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By Noah Gittell

There once was a time when you could walk into a movie theater at any time of year and see a great, or at least entertaining film. Not anymore. Sure, we still have movie theaters (but maybe not for long), but the best, most complex films of any year get crammed into the final few months as they position themselves for Oscar season. The rest of the year we spend dodging two-dimensional superheroes and animated creatures.

This year, they all seem to be coming out in December. New films from Steven Spielberg, Woody Allen, and Paul Thomas Anderson are on the docket, plus a few from up-and-coming masters. Here are six December releases I have seen and can actually recommend. Get watching.

The Shape of Water (December 1)

A fairy tale for adults, complete with violence and sexuality, “The Shape of Water” is the story of a woman who falls in love with a fish, and decides that fish are better than people. In this magical film by Guillermo del Toro, Sally Hawkins plays a janitor in a secret government lab during the height of the Cold War. When her boss (an extra villainous Michael Shannon) brings in a new creature — half-man, half-marine — that he aims to weaponize, she and her friends (Octavia Spencer, Richard Jenkins) hatch a plan to steal him from the lab and set him free.

Hawkins conveys a pure, open heart without speaking a word, and del Toro’s intelligent script turns what could have been a silly fable into a political allegory that commemorates compassion as the highest virtue.

Wonder Wheel” (December 1)

The annual release of a new Woody Allen film used to be an occasion for giddy anticipation, but no more. His off-set activities, given more resonance by the recent #MeToo campaign, have tarnished his entire oeuvre for many fans, and the quality of his films has diminished somewhat. In this case, the low expectations are a gift. Like his most recent work, “Wonder Wheel” could have used a second draft, and the dialogue is painfully on-the-nose (“I’ve become consumed with jealousy!”), but it is also his most dramatically taut and visually gorgeous films in years.

Set in Coney Island (where Allen grew up) in the 1950s, “Wonder Wheel” is a tragedy about a poor family (Kate Winslet, James Belushi) that takes in the husband’s estranged, grown daughter (Juno Temple), on the run from gangsters. Sharp acting all around, but it’s the vivid cinematography and lighting — depicting the murderous reds and tranquil blues of Coney Island — that steal the show.

I, Tonya (December 8)

Whatever your opinion is of Tonya Harding, “I, Tonya” is likely to change it. Margot Robbie is brilliant as the disgraced former figure skater who was famously implicated in her husband Jeff Gillooly’s plan to knee-cap her opponent Nancy Kerrigan. It’s a fast and funny story of crime and punishment in rural America that borrows heavily from Martin Scorsese and the Coen brothers, but the performances by Robbie and Allison Janney, as Harding’s cold, abusive mother, are what keep things grounded in reality.

If you never thought you’d shed a tear over Tonya Harding, “I, Tonya” might prove you wrong.

Downsizing (December 22)

Director Alexander Payne specializes in small, human stories of the Midwest (“Election,” “Nebraska”), and his latest film turns those themes literal. Matt Damon plays an average joe who, to save money and lower his carbon footprint, shrinks himself by 90 percent and moves to a micro-community, where he lives among other little people. Payne isn’t above a few broad, size-based visual gags, but the script takes some surprising and thoughtful turns.

A story that starts in Omaha and ends on a fjord in Norway, “Downsizing” is a poignant eco-fable about how to live meaningfully in a crumbling world.

Phantom Thread (December 26)

The last time director Paul Thomas Anderson and actor Daniel Day-Lewis collaborated, the result was 2007’s “There Will Be Blood,” which netted Day-Lewis his second Best Actor Oscar and placed Anderson among the best filmmakers of his generation.

Anticipation is high for their latest film, “Phantom Thread,” especially since it is rumored to be Day-Lewis’ last film before retirement. Critics are not permitted to write about the film yet, but don’t worry, words can’t do it justice. You just need to see it for yourself.

Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool” (December 29)

One day, Annette Bening is going to get that Oscar. I just know it. She has been robbed twice —“American Beauty” and “Being Julia” — and both times by Hilary Swank. “Film Stars” may seem like prototypical Oscar bait, with Bening playing classic film star Gloria Grahame, but the film is beautifully shot and exceedingly well-acted.

The story is a little light — Grahame, diagnosed with cancer, returns to the home of a former lover (Jamie Bell), where they replay the past and struggle through the present — but the romantic tension between Bening and Bell is first-rate, and director Paul McGuigan composes some of the most gorgeous shots of any film this year.

Also:

James Franco directs and stars in a behind-the-scenes dramatization of the worst film ever made, “The Disaster Artist” (December 1).

Ron Shelton (“Bull Durham,” “Tin Cup”) returns to filmmaking after a long absence with his old-folks-behaving-badly flick “Just Getting Started” (December 8).

Fans and sci-fi nerds everywhere eagerly await “Star Wars: The Last Jedi”, the middle chapter in the new trilogy (December 15).

