Sunday, July 22, 2018

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child: Broadway Magic

I'll confess: when I read the script of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child two years ago, I was underwhelmed. But you know what? This is why a play is something you should experience live on stage. Because two years later, I sat down at the Lyric Theater for five hours and experienced the most magical night I've ever had on Broadway. And I don't say that lightly - the special effects in this production are so magnificent that I literally texted all of my friends, "How are they doing this, it's MAGIC!"

A brief word about the logistics of this play. It consists of two parts that are designed to either be watched concurrently on the same night or one after another on consecutive days. If you watch on the same day (like I did) you'll get to see the same actors, but if you choose to break up your viewing, you might have different actors. I was puzzled as to why all the characters were wearing identical clothing throughout the play - Hermione's the Minister for Magic, does she really only own one purple robe? But this makes much more sense when you consider audiences might otherwise get confused as to who is playing what role if the actors change midway through their viewing experience.

The fact that there are two parts should also immediately alert you to the fact that there is a LOT of story to get through. You would think that having five hours would mean that the story would flow smoothly, but you will seriously experience a lot of whiplash while you try to keep up with the brisk scene changes. The stage direction is sublime, and it's little wonder director John Tiffany has been sweeping up accolades for his work, but there's quite a lot of exposition to get through and it can all get a bit overwhelming. During the intermission of Part Two, a very excited young boy and his father who were sitting behind me were discussing everything that had just transpired, and it hit me that the things they were talking about had just happened an hour ago as opposed to three hours ago in Part One. So much had happened in that one hour that it already felt like it was a long time ago. Which is appropriate for a play that deals so much with time travel that by the end of it you have no idea what time you're in.

One of the campaigns of the play is #KeepTheSecrets, i.e. don't tell anyone what you've just seen so they can experience it with fresh eyes when they enter the theater. As a lifelong Harry Potter fan, I cannot deny the wishes of J.K. Rowling, so I'm not going to spoil the plot (you can read the Wikipedia summary or buy the script anyway to get all the details). All I will say is that all of the actors are magnificent, in particular Anthony Boyle, who is considered a Featured Actor in his role as Scorpius Malfoy, but honestly is the star of the entire show, providing consistent comic relief and then sudden emotional heft. More importantly though, I don't want to spoil the details of the special effects on stage, because they need to be seen to be believed. I remember reading the play and thinking, "how on earth could any of this be depicted on stage?" Now I have seen it for myself, and still find myself thinking, "how on earth did they DO that?" It's truly a wondrous night of theater, and the production design, set, and intricate choreography to get everything just right is a marvel to behold. It's quite nerdy to say so, but the scene transitions were my favorite part of the show, because like all great sleight of hand, they keep you immersed in the world while all sorts of machinations go on behind the scenes unbeknownst to you.

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is a technical masterpiece and feat of wizardry. It's a 4D experience, where the audience gets wholly immersed into the action on stage. I was sitting all the way in the back in the balcony and yet I didn't lose my interest for a second. If you can afford it, splurge for tickets as close to the stage as possible, but if you cannot, don't worry, you're still going to be blown away. 

Friday, July 20, 2018

RBG: Quiet Feminism

This week, I finally got around to watching RBG, the documentary about US Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, affectionately nicknamed Notorious RBG for her scathing dissents on opinions made by the increasingly conservative Court. All of my girlfriends had already seen this movie so I walked in with some trepidation that there was no way it would live up to their collective hype. Turns out, you simply cannot rave about this movie (and this woman) enough.

The first thing I noticed were the opening credits. As each name came on screen, I started to realize that every person making this film appeared to be a woman, from the music supervisor (Miriam Cutler), to the cinematographer (Claudia Raschke), to the editor (Carla Gutierrez), to the co-directors and producers (Betsy West and Julie Cohen). So right at the outset, I knew this movie was taking a stand. Believe me, as a lady who watches a lot of movies, I am NOT used to seeing this level of female engagement behind the scenes, so it already gave me a frisson of delight to begin the movie in this fashion.

And then we dive right in to the wonderful and inspirational life of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a woman who grew up in Brooklyn in the 1930s, went to Cornell, then to Harvard Law, worked with the ACLU to represent cases on sex discrimination and gradually chip away at gender inequality, until she was eventually appointed as justice on the appellate court by Jimmy Carter, and finally an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court in 1993 by Bill Clinton. That is a whirlwind of accomplishment, but watching how she accomplished it is rather astonishing. I did not realize that Ginsburg is a small, quiet, and reserved woman, and to watch her dismantle gender inequality using her exquisite intelligence and strategic thinking is like watching the world's greatest Chess Grandmaster at play.

