Concert Review: Marc-André Hamelin at The University of Washington

Marc-André Hamelin

Three nights ago, in his second appearance in Seattle in the past year, pianist Marc-André Hamelin gave a recital at Meany Hall at the University of Washington, and, as is typical for Hamelin, the program included both the well-known and the unknown. He led off with the magnificent Chaconne from Bach’s Partita No. 2 for solo violin, in its transcription for piano by Busoni. This is a colossal work, one I have written about at some length elsewhere on this blog. I will add only that Hamelin’s interpretation was in every way worthy of Bach and Busoni’s creation. Bravo to all three!

Concluding the first half of the program was the Sonata No. 3 by Samuil Feinberg (1890-1962). This was the first time I’ve heard this sonata, which was written in 1916 and which is, perhaps, more accessible than the Sonata No. 4, which I heard Hamelin play last year. The Sonata No. 3 is a giant piece, full of thorny complexities and challenging harmonies, and an extraordinary workout for the pianist. It is also a cry from the heart, and for me at least, it was the centerpiece of the recital. Feinberg was a composer of obvious gifts and startling originality. How is it possible that his music has remained in the backwater of the piano repertoire for so long?

But not any more! Hamelin has been programming Feinberg in his recitals for some time, and is planning to release an album of the first six of his twelve sonatas. I have to wonder if in years to come, Feinberg’s name will forever be linked with that of Hamelin.

Hamelin rightly recognized the effect that the Feinberg sonata might have had on the audience, and before embarking on the second half of his program, he remarked, “I hope the following will provide a little bit of relief from what you just heard.” The piece that followed – Alexis Weissenberg’s “Six Arrangements of Songs Sung by Charles Trenet” (1950) – was well-chosen for that purpose. The six pieces brought to mind words like tuneful, charming, boisterous, humorous, elegant, and wistful, but regardless of the mood, there is something unmistakably French about these arrangements. Listening to them, I could easily imagine myself in Paris, overhearing music emanating from a nightclub somewhere down the street.

Here is a video from 2009 of Hamelin playing the third piece from this set, “En avril, à Paris” (April in Paris).

Next on the program was another piece that was new to me, “Cypresses”, by the Italian-American composer Mario Castelnuovo­-­Tedesco (1895-1968). Composed in 1920, “Cypresses” is a very inward looking piece and reveals a strong influence of Debussy. In it, Hamelin created a sustained, reflective atmosphere, at least until it was rudely interrupted by a cellphone in the row behind me.

The final two works on the program were both by Chopin: the Polonaise-Fantasie, Op. 61 and the Scherzo No. 4 in E Major. In the Polonaise-Fantasie, Hamelin adopted a more relaxed tempo than one often hears, which lent it a more introspective quality. Hamelin obviously has a deep love for Chopin, which together with his extraordinary touch, made of this well-known piece a very personal statement. The Scherzo No. 4 is the most light-hearted of Chopin’s four scherzi. Although it has its reflective moments, it brought the evening’s program to a close on a joyous, upbeat note.

Everything Hamelin does, he does masterfully, and at the end of his program, the Seattle audience gave him a prolonged standing ovation. In return, Hamelin gave us one encore: Debussy’s “Feux d’artifice” (Fireworks) from Book 2 of his preludes. Here is a video from 2007 of Hamelin performing the same piece.

Without ever neglecting the staples of the piano repertoire, Hamelin has done yeoman’s service in bringing the music of lesser­-known composers to the attention of the public. Whatever he plays, he plays with consummate authority, and like all great pianists, he opens wide a window into his heart and soul. This was my third time hearing him in person. Hopefully there will be many more.

Derrick Robinson

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Published in: on October 20, 2018 at 10:25 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Movie Review: “Million Dollar Baby”

“I got nobody but you, Frankie.”                 “Well, you’ve got me.”

