Monday, March 30, 2009

Theater Review: Master Class

Location: Paper Mill Playhouse, 22 Brookside Dr., Millburn, NJ

Website: Paper Mill Playhouse

Starring: Barbara Walsh

My Review: I have a strange sort of affection for the Paper Mill Playhouse. It’s in the middle of nowhere in New Jersey, and I may have to give up my New Yorker status for voluntarily going to Jersey for theater. But the Paper Mill Playhouse is a theater of outstanding reputation where plenty of Broadway stars either made their debut or continue to appear at (I bet you didn’t know it’s where Anne Hathaway got her start by attending their theater classes as a kid). It’s also an adorable theater, created within an old converted paper mill, that sits overlooking a stream, has ample seating, and offers various art and photography galleries to browse during intermission.

Having missed the production of Master Class that premiered on Broadway in the 1990s, I was glad to have the opportunity to check it out at the Paper Mill. The play depicts a master class that the great opera diva Maria Callas taught at Julliard in 1971. She directly addresses the audience, as though we are the class she is teaching, but when it comes time for her to critique specific students, they stick to only allowing professional actors to portray a select few music protégés. Callas critiques each of her onstage students harshly, but when she loses herself in various monologues about her voice training, opera career, and troubled personal life, you realize everything this woman has been through that gives her every right to judge other singers so severely.

While she occasionally shares the stage with others, Master Class is essentially a one-woman show that completely belongs to whoever is playing Maria Callas; the quality of the entire production is determined by the actress cast in this lead role. Luckily, this production got it completely right in casting Barbara Walsh as Callas. I saw Walsh in the recent Broadway revival of Company as the brash and boozy Joanne, and her brashness works just as beautifully in Master Class as it did in Company. As Callas, she’s outspoken and often rude, but makes it clear that this overly critical persona is all due to being a musical perfectionist who places her art above everything else in the world, including sensitivity for the feelings of others. The deeply introspective monologues that Callas gets lost in had a tendency to run a bit long and focus too heavily on the melodrama of her life, but that’s the fault of the playwright, and Walsh performs each one with such finesse that you actually feel sympathy for a woman you just watched cut a young student’s performance to shreds.

The three actors who play Callas’ students all do a fine job, but the play is so much about Callas and Callas alone, that they are merely props in her play, much like the grand piano that sits center stage throughout the show.

Bottom Line: Even if you know little to nothing about Maria Callas, or opera in general, Master Class is a fantastic play for anyone who loves music or seeing the process that great performers go through to become great. The production at the Paper Mill is playing for just one more week, but there’s bound to be future productions of Master Class to check out. Just pray that they cast the right woman to be Callas.

Friday, March 27, 2009

TV Review: Breaking Bad

I started watching Breaking Bad because Stephen King told me to. An occasional contributor to my bible, Entertainment Weekly magazine, King has written several columns about how Breaking Bad is the best show currently on TV. So I decided it might be time to forgive King for traumatizing me with his novel It, and recorded the first season marathon that AMC played before the second season premiered, and while I’m not sure it’s the best thing on TV, it’s pretty damn close. If someone had told me two years ago that with both Mad Men and Breaking Bad, AMC would be airing some of the best television created in years, I would have said, “Seriously? The channel that plays Revenge of the Nerds on a regular rotation is going to have good TV? Seriously?”

But good TV it does indeed have, Revenge of the Nerds airings aside. Breaking Bad is the ultimate antihero story, where you actually find yourself rooting for a guy cooking crystal meth and his loser partner in crime. Bryan Cranston, who was previously best known as the manic father on Malcolm in the Middle, is perfection as Walter White, a man who is as average as average can be, besides that whole cooking meth thing. He’s an incredibly overqualified and underpaid high school chemistry teacher, who in episode one learns he has terminal lung cancer (a major slap in the face for someone who doesn’t even smoke). With a wife who is pregnant with a late in life “oops” baby and a teenage son with cerebral palsy, Walt refuses to shuffle off this mortal coil without leaving them with enough money to live comfortably on. So through a series of interesting events, he hooks up with a former student cum drug dealer, who is in charge of distributing the kick-ass meth Walt creates.

