WagnerBlog

The World of Composer Richard Wagner and his operas. www.wagneroperas.com with frequent forays into the world of art, culture, and film.

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Vincent Vargas is a foreign language teacher at a private school in New York City. He runs websites dedicated to Casablanca (www.vincasa.com) and Richard Wagner (www.wagneroperas.com).

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

It's Meta Cinema All Over Again

It if happens once, it's a fluke. But if it happens three times, then we can actually say that a trend has been born in Tinsel Town. In the last four years, the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences has awarded the coveted Best Picture Oscar to a film that basically presents a story about its own production. In other words, the textbook definition of meta cinema. Like Federico Fellini's or Truffaut's Day for Night, the latest batch of award winners represent the latest effort by today's filmmakers to present films that are actually about the film itself.  

The Artist started this latest trend. The 2011 French romantic-drama made in the style of a black-and-white silent film, took home the Best Picture award, and stole the hearts of many movie-goers who never thought of asking themselves why anyone would make a silent film in our times. This was followed by the memorable Argo, a film that recounts the story of how the CIA managed to rescue a group of Americans diplomats who were being held hostage in Teheran by making the Iranians believe that they were making a Sci-Fi film.

This year, Birdman, or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) might have put the crowning touch on this trend -- or the kiss of Death. Alejandro González Iñárritu's brilliant rumination on superhero films, Raymond Carver and Magical-Realism surrounds the story of one washed-up, ego-maniacal actor yearning for a comeback by staging a vanity Broadway play destined to flop. Capturing it all, Emmanuel Lubezki's fluid camera, gives us the illusion that all has been done in one slick take, while ironically reminding us that we are watching a movie about a movie.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Tonight's OSCARS: My Updated Picks

The Oscars are finally here. I predict the following will be the big winners tonight:
BEST PICTURE: "Birdman"
BEST ACTOR: Eddie Redmayne
BEST ACTRESS: Julianne Moore
BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR: J.K. Simmons
BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS: Patricia Arquette
BEST DIRECTOR: Alejandro González Iñárritu
BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY: Emmanuel Lubezki
BEST FOREIGN LANGUAGE FILM: Leviathan.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

The Iceman Cometh at BAM

Eugene O'Neill, America's greatest and most celebrated playwright, spent the last years of his productive life exorcising the demons of his past. In his last creation, the posthumous Long Day's Journey into Night he succeeded in putting to rest the ghosts of his parents and his dead brother in four agonizing acts filled with remorse and guilt, and soaked with a generous amount of whiskey.

In his previous play The Iceman Cometh, finished in 1939, but not given its Broadway premiere until 1946, O'Neill resurrected the down-and-out creatures of the night that inhabited his Greenwich Village hangout, a dump called "Jimmie-The-Priest's," where the young, alcoholic soon-to-be Nobel Laureate paid three dollars a month to stay, drink and solidify his morbidity among a group of the walking dead. In the play, the establishment became "Harry Hope's Saloon," described by Larry Slade, one of the principal dwellers of these lower depths as ''the No Chance Saloon... the End of the Line Cafe, the bottom of the Sea Rathskeller! . . . it's the last harbor. No one here has to worry about where they're going next, because there is no farther they can go."

It was in such a place that O'Neill first came into contact with the many "pipe dreams" that were harbored there. It was here that he tried unsuccessfully to commit suicide, then contracted tuberculosis (in those days, a disease tantamount to a death warrant), and miraculously recovered to have a rebirth as a writer. He was all of 24 years old.

Chicago's Goodman Theatre has brought its production of The Iceman Cometh to The Brooklyn Academy of Music's Harvey Theater, meticulously staged by its artistic director Robert Falls, and starring Nathan Lane and Brian Dennehy, among a cast of veteran stage actors all of whom are excellent in their parts.

