Monday, December 27, 2010

Theater Review: Angels in America Part One: Millennium Approaches

Location: Signature Theatre, 555 West 42nd Street, NY, NY

Website: Official Signature Theatre site

Starring: Christian Borle, Bill Heck, Zachary Quinto, Zoe Kazan, Billy Porter, Robin Weigert, Robin Bartlett, Frank Wood

My Review: Three months after seeing the second part of Angels in America, I finally got to start at the beginning. It was a convoluted way of doing things, no doubt, but somehow that didn’t take away anything from the experience.

I already wrote an overly lengthy review of Part Two: Perestroika, so I’ll refrain from blathering on here. My overall impression of the production hasn’t changed, and seeing how I actually like the first part of the play better, seeing them out of order worked out in my favor. Part One: Millennium Approaches is the more engaging and entertaining of the two halves of Angels, as the second half tends to get a bit too preachy for my taste (which I know is a strange complaint to make about a play called Angels in America, but there it is anyway).

Zachary Quinto is more involved in the first half, so I got to form a more well-informed opinion of his performance. He made an excellent Louis, a part that’s somewhat thankless. Louis is a weak man who walks out on his lover Prior at the most critical time of his life, for primarily selfish reasons. It’s hard to feel compassion for Louis when witnessing Prior’s struggle, but Quinto manages to make him sympathetic and while not exactly redeemable in his actions, he’s at least understandable.

Christian Borle and Frank Wood are still the standouts in the cast, as Prior and the horrible Roy Cohn, and Zoe Kazan is still woefully miscast as the emotionally unstable Mormon housewife Harper, as she continues playing her like a stunted child. Billy Porter seems to have toned down the over-the-top sassiness of Belize that he had when I saw Part Two: Perestroika, and truly shines in the few scenes where he portrays Harper’s smarmy travel agent imaginary friend, Mr. Lies.

Bottom Line: There’s no question that Angels in America has become and American theater classic, evidenced especially in the fact that this “limited” run at the Signature Theater has to keep extending due to ticket demand. It’s not a flawless production, but its merits far outshine its shortcomings. And seeing how Angels is a play that doesn’t get revived often, it’s an opportunity worth jumping at. 

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Trailer Review: The Tree of Life

Release Date: May 27, 2011

Website: Official The Tree of Life site

Starring: Brad Pitt, Sean Penn, Jessica Chastain, Fiona Shaw

My Review: I first saw the trailer for The Tree of Life when it played in the theater before Black Swan. When it was done, I leaned over to my friend and whispered, “I have no idea what that movie is supposed to be about.” After watching the trailer a second time, I still have no idea.

Here’s what I know for sure: It stars Brad Pitt and Sean Penn.

Here’s what I can infer: Pitt plays the father to a brood of boys in the 1950s. He’s extremely hard on his children, thinking the only way they’ll grow up to be real men is to be emotionally abusive, and as a result, as his kids grow up they distance themselves from him. Penn plays the adult version of one of the boys, and as a result of his harsh upbringing, he’s an emotionally crippled person.

Here’s what I wildly assume: Penn is haunted by some traumatic childhood incident that he blames his father for. He will spend his adult life coming to terms with it. Tears will be shed, lessons will be learned, and emotional growth will occur. Hugging, no doubt, will be involved.

Would I Pay For It?: No. I mean, I do enjoy a good drama, but I don’t enjoy having it rammed down my throat.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Theater Review: Les Misérables

Location: Paper Mill Playhouse, 22 Brookside Drive, Millburn, NJ

Website: Official Paper Mill Playhouse site

Starring: Lawrence Clayton, Andrew Varela, Betsy Morgan, Chasten Harmon, Justin Scott Brown, Jenny Latimer, Shawna M. Hamic, Michael Kostroff

My Review: As if there aren’t enough things in this world that remind of the fact that I’m not getting any younger, now the musical that ignited my love of musical theater so many years ago is celebrating its 25th anniversary. Yes, Les Misérables is 25 and kicking off a new U.S. tour at the Paper Mill Playhouse. And in a somewhat futile attempt to scale back on one of the most grandiose musicals ever, the spinning lazy Susan-inspired stage is gone, as is the giant barricade that folds down onto the stage. But the music is all there, along with the enormous cast, and if you’re willing to let yourself get swept up in a musical that takes itself very seriously, the emotional wallop is as strong as ever.

Les Misérables is about a lot of things, and the fact the source novel was able to be whittled into a three-hour show is still somewhat unbelievable. At its core, it’s the story of Jean Valjean, a thief who breaks parole to search for redemption, and Javert, the pious police officer doggedly hunting him across France. There’s also stories of love (sacrificial, first, and unrequited), loss, and a revolution that—despite the popular misconception—is not the French Revolution.

The new anniversary production utilizes the artwork of Les Misérables novelist Victor Hugo to replace the stage tricks that have been removed. A screen in the background reflects various paintings that represent everything from the ocean, an industrial factory, and the sewers of France. In many ways, this works better than the formerly spinning stage—it makes (spoiler alert?) Javert’s suicide scene far more impacting—but for some reason the various dates covered in the production aren’t announced. When a show utilizes a projection screen and covers a time span of 17 years, being kept up to date when we were jumping ahead in time would have been helpful.

Les Misérables employs a cast of dozens, but the success or failure of the show depends on the two men playing Jean Valjean and Javert. In the past I’ve seen a production where both roles were performed perfectly, and one where the actor playing Javert was so weak it was almost laughable that other characters would tremble in his presence. Luckily, this production gets the balance of the two adversaries just right. As Valjean, Lawrence Clayton conveys confliction about his past, but the determination to create an honest life for himself. As Javert, Andrew Varela is angry and intimidating, but with a vein of vulnerability that appears when he’s uncertain about how to conclude his career-long manhunt. When the two share the stage, they create scenes of high tension that also garner sympathy for two men who are simply trying to do what they think is right.

