Archive for April, 2011

Apollo’s Girl

April 26, 2011

Coming Soon to (or in) a Theater Near You

New Directors/New Films

Maybe it was just coincidence, but some of us were convinced that the Festival management (in this case, Film Society Lincoln Center and MoMA) were doing their bit for the Year of the Woman (2011); Women’s History Month (March); and International Women’s Day (March 8th). If so, they were keeping their stealth agenda to themselves but, after several press screenings, it was hard to ignore the thread that seemed to weave through many of the entries – films mostly by women, mostly about women. (Guys: you could have told us!) 

There were many to recommend, and one that really blew me out of the water: Incendies, by Canadian Denis Villeneuve, now in theaters. With three previous features under his belt, he’s not really a new director, but no matter: Villeneuve is a very big talent who makes big pictures with big themes; in the case of Incendies, like a modern Greek tragedy. Adapted from a play (Scorched) by Wajdi Mouawad, the story is set in the Middle East (nominally Lebanon) and probes the conflict between Christians and Muslims. It far transcends its theatrical roots by opening out cinematically and emotionally on the grand scale. Its heroine’s life bookends the fate of the brother and sister who are her children; her death sends them on a quest to find their missing father and brother. The rest, as they say, is best valued in the seeing. 

Incendies was an Oscar nominee for Best Foreign Film this year, and Villeneuve’s future is definitely worth watching—recently reported to include Prisoners, a thriller set in Boston. In the meantime, MoMA is doing us the favor of screening his previous scorcher, Polytechnique, from June 29July 5th. Be sure you see it this time around! 

Margin Call won’t be out til this fall, but for those who can’t resist rubbing salt into the wounds of our national economic meltdown and continuing lack of justice for its perpetrators, Margin Call (can it be about Goldman Sachs?) is worth seeing, both for its twisty script, by director J.C. Chandor, and its starry cast (Kevin Spacey, Paul Bettany, Demi Moore, and a truly reptilian Jeremy Irons). There may be no justice in the real world, and no heroes or heroines in the film, but there is scandal laid bare here–and regret for those unlucky enough to hold a sub-prime mortgage.

In full possession of a woman’s unerring eye for mischief, sly fun and epic folly, director Anne Sewitsky has created Happy, Happy. Its two couples frolic in bed, and in the snow, knitting together an ultimately satisfying domestic comedy-drama with tears and insights. Although nominally Norwegian, the cast is multi-Nordic, and skilled enough to warm you when the darts of married life and parenthood land close to home. (Winner of the World Cinema Grand Jury Prize at Sundance; out to be enjoyed this summer.) 

Another winner (Audience Award for Drama at Sundance) about, and by, women, is Maryam KeshavarzCircumstance. Set in an Iran very much struggling with traditions and rebellion, Circumstance plays out the conflicts reflected in a forbidden relationship between two young woman students and their families. Acting and directing are assured, and the script has some genuine surprises–mixing politics (real and social) and passion into an unsettling, but ultimately satisfying experience. (Out this summer.)

Finally, I want to strongly recommend Periferic (Outbound). Bearing in mind that its story and co-written script are by the writer of 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days (Cristian Mungiu), you will rightly expect to be moved far out of your comfort zone for a sizzling 87 minutes. Direction (by Bogdan Apetri) is devoid of bells and whistles, but long on atmosphere and emotion. And its heroine (if she can be called one), Ana Ularu, has a face that the camera loves, even when it’s grimacing in fury and anguish. This is a breakout performance, and deserves the attention of filmmakers everywhere bearing scripts with challenging roles for her outsize talent. Although Periferic (more accurately translated as periphery, or outside) exposes a wretched life with little hope of redemption, Ularu’s grim radiance is such that you cannot help but be completely drawn into it—even, against all the odds, hope that somehow she will escape. There is currently no hard information on the film’s release here, yet I hope that somehow—even against all the odds—it will appear. 

And one more thing…

The Festival’s shorts inevitably get less attention than its full-length features, but they are (and have been for some years) of extraordinary quality. This year’s Night Hunter, by Stacey Steers, from Boulder, CO, is high art, in every sense of the word. With snippets of archival film of Lilian Gish (black-and-white, save for blood-red painted rosebud lips), and collages of antique wallpaper, graphics, fabrics, and memorabilia vying for attention with drawn images of snakes and nightmare critters, Steers imagines a mythic world—the child of the Brothers Grimm and the crones of Macbeth—that, even in the sensory overload of a major festival, remains stubbornly in your imagination; and like the blood spot in Macbeth, it won’t be washed out. Sound design by Larry Polansky enhances the story: a woman lives in an old house deep in the woods in increasing peril with no saviour in sight. Simple, but thrillingly told by an artist whose gifts can pack it all into 16 minutes. See for yourself at http://staceysteers.com/ 

Apollo’s Girl

April 17, 2011

 IF YOU PLAY IT, THEY WILL COME

Yale in New York

Who can resist it? An evening of repertoire you’ve always wanted to hear but nobody offers? Well, just ask the Yale School of Music, which has been making its Yale in New York season appearances with just that strategy, and its appeal isdespite the city’s ferocious competitiontruly irresistible. Artistic director David Shifrin served twelve years in the same post with the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, and he knows how to design a magnet as well as a wield a clarinet.

The first concert I went to was the Yale Philharmonia, in a program of four concerti grossi at Zankel Hall. One of them (by Ernest Bloch) is a staple, but the others (Duet-Concertino for clarinet and bassoon, by Richard Strauss); Ballade No. 2 (by Frank Martin); and the always ingratiating Alberto Ginastera’s Variaciones concertantes, are lesser-known gems. Taken together, the four promised an out-of-the-ordinary treat; balanced and provocative, that deployed the Philharmonia like a lean and energized battalion determined to take no prisoners.

The orchestra, conducted by Shinik Hahm, is first-rate, and the soloists (especially in the Ginastera, and especially its French horn player, Andrew Mee) were the equal of any heard around town. The cream on this tasty cake was whipped up by Yale faculty members Ransom Wilson, (in the Martin) and David Shifrin and Frank Morelli in the Strauss. 

While Yale’s resources have enabled its music department to do run-out concerts in New York, it has also toured as far afield as China and Mexico, and has developed an ardent following in its wake. But there is no doubt that the repertoire strategy of Yale in New York is key to its success in the city.

Up next (this time at Carnegie’s Weill Recital Hall) on Monday, April 25 at 8pm, you can hear the Yale Baroque Ensemble inStylus Fantasticus”– Extravagant and experimental music from the 17thcentury. If you’re for new music, it’s your cup of tea. And if you’re for early music, it’s the honey and lemon. Or, taken together, its like having your scone and eating it, too. To learn more about Yale in New York: Yale. To see and hear: tickets

Cooper’s London

April 10, 2011

 

  

HEALING: CONSOLATIONS OF THE ARTS

 by Mel Cooper

For the past few months I have been suffering from something called Hepatitis E. The doctors in my home town were thrilled; they have never seen it before and now I am on a national register in the UK and being monitored like crazy. However, because of this I am also wildly behind. I miss having opportunities to sound off about what I believed was worth seeing in London. So I am going to sit at my computer and start saying things again.

The first of which is that I have rarely been so aware of the consolations of the arts as in this past few months. In a world that is increasingly in a bad way on so many fronts, they do offer not only consolation and distraction but articulation of human folly and the human condition in ways one would not come up with oneself, necessarily. All this does seem to help. There is something profoundly important about recognizing echoes of the present and one’s own problems in the arts, all the way back to the Iliad and the Odyssey. The Chinese were right: the worst curse is “May you live in interesting times!” These are, unfortunately, interesting times. And there are worse things going on in life than turning to the arts for consolation, articulation and sheer distraction.

So partly I am thinking: what is noticing a new young violinist or enjoying a production of a play or opera compared to tsunamis in Japan and chaos in the Middle East? But that way lies Tolstoy’s turning against not only art in general but his own writings in particular.

Does it make any difference to vast numbers in this world that he wrote War and Peace and that the recent translation I finally caught up with by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky is very readable and illuminating?

Not really. And yet the novel is full of characters that can seem as real as anyone you know; stories that re as memorable as anything you have experienced and to which you cannot help referring; and the way they live their lives and handle everything from a first ball to a major battle somehow helps us with our own lives and thoughts about the epic and terrible things that are happening in our world. I am convinced of it.

PUSHKIN LIVES! (EVEN IN ENGLISH)

Which brings me to the whole issue of translation. There’s a lot of amazing material out there in languages, living and dead, that I do not while While ill, I re-read Pushkin for the first time since I was a teenager. And although I totally believe that it is impossible to find, in these translations, in any translation, the full weight of his poetry, the way his words mingle with their sense— certainly, in the prose tales and even in his dramas, you can still feel the mastery and understand why he is so universally considered to be the first progenitor, the father of all Russian literature, the master of all forms, and the Shakespeare of his own language.

What was most amazing was rediscovering what a terrific story-teller he is. Once you have read about three sentences of any of his stories, you are pulled forward. You have to know what happens next. He has the gift of the balladeer and the sophistication of the most intellectually daring modern writers. He writes stories that grip you as you read them and then will not leave you alone afterwards.

The version I got hold of, the Collected Short Prose of Pushkin in the Everyman edition, was translated by Paul Debreceny. His work as a Pushkin translator into English has been highly acclaimed and I found it completely and easily readable. The Everyman edition was published to coincide with the Bicentenary of Pushkin’s birth in 1999.

PRAISING PASTERNAK

Leap forward one hundred and fifty-odd years and you encounter another recognized monument of Russian literature, poet Boris Pasternak’s amazing novel, Doctor Zhivago. It has taken fifty years for anyone to do a decent translation into English based on the original Russian and not filtered through other translations and without politically motivated cuts.

Pevear and Volokhonsky deserve our gratitude once more for coming up with a text in English that is complete and readable in a way that I have never experienced before. I am sure that, as always, elements are lost in translation; but forget what you might be missing and enjoy what is so fully there.

When the turgid translation of 1958 was released it was promised that it was a temporary solution because everyone wanted to read the novel immediately so badly. But it was such a best seller that no one bothered to tamper with what was there, inadequate though it was. And then the novel was further translated to another medium, to film; and that is a whole other issue to think about, especially when you read or re-read the text in this new translation and do comparisons in your head. It is a stimulating and worthwhile task.

So thanks to the publishers for finally making good on their promise of half a century ago. I also think that, given the fame and ubiquity of the MGM film, it is good to go back to a translation from the original source and realise that it was not just politics and a romantic tale that provoked the Russian authorities and the Nobel Prize committee, but something more starkly profound and pained.

While surfing the net about the novel I also discovered that there is a Russian TV version of the book with the amazing Oleg Menshikov in the title role, in eleven episodes, from 2006. Now if we all agitate, do you suppose we could get it fully released on DVD with subtitles so that we can see it without deepest Web search? I would love to see how the Russians themselves and Menshikov in particular translate Yuri Zhivago onto the screen for a contemporary audience. Not least because Oleg Menshikov is one of the most profoundly gifted actors, directors and entertainers working anywhere today. If you have not already done so, see him in the Oscar-winning film Burnt by the Sun, which is available on DVD.

 

Two on a Match

April 8, 2011

Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo

Wittenberg

 There’s so much fluff out there on the boards now that finding two red-hot plays with something to say, the players to say it, and roars of laughter like fireworks in their essential darkness is cause for celebration. Just be sure you don’t miss either one! 

First, the hardest thing I had to do all week was sit on a post for Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo until the show openedhard because writing is easiest when you’re fueled by great joy or great anger, and Tiger gave lavishly of both; joy at the skill and energy of the production, and anger at the ongoing stupidity that is Iraq. In fact, I left the theater with such a surge of excitement that I wanted to go home and really penetrate my computer–but only after calling everyone I knew to urge them to buy tickets right away. 

Yes, I remembered Moisés Kaufman’s brilliant script and direction for 33 Variations  and was curious to see what he’d do with Rajiv Joseph‘s 2010 Pulitzer-finalist play. Not to worry: it was like the collaboration of Aaron Sorkin and David Fincher on The Social Network—purest synergy, indivisible but, in this case, live on stage and reporting directly from today’s trenches.And here’s the rest of it: the cast has been imported intact (save for Robin Williams in the title role) from its earlier incarnation in Los Angeles. They know all the moves by heart (and some of them are risky), and perform them as a revved-up team that relishes every word.

As for Robin Williams: let’s just say that if you ever had to meet a tiger, you’d want him to be Robin Williams—equal parts whimsy, carnivore and lusty philosopher. Devoid of the shtick that has sometimes obscured his huge talent, he is actually perfect for, and in, the role. Kaufman’s high-speed direction never misses a beat, and the sets (by Derek McLane) and costumes (by David Zinn) are partners in pleasure. There is so much power on and behind the stage of the Richard Rodgers Theater that it’s hard to leave without feeling compelled to see it all again—just consider it a necessary indulgence.

 

 

Wittenberg                             

Yes, there really are two must-sees in town right now, and Wittenberg is one of them. Here, too, the play is the thing (by David Davalos, who knows his classics inside and out, and has a truly wicked sense of humor) but—and this is a must-knowWittenberg will be generating its heat and light only until April 17 because the City Center is being renovated, including its Stage II space, now home base for the Pearl Theatre.

Wittenberg is a merry mashup of Shakespeare (as Hamlet); God (as Martin Luther); and the devil incarnate (as Dr. Faustus). Plus the protean Eternal Feminine in many guises, all played to a turn by Joey Parsons. It includes—all in period garbthe Prince of Denmark wearing ear-buds, Faust holding forth as a lusty country-and-Western idol on a modern mandolin (God, he’s good!), and Luther himself struggling mightily with a first draft of his 95 theses–very yesterday, very today.

It’s amazing what Davalos’ mind has made of this potent brew, and how director J.R. Sullivan has shaped its roller-coaster antics with theatrical cunning. Events turn on a dime; just when you think you’ve signed on for a classical comedy, you realize that the actors are taking you down a very different path. Before you know it, you’re discovering some essential life lessons in the hands of highly skilled lectors with internal GPS and absolute pitch. Like all great theater, Wittenberg was developed over time (what a luxury!) by a resident company that has used it to advantage. and now benefits from the intimacy and comfort of its new theater. And if you want to see it again, you’ll have your chance this September; it will debut in London, then at the Gate Theatre, and (in German) in Berlin at the end of March. Meantime, the Pearl will be back on its renovated stage as of September 13: pearl theatre 


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