Posts Tagged ‘revivals’

Cooper’s London

March 13, 2016

Theatre/Opera

!cid_A15726B8-792D-4BB3-8E63-1E1A0B6E6E5E@westell

Coming Up:
New and Different
(and Same Old) Stuff
in London

Despite regular and justified complaints that the London Theatre is being diminished by economic cuts and producers so terrified of losing money they’ll attempt nothing innovative or unusual, there’s still a surprisingly healthy scene for theatre-lovers. Not just in the capital but also thrughout the UK, where repertory theatres and major touring prouctions are alive and well and doing very good business. The continuing glory of the scene is the variety of approaches from the classics to the funky revivals of more recent plays and musicals; these are almost always original or subversive and also showcase extraordinary and treasurable talents.

Hoff0611Like every other marketplace, though, caveat emptor rules. For instance: I thought a new musical called Last Night a DJ Saved My Life was unadulterated dross, but it’s been touring extensively and has an audience that clearly adores its star, David Hasselhoff, who is the main draw. (He was a US TV magnet in The Young and the Restless, a popular soap, and a leading man in Baywatch.) Is he the Donald Trump of American entertainers, some stranger said during the interval? No. He’s much too classy by comparison. However, to me his show is a perfect example of creativity based entirely on opportunism and the lowest common denominator audiences. And lucky you! you’ll be able to see for yourself what the fuss is about on US TV very soon! It was filmed live on stage here in Oxford just for your delectation. And I bet you’ll be able to buy the DVD damned cheaply about two months after its release.

On the other hand, Chicago, for instance, has a touring company on its third round of all the UK’s notable venues, with such an interesting and slickly adept new cast that it’s selling out again with dangerous liaisonsgood reason. In London, there’s Dangerous Liaisons at the Donmar Warehouse, revived after 30 years with Christopher Hampton’s script/adaptation and a cast that includes the excellent Dominic West (as a less sinister but sexier Valmont than usual), and a scary Janet McTear as a believably evil Madame Merteuil, as well as veterans such as Una Stubbs. The pleasure of the revival, of “collecting” the performances, is undeniable; but it isn’t exactly an innovative idea. The play was recently broadcast live in cinemas and hopefully will be released on DVD preserve this production.

An interesting new production of Jean Anouilh’s Le voyageur sans bagages has just followed Dangerous Liaisons into the Donmar; I recommend this because Anouilh is, these days, unfairly neglected and underrated in the English-speaking world. This production is a new English version of the play by Anthony Weigh with a worthy but not starry cast. Weigh has called his new version Welcome Home, Captain Fox! and I’m guessing that it’ll be as much a reminder of Anouilh’s importance as the production of Flare Path was a year ago for reviving interest in Terrance Rattigan. (Written at the height of the Blitz in World War II and a favourite play of Winston Churchill’s, Flare Path has been successfully touring the country since its return to the West End.)

Another classic revival in the West End is a new fiennesadaptation, this time by David Hare, of Ibsen’s The Master Builder. With Ralph Fiennes for his Big Name Star, Matthew Warchus direct’s a very strong interpretation of the play and has a cast that works brilliantly as an ensemble. After 19 March The Master Builder is followed at the Old Vic by a new production of Harold Pinter’s The Caretaker with the brilliant Timothy Spall and again directed by the very imaginative (and very busy) Matthew Warchus, whose gift for inhabiting the text never fails to illuminate unexpected insights.

Down the road at the Young Vic, you might want to check out the plays in the smaller auditoria for new, funky texts. On the Main Stage, Peter Brook’s Battlefield, an adaptation of the Mahabaratha, played to full houses until 27 February, trailing clouds of glory from the Theatre des Bouffes du Nord in Paris. Brook has a virtual annual residency for his work at the Young Vic, and a very fortunate thing that is for London, too. Following at the Young Vic is a show/musical/cabaret called If You Kiss Me, Kiss Me that sounds both interesting andhorrocks unusual. Starring the multi-talented Jane Horrocks (another Young Vic regular, having done The Good Woman of Szechuan and Annie Get Your Gun there), and conceived by her with Aletta Collins, who directs and choreographs, this promises to be memorable theatre. It runs in the main house from 10 March to 15 April. I am also looking forward to A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing in the Young Vic’s The Maria auditorium. Annie Ryan has adapted the novel by Elmear McBride and the star turn by Aiofe Duffin promises to be unforgettable.

