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Friday, June 14, 2019

The Movie Report #1024, June 14, 2019

The Movie Report

#1024, June 14, 2019


MOVIES:

  • American Woman ***
  • The Dead Don't Die ***
  • Funan *** 1/2
  • Men in Black International ** 1/2
  • Shaft *** video of Samuel L Jackson, Tim Story, Kenya Barris introducing Los Angeles friends & family screening
  • This One's for the Ladies ***

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Tuesday, June 11, 2019

F3Stage Review: A far from Indecent history lesson

Film Flam Flummox


From the moment one enters the Ahmanson Theatre to find its entire cast already seated, silent, on an open and nearly bare stage, director Rebecca Taichman announces the simple yet boundlessly clever stagecraft she brings to Indecent, which, as subtitled on a projection right above the cast, tells "the true story of a little Jewish play." That subtitle succinctly sums up the ostensible subject matter of Paula Vogel's play, but as the piece plays out over its brisk yet loaded two-hour, intermission-free run time, Vogel and Taichman's main concern appears less about that specific story and more about the greater and still-all-too-relevant scope of its thematic concerns.

One is also tempted to say one of those concerns is theatrical technique, for despite its undeniable creativity effectiveness, Taichman's approach keeps one hyper-aware of the theatrical artifice. Six of the seven actors in the cast are officially billed as just that--"Actor"--in the program, for they rotate with remarkable fluidity and versatility through a succession of roles in telling the decades-spanning story of Sholem Asch's landmark Yiddish play God of Vengeance. It begins from it and its author's humble beginnings in 1906 Warsaw and through the global success that leads the work to reach America and finally the Great White Way of Broadway in 1923. It is in the theater capital of the fabled land of the free that, ironically enough, the work runs into its big obstacle in its worldwide journey. A melodrama which earnestly tells of a romance that develops between two young women, including on-stage kiss between the two lovers--which then leads to it being shut down on grounds of indecency and its troupe of actors accordingly arrested. On the base level on the page, Vogel tells this story in as straightforward manner as summarized, with that somewhat by-the-book approach spilling over on stage with copious text supertitles being projected on the back wall (and, in a nice and rare note of mindfulness to those sitting on the sides, also on the left and right walls) serving as lower-thirds chyron equivalents for live theater, labeling characters, locations, time periods, and sometimes even offering supplemental information.

Those identifiers are crucial, not only as Vogel moves through the years but also as the actors impressively shuffle through different roles and even switch languages and accents, at many times on a dime. As mentioned, all but one of the acting septet covers multiple roles, classified by age group and temperament, the sole exception being Richard Topol (one of the four cast members from the original 2017 Broadway production reprising their roles at the Ahmanson) as Lemml, who is not only stage manager for God of Vengeance as it travels the globe over the years, but also serves as a meta one for the very production the audience watches. Thus encapsulates the central conundrum at the heart of this production. While the non-Topol six have a few roles that recur, including that of playwright Asch himself (which is shared by two of the billed Actors, Joby Earle and Harry Groener, at different ages), Vogel's script's briskness covering decades and the many people involved necessitates never delving too deeply into any of the characters, with Lemml and Asch the only having discernible arcs. But if characters then don't forge a strong connection with the audience, it then brings to greater prominence the broad thematic strokes of the piece, which appear to be Vogel's most paramount concern anyhow. While telling of a specific incident in history that centers around a specific community, not only are the general themes such as artistic censorship, immigration, ethnic and LGBTQ prejudice more universally relatable, they are sadly very relevant and timely in this day and age. In fact, given the political atmosphere of contemporary America, the entire scenario could have easily been adapted to current times, and it would ring all too painfully true.

Further making the ideas more resonant is Taichman's ingenious direction. The story theater approach, which frames the events as being presented by Lemml and his troupe from beyond the grave--or, rather, from ashes--may initially strike as a bit precious and on-the-nose, but by the haunting end, it becomes rather chilling. In between though, there's a fair amount of pure enjoyment to go with the heart rending drama, with a mix of period and original music by Lisa Gutkin (who, along with Patrick Ferrell and fellow Broadway production musician Matt Darriau, are on stage the entire time, even intermingling with the cast) making for some memorable dance moments (choreographed by David Dorfman) and serving as a propulsive engine through the numerous changes of scene, with Riccardo Hernandez's spare scenic design lent much versatility by Christopher Akerlind's expressive lighting concept. But most impressive is the cast, which in addition to Topol, Earle, and Groener includes Elizabeth A. Davis (who, in one scene, also plays the viola) and Broadway cast members Adina Verson, Mimi Lieber, and Steven Rattazzi. They all convincingly embody their numerous characters, and watching the six of seven seamlessly, repeatedly transform over the two hours adds additional excitement and even suspense. Indecent may ultimately be an informative if basic primer into the history of God of Vengeance and traditional Yiddish theater and Jewish-American playwrights, but it is executed in such an enthralling and inviting manner that one does feel compelled to investigate further.


