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Monday, December 28, 2015

Movie Review: Alejandro Gonzáles Iñárritu's 'The Revenant' Starring Leonardo DiCaprio -- Big Struggle, Small Gain

Leonardo DiCaprio in 'The Revenant.' Photos: Twentieth Century Fox.
In The Revenant, Leonardo DiCaprio goes for broke playing Hugh Glass, a real-life 19th-century frontiersman who survived a vicious grizzly attack and a painful, prolonged trek across a frozen frontier in order to exact revenge on the men who’d left him for dead. The actor’s dedication to this arduous role is eminently clear — but will it bring him the gold statuette that’s so clearly overdue?

Director Alejandro Gonzáles Iñárritu immediately plunges his audience into a beautiful but unforgiving landscape with a brutal Arikari attack on a band of fur trappers, arrows raining down and puncturing flesh everywhere.

Before we can catch our breath, the scene is followed almost immediately by the jaw-droppingly realistic bear attack that everyone is talking about (albeit for the wrong reason). Thereafter, and for more than two hours, DiCaprio drags his torn carcass across the frozen tundra, surviving other extreme challenges and demonstrating handy survivalist techniques along the way.

Tom Hardy plays the villainous Fitzgerald with an accent so thick that his many proclamations are rendered unintelligible, save for the oddly anachronistic pronunciation of “Aight?”. Domhnall Gleeson is the more virtuous Captain Henry, who pays Fitzgerald and a young trapper, Jim Bridger (Will Poulter), to stay with the gravely wounded Glass until he dies.

It’s an odd thing for Henry to place his trust in Fitzgerald, who is such a textbook baddie — and quick to prove it, right in front of Glass’s vengeful eyes. Forrest Goodluck plays Hawk, Glass’s half-breed son, whose mother was murdered in a prior massacre, but as delineated by Iñárritu and co-scripter Mark L. Smith, the father-son relationship isn’t very convincing, and the boy’s character is soon sacrificed as further fuel for Glass’s burning vengeance.

Rustic realism in Alejandro Gonzáles Iñárritu's 'The Revenant.' 
Indeed, the writers seem rushed to offer quick sketches of character “types” in order to carry on with the business at hand: throwing physical challenges at the game DiCaprio, who revealed in interviews that it was one of the most difficult productions he’d ever been involved in. The payoff is a remarkably realistic film that nevertheless maintains an emotional distance where one really longs for catharsis.

Working again with Birdman’s director of photography, Emmanuel Lubezki, Iñárritu offers up scene after scene of breathtaking outdoor imagery, some of it looking positively 3D, but a constant onslaught of immaculately composed shots can also become tiring, as if he’s repeatedly shouting, “Look at this masterpiece! And what about this shot?” Furthermore, gimmicks like bringing actors so close to the camera that their breath actually seems to fog the lens breaks the fourth wall in a way that actually works against the absolute realism Iñárritu wanted to achieve.

The Revenant is also filled with symbols and mysticism intended to give it a Terence Malick level of depth, but these sequences feel like inauthentic crutches thrown in whenever something extra was needed to juice up the rather slow-going narrative. They also become rather silly, as when Glass has a vision of his late wife floating above his supine body as if she’s planking him from beyond the grave.

As far as Academy Awards go, expect a nomination and possibly a win for Lubezki. Whether Leo’s bloody, tortured trek is enough to turn the heads of voters is another story.

The Revenant opens nationwide on January 8, 2016.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Colin Hardy's 'The Hallow' Brings the Scares

Hardy's feature debut is short on plot development but long on style and creepy atmosphere.

Claire and Adam Hitchens (Bojana Novakovic and Joseph Mawle) are Londoners who’ve arrived to set up house in a remote Irish forest with their infant son in tow. Adam is an arborist hired by a firm that has just acquired the land and wants him to evaluate the timber for harvesting.

The family is regarded with hostility by the townsfolk, especially neighbor Colm Donnelly (Michael McElhatton), who warns them that they’re trespassing where they don’t belong and disturbing The Hallow — mythical, malevolent spirits that dwell in the woods and are said to steal children.

Deep in the forest, Adam finds the carcass of a deer in an abandoned ruin, covered by a strange, tar-like substance. Taking a sample home and examining it under a microscope, he discovers that it contains a type of zombie fungus that penetrates and takes over living cells. Soon enough, more of the sludge begins to drip from the ceiling and seep through the walls of the house, and before you can say “Boo!” the family is under siege by the very creatures Colm had sought to warn them about.

The Hallow takes elements from The Evil Dead, David Cronenberg’s body horrors and the fairytale feel of Neil Jordan’s The Company of Wolves to deliver an old-fashioned creature feature that, if not wholly original, has an arresting style of its own and gives horror fans plenty to feast upon. And with such a straightforward plot, Hardy and co-writer Felipe Marino are instead able to focus on delivering the jolts. Moreover, these jolts are well-earned, being much more visceral and intense than the typical spookhouse pop-ups that have come to define the ho-hum Paranormal Activity style of films.

The filmmakers wisely keep the creatures in the shadows at first, briefly glimpsed out of the corner of an eye or in a camera viewfinder. Instead, they use sound to heighten the terror, as in a truly frightening sequence in which Adam finds himself trapped in the boot of his own car while it is being violently attacked from outside. Or they tease us with glimpses of creepy limbs, as when Claire, holed up in the attic, sees one of the monsters smash its impossibly long, bony arm through the trap door to get at her, and it looks for all the world like fossilized wood. In keeping with the tenets of the genre, a fuller reveal of the monsters is reserved for the final battle.

Martijn Van Broekhuizen’s chiaroscuro cinematography drips with dread, aided by Mags Linnane’s terrific production design, which transforms their ancient, converted millhouse into a living, poisonous creature unto itself. James Gosling’s classic horror score rounds out the chills. As Hardy is a professed fan of old-school horror, almost all of The Hallow‘s special effects are practical – animatronics and puppetry (the film is dedicated to Ray Harryhausen, Dick Smith and Stan Winston) – and it looks so much more convincing than CG.

Hardy is already set to helm the reboot of The Crow for Relativity Media. If he is able to bring a similarly rich visual style to that film, it will be a remake well worth checking out. The Hallow is currently playing in select theaters and on demand.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

The Reaper Returns to the Village

Today's depressing news about the death of Gunnar Hansen, the original, legendary Leatherface of Tobe Hooper's 1974 classic, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, reminds me that it's time to pay tribute to other denizens of the Village that have crossed over recently.

GUNNAR HANSEN

I met Hansen at a Hollywood Collector's Show back in the 1990s. He was good-natured and gregarious (see how he inscribed my photo).

Hansen wore the mask that made him famous only once and made just one other film appearance in the '70s, in 1977's notoriously cheesy The Demon Lover. As cult cinema entered the mainstream in the '80s and '90s (thanks to the home video revolution), he found lots of genre roles, the most recent ones in films still in pre-production.

