Friday, August 1, 2014

FILM REVIEW: AROUND THE BLOCK

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. 



FILM REVIEW: GET ON UP

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

STAGE REVIEW: THE BUDDY HOLLY STORY

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; www.LagunaPlayhouse.com.  

L.A.-based reviewer Ed Rampell co-authored “The Hawaii Movie and Television Book.” (See: http://hawaiimtvbook.weebly.com/.)



Thursday, July 24, 2014

FILM REVIEW: LUCY

Lucy (Scarlett Johansson) in Lucy. 
Knowledge equals power, guns and car chase scenes

By Ed Rampell

Writer-director Luc Besson’s Lucy may be the most visually visionary science fiction movie since Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 2001: A Space Odyssey. Scarlett Johansson portrays the title character, a foreign student studying at Taipei who is ensnared in a bad drug deal with Taiwanese mobsters. This leads to her ingesting a high dose of a chemical substance called CPH4 that causes Lucy to become hyper-intelligent.

This extraordinarily optically opulent film combines two of Besson’s obsessions: powerful female protagonists and science fiction. Per the latter Besson co-wrote and directed 1997’s The Fifth Element co-starring Bruce Willis and Milla Jovovich. Besson’s then-wife went on to star in 1999’s The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc (talk about woman warriors!). Previously Anne Parillaud played another action heroine in Besson’s 1990 La Femme Nikita, while Michelle Yeoh depicted the title character in Bresson’s 2011 The Lady, the biopic about what may arguably be Bresson’s most courageous female character ever: Burmese pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi.  

Besson’s graphic depiction of Lucy’s state of ultra-cosmic consciousness to the extreme is highly cinematic in this film full of stunning cinematography and Sergei Eisenstein-like montage sequences (not so much in terms of their timing but in regards to associational editing). It’s interesting that the more intelligent Lucy becomes the more violent she is -- one of the movie’s many Kubrickian references. In 1971’s A Clockwork Orange the thuggish droogie Alex (Malcolm McDowell) may behave like a soccer hooligan but he’s highly intelligent and a fan of Ludwig van Beethoven. 2001: A Space Odyssey's HAL is a murderous computer (“I’m sorry Dave, but I can’t do that”).  And of course, the proto-human character in the beginning of 2001: A Space Odyssey wins a fight by cunningly figuring out how to kill his opponent with a weapon (the bone which, in the cinema’s greatest jump cut, becomes a spacecraft when tossed into the air).

Lucy is -- as Johansson’s character is reminded -- also the name of our oldest human-like ancestor, who is glimpsed onscreen at various points in the movie. Her name may also be a reference to the Beatles’ “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds," especially given the film’s psychedelic cinematography. Lucy becomes a character similar to the savior-like “star child” Dr. Dave Bowman (Keir Dullea) is transformed into at the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey; during Lucy’s end credits (which, remarkably, include the names of every musician who contributed to the movie’s soundtrack) the lyrics of a song are about a “messiah.” As previously indicated, Besson’s special effects are reminiscent of Kubrick’s as Dullea’s astronaut soars throughout the solar system (although Lucy I is sans monoliths and Richard Strauss’ Thus Spake Zarathustra).

Besson has previously helmed action packed flicks such as Nikita (about a female assassin) and unfortunately, Lucy is full of screeching car chases and blazing gunplay. Although Besson has demonstrated a penchant for violent films, this may be intended as box office insurance to lure the multiplex and male adolescent crowds to buy tickets and popcorn. Given its sidewalk cafes, bookstalls and the like, Paris is the world’s worst city for driving at high speed on the streets (especially since this is the first time Lucy has ever driven a car, as she tells detective Pierre Del Rio, played by Cairo-born Amr Waked). Alas, poor Yorick, Besson should leave the mindless explosions to lesser helmers like Michael Bay. They intrude on and mar what could have been a more philosophical sci-fi cinematic treatise on the nature of knowledge (which, as Lucy shows, is flawed if it’s not accompanied by compassion -- therein lies true wisdom). 

The movie’s negative depictions of Asians also leaves much to be desired.  

