Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Star Wars: The Last Jedi: Review

This is the best Star Wars movie so far. "The Empire Strikes Back," of which it shares the most common elements, is close behind, but still lacking strength in a few very important elements that give this one the edge.

Sunday, December 24, 2017

New tech, old feeling, remarkable effect in TFTNC's "A Christmas Carol"

Hi everybody. I know it has been a while since I have posted anything here, much less a theater review, but I really wanted to share what I experienced at last night's performance of David Zen Mansley's adaptation of Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol" at Theatre for the New City.

I have been going to the Halloween party at Theatre for the New City for many years, and it has always given me a sort of post-apocalyptic feeling. The walls are black, the seats are low-cost, the tech is rudimentary, and everyone is dressed as if they are wearing whatever they could find and put together creatively. The performances are gloriously inspired and talented, but with that low-budget, can-do eccentricity and anti-professional sheen that says "this is not a glossy Broadway production that Aunt Edna and her husband bought tickets to because it was based on that favorite movie and stars that movie star who was in that movie she liked."

My theory of the post-apocalypse aesthetic is that the survivors will be wearing, decorating, and entertaining with whatever they can find, despite heir imperfections and appropriateness. However, this does put the subject of the presentation into a new, unfamiliar context that perhaps can bring out some tort of deeper meaning or new revelation from the source material. Last night's performance was no exception to that, and it worked marvelously!

There is a balance in any production between the text, the set, the props, the cast, and showmanship. (and musical numbers, if applicable). I have seen this story played out with Alistair Sim, Albert Finney, Henry Winkler, Patrick Stewart, Michael Caine with the Muppets, Mr. Magoo, and an an animated TV special (some of these several times), but never was that balance so finely attuned that every element of the story came through as clearly as it did in this version.

The set was minimal, but with a strong unified aesthetic. The one room served (depending on where on the stage the action played and which characters were present) as Scrooge's office, his bedroom,. the home of Bob Cratchit, and Joe's Beetling shop. There was a bed at stage right, a fireplace at stage left, a table downstage left, and a door in a corner upstage right. The back wall was a light tan color, fading into dark sepia at the edges.

It was against this back wall that Scrooge's visions appeared. They were projected video, but with the sepia tone, the old-timey look of the set and the low-tech production, I could not help but feel that I was watching an old silent film being projected. It felt not like the film was old, but that it was 1914 and I was watching a creative new use of the new medium of film to add a supernatural element to the production with this new special effect! The fact that the spirits and visions spoke did not take me out of that, I could have (if I cared) justified it by assuming it was an actor behind the screen or a Victrola being played simultaneously (I believe Thomas Edison invented a device that could do that).

All of the dreams and visions that Scrooge experienced were either shown on this screen or described in dialogue between Scrooge and the Spirits. It was through this that for the first time I learned about Scrooge's lonely childhood and how he was affected by the loss of his sister.

Another element of the production that played surprisingly well into the message of the story was the Cratchits' Christmas dinner. I don't know if it was due to budget, practicality, or a deliberate choice, but though the table was set with a full compliment of dishes, silverware, and drinking vessels, not a scrap of food could be seen. Bob Cratchit pantomimed serving the goose and the pudding, then taking the first bite of each. After each of those bites he praised the excellence and perfection of each dish to his wife, who blushed with effusive modesty. Whether or not it was a deliberate choice to have the plates bare and the cups empty, whether it was meant to be symbolic or deliberate, seeing the love and joy that the family could share without a scrap of food brought home the meaning of the season better than a hundred "Grinch that Stole Christmas" Broadway musicals.

It was also through the minimalism of the set, masterful editing of Dickens' text, and the spirited performance of the actors that never before did the good will of Scrooge's nephew and the mean-spirited opportunism of the vultures in the beetling shop come across so clearly and their import in the story be felt so well.

Mansley has produced this play annually for several years, and plans to continue doing so. I heartily encourage a visit to this play as part of a unique New York City experience of the season, and also to get a fresh perspective on the story and its meaning.

The original text:

Versions I have seen:

Versions I have not seen:




Inspired by the original...

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Ant-Man & Fanstastic Four are the same movie. So why...

