Tuesday, June 30, 2009

ArtsBriefs: 'Hammerklavier,' young recitalists, and poets

Pianist Valentina Lisitsa.

Going big at the piano: Valentina Lisitsa, a Russian-born pianist long resident in South Florida, tackles two monumental solo piano works tomorrow night at the Boca Steinway Gallery under the aegis of Abram Kreeger's Piano Lovers series. Foremost among them is the Beethoven Hammerklavier Sonata (No. 29 in B-flat, Op. 106) , the composer's longest, most intense, most genre-bending works to be titled as a sonata. The other piece is the early First Sonata (in D minor, Op. 28) of Sergei Rachmaninov, a large, passionate piece from 1907, but much less well-known than the later Second Sonata. It's rare to hear these two works live, and devotees of piano literature will want to be there at the Steinway Gallery at 7 p.m. Wednesday. Tickets are $20 in advance, $25 at the door. For more information, call (561) 929-6633 or visit www. pianolovers.org.

Violinist Chad Hoopes.
(Photo by Roger Mastroianni)

Young Artists Recitals Series at PBCC: The string quartet series at Palm Beach Community College's Duncan Theatre has been a popular seasonal attraction for classical music fans, but the economic downturn has put a quartet series out of reach for the coming season. In its place will be four concerts featuring young, rising classical musicians: three violinists and a pianist. Concerts will take place Wednesday afternoons in the small Stage West Theatre next to the Duncan. The series includes 14-year-old American violinist Chad Hoopes (Dec. 16); the Canadian violinist and New World Symphony alumna Yuki Numata (Jan. 27), who has scheduled works by Beethoven, Ysaye, and Ravel; Russian violinist Mikhail Simonyan (Feb. 24), who has programmed pieces by Schnittke, Prokofiev and Grieg; and the Chinese pianist Ran Jia (March 24), a student of Gary Graffman at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia. The entire series will cost $60, and tickets will go on sale to the general public sometime in September.

Poet Stephen Dobyns.

Poet lineup set: Miles Coon's Palm Beach Poetry Festival will be marking its sixth year when it returns to Delray Beach on Jan. 18-23. Last week, founder Coon announced that the following poets will be conducting workshops, reading and performing at this season's gathering: Stephen Dobyns, Carolyn Forche, Thomas Lux, David Wojahn, Jean Valentine and Kevin Young (advanced workshops); Mary Cornish and Ilya Kaminsky (intermediate workshops); Jay Hopler and Sidney Wade (Florida pots reading); and Andrea Gibson and Anis Mojgani (performance poets). For more information, or to sign up for one of the workshops, visit www.palmbeachpoetryfestival.org.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Music review: Skynyrd, Kid Rock show energizes the faithful

Lynyrd Skynyrd on stage Friday night at the Cruzan.
(Photo by Thom Smith)

By Thom Smith

Limos and pickup trucks. Harleys and Hondas. High heels and flip-flops. Halter tops and tattoos. Beer and booze. City and country.

Yessir, a little bit of everything could be found among the more than 18,000 fans who converged on Cruzan Amphitheatre on a muggy Friday night to worship at the musical altars of Lynyrd Skynyrd and Kid Rock.

“Let's turn it into a Saturday!” Skynyrd lead singer Johnny Van Zant urged after an underenthusiastic audience response to That Smell. Aided in part by the overload of watts pushing through the amps, the audience found new energy as the band blasted through I Know a Little.

Spawned 45 years ago in Jacksonville as The Noble Five, Skynyrd, if anything, has been durable despite having Tragedy as a middle name. Only guitarist Gary Rossington remains from that original collaboration. Original lead singer Ronnie Van Zant, guitarist Steve Gaines and his sister and backup singer Cassie died in a 1977 plane crash that also injured Rossington and the other band members. Skynyrd disbanded, but their music continued to score and survivors continued
to perform.

A decade after the crash, the band reformed, with Ronnie's little brother Johnny taking over the singing duties. New members came and went; others died; but while lesser souls might have capitulated, Skynyrd played on.

In 2006 the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame took them in, but the band isn't content to collect pensions. It continues to tour and Sept. 29 will release its first album in six years, Gods and Guns. The audience got a taste of it on a rocking Still Unbroken, followed by a rousing Breeze. As the flag motif alternated between stars and stripes and stars and bars, the hits poured forth.

“It's a great honor to start out in our home state,” Van Zant declared after Sweet Home Alabama and then granted the audience its final wish with the perennial rock concert war cry, Free Bird.

The beer crowd needed the break. Indeed the lines into the men's rooms were uncharacteristically longer than those for the women's.

Kid Rock, flanked by giant video shots of himself,
sings Friday night at the Cruzan.
(Photo by Thom Smith)

Kid Rock may be from Detroit, but his sentiments aren't much different from Skynyrd's – an appreciation of the working man who just wants to do his job and have a good time. The Kid was born into privilege, but he isn't tone-deaf to the sensibilities of his low-budget fans. He speaks their language, although rougher than Skynyrd: Many titles and more lyrics are better left to Internet sites and word of mouth. Curiously, many Skynyrd fans left after their band's set – their loss, but that's called loyalty – but they'll hear more of The Kid.

Actually, he's hardly a kid. Robert James Ritchie is 38 and struggled in anonymity for 10 years before attracting any real attention. He started as a rapper, but as his career has progressed, he's gone from scratching platters and sampling others' music to singing, playing guitar, piano and drums and, perhaps most significantly, writing original music.

Will The Kid's dark genius become a legitimate voice? Perhaps some day the Hall of Fame will answer. Whatever he does, it'll be on his terms. You didn't hear him (or Skynyrd) noting the death of Michael Jackson from the stage.

Kid Rock arrived like the man in the moon, backlit by a spotlight on a full curtain that dropped to reveal a huge U.S. flag between two video screens. After Rock 'n' Roll Jesus, he asked if the crowd liked rap, country, R&B, rock, or “Do you like music?”

In Son of Detroit, he declared (in the printable lyrics),

I like 2 cuss, yell, scream, fight And raise all kinds of hell. And if you ride to live like I live to ride, Then let me hear that rebel yell. I'm a redneck rock-n-roll son of Detroit.

then sampled a little of the Stones' Tumbling Dice, then his own Cocky, saluting Skynyrd in All Summer Long with its classic Sweet Home Alabama intro and a new flag backdrop.

“This ain't no American Idol B.S. This is American music badass,” he shrieked defiantly, and giving the show a tent revival feel, ripped through Amen and followed with hints of Sly Stone's Everyday People and then Cowboy -- “I'm Kid Rock and I'm the real McCoy” -- Blue Jeans and a Rosary and One More Time. Drummer Stefanie Eulinberg added some humorous counterpoint to Kid Rock on Half Your Age, but backup singer Stacey Wagner was not up to Sheryl Crow on Picture.

Winding down, at 10:40, he finally found a turntable, poured himself a drink and lit up a blunt. Then he ran off some ZZ Top chords on guitar followed by some Peter Frampton talk box action and some drumming on Cat Scratch Fever (an homage to Detroit soulmate Ted Nugent); a Satisfaction riff from the Stones; So Hott -- “I want to get you alone, I want you so stoned.” Not until 10:53 did the shirt come off. Bawitdaba: “I said it's all good and it's all in fun,” he proclaimed.

Eleven o'clock. Time to go. Like clockwork. No encore. No complaints.

Thom Smith is a freelance writer based in South Florida.

An air guitarist in the audience
plays along with Lynyrd Skynyrd.

(Photo by Thom Smith)

Theater review: FAU's 'Twelfth Night' proves conceptually challenged

FAU's staging of Twelfth Night is set in 1920s Hollywood.

By Hap Erstein

Florida Atlantic University's 12th annual summer Festival Rep has romance on the brain this season, leading off with William Shakespeare’s comedy of gender confusion, mistaken identity and the resilience of love, Twelfth Night.

On now in a production that is uneven at best, it will be joined at the end of this week by Stephen Sondheim’s 1970 musical Company, a jaundiced view of contemporary relationships, which will play in rotating repertory at the Boca Raton campus’s University Theatre through July 26.

