Archive for January, 2017

January 30, 2017

Film

Apollos’ Girl

apollo-and-lyreNeighboring Scenes: New Latin-American Cinema
(Film Society of Lincoln Center)

For this year’s lineup see http://www.filmlinc.org/festivals/neighboring-scenes/#films and get there as fast as you can; there’s lots to see, and closing night is January 31, with A Decent Woman. This is director Lukas Rimmer’s sophomore feature, following his earlier Parabellum. (NDNF, 2015; https://apollosgirl.wordpress.com/tag/dystopian-futures/) Rinner is Austrian (and likely familiar with Michael Haneke’s work), but went to film school in Argentina and stayed on.

decentwoman_06Having admired Parabellum, I have been looking forward to his next steps. A Decent Woman is in color and its cast and budget are larger, though its intricate plot and thematic underpinnings are also on the dark side (with some wonderfully bawdy laughs for seasoning throughout). Rinner is definitely someone to watch, with casting, camera and story skills, and a unique Austro-Hungarian/Latin-American view of the world.

Coming soon: Dance on Camera (February 3 – 7). Stay tuned!

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Theatre: Discovery!

Mel snapshot 19Cooper’s London

An Algo-rhythmic Beating Heart…

Sometimes you go to the theatre and are astonished at finding your faith restored in the efficacy, value and excitement of live performance, right? You come out thinking that a play can illuminate, entertain and get all your juices flowing.

This just happened close to home―in Oxford―at the Burton-Taylor Theatre, for which superstars Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton generously gave the funds to create an experimental space for the burton-taylor-theatreUniversity’s theatre. The occasion that gave me such pleasure that I have to share it with you was a one-woman show written and performed by an astonishingly talented young woman named Jenny Lee. I write about it here because I hope that someone in New York or Chicago or LA or Toronto will bring her performance to BAM or to a suitable off-Broadway venue or an intimate theatre space in the USA or Canada. With the new US President threatening to gut the Endowment for the Arts, this is probably just the kind of theatre that will be hit the hardest. If would be a dreadful thing; it’s a small, intimate and powerful work that feeds and sets goals for more commercial venues. So if someone does fund a transfer of Heartbeats and Algorithms, as the show it called, and if you should have any chance to see its creator and star, I recommend that you drop everything and go.

heartbeats-leaderHeartbeats and Algorithms got its start and won much praise at Edinburgh’s Fringe Festival in 2015 and recently has been successfully playing around the UK, including at the small and increasingly appreciated Camden Theatre in London. I saw it there and liked it a lot about a year ago but a second viewing has deepened and improved it. It compels both as a highly theatrical piece of thought-provoking writing even as it focuses on modern-day marketing, mind manipulation and the uses and abuses of contemporary technology through the character that Jenny Lee has created. The i-Phone is its icon. The text is clever and intricate and Lee gives a memorable performance.

The narrator, who engages with her audience and even makes some of us become part of her on-line network, never step out of character. In fact, she inhabits the soul of this contemporary woman—a woman who has invented an algorithm that can predict one’s actions with amazing accuracy. Having made herself the subject of her own algorithm to test out its percentage of correct predictions, the character (known as Banks to her on-line friends and ultimately to us by her actual name, Lucy) is trapped in the dilemma of knowing that the artificial algoryhthmic Big Brother she has created is watching everything about her. Its predictions are alarmingly correct even when she is doing totally uncharacteristic things to try to fool it. Part of the tension of the piece comes from her trying to outwit her creation and cheat on its predictions about her, and trying to win back her freedom and independence of mind and action. But the algorithm always gets there first. Mary Shelley’s theme about the arrogance of scientists and the unpredictable damage they can unleash is certainly echoed strongly in this play. The algorithm is the Frankenstein Monster that Banks/Lucy has ceated and unleashed.

The writing of Banks’s monologue is extremely assured and builds impressively to its tense climax over about 75 non-stop minutes. It is also surprisingly dramatic. Some people have disliked the denouement, but I personally found it both apt and hopeful (who doesn’t need hope these days?) and not entirely predictable. Indeed, the actual ending came as a relief compared to some that I had imagined as the play progressed. Which is also to say that the play builds a very strong sense of suspense for the audience.

