Grand Budapest Hotel

grand budapest poster

Discouraged by some sniffy reviews from folks we trust, we missed Wes Anderson’s film “The Grand Budapest Hotel” during its theatrical release. A long international flight rescued us from our apathy. Now, we’re certain we’ll be watching TGBH again. It’s a masterpiece. Set in the early 20th Century in a fictionalized region of Europe, the story defies simple synopsizing. Like the best work of the Coen Brothers, TGBH is utterly unpredictable, tremendously funny, and strangely touching. With an astonishing cast lead by Ralph Fiennes as a legendary concierge and sets and costumes torn from old books, “The Grand Budapest Hotel” is one of the most transporting movies we’ve seen in years.

The Shape of Content

shape of content

The painter, writer, and progressive thinker Ben Shahn died in 1969. But his thoughts on Art and Life read today like a freshly-digitized TED talk. His famously provocative — as in provoking genuinely new ways of looking and cogitating — series of 1950s lectures at Harvard were collected into a graciously illustrated short book, originally published in 1960, called “The Shape of Content.” You may know Shahn from his portrait of Martin Luther King on the cover of Time (1965). Reading him 50 years later reminds all of us, creative and otherwise, that the What of art, the content part, has and always will be a meandering path to social justice.

Mr. Nobody

Mr. Nobody Poster

The 2009 science-fiction movie “Mr. Nobody” evaded our radar during its initial release. Now it’s on our very slim shelf of films “worth watching again.” Directed by Jaco van Dormael and starring a precociously talented Jared Leto, “Nobody” has a central story — a boy on a train platform who is made to choose between divorcing parents — and a clever conceit — Nemo Nobody is the last living mortal (120 years old) in a society of immortals. But this film’s intense pleasure is in visual, narrative, and philosophical digressions that miraculously lead back to the plot. It’s a work of magnificent imagination and virtuoso technique. “Mr. Nobody” recalls the Coen Brothers at their best.

Kate Berlant

kate berlant is beautiful

It would be convenient to lump performers like Kate Berlant into a category called “experimental comedy” or “alt-alt comedy.” But sometimes what Berlant does onstage isn’t necessarily comedy. It’s a kind of art. Yes, she’s fabulously funny, especially when yammering haughtily but nonsensically, like a New Age academic on hashish. And she earns laughs by finding the silly and absurd beneath the surface. We love that Berlant is also blazingly smart. And fearless. And utterly comfortable with uncomfortableness. Seeing her handling the energy of the moment is mesmerizing.

Daniel Koren’s “The Most Important Thing”

the most important thing

When a performance is difficult to explain yet utterly cogent to live audiences, something suspiciously like art is probably happening. In the case of composer Daniel Koren’s “The Most Important Thing,” a mélange of music, video, dance, and comedy, the results are wildly entertaining, formally provocative, and resolutely their own thing. That’s not easy in a culture built on reiteration. But the Israeli-born, Berklee-educated, Brooklyn-based Koren appears to have an essential quality intrinsic to liberated creators: fearlessness. Disembodied heads singing in harmony; tiny hands clapping and snapping; nonsense syllables conglomerated into a symphony — “The Most Important Thing” is subversive, surreal, and, if you’re hip, unmissable.



The intent of the documentary “Samsara” is to “illuminates the links between humanity and the rest of the nature, showing how our life cycle mirrors the rhythm of the planet.” Birth, life death: and repeat. The director and cinematographer Ron Fricke, working in ravishing 70mm film, guides us through the journey with no words, no dialogue, no voiceover, only exquisite music and imagery of heartbreaking beauty and transcendence. But “Samsara” is not merely a collection of pretty pictures. Fricke successfully manages to explore profound ideas solely through imagery. The film contains visual puns and several strongly sequenced “narrative” threads, particularly our human connection to other animal species. The result is one of the most transcendent works of art we’ve ever experienced.

Tierney Sutton’s “After Blue”

tierney sutton after blue

When one of the world’s greatest jazz singers, Tierney Sutton, interprets one of the world’s greatest songwriters, Joni Mitchell, the result, in the case of Sutton’s new “After Blue,” is a startlingly sublime work of art. Recording for the first time in a decade without her Tierney Sutton Band mates Christian Jacob and Ray Brinker (the extravagantly musical Kevin Axt appears), Sutton’s clarion voice receives stellar accompaniment from the Turtle Island String Quartet, Peter Erskine, Larry Goldings, and other heavy dudes. Al Jarreau duets — and trades scat licks with her. Hubert Laws blows. It’s that kind of album. And it has most of the Joni songs you’d hope to hear, all of them sung so beautifully, so knowingly.

A Cheap Trick that Might Be Something More


Better than Tristan and Isolde, better than the union of European Nations, the marriage of Form and Content is the zenith of harmonious blending, the devoutly wished for goal of writers and artists and anyone else in the business of making something from nothing — creating, that is — who strive to match message with medium, all in the hope of somehow communicating the ineffable to observers (listeners, readers, innocent passers-by) who almost never have time for cogitating or interest in unraveling, folks who are more concerned with the obvious and reasonable question “what’s in it for me?” or, more precisely, what utility does it have for someone whose chief concern, like all of us on some level, is if it can it be eaten or worn or driven to the mall, where the collected baubles of our culture hang in window displays like so many . . . → Read More: A Cheap Trick that Might Be Something More

Encouraging Words for Despairing Artists


If you’re an artist, or have an artistic impulse, or care deeply about art, you probably experience the kind of quiet despair that I find in many of my jazz musician friends, my poet friends, my painter friends, and frequently from myself. Yes, it’s heartbreaking to be part of a culture that finds the work that we do increasingly irrelevant and of little worth (at least in the marketplace sense). It’s depressing to be so astonishingly good at something and yet so relatively uncelebrated and unappreciated. But you must never stop. We — all of us who care in varying degrees about stuff other than acquiring and consuming — are out there. We’re reading, and listening, and looking, and cogitating, and arguing, and questioning, and loving. We can’t be co-opted. We’re too smart and too aware. We’re not going anywhere. And we need you, you specifically, . . . → Read More: Encouraging Words for Despairing Artists

Ode to “Opening Night: The Improvised Musical”

opening night

Los Angeles is lousy with talent. Just as the plethora of beautiful men and women on the streets (and in the stores, and everywhere else) start to blend into the palm-lined boulevards, it’s easy to become immune to the charms of so many funny, clever, quick-witted people. When you see theater or hear music or comedy in this city you expect excellence — or at least what passes for it in a society whose cultural norms make folks like Adam Sandler and Chris Rock the emperors of entertainment. LA is home to a thriving live-performance scene; there’s not a day of the week when an intrepid ticket buyer can’t find stellar talent doing their thing on small stages in every precinct of town.

Improv Olympic West, the LA-branch of the Chicago-based institution — Second City also has an emerging presence here in Hollywood — . . . → Read More: Ode to “Opening Night: The Improvised Musical”