Outdated Prague trends make home

Tags

, , , ,

PRAGUE — The dance club is pulsing with a string of Spanish language hits. Europeans are mingling and dancing passionately to the songs. Suddenly, a surprise number comes up next in the mix — a medley of songs from the popular movie musical “Grease.” This is the Prague I have come to know and love over the past few weeks. This is a city that appears to be just a few decades behind America in the pop culture spectrum.

For all the humor and quirkiness of the situation, there is a strange comfort that comes with the delayed culture in Prague. Culture shock is cushioned by nostalgic familiarity as restaurants and bars play throwbacks by Michael Jackson and Nirvana on loop while dance clubs throughout the city offer a series of ’80s- and ’90s-theamed nights that are often packed with students.

Does this mean that NYU students are sticking primarily to the more American-friendly spots in the city? For some the answer is yes, but Prague’s affinity for the past is inescapable. Hopping on a metro train or merely walking along many of the cobblestone streets, it is quite easy to note the dated fashion trends the locals seem to be sporting. Oversized and colorful snowboard jackets are a popular staple in the winter wardrobes of the locals. Other skater-friendly clothes that were popular about 10 years ago back in the States are featured heavily in storefronts and on the backs of Prague’s inhabitants. The overall pop-punk vibe of most of the city’s youth pushes memories of rocking out to Avril Lavigne’s “Sk8er Boi” to the forefront of my mind, and it is slightly cringe-inducing to recall how popular these looks used to be. These current trends, however, are not exactly visually jarring or difficult to avoid because it took a while for me to even notice their popularity. This could have also been attributed to the Siberian winter the city’s been experiencing since our group arrived. Retro Converse sneakers aren’t exactly ice-friendly.

Many participants in our program do not speak Czech, so unlike the majority of other study abroad sites, we have at least one huge cultural barrier to jump over collectively from the very first day. Orientation courses helped teach us the basics of the language so we can at least read numbers and interact politely with locals. Even though this is a daily complication, the minute I hear John Travolta in a club, I know it is okay to let go and enjoy myself a little more. While I am completely positive that I will never be able to properly pronounce the series of consonants that is called the Czech language, I do know all the words to “Summer Nights” — and that is something a few Czechs and I have in common.

Brittany Spanos is a foreign correspondent. Email her at opinion@nyunews.com.

http://nyunews.com/opinion/2012/03/08/08spanos/

My Grandma Likes ‘Star Wars’

Tags

, , , , , ,

Thanksgiving 2011 in the Spanos household was fairly normal. After watching The Godfather with my aunt and uncle, as most families do, we ate dinner, planned out my mom’s Black Friday shopping extravaganza, and watched Working Girl. To say my grandma was excited to see one of her favorite films on Comcast OnDemand was an understatement. From the time I pointed it out to her on Sunday until Thursday evening, I had to dodge her incessant interrogation of when we were going to watch it. Most grandchildren would find this to be an adorable request from the grandparent to spend more time together, but my mom and I both knew that this is the same grandma who called me just a month ago to say “You know how you love someone but don’t really give a shit if they’re with you? That’s how I feel about you!” We knew she had an ulterior motive.

That ulterior motive goes by the name of Harrison Ford.

My Polish-American grandma is a strange and elusive woman. With her consistently dyed auburn hair and olive skin tone, she appears much younger than other women at the age of 64. The cynical, snarky, and slightly misanthropic tendencies my grandma is known for are mismatched with her career of thirty-some years as a pharmacy technician, which happens to be a job that requires a decent amount of human interaction. My grandma and late grandpa raised me alongside my mother, so my stories with grandma are numerous. Memories from my childhood are peppered with recollections of her cussing like a sailor while baking cookies and spending hours watching crime shows like Law & Order, 48 Hours Mystery, and Murder, She Wrote. Even when I was as young as five-years-old, grandma would let me watch her “adult” shows as she made commentary. My mom, grandma, and I have always been a trio; we would do outings together to go shopping and to see movies. I still remember seeing The Diving Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood with them when I was nine; my mom left the theatre crying and comparing the family to us as my grandma and I complained about how stupid the entire film was and made fun of my mom. Grandma has always understood me.

This is why spending the holiday feast making fun of my mother and watching a Harrison Ford classic at 11 p.m. just makes sense to the way we have always been.

