A long weekend in Cape Cod

I spent a long weekend in Cape Cod. The weather was good on Friday, humid on Saturday, and cool on Sunday. I spent most of my time biking along the rail trail, touring the tiny galleries in Brewster, eating oysters, and thinking about the irony that is the cape.

Maybe it’s my ignorance as a west-coast transplant, but I can’t help feeling that there wasn’t anything really special about this place. I liked it, but its charms were never more than a little charming. It’s funny to me that the cape, Martha’s Vineyard, and Nantucket have a reputation for being a playground for a rich and fabulous. The most special thing about the area seems to be how normal it is — how distinctly “small-town” it is compared to the urban centers these rich and fabulous folks live in year round.

The beach at sunset ... obviously :)
The beach at sunset … obviously 🙂

Am I the only one who finds it ironic that some people gobs of money for the privilege of summering in a place that feels like an average American town? It reminds me a little of Marie Antoinette’s passion for her faux rustic summer cottage (minus the negative implications … I think).

But what was I expecting? Maybe I need to go again for a better sense of the milieu. I like to like places so much that perhaps it would be worth a second shot.

Disappointing dystopia

I thought this was going to be really good. Sigh.
I thought this was going to be really good. Sigh.

Elysium has so much going for it. A $115 million budget, a brilliant young director, an Oscar-winning cast, the best digital effects available, and a sharp sociopolitical plot. Last week, I sat in my scratchy chair at the Kips Bay theater, giddy with anticipation. But about halfway through the movie, my enthusiasm waned. Why? Because the movie doesn’t live up to its promise. It doesn’t even come close. Granted, director Neill Blomkamp gave himself a tall order to fill, and he seems to be filling it nicely up until the moment that — spoiler alert — William Fichtner’s defense contractor character dies. Then things start falling apart.

See this? This shouldn't have been so dull.
This shouldn’t have been so dull.

Here’s my rough diagnosis of what went wrong:

  1. The sociopolitical satire falls flat on its face. The initial set up is fantastic. The year is 2154, and a privileged few live on a space station circling above earth, while the rest of humanity live on poverty-stricken, disease-ridden earth. The conceit basically takes our society’s growing angst about the 1% and whips it up into a fantastical but not implausible extreme. That’s great, but the set up is all that we get. Where are the revolutionaries who want to overthrow the system? There are none. Why is it that Matt Damon’s character couldn’t care less about any of this and only wants to invade Elysium to 1) cure himself of radiation poisoning and 2) make sure his childhood sweetheart doesn’t think too badly of him? There’s no reason for his apathy throughout the entire film — in fact, it does a great disservice to it. Three quarters of the way in, I realized that I had no one to root for. Blomkamp spends a lot of minutes trying to position Damon’s character Max as a struggling everyman who unwittingly turns into the revolutionary that he was born to be (he even throws in a prescient nun who tells Max this as a little boy). But the second half of the equation never fully manifests, and that was disappointing. The socioeconomic satire that seemed so riveting in trailers dissolves into petty inter-fighting among various ragtag groups, which was confusing thematically, perplexing logistically, and, honestly, just plain boring.

    Not her best.
    Not her best.
  2. Jodie Foster is misused and, frankly, kind of weird in this movie. Foster is one of my favorite actresses of all time. I’ve seen Contact about ten billion times, and the idea of watching her in another blockbuster sci-fi flick (as a villain this time!) was thrilling beyond words. I kept waiting for her show-stopping speech defending Elysium’s way of life over the underprivileged masses stuck on earth. (“Why do you get everything, and I get nothing?” a tear-streaked Damon would demand. “Because we do,” she would respond icily.) But it never came. Sure, she looked great strutting around the space station with her steely clothes and attitude, but nothing came of it. Spoiler alert: she disappears well before the end and is effectively replaced by a far less interesting villain. This made no sense to me whatsoever. Why dispose of your symbolic antagonist so cavalierly? Why, come to think of it, would you prevent your protagonist and antagonist from ever meeting? That’s right — Damon and Foster come face to face zero times. Sure, I’m all for subverting viewers’ expectations in clever ways, but this felt bungled. Also, what’s with Foster’s pseudo-British accent? People in my theater were laughing.
  3. We never find out much about Elysium itself. Is it a mere coincidence that a fabricated paradise bears the name of the ancient Greek afterlife? It might as well be, since the movie does next to nothing to show us a side of the glittering Stanford torus that isn’t two dimensional (if you’ll pardon the pun). Apart from flashes of sloping lawns and blue pools and fleeting glimpses of a party at the defense minister’s pad, Blomkamp offers us few hints of what it’s like to live there. What do these elite Elysium citizens have that earthlings don’t, aside from Versace medical pods? Is life there perfect, or is it invariable, tedious, deadening even, as its name suggests? Who can afford a ticket and what does it cost? How did it come to be in the first place? All of these questions probably should have been answered or at least alluded to in the movie, but they weren’t.

In summary, Elysium offers plenty of teasers, but little follow-through. Full disclosure: I have not finished District 9, but I look forward to finishing it soon to see what Blomkamp can create when he’s at his best.