In a vast cast of impressive talent, the one misstep made is in the casting of Eponine. Chasten Harmon has a natural R&B/gospel quality to her singing voice, which would well serve any number of musical theater roles, but unfortunately, an 1830’s French pauper isn’t one of them. Every solo Eponine sings—and there are quite a few—is a bit jarring and sounds out of place in a show that depends on the ability for dozens of different voices being able to blend together easily.

Bottom Line: Les Misérables is a show that even the most casual musical theater fans tend to fall in love with, and the new 25th anniversary production should be no exception. Just try not to sing along with all the songs, no matter how well you may know them. It can be really distracting to those sitting around you. Trust me. 

Monday, December 20, 2010

I Bet I Can Pick More 2011 Golden Globe Winners Than You

The 68th annual Golden Globe nominees are out, so here are my picks for winners. I’d include some of the television categories, but I didn’t, so…there.

Black Swan
The Fighter
The King’s Speech
The Social Network

I haven’t even seen The Fighter, but I’m so sick of movies about professional fighters, that I’m automatically discarding it from every category it was nominated in. I’d say that this race is between Black Swan and Inception, so it’ll probably all come down to whether voters prefer a mind-bending sci-fi action flick, or a mind-bending emotional thriller. I saw and enjoyed both movies, but if it’s a question of being the better crafted movie, I’d go with Black Swan.

Halle Berry, Frankie and Alice
Nicole Kidman, Rabbit Hole
Jennifer Lawrence, Winter’s Bone
Natalie Portman, Black Swan
Michelle Williams, Blue Valentine

This is Natalie Portman’s race to lose, which I don’t think she will. No one has seen or cares about Frankie and Alice, and Rabbit Hole is a too generic drama (parents mourning a dead child). Jennifer Lawrence was the best part of Winter’s Bone, but I’m somewhat dumbfounded about the mass appeal that movie seems to be having on people. I haven’t seen Blue Valentine yet, but I find it hard to imagine Michelle Williams trumping Portman here.

Jesse Eisenberg, The Social Network
Colin Firth, The King’s Speech
James Franco, 127 Hours
Ryan Gosling, Blue Valentine
Mark Wahlberg, The Fighter

Colin Firth. It’s long overdue.

Alice in Wonderland
The Kids Are All Right
The Tourist

The fact that Alice in Wonderland, Burlesque, and the generally panned The Tourist are even nominated for awards is mind boggling. I’ve heard that RED was a fun movie, but The Kids Are All Right is the only movie with any gravitas here. For this reason, I wouldn’t have categorized it as a comedy, but the Golden Globes have, so it’ll probably win.

Annette Bening, The Kids Are All Right
Anne Hathaway, Love and Other Drugs
Angelina Jolie, The Tourist
Julianne Moore, The Kids Are All Right
Emma Stone, Easy A

Again, I’m not entirely sure how The Kids Are All Right is a comedy, but the two women from that movie have the best shot at winning here. Annette Bening had the more emotional performance, and managed to garner sympathy for a hopelessly flawed character, so I’d bet on her.

Johnny Depp, Alice in Wonderland
Johnny Depp, The Tourist
Paul Giamatti, Barney’s Version
Jake Gyllenhaal, Love and Other Drugs
Kevin Spacey, Casino Jack

I have no idea here. I doubt Johnny Depp will win for either of his movies since neither one was very good. I don’t know how many people saw or cared about Barney’s Version and Casino Jack, and Love and Other Drugs was hardly an award-worthy movie. But everyone love Paul Giamatti, so maybe he’ll win for that movie no one’s seen.

Despicable Me
How to Train Your Dragon
The Illusionist
Toy Story 3

I’m starting to feel slightly bad for animation studios that aren’t Pixar. They just never stand a chance.

Darren Aronofsky, Black Swan
David Fincher, The Social Network
Tom Hooper, The King’s Speech
Christopher Nolan, Inception
David O. Russell, The Fighter

Again, I’d put this between Black Swan and Inception. Both Aronofsky and Nolan crafted excellent films, but it’s a question of what voters will prefer. I think it might be Aronofsky’s year, but a Nolan upset would be neither surprising nor really all that upsetting.

You can see the full list of the thousand of Golden Globe nominations on their website, and the awards air on Sunday, January 16th, hosted once again by Ricky Gervais. It’s sure to be spectacularly awkward and giggly.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Trailer Review: Tiny Furniture

Release Date: Now playing in select theaters in the U.S.

Website: Official Tiny Furniture site

Starring: Lena Dunham, Laurie Simmons, Grace Dunham, Jemima Kirke, Alex Karpovsky, David Call

My Review: No movie genre does quirky families and general life ennui better than small indie films created on a shoestring budget by little-known artists, so Tiny Furniture is definitely on the right track.

Written, directed, and starring comic writer Lena Dunham, Tiny Furniture tells the story of Aura, a recent college grad with little ambition and no direction in life, who moves back home to Manhattan to live with her mother and teenage sister. And that is apparently the entire plot of the movie. Her family (played by Dunham’s real-life mother and sister) is weird—naturally—so they get in each other’s faces and bicker over ridiculous things, like Aura’s post-collegiate malaise making her sound like “the epilogue to Felicity.” And since Aura is single, she gets introduced to a possible new boyfriend (who is also—naturally—weird), who she invites to move in with her and her family. How can one New York apartment contain all this quirkiness?

While I have nothing against small movies that focus more on interesting characters than intricate plots, I hope there’s something more to Tiny Furniture than a showcase for the bizarre family that Dunham obviously adores. Everybody thinks their family is crazy and hilarious, but if we all made movies about them, we’d soon learn that they’re only crazy and funny after spending a lifetime with them. There are few things more potentially annoying to an audience than being presented with someone’s scripted home movie and told to find the subjects charming.