Million_Dollar_Baby“Million Dollar Baby” tells the story of Maggie Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank), a young woman who grew up in difficult circumstances whose dream is to become a professional boxer, and Frankie Dunn (Clint Eastwood), an aging fight trainer and the owner of a rundown gym called the Hit Pit.  As the film opens, Maggie has decided that she needs professional training, and she pesters the unwilling Frankie incessantly until he agrees to take her under his wing.

Maggie turns out to be a natural – a phenomenon – and under Frankie’s guidance, compiles a record of knockouts that leads in short order to a bout for the world title.  The outcome of that fight leaves both of them facing terrible choices.  Maggie’s decision, while tragic, is understandable, and seems to come easily to her.  Frankie’s is far more difficult, and comes only after the most in-depth soul-searching.  Whatever you may think of their choices, at the film’s end, Maggie is at peace with her decision, and Frankie with his.

Hilary Swank gives an extraordinary performance as Maggie Fitzgerald, and fully deserved her 2005 Academy Award for Best Actress.  She looks like a boxer, but whether boxing or not, she is always convincing.  Morgan Freeman turns in his customary excellent performance as Eddie “Scrap-Iron” Dupris, a former boxer and all-purpose maintenance man at the Hit Pit.  Clint Eastwood seems to have an infallible instinct for what roles he is suited for, and his performance as Frankie Dunn is compelling from beginning to end.  His work as director is equally assured.  The fight scenes are brilliantly choreographed, and could hardly be more realistic.  You can hear the fighters’ punches miss their target.  You can feel Maggie’s pain when Frankie realigns her broken nose.

“Million Dollar Baby” was written by Paul Haggis, whose writing credits include “Crash”, “Flags of Our Fathers”, and “Letters from Iwo Jima”.  I am tempted to say that “Million Dollar Baby” is perfect as written, but in fact it shares a weakness with another Eastwood film, “Gran Torino”: Although the film’s protagonists are all realistically and intriguingly multifaceted, the antagonists are surprisingly one-dimensional, and exhibit few if any redeeming qualities.  It’s hard to imagine a more detestable character than Maggie’s greedy, ungrateful, unloving mother.  Or consider Billie “The Blue Bear” Osterman, Maggie’s opponent in the climactic bout.  Not only is she introduced to us as a former prostitute and the dirtiest fighter in boxing, she looks like the very personification of evil.

Although this movie is rated PG-13 (“Parents are urged to be cautious.  Some material may be inappropriate for pre-teenagers.”), I would state unequivocally that “Million Dollar Baby” is not appropriate for pre-teenagers.  Of course, levels of sophistication vary from one child to another, but I wouldn’t recommend “Million Dollar Baby” to someone I didn’t know unless he or she was at least sixteen.

Derrick Robinson

Review: Compagnie Marie Chouinard Performs Chopin and Stravinsky

MarieChouinard

Last Friday, January 25, I went to a concert at the University of Washington’s Meany Hall that was unlike any I had ever attended: a performance by the Compagnie Marie Chouinard of music by Chopin and Stravinsky that demonstrated, even to a neophyte like me, how thrilling and emotionally satisfying modern dance can be.

The troupe consists of 10 dancers: 6 women and 4 men.  The first piece on the program was 24 Preludes by Chopin, and featured UW doctoral student Brooks Tran on piano.  I was already acquainted with Chopin’s preludes, and with the very first notes, I recognized the powerful dimension that dance added to the music.  As choreographed by Marie Chouinard, every single dance brought to mind words like “creative”, “inventive”, and “imaginative”.  To give just one illustration, at one point a single dancer held center stage while six others lay on their stomachs at the sides of the stage, hidden behind curtains except for their legs and feet, doing a swift flutter-kick.

The highlight of the Chopin was the turbulent “Raindrop” prelude, Op. 28, No. 15.  A single woman stood alone and motionless at the center of the stage, looking forlorn and desolate, reciting the notes of the musical scale in French, while another danced a lengthy, improvised solo in a tight pool of light upstage to her right.  The first woman was repeatedly interrupted and whisked offstage by the rest of the troupe marching determinedly across the stage, only to run back at once and continue her recitation.  The dance ended with both the speaker and the soloist being embraced by other dancers and escorted tenderly offstage.