Stephen Quimette as Harry Hope, the proprietor of the joint, is truly unforgettable in a role that requires him to rage at his customers for never paying him, and later on to quake in his boots at the thought of leaving his establishment after 20 years of being a shut-in. John Douglas Thompson, as an African American one-time owner of a gambling house delivers his monologues about racial inequality in America with an elegant pride. John Hoogenakker as a Harvard Law School alumnus is heart-breaking as a young lost soul riddled with DTs, and Lee Wilkof as Hugo Kalmar, an aging one-time anarchist, dreams of halcyon future days when all will drink champagne underneath the willow trees.

Nathan Lane and Brian Dennehy as Hickey, the traveling salesman with a newly-found Messianic streak, and Larry Slade, a staunch Irish son-of-a-gun who patiently waits for death, but fails to be persuaded by Hickey's phony spiels, are the bastions of any production of this play. Both offer titanic performances. Mr. Dennehy is perfectly cast as the ex-anarchist who has seen too much of life, and now simply waits for the endgame from inside a bottle of rotgut. Mr. Lane, might not be physically the classic Hickey (a la Jason Robards, Jr. or Lee Marvin of famed previous productions), but his buoyant stamina, and his ability to play a cynical con-man, while entertaining drunks with a bawdy joke about the sexual peccadilloes of the iceman prepare us for his shattering monologue in the last act: the longest soliloquy O'Neill ever wrote, and the true test for any Hickey. Mr. Lane passes with flying colors.

The Iceman Cometh is about the lies that we tell ourselves in order to keep on living. In this tragedy O'Neill holds up the mirror up to nature, and in it we see ourselves experiencing a true catharsis. This play, like most of O'Neill's great works, offers us a rare chance to look at ourselves, and this marvelous production gives us a chance to learn a little more about our human condition.

Sunday, February 01, 2015

Protester at MET Premiere

A pro-Ukrainian protester jumped on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera last Thursday, and held up a sign equating Vladimir Putin with Adolf Hitler. This happened after a performance of Tchaikovsky's Iolanta, conducted by Valery Gergiev and starring Anna Netrebko. Recently, both the Russian conductor and soprano megastar have been under fire for their support of Putin's intervention in the Ukraine.  Here is a report about the event:

Les Contes d'Hoffmann at the MET

When they tell the story of the Peter Gelb years at the Metropolitan Opera, and they get down to the new productions that he brought to the house, I am sure that Bartlett Sher's kaleidoscopic vision of Jacques Offenbach's Les Contes d'Hoffmann (with sets and costumes by Michael Yeargan and Catherine Zuber) will be at the head of the list. This was a creation that was originally devised for Rolando Villazón and Anna Netrebko -- a perfect vehicle to follow their Willy Decker produced La Traviata smash at Salzburg the previous summer. Of course, the Mexican tenor sensation became mysteriously ill, and was replaced by Maltese tenor Joseph Calleja, who also dropped out of a few performances due to illness. Tenor David Pomeroy covered for Mr. Calleja. Meanwhile, Netrebko sang all of the initial performances and soared, giving one of the most memorable performances of the year.  Her Antonia became one of the highlights of her MET career, eclipsed, perhaps this season by her astonishing turn as Lady Macbeth. The original production was conducted by James Levine, who back in December of 2009 was still able to walk to the podium. Later on in the season, Mr. Levine will come back to this production with a fresh, new cast.

Yesterday, Yves Abel, the young Canadian conductor led an excellent performance that was broadcast in HD throughout the world. Vittorio Grigolo, in excellent voice, played Hoffmann with the kind of aplomb we all expect from anyone taking on this challenging part. He knows how to use his voice for the MET. He knows that it pays to push a little more while maintaining vocal focus. The result is a big voice which audiences react positively to. An accomplished actor, he was even able to drape a tablecloth around his shoulders, crouch down and perform a kind of bear dance shuffle along the apron of the stage in a reprise of the Kleinzach number, a stage direction vaguely reminiscent of a Jewish man with a prayer shawl, and an obvious reference to Offenbach's German-Jewish heritage.

