Monday, May 24, 2010

Movie Review: Mademoiselle Chambon

Website: Official Mademoiselle Chambon site (warning: It’s in French)

Starring: Vincent Lindon, Sandrine Kiberlain, Aure Atika

My Review: Can anyone do tortured longing and silent agony quite like the French? Probably not, and director-screenwriter Stéphane Brizé’s ill-fated love story, Mademoiselle Chambon, is the embodiment of everything you’ve come to expect from French films; it doesn’t say much, but it speaks volumes.

Jean (Vincent Lindon) is a house builder who lives a simple, but content life in a small French town with his factory-worker wife, Anne-Marie (Aure Atika), and their young son, Jérémy. When his wife is laid up with a small injury from work, Jean picks Jérémy up from school and meets his new teacher, Véronique Chambon (Sandrine Kiberlain), a delicate and quiet woman with an affection for the fine arts. Being unlike anything Jean has ever seen in his life that revolves around knocking down walls and building them back up, he finds her alluring, but intimidating.

In need of a parent to speak to her class about careers, Véronique asks Jean to come talk to them about building houses, which he agrees to with little hesitation. After telling the class that one of his favorite things about his job is knowing that building a home is like being a part of the lives of those who will live there, Véronique asks him if he will fix a drafty window in her apartment. While in her home, Jean discovers her collection of classical music, art pieces, and her violin, which he asks her to play for him, thereby planting a desire in him that he can’t seem to shake, which is further complicated when his wife tells him she’s pregnant.

What keeps Mademoiselle Chambon from being a completely tragic romance is that Véronique’s reasons for falling for Jean are never fully explored. His attraction to her is almost like that of a scientist to a newly discovered animal; he’s fascinated and bewildered by this creature that he doesn’t quite know how to interact with. But her draw to him isn’t as strong. When a woman like Véronique—an educated professional with an artistic soul—falls for a manual laborer who already has a family, her reasons should be made clear as the story progresses.

When Jean replaces Véronique’s window, she thanks him but mentions how she won’t be around too long to enjoy it; she’s a sort of itinerant teacher, who fills in temporary vacancies and can be moved to another school anywhere in France at any time. Presumably, she’s willing to pay for the replacement of the window to be able to see Jean, but the answer to the question of “why?” is never clear.

Despite their mutual attraction not being completely understandable, it’s a testament to actors Vincent Lindon and Sandrine Kiberlain that it’s still believable. While not a movie heavy on dialogue, Mademoiselle Chambon is able to say everything it wants to in the faces of its two stars, from his confusion and inner conflict, to her hesitancy and loneliness. Lindon and Kiberlain were apparently once married—though now separated—and it’s their onscreen chemistry that is the heart of the entire movie and the reason you can almost get past Jean and Véronique’s unlikely pairing.

Mademoiselle Chambon seems to suffer a bit under the strain of being a full-length movie. While it would be a shame to lose some of the gorgeous shots of the French countryside or Jean’s touching scenes with his elderly father, there doesn’t seem to be enough story for the film. It’s no secret that European films tend to not operate on the hyper-speed of most American movies, but what could have been a very moving 40-minute short strains as an overly exposed 100-minute feature. The characters of Jean, Véronique, and Anne-Marie are where every emotion and conflict live, and a tighter-focused film with just the three of them would make Mademoiselle Chambon a more engaging story.

Bottom Line: The character portrayals and the cinematography are where Mademoiselle Chambon truly shines. But the story it’s telling tends to be too drawn out and not drilled to the depth it needs to be for an audience to truly feel for Jean and Véronique’s unfortunate attraction. It’s a film that left me with a half-and-half reaction; I didn’t love it, nor did I dislike it. It’s a film for those who like emotions first and foremost, with a cohesive story following at a distant second.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Trailer Review: Waiting for ‘Superman’

Release Date: Fall 2010 (after a successful premiere at Sundance last January)

Website: Waiting for ‘Superman’ official site

Starring: A bunch of real people; this here’s a documentary, kids

My Review: What’s the scariest type of person in the world? No, not weird relatives who like to hug you for too long. The answer is confident morons. And according to the documentary Waiting for ‘Superman’, U.S. public schools are churning them out in droves.

