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.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Netflix Queue Challenge: A whole bunch of stuff

Well, the Netflix Queue Challenge failed in one of its goals, which was to get me to write. But I have been pretty good about watching stuff! So for the sake of completion, some capsule reviews of varying quality (of movies of varying quality).

Rise of the Planet of the Apes
I was really looking forward to this movie, especially after the great reviews and word of mouth it got. So of course I hated it. To be fair, I watched it on a plane - not even on a seat-back screen, but an old-school, projected on the bulkhead in-flight movie. So the video quality surely hurt the effects, and there were some super awkward cuts where I assume some violence was edited out. But it would've taken more than an ideal viewing environment for me to like this movie. I realize that a Planet of the Apes movie doesn't have to make the most sense, but I couldn't deal with James Franco being the worst scientist ever. The downfall of humanity can pretty much be blamed on his poor choices. And not in a "man's hubris" way, just in a "I'm a dumbass" way. I mean, plus he's James Franco, who I always find supremely creepy. Everything was so heavy handed and none of it made much sense. I also just love the original Apes and didn't really want that origin story messed with, or its famous lines awkwardly shoehorned in here. The motion capture of Andy Serkis is absolutely as good as everyone said it was, and whenever the film didn't have humans around I was at least interested. I'll definitely watch a sequel if they make one just to see where they go with that.

Four Weddings and a Funeral
One on the long list of movies I really should have seen before now. I'm not even sure what to say about it. I liked it? No, I really did. I was wrapped up enough in it to be completely surprised when a character died, even though "and a funeral" is right there in the title (wrapped up or maybe just dumb). It's funny, it's sweet, and the cast has great chemistry. Speaking of chemistry...about Andie MacDowell... I have to say I don't really understand the hatred people have for her in this movie. She's stiff, yes, but that's kind of her character. The worst thing is the way the movie tries to convince us she's a good choice for Hugh Grant, but that feels more like a failure of writing to me than of her performance. And after years of hearing "Is it raining? I hadn't noticed." held up as an example of bad acting, I was surprised to finally see it in context and discover that it's a joke. I mean, it is, isn't it? She's kidding, right? I assumed she was, so the flatness is a deliberate sarcasm. I mean, it's not a great line reading, but I didn't find it nearly as egregious as the rest of the world seems to.

Okay, so, here comes the contrarian for real. I wasn't wild about Weekend. I wanted to be, and there's certainly a lot to like, and I get why other people loved it so much, but it wasn't for me. The realism of the film is its big selling point, and that's lovely, but real people are kinda dull. And they mumble a lot. I had the TV turned up literally all the way and still could barely understand a word anyone said (it wasn't the accents, it was the sound mix), and then music would play and blow my eardrums out. Why does "indie" have to so often equal "sounds bad?"

Sorry, I don't mean to nitpick the technical stuff. It's a lovely little film that I'm glad exists even though it wasn't for me. I liked seeing such a matter-of-fact story about two gay guys. The sex scenes were surprisingly realistic without being porny (in a way that I'm not sure I've ever fully believed in any straight sex scenes I've seen, with their bras and strangely cut sheets), and were pretty damn hot. I wanted to like the movie so much more than I did. I hate to cop out with "it wasn't for me" but apart from the mumbly sound I can't really point to anything that's wrong with it, its aimlessness just didn't appeal to me. (I also watched it, like most of these, months ago, which is maybe a flaw in trying to catch up here - I remember my disappointment in it more than the real why.)

Take Me Home Tonight
Speaking of which, this movie was so forgettable I almost forgot I'd watched it until I saw it in my Netflix history. It's also not very good. I like the 80s, I like Topher Grace, I was fully prepared to enjoy this movie. And...meh. But truthfully I barely remember what it's about. What stuck with me most was something I remember seeing in reviews, which is that it's just set in "the 80s." There's no specificity to anything, and the pop culture references are a big mish-mosh. That's fine in something broader like The Wedding Singer but Take Me Home Tonight seems to take itself a little more seriously so I wished its setting had had more to say.

Rabbit Hole
I deeply regret not seeing Rabbit Hole on Broadway, so I'm glad this film exists, even if it didn't 100% grab me. I suspect it worked better on stage, and I also suspect I would have preferred that cast. But the film is very good - small and intimate and heartbreaking. I've always liked Nicole Kidman and have been sad about her face, so it was nice to see her looking more natural (and sporting a convincing American accent). Her performance is lovely and her sadness is palpable. Liking Kidman strangely made me wish even more that I'd seen Cynthia Nixon on stage, just because of how different (but equally appropriate) I assume she was.

What's stuck with me most is the production design. The houses were so specific and told you everything you needed to know about the characters. I don't know if they were locations or sets, but I fully believed they were real. And I totally want Nicole Kidman's kitchen.

