The Metropolitan Opera on Tuesday, September 23.

From the cheap seats of the family circle, soprano Karita Mattila has the vintage Britney Spears act down cold. Closer in, the effect might not be so convincing (she is in her forties), but at a distance, her fidgety, loose-limbed, not-that-innocent bearing is just about perfect. Mattila’s Salome is both sensual and childish, sophisticated and immature, and it’s not always apparent whether she’s truly conscious of the impact she has on those around her.

Even Mattila’s voice has a youthful (though blessedly un-Britney-like) timbre. She dances over Strauss’s slippery melodies with a light, ringing tone that somehow conveys Salome’s quicksilver moods and perverse desires without sacrificing the beauty of her instrument. Her performance is brilliant: provocative and gorgeous and creepy as hell, which makes it ideally suited for the provocative, gorgeous, creepy-as-hell opera.

A Man for All Seasons

Now playing at the American Airlines Theatre on Broadway.

I have only vague memories of the film adaptation of A Man for All Seasons, which I saw as a child (my parents have weird ideas about what constitutes a kid-friendly movie), but I remembered enough to know that the play is about the persecution of Thomas More. Being uneasy about both religion and martyrdom, I didn’t expect to relate much when I bought a ticket to this new production, but I figured it would be interesting nonetheless, a curiosity of both the Reformation and the idealistic 1960s.

So I was surprised—quite surprised, actually—when the play did resonate for me. Underneath all the historical trappings, it proved relevant and meaningful. Turns out it’s less about religious principles than about legal principles, and More, far from being off-puttingly eager to make a statement with his own death, is, in fact, a reluctant martyr, trying to find an honorable way out of his predicament right to the end. And with Frank Langella playing More, that end is a memorable one indeed.

Burn After Reading

In theaters.

Burn After Reading looks and sounds like a spy thriller: self-consciously dramatic score; many shots of dark-suited legs walking briskly down anonymous, sterile hallways at CIA headquarters; convoluted plot packed with deception and betrayal. But this is Coen brothers movie (and one of their “idiot” movies at that), so despite the slick trappings, Burn After Reading is always off-kilter, not out-and-out farce but not quite right, either.

The preview gives away all the best laughs, but even if the gags weren’t spoiled, the bleak undercurrent mutes some of the hilarity. Supposedly Joel and Ethan Coen wrote Burn concurrently with No Country for Old Men, their Oscar-winning Cormac McCarthy adaptation, and if that’s not true, it should be: the same creeping nihilism permeates both films. In No Country, Kelly Macdonald’s breathtaking final scene pushes back against some of the darkness, but Burn revels in its own pointlessness and amorality to the very end. It’s funny, and it features some amusing performances, but it leaves behind a disconcerting void.

Hellboy II: The Golden Army

In theaters.

Well, if nothing else, writer-director Guillermo del Toro can still create a gorgeous image. His creepy beasties are memorable and immediately identifiable, and he has a real knack for creating a striking tableau. But I’m a little concerned about the deterioration of his storytelling abilities. The Devil’s Backbone (2001) is rich with subtext, nuanced characterizations, and dramatic power. Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) has a beautiful narrative arc with a devastating climax. Even Blade II (2002) has a darkly twisty plot and a surprisingly emotional finish.

But Hellboy II is silly even for a summer movie. It has no sense of momentum or peril and the weakest, most transparent conclusion I’ve seen in an ages. Predictability isn’t even the real issue. Inevitability can feel fated and tragic, but here it’s just stupid. The first big scene with the villain telegraphs exactly how he’ll meet his doom, and he could, in fact, be taken out at any point after that, without any muss at all. When the end finally arrives, it’s not triggered by anything, really, but the fact that the movie is on its final reel, which makes the scene ludicrously anticlimactic. That’s just bad storytelling. I wasn’t anticipating a masterpiece, but I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect something halfway decent from a guy with a Oscar nomination for best original screenplay on his résumé.


Season one on DVD and Hulu. Season two debuts Monday, September 29, on NBC.

The concept of Life is darkly high-concept (a cop framed for murder and exonerated and freed after twelve years rejoins the police force, despite the fact that he won a huge financial settlement against the city), but it rarely feels as pat and over-constructed as its premise suggests. Similarly, a rough sketch of the cop (he loves fruit! he’s into Zen! he speaks in a weird, elliptical manner that drives his partner crazy!) belies the complexity of the character and the way those oh-so-quirky details begin to feel organic rather than contrived.

So what looks like an unpromising drama—yet another cop show trying way too hard to separate itself from the pack—somehow coalesces into something genuinely compelling, at times even moving. I’m not sure who to credit—creator Rand Ravich for doing far more with his hook than I would guessed or actors Damian Lewis and Sarah Shahi for making everything come alive in prickly but spirited fashion—but in its strike-abbreviated first season, Life captured my attention. It has real potential, which makes its coming banishment to the wasteland of Friday nights a real shame. (Not that I ever watch TV shows when they actually air, but still.)

J. M. W. Turner

Special exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art through September 21.

The meaning of the word sublime has faded over time. Now it’s just a generic expression of greatness—a gorgeous dress, a delicious meal, a beautiful evening, all can be sublime—but sublime once held deeper significance. Only something vast and breathtaking, perhaps even frightening, could be sublime. Sublime described something literally beyond compare. It was a word to describe the wonders of nature: an immense chasm, a crashing wave, the boundless expanse of space.

I love that old meaning. It’s easy to forget, easy to abuse the word, like using awesome when you don’t feel anything like reverence, but I think we lost something when we pulled such beautifully deferential words down to our own level. When you look at the paintings of J. M. W. Turner, for example, you need sublime, in its original sense, because that’s what the artist is trying to convey, the overwhelming power and grandeur of the natural world: the sublime—there’s no better way to express it.