Born in Reykjavic, Iceland, Hansen went back in 2009 for a cameo in Harpoon: The Reykjavic Whale Watching Massacre. In 2013, he wrote a behind-the-scenes book, Chain Saw Confidential: How We Made the World's Most Notorious Horror Movie. Ive ordered my copy from Amazon

Just 68 years of age, Hansen is the third member of the Chainsaw cast who died relatively young, following the deaths of Marilyn Burns (Sally) last year at age 65 and Paul A. Partain (Franklin) in 2005 at age 58.

MELISSA MATHISON

Most fondly remembered for writing the screenplay for Spielberg's E.T., Mathison was also married to Harrison Ford for more than 20 years.

She was a regular fixture in the Spielberg/Coppola/Scorsese orbit, having written films produced by Coppola (The Back Stallion) and directed by Scorsese (Kundun).

But it's E.T. that will remain her enduring legacy, captivating generations of children, inspiring a Universal theme park ride, and generating said studio loads and loads of cash, both in theaters and on home video. The film was one of the earliest titles priced for sell-through ($29.95) when typical rental titles were priced at around $90.

Ironically, after years of inactivity, Mathison wrote the screenplay for Spielberg's upcoming The BFG, a fantasy based on a Roald Dahl story.

MARTIN MILNER

With his "regular guy" demeanor, Milner played bit parts for years before hitting it big on television with Route 66 and especially Adam-12, playing Officer Pete Malloy. 

Having worked in publicity for Universal Television back in the '90s and '00s, it's fun for me to watch Jack Webb's cop shows for their familiar San Fernando Valley locations and stable of Universal contract players who regularly pop up.

However, the role that places Milner squarely in the Village is — you got it — Mel Anderson, the first husband of hilarious harridan Neely O'Hara (Patty Duke) in the nonstop screamfest Valley of the Dolls

Along with Barbara Parkins' Anne Welles, the character of Mel is relatively subdued, especially when compared to the buzzsaw performances of Duke and Susan Hayward. Still, he's involved in some choice exchanges:

NEELY: Well, what nice fattening thing did you tell Arlene to make tonight?
MEL: Arlene quit. She said you yelled at her.
NEELY: She was a louse anyway. You said yourself she was taking home all the booze. Other people have loyal help. Why can't we?
MEL: You don't know how to talk to them.
NEELY: That's your job. You'd better start running this house properly.
MEL: I'm not the butler.
NEELY: You're not the breadwinner either!

And, of course...

MEL: You're spending more time than necessary with that fag.
NEELY: Ted Casablanca is not a fag...and I'm the dame who can prove it!

Milner made other notable genre appearances, co-starring with Mamie Van Doren in Sex Kittens Go to College and The Private Lives of Adam and Eve, both produced by legendary schlockmeister Albert Zugsmith.

He was also in one of William Castle's most enjoyable outings, 13 Ghosts, along with Margaret Hamilton. Universal Television kept him working for decades with guest shots on such shows as Murder, She Wrote, Airwolf and even The New Adam-12.

Milner was born into show business. His father was a film distributor and his mother was a dancer on the Paramount theater circuit. He left us this past September at age 83. 

DICKIE MOORE

It's hard to fathom that there are still Our Gang cast members around, but the cherubic Moore, who actually appeared in only eight of the films, left us September 7th at age 89.

Moore appeared in almost 100 features between 1927 and 1952, and even gave Shirley Temple her first grown-up onscreen kiss. Alas, like many child actors, he found it challenging to get work when he grew up. He went on to found a successful public relations firm, Dick Moore and Associates, which he ran until 2010. 

In 1984, he wrote a book about the child actor's experiences in Hollywood: Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star (But Don't Have Sex or Take the Car). He met actress Jane Powell while conducting interviews for the book, and they married in 1988.

I own some Our Gang comedies on super 8mm, including Fish Hooky (1933), in which Moore stars along with Spanky McFarland and Dorothy (Echo) DeBorba. It's one of their funnest shorts, with a mule-faced truant officer constantly threatening to send the kids to reform school, only to have tiny Spanky smack him one square in the nose.







Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Eli Roth's 'The Green Inferno' -- A Tribute to the Italian Cannibal Vomitoriums



Leave it to Eli Roth, the king of torture porn, to lovingly resurrect another disgusting genre — the cannibal vomitorium atrocities from the ’70s and ’80s — with his new film The Green Inferno.

Those original shockers, made by Italian directors such as Umberto Lenzi and Ruggero Deodato, included such titles as Man from Deep River, Cannibal Holocaust and Make Them Die Slowly (aka Cannibal Ferox). They all hewed closely to a specific plot — white westerners enter the jungle domain of primitive native peoples and are literally consumed in various shocking ways. Said group must consist of innocent young virgins, at least one naive idealist (male or female) and a double-crossing bastard whose actions provoke the tribe’s violent response.

Filled with explicit scenes of carnage (including actual animal slaughter, which isn’t cool), the cannibal vomitoriums literally dared the audience to watch all the way through. Admittedly, it can be tough going, even for die-hard gorehounds like me.

It’s a testament to Roth’s determination that he managed to cobble together the budget and secure theatrical distribution for The Green Inferno, a film that was certainly made for limited audiences. That said, he really did an an admirable job — if your tastes run to the really, really extreme. Thankfully, no animals were harmed, simulated or otherwise. But, man…do the humans get it!

The plot is on point for the genre. A naive college freshman, Justine (Lorenza Izzo, Roth’s wife), is attracted to Alejandro (Ariel Levy), the charismatic leader of a group of environmental activists that stages protests outside her dorm room, and she finds herself flying to the jungles of Peru to help the group prevent an unscrupulous corporation from decimating the habitat of indigenous tribes. Once there, they chain themselves to bulldozers and trees, warding off the attacks of mercenary soldiers with their cell phone cameras upon which they’re live-streaming their actions across the globe. Mission accomplished, they go back to their plane to return to civilization. Suddenly, an engine explodes, and they crash-land deep in the jungle where no GPS or cell phone signal can ever hope to penetrate.

Many die in the crash, but the survivors are captured by a primitive tribe whose members are characterized by red body paint, ornate piercings and an aggressive demeanor. They are quickly shunted to the village and forced into a bamboo cage except for the most corpulent one, who is immediately butchered for dinner — a staggeringly shocking setpiece featuring special effects by Howard Berger and Greg Nicotero. Thereafter, it’s a grueling struggle for survival as the remaining activists try to figure out a way to flee from the hungry natives.

Roth and co-writer Guillermo Amoedo pay homage to the narrow conventions of this genre while inserting some pointed commentary of their own. Without giving too much away, it can be said that this group of idealistic environmentalists become victims in more ways than one. And the film’s use of social media as a literal weapon is ironic, given that it’s being used that way now with the bullying and hatespeak that occurs online.

