Academy Awards: A Star Should Be Born: Auli'i Cravalho's Unstoppable Performance

There is a lot that can and should be said about the Academy Awards on Sunday. It's wonderful that Moonlight won Best Picture. Despite winning Best Actor, Casey Affleck received an icy, at best, response from anyone he attempted direct contact with throughout the ceremony. Jimmy Kimmel's worst bit--bringing "tourists" into the Kodak Theatre--is mercifully overshadowed by the chaos of the Best Picture announcement. 

But, for me, the biggest takeaway is what should be a young actor's a star is born moment.

After a brand new intro written and composed by Lin-Manuel Miranda, 16-year-old Moana star Auli'i Cravalho took to the stage to sing "How Far I'll Go." This was Cravalho's debut performance in a film and it was a voice-acting role. For many, this is the first time she will be seen live, in the flesh, and it's on Hollywood's biggest night. That's a lot of pressure.

Then a few minutes into the performance, one of the backup dancers hits her in the head with a large prop and she doesn't even flinch. She doesn't miss a note, doesn't get flustered, a delivers the best song performance of the night.

Cravalho is already an unflappable pro at 16. If that performance does not sway casting directors for film, television, and theater to give her a chance, the industry isn't just.

Thoughts on the Academy Award Nominations

The big story for me is still the Academy Award nominations and what they actually mean for the state of entertainment.

Spoiler alert: We still have a LONG way to go.

This is the first time since I began writing about film professionally over ten years ago that I face a specific dilemma about the Oscar nominations. There are two major contenders for Best Picture and other big ticket categories I refuse to watch. 

I firmly believe that we, as a cinema viewing audience, need to take a stand with our wallets. If we blindly support films helmed by problematic people, we continue their careers far longer than they should last.

It's not that I have no interest in the plots or subject of Manchester by the Sea and Hacksaw Ridge; I have no interest in supporting the careers of Casey Affleck and Mel Gibson.

Mel Gibson's circumstances are better known. I haven't supported his work since his aggressive, anti-semitic and incredibly sexist tirade against the police. "Sugar tits" is iconic for being such an absurd attempt at getting out of trouble, but it points to greater issues with his level of respect for women; Passion of the Christ told you everything you needed to know about his attitude towards Jewish people.

Casey Affleck's issue is, sadly, not as well-publicized and points to major issues with attitudes in Hollywood and the Academy Awards. He was accused of sexually and verbally harassing women on the set of I'm Still Here, that awful Joaquin Phoenix not-documentary from 2010. That's not okay and should give people pause on supporting his work as more reports of a continued pattern of behavior emerge.

Now this is hardly the first time the Academy Awards looked past terrible behavior from privileged white men to reward work in film; Roman Polanski didn't win his Best Director Oscar until decades after her fled the United States to escape jail time for statutory rape charges. What is troubling is another could-be Oscar contender that became DOA because of similar abuse allegations.

Sundance buzz does not always equate to Oscar gold; it's not a common occurrence. Yet, the rapturous reviews for writer/director/star Nate Parker's The Birth of a Nation seemed guaranteed to set up momentum for awards season. The quality of the film is pretty inconsequential when the narrative is right and Parker had it all in the bag. 

Then his court record from the 1990s emerged and destroyed his career before the film's wide release. Parker and a teammate were accused of raping an intoxicated student while they were in college. Parker claimed the sex was consensual, while his victim said she was drunk and therefore couldn't consent. Non-consensual sex is rape, period. Parker was acquitted on the charges while his teammate was found guilty (and appealed the decision and had the case thrown out by prosecutors).

How is it that Nate Parker, a black actor, had his career destroyed by decades old charges while Casey Affleck, a white actor, had much more recent charges ignored to lead him to potential Oscar gold? 

It's not just the abuse narrative and Oscar campaigns that connect these two stories. Parker and Affleck both were incredibly dismissive and said tone deaf things about the allegations against them while promoting their films. The difference is entertainment writers actively pursued the story for Parker and largely let it slide away for Affleck. That's an interesting choice.

It seems writers weren't, as a whole, really willing to go after Casey Affleck until after Mel Gibson got his big Hollywood redemption arc with six nominations for his war movie Hacksaw Ridge. The one-two punch of sexist, problematic behavior lit a fire under a much more docile-to-white-people narrative to create more clickbait stories.

I'll leave it for you to put together the pieces. Race appears to play a role in awards season even when the work could be a contender. Just think back to how much crap Mo'nique got for not campaigning for Precious and how many interviewers just assumed Gabourey Sidibe was an innercity nobody with below average intelligence to play the lead in the same film. Now compare it to the typical white actress questions related to fashion, the challenge of playing someone SO DIFFERENT from themselves, and blanket praise for actresses like Brie Larson and Jennifer Lawrence who roll their eyes at the traditional awards campaigns and appearances.

The Oscar nominations aren't all bad. I'm quite fond of most of these lineups, even if they don't come close to lining up with my own ballot. Arrival, Fences, and Hell or High Water, and Moonlight are excellent nominees. I don't mind Hidden Figures or Lion, either. La La Land is the likely Best Picture winner, which is unfortunate but easily explained by Hollywood's fondness for films that wink and nod at Hollywood and entertainment culture. 

