Reader’s Corner: Shakespeare in America

Shakespeare's statue in Central Park (Library of Congress)

Shakespeare’s statue in Central Park (Library of Congress)

Given how many of us have happily or miserably worked through at least a couple Shakespeare plays in school, not to mention the frequency with which those plays are revived on Broadway and in touring companies everywhere, it’s amazing to think that there was a time when Shakespeare was actually more present in American life than today.

James Shapiro’s new book, Shakespeare in America, tells of how in the early nineteenth century, a quarter of all dramatic productions on the East Coast were Shakespeare’s. To be even moderately cultured, one had to know a few of the soliloquies by heart. To get an idea of how deeply rooted the Bard was in American culture, consider this anecdote, related in the New York Times review of Shapiro’s book, which occurred in Corpus Christi, Texas, in 1846:

To distract the troops, a theater was hastily constructed and a production of “Othello” put into motion. James Longstreet, the future Confederate general, was originally cast as Desdemona, but was judged too tall for the part. The shorter Grant took his place. “He really rehearsed the part of Desdemona, but he did not have much sentiment,” Longstreet later recalled. In the end, Grant was replaced by a professional actress at the insistence of the officer playing Othello, who, Longstreet wrote, “could not pump up any sentiment with Grant dressed up as Desdemona.”

It’s a far cry from the classics-averse mood of the present. But, Shapiro notes, that could be in part because of one thing America has now that it didn’t two centuries ago: great home-grown playwrights of our own.

Department of Weekend Reading: April 11, 2014

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New in Theaters: ‘Joe’

Nicolas Cage and Tye Sheridan in 'Joe'

Nicolas Cage and Tye Sheridan in ‘Joe’

Once upon a time, Nicolas Cage was an actor of some repute, if not always solid decision-making skills. A few years of Bruckheimer extravaganzas and brooding big-budget misfires, not to mention the occasional Satanic comic-book movie, killed most of that promise. However, in David Gordon Green’s new Southern noir, Joe, Cage makes an honest attempt to get back into that thing they call acting.

Joe-poster1Joe is opening this Friday in a few theaters, and should expand wider soon. My review is at Film Journal International:

A whiskey-slugging melodrama that wears its considerable heart on a tattered sleeve that smells of last night’s cigarettes, Joe is David Gordon Green’s most dramatically assured story to date. An adaptation of the Larry Brown novel, it stars Nicolas Cage in a non-showy comeback role as Joe Ransom, one of those guys who everybody in his small town knows at least a half-dozen good hell-raising stories about…

Here’s the trailer:

New on DVD: ‘The Hobbit’ and ‘August: Osage County’

One of last year’s great but overlooked dramas and one of its better-than-average FX blockbusters are hitting DVD and Blu-ray today.

August: Osage County

John Wells’ star-stocked adaptation of Tracey Letts’ sprawling and brawling Pulitzer Prize-winning play about a dysfunctional Oklahoma clan is perhaps a little too truncated but mostly hits it out of the park. For once, Julia Roberts proves herself to be not only not done with acting but able to go toe-to-toe with the likes of Meryl Streep. Full review

 

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

The second of Peter Jackson’s all-too-much trilogy on The Hobbit packs in even more non-Tolkien material to its middle-part travelogue following the intrepid dwarves and hobbit on their way to steal back the stolen riches of Smaug the dragon. Better by far than the first bloated entry, and possessed of a greater sense of rollicking adventure, still in need of a good pruning. Full review

 

Reader’s Corner: Ideas Box

Once upon a time, the local library’s bookmobile would stop by schools to give kids access to newer books than they had in their own school’s (usually meager) library offerings. Theoretically, that still happens, at least in the few counties that haven’t eviscerated their library system’s budget.

That basic idea appears to have been taken by a Paris-based group called Libraries Without Borders and morphed into a frankly cool-looking thing called the Ideas Box that could be easily packed into cargo containers and dropped into refugee camps. According to the Wall Street Journal:

The so-called Ideas Box, designed by Philippe Starck, contains 15 tablet computers and four laptops with satellite Internet connections; 50 e-readers and 5,000 e-books; 250 printed books; a movie projector, screen and 100 films; chairs, tables and board games.

“We can rebuild ourselves by reading,” said Mr. Starck, who noted that he had educated himself by studying books rather than attending school. He designed the boxes in bright colors and said their arrival should feel like Christmas. “Inside, it’s not toys, it’s doors—doors to an open mind, thousands of different universes.”

In February, the first two Ideas Boxes arrived in refugee camps in Burundi, in partnership with the United Nations refugee agency, and plans are under way for boxes to serve Syrian refugees in Lebanon and Jordan.

You can donate to Libraries Without Borders here.

Here’s the video:

Department of Weekend Reading: April 4, 2014

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New in Theaters: ‘Under the Skin’

For his last two films, Sexy Beast and Birth, Jonathan Glazer dealt with the aliens that walk amongst us, whether it was divorced-from-reality gangsters or creepy children. In Under the Skin, though, he finally gets around to telling a story about an honest-to-God alien—in the form of Scarlett Johansson.

undertheskin-posterUnder the Skin opens in limited release on Friday. My review is at Film Journal International:

There is a searching, watching passivity in Scarlett Johansson’s work that’s enlivened her greatest roles, particularly Lost in Translation. That quality isn’t just an added benefit of Jonathan Glazer’s newest and certainly oddest film, it’s the very sinew that strains (not always successfully) to hold this spacious, spiky concoction together. As the nameless alien who spends the film roaming the streets of Glasgow in a white van looking for men to take home, Johansson is a thing apart. She drives with a floating precision, as though somebody else were actually handling the car. Her conversations might trail off in a cloud of nebulousness, but her eyes remain pinned on the man right in front of her. She is a hunter, after all…

You can see the trailer here: