Monday, December 26, 2011

The Best of 2011

My love of movies runs deep. I love that they can take you to a different place, make you laugh or cry, feel better about the world - or realize the world's going to hell in a handbasket. This year had some highs and lows, but we're only talking highs here and my criteria is simple: how much enjoyment did I have watching it? For me, there were a couple movies that were the most fun I've had in a theater in a long time. They were Cedar Rapids and Bridesmaids. I've already written about Cedar Rapids and so much has been written about Bridesmaids that I'll just keep it simple: I do not remember the last time I have laughed so much at the movies. Both of them fit my needs to a tee, funny but with a heart and a lesson tucked in as well.

Time seems to have gotten away from me in 2011, and I did not read nearly the number of books that I would have liked to have read. I did jump on the Hunger Games bandwagon and was surprised to find such a tight plot and likable characters. While the second and third book do no quite match the must read quality of the first, which would be hard to do, it is nevertheless a very compelling story and I will definitely need to see the movies when they come out even though I know they'll never match the excitement of reading it for the first time. I also loved Lucy by Laurence Gonzales. Lucy tells the story of a part bonobo-part human teenager and her journey from the jungle to modern American life and the fallout from the discovery by the outside world that Lucy is not entirely human. I know it sounds a little different but it is easy to identify with the characters and it is a very interesting commentary on the politicization of science.
 Sure it was a forgone conclusion that Richard Blais would win Top Chef All-Stars, but I still loved every minute of the season. Side note: he was on a flight with me from Atlanta to KC a couple years ago and I my brother and I were too chicken to talk to him. Anyway, I think my enjoyment stemmed from the fact that I liked so many of the chefs because I had seen them perform already and knew what they were capable of producing. I was rooting for Antonia Lofaso and Carla Hall all the way through, but since Richard choked his first time around, I knew it was his to win. The challenges were engaging, especially since they could play off of previous ones, and, for the most part, they flirted with just the right level of drama to keep it interesting but not overshadow the fact that these chefs are fantastic because they work hard.

All in all a pretty good year for entertainment. Looking forward to 2012 - and thank goodness 30 Rock is back on January 12th!

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Wicked: The Untold Story of the Witches of Oz

It is very hard for me to come up with the right words to describe my feelings for Wicked. Suffice it to say, I love everything about it. Wicked played in town for nearly a full month beginning in November, and I was lucky enough to see it, well, many times (the employees running the ticket lottery came to know me by name). You must understand that I am typically very tight with my purse strings so it comes as quite a surprise to those who know me that all of a sudden I started spending money. I guess I decided that I love the show and wanted to support it with my patronage no matter the cost.

The total theatrical experience of the show is the bar by which other productions are measured. The quality of the show, from the performers to the lighting, sound, and set design, is so high that one cannot help but marvel at its' grandiosity. The cast of the second national tour is superb. The lead performers, Anne Brummel as Elphaba and Tiffany Haas as Galinda, have the perfect combination of vocal talent, character embodiment, and chemistry that makes the evolution of their characters' friendship come to life. I'll admit to a bit of bias here - I'm not a professional yet, so why not - because I camped out at the stage door a couple times and they were both so gracious with fans that it is impossible not to like them. It is pure joy watching them ham it up during "Loathing" and "Popular," touching to watch them connect during "Dancing Through Life," and heartbreaking to see them realize they must part ways in "For Good." The show's signature song, "Defying Gravity," lives up to the hype as Brummel delivers it with such determination and vocal prowess that I found myself exhaling after the lights came up (it ends the first act) because I had been holding my breath since the lift began.
Tiffany Haas and Anne Brummel
The supporting cast and ensemble is equally capable. David Nathan Perlow perfectly embodies Fiyero's shallow facade and pure heart. And Christine Dwyer, the standby for Elphaba, handles the daunting task of filling Brummel's shoes as if the role were her own. The ensemble handles the modern, eclectic style choreography with an ease that belies the difficulty of the dances.

All aspects of the show's design are fantastic and were clearly considered down to the very last detail. The lighting design is perfect and underscores the characters' feelings and actions. During "The Wizard and I," the background transforms from a purple/pink/orange to an "Elphaba green," helping to convey her new realization of all of life's possibilities; being different is not a curse. From the slightly off kilter cut of the costumes to the thirteen hours on the time dragon clock and the tongue twisting wordplay (gratitution, congratulotions), all of the Ozian touches in the design transport the audience to another world.

