Archive for December, 2009

Up in the Air, Down to Earth

December 28, 2009

Way Up in the Air: A Perfect Film;
The Messenger;
Nine: Less than a Ten

Yes, I know we usually focus on foreign films and indies, but sometimes you just have to join the Big Parade. Truthfully, it’s impossible to see Up in the Air (especially after sitting through It’s Complicated) and not jump up and down a little. The two are likely contenders for domestic Oscars, and have already been nominated for a handful. But one is a slick, clever, fantasy about middle-aged white women in a squeaky-clean community far, far from the real world. The other is a slick, clever, clear-eyed and probing look at how we live today—and it’s definitely unsanitary.

Our central problem at the moment is the economy, and the way in which we are cast off like so much garbage when it’s in a slump (unless we’re running banks or hedge funds and receiving obscene bonuses for having generated the slump in the first place).

The most outstanding thing about Up in the Air (and there are many) is how stylishly it deals with this problem, without in any way minimizing its terrible pain. You could simply say It’s Complicated is all surface; Up in the Air is surface with a beating heart in the midst of a seizure. It makes its points economically; locations are set up by aerial shots with simple graphic IDs; the hero’s moves are an efficient and impersonal ballet méchanique as he prepares for the next flight to carnage. And the carnage itself is played out by real people who have actually lost their jobs. The cuts are quick, but to the bone.

Director/writer Jason Reitman (son of legendary Hollywood director Ivan Reitman) has made a brilliant film. It’s better than his recent Juno, but a logical next step for such a talent. His genius for pungent dialogue and spectacular editing (every single cut is in exactly the right place—not one frame too early, not one frame too late) gives the film its loft and energy. But Reitman goes all that even one better: he casts like God at the wheel (there are no mistakes) and charms amazing performances out of pros like George Clooney (never better), the quirky and wonderful Vera Farmiga, and—wow, oh wow—out of newcomer Anna Kendrick, who explodes with surprises and virtuoso tics, while looking spookily like Tom Cruise’s younger sister. Her relationship with Clooney (and Farmiga) is one of the freshest and most original you’ll see.

As for It’s Complicated: Much has been made of the newest chapter in Nancy Meyer’s lock on the branded fantasy-world saga. She is surely an obsessive craftsman who runs a tight ship, who knows her actors and her audience, and especially how to rack up impressive profit margins. But Reitman is just as obsessive and also goes far beyond her with a bullseye in the universal human condition department that no one can surpass. His film flits by, while digging deep. It’s an odd and irresistible combination that stays in your head and keeps you thinking about its message, as well as its characters .

The Messenger

Catch this before it leaves town! Its focus on the real toll of the war in Iraq, and now Afghanistan—the distraught families who learn that their sons/husbands/fathers have been killed—is disturbing, but required viewing for adults capable of reflection. Woody Harrelson and Ben Foster play a strategic team under orders to deliver the bad news in person. What they see as they travel the country reveals, like Up in the Air, the hard truths of 2010: the terrible anguish of its victims in brief, telling strokes. They stay with you in The Messenger, too. But Foster’s coiled spring of a veteran, all fury and tenderness, deserves special recognition, big-time.










Never have so many stars worked so hard for so little. The cast is weighted with A-list goddesses, mostly bumping, grinding, and acting-out strenuous sexual fantasies to a raucous soundtrack: Sophia Loren, Judi Dench, Nicole Kidman, Penelope Cruz, Marion Cotilliard, Kate Hudson, and Fergie, (the singer, not the princess). Although it’s presumably the story of a man in desperate search of a muse to inspire his film, the truth is that Daniel Day-Lewis is the real-life muse for all his ladies. He tries manfully to do the right thing, racing to and fro from bed to bed, even singing acceptably. But his furtive scuttle is more reminiscent of Jean-Louis Trintignant’s in The Conformist than Marcello Mastroianni’s in 8½. (Perhaps it’s guilt for having been roped into this overheated stew?) All is forgiven, though, in the last number: a stunning panorama of the entire cast on several levels of a soon-to-be-demolished movie set. And guess what: even in that Olympian company, Judi Dench sings, and simply blows it all right out of the theater.

Size Matters

December 22, 2009

Big Ideas, Big Treasures

The opening number of Ragtime (now in a stunning revival at the Neil Simon Theater) is a paradigm for the power of musical theater at its best—with ranks of the three groups whose stories intersect: the white upper-middle-class of Westchester, the African-Americans of Harlem, and the waves of immigrants (most from eastern Europe, Italy, or Ireland) who will make their mark on the country in the early 20th century.

