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Wednesday, February 28, 2007

El Mejor Verle Con, Mi Querido 2/28

I saw a couple of foreign films during the last weekend that I thought I'd share with you.

Cronos (1993)

The plot: An ancient device finds its way into the hands of an old antique dealer with unexpected and dire consequences.

Anybody else out there like vampire movies? Yeah, I thought so. Cronos, an early film for director Guillermo Del Toro (Blade 2, Hellboy, Pan's Labyrinth), throws an interesting spin on the familiar undead fable. Very creepy and very clever, if I have one complaint about this movie, it's that it's entirely too short. I wanted more of the story. I wanted more of Federico Luppi's haunting performance as the gentle old man reluctantly transformed into an immortal creature of the night.
This movie isn't for everybody. There is definitely an "ick" factor here, which normally I don't care for, but this movie is so visually powerful that I was willing to overlook it.
Oh yeah, Ron Perlman is in it, too. That alone gives it instant cult status.

Zorro (1975)

The plot: Oh come on, it's Zorro! Corrupt officials are oppressing the underprivileged villagers. A hero dons a black cape and mask and gives them what for with a sword and a bullwhip. Ole'!

This was a movie that I had some trouble tracking down for a long time. You see, I'm an awfully big Zorro fan, and I intend to see every movie, television show, or serial ever made about the masked avenger. This "spaghetti western" version of the swashbuckling adventure has been out of circulation for quite a while.
It's a shame, too, because, while the Spanish/Italian (even IMDb doesn't seem to be clear which country this film belongs to) sense of humor may be a bit quirky for American audiences, the cinematography and action sequences are impressive. The final sword fight is over ten minutes long! French actor Alain Delon makes for a very charismatic Zorro and chews scenery masquerading as the foppish governor, and Stanley Baker is excellent as the villainous Colonel Huerta.
If you can find this film, I definitely recommend it for fans of Zorro or just fans of adventure films in general.

Current Denver Theatre Recommendations:
Paragon's Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune running through March 10th.
Metro State's Once On This Island running through March 4th.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

By the way . . .

Since Denver theatre recommendations is what this blog is about (that, and serving as an outlet for my irrepressible ego), I thought I'd make (or repeat) a couple.

This is the last weekend for Metro State's Once on This Island. Fun show.
Paragon's Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune runs through March 10th. A must-see!
And, in one of my rare sight-unseen recommendations, Paragon will be presenting their week's installment of Suzan-Lori Parks's "365 Days/365 Plays" project on Wednesday, February 28th at 7:30 p.m. at The Phoenix Theatre. Admission is only $1000.00 per person or $1800.00 per couple.
No, it's free. It's free. It is. But, for those of you who haven't heard, The Phoenix is for sale. If it hasn't already been snatched up by someone who wants turn it into a parking lot, the asking price I heard is $500,000.
I have $37.26 to contribute. (If I skip my haircut, I have $43.76.) What do you say, folks? Let's pool our resources and save the Phoenix.
Seriously, though, does anybody have a rich uncle?
The Phoenix is home to quality dramatic companies like NextStage and Paragon and others. It would be a shame if these companies had to add "finding a space" to the long list of other things they have to do to keep providing quality, thought-provoking live entertainment here in the Mile High City.
Support local theatre!

The Deal

Somebody asked me the other day, after reading the last part of my tirade a few weeks ago about handicapped parking spaces, "What's the deal with the shows you review?" (This question has been asked a few other times as well.)
Well, first, I don't exactly review shows. "Review" suggests that I write both the negative and the positive about a show I've seen. No, when it comes to local theatre, I just give recommendations: shows that I think are worth seeing.
I started my e-mail list (which evolved into this blog) originally, because I saw a really terrific local production (Boulder Broadway Company's Bat Boy) that had a dismally small audience. To me, that was unjust. I'd seen a number of sold-out houses for "mediocre" shows at some of the more established theatres around town who shall remain nameless (for now, but they'd better step it up).
So, now, I try to spread the word about good local shows that I see, with a few caveats that I have mentioned before but perhaps warrant both re-iteration and elaboration.:

1) I don't recommend shows that I didn't like. This one should be self-explanatory.

