High- and low-brow cultural goings-on in the Second City, brought to you by a roving microtechnoanthropologist

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Saturday, July 08, 2006

Boys on the Side (Show)

MLast week, I believed that something terrible had come to pass. I had reminded M of his desire to see Side Show at Theatre Building Chicago (TBC). When I called on Sunday to reserve tickets for that evening, they were sold out, and I thought we'd missed our chance. Fortunately, M engaged in some polite, persistent questioning that revealed I'm a dumbass. The show closes July 9, and we got tickets for last night to look at the freaks. Or the freaks external to our home, anyway.

This musical was completely unknown to me, although the story of "Siamese" twins, Daisy and Violet Hilton, is familiar, naturally. I don't want to insult my audience here, because I know all y'all are total musical whores like me, but in case you didn't know, the composer, Henry Krieger, was also the dubious talent behind Dreamgirls (I don't care how many Tonys it has, that is ASS). Bill Russell, on book and lyrics, is less well-known. His Last Smoker in America is being mounted Off-Broadway later this summer, and most of his other credits from that side of Manhattan tend toward the might-be-a-cult-hit-someday end of the spectrum. Although Krieger and Russell have been collaborating for nearly 15 years, Side Show seems so far to have been the peak of their success with its 3-month run on Broadway in 1997.

To get the snootyness out of the way more or less up front, the fact that these two haven't been storming Broadway is not wholly surprising if Side Show is the best they've got. It's not unenjoyable by any means, but as this review at Curtain Up indicates, the music is repetitive, but not especially catchy (in fact, my brain keeps defaulting to things from Wicked, to which I think there are stylistic relationships, but Wicked is a lot more complex and aurally appealing; and although I have really grown to like Wicked, it's not ESPECIALLY complex in the grand scheme of things); the book is, quite frankly, painfully bad at times with its clunky rhymes and phrasing and recitative to set your teeth on edge.

And yet, there are a few numbers that are on fire, hitting everything exactly right. "The Devil You Know," a darkly jazzy ensemble number performed by the other freaks, thankfully comes early on, which had both me and M letting out a sigh of relief. Both "When I'm By Your Side" (the first number the girls learn, in secret, as a stepping stone from the side show to Vaudville) and "We Share Everything" play on the obvious joke in quite different ways and both really work. And for a number that seems to have been designed to give one character something to really sing, "One Plus One Equals Three" is no "Sneaking Around with You" (and by extension, I guess it's also no "Luckenbach, Texas"). So for what our opinion is worth, Side Show is musically uneven, but not unlistenable.

In terms of the overall story, it's got some more serious problems. Perhaps I'm spoiled by Carnivale, but I like my beer cold, my TV loud, and my Carnies Machiavellian. This side show comprises a fire-eating fakir, a reptilian man, a snake charmer, a fortune teller, two harem girls, a bearded lady, the cannibal king, and a geek. Initially they're shown (with the exception of the evil, drunk boss, of course) to be one big, happy, diabetic-coma-inducing family as they celebrate the girls' birthday. Ten minutes later, their jealousies and rivalries come to a head in "Devil You Know," and then we never see most of them again. Rather than this making them look like complex, multilayered people, though, this gave me characterization whiplash. I'm not sure if it's intended as some kind of sick Forest Gump message (you'd better stay with the people who love and accept you, never seeeking more, or the 60s will happen to you and you'll get AIDS AND DIE), or if we're supposed to think that the girls have never had any kind of place that's home.

From the bosom of the carnies, Violet and Daisy are received into the arms of the most benevolent talent management agents in the world---Terry and Buddy. They are stalwart men and true, concerned only for the girls' career and never thinking to keep the entire pie for themselves. They even insist that Jake, the cannibal king, come along to help "backstage" with the girls' show. If the manager/worker dynamic is some kind of clumsy commentary on class relationships (scabby, blue-collar sideshow boss BAD; handsome, besuited white-collar vaudeville bosses FULL OF HUGS AND PUPPIES), the attempts by Kriger and Russell to introduce an 11th-hour race plot make that look sophisticated.

On the one hand, Jake is clearly being used by the side show boss as an enforcer (oooh, big scary black man!). On the other, no one else, in the entire world, the entire time that the girls are climbing the social/entertainment ladder remarks on his race. He's dressed in increasingly natty clothes; he attends all their A-list parties; he seems to be getting a nice cut of the profits; and then suddenly, when he confesses his love to Violet, she couldn't dream of marrying him, because of . . . what he is . . . um . . . you know . . . that skin thing would prevent her from having a normal life. Seriously weird.