It is important to note that I have seen Working Girl at least 10 times in my life. Unfortunately for my childhood, this particular late ‘80s cinematic gem used to be a regular on the network formerly known as WGN’s Saturday and Sunday night movie specials. Grandma refuses to admit it, but she thinks Harrison Ford is hot. Her obsession has subconsciously led to me being an expert on the aging actor’s extensive filmography without actually knowing the names or plots of most of his work. The briefest encounter with scenes are attached to a night spent fighting off sleep while my grandma yells at me to listen to her commentary. Of course, her obsession has also led me to being a teenage college student spending her Thanksgiving break watching Melanie Griffith juggle two facial expressions for 113 minutes: boringly sad and sadly bored.

As soon as the terrible tribal-techno-pop soundtrack began playing, my usually sarcastic and innuendo-spouting grandma started giggling like a schoolgirl. She tried to play it off; jokes about the heavily teased hair, terrible outfits, and Griffith’s weird-looking butt were instantly made. When Harrison Ford’s lovely face appeared on our screen, grandma’s eyes lit up and she made sure to note how young he looks. Any type of laughter or recognition of her secret love for Ford came with the angry response of “I just appreciate his work!” During the scene where Ford changes in his office, my grandma had a huge smile spread across her face. I looked over at her just to have her glare at me for noticing.

The holiday night sparks up memories of my summer vacation in 2007. I was 14 going on 15 in August, and the most significant accomplishments I had from those three long months included attending Lollapalooza and watching the first three Indiana Jones films and both Star Wars trilogies. I distinctly remember my grandma being appalled that we had never watched them and that my friends were unfamiliar with both of the franchises.

I never said my family members were normal.

Naturally, we rented all of the movies and spent most of the first morning of our movie marathon debating over which Star Wars trilogy to watch first. We began with the prequels because grandma wanted to go chronologically in terms of the Star Wars galaxy. Yes, my grandmother is secretly a nerd. She was noticeably bored during The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones, and Revenge of the Sith; we had designated nap breaks about halfway through each one. Once we arrived at the original trilogy, however, it was all or nothing.

At this point, I am going to pretend like I know something about sports because witnessing my grandma watching the Star Wars series is similar to how I imagine football enthusiasts view preseason. The prequels are just a few practice games that are not going on the record, but when the original trilogy is on, you better be ready to keep up and keep score.

A New Hope came with its own share of commentary, including a spoiler about the revelation that Luke and Leia are actually siblings. She felt it was important because “they flirt so damn much.” The real reason for the film viewing, though, was realized as soon as Han Solo made his dashing entrance. Yet again I had to watch my grandma swoon over Harrison Ford and then immediately hide her wide smile as soon as I noticed. When it comes to Harrison, there is essentially no difference between her and my elementary school self on the playground refusing to admit to my best guy friend that I had a crush on him. Every flex of his lean muscles alongside that familiar smoldering smirk he shines as he prepares to show the bad guys who is boss throws her into a haze that is as strange to me as it is adorable.

After we finished the original trilogy, I felt like grandma would be hard-pressed to find another set of films that would keep my interest as much as Star Wars did. Yes, I am as nerdy as my grandma. We started watching Raiders of the Lost Ark, and I embarked on a new infatuation with archaeologists and adventure. After three films and a brief love of Short Round, the best character in the series, I was hooked.

Within a year or two, I would begin to reap the benefits of Harrison Ford-apalooza when the rest of my high school chums began to nerd out on Star Wars and Indiana Jones. For some reason, 16-year-old boys react fairly well to a chick who can tell the difference between R2-D2 and C-3PO. I reached cool kid status with my knowledge of Indy’s sidekicks and Yoda quotes.

The movie marathon also came in handy when Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull was released in 2008. After suffering through Don’t Mess with the Zohan on a triple generation outing with my mom and grandma, the eldest of our trio insisted that we get our money’s worth and sneak into the new Indy film next door. I distinctly remember her squealing as soon as we found out that Marion Ravenwood, Indiana’s former flame from Raiders of the Lost Ark, was back in the series as the mother of the hero’s son, Mutt, played by my own reason for seeing the film — Shia LaBeouf. I also recall my grandma loudly requesting in a packed theater to go home as soon as the aliens appeared on screen. There is one thing my grandma cannot stand for: when her favorite movies or television shows mix genres. She may love the strange creatures of Star Wars, but once you add extra-terrestrials to Indiana Jones, she wants no part of it. Being perpetually similar in tastes, my mom and I had no objection to her request to head home.