This was the emotional climax of the entire piece.  In it, as in all the preludes, the choreography attempted no story or narrative, but when it ended, the feeling lingered of something very human.  At the conclusion of not just this, but several of the dances, the patron to my right breathed a hushed “Wow” to herself.  She spoke for many of us.

Throughout the 24 preludes, one’s attention was so focused on the dancers that it was easy to overlook the contribution of the pianist, Brooks Tran.  Mr. Tran played with great flair and understanding, and as the performers were taking their bows at the conclusion of the piece, the audience reserved its most enthusiastic applause for him.

Following the intermission, we were treated to a performance of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, with the University of Washington Symphony Orchestra conducted by Jonathan Pasternak.  As was the case in the Chopin preludes, Marie Chouinard made no attempt to follow any narrative in The Rite of Spring.  Rather, Stravinsky’s magnificent score was transformed into a series of set pieces involving one or more dancers in which the drama was in the movement alone.

A production so abstract, so free from story-line, begs the question, does The Rite of Spring suffer from this absence of narrative?  Does it feel like something is missing?  The answer is straightforward: If the story-line of the “Rite” is important to you, then this production may not be to your taste.  My guess is that very few people who love The Rite of Spring could tell you much about the story-line anyway.  The music is what we know and love, and this collaboration featured not only excellent musicianship but superlative dance as well.  The choreography was painstakingly fused to the music, and the musical climaxes were thrillingly rendered.  Ultimately, though this was not The Rite of Spring I was expecting, I would not have traded it for any other.

If you have a chance to see the Compagnie Marie Chouinard, you owe it to yourself to go.  I was fortunate to see them perform to live music, but if you are not so lucky, you should go anyway. Check their webpage http://www.mariechouinard.com/2013-410.html for their schedule.  Put it on your own personal bucket list.  I know I won’t pass up the chance to see them again.

Derrick Robinson

Book Review: Unbroken

Unbroken, by Laura Hillenbrand; Random House, 2010

One of the words critics like to use (I have used it myself, on occasion) when they particularly like something is the word “definitive”, as in, for example, “the definitive performance of Rachmaninoff’s 3rd Concerto” or, “the definitive history of the Six-Day War”.  What they mean by this is that this performance – or this history – sets a standard by which every other performance of this concerto, or history of this war, will henceforth be judged.  It is high praise, indeed, and often misapplied.  The definitive performance turns out to be the one the critic happened to hear first, and the definitive history the one which provides the most justification for his or her preconceptions.  Nevertheless, I have no hesitation at all in affirming that Laura Hillenbrand’s new book Unbroken is definitive in not just one way, but two.  It is the definitive account of survival in a small raft at sea, and the equally definitive description of life as a Japanese prisoner of war in World War II.  Once you’ve read this book, there is no need to read any other on either subject.

The hero of Unbroken is Louis Zamperini.  Born in Olean, New York in January 1917, Louie moved with his family soon after to Torrance, California.  To say that as a boy, Louie was high-spirited would be unduly kind.  The boy was incorrigible!  Whether he was smoking at age five, drinking at eight, or thieving whenever he had the chance, he was a clear case of trouble just waiting to happen.  What the reader takes away from his early misadventures, however, is not so much a sense of his delinquency as of his independence of spirit, a strength of identity and will that would be essential to his survival later on.

Early in 1941, while working as a welder for Lockheed, Louie joined the Army Air Corps., and in November, he was designated for training as a bombardier.  While on a search and rescue mission out of Honolulu, his B-24, the Green Hornet, went down in what appears to have been a combination of mechanical failure and human error, killing everyone on board except the pilot, Allen Phillips, tail gunner Francis McNamara, and Louie.  Although McNamara died on Day 33, Phillips and Louie continued to battle the elements, the sharks, and their ever-present thirst and hunger for 47 days, until they were finally picked up near an atoll in the Marshall Islands.

