Monday, October 15, 2018

NYFF: At Eternity's Gate

The director of At Eternity's Gate, Julian Schnabel became a sensation during the 1980s with his "plate paintings:" large scale canvases set on broken ceramic plates. He emerged as the most famous of the bad-boys of that artistic generation that also included David Salle, Keith Haring author Jay McInerney and Jean-Michel Basquiat: artists that made downtown Manhattan the epicenter of the artistic world. As a matter of fact, when Schnabel traded in his canvases for a movie camera, his first project was a biopic of the late Basquiat. Now Schnabel turns his cinematic attention to another bad-boy artist: the infinitely tragic Vincent van Gogh and his last tortured days in Arles, in the south of France: frantic days in which the artist descended into madness while at the same time capturing the light of Arles in one brilliant canvas after another. Van Gogh stayed at Arles for eighty days, and managed to paint seventy-five canvases. The large majority of them the well known masterpieces he is best known for.

Essentially the film follows the relationship between Vincent (an incredible Willem Dafoe) and his brother Theo (Rupert Friend), as well as the friendship between van Gogh and artist Paul Gauguin (Oscar Isaac). But like Schnabel's early broken canvases, the film is a disjointed look at the artist's downward spiral into madness, mutilation and suicide. Certainly it is not Lust for Life, Vincente Minelli's 1956 biopic starring Kirk Douglas as the tortured Dutch artist.

Willem Dafoe's understated van Gogh is the highlight of this work, and the glue that keeps this film together. Mr. Dafoe has been the darling of the Independent film sect lately, morphing from one character to another with the greatest of ease. He can be Pier Paolo Pasolini in Abel Ferrara's 2014 biopic of the murdered Italian filmmaker, or he can become Bobby, the manager of the Magic Castle hotel in last year's great The Florida Project. His van Gogh might just be his greatest role since he played the Son of God in Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ.

If your idea of a biopic is not a definitive reconstruction of the past, and if your taste in film favors a narrative of moments, impressions and fragments, then you will certainly enjoy this arresting, luminous film.

Monday, October 08, 2018

A Star is Born: this time with Cooper and Gaga

There’s s great line in Bradley Cooper’s new film A Star is Born referring to music being just twelve notes, “and the story repeats again.” It’s a referential line to the history of this well-known show-biz story which began in 1937 with Dorothy Parker and Ben Hecht’s original script for David O. Selznick, and the talents of Fredric March and Janet Gaynor. For many this early Technicolor film is the quintessential version of this story, but the story was told again in 1954, changed to a musical to accommodate the prodigious talents of Judy Garland. This version, helmed by George Cukor remains incomplete with sections missing, but what remains intact is gold. Music also remained when the story was told a third time, this time with Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson in 1976, in perhaps what many consider the weakest of the three versions, although the film has its champions.

One of them is Bradley Cooper. The current version of the story draws much from this version. The story is well-known. Jackson Maine (Bradley Cooper) is a hard drinking famous rocker who meets Ally (Lady Gaga) a talented, but unknown singer. Jackson gives a boost to her career, and the two fall in love and marry. But as Ally’s fame takes off, Jackson’s demons catch up to him. He horribly embarrasses Ally and himself the night she wins the Grammy award, and things go headlong downhill for Jackson to the inevitable tragic conclusion already familiar from the previous versions.

Thanks to Bradley Cooper’s intelligent handling of this material as co-screenwriter and in his directorial debut, A Star is Born has become the film to beat at the Oscars this year. The film features great emotional acting from Cooper, and shows a triple threat Lady Gaga who might just have carved out a niche for herself come Oscar night. Also giving memorable performances are Andrew Dice Clay playing Ally's father, Anthony Ramos as Ally's friend from her time when she was singing at a drag bar, Sam Elliott as Jackson's older brother, and Rafi Gavron as Rez, a music producer and Ally's manager who precipitates the tragic conclusion of the story with his unfeeling approach towards Jackson's alcoholism.

They don't write them like they used to, and Hollywood knows this. They keep resurrecting this property time and again because filmmakers know that audiences love a great tragic love story. This version of A Star is Born speaks to current audiences in a way the previous versions satisfied their particular public. And when it comes to the movies we love to see a performer who has already distinguished herself in another facet of showbiz making a kill on the big screen, and this is exactly what we get when we witness Lady Gaga's great performance.

Saturday, October 06, 2018

NYFF: Roma

We will never know the meaning of everything that's in the new film Roma, Alfonso Cuarón's loving black-and-white recreation of his childhood in the Roma section of Mexico City. As with any autobiographical movie, the writer-director shares scenes filtered through the lens of memory, and artificially recreated through the performance of actors and the objectivity of the camera, manned by the subjective intellectual directorial decisions that make a complete cinematic product. After exploring the adventure of a Mexican road trip (Y tu mamá también), a dystopian future (Children of Men), outer space (Gravity) and a world of wizards and humans (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban), he's exploring the memory and magic of his childhood. Roma, in addition brings on board a wealth of cinematic references, some personal, and others culled from a lifetime of movie watching.

