Sunday, May 06, 2018

AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR... Why?

Once upon a time, Marvel was a modest comic book company offering superhero entertainment to children of all ages.  The majority of us fell prey to the lure of the cheaply printed magazines whose pages turned yellow as we hit puberty; unless you were a real geek, and had your issues neatly encased in those plastic sleeves. Marvel was fun, and ultimately, it was inconsequential: something to grow out of as high school, college, responsibility, and life entered the picture. Marvel is now Marvel Studios, and in 2018 it is what going to the movies has become for millions of people. An escape to a fantasy world that reminds 40-somethings currently running the studios of their childhood, and bewitches teenagers with images reminiscent of video games, and easily recognizable landscapes where immediately they can tell the good guys from the bad guys. No character development nonsense need apply these days. From the first frame any non-thinking, popcorn-eating adolescent knows who to root for between visits to his phone whenever the movie squeezes in a scene where nobody dies, nothing explodes, and characters attempt to have a conversation.

Even though this is not really a film, but rather a series of random images connected together by a flimsy plot, we are inexplicably entertained by these images. Incredible cgi creations that any director of the past would be jealous to own is in part responsible for this. But, what are we being entertained by? Thanos (no relation to Thanos Papalexis -- the British businessman and convicted murderer), played by a cgi Josh Brolin, a villain whose chin would make Jay Leno hide in the trunk of one of his many automobiles, is in search of stones which will give him all the power in the world, er, I mean in the universe. To stop him the cavalcade of Marvel superheroes come out of the woodwork. From Robert Downey, Jr.'s Tony Stark AKA Iron Man (whose film started the Marvel enterprise ten years ago) to Benedict Cumberbatch's Doctor Strange, a superhero wizard based on Satanist/magician Alastair Crowley. Wouldn't it be great if instead of posturing with a Dracula cape as he does incessantly, Mr. Cumberbatch could act in a Mr. Crowley biopic? Not as long as the Marvel universe rules the cinematic universe. The only character who is allowed to show some semblance of humanity is Dr. Bruce Banner (wonderfully played by Mark Ruffalo) who is unable to conjure his alter ego The Hulk, at a time that he needs him the most, in a clear case of superhero constipation. 

I'm hearing that teenagers everywhere are going to see this film over and over again. A phenomenon that has not happened since Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet boarded a certain ship that sank in 1912. The reason for the return business of so many young people to Titanic in 1997 was based on mega star adulation that catapulted DiCaprio to the level of heartthrob, together with a collective fascination with the actual sinking of the ocean liner. Add to that Kate Winslet magnificent performance, and Celine Dion's mega-hit song "My Heart Will Go on" and you had the makings of a real hit. These days, teens react subconsciously to the fact that this film is shot like the TV series (the movie is composed mostly of close-ups) that they binge upon. At the incredible length of 143 minutes, far longer than it should have been, the film's length is not enough for them. They've spent hours and hours watching seasons of Stranger Things, therefore repeated viewings of a film like this one carries them into territory where they find a huge level of comfort.

After watching this movie, like many other critics out there, I felt like a mourner at the gravesite of cinema. But those awful Biblical epics of the 1950's led to wonderful creations in the next decade. I'm hopeful that these superheroes will go away. At the end of this film, when so many superheroes met their end and dispersed into dust I was not happy.  $1. 519 billion in box office earnings worldwide thus far tells me that they will all be back.

Saturday, April 28, 2018

Anna Netrebko stars as TOSCA at the MET

It takes a ballsy opera singer to take on Giacomo Puccini's great opera Tosca. Even more, it takes a truly fearless Prima-Donna to take on this role for the first time at the Metropolitan Opera, arguably the center of the opera world, and the focus of much of the international press. But that is exactly what soprano sensation Anna Netrebko has done this spring at the MET. By jumping into the role of the tempestuous opera singer in love with a revolutionary artist in the dark, political days of 1800 Rome, she had proven once more that there may be a lot of opera singers out there, but currently she is the great diva of our times. On Thursday night, the MET was nearly sold out (something that should happen more often, but it does not, regrettably), and there must have been at least half a baker's dozen of Russian oligarchs in attendance as Ms. Netrebko sang an incredible performance of this work, putting herself on the map with the Tebaldis and Callases, among others, that made this work a staple of their repertory at the MET.

The focus of this production in the press this year was the falling out of the original cast that included Jonas Kaufmann and Bryn Terfel, along with the original soprano, Kristine Opolais, and her husband, the conductor Andris Nelsons. In other words, the major players of the cast. The MET had to scramble to replace everyone, but not before they had to replace James Levine, who after Mr. Nelsons left was selected to lead the orchestra, and then the sexual allegations hit, and Levine was out of the picture. Perhaps the only mention of his name in the precincts of the MET currently is on the CD's, DVD's and Blu-Rays in the MET opera shop of past productions he conducted. The MET is not getting rid of those potential sources of income! They won't have him around, but will make money out of his name and product. Interesting, isn't it?  No wonder the maestro is suing the Metropolitan Opera.  It's messy at the management level these days.