Would I Pay For It?: I’ll probably just wait for it to show up on the IFC Channel in a month or two.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Theater Review: George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker

Location: New York City Ballet, David H. Koch Theater, 20 Lincoln Center, New York, NY

Website: Official NYC Ballet The Nutcracker site

Starring: The NYC Ballet company

My Review: Confession: Despite my rabid theater geekiness and general adoration for the performing arts, until last Friday I had never attended a professional ballet performance. Shameful, I know. Like many little girls, I took ballet lessons as a kid, but when I started developing boobs and discovered my love of fried foods and cake, I gave it up to pursue extracurricular activities that I could realistically be good at. But my appreciation for the art form didn’t die with my discontinued participation in it, so that it’s taken me so many years to actually attend a performance is kind of embarrassing.

Also kind of embarrassing is that I chose The Nutcracker—generally acknowledged to be geared towards children—to be the first professional ballet I attend. But whatever, it’s Christmas time, The Nutcracker is a classic, and I don’t care what you think.

Before seeing the New York City Ballet performance, my knowledge of The Nutcracker story came from a picture book I had as a kid and some bizarre animated version I saw once upon a time (but can’t currently find any verification of its existence now). At her parent’s Christmas party, young Marie is gifted a handcrafted nutcracker by her odd and mysterious uncle. While she sleeps, the nutcracker comes to life to do battle with the Mouse King and his minions who have taken over his kingdom. Marie throws a shoe at the Mouse King, distracting him long enough for the nutcracker to kill him, the nutcracker is transformed into a human prince, and Marie and the prince go to visit the magical kingdom that is now his again.

But it turns out where I thought the story ended, was just the end of the first act. In Act II, Marie and the prince visit the Land of Sweets, where candy-based characters dance for their enjoyment. Obviously anything candy-related is going to grab my attention, and the majority of the recognizable Tchaikovsky movements from the score are found in the second act. After enjoying the performances, Marie and the prince are taken back home in a flying sleigh, where I’m assuming he turns back into a wooden nutcracker.

While thin on plot, The Nutcracker is a beautiful production, and I can see why it’s become a Christmas tradition for so many. It’s bright and colorful, with plenty of whimsy and magic. The dancing is—naturally—superb, from the group parlor dancing in the first act Christmas party, to the featured solos by the candy people in the Land of Sweets. And it’s short enough (clocking in at just under two hours) that those who aren’t ardent ballet fans are unlikely to grow bored. Though those who are may be inclined to ask, “Is that all?”

My one and only gripe with this production is the cost. Is it worth the insane prices the New York City Ballet charges (with orchestra seats going for over $100)? For one time, maybe, but how people who come back year after year justify the cost (some with entire families in tow), I have no idea. It was a fun, festive evening, and a great was to start off my holiday preparations, but I don’t plan to be back next year.

Bottom Line: If you can get past the sticker price, this production of The Nutcracker is a marvel to see. Nearly everyone is familiar with at least some of Tchaikovsky’s music from the score—whether you know it of not—and seeing it danced to by some of the world’s most talented dancers adds a whole new level of appreciation to his work. It leaves you feeling just like the holidays should (but often don’t): Whimsical, childlike, and with a hankering for something sweet.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Trailer Review: Jane Eyre

Release Date: March 11, 2011

Website: Official Jane Eyre site

Starring: Mia Wasikowska, Michael Fassbender, Judi Dench, Sally Hawkins, Jamie Bell, Imogen Poots

My Review: It’s no secret that I love a good literary adaptation period drama. So it is with nerd girl pride that I look forward to the release of the umpteenth incarnation of Charlotte Brontë’s gothic love story, Jane Eyre.

Much like any of the novels by Jane Austen, Jane Eyre is a story that has been turned into more movies and TV miniseries than I can count (including one featuring a young Anna Paquin as Young Jane). Each version presents the material in varying degrees of depth, but at its core, the story is always the same: See Jane have horrible childhood. See Jane finally find happiness as a governess. See Jane fall in love with the broody and mysterious Mr. Rochester. See everything go spectacularly insane.

The trailer for this new telling of Jane Eyre hits all the right notes in setting the tone for the movie: dark, morose, and…foggy. However, there are a couple of things that make me raise an eyebrow; specifically, Mia Wasikowska (playing Jane) isn’t British and Michael Fassbender (also not British, but at least European) is way too handsome to play the “not beautiful, according to rule” Mr. Rochester. But Judi Dench is there, too, which sort of evens everything out.

Would I Pay For It?: Well, I would, but the bigger question is, would anyone else?

Monday, November 8, 2010

Trailer Review: The Zookeeper

Release Date: July 8, 2011

Website: Official The Zookeeper site

Starring: Kevin James, voices of Adam Sandler, Judd Apatow, Jon Favreau, Sylvester Stallone, Cher

My Review: If you count Doctor Doolittle, Stuart Little, Cats & Dogs, and Garfield among your favorite movies of all time, then you’re in for a treat with The Zookeeper. If, however, you don’t have an affinity for talking animal movies and are over the age of four, then you already know you’ll be sitting this one out.

The Zookeeper stars the recently busy (or maybe “slumming” is a better word) Kevin James as the titular zookeeper who works at a zoo where—you guessed it—the animals talk to him. Crazy! And it just wouldn’t be a talking animal movie without a bevy of middling to popular movie stars voicing the chatty critters. This time around you can enjoy the vocal works of Adam Sandler, Judd Apatow, Jon Favreau, Sylvester Stallone, and Cher.

While my kneejerk reaction (a hearty eye roll) to The Zookeeper may be a bit unfair since I—being neither a child nor the parent of one—am not its target audience, I think I’m still justified in being annoyed with the general state of family films that are made these days. I know not all family fare can offer the brilliance of the Pixar movies, for example, but is it really necessary to resort to old, tired movie tropes that haven’t been inventive or entertaining since the 1960s when someone figured out that giving animals peanut butter makes it look like they’re talking? Kids are just young humans, not brainless morons, so it would be nice to see some family-friendly flicks that engage and inspire them, rather than rehashing what’s been done (mostly poorly) time and time again.

Jason Segel and your upcoming Muppet movie, I’m looking at you.