If there were any justice in the world, the story would have ended there, and Louie and Phillips’ ingenuity, resourcefulness, and determination would have been rewarded with prompt medical attention and a hero’s homecoming.  This was not to be.  After drifting for two thousand miles and enduring the most appalling deprivations, their tiny raft was finally spotted not by comrades-in-arms, but by sailors of the Japanese navy.  What followed must be read to be believed, but even after reading it, you may still find it unbelievable.  I will say only that if I had to choose between the perils of the open ocean and the systematic abuse and degradation that Phillips and Louie suffered at the hands of their Japanese captors, I would choose the ocean without a moment’s hesitation.

Unbroken both raises and effectively answers a number of questions.  What was it about the Japanese culture of that time that made such sadistic treatment of one’s fellow man possible, and even sanctioned it?  Miss Hillenbrand provides part of the answer in this passage:

Few societies treasured dignity, and feared humiliation, as did the Japanese, for whom a loss of honor could merit suicide.  This is likely one of the reasons why Japanese soldiers in World War II debased their prisoners with such zeal, seeking to take from them that which was most painful and destructive to lose.  On Kwajalein, Louie and Phil learned a dark truth known to the doomed in Hitler’s death camps, the slaves of the American South, and a hundred other generations of betrayed people.  Dignity is as essential to human life as water, food, and oxygen.  The stubborn retention of it, even in the face of extreme physical hardship, can hold a man’s soul in his body long past the point at which the body should have surrendered it.  The loss of it can carry a man off as surely as thirst, hunger, exposure, and asphyxiation, and with greater cruelty.  In places like Kwajalein, degradation could be as lethal as a bullet.

Later, she writes:

This tendency was powerfully reinforced by two opinions common in Japanese society in that era.  One held that Japanese were racially and morally superior to non-Japanese, a “pure” people divinely destined to rule.  Just as Allied soldiers, like the cultures they came from, often held virulently racist views of the Japanese, Japanese soldiers and civilians, intensely propagandized by their government, usually carried their own caustic prejudices about their enemies, seeing them as brutish, subhuman beasts or fearsome “Anglo-Saxon devils.”  This racism, and the hatred and fear it fomented, surely served as an accelerant for abuse of Allied prisoners.

In terms of numbers, what was the result of this perverted world-view?

In its rampage over the east, Japan had brought atrocity and death on a scale that staggers the imagination.  In the midst of it were the prisoners of war.  Japan held some 132,000 POWs from America, Britain, Canada, New Zealand, Holland, and Australia.  Of those, nearly 36,000 died, more than one in every four.  Americans fared particularly badly; of the 34,648 Americans held by Japan, 12,935 – more than 37 percent – died.  By comparison, only 1 percent of Americans held by the Nazis and Italians died.  Japan murdered thousands of POWs on death marches, and worked thousands of others to death in slavery, including some 16,000 POWs who died alongside as many as 100,000 Asian laborers forced to build the Burma-Siam Railway.  Thousands of other POWs were beaten, burned, stabbed, or clubbed to death, shot, beheaded, killed during medical experiments, or eaten alive in ritual acts of cannibalism.  And as a result of being fed grossly inadequate and befouled food and water, thousands more died of starvation and easily preventable diseases.  Of the 2,500 POWs at Borneo’s Sandakan camp, only 6, all escapees, made it to September 1945 alive.  Left out of the numbing statistics are untold numbers of men who were captured and killed on the spot or dragged to places like Kwajalein, to be murdered without the world ever learning their fate.

In accordance with the kill-all order, the Japanese murdered all 5,000 Korean captives on Tinian, all of the POWs on Ballale, Wake, and Tarawa, and all but 11 POWs at Palawan.  They were evidently about to murder all the other POWs and civilian internees in their custody when the atomic bomb brought their empire crashing down.

And what, finally, was the cost to those who survived?