I'm a huge fan of Original Screenplay where should-be Best Picture nominees The Lobster and 20th Century Woman earned the right to say "Academy Award Nominee" in their marketing. Visual Effects recognized the consistently magnificent work of Studio Laika as well as the best new character in the Marvel Cinematic Universe: Doctor Strange's cape. Documentary feature is incredibly strong (even if you accept made for TV documentary O.J. Made in America as a film) and Costume Design is the most contemporary crop of nominees we've seen in a long time (the oldest entries are set in the 1920s, followed by 1940s, 1960s, and modern). And it's always worth celebrating when the Academy goes all in on a queer film like Moonlight, especially a queer film from a non-white perspective. 

As for my own lineup, I literally have only one shared nominee, Moonlight, though my top choice The Lobster snuck in for Original Screenplay and Zootopia snagged its obvious nod for Animated Feature. 

Running down the list, I'm pulling for:

  • Moonlight in Best Picture,

  • Denzel Washington (Fences) or Viggo Mortenson (Captain Fantastic) for Best Actor,

  • Ruth Negga (Loving) or Isabelle Huppert (Elle) for Best Actress, 

  • Mahersala Ali in Supporting Actor,

  • Naomie Harris in Supporting Actress (both from Moonlight),

  • Barry Jenkins (Moonlight) for Best Director, 

  • Yorgos Lanthimos and  Efthymis Filippou (The Lobster) for Original Screenplay,

  • Allison Schroeder and Theodore Melfi (Hidden Figures) for Adapted Screenplay,

  • Bradford Young (Arrival) for Cinematography,

  • Madeline Fontaine (Jackie) for Costumes,

  • Steve EmersonOliver JonesBrian McLean, and Brad Schiff (Kubo and the Two Strings) for Visual Effects,

  • Eva Von Bahr and Love Larson (A Man Called Ove) for Makeup and Hairstyling,

  • Mica Levi (Jackie) for Original Score,

  • Lyn Manuel Miranda's "How Far I'll Go" from Moana for Original Song, 

  • 13th for Documentary Feature,

  • My Life as a Zucchini for Animated Feature

  • Jess Gonchor and Nancy Haigh (Hail, Ceasar!) for Production Design, 

  • Sylvain Bellemare for Sound Editing,

  • Bernard Gariépy Strobl and Claude La Haye Sound Mixing,

  • Joe Walker for Editing, all from Arrival.

I haven't seen enough of the short and Foreign Language nominees to form opinions.

But then we go back to my initial issue. Since I won't see Hacksaw Ridge or Manchester by the Sea, I can't REALLY judge the categories they appear in. The films exist and are supported despite the issues with the main men behind the campaigns. They could split all their shared categories in a tie and sweep everything else and I wouldn't be able to form an opinion one way or the other. 

I still won't see them, though. I'm not backing down from that. Vote with your wallet and the entertainment industry will learn. 

Mary Warren Knows Things Now (Concept Scoring for The Crucible)

This was perhaps my favorite demo from the original pass at scoring for The Crucible. Mary Warren's Theme was pulled straight from the Tituba Theme that didn't sit quite right with me. A nice low drone combined with those chiming bells would stay, but not nearly as pretty and orderly by the time I rewrote the score.

SD Media Episode 1: 12.30.16

2016 was a hell of a year: wild, unpredictable, enlightening, terrifying--you name it, we felt it.

Let's kick 2016 to the curb with the first ever SD Media podcast episode.

Topics discussed include: La La Land, Krisha, Swiss Army Man, Thumper, Linea the game, Intralism, One Mississippi, and Keanu.


Parkitect Super Fun Park 2: The Haunted Log Flume (Play It)

We continue our adventures in Parkitect's beautiful, concise, and effective park building tools with perhaps the world's first Haunted Log Flume. It's a spoopy ride going through Mt. Random Halloween Props and tinted orange and purple for extra flavor. I love this alpha so much. I get excited when they put in a new update because Parkitect just keeps getting better and better.

#DeadbyDaylight Survivors Claudia and Meg (Play It)

I'm obsessed with the new asymetric survival horror game Dead by Daylight. It's the horror game we all wanted Until Dawn to be. It really does feel like living in a slasher film with interesting, diverse characters. There are two gameplay modes with very different rules. This new episode of Play It focuses on the role of survivor. Claudia and Meg are two of the college-age victims trying to escape one of three possible serial killers. In Survivor mode, you chose who you play (two other male options are available) and get randomly sorted into a team of four survivors. These four survivors are randomly chucked into random locations on one of four maps filled with traps, dead ends, hidden supplies, and generators.

Survivor mode is extremely scary. It's a 3rd person view centered on your character. You can rotate the camera all the way around you, but you only have limited information. Most of the time, you have to rely on hearing for clues as to where your allies and the killer are. When someone is severely injured or hung from a meat hook (sacrificed, they call it), you can see their silhouette in red and a wavy orb representing the killer. When your teammates hook up a generator or cause an explosion, you see that in yellow.

Your goal is to work together to fix five generators on the giant map. When the generators are up and running, you can then run power to the exit, allowing you to flee the domain of the killer.

If only it was that simple.

I'm satisfied with the new mic/headset I picked up on Amazon, though the video quality is like a potato this time. I hit "stream" instead of "record" on OBS and had to export the gameplay from Twitch to Youtube, then download it from YouTube to my video editor, then reupload it to YouTube. It's not bad; it should be better. The game is gorgeous and I only run it at medium quality on my PC to minimize the chance of lag.

Enjoy the newest episode of Play It. I'll be making a little series out of Dead by Daylight focusing on the different gameplay options.