Johansson is fine as the CPH4-amped up action star and genius who uses 100 percent of her brain power. Morgan Freeman co-stars as a scientist and it’s fun to see Danish actor Pilou Asbæk -- who plays the troubled spin doctor in the superb Borgen TV series about Denmark’s first woman prime minister and co-starred in the 2012 movie, A Hijacking -- in a smarmy cameo role as Lucy opens. Lucy is for fans of Johansson, female action parts, sci fi and, above all, visionary cinema that imaginatively uses the attributes of the motion picture medium to the max.   





STAGE REVIEW: WE WILL ROCK YOU

Galileo Figaro (Brian Justin Crum) in We Will Rock You. Photo by Paul Kolnik.

A night at the musical

By Ed Rampell

This musical is a sheer delight for lovers of the British band Queen in particular and of classic rock in general. Like Mamma Mia!, which features Abba’s disco music, We Will Rock You creates a story to rather cleverly wrap around Queen’s songs. However, director Ben Elton’s book conjures and weaves a saga far more imaginative than Mamma Mia’s! rather trite one. We Will Rock You is imaginatively set in a dystopian future, where instead of book burning, “Globalsoft’s” totalitarian state led by Big Sister Killer Queen (the hilarious Jacqueline B. Arnold) has -- horror of horrors! -- banned rock ‘n’ roll music!

Somehow, although it’s never explained why or how, classic rock songs and lyrics filter through the mind of a teenager called Galileo Figaro (Brian Justin Crum), who teams up with another social misfit he dubs Saramouche (Ruby Lewis). They make common cause with keepers of the flame, the Bohemians -- aged outsiders who remember rock and the day the music died -- in their crusade and rebellion to revive, rehabilitate and resurrect rock ‘n’ roll. (The musical playfully panders to its audience, many of them hailing from the generation that came of age during Queen’s heyday and are roughly the same age as the Bohemians.)

No Brechtian agitprop play, We Will Rock You soft peddles its anti-censorship, antifascist pop politics, which are mostly played for laughs in this rather humorous show. There’s even a droll torture scene that makes witty use of Queen’s “Flash Gordon” number.

The two-acter has a multimedia vibe and two-level stylish set with an eight-piece orchestra sporting dual drum sets, belting out the live tunes from above. Architect Mark Fisher is the original production designer and video director, with Arlene Phillips’ frenetic choreography rousingly hoofed by a large cast accompanied by fab singing. At the Bohemians’ lair is what’s presumably a replica of the Freddie Mercury statue located near the Charlie Chaplin statue at Switzerland’s Lake Geneva. (Here’s the fun fact of the day: According to a plaque on that Swiss sculpture, four octave Freddie Mercury was actually born in Zanzibar.)

There’s just one flaw in this overwhelmingly enjoyable production: While the Globalsoft dictators suppress rock, they themselves perform rock ‘n’ roll numbers, which sort of undercuts their point. But this is a mere quibble: A splendid time was had by all as the musical transformed the Ahmanson into a joyous Radio Ga-Ga-palooza. To paraphrase that enlightened philosopher Jerry Lewis: “You’re only young once, but you can stay immature forever.”

Now, here are two hints from your humble reviewer to enhance your theatergoing experience to the fullest: See/hear this merry madcap melodious musical with a kindred spirit who enjoys Queen music and having a good time. And although this critic is loathe to disclose spoiler alerts, let’s just say that when you think the play is over, do not depart, Dear Reader. Stay put for a grand finale that’s, well, sure to rock you!


We Will Rock You runs through Aug. 24 at the Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles, CA 90012. For more info: Queen (213)628-2772.



Thursday, July 17, 2014

FILM REVIEW: PLANES FIRE & RESCUE

A scene from Planes: Fire & Rescue.
Newcomer on the job

By John Esther

Before the opening credits roll in director Bobs Gannaway's Planes: Fire & Rescue, Disney dedicates the movie "To the courageous firefighters throughout the world who risk their lives to save the lives of others." It is a nice, well deserved gesture and it tells you immediately where the heart of this film beats. 

