Archive for the ‘culture’ Category

Apollo’s Girl

July 4, 2017

Film

Road Trips…


My Journey Through French Cinema;
Pop Aye; Dawson City Frozen Time;
Paulina

My Journey Through French Cinema (Part One)
(Dir./Writer Bertrand Tavernier)
06/23/17 New York NY Lincoln Plaza
06/23/17 New York NY Quad Cinema
06/23/17 Los Angeles CA Laemmle Royal
07/07/17 Chicago IL Gene Siskel Film Center
07/14/17 Portland OR NW Film Center
07/15/17 Nashville TN The Belcourt 
07/21/17 Minneapolis MN St. Anthony Main Theatre 
07/28/17 Miami Beach FL Miami Beach Cinematheque 
08/04/17 Santa Fe NM The Screen

To grow up in New York when the New Wave was cresting was to dive off a cliff into the ocean that is French culture. Life-altering total immersion. As luck would have it, the films were not dubbed, but sub-titled, so every tic and nuance of the actor’s craft was right there in the dark in front of you. Who could not yearn for those characters, those crooked old medieval streets pulsing with post-war social revolution? The birth of story after story played out by Bardot, Belmondo, Signoret, Montand, Moreau? And what about the writers, the directors, the auteurs?

If you missed all that, never mind: Bertrand Tavernier has captured the Wave, along with much earlier and much later French films and poured the whole catch out for us with all the passion and authority conferred by more than thirty films of his own. Tavernier admits to wearing many hats (citizen, spy, explorer and painter, chronicler and adventurer) for his road trip through French cinema, and switches them frequently. We are the lucky ones, who can lean back and share the journey with him as faces, sites, words and music unspool for his pleasure and ours. No need to swim: just sit back and watch this cosmic show-and-tell. While Tavernier is a warm and generous host, one of the great achievements of My Journey is the  way in which it clasps to its very generous bosom viewers thrilled to revisit and expand what they remember, yet bestows equal pleasure by solving the problem that weighs on all who champion a pre-digital agenda: how to mold a context that will lure the Gen X’s, Y’s and Z’s for whom the New Wave is a surfboard, rather than a dive off a cliff. Even compressed into three-plus hours (they whiz by) instead of decades, My Journey is still exhilarating.

Of course, like all filmmakers, Tavernier mourns the favorite bits that languish on his cutting room floor; there are rumors that a sequel will include them. Meantime, he makes loving (if fleeting) references to them with titles, and we feel his pain. “I would like this film to be an expression of gratitude to all those filmmakers, screenwriters, actors, and musicians who have erupted into my life. Memory keeps us warm: this film is a piece of glowing charcoal for a winter night.”

It’s also, in its delicious and ultimate Frenchness, a really cool way to enjoy a summer evening.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K22hX_9BUnU


Pop Aye: (Dir./Writer: Kirsten Tan) NYC Film Forum and national
This elephant (the title character) is out of the room and on the road in Thailand with his new owner
an architect who has, like the elephant, seen better times. They are trekking back to the architect’s hometown for a visit, moving slowly but steadily toward their distant goal until a passing truck is flagged and they climb in. “You don’t look like the type who’d be traveling with an elephant,” observes the driver. “I just bought him,” says the architect. Thus begins this quirky and appealing take on civilization and its discontents, a debut feature from a filmmaker who plies the Singapore/New York nexus with her own 
singular vision and notice from Rotterdam, Sundance and Sydney.

Part of what makes Pop Aye go is the sheer improbability of the ingredients that Kirsten Tan has mixed into a delectable and slightly dry brew. Taken one at a time they would seem to defy blending. When was the last time you found an architect and an elephant in amiable partnership? Or discovered a dysfunctional family with its own take on relationships. Or a truck driver who appears and disappears from time to time (this takes place in Thailand) with an inner GPS of his own. Then there’s a holy man in flip flops who says he will soon join his brother in heaven (he read it in the stars). There are bureaucrats and farmers, ex-wives and partners with little patience for the hero and his faithful traveling companion—and always that marvelously amiable elephant.