The quality of public schools has been a morbidly running joke for decades. Teachers are rationed on the number of photocopies they can make. The cafeteria lunches are inedible. The band has to sell chocolate to survive the budget cuts. The pool hasn’t been cleaned since the Reagan administration. But the jokes stop being funny when it’s no longer the quality of the school, but the quality of the students, that is being called into question.

Director Davis Guggenheim—the same man behind An Inconvenient Truth—takes a look at five specific public school students who each show a lot of potential and crave a good education, but are being failed by a system that is stifling academic growth for a variety of reasons. By shedding light on several issues the education system experiences and putting faces to statistics—like how the U.S. students have fallen way behind other countries in math and science scores, but still rank #1 in confidence—he acknowledges problems that many are reluctant to see. I’m not sure what Superman has to do with these problems, unless he’s being called in to spin the Earth back in time, which would probably be the ideal solution.

Would I Pay For It?: No, but much like Spellbound and Supersize Me, this could be one of the few documentaries that intrigues me enough to be rented.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Theater Review: Lend Me a Tenor

Location: Music Box Theatre, 239 West 45th Street, NY, NY

Website: Official Lend Me a Tenor site

Starring: Justin Bartha, Anthony LaPaglia, Tony Shalhoub, Mary Catherine Garrison, Jan Maxwell, Jennifer Laura Thompson, Brooke Adams, Jay Klaitz

My Review: To interpret and pick apart Lend Me a Tenor is to do it a great disservice. This is a show that’s meant to be enjoyed in the moment for the slapstick farce that it is (complete with multiple slamming doors), so it’s best to go into it with a relaxed mind and no agenda. Because if at any time you find yourself questioning the absurdity of the plot or wondering if some of the jokes are in poor taste, you’ve pretty much already ruined what could have been a delightful time at the theater.

The story is as silly and unrealistic as any mistaken-identity comedy: Famed opera tenor Tito Merelli (LaPaglia) is coming to Cleveland in 1938 to perform the lead in Verdi’s Otello (based on Shakespeare’s Othello). Local opera manager Saunders (Shalhoub) is exasperated at having to cater to Merelli’s larger than life personality, and his mousy, nervous go-fer, Max (Bartha), is eager to please and hopes to steal some time with Merelli to discuss his own dreams of opera stardom. All the ladies (including Saunders’ daughter and the production’s leading soprano) are scheming to romance the beloved tenor, with the exception of his own wife, Maria (Maxwell), who is fed up with all the traveling they have to do for his career and the various love affairs he has along the way.

After an accidental prescription drug overdose leads Saunders and Max to believe Merelli is dead (he’s really just very, very asleep), they cook up a plan for the show to go on with Max playing the lead in disguise (because Max just happens to know the entire score of Otello by heart, naturally). When the sleepy tenor awakes alone in his hotel suite and late for the performance, he quickly dons the spare Otello costume and heads for the opera house. So now there are two Merelli’s, each dressed as Otello, one of whom is assumed to be a deranged impersonator, and both creating a sensation with Merelli’s various female admirers.

Tenor starts off a bit slow, due to the delayed arrival of Merelli (the catalyst of the entire production), but once LaPaglia walks onstage with all his blustering Italian bravado, it’s go time. The credit for the show’s success is mostly due to the three leading men, who play off each other well and just seem to be having a great time together. Shalhoub is equal parts furious, stressed, and maniacal—everything a performing arts manager should be. LaPaglia manages to make Merelli the larger-than-life character that he is, but still gives him enough humanity to keep him from being a complete caricature. The scene where he gives Max opera career advice—without a touch of irony—is one of Tenor’s best moments.

The biggest standout is Justin Bartha’s portrayal of Max. Up until now I only knew him as “the guy who was barely in The Hangover,” so it was a pleasant surprise to see how well he handled what is more or less the lead role. Max could very easily be a one-note character—the nerdy assistant who kowtows to his boss’s every command—but Bartha’s Max has his own ambitions and a genuine affection for his new mentor, Merelli. And he’s funny! Max goes from being his own nebbish self, to a schmoozing lothario when disguised as Merelli, and back again, often within a matter of minutes. While it is of course ridiculous that anyone would mistake Max for Merelli—yes, the black makeup and wig of the Otello costume helps, but that can’t disguise the differing body types and voices—when it’s this much fun to watch, who cares?

