THE TREE OF LIFE (Terrence Malick, 2011)
BAMfilm, BAM Rose Cinemas
30 Lafayette Ave. between Ashland Pl. & St. Felix St.
Series runs through September 5
The BAM series “Programmers’ Notebook: On Memory,” consisting of works involving creative, cinematic ways of the mind’s relationship with the past, continues August 28-30 with an unforgettable gem. As of 2005, iconoclastic writer-director Terrence Malick had made only five feature films in his forty-plus-year career, but his 2011 effort, The Tree of Life, is his very best. Following Badlands (1973), Days of Heaven (1978), The Thin Red Line (1998), and The New World (2005), The Tree of Life is an epic masterpiece of massive proportions, a stirring visual journey into the beginning of the universe, the end of the world, and beyond. The unconventional nonlinear narrative essentially tells the story of a middle-class Texas family having a difficult time coming to grips with the death of one of their sons in the military. Malick cuts between long flashbacks of Mr. and Mrs. O’Brien (Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain) in the 1950s and 1960s, as they meet, marry, and raise their three boys, to the present, when Jack (Sean Penn), their eldest, now a successful architect, is still searching for answers. The sets by production designer Jack Fisk transport viewers from midcentury suburbia to the modern-day big city and a heavenly beach, all gorgeously shot by cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki. Every frame is so beautiful, it’s as if they filmed the movie only at sunrise and sunset, the Golden Hour, when the light is at its most pure. The Tree of Life is about God and not God, about faith and belief, about evolution and creationism, about religion and the scientific world. The film opens with a quote from the Book of Job: “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation . . . while the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy?” Early on Mrs. O’Brien says in voice-over, “The nuns taught us there are two ways through life: The way of nature, and the way of grace. You have to choose which one to follow.” Malick doesn’t get caught up in those questions, instead focusing on the miracles of life and death and everything in between.
With the help of Douglas Trumbull, the special effects legend behind 2001: A Space Odyssey, Blade Runner, and Close Encounters of the Third Kind — and who hasn’t been involved in a Hollywood film in some thirty years — Malick travels through time and space, using almost no CGI. Instead, he employs images from the Hubble telescope along with Thomas Wilfred’s flickering “Opus 161” art installation, which evokes a kind of eternal flame that appears in between the film’s various sections. Malick brings out the Big Bang, dinosaurs, and the planets during this inner and outer head trip of a movie that will leave you breathless with anticipation at where he is going to take you next, and where he goes is never where expected, accompanied by Alexandre Desplat’s ethereal orchestral score. But perhaps more than anything else, The Tree of Life, which won the Palme d’Or at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival, is about the act of creation, from the creation of the universe and the world to the miracle of procreation (and the creation of cinema itself). Mr. O’Brien is an inventor who continually seeks out patents but always wanted to be a musician; he plays the organ in church, but his dream of creating his own symphony has long been dashed. And Jack is an architect, a man who creates and builds large structures but is unable to get his own life in order. In creating The Tree of Life, Malick has torn down convention, coming up with something fresh and new, something that combines powerful human emotions with visual wizardry, a multimedia poem about life and death, the alpha and the omega. “Programmers’ Notebook: On Memory” runs through September 5 and includes such other films as Andrei Tarkovsky’s Mirror, Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, Christopher Nolan’s Memento, and Tomás Gutiérrez Alea’s Memories of Underdevelopment.
FIDDLER: A MIRACLE OF MIRACLES (Max Lewkowicz, 2019)
Quad Cinema, 34 West 13th St. between Fifth & Sixth Aves., 212-255-2243
The Landmark at 57 West, 657 West 57th St. at Twelfth Ave.
