Saturday, February 28, 2015

Ghost

I am not a fan of the current trend on Broadway of turning popular movies into stage musicals; however, Hale Centre Theatre seems very fond of producing them (9 to 5,  Catch Me If You Can, Big, The Wedding Singer, and Footloose are a few that come to mind).  I almost always attend these shows because I am a fan of the original movie but, with the exception of Catch Me If You Can, I am usually disappointed.  That is definitely the case with HCT's latest offering, Ghost, which I saw last night.  It tells the well-known love story of Sam Wheat (Derek Smith), who is murdered in a robbery gone wrong, and Molly Jensen (Bre Welch), the woman he loves and watches over.  Both of these lead actors are incredibly talented, but I feel that they were miscast.  The songs have a pop feel to them and their voices were much too controlled and their enunciation was too perfect for that style of singing.  I kept wanting them to let loose and sing the blues. Then again, maybe their lackluster performances should be blamed on the material.  In my opinion, none of the songs are even remotely memorable.  It is as if full pages of dialogue from the screenplay were simply put to the accompaniment of music.   So contrived.  The only song I enjoyed was "Unchained Melody" but I thought it was completely overused. There wasn't much chemistry between the two leads (this could be due to the fact that, like the last show I saw, the actors were a mix of the MWF and THS casts).   In the famous pottery wheel scene, Welch seemed more focused on making the perfect pot rather than responding to the caresses of her lover.  All of my attention was focused on the pot, as well, because there wasn't much else going on, especially when compared to that particular scene in the movie.  I did enjoy McKenna K. Jensen's performance as Oda Mae Brown and I thought the special effects were incredible, especially the scenes on the subway. However, the set design was a rare miss for Kacey Udy.  Much of the action takes place on a large platform above the stage, which is cool, but I couldn't really see anything from where I was sitting and that was definitely irritating. There was a piano, cello, and violin trio playing on other platforms which were lowered from the ceiling at various times but I didn't really understand the significance. Again, it was cool, but it didn't contribute to the story in any way.  Bottom line: give this one a miss. Find your old VHS copy of the movie and watch it instead.

Friday, February 27, 2015

All the Light We Cannot See

In February my book club chose to read All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr and I literally couldn't put it down, reading well into the night and on my lunch hour to finish it.  I loved this book so much!  I had to know how what happened but, at the same time, I was sad to finish it!  The story is set during the Nazi occupation of France and the narrative alternates between Marie-Laure LeBlanc, a blind girl living in the ancient town of St. Malo on the northern coast of France, and Werner Pfennig, an orphan who is sent to a prestigious military school in Germany because of his engineering skills.  Both of these characters are wonderfully developed and I began to care about them immediately.  Marie-Laure loves the book 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne and wants to explore the world around her despite her overprotective father.  Werner is grateful for the opportunity to leave the dreary life of a coal miner that he was destined for to join the army but questions the brutality of the Nazis (I loved the character of Werner because I don't think all Germans of this era should be described as evil in absolute terms).  What ties these two characters together are radio airwaves (described as invisible filaments of light connecting everyone).  Marie-Laure and her family use the radio to send information to help the Resistance while Werner helps develop triangulation methods to locate the radios that are illegally broadcasting. When their stories converge during the aftermath of the D-Day invasion, it is heartrendingly beautiful! I loved so many things about this book!  I spent some time in the city of St. Malo when I was younger and Doerr's incredibly descriptive language transported me back there: I could feel the wind on my face, taste the salt from the breeze on my tongue, hear the sound of the crashing waves, feel the cobblestone streets under my feet, and see the majestic city walls all around me as I read. Such an amazing setting.  Doerr also brilliantly captures the anguish Werner feels when he realizes that everything he has been taught is a lie.  Not only did I love the characters of Marie-Laure and Werner but I also enjoyed the cast of supporting characters, especially Madame Medec and her "Old Ladies Resistance Club," Jutta, Werner's sister, who is dismayed at the thought of her brother turning into a Nazi, and Etienne, so traumatized by the Great War that he cannot leave his house.  I have a particular fondness for historical fiction, especially World War II, but this novel transcends the genre.  I would highly recommend it to everyone for its compelling story, strong characterization, and beautiful prose!