Ok, now that I've got my bitching about the material out of the way, I can move on to the production. The company mounting it was The Bohemian Theatre Ensemble, to which I am completely new. Although this was staged at TBC, it was not in the same theater in which I saw Porchlight Theatre's production of The Secret Garden. Instead, it was in the very wide, but not very deep space next door. It's not an ideal space or an easy one to work in. It reminded me of a gamma-irradiated version of the Breadline Theatre's (I'd link you to them, but their site is completely flashfucked, but it's space in which spouse M, pal M, and I saw a staging of Terry Pratchett's Mort.

It probably seats a little over 100 people, but sightlines are seriously challenged the further one moves from the house center. Fortunately, we were in the second row, just to house left. Even still, in two instances, they hadn't really come to grips with the limitations of such a shallow stage, and I wondered how little others could see, given my obstructed view of these scenes. But overall, the staging was very cleverly done. The sides of the proscenium had nice reproductions of vintage side show banners advertising the Tiger Queen, the Tattooed Lady, Electra, and the Fat Lady, with the words "Why?" and "Alive" randomly smattered across them and across the floor of the stage (although we didn't notice the latter until much later in the show).

This isn't a show that you can go wingless on, nor do you want to. John Zuiker, the Scenic Designer, did a nice job creating the wings. He essentially created a minimalist "inside-the-midway" space on the stage, using nothing more than bare wood and dusty, faded red and cream draping material. Two beams angled down and back from the top of the proscenium to make the stage look deeper than it is, and the draping gave the constant impression of tent flaps, which was put to good use, at least early on as the other carnies peeped in at the girls during their supposedly private moments. The back wall of the stage was a wooden, slatted fence with gates that could be rolled aside easily. To accomplish quick costume changes or to transform the tent into a more intimate space, there was a rollable flat of wooden slats on one side and the drapery on the other, which could be placed at center stage or rolled to stage left where it "blended" with the side wall.

The aforementioned staging missteps involved some of these rollable pieces, though, and both came late in the show. At one point, Violet (and, by literal extension, Daisy) is having the awk-ward conversation with Jake, which is followed by Jake kind of losing it. Certainly, the rolling flat is needed at that point, because it's bizarre to have such an emotional moment in a cavernous space. However, there's a reprise of Jake's "Cannibal King" music, complete with the ensemble members pounding staves into the floor (to evoke his earlier side show number). In the very small space, it's not an option to have the ensemble come out and surround him or anything (and it would've been over the top), but neither are they completely concealed from view, either in the wings or behind the flat. From where we were, we could see one or two of them far up right, and I imagine at other points people caught different glimpses, but it just ended up being distracting.

Similarly, there's a large rolling chair set piece with an elaborate wooden back to it. This is used for the girls' first Follies number and also for the car in the Tunnel of Love. In the latter scene, Daisy and Terry can't keep their hands off each other, and Violet and Buddy are discovering at an extremely awkward moment that they don't like each other THAT WAY. During the song, the ensemble members are far upstage, largely in silhouette, dancing, writhing, etc. But the back of the damned chair is so high that for much of the number, they could have been setting up a wigwam for all I could see. But as I said, those two places were the exception to some creative and well-done staging overall.

The costuming was also good overall. The girls' outfits could have been challenging, given the different figures of the women playing the twins, but Theresa Ham managed to put together some really nice vintage pieces. Their "Follies" dresses were about the only exception. Basically, they were wearing short white A-lines (which turn out later to be their wedding dresses), but the number is supposed to be a feathery, foamy extravaganza. The wispy material that had been draped and tied over the dresses was just too stiff and hadn't been adequately adjusted, at least in Daisy's case, and she had to keep trying to stand up taller than the vicious fold of material that was trying to eat her face.

Their "You Should Be Loved" dresses deserve an honorable mention amid a uniformly good design---in this scene, the twins are as emotionally far apart as they'll get. Although their dresses are stylistically identical and literally cut from the same highly patterned cloth, Ham has managed to get very different sections of it, so that Violet, the bride-to-be is in a section that's much brighter, whereas Daisy's contains a lot more tan, giving her the look of fading into the background. Oh, and their big Vaudville number was done in Egyptian-themed atrocities that were like Early-Stargate-Goes-Broadaway. It was FANTASTIC---so cheap and trashy in a way completely different from the cheapness of the side show.
One final note on the girls' costumes: Most of the time, we could see a glimpse of their undergarments. I don't know if this was a fit issue, a quick-change issue or what. I'm in no way complaining, because I liked it as a symbol that they literally have no privacy, but I'm not entirely sure it was as deliberate choice.

The carnies, especially the Boss had great costumes that made them look down-at-heel and unsavory when peforming. At the rapid change from carnie-to-reporter, they all came out in trenchcoats, scarves, etc., that didn't quite cover their costumes, but I'm not sure there's a better solution out there beyond casting other actors. I very much liked the fact that the male ensemble members were in sweaty tank tops, ill-fitting suit pants, and braces when they were doing background stuff. It gave this constant feeling that rousties were managing every phase of the girls' lives and a period-appropriate, desperate feel.

