Tuesday, June 18, 2019

New "CASABLANCA" from Egypt

A new film bearing the name Casablanca has been released by Egypt. Many critics are pointing out that the new movie might be a turning point in the history of that country's film industry. The film is directed by Peter Mimi, written by Heshan Helal, and it stars Amir Karara, Eyad Nassar, Ghada Adel, Amr Abdel-Gelil, Lebleba and Mahmoud El-Bezawy.

The film deals with three friends who work together in ship burglary. They are usually tasked to steal the expensive cars that contain hidden drugs on those ships, in order to get a percentage of the money in return. However, they get caught at some point throughout the movie and start betraying each other, until the plot thickens and they get involved in life and death matters with the Mafia men in Casablanca, Morocco. 

The trailer of the film amassed a million views in three hours of its release. This is a record in the history of Egyptian cinema.
Synergy Productions and film producer Waleed Mansour, presented the trailer where star Amir Karara appeared in several action scenes. In addition, the appearance of Jordanian star Eyad Nassar is expected to be a turning point in his career.  Casablanca was released during Eid al-Fitr, the end of Ramadan.

I am happy to report that this new movie has nothing to do with the American film of the same name.  It is not an Egyptian remake. It is a totally contemporary action film only using the one word title of the classic Warner Brothers picture. Perhaps the director sees it as a homage to the Golden Age of Hollywood, but that is not clear. Other than the fact that the movie portrays Morocco as a dangerous place filled with intrigue, and perhaps death might be the only link to the original film.

Source: https://identity-mag.com/casablanca-unrealistic-action-movie-or-a-turning-point-in-egyptian-cinema/

Sunday, June 16, 2019

ON BROADWAY: To Kill a Mockingbird

The winners here are Aaron Sorkin who has fashioned a riveting play out of Harper Lee's well known 1960 novel, and director Bartlett Sher, who time and time again surprises us by conjuring the magic and genuineness of the theater, whether it be one of his warhorse revivals at Lincoln Center, or this powerful hybrid. Would that he were as lucky with the world of opera. His forays at the MET have been received with mixed reviews time and time again. Another clever touch is the use of music, especially composed for this production for pump organ and guitar by the talented Adam Guettel, whose brilliant 2005 music for The Light in the Piazza won a Tony for Best Musical Score, and was presented at Lincoln Center helmed by Mr. Sher.

Perhaps there is no better actor to play the righteous lawyer Atticus Finch, then Jeff Daniels, and actor who is experiencing the second stage of his career, and whose accent couldn't be more genuine, if at times one has to bend an ear to catch every word. After all, he was born in 1955 in Clarke County Georgia, and I am sure that his Deep Southern roots resonate with the dramatic themes of this work, as well as its language. If there is an actor capable of wiping off the memory of Gregory Peck, in the landmark film of the novel, then Mr. Daniels is it.

Mr. Sher's great genius lies in his precise, at times wondrous casting. Celia Keenan-Bolger, who won a Tony award this year for this performance, allows her talent, and the magic of the theater to convince us that she is the child Scout. Likewise Will Pullen and Gideon Glick portray touching versions of Jem Finch, and Dill Harris. Gbenga Akinnagbe is a touching Tom Robinson, and LaTanya Richardson Jackson is a memorable Calpurnia. The intensity portrayed by Frederick Weller as Bob Ewell leaves a dark impression on one's soul, and Erin Wilhelmi as his daughter Mayella is an unforgettable creature, one part victim, the other part mired in her entitled homegrown racism.

"All rise" has been the catchword for this production. All rise, indeed, as one of the best casts on Broadway delivers a performance truly worthy of a standing ovation.

Saturday, June 15, 2019

ON BROADWAY: Kiss Me Kate

Cole Porter never had it so good with Kiss Me Kate. His 1948 answer to Rodgers and Hammerstein's Oklahoma! was his first musical where his clever lyrics and music were fully integrated organically to the show's book. And what a book it was! Bella and Samuel Spewack wrote a charming comedy about an acting troupe putting on Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew led by Fred Graham, the show's director and leading man, and his leading lady, ex-wife Lilli Vannessi. These battling exes were inspired by real-life husband and wife stars Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne who were known to engage in marital battles on and off the stage.

