The Informant!

In theaters.

Of all the time-wasting Internet videos out there, one of the more interesting types are the mock trailers that completely recast the tone of the subject, advertising Mary Poppins as a horror movie, for example, or The Shining as a happy family comedy, with music selections and narration dramatically changing the way we perceive the familiar scenes. In a strange way, The Informant! is like that on a grander scale. With its subject matter of corporate espionage and corruption, it might have been a thriller. That’s certainly how the main character, FBI informant Mark Whitacre, imagines the situation, likening himself to the hero of a Michael Crichton or John Grisham novel. But instead of recalling The Insider, The Informant! shifts gears, subtly pitching itself as a bone-dry comedy with idiosyncratic retro flair.

At first, I assumed that this was all director Steven Soderbergh’s doing—he seems to love playing with genre and tone—but then I changed my mind. It’s not just the direction; the odd little grace notes are already there in Scott Z. Burns’s screenplay, particularly in Whitacre’s digressive internal monologue. Why would you have the guy pondering the noses of polar bears if you expected the material to be played completely straight? But then again, maybe the ultimate responsibility for the quirkiness of The Informant! lies with the real-life Whitacre, whose exploits are eventually revealed to be so bizarre that a conventional interpretation would likely fall flat, overwhelmed by twists that defy belief. But wherever the inspiration comes from, The Informant! works. Its slippery self-presentation is part of its considerable charm.

A Tribute to Vienna

The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center on Wednesday, September 23.

Vienna has been overshadowed. Well, maybe not overshadowed—that’s too strong—but the Beethoven trio, Schubert piano duet, and Strauss waltzes at the Chamber Music Society’s season opening concert, “A Tribute to Vienna,” all met expectations. They were familiar. David Bruce’s piece for soprano and ensemble—and not just any soprano but the glorious Dawn Upshaw—that was new, a world premiere. No one had any idea what to expect, and it turned out to be textured and evocative and haunting. That was the highlight of the concert—except perhaps for the Mahler work that closed the program. It’s very difficult to overshadow Mahler.

Julie & Julia

In theaters.

The conventional wisdom about Julie & Julia is that it’s half of a good movie: blogger Julie Powell (Amy Adams) is obnoxious and chef Julia Child (Meryl Streep) is awesome. I understand why they say that. Streep’s big, enthusiastic performance is a joy to behold, and Child is an icon; her magnum opus, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, a true achievement. By comparison, Julie is slight, her angst insignificant. Who cares? To which, if I’m being truly honest, I must reply: I do. I care because I identify with Julie’s angst and her dramatic arc. If Julie & Julia had been just Julia, it would have lost much of its meaning, and as that meaning strikes a chord with me, I cannot want that, even when Julie is a bratty narcissist. Perhaps this makes me a bratty narcissist, too.


Presented by the Public Theater and LAByrinth Theater, at the NYU Skirball Center, through October 4.

Adapting the term problem play to describe Shakespeare’s more ambiguous comedies, as some critics have done, was always a stretch—the term originally referred to nineteenth-century dramas that realistically portray turbulent social issues (think Ibsen)—so, seeing as how problem play is likely the wrong term anyway, I prefer to ignore its roots and use it to refer to any Shakespeare play that feels uncomfortable for modern audiences. After all, The Taming of the Shrew and The Merchant of Venice present just as many problems as All’s Well That Ends Well and Measure for Measure, and as for Othello—well, if you can get through Othello without cringing at something, there’s probably something wrong with you.

And yet, there’s an allure to Othello—poetic, evocative writing; intriguing, enigmatic characters—that makes it worth wading through, despite the inevitable snags. The challenge of tackling its problems is part of the fun, so I enjoyed Peter Sellars’s new production of the play, even if I found some of his “solutions” rather perplexing. The acclaimed director manages to neutralize some of the truly pernicious racial elements, but in doing so, he makes the Moor all but inexplicable and kills any sense of classic tragedy. Plus, he creates uncomfortable new problems by merging the characters of Bianca and Montano. The production is interesting, at times compelling, but it lacks dramatic cohesion. It’s odd. I cringed a lot.

