Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Trailer Review: The Hunger Games

Release Date: March 23, 2012

Website: Official The Hunger Games site

Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, Stanley Tucci, Donald Sutherland, Wes Bentley

My Review: I admit it: I am an adult with no children who is totally in love with the young adult novel series, The Hunger Games. I would take this time to apologize to all the Twilight fans I’ve mocked over the past couple of years, except for one important thing: The Hunger Games is awesome, and Twilight is stupid.

The first story in a series of three, The Hunger Games takes place in a dystopian near future where what remains of the U.S. is divided into separate Districts that are ruled over with an iron fist by the oppressive Capital. At one time in the past, the Districts banded together in an attempt to overthrow the Capital, and when they lost, unlucky District 13 was obliterated as a warning of what the Capital was capable of. As further punishment for the Districts’ insubordination, every year the Capital hosts the Hunger Games; a televised survival game where a randomly selected male and female child from each District is thrown into an arena and forced to fight to the death.

From District 12, 16-year-old Katniss takes the place of her selected younger sister, and enters the arena with fellow District member Peeta, the charming son of the District baker. Luckily, Katniss isn’t your average teenager; she’s an experienced hunter, smart and resourceful enough to live off the land, and willing to fight as hard as she has to in order to survive. She’s even smart enough to let the inevitable love triangle between her, Peeta, and her back-home hunting buddy Gale run a distant second to everything else she has going on (take that, Bella!).

The recently released trailer for The Hunger Games is really just a teaser, and doesn’t reveal much other than Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss running through a forest being bombarded by fireballs. But it’s enough to make me hopeful that the movie adaptation will capture the same suspenseful energy the book has, though I’m still concerned about how much Hollywood will sanitize the story and glamorize the lead players. In any case, it’s bound to be better than Twilight.

Would I Pay For It?: I knew as soon as I finished reading the book that I would pay to see the unavoidable movie that would come from it, though it’s going to be hard seeing anyone other than the version in my imagination playing Katniss. Because the version in my head is completely badass.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Theater Review: Death Takes a Holiday

Location: Laura Pels Theatre, 111 West 46th Street, NY, NY

Website: Official Roundabout Theatre site

Starring: Kevin Earley, Jill Paice, Michael Siberry, Rebecca Luker, Matt Cavenaugh, Mara Davi, Don Stephenson, Max von Essen

My Review: Death Takes a Holiday would be a pretty good student production. Unfortunately, it’s a professional one that stars professional actors and charges professional ticket prices.

Based on a play and the 1934 movie of the same name, Death Takes a Holiday is a new musical playing in the current Roundabout Theatre season. Death, in the form of a handsome man, wants to take a break from collecting souls and see what it’s like to live as a mortal, so he invites himself to a summer weekend at Duke Lamberti’s Italian villa. The Duke agrees to play host to Death’s experiment, on the condition that none of the many guests staying at the villa will be taken by Death when he leaves. But when Death meets the Duke’s newly engaged daughter, Grazia, he instantly falls in love with her, and she finds herself smitten with him (despite her new fiancĂ© also being in town for the weekend). Will Death keep his promise to the Duke, or will he take Grazia when the weekend is over? Will Grazia listen to her father’s warnings to stay away from the handsome stranger, or is there a force beyond her control drawing her to him? And most importantly, will anyone remember this musical once they’ve seen it?

Everything about Death Takes a Holiday is amateurish in the worst possible way. The plot plods at a snail’s pace, the characters a superficial and unsympathetic, the songs are tuneless and unmemorable, and the resolution to the whole thing is nonexistent. It so desperately wants to be a sweeping epic love story set to music—in the same vein as The Phantom of the Opera—but it never fleshes out it’s characters enough to make the audience care about them, and it never stops wink-winking at the fantastical story to be emotionally resonant. The entire two and a half hours is peppered with groan-worthy death puns (“I was scared to death!”) that you might chuckle at once if you were caught off guard, but when constantly revisited they only serve to remind you that the plot is totally unrealistic, so why should what happens really matter.

Perhaps the most unforgivable element of the production is how bad the music is. There are plenty of less-than-stellar musicals in existence, but if they manage to include one or two memorable songs, the audience will forgive them all the other shortcomings. Most of the songs in Death Takes a Holiday sound like stream of consciousness prattling set to music; the sort of noise someone who hates musical theater would make while mocking musical theater. The songs could have (and probably should have) easily been removed and replaced by straight dialog, but someone decided this production had to be a musical, despite the fact that it clearly works better as a play.

