Monday, April 07, 2014

Wanting More Muppets

I had wanted to get this written earlier, but now I'm glad I waited (forgot) because I want to argue with nearly every other review of it I've read and heard.

I was a little giddy after seeing Muppets Most Wanted, not just because I enjoyed it, but because I enjoyed it for all the right reasons. Unlike The Muppets, MMW is an actual movie, not a nostalgia machine carefully crafted in a lab. While it picks up where it left off (literally), with the gang newly reunited and enjoying their renewed popularity (a relative term in the Muppets' world, as they perform their show in the fleabaggiest of venues -- which is totally believable for a vaudeville show in 2014), there is an actual plot that doesn't simply revolve around meta-commentary and "Hey, look! The Muppets are back!" There are elements of The Great Muppet Caper and The Muppets Take Manhattan but its not a retread of either of those movies. The story felt wholly original to me (within the confines of heist and prison movies), and it was encouraging to see that the Muppets could do something sort of new. Like The Muppets, a great deal of attention is paid to a new character, but this time that character isn't Walter (he's still around but he's just part of the group now, unspecial). Constantine is a delight. He's a great, goofy, not-as-bright-as-he-thinks-he-is villain firmly rooted in the Muppet tradition, and he also manages to acknowledge, send up, and almost even solve the Jim Henson problem by making a bad Kermit impression a central plot point.

I hate to say it, because I generally like his work and he seems like an all around good guy, but I think the main problem with The Muppets was Jason Segel. With his fanboy sensibilities gone, the rest of the creative team was left to come up with new ideas and tell a real story. And with no need to reintroduce the Muppets, they could get right to it.

There was one early joke that told me I would love this movie, and I'm going to spoil it because it's in the first five minutes. In the opening number, the gang suggests various types of movies they could make for their sequel. As they cut between quick gags parodying different genres, there's a black and white shot of the Swedish Chef playing chess with Death, singing a subtitled lyric. I was in. Later there's a not exactly obscure but not exactly obvious either musical theater reference that seems like it's going to be a throwaway gag but winds up being an entire number, complete with what I'm pretty sure is the original choreography. These are buttons I'd much rather have pushed than the obvious nostalgia ones, and this movie felt made for me.

As with The Muppets, I like how this is just a world in which Muppets and humans coexist. It's well-populated, not just with our heroes but with extras in the background, even outside of the theater. And they were recognizable (notably the dancers in suits with Muppet feet, hands and heads who I've always found creepy and who I always associate with Liza Minnelli's "Copacabana") who sparked nostalgia in me but not in a heavy handed way. They were just there, because why wouldn't they be? Those guys have to go home after the show, right? 

Reading reviews of this movie (and listening to Slate's great (if 100% wrong) Spoiler Special), I was struck over and over again by how critics kept saying how great the last movie had been, and how this one paled in comparison. I had to go back and read my own review again to see if I'd soured on the film over time. Nope. My memory of my impressions is completely accurate. 

The fairest criticisms are that there's too much attention paid to the humans and that Kermit is on his own in a totally different movie. I get that, but I don't agree. The three main humans (Ricky Gervais, Tina Fey and Ty Burrell) are almost never seen without Muppet scene partners (Constantine, Kermit and Sam), and it's not really any different from Segel and Amy Adams' primary roles in the first movie. It's true that The Muppet Movie was an almost all-Muppet world, with humans mostly serving as cameos, but humans played major parts in The Great Muppet Caper and The Muppets Take Manhattan and always on The Muppet Show. Here, the lead humans got the tone exactly right, and felt like they belonged in this world. I even enjoyed Ricky Gervais' performance, which I had assumed was impossible. The cameos were, as many critics have pointed out, mostly superfluous (some stars literally showed up on screen for just one line, which is fine if you're Madeline Kahn ("Yeth?") but seems pretty pointless if you're a) not that famous and b) don't even get to interact with any Muppets), but the human leads have such great chemistry with the Muppet counterparts that they just seemed to fit. That's also why I didn't mind Kermit's exile, because he and Fey were so delightful together, and so much about the gulag is so funny and flat-out ridiculous (Danny Trejo for everything) that I never even thought about the fact that there were no other Muppets there. Still, many of the Muppets themselves felt relegated to cameos, and I wouldn't have minded spending more time with Fozzie and Animal and less with, say, Jon Hamm.

MMW isn't without its larger missteps too, notably the fantasy sequence in which Piggy and Kermit grow old together (they've never aged before but I guess that's no weirder than the original Muppet Babies fantasy sequence) and we see their absolutely horrifying offspring. The implications of a frog-pig romance have always been troubling, and it's something we should never be asked to think this much, let alone see its product. The movie generally drags a bit in the middle, and like I said too many of the original main characters are relegated to the sidelines. And come on, Miss Piggy wouldn't realize that Constantine isn't Kermit? But I quibble. I had so much fun that even the criticisms I agree with I mostly didn't notice until others pointed them out later (horrifying baby figs aside).

Maybe our responses are all about expectations. Critics who loved The Muppets found MMW inferior. I went in excited but very skeptical and was pleasantly surprised. For whatever it's worth, everyone in the audience I saw MMW with at the New York International Children's Film Festival, including adults older and younger than me and, of course, kids, seemed to be totally into it too. 