One-Punch Man, The Myth of Sisyphus, and Humanizing the Superhero #AniMAY

One-Punch Man blew up in a big way in December. Originally a webcomic by One (pseudonym), One-Punch Man was adapted first into a manga and then into a hit anime series. The concept is pure absurdity. The greatest hero humankind has ever known is Saitama. Saitama can defeat any enemy with one punch. His infallible technique begins to bore him, so he starts seeking out stronger and stronger enemies who might offer him a challenge; they never do. The challenge is an acceptance of his strength and limitations, and the perception of his powers in the real world.

Saitama had all his dreams come true with a wonderful power. He is a hero. No matter what, if he is there, good will prevail. Yet the mundane routine of always winning so easily not only bores him, it leads to ridicule and disbelief from the people who rely on him. No real hero could so easily win every fight the same way every time.

Sisyphus, in Greek mythology, is the craftiest king. He uses advice from the Oracle of Delphi to eliminate everyone who stands between him and the throne without consequence. He succeeds by getting everyone else to commit his crimes for him.

When he is going to die, he tests his wife's devotion by demanding she throw his body into the public square instead of providing a proper burial. Sisyphus uses this as an excuse to escape the River Styx by demanding a chance to confront his wife over her inexcusable behavior. One imagines that he would demand that chance if she gave him a proper burial instead of following his dying wish. Either way, he's sent back to Earth and cannot die.

That is, until he betrays Zeus and is punished with the most well-remembered part of the myth. Sisyphus is condemned to roll a bounder up a hill for all eternity. When it reaches the top, it rolls back down, and he must start again. The tip of the peak cannot hold the boulder and his task will never be complete.

Saitama as Sisyphus is an easy comparison, to be sure. He seeks a challenge in his life that will never come because of his heroic nature.

It's not just that he can defeat any enemy with one punch; it's his desire to always fight for good. No matter how bored he becomes, he always does what's right. Seeking out stronger enemies just means that he will be able to protect people from more destructive villains sooner rather than later.

His peers despise him because he rejects the tropes of superheroes. He doesn't want fame, acclaim, and glory; he wants to be good.

in One Punch Man, an entire echelon of heroes exists. You have to pass an exam to even be considered a hero. Saitama's limited but powerful ability resulted in an initial classification as a C-Class hero. When the series starts, he already worked himself up to A-Class by sheer force of will. He never loses a battle, so he can't be demoted. He defeats villains other heroes cannot, so he rises above them.

Sisyphus is a character motivated by greed; Saitama, by the common good. Their singular focus and constant reach for growth in their goal is what sets them into their respective ruts of repetitive, unfulfilling tasks.

Much of my reading of pop culture comes from an appreciation of existentialism and absurdity. Albert Camus is my spiritual father in this sense, and his essay "The Myth of Sisyphus" is perhaps the seminal text in my critical voice.

Essentially, Camus argues Sisyphus' eternal struggle of rolling a boulder up a hill makes him the epitome of the everyman. The thesis of "The Myth of Sisyphus" suggests we are all repeating futile, pointless tasks in an uncaring world that will never offer us true guidance, meaning, or values. Only in rejecting society's traditional notions of success and satisfaction can we ever find true meaning in our lives.

There's a darker element at the forefront of the essay; Camus is grappling with suicide. If one realizes that life is ultimately a meaningless exercise, is one obligated to end it? Even Camus, with such upsetting works as The Stranger and Caligula, rejects the notion of suicide. The existence of life is absurdity; absurdity cannot exist without life. Only in acknowledging absurdity can one truly begin to appreciate what good there is in a life lived on one's own terms.

Saitama, unlike Sisyphus, does have the choice. Sure, every battle he faces will end the same way--one punch and he wins. Sure, the system of celebrity that has overtaken the nature of superheroism in this universe means that he--a humble, thin, bald hero with a selfless drive to help--will never be appreciated by his peers, his superiors, and his society. It is ultimately up to Saitama himself to find satisfaction in what he does.

His fellow heroes in One Punch Man will never be satisfied. They compare themselves to other heroes. They judge themselves on adulation from the masses and the flashiness of their powers. It doesn't matter if their abilities are totally useless against a real enemy; they want the biggest and best impression above all else. In a life led to become the epitome of what everyone else desires, these heroes can never find satisfaction.

This contradiction is what makes One Punch Man such fascinating satire. He is the hero we need, but not the one we can ever appreciate. The humor in the series comes from Saitama's despair at always winning with no external struggle. It's not satisfying to be infallible, and it's not appreciable by his peers, his leaders, and his community who must struggle so much to even come close to his level. The system games itself against a hero as powerful as Saitama, even though Saitama is the hero that can always stop the existential threat of intergalactic destruction.

One Punch Man is published and distributed in America by Viz Media. All of the episodes are available on Hulu Plus. The manga is available through all major book retailers.

In Praise of "Manta Ray" from Racing Extinction

Despite what the Academy Awards would have you believe, original songs in films can have a profound impact on the cinematic experience. This is true even if the singer/songwriter is not an A-List celebrity. J. Ralph and Anohni's "Manta Ray" from Racing Extinction would be my choice for the best original song written for film in 2015. The pair present a heartbreaking ballad from the perspective of Mother Earth mourning the loss of her children due to mass extinction.

Anonhi's voice is so emotive. When she sings "my children are dying" throughout the song, you feel compelled to act. A mother in this much pain over the loss of a child would be noticed; why don't we offer the same respect for Mother Earth when species are dying off every day?

