Monday, December 28, 2015

Ave. Q at Paper Wing Theatre

The problem with writing about the same show three times over the course of the past five years is that it’s very hard to not repeat yourself. This is especially true when several of the performers from the previous performances return for another run, though some in vastly different roles than before. As I can’t be certain people have read my previous thoughts on the previous runs of the Avenue Q, I can’t take for granted that the reader is going to be familiar with the plot- Which is as follows: Princeton (the returning Nicholas Kelly) is a fresh-faced puppet straight out of college who is in for a rude awakening when he enters the “real world” and it’s mundane hurdles of paying rent, finding a job, random encounters and a string of poor decisions that come with growing up. All of this is told in the same style of a Sesame Street-type show that’s geared toward facing much more adult scenarios that include sex, racism, employment, and the day to day lives of those who live on Avenue Q.

But for those readers who have seen my previous thoughts on the show, much of what I’ll be writing will be a rehash of some familiar thoughts on the show. The songs are catchy, the band is solid, and returning players Kelly and Jay Devine (as “Ernie-like” puppet, Nicky) are solid and as inspired as the first two go-rounds. Also returning for another go-round are two of the traditionally “human” characters, Kate Faber as Asian American therapist Christmas Eve; and Jared Hussey as her 33 year old struggling comic and lay about, Brian. Everything I’ve said about them both is just as true today as it was a few years ago… for those who don’t remember,  said they were awesome and other stuff like that.

And, also returning for another go-round, is Robert Feeney who slides from one role into that of “Burt-like” staunch Republican Banker, Rod. He’s very good in the role and is especially moving in the number, “Fantasies Come True”- his manipulation of the Puppet is spot on and he breathes life into the character throughout. Stepping into Trekkie Monster (Formerly played by Feeney twice) is Cody Moore, whose experience with puppetry makes him a grand slam addition to the cast. His voice is also spot on for the gruff and lovable porn-addicted monster. Also stepping from one role to another is Jordan Brewer, filling the shoes of iconic child-star actor “Gary Coleman” (Represented in Puppet form). “Gary” is the butt of everyone’s jokes and Brewer carries off the tongue in cheek humor of the character very well.

New to the show is the shows other lead, “Kate Monster” (Vanessa Burkleo). Her voice carries strong throughout her solos and is endearing with a sense of blushing nervousness as she wishes for romance and dreams of one day opening a school for Monsters. Teri Dobbins plays “Lucy the Slut”, the wanton foil to Kate’s innocence and a delivers the goods on “Make ya’ Feel Special” solo. Then there are the enthusiastic “Bad Idea Bears”, a sickeningly cute pair of trouble-makers with lots of bad advice and temptations for our lead characters. The pair are played by Kelsey Posey and Taylor Landess with terrifically over-the-top enthusiasm.  

The rest of the ensemble cast step into a number of additional roles throughout the show, including an hilariously voice “Mrs. Thistwetwat”, a rambunctious clown with a great magic trick involving a bird, a terrific counting number, and a very blessed moment of silence.

5 out of 5 and a great way to lift your spirits when the holiday dumps come a’calling.

The Producers @ The Western Stage

I get this text message from a buddy of mine, goes by the name of Jay Brew- he’s like, “Were you going to see The Producers?” and I’m pretty sure he means the production at the Western Stage over here in Salinas. And I’m like, “Hey, honey- should I go check out the Producers at the Western Stage” and the wife is like, “How much?” So I ask- and I get a decent price quoted and so I’m off to the see the show on closing night.

My familiarity with the source material sort of ends with my exposure to the film that features Gene Wilder and Zero Mostel in the title roles of Mel Brooks classic comedy. To be frank, I tend to flat out avoid anything with the name Matthew Broderick becoming associated with it because I am “not a fan” of the actor. So the production I saw would not be bringing in the cool cat beatnick who falls into the role of Hitler, the ex-Nazi officer would not be played in quite the same way, and there promised to be many more musical numbers than I was actually expecting in this production from the Western Stage. And as this would also be their closing night, I am sorry to say that my thoughts on the show will not act as a recommendation to my faceless readers. It may, however, come off as a teasing thumb to the nose for those who missed the productions run because I can be a bit of a braggart.