One thing I did wonder, amid the success of Constantine and the not-going-away-ness of Walter (and the perfectly valid criticisms of the sadness of hearing other people play these characters -- although I thought most of the voices were nearly perfect this time out): What would it be like if the new crop of undeniably talented Muppet performers were allowed to create their own characters? If Gonzo and Rizzo and other original Dave Goelz and Steve Whitmire characters stuck around but new ones joined them, and when their performers were ready to retire their characters did too? Basically, what if the Muppets were like SNL? Sesame Street does this successfully all the time. I don't even know when/where Pepe was introduced but he's become a Muppet star. The Muppets clearly work, and as I've said before their charm comes from their realness. Puppets work for adults and kids, and I think they always will. Why not have the courage to evolve the franchise? I'd miss Kermit and Fozzie, but I miss Jim Henson and Frank Oz more. 

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Dancing A Paradox

Reality: That was the bullshit. But show business—singing and dancing and all that jazz—held the absolute truth.

Sam Wasson's new biography of Bob Fosse (titled, simply, Fosse) came out a few weeks ago and got some incredible buzz (mostly among the people I follow on Twitter who would buzz about this sort of thing) so I decided to check it out even though I already know a lot about Fosse and have already read one excellent biography of him (Martin Gottfried's All His Jazz).

I imagine biographies of artists -- especially performing artists -- are hard to write. You have to describe the art and somehow get inside the creative process, which the subject may or may not be on record talking about, and if he is it may or may not be bullshit. A general assumption that anyone reading the book already has some knowledge about its subject is probably fair. And necessary. You can't describe in detail every show Bob Fosse ever worked on. Well, you could, but it would be endless. It's about a man's life, not cast album liner notes.

That said, I'm not sure who this book is for, exactly. I consistently found there either wasn't enough detail or there was too much. More accurately I suppose there wasn't detail about what I wanted detail about. But in a book about an artist, the art is arguably the most important part. Theater and film are intensely collaborative, and as controlling as Fosse was, he couldn't have achieved his vision without the help of others. We get glimpses of process, but not enough for me. In pages and pages about the creation of Sweet Charity, for example, with attempts by multiple writers to crack the script, there's one tossed off sentence about the score. I assume that's because writing it went smoothly but a) I don't actually know that and b) Fosse's style is as wrapped up in the music he didn't write as it is anything, with rhythms and orchestrations that were built just for his choreography (a Fosse show sounds like a Fosse show even when someone else is directing a revival, which is a pretty remarkable feat for someone who didn't write any music). Orchestrator Ralph Burns, who I know from elsewhere to be an essential part of creating the sound that went with Fosse's visuals, is mentioned and even quoted a couple of times, but there's nothing about his work or his relationship to Fosse.

Even Fosse's breakup with Gwen Verdon, a relationship Wasson puts forward as the most important in his life (I mean, I think it was, that's not some crackpot theory) is glossed over. True, she doesn't leave his life or the story, but that seems like a major turning point, no? If it wasn't, then Wasson fails by setting it up as if it should be.

Even acknowledging the challenges, the book assumes both too much and too little from its reader. Despite my knowledge about musical theater -- or maybe because of it -- I found myself wanting more details about shows and also the world around Fosse. What else was going on in musical theatre while he was working? Names go by in a blur (the Kindle's X-Ray feature is really handy in a book like this), and sometimes I want to know more about them before they're gone.

When the book really delved deeply into the work is when it was the most compelling for me. I loved learning, for example, that the musical numbers in Cabaret were first cut together traditionally, using more or less straightforward wide shots to show all the dancing, and then Fosse and his editor would go back and find places to cut in odd angles and closeups. The more good tidbits like this were shared, the more annoyed I was when they weren't. Fosse was famously controlling while shooting Sweet Charity -- his first film as a director -- but there's no mention of, say, the set designer. At 700+ pages I get why we're not spending a ton of time on that, but I want to know how something as perfect -- for the story, and for Fosse's choreography and camera work -- as the rooftop set for "There's Gotta Be Something Better Than This" came about. It's too collaborative an art form for those people to be tossed aside if you're telling the story of the work. There's a reference to "The Manson Trio" at one point, with no explanation of what it is. It's a dance in Pippin, well known to theater geeks but not the name of a song or anything. And yet we learn a lot about what people ate for lunch. It just brings me back to the question of who the book is for.

It's also, frankly, not very well written. At times, almost randomly, Wasson seems to think he's writing a hard boiled detective novel. Take for example this quote from Ann Reinking
"The thing you love can also be the death of you," Reinking said. "Dancers are aware of that much more than the average artist."
and compare it with one on the same subject from Wasson
These bodies were the corrugated maps of old Forty-Second Street, preserved in hurt’s formaldehyde.
Reinking, the dancer/actor/choreographer nails it, and so simply. Wasson, the writer, not so much. (Not to imply that a dancer shouldn't, wouldn't or couldn't be well-spoken, just that she's not the one who got paid to write a book.)

A couple more “favorite” similes just for fun:

Their task was to find and refine visual rhythms and layer them on the eye like phyllo dough.

They buffered him from the neon sting of Broadway, ten blocks below, where dreams were torn like tickets and forgotten innocents reached out to him from the dark.

I could forgive the occasional dramatic flourish (especially given the subject matter) if the narrative were stronger, but the whole thing is kind of a mess. Particularly as the book enters the 70s, any sense of structure sort of goes out the window. I assume this is deliberate, and in some ways I liked it very much. Life doesn't happen in neat little chunks, a show and then a relationship and then a movie. But as a reader I found it muddled. What's he working on now? What happened to that girlfriend? Is Cabaret finished? Two paragraphs ago he was still editing it. Again, I know a lot of this stuff already, so there were plenty of interesting tidbits to be had and I was able to fill in some of the blanks myself, but that seems less than ideal.

