I've been meaning to post about all the shows I saw in the last few months and realized there are some other things I wanted to discuss as well. Spoilers for all aired episodes of television and for the films discussed. No spoilers for the plays.
NY-Lon - Yes, I'm slow, but until my brother told me a few months ago that I could play avi files on my tv by sticking a jump drive into the tv, I had no idea that was possible. Armed with that knowledge, I've finally finished watching NY-Lon, and I have to confess I'm baffled. In the DVD commentary on When Harry Met Sally, Rob Reiner (I think, it's been a while) mentions that the story marries two types of romance narratives, which he calls Jewish and Christian. In Jewish romances, the conflicts are internal – the boy thinks he doesn't deserve the girl, that he himself is the obstacle standing in the way of his romantic success; in Christian romances, the conflicts are external – she's already engaged to someone else, they're not in the same geographical space, etc. What's interesting about NY-Lon is that it presents itself as being about the Christian romance – Edie lives in New York but Mike lives in London – but then suggests that the external conflicts are by far the easiest piece to negotiate, when both parties have so much internal conflict. Her internal conflict, as presented, is two-pronged: her love of her friends and her feeling that she is making a difference in the lives of her students. (There's a third prong that gets discussed sporadically, which I would have found much more compelling, and that is her love of New York City itself, but that never gets taken very seriously by the show.) Here's the baffling part: her internal conflict is stupid. I used to be a professor, and I empathized strongly with the care she has for her students (she teaches adult literacy), but (a) she's shown blowing off one student and never even apologizing for it, which she's given ample opportunity to do, and (b) she has finished her commitment to that class and has not yet taken on another – realistically, she could pick up and do the same work anywhere that requires English literacy of its adult population. As for her friends, it is stated explicitly that Edie is the rock for all of them, a situation she states she is exhausted by and wants to escape from. Her friends, as shown, are terrible, and are willing to engage in all sorts of horrible behavior; what's surprising is how often she answers them in kind. If, as stated, these friends are still better than the father she cut herself off from years before, then her life must have been wretched beyond belief. The show completely failed to engage on this level: it is ridiculous to believe that Edie's love of her friends and her love of teaching adults to read outweigh her desire to be with Mike, who does not need to be mothered, has a steady job, and has legitimate reasons for needing to stay in England. Mike is actually interestingly drawn. He looks like an alpha male but is happiest looking after his nephew (his brother knocked up a seventeen-year-old girl and promptly abandoned her; Mike has decided that he will step up as neither his brother nor their father was willing to do) and hanging out with his sister and his flatmate. Mike's care, which includes paying for his nephew's private school, seems completely justified – his nephew's mother has taken up with a man who's constantly high – until one episode when he gets slammed for "acting like a father." It makes very little sense, but the show uses a lot of this manufactured conflict, and the bottom line is that Mike is a man with responsibilities that cannot be easily shifted. So the central question of the series – can these two get together, and where could that happen? – has a fairly simple answer: London. It's not satisfying that the show keeps evading this answer, and Edie's friends really are odious, but I'm not sorry I watched it, if only because Rashida Jones was luminous in it.
New Girl - I rewatched season one of New Girl on dvd (thank you, NYPL!) and remembered that I really do like this show. Though I'd initially written it off as only intermittently funny, I did still make a point of watching it, or at least catching up with it, and it got really good about halfway through the first season. This season has been very good so far (except for last night's ep), and they're handling not only the friendships but also the romances deftly; I was pretty sure they were going to go the Jess/Nick route by the end of season one, but they've resisted and instead shown us all the pros and cons of such a pairing. It's not as deft as the Jeff/Britta secret-hookups play that Community made, but it's definitely working. The actors seem even more comfortable now and they all seem to relish being as goofy as possible, which is totally charming.</b>
Les Misérables - Gut reaction: deeply flawed. I wanted to love it unconditionally, but too many things counted against it. Russell Crowe had no business at all playing Javert; all of his songs were sped up and truncated, and the mess he made of "Stars" was painful to listen to. I’m biased because I find Roger Allam wonderful, but his performance in the original London cast is my gold standard for the role. Hugh Jackman, Anne Hathaway, Amanda Seyfried, Samantha Barks, Eddie Redmayne, and Aaron Tveit were all very good. When I'd first heard about the director's decision that all of the songs would be sung live during each take, I thought that sounded amazing, and in many ways it was. I later read an online critique of the film that suggested that in having the actors perform live each time, the director had ceded too much control; if, say, Anne Hathaway sang "I Dreamed a Dream" sorrowfully in one take and angrily in another, the two were not edited together and so the director ended up having songs and set-pieces that didn't make much sense together and could not be woven into a coherent narrative. There were a lot of moments that I rolled my eyes at, particularly the overly literal camera-work. Still, I'm glad I saw it on the big screen.
