Friday, August 20, 2010

Bloody Vengeance in the Dominican Republic

If you’ve ever wondered what it’s like to visit part of the Dominican Republic tourists never see, or what it’s like to be an immigrant from the D.R. in the mean streets of New York City, ‘La Goga” is a film for you.
Shot in the D.R. and The Bronx, “La Soga” is a tale of survival of a tough kid, Luisito (Manny Perez, who also wrote the screenplay), who was 10 when he witnessed the murder of his butcher father in a burst of random violence by local drug lord Rafa (Paul Calderon).
Luisito, known as “La Soga” (the rope) has become a government sanctioned assassin, with a license to kill drug dealers and other baddies at will.
Rafa has fled to New York, and Luisito desperately wants him deported so he can extract his revenge.
So Luisito goes about his bloody business, but he is getting soft and reckless. When he oversteps his bounds and he is called for it, he realizes Rafa may not be the primary source of his country’s misery.
“La Soga” is not for faint hearts. The character of Luisito is a vegetarian for a good reason, and we see explicitly why with a gruesome slow-motion butchering of a life pig and some luckless chickens. This with the conscionless brutality of both the bad and good guys is a bit hard to take.
Director Josh Crook does have a point: violence begets violence and corruption begets corruption. The same dictum applies the world over.

Kevin Kline Just a Gigolo in "Extra Man"

“The Extra Man” is an old-fashioned comedy of manners. Though it is set in contemporary Manhattan, it has a prelude set in the late 20s or early 30s, when F. Scott Fitzgerald was in his prime.
Fitzgerald is a literary hero of Louis Ives (Paul Dano), a prep school literature teacher who is dropped from his post after an embarrassing incident.
Desperate for a job, Louis finds work as an entry-level employee at an environmental magazine New York City.
Louis has very little money, so he seeks out the cheapest apartment he can find.
When he answers an ad for a room to rent, he meets Henry Harrison (Kevin Kline), the unconventional “extra man” of the title.
An “extra man” is another term for a professional escort or walker. A retired teacher with thwarted literary aspirations of his own, Henry makes a precarious living off rich women who need a man on their arm at social functions.
The role is perfect for Kevin Kline, who is masterful as a rueful, yet dignified Chaplinesque character.
Louis and Henry are an odd but oddly-suited couple. Both men are lonely and both are flawed. Louis is a compulsive cross-dresser; a quirk that doesn’t bother the actor-ly Henry at all.
Henry feels like a failure, and having a young friend and confidant is rejuvenating for him.
This film is dominated by Kevin Kline, but there is a small but interesting supporting role by Katie Holmes as a green-obsessed co-worker and potential love interest for Louis, and John C. Reilly as a flakey neighbor in Henry’s neighborhood.
Based on a novel by Jonathan Ames, “Extra Man” is a small, bittersweet film of interest to people who feel nostalgic about vanishing New York and vanishing dreams.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

