Sunday, January 29, 2012

We are the Champions: Medieval Times

I debated whether or not I should include this outing on this blog at it's cheesy compared to what I usually write about it, but I finally decided that this could qualify on the "and entertainment" component of the blog's mission. Today's outing was to Medieval Times, the entertainment chain that purports to bring spectators back to, you guessed it, the medieval times through a dinner feast and jousting tournament. As far as I can remember, not much has changed about the Medieval Times since I first went as a child, nor does it vary much from location to location. I guess when you have a good thing going, you stick with it. There's actually quite a bit of dinner theater to the spectacle, in that there is a whole story involving the king and his quest for peace, which is inevitably broken, but mostly it's the atmosphere and the clanking swords that we care about as viewers. There's also some fun moments where we get to see the effects of what must be months and months and months of animal training -- a falcon flying gracefully above the crowd and horses who do fancy trots and other fascinating movements. My friend and I were both seriously astounded by how magnificently these animals performed, especially given the noise and lights that came from the crowd.

Besides Americans' *entirely accurate* (read: not at all accurate) view of medieval Spain, one of the things I find most fascinating about Medieval Times is that you could easily convince me that it is actually an elaborate sociological experiment. We are all aware, at least on some level, of the psychological shortcuts that allow us to see the world in terms of "like us" and "not like us." Them against us often becomes the resulting attitude. This can be ill-applied when it comes to differences such as skin color or ethnicity, and racist attitudes prevail. We also see the "them against us" mentality in more trivial aspects of life, such as choosing a sports team to root for (although some people do get quite carried away with this as well), But Medieval Times brings this to a whole new level. The them vs. us mentality emerges simply by handing someone a colored paper crown.

See, there are several different knights in the Medieval Times tournament and to simplify matters, they are all referred to by their color (green knight, red knight, etc.). Spectators are seated in color-coded sections and given a corresponding paper crown to wear. And, amazingly, before the knights even appeared on the scene, people began getting wild fan attitudes about their knight. We were seated in the yellow section, right next to the blue section, and a bitter rivalry was soon struck up between the two colors. Blue and yellow spectators were shouting (and cursing) across to one another. And the tournament had yet to begin; likewise the knights still had not appeared, so there was absolutely nothing to base our undying fervor upon such as skill or even something trivial like looks. Right before the tournament was about to commence, our server came by and told us which knights were our allies -- all were on our side except the green knight, who we should boo. I then had to point out that we had apparently been wasting our time booing the blue knight for about half an hour, and our server replied that we could boo him, too, if we so desired. And so the bitter rivalry continued on the rest of the night.

Every time a knight came out into the arena, the crowd in his corresponding color went wild even before he started competing. Meanwhile, the poor princess, the only female character in the whole spectacle, had hardly anyone cheering for her as she had little to do but talk to the king, make a toast, and hand out roses to the winning knights. But when those same knights in turn tossed roses into their corresponding crowds, again their color's crown-wearing fans went wild. When it came down to one-on-one jousting tournaments after the all-in games, you could actually feel the crowd's enthusiasm waning when their knight wasn't amongst the two knights fighting. Seriously, it was amazing to me how quickly people could become invested in rooting for their "team" (so to speak) and thus I am convinced this is all some social experiment on racist attitudes, mob mentality, and etc.

Oh, and for the record, our yellow knight was ultimately named the champion, so clearly we had been on the winning team all along and our fervor was not without reason! ;)

Sunday, January 15, 2012

From Russia with Love: Swan Lake

While many have speculated whether the success of the movie Black Swan would contribute to more spectators of the Swan Lake ballet, I have neither seen nor particularly wish to see Black Swan. I have just wanted to see Swan Lake for some time now, so I was intrigued when I saw The State Theatre would be live broadcasting a production of the Swan Lake from The Bolshoi Ballet in Moscow, Russia. A friend and I decided to check out this performance, with this far more friendly commuting option!

Very loosely, here’s the basic plot: Swan Lake opens with a birthday celebration for Prince Siegfried. Later that evening, the prince stumbles onto an enchanted lake. It appears to be populated with swans, but they are really young woman who are under a spell and only become their true selves at night. The prince spies Odette (the “white swan”), the most beautiful of these women, and immediately falls in love with her. The next day the queen presents various princesses from other countries to the prince, hoping he’ll pick a bride amongst them, but Siegfried is loyal to Odette. However, that’s when the evil Rothbart appears with his daughter Odile (the “black swan”) who looks remarkably like Odette and tricks the prince into believing that she is indeed Odette. From here, different productions diverge on the storyline so I won’t provide any more details or give away any spoilers.

The story of Swan Lake, like most fairy tales, is a bit silly. (If you don’t know this about me already, I’ll note for the record that I am not much of a fan of fairy tales). But the story is somewhat secondary here - the plot is just some weak glue to hold together a bunch of otherwise unrelated dance sequences. While many critics of musicals charge that the songs are unnecessary, they generally do help to further the plot, even if they make it more long drawn out and flowery. Here, however, many of the dance sequences do nothing to further the story along. Sure, it makes sense for Odette and Siegfried to have a clingy romantic dance together to indicate that they are attracted to one another. But everyone else in the story has their moment of dance also, even when they don’t seem to say anything more about the story. The black swans, the white swans, the courtiers, the prospective brides and their attendants, and so on, all have long dances to execute that don’t push the action forward. This is not a criticism of the ballet; this is just a statement. If you like strong plots, you will probably not like this ballet (and perhaps not any others). If you like to see beautiful dancers dancing beautiful, you will more than likely enjoy seeing this ballet performed.

