Theater Review: “Chicago” – Kansas City

CHICAGO
September 14, 2018
Starlight Theater – Kansas City, Missouri
When the Kander and Ebb musical “Chicago” opened on Broadway in 1975, it caused a sensation.  The show, directed and choreographed by the great Bob Fosse,  played for three years and earned an impressive (11) Tony Award nominations.  Sadly, it didn’t win any, running into the juggernaut that was “A Chorus Line.”
In 1996, the show was revived on Broadway and that version fared much better at the Tonys, taking home (6) of the (8) awards it was nominated for, including the award for Best Revival of a Musical.  What’s even more impressive is that, since November 14, 1996, “Chicago” has never left Broadway, earning the right to call itself the longest running American musical in theater history!    This weekend, the touring production made its way to Kansas City and, despite some technical difficulties, greatly entertained.
We meet Velma Kelly (Amra-Faye Wright) as she entertains her nightclub audience with the show’s signature number, “All That Jazz.”  We follow this with a quick peek into the bedroom of Roxie Hart (Angel Reda) to discover her in an argument with her lover.  Moments later, Roxie shoots him dead. When the police arrive, Roxie’s husband, Amos (Paul Vogt) takes the blame for the shooting, but quickly recants when he learns the truth.  Roxie is taken to jail, where she will await trial for murder.  But not before a little singing and a lot of dancing!
There are a million reasons to see this show at Starlight.  First off, it’s one of the best outdoor venues in the country.  The shows are usually excellent or, if not, entertaining.  “Chicago” boasts an amazing cast and a top-notch orchestra.  Both Ms. Wright and Ms. Reda (who is from nearby Overland Park, Kansas) are strong dancers with great vocal chops.  My quibble above regarding technical difficulties comes from the fact that, for the first hour of the show, there was an obvious problem with Ms. Wright’s body microphone.  The fact that I could hear her in my seats stems from the fact that she can belt out a song.  Once the problem was fixed both actresses were at the top of their game.
The rest of the cast is equally strong.  As publicity loving attorney Billy Flynn, Peter Lockyer is as smooth as silk.  Jennifer Fouche’ steals her scenes as Matron “Mother” Morton and Mr. Vogt puts an ache in your heart as he sings “Mr. Cellophane.”   The choreography (by the amazing Ann Reinking, and based on Fosse’s original work) is spectacular, delivering in spades the moves that are so associated with the late choreographer.
If you’re looking for some fun under the stars this weekend, I’d highly recommend a trip to “Chicago!”

Film Review: “Lizzie”

Starring: Chloë Sevigny, Kristen Stewart, Jamey Sheridan, Fiona Shaw, Denis O’Hare
Directed By: Craig William Macneill
Rated: R
Running Time: 1hr. 45mins.
Roadside Attractions

In many ways, this is the perfect time of year to release Lizzie. As we enter the fall, the movie theaters turn to smaller dramas while basic cable crams its schedules with true crime and hauntings in the run up to Halloween. The axe murders of Abby and Andrew Borden have always figured heavily into the latter. So much so, it occurred to me while watching Craig William Macneill’s carefully crafted depiction of Lizzie Borden that I had never seen a version of this story that wasn’t hyper campy. A quick search on Youtube turns up ample “dramatic re-enactments” and even a Dance Moms routine. Perhaps anticipating that audience, director Macneill serves up Abby’s body mere moments into his film before rewinding back at the investigator’s prompt to Lizzie, “Did your father have any enemies?” Did he ever. What follows is a drama that simmers with tension between its small cast led commandingly by Chloë Sevigny and Kristen Stewart.

In 1892, Lizzie shares a modest Massachusetts house with her father Andrew (Jamey Sheridan), stepmother Abby (Fiona Shaw) and sister Emma (Kim Dickens). Lizzie is old for being unmarried and her community—but her father most of all—isn’t shy about treating her as a pariah. Lizzie having a seizure (or “spell” if you’re old timey) in public only adds fuel to the case for sheltering her. Into their home comes an Irish maid, Bridget Sullivan (Stewart), who Lizzie forms a connection with. Before you can say steamy pizza rolls, they are passing notes and rendezvousing in the family shed.

As far as I can tell, the theory for Lizzie’s sexuality being a part of this case, aside from her never marrying, comes from a later in life “crush” on an actress of the time. Whether or not you buy into this particular take really isn’t the concern of this film which draws strength from the bond between Sevigny and Stewart. When Andrew turns predatory towards Bridget, Lizzie’s anger towards him is stoked as is her motivation to sabotage his affairs. Affairs which include compromising Lizzie’s inheritance. Likewise when Lizzie’s uncle (a snarling Denis O’hare, always a welcome addition) tries to intimidate her, Bridget makes her presence known and he sees himself out. Though their society is rigidly patriarchal, under this roof the men are outnumbered and Macneill makes great use of the confined space to reinforce that. The soundtrack remains sparse, giving dominance instead to the ambient sounds of the household. The creaking wood of the stairs and bedrooms might as well be a character unto itself, and gives the whole piece an extra level of claustrophobia. It works really well for this story which is essentially a slowly escalating war between father and daughter.

As we march on through the final acts, the story does slow down with some time jumps between the murders and the aftermath. It’s as though to let us see how an obviously guilty (in this telling of it anyway) Lizzie might sell her innocence to investigators when really that could have wrapped up more strongly with their credible—if still sensational— take on this infamous case.

