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Sunday, October 30, 2011

Oranges and Sunshine and Margin Call both put this Cinephile in Movie-Watching Bliss

Two movie recommendations are always  a good thing. Oranges and Sunshine navigates its way through a difficult subject in an engaging, never over-the-top way, probably because the name Loach is involved - not Ken but his son Jim. It's the true story of a social worker in England who stumbled upon the history of the deporting of children to Australia. These were children who were taken away from their parents, often illegally; some were sent to awful places in Australia where they were mistreated. Now adults, they want to know who they are. A great cast tiptoes its way through this horrific episode, without abuses ever being seen. The acting is top-notch - led by Emily Watson, Hugo Weaving (who was wonderful in Uncle Vanya at Kennedy Center this summer) and especially David Wenham (a new face for me, he handles his difficult role with a revengeful glee). I was moved by the film.

Margin Call reminded me a little bit of Glengarry Glen Ross, but without all the steroids, and last year's highly underrated Company Men without the tinge of blue collar. The scene shifts from real estate to financial trading, but all the drama of men in an office (and getting fired) remains.  Kevin Spacey plays a role that Tommie Lee Jones excelled at in Company Men: the older boss who has seen it all but isn't calling the shots anymore. Stanley Tucci departs from his happy husband to strong women role to beautifully underplay his fired analyst part here. Demi Moore is also ably on hand to show her legs and let her hair down a bit. And like Hickey in The Iceman Cometh, we are heralded to the "Man" making an entrance, and that man is Jeremy Irons. Irons and Kevin Spacey in a well-written scene puts a cinephile such as myself in film heaven. It's a very good film.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Delightful Wilkerson Appears at Phillips to Talk About 'The Warmth of Other Suns'

On Thursday night, I went over to the Phillips Collection to see a lecture by the Pulitzer Prize-winning author Isabel Wilkerson. Her award-winning book, The Warmth of Other Suns, is now out in paperback. It is the "Epic Story of America's Great Migration" - the migration of African Americans from the South to the North during the period from after WWI to the 1970s. She said that she spent 15 years of her life on this book, and I can't wait to read it. She is a brilliant speaker, able to sound a bit intellectual but also personable. She frames her story by saying that everyone here has relatives who risked everything they had - some at a very young age - to pursue a better life somewhere else. That could also be from Poland or Ireland or Italy or Latvia or Russia and Romania (the last two is my lineage). Maybe they came by foot or by train or by ship (my grandparents), maybe their parents pushed them off. She named many famous African American figures and nimbly traced their families to the South: Berry Gordy, Diana Ross, Theolonius Monk, Toni Morrison, Miles Davis, August Wilson, Lorraine Hansberry, etc. I spent a summer as Wilkerson's friend and colleague many years ago when we were interns at The Washington Post - she in Style and me in Sports. She was fresh out of Howard University, soft-spoken but confident and supremely talented. (David Remnick, editor of The New Yorker, was also in that intern class. It's very easy to get an inferiority complex looking back now.)  It is wonderful to see Wilkerson's success. She teaches at Boston University now and travels promoting the book - she's already been to most states and even a couple countries in Europe. "Immigration is a universal story, she says. She laughed when she said that Alaska is next on the itinerary - in January. "I know, not the best planning," she said. Eventhough I have not read it yet, I will heartily recommend The Warmth of Other Suns; I trust Isabel. The title, by the way, comes from a quote by Richard Wright that goes like this:

“I was leaving the South
to fling myself into the unknown . . .
I was taking a part of the South
to transplant in alien soil,
to see if it could grow differently,
if it could drink of new and cool rains,
bend in strange winds,
respond to the warmth of other suns
and, perhaps, to bloom”
Richard Wright


Sunday, October 23, 2011

Photography Show in the Embassy of Finland Is a Can't Miss Exhibit!

I saw the most spectacular exhibit yesterday enhanced by a private tour from the artist.  Fortunately, she will be back on Nov. 11-12 to talk more about it. The Loveliest Girl in the World at the Embassy of Finland is the name of the exhibit and should not be missed! It will be showing Friday - Sunday from 11 am to 4pm through Nov. 13. About 10 years ago, the photographer, Miina Savolainen, took notice of a home for abandoned children. She decided to begin a project with all 10 young girls in one of the units of the home, to try to make them feel special. She started getting to know the girls and then taking them - one by one - on field trips into the incredibly beautiful Finnish countryside. Once there, they would put on some beautifully elaborate dresses and gowns that the girls and Miina worked on getting ready. The idea was for the girls to dictate how they wanted to look.  (This is actually part of a course that Miina teaches in Finland for businessmen, doctors, health professionals, etc., that she calls empowering photography.)  Then she would shoot the pictures.  This went on for years so she could photograph them in various stages of childhood. So what we get now are sublime photos of these girls often looking like models and movie stars, with landscapes that Hollywood would pay millions to re-create (craters, icicles, snow-covered plains, endless bounding brooks, mountaintops, etc.). And they look so confident and comfortable.  What's amazing about Miina's work is that in a group photo of the girls where they're smiling and normally dressed, they look just like any other group of teenage girls. Then in these photos, their specialness shines through. "Everyone can be special if you're looked at in a lovely way," Miina told me. The exhibit has won awards throughout Finland.  She said she would send me some photos that I could post - I've posted a couple. But you need to see these in person, if possible. There are over 120 of them in the exhibit, and in the great Embassy of Finland space - surrounded by the woods - it is a privilege to be there.  I will check if Miina will be doing anything specific - like a lecture - when she returns in November.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

