July carried me along in a whirl of travel, visits, getaways, and many many forms of media -- what better way to commemorate all this sabbatical fun that with a trip to ReviewZapalooza?

* Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix - As an aperitif before the release of Book 7, this hit the spot. I am a fan of this book, although many think it's dull or (in the case of the author herself!) poorly edited. I'll grant that the action is a little slow, but I just love the fascist repression of Dolores Umbridge and the gloominess of the whole thing. That, of course, doesn't translate well to the screen, at least in a PG-13 way, so here onscreen we see a lot more rebellion than repression. The kids are all great, and I love the idea of watching these young actors continue to evolve along with their characters. The adults get short shrift -- Gary Oldman, Emma Thompson, Maggie Smith, and even the villains Imelda Staunton and Alan Rickman are lucky to string 5 lines of dialogue together, sigh. There are also some painfully awkward transitions between scenes, and the Harry-Cho romance is all but dropped. But the boffo opening and awesome finale sort of make up for it...and anyway, this is just a taste of what's to come, right? Extra points for Luna Lovegood! (B+)

* Sicko - I went to see this at the behest of my sister, who is a social worker in a strapped regional hospital working with mostly geriatric Medicare patients. We sat in the suburban NJ theater surrounded by a curiously homogenous audience -- lots of couple in their late 50's, the wives coiffed, the husbands tanned and bespectacled, tenting their fingers and frowning at the screen. Yup, it was full of doctors! Ah, the irony. Michael Moore's latest is a step up from his usual play-dumb screed, and the reason is simple: what kind of counter-argument in favor of the US healthcare system could one possibly make? It's an awful mess, and everybody knows it: hard to find partisan rancor on that point. Moore studiously interviews a number of hapless Americans caught in the wheels of BigMed/BigPharm/BigInsurance, yet allows the cruelty and greed of the system to speak for itself rather than hammering it home with questions and badgering. The stories are sad enough on their own. Or, once he starts globetrotting to various national health systems abroad, sunny enough -- we hear average folks not quite singing the unalloyed praises of, but acknowledging the advantages of socialized medicine in Canada, Britain, France, and Cuba (!). Sure, Moore tends to allude to points that he never explores -- he sets up a query about the high French tax rate that supports their mindbogglingly comprehensive social services, from ER housecalls to state-subsidized nannies, but then never actually asks the sample couple how much they are taxed; apparently we are to infer from their comfy apartment that 60% is not all that painful a pinch. He also willfully sidesteps the possibility that his entire experience in Cuba, accompanied by ailing rescue workers from the WTC site, was staged for his benefit. But in the end, even his hammy impulses can't obscure the raw deal at the heart of our system -- it's just about money, not health or care. Sick, indeed. Extra points for the low-key socialist rebuke delivered by the London physician who points out that he can make a reasonably deluxe living with the NHS, while in the US doctors "who might want 3 or 4 nice cars, and a 5 or 6 bedroom house" are really part of the problem. Touche! (A-)

* Evening - And what an evening it was: I wound up seeing this movie off the cuff, accompanied by my mom and a young visiting Marianist brother from India, on his first trip abroad! He was game, even though we told him it was a chick flick...and boy, was it a chick flick. Despite the drippy reviews, I was willing to take a chance on some good performances, and was half-rewarded. Adapted by the same dude who inflicted The Hours on the world, the story flicks back and forth in time, as Vanessa Redgrave's addled mind drifts back to her youth as she lies dying. In the past, she was Claire Danes, and oh what times she had! I enjoyed that whole thread very much -- Danes and Mamie Gummer (aka Meryl Streep's daughter) had a winning energy as college friends, one bohemian, the other about to marry into WASP oblivion. Hunky Patrick Wilson plays the lost love, or maybe cad, and the whole thing just had a nice Gatsbyish feel. The present day, however, was best ignored -- Natasha Richardson and an unusually grating Toni Collette play Redgrave's quarrelling daughters, and they seemed trapped in a filmed rehearsal, tinny and unpleasant. Meryl herself appears and mercifully drowns them out for a moment, playing Gummer all grown up, and what a marvel to see her actually playing not just the character, but playing her daughter playing the character -- she subtly held her mouth and body as her daughter does, which, although their family resemblance is striking, is different enough to matter. But casting can't make up for everything...in the end, this is just a slightly fancier version of The Notebook. Not that there's anything wrong with that. A few extra points for Eileen Atkins as the Kushner-esque Night Nurse. (C+)

* Spring Awakening - I almost can't believe it, but I liked this show more than RENT. And I was an original RENT-head back in the day, believe me. The two Broadway sensations share some basic DNA (adolescent yearning set to a pulsing pop-rock score) and both deserve their many accolades. But RENT is a little coy, since it's essentially a cover of La Boheme. Spring Awakening is more like a revival, but with a Frankensteinian twist -- what if we exhumed and electrified the corpse of a 19th century German morality play, and to our surprise it cried real tears and sang like, well, Duncan Sheik? Wait, that doesn't sound right. I'll admit that for the first 10 minutes or so, I was skeptical -- the stage is bare, the band sits upstage in jeans and black tshirts, several rows of audience members sit mixed in with the cast in the wings, and there are multicolor neon tubes and various ephemera hanging all over the theater. The cast kids tromp on in dour grey pinafores and knickers, and everyone is named Herr Schtiffel and Frau Grabbetz and so forth. But then...then! It all clicks. The music pushes the story out in front of the costumes and wacky, downtown staging (like the deflowering scene set on a suspended wooden platform). Teenagers weren't invented alongside American Idol, David Cassidy, Frank Sinatra, Romeo, Juliet, or even Nefertiti -- their solipsistic desires and nubile, naive hopes, twere always thus. The kids in the story are up against the 1890's German version of the "wah-WAH-WAH-wah" adults of Peanuts, just more emotionally repressive -- no sex, no drugs, no rock n' roll, just Latin drills and vague yearnings, caught up in an onrush of hormones and idealism. The songs are meant to be interior monologues -- none are sung to another cast member, but instead out into the audience. This gives the show great frankness, and it's hard to look away as the youngsters give into their urges, and then live to regret it. What can I say -- it blew me away! (A)

* Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows - All's well that ends well, right? :) I am still crushed that Hedwig had to die...sigh. But what a wild, brilliant ride. Surmounting inhuman expectations, JKR delivered a lasting, satisfying ending...bravo! Extra points for Hermione saving everyone's bacon many times over, before getting her man. (A+)

* A Midsummer Night's Dream - This year's free Shakespeare production on the Boston Common was plagued by scandal before it even opened. They should've waited to see the costumes. Imagine if the drag show at the end of Priscilla Queen of the Desert had a Midsummer theme...and a blinding dayglo color scheme. Never was the comic relief of Bottom and his players so sorely needed: neither the fairies' frippery or the dull young lovers held our interest, but the Pyramus and Thisbee was amusing. Let's hope for bigger budgets and smaller egos next summer. (C)

* The Simpsons Movie - I know it sounds negative to say it was just like a 90-minute-long episode of the show, but with The Simpsons that's a good thing! I can honestly say I laughed pretty much throughout the whole frickin' thing -- the writers were on their A game, although sorely lacking musical inspiration this time (no "Monorail"-level tunes, alas). The plot had a message yet had time for plenty of Simpsonian visual puns, surreal meanderings, and what everyone's been waiting for, hard core nudity! Highlights included Green Day playing down the Titanic, Bart's fancy cocoa, Maggie leading the way through the sinkhole, and Boob Lady. Can't wait for the rerun...er, DVD release. (A+)

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