As for the acting, this was an extremely strong cast that seems to have been well-directed for the most part. Vanessa Panerosa and Andrea Prestinario really didn't look much alike, yet they simultaneously managed to pull off the twin gag while having strongly individual personalities from the moment of their first reveal. Daisy (Panerosa) is the out-going, would-be startlet, and Violet (Prestinario) just wants a home and family, and we see that in every inch of their posture and body language throughout the show, even as they both grow and change. Add to that their nearly flawless choreography and you have great lead performers. If I had to pick on anything about them, I'd say that both were probably singing actors, not acting singers, but that's the right call to make in this situation. That said, though, their voices were quite different, and they weren't always ideally meshed in their more emotional numbers.

Probably the best casting move was going back to 1987 and getting Cary Elwes to play Terry Connor. I mean, seriously, Brandon Dahlquist was un-freaking-canny, and fortunately, that's a great choice for the role. Eric Lindahl was equally well cast as Jimmy Olsen as Buddy Foster---completely charming and more than a little pathetic and wrong-headed, Lindahl gave Buddy depth where he could've been a schizophrenic disaster. Once again, though, I wonder how much time they had to work up the vocal stuff, given the complexity of staging and choreography. Lindahl had a strong, solid voice and was obviously a very teachable player, but even he had a few rough spots. Dahlquist had a nice tenor that unfortunately tended to fade into the background, particularly against Panerosa's Daisy.

In the past, I was not especially kind to Rus Rainear who played Byck in the Boxer Rebellion's Assassins. I'm happy to be much more enthusiastic here. He's an odd-looking man and much smaller than I remember him being. Paired with his look, his voice is somewhat suspect, and thus, he was ideal to play the slimy side show boss, and later the comic relief, pith-helmeted Vaudeville player. As an added bonus, he brought his own amazing facial hair.

The ensemble members were exceptionally good, always adding to the scenes they were in, rather than detracting. Kat Garassino as the fortune teller/ensemble member had one of the strongest voices and really carried some of the numbers. I couldn't tell you much about the voices of the other ensemble members individually, because they blended nicely for the most part. Also, they were such an interesting-looking collection of folks that they were very well-suited to what they needed to do. In particular, Kevin Bishop had this "Michael Rosenbaum's creepily attractive cousin" thing going on (and, yeah, I'm guessing every bald guy ever is tired of the Rosenbaum comparison by now, but come on, it's Lex. He's hot. Take it for what it is), and Jonathan Goodman as the snake charmer has this look that straddles the line between leading man and character actor, which should serve him well.

Aaron Holland as Jake, the Cannibal King, was perhaps the only victim of some wavering direction. He's a good, solid actor and his voice was marvelous. But the race plot is just a weird one and I got the sense that Stephen Genovese, the director, was somewhat at a loss. Early on, when Violet good-naturedly manipulates Jake armed only with the power of her smile, Holland was playing the crush in an odd "aawww shucks" kind of way that was half avuncular, half younger-kid-next-door. Although it's not like I missed that he was seriously in love with Violet, the passion of "You Should be Loved" was weirdly out of step with the earlier take on the relationship.

I need to get to see these things sooner in their run, because this is one that I would have highly recommended to anyone in the are. Sadly, you've only got about 30 hours left to catch it. Bad Matilda, no biscuit!

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Thursday, July 06, 2006

Nerdlingers on the Town

So, in mid-June, my nonfrontier sister told me that they were planning on doing the Field Museum and the Tut exhibit during frontier sister's visit. I told her to count me in, and to count M in if it was a weekend. Within 48 hours the plan had completely devolved and no one was going anywhere on any day.

Frontier sister e-mailed to inform me that C, the older of her two sons, was completely crushed by this. Not only was he crushed by losing the trip to the Field, he was specifically crushed that he wasn't going with me. (Apparently my sister tried to offer up a paternal aunt as the sacrificial lamb, but C wanted Auntie Matilda: Accept no substitutes.) She asked if we would take him home with us Tuesday night, and I would take him to the museum on Wednesday. I thought this would totally rock and I told her so. My only reservation was one echoed by M

M: Uh, so I'm assuming the [nonfrontier sister] most likely "decided" for everyone that no one wanted to go.

Me: I can neither confirm nor deny, but almost certainly.

M: So, when we try to leave with one child, it's likely that 4 children will suddenly be going completely apeshit that they don't get to go to the museum with you.

Me: Pretty much, but I contracted for one child and one child is all I'm taking.