Typically, the original cannibal vomitorium films didn’t have any night scenes (most often due to budgetary constraints), and Roth wisely chooses to continue the tradition, alternating scenes of horrifying brutality with lush jungle beauty (well-captured by Antonio Quercia’s camera), all set in the unblinking light of day. And as the activists are being taken to the village, the tribes’ crimson pigment rubs off on them, making it appear at first that they’re being integrated into their society, but it’s Roth’s knife into the viewers’ ribs that a much grimmer fate awaits them.

If it sounds like I enjoyed this film, I did. I admire Roth’s full-blooded, un-PC approach to the subject. But as far as recommending that absolutely everyone rush out and buy a ticket, I’d have to say no. However, if you were one of those folks who scoured the Mom and Pop video stores back in the day in search of “big box” videos, or if you understand what I mean when I fondly reminisce about 42nd Street before its Disneyfication, this film is for you.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Xavier Dolan's 'Tom at the Farm' -- A Haunting, Homoerotic Hitchcock Homage

Xavier Dolan in 'Tom at the Farm'
Made in 2013 but amazingly not receiving U.S. distribution until this month, Tom at the Farm is the fourth film by Canadian wunderkind Xavier Dolan, who made his first film at age 20 (I Killed My Mother) and was 23 when he co-scripted, directed and starred in this dark Hitchcockian thriller.

Dolan’s Tom is a Montreal advertising executive who is grieving for his lover, Guillaume, whom he’s just lost in an unspecified accident. Arriving at the family’s farm to attend the funeral, he meets Guy’s mother, Agathe (Lise Roy), who doesn’t know who Tom is and has no idea her son was gay. Guy's sadistic, lunkheaded brother, Francis (Pierre-Yves Cardinal) knows the whole story, however, and has been keeping Agathe blissfully ignorant. He warns Tom under threat of violence that he must play it straight, deliver a nice eulogy at the funeral and then get out of their lives.

But Tom can’t bring himself to read the personal words he’d written and a song is played instead, infuriating Francis, who wants only to please his mother. At the wake, while Tom is in the restroom, he barges into the stall and orders Tom to return to their house and make it up to Agathe by helping to fabricate a story about Guy’s fictional girlfriend, Sarah, and her reason for not coming.

Tom sees his chance to escape and drives away, but something makes him turn around and go back to the farm. Thus the stage is set for a psychosexual drama whose characters feed off of each other in various disturbing ways, with Tom particularly succumbing to a profound case of Stockholm Syndrome.

Pierre-Yves Cardinal and Dolan
There’s certainly more than a few allusions to the Master of Suspense here, all smartly integrated. Agathe can easily be seen as Psycho’s Mother Bates with her domination of Francis, who in turn talks to Tom about having to “put her away.” There’s a false identity in the case of Sarah (Evelyne Brochu), who turns out to be a real person but hardly the love of Guy’s life. Shattering secrets are revealed, and it’s all carried along by Gabriel Yared’s string-driven score, so reminiscent of the work of Bernard Herrmann. And Dolan, with his scraggly dyed locks, has cast himself as his “Hitchcock blonde.”

Based on a play by Michel Marc Bouchard, the film has been liberated from its theatrical roots with a simultaneously rich and forbidding country setting, well-captured by André Turpin’s camera, but it remains a gripping three-person drama whose themes are as intriguing as they are shocking. During an evening of drinking, when Francis suddenly grabs Tom by the throat, the younger man asks, “Is that all you got?”, begging to be strangled harder. But then there’s the scene, beautifully lensed in a dusky barn, when the boys spontaneously perform an almost-romantic tango, and Tom practically swoons when Francis dips him.

Ultimately, it’s the tango that Dolan performs with the material — alternating scenes of blistering psychological drama with sequences of suspense — that makes Tom at the Farm so intriguing.

Friday, August 14, 2015

Indie Movie Insider: An Interview with the 'Moments of Clarity' Team

Moments team (l-r): co-writer and star Kristin Wallace,
 director Stev Elam and producer David J.  Phillips.
Photo by Jerry Sandoval.
Of the many films I saw at the San Antonio Film Festival, which took place July 28th through August 2nd, a standout for me was a feature entitled Moments of Clarity, a refreshingly offbeat comedy with a unique sense of style and a strong cast.

