Home, Strange Home

May 18, 2019

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Unless you’ve lived in the same house all your life, you can’t pinpoint the moment when your place became your home. It happened while you weren’t looking.

The longer you live somewhere (excepting a war zone, I guess), the more you get attached to it — or at least you can take comfort in everyday normalcy. To be pulled away permanently is wrenching, but those attachments can anchor like a root system in an entirely different place. 

I attended my first seven school grades in Norfolk, Virginia, home of the world’s largest naval base. Many of my friends were the sons of officers — it was an all-boys school — so it was very common to have to say goodbye after Dad’s two- or three-year assignment was up and new friends rotated in. Navy brats were used to it. They moved around all the time. I was the stable one: my dad was a civilian. So it came as quite a shock when one day he announced that we were going to move. I loved my house, my street, my school, my friends, and now they were all going away. I mean, this time I was.

We moved much farther South, to Jackson, Mississippi, where my father was joining a bunch of Virginia grocery executives to roll out a regional supermarket chain. In the summer of 1962 — the midst of the Civil War centenary — Jim Crow still ruled, and there was a meanness that hadn’t been shoved in my face in the Commonwealth. We seemed to be on Mars: the atmosphere was viscid and foreign, the heat so stifling that simply mowing the lawn used up most of my juice. I hated everything. I wasn’t traumatized or clinically depressed, just good Ole Miserable. And I’d been such a happy little squirt, too. My folks pondered what to do.

I’m not sure I could have come up with such wisdom, but my parents were struck by genius. (1) My dad solemnly promised that if I would just give Jackson a chance for exactly one year and I still wanted to go back at that point, then we would. (2) They enrolled me in summer band class at my junior high school. We rented a saxophone — my choice  — and I took as many lessons as I could cram in before band started.

Action (1) gave me the reassurance of a firm deadline. I began writing my grandmother a letter every day. (She lived down the street — how idyllic had my life been, folks?) Each one counted off the days remaining until I’d be back in Norfolk. Action (2) was designed to get me something I needed achingly badly: friends. Sure enough, the commonality of band practice helped me sink the first tendrils. I met two of my lifelong besties in that rehearsal room, the oldest continual friendships I have. For years my grandma would tell people the story of my letters. She said they arrived daily for about two weeks. Then I started missing days. Then maybe once a week. A month. Then it was down to the annual birthday card. She would smile through all this because she understood the reason: I was forming a new life and sloughing off the misery. (I’m sure I hadn’t been the only one who was sad when I left Norfolk, but she handled it like an adult.)

We drove back “home” for a visit every summer for several years, and even though I was building relationships in Mississippi (shut up, there’s such a thing as a girl?), I still felt like a displaced frontiersman. But by the time some buddies and I celebrated high school graduation with a car trip to New York and stopped in Norfolk on the way up, enough life had passed to change the appearance of houses, shutter beloved mom-and-pop shops, and render my boyhood hood unfamiliar. I didn’t belong here any more. I remember noting this at the time: in only five years, “home” for me had become Jackson, Mississippi.

I lived there for 22 nonconsecutive years. Four intervening years in Athens, Georgia was time enough for it to become “home” too. But when I went back to Athens for a writers’ conference twenty years later, all I could recognize were the street names. (Turning indie-hip with the B-52s and R.E.M. transformed the place.) By that time I had become a book editor, a result of my most radical lifestyle change ever. That happened when I moved from Mississippi to New York.

Ask any progressive in a red state — they are definitely there, in each and every one — and they’ll nod when you describe the low-grade wariness you have to carry around every day. Living in an overwhelmingly reactionary society doesn’t change your mind, but it makes you mindful of your surroundings. If I still lived in Jackson and continued my independent corporate communications work with big, connected companies and agencies, I’d need to watch what I say in public. If I wanted to do business with the powers that be, I wouldn’t have to lie, but I would have to remain silent about our current president or any other president. I’d imagine it’s only a tame cousin to the way closeted gays are still made to feel, but in my own small straight way I do get it. The most immediate, and unexpected, surprise after my move up north was a sense of political and cultural exhalation. It was so relaxing to be able to abandon self-censorship. 

It’s not that everybody agrees with you, far from it. Or that injustice and prejudice don’t exist. (If there’s one thing I’ve learned in my undeservedly charmed life, it is this: there are rednecks everywhere.) It’s just that up here, no state-sponsored point of view makes most everybody’s heads nod like drinking ducks. I couldn’t figure out my oddball sense of calm relief in one of the world’s most frenetic cities for a long time. I think I’ve finally pegged it. Namaste.

But once again, societally I found myself on Mars. Lots of life was new again. I can amaze people in both cultures with fun facts about myself. New Yorkers: I didn’t know what a bagel was until I was 38 years old. They’re everywhere now, but they weren’t always. Mississippians: I haven’t owned an automobile for 31 years. (Now you know how old I am!) I do not have the slightest inkling what a gallon of gas costs until I top off my rental car two or three times a year.

In a strange clime, you notice little things. The accents and idioms. “Mou’ain” for “mountain,” no T. “I’m a Met fan.” Singular. “Have a goot one.” Rhymes with “soot.” That singsong recitative that is spreading nationwide: “I went to the GYM, I rode on the BIKE, I walked back HOME, I picked up the KIDS…” Standing “on line” instead of “in line.” That distinctive overloud New York sigh (usually heard while waiting “on line”) that says, I don’t like this but there’s nothing I can do about it so I shall express my displeasure to all within earshot. Yiddish words that just osmose: I’d been misusing and misspelling “macher” my whole life without realizing it, but not any more, and now I have a few other choice ones in my vocab. The overhonking of car horns. When I’m in traffic anywhere else, it seems strangely quiet; back home I even feel for the semi driver who spends all day navigating double-parkers on already-snug cross streets until he finally looses his frustration with the ole air horn. 

Did you hear that? “Back home.” 

I used to say, “On a hot day back home, it smells like dirt and pine needles. Here it smells like garbage and dog doo.” But now I say, “On a hot day down South…” I don’t know when my perspective changed. It happened when I wasn’t looking. Headed into New York on an airplane, I used to think, wow, look at all the people who live here, and there’s Central Park! Now I just think, I’m home. Many, many New Yorkers came from somewhere else, as I did. But if they managed to stick it out, they became New Yorkers themselves, and that means they found a home. Norfolk, my favorite place ever when I was a kid, is but a wisp of a memory now. (Have I just stumbled upon the dadburn meaning of life?) I’ve planted roots elsewhere. And even though the location of home may zig and zag throughout a full human span, it’s so soothing to know it when you’re there. Wherever that may be.

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My home right now.

 

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My 10 Favorite Theatre Pieces Of 2018

January 2, 2019

FLIGHT. One of the damndest things I ever saw in my life. You sit alone in a dark individual cubicle with headphones on. For the next 45 minutes, a series of tiny dioramas passes by inches from your face, illustrating the harrowing years-long journey of two young Afghan refugees as they try to make their way through the Mideast and Europe to London. The scenes are sequentially lit in sync with a pulse-pounding audio track voice-acted to perfection. Twenty-two others ring the giant turntable in their own cubicles. They’re all watching at other points in the story as the mechanism wheels around in its near-hour clockwise circuit. It’s amazing technically: the miniature model work is astonishing, and brilliant lighting effects and forced perspective add to the drama. It’s also amazing theatrically, because nothing — nothing — gets between you and the wrenching story (an adaptation of the novel HINTERLAND). It was produced by Vox Motus, a group of Glaswegian geniuses who killed with this piece at the Edinburgh Festival. Wow.

GIRL FROM THE NORTH COUNTRY. Bob Dylan + Conor McPherson = Sublime. It’s set in a boarding house in Duluth, Minnesota, Dylan’s birthplace, but during the Great Depression, long before the bard was born; we’re in deep Woody Guthrie territory. Dylan’s songs, most but not all chosen from the Seventies and Eighties, are made to sound prettier than ever without sacrificing one ounce of grit. The tunes serve the story rather than vice versa. Sometimes the dramatic arc creates a wrenching change: “Like A Rolling Stone” is here performed as more of an elegy than Dylan’s own acerbic revenge fantasy. Other times you’re just happy to relax into the lilt of a song, as with a gorgeous “Sweetheart Like You.” (INFIDELS, well represented here, is my favorite unsung Dylan album.) It’s hard to describe. I need a cast recording to fully explain it to you. But I knew this was one of my top moments while I was sitting there

HARRY POTTER AND THE CURSED CHILD PARTS I AND II. We couldn’t beg decent tix here in New York, so we decided to go to London over Thanksgiving to see it. (We discovered that Jimi Hendrix and G. F. Handel were next-door neighbors on that same trip!) We read the script when it was first published, but our aging brains had forgotten everything except the BIG REVEAL. (“Keep The Secrets” is the production’s mantra.) All we’d retained was the feeling that if they can reproduce this stuff on stage, we are so there. (They can, and we were.) Either you’ve bought in to Harry Potter or you haven’t. Let’s just say that there’s a generational twist which pretty much tracks the lives of the franchise’s original fans, and finally they are justifiably able to use the word “awesome!” correctly. No more details. It’s the spectacle that SPIDER-MAN: TURN OFF THE DARK wanted to be, and then some.