Would I Pay For It?: No, I don’t hate myself nearly enough to see this.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Trailer Review: How Do You Know

Release Date: December 17, 2010

Website: Official How Do You Know site

Starring: Reese Witherspoon, Paul Rudd, Owen Wilson, Jack Nicholson

My Review: I like Reese Witherspoon. I adore Paul Rudd. I…don’t actively dislike Owen Wilson. Yet I can’t seem to make myself give a flying you-know-what about their newest movie.

How Do You Know looks to be no different than a hundred other love triangle-themed romantic comedies, though it does have the good fortune to star some quality talent. Witherspoon is Lisa, a woman who is content enough in her relationship with a sensitive, new-age kind of guy (Wilson), though she has doubts about taking the next steps with him. Specifically, do the marriage and kids thing. Then she bumps into an old friend (Rudd) who is in the midst of some serious professional and financial troubles, and her attraction to him brings up a whole new set of questions and doubts.

While I can appreciate any attempt to tell a story about a person struggling between doing what’s right for them and what others expect of them, it’s the “choose the stable partner you know or the crazy newcomer” angle I’m tired of. No matter who gets chosen in the end, it’s all been done before. How do I know? Trust me, I just do.

Would I Pay For It?: No, but I’ll watch it when it appears on basic cable in six months. 

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Theater Review: Fingers and Toes

Location: Urban Stages, 259 West 30th Street, NY, NY

Website: Official New York Musical Theatre Festival site

Starring: Leo Ash Evens, Jonathan Monro, Stephanie Gibson

My Review: Taking inspiration from Singin’ in the Rain, Fingers and Toes tells the story of two friends who collaborate to create a new musical, and the talented woman who brings the whole thing to life. “Toes” McGrath is a dancer and the mastermind behind the whole operation. After running into a major Broadway producer in a restaurant and pitching him an idea for a show that doesn’t yet exist, he enlists the help of musician “Fingers” St. Claire to get the production put together in a matter of weeks. After a series of auditions they find triple-threat Molly and seem to be on their way to creating the next big Broadway sensation.

But of course all three bring various dramas and hang-ups with them, causing the creative process to be anything but smooth. Toes is loud, brash, juvenile, and a total womanizer. Fingers is morose and suffering from a bout of depression and agoraphobia brought on by his dissolving marriage. Molly is sunny and bubbly on the outside, but secretly feeling weighed down from carrying on a relationship with an indifferent man. None of them are really in a position to write a musical about love—because what else would you write a musical about?—but that doesn’t deter them from going for it.

Fingers and Toes is a new musical that tries to sound and feel like an old musical, but winds up stuck somewhere between the two. The songs are old-fashioned toe-tappers and sound like they could have come straight from a Judy Garland/Mickey Rooney collaboration. Even the overlying concept is as traditional as you can get: Get some friends together and let’s put on a show! While there’s nothing wrong with favoring classic musical concepts, Fingers and Toes loses its way by trying not to be too old school.

A handful of modern day references are made, lest you think this is taking place in the past: a joke about Amy Winehouse, everyone has a cell phone, and more than a few f-bombs are dropped. But the show would have been better served by keeping the old-fashioned concept in an old-fashioned time. Hearing a giddy vaudeville-style tune like the opener “Anyone Can Write a Song” sets a specific tone for the production, so that hearing the characters later talk in graphic detail about Toes’ sexual prowess is a bit jarring.

The best part of Fingers and Toes are the numerous well-choreographed dance routines. Leo Ash Evens as Toes and Stephanie Gibson as Molly are both gifted dancers and make excellent use of the limited stage space at Urban Stages. The performances get a bit hackneyed at certain points, as the cast tries in earnest to use the overly broad acting techniques of days gone by, but they continuously redeem themselves when permitted to bust out their dance moves.

Bottom Line: Though cute and entertaining, enough Fingers and Toes is a bit of a choppy, and ultimately forgettable, mess. Each of the elements work separately—lightweight songs, corny jokes, elaborate dance numbers, a hat tip to musicals of the 1930s and 1940s—they somehow don’t mesh together well in this production. Every moment either feels too broad (when aiming for comedy) or too heavy (when aiming for drama). This lack of cohesion and absence of at least one memorable tune make Fingers and Toes a show that you wouldn’t actively dislike, but ultimately struggle to remember.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Trailer Review: Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench

Release Date: Limited release in New York starting November 5, 2010

Website: Official Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench site

Starring: Jason Palmer, Desiree Garcia, Sandha Khin, Bernard Chazelle, Anna Chazelle

My Review: With movie trailers constantly giving away major plot points and, in some cases, the movie in its entirety, it’s usually refreshing to come across a minimalist trailer that reveals next to nothing. But this sort of tactic tends to only work for movies with familiar elements to them, so you’ll know what’s coming in that movie without the trailer having to really tell you anything.

If you see, “From the director of Pulp Fiction and Inglourious Basterds” flash across the screen, you already know whether you would pay to see that movie or not. Just like if you see, “Based on the beloved novel by Nicholas Sparks,” you know that unless you are an emotionally unstable teenaged girl, you’ll be skipping that flick. But with a movie like Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench, the trailer needs to reveal a bit more if it’s hoping to fill theater seats.

Here’s what I can gather from the trailer for Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench: It’s a musical, it’s set in a city that may or may not be New York, it’s filmed in black and white, and some of the action takes place in a diner or restaurant of some sort. Oh, and apparently some of the few people who have already seen totally dig it, since the bulk of the trailer is made of quotes pulled from various reviews that sing the movie’s praises.

I’m not saying Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench looks like a bad movie. I really have no feelings about it one way or another since the trailer reveals so little. But I do know that movie musicals are a hard sell to most audiences at any given time, and one that isn’t based on an already established musical, stars people no one’s heard of, and is shot in grainy black and white is going to have a hard time getting viewers to blindly attend a screening.