Shakespeare subtitled Twelfth Night “What You Will,” which has long been interpreted as blanket permission to directors to take whimsical liberties with the play’s setting. According to the production’s press release, the show is set “in Hollywood, California, in the 1920s movie era.” That may have been director Jean-Louis Baldet’s original impulse, but there is little evidence of the notion in what is ultimately onstage.

If you pushed the point, you might see a resemblance between low comic characters Sir Toby Belch (Sam Sherburne) and Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Jay Reese) to W.C. Fields and Harold Lloyd, but the actors do nothing to press the idea, which is tenuous at best.

One of FAU’s more talented recent graduates, Rebecca Simon (who played the title role in last summer’s Evita), is cast as the traditionally male clown Feste -- here renamed Festa -- and she glides through the evening proving that “music is the food of love,“ trilling standards from the American songbook such as My Blue Heaven, I’ve Got a Crush on You and My Funny Valentine, most but not all from the designated era.

Anyway, Twelfth Night is one of the Bard’s shipwreck comedies, a premise that leaves twins Viola and Sebastian separated in an alien land and soon mistaken for each other when Viola tries to pass herself off as a guy. Yes, it’s a stretch, but go along with it anyway.

The Rep’s purpose is ostensibly to showcase the training of the school’s theater department, but wrestling with Shakespearean verse and rendering its meaning is not a skill that most of the cast seems to have. Fortunately, an exception is Alexa Cappiello (Viola), who carries the production by reciting her dialogue with conversational tones while also retaining the poetry.

Also an asset is Equity guest artist Bruce Linser as Malvolio, the dour and self-important aide to Countess Olivia, whose unexpected romantic feelings makes him an easy target of cruel jokes. Linser’s button-down wardrobe and manner are a nice comic contrast with the silly getup he is tricked into wearing in his pursuit of love.

The multi-level set by Terry Lawrence is attractively dressed with colorful plants and flowers, but is used so little it probably was designed more with Company in mind. Twelfth Night is one of the less problematic of Shakespeare’s plays to produce, but as FAU reminds us, it is not foolproof.

TWELFTH NIGHT, Florida Atlantic University Festival Rep, University Theatre, 777 Glades Road, Boca Raton. In rotating repertory through July 26. Tickets: $15-$20. Call: (800) 564-9539.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Music feature: Delray trio Viva le Vox wants to be voice -- and guitar, bass and drums -- of the people

Rock trio Viva le Vox.
(Illustration by Pat Crowley)

By Marya Summers

Musical voodoo from the urban swamp that is South Florida, Viva Le Vox is a full-body, religious experience.

The band moves its congregants to the sort of ecstasy you’d find if you crossed a charismatic church with a smoky blues club. At Vox shows, everyone is visibly possessed by the spirit, and it manifests with a healthy dose of debauch.

That’s because Vox creates a sensory orgy. And the sartorial panache and plentiful tattoos are just the beginning. The singer/guitar player rasps and growls (sometimes evoking Tom Waits, other times Howlin’ Wolf) as he sings bluesy songs about desperation, drugs, death and the supernatural into a 1950s-style microphone. The bass player, often shirtless in the heat of musical passion, straddles his upright acoustic and spanks its strings as he undulates so that his body becomes the snake in the garden, his spine slithering from his coccyx to skull.

And the drummer thrashes his minimal equipment – a snare, a tom, a cymbal, and two cowbells – like a percussive Tasmanian devil with the preternatural ability to pepper in rhythmic flourishes at high speed. Together, the band doesn’t just have talent and stage presence: they’ve got a seductive allure that is entirely addictive.

Inspired by the campy theatrics of the glam punk band The Cramps and by the skillful songwriting of Creedence Clearwater Revival, the band defies pigeonholing, though they list themselves on MySpace as “punk/rockabilly/blues.” It is an accurate, though generalized, description; it doesn’t really express the originality or nuances of the music.

When it comes to their influences, the band’s site says “You figure it out.”

But I’ll help you – they play covers by Nick Cave, Johnny Cash, Warren Zevon, Billy Bragg, and The Animals when they need to supplement their 16 originals during longer gigs. Additionally, the songwriter, Bones, told me that Johnny Cash, Joe Strummer, Sex Pistols and Dwayne Peters inspired him.

Like The Cramps and their frontman Lux Interior – an old-school hero for Vox – the band has taken on stage names. Singer and guitarist Tony Arnao III, 24, is “Bones,” apt since, like a skeleton, he provides the structure as the band’s songwriter. Bassist James Pellegrini, 29, goes by “Scarecrow,” obviously a reference to the straw cowboy hat he frequently wears. And drummer Anthony X (he wouldn’t provide a last name), 20, has taken on the moniker “Manimal” for his ferocious percussive attacks. [Editor's note: A 12-song set by Viva le Vox filmed at Brogue's in Lake Worth can be seen in a series of videos on YouTube. Here's one of them.]

The band name, however, is a tribute.

“Long live the voice of all the dirty rockers that came before us!” Bones exclaimed, by way of explanation.

After an outdoor show at The Little Owl in Lake Worth, I was so inspired by Viva Le Vox that I whipped out a pen and declared my journalistic hiatus officially over (which is when I sought out ArtsPaper). “Hillbilly leisure porn,” I wrote in my little notebook as I tried to summarize what I was experiencing, focused, I must admit, more on the spectacle of the shirtless bass player – his straw hat, white loafers and libidinous performance – than on the music.

Mea culpa. Scarecrow is the focal point for most of the female audience.

But my phrase didn’t quite capture why the band resonated long after the show was over. Dark by virtue of minor chords and impassioned by driving, upbeat rhythms, the trio’s music evokes spit, sweat, swamp and sex – those things we’re made of and come from. When you listen, you’re likely to believe in creationism and evolution simultaneously.

So when my editor suggested I might want to talk to Chris Martin for a story about Coldplay's May 15 appearance at the Cruzan, I had to decline.

“They’ve got no balls,” was how I put it.

Opportunity schmopportunity. I needed my Vox fix, and the Delray band would be playing that same Friday night. The Viva La Vida tour had nothing on Viva Le Vox. The smaller show would be more powerful, I knew, than the massive, impersonal performance. The scale of the Vox shows engages the audience so that they are more than spectators – they become part of the Vox experience – the part that makes the band the vox populi, the voice of the people.

In late April at Propaganda nightclub, for instance, Vox played the after-party for Showtel, the annual art installation at Hotel Biba. As usual, the band whipped the crowd into a joyous frenzy. The chaos of bodies undulated, shimmied, shook, and swung. The pheromones were thicker than the cigarette smoke as the dancers borrowed moves from the twist, the jitterbug, the Charleston and faith healings for their own wild improvisations. And there was definitely the laying-on of hands.

Though I’m usually too self-conscious to dance, I couldn’t help myself. I kicked up my heels and joined the fray, using fistfuls of my skirt’s crinolines to punctuate my wagging hips. Just a few songs later, I’d joined a dirty dancing collective with my friend Kristina as the lot of us slid up and down each other’s bodies, and Bones demanded in an impassioned rasp, “Baby, I want some more!” – the refrain to Down at the Laundromat.

Viva Le Vox, Kristina said, “made me want to grope everyone – old-school, sweaty, pulsating musical orgy style.”

Scarecrow, who tattooed “Vida Boca” on the back of his fingers and a bass clef on his right hand to attest to his roots (he grew up in Boca), attributes the audience’s wanton response to the band’s own uninhibited expression: “When I play, I black out, and it’s not because of any substances. I’m not aware of anything but the music.”

Anthony X, Tony Arnao and James Pellegrini,
the members of Viva le Vox.
(Photo by Katie Deits)

“Passionate,” said Steve Rullman, who is responsible for the cohesiveness of Palm Beach County’s indie music scene through TheHoneyComb.com, booked Vox at Propaganda. Rullman is a notorious music snob, resented by many because he won’t book their bands. Vox, however, he called not only “passionate” but more importantly “the real deal.”

“Nothing phony about ‘em,” Rullman said, some of his highest praise.