...in fact, almost all superhero movies are exactly the same frickin' movie. If you have seen any number of them, you should know this by now, but for the record, let me break it down for you...

1. Protagonist has a problem.
2. Protagonist tries to do something because of the problem.
3. Protagonist gains the ability to become a superhero.
4. Super-feats occur.
5. Villain threatens something protagonist cares about.
6. Protagonist defeats villain with more super-feats.

To add depth and meaning to the story and give it a more satisfying payoff, often the villain will have something to do with the hero's initial problem and/or the way the hero gained his ability to be a superhero.
I could list of all the examples of movies in which this pattern is played out, but I have to get up in the morning and I don't feel like staying up that late. However there are a few movies that do attempt to deviate from that, and are better than your average superhero movie in that regard. "X-Men 2" and "Batman Forever" are among them (though a case can be made that Catwoman was the protagonist in the latter, in which case, it reverts back to the formula).

The latest two superhero movies, "Fantastic Four" and "Ant-Man" fit the formula like they came out of the same cookbook. In both movies, co-protagonists (on the one hand, the students, on the other, Hank Pym and Scott Lang) are having trouble with authority. They all do something about it, in these cases, making unauthorized use of some high-tech.  Their powers are revealed, and then the true threat is revealed. In both cases (Dr. Doom and Darren Cross) the threat was involved with the incident that gave the protagonists their powers. In fact, the villains in both of these movies wind up with powers of their own from the same source as the heroes, and they wind up battling it out with those powers.

So why did one movie set new levels on enjoyableness while the other  was a mercifully brief waste of time?

It was the ingredients, and the skill with which the chef combined them.

Ant-Man, from its Latino music over the Marvel studio logo, was set as an urban comedy, with inner-city low-level underworld types with hearts of gold bringing their ethnic flavor to every scene. This was not just comic relief, but the undercurrent of the entire film. From Luis' rambling non-sequitors to Kurt's Eastern-European accent and syntax to the reactions of Paul Rudd as Scott Lang, there was hardly a scene without a laugh. Add to this the tension between the protagonist and the female lead, the realized comic potential of an ant-sized man discovering the world around him for the first time, and constant insect references, and it is very possible that you could be laughing from beginning to end.

And yet, all this comedy did not detract from the gravitas of the conflict. Rather, it helped us grow sympathetic to the protagonist and actually care that he would come out ahead.

On the other hand, "Fantastic Four" deftly avoided taking advantage of any opportunity for humor. This made the movie mercifully short, for the previous version of this franchise had padded their films with all sorts of attempts at humor, many of which fell flat.

It is not enough to have humor in a movie, it has to actually be funny. "Ant-Man" took advantage of certain cinematic techniques (in a couple of notable instances, quick-cutting to follow a story, and having actors lip-synch the narrrator, even when such words would have never come out of such a character's mouth) etc; The earlier "Fantastic Four" movies used very few cinematic tricks for comedy, and the jokes and gags came accross as pedestrian. A waste of time really.

So if you are not going to have humor, you need to have...something else, something to make us care about these characters and what they do. If they are supposed to be heroes, we should sympathize with their need to do heroic things so we can cheer at their successes and feel tension when they come near to failure.

And I must have missed the Stan Lee cameo in "Fantastic Four."

So that's how two movies that tell the same damn story can be so different in how much you enjoy them.

One other weird thing about "FF": At the very end, after the credits, there was a tile card that said, in bold letters with no serifs, how long it had taken to produce and how many people it employed. But why was that important to say? We obviously know that it employed lots of people, we had just sat through six minutes of double-column credits. Are you that insecure about the reception of this movie that the best thing you can say about it is that it kept some people off the unemployment rolls for a while? WTF?

And let's face it, if you were to take out the stupid pop-culture references, "Superhero Movie" was every bit  as satisfying a superhero movie as just about any superhero movie. More so, even, than "Fantastic Four."


Friday, March 27, 2015

Who Remembers Yahoo Groups?

Remember Yahoo Groups? It was (and technically still is) a social media platform that enable people to connect with other people who shared their interests. That's how it was marketed anyway. Anyone could start oe of the "groups" and call it, say, "Sparrow fanciers." and theoretically, people who fancied sparows could join, chat, share photos, files, links, and information. You could post up a topic for discussion and give it a title, say "Best place to see sparrows in NYC?" and, theoretically, other people in the group could answer you, and this way more peopel would know about where to see sparows in New York City.

