Friday, July 28, 2006

Quite possibly the most boring play I have ever seen

Pyrenees. The Kirk Douglas Theatre. 7/27/06.

There's something ironic about a play about purification in the snow performed in the middle of LA in a heat wave. Unfortunately, that was probably the most interesting thing about David Greig's play, Pyrenees. To me, this play in which the main character (played by Tom Irwin) awakes in a mountain pass with amnesia seemed to be the self-indulgent fantasy of a straight, middle-aged white man. Begining with what could have been a tantalizing mystery of his identity, the play devolved into a flirtation with a beautiful young civil servant sento to help him (played by Tessa Thompson). For the almost the entire first half of the play, these two chatted at a maddeningly slow pace. The highlight of the play was the arrival of Frances Conroy, a superb actress who also managed to pick up the pace of the play and provide a small amout of interest and dramatic tension. Unfortunately, she wasn't in the production nearly enough to hold my interest.

The audience of this play consisted mainly of people with white hair, and perhaps they got more out of this deliberate production than I did. Its meditation on the responsibility and regret that come with aging might strike a chord with some, but overall I found it a pretentious attempt at existentialism that was more vapid than provokative and thus almost unendurably dull. It was a bad sign that director Neel Keller was quoted in the program essay (by fascinating formerly-local theater critic Rob Kendt) as saying "David's plays have a shot in America because, at the end of the day, they're more emotional than political." Ugh.

I did, however, love the set designed by Mark Wendland. Its beautiful three tiers were sadly under utilized, but they created a sense of the limbo in which the play took place.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Curtains. Ahmanson Theatre. 7/25/06.

First of all, this was the first preview of Curtains, two weeks before its official opening night, reviews, etc. That said, I thought it was a wonderfully fun show with superb actors that will do quite well on Broadway. It's "a new backstage murder mystery musical comedy" written by Kander and Ebb and Rupert Holmes, and while it isn't as dark and wonderful as Chicago or Cabaret, it is a good, solid musical comedy.

One of the best things about this show was the cast, including but not limited to David Hyde Pierce. I absolutely loved Karen Ziemba as lyricist Georgia Hendricks. It was so nice to see a female lead who wasn't an ingenue and I was profoundly disappointed when she had a much smaller role in the second act. The other actor who stole the show was Edward Hibbert as the flamboyant director of the play within the play. These two amazing, experienced Broadway actors really made the show for me. Jill Paice as Niki Harris, the ingenue and David Hyde Pierce's love interest, was the least interesting lead in the cast. She's pretty and talented, but fairly bland; she can't hold a candle to her costars.

Curtains is a murder mystery on the set of a pre-Broadway musical, Robbin' Hood, which opens it up for several fun songs about show business and some good solid spoofing of Oklahoma and Annie Get Your Gun. Rob Ashford's choreography was quite reminiscent of recent Broadway revivals of these two shows in a brilliant sort of way. I would have liked the commentary on other Broadway shows to be a little bit sharper, but in general the whole production was a good-natured celebration of Broadway theater, done by people who know and love it.

My favorite song was "The Woman's Dead," which I thought was hilarious and brilliant. Overall, there are a few structural problems with the show that might get worked out during previews. The songs within Robbin' Hood were fairly bland but fun. I wasn't hooked by the first production number - I thought the show started off slowly, but hooked me in the second number with "What Kind of Man?," a "Fugue for Tinhorns" style number about theater critics. Similarly, The curtain call should be bigger and more fun and give the audience more of an opportunity to stand and clap. Ending with a reprise of the love song seems a mistake to me. Overall, I thought this show was totally fun and I laughed out loud frequently. I can't wait to see how it develops.

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Performances Worth Travelling For

I received some notices about events next weekend that I'd love to go to, so I figured I should pass them on to those of you who may be able to attend.

Next weekend is San Diego Pride, and Lipstick Conspiracy, a super-fabulous band of transwomen from SF, will be performing at 6pm-ish on Saturday the 29th.

Also, over the next couple of weeks there will be a bunch of cool new performances at UCSB. If I have time, I'd love to see the Luis Alfaro Solo Piece on Wednesday. "La Fe in the Desert," a collaboration between Jessica Hagedorn and Campo Santo, will probably also be awesome.

There's also a rumor that Kael T. Block will be exhibiting pieces from his xx boys series at Akbar in Silverlake starting on July 31st. I really want to see this exhibit if it's happening.

NOW it begins

The NOW Festival: Program 1. REDCAT. 7/22/06.

The NOW festival of New Works by local LA performance artists is off to a promising start. The first week of the festival featured Kristina Wong doing a piece about the insanity of trying to get mental help, New York transplants The Outsiders doing a dance piece titled "IV," and Michael Sakamoto and Amy Knoles performing a butoh-inspired piece entitled "Sacred Cows." All three works together created a balanced program of adventurous pieces that deserve attention.

