Thursday, October 21, 2010

Trailer Review: How Do You Know

Release Date: December 17, 2010

Website: Official How Do You Know site

Starring: Reese Witherspoon, Paul Rudd, Owen Wilson, Jack Nicholson

My Review: I like Reese Witherspoon. I adore Paul Rudd. I…don’t actively dislike Owen Wilson. Yet I can’t seem to make myself give a flying you-know-what about their newest movie.

How Do You Know looks to be no different than a hundred other love triangle-themed romantic comedies, though it does have the good fortune to star some quality talent. Witherspoon is Lisa, a woman who is content enough in her relationship with a sensitive, new-age kind of guy (Wilson), though she has doubts about taking the next steps with him. Specifically, do the marriage and kids thing. Then she bumps into an old friend (Rudd) who is in the midst of some serious professional and financial troubles, and her attraction to him brings up a whole new set of questions and doubts.

While I can appreciate any attempt to tell a story about a person struggling between doing what’s right for them and what others expect of them, it’s the “choose the stable partner you know or the crazy newcomer” angle I’m tired of. No matter who gets chosen in the end, it’s all been done before. How do I know? Trust me, I just do.

Would I Pay For It?: No, but I’ll watch it when it appears on basic cable in six months. 

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Theater Review: Fingers and Toes

Location: Urban Stages, 259 West 30th Street, NY, NY

Website: Official New York Musical Theatre Festival site

Starring: Leo Ash Evens, Jonathan Monro, Stephanie Gibson

My Review: Taking inspiration from Singin’ in the Rain, Fingers and Toes tells the story of two friends who collaborate to create a new musical, and the talented woman who brings the whole thing to life. “Toes” McGrath is a dancer and the mastermind behind the whole operation. After running into a major Broadway producer in a restaurant and pitching him an idea for a show that doesn’t yet exist, he enlists the help of musician “Fingers” St. Claire to get the production put together in a matter of weeks. After a series of auditions they find triple-threat Molly and seem to be on their way to creating the next big Broadway sensation.

But of course all three bring various dramas and hang-ups with them, causing the creative process to be anything but smooth. Toes is loud, brash, juvenile, and a total womanizer. Fingers is morose and suffering from a bout of depression and agoraphobia brought on by his dissolving marriage. Molly is sunny and bubbly on the outside, but secretly feeling weighed down from carrying on a relationship with an indifferent man. None of them are really in a position to write a musical about love—because what else would you write a musical about?—but that doesn’t deter them from going for it.

Fingers and Toes is a new musical that tries to sound and feel like an old musical, but winds up stuck somewhere between the two. The songs are old-fashioned toe-tappers and sound like they could have come straight from a Judy Garland/Mickey Rooney collaboration. Even the overlying concept is as traditional as you can get: Get some friends together and let’s put on a show! While there’s nothing wrong with favoring classic musical concepts, Fingers and Toes loses its way by trying not to be too old school.

A handful of modern day references are made, lest you think this is taking place in the past: a joke about Amy Winehouse, everyone has a cell phone, and more than a few f-bombs are dropped. But the show would have been better served by keeping the old-fashioned concept in an old-fashioned time. Hearing a giddy vaudeville-style tune like the opener “Anyone Can Write a Song” sets a specific tone for the production, so that hearing the characters later talk in graphic detail about Toes’ sexual prowess is a bit jarring.

The best part of Fingers and Toes are the numerous well-choreographed dance routines. Leo Ash Evens as Toes and Stephanie Gibson as Molly are both gifted dancers and make excellent use of the limited stage space at Urban Stages. The performances get a bit hackneyed at certain points, as the cast tries in earnest to use the overly broad acting techniques of days gone by, but they continuously redeem themselves when permitted to bust out their dance moves.

Bottom Line: Though cute and entertaining, enough Fingers and Toes is a bit of a choppy, and ultimately forgettable, mess. Each of the elements work separately—lightweight songs, corny jokes, elaborate dance numbers, a hat tip to musicals of the 1930s and 1940s—they somehow don’t mesh together well in this production. Every moment either feels too broad (when aiming for comedy) or too heavy (when aiming for drama). This lack of cohesion and absence of at least one memorable tune make Fingers and Toes a show that you wouldn’t actively dislike, but ultimately struggle to remember.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Trailer Review: Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench

Release Date: Limited release in New York starting November 5, 2010

Website: Official Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench site

Starring: Jason Palmer, Desiree Garcia, Sandha Khin, Bernard Chazelle, Anna Chazelle

My Review: With movie trailers constantly giving away major plot points and, in some cases, the movie in its entirety, it’s usually refreshing to come across a minimalist trailer that reveals next to nothing. But this sort of tactic tends to only work for movies with familiar elements to them, so you’ll know what’s coming in that movie without the trailer having to really tell you anything.

