Wednesday, April 1, 2020

False Prophet: Corpus Christi

Bartosz Bielenia in Corpus Christi (Boze Cialo).

Did you know that Poland has a fake priest problem? You’d think parishioners would catch on pretty quickly, but apparently some of these impersonators are sincere in their ministries, lacking only the credentials. What would drive someone to be a sincere fake priest? How might they handle their duties? Corpus Christi (Boże Cialo), a religious high-wire act based on a true story, offers one tantalizing example.

Monday, March 30, 2020

Rolling Thunder Revue: Showmanship

Joan Baez  and Bob Dylan in Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese, now streaming on Netflix.

The Rolling Thunder Revue traveled around the U.S. and Canada in 1975 and 1976 in two long arcs with a brief respite in between. I saw it at the Montreal Forum when I was in my mid-twenties, and it was overwhelming – the musicality and the musical variety, the charisma of the performers, led by Bob Dylan and Joan Baez, the eccentric but undeniable communal spirit. It was different from the other great rock concerts I sat through around the same time (the best were Dylan’s Before the Flood tour with The Band and Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run tour). It was a nutty collage with a rotating cast; performers would join the principals onstage when the show opened in their neck of the woods and then sometimes they’d extend their stay and travel around with it for a while. (That’s what happened when Joni Mitchell appeared in the concert during the Connecticut piece.)

Saturday, March 28, 2020

Past and Present Collide in Poetry from the Future: Lorette C. Luzajic’s Pretty Time Machine


“I may lie a lot. But never in my lyrics.” – Courtney Love

Imagine receiving a postcard from a friend who claimed to be writing to you from the year 2120, describing their vacation there through a series of artworks to which they were responding with duende. El duende is the spirit of evocation. It comes from inside as a physical/emotional response to art. It is what gives you chills, makes you smile or cry as a bodily reaction to an artistic performance that is particularly expressive. The poet Lorca stated, "The duende's arrival always means a radical change in forms. It brings to old planes unknown feelings of freshness, with the quality of something newly created, like a miracle, and it produces an almost religious enthusiasm . . . All arts are capable of duende, but where it finds greatest range, naturally, is in music, dance, and spoken poetry, for these arts require a living body to interpret them, being forms that are born, die, and open their contours against an exact present." The works of Lorette Luzajic, like those of Lorca himself, are utterly drenched in duende.

Monday, March 23, 2020

The Group: Novel into Film

Shirley Knight and Hal Holbrook in Sidney Lumet's The Group (1966).

When Sidney Lumet made a movie of Mary McCarthy’s The Group in 1966, it was a major event. The 1963 book, about the intersecting lives of a group of Vassar graduates from the class of 1933 up to the end of the decade, had been a sensational bestseller, partly because of the notorious second chapter, where one of the characters loses her virginity to a married artist. The casting of the eight young women with mostly unknown actresses rather than movie stars was hotly debated; Shirley Knight, twice nominated for the Supporting Actress Oscar, was the only one close to being a known quantity. Pauline Kael, two years away from beginning her tenure as The New Yorker’s film critic , wrote a long, fascinating piece about the shooting of the picture for a glossy magazine. (You can read it in her second collection, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.) Yet the film never won general approval – or a single Academy Award nomination. It was, perhaps, the wrong time for a movie adaptation of a novel that straddled the line between social commentary and potboiler. The movies that dominated the art houses in 1966 were, aside from Mike Nichols’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, mostly British imports that were less daring – and way less substantial – than they purported to be but that featured the most exciting generation of English actors in movie history. And within a year the old Hollywood had begun to break apart while the new Hollywood was taking over. Next to a picture like Bonnie and Clyde, The Group felt old-fashioned, already a relic from the late big-studio era, and it was quickly forgotten. So was McCarthy herself, not long after. A witty, literate writer who had broken through with the short story “The Man in the Brooks Brothers Suit” in 1941 and the novel The Company She Keeps in 1942, who published one of the most devastating of all childhood memoirs, the Dickensian 1972 Memories of a Catholic Girlhood, and who was as celebrated for her literary friendships and feuds (generally tinged with politics: though initially a member of the Partisan Review circle, she was, outspokenly, both liberal and anti-Communist), she was a culture hero for young women breaking away from conventional gender roles in the post-war era. But she didn’t class herself as a feminist, and the first wave of official feminists, in the early and mid-seventies, didn’t identify with her.