2) I don't write about shows that I see on closing night or if they're only a one night deal. It's too late for me to get them more audience members, so what's the point? If I really liked the show, I may reference it when talking about another show by the same company or actors or even mention it at the end of the year among other well-done shows I saw that year. On occasion, I may recommend a short-run or one-night-only show sight unseen if I really think it's going to be good, but that's really going to be rare.

3) I don't recommend shows that aren't performed in wheelchair accessible theatres. I have a number of friends -- ha, ha, I know, okay, okay -- I know a number of people who are in wheelchairs or who have other accessibility concerns. If they aren't able to watch your show (in a reasonable and dignified manner), you don't get to complain about small audiences. Everybody gets in, or you're on your own for promotion.

Now, I hope that answers the questions that some of you have had. Now, if I could only get the answer to my question: Why the hell does anybody care?

Monday, February 26, 2007

The Better to See You With, My Dear 2/26

I saw a movie again last night that I like but really shouldn't. It's no Ghost Rider, but it does have just enough wrong with it that it really doesn't belong on a favorites list. Certainly not mine. And, yet, there it is.

The January Man (1989)

(I'm not crazy about IMDb's plot synopsis, so I'll do it myself.) Someone is killing women in their apartments at the rate of one per month. There is no connection between the victims other than that they were strangled with a blue ribbon. Mayor Flynn (Rod Steiger) insists that Police Commissioner Frank Starkey (Harvey Keitel) re-instate his genius brother Nick (Kevin Kline), whom Frank had fired two years earlier under suspicion of graft. This does not go over too well with Nick, now working as a fireman, because he greatly resents his successful brother both for firing him and for marrying Nick's ex-girlfriend (Susan Sarandon). Nor does it please Nick's former captain (Danny Aiello) who regards Nick as little more than a troublesome beatnik. Nick agrees to come back and tracks down the killer with the help of his painter neighbor (Alan Rickman) and the mayor's daughter (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio), who was friends with the last victim.

Okay, you see the names: Kline, Keitel, Aiello, Sarandon, Steiger, Mastrantonio, and Rickman.
The script is by John Patrick Shanley, playwright of Savage in Limbo and Doubt and screenwriter of Moonstruck.
So, why isn't this a better movie? Well, director Pat O' Connor doesn't really have a stellar track record, but it's not a list of stinkers, either.
Mostly, I think that the movie is miscast. Now, each of these actors is good enough that they can be horribly miscast and still create a believable, three-dimensional character, but they're stretching. And, since they're all stretching, this movie definitely has a tension to it. Thankfully, there are enough funny lines and situations to relieve the tension. Rickman and Kline are memorable in their roles, and you tend to forgive everyone else because their efforts are evident. However, there are a few major goofs that the genius detective makes: First, the number "1" isn't technically a prime number, and, second, the "anti-strangle" device he develops is shaped in such a way that the ribbon would just slide up to the top and still strangle the victim. (Yeah, I'm a bit of a nerd at times, I know.)
I like this movie, I do. I just don't know why. Tell you what: Rent it on DVD and see if you don't have a similar reaction.
On a side note, John Patrick Shanley also wrote and directed another of my inexplicable faves, Joe Versus the Volcano.
In the interest of increasing the "interactiveness" (I may have just made that word up) of this blog, why don't you click on the comments section and share some of your favorite "bad" movies? Oh, come on! It'll be fun.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

The "Spel" of Musical Theatre

I saw a fun show Friday night: Once On This Island over at the King Center on the Auraria Campus. The show is produced by the Metro State College of Denver Theatre Department, which also produced last year's Robber Bridegroom -- a show that I've raved about here and in other areas around the net. Naturally, Island has some "big shoes" to fill, following Robber Bridegroom in the season. It doesn't quite reach the same level, but it's still a good show, and many of the Bridegroom cast members are in the show. I saw Courtney Capek dancing her little heart out in the ensemble. (That makes her a "triple threat." I'm telling you folks: remember that name.)
A tropical fable loosely based on Hans Christian Andersen's "The Little Mermaid", Once On This Island is filled with exuberant dancing, beautiful music (by the Ragtime partnership of Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty), and a sad and beautiful love story.
On a side note, all of the posters, flyers, and other promotional materials (including at least one HUGE banner) all misspell Lynn Ahrens's name as "Ahers." I think that's just a little bit . . .
. . . HILARIOUS! (MTI's going to be so peeved.)
Anyway, good show. It runs through March 4th. Add it to your list of "fun things to do and see in Denver."
Also on that list should be:
Performance Now's 42nd Street, (last weekend!) and Paragon's Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune.
Have a nice weekend, support local theatre, and don't waste your money on Ghost Rider.

