Saturday, March 29, 2008

The Anemic and Apathetic Acting of Nicholas Cage

Could someone please tell Nicholas Cage to wake up? Or at least express some kind of emotion other than boredom. Lately, it seems like he’s walking through his films with an indifference one might interpret as condescension—as if he believes his talent is far better than the material he’s appearing in. (Which frankly doesn’t say much about either.)

I recently saw two of Mr. Cage’s more recent movies “The Wicker Man” and “Next,” and couldn’t believe how similar the characters were. Not only that, but they also both shared the same bad hairstyle, which looked like a cross between Bozo the clown and Gene Wilder from “Young Frankenstein.” (Or even Frankenstein himself.) I’m pretty sure Mr. Cage is losing his hair, or has already lost it and is now attempting to cover it up with some kind of rat’s nest. But no matter how follicly challenged he might be, the Albert Einstein inspired hairpiece is not a flattering alternative. Better to be bald than run around looking like the male Amy Winehouse.

In both films, Mr. Cage plays the typical Nice-Guy-Next-Door with a quiet determination to be the dullest Sad Sack you ever witnessed on screen. His non-committal acting style comes across as arrogant and self-indulgent, as if he doesn’t even have enough energy or desire to say his lines or show any emotion other than apathy. His facial expression appears to be permanently frozen in a sour semi-frown, perhaps indicating his distaste for the crappy material he must constantly appear in to maintain his A-List status. What happened to the happier days of “Birdy” or “Moonstruck” or even “Leaving Las Vegas”? Those were inspired Nicholas Cage movies, before he began taking himself too seriously and literally “checking out” from his films.

Because other than trying to turn a quick profit with a mediocre product, there is simply no other explanation why a piece of crap like “The Wicker Man” ever got past the editing room floor. It is not only boring and contrived, but the “shocking” ending is more of a relief than a tragedy. At least we didn’t have to watch Mr. Cage try to “act” anymore. (That is, if you can actually call what he was doing “acting.” Because to me it didn’t look like he even showed up for work. His body was certainly there, but I’m not sure where the rest of him was.) If you haven’t seen the film, don’t bother. It’s pointless. He dies. And guess what? You won’t even care.

Which brings me to the other Nicholas Cage vehicle, “Next,” where Mr. Cage once again plays a mopey Nice-Guy-Next-Door, who also happens to have a special power--he can see two minutes into the future, so he knows everything that’s going to happen right before it does. And you know what? So does the audience. Except we know what’s going to happen twenty minutes before. Or perhaps an hour. So maybe the audience has special powers too, and it’s really Mr. Cage who needs to catch up.

And don’t even get me started on Julianne Moore’s ridiculous interpretation of an FBI Officer in the film. (Or whatever she was.) Her scowl-ridden performance is not only a complete contradiction to her wrinkle-free image as a spokesperson for Revlon, but it’s also incredibly similar to other roles she’s played in the past. Only this time, she’s blended them all together into a Stepford version of herself, showing even less emotion than Mr. Cage (if such a thing is possible).

In conclusion, I hope if Mr. Cage continues with his acting career, he picks projects that he’s actually excited about doing, so that we’ll finally see some of that energy on screen. Because right now, I feel like I’m watching the video game version of his character, rather than the actual three dimensional person.

But that’s just me. What do you think of Nicholas Cage’s recent acting endeavors? (Or even his hair?)

Thursday, March 27, 2008

A Surprising Sojourn in the “South Pacific”

“South Pacific” has never been one of my favorite Rodgers & Hammerstein musicals. I played the role of Luther Billis in my High School production, which was both a blessing and a curse. A blessing, because it was the only comedic role in the show. And a curse, because after the show was over I was forever after referred to as “Coconuts” by many of my friends’ parents. A nickname I earned solely because of the coconut bra I had to wear during the “Honey Bun” number in Act Two. A little humiliating to say the least, though it’s certainly not why the show has never held much interest for me.

As a teenager, I found the wafer thin plotlines and ballad-laden love story a bit boring. Except for “There is Nothing Like a Dame” and “Bloody Mary,” there weren’t a lot of rousing numbers in the show. Plus, the boy and girl who played the leads in our show took their roles a little too seriously, which caused much nausea and irritation among the rest of the cast members. (Particularly the female chorus members, who couldn’t wait for our Nellie Forbush to break her leg or lose her voice so one of them could go on in her place. Oh yes, they were ruthless in my High School.)