Before I go into specifics about this particular production we saw, I should note that I’m treading into unknown waters here. Unlike art or theater, where I feel I have at least some background to bring to any critique or appreciation of a particular work, I have hardly any knowledge about ballet. I’ve only seen two other full ballet productions – The Nutcracker at a local dance studio and The Swineherd at the Tivoli Gardens in Copenhagen. I have very little awareness of what kind of training and work goes into a great ballet performance, let alone specific knowledge of technique. So, short of a dancer falling flat on his or her face, I’d be completely unaware of a performer’s flub. Also, because I am unaware of what is a more difficult move comparatively, I am awed by flashy, quick moves – which may or may not be the most difficult ones if you were to ask the ballet dancers.

That brings me to my one and only criticism of this production of Swan Lake – I was not overly impressed by the performance of the prince. For instance, he often appeared to be playing second fiddle to Odette/Odile. No doubt there’s tons of physical effort and talent on both parties’ parts whenever a lift is involved, but it looks far more difficult and interesting to the viewer to see a ballerina balancing on one leg mid-air than it does to see the man just holding her there. Again, this may be an issue with me not knowing what are the more complex steps, but I found the court jester to be a far more entertaining dancer to watch. His leaps, jumps, and quick successive pirouettes looked far more difficult and, as I said, more interesting to the spectator than anything from the prince. Indeed, I found the jester to be more impressive than either of the nominal male leads, although at least with Rothbart I got the impression that this was a very talented performer but the role did not call for an excess of stunning moves. That being said, overall I was mesmerized by the dancers and their skill. The visual feast is further spread with lavish scenery and costumes. I particularly liked the costumes for the white swans – basically the standard leotard and tutu in white but with a soft, fluffiness to them that really evoked the image of a swan’s down. A modest feathered headdress completed the look. And, the music, originally composed by Tchaikovsky, is absolutely stunning and fits perfectly with each and every dance step.

Watching the ballet on the big screen was an interesting experience and, as I mentioned somewhat flippantly earlier, is a good way to see a ballet you would not otherwise be able to see due to geographic distance. Another plus to see the ballet this way was that you could very clearly see the performers up close. Even if you were stuck in a back row, you’d still be able to see the expressions on the dancers’ faces. There were also a few behind the scenes moments, such as when we could see the orchestra in the pit warming up for an act or when the dancer performing as Rothbart was interviewed during the intermission. The only down side with this way of seeing the ballet was that you saw only what the videographer allowed you to see. There was a good mix of shots of the whole troupe versus panning into a lead character, but it’s different than being able to take in the stage in its entirety and choosing where you want to focus at each moment.

Before the ballet started, The State Theatre also provided a brief “Pre-Performance Insight” with Douglas Martin, who is a member of the American Repertory Ballet and has danced Siegfried to his wife’s Odette/Odile in a previous production of Swan Lake. Unfortunately, the pre-performance part made it a bit tricky as people kept piling into the theater looking for their seats prior to the ballet beginning and making quite a bit of noise in the process. Those already trying to listen to Mr. Martin and shushing the newcomers didn’t actually do much to help the auditory problem. However, all and all, this was an interesting talk, which really did provide some insights. Martin discussed the history of Swan Lake, illustrated some frequently used pantomimes that we might see in the production, and explained some of the very difficult training that went into his wife’s performance of Odette/Odile. This made me really appreciate even more the performance I saw later of this dual role. As he pointed out, the ballerina has to play very different personas in this one ballet – sweet, innocent Odette has soft, delicate movements that are sometimes skitterish like a nervous bird while cunning, duplicitous Odile has sharper, quicker movements that are determined. But Odile is also attempting to mimic Odette’s movements, so you see that as well. It is certainly quite an undertaking, and, as I mentioned, I appreciated the ballerina’s every movement all the more after Martin described how painstakingly his wife practiced and perfected every detail, down to every hand flutter. No doubt Mariya Aleksandrova, who played Odette/Odile in this production, did the same, for it showed in her performance.

While Swan Lake was only available to see at The State Theatre today, their broadcasts continue with three other ballets and three operas over the next few months, so there’s a good chance you might find something you’ll like. Already, my friend and I have decided to go back to see La Boheme there, so stay tuned here for more updates…

Friday, January 6, 2012

Foodie Movies Redux

As I’ve mentioned on this blog, several months ago a friend and I had a food-themed movie night. We ambitiously culled a long list of food-related movies, of which we only managed to watch a handful. Since that night, I’ve been able to add a handful more of these movies to my already-watched list. Now checked off the list, so to speak, are Tortilla Soup, Nina’s Heavenly Delights, Eat Pray Love, Mildred Pierce, and Julie & Julia. (These are listed not alphabetically, as I am usually wont to do, but in the order in which I viewed them.) Below are some of my thoughts about these movies; feel free to join the conversation by adding to the comments section!

Tortilla Soup

Note: This is the Mexican-American version of the earlier, Ang Lee-directed movie, Eat Drink Man Woman.

Restaurant owner and chef Martin (Hector Elizondo) is a widower with three grown daughters who live with him. Leticia (Elizabeth Pena), the oldest, is an uber-religious chemistry teacher who fills almost every stereotype of the spinster schoolmarm, right down to her rigid buttoned-up attire. Carmen (Jacqueline Obradors) is a successful businesswoman who is less successful at personal relationships and who secretly (or perhaps not so secretly at times) wishes her father would let her become a chef like him - only that instead of being a purist like him, she likes to make “mutt” creations that blend the culinary tastes of several cultures. Maribel (Tamara Mello), the youngest, has a carefree spirit but the sense that she is constantly ignored by her family and sometimes even by herself. Their elaborate family dinners are sometimes attended by the girls’ love interests and by family friend Yolanda, a newly divorced single mother, and Yolanda’s family - daughter April and mother Hortensia.