HELLO, DOLLY! It’s a rare treat to see a live musical artist who can suck the oxygen out of a room just by walking on. For me, Elvis, Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Springsteen. Now I have to add Bette Midler. This is far from my favorite musical, but Midler absolutely controlled the crowd every single second. They worship her not just for her body of work, but because this happens to be the perfect vehicle for her unique brand of showmanship. David Hyde Pierce struggled with a cold the night I saw it and was probably really good when he was at 100%, but face it, you don’t buy a ticket to see Horace Vandergelder. I wouldn’t have gone at all had some friends not goaded me into it (repeat; I’m not a big fan of the show). I would have thus let a huge opportunity get away from me. They’ll be talking about this for a long time. Jiminy crickets: what a Broadway baby.

JOHN LITHGOW: STORIES BY HEART. Sometimes the most powerful moments are the simplest — in fact, that’s precisely what makes them resonate. This is a one-man show in which the accomplished theatrical craftsman talks a little bit about his life, but mainly he tells us two stories: Ring Lardner’s “Haircut” and P. G. Wodehouse’s “Uncle Fred Flits By.” The first is a masterpiece of verbal sound effects and atmosphere; Lithgow makes us hear the barber’s razor against his strop and the snip-snip of his profession as his monologue gradually tells us more about him than we really wanted to know. The second piece is one of the funniest things in the English language, and upper-class British drollery rolls off Lithgow’s tongue delightfully, to what we hope is also the delight of his father. For this is how the senior Lithgow entertained his son early in life — and during his final days the roles were reversed, using the very short-story volume which the actor brandishes on stage. So it’s an entertainment, but also deeply personal. The combination is electric.

ON BECKETT. Bill Irwin, that great actor and clown (he wears the latter description as an honor sash), leads us on a 90-minute tour through the minds of both Samuel Beckett and himself. Quoting liberally from TEXTS FOR NOTHING, WATT, THE UNNAMEABLE, and the “booger” of a masterpiece, WAITING FOR GODOT, Irwin opens his own heart and presents a difficult artist’s genius before us in a way that anyone can understand and appreciate. Plus there is the physical clowning, which in Irwin’s self-directed hands is the throughput of the show. The highly informed earnestness reminded me of how deeply my friend John Maxwell was affected by the work of William Faulkner, so much so that he felt compelled to tell others about it, and so we came to write a theatrical monologue together that wound up changing the course of his life. I sense that same inner gravitas here. I am dying to see the next production of GODOT that comes my way, because Irwin has opened up so much depth to me. He also gave me an inkling into what it’s like to choose acting as a passion and profession, undressing simple technique and then injecting real artistry, with Beckett’s newly fraught words as a backdrop. The prose is sometimes so impenetrable that you just have to zone out and enjoy sheer musicality without parsing for meaning, but your interest never wanes. Tiny theater (the Irish Rep), big concepts. We left stunned, grateful, and happy.

SAKINA’S RESTAURANT. I saw this only two days after the Bill Irwin, so, with Lithgow, I have to say this year one-man shows frickin ruled. Aasif Mandvi (you may recognize him from THE DAILY SHOW) first mounted this beauty twenty years ago, and it hasn’t aged a day. He appears as Azgi, an Indian who has the chance to move to New York and work at a family restaurant. Then, one by one, he morphs into the restaurant’s owner, his wife, the place’s namesake daughter, her fiancé, etc. It’s the immigrant experience from deep inside an “America” (presciently, never “United States”) that most can never apprehend. Like most improv artists, Mandvi is first and foremost an actor, able to clothe a completely new character with nothing more than a scarf and precise body language. This production is part of Audible’s solo theatrical series, so if you dig down deep into the internets, you will find a way to hear it. I wish you could have been there to see it.

THREE TALL WOMEN. Great work by three terrific actors in this revival of a Pulitzer winner, but the revelation is that Glenda Jackson has become a grande dame! She owned this show; she was utterly magnificent as the eldest incarnation of the same person. Laurie Metcalf and Alison Pill, as her earlier selves, are aces too. We were in the front row and Ms. Pill expectorated upon us with a plosive P, but we didn’t mind. Joe Mantello’s wonderful staging cleverly collapsed the play’s two acts into one. I took this picture of Paul Gallo’s lovely set afterwards. 

TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD. I knew this was going to be easy for critics to pick apart, and the day after opening the New York Times’s Jesse Green (the raver) and the Wall Street Journal’s Terry Teachout (the grouch) published diametrically opposed reviews, even down to their views of a more slavish 1991 staging that Teachout preferred to this one. Aaron Sorkin has fooled around a bit with Harper Lee’s immortal source novel, going straight to the trial and cutting away periodically, and he’s made some background characters firmer in their resolve. But the heart of the book and its moral tutelage remain pure in his fine adaptation. The three children at the story’s center are played by adults, but the conceit works. Jeff Daniels, who used to spit out Sorkinisms as a broadcaster on HBO’S THE NEWSROOM, brings a James-Stewart everyman quality to Atticus Finch, a Southerner who tries to see the good inside even his tormentors. I think it was time for this play to appear; I heard gasps from audience members who clearly were not familiar with the story. I’ll bet some of them are later moved to pick up the book.

TWELFTH NIGHT. A joyous populist adaptation with clever, tuneful music and lyrics by Shaina Taub (center), who also plays Feste, the clown. There were a dozen or so pros in the main roles, and then an ensemble of about 100 (kids, vets, caregivers, ex-cons, deaf actors, and more) culled from arts & educational organizations all over the five boroughs — split into two groups which played on alternate nights during the show’s five-week run. The 23 songs are original but feel confident and alive. Each Labor Day a similar production is mounted by the Public Theater’s Public Works project, but this year they got the whole theater as the second featured slot in the summer’s Free Shakespeare in the Park program. ASL is gorgeously treated as choreography throughout; the feeling of joy and empowerment washes off the stage and into the audience, which has already spent the pre-show minutes up on stage at an “Illyrian street fair” with cast members. There will certainly be snobs who object to the 100-minute brevity and the songs, which help audience members keep up with the plot. But this is a visual demonstration of what the Public is all about, and it’s nothing short of thrilling. Shaina Taub will one day be a household name in the theatre: she’s that good. But these insistent tableaux of affirmation and achievement constantly erupt. They couldn’t possibly happen anywhere else than right before your eyes. And all of this took place outdoors on a fine summer night in Central Park. Magfrickinificent.

ALSO NOTABLE: THE DEAD, 1904 (you go inside James Joyce’s famous dinner party as a guest!); THE FERRYMAN (a stout Irish family drama which will seduce you and then impale you); THE HARD PROBLEM (Tom Stoppard is an international treasure); KING KONG (ape scenes only, but ALL the ape scenes, especially the one in which Kong shambles WAY downstage to violate the audience’s space); NETWORK (for Bryan Cranston and some hip video effects, otherwise I preferred the movie in almost every way); THE WAVERLY GALLERY (I usually avoid “senile dementia“ stories b/c they cut too close to home, but Kenneth Lonergan nailed both the humor and the horror, and that was Elaine Frickin May up there!)