Opens Friday, August 23
I’ve always felt a deep connection to Fiddler on the Roof, one of the most popular and critically successful musicals in history. I was awed by the movie when I was a kid, listened over and over to the original Broadway cast recording (on cassette!), and have enjoyed several stage productions, including one at a Long Island synagogue when I was a teen, one in Yiddish, and two on the Great White Way. I always assumed that it was because of my Eastern European Jewish roots; my grandparents on one side and great grandparents on the other escaped from pogroms in shtetls not unlike Anatevka, the small, tight-knit community in Ukraine where the show takes place. But as the new documentary Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles reveals, the story is far more universal. “What is that that makes it speak in so many languages, and everybody thinks it’s about them,” Joel Grey, director of the smash Yiddish version running at Stage 42, says in the film. Theater critic Charles Isherwood points out, “Fiddler is really not just about violence that is visited on a single person but violence that is visited on an entire culture. Really it’s about what we now call ethnic cleansing, in the end, and these forces are still very much alive in the world. Bigotry, oppression, sometimes disguised as mere conservatism, it’s eerily and perhaps sadly relevant today.”
In the documentary, director Max Lewkowicz (Underfire: The Untold Story of Pfc. Tony Vaccaro), whose mother is a Holocaust survivor, explores the creation of the Broadway musical, which was based on the Tevye the milkman stories by Sholem Aleichem and features a score by Jerry Bock, lyrics by Sheldon Harnick, book by Joseph Stein, and direction and choreography by Jerome Robbins, as well as examining its lasting international influence. He shifts between 1905, the time when the show is set; 1964, when it opened on Broadway; and today, where a production can be seen somewhere around the globe every day. He has amassed a treasure trove of archival footage, including old television appearances, a recording of Aleichem narrating one of his tales, a scene from the 1939 Yiddish drama Tevya, original Marc Chagall-inspired set designs by Boris Aronson, and the tape of music that Bock would send to Harnick so he could write the words (instead of working together at the piano).
He combines old interviews, photos, and clips of Bock, Stein, Robbins, and Tevye originator Zero Mostel with new interviews with Harnick (who plays a violin on a New York City roof), the late producer Harold Prince, violinist Itzhak Perlman, Fiddler fans Stephen Sondheim and Lin-Manuel Miranda, and numerous actors and directors affiliated with the show: Austin Pendleton and Joanna Merlin from the original 1964 cast, Topol and Norman Jewison (who is not Jewish) from the 1971 Oscar-winning film, Harvey Fierstein from the 2005-6 iteration, Danny Burstein, Jessica Hecht, Bartlett Sher, Adam Kantor, and Michael C. Bernardi — whose father, Herschel, portrayed Tevye on Broadway in 1964 and 1981 — from the 2016 version, and the current Yiddish Tevye, Steven Skybell. Authors Jan Lisa Huttner and Alisa Solomon put the story in sociopolitical context by relating it to the civil rights and women’s movements of the 1960s and ’70s.
Lewkowicz and editor Joseph Borruso also interweave footage from Fiddler productions in the Netherlands, Japan, Canada, Thailand, England, Brooklyn Middle School 447, and other locations, emphasizing again the universality of the story, particularly in light of today’s refugee crisis, the rise of anti-Semitism and racism, images of immigrant children being ripped out of their parents’ arms, and the cultural need to hold on to tradition and personal connection in the age of social media and the internet. “In moments of great upheaval, Fiddler is always going to seem relevant because the world is changing faster than we can understand,” Miranda, whose In the Heights was partially inspired by Fiddler, explains. “And that’s what the show’s about, and it’s intensely accessible because we are going through times of great change and great upheaval.” And, of course, there’s the music itself, as the film delves into such classic songs as “Matchmaker, Matchmaker,” “Sunrise, Sunset,” “Sabbath Prayer,” “Tradition,” “To Life,” “If I Were a Rich Man,” and “Do You Love Me?” Perhaps the best thing about Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles, which opens today at the Quad and the Landmark at 57 West, is that it has given me an even greater appreciation of the musical’s endless wonders, which I didn’t think possible. I’ve also learned that it’s not just mine, but I guess I can share it with everyone else.