Adina Verson and Elizabeth A. Davis in Indecent
(photo by T. Charles Erickson)

Indecent is now playing at the Ahmanson Theatre in downtown Los Angeles through Sunday, July 7.

Buy the Indecent Original Broadway Cast album CD here.
Buy the Indecent play text by Paula Vogel here.
Watch the Indecent Original Broadway Production here.
Buy The God of Vengeance play text by Sholem Asch here.

(Special thanks to Center Theatre Group)


The Movie Report wants to attend and cover all your live stage productions! Please send any and all invitations to this address. Thanks!

Sunday, June 9, 2019

F3Stage Review: Phantom's music of the night soars over restaging missteps

Film Flam Flummox


For many such as myself, The Phantom of the Opera holds a special place in the heart as the "gateway drug" that led to a lifelong love of live theater. Its status as an icon in pop culture, never mind in the ever-increasingly niche corner that is live stage, is no accident, for this is one of those singular feats in entertainment where everything appears to have magically fallen into place: the Gothic romance and horror hook--deformed, masked, musical genius goes to murderous lengths to win the affections of his young soprano protégé--of Gaston Leroux's original novel, Andrew Lloyd Webber's soaring melodies, Charles Hart and Richard Stilgoe's evocative lyrics, director Harold Prince's revolutionary stagecraft, all assembled with utmost care by producer Cameron Mackintosh. With the original London West End and Broadway productions still going strong some three decades on without any signs of slowing down, it would appear to be a bit foolhardy to tamper with what has long worked and still to this day wins over new fans (or, rather, "Phans"), yet that's what Mackintosh has done with the current, restaged touring company, now in the midst of its second visit to the Pantages Theatre in Hollywood. Billed as "the spectacular new production," anyone who's seen the original Prince-directed incarnation will only agree with the "new" part of that statement, but even then, the power of the music of the night overwhelms any shortcomings and outright missteps in this version.

This version, originally launched in the United Kingdom in 2012 and here in North America in 2013, is directed by Laurence Connor, who was also responsible for another scaled-down production of a Mackintosh mega-musical, Les Misérables (which, as it happens, directly preceded this production in the current Pantages season). While his downsizing work on that piece can be easily, though not comprehensively, summed up in two words--no turntable--given how Prince and his scenic and costume designer Maria Björnson crafted an exquisitely ornate spectacle from top to bottom, Connor and his designer, Paul Brown's, alterations to Phantom are a bit more extensive. With touring smaller venues in mind, the physical production streamlines and sometimes outright jettisons some of the more elaborate design touches in the original, and not just the larger ones such as the famous chandelier; in the title song alone, for instance, the descending catwalks and candelabras that ascend from the bottom of a misty lake are long gone. While noticeably more cramped than the Prince version, aside from the reworked chandelier, whose iconic rise and fall would be incredibly underwhelming here even for a first time live Phantom viewer, Brown's newer designs are perfectly adequate, if necessarily lacking the seamless, cinematic fluidity of Prince's scene transitions. Ironically enough, in compacting this production, Connor and scenic designer Paul Brown have done a reverse Les Mis, introducing a central revolving set piece here, a cylinder that most impressively makes for a more practical but still visually interesting passage into the catacombs beneath the Paris Opera House that opens up to reveal Phantom's (Derrick Davis) lair as well as houses the offices of hapless opera house owners Firmin (David Benoit) and André (Rob Lindley). While overall not as grandiose, Connor and Brown do exercise some visual creativity in their substitutions, such as the hall of mirrors that replaces the grand staircase in the act two opener, "Masquerade."

