Tuesday, November 29, 2011

10 FAVORITES (46) - Toys, Toys and MORE Toys!

With Thanksgiving over, the Christmas shopping season has officially begun with "Black Friday" (and the fairly new "Cyber-Monday" as well!).  So now everyone is making their respective Wish Lists for their friends and family and trying to decide what they want or need (or think they want or need!) for the Holidays.  It is a time-honored tradition in our culture and, of course, I was no exception growing up.  Every year at this time, my relatives would descend upon me and question me as to what I wanted for Christmas.  And as a child, the "Go-To" answer was obviously: TOYS!!!!  So many Toys have been popular throughout my lifetime.  But which ones were the best ones?  Which ones have withstood the test of time?  This week's 10 FAVORITES is devoted to the Toys that created a frenzy whenever they were released and how important they have been within the fabric of our culture.


The Easy Bake Oven
How many Toys can make a "delicious" snack for you and your friends?  Young girls everywhere have had hours of enjoyment from the little bulb in a box that can bake you a cupcake!

TOY #10
The Disney Princess Franchise
This one is a bit of a cheat as I am giving a spot on this list to an entire franchise that includes Toys, backpacks, pencil cases, sleepwear, etc.  But the House of Mouse has empowered young girls with a franchise that has made more money in the last decade than any other Toy company in history.

TOY #9
Teddy Bears
The classics are always great!  Every kid has had a Teddy Bear in their lifetime.  They will always be a part of our culture no matter what.

TOY #8
Remote Control Cars
This was one of the first Toys I clearly remember wanting really bad.  All the commercials for them made them seem like they gave the boys who had them magical powers or something.  Now with the popularity of both NASCAR and Disney/PIXAR's Cars, this generation of Remote Control Cars have taken on a new life.

TOY #7
G. I. Joe
G.I. Joe is the ultimate when it comes to masculine Toys.  Combining the classic Army Men Toy with the similar style used when Matel created Barbie, the Great American Hero was the original Action Figure.  Since then, so many movie and cartoon characters have become popular figures but G. I. Joe has remained the pinnacle.

TOY #6
Train Sets
Like the Teddy Bears above, the classics still never go out of style.  Trains are one of the first vehicles little kids enjoy identifying and a Train Set will always be welcome in a child's home.  Plus, the adults get as much enjoyment from them.  This is one of the few Toys where adult collectors can get truly obsessive about (and this goes well beyond the typical Trekkie or Comic Book Guy!).

TOY #5
Tickle Me Elmo
One of the most popular toys of all-time has also become one of the most beloved.  Elmo has become the most popular character on Sesame Street, even passing the irrepressible Big Bird.  And the laughing and moving stuffed doll based on the lovable red monster has caused more stampedes at Toy stores than most other Toys in history.

TOY #4
Cabbage Patch Kids
Cabbage Patch Kids are enjoying a surprising nostalgic resurgence now thanks to the many kids who had them when I was kid now having kids themselves. 

TOY #3
Hot Wheels
This one is a personal favorite of mine.  Both my brother and myself loved collecting the many different kinds of cars the Hot Wheel company released.  We even enjoyed building the tracks and racing them against each other (though the tracks never really lasted!).

TOY #2
Her placement on this list is most definitely due to her longevity.  She has lasted longer than almost any other doll in Toy history.  She has many clothes, many friends, many houses and many boyfriends (including the ever-popular Ken!).  There is truly no one like her in all of the Toy world.

TOY #1
What can I say about this timeless Toy?  Everyone I know has had a set of Legos somewhere in their childhood.  And now with the number of video games devoted to the world of Legos (LEGO Harry Potter, LEGO Star Wars, LEGO Pirates of the Caribbean, etc.).  They even have their own popular Theme Park: LEGOLand (located in the San Diego, CA area).

