True Grit: A Review Thursday, Dec 23 2010 

Last night PJ and I saw the Coen brothers’ new movie, True Grit. This movie, based on the novel, is technically a remake of the John Wayne classic. I have a healthy respect for the original film, and I love several of the Coen brothers’ movies, especially Fargo, Blood Simple, and No Country for Old Men. Here’s the trailer:

Hailee Steinfeld plays Mattie Ross, a 14-year-old whose father has been murdered by Tom Chaney. She wants justice, so she hired Rooster Cogburn, a U.S. Marshall, to track him down and bring him back for trial. Jeff Bridges plays Cogburn, also known as the part for which John Wayne won his Oscar. Matt Damon plays LaBeouf, a Texas Ranger who teams up with Cogburn for this job.

A few things stand out about this film. First, Steinfeld is excellent as Ross. She plays the character’s precociousness just right. Ross is intelligent and thinks she knows everything. This “adventure” will prove otherwise. Steinfeld is likely to receive an Oscar nomination for support actress, which is silly, since hers is a lead role. I don’t understand why critics and awards groups go along with the fiction that child actors are de facto supporting performers. Why not just have a separate category for best juvenile performance? Or better yet, why not put them in their real category? If she wins, it will be at the expense of someone who deserves the supporting Oscar — like Annette Bening for her role in The Kids Are All Right — oh, wait … I forgot … she’s in the leading category even though her role is a supporting one ….


The Fighter: A Review Wednesday, Dec 22 2010 

Over the weekend, PJ and I went to see The Fighter, starring Mark Wahlberg as professional boxer Micky Ward. The film traces his rise to a welterweight title after overcoming a professional decline caused in part by his reliance on his half-brother and drug-addicted trainer, Dicky Eklund. Here’s the trailer:

I didn’t know anything about this true story before seeing the movie, and I think that helped – -I at least could imagine various outcomes. But basically, The Fighter is a genre pic that adheres pretty closely to its genre–think a modern-day Rocky: boxer gets shafted by poor management and training and has to make good on his dream of winning a title by dumping his family and going it alone. There’s nothing new here cinematically speaking, but  it’s an enjoyable film nevertheless because the actors are so good.

Mark Wahlberg is solid as Micky. He’s a charismatic, engaging actor. There’s something about him that makes you instantly like his character, to root for him to win.


Time Stands Still: A Review Tuesday, Dec 21 2010 

The last play PJ and I saw in New York was Donald Margulies’s Time Stands Still. Laura Linney plays Sarah Goodwin, a photojournalist that specialized in photographing war zones. Brian D’Arcy James plays James Dodd, a journalist and Sarah’s partner. At the beginning of the play, the two return to New York after Sarah has been gravely injured by a road-side bomb in Afghanistan. The play examines what happens to this couple in the subsequent months, especially as they see their old friend, Richard, played by Eric Bogosian, fall in love with and marry a much younger woman, Mandy, played by Christina Ricci.

Here’s a brief scene from the play, in which James suddenly proposes to Sarah:

I really liked this play. All of the actors are excellent. Linney is great as Sarah, a career woman who knows what she wants but is also too smart for her own good — she’s fully aware of the consequences of getting what she wants. I really like that Sarah isn’t played for sympathy. Linney presents her forthrightly, warts and all. I could imagine that she and the playwright might be tempted to make Sarah more sympathetic, but they don’t. Instead, we see her choices and, at the end of the play, are left to judge for ourselves whether those choices are the “right” ones.


La Bete: A Review Sunday, Dec 19 2010 

The third show PJ and I saw in New York was La Bete, a 1991 play that takes place in seventeenth-century France. David Hyde Pierce plays Elomire, a stuffy playwright attached to the court of a princess, played by Joanna Lumley. When a new playwright catches the princess’s eye, Elomire must figure out how to convince her that her new favorite is, in fact, an idiot rather than a genius. Mark Rylance plays Valere, the buffoonish newcomer.

Here’s a taste of the broadway production:

Basically, this is a play about plays. I tend to enjoy this sort of work, and I generally enjoyed La Bete. The first thing you notice is the set design. The walls of shelves with books is definitely impressive. I was a little skeptical at first — a busy set can sometimes overwhelm the action. But that didn’t happen in this play. There’s only one location in this relatively short comedy, so having a more detailed set works well.

