Friday, March 23, 2018

Avenue Q: The High School Musical???

I've seen and written about several productions of Avenue Q over the past several years, as it is one of my favorite musicals. Recent events transpired, and a young family friend found himself cast with  the ensemble for this terrific show- in his High School. So, I found myself confused, amused, and transfixed with the opportunity to see a show that features Puppets having sex, talking about racism, pornography, suicide, and irresponsible drinking but with a High School spin. What would remain? How would the songs change? What would the end product be?

So yes, there were many changes.... you were no longer "As loud as the hell you want", there were no Girlfriends from Canada, and the internet was for "Fun". But what remains is the heart of the show and themes of confusion, growing older, and taking responsibility for your life and recognizing that stress is always impermanent. And the young teen cast capably handle the complex issues of gender, sexuality, economics, responsibility, and relationships.

Christian Hurtado leads the cast with the role of Princeton (also doubling as Rod), the new kid to Avenue Q and whose journey we are following as he exits college and enters a world he is ill prepared to handle. Celeste Seymour embraces the ridiculous nature of an obviously white girl playing the role of Television's Gary Coleman, capably handling her solo in Schadenfreude with delicious enthusiasm. Desmond Aguilera embraces a somber presence as the un-funny comedin, Brian and Xavier Rodriguez goes through vocal gymnastics while handling the dialogue and songs for Nicky, Trekkie Monster, Boy Bear, Ricky, and the Newcomer. Katrina Torres is at times very funny, endearing, and vocally gifted but she seemed a little guilty to be playing such an offensively written character and didn't really embrace the insulting cadence that Christmas Eve is known to have.

But the absolute shining light of the show had been Jackie Ortiz in the roles of Kate Monster and Lucy (No last name for this adaptation). At turns innocent, endearing, and having a full grasp of the material, Ortiz delivers amazing vocals and projects the emotional turns for her puppet with gravitas and stopping on the dime perfect comedic timing.

8 out of 10

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Cry-Baby at Paperwing Theatre

Cry-baby the Musical

Based on the John Waters film, Cry-baby is a rock-a-billy musical comedy that follows the story of Wade "Cry-Baby" Walker- a disaffected teenage rebel leader of the "Drapes". Teenage Allison falls in love with the pacifist bad boy, despite her grandmother's disapproval and the resentment of her current "square" friends. The musical differs from the film in a number of ways, with many sub-plots abandoned or changed to suit a more streamlined narrative that focuses mostly on the romance and allegoric comedy.

Randy Pires steps into the title role with campy bluster that is way too cool for School, his vocals capturing parts Elvis and parts Rob Halford with a southern twang. Alyssa Matthews is Allison Vernon-Matthews, ridiculously naive and hopeful for a day when she might release her inhibitions and be as bad as she wants to be. Alyca Tanner is dramatically prim, proper, and sincere in her portrayal of Mrs. Vernon-Matthews, the grandmother of Allison. The three leads take the audience on a ride through rockabilly camp with featured performances from the female "Drapes" Wanda (played with sultry energy by Zeana Bey), the dangerous "Hatchet-Face" (Played with vicious glee by Erin Elizabeth Davison) and pregnant Pepper (with "in your face" energy from Persis Tomingas). Edie Flores puts in a charismatic performance as Dupree, Cry-baby's best friend.

And there were two show stealing performances that hit me hard and kept me laughing throughout the entire show- first, Joseph Jones absolutely KILLS it as the obnoxious "Baldwin", would-be suitor to Allison and Cry-baby's rival in music. Jones delivers an inspired slapstick performance with frantic energy and over confidence. One scene had be doubling over in physical pain as he runs back and forth in the background, screaming for "Allison!" with his arms flailing like Kermit the Frog.

Second, Zanna Wei is deliciously INSANE as the Cry-baby obsesssed "Lenora", whose song "Screw Loose" was played with over the top madness that spiraled into dark revelations about the character and the depths of her lunacy. (I wonder how many more ways I can say she was Bat-fuck bonkers crazy before I finish this paragraph?) I was in tears, trying to catch my breath, and loving the absolutely hysterical duet between her and Baldwin (All in my Head) as they dream of their perfect future with their significant paramours. 

