Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Stage, Screen, and Page

Pocket reviews of recent recreational views and reads:

Paramour (in previews)

The high-flying acrobatics of the Canadian troupe Cirque du Soleil have been wowing international audiences for decades, but on two previous occasions failed to secure a lasting purchase on Broadway. Things look more promising this time around with the musical play Paramour at the Lyric Theatre. As a present (thanks Michelle) I attended a preview on April 18. (One doesn’t normally comment on a play before its formal opening, but I’m not a professional critic so I will anyway.)

Just as movies with Fred and Ginger had plots only as excuses for them to dance, Paramour’s script exists to provide an excuse for the Cirque performers to astonish the audience. That said, it’s a fully adequate excuse with a storyline set in the Golden Age of Hollywood; it is a classic love triangle involving a movie director, the young woman he wants to make a star, and her song-writing boyfriend. Despite a final modest twist to the plot, don’t expect anything deep or original from the script, but do expect Broadway-class song and dance, extraordinary sets, and spectacular feats (mostly as metaphors for events in the play) by the Cirque performers. In short, go for the stagecraft.

Judging by ticket sales so far, Paramour should be around for quite some time.

Thumbs Up

**** ****

Irrational Man (2015)

If you’ve seen any of the more thoughtful Woody Allen movies you already know what themes you will encounter here. Following atheistic Nietzsche and the French existentialists, he views the world as random and devoid of any inherent meaning or purpose. The prescription of those philosophers is to imbue life with your own purposes. Not everyone who shares this worldview is successful at that, and they can find life to be somewhat blank. This is the state of renowned philosopher Abe Lucas (Joaquin Phoenix) who takes a job at a Rhode Island university. His conviction that nothing really matters has led him to abandon his earlier activism and to sink into clinical depression. The attentions of student Jill (Emma Stone) and colleague Rita (Parker Posey), both of whom find him interesting, don’t help.

(Partial *spoiler* follows.) By pure chance Abe and Jill overhear a desperate woman in a neighboring booth at a diner say she is about to lose her children in family court because of a corrupt judge. Abe decides that, while he can’t make a difference in the world at large, he at least can make a difference in this woman’s life by killing the judge. Since there is nothing to connect him with the judge he believes he can commit the perfect murder. Suddenly, his life has renewed meaning. He commits the act. In a reversal of Crime and Punishment, the crime revitalizes him. Problems arise when Jill suspects he is the killer. Will he kill again to protect himself? After all, ethics in his view are subjective.

Thumbs Up: in part for Woody not talking down to his audience.

**** ****

The Air I Breathe (2007)

Jieho Lee’s film consists of four interlaced vignettes based on the four basic emotions of a Chinese proverb: Happiness, Pleasure, Sorrow, and Love. The connecting thread is provided by the gangster nicknamed “Fingers” (Garcia) who is key to the plot of each.

There is a superb cast including Forest Whitaker, Brendan Fraser, Andy Garcia, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Emile Hirsch, Kevin Bacon, and Julie Delpy. There are some clever counterintuitive evocations of the four emotions. One man (Whitaker) finds happiness when he has no more options. Another (Fraser) finds pleasure when he is brutally beaten – it would be a spoiler to explain why. The sorrow of a rising pop star (Gellar) is not counterintuitive, but the love of Kevin Bacon is directed toward the happily married wife of his best friend. Fraser gets to play against type as a hitman/enforcer and there is an especially strong performance by Gellar.

Nonetheless, the whole thing comes across as contrived, melodramatic, and depressing. Sad films can be enjoyable, but this doesn’t have the heart to be sad. It’s just dispiriting. Audiences generally agreed: the film did a miserable box office.

Thumbs Down, despite some worthy elements.

**** ****

Carthage Must Be Destroyed (2011) by Richard Miles
Viking Press

The title, of course, is the relentless exhortation of Roman senator Marcus Portius Cato (“Carthago delenda est”) who felt that two desperate wars with Carthage (aka Punic Wars) were enough and that Rome should attack while it still had the upper hand. He eventually got his way and the Romans captured and razed the city in 146 BC. They re-founded it a century later, but very much as a Roman city.

The history of Carthage was fully intertwined with the history of the ancient Mediterranean and beyond. Also, the Punic Wars made Rome into the dominant imperial power it became. Since the heritage of Rome is central to modern Western civilization, Carthage still indirectly impacts us all. History is written by victors, however, and accordingly nearly all our ancient literary sources are Greek and Roman – and they discuss Carthage from adversarial perspectives. Little survives from Carthage itself beyond what is dug up by archaeologists.

Nonetheless, Richard Miles does what he can to use the available literary and archeological sources to give us an account of Carthaginian civilization from its foundation (traditionally in 814 BC as a colony of the Phoenician city of Tyre) to its destruction. In doing so he provides a perspective we too seldom get.

Thumbs Up: informative and readable.

Trailer Irrational Man


  1. Cirque du Soleil are generally fun to watch from what I've caught of them off TV. I imagine seeing them live would be great as well. I have one of their performances on CD The Beatles' Love.

    I've not seen the Woody Allen film, but sounds interesting. I like Parker Posey and the rest of the ensemble too. I need to rent that. Carthage Must Be Destroyed sounded interesting as well.

    1. Woody is in good form and shows he recognizes the hazard in his own worldview. It can lead one down a path dangerous to others and oneself. Even if one believes that morality is hokum -- a set of rules designed by elites to keep themselves in power -- other people do not, and the legal system is on their side.

      I didn't clarify that the Carthage history falls under the category of "pages," but it's likely the library will have it.