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Mr. Turner

Last night I saw Mr. Turner, a luminous biography of the popular British landscape painter J.M.W. Turner.  Through a series of vignettes depicting the final years of his life, we see Turner's relationships with his father, his devoted housekeeper, his two lovers, one of whom is the mother of the two children he refuses to acknowledge, his aristocratic patrons, and the other members of the Royal Academy of Arts.  This film brilliantly explores the fine line between genius and madness in scenes where Turner ties himself to the mast of a ship in a snowstorm to observe its effects, paints a red splotch on one of his paintings when he hears another painting which prominently features the color red praised, visits a brothel to sketch one of the prostitutes, and runs from his deathbed into the street to sketch a girl who has drowned.  Another scene I particularly enjoyed was when the art critic John Ruskin (hilariously played by Joshua McGuire) analyzes one of Turner's paintings on and on at length prompting Turner to ask him his opinion of steak and kidney pie.  I laughed out loud at this because I just had a conversation with a friend who told me that sometimes a flower is just a flower.  Critics (and English teachers) have a tendency to read too much into art (and literature).  The cinematography in this film is as beautiful as one of Turner's paintings.  I especially loved the dazzling play of light throughout much of the film.  The character actor Timothy Spall, known primarily for portraying Peter Pettigrew in the Harry Potter movies, gives an incredibly nuanced performance as Turner.  The growl used to show his displeasure is most effective (it certainly elicited a lot of response from the audience during my particular screening) and the look on his face when he overhears Queen Victoria criticize one of his paintings is nothing short of heartbreaking.  Dorothy Atkinson also gives a wonderful performance as Turner's much abused housekeeper.  The scene when she learns of Turner's double life is devastating.  It is a moving film about a flawed and complicated man which I enjoyed very much.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Let's Go Jazz

For the past little while Sean has been asking me to take him to a Jazz game.  I usually take him to at least one game every season so a couple of weeks ago I told him we could go to the next weekend game which happened to be last night against the Portland Trailblazers.  Unlike the last game I took him to, this one was actually really good but Sean didn't care!  Before the game started I told him that I really wanted the Jazz to win because they have been struggling.  He told me that it didn't matter because he would have a good time even if they lost.  He always has such a good attitude!  Because of the Enes Kanter trade, Rudy Gobert was a starter for the first time and there was a lot of hype about it before the game.  Sean was really excited because he got to meet Gobert with his Jr. Jazz team and he has his autographed picture on his wall.  The Trailblazers had a great start and got a quick lead but I thought the Jazz played an outstanding defensive game with lots of blocks and steals and they were able to stay with them.   The lead went back and forth during the first three quarters and then the Jazz went on a 39-10 run in the fourth quarter, including some crowd-pleasing three-pointers, to pull away from the Blazers and ultimately win  92-76.  I've been to a few games this season but this is definitely the most fun I've had!  Not only did the Jazz win against a really good team but Sean is just so entertaining.  The Jazz have a rookie named Rodney Hood but on the display board it says R. Hood.  Sean was absolutely convinced that Robin Hood played for our team!  When he made a three-pointer, Sean yelled, "Robin Hood just scored!"  Everyone looked at us and smiled!
I sure do love this kid!

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

The Crucible

I have read The Crucible, Arthur Miller's brilliant play about the Salem Witch Trials, more times than I can count.  I am, after all, an English teacher.  However, until I saw PTC's wonderful production last night, I had never seen it performed on stage.  To be sure, the play is an absolute masterpiece on the page but it is always magical when you are able to see the written words come to life.  John Proctor (Fletcher McTaggart) had an affair with his serving girl Abigail Williams (Madison Micucci) while his wife Elizabeth (Claire Brownell) was ill.  Abigail was forced to leave their house when Elizabeth learned of the affair and she now lives with her uncle, the Rev. Parris (Paul Kiernan).  Parris is concerned about his daughter Betty, who is very ill, and worries that witchcraft may be involved because he saw Betty, Abigail, and other girls from the town dancing in the woods with his slave, Tituba.  To dispel rumors in the town, he calls the Rev. Hale (J. Todd Adams), a renowned witch expert, to question the girls and Abigail suddenly confesses that Tituba conjured the Devil.  She forces Tituba and the other girls to confess, as well, and they begin accusing all of the women in town of witchcraft.  Abigail becomes very powerful and accuses Elizabeth Proctor as a way to get John back.  As John tries to defend Elizabeth and the wives of his friends, he is ultimately condemned himself.  The play is a powerful indictment against mass hysteria (Miller wrote the play during the era of McCarthyism) and this production features some powerful performances.  Micucci is absolutely brilliant as the conniving and manipulative Abigail.  Her facial expressions are especially effective, whether she is "seeing spirits," seducing John, or coercing the girls to do as she commands.  The scene when she and the girls are possessed during the trial is amazing.  McTaggart gives an incredibly passionate performance as the guilt-ridden Proctor.  I was literally holding my breath when he asks Elizabeth to forgive him before going to the scaffold.  The audience gave him a rousing standing ovation and he seemed genuinely taken aback by it!  I loved the sparse set, which easily transformed into the interior of various houses, a barn, and a courtroom, but the costumes were not what I was expecting (I wanted everyone to be wearing black for some reason).  I highly recommend seeing this play but I realize that it might not be for everyone.  A teenage girl sitting behind me complained that she didn't understand what was going on (she obviously does not attend Hunter High School) and the couple sitting next to me didn't return after the intermission.  Nevertheless, if you enjoyed this play in high school, go here for tickets.  It will run until Feb. 28 at PTC.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Sweethearts Dance 2015