The Roundabout Theatre Company is in the midst of a fun revival of this classic, starring Kelli O'Hara and Will Chase. Immediately one notices how many of the show's songs have gone on to become part of the American Songbook. Porter's contribution to this list of musical gems often came from forgotten shows. "Begin the Beguine," one of his great songs comes from a show called Jubilee, probably only remembered because of Mr. Porter's musical participation. Incidentally, "Just One of Those Things" also came from this forgotten piece of Broadway history, penned by Moss Hart, whose plot revolves around the silver jubilee of Britain's King George V.  But Kiss Me Kate's list of hits includes "Another Op'nin', Another Show," "Wunderbar," "So in Love," "Too Darn Hot," and that audience favorite "Brush up Your Shakespeare," sung by two Runyonesque gangsters. It's the 10 o'clock number that over the years has become an audience favorite.

This revival, directed by Scott Ellis, is not only a lot of fun, but it maintains the show in period, thus assuring that the jokes and references adhere to that post-war period where America was prospering, and the Broadway musical was in the midst of its richest period.

Bravo to Kelli O'Hara, who has become our leading Broadway actress, specializing in revivals. Let us hope that before long she lands a new musical that could possibly equal the greatness of the string of hits that she has had (South Pacific, The King and I) lately.

On a personal level, this was my first production of this beloved classic. Also I had never seen the 1953 MGM film starring Kathryn Grayson and Howard Keel either. My only link to Kiss Me Kate were the songs "Wunderbar" and "So in Love," sung by Alfred Drake and Patricia Morison, and which I got to learn when I bought a Broadway retrospective set on LP of original cast recordings. What talent! No wonder it took home the first Tony Award for best musical back in 1949.

The current revival runs until the end of this month. I suggest you get down to Studio 54 and catch it before the summer gets too darn hot and the show closes.

Sunday, May 05, 2019

AVENGERS: ENDGAME

When Samuel Beckett wrote his follow up to Waiting for Godot, a one-act play for four characters called Endgame, he wrote that this play needs to be performed in an empty room with two small windows. Marvel Studios has now given us their Endgame: a three hours plus film that takes place in many crowded rooms all around the universe, and windows to dozens of other referential works of cinema, including the Marvel Universe movies themselves. Any garden variety fanboy will wallow in the post-modernist recognition game, the rest of us will need a score card in case you want to keep track, which if you are just a casual observer of this cinematic phenomenon called Marvel you might not care at all.

But for those with a minor allegiance, or zero allegiance to the series, all you have to know is that the movie is a 2019 reworking of The Seven Samurai where the surviving Avengers try to recruit whoever is left in order to set the universe right again; or maybe it's about killing Thanos again, or maybe the real plot is about recovering magic rocks. It's mostly about all these with a little help from H.G. Wells's The Time Machine. In all likely-hood if you give the film more than just a cursory viewing its about how to bring to a conclusion one of the most profitable cinematic franchises in the history of cinema.

And try not to tell anyone who hasn't braved the crowds about the movie. These days, if you divulge anything that happens (fanboys consider every frame sacred) it is considered a spoiler, and people will consider you an outcast, and they will walk away from you when they see you heading to the water cooler during the morning coffee break. But then again, famboys will surely have beaten you to this film. I know one person who has already seen it three times.

I'm now going to make a confession. I enjoyed watching this film. I liked the way the narrative is presented. I enjoyed the performances, many of them, especially that of Robert Downey, Jr., who has spent more than a decade perfecting his Tony Stark. I doubt the film needed to be 181 minutes; there are sections that drag with dialogue that often misses the point. The humor is sophomoric. Scarlett Johansson complains that she is getting email from a racoon, and Thor has let himself go and now looks and acts more like "The Dude" in The Big Lebowski. But not to worry, before you know it, everything comes back to normal, (ooops, sorry about that, was that a spoiler?) and the film ends with...

