Archive for the ‘books’ Category

Apollo’s Girl

May 14, 2017

Film

Exiles: Away From Home…

Stefan Zweig: Farewell to Europe
(Opens May 12 in NYC at Lincoln Plaza;
June 16 in LA at Laemmle Royal)

For a rich and deeply satisfying look back at Germany between the wars (this time through the eyes of one of its most celebrated exiles), see Maria Schrader’s Stefan Zweig: Farewell 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. Schrader has chosen a cool, objective approach to her subject, which frames the white heat of politics and culture threatening to burst into flame in every sequence, and hooks you from Scene One.

The cast is an Olympian match for the material: Josef Hader (as Zweig); Barbara Sukowa and Aenne Schwarz (as Zweig’s first and second wives, both of whom accompanied him abroad en famille), 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 Aimėe & Jaguar, applies all her acting smarts to her cast’s talents and draws a gorgeous film from DP Wolfgang Thaler and editor Hanzjőrg Weißrich.

Because the technical, aesthetic and dramatic elements are always in perfect balance, and the tensions between Zweig’s inner life and his public persona heighten the intensity of the portrait, it’s as close to total immersion as you can get without actually having been there. Surely you will be inspired to move on to Zweig’s novels and essays, which made him the most successful writer of his time and have continued to remain the basis of dozens of films right up to Wes Anderson’s Grand Budapest Hotel of 2014. (P.S.: Pay attention to the way the end of Zweig is shot. Fascinating choices!) Deservedly Austria’s nominee for Best Foreign Film.

ELIÁN
(Opens May 12 in NYC at Cinema Village;
June 2 at O Cinema Miami Beach)

Full of turbulence and moving at warp speed, Elián will keep you breathless and on the edge of your seat right up to the end of the narrative: Elián Gonzalez was only a little boy when he was found alone, clinging to an inner tube, in the ocean between Havana and Miami. The boat on which he had traveled with his mother, her boyfriend and dozens of Cuban refugees had sunk, and his mother had drowned. Overnight, the beautiful child became a sensation—television crews and reporters swarmed the house where he lived with the Miami aunts, great-uncles and cousins who had claimed him. The media circus exploded into a cause célèbre for Miami’s Cuban exiles, always at the boiling point, and for the many public officials who joined the efforts (pro and con) to grant American citizenship to Elián and to prevent his return to Cuba, where his father (who had learned he was gone only after the boy and his mother had fled under cover of darkness) had immediately sought to reclaim his son.

Photo by Shaun Best REUTERS

Eventually, members of Congress and Janet Reno (then Attorney General) determined Elián should live in Cuba with his father. The fire and brimstone that accompanied every twist in the story were shocking in their ferocity. There were daily confrontations on the streets of Miami and Havana; instead of cooling with the passing of time, the violence escalated, with demonstrators, police, Federal agencies, religious institutions and—always—hordes of media pouring accelerant on the flames. The ugliness lasted six months, until Elian’s father flew to Andrews Air Force Base to join his son after Federal agents stormed the home in Miami where Elian, hiding in a closet, was literally snatched from the arms of the fisherman who had originally found him. The entire affair could not be forgotten; its after-effects impacted the presidential election of 2000, and US foreign policy for over a decade.

Benefitting from a wealth of footage (which spares us none of the competing opinions and shameful frenzy of the many participants), Elián is still remarkably even-handed. Not only in exposing the disturbing zealotry of the exiles in Miami (which caused the INS the Border Patrol to stage the armed rescue raid that terrified the little boy), but in Cuba as well. Through no fault of his own, Elián had became a pawn in the United States as a symbol of “democracy”, and then again in Cuba where, after his return, he was “adopted” by Castro as a symbol of Cuban ideals.

Despite the heat of its subject, this film is told and made by experts who really know their stuff: Ross McDonnell and Tim Golden have, between them, filmed and written prize-winning material that is both intensely emotional and impeccably researched. As I discovered while digging through the internet, Golden published a piece in 1994 (it haunts me still) read article here about how the US destroyed the then-state-of-the-art Cuban health care system, several others about Elián Gonzalez, and a series on the abuses of Guantanamo.

There is no question that Elián will roil your heart and your mind as you are horrified by the brutality of the forces pulling at the traumatized six-year-old. The film also spends quality time with the grownup Elian, who seems to have weathered the storms of politics, just as he once weathered the shipwreck that left him without a mother and at the mercy of forces far beyond his control. Whatever your feelings about the issues, you will be shaken by this chapter of very recent history whose ending still remains to be written. Don’t miss it.



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

September 8, 2016

FILM

apollo and lyre

 

 

Coming and Going and Still Here…
+ Things to Come (TIFF)

But first, drop everything and plan how to catch ALL of Kryzstof Kieslowski’s decalogoDecalogue between now and October 6 at the IFC Center. This Polish masterpiece was made for TV in 1988 and is seldom shown in its entirety. Based loosely on the ten commandments, it is hardly a schematic theological exercise but, rather a probing adventure into human nature, politics, and art played out in ten installments whose kiescharacters weave in and out of the extended narrative. Absorbing. Brilliant. A cinematic omakase that will leave you remembering much and wanting more.  ifc center
(NB: Its Metacritics have given it a solid 100 across the board!)

The People vs. Fritz Bauer (Dir.: Lars Kraume) Lincoln Plaza Cinema ThePeopleVsFB_RZ_01.inddDo not be misled by the deliberately retro style of Fritz Bauer, set in the post-WWII era of Germany’s long march to respectability via the Nuremberg Trials and attenuated hand-wringing mea culpas by many former Nazis; their leadership in government and industry was deemed essential for the country’s future. Bauer (Burghart Klaussner), a Jew who was released from a concentration camp and exiled to Denmark has returned to Germany to mete out justice to as many of the guilty as he can, while struggling against the opposition of his colleagues and (it is implied) even the United States.