Friday, February 23, 2007

Frankie and Johnny at the Phoenix

Emily Paton-Davies has become one of those actors for whom I will go see any show she's in -- even if it's Tennessee Williams . . . or Grease. She is eminently watchable and a perfect example of the talent that we have here in Denver.
Emily's performance in Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune further solidifies her reputation as one of the best actors in the city. What a joy, then that Paragon Theatre's current production at the Phoenix not only showcases Emily's considerable talent, but also pairs her with another of Denver's best actors, Thomas Borillo, as Johnny.
If you're not already familiar with Terence McNally's brilliant and award-winning play, you're missing out. If you know the show already, you can just imagine how beautifully it's handled by this cast and director, Michael Stricker.
But why imagine? The show runs through March 10th. See it with someone you care about. Or someone you could care less about. Just see it.
The dialogue and performances are realistic and raw (in more than one sense), so if you're offended by frank sexuality, coarse language or nudity, then . . . well, then, why the hell are you reading my blog?
(No nudity, you say? How little you know . . .)

By the way, this is the last weekend for Performance Now's 42nd Street. Catch it if you can!

The Better to See You With, My Dear 2/23

The last two movies I watched are:

Ghost Rider (2007)

Synopsis from IMDb : Based on the Marvel character, stunt motorcyclist Johnny Blaze (Nic Cage) gives up his soul to become a hellblazing vigilante, to fight against power hungry Blackheart (Wes Bentley), the son of the devil himself (Peter Fonda).

I grew up reading comic books: Spiderman, Batman, Superman, Green Arrow, and several others. Naturally I am a bit possessive of some of my childhood icons, so, when they are made into big-budget, feature-length films, I am always wary. I don’t like to see these characters cheapened, trivialized, or misrepresented. I am pleased with directors who care enough about their subject matter not to simply make special-effects-driven, poorly-acted, poorly-written, melodramas in spandex. (The movies, that is. The directors can wear whatever they want.) These directors succeed in elevating the material as they translate it to film. Sam Raimi did it for Spiderman; Richard Donner did it for Superman; Tim Burton did it for Batman; and Ang Lee did it for the Hulk. (Some of you may disagree with that last statement. That’s okay. I don’t mind letting you be wrong.)

I did not read “Ghost Rider” with any regularity as a kid, so I wouldn’t call myself a real fan. After seeing Ghost Rider: The Movie, yesterday, I must say I feel sorry for those who are fans.

What a terrible movie! The dialogue makes “Seventh Heaven” look like “The West Wing.” The only actor who seems to be able to pull it off at all is Sam Elliott, but that guy can make a beef commercial voice-over sound like it was written by Elmore Leonard. Nicolas Cage’s Johnny Blaze evokes Elvis (ooooh, shocker!) in both characterization and costume. As I said, I didn’t regularly read “Ghost Rider,” but I also don’t recall Johnny Blaze possessing the inexplicable quirk of “sipping” jelly beans out of martini glasses or being a devotee of the Carpenters. Plus Cage is just bad. This is less apparent, however, whenever he shares the screen with Donal Logue or Eva Mendes, who appear to have thrown out all of their previous theatrical training and attended the prestigious Andie MacDowell School of Acting specifically for this movie. Mendes is absolutely wooden as Cage’s love interest, but at least she looks good -- so much so, in fact, that her cleavage may actually have separate billing (and, frankly, gives a far more effective performance).

Story discrepancies abound. Nicolas Cage is safe from the bad guy demons in a cemetery because they cannot step on “hallowed ground.” Not long after this revelation, we see one of the demons kill a priest inside a church. (Huh?)
I think this movie was pushed forward before the script was ready because comic-book fan Nic Cage wanted to make a superhero movie before he was too old. (He may have just missed it.)