Who: Melanie Crean, Jess Saldaña
What: Free gallery tour and poetry reading
Where: New Museum of Contemporary Art, 235 Bowery at Prince St., 212-219-1222
When: Thursday, August 22, free with advance RSVP, 6:00
Why: On August 22, artist, educator and filmmaker Melanie Crean will lead a special tour of the New Museum exhibition “Mirror/Echo/Tilt,” a multichannel video installation by Crean, Shaun Leonardo, and Sable Elyse Smith that examines arrest and incarceration, made in conjunction with participants with firsthand experience. The tour will be followed by a poetry reading by Chicanx muralist, poet, performer, and analogue film photographer Jess Saldaña, the founder and curator of the Brooklyn performance space Affections. The event, free with advance RSVP, is part of the New Museum program “A Possibility that Exists Alongside,” which last month featured a gallery tour by Leonardo and a poetry reading by Nicole Sealey and continues September 12 with a tour and reading by Smith; the exhibit runs through October 6.
Late-night television hosts take center stage at the sixteenth annual New York Comedy Festival, running November 4-10. Tickets are now on sale for the first batch of events, and you can expect several to sell out fairly quickly. Many more shows will be announced, but the battle right now is between Trevor Noah at Madison Square Garden, Stephen Colbert at Carnegie Hall, Bill Maher at the Hulu Theater, and Norm Macdonald at Carolines. Also on the bill so far are Jenny Slate at Town Hall, No Such Thing as a Fish at BMCC Tribeca Performing Arts Center, Kathleen Madigan’s Hot Dogs and Angels Tour at Town Hall, Tom Segura’s Take It Down Tour at the Beacon Theatre, Nicole Byer at BMCC, Vir Das at Town Hall, Demetri Martin’s Wandering Mind Tour at the Beacon, Benito Skinner’s Overcompensating at BMCC, U Up? Live at Town Hall, Comedy Bang! Bang! Live! Starring Scott Aukerman w/Guests at the Beacon, Nate Bargatze’s Good Problem to Have Tour at Town Hall, Randy Rainbow Live at the Beacon, and the Jay and Silent Bob Reboot Roadshow at BMCC. Below are the biggies as of August 21.
Thursday, November 7
Behind the Laughter: An Evening with Stephen Colbert and Producers of The Late Show, Carnegie Hall, Stern Auditorium / Perelman Stage, $44.50 to $81.50, 8:00
Thursday, November 7
Sunday, November 10
Norm Macdonald, Carolines on Broadway, $57.25 - $141.75
Friday, November 8
Trevor Noah: Loud & Clear Tour 2019, Madison Square Garden, $41-$356, 8:00
Saturday, November 9
An Evening with Bill Maher, Hulu Theater at Madison Square Garden, $41-$456, 8:00
383 Troutman St., Bushwick
Thursday - Sunday through November 2, $85 - $435 (VIP Champagne couch for two)
Company XIV heats up an already scorching summer with the smokin’ hot Queen of Hearts, continuing at the wildly talented troupe’s new home in Bushwick through November 2. This time company founder Austin McCormick, who previously helmed baroque burlesque adaptations of such fairy tales as Cinderella and Snow White, turns his attention to Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland in a sexy, immersive production most definitely not suitable for children. The Troutman St. space has been transformed into a posh cabaret with a chandelier tree, an old-fashioned bar, and flashy decorations. Attendees sit in comfy chairs or couches for two, as company members make their way through the crowd, bantering with the audience.
All Carroll’s characters are here, just not as you’ve ever seen them before, gussied up in spectacularly raunchy, revealing costumes by Zane Pihlstrom, who also designed the set, and with fab makeup by Sarah Cimino: the alluring Alice (LEXXE), the body-rocking White Rabbit (Michael Cunio), the Caterpillar/Butterfly (Lilin Lace), the dashing Mad Hatter (Marcy Richardson), Tweedledee & Tweedledum (Nicholas Katen and Ross Katen), the Dormouse (Nolan McKew), the juggling Flamingo (Jacoby Pruitt), two Cheshire Cats (Jourdan Epstein and Ryan Redmond), and, of course, the Queen of Hearts (Storm Marrero). The cast also features Ashley Dragon on cyr wheel doing “Eat Me,” Làszlò Major on the pole proclaiming, “Drink Me,” and Ian Spring, Sam Urdang, and rehearsal director Allison Schuster rounding out the ensemble.
