Archive for the ‘Movies, TV and Theater’ Category

IMG_0564I read the first Percy Jackson book years ago, and don’t remember much beyond the monster fights, but when I had an opportunity to see the musical based on Rick Riordan’s series, I couldn’t resist. How on earth were they going to pull off all the special effects?

As it turns out, the musical’s low-budget vibe may be its greatest selling point. Staged at the Lucille Lortel Theater—a tiny, no-frills space—the cast and crew reveled in their underdog status. The minimalist set consisted of scaffolding that could have been stolen from any NYC sidewalk. And the costumes—especially the papier-mâché monster heads—looked like something assembled from the contents of a Michaels store. A centaur costume is achieved with nothing more than a stringy tail and strategic prancing. A simple cart doubles as a bus and a motorcycle. And the swords were definitely covered in aluminum foil. There’s even a throwaway line about the tackiness of off-Broadway plays. Since the book itself is so ridiculous, with new monsters and mythical creatures appearing every page, the musical embraces that feel, and the reality of its budget, by not taking itself too seriously. No money for a fight choreographer? Stage every fight scene in semi-darkness, with flashing lights, lots of yelling and clanking sword sounds. Our imaginations will fill in the rest.


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Old news to the world, but new news to me so Imma blog about it: Neil Gaiman guest starred on “Arthur.”

In the episode, “Falafelosophy,” Gaimen shows up as a pale unidentified animal with pointy ears and encourages Sue Ellen through the process of writing her first graphic novel, first as himself and then as a falafel-sized figment of Sue Ellen’s imagination.

“Trust your heart, trust your story,” Falafel-Gaimen tells her, when she frets that her friends won’t enjoy her weird story about feuding triangles and circles. “You can’t assume your audience are all squares!”

Other classic lines include:

“Neil Gaiman, what are you doing in my falafel?”

(response) “I’m your Neil Gaiman. I’m your inner Neil, as it were.”

“You don’t want to be stuck with a warm smoothing. It’s like drinking fruity bathwater.”

“Writing can’t be just about pleasing other people. You’ve got a story to tell and you’re the only one who can tell it.”

And this quote from Instructions: “What you seek will be found. Trust ghosts. Trust those that you have helped to help you in their turn. Trust dreams. Trust your heart, and trust your story.”

The folks behind Arthur are on point with their guest stars. Since Neil Gaimean is like a gateway drug for elementary kids to nerdy, creepily imaginative and emotionally honest stories and writing, this is an extremely encouraging episode for any budding writer. Here it is in all its animated Neil Gaiman glory:

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I was lucky enough to catch the musical Allegiance on Broadway last month, in one of its last performances (it closes Feb. 14). Loosely based on George Takei’s childhood memories of his family’s time at a Japanese-American internment camp, it’s a stunning story, and a crash course on a part of American history that’s often skated over (spoilers below).


The sign outside the theater, referring to this amazing video: http://tinyurl.com/gwqxpwz

As the title suggests, the musical explores allegiance in all its forms. What makes it so wonderful is how every character responds differently to how, or if, they should be loyal to the U.S. government after it’s labeled all Japanese-Americans as enemies and locked them behind barbed-wire fences.

The main character, Sam Kimura, joins the army because he thinks it will restore the public’s trust in Japanese-Americans. Sam’s father can’t understand how his son could fight for a country that’s treated them so badly, and when the government sends out a “loyalty questionnaire” to sniff out traitors, Mr. Kimura answers honestly (no, he isn’t willing to serve in the armed forces, and he can’t swear absolute allegiance to the United States), even though he knows it will land him in a labor camp away from his family.

Meanwhile, Sam’s sister Kei falls in love with a young man at the camp named Frankie, who burns his draft papers and refuses to serve in the army. Kei just wants to keep her family safe, so she finds herself torn between her brother and her boyfriend–who are at odds with each other–and doesn’t find her own brand of allegiance until the end. Hannah, a white nurse at the camp, has a different kind of struggle, as she tries to reconcile her love for Sam with societal expectations.

The boldest statement about allegiance comes from Sam and Kei’s grandfather Ojii-chan (the Japanese word for “grandpa”). In a lovely moment of resistance, he takes the hated questionnaire and folds it into an origami flower, which Kei wears in her hair. (more…)

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The reviews for The Giver movie are trickling in, and it’s as I feared. The movie’s being described as yet another YA dystopia action thriller à la Divergent or The Hunger Games, complete with a love triangle (gulp. There goes Lowry’s request to the filmmakers). Worst of all, some of the reviewers have clearly never read the book:

From The Guardian:

One can easily see why this is such a popular book, especially with teens roiling with angst and hoping to lash out at society.

