Saturday, October 31, 2015

Jolly Good

You are likely unfamiliar with The Great British Baking Show, but you should make a point to seek it out. Following a group of amateur UK bakers competing to be named the best, TGBBS is unlike any other food-based competition show on the telly. Read: ridiculously charming and awesome.

Most food-based competition shows feature strict time limits, restricted ingredients, outrageous obstacles (cooking with no utensils, Top Chef?) and contestants that are often out for blood. TGBBS is the complete opposite. Now, don’t get me wrong, I love a hearty episode of Top Chef wherein every other word out of the chefs’ mouths is left to the imagination thanks to constant bleeping. However, it is enthralling to watch a group of people participating not with the goal of knocking out other contestants in order to ensure their ultimate glory, but rather to perform their best simply for the sake of being able to hold their head up high when it’s all said and done. Bakers, who convene in a pristine tent that appears to be smack in the middle of a beautiful English garden, are given the opportunity to practice their bakes ahead of the weekend’s round and an ample, if not quite luxurious, amount of time to complete the bake. Oh, and no insane surprises.

Hosts Mel and Sue are delightfully quirky; their witty encouragement and good-natured ribbing strikes just the right tone. Judges Mary Berry and Paul Hollywood (yes, those are their names) offer a perfect balance of praise and constructive criticism. Constructive is a keyword here; Paul and Mary do not judge by tearing the contestants down. Rather, they deliver criticism by simply pointing out the flaws in the bake and then they move on. That is not to say Mary and Paul are not tough, you can tell by the bakers’ reactions to praise from Paul that it is hugely satisfying when he affirms their efforts by complimenting the excellence of the bake.

A genuine group of folks, wouldn't you say?
What I love most about TGBBS is the fact that all those involved seem to genuinely wish the best for all the bakers. The bakers are happy for one another when the designation of Star Baker is granted and, in turn, are saddened when a fellow competitor must leave the tent. And Mel, Sue, Paul and Mary are thrilled when a baker who has had a difficult round bounces back with a successful bake. 

Quite a concept: presenting people being kind to one another. It’s not typical, but maybe it should be. The visuals of the scrumptious bakes are the icing on the cake. Jolly good indeed.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Space Race

Barren. Dusty. Red. What’s not to love? Mars has long held a special orbit in the solar system of my life. It began in elementary school when our class was tasked with developing a travel brochure for one of the (at that time) nine planets, and I jumped at the chance to convince imaginary travelers to visit the Martian planet. Day trips to Phobos and Deimos were involved, quite sophisticated for a nine year old. Then came Rocketman, the sidesplitting (again, at that time) movie starring Harland Williams that boasted one of the funniest fart scenes in my young pop culture life. Search YouTube for proof.

Recently viewing The Martian reignited my fascination with our neighboring planet. The Martian, based on the novel by Andy Weir, might fall short of perfect but it is a lot of fun. Matt Damon is very strong as botanist/astronaut Mark Watney, presumed dead after a Martian storm and left behind by his crew. Utilizing his scientific aptitude to figure out how to grow crops, maintain appropriate levels of water, oxygen, and carbon dioxide and, oh yeah, communicate with Earth to let someone know he’s alive, Damon balances the alternating emotions that come along with devastating solitude and the raw desire for survival. And despite the fact that The Martian’s supporting actors, playing his crewmates and NASA officials, seem to have collectively decided to play it monotone and dry, it is impossible not to root for them and for Watney to figure out how to solve each seemingly insurmountable problem. Weir's novel, by nature of format, contains significantly greater detail around the science of Watney's survival and I prefer the book ending to the movie ending, but I will let that lie so as not to spoil anything here. The book and movie are both worthy of a recommendation.

After seeing The Martian, I was driven to rewatch its' space disaster film cousins Apollo 13 and Gravity. After spending the night lamenting the demise of Tang, it became abundantly clear why these types of scenarios make great fodder for film. The lens through which most of us view these films is fantasy as most of us will never experience space travel. Sorry SpaceX, I’m just not counting on it any time soon. But because of humanity’s trips to orbit, to the moon, and the fact that there are astronauts living on the International Space Station, there is enough foundation in reality that the key element to these films is entirely relatable: that despite best laid plans, we can find ourselves losing control. But despite those odds, it is possible to overcome them. Be it a solitary effort a la Gravity or a team effort in the vein of Apollo 13, these triumphs are affirming in the best way. We are reminded that when pushed beyond our limit not only can we come out the other side, but we can come out stronger. 