While portraying modern technology as the instigator of a potentially heartbeats-2Orwellian world if we are not careful, the play also embeds a get-out clause that should have you debating about it for days after you’ve seen it. I appeal to some adventurous producer in New York to bring this one-woman show over. It will be cheap. But I would import the entire team, with director, lighting, sound and set designers as well. They are a collaborative unit, with all making important contributions to the overall effect.

Lee’s acting is riveting from start to finish, beautifully judged and completely controlled. She has an almost Chaplin-esque command of her gestures and body language, and she can do as much with the raising of her right eyebrow as Charlie Chaplin did with his cane and his jaunty walk away from the camera. Credit for this evening must be shared with director Velantina Ceschi, sound designer Iain Armstrong and lighting designer Alex Fernandes. Nevertheless, it should be emphasized that this is very much Lee’s concept and her show. She is a very attractive woman, an excellent actress, a superb mime, and creates and portrays a very troubled but ultimately appealing and memorable character.

Lee also engages the audience to participate in her world not just mentally but, at times, with spontaneous contributions to the action as well. The intensity of her acting and the variety of the moods that she evokes in about 75 minutes made me wish I could see her as Beatrice in Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing or Ibsen’s heroine in Hedda Gabler or some other classic role. She certainly has the presence of a strong, intelligent classic actress. Someone should audition her for Shakespeare in the Park or Stratford, Ontario?

I am happy to report that the theatre was totally sold out, and that the audience was completely hooked from line one to the last drop of text. And, of course, Lee got the ovation she so richly deserved.

Apollo’s Girl

January 26, 2017

Music

apollo-and-lyre

NYFOS: It Doesn’t Get Any More Russian Than This…

If you walk through Red Square you can see Lenin, a triumph of chemistry, still lying in his tomb, or celebrate the riot of Byzantine colors and shapes that is St. Basil’s Cathedral, or pick up something new and expensive at one of GUM’s 1,200 shops. But if you want to see something so Russian it will break your heart and make you weep, walk to the Moscow Conservatory, where ghosts of aristocrats hover still. In front of its iron fence, Tchaikovsky’s statue sits on his pedestal, surrounded by trees and the scent of lilacs in the summer. This is romance, as only the Russians can do it. tschaikovsky

Unless you were at Merkin Hall this week to give yourself up to NYFOS doing Pyotr the Great: The Songs of Tchaikovsky and His Circle. It was romance and total immersion as only Steve Blier can conjure it, with two pianos (his and Michael Barrett’s), a couple of singers destined for great things, program notes worth keeping forever and Blier’s bleier-and-barrettintroductions to the songs, mashups of erudition and sly wit.

Like all of NYFOS’ programs, Pyotr the Great has been put together not just by erudition and wit, but by passionate love for the music itself and insatiable curiosity about the composer’s life, times and genius. There were insights into his training (he was a lawyer), his ability to express the Russian spirit and soul in music and, of course, a modern understanding of his very complex personal life. The songs are supercharged by the extent of Tchaikovsky’s feelings and his need to keep them in the shadows.

If you find yourself content to luxuriate in the composer’s familiar symphonies, ballets and operas, you would be missing the glories of his chamber music and especially his songs. Quite simply, they are ravishing, with a richness, subtlety and emotional contours entirely equal to Tchaikovsky’s agenda. The program was divided into sections: Tchaikovsky’s Family; Men; Colleagues; Women and Last Days. The texts were the work of several poets, with Tolstoy leading the pack and Pushkin included for Onegin’s Act I aria. But, for all of the pleasures in the chosen 17 (plus two encores), the standout (and my lifelong favorite) was and will always be the penetratingly bittersweet setting of Tolstoy’s At the Ball. Surely this tiny masterpiece captures everything that words and music can express. If you don’t know it, try YouTube and carry it with you the next time you need a Swan Lake or Eugene Onegin fix. It will work!

chehovska

As for the singers (soprano Antonina Chehovska and baritone Alexey Lavrov): though neither is, literally, Russian, they are from nearby territories and fluent in the language and traditions that enveloped the evening. Chehovska has a big range, a beautiful voice, power to spare and modesty in the bargain. Lavrov is equally gifted (and as someone who has already sung the title role in Eugene Onegin, perhaps a tad less modest). They sang their solos without holding back, and their duets were deeply satisfying. As multiple prize-winners, they have much to look forward to (or, as the man sitting next to me kept saying, “Those two are going to have huge careers!”) Apart from my neighbor, confirmation came from Blier himself; when Barrett was playing the accompaniments, Blier simply leaned back in his chair listening, eyes closed, wearing a very, very big smile.