But he is stubborn, aggrieved and persistent; when he finds evidence that Adolf Eichmann is still alive, he’s determined to bring him to trial in Germany. 

The film soars as Bauer, increasingly stonewalled by his own government involves Israel’s Mossad and Karl Angermann (Ronald Zehrfeld), a young prosecutor in his division, in his mission. There are death threats. There are complications (Bauer is homosexual; so is Zehrfeld) as their colleagues become enemies and prosecute them to derail the investigation. Israel co-opts the Eichmann trial and Bauer is accused of treason. More than a heady brew, the high-stakes twists and big surprises of the story tighten their grip as they accelerate to the finale. The excellent cast (especially Klaussner and Zehrfeld) delivers all the way. And of course the curtain-raising leads us to ponder what further chapters of post-war Germany still remain backstage to be revealed another day….


fatimaElinor Bunin Munroe Film Center;
 Laemmle Royal Theatre, LA
Fatima  (Phillipe Faucon) is a real honey; one of many entries about Muslims adjusting to (and changing) French culture. In its quiet way, the lives of a divorced mother and her two daughters make a great impact because of the film’s modesty—its whisper is stronger than any shout. While one daughter is a rebellious teenager who turns her back on her first culture, the other struggles to become a doctor. The mother (Soria Zeroual) supports the family with cleaning jobs as she navigates the rigidity of the Muslim community she remains part of, while determined to give her children a future. She keeps a diary (in Arabic) that reveals the keenness of her sensibilities, and studies French to be able to live more fully in her new home. The film’s last image (devoid of any show, any effects) is simplicity itself; yet carries a soaring emotional charge that simply explodes in joy.

Author: The JT Leroy Story (Dir.: Jeff Feuerzeig)
Elinor Bunin Munroe Film  Center/Landmark Cinema

You will start off being beguiled by the Amazon Studios animatedjt-leroy preview and then hop on the roller-coaster that the film sends hurtling down the tracks. This film has everything—a story that you can’t possibly make up; some Very Big Names who play their parts in it; more than a few professionals who are completely convinced that it is all true, true, true; and a tight band of core players who put, and keep, the roller-coaster speedinguntil they don’t. It’s an extended case of not mistaken, but completely forged identity, with a reveal that explains why it happened in the first place. The hero/ine? A not-so-fun-house of an author (with very real talent for putting words on the page) who can’t help hitting the best-seller lists and being signed for a movie deal. It’s very, very complicated. At times exhilarating, more often (as the details begin leaking out) very, very sad. But always intriguing. A documentary? A fiction? You decide…

Things to Come (Dir.: Mia Hansen-Løve) arrives at TIFF trailing thing-to-comeawards from Cannes and Berlin, and likely in line to pick up many more; Love’s  fifth feature film is on solid ground. Her works are markedly different from one another in tone and emphasis, but always created from what she knows; Things to Come is no exception. 

One of its many great pleasures is its wholehearted embrace of the life of thought by a filmmaker who has lived it; another is the appearance of Isabelle Huppert as a thinker (and doer) who thinks, and does, as intuitively as a hummingbird seeking nectar. Never still, Huppert runs through her days almost on tip-toe, navigating her family, her friends, her home and her university, while levitating a character both enormously appealing and enormously deep. She does light and shade and the transitions between brilliantly, seamlessly, in a role that seems to have been written for her, but also huppertcreated by her from moment to moment. It’s an extraordinary performance. At 63—just look at her!— with 131 films to her credit, she is ready for many more. And Hansen-Lǿve (at 35) has barely scratched the surface of her films to come. She has a flawless instinct for the arc of her characters, a love for their complexities, and is unlikely to run out of them anytime soon. Things to Come will open later this year. Watch for it…..

Cooper’s London

March 24, 2016

Books

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Not Entirely Frank
Sinatra: Behind the Legend
(J. Randy Taraborelli)

sinatra behind the legendThough it often feels as if he’s still with us, Frank Sinatra will be 100 on December 16. To celebrate, J. Randy Taraborelli has revised and updated his original biography of the 1990s with considerable skill. Old Blue Eyes was still alive when taraborelliit was first written and, with age, was getting ever more cantankerous and litigious. Since then, of course, archives have been opened; more people have come forth to be interviewed, and so, even if you have the original book, this is a worthwhile replacement.

Still, I approached Sinatra with the ghost of kitty kelleyKitty Kelley’s effort still hovering in my consciousness, and I want to say up front that in most ways Taraborelli’s is preferableincluding the fact that it moves more swiftly through the material. All the shocking revelations that Kelley presented in a totally negative way appear in this book, too: for example, the abortions performed by Dolly Sinatra; the philandering, gambling, and drinking; the psychological abuse of his wives; and the way Sinatra found the Mob and Las Vegas to be the ultimate in glamour.

But instead of being a hatchet job, this biography tries to understand where Sinatra came from, to be sympathetic or to some degree understanding about the weaknesses and foibles of the man, sinatra familyhis mother, his friends. Taraborrelli tries to interpret them from the Sinatra point of view over and over again, and his analyses of how Frank or Dolly would have seen them are convincing. His view is more balanced in its assessments and conclusions; this makes for a far more interesting read. Neither an unthinking fan nor a declared hater of Frank Sinatra; he simply chronicles the life in a straightforward fashion, leaving the reader to make up his or her own mind. I wavered for a while, but in the end chose not to befriend Sinatra, nor risk his befriending me. (I would not wish to have dinner with him at the Brown Derby.) But how I wish I’d attended some of the concerts over the years…

Taraborrelli is also very good at referencing the entire Sinatra discography (from way back with Harry James and the Dorseys right up to the last concept albums) and in explaining how his work evolved over time. We learn about his interpretations of specific songs and the way he put his stamp on them; his interest in and contributions to the orchestrations; and also the input of gardner sinatramusicians with whom he liked working. The author deals sympathetically with the dip in Sinatra’s career from 1949 to 1953 and with his unquenchable passion for Ava Gardner and how she helped him get back on track. Sinatra also reveals his inability to control the mood swings and paranoia that made him quick to ditch people if he felt they had betrayed him in any way; and made him perpetually deaf to the other side of the tale.