Sunday, November 20, 2011


After a week of fighting off the end of a cold and various headaches (both personal and physical!), this was not the best week to have my own blog.  But every time I got stressed or felt like just crawling into bed and never getting up, I thought of the wonderful things in this world.  And half of the things I thought of had to do with the Muppets!  So I took it as a sign that it couldn't have been mere coincidence that their first theatrical feature in over 10 years shall soon be released over the upcoming Holiday weekend.  Therefore during this week of Thanksgiving, I want to be eternally grateful for Kermit the Frog and Miss Piggy and Fozzie Bear and every other glorious piece of felt from that enchanting and timeless company.  I may not be able to see it on opening day, but I do plan to see their new cinematic adventure as soon as possible.  And when I do, I shall remember all the good things and good times you have given me over my lifetime.  Thank You Kermit.  Thank You Piggy.  Thank You Muppets.  And most importantly, Thank You Jim!  You remind me every day that IT'S THE LITTLE THINGS that get you through the tough times.

Friday, November 11, 2011

IT'S THE LITTLE THINGS: For the Glory of 11-11-11

It's all over the Internet so I cannot see how anyone could have missed the coincidental date today, but just in case: November is the 11th month and today (Veteran's day) is the 11th day of November AND it is the year 2011.  Therefore, the date on all the calendars reads: 11/11/11.

In honor of it being Veteran's Day, I am taking a break from pontificating in a long, drawn out column this week.  Instead, I want to dedicate this post to all the Veterans of the United States Military (all branches!) and thank them for their sacrifice and their service.  

For your viewing pleasure, here is a song from the Broadway musical The Civil War (by Frank Wildhorn, Jack Murphy and Gregory Boyd) accompanied by photos of what the sacrifice our Veterans have made and what it means to this great nation.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

10 FAVORITES (45) - Play On, America!

Now its time to talk about one of my first loves: the Theatre!  These days, the Broadway stage is illuminated with hit musicals that have been running for years, revivals of past hits that have proven their worth in the theatrical landscape, an uber-expensive musical that seems to have more critics the more money it makes and a smattering of new and revived plays that feature of the brightest stars of stage and screen.  Why are there so many plays where there once was almost nothing but musicals?  Well, three main reasons:

1) Plays are cheap.  In this tough economic crunch, the Theatrical community is really feeling a tightening of the purse-strings.  When it comes to an investor choosing to invest in a new play (with a known star) or a new musical (with an unknown score), the investor is more likely to choose the new play these days.
2) Plays get more critical attention, particularly from the top New York Theatre Critcs.  More good reviews and more attention from the critics means more attention from the several Theatrical Awards groups (i.e. Tonys, Drama Desks, Pulitzer, etc.).  The more awards means the more interest from audiences.
3) Among the stars currently in Broadway plays are Samuel L. Jackson, Frank Langella, Alan Rickman, Kim Cattrall, Marlo Thomas, Hugh Dancy, Stockard Channing and that's just to name a few!  With so many "name" people doing a play or two nowadays, the limited run of a new (or revived) play could net the same amount of profits that a short-lived run of a flop musical that cost twice (or even three-times!) as much to produce could.

Why am I talking about all this?  Well with so many plays popping up on the Great White Way, I thought this would be a good time to look at some of the masters of American plays (both Dramas and Comedies!).  This week's 10 FAVORITES is about the Greatest American Playwrights.


Thornton Wilder
Notable Plays include: Our Town, The Matchmaker, The Skin of Our Teeth
There can be no discussion of American Drama without mentioning his name.  Though I'm not a particular fan of his plays (hence his placement as "Honorable Mention"), they have become some of the most influential work in the American Theatre landscape.  Our Town is still the play that is taught to most first-year acting students and The Matchmaker served as the basis for one of America's most enduring musicals, Hello, Dolly!.