Anyway, I went to see the new Broadway production of “South Pacific” with little or no anticipation. The tickets had been given to me as a gift, so I was merely fulfilling my obligation to use them, rather than gearing myself up for an entertaining evening at the theater. But what I witnessed at the Vivian Beaumont Theater was a beautifully mounted and executed production, perfectly cast and thoroughly entertaining to watch. The production gives the show one of the best presentations I’ve ever seen, as dialogue and lyrics meld together to form a cohesive language. The actors don’t stop to sing a song; the song comes naturally out of what they’re saying. To me, that gives the musical so much life and reality, that you forget the transition from speaking to singing. One flows into the other like a natural extension of their vocal abilities.

Kelli O’Hara was a great choice for Nellie Forbush, as she brings an awkward geekiness to the role, which is thoroughly charming. Her songs are pitch perfect, and appear to flow out of her with little effort or strain. As Nellie’s love interest, Paulo Szot was a brilliant choice for Emile de Becque. Coming from an operatic background, Mr. Szot’s rich voice is a well-tuned instrument. His reprise of “Some Enchanted Evening” at the end of Act One is sure to send shivers up and down your spine. Danny Burstein was also good as Billis, though his voice and mannerisms began to remind me of a young Bert Lahr. At any moment, I half expected him to break out in “If I Was King of the Forest” from “The Wizard of Oz."

The rest of the cast were equally good in their roles, and the production values are top notch. And though the show’s intertwining stories might seem a little bland for today’s tastes, you are not likely to see a more beautifully staged and executed production on Broadway anytime soon. (Especially since this is only the second time the show has ever been mounted on the Great White Way.) So in conclusion, the trip to the construction-challenged Lincoln Center was well worth it, as it turned out to be One Enchanted Evening.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Taming the Terrible Talker with the Two Minute Tip

Have you ever been to a social get-together where one overly-talkative person “hogs” the conversation? No matter how many times other people try to contribute, they are constantly interrupted by the “hog’s” incessant need to speak? And though everyone around him seems to notice his lack of social etiquette, nobody is rude enough to point it out. So the “hog” continues to roll around in his own mud, spewing out stories and anecdotes until you are literally covered in his material. It becomes more of a “Hogversation” than a true social interaction, leaving the participants feeling tired and suffocated by such a domineering orator.

But how do you tactfully tell someone to shut up when you are certain to hurt their feelings and cause embarrassment to everyone around them? It is not an easy thing to accomplish, especially if the oblivious talkers assume their listeners are thoroughly captivated with lengthy diatribes. (Stay-at-home parents are often guilty of this type of excessive talking, as they are usually hungry to speak to anyone over the age of ten. These types of diatribes are sometimes sub-categorized as “Momversations,” referring to the repetitive nature of the subject matter.)

My favorite rule of thumb is to gently introduce the “Two Minute Rule” into the conversation. The basis of the Two Minute Rule is pretty simple--NEVER dominate a conversation for more than two minutes. To talk longer than two minutes makes you sound like you're giving a speech, and this should be avoided at all costs. True, some stories might take longer than two minutes to tell, so naturally there are exceptions to this rule. But if you tend to be the type of person that links five or six stories together without taking a breath, than perhaps you too suffer from “Hogversation.” It’s much better to bring up a topic, ask others what their opinions are, and then contribute your ideas or opinions during the intervals.

I have one friend who has a severe case of “Hogversation,” as she happily recounts one tale after another (usually about her children), and seems oblivious that others might want to speak as well. And when the rare opportunity for entry into the conversation is granted, she usually has a better story about your “topic,” and therefore interrupts you to immediately tell it. Most of the time they never get back to your story, and are onto another topic within minutes.

To avoid this type of situation in the future, I suggest instituting the two-minute rule at the beginning of each social gathering. It will make everyone aware of the etiquette right off the bat, so you don’t have to embarrass anyone later. And then if someone does “break” the rule, you can jokingly remind them without making it sound like an attack. You can even make a game of it. (“Hey, let’s play the two minute rule tonight. Anyone who breaks it has to take a drink.”) Not that you necessarily have to make every conversation a drinking game, but you get the idea.

But that’s just me. How do you tactfully train a Conversation Hog?

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Celebrity Mystery in London--LOST FOOTAGE

Please click on the image above to watch a short sequence that was cut from Fritz Freewhenever's latest news report, "Reality Stars on a Rampage."