I don't read a lot of biography so maybe this is standard practice, but I was frequently put off by the quoting of conversations for which the author -- and possibly nobody living -- was obviously not present. I realize it's helpful to dramatize this way, but I found it odd. There were hundreds of end notes which in the Kindle edition link back to the original references, but no notes within the text. (This might just be a Kindle thing. It also had the effect of making the book seem endless, as my page counter showed over 100 pages left even as I neared the end, with no way to stick a thumb in the actual end of the book.) I guess I needed to suspend my disbelief better but in dramatically too tidy moments I found myself thinking "how do you know that?" or "that doesn't sound right," which a simple attribution or taking slightly less liberty would have cleared up.

The structure of the book (literally a countdown to Fosse's death) leaves no room for Fosse's legacy. As overlong as the book felt, this left me unsatisfied. And life is, as Fosse himself would happily tell you. But I'd become strangely defensive and fond of the man over those hundreds of pages, and even if he'll never know how others would preserve and continue his work, or what happened to Gwen or Nicole or Ann, I felt the readers should. After all, when he staged his own death in All That Jazz ("a 100 percent accurate rendering of about 70 percent of Bob Fosse"), he did it with a musical number.

Fosse is a fascinating, complicated, often unlikable man, who left behind a body of work that's still being performed and aped, even in a medium known for its impermanence. If you’re interested in musical theater or tortured artists or even just pop culture of the 60s, 70s and early 80s at all, you should read about him. For as much as I’m criticizing the book and as much as I thought I already knew, I did read all 592 pages (as it turned out to be without the notes and acknowledgments) of Fosse and I learned a lot. But I think I'd recommend All His Jazz over Fosse. Granted I read it many years ago, when I knew much less about the man and the business, but it's certainly shorter and as I recall it flows a little more smoothly and clearly.

One huge difference between the two books has nothing to do with them but with when I read them. It was great to read this book in the age of YouTube and Netflix. I loved being able to watch numbers as I read about them, and even watched a couple of whole films I hadn't been familiar with before. Here are some favorites.

The aforementioned rooftop set. I don’t actually love this show or this film, but this is perfection.

This whole thing is amazing but jump to 6:54 (if I did this right it’ll do it itself) and watch the solo (and imagine Ann Reinking doing it).

Fosse dancing his own choreography in My Sister Eileen. (not embeddable)

Maybe my favorite one minute and twenty seconds of film ever.

I didn’t really “get” Liza, who was already a …complicated figure by the time I knew who she was, for years. Then I saw this and I understood:

I’m still not a huge Liza fan but I think you should just watch all of this anyway. Try to overlook the ensemble’s costumes (everything about it is just sooooo early 70s).

(My favorite number starts at 29:15.)

Speaking of Liza, I love this description of her from the book:
At twenty-three, Liza Minnelli was already a strange, spastic showbiz animal, a volcano of nerdy confidence. She wasn’t beautiful and she moved a little crazy, like a drunken elfin girl kept up past her bedtime to sing for her parents’ guests. "Hi, everyone!"—Liza had a big voice, one that conveyed the punishing truth about making entertainment: It was mean. It was messy. It was a C-section and she was both mother and baby. "It’s a long, hard battle," the Times wrote of her Empire act, "but she finally comes out ahead." Every night was a massacre she didn’t always survive.

And one last quote, from Reinking again, the source of the title of this post:
"When you’re dancing in one of Bob's shows, you’re always dancing a paradox," Ann Reinking said. "In 'Big Spender,' you really want to get that guy to come to you, so from the waist up you're glamorous, you're wonderful. But from the waist down, you're tired and your legs are busted and your feet are hurt. 'Please God let me go home and get to sleep' and 'But I have to get the money' at once."

Sunday, February 09, 2014

Lemon Ginger Chicken

I made this deceptively simple recipe tonight and it instantly became one of my favorites.

The chicken was incredibly moist, and extremely lemony. It takes a while, but very little of that time is active. I don't have a fryer, so I just used a frying pan and turned the chicken pieces halfway through. Go make this.

To drink with dinner I made a Fernet My Heart in San Francisco from Nick at Chill the Glass. I've had a bunch of cocktail recipes piling up because I lacked ingredients, so the last time I was near the big fancy liquor store I bought some weird stuff. Like Fernet. A whole big bottle of Fernet, for a drink that calls for half an ounce. And made five spice syrup so I could have 1 1/2 tsp (I did halve that recipe). And: worth it. I'll definitely be using the rest of the Fernet and the syrup. And it paired perfectly with the chicken. 


I wrote some more stuff...just not here

Well, one week in and I've already failed at my "blog every week" don't-call-it-a-resolution. I could say that I started some things, and it would be true, but starting things and not finishing them is really the whole problem.

Anyway, I did write a couple of things elsewhere again, so here are those:

At I wrote about my totally rational irritation with easily avoidable recognizably modern location shots on the otherwise delightful The Carrie Diaries. I am a crackpot and I'm not ashamed.

And I have another recipe up at Chill the Glass, the refreshing (and good for a cold? let's just say it's good for a cold) Ginger Sidecar. Enjoy!