Read the New York Times and New Yorker reviews for far more positive takes on Elysium than mine.

Charles Ives by Detroit: a review

A view from the dress circle
A view from the dress circle

This is my brief and belated review of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra’s all-Ives program at Carnegie Hall last week.

I found their performance of symphonies 1-4 cheerful, engaging, and quite ambitious. Perhaps a little too ambitious, as the string instruments had trouble making the sharper turns, particularly in the 1st symphony. But that may have just been jitters, for they performed the 4th and most difficult symphony of the set beautifully. I also appreciated conductor Leonard Slatkin’s commentary on the 4th prior to the performance. He illuminated its wit and complexity for the many Ives novices in the audience (including myself). Although the 4th is not the composer’s most clamorous piece, it can sound chaotic to new audiences, with its abrupt transitions, ghostly refrains, and eerie off-stage drumming. Mr. Slatkin encouraged us not to struggle so much to make sense of the components, but rather to take it as a whole. It was certainly a good reminder. As Ives said, “Maybe music was not intended to satisfy the curious definiteness of man. Maybe it is better to hope that music may always be transcendental language in the most extravagant sense.”

Charles Ives
Charles Ives

I did not, however, appreciate historian (or Ives-ian, as she called herself) Vivian Perlis’s protracted lecture between the 1st and 2nd symphonies about Ives, his college life, insurance business, and the lovely time she’s had exploring his life. Good for you, Ms. Perlis, but the only thing that I want to hear after the 1st symphony is the 2nd symphony. The audience didn’t like it either. Many groaned and took out their smartphones when she reached the 10-minute mark of her speech. If anyone wanted to revisit Ives’s biography or endure a detailed historical account of his pieces, it’s right there in the programs. That’s what they’re for.

Anyhoo…

The crowd was a mix of New Yorkers, tourists, and supporters from Detroit, who waved red scarves in solidarity with their musicians. I found the rambunctious crowd to be a refreshing change from the usual sea of white hairs that usually flood Carnegie Hall (at intermission, a man in a tweed jacket said to a Hispanic couple from Detroit sitting next to him, “I thought the only Ives fans were old white people from New England”).

Thanks, Detroit, for offering up an uplifting Friday night. You can read the New York Times review here.

Brooklyn Blossoms

Cherry Blossoms 1

Spring is coming!

If you’re being technical, it arrived about 40 days ago. Yet we’d barely had a taste of spring weather here in New York before now. To celebrate, I rambled through Brooklyn Botanical Garden’s cherry blossom festival on Saturday. Plump blossoms and tulips were aplenty. Although they had no daffodils, Wordsworth’s I wandered lonely as a cloud, which I found so cloying in high school, danced pleasantly through my mind. Enjoy the pictures!

Cherry Blossoms 2

Tulips

Tulips 2

Human Nature in Rock Center: a review

Human Nature

Every morning for about a week now, I’ve passed by the NYC Public Art Fund’s latest installation in Rockefeller Center, Ugo Rondinone’s Human Nature. Being the philistine that I am, I thought at first that it was an homage to Stonehenge, which would’ve been sort of tacky but on par with the installation’s touristy venue. I didn’t pick up on each (30 ton!) rock formation’s resemblance to human figures until the city made its official announcement. But I see it now.

Eh.

I’ll concede that, at first blush, the figures have a kind of quiet dignity. They are certainly more attractive than the terrible monuments that the city routinely puts up in the Doris Freedman Plaza by the southeast corner of Central Park. I’ll give the Art Fund that.

But still I shrug. I hardly feel a thing while standing in their presence, which continues to be my base test for contemporary art. “Forest of giants”? “Primal forms”? It’s a stretch for me.

My ambivalence might have to do with my general aversion to rock sculptures ever since I saw Lee Ufan’s nutty Marking Infinity exhibit at the Guggenheim (a security guard confided to me that the rocks were from the Jersey shore and the artist didn’t personally nudge the rock into their formations, or the cut up wires and cotton balls with which they were arranged himself).

Or maybe the art’s incongruity with its bustling setting throws me off. Rock Center is hardly the place to quietly contemplate our human race’s “distant origins.”

Hmm.

Well, since I still staunchly support public art, I hope that my opinion turns more positive in the coming weeks. Stay tuned.

Die Walküre at the Met: a review

Die Walkure

I saw Die Walküre last Saturday and read the Times review the next day. I have to say, the Times and other reviewers really need to get off their high horses about Robert Lepage’s “machine,” as they call it. Anthony Tommasini at the Times describes the apparatus as a “45-ton set consisting of 24 rotating planks” and then proceeds to rip it to shreds. “Some of the most sublimely beautiful music ever written becomes background for an art installation,” he sniffs.

We’ve heard this before. In fact, almost every single review that the Times has published on the Ring cycle at the Met takes a side swipe at the elaborate machine, its malfunctions, and oppressiveness. This review even seemed disappointed that the machine did not break down—not once—on Saturday, noting in the lede that it “worked without noticeable hitches” during the performance, though “you never know when the machine might malfunction.”

