Sunday, January 05, 2020

Dracula meets Sherlock meets Who

Bram Stoker's novel has been given the BBC Mark Gatiss / Steven Moffat treatment. Their adaptation of Dracula owes less to the author's original epistolary classic and more to their inimitable jigsaw puzzle writing style that the pair have nurtured in their on-going update of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes, also for the BBC.

The story is told in flashback by a dying Jonathan Harker (John Heffernan) who has escaped Dracula's castle, and has landed in a nunnery. He tells his story to a pair of nuns, one of whom seems to know quite a lot about the occult and who tends to treat Catholicism with more skepticism than her deep knowledge of vampires.

At first it all starts out fairly recognizable. Jonathan Harker awaits the count's carriage in the middle of a stunningly beautiful snowy forest. The faint glimpses of the coachman who picks him up, however, promises that things will not end well for this Victorian traveler. Castle Dracula certainly looks creepy enough, and is a clear homage to the scenic design of the Bela Lugosi 1931 Universal film. It all begins to slowly descend downhill with the first appearance of the count. The vampyre is played by Danish actor Claes Bang, and the first time we see him he is a wizened old man, but soon enough with a little bit of sustenance provided by Harker he turns into a young man faster than when Faust signed his contract with Mephistopheles -- but, that's another story.

The problem is that Claes Bang is all wrong for the part. His face is too fleshy, neither possessing the dread that Lugosi emoted, nor the skeletal fright of Max Schreck in Nosferatu. Gatiss and Moffat were going after a post-Christopher Lee look: a Louis Jourdan, Frank Langella type. Instead the writers throw out the possibility of peppering Mr. Bang's dark looks with a dash of old-fashioned creepiness, and instead make him into a bitchy queen. One scene in particular contains the worst, most out-of-place line in the history of any horror movie. After morphing from wolf to man, Dracula  feels the animal's black hair and turns to a group of nuns with the following quip: "I don't know about you girls, but I sure do love fur."

Meanwhile, imprisoned in a castle, a labyrinth right out of the short stories of Argentinian author Jorge Luis Borges, Harker soon begins to deteriorate as Dracula makes his nightly visits. Soon enough Harker realizes that he must escape if he is ever going to see his beloved Mina back in London again. No sooner does he find out the secret of the castle's construction that he realizes that the place is also inhabited by several of Dracula's creations: caged prisoners, slowly being turned into vampires, and all of them (including a vampire baby) ready willing and able to bite a chunk out of Harker's jugular.

The best part of this adaptation involves a part of the story which is usually either omitted, or dashed away quickly in previous versions: the voyage of the ship Demeter to London. The entire second part of this series involves this sea voyage. The only problem with this decision is that the writers turn it into an Agatha Christie murder mystery -- a mixture of  Murder on the Orient Express meets And Then There Were None. And what's wrong about this approach? It's not a whodunit anymore, we know who's doing it! Still, despite the clumsy writing decision, this episode has the proper atmosphere, dread, and seriousness that the story deserves.

Good, right?  WRONG!

This episodes also features the most outrageous cliffhanger ever -- something right straight out of a Dr. Who episode.

At this point, I'll say no more. If you've read this far you're either not going to go anywhere near this show, or I have elevated your curiosity so much that you're running to your Netflix. Either way, it's an entertaining bit of fluff, but not the kind of adaptation that this classic deserves. Unfortunately, both Mr. Gatiss and Mr. Moffat, as fanboys, are way too close to the material to actually make a decent adaptation.

I can't wait to see what they do with Moby Dick if they decide to adapt it.

Saturday, November 30, 2019

Lise Davidsen makes her debut at the MET

The debut of an important up and coming artist at an opera house is always a reason for celebration. At the Metropolitan Opera, the fabled evenings when Enrico Caruso, Marian Anderson and Leontyne Price made their debuts have gone down in the annals of the opera house as important signposts for the company, as well as golden moments in the history of the art form in the 20th century.

