Friday, September 14, 2012

Movie Review - Elles

Elles (2012)
Starring Juliette Binoche, Anaïs Demoustier, Joanna Kulig, and Louis-Do de Lencquesaing
Directed by Malgorzata Szumowska
***This film is currently streaming on Netflix***

I guess Elles is supposed to be a provocative female-centric view of sexuality, but when you look beyond the graphic sex scenes, there's an odd story that I just can't comprehend.  Magazine columnist Anne (Juliette Binoche) has been doing research on college students willingly turning to prostitution in order to earn money to both go to school and make a decent living.  We join her for a day in her life as her deadline is fast approaching and she remembers back to her interviews with the French-born Charlotte (Anaïs Demoustier) and the Polish Alicja (Joanna Kulig).  As she remembers the accounts of some of the girls' escapades (which we see in explicit detail...although with surprisingly less nudity than I expected given the subject matter), Anne realizes that neither girl really has any regrets with their lives.  Sure, it has caused some tension with boyfriends and family, but their lives at the moment are okay.

This realization makes Anne ponder that her "suburban" lifestyle as a wife and mother is binding her to a more puritan mindset than she'd maybe like.  As she burns her hand with her wedding ring or slices her ring finger while doing the "wifely duty" of preparing a meal for her husband (Louis-Do de Lencquesaing) and his boss, the symbolism of "marriage" equaling "pain" couldn't be more obvious.  In that regard, I just really didn't grasp what exactly I was supposed to be feeling after I finished watching director and co-writer Malgorzata Szumowska's film.  Is the freedom of prostitution supposed to be an ideal situation for a woman?  Is marriage a prison sentence?  Or is there an in-between that's more balanced and suitable?  Are the clients of a prostitute and the husbands in a marriage the equivalent in that they have control over the women in their lives?  And are women simply fooling themselves into thinking they're anything other than pawns of men, constantly dependent on them to maintain any type of lifestyle?

In the end, what I came away with was utter confusion.  I didn't know what Elles wanted me to feel after watching it.  The performances are fine (I particularly like Anaïs Demoustier whose character is given a bit more heft than her Polish counterpart), but they aren't spectacular enough to warrant a rave.

I will admit that as a guy, the only reason I even gave this a try was because of the subject matter.  A French film with an NC-17 rating has to equal nudity...and who doesn't want to watch that?  [Call me a sexist pig if you must, but I must also admit that this wasn't simply an "out of the blue" choice...I had read about it when it came to local arthouse, but didn't find the premise interesting enough to actually pay for it.]  But then when it finished, I couldn't help but think that it's a movie that has high aspirations of being something important and provocative (both sexually and intellectually), but fails to communicate its true intentions in any manner.

The RyMickey Rating:  C-

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Movie Review - Casa de mi Padre

Casa de mi Padre (2012)
Starring Will Ferrell, Gael García Bernal, Diego Luna, Genesis Rodriguez, and Nick Offerman
Directed by Matt Piedmont

Will Ferrell teamed up with some of his buddies from the website Funny or Die to craft Casa de mi Padre, a comedic homage to cheesy Mexican cinema.  If they learned anything from this venture, it should be that the crew at the oftentimes successfully hilarious website (just check out this Regis Philbin-Zooey Deschanel recent creation) should stick with three minute sketches rather than ninety minute movies.

Told nearly completely in Spanish with subtitles, Ferrell is Armando, the less respected son of rancher Miguel Ernesto (Pedro Armendariz, Jr.).  Always unfavorably compared to his more successful brother Raul (Diego Luna), Armando spends his days riding his horse and hanging out with his buddies, trying to avoid the constant stream of negativity he receives from his father.  When Raul returns home with the news that he is going to wed the lovely Sonia (Genesis Rodriguez), Armando becomes even more dejected seeing how much the impending nuptials have pleased his father.  However, Armando soon discovers that Raul is a rising kingpin in the Mexican drug industry and as he uncovers more of his brother's secrets, he begins to fall for Sonia who desperately longs to break away from the dangerous life led by her fiancé.

This melodrama is attempted to be played for laughs, but I'm not sure I chuckled even once during this thing.  It is honestly quite painful to sit through.  I almost expected Casa de mi Padre to be hammier and sillier, but despite the purposeful overacting, painted backdrops, and stuffed mountain lions, I couldn't help but think I should've been being constantly barraged with ridiculousness.  Instead, I'd find more laughs watching five minutes of a bad telenovela on Telemundo.

As a side note: poor Genesis Rodriguez stuck in two absolutely awful movies released in 2012 -- this and Man on a Ledge.  She's beautiful to look at and is one of the better parts of both of these very disappointing movies.

