The Seafarer

Now playing at the Booth Theatre on Broadway.

The most memorable passage of The Seafarer is a monologue about Hell—Hell as a place, not a mere concept, but not the traditional inferno either. To the contrary, The Seafarer describes Hell as a place of cold—cold, isolation, and self-loathing. The more I think about it, the more I like that description. Flames might be more frightening from a physical standpoint, but from an emotional standpoint, cold is worse. A cold person is capable of much more terrible cruelty than a fiery person. What’s more, cold is not a thing itself; it is absence, the absence of heat. Cold is abandonment, loneliness, rejection or, worse, indifference. Fire might be physical agony, but cold goes deeper. To experience a cold Hell is to experience profound loss, the loss of everything warm and good and beautiful.

I listened, rapt, as CiarĂ¡n Hinds delivered the Hell monologue in The Seafarer, just as I listened, rapt, to the monologues in The Weir, an earlier work by the same playwright, Conor McPherson, when it saw it in London nearly ten years ago. But unlike The Weir, The Seafarer didn’t really capture my imagination beyond that monologue. Unlike in The Weir, the monologue was really the only thing that felt fresh.

Be Kind Rewind

In theaters.

It’s times like this that I feel like a killjoy. Be Kind Rewind is a terribly sweet movie with a good heart, and my argument against it boils down to “Sweet isn’t good enough.” That sounds cold, even to me, but damn, it’s true, and truth be told, it makes me a little bit angry. Writer-director Michel Gondry squanders his story’s vast potential and his own visual ingenuity on treacle: it may be sweet, but it’s all empty calories, and it’s not nearly as rich as it could have been.

The 80th Annual Academy Awards

Sunday, February 24.

When it comes to artistic works—movies, books, composers, bands—I prefer to think in terms of favorites rather than best. Favorites is more honest. It acknowledges the undeniable, inevitable, wonderful subjectivity of evaluating art, of ranking it as though it were something one could measure with a ruler or a stopwatch. Judging between extremes is easy enough, but attempting to weigh this very good thing against that very good thing always seems silly to me.

4 Months, 3 Weeks & 2 Days

In theaters.

I’ve heard 4 Months, 3 Weeks & 2 Days described as “that Romanian movie about abortion,” which manages to be both unfairly condescending and reasonably accurate. The implication that writer-director Cristian Mungiu’s film is just a pedantic “issue movie” is dead wrong—it’s far too understated and artful for that—but neither can one easily step back from the brutal events on screen and imagine them to be merely allegorical or metaphoric. 4 Months isn’t vaguely about the suffering of millions under Communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu; it’s specifically about the suffering of two individual women, and the unrelentingly naturalistic filmmaking demands that we recognize and experience that. 4 Months is “about abortion” because anything less would be a betrayal of the characters.

In Bruges

In theaters.

Writer-director Martin McDonagh’s feature film debut is extraordinarily preoccupied with mortality and guilt, the finality of death, the weighing of one evil against another—which is a bit odd because of its genre. In Bruges is, in many ways, an archetypal black-humored crime flick—packed with stylized banter, quirky characters, and self-consciously weird juxtapositions—and that genre lends itself more to wry, amoral detachment than earnest ethical evaluations.

Obviously, it’s not impossible to do the latter. I know many would disagree, but I happen to believe that Quentin Tarantino—surely the godfather of the breed—has produced work with a strong moral center. I mean, the climax of Pulp Fiction is a revelation from God, Jules solemnly declaring that after years enforcing the “tyranny of evil men” he’s going to try to act as a shepherd. But I digress. My point is that McDonagh is attempting a very delicate balancing act with In Bruges, and I’m not sure he totally pulls it off. The dialogue sometimes lumbers when it should be more subtle. The self-conscious weirdness sometimes feels off point and distracting. Yet In Bruges also has flashes of genuine power, scenes in which the artsy allusions to Bosch actually seem to work and the film transcends its genre—if only for a few beautiful moments.

The Poisonwood Bible

By Barbara Kingsolver. Published in 1998.

On the back of my copy of The Poisonwood Bible is a quote from Jane Smiley’s review from the Washington Post Book World: “This awed reviewer hardly knows where to begin.” I love that line for its generosity and its humility and for the way it makes me feel better about not knowing where to begin myself.

