Friday, July 12, 2019

Leonardo's ST. JEROME at the MET

One of the great paintings of the Renaissance, Leonardo Da Vinci's St. Jerome Praying in the Wilderness, an unfinished portrait that the artist began in 1483, and continued to work on until his death in 1519, is now on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The canvas is on loan from the Vatican Museums, its permanent home, and it will be on display here in New York City until October 6. The exhibition is in honor of the five hundredth observance of the death of the Florentine master.

As a member of the museum, I saw the painting yesterday, and stayed around for a 15 minute lecture by Carmen Bambach, PhD, the Yale educated, Chilean-born curator of the museum, and a specialist on the Renaissance, and Leonardo in particular. She has authored many exhibition catalogues for the museum, including The Drawings of Bronzino, which is part of my personal library. Dr. Bambach is the author of the soon-to-be-released Leonardo da Vinci Rediscovered, a four volume modern rethinking of the career and unique vision of the artist. Her book is published by Yale University Press, and available from Amazon by following the link below.

Tuesday, July 09, 2019

ABT: Beauty returns

On the very last day, and the very last performance of this season's American Ballet Theatre, I decided to catch their swan song, a revival of Tchaikovsky's Sleeping Beauty. My knowledge of the ballet is still below neophyte level, I have only seen ABT's production once before. I grew up watching Walt Disney's brilliant widescreen animated retelling of the fairy tale which uses many musical themes from the work. It's music that I have grown up with, but while in my mind a certain mysterious musical segment will always belong to Maleficent's creepy raven, it is fun to hear this same music accompanying a pas-de-deux between the White Cat and Puss-in-Boots.

It was the last performance of ABT, and apparently they were not leaving anything behind. Going to my seat for the first time, When I showed one usher my ticket, and she pointed in the general direction of my seat, she did not perform the action that always follows that brief encounter. They ran out of playbills! Now, I have been attending the Metropolitan Opera House since the late 1970's, and never has the MET ran out of playbills. How disconcerting. I asked the usher who was dancing, and she had trouble remembering the names of the principals. I spent the first act without a playbill, not recognizing who was on stage, and surrounded by an audience who also spent the performance with empty hands.  As soon as the first intermission began I went up to the Parterre Boxes. If anybody is going to have a playbill is going to be the Parterre Boxes level, I told myself. Those are the expensive seats. When I inquired, the usher there smile, and asked me "how many do you want?" I should have asked for two, but for some reason one was enough for that evening.

Sleeping Beauty is Marius Petipa's most epic piece of choreography, with dozens of dancers, many in costumes that bring to life such fairy tale favorites as Red Riding Hood and the Wolf, the Ogre and his Ogress wife, as well as Bluebeard and Sheherezade. Buried in all of this is a rather simple story of how the evil fairy Carabosse (danced with tongue-in-cheek malevolence by Craig Salstein) curses Princess Aurora (Cassandra Trenary) until true love in the form of Prince Désiré (Joseph Gorak) breaks the spell.

Maybe that's why ABT ordered so few playbills. Everybody knows this story, and everybody knows how it will end.

Thursday, July 04, 2019

MIDSOMMAR: New Film by Ari Aster

After Midsommar, Ari Aster’s latest journey into modern horror, many critics will be calling the director's talent as visionary, despite the fact that this latest shows that his vision at times is clouded and his tastes easily given to excesses — a Dario Argento for our times, some might say. This is a mantle Mr. Aster might be proud to wear, but in reality he still has to prove himself. This is only his second feature. As a newcomer he was crowned an auteur after his first feature, Hereditary, a little gem of a horror film about grieving, hit the 2018 Sundance Film Festival, and went on to conquer both critics and audiences. Grief, and our human reaction to devastating loss also happens to be a major theme in this latest feature.

After a terrible family tragedy, Dani, an incredible Florence Pugh, convinces herself that she wants to go with her boyfriend, Christian (Jack Reynor) and his college pals to a remote village in Sweden, at the invitation of a Swedish exchange student friend of theirs, to witness a once-in-a-lifetime summer festival. Since the group features anthropology majors this is the perfect summer vacation for them to advance their thesis. For Dani it is a chance to get away and work on her strained relationship with Christian.

