Thursday, August 28, 2014


A scene from in The Strange Color of Your Body's Tears.
The man and the menses 

By John Esther

Dan Kristensen (Klaus Tange) has just returned to Brussels from a business trip abroad. After leaving several messages for his wife, Edwige (Ursula Bedena), without receiving response, Dan comes home to find the door is chained from the inside. When Edwige still does not answer Dan through the ajar door, Dan breaks the chain and enters his home. 

Edwige is missing. Rather than immediately call the cops, Dan goes on a drinking binge and then rings up his neighbors to see if they have seen his wife. One of his neighbors lets him into her home. A strange woman whose face remains shadowed in darkness, Dora (Birgin Yew), relays a ghastly story about the day her husband went missing in the ceiling after he tied her up and sedated her. (She wakes up later to help him, somehow eschewing or forgetting or forgiving her husband's horrific behavior.)

After this bizarre encounter with the elderly lady in black, Dan's journey becomes increasingly strange -- while one's patience diminshes. People appear and disappear. There are displaced bodies in the forms of simulacra, split screens, broken glass and sliced flesh. Side stories are started and stopped. Snuff recordings are played over the phone. Nightmares repeat themselves. Carnage becomes fetish. Razors are the choice of weapon, but any piercing object will do. Law enforcement is ephemeral.

Oh, as The Strange Color of Your Body's Tears never lets us forget, the male gaze is at work. Eye see you. Does it want to see female flesh or blood or both? Well, it is certainly obvious what is more thrilling to the filmmakers; and they are not going to break down the patriarchal visual paradigm a la Marguerite Duras, Toril Moi, Toni Morrison, Jane Campion or Robert Altman. 

Written and directed by the husband and wife team behind Amer, Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani, The Strange Color of Your Body's Eyes is intended (Italian artists audibly participate throughout) and advertised as a "homage to the Masters of Italian Giallo horror" -- an aspiration about as admirable as a novelist writing a homage to the novels of Danielle Steel or a cinephile's homage to pulp fiction -- and almost as reactionary and illogical in execution.

Stuck in a beautiful-turned-nightmarish Art Nouveau building where people hide and emerge from the walls and ceilings (are they ghosts?), the directors, plus the director of photographer, Manu Dacosse, are obsessed with the image at the risk of plot or sign, which in many cases displays a pornographic fear of female sexuality. As if reworking the work of George Bataille inside out or Jacques Lacan upside down, the Belgium filmmaking duo (whether they are familiar with those French authors or not) see sexuality not as an extension of one's self, but the murder of one's self -- metaphorically and literally. Continuity is obliterated in the name of discontinuity. Here, sex is horror without any redeeming pleasures. Man has vagina on the mind -- a bloody nightmare triggering subconscious memories of lost innocence. All because a little boy saw a trickle of blood. Menophobia. It also turns out that, indeed, some women do fantasize about being stalked, raped and murdered. Or is that Dan's dream? Golly gee, even Ingmar Bergman had a better sense of humor when it came to sex than this couple.

The film rarely maintains an image for more than a few seconds. Everything must be rapid, colorful and artsy, but it is an intellectual sham. At least Marquis de Sade and Jean Genet knew how to play both filthy and sensitive while simultaneously addressing violent sexual practices within and between the realms of power and the powerless. In The Strange Colors of Your Body's Tears, nothing enlightening goes beyond one of those "horror" films where a bunch of teenagers are stuck in the woods, getting killed off one by one because of the big, bad, old monster known as sex is after them.




Friday, August 15, 2014


Rob Brydon and Steve Coogan in The Trip to Italy.
To life 

By John Esther

With gourmet Italian cuisine, humorous banter, lush scenery, marvelous hotels, hilarious impersonations of such folks as Al Pacino, Marlon Brando, Truman Capote, Gore Vidal and characters in The Dark Knight Rises, plus discussions about Lord Byron and Percy Shelley, Roman Holiday, Godard's Contempt and a host of other issues a trip through Italy can offer, what is there not to like about The Trip to Italy? Very little. 

On another hand, our dynamic duo are stuck with one excruciating CD to listen to in their rented Mini: Alanis Morissette's Jagged Little Pill, which they play too frequently, and seem to enjoy on occasion. And our protagonists discussion about Frankenstein is rather irksome to those who know the story of its origins, author, intent, censorship, distribution, reception and history. 

