Archive for the 'Stage and Screen Recommendations' Category

01 August

These are a few of my favorite…

Bruce Norris’ play A PARALLELOGRAM, which is playing through August at the Taper, contains many of my favorite things: time travel, birds, and Mary Louise Burke.

Time travel: I’m a sucker for the idea that we can and do and will be able to surf the zones. Soon.

Birds: Who doesn’t love a beautiful bird? The British poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, in his poem the “Windhover” said it best: “My heart, in hiding/Stirred for a bird/The achieve of, the mastery of the thing!”

Mary Louise Burke: is an old timey and deeply delightful NY stage actress. As a stage presence she has both gravity and grace.

The play is getting “mixed” reviews, which is what prompted me to write this, to let our MPW community know that the play is worth seeing.  I almost missed the gorgeous/subtle production of Nina Raines’ TRIBES – I saw the penultimate performance—  so I couldn’t get the word out and many people missed it.

But this one? Don’t miss this one. Even if it sort of annoys you (as it did my two companions) or if it completely delights you (as it did me)—it contains not only Time Travel, Birds, and Mary Louise Burke—it contains IDEAS about fate, Karma, agency, mental illness, relationships, love, and what language is good for—almost anything it turns out.  And it reminded me of this subtly profound Ashbery poem:

At North Farm

Somewhere someone is traveling furiously toward you,
At incredible speed, traveling day and night,
Through blizzards and desert heat, across torrents, through narrow passes.
But will he know where to find you,
Recognize you when he sees you,
Give you the thing he has for you?

Hardly anything grows here,
Yet the granaries are bursting with meal,
The sacks of meal piled to the rafters.
The streams run with sweetness, fattening fish;
Birds darken the sky. Is it enough
That the dish of milk is set out at night,
That we think of him sometimes,
Sometimes and always, with mixed feelings?

Click here for info on tickets.


Here are M.G. Lord’s thoughts on the play, as posted on her FB page:

I loved Bruce Norris' A PARALLELOGRAM at the Taper. It might be about a woman losing her mind. But I prefer to see it as about a woman realizing the shortcomings of the human race and how much better life might be after an apocalyptic event that wiped out most of humanity. Of course, I am not an entirely reliable source: I cheer for the Cylons in BATTLESTAR GALACTICA.

04 July

At the movies…

I was—I still am—an A.O. Scott fan. Though I wondered, when I read his review of Terence Malick’s The Tree of Life, if it were true (as I’d heard somewhere) that he has small children at home, and that being so, if perhaps he wasn’t getting enough sleep. In the end, I had to acknowledge he wasn’t alone in loving the film—other critics raved, too, didn’t they? And didn’t the movie win all kinds of awards? It did. Still, I was relieved when a friend remarked after seeing it, “It’s not a film, it’s a screensaver.” Whew, I thought, I’m not crazy. Maddening, I thought, and I laughed out loud. But later, and the more I considered, I wasn’t just maddened, I was mad. Yes, The Tree of Life was pretty, and Brad Pitt was pretty good in an unsympathetic role—but Malick was preaching at me, or that’s how it felt anyway; as if I were hostage not just to a story, but to a writer/director’s manifesto about the meaning of the universe—and love, and death—most of which seemed not only trite to me, and simplistic, but religiously skewed besides.

Now comes along Beasts of the Southern Wild—and another A. O. Scott review, in which he cites the movie’s “evident kinship” with The Tree of Life, and apparently he loved it just as much, which bolsters my faltering faith, since I loved it, too. What’s more he’s right, Scott is: those big themes, having to do with the meaning of life, and how to live in the face of insupportable loss, are at the heart of both movies, on top of which the filmmakers have come to similar conclusions about the nature of our puniness on the planet, and our capacity to love and persevere under the circumstances. So why do I celebrate one film and not the other?

Here’s what Scott said way back when: “Do all the parts of The Tree of Life cohere? Does it all make sense? I can’t say that it does. I suspect, though, that sometime between now and Judgment Day it will.”