It’s the story of the ever-cheerful Claire (Kristin Wallace), a naive young woman whose upbringing by an agoraphobic mother (Saxon Trainor) has kept her sheltered from the troubles of the real world. When she accidentally breaks a movie camera belonging to Danielle (Lyndsy Fonseca), the hostile daughter of her beloved pastor (Mackenzie Astin), she offers to replace it, prompting an unexpected road trip. Along the way, an authentic friendship develops between the two as they uncover some painful truths about their lives — as well as some equally joyful revelations.
Moments of Clarity has such a distinctive voice and solid production values that I wanted to know more about its development. Happily, the film’s star and co-writer, Wallace, its director, Stev Elam, and its producer, David J. Phillips, were all more than willing to answer some questions for me. Here’s the interview:
Lyndsy Fonseca, Eric Roberts, Saxon Trainer and
Xander Berkeley. Photo by Carol Sue Stoddard.
There are often parallels between works of fiction and real-life situations that spurred their genesis. Do any such parallels exist with Moments of Clarity?
Kristin Wallace:  Most definitely. Moments of Clarity spawned from my life experiences while I was going through this "quarter life crisis" of self-discovery. I met [adult film star] Ron Jeremy and had no idea who he was, which — even if you don't watch his movies — seemed ridiculous to others. I found it humorous how people perceived me versus who I thought I was. I wanted to explore these dualities in people and have it centered around fresh female characters.
Tough guys Eric Roberts and Xander Berkeley are cast against type as a loving couple in the film — and they’re really great. How did they become involved with the project?
Stev Elam: Xander is a friend of mine. We met in 2009 on a Museum installation project that I directed called The Gadfly, and Xander played Socrates. I called Xander and asked him if he was interested in playing a same sex couple that owned a bed and breakfast, and that we were thinking of casting him and Eric Roberts. He loved the idea. Xander and Eric know each other, but haven't ever worked together, so they both were very interested.
David J. Phillips: Thankfully, I knew Eric Roberts' manager Peter Young very well. Both Peter and Eric responded to the script really well and were helpful in making it all work out.
Moments does a great job telling what is essentially a serious story by placing its characters into absurd situations. How has audience reaction been?
KW: Thank you. We wanted the story to have humor and lightness to it. You are seeing the world through Claire's eyes, which is a very positive place, despite her obstacles. Boston had a very emotional response to the film, which was incredible, while San Antonio found it really funny, which was so much fun. We want this road trip adventure to be one of multiple emotions.
SE: You always hear all this talk about demographics, so I'm always blown away by the wide range of people who respond to the film. The thing I like to hear most is that people find it both funny and touching.
DJP: I love when I hear people laugh at the weird stuff we found funny while we were editing… that's always nice. Our film ultimately has a message of optimism, so its nice to see people affected.
What was the most challenging aspect of the film? What was the most fun?
Lyndsy Fonseca and Kristin Wallace.
Photo by Carol Sue Stoddard.
KW: The challenge was to not lose sight of the big picture, the heart of the story and characters. Playing Claire and being inside that childlike, optimistic world was an exhilarating joy ride. I had some fun!
SE: Most challenging thing for me was the shooting schedule. Some of our days we shot 12 pages a day. In regards to fun, nothing beats muffin day.
DJP: Yeah, the shooting schedule was tough due to locations and budget, but Evan Robichaud, our 1st AD, was a champ, working with Stev to get everything we needed. The most fun for me is now — seeing everyone's hard work pay off with good responses and getting into cool fests.
Where was the film shot? How did you secure locations?
DJP: The film was shot in California, and we begged, borrowed... and paid where we had to.
What was the shooting budget and how was it raised? Did you utilize social media?
KW: We shot the film for under 1M. We reached out personally to our network and worked hard to attach the right investors for this project. We've had a great time working with them.
DJP: Yes, we've been lucky that they believed in our quirky little movie and have supported our decisions.  As far as social media, we use it to keep fans and cast and crew updated on Twitter and Facebook.
What cameras and editing equipment did you use?
SE: Our DP Chris Robertson shot on a Red Epic-M 5K Mysterium-X, with prime lenses, 18mm, 24mm, 35mm, 50mm, and 85mm. As for editing, our editor Gordon Antell used Avid Media Composer.
How long was the shooting schedule?
SE: We had a 15 day shooting schedule.
DJP: And a day of pick-ups…so I guess that technically makes 16?
The types of cameras and editing equipment available today make it so much easier for anyone with a vision to make a “real” movie. What words of advice would you give an up-and-coming filmmaker?
SE: Perseverance. Read and watch films everyday. Draw from artist who inspire you, painters, musicians, photographers, writers, architects, designers, and of course other filmmakers.
KW: Even though it's easier now to just jump right in, make sure your story and the foundation is as tight and seamless as possible before you begin shooting. Know why you are telling the story — that way you'll get the clearest message across regardless of what equipment you use.
DJP: Work with talented people, and let them use their talent.  The best work comes from collaboration — work with people you trust enough to put your ego aside, and if everyone does the same, that's where the magic happens.
How do you think the indie film scene will transform in the next five to 10 years?
SE: I'm optimistic about the future of Indie films, especially when you factor in multiple platforms like VOD and home media. I've seen my friends and families taste in films grow because of this new form of distribution. That said I still feel the best way to see a film is in the theater and I think new technology will push the theater experience for future audiences.
DJP: I see online indie festivals having a place — more niche markets where people can find people with similar interests and watch and review films together.
KW: I feel that female filmmakers and female voices are going to become more well known in the indie scene; they will be more accessible and more of the norm. I think there really is a movement to get female voices heard. With all the new ways to buy films, I think indie films in general will become more profitable and mainstream. Or I sure hope so — because I love them :)
Moments of Clarity will be screening at the San Diego Film Festival (Sept. 30-Oct. 4), the NYC  Independent Film Festival (Oct. 12-18) and the Napa Valley Film Festival (Nov. 11-15), with more engagements to be announced.


Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Lucio Fulci's 'The Beyond' Review

I've returned to the Fulci fountain many times over the years that I've been blogging in the Village, reflecting on his cinematic high points (Zombie, Don't Torture a Duckling) as well as his unintentionally hilarious...erm...misfires (Murder Rock). But what I haven't done is complete my critique of his Gates of Hell trilogy. I chronicled City of the Living Dead and House by the Cemetery in detail previously, but the middle installment, The Beyond, had remained unwrit.

Well, thanks to Mondo and Alamo Drafthouse, that all changed. Last night I was able to see what many consider to be the director's chef d'ouevre the way it was meant to be seen — via a speckled 35mm print with visible reel changes. And although I've seen the film on DVD many times before, this analogue theatrical presentation makes it a more visceral experience — in more ways than one.

A bit of history — after the successful Zombie/Zombi 2 reignited the director's career, Fulci decided to defy audience expectations by making three films that reflected his personal taste. He idolized the French surrealist and playwright Antonin Artaud, whose "Theater of Cruelty" motivated him to make the "Gates" trilogy — a series of nearly-plotless films that concentrated more on tone and gruesome imagery as a way to provoke viewer response. Of these three, The Beyond/Seven Doors of Death/L'aldia is certainly the most hallucinatory.

Catriona MacColl had the dubious privilege of playing the lead in all three, and here stars as Liza, a down-on-her-luck New Yorker who inherits a rundown hotel in Louisiana and plans to reopen it as a last means of financial support.

Of course, the hotel has a history of sinister occurrences, not the least of which was the 1927 flaying and crucifixion of a painter named Schweick, accused of sorcery by a local lynch mob. And when a strange woman named Emily (Cinzia Monreale), who sports a pair of bizarre boiled-egg eyes, comes to warn Liza of impending danger, it gets pretty foreboding.

With Zombie stalwarts (cinematographer Sergio Salvati and composer Fabio Frizzi) along for the ride, The Beyond looks and sounds like the Fulci films of that era, but the barely-there plot and slow, deliberate sequences of mutilation transform it into something else altogether.

Examples: Liza's hotel is situated above one of the seven doors to Hell and, as such, is a gateway for all sorts of mayhem. The hired plumber, Joe (whom everyone seems to know and anxiously welcomes, including an unabashedly lustful maid) goes down to the flooded cellar to discover the source of the leak, only to be rewarded by having his eyes gouged out by a monstrous claw emerging from the wall.

The maid shows up and discovers his eyeless body with relative calmness, only to seriously freak out when she then sees a mummified corpse. This is one of many strange moments in the film. I mean, surely finding someone you had just moments before been panting after suddenly and violently deceased would be a lot more jolting than spying an obviously dead-for-years husk.

And in a hospital autopsy theater (as they call it), people keep ignoring the "do not entry" sign on the door. First, Joe's widow comes in to dress him in burial clothes, but when her young daughter, Jill, hears her mother scream (at what we never find out), she rushes inside to find the woman lying motionless on the floor with a large jar of hydrochloric acid slowly dissolving her face.

This is one of several sequences in which the victim seems to just lay there and allow the damage to occur. Furthermore, when a puddle of Mom oozes toward Jill in a crimson tide, she tiptoes away in  disgust.

Another wild sequence involves Liza's friend, Martin, who goes to the local library to find the hotel's original documents. Perched high on a ladder next to a shelf, he is frightened by a sudden and inconvenient lightning strike and crashes to the floor.

As he lay there immobile (of course), a group of tarantulas — yes, tarantulas — emerge from under a shelf and start to devour his face. As a combination of real aranchids and pipe cleaners attached to fishing line set about ripping out chunks of cheek and piercing his tongue, they make loud crunching noises and also sound like they're desperately in need of oil.

