December 24th, 2013


On Tuesday, December 17th, we went to see "Frozen" the new Disney animated film. It is properly labeled as "Inspired by Han Christian Andersen's 'The Snow Queen'", since it is an entirely different story, although the roots can be seen if you know Andersen.*

That said, it's a very good movie, and we enjoyed it a lot. The picture is designed for 3-D and has lots of computer generated graphics to give three-dimensional shape effects, even for the people, which puts it a bit into the "uncanny valley" for me--. Seeing the cartoony designed characters, including the anime-eyed princesses, looking 3-D just seems strange to me. However, as I got involved with the story, I got used to it.

The plot concerns the two princesses of a northern European-style kingdom-perhaps something equivalent to Finland, since there are reindeer. The elder, Elsa (voice by Idina Menzel), was born with uncanny powers over cold, ice, and snow. This delights her younger sister, Anna (Kristin Bell), since they can play in snow any time, even in the castle ballroom in summer. When Anna is accidentally injured by Elsa's power while playing, their parents' over-reaction drives Elsa into a life of fearful isolation and causes a seemingly unbridgeable rift between the sisters. Elsa's mantra "don't feel, conceal," as she tries to hide her power rather than learning to deal with it, strikes a deep chord: she is every adolescent trying to hide the fact that he or she is, or feels, "different."

Of course things can't go on this way, and the traumatic incident when the truth comes out sets up the rest of the drama of the story, which is simple, but nicely done and with a couple of good plot twists. As typical for a Disney fairy-tale adaptation, it has songs, which are generally OK. Most were a bit too "pop" for my taste, but when I see a "costume drama" I instinctively expect to hear music that goes with the ambiance a bit more. The best song is Elsa's "Let It Go," in which she attempts to bid farewell to her former life and embrace her new, even more solitary, existence as the Snow Queen.

There is the obligatory funny sidekick character, Olaf the snowman (Josh Gad) brought to life as a side effect of Elsa's power, who isn't too annoying, and has a poignant musical number in which he wonders what the wonders of summer would be like. On the other hand, the animal sidekick, Kristoff's reindeer, Sven, is quite charming, especially when Kristoff (Jonathan Groff) is talking for both of them.

I must say that the Disney scripters could give some lessons to other action-movie writers: there is an action-filled crisis sequence at the climax of the movie which is fast-paced and NOT TOO LONG, unlike the forty-five minute battles that seem to conclude most adventure films these days.

The movie also is pretty to look at, with the capital city and palace being very nice, and the number, variety, and believability of the ice and snow effects impressive. I was particularly struck by the opening sequence with the ice harvesters. It's a nice setting piece, and the ice blocks are limpidly clear.

"Frozen" has justly earned is box-office success and critical acclaim, and is well worth seeing a second time.

*If you do want to see a good adaptation of "The Snow Queen" in film, I highly recommend the 1957 Russian version. Good animation for its day, beautiful design, and the English dub had a good voice cast. I saw this as a child, and it has stuck with me as much as the Disney "Snow White" or other classics have.

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Milwaukee Rep, “Noises Off”

On Friday, December 20th, we went to the Powerhouse Theatre of the Milwaukee Rep to see “Noises Off,” a farce by Michael Frayn.

I’ve never actually been that great a fan of the farce form, so I wasn’t surprised that I didn’t find it as wonderfully funny as other local critics. Let me hasten to say that this is not the fault of the production: the cast and crew did an admirable job in all ways. The faults, if any, lie with the script itself.

The structure of the play is unusual. In the first act, we see the dress rehearsal of the first act of a stereotypical British farce called “Nothing On.” In the second act, we see the same act, as it is performed a month later, but our viewpoint is from backstage. The third act is the same act performed two months after that, and we are once again out front as the audience.

The play is performed by what, if it is not the world’s most dysfunctional theater company, is a strong contender for the title. Besides the unlikely incidence of mental defects in a company totaling nine people, there are two different love triangles, one of which (it is somewhat ambiguous) may have morphed into a quadrangle before play’s end.

On the one hand, I can see the play’s attraction for theatre people: it concatenates every dumb thing that happens in the theatre into one litany of disasters, and just about anyone watching can, at some point, say, “been there, done that.” (in my case, such incidents included halting a rehearsal while a lost contact lens is searched for on stage, among others--.) For me, at least, the fun palls. Georgie suggested that my dissatisfaction at seeing a performance wrecked, even in fun, may be similar to her reaction to “comic” moments in which the wedding cake is destroyed. It just raises the hackles.

The first act is the hellish rehearsal that’s run way over time. Everyone is tired, bored, and distractible, and the director (Lloyd Dallas) getting increasingly irritable as lines, entrances, and props are all dropped.

In the second act, there’s an outbreak of jealousy among the entangled lovers, which leads to an epidemic of bad behavior, childishness, and spite that threatens to sink the show that we can hear barely holding together on the other side of the set.

The third act is a paean to the classic Murphy’s Laws: 1) Anything that can go wrong, will. 2) Of any number of things that can go wrong, the one that will is the one that does the most damage. 3) Once something has gone wrong, any attempt to fix it makes it worse. That is essentially the plot of the third act, as a plate of oily sardines (supposedly a running gag in “Nothing On”) is dropped on stage and sets off a cascade of escalating disasters.

I concede that the play is tightly and sometimes cleverly written, and the cast managed its very demanding timing flawlessly. There really were fine performances by Laura Gordon as the veteran character actress slipping into senility, Joe Dempsey as the manipulative director, Gerard Nugent as the leading man, Kelley Faulkner as the ditsy ingénue, Sara Zientek as the neurotic stage manager, Aaron Christensen as the comic older man, Deborah Staples as the actress who is the company “mother’ and fix-it person, Joe Boersma as the tech crew, and Jonathan Gillard Daly as the dipsomaniacal and mostly deaf supporting actor.

There was impressive and sometimes dangerous physical comedy delivered by Nugent, Christensen, and Deborah Staples, whose frantic dashing around backstage trying to keep the show on track reminded me of Truffaldino in “The Servant of Two Masters.”

The cast members also made a good distinction between their characters when “on” and when “off” with differing accents and delivery. This was particularly well done by Mr. Christensen, who had a distinct “north country” accent as his “normal” voice, but a more typical British stage voice when “in character.”

So, it was a very interesting evening at the theatre, watching a company of actors I like masterfully present a play I didn’t care that much for. Yes, I laughed quite a bit, but winced a bit more. I guess I would just have to say that “Noises Off” was just not my “cup of tea.”

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