Film Review: “The Little Stranger”

THE LITTLE STRANGER
Starring Domhnall Gleeson, Ruth Wilson, Charlotte Rampling and Will Poulter
Directed By Lenny Abrahamson
Rated R
Runtime: 1hr. 51mins.
Focus Features
The pitfall of turning a gothic tale into a feature film seems to be Hollywood’s tendency to sell it as a horror film. As most trailers do, they cram the most exciting visuals or scares into two minute bites hoping to draw that genre’s audience while never considering the ill will they’re potentially engendering with such a mischaracterization. It fascinates me as far as choices go in this age of Cinescore post-screening chatter although I can’t begrudge the trailer makers for their need to get butts in seats. I say this all up front because that is the case with Lenny Abrahamson’s The Little Stranger, an adaptation of the 2009 novel by Sarah Waters. What they really have is a carefully crafted and, critically, a glacially slow paced period drama where the “big” bloody moments are few and far between. To be clear, I actually am more of an ideal audience member for English period drama than horror but even my limits were tested. The talented cast languishes in beautiful atmosphere and effective sound design that amounts to a pile of supernatural McGuffins.
The year is 1949 and Dr. Faraday (Domhnall Gleeson) is summoned to Hundreds Hall to check in on the Ayres family’s young maid, Betty (Liv Hill). Betty isn’t sick so much as she’d like a doctor’s excuse to send her back home. The drafty house’s halls don’t sit well with Betty. This uneasiness is chalked up to youth and inexperience but as the doctor learns, her line of thinking isn’t isolated among the inhabitants. Roderick (Will Poulter), the man of the house and brutally scarred up WW2 vet, also swears by a malevolent presence that’s out for his family. Again, dismissed by the rational doctor as well as Roderick’s caretaker sister Caroline (Ruth Wilson). To complicate things, Faraday has a kind of reverence for the place having been enchanted by being brought there as a child in 1919 with his mother, then a member of the house’s full staff. Over all of this lies the spectre of Caroline and Roderick’s dead sister whom the young Faraday had a brief encounter with during that long ago visit. Faraday’s love for the estate drives him to grow closer to the Ayreses, Caroline in particular.

I was excited to check out The Little Stranger, being a fan of Abrahamson’s previous three films (all also adaptations) as well as Domhnall Gleeson who is consistently reliable. The trouble is The Little Stranger can’t quite decide what it wants to be. The awkward romance between Faraday and Caroline occupies far too much screentime for where it ultimately goes while the horror and supernatural aspects of the story pretty much plateau rather than ramping up to a satisfying conclusion. I couldn’t tell if said conclusion was actually meant to be a twist or not because I had connected the dots so so long before the story wended its way to meeting me there and when it arrived, did not add anything exciting. I suspect Waters’s novel made much of the turmoil the Ayres family finds themselves in in Hundreds Hall but the film leans too heavily on its production design to fill in the gaps of its stilted characters.

Film Review – “Puzzle”

PUZZLE
Starring: Kelly Macdonald, Irrfan Khan, David Denman
Directed by: Marc Turtletaub
Rated: R
Running Time: 1 hr 43 mins
Sony Classics
 
It’s sounds cheesy I know, but there’s nothing puzzling about “Puzzle,” a wonderful new drama based upon a 2010 Argentinian film of the same name. Directed by Marc Turtletaub (“Gods Behaving Badly”), who is perhaps better known as a producer of such silver screen works as “Loving” and “Little Miss Sunshine,” “Puzzle” is an engaging tale about a woman’s empowerment after being taken for granted for at least all her adult life. The spark which fans the flames comes from nothing less than a 1,000-piece puzzle set.
 
Anges (Kelly Macdonald, “Brave,” “No Country for Old Men”) is a suburban, soft-spoken, anti-technology housewife stuck in the same routine every day – getting her husband, Louie (David Denman, “The Office,” “13 Hours”) up for work, cleaning, shopping, cooking for three men, and volunteering at church. That’s pretty much her entire life. She does know she is stuck in this monotonous cycle, but she is unwilling or unable to break free.
 
We get a taste of this right at the beginning when a birthday party turns out to be one she has thrown for herself, complete with a house full of guests and a cake. However, Agnes, for whom we instantly feel a great deal of frustration for, is more intent on fixing a broken plate than being around other people. Afterwards, she discovers a gift from a friend – an orange and brown-hued map of a world she has only dreamed of seeing. With the simple placement of one piece the art of puzzling suddenly becomes an obsession for her.
 
The thrill she gets gives her the confidence to text Robert (Irrfan Khan, “Jurassic World,” “The Lunchbox”), a champion puzzle player who is seeking a doubles partner. A wealthy inventor who spends most of his days watching catastrophes on the news, Robert is surprised by how fast Agnes is. It turns out, though, that they are both lonely souls. Robert is recently divorced while Agnes suffers from being constantly belittled and taken for granted by Louie. When sparks fly it sets Agnes’s world on fire and while it scares her to death it also gives her a newfound confidence.
 
Turtletaub has crafted an evenly-paced work of cinema with subdued colors throughout. The exceptions are often the puzzles themselves when color is emphasized. He also draws out an excellent performance from Macdonald, which could be the best she has delivered. Macdonald effortlessly fleshes out her character’s extreme timidity while infusing her with enough likability that you can’t help but root for her as she transforms into a ferocious butterfly. The physical chemistry between her and Khan comes off as awkward, but the dialogue they share is beautifully written and delivered. Throughout his career, Khan has often had a soulful, philosophical way of conveying lines and he doesn’t disappoint here.
 
“Puzzle” is certainly not a ground-breaking work of cinematic art nor will it probably rank among the pantheon of the best movies of the year. Still, it remains a sweet, delightful work that is as pleasing as finishing a puzzle on the porch while a gentle spring rain pitter-patters on the roof above.

Film Review: “The Happytime Murders”

THE HAPPYTIME MURDERS
Starring:  Melissa McCarthy, Elizabeth Banks and Joel McHale
Directed by:  Brian Henson
Rated:  R
Running time:  1 hr 31 mins
STX Entertainment

It’s been almost exactly 35 years since I met Jim Henson.

