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Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Victoria Vox Trumpets, Strums and Sings a New Success

Okay, who has heard a mouth trumpet before?  My friend Jay and I heard a great one last night in the person of singer Victoria Vox at Iota in Arlington. If that was her only game, she'd still be good, but she is an amazing talent really starting to get known now. She performed at Strathmore's record-breaking Ukelele Festival last week where more than 900 people took out their ukes and strummed. With a couple thousand people there, I had to pause when this wonderful voice rose above the Tiny Tim-like din. So we checked her out last night and she's for real. Vox sang only with her ukelele playing, beautiful singing, mouth trumpet and Kate's amazing cello. (Her new CD is ukelele and cello.) She sang some great songs including one called "Chasing Love" that I just found on YouTube. (I also found a performance she did of the great Leonard Cohen Hallelujah on YouTube that's really pretty and Somewhere Over the Rainbow.)  I will continue to follow her and perhaps do a meetup the next time she plays around. Check her out.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The French Still Make Exceptional Films

A very hot and humid Washington day drove me to two movies last week and both shared some traits. The Names of Love and Sarah's Key are both French and both see their lead female character visiting The Shoah Memorial in Paris. Engraved on the walls there are the names of 76,000 Jews, including 11,000 children all deported from France as part of the Nazi plan to annihilate the Jews. Although The Names of Love is a comedy - and an exceptional one at that - the moment is not taken lightly. And in Sarah's Key, the writer and director do a great job of moving back and forth between past and present. This scenario of watching characters from the present trying to discern what happened in the past - and then seeing for ourselves what really happened - has become a more common tool of late, but that does not mean it is easy to pull off. Tom Stoppard, of course, pulled it off the most successfully with Arcadia, and I wonder if he ever considered turning that into a film. (I should have asked him when I ran into him on a smoke break he was having at Penn Station in New York a couple years ago.  As it was, I was tongue-tied. Anyway, The Names of Love chronicles a relationship between a young liberal activist - she sleeps with conservatives to convert them - and a middle-aged scientist who deals with dead animals. It has some very clever conceits that can be credited to the husband and wife screenwriters. In fact, she shares the same first name as the lead character - Baya.  You cannot go wrong seeing either of these films, just depends on the mood you're in.  A woman behind me at Sarah's Key said the book was better so you may want to read it first.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Blanchett philosophizes a bit at Uncle Vanya interview

“Begin as you mean to continue,” the lumnious, Oscar-winning actress Cate Blanchett told a young questioner seeking career advice a couple weeks ago at an interview I attended at the Kennedy Center - during her just-completed run of Uncle Vanya. Even trying to make herself look plain, she couldn't. “Make yourself a five-year plan; that will help you maintain patience. And you can’t make too many compromises.” Blanchett was, of course, talking about a career in the arts, but there are some parallels to be drawn with any profession that one seeks to pursue. Her response also made me marvel at the English language. The question has been asked so many times before yet Blanchett can still find an original phrasing: (Must be the 10 years she recently spent living in England.) In fact, I believe it’s good advice not just for young people but for anyone embarking on something new, be it a new business, project or even a hobby.
Blanchett of course, needs no training to be comfortable in the spotlight. She was asked if it’s hard to find the time to do theater with such a demanding film career. She looked a bit puzzled actually and answered, “No, not really. I’m old enough to make my own decisions now. This is an extraordinary privilege.” I particularly liked what she said next when asked if it was a tough decision for her and her husband Andrew Upton to take over the Sydney Theatre Company. “It would have been cowardice to turn it down,” she said. That kind of takes us full circle in the direction of the famous Goethe quote: “Whatever you do, or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius and power and magic in it.”
"We all value theater," she said, speaking for the accomplished cast that was sitting around her. Jacki Weaver was nominated for an Academy Award earlier this year for Animal Kingdom and Hugo Weaving appeared in The Matrix Trilogy among many other films. "And we choose to return to it." Speaking of Australia and the bond it gives her company, she said, "You're talking about a company of 22 million, 17 million of whom are actors."
The interview ended with a question about great artists; one of the actors began very intellectually talking about Picasso. "Picasso was such a..." "Philanderer!" Blanchett shouted. They all laughed and went on to Uncle Vanya.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Sholom Aleichem Director Does His Job Well; And Almost Nothing Lets 'The Guard' Down