At the end of World War II, thousands of former prisoners of the Japanese, known as Pacific POWs, began their postwar lives.  Physically, almost every one of them was ravaged.  The average army or army air forces Pacific POW had lost sixty-one pounds in captivity, a remarkable statistic given that roughly three-quarters of the men had weighed just 159 pounds or less upon enlistment…

The physical injuries were lasting, debilitating, and sometimes deadly.  A 1954 study found that in the first two postwar years, former Pacific POWs died at almost four times the expected rate for men of their age, and continued to die at unusually high rates for many years…

As bad as were the physical consequences of captivity, the emotional injuries were much more insidious, widespread, and enduring… For some, there was only one way out: a 1970 study reported that former Pacific POWs committed suicide 30 percent more often than controls.

This is an exceptionally worthwhile book; in fact, I am tempted to say an essential one.  I came away from it, as Laura Hillenbrand writes in her acknowledgments, “with the deepest appreciation for what these men endured, and what they sacrificed, for the good of humanity.”

I came away from it with more than that, however; a renewed conviction that mankind must find a way to resolve its differences short of war.  It would be gratifying to think that we have learned a lesson from the atomic devastation that ended the war with Japan, and that our awareness of the inconceivably horrific and far-reaching consequences of a modern all-out war will suffice as a deterrent, but that is not enough.  We have to stop killing one another.  We must all, finally and unequivocally, accept and embrace the brotherhood of man.

Derrick Robinson

Published in: on June 30, 2011 at 10:32 pm  Comments (5)  
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Book Review: The Girl Who Played with Fire

The Girl Who Played with Fire, by Stieg Larsson;  Vintage Books, 2010

The second installment of Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy, The Girl Who Played with Fire, begins one year after the events of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.  Mikael Blomqvist has weathered the tidal wave of attention that followed his exposé of Hans-Erik Wennerström, and Lisbeth Salander, who has been on an extended world tour, finds herself in the middle of a hurricane on the island of Grenada.  Their paths converge shortly after Lisbeth returns to Stockholm, when she is implicated in the triple murder of Dag Svensson, who had been working for Millennium on an exposé about sex-trafficking; his girlfriend Mia Johansson, and Salander’s court-appointed guardian, Nils Bjurman.

The investigation into the three murders takes place on several fronts.  While the police are proceding on the assumption of Salander’s guilt, and Blomqvist is trying to establish her innocence, Lisbeth herself is content to follow the investigation from a distance, until she discovers a link between the murders and a pivotal event in her past, forever identified in her mind as “All The Evil”.  This link involves Säpo – the Swedish Security Police – and as Lisbeth probes deeper into the connection, we are introduced to a motley crew of characters, including men who prey on underage women, a blond giant with congenital analgesia, and finally, to the mysterious Zala himself.

Just as in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Larsson’s attention in this novel is focused unblinkingly on men who hate women.  In a telling passage, he writes,

Teleborian was the most loathsome and disgusting sadist Salander had ever met in her life, bar none.  He outclassed Bjurman by a mile.  Bjurman had been unspeakably brutal, but she could handle him.  Teleborian, on the other hand, was shielded behind a curtain of documents, assessments, academic honours and psychiatric mumbo jumbo.  Not a single one of his actions could ever be reported or criticized.  He had a state-endorsed mandate to tie down disobedient little girls with leather straps.

Unlike its predecessor novel, The Girl Who Played with Fire would have benefited from a little judicious editing.  Larsson dwells at unnecessary length on Fermat’s Last Theorem, and as I wended my way through the novel, it occurred to me more than once that if no one ever hacked into another computer, lit another cigarette, or bought one more Billy’s Pan Pizza, it would be just fine with me.  This small quibble notwithstanding, The Girl Who Played with Fire is in every way a worthy sequel to The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.  Throughout the story, Larsson evidences an unflagging attention to detail and unerring instinct for plot development.  Lisbeth Salander, while remaining – in the words of her friend Mimmi – “the most secretive and unapproachable person I know,” is arguably one of the most engaging heroines in recent memory.

If you haven’t already read The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, you should definitely read it first.  If, on the other hand, you’ve already read that book, then you hardly need my recommendation to go out and get this one.  Chances are, you already have it.