Thursday, March 19, 2020

Danse Macabre: Three Works by the National Ballet of Canada

Greta Hodgkinson in Marguerite and Armand. (Photo: Karolina Kuras)
 
Given that dance seasons usually are organized at least a year in advance, the National Ballet of Canada couldn’t have anticipated the uncanny timeliness of a mixed program highlighting the body’s fragility, ephemerality and resilience – themes now resonating with a public spooked by the global spread of the new coronavirus, which the World Health Organization has recently declared a pandemic. A sure case of art imitating life.
None of the three works the company presented two weeks ago at Toronto’s Four Seasons Centre for The Performing Arts simulated a contagion – nothing as obvious or as graphic as that. Featuring the world premiere of Angels’ Atlas by Vancouver’s Crystal Pite, a remount of Wayne McGregor’s Chroma and the Canadian debut of Sir Frederick Ashton’s Marguerite and Armand, the two-hours-plus evening more explored momentum and transience – metaphors, if you will, for the human condition in the throes of an existential crisis.

Monday, March 16, 2020

Parodies: The Confession of Lily Dare and Little Shop of Horrors

Nancy Anderson and Charles Busch in The Confession of Lily Dare. (Photo: Carol Rosegg)

The last two shows I caught in New York before the theatre went dark were both lighthearted parodies, Charles Busch’s The Confession of Lily Dare (produced by Primary Stages at the Cherry Lane Theatre in the West Village) and the latest revival of Little Shop of Horrors (at the midtown off-Broadway house the Westside). Busch has chosen an obscure subject for a 2020 audience – the mother-love melodramas that were popular in the late 1920s and early ‘30s, the days just before the Hays (Production) Code went into effect in Hollywood, imposing decades of infantilizing self-censorship on filmmakers. But the matinee audience sitting around me, howling with delight, seemed to get the references. (They must have been devoted TCM viewers.) In Lily Dare, the closest pals and associates of a notorious San Francisco madam, a whore named Emmy Lou (Nancy Anderson) and a gay honky-tonk pianist named Mickey (Kendal Sparks), meet at her grave and recall her meteoric rise and tragic downfall. Busch himself, a drag performer imbued with firecracker wit, hair-trigger timing and devastating charisma, played Lily in flashbacks.

Sunday, March 15, 2020

Betraying Jane: Autumn de Wilde’s Emma.

Anya Taylor-Joy in Emma.
Many people love Jane Austen’s novels for the romance of them, and the romance is very good: unsentimental, clear-eyed, with endings and couplings that seem absolutely right. But it’s her wit that has made her greatest novels classics of English literature, and it’s rather astonishing how many people don’t seem to realize this, including many TV and movie adapters of her work. Andrew Davies, who seems to have made PBS’s Masterpiece Theatre his permanent employer, recently supplied the network with his rendering of Austen’s unfinished novel Sanditon. Unfortunately, it was a melodramatic horror, devoid of humor, let alone wit. A local theatrical musical adaptation of Pride and Prejudice began with Elizabeth Bennet alone onstage reading out loud Austen’s famous first line, “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” The actress then looked up at the audience and said, “But I don’t think that’s true,” thus proving the playwright was unfamiliar with wit and irony and Jane Austen in general. Things went downhill from there.

