Archive for December, 2011

I’ll be brief, since so much has already been said about the weaknesses and outright failures of the elaborate, pie-in-the-sky, eyes-bigger-than-their-stomachs production of Spider-man on Broadway.

In a nutshell: the music, terrible; the dialogue, stiff; the sets, distracting; the wire-work, all sizzle no steak; the characters, thin; the stakes, low; the action, poorly-executed; the emotion, dead on arrival; the dancing, awkward; and the story, anticlimactic.

In their haste to make something “never before seen” on Broadway the end result is something that still isn’t. After some showing flying around the theater the key action sequences occur off stage with mic’d-in voice overs. “Save me Peter!” we hear from somewhere off stage followed by the sounds, un-seen, of the Green Goblin and Sipder-man in the throes of battle and the triumphant appearance of Peter Parker, with MJ Watson in tow, arriving safely at center stage to share one last kiss — and YES, they perform the upside-down kiss. I have expected it to rain on stage.

On the most basic level, this “re-telling” of the iconic superhero is all but a clone of the Sam Raimi film starring Tobey McGuire. The stage version throws in a smattering of secondary villain characters — which, by the way, look rediculous — for good show, but disposes of the whole in about the time it takes to sing 8 bars. The entire first act is the same origin story we’ve heard before and hope we never have to sit through again, and peppered throughout the play is an ambiguous, ill-conceived character named Arachne, who seems to drop in only for ethereal wafting of Bono and The Edge’s all-too-literal lyrics and to satisfy the affirmative action quota of the Foxwoods theater.

What IS that?

The sets, while boasting of impressive gimmickry, serve little storytelling purpose, much like Wicked’s dragon, only for the entire show. Not to mention, their forced-2d perspective, while true to the Comic book aesthetic, makes for a jarring visual as live humans interact with skewed, cartoonist objects. The flat look is no doubt meant to evoke the glossy pages where the character origniated, but instead mirrors the caricature he has become. In ever way, the show has placed every egg it has in the set and effects basket and while the basket it interesting, it’s not something I want to carry around.

Bono and the Edge clearly wanted to buck the trend of traditional musical theater but maybe shouldn’t have strayed so far from the fold. The songs are all focused on a single vocalist, never taking advantage of the combined power of its chorus and for the all the techy gimmickery the entire production comes to a halt during the best musical moments, squandering the potential of the stage format as we’re treated to what amounts to a karaoke performance of U2 b-sides. Imagine Les Mis if every song was treated slike “Stars” and remember that by the time Javert makes that soul-wrenching, emotionally racking solo he has earned his time in the spotlight. The cast of Spider-man does not, and the songs themselves are hardly worth the attention.

So, after all that has been said allow me to add my voice. Spider-man Turn of the Dark is a loud, obnoxious, flash-in-the-pan and pointless abortion of the stage. Congratulations Broadway, you may have found your Troll 2. D

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I live in Elmhurst.

Here, your location is never as simple as city and state. There is the city, New York. You live within it’s boundaries. You pay its taxes and elect its mayor. But you do not live in New York City.

Where you actually live is a series of concentric circles. You live at a number, on a street, in a neighborhood, that is part of a borough, which makes up the greater New York metropolitan area. I live on 48th Avenue, in Elmhurst, the borough of Queens, the city of New York. The city that never sleeps.

Queens sleeps. Unlike the hustle and bustle and constant flickering lights of its sister across the river, walking home on the cold streets of Queens at midnight or later is a parade of locked storefronts where bodies, obscured by layers, bundle and curl for the night.

My particular corner of Queens is little Korea. Every day on my morning commute I pass groceries selling odd-looking fruit and restaurants boasting specials that I can not read. The church on the corner is Episcopal. I didn’t know there were Episcopal Koreans. You learn something new every day in New York City.

On the subway — either of the two that I take every morning to work in Midtown and every evening back — I play a game. I count the Caucasians. In the morning there’s usually a few. Middle-aged women clutching heavy bags and men in Yamakas. I’ve always admired the Jews. Mormons get razzed for our holy underwear and it’s just a t-shirt that no one sees. I wonder where they work, especially the Hasidics. Obviously we’ve come far enough in our society that a Hasidic Jew can work anywhere I can, but I have to wonder if anyone would take me seriously at the magazine if I showed up to the morning meeting in a top hat and curly sideburns. In the end it doesn’t really matter, as they undoubtedly make more money at their job than I do at mine.