The women of the cast are mainly there to be foils for the mistaken-identity scheme, and admirable foils they are in their stunning period-appropriate gowns and unbridled lust for a man of Merelli’s talents. The notable (and Tony Award-nominated) exception is Jan Maxwell as Merelli’s long-suffering wife, Maria. And long-suffering though she may be, she certainly isn’t quiet about it. She comically rages at her husband for all that he puts her through, then turns on the exaggerated Italian charm at the drop of a hat. In the limited time she has onstage, she manages to make Maria a woman who knows how to use justifiable anger to get whatever she wants.

Bottom Line: Lend Me a Tenor asks for a lot of suspension of disbelief and that you not be offended by the whole two-white-men-dressed-as-a-black-man thing. And if these are things you can do, then you’re in for a treat as a cast of talented comedians perform a ridiculous story that has one true purpose: To provide the audience with a really fun two and a half hours.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Trailer Review: You Again

Release Date: September 24, 2010

Website: You Again IMDB page

Starring: Kristen Bell, Jamie Lee Curtis, Sigourney Weaver, Kristin Chenoweth, Victor Garber, Betty White

My Review: I like Kristen Bell. Veronica Mars was one of the best television series I’ve ever seen, and Bell managed to make what could have been a one-note character (sassy teen detective!) into a very nuanced and complex person. I also enjoyed her performance in Forgetting Sarah Marshall, because she’s set up to be the mean ex-girlfriend you’re supposed to hate, but she turns everything on its head when she lets you see her side of the story.

I like Jamie Lee Curtis. She seems really down-to-earth (which you’d have to be to do commercials for digestion-regulating yogurt), and A Fish Called Wanda and True Lies are both good times. She’s also the reason I’ve seen the 2003 remake of Freaky Friday several times (seriously, it’s actually highly entertaining). Plus she’s married to Christopher Guest, which is awesome.

I like Sigourney Weaver. Alien, Ghost Busters, Working Girl, The Ice Storm—she’s fantastic in all of them. And apparently audiences really love her in some little movie called Avatar. Weaver always plays tough, smart women with heart, and she proves that women can age gracefully (and naturally) in Hollywood.

So why are these three great actresses playing a bunch of catty, whiny, and immature women in You Again? Bell is Marni, a successful young executive who is looking forward to her brother’s upcoming wedding, despite the fact she hasn’t met his fiancé yet. Then her mom (Curtis) tells her that they went to high school together, and Marni realizes her brother is marrying the bitchy cheerleader who made her high school life a misery. Cue the embarrassing flashback that tries to convince us—by adding glasses and a spattering of fake acne—that Kristen Bell was ever a nerd. Sorry, Kristen, but you can never pull off a convincing “I was once a loser” act. Trust me, I’m an expert; I was in the marching band.

In about .5 seconds, Marni is spiraling off the high she got from a recent promotion and starts freaking out about the wedding, determined that she must expose the fiancé for the horrible person she is. Or was. But might still be. Because in the land of movies, high school is apparently for life, and no one ever gets over it.

Case in point: Marni’s mom starts out as the voice of reason, but then it turns out that the wicked fiancé’s aunt (Weaver) is the mean girl who made her high school life a misery, so she goes a little crazy, too. Wackiness, shenanigans, and general tomfoolery ensue.

Would I Pay For It?: While I have no doubt that Bell, Curtis, and Weaver could make a hilarious comedy together, I just wish they had collaborated for something a bit more female-empowering and less cliché than You Again. ‘Women being crazy over a wedding’ and ‘women being crazy over crap that happened ages ago’ has been done to death. We can be crazy over other things, too, you know. How about a ‘women being crazy over an awesome new job’ or a ‘women being crazy over anything that doesn’t involve getting a man’ movie? Just be sure to include a makeover montage. Women LOVE a good makeover montage.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Disney Movies: Not Just Kids’ Stuff Anymore


I wrote this piece when some jokers acted like they were going to hire me and asked me to create a new piece for them. Then a half hour later they told me the position had been filled. But it seems a shame to waste perfectly good content, so here it is.