Taraborelli shows us a talented, iconic and hugely successful entertainer who was also a very flawed, egocentric human being, most likely bipolar. But he also happened to possess two enormous talents; or maybe one should say he was possessed by singing and acting abilities at the highest level.

from here to eternityHis role as Maggio in From Here to Eternity helped consolidate his return to the top in the 1950s after a few years in the wilderness as a singer as well; the Capitol and Reprise years are documented in fascinating detail; so are turns in Suddenly; The Man with the Golden Arm; Some Came Running; and The Manchurian Candidate, or even lighter fare: High Society; The Tender Trap; or Ocean’s 11. Sinatra was quite impressive as a producer (but drew mixed reviews when he directed Only the Brave).

The man was a superb, professional and committed show business performer, whatever he chose to turn his hand or his vocal chords to; and that he was very proud of being known as a totally honest singer. Despite his philandering and gambling and psychologically abusive behaviour, he was honest about his personal life, too, and always very open about his thoughts and beliefs; he always seemed to say what he was thinking, even when it was unfair or hurtful. But somehow, when he sang or acted, recordinghe managed to suspend his raging ego so that primarily, as a performer, he always served his art.

The weakness of this book, for me, is that it doesn’t go deeply enough into the mind-set, thinking, or approach of Sinatra the artist. We don’t always get a sense of how he prepared his songs or his roles, or what went into his creativity. There are some hints here and there, but essentially we see his daily life; his love life; his links to the Mob; and his complex personality. One does get a sense of how important Nancy Sinatra Sr and Jr, Tina Sinatra, Frank Junior, all four wives and several of the girlfriends were to him, as well as his closest and longest-serving friends, his lawyers and his agents.

The book is well-written in an easy, journalistic style. marilyn-monroeSome of the detailslike a brief plan to marry Marilyn Monroe and save her from herselfwere a surprise. But there are no compelling new insights into what made Sinatra so attractive to his women and his friends; what made him such fun to be with; what his charm was. We are told it existed and we get a lot of tales about its impact. But how this man turned himself into one of the great interpreters of American song of the 20th century as well as, at times, a top- class actor giving Oscar-worthy performances, remains a mystery. And I would also love to have learned what, after a certain point in his life, made him shy away from the kind of intense and harrowing roles he had undertaken in the 1950s. For a while he was clearly striving to challenge himself and stretch his talents; and then His Way turned into the easy way. What was it in his personality rather than just in his fame and talent that attracted the long-term loyalties of such a disparate group of people? That’s a mystery, too, and an impossible question to answer because Frank Sinatra was complicated, but not much given to introspection; neither is Taraborelli.

Still, this is definitely one of the best and most informative Sinatra biographies you can get, and certainly a whole lot less nasty than some of the others. To tell you the truth, and more to the point, it sinatra5made me want to listen to his recordings again and run the DVDs of several of his films, including those old MGM musicalseven The Kissing Bandit(!). I’m convinced about the talent. I want to experience it anew, and Sinatra will get me going.

Cooper’s London

February 28, 2016

Books

Mel snapshot 19

 

 

The Reader’s Reader

Latest Readings (Clive James),
Yale University Press

Years ago, Clive James was a very entertaining journalist and TV personality in the UK. I’m not sure how far his writings or TV shows penetrated the USA, but in on this side of the pond he was a major, much-loved star. In 2010 he was diagnosed with terminal leukemia. Despite the shock, he decided to fill his time with reading and re-reading. Still entertaining, and in a series of cogent, brief essays, James reports back to us from these experiences and shares his insights with inimitable charm. As ever, he is decidedly witty, at times hilariously funny, and always clear in his understanding and recommendations. His Latest Readings is also a great place to pick up tips for your own reading, reactions and interpretations.

clive james1Along the way, James also takes you with him on the journey of his illness so far. For example:

Among the disadvantages of COPD, which used to be called emphysema, is a susceptibility to chest infections. Despite one’s daily intake of antibiotics, different bacteria keep arriving from all directions, eager to squat. One day I was checking in at the hospital for a routine clinic, and my temperature was deemed to be too high for me to go home. I spent ten days in the pulmonary ward, while the fever turned into pneumonia. … But meanwhile the problem of boredom loomed. I staved it off by re-reading Lord Jim, a copy of which, along with the usual epics about swords and dragons, was on the library cart which a very sweet and obviously fulfilled senior female volunteer was wheeling around the wards. … I remembered it as a boring book. I suppose I had a plan to stave off one kind of boredom with another, as a kind of inoculation. On the strength of this long-delayed second reading, the book struck me as no more exciting than it had once seemed, but as a lot more interesting. I had long known Conrad to be a great writer: on the strength of Under Western Eyes alone, he would have to be ranked high among those English writers – well, Polish writers resident in England – who, dealing with eastern Europe, analyzed the struggle between the imbecility of autocracy and the imbecility of revolution. But on the strength of my earlier memories, I didn’t see Lord Jim as part of that international historical picture. Now, reading a few pages at a time as I lay fitfully on a sweat-soaked sheet while my fever refused to break, I could see that I had been laughably wrong about Conrad’s most famous book for the whole of my reading life. An international historical picture is exactly what it exemplifies.”