Thursday, March 19, 2015

A Beautiful Room in a Beautiful House

Simultaneously watching the third season of House of Cards and the second season of The West Wing is a jarring study in contrast. The magnificence that is Netflix has brought forth this comparison. In years past, one would have had to have a cable subscription and change channels on an old timey remote control in order to create this kind of dichotomy. Not so anymore. And while on the surface these shows have a similar premise, each follows a president and White House staff as they navigate the travails of presidential politics, they are strikingly dissimilar. The shows do share one argument: being president requires that you must strike a classic pose: fists on the desk in the Oval Office, contemplating the important decision of the hour.
An open fisted variation on the pose

House of Cards presents a bleak view of the United States government. President Underwood is a proudly despicable individual whose top priority is gaining and keeping power. And he surrounds himself with staff that is as unsympathetically robotic and unfeeling as the next. In this world, the only way to get what you want (and don’t mistake that for what the country needs) is to literally lie, cheat, steal and kill. I must say, I do wonder if the reason the worldview on House of Cards is so bleak is because it is literally dark and grey at the White House. Can we get some lights or some brighter colors in the White House? I have to turn on the spotlights when I watch just to make out which grey silhouette is on the screen at any given time.

The West Wing, on the other hand, is illustrative of a government where those in it at least have the goal of affecting positive change for someone other than themselves. The characters, though they are often hardheaded, still have a human bone in their body that an audience can identify with. The West Wing’s offices are more brightly lit so that probably explains the different direction of this show. In the interest of full disclosure, I am only on the second season, so perhaps President Bartlet is soon to push a reporter into the path of an oncoming subway, but so far The West Wing is generally a less terrifying version of the White House. 

Of course, these shows were born in different times. When The West Wing premiered in 1999, the United States was in a pre-September 11th, pre-recession state of relative calm. The world has spun a few times on its’ axis since then. For that reason, these shows were bound to have differences. But I still find it fascinating that two shows that have the same basic premise can be so completely different. 

And yet, I am obsessed with both. Not sure what that says about me.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Kick Up Your Heels

It is difficult to explain what makes the musical Kinky Boots so much fun. The story follows a man who inherits his father’s shoe factory and, in a last ditch effort to save the business, changes production from sensible men’s shoes to that of high heeled shoes designed for drag queens.  Woven within it is a message of tolerance and acceptance that is unfortunately still very relevant. That description may not sound like the makings of a hit musical, but in this case the show’s six Tony Awards, including the one for Best Musical, don’t lie. The songs are fantastic, the book is nicely balanced, and the cast will leave you wanting more.

Cyndi Lauper’s original songs place the show somewhere between a traditional and a jukebox musical. Lauper struck a nice balance between catchy songs that can stand alone while not jeopardizing structure or chopping up the show with song breaks that bring the story to a halt. “The History of Wrong Guys” has a retro pop vibe while “Not My Father’s Son” is a gentle serenade to dreams, expectations and the internal battles that erupt when those dreams don’t align with reality. Kinky Boots features one of the most fun finales seen on stage in quite some time. The final number, “Raise You Up/Just Be” is an anthem to self-acceptance that is so upbeat and positive that, on this night, it brought the audience to their feet, clapping and dancing with joy.

Harvey Fierstein, a Broadway veteran both as an actor and book writer, turned in another hit. In adapting the film of the same name for the stage, Fierstein has once again proven that he is much more than Robin Williams' gay brother in Mrs. Doubtfire, he is a Broadway tour de force with a knack for bringing humanity to all manner of characters. Rife with one-liners that keep the tone from veering into preachy territory, Fierstein expertly handled the juxtaposition of teaching tolerance in a shoe factory with a drag queen as educator.

Photo: Matthew Murphy
The current national tour cast is absolutely spectacular. At the performance I attended, the cast included Darius Harper (Lola), Steven Booth (Charlie) and Lindsay Nicole Chambers (Lauren). Booth was charming and likable as Charlie, a man who has not yet found his way in life. Chambers, who gets to deliver some of the funniest lines in the show, displayed excellent comedic timing and a strong voice. And as Lola, a man seemingly more confident than Charlie but who identifies with the relationship Charlie had with his father, Harper embodied the role so well that it’s hard to imagine any other actor in the role. In his portrayal, Harper did not cross the line that would have been easy to cross, that is, to turn Lola into a caricature. Harper imbues Lola with a spirit that will ring true to audiences of all kinds.