Conceived, directed, and choreographed with endless flair by McCormick, Queen of Hearts has a glorious, dark, decadent look hearkening to both Weimar cabaret and Aubrey Beardsley–style graphics. The show boasts more than thirty songs, some sung live by the characters, others recordings by familiar artists. LEXXE taunts us with the original “Blue,” Richardson tantalizes with Tears for Fears’ “Mad World,” Cunio belts out Tom Waits’s “Yesterday Is Here,” and Marrero shakes the building to its foundations with several treats, along with classics by Tom Jones, Perry Como, Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra, Rossini, and Tchaikovsky (and Natalia Kills, the Weeknd, Rihanna, Beyoncé, and, of course, Jefferson Airplane). The acrobatics are awesome, particularly a duet by McKew and Richardson, and Jeannette Yew’s lighting is sultry. There is a sly humor throughout, from magic mushrooms and can-can playing cards to a great use of the back curtain and, well, a bunch of male phalluses. The two-and-a-half-hour extravaganza has two intermissions, so you can get more drinks and snacks at the bar or remain in your seats and watch some bonus entertainment. You’re also encouraged to stick around after for further beverages and a chance to mingle with the cast.
WHAT YOU GONNA DO WHEN THE WORLD’S ON FIRE (Roberto Minervini, 2018)
Film Society of Lincoln Center
Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center, Francesca Beale Theater, Howard Gilman Theater
144 West 65th St. between Broadway & Amsterdam Aves.
Opens Friday, August 16
Roberto Minervini follows up his Texas Trilogy – The Passage, Low Tide, and Stop the Pounding Heart – with the powerful sociopolitical call to action, What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire? The film is shot in sharp, distinctive black-and-white by cinematographer Diego Romero Suarez-Llanos so that it looks like a fictional work from the civil rights era, but it is an all-too-real documentary that shows what’s happening in the US today, even though far too many Americans would deny the inherent realities the movie depicts. Italian-born director Minervini, who is based in the American south, tells four poignant stories steeped in oppression: Judy Hill is struggling to get by, running a bar that has become an important meeting place for the Tremé community while also caring for her elderly mother, Dorothy; Ashlei King hopes that her young sons, fourteen-year-old Ronaldo King and nine-year-old Titus Turner, come back safe after going out to play in a junkyard; Mardi Gras Indian Chief Kevin Goodman melds black and Native American traditions in changing times; and Krystal Muhammad and the New Black Panther Party for Self Defense protest the killings of two African American men at the hands of police.
Beautifully edited by Marie-Hélène Dozo, the film, which was shot in Louisiana and Mississippi in the summer of 2017, captures the continuing results of institutionalized, systemic racism and income inequality in the United States. “We’ve been set free, but we’re still being slaves,” Judy Hill proclaims. “Nowadays, people don’t fight; they like to shoot,” Ronaldo teaches Titus. What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire? is the kind of film that should be widely seen, including in schools around the country, to highlight the everyday impact of racial injustice. There are no confessionals in the film, no so-called experts discussing socioeconomic issues; instead, it’s real people, struggling to survive and fighting the status quo and America’s failure to effectively face and deal with its original sin. The most controversial section involves the New Black Panther Party for Self Defense, the members of which march through town declaring, “Black power!” When they face off against the police, they make some arguable choices, but what’s most important is what has taken place to even put them in that situation. There’s a good reason why the title, What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire?, is framed as a question, one that every one of us should look in the mirror and answer for ourselves.
A selection of the New York Film Festival and numerous other festivals, What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire? opens August 16 at Lincoln Center, with Minervini participating in Q&As with Hill and Muhammad on August 16-17 at 3:30, and Minervini will introduce the 9:00 screening on August 16 with Hill and the 6:00 screening on August 17 with Hill and Muhammad. There will also be a reception after the 6:00 and 9:00 screenings on August 16.