I believe in karma.  When I was in high school I couldn't care less about any of the activities!  I didn't go to the dances, I think I went to two football games in three years (most likely under duress), and my friends and I used to critique every assembly.  To punish me for this behavior, the universe conspired to make me the student government advisor.  Now I am consumed by these activities!  For the past month my student body officers and I have been planning the annual Sweethearts Dance.  This was my fourth dance as the advisor and it is incredible to me the amount of work that goes into something like this!  When we had our first planning meeting to think of the theme, one of the officers immediately suggested "Lonely Hearts Club."  At first I thought it was an odd theme for a dance celebrating love but the more we talked about it the more we liked it.  Everyone we mentioned it to would give us a funny look and then tell us how clever it was.  I, of course, thought it was a reference to the Beatles (and so did my administrator) but my officers had never heard of the song.  Apparently there is a series of books?  I don't know.  We decided to use a playing card motif with the suit of hearts for our posters, banners, and decorations and we spent many nights after school making giant playing cards.  By now I have found a great photographer (Lifetouch), a fantastic DJ (JBrent Productions), and I use the students in the HHS Culinary Arts class as the caterers.  Their phone numbers are on speed dial!  We sold tickets during both lunches all last week and we spent our day off last Friday decorating (I had to go to seven different Zurcher's stores to get all of the metallic curtains we needed).  It was on Saturday so I spent my Valentine's Day chaperoning a dance (so did my sister and several of my friends for which I am very grateful) but it was actually really fun!  We had a great turnout and the students I talked to said that they had a good time.  I am really proud of my student body officers for all of their hard work but I am definitely glad that it is over (and I'm glad that today is another day off from school)!

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Still Alice

Yesterday afternoon I went to see Julianne Moore in Still Alice.  She was my final Best Actress nominee (see my commentaries on Rosamund Pike, Felicity Jones, and Reese Witherspoon) and I was particularly eager to see her performance as it has generated a fair amount of Oscar buzz with Golden Globe, BAFTA, and Screen Actors Guild Award wins.  Moore plays Dr. Alice Howland, a professor of linguistics at Columbia University who is diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer's disease at the age of 50.  It is an intense character study of a woman, known for her ambition, intelligence, and ability to communicate, who loses the very core of her identity and struggles to maintain relationships with her equally ambitious husband (Alec Baldwin) and her children Anna (Kate Bosworth), Tom (Hunter Parish), and Lydia (Kristen Stewart).  Moore gives a gripping tour-de-force performance.  You can literally see pieces of Alice slipping away bit by bit in each frame of the movie and this is particularly apparent when a nearly demented Alice watches a video she made after first receiving her diagnosis where she meticulously instructs her future self on how to kill herself.  The transformation is incredible, especially in light of the fact that most movies are not shot chronologically.  Moore's emotionally nuanced portrayal  draws the audience into the fear and anxiety she feels constantly.  She is most affecting when Alice gets lost jogging on the campus where she has taught for 20 years, when she visits a nursing home and the staff assumes she is looking on behalf of an elderly parent, and when she, who once traveled the country giving lectures, gives a faltering speech to an Alzheimer's symposium.  Directors Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland chose to shoot many scenes with a shallow depth of field leaving much out of focus and many conversations occur in the periphery of the scene, effectively emphasizing Alice's confusion.   While this movie is definitely a vehicle for Moore, Baldwin gives a strong performance as a man who tries to be supportive but, ultimately, doesn't want his life disrupted and Stewart shines as Alice's ne'er-do-well daughter who is the only one who really sees (and accepts) what Alice is going through.   Still Alice is very sad but I highly recommend it.