At the National Theatre, the play that interests me the most this season is their production of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom by August Wilson. Sharon D. Clarke is Ma Rainey and the director is Dominic Cooke, who ran the Royal Court Theatre so successfully from 2007-2013. From the stylish and apt way this production works, He clearly has a real affinity for this material. It’s ma raineyrunning in repertoire until mid-May according to current listings, but if it’s a success it will hopefully simply carry on. It’s one of the most powerful and exciting of the sequence of plays by Wilson portraying the experience of African-Americans, decade by decade, in the 20th century. Also coming up at the National from the end of March is a production of Lorraine Hansberry’s neglected and virtually unknown masterpiece, Les Blancs. The director is Yael Farber whose work has dazzled me since I saw a production of hers brought to the UK from South Africa about ten years ago. I need know nothing more. If you see the name Yael Farber as director on anything anywhere ever, just buy tickets and go. There’s also a revival of the notorious Harley Grandville-threepennyBarker play Waste that was famously banned by the UK censor in 1910 or so. You can still just catch that one. But just as excitingly as Ma Rainey, the RNT is staging a new production of the Brecht-Weill iconic Threepenny Opera from 18 May. Rufus Norris is directing a cast that includes Rory Kinnear.

Joshua Harmon’s successful comedy, Bad Jews, returned to London for a month from mid-February for a run at the Theatre Royal Haymarket. Ilan Goodman reprised his much-applauded role as Liam, alongside new cast members Ailsa Joy, Antonia Kinlay, and Jos Slovick. This American play is directed by Michael Longhurst. And Matthew Perry, of erstwhile Friends fame, has just opened in a play he himself has written called The End of Longing, about which I have heard not such very good things. Still, it is a brand-new play! There don’t seem to be many of those around these days!

Meanwhile the Almeida is doing yet another Uncle Vanya in a new version by Robert Icke. It runs through the end of March. It’s always worth seeing Uncle Vanya and the Almeida has a very good record with classics like this, so if you are in the mood for some Chekov, this could be a good bet. And when Nina announces that she’s a seagull for the third time, I think everyone in the audience should shout out: So flock off, lady! and see what happens…

Uncle Vanya is followed at the Almeida by a new play by Leo Butler called Boy. Last year, director-designer team Sacha Wares and Miriam Buether had a success with a groundbreaking production of a play called Game at the Almeida; however, the excitement and hype around this new production of theirs is based not just on their work as a team but also on the writing of Leo Butler who seems to be establishing himself as a talented playwright of political polemics that address hard current issues.

A new play about that Cockney cutie Nell Gwynn by Jessica Swale has moved at last from Shakespeare’s Globe to the Apollo Theatre in the Strand. Nell_Gwynne_and_King_CharlesYou may recall that Nell (the mistress of Charles II) was one of the first actresses in England ever, and probably an inspiration for the character of Amber St Claire in the ripe Restoration bodice-ripper Forever Amber by Kathleen Winsor. I’m attracted to this one partly because I just saw the excellent Queen Anne at the RSC and read again the brilliant and unjustly neglected masterpiece of a novel, Henry Esmond, by William Thackeray. This new play is like a prequel to all that.

This time round the consistently brilliant and many-faceted Gemma Arterton is

Gemma Arterton as Nell Gwynn ©Alastair Muir 10.02.16 Nell Gwynn 166

Gemma Arterton as Nell Gwynn ©Alastair Muir 10.02.16 Nell Gwynn 166

playing Nell. There was controversy over the casting of Gugu Mbatha-Raw in the role because she is black, but she’s a rising star and may be too busy with conflicting commitments. Do Google her! She’s quite wonderful. Also, Christopher Luscombe is directing Nell Gwynn again with some other cast changes as well. Luscombe is one of the most consistent, intelligent and witty directors in the UK at the moment. I always try to see anything he puts his hand to. His production of Shakespeare’s Merry Wives of Windsor from the Globe Theatre, for instance, is available on DVD and is a good way to get a measure of just how talented this man is. Even though Arterton and Luscombe are involved, I’ll miss Gugu Mbatha-Raw, who caught the essence of a woman able to captivate both king and country. But then I expect Arterton to do no less. It’s a bawdy, entertaining and informative evening’s theatre. You might also want to check out the overlapping story of Edward Kynaston in Richard Eyre’s delightful 2004 film Stage Beauty (starring Claire Danes).

Also of note: the Royal Court is bringing the play I See You by Mongiwekhaya to London, before it plays at the Market Theatre in Johannesburg, part of its commitment to international new plays which has long defined its lineup; while Jamie Lloyd is directing a new production of Genet’s The Maids at Trafalgar Studio 1; and the Kenneth Branagh Company season continues with The painkillerPainkiller at the Garrick Theatre from early March. The Painkiller stars Branagh and Rob Brydon in the Walter Matthau and Jack Lemon roles from Billy Wilder’s film adaptation of this material called Buddy, Buddy. Wilder’s film was based, in turn, on a play by Francis Veber; the material is adapted here by Sean Foley who also directs. Another attraction of this production is the appearance in one of the roles of the inestimable Claudie Blakely.