Hmmpf. Not all of Beasts of the Southern Wild coheres and makes sense, either. The thing is, though, I’m pretty sure it’s not supposed to. Its mystery and magic is true to the sensibility of its heroine, a six-year-old girl called Hushpuppy who is age-appropriately literal and aroused to the miracle of life all around her. And this specificity of intention on the part of writer Lucy Alibar and director Benh Zeitlin, goes to where and how the one movie succeeds, and, in my estimation, the other one doesn’t. The Tree of Life is the “oeuvre” of a middle-aged man, Malick, who spent many, many millions of dollars to treat us to many, many minutes of what feels like personal revelation, in which he waxes on, self-indulgently in my view, about what he thinks about the nature of the human condition. Moreover, he presents his epiphany as gospel: This is not only a story of one family (partially autobiographical so we’ve been told), but a history of the universe that cannot sustain the courage of its original convictions. Yes, it’s true, as Malick illustrates with a supporting cast of dinosaurs: we humans turn out to be almost insignificant in terms of the grand continuum. Even so, he would have us accept that there is a God and he/she/it has a plan: We can look forward not only to life after death, but to heaven! Where we will be reunited on an ocean beach with the ones we love. Bosh, I say, not because I don’t buy it (though I don’t), but because the filmmaker has imposed his beliefs on me—tied his two plus hours of philosophical meandering up in a bow, as if it were that easy. Beasts on the other hand (on a shoestring, by the way, with a cast of unknowns, and in 90 minutes time) shows us the world through the eyes of one little girl and let’s us come to our own conclusions. The story is so particular as to allow us to fall in love with the characters—so specific as to touch the universal nerve. Director Zeitlin isn’t asking me to sign on or sign up—only to believe in his heroine; only to believe she believes. No happy ending for Hushpuppy—no heaven; just her conviction—her insistence!—that her tale is important enough to tell and to remember.

So why compare the two. Aren’t they apples and oranges. Well, yes, they are, but here’s why comparison is a worthy enterprise—maybe even a cautionary tale, you tell me. Not so long ago, somebody asked if I write with a theme—or multiple themes—in mind. And the answer? When I do, I get myself in trouble. But when I don’t, when I try instead to get it right—the situation, the players, the relationships—themes tend to naturally emerge. And those themes, if they make themselves known, are for second and third and umpteenth drafts. Even then, I have to be careful—I have to give my readers credit for being as smart or smarter than I. See Terence Malick hit me with themes—bludgeoned me in the name of deep thinking and spirituality, and consequently distracted me from the story at hand, which, if he’d told it true, if he’d been willing to give me any credit for my own ability to think and feel, might have delivered those ideas all by itself. Instead, bewildered and impatient as I became in the course of over two hours, I lost interest in his characters. I didn’t care; I didn’t cry; I couldn’t wait to get out of the theatre. Benh Zeitlin, however, told me a story so singular as to make me weep for people with whom I have nothing—and everything it turns out—in common. For though I’m not six years old, though I don’t live in poverty, though my world isn’t falling apart, I identify with Hushpuppy: What choice do I have? What choice have any of us, whatever our experience, whatever our faith, but to believe in ourselves and each other, and to carry on accordingly?

So listen: Rent The Tree of Life or don’t. No skin off my nose or Malick’s either, right? Meanwhile, so much in the offing in the theaters this summer: There’s Bernie (terrific), and The Amazing Spiderman (not high on my list), and People Like Us (high on my list!), and Ted (a maybe), and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (I’ll skip it, I think). And there’s Beasts of the Southern Wild, wow. If you happen to see it—and I hope you do—I’d love to know what you think…

20 January

The Artist…

Here’s what’s predictable about The Artist:

The plot
The characters
The romance
The Jack Russell and
(spoiler alert)
The revolver

Sorry about that, but you’d have guessed on your own—you would have—the whole delightful movie is entirely predictable. And yet. It’s also surprising. Profound. Not just entertaining—though, no doubt, it aims to entertain. But The Artist—a film about the end of silent films (all day long I’ve been trying to come up with an equivalent—I can’t believe it’s not butter! I can’t believe they’re not talking!—and coming up short)—has bigger points to make about genre, form, voice, and art.

