Sunday, February 03, 2019

SHOPLIFTERS: an Oscar Nominated Film from Japan

Shoplifters is Japan's entry at this year's Academy Awards. The film by Hirokasu Kore-eda, a "Lower Depths" look at a marginalized family in modern Japan, was the Palme D'Or winner at the last Cannes Film Festival, as well as one of the films in the Main Slate of the 2018 New York Film Festival. Director Kore-eda presents us with a most unusual group: a ragged collection of societal cast-offs, living together in cramped quarters like any other family.  But this "family" is unusual. They are bound together by their will to survive, and they exercise this primordial instinct by the oldest professions. The oldest male, acting in the role of the father, Osamu, (Lily Franky) and the youngest male, Shota, (Kairi Jyo) are a tremendous tag-team when it comes to ripping off supermarkets; and the teenage daughter Aki (Mayu Matsuoka) works at a sex club, entertaining anonymous clients from behind a one-way glass. When Osamu and Shota bring home a five year old girl named Juri (Miyu Sasaki), who has been forgotten by her parents, the family grows even more in their cramped quarter, but the girl is welcomed. Right away we realize that she is also damaged goods, like the rest of them: Grandma (Kilin Kiki) also notices that the girl's body is filled with scars. When the media breaks the news that the little girl has been kidnapped, Osamu's partner, Nobuyo (Sakura Ando) does not fret, instead she cuts Juri's hair, and the women go "shopping" for little dresses, which they all stuff into their bags.
 In telling their story, director Kore-eda avoids the darkest aspects of their lives. It might be a sordid story of poverty, but somehow the mood remains light throughout the film. As the director unwraps their story we come to know and love these characters, empathizing with their flaws, and even believing that they are more sinned against than sinning. As much as possible, the narrative line escapes from their cramped shanty, contrasting exteriors that show modern Japan's ultra-fast trains rolling by very close to their makeshift home. The family even has a day at the beach: one last moment of relative happiness before an event shifts the narrative into a darker hue that leads us to a denouement that's revelatory and surprising. 

Shoplifters is a very special film in a year filled with incredible titles from all over the world. As New York Times critic Manohla Dargis concluded in her insightful review of this film "In their grubby imperfections, Kore-eda finds a perfect story about being human." And this is what elevates this tale into a universal examination of the human heart. Don't miss it. It truly is one of the best films of the year.

Sunday, January 20, 2019

Finally a good-fitting tenor at the MET

When I started going to the opera back when I was a teenager, I heard that Francesco Cilea's Adriana Lecouvreur was a second rate work composed by a third-rate composer. It didn't matter that in those days the likes of Renata Scotto, Montserrat Caballé, José Carreras, Plácido Domingo, and other luminaries of the time were singing the leading roles of the actress Adriana (the Comédie-Française actress Adrienne Lecouvreur) and her lover Maurizio (the Count of Saxony). I stayed away from this opera, and kept away from it, in part because the MET, my principal go-to theater for opera, hardly revived this work, perhaps as a result of the negative criticism that it received since its premiere at the Teatro Lirico in Milan in 1902.

Last night, under the threat of a big snowstorm (that ended up being no more than an annoying rainstorm) I rectified this gap in my operatic education and attended my first Adriana. I didn't vacillate in buying tickets months ahead of time for this new production by Sir David McVicar. With the likes of Anna Netrebko and Piotr Beczała scheduled to sing the main roles it was a not-to-be-missed production. A lot of people must have had the same idea, since the house was sold-out, and the three rows of standing room behind the orchestra were also full.

I also went because this season I'm on a search for a night at the MET when the tenor actually gives a good performance. Ever since the Alagna opening night Samson et Dalila fiasco I've only been to performances where the tenor has either been terrible, or in the case of the new Traviata, miscast when it comes to the dynamic and timbre levels of the rest of the singers. And let's not forget the Jonas Kaufmann episode on the night I went to see him in Fanciulla del West. He went ahead and sang, when instead he should have stayed in bed with a hot toddy. Let's face it, it has not been a very good season for the tenor voice at the MET.