Yes, that’s a prejudiced statement and yes, it’s also true. I’ve always found it funny how people take offense to jokes about Jews with money. It’s usually people who aren’t Jewish who call you out for such behavior. I doubt the Jewish people care, they’re laughing their way to the bank. Is it really offensive to be positively-stereotyped? Do men take offense at being GOOD drivers? Do Republicans really mind being called shrewd Machiavellians? Trust me, we don’t.

I went to the laundromat this weekend. It didn’t seem necessary to shower just to watch my clothing tumble so I put on my laundry jeans — you know, that pair you only wear when your real pants are dirty — a black concert t-shirt, a red knit cap and a giant pair of neon-orange over-the-ear headphones. Why was I wearing a knit cap? I don’t wear a lot of hats to begin with and besides my black fedora — obviously — I didn’t bother packing a lot of headwear. When choosing between two items you’ll never use, go with the one that takes up the least amount of space. I wasn’t about to wear my fedora to the laundromat, so red knit cap it was.

The headphones are a recent acquisition. They were free. I don’t particularly care for over-the-ear headphones. Sure, the sound quality is better, but in most circumstances I find them to be gaudy, bulky, showy monstrosities that the kind of people who like to longboard and collect vinyl records tend to wear. I neither longboard nor collect vinyl records but my ear buds are starting to freak out and if I’m going to be sitting in a laundromat for an hour I want to be able to listen to my music in comfort.

So there I was, the only white guy in Queens, sitting at a laundromat filled entirely with Hispanics and Koreans on a Saturday morning. I have no doubt that they thought I was some sort of delinquent rapist. They had no way of knowing that Carbon Leaf is a celtic-inspired alt-rock band with folk influences. There was no reason for them to assume that my obnoxiously bright headphones were just a poor kid taking advantage of a free deal and I would hardly expect them to understand that I was wearing a knit cap because I needed to cover up my bed-head and didn’t really have another option.

To them, I was a minority. I was a minority in my grunge-rock t-shirt, my pot-head hat and my big, neon, skater-punk headphones. I was Kevin Federline, or worse, Fred Durst. I’ve been a minority before, but the circumstances were considerably different. In that case, I was perpetually well-dressed compared to the locals and their women would offer themselves to me on the street. Partly because my rich white seed would do wonders for their economic situation and partly because they knew full-well that I was a squirley virgin and the sound of exotic women calling me “Delicious” would mess with my mind.

I doubt that anyone at the laundromat noticed that I was reading a TIME magazine. Delinquent rapists don’t read TIME magazine, they don’t read at all. They flip through the pages of the alternative free weekly to get to the back where the tattoo/piercing parlor and escort service advertisements are or they just sit, empty handed, and scowl at passers-by.

I saw this kid on the train the other day, he was wearing a face mask with the image of some sort of clown or skull, or clown skull. He had a curly black ponytail that poked out of a black trucker hat. He was like 14. Part of me wanted to mess with him just so I could pull his ponytail and tear that stupid mask off his face. I’d bet $200 that he had braces, and acne. His name was probably something like Julien, or Samuel and he was on his way to violin practice, or Latin lessons. Every kid in New York has some weird extra-curricular activity. They can’t go play outside — there is no outside — so instead of playing football with their friends or kicking rocks down the road they learn calligraphy or go see a therapist so that their parents don’t have to deal with talking to them.

A while back someone asked me “What do you guys do in Utah?” They were younger, barely out of high school so I answered the question. I told them that I do a lot of mountain biking and camping, that we hike and horseback ride. I’ve been through this game enough times that I’ve learned to always start with the activities that your interrogators have likely never experienced. If I was a recreation para-glider, I would lead with that.

“What do you guys do?” I asked. This is when the horrible person within me started to rise to the surface. These kids were middle-class Queens Hispanics. They lived within miles of Broadway, The Metropolitan Museum of Art and some of the finest dining in America. By virtue of my profession I had probably had more “New York Moments” in 4 months than these kids had in several years growing up in THE city. “Well,” she said. “Everything is so expensive, we usually just end up going to someone’s house to watch a movie or play Rock Band.”

