Friday, July 26, 2013


Fear trumps reason in complex Danish drama 'The Hunt'

A child's remark brings lives to the brink of ruin in Danish filmmaker Thomas Vinterberg's complex drama The Hunt. The story takes shape in the treacherous and fascinating twilight zone between acute moral responsibility and witch-hunting. Not a lot happens in the narrative except ordinary people going about their daily routines—talking, laughing, drinking, making love, going to work—but because the focus is on the ever-unpredictable vagaries of human nature, the film plays like a compelling, edge-of-your-seat thriller.

Although Vinterberg (Celebration) is a founding member of the ill-advised Dogma school of Danish filmmaking, The Hunt is mercifully unburdened by shaky hand-held camera work or attempted real-time narrative constraints. It flows over time and place at its own pace, like a normal movie, and is so much stronger because of it.

 It takes place in a small, contemporary Danish suburb on the edge of a forest, where the men of the town initiate their sons into manhood during the annual deer hunt, as their families have done for generations.

The great Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen gives a performance of astonishing force and subtlety as protagonist Lucas. Completely integrated into the life of the town, yet somewhat apart, Lucas is divorced and lives alone; his adored teenage son lives elsewhere, with Lucas' prickly ex-wife. (In a wry running gag, Lucas' loyal dog barks like crazy if anyone mentions the name of his ex.)

One day, a child says something vague to the principal of the kindergarten where Lucas works, that makes her think something inappropriate has happened. Vinterberg shows with scalpel-like precision how fear and misinformation spread like a contagion throughout the town, infecting everyone. (Read more)

Tuesday, July 16, 2013


Dance, diversity shine in Cabrillo Stage's fizzy, if uneven 'La Cage aux Folles'

In celebration of the end of DOMA, and the repeal of Prop 8, Cabrillo Stage launches its 2013 summer musical season with a lavish, light-hearted production of La Cage aux Folles. Based on the groundbreaking 1978 French film comedy, one of the earliest depictions in modern pop culture of a sympathetic gay couple in a long-term domestic relationship, the show was first produced in 1983 with a book by Harvey Fierstein and music and lyrics by the legendary Jerry Herman.

The Cabrillo production is directed and choreographed by CS veteran Janie Scott for maximum crowd-pleasing. The story is set in and around a popular drag nightclub in St. Tropez in the south of France, so there's plenty of opportunity for big, elaborate dance numbers, which is where this production shines. Some other aspects of the production can be a bit uneven, but as long as the eight-man (plus one anatomically correct female) troupe of chorus "girls," called Les Cagelles, are onstage, the show is great fizzy fun.

On the French Riviera sits the famed nightclub, La Cage aux Folles. It's owner/proprietor and emcee is Georges (dapper Curt Denham, who has a great singing voice and an easy, affable onstage presence), whose longtime companion is the club's star attraction, Albin, performing under the stage name, Zaza (Tony Panighetti, in a game, heartfelt performance). Suave Georges and the more flamboyant Albin have been together for 20-plus years, and are well known and loved in their community.

The plot involves the impending marriage of Georges' 24-year-old son (by a youthful, one-night indiscretion) who desperately wants the couple who raised him to act "normal" for one day to meet his fiancee's right-wing, bigoted parents. Fortunately. this plot doesn't interfere much with the entertaining production numbers onstage at the club, especially in the show's more dynamic first half.

Sammy Lopez makes a fun, campy feast out of the role of houseboy and wannabe showgirl Jacob. But the play's trump card is its portrait of tender affection between an aging couple who have been together for a long time. The touching relationship between Georges and Albin is the foundation from which this lively production takes flight. (Read more)

Monday, July 15, 2013


Almodóvar turns airborne disaster into frothy comedy in 'I'm So Excited'

Who else but Pedro Almodóvar could take a standard disaster movie premise and turn it into a frothy, candy-colored comedy? But the merry Mexican maestro carries it off with delicious, subversive aplomb in his new film, I'm So Excited, which dares to ask the question: how would you choose to live your last hour of life?