Don’t imagine for one minute that Pop Aye can be defined as a linear story; it threatens more than once to disperse, and occasionally makes unexpected (and not always logical) leaps in continuity but, as constructed by Ms. Tan’s whimsical imagination, it’s hard to let go of its sneaky and oddly compelling logic. Surrender to its charms and you will find yourself glad you hitched a ride in the slow lane with some excellent company.

 

Dawson City: Frozen Time (Dir.: Bill Morrison)
(NYC IFC Center; LA Landmark Regent;
Laemmle Monica Film Center; Vintage Los Feliz Theatre)

There are many threads in the tapestry that is Dawson City Frozen Time, and Bill Morrison is its God at the Loom. Not for nothing does Morrison call his company Hypnotic Pictures: this profound meditation on life and death of men, movies and mores, crafted from a trove of old footage unearthed by a backhoe in Dawson City, Yukon, is mesmerizing. Prepare to be transported as it travels backwards and forwards in time, carrying you with it like some spellbound caboose on a rich and improbable road trip in black and white.

Dawson City’s population was a thermometer that measured the heat of the gold rush of 1898, and the ups-and-downs of the fever were mirrored in the photographs by Eric A. Hegg, whose images of hopefuls struggling up the glaciers remain iconic. As native Canadians whose fishing and hunting shacks were wrenched upriver to make room for the town that erased them, Dawson City waxed and waned several times. At its heart was a succession of hotels, provision stores, civic monuments, saloons and brothels catering to itinerant prospectors and, soon after, public halls to screen the movies sent out from early producers to lull and excite the population. The movies—newsreels, shorts, and long-forgotten features—mirrored the world outside, but always after the fact; Dawson City was the end of the distribution line. Since the cost of returning the films to their home base was prohibitive, the orphaned reels simply stayed put, moving in and out of basements and backyards as time passed by, wars began and ended and tastes changed. 

Morrison has a field day with this treasure, marked as it is by decades spent in the permafrost, scratched and flaring, the ghost of movies past (some believed lost entirely until the backhoe dredged them up). But there’s another text that holds it all together: the repeated rise and fall of Dawson City as it fights to stay alive; the transformation of gold mining from manually panned nuggets to digs run by shadowy figures from the world beyond—in fact, the Guggenheims, who bring in big machines to do the job until all the veins are stripped. Newsreels faithfully record strikes and Sacco and Vanzetti, the Black Sox scandal, inventions and progress, always behind the times. And, with his hands deep in movie gold, Morrison sprinkles the film with nuggets of factoids like spices: the founding of Donald Trump’s family fortune by his grandfather, who ran an inn (cum bordello) in nearby White Horse, or what happened to some of Hollywood’s forgotten stars.

Respectability came to Dawson after a while, along with civic structure and society. Not since Edgar Reitz’s Heimat has communal evolution been put under a microscope so cleverly or, in this case, so imaginatively. But, in the end, it remains dreamlike, a leisurely (but rigorously edited) road trip through history in black and white, embraced by Alex Somers’ music and John Somers’ sound. Definitely to be savored. 


https://vimeo.com/180648695

Paulina (Dir: Santiago Mitre) Spectacle Theatre
The question should be how did a film whose many awards include the Grand Prize and FIPRESCI at Cannes find its way to the Spectacle Theatre in Brooklyn? Spectacle is “a volunteer-run microcinema, screening rare and under-appreciated films seven days a week. It is also a spot for radical polemics, in-house edits, live scores, original posters, and filmmaker appearances. We are an ex-bodega of enchantment, a semi-social society, an anti-commercial Atlantis. All screenings are $5 unless otherwise listed.“

Although Paulina is based on an earlier film (La Patota – The Gang) it is Dolores Fonzi’s performance
in the title role that dominates a very complicated story and keeps you thinking about its chronology and narrative reversals. The script tackles enormous issues of political and social justice even as it focuses on the moral positions of its principal and supporting players and their changes of heart and mind. One of the lines that connect the dots shows that random events can change lives forever, and that simple misunderstandings can trigger dominoes that will continue to collapse. Without Fonzi’s power to anchor the story, it might scatter, despite Santiago Mitre’s skill and the cast’s agility with shorthand. And many of its theories are revealed in arguments between Fonzi, (a talented judge-in-training), and her father (a respected and influential jurist), who are equally matched and equally stubborn.