It’s generally agreed that Austen’s two greatest novels are Pride and Prejudice and Emma, so it’s no surprise that each has generated close to a dozen television and movie versions. The 1996 film edition of Emma, written and directed by Douglas McGrath, features a very good script and a number of other pleasures, but Gwyneth Paltrow and Jeremy Northam are rather uneven in their performances: Paltrow is sometimes stiff and stagey, and Northam’s Knightley is a little too wan and affable. I remember liking a little-seen 1996 TV version, shown on the A&E Network, starring Kate Beckinsale and Mark Strong and written by Davies, even though Davies made a great deal of the Gypsies who attack poor Harriet Smith and the turkey thieves who plunder Mrs. Weston’s coops, underscoring issues of class that needed none. And of course, the 1995 teen spoof Clueless, with Alicia Silverstone and Paul Rudd, is great fun.

Thursday, March 12, 2020

Iconosphere: The Ekphrastic Works of Walter Benjamin

The False Mirror, by Rene Magritte, 1929.
“Images, our great and primitive passion . . .”  – Walter Benjamin, ca. 1930
The word ekphrasis comes from the Greek for the description of a work of art produced as a rhetorical exercise, often used in the adjectival form ekphrastic. It is a vivid, often dramatic verbal description of a visual work of art, either real or imagined. In ancient times it referred to a description of any thing, person, or even experience. The word comes from the Greek words for “out” and “speak” respectively, and the verb "to proclaim or call an inanimate object by name." According to the Poetry Foundation "an ekphrastic poem is a vivid description of a scene or, more commonly, a work of art." More generally, an ekphrastic poem is a poem inspired or stimulated by a work of art.
From the cave wall to the computer screen in the blink of an eye: that’s how swiftly the evolution our deeply ingrained appetite for images sometimes feels. The ekphrastic response to images is equally diverse and sweeping, and it includes work that is not customarily considered to be “poetry” in the common sense of the term but is definitely and defiantly poetic in scope, scale, subject and theme. As a profound craving, it is, in fact, one of the principal features that distinguishes us from all the other life forms around us: the urge to depict images and to watch them. We do seem to need reflected pictures of what we look like, of how we feel, and of what it all might mean. That blink of an eye was approximately 30,000 years long, a lengthy blink indeed, but in the subtle concept of an Iconosphere, the realm, domain, and even the kingdom of images can be examined and interpreted as both overlapping physical locations and also an emotional geography. One that continues expanding in a recursive and endless feedback loop daily.

Wednesday, March 11, 2020

Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice: Too Late for Satire

Joél Pérez, Ana Nogueira, Jennifer Damiano & Michael Zegen in Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice. (Photo: Monique Carboni)

Paul Mazursky’s Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice came out toward the end of my freshman year in college. I had never encountered anything quite like it, and I couldn’t get enough of it – I saw it three times on its initial release. It was a comedy of manners set among Los Angeles’s hip and wealthy, a nouveau aristocracy just a little too old (i.e., in their thirties) and certainly too bourgeois to be the love children they fashioned themselves after but happily infected by the entrancing new ideas in the sun-baked SoCal air – smoking weed, experimenting with open marriage, challenging themselves to try to be completely honest. It was an up-to-the-minute satire yet it laughed at its characters with tenderness rather than disapproval. And the final moments, after the four title characters try to go to bed together and discover the limitations of their sexual freedom, were oddly touching: dressed up once again for a Tony Bennett concert, they walk among strangers who are their peers, looking them in the eyes, still devoted to putting the sixties ethic to the test. Mazursky (who co-wrote the screenplay with Larry Tucker) was the most gifted purveyor of high comedy in American movies after Ernst Lubitsch, and he went on to make even better pictures over the next two decades. But Bob & Carol has a special quality – even now, I think, when it’s unmistakably a memento of a long-ago era.

Tuesday, March 3, 2020

Coal Country: Docudrama with a Pulse

Steve Earle (right) in Coal Country at The Public Theater in New York City. (Photo: Joan Marcus)

Steve Earle’s haunting, melodic folk music is the lyrical pulse of the docudrama Coal Country, which is playing upstairs at the Public Theater. Earle wanders onto the stage of the Anspacher with his trademark air of bemused irony, sits down stage left and begins to sing a John Henry song, which functions as a general introduction to the play’s story about some other men and a big machine. In this case it’s the Massey Energy Company, which took over the Upper Big Branch mine in Montcoal, West Virginia, made it non-union and ran it in violation of safety standards until it exploded in April of 2010, killing twenty-nine men. (The company’s chief executive, Donald Blankenship, was sentenced to a year in prison and a $25,000 fine, and when he got out he claimed he’d been framed by the government. He’s still using his fantastic version of the story as a platform for a hopeful political career.) The Public commissioned the husband-and-wife team of Jessica Blank and Eric Jensen, who had taken on the subject of innocent men on Death Row in The Exonerated , to develop the piece based on interviews with the Montcoal community, who show up in Coal Country in the roles of survivors and mourners, four men and two women. Blank also directed.