I went into this movie expecting a good performance from Hector Elizondo, whose character of Dr. Bell on Monk was top-notch, and was not disappointed. Indeed, all the cast excelled at really inhabiting their roles fully and making me feel like these were real people. Raquel Welch as Hortensia was a wonderfully funny character, in line with a character you’d expect to see out of Dickens or Austen, with an over-the-top performance as a woman ridiculously bent on trying to snag Martin as a husband but unawares that she is not in the least bit subtle in doing so. And, for the Veronica Mars fans out there, look out for a small role played by Ken Marino aka “Vinnie Van Lowe.”

The movie is rife with funny moments as well as touching ones, and I’d bet money that you won’t find at least one of Martin’s (and Carmen’s) many elaborate dishes mouth-watering. There’s a little something for everyone between the comedy, the family drama, the romance, etc. Without giving away too many spoilers, I was personally happy that the ending was one of those ones where not everything is tied up neatly in a bow but you’re also not left scratching your head wondering what on earth that bizarre open-ended conclusion meant. And likewise, I was happy to see that not every woman’s happy ending saw her happily married off. Overall, I was very pleased with this movie and would recommend it.

Nina’s Heavenly Delights

After her father’s sudden death, Nina (Shelley Conn) returns to her Indian-Scottish family in their home city of Glasgow after three years spent in London where she ran to when her parents tried to arrange her marriage to Sanjay (Raji James). She has hardly any time to grieve before she learns that her father used his beloved restaurant, the New Taj, as collateral in a gambling bet and now half the restaurant belongs to Lisa (Laura Fraser), her younger brother Kary’s girlfriend. Lisa and Kary are ready to sell the restaurant to an eager buyer - Raj, the owner of a competing restaurant and father of Sanjay. But Nina also discovers that her father entered the restaurant into a prestigious televised cooking competition and made it into the final round. She manages to convince Lisa to hold off selling the restaurant until after they make a go for the trophy. As Nina teaches everything her father taught her about cooking to Lisa, she finds herself falling head over heels for Lisa.

I was a little hesitant about this movie because it was labeled a “romance;” I’m not the hugest fan of romances as a genre - either in literature or movies - although there are notable exceptions. Mostly, I think I can like a romance if there’s more to it than just the romance - for instance, a historical backdrop or witty characters. With Nina’s Heavenly Delights, there is certainly more to the story. There’s the very nature of love, death and grief, the pull of family obligations versus the need to be one’s self, and, of course, cooking itself. I felt as though the movie were more about family and the competition, with a side of meaningful glances between Nina and Lisa to remind you that, oh yeah, this is movie about these two falling in love.

Overall, I was really engaged with this movie and rooting for the New Taj to succeed in the competition. The scenes of Glasgow (and the Scottish accents) were an added bonus. For the most part, the filming of the cooking and food scenes was top-notch. There was even a vibe of sexual tension between two women via working in the kitchen in Nina’s first lesson to Lisa about mixing spices - “it’s all about the chemistry, and the chemistry has to be right.” It’s not quite the food fighting scene in Fried Green Tomatoes, but you clearly get the point - one that Lisa makes earlier “The couple that cooks together stays together.” However, there was one scene of cooking where for some reason the director decided to add an overlay of words labeling the ingredients in the dish. It was only done this one time, which I think added to the oddness of doing so. A much more elegant scene was one where the shots of food bubbling were interspersed with shots of pages turning in Nina’s cookbook of award-winning recipes, handed down from her father.

Nina’s drag friend, Bobbi, was a little too over the top for me, although I must acknowledge that he made a good foil to Nina in that he clearly wasn’t hiding his sexuality. Still, I would have been okay with fewer scenes of him and his “chutney queens.” On the other hand, Auntie Mamie was a delightful minor character who I would have liked to see more of as she added humor to every scene she was in, no matter how briefly.

As I already mentioned, I liked this movie overall, but it did feel like it could have been a little longer and more fleshed out. There was some aspects (i.e., the decisions made by Nina’s brother Kary) that could have used a little more explanation. There also needed to be more time for growth in some of the characters so that their actions seemed more realistic and less scripted. For instance, I have a hard time believing that Nina’s mother, who three years earlier was so traditional as to arrange a marriage for her daughter, is suddenly so accepting of her children’s decisions to be so modern and Scottish. I also couldn’t see Lisa putting Nina to the test at such a crucial moment. While I enjoyed the movie and would recommend it, it didn’t feel “real” like Tortilla Soup.

Eat Pray Love

Based on the best-selling memoir by Elizabeth Gilbert, Eat Pray Love tells Liz’s story as she copes with her messy divorce by taking a year off to visit Italy, India, and Indonesia. I enjoyed the book when I read it several years ago but didn’t really have any interest in the movie as I didn’t feel like it was the kind of the book that would transfer well to the screen. Essentially the story is about Liz and her transformation and it isn’t exactly plot heavy, so nothing about that screams Hollywood. But I ended up receiving the DVD as a present from someone who knew I liked the book, so I gave it a shot.

Besides the feeling that this wasn’t a story to be told cinematically, this movie had one other huge handicap against its favor: Julia Roberts. I don’t care that she’s an awarding-winner actor, I can’t stand her in general and specifically in this role. For starters, she’s just wrong for the part physically - she was a tad too old for the role but, even more so, she’s too stick thin for anyone to legitimately believe a) her having a “muffin top” from eating too much in Italy and b) Felipe saying she is the perfect kind of woman who looks thin from a distance but has something to hold on to up close. But even if I could overlook that she doesn’t physically fit the part, I’ve never seen her in a movie where she convinces me for more than a minute that she’s anyone other than Julia Roberts. She doesn’t ever inhabit her roles and her characters all come across as behaving the same way. Tackling Liz is even harder because she’s not a character; she’s a real and complex person, and a person who has shared intimate details about herself to the world through her book. And Julia Roberts did not deliver. To be honest, it wasn’t just her either; despite some other big names in this movie, no one stood out as acting particularly splendidly, excepting the actor who played Balinese medicine man Ketut, who I just loved, and the actor playing Tulsi, the young Indian girl Liz befriends who is forced into an arranged marriage against her wishes. A minor pet peeve, but it was annoying to find that Richard from Texas didn’t have a Texan accent nor did Sofi from Sweden have a Swedish accent. Come on, people, at least *try* to convince me that you’re the person you’re pretending to be.