In September 1983 I was at the World Science Fiction Convention in Baltimore, where one of the films being promoted that year was “The Muppets Take Manhattan.”  Knowing Mr. Henson was going to be in attendance I took a couple photos with me.  One of him and Kermit the Frog taken behind the scenes of “The Muppet Movie” and one from “The Dark Crystal.”  I tracked him down and he very graciously signed both.  I got lucky because he happened to be walking around with Gary Kurtz, who produced “The Dark Crystal,” so I got his autograph also.  He was very friendly and, in speaking with him, I could tell he had a great sense of humor.  Which tells me he would love his son’s latest film, “The Happytime Murders.”

(Ominous voice) “In a world where humans and puppets live together….”

Meet Phil Phillips (voiced by Bill Barretta).  He’s a former puppets cop turned private detective.  Actually, he’s been the ONLY puppet cop.  Due to a mishap that led to the killing of an innocent bystander, Phil was fired and a law was put into place forbidding puppets to be police officers.  One day Phil is hired by a mysterious lady-puppet.  His leads take him to an adult bookstore, where he runs into Bumblypants, one of the puppet characters of the popular 80’s kids show “The Happytime Gang.”  As Phil investigates another part of the shop, Bumblypants is murdered.  Soon, other members of the cast are also brutally murdered and the finger points at Phil.  Can he clear his name?  Maybe.

A fun combination of live-action and puppets, “The Happytime Murders” is an outrageously raunchy look at what life may have been like on a certain “Street” if that show had taken place in the worse part of the worse town ever.  In the world of “Happytime” humans and puppets co-exist, though the puppets are often horribly treated.  Call it “Apuppethied.”  Phil’s former police partner, Detective Connie Edwards (McCarthy) is called in to investigate the case and must reluctantly team up with Phil before the entire cast of the show is murdered.  Along the way they must deal with a world full of sex, drugs and violence.  This isn’t your parent’s “Street.”

Let me say this up front (or in the middle):  THIS IS NOT A KIDS MOVIE.  Don’t be fooled by the puppets and the bright lights.  Taking a child to this film will traumatize them for life.  So, again, unless you want to see a puppet re-enactment of Sharon Stone’s famous reveal from “Basic Instinct,” or want to explain to your little one what an eight-armed reach-around is, leave them home.  That being sad, THIS IS AN ADULTS MOVIE.  The jokes are funny, the visuals outrageous and the overall mood of the film will put a smile on your face.  The combination of human and puppet characters is well portrayed, and as the film goes on, you forget your watching puppets.  They become believable characters, which is what you need to make a film work, especially a comedy.  Like “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?,” the melding of human and non-human characters is seamless.  Well, except for the seams on the puppets.  J

Film Review: “Crazy Rich Asians”

CRAZY RICH ASIANS

Starring: Constance Wu, Henry Golding, Michelle Yoeh
Directed by: Jon M. Chu
Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 2 hrs
Warner Bros.
 
Romantic comedies can often be a dime a dozen with about as much substance contained in the atmosphere of Mars. Of course, there are brilliant, diamond-like exceptions such as 2017’s “The Big Sick” or 2012’s “Silver Linings Playbook.” While the new “Crazy Rich Asians” may not be nearly as creative or fulfilling as those movies, it’s still at least as good as an unpolished sapphire.
 
Directed by Jon M. Chu, best known for such “legendary” works as “G.I. Joe: Retaliation” and “Now You See Me 2,” “Crazy Rich Asians” is based upon the 2013 novel of the same name by Singaporean/American novelist Kevin Kwan. It begins in a flashback when Eleanor Young (Michelle Yoeh, “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”) is denied entrance into a posh New York City hotel when the white manager sees that she is of Chinese descent. What the racist manager doesn’t know is that Eleanor and her husband, whom we strangely never meet during the movie despite being very much alive, are the hotel’s new owners. It’s a scene that sets up her fierceness, which we later see in an unfavorable light.
 
Flash forward to present day when brilliant American economics professor Rachel Chu (played sweetly by Constance Wu, “Fresh Off the Boat”) is invited by her longtime boyfriend Nick Young (British/Malaysian actor/model/TV host Henry Golding) to his best friend’s wedding in Singapore. However, charming Nick has not been completely forthright with Rachel when he reveals on the plane that he comes from a wealthy Singapore family, the scope of which she is too naïve to fathom yet.
 
Upon their arrival in Singapore, Rachel is swept away by a night out in Nick’s vibrant hometown with his best friend and his fiancé. Despite descriptions he gives of his family and their business empire, it’s not until Rachel visits her outlandish college friend Peik Lin Goh (Awkwafina, “Ocean’s 8”) that she learns just how influential the Young family is. The real problem, though, is not necessarily the vast gulf between Nick’s upbringing and hers. Instead, it’s the fact that she is an American of Chinese descent and not directly from China, which is something Eleanor is less than fond of.
 
So, between Eleanor and a myriad of jealous, petty Singapore girls who do everything they can to drive her off, Rachel has her work cut out for her if she wishes to see her relationship with Nick continue.
 
“Crazy Rich Asians” has nothing all that new to offer to the romantic comedy genre. It has all the prerequisite boxes you can check off like clockwork – resistant parents of one or both members of the couple; crazy, jealous exes; a goofy best friend that can always be depended upon; a goofy friend that no should ever count on; an impending marriage of some sort; etc. In that sense, “Crazy Rich Asians” is about as crazy as a block of wood.
 
