BOSTON, MASSACHUSETTS — Famed children’s author Beatrice Willows new picture book HMOs, PPO’s, WTF?! has quickly become a bestseller, but it doesn’t only have the attention of three-to-eight-year-olds. Adults of all ages are running to the stores in hopes of grabbing a copy before they sell out.
“We’re frantically trying to keep the hordes back,” remarks Stan Williams, the manager at a local Barnes and Noble. “But they keep lining up… there are too many people and we simply don’t have enough copies to go around.”
The picture book’s main character, Tina, is forced to find her own healthcare once she turns 26 and is kicked off her parent’s coverage. Detailed illustrations by Willows depict the confused twenty-something as she tries to figure out what healthcare in America means and what coverage is best for her.
“It’s a real eye opener,” says Mia Johnson, 28, who was lucky to get one of the first copies. “I wish I had learned this in college.”
Debra Murphy, 65, was also taken aback at the lessons she learned flipping through the book, which she initially meant to buy for her five-year-old granddaughter as a birthday present. “This book makes way more sense than what’s on those silly government websites.”
President Donald Trump was also rumored to have scored himself a copy. There’s still no word on whether or not he’s decided to share it with anyone else in the White House.
Willows’ other bestselling children’s books include Sally and the Giant W-2, Charlotte’s WiFi, Your Parents Are Terrible People, and #WhatsThePointOfThis?
Some Broadway fanatics would argue that we are currently, and have been for the past few years, living in a new golden age of musical theatre. I, for one, would have to agree. The first show I ever saw on Broadway was Hairspray back in 2007. It was my first time visiting New York and I instantly fell in love with the city. A couple of years ago I had the opportunity to live within twenty miles of Manhattan — and you bet I took advantage of every opportunity there was when it came to seeing as many of the various shows I could while living within such a close proximity to the home of Broadway.
While I was residing on the east coast I met my good friend Rebecca Michelson, who’s the best Broadway buddy a person could ask for. She loves Broadway, maybe even a little bit more than I do, has seen an innumerable amount of shows, and has tons of opinions about them to boot.
With the end of 2017 approaching, I reached out to Rebecca to discuss some of her favorite shows of the season (and of all time), what she recommends to those interested in seeing a show, and why.
You’ve been a Broadway fanatic for quite some time now. What initially sparked your love of theatre?
It’s funny you ask, because my initial interest in Broadway and musical theater came from Hairspray as well! I grew up outside of Philadelphia with easy access to New York City. My first show was actually Beauty and the Beast and according to my aunt, I talked the entire time so no one wanted to sit next to me after that! I remember coming into the city every few months with my parents and sister to see a Broadway show. I was around 10 or 11 when my parents went to see Hairspray on Broadway with the original cast and mom brought home the Original Broadway Cast Recording and I instantly fell in love. We listened on every road trip, and we still do.
Let’s talk plays on Broadway. For so many, when they think “Broadway,” their minds go straight to musicals, but there have been, and are, some really incredible plays. Can you speak to this?
I have never actually been a play person until this year. I think most people overlook plays because when tourists come, you’re right, they think of musicals. They want to see the touristy shows — Chicago, Wicked, Beautiful, Phantom, etc. All great productions for sure! But my favorite kind of show is 95 minutes, no intermission, and where do you usually find that? In a play! I will say, plays are often harder for myself to follow along with, as the pacing is often much slower than a musical. But two of my favorite productions from the 2016-2017 season were actually plays, both of which I saw twice.
The first is Paula Vogel’s Indecent. It is arguably the best show to have appeared on Broadway in years. It was inspired by Sholem Asch’s God of Vengeance and tells the story of the production of the show from the table read in Poland all the way to its 1923 Broadway debut in New York City. It speaks strongly to censorship and highlights the first lesbian kiss on Broadway, all while paralleling the struggles of the Jewish people during World War II. It was actually a play with music, which helped the pacing.
My second favorite play from last season is called Significant Other. As mentioned before, I often find plays to lag with slow pacing and/or to be old school in content. Significant Other was the opposite. With a superb cast it tells the story of Jordan, a single, gay, 20-something-year-old, who’s living in New York City and watching as all of his friends are growing up and getting married. He’s desperate to be in a relationship and share what his friends are experiencing, but he’s struggling with a lot of inner-demons throughout the show. I think the content was relatable to a lot of young people who went to go see it.
