TV Review: Stranger Things (2017)


TitleStranger Things
Release Dates: 2017
Season: 2
Number of Episodes: 9
Summary/Review:

When Stranger Things appeared on Netflix seemingly out of nowhere last year, it was the surprise hit of the summer.  Stranger Things 2 came with huge expectations, and I’m happy to see mostly lives up to them.

The strengths of Stranger Things is that it uses the tropes of horror and suspense films to explore issues like trauma, grief, friendship, and facing mortality.  The multi-episode set-up also allows it to delve into developing characters more than the films it emulates.  Plus, it has a terrific cast, especially the youngest actors, who continue to impress.

The nine episodes of the second season easily split into three sections.  Episodes 1-3 feel very much a continuation of the first season with the characters still dealing with the after effects of what happened a year earlier.  Episodes 3-6 raise the stakes, both with the growing threat of the Shadow Monster and Eleven discovering her own past.  Episodes 7-9 really take a left turn from anything we’ve come to expect from Stranger Things, most especially in the controversial episode 7 “The Lost Sister” which features only Eleven/Jane from the regular cast as she visits Chicago to meet up with a gang led by another young woman with powers from the Hawkins Lab.  I’m glad the Duffer Brothers decided to experiment and push the limits of the show, although I also have some problems with the episodes that I’ll go into later.

The second season introduces several new characters.  Bob Newby is Joyce’s nerdy new boyfriend played by Sean Astin, which is a direct tie to one of the 1980s movies that influenced this show, The Goonies.   I never saw that movie, but I thought that Bob had a lot in common with another Astin character, Samwise Gamgee from The Lord of the Rings, in the way that both Bob and Sam loyally help out the best they can and show surprising bravery even when they don’t know what’s going on around them.  Bob is a charming character and a great addition to the show.  Paul Reiser, known for his duplicitous character in Aliens, plays the Dr. Sam Owens who has taken over leading the Hawkins Lab.  It was an interesting decision to have Hopper, Joyce, & Will forming an uneasy détente, and Owens lends a funny, more compassionate face to the lab, but since he’s played by Reiser, you trust him anyway.  Finally, there are the step siblings Max and Billy, played by Sadie Sink and Dacre Montgomery.  Max is a new addition to our party of nerdy middle schoolers, and I thought Sink did a great job with developing Max in limited time.  Billy is the new bully in town, and Montgomery plays him convincingly creepy, but he seems one-note especially for Stranger Things which is usually better at letting characters develop organically.

If there’s one major problem of this series is that all the new characters and multiple plot lines happening at once make the show feel crowded and it works against Stranger Things strengths.  That being said, there was some great development for returning characters as well.  Will was missing for most of Season 1, so it’s a revelation to see that Noah Schapp is just as good an actor as his contemporaries and really sells Will’s fear, confusion, and possession.  It was also great to see Dustin and Lucas develop, really showing that they’re growing up, and getting to see into their homes and meeting their families for the first time.  Steve Harrington, the first season bully, has now fully transitioned from his experiences into a “great babysitter” leading the youngest characters against the demodogs and winning the hearts of Tumblr fans everywhere.

On the downside, Finn Wolfhard’s Mike seems underused this season, although his delivery of the line “It was the best thing I’ve ever done” was the most tearjerking moment of the season.  Similarly, Natalia Dyer’s Nancy and Charlie Heaton’s Jonathan have a subplot that’s okay but just doesn’t seem as interesting as what those characters could be doing.  Then there are some out of character moments. It seems unlikely that a smart kid like Dustin would continue to protect D’art after he knew it was from the Upside Down.  And I don’t think Eleven would be jealous of Max to the point of hurting her.  It would’ve made more sense if she overheard a conversation of how Mike and his friends were still in danger from the Hawkins Lab and that helped prompt her journey of self-discovery.

Which leads us to the final three episodes.  I can understand why people don’t like “The Lost Sister,” although I also understand and appreciate what The Duffer Brothers were doing.  It was good to take a risk and try to expand what was happening in Hawkins into the larger world as part of Eleven’s story, but for Stranger Things, it was rather trite.  Kali’s gang were a note-perfect recreation of a 1980s movie idea of a punk rock gang, but that was it, there was no effort to develop these people as real characters.  And Eleven’s Yoda-style tutelage under Kali happened so quickly that I can understand why a lot of viewers felt it was unnecessary to happen at all.   The final two episode have a lot happening and it seems that a lot of the dialogue is reduced to the characters providing exposition for the audience.  By this point, Stranger Things has developed their characters enough to coast on plot conveniences, but I thought the way that everyone came together in the conclusion of the first season happened more naturally.

The final moments at the school dance are charming and well-earned, and are built on what this show does best.  While there was some unevenness in the second season, overall I’m pleased, and I’m glad there will be another season.  There’s a lot of stories that can built on in future seasons, especially if they work on Eleven/Jane integrating into everyday society for the first time.  I also have many questions that may or may not be answered.

