Into Africa: Spotlight on the Rockefeller University Employee Art Exhibition

By Qiong Wang

image2Living in New York, most of us often find ourselves trapped inside concrete jungles, busy and occupied all the time. Sunshine and the view in the distance from our windows are often blocked bluntly by another building. On the subways, we look down, napping or playing with cell phones, avoiding eye contact. We talk fast, walk fast, eat fast-food and couldn’t go through a day without our caffeine shot. Slowly, we start to forget the world outside, a world that is organic and original.

One day, I stopped by the Employee Art Exhibition on my way to get lunch in the Weiss lobby. A series of acrylic paintings caught my attention. There was a vivid giant lion head about to leap out of the paper with his fur standing on end and both eyes gazing ahead; a baboon mother watching her baby playing in the grass; an elephant enjoying his shadow in the river with his ears wide open and a majestic giraffe sticking her head above and over tree leaves against the blue sky. I was very impressed by the painting’s details, the strokes, the color, the light and shadow, and the background. More so, I could feel there were feelings and stories behind these paintings and I was compelled to find out more about them. On the 13th floor of Weiss, I met up with the artist, Dr. Bruce McEwen, a distinguished neuroendocrinologist, in his office.

image3 Acquired somewhat from his heritage, Dr. McEwen has enjoyed drawing since his childhood. He started painting about 15 years ago, starting with water colors. In recent years, he fell in love with acrylic painting. His paintings in the exhibition were inspired by his wife’s wonderful photography, which was also on exhibit. Both Bruce and his wife, Dr. Karen Bulloch, are talented artists who make a variety of art pieces in their leisure. In the summer of 2014, they went on safari in southern Africa with a group of scholars. Being a travel lover, I immediately became fascinated with their safari experience. It was the couple’s first trip to Africa and a trip like never before. They had never been in such close proximity to hippos, rhinos, lions, giraffes, and even at the mercy of a charging elephant. The reality of seeing these animals, Dr. McEwen said, was surreal, completely different from visiting a zoo. It felt like Jurassic Park. In the safari park, the couple was covered in dust every day. Tourists were tucked in the back of open trucks covered only with metal fences. Wild animals could care less about human presence, especially when there are prey in sight. It seems quite certain that they assume the leading roles, and tourists are just extras. Locals have to learn to co-exist with these wild animals, protecting themselves and sharing resources. It is a real eco-system, a world where hyenas tear a giraffe apart and share dinner among themselves.

image1 Unfortunately, these animals’ real enemies are not themselves, but humans. To date, there are still many greedy, selfish slaughterers out there killing elephants for bloody profit. Bruce told me that the safari security personnel were equipped with guns not to protect visitors per se, but to defend wild animals against any illegal hunting.

What struck the couple most and brought them to deep reflection and awareness is the extreme gap between rich and poor and the importance of the middle class. They visited several village schools made of adobe and wouldn’t soon forget the expression of excitement on the faces of those school kids when given a soccer ball. “They were all very smart,” Dr. McEwen said, “We don’t realize how much we have.” As a matter of fact, Karen, a fantastic photographer, captured and documented some precious moments of their school visit on film, which were also on view as part of the exhibit in Weiss lobby. The couple has made and kept a connection with local schools there and they sincerely hope their continuous outreach arrives soundly in the hands of those in need in the future.

image4My conversation with Dr. McEwen had to end, but it lit up my dream of Africa. Although seemingly a far-reach right now, one day it can happen, and it will happen. Once deeply enchanted by the classic film Out of Africa, I can’t wait to step into Africa, to soul-search, to feel, to perceive and to understand simple happiness in life.


For Your Consideration – Ones to Watch, Vol. 3 Edition

By Jim Keller

Ah, the Best Supporting Actor and Actress races, such tenuous categories where one can know everything one week and nothing the next. Take last year’s Best Supporting Actress race for example—who could’ve guessed that frontrunner Oprah Winfrey would be snubbed on Oscar nomination morning? The New York Film Critics Circle (NYFCC), the National Board of Review (NBR), the Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA), and the American Film Institute (AFI) have announced their respective winners. Meanwhile, the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) and the Hollywood Foreign Press (Golden Globes) have announced their nominees. These announcements serve as the starting gun for the second leg of an unusually wide open Oscar race. Nowadays the race begins in August with the Telluride Film Festival, but I digress. By the time this article is published various other critics groups will announce their awards/nominees and a consensus will begin to take shape. As I said, anything can happen in these races and the third leg is yet to come. So while the would-be contenders are out in full-force kissing babies and making appearances, let’s examine the Best Supporting Actor and Actress races in this third of the three-part series.

Continue reading

Culture Corner

An interview with famed vocalist and vocal coach Dorian Holley (Part One of Two)

By Bernie Langs


Looking over the resume of Dorian Holley, one marvels at the long list of names of the biggest successes in popular music for whom he has served as a back-up vocalist, background singer, or studio recording partner. He worked, for example, as a featured vocalist for tours by James Taylor and Linda Ronstadt. Rod Stewart had him along for the Vagabond Heart World Tour as did Don Henley (of the Eagles) for his Inside Job World Tour. He has recorded with dozens of artists, including Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson, Elton John, Babyface, and Randy Newman. Holley has been the vocal coach and Assistant Musical Director for American Idol on television for almost a decade and was the lead singer for the house band on The Late Show with Jay Leno. He also finds time to work as a vocal instructor at the Los Angeles College of music and teaches performance classes there. But he is perhaps best known for his back-up vocal work with the late King of Pop, Michael Jackson and, in particular, his involvement in the scheduled This Is It performances that would’ve been held in London, England in 2009 if it weren’t for Jackson’s untimely death.