So how does it work? It’s simple, really. The actors—James Cromwell, Penelope Ann Miller, John Goodman, Bérénice Bejo, Jean Dujardin (and his little dog, too)—play the story for truth; carry on, in short, as if they can hear each other (never mind us) and therefore deliver performances that are wonderfully authentic. And the upshot? We can only conclude that form—which evidently liberates even as it constrains— serves art, and not the other way around. Plot and effects and genre be hanged—aim to tell the truth as you understand it, with conviction, and your story will hit its mark.

As if that weren’t enough to think about, and admire, the viewer leaves the theatre with still more to consider: What’s the difference between a cliché and an archetype? Can an artist pay homage, and deliver something that feels wholly original in the bargain? How to touch the universal nerve? The answer in each case has to do with full-on commitment and attention to detail. The Artist is a story about making art—a silent movie about one man’s struggle to find his voice! Isn’t that a gorgeous irony?—and will somebody please help me come up with a clever equivalent? Something better than I can’t believe it’s not butter, sugar, magic…

10 January

The Four Movie Posters on My Living Room Walls

In lieu of “real” art, movie posters are featured on the walls of my living room. (My ceilings aren’t high enough for James Ensor’s “Christ’s Entry into Brussels in 1889″; plus, wouldn’t it take like a million dollars to buy that piece from the Getty?) The posters represent films that have impacted me greatly as a viewer and/or as writer. I’ve seen them multiple times, so they’re highly recommended. To you. Yes, you.

The Band’s Visit (2007). Whenever I stumble across an absolutely pitch-perfect, flawless comedy like The Band’s Visit, it makes me want to hunt down anyone who’s every made a crappy film that’s supposed to be funny and yell, “You are an idiot for thinking you know how to make movies!” And then I want to track down all the actors in those movies and scream, “You are an insult to humanity for thinking you’re funny!”

The many awards that The Band’s Visit has won at festivals around the world (including at Cannes) don’t even come close to doing justice to this small film about an Egyptian police band that ends up stranded in the wrong town when they go to Israel to play a concert at an Arab Cultural Center. While it may seem that the film is a political one (indeed, it was banned in Egypt because the Egyptians and Israelis in the movie effortlessly commingle), The Band’s Visit is primarily about everyday people and their longing for love and connection.

If you want to be an actor, it would behoove you to study the droll and wry perfection and comic timing by every single person in this movie, from the leads right down to the last supporting character. And if you want to be a filmmaker, go out on a quest to find writer/director Eran Kolirin (who spent nine years writing the script) and beg him to teach you everything he knows not only about cinema but about life.

Aside from the laughs, The Band’s Visit is chock full of deeply moving characters, scenes, and metaphors that in and of themselves are remarkable acts of transcendence.

The trailer doesn’t quite capture the hysterically funny and sometimes sad heart of the movie, but it will have to do:

The Fall (2006). It’s not an exaggeration to say that The Fall generously offers some of the most original, arresting, and rapturous images ever committed to film. Director Tarsem’s labor of love—it took four years to make in 18 different countries, in between commercial-directing gigs—tells the epic tale of five mythical, mismatched, anachronistic heroes who travel stunning landscapes and get into fantastical scrapes in order to seek revenge upon the evil Governor Odious.

Those who dismiss the movie see it as over- and self-indulgent, obsessively embracing style over substance. But those who love it see substance dripping off every shot of this beautiful and deeply affecting film.

The adventure is framed by the smaller story of an American stuntman (terrifically played by Pushing Daisies’ Lee Pace) and a Romanian girl (the amazing Catinca Untaru) in a 1920s Los Angeles hospital and their tender friendship—he’s the one who spins her this epic yarn, and, in exchange, she sneaks him drugs he’s not supposed to have.