Last night, the cast did not disappoint. Netrebko as Adriana was her vocally exciting self crafting a character as complex and vulnerable as any diva that has step in front of the footlights. And Beczała, fresh from his triumph at Bayreuth, stepping in for Alagna in Lohengrin at the last minute, finally made my trips to Lincoln Center worth it when it comes to hearing an exciting tenor voice that does not disappoint.

Perhaps the two great performances of the evening came from Anita Rachvelishvili as the Princess of Bouillon and Ambrogio Maestri as Michonnet. Miss Rachvelishvili,who was a fiery Amneris to Ms. Netrebko's Aida earlier this year, once again was a vocally-impressive rival in this opera. Mr. Maestri, our current worldwide go-to Falstaff, proved that he could be heart-breaking in his unrequited love of Adriana.

Gianandrea Noseda led a knowledgeable, if at times pedestrian reading of a score rich with amazingly beautiful melodies, but lacking musical invention. It proves once again that in the verismo generation, the last great generation of Italian opera, very few composers can even dream of comparing to the greatness of Giacomo Puccini.

Sunday, December 30, 2018

New TRAVIATA at the MET

The new production of Verdi's La Traviata at the Metropolitan Opera tries really hard to please New York's Old Guard: the ones who missed Franco Zeffirelli's production when it was replaced by Willy Decker's bare-bones, surrealistic and symbolic rethinking of the work. Currently on display at the MET we have Michael Mayer's new look at the composer's 1853 masterpiece, featuring a solid, but gaudy fin-de-siècle unit set by Christine Jones, costumes by Susan Hilferty and lighting by Kevin Adams. The days when different acts and locales demanded different sets are over. Ms. Jones provides us with a unit set which with the help of Mr. Adam's Bollywood style lighting creates Violetta's salon, her country house and Flora's ball. If you are a newcomer to opera, study your libretto before you go, and you'll know where you are.

The MET has put together what it thinks is an ideal cast for this production, featuring the coloratura of Diana Damrau, who seems to have a hold on Verdi's middle period heroines at the house. Her Alfredo is Juan Diego Flórez who serves the production admirably with his young looks and handsome dashing acting, even if vocally he is hopelessly miscast: a Rossini specialist pushed into a Verdi opera. The results are a small voice competing with the big-boys. It throws off kilter the vocal balance. Add to that the Giorgio Germont of Quinn Kelsey, a cavernous baritone with a loud, and at times unfocused tone, and you have a Traviata that has clearly been cast on looks, with a sharp eye on the HD screen, rather than vocal integrity.
The surprise of the evening was Yannick Nézet-Séguin and his admirable handling of the Metropolitan Opera orchestra.  While this score is often handed to pedestrian conductors who do little else than beat metronome-like phrases, or to a tenor currently moonlighting as a baritone/conductor, Mr. Nézet-Séguin proved why he has been chosen to be the MET's new Music Director. In his able hands the score came to life, as he brought out the inner voices of the orchestration, and found beautiful phrasing in places often glossed over by others. As expected, the orchestra responded to his direction without fault. And even if at times the pacing seemed slow, and the dynamic level reached Wagnerian proportions, it's been a long time since this score has been heard with such detail.

Reason enough to go to this production and hear this often-played work as if it was the first time.

Saturday, December 01, 2018

Wildlife: Fire and Water

Primal elements, fire and water, are the catalysts that erupt into primal desires in Wildlife, Paul Dano's brilliant directorial debut adapted from Richard Ford’s 1990 novel.

Jake Gyllenhaal plays Jerry, a golf pro who gets fired as a result of getting too chummy with the club’s members. It seems that Jerry has trouble keeping down a job, and as a result he’s had to move his family around much too often. His wife Jeannette (Carey Mulligan) and their fourteen year old son Joe (newcomer Ed Oxenbould) have come to accept the necessity to be uprooted multiple times. However, when the club calls Jerry to offer him his old job back he refuses their offer, and instead leaves the family to take a low paying job fighting forest fires. His departure sends the family into a downward spiral that emotionally tears them apart. Jeanette and Joe are forced to get jobs to make ends meet. Joe becomes a photographer's assistant, and Jeannette takes a job as a swimming instructor. Soon enough she begins a relation with Warren Miller (Bill Camp) one of her students, a wealthy war veteran. Joe gets dragged into the affair, his mother allowing him to witness the kind of marital infidelity no young person should be allowed to see. When Jake comes back from fighting fires things get even worse.

