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Monday, November 30, 2009

Vox Gives a Leno Preview, All's 'Welles' for Richard Linklater, and Much Ado About a Bad Review

Watch Jay Leno on Wednesday night if you can. One of the guests will be Victoria Vox who I caught yesterday evening at the Kennedy Center Millennium Stage. Even though the woman behind me must have gotten some nasty Tiny Tim flashbacks causing her to say, "The ukelele! This is going to be awful," Vox was very entertaining. She strums the uke beautifully and won over the audience as an excellent songwriter and singer. "But wait," she said, "I will not be on Leno for my uke playing. It's for my mouth trumpet." Indeed, Vox plays a mean mouth trumpet. The first time she did it I was looking for the instrument. She's now THE WOMAN in my musical world.

And Richard Linklater is THE MAN in my cinematic book. When Before Sunrise came out in 1995, I felt like someone was finally talking to me. (Okay, it wasn't Julie Delpy, but I did get to interview her last year.) How can you make a movie about two people talking in Vienna all night? With Ethan Hawke and Delpy at their tantalizing best, easy. Now that I've been to Vienna and LOVED it, I need to watch it again. The film ended with an agreement that they would meet up again in six months or so. NINE years later, Linklater filmed the sequel, Before Sunset, in Paris, and he and Delpy garnered an Oscar nomination for their screenplay. So who didn't show? Late Saturday I couldn't sleep and guess what was on? Wrong! The School of Rock, Linklater's rockin' good-time story of a substitute teacher's fantasy class.

Now we get Me and Orson Welles (FIVE RED DOTS) and it's sensational. I saw it at the famous Angelika Theater in New York's Lower East Side on Friday - where that evening Keanu Reaves was doing a Q&A for Rebecca Miller's new film, The Private Lives of Pippa Lee. British actor Christian Mckay plays a dead-on Orson Welles on the eve of his famous Julies Caesar in 1937 at the Mercury Theater. Zac Efron from High School Musical fame shows that not only can he act but he can ACT. He happens upon Welles in front of the theater, wins the part and then learns about life, on-stage and off. The film falls into a category I enjoy when done right: the show within a show, where it all leads to THE ACTUAL performance at the end. The Canadian TV show Slings and Arrows, that you should rent if you haven't seen it, played out each of its three seasons like that: five episodes of mayhem and culture, and then one last episode where they nailed the performance: Hamlet, Macbeth and King Lear. Noises Off showed the personalities in the first act, the backstage chaos in the second, and then what the audience actually saw in the third. Tim Robbins' Cradle Will Rock, also about Orson Welles, succeeded at this as well but this film is better.

James Tupper (Mr. Anne Heche) is also excellent as Joseph Cotten, Eddie Marsden as John Houseman and Zoe Kazan as Gretta, whose "romance" with Efron bookends the film. And Claire Danes gives her finest screen performance as the female lead. Kazan is the granddaughter of On the Waterfront and A Streetcar Named Desire director Elia Kazan. (Kazan also came under hostile criticism for naming names in the Blacklist Era.) Zoe Kazan also appears in Pippa Lee and played in an underrated film from last year, In the Valley of Elah with Tommy Lee Jones.

I saw Much Ado About Nothing at Folger last week and really enjoyed it. Unfortunately, it's over but I was distressed that it received a bad review from Post theater critic Peter Marks. The point is that you should make up your own mind on most stuff. I will help guide you into areas or topics that may appeal to you. Folger's conceit transported Much Ado to Jamaica and I'm not sure that worked. But it did give a chance for some incredible African American actors to show off their Shakespearean flair. That was worth my price of admission (even though I ushered and did not pay - you get the idea).