Kristina Wong's piece was an excerpt from a full-length performance still in development called "Wong Flew Over the Cukoo's Nest." She'll be performing different excerpts on July 29th at the Ford Ampitheater's Summer Playreading Series. The full length piece will premiere at La Pena Cultural Center in Berkeley in December, so it is very much a work in progress. As such, it felt like a segment of a larger work, which it was, but in general it was very funny and totally well done. Wong had some hilarious moments depicting the ridiculous difficulty in getting mental help as an uninsured performance artist (a job that should probably come with psychiatric help). The pace of the piece felt a little off - Wong went too quickly into the serious drama of the piece and could have used a little more comic buildup and milking the hilarity of the situation before she hit the serious moment, but the whole thing was totally fun and funny and I can't wait to see how the full show turns out. Leilani Chan directed the piece and I suspect she did a great job providing a second set of eyes and a good theatrical sense for Wong's work. This was the piece I went to REDCAT to see, and I'm quite glad I did.

The Outsiders, Stacy Dawson Stearns and Tim Cummings, performed a fascinating dance piece that may have been a bit over my head. The people I talked to who know something about dance loved this piece and thought it was hilarious. It began with a very funny vocal performance of "God is Alive, Magic is Afoot" with lyrics by Leonard Cohen and music by Buffy Sainte-Marie. This, along with some of the movements, set the tone of the piece as absurd rather than serious. The vocal section and the section that followed it in which Stearns and Cummings danced in silver bodysuits kind of like space aliens were clearly comic and quite entertaining. It was fascinating to me to think about what made these particular movements so funny, because they totally were and I have no idea why. My complaint is that the group wanted to be "walking a line between the hilarious and the profound," and I don't think the attempt to be profound contributed to the piece at all. The later sections of the piece tried to transition from comic to absurd to serious, and the serious sections didn't seem to fit in at all. They lacked the self-awareness that makes it comfortable to laugh at these pieces. Stearns and Cummings, however, are extremely talented performers whose movement skills complemented their wacky style. The performance included videos by Jonathon Stearns, of which a black and white piece reminiscent of German Expressionism that paralleled the movements of the performers at points was my favorite. The three backup dancers (Adam Haas Hunter, Matthew Bailey, and Leilani Drakeford), CalArts students who seemed to be in the piece mostly to cover the main performers' costume changes, were the most mystifying portion of the perfomance. One of them (or possibly all of them together) seemed to represent a unicorn, so I assume they embodied cliches about fantasy and magic, but they were in the show too much and inconsistently in my opinion. In general, this piece felt much longer than the other segments of the show. I was confused and a little disturbed by the sud

The third new work in the program, "Sacred Cow," was danced and choreographed by Michael Sakamoto with music by Amy Knoles. Knoles was totally cute and fascinating to watch perform, and I'm rarely excited by musicians. Sakamoto moved beautifully and had an amazing combination of facial movements and gestures to communicate moods and ideas subtly. Unfortunately, I had a coughing fit in the middle of this piece and had to step out, so I feel as if I can't talk about the overall structure of the piece, but I did really like what I saw of it. I didn't have much sense of the piece as attacking sacred cows at all. It seemed to me a combination of butoh and Charlie Chaplin, which is fascinating and fun. The LA Times review of the NOW festival gives some sense of the piece, at least to the exclusion of talking about Wong's piece at all.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006


It's been a while since I've done announcements, and these are some random ones, but here are a couple of events I would be going to if I had infinite travel time and money:

The Fresh Fruit Festival in New York (OK, this announcement's a bit late, since the event started on July 10). It's a festival of mostly emerging queer artists and a lot of the performances sound pretty fun, but especially Outsider Dance: Want by Sean Dorsey, who is super-cool. He runs Fresh Meat Productions which puts on a festival of trans performance in San Francisco, and as a dancer he is extremely entertaining and powerful. In the works I've seen, Dorsey combines interesting dance with an engaging personal narrative to make for some fascinating storytelling through movement, music, and voiceover. I highly recommend seeing his work. He's performing on July 22 in New York.

The NOW (New Original Works) Festival at REDCAT. July 20-August 5 in LA. Three weeks of new performances that are bound to be a little bit wacky and weird. I'm definitely going to Program One to see Kristina Wong, who friends have recommended to me many times and who I've only seen so far perform a wacky little piece in a bar. I also hope to see Program 3 because I think John Fleck is an awesome performer and I'd love to see him doing his original work. The people I know who know things about dance say that Program 2 should also be an awesome show because Victoria Marks is super cool. I'm glad that REDCAT is supporting local artists in developing new work.

