Monday, December 25, 2006


I've seen quite a lot of movies this holiday season, so here are some brief reviews:

"Deck the Halls," directed by John Whitesell, starring Danny DeVito and Matthew Broderick, released Nov. 22- Not as horrendously bad as one might have guessed, this silly tale about a man who wants his house to be seen from space might be worth watching on video, if everything else is checked out. Still, it has its moments, thanks mostly to the always enjoyable Kristin Chenoweth.

"Unaccompanied Minors," directed by Paul Feig, starring Lewis Black and Wilmer Valderrama, released December 8- An amusing pre-teen movie about a group of unaccompanied minors snowed in at the airport on Christmas Eve. Although the ending is predictably sentimental, this feel good film has enough bite to make it one of the better Christmas movies of its genre (especially compared to last year's "Cheaper by the Dozen 2").

"The Holiday," directed by Nancy Meyers, starring Kate Winslet, Jack Black, Cameron Diaz, and Jude Law, released Dec. 8- Due to a shortage of romantic comedies this holiday season, this film will have to do. Cameron Diaz and Kate Winslet switch apartments for the holidays in attempts to escape the men in their lives. Diaz still can't act and Law fails to humanize his perfect man of a character, but Black is surprisingly charming and Winslet is a believable everywoman. Cameos abound in some pretty clever scenes about the film industry.

"Night at the Museum," directed by Shawn Levy, starring Ben Stiller, Dick Van Dyke, and Robin Williams, released Dec. 22- This original story about a museum that comes to life at night is a great family film because it teaches children (and adults) the importance of history and museums. Noteable performances among the able star-studded cast include the spunky Mickey Rooney, Ricky Gervais as a David Brent-esque (but kinder and G-rated) museum director, and Owen Wilson and Steve Coogan as two hilarious miniatures.

"Pursuit of Happyness," directed by Gabriele Muccino, starring Will Smith and Jaden Christopher Syre Smith, released Dec. 15- Although there is already Oscar talk for Will Smith in his turn as poverty-stricken Chris Gardner, his son Jaden Smith steals the show as his on-sceen son. His chubby cheeks and sweet smile are enough to cause any Grinch's heart to grow three sizes.

"Dreamgirls," directed by Bill Condon, starring Jamie Foxx, Beyonce Knowles, Eddie Murphey, and Jennifer Hudson, released Dec. 25- This musical extravaganza is not without its faults (most notably the sometimes confusingly placed musical numbers), but the performances make it the best holiday film that I've seen this year. The buzz about Hudson's unfortgettable turn as Effie was founded as she has a powerful voice and can act on top of it (unlike Knowles). But if anybody is going to get an Oscar for the film, I'd predict the already established Murphey who could have a future in musical theatre if his comedy career falls through.

Sunday, December 17, 2006


Read my review in PopMatters of Ricardo Arjona's Theatre at Madison Square concert (just to clarify, the Theatre at Madison Square Garden is not the same as Madison Square Garden, it's an error on PopMatters, which I'm sure will be fixed shortly).

Here is my original version (I like this lede better):

Outside of the Hispanic community, few people have heard of Ricardo Arjona, but in Argentina his popularity is a phenomenon that can only be compared to Beatlemania. Forty-two year old Arjona (the artist’s more frequently used moniker), a Guatemalan singer-songwriter who has yet to break the North American market, is quickly becoming one of the most popular artists in Spanish-speaking countries. When he arrived at Ezeiza airport in Buenos Aires last September, he was mobbed by fanatics. His 34 shows at the theatre Luna Park in Buenos Aires sold out in just hours, breaking all ticket sale records in Argentina.

Arjona is currently in the middle of his most expansive North American tour to date. He has been selling out fairly large venues, including the Theatre at Madison Square Garden in New York City on Friday, Nov. 24 and Saturday, Nov. 25.

Arjona’s success can be attributed to the fact that his groundbreaking music, often lumped together with “Latin pop” or “world music,” characterized by political statements, sweeping orchestral ballads, songs about women and love, metaphoric language, and clever lyrics, transcends what people normally think of as “Latin music.” The Ricky Martins and Shakiras out there have great rhythms, but Arjona has something to say.

Born in Antigua, Guatemala, he learned guitar at a young age. His first career path was as a schoolteacher, but he began recording in 1988. Since then he has recorded over 11 albums, but it was not until approximately the year 2000 that he started to get noticed.

Although he has been successful on the Latin Billboard charts, his only albums to chart on the Billboard 200 were “Galeria Caribe” in 2000 which peaked at 136, and “Adentro” in 2005 which peaked at 126.