The follow up to writer-director Michael Winterbottom's 2010 film, The Trip, the sequel reunites Rob Brydon and Steve Coogan once again to travel in style, work their improvisational brilliance, and remind us that maybe the true test of any relationship is traveling together -- all the while making the viewer hungry. Only this time the film is set in Italy not England. 

A smart, funny film about friendship, film, culture, literature, history, art, and coming to terms with what it means to mature, manifestly speaking, in show business (pretty much everything The Expendables 3 is not), watching The Trip to Italy is probably the most fun I have had at the movies so far this year.

Thursday, August 14, 2014


Zach (Dane Dehaan) and Beth (Aubrey Plaza) in Life After Beth.
The discreet disarm of the bourgeoisie 

By John Esther

Written and directed by Jeff Baena, Life After Beth tells the comedic-tragic teenage tale of a single child named Beth Slocum (Aubrey Plaza) who went hiking one day, was bitten by a snake and died. 

(Snakes and teenage girls is always a scary combination.) 

Naturally, at first, Beth's death causes great grief in her father, Maury (John C. Reily), her mother, Geenie (Molly Shannon) and her boyfriend, Zach Orfman (Dane DeHaan). Following the funeral, Zach begins to bond with Beth's parents, especially Maury. The two play chess together, talk about what they wished they had said to Beth when she was alive and they even share some wacky tobacky. Geenie gives Zach Beth's winter scarf, which he wears around his neck like a chain in the summertime. 

The bond with Maury seems to move Zach toward recovery more than the bond Zach shares with his lightheaded parents (Paul Reiser and Cheryl Hines) and dimwitted brother, Kyle (Matthew Gray Gubler). 

When the bond between Zach and Beth's parents soon fades, Zach becomes desperate. Zach cannot understand why the Slocums will not talk to him. So Zach does some, rather creepy, snooping around the Slocum house -- looking into their windows, banging on doors, yelling, etc. The Slocums are home but nobody answers. It seems they have a secret they do not want the neighbors to discover.

As it turns out, unnaturally, Beth has risen from the grave. Hooray for Mom, Dad and Zach! Or is it a cause for celebration? This seems inexplicable. Maybe Beth is a zombie? Oh well, Zach and Beth's parents now have a second chance with their beloved. 

Zach now says all the things he wished he had said to Beth and Beth responds the way teenage boys wished teenage girls responded to such sweet talk. But, like with most teenagers, the mind and body are constantly changing. For Beth they are changing in unimaginable ways...more so than the "normal" high school girl. As Beth becomes increasingly sweet, then aggressive (primarily with jealousy), Zach begins wondering if life would be better off if Beth were dead. The ideal girlfriend has become the psychotic bitc- ah, er, girlfriend.

To add to Zach's woes, suspicions and adolescent angst, it seems Beth is not the only one rising from the dead. Others around town have risen from the grave and they are hungry for some middle-class meat. 

A cheeky satire on numerous things, such as postmortem or eternal fairy tale romances, idealized teenage love, and the resilience of the bourgeoisie to overcome threats to its comforts and joys with very little awareness and effort, Baena (who co-wrote I Heart Huckabees) has a keen yet low-key observant eye and pen for suburbia. There is humor, dread, bitter love and lousy music in Baena's suburbia. Todd Solondz may have a cinematic comrade in Baena. 

(Writing of Solondz, Baena and Life After Beth, since the Slocums and Orfmans are Jewish, a look at this film through the prism of Jewish Studies may reveal another subtext to Life After Beth.)

With regard to the soundtrack used in Life After Beth, the film's metatrope that smooth jazz soothes zombies, in particular Chuck Mangione's "Feels So Good," is dead-on hilarious. Baena's potshots at the banal music of the Babbitt/Angstrom class rings true, soft and clear. Baena and music supervisor Bruce Gilbert (not the same Bruce Gilbert as the ex-member of Wire) have created one of the smartest soundtracks of the year. 