_____________________________________________________________________________________________

…and some notes on notes…

The ENO has just done a successful-enough production of Norma directed by Christopher Alden. It has a strong cast and conductor and is set in the 19th century for reasons that make no sense to me, and it’s interesting to see how Alden approaches one of the ultimate, romantic, bel canto works. How many chairs will inhabit the set? Marjorie Owens will sing the demanding title role and to pique your interest further there is actually a preview snippet of her doing “Casta Diva/Virgin Goddess” with piano on the ENO site at https://www.eno.org/whats-on/15-16/norma

As well as a new Norma, the ENO is reviving their famous production of Philip Glass’s Akhnaten for the first time in decades. I recall it as being totally mesmerising. Their musical this year from sunset blvdearly April will be Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Sunset Boulevard and they’ve got Glenn Close to repeat her assumption of the main role as Norma Desmond. Michael Xavier, who was a brilliant Sid Sorokin in a recent Pajama Game, will be Joe Gillis and Trevor Nunn is directing. And while we’re in a Broadway time warp, there’s also an upcoming revival of Jule Styne and Stephen Sondheim’s Funny Girl at the Savoy Theatre from early April that will star Sheridan Smith. This is great, it seems to me, for a younger generation for whom all these things are legends they could never before see live on stage. Meantime, a guys and dollsproduction of Guys and Dolls that originated in Chichester and transferred to the Savoy Theatre is so successful that it’s now transferring again, to make way for Funny Girl, this time to the Phoenix Theatre from 19 March 2016. Emma Thompson’s equally talented and totally wonderful sister, Sophie, is playing Miss Adelaide; and Jamie Parker’s singing as Sky Masterson was compared in some reviews to Sinatra’s! With David Haig as a fine Nathan Detroit, the musical is directed by Gordon Greenberg and choreographed by no less a dancer than Carlos Acosta. Beat that!

Meantime, at the ROH, there is that new production https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sehC_IP2Px8 of Boris Godunov for the first time in ages. Pappano is conducting and Bryn Terfel is undertaking the title role, with Richard Jones directing, so there ‘s a lot of excitement over that one! It opens on 14 March and hopefully will be broadcast to the world on cinema screens near you. Looking ahead to May, I would watch out for Enescu’s rarely performed opera Oedipe. There will also be a new production in April by Katie Mitchell of Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor that is strongly double cast.

Looking even further ahead to June, I am personally very keen for one special thing: that Audra McDonald is bringing her Billie Holiday show, lady daydirector Lonny Price’s Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill, to London. If you couldn’t get tickets on Broadway but are coming to the UK this is an absolute must. There is a fine Broadway cast recording, too. McDonald sings 14 songs and is never off the stage. Book now, and try this sample on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TZTwdR3C6_E And please also try to acquire the Simon Rattle concert version of Leonard Bernstein’s Wonderful Town in which Lady Audra is a superlatively acted and sung Eileen. She is, as always, utterly gorgeous in every way.

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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

February 8, 2015

apollo and lyre
NYFF52: Red Carpet Crystal Ball–
A Little Cloudy…

film societyJanuary 11 was the deadline for my annual whine about who—first seen at the New York Film Festivalgets which Oscar. It’s getting to be a tradition in these pages; a long, hard look back at NYFF after the mind has cleared and the dust has settled and before the statuettes have actually changed hands. But watching the shattering events in France, and the lions linking arms with the lambs (if charlie1not actually lying down with them) as they marched over a million strong through Paris, it was hard to leave television’s realities (at home and abroad) to concentrate on what was showing on the big screen. And to contemplate the crystal ball. So I waited a while.charlie2

It was especially difficult this year becausewith the full deployment of the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Centerthere was non-stop action every single day at NYFF for a month. But now that most of the films are finally out and about let the choices begin!

Despite the virtues of the Festival’s three big ones with pride of place (Gone Girl; Inherent Vice; and Birdman), it wasn’t until almost the end of the press screening weeks that Foxcatcher was unveiled. And what an unveiling it was! Unlike even the best films, foxcatcher2Foxcatcher didn’t unspoolit unfolded, like a latter-day Greek tragedy, defined by ever-escalating tension built into the unfolding and the performances Bennett Miller drew from Steve Carrell, Mark Ruffalo, and Channing Tatum. Theirs was a perfect trifecta, always in balance, winning a Gotham Award for ensemble performance. In fact, I’d walked out on two of Carrell’s previous films (they were, honestly, just too dumb to sit through and, of course, wildly successful). Not on this one, though. Attention must be paid to that kind of revelation.