When you think about Disney movies, does your mind (like mine) immediately go to the old-school animated fairy tales that built the Disney empire? Movies like Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, The Little Mermaid, and Beauty and the Beast are all classics in their own right, but their common theme of “couple meet, overcome obstacles, fall in love, girl becomes a princess” are kind of juvenile (not to mention a little sexist). But if you take a look at the movies by Disney-Pixar—who has been hitting home runs since the first Toy Story movie in 1995—there are some decidedly more adult and darker themes being presented.

Toy Story: Woody the cowboy doll (or is it action figure?) has a massive anxiety attack when Buzz Lightyear shows up and threatens to usurp his role of “Andy’s Favorite Toy.” He irrationally lashes out, leading him to alienate all of his other toy friends, who sympathize with Buzz. Naturally, Woody comes to his senses in the end and learns to share Andy’s affection with Buzz, but that’s nothing compared to what comes next…

Toy Story 2: In the sequel, we meet Jessie the Yodeling Cowgirl, who was abandoned by her owner when she outgrew playing with dolls, leaving poor Jessie to mistrust kids and their fickle ways. So a doll has abandonment issues and possibly post-traumatic stress disorder…this definitely isn’t your grandmother’s Disney movie.

The Incredibles: This one is filled with so many different themes, but just to name a few there’s longing to return to the past, delusions of grandeur, being let down by your idol, questions of infidelity, and protecting the ones you love. And unlike other Disney movies, when youngsters get a free pass from being harmed, the bad guys here go after the Incredible children full-tilt. The Incredibles don’t pull any punches, both literally and figuratively.

WALL-E: In case it wasn’t already clear, adorable roving trash compactor WALL-E would like to remind us all that we’re destroying the Earth and are doomed to become fat, lazy, immobile blob people if we don’t get our acts together. If any movie can get people to plant a tree and join a gym, WALL-E can

Up: The first 10 minutes of Up play like a separate movie from the film as a whole. In those opening sequences we get to see young love, financial struggles, infertility problems, triumphing over adversity, and how everyday life can get in the way of achieving your big dreams. Then later on, there’s mistreatment of the elderly to deal with. And a talking dog! OK, so maybe the talking dog isn’t exactly and “adult theme,” but you can’t talk about this movie without mentioning him.

Toy Story 3: Obviously I haven’t seen this one yet, as it doesn’t open in theaters until June 18, but the trailer shows a grown-up Andy heading off to college and leaving all his toy pals behind, much to their dismay. Then when he comes home to find his mother donated them to a day care center, he’s devastated. So in the few scenes we’ve been shown we already have more abandonment issues, growing up and leaving home, and the struggle to leave childhood behind. With hard-hitting stories like these, it’s a good thing there are movies like Avatar and The Blind Side to keep things light.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

I Bet I Can Pick More 2010 Tony Winners Than You

The 2010 Tony Award nominees were recently announced, and once again I curse Broadway, New York, my salary, and the world in general that I have seen so few of the nominated performances. But when theater tickets go for $70+ a pop, and you live on a budget within a budget, sacrifices must be made. So I continue to eat and wear shoes rather than sinking all my hard-earned dollars into the world of professional theater.

However, that won’t stop me from wildly guessing the Tony winners based on things I’ve heard, things I’ve read, and my own unfounded personal prejudices against specific shows and actors.

Best Play
In the Next Room or the Vibrator Play
Next Fall
Time Stands Still

Red has received some positive attention, mostly due to a powerhouse lead performance by Alfred Molina. Next Fall made the transition to Broadway after starting Off-Broadway, which is usually a good sign (see Avenue Q and Rent). A win for either show wouldn’t surprise me, but I’ll go with Next Fall.

Best Musical
American Idiot
Million Dollar Quartet

Oh man, audiences REALLY love the Green Day musical, American Idiot. But the artistic critics are all about Fela!, so that’s who I’d bet on.