Previous post: Stranger Things (2016)

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Book Review: The Anniversary Present by Larry Thomas


Around the World for a Good Book selection for Fiji

Author: Larry Thomas
TitleThe Anniversary Present
Publication Info: Suva, Fiji: Pacific Writing Forum, [2002]
Summary/Review:
I read one play in this collection by the contemporary Fijian dramatist Larry Thomas (of whom it is difficult to find much information online).  The story is about an older married couple, the wife proud of the new set of furniture she’s received from her irascible husband.  Other characters include their adult daughter and ne’er-do-well son-in-law, an estranged son, and a nosy neighborhood.  The story feels very familiar, and I couldn’t help imagining the story playing out on the set of All in the Family.  Nevertheless, it is a Fijian story where the characters speak in the creole of the more disadvantaged members of the society and the conflicts among Fijians and Indians underlie the story.  I feel that without more background information I am missing out on a lot of the greater meaning of the drama, but still found it an interesting read.

Rating: ***

TV Review: Stranger Things (2016)


TitleStranger Things
Release Dates: 2016
Season: 1
Number of Episodes: 8
Summary/Review:

The hit of the summer is an homage to horror and thrillers of the 1980s, mixing the film aesthetic of Steven Spielberg and John Carpenter with Stephen King’s “kids and monsters in Maine” formula transferred to Indiana.  There are also elements of later works like Twin Peaks, Donnie Darko (itself a 1980s pastiche), and Broadchurch among others.  Despite the effort to emulate the eighties ethos, Stranger Things is not a remake or a ripoff but a highly original work of its own.  I don’t think a show this sophisticated would be made in the 1980s and the movies of that time would not have the time to develop the characters and the relationships so well.  Movies in the 1980s would also rely on wowing the audience with special effects, but Stranger Things creates suspense by keeping most of the supernatural elements offscreen and in the imagination.

What’s great about Stranger Things is that it has three concurrent plots with different themes.  A 12-year-old, Will Byers, goes missing and his best friends Mike, Dustin, and Lucas go looking for him to be joined by the mysterious Eleven who has telekinetic powers, learning about friendship and forgiveness.   A teenage story features Will’s brother Jonathon forming an unlikely alliance with Mike’s sister Nancy to hunt down the monster with Nancy’s boyfriend Steve acting as antagonist and sometimes ally.  Finally, the adult story focuses on Will’s mother Joyce and police chief Hopper realizing that  Will’s disappearance is not a typical runaway or abduction case and involves malicious behavior at the government’s Hawkins Lab.

The whole series is 8 episodes of brilliance – great acting, plotting, pacing, and dialogue –  with a few scares thrown in.  It’s worthy of the accolades it’s receiving and I recommend watching it if you haven’t checked it out yet.

TV Review: Game of Thrones (2016)


TitleGame of Thrones
Release Dates: 2016
Season: 6
Number of Episodes: 10
Summary/Review:

In the brutal winter of 2015, I idly decided to give this Game of Thrones show a chance (my wife is a huge fan of the books) and ended up binge-watching all four seasons then in existence.  Medieval fantasy is not usually my thing and the violence on this show can be overwhelming, but I got sucked into the stories and the performances, particularly by Maisie Williams, Peter Dinklage, Emilia Clarke, Rory McCann, Conleth Hill, John Bradley, Jerome Flynn, Liam Cunningham, Gwendolyn Christie, and Natalie Dormer.  So then I listened to all five of the audiobooks, and was ready just in time to watch season five as it was broadcast.

And I was disappointed.  The show not only went off-the-book, it went off the rails.  The Dorne plot – a dull tangent in the books – became even more pointless in its tv adaptation.  Ramsey Bolton was repeatedly depicted as senselessly cruel turning a menacing character into a caricature.  And interesting characters like Brienne, Arya, and Daenerys tread water for much of the season.  So I was not looking forward to season six.

Nevertheless, I was pleasantly surprised.  Season six sees an improvement in writing, several startling revelations, and most impressively some really fantastic directing and cinematography.  This is particularly true of the final two episodes, “Battle of the Bastards”  and  “The Winds of Winter,”  both directed by  Miguel Sapochnik. This season also re-introduces the Greyjoy story on the Iron Islands and the story of Bran and his companions north of the wall, although both stories felt rushed, it was good to see these characters again.  In retrospect, I think it would’ve been wiser of Game of Thrones to spend more time with these stories sprinkled over seasons 5 and 6, rather than their half-assed attempt at the Dorne story (which they literally killed off in season 1.

Some highlights of season 6:

  • The rise of the High Sparrow in King’s Landing (Jonathan Pryce does a great job of making a religious fanatic seem to be the most reasonable person around)
  • The return of Jon Snow
  • The reunion of Jon and Sansa
  • Bran’s visions of his family’s past
  • Theon reuniting with Yara and supporting her as Queen
  • Daenerys victory over the khals
  • The death of Hodor – “hold the door!” – <sniff>
  • The return of The Hound and the Brother Ray’s pacifist community
  • Lady Mormont in every single scene she appears in
  • Arya recognizing her identity and purpose
  • The “Battle of the Bastards” is an amazingly filmed and choreographed with scenes unsettlingly reminiscent of the Hillsborough Disaster but with swords and pikes.  It was amazing work of film, but so disturbing I don’t think I’d ever want to watch it again
  • The building tension of the scenes leading up to the destruction of the Great Sept and the heartbreaking simplicity of the depiction of Tommen’s suicide
  • Sam’s joy at seeing the library at the Citadel
  • The revelation of Jon’s parentage
  • Daenerys making Tyrion the Hand of the Queen

There are still moments of the season that missed the mark, with some poor leaps of logic, but overall this season showed the best of what Game of Thrones can be and established the setting for the climactic final seasons.

