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Thursday
Nov082018

MONKEY BUSINESS // A THEATRE REVIEW OF "KING KONG THE MUSICAL"

BY MATEO MORENO

 

Before I delve too much into anything specific, let's just say off the bat: KING KONG is amazing. The puppet that is. It's a mouth dropping wonder, one that comes to life right in front of you and shows more emotions and nuance than the entire cast put together. And every single puppeteer deserves all the credit in the world. They hop up and down and all around, bringing every inch of Kong to life (off stage, the "Voodoo operators" work their magic on Kong's face and somehow bring a genuine sense of wonder and heartbreak to the giant beast). From the first thunderous roar to the well-deserved final bow of the evening, the 50-foot star of the show deserves ALL of your applause. As for the rest of the show. Well....not so much.

 

The plot pretty much resembles the original 1933 film with a few changes, and even more changes from the Australian World Premire from a few years ago. Gone are the island natives to fight, as are the dinosaurs (though there IS a giant snake that seems straight out of a bad Godzilla movie and long vines that are... maybe alive?). Also missing is the love interest or any character other than Anne (Christiani Pitts), the film director Carl Denham (Eric William Morris) and a random character named Lumpy (Erik Lochefeld). Instead the plot centers completely on Anne moving to NY to become an actress but failing. Since she's broke and apparently been living in Central Park (though we only see about three minutes of her "journey"), she's out of options. A film director that doesn't at all seem sketchy tells her she needs to be in his next picture! That has no script! And is taking place far.... away... (if you're thinking this sounds like a kidnapping, you're not the only one). But remember, she's out of options, so she jumps onboard of Denham's movie to be shot in a location that he tells no one, but we all know it to be Skull Island. Once we arrive, Kong appears and takes the reins from everyone else.

 

Director and Choreographer Drew McOnie has pieced this epic show together with such a breakneck speed that you would think perhaps the fast-paced plot is because the world is ending. I mean, why else open with a dance number so chaotically frantic as this one (it's like seventeen dance numbers all in one, and not in a good way) and then rush through the plot instead of ever stopping to explain much of anything with the human characters? The dance style is all over the place, as is the very bad score by Australian songwriter Eddie Perfect. The good news is that there's really not that many songs. The bad news is that there's not one good one. Seriously. Not one. Hearing this score makes me REALLY scared to see Beetlejuice, Perfect's next Broadway tuner. The background score by Marius De Vries (La, La Land) is much more effective, setting the mood and pushing along scenes nicely. Which begs the question: Why is this a musical at all? If we've learned anything from epic blockbusters like Harry Potter and the Cursed Child or War Horse and epic disasters like Ghost or Spiderman: Turn off the Dark it's that a Broadway spectacle can tell a story WITHOUT song and dance, especially in the fantasy realm (not that War Horse is a fantasy, but can you imagine if the horses would have had taps on their hooves? Thank God for small miracles).

 

Yes, there's a lot of missteps: The giant Snake/Kong battle is the definition of lame and is half blocked from the audience randomly by a giant sheet of ice, and the Skull Island jungle has some really bad left-over set pieces from Tarzan and Spider-Man, making it feel like a few things were sitting in the alley and the director went, "Eh. Why not?" But there are some shining moments. Christiani Pitts is a more than serviceable Anne Darrow, one that, in an inspired casting choice, is African American instead of the typical Caucasian blonde. Though her character is written fairly unlikable (She really does screw over Kong badly and then in Act II can't stop talking about herself), the actress does share some lovely small moments with the giant Beast. She also has some laughable bigger moments (her "scream/roar" is pretty dumb), but it feels more like bad direction than acting. The same can't be said for Eric William Morris who overacts an underwritten role, and Erik Lochefeld who really does next to nothing, but you can tell that book writer Jack Thorne really wanted you to "feel something" with his character. Speaking of Thorne, there has been a good amount of criticism over Mr. Thorne's co-adaptation of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child and although it's not perfect, I will continue to defend it, having seen it on stage several times and been moved by the dialogue as much as the magic. The book for King Kong though is wretched. I feel like he wrote it in a weekend. And he was also really, REALLY busy that weekend. And possibly drunk.