With his role as the psychopathic scion of an old and very wealthy foxcatcher1family and a by-now infamous prosthetic nose, Carrell deserves to take home the statuette, no matter how intense the competition. But there’s more: the cinematography by Greig Fraser and the editing by another trifecta (Jay Cassidy, Stuart Levy, Conor O’Neill) fill in the colors and connect the dots. Will it win? Well, I complained a lot about Social Network losing to The King’s Speech (https://apollosgirl.wordpress.com/2011/02/27/apollos-girl-3/and suspect that the buzz around Boyhood and Birdman may outweigh anything I can plead on Foxcatcher’s behalf; it isn’t even foxcatcher3nominated for Best Film. But just to sum up: I saw it a second time right after the NYFF press screening; every seat was filled, and the audience barely breathed for two hours and nine minutes. No one took a break or texted, either. These days, that’s a colossal endorsement. With luck, Miller will end up as Best Director. (And who can forget that his golden portfolio includes both Moneyball and Capote?)

Then there was the shock of Whiplash. whiplash poster2Watching it was like being at the epicenter of a tornado. In addition to its many glories, it’s the first film I can remember since Ray that’s truly inside musicnot some Hollywood executive’s idea of what music might be. The conflicts and characters are the stuff of great storytelling, but the music itself is performed by actual musicians, and/or by actors who have had considerable experience at playing. Miles Teller’s final drum solo is so intense it wihplash2made me cry Whiplash (2014) -- Screengrab from exclusive EW.com clip.(and believe me, I wasn’t unhappy!). J.K. Simmons has already, like a magnetized locomotive, been collecting awards for best supporting actor.
But let’s look at
Damien Chazelle for a minute: chazelle2
he’s only made one other feature (
Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3T6Bn0_QfaY
He has, thank God, music in his blood, and he is generous with it. And he also shot Whiplash in 19 days and edited it in two months. Where I come from, that’s called a miracle.

The sad thing is that these two films, each great in its own way, have both been nominated for five Academy Awards, including Best Film (Whiplash) and Best Achievement in Directing (Foxcatcher). It’s not only apples and oranges, but the Apollo of Foxcatcher vs. the Dionysus of Whiplash.

sissakoTimbuktu, created by Abderrahmane Sissako, is a front-runner for Best Foreign Film, and the first ever contender from Mali. Sissako is part Malian and part Mauritanian, learned his considerable craft at a Russian film school, and has lived primarily in France. For centuries Timbuktu was a crossroads of trade and the timbuktu3melting pot of northwest Africa, until its annexation by extremists in recent years. Sissako knows the territory and the traditions, but filters them through highly sophisticated sensibilities and technique to tell his storya dreamlike tragedy which begins with references to the region’s Edenic, multicultural past and ends with the horror of its present and likely destiny. There’s only one problem: the oranges and apples in this Oscar category are complicated by the presence ida2of Ida, another serious contender. As austere in black-and-white as Timbuktu is sensual in color, Ida (seen at Lincoln Center early last year at the Jewish Film Festival) is all the more powerful for its minimalism. How can we possibly choose between them?

Finally, when it comes to documentaries, NYFF’s Citizen Four is a front-runner for the statue, and with good reason. It’s hard to top either the extreme intelligence and discipline of director Laura Poitress, or her subject, Edward Snowden, as they gradually reveal the extent to which our government has been citizen foursurveilling most of its citizens, or what may come of it in the not-too-distant future. And, of course, its very understatement is what creates its impact. However: its strengths provide one more serving of apples and oranges: the style and content of Gabe Polsky’s Red Army: no less intelligent and disciplined, definitely more raucous and outrageous, andhow did this happen?—not even on the Oscar shortlist, let alone one of its nominees. Red Army, in 76 well-stacked and packed minutes, manages to even-handedly condense fetisovthe complex history of the Cold War through the rollicking tale of the Russian hockey team that ended up playing for New Jersey and then Toronto. As if this weren’t enough, its mighty protagonist Slava Fetisov all but walks off with the movie as he embraces his cellphone, the joys of both conspicuous capitalism and warm collectivism, and his own bigger-than-life force that powers the film.

Full disclosure of personal theory: it has become evident that you can tell a lot from the press conferences that often follow press screenings. The casts and crews of Foxcatcher, Whiplash, and Red Army were pumped beyond any flackery. They knew they had a very, very good thing, and you knew that they knew. It’s all about the energy, and it never lies.

P.S.: A word of thanks for the NYFF’s choice of retrospectives: 21 of Joseph Mankiewicz’s films representing his outsize palette (including Cleopatra, All About Eve, The Barefoot Contessa, and that people will talkhard-to-find civilized gem, People Will Talk). And welcome backward glances at This is Spinal Tap, plus a gloriously restored print of Resnais’ Hiroshima, Mon Amour.hiroshima2

Apollo’s Girl

November 20, 2014

Film

apollo and lyre

 

 

Bigger Than Ever: Doc NYC at Five

 

 

If you have a festival and you want it to grow, you doc nyc 2014need a few basics: a list of sponsors with muscle, a dedicated team with vision, a multiplex, an interesting slate, seductive events, and location. Doc NYC has all of these; offering 92 features and 37 shorts, up from a total of 132 last year, plus a Doc-A-Thona didactic soup-to-nuts, beginning with Mapping Out Your Film: Story and Style, and ending a week later with the bottom line: Making a Living as a Documentary Filmmaker. This last may prove something of an oxymoron, but it’s an inspirational idea for attendees heading out into the dark and stormy night that is documentary film.