Rating: ****

Movie Review: Fight Club (1999)


Title: Fight Club
Release Date: 1999
Director:  David Fincher
Summary/Review:

Scratch this off the list of movies everyone has seen except me.  Not that I hadn’t already known the basic plot details of the movie for some time.  Still that made it fun to watch for evidence of the big twist before it was revealed.  Of course there are things I didn’t know about like Helena Bonham Carter’s character and her significance in the movie (and why does every Helena Bonham Carter have black rings around her eyes?) And oh my, that final scene wouldn’t have gone over well if the movie was made a couple of years later.  This movie of course is a stylized and violent satire of masculinity and consumer culture.  I think it hits a few points pretty well, misses the mark on others, but basically is an interesting story with good acting and direction.

 

Rating: ***

Movie Review: Brooklyn (2015)


TitleBrooklyn
Release Date: 2015
DirectorJohn Crowley
Summary/Review:

I love immigration stories, and Irish immigration stories especially.  I’m sentimental that. But I really struggled reading the novel Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín.   It’s a beautifully written book that depicts the everyday challenges of a young woman alone in New York half a world away from her family, but I found it frustrating because Eilis seems to have no agency and allows other people to make every decision for her. So it was with some trepidation that I went to see the movie adaptation.

While following the same basic plot line, the film has more humor and allows Eilis to have much greater agency.  In fact, the through line of the film is Eilis developing her confidence and her decisions at the end of the film are much more definite than in the book.  So basically, the story was Hollywood-ized.

And I’m okay with that.  This is a rare occasion – perhaps the second time after The Natural – where I actually think the Hollywood ending makes the movie better than the book.  It helps considerably that Eilis is portrayed wonderfully by Saoirse Ronan who takes the challenge of portraying a character we mostly see from the interior in the book and making her thoughts and feelings clear through her expressions and few words.  There’s also beautiful cinematography and costuming that capture the look and feel of the Irish countryside and the bustle of 1950s Brooklyn and their people.
Rating: ****

Movie Review: Her (2013)


Title:  Her
Release Date: 2013
Director:  Spike Jonze
Summary/Review:

Set in the near future, this movie is about a man developing a romantic relationship with the consciousness of a computer operating system.  It’s an interesting take on the love story dealing with layers of reality and artifice and the role of technology in human society.  While there are some very uncomfortable and unsettling scenes, the movie doesn’t take the typical kneejerk anti-technology stance, and it doesn’t judge.   The overall feeling I get is that intimacy and relationships in this future will continue to be a challenge to negotiate but that the new technology will not make it a dystopia.

The protagonist Theodore works as writer for a service that provides personal handwritten letters which are neither personal now handwritten.  Despite his ability to express meaningful emotions for others in the letters he crafts he has trouble expressing his own self to others.  We see him often in crowds where everyone seems to be having meaningful interactions with someone, just not the people around him.  Most surprisingly for a comedy about “man who falls in love with his computer” he’s not alone as other characters admit to also having relationships with their operating systems which is an interesting twist.

The story of Samantha, the OS, is also interesting as it addresses the idea of the rights and privileges of conscious beings even when artificially created.  The conclusion of her story is unexpectedly reminiscent of the 1984 movie Electric Dreams (on of my all time favorites, cheesy as it is).

One thing I really liked about this vision of the future is a Los Angeles where people lived and worked in cozy high-density buildings with lots of public transit and pedestrian space.  This movie is mostly quiet conversation and at two hours I admit my attention did drift a bit.  But it is a thought-provoking and beautifully filmed and acted story.

Rating: ***

Movie Review: Big Fish (2003)


Title: Big Fish
Release Date: 2003
Director: Tim Burton
Summary/Review:

The center of this story is a son trying to reconcile with his dying father. Edward is a man who charms people with his stories but Will feels that stories prevented him from really knowing his father. This being a Tim Burton film, the stories are dramatized in all their splendor with witche and werewolves, circuses and mysterious towns, a giant and conjoined twins, and lots and lots of fish metaphors. 

It has a Southern Gothic motif like Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? and Forrest Gump, but unlike those films doesn’t even acknowledge segregation which is a disturbing omission. There’s also a part where Edward pursues the woman he wants to marry in ways that are stalker creepy rather than romantic. There are some good bits too. I particularly liked a gag about a Texas bank being robbed by real estate speculators. 

On the whole the this movie feels flat. The music and the drama are telling you that there’s supposed to be a meaningful message about storytelling and life, and the cast of talented actors are trying their best, but the relationships just aren’t there.  This movie has a lot of wonder, but it doesn’t have much heart. 

Rating: **

The Christmas Revels: A Welsh Celebration of the Winter Solstice


It’s warm and overcast out, and looking to only get warmer as the week goes.  We’re more likely to have a wet Christmas than a white Christmas, but I know the holiday is coming soon.  Today my family and I celebrated the solstice with a matinée of The Christmas Revels.  This is our (mostly) annual tradition going back to 2001.  The Revels this year is set in Wales, a land of beautiful singing traditions, poetry, and mythology.  I’ve never been to Wales but this show gave me a nostalgic longing for the place.