The band’s approach may be imaginative and theatric (the corncob pipe the drummer “smokes” is all affectation), but their songs are not disingenuous. The songs are based on real-life struggles, most of which songwriter Bones prefers to keep off the record.

Other songs like Down at the Laundromat document the band’s life, rather than just evoking down-and-out living. This song was inspired by weekly informal gigs at the Tropical Wash in Delray while Bones multi-tasked domestic chores and artistic endeavors. For the other patrons, Vox was a welcome relief from the boredom of watching the clothes spin, and even on-duty cops would stop by on those Friday nights to watch the trio play, the band said.

“The best part about the Laundromat is you get to know people,” Bones, who moved down from Philadelphia three years ago, said. “No one has to pay money. I like being accessible.”

This same accessibility was offered when the band played another impromptu, acoustic gig under the Atlantic Avenue Intracoastal Waterway bridge. Several dozen people showed up and danced in the salty breeze on the dusty shards of white shell rock as the band played an acoustic set against the back drop of Delray’s biggest art project, an illuminated installation.

The rhythmic light display and accompanying landscaping were made to deter the homeless from sleeping there, but it enticed the musical troupe of tattooed twentysomethings to use the high-tech backdrop for a no-tech show while their fans danced.

While they “sure don’t do it for the dough” (a lyric from Laundromat), the band figures they can market themselves without selling out, which is why they’ve accepted gigs at places like Hot Topic in Fort Lauderdale’s Galleria Mall in addition to artsy after-parties, co-opted public spaces, tattoo and record shops, and the old mainstay music venues.

Their first album Desperation Alley, recorded at Elegbaland Studios, is slated for release this summer. It has already earning the respect of industry folks such as Black Finger’s singer-songwriter Greg Lovell, who was the sound engineer on the album.

“Their songs are just really well crafted,” Lovell said, noting that they also had “the best drummer around.”

In April 2008, the band began as a quintet that included a banjo, a washboard, and ukulele, but when the guys discovered that Scarecrow – who also plays electric bass with the punk band Dooms de Pop – had a 3-string upright bass, they took him off the ukulele.

“The songs always had that rockabilly twist to them so the [upright] bass made sense,” Bones explained.

“I never thought to play that bass because it was just so strange,” Scarecrow said, explaining that he’d acquired the Mexican instrument when a neighbor moved and didn’t have room for it. “They forced me to learn it. I really didn’t want to do it. It made my fingers hurt, and it was really heavy.”

Scarecrow has since switched to a standard upright bass.

The band has been in its current format as a trio since July 2008. The other members lacked the commitment that the remaining three members demand.

“They always thought it was a hobby and not a career choice,” Manimal, who relocated from New Jersey and now works at Backbone Records in Delray Beach, explained. “I don’t have much else going for me.”

“Me, either,” admitted Bones, for whom sign installation is his current bread and butter.

“Me, either,” the otherwise unemployed Scarecrow chimed in. “It’s the only thing I can do.”

Marya Summers is a freelance writer based in South Florida.

Viva le Vox appears tonight in St. Petersburg at The Garage as part of Swamp Stomp IV, on Friday, July 3, at DaDa in Delray Beach, and on Saturday, July 11, at Propaganda in Lake Worth.

Friday, June 26, 2009

ArtsBuzz: Hoffman makes last-ditch appeal to save New Vista Theatre

Avi Hoffman.

By Hap Erstein

The ghoulish among us -- yeah, you know who you are -- insist that deaths come in threes. So there was Farah Fawcett, Michael Jackson and, while it’s not exactly parallel, maybe the third is New Vista Theatre Company.

That is the impression left by an gang e-mail sent out late yesterday afternoon by artistic director Avi Hoffman, who announced “with enormous regret and sadness” a deadline of August for the three-year-old stage company and for the 11-year-old National Center for Jewish Cultural Arts, whose resources the theater has drained.

According to Hoffman, the linked entities are carrying over $500,000 in debt and he is getting a hernia from the weight of it. So unless he can raise a half million bucks in two months, he says he will close up forever.

New Vista has been a valued member of the South Florida theater community in its short history, starting with a gangbusters production of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, a solid Funny Girl and a touching I’m Not Rappaport, the last show that Bruce Adler was in before he passed away last year.

But this season has been a major disappointment, with a mounting of Enter Laughing that showed how cash-strapped the company had become, and canceled productions of The Producers and The Shop on Main Street.

From the start, New Vista’s vision was creating large-scale, Broadway-sized theater and that must be seen as part of the problem. There is no reason to think that Hoffman spent money unwisely, but like most not-for-profit theaters he was dependent on donations, which dried up to a trickle in this recessionary economy, to say nothing of the Bernie Madoff effect.

It would be great to be able to report that some frugal theater lover dug into his mattress and gave New Vista the necessary money, but it feels like we have been here before. Think of The Jupiter Theatre, think of the Royal Palm Dinner Theatre. People tend to give to successful theaters, not those that are sinking.

Hoffman mentioned in the e-mail that he will be doing his newest one-man show, Still Jewish After All These Years: A Life in the Theatre, at the little theater at Santaluces High School in Boynton Beach from July 10-Aug. 2, in what he calls “a final attempt to keep the new Vista Theatre from permanently shutting down our operations.” With tickets priced at a modest $20, it is hard to see how that is going to make a difference.

Of course anyone who chooses to run a theater has to be something of a dreamer and an optimist, so we might as well join those ranks. To the person with the extra $500,000, call Avi at (561) 482-4144. If you are out of town, feel free to call collect. I’ll bet he will accept the charges.

Film review: 'Whatever Works' slight, but at least it's funny

Evan Rachel Wood and Larry David in Whatever Works.

By Hap Erstein

You would not need to know that Woody Allen first wrote the screenplay for his latest film, Whatever Works, more than 30 years ago to recognize it as a refreshing throwback.

To say that the past decade or so have been artistically fallow for Allen, despite the arrival of at least one movie a year, would be an understatement. To those of us who feel Allen has made some great films (Crimes and Misdemeanors, Annie Hall, Hannah and Her Sisters, Purple Rose of Cairo, to name a few), watching his recent empty, half-hearted efforts has been disheartening.

But if he cannot be comically profound, he might as well simply be funny. Whatever Works, the tale of a deeply pessimistic man (Curb Your Enthusiasm’s Larry David) who is transformed by the arrival of a dumb Southern blonde (Evan Rachel Wood) in his life, does not have much to ponder. But it is funny, in a familiar, jokey way that is reminiscent of Allen’s early career.

On our first glimpse of Boris Yellnikov, an erudite physicist who claims to have “almost won the Nobel Prize,” he is arguing with and insulting his best friends. He is an off-putting character and David never tries to endear him to us. His world view is that everyone else is beneath him and life is meaningless, so he might as well do whatever works to minimize the misery. In his case, that means attempting suicide by jumping out his apartment window, a failed effort that leaves him with a decided limp.

Divorced, alone and resigned to it, he is taken aback by the arrival of a tired and hungry nubile shiksa from Alabama, Melody St. Ann Celestine (Wood), on his doorstep. Reluctantly and terribly out of character, he takes her in. Very much in character, he flaunts his intelligence, insults her for her lack of education, then gradually becomes her Henry Higgins.

He takes her on as a project in enlightenment, introducing her to the finer things of New York life: obscure movies, great Chinese food, etc. And like Higgins, at least in My Fair Lady, Boris falls for Melody and -- not unlike every other improbable thing that happens in this movie -- they marry.

Allen’s most recent films have taken place in England and Spain, but Whatever Works marks his return to his native New York, arguably a significant factor in his return to form. Certainly this is another valentine to the city, which is a catalyst for each arriving character’s transformation.

Melody’s disapproving, Christian fundamentalist mother Marietta (Patricia Clarkson) enters the picture, scowls suspiciously at Boris, but soon loosens up to the point of moving in with two of Boris’s buddies and becoming a bohemian artist. Similarly, her dad (Ed Begley Jr.), who had strayed from his marriage, ventures to New York, wanders into a bar and makes a discovery about his sexual orientation.