The ideas and characters remain in memory, however, after Fonzi is seen resolutely marching down the road toward her destiny, chosen by her own design.

 

 

Cooper’s London

May 29, 2017

 

Books/Music

Stop, Read, Listen:

Glenn Frankel, High Noon: The Hollywood Blacklist and the Making of an American Classic, 379 pp, Bloomsbury.

This book is a fascinating companion to Victor Navasky’s Naming Names, which was a fairly comprehensive general history of that era of scoundrels and evil opportunists thought of as McCarthyism. But, at its centre, there remained the appallingly blinkered and self-righteous House Un-American Activities Committee (affectionately known as HUAC)a Senate tribunal that rode roughshod over the US Constitution much longer than McCarthy managed to. Glenn Frankel’s compelling book, nicely produced and published by Bloomsbury, focuses mesmerizingly on the relationship of HUAC to Hollywood, and also on the impact this had on the making of the classic Western movie High Noon and its gripping subtexts. Frankel sees the script of High Noon as a clear reflection of the climate of the Red Scare in Hollywood at the time. The hero of the book is Carl Foreman, who conceived the story and then adapted it as he came under increasing pressure from HUAC to testify and to name names. Indeed, in the end Foreman had to flee to England to work.

Featured players include Gary Cooper, the ailing star of the film, who took on the project at a time when he felt a strong need to resurrect his reputation as an actor; director Fred Zinnemann, whose commitment to the project was in itself bold; and the producer, Stanley Kramer. You get the full background story of each of these men, and many more involved in High Noon and in the persecution of Hollywood’s left wing.

Frankel’s work is well-written and a real page-turner, probing the background of the Hollywood film industry itself to show why Hollywood was so vulnerable to the pressures of HUAC in the late 1940s. This book is also a superb companion piece to the recently filmed Trumbo; certainly all the people who figure in that tale turn up as major or minor characters in this one, too, So you get to revisit the self-serving bigotry or narrow-minded pusillanimity of people like Hedda Hopper, John Wayne, Ronald Reagan, Adolph Menjou, Richard Nixon, and all the senators who contributed to the insanity that was the Blacklist. High Noon clearly delineates how the Blacklist happened and its fallout—yet some people still insist it wasn’t as bad as all that, or even that it never really existed at all. And High Noon mounts an attack on the Blacklist Deniers and takes a significant stand based on the actual facts, not the alternative ones. You also get sound and thought-provoking insights into how much people thought they were acting for the good of the country, fighting to save America from being overthrown by the Red Menace. The paranoia, at times, seems almost to leap off the page but so does some strong sympathy for the gulled and a great deal of understanding for both sides.

By the end of the book, you have the complete story of the making of High Noon, seen very much through the prism of the HUAC investigations of Hollywood. The book serves its double interest fully and convincingly throughout. There isn’t a dull or unnecessary page; the tale is told tautly, like a thriller.

Informative, well-written and still relevant, this is an excellent study of the impact on Hollywood and the arts of the mentality that drove HUAC and overcame the protests of people who could see through it, but had little hope of doing anything substantial about it. Those who tried to combat HUAC and the Blacklist include some pretty bold-face and surprising names: Lucille Ball, Humphrey Bogart, and Gregory Peck, among others. And then there are the tragedies of people like John Garfield. You are made both to understand and to feel their frustration.

I learned a lot from High Noon. I ended up, to my surprise, developing more comprehension of and of and even sympathy for Gary Cooper, who is usually labelled as an arch-Conservative; even greater admiration for Fred Zinnemann and Carl Foreman in particular than I had had before; and some disappointment about Stanley Kramer and how he behaved during the worst years of the crisis.

This is a book that manages to be informative, infuriating, educational, dramatic and entertaining all at the same time. It also gives you a wonderful journey through the background of Hollywood from the silent era onward. I recommend it highly to anyone who relishes being surprised by how much richer the subjects at hand were than they might have suspected.