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Gershwins and Hope Prevail at Library of Congress, Hamlisch and Cage Shine

The Library Congress has a couple amazing exhibits to whet and overwhelm your cultural senses. Here to Stay: The Legacy of George and Ira Gershwin takes up a small room on the first floor of the Thomas Jefferson Building at First and Independence, across from the Coolidge Auditorium.  (By the way, the Coolidge offers free concerts all year but you have to go online for tickets and get them a couple months in advance.) A large piano centers the room, playing classics like "I Got Rhythm," "Someone to Watch Over Me," "Fascinating Rhythm," and "Embraceable You." There are amazing letters including one from George to his mother about a month before he died of a brain tumor in 1937 at age 38. He complains of dizzyness but writes that the doctors don't think it's serious. A video presentation gives us performances from Porgy and Bess ("Summertime"), Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly ("An American in Paris") and others.  I spent about an hour here and could have stayed longer. I walked 20 feet down the hall to a larger exhibit centering on Bob Hope. In this large collection, we get audio and video clips of Bob Hope and other greats of the time. I watched a can-you-top-this musical interlude of Hope and James Cagney. Judy Garland sang on another clip and the Nichloas Brothers danced on another.  This exhibit can be enjoyed for hours. They told me that both of these exhibits are permanent for the time being. Don't forget to walk upstairs! It's an amazing building. There's a large temporary exhibit of Herblock cartoons as well.

Speaking of composers, I saw the Marvin Hamlisch tribute at the Kennedy Center and it lived up to expectations. This is one of the best formats of anything the KenCen does. Interviewed in a one-on-one setting, Hamlisch spoke of how he got his start playing with Broadway composer Jule Styne - recommended by childhood friend Liza Minnelli! That led to his playing for Barbra Streisand's regearsal band which led to his writing The Way We Were. (He explained that process as well.) He also wrote the music to two Woody Allen movies, Take the Money and Run and Bananas; the latter was watched a couple years ago by Steven Soderbergh in his down time filming Che. Soderbergh loved the music and aksed who wrote that because he was making The Informant next and wanted that same playful verve. Don't be surprised if that soundtrack gets nominated for an Oscar this year. Three Broadway performers took turns singing Hamlisch songs, Karen Ziemba (who starred in Contact), the amazing Liz Callaway and up-and-coming Kevin Early. They performed songs from A Chorus Line, They're Playing Our Song and other shows. Next in the series will be a tribute to Guys and Dolls composer and lyricist Frank Loesser in the spring. I'll let you know when tickets go on sale. Oh, and Hamlisch will be conducting the National Symphony Orchestra Pops as they perform the Music of the Music Man Friday and Saturday at the Kennedy Center. Featured vocalists are Mrs. Partridge herself Shirley Jones and Rebecca Luker who I saw as a terrific Marian the Librarian in a Broadway Music Man a few years ago.

I saw Perestroika, the final part of Angels in America, last night at that great Round House space in Silver Spring. It only runs another week so I won't go on much. But it was an incredible effort by the small Forum Theater, especiallyh Jim Jorgensen as Roy Cohn, Alexander Strain as Louis, Karl Miller as Prior Walter and Casie Platt as Harper. It was funny to hear Prior Walter tell his new-friend Hannah Pitt, the mother of his ex-lover's ex-lover: "I've always depended on the kindness of strangers." Kushner grew up in Lake Charles, La., and you can hear the influence of Tennessee Williams and A Streetcar Named Desire in this era-defining work. Let' see if Forum can keep this amazing momentum going next year.

Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans (**** out of 5 red dots) takes Harvey Keitel's 1992 starring role and moves it to the Big Easy, helmed by the illustrious Werner Herzog. Herzog takes you on a fun ride, with a wired Nicholas Cage in the front seat in easily his best performance since Leaving Las Vegas. What I liked about the film is that goes up to the edge but not over and keeps its sense of humor. (Having beautiful Eva Mendes in the film doesn't hurt.) Herzog is a great director and give him a good script and you have the equation for an excellent film.

Monday, November 16, 2009

'Angels' and 'Streetcar' Put Great Words on Display; Binoche Stars in Disengagement

I remembered that Angels in America was poignant and startling, but I didn't remember how funny it was and how it pays tribute to other artists. If you have not seen this yet, and really enjoy theater, you should try to go. It plays through the end of the month at Forum Theatre's new home in the Round House Theater in Silver Spring, next to AFI. I saw Part 1 - Millennium on Sunday and can't wait to see Part 2 - Perestroika next weekend. Louis has a speech at the beginning of Act 3 that is just amazing. It's a one-way conversation with his black friend about everything he is not and all his thoughts and phobias. Brilliant writing. The other scene that I was dazzled by spotlighted two conversations on stage going on across each other. At first, they alternate, so you can hear everything. Tom Stoppard did this to amazing effect in the last scene of Arcadia. But then Kushner amazingly takes it further, so the conversations are going on at the same time. You kind of have to pick one to listen to, but the greater point seems to be the sound of the language, It becomes melodic.