Despite its stereotypical characters and plot we have seen a plethora of times in various forms, “Crazy Rich Asians’ still manages to be an entertaining flick. There are plenty of genuine laughs to be had, especially in scenes involving the hilarious Awkwafina and/or her character’s equally goofy father played by “Hangover” alum Ken Jeong. The romance itself will undoubtedly pull at some heartstrings plus there is a fantastic side story of eventual female empowerment that will make anyone feel good.
 
All in all, “Crazy Rich Asians” is a great date flick for any couple of any age, but don’t expect go into expecting to see something that truly separates itself from general, romantic comedy fair.

DVD Review “Muppet Babies: Time To Play!”

Voice Cast: Matt Danner; Melanie Harrison; Dee Bradley Baker; Ben Diskin; Eric Bauza; Jessica DiCicco; and Jenny Slate
Number of discs: 1
Rated: Not Rated
Studio: Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment
DVD Release Date: August 14, 2018
Run Time: 92 minutes

Our Score: 4 out of 5 stars

Growing up in the 80’s, I was a huge fan of the original “Muppet Babies” series and when I heard that the show was being re-imagined for Disney Junior audience, I couldn’t have been happier, now with a 6 year old of my own to enjoy. Let me start with the fact that my daughter honestly has never been a fan of The Muppets at all, so I was hesitate introducing this show. Let me tell you from the moment that theme song hit her eyes lit up and she was hooked. Since her first viewing, this show has people her favorite to watch, she has seen each episode numerous times now.

The voice cast is legit for this re-imagination. There is some amazing talent brought in here for this show including Matt Danner as Kermit the Frog; Melanie Harrison as Piggy; Dee Bradley Baker as Animal; Ben Diskin as Gonzo; Eric Bauza as Fozzie Bear; Jessica DiCicco as a brand-new Muppet Baby, Summer Penguin; and Jenny Slate as Miss Nancy. Disney went all out for this one and delivered for the parents as well as kids.

“Muppet Babies: Time To Play!” is the first volume DVD released for this The episodes included “Sir Kermit the Brave/Animal Fly Airplane”; “Super Fabulous vs. Captain Icecube/Piggy’s Time Machine”; “The Great Muppet Sport-A-thon/You Say Potato, I Say Best Friend”; “Hatastrophe/Fly South”; and even two bonus episodes “How Kermit Got His Groove/One Small Problem” and “Playground Pirates/The Blanket Fort”.

There are also 10 “Muppet Babies: Show & Tell” Shorts with each of the characters. Other special features include The Great Muppet (Short) Musical and 6 Music Videos including “What’s So Scary About The Dark?”; “Never Have To Say Goodbye (To The Summer)”; “Get Back In The Game”; “Good Things Come To Those Who Wait”; “You Can Be A Dancer”; “Muppet Pirate Shanty”. Honestly I was impressed to see so many special features on a kids DVD but this one is jam packed! Can’t wait for future volumes!

Concert Review – Michael McDonald – Lawrence, Kansas

 

REVIEW AND PHOTOS BY DAN LYBARGER

 

Michael McDonald

The Lied Center, Lawrence, Kansas

August 12, 2018

 

If there is a way to age gracefully, it might be to simply admit you’re no longer young.

Throughout his 90-minute set at the Lied Center at the University of Kansas in Lawrence, Kan., on August 12, Michael McDonald made no attempt to pass himself off as anything other than a 66-year-old man.

When he introduced vocalist Drea Rheneé, the former Doobie Brothers singer and keyboardist praised her chops and that she relieved the crowd from the “middle-aged ugliness” of the rest of the band. He added, “You’ll notice I said ‘middle-aged.’ Who am I kidding?”

With a crowd that was primarily within throwing distance of that number, that wasn’t a problem. Part of the reason McDonald can still put on a good show is that he and his tunes were always for grownups. In both his solo work and his songs with his former band, McDonald has always sung about heartbreak that’s long removed from the teenage experience. In “Real Love” and “What a Fool Believes,” McDonald softly laments he or someone else has broken up and that it has happened many times before.

This may explain why the songs still sounded good last Sunday night and why people who aren’t trying to recapture their youth can listen to him without embarrassment. McDonald’s smooth as marshmallows delivery doesn’t deserve the label of “yacht rock,” because his roots are in St. Louis where the river vessels look a little different.

As he performed new tunes from last year’s Wide Open album like “Hail Mary” and “Just Strong Enough,” McDonald’s voice cracked just enough to prevent his band from slipping into easy listening. For the latter he even stood up from his piano stool for a few seconds, giving the song a feeling of vitality that wouldn’t occur if he were sitting like the audience.

It also helps that McDonald still has his vocal chops and nimble fingers. When he broke into familiar tunes like “Minute by Minute,” he’d begin them by adding jazzy touches to keep the arrangements from seeming too robotic.

He also avoided hogging the spotlight. He’d usually leave the showiest solos to guitarist Bernie Chiaravalle, sax player Mark Douthit and keyboardist Pat Coil. The three put just enough of a sting in the arrangements to keep the songs from being mellow enough to induce napping.

Rheneé had the unenviable task of replicating Patti LaBelle’s verses during the Burt Bacharach/Carole Bayer Sager hit “On My Own,” which may be most ironically titled duet ever. Fortunately, she easily kept up with LaBelle’s vocal gymnastics.

McDonald’s midwestern drawl is surprisingly clearer than his singing voice, but his stage banter was remarkably sincere. Having grown up in the St. Louis suburb, Ferguson, Mo., his later performance of Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Goin’ On” was expectedly moving, and he was clearly aware the issues Gaye lamented are sadly still with us.

Thankfully, so is McDonald, who helped open the Lied Center’s 25th anniversary on a high note.