In the Almodóvar universe, the answer involves cocktails, plenty of sex, and a disco beat.

There has always been a fine line between farce and melodrama, in Almodóvar's films, where reckless human passions intersect in unexpected, often ironic ways. But while Excited has one of his more dire set-ups—a commercial airliner bound from Spain to Mexico City experiences equipment failure as the flight crew searches for a place to make an emergency landing—this is a return to pure comedy for the filmmaker.
Cecilia Roth

Sure, sex, drugs, murder, and betrayal figure in the entwining stories that make up the plot, but the mood is light, even boisterous throughout.

Chief Steward Jossera (Javier Cámara), and his First Class cabin crew (Raúl Arévalo  and Carlos Areces) serve as both a bawdy Greek chorus of observers and the eye of the storm, a zany trio mixing vats of mescaline-laced mimosas and kibitzing as the other passengers' stories unfold.

Almodóvar selected his cast mostly from his stock company of recurring players, in what must have been a party for all involved. The fabulous Cecilia Roth makes her seventh appearance with the filmmaker (she was in his very first feature, back in 1980).

Cámara starred as the compassionate orderly in Almodóvar's brilliant Talk To Her.

The dialogue is fast and funny even as the situation deteriorates. In the comic centerpiece, the three stewards perform a perfectly choreographed lip-synch routine to the Pointer Sisters tune that gives the film its title—complete with aerial shots a la Busby Berkeley. (Read more)
Raúl Arévalo,  Carlos Areces and Javier Cámara are SO excited!

Wednesday, July 10, 2013


'Byzantium' a lush, eerie, feminist vampire tale

In his varied career, Irish filmmaker Neil Jordan has shown a particular gift for weaving eerie folklore and fairy tale sensibilities in and out of so-called "real" life.

So to call his new film, Byzantium, a mere "vampire movie" doesn't begin to suggest the lush and disturbing depths and subtle textures of this provocative and atmospheric tale.

Told from a refreshingly female perspective, with a time-traveling narrative and a rich subtext about storytelling and its consequences, it revitalizes the notion of what a vampire movie can be.

Byzantium was scripted by Moira Buffini (Tamara Drewe), based on her stage play A Vampire Story. (She claims it was inspired—very loosely—by the Victorian Gothic story, "Camille," by Sheridan Le Fanu.)

 Fleeing a murder scene in a nearby town, two young women come to roost in a bleak English seaside town in the off season. Clara (Gemma Arterton) is a brash, savvy, beautiful prostitute and lap dancer. Eleanor (Saoirse Ronan) an introspective 16-year-old who was raised in a convent, calls Clara "My savior, my burden, my muse."

We see right off that the women have an unholy taste for blood (but no fangs are involved; a protruding thumbnail does the trick). Nor do these blood-drinkers fly, possess superhuman strength, turn to dust in the daylight, or morph into bats. All that sets them apart is their immortality.

In flashbacks to the Napoleonic era, we see how each woman was initiated into the Brotherhood of the Immortal (operative word: brotherhood), and how they have since turned the tables on the Old Boy's Club of the undead, "to punish those who prey on the weak (and) to curb the power of men."

 The film can be slow going for awhile, but I find this forgivable as long as the film finally does get somewhere. And the payoff in Byzantium is its own reward. (Read more)

This one opens this Friday (July 12 ) at the Del Mar, only two shows daily, so don't miss it!


The reviews are pretty awful, and the box office is tanking. But, seriously, can The Lone Ranger really be that bad? Well, there's nothing wrong with this movie that couldn't be fixed by cutting out about 45 minutes and hiring new scriptwriters who know how to set and maintain a consistent tone, tell a coherent story, and develop characters we care about.

That leaves out Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio, the main culprits here, along with director and fellow PotC alumnus Gore Verbinski; together with third credited screenwriter Justin Haythe, they prove they ought to be making amusement park rides, not movies.