Anonhi becomes the voice of the worst case scenario for conservationists. If we don't change the impact of our behavior on the environment, it will be too late to mourn its loss.

J. Ralph's simple arrangement evokes a more sophisticated version of the protest song. The repetition of rhythmic piano patterns under key portions of the song embeds the most significant imagery of the song in the listener's mind. It's a perfect complement to Racing Extinction's documentary narrative of undercover activists fighting against the human destruction of the environment.

The music video for "Manta Ray" borrows captivating microscopic video of plankton and other species from The Secret Life of Plankton. If the lyrics weren't enough to get the message across, the clever edit of the video should make the message clear.


Why I Didn't Watch the Oscars This Year

I've said for a long time that these big awards shows--the Oscars, the Tonys, the Golden Globes, the Grammys--are my version of the big championship game. I'll sit there with way too many snacks and hoot at the screen while the awards are handed out. I'll stay up as late as I need to and call out of work the next day if necessary. But this year, my own love of such spectacle surrounding mass dissemination of artistic recognition in the United States was overwhelmed by some truly poor choices by the Academy as a whole.

The most recognizable and insidious one is the lack of diversity at the Academy Awards this year. Four of the largest, most recognized and talked about categories (Lead Actor, Lead Actress, Supporting Actor, Supporting Actress) are comprised entirely of white nominees. Women, once again, were left out from the field of Best Director, though Alejandro González Iñárritu does prevent the category from being all white English-speaking men. None of the Best Picture nominees focus on characters of color in any significant way, and one of them uses Indigenous People as props moreso than characters (the bear gets more character development in The Revenant). The Academy also skipped out on Best Picture for Carol, perhaps the best queer representation in contention for the top prize.

Then you get to the next layer of bad in the diversity issue: cis straight white representation for more diverse stories. The only nomination for Creed is Sylvestor Stallone, the most recognizable white actor in a film starring African American actors. Eddie Redmayne received an Oscar nomination for playing a transgender woman in a role that could and should have been cast with a transgender actress. Though Straight Outta Compton grabbed a major nomination in Original Screenplay, all of the writers of the story of rap group N.W.A. are white.

There are incredible films from 2015 that feature strong work from writers, directors, actors, and film artists who identify as LGBTQ or people of color. None of these films received any major nominations; most received zero nominations. Even limiting it to films that met the arbitrary standards for Oscar consideration, you wind up with a list like this: Creed (1 nomination), Dope, Tangerine, Beasts of No Nation, Chi-Raq, Girlhood, The 33, Kumiko: The Treasure Hunter, Concussion, and Straight Outta Compton (1 nomination).

Then you hit on the Music Branch. I'm a musician. I respect film music. I believe it deserves recognition. Yet every year, the Academy Awards as a whole and the Music Branch, specifically, make horrible decisions.

The most high profile blunder comes down to, once again, allowing performances from Original Song contenders. Last night, you could watch The Weeknd, Sam Smith, and Lady Gaga perform their Oscar nominated songs. You could not, however, see Japanese opera singer Sumi Jo perform "Simple Song #3" from Youth or transgender musician Anohni perform "Manta Ray" from Racing Extinction. The official reason was time constraints, but they had no problem announcing Dave Grohl as a performer when he's not nominated.

This decision has two layers of disappointment. First, The Academy, once again, undermined the Original Song category that people question the validity of in increasing numbers each year. If you can't be bothered to represent all the nominees in the one film category that should allow for spectacle at your ceremony, just get rid of it.

Second, even after being rightfully criticized through the second year of #OscarsSoWhite, The Academy thought it was a great idea to ax two diverse performers from the telecast for "time." Anyone want to place bets on whether The Weeknd would've been cut for "time," too, if he wasn't a popular musician? Yes, "Manta Ray" and "Simple Song #3" are long, but longer songs have always been abridged when performed on the telecast. That wasn't even presented as an option here, as who would complain about singers who aren't household names in America not performing songs from films that weren't widely seen? That appears to be the real logic and it sickens me.

And, on the most insular level, the Music Branch once again decided to arbitrarily disqualify a clearly Original Score from consideration after ballots already came in. I did not particularly care for The Revenant, but I'll be damned if the massive, fascinating score composed by Ryuichi Sakamoto, Alva Noto, and Bryce Dessner wasn't great. The Academy arbitrarily ruled that they could not prove that one composer was responsible for a certain percentage threshold of the score, so it was ineligible.

They pull this kind of nonsense every year when they don't want someone to have a nomination. Last year, they said Antonio Sanchez's percussion score for Birdman wasn't sufficiently "musical" enough to be eligible. They also disqualified Carter Burwell and Karen O for Where the Wild Things Are because the song "Worried Shoes" was used in the film, so obviously they didn't actually write an original score. Other scores are deemed ineligible if too much of a recognizable orchestral classic is used in the score (though there is no set limit, and many nominees feature less original music than adapted music). Neither is there actually a set ruling for score collaborators, as duos, trios, and groups have been nominated in the past.

In other words, don't set up rules if you're only going to selectively enforce them. Make everyone jump through the hoops or burn them to cinder.

Also, notice how the only ineligible after nominations score this year came from a composer of color? Surprise, surprise.

Rather than put another set of eyeballs on a ceremony that has repeatedly tripped over itself (through its voters' statements, through its nominations, through its abysmal diversity statistics, and through its actions again and again) when it comes to diversity, I chose not to watch last night. I worked on my music for rehearsal, read a couple books, and worked on this article while listening to the exquisite soundtrack to Racing Extinction.