Fearless Prediction:
MAKI SEKIYA, Future Perfect

What can you do to promote a completely unknown musician who, you think, is world class and ready for a world-conquering career? At the insistent invitation of a friend, I went to a piano recital in Oxford in an out-of-the way church, to hear some of the most astonishingly wonderful playing in every way that I’ve ever heard in my life. It was like hearing Emil Gilels or Sviatislav Richter or Artur Rubinstein for the first time; an artistry that went beyond the instrument and its limitations. Maki Sekiya is surely the Clara Schumann of our era! Yet this artist is a tiny woman, very self-effacing, able to charm the audience with little spoken introductions. And absolutely a giant at the piano.

Sekiya deserves to be heard by everyone, everywhere. She played music from William Byrd through Beethoven, contemporary Japanese music, Debussy, and Guido Agosti’s transcriptions of Stravinsky’s Firebird, and in every case she seemed to be channelling the composernot in any way getting between the audience and the music—while creating unique interpretations that were totally fresh and gripping. In every case she had a sure sense of the style, of the idiom of the individual creator. She has her own voice as a musician that is recognizable and remarkable without, somehow, in any way imposing herself on the music. She simply is the music when she is playing it.

Technically, it was an outstanding performance in every way. In Beethoven’s Piano Sonata 21 in C Major, Op 53 (the Waldstein), Sekiya started at speeds that were faster than I’ve ever heard but still with a and energy that demanded attention. Though the Adagio was a spiritual dream, in the Prestissimo she somehow tied the whole thing together, referred back to the beginning, and put the final polish on a flawless jewel. Her touch is defined by the complexity or simplicity of what she is playing, and she deploys both the sustaining and loud pedals to burnish her interpretation; she is a mistress of nuance. This artist has a rare sense of the architecture of every piece she plays and enables you to hear it as a coherent, complex whole. In the quiet passages she can take the huge risk of playing so delicately that you almost fear the notes will not sound; yet she is able to play louder and more forcefully than seems possible when the music requires it. Also, I have rarely been in an audience that was seduced into paying such rapt attention to every note, every pause, throughout the evening. Without flamboyance, without showing off for a moment, this was absorbing and completely compelling music-making. We were in the presence of someone very special, and we all knew it.

Sekiya has studied at the Purcell School in the UK and also in Russia, and she has managed to blend perfectly Japanese delicacy and attention to detail, Western urgency and Russian energy. The playing was both emotionally affective and brilliantly intellectual all at once. The lapidary sheen of her pianism is astonishing; the wit and intelligence breathtaking.

The concert was at the Church of St. John the Evangelist, which was turned into an arts centre not long ago, with fine acoustics,worthy of the evening’s program. But Sekiya’s talent demands a world stage – Carnegie Hall, the Wigmore Hall in London, the Bunkamura in Tokyo. For the moment she is living the life of a wife and mother in Oxford and teaching piano there, and we are very fortunate to be able to share such astonishing and inspiring musicianship. She is developing a local reputation. The church was packed out; and of course, she got a standing ovation at the end of her recital and again after playing a breathtaking, magical Debussy Claire de Lune for an encore. Again, it sounded totally fresh, almost as if I was hearing it for the first time, familiar yet original.

So make note of the name Maki Sekiya, pianist extraordinaire. I am going to see if I can find a few samples of her playing to put up on this web site from the concert I heard (because it was recorded), and possibly also do an interview to discover Maki’s plans for the future. Keep watching this space! Meantime, here’s a preview of things to come:

Apollo’s Girl

May 24, 2017

Film/Theatre

 

Dead or Alive:
Afterimage; Obit; A Doll’s House Part 2

Afterimage (Dir.: Andrej Wajda)
(Opens May 19 in NYC at Lincoln Plaza;
May 26 in LA at Laemmle Playhouse 7;
May 26 in Chicago at Gene Siskel Film Center)

The Polish film schools were always spoken of in hushed terms when I really began looking at foreign films. Their graduates seemed to have absorbed technical virtuosity in order to express a profound understanding of human nature; the films were as rich as they were beautiful, the scripts dimensional, the characters endlessly fascinating. And, no matter what kind of story they were telling, their was an element of realismus that made immersion a foregone conclusion. The very first Polish film I saw was Landscape After Battle, Andrej Wajda’s Palme d’Or Cannes nominee in 1970; I was permanently hooked.

No filmmaker’s art has imitated life as often as Wajda’s, but his 56 works reflect his long and complicated life rather than imitate it, and Afterimage (his final film) premiered at TIFF in 2016, a month before Wajda died at 90. It is one artist’s uncompromising look at another uncompromising artist, Władysław Strzemiński, Poland’s giant of the avant-garde, founder of the country’s museum of modern art, revered teacher and thinker, and author of Theory of Vision. But a listing of his achievements in no way represents the power of Wajda’s portrait, or of Boguslav Linda’s turn in the role. You can’t stop watching him, or listening to his ideas. The Communist officials detest him as much as his students love him, taking great risks in order to help him finish his book before the apparatchniks shut him down, one increasingly cruel step at a time. But the artist refuses to give way.

Wajda has created a fitting valedictory for his own life, and for Strzemińskis, the sadness of which is always outweighed by the power of the film and the magnitude of the portrayal. Don’t let this one get away!

Obit (Dir.: Vanessa Gould)
(In NYC at Cinema Village; Music Box Theatre, Chicago;
Laemmle Fine Arts, LA; wide release a/o 5/19/17)

No matter what you may think, Obit has nothing to do with death and absolutely everything to do with life. Spend some quality time with its quirky crew of New York Times obituary writers; share their MO and deepest thoughts on the mortality they confront every day (and often, when there’s late-breaking news) far into the night. It’s spellbinding!

Once a Siberia for writers, the department has been revitalized by a deep sea change: some of the Times’ best and brightest are at the machines and in the morgue there (I still treasure my fading copies of William Grimes’ forever fabulous chicken pieces*), doing battle with deadlines, word counts, reluctant sources and perfectionism with every tribute. In this passing parade, everyone—everyone— plays their part, from Poppa Neutrino to the man who dropped the atom bomb on Hiroshima; from Pete Seeger to JFK. And don’t forget the guy who dedicated his life to repairing manual typewriters, as Margalit Fox recalls their sound, “It’s this music that this man who knows the old songs was helping to keep alive.” Or Jon Pareles paying tribute to a jazz great: “It’s a definition of why art and artists make us remember…..the stilled voice, the fingers that don’t move any more. They’re talking to us, changing the way we think. You don’t want to think of them as perishable.”

The sheer mass of the resources is clear in the morgue…..aisles, shelves, cabinets bursting with the print and image fallout of lives going back to the 19th century (“If,” as archivist Jeff Roth observes, “you can find them.”) Roth is the fierce keeper of these many flames, the sole survivor of a department that once had 30 colleagues. The keys to the kingdom are in Roth’s head; wish him a long and healthy life…

You will find rue and joy in Obit—a little sorrow and a lot of hilarity— among the scribes who have a way­ with words and the ever-growing horde of characters they immortalize (without ever being able to meet them) as they struggle to make each one unique. The quotes are seductive as they speed by. How many treasures had to be abandoned on the cutting room floor? One can only imagine the pain that director Vanessa Gould and editor Kristen Bye must have known as they had to compress and delete one essential after another.

Seeing Obit made me think of George Stevens’ Jr.’s biopic about his father. It ends with a shot of Brandon De Wilde calling out after Alan Ladd, “Shane, Shane–come back!” The subjects of Obit won’t come back but, as one biographer explains, “We try to weave a historical spell—to enchant the reader– to do justice to a life. It’s a once-only chance to make the dead live again.” You will meet them in Obit, a dazzling bunch, and soar in their company. That’s the takeaway.

(Meantime, read these. You will thank me…)
*http://www.nytimes.com/2001/03/21/dining/it-came-it-clucked-it-conquered.html

*http://www.nytimes.com/2001/04/04/dining/lost-one-black-chicken-owners-bereft.html

A Doll’s House Part 2 (Dir.: Sam Gold; Author: Lucas Hnath)

If you’ve been lucky enough to follow Lucas Hnath’s work, you will know that he just can’t resist a good argument and that most of his plays are built around at least one. Hnath is also a prodigious learner. Having ingested competitive athletics for Red Speedo; physics for Isaac’s Eye; religion for The Christians, he has now turned his gaze on gender issues by arguing up a sequel to Ibsen’s A Doll’s House—that original battle of the sexes discourse—that simply raises the ante. This time, Hnath talked to some leading feminists to get it right read it here and this time everybody wins, especially the audience, who can see a spectacular cast (Laurie Metcalf, Chris Cooper, Jane Houdyshell and Condola Rashad) acting up a storm.