Last night another such moment happened again at the MET, one taylor-made for the new century. Soprano Lise Davidsen made her much anticipated debut as Lisa in Tchaikovsky’s The Queen of Spades. Like the artists mentioned above Ms. Davidsen comes to the MET already a star, having made an enormous impact in the classical world with her triumphant debuts in Glyndebourne, the Vienna State Opera, the Royal Danish Opera, and London's Royal Opera, Covent Garden. As well as last summer's debut at the Bayreuth Festival where her performance as Elisabeth in Tannhäuser was hailed by the international press as a "voice once in a century." This summer she will return to the Green Hill as Sieglinde in Bayreuth's new production of the Ring. In addition to all these marvelous accolades, Ms. Davidsen has been awarded an exclusive recording contract by Decca Records, the first since that honor was given to soprano Birgit Nilsson.

Is sex appeal important in opera? You bet, and Ms. Davidsen has it in (I won't say in spades) greater than usual amounts. Her tremendous stage presence and radiant looks, more Mediterranean than Nordic, command the stage even before she sings a single note. And when she does, she produces a powerful even sound throughout her register that causes one's ears to tingle. The kind of sound that only a true lyric dramatic soprano possesses.
It was a triumphant evening in all accounts. Ms. Davidsen, in her curtain call as seen above, looked radiant and happy on a job well done. Her colleagues also did remarkably well. Tenor Yusif Eyvazov was a haunted creature as Hermann, whose obsession with discovering the secret of the three cards drives him and those in his orbit to destruction. Mr. Eyvazov's tenor is a pleasant instrument which he knows how to use well throughout the evening. Also worthy of accolades was another debut: Igor Golovatenko, whose powerful baritone graced the role of Prince Yeletsky. Conductor Vasily Petrenko, also making his house debut, led the forces of the Metropolitan Opera orchestra and chorus with remarkable beauty and efficiency.

The Queen of Spades is another jewel in the MET's remarkable crown this year, which also includes the triumphant new productions of Porgy and Bess and Philip Glass's Akhnaten, which are currently running. It would be unwise to miss this revival of Tchaikovsky's opera, especially when it is graced by such a remarkable singer as Lise Davidsen. Let's hope that she makes the MET a favorite home away from home.

Saturday, October 26, 2019

Joaquin Phoenix in JOKER

That the film Joker, the new Tod Phillips origin story of Batman’s most deranged arch villain, would incite violence in the streets of the real Gotham City and beyond proved to be much ado about nothing. There were armed guards with machine guns outside Alice Tully Hall at the New York Film Festival screening, but after weeks of playing around the country there have not been any serious acts of violence perpetrated as a result of watching this film. That, in and of itself, speaks volumes about this movie.

In 1971, Stanley Kubrick’s film A Clockwork Orange was banned in many countries as a preventative measure, fearing hordes of disaffected teenagers would go on bloody rampages mimicking the ultra-violence depicted in the film. But just for the record, let me state right now that Joker is no Orange.  Kubrick’s film, based on Anthony Burgess’s novel, is a frightening analysis of an out of control youth under an ineffective government in a UK steeped in a dystopia nightmare.  Joker is simply about raising to a pedestal a psychopath, and wallowing in the random violence he commits.

Joaquin Phoenix has been receiving praise for his performance, a character that brought posthumous Oscar honor to Heath Ledger, and which served as a campy vehicle for Cesar Romero in the 1960s Batman TV series. As a result of an uneven script by the director and Scott Silver, Joaquin Phoenix is allowed to be all over the place. Sure, you can’t take your eyes off him, but that’s because you don’t know what he’s going to pull next. This unexpected, mercurial approach to a troubled character worked really well for the actor in the film The Master, but again that was a tight controlled film where Phoenix could shine. Here he attempts a similar approach, and oftentimes his talent gets him over the hump, despite the material he is forced to work with. It yields an inconsistent performance where he can be tender when speaking to his mom, frightening when he looks into a mirror and whips his mouth into a deranged smile, and inexplicably campy when he is dancing on steps in the South Bronx, or when he is invited to a late night talk show whose host, ably played by Robert De Niro, is a veiled caricature of Johnny Carson.

