Thursday, January 23, 2020

The Moral Arc of the Universe Bends Toward Compassion: So Long, My Son

Yong Mei and Wang Jingchun in So Long, My Son (Dijiutianchang / 地久天长, 2019)

Chinese New Year is almost upon us, a time for family and reflection – the perfect context in which to see Chinese director Wang Xiaoshuai’s So Long, My Son (Dijiutianchang / 地久天长, 2019). The Chinese title is also the title of the Chinese translation of "Auld Lang Syne," and the two feel similar. And this is film whose (Taiwanese) trailer accurately reflects its feeling as well. It was my best theatrical experience of 2019.

Monday, January 20, 2020

Big and Little Spaces: Judgment Day, Is This a Room, The Thin Place

Judgement Day, at the Park Avenue Armory in New York City. (Photo: Stephanie Berger)

The British director Richard Jones has directed all over London, the continent and New York, but he must take special pleasure in working at the Park Avenue Armory, where he brought his production of Eugene O’Neill’s The Hairy Ape (which premiered at the Old Vic), and where I recently saw his Judgment Day, a most rare revival of a 1937 play by the German expressionist Ödön von Horváth. Bobby Cannavale was splendid as Yank in the first, and Luke Kirby gives a potent, focused performance as the doomed small-town stationmaster, Thomas Hudetz, in the second, though in both cases the real star of the show is Jones’s masterful use of the massive Armory space. Jones’s staging of Judgment Day evokes comparisons to both choreography and painting: he manipulates his ensemble of seventeen like a corps de ballet while approaching the visual elements – including Paul Steinberg’s production design, Mimi Jordan Sherin’s lighting and Antony McDonald’s costumes – as if they were tools in the painting of an enormous canvas. The show, which comes in at a compact ninety minutes, is thrilling to look at.

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Amazing Aretha: A Review of Aaron Cohen’s book Amazing Grace

Aretha, ready for a little churchy action (Photo: Roger Bamber)

“Nobody embodies more fully the connection between the African-American spiritual, the blues, R&B, rock and roll—the way the hardship and sorrow were transformed into something full of beauty. American history wells up when Aretha sings. Because she captures the fullness of the American experience, the view from the bottom as well as the top, the good and the bad, and also the possibility of synthesis, reconciliation and transcendence.” – Barack Obama, Kennedy Center, 2015
Wesley Morris put it most succinctly in his elegiac praise for the greatness of Aretha in The New York Times after her passing: “[Her album] Amazing Grace is about an artist reaching another level altogether. Albums don’t ‘matter’ anymore, but they used to. Aretha was responsible for one of the very best. The excellence of Amazing Grace is no secret exactly. It’s still one of the country’s best selling gospel records, as well as Franklin’s most popular album ever.” Morris also alludes to the “fine, forensic appreciation by Aaron Cohen” in the Bloomsbury music-criticism book series, and indeed, Cohen’s masterful book about Aretha’s 1972 live gospel album is not only the chronicle of a seminal event in gospel music proper, it’s also about a major cultural landmark by a national treasure who was widely acclaimed in her lifetime as a form of living heritage. For a deep appreciation of the making and recording of the music on this timeless Aretha recording, the best go-to place is this wonderful little book by this Chicago-based music critic and historian. His Amazing Grace is an inside-out and behind-the-scenes look and listen to her recording artistry in her prime. I say little advisedly, not to diminish its importance but merely to convey its scale, as it is a part of Bloomsbury’s 33 1/3 Series of shorter books each of which examines a single historic recording from start to finish. Cohen’s intimate study is definitely big in stature.

Monday, January 13, 2020

The Big Guns: The Irishman, Marriage Story and 1917

Joe Pesci and Robert De Niro in The Irishman. (Photo: Niko Tavernise/Netflix)

This article includes reviews of The Irishman, Marriage Story and 1917. 