The Festival’s upbeat gala finale—The Yes Men are Revoltingtakes place tonight at the SVA Theatre (333 West 23rd Street) at 7:00 pm. The miracle of Yes Men Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno is their ability to make you laugh at the brilliant stunts they dream up to protest issues like climate change. That is until you absorb the scale and implacability of their targets, ever-growing Goliaths to their yes menDavids. You have to see the opening to believe it, but its activist blobs wading knee-deep in the East River is a unique call to arms, impossible to top.

Along the way, we are treated to past capers, brainstorming sessions, consequences, and slow (and delicious) reveals of corporate and institutional stalwarts realizing they’ve been had. There seems to be no limit to the energy or inventiveness of Buchlbaum and Bonanno, although doubts and sorrows occasionally leaven their capers. My advice: follow their every move and find a way to support them. Then just dig deep, choose a project, and give til it hurts. http://www.yeslab.org/projects?page=1 (Director Laura Nix and the Yes Men in person to attend.)

What makes the festival notable is its focus on the genre (so often neglected or underserved in favor of narrative film) and its inclusiveness. The sheer number of its offerings guarantees that there will be works of interest to everyone.  There were many strands, much variety, and — a real Godsend — revivals of some recent citizenfour_posterhits from the Film Society of Lincoln Center (Citizen Four, arguably the most important documentary to surface this year), and Finding Vivian Maier (whose quirky mystery seems destined to be obscured by a subsequent legal battle with no end in sight, like a latter-day Bleak House). Both were part of the Short List section; likely Oscar nominees. Then there was Docs Redux, bringing ’em back alive from decades past: Steve James’ (director of this year’s searing Life Itself) 1993 multiple award-winner Hoop Dreams; David—from DA Pennebaker and William Ray (the very pinnacle of 1960s verite cool)—as well as Pennebaker and Hegedus’ much later Kings of Pastry (did you ever think you’d see strong men cry over the collapse of a sublime chocolate confection)? The capacity to bring back films, old and new, that demand repeat viewings and new viewers, is the real luxury of multiple screens, good selection committees, and long memories.

There were parallels among the features (coincidental or otherwise); overviews of an era from Ric Burns, and from Gracie Otto. The first, Enquiring Minds— a hard look at Generoso Pope, Jr., who purchased the National Enquirer in 1952 (allegedly with mob financing) and turned it from a sleepy  local gossip sheet into an increasingly lurid supermarket sensation beset by celebrity lawsuits; the second, The Last Impressario, featuring the elegant Michael White, besotted by dreams of producing only the best of the bests on Broadway, in the West End, and in Hollywood, drifting after a lifetime in the company of the stars he presented. 

Two radically different (but entertaining) films were screened that used the evolution of a group to represent changing times and more: George Hencken’s spandau balletSoul Boys of the Western World (the story of the rock group Spandau Ballet), and Tim K. Smith’s Sex and Broadcasting (a chronicle of WFMU, “the best—and perhaps weirdest—radio station in the tristate area, if not the country.”) Seeing both, you realized that every group, like every person, has a life cycle; from the enthusiasm and idealism of youth, to the growing exhaustion and disillusionment of middle age, and finally the resolution of life’s lessons in a variety of ways. For WFMU, the future is a big question mark, generated by a chronic and oppressive lack of funds. For Spandau Ballet, we are treated to a spectacular reunion concert (after decades of toxic estrangement) that ends with a socko performance at the Isle of Wight; the band’s members literally throw off the years and become luminous, visibly younger versions of themselves; something I haven’t seen since Christopher Gable (as Richard Strauss) ripped off the mask of old age while conducting Death and Transfigurationthe finale of Ken Russell’s Dance of the Seven Veils. It took your breath away both times.