"I loved the film but had one criticism," an audience member at the West End Cinema told director Joseph Dorman following a screening of his new film, Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness,  "I wish you would have put more of his stories in." Dorman smiled. "You know, that's the perpetual decision: what should go in. I wanted to put him in a context and a world. But if my film sends grandparents and grandchildren back to read more of his stories, then I've done my job." The film documents the life of one of the greatest Jewish writers ever, and whose stories the musical "Fiddler on the Roof" was based. (So we get some wonderful clips of songs from the Fiddler movie.) Sholom Aleichem wrote a great deal about the little towns - the shtetls - of Eastern Europe. So we get photos of working-class people in these towns and - although it may not have been enough for that one audience member - snippets of his stories. "It took 10 years to make this," said Dorman, a winner of television's prestigious George Foster Peabody Award. "A professor of Yiddish suggested the idea to me." While the West End crowd was a tad on the older side - "Is anyone here under 40?" Dorman asked - he is trying to get the film to younger people, including school children, by developing lesson plans.

"The Guard" sort of snuck up on us this summer. It's a refreshingly original film from Ireland starring the incredibly versatile Brendan Gleeson and the busy Don Cheadle as mismatched investigators looking into a drug ring in western Ireland. The writer/director is John Michael McDonough, brother of the playwright Martin. Talk about talent in one family. The film is not afraid to show the many faults in Gleeson's character but then also shows the traits that really attract us - the way he treats his dying mother, refusing to take the payoff money that everyone else thinks is standard and drinking many Guinnesses. This is a film where the ruthless criminals ride in the car talking about Dylan Thomas and the beauty of Wales. The killer contemplates if he is a psychopath or a sociopath finally deciding that there's not much difference.  The policeman who gets killed turns out to be gay, which makes no difference except that his pretty Croatian wife can perhaps hook up with Gleeson's character in the sequel. Given the way the last Bourne film ended, I think McDonough didn't feel a need to have his character emerge from the water. I won't say any more.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Clybourne Park Is Still a Neighborhood You Definitely Want to Spend a Couple Hours in

Woolly Mammoth has brought back the revelatory and elegant Clybourne Park and it is even better than it was last year - this due to the comfort of the actors in their roles. The stage is again set up with people sitting everywhere - in the balcony, on the sides, behind the stage (my friend thought there was a mirror) and most importantly in the upstairs room of the house on stage. One young man sits there thinking, moving a bit. We'll soon learn he's an important part of the play, not given any lines, but the "cause" in a cause-and-effect play that examines not just race relations but the way people talk to each other.

Winner of last year's Pulitzer Prize for theater, Clybourne Park takes a brilliant conceit and runs with it. Where Tom Stoppard's Arcadia went back forth across 200 years to solve a mystery, Clybourne Park shows two acts 50 years apart to perpetuate a mystery: Why can't we still talk to each other without our preconceptions? The play takes the Chicago neighborhood where the Youngers of "A Raisin in the Sun" were hoping to get to and, in 1959, shows how the white neighbors react to a black family moving in. That family is not present but might as well be because the white family's maid and her husband are. Even one of the characters, Karl Lindner, who fights the move in Raisin, shows up here. Then in the second act, we move to 2009 when a white family wants to move into what is now a mostly black neighborhood. The black family now represents the neighborhood, and with a couple real estate people present, the situation quickly deteriorates into racial jokes and defensive mechanisms. Writing in The New Yorker last year about a concurrent Off-Broadway production, the wonderful writer John Lahr calls the second act "a dance of civility" turned into "a fracas of fulmination." Acting-wise, for me, Mitchell Hebert as Russ and Dawn Ursula as Francine continue to stand out, but there doesn't seem to be a wrong note. Go see it.