The film's one unfortunate soundtrack choice is the use of Brian Eno's politically charged, excellent song, "Needles in the Camel Eye" (which was better used in Todd Haynes' Velvet Goldmine) during Beth and Zach's sexual encounter in a public park. Although Eno's album, Here Come the Warm Jets, which is where "Needles in the Camel's Eye" hails from, has some sexually charged themes in it, "Needles in the Camel's Eye" could have been used elsewhere in the film to better effect. For the sex scene, if we are sticking to Eno, a more apropos choice would have been Eno's "Here He Comes," "Driving Me Backwards" or "Sky Saw."

The one other unsettling aspect of Life After Beth is the random violence of Kyle. His gunning down of two elderly people -- one alive and one undead (he kills many more offscreen) -- jolts the dark humor of the film into something far more sinister and very unfunny. Perhaps it is a musical narrative pivot to undermine, or underscore, the more dominant "smooth jazz" trope in the film?

At any rate, judging by the screening I saw with about 20 other critics, it seems I thought it was funnier than most, if not everyone else. Aye, the only thing more annoying at being at a film screening where there is just one person laughing is when you are that one person laughing. Jarring, subversive, and enjoyable, Life After Beth does not fit into easy categorization or consumption. The film will no doubt have many detractors in the mainstream press, but for those looking for something different -- a la Solondz, Robert Altman or Luis Bunuel -- Life After Beth rises above this somnambulistic summer of cinema.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014


Clark Wang in A Will for the Woods. 
Back to nature

By John Esther

Faced with a terminal illness, Clark Wang decides to eschew America's typical burial methods and take the green way out and under. 

At most a slight deviation from the way most humans have been buried since time memorial, and continue to do so in much of the world, a green burial is the eco-friendly, formalized ritual where the deceased is laid to rest in a natural setting using biodegradable materials. There is no embalming or concrete involved. Often a simple stone is used as the marking spot. 

Not only does this ritual allow one to "return to the earth" in an environmentally responsible way, it also allows natural land to remain free from development since the land is now a burial site. 

While the "green burial movement" does play a notable role in A Will for the Woods, the documentary's other strength is how it captures Clark and his partner, Jane Ezzard, coming to grips with his impending death. Clark may not be very old, but this psychiatrist, musician, dancer, and overall very nice guy has been very sick for many years. We are here to witness Clark's last days

Credited with four film directors -- Amy Browne, Jeremy Kaplan, Tony Hale and Brian Wilson -- A Will for the Woods offers a unique and unflinching examination of how Clark lost the ultimate battle (as we all will) yet in the process won over many hearts and minds of those who came to know him both off and on screen (as only some will). Writing of which, A Will for the Woods is a worthy companion to Life Itself, Steve James' recent documentary on the late film writer, Roger Ebert. 


Randy Vampotic (far right) directs Neal Polister (in truck)
​ on location near Indio, Ca., in Land of Enchantment.​
Short landing

By Ed Rampell

The 11-minute short, Land of Enchantment, is an enchanting period piece set in 1947 around the time of the famous purported Roswell Incident involving a supposedly downed UFO and space aliens. The two-hander features Andre Tenerelli as Jim, a hitchhiker in the middle of nowhere who is picked up in the New Mexico desert by Mac (Neal Polister), a rancher driving a vintage ’40s yellow truck, gun rack and all. Much of the action is inside the vehicle as it ambles along while the laconic Jim dodges and deflects the inquisitive Mac’s questions about, among other things, a futuristic gizmo which Jim claims is a Navy compass.

The well written, witty dialogue by Mike Sorrentino and Randy Vampotic, who also share producing credits, cleverly references Roswell. The first lines set the scene for the personality clash to come between the silent passenger and talkative driver; their chance meeting is a bit like when worlds collide. A copy of Popular Science magazine on the seat indicates that Mac is more than a mere sodbuster. His mention of Pat Garret, which flies over his passenger’s head, reveals Jim’s no Westerner -- although he may not exactly be a greenhorn from way back East, either...

After an object streaking across the sky crash lands in the desert hills the truck comes to a halt and the characters get out to investigate, although Jim manages to climb on a hilltop by himself to view the crash site. When Mac inquires whether it was an aircraft from a nearby military base, Jim replies that it was a “weather balloon” -- which will ring bells and raise smiles for those in the know about the Roswell Incident.   