 

My Favorite Theatre In:

2017


My NYFF 2018

October 15, 2018

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The New York Film Festival is a major fest in historical importance if not ballyhoo. NYFF was crucial in introducing American audiences to revolutions in world filmmaking that were themselves often inspired by Hollywood history. NYFF has never bestowed any awards. For 56 years it has chosen no more than thirty films for its annual “Main Slate,” with other goodies scattered about. It doesn’t really compete with Cannes, Venice, Telluride or Toronto for world premieres, though each year there are a few. Nearly all screenings are held on the close-knit Lincoln Center campus; at most other festivals you have to factor travel into your daily plan. But here, if you have the time, you can theoretically see everything on the Main Slate. “North American Premiere” means the film probably played at Cannes or Venice. “U.S. Premiere” means it probably played in Toronto. Here are the ones I saw this year:

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THE FAVOURITE**** (Festival Opening Night) I expected something a little more bizarre from Yorgos Lanthimos, who brought us DOGTOOTH, THE LOBSTER, and even THE KILLING OF A SACRED DEER. But as the film spooled, I realized the transgressive director was allowing 18th-century England to be its own dramatic geek. Courtly dances turn lewd and anachronistic. The foppish male fashion that BARRY LYNDON tut-tuts becomes leering, even menacing. And the three females who control the piece are each iconoclastic and riveting. There’s Rachel Weisz as the scheming Duchess of Marlborough and Emma Stone as a former lady turned servant, each competing for the favor of the triumphant Olivia Colman as Queen Anne. Things are just a little “off” throughout, aided by the repeated use of an extreme wide-angle (“fisheye”) lens to make squared turns appear curved. This picture won the Grand Jury Prize at Venice this year, and Colman won a well-deserved Best Actress award. The relative restraint might be Lanthimos’s ticket to serious award consideration; he’s long been one of the most exciting directors on the planet, but here he plays nicer than usual.

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HER SMELL*** (U.S. Premiere) Elisabeth Moss abases herself a la Charlize Theron as the demon-battling 90s-era front for a female alt-rock band: Amy Winehouse? Courtney Love? She’s past her creative prime and so zonked out that she’s near insane. (That’s GLOW’s “She-Wolf,” Gayle Rankin, as her drummer.) We meet her band at a club date, and I actually thought I’d never make it through two whole hours: the segment is all short hand-held shots, as if Michael Bay had done a whole gram of cocaine before taking a camera into CBGB. But that’s only the first of Alex Ross Perry’s five acts, each shot in its own distinct cinematic style. Moss is the main reason to watch, and although it may be hard to believe while enduring the first gonzo hour, there is a narrative arc. Bad: I thought it was a tad too long — the lead character isn’t the only one guilty of self-indulgence. Good: the actors are actually performing the musical numbers; no fakery here. 

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MONROVIA, INDIANA**** (U.S. Premiere) Frederick Wiseman is one of the most influential film documentarians in history. He invented — ok, maybe just refined — the fly-on-the-wall style of cinema verite: no narration, nothing to guide you through the “truth” he stitches together in what he concedes is a subjective process, which is only realized in post-production. For this one, the TITICUT FOLLIES and EX LIBRIS maestro spent ten weeks in a small Indiana town. Tribal viewers might be expecting scorn or defense, but no. The most profound takeaway is that aside from references to local high schools and universities, this could have taken place most anywhere. We go to the barber shop, Lions Club, hog farm, combine auction, tattoo parlor, grain elevator, gun store, etc etc etc. The only politics we see are at the Monrovia Festival, sort of a mini-state fair where the county Republicans have a booth, but Wiseman himself strives to remain above it all. The 88-year-old director introduced the film and stayed for a q&a afterward. It was thrilling to be in the same room with him.

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WILDLIFE*** The directorial debut of actor Paul Dano, who adapted the Richard Ford novel with his partner, actor-playwright Zoe Kazan. In Montana in the late Fifties, a peripatetic young family finds its life upended when the father loses his job and, after a desperate search, leaves home to join an ad-hoc group of men hired to fight fierce mountain wildfires for a dollar an hour. The mother grows restless before the son’s distraut eyes. Carey Mulligan (whose film this basically is) and Jake Gyllenhaal are superb as the parents, as is Bill Camp as a car dealer who gets into the mix, but the real find is a sensational 14-year-old Aussie named Ed Oxenbould, meaning two of the three family members are faking their Yank accents. Dano (and/or Kazan; it’s often hard to tell whether a movie’s directorial moment was already there on the page) make assured and interesting cinematic choices throughout. I’ll be in line for their next one.

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NON-FICTION**** Olivier Assayas’s new film is a dialogue-driven, actor-centered story in and about the world of book publishing, a realm of which I have some personally acquired knowledge. Turns out book people in Paris are talking about the same things we are here: the encroachment of the digital revolution on the printed word, e-books vs. physical books, the rise of the audiobook, and the very future of reading for pleasure. There’s an old-fashioned noble publisher, a tiresome author whose “auto-fiction” is a thinly veiled recital of his own life, a cyber-savvy publicist, a political operative, a cop-show actress — the movie is chiefly about how people deal with fundamental change, but since it’s also a French sex comedy, everybody’s sleeping with everybody else. A really fine cast is led by the radiant Juliette Binoche (who is name-checked in the fictional story for the movie’s biggest howling laugh). Tons of serious and vital conversation pass rat-a-tat, but the tone remains light and breezy enough to entertain without in-group pedantry.

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DIVIDE AND CONQUER: THE STORY OF ROGER AILES*** In my book, Newt Gingrich and Roger Ailes are modern America’s two biggest scoundrels: they are more responsible than anyone else for the sorry state of political discourse we suffer through today. (Before his “service” is done, Mitch McConnell will likely join this sleazy pantheon.) Alexis Bloom’s documentary has one advantage journalist Gabriel Sherman didn’t when he published his bio THE LOUDEST VOICE IN THE ROOM in 2014: Roger Ailes’s world came tumbling down soon afterward, and his final ignominies are all here on screen. “I’m glad it happened while he was still alive,” muses one wronged woman. Using clips from Ailes’s storied history and strategic talking heads (including actor-director Austin Pendleton, an old friend from grade school in Ohio), Bloom pieces together the career of one of the most darkly influential media figures of our age. Not only did Ailes enable Nixon, Reagan, both Bushes and Donald Trump, he will forever be remembered as the creator and show runner of the Fox News Channel, an enterprise which utterly transformed America. He was first an entertainment tv producer, then a political media consultant, then he founded a cable channel — but it wasn’t Fox News. “America’s Talking” was his first love, a 24-hour all-talk network featuring many future Fox stars. Ailes even hosted a show himself; we see him awkwardly dancing with Cyndi Lauper. But when Bill Gates bought the channel and turned it into MSNBC, Ailes flew into a permanent rage and vowed revenge. Then he joined forces with Rupert Murdoch, and the rest is sordid history. This story has been told before, but it’s interesting to see it on a screen, Ailes’s lifelong medium. We also get the best look at his bullying takeover of a sleepy little community in Putnam County, New York; the locals’ relief when Fox News’s Playboy-Club atmosphere finally brought Ailes down is palpable, though they’re too nice to gloat on camera. Roger Ailes turned “firing up the crazies,” as one former Fox News employee puts it, into the billions in profit which insulated him from justice for nearly two decades. He’s gone now, but his creation is still serving red meat to red states, causing permanent high blood pressure in the body politic.

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HIGH LIFE*** (U.S. Premiere) Claire Denis’s first English-language feature (while Olivier Assayas goes back to French-speaking) is not a science fiction film, she told us after the screening, even though it’s set in deep space. (Why English? “Nobody speaks French in space.”) The cold dark reaches surround a metallic-blue environment (it looks, sounds and feels reminiscent of Tarkovsky’s SOLARIS) in which a group of criminals have been enlisted to head toward a black hole to harness its energy for use back on Earth. That’s it with the science fiction. We start with a man (Robert Pattinson) alone in the void with a baby. Through shock-cut flashbacks, placed out of sequence so as to be impenetrable at first, we piece together the history of this voyage and peek at the planet-bound lifetime that once was. Denis cuts through the ennui with startling bursts of passion and violence, while the spacefaring vessel attains its metaphorical purpose as sole bulwark against the vast uncaring void. As with SOLARIS, this will be far too slow and imprecise for some viewers to embrace, but there’s so much to think about, plus you have a great layered Pattinson performance — he’s really quite the actor — and some more Juliette Binoche, as a, um, spirited scientist.

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ROMA***** (Festival Centerpiece) This year’s Golden Lion winner at Cannes is sensational. It’s a semi-autobiographical remembrance from Alfonso Cuarón, a year in the life of a Mexico City middle-class family circa 1970. A key figure helping to bind the family together is the beloved live-in nanny and housekeeper, played incandescently by Yalitza Aparicio. The story is confident, cadenced and unforced, calling forth a host of heart-tugging moments. You tend to forget that the director was a witness and participant (you cannot in RAY & LIZ, below), but with all the normal difficulties, this is still the kind of solidly nurtured childhood which produced a talented and observant artist. Interestingly, the main focus is not really on the children until the last act, when they become protagonists. It’s more of an eventful year for the adults, often beyond the youngsters’ knowledge. Cuarón’s black-and-white cinemascape is superb, as is an innovative sound design that focuses our hearing on what we can see: off-screen audio registers off-ear. Though there are many surprises, nothing feels artificial or out of place, despite the fact that the camerawork is executed with Kubrickian precision; as it should, the art overpowers the craft. Before the screening, the director brought out key crew and cast, then introduced the real-life person who inspired Aparicio’s character. From the balcony of Alice Tully Hall, we could still tell that this tiny woman onstage was a bundle of grit, spunk and heart, and the picture hadn’t even rolled yet. 