Just a bit.

The title characters of the show are Max and Leo, respectively. Max is a conniving rogue bilking little old ladies out of their savings through a combination of selling a percentage of his consistently bombing Broadway shows and his own “amorous attentions”.  He’s barely making ends meet and he laments a once promising future wasted on a series of poor decisions- when Leo walks into his life. Leo Cortez takes an iconic character first made famous by Zero Mostel and takes ownership with a touch of the playful imp. As I never saw the other version, I’m uncertain how much of the performance may have been influenced by Nathan Lane but I really enjoyed this actor’s ability to offer an occasional nod to the audience and a little breaking of the fourth wall for comedic effect.

The second half of the title characters is a nervous milquetoast consistently browbeaten to submission by a thankless job and unfulfilled dreams. Leo is played to full hilt by Tim Marquette, who manages to spurts of manic energy while remain stoop-shouldered and hesitant throughout each confrontation.

When Leo casually remarks on the idea that one could conceivably make more money from an intentional flop that than an actual hit, the horses are off and the race begins! The pair try to secure the rights to the worst play they’ve read, the talents of the worst director they can find, and proceed to break one theatrical taboo after another in an attempt to make “Springtime for Hitler” the worst show in town. The pair plunge through several musical misadventures with slapstick effect; meeting with the aging Nazi playwright to take the Sigfried Oath and trying to convince a gaudy Broadway Director and his crew to tackle their first “Historic” epic. Then they meet Una ( played by always hilarious Mindy Whitfield), the blonde bombshell from Sweden, who uses her assets to convince the pair to cast her in the ill-fated producted.

The play was every bit as funny as you would expect from a Mel Brooks production with plenty of gags and the rousing apex of “Springtime for Hitler” number that truly carries with it a sense of the absolutely ridiculous.

PS: While this may seem a little self-serving and carries a little bit of nepotism, it was really great to get a chance to see Allyson Bojorquez in several ensemble roles. It was her performance several years ago in the Paper Wing show of “Repo! The Genetic Opera” that inspired me to pursue an interest in theater over the following years and I only had a brief opportunity to work with her on Remo D’s “Manor of Mayhem” television show. It's great to see her again on stage.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Top Ten for 2015.

2015 Year in Movies.

Not the most disappointing year in movies for the weird, but a little light in the realm of Horror. It’s been a big year for blockbusters and several highly anticipated reboots and superheroes and sequels and a whole lot of Disney dominance of the Silver Screen. Last year I never even bothered to write a top ten list since I’d been busy with other things and nothing really stood out as being incredibly awesome.

2015 may be a little more interesting?

Without further ado.

1.      Mad Max: Fury Road-
Released under a bunch of nonsensically false controversy with regard to the fabled “Mens Rights Activists” (IE, morons whining on the internet), Mad Max was a brutal thrill ride of a film that boiled down the language of film to its most basic components for a truly incredible spectacle. Action rather than corny dialogue propelled the simple plot forward, practical effects added weight and kinetic energy to the chase, and what little CGI was used was done to enhance what was already on the screen. Add in a stand-out performance from Charlize Theron and you have a modern classic brought to life.

2.      Star Wars: The Force Awakens
Keeping in mind that I would’ve LOVED to put this movie at the top of the list immediately upon viewing, the truth of the matter is that I think it’s the second best film I’ve seen all year long and that it may change in years to come as I go back and watch again and again. It’s  my favorite in the series since Empire Strikes Back and I can’t wait for the others- but it’s only part of a larger saga and there just weren’t enough conclusions to really make it a fully encapsulated story of its’ own.

3.      Crimson Peak - 
A dark and gothic romance/horror film with some great visuals. Guillermo Del Toro definitely delivers again with a hugely impressive display. Definitely a film for fans of classic films and genre films.