When you watch Roma you are also watching Cuarón's homage to the directors he loves and those that have influenced his career. Visually, it's impossible to watch Roma and not bring to mind the work of Federico Fellini and the other architects of the Neorealism movement. This is particularly evident in the choice of casting non-professional actors in key roles, such as Yalitza Aparicio, a woman from a village in Oaxaca, who had never acted before, and who plays Cleo, an indigenous servant/nanny to an upper middle class family.

But make no mistake about it: this is a 100% Mexican film, one which could not have been made elsewhere. Though touching upon Mexican themes of racial inequality and university students unrest, the core of the film remains the breakup of a family, and the way their nanny manages to keep them together, while confronting her own dire problems. This gives the film a universal appeal while at the same time remaining very close to Cuarón's memories of his beloved Libo, and indigenous woman whom he considered his second mother.

There are many epic moments in this film that stand out: a trip to the movies (to watch 1971's Marooned) where the disintegration of the family begins (the scene might remind you of a key scene in François Truffaut's The 400 Blows), a New Year's celebration featuring a shooting party which culminates in a forest fire, a student demonstration that ends tragically, and a visit to a seaside resort where a dangerous undertow and raging waves threatens the very lives of the main characters. Despite these superbly crafted showstoppers, it is the intimate moments of family life that catapult this film into the realm of greatness.

Roma is a Netflix film that you will be able to stream towards the end of the year, but this is the kind of movie that you need to watch on the big screen with an audience. Roma is Mexico's official entry into the 2018 Oscar race.  If I were you I'd race to a theater to watch it.

Thursday, October 04, 2018


The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, the latest film from Joel and Ethan Coen, is a rare, strange beast. An anthology film consisting of separate stories that go from the ridiculous to the sublime. The first one, featuring a singing cowboy Roy Rogers style was written twenty-five years ago. The film is a homage to the western, perhaps the most neglected genre in contemporary Hollywood. Of course, the Coens grew up in the heyday of the television western craze. So, visually, the stories borrow from Gunsmoke, Bat Masterson, Bonanza, and a myriad of others. There are also homages to the great cinematic westerns of the 40's and 50's as well as the Sergio Leone spaghetti westerns that became a staple in theaters in the decade of the 60's.

So, the movie is a mish-mash of styles: there's a segment with a singing cowboy (Tim Blake Nelson) who is fast on the draw, who keeps on singing even after he loses a "high noon style" shootout. In another sequence James Franco comes to rob a bank looking like one of those laconic cowboys in the credit sequence of Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in the West, complete with a long riding coat. In another segment Tom Waits plays a gold prospector who strikes it rich to the tune of "Mother Machree," and in the longest sequence of the film a wagon train heading west is attacked by the kind of savage Indians that John Ford specialized in, and which I thought Hollywood had done away with in its revisionist phase. Perhaps the most poignant episode features Liam Neeson as a kind of traveling P.T. Barnum who displays one "freak:" an English actor (Harry Melling) with no arms or legs, a talking torso who recites everything from poetry to the Declaration of Independence. The episode builds to a climax of pure heartlessness, making it for me, the most satisfying of all the segments.

At the Q&A after the film, Kent Jones, the head of the selection committee at the New York Film Festival suggested that the unifying theme of the six stories is mortality. I'm sorry to say that this statement caught the brothers by surprise. Or were they just kidding, and playing to the crowd? With the Coens you never know. However, one thing's for sure: the movie is a very entertaining trifle which will surely please their fans.

Monday, October 01, 2018

Aïda at the MET

This is my second visit to the Metropolitan Opera in one week. My first visit was the MET’s opening night, and now I'm back here on Saturday night. Twice I have seen performances where the tenor delivers an abysmal performance. I’ve already described Roberto Alagna’s awful Samson, disgracing opening night, and now we can add Aleksandrs Antonenko’s appearance in Aïda. His terrible Radames has no place on the MET's stage.

Mr. Antonenko suffers from a variety of musical and acting ills. But his silent cinema acting could be forgiven if there were a voice behind the silly theatrics. Instead he offers an unfocused attempt at a vocal line where pitch problems abound as he scoops up to most notes. Incredibly enough his top is ringing and secure, which is the reason, I'm convinced, that he still gets hired here and in Europe. But the vocal journey to an above-the-staff destination is one of the most ugly and arduous I have heard in a long time. His curtain call received a cool reception, and a smattering of boos. 

The evening clearly belonged to the ladies. Anna Netrebko offering her first house Aïda was nothing less than a triumph. Those that were fortunate enough to see her first trip down the Nile in Salzburg two summers ago knew that she would not disappoint. Her Ethiopian princess featured sturdy vocalism, beauty of sound, and those precious high notes that make your ears ring. She is truly our current reigning queen of the operatic stage, and I hope that she continues to steer her career in the right vocal direction. Anita Rachvelishvili sang Amneris with vigor and a strong mezzo, and was a credible rival to Ms. Netrebko.
As Aïda's father, Quinn Kelsey delivered an impassioned reading of Amonasro; his steely baritone able to handle the vocal complexities of the role. Dmitry Belosselskiy was a sturdy Ramfis, as long as the role does not go below the staff where his voice disappears. Ryan Speedo Green made a lasting impression in the small role of the King. Conductor Nicola Luisotti led the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and Chorus in a work which I'm sure they can do with their eyes closed.