Sam Shepard
Notable Plays include: True West, Buried Child, Fool For Love
This Academy-Award nominated actor is first and foremost one of the most prolific and "out-of-the-box" playwrights of the last 30-40 years.  With a subversive edge and an unmistakable style, Shepard's plays revolutionized Off-Broadway and Regional Theatres.  Most notably, the landmark Steppenwolf Theatre Company's production of his True West made stars out of Shepard and actors Gary Sinise and John Malkovich when it won several Obies and was filmed for PBS (Available on YouTube for viewing in 10 parts with Part 1 below!).

Terrence McNally
Notable Plays include: Master Class, The Ritz, Love! Valour! Compassion!
Trailblazing, controversial and a constant surprise are all adjectives that can be applied to McNally's long career.  He balances quite well between farcical comedies (The Ritz) to romantic dramedies (Frankie and Johnny at the Claire de Lune) to full-on character studies (Master Class).  Occasionally, he will throw in a bit of controversy just to stir the pot (Corpus Christi).  He is also one of the few playwrights who has had successes writing the book (re: script) for hit musicals (Kiss of the Spider Woman - The Musical, Ragtime, The Full Monty).

Wendy Wasserstein
Notable Plays include: The Heidi Chronicles, The Sisters Rosensweig, An American Daughter
She had the wit of Neil Simon and the style of Tom Stoppard.  Wendy Wasserstein could do it as well as the boys and had the humor to boot.  Her masterpiece comedy-drama The Heidi Chronicles changed the way female characters were perceived on Broadway.  She championed the Regional Theatre and even wrote children's books.  When we lost her to her battle with lymphoma in 2006, the Shiksa Goddess was mourned by many as the lights dimmed on Broadway in her honor.

David Mamet
Notable Plays include: Glengarry Glen Ross, American Buffalo, Speed-the-Plow
Though censors and parent groups may redact every other word in most of his plays, David Mamet changed the way characters relate to each other in most dramas.  Characters like Ricky Roma in Glengarry Glen Ross (played perfectly by Al Pacino in the 1992 film version below) or Bobby Gould in Speed-the-Plow were willing to play both sides of any moral dilemma and were not afraid to curse up a storm doing it (ironically, both Gould and Roma were originally played on Broadway by Joe Mantegna!).

August Wilson
Notable Plays include: Joe Turner's Come and Gone, Fences, The Piano Lesson
Very few playwrights were able to connect their works together like links in a chain.  August Wilson was the most groundbreaking.  His "Century Cycle" of ten plays covered the African-American experience in America over the 20th Century.  Plays like Fences and The Piano Lesson (both plays won him Pulitzer Prizes) gave us characters that are transformed by the same things that transform any other person.  Wilson saw it as his mission to "humanize" African-American people for the audiences who normally would "look right through them."

Arthur Miller
Notable Plays include: Death of a Salesman, The Crucible, All My Sons, A View From the Bridge, The Price
He was accused of being a Communist, he won countless of Theatre and Arts Awards AND he was married to Marilyn Monroe!  In his over 70-year career, Arthur Miller shaped what true American drama is.  He was controversial with plays like A View From the Bridge and The Crucible (which cleverly compared the HUAC hearings to the Salem Witch Trials!).  He was the first playwright to win what was considered New York Theatres triumvirate of Awards for his landmark work Death of a Salesman in 1949 (winning the Tony, the Pulitzer and the New York Drama Critics' Circle Awards).

Edward Albee
Notable Plays include: Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, A Delicate Balance, Seascape, The Zoo Story, The Goat Or: Who is Sylvia?
When it comes to biting dialogue and true theatricality in American drama, there is no one better than Edward Albee.  He is a master at what is known as the Americanization of the Theatre of the Absurd where much of his work can be compared to the likes of Samuel Beckett or Tom Stoppard.  Just take a look at his brilliant masterpiece Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, which gets better with each viewing.

