21st May2014

In the Heights – Theatre

by timbaros
images-170The Heights is the northernmost part of Manhattan, and it’s also the location where the new musical production of In The Heights takes place.
Finding itself not in Manhattan (after winning four Tony’s in 2008 including Best Musical) but at the Southwark Playhouse near Elephant & Castle, In The Heights is a musical about the various cultures living and surviving in the heights, which is full of vibrant, lower middle class, blacks, hispanics, latinos – the kind of cultures that many people say represents the true New York City.
In the show, which has a cast of what appears to be a couple dozen, is about a young woman – Nina (Christine Modestou) – who returns back home to the heights after a stint at Stamford University in California. She lost her scholarship because of bad grades and has to break the news to her hard-working father Kevin (David Bedella) and mother (Josie Benson). Her father owns a cab company and employs a young black employee Benny (Wayne Robinson). Benny and Nina always had a thing for each other, but her father doesn’t want them to date because he feels that Benny is lower class and that Daniela could do better. In the show there’s also a corner bodega, which is run by Usnavi (a brilliant Sam Mackay) and his sidekick Sonny (a very good Damian Buhagiar). Across the ‘road’ there is a beauty salon run by the voluptuous Daniela (Victoria Hamilton-Barritt), who has the best lines in the show, and she delivers them perfectly – Sofia Vergara-style.
Mix these various types of people and what you get is show full of flavor and spice, and what a taste it is! The cast all are so very talented; they can sing, they can dance, they can move, they smile while running all over the small stage and continue to sing their hearts out. Nina’s father Kevin decides to sell his business in order for Nina to be able to go back to school, meanwhile Nina’s abuela Claudia (grandmother, played by Eve Polycarpou) tries to make sure the neighborhood stays safe, clean and peaceful. Claudia is lucky enough to win the lottery ($96,000) and decides to give some of the money to Usnavi, who always had a free cup of coffee for her, and with the money he plans to go back to his home country. But there’s an  intense heatwave, and a blackout (excellently played out), and the theatre gets dark, and everyone’s lives are thrown into chaos for the night. Nina spends the night with Benny, while Claudia unexpectedly passes away. The next morning Nina’s parents have to deal with Claudia’s death, and it’s a very emotional scene on stage when all the characters gather around to pay their respect. Usvani realizes that home is right there, In The Heights, so he no longer wants to leave, and Nina plans to go back to school. All of this in the backdrop of the heights.
The true star of the show is Sam Mackay. He raps, and what a voice he has. He’s also an excellent dancer and a great actor or stage, and he really comes into his own halfway during the show. If anyone breaks out of this show, it will be him. Also excellent is Buhagiar, he’s tiny but boy can he rap dance. Actually, the whole cast is very good and there is not one false note throughout the show. Director Luke Sheppard and choreographer Drew McOnie have successfully put on a show that was a huge Broadway success and turned it into a successful off off West-End show that is full of energy and talent.
Southwark Playhouse is a bit too small for a show with huge ambitions, and a very large cast. A West End Stage would better suit In The Heights, so the cast would have more room to run around the stage and dance. But then again Southwark (and the surrounding area) has a large Latino and Black population, which is who the show represents. Would mainstream West End audiences embrace this show? I’d bet they would, and no doubt they would be infected with the fever that is In The Heights. In The Heights ends its run on June 7th, so catch it now.
21st May2014

The Wolf of Wall Street – DVD

by timbaros

images-77At 180 minutes long, The Wolf of Wall Street is not a short film. It has a fast and furious momentum that keeps it going up until about 120 minutes into the film, and then when you think it’s over, it gains more momentum, but because of this, it loses steam as well.