Aaron Paul, who I hate as the weasely guy macking on a girl 10 years younger than him on Big Love, is perfect as Jesse, Walt’s weasely business partner. He never listened to Walt when he was a student in his chemistry class years ago, and not a lot has changed in that respect, as he continues to question and bungle Walt’s instructions. But as the show progresses, Jesse actually evolves and realizes that while Walt may be a total square, he knows what he’s doing and may be worth listening to after all.

The show markets itself as a dark comedy-drama, which is a big relief, since I don’t have to feel like a sociopath for laughing at some of the stuff that happens. It’s hard to imagine how any sort of comedy could be drawn from situations involving murderous rival dealers, hiding a crystal meth business from you family that includes a DEA agent brother-in-law, and liquefying a body in acid, but Breaking Bad somehow manages to cull humor from the darkest and most dire moments. Or perhaps I really am a sociopath and everyone has been too polite to mention it so far. But that would mean Stephen King is also a sociopath, and if it’s good enough for Stephen King, then it’s good enough for me.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Quest for the Best: Two Little Red Hens Review

Location: 1652 2nd Avenue, NY, NY

Website: Two Little Red Hens

Price: Cupcakes are $2.50-$3.95 each

Atmosphere: Grandma’s kitchen. The place is tiny, but with the presence of tchotchke-lined wooden shelves and various gingham coverings, there’s a very homey feel to it. There are a few small tables if you want to enjoy your snack on location.

My Review: The main thing the cupcakes at Two Little Red Hens have going for them is that they’re bigger than the ones you get at most other bakeries (except for Crumbs, whose cupcakes are enormous). I gave the red velvet cupcake and their famous Brooklyn blackout cupcake a try, and while both were definitely tasty, there wasn’t anything overly special about either of them. The red velvet was tasty, with the cake being moist and the cream cheese frosting creamy and not overly sour, like cream cheese frosting can often be. Definitely nothing to complain about, but I’m not sure I’d go out of my way to get this cupcake again, especially when the red velvet offered at both Billy’s Bakery and Buttercup is better.

The Brooklyn blackout was a bit of a disappointment since I had read some online reviews raving about this particular cupcake. It consists of chocolate, filled with chocolate, topped with chocolate, doused in chocolate, served with chocolate on the side (or at least that’s how it seemed). It’s chocolate cake with a chocolate filling that has both the consistency and taste of runny chocolate pudding. Something a bit more solid and creamier, like a ganache, would have been so much better. The whole thing is topped with chocolate frosting that tasted like the canned Duncan Hines kind. And while Duncan Hines makes tasty frosting, I expect something a bit more when shelling out over $3 for a single cupcake.

Bottom Line: Nothing really to crow about at Two Little Red Hens. The cake is moist, which is an improvement over what some other bakeries offer (ahem, Magnolia), but the frosting is sort of generic and unremarkable. And the frosting is the whole point of the cupcake; the cake is mainly just a receptacle to get the frosting into your gaping maw. If you’re in the area and have a sugar craving, it’s not a bad place to stop in, but there are certainly better options available in the city.

Monday, March 23, 2009

TV on DVD: The Tudors or: Jonathan Rhys Meyers Will Rape You

So, as usual, I’m late to the party, and just finished watching the first season of The Tudors on DVD, as the third season prepares to start on Showtime in April. The show is entertaining enough if you like period dramas and aren’t married to the concept of historical accuracy. My knowledge of European history is admittedly pretty poor, but even I can tell that The Tudors plays fast and loose with actually facts in favor of creating dramatic television. But I don’t want to talk about the credibility of the show. I want to talk about what must have happened in star Jonathan Rhys Meyers’ past that makes him look permanently ready to rape someone.

Meyers stars as King Henry VIII, when he young and fit and apparently, a bit of a nymphomaniac. And no matter what he’s doing, whether it’s meeting with his court, seducing various ladies, or attempting to divorce his wife, he has a permanent rapeface on. Just look at the posters advertising the upcoming season (see above) and tell me that doesn’t look like a man who will sexually violate you the moment you aren’t paying attention. He’s sitting on a throne of naked people for christ’s sake!