The New York concert on Nov. 25 proved that Arjona’s unprecedented popularity could translate to a North American audience. The concertgoers knew every lyric and were glued to their seats (except when they jumped up for their favorite songs).

The stage was set up like a subway station, giving the concert a theatrical look. At the beginning of the concert, images of a subway train flashed down the three screens over the subway platform. Arjona’s voice was heard offstage singing a haunting version of “Iluso” from his latest album, “Adentro” (which incidentally won the Latin Grammy for best male pop album). He was nowhere to be seen, but the screams from the audience were deafening.

His band came onstage one by one, but Arjona knows how to work a crowd and he built momentum by waiting until the second song, the ballad “Para Bien or Para Mal” from the same album, to arrive on a moving walkway.

His music is powerful and extremely personal, but it is easy to relate to, especially for the immigrants that made up most of his audience. He engaged in dialogue with his fans, speaking only in Spanish. He said, “Buenas noches, Nueva York,” and proceeded to address all the locations where concertgoers might have come from by saying buenas noches to every Spanish speaking country. His fans cheered when their home countries were named. He told his enraptured audience that he would play everything they wanted as well as what he wanted, and he delivered a comprehensive set list representing different stages of his career.

Throughout the show, he spoke about being poor, remembering when his dad bought a car. “Ustedes se acuerdan de esas cosas, verdad? (You remember these things, correct?)” he said. Images of President George W. Bush appeared on the monitors to jeers from the audience as he launched into “El Mojado,” a song off “Adentro” about illegal immigrants. He then sang “Si El Norte Fuera El Sur (If the North was the South),” from the album of the same name, a politically charged song dealing with the internal conflict between wanting to be in America and hating what it stands for, with lines like “Tienen todo pero nada lo han pagado (They have everything but they paid for nothing).”

Then there is his sex appeal. He has a ruggedly handsome face which he seldom shaves and a short ponytail, but women are most attracted to his lyrics. Although many of his songs are about being scorned by women, he obviously respects and loves the opposite sex. During “Desnuda (Naked)” off of “Sin Danos a Terceros,” the females in the audience almost swooned as he sang about how there is nothing more beautiful than a woman’s body. During his ode to older women, “Senora de las Cuatro Decadas (Woman of Four Decades),” off of “Historias,” he chose a woman in the audience (much to the jealousy of half of the rest of the audience) and sang the song to her as she wept.

Arjona’s poetic turns of phrase transform even the most basic statements into something profound. For example, in “Tu Reputacion (Your Reputation),” he sings, “Tu reputacion son las primeras seis letras de esa palabra.” That means, your reputation is the first six letters of that word, which are re puta (big slut). This does not come off as insulting as the lyrics proceed to say that if the past taught her to kiss him like that, blessed are the men who came before him.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, Arjona has a song off of “Santo Pecado” called “La Nena (The Girl).” The song is about a kidnapping of a young girl. When he sang it, he sat on a bench and stared at the floor, singing with mesmerizing passion. The images shown on the screen of a tied up girl were horrible to witness, and yet this was one of the most moving moments of the concert.

If his success in Argentina and the audience response at the Theatre at Madison Square Garden is any indication, Arjona has the potential to be the “next big thing.” Although his political messages might not sit well with some American audiences, many of his themes are universal.

Friday, December 08, 2006

So that's what all the fuss is about...

I'm a little slow on the internet bandwagon sometimes. I didn't download Napster until halfway through my freshman year of college (not that I ever downloaded music illegally, of course). I didn't even have my own e-mail address until college (before that I shared with my parents). So I've stayed away from the whole YouTube phenomenon except when we watch YouTube clips in popular music studies or when I have to pitch stories about YouTube for magazine editing. But I finally understand why it's so popular--they have everything you could ever want to see.

I had been thinking fondly about the PBS show "Ghostwriter" which ran from 1992 to 1995 and wishing I could watch it again. I did a YouTube search and I found several clips and some episodes. It was just as brilliant as I remembered and I also discovered that Samuel L. Jackson played Jamal's father. How crazy is that?

"Ghostwriter" was a show about a group of kids who solve mysteries with the help of their friend, Ghostwriter, who only they can see. Ghostwriter can't hear or talk, he can only read and write. As in any good show aimed at middle schoolers, there is plenty of G-rated romance and teen angst in addition to the educational value. An added bonus is the 90's slang.