Much more mayhem occurs, including Jill acquiring a set of white peepers of her own and Schweick's corpse popping up at inconvenient times. Liza rushes into the arms of town doctor John (David Warbeck), who first doesn't believe her story until most of the mangled cast returns to shamble toward them in all their undead glory. They rush from the haunted hotel to the hospital to confront even more reanimated corpses, so they hurry down a spiral staircase to find themselves...back at the hotel.

Like its brethren in the trilogy, Beyond concludes on a grim and hopeless note.

There are two ways to take The Beyond. One way is to howl at Frizzi's inappropriately funky score during the stretched-out killings, as well as the obvious latex effects; the other is to get into the disjointed pacing and oppressive mood that Fulci was trying to convey, as well as admiring the truly fine frame composition and design of the film.

Whichever road you choose to take, The Beyond is a bizarre experience you're sure to remember. It's certainly not a quickie ripoff by any means.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Voices from the Hollyood Fringe Fest: Michael Evans Lopez and Maria Pasquarelli

I just spent seven days in Hollywood covering the Fringe Fest and I gotta say it was one helluva trip! There's so much talent and so much good work being done there. I wish it was all year long!

One of the most intriguing solo shows at this year's Fringe is The Inside Edge of the World (or Where Have All of the Good Serial Killers Gone?). It's a fascinating study of a wannabe forensics detective who communicates telepathically with his dog and is simultaneously dealing with the trauma of being brainwashed by a suicide cult.

It's an intense and complex piece, and writer/producer Michael Evans Lopez and director Maria Pasquarelli had their work cut out for them to delineate multiple characters and help audiences navigate a labyrinthian plot that's mysterious, compelling — and yes, humorous.

Michael and Maria were kind enough to answer some questions for me and provide some insight on the development and meaning of this puzzle-box of a play.

What was the genesis of the creative process here? What influenced you to write this piece?

Michael: Maria and I have been listening to a lot of Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch detective series in our cars on our long commutes to work. I started with the idea of a socially isolated character that has a particular interest in forensic criminology. A guy who goes to forensic science conventions and imagines himself tracking down serial killers. I imagined him becoming fixated with a suspicious character in his neighborhood and treating his dog as his own, personal Watson.

Then I went to an enormous Catholic wedding in Pittsburgh and was overwhelmed by the ritual of it. I kind of thought how funny it would be to have inexplicable rituals that seemed comical to anyone outside of the religion and that brought about the ‘cult’, which was highly influenced by my research on the Heaven’s Gate Cult.

It takes a lot of effort to delineate characters in a one-person show, and there are quite a few of them in the piece. How did you collaborate on making each character identifiable as an individual?

Maria: During our time at our respective graduate acting programs, Michael and I both had the opportunity to create and perform solo performances. Each school had their own methodology and reasons for putting us through these processes. I had the great fortune of working with playwright Luis Alfaro and one of the greatest takeaways I got from this work was to create a gesture for each character to help delineate one from the others.

So, we worked through the various characters, one at a time, to find a voice or gesture for each that was easy enough to transition through, but different enough to provide clarity to the audience.

Michael: Maria’s suggestions were instrumental in getting me started with differentiating the characters and, as I’ve done them, I’ve learned more and more who each one is and I think it helps me to provide a more complete feelings as I understand them more completely.

You cover a lot of topics in the show, including suicide cults, serial killers and guys who can communicate telepathically with their pets. What’s the overriding theme you most want to put across?

Maria: For me, this piece is about loneliness and an overwhelming human desire to connect to people. Humans need each other and are desperate for that connection, be it through religion, obsessions or imagination.

Michael: For me, I think it’s about how a person can build a world out of loneliness, fear and grief.

There are a lot of ambiguities in the piece that are intriguing rather than frustrating. Was it your intention to give audiences a chance to draw their own conclusions?

Maria: I feel like that was my exact intention. When I go see something or even read something, I don’t like it to be wrapped up in a tidy little bow at the end. I really prefer to be challenged to think for myself and draw my own conclusions.

Michael: I’ve been thinking about this piece kind of like a short story. There isn’t the same obligation to answer all the questions. It’s a peek into the world of your story like passing an open doorway and catching what you see as you go by.

How has audience reaction been to the show so far?

Michael: Overwhelmingly positive, but lots of questions, a good bit of confusion and several requests for a sequel.

What are your future plans for the piece? Do you have other festivals scheduled? Are you adapting it for other media?

Maria: We are just beginning to considering these options. Our original intentions were just to put something up for the Hollywood Fringe.

Michael: We’re having fun with it now and learning more about it. We’re definitely keeping an open mind. Fist The Mountain was started as an outlet for us to create original video content, so we might play around with adapting it.

What other projects do you have in the works?

Maria: We have a web series that I started after graduating from my MFA program at USC, which we want to finish up this summer. We also participate in the LA 48 Hour Film Project every year, which is a fun, crazy, slightly stressful weekend of filmmaking chaos. In November, we shot a short film that we are still editing, and hoping, once things calm down this summer, to put more time into. Our film from last year’s 48 Hour Film Project is currently in the festival circuit, so we tend to keep ourselves pretty busy.

Is this your first time at the Fringe? How has your experience been?

Maria: I participated as an actor last year and I have been a Fringe patron since year one, but this is our first time producing in the Hollywood Fringe. We are having a blast — seeing as many shows as possible with our crazy schedules. We have been making a lot of new friends and since we have a piece that we are excited to show to people, we really feel like we are a part of it all.

Have the two of you collaborated on other projects?

Michael: We’ve collaborated on a six-year relationship and a one-plus year marriage. We’ve provided a home for various pets — there was an Alec Baldwin, and Buddy is an amalgamation. With our video projects it’s been almost entirely me directing Maria. This reversal has been surprisingly pleasant.

Maria: Michael is much easier to direct than I am — at least when it comes down to us directing each other — I admit to getting entirely too defensive when he directs me, but we haven’t had any issues this time around. When people find out we’re married, their first question is always about how difficult it is to work together, but that’s just what we do, so I guess we’re used to it.

Michael: Yeah, Maria can get testy. As a director, though, she’s incredibly patient, she never panders to my need for her to laugh at what I’m doing and tell me how great I am. So, I work harder to please her.

What’s your opinion of Los Angeles theater in general? Where do you see it heading in the future?

Michael: This is a really interesting time in L.A. theater. The new AEA rules requiring theaters to pay union actors minimum wage is going to have a profound effect on our theatre community. Where previously, it’s been a kind of wild west and 'anything goes' approach, now it’s hard to say. The requirements will challenge L.A. theaters to focus on quality over quantity. I empathize with the challenges that small theaters have, but I also think ‘how wonderful to potentially be able to do a play, as an actor, and it not trash your bank account with wages you aren’t going to be making.’ I’ve lost jobs because I’ve chosen to do plays.