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

LuPone Triumphs as New Queen of the “Gypsy’s”

One of the most famous backstage musicals of all time, “Gypsy,” is back on Broadway again. After two relatively recent revivals starring Tyne Daly and Bernadette Peters (the latter only a few years ago), I wondered why anyone would want to bring it back so soon. Is there really anything about “Gypsy” we haven’t seen yet? What could possibly justify another “New” Broadway revival? Well, after seeing the show last night at the St. James Theater, I fully understand why.

Watching this production of “Gypsy” is like seeing the show with new glasses. Truth to tell, I’ve never actually seen a LIVE stage production of “Gypsy.” I’ve seen the movie many times, as well as the Bette Midler television adaptation in the 1990s, so I’m pretty familiar with the material. But this production seems infused with a new energy and life, particularly because of its two leading ladies, Patti LuPone and Laura Benanti.

The energetic powerhouse that is Patti LuPone is used to maximum effectiveness here. As the show’s central character, Mama Rose, she is loud, brassy, funny, playful, arrogant, desperate, pushy—yet always in control. Every time she is on stage, you can’t help but watch her. Even when she is only walking by in the background during a Baby June song, she nearly steals the scene. Miss LuPone inhabits this role like no one else before her. Not that other people haven’t played the part well, but there is something so natural and effortless in Miss LuPone’s performance, that you feel like you might be watching Mama Rose herself.

To me, the most incredible moment comes near the very end of the show. Gypsy has already established herself as the Queen of Burlesque, and Rose no longer feels wanted or needed. The result is one of the most brilliant swan songs ever written, “Rose’s Turn,” in which she basically laments her life. This song is a favorite among musical theater lovers and has been sung by nearly every female Diva in the world at some point in their careers. It is tour de force musical tirade, which Miss LuPone infuses with every fiber of her being. The song is electrifying to watch, as goosebumps trail up and down your arm. You know you are witnessing something very special—the perfect melding of star and song. Several audience members spontaneously stood up at the end and gave her an ovation, and I can see why. It was truly remarkable.

But that wasn’t even the “incredible moment” I was referring to. My favorite “moment” comes shortly after the aforementioned show-stopping "Rose's Turn" number. Gypsy finds her mother onstage, and asks her why she worked and pushed so hard for all those years---who was she really doing it for? Rose always claimed she was doing it for her kids, to give them a better life. But in one overwhelming and painfully raw moment of insight, she finally realizes her drive was motivated by her own desires rather than her children's welfare. Her realization and subsequent breakdown is a moment I will never forget. It was so human and real. Absolutely incredible!

The evening also had a feeling of heightened electricity because the audience was filled with other Broadway actors, who spent their Monday night off watching someone else’s show. David Hyde Pierce (of “Curtains”) and his partner were sitting right across the aisle from me, and the lobby was filled with many other famous faces from the New York theater scene. During the show, you could hear a pin drop; that’s how riveting it was. And though I’ve had the opportunity many times over the years to see “Gypsy” LIVE, I’m glad I waited until this production to actually take the plunge.

For anyone who loves theater, this “Gypsy” is definitely worth the trip!

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Are We Really Entitled to Feel So Entitled?

What makes someone feel “entitled”? Is it something innate or something we learn? Personally, I've never felt "entitled" to anything, so I'm constantly amazed when I meet people who are blatantly arrogant regarding their rights and liberties. Yes, we have freedom of speech and freedom of choice, but do we also need to impose that freedom every opportunity we get? Has the “I can do anything I want” mentality become so completely ingrained in our culture that we can’t see past our own selfishness?

A feeling of entitlement can rear its ugly head in even the smallest of ways. When someone goes to the front of a line and cuts in, because they don’t feel it necessary to wait like everyone else. Or when someone suddenly cuts you off in traffic because they felt “entitled” to get somewhere faster than you. Or a co-worker who constantly complains about the salary and benefits they feel they’re entitled to, even though their position or job performance doesn’t warrant such perks. Or my favorite—“That’s not my job!”

I’ve met many people who feel they’re entitled to a better life, a better job, a better salary. Because of their age, experience, resourcefulness, dependability, etc., they should be further along on their career path. I understand these kinds of feelings and frustrations, because they’re part of a natural ambition to succeed. However, when those feelings escalate into attitudes of superiority and self-importance, they’re imposing their need for distinction on everyone else around them.