The women in Hoffmann's life were a mixed lot yesterday. Although Kate Lindsey playing the dual role of Nicklausse and The Muse was a believable actress, at times her deep mezzo was overwhelmed by the orchestration. Likewise, Hibla Gerzmava was a stentorian Antonia but her voice was just large and unfocused. As the doll Olympia, Erin Morley's light coloratura fared much better, and she was able to convey the robot-like qualities of the role quite nicely. Christine Rice was a memorable Giulietta, lending beautiful harmonies for the well-known Barcarolle that begins the Venetian act.

Thomas Hampson is touch-and-go these days. Yesterday, his voice sounded drier than usual, and he resorted to force it during some dramatic moments. Overall, it was an uneven vocal reading of the four villains, but not terrible. His stage presence and manicured-perfect acting made up for any of the vocal low points along the way.

I am looking forward for this production's return this season with a new cast, and featuring the return of Mr. Levine. 

Monday, January 19, 2015

The Oscars Are Almost Here!

What an interesting year in movies 2014 was! Once again, the small, indie film is being given a chance to take center stage in this year's Academy Awards ceremony.  Here are my picks.  The ones in red are the ones that I feel should win. The ones with an asterisk (*) are the ones that I anticipate the members of the Academy will choose.

Best Picture
“American Sniper”
“Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)”
“Boyhood”
“The Grand Budapest Hotel”
“The Imitation Game”
“Selma”
“The Theory of Everything”  *
“Whiplash”

Actor
Steve Carell in “Foxcatcher”
Bradley Cooper in “American Sniper”
Benedict Cumberbatch in “The Imitation Game”
Michael Keaton in “Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)”
Eddie Redmayne in “The Theory of Everything” *
Supporting Actor
Robert Duvall in “The Judge”
Ethan Hawke in “Boyhood” *
Edward Norton in “Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)”
Mark Ruffalo in “Foxcatcher”
J.K. Simmons in “Whiplash”

Actress
Marion Cotillard in “Two Days, One Night”
Felicity Jones in “The Theory of Everything”
Julianne Moore in “Still Alice” *
Rosamund Pike in “Gone Girl”
Reese Witherspoon in “Wild”

Supporting Actress
Patricia Arquette in “Boyhood”
Laura Dern in “Wild”
Keira Knightley in “The Imitation Game” *
Emma Stone in “Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)”
Meryl Streep in “Into the Woods”

Animated Feature
“Big Hero 6” Don Hall, Chris Williams and Roy Conli *
“The Boxtrolls” Anthony Stacchi, Graham Annable and Travis Knight
“How to Train Your Dragon 2” Dean DeBlois and Bonnie Arnold
“Song of the Sea” Tomm Moore and Paul Young
“The Tale of the Princess Kaguya” Isao Takahata and Yoshiaki Nishimura
Adapted Screenplay
“American Sniper” Written by Jason Hall *
“The Imitation Game” Written by Graham Moore
“Inherent Vice” Written for the screen by Paul Thomas Anderson
“The Theory of Everything” Screenplay by Anthony McCarten
“Whiplash” Written by Damien Chazelle

Original Screenplay
“Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)” Written by Alejandro G. Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, Jr. & Armando Bo
“Boyhood” Written by Richard Linklater *
“Foxcatcher” Written by E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman
“The Grand Budapest Hotel” Screenplay by Wes Anderson; Story by Wes Anderson & Hugo Guinness
“Nightcrawler” Written by Dan Gilroy

Cinematography
“Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)” Emmanuel Lubezki
“The Grand Budapest Hotel” Robert Yeoman
“Ida” Lukasz Zal and Ryszard Lenczewski
“Mr. Turner” Dick Pope *
“Unbroken” Roger Deakins

Costume Design
“The Grand Budapest Hotel” Milena Canonero *
“Inherent Vice” Mark Bridges
“Into the Woods” Colleen Atwood
“Maleficent” Anna B. Sheppard and Jane Clive
“Mr. Turner” Jacqueline Durran
Director
“Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)” Alejandro G. Iñárritu *
“Boyhood” Richard Linklater
“Foxcatcher” Bennett Miller
“The Grand Budapest Hotel” Wes Anderson
“The Imitation Game” Morten Tyldum

