Wednesday, May 25, 2011

'The Chinese Massacre (Annotated)': I came, I saw, I actually learned something

Last weekend I attended the Circle X Theatre Co.'s production of 'The Chinese Massacre (Annotated)' at the Atwater Village Theatre. Written by acclaimed Los Angeles playwright Tom Jacobson and based on a historical incident, the play is set against the backdrop of a shameful, horrific incident in Los Angeles history – the 1871 mob lynching of 18 Chinese men and boys.

Badly versed in history that I am, I wasn't even aware of the incident that the play is based on and was intrigued enough to want to learn more about it. I found this video that discusses that harrowing night:

Further adding to my status as an unprepared theatergoer, I didn't even know what 'annotated' meant in regards to the play, but discovered that it consisted of actors narrating parts of the action taking place on stage with historical facts or just personal insights. (As one narrator put it, they were similar to footnotes that you couldn't skip over.) The author intended these passages as a way to distance the viewer from the events taking place on stage, so that one interpreted them with their head as opposed to their heart. It took some getting used to at first, but this meta device became one of my favorite aspects of the play and I thought it added another dimension to the story. Then again, I'm one of those people that actually reads footnotes and instruction manuals from cover to cover.

I'm not a theater reviewer (*stating the obvious*) but as I've said about abstract art and about things wrapped in bacon, "I know what I like." I enjoyed the play, the clever staging and the outstanding performances by the actors. But more importantly I appreciated how it brought this historical event into the consciousness of me and everyone in the audience that night. A fitting way to spend an evening during Asian Pacific Heritage Month.

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'The Chinese Massacre (Annotated)' plays through Saturday, May 28.  Click here for more information and to purchase tickets.

Atwater Village Theatre is located at:
3269 Casitas Ave., LA CA 90039.

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'Kung Fu Panda 2' finds inner peace. Me, not so much.

Last week I was invited to a screening at DreamWorks Animation for a preview of the upcoming animated feature 'Kung Fu Panda 2'. There was fighting, betrayal, and the triumph of good over evil. But enough about the the post-screening blogger luncheon and the brawl over the last panini – let me tell you my thoughts about the movie.

'Kung Fu Panda 2' is definitely a worthy sequel to the first film, although slightly darker in tone. The writing is crisp, funny and sophisticated while still being appropriate for kids. The animation is gorgeous (the movie is in 3D, although we screened a 2D version.) There is an adoption storyline that, while heartwarming, is intense as it deals with issues of abandonment and loss so anyone touched by adoption should be forewarned. But kids (and adults) will still love it as much as they loved the first film.

Will I recommend it to my friends? I'm still on the fence about that and I'll tell you why after a quick rundown of the plot.

This latest installment picks up where the last one left off with Po the Panda (voiced by Jack Black) using his newly-earned status as Dragon Warrior to seek out and defeat a new villain, the evil peacock Lord Shen (Gary Oldman). Po gets help beating on the bad guys from his band of loyal kung fu master friends led by the Tigress (Angelina Jolie), while Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman) continues to lead our panda friend on his spiritual journey, this time on a quest for inner peace. At the heart of the new story is Po's search for his origins that provide some touching sequences involving a baby Po. By touching I mean everyone was crying during these scenes, and how often does a cartoon make you cry? (Unless you count The Simpsons episodes that get all, 'Nothing's better than family!" I can't stop the waterworks whenever Homer and the kids hug.)

Now here's my uneasy feeling about the film. The fact that the story takes place in China, where the characters are supposed to be Chinese (albeit in animal form) and the main characters are voiced by non-Asians is a problem for me. I'm aware that it's an animated film, but the actors voicing the characters are as big a part of the film (and as widely publicized) as their animated counterparts. And during a time when whitewashing seems to be a trend, as grossly demonstrated by 'The Last Airbender' and the upcoming 'Akira', the omission of Asian actors in the lead roles is starkly apparent to me.

No one's saying Jack Black should have been replaced for the sequel – I get the value of having a proven, big-name actor in the lead. But Angelina Jolie's part could have just as effectively (if not more so) been played by Lucy Liu, who ended up having a smaller role in the film. (Liu was a Charlie's Angel so we already know she could kick some serious ass.) And no disrespect to Gary Oldman, but his villain could have been played with much more authenticity by James Hong, (or, in a timely and brilliant piece of casting - George Takei) And here's a question for Angelina, who has a son adopted from Vietnam and another from Cambodia: Wouldn't you love for your kids to see faces like their own, featured in the movies you take them to see?