Tuesday, February 25, 2020

Honey Boy: Coming to Terms

Shia LaBeouf in Honey Boy.

Shia LaBeouf does first-rate work in Honey Boy – not only as the leading actor but even more impressively as the screenwriter. The movie, an absolute knockout, is based on LaBeouf’s own relationship with his father, who is called James Lort on screen and played by LaBeouf, a trick that, as far as I know, no other film performer has ever tried to pull off. The role of LaBeouf is played by Noah Jupe as a twelve-year-old child actor named Otis whose father – divorced from his (off-screen) mother – acts as a combination guardian and manager when he’s on a shoot; and by Lucas Hedges as a twenty-two-year-old alcoholic hellion, arrested for the third time for driving under the influence and sent by a judge to rehab before he appears for his court date. Honey Boy opens with the older Otis filming a complicated action sequence that climaxes with a conflagration; it serves as a metaphor for his life and ends with a close-up of Hedges in a state of bewilderment and emotional paralysis in which performance and essence are indistinguishable. What follows is a montage of Otis’s chaotic, sex- and alcohol-fueled off-camera life culminating in the drunken car crash. Dr. Moreno (Laura San Giacomo), the first of two counselors he sees in rehab, assures him he has post-traumatic stress. “No, I don’t!” Otis protests. “From what?” The question comes out of a decade of ferocious repression, and the flashbacks to the young Otis’s precarious, besieged life with his alcoholic, druggy father, who carries around a lifetime of rage that erupts in unpredictable bursts, sometimes verbal and sometimes physical, answer it.

Monday, February 17, 2020

Long Distance Runner: New Works by Yehouda Chaki

Yehouda Chaki, 1503, oil on canvas, 14 x 12 inches.

“I wonder if I'm the only one in the running business with this system of forgetting that I'm running because I'm too busy thinking. You should think about nobody and go your own way, not on a course marked out for you by people holding water and bottles of iodine in case you fall, and to get you moving again. All I knew was that you had to run, run, run without knowing why you were running.” – Alan Sillitoe
Review of solo exhibition at Odon Wagner Gallery, Toronto, December  5–December 26, 2019.

Yehouda Chaki is a well-seasoned artist in the mature phase of his long career – in his prime, so to speak. During his many laps in the marathon race of modern painting, his skills have been honed the way a warrior’s are: in the intense heat of those fresh challenges faced with each new canvas. But he also knows well why he is running. And it’s not to win anything as simple as a race. He won that race a long time ago. He has become what we all might become if we dedicate our actions to a singular path: almost a balsamic reduction of himself, with each new painting also being an ultra-balsamic reduction of the history of painting per se, purified and reduced to its final essence. All he knows is that you have to paint, paint, paint.

Friday, February 14, 2020

Looking Back, Stepping Forward: A Choreographer’s Greatest Hits

Devon Snell in Echo Dark (2020). (Photo: Ömer Yükseker)

Farewells are rarely easy. But Christopher House, outgoing artistic director of Toronto Dance Theatre, has managed to turn his into a rousing valediction celebrating his 40-year-plus career as an award-winning dancer and choreographer. 

House Mix, the title given to the 100-minute program of past works his 12-member company is presenting at Harbourfront’s Fleck Theatre until Saturday, is one sparkling grand finale, an intelligently curated show of greatest hits that sends House, due to retire at the end of June, off in a blaze of glory.