Harrison Ford has always had a bit of competition in my grandma’s heart. One does not get to the point of having The Pelican Brief almost memorized without having a fairly intense love for Denzel Washington. Another fixture in the WGN weekend movie line-up, The Pelican Brief became the bane of my existence at a very early age. There has yet to be a time where I have not loudly groaned at the title being brought up in conversation. When I saw American Gangster without her, I remember my grandma trying to hide her jealousy. She had her co-workers hook her up with some “connections” to obtain bootleg copies of The Manchurian Candidate, Man on Fire, and Inside Man in previous years. She hates movies about sports yet she watches Remember the Titans whenever it is on television. My grandma is nothing if devoted.

Maybe these obsessions are familial. My mom will stop everything she is doing to watch Purple Rain. My grandpa would spend hours convincing us that he sounds exactly like Joe Cocker by playing the singer’s songs and singing along to every word from morning until night. My dad loves the Batman comics and films so much that he has the Joker’s face tattooed on his right arm while my face is emblazoned on the left. I find both tattoos to be equally disturbing. Of course, I am prone to the obsession bug. When I like a director, actor, or writer I set out to become an expert no matter how much time it takes. You can see my summer of ’09 journey into the filmography of Woody Allen as a reference.

My grandma has never admitted to loving Harrison and Denzel. She quietly asserts her appreciation through almost religiously viewing their work whenever a random television channel provides her with the option. Not even my grandpa noticed how often she watched Ford’s films; he enjoyed Star Wars as much as she does and would always recall the time they went to the drive-in to see A New Hope together. Grandma’s appreciation helped fill my childhood with a collection of random, strange, and abnormal memories with her. If it weren’t for her deceptive ways of getting me to watch Star Wars and Indiana Jones, it may have been years before I got the chance to watch such culturally important and massive series. In the end, I guess I feel that my hours of watching Working Girl have added up to be something special in spite of how weird Melanie Griffith’s butt looks.

‘Venus in Fur’: Review

Tags

, , , , , ,

Sex, Power, and Aphrodite

“Don’t we go to plays for passions we don’t get in life?” When this particular question is posed in the middle of Venus in Fur, it is pretty difficult for the audience to oppose such a sentiment. Feisty and sexy, Venus in Fur is the hottest show on Broadway – literally.

We meet Thomas (Hugh Dancy). He is fed up with the unoriginal and unprofessional actresses who have been auditioning for the lead role in his new play based off of the classic novel of the same name. As he is about to leave for the day, Vanda (Nina Arianda) storms into the room and begins to turn Thomas’ life upside down. Boisterous yet naive, Vanda is surprisingly good as she begins the audition she has coerced Thomas into letting her have. Truly a show within a show, scenes from Thomas’ play seamlessly dive in and out of sequences featuring the playwright and the actress discuss, argue, and flirt while both attempt to gain the upper hand.

Hugh Dancy is marvelous as the pretentious playwright, but Nina Arianda absolutely shines. She slips in and out of Vanda, the actress, and Vanda, the character within Thomas’ play, with commendable ease. Dancy and Arianda play well off of one another and share an intense chemistry. They exuded a great deal of sexual tension through every word and and body movement.

David Ives’ brilliant script deserves a great deal of attention for generating the majority of the play’s heat. Not only is the dialogue witty and quick, but the topics of their heated arguments are exhilarating. Since it is a show about power and sex, Vanda and Thomas disagree over the motivations of their characters, gender roles, and even their personal lives. Embedded in their conversation is genuine comedy; the playwright takes the audience on an incredible roller-coaster of humor, desire, and power.

Venus in Fur is a truly remarkable piece of theater. The actors are enthralling, and the show is filled with shocking turns and revelations. Blurring the lines between what is real and what feels realistic, the play builds up the energy and tension until the end arrives and does nothing less than blow your mind.

‘Take Shelter’: Review

Tags

, , , , , , ,

The line between illusion and reality can often be marked by fear or mental illness. For Curtis, a soft-spoken, blue collar husband and father, discovering whether his visions of an impending storm fall in the illusion or the reality compartment proves to be a painstaking journey that threatens his relationships and even life. However, defining the invisible line as having been created by true fear or a family history of schizophrenia proposes a new world of complex paranoia in the thriller Take Shelter.

What anchors this film is its attachment to the reality of how one would deal with the issues Curtis and his family face, and what separates it from other apocalyptic thrillers is its basis in logic. Both of these factors rely heavily on the performances of Michael Shannon as Curtis, the honest man who wants to protect his family, and Jessica Chastain as Samantha, the woman who loves her husband but knows that she needs to prepare herself and her deaf daughter for whatever Curtis’ possible mental illness or even the threat of the world ending will throw at them. Shannon’s eyes speak in vivid sentences; the emotional distress is apparent with every protective glance he shines on his daughter who is often a victim in his reoccurring nightmares. Chastain is a powerhouse; she portrays a woman who must become the entire backbone of the family as her partner becomes a victim to his own turmoil with an incredible amount of grace and strength.