The follow up to last year's Planes, this animated feature follows the highs and lows -- literally and metaphorically -- of Dusty Crophopper (voice by Dane Cook), a plane who is about to fly into the winds of change.

Having just won another aerial race, Dusty is out training for an upcoming local race when his health comes crashing down. Told that he can never race again, Dusty goes out at night and pushes himself to the point of collapse, not only causing more harm to himself, but damage to his community at large. (Was he drunk on oil?)

In order to redeem himself and save his community, Dusty must get certified as an aerial firefighter. 

Up until this point, audiences may wonder where in the world Planes: Fire & Rescue is taking place. There are no humans in the story. Only cars, trucks, trains, planes, and other vehicles (basically Disney merchandise to be purchased) living in a world free of smog, pollution or oil spills. And these vehicles, except one mentioned in a side-of-the-mouth quip, seem to run on gas. Of course, they do speak American English. 

This otherworldly notion is dispersed when Dusty heads across the land to Yosemite, Earth. It is here Dusty will train under the tutelage of Blade (voice by Ed Harris) and with the help of friendly co-firefighters, including a forward-thinking female, Lil' Dipper (voice by Julie Bowen), who, along with Blade, Windlifter (voice by West Studi), are the most entertaining character in Planes: Fire & Rescue. 

No sooner has Dusty arrived a fire alarm is set off, sending the firefighting crew deep into the forest. Immediately the team sets out with brilliant precision: planes swoop in, pick up water and drop it on the fire, while utility vehicles descend in parachutes to the ground where they will do their work with the precision of machines, but with the personalities of toys similar to the ones given to them by imaginative children. It is a heroic coordination with no time to lose.  

To get, or amp, adults in this firefighting scene, the filmmakers set it to AC/DC's "Thunderstruck." As rocking and rolling as "Thunderstruck" may be, lyrically speaking, "Thunderstruck" has just about much correlation to the action taking place in the movie as Kajagoogoo's "Too Shy," Gang of Four's "Better him than Me" or Beyonce Knowles' "Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)." If someone asked me, Kansas' "Fighting Fire with Fire," Ultravox's "One Small Day" or Muse's "Knights of Cydonia" would have been more germane, but nobody asked. Actually, Leftfield's "Open Up" comes to mind when considering such pedestrian pandering. Anyway, it is an emotionally charged, intellectually lethargic musical choice. Unfortunately, it is the best song you will hear in Planes: Fire & Rescue. Plus, Mark Mancina's score is worse than the individual songs.

During his initial entry into firefighting it becomes clear Dusty has a lot to learn and to explain to the real firefighters. His ego and his poor health are both a detriment and a danger to himself and the team. Yet he is too arrogant to defer to his betters. Naturally, I mean formulaically, the protagonist will have to jump through hoops of fire before he can become a hero. 

Not only do the government-run, taxpayer-supporting firefighters have the burden of training Dusty, they now have a bigger problem with Cad Spinner (voice by John Michael Higgens), a park superintendent acting more like real estate developer than a ranger. Driven by ambition, Cad diverts firefighter funds to his new restoration project. The Grand Fusel Lodge is about to open and the ambitious, avarice and authoritarian Cad wants to impress the visiting Secretary of the Interior (voice by Fred Willard). And if the forest burns before his retreat, that is just the cost of doing business. 

Now, it does not take a Maru (voice by Curtis Armstrong), to figure out and fix the conclusion of the movie. Co-screenwriters Gannaway and Jeffrey M. Howard are not going to tail and spin this elementary narrative into a tragedy. 

Nonetheless, for a film geared toward smaller children -- the MPAA gave the film a PG rating for "Action and Some Peril" -- Planes: Fire & Rescue is rather intense for younger viewers. Some of the action is fast and there are several scenes where the smoke lingers on, not knowing if our products, I mean protagonists, of the movie, have survived. As one young kid said aloud at the all-Media screening, "What happened? I don't like this movie"; perhaps expressing the sentiments of others. There was adult laughter in response. 