I suppose the film works best as a recreation of 1970’s New York, but even here, it ends up being merely a Hollywood version of what New York was like in that decade. In other words, in the film the graffiti and the garbage in the streets is more abundant than it ever was in reality. For a real look at the Big Apple during that decade, shot on the very same mean streets, look to The French Connection and Taxi Driver, for starters, two films that Joker shamelessly tries to mimic. In its depiction of rioting crowds loose on the streets the film attempts to offer an allegory for our time of political discontent, and that it does real well. However, I wonder how many members of the audience will be thinking allegorically when presented with this gritty, violent material.

Sunday, September 29, 2019

NYFF: The Irishman - new Martin Scorsese film

Martin Scorsese's film career has been graced by landmarks of greatness: Mean Streets (1973), Taxi Driver (1976), Raging Bull (1980), and Goodfellas (1990) among many, many others. Most recently he has turned his gifts towards a wider canvas: The Departed (2006) -- in my opinion an uneven film where I felt Scorsese was out of his element. Still, that film was the one that got him his Oscar for Best Director. A few years ago The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) made an incredible showpiece for Leonardo DiCaprio, an actor who lately had become his latest muse. These films serve as signposts that lead the way to his present masterpiece: a movie where he has reunited with some of his former muses. 

The Irishman is a sprawling, lengthy film, clocking in at 209 minutes, where the director once again brings to life the familiar world of organized crime and populates it with some of his regulars. In its approach it feels like Scorsese's personal apotheosis of a genre he has kept alive for decades. We have Robert De Niro, who plays Frank Sheeran, whose nickname is the Irishman, a career mob hitman. Harvey Keitel in a small but important cameo role as a mob boss, and Joe Pesci, whose performance is a revelatory study in subtlety, and a 360 degree turn for this actor who came out of retirement to play this role. To these Scorsese regulars, the director has added Al Pacino, with whom he had never worked before. Pacino plays Jimmy Hoffa, the labor leader who disappeared in 1975, and who was presumably executed by the mob. Pacino's performance might seem a bit large compared with the subtlety of the other principals, but this is in keeping with the bigger-than-life character Hoffa created for his public persona, and which was embraced by his Teamster brothers.

In the hands of the director and his gifted cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto, The Irishman becomes a rumination on organized crime, and a personal study of a lifetime creating films in this inimitable genre. With muted colors, and a dark palette, the film is about the end of something. It's the Omega of the Scorsese mob movie, populated with the kind of cast that could probably not be possible to assemble again. If Goodfellas, with its bright sunny colors and upbeat rhythms, was his career's Alpha, then the somber but brilliant Irishman is its logical twilight.

In featured parts there are great performances by Bobby Cannavale, Ray Romano, and Sebastian Maniscalco as mobster Joe Gallo, whose murder in Little Italy's Umberto's Clam House is carefully recreated. In a very small role Anna Paquin is unforgettable as Sheeran's daughter, a woman who learns about the kind of work her father does, and eventually wants nothing to do with him. Her recognition scene is poignant despite its subtle, minimalist approach.

The Irishman had its world debut this weekend at the New York Film Festival, and will have a limited theatrical run before it can be streamed on Netflix. According to Wikipedia "The film will not play at the theaters owned by AMC, Cinemark, Regal, or Cineplex because the "four week progression to SVOD remains unacceptable to those chains." It was previously reported in February 2019 that Netflix would possibly give the film a wide theatrical release, at the request of Scorsese. The heads of several theater chains, including AMC refused to play Roma the previous November, said they would only be open to playing The Irishman if Netflix respects the decades old theatrical window, that suggests that movies come to theaters first for a couple of months, and then go to the home."

The way to see The Irishman is in a theater, preferably one that's full with movie lovers, so make every effort to do so despite the lack of places that might show it.

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Plácido Domingo Accussed of Sexual Harrasment

The term "Latin Lover" assumes certain types of behavior that in today's #Me Too movement can quickly and easily turn into accusations of sexual harassment. Plácido Domingo, who for years came to prominence on the operatic stage as a virile tenor, oozing sexual charm, has now been accused of sexual harassment by a number of singers and a dancer. Mr. Domingo, who is now 78 and continues to conduct and sing opera, albeit as a baritone, has denied these accusations, some of them dating back more than thirty years.