Like I said earlier, the book isn’t full of plot devices but mostly Liz’s internal struggles, so this makes it a hard movie to make. So much had to be specifically narrated (an okay technique when needed, but if half your movie needs to be narrated, maybe you should left well enough alone with the book) or conveyed through expressions and looks (which Julia Roberts always seemed to get wrong; she was smiling broadly when she shouldn’t be happy and looking apprehensive when she should be happy, she barely reacted at all throughout Richard’s long and moving history, and she’s apparently incapable of making it through a movie without pitching a screaming fit). The movie also invented a character played by Viola Davis who represented *all* of Gilbert’s family, friends, and co-workers back home and functioned as a sounding-board and “straight man” (if you parody the borrowing of terms for comedies used here for dramas) that Liz could talk about some of her emotions without constantly narrating.

However, the movie was very good for showing us the beautiful scenes of the places Gilbert visited. If there were anything missing from the book, it would be actually seeing the places Liz writes about with such passion. The movie helps you feel like you’ve actually traveled to these places and seen the ruins in Rome, driven through the crowded streets of India, and inhaled the tropical sea breezes in Bali.

A few more pet peeves arose as I watched the movie: it’s been a while since I’ve read the book, so perhaps someone can correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t recall Gilbert being randomly approached by an elephant in India, Felipe and Liz meeting because he ran her off the road, Felipe’s son coming to visit them in Bali, or, most importantly because the movie makes it a huge dramatic point, Felipe and Liz breaking up right before she’s meant to leave for home.

Let’s just hope Hollywood doesn’t try to take on Eliizabeth Gilbert’s sequel, Committed.

Mildred Pierce

Mildred Pierce (Joan Crawford) is a mother who will do anything for daughters. But eldest daughter Veda (Ann Blyth) is a spoiled brat who always wants more. To have some extra money to buy Veda more and better items, Mildred goes from making cakes and pies for the neighbors, to becoming a waitress and working round the clock, to buying a restaurant, to expanding that to a chain of restaurants. Still, Veda is never happy and wants more money always. To add a bit of mystery to this story of mother-daughter struggle is the fact that is being told in flashbacks as Mildred is held at the police station after being suspected of murder.

This framing device used to tell the story allows the movie start with a shocking murder, but there’s plenty of twists and turns along the way so the viewer isn’t in the know all along. This is film noir/melodrama at its finest – it could easily become ridiculously at any point but does not. I think it part because the whole production holds on to the idea that, despite all its plot points, this is first and foremost a story about these people and what they are like at their cores. Therefore, it is a great character study. To say that Joan Crawford’s acting was excellent would be an understatement as she won an Oscar for this performance and is legendary for this role. Still, it’s worth saying that she is phenomenal as Mildred Pierce and her supporting cast does not disappoint either.

However, that being said, I’m not the hugest fan of Butterfly McQueen as Lottie, Mildred’s maid. While I can’t exactly place my finger on a specific why, something about her whole character feels borderline racist - perhaps it’s just because her character is so silly when everyone else is so serious. (Of course, the character of Ida also provides comic relief, albeit she does it by having sarcastic zingers, rather than just acting like an airhead.) At any rate, McQueen’s squeaky high-pitched voice irritates me in Gone with the Wind and it’s not any better here. That may sound petty, but her voice really does grate on my ears unpleasantly.

As I mentioned earlier, this movie is very much in the film noir style with flashbacks, voiceovers, a femme fatale (of a different sort), and moody black and white filming. Also, there are some fun cinematic shots with the use of mirrors. Overall, it’s visually appealing as well as providing an engaging storyline.

It’s worth noting in a post on food-related movies though that this is one of those movies only tangentially related to food. Unlike in Tortilla Soup where mouth-watering dishes are presented as feasts for the eyes (and temptations for the stomachs), we don’t see much of the food here. However, the movie does have some good lines about its preparation. For instance, in voiceovers Mildred explains, “I felt as though I had been born in a kitchen and lived there all my life, except for the few hours it took to get married.” She later continues this narrative with, “In six weeks, I felt like I'd worked in a restaurant all my life. In three months, I was one of the best waitresses there. I took tips and was glad to get them. And at home I baked pies for the restaurant.” Or there’s this exchange:

Mildred Pierce: “You look down on me because I work for a living, don't you? You always have. All right, I work. I cook food and sell it and make a profit on it, which, I might point out, you're not too proud to share with me.”
Monte Beragon: “Yes, I take money from you, Mildred. But not enough to make me like kitchens or cooks. They smell of grease.”
Mildred Pierce: “I don't notice you shrinking away from a fifty- dollar bill because it smells of grease.”

Interestingly, after watching the original, I found out that there was an HBO miniseries re-make with Kate Winslet, but from the trailer it looks like all they did was sex it up so I’m not sure that I would check it out.

Julie & Julia

This movie promotes itself as having been “based on two true stories” and thus tells dual side-by-side stories of women living in different eras and places. We start with Julia Child (Meryl Streep) in 1949, having just moved to Paris with her husband and trying to find something to do with her spare time. She finally settles on cooking, managing to enroll herself in an all-male professional class at Le Cordon Bleu. From there she moves on to teaching French cooking and writing a cookbook. Meanwhile, in 2002, Julie Powell (Amy Adams) is a tired New Yorker who is emotionally drained by the time she comes home from her job dealing with the aftermath of 9/11. Her tension release at the end of the day is cooking (one stress coping mechanism that she and I apparently share!) and over time she and her husband land upon the idea that she should write a blog in which she attempts to cook all 524 recipes in Julia Child’s seminal cookbook, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, in 365 days.