Despite the play’s darker, still-unresolved issues Hnath is serious about, his sly humor erupts at intervals; you’ve got to watch him like a hawk because just as you become embroiled in the follies of each character, Hnath (and/or director Sam Gold) will snatch you up with a giggle or a belly laugh. It’s always intriguing, and has been nominated for eight Tony Awards. The bad news: it’s a limited run, set to close on July 23. You’ve got two months to do something about it.


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

April 28, 2017

More Film

First, the Good News…

As we continue to up the truth-or-dare ante with North Korea, there is respite available downtown: the Quad Cinema has awakened from its long slumber and emerged, gleaming, as the star of a successful makeover by Pentagram, sponsored by the Cohen Media Group, and guided by programmers Christopher Wells (director of repertory programming) and Gavin Smith (senior programmer). With CEO Charles Cohen’s muscle, millions and determination, the Quad has big plans for indie, foreign and revival fare for those eager to receive the bounty. 

The makeover? It hits all the sweet spots—clean lines, stylish visuals, comfortable seats and sight lines, a lobby bar (with banquette) serving coffee, popcorn and treats, and a cafe/bar next door with alcohol and food. Did I mention the marble ladies room? Worth the trip! So, before you go back to worrying about Armageddon, bookmark the Quad to stay on top of its schedule (https://quadcinema.com/) and be thankful for its offerings.

One of them, A Quiet Passion (directed by Terence Davies, based on the life of Emily Dickinson) is a fascinating mixture of biography and between-the-lines interpretation of the inner life of this most private poet. The dialogue is drawn from her work and her letters to and from her publishers, her friends, and her family. Initially, this imposes a formality on the conversations, which offer an accurate account of how differently people thought and expressed themselves in the mid-19th century, when letting it all hang out would have been entirely unacceptable. Yet, as we become used to the dialogue and the distance it creates from emotion, we are drawn into the enormous conflicts between Dickinson’s strict religion and morality, and what appears to be a deeply sensual nature that tore at her most of her life. She remained with her family, increasingly reclusive, until she died. They were supportive of her quirks and her talents, (she was a formidable baker), but the obstacles to publication of her woman’s work and how they affected her are given their due. Because of the distance created by formal language, the emotional impact of Dickinson’s final years and death are all the more powerful, and Cynthia Nixon is Dickinson. For a deeper dive into some of her original prose and poetry, go to the Morgan Library and Museum for I’m Nobody! Who Are You? www.themorgan.org/exhibitions/emily-dickinson. On view til May 28.

A Quiet Passion will be joined at the Quad by Harold & Lillian: A Hollywood Love Story (Dir.: Daniel Raim) a not-so-quiet backstage romp through the long and adventurous marriage and careers of Harold and Lillian Michelson, the go-to story couple behind Hollywood’s most successful movies and movie-makers. Think that the blockbusters you’ve relished over the years appeared full-blown on the screen? Think again. Even those based on well-known novels and biographies (or earlier film versions) were the products of armies of creatives and craftsmen. And, from the very beginning, once the directors were in place, Harold and Lillian joined the party as indispensables.

If you’ve ever become obsessed with a subject and wallowed in the joy of finding out every single thing about it known to mankind, you will “get” what happened to Lillian while she was a stay-at-home mom with time on her hands. She didn’t type, but had a ravenous curiosity, and found her way as a volunteer to plunge into the black hole that was Goldwyn’s research library. Research became her life, and the books and files (she bought them when Goldwyn decided to sell) moved with her over time from studio to studio, but she never looked back. Harold (who had always been able to sketch) developed a talent for storyboards; they were much more than stop-motion shorthand versions of the scripts they compressed, including camera angles, edits and approach. For years, even though he often worked in secret, his drawings were used by Hollywood’s biggest names on films ranging from The Ten Commandments to West Side Story, from Hitchcock’s thrillers to Rain Man and The Graduate. Ultimately, he and Lillian often worked as a team, surviving whatever life threw at them (a lot of surprises) and becoming legendary where it counted, with Harold at last winning the title of Art Director on 14 films. The feature clips in Harold and Lillian alone are a trip; what makes the film tick are the drawings, the home movies, the backstories, and the testimonials from the linchpins of the business who love and admire the subjects of this endearing Hollywood Story. 