The Wolf of Wall Street is the true (according to the book and it’s author Jordan Belfort) story of American Belfort’s days as a New York stockbroker who owned the now defunct Stratton Oakmont Trading Company. His was a life of money, greed, sex, drugs, cheating, fraud, corruption, more fraud and more corruption and lots more sex and drugs. Did I mention lots of drugs?
Leonardo DiCaprio plays Belfort as both a young man starting out as a dental school dropout who somehow gets a job on Wall Street at the age of 22 (in 1982) to being sent to prison at the age of 36. In between those 14 years, Belfort lived a life that could be characterized as reality meets fantasy.
As a 22 year old man, we see DiCaprio at his first day at work in a Manhattan brokerage company. He knows this is where he belongs, even more so when his boss Mark Hanna (Matthew McConaughey) tells him how he should lead his life if he is going to stay in this business – with drugs and prostitutes. Unfortunately for Belfort (and Hanna) they both lose their jobs when their firm goes under after the crash of 1987, so Belfort, encouraged by his wife Teresa (Cristin Milioti), applies for a stockbroker job on Long Island. He thinks about it and decides to go for it. He drives up to a strip mall and walks into what is a very low key unassuming office, where the men are dressed very casual and with no buzz in the office like his New York City trading floor. He impresses the manager (in more ways than one) and from this point on for Belfort the only way is up.
He soon earns lots of money but then decides to strike out on his own. He enlists his neighbor (who happened to marry his own cousin) who is a character out of the 1950’s – Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill) to work for him. And soon enough, Belfort gets all of his friends together to also work for him at his new firm. And within a year, his firm, Stratton Oakmont, is earning millions and millions of dollars, and with all this money comes all the finer (and funner) things in life. Belfort is able to buy his wife very expensive jewelry and a penthouse in the sky, and at the same time he spends lavishly on his employees. In one crazy scene in the film, Belfort announces that his firm has earned a record amount for one day, so out comes a scantily-dressed marching band (both men and women), and then a chimpanzee which Belfort holds on to, then hookers, hookers, and more hookers (what were the female brokers doing? Were there any? I didn’t see any at this point in the film). Also, midgets were brought in to be tossed. So the debauchery continues and continues, with lots of naked women in the office, and lots of the male brokers taking turns with the women. The Wolf of Wall Street shows that there was sex everywhere in their office. Whilst this may be sort of true, it is really really hard to believe than an American company in the early 1990’s would condone this type of behavior. Even more so when Belfort (and his board of directors – all of them) take drugs all the time, including cocaine and quaaludes, all over the office, and in public places as well. This includes them boarding a plane, all very obviously high. Any airline at that time would’ve called the authorities and kicked them off. At one point, Belfort’s company employed 1000 brokers, so are we supposed to believe that all of them condoned (and participated in) this type of behavior?
Belfort then meets and falls in love with Naomi (a very good and beautiful Margot Robbie – with an excellent Long Island accent). So the wife is out of the picture and him and Naomi get married and start to have children. Naomi gets whatever she wants – diamonds, a house in the Hamptons, Belfort even buys a huge yacht and names it after her. But Belfort knows that what he is doing is wrong, not just the illegal trading (pump and dump – where his brokers and friends and relatives buy shares in a company to inflate the price of a stock, then shares in these same companies would be sold to unsuspecting investors, thereby inflating the price, and then his brokers and friends and relatives would sell the stock – making lots of money and leaving the unsuspecting investors with huge losses) but the drugs and the prostitution as well. Belfort even enlists his wife’s aunt Emma (Joanna Lumley) and several other non-Americans to help him launder money to take cash to Switzerland. But lurking in the background is FBI Agent Patrick Denham (Kyle Chandler) – who is perhaps the most believable character in the movie. He investigates Belfort and his company for securities fraud, and it takes two years for Denham to gather all the evidence he needs to arrest Belfort. Needless to say, his life will never be the same again. Belfort has admitted that one of his heroes was Gorden Gekko (Michael Douglas’s character in 1987’s Wall Street) who also went to prison.
The Wolf of Wall Street is a satire, perhaps a way over the top satire at that. Sure, the story is a solid one, with all the right ingredients: sex, drugs, money, great acting and directing, etc. But at the end of the day the characters are just drug fueled men with the mental capacity of ten year olds. . Director Martin Scorsese had a good story here but he mucked it up. He should’ve played this film like a Goodfellas for the Wall Street crowd, a drama instead of a satire, make the characters and their situations more believable and real. And while Leonardo DiCaprio does an excellent job playing Belfort, it boils down to a script that is just too too long and neverending.
At 120 minutes into the film, Belfort, after having taking way too many quaaludes with Azoff, is told my his lawyer to not use the phone in his house as it is bugged. So Belfort goes to a pay phone at a local country club. Then the quaaludes kick in, and in a 5 minute sequence (which is when I started checking my watch), he slowly slowly tries to make it into the car, falls down a flight of steps, uses his legs to get in the car. It is a hilarious moment but by this point the movie should’ve been wrapping up and not starting a new story arc. Yet, there was still an hour to go. Watching The Wolf of Wall Street is like going to dinner in an all you can eat restaurant. You have eaten way too much but more food is put on your plate. So you feel like you just want to get up and walk away.