Mr. McGarry, You’ll Be Missed

 

In Loving Memory of John Spencer
20 December 1946 – 16 December 2005

 

“This guy’s walking down the street when he falls in a hole. The walls are so steep he can’t get out. A doctor passes by and the guy shouts up, ‘Hey you. Can you help me out?’ The doctor writes a prescription, throws it down in the hole and moves on. Then a priest comes along and the guy shouts up, ‘Father, I’m down in this hole can you help me out?’ The priest writes out a prayer, throws it down in the hole and moves on. Then a friend walks by, ‘Hey, Joe, it’s me can you help me out?’ And the friend jumps in the hole. Our guy says, ‘Are you stupid? Now we’re both down here.’ The friend says, ‘Yeah, but I’ve been down here before and I know the way out.’ “

 

~ Leo McGarry (John Spencer) from “The West Wing”

Real Friends are rare . . . just ask Harry.

Each Harry Potter adventure offers a great lesson.

In the latest cinematic installment of the popular Harry Potter series, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, winds of change blow new and exciting adventures for Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), Hermoine (Emma Watson) and Ron (Rupert Grint). They’re teenagers now and attitudes have altered; particularly about the opposite sex.

But bigger things are happening.

 

Hogwart’s School of Wizardry has been granted the distinction of holding the TriWizard Tournament where students over the age of 17 compete in daring (and death-defying) challenges. They must conquer fire-breathing dragons, swim murky waters and fight off prickly mermaids. Finally, they must enter a maze that challenges even one’s very own perception of truth and sanity.

 

 

Students who wish to participate enter their name into a goblet of fire and three will be chosen to represent each school of wizardry. Ah, but the Goblet of Fire spits out a fourth name, which is inevitably Harry Potter’s. It is one name too many and it baffles everyone at Hogwart’s. Harry is too young to compete at 14. The faculty’s hands are tied because the Goblet of Fire makes the rules and Harry is forced to compete in the tournament. Yet Harry swears he never entered his name. The mystery begins . . .

 

This twist causes a major riff between best friends Harry and Ron, and being forced between the two is Hermoine who grows tired of the bickering. Friendships are tested and this is just the beginning of dark and difficult times. Voldemort (fabulously portrayed by Ralph Fiennes), we come to discover, comes back in the flesh, and Harry is forced to face him alone . . . or so it seems.

 

The Harry Potter films get better and better as the kids grow older. I didn’t think Alfonso Cuaron’s Prisoner of Azkaban, the third installment in the franchise, could be topped.

 

I was wrong.

 

Goblet of Fire improves the franchise, beefs it up, and energizes what’s already strong about the Harry Potter films—it’s a fantasy world that seems all too real. All the characters, from faculty to students, all seem like someone we know (ourselves, perhaps) and the situations—grand and imaginative they may be—resonate with honesty. Harry, Ron and Hermoine now have to endure what we muggles had to endure–the awkwardness of growing up, our increasing attraction towards one another and all that being youthful encompasses. We learn that our beloved three wizards are just like us and they’re just like the friends we have.

 

The cinematic strength that the Harry Potter films all share is that it has melded such real and intense emotions and characterizations into a world completely magical and surreal. It collides these opposing forces together so beautifully and boy do we gaze in wonder at our screens as it all unfolds cinematically. Or better yet, magically. The only thing missing from the film is the majestic presence of composer John William’s memorable themes.

 

 

 

Perhaps the strength of these stories lie in the lesson in each adventure Harry takes. In the Sorcerer’s Stone, we learn through Harry’s initial journey into wizardry that we are to accept who we are.

 

In the Chamber of Secrets, Dumbledore reminds Harry (and the rest of us moviegoers) that it is not in our ability that shows us who we are but in our choices.

 

In the Prisoner of Azkaban, we learn that love, especially the love of your family, never fades.

 

Yet the lesson learned in Goblet of Fire is a propitious one, at least in our wondrous world—timely due to the season, of course, but more so appropriate as we look back at the end of the year at the ups-and-downs we encountered through our own personal journey.

 

Real strength doesn’t necessarily come from within. Strength, or as Dumbledore would call moral fiber, may come from those we hold dearly; our true friends.

 

We may feel like Harry as we take upon our lonely paths as we encounter our own personal dragons, swim murky waters and travel through our own dark mazes—but true friends don’t abandon, disappear or turn away.

 

Not by disagreement.

 

Not by convenience.

 

Not by misunderstanding.

 

Not by choice.

RATING: B+

This Ain’t Boheme

La Boheme has never been one of my favorite operas.