Bottom Line: There are so many more things wrong with Death Takes a Holiday, but I was bored enough while watching it that I really don’t feel like putting myself through it a second time while recalling all its failings. It may be the death of me! *rim shot* 

Friday, August 19, 2011

Theater Review: Royal Shakespeare Company’s ‘Romeo and Juliet’

Location: Park Avenue Armory, 643 Park Avenue, New York, NY

Website: Official Lincoln Center Festival site

Starring: Dyfan Dwyfor, Mariah Gale, Jonjo O’Neill, Forbes Masson, Noma Dumezweni, Joseph Arkley

My Review: The Royal Shakespeare Company is probably on its way back home across the pond as I type this, but for a few brief weeks this summer they took up residence here in New York at the Park Avenue Armory, performing five of Shakespeare’s classic plays in repertory. As much as I would have liked to have seen all five, my bank account said I was allowed only one, so I went with the classical classic of all classics that ever classiced, Romeo and Juliet.

If I need to summarize Romeo and Juliet, then you either never took a high school English course, or you failed it miserably. In brief, Romeo and Juliet are teenagers from feuding families who meet at a party and instantly fall in love. Unfortunately, the fact that their families hate each other creates some difficulties in their relationship. So with the aid of a drama-loving nurse and a priest hoping to create peace between the families, they secretly marry, only to have Romeo kill Juliet’s cousin mere hours after their wedding, getting him banished from town. The priest hatches a plan that will allow Juliet to fake her death, making it possible for her to escape with Romeo, but when his message of this plan to Romeo goes astray, Romeo hears only that Juliet is dead. As only a lovesick teen would, he goes to her tomb and kills himself. Juliet awakens from her false death, sees Romeo dead, and kills herself. The fighting families mourn the loss of their children and vow to put their petty rivalry to rest. If you’ve ever seen a movie, watched a TV show, or read a book, you know this story already.

This instant familiarity could easily be the undoing of any production of Romeo and Juliet. It’s a 400-year old tale that’s been told over and over again in every available medium, so is it even possible to present it in a new and exciting way? If the RSC production is any indication, yes, it is (and adding fire could help).

Park Avenue Armory
Knowing that bigger doesn’t necessarily mean better, the RSC went minimalist with their production, with a cobblestone thrust stage acting as everything from an outdoor market square, to the inside of a castle, to an underground tomb. Rather then relying on fancy theatrics, they allowed the performances to be the attention-grabbers; a decision that worked brilliantly. Both Romeo (Dyfan Dwyfor) and Juliet (Mariah Gale) shone, and even managed to capture an element of the story that is so often forgotten: Romeo and Juliet are teenagers.

The actors themselves were obviously past their teen years, but they still managed to capture all the wonderful horribleness that is being a teen. Dressed in modern clothes while the rest of the cast was in Elizabethan garb already set them apart, making it clear that they were not of the same world as everyone else. Romeo mooned about, slouching in a hoodie, embodying all the reckless emotions that come with falling in love and experiencing adult feelings for the first time. Juliet was prone to bratty fits of temper and foot-stomping when she didn’t get her way, but wasn’t afraid to show her softer side when the time called for it. Some other reviewers complained about the use of these typical teen antics, but I found them to be a refreshing way to make it clear that Romeo and Juliet is ultimately a story about children.

As is so often the case with this play, Mercutio was a scene-stealer (played by Jonjo O’Neill). He only appeared in a handful of scenes, but reveled in playing the bawdy clown of the show, though his devotion to his best friend Romeo was clear so that his untimely death (400-year old spoiler?) was still tragic. Juliet’s nurse (Noma Dumezweni) was another highlight from the supporting cast, as she begins as Juliet’s confidant but eventually shows her duplicity when she sides with Juliet’s parents on forcing a marriage with the man of their choice. Dumezweni’s nurse was never cruel, but simply a woman who enjoyed the drama of a secret relationship, until she saw how it would negatively affect her employers and was forced to choose a side.

I saw one of the final performances of the RSC, and unfortunately, the production was plagued by mishaps. An unidentified beeping noise in the middle of the first act brought the play to a stop while it was fixed. Even more disruptive, at the dramatic peak of the second act when Romeo enters Juliet’s tomb, a torch bearing actual fire refused to be extinguished, so a stagehand had to appear to carry it offstage. But despite these issues, the cast remained professional, yet playful enough to wink at the audience and let us know that, yes, this kind of stuff can happen even during Shakespeare.

Bottom Line: Given the quality of the production they offered and the reception they received from a New York audience, the Royal Shakespeare Company’s first visit here was a success. Being able to breathe new life into Romeo and Juliet is a task not many could do, but the RSC made it look effortless. I hope they return again soon with some new perspective on other old favorites.