Friday, July 24, 2015

2X4 Bash: She Kills Monsters

"She Kills Monsters"
This is one of those plays that hits all the right notes for a guy like me. I love D&D, I love geek culture, and I absolutely loved reading this play a few years back- so when 2X4 Bash (an offshoot from Hartnell College's "Western Stage" theater) announced this play in their summer line-up I became super excited! I'd previously written my thoughts on the material, so I'm kind of going to cheat here and do a little cut and paste for the summary of the play- but I'll get more in depth on the performances and direction.
Tilly is a socially awkward teenage girl who, along with her parents, recently died in a car accident. This leave her schoolteacher sister, Agnes, alone to griev for her losses. While cleaning out her sisters room, the woman comes across a “Dungeons and Dragons” module written by her sister, an adventure written specifically for a very small group of beginners in a world created by Tilly. Agnes recruits help from a local teen gamer (Chuck, played to the hilt by Nico Abiera) to explore her sisters’ story in an attempt to connect with the geeky teen she barely knew.  She gets more than she bargained for as she fights with wise-cracking slacker demons, evil cheerleader succubi, doppelgangers, and a five headed dragon in her quest to free her sisters soul. 
Let me get to the good stuff: Emerson Flynn tackles the role of Tilly and grinds out a stellar performance with emotional depth, comic timing, and full on energy that simply fucking blew me away! She brought me to tears, she cut to the core, and she got me to laugh like a hyena throughout the show. Fucking awesome damn job!  Actress Kristina Bruno is equally devastating as Agnes, acting as both audience surrogate to the adventures and as a character coming to terms with the loss of family. They are both joined in their mutual quest by Kaliope (Natalie Van Heukelem, pulling double duty but equally as enchanting as the story's Narrator), t he dangerously demonic Lilly (played balls to the wall by Niki Moon, who delivers a shocking twist to her performance that literally started the waterworks from my leaking eyes), and the above-mentioned slacker demon Orcus (Anthony Barrera, whose comic timing and ability to work the audience is the definition of "nailed it"). 

Director Mark Englehorn makes good use of the space available and knows the material. I had a chance to catch a previous play he helmed, "Of Dice and Men", that dealt with similar geekology and gaming culture and was equally impressed at the time. As the play takes place in the nineties, he utilizes music from the time to build the appropriate mood between set changes.
The play is easily accessible for those who don’t understand Dungeons & Dragons, utilizing the game itself as a mechanic to tell the story on the stage. There is plenty of stage combat, visual gags, and references to the geek culture that Agnes struggles to understand. Not all of her obstacles come in the game, either… her snobbish best friend (Vera, played by Sam Betancourt) doesn’t entirely approve of her new hobby, her long-term boyfriend (Miles, played by Adan Miguel) is confused by the situation (with some very hilarious results), and she starts to come face to face with the real life inspirations to Tilly’s private world. There are definitely a few shocks in store for Agnes, some emotional upheaval, and the whole story comes to an end in an exciting and tearful climax. 
Also, worthy of noting, use the bathroom before the show. The play moves quickly, but there was no intermission and my teeth were swimming by the time the show let out. 
4.5 out of 5 and a definite MUST SEE for geeks and theater patrons alike. 

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Ant Man and The Gallows:


Originally slated to be written and directed by Edgar Wright, Ant-Man spent a couple of years in developmental hell before finally being included in Marvel’s “Phase 2” series of films leading up to the huge Civil War storyline. Wright’s script was taken, altered to include the rest of the Marvel Universe, and placed in the hands of someone else in order to deliver another summer blockbuster for 2015. So what’s the final product like?

Honestly, it’s a fun movie.

Unfortunately, it’s a movie we’ve already seen a few too many times.

Ant-Man stars Paul Rudd as a burglar who has recently been released from prison. The film makes certain to let us know that he wasn’t just any kind of thief, but rather that he was a “Robin Hood”-esque figure, robbing from the corporate fat cats and hitting the “system” where it hurts. He wants to go straight but his messy past is making it hard for the man to find decent employment, so he eventually turns to doing what he knows best. He breaks into the wrong house and what he finds eventually leads him to the former Ant-Man, Hank Pym.

Here is where the movie is a bit more interesting in that they present Pym as the former Ant-Man, a costumed hero during the mid-80’s. Michael Douglas is fantastic as Pym, and his story is the most compelling of the sub-plots introduced to the story. He’s tortured by past mistakes and the very process of becoming Ant-Man has had an effect on his own brain chemistry. His daughter, Hope (Evangeline Lilly), is the most logical choice for his successor to the mantle but the former hero refuses to risk her life.