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Critical Drinking

I’ve been thinking for months about how I want to get back to writing here. I set myself a goal of posting once a week, which really shouldn’t be hard. An hour on the weekend, a photo or two posted straight from my phone...but I don’t. I think maybe the traditional at this point in the history of blogging “why I haven’t been writing” post is a stumbling block, so I’ll skip it (no ominous reason, just the usual too many things). Lest this idea seem like a New Year’s resolution, note that January’s almost over, and take my word for it that I’ve been thinking about this since at least October. (It's worth noting, I think, that I've had this blog for over ten years, which is...weird.)

I have done some writing elsewhere, though (also weeks ago at this point, so make of that what you will), in both unexpected and expected places. First, a Twitter conversation/argument with my friends at The Craptacular turned into a blog post (theirs) which turned into a series of comments that were basically more blog posts (mine). It was an interesting conversation in which we were ultimately largely saying the same thing in different ways. In case your personal “don’t read the comments” policy is so strict you won’t even click over (and I can’t blame you for that), here’s a shorter version:

I took issue with the schadenfreude surrounding Spider-Man's Broadway closing after seeing many tweets, etc. basically saying "good riddance." This is how theater works, of course -- shows close, new ones open -- but I think there's something tacky about rejoicing that a couple hundred people are losing their jobs. (Why I keep finding myself in the position of defending that show I don’t quite know.) This somehow turned into a conversation about critics and negativity, which isn't what I'd been talking about but was interesting anyway. We all agreed that everyone -- professional critic or not -- was entitled (obligated) to share her opinion and that "in my opinion" was implied. It's not necessary to consider who the show might be for if it’s not for you, since you're writing from your perspective. BUT (and this is where we did not agree but that's okay) I argued that the show wasn't a complete failure if it ran for three years (though it clearly wasn't a success either) and there's a difference between saying something is objectively bad and saying, however harshly, that you hated it. Or saying it doesn't work but here's what's interesting and saying because it doesn't work there's nothing interesting (we do agree that "interesting parts" doesn't mean you should pay $150 for a ticket, which again is where a nuanced (not the opposite of negative) review can come in). Or saying "I'm not sorry that show is closing" and "Suck it, that show and everyone who works there." Nearly everything is for someone, or it wouldn't exist. And I say this as someone who hates a lot of things. If some little kid saw Spider-Man and that's his gateway drug to Sweeney Todd, that works for me, if not for the investors. 

There’s a much larger conversation going on in theater circles lately about the role of critics, especially as traditional media’s coverage of the arts shrinks and “regular” audience members’ access to publishing platforms grows. So I guess we were on the pulse or something. I’m pro-critic, generally. I mean, I’m clearly pro-opinion. I’m also pro-civility and constructiveness. Unfortunately that can be confused with a desire for no one ever saying anything bad at all, which, clearly, is nonsense. Especially, perhaps, when the subject is Spider-Man.

Aaaaaaaanyway. In a probably unrelated development, that same night i invented a cocktail (the Apple Pie Manhattan) and posted the recipe over at Chill the Glass, which my friend Nick was kind enough to invited me to contribute to. 

Last but definitely not least, my friends at were kind enough to indulge me and let me write about both Smash and the Muppets, which was deeply silly and great fun. More of that coming soon.

So, see you next week? Maybe? 

Sunday, October 06, 2013

Notes on "Camp"

On Friday night I had the pleasure of attending a 10th anniversary screening of Camp at 54 Below, with a brief talkback by the writer/director, some of the cast, and one of the songwriters. Afterwards, I reread this piece and felt like I'd been a little too harsh.

I had seen Camp in the theater in 2003, loved it, bought the soundtrack, then largely forgot about the film itself until Sarah asked me to be a part of her summer movie series. I'd been a little afraid to rewatch it, in case it didn't hold up now that I'm no longer in my 20s and I'd been enjoying the songs divorced from the story whenever they came up on shuffle for eight years.

Now, obviously the experience of watching a movie at home alone is very different from watching it a) with people b) who are huge fans c) lots of whom went to the camp on which the movie is based d) in a nightclub e) at midnight f) with cocktails. But it certainly triggered something different this time.

For one thing, it didn't feel 114 minutes long (a running time I was afraid I'd be acutely aware of given the 11 PM start time of the talkback). Nothing I said in my earlier review is wrong, exactly. Letterle is still the weakest actor in the bunch, and the sexual zigs and zags still don't quite track, but something about seeing the cast beforehand and realizing how genuinely young they all were then made it all land a little better. They're teenagers, after all. And with an audience the tone problems mostly disappear. The jokes land beautifully, and they're sort of necessary amid the angst. There's something fantastic about the way Ellen as Effie starts as a joke but then she nails the song and it becomes something else entirely. To watch that in a crowd was to be carried along by the performance in a way that drives home the whole point of the movie. And the noises people made at Vlad! Clearly we've all known a Vlad or two. (I knew one in college who wasn't nearly as good-looking as Letterle and still got away with that shit.) And Ellen has to let him get away with it in order to win. She could be all mopey about it or she could enjoy making out with the hot boy, knowing exactly what it means to both of them. Michael loses, generally, but it still beats the hell out of high school, which in a way is pleasantly realistic.

In the talkback, writer/director Todd Graff said, expressing astonishment that the movie got made at all, "It's a gay children's musical!" Watched in a crowd of "teenage fag hags who turned into adult fag hags" (and more than a few adult fags) I saw Camp as the fantasy it is.

There's an actual documentary about Stagedoor Manor, in which a scandal erupts over kids making out on a bus, which is both proof that Camp gets the hormones right and proof that it's complete fantasy (because the real kids are straight -- at least for the time being). Both movies are great, but one is about people who love musical comedy, and one is an actual musical comedy. 