Meyers’ performance isn’t bad, but the overly smoldering, angry sensuality he oozes in every scene can be a bit disturbing. And perhaps most disturbing of all is the fact that I still manage to find him attractive, which probably says things about me that I don’t even want to think about.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Movie Review: I Love You, Man

Rated: R

Website: I Love You, Man official site

Starring: Paul Rudd, Jason Segel, Rashida Jones

My Review: Jason Segel makes me laugh. Jason Segel yelling really makes me laugh. Jason Segel yelling about things that don’t need to be yelled about cracks me up. I’m not entirely sure why, since unnecessary yelling usually annoys me to no end, but I challenge you to watch his rant about how he loves New Jersey from How I Met Your Mother and tell me it isn’t funny.

That being said, the periodic Segel freak-outs in I Love You, Man are amusing, but not quite enough to carry the entire movie. The movie is entertaining, don’t get me wrong, but it’s not as consistently funny as you would expect a movie starring Segel and the always affable, yet off-center, Paul Rudd to be. Rudd is newly engaged to Rashida Jones, and as they start making wedding plans, he realizes he has no real guy friends to stand by him at the altar. So he goes on a quest to find a best friend, which leads to a new spin on the “bad date montage” so popular in chick flicks. After wooing a series of freaks and those who were presumed to be heterosexual, he finally meets Segel’s character, a bluntly honest guy’s guy who dresses weird and loves the band Rush. The two instantly click, sparking a “bromance” (god I hate that word) that starts to get in the way of Rudd’s relationship with his supporting, yet perturbed fiancé.

The movie is at its best when it plays up the character quirks it invented for Rudd and Segel, specifically Rudd’s never-ending stream of bizarrely awkward sign-off phrases and Segel’s man-child way of never filtering what comes out of his mouth. But the movie has an uneven feel, where one moment the jokes are flying fast and furious and you know you missed something due to laughing so hard, then the next moment you’re stuck with scenes involving Jones’ character’s annoying friends, and you wish the entire movie was just Rudd and Segel riffing off each other.

Bottom Line: Though not as consistently funny as Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Knocked Up, or The 40-Year Old Virgin, if you’re a fan of those movies or that Judd Apatow style of humor, I Love You, Man may be worth a trip to theater. If not, it’s definitely still a good one to check out when available on DVD if only for the scenes that Rudd and Segel share.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Theater Review: Distracted

Location: Laura Pels Theatre, 111 W. 46th St., NY, NY

Website: Official Distracted site

Starring: Cynthia Nixon, Josh Stamberg

My Review: I wouldn’t go so far as to say Distracted is a bad play, but it just didn’t work for me. It tells the tale of a modern-day mother whose son is labeled as having ADD, and all the questions and emotions she deals with when deciding whether to medicate him or not. She doesn’t want to, but she worries about him not having a normal life if she doesn’t. Her husband wants to know what’s so wrong with “kids just being kids” and even threatens divorce if she goes the Ritalin route. Various teachers, neighbors, doctors, psychiatrists, and homeopathic specialists all have opinions they’re eager to share on the “right” way for her to take care of her kid. What’s a mother to do?

My main issue with Distracted is that it tries to straddle the line between comedy and drama, and it just doesn’t work. Playwright Lisa Loomer should have either written it as a straight drama or a slapstick comedy, because the play feels very uneven how it is now. The subject matter isn’t naturally funny, so she goes out of her way to include comical asides and observations which often involve the actors breaking through the fourth wall to directly address the audience, with mixed effectiveness. I found the constant direct interaction a bit annoying and it often felt like lazy storytelling, but some other audience members seemed to enjoy it.

The set, while impressive, was a bit, well, distracting. The sides and upper level of the stage are covered with a sort of transparent screen which allows for computer-generated images to be projected on them for scene changes and to display certain elements, like a character’s Google search results or constant channel surfing. It’s like set design by PowerPoint. It’s technically impressive, but often seemed to take away from the actual performance taking place.

Cynthia Nixon, best known as Miranda from Sex and the City, basically carries the entire play on her shoulders. I don’t think there’s a moment when she isn’t onstage, and when not interacting with the rest of the cast members who take on multiple roles, she’s conversing directly with the audience, letting us know what everyone is thinking but not saying (there’s that lazy storytelling I mentioned earlier). She plays the role of a frazzled, overwhelmed, and desperate mother well. Based on this and her performance in SATC, Nixon should be everyone’s go-to girl for high-strung female characters.