I have to note from the outset that I did not know very much about Julia Child (and nothing about Julie Powell other than that she had this quest to cook all of Child’s recipes) going into the movie, so I really can’t say if it was historically accurate or not, but it was certainly an engaging movie.

It certainly was an interesting concept to show these two stories, based on books written by each woman, side by side. The two women certainly share some similarities and some ups and downs, and somehow the movie pulls off jumping between two time periods, two continents, and two characters (and their supporting casts) without seeming choppy. An interesting thing I liked about each story was that while the stories were ultimately about the women, both had very supportive husbands who helped them to find their place and succeed at it. While this movie, like any other Nora Ephron movie, will inevitably be seen as a “chick flick” at worst or “women’s movie” at best, I feel like it hits the perfect note of gender equality by portraying stories in which neither men nor women are objectified, demonized, or cast to the sidelines.

All around, the movie is filled with excellent acting, although I have to admit I am a bit puzzled by Amy Adams’ accent (or lack thereof, to my ears at least).Iif her mother is from Texas (and heard over the phone with a drawl) and Julie lives in New York, wouldn’t she have at least one of those accents or some sort of mix of both? It’s a small thing, but Meryl Streep so completely changed her vocal patterns to become more like Julia Child that it stood out to me that I didn’t hear that as much in Amy Adams as Julie Powell. Both women, however, did change their appearances a lot to fit their roles.

While food is certainly a large part of this movie, I don’t feel that it was as much in the centerpiece of filming as in some of these other foodie movies like again, Tortilla Soup. Also noting my own preferences for more grains and vegetables than meats (especially red meat), the particular dishes that were shown did not exactly shout drool-worthiness to me, even though I’ve been a huge fan of every recipe I’ve tried from my own French cookbook (and pretty much everything I’ve eaten while in France). The scenes of Paris, however, do make me long to visit that city again....

The only downside to Julie & Julia was the ending. Without giving away any spoilers, I wasn’t 100 percent in love with the movie’s conclusion although I’m not quite sure why. I think I would have liked to see a *little* bit more of both Julia’s and Julie’s successes.

To sum up this lengthy post (if you’re still with me here), if I were a film critic apt to give grades to movies, Tortilla Soup would get an A, Nina’s Heavenly Delights a B, Eat Pray Love a C-, Mildred Pierce an A+, and Julie & Julia an A.

Take the Plunge: The Big Bad Swim

On Black Friday, had a giant DVD sale and I ended up buying quite a few DVDs for myself. (I could not resist the temptation.) One of these was The Big Bad Swim and I’ve now had the time and opportunity to finally watch it. I should point out from the outset that there was definitely some very bad marketing involved with this movie, particularly with the cover trying to sex things up with some headless bikini-clad babe taking up the upper half. If you have a quiet indie movie on your hands, you are appealing to the wrong audience right there. I would have passed right by this movie if I saw it in a store with that cover. Luckily as I was looking online where I could see the top billing more prominently, I noticed that Paget Brewster (who I just love as Emily Prentiss in Criminal Minds) was in it. That fact led me to check out the movie’s synopsis and reviews and finally conclude that I would very likely enjoy this movie.

The Big Bad Swim follows the lives of a bunch of Connecticut residents taking an adult beginners’ swim class at the local rec center. Everyone has their own story about why they are there – Carl (Kevin Porter Young) is too terrified to even touch the water but he wants to be able to take his son to water parks and swim with him, Paula (Liza Lapira, recognizable to NCIS fans as Agent Lee) is past beginner’s but wants to meet single men and has a particular eye on the instructor, Martin and Joanna (Todd Susman and Darla Hill, respectively) just got a pool so they want to be able to use it, etc. While we see all these people throughout, the movie focuses largely on three characters – Noah (Jeff Branson), the swim instructor who’s clinically depressed; Amy (Paget Brewster), a high school math teacher in the midst of a bitter break-up and starting a fling with a younger guy (Michael Mosley, now seen as Ted on Pan Am); and Jordan (Jess Weixler), a part-time casino dealer and stripper whose dealing with a younger brother and his friend obsessed with filming a documentary of her life. It’s this last story that is perhaps the weakest because I feel like we get to know Jordan the least and don’t really understand her background or motivations.

The Big Bad Swim is definitely a “slice of life” film, giving us a look at these characters during a very specific time frame only – the six weeks that the course spans. The movie does a great job of giving you the feeling that these are real people with several factors going into this impression beyond just the story lines - the excellent acting (Paget Brewster is remarkable as expected, but everyone else really gets into their role as well), how even the side characters have rich back stories, the lines that sometimes sound fumbling (you know, like real speech instead of scripted zingers), how not everyone looks a supermodel, and the slice of life aspect of the film. Because it is only a slice of life movie, you feel sorry when it’s over that you won’t get to spend more time finding out about these people and what other adventures (no matter how small or arguably mundane) life has in store for them.

As a small independent film, some parts of the movie occasionally look less than professionally polished (and I’m not referring to the ones that are intentionally done that way because they are meant to be the boys’ documentary) but overall this is a very well done movie that could have benefited from a better marketing team.

Behind the Curve: Wonderfalls

You faithful readers know about my quest of watching Bryan Fuller-created shows (and trying to find something as wonderful as Pushing Daisies). I continue, and conclude (unless Mr. Fuller decides to create another new show), this process with his 2004 show Wonderfalls.