The RyMickey Rating:  D-

Monday, September 10, 2012

Theater Review - Nice Work If You Can Get It

Nice Work If You Can Get It
Music and Lyrics by George Gershwin and Ira Gershwin
Book by Joe DiPietro
Directed by Kathleen Marshall
Where: Imperial Theatre, New York City, NY
When:  September 5, 2012, 8pm

Were I thirty years older, I may have been laughing as hard as the lady behind me, but seeing as how I am not yet sixty, Nice Work If You Can Get It is, to me, a tired Broadway trifle that shoehorns some lovely George and Ira Gershwin tunes into a story that is unworthy of their presence.  Songs in a musical exist as an extension of a character's personality or a way of furthering plot, but they absolutely must relate in some way to the overarching story.  Here, we get none of that with playwright Joe DiPietro simply tossing in classics like the title number, "Someone to Watch Over Me," "Let's Call the Whole Thing Off," or "S'Wonderful" seemingly at random, failing to have these oftentimes emotion-filled songs create any meaningful impact on the plot.  Ultimately, this dooms the musical and is where Nice Work falters the most.

The plot is a throwaway, but I appreciate the homage to 1930s movies/radio shows/Broadway that it strives to achieve.  Multi-millionaire playboy Jimmy Winter (Matthew Broderick...more on him later) is about to be married for the fourth time -- this time to impressionistic dancer Eileen Evergreen (Jennifer Laura Thompson).  After a drunken binge one evening in a speakeasy (for, you see, we are in the Prohibition Era), he runs into Billie Bendix (Kelli O'Hara...more on her later as well), a bootlegger who wears pants and a cap (which lets us know she's tough as nails with a likely heart of gold to match) to whom he reveals that he's really only marrying Eileen because it will make him look responsible to his mother who will then bequeath him the extensive family fortune.  While he tells his story, Jimmy reveals to Billie that he owns a huge mansion in Long Island that he rarely uses and Billie sees this as the perfect location to store her crew's supply of illegal booze from the police.  In the play's next two hours, we get multiple cases of mistaken identity, several instances of awkwardly newfound romance, and a few dance numbers thrown at us all of which are pleasant, but not quite enough to sustain the running time especially since the songs don't do a darn thing to forward the plot.

In fact, the songs that are the most successful end up being the throwaway numbers which utilize some of the lesser known songs in the Gershwins' catalog.  When the hoity-toity Eileen lounges in a bathtub and begins singing about how "Delishious" she is, a bevy of bathing beauties climb out of the same tub to dance with her and extol her great virtues -- a truly creative moment and one of the few successful times that a song tells us exactly what it needs to in regards to a character.  Or take Act II's "Looking for a Boy" sung by Duchess Estonia Dulworth (Judy Kaye) who, heretofore, has been the very definition of uppity, pompous, and prim.   When she unknowingly becomes intoxicated, the typically bluesy (and perhaps sultry) Gershwin number becomes a literal "swinging from the chandelier" moment that is a true showstopper and the obvious moment that single-handedly won Ms. Kaye this year's Best Supporting Actress Tony.

But the problem is that when the musical's main characters deign to burst into song, their numbers never hit home in the way they do for the secondary characters.  It's not Matthew Broderick or Kelli O'Hara's fault either, both of whom I couldn't help but think were truly enjoying their time spent onstage together.  Although neither were given the best plotlines, they both seemed to be be having a ball during their scenes together despite performing eight times a week.  Unfortunately, this evident genial rapport doesn't really translate to chemistry which I think is more a fault of their characters than the actors themselves.

I've seen Ms. O'Hara before in the wonderful South Pacific (which has greatly improved in my memory as time passes) and she has a lovely voice that simply isn't showcased to its best effect here.  She has a few nice numbers -- particularly when she's permitted to let her comedic side show like in the hilarious bedroom romp "Treat Me Rough" -- but her character of Billie simply doesn't have any substance for her to latch onto.  Similarly, Broderick's playboy character is one-note and the actor decides to play him with an oddly side-mouthed almost-lisp which faded in and out when he saw fit.  Despite that annoying tic, I had read several reviews that said the actor seemed to be phoning this role in, and while he certainly wasn't a revelation, he is serviceable in the part with an adequate voice (that worked well with the old standards that don't require a ton of belting to be successful) and a naturalness to his dancing that, while not well honed, was oddly pleasant to watch.  [Funnily enough, I was kind of reminded when watching Broderick of my long-ago high school production of Bye Bye me, Broderick was having fun, but likely realized he's not the best singer and dancer in the land.]

However, in the end, this musical is just an excuse to wrap some semblance of a story around a group of Gershwin songs.  There's no substance to the plot or heft to the characters.  Everyone simply trudges along to the show's inevitable ending which will undoubtedly lead to a standing ovation from the crowd.  [...Which is another irksome quality of theater nowadays -- I'm all for applauding at the end of a show even if you didn't care for it just to show respect to the actors, but not every single production deserves a standing ovation....You're diluting what a standing O really should stand for...End of Soapbox Rant...]  Nice Work If You Can Get It is pleasant, but it's simply not very good and "pleasant" just doesn't cut it when you're shelling out money to see a Broadway production.