I am especially surprised when feelings of entitlement are displayed in children and teenagers. Last year on a TV show called “Kid Nation,” a young girl named Taylor perfectly embodied this brand of youthful arrogance. She referred to herself constantly as a Beauty Pageant winner who shouldn’t have to get dirty and help with chores because Pageant girls “don’t do dirty work.” She refused to help on many occasions and basically did whatever she wanted. And if someone ever questioned her actions, she would just yell back at them, “Deal With It!” And this girl was ten years old. Can you imagine how much that attitude will manifest itself by the time she’s in her twenties? And can you imagine what her parents must be like?

To me, the only kind of entitlement we all share is the right to air and water. If we were born on this earth, than we can assume those elements are freely at our disposal; everything else is up for grabs. In America, we are lucky enough to have constitutional rights that give us freedoms and privileges not afforded to many people around the world. So does that also give us the right to feel entitled to anything we want?

When I think about my life and all the “things” I have, I don’t feel entitled. I feel lucky. Lucky that my life is not too stressful, that my accommodations are more than comfortable, and that I can make a good living at something I enjoy. But even with all that, I don’t feel “entitled” to anything. I worked hard for what I have now. I wasn’t ever handed anything on a plate that said “Here, you’re entitled to this.”

So what’s the point of all this ranting? I guess I felt the need to put down into words the feelings that have been festering in me for quite some time. If we are all human beings, why are some people more “entitled” than others? Aren’t we all made from the same clay, processed in the same manner, and sustained with the same basic food and drink? Is there some rubber stamp somewhere that brands certain individuals with different rights and status? Because if there isn’t, I wish some people would just get off their “high horses” and put their sense of self-importance into perspective.

Feeling empowered is one thing. I feel empowered all the time, but that doesn’t make me also feel entitled to anything. It just makes me feel like I can accomplish my goals if I’m diligent and put forth an effort. It doesn’t mean I’m looking for a short-cut just because I feel I have a right to it. Because once empowerment changes to entitlement, there’s a dramatic shift in perspective which can keep you running on a negative treadmill for years. Empowerment can move you forward, while entitlement can keep you stuck in the same place, forever complaining about the wrongs you’ve suffered, or the rewards you haven’t gotten.

So there you have it, my essay on entitlement. I have no idea why I felt so empowered to write such an opus, because I certainly wasn’t entitled to it. Or was I?

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Celebrity Mystery in London

Reality Stars on a Rampage? Click on the photo above to watch the latest humorous news report from Fritz Freewhenever on yet another "shocking celebrity mystery." This time from London, England.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Expect a Hot Fun Night When Visiting “In the Heights”

I am an avid theater-goer, and living less than forty-five minutes from Broadway, I tend to see a lot of the big musicals and Off-Broadway hits. I also see a lot of plays, but they aren’t necessarily on Broadway, as the “play” has become a rather rare commodity on the Great White Way. If a show doesn’t have something to make you tap your foot, or hum a tune, it doesn’t translate into big Box Office Bucks. And right now, shows like “Wicked” and “Hairspray” and “Spring Awakening” rule the boards.

So when tickets became available for a new musical called “In the Heights,” I naturally got mine in advance. The only thing I really knew about the show was that it had already achieved a very successful run Off-Broadway (like “Spring Awakening”), and was now making the big move to a much more spacious and profitable venue. With that kind of track record, it must be good, right? (Although I still have my issues about the overly-critiqued “Spring Awakening,” which I left feeling rather underwhelmed. Perhaps all the lofty praise had put a different expectation in my head, but I just didn’t get what all the fuss was about. My teenage niece, on the other hand, loves the show and has already seen it four times.)

Anyway, I had no expectations for “In the Heights,” and I must say I was happily surprised by the production. Not that the various plotlines are anything new or extraordinary: there’s the nice guy in love with the hot girl, the hot girl who wants to leave the old neighborhood for a more glamorous life “downtown,” the smart girl who already left the neighborhood and is coming back because she failed in the world outside the Barrio, the smart-talking hairdresser who has a witty comment for almost every occasion, the older woman with health issues that is everyone’s best friend, the hot limousine company employee in love with the boss's daughter, the list goes on and on.

So while the show is filled with stock characters and familiar plotlines, there is something so engaging about the cast and music that you simply follow along for the ride. From the hip-hop/rap inspired opening number that tells you everything you need to know in ten minutes, to the high flying vocals that pepper the show with excitement, this was a very fun evening in the theater. The cast is excellent and the music keeps your foot tapping through the entire evening. I thought there were maybe one too many ballads, and some story devices that were a little lame. But overall this show is a good time and I highly recommend it.