Attention must be paid to Vessel (by Diana Whitten) a call to arms for women’s reproductive rights; its heroine (Dr. Rebecca gomperts
Gomperts
) founded Women on Waves to provide contraceptive and abortion services to women in need. The clinic operates around the world on a ship moored in international waters, to avoid harsh penalties in countries where there is no legal alternative to pregnancy, however dire its consequences. Gomperts is tireless, and unafraid, but the threats are many and lurid, and impossible to ignore.

scottAs in every festival, there was one real surprise—a quiet film that spoke to me with a cumulative strength that demanded recognition: Florence, Arizona, by Andrea B. Scott, its director, writer, and cinematographer. Florence is a one-industry town whose prison employs most residents, and whose inmates outnumber them two-to-one. Its arid streets and quirky small-town characters grow on you; a Native American barber; a bad-boy adolescent trying hard to improve; a former teacher and a deputy sheriff who oppose each other in an election for town mayor; no two stubborn peas in this sun-drenched pod are remotely alike.florence_sunset
Scott’s cinematography is glorious, her understanding of what makes Florence tick and her empathy for her subjects produces pure gold. She asks the right questions, then gets out of the way, letting people speak for themselves. It’s a gift that many filmmakers can learn from, and a film that perceptive viewers can take to heart.  http://vimeo.com/11028375

DOC NYC will be back next year; with even more premieres, more sold-out screenings, and more films, great and modest, as expected and as surprising. Keep track of the news and stay on top of it. home base

Apollo’s Girl

July 16, 2014

ApollogoldenchariotFilm

 

 

A Summer’s Tale (1996)

Just in time for the dog days, Eric Rohmer’s third installment of Tales of the Four Seasons has been restored and released for the first time in America. Why so long? Perhaps it fell into some cinematic crack, but the timing couldn’t be better. With July simmering around us, there’s no better antidote than this survivor of a movie. So let’s go to the beach…

But not the sun-drenched, saturated-color glamour
of the Cote d’Azur, where you pick summerstale2our way toward the Mediterranean while looking around to see who’s in the water. No.
This summer’s tale plays out on the lesser-known and everyday Atlantic, near La Rochelle. It’s cool, in every sense of the word. The film’s crisp, restrained palette of rocks, sun and sand, the middle-class ambiance of the beach and the pale bodies of its citizens are rendered as an alternative to the heat of the Riviera. And what a relief!

Eric-Rohmer-001Rohmer himself is a relief, too. We have missed his adolescents talking out their problems on long walks, or over the ubiquitous red wine that lubricates their opinions. It’s always about relationships–monogamy or the thrill of the chase and the unknown–talk is life to his self-obsessed young adults. What makes Rohmer so special is his fondness for the angst that never dies, expressed with eloquence and reticence. And how, in his young, heartfelt protestations of probity are delivered so that the audience is in on the joke and the layers of denial and emotional need that frame every conversation.

summer's tale 3A Summer’s Tale begins simply enough, with Gaspard (Melville Poupaud) arriving on the beach looking for his girlfriend Lena (Arélea Nolen) who is traveling to meet him. But she’s still in transit. Soon Gaspard is deep in conversation with Margot (Amanda Langlet), a charming waitress/graduate student, about his relationship. And–what do you know–the waitress professes friendship, and suggests he meet Solène (Gwenaëlle Simon), a friend of hers who might be just right for him while he waits.

No sooner has he begun to explore the possibilities of Solène’s “rightness,” then his capricious girlfriend shows up to tantalize–just as the waitress decides that perhaps Platonic might not be the way to go.
summer's tale 1There are no ultimatums or slamming doors, but eventually the lovelorn soloist has become the pivot of an increasingly lively menage
à quatre. It’s complicated: all sincerity and self, with incrementally elaborate deceptions necessary to maintain equilibrium. The comedy is sly, but
consistent, and just as we wonder exactly how summers tale- 2Gaspard will extract himself from what has become an embarrassment of riches, he finds a solution. Won’t give it away, but it’s worth waiting for and drew appreciative, knowing laughter from the sophisticated crowd. Definitely the right movie for right now. Look for
A Summer’s Tale and thank Big World Pictures for bringing it back.

Human Rights Watch Festival

Compared to the scale of last year’s political turmoil https://apollosgirl.wordpress.com/?s=human+rights+watch, 2014 offered a different aesthetic: small-scale, tightly focused, and intense. Often quieter. But no less affecting. One of the most powerful choices was the Sundance Audience Award-winner, The Green Prince, directed by Nadav Schirman.
It green princetranscends the you-can’t-make-stuff-like-that-up category with a real-life journey that, against all odds, generates a deep friendship between a young Palestinian zealot and the Shin Bet officer assigned to recruit him as a double agent for Israeli intelligence. It is, in fact, a terrifying story, with implications that remain troubling long after you leave the theatre. Schirman has figured out how to enhance the essentials with a combination of archival footage (chilling) and occasional reenactments designed for maximum impact.
The Green Prince pulls no punches and, given the current news from the Middle East, is a must for anyone who sustains even a scintilla of hope that coexistence is an option. Though still on the festival circuit, it will be in general release later this year. Find it! (From Music Box Films)