Odd Man Out

In repertory at Film Forum through September 17.

The great actor James Mason gets top billing in Carol Reed’s moody, noirish 1947 film about a Irish nationalist wounded in a robbery for the cause and abandoned by his crew, but the credits are misleading. Odd Man Out isn’t a star-driven picture, and even though Mason spends more time onscreen than anyone else, a good deal of that time he’s not doing much, just staggering about, slipping in and out of consciousness. His character, the badly injured Johnny McQueen, is in no condition to act; instead, throughout, he is acted upon.

And that’s just one of the ways in which Odd Man Out defies expectations. What initially looks like a thoughtful heist flick turns into a series of character studies with heavy religious undertones. Despite the noirish cinematographic touches, the movie doesn’t have much in common, thematically, with the genre. And despite the title card’s assurances that the movie is “not concerned with the struggle between the law and an illegal organization,” clearly meant to be the IRA, that’s not precisely true. Odd Man Out dramatically portrays a town under lockdown, where citizens can’t trust the police or one another, where people are gunned down in the streets. The question of who is ultimately at fault—the British police or the Irish nationalists—might not be the focus, but the ramifications of that conflict are.

The Magicians

By Lev Grossman. Published in 2009.

For a book with such an obvious sales gimmick—in this case, “Harry Potter for grown-ups”—The Magicians is strikingly well imagined. It might be opportunistic, but it’s not uninspired, and author Lev Grossman is a talented enough writer to find new ways around familiar elements while exploring fresh themes. The result is a book that’s less a fantasy novel than a dark coming-of-age tale—magic without the carefree whimsy and bright moral lines that usually accompany it.

The High Line

Section 1, running from Gansevoort Street to 20th Street.

In the heart of Central Park, or Fort Tryon Park farther uptown or Prospect Park in Brooklyn, you can almost forget you’re in the city. The street sounds fade to near silence, and the canopy of trees obscures much of the skyline. That’s part of the fun of visiting—the convenient escape.

The High Line, by contrast, makes no pretensions at escape. It is an unabashedly urban park, an abandoned elevated railway once slated for demolition but now lovingly repurposed as public green space above the busy city streets. The design embraces the park’s industrial history, with benches evoking railway ties, and celebrates the plants that found a home there when the line fell into disuse and neglect. Visiting the High Line, you never leave the city, never even pretend to, but you glimpse it from a different angle, taking in the old buildings and new buildings and the Hudson River and the greenery all at once. It’s an interesting experience, an elegant experiment in conservation in a dense city.

Scherzi Musicali

4x4 Baroque Music Festival at the Church of St. Mary the Virgin on Tuesday, September 1.

The raw emotion of Baroque songs takes you by surprise if you’re expecting “classical” music to be prim and refined. Composers of the era often strove to convey just one intense feeling in an individual work, so a song would be given over to undiluted passion, or sorrow, or bitterness, or agony—especially agony. The poetry the composers set was well suited to this single-minded aesthetic, feverishly so, with translated lines such as “Alas, foolish, blind world! alas, cruel fate,” and “I’ll drink my own fatal tears, and I’ll always be the most heartbroken of all abandoned lovers,” and “I wish the abysses to see my suffering, and the furies to weep at my bitter lamenting, and that even the damned souls will concede my torment is greater.” See? Agony. Apparently Baroque poets were the emo kids of their day.

The two soprano soloists who performed at the Scherzi Musicali program, featuring songs by Claudio Monteverdi, perfectly handled all that Baroque craziness, vividly conveying the passion, and sorrow, and bitterness, and agony—especially agony—with deliciously theatrical fervor without ever sacrificing the beauty of their voices. Such a sacrifice would have been unacceptable, for Jolle Greenleaf and Molly Quinn have exquisite voices. Their ornamentation had that light, seemingly effortless quality that I so envy, and in their duets, their radiant bell tones blended so well that it was hard to belief two separate beings were producing them.