. “I got to vote for a woman for president!” a woman declares, openly weeping. Even Fox News appeared relieved that once all the votes were tallied they wouldn’t have to spend their energy defending and supporting the millionaire for the next four years. No one believed it… except one.

Ironically, it was Moore himself. In a sequence recorded at Fox, the announcers laugh as they report that it was documentary filmmaker Michael Moore who was the lone voice among a sea of celebrities and political experts stating that we shouldn’t be too sure of a Hillary win.

Then it happened. The Electoral College, that body of people representing the states, changed the flow of the political tide. Total of actual votes be damned; it was the system that even Trump said would work against him that won him the presidency. The most amusing segment out of this whole introduction is the video that captured the look on the faces of the Trump team themselves as they somberly marched on stage to celebrate a victory. They looked stunned, every one of them as if silently questioning what had just happened while wondering, what do we do now? Even the victor had no speech prepared. Though look closely and you’ll notice there’s a definite grin on Steve Bannon’s face.

During the following credits, glimpses of a Donald Trump wax figure, molded piece by piece, ready to take its position in a recreation of the Oval Office at Madame Tussauds solidifies what the right was celebrating and the left could not believe: Donald J Trump was the 45th president of the United States. “How the f*** did this happen?” Moore’s voice-over asks.

The film will later veer off, away from Trump, and explore in detail the reasoning behind the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, Moore’s hometown. What the rest of the country thought it knew about the situation and the state’s Republican governor, Rick Snyder, the businessman who championed the switching of the water supply from the clean water of Lake Huron to the stale, heavily polluted water of Flint River, is just the surface of this pond scum affair. The full story is devastating. But why is it explored in Fahrenheit 11/9, you might ask when such a horrifying event and its deadly outcome could warrant its own documentary. Once you recognize the parallels, it starts to make sense.

Having a CEO declaring he can run Michigan like a business, then making decisions based on corporate policies solely for the intent of generating profits begin to sound familiar. Political measures meant to protect are forcibly lifted. The film shows how Snyder orchestrated a non-existent emergency resulting in a coup relieving elected city leaders of their duties, replaced by Snyder’s personal, like-minded businessman appointees. As Moore narrates, no terrorist organization had found a way of poisoning a city. That was achieved by the Republican party and its CEO governor.

At this point, in case you’re thinking that maybe such a conclusion is pushing a bias too far, consider what is revealed. When it was proven that the damaging water supply was not only directly responsible for residents’ ill health, many of whom died of Legionnaire’s disease, but also created damage to the manufacture of automobile parts in Detroit’s factories, damage that affected factory costs as well as political donations to his party, Governor Snyder was forced to finally act. Which he did. He sensibly switched the water supply back to its original clean source. But only for the car factories. The residents would have to contend with the brown water from the rancid Flint River. No profit to be made from helping anyone else. So much for the notion that its people that always come first.

But it’s not just the party to the right that comes under Moore’s revealing facts and figures. The New York Times, the established members of the Democrats, even both President Clinton and Obama are victims of embarrassing facts, supported by carefully selected numbers and videos. His agenda in Fahrenheit 11/9 is to look at the big picture and produce inconvenient truths, even if you can’t always be sure of things he may have conveniently neglected in order to support his point without doing homework of your own. It’s only when Moore grabs a pair of handcuffs and declares he’s about to attempt a citizen’s arrest when approaching Governor Snyder’s mansion that the film feels it’s taken a wrong turn. It’s a stunt, admittedly a humorous one that makes its point, but what worked in the more satirical Roger & Me feels out of step with the tone of this film.

Ultimately, however, whether he’s on screen or not, it’s all about President Trump. Looking back on his career before the presidency, how he talked; the lawsuits; the lechery – “I’ll be dating her in ten years,” he states after passing an eight-year-old girl going in the other direction on an escalator; the lies – “I’m gonna take care of everybody,” he insists regarding healthcare; avoiding taxes – “That makes me smart,” when questioned in a debate; the fake promises – “You people are gonna be rich so fast!” he declares to a crowd at a rally; and the incite to violence – “Knock the crap out of him,” he shouts to his followers regarding a protester at a rally, adding, “I’ll pay the legal fees,” – all add to the portrait of a man shown to be unconcerned with hiding his immoral corruptions.

As filmmaker Moore successfully explains without having to spell the obvious, his followers, the ones wearing the t-shirts that read slogans such as “I’d Rather Be Russian Than A Democrat” neither seem to care nor realize how much they’re being used. Like Michigan Governor Snyder’s model, those measures meant to protect are being systematically lifted, and it’s only achieved from a power drawn by the continual support of his base, the ones who, in the long run, will be the most negatively affected.