I really liked the movie. It was fun, it was exciting, and there’s even a really good scene involving Rudd and another member of the Avengers that really showed some strong future chemistry between the two stars. The effects were a little saturated in CGI, but I don’t believe practical effects would have served a film where the hero’s ability is to shrink really fast and communicate with ants. Rudd is a likeable protagonist, but he’s rarely anything more than “Oh, look- it’s Paul Rudd”- it’s a role he’s comfortable in. Michael Douglas steals the film as Hank Pym and Evangeline Lilly’s “Hope” is far more interesting than Rudd’s. But while I “liked” the movie, I didn’t actually “love” the movie.

In total, the movie is a solid addition to Marvel’s line-up but it’s not anywhere near the top of the mountain. Admittedly, the film suffers from the saturation of Super Hero Origin stories that currently flood the market so it’s not the fault of the film itself. The only real problem is that the film has some really interesting concepts that it just seems unwilling to explore; living up to an inherited mantle and the long term consequences of using powers that manipulate the fabric of reality. It has a lot going for it and is a fun ride, but ultimately doesn’t take many chances to break with formula.

3.5 out of 5.

The Gallows

Seventeen years ago, the local High School production of a small play entitled “The Gallows” resulted in the accidental death of its star. The event was caught on tape and the tragedy continues to haunt the school with rumors of strange noises and ghostly spooking. The school is about to produce the play once more and a small group of prototypical jocks find themselves part of the production in order to fulfill a required Elective Course to graduate. When the films chronicler finds an unlocked door to the theater, he convinces his friend and girlfriend to come with him to wreck the set at night as a prank. High jinks ensue.

This one comes on the heels of the “found footage” ghost movie craze but follows more of a “slasher film” formula to deliver the goods. The killer ghost wears a signature mask, carries a signature weapon, and has the intricate back story related to many Slashers over the past several years. It was much more my cup of tea then the other films of its ilk and just hit some real good notes for me. The camera work is far steadier than I’m used to seeing in “found footage” and the scenes use the first person perspective to fairly decent effect. What I did find interesting was that the camera was used more as a flashlight than a recording device and we got to see things move a little more steadily as a result. There are some twists in the story and the acting is fairly decent, even if the actors spend too much time demanding that people “put the damn camera down” and all of that nonsense.

3 out of 5.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Amanda Platsis' "Pan" at the Paper Wing Theatre!

“Pan” –

Firstly, don’t confuse this play with the original production so recently recreated by NBC Studios and most famously adapted by Disney animation. The mythology of Peter Pan has often been explored far beyond the source material by JM Barrie, and local playwright Amanda Platsis’ script develops a follow-up to the original with a focus on Wendy’s daughter, Jane Darling. Her adventure in Neverland is going to be a little different from her mother and it’s an adventure that the boy who could fly may not be entirely prepared for. Actress Maris Welch is perfectly cast as a far different contrast to the maternal Wendy of the original story- she’s sarcastic at times, defensive, infatuated, and fearful of her feelings and responsibilities.

This is where I sort of wish I was a better writer, because I have no segue here to talk about her singing.  Jane isn’t the storyteller her mother was, but she can sing- and she offers a small selection of softly sung lullaby’s in a few key moments. Maris’ voice is amazing.  

Jane is given a guided tour of Neverland. She’s introduced to vivacious mermaids and groovy Hippies (in place of the original story’s Indians) and it’s far out leader, Princess Tiger Lilly. All while Pan ostensibly promises to rescue Damien; Jane’s adopted brother.

Whereas the original material explored themes of childhood, innocence, and responsibility this follow up brings Neverland to a confusing adolescence ripe with the dreaded onslaught of “Puberty” and what it’s like to have those feelings change everything inside and around you. Platsis explores themes of infatuation, love, attraction, flirtation, rejection, confusion and dangerous obsession. The story itself flows easily from one scene to the next with a solid arc for the character of Pan.

Speaking of Pan, Actor Devin Adler has an unbelievable amount of energy throughout the show and is leaping, twirling, and dueling his way throughout the performance with a passion that simply made my old bones weary to watch. I was incredibly impressed with it and even more so when the actor knew just went to pull back into himself in an attempt to protect Pans’ fragile feelings. His Lost Boys are a solid ensemble, playing off one another excellently and continuing to bring that same reflection of energy with Pan.

Pan is opposed, as ever, by Captain James Hook (Patrick Golden). Excellent. Hook is the perfect foil for the openhearted Pan that Platsis develops- an older, embittered, and largely rejected man caught within the circle of his own adolescent obsession and dragging others down with him. We find his ship crewed by others who have fallen to similar heartbreak, each one carrying a deeper scar than is obvious at first sight. While the Lost Boys remain cohesive, the Pirates are divided and contemptuous of one another save for those moments of obsession and sadistic joy in tormenting the people who do not understand their pain.