Set list:

Yah Mo B There

Here To Love You

I Keep Forgettin’

Find It in Your Heart

Just Strong Enough

I Can Let Go Now

Sweet Freedom

On My Own

Hail Mary

Beautiful Child

Half Truth

Minute by Minute

What a Fool Believes

Encore

What’s Goin’ On

Taking It to the Streets

Concert Review: “A Paranormal Evening with Alice Cooper” – Kansas City

 

A Paranormal Evening with Alice Cooper

Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts ,  Kansas City, Missouri

August 6, 2018

REVIEW BY J.R. DEETER

 

 

First off, let me just say that if you get an opportunity to see a concert performance at the Kauffman Center in Kansas City you should absolutely do so…..it is fast becoming my favorite venue to see concerts.

I have always been a casual fan of Alice Cooper and the “hits.”  I admit I really didn’t know many of the album songs….ones long-time fans know, but for this show, it didn’t seem to matter.   I really enjoyed every minute of the entire playlist.

Opening with a non stop barrage of Brutal Planet, No More Mr. Nice Guy, Under My Wheels and Billion Dollar Babies, you could tell this was going to be an awesome night.   As promised, this was to be “ A Paranormal Evening” and the stage set delivered….ghoulish and dark….strange, frightening elements filled the space, everything from small doll sized things….a large box, from which minions provided several props to Alice throughout the night, including a dancing demonic creature, a shocking electric chair and, of course, a guillotine, which eventually was used for the beheading of Cooper, to the screaming delight of the near capacity audience.

The song Lost in America is now one of my favorites….this was one I hadn’t heard before. Same with Woman of Mass Destruction.  How could I have missed those over the years?

Poison…..Feed My Frankenstein….even a bit of a slow down for Only Women Bleed didn’t drop the level of energy of the band, or the level of love from the crowd for this 70 year old Godfather of Shock Rock.

There were a couple of “rest periods” when Alice exited the stage for the obligatory solos by members of the band….every one of them very entertaining and capable on their instrument.  A special shout-out to Nita Straus, kicking ass on lead and rhythm guitar while providing backing vocals.

Wrapping up the show with I’m Eighteen and the confetti filled rousing rendition of School’s Out left my ears ringing and my heart filled with joy.  I had finally experienced Alice Cooper, clearly not in his prime, but certainly still able to deliver a killer performance.

(My .5 deduction is for not playing 1977’s You and Me.  I’m a former 80’s DJ, and that was a staple JAM we played often…great tune.)

Film Review – “The Cakemaker”

THE CAKEMAKER
Starring: Tim Kalkhof and Sarah Adler
Directed by: Ofir Raul Graizer
Rated: Unrated
Running Time: 1 hr 53 mins
Strand
 
Sometimes it takes just a little patience for a cinematic experience to blossom into a piece of work that can be appreciated for its artistic endeavor. While the Israeli drama “The Cakemaker” may be littered with delicious looking pastries, it takes about half of its nearly two-hour running time before it offers something you can sink your teeth in to. Directed and written by Israeli filmmaker Ofir Raul Graizer (“Dor”), “The Cakemaker” is slow to develop during that first half and it leaves us wondering if it is going somewhere. Thankfully, it saves itself from blandness and leaves us wondering something entirely at the end.
 
Premiering at this year’s 52nd annual Karlovy Vary International Film Festival in the Czech Republic, “The Cakemaker” introduces us to Israeli Oren Nachmias (Roy Miller, “When Heroes Fly”) when he steps into a Berlin bakery where a young, talented German baker named Thomas (Tim Kalkhof, “Homeland”) is working. In quick order it is revealed that Oren is living a secret life as a gay man while maintaining the life of a happily married family man in Jerusalem. Their affair continues for a quite some time as Oren routinely travels to Berlin on business. However, it all comes to an end when Oren is killed in a car accident after returning home on one of his trips.
 
It takes a while for him to find out, but when Thomas does he is left in a daze. Armed with information he gleaned from Oren during their relationship, Thomas travels to Jerusalem to find Oren’s widow, Anat (Sarah Adler, “Foxtrot”). While keeping his knowledge of Oren a secret to himself, Thomas eventually garners a job at Anat’s struggling kosher café. His pastries, however, turn her business around, much to the chagrin of some in Anat’s Jewish neighborhood.
 
It’s all quite dry and laborious, but there is a tangible creepiness to Thomas’s actions as he inserts himself deeper and deeper into his former lover’s life. He even goes so far as to wear a pair of Oren’s swimwear and run in his jogging shorts. What Thomas doesn’t count on is the attraction that the still grieving Anat begins to develop for the troubled German. It puts him in awkward position, but it also appeals to his yearning to experience Oren’s life.
 
Graizer’s story is nothing extraordinarily original, yet he inserts enough small twists in it to make it passably interesting. The relationship between the two men is poorly developed in the beginning, which makes it difficult to become invested in the story. Important elements are brought to light much later, which helps the second half of the film but still leaves the first half high and dry. Graizer’s pacing is also sluggish with too many moments of utter silence with nothing of interest transpiring. Yawn.
 
Miller’s performance is just a blip on the radar and Adler’s is merely satisfactory without enough depth of emotion. Contrary, Kalkhof wears a terrific mask on his face as Thomas is a perplexing character to figure out. What exactly is his end game? Does he want to live a lie, or does he want to do harm to everyone in the middle of the night? His blue eyes speak of someone who is moving along with clear thoughts, but there is a churning, pent-up ocean of emotion rolling around inside him.
 
“The Cakemaker” is a solid endeavor of average cinema with an ending that at least everyone can sit around and debate for a while.

Film Review – “BLACKkKLANSMAN”

BLACKkKLANSMAN
Starring:  John David Washington, Adam Driver and Topher Grace
Directed by:  Spike Lee
Rated:  R
Running time:  2 hrs 15 mins
Focus Features

Spike Lee and I go way back.