Sure enough, the others made some noise about wanting to go. S (C's little brother) mostly to annoy C. My niece, C, seemed to be joining in for the sake of joining in. Ironically, though, my nephew A seemed genuinely to want to go. There was no way in hell that I was taking both A & C anywhere by myself. In very different ways, they are complete attention sucks. Also, they don't get along. So with a reproachful look at nonfrontier sister, I told her I'd happily take A on another day, just not today. Today was about the the care and feeding of a nerd.

When I say that my nephew C is a nerd, I say it affectionately and not at all lightly, as will become clear as we go along. We hopped the Rock Island at 99th street and happened upon a free trolley to the museum campus right outside the station. As the trolley turned on to Roosevelt Road and the Brachiosaurus skeleton on the northwest terrace of the museum, his eyes widened and intoned, "Yes, dinomaster. What shall I do for you, dinomaster?" Zombie jokes + dino love. Diagnosis: Nerd.

As we stood in line for tickets, we tossed around the question: To Tut or not to tut. I mean, obviously, I was pro-Tutting. Tut early, Tut often, sez the Anthropologist, but this was C's day. When we got up to the register, the cashier told us that if we wanted to see Tut, we'd have to buy tickets there and then. I left it up to C. He looked across the hall to Sue and quietly said, "The Evolving Planet has a hall of dinosaurs, right?" All dinos, all the time, it was.

Evolving Planet comes with the basic admission price, but they give you tickets with an entry time imprinted on them. Ours were for 12:15 PM (we entered at about 11:45 AM), but the cashier assured us that we could go in whenever. I'm not sure what that means for the success of the exhibit or their perception of its success.

In case you're wondering, it is not physically possible for a 10-year-old boy to walk past Sue without stopping to pay homage. This breed is also hard pressed to refrain from loudly and publicly correcting docents who talk crap while leading around tour groups. I believe I made my point for pairing politeness and with accuracy as we wrote a note concerning the spurious information and dropped it immediately in the suggestion box.

The Sue that's mounted in the North part of the Grainger Gallery is, of course, only mostly sue. Readers of Jim Butcher's Dead Beat, know that Sue's can look down on the mounting of the rest of her skeleton, because her 600-lb head is on the balcony above, overlooking it. On our way up to Evolving Planet, we visited the skull and its newish CAT scans, as well as a few pieces of video on theory and hypothesis. I sat down to see how they got the job done on this score, and C rolled his eyes, "Don't you KNOW the difference?" he wanted to know.

The basic framework for the exhibit is halls filled with evoltionary phases divided by passageways featuring information on the six mass extinction events that have occurred since the beginning of life on Earth. I'm inclined to think it overall a good one, having now been through it with a budding young scientist. However, having only been through it with a budding young scientist, I have to admit that my review consists of big-picture impressions, rather than of full absorbtion of layout and text.

The Early Earth hall is appropriately dark, thunderous, and appropriately spooky, as C astutely observed on the train home. To his comments, I would add that they made interesting work of it in this hall by spacing the exhibits in such a way that there seemed to be more space between them than elsewhere. First of all, this spatial trick worked to convey the geological pace of pre-Cambrian developments. But from a practical point of view, it also gave the visitor the opportunity to take in each station without pressure to get to the next shiny thing over, given that the next shiny thing was tucked some way on.

This worked well given the technical, potentially dry nature of some of the information in this section. Furthermore, the physical layout went a long way toward making up for the craptastic timelines, which really did nothing to convey the sense of geological time. (Basically, they used slight modifications of the timeline you see on the right.)

At least these things worked well for my personal dynamic duo. I did have to keep calling C back because I wanted a closer look at something. He was not immediately inclined to linger at most of these points (which probably speaks in equal parts to some shortcomings of the exhibit and his inherent dinonerditude), but to his credit, he always circled back to me and was willing to listen to my natterings. (Skipping ahead to my mini-lecture on taphonomy of the Burgess Shale, he looked at me solemnly, bless his heart, and said, "I'm glad I got to come here with an anthropologist.")

I know it's one of my personal hobbyhorses, but I just don't think you can ever have enough hooters, and I know you can never have enough genetics. Evolving Planet is woefully low on both, but especially on genetics. Don't get me wrong: They choose their point of attack well, folding it into the discussion of the evolution of sex, and what they have is succinct and easy to understand. Unfortunately, what they have is just so minimal that it doesn't carry through the rest of the exhibit.

Without any fear of bragging I can say that C is a smart kid. Two years ago, when he was 8, I explained what a fossil is and why DNA recovery from one borders on the impossible. I've explained that to hundreds of students and probably a handful of them picked it up as quickly as he did. So when he kept "forgetting" about the relationships among genes, traits, and adaptation as we went through the exhibit, I have to think that the point wasn't made as clearly and lastingly as it ought to have been.

