Thursday, December 10, 2009

Tori Amos Puts Her Own Spin on the Season

As part of the music magazine’s SpinHouse Live series, Tori Amos gives an intimate concert at the Spin offices in Lower Manhattan. Photo by Ben Rowland.

By Mary Lyn Maiscott

Under black chandeliers, Tori Amos, her long hair nearly as red as her multi-gathered minidress—which, along with her gold stretch leggings, made her look like an exotic Christmas present—started her set at the Spin magazine loft Tuesday night with her song “Ophelia,” whispering at one point “I feel you.”

We felt her too. While not exactly going all Jerry Lee Lewis on us, the dramatic Amos would not be contained by anything so prim as a piano bench. She stretched out a glimmering leg, stomped a metallic stiletto, and at the end of “Wednesday,” her arms flying out behind her, appeared to be the eagle of her lyrics, about to land.

In a set of only six songs, the other four were from her new, seasonal CD, Midwinter Graces. Unlike Bob Dylan, who sings—rasps?—such holiday standards as “Here Comes Santa Claus” seemingly straight for his recently released Christmas in the Heart, Amos, a minister’s daughter, has delved into carols such as “Silent Night” and “Star of Wonder” to create her own rich works. Thus, “Silent Night” becomes “A Silent Night with You” (in which the singer at times sounds surprisingly like Madonna on a very good day).

My favorite from the album, however, is wholly original, the feel-good—you can almost see the confetti falling—“Pink and Glitter,” written, Amos explained while introducing the song, because in this time of celebrating the birth of a baby boy, she wanted to honor little girls (but nevertheless gave a smiling thumbs-up to the guys while singing the line “Little boys are getting an honorable mention from me”).

Her last song was the atmospheric “Snow Angel,” whose most memorable moment came when Amos briefly stopped, after making an undetectable mistake on the piano, and exclaimed “Fuck!” This only made her audience more delighted than they had been a second before—and I wouldn’t have thought that was possible.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Connubial War, Not Much Peace

Leo Tolstoy (Christopher Plummer) enjoys a rare light moment with his wife, Sofya (Helen Mirren).

The Last Station
Written and directed by Michael Hoffman
Starring Christopher Plummer, Helen Mirren, James McAvoy, and Paul Giamatti

By Mary Lyn Maiscott

Some movies appear to have all the elements for success and yet don’t work. Is it the script? The editing? With Michael Hoffman’s The Last Station, the problem would not appear to be the acting: Christopher Plummer plays the great Russian writer Count Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy; Helen Mirren is his wife—and literary assistant—of 48 years, Countess Sofya; Paul Giamatti plays his disciple Chertkov; and James McAvoy, acting as a stand-in for the audience, is Tolstoy’s new secretary, Valentin.

Valentin has arrived at a crucial point: Chertkov has nearly convinced the writer, whose Tolstoyan movement advocates the end of private property, to leave his wealth, and his copyrights, to the Russian people rather than his family. This causes Sofya—who has not only copied out War and Peace six times for her husband but has borne 12 children, 5 of whom have died—to nearly lose her wits. In one Lucy Ricardo‒esque scene, she, believing Tolstoy, in the company of Chertkov and Valentin, is about to sign a new will, climbs to a window in her nightdress and falls into the room, nearly taking the drapes with her. “Will somebody help me up?” she asks, and, remarkably—for god’s sake, she’s Tolstoy’s wife, a countess, and in her 60s!—no one does. Although we (capitalists that we are) and Valentin (sympathetic creature that he is) believe that Sofya has a good case—not to mention that Chertkov fairly oozes unctuousness and villainy—she comes across less passionate than hysterical. And despite her love for Tolstoy, she doesn’t seem to realize that in constantly bringing up the will she is reminding him of his perhaps imminent death.

Valentin, in the meantime, has fallen for a pretty young woman who works in the Tolstoyan commune, yet with a pronounced take-it-or-leave-it attitude. Although celibacy is apparently part of Tolstoy’s “ideal love” philosophy (one prim devotee blurts out to Valentin that he doesn’t court women because he’s “vegetarian”), Masha (Kerry Condon) thinks nothing of walking uninvited into Valentin’s tiny commune room and climbing onto him as he’s lying in bed. A harbinger of the modern, independent woman, she eventually takes off for Moscow (in contrast to Chekhov’s nearly contemporaneous, so to speak, three sisters, who only talk of going there).

The title of the movie, which is based on the novel by Jay Parini, who studied the diaries of Tolstoy’s associates, refers to the train station where the writer, gravely ill, alights and spends his final days. (Calling to mind events involving more recent international icons, such as Michael Jackson, camped-out reporters await every detail.) Here everyone’s true character comes into focus. Unfortunately—except perhaps in regard to Valentin (and Germany playing Russia in cinematic splendor)—for the audience the train has already left the station.