4.      Kingsman:
This satirical super-spy action comedy was one of the best times I had at the cinema this past year.

5.      Green Inferno –
Not the best movie with regards to quality, but a fun little gorefest with plenty of practical effects. The plane crash alone was worth the price of the ticket and I really just had a fun time with this little flick- Eli Roth delivered the Grue!

6.      Ex Machina:
Probably one of the better sci-fi films I’ve seen in recent years. This is an interesting story that, on the surface, explores Artificial Intelligence… and more specifically explores human thoughts, desires, temptations, and manipulation. Very well done.

7.      It Follows:
Struggled a bit with the general pacing of the film, but it’s a terrific concept that brings a whole new sense of terror to ones budding sexuality. The story involves a supernatural creature that only those afflicted can see- and the only way to relieve yourself of the curse, at least temporarily, is to pass it on to someone else before it eventually comes back to you. Great premise, some great performances. Worth watching.

8.      Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation
This odd little series of films just seems to be getting better and better with each successive film- an oddity in cinema in that it’s usually the first film that’s the best and the others are just sequels making an odd attempt to recapture the brilliance of the first. This series keeps going on, each film getting better in quality over the first and Tom Cruise’s “Ethan Hunt” character matures with each installment and mission.

9.      Victor Frankenstein:
This will probably be the most tragically underrated and underappreciated film of the year due to the poor marketing and it’s attempt to saddle the stars with an unnecessary burden. The movie works as an adaptation of the Frankenstein story from the point of view of his assistant and it works as stand out performances from the films stars, but it should never have been promoted as a vehicle for either man and much more attention should have been given to the actual premise of the story. Worth seeing.

10.   Jurassic World:
This is pretty much my popcorn muncher film- and it brought back the M’F’in’ T-Rex!!! It wasn’t very good, but it was very fun.

Honorable and dishonorable mentions: Super Hero films were all over the place this past year, but none really seemed to rise above expectations or really deliver anything new and engrossing to the bloated genre as it currently stands. “Age of Ultron” had a great voice performance from the title character, but the heroes all seemed to be going through the motions and worked toward setting up the next Avengers film without caring about where the story currently stood. Ant Man felt like a traditional throw-back to the original story we’d seem time and again with a little of a “Heist” film thrown in the background- had the movie focused more on the “heist” and less on the “redemption of untapped potential” I may have been a little more invested.

We also had a slew of “Paranormal” horror flicks- A lackluster Poltergeist remake, The latest Paranormal Activity film, the Gallows, and so on so forth etcetera and beyond- the recent glorification of renowned con-artists and proven frauds continue to flood the “Based on a true story” horror market and then there was rinse/repeat cycle of sequel dregs.

Then there are the films I missed- Bone Tomahawk is the horror/western featuring what many are saying was THE performance of the year from actor Kurt Russell. Krampus was released to some critical praise, the Christmas-themed horror film bringing a sense of pop-culture recognition to what many believe is the “anti-Santa”. Tarantino’s “Hateful Eight” is supposed to see a small release before the new year, with a wider release directly afterward so it may have to wait for the 2016 year in review.

What to look for in 2016-

The big tent-pole film is supposed to be the Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice movie; fans rejoice and get set for that one. The trailer more than teases the conflict between Kent and Wayne and introduces a typically neurotic Jesse Eisenberg in the role of Lex Luthor… the arrival of Doomsday, Wonder Woman, a promised appearance by Aquaman, and possibly other Heroes in the DC Universe which is all supposed to set up the eventual Justice League film. Also, from DC, we get introduction to some of the Warner Bros. villains in the form of the Suicide Squad which had a slightly less spoiler-filled trailer to tease the arrival.

On the opposite side of the comic hero spectrum we have Captain America and the new Civil War story Arc for all the Avenger films. What kind of affect this may have on the upcoming Doctor Strange film has yet to be revealed, if there is any affect. With a  number of projects in development, Marvel Studios rushes into Phase Three of their film universe.

Then in the horror realm we have classic literature battling zombies, another year of another promised Friday the 13th and Halloween films, and really nothing that I can think of off the top of my head.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Episode 7, spoiler free.

