Friday, June 12, 2015

Reverend's Reviews: Girls Gone Wild



Novelist Roald Dahl's books are rife with precocious children, many of them depicted in a less than favorable light. Think of the greedy brats in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory or Danny the Champion of the World's schoolyard bullies. Of course, Dahl was perceptive enough to lay the blame for children's misbehavior where it more often than not belongs: on their parents. His classic Matilda is another popular chapter in the author's literary treatise.


Adapted for the stage by the Royal Shakespeare Company in 2010, Matilda the Musical has proven a box office smash in both London and New York and won five Tony Awards in 2013. Its US national tour has just launched at Los Angeles' Ahmanson Theatre, where it is running through July 12th. Having attended the touring company's opening night, I would say the musical's prospects for a similarly successful life on the road are virtually guaranteed.

The title character of the book and show is 6-year old Matilda Wormwood. Her birth having been an unexpected and undesired "accident" by her car salesman father and dance-obsessed mother, the neglected girl (whose dad insists on calling her a boy) finds solace and inspiration in reading left-leaning classics by Dickens, Dostoyevsky and others. Her revolutionary bent comes in handy once her parents banish her to a grim private school run in totalitarian fashion by the wicked Miss Trunchbull, who takes excessive pride in having once been Britain's hammer-throwing champion at the Olympics.


Matilda rightly concludes "sometimes you have to be a little bit naughty," courtesy of one of composer Tim Minchin's many catchy songs, in order to effectively confront injustice. By Act II, she is leading a subversive revolt with the help of some hitherto undiscovered psychic powers against Trunchbull on behalf of her fellow, abused students as well as Miss Honey, their sweet, put-upon teacher.

The musical's chief assets are Minchin's excellent score and Dennis Kelly's Tony-winning book, especially their blend of whimsy and social critique. Dahl's usual targets — gluttonous children, irresponsible and just plain stupid parents, television — have been lovingly preserved, and the adaptors have made Miss Trunchbull (embodied by a man in an oversized suit that manages to be both athletic and militaristic) simultaneously hilarious and terrifying. Played on tour by Bryce Ryness, who in real life is blessed with movie star-quality good looks, Trunchbull's fierce sway went beyond the stage opening night when she stopped the show to stare down a crying child in the audience. As a result, I don't recommend Matilda the Musical for kids under 10 despite the number of juveniles in the show.

Matthew Warchus' staging varies wildly between effectively understated and overly complicated, and Peter Darling's choreography relies too heavily on excessive gesticulation. The show's energetic cast, however, makes the best of things. Particular standouts in addition to Ryness are Quinn Mattfeld and Cassie Silva as Mr. and Mrs. Wormwood, the limber and funny Jaquez Andre Sims as Mrs. Wormwood's dance partner Rudolpho and Jennifer Blood, blessed with a lovely singing voice, as Miss Honey. Mia Sinclair Jenness, who played Matilda on opening night, struck me as a bit halting with her dialogue but was otherwise fine. She alternates in the role with Gabby Gutierrez (the first Filipina to play Matilda) and Mabel Tyler.

Roald Dahl is reported to have been a rather prickly character and I'm not sure he liked musicals but something tells me he would enjoy Matilda the Musical, thoroughly infused with his sensibility as it is. He would probably especially approve of Miss Trunchbull — the physical representation of every small-minded yet domineering adult who ever lived — being played by a man in drag.


The life-changing power of the written word, for better and worse, also informs Peter Greenaway's 1996 adults-only film The Pillow Book. This beautifully bizarre tale by the British iconoclast has received a suitably gorgeous hi-def digital transfer and is now available on Blu-ray as the first release from Film Movement Classics.

Full-frontal nudity (male and female but mostly male) abounds in this story of a Japanese woman, Nagiko (lovely Vivian Wu), who is obsessed with using the human body as a literary canvas as her father lovingly treated her own when she was a child. After her father is betrayed by an unscrupulous, gay book publisher, Nagiko sets into motion an elaborate plan of revenge involving the publisher's bisexual lover (the then up and coming Ewan McGregor) and a bevy of elaborately encrypted naked men.

In addition to all the flesh on display, the fearless Greenaway (who made this film and the similarly provocative The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover and my personal favorite of his, Prospero's Books, in quick succession) employs an East-meets-West aural landscape and unique frame-within-a-frame visual technique to weave his seductive tale. His characters' motivations don't always make sense and what becomes of McGregor's "manuscript" can definitely be termed over the top, but The Pillow Book is nevertheless a modern classic.


Two other gay-interest titles are also newly available on DVD and VOD. David Au's Eat with Me (Wolfe Video) is a low-key but frequently affecting look at a closeted Chinese-American gay man whose life is turned upside down when his mother unexpectedly leaves his father and moves in with him. Sharon Omi is especially good as the mother, and the timeless George Takei makes a brief but welcome cameo appearance as himself.

Also out now is the somewhat familiar Italian drama Beyond Love (Ariztical Entertainment), in which a lesbian couple enlists their gay best friends to help them have a baby. Complications ensue. Not bad but not a must-see either.

Reverend's Ratings:
Matilda the Musical (US national tour): B+
The Pillow Book (Blu-ray): A-
Eat with Me: B
Beyond Love: B-

The Pillow Book Blu-ray, Eat with Me and Beyond Love are now available:


Review by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and Rage Monthly Magazine.

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