REVIEW – For Grace – Cinequest

Perhaps I’m too enamored of a well-made documentary, but I find the contrived documentary a tired device when not done well. My general rule is if you’re going to break that 4th wall, it better be for a very specific and effective reason. It ought to be an imperative, consistent choice that assists in cultivating audience focus and not actively impeding it. For Grace is an earnest film with a unique story that unfortunately seems to get buried by an overly forced format and a too present camera.

While there are some lovely visual shots that allow us a peak at the intimacy we want more of and use of silences that speak volumes are rewarding, the dialogue feels improvised and hesitant instead of fresh and authentic, further muddling the journey and losing us along the way. While these characters are played by a compelling cast and I applaud the inclusion and resolution of the film, I just wish it had been put together with a more cohesive, compelling, and a more personally palatable frame.

I’m frustrated by this film because I genuinely like the message and arc of the film’s plot, but I feel the positives have to fight too hard to be seen and heard through the clunky meta style. The superficiality of the delivery undermines the momentum and impact the story could have. I kept being pulled out of the moment and wondering if this could have worked better as an actual documentary or a closed, straight dramatic narrative. My answer each time I asked came back with a resounding yes.

While I can award an E for effort and intent, I can’t be as supportive for execution I’m afraid.  A 3 out of 5 jewels in the review tiara for a good film caught in an awkward purgatory of genre. For Grace has 5 more Screenings at Cinequest.

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REVIEW – Momento Mori – Cinequest

Haunting, informative, suspenseful and cleverly constructed, Momento Mori is a hard to watch, but impossible to turn away from documentary film. What could have easily been a clinical, invasive and/or dry film is made captivating with particularly smart editing and considerate camera work. These tremendously personal stories of organ donors and recipients are intertwined with the fascinating technical and logistical world of organ donation and the vehicle in which they are delivered didn’t disappoint.

Well-paced and appropriately untidy in its conclusions, there’s a natural flow to this film.  Time is of the essence and the urgency of each minute that passes and the painful eternity of each minute spent waiting is captured perfectly. Like the seamless beat of a heart, it doesn’t linger too long on any one thread or skip about abruptly. We have just enough time to digest the magnitude of the situation unfolding in “real time” and still remain objective, preventing emotional consumption. We’re invisible flies on the wall, observers skating the precipice of life and death.

This film stirs up so much admiration for the strength of the subjects, such awe for any surgeon that calls any transplant “routine” and such compassion for the realities of all involved. How far we’ve come and yet how much chance still seems to influence outcomes is a humbling juxtaposition explored from start to fishing in this film. Philosophical and Scientific, Momento Mori receives  4 out of 5 jewels in the review tiara for a truly interesting film that skillfully balances its lens between observer and participant and successfully steers clear of bias, giving a fair and in the moment portrayal of a modern fact of life…and death…and the hope of new life. Momento Mori has 4 more screenings at Cinequest.

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REVIEW- Charley’s Aunt ’66 – Douglas Morrisson Theatre

Every so often I see a show that I’m relatively certain I’m the last on the planet to see. Such is the case with Charley’s Aunt which until last week I had somehow missed despite being assured it is frequently done. I feel slightly less embarrassed at this oversight due to the fact that The Douglas Morrisson Theatre has mounted a new adaptation that no one had seen up until opening weekend. Though miraculously unfamiliar with the original play, Charley’s Aunt ‘66 is indeed quintessential farce with a plot that is simple and predictable enough to understand the appeal. While I can’t speak to how it holds up to the original exactly, I can say there was much to chuckle about and be amused by in this version.

Locally made for local audiences the script hosts a plethora of tailored, geo-located joviality, poking fun at local rivalries and taking on a self-deprecating air at times. Placing it in the Bay Area and in the 60’s is a fun and colorful palette both politically and visually and affords the play additional liberties and opportunities for humor.  The 1966 date stamp made it easier to explain away any out dated/traditional farcical components that the playwright (for plot reasons) likely wasn’t able to change or use to emphasize a timely political point. It’s a production that uses all the heightened comic tools in the arsenal of farce (repetition, asides, malapropisms, repetition, grand gestures, repetition etc.) but still surprisingly nuanced in places. Some of the joke don’t land or try a bit too hard (some inside theater jokes teetered on the too-meta-for-me-side) but in general this is cast with exceptional delivery that make it work.