Tuesday, February 11, 2020

The Lucky One: Miss Americana (aka Taylor Swift: Miss Americana)


People often say that you need to be objective to be a good critic, but I’ve often found that being invested in a work can illumine more pathways into what it’s trying to do and how well it succeeds. Of course, it’s not necessarily a “better” perspective, whatever that means, just a different one. Being a Swiftie, I find the Taylor Swift on screen in Lana Wilson’s Miss Americana (2020, a.k.a. Taylor Swift: Miss Americana) to be a familiar presence from all of the interview and behind-the-scenes footage of her that already exists, some of which is used in this documentary. As Swift suggests in an early interview, also included, fame and career longevity have always been on her mind, and the film grounds such abstract musings in raw and emotionally vulnerable moments, captured as they happen.

Monday, February 10, 2020

Timon of Athens: Lonely at the Bottom

Kathryn Hunter in Timon of Athens. (Photo: Henry Grossman)

In Shakespeare’s late, one-of-a-kind tragedy Timon of Athens (now generally accepted by scholars as a collaboration with Thomas Middleton, co-author of The Changeling), a wealthy Athenian given to displays of staggering generosity whose fair-weather friends deny him when he runs into deep financial trouble turns his back on his city and goes to live in a cave. It’s a fable, but still the protagonist’s personality change is so extreme that, for modern audiences at least, I can’t imagine how it would work without a strong psychological reading of his character. When Simon Russell Beale played it at the National Theatre eight years ago under Nicolas Hytner’s direction, Timon’s excessive benevolence was provoked by a desperate need to have people like him, so his eviscerating bitterness in the second half played as fury at being deprived of what he had worked so hard and so continually to secure. Simon Godwin’s new version, which he staged with the Royal Shakespeare Company and has imported to Brooklyn for Theatre for a New Audience, lacks any real explanation for the shift except for the narrative circumstances – and they aren’t enough to make the play work dramatically.

Friday, February 7, 2020

Con Artists: Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite

Choi Woo Shik, Song Kang Ho, Chang Hyae Jin and Park So Dam in Parasite.

Director Bong Joon-ho’s magnum opus Parasite is his first film to break through in a big way to American audiences. His creature feature The Host attracted some attention, and the presence of big-name stars in the (ludicrous) apocalyptic parable Snowpiercer and the (charmless and also ludicrous) children’s environmental parable Okja led to relatively big releases and a smattering of good reviews, but none of those films was taken as serious art. Parasite is being taken very seriously indeed.

Bong Joon-ho’s previous films possessed a cartoonish pulpiness, so it’s no surprise that Snowpiercer was based on a graphic novel. Its plot – an endlessly running train houses what’s left of humanity, divided by economic class – barges ahead like a movie storyboard followed too literally: nothing connects the independently drawn panels. Every new sequence raises all sorts of questions you’re not supposed to ask. The big leaps, broad strokes, and over-the-top “ideas” in his storytelling are meant to appeal to a fanboy’s unquestioning sensibility. His aesthetic could be summed up by a paraphrase of Nike’s motto: “Just go with it.” Parasite, however, aims higher. Here, Bong seems to be attempting a more realistic, more meaningful, examination of class in today’s world, where populism of both the liberal and conservative varieties is challenging the capitalistic status quo.

Monday, February 3, 2020

Sing Street and Porgy and Bess: Birthing a New Stage Musical and Burying a Classic

Sam Poon, Anthony Genovesi, Jakeim Hart and Gian Perez in Sing Street. (Photo: Matthew Murphy)