Where Connor runs into some entirely self-created problems is in the blocking, which in the first act comes off as change for change's sake. This most blatantly and unfortunately arises in one of the most famous passages in the show, "The Music of the Night" and its immediate aftermath. Not only a key moment from a narrative and character standpoint, with the Phantom whisking away his beloved Christine Daaé (Eva Tavares) to his lair after her triumphant singing debut and reasserting his sensual musical thrall over her, it's also one from the cast perspective, for it's a crucial chemistry building between the leads to sell the entire romance. Prince's original staging, for all the accoutrements that fill the stage, wisely keeps focus on the actors and relies on their skills and developing rapport, and as their push-pull gradually, inevitably moves from an intangible one to a physical one, ending in--when the pairing of actors works--a complete surrender and tangible connection. Connor, for no good reason, turns this into some weird, overly busy quasi-S&M scenario with the Phantom blindfolding Christine and her stumbling about for the bulk of the number. The less said about the scene that follows, originally a critical beat of agency by Christine involving the Phantom's mask that for some reason now has barely anything to do with the mask, the better.

Apparently having gotten over the urge to force a differing "vision" onto the material, after intermission Connor apparently learns to more completely trust it, which is still entirely involving and enveloping after 30 years. He's helped immeasurably by a solid cast. If the character of Raoul, Christine's upstanding suitor, is still an incredibly thankless part, Jordan Craig sounds good and strikes the necessary, earnest bond with Tavares in their key duet, the now-wedding song staple "All I Ask of You." Singing beautifully from the start, Tavares only grows in strength much like how her character does as the story goes on, really hitting her stride from the underrated early act two gem "Twisted Every Way" onward. Her chemistry with the charismatic, menacing, and piercingly empathetic Davis, despite that bizarre "Music of the Night" staging, is palpable, reaching a feverish erotic boil in the climactic "The Point of No Return." That song, as ever, is aptly named, for that begins one of those most tense, suspenseful, emotionally urgent final stretches of any musical--which, in Connor's one truly inspired deviation from the Prince template, manages to be even more devastating. No spoilers, but the Phantom's--and the show's--final line now has an even more bittersweet lead-in that results in an even bigger wallop, further amplified by Davis's towering star turn. By the famous closing notes, the music of the night once again proves its everlasting power, undiluted by some less than ideal direction and production choices.





Derrick Davis as The Phantom, Eva Tavares as Christine Daaé
(photo by Matthew Murphy)

The Phantom of the Opera is now playing at the Pantages Theatre in Hollywood through Sunday, July 7; the touring company then continues Southern California at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa from Wednesday, July 10 through Sunday, July 21 before moving on to other cities through the rest of the year.

Buy the The Phantom of the Opera Original London Cast album CD here.
Buy The Complete Phantom of the Opera book here.
Buy the The Phantom of the Opera movie Blu-ray here.
Buy the The Phantom of the Opera movie DVD here.
Buy the The Phantom of the Opera movie soundtrack CD here.
Buy the The Phantom of the Opera at the Royal Albert Hall: In Celebration of 25 Years Blu-ray here.
Buy the The Phantom of the Opera at the Royal Albert Hall: In Celebration of 25 Years DVD here.
Buy the The Phantom of the Opera at the Royal Albert Hall: In Celebration of 25 Years CD here.

(Special thanks to Hollywood Pantages Theatre)

The Movie Report wants to attend and cover all your live stage productions! Please send any and all invitations to this address. Thanks!

Friday, June 7, 2019

The Movie Report #1023, June 7, 2019

The Movie Report

#1023, June 7, 2019


MOVIES:

  • Dark Phoenix ** 1/2
  • The Last Black Man in San Francisco *** 1/2
  • Late Night *** Emma Thompson & Mindy Kaling introduction at CinemaCon
  • NGK: Nandha Gopala Kumaran ** 1/2
  • Pavarotti ***
  • The Secret Life of Pets 2 ***

The Movie Report wants to attend and cover all your film events and press junkets! Please send any and all invitations to this address. Thanks!