Would I Pay For It?: I doubt that would even be an option due to its limited release, but I may eventually rent it, due to that whole musical geek thing I have going on. 

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Theater Review: V-Day

Location: Urban Stages, 259 West 30th Street, NY, NY

Website: Official New York Musical Theatre Festival site

Starring: David Rossmer, Steve Rosen, Sara Chase, Vadim Feichtner, Hannah Sielatycki

My Review: With a title like V-Day, and a description on the NYMF website that includes the phrase “hates Valentine’s Day,” you would expect this musical to focus heavily on the various things that suck about the supposed “most romantic day of the year.” But V-Day merely uses the holiday as a frame of reference, and instead tells a story about a guy who is trying to break the streak of incredible bad luck he’s recently had.

Josh Cohen is having a really crappy time in life. He’s struggling to make it as a writer in NYC, he’s unlucky in love, his overbearing Jewish parents want to know when he’s going to settle down already, and just a few days before Valentine’s Day, he comes home to find his apartment has been completely robbed. Well, almost completely; the robber had the decency to leave behind a Neil Diamond CD. But being the nice guy he is, Josh tries to be optimistic and looks forward to all the good things that are surely coming his way.

It looks like Josh’s luck is about to change when a check made out to him for $56,000 arrives in the mail. But he doesn’t recognize the name of the sender. Is it a long-lost relative from his vast extended family? Or some mysterious benefactor? Will his conscience let him take the money without fully knowing its origin? Will he ever be able to stop kicking himself if he doesn’t? And will there ever be a time when nice guys finish first?

While funny and enjoyable in the moment, I found V-Day to ultimately be kind of forgettable. It’s only been a couple of days since I saw it, and I’m struggling to remember details that stood out to me, and I’d be hard-pressed to hum any of the songs from it. The style of the show is clever; there are actually two Josh Cohen’s on stage throughout the show. One is in the present day, wielding a guitar and acting as a narrator/balladeer. The other is Josh one year earlier, who is struggling with the robbed apartment and the mysterious check. Present-day Josh tells the story of himself from the past year’s Valentine’s Day, guiding the other Josh through the steps of how the story goes. The two frequently interact (and sing) together, creating a bizarrely funny absurdity of one guy relating with himself.

The bulk of the show’s enjoyment goes to the chemistry between the two Joshes, played by V-Day’s writers and composers, David Rossmer and Steve Rosen. Rossmer is present-day Josh, expertly juggling the duties of narrating, singing, playing the guitar, and interacting with both the audience and the other Josh. Rosen is one-year-ago Josh, and gamely tackles the role of the comic foil, as his Josh has to suffer all the injustices that the other Josh already survived. Both men have great comic timing and play off each other well, which has to be much harder than it looks; if one of them were to miss a line or lose their energy, the entire production would come apart.

While cute and necessary to move the story along, the songs in V-Day aren’t really memorable, which is the opposite effect musical theater aims to have. The same basic riff is used in most of the tunes, and I’ve already forgotten how it goes. The lyrics are clever and humorous, but once they’re done serving their purpose in the show, they are easy to forget. Also slightly disappointing is that none of the songs really felt like the style of Neil Diamond. One of my initial draws to this particularly production (in a festival of over 30 shows) was the promise of some Neil Diamond-inspired melodies. But I failed to connect any of the original songs to Mr. Diamond and all his satin shirt glory.

Bottom Line: At just 80 minutes long with no intermission, V-Day was a highly enjoyable treat on a Saturday afternoon. It loses a bit of steam as it wraps everything up in the end, and the overlying message of “just be yourself, and good things will eventually come your way” felt a little too pat for me (because, let’s face it, that isn’t how life works, no matter how many songs you set to it). I’m not sure the show would really work in a larger setting, since it fits too perfectly into the festival mold of shoebox-size theaters, minimal staging, and narrowly-focused storytelling. But as festival offerings go, V-Day was a charming choice.

Image © Jeff Yorkes

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Trailer Review: Hereafter

Release Date: October 22, 2010

Website: Official Hereafter site

Starring: Matt Damon, Bryce Dallas Howard, Richard Kind, Jenifer Lewis, Cécile De France

My Review: I know this statement will likely lead to me being torn apart by various people, but so be it: I find Clint Eastwood as a director to be overrated. Yes, the movies he directs are generally good and they certainly bring in the A-list actors, but I have yet to find them as worthy of all the accolades bestowed upon them. They’re usually very emotional dramas delivered in a very heavy-handed way, and while they are good movies in the moment, I rarely want to revisit them later like I do with movies by more subtle directors.

In his latest work, Hereafter uses Matt Damon as the thread that ties the lives of three very different people together. Damon is George, a man able to communicate with the dead, and for years he used his gift for profit by hiring himself out to the bereaved to give them one last bit of contact with their deceased loved ones. But this kind of work has taken its toll on him, so he’s decided to retire from the psychic medium business.

Unfortunately, having such an extraordinary talent makes walking away a bit harder than quitting most jobs. George is sought after by three people—a French journalist, a British schoolboy, and a working class American—who have all experienced death and desperately need his help. Will George give in to them? And more importantly, when he inevitably does (I hope stating the obvious isn’t considered a spoiler), will what he has to share with them actually be anything they want to hear?

True to form, Hereafter looks like another classic Eastwood-helmed dramatic drama with a side order of extra drama; probably tasty enough, but few would want to go back for seconds.