Apollo’s Girl

April 4, 2017

Film

 

 

 

The Persistence of Memory…

I Am Not Your Negro (Dir.: Raoul Peck) (National release)
There are films that are very good, and there are films that grab you by the throat and simply refuse to release their grip. I Am Not Your Negro is all of that and more. I saw it weeks ago and admit it remains stubbornly in memory.

It has newly raised the profile of James Baldwin (whose unfinished proposal for a book about Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, and Medger Evers the film is based on) and made a grand slam for Raoul Peck, whose string of narrative features and documentaries can be described as past is prologue. Timed to open at the beginning of Black History Month, it is still going strong in national release and is, no matter what’s coming down the pike, an absolute must.

 

Much of its still-riveting archival footage has been seen before, but never has it been so blazingly defined as by Baldwin’s steely nouns and verbs—either in his clips or in voiceovers by Samuel Jackson. Baldwin’s fury still penetrates as he are reminded of our recent history; the assassinations, the National Guard protecting young black students whose only crime was pursuing an education, while white protesters scream and wave signs with swastikas. The ugliness that is part of our heritage drove Baldwin to France, where he never missed American culture, his family, his society. But it was the perfect writer’s room for him to think up and think through his projects.

Peck’s skill and dedication have made I Am Not Your Negro feel like the film that Baldwin himself might have made. It is white hot and searing and cuts deep; not only as a notable addition to the best examples of race-centered cinema, but as an axis on which that cinema will continue to spin for a very long time. And judging from the tenacity of racial bias in the United States (read: current Voter Registration laws), it demands and deserves immortality. (Currently at Film Forum, Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center, and Drafthouse Cinema.)

Kedi (Dir.: Ceyda Torun) (National release)

This lovely essay on the cats of Istanbul is another keeper, but for entirely different reasons. An overflowing oasis of calm and kindness, it pays tribute to the survival of an ancient race (cats) and their effect on the people they thrive among. These are street cats, most of whom live near the city’s waterfront, where fishmongers, grocers, and cafe owners are grateful for both their vermin-snuffing skills and the affection they offer most of the time. And, of course, the cats know a good thing when they have it; the handouts are generous, providing a rich and varied diet bursting with animal protein. Whatever their names and colors, these cats have made relationships with their benefactors, who relish the cuddling, scratching, and playful ways of their charges as they make their daily rounds throughout the market quarter like so many furry therapists, without prejudice.

 

Two strands run throughout Kedi: surprisingly, most of the cat enthusiasts are men. And it becomes clear that the market quarter is part of Old Istanbul. Changes are coming that will soon gentrify the area into yet another neighborhood of high-rises (a bulldozer resting in the background is visible at lunchtime)–there will be no space for the men, the cats, or the therapy.

Kedi makes a strong case for reflection and the kind of low-key filmmaking that is as endangered as the urban history it caresses. Whether or not you love cats, you will love the pulsing life of the market and the glory of the Bosphorus that DPs Alp Korfali and Charlie Wuppermann make shine. And—trust me on this—you are likely to really fall for the cuddly cast once you realize how very special they are and what you’ve been missing. 

Closet Monster (Dir.: Stephen Dunn) (Amazon Video)

Dunn’s first feature (after nine shorts and toiling at every production role known to indie film) is a strikingly original gay coming-of-age film that just won’t go away. You’ve viewed many of its elements before (except perhaps the hero’s pet hamster, voiced by Isabella Rosselini, and a tree house that you’d love to live in). But you haven’t seen them as Stephen Dunn puts them together in his very own order, nor in his native locations. Nor as acted out by Connor Jessup, Dunn’s fictional alter ego.

