Monday, April 30, 2012

A 'Passion' that took forever to come

I had a drama teacher in college who claimed that Sean O'Casey -- an Irishman who hadn't written a play in decades -- was the greatest living playwright. I asked how that could be. "Well," he replied, "O'Casey wrote the largest number of great plays -- all of them long before you were born -- and he's not dead."

By those standards, Stephen Sondheim -- who turned 82 last month and has written only one totally new show in 18 years -- is still our greatest living Broadway lyricist-composer. So it's surprising to realize his 1994  "Passion," which won Tony Awards for best musical, book and score, has never been done in Charlotte.

Queen City Theatre Company will fill this gap as of Thursday.  The company specializes in plays and musicals about outsiders longing to find acceptance or understanding from people unlike them, and this fills the bill: There's nobody more "outside" than Fosca, the obsessive and sickly woman who attaches herself to a military officer in 19th-century Italy. Though he thinks he loves someone else, the intensity of her passion overwhelms him. (Go to for details.)

So why hasn't this been done here before? Three reasons, I'd guess. First, it's musically tricky: not cut into easily absorbed songs, like "Forum" or even "Sweeney Todd," but sung in long, rolling waves of music that repeat with variations. Second, it's about a stalker -- there's nothing else to call Fosca -- and those folks are scary, however deeply they yearn.

Third, it's Sondheim. He's no longer Broadway news, and except for "Into the Woods," his works from the last 40 years don't get done much any more. This is a rare chance to see why he's still called -- correctly -- the greatest living lyricist-composer for the American stage.

Friday, April 27, 2012

All hail Christopher Lee!

Today we salute one of the coolest actors ever to walk (or, when playing Dracula, fly over) the Earth: Christopher Frank Carandini Lee.

He will turn 90 in exactly one month, and he's still constantly working: reprising his role as Saruman in the two-part "Hobbit" now being filmed, acting in Tim Burton's "Dark Shadows" (which opens May 11), doing voice-over for "Frankenweenie," Burton's upcoming animated feature. (Lee has one of the all-time great film voices: urbane, witty, menacing or ironic, as needed. Search for him on YouTube, and you'll find him singing opera!)

Probably no one has watched every film in his 64-year career, but I've had a fair sampling. And I don't ever think I've seen him give a dull or insincere performance. He's been in some bad movies, he's been surrounded by people who are bad in movies, and he's sent up bad movies with a sly wink. (See the Nic Cage stinker "Season of the Witch.") But he's never bad.

My father's generation knows him for Hammer horror films that came out of England in the 1950s; mine knows him for "The Wicker Man" and "The Howling II," and anyone under 30 would probably identify him as the nasty magician in "The Lord of the Rings." Yet his career extends way beyond fantasy and horror, from the roguery of Richard Lester's "The Three Musketeers" -- still the best film version of that story -- to multiple interpretations of the Egyptian pharaoh Ramesses.

Unlike many icons, he can really act. See "Triage," a neglected 2009 movie directed by Denis Tanovic (who did the Oscar-winning "No Man's Land"). Lee plays a Spanish psychologist whose granddaughter asks for help: Her husband, a photojournalist in the Middle East, has come home from war in a mental agony he can't escape. Lee shows up in the last third of the film and gives a performance of intelligence and dignity, the kind that ought to win a supporting actor Oscar -- if anyone thought of Christopher Lee in those terms.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Look! Cute pussycats!

I use that headline not to make readers check out this entry -- well, that too -- but because my favorite film of the week so far can be found here:

It's pithy. It's accurate. It riffs off our stereotypes about cats, the French, foreign films and even  ourselves. In two minutes, it creates a complete character we can understand (to the extent that we can ever understand cats, four of whom live surrounded by clouds of mystery in my house).

I shared this short with a friend who said, "Well, it's not really a movie. The guy just pointed a camera at a cat." This obviously isn't true, because director Will Braden drew a performance from his furry leading man. But the remark set me to asking a bigger question: What IS a movie?

I'd argue it's any work of art on film or video, however short or slight, that moves us to laughter, cogitation, sorrow, anger or a new way of looking at the world.

It can be in any color, with or without sound, with or with actors or changes in location. You can shoot it with a traditional camera, a cameraphone or even a still camera, if you keep the images moving in the editing room. We might all enjoy life more if we kept open minds and didn't put blinders on ourselves.

Monday, April 23, 2012

RiverRun: So near, yet so far away

Charlotteans seem to think of themselves as the center of a Carolinas-centric universe, so it's refreshing to go to cities that don't share that view. I spent the end of last week at RiverRun International Film Festival in Winston-Salem, which has become the most ambitious such event in either state -- and which should arouse envy in every other city, ours included.

I love short films, which virtually no one sees on big screens any more. So I judged documentary shorts, including the Oscar-nominated "Incident in New Baghdad" and "The Barber of Birmingham." We gave the prize to "Cutting Loose," a Scottish movie about a hairstyling championship with competitors from Glasgow prisons.

I saw two other shorts programs: one of late-night movies that were twisted in amusing ways, and one devoted to N.C. filmmakers. Zach Laws, a University of North Carolina School of the Arts student, contributed the ominous "Birthday Psalm" to that group; you'd recognize his bearded face if you patronize the Manor Theater, where he works when he's home from school.