I caught the sold-out final performance of Sing Street, the stage transcription of John Carney’s infectious 2016 teen movie musical, at New York Theatre Workshop a week ago, but fortunately it’s far from dead; it reopens on Broadway in the spring. This is a lovable show with an energy level that bounces up into the stratosphere, and there isn’t a performer on stage you don’t want to toss a bouquet at. Adapted from the third of Carney’s minimalist musical films, with their distinctive balance of the wised-up and the joyous – the other two are Once (2007) and Begin Again (2013) – Sing Street is set in the economically deflated Dublin of the 1980s. The hero is Conor (Brenock O’Connor), whose parents, Robert (Billy Carter) and Penny (Amy Warren), have decided, in the light of Robert’s recent unemployment, to downsize by taking Conor out of a private academy and enrolling him in a Christian Brothers free state school. His sister Anne (Skyler Volpe) is finishing university; his brother Brendan (Gus Halper), a witty stoner with a close relationship to Conor, has long since bothering even to venture out of the house. (Conor is the youngest.) Their parents’ marriage, never stable, is on the verge of coming apart. Conor’s relocation to Synge Street School, where he immediately runs afoul of the autocratic, sometimes brutal headmaster, Brother Baxter (Martin Moran), might be the last straw, but as it happens he makes musical friends. Conor plays guitar, and Brendan has taken a hand in his rock ‘n’ roll education, so when he becomes entranced by a young woman named Raphina (Zara Devlin), an aspiring model who lives in a home for adolescents from broken families across the street from the school, he pretends he has his own band and invites her to appear in a music video. And then he sets out to put that fictive band together, with his new pal Darren (Max William Bartos) as manager. They rehearse in the home of a boy named Eamon (Sam Poon) whose mother, Sandra (Anne L. Nathan), a local piano teacher, encourages them.

Friday, January 31, 2020

Close Encounters of the Enlightened Kind: Awakening My Heart

Tina Turner shared her own transformative heart experiences with Andrea Miller. (Photo: Nathan Beck).

I wish I had known about Awakening My Heart, this marvelous new book by Andrea Miller from Pottersfield Press, compiling her close encounters with multiple Buddhist luminaries, before I recently completed my new book on Tina Turner’s life and music. Though as a longtime practitioner myself, mostly of a mixture of Zen and Dzogchen, I was, of course, aware of Turner’s many-decades-long affiliation with Buddhist chanting and practice, Miller’s well-crafted conversations with celebrated seekers such as her would have greatly informed the portions of my book devoted to her philosophical pursuits.

Wednesday, January 29, 2020

Aloft: Tom Harper’s The Aeronauts

Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones in The Aeronauts.

 . . . [A]ll balloon flights are naturally three-act dramas. The First Act is the launch: the human drama of plans, hopes, expectations. The Second Act is the flight itself: the realities, the visions, the possible discoveries. The Final Act is the landing, the least predictable, most perilous part of any ascent, which may bring triumph or disaster or (quite often) farce.
– Richard Holmes, Falling Upwards: How We Took to the Air
Amazon Studios put The Aeronauts, one of the best films of last year, in theaters for about two minutes, then relegated it to its Amazon Prime streaming service and ceased all marketing of it. (It’s a film made for the IMAX screen, but if you blinked, you missed your chance to see it there.) A grand romantic movie about a grand, romantic venture, the film is full of thrills, action, and magisterial beauty. Some of it is terrifying, some of it is comic, and all of it is satisfying. It reunites two great young actors, Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones, so entrancing together in the otherwise inane The Theory of Everything. It soars and it plummets, much like the particolored conveyance whose single voyage is the film’s focus. It’s breathtaking, often literally.

Monday, January 27, 2020

The Forgettable and the Forgotten: We All Fall Down and Ivan Passer

Eleanor Reissa and Stephen Schnetzer in We All Fall Down. (Photo: Nile Hawver)

The Huntington Theatre Company’s commitment to producing new work is admirable, but is We All Fall Down, the Lila Rose Kaplan piece receiving its premiere at the Calderwood Pavilion, really the best script they could find? It’s a cutesy sitcom about an assimilated Jewish family holding its first Passover Seder in their Westchester home, and when, around the last third of the play, the broad jokiness more or less gives way and Kaplan finally reveals why the hell the matriarch, Linda (Eleanor Reissa), has gathered them and a couple of friends to honor a tradition she has never believed in, the tone simply shifts to melodrama. Yes, that’s right: this play is firmly in the I-laughed-I-cried genre. There isn’t a moment of authenticity in the entire ninety-five minutes.

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.