Twenty-four-year old Jaye Tyler (Caroline Dhavernas) is the only underachiever in a family full of successful careers – her mother Karen (Diana Scarwid) is a well-known author, her father Darrin (William Sadler) is a respected doctor, her sister Sharon (Katie Finneran) is a lawyer, and her brother Aaron (Lee Pace) is a Ph.D. candidate. Jaye is quite comfortable living a stress-free life as an employee in a gift shop at Niagara Falls called “Wonderfalls” where the teenage employee she trained is able to rise above her and become her manager. That is, Jaye is quite content with her life that way it is until she has her first “sode” (short for episode) and begins hearing inanimate objects (“anything with a face”) talking to her. When she does what they tell her to do, eventually something good comes out of it, although sometimes things look far worse before they look better. When she doesn’t do what they tell her to do, the consequences are dire. That, and they repeat their invectives incessantly until she does what they tell her to do. So despite thinking she’s crazy and her family also being concerned (without specifically knowing why), Jaye starts doing what the tchotchkes tell her to do. But it doesn’t help that they are often vague with their instructions, leaving Jaye at odds trying to figure out what she’s meant to do.

Rounding out the cast are Mahandra (Tracie Thoms), a cocktail waitress who has been Jaye’s best friend since at least high school, and Eric (Tyron Leitso), the bartender at Jaye’s favorite watering hole, who landed there after his honeymoon in Niagara Falls ended with his wife’s sexual indiscretion. Now Eric has got a twinkle in his eye for Jaye, and the feeling may be reciprocal…

Like with Pushing Daisies and Dead Like Me, Wonderfalls is a difficult series to pin down in one category. It is part bizarre comedy, part romance, and part family drama (though still with a darkly comic twist). What it is not is Pushing Daisies (even with Lee Pace in the cast) as it doesn’t *quite* have all the charm and appeal, but I still liked this series a lot more than I liked Dead Like Me. That being said though, I actually see a lot of similarities between Jaye and George - their mannerisms, their speech patterns (not just what they say but also how they say it), the whole “disaffected youth” thing with slacker jobs because they can’t be motivated to do more, the way they don’t like to get involved in anything “extracurricular” (volunteering, etc.) or to get too close to many people. Also, Jaye’s adventures and misadventures helping people through the directions of the inanimate objects feel a little like George’s adventures and misadventures helping people through the names that show up on her post-it notes. Sometimes there are even somewhat similar scenes in terms of the cinematography (the way camera speeds up for instance) although in that respect, this show definitely has its own feel as well (with, for instance, the boxed scenes floating by each other or the viewfinder click ending each scene). As a side note, I was really fond of the viewfinder idea and how that’s a theme throughout (on the way scenes cut and end as I just mentioned, but also in the opening sequence and on the packaging of the DVDs.)

On the down side, besides Mahandra who feels like the token African-American character and the occasional appearance of some American Indians, there’s little racial diversity in the characters. However, Sharon is in the process of coming out as a lesbian so at least there’s some divergence in the cast from Caucasian heteronormative people only. By the way, look out for a guest appearance in a few episodes from Kari Matchett (who now plays Joan on Covert Affairs) as Sharon’s girlfriend.
Another down side was that the second to last episode (“Totem Mole”) is a bit more over the edge than others in terms of oddness with the suggestion that spirits are what make the inanimate objects talk to Jaye and, even more so, with Jaye having conversations with dead people. It just feels a little weaker than the other episodes. In fact, I found more general entertainment in the episodes that don’t ask you to question where the voices come from or why they talk to Jaye (beyond “because you listen”) but you just accept that this is Jaye’s life now and sit back for the ride.

A minor pet peeve is that I’m not the hugest fan of when a show introduces characters that feel like they should be fixtures in the main character’s life but we only see them in that one relevant episode. For instance, the Tyler’s beloved housekeeper who “practically raised” the three children is a key figure in one episode and then we never ever see her again. It’s not just that she doesn’t have lines again, she’s never even seen in the background silently cleaning up or anything like that, which seems like a fairly easy thing to write into any episode. Likewise, Jaye’s neighbors “Fat Pat” and Marianne Marie Beetle feature prominently in one episode and then we never hear from them again. Well, actually we do hear from Marianne Marie Beetle again, just not in Wonderfalls - she next shows up in an episode of Pushing Daisies. Of course, that being said, some people did reappear after some time (i.e., Wade Jones the security guard, Thomas from EPS, etc.) so there’s potential we might have seen these people again had the show been able to live on longer than it did.

Speaking of Wonderfalls’ short shelf life, I presume that the show’s creators and writers realized at some point early on that there was going to be just the one season and that’s why some loose ends remain as they would have been revisited in later seasons. But they did a good job of wrapping things up neatly enough to have a satisfying ending.

Leap Year: Jumping Right Into … Predictability

Of course, it’s only the first week of 2012 and I’ve already caught an ear infection. Being stuck home in bed, it’s at least been a good time to catch on some TV and movies. I decided to start with something light, namely Leap Year, a 2010 romantic comedy out of Ireland.

Perfectionist and control freak real estate “stager” Anna (Amy Adams) has been in a relationship with Jeremy (Adam Scott) for four years but he has yet to propose to her. In a wild idea inspired by a family story, she decides to follow Jeremy to his business trip in Dublin, where there is a tradition that women can propose to their men on Leap Day - an opportunity that comes up only once every four years. However, a fierce storm ends up landing her plane outside of Dublin and she must find an alternate way to get to the city. Enter Declan (Matthew Goode), a small village pub owner looking for cash, who offers to drive her from Dingle to Dublin. Adventures and mishaps ensue as their ill-fated journey across Ireland continues despite all obstacles.