An enthusiastic ensemble went all in on the production, making this a great experience for fans of local performances. Highly recommended with an 8 out of 10.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

GREAT GOOGLY MOOGLY, MOVIE REVIEWS!!! (Hurricane Heist/Strangers 2/Red Sparrow/Before we Vanish/The Party)

Hurricane Heist:

Two brothers speed across the highway with their father, trying to outrun the storm as it crashes down on top of them. This is a flash back to decades before the film, adding emotional depth through talk about football, whose fault it is they’re running behind, and the sudden death of the father that we only sort of barely got to know. Oh, they also have southern accents- these are all some good ol’ boys. They ain’t meanin’ no harm. But that big bad Hurricane is comin’ down on them hard and fast and it roars and… dear lord… as they stare up from the wreckage of the house where they were hiding they can see a face in the storm. A face.

And about twenty years later, we come down to the same area where the youngest boy (Toby Kebbell) is a meteorologist tracking an oncoming storm. He feels the storm in his gut- because he has magic storm predicting skills or some such and really… look, he’s got Paxton in his soul. (I’m referencing “Twister” here, so if you don’t get the reference then check out that film.) And when you got Paxton-soul, you get a bad ass tank of a car and a sudden desire to visit your brother (Ryan Kwanten)… but before that we better establish that there’s more than just a storm coming. And that’s when we’re introduced to the films hero and protagonist, the female Treasury agent played by Maggie Grace.  She and her partner (Ralph Ineson) and transferring billions in old bills to be shredded in the midst of the sudden hurricane. She has a history, she’s made mistakes, this is a crap job for her, yadda yadda blah blah, and what she doesn’t know is that there’s about to be a robbery.

We find a bunch of far strung mistakes and coincidences lead to our three protagonists meeting, kind of forming a few alliances, and just as soon as the robbery goes down we find them being chased and doing some chasing of their own through the oncoming hurricane. Honestly, this is as preposterous a series of stunts, scenes, and cool set pieces as you might imagine. This is a ridiculously over blown and awesomely terrible flick with football clich├ęs, gung ho violence, and cheesy villains from start to finish. If you expected something great, where have you been through most of the disaster films that have taken place over the years?

Parts “Hard Rain” and “Twister”, the movie is a cheesy popcorn muncher that you laugh at as much as you laugh with, so it is what it is. But being what it is, that’s certainly a fun ride if you turn off the brain and just enjoy the ride.

Oh, there’s also some ham-fisted lecturing about environmental disasters, global warming, and other stuff. Ignore that… it’s barely enough to function as a story point, anyway.

6 out of 10.

The Strangers: Prey at Night

I’ve been trying to catch as much of the main stream horror releases as I could this year, and I’ll let you in on a secret; I didn’t enjoy the first Strangers film in the potential franchise. It was creepy enough, it was shocking enough, but I ultimately left the film feeling less satisfied than I would have preferred. And so I wasn’t really looking forward to a sequel, but here one is.

It doesn’t pick up where the first left off- but we do start with a quick little scene of our three killers arriving in a trailer park vacation spot that’s largely been abandoned for the season. We then switch to our protagonists making their trip to this same trailer park- the teen girl is moving north to attend a boarding school after her parents literally give up on her. Her older brother is the “perfect” child, and we see she’s feeling like the disappointment of the family. Of course, the family half-heartedly tries to reach out to her but they feel well in over their heads. Thankfully, this family drama straight out of an ABC afterschool special is quickly interrupted with the arrival of our three masked Antagonists. And then, hilarity ensues.

I found the filming style of the movie to be a little strange, capturing angles and fading in on bizarre close-ups with an after effect that kept the image a little out of focus at times. Stylistically, I kind of enjoyed the technique and it added to what tension did exist in the film. However, the story was largely unencumbered with any real stakes and I lacked any real empathy for the characters. The parents, especially, had already set off my hackles for their willingness to abandon their daughter.

Not a bad film, some decent gore effects, and some satisfying sequences. To be honest, I did “enjoy” this movie a bit more than the first Strangers film but ultimately realize that it doesn’t carry the same punch as its previous entry.

6 out of 10.

Red Sparrow

Jennifer Lawrence starts as the titular character in this spy thriller based on the novel by former CIA operative, Jason Matthews. I want to get that out of the way because a lot of people are far too quickly drawing comparisons to the Marvel property of Black Widow, of which this work bears no real resemblance beyond the fact that both characters are Russian and trained as specialists. But where they differ and how the story is told is very different.

