Saturday, July 06, 2024

FILM: Robot Dreams

The animated feature Robot Dreams is an unexpectedly beautiful story about companionship, relationships, and life’s unexpected turns. The story is told without any dialogue, just expressively drawn anthropomorphic animal (and robot) characters set in a gorgeously drawn New York City. The artistry of the drawing is just a parade of delight, and the story is completely engaging for the whole 1:40 run. The uncliché ending left me pondering what layers of metaphor and worthy life lessons lay beneath the charming and earnest story I enjoyed so much.

Saturday, June 29, 2024

STAGE: A Strange Loop

A Strange Loop is, well, a strange loop indeed. This meta-musical is a play about a fat gay black writer trying to write a play about a fat gay black writer trying to write a play about … well, you get the idea. Before A Strange Loop, one could scarcely imagine how many internalized phobias, how much baggage a fat gay black theatre-geek wannabe writer might be carrying around. But now you don’t have to, because this play shows you all the baggage in explicit (sometimes painfully explicit) vivid detail, leavened by energetic music and clever funny lyrics. The protagonist, called Usher, lives in Queens and works as an usher for The Lion King on Broadway. The six other actors on stage are all shape-shifting meta-characters, acting out various scenarios from Usher’s colorful imagination. Some of these meta-characters are completely abstract (“Good morning, internalized self-loathing”). Other scenes illustrate imagined conversations with his family (in which his meta-father is called Mufasa and his meta-mother Sarabi, the names of Simba’s lion parents from The Lion King), showing us the disappointment of his father, his parents’ fears of HIV, and the prayers of his mother that Usher’s play will be some mix of gospel and a Tyler Perry show. (It’s quite a scene when that comes to life in his head.) This poor guy is certainly dealing with a lot of shit when even his fantasies end up disappointing and demeaning him. It’s a strange combination of heaviness with music and comedy that could only work in theatre. It is a loop in that Usher ends where he begins, wondering how his play will end, none of his issues really resolved, except that we’ve all watched him explore all his issues in his head, a communal theatrical therapy session. It was strange being made to laugh as this guy is baring his inner demons. In the end, it was provocatively entertaining, there were very talented performers on stage, and I was glad I saw it.

Sunday, June 23, 2024

FILM: Ghostlight

 The beauty of Shakespeare’s works is that they are so much a part of our culture that they can be adapted and translated in all manner of creative ways. The film Ghostlight gives us a unique new spin on Romeo & Juliet, not so much as an adaptation of the play, but a story in which a community theatre production of the play helps a family work through deep emotional issues in unexpected ways. Shakespeare as therapy. The film unfolds the story deftly, at first just introducing us to Dan, a generally mild-mannered construction worker who shows a bolt of anger that seems to come out of nowhere. And then we meet his daughter Daisy, who has even more serious anger management issues and is about to get thrown out of high school. Wife and mother Sharon is just trying to hold the family together. Through a random encounter, Dan gets pulled into a local community theatre group who needs someone for a reading they’re doing. That encounter turns out to be just what he needed at that moment, and through his improbable continuing involvement with this bunch of theatre geeks, the story of what this family is really going through, and how they might get through it, unfolds. The main actors are not big names, but they are a real-life father, mother, and daughter, and their chemistry in the film is great. If you with patient ears (and eyes) attend, you will be moved.

Saturday, June 01, 2024

FILM: Hit Man

Hit Man, while it doesn’t require quite the same level of seat belt as The Fall Guy, is also great summer fun. This is Richard Linklater (the “Before” trilogy, “School of Rock”, “Dazed and Confused”) taking on film noir romance-murder-mystery in New Orleans. Glen Powell stars as Gary Johnson, based on a real-life story of a mild-mannered college professor who moonlights for the police department as a fake hit man. Johnson turns out to be a master of disguise and acting, as he wears a wire to catch people attempting murder-by-hire. It’s fun to see this side-career evolve, but then things get really interesting when he ends up romantically involved with a woman who seeks out a hit man to take out her abusive husband. Lots of good classic noir twists (think Double Indemnity) with a good dose of steamy romance (think Body Heat), and add a pinch of philosophical reflection on whether people really can change.