It was started back in the very late 1990's when the Internet was still young. I'm pretty sure Yahoo had not even acquired Geocities at the time. There was a very similar thing called "Yahoo Clubs" started at the same time, but Yahoo folded that into Clubs pretty quickly.

Then the inevitable happened. People would join these Groups and start posting self-promotions, irrelevant comments and threads, and spam (often porn spam). There were tools that group founders and moderators could use to edit, delete, and vlock these kinds of posts and ban the posters. But sometimes the fonders and mederators would abandond the groups. Perhaps they lost interest. Perhaps they decided they no longer liked the people in the group. Perhaps they forgot their passwords. Perhaps they died. Whatever the reason, these groups became rudderless and leaderless and with no one to stop the spam, they just became taken over with it, and anyone who was there because they loved sparrows quit, or simply stopped using the group.

Sometimes groups would just dissipate because there weren't enough people in it that cared enough to keep up the chatter. There was a little chart at the bottom of the home page that would show the number of postings per month. You could see that number go up and down with the levels of activity and sometime you would see the number e "0" for months. Then the spammers would move in. Like squatters in a vacant house, they would start posting their irrelevant crap. Sometimes you would see a desperate voice in the wilderness crying "Is anyone out there? Can anyone delete the spam and ban the spammers?" But if the founders and moderators had abandoned the group there was nothing that could be done, unless someone figured out how to hack their Yahoo accounts.

Then there were the other social media platforms that rose up. Friendster. MySpace. And the Evil Empire, the Death Star to Rule Them All, Facebook. Between the increased funtionality and flashier looks of these websites, more and more people and organizations found themselves drawn to them and had less and less use for Yahoo Groups.

Then Yahoo changed the look of Groups. Default images were plastered on the home pages that oten had nothing to do with what the specific groups were about.As with any new thing, there was a learning curve involved wiht using the new layout. I, fo one, have found it very frustrating.

I started a bunch of Yahoo Groups in my day, either as a way of promoting a project of mine or finding people who shaed aninterest. I am proud to say that I was able to manage the spam pretty well. I am pretty sure that none of my groups have become refuges for spam-squatters. But let em tell you something that I did notice...

Yahoo Groups would send you e-mails of the postings according to the settings you would choose. you could get an e-mail with every post, you could get a daily digest of everything that day all at once, or you could set it so you would get no e-mails, and if you wanted to see what was going on, you could just go to the Group. If your e-mail inbox was too full or something, these e-mails would start bouncing back to Yahoo, and when that happened, Yahoo would stop sending you the e-mails. You would have to go to Yahoo Groups and push a button to re-set it to start getting the e-mails again.

I, apparently, had been "bouncing," and had not gotten any emails from Yahoo groups for a very long time. Curious, I went to Yahoo Groups and un-bounced myself. So I started getting those e-mails of Yahoo Group posts again.

It seems that almost every Group of which I am getting these e-mails is nothing but porn spam, and for almost all of them, it is the same exact porn spam messages. This is a shame, because some of hose groups used to be actually active and useful. there are files and photos in some of those groups that are (or at least were) useful for reference or enjoyable to read or view. I checked one or two of them and saw the same patters of abandonment and re-occupation as described aboce.

There are still a few active groups out there, probably because there has been no Facebook group formed that was able to serve the same purpose, but it appears (through my admittedly unscientific survey) that the majority of Yahoo Groups is ocupied by spam-bots. It's like some nightmarish dystopia in which mankinds creations have taken ofver the planet and the few remaining enclaves of humans are huddled together in defensive communities awaiting their eventual extinction.

This is kind of a shame. There was much about Yahoo Groups that was useful and functional, and I daresay even better that Facebook. It was easy to find topics when you needed to, if there was some information that you wanted to retrieve. If there were several topics being actively discussed in one day, you didn't have to scroll quite so far to find the one you needed. The files and photos were easy to find and use, and the regular e-mails made it easy to keep up with activity, group by group. topic by topic.