The Irishman is the cinematic equivalent of a thick, expensive coffee-table book prominently displayed in Rizzoli’s for the Christmas trade. Martin Scorsese’s three-hour-and-twenty-nine-minute epic has as much prestige as one awards-season release can handle. Steven Zaillian (screenwriter of Schindler’s List, Moneyball and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, creator/co-writer of the TV limited series The Night Of) wrote the adaptation of Charles Brandt’s bestseller I Heard You Paint Houses, a biography of Teamsters Union official Frank “The Irishman” Sheeran, a middleman for the Bufalino crime family who, shortly before his death, told Brandt that he’d murdered Jimmy Hoffa. (Sheeran’s claim has been disputed since the 2004 publication of Brandt’s book, by the journalist Bill Tonelli in Slate and by the Harvard law professor Jack Goldsmith in The New York Review of Books.) Rodrigo Prieto, the terrific cinematographer associated with Alejandro Iñárritu and Scorsese’s collaborator on The Wolf of Wall Street and Silence, shot it, in handsome dark tones befitting a classic. The star, Robert De Niro, shares the screen with both Al Pacino (as Hoffa) and De Niro’s Raging Bull co-star Joe Pesci (as Russell Bufalino, who pulls Sheeran’s strings). The list of the cast, which also includes Harvey Keitel, Ray Romano, Bobby Cannavale and Anna Paquin, is thirty-three computer screens long on imdb.com.

Monday, January 6, 2020

Little Women: Temporal Bigotry

Emma Watson, Saoirse Ronan, Florence Pugh, and Eliza Scanlen in Greta Gerwig's Little Women.

Greta Gerwig’s Little Women is the first movie version in which almost none of the charm and poignancy of the beloved Louisa May Alcott novel, published in 1868 and 1869, comes through. Not counting the lost silents – there were two, in 1917 and 1918, one in England and one in America – Gerwig’s is the fourth major adaptation for the big screen. George Cukor’s 1933 film, with its picture-postcard visuals, came out from RKO, though it's in the mold of MGM’s vellum-bound, studio-set approach to the Victorian classics. It’s beautifully adapted (by Sarah Y. Mason and Victor Heerman, though imdb.com lists nine other uncredited contributors, including Charles Brackett) and meticulously detailed, with an A-list cast that features Spring Byington as Marmee, Joan Bennett as Beth, the stunning beauty Frances Dee as Meg and Douglass Montgomery as Laurie. And in Katharine Hepburn’s portrayal of Jo it touches greatness. It was Hepburn’s second year in Hollywood and her fourth picture, and no one has ever been more ideally suited to the role of Alcott’s feisty, ambitious, iconoclastic – and autobiographical – heroine. In the early scenes she overplays Jo’s gawkiness and tomboyishness, but she seems to find her stride as her character does, her grandiose romantic flourishes taking on the shape of Jo’s discovery of the world and her place within it. Hepburn shows us how Jo grows up, and I can’t be the only viewer who has never forgotten the moment when her Jo, after rejecting Laurie’s marriage proposal, confesses to Marmee in an anguished moan, “I feel as if I’d stabbed my best friend in the heart!”

Sunday, January 5, 2020

2019 in Games: Babies, Bushido, & Belligerent Geese


Like most years, 2019 was a parade of dizzying highs and disappointing lows for the video game world. Join me, won’t you, as I hand out some oddly specific awards to the games that entertained, enlightened, frustrated, and fascinated me most.


Friday, January 3, 2020

Crime and Punishment: Scott Z. Burns’s The Report

Adam Driver in The Report.

After the September 11 attacks, the CIA requested authorization to use what it euphemistically called “enhanced interrogation techniques” (“EIT” for short) and received authorization from National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice to do so in July of 2002. (Not that the agency waited to start torturing – the authorization gave legal cover to what was already happening.) She did so after White House discussions with Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of State Colin Powell, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, and Attorney General John Ashcroft, and after the Department of Justice drafted what have come to be known as “Torture Memos,” wherein Deputy Assistant Attorney General John Yoo justified the torture of detainees believed to be involved with the 9/11 disasters. As late as 2010, after President Obama had ended EIT with one of his first executive orders, Cheney and Rice were still denying that the CIA had ever tortured prisoners in its charge.

In 2005, CIA official Jose Rodriguez destroyed videotapes of the torture of two suspects in CIA custody, Abu Zubaydah and Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri. Their existence was unknown until The New York Times revealed it in 2007. The report understandably caused outrage, and the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence began to look into it. A young staffer named Daniel Jones reviewed documents covering the same time period and prisoners as the destroyed tapes and discovered that the treatment of the two men was far more brutal than anyone had been led to believe. He also discovered that the torture didn’t work: no actionable intelligence resulted from the horrific conduct.

The shocked committee expanded its investigations, which led to the creation and release of the “Torture Report,” a massive piece of work by Jones and his very small staff, who reviewed over six million documents in the face of CIA insistence that the torture was successful, stonewalling by John Brennan, Obama’s CIA director, CIA intrusion into the Senate Committee’s computer networks, and the removal of documents from that network.