Femme 2006, August 11-13 in San Francisco. I have some doubts and misgivings about how I fit into this conference, so I didn't apply to present. I'm a little ambivalent about my academic commitment to femmeness, even though I quite enjoy my personal queer femininity. This doesn't appear to be a particularly academic conference, anyway, but the few academic panels there are could be pretty awesome, including one with Gayatri Gopinath whose book is pretty brilliant and who is an excellent speaker. BUT, the reason I'm now thinking about going, even though I had already decided that the conference was a little too touchy-feely and non-academic for me, is the Saturday Night Performance Cabaret. The lineup is fantastic, with several super-fabulous femme burlesque groups, including the Miracle Whips who are LA-based and quite fun. Another LA performer, Darrah de Jour who I've met at local events, will be doing some spoken word. She's as friendly as she is beautiful and I've been wanting to see her perform since I met her. And not all the perfomers are femme. The Transformers are, from all I've heard, a super-fun Bay Area drag/trans performance group who I'd love to see. The conference itself also features its fair share of queer luminaries, including Amber Hollibaugh, Jewelle Gomez, and Del La Grace Volcano taking photos.

I'm not sure I know anyone out there in Colombus, Ohio, but they are presenting the Columbus National Gay and Lesbian Theatre Festival on Sept. 7-16. The lineup is pretty intriguing (Puppet-queers?), but I would be most interested in seeing S. Bear Bergman's new piece. I can also personally vouch for ryka aoki de la cruz's work as beautiful, thoughtful, and intense.

SoCo a GOGO. Friday, Sept. 22 in Atlanta. Performances by fabulous transmen including, Turner Schofield, who I love and recommend at all possible opportunities, and The Athens Boys Choir, who seem totally cute and I really want to see perform one of these days. Also, Turner is looking for a DJ to donate hir services for that evening, so if you happen to know any DJs who like queer folks and will be in Atlanta in late September, please get in touch with him ASAP.

Trying to make a comedy into a tragedy

Love's Labor's Lost. The Actor's Gang. 7/16/06.

Love's Labor's Lost is fairly strange for a Shakespeare comedy. It ends not with a wedding but a death and the promise of a wedding. There are fairly lengthy scenes of verbal jousting that can be dense and esoteric to a modern audience. And it has a play within a play scene that has almost nothing to do with the rest of the play. The Actor's Gang dealt with some of these issues, but also made some strange choices that didn't necessarily add to the comprehensibility of the play. They played up the bittersweetness of the ending and tried to emphasize the tragedy within the comedy, which left me feeling unsatisfied. The play itself has a fun premise, though it develops a bit oddly - the King of Navarre and three of his men swear to renounce women for 3 years to focus on their studies. As a grad student, I can certainly identify.

The high point of the show was the truly excellent performance of Brian Kimmet as Berowne. He was clear, expressive and delightfully clever. His monologue in which the men swear to renounce the company of women for three years and he argues for women and food as subjects worth studying was a hilarious introduction to the plot. All of the King's court, as a matter of fact, performed well, including Matt Huffman as the King of Navarre, who was working an almost Brad Pitt-esque jawline and a deep, authoritative voice.

In contrast, the low point of the show was the women who played opposite the King's court. Nancy Stone as the Princess, while an extremely skilled actress, was poorly matched with Huffman and in general seemed reserved and humorless, which takes a lot of the comedy out of this comedy. My biggest complaint was the costumes that the women wore, which were entirely sheer so that the women's underwear was visible throughout the show. While I can come up with a couple of slightly esoteric explanations for this decision (my favorite being that the whole production was seeing the world through the eyes of the men, and since they were sex-deprived and sex-obsessed, they were constantly looking at the women's panties), I honestly think it is a poor choice and completely misogynist to have the women walking around in their underwear throughout the show while their male counterparts wore business suits. From the moment they appeared and throughout the play I had absolutely no interest in any member of the female court. Though Sabra Williams as Rosaline did a great job with clarity and expression, and had the sassy power to be a super-fun character, the production seemed to undercut her in ways that prevented her from being a true match with Berowne. Even though she wasn't nearly as harsh, she seemed like a failed prototype for Beatrice from Much Ado About Nothing.

Similarly, the play within the play scene near the end of the show seemed like a not-as-successful version of the mechanicals play in A Midummer Night's Dream, but I believe that a lot of the humor was stripped out of it in this production by placing the horrible performance and its snarky commentators in the background with a foreground of actors preparing and the pathos of their hurt when mocked. Playing against the comedy in this scene makes it, and its inturruption by the Princess's father's death, a really disappointing ending to a play that began so promisingly.

This production had some fabulous moments, particularly the dance that opens the second half when everyone inexplicably dresses up as Russians. In fact, that scene was absolutely hilarious and made me happy with the production. But there were so many elements of the show that were misogynist or muddled that it's hard for me to recommend the play. It was especially irritating that there were several moments in which the language directly contradicted the action of the play (ie when Berowne asks about 'the girl in the cap' when no one was wearing a cap, when the King asks Berowne why he's leaving so quickly when he made no attempt to leave, or when one of the women talks about her lover being young and bare-faced when the actor is wearing a prominent fake mustache). If you're going to leave those lines in the play, you need to abide by them in the design and action or it doesn't make sense and distracts people from listening to the words at all. It was a serviceable, but by no means brilliant, interpretation of this problematic comedy. The Actor's Gang's commedia style doesn't work when it fights with the play's script instead of enhancing it, though there were some very funny moments and some stand-out performances. Toni Torres was a truly bewitching Jaquenetta, and Pierre Adeli as Costard was so earnest and funny that I wanted him to end up with the girl. Angela Berliner did a wonderful job as Moth, the witty servant, though stage business frequently undercut her lines and her unmasking herself as female at the end made no sense.

