Swan Lake

The American Ballet Theatre at Lincoln Center on Wednesday, June 27.

Swan Lake is my favorite ballet—kind of pedestrian of me, I guess, but it’s perfect, and as much as I enjoy Giselle and Cinderella, they can’t compare to the perfection of Swan Lake.

Paprika

In theaters.

I usually include a brief summary of the premise when I write about movies, but I haven’t a clue how to manage that with Paprika. The brilliant but bizarre anime feature slips in and out of reality without notice. The plot twists frenetically, the characters take on multiple guises, and the imagery challenges Western expectations about what animation can accomplish.

Only ninety minutes in length, Paprika feels longer, not because it drags (it doesn’t) but because it’s so rich and dense and stimulating. It’s the kind of movie that demands that you give yourself over to it, that you accept its phantasmagorical world and let go of any preconceived notions you might have had about where the story will take you—and that kind of aesthetic submersion is thrilling. Once Paprika was over, I immediately wanted to watch it again.

Tradition and Innovation

The New York City Ballet on Sunday, June 17.

Oscar Wilde was a paragon of dry, satiric wit, so I tend to forget that his writing could be a bit maudlin, too. Some scenes in An Ideal Husband, for example, become downright cloying if not handled with what I ever so humbly consider to be the proper arch tone. As for Wilde’s story “The Nightingale and the Rose,” it tilts dangerously toward bathos—which perhaps makes it well suited for ballet. Ballet, as a medium, can transform the mawkishly sentimental into something beautiful and affecting.

But I have mixed feelings about Christopher Wheeldon’s new short ballet based on Wilde’s short story. Wendy Whelan danced the role of the Nightingale with lovely, avian delicacy, and Bright Sheng’s score, commissioned for this work, had some striking, exquisite passages, particularly during the Nightingale’s death. The ballet has lingered in my memory, yet the tearjerking sensibility, mixed with unsettling imagery and staggering cynicism, left me uncertain about the work as a whole.

Guitar Hero II

On PlayStation 2.

You can’t learn a difficult piece of music simply by playing it repeatedly from beginning to end. You have to isolate the problem passages, work out the fingerings and phrasings, and then drill them, slowly at first, until you teach your fingers exactly how they should move and your eyes exactly what they should see and your ears exactly what they should hear. As a music major, I spent hours alone in practice rooms, painstakingly working through a few sticky measures. It sounds tedious, and it often was, but when I finally could nail those tricky passages, the sense of accomplishment made me giddy. It was worth it.

Still, drilling fingerings and rhythms is hardly exciting, which is why Guitar Hero II amuses me so much: Underneath all the bells and whistles, it re-creates that experience.

Ocean’s Thirteen

In theaters.

I feel kind of guilty. Several appealing smaller movies are playing in theaters—Once and The Valet and Paprika, to name a few. I’ve been meaning to check them out, but what do I go to see this week? Ocean’s Thirteen. I’m so embarrassed.

But Ocean’s Thirteen is exactly the sort of summer movie I adore. Unabashedly frivolous and unfailing cheerful, breezy and witty and jaunty, it just puts me a good mood. The fluffy confection of a plot doesn’t withstand much scrutiny, and each character isn’t so much a three-dimensional being as a single adjective in human form. But none of that matters. With Steven Soderbergh directing and George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Andy Garcia, and company charming their way around the screen like old-fashioned Golden Age movie stars, Ocean’s Thirteen represents a triumph of style over substance—and I mean that in the best way possible. Sometimes substance is a drag.

The Sopranos series finale

Aired Sunday, June 10.

Did Sopranos creator David Chase panic when he went to write the final episode of his critically revered mafia series? If the show ended with Tony caving, flipping on the New York crew, and wasting miserably away in the witness protection program, everyone would point out the resemblance to GoodFellas. If the show ended with the violent death of Meadow or A.J.—the sins of the father visited upon the children—everyone would point out the resemblance to The Godfather III. If the show ended quietly with 
Tony isolated and damned—Godfather II. If the show ended loudly with Tony in a hail of bullets—Scarface. Did Chase simply throw up his hands at the impossible expectations and decide to class up a non-ending instead? Because, if so: sorry, David, but that’s been done, too—and better—by John Sayles in Limbo.

Brahms’ Variations on a Theme by Haydn and “Ein deutsches Requiem”

The New York Philharmonic on Tuesday, June 5.

The traditional Latin text for a requiem mass is a prayer for the dead, repeatedly asking God to grant the departed eternal rest. Brahms’ requiem is different. Instead of using the Latin liturgy, he patched together texts from the Bible, both Old Testament and New. The result is a prayer not so much for the dead but for the living: those who grieve and will someday die themselves.

Ein deutsches Requiem is nothing less than the most powerful, eloquent contemplation of mortality I’ve ever encountered. Grand yet intimate, it first assures you that you will find peace someday (Brahms opens with one of the Beatitudes: “Blessed are they who mourn, for they shall be comforted”), and then it plunges into a harrowing study of the transience of human life. (“For all flesh is as grass…”) After that grim truth, the reassurances of the final movements, with promises of life after death from the Epistles and Revelation, are truly heavenly. The requiem is an emotionally exhausting work but an extraordinary one.