Steven Spielberg, Meryl Streep, and Tom Hanks team up for the story of the Washington Post’s decision to publish the Pentagon Papers in “The Post” (December 22).

By Arthur Stampleman

While theaters were dark at the Performing Arts Center, Purchase College this summer, behind the scenes, dozens were actively preparing for the season-long celebration of the PAC’s 40th anniversary.

The 2017-2018 season has great promise, with the Center pushing forward its vision — adding new artists, commissioning new works, and creating opportunities to interact with cutting-edge projects as well as artists that have been critical to its long critical and popular success.

Audience favorites such as the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, the Westchester Philharmonic, and the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center anchor the classical music programming. The Center is also pleased to have The Moscow State Symphony, violinist Sarah Chang, pianist Jeremy Denk, and the Brentano Quartet on its star-studded schedule. Those interested in adventurous repertoire will enjoy Kronos Quartet, The Orchestra Now, and the chamber ensemble Wild Up.

In dance, the Suzanne Farrell Ballet company makes a stop as part of their Farewell Tour; Purchase alum Kyle Abraham will present “Dearest Home” in the round in the Black Box Theatre; and the season will conclude with a gala celebration and the premiere of a new work commissioned from Jessica Lang and her company, which will be set to the music of Tony Bennett.

Opening night on October 6 will take place in the new and improved PepsiCo Theatre, with the world premiere of SITI Company’s production of “Hanjo” (co-commissioned by The Performing Arts Center). This haunting work is based on a 14th century Noh play; it examines issues of gender, identity, and the roles people play within each other’s lives in a most modern way. Noh drama is the oldest surviving form of Japanese theater and combines music, dance, and acting. The Purchase Repertory Theater will be performing “The Crucible” later in October.

A number of artists that call Purchase College and/or PAC their home base offer wide-ranging programs this season, including festival-style jazz, globalFEST on Tour, a dinner-and-drinks Joe’s Pub-style evening with Velvet Caravan, one of the more eclectic ensembles on the scene today, and more.

There will be artist talks before both Orpheus Chamber Orchestra concerts, the chamber music concerts, and before all three performances in the Jazz at The Center series, including the Branford Marsalis Quartet. Music lovers can find out about these ‘extras’ on Facebook or Twitter or sign up for PAC’s e-newsletter through its website.

Visitors to the PAC this year will enjoy the newly renovated PepsiCo Theater (including a fully upgraded sound system and new seats) and brand new Box Office software.

    “Create-Your Own” subscriptions are now on sale, allowing patrons to mix and match to create their own ideal series, and attend three or more events at 15-20% off the regular ticket price. Single tickets are now on sale by phone (251-6200), online (www.artscenter.org), or at the Box Office (open Wednesday through Friday from 12-6).

 

Branford Marsalis Quartet

© Ryan Anderson

Kyle Abraham in “Dearest Home”

© Tim Barden

 

Orpheus Chamber Orchestra

©Tristan Cook

By Arthur Stampleman

The star attraction at the Bruce Museum in Greenwich is “Spring into Summer with Andy Warhol and Friends”. Here until September 3rd, the exhibition focuses on a narrow range of the work of this famous Pop artist.

The show features three important works in the Bruce collection, accompanied by an important four-part painted portrait, a fine pencil portrait, some of Warhol’s works related to nature, a paneled screen that appeared in a Bonwit Teller store when he was a commercial artist, and works by two of his friends.

Pop art’s most obvious feature is the use of kitschy imagery from mass culture, such as advertising and comic books. In this regard, when we think of Warhol, we think of his paintings of Campbell Soup cans, Coca Cola bottles, and Marilyn Monroe. Visitors will <not> see those in the exhibit, but they will see another aspect of this movement, mechanical means of reproduction.

Andy Warhola (1928-87) was born in Pittsburgh of Slovakian parents and was from a poor background complicated by poor health. He studied commercial art at the Carnegie Institute of Technology, graduating in 1949, after which he headed to New York City, where he developed a very successful career in commercial art as an illustrator for magazines, advertising, and department store window displays.

Around 1961, after much success as a commercial artist, he decided to be a gallery artist. One of the catalogs produced in that connection had a misprint of his name, omitting the “a” at the end – after that he was Warhol. Abstract Expressionism had been the art movement that put American art on the map, but Warhol was not interested in their approach. He was attracted to the Pop movement developed in England and pursued by such contemporary U.S. artists as Roy Lichtenstein and Jasper Johns. Together, they helped Pop replace Abstract Expressionism as one of the more popular art forms. In addition to his success as a fine artist, Warhol had some success as a movie director.

Most of the paintings in the exhibit reflect Warhol’s use of a mechanical means of reproduction – the silkscreen printmaking technique, together with photography. This involves printing by applying ink with a squeegee to force ink through selected parts of stretched mesh screens containing the cut image. The image on the mesh can be produced photographically, by cutting stencil, or by drawing directly on the mesh with block out material. A different mesh screen is used for each color in the image. Warhol would sometimes project a photograph on the mesh and trace lines on it to create the image, occasionally creating a broken line to enliven the surface. His colors are bright.