Maybe my discontent is magnified because I just had the good fortune (no pun intended) of recently seeing two outstanding productions (The Chinese Massacre and Krunk Fu Battle Battle) consisting of predominately Asian casts that highlighted what a vast pool of talented Asian actors that are out there. Could be I'm still cranky from the exhaustive period following the catastrophic Japan quake and tsunami, and the inexplicable amount of anti-Japanese and anti-Asian racism that reared its ugly head. Or maybe I'm just tired of seeing Hollywood consistently shortchange Asian actors when it comes to giving them fair representation in mainstream media.

Look, I'm not calling for a boycott of the film - in fact I'm sure you'll love it and my own kids probably will, too. I just think that Dreamworks missed a valuable opportunity to do something extraordinary here, during this Asian Pacific Heritage Month, to roll out a film that bucked the trend of whitewashing and demonstrate the innovative and forward thinking they're known for. As it stands, that inner peace that Po was searching for? Something tells me I'll have to look somewhere other than 'Kung Fu Panda 2' to find it.

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'Kung Fu Panda 2' opens on Thursday, May 26 and is rated PG

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Friday, May 20, 2011

'Krunk Fu Battle Battle' Will Make You Want To Dance Dance

Wednesday night I was lucky enough to be invited to East West Players for the opening of their latest production, 'Krunk Fu Battle Battle,' and I can emphatically say it was one of the most fun, energetic live shows I've seen in a long time. (Although I should qualify my statement with, "which didn't feature anyone I was related to," since my daughter's high school production of 'Moulin Rouge' ranks first. Until my other daughter's school's upcoming production of 'Tommy,' that is.)

But enough with the nepotism! (Tickets can be purchased for both my daughter's productions through me, however.)

(Cash, checks and credit cards accepted.)

I would describe 'Krunk Fu Battle Battle' as the plot of 'Grease', transposed, set to a hip-hop beat and starring Asians. (I mean that in a good way. I love 'Grease'. And Asians.) A new kid in town, in this case young Norman Lee, competes with the school badass and his b-boy crew for the heart of the sweet, salty Cindy Chang. And what better way to settle the score than with a tightly choreographed, exhilarating, jaw-dropping dance-off? I guarantee it makes John Travolta and Olivia Newton John look like they're standing still.

While the story is certainly one that's been told before, the dancing and the infectious energy in this production is what sets it apart, and judging by the middle-aged man sitting next to me who was on his feet and doing a modified Dougie the entire time, the performers were clearly connecting with the audience. Be prepared to want to dance, sing, and as my husband commented, start working out and stop eating carbs.

(One technical note: I think the volume of the performers and the music could have been much louder. With the type of music used and the setting, turning up the volume could have enveloped the audience even more.)

I'm planning to see 'Krunk Fu Battle Battle' again, and this time I'm bringing my teenage daughters because they'll go crazy over the show's blend of hip-hop dance and club music, but also because it affords them the chance to see Asian performers on stage. In this era of The Last Airbender, Akira and even an upcoming major animated release where whitewashing is unfortunately the trend, 'Krunk Fu Battle Battle' (and all EWP productions) give Asian performers a much-needed opportunity to be seen and heard, and not just in stereotypical roles like the measly few afforded them in film and TV roles. I don't want my kids thinking that their future performing careers depend on their ability to look convincing in thick glasses, play the violin or save the world with an abacus.

And while the show does feature the standard restaurant and dry cleaner owners, it's done here with irony. These heroes are tough, confident, outspoken individuals who, for once, are using their voices and their talents to be heard and recognized. And in this case, their awesome breakdancing gets the girl.

'Krunk Fu Battle Battle' is playing now thru June 26. Click here for more info and to purchase tickets.

8pm Wednesdays thru Saturdays, 2pm. Sundays

David Henry Hwang Theater
at the Union Center for the Arts
(Little Tokyo, downtown L.A.)
120 Judge John Aiso Street,
Los Angeles, CA 90012

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Monday, May 16, 2011

Giveaway! 'Pirates Of The Caribbean: On Stranger Tides'

As you might have heard, some little film called Pirates Of The Caribbean: On Stranger Tides is opening this Friday, March 20. I hear it stars some guy named Johnny Depp that's got my teenage daughters all in a hizzy. Take a look at the new movie – it looks awesome and has lots of pirates and boats:

I don't know about you, but the hardest thing about going to the movies is deciding what to wear. Lucky for you the generous, swashbuckling people at Disney have solved that and have given me a 'Pirates' t-shirt and bandana to give away. Also, some temporary tattoos. (Don't laugh – some of us have mothers who won't let us get real ones.)