Next on my theater-going agenda: Revivals of “South Pacific” and “Gypsy” starring the Great Lupone.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Where Do You Stand on Butter vs. Better vs. Whipped?

I've always loved frosting. A good chocolate frosting, to be precise. The actual cake it sits on top of, not so much. Because for me, it’s the frosting that makes or breaks a cake. If the frosting is good, then the cake will at least have something to compliment it. If the frosting is bad or less than satisfying, then it really doesn’t matter how good the cake is; the overall taste has been tainted.

When I was a child, I once asked my parents for a giant bowl of frosting for my birthday. I didn’t even want the cake. Just the frosting, and maybe a couple of candles. To my surprise, that is exactly what they gave me, and the next day I understood why. The resulting stomachache I got from eating all that super sweet frosting forever cured my need for an entire bowl of it. At last, I finally understood the purpose of the cake. It was to cut the taste of the frosting. From then on, I never ate frosting without some form of cake attached.

Which brings us to the point of this article: what is the best form of frosting for a cake? Many people seem to enjoy the light airiness of a whipped cream frosting. Famous NYC bakeries like The Cupcake CafĂ© cater to this type of taste. Their cupcakes are beautifully crafted and designed, but the cake is usually refrigerated so it tends to be rather dry. This would be okay if the frosting atop it had a creamy sweetness to counter the cold, almost stale interior. But a whipped cream frosting doesn’t have any weight to it, so the heaviness of the cake tends to overpower it, leaving the consumer gasping for more substance. (At least this consumer does.)

The other kind of frosting currently popular at bakeries is known as “Better” frosting (not to be confused with good old fashioned “Butter” frosting, which is my personal favorite). Better frosting is somebody’s idea of a healthy combination of a whipped cream and butter frosting, with the result that neither expectation is fully satisfied. Most grocery store bakeries tend to use “Better” these days unless you are adamant about requesting a pure butter frosting. (And even then you’re taking your chances.)

Then comes the cream of the crop: Butter frosting. Pure butter, confectioner’s sugar, a little vanilla, and lots of other flavorings make this traditional cake frosting my all-time favorite. And I’m talking about the homemade variety; not the canned version, which has a metallic aftertaste I find less than appetizing on my various cake creations. This type of “manufactured” frosting also shows up on products made by Entenmann’s, or any of the other snack cake companies, where you can practically taste all the preservative s and other chemicals more than the flavor of the frosting. They are poor excuses for the creamy coating that only a butter frosting can provide.

But that’s just me. Where do you stand on the controversy of Butter vs. Better vs. Whipped?

Monday, March 3, 2008

Sometimes All You Need is a Good Chocolate Cake

The past week has been a rather sluggish one for me. Other than watching an inordinate amount of television and moping around the house, I didn’t really do anything one might call “productive.” My lethargic mood was further enhanced by a visit to my Accountant, who informed me that I would NOT be getting a sizeable tax return this year. In fact, I wouldn’t be getting a return at all. I’d be owing money. Harsh! What a great way to start the weekend.

So there I am, lying on my couch all Saturday afternoon, catching up on old episodes of “Lost” and “Kyle XY” and “Lipstick Jungle.” (The latter show easily understandable when played at high speed without the sound on, leaving you with the same empty feeling you’d get if you watched it in real time.) I couldn’t motivate myself to work out, or go outside, or even go to the store. I was stuck in a rut and didn’t know how to get myself out of it. So to escape from my depressing plight, I climbed into bed and slept through the rest of the afternoon.

But then something interesting happened. While I was sleeping, I had a dream about making a chocolate cake. It all seemed so real, from the preparation of the cake, to putting it in the oven, to the eventual frosting of the top and sides. The dream was so vivid and detailed, that when I woke up, I immediately went down to the kitchen to have a piece. Only there wasn’t a cake to eat. Nor were there any ingredients to prepare such a treat. So with renewed vigor and energy, I pulled on some clothes and jumped in the car to do some much needed grocery shopping.

By the time the early evening rolled around, I was not only preparing the cake, but also a rather nice hearty meal consisting of chicken, corn and rice. My dull day had suddenly turned into something quite different, as the activity surrounding the making of the cake had revitalized my senses. And later that evening, when I actually got to sample my chocolate creation, I was amazed at how good it tasted. And how good I felt because I’d taken the time to make it. In fact, my weekend had suddenly become much more productive just because I had a simple little dream.

Now I am tackling the laundry and who knows what might be next? Which leads me to believe that when you’re blue or lethargic, sometimes all it takes is a good chocolate cake!