With A Bright New Boise, Woolly Brings Another Intelligent Play to Our Midst

Woolly Mammoth can be pretty hit and miss in my opinion. But with their youthful crowds and enthusiasm that brings - especially during their generous PWYC nights - solid acting company and beautiful home just off 7th Street, when a play is good, it's a total pleasure. Such is the case with their current offering, A Bright New Boise by Samuel D. Hunter. The play centers on a father, having left a cult-like church in norther Idaho after a tragedy, confronting the son he never met at a Hobby Lobby box store in Boise. Just writing that scenario here feels bizarre. But Hunter does make sense of this in a startlingly good first act, which almost sets up the play as a a comedy. As the father, Michael Russotto proves to be a willing straight man to top performances from Kimberly Gilbert as a spooked out fellow employee, Emily Townley as an epithet-spewing (in a fun way) boss and Joshua Morgan as his surprised son. The problems arise in the second act when Hunter has to take these characters somewhere. He told us after the play that he is still rewriting this act, so I'm curious to see it again in a few weeks. He loses the tone he set in the first act as he struggles to give meaning. Should the father be persecuted for his part in the tragedy? Will the son come around to him. As he wrestles with these questions, the wonderful scenario that he set up in the cafeteria - with a brilliant company video playing in the background - gets dropped a bit. Hunter himself said that he set up a plot where the ending he's searching for does not give the play much action. He wrote the play in just 3 months on a commission from a theater in New York, so he is clearly incredibly talented. His comfort with dialogue reminds me a little of Neil LaBute before his plays spring their surprises. Hunter needs to find his style with the second act as LaBute found his. Woolly should be congratulated for bringing this fine play and playwright to Washington.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Sheen and Estevez Show "The Way" in This Wonderful New Film

There's a moment towards the end of The Way - the new film by Emilio Estevez starring his father, Martin Sheen - where no words are said but it's brilliant. Each of the four main characters looks at each other, having walked together for many kilometers, with this knowing glance and then a smile. It encapsulates so much, about traveling, about friendship, about taking chances and about living. Sheen does give an Oscar-caliber performance in the role of a father who must go to Spain to retrieve the ashes of his only child (his son played briefly by Estevez). It's a tough role because he must reflect the sadness that he feels, but we must also see a glint start to form in his eye - an alarm to the life that his son strived for. He decides to walk the El Camino de Santiago from France to Spain, finishing at Santiago de Compastela - all in honor of his son who had set off on the walk and was killed in an accident on the first day. The three foreigners that Sheen hooks up with on the way are all played with gusto and charm. Yorick van Wageningen as Joost does a fine job balancing zealousness with sympathy. Deborah Kara Unger plays the Maria Bello part - the beautiful 40-something woman - with mischief and a gradual awakening. And James Nesbitt proves a perfect choice for the Irish writer. This isn't quite Dorothy and company in Oz, but it does feel like a yellow brick road that they're traveling and they're all in search of something. I guess that's an age-old story. Who knew that Estevez had this kind of story in him. The beautiful Spanish scenery doesn't hurt either. And like the film Another Earth earlier this year, the very brief last scene here has all kinds of implications. Nicely done!

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Two Film Rental Recommendations With the Likeable Zoe Kazan

Here's a roundabout way to give two film rental recommendation. I was up in New York last weekend and met Zoe Kazan, the granddaughter of famous movie director Elia Kazan and an actress/playwright in her own right. She was outside the Manhattan Theater Club where I attended the first preview of her new play, We Live Here starring Amy Irving and Mark Blum. It's a family drama that started out with a promising first act but then faded.  (Much better was a production of Tennessee Williams' Suddenly Last Summer I saw at Hudson Theater Guild.) Anyway, I highly recommend two films that Kazan has appeared in: I thought Me and Orson Welles was a hugely underrated film; and Happythankyoumoreplease has an awful title and no one saw it, but is a decent film. Kazan was very nice greeting all her friends and looked cute and very thin in person; hopefully, the play can improve before it officially opens. New York critics can be rough. Looks like she has a new film coming out next year called He Loves Me that she wrote the screenplay for. It co-stars Antonio Banderas - can't wait to see him in the new Almodovar film! - Annette Bening and Paul Dano. And it's directed by Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton who directed Little Miss Sunshine.