Behind every great woman is a man, and while this movie is emphatically about celebrating Ruth, I would be remiss if I didn't mention her shockingly feminist husband Marty, who never saw any reason not to support his wife and give her career precedence over his. He had no qualms about giving up his successful career in New York to follow her to Washington, and he lobbied like crazy on her behalf when there was a chance she could be nominated to the Supreme Court. It made me wish more men were that matter-of-fact about recognizing and championing the brilliant women in their lives, and thought nothing of stepping aside to let them have the spotlight. I have no idea what happened in Marty's life to make him such a feminist, but we need more men like him around today.

But more than Marty, we need more women like Ruth. She embraced what her mother always told her, to "be a lady" and never get angry, which is why she was such a successful lawyer. She was passionate about her cases, but she never allowed herself to get swept away by emotion or raise her voice in court. Instead, the film gives us audio recordings of Ginsburg during her most famous cases (both as laywer and judge) and listening to that cool, calm, and wickedly incisive woman delivering her intricately worded arguments or questioning foolish logic from lawyers fighting on behalf of gender discrimination is one of the greatest pleasures known to woman. She fought with words and with the law, and by doing so, she was able to grant women so many more opportunities in daily life and give them a chance to get ahead in the world.

The final part of the film is a little dismaying, because now Ginsburg is mostly famous for dissenting from her conservative colleagues and is unable to hold much sway over the court. With the resignation of Justice Kennedy, and the possibility of losing the court for another generation and even overturning Roe v Wade, it's hard to see how much we could have had if the Democrats had stayed in power and Ginsburg had more liberal colleagues to progress an agenda of social justice and fairness. But putting all that aside, this movie still made me so happy to see a woman who embodied everything that a woman should be. Intelligent, feminist, and a champion for her fellow women. Like Madeleine Albright said, "There's a special place in hell for women who don't help each other." After watching RBG, I'm certain that Ruth Bader Ginsburg will be going to a very special place in heaven.

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Won't You Be My Neighbor? Look for the Helpers

I've been excited to see the Mr. Rogers documentary, Won't You Be My Neighbor? ever since I saw the trailer months ago. In these trying times, a documentary about a kind and thoughtful man who only wanted to help children and tell everyone that they deserve to be loved is exactly what we all need. And boy, that is exactly what this film delivers.

I won't lie - is this movie a bit of a hagiography? Sure. It highlights everything that made Fred Rogers a man that a generation of adults and children relied on for care and comfort. There are some uncomfortable topics that come up, like when he told Francois Clemmons, who played Officer Clemmons on the show, that he could never let the public find out he was gay as that would ruin the image of the show. But Fred and his wife never shunned Francois, and there's an emotional moment when he talks about how Fred was like a father to him, because no man had ever really told him he loved him before.

And that's the power of Mr. Rogers. He told everyone that he loved them, that they were special, unique, and fully deserving of love from the people around them. He also didn't dismiss childish worries. He understood that children worry about things, and are scared a lot of the time, and rather than just patting them on the head and telling them everything would be OK, he encouraged them to talk about their feelings, acknowledged those feelings, and told them that it was OK to have those feelings. He never pretended those feelings would completely go away, but he sure did convince you that people around you would help you when you were blue.

This movie follows the creation of the show, the purpose of each puppet and storyline, as well as the brilliant Senate testimony Fred Rogers delivered that secured $20 million funding for public television when no one was convinced that the arts was worth a penny. His ethos and philosophy is the central tenet of this movie, and it is moving and uplifting to find a man who managed to bring so much happiness to the world around him with the simple concept of listening to people and validating their concerns.

Won't You Be My Neighbor? is a sweet and powerful film that reminds us to be kind. It's a reminder that we can never hear enough times. The final moments of the movie are particularly moving as the filmmakers ask each person they've interviewed to take a minute to think about someone that helped them in their life. You in the audience will also take a beat to think of a helper in your life, and that will bring you some melancholy joy. When my friend Katie and I walked out of the theater and back into the real world, I turned to her in despair, and said, "Katie, who are the helpers now?" And she replied, "The ACLU?" So yes, we still have helpers, whether it be the ACLU, or just the people in your daily life who make you smile, give you a shoulder to cry on, or tell you that they hear you. Don't forget the helpers, they're around you everyday. 

Saturday, June 30, 2018

Girls & Boys: Carey Mulligan Weaves a Tale

One of the greatest privileges of living in New York City is that world-famous actors come over and do off-Broadway productions that knock your socks off. If you're in the city or will be visiting before July 22, I implore you to spend some of your hard-earned dollars on catching Carey Mulligan's tour-de-force performance in Girls & Boys.