Seeing A Streetcar Named Desire the night before, I am in awe of these two playwrights: Tennessee Willliams and Tony Kushner. The play is the thing in this production of Streetcar. The sets are simple, no one is doing anything that is not in the text. And yet it is a mind-blowing experience. Cate Blanchett can be so strong-minded one moment and so delicate the next.  She appears to be so confident in her demeanor and appearance that she doesn't have to overplay her hand. She can instead concentrate on forming one of the great characters in modern theater, from the first moment we see her dressed in her best to the last moments being taken away by doctors. "I have always relied on the kindness of strangers."  Wow! It's such a shame more people can't see this.

The very successful monthly French Film Club at the Avalon Theater returns this Wednesday with Disengagement, a new film by the Israeli director Amos Gitai, starring Juliet Binoche. Variety wrote: "Amos Gitai's English-language "Disengagement," about the eviction of Israeli settlers from Gaza, looks to be the helmer's strongest entry since "Kippur." Featuring a virtuoso, disquietingly fey performance by Juliette Binoche and a compelling straight-arrow turn by Israeli heartthrob (and Gitai regular) Liron Levo, magisterial pic shifts foreground and background as it focuses on both mass displacement and its impact on a family." I've seen Gitai's films at the Jewish Film Festival and they're always interesting. Come join a group from Bike and Brunch at Wednesday's showing. We'll meet at 7pm in the coffehouse there.

Friday, November 13, 2009

'Untitled' Soars and Jewish Film Festival Explores

I became a fan of Adam Goldberg a couple years ago when I interviewed Julie Delpy here in DC. She was in town promoting Two Days in Paris, the movie she wrote, directed, starred and cast her parents and cat in. She spoke highly of Goldberg as a person and performer. I had seen him before - in Deja Vu and The Hebrew Hammer - and he reminded me of Adam Arkin in Northern Exposure with a brooding but likeable presence. Arkin, by the way, does a great job as the lawyer in A Serious Man.
Goldberg finally gets his starring role in Untitled and I recommend it highly. It's still playing twice a day at Landmark E Street, which probably means it will be gone in another week. It's the perfect melding of film and art galleries, so it should probably become the new symbol of my blog. Goldberg plays a brooding musician and composer of serious "melodies" involving buckets, reids of a clarinet, chanting and other crazy sounds. A talented piano player, he refuses to compromise from his vision. The movie refuses to compromise as well; there's a nice, cliffhanging moment towards the end. In a breakout performance, intelligent and sexy Marley Shelton plays the gallery owner and love interest of Goldberg and his commercially successful artist brother.  Vinnie Jones of Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels fame plays the featured artist. Why do these good movies play for so short a time?

Coming Attractions
The 20th Jewish Film Festival schedule came out yesterday and it looks wonderful! The opening film, A Matter of Size, will take place at the French Embassy with a dessert reception to follow. Other films will take place at the Embassy of Switzerland, AFI Silver Theatre, Avalon Theatre, Embassy of Ethiopia, and the Harold and Sylvia Greenberg Theatre in Tenley. Subjects range from a documentary about the worst company in the world to the Orthodox Jewish social scene to a short starring the great Derek Jacobi to a young Argentine heroine with Down Syndrome.
This festival does everything that the DC Film Festival in April does not. It encourages conversations and community and spreads out through the city. There are panel discussions, different types of receptions and very reasonable prices. Tickets will go on sale in about a week. Their track record on showing excellent movies is very good. Kudos to the festival's leader Susan Barocas.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Marvelous Marvin and Free Spy Museum Nights