The special effects are pretty cool, if a little inconsistent, but, at times, they only seem to confuse the story more. When in full Ghost-Rider-mode, the motorcycle explodes windows it passes, melts a trail in the asphalt, and even fries a Gila monster at one point. And there aren’t even any bad guys at the time. I wonder what Ghost Rider’s deductible is on his superhero liability policy?

Basically, Ghost Rider was an hour and fifty-five minutes of my life that I can never get back. If you’re that curious, wait for it to be released on DVD, then wait for your neighbor/friend/cousin to rent it and ask to borrow it.

Do not spend money on this movie! It’ll only encourage them.

Failure to Launch (2006)

Synopsis from IMDb : At 35, Tripp (Matthew McConaughey) has an interesting job, a hip car, a passion for sailing, and a great house - trouble is, he lives with his parents (Kathy Bates and Terry Bradshaw). They want him out, so they hire Paula (Sarah Jessica Parker), an "interventionist," who has a formula in these cases: chance encounter, get him to ask her out, involve him in a trauma, meet his friends and get their nod, delay sex, have him teach her something, then launch him. It's worked up to now, but this gets complicated when Tripp thinks she's getting too serious and one of his pals is attracted to Paula's deadpan, semi-alcoholic roommate, who's plagued by a mockingbird. Too many secrets may scrub the launch, and what if Paula really likes him? Who can intervene then?

Well, it's better than Ghost Rider.
Oh, be forewarned. I would have avoided this movie altogether if someone had simply warned be about one scene by saying the following four words: "Terry Bradshaw's naked backside." (Of course, some of you freaks are probably into that sort of thing.) That scene alone was as scary as Ghost Rider wanted to be.

Last weekend for Performance Now's 42nd Street. I highly recommend it.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Come and Meet Those Dancing Feet . . .

Now, I must tell you. I’ve never really been a big fan of 42nd Street. Yes, the music is pretty catchy. However, the book is so “Aw, shucks!” hokey that it makes the book for Wicked look like Ibsen. (That’ll make me some friends.) The big draw for a show like 42nd Street is the dancing, and, unfortunately, putting together enough really talented “hoofers” on a limited budget this far away from the big cattle calls rarely happens. Then, what you end up with is a show with cute songs, cheesy lines, and adequate dancing. Thank you, but I’d rather stay home and look for “Rockford Files” re-runs on cable.

Not so, though, with Performance Now’s production of 42nd Street currently running at the Lakewood Cultural Center. Artistic Director/Director/Choreographer Nancy Goodwin has assembled a powerhouse ensemble that easily does justice to the (twice now) long-running hit Broadway musical.
The absolutely electric execution of Nancy’s impeccable choreography is worth the price of admission alone (only $20 for adults!), but there are also some really stand-out individual performances by some of Denver’s best. Kristin Hathaway is dead solid perfect as Dorothy Brock. (Kristin is always fantastic, but she seriously blew me away this time.) Bryan Bell barely touches the ground as the energetic Billy Lawlor. Lyndsay Dru Corbett stole my heart (again) as Anytime Annie. Mark LeBeau, Jr. is great fun to watch. (I so wish that more of you out there had seen Mark as the title character in Boulder Broadway’s Bat Boy.) Carla Kaiser Kotrc’s hilarious Maggie Jones steals every scene she’s in and, I think, a few she isn’t. (It’s Carla. We’d expect no less.) Eric Lentz’s Julian Marsh is absolutely bigger-than-life. Surprisingly not “bigger-than life”: Eric’s wife Jill, dancing away on-stage (amazing as ever) carrying their second child. (Dancers can hide anything!) Congratulations Eric and Jill!

Now, ladies and gentlemen, get out pen and paper.
Write at the top: “Ones to Watch!”
Underneath write these names:
Melissa Benoist (award-winning ingenue of THAC’s Cinderella and more)
Courtney Capek (Of MSCD’s award-winning The Robber Bridegroom and more)

Next add the name Maddie Franke as Peggy Sawyer in Performance Now's 42nd Street.
As much as 42nd Street relies on its dancing and strong ensemble, the musical lives or dies on the beauty, charm, grace, vocal talent, and rock-solid dance chops of its Peggy Sawyer. Young Miss Franke disappoints in not a single one of these areas. Now get this: she’s still in high school!

So write down those names, put them away in a safe place. Then, in a couple of years, pull them out and brag to your friends about how you knew what stars they would become.