For anyone who still remembers "Ghostwriter," here's something to whet your appetite:

Friday, December 01, 2006

Not Quite Practically Perfect, But Good Enough

Cameron Mackintosh, the mega-producer of such hits as "The Phantom of the Opera," "Cats," and "Les Miserables," and Disney, a powerful producer in its own right with "Beauty and the Beast" and "The Lion King," joined forces to co-produce the stage production of "Mary Poppins." It was sure to be a blockbuster, but it could have very easily become every stereotype of a big-budget, over-the-top corporate musical. The results turned out to be pleasantly surprising.

"Mary Poppins," directed by Richard Eyre, opened on Nov. 16 at the New Amsterdam Theatre, former home of the "Lion King" (now moved to the Minskoff Theatre). It originally opened in London two years ago and is based on the Disney musical film as well as the book by P.L. Travers.

For those unfamiliar with the story, Jane and Michael Banks are two well-intentioned children who get into mischief while trying to catch the attention of their father. They have trouble holding onto their nannies, much to the frustration of their parents, until Mary Poppins arrives to discipline them with the help of magic and sing-alongs. The musical is slightly darker than the film, with the marital troubles of Mr. and Mrs. Banks playing a more central role and the inclusion of a backstory about Mr. Banks childhood with a cruel nanny.

The star of the show is the Banks' house on Cherry Tree Lane, brilliantly designed by Bob Crowley with intricate details and a roof that rises to reveal the childrens' room and falls for the chimney sweep scenes.

Ashley Brown, plays the other star, Mary Poppins. She could never replace Julie Andrews, but the girl can sing. Her gentle, sweet voice is never forced or shrieky.

Even Brown was not as dynamic as Gavin Lee, direct from the London cast as Bert. As lanky and silly as Dick Van Dyke, he steals the show when he climbs the walls and dances upside-down in the toe-tapping number, "Step in Time."

Delaney Moro played Jane and Alexander Scheitinger played Michael in the Saturday matinee I attended (three children rotate in each role) and it was refreshing to see adorable children who could sing on key and act naturally.

Many of the classic songs by Richard and Robert Sherman, such as "Chim Chim Cher-ee," ""Feed the Birds," and of course, "A Spoonful of Sugar" were adapted for the show, and new ones were written by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe. The enchanting lullaby "Stay Awake" and the political "Sister Suffragette" were inexplicably left out, as was the character of Uncle Albert and the amusing "I Love to Laugh." One would think that the scene of characters floating in the air due to laughter would be a sure crowd-pleaser that Disney and Mackintosh would not have been able to resist.

Although most of the numbers were successfully brought to life with Bob Crowley's colorful costumes and Matthew Bourne's eye-popping choreography, "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious" fell flat. The clever lyrics were changed and the number took place in a strange shop run by Mrs. Corry, who does not appear in any other scene and has nothing to do with the rest of the show. The scene then unfolds into a lengthy spelling lesson.

The new numbers do fit in nicely with the originals. The best and most interesting is "Temper, Temper," in which the dolls come to life and rebel against the trouble, adding a much-needed aspect of creepiness amidst all the sugar.

Children and adults are awed by the final moments when Mary Poppins flies away on her umbrella. "Mary Poppins" may not be perfect, or even practically so, but it has enough jaw-dropping moments to amuse even the most cynical theatre-goers.

Another Novelty Eatery

Manhattan has the answer to any comfort food craving. In the mood for a peanut butter sandwich? Try Peanut Butter and Co. Like Macaroni and Cheese? Dine at S'MAC. Looking for a cupcake? Magnolia and Billy's Bakery are just a few options. Can't get enough rice pudding? Take a pilgrimage to Rice to Riches, located on Spring St. between Mott and Mulberry.

Rice to Riches is an ultra chic eatery that sells 18 flavors of rice pudding (the flavors change depending on the season).

Good luck trying to make a decision. At least the employees are friendly and patient, allowing customers to try as many flavors as necessary to make a final decision. I tried the sweet "secret life of pumpkin," the slightly disappointing "i'll take eggnog for $200 Alex," the heavenly "stubborn banana," and the deliciously rich "take me to tiramisu," before finally settling on "gingerbread joyride" with a hefty dollop of whipped cream. The winning feature of "Gingerbread joyride" was the pieces of gingerbread mixed in.

The treats are fairly pricey, ranging from $5 for an individual serving (plus extra for toppings) to $35 for a 10 person serving, but they are filling enough to be a suitable meal.

During the winter when it's too cold for ice cream, a nice bowl of rice pudding might be just the ticket.

For more information, visit the website