Of course, a show can be beautiful to look at, but if there is no meat to the story then one is left with an empty feeling soon after leaving the theater. Wicked does not suffer such a fate, it is a thinking person's musical. The commentary on the conflict between getting what you want and genuine happiness is particularly affecting and presents the often harsh realities of life in a realistic manner that is not often seen in musical comedies. The secondary plot involving the Wizard's rise to power and his philosophy that the way to bring people together is to give them a really good enemy is eerily similar to the political culture in today's society wherein the name of the game is to swoop in with saavy marketing and rail against whatever topic will make ratings on cable news networks. 

It is no doubt clear that I have nothing negative to say about the show, but I am not without a complaint. My complaint rests with the audience, who seems to think it is appropriate to check their phones, arrive late, and chit chat throughout the show. Yes, I am aware that my standards for the general public are much too high.  Go see Wicked. The show deserves your support and you deserve to experience the show.

Thank you Wicked, it was a wonderful month! And thank goodness I've got one last performance to see tonight!

Saturday, November 12, 2011

The Belly Rules the Mind

Truer words have never been spoken. I am notorious for my hunger-based mood swings and my family has dubbed me "crankabetic". The term is eerily accurate. When I wear my 'The Belly Rules the Mind' t-shirt (yes, I have one) I get more comments from passersby than a wallflower is ready to handle. People all over the country have agreed wholeheartedly with the notion. The idea popped into my head becaue I've had a stretch of really tasty meals this week. I don't get out much, so a stretch for me is two, three if I count the Ballpark frank I broiled for dinner the other night. Last night I had a wonderful calzone from an Italian restaurant that I had never tried called Cosi Cucina. The calzone was fabulous; the dough was made in-house, the sausage was from one of our most favored local Italian meat and cheese suppliers named Graziano's, and it was baked in a wood-fired oven. It had the right balance of gooey cheese, spicy sausage and pepperoni, and peppers and onions. To top it off, I decided to have dessert since I was not paying and the weight maintenance challenge I signed up for at work doesn't start until next week. I went with the hot apple cake because I cannot resist anything involving apples. The cake was moist and sweet, topped with a butter pecan caramel and homemade cinnamon ice cream. Oops, just drooled a little on the keyboard during this taste memory. And the deliciousness does not end there. Today's lunch was IHOP pancakes, my excitement about which is probably best described by the fact that I was genuinely disappointed that I was not able to use my free birthday meal voucher on my actual birthday last week and instead had to wait a week to coordinate a time when all attendees could be present. That's right, I love my buttermilk pancakes almost as much as the double happiness IHOP provides when the receipt comes with an opportunity to get a free buttermilk short stack by just filling out their customer survey. I've done it before and I'll do it again. Keep it coming IHOP.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Is This What Too Much Sun Does To A Person?

How could I pass up an opportunity to see La Cage Aux Folles? It is a Broadway classic and, given the frequency of revivals and the average human lifespan, this was probably my only opportunity. Unfortunately, I'm a little hard up for cash so I got a cheap but not completely nosebleed inducing seat at our local venue. Cage is just starting its' national tour from the Broadway revival that won three Tony Awards in 2010. It's a great show, not nearly as groundbreaking as it once was but the music holds up and the sentiment is strong. The Cagelles were fantastic, those guys were a better group of dancers than I've seen in any production. Christopher Sieber, as Albin, did the heavy lifting for this production and was more than up for the task. Which brings me to the unfortunate fact that it had to become such a lop-sided show because Sieber's costar, George Hamilton, was useless. Hamilton, though he has done some film and television work, is mostly known for being tan. Tan does not cut it in a Broadway show. His singing voice was more the 'talk-sing' type and he seemed to be suffering from some sort of painful arthritis because his movements were as robotic as his delivery. It was difficult to watch him move so slowly and awkwardly that he became two to three beats behind the rest of the cast when they were doing very simple footwork. Those years in the sun and the tanning booth seem to have fried his brain and cooked his muscles down to nothing. It is easy to see that without Hamilton, the production could really take off. The set, lighting, direction, and cast are equal to the task and if the producers could find a costar as talented as Sieber then this tour could continue for years to come. I highly recommend you catch it if you can, just do not spend big bucks if George Hamilton is still in the show.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Just Joshin'...Not!