This is a one-woman play, so you will watch Mulligan on stage for two hours telling you the story of a British woman who starts off a bit aimless and unsure of what to do with her life, then slowly builds up into a story of a woman who creates a brilliant life for herself, and then tragedy strikes. When I asked my friend Katie if I should see the play she said, "It's so funny, but oh my god, it's SO TRAGIC." And I thought that was the most bipolar review I had ever heard until I watched this play myself and realized that really is the best way to describe it. 

The power of a brand-new play that isn't based on any existing book of work is that you get to experience the story unfold for yourself. You honestly will not know where this play is going when you begin. You will just know that you would happily watch Mulligan tell you this character's story for hours on end. She dazzles on stage, cracking jokes, flinging her arms out in abandon, smiling that incandescent smile that cannot help but fill you with hope and joy. Everything she does feels natural and real; even though the entire play consists of her breaking the fourth wall and directly addressing the audience to tell them her story, you never once feel like this is fake. It's like you're her friend and she's telling you what happened to her. 

And what happened to her is not pretty. It starts out wonderfully, but what follows is a searing indictment of men and women and the roles they play in society and the tragedy that sometimes follows because we don't understand what's going on inside someone's head. I cannot promise you that you will leave the theater feeling remotely uplifted. But this is a powerful play for our current moment that conveys how we treat our Girls & Boys and where that leads when they turn into Women & Men. 

Written by Dennis Kelly, the dialogue is searingly funny and then searingly powerful, while Lyndsey Turner's direction is pitch perfect at capturing the various changes in scene and mood that accompany this riveting tale. Girls & Boys is only running for a few more weeks, and if you're on a budget, you can get $30 rush tickets like I did. So please, try to take the time to get some theater in your life and experience the transformative power of art and truly magical acting. 

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

The Tale: The Pain of Remembering

The Tale is a movie I dreaded watching but found so compelling that I was really glad I saw it (thought I don't ever watch to re-watch it). So, I'm recommending it, but also with the caveat that it will disturb you and make you want to never let your children out of your sight ever again.

The luminescent Laura Dern plays Jennifer Fox (the writer and filmmaker of this movie; this is a true story about her dawning realization about an incident in her childhood). Things kick off when Jenny gets a call from her mother who has just discovered an old story Jenny wrote when she was 13. Her mother is very upset, but Jenny dismisses her concern, telling her she's making a mountain out of a molehill. What follows is a chilling story that is told in a hazy and erratic way I've never seen before as Jenny tries to piece together her memories. There are flashbacks to the summer when the incident took place, where we get to see how 13-year old Jenny (Isabelle Nelisse) first met the enigmatic Mrs. G (Elizabeth Debicki) and a running coach, Bill (Jason Ritter). And how they slowly gained her trust and eventually subjected her to something that she wouldn't truly understand until the present when she is old enough to realize what exactly happened to her that summer.

This movie is a wondrous piece of storytelling, weaving back and forth through Jenny's diaphanous memories, anchored by her narration that only gives up bits and pieces of this story, making you relive her experience as a young child. You can easily see how this woman has spent her entire lifetime believing that what happened to her was perfectly normal, but watching the cracks appear as she researches this story and interviews people from her past is devastating. She is a journalist who focuses on women's stories and sexual abuse, and to watch her dawning horror that she herself experienced this and isn't just some objective outsider chronicling other's experiences is devastating. Laura Dern and Isabelle Nelisse are a heartbreaking duo as old and young Jenny, and they will be sweeping awards for their performances in the very near future.

In the #MeToo world, stories like The Tale have even more resonance and urgency. Young women are trained to rationalize and justify so much bad behavior - no he's my boyfriend, he's my husband, this is how it is, etc. This movie is an exquisite deconstruction of how that type of thinking is ingrained into us as young girls and perpetuated into adulthood. Even the parents, who suspected what was happening, were so horrified by the taboo that they chose to believe it couldn't be happening rather than consider reality. The takeaway from this movie shouldn't be to lock up your daughters. But it should certainly be to talk to them openly about sexuality and what they deserve. Rather than masking the topic in an aura of uncertainty, which then leads to women keeping secrets and letting themselves live with shame rather than speaking out against the truly shameful people they encounter. 

Friday, June 22, 2018

Wild Wild Country: A Captivating Cult

I have always been wary of spiritual gurus but never more so than after I binge watched Wild Wild Country over two days. If you have not watched this documentary on Netflix yet, hunker down this weekend and get to work. You'll be treated to the most disturbing and entertaining six hours you've experienced in a while.