It's a shame that genetics was given short shrift given what a great job they did explaining taxonomy, phylogeny, and cladistics. As sharp as C's mind is, he's somewhat undirected in what he's been learning about paleontology so far. This has turned him into a descriptivist who obsesses over whether something is 32 feet long or 37 feet long. As we made our way through the Permian exhibit and got a load of their crazy synapsids, he started to get more of the big picture.

Yes, I'd love to think that my impassioned discourse on the branchial arches and the ancestral reptiliform jaw are solely responsible for that, but I think I probably have to give some credit to the cool interactive video stuff that connected group names and ancestral and derived features to one another. I just wish that more of a genetic bedrock had been the underpinning of that section.

On a different note, the Permian hall will also live on in our memories and, I'm sure, the memories of many, many other scarred Chicagoans who witnessed the birth of our body language for "lizard hips" (saurischia) vs. "bird hips" (ornithischia), which we did all. damned. day. Also, if you're looking to build street cred. on the nerdy side of the pre-adolescent tracks, casually deploy the terms saurischia and ornithischia when you're not too busy explaining the Marvel/DC divide.

C. needed to take a moment before he was ready to head into the "">Genius Hall of dinosaurs. I mean, really, the dude was getting a little misty eyed at the mere thought of an entire HALL of DINOSAURS. As we lingered at the threshold of the hall, he said in hushed, reverent tones, "I hope they have something on the resonating chambers of Parasaurolophus." That, ladies and gentlement, is a nerd. A much bigger nerd than I could ever hope to produce directly from my own loins. Gotta love him.

We spent a good hour in the hall checking out the lizard hips and the bird hips. We batted around theories about spikes on the stegosaurians. Being an unimaginative mammal apologist, I always come down on the side of heat dissipation. C, being a bloodthirsty 10-year-old favors theories regarding self-defense. Moving on to that wacky Apatosaurus, we chuckled over the "wrong head, wrong name, wrong habitat" interactive about it and shook our fists in a Flintstoneward direction for their role in perpetuating the wrong, wrong, wrongitty wrong wrong wrong Brontosaurus name. This particular interactive was well underneath the (diplodocus-like) head of the adult beast, in easy view of the juvenile skeleton assembled nearby.

Looking up at the head of the adult, C said, "How could they ever have thought this was aquatic? I mean, look at the kid! If they were standing in water, they'd have to be far away from the parents!" Have you ever HEARD such an opening for a discussion about brains, learning, reproductive patterns, and overall adaptive strategies? me neither, but it was HOT, I can tell you that. But it did lead me to another shortcoming in the overall exhibit.

Yeah, the whole thing is based around the idea of mass extinctions being biological/geological crossroads---one group and its strategies give way to new forms and new ways. I guess they wanted to play up the discontinuities from age to age; however, my teaching experience tells me that one important message that we need to communicate is heads/tails nature of these events. When it becomes bad to be a dinosaur, it's great to be a mammal. The reasons behind that tended to be explained (to the extent that they were) in sit-down films that were, frankly, talky, boring, and not especially clear.

As you probably know by now, the dinoboy was in the driver's seat, so frankly, we didn't spend as much time in the Tertiary giving proper respect to mammals. In fact, I have to say that the Tertiary hall doesn't stick in my mind at all. I did try to use the spurs on the hominid hall, but C was a little euphoric and punchy by then. He kept sticking his fingers in the mouths of the repros (every fossil case had repro head and hand) and pretending that they were biting him. My overall impression of the hominid Hall was "small" and "cramped." Not incomplete, by any means, and I suppose it gets the point of pacing across well. Still, we feel somewhat snubbed.

Having regrouped at lunch, C decided he wanted to do the "Underground" exhibit, so we backtracked and bought tickets for it. It was quite disappointing to both of us, I think. The shrinking gag was silly and babyish. The most excitement had in there came from the sudden movement of some of the animatronics. It was good for a few laughs and "a ha" moments, but definitely not worth the additional admission price. The Fossil Prep lab was also not all it promised to be, but then again, we headed back late in the day.

After taking in some jade and thoroughly scoping out the rest of the gift shops (C was intent on a small something for himself [he has a trip to the Lego store for new Bionicles coming up] and he was shopping for a friend back on the frontier), we decided that we needed one more look at those dinos before we left. We went in through the out door (we're rebel nerds, I tell you), and had another round of fun with the bellows demosntrating the calls of Parasaurolophus. (Yes, Virginia, they did have something on the resonating chambers of Parasaurolophus.)

On our second trip, we paid a bit more homage to the ancestors and I noted that in a central display that I'd missed (it is interesting and heartening to note that this was definitely the part of the exhibit that was mobbed) they included Sahelanthropus (sooooo very not a hominid) and casts of the Laetoli footprints on the floor. C, still unschooled in what we do and do not ask an anthropologist asked what the big deal was about them. And so we finished the museum portion of our day with a great talk about relative vs. absolute dating.