The rest of the cast is impressive, including Josh Stamberg as Nixon’s husband who is every bit the ADD child her son is, and Lisa Emery in a brief yet hilarious role of a Zoloft-popping neighbor obsessed with whoever is parking in front of her house. As mean as it is to pick on child actors, the kid playing Nixon’s son was probably the weakest member of the cast. Luckily, he’s kept offstage for the majority of the play, but that doesn’t keep him from screeching lines to the characters onstage or being used to scream the scene numbers in another misguided attempt at humor.

Bottom Line: Unless you have a kid with ADD, work with kids who have ADD, or, like me, already have a subscription to the Roundabout Theatre, Distracted is an easy performance to skip. There are better shows to see, so save your money for one of them.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Movie Review: Watchmen

Rated: R

Website: Watchmen official site

Starring: Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Jackie Earle Haley, Patrick Wilson, Billy Crudup, Matthew Goode, Malin Akerman, Carla Gugino

My Review: I never read the Watchmen graphic novel, so I went to go see Watchmen—I mean Watchmen: The IMAX Experience—without any preconceived notions of what the movie should be. A dearly beloved friend of mine, who wishes to both be recognized and remain anonymous, was geeking out pretty hardcore over the movie’s release, so I decided to check it out.

Not knowing anything about the story going into it was both a relief and an annoyance. Plenty of fans of the original text are lamenting, “It’s not as good as the book!”, and to that I have to say, duh. The movie is never as good as the book, graphic or not. So at least I don’t have to deal with the disappointment that movie didn’t live up to my expectations, since I had none. However, a lot of the movie felt rushed and certain things were glossed over, so I feel like I know need to read the book to pick up on everything I missed. Running almost three hours long, it’s obvious that director Zack Snyder tried to cram in as much from the book into Watchmen as he could, but it’s nearly (if not totally) impossible to adapt a film from a book and fit in everything that will both please the book fans and clearly explain everything to the newbies.

What I liked: The opening credit montage that showed the progression of the original Watchmen crew to the social outcasts they are today (with “today” actually being 1985). Jackie Earle Haley as Rorschach. The portrayal of the “superheroes” as what they would be if regular people decided to be superheroes: bizarre misfits prone to egomania, megalomania, and outright insanity.

What I didn’t like: Silk Spectre II; I don’t know if it was her character or the performance by Malin Akerman, but I couldn’t stand her any time she was onscreen. Some of the extended fight scenes; Watchmen is not in want of explicitly violent, gritty fights, and some of them just go on for so long I was left thinking, “If you had cut this ass-kicking in half, you would have been able to fit more plot into this movie.”

What I wanted more of: Backstory. The movie briefly touches on the backstory of each “hero,” but it wasn’t enough. I wanted to know more about how and why each of them ended up on the path they were on, and why most of them chose the goofiest costumes they could come up with. There were also several plot points that were glossed over and confusing for those of us going to the movie not already in the know. For example, I know from reading a magazine article about the movie that the reason Nixon is still President in 1985 and is allowed to serve more than two terms if because the nation was so grateful to him for winning the Vietnam War. But this isn’t clearly explained in the movie, and I can imagine a lot of moviegoers wondering, “What’s the deal with Nixon?”

Bottom Line: Watchmen is an enjoyable and visually impressive action movie (especially in IMAX), and if you’ve already read the book there’s no doubt you’ll be checking it out. And if you go to see it without having read the book, you’ll want to read it as soon as you leave the theater. Which was probably the brilliant plan all along.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Quest for the Best: Batch Review

Location: 150B West 10th Street, NY, NY

Website: Batch

Price: Cupcakes are $2.95 each

Atmosphere: Tiny, hole-in-the-wall bakery. There really isn’t any seating to speak of, so it’s definitely grab ‘n go.

