A Visually Stimulating Weekend – Part 2 · 18 July 2007
After being thrilled by Harry Potter and The Order of the Phoenix on Saturday, the weekend of visual fun continued.
On Sunday, the SDF-O went to see the San Diego production of Avenue Q at the Spreckles Theater. I don’t get downtown often enough (most of my travel is in the northward direction) and so it’s always amazing to see the rapid progress of development between my visits. More importantly though, there are banners for Comic-con up in the gaslamp district and I started to get quite excited about going.
I haven’t been to Comic-con in years, but I decided to attend this year. After reading about the great experiences that other bloggers have been having at their local (and not so local) cons this summer, I’m looking forward to it even more. There is going to be a wealth of authors and speakers, and a fun time should be had by all.
But, back to Avenue Q. Originally a Tony-award winning Broadway musical, Avenue Q is now making the North-American rounds. Because I’m part of the generation that was raised watching Sesame Street, I was exactly the target audience for this show. Avenue Q is a quirky, off-colored illustration of the process of growing up. In an obvious nod to other puppet greats, the opening song, “What Do You Do with a B.A. in English?,” starts with the same melody as the opening of The Rainbow Connection (as made famous by Kermit the Frog from The Muppet Show and Sesame Street).
Avenue Q takes the premise of Sesame Street, providing skits laden with morals and lessons, and applies it to a cast of characters finding their way through early adulthood. Instead of learning the wholesome morals of sharing or honesty, and the basic skills of counting, the characters learn the hard lessons of unemployment, relationships, and depression.
The first part of the show was hilarious. With songs titled “It Sucks to Be Me” and “The Internet is for Porn” belted out by cheery-voiced puppeteers, the cast had the audience in stitches. Avenue Q took the concept that many things are funny because they’re uncomfortably true (as presented in the song “Everyone’s A Little Bit Racist”) and used it as the basis for the beginning of the show. The plot was only the backdrop for the ideas presented, but underlying the fun and games was the puppet Princeton’s search for a purpose in life, a search mirrored to different extents by the other characters.
The songs were often separated by short skits involving disembodied floating screens. These were television-like screens that were lowered from the curtain at various points during the show and imparted appropriate guidance and advice “from above." I thought the screens were a great device. They really underlined the homage to Sesame Street by parodying many classic Sesame Street segments. The screens also underlined the struggles of the characters in Avenue Q. Many of the characters were young people, alone in an adult world with no one to turn to. The screens acted as the disembodied voice of experience, subtly guiding the characters.
Of course, for every guardian angel, there’s a less helpful counterpart. In Avenue Q, it took the form of my favorite characters, the Bad Idea Bears. These two were a pair of trouble, a double devil on your shoulder. They had the highest, squeakiest voices in the cast, and unlike the other characters were exaggeratedly cutesy. Throughout the show they egged on the other characters to irresponsible behavior and acted betrayed if someone didn’t go along with their bad ideas. The obvious dichotomy between innocent looking and ill intentioned was so overdone it was hilarious.
After the intermission, the plot became a bit of a burden, as stories introduced in the first half had to be tied up. Also, the theme, while relevant, became a bit forced, and the musical didn’t flow as freely between off-the-wall portrayals of life.
One thing I found amazing about this production is how lifelike the puppets appeared. Although it was evident that the puppeteers were as much a part of the action as the puppets, sashaying through the sexy scenes and cringing in embarrassment during the uncomfortable scenes, the puppets themselves were incredibly expressive (even with the disturbing lack of lower bodies). It was easy to believe that the puppets were the characters, and so when puppeteers handed off puppets to each other, it didn’t seem that there was a conflict in the character portrayal.
Although I really enjoyed the experience, I think this is a musical that could be almost as well appreciated just by listening to the sound-track, especially if budget concerns are an issue. However, if you’re interested in checking out the live version, there is a promotional video for the London production posted on YouTube that has a few clips from the show and Variety has a review of the North American production up.
So that was my weekend. Not bad at all. If all goes well, I’ll have the wrap-up food post for The God of Small Things (fruity naan bread!) by Friday and a review of Last Call by Tim Powers by the end of the weekend.
A Visually Stimulating Weekend – Part 1 · 17 July 2007
It was a good weekend for my eyes. So good in fact, that I have to write two separate posts about it, because one post is going to be too darn long.
On Saturday evening, after weeks of anticipation, a group of friends and I went to celebrate my sister’s birthday by watching Harry Potter and The Order of the Phoenix.
The rest of my post assumes a fair level of familiarity with the Potterverse and contains spoilers for those who have not read the book. Those who have read the book, but not seen the movie will can read on without fear, I’m not providing any movie spoilers here.
Let me preface my thoughts about the movie by saying that this book was my least favorite of the series, and the only one that I’ve read only once. Although it’s been pointed out to me that Harry is a bit of a prat in all the books, he was especially so in this one. I frankly got sick of hearing him and Sirius Black whine about how they weren’t constantly the center of attention and I was glad that in Book 6 (The Half Blood Prince) Harry seemed to have mellowed out a bit.
The director chose to tone down Harry’s teenage angst in the movie. Although it was apparent that Harry was dealing with issues of not being in the limelight, a few of the key whiny scenes from the book were cut from the movie (a choice that I appreciated). Obviously, a lot of other plot points also had to be removed in order to fit the book into a reasonable showing time. It’s hard for me to state objectively whether or not the plot “worked” as a movie, because as I watched it, I was constantly supplementing the information in the movie with the facts I knew from the book. Nonetheless, the pacing was brisk and the story led steadily to its climatic end, an improvement on the pacing of the book (which dragged for quite a bit in the middle where Umbridge was busy entrenching herself as the Ministry’s supreme ruler of Hogwarts).
There were a few points in which I wondered if the viewer who was not a reader of the books would be able to really “catch” what was going on. In this respect, I felt the movie was very similar to Movie 2 (Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets). In both movies, the viewer is given all the answers to the meaning of brief cuts of action at the very end, while the reader is provided clues to the plot mysteries throughout the book. I personally enjoy the style of the books, in which the reader can participate in the solving of the mysteries, and form their own informed conclusions along with the character. Although it would probably have made the movie longer, I think it would have enhanced the experience if the answers unfolded more gradually.
The casting choices, in my opinion one of the strengths of the Harry Potter movies, continue to be superb. Evanna Lynch did a marvelous job as Luna Lovegood, capturing the slightly out of touch with reality yet earnest character portrayed in the book even without the benefit the back story that the book provided.
Imelda Staunton did credit to the character of Professor Umbridge. In my opinion, the movie Umbridge was even more evil than she was in the book. And the director’s portrayal of Umbridge’s office of mewling kittens plates was jointly hilarious and terrifying.
Even the smaller roles were cast masterfully. Emma Thomspon, Helena Bonham Carter, and score of other talented actors play “minor” roles with such pizazz that the whole world feels populated by wacky, maniacal, and truly “real” people.
Although there was one deviation from the plot that infuriated me (aside from Harry’s new haircut which is far too short) and two scenes that I wish had been included, this was a thoroughly enjoying movie, one I’d recommend to all Harry Potter fans.
For those that haven’t jumped on the Harry Potter bandwagon yet, and are a bit intimidated by the sheer volume of the seven books, the movies provide a lighthearted and easy to digest version, but the books are better - much better. Somehow the underlying message about the power of love and friendship ends up sounding cheesy in every movie. In the books, J.K. Rowling presents the theme with style and grace, and through her writing you come to bond with the characters, who act as very real people in their very magical world.
It is with not a little regret that I’ll be delving into the final book next week in order to say goodbye to this universe that has come to be filled with such rich culture and fond friends.
The Best Laid Polish Food Turns to Indian · 19 June 2007
It’s my normal pattern to write about a book, then to write about food that was inspired by that book. Sometimes food has a mind of its own and this pattern breaks down a bit.
I’ve been craving Indian food for a few weeks now. I’m not sure where the craving started, but it was egged on by an aborted attempt to eat at the excellent Bollywood Café and then by a truly horrible B-rate movie The Mistress of Spices based on the book of the same name by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni
I’ll say two good things about the movie. It had a beautiful setting, and it made me hungry. The Mistress of Spices, Tilo, had a lovely shop, stocked with herbs and plants and rich wooden shelves laden with all sorts of gleaming jars of spices which invited the viewer into the world of Indian cooking and left them salivating.
The movie is billed as a romance. I’m normally very forgiving of the romance genre but this movie bored me. The cinematic effect of having half the movie narrated by the main character made you feel disconnected from the action. There are many other movies that have been able to showcase a character’s inner conflicts without resorting to extensive narration. While narration can be effective in a book, over narration really killed the pace of this movie.
Then there’s the conflict, which I thought was constructed at best. As a Mistress of Spices, one must follow the rules.
- You must not use the magic of the spices for your own gain. This is pretty standard fare for magical powers, and a perfectly reasonable rule. The idea of karmic consequences if you use your own powers to make your life better is a theme that makes for good “what if” scenarios.
- You may not leave the spice shop. Given that this movie was set in modern day San Francisco, I found this rule far-fetched. How is one supposed to get food, spice supplies, or medical care? And why wouldn’t you be allowed to leave the shop? The idea of vigilance is presented as a possible answer, but it’s perfectly possible to be dedicated to a cause without being cloistered. Besides, part of the mission of the Mistresses of Spices is to help people, even heal them. Wouldn’t it be better for that mission if a Mistress could visit the ailing?
- You may not touch the skin of another person. This is the one that seems most constructed to set up the conflict. While it may have been the author’s intent that this rule lead to asceticism or abstinence as a keeper of the spices, the film chose to implement it as a literal rule. No skin on skin contact at all. No shaking hands. Nothing. The presentation of Tilo constantly making everyday transactions awkward in order to avoid the slightest touch seemed artificial.
Given my already tenuous acceptance of the rule structure, it didn’t help that there were several scenes that flashed back to Tilo’s mentor, a very old Indian woman from a deserted spice island paradise who occasionally yelled at the viewer, “No leaving the shop!” By this time, my opinion of the movie was such that I viewed these interludes as more comedic than dramatic.
The conflict of course is the love story. Tilo is considering breaking the rules for love; however, the characters hardly seemed attracted to each other. Again, I don’t ask for much in terms of a reason for attraction in a romance, but at least make me feel like the attraction exists. I felt more sparks fly between the friendly neighborhood taxi driver and Tilo than the actual romantic interest. When Tilo seems more upset by the idea that her beloved spice plants are wilting than she does when she believes the love interest isn’t that interested, it makes it hard to understand why she doesn’t just forget about the whole idea of love and go back to her true calling, the spices.
By the end of the movie, I didn’t even care and I was supposed to be planning Polish food. But I was hungry and the red lentils that I had bought a few weeks ago were calling, much like the lure of the spices. However, unlike the Mistress of Spices, I know when rules are made to be broken, and gave in to the temptations of my stomach, shelving the Polish food until next time. Instead, I whipped up this very easy lentil dish, which should quash my Indian craving (at least for this week) and managed not to enrage the bowl of spices pictured below.
Red Lentil Curry
Adapted from allrecipes
- 2 cups red lentils
- 1 large onion, diced
- 1 Tbsp vegetable oil
- 2 Tbsp curry paste (I used mild and the dish was still quite spicy)
- 1 Tbsp curry powder
- 1 tsp each: ground turmeric, ground cumin, chili powder, salt, sugar, minced garlic, minced ginger root
- 14.25 oz can of diced tomatoes (I used fire roasted)
Put the lentils in a strainer and wash them in cold water until the water runs clear (you can tell this is done when the water stops “bubbling” like there is soap on the lentils).
Place the lentils in a pot and cover with water, then add one more cup of water. A wide bottom pot is useful, as it will allow the lentils to cook more evenly and avoid raw lentils in the center of the pot.
Bring water to a boil, then reduce heat to simmer.
Heat vegetable oil in a large skillet, then add the onions. Cook on medium heat until onions are tender.
While lentils are simmering and onions are cooking, combine the curry paste, curry powder, and all remaining spices in a small bowl. Mix well.
Once onions are cooked, stir in the spice mixture, then once combined add the tomatoes.
Simmer until the lentils are tender, then drain lentils if necessary and mix lentils into the curried tomato base. If any lentils need additional cooking time, you can add a bit of water to the mix and leave it to simmer a few minutes.