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ASAKO I AND II**** (U.S. Premiere) If I only had 15 seconds to oversimplify Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s new one, I’d tell you it’s a love story that issues forth from a bent Japanese take on VERTIGO, only this time the identicals are the males. Cute earnest Asako falls for hip foxy DJ Baku in Osaka, but he vanishes abruptly, breaking her heart. Two years later, in Tokyo, she meets Ryohei, a dead ringer for Baku, a buttoned-down executive for a sake brewer who is Baku’s emotional opposite in warmth and devotion. At first she’s interested because of the resemblance (she understandably mistakes him for a cleaned-up Baku at first meeting), but gradually Ryohei wins her over. Still, how can she forget her bad-boy lover (who has gone on to become a famous supermodel) when she’s reminded of him at home every day? And then Baku returns. There are delicious unexpected emotional beats as this story works its way forward and the ensemble is delightful, but I must note the superb work of male lead Masahiro Higashide as both Baku and Ryohei. Talk about inhabiting your role(s): his work distinguishing the two men is so subtle that he actually makes you suspect the casting office found identical twins. Even when they “both” appear in the same scene, the effect is gorgeous.

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RAY & LIZ** (U.S. Premiere) A grueling 1:47 spent with some loathsome lower-class British yobbos whom I never want to meet again. However, I did meet one just after the screening, for this is photographer and first-time film director Richard Billingham’s dramatic memory of his own family, hyper-dysfunctional but not in an amusing way. I give the man huge props just for surviving. But that doesn’t make this film any easier to digest, opening as it does with a sadistic act of cruelty visited on a defenseless victim and giving us no room to breathe thereafter. The most heartbreaking line comes from the actor who represents Mr. Billingham himself: as his younger brother is mercifully taken away from their rank existence into the state’s care, he asks the case worker, “Can I go to a foster home too?” Anyone who doesn’t understand the searingly personal nature of this film — that is, most everyone — will find it an almost prohibitively tough watch.

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COLD WAR**** In 1949, a musician goes around to spots in rural Poland to find authentic ethnic songs and performers, Alan Lomax-style. He’s putting together a troupe that will bring Polish music and dance to popular audiences. It’s all smiles during the audition and training process, but then he falls for a talented blonde beauty ten years his junior, and life gets even more complicated when the Stalinist authorities badger him into featuring party-friendly content. We follow the maturation of this troupe, the girl, and the troubled but genuine love affair through the Fifties as they play the capitals of Europe and battle the political forces behind the Iron Curtain. The music is fantastic and actually becomes part of the story. Authentic Polish folk tunes, introduced at the top, reappear under different guises; one of the first ones we hear is skillfully morphed later into a sultry Julie London-type jazz piece. Writer-director Paweł Pawlikowski’s sure hand propels the narrative with a series of blackouts, so the passage of time is instantaneous, and he gets knockout work from stars Joanna Kulig and Tomasz Kot. The gorgeous black-and-white cinematography (it seems b&w is the new color this year: besides, as the director noted, “Cold War Poland was not a colorful place”) is breathtaking. This is an Amazon Studios release; put it on your watch list.

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THE BALLAD OF BUSTER SCRUGGS**** (North American Premiere) If you liked the Coen brothers’ last one, HAIL, CAESAR!, then this is a similar romp, but it’ll help if you also liked FARGO, because in all its warped hilarity this movie is likewise suffused with sudden violent death. It’s an anthology of six short films, each set in the old West but each inhabiting its own milieu. The curtain-raiser is the wildest, with a perfect Tim Blake Nelson as the title character, a fourth-wall-breaking, white-hatted singing cowboy who also happens to be one of the most vicious gunmen you’ve ever seen. We also watch James Franco hilariously botch a bank robbery, and there’s Liam Neeson as the impresario of a traveling-show oratorical wonder, Tom Waits as a preternaturally determined prospector, Zoe Kravitz as part of a wagon train to Oregon, and a stagecoach full of character actors headed to a spooky destination. The humor is barbed and the picture is stuffed with surprises. A couple of the endings are even heartbreaking, but you’ll never be able to see them coming. What this film is actually about is not the West itself, but Western movies. It deliberately plays with the Hollywood conventions that we’ve all become accustomed to. This movie is wildly entertaining, the writing and acting are superb, and it looks beautiful. It’s uneven by definition — remember, it’s six disparate 20-odd-minute films and I had distinct preferences — but the two hours fly by. It’s still weird to see the Netflix logo on something as A-listy as this, but filmmakers are getting adequate budgets and a wider day-and-date release than they could ever have otherwise. 

WISH I’D SEEN: AMERICAN DHARMA, ASH IS PUREST WHITE, IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK, CARMINE STREET GUITARS, MY DINNER WITH ANDRE (on a big screen; I only know it from home video), THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND (I trust I’ll get the chance somehow), WATERGATE (too long to fit in)

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2017   2016   2015   2014


My 10 Favorite Theatre Pieces Of 2017

December 19, 2017

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DEAR EVAN HANSEN. A Broadway musical with real dramatic substance. It has a lot to say about adolescent peer pressure, bullying, deceit, and situational ethics — much too heavy for a musical, it would seem — but it preaches redemption from the heart, not the head. Gorgeous songs by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, and a star-making turn for Ben Platt in the title role. This show will kill on national tour.

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DERREN BROWN: SECRET. The British star of “psychological magic” made his American debut, and did it ever rock. It’s more than just magic; Brown is a performance artist too. For example, he can and does draw a very credible easel portrait upside down, and it’s not the same famous face every night. Brown controls every second of this magnificent piece: as he revealed in the jaw-dropping finale, even when he makes you think he’s improvising, he’s not. A cool, crafty master, but warm, open and delightful in the out-of-character “talkback” after the performance I saw. In a simultaneous piece of magic, after a halftime bladder break I noticed stage-lighting legend Jules Fisher in the milling crowd and sidled up to re-introduce myself, having met him once at the Ricky Jay weekend in Rhinebeck. The always gracious Mr. Fisher and I had a quick two-minute chat and I was bidding him goodbye just as his theatregoing companion walked up after his own restroom visit. It was none other than Stephen frickin Sondheim. I just smiled and nodded; if I had immediately gushed over the maestro too it would have been disrespectful to the now-undoubtedly-amused Jules Fisher. But I’ll happily imagine a post-show cocktail chat: “Hey, Steve, suck it: tonight some fan walked up to ME!” That makes the second offstage wonderment that Ricky conjured for me.

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EVENING AT THE TALK HOUSE. A new play by Wallace Shawn, who loves to push buttons that subtly unnerve his audience. A group of television executives and performers, part of some society at an unknown diagonal from ours, gather at their favorite bistro for what begins as amusingly vapid chitchat. But the proceedings turn ominous with such ferocity that at first you wonder if you heard that last line correctly. (You did.) The satire is now deadly but darkly funny, an odd fantasia with elements that are disturbingly recognizable in our own culture. I went mainly to see a rare non-drag appearance by my old friend John Epperson, but he and the rest of the fine company gave me much more than I’d expected. I kept thinking about the simple but outre premise for weeks.

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GROUNDHOG DAY. Sue me, but it’s great, and just the endorphin jolt we needed in this grueling, debilitating year. Of course this is a musical version of the hit movie; along with the “jukebox musical,” movie adaptations have become a Broadway subgenre as producers relentlessly search for new ways to pre-sell tickets. But the songs are bright and clever and the redemptive emotional heart of the Bill Murray picture is perfectly preserved (Murray stopped by and loved it to the point of tears). We saw Andy Karl — the well-deserved toast of London in the earlier West End engagement of this show — at a preview just before he sustained a minor injury during his athletic performance. (The methods of misdirection are delightful as he starts his day over and over again faster than humanly possible, but he has to work strenuously hard to achieve them.) This is another one that should have a long life on the road: it’s much better than several current long-running hits I could name.

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HAMLET. Sam Gold’s intimate production in the snug Anspacher space at the Public Theater just might be the best HAMLET I’ve ever seen. The nine-member cast, led by the riveting Oscar Isaac, did some doubling and tripling — for example, the natural comedian Keegan-Michael Key was a fine Horatio but also performed with the players, receiving an ovation for their overwrought death scene — but its collective energy filled up a sparse, mostly bare-bones setting in casual contemporary dress to eliminate any distractions. The 3:30 running time didn’t feel labored at all. In fact, Gold cut out the Fortinbras character and subplot altogether: that’s how tightly packed this play is. Being so physically close to superb actors interpreting some of the most sublime words ever written for the theatre was an experience I won’t soon forget.