The six-part documentary tells the story of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh (later known as Osho) and the cult he built in India, which he then subsequently transferred to the tiny town of Antelope, Oregon in the 1980s. Over the course of the documentary we get the story from Rajneesh's followers (the Rajneeshees) and his deputy, Ma Anand Sheela, one of the most intriguing women ever featured on screen. She is the ultimate antihero, a woman with almost psychopathic ambition and a fervor to do anything for her guru until things become too much even for her. We also get the story from the white, conservative residents of Antelope, Oregon, who had their lives completely changed by the arrival of this strange cult.

The first few episodes make it seem like your typical struggle between conservative Americans and immigrant foreigners. In our political climate, it seems convenient as a liberal snowflake for me to side with the foreigners and get mad at the white people for being so confrontational and annoyed about these people pouring into their town. However, once you learn more about Sheela's tactics and the way this cult started to take over local and state politics to further their radical agenda, you start to understand that no one's got a leg to stand on here. Pretty much everyone involved is a monster, and as the list of crimes by the townspeople and the cult members start to escalate, you have to pause and say, "Wait, this really happened?"

That's the most absurd thing about this story. It all took place in the 1980s and yet this is the first I've ever heard of it. My mother vaguely remembered it, but I suspect that was just because of the sexual escapades of the cult (the reason they got forced out of India) and not the other craziness that ensued in Oregon. Free love is a tame scandal compared to poisoning, tax evasion, voter fraud, and attempted murder. Yeah, these people really got busy. And the documentary is full of news clips that reveal this was national news that had the country obsessed, with Tom Brokaw and the like talking about the Rajneeshees and debating how the FBI was going to take everyone down.

Wild Wild Country is a brilliant documentary, ending every episode with a compelling cliffhanger that will have you desperately hitting "Play Next Episode" so you can watch what happened to these seemingly normal talking heads who start spewing increasingly bizarre stories about this cult and what happened in Oregon. Netflix is fast becoming my go-to source for quality documentary filmmaking and I won't be surprised if Wild Wild Country picks up a ton of awards this year for captivating a nation and reminding us how quickly a charismatic leader can lead his people to complete ruin.

Monday, June 18, 2018

Hearts Beat Loud: Love & Music in Brooklyn

Every once in a while, your cool friend (hi Katie!) will urge you to go to the theater to watch a little indie movie that's bursting with heart and ambition. Hearts Beat Loud is one of those films. A movie about the relationship between a father and daughter, about making music, about finding love, it's a sweet and magical little gem that is guaranteed to put a goofy grin on your face and make you hum its title song for the rest of your day.

Nick Offerman stars as Frank, the owner of a Brooklyn record store and father to Sam (Kiersey Clemons), a very serious teenage girl who is spending her summer before heading off to UCLA taking pre-med classes so she can be better prepared to get a research internship. Her father is trying to get her to enjoy her summer and insists that she join him in some jam sessions instead of doing homework 24/7. Reluctantly she agrees, and he discovers that she has been jotting down some lyrics, inspired by her budding romance with a local artist (Sasha Lane). They record a song, Hearts Beat Loud, a gorgeous indie confection that has a hook that will haunt you for days. Unbeknownst to Sam, Frank uploads the song to Spotify, where it slips its way into the Daily Indie Mix playlist and excites some interest. Thus arises the question of whether Sam should pursue college or go on tour with her dad and pursue her musical talent.

Yeah, that's where all the parents (particularly non-American ones) reading this blog roll their eyes and say there's no question there. But this is a movie about Brooklyn hipsters, OK, so pursuing art over a medical career is a legitimate option. This is certainly a very Brooklyn movie, where the father doesn't bat an eyelash over learning about his daughter's girlfriend, but is annoyed that she would rather do her science homework instead of playing with the new sampler he bought. But it's also a very sweet father-daughter relationship built on trust and mutual respect. It reminded me of Toni Erdmann, with the father desperately trying to make his uptight daughter relax, except here, the daughter is plenty cool all on her own and just needs to be reminded that she can sing and study at the same time. It also reminded me of Begin Again, a similarly sweet movie about musicians in New York that got lost in the morass of summer blockbusters in 2014, so don't let this movie suffer the same fate.

Hearts Beat Loud is the ideal summer movie - light and breezy, not too serious but packed with dazzling performances from character actors you don't often get to see on the big screen. Toni Colette, Blythe Danner, and Ted Danson toss in charming supporting performances, but Nick Offerman rules the screen until he's upstaged by Kiersey Clemons, who is destined to be a star. The soundtrack by Keegan Dewitt (featuring mostly original songs) is wonderful, and a certain moment in the film has ensured that Mitski's Your Best American Girl is now on repeat on my iPod. At one point, when Sam dismisses her song lyrics as not being about anything, her father tells her that sometimes it's just about the feeling. Well, this movie will certainly make you have all the feelings. So if you want a positive, beautiful movie about people who love each other and have a lot of talent, treat yourself to this film ASAP.