Allen originally wrote Whatever Works for his co-star from 1976’s The Front, Zero Mostel, but the role fits David’s screen persona snugly. Wood has shown her dramatic chops in such films as Thirteen, Down in the Valley and The Wrestler, but here reveals an unexpected facility for comedy with her take on airheaded innocence.

Whatever Works was written around the same time as Manhattan and is further evidence of Allen’s fixation with inappropriately young women. Here’s hoping he has more roles for Wood. After all, Scarlett Johansson is already over-the-hill by his standards at 24.

Whatever Works does not add up to much, other than a healthy laugh quotient, but that is a refreshing change from his latest output. While we wait for something more weighty from Woody, he should return to his files and pull out whatever else works from his unproduced screenplays.

WHATEVER WORKS. Studio: Sony Pictures; Director: Woody Allen; Cast: Larry David, Evan Rachel Wood, Patricia Clarkson, Ed Begley Jr., Conleth Hill, Michael McKean; Rating: PG-13; Opening: Friday; Venue: Most commercial houses

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Weekend arts picks: June 25-28

The Flower Is Always in the Almond (After Bachelard),
by Justin Rabideau.

Art: Opening Friday at the Pine Jog Environmental Education Center in West Palm Beach is Native Offerings III, an exhibit in which four South Florida artists interpret their surroundings. Curated by Talya Lerman, the show demonstrates how Isabel Gouveia, Brigid Howard, Justin Rabideau and Carolyn Sickles uses his or her environment as either a medium or muse. Contemporary dancer Petrina Olson will perform at the opening reception, which begins at 6 p.m. at the center on 6301 Summit Blvd. The exhibit is free and open to the public. For more information, call (561) 543-0219, or visit www.talyacreates.com. -- K. Deits

A teapot by artist Daniel Teran.

And you haven’t had time to see Revolve: Ceramic Interpretations, plan to attend the closing reception from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. Friday. This invitational exhibition displaying the work of seven ceramic artists who are also instructors and professors at The Armory Art Center, Palm Beach Community College and Florida Atlantic University is definitely worth the trip to the Northwood area of West Palm Beach. Located at 408 Northwood Ave., the Eg2 Northwood Gallery is close to several excellent and trendy restaurants, too. The work by Elizabeth Coleman, Nazaré Feliciano, Bethany Krull, Justin Lambert, Helen Otterson, Daniel Teran, and Karla Walter includes a variety of sculpture, wall hangings and unusual pottery. For more information, call Helen Otterson at (858) 334-3764. -- K. Deits

A painting by R.L. Lewis.

And tonight, the Spady Cultural Heritage Museum in Delray Beach will mark the close of its Florida Highwaymen show, featuring paintings by Alfred Hair and Harold Newton, with a special reception featuring Highwayman R. L. Lewis, who will do a live demonstration and share his memories. The reception will be held from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. at The Spady Museum, 170 N.W. 5th Ave. For more information, call (561) 279-8883, or visit www.spadymuseum.org. -- K. Deits

Richard Harris and Daniel Radcliffe
in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.

Children's: Tonight at Mizner Park, the Centre for the Arts offers the second in its series of free Harry Potter movies, leading up to the release July 17 of the sixth film in the series based on the novels by J. K. Rowling. Tonight, it's Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (2002), in which something mysterious has come alive in the basement of Hogwarts. This fast-paced film is notable for a couple reasons: it's the last appearance on film of the great Irish actor Richard Harris as Dumbledore (he died two weeks before the film's release), and it has two tasty cameos from Kenneth Branagh as the pompous Gilderoy Lockhart and Jane Horrocks as Moaning Myrtle. Centre for the Arts personnel are dressed in Potter regalia, and there are family fun activities such as costume contests, face painting, and other things to keep little folks busy before the film starts at dusk. For more information, call 368-8445 or visit www.centre4artsboca.com.

Cameron Diaz and Sofia Vassilieva in My Sister's Keeper.

Film: Oh, to have the Kleenex concession at My Sister’s Keeper. Only the truly hard-hearted will be dry-eyed at this tale of a 14-year-old girl dying of leukemia and her 11-year-old sister (Abigail Breslin), created to be an organ donor, who has to sue her parents to gain medical emancipation from them. So it’s a thought-provoking weepie with some ethical issues worth chewing on. In the summer, no less. Nick Cassavetes (who turned audiences into similar emotional wrecks with the Alzheimer’s drama, The Notebook) directs with a sure hand and even gets a worthy performance from Cameron Diaz as the control freak mom. Opening Friday at various theaters. -- H. Erstein

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Film review: Engaging 'Away We Go' marks advance for Mendes

Maya Rudolph and John Krasinski in Away We Go.

By John Thomason

Has Sam Mendes turned into an old softie?

The proficient director has earned the reputation, perhaps unfairly, as a chronicler of suburban discontent and alienation, thanks to the breakthrough success of American Beauty and last year’s Revolutionary Road, a histrionic study of a couple’s picket-fence-stifled disintegration.

Like Revolutionary Road’s subtler, inverted flipside, Mendes’ Away We Go also features two people trying to make it in their relationship, but this time, for his uprooted, thirtysomething travelers, suburbia signals comfort, not imprisonment. A baby on the way suggests reinforced hopes, not metastasized fractures. And unlike Leonardo DiCaprio’s chair-throwing tantrums, Away We Go’s John Krasinski is incapable of erupting at his significant other, only raising his voice in a faux angry experiment to raise his pregnant girlfriend’s heart rate.

This isn’t to say that Away We Go, penned by cult writers Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida, is a uniformly better film – just that it exists in more of a real world than Mendes’ previous stylized explorations of the American landscape. This has a lot to do with his choice of actors. He cast two B-list celebrities most viewers recognize from television above the movie’s title: Krasinski, the floppy-haired, emo-girl heartthrob from The Office, and musician-actress Maya Rudolph, the versatile daughter of Minnie Riperton who established her comic personae on Saturday Night Live.

Neither looks much like a movie star. When their characters are exhausted from a long day of travel, they look it. When their characters wake up from bed, they look like people who have just woken up from bed. Some of the close-ups of Rudolph are frankly unflattering. They are a decidedly unglamorous couple, establishing with audiences a rapport of normalcy rather than a wish-fulfilled escape. And their chemistry is undeniable.

Their problems, too, are simple and easily relatable. Six months after Verona (Rudolph) realizes her pregnancy with Burt (Krasinski), Burt’s parents (Catherine O’Hara and Jeff Daniels, the latter embodying the intellectually burnt-out shell of his Squid and the Whale elder) decide to move out of the country, offering little in the way of paternal, emotional or financial support for their son’s new family. So begins a journey to find a new home, which sees the couple traipsing from Colorado through Tucson, Phoenix, Montreal and Miami, reuniting with former friends and relatives along the way.

The film conjures David O. Russell’s superior Flirting With Disaster in that it’s a comedic road movie that, through a number of fleeting meetings with its memorable supporting characters, continually throws its comparatively normal couple into cauldrons of quirk.

What worked so well in the all-in absurdism of Flirting makes for the most artificial portions of Away We Go, an otherwise low-key and poignant study of the travails of relationship maintenance and blooming parenthood whose detours into caricature shoot for the wrong kind of laughs. This is most evident in the cringe-worthy sequence with Burt’s long-detached cousin, a New Age-y feminazi who changed her name from Ellen to LN (Maggie Gyllenhall). LN’s racial insensitivity and detest of strollers (“Why would you want to push your child away?”) aim for too-broad satire that’s practically ridiculous. A reunion with Verona’s old friend Lily (Allison Janney, always terrific) fares better, but even this segment dips into laborious quirk most of the time Lily’s husband Lowell (Jim Gaffigan) speaks.

But as Verona and Burt cohabit with a number of fine character actors, including Chris Messina (of Vicky Cristina Barcelona) and Paul Schneider (of Parks and Recreation), the leads become less like ciphers bouncing off the more colorful supporting cast, and the supporting players become a bit more like the leads – finely wrought, complex people dealing with the life-shattering consequences of everyday decisions.