Since Disney insists on trying to please both children and parents in these family-friendly ventures, there are obviously some jokes, not the token flatulence ones of course, that will mean nothing to the kids. Lil' Dipper's high-jinks are for those whose hormones have already kicked in. The hybrid car joke about "never heard it coming" will be a "zoom" for the typical kid. And the "CHoPs" metanarrative in the movie, a pastiche of the TV series, CHiPs -- both featuring Erik Estrada -- puzzled the many a kinder eyes and ears during the aforementioned screening. 

This is not to suggest that storytelling for different audience ages (or, at least maturity) is a bad thing. Family members may leave the theater talking to other family members about what he or she took from the movie, which may offer different perspectives on the same text. (Yes, it is extremely doubtful Disney has such intellectual intentions. So called "family films" are geared toward the maximum possible ticket buyers.)

However, there is one thing everyone should be able to take from the film: firefighters do some very important and dangerous work. Even though the characters in Planes: Fire & Rescue are made of metal, that is clear at the movie's most elementary level. 

Planes: Fire & Rescue is available in 3D. 







Monday, July 14, 2014

OUTFEST 2014: SARAH PREFERS TO RUN

Sarah (Sophie Desmarais) in Sophie Prefers to Run.

That running and loneliness thing

By Miranda Inganni

Sarah (Sophie Desmarais) doesn’t just prefer to run, the 20-year-old lives to run in director Chloe Robichaud’s feature film debut, Sarah Prefers to Run.

Sarah’s mother (Hélène Florent) opposes her daughter’s plans on moving to Montreal to run at McGill University, pointing out that running will not pay the bills. Fortunately for Sarah, her coworker, Antoine (Jean-Sébastien Courchesne), has enough money to get both of them to Montreal and into an apartment. However, once there Antoine suggests they marry to take advantage of government grants. Affable Antoine gets more domestic and comfortable with his roommate/wife, but Sarah seems oblivious and continues to focus on running. 

One of her teammates, Zoey (Geneviève Boivin-Roussy), catches Sarah’s eye and a slightly awkward friendship begins. Once Sarah begins to explore, or at least acknowledge, her sexuality, it becomes clear that she is not running toward anything, but rather away from herself. Things are further complicated when Sarah develops a heart condition, but will it stop her from running?


Desmarais does an exceptional job portraying the titular character in all of her youthful innocence cum lack of mindfulness. Sarah seems so removed from everything other than running. She is obsessively focused, even to the potential detriment to her health. 

Robichaud creates an ambiance of dullness for Sarah to live in, replete with a beige- gray color scheme and little dialogue. Sarah Prefers to Run is more of a character study than a typical dramatic narrative, but Sarah (well acted by Desmarais) is an interesting enough character to take a close look at as she follows the course of her life.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

OUTFEST 2014: BFFS

A scene from BFFs. 
Friends and lovers

By Miranda Inganni

When Kat (Tara Karsian) receives an all-expense paid trip to a retreat entitled Closer to Closeness, Kat and her best friend Samantha (Andrea Grano) cannot pass up the offer. The only catch is that it is a couples retreat and both ladies are single.  Or are they?

Posing as a lesbian couple at the retreat, Kat and Samantha work through various group sessions – performing trust and communication exercises with the rest of the couples – in order to take advantage of the beautiful scenery, fabulous food and fun of this free weekend getaway. But somewhere between the ropes course and an exercise in self-expression, the two friends realize that they might have more than a friendship. 

Of course, this is not that surprising. How often do we hear of someone describing their partner as their “best friend?” The difference being that usually those couples already know about their sexual orientation.

BFFs stars Karsian and Grano co-wrote and produced this exceptionally well written and acted film. Directed by Andrew Putschoegl, and with help from an excellent supporting cast -- including Jenny O’Hara, Pat Carroll, Richard Moll, Sigrid Thornton, Sean Maher, among many others --  BBFs explores the answers to pesky questions such as what is important in a friendship and how is that different in a romantic relationship? Karsian and Grano have exceptional chemistry with each other. Between that, the witty writing and massive talent of the supporting cast, BFFs is a sharp-tonged, slyly subversive exploration of love.



STAGE REVIEW: ROMEO AND JULIET

A scene from Romeo and Juliet.