But thankfully, the art is not suffering, or at least, it does not appear to do so. Thursday's performance was quite strong, although uneven. At the helm was maestro Bertrand de Billy who lead a secure reading of Puccini's score. Netrebko's Cavaradossi was her husband Yusif Eyvasov, whose voice is not the most pleasant of instruments. Tight throughout his range, and lacking any real pianissimo, he manages to produce real high notes that are secure and quite stunning to hear. The journey there, however, can be a rocky one. Perhaps the best singing belonged to Michael Volle, whose dark Wagnerian baritone was perfect for Baron Scarpia's brand of treachery. I saw Mr. Volle last summer at the Bayreuth Festival as Hans Sachs (a role which he will repeat this year at the Green Hill), and I am glad to report that the Italian side of his repertory is as secure as his German one.

Sir David McVicar's new production, of course replaces Luc Bondy's awful staging which dethroned Franco Zeffirelli's much loved production. You remember?  It was the one where Scarpia gropes the Virgin Mary at the end of the Te Deum, and where he gets fellated by a couple of prostitutes on an expensive couch in Act Two!  No wonder there were boos on the 2009 opening night from the largely conservative New York audience. The present production is what I would call Zefirrelli light.  The three main sets certainly resemble their real Roman locations, and there is a mighty angel atop Castel Sant'Angelo. It's what New York opera lovers want to see, and Peter Gelb, the MET's general manager has admitted that this return to conservatism has taught him not to mess with the warhorses. Perhaps leave experimentation to new works (The Exterminating Angel, perhaps).

The opera season is rapidly coming to an end, but do not miss this production of Tosca with this cast. It was probably one of the best evenings at the MET this year.

Sunday, April 22, 2018

A Quiet Place

It's great that A Quiet Place has become the latest horror film sensation. Directed and starring John Krasinski and his wife Emily Blunt, the movie takes us to a near future where the majority of the people of Earth have been wiped out by blind alien creatures with hypersensitive hearing. They play a husband and wife trying to survive in a farm, along with their two children. One of their children was killed by one of the creatures as a result of a noisy, battery operated toy that attracted one of the monsters. The family has been able to survive for an additional year communicating with one another through sign language. But the future looks dismal for them. The wife is pregnant.  How is she going to give birth without making a sound? And, of course, how is the newborn baby going to come into what's left of the world, and not cry? The premise presents a nightmare that they may not be able to survive, and this makes for a fantastic horror film that keeps us on the edge of our seats, and makes us chew our popcorn as quietly as possible. It's like watching a well-crafted silent movie, and undoubtedly the quietest film ever produced by Michael Bay.

The film fits today's concept of smart horror. It has a unique monster, unique horror situations, characters that make intelligent decisions, and definite franchise potential. Although, I wish that they would leave it alone, and not turn it into a Blumhouse style series. Rarely has there been a film where you could hear a pin drop in the theater. So distant from DC and Marvel, and their ear-splitting Dolbyized worlds.

When conductor Sir Georg Solti visited the Metropolitan Opera with a Paris Opera production of Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro, he held down the sound of the orchestra and the singers. With the sound low, the audience at the MET started leaning in to hear every word and listen to every note. As a director, Mr. Krasinski does the same thing with this film. The lower the sound level, the closer we move to the edge of our seats. The fact that he manages to maintain us in this position for a fast moving 95 minutes is the utter success of this fine film.

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

CASABLANCA to be shown on TCM

The film CASABLANCA will be shown on TCM tomorrow, Wednesday at 8:00pm EST. For more information about this classic movie go to my website Vincent's CASABLANCA HomePage. If you miss it, which you shouldn't, you can always catch it on Watch TCM, a service where you can stream films from the TCM vaults.

Thursday, April 05, 2018

ANGELS IN AMERICA is back on Broadway

"Angels in America, a Gay Fantasia on National Themes," Tony Kushner's epic play about the politics of the AIDS crisis during the 1980s is back on Broadway. The original production was in 1993 when "Millennium Approaches," the first part of this two-play cycle opened at the Walter Kerr Theater in May.  It was joined by the second part "Perestroika" in November, when both works were presented in repertory. The current production, starring Andrew Garfield and Nathan Lane first played at the National Theatre of Great Britain, and was directed by Marianne Elliott, the Olivier and Tony Award winner for "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time." Minus a few cast changes, the production has come intact from across the pond with the principal actors and many of its supporting players; but more importantly with a theatrical power that makes this revival one of the outstanding Broadway productions of all time.

