Monday, September 24, 2007

Musical movies

I've seen two movie musicals in the past few weeks. Both are worth seeing. Across the Universe, with its big production values and marquee name director, is pretty good. Once, with its shoestring budget and lesser-known musician-actors, is downright wonderful. Julie Taymor's rhapsody on the Beatles canon as seen through life in archetypal '60s America is a paean to some of the best singer-songwriters ever as well as to the events and movements that defined the baby-boomer generation's passage from innocence into experience. Half the fun is trying to guess which song or which character is next to appear. Yes, all the main names are taken from songs and almost all the plot points are inspired by things that really happened. It's like a really well-made feature-length music video. The kind you wouldn't mind watching again. But not necessarily a totally unique work of art or one that inspires deep affection. Besides nostalgia, there's not much willing one moment into the next, and I couldn't help feeling the length of the film between scenes.

Where Across the Universe might fall short, Once succeeds with subtle, winning verve. Glen Hansard (of the Frames) and Marketa Irglova, singer-songwriters in real life, and now a real couple, express what it's like to create music, on your own and with others, and what it's like to fall in love with someone with whom you share that love of music. As H. noted after we saw it on Sunday, the film shows that love can reach fulfillment in different and just as powerful ways from the traditional story of cinematic romance. It's a tearjerker, but I found myself crying more because of how beautiful the small revelations it presents are than because of how bittersweet the story is. Early on in the film, which at an hour and a half is just right, there is a scene where Glen teaches Marketa a song he is working on. Some movies might begin this scene, then cut away to the next bit of action before it's through. But the camera patiently watches as the duo very believably grow the song from its seeds, building it up together. It's amazingly intimate.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Main Street, a tram ride away from Midtown

One of the fun things about New York is getting to a place within the city bounds where you can say, "This is New York City?!?" City Island and Governors Island are two of my favorite places to do that. Yesterday, M. and I added another one to the list: Roosevelt Island. I work not far from the aerial tram, but it wasn't until this weekend that I finally rode on it. It's like a tourist attraction, but it's actually part of the public transit system. It's supposedly the only one in the U.S. that's considered merely a means of getting from point A to point B, where the scenic element is just icing. You pay with a swipe of the Metrocard, not any overpriced tourist admission. The island itself, especially along Main Street, gives you the feeling that you've slipped into a somewhat-dreary planned European town built during the 70s. The architecture of Northtown, the first group of buildings constructed after the island, once devoted to asylums and prisons, was redeveloped as a residential community, is, let's face it, kind of drab. But it has the benefit of being situated on such a cool, thin little strip of land. Main Street feels very un-Manhattan with its one-of-each uber-planned character: one cleaners, one salon, one thrift store, one public school, one library, one post office. Other developments north and south of the original residential enclave, such as the Octagon, have improved upon the look of the Northtown, and there's now a Starbucks and a Duane Reade in buildings that have gone up closer to the F subway stop. The market-rate rents are slightly cheaper than what you'd find in Midtown or the Upper East Side, but not all that much cheaper, from what we learned. I think I'd feel isolated if I lived on the island because there's no direct walking access to Manhattan. There's a bridge to Queens, the tram and the subway and that's it, as far as I could tell. And while the tram was fun, I think it would be a headache, literally and figuratively, on a more regular basis.

Monday, September 10, 2007

'Nothing will come of nothing'

I was lucky enough to score, at the last minute, a ticket to the sold-out run this month of King Lear starring Sir Ian McKellen and the Royal Shakespeare Company at BAM's Harvey Theater. Before the show even started, I was taken by the performance space. I've seen many shows at the main opera-house stage, but this smaller, more intimate setting wonderfully evokes a Greco-Romain ruin (with working electricity and gourmet concessions). The faded grandeur of the place seemed so appropriate to the theme of the play that I had to look it up afterward and confirm that the auditorium looks like that no matter the material on stage. But it was a great introduction to the space. I never read or saw Lear before last week, and while I can't say it's become my new favorite from the complete works, it's certainly stuck with me -- both the work and the RSC's execution of it. It's haunting and dark and the moments of goodness it does possess are fleeting. It's a reminder of how easy it is to let a grudge become devestating and a reminder that, as pat as it may be, actions speak louder than words. This is definitely one of those plays that I can imagine will disclose more of itself upon further viewings. And while I was disappointed to miss the two Shakespeare in the Park plays this summer, it was great to be introduced to a new one, especially by such a master as McKellen who takes on the old-king-gone-mad role with such stamina and brilliance.