Leap Year
has the predictable, formulaic plot of any bad romantic comedy. Yes, I was pretty much aware of that back when I first started seeing previews for this movie, but I was hoping that I would be wrong and there would be some surprises along the way – or at least some really funny moments to carry the movie. But I was disappointed. There are certainly funny moments, but they are mostly of the physical gags variety and nothing particularly spectacular to write home about. Furthermore, there is no real attraction between the leads or justifiable reason(s) they go from hating each other to loving each other - at best its that she realizes he can cook and he learns that she’s so controlling because her father is so glib. However, Amy Adams shines as always (and in general, is underrated for her comic skills, in my opinion) despite running around Ireland on foot in pencil skirts and high heels. Speaking of Ireland, the movie does feature some nice scenery but some of it is clearly green screened in to the background.

However, let’s not even get started on unpacking the idea of ‘women can only propose once every four years on a certain day at a specific idyllic spot.’ Anna is a go-getter who likes things planned exactly to her specifications so there’s no reason why she couldn’t propose on any other day of any other year in any other spot. Let’s also not look too deep here and realize that the ending means Anna gives up all – her home, her job, and her personality – to be with the man she loves. What kind of message are we sending to women with that kind of “love” story? Change everything about yourself and then you can finally be happy? Compare this with another Irish romantic comedy, Happy Ever Afters, where the message seems to be ‘find someone as quirky as yourself and you might have shot at happiness,’ which seems like a healthier attitude to me.

All and all, Leap Year is a fairly entertaining movie but ultimately forgettable, perhaps in part due to its underlying messages that are frankly unfriendly to women.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Looking Back ... The Play's The Thing

As I’ve mentioned before, I really dislike winter. If I were the type to believe in past lives, I would be convinced that in a past life I was a grizzly bear or some other creature that hibernates all winter long. December is mostly bearable because it has all the holiday rush to make me forget somewhat that winter is coming/here. (This year had the added bonus of actually not being cold most days so it certainly could have been worse than it’s been.) But January, February, and March are the real terrible months with nothing to look forward to but miserably cold, dark, and snowy days. So instead of looking ahead to those dismal days, I’m choosing to look back with this post and talk about some plays that I saw in 2011 prior to when I started this blog. As my co-worker points out that today is one of the most depressing days of the year, hopefully this will bring some cheer to you also!

Crimes of the Heart

The McCarter Theatre in Princeton put on a production of this Beth Henley play, which has also been made into a movie apparently. This darkly humorous play introduces us to three sisters who are all home at their grandfather’s Mississippi house and facing different crises – Lenny has just turned 30 and doesn’t feel like she’s done anything with her life, Meg is trying to make it big as a singer, and Babe has just shot her husband under the weirdest of circumstances. While this sounds like a serious set-up (and indeed there are dramatic moments, such as when the women contemplate their mother’s suicide years earlier), it is mostly a madcap comedy with the unlikeliest of scenarios continuing to play out.

The first thing I noticed about this production was the great scenery, including props that were authentic. As we sat waiting for the play to start, I recognized a few 1960s items that I have at home after being passed down from my grandmother. The second thing I noticed was that, yes, there is such a thing as being too close to the stage, as we learned. Having ordered the tickets the day before the show, we were in the first row, which was very, very close to the stage. It was an interesting experience though to get to see that the actors, who appear to be looking right at you when you in the center of the audience, are actually looking over the audiences’ heads. It could also make for an awkward viewing experience being uncomfortably close to the actors, particularly when they did things like undress and change costumes right on the stage. Speaking of actors, everyone involved in this production was top-notch. Overall, this was a great play and, barring the ability to see it again any time soon, I might rent the movie to re-visit these wonderful characters and hilarious plot.

Sleeping Beauty Wakes

This was another production at the McCarter Theatre that was also funny in a dark humor kind of way, although it certainly had very serious moments as well. In this Rachel Sheinkin play, a heartbroken father brings his seemingly comatose daughter to a sleep disorder clinic, claiming that she’s been sleeping for centuries. In this setting, an orderly suffering from narcolepsy starts to fall for the mysterious beauty, while the four other patients reflect on their own sleeping and dreaming patterns since the young woman arrived. When “Sleeping Beauty” wakes up about half-way through the play, things become even more unpredictable.

In my opinion, the first half of this play was the more interesting part with a little bit in the second half starting drag, but overall, it was a good play. (I should also note that I ended up waking up incredibly sick the day I went to this play so perhaps any thing that felt like dragging could have been in part because I was resisting the urge to sleep off whatever sickness I had.) As a musical, this play had phenomenal music – both lyrically and instrumentally – and spectacular choreography to match it. The actors were all great at every aspect of their jobs – singing and dancing as well as believably portraying their individual roles. The use of fairy tale imagery in a contemporary setting and story was an interesting twist and one I think that speaks to modern sensibilities (and our building on previous generations, especially when it comes to common knowledge amongst people of different backgrounds).

Compared to Crimes of the Heart, this production had a set that looked underwhelming at first glance – just a line of austere beds for the patients and an office desk for the doctor – but these were in constant motion depending on the scene. There was also an artistic use of lighting depending on the context, making for a visual treat. Furthermore, the production made use of film images on the screens behind the beds, with these images containing things such as what the patients were supposed to be dreaming of at the time. As you might have gleaned by this point, this was a very different sort of play than the standard character-driven or even plot-driven one. For a sample of what it was like, you should check out the trailer available here. While I generally prefer things that are more character driven (such as Crimes of the Heart), I appreciated the different-ness of this musical as a change of pace and a truly artful experience.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Appropriately, The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey put on this production during the summer. (Okay, for you loyal readers who might point this out, I did actually see this play after I started this blog, but with family visiting from out of state, I didn’t have the leisure to write about it at the time.) I don’t think I need to provide a synopsis of this well-known Shakespeare play, but I will note that this is one of my favorite Shakespeare plays and my absolute favorite out of his comedies. (My other favorite is the drama Hamlet, from which I pulled the quote for this post’s title.)