To vote is a citizen’s only line of defense. If you come away from Fahrenheit 11/9 with anything, Moore is telling us, it’s the need to cast that vote before the ability to do so is removed by executive order. And don’t think that having a Constitution is going to help. Moore’s sobering explanation at the film’s conclusion with examples shown will soon have you reconsidering that particular myth.

MPAA Rating: R        Length: 126 Minutes

Posted in Film

The First Annual Book Burners Convention – Theatre Review: Space 55 Theatre

Having worked at both Zia Records and Half Price Books, if there’s anyone who must know a thing or two about used bookstores, the people who shop there, and what it’s like to come across the occasional interesting item, it would be Ashley Naftule.

Currently, the Associate Artistic Director for Space 55, the valley’s small, independent theatre group located on N. 18th Avenue, Naftule has written a new play inspired by those years behind the counter, The First Annual Book Burners Convention. With a title like that and an awareness of Naftule’s origins, you might think you’re about to see an off-beat, comedic, behind-the-scenes exposé of the day to day affairs of a used bookstore, its behind the counter secrets, the attitudes of employees towards the customers, and why when during hard economic times you take in boxes of your favorite books, albums, and CDs, and you’re offered a disappointing amount of practically next-to-nothing for them. But you’d be wrong.

It starts off that way. It’s November 1st, the morning after Halloween. Francis Neville (Sky Donovan) and his sister Aaron (Dayna Renee Donovan; and yes, that is Aaron Neville, and, no, there’s no singing) both work at the Opera Street Bookstore, a place not unlike Half Price Books where customers raid their home shelves and bring in what will later become the store’s inventory. When Nice Guy Johnny (normally Brett Higginbotham, but ably played at the last minute on Sunday’s matinee by director Dennis Frederick) arrives with a bag full of books to sell, Francis offers him only five dollars for the lot, and that includes an old, musty, ancient looking hard-covered book written in what might be either hieroglyphics or a language of a long, lost past. Actually, Francis pays nothing for the book, insisting its pages are so full of silverfish, the best he can do is get rid of it for Johnny as a free service before it contaminates everything else in the store. But, of course, Francis is lying. There are no damaging silverfish.

Instead, drawn towards it, Francis takes the book home and attempts to translate it, which, to his surprise, he discovers he can. And that’s where things become weird. The tip-off that the play is about to go in a new, considerably more bizarre direction is when Francis receives a call from someone, or maybe even something called Mr. Cold (Megan Holcomb). Sounding like one of those aliens from Galaxy Quest and looking like an androgynous Kyle MacLachlan as Dale Cooper in Twin Peaks but with slicked-back red hair, Mr. Cold wants that book and is willing to pay anything Francis desires to get it back. Literally anything. As the humorless, monotone character in the suit and tie informs Francis, “I am a victim of theft.”

But the off-beat that was at first just weird, then bizarre, develops into something freakish. There are two others who want that book, and their approach is considerably less diplomatic than Mr. Cold’s. Two sisters, demons from hell (Julie Peterson and Tessa Geelhood) are determined to find the ancient writings, and they’re perfectly happy to torture or tear anyone from limb to limb in order to find it.

There are times throughout when the play appears to be in danger of going completely off the rails, especially with the demon sisters, two characters who would benefit from some rethinking and a thorough re-write. But with overall good work from its eight-member cast, particularly Sky Donovan – his unsuspecting bookstore worker feels authentic to the point of believing that his day-job outside of Space 55 is actually working at a used bookstore – and Amy Jean Page as Claire, Francis’ sympathetic girlfriend, the dark-humored play is kept buoyant.

However, it’s fair to say that mainstream audiences attending the low-budget, rough-around-the-edges production will find The First Annual Book Burners Convention an undeniable challenge. In fact, with its several short and to the point scenes that often jump quickly from location to location, particularly as the story heads towards its intriguing conclusion, the play doesn’t always feel like a play at all. It’s like watching a live-action version of a late-night movie; a black comic horror flick, the kind that develops a cult after surviving the film festival circuit in the Sci-Fi/Horror category.

Naftule, who has a good ear for dialog, gives the impression he’s adapted something originally conceived as a screenplay, a notion underlined further by the continuing string of scene-setting music from sound designer Ilana Lydia; it sounds like a movie’s original soundtrack. When the manager of the bookstore, Millicent (Marcella Grassa) tells the story of the night she was driving her Nissan and thought she saw the angel Gabriel raising his sword before her, atmospheric music slyly creeps in, adding a flavor of eeriness to the telling. It’s purely cinematic. And, frankly, if at some future date it’s ever adapted to a screenplay, the concept of Book Burners, I’m suspecting, would be considerably more effective if told up on that big screen forum.

The First Annual Book Burners Convention continues at Space 55 Theatre until September 30

Posted in Theatre