The exhilaration of trying to figure out whether or not Curtis is schizophrenic makes Take Shelter  a truly outstanding addition to the list of this year’s best films. As the man discusses his problems with a counselor, his ill mother, and his wife, it felt as if I were piecing together the facts with him. Dramatic irony was nonexistent, and the struggle felt honest. Up until the last moment, much like Curtis, I was left with dual desires for him not to be ill so that he would not have to leave his family but also for his visions to be false so that they, as well as the rest of the world, would be safe. Maybe the truth of this extraordinary film lies in how we deal with our idea of reality being threatened.

‘Burton on Burton’: Review

Tags

, , , , , , ,

The twelve-year-old me was a weird kid. Despite being happy and functional with a fairly lively social life, I wore a lot of black. I also listened to too much sad music. I won’t dive much deeper into the extent of my Wednesday Addams syndrome, but let’s just say that the employees at the nearest Hot Topic store knew my name. It was pretty bad. After a few years, I suddenly had the desire to break free from my moody exterior. While my closet brightened up dramatically, my tastes never really left. I still listen to The Smiths on a daily basis, and the urge to watch The Nightmare Before Christmas as I get ready for the holiday season is still unshakeable. Burton on Burton, just one member of the lengthy list of books in the Faber & Faber series that highlights the works of celebrated filmmakers through in-depth interviews filled with anecdotes, made me realize that Tim Burton is basically twelve-year-old me — a fairly functional child with an affinity for the dark and mysterious.

In this collection of interviews, Burton becomes surprisingly personal as he takes the interviewer and the reader on a journey from his childhood in California, taking a detour to his time at Disney, and finally hitting the brakes in 2005 (when the book was revised and published) when he becomes a family man with a slightly altered vision of the world he grew up in. I have come to describe Burton’s style as if you were having Siouxsie & the Banshees sing a Dr. Seuss book — it’s twisted and gloomy, but with an underlying message of the importance of being yourself because that’s all that matters. Or something like that.

Every project for Tim Burton, it seems, is a very personal exploration of the aspects of his childhood that helped him create the sugar-coated gloom we have become so familiar with. While still working with Disney, Burton began to explore his personal and brooding artistic visions. In 1982, he made his first stop-motion short film entitled Vincent. The story follows a young boy who wants to grow up to be Burton’s personal childhood hero, Vincent Price (who also narrates the film with a lovely poem that the director had written about his hero). The director never denies the similarities many of his lead male characters have to his own personality, world view, and even appearance, however he consistently insists that it is usually never intentional.

An exception, however, comes much later in his career with Big Fish (2003). After the parents he had never been very close to had passed away, Burton sought out a project that would help him feel close to them once more. The adaptation of Daniel Wallace’s novel of the same name, about a son coming to terms with the absenteeism and general elusiveness of his dying father, crossed his path at an opportune time. Burton speaks with high regard for the lead actors of Big Fish, Ewan McGregor and Albert Finney, who play young Edward Bloom and Edward Bloom senior respectively. The project resonated with Burton since he had never been able to resolve the problems he had with his own absentee father before his passing.

Prior to this particularly personal endeavor, the director explains some of his biggest hits and the motivation behind him. Burton took on a project entitled Beetlejuice (1988), because he was tired of the same stock scripts that kept being sent to him; he saw something unique and even edgy to create with Beetlejuice. Beyond that, he was able to integrate some of his personal artwork and own twisted visions of the underworld and the lives of the supernatural into the design of many of the costumes and characters.

The director even provides a response to some of the controversy that shrouded the darker aspect of his films, especially in relation to the direction he took for Batman (1989). Everything from the pre-release response to the casting of Michael Keaton (also the title character in Beetlejuice) to the wariness of fans to the all-black costuming of the caped crusader. Burton defends his choices as an exploration of the psychological motivations of a man leading a double life. He strove to find Batman’s inner outcast, probably out of his own desire to feel connected to the subjects of each of his stories and films.