Note:  I saw Marion Cotillard, the remaining Best Actress nominee, in Two Days, One Night last week but I didn't especially like the movie so I didn't review it.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Swan Lake

Last night I attended Ballet West's production of Swan Lake.  I almost didn't go because I thought nothing could compare to the performance I saw of this ballet in Russia.  While seeing such a quintessentially Russian ballet performed in the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg will always be one of the most magical experiences of my life, I'm really glad I got to see Ballet West's version.  It was absolutely wonderful! Prince Siegfried goes into the woods to hunt and aims his bow at a swan who becomes a beautiful woman named Odette.  She explains that she is a swan by day and a woman at night because she is under the spell of an evil sorcerer, the Baron von Rothbert. Only true love can break the spell but, as the sun comes up, Odette reverts back to a swan and Siegfried returns home to celebrate his birthday with a grand ball.  Many princesses vie for his attention because he must marry to inherit the throne.  He ignores them, thinking only of Odette.  Suddenly, Rothbert enters the ballroom with his daughter Odile, who looks exactly like Odette.  Thinking that she is Odette, Siegfried declares his love to Odile.  When Rotherbert reveals his treachery, Siegfried rushes to Odette to beg forgiveness which she grants.  They eventually find a way to defeat Rothbert and end the spell in a very dramatic ending.  Beau Pearson, as Siegfried, and Christiana Bennett (one of my favorite Ballet West dancers), as Odette/Odile, danced their roles beautifully and I especially loved their Pas de Deux. I also really enjoyed the Swan Maidens because they were so synchronized with very elaborate formations and the Hungarian dance at Siegfried's ball because it was very dramatic. The score by Tchaikovsky is absolutely exquisite!  The music during the Pas de Deux between Odette and Siegfried is incredibly romantic (right up there with the Pas de Deux between the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Cavalier in The Nutcracker).  I think all of Tchaikovsky's music is so beautiful and emotional and the choreography of this ballet really suits this particular piece!  The costumes are gorgeous and the sets are quite spectacular, especially the ballroom (I loved the chandeliers).  It was such an amazing production (one of Ballet West's best, in my opinion) and I definitely recommend getting a ticket to one of the few remaining performances. Go here for tickets and information.

Note:  Taylor Swift used costumes from Ballet West's production of Swan Lake in the video for "Shake It Off."

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Mahler's Symphony No. 3

It has been quite a while since I last saw the Utah Symphony (at least for me) so I was very happy to end a long week back at Abravanel Hall with an incredible concert featuring Symphony No. 3 by Gustav Mahler.  The Utah Symphony is performing the entire Mahler symphony cycle this season and next to commemorate their 75th anniversary and to honor the legacy of Maurice Abravanel.  I am not very familiar with Mahler but I am starting to really appreciate his work (Symphony No. 1 was amazing).  This particular piece was absolutely magnificent!  The orchestra was joined by mezzo-soprano Tamara Mumford, the women from the Utah Symphony Chorus, and the Madeleine School Choir.  I had goosebumps almost from the opening notes played by the horn section (eight of them).  The first movement was very dramatic, featuring a rousing march and a wonderful theme played by a solo trombone.  The second movement was very playful, in my opinion, with themes played by the oboes and clarinets (I love it when the woodwinds are featured).  According to Mahler, this movement represents flowers and it was probably my favorite section of the symphony.  The third movement included a solo trumpet played off stage and this was amazing!  The fourth movement featured Mumford, who gave a lovely performance.  The text is based on Friedrich Nietzsche's "Midnight Song" and I found it to be both beautiful and atmospheric.  Mumford was joined by both choirs in the fifth movement and I particularly loved when the children imitated bells.  The final movement was also incredibly dramatic.  It started very slowly and softly and then built to an incredible crescendo featuring the timpani.  This symphony is almost two hours long but the beautiful music carried me away and it seemed to last for just an instant!  I really enjoyed this concert last night and I definitely recommend getting a ticket to tonight's performance.  Go here for tickets and information.