Rosemary's Baby
It's weird to watch a movie this ingrained in the culture so late. Even weirder is that I hadn't really been spoiled. I mean, I knew Rosemary was going to have an evil baby, but none of the details at all. In fact, I think I had it partly confused with The Omen (which I also haven't seen), because I spent a lot of time thinking, "Have the fucking baby already!" Once I realized both that it wasn't about that, and that I really hadn't known that, it was a nice surprise. What I had taken for "old movie slow pacing" was actually sort of the exact right speed.

I love old movies shot on location in NYC, and I grew up 3 blocks from the Dakota so I was happiest whenever Rosemary went outside. Her world is so specific and also fairly banal, which makes everything feel real and so much creepier when it goes off the rails. I absolutely loved the busybody next door neighbors, especially Ruth Gordon. They felt completely like old people I grew up around in that neighborhood. And I just loved that their demeanor never changed even as they were revealed to be eeeeeevil. If you told me one of the Upper East Side doctors I went to as a kid were a Satan worshipper I would totally believe you. That final party scene is the best. Everyone's so cheerful!

Jennifer's Body
I wasn't sure what to expect from this. I liked Juno but beyond that don't really have an opinion about Diablo Cody one way or another. But I do like this kind of arch horror movie, and Amanda Seyfried and Adam Brody, and none disappointed. Megan Fox was...fine? Better than fine, actually. True she mostly just had to look pretty but she actually turned out a pretty good performance and handled some twisty dialogue really well. So that was a nice surprise. It wasn't deep but it was thoroughly enjoyable. And while it definitely has plenty of Cody-isms, they didn't feel as prominent as they did in Juno.

Really, what can I possibly add at this point to the conversation about Bridesmaids?? But this one I actually wrote a bit about right after I watched it, so I'm actually a little coherent. Short version: I liked it a lot, and I hadn't really expected to.

I'm not a big fan of the comedy of discomfort, and I pretty much spent the entire movie feeling bad for Kristin Wiig and dreading whatever awful thing was going to happen to her next. Knowing the food poisoning scene was coming didn't help that. And yet somehow it worked on me. It felt very real, and incredibly sweet, which tempered the poop jokes. I never felt like the filmmakers were abusing the characters just for laughs; Even in more over-the-top moments I still believed in these people, which made it work for me.

I kind of hated Melissa McCarthy's character. Not her performance, mind you, which was completely and wonderfully committed. With all the talk about amazing and gorgeous she is (she is), I was really disappointed that the "big girl" was such a cartoon in the movie, and a sort of awful one at that. The airplane scene didn't make me laugh, it just made me intensely uncomfortable.

I've always liked Wiig on SNL so it was nice to see actually acting and not playing one of her annoying recurring characters. And Mya Rudolph is just the best. That moment when she slowly sinks into her dress is maybe my favorite thing I've seen in a movie all year.

SO GOOD. I don't even want to say anything else. Again, because I feel like I have nothing to add this late in the game, but also because I don't want to spoil anything. Not in the traditional spoiler sense, just because I loved experiencing it mostly fresh myself. It's beautifully made and very original (even as it plays with well known tropes) and go rent it right now.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012


In honor of Tony night (not really, I started writing this weeks ago), I thought I'd revisit Smash now that the season is over. And you know what? I still fucking love it. It's easy to nitpick, especially working in the business, but I am consistently entertained by it more than almost anything else on TV this season (certainly more than any other drama). And even for the things it gets wrong (and it's not a documentary, so whatever), I'm happy to see a show set in "my" world. Slings and Arrows has plenty of unrealistic moments too, but I guess it seems more highbrow so it gets a pass? When I complain about Smash it's not because I hate it, it's because I love it and I want to love it more. I want it to be better, and I tend to think telling a more truthful story about working in the theater might do that (something great about Slings and Arrows is that it feels right, even when it's not). But also for all I know about making plays, I know very little about making television, so who am I to judge?

Not that I won't.

One thing that does drive me crazy is the timeline, not because it's unrealistic (though it is) but because it's sloppy storytelling. Real rehearsals for a Broadway show would last at least three weeks (probably more but Bombshell doesn't have much money so I can buy them cutting it short), but Smash's took two episodes. So, okay, they're skipping ahead, that's fine; they have 13 episodes. But no one's relationships seem to have progressed three weeks' worth. I keep thinking of Grey's Anatomy, where I don't actually know what year it's supposed to be anymore. It was in the interest of the show to keep the original leads as interns for longer than a TV season, so they did. A week of story needn't pass in a week of TV, and I wish Smash would linger a bit longer over the details of both the world and the people in it (even if the short season means they have to skip ahead with a line of clunky exposition), because that's what makes it, you know, interesting.

(Speaking of which, why hasn't there been a Broadway reality show?? I'm looking at you, Logo! I can see how a creative team and producers might not want to let a camera crew into the room (to say nothing of the cast, possibly containing stars), but it would be great publicity for a show and potentially fantastic television. The closest I think we have are the documentary films Show Business and Every Little Step (about a very atypical but still fascinating process), which if you haven't seen and you're at all interested in this world, you should watch immediately.)