Holley is working hard to break out as a solo performer and appears live in the Los Angeles area club scene. His voice is silky smooth, soulful, and his depth of musical knowledge shines through in his melodic phrasing on his recent recorded materials.

I recently sent Holley ten questions about his work. The first five below are general and about his career. The second five focus on This Is It / Michael Jackson and will appear in the February 2015 issue of Natural Selections.

Continue reading

The Peggy Rockefeller Concert Series

By Ben DiMatteo

Now in its 56th year, The Peggy Rockefeller Concert Series is decidedly unknown to much of the campus community. But those familiar with the program know that some of the most accomplished musicians in the world played Caspary Auditorium as a live rehearsal for Carnegie Hall.

Since its inception, the series has featured performances in a wide array of genres, from chamber music, to Renaissance revival, to operatic arias, to jazz. Three dedicated caretaker scientists with a passion for music have shepherded the program across five decades, and kept the program afloat through rising and ebbing tides of interest within the Rockefeller community. Though performances often sell out, admission sales and private donations barely cover the program’s expenses.

The concert series traces its origin to 1958, shortly after its unique venue was unveiled. Caspary Auditorium’s geodesic structure was designed by modernist architect Wallace Harrison, who also led the construction of Rockefeller Center, the U.N. Complex, Lincoln Center’s Metropolitan Opera House, and Brooklyn’s Clinton Hill Co-ops.

Continue reading

Culture Corner

Concert Review: Steve Winwood and Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers at Madison Square Garden, Sept. 10, 2014

By Bernie Langs

Suffice it to say I expect a lot from music, including filling the need for a communal experience of substance now that I’ve shed the tedium of liturgical gatherings of the established religions. Not only do I desire that a concert experience will bind me to those in the audience in having shared in something unique and special, but that the music itself will bring me to an individual experience of gain—gain in philosophical ideas or a flow within the soulful river of pure being and an experience on a higher plane of existence. Or I can also tap my toe and dance! But in the case of popular music, there have been so many disappointments in recent years that I usually shun the genre of live performances.


Given this somber introduction and my tentativeness in seeing rock music live, I made a spur-of-the-moment decision to take up my good friend Curtis’s offer to join him at Madison Square Garden to see the great British musician/composer Steve Winwood and the all-American, long-lasting band, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. I met Curtis years ago in college where we’d often do musical jams in the evenings, experimenting in that time of youth with long solos and emotional musical communions. A couple of years ago, we rejoined forces to write some new songs, one being an “homage” to the late Beatle, George Harrison.

The concert at the Garden was scheduled to begin at 7:30 p.m. Since no one in New York shows up to a concert on time, the venue must have been about one tenth full when Steve Winwood took the stage at 7:31 p.m. Ah, those punctual Brits.

Continue reading

Posted in Art

For Your Consideration– Ones to Watch, Vol. 2 Edition

By Jim Keller

This month we examine the leading ladies of the Best Actress race. The category remains ever flimsy—especially with comparison to the number of men competing for Best Actor this year. It is sadly a sign of the times: there are not a lot of leading roles for women in Hollywood. But the good thing is that three perspective nominees are overdue for a win. Last year at this time, our eventual Best Actress winner was pretty much decided, this year we’re lucky enough to even be able to cobble together a race for the women at all. I’d venture to guess, as was the case last year, that our winner is right underneath our noses in these pages. So let’s first discuss what happened with last year’s crop of ladies from FYC and see who won the affections of Oscar.

Although Sandra Bullock and Meryl Streepreceived Best Actress nominations for Gravity and August: Osage County, the Best Actress Oscar went to Cate Blanchettfor Blue Jasmine. Unlike the Best Actor category last year, there weren’t any snubs from our Best Actress coverage. Bérénice Bejo’s performance in The Past just didn’t gain enough steam to push her through to a nomination. As for Kate Winsletin Labor Day and Marion Cotillardin The Immigrant, both films werepushed back by the studios until 2014, but neither performance will figure in this year’s race.

Continue reading

Culture Corner: Chuck Berry and the American Songbook—An Appreciation

By Bernie Langs

Chuck berryI saw Chuck Berry, the founder of the music genre of rock ‘n’ roll in the 1950s, in concert in the midst of my life’s blur of the mid-to-late 1980s at a fairly small New York City concert venue. He was paired up that evening with Ronnie Wood, the second banana guitarist of the Rolling Stones and the man whose presence in that band had rescued it when Mick Taylor quit out of nowhere in the mid-1970s. Berry was the headliner, and as usual, he was famously late. Ronnie announced he’d play while we waited for his sparring partner, and I still remember him struggling to sing the slow Robert Johnson blues masterpiece, “Love in Vain” when suddenly he just spoke into the microphone and announced, “Okay, here’s the point.” At that time on the planetary, Euclidean grid and map of rock history’s great moments, he took his metal slide to his guitar and ripped out a monumental solo of deep emotional joy and pain, which is the signature mixture of the Blues. The Brits, of course, had rearranged and stolen the Blues methods in the 1960s from the African American players of the United States. When Berry arrived at the hall that night, he stole it back, at least for one evening.