Best Revival of a Play
Lend Me a Tenor
The Royal Family
A View From the Bridge

The dramas Fences and A View From the Bridge come from two beloved playwrights, August Wilson and Arthur Miller. But both productions were reported to be uneven, while the comedies Lend Me a Tenor and The Royal Family were both very well received. As I’m going to see Lend Me a Tenor this weekend, I’ll hope that wins, since it would be nice if something I saw walked away a winner.

Best Revival of a Musical
Finian's Rainbow
La Cage aux Folles
A Little Night Music

I loved Ragtime and still can’t believe it wasn’t a massive hit. But the new revival of La Cage aux Folles is getting all sorts of love thrown its way. I still back Ragtime 100%, but expect La Cage to win.

Best Performance by a Leading Actor in a Play
Jude Law, Hamlet
Alfred Molina, Red
Liev Schreiber, A View From the Bridge
Christopher Walken, A Behanding in Spokane
Denzel Washington, Fences

So this category reads more like Oscar nominees than Tony, but I guess I’ll save my rant on stunt casting for another day. It’ll probably be Alfred Molina, with a possible Jude Law upset. But Christopher Walken would give the best acceptance speech.

Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Play
Viola Davis, Fences
Valerie Harper, Looped
Linda Lavin, Collected Stories
Laura Linney, Time Stands Still
Jan Maxwell, The Royal Family

Viola Davis and Laura Linney were both singled out as the best parts of their plays, so it’ll probably be one of them. My guess would be Linney, since she wore disfiguring facial makeup in her performance.

Best Performance by a Leading Actor in a Musical
Kelsey Grammer, La Cage aux Folles
Sean Hayes, Promises, Promises
Douglas Hodge, La Cage aux Folles
Chad Kimball, Memphis
Sahr Ngaujah, Fela!

The two La Cage guys probably cancel each other out, and I don’t know anyone who loved Memphis THAT much. Promises, Promises is a fun, silly show, but lacks the gravitas of Fela! So with Sahr Ngaujah I will go.

Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Musical
Kate Baldwin, Finian's Rainbow
Sherie Rene Scott, Everyday Rapture
Montego Glover, Memphis
Christiane Noll, Ragtime
Catherine Zeta-Jones, A Little Night Music

Sherie Rene Scott seems like the closest thing to a sure bet out of all the 2010 nominations. Audiences and critics are up Everyday Rapture when it was Off-Broadway, and they seem to love it even more now that it’s transferred to Broadway. Having seen Scott in other performances, I’m not surprised; she’s pretty fantastic and should no doubt win.

Best Performance by a Featured Actor in a Play
David Alan Grier, Race
Stephen McKinley Henderson, Fences
Jon Michael Hill, Superior Donuts
Stephen Kunken, Enron
Eddie Redmayne, Red

This is probably the category I both know and care the least about. Let’s go with the guy from Fences. Sure, why not?

Best Performance by a Featured Actress in a Play
Maria Dizzia, In the Next Room or the Vibrator Play
Rosemary Harris, The Royal Family
Jessica Hecht, A View from the Bridge
Scarlett Johansson, A View from the Bridge
Jan Maxwell, Lend Me a Tenor

Jessica Hecht supposedly put in a much stronger performance than Scar-Jo in A View from the Bridge, but as often happens when performers from the same show are nominated together, they’ll probably split votes and neither will win. I’ll probably say Jan Maxwell, as she was nominated for Best Actress in The Royal Family, but isn’t likely to win there. This would probably make a decent consolation prize.

Best Performance by a Featured Actor in a Musical
Kevin Chamberlin, The Addams Family
Robin De Jesús, La Cage aux Folles
Christopher Fitzgerald, Finian's Rainbow
Levi Kreis, Million Dollar Quartet
Bobby Steggert, Ragtime

Robin De Jesús stole the show when he was in In the Heights, and his performance in La Cage is apparently no exception. I thought Bobby Steggert was one of the high points of an already great Ragtime, but my money’s on De Jesús.

Best Performance by a Featured Actress in a Musical
Barbara Cook, Sondheim on Sondheim
Katie Finneran, Promises, Promises
Angela Lansbury, A Little Night Music
Karine Plantadit, Come Fly Away
Lillias White, Fela!