The short is adeptly acted by Tenerelli, who is clad a bit like Indiana Jones, and the blond, grizzled Polister. His cowboy hat presumably hides the antennas which must be up due to his passenger’s evasive answers and the strange aerial crash. Jefferson Loftfield’s crisp, clear camerawork enhances the sense of place, although Land of Enchantment wasn’t actually shot in New Mexico but in Indio, located in California’s Inland Empire. (If you’ve seen one desert, you’ve seen them all!) The twangy original music by Lance Mugleston and Don Schiff likewise adds to the Southwestern atmospherics.

Sorrentino and Vampotic have been friends since attending Riverside High School in Buffalo, N.Y. The two relocated to the L.A.-area, where they’ve teamed up to co-write several screenplays, including 2002’s I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus, an enjoyable made-for-TV comedy co-starring L.A. Law’s Corbin Bernson and Connie Sellecca.

In his deft directorial debut Vampotic acquits himself well as a helmer able to direct both thesps and action scenes. This low budget short convincingly uses special effects to buttress the underlying science fiction vibe. The imagination of the co-creators succeeds in summoning up that which CGI and high tech FX often do for big budget studio productions. In that sense Land of Enchantment epitomizes the possibilities of indie shorts, and is for aficionados of that format, as well as fans of the sci-fi and fantasy genres.

Although Land of Enchantment is self contained in the short form format as a stand alone work, this reviewer was so enchanted by it he pondered what happened to the characters and where the rest of the story would take us? One imagines to “a galaxy far, far away”, and with their engrossing short the Sorrentino-Vampotic team leaves viewers with, in the very best sense, wanting more -- as a feature length production for the big screen. It is the desert dessert before the entrée.   

Land of Enchantment is in the process of making the film festival rounds. To request a link to view the short film, please contact:

Thursday, August 7, 2014


Adam Winfield in The Kill Team. Photo by David Krauss.

Stryke the truth down

By Ed Rampell

If Chelsea/Bradley Manning is the whistleblower best known for exposing U.S. war crimes in Iraq, another Army Specialist, Adam Winfield, is arguably the most famous truth teller who revealed American atrocities in Afghanistan. But like Private First Class Justin Stoner, Winfield found out the hard way that not only is it tough times for those who dare to blow the whistle, but the first casualty of war is still truth.

The 21-year-old infantryman came forward to reveal that soldiers of the Fifth Stryker Brigade, Second Infantry Division, who were deployed near Kandahar, executed Afghans for sport and then planted weapons beside their corpses to “prove” the casualties were “terrorists.” (They also captured these chilling Kodak moments with a series of photos.) Winfield’s “reward” for trying to report these crimes against humanity was, the moment he stepped off a plane when he returned to America, to be arrested and charged with committing premeditated murder. He found himself to be in the Kafka-esque, Catch-22 trap of becoming a target of a major investigation into war crimes he himself had tried to expose.

Winfield’s wartime experiences and subsequent court-martial disillusioned the young volunteer, who undergoes an epiphany and tells a probing camera lens: “War is dirty. It’s not how they portray it in the movies.” But it is how Dan Krauss depicts combat in The Kill Team, a hard hitting, award winning documentary where the fog of war mingles with the haze of hashish. Krauss’ take-no-prisoners doc, which takes its title from the nickname for the Stryker troops gone wild, also demonstrates why military justice is to justice what military music is to music, as the film focuses on Winfield’s “Alice In Wonderland-like” trial and tribulations.

The Kill Team is also very much a moving family drama. Backing him up every step of the way are Winfield’s Cape Coral, Florida parents, Emma and Christopher, an ex-Marine. In 2010 Adam tells his father via instant messenger about the dogfaces’ wrongdoing in Afghanistan and asks him to inform the Army inspector general. Christopher attempts to alert the military, but to no avail. As Adam confronts the ordeals of death threats, his own death wish and court case, Emma and Christopher stand by their son. Even after he receives a three-year sentence and bad conduct discharge his mom and dad unwaveringly believe Adam be not only innocent, but courageous for standing up for what’s right and trying to tell the truth, against all odds.