Okay, analyse that! Note: the humour; the wry tone; the bits of autobiography; the luring you into thinking seriously about Conrad; the implication of the fun to be had; the irony; the lack of self pity; the straight stating of the facts; the conversational authorial tone. The whole book is at this level; and the whole book is a total delight made poignant by knowing the Clive James has a terminal illness and that he’s sharing some of his intellectual interests with you. His taste is eclectic; his choices of book sometimes surprising (Sir David Fraser’s biography of Alanbrooke? David Halberstam’s The Powers That Be? his taste for reading about American politics?) but he covers a considerable number of classic authors as well.

Like his old TV criticism, the essays feel personal, somewhat demotic, and very direct. The cumulative effect of this book is to make you want to follow Clive James’s reading list and to admire and share his joy of living. His intellect and insights are remarkably appealing.

The book is simply excellent; there isn’t a dud essay in it, not an essay that doesn’t make you want to read the volume he’s talking about for yourself;clive james 2not an essay that isn’t informative as well as enthusiastic. Recently, James commented that he almost had to apologize to his readers for continuing to survive beyond the original expiration date. Well, I can only hope that he survives a lot longer for all the right reasons and also so that he can produce at least ten more sequels! You could do a lot worse than forming a book club to read all the books that he covers in this charming tome.

Cooper’s London

February 17, 2016

Books/Dance/Film

Mel snapshot 19

 

On Her Toes…


Taking Flight
:
From War Orphan to Star Ballerina
Michaela and Elaine DePrince, Ember (Paperback)

deprince4Before she was five Michaela DePrince had survived a civil war in Sierra Leone that led to the deaths of her biological parents (her father was murdered by rebel soldiers, her mother starved to death soon after); life as a refugee; life in a dysfunctional orphanage; being a witness to the brutal butchery by rebel troops of the pregnant teacher who had awakened her intellectual curiosity; and a flight from marauding armies. She was then adopted by extraordinary, loving and understanding Americans (Elaine and Charles DePrince) who took her and her best friend, Mia, to New Jersey together and changed their lives. Michaela DePrince (who has just turned 21) was only 19 when she wrote this memoir with the help of her mother. She wondered if it was premature to undertake the task, but the story she has to tell is of wide interest. The book is now being released in paperback; it’s worth serious attention and I hope it will find, in this new format, the very large audience it deserves.

Michaela describes how she had to adjust to a whole new world and was brought up in some affluence and comfort when she arrived in the USA. But also, as she grew older, was a target of the bigotry that can exist not only in white American society but also in the world of dance to which she aspired. She writes so simply and directly that the impact of her experiences is all the stronger.

michaela060509_400x300There’s much that one can say about this touching book, particularly that it seems easy to read, and persistently awakens and addresses very difficult questions about the state of the world in which we all live. Michaela’s reflections on Sierra Leone, America and beyond are haunting for many reasonsnot least the almost magical yet real aspect of her wishing to become a ballerina as a very young child. This obsession or dream developed from the time the wind blew an old ballet magazine to her during a storm in Sierra Leone when she was about four; she became entranced by the image of the ballerina en pointe on the cover. Fate? Serendipity?

Her memoir raises the question of inborn talent and capacity versus opportunity and the nurturing of talent. This little girl has now achieved the hard-earned recognition that promises entry to a fine career, but has also benefited from the sheer luck of the draw. First she had to survive; and then she had to be found by caring, concerned people who could take her to a place where her talent could be understood, appreciated and encouraged. How much talent of all sorts is being wasted all over the world today by war, desolation and famine and the absence of cultural opportunities?deprince1

Michaela, was born Mabinty Bangura, but as Michaela DePrince became one of the subjects of the excellent documentary about the training of young children in dance, First Position (http://www.balletdocumentary.com/official-trailer/) . She has gone on to work with the Dance Theatre of Harlem and is, at this time, with the Dutch National Ballet in Amsterdam. Refused a child’s part in The Nutcracker when she was eight years old because (in the opinion of a casting director), America was not ready for a black girl ballerina yet, and also one suffering from the vitiligo that disfigured her skin for years. Michaela’s is an inspirational story in print and on film. It also gives us some unusual and important insights into the world of pain, discipline and devotion behind those dream performances of ballet. 

Finally, because of its straightforward approach and clear prose style, this book is an ideal gift for young people and, like the Diary of Anne Frank, a moving and emblematic tale. In America the book is called Taking Flight: From War Orphan to Star Ballerina. In the UK, it’s Hope in a Ballet Shoe. With either title, its author has done us all a service by sharing her story.

Cooper’s London

January 17, 2016

Books

Mel snapshot 19Don Carlos’ Dad:
Father of Spain

 Imprudent King: A New Life of Philip II.
(Geoffrey Parker, Yale University Press)

Anyone interested in Schiller’s play schiller_fDon verdiCarlos, or in the great Verdi opera based upon it, must be curious about the real historic background to these two major works of art. Anyone interested in the era of the Tudors or Spain’s years of developing an empire, will know of the huge shadow this man cast. There is no shortage of decent biographies of Philip II and also no shortage of his appearances in the biographies of Mary I or Elizabeth I of England, or in books about several of his contemporaries. But this new and parker 2013aextremely scholarly biography by Geoffrey Parker is now my “go-to” book for anyone who wants to know about this troubling, difficult monarch. And, if you weren’t interested in the subject previously, it’s easy to get hooked.