Because it spends too much time aiming for big, false laughs, the small moments of poignancy in Away We Go seem slightly unearned – like Rudolph’s lovely Bob Dylan lullaby to her brother-in-law’s young daughter. And the whole project is too slickly produced – those predictable, weepy strains of indie-Americana music swell up at exactly the right times – to touch the kind of raw nerve endings that Revolutionary Road managed to do in its better moments.

But at least this time around, Mendes has made a film that subverts the public conception of his cinematic personality. For all its flaws, Away We Go is a testament of progress that finds its director eking his own way toward maturity.

John Thomason is a freelance writer based in South Florida.

AWAY WE GO. Director: Sam Mendes; Cast: John Krasinski, Maya Rudolph, Allison Janney, Jim Gaffigan, Maggie Gyllenhall, Josh Hamilton, Carmen Ejogo, Jeff Daniels, Catherine O’Hara, Chris Messina, Melanie Lynskey and Paul Schneider; Distributor: Focus Features; Rated: R; Venues: Now playing in Palm Beach County, expands to Broward and Miami-Dade on Friday: Regal Shadowood and Cinemark Palace in Boca Raton, Cobb Downtown in Palm Beach Gardens, Muvico Pompano in Pompano Beach, Sunrise Gateway in Fort Lauderdale and Regal Sawgrass in Sunrise.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Art review: Locksley-Shea collection explores urgency, vitality of contemporary art

With You I Want to Live (2007), by Tracey Emin.

By Emma Trelles

FORT LAUDERDALE -- With You I Want To Live, a pink neon sculpture by British artist Tracey Emin, is a bit of a triple-threat. In its own right, the work reflects Emin’s millennial-tinged obsessions with ardor - its pleasures, its unavoidable pratfalls. She is, after all, also the author of Everyone I Have Ever Slept With 1963-1995, a pup tent stitched with the 102 names of people she shagged or with whom she simply slumbered.

The piece is also the title of a show, now at the Museum of Art in Fort Lauderdale and culled from the private holdings of four South Florida collectors. Scrolled like a quick jot on a notepad, the sculpture suggests this maxim: Why buy something if you’re not smitten with its presence?

Pointing to art as a vehicle for quick and certain profit seems sort of reckless at the moment (not to mention unimaginative), and it’s just not enough to explain our appetite for love affairs, whether they are with man, woman, or the 41 artworks on display and on loan from the collection of art dealers Gordon Locksley and George T. Shea. (A second gathering from The Francie Bishop Good and David Horvitz Collection is also on exhibit).

Installed in the museum’s second-floor galleries, the Locksley and Shea collection mirrors a 40-year involvement with groundbreaking artists and with a calling that both men find as essential as oxygen.

“I think that the collecting gene begins with necessities. It begins with needing a bowl from which to eat,” says Locksley in a Q&A printed in the exhibition’s catalogue. “The need to have the basic tools to prepare food and to live, which man, by nature, decorates. That evolves into collecting.

“Some people want to possess beauty...,” the 78-year old adds. We want to own it; we need to own it.”

British Phone Booth (2006), by Banksy.

The show is indeed a grand one, housing some of the most important and varied makers of 20th and 21st century art. Whether you love their offerings (Mark Bradford’s collage-and-acrylic homage to the Los Angeles skyline; the spare elegance of Robert Morris’ plywood installation,), or they elicit a response along the lines of “meh” (Damien Hirst’s acid-inspired dot painting; Takashi Murakami’s super-flat ode to Louis Vuitton), most of it holds a place in any thoughtful dialogue about contemporary art.

The show opens with an absorbing study by two young Berlin-based painters, Maike Abetz and Oliver Drescher. Tausend Plateaus is a large-scale acrylic canvas as ambitious as it is delicately rendered.

The picture is stuffed with the iconography of art across the ages and includes the Greek wood-god Pan, the Muses,and medieval gargoyles alongside a riff on da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man and a fiery Sacred Heart. With a pair of young lovers at its center and a smattering of Fender guitars, the painting reminded me of the art-pastiche-rock of Sonic Youth, particularly its 1988 release, Daydream Nation, which is similarly frenzied and lush in its attack.

Tausend Plateaus introduces the wide span of aesthetics found within the show’s interiors and illustrates how Locksley and Shea cultivate relationships equally with contemporary masters and up-and-comers. The collectors bought works by Cy Twombly and Ellsworth Kelly, for instance, before anyone took either artist seriously.

Alixa and Naima (2008), by Swoon.

Locksley’s intensely personal relationship with his acquisitions is also evidenced in the rarely seen graphite drawings of Andy Warhol’s flowers, made exclusively for Locksley by the Pop artist in 1975. The collector describes his relationship with Warhol as bizarre in that he would visit the artist at night at his studio on New York’s East 47th Street. There they would chat, alone, with the lights off and Factory denizen Billy Name hiding in a nearby closet.

Some of what’s on deck has never been viewed: a stunning Native American rain wall, comprised of 11 polychrome panels and once owned by Donald Judd, and a hulking mixed-media piece by NewYork street-and-graffiti artist Swoon, which was commissioned exclusively for the exhibit.

Of note are random meditations on the overlooked locales and people of American cities, such as John Sonsini’s vibrant oil portrait of four Mexican day laborers. Despite hints of urban concerns throughout the exhibit, there’s not much of a direct address to thematic unity. The passion for collecting, the show’s chief premise, for example, is never deeply explored through its artworks, and what does appear just seems like a sample of Locksley’s and Shea’s greatest hits.
Fernando, Ismael, Gabriel and Israel (2004), by John Sonsini.

Grouping works by movement or era - as with the minimalist canvases made by Robert Mangold and Brice Marden in the early 1970s - functions adequately, but a meatier approach would have perhaps assembled motifs such as beauty, and our enthrallment with its presence and its absence.

Also, it must be said, too many lengthy placards explaining the providence of artwork slows things down. Do we really need to read about how the Luo brothers blend old and new Chinese culture when their wood panels clearly mash together tigers, lotus blossoms, Coke cans and Sly Stallone? My guess is no.

Yet these are small gripes, really, because the summer months typically fill South Florida’s galleries with art geared toward schoolchildren or with dull-to-horrid juried exhibitions. It’s a delight to have a show of this caliber to visit, and not just through our heat-crazed season but straight into next spring.

Emma Trelles is an arts and culture writer based in South Florida.

With You I Want to Live: the Gordon Locksley and George T. Shea Collection is on display through March 22, 2010, at the Museum of Art Fort Lauderdale/Nova Southeastern University. Hours: Open daily from 11 am-5pm, except closed Mondays and holidays, open until 8 pm Thursdays, and open from noon to 5 pm Sundays. Admissions: $10 adults, $7 seniors, military members, children 6-17. Information: Call 954-525-5500 or visit www.moaflnsu.org.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Art review: Lyrical Abstraction show demonstrates resilience of American painting

Red Isle (1981), by John Seery.

By Jenifer A. Vogt

It is often a delight when a museum reaches into its permanent collection and unearths hidden treasures that are rarely, if ever, seen. It’s a practical impossibility for any art institution to display all the works acquired throughout the years.

This leaves the curatorial staff charged with the disheartening task of labeling some works worthy of display and others not. But always, in the back of their minds, they’ve cataloged those underplayed works awaiting an opportunity to give them their due.

This is the case with Expanding Boundaries: Lyrical Abstraction Selections from the Permanent Collection now at the Boca Raton Museum of Art. The show includes nearly 50 works by artists including Natvar Bhavsar, Stanley Boxer, Lamar Briggs, Dan Christensen, David Diao, Friedel Dzubas, Sam Francis, Dorothy Gillespie, Cleve Gray, Paul Jenkins, Ronnie Landfield, Pat Lipsky, Joan Mitchell, Robert Natkin, Jules Olitski, Larry Poons, Garry Rich, John Seery, Jeff Way and Larry Zox.

The museum’s chief curator and organizer of the exhibit, Wendy Blazier, knew of “hundreds of works – beautiful paintings that we had not had the opportunity to show. And there were a group of these strong abstract works from the '70s and '80s that showed a seminal period for a group of young, emerging painters.”