Maria: I’ve been a part of the L.A. theater scene since 2001 and I have seen it go through many changes over the years. I do have hope for the future. I believe that events like the Fringe bring a lot of notoriety and awareness to the theatre that is happening in Los Angeles. There is an overwhelming wealth of talent in this city and it’s not often used to its full potential. I am looking forward to whatever the future brings and — like Michael — am curious to see how small theaters will deal with and rise to the challenges.

The Inside Edge of the World plays the Hollywood Fringe June 22 and 27 at Theater Asylum's Elephant Studio, 1078 Lillian Way. Tickets can be obtained on the Fringe site.

Monday, May 18, 2015

George Miller's Spectacular 'Mad Max: Fury Road'

Pure action films are definitely a tricky business. If you hurl machines, bodies, and buildings at your audience for two hours without rhyme or reason, accompanied by a relentlessly crashing and slamming soundtrack, you risk inducing boredom.

However, if you present the same action in comprehensible, well-edited, and exciting sequences, you’re more likely to keep them riveted. Happily, George Miller has once again achieved the latter — in spades.

Miller, whose original Mad Max blasted onto the scene more than 35 years ago, makes a triumphant return to the Wasteland and, at age 70, shows that he’s still able to school younger filmmakers in how one does action right.

His outrageously exciting Mad Max: Fury Road is a garishly-colored jolt of adrenaline that strips plot to the barest minimum in order to deliver the bone-crushing goods. From its striking opening scenes, Fury Road hurtles us back into Max’s world, giving us in shorthand everything we need to know about the society in which he now dwells. No superhero, Max (Tom Hardy) is a mournful survivor suffering from PTSD who’s immediately kidnapped by the “War Boys” of Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne), the half-human, half-machine leader of a society of cliff dwellers that keeps its subservient populace under control with the occasional gift of precious water, pumped from underground wells to a surface that has been irreparably blighted by man.

Right off the bat, Max finds himself literally attached as a “blood bag” to insane War Boy Nux (Nicholas Hoult), who is desperate to earn the affection of his master and be carried henceforth through the gates of Valhalla. When word reaches Joe that one of his prize warriors, Furiosa (Charlize Theron), has gone rogue, kidnapping his harem of breeders and escaping his realm, Nux snatches his chance to get them back and earn his reward.

Thus the stage is set for a two-hour chase that, in less talented hands, would become stultifying, but Miller knows how to keep the engines revving. He’s always had a gift for populating his Max films with interestingly bizarre secondary characters, and Fury Road is no exception. In addition to Joe’s army of maniacal War Boys on a fleet of vehicles modified for maximum mayhem, there’s a canyon-dwelling motorcycle gang, a strange group of stilt-walking swamp-dwellers and — most surprising for this genre — a mob of elderly female warriors who provide a link to Furiosa’s past and hold the key to the world’s survival.

In a surprising but well-realized twist, it’s the feminism that Miller introduces into the film that is refreshing. Brian Tallerico at rogerebe


rt.com says the director consulted with no less an authority than Eve Ensler, author of “The Vagina Monologues,” on the script, and it results in a depiction of female empowerment that’s free of cliché and so rare for this genre. These women are here to take back the earth from filthy dictators like Joe, whose only interest is to spawn a male child — which flatters his disgusting ego, but is a dead end, reproductively speaking. Even the breeders, who could have merely been a simpering, cowering lot, have strong wills of their own.

As far as the performances go, Theron is magnificent as the conflicted Furiosa, who’d been snatched from her peaceful existence to slave for Joe (and lose an arm in the process) before finally rebelling to rescue the breeders to take them back to her Green Place. Like Max, Furiosa is a strong and silent type, but Theron lets us know what her character is feeling with her eyes.

Hardy’s Max is an impenetrable cipher at first, but he also manages to win us over. Initially loathing all human interaction (his opening narration informs us: “Who was more crazy? Me or everyone else?”), he aligns himself with Furiosa’s cause and even convinces the erstwhile antagonist Nux to fall into line.

As for Nux, Hoult goes full-bore in his depiction of this religiously insane character, kicking his pretty boy image to the curb with a bald pate, crazy eyes, and a painfully scarred torso. And, like Theron’s Furiosa, he’s got a soul in there somewhere just dying to come out.

The action, as previously mentioned, is off the hook, with Miller utilizing as many real stunts and actual mechanical vehicles as possible. According to the Miami Herald, he lured the 72 year-old Oscar-winning cinematographer John Seale (The English Patient, The Talented Mr. Ripley) out of retirement to give Fury Road a decidedly old-school vibe, including the familiar trick of undercranking the camera to give the action a surreal speed. Miller also bucked the trend of dark, washed-out post-apocalyptic films, and this one pops with vivid reds and oranges — and gleaming chrome. I was concerned about a score by a composer named Junkie XL, but it’s just as intense and orchestral as the earlier work of Brian May (The Road Warrior).

I saw Fury Road in 3D, and it’s fun, but it’s really not necessary to relish Miller’s terrific return to the genre he created.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

All That Chekhov: 'Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike' in San Antonio

How does Christopher Durang's acerbic comedy play in the hinterlands? Actually very well indeed. San Antonio's Classic Theatre finishes off its 2014-15 season with a well-mounted production of his Tony-winning play.
Vanya (John O’Neill) and Sonia (Anna Gangai) live together in their family home in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. Having spent the prime of their lives taking care of their now-deceased, theater-loving parents (hence the Chekhovian names), they’re middled-aged, unemployed and inexperienced in the ways of the world. Their housekeeper, the aptly-named Cassandra (Danielle King), is their only regular visitor, constantly delivering dire predictions that neither believes, and they spend their days waiting for the blue heron to come to the pond and arguing whether 10 cherry trees are enough to constitute an orchard.
Their existential malaise is interrupted by the arrival of their movie star sister, Masha (Emily Spicer), who breezes in with her much younger lover, Spike (John Stillwaggon) in tow. She also comes bearing upsetting news. Her career is at a standstill and she is forced to sell the house as she can’t afford to support her siblings anymore. Thus the stage is set for an evening of accusations, revelations and resentments — plus a dewy ingenue (McKenna Liesman) and a couple of dwarves.
Durang, best known for his biting comedies and satires (Beyond Therapy, The Marriage of Bette and Boo),  is in a mellower mood here. There are Chekhov references aplenty, but it's not overdone. His characters bicker and insults are flung, yet there’s a recognizable humanity within each of them. Perhaps he indulges them a bit too much in the second act, but there are many laughs in the piece, particularly when he can squeeze in such groaners as ingenue Nina deciding to start calling Vanya Uncle Vanya. And the Chekhov gloom is hilariously skewered when the sisters literally throw themselves to the floor in soul-searing agony.
The actors all inhabit their roles with skill. Spicer’s Masha delivers the right mix of narcissism and insecurity, complemented by Stillwaggon’s lunkheaded himbo. O’Neill’s Vanya is dryly acerbic at first but he catches fire with a lengthy second-act lament about way things used to be. King is clearly having a good time as the soothsaying housekeeper, and Liesman does a nice job as Nina, whose sunniness would be irritating if it didn’t feel authentic. Gangai has the meatiest role playing the adopted (as she frequently reminds everyone), perpetually-in-agony Sonia, and she makes the most of it. Director Diane Malone smartly keeps the staging simple in order to focus on the humor.
Speaking of staging, the Classic Theatre’s space is unusual. Tiered seating on both sides of the stage eliminates a back wall, which is effective for a single-set piece such as this. Scenic designer Karen Arrendondo takes full advantage of this configuration, transforming the entire theater into the family’s home, inside and out.

Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike plays Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m. through May 17 at the Classic Theatre, 1924 Fredericksburg Road, San Antonio. Reservations can be made online or by calling (210) 589-8450.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Concert Review: OK Go at the Aztec Theatre, San Antonio, TX, April 20, 2015

A whole lot of confetti was flying around San Antonio Monday night. Even as it was being flung at the Riverwalk for the annual Fiesta Week boat parade, the band OK Go was blasting tons of it inside the nearby Aztec Theatre on Commerce Street.

Perhaps most famous for its complex and colorful YouTube videos, OK Go has built a solid reputation as a multiplatform band whose concerts are equal parts musicianship and performance art, and Monday’s show was no exception. Filled to bursting with awesome sights and sounds, it was a great way to bring arena-style rock to a theater-sized space.

The band began its set standing behind a semitransparent scrim upon which the members’ distorted faces, mimicking the cover of its latest release, Hungry Ghosts, were projected. It was an effect that set the tone for the show to follow, mixing technology and live performance in a literally in-your-face manner. Seven songs from that album were performed, along with six from its 2010 effort, Of the Blue Colour of the Sky, and three each from its freshman and sophomore efforts OK Go and Oh No. And just to demonstrate its hard-rocking chops, the quartet kicked out a quite respectable cover of Led Zeppelin’s “Black Dog.”

Despite the stylistic evolutions the band has experienced over the years, from power pop to more serious-minded music, the set nevertheless flowed organically, augmented by some wicked stagecraft.


Interactivity was the overriding theme of the show, as frontman Damian Kulash conducted a couple of audience Q&As; he also used his iPhone to transform its clapping, stomping, and high-hat impersonations (you had to be there) into a percussion track. The singer even jumped into the crowd himself to render a lovely acoustic performance of “Last Leaf.”

Kulash’s vocals sounded terrific (you must hear his Robert Plant) as did the entire band, including bassist Tim Nordwind, drummer Dan Konopka, and keyboardist Andy Ross.

The visual spectacle was nonstop and mesmerizing—sometimes both the rear screen and the scrim would be alive with flashing shapes and colors to intensify the more psychedelic portions of the evening.

For the encore, the band reappeared dressed in identical white jumpsuits to bring the “A Million Ways” video to life as Nordwind lip-synched his original vocals. The neat trick was that when the suits were illuminated by blacklight, they became distinctively and brightly colored.

Closing with the inevitable “Here It Goes Again,” Kulash invited audience members up onto the stage to dance as even more confetti was fired into the air. I don’t know what was happening on the Riverwalk at that moment, but inside the Aztec, it was a joyous celebration indeed.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Great Performance: Christian Bale as Patrick Bateman

Before donning the cape to play Batman, before dropping 60 pounds to play the emaciated Machinist, Christian Bale buffed up to play one of his most memorable characters — arguably one of the most nastily iconic in film history — Patrick Bateman in Mary Harron's American Psycho (2000).

Bret Easton Ellis's original 1991 book was greeted with derision by critics, women's groups and even other authors, so when a film adaptation was announced, it seemed unlikely that it could ever become a reality. Production stalled as directors and stars popped in and out of the picture. David Cronenberg, Oliver Stone, Ewan McGregor and Leonardo DiCaprio were all in the running at one point, and Johnny Depp expressed interest, but nothing ever came of it.

Producer Edward Pressman, who shepherded the project for years, said that Harron (I Shot Andy Warhol) was the only director who conveyed a clear solution to bring the ultraviolent novel to the screen. Indeed, Harron's (and co-writer Guinevere Turner) idea of making the story the blackest of black comedies was not only inspired but assured the film's cult status for years to come. As a matter of fact, my inspiration for writing this piece was re-watching the film on Netflix last night and reading a humorous review just this week of the Apple Watch by none other than Patrick Bateman.

Rewatching Bale's performance, as he obsessively describes his morning ritual or waxes rhapsodic over cloying '80s music, is hysterical. It's also brilliantly controlled. And that's why he's the solo shoutout in this special "Great Performances" post.

In the first of his many body transformations for a role, Bale worked out with a trainer three hours a day, six days a week, in order to achieve the perfect shape that he fearlessly displays here, naked and blood-splattered.

As for the inspiration behind his character, Harron said that it was none other than Tom Cruise, whose "intense friendliness with nothing behind the eyes" was just the look that Bale wanted to bring.

The film is set during the very height of the vacuous Reagan '80s, when the young stockbrokers were riding (and getting) high, treating women like cattle and comparing business cards as if they were indications of penis size. Bateman's acquaintances and colleagues don't notice his cold-bloodedness because they're just as as shallow as he is. Being seen in the right restaurants and clubs with the right clothes and the right girls are all that matters to this crowd.

The women in this film are all portrayed as victims, but Harron and Turner give them recognizably human aspects and problems intentionally lacking in the guys. Reese Witherspoon, as Bateman's fiance, so anxious to have a perfect marriage, is blind to just how awful her betrothed is. The woman he's having an affair with (Samantha Mathis) is likewise too drug-addled to notice. And his pathetic assistant (Chloe Sevigny) is so insecure that she positively glows when he pays her the smallest of compliments.

The only man who displays any emotion is closeted Luis Carruthers (Silicon Valley's Matt Ross), who harbors a secret crush for Bateman and thinks he's finally getting his wish fulfilled when the killer sneaks up behind him in the bathroom, hands encased in leather gloves, ready to strangle. It's an uncomfortable scene as Carruthers turns around, thinks Bateman's coming onto him and kisses the gloves, telling him how long he's waited for this.

Andrjez Sekula's photography of Gideon Ponte's antiseptic production design is spot-on, especially in Bateman's perfect condo, where he's laid down newspapers in preparation for chopping up loathed associate Paul Allen (Jared Leto).

The three-way sex scene with two prostitutes (Cara Seymour and Turner) is at first hilarious as Bateman stares at himself in the mirror and flexes as he thrusts away. Then it turns to horror when one of them screams and the sheets become drenched in blood. Then, of course, there's the famous running-down-the-hallway naked with chainsaw sequence, and Bale's unbridled glee as Bateman stalks and kills his prey is priceless. And in a club, he tells a girl, "I'm in murders and executions," to which she blithely responds, "I don't know anything about mergers and acquisitions."