If you see, “From the director of Pulp Fiction and Inglourious Basterds” flash across the screen, you already know whether you would pay to see that movie or not. Just like if you see, “Based on the beloved novel by Nicholas Sparks,” you know that unless you are an emotionally unstable teenaged girl, you’ll be skipping that flick. But with a movie like Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench, the trailer needs to reveal a bit more if it’s hoping to fill theater seats.

Here’s what I can gather from the trailer for Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench: It’s a musical, it’s set in a city that may or may not be New York, it’s filmed in black and white, and some of the action takes place in a diner or restaurant of some sort. Oh, and apparently some of the few people who have already seen totally dig it, since the bulk of the trailer is made of quotes pulled from various reviews that sing the movie’s praises.

I’m not saying Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench looks like a bad movie. I really have no feelings about it one way or another since the trailer reveals so little. But I do know that movie musicals are a hard sell to most audiences at any given time, and one that isn’t based on an already established musical, stars people no one’s heard of, and is shot in grainy black and white is going to have a hard time getting viewers to blindly attend a screening.

Would I Pay For It?: I doubt that would even be an option due to its limited release, but I may eventually rent it, due to that whole musical geek thing I have going on. 

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Theater Review: V-Day

Location: Urban Stages, 259 West 30th Street, NY, NY

Website: Official New York Musical Theatre Festival site

Starring: David Rossmer, Steve Rosen, Sara Chase, Vadim Feichtner, Hannah Sielatycki

My Review: With a title like V-Day, and a description on the NYMF website that includes the phrase “hates Valentine’s Day,” you would expect this musical to focus heavily on the various things that suck about the supposed “most romantic day of the year.” But V-Day merely uses the holiday as a frame of reference, and instead tells a story about a guy who is trying to break the streak of incredible bad luck he’s recently had.

Josh Cohen is having a really crappy time in life. He’s struggling to make it as a writer in NYC, he’s unlucky in love, his overbearing Jewish parents want to know when he’s going to settle down already, and just a few days before Valentine’s Day, he comes home to find his apartment has been completely robbed. Well, almost completely; the robber had the decency to leave behind a Neil Diamond CD. But being the nice guy he is, Josh tries to be optimistic and looks forward to all the good things that are surely coming his way.

It looks like Josh’s luck is about to change when a check made out to him for $56,000 arrives in the mail. But he doesn’t recognize the name of the sender. Is it a long-lost relative from his vast extended family? Or some mysterious benefactor? Will his conscience let him take the money without fully knowing its origin? Will he ever be able to stop kicking himself if he doesn’t? And will there ever be a time when nice guys finish first?

While funny and enjoyable in the moment, I found V-Day to ultimately be kind of forgettable. It’s only been a couple of days since I saw it, and I’m struggling to remember details that stood out to me, and I’d be hard-pressed to hum any of the songs from it. The style of the show is clever; there are actually two Josh Cohen’s on stage throughout the show. One is in the present day, wielding a guitar and acting as a narrator/balladeer. The other is Josh one year earlier, who is struggling with the robbed apartment and the mysterious check. Present-day Josh tells the story of himself from the past year’s Valentine’s Day, guiding the other Josh through the steps of how the story goes. The two frequently interact (and sing) together, creating a bizarrely funny absurdity of one guy relating with himself.

The bulk of the show’s enjoyment goes to the chemistry between the two Joshes, played by V-Day’s writers and composers, David Rossmer and Steve Rosen. Rossmer is present-day Josh, expertly juggling the duties of narrating, singing, playing the guitar, and interacting with both the audience and the other Josh. Rosen is one-year-ago Josh, and gamely tackles the role of the comic foil, as his Josh has to suffer all the injustices that the other Josh already survived. Both men have great comic timing and play off each other well, which has to be much harder than it looks; if one of them were to miss a line or lose their energy, the entire production would come apart.

While cute and necessary to move the story along, the songs in V-Day aren’t really memorable, which is the opposite effect musical theater aims to have. The same basic riff is used in most of the tunes, and I’ve already forgotten how it goes. The lyrics are clever and humorous, but once they’re done serving their purpose in the show, they are easy to forget. Also slightly disappointing is that none of the songs really felt like the style of Neil Diamond. One of my initial draws to this particularly production (in a festival of over 30 shows) was the promise of some Neil Diamond-inspired melodies. But I failed to connect any of the original songs to Mr. Diamond and all his satin shirt glory.

Bottom Line: At just 80 minutes long with no intermission, V-Day was a highly enjoyable treat on a Saturday afternoon. It loses a bit of steam as it wraps everything up in the end, and the overlying message of “just be yourself, and good things will eventually come your way” felt a little too pat for me (because, let’s face it, that isn’t how life works, no matter how many songs you set to it). I’m not sure the show would really work in a larger setting, since it fits too perfectly into the festival mold of shoebox-size theaters, minimal staging, and narrowly-focused storytelling. But as festival offerings go, V-Day was a charming choice.

Image © Jeff Yorkes