Like so many of NYFOS’ recitals, there was a strong concept framed by the musical generosity that has defined their work for 29 years. And that generosity has just been extended to an intricate and captivating web site http://nyfos.org/# and blog (No Song is Safe From Us)http://blo g.nyfos.org/. There are Blier’s fabulous program notes. There’s a TV channel, too. https://www.youtube.com/user/nyfostv Go. Read. Listen (you will find excerpts from Pyotr the Great, along with local and nearby concerts coming up). You’ll be in very, very good hands http://blog.nyfos.org/, and right in the middle of the action.

Apollo’s Girl

January 24, 2017

Theatre

apollo-and-lyre

 

Orange Julius (Basil Kreimendahl)
Rattlestick Playwrights Theater

orange-juliusFor Robert Redford, America’s definitive turn away from innocence and hope was marked by the TV quiz show scandals of 1950s, leading him to make a film (Quiz Show) based on Richard Goodwin’s memoir Remembering America: A Voice from the Sixties. While Redford has made many admirable films, Quiz Show is surely his best. For me, America’s definitive turn came with the war in Vietnam, setting the country on a course still playing out as we face an unknowable and unprecedented post-election future. Of course with such an opinion, confirmation is always welcome, and the New York Times has come through with Karl Marlantes‘ essay the war that killed trust about his experiences as an officer in Vietnam. Its first paragraph contains a memorable quote: “But an American president wouldn’t lie to Americans!”

Although Kreimendahl is too young to have lived through the war himself, he has clearly thought long and deeply about its lasting shadow. He’s crafted a play about how it affects a Vietnam vet whose deteriorating mind and body have been compromised by exposure to Agent Orange and how, in turn, his wife and daughters try to cope with its challenges. The ante is upped by the transgender identity of one of his children (Nut, the play’s narrator) who struggles with both a longing for closeness with his father and the impossibility of achieving it.

This is an ambitious production (directed by Dustin Wills), that cuts back and forth orange-julius_rattlestickfrom home to battlefield, from reality to fantasy, from anger to empathy, while reminding us that the subjects at hand can still draw blood and need to be remembered. The cast does wonders with the words and characters, drawing us in to each of them in turn, and not holding back when things turn physical during the fight scenes or emotional during the family confrontations. Applause for Jess Barbagallo as Nut, and to Stephen Payne as the ravaged vet, Ruy Iskandar as a fellow soldier, Mary Testa as wife and mother, and Irene Sofia Lucio as Nut’s sister.

Apollo’s Girl

January 11, 2017

Film

apollo-and-lyre

NY Jewish Film Festival
(January 11 – 24, 2017)

Film Society of Lincoln Center/Jewish Museum
http://www.filmlinc.org/festivals/new-york-jewish-film-festival/#schedule

nyjff-logoNYJFF 2017 has a big palette; color it interesting. Opening day/night’s film is Moon in the 12th House (director Dorit Hakim will be present at both matinee and evening screenings), a look away from more familiar Israel-specific military and settlement issues to a very contemporary and personal tale of two sisters who inhabit very different lives. Their dilemmas resonate far beyond their homeland, mirroring family conflicts familiar throughout the West. Hakim observes and probes deeply into her characters, with her cast working hand in glove to demand 12th-houseour attention (Yuval Scharf and Yaara Pelzig as the sisters are superb). This is an important film for everyone who cares about the basics of how parents determine the paths their children take, the consequences of their choices, and the possibilities of redemption in challenging circumstances. Rooted in tradition, these young Israelis learn how to shape-shift into adult lives in a non-traditional world. Highly recommended.

One of this year’s features is a slate of exceptional revivals, with a big palette all their own. Threepenny Opera (Pabst, 1931), based on the Brecht-Weill musical of 1928, itself a lineal
threepennydescendant of
John Gay’s Beggar’s Opera of 1728, is not to be missed. While Gay’s version offered a charming pastiche score of popular songs, hymns, and opera tunes, it’s Weill’s original score that remains the gold standard. Its powerful bite has not been matched. Of course all three versions have their own backstories, but for a telling account of the mother of all behind-the-scenes movie dramatics, marvel at Tony Rayn’s account https://www.criterion.com/current/posts/614-the-threepenny-opera-doubles-and-duplicities. It will seem like today’s news. While the film as seen now omits many of Weill’s matchless ballads, it offers a glimpse of the phenomenon that was Lotte Lenya (Weill’s wife and muse), and a sense of what made Berlin the international capital of attitude and art between the wars.