But okay, let's just judge the show on its own terms. I'll still defend Katharine McPhee, whose performance really doesn't bother me the way it bothers so many others, but Karen (the character) is getting pretty indefensible. It doesn't help that the writers can't seem to figure out who she is. How much of a neophyte she is seems to change from week to week, in some cases making her actions seem either beyond stupid or just plain mean. Like I said I don't want to ding the show too badly for realism, and I realize this is nitpicking a practically throwaway line, but it is not her "first tech." You don't just move to New York to be a chorus girl out of the blue. You at least do shows in high school and college. Given Karen's sense of entitlement and inflated ego, I'm guessing she went to a conservatory. I mean, you can tell the story of someone being green without her being an idiot. In fact, someone who went from being a big fish in the small pond of college or a small summer stock company or whatever would have just as many problems adjusting to being a nobody in New York as Karen has, for less insufferable reasons.

It doesn't help that Dev is pretty much equally awful. Am I supposed to care about this relationship? He made some good points in his impassioned speech to Karen in "Tech," but the truth is he's been withholding information and then getting upset with her for not being sympathetic to something she can't possibly know about because he didn't tell her! And not even telling her that he's upset! Yes, she's a little self-involved but you can't ask her how her day is and then get upset with her for answering you, and then pout when she asks about you and not tell her. And if you think what she does is so frivolous and stupid then why were you dating an actress in the first place?? This has always been the least healthy relationship on the show all along, and that's really saying something.

Maybe I'm charitable towards Karen because I'm particularly annoyed at how the show has made me hate Ivy. Anyone who's gotten to where she has knows (and her mother helpfully reminded her, in a speech that I thought was the truest thing about the business the show has ever done) that show business is hard and unfair. And if you love it and want to do it you suck it the fuck up! She has every right to be upset about not getting Marilyn, but then she has to pick herself up and move on and remember that she's getting a nice paycheck in a Broadway show. She has to know the drill by now. (What I love most about the supporting chorus characters is how they take everything in stride and seem to be always enjoying themselves, even when the show seems like a disaster.) Megan Hilty is so great that it kind of works, but it's starting to wear thin. They set Ivy up early as a classic hardworking actress, frustrated at not getting her big break yet but plugging along, and I don't like seeing her spiraling down the drain. It's one place where I think the less soapy realities of the life she's chosen actually make for a more interesting story, but maybe that's my bias talking.

Okay, that's three long paragraphs of complaining about show I said I love. But the thing is I don't remember the last time I felt this invested in a soap. I care about these characters enough to yell at them! I love (most of) the cast, most of whom are theater pros. I love that it shoots in New York for real. I love that it has at least one original song each week, and I love most of those songs. I'd see Bombshell -- it looks pretty good! I love that it's beautifully shot. Mostly, I love that it celebrates musical theater, and occasionally behaves like a real musical itself ("Don't Forget Me" was totally a finale of Smash more than it was a finale of Bombshell).

I read more recaps and episode reviews of Smash than anything else. After declaring it was in my professional self-interest to not say much about it publicly, I find myself tweeting about it with other fans (or hate-watchers, I suppose) every week, and here I am writing my second blog post about it when I've barely blogged at all in months. I don't remember the last time I was so engaged with a show. Buffy? This is a practice others reserve for better shows, but I don't care. Smash is my Mad Men.

It's a soap. It's a little trashy by design (just like Marilyn! ...kidding) and it's about something I love and I'm going to watch it for as long as NBC will let me.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Here I Go Again

Well, I guess it's time for my annual "oops I said I was going to get back to blogging regularly but I failed but now I'm going to try again this time I mean it" post.

I am behind on everything. I struggle to stay within 30 days current with Google Reader (after which time unread items disappear), I have hours of un-listened-to podcasts, the DVR is at a steady 65% or so, and my Netflix queue continues to push its upper limit. My attempt to read more books is going well, but slowly, and every week my list of Kindle samples grows. And then there's that job I get paid for.

I'm not complaining. I make choices about what I read and watch and Listen to, and I feel lucky to live in a time with so much great TV (or terrible TV that I enjoy thoroughly), so many people writing such great things online, smart and funny podcasts, the ability to watch almost any movie I want almost whenever I want, and the computer in my pocket to take it all with me. I make sure to keep up on Google Reader because I want to read that stuff. It's not all Smash recaps and pictures of kittens -- I consume more news now than I ever have, and I feel informed and connected.

So the writing is what falls behind. The worst habit I've gotten into with it is starting a post (or getting an idea for a paragraph or two) and not finishing it, resulting in the whole thing feeling sort of like homework I have to finish. And since I'm just doing this for fun, with no illusions that more than a few people are reading this, those deadlines don't amount to much. But I seem to go through phases, so here I am trying again. I'm going to try to set aside time to write more just as I've been trying to read more. I'll probably start with those unfinished posts...prepare for some internet time travel!