Although the jury is still out for some as to whether or not Adam -- who did not try to stop the killing of Allah Dad and pled guilty to the lesser charge of manslaughter -- is a whistleblower or murderer, Krauss’ nonfiction film paints a sympathetic portrait of its protagonist. The Kill Team also interviews other members of Winfield’s platoon, such as the conflicted Corporal Jeremy Morlock and Private First Class Andrew Holmes, who were both charged with the premeditated murder of 15-year-old Gul Mudin on Jan. 15, 2010. In the course of their horrifying odyssey both become bolder and wiser than they were when they volunteered to become cannon fodder after Uncle Sam got himself in a terrible jam, way down yonder in Afghan land. As part of a plea agreement Morlock, who hails from Sarah Palin’s home town of Wasilla, Alaska, received a 24-year sentence, while Holmes, who is from Boise, Idaho, is serving seven years behind bars. Both were dishonorably discharged.

Pfc. Justin Stoner, from Lebanon, Pennsylvania, was assaulted by fellow soldiers after he reported their drug use. Along with the apparently decent Winfield, Stoner is the film’s conscience and hero and considered to be an informant on this F-Troop’s out of control reign of terror. Questioning the military’s dehumanization of recruits, the philosophical Stoner ruminates: “Your job is to kill. Then why the hell are you pissed off when we do it?” Stoner alleged that he was shown human fingers -- which triggered the murder investigation of the Afghans -- by Staff Sgt. Calvin Gibbs.

The highest ranking soldier charged in this sordid, sorry, scandalous affair is The Kill Team’s bête noir. Staff Sgt. Gibbs of Billings, Montana was found guilty of, among other things, three counts of murder. Gibbs, who declined to be interviewed for the documentary and is mainly glimpsed in pictures shot by a photojournalist, looms as a cross between two classic characters from Hollywood’s Vietnam War epics: Marlon Brando as Col. Kurtz in Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 Apocalypse Now and Tom Berenger as Sgt. Barnes in Oliver Stone’s 1986 Platoon. Like them, the gung ho Gibbs reportedly goes rogue, instigates the Stryker Brigaders’ renegade mayhem and cuts fingers off of Afghan cadavers so he can use these bones for a creepy trophy -- a skeletal necklace. Much to his surprise, Gibbs’ running amok on the warpath landed him a life sentence at Fort Leavenworth (where he might have some illuminating tête-à-têtes with fellow inmate Manning).         

Krauss, who directed, co-wrote, produced and shot The Kill Team, pulls no punches as he tells his saga, which won the Tribeca Film Festival’s Best Documentary Feature and the San Francisco International Film Festival’s Golden Gate awards. Unlike most war films The Kill Team unspools slowly, deliberately and is told mostly via a series of talking heads. But it serves as a reminder that far from being a noble endeavor fought, as Winfield ironically muses, by “a bunch of honorable men with unshakeable patriotism,” war is, as Jean Renoir put it in the title of his 1937 pacifist masterpiece, The Grand IllusionThe Kill Team demystifies the mythos epitomized by John Wayne militaristic movies, which starred an actor who never actually served in the U.S. armed forces and whom Garry Wills alleges in his 1998 book John Wayne’s America avoided military service during World War II.

While politically aware audiences will appreciate Krauss’ war-is-hell message, this documentary’s real target market are those young people who -- like an impressionable Adam -- have bought into military madness. After seeing for himself in Afghanistan’s version of “the big muddy” the harsh reality of what the apocalyptic Col. Kurtz calls “the horror," Adam wised up. Perhaps, by seeing The Kill Team, would-be volunteers for Washington’s endless imperial misadventures will wake up and stay home instead.




A scene from Abbamemnon.
Tragic disco

By Ed Rampell

There has been a trend afoot in musicals to weave a tapestry around a band’s unrelated songs that has absolutely nothing to do with the original numbers themselves. Unlike The Who’s classic rock opera Tommy or Pink Floyd’s concept album, The Wall, where the composers/lyricists designed the sound to express underlying ideas and plots, the stories and imagery for 1999’s Mamma Mia!, 2002’s We Will Rock You and Cirque du Soleil’s 2006 Love are spun completely out of whole cloth and then cleverly garbed in music by Abba, Queen and the Beatles, respectively. Audiences giggle in giddy recognition when the dramatis personae’s dialogue and derring-do wittily, organically, inexorably lead to the lyrics of one of these oldies but goodies (this vogue only works with vintage bands which have inculcated followings over the, uh, decades).