Thursday, October 03, 2013

Mexican Pizza

I was excited about this recipe on paper, then super skeptical about it while I was making it. The "sauce" smelled kinda weird in the food processor, and then everything piled so high on dough that seemed too thick. 

But then I opened the oven and it smelled amazing, and it all came together kind of perfectly. Because it uses traditional pizza dough (I used FreshDirect's, which comes frozen in 1/2 pound balls) it tasted inherently pizza-ish, not like I'd made some kind of giant mutant nacho. It's definitely messy, more a knife-and-fork event than I usually like my pizza, but it worked. I might add some chorizo next time, though it certainly doesn't need it and is a great vegetarian option. 

ETA: I don't have a pizza stone and frankly don't understand what they are supposed to do. I make pizza all the time, always just on a baking sheet, and it's always great. I live a middle class existence in New York, I don't have room for that shit.

Thursday, July 05, 2012

July 4th Double Feature

Having spent all of last weekend doing as little as possible, I decided to use the odd mid-week holiday yesterday to get out of the house...and sit in a movie theater. The two films I most wanted to see were Brave and Magic Mike, which made for a very odd double feature, with two very different audience reactions to bare male asses. But it seemed like spending the day with Pixar and Matthew McConaughey was a pretty decent way to celebrate America.

There are a lot of reasons why I don't go to the movies very often. They're expensive, I'd rather go to live theater (which is more expensive, of course, but there's also much less of it), I have lots of entertainment to keep me busy in the comfort of my own home, I'm lazy, one of my regular theaters had bedbugs last summer, I'm a control freak. But the main reason I rarely see movies in the theater is that I hate people. This is the kind of hyperbolic, curmodgeonly statement I make all the time and don't really mean, but with no exaggeration I am really so frequently astonished by the kinds of assholes movie theaters seem to attract. Like the people who "Ooooohhhh"ed like the Saved by the Bell laugh track when Jack and Ennis kissed in Brokeback Mountain. Did you not know what the movie was about???

Now, I realize it was foolish to go to a kids' movie at 1:30 pm on the 4th of July. I take responsibility for that. But you guys, there was so much bad parenting on display at Brave yesterday...we are not teaching the children well and letting them lead the way. (Or, I guess we are letting them lead the way when really an adult should.) I get that parenting is hard and sometimes you just need to get out of the house, but when I was a kid, my mother (who I never thought of as particularly strict or mean or anti-fun) would use such outings as teaching opportunities for how to behave in public. We simply never would have shown up to a movie 20 minutes late and make a commotion about it. And did that same family of six need to all go to the bathroom at the same time, as noisily as possible? 

Also, for some reason, the movie was being shown with subtitles. English subtitles. Maybe there were some hearing impaired people in the audience who'd requested them, or maybe it was just a wrong setting on the computer, but it was even more distracting to me than the squirming two-year-olds. My eye is just drawn to words on the screen, which made it hard to truly enjoy the beautiful animation. Also dialogue in the captions shows up sometimes before anyone actually speaks, blowing the timing, and the really lovely sound design was entirely described to me, again often before the sounds actually happened. Strangest of all was the presense of unspoken "dialogue" in the captions. It must have been taken directly from the script, because, for example, there'd be text like, "(MONKEY SQUEALS) Don't go in there!" (There is no monkey; I'm trying to avoid spoilers.) So apparently the hearing impaired don't appreciate subtlety and can't read facial expressions?

All of this is to say that I didn't see Brave under the best conditions, and I'm sad about that because I really liked it. It's certainly more conventional than a lot of Pixar movies, but I liked it much more than Up (apart from the opening sequence, I'm in that tiny minority that sort of hated Up, so take that as you will) or Tangled (which I know isn't Pixar). I have only two complaints about the film's structure. One is that it's extremely predictable. There are a couple of "twists" that are so heavily telegraphed...I mean, I know it's a kids' movie, but one of the great things about Pixar is that you can usually watch their films as an adult and still be surprised now and then. My other issue is that I never felt like there were any real stakes. You know that really intense scene in Toy Story 3 where you know intellectually that it's a kids' movie and they're not going to kill anyone but you think "Holy shit, are they going to kill someone???" anyway? There was none of that here. You just know everything's going to work out. (Uh...spoiler?) This kept me from being fully engaged, which surely led to some of my irritated distraction at the theater. Also, not a structural problem, but there's a lot more slapstick than I expected, and a handful of anachronistic or lowest-common-denomonator jokes that seemed like they'd be more at home in a Shrek movie than here.

But, as I mentioned in the midst of my complaining, the animation is lovely, the voice performances are terrific, and the sound design goes a long way to creating a world (that's one reason I'm glad I saw it in the theater). There's been so much talk about Merida's hair, which is truly impressive, but I was even more taken with the animation on some animals that feature prominently. They're just slightly anthropomorphised, but not in that old-school Disney way, so they convey human emotion while still feeling like real animals. Their movement was beautiful.

I really, really don't understand all the feminist hand-wringing over Brave. Yes, she's a princess (maybe there should be some 99% hand-wringing about why these stories are never about the working class!), but she's unlike any Disney princess I've ever seen before. And I don't think enough credit is being given to the Queen, both in how the character is written and in Emma Thompson's delightful performance. This is a strong, powerful woman! Her role is more traditional, yes (and again, why always with the royalty?), but she's very much in charge. Each woman learns about the other, but it's not like "why corsets are important" is one of the lessons. As much as Brave is about a girl who can fight and shoot, it's also about a woman who can rule, and soothe, and be a cunning diplomat. Meanwhile the men and boys in the film are largely ineffectual or sidelined. I just don't get how that's "not feminist enough."

