Blog: Entertainment

Most of these posts were originally posted somewhere else and link to the originals. While this blog is not set up for comments, the original locations generally are, and I welcome comments there. Sorry for the inconvenience.

The Magic Flute

We were in DC for a few days and, while there, we went to a performance of The Magic Flute (performed in English, not German) at the Kennedy Center. The performers were excellent, and they obviously had fun "updating" the script here and there. The costumes were very good, as was the sound. The set design was rather unusual; the implementation of their design was excellent, but I'm not sure what I thought of the design.

There was a short (optional) lecture before the show, which I'm very glad we went to. Here we learned some of the historical background for the show; while most operas of the time were written for aristocrats and in Italian, this one was written for a for-profit theatre catering to "just plain folks". It's more accessible and less hoity-toity. I don't know what's original to the script and what was added by this performance, but this had more of the feel of (high-end) street theatre in some ways, including humorous wordplay and some physical comedy. It also has spoken dialogue, so it felt kind of like a modern musical.

The story (very briefly; click the link for more): Tamino is recruited by the Queen of the Night to rescue her daughter Pamina from the evil sorceror Sarastro. She sends with him Papageno, a nutty bird-catcher who dresses as a bird and really only cares about wine, women, and song. (Tamino has nobler goals.) It turns out that Sarastro isn't so evil, and he kidnapped Pamina to save her from her (in his opinion) evil mother the queen. (At this point I expected it to turn out that Sarastro was the father, but no.) Tamino (who has fallen in love with Pamina) will be allowed to wed her if he passes certain mystical trials, and Papageno has to play too because he's there -- but ok, if Papageno behaves he'll also be allowed to wed Papagena, who seems a perfect fit for him, solving his "can't get women" problem. Trials happen (with bumps along the way) and there's a happy ending. (Oh, the flute? The queen gives it to Tamino as a magical aid and he uses it to get through some of the trials. Really, for something that makes the title of the show, it's kind of minor.)

Papageno provides a lot of comedic relief and the performer was very good. (It may be harder to do that kind of role well than that of a serious character like Tamino.) Sarastro was also very good as both actor and singer; he struggled a little with the lowest note, but Wikipedia tells me it's an F2, so I can understand that. (Deep bass.) Tamino and Pamina were well-done; I wasn't as impressed with the queen of the night and Papagena (both sopranos).

There were obvious adjustments in both the dialogue and the lyrics; the former is easy to do but the latter would seem to require a little more work. One of Papageno's songs included references to Twitter, and there was a bit of dialogue where somebody tells the three spirits (played by children) that they'll understand something better when they reach adolescence. (There were other changes too, but you get the idea.) I enjoyed these tweaks, though it made me wonder what is actually in the original script to begin with and whether it included hooks for this sort of thing.

The orchestral score was done well and mostly acted as support for what's going on on stage (as opposed to taking center stage itself, which I understand sometimes happens). The score did not strike me as overly complex; it was a good solid score, performed well.

The set design was rather abstract; backgrounds of colored lines and swirls at times, sometimes suggesting a setting (like "night" or "inside a temple") and other times not. There was one point where the background had animated circles/elliptoids moving around to no clear purpose and I found it a little distracting; I don't know what that was meant to be. There was also an opening number (before anybody was on stage) where they had animated lines moving around on a screen for several minutes, which left me wondering why. (It was only once the show proper started that I would realize that this was part of their overall design.) Lighting design (beyond this) was generally pretty good, though the follow-spot operators were sometimes a little off in tracking the leads. (The leads almost always had spots on them, even when the stage was brightly lit. I don't know if that's typical.)

A word about visual aids: This was only my second (live performance of an) opera (excluding Gilbert & Sullivan, if you count that), and the first was a dismal failure because it was in Italian, we were sitting too far back for me to read the supertitles, and having read the plot synopsis in advance hadn't been enough to really follow it. So this time we splurged on the second-best class of tickets (the price point for the best tripped our "you've got to be kidding" alarms). I mean, it's the Kennedy Center; it's likely to be good, and how often are we going to do this? Data point: the second-best class of tickets, which put us four rows back in the first balcony, allowed me to just barely read the supertitles about three-quarters of the time. (So I definitely missed some jokes, including, I later learned, a Twitter hashtag.) And this opera was in English, so I had extra input. (Operatic sopranos and children are a loss; I can't understand what they're singing regardless of language. The male leads were better, and there was a good alto mezzo-soprano.) So, it looks like it's only viable for me to go to an opera if we get seats up close; I doubt I'll bother again.