Prize-winning historian Parker has had access to a recent, astonishing archival discovery3,000 documents in the vaults of the Hispanic Society of America in New York City that have mostly not been read since the time of Philip II himself. Many of the documents confirm what is already the widely accepted interpretation of the of this king’s personality and also of his reign; but some require significant adjustments to our understanding of the man and his times. Dealing with Philip’s relationship to his own father, the Emperor Charles V, and ending with this religious king’s supposed ascent into heaven after his death, the book is a very well-written and compelling story.

The Don Carlo story is, of course, only an episode in the tale of Philip II; Carlos’ birth, his upbringing, his erratic behaviour, his arrest and horrifying demise are all thereand are very different from the ways Schiller (and thus Verdi) portrayed them. However, the book manages to examine and reveal Philip’s personality believeably, his likes, his dislikes and his psychological issues; it develops cogently and convincingly and is therefore the perfect place to find out the truth behind the myths and romanticizations. Of course, neither Schiller nor Verdi had access to most of the material that ParkerPhilip_II deals with and were also closer to the gossip and the distortions. Yet perhaps the most exciting thing about Imprudent King for those coming to it from the play and/or opera is that, even if they wildly romanticize the historical details of the man’s life and his relationship with his son, one also comes away from this book convinced that both dramatists instinctively understood the man’ himself.

The authoritarian self-belief, the religious narrowness and bigotry, and the immense loneliness and pain that you find in Verdi’s music and Schiller’s drama are all given greater credence here. Philip micro-managed everything, trusted no one, and wasted too much time on trivia in periods of real crisis when what he really needed was an understanding of the bigger issues and some real breadth and depth of vision. Also, of course, this book gives you the background to the Posa/King Philip friendship and so much more: Charles V’s abdication, the marriage to Mary Tudor, the various wars (including the troubles in the Netherlands), the wooing of Queen Elizabeth I, the terrible religious conflicts of this era which are now often perceived as the protracted and very bloody dawning of modernism; the Imperialism and stretch of Spain’s ambitions; the Armada. All of it is impeccably researched and Parker’s conclusions and understanding are strongly supported. It’s a rich and complex tale that and does require attention to detail. (Note to filmmakers: there is material here for three or four epic films..)

imprudent kingA friend of mine (to whom I gave the book because of his love of Verdi’s opera) complained to me that this wasn’t an easy read. It is meticulous in detailing Philip’s religious attitudes, the background of the period, and the administrative problems of his obsessive control of his empire. And it sets everything in scholarly context. But in the end my friend said it was worth the effort, even though he had previously preferred Alison Weir or Philippa Gregory for learning about the era’s history.

Personally, I felt the scholarship was immensely important in convincing me about the character of this somewhat dour but also sad monarch. There is material here for a long Freudian analysis in addition to the three or four films!

If you want a quick fix on the background of Philip’s life, there are no doubt easier and briefer ways to get it. I would have liked to have more in the book about his zeal for collecting and commissioning art and his use of it for propaganda; and I would have appreciated even more information about the Inquisition. But if you want really to understand the man, his nurture, his nature and the background thinking and conflicts of a time when the intellectual foundations of the Enlightenment were being laid down, this is likely to remain the definitive study for some time to come.

Philip was isolated, tormented and, at times, very imprudent as well as wilfully narrow; this book makes it all clear. It also clarifies the great dramatized scene of Philip’s relationship with the Grand Inquisitor, so powerful in both the play and the opera. I recommend it very highly for anyone willing to take the trouble. And before you heave a sigh of satisfaction at the end, go back and see what Schiller and Verdi made of Philip, and their insights into his soul through their art.

Coopers London

January 13, 2016

Theatre

Mel snapshot 19

 

Queen and Country;
Sisterhood and Betrayal

I was out of the country when Helen Edmunson’s new play Queen Anne, commissioned and produced by the
queen anne 2Royal Shakespeare Company
opened and so I finally caught up with it only at the very end of December. It has had much praise by critics and audiences and, for me, this praise is largely deserved. Edmdunson’s scriptlike last year’s Oppenheimer, also a commission of the RSCis an historic recreation. In this case, I felt it came across less as a piece of innovative theatre like Oppenheimer and more like a strong BBC costume drama. But it is none the worse for that!

The play is not simply workmanlike, though it’s certainly that too. It tells with both feeling and understanding the personally interesting and historically important story of the friendship between the initially shy and insecure Princess Anne Stuart and the ambitious, glamorous Sarah Churchill. It also covers the complicated, sometimes vicious, politics of the period in ways that make this era come alive. The historic characters (including Daniel Defoe and Jonathan Swift) are convincingly drawn, and the moments of send-up that reflect the growth of the satiric pamphlets, newspapers and cartoons of the period add welcome wit and theatricality. There are moments of satiric musical interludes as well that are worthy of Gay’s Beggar’s Opera and very much in that vein.queen anne 3The design by Hannah Clark enhances the play’s context. Natalie Abrahami deserves praise for her directing of the ensemble. She keeps the action moving; her pacing of the quieter scenes and of the development of the breach between Anne and Sarah strikes all the right emotional notes, indicating the feelings and motivations of both women. Above all, there is not a dud performance anywhere in the evening. jonathan broadbentJonathan Broadbent’s Robert Harley and Beth Park in the role of the favourite who replaces Sarah, the beth parkredoubtable Mrs. Masham, are memorable and the characterizations have a vividness that both explains the background history and also creates a thirst for that fine book about this reign, Queen Anne, by Anne Somerset.

Above all, both Emma Cunniffe as the perpetually sickly, gout-ridden Anne (who experienced 17 pregnancies but left no heir) and Natascha McElhone as the beautiful, supremely confident, ambitious and ultimately thwarted (and increasingly self-destructive) Sarah Churchill, embody their characters and make one feel yes, this is what they must have been like, this is how it must have developed between them. queen anne 4The play does not shy away from the erotic possibilities between the women but, like the film Carol, their implied lesbianism is not really the point. At its heart, the play is about the clash between the expediencies of politics or public responsibilites and personal desires; the fine line between healthy ambition and self-serving corrupt determination; and also about friendship and betrayal.