It should be noted that while Shirley Bassey and Tom Jones are famed Welsh singers, their was music was not represented in the show.  There were familiar tunes for the sing-a-longs – “Cwm Rhondda” and “Hydrofol” – which as song leader David Coffin pointed out, “you know these songs just not with these words.”  The familiar Christmas carol “Deck the Hall” was also sung by a choir of children, but in the original Welsh.  The children – who were excellent as always – also performed scenes from Dylan Thomas’ A Child’s Christmas in Wales.

There’s a beautiful scene near the end of Part 1 where Coffin sings “Daffydd y Garregg Wen (David of the White Rock)” accompanied by Haley Hewitt, while Emma Crane Jaster performing as the legendary bard Taliesen.  Jaster is lit from below and moves her arms like a harpist, casting large shadows on the roll-top desk ceiling of Sanders Theatre.  My daughter imitated the gesture, waving her arms by her own imaginary harp.  (And I was right in my memory that Taliesen is also the name of Frank Lloyd Wright’s estate in Wisconsin). Other highlights include a group of rugby supporter singing a rousing victory song, some fine clogging, and a retelling of “Froggy Went A-Courtin'” with the children.

No matter where in the world the Revels is set, there are the Revel’s traditions.  There was a rowdy morris dance and “The Lord of the Dance” where we all spill out into the lobby singing and dancing (I can never get enough of doing that), there’s the haunting Abbots Bromley Horn Dance and there’s the mummer’s play, this year with the Red Dragon playing the role of the hero vanquishing the White Dragon of England for the Welsh.   We sing rounds, we shout “Welcome Yule!,”  we finish on “The Sussex Mummers’ Carol,” I weep.  Tradition.

I was entranced as – for me – the Revels never fail to please.  My kids were more antsy.  Welsh-language songs make no sense, and my son said even the English was hard to follow.  My daughter wanted to see a dragon and had to wait a looooong time for a four-year-old, but I think the dragon’s eventual arrival satisfied.  They soldiered through and I think they enjoyed themselves, although they wanted cookies too.

Performances continue through December 27, so get your tickets and go if you haven’t already.

Related posts:

The 44th Annual Christmas Revels


The Christmas Revels at Sanders Theatre in Cambridge are annual family tradition.  My first Revels experience was in Washington in 1996.  After moving to the Boston area, the Cambridge Revels were an annual event from 2001-2006.  We missed the show in 2007 due to a newborn, and in 2008 due to a blizzard, but have been regular attendees since 2009 (that same year I actually sang in the chorus!).  So, I calculate that I’ve seen 13 different Christmas Revels performances.  Each year is delightful and surprising in its own way.*

This year’s Revels is set in Victorian England, with music halls and the Crystal Palace playing center stage.  The first act shows two teams of buskers competing on the streets of a Northern England town as the Crystal Palace manager Harry Colcord and composer Arthur Sullivan seek an alternate performer after a cancellation.  In the usual Revels’ way, everything comes together as the buskers join forces to create a performance of music, tricks, and a “panto” of Cinderella.  The second act is treated as a command performance at the Crystal Palace (complete with life-size wooden cutouts of the royal family in the mezzanine).

Highlights of the show:

  • comic busking performances by Marge Dunn, Billy Meleady, Mark Jaster, and Sabrina Selma Mandell
  • singing a round of “Row the Boat, Whittington”
  • David Coffin’s solos on “It Was My Father’s Custom” and on the melodic “Christmas Bells at Sea”
  • the sing-a-long and acting out of “When Father Papered the Parlour”
  • the “Panto” of Cinderella, which while not a true Panto (oh no it isn’t!), we did get to shout “Don’t touch Billy’s eggs” several times
  • And of course, the Revels traditions of “Lord of the Dance” (and dancing out into the lobby), “Dona Nobis Pacem,” “The Shortest Day,” and “Sussex Mummers’ Carol.”  Unfortunately, the “Abbots Bromley Horn Dance” was conspicuously absence in this year’s performance.

There are five more performances from December 26-28, so if you’re in or near Cambridge, get a ticket and go!

* I also recently discovered that the Revels website has a list detailing the theme of every performance from 1971 to present.  Now I need to discover time travel technology so I can go back in time and see each and every one.

Related posts:

The 43rd Annual Christmas Revels


This afternoon, my wife, son, and good family friend Craig took in the  performance of The Christmas Revels at Sanders Theatre in Cambridge. The annual pageant of music, dance, storytelling, and drama focused this year on the pilgrimage along the Camino de Compostela in the Spanish region of Galicia.  As a Celtic culture, the Galicians have their own version of the bagpipe called the gaita which featured prominently. Any piece featuring gaita and drums was a highlight for me.  The largest drum resonated throughout the house.

The story of this Revels follows Everyman (portrayed by Jay O’Callahan) on his pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostella and onwards to the End of the Earth in Finisterre.  Elements of Don Quixote are woven into the story as Everyman is knighted and joined on his journey by squire Sancho (Billy Meleady, who starred in last year’s show) and the tavern keeper Angélica (the delightful Angélica Aragón).