Continue reading

For Your Consideration – Ones to Watch, Vol. 1 Edition

By Jim Keller

With the conclusion of last month’s Telluride Film Festival, it’s time to kick off our three-part “Ones to Watch” series. This year, I’m shaking things up a bit by beginning with the Best Actor race—primarily because there are about 44 men vying for five slots, currently more than in any other acting category. Who will have what it takes to take home gold come Oscar night? It’s too early to tell, but we can make some reasonable, educated guesses. But first, let’s look at last year’s names and see how they fared with Oscar.

Three of the leading men discussed in last year’s column went on to earn Best Actor nominations: Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave), Bruce Dern (Nebraska), and Leonardo DiCaprio (The Wolf of Wall Street). Matthew McConaugheywon the Best Actor Oscar for Dallas Buyer’s Club. Only one actor was snubbed—Robert Redford (All Is Lost),who was unseated by Christian Bale (American Hustle)—but the race was crowded and this possibility was always on the table. As for George Clooney in Monuments Men and Steve Carell in Foxcatcher, both films werepushed back by the studios until 2014—the latter is discussed again in this column. Finally, Tom Hanks’s role in Saving Mr. Banks was later determined to be supporting, not lead.

THE CHANGELING: Steve Carell – Foxcatcher (director: Bennett Miller):

FYC: This drama, based on Mark Schultz’s autobiography, tells the true story behind the 1996 murder of Olympic wrestler David Schultz by paranoid schizophrenic and heir to the du Pont chemical fortune, John Eleuthère du Pont. Carell (du Pont) won the Golden Globe for Best Actor in a Television Series – Musical or Comedy in 2006 for his role on The Office—a role that earned him subsequent consecutive nominations from 2007–2011. Not only does Carell play against type in Foxcatcher, but donning a prosthetic nose, he has the heavy make-up card to play (see Nicole Kidman’s and Charlize Theron’s Best Actress wins for The Hours and Monster in 2003 ­­­and 2004). Further, Carell won rave reviews at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, where Miller picked up the Best Director prize and the film competed for the Palme d’Or. There is every reason to believe that Carell will land a nomination, but in which category is the question. While he will campaign as lead actor, both Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo (who play Mark and David Schultz), are considered co-leads. But at the end of the day, the Oscar voters alone will decide Carell’s category (see Kate Winslet’s Best Actress win for The Reader in 2009 for a huge example of category fraud—Winslet’s role was by all accounts supporting). Given Carell’s star power, expect to see Tatum and Ruffalo go head-to-head in the supporting race.

THE HAS-BEEN: Michael Keaton – Birdman (director: Alejandro González Iñárritu):

FYC: In this tale of redemption and self-reinvention, Keaton plays an also-ran who once portrayed an iconic superhero, and battles his ego as he mounts a Broadway play and works to recover his family and career. To be sure, the irony that Keaton played Batman twice is not lost. But after inhabiting more than 71 roles, the 63 year-old has only a single Golden Globe nomination for his lead performance in a mini-series made for television, Live from Baghdad in 2003. Why then, am I writing about Keaton? Because it’s a plum role that looks fantastic in the trailer and Hollywood loves on and off-screen success stories such as this one. If Keaton is as good as early buzz portends, one could call it imitation of life. 

THE DRUGGIE: Joaquin Phoenix – Inherent Vice (director: Paul Thomas Anderson):

FYC: This adaptation, based on Thomas Pynchon’s novel, follows drug-fueled detective Larry “Doc” Sportello (Phoenix) through 1970s Los Angeles as he investigates the disappearance of a former girlfriend.

Phoenix was first nominated in 2001 for Gladiator (supporting) and again in 2005 for Walk the Line (lead). He earned his last nomination for Anderson’s previous film, The Master in 2013—even after declaring that he didn’t want any part of the Oscars. This shows the high regard the Academy has for Phoenix. So the only question here is if Anderson’s first adaptation will be up to snuff for Academy members.

THE STRAIGHT GAY MAN: Benedict Cumberbatch – The Imitation Game (director: Morton Tyldem):

FYC: In this drama Cumberbatch plays Alan Turing— the English mathematician and logician who helped crack the Nazi’s Enigma code during World War II and invented the modern computer before being prosecuted for homosexuality by the British government. Cumberbatch has been making a name for himself across television (Sherlock, Parade’s End) and film (12 Years a Slave, August: Osage County). This could be the vehicle for him to snag the Academy’s attention.

THE MONEYMAKER: Brad Pitt – Fury (director: David Ayer):

FYC: The film is a WWII drama set in April, 1945, about army sergeant “Wardaddy,” (Pitt) who commands the Sherman tank “Fury” and its five-man crew. Outnumbered and out-gunned, the men face overwhelming odds in their attempts to strike at Nazi Germany from behind enemy lines. With three acting nominations under his belt, Pitt has proven to the Academy that he’s more than a pretty face. In 1996 he was nominated in a supporting role for Twelve Monkeys,and Pitt went on to earn two lead actor nominations for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and Moneyball, in 2009 and 2012, respectively. The trailer looks great and this could be the right vehicle (har har!) to get him that elusive Best Actor statuette.

THE SELF-STARTER: Eddie Redmayne – The Theory of Everything (director: James Marsh):

FYC: This biopic examines the life of famous physicist Stephen Hawking and his relationship with his now ex-wife. While he has inhabited smaller roles in a few earlier films, Redmayne’s first major Hollywood coming out was in 2011’s My Week with Marilyn. Determined not to be just another flash in the pan, the Britt revealed himself as a vocal powerhouse in Tom Hooper’s adaptation of Les Misérables the following year, which opened more doors. Now, Redmayne demands to be noticed in his most ambitious role yet, playing Hawking, who suffers from ALS—not an easy undertaking. If he’s successful, and the film gets some traction, Redmayne could find himself face-to-face with the Academy.