Tennessee Williams
Notable Plays include: A Streetcar Named Desire, Cat On a Hot Tin Roof, Sweet Bird of Youth, The Glass Menagerie, The Night of the Iguana
No playwright's style is more memorable than Tennessee Williams'.  Taking cues from those around him as he was growing up in Mississippi, Williams created some of the most enduring characters in American Theatre history.  Williams was especially adept at creating brilliant female characters.  Just take a look at Blanche DuBois or Stella Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire; or Maggie the Cat in Cat On a Hot Tin Roof; or Amanda and Laura Wingfield in The Glass Menagerie; or Alexandra del Lago in Sweet Bird of Youth.  Each woman represented a type of beauty that Williams saw in the world, but each woman was tainted with some kind of madness, brutality, addiction or even affliction, which made for great drama.

Neil Simon
Notable Plays include: The Odd Couple, Brighton Beach Memoirs, Barefoot In the Park, Lost In Yonkers, Plaza Suite
When it comes to American comedy, Neil Simon is one of the first names that comes to mind.  He started as a staff writer for the great Sid Caesar and his very successful TV variety shows.  But by the end of the 1960's, Simon had hit plays like Barefoot In the Park and The Odd Couple under his belt and had become one of the most praised comedy writers since George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart 30 years earlier.  With shows like Brighton Beach Memoirs and Lost In Yonkers (for which he won a Pulitzer!), Simon personalized the humor and mixed in a good dose of heartwarming drama.  Like McNally above, Simon was also a successful book-writer for many hit musicals (Sweet Charity, Promises, Promises and They're Playing Our Song to name a few!).

Eugene O'Neill
Notable Plays include: Long Day's Journey Into Night, Anna Christie, The Iceman Cometh, Mourning Becomes Electra, A Moon For the Misbegotten
This man changed the way American drama is done.  He was one of the first playwrights to have his characters speak in the vernacular.  His characters were often on "the fringes" of society and often involved tragic circumstances.  His use of realism in his techniques were comparable to the likes of Henrik Ibsen and Anton Chekhov.  He also explored other theatrical techniques (like Japanese Noh Theatre and ancient Greek themes) to use them in his dramas.  He was one of the first American playwrights to have a Broadway theatre named after him.  He holds the record for winning the most Pulitzer Prizes for Drama (winning four total for Beyond the HorizonAnna ChristieStrange Interlude and his masterpiece Long Day's Journey Into Night).  His work has become some of the most complex and the most enduring tragedies in American Theatre history.

Friday, November 4, 2011

IT'S THE LITTLE THINGS: November Movies - First Impressions

Lord how time flies!!!!  The Fall Movie season will soon be coming to an end and Christmas will suddenly be upon us.  After some extremely well-received movies in August and September (The Help, Moneyball and Contagion) and a lackluster October filled with sequels (Paranormal Activity 3), prequels (Puss In Boots), ho-hum star-driven vehicles (In Time and The Rum Diary) and snoozy remakes (Footloose, The Thing and The Three Musketeers); I thought we should take a look at some of the films coming out over the next month as we head into the Holiday seasons and the beginning of the Awards track (Golden Globe nods come out in mid-December!).

So, let's look at some of the trailers of the major studio films (and some of the Award-hopefuls) being released during November and talk about the first impressions based on the trailer (and whatever buzz may be surrounding the movie in question!).  Then, I'll give the verdict on whether I would personally take the time to see the movie.

RELEASE DATE: Friday, November 4, 2011
A Very Harold and Kumar 3D Christmas
Starring: Kal Penn, John Cho, Neil Patrick Harris
First Impressions: The Harold & Kumar franchise has done quite well especially in its key demographic (audience ages 18-35).  Both stars Kal Penn and John Cho have been able to transition within their own careers thanks to the H&K brand, so why wouldn't a third film be in the cards.  However, comedy franchises tend not to do as well as their predecessors (as we learned with the highly-anticipated Hangover II earlier this year!).  Studios tend to expect more out of them than they end up getting.  And when they don't meet those expectations, they are counted as failures.  It's quite possible that the duo's trip to WhiteCastle should have been their one and only.
Would I See It?: Possibly (on TV or DVD though)