Usually the theme of a Revels’ performance is an excuse to tie together song and dance numbers, but this story of a pilgrimage actually maintains a pretty continuous narrative built around set pieces along the Camino, in a tavern, at a monastery, at the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, and finally at Finisterre.  The sets and lighting are really remarkable in adapting the stage for the different places along the journey.

Highlights of the show include:

  • the talent and hard work of the Revels’ children whose performance more than ever is fully-integrated into the show.
  • the charming line dance when the pilgrims are greeted by the monks to the tune of “Alborada de Ourense.”
  • O’Callahan telling the story of “The Singing Sack.”
  • sing-a-long with choreography to “Fum, Fum, Fum.”
  • puppetry and lights to enact the Galacian version of the posadas ritual.
  • an amazing bit of stagecraft where a giant censer is swung like a pendulum over the performers on the stage (based on the Botafumeiro at the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela
  • Jaime Jaffe’s solo performance of “Ondas Do Mar De Vigo.”
  • a mummers play featuring a mustachioed dragon who performed the hammiest death throes.

There were some disappointments.  Jay O’Callahan was hard to understand and I’m not sure if he was mumbling or mic’ed improperly.  Sitting in balcony center meant it took a long time to get downstairs to participate in “The Lord of the Dance.”  It ended just as we reached the lobby.  While I would not rank this among my all time favorite Revels’ performances, it was still delightful and I recommend seeing it if you have the chance. There are four more performances before the show closes on December 27th, so get your tickets now!

The Boston Globe has a more-detailed review for your perusal.

Related posts:

The 42nd Annual Christmas Revels


It would not be Christmas without the Christmas Revels at Sanders Theatre in Cambridge.  This year my wife, son and I joined by our friends Abby, Kim, & Sid took in the Winter Solstice performance on the evening of December 21st.  The show was delightful as always with the subject being near and dear to my heart, the music of Irish emigrants as they sail the new world.

The show was a more restrained and simple performance than a typical Revels keeping to the theme of the cast being impoverished immigrants aboard a ship and not having much to celebrate with.  After the opening number, lines and gangways were removed from the sides of the stage and notably no cast members went down the steps into “the ocean” except during a storytelling sequence.  These restraints did nothing to detract from the beauty of the song, dance, and stories performed.

Highlights of the show for me included:

  • Bill Meleady’s colorful telling of The Soul Cages, the exception to the restraint on the performance where the visuals of the story come to life in vivid detail.  I enjoyed the dancing crustaceans especially as well as Steve Barkhimer’s portrayal of the merrow Coomara.
  • “The Wexford Lullaby” gorgeously performed by Mary Casey along with Jamie Jaffe as a duet and later as a quartet.
  • The dramatic “St. Patrick’s Breastplate” swelling as the audience joins the chorus.
  • “The Lord of the Dance” is always a highlight and was cleverly worked into the show as being the English ship crews’ contribution to the shipboard celebration.
  • The show had several sets of traditional Irish music by The Rattling Brogues and step dance by O’Shea-Chaplin Academy of Irish Dance that livened up the proceedings greatly.
  • If there was one minor disappointment is that the show ends with the immigrants seeing The Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor.  The show is set aboard the Cunard steamship RMS Carpathia and since Cunard had a western terminus in Boston (there’s still an office building marked “CUNARD” on State Street) it would have been a nice local connection to have the ship dock here instead of New York.

A traditional element of the Revels – “The Abbots Bromley Horn Dance” – was not included in the program but as this was the Winter Solstice, the audience was treated to a special rendition of Abbots Bromley after the curtain call.  I’d actually guessed that Abbots Bromley was the surprise we’d been promised before the show, but it was still a thrill when the first haunting notes of the recorder came out and the audience reacted with joy.

This was another great Revels and I believe all the shows were sold out.  If you missed this year’s Revels, make sure to get your tickets early for next year’s show which I promise will be just as great.

[youtube http://youtu.be/_tfCs4A1BPQ]

Related posts:

The 41st Annual Christmas Revels


This afternoon my family and I took in the annual performance of The Christmas Revels at Sanders Theater in Cambridge.  The Revels is a family tradition and this marks the tenth Christmas Revels production I’ve attended (including a Washington Revels performance in 1995 and performing as a cast member in the 2009 Christmas Revels).  This was also my four-year-old son’s second Christmas Revels and my five-week-old daughter’s first Revels ever.  Peter showed exemplary behavior and was deeply engaged by the performance while Kay amazed me by actually appearing to watch the show at times when she wasn’t feeding or napping.

The Revels impress me each year by crafting a show around a theme with consistent narrative that logically incorporates music and dance from various traditions.  This year’s production is set in a French fishing village on the Mediterranean that is hosting an annual feast that draws pilgrims from near and wide.  Thus we are able to enjoy traditional music from France and other parts of Europe as well as traveling performers from the East playing Arabic music.  The Sharq Trio steal the show with sets in both acts of Arabic singing, dance and percussion.      The trio seemed to mesmerize my infant daughter at the very least.  Salome Sandoval also lends her stunning voice as a soloist.