My inner culture whore regrets having not seen Tut (he'll be around, though, and I'll see him yet), but I certainly had a great day, and it seems like C did, too, based on the number of times on the way home that he spontaneously thanked me for taking him. Cool.

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Tuesday, July 04, 2006

El Santo! Thank God You Are Here! You Must Leave Immediately! OR Nacho Libre

Some of you out there might be thinking that Telecommuniculturey has not done a lot for you lately. Those of you who are not fascinated by Maoist China (and I PITY YOU) may feel like you've gotten a bowling ball with "HOMER" engraved on it. Some of you, and I realize that this is a radical proposition, may not like Sondheim and may feel that a review of a third production of Assassins (with the threat of another when Porchlight's version opens next season) doesn't pertain to you. There may be those among you who fail to see the humor in a guy named Rob Bob doing half an act in cowboy boots and jock strap. To you, I say: "What the hell are you doing here?"

For these malcontents and others, we went to see Nacho Libre last night. We are GIVERS.

It's unlikely that anyone reading this needs a Lucha Libre primer (thank you, Mystery Science Theatre 3000, the writing staff of Angel: The Series, Cartoon Network, and the native opportunism of the WWE), but what the heck. Luchar means to struggle, fight, wrestle in Spanish, Libre means "free." Look! It's 9/10 of a Merle Haggard song right there! (But I BELIEVE it oughta be sung in ENGLISH.)

It also is the name for the style of wrestling developed in Mexico in the 1930s. Although there are numerous features of Lucha that distinguish it from its European roots, it's reallyall about the mask. Not all luchadores wrestle in masks, but the gag is certainly among the more effective hooks of Lucha. El Santo (thank God you are here! You must leave immediately!) was not the first masked luchador, but he is probably the most famous, and it is safe to say that the entire masked luchador schtick rose and set on Santo. Blue Demon is even now shaking his fists at heaven and plotting my death.) El Santo the renaissance luchador started with a comic book featuring him fighting crime and monsters, escalated to movies in which he fought crime and monsters, and eventually resulted in Santo wearing the mask 100% of the time in public (He unmasked himself on television in 1984, and died a week later. Dun dun DUNNNNNN! He is, of course, buried in the mask) presumably so he could free-style fight crime and monsters.

The prominence of Lucha Libre has waxed and waned since its inception, but it's safe to say that it has remained wildly popular in Mexico. It has also enjoyed something of a revival as kitschy-chic in the US. For example: Rey Mysterio is among the WWE's bigger stars (he's also a pansy, because his mask doesn't cover his chin and push his meaty lips out in true luchador fashion) and remember our previous cultural report from Mexican Wrestling Macbeth?

Presumably this resurgence of interest is what made Nickelodeon Films (yeah, I didn't know that either; it's a problem) think that Nacho Libre might fly. Judging from the reviews, their instinct was not so good. Ebert approaches his 1.5-star review from the assumption that Jack Black is always funny, yet Nacho Libre seems to have sucked the funny out of him. I approached it from a position of extreme skepticism that I could like Jack Black in much of anything, but come on: It's Lucha! And yet, peace, love, and understanding will out: I have to agree with the heart of Ebert's review, even if I wouldn't be quite so hard on the movie as he is.

First of all, I really do think the Nickelodeon thing was a big problem. We were weirded out by the trailers: Santa Clause 3 (God help us all); Barnyard, How to Eat Fried Worms, and for game balance, Jet Li's Fearless (which is billed as his last martial arts film, wtf?). There is something disconcerting not only about seeing those trailers together, but about seeing them at 10:30 at night in front of a Jack Black movie.

The opening gag had real promise. In it, Young Nacho, having already been bundled off to the Friary at the tender age of 9 or so, steals various ticky tacky objets de culte (the cloth under the infant of prague [neither dress-up, nor under glass---a very inferior sort of infant, if you ask me], rosary beeds to spell out his name on the cape, etc). Initially, we only see his hand snatching objects here and there as he assembles the costume. It's rather sweet and more than a little sad when the finished product, in all its rotundity and ill-fitting glory is revealed. And then he runs around fighting crime and monsters. Ok, not really. He just practices wrestling holds on the cemetery monuments until he is caught and hosed down by the other friars. I don't know, maybe you have to have been raised wacky!Catholic for it to get to you, but I was willing to forgive a lot that followed for the sake of those first 5 minutes or so.