THE ARTIST: Timothy Spall – Mr. Turner (director: Mike Leigh):

FYC: In this biopic that explores the last quarter century of the great, eccentric British painter J.M.W. Turner’s life, Spall plays the titular character. Perhaps best known to American audiences for his role as Wormtail in the Harry Potter films, this year’s Cannes Film Festival Best Actor winner hasn’t yet attracted the Academy’s eye. Instead, Spall has plotted a quiet course into the Oscar conversation by being a stalwart player in Leigh’s films over the years. Beginning with a role in 1990’s Life is Sweet, followed by Secrets and Lies, which earned him a Best Actor BAFTA (British Academy of Film and Television Arts) nomination, and Topsy-Turvy, which earned him a second BAFTA nomination for his supporting role, Spall has now appeared in five Leigh films. Given the film’s positive reception thus far, it stands to reason that, by year’s end, Spall’s Best Actor hardware could multiply.

MR. DYNAMITE: Chadwick Boseman – Get on Up (director: Tate Taylor):

This film follows James Brown’s rise from poverty to become one of the most influential musicians in history. Boseman resurrects the icon by stepping into his well-warn shoes, becoming one with Brown’s soul, and eschewing any notion of an artist caricature. While he earned rave reviews for his portrayal of baseball great Jackie Robinson in last year’s 42, the Academy has yet to come knocking—this performance could certainly change that. Taylor’s last film, The Help, was released around the same August date as Get on Up in 2011 and it successfully mined an untapped period for Academy recognition. It seems Taylor and the studio behind the film, Universal Pictures, had the same hopes here. But it’s early in the Oscar season and the heavy-hitters are yet to come. So whether or not Boseman can hold on for one of the final five slots is to be determined. Unfortunately, unlike The Help, Get on Up will likely not have the added muscle of multiple film nominations buzz behind it.

THE NEWCOMER: Jack O’Connell – Unbroken (director: Angelina Jolie):

FYC: Jolie’s second feature film, based on the best-selling book Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand, chronicles the life of Olympic runner Louis Zamperini, who wastaken prisoner by Japanese forces during the war. While O’Connell earned recognition for playing the lead in Starred Up overseas, the film has just received a limited release stateside, so it’s likely that his portrayal of Zamperini will be the first that most Americans see of him. Still, many Oscar prognosticators speculate the film will be a juggernaut in this year’s race. It has a highly-respected woman at the helm, it’s timely (given Zamperini’s recent passing), it features the screenwriting talents of Joel and Ethan Coen, and it’s being released on Christmas Day—prime Oscar picking time. Not to mention that the Academy loves tales of overcoming great odds, biopics, war films, and athlete stories—check, check, check, check! It is for these reasons I chose to discuss the British O’Connell. So for now, he gets to ride the colossal Unbroken wave, and it remains to be seen whether or not both the film’s and the actor’s Oscar chances will be realized or dashed to bits on the rocks.

As I indicated at the top, this is merely a smattering of the leading performances to bow this year. Bradley Cooper just had his name thrown in the ring for Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper, Christian Bale joins the hunt as Moses in Ridley Scott’s epic Exodus: Gods and Kings, and Michael Fassbender could turn some heads in the title role of Justin Kurzel’s Macbeth. Each of these men is a past nominee and each of them should be expected to bring it. Who will be left standing at the end of a long line of blows to compete in the title match? Stay tuned as the race has just begun. Next time we’ll review some of the leading ladies’ roles of the season. So until then, I bid you adieu.

Posted in Art

Culture Corner: Summer Film Roundup

By Bernie Langs

By way of introducing the highlights of my experiences with selected movies I watched in the summer of 2014, I am oddly reminded of the Roman Emperor Nero and the infamous popular image of him as the ruler who “fiddled while Rome burned.” The notion of Nero playing the lyre at a time of crisis can be traced back to the ancient biography of him by the historian Seutonius in his book The Twelve Caesars. It took only a couple of thousand years for the story to be diluted down to the image we now have and for it to become a metaphor for someone who dallies foolishly during a time of immediate crisis. The point is that the summer of 2014 was one of constant emergencies and tragedies on the international and domestic stages, some of which I wonder if the world will ever recover from. And yet, while our politicians avoided or, in most cases, just could not figure out viable solutions, the public, so very emboldened (and deluded) by the idea that the ballot box gives them power, also sat back and could not truly and in a meaningful way, engage. My own personal fiddling was scored by the following flicks.

all is lostThis summer, the big studios poured out yet more comic book epic films and other banal entertainment with big bright explosions. This allowed my stretch of not actually going to a movie theater to reach a life-long record length of time. Yet, I was able to find some recent film nuggets to watch On Demand on stunningly detailed HD television or downloaded on my hand-held Kindle Fire device. Films that present the story of an isolated individual facing a near impossible situation and either persevering or perishing in a gallant tale of courage have always appealed to me. Two movies I watched this summer examine this bravery and both did it extremely well. Robert Redford is the sole actor in All is Lost and how he was not nominated this year for an Academy Award as Best Actor for this performance will remain a mystery in perpetuity [Editor’s note: though Jim Keller’s “For Your Consideration” column may shed some light on that]. Redford was in the 1972 film, Jeremiah Johnson, about a 19th century American who takes to the snowy mountains to leave civilization behind and ends up facing everything from attacks by Native Americans to bears. The title character’s solitude as portrayed by Redford is best summed up at its end, where Johnson is reunited with a like-minded elder mountain man and he sorrowfully says, “I wonder what month it is.” All is Lost takes place in the present and there is almost no dialogue in the whole film aside from the tearful, regret-filled prologue speech. It’s the story of Redford’s unnamed character on a boat, in the middle of the ocean, and his struggle to stay alive and afloat after he is awakened to find a hole in his ship made from striking a large, metal container used to export goods. It’s a fantastic nuanced fight that he displays and the movie builds to an excellent and thrilling finish.