Their style was referred to as Lyrical Abstraction. The phrase was coined by Larry Aldrich, the founder of the Aldrich Museum of Contemporary Art in Ridgefield, Conn., in 1970 as he began to notice certain themes repeating themselves in the work of young painters.

At the time, Aldrich remarked, “it became apparent that in painting there was a movement away from the geometric, hard-edge, and minimal, toward more lyrical, sensuous, romantic abstractions in colors which were softer and more vibrant. Painters were creating, in significant numbers, works that were visually 'beautiful'…”

These young artists, emerging on the heels of Pop Art, Conceptual Art, and Minimalism, exhibited a sheer sense of joy for the physicality and sensuousness of painting. Yet, they felt restricted by the flat, mathematical-like flat surfaces in vogue at the time. Plus, the art world was increasingly demanding breakthroughs and there was ongoing talk that painting was “dead.” What else could be done with this dying medium?

But these painters saw an opportunity for reinvention by incorporating the prior three decades of American painting into a new, fresh and bold statement. They paid homage to the structure and intellect of conceptual art, but they incorporated sweeping, gestural brushwork into their abstract compositions – infusing their work with the emotional energy of New York School painters such as Pollock and DeKooning.

Often, using the new acrylic paints, they worked to imbue a sculptural, surface dimension to their canvases. As Blazier explains, “These artists loved painting. They scoffed at the serious nihilism of the minimalists.” They merged the abstract and conceptual with bold color, making their work a medley of ideas, brushstroke, color, and emotion – hence, “lyrical.”

A Sound of Surf (1970), by Paul Jenkins.

In Paul Jenkins' A Sound of Surf (1970), one views large fields of sweeping color emerge from a minimal, whitewashed canvas. The watercolors beautifully bleed downward creating interesting pools of nuance. Here, as in all the works, you clearly see what Blazier calls “a marriage of sensibilities between the action of gestural abstraction, the quite nuances of color field, and the rational structure of minimalism.”

Combining intellect and emotion, the works on display bear testimony to Picasso’s remark, “There is no abstract art. One must always begin with something.”

Painting had been pronounced dead in the early '70s and has been repeatedly deemed so in every period since. How unsettling for painters it must be that this misquoted remark, first made by French painter Paul Delaroche in the mid-1800s in reference to the advent of photography, lives on, despite the evidence of notable great painters emerging time and again after his utterance.

The truth is that paining is not dead, nor will it ever be. This charming exhibit serves as a gentle reminder of the triumph that is American painting.

Jenifer A. Vogt is a marketing communications professional and resident of Boca Raton. She’s been enamored with American painting for the past 20 years.

Expanding Boundaries: Lyrical Abstraction Selections from the Permanent Collection is at the Boca Raton Museum of Art through August 30th. Tickets: Adults $8, Seniors $6, free for children 12 and under. Summer Hours: Weds, Thurs, Fri 10 a.m. to 5 p.m, Sat and Sun 12-5pm. Closed Mondays, Tuesday and holidays. Call 561-392-2500 or visit www.bocamuseum.org.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

ArtsBuzz: Hollywood center offers art with a canine touch

Bowman Hastie and his dog, Tillie, the artist.
(Photo by Katie Deits)

By Katie Deits

HOLLYWOOD -- Bowman Hastie, a writer and editor in Brooklyn, discovered by chance that his Jack Russell terrier had artistic talent.

An observant Hastie noticed his dog, named Tillamook Cheddar, or Tillie for short, scratching on a writing pad. Curious as to the patterns Tillie was creating, Hastie pulled out some carbon paper from a drawer and placed it between the papers of the pad.

Tillie went to work scratching away, and when Hastie removed the carbon, he was astounded at the artistic quality of what had resulted. Thus commenced Tillie's art career, and with the advice of an artist friend, Hastie then added color to his dog's palette.

The terrier's scratchings are recorded on a pigment-coated piece of vellum, which is then attached to a sheet of lithograph paper backed by mat board. Tillie then uses her teeth and claws to apply pressure, creating the lines and patterns which dominate her masterpieces.

Today, Tillie is billed as the “world’s preeminent dog artist.” She has been featured in national and international magazines, on television shows as far away as Japan, and even had her own exhibit in a New York City gallery.

Now her accidental art is the focus of a museum show at the Art and Culture Center of Hollywood. Friday night, Tillie and Hastie were welcoming visitors to the center as the dog dashed excitedly around the galleries. The Tillamook Cheddar Mid-Career Retrospective 1999-2009 is part of the center's summer theme, which revolves around art associated with canines.

Hollywood-based artist Virginia Fifield, with her drawings.
(Photo by Katie Deits)

For instance, also featured at the center is The Pneumatikos Series, six large (4-foot-by-3-foot) charcoal drawings of dogs by Virginia Fifield, a Hollywood-based artist. Pneumatikos, Fifield explains, means "breath of the spirit" in Greek, and is used to mean the presence of God.

"Through realism and scale, my intent is to first draw the viewer to the image…but then into a deeper contemplation of the true nature and spirit of the subjects of these drawings, to provoke consideration and questioning of our illusion of ownership, dominance and control of the world and the beings that share it with us," she wrote.

Fort Lauderdale gallery owner Mary Ellen Charapko, who represents Fifield, said the artist's works "emit an inner spirit that will stop you in your tracks. Fifield has the ability to draw you into their apprehensions, moods, desires and inner beauty.”

Two other rooms at the center are filled with paintings, photographs, drawings and videos of pets. It’s a Dog’s Life is a collection of dog-themed, contemporary works from the private collection of Francie Bishop Good and Davis Horvitz. Another room is a community-based show titled We Love Pets, in which the community was invited to display images of pets.

The dog-related exhibits run through Sunday, Aug. 16.

The Art and Culture Center of Hollywood is located at 1650 Harrison St. in Hollywood. Gallery hours are Monday through Saturday, 10 a.m., to 5 p.m., and Sunday, noon to 4 p.m. Admission is free for members, $7 for adults and $4 for students, seniors and children ages 4-13. Gallery admission is free to all on the third Sunday of every month. For more information, visit www.artandculturecenter.org, or call (954) 921-3274.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Appreciation: Shelly Gross, wisecracking lion of the theater

Shelly Gross (1921-2009).

By Hap Erstein

To know Shelly Gross was to put up with his jokes.

A compulsive entertainer, he began as a radio and television personality in his native Philadelphia, before becoming a prolific producer of Broadway shows and national tours. Never one to shy away from a challenge, he frequently produced major musicals headlined by some of the theater’s biggest, and most hard to handle, stars, such folks as Yul Brynner, Robert Goulet, Shirley MacLaine and Carol Channing.

Yet it seemed that one of his greatest joys was reaching back into the filing cabinet of his mind for a wince-inducing corny joke. Or maybe he had a blind spot for how corny they really were. Interviewing him last year, I asked Shelly how long he had been married. He told me “62 years,” and then couldn’t resist adding, “A long time to bear a grudge.”

Shelly Gross, 88, died Friday morning after a long battle with cancer. He had retired to Palm Beach Gardens, but show business continued to course through his veins. So when he discovered a small local theater called Palm Beach Dramaworks crazy enough to produce tough plays by Edward Albee, he recognized its founders as kindred spirits and became involved with the company. He chaired the non-profit’s Advisory Council, was a substantial monetary contributor to the theater and was one of its most enthusiastic champions, not just attending its shows but bringing busloads of his neighbors from Devonshire, the upscale adult community where he resided.

One story that Shelly loved telling was how he gave a small girl her first professional role, as one of Tevye’s youngest daughters in a national tour of Fiddler on the Roof. Who was she? Sue Ellen Beryl, Dramaworks’ managing director.

I grew up in Washington, D.C., and some of my earliest theatergoing experiences were at a colorful summer stock tent theater called Shady Grove Music Fair. There I saw such star package shows as Do Re Mi with Jerry Lester, The Unsinkable Molly Brown with Gloria de Haven, Sweet Charity with Juliet Prowse and a pre-Broadway tryout of A Joyful Noise, starring John Raitt, but more significant for being the directorial debut of Michael Bennett. The productions weren’t all great, but I loved them.