Get over it. By fixating on the machine, you critics are doing exactly what you persistently complain that the machine is doing: concentrating on stagecraft rather than the music. Yes, I will concede that the “aerial view” of the fiery mountaintop (pictured above) at the end was gimmicky and did distract the audience from the music (as the gasps across the orchestra section would indicate), but no where does the review mention how beautifully the planks depicted the forest, or Hunding’s forbidding home.

Besides, such sneering does a disservice to what many would consider a dying art form. I haven’t the faintest clue why opera critics would relentlessly, and I think unfairly, mock their own bread and butter. Those continuing to do so may soon find themselves grousing in an empty auditorium.

Enough of my own grousing and onto other thoughts. The Siegmund switcheroo in Act I was a bit unnerving, and I wished that the Met decided to retire the ailing Simon O’Neill for the show rather than letting him exhaust himself first before finally swapping in Andrew Sritheran mid-scene. Nonetheless, I thought that the understudy did a remarkable job of seamlessly integrating himself into the cast. His voice may not have been as powerful as O’Neill’s might have been if not for his early morning allergy attack, but I thought that Sritheran’s athletic build and energy gave much-needed vitality to the role.

I found Martina Serafin’s voice strong and clear, and her acting subtle in the opening minutes. But by the end of Act I, perhaps under the influence of a sturdier Siegmund, Sieglinde seemed to explode with drama, and not in a good way. Her quivering on the planks, awkward two-handed-backward grasping of the Northung sword, and staggering around the edge of the stage were all too much for me, and certainly too much for the oppressed character. It was hard not to chuckle. Whoever directed her to act like that is better off directing a second-grade adaptation of Hamlet.

Mark Delavan succesfully portrayed a commanding but conflicted Wotan. Deborah Voigt as Brünnhilde was as plucky and bright as she always has been in these productions. Stephanie Blythe as Fricka was a perfectly spiteful and forceful goddess, as she was last season. And the $15 plastic glasses of prosecco at the bar were as delicious and exorbitant as ever.

Cupcake crash

Cupcake

According to the WSJ, cupcakes are over. Frankly, I’m surprised that the trend lasted as long as it did. When I first moved into the city a few years ago, women were still skipping back and forth between Magnolia Bakery and a certain Perry St. stoop, a good five or six years after the last Sex & the City episode aired.

But nothing lasts forever. Especially not a (relatively) expensive sugary treat that anyone can easily bake at home. The WSJ article notes that the market, with its “low barrier to entry,” is insanely over-saturated, and people are simply tired of it all.

Something that article did not address, though I wish it had, is the fact that the cupcake “novelty,” as a quoted ibanker called it, is inherently short-lived because it isn’t seasonal. When considering seriously important issues such as dessert fads, I like to compare cupcakes to frozen yogurt. Why has the froyo craze lasted even longer than cupcakes? Not simply because froyo typically has fewer calories, less of a gender bias, and is easier to eat while walking (though these qualities do matter).

But, in a related vein, I think that people cling to froyo because it represents the coming of warm weather. Spring–what a happy thought for those sick of pumpkin pie and hot toddies. When spring approaches, all that anyone wants to do is something springy, like walk around hot and stinky Manhattan streets dipping plastic spoons into $7 cups of milk, bacteria, and synthetics topped with freezer berries and cereal bits.

I’m not arguing that froyo will be around as long as warm weather is (I’d actually be curious about sales figures during the cooler months). But from my admittedly limited perspective and supportive logic, I think that its status as an easily marketable summer treat gives it the staying power that cupcakes lack.

That being said, froyo should watch its back if artisanal popsicles ever come into vogue.

Saudi Marathon Man

I recommend the New Yorker‘s article on how a Boston marathon victim absurdly became a prime suspect of the bombing because of, and only because of, his race. As the New Yorker points out, sure, some will argue that the Saudi student’s proximity made him a person of interest, but dozens of other victims were standing nearby too. I hate to say it, but almost as soon as the news of the bombing broke, I knew that it was only a matter of time before some poor kid became a victim of racial profiling. It’s the inevitable kick in the pants that we never need.

A poem for veterans

Driftwood:

Never mind that the boats move slowly,

For slowly they drift, pulsing down the river

As the sun sets and the sky turns mauve.

Never returning to that shore,

Never pretending that they will reach that place

Beneath the hillocks,

Where they saw those lights dangling,

Suspended over rippling waves, long ago.

A rush of pride stops them in their tracks,

For they belonged to themselves

And disliked interference.

They close their eyes,

Longing to journey far from here,

And began making plans.

Slumped in their chairs on the dock,

The limited future dilates before them,

Further away from a mystical past.

They went to war for clarity,

For blazing shores and whiter ideals.

But never again would they lie under the dimming stars,

Alone in dark fields.

He left them screaming,

Howling in the trenches as light fell in the East.

Never again would he fall from heaven,

Not like that.

To hear a woman laugh,

Laugh shrilly, was all that he craved back then,

As he hated all else, almost everything else

That he saw behind him,

Calamity needed to stay behind him.

Like his father, he thought they were fighting for peace,

But they were tearing off a cliff.

He pulled the oars out of the current,

While rowing his old lady out to sea,

She watched him and said nothing.