Thursday, June 6, 2019

Samuel L. Jackson returns as Shaft in Hollywood

Film Flam Flummox



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Saturday, June 1, 2019

Randall Park & Nahnatchka Khan's rom com reflections on Always Be My Maybe

Film Flam Flummox



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Sunday, March 31, 2019

CinemaCon 2019 preview

Film Flam Flummox


Tomorrow, Monday, April 1 marks the first day of CinemaCon, the annual convention of the National Association of Theatre Owners (NATO), in Las Vegas. The four-day conference is perhaps best known for the lavish presentations thrown by film distributors large and smaller, showcasing the upcoming releases--and, more often than not, talent behind and/or featured in said releases--on their slate. After a packed 2018 edition that saw the the convention struggling to fit in the many studios that opted to formally participate, 2019 finds the event in a bit of flux, much like the film exhibition industry as a whole following the mega-merger of the Walt Disney Studios and 20th Century Fox. The departure of the latter already leaving an empty spot in the schedule in what had been its traditional week-capping spot on Thursday morning, the convention suffered a further blow with Sony Pictures announcing in January that it is opting not to put on a presentation this year. That decision has appeared to, if not completely set off, then at least partially influence a bit of a domino effect, with Focus Features then opting to abandon what had been an annual luncheon slot. With the Will Rogers Motion Pictures Pioneers Foundation also deciding to move its Pioneer of the Year dinner gala from being a midweek staple of the convention to being its own separate event in Los Angeles, yet another hole materialized in the schedule. So this year finds a couple of indies picking up the slack and getting thrust onto the main stage in the massive Colosseum in Caesars Palace: Amazon Studios, which like Focus had traditionally held a luncheon, screens its celebrated Sundance acquisition Late Night, with presumably at least a passing glance at the rest of its slate; and, in the most unexpected move, the big opening night slot is being given to CinemaCon newcomers NEON, who will be screening their Scottish country music drama Wild Rose, which the distributors picked up at this past fall's Toronto International Film Festival. While the big studios that are returning will certainly be doing their best to grab exhibitors' and the media's attention--and, in the case of the bigger-than-ever Disney, more attention and scrutiny will certainly be paid as its game plan with its newly acquired division of Fox should be come at least a little more clear--there is an unusual air of uncertainty, and thus a larger sense of excitement, about how exactly this year will play out.

Here's the scheduled daily rundown of the studio presentations:

But as I say every year since I've been comprehensively covering what was then named ShoWest back in 2001, this event is about more than just the product that is projected on cinemas' screens, but all issues pertaining to the exhibition industry, from the latest and greatest in audio, projection, and presentation technologies and concession stand offerings in the massive trade show and demonstration suites; to strategies and ongoing business concerns for theatre owners. All of the business talk will culminate with the Thursday evening tradition of the Big Screen Achievement Awards, honoring numerous luminaries for their contributions in front of and behind the camera on upcoming releases.

Stay tuned here and on my Twitter and Instagram all week for ongoing coverage of all the goings-on at CinemaCon 2019!

(Very special thanks to Rogers & Cowan for all their helpful and generous assistance at the convention.)


The Movie Report wants to attend all your film special events for coverage! Please send any and all invitations to this address. Thanks!

Saturday, March 30, 2019

F3Stage Review: Purely misguided imagination robs Charlie and the Chocolate Factory of all magic

Film Flam Flummox


If there were a literary property just about ready-made for stage musical treatment, it's Roald Dahl's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. A perennial favorite for young and old alike since its publication, its whimsical comic fantasy and relatable, rootable underdog story would alone offer ample ingredients for an effectively escapist entertainment. That's not even counting that a proven musical template is already long set, in the form of Mel Smith's beloved 1971 feature film Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. But not for nothing did a seemingly surefire success become one of the biggest disasters of the 2017 Broadway season, for somehow, some way director Jack O'Brien and his team manage to completely drain all the magic from this tale--which makes this monstrosity, now running at the Pantages Theatre in Hollywood, a true feat of pure imagination in the absolutely worst way.

From what I can tell, that wasn't always the case with this show, which premiered in London's West End in 2013 under the direction of Sam Mendes. While receiving mixed reviews, one unanimous point of praise was the appropriately elaborate scenic design. Creative overhauls and director changes made in the transfer over the Atlantic are hardly uncommon for productions that are believed to have underachieved in their original form, but O'Brien's biggest apparent "fix" once brought on board was to run in the completely opposite direction visually, scaling back the production to the point of minimalism. If a bit disappointing from the initial curtain raise, such a direction makes at least some kind of dramatic sense in act one, with scenic designer Mark Thompson's (who also, improbably, designed the Mendes version) rather spartan set pieces--a house, a candy store--reflecting the drab everyday of poor, young Charlie Bucket (Rueby Wood on opening night; he alternates with Henry Boshart and Collin Jeffery), who spends his days in the crowded home he shares with his widowed mom and all four of his grandparents dreaming up inventions and hoping to win a golden ticket to visit renowned candy maker Willy Wonka's chocolate factory. In a departure from the different adaptations of Dahl's story, Wonka (Noah Weisberg, trying to lend the proceedings some energy) has a literal presence outside of the factory here, in disguise as the owner of the candy shop that Charlie frequents. This adjustment, nor some half-hearted (not to mention incongruous, given all the nods, primarily in the very cheap prices, to this being set way in the past) attempts to "modernize" the tale by throwing in pandering references to social media and computer hacking, has no discernible narrative impact on the slog that is act one, which librettist David Greig structures as a repetitive series of news reports/song numbers that introduce the winners of the Golden Ticket contest one by one: gluttonous Augustus Gloop (Matt Wood), spoiled Veruca Salt (Jessica Cohen, a talented ballet dancer), gum-chewing Violet Beauregarde (Brynn Williams), and the aptly named Mike Teavee (Daniel Quadrino). The routine rhythm would be somewhat forgiven by a memorable score, but the team of Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman are far from their Hairspray glory days here, serving up a slate of sleepwalking songs whose utterly forgettable melodies and lyrics are underscored by the show's inclusion of a few of Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley's evergreen compositions from Willy Wonka, such as the emblematic "Pure Imagination" and the Sammy Davis Jr. standard "The Candy Man." (One can't help but feel that, given the production involvement of film rights holders Warner Bros., the show would've been better off as a top-to-bottom adaptation of Willy Wonka; perhaps that would've been less--yes--imaginative, but it probably would've at least been more enjoyable.)