1000

By Ed Rampell

“O Romeo, Romeo! Wherefore art thou, Romeo?” Why, along with his gal pal Juliet, he’s at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion through Sunday, July 13, as the National Ballet of Canada presents Sergei Prokofiev’s version of Romeo and Juliet. Alexei Ratmansky, the Bolshoi Ballet’s former artistic director, choreographed this elegant production that renders William Shakespeare’s immortal play about doomed young lovers into the idiom of dance and music, pure sight and sound.

As we celebrate the 450th birthday of the Bard who is best known for his plots and arguably (to quote Polonius in Hamlet) “this above all else” his dialogue, it’s intriguing to encounter a Shakespearean experience minus a single spoken line. Can one appreciate the Stratford-upon-Avon dramatist’s work without one word uttered? Is the text as meaningful without any of Will’s indelible dialogue, such as Mercutio’s curse: “A plague upon both your houses”? (Contrary to popular belief, Romeo’s buddy was not referring to the Democratic and Republican parties, but rather to those warring families, the Capulets and Montagues, from whence our title characters sprang.)

The characters and the entire story are expressed through Prokofiev’s music, Ratmansky’s gravity-defying choreo, Jennifer Tipton’s lighting, as well as by Richard Hudson’s set and costume design, which are all important, as they enhance a sense of time (the Renaissance) and place (“fair Verona”). Another important element that tends to be overlooked amidst ballet’s Balanchine- and Nijinsky-like aeronautics is acting. Since there is no spoken dialogue this acting is most akin to that of the cinema prior to talkies, when thespians had to use facial expressions, body movements and the like to convey what they couldn’t by voicing lines. (Notice, Dear Reader, that I didn’t say “silent films,” because many of those early movies were accompanied by piano and even orchestras -- often with music specifically composed for particular pictures. And given Prokofiev’s sonorous score, the ballet is anything but silent.)

Although not as essential as their dancing per se, on opening night the acting by Moscow-born Elena Lobsanova and Quebec-born Guillaume Côté as Shakespeare’s “star-crossed lovers” (other dancers alternate in the Juliet and Romeo roles) was vital in conveying the drama’s romanticism and adolescent angst (worthy of a WB series, by the way). The premiere’s best acting was by Poland-born Piotr Stanczyk as the mercurial, merry Mercutio of the Montagues. His clowning around (Mercutio is surely one of those people who doesn’t know when to quit kidding or enough is enough) is as significant to Stanczyk’s part as is his deft, daft dancing. Not to mention the scene-stealing Stanczyk’s swordplay, as Mercutio crosses blades with the Capulet clan’s menacing McGee Maddox as Tybalt, the quintessential character when it comes to not quite getting the joke. (Both Stanczyk and Maddox alternate in the roles with other performers, but reprise their parts on the evening of July 12.)    

Naturally, the choreography elevates and heightens the drama. When the title characters meet at a masked ball in the Capulets’ household, it’s interesting to see the ballet version of this initial encounter and to compare it with the brilliantly lensed scene in the school gym in 1961’s West Side Story, where all time and space stops as Tony just meets a girl named Maria in that latter day adaptation of Romeo and Juliet set in New York City. When she leaps through the air to alight upon Romeo’s shoulders or back, 27-ish year old Elena Lobsanova’s Juliet seems to be in flight. The two lovers look like birds taking wing in an almost aerial pas de deux in her bedroom, with its four-poster bed and canopy -- an especially lyrical evocation of lovemaking’s raptures. 

From the vantage point of my center row seats in the orchestra, Lobsanova and Côté also looked like teenagers, which seems age appropriate per Shakespeare’s text. The youthfulness of 18-year-old Leonard Whiting and 17-year-old Olivia Hussey helped make Franco Zeffirelli’s 1968 film version so refreshing and memorable, whereas in 1936, 43-year-old Leslie Howard and 34-year-old Norma Shearer essayed the roles in George Cukor’s screen version of  Romeo and Juliet -- with a 54-year-old John Barrymore as Mercutio!)