Recruited by her uncle after an unfortunate accident, ballerina Dominika Egorova undergoes espionage training as part of the “Sparrow” program for the Russian Government. Sparrows are trained to seduce their targets, psychologically profiling them to provide them with the things they want the most and gain their trust. She is sent on a mission to get close to an American Agent who is known to be working with a Russian double-agent deeply connected with the Government. As with all espionage films, the twists are plenty and there are plans within plans. Lawrence delivers a credible performance and puts it all on the line. And I mean ALL.

Okay, how this film avoided an NC-17 is a mystery to me. The movie gets incredibly graphic with regard to the sexual content, avoiding all but penetration in a couple of scenes and getting downright nasty in the dialogue. The weird part is that it treats the subject matter in such a clinical way that it’s not at all alluring or perverse, it’s utilized as a tool and nothing more. There is one scene with another trainee that literally strips the material down and destroys any sense of sexual dynamic for the characters. It’s cold, it’s brutal, and we see it on display with clinical distaste. But it’s still there.

As a fan of spy thrillers, this movie moves more like a “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” than it does a “James Bond” film, so don’t expect action set pieces and grand stunt work combined with cutting edge sci-fi gadgets and technology. This is pure espionage, cat & mouse chases, misdirection, manipulation, and cold planning. I loved it.

8 out of 10. 

Before We Vanish

Kiyoshi Kurosawa is mostly known for his horror films, with “Pulse” receiving a big budget Hollywood remake. But the Japanese film-maker has had a varied filmography, with his latest film getting released to mixed reviews from the 2017 Cannes festival. And “Before We Vanish” is definitely a difficult movie to rate, describe, or categorize… with some parallels to John Carpenter’s “Starman”, Kiysohi crafts a world on the brink of alien invasion while studying the ideas that make us human. The film is based on a stage play of the same name.

Shinji is a philandering husband who seems to have forgotten everything when his wife, Narumi, arrives to retrieve him from a local hospital. The couple are facing a difficult period in their marriage, with Shinji having been caught philandering and Narumi focused on her career. The two have grown apart, but Shinji’s new mental state may provide them with a new opportunity to reconnect. But we quickly learn there’s more to Shinji’s affliction. Concurrently, a recent massacre has left lone survivor Asumi in a similar state. And reporter Sakurai finds himself traveling with Amano, an self-proclaimed “alien” intending to invade Earth and wipe out all human life as we know it. Chaos erupts as people begin to fall to strange afflictions, their grasp on human concepts stolen by the alien invaders.

This is difficult stuff to grasp- the aliens aren’t eating our brains, they aren’t turning humans into zombies, and they aren’t wiping us clean. They are taking individual concepts in order to understand and destroy us. The very core concepts of “Ownership”, “Family”, and “Work” are some of the most basic functions to us, but if they were stolen from us entirely we would be left with a large vacuum. And nature abhors a vacuum. And it can help us question what it is that makes us truly human.

I personally loved this film, but wouldn’t recommend it to a wider audience. The film is much more of a science-fiction romance than it is an adventure or horror of any sort. But it affected me on a personal level and left me feeling parts sad, hopeful, happy, angry, and other feelings I’m having  a hard time working through. If you enjoy Japanese cinema, you probably won’t want to miss this film.

9 out of 10.

The Party

A bunch of intellectual left-wing elitists are celebrating the election of a friend to a Parliamentary Seat, representing her party on a number of issues relating to healthcare. On the eve of her greatest triumph, her world is torn apart with revelations of illness, adultery, greed, and hypocrisy. This is a scathing black comedy about a small group and their personal drama. The wit is sharp, cynical, and laced with poison barbs that pull through social norms, politeness, relationships, and social politics.

7 out of 10.

Monday, March 5, 2018



While not billed as a “Netflix Original”, the foreign horror flick “Veronica” dropped about a week ago and received some surprising viral promotion with a few news stories about how this film had received a 100% on Rotten Tomatoes. It was lauded as incredibly terrifying and so on so forth, hype and bother, you know the drill.

I didn’t watch any trailers. I didn’t know the premise. I went in blind.

It’s best to see that film in that context.

But as I’m telling you my thoughts, you will at least want the premise: Veronica is the de facto head of a household, caring for her younger siblings as their single mother works a late job that prevents her from being involved. The teen girl is also mourning the loss of her father and uses a Ouija board but opens communication with an unfriendly spirit. And that, as they say, is where everything begins to unravel. The film is directed with meticulous care by Paco Plaza (.REC) and delivers on tension like few films dare. It takes it’s time and builds the tension, mixing it thick with atmosphere and a performance that draws you to care for the family unit on the whole.

8 out of 10, high recommendation.