In 1993, an endeavor he had begun around the time of Vincent’s release finally came to fruition in the form of Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas. The script came from a story Burton had written about the Pumpkin King of Hallowe’en, Jack Skellington, who grows weary of his own holiday and decides to take over Christmas. The brooding and dark exterior of this stop-motion film masks a much brighter morality tale that is also encompassed by extraordinary amounts of compassion, in the form of Sally, who is literally falling apart at her seams, and her never-ending love for Jack. The film was directed by Henry Selick (James and the Giant Peach, Coraline), but it still encompasses the very distinct vision that can be seen in Burton’s earlier and later endeavors. One of his most well-known projects, Burton expresses a strong sense of pride in his creation that spawned the mascot for a generation of Hot Topic shopping preteens, like myself. Being able to provide sanctuary for the outcasts of the world who never felt comfortable in the constricting norms of suburban life still brings Burton copious amounts of joy, since he had found a home in heros like Vincent Price and Edgar Allan Poe as a young boy.

The most endearing thread of Burton’s career is his friendship with many actors; he often fights production companies to cast his friends in many of his films. The book begins with two separate forewords by Johnny Depp; one had been written for the book’s original release in 1994 while the other came in 2005 after the birth of children for each men and starting new families. Depp holds a special place for his kindred soul who helped save him from becoming a typecast heartthrob during his time on the teen drama 21 Jump Street. They first began working with each other in the quintessential favorite film of every emo kid I knew in high school, Edward Scissorhands (1990). Depp finally had the chance to escape the mold that Hollywood was about to create for him and had the chance to explore a more creative side of himself. Scissorhands helped spawn a lucrative partnership between the actor and director for several more films (Ed Wood, Sleepy Hollow, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Corpse Bride before the publication of this book, and Sweeney Todd after).

It must be difficult for Tim Burton to still consider himself an outcast. He has created his own table for the cool kid’s at lunch, complete with matching Jack Skellington hoodies and all. The book was a fun look inside the mind of a fairly normal man who just finds the idea of a more gothic life a little more appealing. In turn, he has influenced a legion of Poe-loving rascals to slap on the black eyeliner and take a dip into a much gloomier world.

‘All About Eve’: Review

Tags

, , , , ,

If I were to create a list at this very moment of the fiercest women in cinematic history, there is no doubt that there would be a duel between Bette Davis and Anne Baxter for the obviously enviable position at the top of the list. In 1950‘s classic All About Eve, both women radiate such deliciously conniving energy that keeps every scene fresh and every exchange of dialogue dripping with anticipation. As astutely declared by Davis during the film, “fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy night!”

Bette Davis plays Margo Channing, an aging actress, who feels threatened by Anne Baxter’s Eve Harrington, a young obsessed fan of Margo’s. The film is framed by scenes of Eve accepting an important award for her work in the theater as attended by an audience filled with mixed emotions. The film then rewinds to the time when a young and seemingly innocent Eve boasts to Margo’s best friend Karen (Celeste Holm), after one of Margo’s many performances in the aptly titled Aged in Wood, that she has seen every performance of the play.
Slightly creepy but somehow endearing, the viewer is reeled in by the ingenue’s charm as she does the same to the members of Margo’s inner circle, which includes Karen’s husband Lloyd, a playwright (Hugh Marlowe), and Margo’s younger boyfriend, a director (Gary Merrill). As the older actress realizes how conniving the younger woman is, she begins to fight back in order to regain her position at the top of the theater food chain. Theater critic Addison DeWitt, whose lines are delivered with subtle sass by George Sanders, begins to find himself entangled in Eve’s treacherous web but has a few conniving tricks up his sleeve. No one can describe Mr. DeWitt better than he can describe himself, as he states: “I’m Addison DeWitt. I’m nobody’s fool, least of all yours.”

Two women being pitted against each other has never been presented as classy as it was in All About Eve. The plot is familiar, and the theme of how fleeting youth and beauty in such an aesthetic-driven career as acting has been exhausted thoroughly. Somehow, there is something refreshing about this film. Through every dramatic turn and bitchy glare, Davis wins back the audience’s waning sympathy as quickly as Margo succeeds in regaining her friends from Eve’s sharp claws. It is quite a feat for both Baxter and Davis to portray such incredible actresses while giving two jaw-dropping performances themselves; Margo and Eve are masters at deceiving others until they get what they believe they deserve, and the actresses who portray them add edge and vulnerability to every biting exchange of words and each sharp yet subtle motion of their bodies and even facial expressions in an outstanding manner.

Beneath the pre-Dynasty diva-off that takes place between the actresses is an almost disheartening reality that they come to realize they are a part of: the expectations of women in who face the inevitability of old age and declining beauty.  As Margo vents to Karen in a moment of desperation after seeing the extent to which Eve will go to take away everything from her idol, the actress reflects on what it means to be a female actress and merely what it means to be a woman. She muses, “That’s one career all females have in common, whether we like it or not.”

After this circle of theater folk barely escapes from drowning in a hellish pit of deception and betrayal, the film ends on a darkly humorous note that hints at just how cyclical and karmic life is. Through heart-stopping performances and Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s sharp script and stellar direction, All About Eve ironically succeeds in maintaining the youthfulness that the leading women so desperately treasure after sixty years in the public sphere.

‘Best in Show’: Review

Tags

, , , , ,

Dysfunctional people bring me a lot of joy. For this reason, I tend to watch and become temporarily addicted to numerous trashy reality television shows with more enthusiasm than a normal person with an extra hour to spare. In the beginning stages of America’s obsession with watching the downfall of humanity for a couple of hours each week (or night), Christopher Guest graced us with the brilliant inside look at dog show politics in the 2000 mockumentary Best in Show. 

Preceded by Waiting for Guffman and followed up by A Mighty Wind and For Your Consideration, Best in Show represents the middle child in the long lineage of Christopher Guest’s improvisational mock documentaries that put a fluorescent light on well-meaning but socially awkward people with undying, and sometimes odd, passions. This particular film  follows dog owners as they excitedly gear up to present their pooches at the Mayflower Kennel Club Dog Show for the annual competition. The movie plays out like a particularly hilarious and histrionic episode of Toddlers and Tiaras without the sobering post-show realization that you just witnessed some weird form of child abuse.

For 90 minutes, the viewer gets to meet the five dogs and their stage parents as they head to the competition and encounter one another in the high stress environment. Meet Meg Swan (Parker Posey) and her husband Hamilton (Michael Hitchcock), a brace-faced couple from Chicago living a yuppy fairytale of sorts (one scene includes the two recounting how two separate Starbucks helped bring them together). The couple and their weimaraner Beatrice have a strange relationship; the two treat their dog as if she were actually their daughter, even going so far as to bring her to therapy after she witnesses her owners having sex.

Then there is Harlan Pepper (Christopher Guest) with Hubert, his bloodhound. Pepper’s southern drawl and Bubba Gump-esque listing of all the names of nuts he knows is adorably humorous. While Pepper sets out to make his family proud, Gerry Fleck (Eugene Levy) and his wife Cookie (Catherine O’Hara) sing amusing songs dedicated to their terrier Winky. They also encounter several of Cookie’s past hook-ups along the way. Inevitable awkwardness ensues.

Sherri Ann Cabot (Jennifer Coolidge) and her much older husband Leslie (Patrick Cranshaw) have a poodle named Rhapsody in White that is trained by Christy Cummings (Jane Lynch). Over the course of the film, the relationship between Sherri and Christy is revealed. And finally, Scott Donlan (John Michael Higgins) and his partner Stefan Vanderhoof (Michael McKean) flamboyantly keep their game faces on with their Shih Tzu and a pair of homemade, flame-emblazoned leather pants.

The number of major players in this independent film is overwhelming, but it is never hard to follow each character. Screen time and character development is spread fairly evenly between each of the competing families. Their stories are spiced up with appearances from the always inappropriately funny Fred Willard and Jim Piddock as Buck Laughlin and Trevor Beckwith respectively; they are the commentators of the dog show with Piddock playing straight man to Willard’s unpredictable wild card spin. While a judge makes a decision, Willard’s character matter-of-factly points out: “And to think that in some countries these dogs are eaten!”

Not being a dog owner myself, let alone the owner of a show dog, I was thoroughly impressed by how included I felt in this peculiar world watching this film. Guest dives straight into the deep end of this quirky world of dog competitions without leaving the novices confused by the subject matter. Those who have a better understanding, however, may have a deeper appreciation, but despite my lack of familiarity, the film was inviting to the viewer through its attainable humor.

The true brilliance of Best in Show lies in the delivery. Natural and wonderfully subtle, the true gems of the film can almost be missed. Jane Lynch, whose star power has risen because of her role on Glee but really should have been attained because the comedy prowess she unleashed on the world long ago thanks to Mr. Guest, steals every one of the scenes she is featured in. During one exchange between the dog trainer Christy (Lynch) and the dog owner Sherri Ann (Coolidge), the trainer comments on the successful parenting style of her family and how her mother’s unconditional love, as she states, “worked for my family, you know…until my mom committed suicide in ’81.” Somehow turning a lighthearted memory into an extremely dark one in the most sickly humorous way seems almost impossible but is accomplished by this talented cast.