Prokofiev’s superb score, which he’d composed by 1935, is ably performed by an orchestra consisting of local musicians and conducted by the National Ballet of Canada’s music director and principal conductor, David Briskin. Audiences will likely recognize the dissonant "Dance of the Knights", which has been used in movies such as Caligula and TV shows like The Simpsons and the British reality series, The Apprentice. This piece, also known as “Montagues and Capulets”, conjures a mood of foreboding musically expressed through the strings playing pianissimo or softly, contrasted by the woodwinds and horns blowing fortissimo. Prokofiev has a very strong visual sense which served him well in composing music for ballet -- shortly after creating Romeo and Juliet’s sonic score he joined with that other Sergei (Eisenstein) to compose the score for the 1938 epic, Alexander Nevsky. The composer and director closely collaborated on this movie, with Prokofiev composing notes to accompany Eisenstein’s frames of film.

Speaking of which, the National Ballet of Canada production, overseen by artistic director Karen Kain, uses cinematic sleight of hand. Not only in the rapid scene changes but in what is a clever use of split screen, which, minus Shakespeare’s dialogue, is intended to explain how Friar Lawrence’s (Peter Ottmann alternates in this role with Kevin Bowles) potions will affect Juliet. Alas  poor sweet Juliet and her beloved Romeo experience what is probably the stage’s biggest mix up, and their poor timing results in… But you know how the rest of it goes, don’t you dear reader?

I have one minor complaint: the famous balcony scene actually does not feature a balcony per se, but merely Juliet at her window, as the two say sweet nothings to one another. At least Tony and Maria got a fire escape in West Side Story! But this is a mere quibble that should not deter viewers from strapping on their ballet shoes and dancing down to the Music Center while they still can to experience what is otherwise a superb, effervescent production of the Bard’s classic (by way of Prokofiev) with its eternal message: Make love, not war.

Romeo and Juliet runs through tomorrow at LA Opera at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave. For more info: 2130-72-8001; www.laopera.com.


Thursday, July 10, 2014

OUTFEST 2014: LIFE PARTNERS

A scene from Life Partners.
Single out

By Miranda Inganni

The opening night film at this year's Outfest Los Angeles LGBT Film Festival, Life Partners tells the somewhat typical story of the trials and tribulations of two best friends when love comes between them. The main difference between this and any other Rom-Com with a similar premise is that one of the friends is a lesbian.
Uptight Paige (Gillian Jacobs) is an environmental lawyer, who is best friends with free spirited Sasha (Leighton Meester). The girls have great times gallivanting about Pride parades and sharing cocktails with their eclectic group of gal pals. That is until handsome and successful Doctor Tim (Adam Brody, Meester's husband off screen) enters the picture.
Hold up. Here’s where I have a slight problem. I just referred to the two leads as girls. The characters are both 29 years old, not little girls, but they often act so childish that it is hard to believe that Paige owns a home or that either is capable of being a fully formed woman. But perhaps that is part of the story.
It is often a tricky transition for young women to go from having best girl-friends to having serious romantic relationships. Figuring out how to divide one’s time between a new lover and an old friend can be challenging. Is there a “correct” way to mature? Does it mean following one’s dreams or a preconceived notion of what exactly mature life is supposed to be? Paige and Sasha tackle these issues from opposite ends of the spectrum. As Paige slides into domestic comfortability with Tim, Sasha finds herself falling for increasingly immature women (who all still live at home). No longer can Paige and Sasha spend the night at the other’s house on a whim (usually because they are too tipsy to drive to their own abode). And gone are the weekly sessions of watching Top Model while drinking wine and quipping at the TV.
But both characters come to a kind of maturity during the course of Life Partners and realize the strength of what their friendship meant to them.

Co-written by Joni Lefkowitz and Susana Fogel, Life Partners is Fogels’ feature directorial debut. The film is an adaptation of a play the two wrote with the same name based on their friendship. The entire cast is chock full of talent --with excellently written and acted supporting characters played by the likes of Gabourey Sidibe, Greer Grammer, Kate McKinnon, Beth Dover and Abby Elliott, among others. It’s also interesting to see real life husband and wife duo of Brody and Meester play against eachother.