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.