Check it out – it's pirate's booty! (Man, I've been waiting forever to use that in a post.)

Also, I'm throwing this in on my own, but only if you live within driving distance of me and I'm going to be seeing you in person sometime soon so that I don't have to spend five-dollars sending a bag worth $1.99:

Here's how to win: In lieu of the predictable "Tell me your favorite 'Pirates' movie" requirement, I've decided to change it up a little. Leave me a comment with your best fake meeting-Johnny-Depp moment. Maybe you were at the supermarket reaching for the lamb chops and Johnny's hand brushed up against yours. Or perhaps you were at Ikea, and you and Johnny locked eyes over the HOVÅS footstool. Then again, maybe it was totally sleazy and Johnny walked in while you were wrapped around a pole at the Kitty Klub and handed over a twenty. Don't worry, I don't judge.

What I will do is pick the top three best comments, and then use to pick a winner. Or, maybe I'll get Johnny to do it when he stops by to fix my refrigerator.

Leave your fake Johnny Depp story here before midnight on Monday, May 23. One comment per person, and make sure you leave me a valid email address. (Sorry, only US and Canada, please.)

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Monday, May 9, 2011

Healthy Choice: My lunch needs a makeover

Here's a typical eating scenario that takes place during my day: I start off pretty good, eating a healthy breakfast of cereal or oatmeal (with tons of coffee, of course, just to offset all that healthiness.) Sometimes I'll get crazy and have an egg, but usually it's whatever my kids are having since that would be what is already out on the counter and doesn't require any extra energy to prepare. Some call it lazy, I call it efficient.

Then, around 3 or 4 o'clock I'll start to get really hungry. Why? Because I suddenly realize that I forgot to eat lunch. Not skipped lunch, but just completely forgot to eat with all the craziness of my day. And because it's so late I'll start to panic and just grab whatever I can in the kitchen. Sometimes it's a piece of bread, or a muffin, or a handful of chips. If we've just had a party at our house – look out, since I may just grab a cupcake or a leftover piece of birthday cake. You don't want to know what I had for lunch the day after a Super Bowl party.

So when I was asked to sample some Healthy Choice frozen meals, I thought, why not? I figured it might be a way to find something that could be whipped up quickly if I forgot to eat, and might inspire me to actually get on some sort of schedule so that I ate at a reasonable time like most normal humans do. Also, I'd been wanting to drop a few pounds so eating a portion-controlled meal at a sensible hour seemed like a good plan all around. Which is more than I can say for that 4pm cupcake lunch.

I have had Healthy Choice meals before and to be honest I think I just bought them because of the word 'healthy' in the title, and didn't realize that using that word means the product is actually held to a higher nutritional standard set by the FDA. (In other words, I don't think I could call yesterday's lunch of espresso and a Pop Tart 'healthy'.) Healthy Choice is the only major brand in its category that can call 100% of its products “healthy” as defined by the FDA. This means that each meal must be:

1. Low in fat
2. Low in saturated fat
3. Controlled in sodium and cholesterol
4. Supply at least 10% of the daily value for three beneficial nutrients (calcium, protein, fiber, iron, vitamin A or vitamin C)

Here are the two meals I chose to sample, how I liked them and if I'll be putting them in my freezer to get my lunch plan on track.

I enlisted  my 13-year-old sample the Chicken Parmigiana with me, since she never met a pasta she didn't like, and this chicken was served on a bed of penne. We were both surprised at how good this was. I was anticipating a dry, rubbery piece of chicken like you would expect with a frozen meal, but this one was actually pretty moist and the light breading was seasoned nicely and didn't overwhelm. The sauce wasn't too sweet, and the penne wasn't overcooked - again, not what you would expect from a frozen meal. I would definitely buy this one again – the only drawback was that I had to share it with my daughter.

My next meal, Sweet and Spice Orange Zest Chicken, came from the Healthy Choice Café Steamers line. The idea is that the food steams in your microwave for a healthier meal. I understand the health benefits if you're steaming fresh ingredients, but with a frozen meal the food has already been cooked so without knowing how the food was originally prepared, I'm not sure if there is any extra health benefit here.