Overall, I have to question director Simon Abkarian's committment to the text of this play. The LA Times has an interesting article on who he is and his background, which sounds promising, but I don't think that it ultimately worked out. I do encourage people to go and decide for themselves, though, because while this production was problematic, it gave me a lot to think about and conceivably other people could like it a lot more than I did. And I am glad I saw the show, even though I didn't love it.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Shiny Penny

Bitch! Dyke! Faghag! Whore! REDCAT. 7/14/06.

Penny Arcade, the performance persona of Susana Ventura appeared in Bitch!Dyke!Faghag!Whore! this week as a part of Outfest, an event that has been scandalously neglected in this blog.

Penny Arcade developed Bitch!Dyke!Faghag!Whore! in response to the NEA censorship and other events of the early '90s. Though I'm sure it has evolved over time, the piece has been performed sporadically since 1990 (although this was the first time it was performed in LA). As a result, the show feels a little bit dated at times, but it has moments of brilliance.

The first thing you see at Bitch!Dyke!... is the dancers. Seven performers opened the show by dancing for the whole time that the audience was being seated and then some. This was a beautiful, fairly diverse group of people who each moved in their own ways, performing something between pole dancing, gogo dancing, and just dancing for themselves for the joy of it. The big suprise was that one of the dancers was the truly stunning Kevin Aviance, only a month after he was severely beaten outside a gay bar. His contribution to this show was incredibly powerful, demonstrating unbelievable strength and generosity. All of these dancers worked hard throughout the show and did an excellent job. I would have liked to see them more integrated into Arcade's main performance.

Other than interludes of the dancers, the show was mostly a solo performance/monologue by Penny Arcade, and some of it was brilliant and some of it was rather redundant, but I think that what she had to say was important and very much worth hearing. She moved backwards through the epithets in the performance's title, starting with "whore" and implying that performance art is sex work. "Faghag" was by far my favorite section of the show, with some incredibly accurate observations about the women who are close to gay men and the ways they relate to each other. This section also alluded to Penny Arcade's history with some VERY FABULOUS gay men. That, of course, is the story I would have liked to hear. Arcade only briefly talked about that moment in the Village with Jack Smith, Andy Warhol, Charles Ludlum, and all the rest. There must be some great stories to tell and I would have loved to hear them.

What Arcade did instead was march through gay (male) culture and style from Stonewall to the present day. She condemned current gay people for being so normative, for not accepting drag queens, for being too "straight." The whole thing was a bit of a rant, but in a way she has a point; while this isn't something new, it does bear repeating. She was arguing for acceptance within queer communities rather than policing borders based on identity, which does tend to be a problem. Her most memorable line was "I'm so queer I'm not even gay" which incorporates a lot of meaning into a few words, though it is also problematic. The most affecting section of the performance was her discussion of AIDS and a very moving account of watching her friends get sick and die. She ended this section with the whole audience dancing to "I Will Survive," which was totally fun, but a really odd break in the middle of the show - it was strange to sit down and be an audience again after discoing.

After the break, Arcade performed the "controversial" section on censorship that included video of Jack Smith performing part of Lenny Bruce's piece on censorship, which was a really cool thing to get to see. She played with perception, making the audience sit in the dark and listen to her compared with seeing her naked and listening to her and how each functioned as a method of performance.

The whole show was a bit of a lecture, but it had some truly wonderful moments and I would definately want to see Penny Arcade perform again. She has some of the style and spirit and the memories of a generation of queer performance artists who need to be remembered, discussed, and recreated. Their spirits should be conjured whenever possible, and Penny Arcade clearly learned from the best. She reminds me of Sarah Schulman - didactic and a little angry, but for good reason and with a lot to say.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

If you can get to the REDCAT tonight, go!

Bitch!Dyke!Faghag!Whore! REDCAT. 7/14/06.

Penny Arcade is fascinating, if somewhat problematic. I'll offer a full post later, but go tonight if you can. There will be performances by Kevin Aviance, Kristina Wong, and John Fleck, who are all super cool.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

CTG Watch

The Center Theatre Group has announced its new season for all three theaters.

On the up side, not ALL of the shows are by straight white men this year. But it's also not exactly the land of inclusive and risk-taking theater, either. All but one of the Ahmanson Theatre shows, which were announced a while ago, are major Broadway hits of the past year or two with major stars in them. I'm actually kind of interested in seeing these shows, even though I'm annoyed by their lack of innovation, so I can't be too critical.

The Mark Taper Forum, however, is the season with which I am most disappointed. It's the space in which I'd like to see exciting new productions and the space in which Gordon Davidson's legacy of socially aware, revolutionary productions is strongest. Doubt at the Ahmanson as part of the Taper Season is just a cop out. 13, a musical "performed by all-teen actors plus a hot teen band" sounds like a bunch of old men trying to seem young and hip. Distracted, which is at least a world premiere and by a woman, so I should like it, sounds kind of boring and unsatisfying. I am curious about YellowFace, since I do rather like David Henry Hwang and I'm glad to see him getting productions.