Which is as good a segue as any to Magic Mike, which I managed to enjoy while also sort of hating.  (And which I'm going to make less of an effort not to spoil, because it really doesn't matter.) Maybe it's just because strippers don't really do it for me, but I was shocked at how completely unsexy this movie was. Yes, there are some hot bodies on display, but I can see that (in fact, these very same) on the internet. But also, not just unsexy, but outright sex-negative. It's a movie about strippers!! I don't really know anything about Channing Tatum's personal story, except that this movie is based on it, and he seems totally unashamed of, even proud of his stripper history, so this was not the outlook I expected.

Olivia Munn has some lively scenes as the one character in the movie who isn't somehow runined by having a healthy, non-conservative sex life or being around strippers. She has fun, she's adventurous, she's safe (as far as we see) and she seems to be completely guilt-free about it. This is what I expected from "the stripper movie." And one of these scenes opens the film so it seemed like where we were going. But no. Everyone else who enters this world -- including, eventually, Mike himself to some degree -- is ruined by it. Look, I don't know any strippers myself, but isn't it possible for someone to just enjoy stripping? It seems like pretty easy money if you have the skills and the...assets. Certainly as portrayed in this movie, the world of men stripping for women is kind of a non-stop party, with very little if any of the risk and skeeviness involved in being a woman stripping for men. But the film can't be just that. This movie wants us to know that it's afterschool special bad. Matt Bomer's character is married! Look how cute he and his wife are! They have a healthy-seeming open relationship! Yay sex! Yay naked Matt Bomer! Oh...he's a drug dealer? They both are? With drug problems themselves? Okay, then. And that's pretty much the least of it.

It doesn't help that the supporting characters are so thinly drawn as to be nonexistent, but that's where they put the decent actors for some reason! I've enjoyed Channing Tatum and Alex Pettyfer elsewhere (SNL and Beastly, respectively, so the bar is admittedly low), but neither of them is able to carry this movie. In Pettyfer's case I'm not sure it's his fault. I just never once bought him as a wide-eyed 19-year-old in a way that feels more like a failure of casting than of acting. And also of a script that makes him kind of a dick right from the start, so that it's unclear why Mike would be so into him (in a bro way, of course, because there are no gay people anywhere near this story). A better actor might have been able to work around these obstacles, but Pettyfer isn't that actor.

And then there's the girl. I hope it says more about the role of women in this movie than it does about me that I don't know her name and think of her as "the girl" not even "the woman." Sorry, women. Truthfully, I spent the whole movie thinking of her as "Bitchface." I think she laughs twice, but mostly she just makes this face:

I get that she doesn't have the best life, but she's so sour and unfun (not in a "be more responsible" way, just in a "I hate fun" way) and has such disdain for what Mike does (when Mike is, for most of the movie, someone who just has a good time at his job, so it's not like she's down on him because of drugs or anything) and plus has nothing in common with him that I never saw how she could be a viable love interest, except for the fact that Mike clearly likes a challenge. The two actors have zero chemistry and the script didn't give me any reason to want them to be together for even a second.

I know this movie is all about the bromance, but for a film about men who please women for a living, it just seemed really woman-free. Sure, there's the entire audience of extras in the club, and some sex partners who literally have no lines, but it fails the Bechdel Test spectacularly. Not that I expected Magic Mike to be, well, Brave, just that it felt like a very incomplete world. These guys would have friends. The girl would have friends probably, even though she's a miserable human being.

I've seen very little Soderbergh, but I know that he likes naturalistic dialogue and occasional improvisation, which I imagine is great when you're watching some of the actors he's worked with in the past. The actors in Magic Mike, though (at least the ones in these scenes), can't pull it off. At all. A couple of scenes were just painful to watch.

But Adam, what about the damn stripping?? Well, having already stipulated that strippers don't do much for me, the dance sequences were pretty delightful, actually. They're pure fantasy, with much higher production values than I suspect are realistic, and thank goodness for that because they're great fun. The over-the-top choreography was actually nicely tempered by the cast's uneven dancing ability. Some of them are there for their other assets, and watching them work the choreography to varying degrees was both fun and a good balance. But also...I've never been to this type of club, obviously, but is it really so, well, rapey? They make it very clear that the women are willing participants and enjoying everything that's happening, but some of the positions they got themselves into made me uncomfortable. Am I being sex-negative? Or were some lines crossed?

I did really like some of what the movie had to say about the economy, without being heavy handed about it (considering how heavy handed they are elsewhere, this is surprising). The fantasy of the club and its easy money are contrasted nicely with the challenge of finding other work, mediocre living conditions, credit issues, and how trapped Bitchface seems to feel. The production design is also fantastic, both at conveying how Tampa can be pretty great, with the beach and all, but also pretty depressing, with the shitty houses and third-rate clubs. There were some great little details, like how the dancers' dressing room is the kitchen from what must be the space's former life as a restaurant.

But that attempt to be serious is exactly what ruined Magic Mike for me. If it had been Burlesque it would have been a light-hearted summer romp with hot naked-ish guys and fun dancing. (I mean, really, every movie should be more like Burlesque.) But they tried to have it both ways and failed spectacularly on both fronts, committing a sin that nothing widely known as "that stripper movie" ever should: It was boring.