Gravity was surprisingly engaging as well, with Sandra Bullock portraying an astronaut in crisis out in space with nothing but her wits and the advice of a Buzz Lightyear-type, George Clooney to pull her through. The final two minutes had me thinking that this was a new generation’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. That film, masterminded and directed by Stanley Kubrick from the book by Arthur C. Clarke, was more subtle, and left its audiences wondering what in hell it all meant. Gravity finishes with an oddly Kubrick-like flair, yet it is an ending meant for a 21st century audience that likely won’t think about its implications for hours or years to come, the way I did after I saw 2001 at a film revival house theater in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1980.

Tim’s Vermeer was another fine film I watched this summer. The entertaining and sometimes frightening comedy duo Penn and Teller created this documentary about how software maven, Tim Jenison persists over years of preparation and months of actual painting to produce a replica of a detailed Johannes Vermeer painting. Jenison, who is not an artist and had never painted before, creates an optical device using only materials that were available centuries ago in Vermeer’s time. He seems to prove his theory about how Vermeer was able to paint in such minute detail, which is beyond the scope of what the human eye can actually see. Vermeer could only have done so with the aid of a mechanical device like the one Jenison builds. But he doesn’t stop there. Jenison physically recreates the room depicted in the painting, from the tapestries to the furniture to scale. He even makes his own paints, using only materials available in Vermeer’s time. The film entertains because Jenison, though brilliant, is human, and his gargantuan task often leads to bursts of frustration, many of which are funny and amusing. But his patience and persistence gives the film its passion and leaves one with a lesson of the satisfactions of succeeding with personal tests of endurance.

budapestI had high expectations for Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel—especially since I recently discussed his movie, The Darjeeling Limited with high praise. I wasn’t disappointed. In this surreal fable-like movie, Ralph Fiennes plays the concierge of a fictional hotel in a fictional country with incredible humor, refinement, and with a keen sense of adventure. Similar to Woody Allen, it appears that actors are anxious to work with Anderson, and the cast includes some of today’s better film personalities. One expects Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, and Jason Schwartzman to make their usual appearances, but there are many surprise stars, including an almost unrecognizable, yet characteristically tough, Harvey Keitel. The tale, told in flashback, takes place mostly in the early 1930’s and Fiennes’s character, Gustave H., is the consummate Old European hotel concierge, who is teaching a young bellhop protégé the ropes of pleasing the most demanding of Old World wealthy guests. The movie reaches hysterical and improbable levels of convoluted plot twists and diversions, all of which are a pleasure to watch unfold and resolve. Ralph Fiennes’s previous roles include the mob boss in 2008’s In Bruges—his entrance towards the end of that movie is a wonder of hilarity mixed with a dangerous persona. He reaches new heights of subtle comedic touch in Budapest. I loved listening to his vocal inflections throughout this performance.

Like Jesus’s miracle of turning water into wine at the wedding at Cana (as noted in John’s Gospel) I have saved the best for last. I have quite the soft spot for British humor since the days of stumbling on the U.S. premier of Monty Python’s Flying Circus in the mid-1970s, where one would have least expected to find such irreverence. The 19th century art critic John Ruskin said something along the lines of “in the face of the most gorgeous sight of countryside an Englishman will not pause to make a wise-crack.” The other day I heard a musician note that the British are unique in their deep-set humor to the point that they would allow appropriate and accepted jokes at “a funeral of triplets.”

the tripMy wife alerted me to The Wall Street Journal review of the new movie The Trip to Italy. Discovering that it was a sequel, we tracked down the first film, The Trip, made for the BBC in several episodes in 2010 and released later that year as a feature film. The Trip follows Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon playing versions of themselves through a tour of north England restaurants Coogan is to review for a British publication. The absolutely stunning countryside is depicted matter-of-factly, as are so many great cinematic views of small English towns and their varying historic remains. Coogan and Brydon were about 40 years when filming, and while watching I had the thought that the British version of the immaturity of the modern male adult is more mature than his American counterparts. Then, Ben Stiller, Hollywood poster boy for childish antics appeared in a dream sequence. Coogan and Brydon riff throughout their car rides, meals, and hotel stays with incredible wit, erudition, and silliness. They make one laugh by reciting classic English poets or by attempting to out-imitate each other with impressions of veteran Brit talent, Michael Caine. Brydon notes and demonstrates, quite hysterically, in his impressions of Caine, the subtle difference in inflections of the early Caine and the old Caine. The biggest problem with The Trip is that I laughed so hard during some of their fast-paced attempts to one-up each other, that I missed a lot of dialogue. My wife told me that her friend watched the movie a second time with subtitles, so as not to miss any lines.

I began this column with the gloomy image of the matricidal madman Nero fiddling as his world burned and likened it to our own inability to fix the complex problems we face today while spending time watching movies. Yet, I will not leave you adrift like Robert Redford and Sandra Bullock. Let us remember, though to be honest I can’t come close to recalling the actual phrasing, the lesson taught in ancient China: Fix (rectify) your family, and then you can fix your village; fix your village and then you can fix your nation; fix your nation and then you can fix the world.

