January 22nd, 2019

Off the Wall Theater: "Cole and Noel"

When looking for some entertainment at holiday time that isn’t either A Christmas Carol or The Nutcracker, we often look to Off the Wall Theater for something different. This year, that was Cole and Noel, a review of music by the two prolific composers and writers, neither of whom ever wrote a Christmas song. We went to see it on Sunday, December 22nd.

The two authors were “called back from Heaven” for this show, and played by Dale Gutzman as Noel Coward, and frequent cast member Jeremy C. Welter as Cole Porter. They did both note that coming from Heaven was a bit remarkable, since neither man was a model of conventional virtue during their life on Earth, but evidently God took a more expansive view of goodness, including artistic merit, than He is usually credited with.

Porter and Coward knew each other during their overlapping careers, and were sometime collaborators, and sometime rivals, at least according to this show. Dialog between Gutzman and Welter was witty and edgy, but I thought made a bit too much of the men’s homosexuality, and too little of other aspects of their colorful lives.

However, the main attraction of the show was the music, and in that regard it did not disappoint. Both men were extremely productive over long careers, and there was a lot of music in this production that neither of us had heard before.  Interspersed with well- known songs such as “Mad About the Boy,” “It’s Delovely,” “Don’t Fence Me In,” and “Too Darn Hot,” there were pieces like “London Pride,” Coward’s war-era tribute to home. “Don’t Put Your Daughter on the Stage, Mrs. Worthington,” was the thing that veterans of too many long audition sessions would have longed to say, but dared not.

The cast did an excellent job of selling the songs with lots of energy, and giving the impression they were having a fine time doing it. Voices and expression were all top-notch. We got to see some honest-to-Go real-live tap dancing for the first time in I don’t know how long.

We had a really good time at Cole and Noel.

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Mortal Engines

On Sunday, December 23rd, we went to see Mortal Engines, the movie made from the successful series of post-apocalyptic novels involving mobile cities that prey on each other for fuel and material.

We thought the movie was actually pretty good, and certainly very interesting to look at. The design sense of Peter Jackson and Weta Workshop are very much in evidence. In particular, the design of the City of London, incorporating St. Paul’s Cathedral, Big Ben, and the statues of Boudicca and the Trafalgar lions into the juggernaut city, is nicely done.

The story is a decent adventure story, although somewhat diffuse. The basic plot deals with trying to keep the head bad guy (Thaddeus Valentine, played by Hugo Weaving) from getting and using a superweapon.

Comparisons with Star Wars are pretty inevitable: London becomes the Death Star; there’s a scene involving flying inside the giant machine to attack it, and even an “I-am-your-father-Luke” moment. The London citizens, cheering as their city overtakes and captures another have good reason to rejoice, but they still reminded me of audiences from The Hunger Games. And, you can’t avoid a Metropolis reference: London’s great engine is the Heart Machine in hellish color. Other than that, though, the characters are their own selves. Valentine is a particularly protean villain, sometimes menacing, and sometimes smarmy. Heroine Hester Shaw (Hera Hilmar) is not like any other character I can readily think of. Anna Fang (Jihae) is not just Han Solo in drag.

Given its great expense, the movie did staggeringly badly opening weekend and was estimated to threaten a $100 million dollar loss. I think it was better than that, but was badly marketed. It’s not just that the movie establishment still doesn’t know what to do with Steampunk (which it’s lumped into) but I realized that, even though I’ve seen most of the superhero, SF and fantasy movies this year, I only saw about one trailer for Mortal Engines. Compare that with the year-long advertising and hype campaigns that you get for the next Star Wars or Marvel film, and I think it was woefully under-promoted.

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On Friday, December 28th, we went to see Aquaman, the newest DC comics movie adaptation. 

The character of Aquaman, a.k.a. Arthur Curry (Jason Momoa) was introduced in the Justice League movie, where he had an important role. Here, we see his origin, as the son of lighthouse keeper Tom Curry (Temuera Morrison) and fugitive Atlantean Princess Atlanna (Nicole Kidman). Arthur is left behind when Atlantis reclaims Atlanna, and grows up as a more-or-less regular guy, except for occasional lessons on how to be an Atlantean prince provided by the loyal Vulko (Willem Dafoe).

Vulko has confessed to Arthur that although Atlanna was married to the King of Atlantis and bore him a son, Orm (Patrick Wilson), she was eventually exiled to the Abyss and certain death for disloyalty. Therefore, when the movie opens, Arthur has not attempted to go to Atlantis, but contents himself with foiling the occasional act of piracy, as when he intervenes in Manta’s (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) seizure of a Russian submarine.

Thing change when Mera (Amber Heard) shows up at the lighthouse calling on him to claim the throne of Atlantis in order to halt a catastrophic war with the surface planned by Orm. Arthur reluctantly takes up the challenge, which sets the main plot of the adventure in motion.

There’s a fairly good “Indiana Jones” style action plot, wherein Arthur seeks the Trident of the “true king” while Orm progresses with his plan to unite the ocean kingdoms against the surface world. There are some refreshing points: Arthur, although intelligent, is not an intellectual and not particularly well educated. Orm, although a jerk, is not insane and has good reasons for taking action against the surface. Mera is one of the best female characters of the season, in every way Arthur’s equal in power, skill, and ability.

The major problem with the movie is that it is overlong, at 2 hours 43 minutes. Not that it’s dull, it’s just that there’s so much of it crammed in. Lots of it is awfully good, like the sequence in Sicily where Arthur and Mera are engaged in separate running battles with Manta and his men, which I found very inventive. The underwater sequences were beautiful. Perhaps that’s one reason I didn’t find the huge battle sequence very exciting, I was too busy looking at the details.

I expect comparisons with Black Panther will be inevitable, since the plot hinges on one-to-one duels for the kingship, but in this case it is Arthur who is the outsider and the challenger.

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