While I'm not thrilled about the Kirk Douglas season, it could be good. Dogeaters could be exciting, even though it's just a transfer of a production from Playwrights Arena, a local theater company who can't even seem to manage to geth their website to work. The Kirk Douglas season at least has some significant diversity (although a major lack of queer representation). I'm rather concerned about A Waitress in Yellowstone; I'm not a huge David Mamet fan at all, and I really suspect his abilities as a musical writer.

Overall, this season is much more diverse than last season, which reeked patriarchy with a hint of tokenism. I'm glad to see a bit of improvement, but I'm still not excited about their shows, and they don't seem to be including any queer subject matter at all.

Lost Evidence

The Evidence Room is gone.

LAist has a rather poignant report on the appropriateness of their final production, The Cherry Orchard, as mourning for their lost space. Rob Kent, LA's much-missed theater reviewer, has an insightful blog review and a report for the LA Times on the evidence room closing.

This closing is truly a loss for the LA theater community. I'm quite sad that I failed to attend their last production, however wary of Chekov I happen to be. I, like many others, hope that Artistic Director Bart DeLorenzo will continue his exciting work elsewhere.

LAist returns to the world of theater reviews

LAist, my preferred of our two major local blogs, has been severely lacking in its theater coverage recently. After a month an a half of silence, it returned at the end of June with a review of The Evidence Room's closing production, The Cherry Orchard. This week, it has a review of Rock and Roll Heaven at Theatre 68 (which I'd never heard of before). This review, however, is by someone named Lizy, who doesn't appear in the LAist staff lineup and who says

"I had high expectations going into this show as I assumed that professional theater in LA would be of a similar caliber to professional theater in New York- which is where I have had the majority of my theater-viewing experience. Perhaps that is why my surprise at the amateurish quality of the production was so intense."

This quote really rubs me the wrong way because it is extremely generalized and poorly informed. First of all, why allow this person to be a theater reviewer if she's never seen a show in LA before? Second, why should this brand-new theater be the benchmark of professional theater in LA? And what does she mean by 'professional,' anyway? This show seems to be a vanity piece performed at a theater-for-hire, which is a very different approach to theater than, say, the Actor's Gang or another local theater ensemble that does original, professional work. This "Lizy" needs to learn a bit about how the LA theater scene works and see a few more shows before she goes around comparing the city unfavorably to New York. LAist, in a town with some amazing small theater options, needs to get their act together in actual coverage of the LA theater scene, preferably coverage by someone who knows what they're talking about.

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Alien Abduction and Sexual Abuse, or, Sometimes Disturbing is Good

Mysterious Skin. Rude Guerrilla Theater Company, Santa Ana, CA. 6/24/06.

Mysterious Skin is a play by Prince Gomolvilas, based on a novel by Scott Heim, which has also been turned into a movie. For a fairly explicit recounting of the film complete with screencaps, check out fourfour's review. In each case, the Mysterious Skin is about a young man who believes he was abducted by aliens when he was a child and a gay hustler with a troubled sexual history.

Not knowing the novel, I can only discuss my responses to the play as an independent work rather than as an intertext with other interpretations. And this production, directed by Dave Barton, was brutal, but sometimes brutal is a good thing. The production was sexually explicit, but sensitive to the issues being portrayed; it really dealt with sexual abuse in a complex and interesting manner rather than merely being a story of atrocities or ruined lives. The story is strange and emotionally charged, but quite powerful.

The cast of Rude Guerilla's Mysterious Skin were consistently strong in their interpretations of some very tough roles. Tim Zimmer as the nerdy Brian does an excellent job portraying the horrors of self-deception and subsequent self-discovery, although Brian's nerdiness and especially his oversized glasses seemed out-of-place on such an adorable boy. Keith Bennett as gay hustler Neil with a fetish for daddy figures was wonderfully rough and troubled. Michelle Trachtenberg, who is, ironically, not that Michelle Tractenberg (who played the role of Wendy in the film), was an exellent best friend/faghag, though I would have liked to see more of her character. All she did was whine at Neil for his dangerous behavior. The weirdest character in the play was Avalyn, played by Kerry Perdue. A woman who believes she was abducted by aliens, she paralelled Wendy's role as friend and confidant for Brian, including a sexual encounter that seems to come out of nowhere. Her character was strange and confusing, but that itself might be a sign of its honesty. Rick Kopps played all of the johns and father figures throughout the play, and in doing so he was incredibly memorable in his creepiness.

Overall, the production was just on the palatable side of horrifying, and Heim and Gomolvilas do an excellent job of addressing complex and terrible issues in a compelling way, that leaves you both disturbed and thinking. I'm sad that I didn't manage to write up this play in time to recommend it, but I will tell you that I'll be seeing whatever else Gomovilas has to offer, and that the production made me want to read the novel to see how the story is developed in that context as well.