Monday, February 2, 2015

Sundance Film Festival 2015

For ten days in January, independent filmmakers, and the occasional Hollywood celebrity, descend upon Park City to screen their movies at the Sundance Film Festival and, hopefully, find studios willing to distribute them for wide-release.  It is an absolutely magical time for film lovers (some travel from all over the world to be here) because many of the films are world premieres.  I always try to see at least one film every year but this year I decided to go for it and see as many films as my schedule (I didn't take any time off but I am thinking about it for next year) would allow.  I had the opportunity to see ten films in seven days at six venues and I loved every minute of my Sundance experience!  Monday night I saw Unexpected at the Broadway Theatre.  A high school Biology teacher (Cobie Smulders) discovers, unexpectedly, that she is pregnant and is conflicted about potentially losing her identity.  When her best student also discovers that she is pregnant, she channels all of her emotions into getting her student into college at any cost with disastrous results. I really related to this movie because I've worked with students to help them get into college and sometimes it was what I wanted rather than what they wanted.  I cried during a particularly heated scene. Tuesday night I saw Entertainment at the Broadway.  This is one of the strangest films I've ever seen.  A third rate comedian (Gregg Turkington) travels through the Mojave Desert to perform at a series of dubious gigs (one is in a prison), stay in one run-down motel after another, and take some bizarre field trips (an airplane graveyard) to pass the time.  It was a powerful character study of a man being driven to desperation which made me uncomfortable (but that was rather the point).  Wednesday night I drove all the way to Ogden (about an hour north of where I live) because I really wanted to see Brooklyn.  This is a very sweet film about an Irish girl (Saoirse Ronan) who emigrates to New York in the 1950s.  I really loved Ronan's performance and this is one of my favorites of the festival.  Thursday night I saw People, Places, Things at the Rose Wagner Theatre.  Will Henry (Jemaine Clement) is a graphic novelist who is getting over a breakup, learning how to relate to his twin daughters, and trying to date again.  This movie was absolutely hilarious with lots of quick and witty dialogue ("I'm a sassy little hobbit").  I also really liked the use of actual comic strips to tell the story.  Friday night I saw a double feature.  First was Z for Zachariah at the Grand Theatre (a really great venue).  I was so excited when I was able to score a ticket to this film at the last minute because I read the book in Jr. High and it has always stayed with me.  After a nuclear war, Ann Burden (Margot Robbie), who lives in an isolated valley protected by mountains, believes that she is the only survivor.  After a year on her own, she is visited by two other survivors who may not be all that they seem.  The movie deviated from the book quite a bit with the addition of a third character but I enjoyed it.  Next I saw Hellions at the Broadway as part of Sundance's Midnight Madness series.  A pregnant teenager (Chloe Rose) must survive Halloween when a group of demon children attack her to steal her unborn child.  This was actually a really awful movie but I had a lot of fun watching it at midnight with a fun crowd.  Saturday afternoon I saw The Diary of a Teenage Girl at the Grand.  A fifteen year old girl (Bel Powley) has a sexual awakening in 1970s San Francisco.  Powley gives an astonishing performance and is considered by many critics to be the break-out star of the festival. I really loved all of the 1970s music used throughout the film, especially Heart's "Dreamboat Annie."  (I really love that song).  Saturday I saw another Midnight Madness film, The Hallow, at the Broadway.  Adam (Joseph Mawle), along with his wife and infant son, moves from London to a remote area in Ireland to evaluate the forest for future development but he is soon warned by his superstitious neighbors that the forest is haunted by spirits.  Soon, these spirits attack and try to take his son.  It was a predictable plot but the tension leading up to the attack was almost unbearable and the creatures were quite scary.  I spent Sunday morning at the beautiful Sundance Resort for a screening of 71.  A British soldier (Jack O'Connell from Unbroken) is left behind after a riot on the streets of Belfast during "the Troubles."  As he tries to make his way back to the barracks, he his both helped and pursued by various factions and doesn't know who to trust.  It was a very powerful and suspenseful movie.  Finally, my friends Rob and Esther gave me a ticket to see the Dramatic Grand Jury Prize winner at the Eccles Theatre in Park City Sunday afternoon and it turned out to be Me and Earl and the Dying Girl.  I was excited because I really wanted to see this film but was unable to get a ticket!  Greg (Thomas Mann), an awkward teenager, and his only friend, Earl, spend most of their time making movies based on classic films (Their version of Midnight Cowboy just about killed me).  Greg's mother asks him to befriend a girl who has recently been diagnosed with leukemia and their friendship is both touching and heartbreaking.  I absolutely loved this film and I laughed and cried through the whole thing.  It is definitely my favorite film of the festival.  The films this year were really great but my favorite part of the festival was getting to have so many wonderful conversations with people from all over the country.  Sometimes I think that people find me to be a bit much when I start talking about music, books, theatre, and movies so it was great to talk to people who are just as passionate as I am.  I am already looking forward to next year!

Note:  For the past five years I have taken my students to see free screenings at Sundance.  Go here for an article in the Salt Lake Tribune.
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