 


privateviolencedeanna_touched-finalPrivate Violence
(Director: Cynthia Hill) The tag line of Private Violence is “…the most dangerous place for a woman in America is her own home,” and ample evidence for the statement is offered repeatedly in this harrowing, disturbing account of the truth behind many marriages, and not just in America. Many of the victims are disadvantaged, but the pattern of violence and escalation is not confined to the 99%. One of the most shocking interludes reveals a highly respected doctor with a long history of domestic violence screaming imprecations at his wife and those who would restrain him. If that doesn’t unsettle you, the narrative thread of one woman’s terrifying attempt to find justice should forever answer the question “Why didn’t you just leave?” She eventually finds an ally with a similar history who is able to navigate the judicial labyrinth and bring the case to trial, with a verdict of guilty that will make you cheer while you weep. This is one instance where states’ rights are an almost insurmountable obstacle to a good outcome. (HBO: October, 2014)


siddartSiddharth
(Director: Richie Mehta) is narrative fiction, generated by the reality of child trafficking that forms a horrific bridge between the haves and have-nots in the Third World. Needing extra money to subsist, a father “sells” his adolescent son through a relative to work in a distant factory, rationalizing the arrangement as a necessity, but only temporary.

Due to come home for the holidays, the son never returns. With the growing fear that something has gone terribly wrong, the father sets out to cross India and reunite with his boy. He encounters realities far beyond his simple existence and is unable to find anything more than the likelihood that Siddarth has been kidnapped and forced into an unthinkable life. Siddharth (like Mehta) has both gravitas and modesty, but the understanding that Siddharth will never be found shakes the father and mother, and its understated sorrow has greater magnitude than a more sensational film could ever provide. (Zeitgeist Films: In national release.)

The Beekeeper (Der Imker)  Director: Mano Khalil


der imkerAnother gentle and understated storyof a Kurdish beekeeper (Ibrahim Gezer)who has been granted
asylum in Switzerland. Only gradually does he reveal to his new friends the horrors that led him to flee Turkey (his entire family was killed), and find the strength to take up his old profession despite the Swiss laws—generating a hilarious sequence of the absolute and well-meaning correctness of Swiss bureucracy versus the beekeeper’s real need. The bees are his salvation, and he will pass his knowledge on to the next generation. But The Beekeeper, without a domestic distribution, will remain unseen in America.

Latinbeat


casa grandeAlways a pulsing grab-bag of unexpected goodies,
the current Latinbeat scores with two  debuts: Casa Grande (Director: Fellipe Barbosa) is an unsparing coming-of-age story
that offers one of the most arresting (and original) opening sequences in cinema history.

Forget that car on the road going endlessly toward the horizon! Casa Grande’s beginning tells you everything you need to know about one of the essential players (the father): his conflicts, goals, and the house he has acquired for his family that is a source of pride for him, and a burden for his rebellious son. It is dusk; he paddles in his Jacuzzi, cools off in his pool, dons his expensive terrycloth bathrobe and heads across the patio to his house. He switches off the music that we mistook for a background score, then methodically turns out the lights that blaze through the windows as he climbs from the entry to his bedroom. The house is comfortable and welcoming, and will turn out to be built on sand.

The economic and social issues that plague modern Brazil are navigated well and imaginatively here, without short-changing any of the human drama, or the seriousness of what lies under the surface of suburb and favella. Barbosa keeps all the complex threads in motion so we can see the fabric of society unraveling without requiring explanation. It’s what movies can do in the right hands.


paula hertzogAnd now for another understated gem that simply sneaks up on you:
Natural Sciences (Director:
Matías Lucchesi) and yes, another example of how to tell a story by making the camera dialogue’s equal partner. The story is simple—a young girl’s obsessive quest to find the father she has never known—and, at 77 minutes, brief. But every second counts. At its center, and its alpha/omega, is (the then) 11-year-old Paula Hertzog, co-winner of Best Actress Award at the Guadalajara Film Festival. More, Natural Sciences also won Best Film and Best Screenplay there, then went to Berlin and walked off with its Generation Kplus Grand Prix. But you know, it’s not about the statuettes and crystal plaques; it’s about what happens on the screen and how you feel about it.

The old saw about not appearing with child actors does not apply here. As spectacular as Hertzog is, and will be (the camera really, really loves her!), the ballast is shared with her co-star, Paola Barrientos,  who (while never natural sciencesstealing a scene) manages to provide a compelling and beautifully nuanced portrait of a teacher who recognizes her pupil’s gifts and is determined to help her find herself, whatever the cost. You might call it a buddy movie, or a road movie, but it’s just a movie that will stay in your mind for a very long time. You will probably cry, too, but you will be happy. 