 

So, after all of that, I couldn't POSSIBLY still recommend it, right? But I am. Because of one thing: Kong. Actually, I take that back. Because of Kong and all of his puppeteers. Not only was I completely enthralled with the puppet himself, but I also was thrilled watching the team climb on and off his back, sling down on wires, and climb up his back like a million worker bees. I'm not saying go spend $500 dollars on this. But see it for the spectacle. See it and be wowed by the scenic design (the boat trip to Skull Island is pretty great as well). And maybe hum a different tune as the songs come on, because you won't care about Perfect's score, but you will care about the Beast.

 

GRADE: C-
Music by Eddie Perfect and Marius De Vries Lyrics by Eddie Perfect Book by Jack Thorne Directed and Choreographed by Drew McOnie Starring Christiani Pitts, Eric William Morris, Erik Lochefeld. Playing at The Broadway Theatre, 1681 Broadway, NYC. For more information and tickets: https://kingkongbroadway.com/

 

Wednesday
Nov072018

A PROPHET'S SONG // A FILM REVIEW AND DIVE INTO THE MAKING OF "BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY"

BY MATEO MORENO

It's an almost impossible task, asking any filmmaker to tell the story of Freddie Mercury. He was such a larger than life personality. His flamboyance and raw, fiery talent could trample over even the best filmmakers. So, it comes as no surprise that the latest effort to tackle the late, great Mercury BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY is a mixed bag, anchored by one hell of a performance by Rami Malek, channeling the 4-octive king with a surgeon’s precision. He doesn't just play Freddie. You'll believe he IS Freddie. He also added his own vocals into recordings of Mercury's, only adding onto an already red-hot take. This is the kind of performance that doesn't mimic; it envelops you and grabs your hand on the journey.

 

Part of the identity issue is that there's a lot of cooks in the kitchen. This particular-cinematic vision has been in the works for a few years. Famously, Sacha Baron Cohen signed on to play Mercury, set to start shooting in 2011. That deal fell apart when Cohen's vision of the tale (a more "raw, truthful, R-rated" journey into Mercury's personal life) clashed with the surviving members of Queen's version (they had creative control, or at least did back then and they wanted a more PG mainstream version). According to Cohen, they wanted a Mercury AND Queen movie, even telling about this exchange between himself and Queen on The Howard Stern show:

 

“A member of the band - I won’t say who – said: ‘You know, this is such a great movie because it’s got such an amazing thing that happens in the middle.’ 'What happens in the middle of the movie?’ He goes: ‘You know, Freddie dies.’ I go: ‘What happens in the second half of the movie?’ He goes: ‘We see how the band carries on from strength to strength.’ “I said: ‘Listen, not one person is going to see a movie where the lead character dies from AIDS and then you see how the band carries on.’”

 

Oof. Yeah, let's just be thankful THAT movie was never made. Either way, the project continued, going from director to director until Bryan Singer (The Usual Suspects) jumped on board. Rami was cast, and the rest is now on screen. Well, partially. Turns out Singer has a few...let's say issues, and didn't quite get along with everyone on set, notably Rami. He was, according to sources working on the film, emotional and reckless. He was late to set. A cast member briefly quit, due to his behavior and when Singer threw a piece of electrical equipment at a wall during a dispute, Malek had had enough. He made a formal complaint, but everyone hoped to trudge through to the end, since two-thirds were done. Singer ended up asking to shut down the set, so he could leave town. It was denied but he left anyway, forcing the studio to fire him, replacing him with Dexter Fletcher to finish the film. And watching it, you can slightly feel the disjointed storytelling, though I don't fault Mr. Fletcher or any of the very talented cast. But it's there.

 

It's also strange that the film plays very fast and loose with Freddie's life, glossing over major moments in his life, putting his battle with AIDS almost completely out of the picture, as well as his Bi-Sexuality. The film even prefers to label him "gay" and although he chose never to label himself, he had long relationships with both men and women until his death, while his final partner was a man. The film seems to be a "mass audience approved" version of his life, never getting too dark or too emotional. Former Queen manager Jim Beach is listed as a producer, and fellow Queen band members Brian May and Roger Taylor were creative consultants. In other words, they wanted to tell the "happy family" story, which, after watching this film, is very entertaining. But it's not quite his story. It's also fast and loose with facts, and though many stories are, one that has Beach and May and Taylor involved shouldn't be. Such as the fact that in the film, the Band breaks up, so Freddie can do a solo career (which, by all accounts didn't happen) and then he returns to them after having contacted the HIV virus. This helps inspire him to make up with the band, as he doesn't have much time left, and they decide to do Live Aid. Trouble is, this was 1985 and Mercury wasn't diagnosed until 1987. So, to use that as a storytelling device feels kind of wrong. It also feels a bit one sided with his relationship with the Queer community. In the movie, he doesn't have any, at least any healthy ones, except for his final love Jim Hutton. To not include his Queer live fully is to not tell his story fully, which this sadly does not.

