Saturday, January 25, 2014

A Zionist Love Letter: The Prime Ministers: The Pioneers

The recent death of Ariel Sharon, Israel’s Prime Minister from 2001-2006, was a timely reminder of the unique situation of the men and women who have held that country’s highest office.While leaders of all lands bear a heavy responsibility for their country’s safety, it’s only in Israel that the threat is existential. Should Israel lose a war, she would cease to exist, something that is not a factor anywhere else. Richard Trank’s documentary The Prime Ministers: The Pioneers, based on Yehuda Avner’s book The Prime Ministers, testifies to that fact as well as illuminating two of Israel’s PMs, Levi Eshkol and Golda Meir, whom Avner served in various capacities. It’s a sometimes schmaltzy, overwrought film but also an emotional and thoughtful testament to one’s man’s love of country and those who led it. (It’s the first of two parts, with the second film, The Prime Ministers: Soldiers and Peacemakers, detailing Avner’s stints under Menachem Begin, Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres set for release in the spring.)

Friday, January 24, 2014

Heartbreakers: Our Children and The Past

 Tahar Rahim & Émilie Dequenne in Our Children

The devastating Belgian picture Our Children begins with its heroine, Murielle (Émilie Dequenne), in a post-traumatic condition and then shows us how she got there. (The much better French title is À perdre la raison, or To Lose Your Mind.) At the beginning of the story Murielle marries her Moroccan boy friend, Mounir (Tahar Rahim), and moves in with his unofficial adoptive father, André (Niels Arestrup), a successful doctor who has also invited Mounir into his practice. André is married to Mounir’s older sister, but it’s a paper marriage – a marriage of convenience so that she can get Belgian citizenship – and André’s professional and financial support of Mounir is his way of offering another member of the family a better life in Europe. (In the course of the movie he engineers a second paper marriage between Mounir’s younger brother and Murielle’s sister.) It’s generous of him, but of course there are strings attached. As the couple begins to have children, the communal space they share with André feels more and more constrained, especially since Mounir is always conscious of wanting to please this man who is his mentor and who owns the house they’re living in. But when Murielle suggests they might be happier living in Morocco – the only bond her locked-in world allows her is with Mounir’s warm, solicitous mother (Baya Belal), whom she gets to see too rarely – André explodes at Mounir, accusing him of ingratitude, and Mounir backs down immediately. Meanwhile two children have become too much for Murielle to handle, and when the family expands to five and then six she finds her only outlet in visits to a therapist. Her husband isn’t kind or patient with her; he behaves with an entitled masculinity and has little tolerance for her when she can’t keep the children controlled and out of his hair. You don’t wonder when she grasps her mother-in-law in a desperate embrace before they put her on a plane back to Morocco – she sorely needs the comfort that only another woman can provide. (Her sister isn’t especially giving.)

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Bittersweet Symphony: The Beatles U.S. Albums Box Set

This past Tuesday, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of The Beatles' invasion of America in February 1964, Capitol Records released The U.S. Albums, a 13-CD Beatles collection that spans from 1964’s Meet The Beatles! to 1970’s Hey Jude. While many fans back in 2009 already shelled out a fair chunk of cash for the official U.K. remastered stereo CDs and the subsequent box set of the mono versions, The U.S. Albums can seem like a redundant cash grab. But these albums actually differed considerably from the band’s U.K. versions, including having different track lists, song mixes, album titles, and even cover art. For those of us who grew up in North America during the Sixties, these were the albums we knew, and the history we were familiar with. The albums presented here are also in both mono and stereo, with the exception of the embarrassingly fawning 2-LP documentary, The Beatles’ Story, and Hey Jude, a collection of mostly unreleased singles, which are in stereo only.

But there are a number of issues that bring a sour taste to this spirit of celebration. To begin with, Capitol had already released two box sets (The Capitol Albums, Vol. 1 & 2) containing their first eight American albums a decade ago. So why didn't they just put out Volume 3 to fill out the rest? For those of us who bought those sets, we now have to repurchase them to get the remaining discs. On top of that, do we really need The Beatles' Story added instead of, say, The Beatles Live at the Hollywood Bowl, which was only made available on LP? Hey Jude is also not a Capitol album, but an Apple product devised by then manager Allen Klein in 1969 after he'd negotiated a new contract for the band and wanted to massage the deal. The only reason it's being included here is because of the inclusion of tracks like "Paperback Writer," "Hey Jude" and "Lady Madonna." So why not then include in the box set Rarities (which is a Capitol release and collects the magical "There's a Place" and "Misery" that were missing on The Early Beatles, as well as "The Inner Light" (the B-side of "Lady Madonna"), and the rare promotional single "Penny Lane" that featured the French horn coda at the end)? But what is worse: Capitol has decided in this new box to largely ignore the original American mixes and use the 2009 ones instead. Even if the 2009 versions sound better, and they do, we are just re-purchasing what we already bought a few years ago. Whatever you think of the altered sound of the North American albums (with their added reverb, duophonic simulated stereo, and remixed songs), you're supposed to be paying tribute to one culture's way of hearing and remembering the past. As always, when it comes to The Beatles' catalogue, Capitol Records finds new and imaginative ways to botch things up. And they've done it right from the beginning just before the group landed in New York to change the world almost half a century ago. 

