The premise alone is enchanting: Overwhelmed by grief, an old man launches his tumbledown house into the air with thousands of brightly colored helium balloons. Soaring above the clouds into a soft blue sky, the flying house represents escapism at its loveliest, unbound by any hard laws of physics, the realization of a blissful dream.
It’s a testament to how high the standards for Pixar are that this glorious image isn’t a surprise. We expect greatness from the studio that gave us Wall-E and Ratatouille and Finding Nemo, to name just a few, so it feels almost redundant to report that yes, once again, the animation studio has delivered. But deliver it has. Up is tender and funny and imaginative and beautiful—no less so for having been preceded by other such gems.
The American Ballet Theatre at Lincoln Center on Wednesday, May 28.
Other than the dancing, Le Corsaire has absolutely nothing to recommend it. The story is ludicrous at best, and worse, the music is hopelessly prosaic, a hodgepodge of paint-by-numbers early Romantic filler. It’s tragic, really, how nineteenth-century ballet companies that established the canon gravitated toward wallpaper music. Were it not for Tchaikovsky (Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty, and The Nutcracker) and Prokofiev (Cinderella and Romeo and Juliet), the repertory music for full-length ballets would consist almost entirely of watery pastiche.
I know that the primary reason to go to the ballet is to see the dancing, but a striking score elevates a work. Without Tchaikovsky’s gorgeous music, for example, Swan Lake wouldn’t be such a paragon, and a lack of such keeps the otherwise exemplary Giselle from achieving real greatness. As for the dopey Le Corsaire, it probably wouldn’t be top-tier even with music by one of the Russian masters, but a score with some substance certainly couldn’t hurt.
By Aryn Kyle. Published in 2007.
The first chapter of The God of Animals initially appeared as an award-winning short story in The Atlantic, and the residue of its earlier incarnation lingers in the pages of the novel. Good short stories distill so much into such little space—every word counts—and The God of Animals, with its tone set by that gorgeous first chapter, has that same kind of bewitching weight.
Now playing at the Palace Theatre on Broadway.
At a weekday evening performance of West Side Story, Sean and I had the misfortune to be seated directly in front of a group of high school students, a small but significant number of whom simply could not deal with the conceit of dancing gang members. They snickered and whispered and generally lived down to every stereotype of the age. We wanted to smack them. Choreographer Jerome Robbins’s street ballet obviously isn’t realistic, but strict adherence to realism is a poor metric for quality in art, and in a musical, it’s absurd.
The real irony, though, is that Robbins’s landmark choreography, restored in this new revival, is the best thing about the production. The instrumentalists, while quite talented, aren’t completely in sync performing composer Leonard Bernstein’s complex rhythms, and the singers, with a few notable exceptions, are pedestrian and poorly served by bad miking. But the dancing—athletic leaps and long-lined extensions and crisp, coordinated movements playing off Bernstein’s iconic music! That I loved, and no stupid giggly kids could spoil it for me. (Kids these days! Get off my lawn!)
The Brothers Bloom takes the structure of a caper movie—with two con men, their accomplice, and their mark at the center—but that’s not what is. The con isn’t the point of the movie any more than it’s the point for the con men. Stephen, the mastermind, is an artist. In the words of Bloom, his brother and longtime partner in crime, Stephen “writes cons like dead Russians write novels.” But Bloom has tired of playing parts in Stephen’s games, no matter how well written they might be. He feels lost, without his own identity, and he struggles to find the words to express his frustration: “I want—” “You want an unwritten life,” Stephen provides. Bloom emphatically agrees, repeating the words, and then his face falls. Stephen winks.
If you don’t find that exchange utterly charming and poetic, you’re never going to like this movie. Hell, you’re never going to get through the prologue, a fable-like tale from the brothers’ childhood, narrated in verse (verse!) by the incomparable Ricky Jay. Writer-director Rian Johnson has no use for realism and no aversion to contrivance. In fact, he embraces the contrivance, toying with it and admiring it, because in the end, this is a story about contrivance, a story about storytelling: fictions we tell about ourselves and fictions we tell to ourselves, fictions that confine us and fictions that expand our world, fictions that remain fictions and fictions that come true.