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IN AND OF ITSELF. Another magic show that defies description, because “magic show” is far too facile a term for this masterpiece. I saw Derek DelGaudio three years ago in NOTHING TO HIDE, the Neil Patrick Harris-directed two-man show he performed with Helder Guimarães (I’ve never seen better card handling in my life), but this bears little resemblance. It’s a very personal journey, for both performer and audience, that is illuminated by magic in a tiny off-Broadway theater. Deeply considered monologues guide the evening, interspersed with some of the most gaspingly creative illusions I’ve seen. I happened to learn the method for one mind-boggling trick and, as with most great ones, the how’d-he-do-it is tame and prosaic. But DelGaudio’s quiet showmanship is off the scale. The final few seconds left the audience stunned in amazement and unable to move until they could process what they had just seen.

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JUNK. The investor culture that invented “junk bonds” in the Eighties, the heyday of Michael Milken and pals, would seem a difficult atmosphere for a play. But Pulitzer winner Ayad Akhtar keeps the focus on human beings: specifically, those who were responsible for turning “industrialization” into “financialization.” JUNK’s dramatic core is this: is the main purpose of a corporation to serve its customers or its shareholders? This sprawling piece uses individuals to represent trends and presents the stakes so clearly that even we laymen can understand. It’s about nothing less than the soul of business and its vital relationship to the national welfare.

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THE PLAY THAT GOES WRONG. My current #1 recommendation for prospective NYC visitors. I caught this in London a few years ago but it was great to see the original West End cast, including the three authors, on Broadway. (Yanks have since replaced them.) The premise is that a company of British amateurs has managed to book a real theater for its old-fashioned locked-door murder mystery, but to their chagrin Murphy’s Law intervenes again and again and again; adorably, there’s nothing else to do but soldier on. The timing and stagecraft necessary to make sure everything goes wrong right, if you get me here, is superb: the show won a Tony for Best Scenic Design and when you see it you’ll understand why. Gut-bustingly funny for two solid hours. If you do get tickets, arrive :15 early, because the pre-show routine is also a scream. EDIT: because of the words of mouths like mine, this show looks likely to not only recoup its investment but also send a bus-and-truck troupe across America. Congrats, mates! EDIT, 1/9/19: New York won’t let it leave! This hilarity moves off-Broadway, as AVENUE Q once did, for what should be a long, happy run. Meanwhile the bus-and-truck company is coming to a theater near you…

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THE STRANGE UNDOING OF PRUDENCIA HART. A folk tale with music from the National Theatre of Scotland. It was performed in the “Heath” Scottish-styled pub at the McKittrick Hotel, the inventive venue which also houses the immersive presentation SLEEP NO MORE. The five cast members were all around us at various points, telling and singing a spooky story but with big grins on their faces and mischief in their minds. Included in the ticket price was a flight of Scots whisky to get us in the mood. The charming nature of the staging also made it easy to get to know our tablemates. A great night out, and hurrah for Scotland.

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THE WOLVES. I missed Sarah DeLappe’s Pulitzer finalist last year when it galvanized people in an off-Broadway production by The Playwrights Realm, so it was great to have a chance to catch up with a new staging. What happens is that nine members of a girls’ high-school soccer team — identified only by their uniform numbers — talk to each other while they go through their warmups (a soccer mom appears briefly). But their giddy teenage conversation carries a powerful current of serious subtext that engages the audience organically; you get jostled without even noticing it. The actors are pitch-perfectly plausible; I’ve never been a teenage girl but everybody assures me that’s what they really sound like. Such a simple setup and profound dramatic arc, performed by a true ensemble (most of them vets of the original production). And it’s the author’s first play.

ALSO NOTABLE: THE ANTIPODES (from one of my favorite young playwrights, Annie Baker), JULIUS CAESAR (we were there the night two right-wing trolls interrupted the performance), LATIN HISTORY FOR MORONS (John Leguizamo teaches and learns), MEASURE FOR MEASURE (deconstructed by Elevator Repair Service, the brilliant experimental troupe), PRIDE & PREJUDICE (a madcap music-hally romp through Austen, but made with love)

12/20/2017: Add to the notables AT THE ILLUSIONIST’S TABLE at the selfsame Heath of PRUDENCIA HART. There’s a tad too much Derren Brown in Scott Silven’s bravura evening, but he freaks the folks just as powerfully — and here the audience is only two dozen or so, all sharing a lovely dinner and some fine whisky at the earnest Scot’s candlelit table. Wow on all fronts. (OK, now I’m positive I’m done for the year. My 2018 will actually begin with HELLO, DOLLY!)

My Favorite Theatre In:

2018


My NYFF 2017

October 27, 2017

NYFF55.jpgOrdinarily the New York Film Festival arrives along with the first crisp autumn weather, and this year it started out as usual. But too many hurricanes, etc., and NYC turned unseasonably warm, around 80F highs, for the rest of the fest. Nevertheless, we persisted. I should remind you that NYFF is the only major film festival which does not present awards. Its purpose is to celebrate cinema in general, so anybody on the “Main Slate” (still 25 films long after more than half a century) is automatically a “winner.” But there are many others, spread all over the fest’s Lincoln Center campus. Most of the flicks I see are Main Slaters, but one of my favorites this year was an outlier that reminded me of Stanley Kubrick. Literally.

This year a single movie studio attained each of the three most coveted slots on the NYFF schedule: Opening Night, Centerpiece, and Closing Night. It wasn’t Disney, Paramount, Warner Bros., Fox, Universal or Sony. The trifecta was scored by…Amazon Studios.

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MADAME HYDE*** (North American Premiere) Isabelle Huppert is one of the most luminous actors in the world. It’s hard to take your eyes off her. She was the centerpiece of the provocative ELLE from last year, but here she gets to have a little more fun. This is a very loose adaptation of the Jekyll & Hyde story, with Huppert as a slightly less nutty professor. That is, mousy Mrs. Gequil (get it?) is a physics teacher in a tough Parisian high school, ragged on by everybody — students, staff — except her doting househusband. But one stormy night she is struck by lightning and transformed. There’s a new swagger and energy, and oh yeah, super powers. Serge Bozon combines screwball comedy with thriller elements, and the mashup doesn’t always fold together neatly. But Huppert is transfixing as usual, calling forth the subtlest facial gestures and deftly walking the line between funny and unsettling. Romain Duris is hysterical as her principal, managing to steal every scene he’s in — even those with Huppert.

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WESTERN*** (U.S. Premiere) A tale of the frontier, meaning a lonely spot in Middle of Nowhere, Bulgaria, where a German construction team arrives to build a water facility. They’re construction-gang chummy except toward a tall quiet new guy (Gary Cooper — I mean Meinhard Neumann). They consider themselves superior to the Bulgarian rubes and don’t think much of Meinhard’s natural inclination to get to know the locals, in more than one sense of the word. A beautiful snow-white horse complicates the plot and completes the Western metaphor. Most of the actors are non-professionals, which gives the movie a verite sheen. German director Valeska Grisebach really makes you feel the grime of their physical labor and the low heat of their inevitable testosterone battles.

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ZAMA*** (U.S. Premiere) 18th century South America — maybe Paraguay but we don’t know for sure — is a strange place. Not just the period costumes and customs, but in Lucrecia Martel’s visually striking production, landscapes and even sounds are strange too. Don Diego de Zama is an Americas-born functionary of the Spanish crown who wants to be transferred to a more prominent post, preferably in the old country. But in his way are the hurdles of an imperious lumbering bureaucracy and the shadow of a notorious outlaw as slippery as the Scarlet Pimpernel. His lurching, then crawling quest occasionally passes like a dream, aided by the striking metamusical sonic design by Guido Berenblum. The story comes from a classic 1956 Argentinean novel and it sometimes took effort for this non-reader to hang on, but the atmosphere is rich, musky, and exotic. Is that enough? Dunno.

