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‘The Last Airbender’

Director: M. Night Shyamalan
Stars: Dev Patel, Noah Ringer
Rating: PG

If you’re going to call the main character in your new film “The Avatar” and make your audience wear funny little glasses, you’d better have some seriously fancy tricks up your 3-D sleeves. M. Night Shyamalan has an oversized flying creature that would be almost lovable if it didn’t look like it was stolen from the set of “Where the Wild Things Are” and quickly outfitted with a beaver tail.

Thanks to a cast that ranges from amateur to embarrassed (wow, Dev Patel — just wow), an amazingly thin plot, and a comically epic score, “The Last Airbender,” at its best moments resembles a school play with a generous costume budget. But what’s really alarming here — besides the fact that they couldn’t even make the lemur monkey bat sidekick mildly amusing — is that, after a painful 93 minutes, Shyamalan smugly sets himself up for a sequel.


‘Return to El Salvador’

Director: Jamie Moffett

For local director Jamie Moffett, a chance conversation with a former professor sparked an obsessive, 18-month journey into a tiny country’s fight with a big corporation.

“Return to El Salvador” delves into a complex, layered tragedy: the mysterious death of human rights activist Marcelo Rivera, El Salvador’s fight for sovereignty, the nearly two million Salvadoran refugees in the U.S., and the questionable practices of Canadian mining company Pacific Rim.

“Eighteen months ago, I probably couldn’t have found El Salvador on a map,” says Moffett from his Kensington studio, just before leaving for a screening at Canadian Parliament.

But this director is no stranger to flying by the seat of his pants — or complexity. The 34-year-old self-described agnostic co-founded The Simple Way — the activist Kensington Christian community — in 1998. He chronicled fellow Simple Way activists in his 2008 film, “Ordinary Radicals.”

Moffett has since left The Way, and his personal activism is somewhat more worldly than simple. Though he doesn’t seem to make decisions based on profit, Jamie Moffett Media Design and Production is definitely a for-profit company.

“My intention has always been to be a sheep in wolf’s clothing,” he says. “We’re trying to sell compelling narratives and market them in a way that we can give money to the organizations we’re inspired by.”

If you’re looking for evidence of Moffett’s ability to work the system, you might recognize the narrator of this little documentary: Martin Sheen.


‘Jonah Hex’

Director: Jimmy Hayward
Cast: Josh Brolin, Megan Fox
Rating: PG-13

It would be easy to say “Jonah Hex” is overstuffed with cliches, bad acting and a lame plot, but the movie’s problem isn’t as simple as that. On film, the DC Comics character seems as two-dimensional as its comic book counterpart.

Jonah Hex (Josh Brolin) is out for vengeance after Quentin Turnbull (John Malkovich) murders his family and disfigures Hex’s face. We don’t learn anything about Hex except he’s got a tough nuts attitude and was once a family man. If Hex is compared to a character as richly painted as, say, Tony Stark, aka Iron Man, you can see why one gets a sequel and the other inevitably will not.

Clocking in at just 80 minutes, the experience is so lean it’s as if we’re not even getting our 10 dollars worth. Hex confronts the bad guys and blows them up with crossbow fireballs, et cetera. Stir and repeat, perhaps thanks to too many cooks behind the script — there are five people credited for writing it. It’s no wonder the end result is simplistic and devoid of energy — aside from the pretty set-dressing of Megan Fox, who at least isn’t embarrassingly bad as Hex’s prostitute girlfriend Lilah.


Haunting 'K of D' opens
Magic Theatre season

The first time the girl kisses a frog, her disappointed gaze provokes ripples of laughter. The second time she gently presses her lips on the imaginary critter in her hand, much later in the tale unfolding in "The K of D," the effect is strangely hopeful, and chilling.

Such "details are important," the young narrator tells us. "An urban legend is always told as if it's true, or it's got enough details to be convincing."

Laura Schellhardt's "K of D," the cleverly convoluted coming-of-age tale as ghost story that opened the Magic Theatre's season Saturday, has all the details it needs to draw us into its ever-more-enchanting yarn. It isn't just the particulars of character and incident that enliven the sparkling flow of narrative Schellhardt has subtitled "an urban legend." Some of the most convincing details derive from performer Maya Lawson's mercurial skills as she delineates every kid involved in a life-changing incident and the assorted adults affected by it as well.

It's a distinctly small-town story, but then, as the narrator says, most urban legends "take place somewhere rural." This one unfolds near a country lake in Ohio among a pack of tweens and young teens after one of their number has been killed by a car driven by a reckless, pugnacious and sexually predatory man they all agree is a "monster." It's very much the story of the unnamed girl who serves as narrator, as well as every other kid in the group and the dead boy's parents. But it's principally the story of Charlotte, the frog kisser and the victim's twin sister, who's grown remote and silent since he died in her arms with a last kiss.

For those who haven't figured out what the title means yet, I'm not about to ruin the surprise. Let's just say that elements of the supernatural emerge from the commonplace and become effortlessly entwined with an oddly rewarding drama of revenge.

It could still use some work. A West Coast premiere, the first offering in the first season of new Artistic Director Loretta Greco fulfills her promise of giving more new plays their second production, offering playwrights the opportunity to continue developing their scripts - as Schellhardt has done during rehearsals. "K of D" hits some rough patches early on, coming on too strong too soon with such overworn devices as the narrator's always hard-to-swallow surprise at seeing the audience.

The opening is the only flaw in the impressive Magic debut of director Rebecca Novick, founder and former artistic director of the adventurous Crowded Fire company. Novick skillfully orchestrates the production elements with Lawson's performance, using minimal props on Melpomene Katakalos' stark, boat-ramp set. Kate Boyd's sculptural lights and Sara Huddleston's startling and haunting sound effects bring to life the crickets, storms, frogs and fireflies of Ohio summer nights.

Lawson quickly builds a close rapport with the audience, feeding off our laughter with the nervous giggles of her narrator. She builds on the contrast between the storyteller and the gangly, awkward Charlotte, more comfortable with animals than her peers, until she sketches in the rest of the pack with sharp, deft strokes.

Shifts in posture and her flexible voice immediately distinguish the different approaches to budding manhood of the brash, wannabe-cool Quisp, impulsively macho Trent and fact-checking Brett. Just as clear are the contrasting attempts at sophistication of malapropism-spouting know-it-all Steffi and the 15-going-on-30 worldliness of pack leader Becky Ray, wielding bubble-gum cigarettes until she can score Pall Malls. Not only does Lawson create indelible portraits of Charlotte's parents and the increasingly hateful Johnny, the deadly driver, but in one hilarious sequence, she flips through thumbnail sketches of his rapid succession of girlfriends.

The more withdrawn Charlotte becomes, the more clearly she emerges in Lawson's depiction of her interactions with animals - until the startling wild whoop of a heron erupts from her in one dynamic, suspenseful scene. What Lawson, Schellhardt and Novick achieve is something much more than an impressive one-woman show. When "K of D" is at its best, you forget that there's only one person on that stage and revel in the multicharacter drama of a supernatural incident as seen through the eyes of a wise child.

 
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