Saturday, May 25, 2024

FILM: The Fall Guy

The Fall Guy is an unabashed petition to the Academy to finally create an Oscar for stunt work. Director David Leitch is not only familiar with action thrillers, having helmed films in the John Wick, Fast & Furious, and Deadpool franchises, but he’s also a stuntman himself, having been a stunt double for Brad Pitt and Matt Damon. This film does double-duty as a rom-com with Ryan Gosling and Emily Blunt (who wouldn’t cheer for them?) as well as an action thriller, all while highlighting the craft of stunt workers. This fun story follows Colt Seavers (Gosling), a veteran stunt man who flamed out years ago when a stunt went bad, and Jody Moreno (Blunt), a rising director working on an action-thriller-sci-fi-romance. The big name star of her new picture has suddenly gone AWOL in the middle of the shoot, and the producer recruits Seavers to find the star, while possibly rekindling their romance that also flamed out years ago. When Seavers’ quest to find the missing star suddenly turns into its own real-life action-thriller, with blockbuster stunts and some nice plot twists, the movie gets really good. As a romance, it’s a bit cheesy, but as an action thriller with a meta layer, it’s really good fun and you’ll be cheering in the suspenseful end of the film and the end of the film-within-the-film. And you’ll join the chorus clamoring for that new Oscar category for stunts.

Thursday, May 23, 2024

STAGE: The Rhythm of Mourning

Last Thursday, we saw The Rhythm of Mourning by the Bethesda Rep company. On a bare stage with minimal props, a strong cast, with some subtle but effective lighting, costume, and choreography, tells a powerful story about loss and grief. At first we see a woman wordlessly express mixed feelings about the space she has just entered. She is soon followed by a handful of other characters who are talking about her like a kind of Greek chorus, except that Greek choruses spoke with a unified voice, and these characters are arguing with each other. Before long, it becomes clear (if you hadn’t already noticed from the cast of character names in the program – Anxiety, Shame, Hope, Innocence, Anger, Denial, etc) that what we are witnessing is the grieving woman’s internal struggle, her mental wrestling made manifest as a whole cast of emotions and stages of grief. It’s a powerful device deployed to great effect in this production, as the audience slowly learns who she lost, and how, what that person meant to her, and why this place she has entered is so fraught, all while we watch her movingly move her way toward an uncertain closure. We caught it at the Bethesda Rep’s home stage, but there will be a half-dozen more performances through June as part of the Hollywood Fringe Festival. Check it out!

Saturday, May 18, 2024

OPERA: Turandot

On Saturday night, we had the pleasure of seeing the sumptuous production of Turandot at LA Opera. The magnificent cast is lead by house-shaking soprano Angela Meade, the honey-rich tenor Russell Thomas as Karaf, and vibrant soprano Guanqun Yu who moved us to tears as Liu. (We had enjoyed seeing both Russell Thomas and Guanqun Yu a few years ago here in Mozart's The Clemency of Titus.) And expanded chorus voiced the hopes and fears of the people of Peking sensationally (of course we're partial since we know so many choristers). The sets, designed by David Hockney, are fantastic. Opera is an extravagant art form, and this is one of the most extravagant of operas, filled with passion and passionately beautiful music. If you have a chance to see it, go!

Saturday, May 04, 2024

FILM: Challengers

Challengers, directed by Luca Guadagnino (Call Me By Your Name, among others), makes tennis look sexier than ever. Zendaya plays a fierce up-and-coming tennis star, Tashi Duncan, who ends up in a complicated relationship with two other young tennis stars Patrick (Josh O’Connor) and Art (Mike Faist). The two guys have come from prep schools and backgrounds of privilege, while she has definitely not, and has had to work hard for everything she has. “Tennis is a relationship,” Tashi says early in the film, and the game at its highest level of competition is inextricably intertwined in the relationships of these three, with the two guys, closest of friends, also competing for Tashi. It all takes some interesting twists and turns, with a riveting final match with so much riding on it. The strong performances are underscored by great sound engineering, where the effort of every swing and the impact of every contact of racket with ball are visceral with layers of emotion.

