Saturday, October 30, 2010

Trick or Treat

So here we are at last: Halloween weekend and the town is crawling with pranksters and pricks, drunks and dicks. With so many San Franciscans focused on the World Series, theatre managers around town tried to placate nervous audiences by announcing the baseball scores during intermission at some performances.

But the times, they are a-changing. The Castro District no longer closes the streets for one of the most famous Halloween celebrations on the West Coast. And, in its 31st year, the producers of the Exotic Erotic Ball tried to relocate their event to Richmond but were forced to cancel due to poor ticket sales.

What's a person supposed to do in this town to get genuinely creeped out for Halloween? Business as usual just won't cut it.

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After a week of theatregoing in which dramatists talked about the Taliban castrating men, pulling them to pieces and feeding them to Marjan (the one-eyed lion in the Kabul Zoo) -- and Boxcar Theatre's production of Equus focused on an emotionally distraught teenager who had blinded six horses -- I was primed to enjoy the Brava Theatre Center's Halloween treat. Written and performed by Joel Israel, Reluctant was not for the faint of heart.

As directed by Meiyin Wang (with music composed by Mark Valadez), Reluctant offered audiences a Twilight Zone-ish nightmare in which the soothing/seductive voice of a radio announcer/psychopath with a fetish for necrophilia slowly and deliberately escorts the audience into a new version of hell. Imagine a gore fest without any gore, a Quentin Tarantino shock fest without any violence. Then think about how to creep out an audience with the sound of one talented actor's voice.

Although Reluctant features a different female guest at each performance who participates in the radio host's prurient "interview" segment (on the night I attended, the guest actress was Brava's artistic director, Raelle Myrick-Hodges), the show rides on Joel Israel's shoulders like a skeleton intent on scaring Ichabod Crane to death. At various moments, Israel delivers the news, talks like a psychopathic killer, and uses his cold-hearted confidence and blistering bravado to make even the most devoted voyeurs in the audience squirm in their seats.

As a result, Reluctant is not a show for the kiddies. Nor should anyone ever consider it "family entertainment." But if you love being transported by a radio actor's voice (or have ever wondered if The Shadow knew exactly what you were doing), this is the show for you. The following two video clips give a sense of what Joel Israel has to offer theatre queens, murder mystery fans, and perverts at large.

Reluctant continues at the Brava Theatre Center through November 13. You can order tickets here.

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Coming up at the Third I Film Festival is a deliciously creepy film that does not have a single redeeming character. Beautifully written and directed by Smita Bhide, The Blue Tower takes place in Southall, a suburban town near London with a heavy English/Indian Hindu population. Two towers -- one red and one blue -- seem to conspire to drive the protagonist to distraction as his life begins to crumble. The Blue Tower focuses on the following unfortunate souls:
  • Mohan (Abhin Galeya) is a young British-Indian man trapped in an arranged marriage. Unemployed, without any money or children (and driving a beat-up old car), he has the word "loser" written all over him. Although Mohan's wife works, she is rarely interested in having sex with him. Among his many duties is looking in on his Aunty Ji, a vain and bitter old woman who dishes out misery in heaping portions.
  • Vivek (Nicholas Khan) is an old friend of Mohan's who has recently offered him a job. While his friends and family keep warning Mohan that Vivek is a total flake who never honors his promises, Mohan is optimistic that Vivek will offer him a decent wage and a chance to advance in the world.
  • Three Balti House Losers (Paul Chowdhry, Amit Shah, and Sonell Dadral) are Mohan's good-for-nothing friends who are always trying to latch onto a get-rich quick scheme.