Carey Mulligan is destined for glory at awards time. With her perfect American accent, her nuanced, meticulous Jeannette contains many layers. Somehow she is able to reveal all of them, and this is the brilliant aspect of her performance. Likewise, Jake Gyllenhaal is perfect as the wide-eyed dreamer, always searching for the best for his family, although most of the time he fails to recognize the many personal flaws that keep him from getting ahead. Their marital problems, already there before the narrative begins, take on classic routes. The man leaves the nest in order to prove to his family and to himself that he can do it, while the wife seeks comfort in another man she does not love just to prove to herself that she remains a desirable person with urges that must be satisfied.
Ed Oxenbould as Joe is a revelation. An Australian teenage actor with a unique young face that already shows signs of maturity beyond his years, and a pair of baby-blue eyes a la Paul Newman to die for. You won't be able to take your own eyes off him! Mr. Oxenbould joins Timothée Chalamet and Lucas Hedges in that prestigious group of young actors with recent, memorable performances that signal a new generation with a bright future.

Wildlife is one of the finest films of the year. Great performances, outstanding actor-driven direction, and a haunting story about three real people. A film not be missed.

Monday, November 26, 2018

Burning - a film by Lee Chang-don

A film about obsession, where one of the main characters follows another in a car through the streets of an exotic city; and where the main female character disappears halfway through the film; and one of the characters keeps mementos of past relationships. This description could define an Alfred Hitchcock film. Perhaps a remake of Psycho, or more appropriately a new version of his masterpiece, Vertigo. It is also one way to describe Burning, the new Korean film from auteur Lee Chang-dong. A contemporary story involving Lee Jong-su, (Yoo Ah-in) a young drifter with dreams of becoming a writer, who meets up with childhood friend, Haemi (Jeong Jong-seo), a free spirit with plans of traveling to Africa. Both renew their friendship which rapidly becomes sexual. When Haemi comes back from Africa she introduces Lee to Ben (Steven Yeung), a well-off, mysterious young man, whom she met on the airplane on her way back, and who Lee compares to F. Scott Fitzgerald's Jay Gatsby. During a party where the three smoke pot, and Haemi dances topless erotically as the sun sets (one of the highlights of the film), Ben confesses to Lee that he has the odd hobby of setting old greenhouses on fire. When Haemi mysteriously disappears, Lee immediately senses something wrong, and starts following Ben, partly because he is worried about his friend, but also because he is obsessed with the mysterious young man and his opulent lifestyle.

The film is based on a short story by Japanese writer Haruki Murakami called "Barn Burning." This is also the title of a 1939 short story by William Faulkner, the Southern author who is Lee's favorite writer. As Lee and Ben's friendship deepens, Ben decides to buy a copy of Faulkner's collected stories.

The film takes a postmodernist approach in its meandering way in which it tells this story. Scenes often do not lead to expected outcomes, thus the structure is freewheeling and loose. At 148 minutes director Lee eases us into the narrative with a sure, firm hand, an invisible camera, and a rambling mise-en scène. However, he manages to engross us in the narrative, thanks primarily to the stellar performances by the three principals.

The film premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, it was a selection of the New York Film Festival, and it is South Korea's entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at the upcoming Academy Awards.

Sunday, November 04, 2018

BOY ERASED with Hedges, Crowe and Kidman

Boy Erased is not the first film this year to tackle the thorny subject of conversion therapy. This film, featuring three Hollywood A-listers, closely follows the themes of the recent indie The Miseducation of Cameron Post. The fact that big Hollywood is taking a chance on this controversial subject makes it a film worth considering, and certainly one that will be critically discussed as we head towards the end of the year, and awards season time. Especially since the film possesses heartfelt performances by all three principals.