STAR WARS: The Force Awakens (spoiler free review)

This one doesn’t mince around and it doesn’t try to take you by surprise. But if it doesn’t take someone by surprise, then why should we go without spoilers? Because it’s about the way the story is told- it’s about the craftsmanship in telling a story and bringing the characters from point A to point B. And I’ll try to remain as spoiler free as I can because this film deserves it and the audience deserves it.

It’s just well done. It’s storytelling from the Mythic standpoint and it tells you a story that is a little familiar but also just different enough to be engaging. It’s the story of heroes and their villains- the story of a galactic enemy coming into power and the resistance that rises to stop them. That’s where we are in the Star Wars franchise- an offshoot of the Empire calls itself The First Order and it’s a militant uprising devoted to the iconography of the Empire and it’s rule of law.

The characters are just very enjoyable- John Boyega’s “Finn” is fun, engaging, and VULNERABLE… not whiney, not pedantic, but genuinely vulnerable. He’s the "everyman" character we root for and understand. He's everything that we, as the audience, are supposed to be. Funny, witty, a little frightened, and very much out of his depth. He's also brave and he acts without thinking- and it all stems from compassion rather than just going out and trying to "get his". He's a breath of fresh air in a cynical world. He’s absolutely central the story, but these stories work best with an ensemble and if Finn is the everyman “fool”, then  “Rey” is the idealist. She’s the kind of character people would wish they were; someone destined to greatness. Po Dameron brings the snarky bluster, BB-8 is a trusty sidekick droid, and then there’s Kylo Ren.

Let me say this, and I’ll try not to spoil anything- Kylo Ren is precisely what Anakin SHOULD have been in episodes 2 and 3. He’s not whiney- he’s afraid and he’s angry, bitter, and he wants to bring Order to a Galaxy that he thinks has fallen into chaos. This is a character in pain and who happens to have more power at his disposal than he knows what to do with- but, even more importantly, he’s someone who has difficulty maintaining control and he lashes out multiple times. And his motives are left shrouded in mystery- there’s only really a taste of what he is, despite all that’s revealed.

There are a lot of cameo appearances- but Han Solo, Chewbacca, and Princess Leia are very important characters to the film. They aren’t just there to pop their heads in and remind you of what was- they mean something to the story.

You’ll note I haven’t spoken much about the details of the story?

That’s on purpose- because it’s so very basic and so very simple and it’s a reflection of things that have come before. The major differences are in the telling and the specifics- A Galaxy at the brink of war, a doomsday weapon, heroes, villains, and allies for both.

5 out of 5.

Thursday, December 3, 2015



I don’t always find a lot to write about with regards to the films I watch- and I watch a lot of movies, especially with a subscription to Netflix and Amazon going. I also own a Roku, and that provides me access to several free streaming services with plenty of Public Domain footage.  And while I enjoy several films and may occasionally find something worth writing about with one film, often I  will just stream a series of films and never write a single word. I thought, with my recent marathon, that it deserved a little write up with only a little blurb and recommendation for each film.

And as these “Marathons” usually have one linking attribute to them, I figured I would start it off with a bit of an informative piece each time I write one of these.

Shaw Brothers Studio is a production company that mostly made a name for itself with a series of Kung Fu features that spanned from the 1960’s through the 1980’s with a “classic Hollywood” business model of pairing specific actors with specific directors for a slew of films. There are literally thousands of films from the company’s “Golden Period”; with stars like the “Venoms” and Gordon Liu featured prominently.  To be honest, Shaw Brothers films pretty much dominated the “Martial Arts” film business and only saw a significant challenge to their model when a pair of executives left the company in order to form “Golden Harvest” and signed a brand new star; Bruce Lee.

Several Shaw Brothers films are currently streaming on Netflix and, of course, I’ve been knee-deep in the epic awesomeness that is “classic Kung Fu” from the top studio of the time. As a young boy, I’d often be sticking to channel eleven or channel five during the Saturday double matinee to catch a flick- often horror or Kung-fu related, but always a degree of pure adrenaline that kept my eyes glued to the boob tube when I should’ve likely been out climbing trees and building snow forts. So revisiting the films is a bit of nostalgia and a bit of newfound appreciation for the things I loved as a child.