My Review: Ever since that infamous episode of Sex and the City when Carrie and Miranda sat their bony butts outside of Magnolia Bakery and pretended to eat cupcakes (you will never convince me that either of those women have ever actually had a cupcake), New Yorkers have been obsessed over these tiny treats. Magnolia is still probably the most popular cupcake spot, with customers lining up around the block during peak hours, but there’s something that most New Yorkers are reluctant to admit: Magnolia’s cupcakes are good, but not great. The candy-colored buttercream frosting is delicious, but the actual cake part is rather dry and crumbly, so I was pretty sure there had to be better options out there.

And – dare I say it? – Batch does bake a better cupcake. Not only does it offer a wider variety of flavors, but even the traditional vanilla and chocolate are superior to what Magnolia offers. The dragon devil’s food cupcake is basically what a chocolate-lover’s Heaven must be like. The cake is an incredibly moist dark chocolate with a gooey caramel center (each Batch cupcake has a flavored center of some kind). The chocolate frosting tastes just like a melted chocolate bar, and I mean a high-quality chocolate bar, none of that Hersheys crap is being used here. My friend had the vanilla bean option, which is a vanilla bean cake, with vanilla bean filling, topped with vanilla bean buttercream (picking up on the theme here?). She claimed it tasted just like dipping into a pint of Ben & Jerry’s vanilla ice cream. And she loves her some Ben & Jerry’s ice cream.

I also gave a couple of the less traditional flavors a try. The carrot salted caramel cupcake was very tasty and unique. The carrot cake was moist and delicious, and totally raisin-free (whoever decided to sully good carrot cake with the addition of gross raisin was clearly mentally handicapped). It’s topped with a creamy caramel frosting and a sprinkling of sea salt, which creates an odd, yet wonderful, blend of salty and sweet. I didn’t care too much for the filling, which is a lime and cream cheese blend. It was mild, so it wasn’t too offensive, but I think the cake would work better with the caramel filling used in the dragon devil’s food.

I also tried the velvet, which is Batch’s version of red velvet cake. Rather than using artificial coloring to make their cake red, they use actual strawberries, so it has a sweet berry taste to it. The filling on this one is chocolate fudge, which works wonderfully with the strawberry cake. It’s topped with a cream cheese frosting, which is just mildly tangy and not at all overwhelming like some cream cheese frostings can be.

Bottom Line: Batch makes one hell of a good cupcake and is totally worth the trip to the West Village. They also have an impressive display of cookies, brownies, puddings, and other tasty goodies if cupcakes aren’t your thing. And if cupcakes aren’t really your thing, you have bigger problems than where to find good desserts.

Monday, March 9, 2009

A Love Letter to Netflix

Dear Netflix,

I recently realized that we’ve been together for nearly three years now, which makes this both the longest and most successful relationship I’ve ever had. So I just wanted to take a moment to let you know how happy I am and how much you mean to me.

I admit that I was skeptical at first about how this relationship would work out. After so many years of making trips to Blockbuster to meet my movie-renting needs, the notion that you would bring them right to my door was such a foreign concept. But I decided to throw caution to the wind and take a chance on you, and my life hasn’t been the same since.

Your website couldn’t be easier to use, and your vast selection is breathtaking. You even manage to anticipate my needs and make great recommendations for me based on what I like to watch. Thanks to you I’ve discovered so many things I didn’t even know existed before, and I feel like I’ve actually grown as a person because of this. I’ve never been involved with someone who anticipates my needs the way you do, and you have no idea how much that means to me.

As you know, I’m not one to get overly emotional and gush, but I just wanted to make sure you knew how much you mean to me, dearest Netflix. The past three years have been magical and I hope we continue to enjoy a long and happy relationship. Keep it classy, Netflix.



Saturday, March 7, 2009

Free Event: Somewhere in Queens

Who says nothing in New York is free? Starting on Monday, stop by the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn to check out Alex Segreti’s photography exhibition, titled “Somewhere in Queens.” Alex visited every neighborhood in Queens to document what the borough is all about, what it was in the past, and what it will be in the future. So come check it out and you can say you knew about the great Segreti before he hit it big.

Dates: The exhibition runs from March 9-13, with an opening reception on Monday the 9th from 6-9 p.m.