The Ovation Award-winning Troubador Theater Company’s Abbamemnon arguably has the cleverest conception of this theatrical tendency. Although Mamma Mia! had an insipid, uninspired plot enlivened by the Swedish disco band Abba’s 1970s ebullient beat, Abbamemnon has a brilliant premise: Uniting that mindless dance music with the Greek tragedy, Agamemnon. This extremely bloody drama is the first play in the ancient trilogy called The Oresteia by Aeschylus and its mingling with disco seems like it would be the most inspired combo since the invention of the BLT.

But a work of art requires more than a brainstorm -- it must be worked out and executed. Unfortunately, the Troubies’ genre spoofing mash up does not live up to the promise of its premise. First of all, the sung lyrics and sometimes the spoken dialogue are often difficult to discern. Whereas the combustible mixture of disco and Greek tragedy required a more subtle, satirical sensibility, as in the 1969’s James Garner Western, Support Your Local Sheriff!, the company as directed by Matt Walker opts for a more broad, vaudevillian, slapstick interpretation a la Mel Brooks’ 1974 Blazing Saddles.

To be sure, there is much romping and hoofing with music provided by a live band -- the Troubies are truly a pack of dancing queens and kings. Latecomers are serenaded by a Greek chorus who mock them as they take their seats (touché!). There are topical commentaries of the “get-the-joke?” kind, such as about the flood at UCLA or how expensive the food is at Gladstone’s restaurant in Malibu. The thesps actually wear togas (a bugaboo of this critic, who is skeptical of modern dress versions of plays originally produced in ancient Greece: beware of Greeks wearing shifts) and sandals, which enhances the ambiance of this period piece. The 90-minute one-acter does project lots of frenetic fun (if more for the large onstage cast than for audience members), but whoever wrote this is no Oscar Wilde. We Will Rock You, which is playing at the Ahmanson through Aug. 24, is far cleverer and much better. Perhaps this is why your reviewer was unable to find a playwright’s credit for Abbamemnon, which was mildly, if not wildly, amusing.

For more info about the Troubador Theater Company see: Abbamemnon

Friday, August 1, 2014


Dino (Christina Ricci) in Around the Block.
Ab(out)original plays with the text

By John Esther

After a hiatus, American Dino Chalmers (Christina Ricci) has returned to Australia to be with her fiance, Simon (Daniel Henshall). A bright-eyed idealist, Dino takes a job at Redfern High School. Redfern High School is located in a particularly rough neighborhood in Sydney. 

In the first of the film's numerous too-convenient tropes, Dino notices one of the students, Liam (Hunter Page-Lochard), a teenager who she filmed in the streets the day before. He just happens to be in her class, too. 

Liam has troubles. He lives in a poor, violent neighborhood known as The Block. His Mum (Ursula Yovich) is unemployed; his father, Jack (Matt Nable), is in prison; and his older brother, Steve (Mark Coles Smith), plans to avenge his father's imprisonment and uncle's death. 

As the film points out in the beginning, Liam is headed down a similar path to that of his father and brother. However, Liam has a spark. If he can tap into his creative energies, Liam may just avoid a life of crime and despair (not that creativity does not often come with its own agents of despair).

This is where Dino comes in. She is the new drama teacher at Redfern and she wants the kids to learn and perform Shakespeare's Hamlet. Rather than instruct the old fashioned way of learning the world's most famous play by reciting the lines ad nauseum, Dino gets the kids to understand and appreciate Hamlet via comparing it to the lyrics of Tupac Shakur, examining the subtext, and how and why such an "old" English play could have relevance for the modern day immigrant living in Sydney.  

The existential themes of the play's protagonist strikes a chord in the heart of the Liam. To be or not to be in such a cruel world? Thanks to the former profession of Liam's deceased uncle, Liam was familiar with the words of Hamlet, but now he is beginning to understand something deeper.