Most people attended features, of course, and that's where RiverRun delivers bigger names. It had new movies from Australia's Fred Schepisi ("Eye of the Storm"), Russia's Andrey Zvyagintsev (the harrowing "Elena"), Canada's Philippe Falardeau ("Monsier Lazhar," a 2011 Oscar nominee for foreign film). You could hear audience members spilling onto downtown streets afterward, buzzing about what they'd seen and bustling into a coffee shop before the next screening.

I've tried for years to get Charlotteans to think about RiverRun, which showed more than 140 films from 25 countries before Sunday's closing party. Most of the time, the response has been a variation on "But it's 80 miles away!" (As if that were the distance to Neptune.) As I drove home through the rain down I-85, I was torn between a sense of pleasure at what I'd seen and sadness that a gem like this is so close -- but for so many of my readers, too far away.

Friday, April 13, 2012

'Hunger Games?' It's a black and white issue

A question for all of us who liked "The Hunger Games:" Does anyone remember a single Latino character? I didn't. So I scrolled through the cast list at the Internet Movie Data Base ( and found no Latino characters and only one actor: Nelson Ascensio, who had the tiny role of Flavius. Reader Joel Kweskin, who was in the movie as an extra and is about as Latino as pumpernickel bread, brought this question up.

Does this mean the futuristic government of Panem has solved the "problem" of immigration by deporting or exterminating Latinos? Does it mean that the producers of the film never gave a thought to the makeup of our country decades from now?

Please don't tell me there were no significant Latinos in the book. I know that, but the movie took so many liberties with the story that it could certainly have changed that, too. If you're going to introduce the character of the aged, sinister president, Edward James Olmos could have played him as well as Donald Sutherland.

Hollywood went through a long period of color-blindness about black characters through the 1950s and 60s and gay characters up to the 1990s, and that trend's being repeated today with brown-skinned folks. Every movie doesn't have to be an advertisement for Rainbow America, but to ignore is to exclude: When there's not a single significant face in the movie that looks like you, the message is "You don't matter."

I can't answer the questions above. And having raised them, I'm now off for a week of unpaid "furlough" time. But give them a little thought in my absence, would you?

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Finally, a 'Bully' I could approve of

I've been a vocal critic for 25 years of the rating system created by the Motion Picture Association of America, but I have to congratulate it for a recent decision: dropping the rating on the documentary "Bully" from an R to a PG-13, so the people who most need to see it can easily do so.

The Weinstein Company didn't make the film available to me for a timely review, so I'll be checking it out like a regular civilian when it opens April 13. But it addresses a crucial issue parents may never hear about: the harassment, sometimes physical but often cruelly verbal, that students face. It can be racial, sexual, weight-related, ethnic; the categories are nearly infinite. And because cyberbullying is so easy and anonymous, it has an especially cruel effect.

The MPAA initially rated the film "R," because of some harsh profanity. It argued then that a standard needed to be maintained: If it permitted this kind of cursing in a PG-13 movie, producers of gangster pictures and sex comedies might demand an equally soft rating for their films. Weinstein argued that an exemption needed to be made, because many parents wouldn't let middle-schoolers -- the main target audience -- see an R-rated film.

The ratings board thought this over and agreed that the epidemic of bullying outweighed the need to protect pre-teens from words they've probably heard in person (and sometimes had directed at them by nasty peers). That choice showed the soundest kind of common sense and shouldn't open the door to someone demanding a PG-13 for "American Pie XVI." The ratings folks got this one right.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Attack of the 15-Foot Conductor

There's nothing like a week off to send you back to work refreshed and full of opinions. I'm still trying to figure out what I thought about the all-Tchaikovsky concert, where a large screen hung above the last Charlotte Symphony Orchestra to show what musicians were doing.

I enjoyed seeing soloists highlighted, especially those at the back of the orchestra, whom you almost never see. I smiled when wind players jammed plugs in their ears during a brass blast or timpani roll, and the camera taught me to think about the music differently: I'd never have picked up on a piccolo solo in the Fourth Symphony, if my eye hadn't been guided to the player.

At the same time, photography encourages laziness; instead of letting our eyes rove over the stage, we get into the rhythm of letting the director tell us where to look, as we do in a movie. Nor did I need to see 15-foot maestro Christopher Warren-Green mopping his brow between movements, like he'd ridden Secretariat to a Belmont Stakes win. (The audience laughed politely, but conducting Tchaikovsky should make you sweat.) I saw one player scratching vigorously, then looking up warily to see if the lens had caught him in a private moment.

So the camera is both illuminating and invasive, helpful and unhelpful. But do we need it at all? I was happy to have a big screen next to the stage when Paul McCartney played Time-Warner; I was sitting  across the arena, and Macca was the size of a thimble. But even this myopic old man can see musicians pretty well from anywhere in Belk Theater, and we go to hear classical music in any case.

I realize the CSO hopes to capture a younger, video-obsessed audience, and this may help. I support any experiment that brings in new ears, so I'll just close my eyes if I'm distracted. If you see me doing that, don't assume I'm asleep.