Cooper’s London

July 10, 2013

Theatre

!cid_A15726B8-792D-4BB3-8E63-1E1A0B6E6E5E@westell

 

 

A Mad World, My Masters,
by Thomas Middleton
(a.k.a. Guys and Dolls in Soho)

If there is a chance to get to only one show this middletonsummer at Stratford, make it this one. Middleton is not as well known as he should be, and this is his ultimate masterpiecea wickedly satirical and utterly hilarious farce. It is also a production that makes it clear that you could consider Middleton to have been the Damon Runyon of 1605 in his approach to satire. The director, Sean Foley, has come sean foleyup with the idea of updating the action from Soho (the London lowlife areas of 1605) to Soho in 1955, and the parallels not only work, but give the show the feeling of a Jacobean Guys and Dolls. As in that show, the louche underworld characters are treated with a kind of indulgence and we see everything from their viewpoint.

mad worldWith some wonderfully evocative and edgy jazz music from the era being played and sung throughout, the evening feels like an intelligent and provocative musical; and there really are an awful lot of laughs.

 

Mad-World-2-2013-361x541

The performance I attended was rollicking fun and the audience was captivated from the moment the excellent Linda John-Pierre sang her bewitching opening number. With a little modernization of some of the more difficult Jacobean language and of some of the characters’ names, the points are made that much  sharper. I especially like the protagonist being named Mr Littledick (not to mention the hypocrite, Mr Penitent Brothel), excellently played by Steffan Rhodri and John Hopkins, respectively.  The text is remarkably clear and accessible in this production. I came out wondering why the play is performed so rarely.

I think they should transfer A Mad World, My Masters to the West End and then Broadway and that it could have the same success as the National Theatre’s update of A Servant of Two Masters (now known as One Man, Two Guvnors). I resist picking anyone out for special praise because everyone in the cast was giving a peak performance; the staging amounts to a brilliant piece of ensemble work.

This is Sean Foley’s debut at the RSC, and I expect to be returning to see his work as often as I can. Mad World: in repertory, Stratford’s Swan Theatre til 25 October 2013
Schedule/tickets

A Kick-Ass Chorus Line

chorus line 2When it opened in February of this year, a facsimile edition of A Chorus Line hit the Palladium road running, as it were, and got sensationally positive notices everywhere. Unfortunately, it’s not doing sensational business, even though it’s very good.

So if you’re in London and fancy seeing as-near-as-damn-it to the original production, then you should be able to get in at half price or less! They are keeping the show running through the tourist season and then sending it on tour all over Europe in September.

I saw A Chorus Line all those years ago when it opened off-Broadway in a small house at the Public Theatre, but I don’t remember its specifics well enough to be able to say point by point how this production differs or is fitted to the new cast. All I can say is that it doesn’t have the dazzle or, indeed, the surprise value that it did in 1975; and much of the stuff that was original with this showlike dealing with homosexuality openly in a musicalis now common enough not to shock or distress as it could when the show ran originally.  The things that made people gasp with surprise and recognition and with the excitement of breaking taboos just can’t do that any more.  Nor can sitting in the Palladium give you the sense of proximity to the stage or intimacy that the original production did before it transferred to Broadway for its .

That said, it is still a very appealing show, best seen live because of the energy and impact of the dancing. The cast is uniformly excellent zimmerman 2and Leigh Zimmerman deservedly won an Olivier award for Best Performance in a Supporting Role in March. That means she beat out the boys too, because in the Oliviers there is only one supporting role award, not one for each sex.

Zimmerman’s movingly acted, nuanced and dazzlingly sung-and-danced performance as Sheila is memorable. She conveys the tough carapace that Sheila has grown through years of disappointment as well as the vulnerability that still exists underneath. Scarlett scarlett strallenStrallen is a poignant Cassie. In both cases you wish the parts were longer, the back stories more fleshed out. And Cassie’s solo routine, a long and demanding piece of choreography, is a true show stopper.

The entire cast keeps on giving: I liked Victoria Hamilton-Barrit, Rebecca Giacopazzi, and the Zach of John Partridge, for example. A Chorus Line has been faithfully restaged for this London run by two members of the original cast, Baayork Lavian and leeee and Bob Avian, who were also members of the whole, fascinating lengthy workshop process that developed A Chorus Line in the first place. And though the Palladium is somewhat too large for what was originally done as an intimate show off Broadway in a small theatre, this theatre is a legendary venue in itself and some of the fun is simply being enveloped in a place which has hosted so many wonderful vaudeville stars and Royal Variety performances.

A Chorus Line stands up to repeated scrutiny despite my quibbles. The score by Marvin Hamlisch is a fine one, with superb lyrics by Edward Kleban, the whole show building inexorably to that famous climax when everyone you have gotten to know as individuals over two hours suddenly returns glitteringly attired and melts into the anonymity of the chorus line with the unforgettable number One.

chorus line 3A Chorus Line runs at the Palladium Theatre in London until 31 August 2013 and then starts its European tour.  Catch it while you can! One of the tempting offers for the show is at: Best price tickets


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