Now that Yahoo Groups is a deserted wasteland, anything good and useful posted in it is getting buried and forgotten. In time, for sure, Yahoo will shut it down like it did Geocities, but it is so filled with crap now, I doubt that there will be an action like those taken by the founders of Oocities and reocities to preserve the content.

So once more, the technological innovations that allow so many of us to get so much more out of life (theoretically). turns out to actually be a waste of time of which there will eventually be no trace.

Unless, of course, there was anyone whose lives were affected by it while it was around. What about you? Was your life affected by Yahoo Groups, either positively or negatively? How different is your life, your social life, you career as a result of Yahoo Groups? Can you say that your life is better for it having existed, or worse, or no different at all?

Monday, February 9, 2015

How to Win an Industry Award

Many epople have many things to say abut the Grammys, both in praise and in disappointment. Rather than re-hash all that. let me focus on just one thing.

The Grammys are a perfect example of a formula I figured out for winning and industry award (that is, an award given by members of an industry, like the Oscars, the Emmy's, the Tonys, and the Grammys, although it is seen most often in the Oscars and Grammys). The Award that was given this past sunday night that is the example of the successful use of the formula is the "PBest Traditional Pop award given to Lady Gaga and Tony Bennet. Here is how it works:

1. Pick a genre of your preferred industry that is off the mainstream but has a passionate fan base.

2. Become a big star in that genre.

3. Pick another genre off the manstream and "crossover."

Easy as pie. Here is what will happen:

Your fans from your original genre will follow you to the new genre.

Fans of the new genre will be curious as to how this star of another genre can do.

This will create enough of a ripple in the mainstream radar that mainstram audiences will want to know what is going on.

The industry, which is pretty much defined as "the mainstream," which has never really paid attention to ether genre, will be impressed by the novelty of your new endeavor.

Not having any experience with which to judge your efforts, they will assume that what you did is excellent, and give you the award.

This formula has worked for Brian Setzer (Rockabilly to Swing), Dave Alvin (rck and roll to Traditional Folk), Ang Lee (Arrt-House Asian Cinema to Kung Fu), and, to take a parallel version of the formula, many actors who became directors (Kevin Costner, Clint Eastwood, etc)

Look at how this worked this year: Lady Gaga, who was on the top of her genre of...whatever it was (I want to say something like "socially alienated little monsters," but I am not sure if that is a genre, but you get the idea), went as far away from that as possible by doing a duet with one of the last of the great crooners, Tony Bennet, in the now-underappreciated genre of American Pop.

BANG! Instant award!

I am not saying that the work of any of these examples did not merit their awards, but the math just. doesn't. Lie.

Now you go and do it.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Thoughts About the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade Broadcast 2014

Some thoughts about the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade 2014 and the commercials in the broadcast:

Savanna Guthrie (or her scriptwriter) does not know the difference between a “slash” and a “backslash.”

The baton/rifle/flag twirler who is just a little off the pace always draws your eye.

Christopher Walken as Captain Hook just shows how much casting decisions are made based on actor popularity. This is not to say that some of these actors don't do a great job (James Franco in “Tristan & Isolde” and Walter Matthau in Roman Polanski's “Pirates” are two examples), but really, Christopher Walken as Captain Hook?

American Authors were totally busted for missing their entrance in the lip-synch.

Has rock and roll gone so far away from the electric guitar that Gibson has to have a country band on their electric guitar float? And does this country band really have to be the most contemporary, countrypolitan, non-country band in the universe, that doesn't even feature an electric guitar in their song?

I love the Harlem Globetrotters,and I am glad they have a woman on their team again. Did you know there was a “Harlem Globetrotters” movie made in 1951 with Dorothy Dandridge? It was actually on TV this week, on MeTV, one of those new, digital-TV “extra” channels that plays movies all the time.

At first it sounded like Kiss was singing live, but maybe they just recorded themselves recently, because the camera caught a couple of them totally missing the lip-synch.

Queen sounds awesome done in big marching band style.

It was perfectly appropriate to have “Annie” on the Build-A-Bear float. I don't care if the actress who plays the lead is black, and even that her hair isn't orange, but if that was her, I was a little disappointed that she was the least-animated performer in the number. And I am sure Jamie Foxx will make a fine Daddy Warbucks (casting for popularity again?) but Daddy Warbucks should be bald.