Monday, September 03, 2007

Shows in August

La Vie at Spiegelworld: Proving that the So. St. Seaport is actually worth a visit now and then and that circus fun still thrills.
Deuce on Broadway: Starring the legendary Angela Lansbury and Marian Seldes, but I was hoping for maybe a bit more depth in the script.
The Recruiting Officer in northern Central Park: Restoration comedy via environmental theater; awesome but for the bugs.
Superbad at the movies: Funny, yes, but the pre-buzz-hype kept it from being superfunny.

Saturday, September 01, 2007

First of September (aka the blog returns)

Delicious and relaxing brunch with J. and W. at the Parish Diner, a five-month-old place near the Italian part of Graham Avenue, on the other side of the BQE from Greenpoint. The place used to be a garage, but it's near a church and has a lot of decor elements that make you think it might've been a church, despite the overall shape of the place. I liked the coffee-cup candelabras and the wrought-iron decorative gates. I also liked the pastry basket, bellini and frosted-flake french toast with caramelized bananas. They offered me a ride back to wherever, but it was such a gorgeous day, I decided to walk around and peek in at the hodgepodge that is the housing stock around that area.

Took the L back to 8th Ave. Got a ginger ale from the Chelsea Market and sprawled out on the astroturf of the Hudson River pier by the triad of Meier palaces. Strolled around the West Village, marveling, imagining, salivating a little bit, assuring myself that if I'd ever be able to afford living there, I'd soon take it for granted. Scouted single tables at sidewalk cafes. Mostly came up empty.

Ended up settling for a just-OK, nothing-great Italian place facing St. Vincent's: ArtePasta. The food -- an Italian wine and chicken penne with vodka sauce -- was good, but I was seated next to an annoying pair who went on and on about their jobs and then their exercise routines. They weren't that awful, I guess, just kind of grating. One was working on the Fashion Rocks concert for Conde Nast; the other was moving back to L.A. and breaking the news to her tearful co-workers. Sometimes you sit down next to people and can tell within a few minutes that they're not the type of people you'd enjoy chatting with.

As the sun set, I sat down to watch the ultra-indie Quiet City at the IFC Center. My first time there. It's one of these new movies that they wrote about in the Times recently, under the banner of "mumblecore." I saw Funny Ha Ha a while back and really liked it, despite myself. Then I saw Mutual Appreciation, another one by Andrew Bujalski, and liked it a little less. I guess my ambivalence about the genre comes down to the fact that I don't really hang out with people like the ones depicted in the films. They annoy me. And yet I'm strangely drawn to depictions of them. Perhaps because it provides a window onto a part of my generation that I know exists, or am told exists, but don't really interact with. I'm not saying that I have it all figured out or am always coherent or always know what to say in awkward situations. I sometimes just want to scream: Do something!

That said, there were things I enjoyed about the latest one, directed by Aaron Katz and shot entirely in Brooklyn. I liked the way it evoked the emptiness of certain parts of the city at certain times. One of the leads, Erin Fisher, has a nice screen presence, even if she's not a trained actress. The camera likes her, and tight shots of her face make up, oh, a good third of the film, which is just under an hour and a half. The movie manages to stay just ahead of the tedium curve. Just when I've had enough of one moment, something new appears, or a new topic comes up in the conversation and keeps your attention. Then about three-fifths of the way through, we get the benefit of a real belly laugh and release when the male lead and a guy at a party are sitting on a couch and they basically admit to each other that they don't really have jobs at the moment and aren't really doing much. I forget the exact lines, but it comes as one of those this-is-what-the-audience-was-thinking-most-of-the-time admissions. So I had to respect the filmmakers for having a sense of humor about their characters, who aren't the most interesting people when it comes down to it. There was another scene I really liked: The two leads and two friends of theirs are dancing under a loft bed in a cramped apartment. The music they are dancing to isn't the music that we're hearing on the soundtrack, but it could be. And you know what? They look happy. They look like they're actually having a good time and aren't embarrassed by their dancing or what each other might say or think. That wordless scene made me care about them just enough to recommend the film.

The director, actors and producers were on hand for the screening, and thankfully, they were slightly more articulate than the characters on screen. I asked how much was improvised, and Erin said about 90 percent. Which was funny to hear after the director was going on and on about his script a moment earlier. Turns out the two leads didn't know each other very well before hand, so the awkwardness was real. Even though it wasn't an out-and-out depressing movie, I rode the A home feeling rather melancholy, with too many songs on my iPod bringing up pangs of sadness.

(I don't really mind being sad once in a while. I like it. It balances out the optimism I seek to carry with me as a rule. Also, I have to note that "Quiet City" is also the name of an orchestral piece by Aaron Copland and the Times reviewer compares parts of the film I saw to a series of Edward Hopper paintings. I have a warm place in my heart for both of those artists, and certain works by both Hopper and Copland evoke the kind of melancholy I often feel. So I guess it all comes together.)