I cannot recommend strongly enough this Monday's one-time show at the Kennedy Center: Broadway Up Close and Personal: Marvin Hamlisch. This is a wonderful format - so far I've seen Jerry Herman (Mame, Hello Dolly, La Cage Aux Folles) and Sheldon Harnick (librettist for Fiddler on the Roof) in this setting. Hamlisch will be interviewed about his career (A Chorus Line, The Sting, They're Playing Our Song, the music in The Informant which really complements the fun mood of the film, etc.) and then the songs will be performed by a trio of Broadway singers: Liz Callaway, Kevin Early and Karen Ziemba (whom I saw in an incredible performance in Contact on Broadway - the Italian restaurant scene). Tickets are $18 but I've now seen it on Goldstar for $9. That is a steal. Oh, the other thing is that Hamlisch has always come off as the nicest, most interesting guy. I think I wrote in this space before about a reading he did at a bookstore at least 10 years ago for his autobiography. He ended up playing a short piano concert for the 20 of us who were there. It was like hearing The Sting in my living room! Fortunately, the KenCen's Terrac Theater is also very intimate.

QUICKTAKES: The Adding Machine has been extended at the Studio Theater for at least another week. Try to get there if you can. It's very interesting theater - try Caryl Churchill combined with some parts Sondheim and a little bit of Moe, Larry and Curly for good measure. The group Footlights has been sending out emails offering free tickets.
Take a nice walk over to the House of Sweden to see their new exhibit, What Lies Beneath. Many of the countries in Europe have contributed a photo to the exhibit, showing something on the ground or from the air or hidden somewhere.
Do you know about FREE Community Nights at the International Spy Museum.  I haven't been yet but signed up for the Dec. 2 one. When is The Newseum going to do something about their $20 admission fee?

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Terrific 'Music Lesson' One Night Only This Friday at National Geographic!

A BIG heads up for this Friday, Nov. 6 and the film The Music Lesson at National Geogarphic. I saw this at the Santa Barbara Film Festival last February and it is a beautiful movie. Students from the Boston Youth Symphony Orchestra are chosen to travel to Laikipia, Kenya, to meet students whose musical traditions have been passed down from tribal elders. The interaction between the students, the lessons they impart and their admiration for each other’s music form the basis of the film.
"It’s amazing how changed the kids were," director Ginny Galloway said at that time. "They really let their guards down–let go of their fears and got back to rhythm and the pulse of music."
She spoke of visiting the family of one of the young Kenyan musicians, and "even though it was a straw house with dirt floors, they took the same pride we do when someone visits. The only difference was they were moving the chickens and trying to dust the dirt floors."
Producer, Orlando Jones, who played the heroic bandleader Dr. Lee in Drumline, said the musical theme drew him to the project, as well as Galloway’s desire to form an exchange program such as this for a regular part of many school systems. Galloway says that many of the Boston kids still have Kenyan friends on Facebook, a true 2009 testament to friendship.
You can buy $5 tickets on Ticketplace! It's well worth it.

Monday, November 2, 2009

A fun birthday card for Tac

Playing WIth Time in Movies, Photography Show in Georgetown

AWESOME PHOTOGRAPHY On Saturday night, I attended the opening reception of Select Contemporary Photography from the Lucille and Richard Spagnuolo Collection in the Walsh Building on the campus of Georgetown University. Coming on the heels of FotoWeekDC, this is a great appetizer with standouts Nikki S. Lee, Carrie Mae, Weems and Doug Hall. It goes to Dec. 11 if you can get over there.

Film Talk

That Damn United (4 out of 5 Red Dots)
An Education (4½ Red Dots)
American Casino (4 Red Dots)
Money-Driven Machine (3.5 Red Dots)
The Invention of Lying (3 Red Dots)

Can it really be almost 10 years since Memento? Or is someone playing with time? (Guy Pearce has made interesting choices since then – The Hurt Locker, The Proposition, The Factory Girl with Sienna Miller who just received okay reviews for After Miss Julie on Broadway. Though when you start with LA Confidential and Memento, tough to keep that up.) Twenty years before that, Nobel-prize-winning playwright Harold Pinter succeeded with Betrayal (Roy Scheider, Raul Julia, Blythe Danner (Gwyneth Paltrow’s mother) which started with the last scene chronologically and then went backwards in time ending with the scene where the three protagonists first met. And 20 years before that, Pinter, who died last year, also played with time in writing the screenplay for the film Accident—where we see the accident at the beginning and then go back in time from there—which kicked off the Joseph Losey retrospective at the National Gallery yesterday. Film critic Jay Carr gave a wonderful talk at the before the film. That place is a treasure! Highly recommended: two more Losey/Pinter collaborations – The Servant, Nov. 7 at 4pm; The Go-Between with the beautiful Julie Christie, Nov. 8 at 4:30pm.

I bring the “time” element up for a couple reasons. I saw the famous director Peter Bogdanovich a couple weeks ago (Last Picture Show, Paper Moon, Daisy Miller). He spoke following the film , Anatomy of a Murder, at Fordham Law School in Manhattan. He was a friend of the film's director Otto Preminger, so he told some stories including how much the star James Stewart liked to rehearse, but no one on this film would rehearse with him. It is a superb film, and interestingly, the judge, Joseph Welch, was a famous real-life attorney who represented the army in the McCarthy hearings. Bogdonavich doesn't like the playing with time, but the film he criticized, the very average Duplicity, was not a fair example. The latest to play with time is That Damned United, written by Peter Morgan and starring Michael Sheen (they also worked together on The Queen and Frost/Nixon), focusing on the '70s British soccer manager Brian Clough who took small teams to championships but failed miserably in a 44-day stint with the big team, Leeds United. Timothy Spall, the great character actor, plays his assistant in another standout performance. I heartily recommend this film; it has received little publicity but it is different from the usual sports movie.

An Education is an even better film. It’s written by Nick Hornby, author of High Fidelity and About a Boy and who just made the Washington rounds plugging a new, well-received novel, Juliet Naked. I remember standing in line to hear him speak at Olssons Books at Metro Center around 15 years ago after High Fidelity. He has such a good ear for dialogue. The film should be nominated for an Oscar – though with 10 such films this year, is that still an honor? – because Carey Mulligan, Peter Saarsgard and Alfred Molina put out some exceptional performances. The Invention of Lying certainly has a good setup and a lot of hearty laughs early on - all the things that we're thinking but never say get said in this truth-serumed society. But then, as others have written, it loses steam. Probably a shame - if Gervais had not been as worried about the happy rom-com ending, he might have really had something special. Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Edward Norton have funny cameos.

We joke sometimes that Washington has a cultural festival of some kind almost every week. Actually, I think it’s true. Last week it was the 2009 Impact Film Festival in the two auditoriums of the U.S. Capitol Visitors Center. (Have you seen this place? Wow, quite a venue! You enter from the East Capitol side.) Next week, of course, it’s FotoweekDC. After that, The Jewish Film Festival, in January the new German Film Festival. This week, I’m sure there’s something and I’m chagrined not to know about it. I saw a film called Money-Driven Medicine ( about our health care situation, specifically the lack of coordination between doctors at hospitals, something partly attributed to the growing scarcity of general practitioners. (It’s very expensive to follow this path, apparently.) I spoke to director Andrew Fredericks afterwards at a cool restaurant called The Reserve. He was originally contacted by producer Alex Gibney who was also there (he directed the great Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room and the Academy-Award winning Taxi to the Dark Side)— which was quite flattering to Fredericks. The film is based on a book of the same name by reporter Maggie Mahar. The Impact Festival also included The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers (which I did not get to see but has been very well-reviewed) and The Messenger with Woody Harrelson who was in town last week promoting it. This is a great new festival for the DC cultural radar.

It’s unbelievable what we have here in DC. My friend saw Richard Curtis (Four Weddings and a Funeral, Love Actually) in person last Monday before a showing of his new film, Pirate Radio. Gibney the next night, Harrelson two nights later, the same night Ian McKellen gave a performance at Shakespeare Theater. (I still have a signed poster after a one-man show he did at Olney 20 years ago. I’ll never forget it.) Cate Blanchett just got a rave review for Streetcar today, so on and so on.