On three levels of a minimal set, they claim their territory, express their attitudes and set up the conflicts that mirror America’s great leap forward, using music and movement to create the essence of complex history—even more effective as metaphor. The scene revived memories of the best moment of Fiddler on the Roof  (the brainchild of Jerome Robbins, the master of metaphor), when the Jews decide to flee their villages forever:  As music plays, the ragged band steps into light, on to a large turntable that begins to revolve; then, one by one or in small family groups, leave it…flung off into the darkness of an uncertain future. But they will travel in hope to other countries and cultures, free of the rigid laws and pogroms that have made their lives beyond the Pale unbearable.

Ragtime succeeds because of its economy and innate strength. The score sounds fresh, and the new lean production (using pipes to construct a car, a piano, or having a wheeled stairway stand in for a movie set), carries all the potency of suggestion, in place of literal representation. It’s the perfect aesthetic for director Marcia Milgrom Dodge, who was chosen for this Broadway revival after thirty years in regional theater; she’s charged it with life from the opening number to the last note.  Her large cast sizzles, especially Christiane Noll, Robert Petkoff, Quentin Earl Darrington, Stephanie Umoh, and the tiny Savannah Wise, as the ill-fated Evelyn Nesbit.

Some of the heat that Ragtime emits comes from its successful translation of E.L. Doctorow’s novel (with similar construction and, in 1975, a very innovative mixture of fact and fiction). What was innovative then, is immediately recognizable now, and no less a strong skeleton to flesh out with song and dialogue. Its mixture of fictional and real characters works brilliantly. And its emotional punch leaves you laughing and crying, often at the same time.

This is enhanced by its subtext– the time of its conception– (just after the Vietnam War had ended, the Civil Rights movement had set in motion many ideas we take for granted today, and we were beginning to move on from the assassinations that had rocked the country). Ragtime ends just before the beginning of World War One and its forever changes. But it is reminiscent of a time of hope before those changes and, for a few hours in the theater, reminds us of what was possible when the country had less than half its current population, people still actually talked to one another, rather than to electronic devices, and urban surroundings were on a human scale. (Italics mine.) Knowing, in 2009, that that hope has proven largely unfounded, makes it only more appealing.

Big Ideas, Small Cast
(Brief Encounter)

I know everyone’s been raving about this show (Mel Cooper reported on the Knee High Theater earlier in Cooper’s London), and I can only add the most important information: its current Brooklyn run at St. Anne’s Warehouse has been extended to January 17. This amazingly inventive take on an old film, given new (and absolutely unique) life by director/adapter Emma Rice, boasts a small cast (of nine) that just never quits. They play multiple roles and instruments, and surround you with love and surprises from the moment you enter the lobby; dressed as ushers in a suburban movie theater in the 1940s, they perform songs by Noel Coward, so you believe – really believe – before you even take your seat.

The production itself uses film, video, live action, lighting, props, and body language to create a heightened reality. You’ve seen the elements before. But it’s the totally unique ways in which the actors, music, lights, and movement fuse that keep it irresistible all the way through. The references to the movie are always there.  And the bodies in constant (and often slapstick) motion create an alternative world that oddly enhances your connection to the characters. It’s darker than the movie, and full of emotion, rather than sentiment. It’s a lot to pull off, and Knee High does it with a combination of imaginative improvisation, split-second timing, and brilliant direction by Emma Rice. Look for more on Knee High this spring in these pages.

 Big Ideas, Small Treasures

What’s the opposite of blockbuster? Some of New York’s recent openings. Think compact quarters, spacious ideas. For instance: The Metropolitan Museum is showing (until February) what it calls  “A Recently Rediscovered Velázquez Painting”—Portrait of a Man—that has emerged from centuries of mis-cleaning, mis-repainting, just plain grime, and that old devil varnish to shine anew.

It’s displayed in a modest gallery, along with a few other Velázquez portraits. What’s really fascinating, though, is the museum’s account of the painting’s history and reclamation on view in labels, and via headphones and podcast as well. ( Don’t miss this rare peek behind the curtlain. (Or the painting itself, which is luminous in its new incarnation!)

 Lost and Found

Inside the elegant quarters of NYU’s Institute for the Study of the Ancient World (15 East 84 Street), you can find two rooms filled with very small, very old objects, and a burning mystery: what happened to the early Europeans who made them between 5000-3500 BC? 

In modern-day Romania, Bulgaria, Moldova, these southeastern people left behind sophisticated pottery, figurines, and gold and copper objects; the remnants of their long-abandoned settlements in the Danube Valley are badly charred. Who set the fires? You can ponder the mystery while you ponder the objects, until April, and admission is free.

Small Plates, Big Prices

The Guggenheim Museum has had a culinary/design makeover of its restaurant, and will be serving food by Executive Chef Rodolfo Contreras, with an accent on fresh ingredients from local area farmers and markets, cunningly presented as jewels for the palate: Sea Urchin Sauce, slow-roasted suckling pig, Quince, Violet Mustard and Apple Bacon jus, to name a few.

An alumnus of Bouley International, Contreras will preside over a destination eatery with only 58 seats, a communal table, and a European-style bar with small plates. Open from 11:30am to 11:00pm, The Wright sends more than one message: you will be well-taken-care-of, well-fed, and well-watered in its cozy, minimalist precincts, surrounded by a site-specific sculpture (“The horizon produced by a factory once it had stopped producing views”). But you will be paying market prices, too.

The designer food, sampled at a packed opening, hit its mark, and the wine was at the level of the food. But, at the risk of seeming ungrateful, could the Guggenheim consider an alternative space for hungry travelers who need to fill up before navigating the ramp, who may not have resources essential to a place at The Wright’s table? It’s worth thinking about…..maybe a daily soup, sandwich, and salad stand in another location?

Big Ideas, Big Talent

Before you get caught up in the holidays, be sure to schedule a trip to MoMA sometime between January 7 – 13, to see Caroline Link’s new film, Sometime in Winter. If I had to name one woman director as the best working today, Link would get my vote. Her adaptation of Nowhere in Africa won a (well-deserved) 2006 Oscar for Best Foreign Film, and was preceded by a portfolio of top-of-the-line works (The Rest is Silence; Pünktchen und Anton), displaying the technical mastery and perfect pitch for human dilemmas that distinguish all her films. Don’t miss it, and consider asking MoMA for a retrospective. It’s high time!

Cooper’s London

December 18, 2009

by Mel Cooper

Decrying Wolf, A Touch of Glass

Once again I cannot work out how the Man Booker Prize was given. Lots of people think that Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall is a brilliant reconstruction of the life of Thomas Cromwell (about which remarkably little is actually known). I certainly liked the opening chapter where Mantel imagines Cromwell’s brutalized childhood. But after that, for me the book does not hold together. I found it ridiculously anachronistic in its attributions of thought to its characters, and I cannot stand the style.

Firstly, the persistent use of the historic present alienates my ability to get into the flow of the tale (which, for many people, seems to be a Brechtian device that they admire); and the trick of having nothing for personal pronouns to refer back to (so that you have to puzzle out which character is in focus for whole sentences at a time) is a consistent irritant. Also, the story simply stops in the middle, so I am assuming it is setting up a sequel.

I know I’m in the minority, but by the end I hated it and thought it was meretricious. For a more enlightening and a better reading experience, try Robert Hutchinson’s Thomas Cromwell: The Rise and Fall of Henry VIII’s Most Notorious Minister. Or read a good book about Henry VIII, or Diarmaid MacCulloch’s excellent Thomas Cramner: A Life. Mantel seems to enter less into the minds, experiences, and specifics of Tudor England than either of these historians, and I found her story-telling confusing, choppy and seriously resistible.

Frankly, I expected one of the other nominees to win this year’s Booker Prize. To be truthful, any of them would have been preferable. But I have a soft spot for one of the novels in particular: The Glass Room, by Simon Mawer. The book is well-written, beautifully layered, and tells a touching story. Using a Bauhaus-style private home built in a mythical Czech city in 1929 (or Mies’ Villa Tughendat, whichever you prefer) as a central symbol and focus for considering the history of Central Europe in the 20th Century, The Glass Room reveals the lives and experiences of the people who built it, as well as the story of the house itself after they had to flee; how it was taken over first by the Nazis as a centre for genetic experimentation, and then by the Communists. The characters are interesting and well-drawn, their emblematic roles are not forced or made heavy, and the house (especially the eponymous glass room) is alive in one’s mind. The way history rolls over the story is completely believable and thought-provoking. Bonus: those who know about 20th-century art and architecture will be able to work out their own real-life references.

December 18, 2009

by Mel Cooper

Royal Home Runs

If you’re in London, The Royal Court Theatre has a lovely, completely entertaining Christmas treat — The Priory—by Michael Wynne, in the theatre downstairs. Essentially, it’s a clever West End farce with grit and lots of contemporary issues and references. And it’s truly a thousand laughs!

A group of thirty-something friends rents a National Trust priory in the depths of a forest and spends New Year’s Eve together. Naturally it all turns into a self-revealing series of “party games.” à la Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, with the ghost of a mediaeval friar possibly haunting the original stones for added interest. A superb ensemble cast of six is directed brilliantly by Jeremy Herrin. Remember that name, because you can see his work in two upcoming plays (they sound interesting!),also at the Royal Court, in 2010. And note particularly the nuanced performances of Jessica Hynes and Joseph Millson (they have the most sympathetically-scripted characters). There’s not a weak link in the cast or any aspect of the production, which also has a stunning set.
Meantime, the theatre upstairs has scored heavily with Mike Bartlett’s Cock. This also has a strong ensemble cast (of four), directed by James Macdonald. It’s brilliantly staged and acted, and its “gay” theme is subsidiary—it’s really a play about personal responsibility and the impact of one’s sometimes selfish decisions on others.
The acting of Ben Whishaw (of Bright Star) is what all the critics are talking about, and he’s very good; but Andrew Scott is even more striking, in my opinion, in a much tougher role; for me, also much more the focus of the story. His physical gestures and facial expressions conveyed even the most subtle thoughts. The staging is brilliant: four actors in a circle interacting (but making you imagine everything)—cooking in the kitchen, performing a strip-tease, making love in the bedroom, etc.—while just standing there, fully-clothed, saying things relevant to the situation you’re not actually seeing, but which is happening in your mind’s eye.
Royal Revisists

And don’t forget my advice: 1) avoid the West End transfer of Lucy Prebble’s ENRON (which everyone else loves, but I found it meretricious). If you’re still determined, it’s going to New York later. 2) And do everything you can to get tickets to the return of Jez Butterworth’s provocative, searing and completely wonderful play Jerusalem, which deservedly won the Evening Standard Best Play and Best Actor awards. Mark Rylance is astonishing in the lead. The entire cast is working at the same level; so all praise also to director, Ian Rickson. and to the set by Ultz.
But, oh dear, in general the West End is still essentially in a time warp, and I am on the lookout for something exciting to share with you. The most interesting long-running show in the West End at the moment is still  The Lion King. 3) So check out the fringe and the Christmas shows! 

Panto Raids

Trying to take the children to holiday theatre? Consider going to a panto. This is a traditional Christmas vaudeville, developed only in the UK (possibly with Mediaeval roots). The story is always some sort of adaptation of a famous fairy tale or ballad-style story, and the principal boy, in this tradition, is played by a girl. (Think Mary Martin as Peter Pan?) And characters like the wicked sisters in Cinderella are always played grotesquely by men. Cross-dressing is rampant but innocent, and one of the pantos this year even has Baywatch’s well-endowed Pamela Anderson, re-incarnated as a fairy godmother!
There are two Aladdins in the East End worth making the effort to visit – one at the innovative Theatre Royal Stratford East—with a good score, a strong cast and a very clever script directed dazzlingly by Kerry Michael; and a revival at the Hackney Empire—a very beautiful restored theatre that is being closed because of a cash crisis. With flying genies, a singing camel, tap dancing pandas and all the usual comic inconsequentials of this genre, this version features the Widow Twanky of the distinctly over-endowed Clive Rowe – a performance right up there with Ian McKellan’s interpretation of the same iconic Panto character. And you get to laugh, cry and, best of all, to boo the villains!
You should also consider, if you have kids under the age of seven, a rather charming show called The Forest at the Young Vic. It’s only an hour long (and really a contemporary dance show), but captivating for kiddies— pitched just right!

A Sure Shot? Taking that Bet!

Some entertainments have as many lives as a cat, so I vote that we should check out Sweet Charity at the Menier Chocolate Factory in London. They have a high rate of scoring hits with their Christmas Classic Musical revivals. I haven’t had a chance to see it myself yet, but the cast of Tamsin Outhwaite, Josefina Gabrielle, and Tiffany Graves as the three friends seems unbeatable on paper; Paul J. Medford, Mark Umbers, and Ebony Molina are also promising casting; the score was always strong; and I have seen good things by the director, Matthew White. That said, if all else fails, catch the Bob Fosse movie with Shirley Maclaine or, even better, the film Le Notte di Cabiria—the original source material—by Federico Fellini.

Apollo’s Girls

December 17, 2009

A Voyage to Discovery

December 17, 2009

One of the perqs of living in New York (oh, there are still a few) is the availability of extraordinary talent–especially at some of the great conservatories in Manhattan: Juilliard; the Manhattan School of Music; and Mannes College the New School of Music. All three have overflowing schedules of concerts and recitals by students and world-class faculty; most of them are free, or generate reverse sticker shock when you pay the piper. Whether you’re keen on new works, new interpretations, or new voices, the music is always about discovery.

Last year, the Manhattan School premiered John Musto’s Later the Same Evening—based on a series of paintings-come-to-life by Edward Hopper. Ingeniously conceived by librettist Mark Campbell, and staged in the same vein by Leon Major, it was a beautifully integrated character study in music; clever and moving, that deserves a long and busy life. (

Most recently, a performance of Gabriel Fauré’s Penelope, also at the Manhattan School, was another kind of discovery; not of a new work, but of a seldom-presented opera by a prolific writer of vocal music, best known for his Requiem and ravishing art songs. Penelope (composed when he was sixty-two) was Fauré’s first full opera. And although he conceived of it as a story whose legendary characters would be represented by specific themes (all of them requiring substantial vocal skill), it is the title role that shines above all others.

Soprano Lori Guilbeau was a Penelope to make Fauré proud: with a full-throated tone that soared, she expressed longing for her absent husband, joy as she recalled the pleasures of their marriage, and fury at the suitors trying to force her into marrying one of them. What a gorgeous voice! And it was matched by tenor Cooper Nolan as the Ullyses, who returns in time to reclaim throne and consort. In fact, the quality of the singers was uniformly high.

Conservatory evenings offer another perq not often found in the concert hall: the sense of full audience involvement (heavy on either current or former faculty and students), a little like a group musical hug. The warmth is contagious, and makes you feel like part of the action. So check out the Web site ( for a listing of all the goodies—classical, jazz, Opera, orchestral, chamber music—travel a little, and find the gold at the end of your own particular rainbow. 

We’re All Connected

December 10, 2009

Laser on the Podium

Seen from behind, head bowed, in the moment before he electrifies the orchestra with his downbeat, he looks like Little Boy Lost. But not for long. Once his very, very big stick slices the air, he is—like Amazing Grace– forever found.

Esa-Pekka Salonen. The one, the only. Seen and heard recently at the New York Philharmonic, cheered by audience and orchestra alike for Bartok and Debussy, partnering with pianist David Fray in a taut and nuanced Ravel Concerto in G. You could feel the joy that mandated the curtain calls. (And you could see how the string players kept tapping their bows on their stands long after the dictates of courtesy. They kept smiling, too. And why not? They sounded terrific!)

Well. Mr. Salonen has long since come, seen, and conquered a number of orchestras, but it is the LA Philharmonic that he led, loved, and burnished for seventeen years, before recently giving it up to Gustavo Dudamel. He will remain in England with the Philharmonia, direct a few festivals, and take some select guest-conducting gigs, but he wants time to compose, to read, and to smell the flowers, and there’s no one who has given more to earn the privilege.

The first time I encountered Mr. Salonen was as a winner of two tickets for an LA Philharmonic concert in New York a few years ago (courtesy of a Naxos promotion). I sat stunned and slack-jawed to hear him and his Big Band play the familiar and the new. They gave me goosebumps. Two years later, I was in Avery Fisher Hall to hear them again. This time, they played Firebird. It’s a nice piece, of course, and I’ve probably heard it 4,000 times. But here’s the thing – now I was hearing it for the very first time, and I cried.

As his leave-taking in LA approached, howls of despair could be heard from the Walt Disney Concert Hall to the Hollywood Bowl. Fans packed the last concerts, urging a change of heart (impossible in a profession where everything is planned years in advance). The LA Phil’s online shop offered T-shirts (black, the color of mourning) with the logo “Don’t go, Esa-Pekka!” You get the idea.

What the compact and efficient Mr. Salonen (can I call him Esa-Pekka?) has is what every great conductor, musician, and dancer has: a kind of laser-like connection to both other performers and the audience—a current that remains unbroken from the first note, or step, to the last. It’s not something that can be learned. Trust me: you can sense it, and it’s impossible to resist. Your skin knows.

What he also has is a full portfolio. You can hear his work on CDs, i-Tunes, or at

Or learn more at But that laser connection lives in live. So, if we’re lucky, Esa-Pekka will stop by again for a visit. Just be sure you’re in the hall when the laser is plugged in. (UPDATES: You’re in luck! He’ll be back in the hall, with the New York Philharmonic, from March 10 through March 26, 2011, for a Hungarian Echoes series, including Bartok’s Bluebeard’s Castle and concertos played by Pierre-Laurent Aimard and Olli Mustonen. Tickets on sale now.) And, if you just can’t wait, catch the New York premiere of his Violin Concerto (he’s conducting!) at the New York City Ballet on June 22, 23, and 26.  As the score for Peter Martins’ new ballet, Mirage, with a set by architect Santiago Calitrava, it’s a gala cultural triple play. ep-tickets.html



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