Location: Pratt Institute Media Arts Gallery, Steuban Hall 3rd floor, 200 Willoughby Ave, Brooklyn

Gallery Hours: Tuesday-Friday 12-5 p.m., or by appointment

Alex’s Website:

Photo © Alex Segreti

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Movie Trailer Review: Funny People

Opens: July 31, 2009

Website: Official Funny People site

Starring: Adam Sandler, Seth Rogen, Leslie Mann, Eric Bana, Jonah Hill, Jason Schwartzman

My Review: Funny People is the latest creation from The 40-Year Old Virgin and Knocked Up writer/director Judd Apatow, and it tells the story of a man who reevaluates his life after being diagnosed with a terminal illness. Oh, the hilari…wait, what?

Taking a small step outside of the comfort zone that are his adult-themed comedies, Apatow seems to be making an attempt for the often tricky to get right comedy-drama. Joining the group of usual Apatow suspects (Rogen, Mann, and Hill) is Adam Sandler playing a comedian who believes his time on earth is limited. So in an attempt to reexamine his life’s priorities, he becomes a mentor for a younger, more inexperienced comedian (Rogen) and decides to make a play for “the one who got away,” who also happens to be married to a somewhat angry Australian.

Since this is an Apatow film, after all, I’m willing to bet that the balance between the serious and the funny will be handled well. Both The 40-Year Old Virgin and Knocked Up were marketed as straight-up comedies, but both turned out to be rather touching as well as fall-down funny. Even Rogen himself recently admitted to Entertainment Weekly magazine that he thinks Apatow may have intended to make a more serious film, but “in the end, we’re all chicken. We just want to get laughs.”

Would I Pay For It?: While I can be a movie snob at times (or at least pretend to be when I don’t want people to know that I’ve seen Under the Tuscan Sun 30 times), I’ve pretty much loved everything Apatow & Co. have written, directed, starred in, touched, caressed, made love to, etc. So yeah, I’ll probably cough up the cash to actually see this in the theater. Seeing Jason Schwartzman’s crazy eyebrows on the big screen will be worth the price of admission alone.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Quest for the Best: Bespoke Chocolates Review

Location: 6 Extra Place, NY, NY

Bespoke Chocolates

Each chocolate piece is $2.25

Chocolate speakeasy. The shop is located in a small, unmarked alley in the East Village, so make sure to look it up on a map before you set out to find it. Once you find the sh
op (and knock three times and say “Bob’s your uncle”), there’s just a small counter where the dozen different chocolates they offer are on display. The girl working the counter was very friendly and eager to help me pick out a good selection. The kitchen area is on display, so depending on when you arrive, you can watch the chocolates being made.

My Review: If you’re in the market for gourmet chocolate, this is the place to go. Each piece is hand-crafted daily in the shop by chocolatier Rachel Zoe Insler using only fresh ingredients, and the combination of quality ingredients and painstaking attention to detail makes all the difference. Being a lover of the combination of salt and sweet (you can’t trust me around chocolate-covered pretzels), I first gravitated to her signature piece, the pretzel-covered sea-salted caramel. It’s a gooey ball of caramel encased in a chocolate shell that’s rolled in crushed pretzels, so be sure to just pop the whole thing in your mouth or the caramel will just run all over you (luckily the girl in the shop warned me of this before I left). To compare the flavor to that of a chocolate-covered pretzel would be sort of insulting, but if you’re also a fan of the combo of salt and sweet, this is definitely a unique piece that you’ll love.

I also tried the chai spice piece, which was a tasty milk chocolate truffle with a spicy kick in the soft center (according to the website, it’s a blend of ginger, cardamom, cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves). But my real favorite was the excessively named single-estate Colombian dark chocolate truffle. There are no secret ingredients here, just a soft ball of pure Colombian chocolate rolled in a dusting of cocoa powder. But the chocolate is so creamy and delicious, there’s absolutely no need to wish there were any other flavors at play. I had saved this piece for last, and once it was gone, I immediately wish I had bought a dozen more.

Bottom Line:
Yes, the pieces are tiny and are definitely a splurge at $2.25 a pop, but if you’re in need of gourmet chocolates for a special occasion or just love quality chocolate enough to treat yourself once in awhile, Bespoke is definitely worth the occasional indulgence.