David Hyde Pierce is very good in his role as the solid playwright who tends toward the tragic. He is not amused by Valere’s rise. To the contrary, he sees his rival as the very epitome of lowbrow, inane entertainment that cheapens the theater rather than elevates it. This view gives the play its primary relevance — it rehearses many of the same arguments various people make today about the debasement of culture due to television, bad pop music, and broadway shows based on second-rate movies.


American Idiot: A Review Friday, Dec 17 2010 

While we were in New York, PJ and I really wanted to see Green Day’s American Idiot. We both love the original album, and we both have crushes on John Gallagher from seeing him in Spring Awakening. So, we got tickets from the TKTS Booth. Our seats weren’t the best, but we enjoyed the performance. Here’s a sample of the musical from when the cast was on Letterman:

Before seeing the show, we had heard a little about the production (in addition to knowing the original Green Day album well). What we had heard was that there are three plot lines but that they three stories don’t really jive together well. We had also heard that it’s all a little confusing.

After seeing it, we thought that these comments were ludicrous. The plot does revolve around three guys. They want to move to the city and start a band, but one of them ends up not being able to leave their home town because his girlfriend gets pregnant. The other two go anyway, but they soon part company when one of them joins the army and the other one becomes a drug addict. The show follows their separate lives over the course of about 6 months or so.

All of it is very clear and not only easy to follow but also engaging, at times dazzling, and very entertaining.


Black Swan: A Review Thursday, Dec 16 2010 

PJ and I saw Darren Aronofsky‘s Black Swan, a psychological thriller about a ballerina and her rival, while we were in New York last week. Natalie Portman stars as Nina, the innocent ballerina who is in line to play the Swan Princess in Swan Lake. Her director, however, is skeptical that she has the sensuality to play the black swan. When he challenges her to get in touch with her less-than-perfect, sexy side, she begins a quest to achieve everything he wants her to be. Here’s the trailer:

Nina begins the film as a more or less virginal princess who, while technically perfect, never really achieves perfection in her dancing because she never embraces passion. Just as the previous prima donna, played by Winona Ryder, is being pushed out of the company and into retirement due to her age, a new, more sensual dancer, Lily, played by Mila Kunis, joins the company. She quickly becomes Nina’s rival for the part.

As a result of the competition, Nina soon becomes obsessed with Lily. What’s initially unclear is whether this obsession is the result of Lily’s desire to push Nina out of the way and take the role for herself or of Nina’s own fantasies. These fantasies revolve not only around dancing but also around her latent sexuality–while she has no chemistry with the male dancers, she’s clearly attracted to Lily, who seems more than willing to help Nina break out of her shell. But again, is she helping Nina or trying to destroy her?


A Little Night Music: A Review Tuesday, Dec 14 2010 

While we were in New York last week, PJ and I saw A  Little Night Music, starring Bernadette Peters and Elaine Stritch. We had never seen Peters or Stritch live before; we had also never seen a live performance of a Stephen Sondheim play. We had wanted to see this production last year, when Catherine Zeta-Jones and Angela Lansbury were starring in it. I’m glad we had to wait a year.

One of the things I love most about theater is when you experience a performance that’s truly amazing, one that transports you to someplace new and exciting, one that makes the hairs on your arms stand up. Bernadette Peters delivers such a performance in this show. She was amazing. Here’s a little taste of her version of “Send in the Clowns”:

In case you don’t know, A Little Night Music is about romantic intrigues among a group of Swedish couples around the turn of the twentieth century. Desiree is an aging actress with an illegitimate daughter who lives with Desiree’s mother, an elderly woman who lives with her memories of her own sordid liaisons. Desiree is beginning to feel that it’s time to leave the stage and settle down. She returns to her home town in the hopes that her daughter’s father, who was relatively recently widowed, will pick up where the two of them left off.

He wants to–after seeing her on stage, he wants to resume their previous affair, but he is now married to a much younger woman, putting an end to Desiree’s fantasy of settling down together. Or so it initially appears. Desiree soon learns that her former lover, Fredrik, and his young wife, Anna, have yet to consummate their marriage after six months, giving her hope that she will be able to seduce him away from Anna.