Derrick Robinson

Published in: on November 30, 2010 at 11:00 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Book Review: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, by Stieg Larsson; Vintage Books, 2009

Every now and then, one happens upon a book so compelling that our life is essentially placed on hold until we finish reading it.  Beds go unmade, dishes languish in the sink, social obligations are postponed or ignored; everything waits until we finish the book.  One such book was Thomas Harris’ The Silence of the Lambs; another is The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, by Stieg Larsson.

A copy of this book fell into my hands during a recent trip to Denver, courtesy of my friend Kay Stevenson, and I was up until 2:00 last night reading it.  Briefly, the novel tells the story of Mikael Blomqvist, the co-owner and publisher of the financial watchdog magazine Millennium, and Lisbeth Salander, a socially awkward, abundantly tattooed, fiercely independent private investigator and computer hacker extraordinaire.  Blomqvist is hired by aged industrialist Henrik Vanger to investigate – and if possible, to resolve – the disappearance thirty-six years ago of his niece Harriet, and Blomqvist hires Salander to aid him in his pursuit.  The working out of this mystery is compelling in and of itself, but more enthralling still is the character development of the novel’s protagonists, especially Lisbeth Salander, who engages our interest and sympathies from start to finish.

Originally written in Swedish, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was first published as Män Som Hatar Kvinnor, “Men Who Hate Women”.  That title tells us a lot about the author’s central theme, which is the tendency of power to corrupt both morally and sexually.  Yet for every character in the book who does hate women, there is a Mikael Blomqvist, Holger Palmgren, Henrik Vanger, or Dragan Armansky, who love and respect them.  It is obvious also that Stieg Larsson himself loves women, or did.  Tragically, he died of a heart attack at age 50 in 2004.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is not a polemic on the evils of men; it is a psychological thriller, and a first-rate one at that.  As such, I heartily recommend it.

Just be sure you don’t have anything else you have to do.

Derrick Robinson

Published in: on October 31, 2010 at 11:29 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Movie Review: “Gran Torino”

“Nothing propinks like propinquity.” – Ian Fleming

gran-torino“Gran Torino” begins with the funeral service for the late wife of retired auto-worker Walt Kowalski (Clint Eastwood).  We see at once that Walt is a man at odds with the world around him.  Instead of the show of affection and mutual support we might expect at a funeral, we see clear signs of his estrangement from his family.  Instead of taking some comfort from the Catholic ritual, he must work to hide his disdain for his parish’s baby-faced priest.

The reception at Walt’s home following the service reinforces this impression.  With the sole exception of his dog Daisy, Walt is at odds with everyone, especially the Hmong family that lives next door.  He is visibly angry about the influx of immigrants into his neighborhood, and his sotto voce mutterings reveal a deeply prejudiced man.  Of Polish descent himself, it never occurs to Walt that his own ancestors were once in the same position that his neighbors are in now.  A veteran of the Korean War, he still carries a full complement of wartime prejudices.

His experiences during that war are never far from Walt’s mind; in fact, they live with him constantly.  In a sense, he is still fighting the Korean War, and still seeking absolution for deeds he committed then.  Reflecting on his wartime experiences, he tells the priest, “The thing that haunts a man the most is what he isn’t ordered to do.”

Despite his wish to be left alone, circumstances soon force Walt to interact with his neighbors.  He rescues the older sister Sue (Ahney Her) from the attentions of three young toughs, and works to keep the younger brother Thao (Bee Vang) out of the clutches of a neighborhood gang.  As he spends time with Sue and Thao, he develops a genuine affection for them.  He defends Thao like he would his own son, and finds in him an opportunity to make amends for having kept his own two sons at arm’s length all their lives.  Ultimately, he begins to take pride in Thao, to respect him, and at the movie’s end, tells him, “I’m proud to say that you’re my friend.”

Simply put, “Gran Torino” is about atonement.  Walt is given a chance to atone for his mistakes in raising his sons, and for the needless killing of a young Chinese soldier in Korea.  His willingness to change and to set aside the prejudices of a lifetime is a testament to his underlying decency.  Through Walt’s acceptance of his Hmong neighbors, the movie makes a strong case that you can only hate what you don’t know, and calls to mind a proverb from Ian Fleming’s Diamonds Are Forever: “Nothing propinks like propinquity.”