One broken man’s redemption through the love a child is moving and gratifying, sure, but Tarsem (working with co-writers Dan Gilroy and Nico Soultanakis) is getting at something more—an intriguing statement about the art of storytelling (for Tarsem, more specifically, it’s about the art of cinema), about the symbiotic relationship between artists and audiences, about artistic ownership, and about how imagination can be more transformative and necessary than truth.

In an age when fake memoirs are the greatest literary controversies of our time, The Fall shuns simplistic questions such as, “Is this story true?” The more apt question, the more timeless question, is, “What is truth?” The Fall is smart enough to ask that question. And it’s even smarter to suggest that coming up with an answer is a shared task—between the movie and you.

Love Songs (Les chansons d’amour) (2007). Although Love Songs is shot on location in Paris (with “extras” in the background who turn to the camera because they don’t even know they’re in the movie) and although it often displays a documentary aesthetic, the film veers far away from the kind of realism you’d expect, instead opting for an alternate French reality in which characters—entangled in straight, bisexual, and gay love affairs, without the burden of those pesky labels—wear their hearts on their sleeves by expressing exactly how they feel through matter-of-fact dialogue and a dozen or so gorgeous, heartfelt pop songs.

Director Christophe Honore and composer Alex Beaupain’s beguiling film is populated by characters who seem emotionally schizophrenic, navigating scenes that wildly shift moods at the drop of a tune. It’s like watching a bipolar musical. And the fact that it doesn’t collapse under the weight of its own naivete and its French New Wave conceits is a wonder. How can a movie mired in melancholy (after all, the entire story hinges on an unexpected tragedy in the first act) also enchant you with its charm, its sense of play, and its thirst for passion? In every way imaginable, Love Songs (which also pays fitting homage, of course, to The Umbrellas of Cherbourg) defies logic—as demonstrated by its audaciously romantic final shot.

Together (2002). Directed and co-written by Chen Kaige (of Farewell My Concubine fame), Together is the unabashedly sentimental but extremely smart and constantly surprising story of a 13-year-old Chinese violin prodigy and his father, trying to make it big in bustling Beijing. It boasts vivid and loving characterizations (you even fall in love with the “villains”), beautiful visuals, layers of meaning (Kaige’s father was a victim of the Cultural Revolution), and an ending that—yes, I’m willing to admit this—made me sob.

Some complained that the movie is overly sentimental, but I think that’s such lazy criticism. The film simply lacks cynicism and possesses a deep and affecting humanity. I remember MPW Director Brighde Mullins once challenging writers to “dare to be sentimental.” It’s an important thing to take into consideration when your aim as an artist is to have some kind of effect on your audience. Remember that there’s a big difference between sentimentality and sloppy manipulation. (But also remember, however, that all art is manipulative.)

16 December

“Avalon”: A Plea for Stories

I was at my neighborhood cocktail lounge last night (everybody should have one!) when a friend of mine brought up Barry Levinson in conversation, which reminded me that one of my favorite film scores of all time is from a Barry Levinson movie.

Randy Newman’s lovely music for Avalon (1990) is heartfelt and elegiac, which also perfectly describes this deft, observant, funny, and ultimately heartbreaking study of three generations of Polish Jews in Baltimore in the early and mid-1900s. (Listen to audio samples of the score here.)

This semi-autobiographical story of immigrants (and children and grandchildren of immigrants), which won Levinson a WGA Award for Best Screenplay, will no doubt hold resonance for anyone who has or who knows someone who has adopted America as his or her new country.

Avalon is a loving portrait of the large Krichinsky clan and its pursuit of the American dream, but that dream comes at a terrible cost. For all its humor and generosity of spirit, the film wants to explore the disintegration of the family, asserts that progress has dark consequences, and blames television of all things for destroying the cohesion that had always been central to the collective identity of the Krichinskys.

Near the end of the film, a character says, “If I knew things would no longer be, I would have tried to remember better.” Avalon is a clarion call for us to remember our roots, a plea for us to make storytelling—to make oral history—an integral part of our lives once again.

(By the way, you can watch the trailer here, where you’ll get a glimpse of two terrific actors on opposite ends of the generational spectrum: Armin Mueller-Stahl and a startlingly young Elijah Wood.)