But as much as I was primed to let pass, Nacho Libre still needed a more generous soul than I to achieve a positive review. As Ebert says, it's disjointed. In part, that's endemic to stupid comedies founded on a bit that should have lasted 10 minutes tops and need stretching out to 90. There are certainly scenes included because someone just couldn't let their pet gag go. Don't get me wrong---if you have a chance to cast Peter Stormare, you should. If you have a chance to dress Peter Stormare as a crazy gypsy king, you should. But try not to turn it into one of the most boring and pointless (against some stiff competition) segments.

More than the problems inherent and dear to the genre, though, I think Nacho Libre had further complications. At numerous points, it seemed as though gross-out humor had been inserted for the kiddies. On the flip side of that, there were opportunities for more adult humor that were avoided, even though they could have easily been included in a non-kid-alienating (or R-skirting) way. The majority of the funny bits were given away in the trailer, and the romantic subplot was significantly less funny (and much more without point) than the trailers made it out to be.

The most grievous sin, though, was not enough Lucha! Yes, they got a variety of real-life Lucha stars for the movie, but then used them to little effect. I'm not asking for Master of the Flying Guillotine, in which only extended one-on-one battles between freaky martial artists pad the film, but it's just wrong to have the build-up of an elimination match and then show us about 2 incoherent seconds of each.

To end on a positive note, Jack Black was funnier and more endearing than I've ever found him to be before. There is some schizophrenic tension between his reliance on his wacky facial expressions and the fact that he's supposed to be enmascarado through much of the film, but they use his body image issues to good effect insetead. His friendship with "Stephen" (El Esqueleto, played by Hector Jimenez) has moments that are both warm and funny, and he has great rapport with "Chanco" (Darius Rose), the kid with whom Nacho would most naturally identify. The movie is just packed with characters in the background, too---it's like the comedy Name of the Rose, in fact---but even when the funny looking are used to humorous effect, it never feels mean or bullyish (with the possible exception of the Fat Girl jokes in one segment).

When you Netflix this (it's not worth the price of a theater ticket, unless it's a dollar show), be sure to watch the end credits so you don't miss out on Jack Black softrocking the audience.

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Sunday, July 02, 2006

The Apathy and the Ecsatsy: Superman Returns

So on Thursday afternoon, we saw a matinee of Superman Returns. The fact that I'm just getting around to writing about it two days later while waiting for an episode of Foster's Home for Imaginary Friends to finish probably about sums up my reaction to it. Weirdly that's a rave review, relatively speaking. Spoilers, natch, to follow.

With every tidbit I heard about this movie, a little more of my interest in it waned. Brandon Routh seemed bland and cast on his resemblance to Christopher Reeve, if you squinted a bit. Let's not even talk about the news of Kate Bosworth's casting. Even the things others could get excited about left me feeling "meh" at best---Kevin Spacey as Luthor, for example, given that Mr. Spacey has never lit my world on fire as he has everyone else's. When the trailers came out, they didn't do a lot to alleviate my not caring very much.

Don't get me wrong, there was never any doubt I'd see it. It's a superhero movie. I saw Fantastic Four in the theater, and I represent 50% of the North American population that liked Hulk. And it's not like it had Cameron Diaz in it or anything like that. So, I was totally there, I just wasn't, you know, showing up in costume for the first midnight showing or anything. Not that I've ever done that. Well, ok, not in costume. I think.

But then the positive previews started rolling in. The critics seemed to love it. (Not Ebert, my sourpussed, brain damaged man. It wasn't directed by Joel Schumacher, you see.) Early audiences seemed to love it. Weird. But my early reservations were too strong and too comprehensive to be altered substantially by the buzz. I went in with more or less zero expectations and my innate inclination to like to like things. And from that perspective, it was at least 32% better than I was expecting it to be (that puts it 15% behind Troy according to the adorable darling angeltiger scale).

Brandon Routh, at least as Superman, was nowhere near as lackluster as I was anticipating. He still isn't a patch on Christopher Reeve as far as charisma goes, but he has more going for him than a superficial resemblance to The Man himself. In fact, I feel like some of the pains they took to play up the resemblance (e.g., the uberfake blue contacts and . . . whatever it was they did to his skin and the suit [it looked nauseatingly like they'd injected all of his skin with a layer of fake butter or something]) did him a disservice. His portrayl of Superman wasn't perfect. He seemed less mature and more self-absorbed than Reeve's Superman, but that's a fault of the script (and casting) more than a fault with Routh.

As for Routh's Clark Kent? Well, I wasn't wild about it. They never seemed to commit to the reality that Clark is a spazz the way they did in the '78 version---giving Routh horrible, horrible slimy hair, but completely chic glasses was half-assed. But the bigger flaw, again, is in the script: The best of Clark Kent is his relationship with the folks at the Planet, especially Lois. But somehow, in a film exceeding 2.5 hours, they managed to skip nearly all the charm of the newsroom. Still, given that I expected Routh to be a disaster, I'm calling him a net positive.