Special mention must be made of the sure hand shown by screenwriter Nick Schenk.  It is his dialog that gives “Gran Torino” much of its punch, not to mention its moments of comic relief, without which it would seem unrelievedly grim.

Clint Eastwood, who turned 79 last May, has lost none of the acting and directing savvy that has marked so much of his recent work, including “Unforgiven” (1992) and “Million Dollar Baby” (2004).  “Gran Torino” marks his first acting role since his Oscar-winning turn in “Million Dollar Baby”.  As Walt Kowalski, he is unforgettable, and as director, he elicits excellent performances from the entire supporting cast.  Though you should bear in mind the language and violence of the streets in which the story takes place, this is a Clint Eastwood movie with heart, and I would unhesitatingly recommend “Gran Torino” to anyone old enough to drive.

Derrick Robinson

Published in: on November 10, 2009 at 8:53 am  Comments (2)  
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Movie Review: “Strictly Ballroom”

“A life lived in fear is a life half-lived.”

strictly ballroom“Strictly Ballroom” is a 1992 film by Australian director Baz Luhrmann.  It begins at the conclusion of a local dance competition in which young Scott Hastings (Paul Mercurio) effectively dances himself out of contention by trying out his own new dance moves, a pathway to certain defeat in the hidebound world of ballroom dance.  The competition lost, his partner Liz (Liz Holt) refuses to continue to dance with him and takes up with veteran Ken Railings (John Hannan) instead, leaving Scott without a partner for the upcoming Pan-Pacific Grand Prix Championship.

The characters in these early scenes have a frightening, cartoonish aspect.  The men all have florid, sweaty faces and bad toupees, and the women wear their hair in impossible spikes.  Into this surreal arena enters the simple, unadorned Fran, winningly acted by Tara Morice, who reminded me of both Andie McDowell and Nia Vardalos.  Fran is a novice dancer and a textbook ugly duckling, complete with horn-rimmed glasses and a space between her front teeth.  She tells a dubious Scott, “I want to dance with you, your way”, and persuades him to give her an hour to show what she can do.

That first hour together is magical.  Fran has far more talent and aptitude than Scott anticipated, and she brings out a sensitive, caring side in him that we hadn’t seen before.  They dance beautifully together, yet Scott insists that the tryouts being conducted by his mother (Pat Thompson) to find a new partner for him will go forward as planned.

“Strictly Ballroom” tells the story of how these two are forced to confront his dysfunctional family, as well as the seamy underbelly of competitive dance, and how they grow both as individuals and as a couple in the process.  While the basic storyline is unassuming, the costuming is a feast for the eye, and the soundtrack is delightful from beginning to end, and includes “Time After Time”, “Love is in the Air”, and “Perhaps, Perhaps, Perhaps” as sung by the inimitable Doris Day.

The sum total of all these parts is that rarest, most elusive of all cinematic achievements: romance.  Not since Zhang Yimou’s “The Road Home” have I seen a more romantic movie, and I think it is significant that both of them were made outside the U.S., far removed from Hollywood’s pernicious influence.

I recommend “Strictly Ballroom” for everyone, whether you’re looking for a movie for your family, a date with your main squeeze, or a night out with friends.  Even if you feel doubtful going in, you’ll feel happy on your way out.

Derrick Robinson

Movie Review: “Bagdad Café”

Bagdad_cafeBagdad Café is a 1987 film by German director Percy Adlon.  It tells the story of the inhabitants of an isolated truck stop/motel in the southern California desert, and the German tourist who unexpectedly finds herself stranded there.

The proprietress of this cafe is Brenda (CCH Pounder), a perpetually angry African-American woman on the edge of desperation who, in addition to managing the cafe and motel, has two teenage children and a grandbaby to look after.  Brenda is the only one connected with this enterprise who is not content simply to let things go their own way.  She fights endlessly with her husband, who takes a much more relaxed view of things than she does, and who decides finally that the safest course for him is to leave.