Well, let me not get exiled from the water cooler at work.  Just go to see it. Half of this planet has already done so thus far to the tune of two billion dollars. Whatever you think of the film, Avengers: Endgame has become a cultural landmark for our times.

Saturday, April 20, 2019

On Broadway: GARY: A SEQUEL TO TITUS ANDRONICUS

Titus Andronicus has not fared well in the modern era. William Shakespeare's first tragedy (co-written, it is believed with George Peele) was immensely popular in its day -- the Elizabethans had a ferocious taste for revenge plays. However in the Victorian era it fell out of favor due to its excessive violence. The 20th century did not improve the play's lot, and to this day it is considered one of the least important efforts by the Bard.

What can you do with it, then? A much maligned, over-the-top Shakespeare revenge tragedy of dubious authorship. You can try to produce it straight and try not to get laughs from nervous audience members reacting to the exuberant violence. You can dismiss it, of course, and concentrate on the masterpieces of the canon. Or you can laugh it off and lampoon the freaking thing. This is more or less what playwright Taylor Mac (who uses the term “judy” as a gender pronoun) has done with his wickedly uproarious Gary: A Sequel to Titus Andronicus, opening tomorrow night at the Booth Theatre, and starring Nathan Lane, Julie White and Kristine Nielsen. This show should have opened in May, but it extended its previews after actress Andrew Martin suffered an injury during rehearsals, and had to withdraw from the production.

On a stage filled with piles of bloody corpses, more funny than gross, three characters, a clown, a chairwoman and a midwife re-enact the bloody deeds of the play, reminisce on how they managed to survive the massacre in Act V, and ponder life’s many mysteries and conundrums. It’s a clear Samuel Beckett situation, but played to slapstick perfection by the three principles. The humor is always coarse, relying on fart jokes and necrophilic shtick. High comedy it is not, but the again Titus is nowhere near the same league as Hamlet. Bathroom humor, therefore, is the right counterpart to its Elizabethan inspiration.

If Taylor Mac’s play wanders, and sometimes descends into the lower depths of taste, the three actors are there to salvage it. Mr. Lane, who recently appeared in epic serious dramas (The Iceman Cometh and Angels in America) returns to the genre for which we know him best. As the clown Gary, he seems to be aware of the pecking order of Shakespearean roles. He is a hopeless clown (he juggles pigeons who fly away) but he tells us that one day he dreams of ascending the Elizabethan "Dramatis Personae" ladder and become a Fool, like King Lear’s wise companion. Likewise Ms. White and Ms. Nielsen are shattered characters that survive life by grit and a hopeless hope belief that one day things will improve. The play couldn't be darker if it wanted to be, but amid the carnage a ray of hope (reminiscent of the conclusion of Akira Kurosawa's great film Rashomon) sends us home once again assuring us of the inherent goodness of mankind.

Sunday, March 31, 2019

Die Walküre at the MET

Spring is the traditional time to present the works of Richard Wagner at the Metropolitan Opera. For many years, for instance, the option of Good Friday was to go to St. Thomas on Fifth Avenue to hear its incredible choir, or go uptown to the Met and enjoy the five hours plus of Wagner's Parsifal. This practice is not being honored with such rigidity any more these days, but the opera company is currently presenting its three Ring Cycles this Spring, and I ventured out yesterday morning for a noontime start to a matinee performance of Die Walküre, the second installment of the composer's famed tetralogy. This performance was also telecast to the entire world. It also meant the return of the widely debated and much maligned Robert Lepage production, which consists of a giant machine made up of planks, which move in all sorts of ways as beautiful projections are shined upon it. Its a staging that replaced the beloved 1986 Otto Schenk staging. When the Lepage staging premiered in the 2010-2011 season, it had a tendency to malfunction. I remember quite well opening night when the Rainbow Bridge in the last scene of Das Rheingold failed to work, and the gods had to walk offstage, finding a detour route to Valhalla.