Promises, Promises opened just recently, and all anyone who saw it can talk or write about is Katie Finneran’s hilarious performance. But, unfortunately for her, Angela Lansbury is also nominated in this category, and Tony voters LOVE giving Angela Lansbury awards. And they will continue to hurl awards at her until the woman drops dead of exhaustion on the stage. Probably at the age of 120.

Best Direction of a Play
Michael Grandage, Red
Sheryl Kaller, Next Fall
Kenny Leon, Fences
Gregory Mosher, A View from the Bridge

None of these plays have received overly glowing reviews, so it’s hard to find a standout pick. So…Michael Grandage? Maybe?

Best Direction of a Musical
Christopher Ashley, Memphis
Marcia Milgrom Dodge, Ragtime
Terry Johnson, La Cage aux Folles
Bill T. Jones, Fela!

Again, I want to stick by Ragtime, but everyone loves the new scaled-down La Cage. And of course Fela! is the most nominated show for a reason. So I guess I’ll say Bill T. Jones gets it.

So there are my predictions. I’ll skip the more technical categories that no one ever seems too interested in (you can check out the full list of nominees here). Though I will say that the best part of Present Laughter was its lavish set design. Be sure to tune into the Tony Awards on June 13 on CBS so you can crow over how wrong I am in my wild speculations (which are the best kind of speculations of all).

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Quest for the Best: Gourmet Food Truck Bazaar

Location: Hell’s Kitchen Flea Market (39th Street between 9th and 10th Avenues)

Website: Official Gourmet Food Truck Bazaar site

Price: Depends on what you get, but $5 will get you something tasty

Atmosphere: Crowded with long lines and outdoors; a true New Yorker’s worst nightmare, but sacrifices must be made in the name of getting food from a truck

My Review: What’s better than a tasty treat from either the Big Gay Ice Cream Truck

or the Treats Truck? A tasty treat that combines the best of both worlds. Yumm…heaven on wheels.

This past weekend the Hell’s Kitchen Flea Market introduced the first-ever Gourmet Food Truck Bazaar. And judging by the sizable crowd, it’s bound to become a regular event. Street food in NYC is no longer limited to just hot dog carts and dried out pretzels; now you can find tricked-out vans and trucks all over the place offering everything from breakfast, to dumplings, to dessert, to all-organic what-have-you. Ten of the city’s most popular mobile eateries were present at the flea market, including two of my favorites; the Big Gay Ice Cream Truck and the Treats Truck. And not only were they there, they creating hybrid desserts from their two menus!

I decided to partake in the chocolate chip cookie ice cream sandwich, which was two chewy cookies from the Treats Truck sandwiching some vanilla soft serve from the BGIC Truck along with their familiar topping, Nutella. It was gooey heaven in a bowl; totally refreshing on the hottest day this year so far (upper 80’s on May 2, say whaa?) and totally worth the extra gym day I’ll do this week. The Treats Truck is often in my office’s neighborhood, so I was well-versed in their tasty goodness (the caramel crème sandwich cookie is still my favorite), but I have yet to sample the BGIC Truck’s signature offering, the Salty Pimp (vanilla ice cream, dipped in dulce de leche, sprinkled with sea salt, then dipped in chocolate). After sampling their hybrid, I will definitely make more of an effort to seek out the BGIC Truck when it’s out and about.

Despite the heat, people waited in line for what sometimes seemed like hours for the truck of their choice at the Gourmet Food Truck Bazaar. And if it weren’t for the lines and the sun, there were a few other I would have liked to sample from (how have I not heard of Go Burger before; their burgers look delish!), but sweating through my t-shirt and getting a sunburn on my shoulders for ice cream was all I was willing to sacrifice for on-the-go food. The line situation was also a bit chaotic, so I hope the organizers invest in some rope to corral the specific lines before trying this again. And maybe ask the flea market vendor selling his “authentic” African tribal masks to set up shop somewhere where they’re far less likely to be trampled by voracious street food junkies.

Bottom Line: The Gourmet Food Truck Bazaar is a great idea, and was so popular that some of the trucks were selling out of items before the day was over. With a little more planning (maybe not have it be part of a flea market that’s already crowded with vendors next time?) it could become a very lucrative regular event, and help a lot of the city’s food trucks gain new followers. Now, which way did the Go Burger truck go?