The movie theatre I managed in Baltimore was in an urban area.  I proudly showed “She’s Gotta Have It” and “School Daze.”  I was (and still am) angry that “Do the Right Thing” wasn’t nominated for a Best Picture Academy Award and I was thrilled to meet him and speak for a few minutes in Washington D.C. while he very graciously signed my “Malcolm X” script.  I should also mention that I silently cursed him when he shot a reel of his film “Crooklyn” in the widescreen format but intentionally didn’t adjust it, giving the film a look that caused many customer complaints and passes given out.  He’s made more good movies than bad and this week he’s here with one of his best.

It’s the 1970s.  Ron Stallworth (Washington) is a black police officer in a time where, if you’re the first one on the scene of a crime, your fellow officers may think YOU are the perp.    One day, while reading the newspaper, Ron comes across an ad for the local chapter of the KKK.  As a joke, he sends in for his membership card and is delighted to get it.  When Ron is invited to meet the membership, he agrees, sending fellow officer Flip Zimmerman (Driver) in his place.  Zimmerman is Jewish and has to learn to keep his emotions to himself when surrounded by the idiot gang he finds himself a part of.  As Ron/Flip get deeper into the group, they soon find themselves chatting up David Duke, then the first Grand Wizard of the KKK, today pretty much a punchline.  When Duke is scheduled to come to Ron’s town, things go from comical to serious as the groups true goals are announced.

Powerful and pertinent, “Blackkklansman” is a film that deals with both the past and the present.  Director Lee and co-writers Kevin Willmott, Charlie Wachtel and David Rabinowitz have created a world that anyone over 21 will recognize.  There is humor but then there is horror.  Not violent horror, but the horror at the spoken word.  Can people truly be this vile?  Sadly, yes.

As with many of Lee’s films, a great cast has been assembled.  I was surprised to learn that leading man Washington is the son of Denzel.  If this performance is any indication, Pop better keep an eye on the rear view mirror.  He plays Stallworth with the dignity required, something that wasn’t easy to display in the early 1970s.  Driver is equally good here.  This is the first thing I’ve seen him in since the last two “Star Wars” films and – SPOILER ALERT – though as a filmgoer I will never forgive him for killing Han Solo, I will continue to recognize him as an actor to watch.  As David Duke, Grace is pitch perfect.  He doesn’t scream out his hatred, like his dimwit followers.  He oozes it, like the politician he would later become.

“Blackkklansman” took home the Grand Jury Prize at this year’s Cannes Film Festival and I look for it to be a front runner when the Oscar nominations roll around.  Do you hear that, Academy?  I don’t won’t to get angry again!

Film Review: “The Meg”

THE MEG
Starring:  Jason Statham, BingBing Lee and Rainn Wilson
Directed by:  John Turtletaub
Rated:  PG 13
Running time:  1 hr 53 mins
Warner Bros.

If you’ve learned anything about me over the years, you know that “Jaws” is my favorite film.  That being said, every time a new shark themed film shows up (“Deep Blue Sea,” “Open Water,” “The Shallows,” etc) I have to put my blinders on and do my best not to compare the film to “Jaws.”  However, when the film in question steals whole sequences from the film, I may bet a little testy.

We meet Jonas Taylor (Statham) as he and his rescue team are trying to save the crew of a submerged vessel.  However, just as you think they’re all going to survive, they are attacked by “something,” causing Taylor to leave behind a couple teammates, who inevitably die.  Fade to black and jump ahead a few years.

Welcome to the bottom of the ocean, inside the Mariana Trench.  A bizarre philanthropist (Wilson) has financed an expedition to the trench with the purpose of trying to go deeper.  The idea is that it’s so cold at the bottom of the ocean that maybe you’re not on the ocean’s floor.  Maybe you’re just blocked.  Crazy guy arrives at his sea platform, which is full of scientists and a cute Chinese family (older father, daughter and granddaughter).  The mission is a success, but while down below their sub is attacked by “something.”  Only one person can help them…someone whose life was changed by “something.”  But what?

With a few good special effects shots and a cast that’s trying way too hard, “The Meg” is passable entertainment.  A giant shark that can actually eat people whole is kind of cool, though the filmmakers can’t seem to decide on how big it is.  When it’s out to sea it’s HUGE, knocking over boats and gobbling up people like cocktail peanuts.  But when it comes close to shore, where hundreds of people are bathing, it easily swims by, not one person noticing the 60 foot monster that just passed by.

Director Turtletaub has directed four films since 2004, three of them starring Nicolas Cage, the master of over-emoting.  He would have made a fine substitute to Statham, who has proven himself in other films.  The slow parts between shark appearances start to add up, and the film feels every bit of its almost 2-hour run time.

To steal (and paraphrase) from Woody Allen in “Annie Hall,” a film is like a shark.  It has to keep on moving or it will die.  And what we’re dealing with here…is a dead shark.

Film Review: “Three Identical Strangers”

THREE IDENTICAL STRANGERS
Starring: Robert Shafran and David Kellman
Directed by: Tim Wardle
Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 114 minutes
Neon
 
“Three Identical Strangers” is the best documentary thus far in 2018 and one of the best overall films of the year. The well-deserved recipient of a U.S. Documentary Special Jury Prize for storytelling at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival, “Strangers” is a compelling work that is thoughtful, compelling, moving and leaves a lasting impression for many moons after the credits have faded to black. Even though it’s been 38 years since long lost triplets miraculously reunited, it remains a story with ripple effects being felt to this very day.
 
