Monday, September 25, 2023

Misfire: A Haunting in Venice

Kenneth Branagh as Hercule Poirot once again, in A Haunting in Venice.

A Haunting in Venice is the third Hercule Poirot adaptation written by Michael Green and directed by Kenneth Branagh, who stars once again as the impeccably mustachioed Belgian detective. This one claims to be based on a late (1969) Agatha Christie called Hallowe’en Party, but Christie’s plot has been uprooted and replaced with a completely different one; in fact, aside from the name of the murderer and the Halloween fête that opens the story, there’s no overlap. (The book doesn’t take place in Venice and it contains no haunting.) That’s rather weird but no loss, since it’s not one of her better mysteries. The problem is, the film alters it without improving on it. It’s a disappointment after last year’s Poirot, a juicy remake of Death on the Nile.

Sunday, September 24, 2023

At the Threshold: The Unmoored Dreaming

Album cover art: Bjorn Vandenneucker
“What is typical of our century and largely promoted by the media, is the general belief that everything that is broadcast or distributed must be instantly comprehensible. But that is an enormous misconception. It is rooted in the assumption that there is such a thing as an audience. We must correct this view and make it clear that people are individuals, each of whom is following a unique path toward learning and development and free to make personal choices. So let us be less eager to teach and to prescribe rules, and rather just say: ‘If you want to listen, you can; here are the recordings and scores. We give concerts; we will provide information. But whether or not you come or you are interested is your own business.”
– Karlheinz Stockhausen, “Every Day Brings New Discoveries” (1991)

New music, and I do mean new, has arrived in our space-time continuum. And poised, rather gracefully I might add, somewhere between the free jazz traditions of Ornette Coleman and Anthony Braxton, and the new music domains of George Crumb and John Cage. Yes, this is lofty territory, but these two composer-performers hold their own in the rarified atmospheres I’ve often delineated as soundtracks for an imaginary film, or national anthems for a utopian country. In this case, the country is a multi-cultural effort. The Unmoored Dreaming is a free jazz group consisting of Goncalo Oliveira, a Portuguese guitarist based in Den Haag, and Bjorn Vandenneucker, a double bass player and composer based in Brussels, that explores its mutually created repertoire in an expansive and open format. Open is the operative word here, since their charming music doesn’t so much begin or end as simply happen. And elegantly so.

The Unmoored Dreaming is also the title of their eleven-piece debut album, the result of what the duo call their “reinless traveling through sonic landscapes,” which was released on Bandcamp in April of 2023. As disparate as jazz and serialism might at first appear to be, the tangible and even haptic link between them is clearly the delivery of multiple tempos played simultaneously. The individual pieces in the recording from this daringly confident collaborative duo are also linked as in a suite of sonatas, though each work also stands comfortably alone on its own. Their partnership itself is also identified with and embodied by that evocative name, which captures the shared motive and aesthetic agenda of their initial release, recorded, mixed and produced by Manolo Cabras at Studio Noyer in Brussels.

Monday, September 18, 2023

Oppenheimer: The Center Does Not Hold

Cillian Murphy as J. Robert Oppenheimer in Oppenheimer.

Christopher Nolan makes his bid for movie posterity with Oppenheimer. His three-hour biographical epic of J. Robert Oppenheimer, the theoretical physicist known as the father of the atomic bomb, is culled from a Pulitzer Prize-winning book, American Prometheus, by Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin, and transpires over more than three decades (from the mid-1920s through the late 1950s). Many of the roles, both major and ancillary, are taken by familiar, talented actors, and the film, shot by Hoyte Van Hoytema, who has lit all of Nolan’s films since Interstellar, is beautiful to look at. Oppenheimer is a serious effort but not, I have to say, a very good picture, though it contains one section, focusing on Trinity, the first detonation of the atomic bomb at Los Alamos, New Mexico, in 1945 – the culmination of the research conducted by the Manhattan Project under Oppenheimer’s direction – that belongs in a good picture: it’s taut, gripping and suspenseful.

Monday, September 11, 2023

Tom Lake: Life Lived Under the Stars

Ann Patchett's new novel Tom Lake was published by Harper in August 2023. (Photo: Emily Doriot)

“There are the stars – doing their old, old criss-cross in the skies. Scholars haven’t settled the matter yet, but they seem to think there are no living beings up there. Just chalk – or fire. Only this one is straining away, straining away all the time to make something of itself.”

                                                                                         –  Stage Manager, Our Town, Act Three

When I think of Ann Patchett’s literary virtues, the one that stands out is her gift for storytelling. She has the jigsaw-puzzle magic for putting together plots that we associate with the nineteenth-century writers (especially, of course, Dickens). You never know where you’re going to wind up in a Patchett novel, but when you get there you think, “Aha! Of course.” By time she’s worked her final twist – she has a genius for devising endings – the reader is so deeply emotionally invested in the fates of the characters that, in my experience, closing the book takes an act of will. I’ve read almost all of Patchett’s novels (as well as Truth and Beauty, her heartbreaking account of her friendship with the late writer Lucy Grealy), and the only one that has ever felt rigged to me is her 2021 The Dutch House. I just didn’t believe in the actions of the characters – the mother who wanders away from her children for decades, the son who forces himself to attend law school, the daughter who is so fixated on the loss of her childhood home that she drags her brother back there over and over again to look at it from the perspective of an exiled voyeur. The book felt rigged, though she managed to produce her usual exquisite finish. In her new novel, Tom Lake (Harper, 2023), not a single moment feels less than absolutely authentic.