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey – Even gladder I saw this on the big screen, as I needed to see Martin Freeman's little face up there. He really was just right as Bilbo, who's uncomfortable at the very thought of an adventure and yet unable to deny there's a part of him that yearns for it too. I read the book several times when I was younger but never got into the trilogy (books or movies) at all, so I have a somewhat limited perspective. I didn't like that the movie was about Thorin rather than Bilbo, in part because I don't have a lot of interest in Thorin (despite the manifold charms of Richard Armitage), but mostly because I felt the decision to make this a battle-heavy movie irrevocably altered Bilbo's role. Someone on my flist linked to a post about the way this movie negated Tolkien's pacifism by having Bilbo take up arms, and while I can't offer an educated opinion on Tolkien's philosophy, I did feel betrayed that movie-Bilbo became another (surprisingly effective) warrior in Thorin's army because book-Bilbo, who displays smarts, stealth, and bravery without fighting was much more interesting to me. Some moments of that still shone through – Bilbo talking the trolls out of eating the dwarves, Bilbo saying he'd never wielded a weapon, Bilbo understanding how much "home" could mean, etc. – and I wasn't dissatisfied with the movie. I just thought it should have been shorter and more interesting.
Lincoln – I took my dad to see this as a birthday treat and liked it only about half as much as I wanted to. It's an odd movie that presumes fairly detailed knowledge of Lincoln's relationships with various family members and politicians while insisting that none of that is necessary to the story. I didn't realize that the entire movie takes place over a few weeks and is about the fight to get the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution passed by Congress. There are some crushingly obvious moments – a pair of black soldiers come up to Lincoln and recite, from memory, the Gettysburg Address – and some really oblique ones too. I thought Daniel Day-Lewis did an excellent job as Lincoln, but the real treat was watching Tommy Lee Jones and James Spader do their thing (though I was disappointed by the fact that the film went out of its way to present a reason for Jones's insistence on the equality of white and black people and also by the fact that his retraction of that belief was played as a triumphant moment).
Marriage of Figaro - I'd forgotten, since the time many, many moons ago when I wrote a paper on Beaumarchais's plays, how much I enjoyed the way the women in this piece band together and do not devolve into blaming each other for Count Almaviva's roving eye and rampant libidinousness. Ildar Abdrazakov and Mojca Erdmann as Figaro and Susanna were excellent and very well matched. Maija Kovalevska was apparently ill but still performed beautifully as the Countess. It was my first time at the Met, and I enjoyed it tremendously. I'm going again for La Traviata in March and a Dmitri Hvorostovsky recital a week later.
Scandalous - Written by Kathie Lee Gifford. I KNOW. This was atrocious in every way aside from the performers, who, it must be said, were fighting with each other constantly – there seemed to be a contest as to who could be louder, the orchestra or the cast, and the result was that nothing was very comprehensible. This was based on a true story, but KLG seemed to have no idea how to handle anything but the simplest and most obvious level of narrative. When Aimee feels repressed by her overly religious mother, there are a lot of angry songs about how she wants to grow up, be on her own, etc., all of it in gratingly chiming rhymes. Then when the story gets interesting – her first husband dies when they're in China working as missionaries and Aimee falls into a second marriage rather than return to her parents' farm – all of that is simply spoken by the actress playing Aimee (Carolee Carmello, whom I shouldn't judge just on this one wretched role), looking straight out at the audience. It's only when the plot turns implausibly simple again that the music starts up once more. Everything in this production was told rather than shown. The music and lyrics were on par with obnoxious commercial jingles. I left at intermission and didn't look back. 0/10
Figaro - I took my mother to see this, an adaptation of the Beaumarchais play (and Mozart opera), less than a month after seeing the opera with my friend K. The opening was a little jittery, as the audience needed time to get used to being invited to take part – the characters, particularly Figaro (excellent Sean McNall), spoke directly to the audience several times and the whole thing got more than a little meta in several places ("Figaro, Figaro, Figaro" / "You could almost hear someone singing that"). There was real heartbreak for this Figaro, as well as triumphant joy. Jolly Abraham, as his Susannah, didn't quite match him but was very good. Chris Mixon was a standout as Count Almaviva. He was powdered and rouged until he looked like Nathan Lane who'd just had an electric shock somewhere unpleasant. And he'd devised the most side-splitting affectations, such as sweeping up the tails of his frockcoat in order to perch on some available seat so that he looked like a particularly finicky Darth Vader. This one started a little shaky but finished very strong. 8.5/10