Initially, “Strangers” reels us in with an infectious enthusiasm we feel radiating from Robert “Bobby” Shafran who describes with a gregarious smile how he stumbled upon his identical twin brother, Edward “Eddy” Galland. Their reunion made headlines across the country, but it became even crazier when a third brother, David Kellman saw doubles of himself in a newspaper. The triplets became overnight sensations and appeared on a multitude of media outlets at a blistering pace, which was only matched by their wild partying. Both David and Bobby recount those days, as well as how they started families, with great fondness. However, things start to take dark turn as “Strangers” begins to develop a grittier, tragic tone with its probe into how they were separated in the first place.
 
As it turns out, the triplets improbable, 1980 reunion in New York set a series of disturbing events in motion that began with a negative meeting between the brothers’ angry parents, who were upset their sons had been intentionally split apart, and an adoption agency with some shadowy backers. It’s paired with an author/journalist in Texas who uncovers a secret study that, as David describes, turned the brothers into lab rats.
 
The sinister background to it all begins with late child psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Dr. Peter Neubauer (1913-2008). Neubauer was an Austrian Jew who was able to escape his Nazi-controlled country by fleeing into neutral Switzerland where he completed his training before moving in 1941 to New York City. It sounds heroic enough until we learn that like the Nazis he fled from, Neubauer initiated an inhuman, concentration camp-like experiment by orchestrating a program in which several sets of twins and one set of triplets, the brothers in “Strangers,” were deliberately separated during infancy as part of a clandestine “nature vs. nurture” experiment. Even more shocking is that it was the Jewish Board of Family and Children’s Services who helped Neubauer with a program that led to a variety of mental health issues among its unwitting participants as they entered adulthood.
 
Naturally, Bobby and David, among others, continually try to demand answers, but he ended the program in 1980, Neubauer, realizing his work would be controversial, had his study sealed upon his death at Yale University until the year 2066, thus insuring its participants would be dead by the time its findings would be released to the public.
 
“Strangers” is a superb example of documentary filmmaking as it entertains, educates and causes thought provoking discussion of the subject matter. All of director Tim Wardle’s interview subjects are engrossing to listen to and his overall storytelling flows naturally like winding stream. His work shines a light on a dark tragedy that almost disappeared into the shadows. This is a film that should not be missed.

 

Concert Review: Descendents, Buffalo, NY

2018 Tourage
Descendents, A Wilhelm Scream, Pavers
Friday, August 3rd, 2018
River Works, Buffalo, NY

Our score: 4 out of 5 stars

One of the biggest names in punk rock the Descendents kicked off another leg of their ongoing “2018 Tourage” tour on August 3rd at the River Works Complex in Buffalo, NY, The tour which first kicked off in April of this year and has the So-Cal punkers playing all around the US and various other countries through December. Also on the bill for the evening was the Massachusetts based A Wilhelm Scream and the Scott Reynolds (ALL) fronted Pavers.

Having never had the chance to see the Descendents before I jumped on the opportunity when it was announced they would kick off a new leg of their current “Tourage” tour in nearby Buffalo. The bands famous Milo logo adorned my skateboard growing up so it was great to finally see a band I had been following for so long. Opening up the show was former ALL front-man Scott Reynolds recently re-formed group the Pavers. Though the band had a couple rough spots during their thirty minute set Reynolds kept things moving like the seasoned veteran he is forging forward with a smile on his face which showed the growing crowd he and his band mates were there to have fun doing what they love performing tracks from the groups various albums. With little time between sets and down one member due to a missed flight A Wilhelm Scream hit the stage with a burst of energy that instantly ignited the multi-generational crowd. Vocalist Nuno Pereira worked the stage left, right and up and down for that matter as the front-man was in constant motion adding to the bands fast paced, frantic approach. Even if the band was starting out one in the hole you would have never know as the band sounded great and were extremely tight as they helped bring the crowds energy to an even higher level.

Last but not least the Descendents took the stage helmed by founding member drummer Bill Stevenson and long time vocalist Milo Aukerman. For the next ninety minutes the band completely shredded over thirty five classic Descendents tunes including “Clean Sheets”, “Coffee Mug” and the guitar-tastic “Coolidge”. After the bands initial twenty nine song set fans were treated to a mini ALL reunion when former vocalist Scott Reynolds joined the Descendents (Minus Aukerman) for renditions of the ALL songs “Fool” and “Dot”. Needless to say this caused the crowd (myself included) to go absolutely nuts. After the brief reunion Aukerman would return performing probably my two favorite Descendents tracks “Bikeage” and “Good Good Things” along with a handful of other great tunes before taking their bows and waving goodbye.

It was clearly a night of nostalgia and fun as each of the bands on the tour brought their own unique brand of punk rock to the near capacity Buffalo venue. With the Descenedents history stretching back to 1977 it would be expected for them to lose a step or two however the band sounds just as fresh and powerful as they did at their inception. With the tour running the remainder of 2018 you owe it to yourself to catch one of the many shows scheduled on the “Tourage” run as it is the perfect setting for ALL generations of punk loving fans.