Saturday, April 27, 2024

FILM: We Grown Now

We Grown Now is the most heartwrenchingly beautiful film. Early on, one of the characters says that there’s a poetry in everything if you look for it, and this film proves that out. The film follows two young boys growing up in a sprawling public housing project in Chicago in 1992. It has the tender bittersweetness and nostalgic wonder of Stand By Me, the honest examination of Black American experience like A Raisin in the Sun, and some love for Chicago with a couple of winks at Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, but none of those comparisons captures it. Everything you might think of when you hear “public housing project” – struggling single-parent families, poorly maintained buildings, drug gangs, random shootings – is all there, not glossed over, but not the focus either, just the background for showing how someone can still see the stars through the cracks in the ceiling. During the credits of the film, there is a series of beautiful archival photos of people living in the Cabrini-Green housing project (since demolished) where this film was set, and I wonder if those were the starting point for writer-director Minhal Baig to imagine what life was like for those people in that place and time. I know it’s only April, but I’m ready to nominate this film for next year’s Oscars in nearly every category. The script is so fresh, original, authentic, and full of heart. The direction is absolute master class in what film should be about, tethered to cinemaphotography that is the most gorgeous visual poetry. The ensemble of actors are brilliant, making a compelling story of action and expression from this character-driven, slice-of-life script. I can’t remember the last time (if ever?) I thought that sound added so much to a film, but here sounds as simple as the drip of a leaky pipe add a rich dimension. And all enhanced by a subtle but powerful orchestral score. This is truly film-making at its best.

Saturday, March 30, 2024

FILM: Wicked Little Letters

In 1920 in the quaint English seaside town of Littlehampton, a curious scandal erupted when scores of townspeople started receiving nasty handwritten letters full of profanity to make the Edwardian mind explode. Based on this strange-but-true story, Wicked Little Letters is a wicked little delight, thanks to memorable performances from Olivia Coleman as prim spinster Edith Swan living with her parents and Jessie Buckley as foul-mouthed Irish immigrant Rose Gooding living in the adjacent row house. A small constellation of other great characters and actors add color to the story as well. Rose is framed, but by whom and why? We find out halfway through, but the real question is whether the perpetrator can be caught, or whether the powers that be prefer a tidy solution even if it’s not true. Littlehampton’s first woman police officer Gladys Moss (Anjana Vasan) is on the case, but a lot of social structure and expectations stand in the way. A little social commentary is smuggled in, but under cover of an engaging procedural with a hefty dose of dark comedy. We loved it.

Sunday, March 24, 2024

FILM: One Life


One Life presents the inspirational story of Nicholas Winton, a young Englishman who visits Prague in 1938 to help with a refugee organization, and is horrified to witness the plight of hundreds of Jewish families with young children fleeing from Hitler. Despite the seemingly impossible challenge of finding money and sponsors and moving the English immigration bureaucracy, he organizes the rescue of hundreds of children in the weeks and days before Hitler invades Czechoslovakia. After the war, his efforts were generally unknown, and he personally felt very burdened with the memory of all of the children that he was unable to save. The film cuts between showing the events of his heroic efforts just before the war, and then his life some four decades later. Anthony Hopkins gives a masterfully nuanced performance as the guilt-ridden Winton in his later years, in a role that could have been maudlin in lesser hands. Helena Bonham Carter is also pitch perfect as his mother in the 1938 scenes. While the film is inevitably compared to Schindler’s List, it is its own unique story, and a very timely one, in illustrating the plight of refugees in a war zone, and the genius of boldness to do what might seem impossible. The film’s title, One Life, alludes to the Jewish proverb that saving one life is to save the whole world, but it also shows what difference one life can make. You may walk out after this film wondering, as I did, what you could be doing with your one life.