Spamalot (short notes)

That was very silly (as expected, given the source). One thing I didn't expect, and greatly enjoyed, was how "meta" the show is. Several songs comment on the show itself (e.g. "this is the song that goes like this", talking about standard tropes), and the watery tart's solo midway through the second act was hilarious. (No spoiler here, but if it comes up in comments, consider yourself warned.)

Providing the lyrics for the final song (hey, some people might not know all the words already) so the audience could sing along was a nice touch.

There are a few hooks for localization. Some cities scan better than others, but I assume touring companies are up for the challenge. :-)

Wicked (short notes)

We saw Wicked tonight in London. I previously only knew the short (two-sentence or so) description of the show; hadn't heard the soundtrack or much about the show.

Great show! There is a lot of complicated stage-craft (and lighting-craft) in this show and the production we saw was smooth and effective and at times visually stunning. I'm sure I missed a lot of smaller details from row T, but even so I thoroughly enjoyed myself. We also had a good cast and (except for the finale) excellent micing, so everything was clear. I loved some of the humorous bits in the show, too. ("Blonde." :-) )

And let me also say how thrilled I am to see a starring female role written for an alto. I was beginning to doubt that these existed.

I hadn't considered the difference between touring companies and long-term residence. Building out the production pays off when you'll be there for a year or ten... I don't think I've ever seen a show that's been in its theatre for more than about three weeks before.

A visualization I'd like to see

We went to see the second Hobbit movie today. Now we already knew, of course, from (a) the fact that it's a trilogy and (b) seeing the first movie, that there was going to be a lot of extra stuff. Even so, I found myself wondering if as much as a quarter of this movie was in the book, or if my memory is faulty.

A visualization I would really like to see (and see updated when the third movie comes out): a "timeline" showing elapsed film time (not plot time), with a set of (discontinuous) lines or bars representing segments that are in the book. I want to know not just how much of the movie is in the book but where and for how long those stretches run. So, for example, the first bar wouldn't start until about 25 minutes into the first movie (as I recall), because all that preamble stuff was new.

Can we get the XKCD guy to do this? This seems like it would be right up his alley.

I'm not picking on the movies (well, maybe a little, but I'll still see the third one so it can't be that bad). I'm just curious, but not nearly enough of a fan to do the data-collection myself.

(I am assuming that the movies are a superset of the book, meaning there's nothing in the book but not in the movies. Is that assumption correct?)

Suspension of disbelief

It's funny the things that do and don't trigger suspension-of-disbelief problems for me. I enjoy speculative fiction -- science fiction, fantasy, alternate history, etc. This means accepting some basic premises -- faster-than-light travel, teleportation, magic, time travel, or whatever. I'm totally cool with all that.

I had two recent experiences with other factors in such stories.

First, last night I finally saw Looper (Netflix: last year's movies this year, which is fine with me). I enjoyed it in general (the ending moved it from "ok" to "I liked that"), but some of the implementation details gave me pause. (Everything I'm about to say is revealed in the first ten minutes of the movie.) The basic idea is that "the mob" in the future sends people they want to kill back in time 30 years to have hired assassins do the deed and dispose of the bodies in the past -- easier to get away with. That's fine. But the assassins know that they aren't going to be allowed to live past that point in the future -- you get 30 years of high pay and then at some point the guy sent back is going to be you and you "close the loop" by killing him. Ok, I can work with that.

So...why does the future mob need assassins in the past? Why not just send bodies back? Or if the time-travel device only works with live people, then -- given that we've seen them land very precisely in geo-space and time -- why not send them into a live volcano? And if they need assassins, why not go back 100 years and then not have to worry about them catching up?

As I said, I enjoyed the movie -- but I couldn't help wondering about such obvious questions, which could have been addressed with a few sentences of dialogue but weren't, while at the same time accepting the time-travel premise just fine. Maybe I'm weird.

In a similar vein, I recently finished reading The Domesday Book by Connie Willis, which coincidentally also involves time-travel. In this case they're sending a historian back to the middle ages for direct observation. She's got an implanted recording device, something like a universal translator (also implanted)... and neither a homing beacon (should they need to rescue her) nor a beacon she can drop at the rendezvous point (matched up to an implanted detector). The history department has budget for a time-travel net but not homing beacons? Bummer. (I realize that this would totally mess up the plot of the book.) Also, apparently in the future they only have land-lines. I enjoyed the book (which I read because of the song (YouTube, lyrics)), but I couldn't help noticing.

I guess it's the little things that catch my eye.

Lots of discussion in the comments on this one.

Les Mis (movie)

I never got around to seeing the Les Mis movie in the theatre, but I watched it on DVD last night. (Remember when we had to wait a year or more, rather than a few months, for a movie to come out on DVD? My, how times have changed.)