A Summer Day - Karen Allen (yes, of Indiana Jones fame) was the star of this one, and she was captivating throughout. She played the older version of a woman whose husband was lost at sea decades earlier. We see flashbacks to that time – they've been married for a few months, and he wants to go out in his boat and though she protests, when he offers to stay she lets him go; there's a storm and he's gone. Since that day, she's sat by a window overlooking the sea and running the day through her mind repeatedly. This one was staged very effectively – a bare set with some haunting wisps of melody and some nicely chosen photographs of land and sea that were reflected in both the window and the actors' faces. I completely agreed with the review that said that the audience experiences not boredom or disappointment, but dread – I'm still not quite clear how they pulled that off in a show where nothing really happens. 8/10
Cyrano - This is a play I've long wanted to see, and I finally got the chance. Douglas Hodge played the lead, and because I had a front-row seat, I could see the prosthetic (very realistic – they had one for each performance) and the costumes close up and they were worth the inspection. The translation (commissioned for this run) was nicely bawdy and rollicking and witty. Clémence Poésy as Roxane was quite good – while the character might not always behave plausibly, she was fresh-faced and appealingly emotional. Kyle Soller (Christian) and Patrick Page (Comte de Guiche) were also very good, and I enjoyed the swordplay, which I haven't seen much of on stage. Hodge was fantastic and carried the entire production more than ably, though some of the staging – particularly when they went to war – could have been handled more deftly. I hadn't read the play in ages and was surprised by the ending. 7.5/10
The Golden Age - Let's be honest, I saw this because it was a chance to see Lee Pace on stage again, and there he was, looking lovely with those legs that go all the way down to the ground. He played Vincenzo Bellini, the composer; the play makes the case that Bellini was openly bisexual and more interested in his work than the admirers who constantly threw themselves at him, though he was happy enough to bed them if the mood struck. Bebe Neuwirth played a tempestuous soprano with whom he was infatuated, though they had not worked together in years. While I think she's a fantastic actress, this part did not make use of her strengths; she was analytical and cutting rather than emotional and raging. Will Rogers played the man who loved Bellini the best; he and Lee Pace made an appealing couple but neither seemed particularly convincing – as contemporary boyfriends, yes, but as nineteenth-century Italians, no. F. Murray Abraham showed up briefly (cue my inner Homer Simpson: "F. MURRAY. ABRAHAM!") but didn't add much. I didn't think the play was bad, but it wasn't very compelling either, and needed a good beta as the same argument kept circling without gaining anything from its various repetitions. 6.5/10
If There Is I Haven't Found It Yet - I've seen Jake Gyllenhaal in a number of roles and been impressed by his work and yet it took this show for me to believe that he's a fantastic actor. He was phenomenal here, and Annie Funke kept up with him – I hope she keeps working on interesting projects, and not just getting relegated to "fat girl" roles. She plays a fifteen-year-old who feels neglected by her parents. Her father, a researcher obsessed with global warming, genuinely does fail to see her because he's putting together a book, but it's clear he's been overlooking her for a very long time; her mother (a teacher at her school), though, seems to be aware of her daughter and so this failed to ring true for me. Anyway, JG plays the dad's younger junkie brother who's not been home in years. He shows up and chaos ensues. The show was interestingly staged: when I arrived at the theater, there was a curtain of water dropping from the roof to a gutter at the front of the stage, obscuring my view of the stage, which had a large pile of stuff (furniture, clothes, props, etc.) on it. Once the show started, the water stopped flowing and the actors pulled whatever furniture, etc., they needed for the scene from the pile and then threw what they no longer needed into the water-filled gutter. So the stage was getting stripped bare just as this family was, which was interesting though perhaps more distracting than necessary. JG proved to be fantastic with the dialogue (his accent stayed rock-steady), despite the pace of the lines and the numerous verbal tics written into the script, and delivered them all as if they were his own words. In terms of physical acting, he had a kind of sideways shuffle he employed and blinked like he couldn't quite figure out how he'd strayed into the light; again, he stayed consistent and was all the more credible for it. 8/10
Vanya & Sonia & Masha & Spike - It's hard to pick out one performer who did notably well here, because all of them (with the staggering exception of Sigourney Weaver, who was bewilderingly terrible) did excellent work. I ended up with a front-row seat and was able to see the extraordinarily beautiful set up close: there was an old craftsman-style house with the walls knocked out and a yard with real grass and flowers. David Hyde Pierce was unsurprisingly amazing, and Kristine Nielsen made up for a shaky start by becoming incandescent. They play siblings (she's adopted, he wasn't) waiting for their movie-star sister (SW) to come home with her new boy toy (Billy Magnussen, who was hilarious). Shalita Grant was fantastic as their psychic housekeeper who speaks dire warnings to which no one ever listens, and just as hilarious as Magnussen. Genevieve Angelson had a small role but was perfectly cast as the ethereal neighbor who wants so badly to be part of an artistic commune. But the show really belonged to DHP and KN, who played off each other extraordinarily well, believable siblings who find each other charming and tiresome and surprising and gladdening all at once. If only SW had been on top of her game, this would have been perfect. 8.5/10
So, what's up with all of you?