Visiting New York Monday, Dec 13 2010 

Yesterday, PJ and I got back from our annual trip to New York City. As usual, we had a great time, even though the trip was a little different than in the past.

This year I spent a significant part of the trip working rather than being a tourist. While PJ visited the sites (and caught up with an old friend), I met with a handful of my college’s alumni. Partly this was for development purposes, but it was also part of a larger effort to reconnect my college with its alumni. So, whenever I travel this year I’m trying to combine it with lunches, dinners, breakfasts, or coffees with alumni. Since I don’t actually have an official travel budget, I’m having to pay for some of the travel myself, which means that I’m trying to combine it with trips we already take or with places that I don’t mind going. Like New York!

The development stuff went well enough. You never know exactly how all that’s going to go in advance. I learned a lot of good stuff — not all of it pleasant — but all of it helpful in doing my job.

The only downside to the alumni meetings was that it left me little time for sightseeing. For the first time since we started visiting New York, I didn’t see any museums. But we did see some shows. We arrived in the city on Tuesday. That night we saw A Little Night Music with Bernadette Peters and Elaine Stritch. On Wednesday we didn’t see any shows; instead, PJ met up with a college friend and I met with an alum. On Thursday, we saw American Idiot. On Friday, we got tickets to La Bete, starring David Hyde Pierce, Joanna Lumley, and Mark Rylance. And on Saturday we saw Time Stands Still with Laura Linney. I’ll review each in more detail later.

We also ate incredibly well (as usual). We had more Italian this time than we usually do, but we also had Thai, Mexican, and Greek, and PJ had Vietnamese.

And finally, we saw Black Swan starring Natalie Portman, which I’ll review later.

So, all in all, it was a fun, successful trip. I just wish that I had made it to a museum or two. Next year, I’ll also try to consolidate my alumni visits into one or two days, giving myself more time to play.

Visiting Bruges Saturday, Dec 4 2010 

As I wrote about yesterday, PJ and I were recently in Belgium. I had one day at the end of the trip to be just a tourist, so we took the train up to Bruges and spent most of a day walking around this historic city.

Bruges saw its heyday in the late Medieval and early Renaissance periods. By the fifteenth century it was one of the cultural centers for art in Europe. Amazingly, Bruges survived both world wars in tact, making it an almost pristine glimpse into the art and architecture of the early Renaissance.

Bruges is an incredibly beautiful city — it was cold but mostly clear while we visited. It must be heavenly in the summer! The architecture combined with the canals make it a uniquely beautiful place. Many of the streets are cobblestones, and the oldest houses and buildings are built so as to form continuous walls and fortifications. I could almost feel what it was like to have lived here hundreds of years ago. Cars and other signs of modernity seem so out of place in these streets.

After we left the train station, we made out way to the Market Square, which was being decorated for the holidays. After walking around it, we decided to climb the bell tower, which was built in 1300.


Visiting Brussels Friday, Dec 3 2010 

The week before Thanksgiving, PJ and I traveled to Brussels, Belgium. I was there for a symposium, and PJ came along to see a bit of a country we otherwise had no plans to visit any time soon. It was a nice little trip — we arrived in Brussels on Sunday morning and left bright and early on Thursday.

The weather when we arrived was wet and cold. We walked from the train station to our hotel, which had been arranged by the university hosting the symposium. The organizer had told me that the hotel was in the red light district, which immediately conjured up images from our trip to Amsterdam this past spring. Based on that PJ and I both thought that it would be fine. And it was, but it was also really weird — this was nothing like Amsterdam’s red light district. This area, which seemed to be centered on the block our hotel was on, had women (and a couple of guys) standing every 30 feet or so soliciting customers on the sidewalk. So, there was no way to get to and from our hotel without walking past several “working girls.”

The most awkward part for us was that we weren’t sure at first whether we should say hello as we passed by one of the women or if we should try to ignore her. We tried acknowledging them at first, but that seemed to be the start of a transaction that we were not interested in participating in. Other than that, though, is was fine — definitely something to remember!

My symposium, which was held on Monday and Tuesday, seemed to go really well. I really enjoyed meeting the other participants. And I’ll be getting an article written out of it. All that seems really good!


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