  • Kamla Aunty (Indira Joshi) is a hateful old widow who refuses to put any money in the bank. Instead, she keeps large packages of cash in shoe boxes stacked on a shelf in her bedroom closet. Bed-bound and diabetic, she lashes out at anyone who crosses her.  She is constantly threatening to call the employment agency and have her English home health care worker replaced by "a nice Indian girl."
  • Minnie (Harvey Virdi) is one of Kamla Aunty's new neighbors. Along with her husband, Mukesh, she has convinced Kamla Aunty to move back to India where she can afford five times as many servants for the same money she is paying to an employment agency.
  • Mukesh (Inder Manocha) is Minnie's husband and, no doubt, a con artist with a long history of bilking unhappy widows out of their savings.
  • Asha (Manjinder Virk) is Mohan's wife, who has always been surprisingly close to her handsome brother.
  • Ashok (Kayvan Novak) is Mohan's brother-in-law, who has been having sex with Asha since they were children.
  • Papa Ji (Madhav Sharma) runs a successful import/export business and has frequently pressured Mohan to take a job "with the family." When Mohan breaks the news that Papa Ji's son (Ashok) has gotten his daughter (Asha) pregnant, Papa Ji dismisses the situation and tells Mohan to go home, take care of his wife, and raise the child as his own.
  • Judy (Alice O'Connell) tries to take care of Kamla Aunty and monitor the old woman's pills and diet. Unfortunately, she is constantly being abused (verbally and physically) by the old woman. Not only has Judy fallen head over heels in love with Mohan, she knows how the two of them can escape to a brighter future.

In her director's statement, Smita Bhide writes:
"The Blue Tower is a different kind of British Asian film. It’s not about arranged marriages or culture clash or suicide bombers or racism. In it, a young Asian guy falls in love with a white girl, but this isn’t a Romeo and Juliet story. Believing he can escape the trap of his small-town life and loveless marriage, he unwittingly walks into an even bigger one involving deceit, theft, and eventually murder.
I wanted to make a contemporary B-movie with a nod to films like The Honeymoon Killers or The Postman Always Rings Twice. But I also wanted to get beyond a purely genre-influenced narrative to explore some bigger themes (the power of the family within Indian immigrant culture) and also explore the question of how much someone’s good or bad luck can be determined by their character. Or does their luck affect the kind of person they become? Is Mohan doomed to be a victim because of his very nature? Can he only escape his fate by embracing it?
Our budget for this film was next to nothing. We made it for so little we didn’t even get into debt (for a fraction of what is considered these days to be micro-budget). We cut our cloth accordingly, didn’t go for flashy visuals or any locations we had to pay for. I tried to focus on the building blocks of drama: character and story. It was shot entirely hand-held on a small digital camera. The look is realist due to our budgetary constraints. But the tone and style of the narrative is heightened and storybook, more fable than observational slice-of-life.
The film has had enthusiastic responses from younger, multicultural audiences who see it a refreshingly different and authentic portrait of British Indian lives compared to many we’ve seen so far. However, they certainly don’t see the story as 'representative' of what really happens in the culture. They understand that it’s fictional, an imaginary story that just happens to be peopled by British Indian characters.
It is crucial that we guard against the temptation to see every British Asian as being somehow representative of a community as a whole -- or as only existing to provide a window for a white audience to see into an exotic world.
The difference in The Blue Tower is that -- for once -- a brown-faced character is portrayed on the screen as a universal Everyman figure and not forever marginalized as an 'ethnic' with special-issue problems. His struggles are a metaphor for what we all face in our attempts to determine our own fate."
As a writer and director, Bidhe has achieved a remarkable success in crafting a film that draws the viewer into a horrible domestic situation, breaks down any resistance, and tells her story in lurid, graphic, and uncompromising detail. Sandy Nuttgens and Mike Scott have provided a superb musical score that heightens the suspense.

Villainy is everywhere. No one wins. Here's the trailer:

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If you prefer the lighter side of Halloween, you'll probably enjoy Giants, a quirky documentary narrated by Tom Skerritt that was recently shown at DocFest 2010.  Written and directed by Jim Dever and Mimi Gan, Giants is all about the farmers who are obsessed with growing the biggest pumpkin possible.

Whether aiming to win a local contest or heading to Half Moon Bay for the biggest prize of the year, Giants is the kind of film that forces you to smile at the devotion and occasionally lunacy of people who have gotten carried away by their hobby. There are the devout Christians who pray to God to help their pumpkin grow fast and big. There are also petty rivalries between pumpkin growers who see each other year after year.

If, like Charlie Brown and Linus van Pelt, you're looking for The Great Pumpkin, this film is for you.

If you only think of The Smashing Pumpkins as a rock band, you'll have stronger visuals to fill your head after watching Giants. Plus, you'll learn the secret of milking a pumpkin for all it's worth!  Here's the trailer:

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