In your own opinion, why are Broadway shows important?
Broadway is so important because it’s a form of self-expression that exists nowhere else. While I’m not an actor nor do I have any (reasonable) desires to be on Broadway, I know the opportunity to act has helped so many young people in this city, and around the world, feel like they can be something and do something.
Another special thing about Broadway that you don’t get from film and television is the opportunity to come face to face with your favorite performers. When you go to the stage door, you have the chance to tell your favorite singer, dancer or actor on stage what they mean to you and how their performance changed your life. It’s a beautiful thing, what Broadway affords that other forms of media do not.
With 2018 right around the corner, what shows would you recommend NYC tourists and visits run to go see in the New Year?
We’re lucky to be right at the start of a new Broadway season, in which we will see many new productions opening in the next few months! However, we are also lucky to have many long-running shows still around for us to revisit. If you’re coming to the city for the holidays, I would definitely recommend hitting up the new production of Once on This Island. From last season’s shows, I recommend going to check out Dear Evan Hansen while you’re here. My third recommendation is a tie for what new productions you should go see if you’re coming after March. Out of the new productions (some of which I have yet to see), I recommend seeing Mean Girls: the Musical, which opens for previews on March 12th, or Carousel, which opens for previews on February 28th.
Top 3 shows of 2017, top 3 shows of all time, and why — Ready, go!
Top three productions from the 2016-2017 season, that are still open:
Come From Away
Dear Evan Hansen
My top three favorite shows of all time:
Do you have any tips for seeing Broadway for cheap?
People always ask me how I can afford to see so many shows. I wouldn’t say I can AFFORD to see this many shows, but that’s not stopping me! I have a few recommendations for getting cheap tickets to shows. Most involve your time, but they save you your money. If you’re here for a week, I would recommend picking two or three shows that you can’t leave New York without seeing and buying tickets for those. Then, rank the others you want to see and go from there.
Check out Playbill.com‘s General Rush Policy page to see what shows offer rush, lottery and standing room. Most shows offer a mix of the three for less than $40 a ticket. Some shows require you to line up at 6am for a 10am box office call, while others usually have rush tickets available throughout the day. If you don’t want to stand around in lines, try the TKTS booth in Times Square for discounted tickets. If you just want to see A show, but you don’t really have a preference on which one, this is a GREAT option.
Some of history’s biggest decisions are often made in the most personal of moments. Such is the sense in Darkest Hour’s most memorable frame — a seated Winston Churchill (Gary Oldman, The Dark Knight, Fifth Element) on the phone with American president Franklin Roosevelt, requesting an exchange for British purchased fighter planes.
The scene takes place in a quiet room in the underground quarters of Parliament, lit by a small light, with the surrounding blackness seemingly narrowing the shot’s aspect ratio. Much of the film is similar, with these intimate moments of conversation, decision and indecision all weaving together to make a collective historical narrative.
Centered around Hitler’s domination of the European mainland in spring 1940, the film deals with how new prime minister Winston Churchill will manage the growing threat of German advancement to the British island.
Darkest Hour is a film that succeeds due to its precise technique. In the spirit of All the President’s Men and Spotlight the film plays like a made-for (high end) television drama. Dialogue is the prominent element driving action. Cuts happen quick, frames are tight and shot composition is simple, yet elegant. This style allows the performance of Gary Oldman to carry the film, and creates a Churchill character study taking place within a larger historical context.
Most of Darkest Hour’s shots are close-ups and mediums, with wider frames of British royal and governmental halls edited in as transitional sequences between the important conversations that happen in the small rooms of those very buildings. The viewer spends a majority of the film close to Oldman and the supporting cast, and only catches brief glimpses of the outside world and its citizens.
As the camera stays close to the actors, the viewer is able to see nuances of politics, and particularly from Churchill, a great deal of anxiety and angst. Larger, sparser shots of British structures remind the viewer of the ominous threat of the advancing Nazi army and the institutional legacy under threat. These two shot types, juxtaposed, opine that history; while grand in its scope, is very much a matter of the decisions of humans — who are both talented and fallible.