A word about the MET's production of this opera.  On the one hand, it is great to see the enormous stage of the MET being used by this larger than life conservative staging. On the other hand, in these days of experimentation, this production is starting to look a bit aged, a bit kitschy. Perhaps, it is time to take a long hard look at this perennial favorite and grace it with the production it deserves, not just use it to bring in the crowds who want to see what opera staging was like thirty years ago.

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

SAMSON ET DALILA: Opening night of the MET

The years have not been kind to Roberto Alagna's voice. As a matter of fact, I worry about his career, I think he is all washed up. The former star of Faust now gone to Hell. This summer he cancelled his debut at Bayreuth where he was to sing Lohengrin. This was a good move. He should have cancelled opening night of the MET. Bayreuth was spared this summer, but the Metropolitan Opera has suffered a black eye thanks to his catastrophic singing in the title role of Samson et Dalila, Camille Saint-Saëns's popular Biblical opera.

The new staging was directed by Darko Tresnjak, a Broadway director of some reknown (A Gentleman's Guide to Love & Murder, and Anastasia) making his MET debut.  It has been the goal of General Manager Peter Gelb to bring new blood into the opera house by engaging Broadway directors to breathe new life into the warhorses. So far his record is a spotty one, and last night might have been another failing experiment. The production, with sets by Alexander Dodge and costumes by Linda Cho brings us nothing more than a kitschy staging, exactly what Peter Gelb is trying to move away from.  Some of the sets looked like the circles on the proscenium of Radio City Music Hall. The set of the final act in the temple of Dagon is a technicolor monstrosity that even Cecil B. DeMille would have rejected. As a matter of fact, DeMille's 1949 film of this story features a memorable epic set which Victor Mature topples down. Ms. Cho's costumes seem to also come right out of old-time Hollywood; maybe the Babylonian section from D.W. Griffith's 1916 film Intolerance. I'm sure that in 1916 these costumes would have been right at home at 39th Street and Broadway, at the old MET.
 Dalila was sung by Elina Garanca, who made such a splash last season as Octavian in Der Rosenkavalier. Last night the Latvian mezzo-soprano was in good voice, but she never really got inside the skin of the character. Perhaps Mark Elder's conducting, with its slower-than-usual tempi, did not help her characterization. This score, with its many formal chorus pieces (there's even a fugue for the Israelites) and unusual music, whict at times hints at Peter Glass-style minimalism is a tricky one to pull off. Unfortunately last night, it all seemed flat, except for the chorus which sounded amazing, as always.
It was sad to hear Roberto Alagna in such horrendous vocal shape. His singing sounded thin and frail, and devoid of any top notes. Vocally, the opera ends with a B flat for Samson as he brings down the temple of Dagon, but at that point all that came out of Alagna's voice was a sad croak. The best that one can say about Alagna was written by New York Times critic Anthony Tommasini: "To his credit, against all odds with this staging, he tried mightily all night."

Saturday, September 08, 2018

The Man of the Hour: CARLOS RAMOS

Carlos Ramos, the Portuguese tennis umpire, became the man of the hour when he was on the chair for the Serena Williams/Naomi Osaka finals match. Why this honor in my book? Because he stuck to his guns, and he made sure that the match would follow strictly the rules of tennis, without pandering to Serena Williams and her custom of resorting to a meltdown when things don't go her way.

What happened during the match? Mr. Ramos realized that Serena's coach Patrick Mouratoglou was coaching Serena from his box seat at Ashe stadium. This is not allowed, so he gave Serena a warning. Serena protested that she does not cheat, and that she was not being coached. (Later on, Mouratoglou admitted that he was coaching her!) Minutes later, when Serena was down in the match, she smashed her racket. This being her second infraction, he deducted a point from her score. Serena went crazy! She had a massive "Mac-Attack" and insulted Ramos by calling him a "thief." Ramos fired back by deducting a whole game from Serena. Serena blew her top again, and called for the tournament directors, who followed the rules, and did nothing more than support the umpire.

Carlos Ramos's decisions were all according to the book. However, the audience at the stadium, many of them, Serena's fans, began to boo Ramos. And to add salt to the wound, after Serena lost the match, during the presentation of awards, Mr. Ramos was not recognized for his courageous work during the match. I have already called the USTA stupid for not closing the roof and putting on the air conditioner when the temperature reached the three digit mark during the first week of the tournament, but now I have to add that they are also gutless for not supporting one of their own, and letting themselves be persuaded by the crowd, and by the shenanigans of Serena, who continues to be a deplorable prima-donna.