Documentary Feature
“CitizenFour” Laura Poitras, Mathilde Bonnefoy and Dirk Wilutzky
“Finding Vivian Maier” John Maloof and Charlie Siskel
“Last Days in Vietnam” Rory Kennedy and Keven McAlester *
“The Salt of the Earth” Wim Wenders, Juliano Ribeiro Salgado and David Rosier
“Virunga” Orlando von Einsiedel and Joanna Natasegara

Documentary Short Subject
“Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1” Ellen Goosenberg Kent and Dana Perry
“Joanna” Aneta Kopacz
“Our Curse” Tomasz Sliwinski and Maciej Slesicki
“The Reaper (La Parka)” Gabriel Serra Arguello *
“White Earth” J. Christian Jensen

Film Editing
“American Sniper” Joel Cox and Gary D. Roach
“Boyhood” Sandra Adair
“The Grand Budapest Hotel” Barney Pilling
“The Imitation Game” William Goldenberg
“Whiplash” Tom Cross *

Foreign Language Film
“Ida” Poland
“Leviathan” Russia *
“Tangerines” Estonia
“Timbuktu” Mauritania
“Wild Tales” Argentina

Makeup and Hairstyling
“Foxcatcher” Bill Corso and Dennis Liddiard
“The Grand Budapest Hotel” Frances Hannon and Mark Coulier *
“Guardians of the Galaxy” Elizabeth Yianni-Georgiou and David White

Original Score
“The Grand Budapest Hotel” Alexandre Desplat *
“The Imitation Game” Alexandre Desplat
“Interstellar” Hans Zimmer
“Mr. Turner” Gary Yershon
“The Theory of Everything” Jóhann Jóhannsson

Original Song
“Everything Is Awesome” from “The Lego Movie”
“Glory” from “Selma” *
“Grateful” from “Beyond the Lights”
“I’m Not Gonna Miss You” from “Glen Campbell…I’ll Be Me”
“Lost Stars” from “Begin Again”

Production Design
“The Grand Budapest Hotel” *
“The Imitation Game”
“Interstellar”
“Into the Woods”
“Mr. Turner”

Animated Short Film
“The Bigger Picture” Daisy Jacobs and Christopher Hees
“The Dam Keeper” Robert Kondo and Dice Tsutsumi
“Feast” Patrick Osborne and Kristina Reed
“Me and My Moulton” Torill Kove *
“A Single Life” Joris Oprins

Live Action Short Film
“Aya” Oded Binnun and Mihal Brezis
“Boogaloo and Graham” Michael Lennox and Ronan Blaney
“Butter Lamp (La Lampe Au Beurre De Yak)” Hu Wei and Julien Féret
“Parvaneh” Talkhon Hamzavi and Stefan Eichenberger *
“The Phone Call” Mat Kirkby and James Lucas

Sound Editing
“American Sniper” Alan Robert Murray and Bub Asman
“Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)” Martín Hernández and Aaron Glascock
“The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies” Brent Burge and Jason Canovas *
“Interstellar” Richard King
“Unbroken” Becky Sullivan and Andrew DeCristofaro

Sound Mixing
“American Sniper” John Reitz, Gregg Rudloff and Walt Martin *
“Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)” Jon Taylor, Frank A. Montaño and Thomas Varga
“Interstellar” Gary A. Rizzo, Gregg Landaker and Mark Weingarten
“Unbroken” Jon Taylor, Frank A. Montaño and David Lee
“Whiplash” Craig Mann, Ben Wilkins and Thomas Curley

Visual Effects
“Captain America: The Winter Soldier”
“Dawn of the Planet of the Apes”
“Guardians of the Galaxy”
“Interstellar” *
“X-Men: Days of Future Past”

Monday, December 29, 2014

A Smash on VOD: The Interview

The Interview, out on limited theatrical release and VOD as a result of the Sony Pictures hacking scandal and alleged threats from the government of North Korea, might just be the silliest, most sophomoric film to have gotten world-wide news coverage. Though way too much has been written about this movie already, Sony has announced that it has made $15 million, which makes it a groundbreaking VOD success, and definitely something to spill more ink about.  Let me get my poisoned pen.