I saw the show a few weeks ago and it has stuck with me, so much so that I was compelled to implore you to see the show if you get a chance. I make no guarantees, but if you like upbeat, positive storylines mixed with catchy tunes then Kinky Boots will suit you like a well-fitting pair of heels.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

The Best TV Shows Start With the Letter 'P'

On the surface, Parenthood and Parks and Recreation may not appear to have a lot in common. After all, Parenthood is a family drama and Parks is a workplace comedy. But when the labels are stripped away, Parenthood and Parks are remarkably similar. Both have skillfully handled developing large casts of characters and they value what is becoming a rarity: human connection.

Parenthood follows Zeek and Camille Braverman’s four grown children, all of whom now have children of their own. Adam, the eldest, is raising a headstrong teenage daughter and a son diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome. Eldest daughter Sarah, still struggling to find her place in the world after a failed marriage, swallows her pride and moves back in with her parents. Younger son Crosby, the likable goofball, is forced to grow up when he learns of a five-year old son he did not know he had. Youngest child Julia is coming to grips with the fact that having the career she wants and being the kind of mother she wants may not be as easy as she once thought. In addition to the four siblings, all of the secondary characters are given a life all their own. Zeek and Camille hit a rough patch after decades of marriage; the siblings’ children grow, change and move on. While those subjects may read like typical television fare, all of the characters are so uniquely formed that Parenthood successfully steers clear of stereotypical storylines and instead skillfully and honestly reflects the ups and downs of family life.

Parks and Recreation follows an equally large group. Leslie and Ron are the sun in the Parks universe, but all of the characters that orbit around them are just as important to the makeup of the show. Among them: Leslie’s self-professed Geek husband Ben, brooding April and lovable lug Andy, ‘treat yo self’ proponents Tom and Donna, and office punching bag Jerry/Gerry/Larry/Terry.  And let’s not forget characters come and gone: Mr. Positivity Chris Traeger and kind-hearted goofball Ann Perkins, Leslie’s best friend in the world.  And whether it is Andy navigating adulthood from shoe shine boy to kid’s singing sensation Johnny Karate or Tom’s grasping for greatness through Snake Juice, Entertainment 720 and Tom’s Bistro, all of the characters navigate life in a way that is unique to each of them as individuals while still being easy to identify with.

It is a credit to the creators, writers, and the rest of the crew on these amazing shows that the characters have not been reduced to stereotypes and that portraying the frustrations, anxieties and joys of life was not avoided. Too often, characters on television become diluted versions of their early selves, but not so in the world of Parenthood and Parks. Each character, and their reactions to life’s curveballs, pulses with an energy that is all their own and that did not diminish after many seasons on air.

Perfect gift: The gang made a gingerbread Parks Dept for Leslie
Parenthood and Parks also share a core value: the importance of connection. One of the foundations on which Parks is built is the notion that a group of people can care for one another, that not every group (especially those portrayed in pop culture) is ripe with false niceties, backstabbing and animosity. They may have strange ways of expressing their feelings and it does not mean they will always agree with one another, but the tie that binds cannot be broken. Ron, in general, is not open to new people or ideas but when he shows Ann how to perform simple home repairs, during a Halloween party no less, he reveals that not only does he trust that she is capable, he is also surreptitiously teaching her valuable skills. When Donna and Tom attempt to cheer up a heartbroken Ben by inviting him to partake in their “treat yo’ self” day of luxury and overspending, we see that underneath their too cool exterior they are kind, caring individuals. But the true heart of Parks beats in the relationship between Leslie and Ron. They are opposites that don’t necessarily attract. Ron and Leslie recognize each other’s value and that they are better people because of their relationship. The examples of he unique quality of their friendship are numerous, but the most recent episode “Leslie and Ron” was an incredible summation. The beginning of the episode begins with Leslie and Ron nearly boiling over with hatred for one another (for a reason not yet known by the audience) until their friends lock them in the parks department office with the hope they will resolve their differences. Their reaction to forced togetherness, from both of them trying to trick Terry to unlock the door, to Leslie covering Ron with Post-Its in an effort to coax him to talk and their eventual reconciliation was hilarious, heartfelt and carried out with perfect tone.

In a culture that rewards self-sustainment and relies on social media channels that, in actuality, often results in a lifestyle that is the opposite of social, Parenthood champions the fact that family can be our greatest lifeline. When Crosby is frightened by his lack of connection with his newborn daughter, he turns to his brother Adam for reassurance. And when Sarah’s son, Drew, is shaken by his girlfriend’s unexpected pregnancy he goes first to his sister and then to his mom for support. Parenthood truly soars in the scenes that feature just the four adult siblings doing what all of us with siblings can relate to: talking about kids, about work and about our parents. Their conversations are at times tense and confrontational and others are filled with joy. 