Shady Grove was part of a circuit, including Valley Forge (Philadelphia), Painters Mill (Baltimore) and Westbury (Long Island), that Shelly founded and ran with his producing partner, Lee Guber.

The two of them broke onto Broadway with a comedy romp Catch Me If You Can in 1965, a 103-performance flop starring Tom Bosley and Dan Dailey. He considered the 1977 revival of The King and I with Brynner to be his biggest hit, certainly compared to such classic expensive failures as Sherry! (the musical version of The Man Who Came to Dinner), Bring Back Birdie (yep, the short-lived sequel to Bye Bye Birdie) and Lorelei (the follow-up to Gentlemen Prefer Blondes). If critics and audiences did not see the wonders of these shows, that did not stop Shelly from being their staunch defender.

As he once told me, expressing his philosophy of life, “If you get knocked down, get up and try again. I don’t care how many people tell me I’m wrong, I know I’m right and I do it.” Fortunately, he had the resources to back up that point of view.

Shelly was what passes for a Renaissance Man these days. He wrote a dozen novels in his time, though he was always quick to add that only four of them ever made it into print. Asked to recommend one, he mentioned Roots of Honor, a fictional tale of a Russian Dreyfus case, as his best. I can’t say that I ever read it, but I’ll keep an eye out for it when I prowl through used book stores in the future.

A memorial service with be held Saturday, July 11, at a site to be determined. In lieu of flowers, donations can be made in his honor to Palm Beach Dramaworks, 322 Banyan Blvd., West Palm Beach, FL 33401.

I hope someone tells some of his jokes at the service. The cornier the better.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Film review: 'Food, Inc.' a disturbing look at the industry of eating

Among the chickens, in Food, Inc.

By Hap Erstein

Movies are a very effective medium for entertainment, but can they fundamentally change the way we think about the food that we eat?

That is the task that director Robert Kenner gives himself in Food Inc., a look at what has happened to the livestock, poultry and produce we consume ever since the corporate world took over farming and turned it into big business.

This documentary peek at how our food gets to our dinner tables is not for the squeamish. The fast-food industry is particularly slammed for turning farms into inhumane assembly lines and Kenner -- using 60 Minutes-style ambush interview, hidden camera techniques -- rubs the audience’s noses in the distasteful breeding conditions.

More nefarious yet is the genetic engineering of our food in the name of supermarket eye appeal and uniformity. Also much maligned is the rise of high-fructose corn syrup, a cheaper, more accessible substitute for sugar, which has crept into virtually every processed product on the grocery shelf, dulling our tastebuds.

And with corn replacing grass in the diets of beef cows, the result according to Kenner and his talking head experts is diseased animals that pass on the E. coli virus, causing mass illnesses in the end consumers. Seen roaming the halls of Congress is the mother of a boy who died from the virus, desperate for some legislative relief that has yet to materialize.

Food, Inc. is grim stuff, with a sensationalist tone of muckraking, delivering an undeniably important message, but with a sledgehammer. Before long, one yearns for the cynical humor of a Michael Moore (Sicko) or even a Morgan Spurlock (Super Size Me). Another critic of the fast-food system, Eric Schlosser (Fast-Food Nation) appears prominently in Food, Inc.

The film wants to shock the public into becoming wiser, more informed consumers, weaning ourselves off of fast and processed foods, towards organic. That means more expensive grub, which is a hard sell in these economic times.

If you go to Food, Inc., bring a pencil with you. It ends with a flurry of phone numbers and Websites, a call to action and an invitation to acquire more information on the state of our food supply. The film is well-made and well-meaning, and no one who pays attention to its message is going to want to eat much afterwards.

Whether it will have a lasting effect, though, remains to be seen.

FOOD, INC. Studio: Magnolia Pictures Inc.; Director: Robert Kenner; With Michael Pollan, Eric Schlosser; Rating: PG; Release date: June 12; Venue: PGA Cinema 6, Cobb Jupiter 18.

Film review: 'Year One' an unfunny comedic fossil

Jack Black, left, and Michael Cera in Year One.

By John Thomason

Year One is grounded in a premise so thin it’s practically invisible. “Hey, studio executives, wouldn’t it be great if we cast Jack Black and Michael Cera doing and saying exactly the same things they do and say in every modern picture, but set it in Biblical times? What a riot!”

This is what the filmmakers are banking on: that you’ll find the very idea of Black and Cera talking with the slang, cadences and dialects of the year 2009 while living in the year 1 to be a stroke of genius. Perhaps, under the auspices of a more inspired collective, the idea might have turned into something worth your laughter. But in the creatively atrophying hands of director Harold Ramis – who hasn’t made a good movie in roughly 17 years – Year One is a sloppily contrived Saturday Night Live sketch that stays 90 minutes past its welcome.

The movie’s comedic tone strikes an unpleasant combination between the head-shakingly repulsive (Black analyzing, then tasting, a pile of dung) and the hopelessly Catskillian (“We are Hebrews,” a character proclaims, “A righteous people, but not very good at sports.” Har-har). Any attempt to out-gross its R-rated competition with PG-13 envelope-pushing is going to fail, and the Borscht Belt religious jokes will only appeal to those for whom Mel Brooks’ and the Monty Pythons team’s irreverent takes on the dawn of time proved too highbrow. The movie’s heresy is so middle-of-the-road that even evangelicals will find little content worth their boycott.

Black plays the pudgy, incompetent but naively self-important hunter Zed, whose ineptitude with a wisecrack is as obvious as his flaccidness with the bow and arrow. Cera is Oh, his only friend in the village, a brainy but cripplingly meek gatherer. Both actors simply regurgitate their established archetypes, letting the setting provide the intended humor. Unable to lure their love interests (June Diane Raphael and Juno Temple), Zed and Oh fall into their roles as the village’s idiots, prone to things such as eating forbidden fruit and accidentally torching their huts.

Banished from their land, they spend the film roaming a Biblical landscape looking to start their own community. Their journey becomes a comedy/adventure road film populated by familiar faces, and without much in the way of comedic inspiration or interesting storytelling, the film’s only enjoyment is a game of Name That Cameo.

The supporting cast is chockablock with talented comedians dressing ridiculously. Look, there’s David Cross and Paul Rudd as everyone’s favorite bickering brothers, Cain and Abel! Look, it’s Hank Azaria and that dweeb from Superbad as Abraham and Isaac, and Abe has a wacky new idea to cut off everybody’s foreskins! Look, it’s Oliver Platt as a grotesque, hirsute, flamingly homosexual high priest!

Zed and Oh’s road trip eventually wends into Sodom, where clunky fight scenes vie with the strained humor, and the two inept leading boys get the girls and blossom into men.

Year One is surely the worst film to bear the brand of Judd Apatow since the longtime comedy producer dipped into directing his own stuff. It’s worse when held up to recent Apatow productions like Pineapple Express, a film that hilariously skewered the very buddy-movie formula Year One so banally celebrates.

God may have created the heavens and the Earth, but something tells me He’ll never take responsibility for the likes of Year One.

John Thomason is a freelance writer based in South Florida.

YEAR ONE. Distributor: Sony; Director: Harold Ramis; Cast: Jack Black, Michael Cera, Oliver Platt, David Cross, June Diane Raphael, Juno Temple, Vinnie Jones, Hank Azaria and Harold Ramis; Opens: Today; Venue: Most commercial houses

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Film review: ‘Throw Down Your Heart,' banjo strumming across Africa

Bela Fleck, right, with African musicians
in Throw Down Your Heart.

By Hap Erstein

The banjo and Africa. Maybe they seem to have nothing in common, but as Grammy-winning virtuoso of the instrument Bela Fleck explains in the appealing musicology lesson and travelogue, Throw Down Your Heart, the former is the product of the latter.

So armed with videocassettes and a wide-eyed curiosity, Fleck and his filmmaker half-brother, Sascha Paladino, set off to find the roots of the banjo, not unlike British explorer John Speke’s search for the mouth of the Nile River.