It appears that my standards for musicality, for a musical, are higher in a film than they are on a stage. On the stage you get one shot, and sometimes you have to sing in challenging postures (like while lying down or leaning over), and you have to account for the acoustics of the hall. None of these considerations apply on film. So while I enjoyed many aspects of the movie, particularly being able to see details of gesture and facial expression and setting that I would never be able to see on a stage, in the end I was disappointed because the singing was not, in general, as good as I had hoped it would be. I've seen three live productions, and all had stronger singers. So I'm disappointed; I guess I expected that to be even better in the movie. I'm not saying the singing was poor; most of it was quite serviceable, and Javert and Marius were consistently good. Oh well.

Every time I see this show my appreciation of Javert as a tragic character increases. Here we have someone who is so bound up in a worldview as to be harmful, yet he doesn't come across as a nut-case as sometimes happens.

One question: in every production I've seen (including the movie), the child at the barricade has a thick, exaggerated accent (which I would call Cockney were this not set in France). What's up with that?

Answer in comments: the accent is a proxy for "low-class".

Shorter bits

I've been learning a lot and it's going to take a while to write it all up -- certainly not before I get home. So in the meantime, some shorter bits:

We've had three days of chevruta study so far, two of which were excellent. One of those was led by Noam Zion (you might know his haggadah), the other by Marcie Lenk. Noam's sessions were about seeing God in history and we looked first at the Yosef story and when he saw God's hand in his life, and then at the Esther story, focusing on chapter 4 where Mordechai persuades Esther to act. There's a lot more to say here. Marcie's sessions were about faith and politics and we looked first at the part of Joshua where the tribes of Reuben and Gad and half of Manashe, having settled on the other side of the Jordan, build their own altar and trouble ensues, and then at some passages from Samuel and Kings showing kings acting badly and how prophets (representing God) responded. This reminded me that I need to become more fluent in these books than I am; I'm reasonably good with torah but the rest, not so much. (Read 'em a couple times, haven't really studied.)

They're trying to make sure we get outside of the beit midrash and experience some culture too. :-) Saturday night after Shabbat we went to see a movie, perhaps called The Matchmaker or perhaps Once I Was. (I mean, it was really called Pa'im Hayiti, possibly not with those exact vowels; I think it said "once I was" on-screen but it was called "the matchmaker" in our program, and neither of those seems to be literal.) It was produced and written by Avi Nesher (who apparently is famous here) and it's starting to make the rounds in the US. Anyway, it was a well-done character story of kids growing up in the 60s in Israel and the role a matchmaker played in one boy's life (the boy went to work for him) and how, really, making money from match-making didn't seem to be the point of the exercise. Avi Nesher spoke afterwards, which was interesting. Good movie, though if you need the English subtitles, be prepared to miss a few due to (a) fast dialogue (Hebrew is more compact than English so dialogue can go by quickly) and (b) some poor placement choices (white titles on light backgrounds). I missed some, but not enough to be a problem. I think I missed a joke or two, based on laughter in the theatre.

Monday was field-trip day ("tiyulim"). I went on the one called "faith and geopolitics", which provided a much more nuanced view of the troubles going on over here than we usually get in America. We began the day with a history overview from an academic; we also met with a resident of one of the villages east of Jerusalem (a so-called "settler", though I don't understand why people who approve use that word), a Palestinian Episcopalian priest, someone from one of the organizations that helps buy land (from Arabs for Jews) in the old city, and some others. We were supposed to hear from a representative of the Palestinian waqf, the organization that (among things) oversees the temple mount, but he couldn't make it. It was an interesting day.

There is a program for rabbis that just started, overlapping our program by a couple days. My rabbi is part of that, so I've gotten to see him a couple times. We discussed studying some of the material I've gotten here in more detail when we get back, which sounds great. (I know he can particularly help me understand the Rambam, since that's an area of interest for him.)

And now something not about Hartman at all but just about Jerusalem: I've been kind of surprised by the way random people on the street have treated me when I've asked for directions or for the name of a street. Most say they don't know, and in many cases, once I found out, I disbelieve. For Pittsburghers, imagine being on Ellsworth Avenue in Shadyside and asking someone where Fifth Avenue is -- could someone (who isn't a tourist) really not know that? It's unreal. Some just ignore me. And then there was the guy who chastised me (!) for not talking with him in Hebrew, even after I said (in Hebrew with, I later realized, some wrong grammar) "I understand a little but I don't know how to speak". I mean c'mon, I tried; do you really want to chase people away for not being farther along? Note that I'm choosing the people I ask reasonably; I'm not interrupting people who seem to be in a hurry, nor approaching black-hatted men at all, and I'm scanning for tourist hints before asking (camera, name tag from a tour, sunburn, etc). I don't get it.