An Imperfect Affair at Caldwell Theatre

It’s not a good sign when I don’t know quite what to say after seeing a play.
At least I know what the title, “The Comfort of Darkness,” means. This world premiere production of a play by Joel Gross continues through Sept. 5 at Caldwell Theatre Company, 7901 N. Federal Highway, Boca Raton.
Concert pianist Maria-Theresa von Paradis (Jessalyn Maguire) has been blind since age 3. Blindness has been no impediment to Maria-Theresa’s career. She can read Braille as fast as sighted people can read a book. If anything, the darkness has been a comfort zone into which she can retreat.
Dr. Anton Mesmer (Stevie Ray Dallimore) thinks otherwise. He sees Maria-Theresa’s blindness as a curable mental affliction, and he believes he can cure it through “animal magnetism,” which is his term for an early form of hypnosis.
Maria-Theresa von Paradis and Dr. Anton Mesmer were real-life figures who lived in Vienna in 1777. Mesmer’s name inspired the word “mesmerize;” to put someone under a kind of spell.
Playwright Joel Gross, who visited Boca Raton to consult with director Clive Cholerton on the production, used the story of doctor and patient as a what-if springboard for an unlikely but perhaps inevitable romance.
Thereby perhaps lurks the problem. Broadway actor Robert Cuccioli (“Jekyll and Hyde”) was originally billed as star of the Caldwell production.
For whatever reason Cuccioli bowed out, and now Dr. Anton Mesmer is played by Stevie Ray Dallimore.
Dallimore is a handsome devil, but looks are less important to this role than personal magnetism. Mesmer literally has the power to probe into a person’s psyche and change that person’s mind. Despite dramatic finger-pointing flourishes, Dallimore just doesn’t quite radiate that power.
Jessalyn Maguire has a delicate, fragile beauty that is perfect for Maria-Theresa von Paradis. Though she is only 22, Maria-Theresa is a confident and secure woman who is quite comfortable with her disability.
I think the playwright’s point is that some people use disability as a shield from deeper emotion. When the doctor messes with the patient’s cozy little world, he creates more problems than he solves.
The real Dr. Mesmer died poor and discredited. In this play his best friend, Dr. Otto von Stoerk is the voice of reason and bridge between the medical establishment and Mesmer’s more far-out theories.
It’s a rather thankless role for Ken Kay, who was a stalwart at Caldwell for many years, and is now is executive director of the Burt Reynolds Institute for Theatre Training.
Even more thankless is the role of Dr. Mesmer’s patient Francisca Oesterlin, played by Jane Cortney as one of the doctor’s earlier conquest/cures.
I guess the heart of the problem is that Dr. Mesmer is a quack, and his speeches sound like so much poppycock. Why any woman would fall under this guy’s spell is the real mystery of this ornate, beautifully-costumed and designed but oddly unmoving period piece.
Tickets are $38 and $45. Call 561-241-7432 or visit

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Portait of a Wimpy Geek as Superhero

I loved "Scott Pilgrim vs the World." so did all three of my daughters. Here's what I wrote.

For a movie based on a graphic novel and video game, “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World” is awfully clever and entertaining.
Everybody’s favorite wimp, Michael Cera, plays the 22-year-old title character, a dreamy slacker who has no proper job but dreams of fame and fortune with his Toronto garage band, Sex Bob-omb.
In the band are guitarist Stephen Stills (Mark Webber) and drummer Kim Pine (Alison Pill).
If you know about rock culture, you know Stephen Stills as a famous guitarist, singer and songwriter. Equally famous is Canadian singer-guitarist Neil Young, who is referenced in Bryan Lee O’Malley (original story) and Michael Bacall's (screenwriter) script as Young Neil, Stephen’s roommate, played by Jeremy Simmons.
The plot is simplicity in itself. Scott encounters the girl of his dreams; a roller-blading, crazy hair dye delivery person named Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), and immediately falls for her.
This is despite the fact Scott already has a girlfriend, “Knives” Chau (Ellen Wong). Knives is only 17 and still in high school, and for that reason Scott gets razzed for robbing the cradle. His relationship is quite chaste however, and it is more a crush on Knives’ part.
Scott and Ramona are connected on some sort of intuitive, cosmic level, despite the fact Ramona is clearly out of Scott’s league.
There is a major roadblock to romantic happiness. Ramona has seven evil ex-boyfriends, and Scott must fight them all to win her hand.
And so the plot is basically an extended fight, with Scott facing a parade of challengers, with fight scenes enhanced by animation, graphics and video game visual and audio effects.
Now I can’t claim to be a part of video gaming, but I know a romantic underdog when I see one, and Michael Cera has that role down pat. The martial arts part is a lot harder to believe, but thanks to the magic of CG effects, Cera seems to rise (literally) to the occasion.
Credibility is not the strong suit for this or any comic book adventure. It’s all about fantasy, and director Edgar Wright blends sights, sounds, music and humor beautifully.
“Scott Pilgrim” is especially meaningful to anyone who has played in a band. I’ve been playing since I was an adolescent myself, and so have my daughters. I’m happy to report all three girls enjoyed this movie every bit as much as I did. A generation gap bridge as good as this does not come along often.