When Jared, played by Lucas Hedges, a young college student, comes out to his parents, a Baptist minister (an almost unrecognizable, overweight Russell Crowe) and his wife, Nicole Kidman, they decide to enroll him in a program to cure him of his homosexuality. It’s a bit like the Joan Fontaine character in Hitchcock’s Rebecca, after she marries Laurence Olivier and enters gloomy, mysterious Manderley. When Jared steps inside the Love in Action program he enters the gothic, a Dickensian institution run by Mr. Sykes, a character with a Dickensian name that Charles Dickens himself might have had fun developing, since from a literary point of view he is only a stone’s throw from Mr. Squeers, the cruel headmaster in the novel Nicholas Nickleby. The fact that this film is based on a true story verges on the unbelievably tragic.

The secondary characters are as fully rounded as the leads. Mr. Sykes, played by Joel Edgerton, the director of this film, is a wondrous creation: a Bible-wielding mountebank who spouts salvation while hiding from everyone his true nature. Also wondrous, as well as scary is one of Mr. Sykes’s enforcers, played with sinister gusto by Flea of The Red Hot Chilly Peppers. There is also a memorable performance by Troye Sivan, the South African-born, Australian actor/singer, whose latest pop album, Bloom, is at the top of the charts. Mr. Sivan has a great screen presence, and one of the members of the cast who is openly gay.
Although the film has many wonderful touches, it falls into a predictable pattern where the characters become recognizable figures verging on the stereotypical. So we get the young, questioning boy, who is far from being a slut, but who carries an incredible amount of guilt because of his feelings. There’s the understanding mother, and the unyielding father who just cannot come to terms with his son’s feelings. There’s also the clever boy who will play along with the conversion program just to get out of there; and regrettably there’s also the boy who is permanently scarred by the program’s abuse, and becomes its tragic victim.

Despite its artistic flaws, Boy Erased is a courageous step from mainstream Hollywood to expose a dubious system that thus far has effected 700,000 members of the LGBTQ community, and continues to be practiced legally in many parts of the country.

Monday, October 29, 2018

Guadagnino's SUSPIRIA

Luca Guadagnino, the much-praised director of Call Me By your Name returns to the theme of inter-generational relationships in his rethinking of Dario Argento's 1977 thriller Suspiria. Whereas the classic horror film was the first of a proposed trilogy depicting the theme of "Three Ancient Mothers," with the results being the familiar "giallo" style for which the Italian filmmaker is best known, Guadagnino's take on the film is a self-contained two and a half hour extravaganza taking the bare-bones story of the original, and riffing on socio-political themes not really present in the original film.

In this retelling we meet Sussie Bannion, a young ingenue from America (Dakota Johnson), aching to escape her Mennonite upbringing, who travels to a divided West Berlin to enroll in the famous Helena Markos Dance Company, a school run by a Pina Baush look-alike named Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton). Almost immediately the new girl falls under the spell of Madame Blanc, who recognizes in her an innate talent for dance, and the "je ne sais quoi" necessary to become a great dancer. At the same time, an elderly psychoanalyst (also played by Tilda Swinton wearing a ton of makeup), with a past dating back to the days of the Third Reich, is investigating the disappearance of one of the dancers in the company, and the alleged claims that the school is run by a coven of witches.

While all of this proves to be quite enigmatic, the movie fairly quickly falls off the rails as it tries to bite more than it can chew. Apparently in Guadagnino's mind it is not enough to just make a horror film. The new Suspiria, which is divided into acts like a German Expressionistic film of the silent era, ie, Nosferatu, features the Baader-Meinhof political landscape of Germany in the decade of the 1970's, as well as the vivid ghosts of National Socialism. This, together with a running time of 152 minutes, makes it a bladder-buster of a horror film, too long for a genre which, like comedy, works more effectively when it adheres to a shorter running time. Unfortunately, the film denouement is one of the most extravagant spectacles I have seen in quite a while. Never a good idea to outdo the original. Dario Argento is an excessive filmmaker, no one will argue with that, but in paying homage to the master, Guadagnino totally goes overboard.

So, should you bother with this remake? Try the new Suspiria if you like to be engrossed in a film that asks more questions than it answers, and if you enjoy the experience of a polemic work that's sure to spark some very interesting cinematic conversation.