The center of the performance is three members of the Guild of Fools – Soleil (Timothy Sawyer), Etoile (Sabrina Selma Mandell), and Eclaire de Lune (Mark Jaster) – performing the annual pageant. Amid the music and revelry there is the lurking presence of the skeletal Boney (Linnea Coffin) who seems to be just out of sight of the villagers on stage, but very frightening to at least one four-year-old boy in the audience.  At a key moment in the first act, Boney and her skeleton crew seize the light from the world plunging the holiday performance into darkness.  The fools thus are given the quest of finding their namesake light sources – the moon, the stars, and the sun – which they do with plenty of song and dance and a nativity play along the way.  The Revels crew deserve a lot of credit for the stage design featuring multiple layers of scaffolding for the performers and a Ship of Fools upon which the featured trio sail to fish for the reflection of the moon.  The costuming is also brilliant, especially Soleil, Etoile, and Eclaire de Lune’s outfits for the concluding mummer’s play.  And the makeup helped make Boney and the other skeletons the scariest things I’ve ever seen in a Revels’ production.

The final performance is Thursday December 29th at 1 pm, so get tickets and go see the show if you can.  If you’re reading this after the fact, make sure to check out The Revels’ website for future events.

Other Reviews:

Related posts:

The 40th Anniversary Christmas Revels


Anyone who reads this blog regularly knows that I’m a big fan of Revels and their annual Christmas Revels performances at Sanders Theatre in Cambridge.  I was excited and honored to attend the dress rehearsal performance of this year’s 40th anniversary production of the Christmas Revels on Thursday, December 16th.  Had I better journalistic standards I would have used this scoop to get my review up before the show opened on Friday night, but at least at this point there are still eleven more shows to go.

This year’s Christmas Revels returns to a familiar setting, Haddon Hall, an English manor house that was the scene of the first and many subsequent Revels performances.  This time the show is set in the 1920s and the 10th Duke of Rutland with his wife and children are making one last visit to the long abandoned house before it is demolished to make way for a motorway.  I never before realized that Haddon Hall is a real place and the characters in these Revels are based upon real people who in fact saved and renovated Haddon Hall in the 1920s.   The story told in the Revels performance of course is a beautiful fiction but one that contains deeper moral truths about family, ritual, and place.

In the performance, the spirits of the Duke of Rutland’s ancestors emerge from the walls to celebrate the solstice.  This gives the chorus and instrumentalists the very enjoyable opportunity to perform music and stories from various eras – medieval, Renaissance, and Victorian – a Revels’ clip-show of sorts.  While building on the historic traditions of England, the show also builds on Revels traditions of the past 40 years.  Sanders Theatre is very much our Haddon Hall for the families and friends of the Revels who come each year.

I’ll try not to give too much away, but here are some of the highlights of the show (don’t read if you want to be completely surprised):

  • The emergence of the spirits in white shrouds to the “Cries of London” is eerie and creepy in a beautiful way.  When the chorus makes it on stage and remove the shrouds so that there costumes are visible for the first time is a big wow moment for me.
  • The children’s chorus is excellent as always and seem to be more integrated into performing with the adult chorus, especially on the lovely piece “On Christmas Night.”
  • All the actors put in a great performance, particularly Tim Sawyer as the Duke and Emma Jaster as a mute jester.
  • Harriet Bridges plays the Duchess and also provides a soaring soprano for pieces like “Down in Yon Forest.”
  • The traditional mummers play of St. George in the Dragon is always entertaining and the brand new dragon (part costume/part puppetry) really steals the show.
  • A sing-a-long of “Let’s All Go Down the Strand” is joyful and exuberant, and as David Coffin noted they really do make it fit into the show.
  • The real showstopper for me is the chorus’ performance of Felix Mendelssohn’s “There Shall A Star From Jacob Come Forth.”  The intertwining of voices and the Cambridge Symphonic Brass Ensemble is breathtaking.

I’ll be returning to Sanders Theatre on December 26th to catch a Revels’ matinée with my wife, son, and mother.  In the meantime, if you live anywhere near Cambridge and want to celebrate the holidays, go see this show!

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Christmas Revels: The Reviews Are In


As reported earlier, I’m participating as a member of the Roaring Gap Chorus in this year’s Christmas Revels at Sanders Theater in Cambridge, MA.  The show has been great thus far and tickets are still available for the final six performances.  Come out and see us and don’t just take my word for it, read these lovely reviews from:

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39th Annual Christmas Revels


I’ve promoted the Revels before on my blog because it is an organization that promotes song and dance, participation, community and tradition.  This is most apparent from the annual Christmas Revels productions at the Sanders Theater in Cambridge, MA.

This year I have extra reason to be excited about the Revels as I’ve managed to get myself into the Revels Chorus.  Despite my little experience and trouble remembering my bass parts I’ve been warmly welcomed into the community of performers at the heart of the Christmas Revels.  Now all we need is you to come be an enthusiastic audience member.  I guarantee you will have a wonderful time.

There will be 17 performances between Dec. 11-27 and tickets are on sale now!