It’s melodramatic, much like most operas, and the plot is way too thin. Sure, it has its moments. Last time the SF Opera did Puccini’s opus, my parents and my sisters were glued to their seats while most of act one I enjoyed a Mojito at the lounge, occasionally slipping my way through the mezzanine to catch a glimpse of, oh, maybe Musetta’s Waltz or Ehi! Rodolfo!

La Boheme, as a dramatic piece apart from theatrics, doesn’t work. Or maybe it just takes too much effort to participate and enjoy.

This is the inherent problem of Rent, the musical/rock opera that’s now an uneven film by Chris Columbus. The basis material isn’t all that strong to begin with. Many would probably throw tomatoes at me but let’s face it; we’ve been serenaded by Puccini’s majestic compositions.

 

 

Rent, much like its inspiration, relies on the theatrics—heavily. It’s melodramatic and operatic on purpose, broad in movement and large on notes. When I performed the piece as Roger (Adam Pascal), the music and the vocal arrangements were heavy undertakings—and that’s for all the performers involved in the show.

Rent works best with a live audience cheering the piece on. On film, it has the sad distinction of sounding like one man clapping.

The weakness of the film lies in a director with no musical knowledge. As much as I’ve had the pleasure to meet the man, and be so involved in Rent and all it encompasses, Columbus was the wrong guy to do the film version. The original choice for director, Spike Lee would have made the film an event equivalent to its stage counterpart.

 

The performances aren’t the problem. All the original cast members sing, act, and dance the roles they’ve perfected to a higher level of greatness and Traci Thoms as Joanne shows she has what it takes to be with the originals. The weak spot in the cast is Rosario Dawson, who just isn’t as meaningful enough for me as Mimi. Mimi should have spunk but also be a genuine spirit. That character is the heart of the piece and sadly, she just doesn’t fit the role. When she sings to Roger that there is ‘no day but today,’ it isn’t a plea, it’s a prayer—to hang on to what we have, and to cherish those we love. Dawson’s Mimi makes it seem like any other day, when the whole point of the song is the exact opposite.

Understand that I’m trying to be as fair as possible with this review, considering I’ve seen the original cast, did the show, and was involved in the film version (even though it sure doesn’t seem like it after seeing the final cut).

Rent, by Jonathan Larson was and is an unfinished product. The charm of the piece came from its rough and frayed edges. To fine-tune it to film almost zaps the life out of it. A majority of the second act was rushed and cut out of the movie making the resolution so muddled. This was the biggest mistake Columbus did with the film—he tinkered with the course of the piece way too much to alter it, yet he kept the numbers much the way they are. Songs that shouldn’t have been cut were cut, and songs that could have been shaved a verse here and there were kept in tact.

 

Yet this also contributed to the success of the film. For the most part, he kept most of the songs and their arrangements in tact, and the songs have never sounded so glorious. The opening number, with all the tenants burning their rent agreements while belting out ‘we’re not going to pay rent’ brought me back to the Nederlander Theatre on Broadway and much of the Life Support scenes we’re translated so damn well on to the screen that I have to give Columbus credit for that.

 

 

Yet the best moment of the film in my opinion came from Collins (the always awesome Jesse L. Martin from Law & Order) as he heartbreakingly sings the “I’ll Cover You Reprise” with such gusto and honesty to Angel’s (Wilson Jermaine Heredia who won a Tony as Angel) coffin. I have to admit that this cinematic moment stood out from its theatrical rendition. On stage, it’s an exortation, on film it’s a cry for longing and it just brings into full circle the true theme of the piece, from Puccini’s to Jonathan Larson’s imperfect masterpiece—live life in love—amidst death and disease.

But maybe that is the true problem with the piece itself. Or maybe the film is ten years too late, considering we live in a society numbed by its surroundings. Ironically, that’s what the film—the musical tells us not to do—to numb ourselves from the harsh reality.

AIDS is still a problem, not just in Africa.

Tolerance is still an issue.

But we’ve become the very opposite of bohemia with our lattes and our weblogs. So maybe, Benny (Taye Diggs) was right.

Bohemia is dead.

Or coud it be that the message of Rent is too simple for a larger audience, much less a cynical and sarcastic society? Can we truly measure our life in love? Or maybe its too idealistic? Do we as an audience lack any kind of joie de vivre from such testaments to simple ideas? It couldn’t be that the piece is dated because the show is still going strong in New York.

But that’s New York. The show is very much about them. And let’s face it, they seem to be in tune to a lot of things over there.

I’ve come to the conclusion that the key to Rent, or even La Boheme for that matter, isn’t in the piece itself.

It is in our willingness to participate–wholeheartedly–in art that dares to challenge us.

Perhaps next time I see La Boheme at the Opera, I should hold off on that Mojito.

 

RATING: C+