When Parenthood and Parks and Recreation sign off, on January 29th and February 24th respectively, they will leave behind a hole in the television landscape. Where will one turn to find smart, funny, realistic characters that demonstrate the value of human connection?

Monday, July 15, 2013

The Heat is Undeniably Cool

The Heat, starring Melissa McCarthy and Sandra Bullock, is one of the coolest movies released by a major studio in quite some time. I am not a buddy cop kind of person, but with these two stars I was drawn to see The Heat, and am I so glad that I did.

Bullock plays straight-laced FBI agent Ashburn, who is sent to Boston where she must work on a case with a brash, foul-mouthed detective named Mullins, played by McCarthy. Bullock is a gifted comedian in her own right but she expertly plays the straight man to McCarthy's wild-eyed brazenness. Mullins nor Ashburn have any strong relationships, familial or otherwise, so working with each other presents quite a challenge. While some of the film's humor comes from Mullins' incredibly filthy language, the real humor lies in the stars' ability to play off of each other. Some of the biggest laughs come when Mullins aims a simple zinger directly at Ashburn . For instance, when Mullins learns that Ashburn was briefly married the first words out of her mouth are "Was he a hearing man?" McCarthy and Bullock are also wonderful physical comedians and the scenes in a night club and a seedy bar are ripe with  pratfalls, awkward dance moves, and hilarious facial expressions.

Since The Heat is a cop comedy, there is a secondary plot line involving taking down a drug lord. But the plot is surprisingly easy to follow and while there are a couple moments that feel a little too convenient, the cop storyline did not detract from the evolution of Ashburn and Mullins' relationship and did not leave me puzzled as to what the creators were trying to accomplish, a huge bonus in a buddy cop movie. Credit must be given to the film's writer Katie Dippold and its' director Paul Feig. The pair have created a movie that is well-paced and toes the line of shock humor without going over it.

Given that The Heat is a comedy starring two women, much has been written about its' success and the fact that it helps prove that female stars can carry a movie and female audiences will pay to see a movie in a theater. The same was said after Bridesmaids and many movies before that; the argument will be made again and again. However, focusing on the supposed surprise that women can carry a successful movie only gives the impression that The Heat is a flash in the pan, a fluke, so we will not discuss that here. Rather, watch the trailer and go to Fandango to buy your tickets to the next showing.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Singing and Dancing All Through the Night

Is there anything better than a good song and dance routine? I would argue that a song or a dance that pops up unexpectedly is the crème de la crème. If you’ve read any previous posts on this blog, and if you are reading this now then you probably have, it goes without saying that musicals and movie musicals are my favorite forms of entertainment. Even non-traditional types of musical movies are right in my wheelhouse. Here I am referring to the Pitch Perfect-type movies that are not musicals but rely heavily on song and dance as a part of the plot. Side note, if you have not seen Pitch Perfect, get on board, I haven’t actually watched it in weeks but I have one of the numbers stuck in my head right now.

But what’s even better than a movie revolving around music is when a musical number springs forth when you least expect it. The examples are numerous. Elf wouldn’t be the same without the residents of New York City gathering together and singing “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” to spread Christmas cheer and power Santa’s sleigh. Another scene I can watch over and over is the Barry The Cuda's scene in My Best Friend’s Wedding. This is of course the scene in which Julia Roberts’ dining partners, and eventually the entire restaurant, break out into “I Say A Little Prayer.”  Both of these examples are cases in which joy is spread through song. Music does not exclusively express happiness. For example, take Steve Carell’s beautiful, if a touch off pitch, rendition of “Let My Love Open the Door” in Dan in Real Life. Carell radiates a contradictory mix of pent up sorrow and new-found bliss that is heartbreaking and life affirming at the same time.

When actors perform the songs it feels like a special treat, but song breaks that are paired with the endlessly popular montage sequence are also irresistible. Who doesn’t love the montage set to “Runaround Sue” in the family classic Little Big League? I love it, and if you haven’t seen it you will love it, too. The musical montage technique is popular for a dress shopping or a ‘show off the wardrobe’ scene, and numerous films have featured actors twirling in front of a mirror while a sidekick stands nearby giving an opinion that we all know will not matter in the end. 27 Dresses comes to mind, not a great movie, but the scene in which the main character shows off all of the bridesmaids dresses she has worn serves to illustrate my point.

Why are these types of scenes so appealing? Because music is universal. You do not need to speak the same language or even understand the lyrics, but when an up-tempo song starts playing, the average person reacts by tapping their feet or letting their lips curl into a smile.