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

The Coen Odyssey: Joel and Ethan Coen's Inside Llewyn Davis

Oscar Isaac as Llewyn Davis

In his memoir, Chronicles, Bob Dylan wrote that “a folk song has over a thousand faces and you must meet them all if you want to play this stuff.” What he meant was that you had to let the songs sing you rather than the other way around. When Dylan would perform a traditional tune about the slave market, like "No More Auction Block," he wanted to sing it from inside the experience of the black man being sold into bondage. "With a certain kind of blues music, you can sit down and play it," he said in 1966. "[But] you may have to lean forward a little." Becoming a character in a song like "No More Auction Block" requires a fair bit of leaning, and maybe sometimes even donning a few nifty disguises, but that's how Bob Dylan transformed American topical music into a fervid national drama that the listener had a stake in.

In the opening scene of the latest Coen brothers' film, Inside Llewyn Davis, as the titular folk singer (Oscar Isaac) plays the traditional death ballad "Hang Me, Oh Hang Me" with earnest dedication, what's clear is that Llewyn Davis has yet to meet even one of those thousand faces. He sits on a faintly lit stage in a Greenwich Village club with confident assurance and sings that he doesn't mind being hanged, but dreads the finality of the grave. Yet for all his fidelity to this dramatic dirge, Llewyn never truly gets possessed enough by its power to bring the Gaslight Cafe audience into that endless sleep with him. Over the course of the picture, however, we quickly grasp that Joel and Ethan Coen are most certainly fascinated by what's at stake in the song. With Inside Llewyn Davis, they take Llewyn on an elliptical and evocative sojourn through the American heartland of the early Sixties, in the dead of winter, and touch the despair and futility that's right at the heart of the song. In doing so, they've fashioned a funny, occasionally touching, and remarkably haunting ballad of their own. It's by far their best picture.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle: Nintendo & The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds

Fierce and bitter wars were fought in the playgrounds of the 1990s. They were secretive conflicts, pitting friend against friend in brutal opposition, even as the teachers looked on in disinterest. I’m not talking about marbles or King of the Hill or whatever – I’m talking about the Console Wars, and any child of my generation will remember them, and count their scars.

When many of us were young, we couldn’t afford to buy video game systems ourselves. This meant relying on Mom and Dad (or sometimes Santa) to deliver these incredible imagination machines to our living rooms – but they came bundled with a decision of deadly import. Multiple consoles (and iPads and phones and laptops and any number of electronic ephemera) might be common today, but in those halcyon days it was always, “Which one do you want – a Nintendo, or a Sega?” You would agonize over the decision, weighing Super Mario against Sonic the Hedgehog, and when you finally chose and got your console it was your sworn and noble duty to justify and defend your choice as fervently as your grade-school psyche would allow. You would brook no pretenders to the throne: you picked the Sega Genesis, and it didn’t matter that Nintendo’s Zelda and Metroid and Kirby looked so fantastically fun – they were garbage games when compared to the ones you could play. These arguments were the ground zero of the Console Wars, which are still raging today – just visit any internet forum which pits the Xbox One against the Playstation 4 to witness true modern warfare.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Celebration: Twelfth Night on Broadway

Stephen Fry and Mark Rylance in Twelfth Night 
Twelfth Night was first performed in Queen Elizabeth’s court, and Shakespeare wrote it for the end of the twelve days of Christmas. Tim Carroll’s all-male production, which originated at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, conveys the celebratory mood. Carroll and his actors imported it to Broadway for the holiday season, in repertory with Richard III, showcasing Mark Rylance’s performances as Richard and as Olivia. (The title cards for the two shows borrow the Renaissance spellings: Twelfe Night, or What You Will and The Tragedie of King Richard the Third.) I saw Richard III in November but I didn’t write about it because I’d already reviewed both Kevin Spacey’s Richard at the Old Vic and the brilliant production by Propeller Theatre, and I found the Globe version – also with a completely male cast that overlaps with that of Twelfth Night – uninteresting. Even Rylance’s depiction of Shakespeare’s busy, self-amused villain-king felt recycled, a compendium of tricks he’d pulled from his voluminous sleeves on other occasions. But Twelfth Night is something else again – a splendiferous entertainment in which Rylance’s hilarious, love-addled Countess Olivia is just one member of a grand ensemble.

You get into the spirit as soon as you walk into the house. The actors are still getting into costume, so those audience members who have purchased tickets to sit on the stage above the playing area become part of the general bustle as ushers escort them to their places. Once strove for a companionable cross-over between actors and audience, inviting viewers to hang out in the pub at the top of the show, and Diane Paulus’s revival of Hair encouraged dancing on the stage after the curtain call, but both these efforts felt forced. At Twelfth Night the immediacy of the actors from the start doesn’t pretend that we have some relationship with them, but it does get us excited about the treats in store.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Legacy of a Literary Recluse: Salinger, The Movie

J.D. Salinger

“I'm sick of not having the courage to be an absolute nobody,” Jerome David Salinger wrote in Franny and Zooey. “I'm sick of myself and everybody else that wants to make some kind of a splash.” That statement certainly seems emblematic of his struggle with the overwhelming success that followed publication of The Catcher in the Rye in mid-July 1951. Less than two years later, J. D. Salinger fled the instant celebrity status imposed on him in Manhattan for rural Cornish, New Hampshire. But, over the decades, fervent fans would stake out his remote hilltop home in hopes of meeting the increasingly iconic wordsmith.

One such determined admirer is Michael Clarkson, who drove 450 miles from Ontario to Cornish in 1978 and again in 1979. He’s a talking head in Salinger, directed by Shane Salerno, also the coauthor with David Shields of a similarly titled 698-page biography. After its Toronto International Film Festival premiere last year and a subsequent theatrical release, the fascinating but frustrating documentary will be broadcast Tuesday night (January 21) on the PBS American Masters series.