Tuesday, August 29, 2023

Fond Farewell: Alan Arkin (1934-2023)

Jeff Bridges and Alan Arkin in Hearts of the West (1975).

Alan Arkin died on June 29, two years after he was killed off on his penultimate gig, the Netflix series The Kominsky Method, where he played Michael Douglas’s agent and best friend, Norman Newlander; the show had begun, movingly, in 2018 with Norman mourning the loss of his wife from cancer. (Arkin’s official final employment was a voice job on the animated film Minions: The Rise of Gru.) Arkin dropped out of Bennington to perform in a successful folk music combo, The Tarriers, for which he co-wrote “The Banana Boat Song” – a calypso hit for The Tarriers but a bigger hit for Harry Belafonte. Then he trained in revue-sketch comedy with Second City before breaking through on Broadway in 1963’s Enter Laughing, for which he won a Tony Award. He launched his movie career three years later with the affable Norman Jewison farce The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming, where he gave a very funny – and almost demonically controlled – performance as a Russian navy lieutenant who sets out to find a way to liberate his submarine when it runs aground in Gloucester, Massachusetts without igniting an international incident. Within the next few years Arkin was everywhere – in Murray Schisgal's The Love Song of Barney Kempinski on the TV anthology series ABC Stage 67; as the sociopathic killer who menaces blind Audrey Hepburn in Wait Until Dark; as the deaf-mute protagonist of an adaptation of Carson McCullers’s The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter; as Yossarian in Mike Nichols’s film of Joseph Heller’s Catch-22; in Jules Feiffer’s Little Murders, which he directed himself.

Thursday, August 24, 2023

Being the Best: Pop Journalism Comes of Age

Hachette Books, 2022; Hachette Books, 2022.

“How does it feel, to be on your own, a complete unknown, with no direction home . . .” – Bob Dylan

I suppose I’ve always been mystified, in an entertaining way, with our culture’s virtual obsession with the best this and the best that, as if selecting from the taste menu in arts, letters or music actually meant “I’ll have what everyone else is having.”  Maybe it does. Academy Awards, Tony Awards, Nobel Prizes, Grammy Awards, best car, best restaurant, best fashion, best wine, best hotel, and so on forever. Generally, of course, such a designation usually refers to most popular, and nowhere does popularity often equal quality as it does in the rarefied world of pop music. How it could it be otherwise, since the very name says it all? But I’ve never believed that pop meant disposable or frivolous; far from it, since pop, and especially great pop music, is quite often the most accurate gauge of what the French call mentalité, the state of mind of a culture. And pop, at the virtuosic and technically complex level of The Beatles, The Stones, Brian Wilson’s Beach Boys, or The Mamas and the Papas, is obviously an art form demonstrating admirable aesthetics. High-quality pop is invariably a mirror of our reality, regardless of how distorted or clouded by various biases that mirror may be. 

Tuesday, August 22, 2023

All Hail the Comic Muse

Mike Nadajewski and Kristi Frank in On the Razzle. (Photo: Emily Cooper)

This piece includes reviews of On the Razzle, Blithe Spirit and Village Wooing.

This summer the Shaw Festival has been bowing to the comic spirit. In addition to Shaw’s The Apple Cart and The Playboy of the Western World, which mix serious and humorous elements, the roster has included productions of four comedies from different eras: Marivaux’s The Game of Love and Chance (1730), performed outdoors in an improvised version – the only one of the quartet I didn’t get to; Shaw’s Village Wooing (1934), this season’s lunchtime one-act; Noël Coward’s Blithe Spirit (1941); and Tom Stoppard’s On the Razzle (1981). In truth, the last of these can claim connection to several periods. It began in 1835 as a one-act English play by John Oxenford called A Day Well Spent, which the Viennese playwright and actor Johann Nestroy adapted seven years later as Einen Jux will er sich machen (He’s Out for a Fling). Thornton Wilder reworked it for Broadway in 1938 as The Merchant of Yonkers – a failure, despite direction by the legendary Max Reinhardt – and then again in 1955 as The Matchmaker, which altered the story about shop clerks out on the town by inventing the assertive, charismatic title character (played by Ruth Gordon on Broadway) and reconfiguring the play around her. It was filmed the following year with Shirley Booth in the role and featuring three talented young performers early in their careers: Anthony Perkins, Shirley MacLaine and Robert Morse. In 1964 The Matchmaker became the musical Hello, Dolly!, which, of course, ran for years. On the Razzle is Stoppard’s rewrite of the Nestroy, not the Wilder, so there’s no Dolly Gallagher Levi dashing around in aid of the young lovers while manipulating her sour-faced client into marrying her rather than the widow he’s after or the fictitious millionairess she’s promised him.