The LA Opera, an institution that Domingo has served for over thirty years will engage outside counsel to investigate these allegations. However the San Francisco Opera has cancelled all of Domingo's upcoming performances in October citing these allegations. They went on to give a statement to CNN. "Though the alleged incidents reported did not take place at San Francisco Opera, the Company is unable to present the artist on the War Memorial Opera House stage. San Francisco Opera is committed to its strong anti-sexual harassment policy and requires all Company members to adhere to the highest standards of professional conduct. San Francisco Opera places a great priority on creating a safe and secure environment where everyone can focus on their work and art, and in which colleagues are treated with respect, dignity and collegiality." 

The Metropolitan Opera, the musical organization with which Domingo is perhaps best known for, has yet to comment on these accusations.

Mr. Domingo offered the following statement to CNN: "People who know me or who have worked with me know that I am not someone who would intentionally harm, offend, or embarrass anyone. However, I recognize that the rules and standards by which we are -- and should be -- measured against today are very different than they were in the past. I am blessed and privileged to have had a more than 50-year career in opera and will hold myself to the highest standards."

Friday, August 09, 2019

Life on the Moon (?)

The question as to whether or not there is life on the Moon may finally have a positive answer. A payload of tardigrades, micro animals that have shown to be the most resilient species on Earth, may have survived an Israeli spaceship that crash landed on the Moon back in April. The Beresheet spacecraft was carrying thousands of them.

Tardigrades, as you can see by the picture above, are pudgy little animals no longer than one millimeter long. They live in water or in the film of water on plants like lichen or moss, and can be found all over the world, in some of the most extreme environments, from icy mountains and polar regions to the balmy equator and the depths of the sea.

Along with the creatures, the ship also carried an archive of 30 million pages of information about planet Earth, as well as human DNA samples and a payload of the little creatures which had been dehydrated.

According to Nova Spivack, co-founder of the mission, "Best-case scenario is that the little library is fully intact, sitting on a nice sandy hillside on the Moon for a billion years. In the distant future it might be recovered by our descendants or by a future form of intelligent life that might evolve long after we're gone. From the DNA and the cells that we included, you could clone us and regenerate the human race and other plants and animals."

As far as the tardigrades are concerned, they will not be able to reproduce or move around in their dehydrated state, but if they survived the crash and are rehydrated they can come back to life years later.

Thursday, August 08, 2019

The Main Slate of the New York Film Festival

The Main Slate for the 2019 New York Film Festival has been announced.  Here are the films:

Opening Night The Irishman Dir. Martin Scorsese 

Centerpiece Marriage Story Dir. Noah Baumbach

Closing Night  Motherless Brooklyn Dir. Edward Norton

Atlantics: A Ghost Love Story Dir. Mati Diop

Bacurau Dir. Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles

Beanpole Dir. Kantemir Balagov

Fire Will Come Dir. Oliver Laxe

First Cow Dir. Kelly Reichardt

A Girl Missing Dir. Koji Fukada

I Was at Home, But… Dir. Angela Schanelec

Liberté Dir. Albert Serra

Martin Eden Dir. Pietro Marcello

The Moneychanger Dir. Federico Veiroj

Oh Mercy! Dir. Arnaud Desplechin

Pain and Glory Dir. Pedro Almodóvar

Parasite Dir. Bong Joon-ho

Film Comment Presents
Portrait of a Lady on Fire 
Dir. Céline Sciamma

Saturday Fiction
Dir. Lou Ye

Dir. Justine Triet

Dir. Nadav Lapid

To the Ends of the Earth
Dir. Kiyoshi Kurosawa

The Traitor
Dir. Marco Bellocchio

Varda by Agnès
Dir. Agnès Varda

Vitalina Varela
Dir. Pedro Costa

Wasp Network
Dir. Olivier Assayas

The Whistlers
Dir. Corneliu Porumboiu

The Wild Goose Lake
Dir. Diao Yinan

Young Ahmed
Dir. Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne

Zombi Child
Dir. Bertrand Bonello