Would I Pay For It?: No, and I’ll probably only rent it if I’m in the mood to be horribly depressed, which isn’t likely, but never say never.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Theater Review: Angels in America Part Two: Perestroika

Location: Signature Theatre, 555 West 42nd Street, NY, NY

Website: Official Signature Theatre site

Starring: Christian Borle, Bill Heck, Zachary Quinto, Zoe Kazan, Billy Porter, Robin Weigert, Robin Bartlett, Frank Wood

My Review: To celebrate its 20th anniversary, the Signature Theatre is making its 2010-2011 season all Tony Kushner, all the time. To kick things off, they’re offering both parts of his groundbreaking play, Angels in America (Millennium Approaches and Perestroika), in repertory, with tickets going for just $20 for a limited time. Knowing these would be hot tickets to get, I made sure I was on the Signature Theatre website at the exact time tickets became available. Then their website crashed. So I called the box office. And had to wait nearly an hour until I got a representative on the line. Apparently theater geeks from near and far were also anticipating the $20 tickets for this landmark play going quickly. And quickly they did go, as by the time I was in touch with the box office, my only options were to see the two plays out of order or pay full price to see them later in the run. Luckily, having studied Millennium Approaches in school and being familiar with the HBO miniseries, I felt versed well enough with the first half to happily purchase my out-of-order tickets. So now knowing how it all ends, I can’t wait until early December to see how it begins.

Angels in America is a play that’s easy to have an opinion and feelings about, but difficult to write about, mainly because there is just so much going on. Each half runs over three hours and there are so many overlapping and interconnecting character arcs that keeping up with the performance while it’s going on is a feat unto itself.; processing it all afterward is like going through therapy. At its bare basics, Angels in America is a story about homosexuality and the AIDS crisis in the late 1980s. Prior and Louis are a generally happy gay couple living in Manhattan, until Prior is diagnosed as HIV-positive, which—during this time—is basically a death sentence. Louis begins to doubt if he’s strong enough to stand by his partner during his upcoming health battle, but agonizes over what sort of man he would be if he left.

Joe and his wife Harper are new Manhattan transplants, having just arrived from Salt Lake City for Joe’s legal career. Being Mormons, they “don’t believe in homosexuals,” which is problematic because Joe is one, the knowledge of which causes the already fragile and Valium-addicted Harper to retreat into a fantasy world she creates for herself. Joe and Louis find each other, leaving Prior sick and angry with the occasional visits from his friend and nurse (and former lover) Belize as his only comfort, and Harper spiraling into delusional madness. Joe’s mother, Hannah, arrives in town to see what’s going on with her son (and take care of her not-so-quietly-going-mad daughter-in-law), and eventually befriends the jilted Prior.

In case this isn’t enough to keep straight, there’s also the infamous New York lawyer Roy Cohn (best known for his work on the McCarthy investigations and playing a big part in the execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg). Having lived his life as a closeted homosexual, Roy is now dying a slow and agonizing AIDS-related death, which he uses all his legal and political clout to make sure is referred to as “liver cancer” in the press. And then there’s that angel that literally crashes through Prior’s bedroom ceiling and tries to convince him that he’s a prophet.

To try to delve into every social, political, religious, historical, and emotional theme touched upon in Angels in America would take forever (grad students have written entire dissertations on these plays). So instead, I’ll just comment on the merits and detriments of this particular production.

While the production is uneven overall, it’s still highly enjoyable and emotionally affecting. One of the more impressive elements is how well the small stage space is utilized. The Signature Theatre isn’t large by any means, and there are multiple scenes that need to be changed and moved around quickly (Louis’s apartment, Roy’s hospital room, the Mormon Visitor’s Center, on the beach, etc). The set designers make all of this work by using pieces constructed on 90-degree angles that can easily be spun around to reveal different settings. For scenes requiring fewer props, a white scrim is pulled in front of the stage where various projections are cast to show both the streets of Manhattan and the fires of Hell.

The cast is where most of the show’s few pitfalls come from. Christian Borle is a standout as Prior, as he manages to convey the fragility that comes with his disease, but is still powerful enough to embrace all the hurt and anger he feels towards Louis. It’s also commendable how the wardrobe and makeup team manage to make him look so sickly for the entire 3+ hours; I’m curious to see how he looks in Millennium Approaches, where he starts out healthy. Zachary Quinto as Louis is probably the most notable actor in the cast, having spent several seasons at the villain on TV’s Heroes, but he doesn’t have much to do here. His role is much larger in the first play, so I’ll save any opinions on his performance until I see more of it. Zoe Kazan as pill-popping Harper is a bit of a confusion, as I’m not sure if she’s playing her as damaged and childlike, angry and self-medicating, manic depressive, or just all-around bonkers, because she samples each of these performances at least once.

Also coming up a bit short is Billy Porter as the sassy nurse Belize (and as Harper’s occasional imaginary friend, Mr. Lies). He’s already up against a stacked deck, taking on the role that the phenomenal Jeffrey Wright originated and won a Tony Award for in 1994 (and played again in the HBO miniseries). But rather than rising to the challenge and making the role his own, Porter seems to be imitating what worked so well for Wright, but with only a fraction of the energy and sincerity, making Belize feel like a weak impression of a stereotypical drag queen. Frank Wood, however (as Roy Cohn), manages to take a character that is so blissfully despicable and manipulative that it would be easy to turn him into a moustache-twirling cartoon villain, and actually turn him into a real person. A real person you still hate, but a real person nonetheless.

There’s no denying that some of the subject matter in Angels in America feels dated today. AIDS is no longer the instant death threat it used to be and the gay community isn’t being rapidly wiped out by this mysterious plague. But it does still exist, as do the many stories that Angels tells. It’s like one part period piece, and one part timeless drama about the human condition. And luckily, for those of us who were too young to enjoy it the first time around, it’s shedding light on an era we weren’t around for and reaffirming some of what we’re all living with at any given time.

Bottom Line: Angels in America is an ensemble production, with the stronger performances helping to elevate the weaker ones, thus creating a relatively harmonious theater experience. At over three hours long (over six for both parts) and an abundance of subtexts, it’s not for the casual theater fan, but meant for those who truly like drama in their drama. Both Angels in America and playwright Tony Kushner are institutes in American theater, and I consider myself lucky to be able to see a professionally staged production of this work. And I eagerly look forward to seeing the beginning in a few months.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Trailer Review: The Nutcracker in 3D

Release Date: November 24, 2010

Website: Official The Nutcracker in 3D site

Starring: Elle Fanning, Nathan Lane, John Turturro, Charlie Rowe

My Review: When I first read there was a movie version of The Nutcracker being made in 3D, my initial response was to snipe, like the frustrated theater geek I am, “If you want to see The Nutcracker in 3D, why don’t you see it how it’s meant to be seen: At the ballet, you cultureless philistines.” Then I took a step back and had to admit that yes, ballet isn’t for everyone, not to mention it’s expensive to attend, so maybe making a movie version would be a good way to introduce the younger generation to the beautiful story and music of The Nutcracker. Then I saw the trailer and got pissed off all over again.