The first room in the gallery features images visitors will likely recognize: <Flowers>, for one. After seeing a magazine article demonstrating Kodak’s new home color-processing system, Warhol began work on his “Flowers” series. Visitors will see a 1964 color lithograph on paper, four 1965 silkscreens on linen (two black and white, two colored), and a 1974 collection of ten hand-colored watercolors on silkscreen.

Then come the portraits. These include a Warhol drawing of architect Philip Johnson, demonstrating Warhol’s skill as a draftsman, and two collections of small Polaroid photographs. Warhol often used Polaroids as the starting point for portraits, and did so for his friend Sachiko Goodman. The <Sachiko> portraits are a series of four 40 x 40 inch silkscreens on canvas in different colors, and two 40 x 32 silk screens on paper. In each case a color background was printed first, with the figure’s image following. The canvases have never been seen in public before.

The last room is devoted to nature. Though Warhol was not a naturalist, he frequently depicted nature and we are told he made significant donations to conservation causes. Featured here are his silkscreen series of 1983, <Endangered Species>, offering ten “animal portraits”, each with vibrant coloring and strong drawn lines superimposed over the basic photographed image. Finally, mimicking an exhibit Warhol organized by raiding a museum’s storerooms, the Bruce show includes specimens raided from its historic natural science collection.

The Bruce Museum is open Tuesday to Sunday from 10 to 5. For information, contact 203-869-0376 or www.brucemuseum.org.

1_ Flowers

Andy Warhol (American, 1928-1987), <Flowers (Hand-Colored), 1974. Watercolor dyes on paper.
Bruce Museum Collection, Gift of Peter M. Brant, 86.48.01.05.
© 2017 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc./Artists Rights Society, New York

2_ Sachiko

Andy Warhol (American, 1928-1987), <Sachiko>, 1977. Screenprint on paper, 40 x 32 in. Bruce Museum Collection, 
Gift of the Frederick R. Weisman Foundation of Art, 85.30.01. © 2017 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc./Artists Rights Society, New York

3_ Eagle

Andy Warhol (American, 1928-1987), Bald Eagle, 1983, from 'Endangered Species' portfolio of 10 silkscreen prints on Lenox Museum Board. Edition of 150. 11 panels.
Courtesy Ronald Feldman Fine Arts New York. © 2017 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc./Artists Rights Society, New York

 

With book cover and photo of

By Robin Jovanovich

Since 1994, Amy Sargent Swank, a much-in-demand interior designer by day, has been thinking about writing a story, or a collection of short stories, tied back to a chapter of her life. “Three years ago I got serious!” said the longtime Rye, now Greyrock resident.

“Serious” meant hiring an editor to help polish her words and then finding a literary agent to get them published.

Swank knew who to call: Lee Woodruff, “who amazes and inspires so many of us with her writing and attention to veterans and the care she demonstrates to anyone in need.”

What started out as a memoir slowly became a novel. “I’d been thinking about ‘Counting Crows’ as the title,” said Swank with a smile, because of my fondness for the band.” But she’s happy with the one she ultimately chose, “Seven Birds”. The novel is already in a place of prominence among national best sellers in the front window of Arcade Books, and will be published today, June 9.

 

Amy Sargent Swank

“Writing it turned out to be a cathartic experience,” said Swank.

“When my book club read it aloud a few weeks ago, it was somewhat surreal to be talking about it, because a lot of my true feelings and experiences are expressed within those pages, but it was wonderful.”

Even more wonderful was when she and her husband Andrew were introducing themselves at a gathering recently and when Amy was asked what she did and answered “a designer”, Andrew proudly interjected, “my wife’s a writer, too!”

Set in Cape Cod and Back Bay, “Seven Birds” is the story of three women thrown together. In Swank’s words, “Fez Bradlee, 52, is struggling with a crumbling marriage, financial ruin, and a teen-age daughter Hazel, once a prize student who is becoming more and more withdrawn and spiraling into drugs and alcohol. And then, Fez discovers she has an older sister, Penny, whom she never knew because she was institutionalized at age 4.”

All three characters confront their demons in the first-person.

Rather than bask in newly published writer glory this summer, Swank, the mother of three all in or just out of college, has already pitched her next book, a thriller, to Simon & Schuster.

This designing woman, fresh back from a writing retreat with Lee Woodruff and Annabel Monaghan (“Can it get any better than that?”), may be booked for life, too.

 

Join the Greenwich International Film Festival for four days of feature films, international film premieres and screenings, a star-studded opening night party, educational panels and workshops, a VIP lounge, and the Changemaker Honoree Gala which honors an actor and actress who’ve used film to impact positive social change.

Tickets are available online or at the GIFF Box Office at 22 Railroad Avenue in downtown Greenwich. For a complete schedule, email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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