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Christmastime means nut-cracking

So yeah, it’s been a while. And that headline is super lame, but I’ve never been great at those. I do feel bad we’ve been leaving this blog to collect dust, but I do plan to try harder to update it on a more regular basis. Also, I’m thinking about adding vlogging to the mix, so if there are any readers out there and you’d like to suggest a topic, please feel free! And now, my review/trip down memory lane on the Christmas classic, “The Nutcracker.”

With about ten days left until December 25, it‘s very safe to say we are smack dab in the middle of the Christmas season. And with every holiday, we each have our own memories to accompany it. Mine? Seeing “The Nutcracker” with my dad seated only a few rows from the stage. Being so close I could hear the sound of their feet as they landed and I turned to my dad to whisper excitedly, “I can hear their feet thump!”

It’s a memory that has made The Nutcracker a personal Christmas favorite, the 1980s version we taped once when it was on TV taking place next to A Muppet Christmas Carol and the Rankin and Bass classics as a viewing tradition, though I think it’s because of this memory that I love it so much, not simply for the ballet itself.  I’ll admit, however, that my family and I don’t watch it every year and it wasn’t until I found three different productions for my free viewing pleasure on Comcasts’s OnDemand that I rediscovered my love.

Ovation, a channel I have never heard of before but I believe focuses on dance, has an annual tradition of letting its viewers choose its favorite version of the ballet before airing the winning show on Christmas Eve. This year the three versions are the 2009 Ben Wright-directed production, which according to Wikipedia follows closely to the original ballet from 1859 and took a lot of its costuming and set decoration from the available notes of the original. It also broke “A Hard Nut’s” multi-year streak last year when it won as the viewer’s favorite.  It’s the nod to the history that I think I enjoy most about this version. The dancing is gorgeous, especially by Miyako Yoshida as the Sugarplum Fairy, and I’m actually glad they took out Mother Ginger and the children. That was always an odd moment for me.

The second version is Matthew Bourne’s “Nutcracker!” an alternate version of the story. Bourne is probably most famously known for his reinventions of classic ballets, specifically “Swan Lake,” and his decision to make the swans male. His version of The Nutcracker takes Clara’s journey to a new level of self-discovery as rather than a magical tour through a candy-filled land, the heroine spends most of the ballet trying to get to the Nutcracker Prince, who has fallen for the sensual Princess Sugar. The entire second act takes place in Sweetieland, where different confectionary treats go for the wedding of the prince and princess, is an allegory for sexual awakening, one that Clara enters not by doing the deed, but by sneaking in therefore leaving her innocence intact, but altered. This production is  breath of fresh air into what could be considered a stale story in a selective crowd-pleasing dance genre. The choreography, especially at the start where instead of a Christmas party at a rich family’s home is at a black and white orphanage where Clara and the man who plays the Nutcracker are orphans celebrating Christmas under the mean and watchful eye of the proprietors. The choreography in this opening section is fresh yet classic and the dancers immerse themselves in their roles as children.


The third is a 1999 version from the Berlin State Ballet that starts with Clara as a little girl whose mother is kidnapped and she goes to live with rich  and supposedly cruel relatives. They treat her well, except for the bratty daughter and son (which was reminiscent to me of the daughter and son in Bourne’s version) but they aren’t overtly mean. The Nutcracker given to Clara by the magician, who is not the uncle in this version (I think) reminds her of her traumatic childhood. This new addition to the storyline adds a new dance where, upon entering the dreamland, Clara finds her mother who dances with the magician. I was confused as to Clara’s relationship with him because she seemed instantly drawn to him at the Christmas party though I couldn’t figure out if it was supposed to be because he was so mysterious or if there was some romantic attachment. That was sort of cleared up when Clara seemingly brought him together with her mother, but the entire added storyline confused me.  The dancing was superb and I couldn’t help but notice that the entire troupe had extremely long legs and the choreography highlighted it with large leaps, sweeping leg moves and a lot of standing on their toes for the ballerinas (I apologize for my lack of jargon knowledge). What I found an interesting change was that the dances of the Sugar Plum Fairy and the Cavalier, as well as their pas de deux, was given to Clara and the Nutcracker. The dancers did it brilliantly, however, so the change wasn’t that jarring.



If you’d like to check out more videos or even vote (the contest is open until the 18th) you can go here to Ovation’s website.
To be honest it doesn’t matter which version I watch or which one you end up watching, for me it is the memory of sitting in that darkened theater next to my father, in awe of every graceful movement and completely in love with dance.

‘Les Miserables’ never lives up to its name (and that’s a good thing)

Whenever I’m asked what my favorite movie or album or musical is, I usually answer with something along the lines that it changes all the time, but my favorite of the week is…However, once I really got to thinking about it, if there is one musical that could be categorized as a favorite, one that I know all the words and have loved for a very long time, it would have to be the legendary “Les Miserables.”

While the story is quite complex, it can be told in a few simple sentences (at least, that is what I will try to attempt). It focuses on Jean Valjean, a man who spent 19 years in jail (five for stealing bread, 14 for trying to escape) he struggles with becoming a good man when the world around him refuses to give him the chance. Eventually he becomes the mayor of a small town and aids a woman named Fantine, who has been reduced to selling herself on the streets to support her daughter. Valjean ends up taking care of the daughter, Cosette while trying to stay ahead of his past in the form of Inspector Javert. Cosette falls in love with a young revolutionary, Marius, just before the Paris Uprising of 1892 (there is more to the story, but that would give it all away).

My earliest memory of this musical was my ninth grade French class, when we took a field trip to see a production of it. I don’t remember much of the actual performance, but I do remember falling in love with the story and the characters. And soon after that I was a proud owner of the VHS of the 10th anniversary concert staring some of the 1985 original cast, including Colm Wilkinson as Jean Valjean and Michael Ball as Marius. Looking back, Philip Quast stood out the most as Inspector Javert. I remember rewinding his solos to watch them over and over again. I was obsessed with it for a time and then, as most do, it faded to the background as more exciting and shiny things took my interest.

It wasn’t until the other week, when PBS aired the 25th anniversary concert that I remember how much I loved this musical and realized that it could be called my absolute favorite. This time around the lead role of Jean Valjean was played by relative newcomer Alfie Boe and Javert by Norm Lewis (who I loved at King Triton in “The Little Mermaid” musical). In a surprising casting choice, Nick Jonas was cast as Marius, opposite Ramin Karimloo as Enjrolas, the leader of the revolution and Katie Hall as Cossette. Samatha Banks also shone as Eponine, the girl who is unashamedly in love with Marius and the role that Lea Salonga (Fantine in this production) portrayed 15 years ago.

The entire cast was perfection; every song was filled with emotion and Alfie Boe certainly cemented his place as one of the best Valjeans ever to perform. The choice to cast the youngest Jonas brother has been hotly debated and while he was the weakest singer in the cast, that is no poor compliment. Given time and training, however, he could be a great Broadway performer.

The highlight of the entire concert came at the end, when the original cast came onstage and sung an encore of the rousing first act closer, “One Day More,” followed by a quartet version of “Let Him Live,” sung by Boe, John Owen-Jones from the 25th Anniversary touring production, Simon Bowman from the current London cast. You could see on every face on stage that this was truly a momentous occasion, not only for them but for every person in that stadium.

I believe the reason this musical has lasted so long is because it speaks to something inside of all of us, the part that wants us to make our own destinies instead of accepting what government or society thrusts upon this. And it is that theme of freedom from oppression that is even more so relevant in today’s world where countries are toppling leaders and actually living the words.

Everything about this concert has made it the new standard of “Les Miserables” performances and I cannot wait to see what happens at the next milestone concert.

Why the only Best Picture nominee I’ve seen should be the one to win

By the time the Oscars air next weekend I will have seen only one of the ten movies nominated for best picture, so take this next statement with a grain of salt. “The King’s Speech” is the most-worthy of all its acting and most its technical nominations out of all ten.

The film tells of the start of King George VI’s reign who not only had to deal with a kingdom his birthplace never intended him to inherit, but a stammer that made public speaking nearly impossible. More importantly, it focuses on the king’s (Colin Firth) strange friendship with speech therapist Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), who helps him realize the man and king he was meant to become.

As you know, I have seen a lot of films in my lifetime, not as many as some, but quite a few. And so I feel I can say with confidence that this was the first film that I did not have one single complaint to be found. I hesitate to call it perfect, however, because I know that every film has its flaws and I fear I was blinded by the sheer magnitude of the story and the brilliance of the performances to see them.

Both Rush and Firth are nominated for their roles, and if they do not win the Oscars this coming Sunday, I will truly have lost all hope for Hollywood. Both men completely immerse themselves into these characters, these men, and you cannot see any of the actors in their performances. Firth said in an interview that he came away from this movie with a huge perspective on people who stammer. He added that if they work half as hard to control their speech impediment as much as he did to create one, then they are truly remarkable people.

Their friendship is natural and easy, you can see why the king trusted this man so much just as clearly as you can see how Logue wanted to know the man behind the title.  Perhaps the best example of the actors’ command of their roles as well as the beauty of the storytelling comes in the pivotal moment at the end of the film, when King George must make his first wartime speech. It is truly one of the most spellbinding moments in cinematic history and on the surface it looks like just two men in a sound booth. It is, of course, so much more than that and every gesture, ever word, Firth and Rush convey the countless layers that moment was built upon. Helen Bonham Carter is also nominated for her role as Queen Elizabeth and while it was a well-deserved nomination and a very well-acted role, I think the sheer power of the two male performances was so great it overshadowed the rest of the cast.

Like I said in the beginning of this column, this movie deserves to win the majority of the twelve nominations it deserves. I have no doubt that all three acting nominations, directing, writing and best picture nominations are looking good for wins. However, in some of the technical awards I am a little less confident. I have to point out all my comparisons are based on the trailers for most of the other movies.

Though the movie is up against “Black Swan” and “Inception” for cinematography (which deals with such things as framing and lighting), I think it has a good chance of wining since every single shot in “The King’s Speech” was absolutely breathtaking. For editing it is up against “Black Swan” and “127,” among others, and I think those two have the best chance of beating it out, and while the costumes were gorgeous, it is up against “Alice in Wonderland,” (which I have seen several times) and since “Wonderland” is the closet thing to an extravagant costume piece in the nominations, I’m betting on it to win. Period costume pieces almost always win.
The music and sound categories can be tricky, though I would think “The King’s Speech” has a better chance at wining for Best Score as it is up against three action movies in the sound mixing category and those are usually favorites to win.

So while I may not have seen every single film nominated for the Oscars (that’s all on Mel and I applaud her for it), the one I did get a chance to see most definitely deserved every single nomination.

Welcome back, “Glee.” It’s good to see you again.

The day that Gleeks all over had been waiting for finally arrived: Super Bowl Sunday. That’s right, the Super Bowl. And it wasn’t because they had a pool set up between the Packers and the Steelers, no. It was because after the football game came something much better: a super-special episode of “Glee.”
Now, in the past two years of being a fan of this show, I have learned to be cautious of the magical super-special episodes, mainly because while they have one or two of blow-your-mind moments, they are for the most part not that great.
Last Sunday’s episode, however, broke that pattern. This episode reminded me, and everyone who watches the show, what this show is about. It’s about friendship, sticking up for them because it’s the right thing to do, not because it will make you look cool or not. And most importantly, about being true to yourself.
Granted, this episode had its disappointments just as every episode of the show does, but for the most part it finally felt like “Glee” was back.
Last Sunday’s episode focused on the fracturing within the football team due to their constant bullying of the members also in the glee club, as well as member Karofsky being the reason  Kurt (Chris Colfer) had to transfer to a school with a strictly-enforced no-bullying rule.
When the fighting actually costs the team a game, the coach decides to force the entire team to join the glee club for one week in able to remind them they are a team and need to be united.
This leads to one of the most epic performances in “Glee” history: a mash-up of the Michael Jackson classic “Thriller” and the Yeah Yeah Yeah’s “Heads Will Roll.” The performance also aids to one of the best acting performances of the night by Max Adler, who brings the closeted-gay, homophobic football player Dave Karofsky to life.

The cast of "Glee" performs "Thriller/Heads Will Roll"

We finally got to see the potential of what a good guy Karofsky could be, if he just stopped being afraid of who he is. And, as with the entire bullying arc focusing on Karfosky, Kurt and Kurt’s potential beau Blaine Anderson (Darren Criss), it was a moment for the kids watching the show who are struggling with their sexuality or just being comfortable with themselves, if they just let go of their fears they had the chance to be truly happy.
This episode also lead to a lot of character development with other characters, such as Finn Hudson (Corey Monteith),  and we finally got to see him be a leader in both groups, and helped in bringing them together, and some nice scenes with his ex-girlfriend Quinn (Diana Argon). But it was an even bigger character moment for Finn’s former best friend, Puck (Mark Salling), who has been in the background most of this season. In truth it was him who brought back the football team when they decided they didn’t want to embarrass themselves by performing the “Thriller” mashup at the halftime of the most important football game of the year.
When the show started two years ago, Puck was just like Karofsky: he picked on the geeks, he cared only about what others thought of him and he thought the glee club was a joke. But in the past few episodes, he has shown exactly how much he has grown: he loves glee club and doesn’t care who knows it, he’s protective of the people he used to pick on and he’s realizing his former habits aren’t good ones.
While every fan will have their favorite and their least favorite moments in this episode, there is one thing we can all agree on: “Glee” is finally back.

SyFy’s Alice is a trip worth taking

I know that in my columns I have talked about adaptations, reboots, re-imaginings and remakes in both television and cinema. And I’m pretty sure I’ve ranted on the subject of Hollywood’s obsession with giving a new face to an old piece of work once or twice. While most of the time the redo’s are okay (and sometimes really bad) every once in a while there are those that absolutely blow my mind with their ingenious and creativity. Such a gem I have found in SyFy‘s “Alice.”

This mini-series originally aired about three years ago, and like Tim Burton‘s “Alice in Wonderland,” isn’t so much a re-telling of the story as it is a continuation or a sequel and also takes elements from “Through the Looking Glass.” It follows Alice (who you aren’t quit sure if it is “the” Alice or not) a twenty-something who, thanks to the desertion of her father when she was 10, has a lot of issues. These issues come to light when her boyfriend Jack proposes to her under mysterious circumstances. When she kicks him out and then follows him to return the ring he left, she follows him straight into Wonderland, but a Wonderland that has changed from when the first Alice came over 150 years ago and not everything is as it seems.


Alice (Caterina Scorsone, left) and Hatter (Andrew Lee Potts) from SyFy's "Alice"

Nick Willing (who also breathed new and strange life into “The Wizard of Oz” for SyFy with “Tin Man”) brings us a Wonderland that is darker, more dangerous, more adult and ruled by the Red Queen (Kathy Bates) who has her Suits steal people from our world and bring them to the Hearts Casino where they, called Oysters in Wonderland, are drained of their emotions so the inhabitants of Wonderland can consume them. Bates plays the queen as only she can, with a careful balance of maliciousness and comedy. This isn’t Willing’s first time in Wonderland, he made the 1999 made-for-TV-movie “Alice in Wonderland” starring Robbie Coltrane, Whoopi Goldberg, Martin Short, Ben Kingsley, Christopher Lloyd, Gene Wilder and Tina Majorino. I remember watching the movie and being very confused and weirded out most of the time. I might go back and watch it again, just to compare it with Willing’s new adventure, but I have a feeling the SyFy one will win out.

To be honest, the first twenty minutes of the move made my head hurt, and it wasn’t until we met the Hatter (perfectly portrayed by “Primeval” star Andrew Lee Potts) and he explains to Alice (Caterina Scorsone) and the audience what is going on that I started to enjoy the show. What I like about Potts’ Hatter, along with his very sixties wardrobe, is that he isn’t actually mad at all. He’s a criminal who, until Alice comes along, played “both sides of the fence” to survive. His instant chemistry with ‘s Alice is electric and you enjoy every scene they have together.While the movie itself is one of the most original adaptations I have seen in a while, the DVD itself is lacking in all the extra goodies I tend to seek out first when purchasing a new movie. The only thing I found was an audio commentary with Willing and Scorsone, and while those are my favorite behind-the-scenes extras, it would have been nice to see some featurettes or documentaries, as the “Tin Man” DVD are chock full of them.

Even if you are sick of the “Alice” remakes, I highly suggest you take one more trip down the rabbit hole with this miniseries. You won’t be disappointed.

Welcome to ‘Burlesque’

First, I want to apologize for not being around here for the past month, I blame the holidays and my insane family. This does mean I have a few reviews for you to enjoy, however. I was going to post my Harry Potter review first, as I saw it the weekend it came out, but I am planning to see it again sometime this week and intend to edit it accordingly. So instead, my first review for you all shall be for “Burlesque.” I’ll be back later with one for “The Nativity Story,” just in time for Christmas!

Take two powerhouse superstars, add a “Twilight” vampire, spice it up with some racy dance moves and killer music and you have the recipe for an amazing musical experience, also known as “Burlesque.”

From the trailers the movie looked pretty simple, maybe even a little gimmicky. Cher and Christina Aguilera star in this story of a small-town girl Ali (Aguilera) who wants something more of her life and tries to find that in a hole-in-the-wall Burlesque club, run by Tess (Cher). The club is as diverse as the players inside it, including Tess’ right hand man, Sean (played to perfection by Stanley Tucci),  bartender/aspiring songwriter/Ally’s love interest Jack ( Cam Gigandet, “Twilight) and the club’s drunken diva, Nikki (played by Kristen Bell, a nice reprieve from her romantic comedies). There’s also the stunt casting of Julianne Hough as Georgia, a background dancer whose character didn’t really need to be developed, and was essentially just Hough being herself.

The club is in debt and in danger of being bought out by real estate mogul Marcus (also known as Cam’s rival for Ali’s affections, played by Eric Dane). Of course Ali and Tess, having formed a bond as all lead characters in movies like this do, come up with a solution in the eleventh hour. But what the movie lacks in plot depth, it makes up with in its characters.


Official poster for "Burlesque"


Never before had I felt that a movie could exist in our world with such conviction. These characters had real struggles and came up with real solutions. Sure, it’s all wrapped up with a pretty bow at the end, but it wouldn’t be a feel-good movie without it.  There’s just something about this movie that makes it different than all the other fluff pieces out there and I’m convinced its the characters and the sense of family the cast gave to them.

And while the big names are at the top billing, the number one star of this movie is the music. Cher knocks out her two solos as only Cher can, reminding us that while we may be skeptical of her career, she still has the talent that made her a pop icon.
I have been a fan of Aguleria since her “Genie in a Bottle” days, but even I was in awe of her voice when it came to the songs in this movie. More than once I had to stop myself from clapping out loud.

But perhaps my favorite music came from the recordings of the old Burlesque numbers. Now, I haven’t actually looked up whether or not these songs are actually from the old Burlesque days as the movie claims, but they certainly have the sound of them and it brought a sense of history to the club and the movie.

“Burlesque” may not be groundbreaking or a shoe-in for the Best Picture Oscar, but it has a heart in its characters and it has a voice its stars and it’s the perfect film to make you forget your troubles for two hours.

‘Glee’ breaks hearts and boundaries

As Mel said, I’ve been annoying anyone with ears (and eyes, just ask my LiveJournal friends) about my excitement over last night’s episode of “Glee.” And because it was so much more than I ever expected, I couldn’t wait to until my weekly review to share my thoughts. I do apologize if any of the following sounds disjointed, I’m still getting over a 24-hour fever/bug and my  brain is still on standby.

Before last night’s episode of “Glee” (entitled “Never Been Kissed”) aired, all anyone could talk about was newcomer Darren Criss and whether or not his openly gay character Blaine would be Kurt’s first boyfriend, or at the very least his first kiss. And today the name on everyone’s lips is Max Adler, whose Glee alter ego Dave Karofsky aggressively took the title of Kurt’s first boy kiss for himself.

Up to now, Karofsky had only been known as the two-dimensional jock bully who slushied various members of the Glee club,  and recently set his bullying tactics on the school’s only openly gay student, Kurt (he actually came this close to beating Kurt up in “Theatricality” last season).  After literally being pushed around by Karofsky one too many times, and bolstered by the mantra of “courage” sent by Blaine via text, Kurt stands up to his tormentor, calling him a “scared little boy intimidated by how extraordinarily ordinary [he is].” Karofksy’s response? He kisses Kurt, outing himself to both Kurt and himself, before punching the lockers and running away. He of course, denies it happens and his abuse on Kurt continues.

The kiss that shocked a viewing nation. Cap courtesy of

What was beautiful about this moment was not only the shock value (it was the kiss heard ‘round the world and if the world was anything like my living room, it was repeated cries of “Oh my God!”) but the message it sent to teens and adults like Karofsky, hiding behind what it expected of them because they are afraid or curious about their feelings for the same sex. The creators of this show know exactly how many people it reach and know they can use it to help those who are watching it.

This episode is very timely, and I’m sure that is no accident, given the nation’s attention on the recent increase in suicides in gay teens due to bullying. And, according spoilers, this won’t be the end of the bullying storyline for Kurt and the revelation of Karofsky’s closeted desires adds another sad yet interesting level to said storyline.

The main reason this moment, and the entire episode, worked was because of the amazing actors: Chris Colfer and Max Adler. The pain that flashes in Karofsky’s face when he shoves Kurt the day after the kiss and the defeated confession by Kurt to Blaine that “until yesterday [he] had never been kissed by a boy,” were heartbreaking and perfect. While I don’t look forward to the abuse Kurt is going to suffer at Karofsky’s hands, I am looking forward from the amazing performances by the two actors.

Kurt’s storyline wasn’t the only one causing tears last night. Puck’s return from juvie is played off as nothing by the teen rebel but we see exactly how much pain he is in when in the principal’s office, confronted by the principal, Mr. Shue and his parole officer, he reacts violently against going back to the teen penitentiary with the heart aching cry “No one cares about me,” before running away. Mark Salling has seemingly come out of nowhere, taking Puck from the sex-addicted carefree kid to the young man dealing with the loss of his child and the taste of what is to come if he continues down his destructive path.

Also tugging at heartstrings last night was Dot Jones as football coach Shannon Beiste. She shows her vulnerable side to her only faculty friend, Mr. Shuester, when she reveals she’s never been kissed. This after the humiliation of discovering the Glee jocks (and Tina) are using images of the coach to “cool off” when making out with their significant others. It was a well-acted scene by Jones and Matthew Morrison, though I felt that like Kurt, Beiste’s first kiss was stolen by someone who had no romantic feelings for her.

The only problem with a groundbreaking episode like this is that episodes like next week’s, in which guest star Gwyneth Paltrow reportedly has three numbers, look superfluous in comparison. However, this is “Glee” and while like its star Colfer its strong suit is starting to shine in its dramatic moments rather than its comedic, we can’t forget it is still a musical comedy. Fluff episodes are to be expected, however I think after last night no one will ever deny that “Glee” has cemented its place in television history.

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