While the genius lies in the subtlety, the failure lies in the histrionics. While some melodramatic scenes come off successfully others were almost painful to watch an slightly annoying. Such a huge difference in the success of the dramatics can be seen in two scenes between Meg Swan (Posey) and her husband Hamilton (Hitchcock). In one scene, a melodramatic fight between the two over the location of a missing toy for their dog is almost off-putting and uncomfortable. However, the following scene featuring Meg frantically searching for the missing toy in the hotel room while screaming at the comically calm hotel manager (Ed Begley, Jr.) is so much more amusing, probably because of the juxtaposition of hysteria with subtlety.

An important component of this film is its sense of humanity. Each of these people are flawed, but they are not terrible human beings. Their problems are exaggerations of everyday issues; the singing, terrier-owning Flecks (the always brilliant Levy and O’Hara), for example, prove themselves to be the most charming couple in the mix as they deal with the resurfacing of exes and monetary issues that force them to stay in the hotel’s storage closet for the duration of the competition. After a winner is announced, Guest provides the viewers with a satisfying epilogue that offers glimpses into how life went for these average people after they helped their canines achieve their fifteen minutes of doggy fame.

Reaching even deeper, Best in Show is a compassionate portrayal of man and his best friend – the owners truly love their pets and care about their safety, health, and general well-being. For many, the dogs have brought — and in some cases kept — these people together. For that message alone, I would give this film a blue ribbon.

“Sons of the Prophet” proves itself to be the darkest of comedies

Tags

, , , , ,

“Sons of the Prophet,” a new play by “Speech & Debate” writer Stephen Karam, does everything it can to make the audience feel one family’s pain as it struggles through a series of sad events and disabilities.

The story is about Joseph Douaihy (Santino Fontana), a worker for a deranged, Karen Walker-esque publisher named Gloria (Joanna Gleason). Hungry for a hit after being alienated from the literary world, Gloria attempts to buy the Douaihy family’s story after learning that he is distantly descended from a Lebanese prophet. Shortly thereafter, Douaihy and his father are injured in a car accident. Once hospitalized, his father dies of a heart attack.

Douaihy’s Uncle Bill (Yusef Bulos) is heartbroken and angry because the court refuses to sentence Vin (Jonathan Louis Dent), the young jock who partially caused the accident. Douaihy and his younger brother Charles (Chris Perfetti) struggle with their mounting emotional strife, as their family’s privacy comes under scrutiny by the press.

Throughout the show, the introduction of every new piece of life-altering news threatens to overwhelm and weigh down the performance. At one point, Douaihy accurately notes, “We’re like the Kennedys without the sex appeal.” The use of humor, however, keeps the play from crushing the audience with constant despair.

“Sons of the Prophet” adds so many layers to its characters that they never become one dimensional or boring. Each person connected to the accident is given due time to express his grief and work through his loss.

Emotional but funny, “Sons of the Prophet” bares all and leaves no form of pain untouched. The exchanges between the characters are simultaneously powerful and humorous in the best way possible, but it will rip your heart out more quickly than you may be willing to let it.

“Sons of the Prophet” will run until Jan. 1, 2012 at the Laura Pels Theater at the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theater on 111 W. 46th St. between Sixth and Seventh avenues. A limited number of $20 tickets are available for patrons under the age of 35 who register at hiptix.com.

Brittany Spanos is a staff writer. Email her at theater@nyunews.com.

http://nyunews.com/arts/2011/11/29/29son/

Revival of Wilson’s ‘Lemon Sky’ falls flat

Tags

, , , ,

Coming-of-age stories are always a bit trite. Every year a new film, book or show comes out about the struggles of a teenager to overcome the troubles of youth, before realizing what it means to be an adult. And Lanford Wilson’s autobiographical play “Lemon Sky” fits right into the genre.

Currently being revived at Theatre Row’s Clurman Theatre, “Lemon Sky” tells the story of Alan (played by the charming Keith Nobbs), who treks from Nebraska to California to begin building a relationship with the father he never knew. The play is set in flashbacks; Alan recalls the time he spent on the West Coast many years later and doles out the sometimes humorous but usually disheartening hidden details of his familial encounters along the way.