There is Tony Award gold right now on the stage of the Neil Simon Theater. Andrew Garfield is a revelation as Prior Walter, the AIDS victim who becomes a kind of seer, prophet once stricken with the disease and after being visited by an angel. His performance is a sheer delight of power, pathos, and dignity. Nathan Lane, who has been very busy lately on the Broadway and BAM stages, adds to his remarkable roster of roles playing the monstrous Roy Cohn, whose political clout cannot save him when he contracts Kaposi's sarcoma after a lifetime of closeted gay encounters all over the world. Whereas Prior's imaginary visitation by an angel leads him to become an advocate for the disease, Cohn is visited by the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg, the accused Cold-War spy whom he prosecuted. Both encounters hold within them interesting resolutions.
There are amazing performances by featured actors who play many parts. Lee Pace as a closeted Mormon and Roy Cohn protegee is memorable, as well as James McArdle, the Scottish actor who plays Prior's boyfriend Louis: a New York Jew filled with liberal opinions who often serves as the mouthpiece of the author. Nathan Stewart-Jarrett, best known in the UK for the series Utopia, steals the show as Belize, the drag-queen nurse who comes into contact with all the characters, and whose confrontations with Lane's Cohn are the most memorable for their wit, as well as for their tenderness.

It is not often that a modern masterpiece gets revived on Broadway, and with such an incredible cast. The commercial theater, unfortunately, is not always the place where you will find intelligence and great ideas. The way to see the work is to invest eight hours and see both parts. The play will challenge you in so many ways. But ask yourself, when was the last time you attended something on Broadway that made you think? Don't pass up this rare chance to see first-rate theater with an incredible cast.

Friday, March 30, 2018

El Quijote: Fabled NYC Restaurant closes during Holy Week

Today, on the day that many Christians commemorate the death of Jesus Christ, many New York food lovers will witness the death of an institution. El Quijote, the fabled restaurant on 23rd street, under the famous/infamous Chelsea Hotel, will close its doors after being in operation since 1930. How many restaurants in New York City today can claim that they were open during the height of the Great Depression, and have remained opened ever since.

To dine at El Quijote is to step back in time almost 90 years, which is to say almost a century. The decor has remained the same: a combination of Spanish kitsch and a literature lesson in pictures, figures and statues of Miguel de Cervantes's novel. I'm sure that a list of its patrons would read like a cross section of America's notables. Once I saw actor Fyvush Finkel, one of the last remaining pillars of the Yiddish theater dining there. He was sitting at a large table with family and friends. Fyvush, who died at the age of 96 in 2016 was only eight years old when El Quijote first opened its doors to the public.

For me, El Quijote was all about the shrimp ajillo (shrimp with garlic sauce) a potent mixture that stayed on your breath for hours and was sure to repel potential amorous encounters as well as your common urban vampire. It was always served with yellow rice. Whether or not they used real saffron to make it yellow was irrelevant. Shrimp ajillo with yellow rice was my meal of choice, preceded by a hot bowl of "caldo gallego," the earthy soup from the Northwest of Spain. On a cold wintry day, when the wind blew up and down 23rd street, there was nothing better.

The other drawing card was the sangría, although here one must acquiesce to the way this libation is prepared at that other venerable Spanish restaurant, Sevilla, in the village.  In Sevilla, the sangría has maintained its delicious taste since I first visited this joint in the late 1970s. At El Quijote, the sangría was a movable feast: sometimes too strong, other times too fruity. One time, it was even murky and dark. At Sevilla, the sangría is always clear. El Quijote featured the second best sangría in New York City, let's leave it at that.

The only question left now is will El Quijote open its doors again, and if it does, what will it look like, and what will the food be like? I for one am asking the gods for a speedy resurrection.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

James Levine is suing the MET

Will this be the straw that finally breaks Peter Gelb's back? James Levine is suing the Metropolitan Opera over the fact that he was fired after allegations of sexual misconduct surfaced.  According to the Hollywood Reporter, the conductor filed a lawsuit on Thursday claiming that the opera company used baseless allegations to tarnish his fabled career. The company went on to fire him without even a telephone call. The suit asks for at least 5.8 million dollars. The MET has not seen the suit as of this writing, and has made no comments. The MET suspended Levine back in December, and started an investigation after the New York Post and the New York Times published allegations of sexual misconduct involving three boys. These events go back decades ago, and Levine said that the accusations were unfounded, and that he had not been charged with any crime.

When all this blows over, and I believe it will, like any witch hunt, I believe there is a good chance that James Levine will come back to the MET. And I also believe that the audience will welcome him with great acclaim. The reason why the MET orchestra is the polished ensemble it is is all due to Maestro Levine. When he returns it will be a very uncomfortable place for Gelb, I'm sure. That might be the moment when the board will finally fire him, and search for somebody who understand the likes and tastes of the New York opera-going public.