ETA: I really liked this review of Magic Mike by my friend Mildly Bitter, who actually went to film school and stuff, so I wanted to share. Also, I've realized in listening to other people praise the movie (not MB, for sure) that my big problem with it was one of marketing. I went in expecting summer fun and got preachy downer. Bummer.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Time Enough At Last

At some point, I stopped reading books.

I've never been a huge reader. I started reading fairly early but I was never all that fast at it. I had friends who could read an entire novel in one sitting in 7th grade, but that was never me. In high school and college (where I was almost an English major — I switched to Drama and was just one or two courses shy of a double) I often didn't quite make it to the end of an assigned book, both because I wasn't fast enough and because I was more interested in other things, like spending my time in rehearsal. Or napping.

So I guess it's natural that my book-reading started to fall off. I keep making a point to specify "books" and not just "reading," because the thing is, thanks to the internet, I actually read much more than I used to. I've never been a fan of newspapers (the format, not the content) and magazines tended to pile up, but Google Reader is my friend. It's made content so easy to get, and a well curated RSS feed can bring me things from sections of a site or a paper I might not find on my own (like a theatre-related article from the Real Estate section of the Times). It still piles up but it's a virtual pileup, which I can handle much more easily. I find myself reading a lot of it in front of the TV. Some of it is pictures of kittens but a lot of it is newsy stuff I never would have been reading 10 years ago, and it makes me smarter. But it's not a novel, and I quite like novels.

My real downfall, books-wise, was podcasts. I spend an hour or so on the subway each day, which used to be my book time. It became my podcasts and Angry Birds time. Or sometimes my Twitter or Google Reader on my iPhone time.

So late last fall I declared that subway time would henceforth be Non-Internet Reading Time. I break the rule now and then, but I've mostly been pretty good about it. And hey, shocker, I really like books still. (Of course this now means I'm behind on podcasts and everything else, but I actually think it's a decent trade.)

Also this is hardly a ground-breaking statement at this point but I love love love my Kindle. I'd figured I didn't need one for my low-volume reading and since I already have so many devices, but I love the e-paper and my easily distracted attention span loves that it's a dedicated device. One of the first books in this new endeavor was Carrie, and it turned out my copy from 1988 was crumbly and in no state to read. So I grabbed the e-book and brought my iPad on the subway. As much as I travel with it, it didn't work for me on a rush hour commute. It was just a bit too heavy, a bit too big for the tight space, and since most of my commute is above ground, a bit too sunny. I finished the book on my phone, which was a bit like reading a Little Golden children's book version of Stephen King, with one paragraph on each "page," but it got the job done and worked in a crowd. When I was done I attacked my pile of paper books until getting a Kindle Touch for Chanukah.

I've never been a bookstore person. Unless I know exactly what I want, it's hard to, well, judge a book by its cover, and being a slow reader I'm not one to stand there in the aisle and read a chapter. Similarly, I've never been a fan of libraries and their deadlines. So my favorite thing about the Kindle is the ability to sample anything. If I hear about a book I might even slightly be interested in, I grab the sample for when I eventually get around to it. I've both dodged some bullets and found some great stuff this way. And I always have multiple books with me now. (I've even got TWO library cards again, for the first time in years; the due dates don't bother me so much when everything can be magically zapped back and forth.)

I don't get the hold "real" books have over some of my friends - including (in fact mostly) people much younger than me. It's funny too, because I'm a fairly acquisitive person. In college I had a few books that traveled with me from dorm to dorm, ostensibly in case I wanted to refer to them but in reality just so they could be on the shelf. My living room now has an entire wall of bookshelves and I love them but they're more decorative than anything. It turns out the convenience of getting almost any book I want the instant I want it, and carrying this tiny thing around trumps my love of shiny objects and showing off. (I've still got plenty of "real" books to read too, and of course I'm always sure to have one with me on airplanes for take off and landing.)

Anyway, I was going to post a bit about some stuff I've read, but I've prattled on too long about the device instead of the content, so I'll save that for later. More reading! More writing!

Thursday, June 21, 2012

That hotel incident with the Cool Whip and the baby llama

I'm probably going to lose any credibility I may have with a lot of you when I say this, but I have (willingly and happily) seen the stage version of Rock of Ages three times. Yes, Rock of Ages. The show that did this on the Tony Awards:

As a serious-minded theater professional, I'm not "supposed" to like jukebox musicals. And yes, of course I'd like to see as much original music on Broadway (and elsewhere) as possible. And maybe even original stories! But I also, first and foremost, want to be entertained when I go to the theater, so if you can manage to show me a good time using recycled music, well, please do! Obviously I believe in the power of music to help tell a story and manipulate an audience (even if you don't like musicals, this applies to background songs and scores in movies and TV too), and songs you already know can do that not just on their own musical terms, but by using their place in the culture and your memory.

Now, I'm not suggesting the show is good in any critical sense, but if you like 80s rock and a particularly silly sense of humor that comes as much from clever vocal arrangements as from actual jokes, then this is the show for you. The songs are great (or sometimes "great") and, every time I've seen it, expertly sung by a mix of Broadway and rock voices. A lot of these songs (the power ballads especially) are already theatrical, already telling a story. "Harden My Heart" and "Here I Go Again" and "Oh Sherrie" don't feel remotely out of place. Obviously if you don't like this music then you will never like this show.