It’s the cast that is perhaps the most difficult to describe here.  There’s a district comedy dynamic I haven’t seen in a really long time working serious magic on the stage. Their presentations are charming, highly-stylized, and enjoyably physical. With elements reminiscent of Commedia dell’arte, Vaudeville, and  even The Three Stooges, the physical paired exceedingly well with the cleverly written/well-paced banter. In the scores upon scores of shows I see in the Bay Area, I saw takes, choices, and exchanges I had NEVER seen before. I’m a hard sell and I was caught off guard by how funny this show was in places. Subscribing to the age-old comic format of louder, faster, funnier and fueled with fantastic facial expressions and perfect pauses, every last member of this cast seemed to be enjoying themselves and that joy of craft was visible to the audience to an endearing end.

I’d be hard pressed to think of a show where the sound and light design played such an integral part of the play’s humor. Expertly executed by astute board ops, the gimmick was, well, gimmicky, but easily embraced. There’s a method to the madness and once you get use to the theatrical devices and accept them as part of the farcical nature, it’s easy to really enjoy and respect this piece. Costuming as you can imagine is also full of flare – literally and figuratively. There was some gratuitous de-shirting – though no one was complaining, at least not within earshot. The set did its thing (as I find it always does marvelously at this theater) and while it took a long time to get to what we know will be a tidy and satisfying solution, I  genuinely liked the look and feel of this show.

It’s a confounding, intriguing, motley little beast this show, and quite a likeable one from where I sit. An obvious collaborative group effort, truly its success attributed to all the artists on both sides of the stage. Rich with rapport and wit, despite a few challenges, this is a genuinely light and amusing show. A lively 4 out of 5 jewels in the review tiara for a refreshing romp, firmly situated in the “campy” zone and complete with a superbly committed cast and production team. Charley’s Aunt ’66 plays through March 5th at the Douglas Morrisson Theatre in Hayward.

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PREVIEW – Cinequest Film & VR Festival – Princess Picks 2017

It’s here, it’s here! The most wonderful time of the year! CINEQUEST! In just a week the streets will be flowing with lanyard wearing cinema-heads, the Stella will be generously flowing and the viewing venues will be occupied with laugher, tears, shifting perspectives and everything in between. There will be celebrities of the now sure, but even more exciting there will be artists making debuts and break-outs. It’s time to see some fantastic films as part of some of the most enthusiastic audiences you’ll ever find. My film guide is highlighted, my screeners are queued up, my Cinequest app has populated various film viewing permutations into my mobile phone calendar; I’m primed and planned and I’ve picked as I do every year, a relatively arbitrary list of films I’ll be seeing based entirely on my perusal of the festival guide. In no particular order, here are the Princess Picks!

Vincent and the End of the World – I’m terribly over films about disenchanted generations of the millennial kind, but… if anyone can make this trending topic  work, I wager throwing in a crazy French aunt is about as successful a device as one could imagine. Everyone loves a crazy aunt, and if she’s French, so much the better. I’m a firm believer that crazy French aunts somehow get away with delighting where others would be scorned for being totally trite. With enough style, panache and well… “Frenchness” we might just be able to save the world. I’m inclined to think I’m going to like the cut of this film’s jib. And if I do not, I can wittingly toss my head back and throw up my hands and exclaim C’est la vie!

Memento Mori – I’m absolutely fascinated by medical technology. Second only to space exploration in my amazement over  how far we’ve come in such a short time is my reverence and wonder in regard to advances in medicine. Even after 54 pints, it blows my mind every time I donate blood. As a Lasik eye surgery patient, it is still unfathomable to me how fast and easy some progress seems now and how we still have such strides to make. I just recently filled out a questionnaire to consider becoming a live kidney donor for a friend. It’s a hugely complicated process that is closely regulated and vetted, taking many months to match, evaluate, approve, prepare and complete, but it is in my eyes a miraculous, fascinating process I’ve considered to at least explore. This documentary film takes place in a transplant hospital. It intrigues me because of the science, because in a way it’s personal research, and also because that realm of life and death that has been blurred by the ability to recycle an organ is tremendously moving to me. It’s a human intervention that begs a deeper philosophical and spiritual conversation, one that I hope to get the chance to have after I’ve seen the film.