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VISAGES VILLAGES***** (FACES PLACES in America, but I think the rhyme is more clever in French.) Most of us have blind spots in our cinematic lexicon, and Agnes Varda was once one of mine. I vaguely knew her as the “grandmother of the French New Wave” (why grandmother?), she was married to Demy and knew all the others, but I’d never seen her work until a friend of mine rhapsodized about her in a book. I’ve been trying to catch up ever since, but at 88 she’s still ahead of me: I’ve never seen a better Varda film than this one, my favorite flick of the whole festival. Her collaborative partner is the photographic artist JR, who specializes in black-and-white portraits blown up to gargantuan proportions which his crew then pastes onto large surfaces, usually but not always the sides of buildings. Varda and JR tool around rural France to meet villagers and leave them one of JR’s titanic souvenirs. In Varda style, the duo thus celebrate the culture and tradition of the undercelebrated: miners, a farmer, a postman, factory workers, a waitress in a cafe, the wives of dockworkers, a soon-to-be-abandoned village, and so forth. Some of the images are so spectacular that they take your breath away — the wives in particular form a miraculous high point at the unveiling of their installation. While all this is going on, Varda and JR constitute a winsome comedy team: he’s quick and glib, she’s pixielike and game. Toward the end, Varda herself is captured in a heart-tugging verite moment that nobody expected, but it only serves to make the project feel more truthful. It’s a love letter to cinema, the power of art, and the people who make up the backbone of society, all of them fascinating even before they’re turned into colossi. There’s a goofy smile on your face as the credits roll. I can’t recommend it strongly enough.

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THE FLORIDA PROJECT**** (U.S. Premiere) Another strange place, this one much closer to home. It’s a rundown weekly-rate motel in the literal shadow of Disney World (“the Florida project” was what Walt called the park in the earliest stage), where three six-year-olds shriek and romp in glorious abandon while the adults in their lives doggedly scrounge to pay the rent. The notion that Americans next to the poverty line can possibly be living so close to affluent vacationers — near enough to lie back on the grass and watch the Disney fireworks every night — is maddening because there’s no easy solution. The kids, led by spitfire pheenom Brooklynn Prince, are heartbreaking and exhilarating in their ability to adapt, but this is definitely not for kids to watch: it’s gritty and profane. Newcomer Bria Vinaite plays Prince’s 20-year-old mom, who up-sells wholesale perfumes to the well-heeled worthies at nicer hotels just down the street. The wrenching balance between kids’-eye euphoria and adult desperation is what makes Sean Baker’s film special. Willem Dafoe, in a subtly effective turn as the motel manager, keeps us anchored, as much as his character can.

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Leon Vitali in BARRY LYNDON…

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…and today.

FILMWORKER**** Stanley Kubrick is my favorite film director, so any documentary with some insight into his process has automatically sold at least one ticket. Leon Vitali had a thriving acting career in England when Kubrick cast him as “Lord Bullingdon” in BARRY LYNDON. Leon still has an actor’s sonorous tone and cadence: compare his furious music-recital speech in BARRY LYNDON with the calmly menacing “Red Cloak” in EYES WIDE SHUT; that’s what he sounds like today. He had been profoundly moved by Kubrick’s 2001 and A CLOCKWORK ORANGE and was walking on air when his hero hired him. So just after BARRY LYNDON wrapped, Leon began to school himself on film editing and other below-the-line tasks, expressly to offer his production services to Kubrick as he was prepping THE SHINING. They went on to work together for the rest of the director’s’s life. To call Leon an “assistant” was to diminish his vital role: no mere “assistant” could color-correct Kubrick’s final film or supervise digital transfers of the entire library. Leon became lieutenant, right-hand man, factotum on 24-hour call to a mercurial obsessive, all at great physical and psychological cost. This film documents that unique relationship using archival footage and new interviews. It strives to help us understand why a talented and successful actor would forsake a fine potential career to become an anonymous “filmworker” (that’s the term he used on application forms requiring his profession). Besides Leon himself, we hear from Kubrick performers including Ryan O’Neal, Matthew Modine, the all-grown-up Danny Lloyd of THE SHINING, and FULL METAL JACKET’s drill instructor, R. Lee Ermey. These actors rhapsodize not about Stanley, but about Leon. Kubrick made him responsible for prepping a real-life Marine D.I. for the shoot, and Ermey tells us that he might have done only a third as well if not for Leon. Lloyd took to him instantly and Leon became the tyke’s best friend on set, crucially easing for Kubrick the burden of directing a child. On and on, Leon was utterly devoted to the maestro, who was so intensely focused that he could omit niceties and coldly command one’s life. We also hear from Leon’s siblings, friends, three somewhat rueful children, and a few talking heads from longtime studio partner Warner Bros., who were regularly tormented by Stanley and Leon’s fanatical insistence on perfection. I hope this overdue report — heartwarming in its own rugged way — will help set the record straight and rescue one filmworker from undeserved obscurity. Before the screening Mr. Vitali was greeting friends in the lobby, so I walked up and thanked him for what he’d done all those years. In shaking his hand I felt, however obliquely, connected to Kubrick. But as the film then rolled, I found out I’d only had a tiny inkling. After seeing this earnest, revelatory movie, I realized that the real honor had been meeting Leon Vitali.

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LET THE SUNSHINE IN*** (North American Premiere) Like Huppert, Julliette Binoche has matured so gracefully that she still commands rapt attention. Her prodigious onscreen charisma is essential to this small story of a middle-aged woman’s search for romantic love. She careers almost randomly from man to man, and the audience becomes so bought in that we start auditioning prospects in our heads: get rid of the bum; this guy looks promising. Each relationship is fraught with its own limitations, but somehow the film retains a sly sense of humor. A famous actor shows up in the final moments as an inscrutable fortune-teller and gets laughs with an amusingly transparent monologue.

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WONDERSTRUCK***** (Festival Centerpiece) The second adaptation of a Brian Selznick illustrated book (after Martin Scorsese’s HUGO), this is a wonderfully imaginative story that alternates between two timelines to achieve a satisfying dramatic unity. In 1977 a lightning strike renders a preteen Minnesota boy deaf, and he makes his way to New York in search of the father he’s never known. Meanwhile — or, to be precise, fifty years earlier — a deaf little girl in Hoboken goes to the city to meet a celebrated actress. Director Todd Haynes’s meticulous replication of 1950s New York was a highlight of his previous CAROL, and here he vividly depicts not one but two other historical periods, allowing us to ponder how much of the city’s culture endured over that half century. The two story strands eventually merge, brought together by Julianne Moore’s lovely dual role. Much if not most of the movie is free of dialogue, reflecting the experience of the two young leads. Our screening included subtitles for the hearing-impaired, who were so well represented that an ASL signer was on stage for the pre-show introductions. I don’t know whether that was just for us or for general release, but not only didn’t the titles distract, they forced each of us to imagine living in a world without sound. This one is for all ages, but don’t let that scare you away. It’s smart, it’s pretty, it’s original, it doesn’t pander or condescend, and Haynes gets your approbation the old-fashioned way: he earns it.

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LADY BIRD*** The directorial debut of Greta Gerwig, who says her script was inspired by incidents in her own life. Saoirse Ronan plays a free-spirited, Gerwigian high-schooler who longs to escape the one-horse town (to her) that is Sacramento. She’s even invented a sullen bohemian persona for herself and insists that everybody call her not Christine, but “Lady Bird.” Laurie Metcalf and Tracy Letts are the long-suffering parents who contribute to her long suffering. There are a few tropes too familiar to the coming-of-age genre, or maybe just to late adolescence in real life. But the screenplay bounces along from humor to pathos and back again, Ronan kills as the daffy/heartful heroine, and Gerwig displays quite the steady hand behind the camera. I’ll definitely be there for her next one. Nothing more than a trifle, but a charming one indeed.

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BPM (Beats Per Minute)**** (U.S. Premiere) One reason I enjoy film festivals is the blank screen: I usually have no idea what to expect as the lights go down. To preserve my blissful ignorance I read as little as possible beforehand, only speed-skim what’s necessary to make choices. So when I sat down I presumed this to be a documentary about ACT UP Paris at the height of the AIDS crisis, and that’s exactly what it plays like. But gradually I caught on. There were impossibly too many cameras in the ACT UP war room, right into too many members’ snoots as they made comments. Moments that might be too intimate even for a doc were focused and framed just right. These are actors, an ensemble which stuns in its evocation of life with HIV — most ACT UP members were and are “pos” — as the rest of the world seems blasé if not downright oblivious. Director/writer Robin Campillo does a magnificent job of bringing us ever closer to the individual radical activists, especially the sad-eyed Nahuel Perez Biscayart as Sean, pulled through the disease’s grim stages as we watch helplessly. The film is not without scenes of joy, but its meat is the courage and inventiveness of a group that will not be silenced, for as their motto attests, that equals death. Some people talk a good game, especially many Americans these days, but this is what real resistance looks like. France’s submission for the foreign language Academy Award.