Pirates - ARGH!

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest 7/8/06.

I really enjoyed Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest, though I had several concerns about both its structure and politics. Above all, however, it was a lot of fun; it was very campy and Johnny Depp was truly hilarious. So, overall, I really enjoyed myself. However, here are my comments and concerns.

First of all, it was a middle movie in a trilogy and it felt like the middle movie of a trilogy; NOTHING was resolved in the end. The bad guy wasn't vanquished; no conclusion of any sort happened. It left loose ends open in a way that was rather frustrating and unsatisfying. Which may make the third movie really great, but as an individual film it leaves something to be desired.

The most disturbing issue of the film was an incident toward the beginning in which Depp was stranded on an island of cannibals. These were apparently supposed to be Carib Indians, though they felt more Polynesian or African than Caribbean (although that's a completely uninformed opinion). These native people were portrayed as cannibals and savages in a way that was completely unnecessary and inappropriate in this day and age. I kept waiting for the whole incident to become some sort of misunderstanding, but no, it really was totally offensive. Bitch. PhD. has a great post on the movie that deals with some of the issues and the facts.

The thing I loved about the movie was the emergence of the East India Trading Company as the real bad guy on top of the crazy supernatural monsters. Unlike the first film, with the super cool zombie skeleton pirates, this movie felt like it was reaching really far to create a story and a bad guy. It drew in several really different nautical myths and then didn't play up the mythology behind it. Davy Jones, who in most nautical lore is not a person but a symbol of death, was personified and given a backstory. The Kraken, which is originally from Icelandic and Norse literature, and seems to basically be a giant squid or octopus, but somehow was controlled by Davy Jones in this film. The Flying Dutchman, a ghost ship that can never put into port, could be really creepy and powerful all on its own, and I would have liked it to be less connected to the Davy Jones figure as its capitan. I find the historical issues of the films even more compelling than the action-packed plot. It's fascinating to connect the plots and locations to the actual history of the Caribbean region and to pirate lore and history. Dead Man's Chest did a good job suggesting some of this history and geography, at least enough to make me want more. With all this fad for pirates, you'd think you'd see more contemporary pirate films to fill in some realism or even historical accuracy.

Johnny Depp ruled this movie, as it should be. The Orlando Bloom/Keira Knightley relationship got completely sidelined, tenuously reintroduced in the end with some possible tension that would have been nice to see developed more strongly throughout the film. I kind of like that their relationship was treated as an established fact that didn't need to be troubled and repeated throughout the film, but it feels like copping out to ignore it the whole time and then introduce tension at the end. I loved the parallels between Davy Jones' story of 'loving a woman as wild as the sea' and Orlando Bloom's relationship with Keira Knightly as an untamed woman who is a pirate at heart. I would have loved to see that more developed in this film, instead of put off for the next movie.

My favorite moment of the film was Keira Knightly dressing as a boy and serving as a sailor on a ship, which I would have loved to see them do more of. I wish they had actually chopped off her hair and making her even more of a pirate herself. There were creepy moments when she tries to use her femininity to her advantage, and I'd rather see her compete with the boys on her own term. I very much enjoyed seeing her try to faint and being ignored by the men than when she tries to manipulate them with her sexuality. She makes a great tough, independent woman and I don't think they should undercut that.

I'm also conflicted by Naomie Harris as Tia Dalma, a witch/voodoo priestess character. Harris did a great job and she's really beautiful, but the character was a exoticized in a slightly creepy way, and seemed more of a plot device than a character. I hope she gets more character development in the third film, which I'm beginning to think of as a second act to this film. I'm kind of disappointed that they made that choice because it didn't have to be that way, but I have high expectations for the next film.

I could talk about this movie for quite a while, but overall I thought it was fun but not great. A pretty good summer action movie with great special effects, but it was too long for its failures of plot.

Friday, July 07, 2006

Sympathy for the Devil

The Devil Wears Prada. 7/6/06.

I feel a little bad about reviewing this movie without having read the book (although there's a delightful excerpt here). In fact, I rather suspect that Meryl Streep has ruined the book for me. Because, you see, she was so completely fabulous in the movie, that I couldn't help but love her, or at least admire and sympathize with her. She was at times so bitchy and crazy that I had to laugh out loud, but she was also just a strong, kick-ass female character who knew what she wanted and she got it.

So here's my (clearly highly professional) review: I loved this movie. It was a movie about the professional relationship between two intelligent, hard-working women, which is something I'd personally like to see more of. Granted, there are some feminist issues (ie the women can't seem to both focus on their jobs and keep their boyfriends, but even that seems just as much a failure on the part of the men to live up to these high-powered women if you ask me), but in general, the film depicts two women deciding what they want out of their lives and careers and going for it. While Anne Hathaway did a great job as the hapless Andy Sachs, and she looked beautiful in an Audrey Hepburn inspired look at the end of the movie, I want to see her move on to bigger and better roles. This was not exactly the part I want her to play. This film was constructed in many ways to chastize and debase her before she can 'find herself' and grow up, and I can't wait to see her kicking ass on her own.

