Blue Note Jazz Festival at the Blue Note on Monday, June 27.
My brother once told me that he learned about the history of jazz by reading the current weekly listings in The New Yorker. Nostalgia is such a powerful force that many of the greats of the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s are still performing, and the “Goings On About Town” section dutifully encapsulates the upcoming gigs, briefly explaining why the artists matter and what their big hits were. The past is constantly made present.
Of course, the past is often past its prime, as well, so if you’re not nostalgic yourself, if it’s all new to you, those concerts can be a bit awkward. You can’t very well expect a ninety-year-old man to perform with the stamina and vigor of a forty-year-old, but going too far along that train of thought can begin to feel condescending. Live performance is undoubtedly special, but sometimes you have to wonder if you’d be better off just listening to the classic recordings.
I have to admit these thoughts were running through my head as I listened to acclaimed, award-winning vocalists Jon Hendricks (eighty-nine years old) and Annie Ross (eighty-one). I suspect their breath support wasn’t always somewhat erratic, their tone wasn’t always so gravelly, but hey, a singer’s body is his instrument, and Hendricks and Ross are in their eighties. It might sound condescending, but they are amazing for their age.
Like most Woody Allen movies, Midnight in Paris has a sort of moral thesis. You can see it coming miles away: a compassionate but unromantic warning about the pitfalls of idealizing the past. But as my brother pointed out to me when I was trying to articulate some of my frustrations with the film, Midnight is actually quite reluctant to accept its own moral. It pays lip service to the idea that such idealization can be isolating even as the movie itself looks backward with rosy, starstruck vision. The present is populated by staggeringly superficial, affected, monochromatic drones, while the past—specifically the expatriate community of 1920s Paris—glitters with brilliant, generous, passionate artists. Not only is that a bit flaky from a thematic perspective, it makes for a wildly uneven film, ricocheting between shrill, heavy-handed scenes and utterly charming scenes. The latter make Midnight in Paris worth seeing, but the former temper the pleasure of it.
When I was a kid, my extended family spent a week most summers at a charming little beachfront motel on Anna Maria Island on the Gulf of Mexico.
The American Ballet Theatre at the Metropolitan Opera House on Tuesday, June 7.
Lady of the Camellias might be one of the most elegantly conceived ballets I’ve ever seen—a flawless marriage of music and movement, beautiful use of dance as dramatization—which made the experience of seeing it for the first time not only delightful but also humbling because, beforehand, I considered it woefully misbegotten. Instead of using a single unified musical work, ideally composed particularly for the ballet, Camellias pulls together a diverse assortment of works by a single composer, an approach that often feels disjointed, with music and story never quite coming together. And instead of dramatizing a simple, elemental story, one that won’t require much in the way of exposition and plot work, Camellias takes a complicated narrative and, instead of stripping it to its foundations, embraces the complications, using a frame around the main story as well as a recurring ballet-within-the-ballet, an approach that easily could have resulted in a muddled, overweighted slog. No doubt these elements did impose challenges for choreographer John Neumeier, but Camellias, which premiered in 1978, overcomes those challenges with stunning artistry. What seemed to me like madness turns out to be genius.
After I wrote this, I realized that, technically, there are some vague spoilers throughout. That’s because X-Men: First Class tells an origin story, rebooting a very successful franchise, so I went in knowing more or less how it was going to end, and I wrote this post in the expectation that other people would as well. I still think that’s a fair assumption, but the Rules of the Internet have been drilled into my head to the extent that I still feel the need to issue a spoiler warning: Herein I allude to how the alliances among the characters will shift over the course of the film, but if you’ve ever seen a movie or read a comic in the series, there’s absolutely nothing here you don’t already know.
The best thing about the first two X-Men movies (X-Men: The Last Stand and X-Men Origins: Wolverine are not worth consideration) is how complicated the conflicts are. Unlike most summer flicks, which have only a “good” side and a “bad” side, X-Men and X2 both feature at least three different factions and shifting alliances within and among them. Sure, there are still good guys and bad guys, at least relatively speaking, but they sometimes find themselves on the same side, and the bad guys tend to make good arguments and have sympathetic motivations, and that makes the movies interesting.
X-Men: First Class represents a return to form on that front. The movie has its problems, but the central relationship between antagonists-to-be is so evocatively rendered that it elevates the entire production. Throw in the playful flair of the 1960s setting, the dynamic pacing, the unexpectedly affecting climax, and—especially—the terrific lead performances, and First Class becomes the best sort of summer movie: hugely entertaining in the moment and worth talking about on the way home.
First season on DVD and streaming on Netflix.
As procedural premises go, Luther’s is ridiculous but memorable. In the first episode, unstable police detective John Luther (Idris Elba) is interviewing Alice Morgan (Ruth Wilson), a young woman whose parents have just been murdered, when he suddenly intuits that she is the killer. He’s not sure how she pulled it off, though, and by the time he figures it out, the evidence has been destroyed and he can’t prove it. But he knows, and he makes sure she knows he knows, which delights her because she enjoys having an audience to her evil genius. And from there, over the course of the short six-episode season, they develop a deeply weird relationship, like Clarice Starling and Hannibal Lecter but with significantly more sexual tension. Alice wants to make sure Luther remains a part of her life, so she begins offering unsolicited advice on cases, interfering in his relationship with his estranged wife, and complicating his already rocky career.
This is all pretty silly, and it only becomes sillier as it goes on. It’s difficult to believe that Luther would simply give up investigating Alice when a single piece of evidence—however key—is destroyed. It’s even more difficult to believe that their relationship could possibly be sustained as long as it is. Furthermore, Alice’s sociopathy tends to mutate according to the needs of individual episodes. It’s probably appropriate for her to be something of a cipher, but without some consistency, the character threatens to become merely a particularly entertaining plot device.
And yet, for all that, I rather like the BBC’s twisted little drama. The knotty storylines, with their hairpin turns, are darkly intriguing (if often rather gruesome), and the series convincingly cultivates a sense of true danger, offering absolutely no guarantees that everything will work out by episode’s end. Luther is brutally effective but effective nonetheless, and with its manic-depressive detective and friendly neighborhood sociopath at the center, it has a strange, loopy charm.