Perhaps 2016 will result in a better set of nominations. I'm not holding my breath. The Academy has, historically, only been interested in diverse narratives when straight actors give "brave" performances as gay or transgender characters, or when African American actors play slaves, housemaids, prostitutes, or abusive family members. The industry needs to do better and not just offer lip service to diversity. Put up or shut up.

"Genghis Khan" by Miike Snow

You know, I never thought about how much I want a superspy musical. There have been a few musicals featuring crime capers--such as Ira Levin's Drat! The Cat! and Michel Legrand's gorgeous Amour--but none that I can think of that are a big spy story. Miike Snow suggests that possibility in the music video for "Genghis Khan." Directed by Ninian Doff, "Genghis Khan" suggests a forbidden romance angle between a gold-masked supervillain and a dapper superspy in a classic Bond-like scenario. The spy is strapped down a table in the villain's lair, a deadly laser hanging above him. Something stops the villain from acting out his master plan.

The song is catchy and the video is adorable. The twist ending is excellent, too. Supple Nam's choreography steals the show. It's expressive in the way the best musical theater ballets of the Golden Age focus on exaggerating emotion to best communicate character relationships.

Check out the video below.

"Genghis Khan" is from Miike Snow's upcoming album iii, available March 4. The single is available at all major digital distributors.

Theater Work: Once Upon a Mattress

I have a few things going on with theater right now. I'm doing a trio of benefit concerts for the Crohn's & Colitis Foundation of America at the Hackensack Cultural Arts Center next Thursday through Saturday, February 11 through 13. Tickets are available online or at the door. It should be a fun night. I'll be singing from Amour and Next to Normal. More pressing is the official start of the rehearsal period for the next show I'm music directing. We had the perfect group of students to do Once Upon a Mattress. It's really exciting, too, as we have a brand new director and choreographer joining us this season.

Once Upon a Mattress is a comedy retelling of "The Princess and Pea" with an incredible jazz score by Mary Rodgers, daughter of Richard Rodgers of Rodgers & Hammerstein fame. In this version, the famous princess is the 13th to try to win the prince's hand in marriage. The Queen does not want her son to marry and conjures up incredibly unfair tests to prove the young women traveling from far and wide are not really princesses.

The original production was a literal "let's put on a show" moment with Mary Rodgers, Marshall Barer (lyricist, librettist), and Jay Thompson (librettist) throwing together a one act musical in a week while vacationing in the Poconos. The show was seen by a producer who wanted to bring it to Broadway, so the team expanded the show, added on another co-writer (Dean Fuller), and opened off-Broadway.

On the way to NYC, they found a wonderful Princess Winnifred in an upstart comedienne named Carol Burnett. The show was tailored to her skills and range, which is clear when you hear the full score and read the Princess' style of patter comedy. Jane White played the Queen, Jack Gilford played the King (and was replaced by Will Lee, aka Mr. Hooper on Sesame Street, for the Broadway transfer). The show ran for over 400 performances switching between four different Broadway theaters. When the show went on to tour for seven months, seemingly everyone from Imogene Coca to Buster Keaton played some of the dates.

Once Upon a Mattress' history gets even more interesting. Carol Burnett has played various roles in heavily modified versions of the show for television. After she became a hit with her own show, Mattress was reduced to a 1964 TV movie where she sang all the Winnifred songs and most of the other characters were eliminated or smashed into terrible, nonsensical composites.

Burnett would return to the role again in 1972 for another televised version, this one more accurate to the original show. Bernadette Peters stepped in as Lady Larken, a pregnant lady in waiting who tries to flee the kingdom when she realizes the Queen does not want Winnifred to pass the princess test.

In 2005, Burnett would star in the Disney adaptation of Once Upon a Mattress, featuring Tracy Ullman as Winnifred and Denis O'Hare as Prince Dauntless. Zoey Deschanel and Matthew Morrision took on Lady Larken and Sir Harry, her fiance. Burnett played the Queen, who also acted as narrator. No, it doesn't make sense, but Burnett was amazing and played well against Ullman.

There was also a successful Broadway revival in 1997 starring Sarah Jessica Parker as Winnifred (right before Sex and the City came to be). Jane Krakowski stole the show as Lady Larken, as she would, since she always steals whatever show she's in.

For my humble little HS production, I'm using a combination of new and old techniques while working on this show. When I first began music directing, I would always digitize the score through Finale or some other notation software. I could get a better idea of what the show would sound like, set tempos and dynamic changes, and have very precise practice recordings for my cast and creative team to work with.

Let's take "Opening for a Princess" as an example. This is the first big cast number in Mattress and sets up the conflict of the show. No one may marry until Prince Dauntless finds his bride, and no one who tries to marry Prince Dauntless can pass the test set out by the Queen. The "bird" referenced in the song is a literal bird, a plucked pheasant given out as a consolation prize to the failed suitors.

Here's the original Broadway cast recording to give you an idea.

In the licensed score, there are five distinct vocal parts in this song: Prince Dauntless, Lady Larken, two Ladies in Waiting, and the ensemble. I always include featured singers in my high school production, so I split it up further and have seven vocal parts.

When I digitize the score, I give each separate character/character group their own vocal line. This way, when I export everything into audio files, I can customize which vocal parts go to which students. If someone wants to practice their ensemble parts without having the notes played for them, they'll sing along with a file like this.

[audio wav=""][/audio]

I break up the entire score like this so the students have no excuse not to practice at home. It also helps to have the exact arrangements set for the choreographer, so if cuts need to be made, I can figure it out and start passing out corrections to the orchestra immediately.

The newer stuff is all different techniques and ideas I picked up in the past year. It's been a great period for learning more about the work I do and how others approach the same jobs. Some of it will work right away, some of it I'll have to adapt for my students, and some of it will fall flat and be tossed out quickly. That's part of the process.

Ranking the Best Documentary Nominees

For the first time in years, I've actually been able to see all the Best Documentary nominees before the Oscar ceremony. While they're fresh on my mind, let me give you a run down of my rankings, plus a prediction of which title will win the big prize. 5) Amy, dir. Asif Kapadia

Amy is a look at the rise and fall of Amy Winehouse through candid home movies and clips of performances, enhanced with interviews with her close friends and allies in the industry.

There's nothing wrong with the film. It's a slick, engaging documentary with a compelling subject. I just wanted more. It's very "here it is" and doesn't pace itself in an interesting enough way to keep my interest constantly. I understand why so many are attracted to it; I'm just not the target audience for this style of documentary filmmaking.

4) Cartel Land, dir. Matthew Heinemann

Cartel Land is an exploration of a civilian militia fighting against the overwhelming force of the drug and human trafficking cartels in southern Mexico.

Matthew Heinemann's work is ambitious. The quality of filmmaking is gorgeous and the actual fights and missions captured on film prove how unrealistic modern action films are. The story of the Autodefensas is very compelling, but the film is marred by the inclusion of an American anti-immigration hate group meant to represent and foreshadow corruption in civilian-run military groups.

Full Review

3) Winter on Fire: Ukraine's Fight for Freedom, Dir. Evgeny Afineevsky

Winter on Fire follows the arc of protests in Ukraine started after the President's refusal to join the European Union and bolstered by his vicious retaliation against peaceful student protesters.

This is a lot of film to take in. So much happened in a six month period that you never heard about, especially considering the recency of the events. The acts of violence captured on film by Afineevsky and explained through heartbreaking narration by survivors is numbing. It's the kind of documentary you watch like a horror film: cautiously, with your fingers over your eyes and the hope that maybe someone will conquer the evil force senselessly slaughtering civilians.

Full Review

2) The Look of Silence, dir. Joshua Oppenheimer

The Look of Silence is a sequel to the Academy Award-nominated documentary The Act of Killing. Oppenheimer shifts the focus from the killers of the military uprising in 1960s Thailand to one family of survivors searching for answers from those proud murderers.

If you were hoping The Look of Silence would be easier to watch than two and half hours of the government-sponsored murderers reenacting their crimes in any genre of film they want, you'll be disappointed. Oppenheimer uses one family's story--their son/brother faced one of the most brutal executions described in The Act of Killing--as a weapon against the families of the government officials. The brother reinterviews the killers and/or their families, then confronts them with the reality of his brother's murder. It's a whirlwind of emotions and a portrait of the fragility of memory and psychological coping mechanisms.

Full Review

1) What Happened, Miss Simone?, dir. Liz Garbus

What Happened, Miss Simonefollows the many lives of acclaimed Jazz singer, activist, classical pianist, and face of Bipolar Disorder Nina Simone.

Garbus does everything with What Happened, Miss Simone? I had hoped would be done in Amy. Instead of a literal retelling of Simone's life, Garbus constantly puts Simone in context through interviews and outside perspective on her life, her career, her impact, and the social climate of the time. The edit is tight and constantly moves in a clear direction to prove the thesis of Simone being an accomplished artist never satisfied with her own artistry.

Full Review

So which film will walk away a winner on Oscar night? That's an easy question to answer. Amy has walked away with almost all of the precursor and critics groups awards. Like I said further up, I understand the appeal of the film. It's very watchable. It's accessible. It's current. It's now.

The three war/revolution documentaries kind of cancel each out in a battle of misery.

What Happened, Miss Simone? could have gained traction, but the release by Netflix puts it at odds with the slow to change film industry. Amy was a bonafide commercial successful as far as documentaries go.

Will Win: Amy, because momentum is on its side. Not only is it popular and acclaimed, music documentaries have scored big in recent years at the Oscars.

Spoiler: The Look of Silence, in case the Academy swings away from the recent trend of lighter music biopics taking the top prize.


Best Elements of Films 2015

Yesterday, the nominations for the 2015 Academy Awards were announced. They feature some welcome surprises--congrats to Mad Max on all the nominations--and some unexpected snubs--Carol should be in the Best Picture pool. Still, I feel the need to once again make my voice heard and share my own nominations for the acting, directing, writing, and technical categories. It's a fun exercise for no other reason than exploring the diversity of opinions and reactions to films.

Best Actress in a Leading Role:

5) Kitana Kiki Rodriguez, Tangerine

4) Charlize Theron, Mad Max: Fury Road

3) Jacqueline Kim, Advantageous

2) Rooney Mara, Carol

1) Rinko Kikuchi, Kumiko: The Treasure Hunter


Best Actor in a Leading Role:

5) Dominic Gleeson, Ex Machina

4) Leonardo DiCaprio, The Revenant

3) Matthew Gray Gubler, Suburban Gothic

2) Tom Hardy, The Revenant

1) Abraham Atta, Beasts of No Nation


Best Actress in a Supporting Role:

5) Jennifer Jason Leigh, Hateful 8

4) Samantha Kim, Advantageous

3) Alicia Vikander, Ex Machina

2) Mya Taylor, Tangerine

1) Sarah Paulson, Carol


Best Actor in a Supporting Role:

5) David Zellner, Kumiko: The Treasure Hunter

4) Richard Kind, Inside Out

3) Oscar Isaac, Ex Machina

2) Nicholas Hoult, Mad Max: Fury Road

1) Idris Elba, Beasts of No Nation

Best Director:

5) David Robert Mitchell, It Follows

4) Levan Gabriadze, Unfriended

3) Jennifer Phang, Advantageous

2) George Miller, Mad Max: Fury Road

1) Roy Andersson, A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence


Best Original Screenplay:

5) S. Craig Zahler, Bone Tomahawk

4) Nelson Greaves, Unfriended

3) Jennifer Phang, Samantha Kim, Advantageous

2) Richard Bates Jr., Mark Bruner, Suburban Gothic

1) Sean Baker, Chris Bergoch, Tangerine


Best Adapted Screenplay:

5) Mark L. Smith, Alejandro González Iñárritu, The Revenant

4) Cary Joji Fukunaga, Beasts of No Nation

3) Keiko Niwa, Masashi Ando, Hiromasa Yonibayasha, David Freedman (translator), When Marnie was There

2) George Miller, Brendan McCarthy, Nick Lathouris, Mad Max: Fury Road

1) Phyllis Nagy, Carol

Best Original Score

5) Dan Romer, The Nightmare

4) Disasterpeace, It Follows

3) Carter Burwell, Carol

2) Junkie XL, Mad Max: Fury Road

1) The Octopus Project, Kumiko: The Treasure Hunter


Best Cinematography:

5) Mike Giolakus, It Follows

4) John Seale, Mad Max: Fury Road

3) Cary Joji Fukunaga, Beasts of No Nation

2) Edward Lachman, Carol

1) Sean Baker, Radium Cheung, Tangerine

Best Documentary:

5) Matt Shephard Is a Friend of Mine

4) The Nightmare

3) Tig

2) What Happened, Miss Simone?

1) Iris


Best Animated Film:

3) Inside Out

2) Home

1) When Marnie was There

Best Games of 2015

I have a profound love for console gaming. There's something hypnotic about sitting in front of the television, controller in hand, reacting to the world unfolding before me with mere twitches of my fingers. Yet for 2015, computer games ruled the roost. Not just computer games, either: indie games. And not just indie games: low cost indie games. With two exceptions, all the games on this list are regularly available for under $10 on Steam and that's an incredible thing. We're now at a point where most computers can handle this level of indie gaming, so everyone can have access to a transformative gaming experience.

Here are the 10 best games of 2015.

10. Spooky's House of Jump Scares

Spooky's House of Jump Scares

Spooky's House of Jump Scares is a randomly-generated endurance horror game. You play as a visitor to a fabled haunted house where no one walks out alive. Spooky herself greets you at the door, challenging you to get through all 1000 rooms alive. The first few are easy--it's all cheesy dark ride pop outs and noises. Then the experiments start to take over and you're trapped in an increasingly mad world where your only choice is to keep walking forward. It's one of the scariest games I've ever played.

9. LEGO Dimensions

LEGO Dimensions

This is the only console-exclusive game on the list. LEGO Dimensions is the next logical evolution of the LEGO video game enterprise. Essentially, you put together a ragtag team of LEGO figures from all different pop culture worlds who you build out of actual LEGOs onto a reactive character base. You also build vehicles for them. The base game has a lot of replayability with its story world and access to The LEGO Movie, The Lord of the Rings, and DC Comics universes. To get even more content, you pick up character, level, and vehicle packs that add onto the story and open up more playground areas. The platforming and graphics are better than ever. I can only describe the experience as maddening childhood glee, for who wouldn't want to make the Wicked Witch of the West ride around atop K9 from Doctor Who to fight The Joker in a mashup world of Gotham and Metropolis?

8. Disorder


2015 was a huge year for games involving troubling personal narrative. Disorder is a game about coming to terms with a childhood defined by depression. It is a platformer where the goal is to reclaim your marbles so you can rebuild your life narrative through scraps in a journal. To accomplish this, you switch between optimistic and pessimistic views of the world. Each world has its own level of decay, danger, and interaction, and each version of a key event offers different lines in your journal. If you don't regain your marbles, you can still move on, but you won't get the full experience of the heart-wrenching journal entries that organize the narrative strands into a cohesive story.

7. Life is Strange

Life Is StrangeLife is Strange is the second game from Dontnod Entertainment, creators of the gorgeous sci-fi dystopia of memory manipulation Remember Me. Like Remember Me, you control a young female protagonist who can manipulate events around her. Chloe can rewind time and try out different interactions to determine the optimal route in her troublesome teenage life. See, Chloe returns to her Twin Peaks-like Washington town to discover her former best friend is the only person left looking for a girl who mysteriously disappeared. The pair reconnect and rebuild their relationship as the world rapidly slips out of their control. Life is Strange is an episodic release hinged on Neo-Realism despite the clear sci-fi gameplay conceit.

6. Cibele


Cibele is an autobiographical narrative game from Star Maid Games. It is inspired by developer Nina Freeman's own experience falling in and out of love with a young man through an RPG game. You jump through different points in Cybele's life, exploring her experience through e-mail, photography, notes, and gameplay. Then you log into the game within the game and the mechanics change. Instead of a point and click narrative, you are actually playing levels in a pastel RPG while chatting with your could-be sweetheart, answering e-mail, and balancing your expectations with the reality of the physical world. It's a beautiful, emotional game with a surprising amount of depth. The status of the relationship is reflected in the ever-changing mechanics of the RPG game, which leads to short FMV sequences where Cibele decides how best to interact with her beau outside of the game. There's really never been a game quite like Cibele before and I can only hope more people take the lead and experiment with this kind of layered personal narrative.

5. Mini Metro

Mini Metro

Meet my new randomly generated obsession Mini MetroMini Metro is a puzzle/strategy game about efficiently creating a subway system in major cities around the world. Blue tubes are water, white shapes with black lines are stations you need to connect, and the colored lines are the different train lines you earn through efficiency. Make too many people wait and your subway goes under. The game is simple to play and impossible to master. There will always be more people, more stops, and ever-dwindling resources to satisfy everyone. The daily challenge and three gameplay modes add enough variety to keep coming back to Mini Metro obsessively for a long time.

4. Ori and the Blind Forest

Ori and the Blind Forest

I like games that make me feel feelings. Ori and the Blind Forest had me uncontrollably sobbing in the first 10 minutes. I don't even want to spoil the plot at all since it's that good. Suffice it to say that you are a white sprite travelling through some beautiful and deadly landscapes in every color of the rainbow. It is the hardest game on my Top 10 of 2015, but never frustrating. It's a fair challenge with options on how to get through the insane maze of forest surrounding you.

3. The Park

The Park Game

The Park is a walking simulator/horror/adventure game. You play a mother searching for her lost child in a theme park with a dark history. To progress, you have to ride every ride you encounter. And as you have those encounters, you learn all about the witch, the boogeyman, the serial killer, and the Lovecraftian terrors that await visitors to The Park. You get out what you put into this game, and I fully committed to finding every scrap of evidence I could to leave me sleepless after playing.

2. Her Story

Her Story

Speaking of experimental narrative games, Her Story is easily the most original game on the list. It's an FMV mystery game where you search a criminal database computer to piece together footage from a woman's various interviews with police. Her husband went missing, and her story keeps changing. So you input search terms like "job," "money," or "credit card" and see what videos pop up. You can save them however you choose, though it's best to use a pen and paper to keep track of all the clues and secrets, NES adventure style. Viva Seifert gives one of the best acting performances in any medium in 2015 in the chopped up 5-60 second videos of her answering police questions. You don't even get to hear the questions; you just hear her answers and hopefully piece together the evidence through her ever-changing story.

1. Crypt of the NecroDancer

Crypt of the NecroDancer

Anyone who has seen my YouTube or Twitch knew this was coming. Crypt of the NecroDancer is a rhythm/adventure rogue-like. You play as one of 10 original characters with their own spin on move and attack to the beat. You have four levels of dungeon to go through, each with its own mini boss, before you finally get to face off against the titular NecroDancer. Aside from being an extremely tight and challenging gameplay experience, Crypt of the NecroDancer takes the top spot for narrative and diversity, as well. The main story mode is told through three generations of women in the same family. The game features four female characters, four male characters, one non-binary character, and one monster meant to be an almost-impossible challenge. Brace Yourself Games clearly gets that if dragons, living treasure chests, and harpies can exist in your universe, so can a diverse cast of different genders, races, and ages. The most challenging human characters to play are a senior citizen (Aria), a non-binary black person (Bolt), and an Asian monk (Monk). Each character's play style and rules creates a vastly different experience, as do the three full variations on the score to the game. Crypt of the NecroDancer is an experience unlike any other in modern gaming.

Join 52 Films by Women Challenge for 2016 #52FilmsByWomen

Women in Film Los Angeles is encouraging a simple pledge for 2016. Their goal is to get as many people as possible to watch 52 films made by women in 2016. Sign up, then share the films you watch on social media. That's it. It's as simple as that. There is a significant gender disparity in Hollywood, and it's been clear for decades that the Hollywood machine is not going to correct that itself. It doesn't matter how often a film directed by a woman or written by a woman becomes a big critical or commercial hit; the films that gain the most attention by and large come from men. Hollywood offers the big franchises to men. Hollywood rewards male directors with their highest accolades, rarely even nominating women for directing at the Academy Awards.

While preparing my Best of 2015 list, I was actually shocked by how few women were represented behind the camera in my own viewings. Though women make up just over 50% of the population in the United States, only 13% of the 2015 films I watched were directed by women. The ratio is significantly worse if I look at all the films I would have liked to watch based on awards chatter and word of mouth.

So what can be done? We have to put work in ourselves. If we want more women to have a voice in Hollywood, we need to support the work they put out. We need to see these films in theaters, stream them on Netflix, buy them for ourselves, and talk about them. The more money they make, the clearer the support for women in film.

We shouldn't stop there. People of color and LGBTQ people are also significantly underrepresented in mainstream cinema. Choosing to support women in film does not abdicate us of the responsibility to allow other ignored voices to go unheard. As hard as it is for a woman to find mainstream success behind the camera in Hollywood, it's even harder for a woman of color or a queer woman to find even that limited success.

Signing the 52 Films by Women pledge is a way to start correcting course in the industry. It might not seem like one person can make a big difference in the entertainment industry. All those individual voices add up with dollar signs if we actually vote for change with our money.

So far in 2016, I've watched Advantageous and What Happened, Miss Simone?. Only 50 more weeks to go.

Will you join me and sign the pledge?