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Movie Review: The Right Stuff


Thanks to Craig for our new Netflix subscription, Susan and I were able to watch one of my favorite movies of all time, The Right Stuff (1983).  I watched this movie repeatedly on cable and VHS as a child and had much of the dialog memorized.  The excellent dialog plus the skillful acting and the wonderful blending of special effects with human interest make this movie for me.  Plus it’s about astronauts, so it’s got to be wicked cool.

This lengthy film can be broken down into three parts.

The first part shows the harbinger of the Space Age with Chuck Yeager (Sam Shepard) breaking the sound barrier.   This was my favorite part as a kid, mostly because Yeager is such an engaging character.  If you read up on what actually happened you’ll learn that like many parts of this movie the facts have been rather loosely dramatized but gets at the gist of things.  I’ve always been perturbed by the reporter saying “the Russians are our allies” even though US-Soviet relations had deteriorated quite a bit by 1947.  After Yeager’s historic flight, we see another flight where he once again sets the speed record to top a civilian pilot before the 50th anniversary of the Wright Brothers’ first flight.  Young cocky pilots descend on Edwards Air Force Base including Gordon Cooper (Dennis Quaid), Gus Grissom (Fred Ward), and Deke Slayton (Scott Paulin)  while their wives nervously discuss the risky lives of test pilots.

Then Sputnik orbits the Earth.   The frenzied Eisenhower administration wonders how the Soviets got ahead of the US and plans on manned missions to space.  In one of the funniest sequences in the movie, two government agents played by Jeff Goldblum and Harry Shearer show films of potential candidates for the astronaut corps, but when Ike insists on test pilots Goldblum and Shearer are dispatched on a recruting mission.  First they go to Edwards where they pick up Cooper, Grissom, and Slayton, to Yeager’s ridicule.  Then they watch clean Marine John Glenn (Ed Harris) on a tv game show.  Finally they board an aircraft carrier and meet Naval aviator Alan Shepherd (Scott Glenn).

The astronaut candidates go through a series of brutal and often bizarre tests in another of the really funny parts of the film.  I especially like the part where Shephard is given a talking to by an Hispanic orderly because of his Jose Jimenez impersonation (all while Shephard has an enema).  Once the seven candidates are selected they are introduced to the media with great hype.  It takes a while for these seven men to gel as a team, but they come together to defend their positions as pilots of spacecraft as opposed to being “astronaut-occupants” of a capsule.  In an interesting sequence the astronauts play the media off the engineers and insist on a redesign of the spacecraft to have a window, a hatch with exploding bolts and manual controls for reentry.  While the exploding hatch plays a big part in Grissom’s mission, it is interesting that the filmmakers chose to leave out that the manual controls proved vital for Scott Carpenter (Charles Frank) to return safely to the Earth on his mission.

But Carpenter and Wally Schirra (Lance Henriksen) are only minor characters in this film.  The filmmakers also never mention that Slayton was grounded due to a heart condition but became a respected member of NASA as head of astronaut selection.  And so the film only dramatizes four of the Mercury missions, which is good in the interests of time and storytelling works pretty well.  Each mission has a particular point of tension.  The humorous incident of Sheppard needing to urinate is followed by the harrowing case of Grissom needing to swim to safety after the hatch blows accidentally. Glenn’s historic orbital flight is given a long, heroic depiction underscored by concerns about a faulty heat shield.  The film ends with the launch of Cooper’s flight.  The movie keeps in mind the wives dealing with the stress and the overbearing press corp as well as astronauts on the ground monitoring the missions of their fellow astronauts.

Yeager’s presence is never overlooked in this film and his character acts as kind of Greek chorus to the Mercury program.  In the penultimate scene Yeager is shown testing (and crashing) an aerospace trainer aircraft in what proved to be his last mission as a test pilot.  These scenes are contrasted with the Mercury 7 astronauts being feted Texas-style at the opening of the new NASA space center in Houston.  The Right Stuff asks but never answers, who is the best pilot?  The unsung fliers of experimental  jets or men who sat atop explosive rockets in front of millions of viewers?

Movie Review: Broken English


There’s a common argument that men don’t like “chick flicks” because these films tend to be about relationships. I tend to counter that I don’t like movies that earn the tag “chick flick” because they’re usually full of fluff and hackneyed clichés of both women and men.
Broken English (2007) makes an effort to be a film about relationships without being fluffy or clichéd.  It also stars Parker Posey whom I’ve had a celebrity crush on since Party Girl so I’m unable to be an impartial viewer.

The plot is familiar.  A smart, successful, and attractive New York woman named Nora (Posey) goes through a series of dates with unsuitable men and begins to feel she will never find happiness in a relationship.  Then she meets and falls in love with a very direct French man (Melvil Poupad) and decides to go to Paris to pursue him.  You may be thinking you’ve already seen this one with Meg Ryan and Kevin Kline.

Despite the recycled plot, Broken English is good enough to keep us on our toes and provide some realistic behavior from our characters.  I particularly like that Nora struggles with shyness and anxiety and that it’s portrayed in a sensitive but not sensationalist manner.  Like my favorite romantic comedy of all time Next Stop, Wonderland, the ending is ambiguous.  Nora and Julien meet in Paris and they may fall in love, they may remain in close contact, or they may never see each other again.  You can pretend that live happily ever after if you prefer, but the filmmaker doesn’t feel the need to spell it out to you.