One of the finest aspects of the play is the way the women and their relationship grow, develop and shift until Anne becomes not only her own woman but a real, intelligent and morally centred Queen, while Sarah is engulfed by her own ego, her venal goals and her self-aggrandizing view of her role and her powers.

john and sarahThere was certainly a power-couple relationship between Sarah and John Churchill (well-played by Robert Cavanah), the first Duke of Marlborough who was a military genius in British history as important as the Duke of Wellington. Nevertheless, advancement in the early days depended on patronage. How Sarah’s relationship with Anne helped John in the early days of his career is beautifully played, and the role that eroticism plays for that couple is mirrored strongly by Anne’s quasi-erotic fascination with Sarah, something the knowing and sometimes smug Duchess uses with real guile to manipulate her friend.

The play makes one reconsider the reign of the last of the Stuarts who presided over a difficult period when the throne was often unstable, the wars were costly but seen as necessary, the Parliament was consolidating its constitutional rights and the succession was very much in question. The story pretty clearly delineates the struggle between the Whigs and the Tories
and their machinations to win Anne’s support. If you become interested in the actual history behind this play, you could start background reading not only with Anne Somerset’s book but also by reading William Makepeace thackerayThackeray’s neglected but masterful and totally fascinating novel, The History of Henry Esmond. It is a brilliant book unfairly overshadowed these days by another of his great novels, Vanity Fair.

As entertaining and informative in its own more circumscribed way as the Thackeray novel (a three-hour play cannot quite do the work of a novel of several hundred pages but it still sketches out a great deal of the background material), Queen Anne is a good start for contemplating not only the politics and difficulties of this era in English history but also the complex friendship of two women that began as mutually beneficial and supportive but ended as bitter and destructive because of the way the two developed and played off one another.

Above all, it is captivating theatre. Watching the growth of Anne’s character as she responds to the necessities of being Queen and observing the over-reaching of Sarah as she becomes too self-confident and too convinced that she is the real power in the land remains fulfilling drama. I hope a proposed transfer to the West End in London comes off. If for no other reason, it’s worth seeing for the superb performances of Cunniffe, McElhone, and Park as the three central figures in the triangle Queen_Anneof female relationships. It’s also worth noting that Anne’s great ambitions as Queen were to end the wars with France and to have Scotland join the United Kingdom; both hopes were achieved before her death. She also wanted a Protestant succession and, with her death, the throne passed to the Hanovers. I think that the RSC-commissioned plays promise to become a welcome tradition, both theatrically and educationally.

Queen Anne will run in repertoire until 23 January 2016 at the Swan Theatre in Stratford Upon Avon, and probably transfer to the West End in London after that.

Cooper’s London

September 27, 2015

Opera/Film/DVD

Mel snapshot 19

This Boat Still Floats

The San Francisco Opera production of Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II’s Show Boat (filmed live on the stage) has just been released on EuroArts DVD 2059688 and BluRay. The cast includes: Heidi Stober, Michael Todd Simpson, Bill Irwin, Patricia Racette, Morris Robinson, Angela Renee Simpson cap'n andyand Harriet Harris. The stage director is Francesca Zambello and the conductor is John DeMain.

Over two decades ago I was fortunate enough to see the Show Boat done by Opera North in collaboration with the RSC that docked at the Palladium and toured the UK.
It was impeccably cast; the pit band was amplified and was using the brilliant original orchestrations by
Robert Russell Bennet; it not only restored material that had not been heard since the 1928 Broadway version, it interpolated numbers from later revivals, including the novelty number “Ah Still Suits Me” robeson and mcdaninelwritten for Paul Robeson and Hattie MacDaniel to sing in the 1936 film. I have yet to see anything to equal it for justifying Show Boat’s reputation as the true grandfather of American music theatre—until now. Essentially, the new EuroArts DVD and BluRay from the San Francisco Opera production (also acclaimed in Chicago and Houston) is both iconic and also a vivid record of a greatly theatrical, entertaining and moving performance. Director zambelloFrancesca Zambello has achieved pretty nearly what Ian Judge and his team did in that legendary production from Leeds to enflame a new generation of theatregoers.

The cast is a mixture of operatically trained singers who can act and Broadway hoofers or comedians who can belt, with chorus and the dancers really pitching in. The acting is sometimes suitably tongue-in-cheek, early-20th-century “mellerdrammer”, at other times straightforward and moving. Every musical number carries the weight it should, advances the plot or our understanding of character, and appeals directly to our stober and simpsonemotions. When Heidi Stober as Magnolia and Michael Todd Simpson as Gaylord Ravenal sing “You Are Love”, you believe it with all your heart. When Morris Robinson sings “Ol’ Man River” and is joined by the chorus of men who tote those barges and heave those bales, you feel their pain, how limited their lives and opportunities are and cannot avoid thinking about the whole history of slavery and its aftermath old man riverin the United States. Those are big claims, perhaps; but it is a big, varied and allusive show and the music is so superb that one has to be careful not be so overwhelmed by it that Oscar Hammerstein II gets the credit he deserves for his strong book and lyrics.

