Saturday, July 6, 2013

Not Quite: Pedro Almodóvar's I'm So Excited

Pedro Almodóvar's I'm So Excited

Pedro Almodóvar's latest movie I’m So Excited (Los amantes pasajeros, which translates as The Passenger Lovers or The Fleeting Lovers) is being billed as a return to the glory days of his early comedies, such as Labyrinth of Passion (1982), What Have I Done to Deserve This? (1983) and Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988). Those movies, made at the beginning of Almodóvar’s career, were delightfully anarchic and outrageous. At the time they were released, they pushed the envelope with their take on so-called alternative sexualities, and offered unique social and political commentaries on newly democratic post-Franco Spain. Thirty years later, when cable television and even network shows like Glee routinely explore these issues, Almodóvar’s movies merely come across as tame copies of what he did so memorably before and without any real scathing commentary behind them.

Friday, July 5, 2013

Threshold and Trance: Two New Albums by a New Artist

Karine Polwart

I have two new CDs here by an artist named Karine Polwart, and I simply don’t know what to say about them. One is a compilation containing songs from a series of older CDs which were only available in the UK. The other is a new one, her first internationally released album, and both come from Borealis Records, Canada’s folk music label extraordinaire.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Camp Kinderland Then and Now: Commie Camp

Camp Kinderland kids folk dancing in the early 1950s

As a teenager, I spent three consecutive Julys and Augusts in rural New York State at Kinderland, which billed itself as an “interracial, inter-religious, progressive Jewish summer camp.” For me back then, raised in the red diaper baby tradition, the verbiage most often could be translated into one word: fun. Oh, sure, there were subversive activities in this bastion of leftists: Like the time we girl counselors-in-training tied the shoelaces of our male counterparts end-to-end from the back doorknob of their bunk all the way down to Sylvan Lake. That was in retaliation for short-sheeting our beds the previous day.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

World War Zzzzz: More of the Same

Brad Pitt in World War Z
I've never been a big fan of zombies, whether in books or films. While they’re inherently scary, these ravenous creatures who lurch out of the shadows to feed on humanity, they also quickly become boring. (I always found vampires, the often elegant undead who can feel attracted to or alienated from humans, or The Frankenstein / Golem, a supposedly mindless creation that actually may contain a soul, to be far more compelling.) Nevertheless, I've liked a few zombie movies, such as George A. Romero’s seminal Night of the Living Dead (1968) and his sequel Dawn of the Dead (1978), Danny Boyle’s formulaic but well done and effective 28 Days Later (2002) and Dan O’Bannon’s witty underrated The Return of the Living Dead (1985). Others, such as Fido (2006), Zombieland (2009) and most of the sequels to Romero’s zombie movies, weren't so hot. But I've never bothered checking out most of the numerous novels on the subject, more of them than ever being published, it seems, because they appear to be too much of the same old, same old, though I really appreciated Jonathan Maberry’s moving short story "Family Business," from the anthology Zombie: An Anthology of the Undead (2012), It was a touching reminder that zombies were once human like us. On the other hand, I found Isaac Marion’s novel Warm Bodies (2010), wherein a zombie falls in live with a human girl and eventually changes to become well human, to be utterly far-fetched, even within the parameters of zombie stories, and silly, too. (For that reason, I never bothered checking out the film version of the book when it came out earlier this year.) And finally, I found AMC’s The Walking Dead, the hit de jour, to be a supremely dull TV show, bailing out on it after a season and a half.

One novel, however, Max Brooks’ World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War (2006), stood out from all the other zombie apocalypse stories, filmed or written, because it went further in analyzing how a human – zombie war would change our society, solve, sometimes inadvertently, pressing political disputes and make heroes out of some of the most unlikely people. Brooks labelled World War Z an oral history, deliberately patterned on The Good War (1984), the late Studs Terkel’s oral history of World War Two, and it’s apt. World War Z possesses the wide ranging intellectual interests, smarts and empathy of Terkel’s best work. Not surprisingly, the new film version of World War Z does not.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

House Party: Much Ado About Nothing

Joss Whedon's Much Ado About Nothing

Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing evolved out of the parties Whedon used to throw for the casts of his television show Buffy the Vampire Slayer and its spin-off Angel: he got his actors together for Shakespeare readings, which he would cast and direct. To make Much Ado About Nothing, Whedon reserved his week off – the twelve days in between wrapping his horror movie Cabin in the Woods and starting production on the Marvel Comics flick Avengers – and invited his company from past projects to rehearse and film the picture, using his house and grounds as the location. (He gives the play a modern day setting.) The product is a Joss Whedon home movie – two scenes were shot during real house parties – and it has the cheerful desperation of a lot of talented people winging it while trying to hide from one another what their gut tells them: that they’re not going to pull this thing off.

Monday, July 1, 2013

London Theatre High Points: Two New English Plays

Elizabeth Chan, Benedict Wong and David K.S. Tse in Chimerica

Lucy Kirkwood’s Chimerica, which just finished up a run at London’s Almeida Theatre and is relocating to the West End, is constructed as a political mystery in which, thirteen years after Tiananmen Square, an American photojournalist named Joe Schofield (Stephen Campbell Moore) tries to hunt down the unknown Chinese man with two shopping bags in his hands who faced off one of the tanks. The “Tank Man,” an iconic figure of the protest-turned-slaughter, was the real historical figure Kirkwood began with (just as John Logan began with an authentic literary-historic footnote, the meeting of the models for Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan in a London bookshop, in Peter and Alice). In her otherwise fictional script, Joe, only eighteen at the time, is one of several people who immortalized him, in a photograph that he snapped from the balcony of his hotel room. So the play is also about the power of the photograph and the many ways in which it can be reinterpreted and manipulated. And it’s an exploration of life in a totalitarian state, of the frightening speed of China’s industrial progress, and of the bizarre relationship between China and the west, represented here by both the U.S. and Britain: the main female character, Tessa Kendrick (Claudie Blakley), who becomes Joe’s lover, is an English market researcher whose specialty is counseling western companies that seek to expand into China. (Kirkwood borrowed the title from Niall Ferguson’s book The Ascent of Money.) The play, which is set at the time of the 2012 presidential election but includes flashbacks to 1989, is also a study of heroism and compromise. It’s insanely ambitious, flawed and overlong. Yet it’s a true political drama, thoughtful and complex, and in Lyndsey Turner’s production one of the most exciting evenings I’ve spent at the theater in the last few years.

Sunday, June 30, 2013

Mimetic Desire: The Bling Ring

Emma Watson in The Bling Ring

Sofia Coppola’s first movie, The Virgin Suicides (1999), treated a cadre of teenage sisters and their relationship with the material and moral strictures surrounding them. With The Bling Ring she comes full circle in a way, but the detours she’s taken in the intermediary years bring her to a very different vantage point. Once again, a group of adolescent girls (plus one boy) are the main characters; once again, the effect of materiality and culture is the theme. But her take on this topic is informed now by her intervening films, Lost in Translation (2003), Marie Antoinette (2006), and Somewhere (2010). Without those reference points, you could slip and pass offThe Bling Ring as a pointless affair. So did the woman next to me in the theater when I saw it, who pronounced it the worst film she’d ever seen (did she forget the Baz Luhrmann movie playing next door?). But with Coppola’s oeuvre hanging as an illuminating backdrop, The Bling Ring reveals itself as perhaps her most biting, damning portrait of society yet.