But where can one begin with Kingsolver’s hugely ambitious novel? Spanning thirty years of tumult in the lives of a single unfortunate family, the multi-voiced narrative fearlessly tackles colonialism and patriarchy, culpability and absolution, the perversion of Christianity and the dark history of Africa, all with such artistry and urgency that I stayed up too late several nights in a row rather than set the book aside.

The Tudors

Season one on DVD. Season two debuts Sunday, March 30, on Showtime (not that I get Showtime, but for the record, there it is).

I always feel vaguely uneasy about historical drama. I feel guilty about not feeling guilty for the way storytellers tweak and compress and misrepresent the substance of real peoples’ lives for the sake of the tale. It seems unfair, for example, that we think of Richard III as a monstrous king when he almost certainly had nothing to do with the deaths of his royal nephews, yet I’d be loath to give up Shakespeare’s deliciously venomous antihero for the sake of rigid historical accuracy. Besides, the story behind the story—how and why Richard became so maligned even before the Bard got involved—is intriguing in its own right. Shifts and reinterpretations are half the fun of history, and dramatic interpretations are particularly entertaining. I just can’t get indignant the way my pedantic side feels I ought.

All this is to say that I know enough about the reign of Henry VIII to recognize that The Tudors is taking liberties. Henry and Katherine of Aragon were not more than a decade apart in age. Cardinal Wolsey did not commit suicide. And Henry’s younger sister was Mary, not Margaret, and she married the king of France, not the king of Portugal, and she certainly didn’t murder him.

But it’s liberties like those that help heighten the drama. The considerable age gap between Henry and Katherine emphasizes how Henry was motivated to divorce her in part because he wanted a younger, potentially more fertile wife to bear his children. Wolsey’s suicide emphasizes just how sudden and extreme the cardinal’s fall from favor was, providing a satisfying climax to one of the season’s principal arcs. And the misrepresentation of Henry’s sister simplifies the narrative (the story hardly needs another Mary, and the intrigues with France are complicated enough as is) and supplies a surprisingly compelling subplot about just how bad a princess’s lot in life was (a pet theme of mine, I admit). In other words, the writers often use falsity to illuminate truth, and to do so with flair.

Of course, I don’t want to overstate the case here. The Tudors is fun, even affecting at points, but it’s certainly not in the same league as Shakespeare. It’s a soap, albeit an unusually lush one, given to melodramatics and overripe dialogue and gratuitous nudity. That said, I have a weakness for melodramatics and overripe dialogue (gratuitous nudity isn’t so bad either), so I forgive the show its sins and delight in the morsels of substance beneath the froth.


The New York City Ballet on Thursday, February 7.

It never fails: When I choose to see a ballet repertory program mainly for one or two works on the bill, those works are never my favorites, and often, the work in which I had no particular interest is the one I most enjoy. Sometimes I wonder whether I should just start picking programs at random.

In the case of the City Ballet’s Inspirations program, I was curious about “The Chairman Dances,” set by Peter Martins to music cut from John Adams’ minimalist opera Nixon in China, and I was eager to see “Rococo Variations,” Christopher Wheeldon’s final work for the company as its resident choreographer. I rolled my eyes at the inclusion of “Stars and Stripes,” George Balanchine’s John Philip Sousa extravaganza, but inevitably, that latter work delighted me in spite of myself, and the former two disappointed. Someday this will stop surprising me.

Rock ‘n’ Roll

Now playing at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre on Broadway.

Before this, I’d never seen one of Tom Stoppard’s plays performed, only read them on my own, and to be honest, reading them is easier. Stoppard’s text is so dense, packed with philosophical ideas, debates on determinism and free will, romanticism and classicism, materialism and consciousness, and—always—Truth with a capital T, and it isn’t so overwhelming if you can keep the words in front of you, to reread and parse and ponder at your leisure.

That said, watching the text brought to life is exciting. Seeing the actors helps keep you from bogging yourself down in the concepts and theories and abstracts, for though Stoppard’s plays are intellectually demanding, they can be tender and funny and human, too. His famous debut play, Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead, wouldn’t be so affecting if it were merely an existential treatise, and his latest, Rock ‘n’ Roll, also expands on its challenging philosophical foundation to tell a vivid, moving story.