If you do like the songs, though, it all works remarkably well on stage. Live, the show has a rock concert atmosphere (the band is center stage and featured periodically, drinks are delivered to your seat), and is performed with a slightly heightened stage sensibility that allows the actors to walk a fine line between winking and playing real people. Everything is 100% in on the joke, lovingly poking fun at musicals, 80s style, and absurd "We have to save the theater/school/animal shelter/karate dojo and fall in love" 80s movies. It's nostalgic about something I don't think anyone thinks was really very good in the first place. The idea that the whole thing is on Broadway is part of the joke, and that the creators seem to love musicals and MTV in equal measure is all part of the package. It is, as they say, nothin' but a good time.

Now here's the part where I lose credibility with the rest of you: I liked the movie. And I'm pretty much the only person I know who did (of the handful who even saw it). There's no question that I liked the show much much better, but, I mean, it's Rock of Ages. You were expecting Carousel here?

The ad campaign for the movie is absolutely horrible, hiding the fact that the movie is pretty faithful to the show. (One subplot and its set of characters was entirely replaced, and as much as I enjoyed the original version I have to admit the new one kinda makes more sense. The original is by far the silliest thing in the show, and I'm not sure it would have worked on film.) Like many stage-to-film translations, there's a tone problem: The realness of film doesn't allow for the broadness the show has in the theater, which makes everything a little heavier than the material can sustain (or makes the silliness seem like a bad MAD TV sketch) but on the whole all the things I enjoyed about the show were there and enjoyable in the movie.

The ads also had me dreading the cast, none of whom is shown to advantage in the commercials. Alec Baldwin is, to me, the most egregiously miscast, but he didn't bother me much. Though when he sings (or even reacts to music) he seems deeply uncomfortable, like a robot unfamiliar with the human concept of rhythm. Meanwhile, Russell Brand - who I not only hate, I have an inexplicable physical revulsion to - is so perfectly cast that I forgot to loathe him and actually enjoyed his performance. Julianne Hough is very pretty, and has the look of a small town girl trying to make it in Hollywood, if not the charisma of someone who will (spoiler!) ultimately become a star...except she is a semi-star, so what do I know? She sings well, if not exactly on par with the Broadway belters who've played the part before her, but I think it's bizarre that she basically doesn't dance at all, since that's what she's famous for. Diego Boneta is very pretty in a bland way; I fully believed him in the puppy dog love story scenes, and not so much in the "I wanna rock!!" scenes. (These two are the real leads, which makes the ads' focus on the stars all the more misleading.)

And then there's Tom Cruise. Here's the thing: I don't like Tom Cruise. I don't think he's a good actor, and he seems like a pretty reprehensible real life human being. But that's exactly why he's sort of perfect as an insane, creepy superstar: His baggage gives the role a satisfying meta-ness. He's either in on the joke and willing to poke fun at his image, or he's completely clueless, either of which I find satisfying. But the flip side of using Cruise's stardom is that it makes Stacey into a lead, which he's not (this is also kind of the problem with Alec Baldwin, who at this point can't not be Alec Baldwin). In the show, Stacey steals every scene he's in, but he's unquestionably a supporting character. We spend far too much time with him in the movie — and worse, with him not singing. Not that Cruise's heavily processed singing is something to look forward to, but if you know the show and you know the songs are coming, the long book scenes feel interminable. It's a structural problem, not a performance one.

This overall is my biggest problem with the movie, as well as some other recent movie musicals which shall remain nameless. At times it seems like they forgot they were making a musical. Or were afraid that too much singing might scare off audiences. Book scenes are inexplicably expanded, sucking the energy out of the room. The new Catherine Zeta-Jones plot is extremely tight (much more so that the arc it replaced), but for some reason the time gained is taken up by an endless parody of boy bands, which in the show is basically a throwaway joke about a costume.

They've also shied away from the theatricality of the music: making the arrangements less Broadway, using fewer mash-ups (the vocal jokes and the incongruous mash-ups are some of the funniest things in the show in my opinion, playing with then audience's expectations of the familiar songs), but also not letting very many numbers really rock. It's all very American Idol. They've pretty much eliminated the chorus (sorry, Karen Cartwright, ensemble!) and maybe it's just because I know the show so well but I missed them. In the structure of a musical, some numbers just feel like they should be big, and I wanted some random people dancing on the street. The lack of dancing is notable for a film directed by Adam Shankman and starring a SYTYCD alumna. When there's finally a big pole-dancing number (seriously) I was thrilled (seriously), not just because it's impressive (seriously!) but because I was missing that really fun and sexy element of the show. (Also I'm still not over the fact that they cut "Oh Sherrie," which I assume was because of some sort of rights issue, but come on, solve that problem because why else would her name be Sherrie??)

Okay, so none of this sounds like I liked this movie very much, but I'm nitpicking, which is my wont. It's Rock of Ages. Anyone who goes to this movie expecting high art is severely misguided. It's a stupid, fluffy summer comedy, a bizzare tribute to 80s music and movies, and if you like those things I think you'll like this movie. As Dana Stevens, one of the few critics I know of who liked it said, "Once you accept the utter and profound inconsequentiality of Rock of Ages, there’s much to enjoy in it." (Though Dana, all chaps are backless, otherwise they'd be pants.)

This is a much longer review than I usually write here but clearly I'm feeling a little defensive! (Clearly a running theme here lately.) Look, I'm not going to convince anyone to like - or even to see - this movie. But for all its flaws, I had a great fucking time, and that's all I ask of a movie - or a show - like this. Go to a cheap matinee if they still have those where you live, or grab it on Netflix. Have a few drinks. Skip to the songs you like best. Enjoy the monkey. And seriously, don't miss the big strip club scene.