Culture Corner

An Interview with Richard Torregrossa, Author of Terminal Life: A Suited Hero Novel and Cary Grant: A Celebration of Style

By Bernie Langs

 RT CG author picSeveral years ago, I was checking the blurbs of recommended articles and reviews indexed by the Arts & Letters Daily web site as I do every day. The site recommended a review of a book about the fashion sense and style of the late, great actor, Cary Grant. Since I admire Grant and his body of work (especially the films done with director Alfred Hitchcock), I clicked and discovered that the book in question was written by a friend I’d worked with at a publishing house. Richard Torregrossa and I became fast friends in the mid-1980s, as we did the dull work of pre-computer copy-editing and marketing, and in his case, copy-writing, editing, and interactions with authors. In addition, we attended book release parties from other publishers where we sipped wine in the evening and hovered in reception room corners while we watched literary types and quietly wise-cracked observations to each other.

We both lived in Brooklyn and finally Torregrossa, born and bred there, had enough and headed west to seek new opportunities, his fortune, and adventure in California. We contacted each other now and then and I was pleased when he found success utilizing his cartoon drawing skills with several captioned-illustrated books such as Fun Facts about Dogs, The Little Book of Wisdom, Fun Facts about Cats, and the more poetic and meditative The Man Who Couldn’t See Himself.

One phone call we had in the 1990s, was memorable as I listened to a story of how he’d scored a difficult book contract. Torregrossa told me that since he couldn’t afford a literary agent to work the difficult terrain of the competitive publishing business on his behalf, he invented an agent, and sent out inquiries under their name. His fictitious agent made inroads into the business and, one afternoon, Torregrossa received a call from a publisher interested in signing him, but on different terms. Torregrossa said his agent was in the room and advised him to stand his ground. The publisher asked to speak with Torregrossa’s agent. Torregrossa, without hesitation, asked him to hold, took a beat, impersonated his fake agent with an accent and a higher pitch, and worked out the deal.

After I read the online review about Torregrossa’s book, (which includes an introduction written by fashion designer icon, Giorgio Armani), I tracked down his email and we resumed our long-distance friendship. I read many of his erudite and well-written freelance, fashion newspaper columns in major international and U.S. publications and was glad when he became a style consultant with a history of fashion curator at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts. When Torregrossa delved into fiction with Terminal Life, I read an advance copy. It was just released to excellent reviews. The graphically violent, action novel unfolds at a quick pace, but with twists on the genre. There is a unique hero, Luke Stark, a former Navy SEAL who returns home to learn that his wife was murdered and his son disappeared. And so begins his tale of revenge written through deftly presented prose. The book’s themes examine everything from the value of life to the complications of filial obligations. There’s also a sprinkling of fun and humor. When I finished Terminal Life, I told Torregrossa that the way he artfully managed the book’s deeper ideas was selective and subtle, which packs a more powerful punch and leaves a larger impression.

Torregrossa kindly agreed to be interviewed on the eve of his new book’s release for Natural Selections.

Continue reading

For your consideration – Cannes Shakedown Edition

By Jim Keller

It’s become a regular thing for me to take a bit of a hiatus after May’s Cannes Film Festival. This is largely because there simply isn’t much to write about in the Oscar world, but if I’m one hundred percent honest, it’s nice to have a bit of downtime as the summer months approach. So here we are in the thick of summer, the FIFA World Cup 2014 just came to a close, and most people are not giving the film world a second thought. Yet here I sit, mere weeks after the July 4th weekend, on the precipice of what is sure to be a crazy Oscar race, slowly beginning to take shape much like galaxies from dust particles. To that end, I am reluctant to dive into the “Ones to Watch” series just yet so in this edition we take a closer look at those films and performances in the Oscar conversation that bowed on the Croisette, which could earn nominations in their respective categories.

Foxcatcher (director: Bennett Miller):
This drama tells the true story behind the 1996 murder of Olympic wrestler David Schultz by paranoid schizophrenic and heir to the du Pont chemical fortune, John du Pont.

For Your Consideration (FYC): Not only did Miller win the festival’s Best Director prize, but his film went on to vie for the Palme d’Or, which it lost only by a narrow margin to Turkish director Nuri Bilge’s Winter Sleep. As I mentioned in the last column, Miller won the Best Director Oscar for Capote in 2006. For now, he is the one to beat in the Best Director race. Also in May I wondered how meaty Channing Tatum’s role as David Schultz would be. While Steve Carell (du Pont) will campaign as lead actor, both Tatum and Mark Ruffalo, who plays Schultz’s younger brother, also named Mark, are considered co-leads. But with Carell’s playing against type, the two will likely compete head-to-head in the supporting race. A nomination here would be the first for Tatum, while Ruffalo earned a Best Supporting Actor nomination for The Kids Are Alright in 2011. On top of that, co-screenwriter, Dan Futterman was nominated alongside Miller for his work on Capote in 2006, so look for him to figure in. All of this combined makes Foxcatcher a viable Best Picture nominee and possible winner.

Continue reading

Posted in Art

An Extraordinary Early American in Europe

By Susan Russo

Portrait_of_Ira_Aldridge,_by_Taras_Shevchenko_(1858)Ira Aldridge was born in New York in 1807 to free black parents: Daniel, a clerk and preacher, and Luranah Aldridge. Ira was schooled at home until 1820, when at the age of 13, he was enrolled in the African Free School Number Two. In the 1820s in New York City William Alexander Brown, a West Indian, started four “backyard” or public garden theatres, with plays followed by musical entertainments. During the same period, Brown founded the first all-black “African Theatre,” presenting Richard III, followed by an opera and a ballet. City officials closed all of Brown’s and others’ similar enterprises shortly after each opening following complaints, the last closing culminating in a riot.