It looks like The Nutcracker on steroids. Or The Nutcracker for Dummies. Or The Nutcracker directed by Michael Bay. Ever ounce of subtlety and nuance have been sucked out of it and what’s left if an overblown CGI-filled mess that’s a jumbled chaos of action-packed sequences that attempts to do little else than keep a crowd of short attention span-addled people distracted for a couple of hours.

The basic premise of the movie seems to be loosely the same as the ballet: A melancholy young girl is given a nutcracker as a Christmas gift who reveals himself to be a prince under a spell. His kingdom has been taken over by the evil Rat King, and he needs her help to lift the spell and battle the Rat King for what is rightfully his. She agrees and ludicrously high-octane adventure ensues, and the story takes a turn for the absurd.

The most alarming thing about this mess of a trailer is the dearth of Tchaikovsky’s music. The Nutcracker is all about the score—even if you think you know nothing about the ballet, I guarantee you would recognize at least one of the tunes when you heard it—so the fact that the trailer uses stock “lighthearted adventure movie” music is upsetting. Then there are the shots of structures crashing up from underground and fiery explosions that make me wonder if Optimus Prime makes a cameo appearance. And then the nutcracker is referred to as NC (edgy!) and I die a little inside.

Would I Pay To See It?: Not even if a band of sugar plum fairies held me at knifepoint. 

Monday, August 30, 2010

2010 Emmy Awards Post-Mortem

Was it just me, or were the Emmy’s almost actually fun this year? I mean, an awards show will always be an awards show, and that means inflated egos, rambling speeches, and a lot of self-congratulatory behavior from admitted attention whores. But all the stuff that comes in between was actually entertaining. Jimmy Fallon did well as host, and absolutely killed it in the over-the-top Glee-inspired opening musical number. And most importantly, there wasn’t a whole lot of lagging and lingering on unnecessary filler. Awards were handed out at a quick pace, there were occasional pauses for some pageantry and to remember the deceased, then things got rolling again. As far as awards show go, it was a fun night.

As usual, my winner predictions were about half-and-half (Kyra Sedgwick wins for The Closer…uh, OK?). With the exception of Jane Lynch’s predictable win for Best Supporting Actress in a Comedy, Glee was pretty much shut out, which made me happy, since I sometimes wonder if I’m the only person who sees that show as entertaining, but knows it isn’t actually good. Both of the Mad Men ladies lost Best Supporting Actress in a Drama to Archie Panjabi from The Good Wife, which took me by surprise. I’ve never seen The Good Wife, but could anything in that show be better than Joan or Peggy? I have trouble believing that.

You can see the full list of winners here, and here are some random observations I had from the night:

* As I said before, the opening musical number was great. I could have done without Kate Gosselin making an appearance (quit putting her in the spotlight and maybe she’ll go away!), but I did chuckle at how the singing and dancing posse tried to shun her. Having Jon Hamm and Joel McHale participate was hilarious (and swoon-worthy), and I even temporarily forgot about my annoyance at the Betty White oversaturation thanks to her scene with Hamm. And I loved how Jane Lynch didn’t change out of her track suit for their grand finale.

* I enjoyed the questions that were posed to the non-actor nominees. It was a fun way to let those behind-the-scenes people show a little bit of their personality. Or lack thereof, as the case may be.

* Both of George Clooney’s appearances were great. First in a series of hypothetical plotlines for Modern Family where he winds up hooking up with nearly all of the characters, and again when he was presented the Bob Hope Humanitarian Award and talked about doing more for various crises and disasters long after they’ve faded from being front page news.

* January Jones, you are rich, gorgeous, and on one of the best TV shows currently running. Would it have killed you to run a comb through your hair and maybe crack a smile once in a while? Once Mad Med is over, you’ll probably have trouble finding other stiff, wooden characters that you can play by non-acting, so try to enjoy yourself now.

* Jane Lynch, you are rich, gorgeous, and on one of the most popular TV shows currently running. And you looked amazing. See if the Glee costume department can get Sue Sylvester some purple track suits.

* Aaron Paul won for his role in Breaking Bad. Finally!

* The Tony Awards won for Outstanding Writing for a Variety, Music or Comedy Special. Me and that other guy who watched the Tony’s are thrilled.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Trailer Review: Tamara Drewe

Release Date: October 8, 2010

Website: Official Tamara Drewe site

Starring: Gemma Arterton, Dominic Cooper, Roger Allam, Bill Camp, Luke Evans, Tamsin Greig

My Review: Ah, the English countryside. It’s so peaceful and serene; the perfect place to get away, relax, and be free of distractions. Until the local ugly duckling-turned sex goddess arrives, of course.

In Tamara Drewe, a collection of pompous and stodgy artists travel to an isolated country town that promises peace and quiet, looking forward to being able to let their creative juices flow. Unfortunately, with all this peace and quiet comes a lack of inspiration, and the problems they tried to leave at home refuse to go away.

Enter Tamara to shake things up. Ms. Drewe—once plain and homely—spent her childhood in this town, and she returns—now sexy and desirable—to see her old home being prepared for sale. From the moment she appears, the town comes to life thanks to her youthful vibrancy and overt sexuality. Floundering relationships find new life, creative blocks are freed, and a fresh appreciation for life is born.

Does Tamara Drewe appear to be anything but a bit of fluffy British fun? Not really. But when it comes to pastoral whimsy, no one does it better than the Brits.