Written and directed by Sarah Spillane, Around the Block may have its exasperating flaws, but it cannot be accused of not having its heart in the right place. Here is a film about a teacher who puts her energies into kids who society would soon just forget, even if it means giving up a comfortable bourgeois life with Simon. Meanwhile, the film lends an identity to those living in poverty and the dignity of struggle against it through art. 

Moreover, most of the cast is pretty good, especially Nable's subtle portrayal of a man who sees everything as he knows it disappearing. 

On the other hand, there are a few pretentious scenes involving standing on rooftops and incredulous "race baiting" over a meal at a restaurant. Was Dino just oblivious to the racism of Simon and his friends before she moved in with him?

Then there are the numerous, manipulative and insipid music selections that really grate on one's nerves. I realize the filmmakers are reaching for a younger audience here, but the songs are not only lousy, many of them are obvious attempts to manipulate the feelings and reactions of the audience. And the way Around the Block adapts and actually uses a cover of Mister Mister's "Broken Wings" is as banal and unwelcome as the original 1985 song (and video). 

Having written that, Around the Block is better fare geared for the youth than most movies out currently in theaters. At least Around the Block tries to address themes about adolescence, art and poverty. 


James Brown (Chadwick Boseman ) in Get On Up.
A man's man's world in America

By Ed Rampell

Tate Taylor’s well-directed Get On Up is a 138-minute biopic about “The Godfather of Soul," James Brown. Features about actual persons often suffer by not explaining the actions and behavior of their subjects, which is especially frustrating in movies about tortured artists who act in self destructive ways. For example, in the otherwise excellent 2000 biopic, Pollock, with its director Ed Harris depicting the action painter, Jackson Pollock’s alcoholism, abusive treatment of women, etc., is explained away with a line of dialogue or two while he’s strolling on a beach and refers to his unhappy childhood.

Well, that of course is “Freud 101”, but in Get On Up co-screenwriters Jez and John-Henry Butterworth provide details from James Brown’s (the stellar Chadwick Boseman) childhood that serve to explain and provide insight into the singer’s violent behavior, as well as into his talent and success as a singer. After a flash forward to a later criminal episode, the film progresses, more or less, in chronological order, but with frequent flashbacks that portray Brown’s turbulent childhood and life/career trajectory. The film also creatively includes scenes wherein Brown addresses the viewer in a pseudo-doc, “you-are-there” manner, and takes us into his thought process while Brown is performing, which are illuminating as well as imaginative.

As a boy growing up near Augusta, Georgia in the 1930s, James witnessed domestic abuse, which caused his mother, Susie Brown (the great Viola Davis), to abandon James. He’s then raised in a brothel by its madam, Aunt Honey (Octavia Spencer).

All the fame and fortune on Earth can’t compensate for a troubled childhood like this -- and it doesn’t. The singer who performed, composed and wrote the lyrics for 1965’s hit, "I Feel Good" didn’t always feel quite so good. Brown’s talent and drive propelled him to the top of the charts, yet he still beat his wife, DeeDee (Jill Scott), and mistreated others. The driving beat of Brown’s funkadelic music and his frenetic stagecraft often gave form to and expressed his inner demons through musical sublimation of tortured impulses.

Overall, Get On Up is a challenging, complex portrait of a complicated artist with, but of course, fabulous musical and dance numbers. This feature about “the hardest-working man in show business” is surely the hardest working biopic on the silver screen. And along with the upcoming Hendrix feature, Jimi: All is By My Side, and the sly post-racial comedy, Dear White People, Get On Up is riding the cinematic wave of black-themed of movies surging the theaters.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014


A scene from Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story.

Friends of the silver age

By Ed Rampell

Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story is a highly entertaining musical about the meteoric rise and (uh, literally) fall of the eponymous rock ‘n’ roll icon. Todd Meredith certainly does a bravura job of not only acting, but singing and guitar playing as the Texan with the horn rimmed glasses who rose to the top of the charts with hits such as “That’ll Be the Day” and “Peggy Sue.” Anybody who loves 1950s rock music will enjoy The Laguna Playhouse's crowd pleasing dramatization of the life and career of Buddy Holly. The production cleverly curries favor through audience participation (at one point cutesy props are handed out to everyone in the seats). P&G Designs’ sets, with Howdy Doody and Lone Ranger pop culture motifs, help evoke a wistful, gone-are-the-days ’50s ambiance.