Flesh and the Devil – Every year at Cinequest I select a film as my “birthday” film. It my not fall exactly on my birthday (March 12), but I choose a film I think will appeal to the wide variety of tastes shared by friends from all walks of life and I invite them to come celebrate with me in the dark of a theater. Every year also I can’t WAIT to discover which silent film will be shown in the gorgeous California Theatre, with professional live accompaniment. This year I was excited to discover that the 1926 Flesh and the Devil starring Greta Garbo and real life flame and oft co-star John Gilbert was being shown. And so… what better way to start a weekend and celebrate a birthday than getting gussied up in a glittering gown, doing up your eyes all smoky (okay, I’ll totally have to get an assist from the cosmetic counter at Nordstrom for that), and watching a classic cinematic scandal unfold with a bunch of friends from the balcony of a decadent theater. I think this calls for champagne… or perhaps this evening requires a thigh flask? What would Greta do?

The Black Prince – Aside from being a bit obsessed with Victoria on PBS’s Masterpiece right now, I couldn’t pinpoint exactly why this film jumped out at me. Perhaps it spoke to my crow-like tendencies (it looks really sparkly). Maybe because I know NOTHING of this story, era and very little about Indian culture? Maybe because my identity as “royalty”  is one I can relate to? Not sure, but it grabbed me, so I’m grabbing it back.

The Bullish Farmer – I’m a sucker for a story that proves that each of us can make a difference and a film that inspires each of us to stand up and make that difference. The Kaiser Permanente Thrive Award films always succeed in inspiring and challenging the individual. These films nearly always highlight difficult but solvable problems, those that dare to go against the grain, and help to connect us to our communities and world. I trust this will be a film ripe with opinionated conversation at the Q and A too; another great resulting consequence of thoughtful documentary film making and intelligent, engaged Cinequest audiences.

The Commune – One of the great opportunities of Cinequest is to reach outside your comfort zone and intentionally see a film you might not enjoy. There is almost nothing in the description of this film that attracts me to it, but I figure in that way, it serves as a pretty fitting metaphor. If the characters in the film can explore different sides of themselves to what seems like a pretty dysfunctional and dramatic end, so can I. I might learn something and I might be surprised. Risk taking is part of the festival lifestyle.

The Death (and Life) of Carl Naardlinger – I spend a good portion of my time thinking about parallel universes, choice, and destiny. As a totally charmed, super lucky, very fortunate girl (I mean eerily and inexplicably so in some ways) with a strong sense of intuition and a healthy respect for “things happening for a reason,” I’m definitely drawn to films that explore these themes. This one appears to do so and with the extra bonus of it being done artfully and humorously. This has a high probability I think of coming out one of my favorites of the festival.

Revenge (Hevn) – Sometimes it just comes down to a thriller filmed amongst fjords. That’s all. Why elaborate? Maybe all of Norway’s high stakes psychological dramas take place with a stunning geographical backdrop, but I surely haven’t seen such a film. Thank Odin for Cinequest, no?

The Zookeeper’s Wife – And this years nomination for most likely to make Susannah cry goes to…a film who’s trailer I saw last month in the movie theater and… cried. Dude. Normally I’d run screaming for a film that can melt my cold exterior inside of 90 seconds, but I couldn’t turn away. It looks absolutely stunning. Heartbreaking, but just beautiful. And, as a girl who’s sat on the advisory board of the local zoo for the last 6 years, OMG LOOK AT ALL THE ANIMALS. Let’s just say I can relate to animals better than most people and given our current political climate, I’ve thought a lot about WWII lately. This may not be the “high” note laugh riot we all want to end the festival on, but I have no doubt the cinematic achievement of this year’s closing night film is going to move its audience. Just remember to bring a healthy supply of tissues with you. We can all meet at the bar afterwards for a good group cry, okay?

Every year without fail I line up in advance to see the Animated Shorts, Docunation (Documentary shorts) and Comedy Shorts. The short format is a lovely storytelling platform, these programs are exceptionally curated and I always walk away appreciating the art for arts sake that is signified by each of these films. You do not get rich or famous by making a short film. Well, rarely. But the talent is unquestionable when you sit down to see a short at Cinequest.