By and large, Zambello avoids the sentimentality that often mars Show Boat revivals and goes for real feeling and serious engagement with a plot that involves addiction to gambling and alcohol, miscegenation in a racist and bigoted society, sexual harassment and bullying, and the abandonment of a wife and child. She also understands the humour, not least in the lovely number “Life Upon the Wicked Stage”. She also appreciates the sheer gut reactions demanded by the big moments and big numbers. Her approach is both superbly intelligent and responsive to all the nuances of the piece.

showboatThis Show Boat is big also in terms of production values, achieving the spectacle that perhaps only an opera company with enough resources to field two chorus and dance groups (one African-American, the other Caucasian)—can in these financially constrained days. The stories of the various couples balance and echo each other, and every opportunity for cheeky humour is grasped as firmly as all the opportunities for the music to engage and lift your emotions.

Heidi Stober manages to convey both Magnolia’s innocence and the ultimate inner strength that will enable her to bring up her child as a single mother and become a major star. Her voice is very beautiful; she always remains in character and builds her development into a strong, no longer innocent middle-aged woman with great skill. Michael Todd Simpson conveys both Gay’s charm and his character flaws and also has the vocal chops to do full justice to Jerome Kern’s music. Show-Boat_SFO_4PosterPatricia Racette’s Julie La Verne makes you see why the role made a star of Helen Morgan and was also one of the most appealing that Ava Gardner ever undertook. Angela Renée Simpson is outstanding as Queenie and has had restored to her character “Mis’ry’s Comin’ Aroun’” and “Hey, Fellah!”, both of which are important to the drama. The voice and demeanour of Morris Robinson as Joe have real gravitas (he’s excellent in his comic moments, too); and the roles of Ellie Mae Chipley and Frank Schultz sparkle convincingly with the talents of Kirsten Wyatt and John Bolton. It only remains to beirwinsaid that Bill Irwin is immensely
appealing as Cap’n Andy Hawks and that
Harriet Harris’s Parthy Ann Hawks is a treasure, offering real balance to the singing parts. Michele Lynch has created time-sensitive choreography that takes you from the vaudeville turns of 1887 to the jazzy Charleston of 1927 as the story traverses forty years of American history; the set design by Peter J. Davison and Costume Design by Paul Tazewell are just as apt and evocative.

kern-hammersteinIn sum, this is about as perfectly realized a version of the iconic Jerome Kern/Oscar Hammerstein II landmark as could be desired, and I am not even prepared to quibble about which other numbers should have been included. John DeMain has been a long-time champion of this and of Porgy and Bess for fully committed performances by opera companies, and his mastery of and sympathy with every nuance of the lyricism and wit of the score is a constant pleasure. The show has been beautifully filmed by Frank Zamacona for the screen.

In my opinion this is, therefore, a DVD that you need to have in your collection to enjoy again and again. If you love music theatre, it will confirm your addiction; and if you are not sure about this genre, this staging, this cast and this team of people on and off the stage will definitely convince you.

This Show Boat also makes a powerful case for how well top-level productions filmed from the stage not only work as entertainment but also convey the sense of occasion and preserve what otherwise would be an ephemeral event. We are very fortunate these days, I think, to see fine performances from anywhere in the world that otherwise we would only know from hearsay or still photographs.


Finally, let us all be grateful to
Edna Ferber ferberfor realizing in 1927 that the story of the showboats of the Mississippi and the transformation of American culture was one that should be preserved; and to Kern and Hammerstein for honouring the novel and its background with an interpretation that looks at the whole phenomenon of entertainment and American society with real acuity, some irony and profound empathy 
for its showboat novelcomplexities. They were pioneers.

Apollo’s Girl

July 27, 2015

FILM

apollo and lyre

 

 

Summer in the City:

What to See…

As always, there’s good stuff at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, and there’s always a retrospective to remind you of what you may have missed and get you images (3)through the dog days. This year it’s Richard Lesterthe irrefutable answer to the pressing question, “Whatever became of fun?”

Lester’s career followed its own arc: an icon of 60s Britain, he was an American (like many other film expats) who chose London over Hollywood. There were some compelling reasons. While we were ramping up in Vietnam, London was exploding with a revolution in film, theatre, music, fashion and art fueled by idiosyncratic, fearless prodigies who reveled in the city’s openness to change and low cost of living. Being there was a singular treat; next best is seeing what made it so special.

images (2)If Harold Pinter: Comedies of Menace and Quiet Desperation (FSLC 2013) was a bellweather of the era’s dark side; Lester’s upcoming retrospective (August 7 – 13) is the one to make you laugh most of the time and, in the case of the Beatles’ Hard Day’s Night, to be snatched up into the heart of a whirlwind that retains its magic to this day. Seeing it for the first time? Lucky you – prepare to dance in the streets after it’s over! To find out more about Lester, read Sam Kashner’s Vanity Fair interview (Making Beatlemania: A Hard Day’s Night at 50): article and secure your tickets to the retrospective seats

images (5)Before Lester takes the screens, as part of Sound+Vision (July 29 – August 7) you can dip into some homegrown post-Beatles’ beats with Brendan Toller’s Danny Says on opening night, and meet both filmmaker and subject afterwards, and ponder Julian Temple’s images (4)The Ecstasy of Wilko Johnson. Johnson may be rock’s only star who can read passages from Canterbury Tales in flawless Middle English and lead you gently into contemplating your own mortality. And there’s much more: http://www.filmlinc.com/films/series/sound-vision-2015

Catch up with Sean Baker’s Tangerine and Crystal Moselle’s The Wolfpack , held over and going strong tangerine_6at the Elinor Bunin Munro Film Center. Tangerine is a no-holds-barred dip into the seamy, steamy transgender street life of LA hustlers shot (beautifully) on an iPhone 55, and anchored by the epic turn of newcomer Kitana Kiki Rodriguez. Wolfpack, on the other hand, is Tangerine’s polar opposite. Following the coming-of-age of seven siblings who have been kept indoors on the Lower East Side, schooled at home, and enlightened by a diet of films which they have come to memorize and act out in home-grown performances, wolfpack-1024it’s original and startling all the way through. By the end, as the older brothers finally break away to enter the outside world, you are haunted by what their futures will be like and deeply curious about the possibilities of a sequel.