My natural reaction to this would be to cock my eyebrow, say “Good thing you don’t live in Utah,” and walk away like a B.A. from an explosion. I did not. I smiled and said “Cool, Rock Band is fun” and then changed the subject by asking what movies they had seen lately. I take this as a sign that I’m beginning to grow up. Either that or my subconscious was afraid that even though I was at a religious function, if I got too smart someone would knife me. They do that in New York, knife people, at least that’s what I’ve been conditioned to believe my whole life. In New York, people knife you. In Wisconsin, they offer you doughnuts. In Japan, they bow and in Germany they yell and punch you in the face. No matter where you are, though, you can change the subject by asking what movies they’ve seen lately. Everybody likes to talk about movies and besides McDonald’s, Hollywood is America’s chief global export.

So there I was, sitting at the laundromat in Queens, watching my clothes tumble. I know for a fact that they thought I was some screwed up punk. Why else would a dumb white-boy be sitting at a grimy laundromat in Queens in big neon headphones and a knit cap. Yes, it was prejudiced of them and this is prejudiced of me. That’s life, we all kind of suck sometimes.

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There have been a few films this year that have reminded me that above being well-directed, well-acted and well-written (my three criteria for a “good” movie) there is an inherit need for entertainment to do just that, entertain.

It sounds silly, but when you spend as much time at the movies as I do you often find yourself in screenings for films like The Tree of Life: beautiful, immersive cinematic experiences that, when push comes to shove, aren’t that fun to watch. I loved Tree of Life, much like how I loved Se7en, Schindler’s List, Hotel Rwanda and Kramer vs. Kramer. All of those films are heady dramas that teach us something about humanity and the world we live in but at the end of a long day at work, you don’t always want heady dramas, you want delightful escapism that reminds you — or at least convinces you — that even though you may be worn out and exhausted, life, love and laughter are still grand.

In the summer it was Super 8, with it’s nostalgic love-letter to the boundless imagination of a childhood mind. Recently it was The Muppets, with it’s low-fi reminder that you don’t have to fill 2 hours with green screens and explosions to captivate an audience. Yesterday, it was The Artist, a black-and-white silent film that reminded me just how magical a day at the theater can be.

The Artist is the tale of George Valentin, an appropriately-named late-1920’s silent film star struggling to survive in the transition to “talkies.” The sub-text is the obvious metaphor to today’s Hollywood, as computer and motion-capture technology in all of it’s multidimensional glory is opening doors faster than we can walk through them to new ways of telling stories and achieving what was once thought to be impossible. We find ourselves in a day and age where death need not halt a star’s screen time and a man’s portrayal of an ape is among the greatest performances of the year. With so many avenues at our feet, it can be quite easy to get lost.

One the eve of the dawn of sound, Valentin meets and helps launch the career of Peppy Miller, an up-and-coming actress in the old age of Hollywoodland where studio execs hawk on the street for talent like men do today for illegal workers. When Valentin is introduced to the “future” of sound by his producer — a body-language tour de force performance by the John Goodman — he resists the new medium, staunch and proud in the traditional format. As a result, he is booted from his studio to make way for the new age of cinema which finds Peppy Miller as the new face of sound technology.

The film goes as expected from there. Valentin spirals downward, grasping for straws until he is all but derelict, tortured by the shadow of his former self while Peppy’s star only burns brighter and brighter. A romance is born quickly between the two which builds despite his crumbling world until eventually Peppy is in a position to offer him a second chance, but will his pride allow him to accept her help?

The Artist is full of winking self-aware gems. In one of the film’s best scenes, Valentin is haunted by a nightmare where the sound of a feather striking the ground burst his ears like cannon fire. Later, in the script-written dialogue between Valentin and his estranged wife, she berates him with a familiar plea, “Why won’t you speak?” that is rendered all the more useful by the film’s setting. She means “to me,” but it’s the same question we, the audience, ask of our protagonist.

There’s nothing earth shattering about what is presented in The Artist. Besides a peek at “the way things were” you’re not going to learn anything about the world you live in, but the experience of enveloping yourself in the film’s narrative — prompted by the orchestral cues in the background and reading between the lines of the few cue-carded dialogue that leaves more unsaid than said — is altogether a unique experience. For many in my generation, who have likely never witnessed such a thing as a “silent” film, it is almost magic to see how much context and emotion can be conveyed by the clever twitch of an eyebrow or pursed lips when the benefit of speech is removed from the storytellers tool set. It is a rare feat of artistry, indeed, that this French-import that reminisces of old Hollywood while being the antithesis of new Hollywood can entertain and enthrall so fully, but somehow it does.

There are movies that you want to see and movies that you need to see. The Artist is, in every way, both. A

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