When I was nineteen years old, I spent a couple of weeks traveling by rail around Europe, some of that time with three other college girls, some of it with a male acquaintance (a companion of convenience, not romance—we could barely tolerate each other), and some of it on my own. Those days were some of the best of my life. I saw a production of Puccini’s La bohème in Rome and Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis at Notre Dame. I cried in front of Michelangelo’s Pietà and Caravaggio’s Sacrifice of Isaac. I walked along snow-covered streets in Vienna and pebbly beaches in Nice. I learned how to read train tables, how to bargain in street markets, and how to drink a shot of tequila.

It was enormous fun—a grand adventure—but more important than that, more important than everything I learned about art and architecture and music, was the resourcefulness that trip taught me, the independence, the self-confidence. This is not to say that I believed myself to be invulnerable—to the contrary, there were times when I was confused and scared, and with reason—but despite that, because of that, I learned to trust myself. I learned how to be brave and how to fake it when I wasn’t. I learned how to find my own way when no one was around to hold my hand. I treasure the memory of that time. As cheesy as it might sound, those two weeks helped make me who I am today.

So Taken breaks my heart. It’s a well-crafted but painfully alarmist thriller about a father trying to save his teenage daughter from the sex traffickers who have kidnapped her from the luxurious Paris apartment where she was vacationing with a friend. Daddy hadn’t wanted his little princess to go in the first place—too dangerous—but Mommy insisted, and look what happened, Daddy was right, the world is too dangerous for girls on their own. Watching Taken, I imagine hyper-vigilant parents taking its lessons to heart and forbidding their daughters from studying or traveling abroad, denying them the kind of opportunity I had, and I want to scream with frustration.


Now playing at the Neil Simon Theatre on Broadway.

The ambition of Ragtime is astonishing. It’s one thing to create a musical from a simple, straightforward movie, an animated comedy or some such, but to use E. L. Doctorow’s sprawling, provocative epic novel as source material is something else entirely. So much do I admire the creators of Ragtime for setting their sights so high that I’m usually willing to forgive the moments when they fall short—and they do. Ragtime has considerable flaws: often bombastic orchestration, awkward pacing in the second act, an overly rosy ending. But these are worth setting aside in appreciation of the musical’s strengths: incisive writing; gorgeous, meaningful songs; heartbreaking drama deftly leavened with humor and irony. It’s not perfect, but it’s eloquent and memorable—something special.

La Danse: The Paris Opera Ballet

In theaters.

The documentary La Danse opens not with ballerinas but with a series of static shots of the innards of the building in which they rehearse and perform: coiled wires, cracked plaster, sturdy columns. Eventually Frederick Wiseman’s camera moves on, intermittently, to the dancers, but the same coolly observational aesthetic remains as the film cuts about the Palais Garnier. It’s as though an alien has floated down to study the Paris Opera Ballet, indiscriminately taking in everything from the dancers, choreographers, and artistic director to the costume makers, cafeteria cashiers, fundraisers, maintenance workers, and even the beekeeper (?) who manages the hives (?) on the roof.

As bizarre and unexpected as the beekeeping sequence is, it does seem to suggest Wiseman’s outlook on his subject: that it is abuzz with disparate activity that nonetheless builds toward a single goal. That’s a romantic notion rendered with paradoxical dispassion—and I don’t find it particularly convincing, if that’s even what the directed intended. Regardless, the effect is both mesmerizing and frustrating.

Baking Cakes in Kigali

By Gaile Parkin. Published in 2009.

The skill of the storytelling in Baking Cakes in Kigali sneaks up on you. It’s such a sweet, pleasant little book that it’s easy to miss how deftly debut author Gaile Parkin weaves dramatic, quietly heartrending themes into her modest, charming tales of a middle-aged woman who runs a small home business baking and decorating cakes for friends and neighbors. Of course, the novel is set in Kigali, Rwanda, so there’s that to suggest that the book won’t be all sugar and spice, but with the Rwandan genocide in the past, and with Parkin’s Tanzanian protagonist not having experienced it firsthand, those horrors initially appear to be background. In fact, I wondered at first why Parkin chose to set her light story in such a dark place—and if Baking Cakes had merely been about baking cakes, perhaps that would have been would have been a question worth asking. But Baking Cakes is not merely about baking. Parkin has a more ambitious agenda—and much more sensitivity and grace—than I first credited.

The Red Shoes

In repertory at Film Forum through November 19.

At first glance, Moira Shearer isn’t much to look at. She has a flat, moon face and overplucked eyebrows and a sort of lemony countenance. But then she begins to dance, and she becomes a presence, beautiful and alluring. Dance transforms her into a glittering star.

Shearer’s captivating performance is part of what makes The Red Shoes so spellbinding—that and Anton Walbrook’s deliciously Mephistophelean impresario and the smart, biting screenplay and Jack Cardiff’s intoxicating Technicolor cinematography. More than anything else, though, the titular ballet at the film’s center is what makes it so special. Like Shearer, the ballet is transformed. Unshackled from the confines of a stage and the limitations of physics, it embraces the celluloid realm yet somehow never loses sight of the dancers’ graceful physicality—a paradox, perhaps, but a beautiful one.

Stravinsky’s “Chant du rossignol,” Tan Dun’s “Water Concerto,” Bright Sheng’s “Colors of Crimson,” and Bartók’s “Miraculous Manderin” Suite

The Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra at Carnegie Hall on Wednesday, November 4, as part of the Ancient Paths, Modern Voices festival.

The program’s concept is fascinating: two works by major Western composers drawing on an exotic, imagined China and two works by major contemporary Chinese composers tying together Western and Eastern musical traditions. Together, the pieces get at the way China appears in the Western musical canon and how that’s changing now that the “Western musical canon” isn’t so monolithic. Perhaps that sounds academic, but the concert was anything but. Vibrant and intricate, the music was enormously beguiling and beautifully performed—a fitting entry in Carnegie Hall’s festival celebrating Chinese culture.