Now, when I called to get tickets, I was told that all performances were sold out. However, I am told this a lot. (I have to stop using my real name.) I did manage to get a ticket, though. (I told them I was David Ambroson. They sat me in the back. Tough break, Dave.) From my vantage point, I did notice a few available seats. Some were singles. Some looked as though people had not shown up. (They have no idea what they missed!)
Be persistent. Be willing to sit in a separate seat from your companion. See this show! It’s definitely worth it. Definitely.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

The Better to Hear You With, My Dear, 2/10

I just want to throw a quick "shout out" to Denver DJ, Robbie Knight, who is, in her own words, a frequent reader of my blog. Thanks for logging on, Robbie. She can be heard on radio station KQMT, "The Mountain" at 99.5 on the FM dial (one of my personal favorites). Robbie also has her own page over at the Mountain's website.

Here's some of the music playing in my ears this week (and recently loaded onto my new iPod):

The Barenaked Ladies - Are Men
This is a very nice album for fans of the Barenaked Ladies (of which I am one). The ironic wit and clever lyrics that fans have come to expect from the guys is there, as are the hummable melodies. The instrumentation and vocals are as tight as ever. Unfortunately, this is no Born on a Pirate Ship, but maybe it doesn't have to be. Is it necessary that every album in a band's portfolio out-do the one previous? The record labels would say yes, but we as music fans don't necessarily have to do the same. This album doesn't set the world on fire, but it's still pretty good. One particular highlight: the Bush administration is taken to task in the scathing, "Fun & Games" as only BNL can do.

The Decemberists - The Crane Wife
When a band from Portland, Oregon adopts a name that references the 1825 Russian revolt in St. Petersburg, you can bet that this isn't going to be your average indie rock band.
The subject matter is very literate. Three of the songs are inspired by a Japanese (if I remember correctly) folk tale about a poor man who rescues an injured crane, nurses it back to health, and sets it free. The next day, a woman arrives at his door. They fall in love and marry. She tells him that she can make him rich by weaving silk, but he must promise never to watch her while she weaves.
As the man becomes richer and richer, he becomes greedier and greedier, wanting his wife to weave more and more silk. He doesn't notice that her health is decreasing rapidly. One day, he can't help himself, and he goes to her weaving room and opens the door. There he sees a crane at the loom, plucking feathers from it's skin and weaving them into silk. The crane sees him and flies out the window never to return.
Another song, "Yankee Bayonet" is a sad and beautiful duet about a Union soldier and his love back home.
Musically, this is the best Irish rock/pop band I've ever heard that isn't actually from Ireland. I really love this album, and I highly recommend it.

Friday, February 9, 2007

The Better to See You With, My Dear 2/9

Crossroads (1986)

A Juilliard student (Ralph Macchio) travels cross country with a blues legend (Joe Seneca) hoping to learn a "lost song" of Robert Johnson.

This movie starts out reasonably well. Eugene (Macchio) is a classical guitarist at Juilliard whose true love is the blues, and he tracks down septuagenarian blues legend Blind Dog Fulton aka Willie Brown (Seneca) who was once a playing partner of the late, great Robert Johnson, played in flashback by actor/guitarist, Tim Russ (Tuvok, to trekkies.) He is convinced that there is a lost blues song by Johnson, and that Blind Dog can teach it to him. Blind Dog only agrees to teach the song if Eugene breaks him out of a detention center and they set off across country to Fulton's home in Mississippi. On the way, they encounter Frances, played by Jami Gertz, who was apparently hired for two two purposes: to over-act and to look good. Both of which she does, particularly the latter. (Nothin' but the dog in me.)
Macchio is less annoying than usual, and mimics guitar-playing very well, though his "blues face" is a bit laughable at times.
The movie de-rails because of a sub-plot that can't decide if it wants to stay a subplot:
Blind Dog sold his soul to the devil, and he aims to get it back before he dies.
This seems to come out of nowhere, but at least culminates in a spectacular guitar showdown between Eugene (actual guitar-playing by Ry Cooder) and the devil's man, Jack Butler (rocker Steve Vai.)
If you like blues guitar or are a Ry Cooder or Steve Vai fan, this movie is worth checking out. Otherwise, just skip it.