Sunday, September 09, 2012

Theater Review - Peter and the Starcatcher

Peter and the Starcatcher
Written by Rick Elise
Directed by Roger Rees and Alex Timbers
Where: Brooks Atkinson Theater, New York City, NY
When: Wednesday, September 5, 2pm

There is something revelatory and invigorating in watching the troupe of twelve actors in Broadway's Peter and Starcatcher tell a story.  We feel as if we've been transported back in time and are witnessing storytelling in its most basic form.  With some ropes, a pineapple, two small model ships, and very few other props, a prequel to J.M. Barrie's beloved classic Peter Pan is acted out in front of our very eyes and done so in such a manner that, with the exception of some brilliant lighting techniques, could have been done centuries ago.  Yet, there is a freshness and wonderful sense of ingenuity that feels more unique and exciting than some of the technological advances that currently grace the Broadway stage (I'm looking at you, Spiderman: Turn Off the Dark).

As our tale begins, we meet young teen Molly (played quite believably by twenty-something Celia Keenan-Bolger) and her father Lord Aster (Rick Holmes) as they embark on a sailing trip for Her Royal Majesty Queen Victoria.  Their job: deposit a chest filled with an secret, powerful item into the deep blue sea -- a place no one can ever access it.  Through a series of unfortunate events, Molly and her father find themselves on separate ships both of which harbor folks who will do all that they can to get their hands on this secret case, including the infamous pirate Black Stache (Matthew Saldívar).  Along the way, Molly meets three orphaned boys who attempt to help her both reunite with her father and prevent the Queen's cargo from being confiscated.

While Act I of Peter and the Starcatcher takes place on ships, Act II shifts to the tropical island of Rundoon, and despite the set utilizing minimal backdrops and, as mentioned above, very little props, you are always well aware of where you are in the story and what is going on.  The actors rely on sounds, lighting, and props such as ropes in order to convey everything that we need to know.  Humans become actual doors that are opened/pushed aside to reveal strange goings-on inside the rooms of the pirate ship.  Ropes are manipulated to become the small confines of a cramped chamber that houses both Molly and her nanny, Mrs. Bumbrake (Arnie Burton).  These ingenious techniques may not sound like much on paper and they are, in fact, very difficult to describe, but they work so fluidly and effortlessly and they convey exactly what they need to in order to make the show work.

Of course, part of the reason for the success is the brilliance of the acting ensemble.  Not only must they act out their roles, but they are essentially putting on a well-choreographed quickstep every night the likes of which you rarely see on a stage.  Celia Keenan-Bolger's Molly is perhaps the figure around which the story revolves and as the lone female in the group, she doesn't let the boys upstage her, blending in perfectly with the cast.  She's the perfect amount of precociousness, intelligence and wide-eyed wonder combining to create a wonderful character who is a pleasure to follow on her journey.

While Molly is very much the key figure of Act I, Act II shifts focus to one of the orphaned "lost" boys who, until this second act has remained nameless.  However, as Act II unfurls, Boy picks up the name of Peter and we slowly see this solemn boy's transformation into J.M. Barrie's most famous character.  Peter is played by Adam Chanler-Berat and, rather surprisingly, he's the weak link in both the story and the cast.  Chandler-Berat's Peter is quiet, subdued, and oddly wimpy -- nothing like the outwardly joyful and boisterous Pan we're used to seeing.  Granted, I understand this is the backstory that made Peter into the "Boy Who Never Wants to Grow Up," but he's so morose here that the character is too much of a downer amidst the whimsy elsewhere.  I'm sure Chanler-Berat is simply playing this dull character the way it was written, but his too-quiet line deliveries coupled with his oddly depressing interpretation make Act II a tiny bit of a letdown.  I understand that Boy's transformation into Peter is the emotional crux of the story and his journey from an abused orphan to ebullient youth is where the playwright roots the play's heart, but this solemn plotline stands in such strong contrast to the rest of the play (including an uproarious Act II opening song featuring the cast as mermaids) that it almost comes as too much of a shock to the system to deliver the full impact likely meant by the author.

I realize that the whole previous paragraph comes off as quite a disappointment, but the play overall is a joyous treat to watch.  And, shockingly, I've gone through this entire review only once mentioning the play's over-the-top and scenery-chewing villain -- Black Stache.  Played by Matthew Saldívar with gusto, the precursor to Captain Hook is, as one of my fellow theatergoers mentioned, Monty Python-esque in its sheer absurdity, yet the playwright and director manage to make this larger-than-life character mesh incredibly well with the rest of the cast.

Peter and the Starcatcher truly is a thrillingly "low-budget" piece of theater that really makes you appreciate what a talented group of actors and an incredibly adept director can do with very little other than their natural innate talents.  Mixing humor, drama, and a few cleverly placed original songs (which I failed to mention other than in passing, but added quite a bit to the affair), there is a reason this was the most Tony-nominated American play ever and its five Tony wins were likely well deserved.