As for Spacey, well, I'm still waiting for him to wow me, but he was also neutral to positive in my opinion. Yeah, he's playing Hackman playing Luthor, but that appears to be what Singer wanted. I might argue with that decision on Singer's part, given the fact that Hackman was a giant dick about playing Luthor, but Spacey seems to have had a ball tackling the role from that angle. And you've got to love all the incarnations of his beautiful rock hair.

Although I was relieved to find that Routh was not a complete trainwreck, my most pleasant surprise in the movie has to have been James Marsden. My only exposure to him is in the X-Men trilogy, and in the immortal words of Joss Whedon, via Wolverine: He's a dick. And, let's face it, the majority of the scripts for the three X-Men movies are meant to bury any acting ability in a trough 6 feet deep, unless you're Hugh Jackman. So I was delighted to find Marsden quite personable as The Other Man.

Furthermore, given that they seem to have felt it absolutely necessary to saddle Lois with a kid and a significant other during Superman's little walkabout, I was relieved to find that they did not go in the most cliched direction possible. I liked that Richard was not a Dick. I liked that he got to be the ordinary everyday hero to the boy who he may or may not know is not his son. I liked that he seemed to trust and respect Lois, rather than being a macho poseur or a desperate stalker in the making.

Parker Posey was another plus in the supporting cast. I loved her outrageous costumes and her over-the-top freak outs. (Although I was glad that they explained that Lex had gone for extra authenticity by REALLY cutting her breaks [ETA: That's BRAKES, of course. I M so smart. S M R T], because I was annoyed by what seemed to be gratuitous girly screams during the car scene.) There were times, though, when it seemed like she didn't get the memo to Lex's entourage that they should, under no circumstances, act. I'm not knocking her---watching the minute when she drinks the Superman Kool-Aid (uh, that sounds disgusting, doesn't it?) gave me a little shiver, and she made you see not only the moment when she changes sides, but the why behind it---but the relentless dull surprise of the rest of the henchmen made her performance somewhat jarring.

I've also got to give a shout out to Sam Huntington as Jimmy Olsen. The boy was born to play the role, and he didn't squander the opportunity to do so. As M pointed out, the biggest strength of a performance that could easily have been a complete throwaway was the fact that this was Jimmy Olsen growed up just a little bit. He was still fundamentally the kid who keeps Clark from being the biggest nerd on the newsdesk, but he was just that much more comfortable in his skin, aware that he was the insider relative to Clark, and not enough in awe of the big kids that he wouldn't play that up, just a bit.

If you've got Frank Langella, it's a shame not to give him more to do. Also, I like a little more Kolchak in my Perry White, and I couldn't help being a great girl's blouse about the fact that Hugh Laurie didn't get to play the role. But he was fine. Not a huge positive, but not a drain either.

And, really, even Kate Bosworth wasn't . . . actively . . . a drain. She was just glaringly not Lois Lane. I don't say that out of loyalty to Margot Kidder. (If anything, Dana Delaney is probably my definitive Lois.) I think Kidder was a very strange casting choice indeed for Lois Lane, but there were certain fundamental things about Lois that she "got." She had the edge and the disregard for social niceties that make talking to Lois akin to being hit in the head by a 2x4. Bosworth had none of that. I'm not sure what it was that Bosworth did have, other than the body to fill out a truly divine dress (even though neither she nor anyone but Lex knows how to pronounce "Pulitzer").

But, again, the nice thing about no expectations (other than the fact that Nanci Griffith and the Blue Moon Orchestra do a kick-ass cover of it) is the fact that one can be satisfied with the Lois Lane from the Neutral Planet. Probably Bosworth should be detailing Jessica Alba's car every weekend for bringing us, as a nation, to a lower place with regard to our expectations for heroines in superhero movies.

I have a masochistic desire to see what the script looked like, because I'm still stunned that the movie was 2.5 hours. I kept saying to M, "Um, not much actually happened. How could it have been 2.5 hours?" I mean, I understand that a lot did happen in terms of racking up the homages to the original movie. That's probably a good move on Singer's part (and no doubt in large part responsible for the rave reviews from folks who are still mourning Christopher and now Dana Reeve), but as I'm neutral-to-meh on the original, it didn't exactly have me glued to my seat.

Aside from the length, there were a number of goofy things that wouldn't have irked me if I'd been more engaged. For example, it's tremendously difficult to worry about whether or not Superman is breathing when I've just seen him in space. Likewise, I felt like telling the bank robbers with their crane and ultramodern gatling gun (yes, I know it's some modern hoity toity military thing that actually exists) that they were probably looking for the set of the Bond film, two sound stages over.

Still, all in all, I had the luxury of being pleasantly surprized by the movie, which is not a bad place to be. The Avengers? Now that's a bad place to be.

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