Set List:
1.) Suburban Home
2.) Everything Sux
3.) Hope
4.) On Paper
5.) I Wanna Be a Bear
6.) Rotting Out
7.) Victim of Me
8.) Get the Time
9.) I Like Food
10.) Shameless Halo
11.) My Dad Sucks
12.) Clean Sheets
13.) Testosterone
14.) Van
15.) Nothing With you
16.) I’m Not a Punk
17.) Silly Girl
18.) I Don’t Want to Grow Up
19.) Who We Are
20.) Weinerschnitzel
21.) Myage
22.) Without Love
23.) Global Probing
24.) Coffee Mug
25.) When I Get Old
26.) Coolidge
27.) Thank You
28.) Descendents
29.) Fool (ALL Cover)
30.) Dot (ALL Cover)
31.) ALL
32.) No! All!
33.) ‘Merican
34.) I’m the One
35.) Bikeage
36.) Smile
37.) Good Good Things
38.) Pep Talk

Concert Review: Slayer, Scranton, PA

Slayer, Lamb of God, Anthrax, Testament, Napalm Death
Tuesday, July 31st, 2018
Toyota Pavilion @ Montage Mountain, Scranton, PA

Our Score: 4 out of 5 stars

Thrash legends Slayer made a stop at the scenic Toyota Pavilion high atop Montage Mountain in Scranton, PA on July 31st as part of their 2018 final world tour. Now in its second leg the tour lineup features newly added Napalm Death and returning favorites Testament, Anthrax and Lamb of God giving fans plenty of metal music for their money.

Opening up the night was the veteran UK thrash band Napalm Death, having just joined the tour replacing Behemoth the band certainly had some very large shoes to fill. Vocalist Mark “Barney” Greenway hit the stage shaking and convulsing like a mad man as the four piece band from Meriden, West Midlands, England tore through songs such as “Suffer the Children”, “Scum” and “Dead” before closing out their early set with a cover of the Dead Kennedys song “Nazi Punks Fuck Off”. When an opening act exudes the amount of energy and furry that Napalm Death does you know right away that you’re going to be in for a very intense evening. The Bay Area’s very own Testament would take the stage next helmed by legendary vocalist Chuck Billy who sounded great as he belted out songs like “Brotherhood of the Snake” and “D.N.R. (Do Not Resuscitate)” which had the ever growing Scranton crowd frothing at the mouth only before being hit between the eyes with the formidable “Into the Pit” and “Over the Wall” which closed out the bands set. Each member of the group put on solid performances with a tip of the hat going to guitarist Alex Skolnick and drummer Gene Hoglan.

Anthrax would take the stage next with their signature New York sound and attitude that put on the map back in the 1980’s bassist Frankie Bello jump, ran and writhed like a demon spit from hell as the band performed tracks like “Caught In A Mosh”, “Madhouse” and the anthemic “Anti Social” which had the PA crowd on their feet and singing at the top of their lungs when cued by front man Joey Belladonna which certainly heightened the evenings intensity. After a quick set change Lamb of God would take the stage next flanked by their signature black and white single star flag side scrims. From the first note all system were go as the band chugged and thumped through songs like “Walk With Me in Hell”, “512” and “Laid to Rest” before closing out with the track “Redneck” from the bands “Sacrament” album. The band wasted little time between each song and really let the music do all the talking for which the crowd seemed to enjoy. Drummer Art Cruz did an amicable job filling in for Chris Adler who announced in late July that he would be sitting out this leg of the tour due to unforeseen circumstances. Though Cruz performed well was in fact handpicked by Adler there was just something different about the band without the veteran member.

Finally the clock struck 9:20pm and it was Slayers turn to take the stage for the final time at Montage Mountain. The stage which was now hidden behind a giant black curtain started to come alive with fire and smoke as the band found their places and the opening of “Delusions of Saviour” blasted through the speakers giving away to the curtain dropping and the band launching into the break neck paced “Repentless”, Vocalist/bassist Tom Araya sounded and looked great sporting a much slimmer look than when I last had the chance to see the group perform. Both guitarists Kerry King and Gary Holt were on their game this evening showcasing their precision on amazing performances of “Mandatory Suicide”, “Black Magic” and “Seasons in the Abyss” before closing out the night with the always formidable “South of Heaven”, “Raining Blood” and “Angel of Death” which serves as a homage to fallen guitarist Jeff Hanneman.

If you have never seen Slayer live I strongly urge you to do so now! The band will remain in the States through August before taking some time off prior to a full overseas tour. The band has stated this will be their last US tour so your time to see them is limited. If that alone doesn’t get you out to one of the few remaining shows then consider the stellar line up they bring with them as just one or two of these groups would make for a great night of head banging. Instead you get a total of 5 bands in all! Each of the groups on this bill give it their all from beginning to end and if you don’t end the night with either ringing ears or a sore neck then you clearly did something wrong.

Napalm Death Set List:
1.) Multinational Corporations
2.) Instinct of Survival
3.) Smash a Single Digit
4.) Standardization
5.) Suffer the Children
6.) Breed to Breathe
7.) Scum
8.) You Suffer
9.) Dead
10.) How the Years Condemn
11.) Nazi Punks Fuck Off

Testament Set List:
1.) Brotherhood of the Snake
2.) Rise Up
3.) Dog Faced Gods
4.) The New Order
5.) Stronghold
6.) D.N.R. (Do Not Resuscitate)
7.) Into the Pit
8.) Over the Wall

Anthrax Set List:
1.) Cowboys from Hell
2.) Caught in a Mosh
3.) Got the Time
4.) Madhouse
5.) Be All, End All
6.) Evil Twin
7.) Antisocial
8.) Indians

Lamb of God Set List:
1.) Omerta
2.) Ruin
3.) Walk with Me in Hell
4.) 512
5.) Now You’ve Got Something to Die For
6.) Engage the Fear Machine
7.) Blacken the Cursed Sun
8.) Laid to Rest
9.) Redneck

Slayer Set List:
1.) Repentless
2.) Blood Red
3.) Disciple
4.) Mandatory Suicide
5.) Hate Worldwide
6.) War Ensemble
7.) Jihad
8.) When the Stillness Comes
9.) Postmortem
10.) Black Magic
11.) Payback
12.) Season in the Abyss
13.) Dittohead
14.) Dead Skin Mask
15.) Hell Awaits
16.) South of Heaven
17.) Raining Blood
18.) Chemical Warfare
19.) Angel of Death