At 14, Aldridge found a job in New York as a dresser at the whites-only Chatham Garden Theatre. His employer was a touring Anglo-American actor, James William Wallack. It is not known whether the connection with Wallack played a part in his decision, but, in 1824, Aldridge embarked for Liverpool, England, on his way to accept the award of a scholarship to study theology at Glasgow University. (During this period, a number of religious institutions and anti-slavery societies in England, Scotland, and America were active in supporting advanced education, but in limited subjects, for Africans and African-Americans.)

Continue reading

Culture Corner – The “Exotic Foreign” of Wes Anderson and Haruki Murakami

By Bernie Langs

There is much made in some classical and modern philosophies of the concept and ambiguity of what is termed “the other.” In addition, one can find obscure musings on the idea of “the stranger” from the pens of philosophers as far afield in time and thinking as Plato and Camus. I’ve been avoiding, of late, the more difficult works of such trained thinkers and their non-fictions, opting to glean life lessons from those more akin within the arts to current travails. What I continue to discover is that I draw great pleasure from the belief that ideas originating from lands abroad that I will most likely never visit, appeal to my sense of intellectual adventure, offering to me, and perhaps to others, the mystery of the “exotic foreign.”

I offer, by way of example, two works of art extremely different in nature appealing to this sense. Wes Anderson co-wrote and directed the film The Darjeeling Limited in 2007 and Haruki Murakami wrote the book “Sputnik Sweetheart” in 2001. In Anderson’s movie, we follow the travels of three brothers on a train through India, a trip they take in an attempt to bond and heal a year after their father’s untimely death. The brothers are played to absolute perfection by the actors Owen Wilson, Adrien Brody, and Jason Schwartzman (Schwartzman has frequently appeared in Anderson’s films and he is also a co-writer of this movie). The viewer identifies with these foreigners since we can relate to the notion of Western individuals seeking spiritual solace in the East as visitors. We discover India as they do, as enlightened tourists hoping to catch a glimpse and some meaning from something new and completely alien to our routines.

Continue reading

Culture Corner: book review “Seiobo There Below” by László Krasznahorkai

By Bernie Langs

I would bet that it is safe to say that anyone reading these pages is more than busy in this life and that many of you who continue to read for pleasure are overwhelmed by the truth that there are “so many books and so little time.” You may also feel, as I do, that at this point, if I’m going to commit to a book that is both challenging and difficult, it sure as hell better be worth the effort. Keeping this in mind, I have found such incredible joy in chancing upon the works of the Hungarian author László Krasznahorkai (b. 1954). I have had the pleasure of reading three of his works of fiction. Last year in Natural Selections I reviewed his book The Melancholy of Resistance and interviewed its translator. Subsequently, I completed his War & War, a book so powerful that I would read it in dumbfounded awe, and recently I have just finished his Seiobo Down Below.

Continue reading

For Your Consideration – Cannes Preview Edition

By Jim Keller

Now in its third year, this instalment of For Your Consideration takes a look at those films set to cross the Croisette this month. While the Cannes Film Festival is not primarily known as an Oscar launching vehicle, in recent years it has revealed a glimmer of Oscar’s gold. Last year’s fest premiered eventual Best Picture nominee Nebraska, as well as critic’s darling Inside Llewyn Davis, which only earned cinematography and sound mixing nominations. While details were slim, both films were discussed in this column. This year Jury President and director/producer/screenwriter Jane Campion, will oversee the bow of Olivier Dahan’s Grace of Monaco, which will open the Festival and screen out of competition.

So let’s see what lies across the sea, ready to seize the hearts and minds of the attendees of this film industry exclusive and possibly jump-start the 2014 Oscar race. As always, my list is comprised of highlights and films with considerable pedigree behind them, to wind up in the throes of Oscar come February:

Continue reading

Posted in Art

Mistaken for Strangers – A Rock Star’s Brother Peeks Out of His Shadow

By Jason Rothauser

In the film’s opening sequence, Matt Berninger, nattily dressed in a three-piece suit, fusses with a beach umbrella before finally settling down for an interview in the park. Berninger is the lead singer of The National, an indie rock band who toiled for years in obscurity before making it into the spotlight and to the top of the Billboard charts. His interviewer is his brother Tom. He starts with a few odd questions (“Do you ever get sleepy on stage?”). Things are not going well.

“Do you have a notebook?” Matt asks his brother. “With questions written down? Do you have any kind of organisation and plan for this film?”

Thus begins Mistaken for Strangers, a documentary that began as a behind-the-scenes look at The National before morphing into something very different. The filmmaker is Matt’s brother Tom. While Matt has reached rock stardom as the lead singer of one of the most successful indie rock bands, Tom still lives at home with his parents in Ohio. Matt is tall, thin, composed. Tom is overweight, disheveled, and an amateur filmmaker whose efforts have been limited to zombie schlock-fests on homemade VHS tapes.

When Matt invites his brother to join their European tour as a working roadie, Tom jumps at the chance, and takes along a handheld video camera. He keeps it rolling for much of the tour. At first, Tom’s only ambition is to perhaps produce some documentary footage for the web, but he soon latches onto the idea of creating a full-length feature film.