The work of production designer Sarah Greenwood (Beauty and the Beast, 2017) and cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel (Inside Llewyn Davis) combine to add emotional fullness to the film. While the film takes place in May and June, the blacks and grays of the skies, backdrops and wardrobes add a tone of appropriate bleakness and desaturation to the screen, and dim-lit rooms serve as quiet, understated settings for the characters, whose faces illuminate from the few light sources surrounding them. These technical elements ultimately support the actors and their dialogue, as well as underline the uncertainty and importance of the historical moment.
Exceptionally well-directed, written, acted and shot, Joe Wright’s (Atonement) Darkest Hour is an engaging drama that sheds lights on one of the 20th century’s darkest and most pivotal moments. And by virtue of the film’s technical elements, Darkest Hour allows us to examine the characters and milieu that defined those moments. While not a historically flawless film — indeed some scenes play a bit unrealistic — the movie nevertheless achieves its prime objective of showcasing the turbulence and significance of May 1940, and the man who turned the tide for the better.
Author’s note: this film is a great complement to Christopher Nolan’s “Dunkirk” (2017), as Dunkirk is an important plot element in “Darkest Hour.” Coincidentally, Christopher Nolan directed Gary Oldman in the Batman trilogy.
Roman Polanski’s 1965 horror film Repulsion is considered to be the first of his “Apartment Trilogy,” along with Rosemary’s Baby (1968) and The Tenant (1976), which is a collection of movies that deal with various frightful events taking place within apartment complexes.
Repulsion claims distinction from the others on that list for the fact that there is no visible adversary wreaking distress upon the unwilling protagonists in the plot. It merely captures the gradual decline of a young woman named Carol’s sanity as she stays by herself in her sister’s apartment while she goes on a twelve-day trip with her boyfriend.
The still quiet of empty rooms allows her inner thoughts to echo with a resonating trauma of past abuse. As the days progress, so does Carol’s catatonic depression over memories of being sexually assaulted as a child. She becomes guarded around other people — especially men — and traps herself in a dangerous cycle of anti-social behaviors. It is within this desolate apartment that her inner rage manifests into something bizarre and sinister, with only the cracking drywalls bearing witness to the bloodshed.
Even through the poignant silence of Carol’s living space, there are certain sounds that penetrate the powerful barrier of calm and punctuate her suppressed desires. These particular sounds act as aesthetic catalysts to aid in the clarification and intensification of Carol’s hidden motivations and forgotten nightmares where words cannot. In order to reveal more information about the plot itself and to illustrate the relapsed state of mind Carol enters, Repulsion incorporates various outer orientation functions of sound, including orientation in space, in time, and to situation.
First, the outer sound orientation in space featured in Repulsion emphasizes the enclosed area that Carol inhabits, both physically and in her mind. Spacial orientation is characterized as specific sounds that reveal and define the location of an event and its spatial environment. One of the most prominent instances of spacial orientation is the loud, incessant ticking of the clock in Carol’s bedroom. Even though the noise comes from a small contraption, it overtakes the meagre size of the apartment dwelling, and captures all of Carol’s attention to the point that it is all she can hear. Having to roam each room as the sole occupant, she is able to tune in to the sound of passing seconds, so much so that it echoes the desolation she feels in her solitude.
On an even darker note, the clock’s infernal noise symbolizes the ticking time bomb that lives inside Carol’s brain, counting down to the moment when all her pent up aggression manifests in the form of a psychological breakdown. Another example of spacial sound orientation is the way the apartment walls begin cracking and leaving visible tears behind. The upkeep of Carol’s apartment is a metaphorical representation of her emotionally stability: at first it is rather tidy and organized, just as Carol is initially a reserved, well-mannered girl, but as the days go on without her sister to keep her company, Carol starts to enter a state of mental psychosis and neglects basic household chores.
In a hallucinatory stupor, Carol sees the walls of the apartment begin to crack with a shocking sound like that of lightning striking. The foundations of her home begin to tear, much like her mental stability, and with every crack comes a sickening creak to accompany the demolishment of the property. These sounds frighten Carol and she is uncertain of what is real and what is simply a distorted figment of her imagination.
Second, certain pieces of sound outline the orientation in time within the progressing plot of Repulsion. There are several points in the film when Carol looks out from one of the apartment windows to observe the ringing of bells from the church next door. The bells ring early morning and mid-afternoon, and while Carol feels inclined to peer from the window each time she hears them, she also stares at the nuns who walk along the grounds and the children laughing on their way to their lessons. This acts as juxtaposition with any impurity that Carol might attribute to herself because of her past sexual abuse. Those ringing church bells connote a peaceful clarity and a call to faithful action, while Carol has no seemingly hopeful prospects in her life and instead can only look down on the young children who will not likely experience the same ordeal she went through at their age.
Another instance of sound orientation in time is the gradual buzzing of flies around an uncooked rabbit carcass. Before Carol’s sister left for her holiday, she had prepared to cook rabbit for dinner but never got around to eating it with Carol. Once she is alone in the apartment, Carol takes the plate of skinned rabbit out of the refrigerator and places it on a table in the living room, where she proceeds to leave it there until her sister returns. As the days pass, the sounds of flies buzzing around the rotting meat increases in volume and the noise paired with the foul image of the spoiled specimen mirrors the decaying nature of Carol’s own mental stability. Whoever visits the apartment, whether it be a disgruntled suitor or the building’s landlord, notices the disgusting sight and swarm of flies buzzing around the plate and point it out to Carol, but she is non-responsive and unaffected by the rotten rabbit.
Finally, outer orientation of sound gives special emphasis to important situations in Repulsion. It has been noted that sounds can describe a specific situation and how it is important to listen to the various sounds of specific events. One such event in the film occurs when Carol is woken by the sound of her sister making love to her boyfriend in the room next to hers. As the moans of pleasure escalate into a resounding climax, Carol can only lay still in bed and contemplate how that level of intimacy must feel like between two lovers. This moment accentuates the literal barrier that separates Carol from getting close enough to form lasting relationships — in this case, a wall, but in her daily life, a deeply-rooted trauma that resulted in lost innocence. Her sexual repression is something of a mystery even to herself, as she is extremely fearful to explore it and the only experience she has with it is from a tainted, forced experience.
Another case of orientation of situation via sound appears when a would-be suitor of Carol’s named Michael comes to her apartment to confront her about not answering his calls. Michael’s attention makes Carol feel sickeningly uncomfortable because of her warped perception of men and their romantic advances towards her, so she had been seeking refuge in her apartment in an emotionally despondent state. When Michael breaks her door down and tries to tell her how much he needs to be with her, Carol prepares to defend herself with a large candlestick. However, her psychotic inclinations get the best of her and she fatally attacks Michael with it. Although the kill is off-screen, the sounds of Michael’s groans of pain are heard as blood splatters on the door he stood next to. His gargled breaths are also loud and clear as his final moments of life pass quickly with each blow to the head.
Sometimes a person’s innermost thoughts and fears can ring louder than a crowd of a thousand people. The claustrophobic sensation of harvesting years’ worth of traumatic tension and hidden turmoil is bound to take an emotional toll on anyone who experiences it. But the questions rests on how those secret feelings are unleashed from within a tormented soul. The various uses of the outer orientation functions of sound in Repulsion encompass these ideas and add a frantic pulse to an already suspenseful story about a girl who died on the inside a long time ago.
By implementing certain sounds within the fabric of the movie’s plot, more in-depth detail and stylistic flair is revealed in terms of space, time, and situation. The way Carol haunts the quiet halls of her own apartment like a lonely apparition only accentuates the variety of sounds that hold great meaning to the story. The constant ticking hand of a clock mimics the biological boiling point inside a meek woman. Walls crack and tear as though they were struck by a malevolent force at work. A church bell rings to summon the laughing, untouched children inside its chapel. Flies swarm the tainted meat of a rabbit like a sacrifice to an effigy of man. And the sounds of human pleasure accompany cries of death all behind the door of Carol’s apartment.
The spectrum of sound amplifies the pain and suffering she endured since her youth, all compiled into a soundtrack that none shall ever hear unless they too become trapped in a void of psychotic rage. The outer orientation functions of sound present in this film clarify and intensify the struggle Carol endures to fight a battle within herself. These bursts of sound also lend a hand in creating and maintaining the picture’s overall aesthetic quality—one that stuns viewers with rhythmic flair and unexpected overtures of vulnerability.
I admit I found it incredibly hard to be excited about the newest Star Wars movie to grace us this holiday season.
That was mainly because of the movies that had come before it. Last year it was Rogue One, a film that dealt intimately with an event the mainline movies briefly mentioned as important. Rogue One had many things going for it, like the fact that it is probably one of the greatest plot hole covers ever made — besides another Star Wars creation, The Clone Wars animated show — but the film lacks character depth and the absence of a true villain of its own keeps the movie from being truly fantastic.
The year before that we saw The Force Awakens; a good star wars movie. A good star wars movie is the only way to describe The Force Awakens. Besides a few interesting beats, the seventh movie is a remake of the fourth that followed a formula to add worth to its existence. An existence that desperately wanted to say that the new franchise was still Star Wars, and thus did nothing inventive.
The Last Jedi is nothing if not inventive. It feels like The Last Jedi loves playing with fans of the series. Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher give stellar performances as Luke and Leia. Luke in this movie is an absolute gem and watching Mark strut his stuff as the legendary Jedi master brings humor and weight to the story.
Some fans, myself included, were worried about Luke simply taking the place of Yoda in what would be a remake of the fifth movie, and The Last Jedi teases viewers with signs of this happening. However Luke is shown to be a much different master then the venerable green puppet, and his training methods and character shine through as unique to a series known for cliche. Hamill’s older Luke is a cynical man who is aware of his legend — someone who has made it out as the victor in a tumultuous war and since then has had time to reflect on the damage done. Thus, when Daisy Ridley’s Rey comes along and tries to bring the news that hope and friendship win the day, Luke is there to shed a different light.
On the other side of the story is where Fisher’s Leia shines. Simply trying to keep a spark of rebellion alive we see Leia and her resistance fight against the First Order’s plans to destroy them. Being a wizened general, we see her perspective on the notions of “heroes” and how they are no good in death; and instead sometimes just keeping the flame lit is all that can be done. We also see the other members of the cast shine throughout these sections as they not only deal with infighting amongst themselves but the larger enemy looming ever nearer. However, there is one character who exists to spout the cliches the rest of the movie strives to break that it is hard not to see her actions as laughable. One particular moment has this character spouting about hope and good intention as a blast reeks havoc to her allies; a blast that only happened because she stopped someone from sacrificing himself to stop it. Although a touching scene about hope in dark moments, it was almost laughable because of how little her character fits the tone of the movie. Other characters had more depth and only had a slight glorious moment on the screen.
In The Last Jedi, you will see these moments and they will blow you away; like a cruiser jumping to lightspeed straight into an enemy armada, or thirteen land crafts on a planet of salt kicking up vibrant red dust as they speed their way to a stand against an overwhelming force. All of these moments are undercut however by the sheer amount of subplots left unfulfilled by the end of the movie. With a two hours and 33-minute runtime, the movie felt overpacked and not able to do everything it was going for. Some plots feel unimportant at the end, only to be remembered for the images that were inspired by them.
Those images are amazing though. There are some that are not just aesthetically pleasing but symbolically important for the franchise as a whole. One scene has two old friends watching a tree burn down in front of them, as the ashes of their past work accumulate they watch the pyre grow to welcome in the new era that comes. Another scene has two foes face each other just as Anakin and Obi-Wan had in the climatic end of the third movie, with fire both in the shot and in each of the combatant’s eyes.
It has flaws, quite a few, but The Last Jedi is worth seeing in theatres this holiday season, especially if you have a vested interest in the series. If you are not a Star Wars fan some of the movie will fly over your head, but even with that I do not feel that you need to watch any other movie in the series to be able to keep up with The Last Jedi. It will be improved if you do have the knowledge of the main series, but not made. The Last Jedi stands on its own as a novel addition to the franchise and I highly suggest you go see it in theatres with a few non-talkative friends.
What first attracted you to single panel cartoons?
I was always interested in drawing and comedy. The comedians I gravitated towards were the cerebral one-liner types like Steven Wright, Mitch Helberg, Emo Philips. I like the simplicity and precision of that style and the fact that it’s a little more about the thought and writing behind the joke than it is about the performance of the joke. Single panel cartoons, especially at the New Yorker seem to be the cartooning equivalent of that. Very much about the idea of the joke, the literary aspect and the drawings don’t over-act.
How might stand-up comedy compare with cartooning?
Stand up is easier and harder. It’s easier in that you can develop a character and rhythm that the audience can get onboard with. A cartoon has to do all the work right there on the page one-on-one without any introduction or warm up. But standup’s harder in that you have to do a second job alongside your joke-telling job and that is reacting and controlling the room and surfing the crowd’s energy. And of course you have to stand up there and personally experience those bombing moments. Cartoonists are anonymous.
What do you do when you’re having a tough time coming up with ideas?
That’s the usual state. I always feel like I have absolutely nothing and will never think of anything funny ever again until the moment when I suddenly do. One of my favorite quotes about creativity is by Edwin Land: “Creativity is the sudden cessation of stupidity.” So when I’m in that stupid phase (which is always) I’m just trying to get the gears going with anything I can. I’ll try to come up with my own writing prompts or flip through some sort of resource material. Just to get something to react to, a jumping off point. I try to resist the temptation to let myself off the hook by telling myself “Oh I need to get up and take a walk” or “I think a cookie would really help me think better.” I try to just keep plugging away. I can’t say that I always succeed at that. Sometimes I’ll just go outside or take a hot shower or do something to get myself in the comedy frame of mind like look at old cartoons or watch ten minutes of random standup. It’s actually better for me to look at bad comedy than stuff I think is great.
When did you realize you got good at cartooning?
A couple years into doing it probably, but that was after twenty years of doing art and at least ten of doing comedy in various forms, mostly just learning about joke writing. My first hurdle in cartooning was to learn to let the picture do half the work, either the setup or the punch line or part of both. I had a tendency at first to just write odd one-liners then draw odd people saying them and that’s not really a pure cartoon. It can work, but in the best cartoons, the caption and the image are insufficient by themselves. The idea needs both. Unless it’s a wordless cartoon, which is nice when you can pull it off.
How has The New Yorker influenced your career?
It’s proved to be a good spot for my sensibilities. Even though I grew up a country boy in Texas, I came to love whatever it is you would call the New Yorkery style of humor. I was reading SJ Perleman in college. It’s not a complete match. I do some stuff that doesn’t suit the New Yorker but I’d say it’s an 85% match. I didn’t have to adapt what I do to fit in there. I was able to do my thing and develop a voice that is parallel to the magazine’s. And of course I’ve gotten better rubbing shoulders with my amazing colleagues there.
Why don’t we have more cartoon publications these days?
Good question. I have no idea. A lot of cartooning is now on the internet but that came after other magazines had already stopped running them. Maybe we’re in a golden age of web comics, unless that’s already over. The golden age of magazine cartooning was long gone by the time I started. One good place that’s still publishing a lot of cartoons is The American Bystander which is a really great independent humor magazine. It’s crowd-funded so your readers should go check that out and pitch in.
What’s the weirdest idea you’ve ever had for an illustration?
That’s interesting. I don’t think of my stuff as weird. Absurd maybe but I’m always going for laughs so to me the absurdity has to have an element of sense to it. I’ve drawn talking animals and aliens and grim reapers but those are hardly weird in the cartoon world. I once drew a pine tree driving a car that has a human-shaped air freshener hanging from the mirror. Is that weird? And a two-headed kid with glasses complaining to his mom that kids at school call him “eight eyes.” And a long-torsoed cat called a wiener cat. Maybe I do draw weird stuff.
What do you think people don’t realize about your job?
Most people think of cartooning as drawing. It’s actually way more about the thinking and the writing than it is about the art. The drawing part is just the end zone dance.
Why do you think cartoonists become cartoonists?
Probably lots of reasons. For me, I wanted to do comedy in some form or another and I have a lot more confidence in my drawing ability than my personality or performance skills. Generally I think cartoonists like doing something that’s entirely within their control. It’s very pure and personal. They like to perfect something before presenting it to others. They secretly want people to think they’re brilliant and they want to make hundreds of dollars a year.
Check out Matt’s book, “Hand Drawn Jokes for Smart Attractive People” on Amazon & pick up a free art print after signing up for his newsletter at www.mattdiffee.com