Hunger Games

We went to see The Hunger Games this afternoon. I have read the first of the three books. I thought the movie was a good treatment of the book; they missed some opportunities but they added some nice bits too. (I don't think the rest of this post contains any spoilers that weren't in the trailer.)

The Rue plot in the book was very powerful, and I was disappointed that it was so highly abbreviated in the movie. I understand that a movie can't contain everything in the book and still be a civilized length, and they did a good job of trimming in general, but this one stood out as a misfire.

The book is written in the first person (first-person present tense, mostly, which is unconventional). This means that in the book you only see and know what the narrator knows. In the movie they showed some of what was going on "backstage" and I found those parts to be well-done, laying the groundwork for the political issues to come. They added rather than detracting -- not at all a safe bet when screenwriters decide to innovate.

Because of the POV, in the book the game-makers are largely invisible -- we see their work but don't see them. In the movie I thought the lead game-maker was particularly strong; seeing how what was going on in the arena affected him added a level of story not possible in the book. And oh, his final scene... nice touch.

A nit: I do wonder how Katniss was able to stay at full draw for so long, with a bow strong enough to kill a person, in that scene at the end. Especially given her state at that time. Just sayin'. (Also, what are the aerodynamic properties of silver arrows? The book referred to them as silver too, and it struck me as peculiar there too.)

The trailers I remember were:

  • The Avengers: meh
  • Spiderman: looked like it could be fun (but can wait for NetFlix)
  • (something like) The House at the End of the Street: no (horror's not my thing)
  • What to Expect When You're Expecting: looks very cheesy (that would be a no)
  • some Twilight movie: no
  • Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter: please make it stop!

The Lost Room

Netflix suggested that I would enjoy The Lost Room, a six-(TV)-hour show that ran on the Sci-Fi channel a few years ago. Boy were they right!

I can't say too much about the plot without spoiling the show, which does a very good job of revealing new information at the right time and in an interesting manner. The show revolves around Detective Joe Miller, who, while investigating a robbery and suspicious deaths, comes into possession of a key to a "non-existent" hotel room. Use the key to open any lock, get transported to the lost room. Exit the room to any door you choose. Powerful, fantastical, and you can imagine the possibilities if such a key existed.

Except that Joe's eight-year-old daughter disappears into the room and vanishes. Joe's quest is to get her back. As he tries to do this he learns that there are other special objects -- and other people interested in obtaining them.

The story is well-written (though the ending felt rushed). I particularly noticed the dialogue drawing me in. The story is on the dark side -- this is not your pixie-dust-and-bright-lights magic -- but has a fair bit of levity in good places (and my favorite line in the entire show made me laugh out loud). I don't usually notice acting (though often notice its absence :-) ) but I did notice it here; Joe and the primary sometimes-friend, sometimes-antagonist were well-done and the others weren't bad. The visual style was appropriate and the room was well-done. The music did a good job of setting the mood.

I found the show very satisfying. If you like "thinky" plot-driven SF, I think you might too.

The Butterfly Effect

The Butterfly Effect got lukewarm reviews when it was in theatres and I don't go out to see that many movies anyway, so I missed it at the time. Last night I remedied that with the DVD, and boy am I glad I did. (No spoilers in this post, but I can't vouch for comments.)

The story follows a college student, Evan, who had several blackouts as a child, almost always in stressful situations. The doctors encouraged him to keep a detailed journal in hopes of finding clues to the problem. Eventually Evan discovered that he could use the journal entries around the blackouts to go back in time and change those situations. Change, however, is not always good, as any veteran consumer of time-travel stories will assure you.

There are some scenes in this movie that were very difficult to watch. (One in particular: cruelty to animals is a major squick for me; that it was not shown on-screen was not sufficient mitigation.) But I found the story compelling and the characters generally believable as they morphed through changing situations.

The DVD offers the directors' cut and the theatrical release; without any advance knowledge I chose the former, figuring it would pick up a few deleted scenes but be basically the same. (While for books I usually prefer works that have stood the scrutiny of editors, for movies I tend to watch the story the director wanted to tell unless I know of a reason not to.) Later, when I was looking (unsuccessfully) for a detailed plot synopsis online to confirm a couple details of sequencing, I learned that the endings are very different between the two. Having seen the directors' ending and read about the one that showed in theatres, I am glad I watched the one I did. While much darker, it seems a much more powerful conclusion to the story.

Recommended, with the caveats about some troubling themes. Not for kids.