While Mistaken for Strangers does in fact feature plenty of backstage footage of the band as they tour Europe, this is not a concert documentary or even a documentary ultimately about The National. It quickly becomes clear that Tom doesn’t know what he’s doing, either as a roadie or as a filmmaker. Tom, decked out in plastic sandals, Motörhead t-shirt, and ubiquitous drink in hand, is ready for a party. He’s expecting rock-star debauchery, but he’s quickly brought down to earth by the business-like efficiency of the consistently professional band. His drinking becomes a problem (“Remember your allergy!” brother Matt scolds as he grabs a beer out of Tom’s hand), and it’s only a matter of time before Tom is fired. He keeps the camera rolling for his painful exit interview.

But the story doesn’t end there. Instead, Tom turns the camera, and the focus of the film, on himself. How does it feel to live in the shadow of the limelight? To live in your parents’ garage while your big brother becomes a rock star?

Tom’s stint as a roadie shoves this disparity right in his face, and he lives out every painful bit of it on camera with unflinching (and endearing) honesty. A highlight moment features the band playing for President Obama (their song “Fake Empire” was a campaign theme and the band has played at various campaign rallies). Tom is corralled backstage by Secret Service agents while the rest of the band meets and has a photo taken with the president. Tom is crushed that he’s not included. “Do you think its because of my DUI?” he wonders.

Ironically, Tom’s failures elevate what could have been a routine concert documentary into something much more. And while the film has something serious to say about ambition, family, and failure, there is never any danger of it taking itself too seriously. The filmmaker’s entirely guileless personality and bizarre questions replicate the absurdity of This is Spinal Tap, and Tom even manages to ask some questions that music fans might be curious about, but thought were too dumb to ask. “Do you carry your wallet when you’re up there performing?” he asks the band’s bass player. The answer is “yes.”

Documentary filmmaking is full of happy accidents. The brilliant Capturing the Friedmans, which examines a sensational case of child abuse and its effects on the titular family, had its origins in a documentary about children’s entertainers (family member David Friedman is a professional clown, and the filmmaker came to learn his story when getting to know him in that capacity). Mistaken for Strangers similarly rises from relatively humdrum origins to add up to something much more than its original ambitions. You don’t have to be a fan of The National, or even know who they are, to be profoundly entertained by this warm, human film. And if you happen to be an underachieving younger sibling, photos of a smiling Tom Berninger presenting his (much-lauded) movie at the Tribeca festival may just give you some hope.

Posted in Art

For Your Consideration – Crystal ball edition!

By Jim Keller

Last year’s Crystal Ball edition yielded four of nine eventual Best Picture nominees. Gravity, American Hustle, The Wolf of Wall Street, and Nebraska as well as Best Picture winner, 12 Years a Slave, were all discussed as hopefuls long before they bowed. So if you think spring is too early to talk about Oscars, think again. Here are some films debuting this year that could wind up in the Oscar conversation as the year progresses.

A Most Wanted Man (director: Anton Corbijn):

Why you might like it: Based on John le Carré’s novel, the film follows a Chechen Muslim as he gets caught up in the international war on terror after he illegally immigrates to Hamburg, Germany.

Why I’ve got my eye on it: The film was discussed last year in this column, but its release was subsequently pushed back. Corbijn’s The American (2010) wasn’t able to best his debut, 2007’s Control, but I’m interested to see what he can do with a le Carré novel. Plus it has a lead performance by the late, great Philip Seymour Hoffman.

Continue reading

Spring Breaks in April

By Susan Russo

Special Free Events and Short Excursions


Macy’s Flower Show

When: April 1-6

Where: 34th to 35th Street between Sixth and Seventh Avenues

Tartan Day Parade, with bagpipes, kilts and dancers

When: April 5, starting at 2:00 p.m.

Where: 45th to 55th Street on Sixth Avenue

“Pillow Fight in the Park,” teddy bears and pillows, but “no feathers”

When: April 5, 3:00 to 6:00 p.m.

Where: Washington Square Park, West 4th and 6th Street between MacDougal Street and University Place

“Easter Parade” wear or admire fancy hats and costumes

When: April 20, 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.

Where: 49th to 50th Street on Fifth Avenue

“Celebrating Earth Day” a three-day event, with family activities, films and performances

When: April 22, 11:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.

Where: Union Square, 14th Street between Irving Place and Fifth Avenue

“Tribeca Family Festival” street fair, music, chefs’ demonstrations, crafts and films

When: April 26, 10:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m.

Where: Greenwich Street between Hubert and Chambers Street

 “9/11 Memorial 5K Run/Walk” Family Day, “to support the memorial and museum”

When: April 27, 9:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m.

Where: Church Street between Cortland and Liberty Street

Continue reading

For Your Consideration – And They’re Off! Edition

By Jim Keller

Last year I equated the Oscar race to a horserace where each studio bets on its thoroughbreds and hopes that they can at least place at the end. I explained that the studio is the owner, the public relations department is the jockey, and the horse is the actor or film in the analogy. Here we thrust those roles I’ve discussed in the three-part Ones to Watch edition under a microscope to separate the nominees from the contenders and to identify the power players for each studio. I’ve also included my rankings as they stood on the eve of the Oscar nominations—the  number in parenthesis indicates my placement following nominations. I chose the maximum ten nominees for Best Picture and all categories reflect five nominees. The top five in the chart were my nominee picks, those that fall outside of that were outside chances that I had listed. There is only one actual nomination that I did not have in my picks or as having an outside chance, Philomena for Best Picture.

Continue reading

Posted in Art