valeskaNur zum Spass, nur zum spiel—Kaleidoskop Valeska Gert (Volker Schlőndorff, 1977). A look back at the queen of eccentric dance and stage and film acting, famous in the same Berlin and then a refugee who fled to America and survived by washing dishes and running a series of cabarets staffed by then-very young busboys like Jackson Pollack and Tennessee Williams (among others). A rebellious standout even in Berlin, Gert appears in the Threepenny Opera (in a small role), but deserves Schlőndorff’s attention to reveal her truly revolutionary and original talent as a real ancestor of Punk, way ahead of its time.

THE PRODUCERS (1968) GENE WILDER, KENNETH MARS, ZERO MOSTEL PRDR 002CP MOVIESTORE COLLECTION LTD

And make space for The Producers (Mel Brooks, 1968) on the big screen. Forever fabulous, it’s the only way to immerse yourself in the outsize phenomenon that was Zero Mostel, and his partner in crime Gene Wilder, aided and abetted by Mel Brooks. Treasure those laughs…

For one more look back at Germany between the wars (this time through the eyes of one of its most celebrated exiles), attend Closing Night to see Maria Schrader’s Stefan Zweig: zweigFarewell to Europe. This is a big, beautifully made film, powerful and affective. The screenplay (by Schrader and Jan Schomburg) gives all of Zweig’s complexities their due; his refusal to condemn Germany, his ambivalence about his fame, his need for both solitude and for friends and family in exile. The cast is an Olympian match for the material: Josef Hader (as Zweig); Babara Sukowa and Aenne Schwarz (as Zweig’s first and second wives); and a host of others (playing the many artists and politicians who were integral to Zweig’s circle) create an entirely believable moment when the world was turned upside down and changed forever. Schrader (famous for her role in Aimée & Jaguar) applies her acting smarts to her cast’s talents, and gets a gorgeous film from DP Wolfgang Thaler and editor Hanzjőrg Weißrich. (P.S.:Pay attention to the way the end of the film is shot. Fascinating choices.) Austria’s nominee for Best Foreign Film.

peshmerga

Returning to the present, don’t miss PeshmergaBernard Henri-Lėvy’s documentary about the eternal struggle of the Kurds to prevail against IS, as the war rages through Syria, Iraq, Iran and Turkey with no end in sight. The Kurds are determined to create Kurdistan for themselves, and we will have to wait until their multi-sided battles have been resolved to see the future. This is war up close and personal, being observed by one of France’s leading writer/philosophers.

kentridgeSince William Kentridge is unquestionably a prolific, articulate, original and utterly charming subject who talks and performs as well as he paints, draws, and makes film, attention must be paid to Andrea Patrieno’s account (Triumphs and Laments) of the artist’s murals (reflecting Rome’s history) painted on the banks of the Tiber, where they will ultimately be washed away by the river’s ebb and flow. Kentridge is a subject hard to get enough of, and time spent in his company is time to be cherished. Grab it while you can (Patrieno will be present for Q & A at both screenings).

Angel Wagenstein: Art is a Weapon (Andrea Simon) This is a truly stunning work on every level, from an accomplished filmmaker with a subject made for her talents. Even in the Festival’s august company (Kentridge, Zweig, Gert), the 94-year-old Wagenstein dominates the screen. Described by a supertitle (“94 years; 52 films; 3 wagensteinrevolutions”) he offers up his life with a heady brew of humor (“I am a Marxist because of the Marx Brothers”), humanity, and survival skills that you will hate to abandon at the film’s end.

Simon benefits from an archival deluge of Wagenstein’s films and documentary footage covering most of the 20th century. But most of all she benefits from Wagenstein himself, an international treasure whose memories and personality are every filmmaker’s dream. I shudder to think of how hard her choices must have been, and mourn the thousands of feet of footage that had to be left behind, even as I celebrate the brilliance of her decisions and the film she has made from them packed into only 84 succulent minutes. Angel Wagenstein has everything, and you will regret it if you can’t find a ticket for its single screening (Sunday, January 22 at 8:30 PM, Walter Reade). Andrea Simon will be there afterwards for a Q & A, likely to be as rich and as interesting as the film itself.


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