 

All THAT being said, Rami Malek's performance is extraordinary, and one that is likely to nab him an Oscar nomination (the rest of the supporting cast all turn in strong turns as well). He has all the fire and gusty that Mercury had, and the final, almost shot for shot of the Live Aid concert is exhilarating and truly wonderful filmmaking. The movie is entertaining, and on first viewing I really liked it a lot. It wasn't until after I began thinking of it were there issues that arose. If only there wasn't more of his personal journey, the story of what made him feel like an outsider, what made him feel both Queer and Straight, it would elevate Bohemian Rhapsody above a very well-made movie of the week. Instead, it would become a classic that Freddie would approve of. I think Cohen's version was probably too much. I think this version is too thin and I long for what could have been created in the middle. Perhaps one day we'll see that vision and the ghost of Mercury will sing louder than ever before.

 

MATEO'S GRADE: B
WRITTEN BY Anthony McCarten and Peter Morgan DIRECTED BY Bryan Singer UNCREDITED DIRECTION BY Dexter Fletcher STARRING Rami Malek, Lucy Boynton, Gwilyn Lee, Ben Hardy, Joe Mazzello, Aidan Gillen, Tom Hollander, Allen Leech, Mike Myers, Aaron McCusker. Now playing in cinemas everywhere.

 

 

Saturday
Aug042018

SHAKEN AND STIRRED // A FILM REVIEW OF "THE SPY WHO DUMPED ME"

BY MATEO MORENO

McKinnon. Kate McKinnon. Though she is technically the supporting character, THE SPY WHO DUMPED ME is unequivocally her film. The insanely talented comedian from SNL has one by one begun building a resume outside of the famous sketch show that catapulted her into stardom and show that she is a force to be reckoned with. The film starts off with a birthday party in Los Angeles mixed with an action sequence shootout in Lithuania. You know, as most films do. Audrey (Mila Kunis) has been dumped and her friends have come together to celebrate her birthday. Her best friend Morgan (Kate McKinnon) is loud and loyal, the kind of friend that movies usually try to tell you are too ridiculous, but we all know we have one of them in our life, and they're amazing. They bond is solid, they'd do anything for each other, and Morgan is determined to make Audrey forget about the jerk who dumped her (Justin Theroux, better known as Drew or to be a bit more clear, the Spy in the title). 

 

Eventually, Drew shows back up in LA and Audrey and Morgan get mixed up in all of the shenanigans. He entrusts Audrey with a secret, one that she must get to Vienna, and so they go. And I say both of them because there is no way either of them would leave the other alone in this mess. And that's what's refreshingly different about this buddy comedy. There is no oil and vinegar match. They don't hate each other a second in this film. They are best friends and the most reliable person each of them can count on. Not only does that seem obvious, but it's radically rare in a film. And although there is romance sprinkled throughout the film, it's literally and afterthought, as the main show is these two ladies and the fact that they are somewhat bumbling, but they're also pretty good at this.

 

 Director Susanna Fogel (who co-write the script with David Iserson) directs the film with a snappiness and sharpness that keeps the film zipping along. The action is sometimes brutal (after all, we are in a spy film) and the punchlines are usually wonderfully sharp (one highlight is a fantastic car chase in an Uber that really cements any notion that these two are simply made for each other). There's also some great supporting turns from Hasan Minhaj, Jane Curtain, Paul Reiser, Gillian Anderson, Ivanna Sakhno, and Sam Haeughan (who trades his Outlander Scottish wear for some more form fitting clothes). Yes the film is just a tad too long in the final act, but that hardly matters with Kate McKinnon literally tearing up the screen in every possible frame. Mila Kunis essentially plays it straight, but her great chemistry with McKinnon helps sell the relationship solidly. It's not rewriting the playbook of buddy action films, but it's doing it better than usual. And that's something to celebrate.

 

MATEO'S GRADE: B+

SCREENPLAY BY Susanna Fogel and David Iserson DIRECTED BY Susanna Fogel STARRING Mila Kunis, Kate McKinnon, Justin Theroux, Hasan Minhaj, Jane Curtain, Paul Reiser, Gillian Anderson, Ivanna Sakhno, and Sam Haeughan. Now playing in cinemas everywhere.