Anyway, I adore chick lit and chick flicks as a guitly pleasure, and this was an excellent example of the genre; both of the women seem fairly real and sympathetic and they learn to appreciate each other's strengths and goals. Even better, it wasn't all about some sappy emphasis on the girl getting the man. The boyfriend seemed more like a side plot than a real tension, through Adrian Grenier was a wonderfully rumpled contrast to Streep's sleekness. I love the fact that although Andy Sachs austensibly had to choose between her job and her personal life (symbolized by a boyfriend), the personal life seemed mostly like an uninteresting side plot (her friends were barely characters at all and fairly dull as well) and in the end, while everything seems happy, her job and her boy may still be mutually exclusive.

Though it was set in the fashion industry, making Andy's size six figure a running joke and her weight loss an unexamined victory, the film did a good job of balancing the portrayal of a harsh business with some implied analysis of why it was both important and problematic (ok, it might have been nice to see a little more of this - I wasn't convinced that the fashion industry shouldn't still be considered frivolous or the butt of jokes). The film may have taken shortcuts in moving the plot along in order to include more jokes, but in the end, I found it well-done, funny, and quite satisfying. It provided both the lush visuals of fashion and style and the cool reality of Streep as the infamous Miranda Priestly. Only she wasn't much of a devil.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Return to the Internets

As you may have guessed from my deluge of posts, I have been mostly cut off from free time and internet access for the past week and a half, so I have spent much of today catching up on my reading and blog posts. Below, some of the things I've read lately and enjoyed:

What Is Performance Studies, or, What the Hell Does Frank Do for a Living? by Frank Leon Roberts is a simple explanation of the field of Performance Studies, and his particular corner of it, intended for the lay-person rather than an academic audience.

A particularly good episode of Dinosaur Comics.

My favorite surly media nerd, Annalee Newitz, criticizes John Updike for the nostalgic backwardness of his NY Times essay against internet publishing and ebooks. Plus, as a bonus feature, she appears on Cranky Geeks attacking things whose value I completely fail to understand, like Blu-Ray players.

Rocketboom Scandal! Amanda Congdon is no longer with Rocketboom. (Valleywag post via Prophecyboy)

Becoming an Internet Whore

Considering that already gets significant amounts of my paycheck and that I talk about books and plays on this site fairly frequently and often link to them on Amazon, I've decided to officially sell out and post ads in the sidebar. If you have enraged responses to this, let me know and I'll reconsider, but as far as I can tell it doesn't hurt anyone and it seems to be worth a try.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

The Passion of the Superman

Superman Returns. 7/1/06.

Superman Returns isn't a bad movie, but it could have been better. It was a decent summer action flick, but not a great one. It was too long. The special effects were beautiful, but not always necessary. From what I hear, this is a fairly faithful sequel to Christopher Reeve's Superman movies from the late '70s and early '80s. What I was hoping for was a Superman for a new generation. After what Bryan Singer did with X-Men and X2, I was expecting an intelligent recreation of the old story. I was expecting Singer to reinvent Superman for a new generation and to tell me why I should care. I was expecting a sensitive portrayal of the subtext of Superman as queer, as an outsider, and as a savior. Instead, this film was about as heavy-handed with the Jesus iconography as you could get. The gay subtext was reduced to a harmless Jimmy Olsen with a crush on Clark Kent, while Superman's relationship with Lois Lane was unnuanced and practically untroubled throughout the movie (OK, she had an ostensible common-law husband, but all he really did was follow her around being a pilot when convenient). Superman himself was too perfect, not necessarily in looks because that's too be expected, but in character and emotion. There was very little character arc for anyone in the film, as a matter of fact. And things blew up, but only bad people died onscreen.

In fact, the only really great thing about the whole film was Kevin Spacey as Lex Luthor. He makes a fabulous villian - a little campy, a little impractical, and a truly excellent actor with a real understanding of what it means to be playing a comic book character. Luthor was a sensitive genius with brains to counter Routh's Man of Steel brawn. And yes, he planned to drown millions of people, but all he really seemed to want is a little beachfront property. Plus, he appreciates the value of (alien) libraries. Is this really such a bad guy? Much more loveable than SuperJesus if you ask me.

Wedding Update

I just wanted to say that despite my theoretical qualms, despite the fact that the bride took the husband's last name, despite maid of honor making a toast that essentially said "now that you're married, start having kids," despite its general affirmation of marriage as an institution, my friends' wedding was a wonderful experience and I feel very lucky to have been a part of it. In general, it was a lovely wedding free from religious compulsion or too much sappy dwelling on love. It focused on the couple and forging a community of friends surrounding them.