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THE RIDER**** Here’s another one which feels utterly real, but for a different reason. It’s about a South Dakota horse trainer and bronc rider on the rural rodeo circuit who suffers a head injury that threatens the career in which he excels. He is played by Brady Jandreau and the film’s story is inspired by his own life (the actual incident is shown: there’s no way a stunt player could have pulled it off). Brady has never acted before, and neither have the other principals, but they’re playing characters very close to themselves, so we get to see what hand-to-mouth rodeoing is really like. You utterly trust everybody, because they’re the real thing. In one scene, Brady becomes the first human being ever to get on the back of one particularly unruly horse. We witness his patience and respect as he takes incremental steps to earn the wild horse’s trust before our very eyes. You can’t fake that. The director is Chloe Zhao, a Beijing native who went to Mount Holyoke and NYU; in other words, she ain’t exactly from big-sky country. But she displays the strength and heart to present this lifestyle as naturally as a movie can — never do we detect anyone in the amateur but authentic cast “reciting lines.” It’s an amazement, an emotional visit into a foreign land most of us have never seen before.

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WONDER WHEEL*** (World Premiere, Festival Closing Night) The timing of Woody Allen’s latest premiere probably wasn’t super-terrific, what with Harvey Weinstein and all. But this has nothing to do with sexual predation and everything to do with New York — specifically, bustling Coney Island in the Fifties, its heyday beautifully recreated by what must have been an army of CGI artists. There’s a love triangle (studly lifeguard and fourth-wall-busting narrator Justin Timberlake, frustrated middle-ager Kate Winslet, and her nubile stepdaughter Juno Temple) along with Winslet’s carousel-operator husband (Jim Belushi, in a role that James Gandolfini might have played in a parallel universe). The ingenue has come back to Coney and her estranged father after an unauthorized escape from her mobster husband, who has sent out two goombahs as a search party (both actors are SOPRANOS veterans, just so you’ll understand). Thus there are many narrative shoes which threaten to drop, and several do. Some folks don’t know what to make of the Woodman’s work these days. He’s back in New York after a multi-year sojourn in Europe, but he’s not making comedies any more — I mean, there’s definitely laughter here, but that’s no longer the point. He’s always flattered his female actors, and true to form, this movie absolutely belongs to Winslet. You can enjoy visiting a bygone era, as with WONDERSTRUCK (hey, what’s with all the “Wonder” this year? Maybe it’s that there Woman’s fault), and the other three leads really work hard, but in the end there’s not much that sticks to the ribs. By now the Woody Allen film has become a genre unto itself. So this is a pleasantly made picture which doesn’t rise above its genre.

WISH I’D SEEN: LAST FLAG FLYING, PANDORA’S BOX (on the big screen; check it out for the most knowingly seductive silent siren ever filmed), THE SQUARE, TROUBLE NO MORE, THELMA

ALREADY SAW: MUDBOUND***

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I, The Juror

July 19, 2017

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I just spent a month serving as Juror No. 3 in a murder trial. I don’t care to give you the details, though some New Yorkers might be able to suss them out when I tell you we reached our verdict this past Monday morning.

What I want to talk about instead was the jury-room dynamic, that tension which Reginald Rose so searingly dramatized in 12 ANGRY MEN. We never descended into Rose’s near-feral warring factions, but there was definitely an added burden which we all felt — for while some of us had done jury duty before, this was the first homicide case for everybody.

Years ago I served on a narcotics grand jury, where our job was mainly to rubber-stamp crack purchases by undercover cops. In a month of half-days, covering about a hundred cases, we only refused to indict three or four times. All we had to answer was, is there enough evidence to justify going to trial? The resolution in court would be somebody else’s problem.

I was also on the jury for another criminal trial, in which the defendant used a knife but nobody died. It was my introduction to an uncomfortable position: the law can be black and white on such matters, and whether or not you agree with a statute or think it’s fair in any individual case is beside the point. After some discussion and even some tears, we found the defendant guilty because we had to. We empathized with him but we couldn’t get around the fact that the law clearly says if you do this, you’re guilty of a crime. And we were only condemning the defendant to a minor jail term: it’s a great relief that the actual sentencing is done by the judge later.

This case in June and July was different. There were four counts in descending order of gravity, the most serious being second degree murder. It was similar to my previous criminal case in that this defendant also freely admitted his actions. The nuances surrounding the death he caused formed the core of the trial. The one legal aspect each of the four charges shared was “justification,” more commonly known as “self-defense.” The prosecution was required to prove that he had not been justified, had not acted to protect himself under the law. Those black-and-white statutes couldn’t help us, no matter how many times they were re-read to us by the judge. This was about the finer points of the law, which couldn’t be applied in this case without a collective judgment call.

The testimony took three weeks. We listened to about thirty witnesses, including the defendant, heard opening statements and summations, then handed in our cell phones and sat in a small conference room. For the next four days we hashed it out, pausing only for deli lunches brought in by the court. Four counts, guilty or not guilty, each verdict had to be unanimous.

Since all four counts included justification, we took our first vote on that issue. If we all agreed that the defendant was justified — or, more precisely, that the prosecution had failed to prove he was not — then case closed, not guilty on all counts. Our first vote as a jury was split. We were going to have to talk it over.

I know that there’s a science to jury selection, some lawyers are better at it than others, and on a big case like Cosby or O.J. they even hire consultants to help them. (Read John Grisham’s THE RUNAWAY JURY for an almost satirical look at this process.) But it’s utterly beyond me. The twelve of us — there were also four alternates and one of them had to join the jury proper after a family death — were racially, ethnically and psychologically diverse: I couldn’t discern any rhyme or reason. But I will say this. Every single one of them was trying their best to do the right thing. I heard cogent arguments from a couple of people who I’d thought hadn’t been paying attention in court. I was mistaken. One juror was a university professor whose default mode was to treat us like students, so frequently came off as patronizing. Another one liked to draw diagrams, and changed my own mind with one. One tended to talk in platitudes that seemed irrelevant, then something important would dart in.

The thing 12 ANGRY MEN got right was that a jury is a hive mind. Nobody remembers everything, but twelve people together can come damn close. Little bits of evidence were bandied back and forth until we had competing views on a series of events and were able to say, it could have happened this way, but this other way is more probable. By definition the process isn’t simple. If this had been an easily decided open-and-shut case it would never have gone all the way to trial: the defendant would have copped a plea or they’d have let him go. It was relentlessly tough to slice, dice, and true up slightly divergent testimony from various witnesses.

In fact, sometimes I felt overwhelmed by the responsibility over a man’s life, and I’m sure I wasn’t alone. How could I possibly get to a place where I could mete out justice fairly? We were missing critical first-hand documentation, as juries so often are, and had to fill in blanks ourselves. At one point eleven of us were of one view, against one lone holdout; I thought immediately of Henry Fonda in 12 ANGRY MEN. The pressure was so great on the twelfth juror at that major impasse, the doubt so profound, that we all had to step back and consciously let the person breathe. This wasn’t a Reginald Rose drama. This was real life.

Then, one night as I was trying to drift off to sleep, I came to my senses. I wasn’t lacking any information. I had all the evidence I needed. It wasn’t my job to reconstruct the incident like a detective. All I was being asked to do was to judge whether the prosecution had proven its case in open court. This I could get my head around. After some more ups and downs, more backs and forths, and more soggy deli sandwiches, we made up our collective mind.

Many people think jury duty is a drag, but I’m glad I spent that month in court. Because of the nature of the case, I learned a lot about how certain New York City institutions really work (and if you’re paranoid, you should probably remain blissfully ignorant). For me the experience was grueling, yes, but ultimately positive. It has frankly made me feel a lot better about human beings, and boy, do I need that right about now.


Et Tu, Delta?

June 18, 2017

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Outre settings for otherwise respectfully mounted Shakespeare productions are nothing new, and not just since the Royal Shakespeare Company started dressing Montagues and Capulets in biker leather. The very presence of female actors is a departure from any performance the Bard saw in his own lifetime — so much so that it took some getting used to when Shakespeare’s Globe brought its all-male TWELFTH NIGHT/RICHARD III company to Broadway four years ago. Nazis, cowboys, wartime grunts — they’ve all served as exotic backdrops to Shakespeare, the intention being to make the words shine at different angles as we twist the prism. Some inevitable day Romeo and Juliet will both be robots, if it hasn’t happened already.

The seeking and wielding of power hasn’t changed all that much in the four centuries since JULIUS CAESAR (1599) was written. It shows us authority stretched to the point of monomania; then an affronted, violent reaction to this perceived threat to the republic; and finally the utter disaster that befalls the polity after the ultimate defacing of democracy, the replacement of discourse with murder. There’s nothing particularly historical about these forces. They’re with us today and will be here long after we’re gone.