From The New York Times:

Ms. Lowry’s “The Giver” preceded both the “Hunger Games” and “Divergent” book series, to name two popular feel-bad sagas. Yet because both “The Hunger Games” and “Divergent” hit the screen first, the movie version of “The Giver” — scene by formulaic scene, narrative cliché by cliché — can’t help but come off as a poor copy of those earlier pictures.

Thank goodness for this bit of sanity from Slate, which separates the book from the movie:

There are no bad guys in The Giver, exactly. It’s a book about the evil that good people can commit when they complacently submit to societal pressure—a book about how evil functions in the real world, in other words.

It would be difficult, but not impossible, for a skilled filmmaker to adapt Lowry’s novel into a quiet, intelligent movie, something along the lines of 2010’s Never Let Me Go. Phillip Noyce’s The Giver, in wide release today, is not that movie. Where Lowry’s book is subtle, disarmingly simple, and humane, Noyce’s film is loud, overly complicated, and cynical.

I think I’ll go drown my sorrows by re-reading the quartet, and never reading another Giver movie review, let alone watch the actual movie.

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…because based on the trailer, I’m terrified. Let us count the reasons:

1. The set design: all that glass and steel makes the movie look like a slick YA blockbuster, a derivative mix of The Hunger Games, Ender’s Game and the Divergent trailer. I’d always pictured the community as white picket fence suburbia, and I know I’m not the only one who expected part of the movie to be filmed in black and white–but everything in the trailer was in full color. They seem to be trying to drum up excitement with hovercrafts! explosions! stormtrooper police and an evil be-wigged Meryl Streep! so there goes any hope of subtlety.

2. There’s a redheaded teenage girl who I presume is Fiona. We see Jonas urging her to stop taking the medicine, to wake up and understand what the Community is missing. Presumably she listens, and at some point we see her kissing Jonas, which is ridiculous. I have no problem with an older Jonas, or even increasing Fiona’s role. But this is not the book to insert Extra Teenage Romance Angst. Save it for something where it would make sense (like Team Human, which is crying out for a campy, melodramatic adaptation). [Note: if I’m wrong, and it’s actually Rosemary, that’s even more messed up. Star-crossed lovers across time, yeesh]

3. The Giver hinges on the Community’s blissful ignorance: there’s no omniscient dictator suppressing his people, no nefarious plot to keep them docile. So why add Meryl Streep spouting clichéd lines about choice and freedom? You may as well replace her with President Snow or icy Kate Winslet from the Divergent trailer. The Community’s dystopia is chilling because it runs on autopilot, because the decision for Sameness was made long ago and no one is capable of understanding what Jonas and the Giver know. In the book, Jonas’ loneliness drives the plot. Make Fiona his sidekick and that tension disappears.

4. The worst possibility: we see Fiona injecting something into her wrist. I hope it’s just the daily injection. But if not, and she’s actually Released, then I have an awful feeling that watching her Release is what pushes Jonas to leave the Community. Compare that to what happens in the book, where he falls apart over the death of a baby he doesn’t even know, killed by his uncomprehending father. That compassion is kind of the point, not romantic angst…

Maybe I’m too pessimistic. Maybe the trailer is misleading us to increase controversy and publicity. But if I’m right, then the filmmakers have alienated a lot of people: those of us who grew up reading and loving The Giver, and others who’ve never read it, and now assume it’s a copycat Hunger Games thriller. Either way, that can’t be good for box office numbers. And worst of all, Lois Lowry will have to say she likes the movie, whether she does or not.

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IMAG0923When moving from book medium to play medium, a good adaptation is just as important as good source material. Sadly, this was not the case for Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy. Based on Gary D. Schmidt’s depressing Newbery honor-winning book of the same name and adapted by Cheryl L. West, Emerson Stage’s production more often than not goes through the motions of playing Lizzie Bright without actually capturing the spirit of Lizzie Bright.

As in the book, young Turner Ernest Buckminster the Third, the preacher’s boy, feels like a fish out of water when his family moves against his will from Boston to Phippsburg, Maine. Unlike the book, his family consists of just him and his strict father, a widowed minister, since Turner’s mother was written out of existence. Unable to make friends with any of the Phippsburg boys, to the town and his father’s disapproval, Turner ends up befriending Lizzie Bright, a black girl his age who can throw and hit a baseball like no other. She lives on Malaga Island, just across the bay. Unfortunately, the town leaders see Malaga as an eyesore, especially if their plans to turn Phippsburg into a vacation resort are to move ahead.

Along the way, Turner bleeds all over his starched white shirts, looks into the eye of a whale, and is drafted as punishment into reading poetry and playing hymns for Mrs. Cobb–a crotchety old woman obsessed with documenting her last words. This leads up to a scene that’s as hilarious in person as it is on the page. If only the rest of the book’s nuance was retained as well. (more…)

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hobbit playAfter suffering through the first ponderous, overly epic Hobbit movie, it was a relief to attend last weekend’s performance of The Hobbit at the Wheelock Family Theater. The play had a whimsical, homemade quality and relied mostly on kid actors. It reminded me that The Hobbit is a children’s book written to entertain–not, as certain filmmakers would have us believe–created so bearded actors could monologue on fate and courage and whatnot.