Alan’s father Douglas (Kevin Kilner) is charming at first. He seems to be an aging man filled with regret who wants to spend time with the son he abandoned. Douglas is excited to introduce Alan to Ronnie (Kellie Overbey), the picture-perfect wife he left Alan’s mom for. Douglas and Ronnie soon reveal to Alan that they have taken in two foster children: the innocent, virginal Penny (Amie Tedesco) and her polar opposite, the emotionally unstable, licentious Carol (Gallatin’s own Alyssa May Gold).

Surprisingly, Alan befriends both girls, and he even grows close to his stepmother. But the entire situation is too picturesque; it’s a bit frustrating to watch the young man act as if everything was and will be okay.

Act II, however, tells a different story. Details of who Douglas really is and how he came to leave Alan and his mother are violently revealed through confrontational scenes of dialogue and narration. The most seemingly trivial cause both lives and relationships to unravel.

The play’s use of flashing back and flashing forward sets the show up nicely in the beginning but only complicates matters in the second act. The scenes topple over each other, sometimes making it hard to gather who knows what and how they found out until they explain it all a bit later. Several scenes of dialogue in the first act are choppy, making the frustrating ignorance of the family even less believable and even harder to watch.

Wilson’s story has an incredible amount of depth, but this revival falls a little flat. While the performances were wonderful, it felt as though there was something missing, and it left the viewer feeling a little empty at the end. But maybe that is the point of the story; it reflects Alan’s ultimately unfulfilled desire to find any sense of gratification through a renewed relationship with his father.

“Lemon Sky” is playing at the Clurman Theatre at 410 W. 42nd St. between Ninth and Tenth avenues. The show runs until Oct. 22. Student tickets are $20, using the code “TRSTUD” through Telecharge.

A version of this article appeared in the Thursday, Sept. 29 print edition. Brittany Spanos is a contributing writer. Email her at theater@nyunews.com.

http://nyunews.com/arts/2011/09/29/29lemon/

Chris Rock appears in a mother of a Broadway play

Tags

, , , ,

Much like the gritty hyperrealism seen in the critically-lauded “Blue Valentine,” Stephen Adley Guirgis’ “The Motherfucker With the Hat,” now on Broadway, fiercely tackles the problems of a couple facing their individual addictions as well as their relationship, along with a hat that threatens to tear them apart.

Jackie (Emmy winner Bobby Cannavale) and Veronica (Elizabeth Rodriguez) have been in love since middle school, but as their relationship progressed, both struggled to remain sober. Jackie had been incarcerated for dealing drugs; upon his release from prison, he turned his life around and even got a job while trying to take care of himself and Veronica, who was still using. While celebrating the good news of his own employment, Jackie notices a mysterious hat on the table. A bitter sparring of words ensues, along with accusations of infidelity and mistrust. The discovery of this hat leads to a downward spiral of revelations and volatile confrontations that test the couple’s love and Jackie’s sobriety.

Rodriguez is feisty and energetic in her performance; she commands the stage and the audience with a spark and vigor that is hard to ignore. Cannavale gives a heart-wrenching turn as a man who has never fully existed in the “real world” but now must face it without the help of the bottle upon which he depends.

Enter Ralph D., the 15-years-sober health fanatic who is Jackie’s Alcoholics Anonymous sponsor. Chris Rock is a surprise in the role of Ralph, a man who may not be all that he says he is. Rock allows the audience to easily forget his indelible stand-up presence.

Despite the dark themes and almost frightening intensity, there is a lot of humor in the play. Every scene makes light of what could have been a severely morose tale. The most beautiful performance comes from Yul Vázquez, who plays Jackie’s cousin Julio, a character who harbors few illusions. Vázquez’s delivery is subtle, but deeply felt; he dryly delivers the punchlines and gives some of the most powerful monologues in the play.

Stephen Adly Guirgis’ script is edgy, fast-paced, smart and filled with fire. Each action-packed scene ends with a shocking moment that added a new level of poignancy. The use of profanity plays a large role in “Motherfucker,” but often the choice of language seems forced during quieter conversations.

“Motherfucker”, more than anything, is about what it means to love, whether it be your significant other, your friends or your family. As hilarious as it is heartbreaking, the play is a smart, refreshing piece of theater that, much like the incredible performances it features, is difficult to ignore.

“The Motherfucker With the Hat” is currently running at the Schoednfeld Theatre on West 45th St. between Broadway and 8th Avenue, and $26.50 student rush tickets are available on the day of the performance when the box office opens, two per valid student ID.

A version of this article appeared in the Thursday, April 28, 2011 print edition. Brittany Spenos is a contributing writer. Email her at theater@nyunews.com.

http://nyunews.com/arts/2011/04/28/28hat/