For all its ambition, The Brothers Bloom doesn’t quite reach the heights Johnson is aiming at, but it has such warmth and so much color that its shortcomings don’t bother me much. True, I’m a sucker for this kind of movie—the self-conscious, hyperstylized, but exquisitely heartfelt melodrama—but Johnson really does have a flair for language, its rhythms and subtleties, and with such a talented cast breathing life into the artfully crafted turns of phrase, The Brothers Bloom is a joyful, winsome experience.
The Mark Morris Dance Group at Lincoln Center on Thursday, May 14.
The oddest thing about Sergei Prokofiev’s otherwise orthodox Romeo and Juliet—the original version, the one with the telling addendum to the title, the one that ran badly afoul of Stalin’s repressive regime—is the exceedingly unorthodox ending: Romeo and Juliet live. I gasped when I first learned that, but the scenario turns out not to be the cloying, saccharine happy ending I imagined. It’s more subtle than that. Rather than say that they live, it’s probably more accurate to say that Romeo and Juliet don’t die. (“Zombies!” Sean exclaimed when I told him.) They ascend, perhaps, existing on some otherworldly plane for one final pas de deux. It’s actually quite lovely.
Now this is a summer movie, which is great because after (ugh) Wolverine, I was thinking about ditching the movie theater until October. But director J.J. Abrams’s Star Trek is the perfect summer movie event, the kind of flick that, like a great carnival ride, is so much fun that when it ends, you seriously think about getting back in line to go again.
Suspenseful and witty and poignant, by turns, with deftly sketched characters and thrilling action sequences, Star Trek entertained the hell out me. No, it’s not going to change the world. It doesn’t even indulge in a big metaphor-with-a-message, the way the television shows so often did. (I don’t mean that as criticism of the TV shows, by the way. I’m a sucker for a well-executed metaphor-with-a-message, though admittedly the emphasis is on the well-executed.) But it’s fun, well-crafted and affectionate and just clever enough to keep from bubbling into froth.
Wolverine is the kind of movie that gives summer movies a bad name. The action scenes have no flair, just some fake-looking explosions and uninspired, poorly filmed martial arts. The humor is cheap and limp; one scene is just one long, stupid fat joke, like something from one of Eddie Murphy’s recent execrable “comedies.” The plot is hole-ridden and predictable, the pacing is saggy, and the director never comes across an emotional moment he can’t ruin with a trite, tacky flashback.
The whole thing never tries to be more than third-rate. It’s lazy and dumb, coasting on the charm of its star and the durability of the preexisting characters. In fact, Wolverine is the most pathetic sort of summer movie: something that had potential, that could have been good, if the filmmakers had only taken the time and nurtured the talent to create something worthwhile. True, it isn’t as actively bad as the repellent X-Men: The Last Stand—Wolverine might be half-assed, but it’s not an infuriating, character-assassinating mess—so … yay, I guess. Hooray for low expectations.
Seasons 1 and 2 online at SundanceChannel.com.
First, let me assure my parents (and disappoint anyone who stumbled here looking for masturbatory material) that there’s actually nothing pornographic about Isabella Rossellini’s fantastically weird series of shorts. They’re miniature films about sex, yes, but sex between snails and starfish and dragonflies and other creatures too alien to anthropomorphize. Green Porno isn’t titillating (and surely isn’t meant to be), but it is intriguing and funny and occasionally poignant, even beautiful. Rossellini might be a bit of a kook, but she creates an infectious sense of wonder with her vignettes.
Masterpiece Classic miniseries, March 29–April 26.
With Charles Dickens, you expect an innocent saint of a hero, broadly drawn yet charmingly idiosyncratic characters, sensational setbacks and reversals, and, of course, some populist agitation, and Little Dorrit does not disappoint on those fronts: check, check, check, and check. What surprised me, though, is how timely that populist agitation is. We’re inured to the deprivations of “A Christmas Carol,” and Bleak House focuses on arcane nineteenth-century British legalties, but the targets of Little Dorrit come straight from today’s newspapers: ruinous Ponzi schemes, predatory lenders and landlords, a financial system that rewards those who shuffle money about rather than those who actually produce goods. As melodramatic as Little Dorrit is (very), the rage at its core about capitalism gone awry is still all too relevant, and it still burns.