Unlike most Canadian films, Closet Monster breaks the Vancouver/Toronto/Montreal nexus and celebrates the rocky glories of Newfoundland. The ways in which they have shaped Dunn’s own character can only be guessed at, but they were his choice for the film’s setting and they pique your interest from the first scene. What remains after you’ve seen it (for me, six months ago, and I find myself still pondering its amazing package) is the wit, the sorrow, the jumping-off-a-cliff flirtations with disaster, and yet the abiding sweetness and emotional generosity that color Dunn’s work.  He’s someone you’d like to know, whose work you want to follow. Can anybody tell me what he’s got up his sleeve next time around? I’d like to be there when it opens.

 



 

Apollo’s Girl

February 9, 2017

apollo-and-lyre

Dance on Camera 45
Film Society of LIncoln Center

With its world view and multiple techniques, Dance on Camera offers features that point up what dance carries with it: a brief and passionate professional life shadowed by injuries, frustrations, offset by fleeting moments of sublime control over space and the body before it’s gone downloadforever. Not for the faint of heart! http://www.dancefilms.org/dance-on-camera/festival/.
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ttp://www.filmlinc.org/festivals/dance-on-camera-festival/#films

This year’s features showcased Anatomy of a Male Ballet DancergomesMarcelo Gomes—a brilliant example who, at 37 and the top of his game, reveals the ubiquitous pain and suffering that come with his calling. Because he’s a first-rate dancer and also a sympathetic personality, you come away from the finale wishing, for his sake, that time could be stopped in its tracks. Until then, enjoy watching him defy gravity and partner a trio of spectacular leading ladies.

Then there’s Queen of Thursdays. It begins with a quote suarezfrom Albert Camus from The Myth of Sisyphus http://dbanach.com/sisyphus.htm, and introduces us to Rosario Suarez who studied with Alicia Alonso in Cuba at 15 and became a star of the Cuban ballet. If Alonso’s career was a colossal battle against blindness, Suarez’ was, like the mythological hero’s, a long, cruel journey of geography and intrigue which she repeatedly won and lost. After the skirmish that ends the film, Suarez says that she can tell a lie, “That I want to go on,” or the truth, “That I will go on.”

From Sweden, Marie’s Attitude follows the graceful transformation of Marie Lindquist from prima ballerina to rehearsal director. She muses on how to end lindqvisther career after dancing Eugene Onegin; her finale receives an ovation on a stage buried in flowers, and she is embraced by the entire company. In a postlude, she teaches Swan Lake, dressed in sweat pants and top. But when she demonstrates its essential steps, you see the Queen turning and taking to the air, inspiring her accolytes.

The shorts were, as they often are, both far-ranging and imaginative. Among the outstanding entries, two were filmed in the snow: Broken Memory, an exquisite piece choreographed broken-memoryand danced barefoot on a rooftop by the stunning Miki Orihara and directed, filmed and edited by Tomoko Mikanagi, whose understanding of how to film dance deserves a film of its own. The second, Cold Storage, a kind of bro-dance on ice by Thomas Freundlich, manages broad humor (often missing in dance) to advantage. Lost in the Shuffle (by Simon Maurice) features dance and activist jasonsamuelssmithJason Samuels Smith holding forth on the African origins of tap and its importance to the children (and adults) determined to follow his feet to confidence. His struggle to keep his school and classes going on a shoestring is as interesting to watch as his combinations. And if you want 15 minutes of real fun, watch Joaquin Roche (“El Oso”) Rodriguez. He’s a Cuban who’s been dancing in the streets for decades and has loved every minute of it. His star Casino dancing turn in Wheel of Life will lift your spirits, and he’s not planning to quit swiveling his hips anytime soon. But Exquisite Corps (by Thomas Rose) kind of takes this year’s choreographic and cinematic cake. It’s continuous movement by 42 (count ’em!) A-list dance-makers, each of whom leaps, twirls, shakes and thrashes without pause to create one filmed dance. And each mover and shaker is recorded in a different location. Exhilarating? Yes. Original? Yes. Hypnotic? Definitely. And here it is:
Go for it! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B3pFxsYPLgU

 

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!

* * * * * * * * * *

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.


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