Finally, Nadav Lapid’s The Kindergarten Teacher (NDNF 2015) is coming back This original and download (2)unsettling look at genius and ambition richly deserves another run. Opening July 31; don’t miss it this time around! (https://apollosgirl.wordpress.com/2015/04/22/apollos-girl-57/)

images (7)And, as an end-of-summer special treat, FSLC will screen West Side Story on August 28 at 7:45pm, outdoors on the plaza, where it was actually filmed in 1960 (when there were vacant tenements, a cement basketball court and some very mean streets about to be turned into what is now Lincoln Center). 

Phoenix (Lincoln Plaza and IFC center)

Eager to see the newest work of the director and stars of Barbara (Christian Petzold, Nina Hoss and Ronald Zehrfeld) I enjoyed a recent screening of Phoenix download (4)and set out to write a review. The story of hidden identity, Holocaust survival, betrayal, infidelity and constancy unfolded like a great, twisty period (post-World War II) mystery, acted by a superb cast, directed by a superb director and photographed by Hans Fromm, another Barbara alumnus. It seemed, with a Metascore of 91, like a straightforward rave. And who doesn’t like a great, twisty period mystery?

But it wasn’t about just loving the excellent work of cast and crew; there was also something subtle that wasn’t easily identifiedsomething about the story that made me want to know more about it, and about its origins. A slight sense of displacementperhaps something about its characters and its locationso I pursued the mystery further. Here’s what I found:

Hubert Monteilhet. (Photo by Jacques Lange/Paris Match via Getty Images)

Hubert Monteilhet. (Photo by Jacques Lange/Paris Match via Getty Images)

In 1963, Hubert Monteilhet (prolific French author and winner of the Grand Prix de litérature policière), who specialized in mysteries and historical novels, wrote a best-seller, Le Retour des cendres. The film rights were quickly snapped up in the UK, and a script written (by Monteilhet and Julius Epstein of Casablanca fame); the director was J. Lee Thompson (Planet of the Apes franchise), and the cast starred Ingrid Thulin and Maximillian Schell, with Samantha Eggar playing a character later excised from Phoenix. While the actors spoke English, the story (like the novel) was set in France. The dubious character of the anti-hero was much the same (although he was a chess master rather than a bar porter, and the heroine an X-ray technician, rather than a cabaret singer). The plot was even more complicated then that of Phoenix, but was still deeply concerned with identity and morality. Jazz great John Dankworth did the score for Le Retour (I’m curious about that, too), where Phoenix embedded Kurt Weill’s “Speak Low” as a leitmotif throughout the film.

Petzhold’s choices in developing Phoenix were those of a brilliant images (8)filmmaker, but its journey from post-war France to post-war Germany (they were, surely, very different landscapes) wasn’t entirely seamless. Nevertheless, Phoenix’ 91 Metascore tells you how well he stitched the pieces of his pattern together, and why the process of adaptation—without which there would be no film industryis a challenge best undertaken by those, like Petzhold, with the skill and imagination to transform their source material and the actors to follow their lead.

The Outrageous Sophie Tucker (Cinema Village)

At the end of The Outrageous Sophie Tucker, after all the song 494825881_640credits, where you would expect the lengthy thank-yous that usually end a non-fiction labor of love, the producers (Susan and William Ecker) and director (William download (6)Gazecki) have fashioned a list from the heart: every category includes “Best” before the title noun and name: Best Microfilming Company Ever; New Best Friends; Best Friend Lawyer; New Best Friend Accountant and, notably, New Best Friend and Future Screenwriting Partner: Aaron Sorkin.

 

All of this is entirely appropriate for a film that is, at its beating heart, an unabashed love letter to a Red Hot Mama like no otherSonia Kalish Abuza Tucker, aka images (12)Sophie—whose immigrant rags-to riches story (she was born during her voyage from the Ukraine to America) led her from singing in her parents’ restaurant to performing at the London Palladium for the King and Queen of England. Her appetites were large; she was married three times, had a son who lived in his mother’s shadow all his life, and enjoyed “intimate friendships” with many women (including Lady Edwina Mountbatten). And that’s only for starters.

In the days before television she became a household word by touring, keeping lists of everyone she met on the way, and staying in touch to build an enormous, effective fan base, writing—by hand—cards and letters to each of them to remind them she’d be returning to their area and hoped to see them in the seats. In the 20s and 30s, she sold nostalgia for an earlier time of vaudeville and burlesque, performing songs her theatrical way with a powerful voice, ample body, and confident patter that crossed every social boundary and geographic border. Her radio shows, films, Broadway musicals, and club dates kept her before an adoring public for more than half a century. Wait til you see the footage, and the celebrity interviews….

download (5)So yes, the film is a cinematic love letter, made by writers on whose biography it is based (Susan and William Ecker), and essentially a family affair by them and director William Gazecki. It certainly gives you a sense of Tucker’s talent and magnetism and reminds you how appealing she was. For those who can remember her performances, Outrageous is a welcome feast of nostalgia. For those too young to have known her, it’s a primer for feeling the love. But, at the end, when sentimental tears are flowing, it leaves you curious to know more, to explore this over-the-top public talent more deeply. As much as Soph (as her friends called her) seemed to let it all hang out, her personal life was way ahead of its time, yet enigmatic and fully understood only by her. http://www.sophietucker.com/

P.S.: Special kudos for Guy Digenti’s Best Scrapbook Design, Motion Graphics, and Digital Puppetry.


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