The staging of Die Walküre back in its premiere season was also problematic. Bryn Terfel as Wotan seemed uneasy walking along the steep planks, and Deborah Voigt took a tumble on her "Hojotoho" entrance. Tenor Jonas Kaufmann fared better than his colleagues. In his entire performance as Siegmund he never had to step on the darn thing. The machine was a mess, but when it did work it showed scenes of great beauty and wonderful imagination. The descent to Nibelheim in Rheingold is one of the greatest effects I have seen on any stage.  It outdoes artist M.C. Escher in its preposterous and impossible construction.

The engineers and computer programmers at Ex Machina, Lepage's company responsible for the construction of this gigantic gizmo definitely heard the complaints of opera fans. Yesterday afternoon the production went off without a hitch. The machine is now much quieter than it was back when it made its first appearance. As it moved, I only heard mechanical sounds twice, and they were very subtle. The only alien sound one heard in Act II was that of Wotan's spear rolling down one of the planks, and landing with a thud.

When this production opened it featured the best Wagnerians 2011 could offer. Now in 2019, one can say that the MET has resorted to the road show cast. However, yesterday's performance was as solid and as good as anything that being offered in other major opera houses, including the Bayreuth Festival. Christine Goerke sang a beautiful Brünhilde, a major addition to her repertory. Eva-Marie Westbroek was a fine, powerful Sieglinde, Stuart Skelton proved that he can sing a better Siegmund than his awful Otello earlier on in the season, and Günther Groissböck was marvelous in the short role of Hunding. As Wotan, Greer Grimsley's voice is cavernous and comes from the back of his throat, and tends to stay there. As a result his legato phrasing and diction suffers. However, his last act farewell to his daughter brought a tear to my eye. The two artists sang it and acted it beautifully. Conductor Philippe Jordan led a clean, detailed reading of the score, never overwhelming his singers.

This is a very good performance of this opera, and if you like this work, you'd be crazy to miss it. It is not perfect, but it is excellent.

Wednesday, March 27, 2019

US: the new Jordan Peele film

One is not sure what Jordan Peele wants to be: a social critic, or a scare meister? Thus far he has been able to blend the two with genuine success. In his first film, Get Out, a young black man witnesses first hand a monstrous side of bigoted white America. In Us, his second film, he tackles the theme of the doppelgänger in a terrifying story that begins during an equally terrifying time in America: Ronald Reagan's presidency and the "Hands Across America" benefit event. In 1986 young little Adelaide encounters a doppelgänger of herself at a funhouse in Santa Cruz beach. Years later, she's now a married adult, and along with her two children and her husband, she heads to Santa Cruz on vacation, even though the trip is making her apprehensive since she has not forgotten the traumatic event of her childhood that happened there.

One evening, the family is visited by doppelgängers of themselves: scary creatures dressed in red overalls, and wielding sharp golden scissors, their voices monstrous shrieks, and unintelligent grunts. These visitors might look like the family, but they are many rungs down the evolutionary and social scale. The trailer for this film seemed to suggest that the film was a condemnation of black versus black violence, but when an upper-class white family is savagely murdered by equally deranged doppelgängers, the film begins to suggest a social war rather than a racial one. The have-nots finally getting the upper-hand on the economically advantaged.

But Mr. Peele makes sure that there are more layers to the story than just an economic slasher nightmare. He conveys information that there are hundreds, perhaps thousands of abandoned tunnels running through the United States. Obviously tunnels that hold great secrets, places that will eventually be revealed and shed light on the meaning of the rows of caged rabbits that we see during the film's credit sequence.

One thing's for sure: the cast, headed by the luminous Lupita Nyong'o shines. Playing their own doppelgängers both she and her husband Gabe (Winston Duke) relish their dual roles. Likewise Elizabeth Moss and Tim Heidecker, who play their friends Kitty and Josh, pull all the stops playing their fiendish counterparts.

At the showing I attended, I heard a lady comment after the film concluded that she knew there was a message to the film, but she was not sure what it was. I fear this will be the opinion of one too many viewers of this film. These viewers will instead focus and enjoy the roller coaster ride the director offers. The film is more successful as a creature feature than as an economic satire.

Jeffrey Anderson in Common Sense Media summed it all up this way: "Jordan Peele's horror shocker can't compete with its sensational predecessor Get Out, but it doesn't have to."