As a performance, the wedding ceremony, while it did rather compel people into witnessing and voicing their affirmation rather than 'forever holding their peace,' was an extremely positive experience focused on the audience as much as the couple. Bride and groom both wrote their own speeches before the vows, which were wonderful. The bride's speech was so well done that not only did it make me cry, it made the groom try to kiss her too soon, causing a moment of pause and hilarity! The best moment, however, was the band playing at the ceremony. Three friends of the bride and groom (one of whom I believe had never met the other two before the wedding rehearsal) got together and played a song written by one of them. It was full of very idiosyncratic references to the couple's history and the community of friends and family that knows and loves them, and it was so amazingly special and perfect. Personally, I want a copy of the song to remember the event.

Not only was the wedding a lovely event, the reception was a pretty good dance party. I saw many old friends and acquaintances and talked to people I had never much expected to see again, and although reunions are not usually my scene, this one was well-filtered enough to be quite pleseant. I very much enjoyed meeting some of the couple's friends that I didn't know already who seem like very cool people even though it was occasionally awkward trying to start converstions with them. Plus, there was a little slow dancing and a lot of booty shakin', making for a fun time for all. It was rather fun, really.

My intellectual objections to marriage notwithstanding, this particular wedding was done rather sensitively, for which I was quite grateful, and more than that, these people are so important to me that whatever my objections, I'm so glad I was a part of this demonstration of their love. I'm glad they're sharing their lives with each other and I'm even more glad that their lives have intersected with mine in so many ways.

Monday, July 03, 2006

Queer Witnessing

I'm at a wedding this weekend. It's a wonderful wedding of two friends who are a great couple. I very much believe in this particular couple and in their future success in marriage. I believe that they are well-suited to each other and each sufficiently independent that they will continue to be individuals and that their marriage will be even stronger than the sum of its parts. I believe that they won't meld into a single entity or lose their connections to their unmarried friends. This is the best marriage I can imagine, and I am truly happy that this event is occuring. It's a beautiful event and I'm proud to be a part of it, and I honestly believe that only the best possible future is in store for the bride and groom together. I have never been less ambivalent about the couple whose wedding I am attending.

And yet, I am conflicted about witnessing this wedding, or any wedding. Because, you see, I'm not sure I believe in marriage. I'm fairly convinced by feminist critiques of marriage as a patriarchal institution that merely reaffirms the power of the state, based on traditions of bartering brides to cement the wealth and power of fathers and husbands. I'm somewhat seduced by radical queer critiques of monogamy that challenge the possibility of remaining faithful to one partner for the rest of your life. At best, I see marriage as a romantic, beautifully optimistic promise of unchanging love and sometimes I wonder if I may someday feel compelled toward the institution of marriage myself. But at the moment, I remain critical of the valorization of the (heterosexual) couple over those who are outside the institution of marriage, and especially over those who are excluded from it.

My friends who are getting married are doing their best to recognize that marriage is very much an unequal institution at the moment, and they are even gesturing in their ceremony toward those for whom official marriage is an impossiblity. The ceremony will include a reading from Goodridge vs. Dept. of Public Health in Massachusetts, affirming that

Marriage is a vital social institution. The exclusive commitment of two individuals to each other nurtures love and mutual support; it brings stability to our society. For those who choose to marry, and for their children, marriage provides an abundance of legal, financial, and social benefits. In return it imposes weighty legal, financial, and social obligations.
While the gesture of including this text and its political context in their ceremony is beautiful and so inclusive, the language itself is inherently conservative, affirming the state's involvement in the personal and social relations between two individuals and the state's right to priviledge couples over individuals. Why should the government offer tax breaks and other incentives to heterosexuals who choose to get married and exclude from those favors those of us who are queer or single or nonmanogamous?

At this particular moment, when asked to witness a wedding whose participants I truly love and value while I question the institutions they are reaffirming, I am reminded of the introduction from Eve Sedgwick and Andrew Parker's book, Performativity and Performance, in which they question "the dynamic of compusory witness that the marriage ceremony evokes" (10).
It is the constitution of a community of witness that makes the marriage' the silence of witness (we don't speak now, we forever hold our peace) that permits it; the bare, negative, potent but undiscretionary speech act of our physical presence -- maybe even especially the presence of those people whom the instituion of marriage defines itself by excluding--that ratifies and recruits the legitimacy of its privilege (Parker and Sedgwick 10)

I am very much a part of this community of witnesses, being asked to affirm the value not only of this couple, but of the community of friends and family constituted around them and even more of the institution of marriage into which they are entering. While it is only the last that is difficult for me, it is still strange to be asked to silently affirm by my presence an instution which I question and from which I am excluded. Would I want my friends to abstain from marriage until it were an equal instituion? Would the equality of marriage to all sexes and genders diffuse my political objections? Would I ever get married if given the opportunity? Am I even in favor of gay marriage? These are questions to which I don't really have the answers. But at this moment of witnessing, in which I celebrate two friends for whom I have the utmost respect and great faith in their success as a couple in marriage, I find that I must once again ask myself these questions, if just to keep the dialogue open in my own mind. So I will attend, and cheer and cry and celebrate in honor of two individuals that I love, while maintaining my skepticism and reservations about this long-ingrained practice of state codification of their union.