As a note, the only unfortunate slight I’ve been able to find is that the films are only available in their native “Chinese”… whether Mandarin or Cantonese, the only option on the Netflix “Language” selection is “Chinese”. There are English subtitles, but the traditional “awful dub” option is just not available and part of the nostalgic charm of these films are the terrible dubbing with awful accents and fake tenors designed to make characters as over the top as possible. It’s not that I dislike the language, but a little nostalgic value is lost when we don’t hear the same guy dubbing over several different characters with a different pitch, growl, or whatever it seems something is lost from my childhood. Luckily, something is gained when we’re able to hear the appropriate tenor, voice, and inflection to specific lines. So it’s mostly a fair trade off, but requires more reading when one may want to just be focused on the fighting.

“Come Drink With Me”-
This film is a bit of an oddity for its tone and rather progressive view of the female protagonist, played by Pei-Pei Cheng (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon). The story is a fairly simple one as the son of a Governor is kidnapped by a gang of bandits and held for ransom. The Governor’s sister is sent to investigate and free her brother, aided only slightly by the mysterious “Drunken Tiger”. From here on out the action fills in the blanks as she fights off the gang, infiltrates the area, and winds up wounded before the big climactic battle that will reveal the truth behind Drunken Tiger. There’s a bit of a romance that never goes much further than the occasional look between the leads and “Golden Swallow” is never portrayed as the damsel in distress. The action and choreography is terrific and there’s plenty of slapstick comedy to go along with the story.

4.5 out of 5.

Invincible Shaolin

The Qin General of an unspecified province is unhappy with the Imperial edict forcing him to employ Shaolin teachers to instruct his troops. The Shaolin are also unhappy with the Qin dynasty, preferring to return the Ming to power if fate allows. So the General concocts a scheme, demanding new teachers from the Northern Shaolin to replace those from the Southern Shaolin school. What follows is a contest that ultimately proves fatal for the Southern Shaolin teachers and creates a rift between the schools. Both sides are manipulated by the General into several pitched battles- can the Shaolin unite in time to prevent the General from succeeding in his plan to destroy all of Shaolin?

This is a very traditional Kung Fu film in that it features the detailed training sequences we normally come to see in such films as various fighters work to master a given style. The cast is very likeable and the General comes off as a terrific villain with a masterful hand at pulling a number of strings. Much of the story depends on the viewers acceptance of social customs in order to fully buy in to why the two sides would fight one another. The fighting is absolutely top notch and features a number of impressive battles with a fair amount of gore.

5 out of 5.

Disciples of the 36th Chamber

The third film in the “36th Chamber” (AKA: Master Killer) series of films features the terrific Gordon Liu returning to the role that originally made him famous. Unfortunately, the film doesn’t quite live up to the first film’s promise and features a much less engaging protagonist being trained by Liu. The film is played more for slapstick comedy and pratfalls than it is for the serious training that made the first film so amazing. A young teen and his two brothers are forced to hide and train in the Shaolin monastery when the buffoonish brother repeatedly insults the reigning Government. Liu takes the boy and his brothers under his wing and the rest is Kung Fu training.

2.5 out of 5.

Masked Avengers.

The title here is a little misleading and may be an issue of something being lost in translation or maybe just a misunderstanding- but the men in the masks are a group of bandits whose butchery, sadism, and cruelty have drawn the attention of a Martial Artist and his school of young warriors. When one of their agents manages to return to their school with fatal wounds, he leaves them with a barely muttered clue on where the Masked Bandits are hiding but not who these bandits may be. The school heads off to the province and start to investigate, only to run afoul of the Bandits in several encounters.

Are the bandits led by the charismatic merchant? The mysterious cook? Or the wealthy landowner? With their numbers dwindling, the school had better find out or they’ll be far too outnumbered to fight back. The film features some terrific fight choreography and the wonderful interaction between the characters builds to a brutal finale that sees the bandits base turned into a house of torture and death traps. A must-see for Kung Fu fans!

5 out of 5

Five Elements Masters.