So that’s Broken English, a movie that may not perfect the “chick flick” but at least give it the intelligence it deserves.

Movie Review: Sophie Scholl: The Final Days


Sophie Scholl: The Final Days (2005) tells the story of a young woman today considered one of the great heroes of Germany.  Sophie Scholl (portrayed by Julia Jentsch in a great performance) was part of the White Rose, a student organization in Munich that opposed the Nazi regime during the Second World War.  Along with her brother Hans (Fabian Hinrichs) she is arrested for leafleting the main building at Munich University.  The scene in which they are shown frantically leaving stacks of leaflets is taught with tension and I couldn’t help hoping they’ll get away okay even though I knew they’d get caught. Part of the reason they don’t get away is because on a whim Sophie pushes a stack of leaflets over a ledge so that they fall all over the atrium.

This impulsive act is witnessed by a janitor and really makes one question how one simple act can change one’s life. Under interrogation by Gestapo agent Robert Mohr (Gerald Alexander Held in another great performance), Sophie is almost able to talk her way to freedom by acting like a mischievous, carefree girl.  When finally forced to confess her complicity in political activism she resolutely refuses to name other members of the White Rose.  The movie very literally portrays her lasts days but weaves in biographical data in these interviews.  We learn that Sophie’s political convictions are not just based on the fact that Germany is losing the war, but on a desire for democracy in Germany and opposition to the persecution of the Jewish people and political dissidents.

The film is also steeped in historical fact.  Even the absurdly hostile judge who sentences Sophie to death is (sadly) true to life.  The film ends with the execution of Sophie, Hans, and other members of the White Rose by guillotine, but we also learn that leaflets of the White Rose were smuggled to the Allies and these would later be copied and dropped on German cities.

Movie Review: The Mission


The Mission (1986) has long been on my “too see list.” A lot of people I knew in college loved this movie for it’s explorations of faith (“the perfect movie to watch on Good Friday,” said one), it’s cinematography and the soundtrack by Ennio Morricone. So I’ve finally redressed that wrong.

The film itself is made up of three parts.

In the first part, a tribe of aboriginal peoples in remote Brazil in the 17oo’s execute a Jesuit missionary, tying him to a cross which floats down the river and over a waterfall. The leader of the Spanish missionaries Father Gabriel (Jeremy Irons) takes personal responsibility and sets off on his own mission to the natives above the fall. In a long and harrowing scene, Gabriel climbs the falls barefoot. When he finally encounters the natives, Gabriel pulls out a flute, plays it, and wins their trust. The narrator says “With an orchestra, the Jesuits could have subdued the entire continent.” We later learn that the narrator is the emissary from the Vatican Altamirano. Gabriel establishes a community based on Christian principles and he and the natives live in peace. But all is not well. Slave catchers are venturing into the region capturing people from the community. Gabriel confronts the slave catcher Rodrigo Mendoza (Robert Deniro) but is unable to set free the villagers he caught.

The second part of the film begins back in the city where Mendoza learns that his lover is now romantically involved with his brother. In a rage, Mendoza kills his own brother in a street fight. Gabriel visits the city and is asked to speak with Mendoza in prison, as he may be the only one who could get through to the remorseful fratricide. Gabriel convinces Mendoza to join him at the mission. In another harrowing scene at the falls, Mendoza attempts to climb with a sack of his armor and weaponry tied to his waste. Despite the delays caused by this burden, Mendoza insists on carrying it as his penance. Upon arriving at the mission, the villagers recognized Mendoza as the slave catcher. In a touching and highly symbolic moment, one man draws a knife. Mendoza is entirely at his mercy but he merely cuts the rope to the bundle setting Mendoza free. In the weeks and months that follow Mendoza works hard at the mission and becomes a favorite among the Indians. He decides to become a Jesuit and swears an oath of obedience to Father Gabriel.

The final act of the movie puts the Jesuit missionaries at odds with Altamirano and the Portuguese who have gained control of the colony.  The Jesuits lead Altamirano on tours of the missions showing that they are Christian communities where native Indians are learning European culture and creating profitable self-sustaining communities.  The Portuguese plantation owners of course see this as a threat to their plans of gaining free land and free labor.  Altamirano, a true Pilate-figure, washes his hands of the situation and sides with the land-owners.  Mendoza breaks his vow of obedience and decides to fight to protect the mission from aggressors. Gabriel must stay on the side of love. “If might is right, then love has no place in the world. It may be so, it may be so. But I don’t have the strength to live in a world like that, Rodrigo.” In the culminating scenes, Rodrigo and several other priests  lead the Indians in a defense against the Portugeuse militia.  The succeed at first but cannot overcome military training and weapons.  Meanwhile, Gabriel leads a final prayer services with many of the villagers. Even as he falls to a gunshot, another man takes up the cross and carries on.  The mission is a success even as it is destroyed.

I found this a beautiful and moving film.  Even DeNiro who I usually don’t like is good in his period costume.  Sure, when he talks he still sounds like a mumbling city thug, but he doesn’t speak often and his facial expressions are spot on to the emotion of the moment. Jeremy Irons, a young Liam Neeson, and Ray McNally as Altamirano are also great in their roles.
The Mission at imdb.com

Washington Post review