So JULIUS CAESAR’s examination of power and ill-advised redress is particularly suited to a contemporary setting. Hell, any setting. The latest effort finishes its outdoor run on schedule tonight at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park as part of the Public Theater’s Free Shakespeare In The Park program. It’s a great production, but it leaves a wake of unwanted notoriety. For this Caesar, as played by Gregg Henry, looks and acts a lot like Donald Trump.

caesar.jpgThere’s nothing coy about the portrayal. Absurd blond wig, blue suit a tad too small, necktie a tad too long, relentlessly working the real audience as he enters. (Off mike, he bragged near us, “Biggest crowd in the history of the theater!”) There’s no question who this Caesar is supposed to suggest. Tina Benko’s slinky Calpurnia even speaks with a Slavic accent.

It’s remarkable how time can actually transmute Shakespeare’s lines. For example, when Caesar first appears amid an adoring throng and senses the presence of the Soothsayer, he asks, “Who is it in the press that calls on me?” “The press” as written meant “the crowd,” but the Trumpworld audience hears, “the failing MSM.” When Brutus’s boy Lucius brings news of a “post,” he hands his master a smartphone and we understand instantly. These are all Shakespeare’s words (edited way down to an intermissionless 2:02 by Oskar Eustis, the play’s director and the Public’s artistic director) but three new ones come at a critical point. When Casca marvels at the blind loyalty of the Great Man’s fans, the line reads, “If Caesar had stabbed their mothers, they would have done no less.” Eustis adds, just before the comma, “on Fifth Avenue.” Screams.

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Of course, anyone who has ever seen, read or heard JULIUS CAESAR, or knows the slightest thing about the historical personage, is well aware that his enemies in the Senate were so devoted to the Roman republic and its traditions that the threat of imperium drove them to assassination. Caesar was offered a crown and made to refuse it thrice, but we and they can tell it’d feel good on his head: it’s only a matter of time. On the Ides of March they strike, stabbing the triumphant warrior to death before our eyes.

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Here is where America’s deep polarization rears its ugly head. Again, anyone familiar with the material is keenly aware that seeking change by doing violence becomes the downfall of each and every conspirator — in fact, that is the very point of the play. But pause for a second to consider Trump’s devoted base of supporters. They are greatly rural, greatly uneducated (“I love the uneducated!” Trump gushed on the campaign trail), and distrustful of “elites” in cities and college towns. Most of them have never seen, read, or heard JULIUS CAESAR. All they have to go on comes from professional shit disturbers who tell them that up in fancy-schmantzy New York, some guy dresses up like Trump, then a bunch of senators stab him to death onstage while the audience just sits there and watches. And that’s all true. The real shame should fall on the cynical pitchfork salesmen who deliberately withhold any context from the infomasses and not only ought to, but in fact do know better.

There’s a lot to love in Eustis’s dynamic, immersive staging. The cast are all around you — it’s far and away the most exciting CAESAR I’ve ever seen. Marc Antony is searingly played by Elizabeth Marvel and is referred to as “she” throughout. Her feverish funeral oration, delivered with a slight Southern-senator twang, so rouses the 1800-member audience that we want to pick up weapons ourselves. The energy and drive is contagious: it becomes a spectacle when the dark consequences of the assassination roll in. At times there is a literal crowd on stage, all the stagehands and extras Eustis could find. The theater erupts with passion. By now the Trump references are basically subsumed: for an hour, he’s only been a stiff under a sheet, or a ghost with no snark or irony at all.

To know all this about the production, however, you have to have actually seen it.

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I don’t get my news from cable tv channels, but from what Trump calls “failing” and “fake” media instead. The only time I normally see these shows is in clips on Colbert or THE DAILY SHOW. I’d never witnessed the full-time 24/7 cacophony until the James Comey testimony, but it’s almost too much to take in, whether you’re watching MSNBC, CNN or Fox. Rachel Maddow in particular goes so fast that I can’t parse everything she says and still receive the sliding, ticking Chyron information crammed onto the rest of the screen. On the right there’s remarkable teamwork and cooperation: interchangeable Fox News hosts tag out once an hour, but the story of the day (in this instance, “Comey is a liar and a traitor”) is so similar that through repetition it looks like Americans of all colors and genders agree! The barrage goes on afterburners once a partisan meme begins (“the War on Christmas”), and this is what happened to the Public.

The “murder” of “Trump” drove some people batshit. Not only do cable hosts matter but now individuals do too, because social media give them their own megaphones. Somebody recorded the assassination scene with a smartphone (you’re supposed to turn them off, lady!) and posted it. The usual suspects began howling, and before long censure of the Public and this production gained traction. Delta Air Lines and Bank of America both actually pulled their funding for the Free Shakespeare in The Park program (I can’t tell whether they removed all Public Theater donation). Oh, by the way: the word “public” usually means “funded by taxpayer dollars,” but not in this case. Humiliatingly, the National Endowment for the Arts felt obliged to disclaim that none of its money was used to subsidize JULIUS CAESAR.

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Outside the theater on Friday, before the show, Trumpies…

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…and the opposition.

The icing on the cake came last Friday, the night I saw the show. There were dueling groups of protesters outside the theater beforehand; that appeared to be a ho-hum everyday event. But during the show, just after the murder, a woman ran on stage and began ranting about normalizing attacks on the right while an accomplice stood in the audience to record her on video and shouted, “you’re all Goebbels!” (Huh? I still don’t get it.) The production paused for less than two minutes, actors still on stage, while the trolls were peaceably removed through a loud ovation. Then came a spot of serendipity. The stage manager announced “Actors, please pick it up at [Cinna’s line] ‘Liberty! Freedom!’” This was too much: the audience leapt to its feet with a roar as the players regrouped to carry on. The woman continued to shriek way off in the distance for ten minutes or so, but she was wasting her breath. (P.S.: Joyce Carol Oates knows. She was there too.) The screamer turned out to be a pal of James O’Keefe, the little dweeb who tried and failed to sting Planned Parenthood (and, a few months after this show, the Washington Post: he has to be the hands-down worst stinger in the world!), escorted by a guy who enjoys spreading nutty conspiracy theories, including Pizzagate. So much for spontaneity.

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Onstage, pre-show, audience members pour out their hearts onto a “Roman bill.” A matching one is at stage right, reading I HOPE FOR.

Please don’t feign patriotic offense at this production. I know this has nothing to do with respect for the office of the president. The reason I know is simple: this same play was staged back in 2012 by the Acting Company, using an Obama-like Caesar. He was stabbed to death on stage too, and nobody said doodly. What we have here is pure Act I, scene ii Caesar worship.

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Oskar Eustis.

Backstage just before the show, Oskar Eustis addressed a group of Public Theater donors and told them the challenge was theirs and his: to find ways to reach out to another America that not only has divergent views, but often finds no reason to even acknowledge the necessity of art to a healthy public life. I agree that if the choices are mutually exclusive, feeding children is more important than funding playhouses, but they don’t have to negate each other. The answers aren’t simple, but the Public is taking some concrete steps. It has already funded a bare-bones mobile production of Lynn Nottage’s empathetic Pulitzer Prize-winning SWEAT which it will take into coal and factory country, where the play is set. Maybe someone who sees it will receive the warmth of recognition that great art can provide: You are not alone. You are not forgotten. Now let’s make things better together. I believe that’s what many are really craving when they desperately cling to someone like Donald Trump.

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Two sheets tipped into the program after the shitstorm erupted.

Though the controversy may have affected the Public, rest assured it’s only a flesh wound. America’s greatest nonprofit theater will replace the lost private-sector donations and steam forward at full speed, but they’ll have to put forth some extra effort to do it. Meanwhile, off go my letters of censure to Delta (reminding them that, as they always say, they realize I have a choice when I travel) and BOA, just so they’ll know not all protesters think they did the right thing. And let’s at least thank goodness for an unusual and welcome side effect: for a few moments in the late spring of 2017, Shakespeare and the theater itself were as relevant as anything can possibly be.

7/3/17: In response to my letter of complaint to Delta Air Lines, I received the following email today: “Thank you for writing to let us know how you feel. No matter what your political stance may be, the graphic staging of Julius Caesar at this summer’s Free Shakespeare in the Park does not reflect Delta Air Lines’ values. Their artistic and creative direction crossed the line on the standards of good taste. We are sorry if our decision disappoints you. Thank you for your feedback. Regards, Ms. Rolfe.” I think Delta brass might be trying to officially pin this on the “gore” factor, not the actual one. But Shakespeare is way ahead of them. For example, Titus Andronicus serves up his own children in a fucking pie, and no corporate sponsors have ever said boo about that. The airline doth protest too much, methinks.


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