I love me a bit of grue in my movies, and Five Elements Masters (AKA Five Elements Ninja and several other titles) features an awful lot of spurting blood, severed limbs, and massive physical damage to various victims of deadly Kung Fu. Probably one of the goriest Kung Fu films made, this was definitely a fun watch. The plot revolves around the Japanese “Five Elements Ninja” and their attempt to dominate the Martial Arts world by destroying the local practitioners through their five elements style. Fairly cut and dry when one member of the local school survives an ambush, he’s forced into hiding and trains to prepare himself for the style utilized by the Ninja.

4 out of 5.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Victor Frankenstein & Hunger Games:Mocking Jay


I was skeptical when I first started seeing the trailers a few months back, but I am a bit of a fan of the old school Hammer films and a sucker for a creepy looking period piece. I’m the sort of guy who gets sucked in with the promise of Van Helsing and I found plenty to enjoy with the Wolfman remake, all while fully recognizing the various faults and flaws in these films and lamenting the missed opportunities each film represented. And this movie reeked of missed opportunities and misguided ideas to cash in on all those things the other films aimed to achieve. I was going to see it anyway and I was going to swallow the suckage that it promised.

I was wrong.

Daniel Radcliffe’s “Igor” warns us from the very beginning that this is a story we know- the mad scientist, the dark and stormy night, the Monster, and all of the usual trappings we see in each and every Frankenstein adaptation. No one is trying to reinvent the wheel here and no one is going to even try. This is a familiar story and it’s not the first time this kind of story made an attempt at telling it from the assistant’s point of view, either. But what we’re going to be told is an interesting take on the story- hitting familiar beats, striking a few recognizable notes, but all done very well and with just enough difference to be unique into itself. This is very similar to the “Hammer” style of story-telling in that it takes familiar elements and then makes something a little different.

And this is really the first time we get extremely close to seeing the monster as it is described by Mary Shelley- over ten feet tall, with multiple organs and parts in order to retain the power necessary to bring the creature to life (Lightning, once again… though never what is actually specified in the book itself.) The CGI here is used in force perspective with practical effects for one of the best Monsters I’ve seen in recent years. And James McAvoy is maddeningly brilliant as the good doctor himself.

It’s utterly baffling to see this film take such a stumbling step forward on its release weekend, but the marketing of the film has done nothing to really sink its teeth into the fanbase. The timing of the release seems designed to bury the film that should have come this past Halloween in a place where it’s destined to fail, but let me assure anyone reading this that this film is definitely worthwhile and fun for the Hammer Horror fans who still dot the globe.

4 out of 5. Worth seeing and a definite recommendation.

“Hunger Games” : Mockingjay Part Two

I’m not a huge fan of the first “Hunger Games” film. I kind of enjoyed the second film because I thought it told a much better story and it explored effects of what surviving such a game could do to somebody. And I am probably the only person who actually preferred the slow-burn build in the third film, the exploration of Katniss’ use as a propaganda tool for a “rebel” force looking to sieze power, and the rescue of Peta as a big finale to the end. So I was pretty much looking forward to the fourth film- and then the reviews started to pour right in and I heard so much negativity that I nearly didn’t catch this film.

Let me say- I think the negativity is a little overboard in some cases. I think the film is overly long and that it never quite figured out what it should have been; brooding and dark or dangerous and exciting? The film was as indecisive as the story’s lead character- but more on that a bit later. Because of this very divided nature of the film, we were treated to long establishing shots that stuck to certain points for beats that were way too long and moments that never served the story’s interest. Despite that, I thought the film did manage to blur the lines of good and evil a little and it treated post-traumatic stress with a seriousness that it deserved.

But, let me stress this one point- Katniss. Jennifer Lawrence does a commendable job with the character, but she is ultimately one of the most self-absorbed characters on screen and manages to kill all sympathy I had for her with one brief scene near the end. Her decision to continue moving forward shred every last bit of respect or concern I once had for the character and, while I knew she would ultimately survive, I’m very very glad she would have nightmares for the rest of her life.

3 out of 5 and worth seeing.