The village is an idyllic place bathed in the perpetual sunlight of the Scandinavian summer, and beautifully photographed by cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski, who captures the green earth, the white dresses, the rosy cheeks, and the welcoming smiles with such earnestness that you would never think there is anything wrong in this Arcadian paradise. But make no mistake about it: the villagers harbor a clear, twisted agenda here, subtly foreshadowed by the sight of buildings with odd, twisted Expressionistic roofs, and revealed with unspeakable horror when the village stages an "ättestupa," a ritual where an elderly village couple, after being celebrated for their old age, jump to their deaths in what has to be one of the most horrific suicides/senicides ever filmed. From the point of view of the tropes of horror film, the scene works perfectly because its setup has been so carefully calculated.

This ritualistic suicide sets into motion a series of events where the visitors become grossly embroiled in the grisly events of the village. Without giving anything away, allow me to divulge that you are in for a slow ride with a few calculated bumps along the way. At 147 minutes the film is way too long for its own good. The montage of the film is pristine, but actually shaving it down to a manageable size would have made it as close to ideal as possible.

Despite its many flaws, Midsommar is a feast for the eyes and ears, although it ends up feeling like a celebration that has gone on for too long. The film starts showing its faults, and Aster begins to run out of tricks. At times the mise-en-scène is quite inventive: the upside-down shot when the group first arrives by car to the village demonstrates the inverted, topsy-turvy world in which they have just entered. Another shot, early in the film, in which Dani is talking to Christian, she looking at the camera, while he is reflected in a mirror is not only cool, like Diego Velázquez's great painting Las Meninas, but visually shows how their relationship is clearly not on the same plane.

Finally, Ari Aster reveals how much of a film geek he can be, usually a good thing, yet here it works against him. Visually, Midsommar harks back to a number of movies I'm convinced the director loves. For starters, both the original version of The Wicker Man, featuring Christopher Lee, and its 2006 remake with Nicholas Cage play a huge part in the conception of the narrative, and its visual palette. Midsommar feels like a remake, and if you consider the fact that there is a film called Midsummer (2003) whose IMDB logline reads as follows:  "After ... friends graduate secondary school, they head off to a Swedish cabin for midsummer as previous years. Strange things happen" then the film is very much a remake. And like last year's reworking of another horror film, Luca Guadagnino's take on Dario Argento's Suspiria, this film also goes off its hinges when it leaves behind the world of verisimilitude, and enters into the plane of over-indulgence and its end result, which is always excessive length.

Friday, June 21, 2019

ABT: Manon with Roberto Bolle's Farewell

Ballet farewells are for the cognoscenti. Those that have followed the career of an artist, and want to make sure they have a last look at him/her before the end. For the rest of us, it's a matter of dealing with the fact that one missed a lot. Especially when it comes to the retirement of a great, beloved artist. This season it was Roberto Bolle's turn. After joining American Ballet Theatre as a principal in 2009, last night he gave his last performance with ABT in Sir Kenneth McMillan's Manon; the role of Des Grieux being one of the staples of his much-admired career. The magnificent Hee Seo was his Manon, and the ever-popular American dancer James Whiteside danced the role of Lescaut.
This was my first time at this ballet, and as the evening progressed I had to fight the absurd thoughts of comparing this work to the Jules Massenet opera, which I don't know very well, or Giacomo Puccini's take on the Abbé Prévost's novel which I have never read. Also, not having followed the career of Mr. Bolle I was totally unprepared for last night's evening. To be honest, I usually like to do my homework before a performance, but I only learned of the gala the night before, and I wanted to be there. Why? Because many times, in such events filled with so much emotion an artist can touch greatness. And, I believe it happened last night. Yes, the buzz in the audience was there, and the fans and the cognoscenti were evenly spread around the house, but all of that aside, reflecting just on the performance, it was a great evening of dance. Mr. Bolle couldn't have done better. It's what happens when an artist decides to call it quits while he's still at the top of his game following the dictum for retirement: "Don't stay too long!" Of course a dancer reaches the end when the rest of us are still fledglings at our professions. I'm glad that Mr. Bolle chose to go out when he did. He left the limelight with one of those bangs that people will be talking about for years -- that's what I mean by touching greatness.

Of course, following the wild standing ovation there were the customary tributes by colleagues past and present. I offer the above video, in case you were not in the house last night, so you can share in the glory of the evening.

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.


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


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.