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REVIEW – Luzia – Cirque Du Soleil

I’ve been trying to figure out for the last week how to express my feelings on Cirque du Soleil’s most recent touring show, Luzia. How to do Luzia justice in words when it is such a visual and aural dessert. No quality or amount of words seem appropriate or fair. To unintentionally limit this show with words would be like trapping an exotic butterfly; it just shouldn’t be done. This spirited show needs to be seen and heard in its natural (and surreal!) state. I’m compelled/inspired to attempt to share, but I’d also understand if you simply stopped reading the impossible. I’d encourage you to overt your eyes from the commercials and numerous videos taken from audience members (booooo, I hate this new “allowed” trend), not take in a single review with specific visual spoilers (I’ll speak in ambiguity here) and just grab your tickets and experience Luzia in all its luscious, saturated hues of joy and explosive celebratory awesome.

I’ve been fortunate enough to see 7 Cirque shows to date, and I’ll venture to say Luzia breaks the mold (a very effective, successful mold at that) in just about every way. It is nature and science and mythology, architecture, history and community in the boldest visual feast I’ve seen. I wasn’t prepared for just how beautiful the show was. Stunningly so. Every last detail, down to the trim on the bloomers that peak from beneath layered skirts that flow and flip with every leap and physics defying feat. With the most integrated and vitally intertwined soundtrack to me since Alegria, and a strong choreography component that assists in creating the most cohesive story of any Cirque show I’ve seen, the first act particularly is a wonderland. Each act and scene transition floats, soars, side steps, plunges and wades through rich, whimsical dreamscapes, whispering and shouting to the artist in us all.

By every measure the expectations of the technical (which are set pretty high to begin with) were blown out of the water, especially in the first act. What a treat. What a show. What jaw-dropping, unexpected magic around every corner from innovative, truly unique, custom technology. So artful, so complex, layered and with such an emotional result I could not have been more in the moment up through intermission. Such heart, such soul, such humor and astounding puppetry I hadn’t seen in any cirque show prior used masterfully in storytelling. And, by far the most brilliant clown I’ve ever seen anywhere. Side splitting, well crafted, superbly entertaining clowning all around.

Act two in my mind couldn’t possibly compete with the exhilarating over stimulation and momentum of the first act, and while I’d say for me it did have a different feel, a less childlike, imaginative exuberance and more of a spiritual, mature, reflective undertone, it didn’t diminish or tarnish in any way the overall experience. Act two simply contained my least favorite acts, though neither were in any way poor. In truth, I’m never going to be able to handle contortionists; the act offends my sensibilities more than people who don’t use their turn signals when changing lanes on the freeway. I’m sure he was great, but I’d rather watch surgery if truth be known. This is a standard, expected act that just isn’t likely to ever to make me feel anything but nausea. Juggling is another core act in any Cirque show and while the juggler was as skilled if not more so than others I had seen, I didn’t feel there was a unique hook with his act. It seemed the least meaningful of all the acts.

But, back to the injustice of words. I really can’t recommend this production more highly. I really can’t. This extra-sensory, otherworldly, colorful Mexico flavored candy is not to be missed (a phrase I don’t use lightly or often).  5 out of 5 jewels in the review tiara. Luzia, A Waking Dream of Mexico plays through March 19th under the Big Top at the Taylor Street Bridge in San Jose.

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REVIEW – Disgraced – San Jose Stage

All you theater pieces providing a pleasant escape from the angry buzzing clutter of real life and a temporary break from discouraged, rage-engaged, politically charged Facebook feeds, take a step forward. Ah-ah-ah, NOT so fast Disgraced at San Jose Stage. Nice try. I know you were written in 2006, but don’t think that little fact will allow you to hide amongst the “art for entertainment’s sake.” Laugh riot, fantasy-fueled, no-brainer you most certainly are not. Don’t you dare try to blend into the landscape. I see you there with your highly topical, thought-provoking, self-examining, shock and awe intensity. Your triggers and powerful parallels did not escape me. You cannot hide. Nor should you.

Indeed, with a script so timely (or STILL so timely) I had to wonder if my experience would have been different had I seen it 3 months ago, or even a week prior. This show raises and examines a lot of questions and is crafted in such an honest, tight way, that we don’t have time (or inclination) to struggle to make excuses or justify anyone’s actions. You have time to watch and feel in the moment as it unfolds, but not take sides – a difficult, but supremely effective structural device. It’s so evenly presented it feels in many ways like being on a jury, instructed to take in all the evidence at face value. Moments of intensity (at levels I rarely feel in theater these days) are made possible by the brutal trifecta of the well-written material, a current political environment that looms uncomfortably just below the surface of the depictions witnessed on stage, and talent that seems to comprehend their material exceptionally well.