For a film wedged so firmly in a specific era and place, it's a tribute to the creators that it's standing the test of time. It's got its own Tumblr, of course, and just this week there were posts entitled "XX Things You Didn't Know About American Psycho" appearing online. Pretty good considering it was declared doomed from the start and Bale was even warned by his friends that taking the role was career suicide.

Now if you'll excuse me, I have to return some videotapes.

Monday, March 30, 2015

It Followzzzzzz....

Critics are tripping over themselves to praise and read a great deal of significance into It Follows, a modestly-budgeted thriller that attempts to mix a retro vibe with postmodern horror and comes up empty-handed.
Infuriatingly sluggish and elliptical, It Follows certainly could’ve been a clever homage but nothing much happens and it doesn’t make much sense. Writer/director David Robert Mitchell seems to want to evoke memories of the ’70s and ’80s thrillers (especially Halloween) with widescreen cinematography and a nonstop synth score, but he skimps on the suspense and gory payoffs.
it-follows
Not worth following.


The film opens promisingly enough with a distraught girl staggering out of her house in a state of confusion and driving out to Lake Michigan. Sobbing on the dark beach, she calls her father one last time to tell him that she loves him, and then there’s a shock cut to her horribly maimed corpse lying in the sand as the sun rises. It’s reminiscent of the discovery of the corpse at the beginning of Spielberg’s Jaws…and that’s really about all there is to it.
Next, we’re introduced to Jay (Maika Monroe, also in The Guest, another problematic retro-thriller), a normal, sexually curious high schooler who can’t wait to bag her new boyfriend (Jake Weary). Once she does, however, he chloroforms her, ties her up, and tells her that he’s transferred some sort of killer curse to her.
As she writhes in terror, he gives her the whole rulebook  — she must pass the curse on to someone else as soon as possible or a creature — that only she’ll be able to see — will kill her, go back to get him, and continue down the line to collect its earliest victims. Plus, it has the ability to look like anybody. Then he drives her, barely conscious, back to her house and dumps her in the street.
Mitchell takes the “sex equals death” theme that drove the Halloween and Friday the 13th films to its literal extreme, but it’s a tedious and ultimately empty journey. It’s attractively photographed by Mike Gioulakis and has some interesting visuals, but unless you’ve always feared being trapped in an indoor swimming pool while some undead creature is hurling kitchen appliances at your head, it doesn’t add up to much.
Anyhow, we’re dragged along for an endless ride as Jay, her sister (Lili Sepe) and friends (Keir Gilchrist, Olivia Luccardi and Daniel Zovatto) try to outrun whatever sinister shapeshifter is following her as Rich Vreeland’s Carpenter-inspired score cranks on endlessly.
The director’s retro fetish extends to vintage cars and old-school tube televisions everywhere, constantly broadcasting 1950s sci-fi flicks (as in the original Halloween). What at first seems clever becomes a risible conceit, to the point where we see VHS tapes sitting on a table next to the actors. All I could think was “They must be way overdue.”
As for the creatures, they shamble along in a Carnival of Souls/Let’s Scare Jessica to Death manner, and for some reason, a few of them are naked, as if that’s supposed to make them more horrific. Probably the creepiest aspect of the whole production is when the kids travel into Detroit itself. It looks like a war zone, with its boarded-up houses and silent streets. And when they go into one of the gutted homes to discover strung-up cans and bottles hanging from all the windows, serving as makeshift burglar alarms, it’s reminiscent of all the bones and feathers hanging in — you guessed it — The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.
 It Follows is one of those films you get about halfway through and realize, with a sinking feeling — “This is all there is to it, isn’t it?” Sadly, it is.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

The Woodlawn: A San Antonio Musical Theater Gem

As a recent transplant from Los Angeles, where I covered theater for several years, I was most interested in checking out the stage scene upon my arrival in San Antonio last fall. As fortune would have it, the first show I reviewed was the annual production of The Rocky Horror Show at the Woodlawn Theatre, featuring RuPaul’s Drag Race stars.

I was impressed by the elaborateness of the production and the talent on display. Subsequent shows I’ve seen there — including White Christmas and The Addams Family — were similarly well-crafted, and my curiosity was piqued. So, in preparation for the Woodlawn’s upcoming extravaganza, La Cage Aux Folles, I thought I’d take an opportunity to get a behind-the-scenes look at the theater and the people who make the magic happen.

The Woodlawn opened in 1946 as a single-screen movie house (remember those?). John Wayne premiered his 1960 film The Alamo there, but the rise of multiplexes and home video in the 1980s almost sounded the death knell. Fortunately, the building was able to escape destruction, and in 2012 it found a new life as the home to one of San Antonio’s foremost musical theater companies.

Greg Hinojosa becoming Zaza
Not only does the Woodlawn provide the community with great live theater, it serves as a valuable resource for those who work — or want to work — in the field. There’s also a year-round Children’s Theatre Program that offers classes in drama for the younger generation. Additionally, the theater contributes to the local economy and the regeneration of the Deco District.

Greg Hinojosa serves as the artistic director for the Woodlawn. He oversees the artistic integrity of all the Main Stage productions and directs four of them himself per year. He teaches classes and workshops through the Academy for the Performing Arts and Community Outreach programs. In La Cage, he’s also taking the role of Albin/Zaza, and he is enthusiastic about participating in this fun and flamboyant show among such terrific talent.

La Cage's director, Tim Hedgepeth, is equally happy to be working at the Woodlawn on this production. He considers this theater his good luck charm, having previously launched his own musical theater company there. He’s also delighted to be reunited with musical director Andrew Hendley and choreographer Chris Rodriguez. “I lucked out in getting Andrew and Chris. We have all worked together, on different shows at different times, and it’s such a pleasure that La Cage is the the first one that brings all three of us to the table at the same time.”

'La Cage' in rehearsal
Hendley, who has been working in local theater since 2001, says, “The musical talent pool in San Antonio continues to grow. We have such talented singers, dancers and performers that it makes working with casts a breeze.” He leads a band of eight musicians for La Cage. Live music is a hallmark of the Woodlawn, and it makes a big difference.

About the local theater community, Hedgepeth says, “I think we are in a very good, creative place. I worry that theaters are sometimes competing for limited audiences, and I’m not sure if that’s a good thing or not. What I really appreciate are the numerous opportunities for theater artists to work in a variety of venues around town.”

As for the Woodlawn itself, Hedgepeth calls it “a grand and sometimes terrifying, glorious old picture palace in which echo the voices of old Hollywood and present-day San Antonio.” It’s certainly a great house for the productions being staged here throughout the year. Upcoming shows include Mary Poppins, West Side Story and American Idiot — an ambitious slate indeed.

La Cage Aux Folles plays Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 pm and Sundays at 3 pm (except April 12 at 7:30 pm) from April 3 to May 3 at the Woodlawn Theatre, 1920 Fredericksburg Road, San Antonio. Tickets can be obtained online or by calling (210) 267-8388.

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