Tower Heist
Starring: Ben Stiller, Eddie Murphy, Casey Affleck
First Impressions: Alan Alda as a Bernie Madoff-type living in what is obviously Trump Towers!  It's the kind of biting satire that worked back in the 1980s, but today its a little along the too esoteric lines.  Though the rest of the cast is likable in what seems to be their typical roles now (Ben Stiller as fumbling lead, Casey Affleck as sarcastic assistance, Matthew Broderick as nebbish friend, etc.), the only standout even within the trailer is obviously Eddie Murphy.  He seems to be in exactly the type of role that made us love him at the beginning of his career (i.e. Trading Places, 48 Hrs., etc.).  The problem is that right-off you can tell that Murphy in all his comic glory is probably only in about 20-25% of the movie.  Meaning the rest of the film would be kind of a snore when Murphy is not on the screen.
Would I See It?: Possibly (on TV or DVD though)

The Son of No One
Starring: Channing Tatum, Al Pacino, Juliette Binoche
First Impressions: I have not heard of this movie at all!  No buzz, no news, no early reviews, no nothing!  And yet there are actual people in this movie!  Like name people, A-Listers!  Is it because Channing Tatum is the first name on the list that I automatically ignored anything about this film?  It looks like it might actually be interesting and provocative with some pretty good performances (except for maybe Katie Holmes, although she could surprise us!).  Why have I heard nothing about this film?
Would I See It?: Maybe

RELEASE DATE: Friday, November 11, 2011
Starring: Henry Cavill, John Hurt, Mickey Rourke
First Impressions: Trying to capture what was captured a few years ago with 300, but probably being more like the horrendous remake of Clash of the Titans last year.
Would I See It?: Never

Jack & Jill
Starring: Adam Sandler, Katie Holmes, Al Pacino
First Impression: Adam Sandler dances on that line of clever parody (The Wedding Singer) to touching lead (Punch-Drunk Love) to trying to be serious (Spanglish) to just plain stupid (Grown Ups).  Unfortunately, this is way passed the latter of those options.
Would I See It?: Never

J. Edgar
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Naomi Watts, Dame Judi Dench
First Impression: This movie has the most going for it as far as I'm concerned.  Its directed by an accomplished and acclaimed director (Clint Eastwood!).  Its screenplay is by the smart and edgy Oscar-winning writer behind Milk (Dustin Lance Black).  And it stars Leonardo DiCaprio in what quite possibly could be his Oscar-winning performance (if the early critics are to be believed!).  It has the stylish qualities that went into last year's Oscar-winner The King's Speech and the political intrigue (and topical metaphors) that went into the previous Oscar-winner The Hurt Locker.
Would I See It?: Most Likely

RELEASE DATE: Friday, November 18, 2011
The Twilight Saga - Breaking Dawn Part I
Starring: Robert Pattison, Kristen Stewart, Taylor Lautner
First Impressions: Just when you think you're rid of these brooding "teenagers" who never seem to smile, they come back doing the exact thing the Harry Potter series did earlier by splitting its "final chapter" into two movies (because Stefanie Meyer can do anything J. K. Rowling can do! NYAH!).  So that just means they'll be boring boyfriends and putting husbands to sleep in two movies instead of one!
Would I See It?: Not even if you held a gun to my head! I would choose death! (Too much with the sarcasm?) 