This intimate cast navigates the modern material directly and with genuine nuance, not giving in to over acting or “acting” to be honest. The emotional arcs are well traversed by a cast with palpable chemistry and each character/actor has moments of strength and weakness. While all the performances satisfied, the actress playing Jory stood out as nearly flawless. She somehow managed to gift the audience access to a map – pinpointing each moment of her emotional evolution to an exact latitude and longitude. We got her. We knew exactly where she was coming from and I think unanimously enjoyed her journey.

Disgraced also give us another great San Jose Stage set complete with an exceptional lighting design, a suggestive and provocative sound design, and solid staging that flows as naturally as the dialogue does. The authentic realism threaded into every element of the technical design was totally appreciated. Among the technical components were two large challenges that needed to live up to expectation and couldn’t detract from the realist momentum of the production. One of two (I can’t give either away) definitely succeeded in a gasp-I- didn’t-see-that-coming kind of way. The other might have been a damn near impossible effect given the build-up, but it was certainly much better than I was expecting. Both were moments that were hard for theater, but would have been easy for film, which always ruffles my feathers. I like my theater to be written for the stage exclusively without hints of “wouldn’t this moment work better as a film?”

A good production though heavy and disturbing, Disgraced demands 4 jewels out of 5 in the review tiara. It’s eerie, provocative and a darkly relevant production that might change you. It will likely shed some new light on your own perspectives and prejudices. It will certainly cause some silence while you process and then conversation after experiencing it. Disgraced plays through February 26th, 2017 at the San Jose Stage in downtown San Jose.

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REVIEW – A Day in Holywood, A Night in the Ukraine – Palo Alto Players

Low on plot and high on shtick, Palo Alto Players’ production of A Day in Hollywood A Night in the Ukraine, is a truly peculiar, motley mix of old Hollywood tunes and vintage Marx Brothers. While maybe not the most mentally demanding, this light and silly shows certainly gives your brain a brief chance to relax from its likely state of political outrage. It’s not serious in the least except in its professional presentation, and it’s a show that as far as I’m concerned is in the right place in the right time.

For the first half, our ensemble ushered in a musical revue sprinkled with old Hollywood stories, slapstick and creatively presented, classic tap dance numbers. A talented cast delighted with their dance, amused with their acting and impressed with bonus musical skills. Packed with hummable tunes and toe tapping throughout, The Production Code number was a joy and a half, showing off some great tap skills (hardly ever seen these days.) Even the set design highlighted the humor, whimsy and nostalgic grandeur.

The cast all seemed to have the vocal prerequisites, but not everyone seemed to hit the mark in the singing department. It very much seemed a case of good singers not singing their best that night. With just two lovely pianos providing the core musical accompaniment, staging that made use of aisles and the full height of the stage, and some initial echo in the mics, this may just have been an issue of not being able to hear themselves correctly. While a handful of less technically precise performances did create an unfortunate balance and consistency issue, ultimately there was so much else going for the show, it wasn’t an insurmountable obstacle.

I’m sure when you’re considering producing this show you look at obtaining a strong triple threat cast all around, but a Groucho for the second act is essential. It’s a high bar that history set and luckily, our Groucho is sheer perfection. His timing, impossibly rubber body and palpable rapport with rest of the cast and the audience was everything you’d want in a comedy. The second half runs the gamut from smirks and chortles to snickers and full-fledged laughter thanks in large part to Groucho.

Chico had a charm to spare and a mischievous smile that went on for days. Harpo was everything you’d expect too and the three had a chemistry that felt supremely fated. Madam P brought the house down with her stuffy, straight-laced, straight man/woman played expertly in contrast to the chaotic mayhem that whipped around her. Our lovers shone bright in their gloriously dim naiveté. It was an act that was over too quickly for me.

Indeed, this is an endeavor well worth the venture for a toe-tapping escape of much-needed laughter. 4 jewels out of 5 in the review tiara for a fun night with gimmicks galore and a throwback to the glamour days of cinema. A Day in Hollywood, A Night in the Ukraine plays through February 5th, 2017 at the Lucie Stern Theater in Palo Alto.

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