Cedar Rapids is not a new release but I have gotten continuous enjoyment out of its' characters and story. Thank goodness for RedBox because I do draw a line - it was full price at Target yesterday and I passed it up, so Amazon here we come! But I digress... I love Cedar Rapids. Ed Helms' portrayal of the innocent Tim Lippe is hilarious, heartfelt, and heartbreaking. The audience wants so much for Tim to wake up and enter adulthood that it is both sad and funny to watch him tell a prostitute about the dangers of smoking (it will increase your premiums) simply because it does not even enter his mind that she is anything other than a perfectly nice person. But the scene stealer here is John C. Reilly as Dean Zigler, whose boldness and politically incorrect humor run counter to everything Tim knows. Reilly gives the audience some of the biggest laughs in the movie. The ASMI-azing Race sequence, particularly the swimming pool word scramble, is laugh out loud funny. I have watched and immediately backed up and watched again the end cabin sequence because Reilly's reaction to lighting his fart on fire is priceless. I admit to enjoying some low brow humor, but don't let that deter you from this movie because this is not a bathroom humor movie. Cedar Rapids is, at its' core, a traditional coming of age story about one man's journey to adulthood and the friendships that get him through it. The fact that the person coming of age is a forty year old man, well, it just makes the story that much more amusing.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Watch This, No Thinking Allowed

There should be no shame in admitting that you enjoy what most people call trash TV. I love trash TV and relish the opportunity to indulge. My most recent indulgence is Lifetime's Dance Moms. The premise is ridiculous, the behavior is deplorable, and yet I can't get enough. Dance Moms follows the mothers and daughters of the Abby Lee Dance Company and all of the drama that seems to be a requirement to be a member of the dance studio. Abby Lee Miller, the instructor, treats the mothers and daughters terribly and the mothers match her barb for barb. And, of course, despite all the talk from the moms that they will not put up with Abby's behavior anymore, nobody goes anywhere (except cuckoo Cathy who, as a dance instructor herself, decided that she knew better and took her daughter back to her studio). For me, the hour is equal parts feeling sorry for those poor girls getting emotionally abused and counting my lucky stars that I did not have to go through anything like that when I was growing up. Outside of one tumbling class in kindergarten, I had no inclination to dance and if you ever see me awkwardly jiving on the dance floor you'll understand why. Dance Moms is low on the totem pole of trash TV. It's not a Project Runway or a Top Chef, both of which I love and both of which, at their best, focus on the talent of the contestants. Dance Moms is all about the drama, but sometimes there's nothing like entertainment that does not make you think, not even a little.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Every Heart is a Package

Watching Josh Ritter perform makes me grin from ear to ear. I discovered his music in 2009 thanks to NPR Music and I've been addicted ever since. If you are lucky enough to have a chance to see him perform live, I highly recommend it. I've seen him three times in the last few years and I am heartbroken that he did not make it back to my area this year (my brother gets props for the best birthday present ever:  last year he gave me tickets to the Josh Ritter show at the Slowdown). Watching him and the Royal City Band give everything they have and seeing them love every minute of it heightens the audience's experience. Plenty of performers are enthusiastic, but rarely have I seen someone whose enthusiasm is so genuine that I actually want to be up there with him because he's having the most fun of anyone in the place. He and the band recently performed on Jimmy Kimmel Live and played off with "Kathleen" which is always a crowd pleaser. I finally got around to watching the entire performance online and if this does not make you happy then I don't know what will. I mean, just look at that smile on keyboardist Sam Kassirer's face. How can you not click the play button?

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Think Happy Thoughts

What makes you smile? I finally decided to take the blogging plunge because of the very simple notion that it is important to recognize what makes me happy. The crew over at NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour inspired me with their "What's Making You Happy" segment in which the panel discusses what is making them happy each week; it may be big, small, family-related, work-related, anything at all. The other inspiration comes from Amy Sedaris, who spoke at an event I recently attended. During the audience Q&A portion (I don't know how people in her position put up with the bizarre things people want to know), she was asked if she had any advice for young people who wanted to break into a creative field and she simply said, "Do what you want to do." I have always wanted to write, and I finally decided to stop imagining that I'll someday be able to quit my job for a hefty advance on the book I have not started writing and actually start writing something, anything. So here I am. It's a simple premise, I plan to use this space to discuss what makes me happy. It could be anything from a show I've attended, a book I read, or a restaurant I've visited. So, I guess I'm off and running.