But steamed or not, I found this meal to be a little lacking in flavor. The sauce was overly sweet, the rice overcooked and I found the dish to be just bland in general. The best part about it were the snap peas, which had retained their crispness and sweetness despite being frozen. I'm curious to try the General Tso's Spicy Chicken which may have a little more kick to it.

We've all heard before about the obesity epidemic in our country that is threatening our health and that of our children. (Center for Disease Control (CDC) says two-thirds of American adults are overweight or obese) Healthy Choice sent along some research that shows that replacing 10 meals per week with a portion-controlled Healthy Choice meal, as part of a reduced calorie diet, can lead to weight loss, increase of energy and improved dietary quality.

It isn't likely that I'd eat (or feed my family) 10 frozen food meals a week, but I've always been a firm believer in portion control as a weight loss method and this shows me Healthy Choice meals could also be a part of my diet plan. (Their portion prevented me from stuffing myself with chicken parmigiana, for example.) Also, knowing that these meet the FDA requirements for a 'healthy' designation makes them a smarter choice than most for the occasional lunch.

I am on a mission to healthy up my lifestyle and that of my family, though, and in addition to eating a sensible lunch (at a reasonable time) I'm also vowing to get us out exercising as a family more often and to buy and eat more organic food. Healthy Choice meals can help me with at least one of those goals, as long as I remember to eat it at the right time. If they could make a frozen entree that came with an alarm clock it would be a perfect world.

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I received coupons for two Healthy Choice items to purchase for purposes of this review. I also received a stipend for my participation in this program, but no restrictions were placed on the content of my review. All opinions are 100% mine. 

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Monday, May 2, 2011

Disney's 'Prom': Like your prom, minus the hangover

Last week I was invited to a screening of Disney's 'Prom,' although to be honest it wasn't exactly at the top of my list of movies to see. In fact, my 15-year-old didn't want to go at all, and my 12-year-old decided to come along and ask two of her friends only after she found out the screening was being held at a theater where they had previously seen a really cute boy working at the concession stand. I'm not making this up.

I had seen the previews of 'Prom' and guessed it might be mostly unwatchable for me - I was really going just to gauge the reaction of my daughter and her friends, the intended demographic. I was looking forward to just sitting in the dark for ninety minutes with my tub of buttery popcorn, and the girls were looking forward to taking a really long time ordering and paying for their popcorn while subtly flipping their hair.

As it turns out, we all enjoyed the movie. Not making that up, either.

While it's a given that a Disney prom will be a far cry from a real prom, that's exactly what makes this movie so charming. No one was sneaking off to chug champagne in the bathroom or smoke a clove cigarette behind the gym (you know who you are.) And while the movie has been criticized for its lack of edge, in this case the absence of cynicism and snark was a welcome relief - can't some nice kids just go to the prom and have a good time? I was relieved when no one ended up passed out under the bleachers or pregnant by the track coach at the end of the movie.

Another surprise - the filmmakers made a real attempt at making the movie inclusive and avoiding stereotypes for the most part. There's even an Asian girl who isn't president of the Math Club and who doesn't wear thick glasses or talk with an accent! The result is an eclectic, interesting cast of characters that still maintain their wholesome charm. (Even the resident stoner is never seen partaking in anything except for excessive snacking – he might just be high on Doritos.) Disney's 'Prom' is one where misfits, oddballs and the not-so-perfect – as well as the beautiful and near-perfect – can still have that magical night at the end of the school year. Corny, yes, but not such a bad message for tweens and teens to hear.

My daughter and her friends didn't end up seeing their Snack Stud behind the counter, but they'd forgotten about him by the time the movie started because of this guy, a Johnny Depp lookalike who plays the campus not-so-bad-boy with a heart of gold:

They deemed him 'hot' – and judging by the sighs and squeals when he took off his shirt to reveal his biceps - all the other tween girls did, too. (He wasn't completely bare chested - he still had on a tank top. This is Disney, after all.)

Unfortunately, Disney timed the release of 'Prom' horribly, as two days after seeing the movie the Royal Wedding took place and my daughter and her friends immediately forgot about both snack dude and Depp 2.0 and had moved on to this:

Man, tween girls are a fickle bunch. Take note, Disney.

Although, knowing them they're probably already working on a movie about William's rakish younger brother and his exploits at the wedding, maybe a sequel to one of their biggest hits. 'Prince Diaries' coming soon to a theater near you? My tween and her friends will be there.

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