Happy Feet Two
Starring: Elijah Wood, Pink, Robin Williams
First Impressions: I really liked the first one.  It was touching, funny and surprisingly well-crafted.  But I'm not sure all of that positive reaction the first one got (including an Oscar for Best Animated Film beating Cars!) warrants a sequel.  It seems like it could be cute and funny and maybe even touching.  But it also seems like its over-reaching and re-hashing some of the same jokes and plotlines that fueled the first one.
Would I See It?: On the Fence

The Descendants
Starring: George Clooney, Judy Greer, Matthew Lillard
First Impressions: Another potential Awards grabber and George Clooney already had one earlier this fall with The Ides of March.  It may be hard to decipher which George Clooney Oscar-bait movie audiences need to see.
Would I See It?: On the Fence

RELEASE DATE: Friday, November 25, 2011
Starring: Asa Butterfield, Sasha Baron Cohen, Christopher Lee
First Impressions: At first look, its family-friendly and filled with a typical mix of fantasy and comic relief (Thank You Borat!).  It seems to have charm and kids and period costumes and....wait a minute...did that say "Directed by Martin Scorcese?!?!"  Martin "Mean Streets-Taxi Driver-Raging Bull-GoodFellas-Gangs of New York-The Departed" Scorcese?!?!  I know he's taking risks now and doing things he wouldn't have done 20 years ago (hence his Emmy-winning work on the HBO drama Boardwalk Empire!), but how opposite from his canon does he have to go in order to prove he's a risk-taker?  Wait, Does he need to prove he's a risk-taker?!?!  Maybe he figures: He has an Oscar and an Emmy, now he needs the children to like him!
Would I See It?: Likely (but probably on TV or DVD)

The Muppets
Starring: Jason Segel, Amy Adams, Chris Cooper
First Impressions: It has Muppets! It's their first theatrical venture since the somewhat average Muppets From Space over a decade ago.  It has celebrity cameos, self-referential humor...oh, and did I mention: IT HAS MUPPETS!!!!
Would I See It?: Try and stop me!!!

Arthur Christmas
Starring: James McAvoy, Jim Broadbent, Bill Nighy

First Impressions: Sure, there of course is bound to be a Christmas-themed animated movie this year (we've had The Polar Express and Jim Carrey in A Christmas Carol).  This movie seems like it might be charming and sweet with a anything-can-happen and anyone-can-do-anything message.  But on the other hand, everything that makes it so cute and special also could make it so gratingly irritating.  Since PIXAR revolutionized Disney, every studio has to get into the game and do it in some way (see Happy Feet Two above!).  But I just don't know if I can take much more of this.
Would I See It?: Possibly (on TV or DVD though)

A Dangerous Method
Starring: Viggo Mortensen, Michael Fassbender, Keira Knightley
First Impressions: The last Viggo Mortensen-David Cronenberg venture (Eastern Promises) resulted in an Oscar nomination for the former Lord of the Rings star.  Plus, Michael Fassbender (who first charmed audiences a few years ago in Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds!) is quickly becoming one of the most welcome additions to any movie this year (a well-received version of Jane Eyre and the surprisingly well-done X-Men prequel).  And its been a while since Keira Knightley steamed up the screen in a racy role that could result in some awards attention.  And its about Freud and Jung and their tenuous (re: stressful) work relationship.  The two are the greatest influences on the psycho-analytical world and a dramatic depiction of their (possible) "friendship" would be quite interesting.
Would I See It?: Quite Possibly

My Week With Marilyn
Starring: Michelle Williams, Eddie Redmayne, Kenneth Branagh

First Impressions: A movie about Marilyn Monroe while she was making the somewhat charming 1957 film The Prince and the Showgirl with Sir Laurence Olivier...interesting.  Michelle Williams looks gorgeous as the iconic blonde.  Branagh is the perfect choice to play Lord Larry.  And Tony-winner Eddie Redmayne seems to be in a star-making performance as the man who was Monroe's confidante and friend for that titular "week."  It is definitely an Awards-grabber (especially with Williams' rising Oscar profile receiving nods for Brokeback Mountain and Blue Valentine).
Would I See It?: Maybe

The Artist
Starring: Jean Dujardin, Berenice Bejo, John Goodman
First Impressions: It has already won fans at both the Cannes Film Festival and the Toronto Film Festival.  It is become so beloved by the early critics that this will certainly not be the last time we will hear this film's name over the next Awards season.
Would I See It?: Maybe