Would I Pay For It?: No, but I’d rent it to giddily enjoy in my own home, like I do whenever Calendar Girls or The Full Monty is on.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Trailer Review: Black Swan

Release Date: December 1, 2010

Website: Official Black Swan site

Starring: Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis, Vincent Cassel, Winona Ryder, Barbara Hershey

My Review: After watching the trailer for Black Swan, I had a reaction similar to the one I had to the trailer for Never Let Me Go: “I have to know what’s going on in this crazy movie!” Which, in a nutshell, is exactly the reaction a movie trailer is meant to elicit, so, well done, Black Swan movie trailer editors!

When I first heard that director Darren Aronofsky was setting a thriller in the world of professional ballet, I was a bit perplexed. I enjoy movies about the performing arts, but I realize that I’m in the minority with that opinion. And ballet isn’t really what I would consider prime thriller fodder. So how was he going to make a movie like this and have it be appealing to anyone?

By getting two young, talented, and gorgeous actresses to star, and have a whole bunch of crazy crap happen, that’s how.

Natalie Portman is Nina, a hardworking veteran dancer in a professional ballet company in NYC who is looking forward to finally being featured in some more prominent roles; specifically, the Swan Queen in Swan Lake. Enter Mila Kunis as Lilly, a newcomer who catches the eye of the company’s director (Vincent Cassel), who notes her natural and seemingly effortless talent. Nina is shaken to her core as she sees what she’s been working toward for years slipping away, and her panicked paranoia is helped along by her overbearing stage mother (Barbara Hershey) and some bizarrely sinister, Single White Female-esque behavior from Lilly. As Nina’s fears of losing her roles to Lilly escalate, her whole world starts to fall apart, from losing her footing in rehearsal to mysterious changes in her physical appearance.

Creating a captivating psychological thriller is never an easy task, and creating one in the world of ballet even more so. But if done well, this could be a fascinating movie. Professional dancers put themselves through inordinate amounts of stress, both mentally and physically, and there is a relatively small window of time that one can actually work as a dancer, so I can see how even the slightest notion of a threat could cause a dancer to go a little insane. And seeing how in The Wrestler Aronofsky managed to both create a touching drama about professional wrestling and re-launch Mickey Rourke’s acting career, I have to assume that if anyone can make a crazed ballerina movie compelling, it would be him.

Would I Pay For It?: Black Swan will most likely be a rental, unless I hear fantastic reports about it. Or I find that I really can’t wait to find out what’s going on in this crazy movie.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Trailer Review: Little Fockers

Release Date: December 22, 2010

Website: Official Little Fockers site

Starring: Ben Stiller, Robert De Niro, Teri Polo, Owen Wilson, Barbra Streisand, Blythe Danner

My Review: Just when you thought you were free from unnecessary movie sequels, they pull you back in!

Hey, if the trailer for Little Fockers can rip off The Godfather, then so can I.

I know I saw both Meet the Parents and Meet the Fockers at some point in my life, but I can barely remember anything that happened in either of them. I remember that Robert De Niro hates Ben Stiller, and Stiller’s parents are new age-y free spirits of some sort. And I think Stiller sets a house on fire in one of them, but I’m not sure.

Clearly I don’t really care about this movie franchise, and now there’s a whole new addition for me to not care about! Little Fockers continues the story of this mismatched blended family, and this time there are kids involved. (Did they have kids in the second movie?) De Niro’s patriarch is apparently looking for his successor as head of the family (do any families that aren’t mafia families actually do this?), and after two movies together, he still doesn’t think Stiller is man enough for the job. So the two grown men have to slap each other around a bit to prove…something. What it is, I certainly don’t know.

The trailer is full of the typical movie nonsense that makes me concerned for the future of the craft: projectile vomiting, a dismemberment gag, rip-offs of better movies, and groan-inducing word play (do you know what word “Fockers” sounds like???). And perhaps most upsetting of all is the cast. Ben Stiller has proven time and again that he’ll do nearly anything for a paycheck (with various degrees of success), but what are Robert De Niro, Barbra Streisand, Blythe Danner and Laura Dern doing? Other than making me weep for humanity, that is.

Would I Pay For It?: *Snort* Would you?!

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Trailer Review: Who Killed Nancy?

Release Date: Available on DVD August 24, 2010

Website: Official Who Killed Nancy? Site

Starring: A whole bunch of people (it’s a documentary)

My Review: Confession: I know next to nothing about Sid and Nancy; I’ve never even seen the Gary Oldman-starring movie about them. I know they are two people who were once alive, but now are dead, and that’s it.

OK, maybe I know a bit more about them than that (you can’t live in NYC and not hear stories about the Chelsea Hotel), but the documentary Who Killed Nancy? is aiming to know more about this crazy couple than anyone, as it tries to uncover new information about Nancy’s untimely death.

Sex Pistols' bassist Sid Vicious and his girlfriend Nancy Spungen had a unique relationship (to put it delicately), that seemed to be fueled by intense passion, lots of anger, and heavy drug use. On October 12, 1978, Nancy was found stabbed to death in a room at the Chelsea Hotel in New York City. Sid was arrested and charged for her murder, but never stood trial as he died from a heroin overdose just a couple of months later.

The story of Sid and Nancy’s manic relationship, and tragic deaths, has been a mysterious point of fascination for many people in the 30+ years since it happened. Some see it as an open-and-shut case: Sid killed Nancy, then committed suicide before he could be convicted. Some claim that there’s no way Sid was responsible for her death, and his overdose was an accident. Some say Sid and Nancy had a suicide pact and it was all planned out. And some say that there were so many people in the hotel room the night of Nancy’s death that any number of things could have happened. Who Killed Nancy? attempts to uncover new information that has been long buried and shed some light on what may, or may not, have happened that night in 1978.

Would I Pay For It?: Well, no, since it’s coming out on DVD soon. But I doubt I’ll even rent this. For those who are fascinated by this story, I’m sure it’s a must-see; for the rest of us, there are so many other things to watch.