Though the film tries to be a satire of a contemporary dictator, it lacks the talent to take its mission to the end, preferring to veer away from political mockery and head downhill to the lowest of the lowest burlesque. As expected, the result is no Ernst Lubitsch's To Be or Not to Be or The Great Dictator, Charlie Chaplin's brilliant sendup of Hitler's Fascist Germany. Both of these classics were released in the middle of World War II, and each offered insightful satirical parody while commenting on the nature of evil. The Interview, instead, knocks loudly at the door of Pyongyang and then runs away. More or less that's the nature of the humor throughout the film. That, and a penchant for anal penetration jokes.

James Franco overplays Dave Skylark, the kind of obnoxious TV talk host that drools all over Eminem (in a surprisingly understated performance) after the rapper admits on the air that he is gay. Inside the booth, Seth Rogen is Skylark's producer, who after meeting a college buddy who is now a senior producer on 60 Minutes, begins to understand that the product he's putting out is garbage. He conceives the brilliant idea to travel to North Korea, and land an interview with Kim Jong-un. However, when the CIA finds out about this unlikely, unexpected road trip (which Skylark continually compares to the journey in The Lord of the Rings), agent Lacey (Lizzie Caplan), like a siren, bewitches the two cable news dodos into assassinating the North Korean leader.

As far as good taste is concerned, it all goes downhill as soon as the pair arrive in North Korea. The Supreme Leader (Randall Park) is a psychological mess whose father has trained him from childhood that it is gay to drink margaritas. No doubt, this has led Kim Jong-un to make sure that his people believe that he has no need to urinate or defecate. Needless to say, his butthole does not fail to make an audio appearance during the course of the film. And there you have it, folks: there's the big difference between this film and, say, The Great Dictator. When Chaplin played with a globe of the world, bouncing it up and down, it becomes a comic/chilling moment. Here, the most graceful thing this dictator can do is to rip one out for laughs.

Too bad, because the film starts out a bit more promising. Following an old-fashioned Columbia Pictures logo, the angelic face of a Korean girl, singing about her hatred of the United States of America, appears in closeup. "May your women all be raped by beasts of the jungle while your children are forced to watch!" she sings. And as the camera pulls back, a nuclear warhead launches into the sky. If only the movie would have continued at this level.

My biggest fear about this entire mess is that I can already see Dave Skylark making a comeback (like a low-grade James Bond) in a future adventure.  Let's hope that everyone involved thinks thrice before this happens.

Sunday, December 07, 2014

Die Meistersinger is back at the MET

The Otto Schenk, Günther Schneider-Siemssen production of Richard Wagner's Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg is back at the Metropolitan Opera, playing for seven performances, including an HD telecast of the Saturday matinee on December 13.  I will be in the house for that performance.

These are turning out to be very important performances.  To begin with, it is the only Wagner opera that the MET will be presenting this year, and all the performances are slated to be conducted by James Levine, who is experiencing a tremendous year, celebrating his full-time comeback to the MET after a prolonged illness.
This is also the last time that this famed production will be seen at the MET.  The conservative staging will be retired, and in its place the Metropolitan Opera will present in the future the new Stefan Herheim production (pictured above) that premiered at the Salzburg Festival last summer. Mr. Herheim is a world famous proponent of "Regietheatre" and his production of Parsifal, which I saw at the Bayreuth Festival in 2012, takes extensive liberties with the plot of the opera. Michael Volle, who sang the role of Hans Sachs in that Salzburg production will be singing some of the performances this year, although house bass-baritone James Morris (who sang Hans Sachs last time this production was mounted) will be singing the majority of the performances.

Peter Gelb has made sure that Mr. Volle will be singing the HD telecast, and he is already in conversation with the singer about singing the role of Wotan next time the MET mounts their controversial staging of the "Ring."