The motel is also home to Rudi (Jack Palance), a one-time Hollywood set painter, Debby (Christine Kaufmann), a popular tattoo artist, and Cahuenga (George Aquilar), a short-order cook.  Into this diverse mix of characters wanders Jasmine Münchgstettner (Marianne Sägebrecht), a German tourist on vacation with her husband.  They have just quarreled for the last time, after which he headed one way in the rented Lincoln while she headed the other way on foot, pulling her luggage behind her.

In due time Jasmine finds herself at the Bagdad Gas and Oil Cafe, where, to Brenda’s surprise, she takes a room.  Jasmine understands immediately that she is needed there, and at this point, being needed happens to be what Jasmine needs the most.  She decides to stay awhile, and for the rest of the movie, we watch as she is integrated into this unlikely family and how, ultimately, one person’s strengths dovetail with someone else’s needs.

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of this movie is how much we come to care about these people and how quickly we are drawn into their world.  Credit for this must go to Marianne Sägebrecht, CCH Pounder, and Jack Palance for their first-rate performances throughout.  Even more must go to writer/director Percy Adlon and his wife and writing partner Eleonore, who understand that great cinema does not depend on spectacle and special effects, but on finding and exploring situations in which the audience can relate to their characters.

I’m tempted to recommend this movie to everyone, but in fact there are themes here that are beyond the understanding of most pre-teens.  To everyone else I say, put Bagdad Café at the top of your “must see” list.

Derrick Robinson

Movie Review: “Duplicity”

duplicityI really should have known better.

The On Demand thumbnail sketch for “Duplicity” read, “This smartly-paced thriller, written and directed by Tony Gilroy, stars Julia Roberts and Clive Owen as longtime lovers and corporate spies who team up to stage an elaborate con to rip off their rival companies.”  With a promo like that, how good could it be?  But Susie wanted to watch a movie, and I was happy to watch something besides HGTV, and as Pope reminds us, “hope springs eternal in the human breast.”

Briefly, “Duplicity” is about two spies, Ray Koval (Owen) and Claire Stenwick (Roberts).  In the opening scene, which takes place five years ago in Dubai, they meet at an Independence Day celebration, and we are treated to the first of many verbal fencing matches.  They spend the night together (how did that happen?) after which Claire drugs Ray and steals secret documents, an act of duplicity that sows seeds of mistrust and suspicion that permeate the whole movie.

Eventually, Ray and Claire leave their government posts to enter the high-stakes world of corporate espionage.  They conspire to defraud their respective employers and sell corporate secrets to the highest bidder.  Along the way, there’s more verbal fencing and – it must be admitted – one truly suspenseful scene in which Claire must find a copier and transmit a document before she and the document are both discovered missing.

Sadly, this is the best scene in the movie.

“Duplicity” typifies everything I dislike about mainstream Hollywood movies today.  Like so many films that come out of Hollywood, “Duplicity” began not as an artist’s dream, but as a moneymaking scheme.  The stars were cast not according to their talent or suitability for their roles, but according to their star power.  This is not meant as a criticism of Julia Roberts; I thought she was excellent in her early movies.  But an actor of her stature needs to choose her roles carefully, if for no other reason than not to overwhelm the role – and perhaps the movie – with her mere presence.

The primary fault in “Duplicity” lies not with the acting or direction, but with the writing.  It is long on plot twists, and short on characterization.  We cannot identify with the protagonists, because as they are written, we have nothing in common with them.  Saddest of all, we are never able to enjoy the love affair between Ray and Claire because we can never escape the suspicion that one is playing the other for his or her own selfish ends.

I recommend this movie only for those die-hard Julia Roberts fans who are bound and determined to see every one of her movies.  The rest of us would do better to pop some popcorn, sit back, and watch an old favorite.

Derrick Robinson

Published in: on September 28, 2009 at 12:15 am  Leave a Comment  
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