Once (spoiler alert, but not really, given the title) Charlie himself wins the final golden ticket and the long-awaited tour of the chocolate factory finally begins after intermission, one hopes the production finally comes to life in act two. Alas, the show only becomes more baffling. While Wonka's troupe of minions, the Oompa Loompas, are admittedly brought to diminutive life in a clever way, the benefit of the doubt given to Thompson's otherwise restrained design in the first act is rescinded, for instead of upping the spectacle and selling the magic of Wonka, the stage becomes even more bare, with whatever physical sets being more cheap (it's hard to muster up the same enthusiasm, much less awe, as the characters when seeing the high school drama level manifestation of the Chocolate Room, never mind its iconic chocolate waterfall), and often the backdrop being literally blank, without even the most simplest of images projected onto it. When the stultifying simplicity reaches its most insulting nadir when the contest winners and their companions are forced to navigate an invisible maze for one overlong scene, it's difficult to not think that O'Brien's entire angle for this assignment is as a dare to make audiences exercise their own imaginations to the breaking point.

That's actually a more charitable conclusion, for he and Greig ultimately feel like they're outright trolling the audience, in particular the families to which this is being sold. Dahl's work has always had a dark edge that flirted with the macabre, but he never got as outright morbid and downright mean as O'Brien and Greig do here. The factory-set portion of the story is characterized by how Charlie's fellow winners are comically done in by their vices, but it's hard for anyone, much less kids, to get a laugh when a horrified parent has their child's innards splattered all over him or, even more shockingly, another child is literally torn to pieces on stage--which prompted a clearly disturbed cry by a young patron seated behind me on opening night. Pure imagination, yes, but also pure nightmare fuel in a most bitter tasting piece of Chocolate.


The First National Tour cast of
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
(photo by Joan Marcus)

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is now playing at the Pantages Theatre in Hollywood in a limited engagement through Sunday, April 14; the First National Tour then continues on to other cities throughout the year, including a return to Southern California at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa from Tuesday, May 28 through Sunday, June 9.

Buy the Charlie and the Chocolate Factory Original Broadway Cast album CD here.
Buy the Charlie and the Chocolate Factory Original London Cast album MP3 here.
Buy the Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory Blu-ray here.
Buy the Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory DVD here.

(Special thanks to Hollywood Pantages Theatre)

The Movie Report wants to attend and cover all your live stage productions! Please send any and all invitations to this address. Thanks!

Friday, March 29, 2019

The Movie Report #1013, March 29, 2019

The Movie Report

#1013, March 29, 2019


MOVIES:

  • The Beach Bum * 1/2 Q&A video with Matthew McConaughey, Harmony Korine, Stefania LaVie Owen
  • The Burial of Kojo *** Q&A video with Blitz Bazawule, Michael Fernandez
  • Dumbo ***
  • Furie ***
  • Kesari (Saffron) ** 1/2
  • Super Deluxe ***

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Friday, March 22, 2019

The Movie Report #1012, March 22, 2019

The Movie Report

#1012, March 22, 2019


MOVIES:

  • Dragged Across Concrete *** 1/2
  • Hotel Mumbai *** 1/2
  • Us *** 1/2

The Movie Report wants to attend and cover all your film events and press junkets! Please send any and all invitations to this address. Thanks!

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