I know how exciting it is for an actor to read their name in print and in a review, but the cast is exhaustive and long and all are extremely capable at capturing several moments throughout the show. I hate to throw a blanket over them all with a cover term of “excellent” because their performances were more than that- they were distinctive and each brought something different to the table. But I can't sit here and just list a bunch of names and adjectives and for that I apologize. But I do want to call out four of the cast, especially; the dueling faeries of Tinkerbell (Kelsey Posey) and Jessica (Beverly Van Pelt) have great chemistry and draw the eye in several large battle scenes, but not without drawing focus. They’re story is well done and much of what is told is done with a gesture or a stare. Schmee also brings a bizarre humor to the story as a Caliban-esque tortured soul. Topher Sullenger takes a couple of risks with the character that all pay off with some hilarious gestures, line deliveries, and pratfalls. But the person I really want to give a shout out to is Cody Moore- I’d heard a lot about his puppetry and voice work with regards to the Crocodile and it’s as impressive as expected. But hearing so much from others who saw the show before me, I simply wasn’t prepared for the amazingly physical performance he brought as Pan’s “Shadow”. Simply put, it blew me away.

The costumes and set designs are impressive! This viewer couldn’t help but draw a few comparisons to Labyrinth, Fraggle Rock, The Dark Crystal, and other Henson-created imagery from the 80’s. This stuff is beautiful to watch. The lighting and colors pull one another,  setting mood and adjusting focus from one character to the next as they walk from color of light to the next.  

But, while the Set Design is a wonder behold… it’s also a bit of a frustration. While the moving set is beautiful to watch, the scene changes felt a little long and the lack of a significant fade made it confusing when actors would drop character to leave the set. It’s not something I’m used to and pulled me from the moment on occasion.

4 out of 5 and a definite must-see for the summer.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

John Carpenter’s “Prince of Darkness” : Retro Review

John Carpenter’s “Prince of Darkness” : Retro Review

“I have a message for you- and you aren’t going to like it.”

I first saw Prince Of Darkness back when it was released to VHS, way back in the mid-eighties during my most formative years in the horror genre. I was in my pre-teens, I was already in love with Alice Cooper (who plays a small part in this film), I’d seen a couple of gems, and Prince of Darkness was on the New Release wall of a local video store. It left a lasting impression on me that endures to this day, and I nearly leapt for joy when I came across the new Blu-Ray release whilst perusing the video wall of a nearby Frye’s. Slap down some bucks, pop it in the player, and sit back for a fun ride.

The movie starts with the death of an old Priest as he lies with a small box laying across his chest. We come to learn that the Church has been keeping a secret deep within the bowels of a local parish, a room locked and guarded by the dead priest. His death marks the passage of duty to Donald Sutherland who decides to look for scientific help in examining this dark secret. The object beneath the church may just be the concentrated form of the anti-christ, a harbinger to bringing Lucifer out from the darkness and taking over our world. Students and Professors of Theoretical Quantum mechanics are brought in with a couple of experts from other fields to examine the church, the object in the basement, and the accompanying texts in order to unlock the mystery and possibly unravel some of the largest philosophical questions of all time.

Okay, these are some pretty big ideas which may be a little difficult for some horror fans to accept. Carpenter tackles the subject and delivers fantastic pacing for such a difficult subject; the audience is fully aware of the enormity without needing to have a degree in quantum physics. The plot has some great depth, but it’s kept simple and Carpenter builds the tension from one scene to the next as the stakes quickly rise. It’s not just going to pile up the bodies, the gore, and the screams when things eventually go wrong but all of those things come into play at the perfect moments leading up to full blown horror by the films climax.

It should be noted that Prince of Darkness is the second in what many fans refer to as John Carpenter’s “Apocalypse Trilogy” (“The Thing” is the first with “In the Mouth of Madness” being the third.) - a series of films that have no connection to one another regarding the plot, but which thematically explore elements of “Cosmic Horror” along the lines of HP Lovecraft. “Prince” is probably the least recognized of the films as it was released with little studio support and directly on the heels of Carpenter’s box office flop; “Big Trouble in Little China” (now considered a cult classic and a remake was recently announced). It marked Carpenter’s return to independent productions and Carpenter’s disillusionment with the Studio System probably played a part in his choosing such an esoteric project.

I love this movie. There are some truly horrifying sequences that play havoc with the nerves and a couple of memorable deaths, but I wouldn’t put it on the top of my recommendation list. This is the film you see AFTER you’ve already seen Mouth, Thing, and definitely Halloween. It’s a worthy entry and definitely worth watching.

4.5 out of 5.