London-born playwright Alan Janes’ 1989 musical is long on Holly’s music and other classic rock tunes but short on the drama. Act one depicts the struggles of the Lubbock lad and the Crickets (Logan Farine plays drummer Jerry Allison and Bill Morey steals many scenes as the upstaging, acrobatic bass player Joe B. Mauldin) as they go up against Texas’ prevailing Country Western grain by pursuing a rockers’ vibe in their music. Why is never fully explained, but before you can say “Oh Boy!” their rockabilly sensibility and driving rhythms propel Buddy Holly and the Crickets onto the hit parade. Soon they outgrow their Lone Star milieu and Norman Petty’s (Nathan Yates Douglass, who, in a dual role, also plays Dion of the Belmonts’ fame) New Mexico recording studio, and they are New York bound.

The band’s foray to the Big Apple sheds light on what might explain Holly’s departure from the musical country conventions that dominated Lubbock. For some reason the good ol’ boys from Texas get it into their noggins to perform at the Apollo Theater, and their appearance at the renowned Harlem standard bearer of African-American culture is nothing short of a cross-cultural experience. Not only for the musicians but for the black theatergoers (whom, the mostly Caucasian Laguna Playhouse ticket buyers stood -- or rather -- sat in for), as well. (Look for James S. Patton during this scene -- he stands out as a hilarious Apollo emcee and later as a piano player.) At another point in the play someone remarks that the band is playing “colored music” and Holly's matter-of-fact response is in the “and your point is?” mode.

Although Holly's songs are full of yearnings for love he has no romantic interests in the first act. However, in Act II Holly meets and falls in love with a Manhattan music industry receptionist and immediately proposes to -- and weds -- Maria Elena (Jenny Stodd, who performs double duty in the cast as a trio of songsters dubbed the Snowbirds). Even though his over protective mother (whom is never seen but is referred to periodically throughout the show) apparently opposes the union for ethnic reasons, Holly marries a Hispanic woman at a time when interracial marriage was not only rare, but frowned down upon in America -- not to mention in the state where the Alamo is located.

The point is that Meredith/Janes’ Holly comes across as one of those rare individuals who doesn’t have a racist bone in his body. He embraces black music and audiences and falls head over heels for a Latina, whom he marries. 

In the second act Buddy and the Crickets have differences of opinion that seem to come from out of nowhere. Janes never develops this conflict -- never mind, the onstage rockers have yet another hit to belt out. The second half of Act II is essentially a rock concert disguised as a reenactment of Holly’s final live performance with Ritchie Valens (an ebullient, kinetic, athletic Emilio Ramos who lights up the stage) and the J.P "The Big Bopper" Richardson (a delightfully daffy, droll Mike Brennan) at the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa.

Clashing with capitalist Petty who is refusing to pay Holly (and apparently living up to his name), with Maria Elena expecting, Holly has been forced out onto the road during winter weather in order to sing for his supper. Talk about class struggle! Knowing what’s about to befall the characters may cast a pall over the play for some viewers, but aficionados of vintage rock by Holly and other pop idols of the era will enjoy the half hour or so (including encores) of live music, as the two-acter devolves into, more or less, a gig.

During the grand finale set at Clear Lake Holly plays post-Cricket songs, including "It Doesn't Matter Anymore" and "Raining In My Heart," which show the path his music was moving on, with deeper, more complex orchestration. If not for the cruel intercession of the fates, who knows where Holly’s richer, fuller sound would have gone? Janes finesses the day the music died so as not to ruin the good vibes. What befell the pregnant Maria Elena is never mentioned. Given recent aviation tragedies, depending on its treatment, the ending could have been a major downer that not even the jovial Brennan’s Big Bopper could have pulled the aud out of. Instead, in this play with a large cast deftly directed by Steve Steiner, fans are left with proverbial “Words of Love” and a nostalgic, upbeat rock ‘n’ roll concert.

Let’s call it the day the music lived.

Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story runs through August 10 at the Laguna Playhouse, 606 Laguna Canyon Road, Laguna Beach, CA 92651. For more info: 949-497-ARTS;  

L.A.-based reviewer Ed Rampell co-authored “The Hawaii Movie and Television Book.” (See: