Archive for August, 2015

Apollo’s Girl

August 29, 2015


apollo and lyre


The Short and the Long of the Best…
Learning to Drive;
Edgar Reitz Comes

It’s relatively short (90 minutes) and I didn’t plan to write about it but, in all honestly, I simply had to. Learning to Drive is a real honey; compelling learning to drive2story, fresh, realistic, quirky dialogue, and two characters who you will remember for a long time because you just can’t stop caring about them. The story, in its barest outlines, could have been just another Odd Couple two-hander; they meet cute, have little in common, yet somehow manage to bond and persevere until they drive into the sunset together.

kernochanForget it! What makes this gem stand out is the serious talent that went into its conception, its script (thank you, thank you Sarah Kernochan), its realization and those same spacious pages that the cast and director (Isabel Coixet) inhabit together from first frame to last. Based on an autobiographical 2002 New Yorker story by Katha Pollitt, the film took 11 years to emerge from magazine to movie and, as frustrating as that journey may have been, there are no shortcuts I know of to creating such lapidary work.

Patricia Clarkson and Ben Kingsley are equal partners in this brilliant caper, but share their skills with Grace Gummer, Sarita Choudhury, Jake Weber, Avi Nash and Matt Salinger. DP Manel Ruiz just keeps getting it right and the editing (by Keith Reamer and Thelma Schoonmaker) flaunts its rhythms coixetall the way through (one touch: we’re not in Toronto, and when Clarkson and Kingsley drive around, they are always geographically correct). Well, that’s a minor detail. But had this movie been made with a lesser talent for holding the reins than Coixet’s, it would has been just another charmer without the finesse and perception that loft it way beyond its genre. (AMC Loew’s Lincoln Square; AMC Empire 25; Angelika Film Center)

Home From Home (Anthology Film Archives, Sept. 8 – 17)

Years ago, having worked many months in Germany, I was drawn to heimat oneMoMA to see Edgar Reitz’ Heimat: A Chronicle of Germany. MoMA offered two choices: see all 16 hours in two days, or opt for four hours a day for two weekends. Guided by some fateful instinct, I chose total immersion. Reitz was telling the tale of Germany between the wars and and beyond and, after spending the weekend with the three families from Shabbach whose interlocking stories explained the riddle of how, and why, Germany did what it had done in those years, I was never quite the same. But I craved more.

Almost a decade later, Reitz mounted Heimat: A Chronicle of a Generation, which revisited some of the key players from 1960 – 1972 from a different perspective. This time it took heimat 224 hours to tell their story. The Public Theatre stepped up to the plate and offered weekly subscriptions (180 minutes per week) in its tiny screening room. The word got out: that tiny screening room was packed with the likes of Susan Sonntag, Wallace Shawn and their friends in a communal trance for the entire run. Eventually, PBS showed part of the series and Bravo (then a very high-end film subscription channel) the rest, with repeats..

But times changed. Heimat Three (A Chronicle of Endings and Beginnings) heimatparsed the last decade of the 20th century up to the Millennium in just six hours, and was shown here only at the Goethe Institut in Boston. PBS had moved on to Downton Abbey, and Bravo had become a bargain-basement repository for NBC’s schlockiest fare.

reitzIt’s more of a pity than you might imagine, for Reitz is a truly mighty filmmaker, using his camera (often subjectively) as his script’s equal partner in ways that only a master can conjure. This becomes obvious in the very first episodes, where he enables us to experience the first long-distance radio broadcast as the miracle it must have seemed to small-town Germans in 1920. Or to fly slowly over Shabbach inside an antique biplane that allows us to take in the beauty of the forests below. This will pay off in spades in episode 15, when we are inside a supersonic fighter jet in the same location, turning the forests into a green blur. While seeing the entire 53 hours on the big screen is no longer possible, you can find it all on DVD: It’s an incredibly self-indulgent binge, but will satisfy whenever you’re hungry for real film food.

In the meantime, The Anthology Film Archive is offering us the gift of Reitz’ newest: Heimat: A Chronicle home from homeof a Vision,a prequel to the later dramathat takes place in mid-19th-century Germany before its revolution and unification into the country it would become under the Hohenzollern Kaisers until 1918. This is no dry history, but a living, breathing emotional high that keeps you hypnotized,  watching and feeling, until the story ends. And you will still want more….

For a full schedule of the Mighty Reitz (including two of his early pre-Heimat films and a program of shorts), go to  Reitz schedule You won’t get this opportunity often, so take advantage of the here-and-now, now! (September 8 – 17). To buy tickets:
buy tickets

Apollo’s Girl

August 21, 2015


apollo and lyre

Informed Consent:
A real coup de théâtre

(Primary Stages, Ensemble Studio Theatre, Alfred P. Sloane Foundation)
At the Duke on 42nd Street til September 13

When a playwright can keep several balls in the air at once without dropping any or diluting their content or emotional power, you know they’re good. 11326168_1461309530862943_942195667_nAnd Deborah Zoe Laufer is very, very good! Informed Consent offers dynamic testimony to her gifts for combining the mysteries of DNA, the cruelties imposed on Native Americans, the tension between science and cultural myth, and the searing bonds between lovers, parents, and children. What makes it all hang together is Laufer’s mastery of language and her instincts for storytelling.

As with many plays, there are “true events” that inspired the playwright’s imagination: a case that pitted the work of scientists at Arizona State University against the Havasupai people who had lived in the Grand Canyon for centuries (perhaps millennia). They considered their blood sacred but consented to have it analyzed for clues to the diabetes which had decimated the tribe. Without revealing that it would also be used for many other purposes, the scientists went well beyond their original mandate; when the tribe found out, they sued (and won) for unlawful use of their DNA.

informed consent 4Laufer uses this to launch a human drama on many levels that also revolves around DNA, but with an intensely personal focus: the lead scientist carries a gene for early-onset Alzheimer’s likely to be inherited by her daughter. Should she tell her? In a series of wrenching confrontations, she illuminates the ethics of science and the universal need for belonging, and the pain of making choices that will change lives and destinies. Yet such are the gifts of Informed Consent that its spacious ideas are always matched by its emotional impact.

The production gives the play everything it richly 11850075_524217097736346_706646665_ndeserves:  a compact cast of five (three of whom play multiple roles that are miracles of characterization); Tina Benko as a genetic anthropologist who grows in stature before your informed consent1eyes, and DeLanna Studi as a Native American who tries to bridge the abyss between the history of her people and those who would obscure it. Every scene has complex emotional layers that keep you absorbed and thinking as their balance keeps shifting. There is some searing wit, and there is no dumbing down!

There is a final set of miracles here: the brilliant direction of Liesl Tommy that serves the playwright and the cast at every turn, and Wilson Chin’s set, with stairways like double helixes and walls of boxes used for projections of DNA sequences and, at the end, to reveal essential details of the plot. However complex, everything about Informed Consent is always lucid and full of feeling, yet takes only 95 minutes to speed by. Still, it haunts long after it’s over. Thank Primary Stages, the Ensemble Studio Theatre, and the Alfed P. Sloane Foundation, and see the play. If you’re lucky, you can catch one  of  the lively post-theatre talkbacks. tickets

Cooper’s London

August 18, 2015

Mel snapshot 19

Summer Catch-up: Staying In…

It’s summertime and the livin’ is so easy that I just don’t feel like making the effort to get to much, so I’m finding that I prefer spending more time catching up with books, DVDs and CDs that have accumulated for the past months and even some that have accumulated even longerthat I never got around to. Sipping a Pimm’s No 1 (usually indoors during a rain storm) and avoiding all the impossible summer tourist traffic where I live, I’ve come across some lovely surprises. (I’ll forego telling you about the duds.)

alexander kantorowLiszt, Two Piano Concertos, Malédiction: Alexandre Kantorow, pianist;
Tapiola Sinfonietta; Jean-Jacques Kantorow, conductor BIS-2100

My fearless prediction is that Alexandre Kantorow, on the evidence of this fine recording, is a name you should notice now and always seek out. As I write this, he is still only 19 and continuing his studies with Frank Braley at the Paris Conservatoire; but he’s also being invited to make more and more appearances around Europe. His interpretations of jean-jacques kantorow2Liszt, on his first concerto recording and his first for BIS, are a stunning collaboration between the soloist and the orchestra conducted by his father. Jean-Jacques Kantorow is a solo violinist as well and has recently picked up his fiddle again to make a recording of early French violin sonatas inspired, I gather, by his son’s tastes and talents. The playing on this disc is full of unexpected appoggiaturas and tempi, and a clarity of interpretation that’s remarkable lisztfor its freshness. Every moment of the playing feels just right! The somewhat unorthodox “concerto” Malédiction is quite fascinating and comes between the two better-known concerti. The booklet has excellent notes. Kantorow’s is a remarkable performance of three revised and finalised versions of piano concerti that Liszt originally wrote to show off his own virtuosity. Alexandre Kantorow certainly has the fingers for them, as one would expect; and, more importantly, he clearly has the feeling, too. The success of this disc transcends technique. I gather from people who’ve heard him live that Kantorow’s Brahms and Gershwin are just as brilliant and fresh as his Liszt. He’s a keen chamber music performer as well. Definitely a career to follow. I haven’t been this impressed by the Liszt concertos since I heard them played by Van Cliburn, Vladimir Ashkenazy and Sviatislav Richter as a very fortunate young man.

Brahms Violin Concerto in D major, Op 77; Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto in D major, Op35: Leonid Kogan, violinist; Boston Symphony conducted by Pierre Monteux and the Paris Conservatory Concert Society Orchestra conducted by Constantin Silvestri, respectively. Recorded 1958 and 1959. Meloydia CD 10 02328

Speaking of Brahms, and of Russian musicians whom I was fortunate enough to hear long ago, Leonid Kogan’s koganearly-ish performances of the Brahms and Tchaikovsky violin concerti have been released on a Meloydia CD. Recorded while he was on tour in the West in 1958 and 1959 they are, of course, historic documents by now, commemorating a violinist who was somewhat overshadowed in his own day by his compatriot David Oistrakh. Kogan’s playing had a sweetness, lyricism and inward quality that are displayed in these performances with Pierre Monteux in Boston and Constantin Silvestri in Paris. Time and again there are nuances in the phrasing that startle your ears; but above all there is a focused integrity of emotional understanding and commitment that were hallmarks of Kogan’s captivating playing. The cadenzas are particularly brilliant and the slow movements are as sweetly played as I have ever heard them. Kogan was a very special performing artist on the violin and these performances are to be treasured. As Isaac Stern said, Leonid Kogan didn’t just pay the violin brilliantly, he created music on it as if it were being played for the first time. The technique is impeccable; but it’s always in the service of an emotional connection with the music that is offered with great generosity to the audience. It’s quite wonderful to have these two performances preserved on disc and available again. And Tchaikovsky’s Meditation is a real bonus. This is romantic playing of the first rank and great control in the true Russian romantic tradition.

Summer Catch-up: Going Out

Take note of the name Iqbal Khan! In khanhis last gig as a director in Stratford-upon-Avon for the Royal Shakespeare Company he created a memorable production of Much Ado About Nothing set in India that was hilarious, yet exceptionally touching. His cast worked as a coherent ensemble with easy give and take and spoke the poetry . The characterizations were spot-on and all the nuances, humour and poignant dark side were strong. Now he’s done it again. He has directed one of the best versions of Othello that I’ve ever seen with his cast once more working together brilliantly; the poetry is always there, and veins of dark humour and wry social commentary lighten and enlighten the text. You will want and need to see everything that Iqbal Khan does from now on. Khan is a stalwart of the Birmingham Repertory Theatre and I would travel to Birmingham to see his work.

In this new Othello, Ciaran Bagnall’s mono-set bagnall's setmanages to reference the canals of Venice, a sumptuous palace, and a war-torn Cyprus as required. It also suggests the claustrophobia of the second half of the story by dropping immense drapes to enclose the palace’s space in which most of the action now takes place. The anachronisms in the design and in the costumes by Fotini Dimou make fascinating references to today without dragging the play out of its period; and the music by Akintayo Akinbode invokes a mood of Orientalism but also, in its rhythms, something like the drums of Eugene O’Neill’s The Emperor Jones as Othello is driven towards murder.

As with his Much Ado, Khan has put the text first. Everything grows from his deep engagement with Shakespeare. The press emphasized that this is an Othello with a black Iago (Lucian Msamati); and there was much fuss about how this would change some of the implications of a play usually played as the story of an outsider Black Man living in a tight White society. Certainly Jacob Fortune-Lloyd’s Eton-esque Cassio seems to confront and develop this idea; and there are moments of racist stupidity voiced by some of the characters that cause this Iago to stare in disbelief, rippling out to the audience in a thought-provoking and uncomfortable way.

quarshie an msamatiThat said, the casting is, to my mind, “blind”. Within seconds it does not matter that Iago is black. The colour of the skin is less important than the intensity and rightness of the characterizations; each actor in this production inhabits his or her character. Ultimately, the play rests on the credibility of the Othello. Hugh Quarshie, known in the UK for his leading role as a doctor in a weekly TV hospital serial, is startlingly plausible as Othello in all his aspects, loving not wisely but too well, not easily wrought but once moved wrought in the extreme. He starts as a powerful, martial yet diplomatic man, a man of seeming self-confidence aware that he is the best general of his age. The love he shares with Joanna Vanderham’s attractive Desdemona in the opening scene is strongly conveyed. But as Iago works on him, the insecurities and cracks begin to show and he is tormented into becoming a murderer.

othello3Quarshie grows in stature as he grows in paranoia and madness; Desdemona conveys growing sadness and confusion; and Emilia moves more into the center of the action. Msamati is a brilliant Iago. The conclusion of the play is so immensely moving and powerfully staged. that the audience fell silent. Highest praise to the entire company but most of all to the director, Iqbal Khan. He has clearly thought through the weight and meaning of every line of the script and presents a unique, at times surprising, interpretation. My attention did not flag, ever.

Seriously Foxy

At Stratford, Iqbal Khan may be the newer man in town to watch; but often the old- timers can be just as relevant and trevor nunnsurprising. Trevor Nunn has created a truly intelligent production of Volpone that is extremely funny indeed in its observations of the corruption of a class-ridden, greedy, wealth-hungry society and also at moments both poignant and searing. It’s a masterful balancing act, and a darker look at this play than is usual; don’t expect the non-stop hilarity and sentimental satire of the stereotypes that are the common approach. These are present, but part of an unusually complex take. Although Nunn’s Volpone is rounded, droll, multi-layered and ultimately bitter, it also takes full advantage of all the japes and vaudevilles written into the text, and is shot through with a true commedia dell’arte atmosphere while being set in a contemporary world. (Yes, the update works.)

volponeIn Henry Goodman, Nunn has found his perfect Volpone. Goodman’s physicality is astonishing; you can read Volpone’s every thought and change of mood in his mobile face. Goodman is able to be outrageously clownish; he brings out the sardonic side regularly; cheeky and appealing as required, he does all the disguises and different voices and accents to perfection. His versatility and energy keep the audience’s attention and sympathy despite his being such a scoundrel; partly because he’s so adept and partly because the characters he’s gulling are so much more awful than he is (and so much more stupidVolpone’s intelligence is pivotal in this interpretation) that you hope for his victory despite everything.

By contrast, Rhiannon Handy as Celia and Andy Apollo as Bonario are Volpone’s perfect foils: moral young things of integrity at the other end of the scale, confused innocents who are not cloying. Miles Richardson is outstanding as the prototype of the shifty and greedy lawyer, Voltore, especially when suffering his brief attack of mclaughlinconscience. Annette McLaughlin is wonderful as Lady Politic Would-Be, a modern day Kardashian clone in stilletto heels, the star of a live reality show followed everywhere by her attentive crew.

The design by Stephen Brimson Lewis is extremely attractive in a post-modernist way. The one weak link seemed to be Orion Lee’s Mosca. But then, I realized that I had come into the theatre as one often does with preconceptions: in this case, of Mosca based on earlier productions I’d seen in which he is much more a co-conspirator of Volpone’s and also on the lookout for his main chance from very early on. Here he’s very much a servant and very aware of the class differences; only spotting his chance and getting up the nerve to pursue it fairly late in the proceedings. Once he does make up his mind, however, he is dangerous and immoveable. I do have a
couple of quibbles about Lee’s performance, but in the end the interpretation ben jonsonof Mosca is consistent with the rest of this strongly individual production.

Nunn’s approach to this production seems not to be to everyone’s taste; but for me it is a brilliant tribute to the wit and serious moral purpose of Ben Jonson and a worthy presentation of an exceptional play.

Apollo’s Girl

August 13, 2015


apollo and lyre

Listen to Me Marlon (Film Forum, NYC;
Laemmle Theaters, L.A.)

We Come as Friends (IFC Center NYC, August 14)

Not since Maximillian Schell made Marlene (by using his extended audio interview with her as his script), has anyone pulled off a remotely similar coup. Ms. Dietrich was alive at at the time, but reclusive, burdened by time’s signature on her iconic face and body, so audio was all the bodacious (and inventive) Mr. Schell could get. He built a set for the film modeled on Dietrich’s palatial 16th-arondissment nest and used it to frame archival material cut to her audio interivew. It was, in the end, a curious (but always interesting) way to reveal perhaps more about his star than he might have been able to by using conventional sight and sound.

article-2210716-154699D2000005DC-240_634x449In Listen to Me Marlon, director Steven Riley had a subject who was not always reclusive, but dead; he had a cache of 200 hours of audiotape (much of it made privately by Brando himself “ the possession of the family estate and uniquely gifted to Passion Pictures for the production of this film,” and he had brilliant technology brando head(Cyberware) at his fingertips which had produced a three-D model of Brando’s head in 1980 that could be used to “speak” his lines. With the requisite bodaciousness and inventiveness, Riley edited Brando’s audio tapes and pieced together bits of Brando’s life from a vast film and theatre archive that was a mosaic of pain, evolution and astonishing genius.

It’s a record of a life lived up to, and exceeding, streetcarlimitations by a talent like no other and Riley, like Schell, was blessed with the imagination and shrewdness to know what to do with it. Not only is it fascinating for the fans Brando left behind who will never give him up, but it hypnotizes all the way through. He may have been known for his beauty and intuitive Method technique, but Brando deserves to be remembered for his intelligence, raw sensibilities and sardonic wit. It’s all heremore than you might expect55b7884f52349.imagefrom the explosion of Streetcar to the wreck he would become later in his final tours of duty.

Despite the still images, and film/TV clips from 49 productions like a cascade of  modern fireballs, and no matter how many times you’ve seen the whole films that source the clips, he remains breathtaking; even more so when the parade has gone by and the coda to his life involving his children is a plunge into fate’s implacable cruelty. It is, in its way one of the saddest accounts of the cost of celebrity which even the riches of Brando’s prodigious talents couldn’t protect him from. He paid dearly for them.

We are lucky to have Steven Riley’s source material, and even luckier to be able to see what he made of it. We are also lucky that he was working with the right stuffnot only with Brando’s audio and film archives (and that 3-D head)but with producers who seem to have cornered the market on the best stuff that’s out there. Trust me on that one:, you can marvel at Brando’s life and Riley’s skill right here, right now:

We Come as Friends

Hubert Sauper was an award magnet for Darwin’s Nightmare; cehvalier1now he’s on the way to repeating his achievement with We Come as Friends. What he really deserves is a Medal of Honor, for those who “distinguish themselves … at the risk of life above and beyond the call of duty.” He is a singular daredevil with a mission, who takes on planean impossible task: It begins with building his own airplane (out of
what looks more and more like foil, spit and bailing wire as it crashes, burns, and rises again like some unquenchable home-made phoenix). It gets him from France to the Sudan as it lurches toward partition, 
overrun with foreign companies moving in for the kill.

648x360_realisateur-cauchemar-darwin-hubert-sauper-3-fevrier-2006-parisSauper is both brave and clear-eyed, and honest enough to admit to being afraid. Yet the courage of his convictions keeps him, and his crew, going until they have recorded enough proof of the Sudan’s inferno to make an airtight case for just how bad it is. They don’t do it by telling you anythingthey show you so you can add the glue yourself. It’s not neat and linear; it piles on the evidence piecemeal as the filmmakers snatch and grab, do what they have to do, and flee for their lives.

There’s a parade of recognizable politicians and mushrooming crowds of foreign corporations finding new and creative ways to revive Colonialism for our century. There are urban and rural sudanese portraitAfricans losing their heritage and their land, unaware of what, exactly, they are giving away, and other Africans who will be cut in on the spoils. There are Chinese oil workers watching Star Trek at the end of the day. There are even excruciatingly cheerful missionaries still basking in the virtue of improving the lot of the natives (once they embrace Christianity), and–against all odds–even moments of desperate humor We-Come-As-Friends-singing-school-childrencaptured on the fly. As you add up the evidence, there’s an eerie sense of the past and the present co-existing; all the ills of the 19th century enhanced by technology that strips the land and its resources much faster and more efficiently than the Europeans ever could 200 years ago. It’s a very big cast, but Sauper has chosen and balanced his subjects well and you will soon discover their roles in the story.

In lesser hands you might think
We Come as Friends will deliver what you already know. You would be so wrong! It proves that there is no substitute for conviction and knowledge, or for actually encouraging your audiences to think (and feel) for themselves. It’s exhilarating enough to become habit-forming and bestows a power you might not remember you had.


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