The film, which opens Friday and continues through June 28, comes with the pedigree of audience awards from the Vancouver International and Austin’s South by Southwest Film Festivals. Well-filled and edited, its strength is in the transporting power of its infectious music, the language Fleck uses to communicate with his African counterparts.

American Fleck charts a road and air trip with specific destinations in Uganda, Tanzania, Gambia and Mali. Ostensibly, he goal is to understand the derivation of the banjo, but his agenda also includes meeting, jamming and recording with some of the stars of the African tribal folk music tradition.

Along the way, Fleck — and the viewer — learns a bit about the dark history of slave trade. The film’s title seems curiously generic until it is explained that Throw Down Your Heart is the translation of the Swahili name for the seaport in Tanzania where captured locals were loaded onto ships to be transported away into bondage.

Still, the music Fleck finds is rhythmic, upbeat and complex and the film works on the level of a mere music video, with Paladino indulging a cross-cultural jam session while his camera roams the area, stopping at whatever catches his eye.

At it happens, the banjo is closely related to the Gambian akonting, a hollowed-out gourd covered with a tightly stretched animal skin, fitted with a long neck and three strings. Members of the Jatta family keep the instrument’s jaunty sound alive and we observe as they nimbly play a duet with Fleck on banjo.

Most of the tribes encountered are staunchly male chauvinist, but in Uganda a girl shows them up, nimbly playing a hand-held thumb-piano, whose operation looks for all the world like texting on a BlackBerry. In the tour’s final stop, the more sophisticated Mali, Fleck meets and is properly awed by internationally known vocalist Oumou Sangare, whom he accompanies in a studio session.

Some odyssey films like this get lucky and run into adversity, which lends the narrative added twists. The most unscripted trauma in Throw Down Your Heart is when Fleck’s van overheats, hardly the stuff of high drama. Still, this 97-minute film manages to hold our attention, illustrates a non-verbal bonding between vastly different people who have music in common and is also refreshingly entertaining.

THROW DOWN YOUR HEART. Studio: Argot Pictures and Old School Ltd.; Director: Sascha Paladino; With Bela Fleck. In English, French, Swahili, Lusogan, Bambara and Jola, with English subtitles. Mos-Art Theatre, 700 Park Ave., Lake Park. June 19 -28. (561) 337-6763.

Weekend arts picks: June 19-21

Golf Pants, a photograph by Wheaton Mahoney.

Art: It’s encouraging to see Mulry Fine Art reopen in Palm Beach's Paramount building after closing its gallery space in West Palm Beach last fall. Fecia Mulry has been in the gallery business for 18 years. The focus of her galley, she says, is to "exhibit the works of emerging artists working in all media.” Opening Saturday is Summer at The Paramount, featuring the work of Brooklyn painter Lucy Fradkin, Tequesta photographer Wheaton Mahoney, Armory Art resident and sculptor Bethany Krull, and bead work by Gulf Stream resident Peg Mulry. The show will run through July 31.

Man With a Basket of Flowers (oil and collage on paper),
by Lucy Fradkin.

The gallery is located in the courtyard of The Paramount Building, 139 North County Road in Palm Beach. Gallery hours are Tuesday through Saturday, noon to 5 p.m. and by appointment. For further information, call (561) 832-8224 or e-mail info@mulryfineart.com -- K. Deits

Bruce Linser, Cassie Greer, Alexa Cappiello and Tim Marriott
in FAU's summer production of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night.

Theater: Florida Atlantic University opens its summer repertory season this weekend with Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, an often-boisterous comedy of secret identities, gender confusion, thwarted love, and a pompous manservant who unwittingly plays the fool. Director Jean-Louis Baldet has switched the original Illyrian setting to that of Hollywood in the Roaring Twenties, which ought to give the play the same kind of manic energy successful productions seem to need. FAU will mount a preview of its summer rep season, which includes Stephen Sondheim's great 1970 musical, Company, in a free show at 7 p.m. Friday at Mizner Park in Boca Raton.

Twelfth Night can be seen at 2 p.m. Fridays (June 26 and July 10); 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays (June 20, 27 and July 11); and 2 p.m. Sundays (June 21 and July 12). Tickets: $15-20. Call 1-800-564-9539 or visit www.fauevents.com.

Movie review: 'Three Monkeys' a moody look at deception

Hatice Aslan, left, and Yavuz Bingol in Three Monkeys.

By John Thomason

The plot is the stuff of many a pedestrian potboiler. A bleary-eyed politician runs over a man with his car in the dead of night and, not wanting to sink his career in an election year, talks his underling driver into accepting the blame. It’ll mean nearly a year in prison for manslaughter, but the politician will keep sending his family his paycheck, and he’ll have a nice sum waiting for him when he gets out.

But a lot can happen while a man whiles away nine months in the hoosegow. The politician begins an affair with the man’s vulnerable wife, who eventually falls in love with the politician.

Treading over the tired terrain of political corruption and extramarital affairs, the plot description of Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Three Monkeys reads like any number of films you might catch at 1 a.m. on basic cable (if it was a Hollywood film, Ashley Judd would no doubt play the vulnerable wife). So it’s a good thing nobody watches Nuri Bilge Ceylan movies for their plots.

They watch them for the way the Turkish auteur poeticizes atmosphere, caresses the film form and shakes the very medium’s complacent foundations – something he’s able to do with silence as much as actions. His plots are as insignificant as the stories in films by Michelangelo Antonioni, Andrei Tarkovsky or, most aptly, his European contemporary Bruno Dumont; i.e., mere launching pads for pulsating psychological penetrations.

Ceylan’s breakthrough in the West came with the Dostoyevskian drama Distant (2002), a title that nicely summarizes the glacial detachment he so often keeps from his characters. He followed it up with the polarizing Climates (2006), a laconic study of the thawing of a relationship that includes an unforgettable sex scene in which violence and pleasure unsettlingly commingle.

The natural elements played key roles in both of these pictures, and in Three Monkeys, which won Ceylan the best director's award at last year's Cannes Film Festival, the perpetually downcast skies suggest an otherwordly warning, a metaphysical apocalypse set to consume the family of Eyup (Yavuz Bingol), the soft-spoken driver who takes the rap for his boss.

One feels Ceylan is conducting the apocalypse from afar, viewing his creations like a disappointed deity. A filmmaker of extremes, he all but despises medium shots, either analyzing his actors from a pitiless, microscopic distance or shoving our faces in their sweaty, sleep-deprived, frayed countenances.

Indeed, the emotional disintegration detailed so cruelly in Climates has expanded to a physical disintegration as well. When Eyup returns, his wife Hacer (Hatice Aslan), fresh off an affair with the slimy politico Servet (Ercan Kesal), dons a new teddy that would look sexy on a woman who actually cared, but it’s clear that husband and wife have become different people – which leads to a bout of rough sexual aggression without the perverse pleasure provided in Climates.

Eyup’s return signals a stronger shift toward horror-movie stylizations that previously only came out in the treatment of the couple’s troubled son Ismail (Ismail’s sudden assault of his mother over her expected affair, for instance, or the curious moment when he vomits blood while waiting for a subway). Jolting images of doors creaking open, spooky winds rustling through domestic tableaux and menacing characters emerging from shadows almost validate the creepy, not-quite-false-advertising trailer.

There are unexplained elements in Three Monkeys – like the title, for one – that are as strange as Ceylan’s formalist quirks, such as the numerous disconnects between sound and image. But illuminating from this occasionally Lynchian clutter is a story simple in its classical morality: Corruption begets corruption in a sad cycle of deception.

If Eyup’s family ends up with someone approaching stability, it comes at a great cost. The storm that continues to rage above their heads can tell you that much.

John Thomason is a freelance writer based in South Florida.

THREE MONKEYS (UC MAYMUN). Distributor: NBC Films; Director: Nuri Bilge Ceylan; Cast: Yavuz Bingol, Hatice Aslan, Rifat Sungar and Ercan Kesal; Language: In Turkish with English subtitles; Venues: Today-Sunday, Cinema Paradiso, Fort Lauderdale; Friday-Thursday, June 25, Lake Worth Playhouse