The cool jazz version of “Walking in a Winter Wonderland” by Renee Flemming was absolutely perfect on the “Central Park in wintertime” float. I don't even care if it was lip-synched.

The Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade is a big, corny, cheese-fest, a uniquely American celebration of American show-business, commercialism, mainstream pop culture, and marching bands. It's one of those things that make NYC hat it is that is so damn popular and crowded no one can get to see it, except the thousands and thousands of people who do, jamming up the streets for miles along the route. The bet view of it, of course, is on television, and it is thus planned and choreographed to give the cameras the best view.

It is a completely useless exercise if overkill and waste that serves absolutely no purpose but to display the latest Broadway musicals, pop stars, youth-targeted movies and TV shows, toys, and tourist attractions, and no doubt draws tourists from all over the world who fill our hotels, flood our streets, and jam up our subways (they should have a subway turnstile in every hotel in NC so tourists can practice using their new Metrocards before they get in the subway) and make it impossible for real New Yorkers to enjoy all the wonderful things that NY has to offer that tourists know about.

Human beings are living on this planet on borrowed time. Fossil fuels are a limited resource, global woarming will challenge the habitability of the planet, and there will soon be too many people for the biosphere to handle. We could all live spartan lives, grow self-sustaining gardens for our solar-powered micro-homes for our three-person family units while doing Canadian Air Force exercises, and that would certainly sustain the life of the planet and the Human Race, but what would be the point of that? It's these cheesy, overblown spectacles that are part of national traditions that, much like the seasons, give us things to look forward to, and like any form of entertainment, give us a thrill and make us happy are alive and can see and hear.

Now if only we could focus that much of our energy and resources on ending war, posvery, injustice, and saving the planet...

Monday, May 13, 2013

Asterix at the Movies...

I just saw "Asterix in Britain," the latest adaptation f the Asterix graphic novels fro Europ by Gosciny and Uderzo.

It was fucking brilliant.

The problem with many "satires," "parodies," and "pastiches" in recent years is hat they seem to work on the assumption that merely mentioning, evoking, or referencing a popular movie, TV show, commercial or "meme" is enough to et a lough, as if that was comedy. That is not the case. you have to use it in a way that says something about the subject that you are parodying, and you get bonus points for saying something about what you are referencing as well.

It also helps if the actors are talented, the story is moving, the script is well-written, and the editing is paced properly for the material.

Comedy has rules. A running joke is used three times, and the third time goes wrong. Characters reveal their true natures under stress. Hang a lampshade on an obvious plot device. Someone getting thrown out a window is funny. Cultural differences are funny. Important people being taken of their high horse is funny. People from different walks of life falling in love is funny. British people are funny. A bit with a dog, and love conquers all.

"Asterix" used all these rules, and used them well. It also referenced everything from James bond to "Pirates of the Caribbean" to "Shrek" to "300" to "Downfall" and did it well. My GF could barely contain herself in several scenes, and had never seen an Asterix comic in her life.

The film is a worthy companion to the recent "Adventures of Tintin" in to category of "recent adaptations of classic popular cult European graphic novel series that never quite hit the mainstream in the US but are really, really good," and is flat-out one of the funniest movies I have ever seen.

For those of you who need more: The story is loosely based on the graphic novels "Asterix in Britain" and "Asterix and the Normans." It follows the adventures of Asterix, a Gaulish warrior in the time of Julius Caesar, and his friend Obelix as they go to Britain to help fight the Romans. They decide to bring a nephew with whom they are charged with turning into a man, but who would prefer to be a bard and spends all his time wooing maidens and singing…badly. They are also charged to bring a magic potion which gives great strength to the Britons, and in the course of the adventure the barrel is lost. They happen to run into a allow from India time and again. Asterix and Obelix have a falling out. A lampshade is hung on an obvious plot device. British people are funny. People are thrown out of windows. Cultural differences occur. People are thrown out of windows. People from different walks of life fall in love. There is a bit with a dog, and love conquers all.

See this movie. Now.

Here is it on Amazon.com...

Here are some other movies in the seres...