Armie Hammer (he played both Winklevoss twins in The Social Network) stars as the deputy Texas Ranger turned masked avenger for justice, but he's stuck playing a dull-witted, square-jawed, prig. There is no there there. Resurrected from the brink of death after an ambush, he's still a stiff; his only heroic attribute is an (undeserved) reputation for not staying dead.

It's Johnny Depp who gets the plum role of wily "sidekick," Tonto; he's the most consistent thing in the movie, and there's pleasure to be had if you tune out all the sturm and bluster in the overcooked plot about ruthless railroad men vs. vicious outlaws vs. noble Indians and view his performance as an extended homage to the deadpan physical slapstick of silent comedians Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd.

But these two "heroes" have no chemistry or camaraderie; the characters dislike and mistrust each other, falling into pathetic bickering at the most inappropriate moments. The non-stop jokiness is also a big problem, especially when the movie tries to shift gears and address the spirituality and suffering of Native American peoples at the hands of the white man. A couple of times we are asked to ponder the sobering aftermath of a massacre, then up pops Depp to crack another joke so the audience can start laughing again.

Comedy and tragedy coexist in life, of course, but can only be combined onscreen by writers who know what they're doing. Here the juxtaposition is not well integrated, so the movie doesn't feel more resonant, it's just schizoid. The big action finale featuring three runaway trains on split-level, intersecting tracks is a marvel of stunt choreography, but like everything else, it goes on forever. This isn't a thrill ride, it's an endurance test.

Btw, much virtual ink has been spilled over Tonto's dead crow headdress, including on this blog. Depp claims he was inspired by this painting, I Am Crow, by contemporary southwest artist Kirby Sattler, from which Depp also evidently borrowed make-up tips.

I don't know how authentic this painting is supposed to be, or whether the crow is metaphor, or if the image is meant to represent a man of the Crow nation. (In the movie, Tonto is supposed to be Comanche.) But Depp has said in interviews that he got into the idea that a native warrior might wear his totem animal spirit guide on his person, and that actually is fine with me. (In fact, the crow becomes a character in the story, in flashbacks.) It's just too bad the rest of the movie lacks the wit, purpose, and spiritual depth of that dead crow.

PS: And don't even get me started on the rabid bunnies....

Monday, July 1, 2013


Take a fun summer refresher course at 'Monsters University'

Looking for something fun to do with the kids this holiday weekend? Why not sign up for a refresher course at Monsters University? This lighthearted prequel to the Pixar/Disney 2001 animated blockbuster, Monsters Inc., reunites audiences with some of their favorite characters and introduces some cool new ones in a family-friendly tale of friendship, destiny, diversity, and higher education, told with maximum humor and heart.

Monsters Inc. is a hard act to follow, with its entertaining and audacious premise that the monsters that lurk under the bed and pop out of the closet to frighten children at night are not only real, they are proud members of an elite labor force who punch a time clock and take the work very seriously. The screams they harvest at night from the human kids they scare silly are captured in canisters to supply fuel for the city and the economy in the alternative reality where the monsters live.

There's no way to top this premise, so incoming director Dan Scanlon and returning scriptwriters Daniel Gerson and Robert L. Baird backpedal instead. Monsters University is an origin story on how two of the top "Scarers" found their path in life. The first film showed big, blue, fur-ball James P. "Sulley" Sullivan (voice of John Goodman), and his partner, diminutive, green, cyclops Mike Wazowski (Billy Crystal) at the top of their game. In Monsters U, we see their rocky road to friendship, and the personal obstacles each faces along the way.

 My favorite addition to the Monsters universe is the imperious Dean Hardscrabble (above). An upright reptile whose dozens of centipede feet scrabble ominously across the floor, with an impressive set of giant dragon-like red wings, she's part Maleficent, part "Night on Bald Mountain's" devil, with a fine, chilly voice provided by Helen Mirren.

Part frat house comedy, part Hunger Games, with a soupcon of Hogwarts, Monsters U delivers some engaging messages with a very light touch. (Read more)