The actors clearly had a lot of fun. Most of the dwarves were kids with (hilarious) fake beards who spoke in a mishmash of British accents. (One of the dwarves was so small she could fit into a barrel—and she did, which makes sense if you remember a certain detail from the plot). Bilbo, played by one of the few adult actors (Andrew Barbato), was quite convincing as the unexpected hero. But my vote for best actor goes to the Elven Queen (Monique Nicole McIntyre), who had more stage presence than anyone else, despite having just a few lines. She made the elves look dignified and respectable, which, given their abysmal costumes and drunkenness (more on that later), is quite a feat.

A lot of the fun came from seeing what the theater could do with a limited budget. They used stairs and lighting tricks to make the stage look bigger than it was, and the costumes were simply ingenious. Some highlights:

  • the Mirkwood spiders will surely inspire great Halloween costumes. They used stiff gray capes and dangling plastic legs, and fantastic headpieces with silver Christmas tree ornaments for eyes (eight of them per person).
  • furry hobbit feet were solved by stick-on yarn patches. I’m surprised no one’s foot hair fell off.
  • the dwarves sang songs from the book as they traveled. It helped set the scene for their quirky adventure, and made the small stage seem larger than it was.
  • playwright Patricia Gray kept the plot rolling along nicely. Instead of stopping in Rivendell so Elrond could decipher the moon letters, Gandalf does that at the beginning in Bag’s End. But fear not, instead of drunken elves in Rivendell, we get drunken elves in Mirkwood.
  • ah yes, those Mirkwood elves. As much as I admired most of the costumes, it really fell apart for these elves. They looked like cheetahs. Cheetahs in trees—skintight animal print clothing with green skirts and dresses. It was pretty hard to take them seriously, despite the whole locking-up-the-dwarves problem.
  • and Smaug? I won’t ruin the surprise, but it was impressive. He did tend to drown out Bilbo’s voice, which is a shame.

So, while I wasn’t exactly wowed by the acting, I had a good time. Besides, with a 1h45min running time, this play could teach Peter Jackson a lot about the virtues of a condensed script.

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Jen took this photo during our unsuccessful bid to secure tickets via a lottery.

Jen took this photo during our unsuccessful bid to secure tickets via a lottery.

I was lucky enough to get tickets last week to see Matilda, which I’ve wanted to see ever since it came out in London. Unfortunately Jen had left New York by then, so it was just me. Here are some spoiler-lite highlights:

  • there are plenty of surprises, even if you, like me, have listened to the soundtrack more times than is healthy and know the book inside and out
  • the set was covered in what looked like gigantic Scrabble tiles, and it was fun picking out the words. I found “joy” and “child” and “Alice,” presumably of the Wonderland variety
  • for anyone who’s wondering how they managed the Bruce Bogtrotter Cake Eating Miracle, fear not. No children were force-fed in the making of this musical. I suspect secret compartments or hidden pockets, though it was hard to tell from my balcony seat.
  • there’s a clever use of shadow puppet art that reminds me of the Tale of the Three Brothers from the seventh Harry Potter Movie (arguably the best scene of the entire movie series…)
  • remember the part in the book when Matilda tells Miss Honey about all the books she’s read, Dickens and Bronte and all those classics? She does that too in the musical, with some noteworthy additions. The one that got the best laugh was Lord of the Rings. Clearly I wasn’t the only geek in the audience.

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cover_wtmmtmWe’re always jealous of people who live in New York when it comes to their proximity to plays and musicals based on kids’ books (we’re still dreaming of seeing Matilda). But the upcoming theater season in Boston makes us glad to be where we are:

The Hobbit (Oct 25 – Nov 24): strategically timed to coincide with the movie. We’re especially looking forward to the Smaug puppet. Since it’s at the Wheelock Family Theatre, will the dwarves be played by kids and teens?

Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy (Oct 31 – Nov 3): will be monumentally depressing (how will they stage the whale?). Better bring tissues. Don’t think we’ll be okay for now when we leave the theater.

Where the Mountain Meets the Moon (Apr 11- May 11, 2014): Another dragon on stage! And good incentive for me to read the book before May, when WtMMtM makes its East Coast debut, also at the Wheelock.

Also, in non-kidlit theater news, at least two local theater companies are putting on Chekov’s The Seagull this season. Would you recommend it? For those in the Boston area, please feel free to share productions we shouldn’t miss out on.

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Well, Professor Umbridge would be the last person to wish you all a happy weekend, so it stands to reason she’s gracing us with her presence on a Monday (incidentally, her favorite day of the week.)


Doesn’t she look smashing in pink?



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