Like with Crimes of the Heart, the first thing I that struck me with this production was the beautiful set. This play was performed at the outdoor amphitheater, and even though it was unbearably hot out of doors in July (ah, remember being too hot? it seems a luxury unheard of now), it was a really cool (no pun intended) experience to be at an outdoor play. Also, it gave the theater the opportunity of handing us all paper fans imprinted with the play’s design. The set itself was really beautiful (see the picture below for some idea of what a portion of the set looked like, although alas my photography skills aren’t very good and it was much better to see in person). The production also made good use of the set’s space, including having the Athenians sit down amongst the audience when watching the players put on the play within the play, Pyramus and Thisbe. Another great example was when Puck came out into the crowd to look for a man wearing “weeds of Athens” (per Oberon’s advice) by checking the tags on everyone’s clothes and saying to himself things like “The Gap, no, Old Navy, no, Tommy Hilfiger, no” until finally going up to the actor portraying the sleeping Lysander and looking at his clothing tag and saying “oh here, weeds of Athens.”

One thing I never quite understand is when Shakespeare’s plays are set in the modern day but the language is the original old English; here it was a bit unclear just when it was meant to be taking place. The fantasy world of the fairies helps in that it is timeless, but the original play also takes place in ancient Athens, which calls for an established time and place. In this production, the actors were clearly not clad in costumes authentic to either ancient Greece or Elizabethan England. However, they weren’t exactly toting the most modern of apparel either, but rather wearing clothes that were funky outfits you wouldn’t see on any ol’ person walking down the street. (I wish I had a better description but I’m lacking a good way to explain just how it looked.) Some scenes also employed the use of water guns, which a quick Google search tells me is not unique to this particular production. Go figure.

The cast was exceptional with a host of good actors, some in multiple roles. The only notable exception was the actor portraying Hippolyta and Titania, who always wore a look of confusion on her face even when she was supposed to be angry or defeated or in love. A special shout-out goes to those in the roles of the players (Bottom, Flute, Starveling, Snout, and Snug) as they were incredibly funny, really evoking the clownishness of these characters. They probably received the most laughs from the crowd watching this incredibly humorous and absurd comedy.

Now that I’m stuck indoors and won’t be seeing any other live, outdoors plays (although perhaps some live, indoor plays), I’m thinking about pulling out some printed copies of plays and reading them (or in some cases, re-reading them). Also, as winter progresses, you might see some other themed posts looking back....

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Second Time's the Charm: Viewing Sherlock Holmes

It’s become a New Year’s Eve tradition to go to the movies while everyone else is out gallivanting. Two years ago we saw Sherlock Holmes and had the unfortunate luck to have the film physically break down so that we could not see the last 10 minutes or so of the movie. Eventually we rented the movie and watched it all over, so all’s well that ends well. (Plus we got two free movie tickets each, which helped financed the 2011 New Year’s Eve movie viewing of The Tourist as well as a later trip to see The King’s Speech). This year we decided to tempt fate by again picking a Sherlock Holmes movie for the New Year’s Eve movie, this time seeing (in its full length without a hitch, might I add) its sequel, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows

After reading a recent pastiche of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s famed works, I’ve been slowly but surely making my way through the Sherlock Holmes canon. While I’m still not finished with that process, I now have way more knowledge about the legendary character and his friend Dr. Watson than I did when I saw the first Guy Ritchie film Sherlock Holmes. (At that point, I had only read a few short stories on Holmes here and there.) So for Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, I could appreciate more of the nuances and hurrah more when I felt the characters were accurately portrayed down to nitty-gritty details. Some of the plot is taken from A.C. Doyle’s works, particularly The Final Problem, but the movie’s story is also its own. This leads to the movie being both predictable and surprising, not least of all because the viewer is unsure of how much the movie will stay true to the novels. 

The sequel picks up where the original movie left off, with Sherlock Holmes tracing the criminal works of Professor Moriarty against the backdrop of events leading up to a world war. Dr. Watson, on the cusp of getting married to Miss Morstan, is inevitably drawn into this case despite his own inclinations. Also back, although ever so briefly, are Irene Adler and Inspector Lestrade. In addition, there are new characters with the ever-delightful Stephen Fry (known to Bones fan as Dr. Gordon Wyatt) as Sherlock’s brother Mycroft Holmes and Swedish Girl with the Dragon Tattoo series star Noomi Rapace as the Gypsy Madam Simza who is also drawn into the investigation unwittingly. This latter character is probably the only down side to the whole movie. With Miss Adler and Miss Morstan playing only minor roles, the otherwise male-dominated movie needed to fill this void, but they chose possibly the dullest character imaginable. Simza has the potential to be an interesting character (she’s a knife-wielding fortune teller who used to be an anarchist, after all) but she has very little to do in the way of action and has no memorable lines in a movie full of them. Furthermore, she has none of the charm of Adler, Holmes, or Watson. Rapace does not do much to add life to the character as she mostly spends her time looking vapidly from Holmes to Watson while action unfolds around her. 

Like its predecessor, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows is set in a visually dark London although here we also move to France, Germany, and Switzerland as well, making for a cinematic feast of locales. There are visual effects and styles similar to the first movie, including slow-motion shots such as when Holmes anticipates the moves of his opponents during fights. Also like the first movie, there are numerous funny one-liners and scenes interspersed throughout the film, which help to offset the darkness and violence. A particularly hilarious scene, rife with sexual tension of all sorts and an interesting commentary on the Holmes-Watson relationship, is when Sherlock Holmes uses one of his many disguises – this time as a woman – to intercede in attack on Watson’s honeymoon. 

Overall, this movie is packed with mystery, suspense, action, and the aforementioned comedy. It will delight fans of the previous movie or of the Sherlock Holmes character in general. Yet this movie also stands on its own so anyone jumping on the bandwagon late can appreciate it as well.