Sunday, September 28, 2014

NY Film Festival: MAPS TO THE STARS

Screenwriter Bruce Wagner introduced today's showing of the film Maps to the Stars at the New York Film Festival by warning us that the path to Hell is filled with laughter. He should have also reminded us that laughter is the nervous sibling of horror, a specialty of director David Cronenberg, whose new film brings us back to his horror beginnings. This time, the boogeymen are set free in the beautiful but rancid world of the Hollywood elite, whose million dollar post-modern homes and shopping sprees to Rodeo Drive hide a nether world of drug addiction rehab, mental anguish and faded hopes. And among the manicured lawns, glass houses, and backyard pools the ghost of the dead often visit the living, as in a Shakespearean tragedy. They refuse to sleep in peace, and, at times, seem eager to drag the living into their circle of death.

Mia Wasikowska plays the burn-scarred Agatha, who comes back to Hollywood after having set fire to her home years ago. Her dysfunctional family includes her father, Dr. Stafford Weiss (John Cusack), a self-help quack guru, his guilt-ridden wife Cristina (Olivia Williams), and her brother Benjie (Evan Bird), a child star who makes Justin Bieber seem a model of mental and social togetherness. Agatha ends up becoming the assistant to has-been, fading actress Havana Segrand (the brilliant Julianne Moore, who won the Best Actress Award at this year's Cannes Film Festival for this role) who will give anything to play the role of her dead mother, a Hollywood legend who died tragically in a fire, and whose ghost now haunts her deranged daughter.

There have been great satires of Tinsel Town: Billy Wilder's Sunset Boulevard and Robert Altman's The Player come to mind, as well as Nathaneal West's 1939 novel The Day of the Locust (adapted into film in 1975 by the great John Schlesinger.) But none are as toxic as this film. Screenwriter Wagner doesn't just hold the mirror up to nature, he seems eager to smash it in our faces after showing us the bacteria that is growing behind the fa├žade of the beautiful and the damned.

Cronenberg is, once again, at the top of his game, leading Julianne Moore into what surely will be an Academy Award nomination. A great performance, whether she is screaming in self-loathing, while in the lotus position, for having lost a part, or dancing for joy at the consequences brought on by the death of a child. Her rabid performance is counteracted by Ms. Wasikowska's eerie, underplayed approach to her part.  Together, the two offer a contrasting lesson in fine acting in a great story that, like Greek drama, often has the power to frighten while moving us to tears.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

MET Opening Night: Controversy & Figaro

If a work of art is deemed controversial, the passage of time will surely erase whatever ills people accuse it of. It happened with W.A. Mozart and Lorenzo Da Ponte's 1786 masterpiece Le Nozze di Figaro, which opened the 2014-2015 season at the Metropolitan Opera last night, and it will eventually happen with John Adams and Alice Goodman's The Death of Klinghoffer, a 1991 work that the MET is presenting later this season, and which brought hundreds of protesters to Lincoln Center. The opera depicts the 1985 hijacking of the Italian cruise ship Achille Lauro and the murder of a disabled Jewish passenger, Leon Klinghoffer. Many feel that the work is sympathetic to the Palestinian hijackers, and have thus condemned the opera as anti-Semitic.

Away from the turmoil on the plaza, where arriving opera patrons in evening dress were taunted by demonstrators, the MET presented a new production of Mozart's work, directed by Sir Richard Eyre and conducted by James Levine.  If out on Broadway the scene was chaotic, inside the opera house there was bliss. Levine led the well-known score with a firm hand that also allowed for some genuinely beautiful, transparent playing from the MET orchestra. At this stage in his career, Levine continues to grow as a musician, delving deeper than ever into the score, and finding surprises in the inner harmonies of this precise score. He's found the sparkle and charm in the perfection of form and utter spontaneity of Mozart's work, and his approach infects the cast, all of whom get their moment to shine in their respective roles.
Ildar Abdrazakov as Figaro, who triumphed last year as Prince Igor, has a dark voice, but it is an inherently small instrument. He warmed considerably as the evening progressed, adding some volume to his portrayal without giving the feeling that he was forcing himself. Marlis Petersen was a sweetly-voiced  Susanna, while Amanda Majeski, making her MET debut as the Countess, allowed her wide vibrato to interfere with beauty of sound. In contrast, the Cherubino of Isabel Leonard was a joy to listen to. Her acting as a hormonal teenager was top-notch from beginning to end. The evening belonged to handsome Peter Mattei, who as Count Almaviva proved that he is one of the great Mozarteans of our time. He is simply marvelous, stealing the show with his velvet voice and commanding stage presence. He just doesn't sing the role, he caresses it, and lovingly delivers it back to us.

Set designer Rob Howell presented us with a unit set that updated the action to the beginning of the 20th century. Dark revolving towers with bronze walls turn the Count's house into a labyrinthine maze. The idea might have been that the mechanics of the set comments on the machinations of the plot, but this conceit is far from a requirement.

In general, this opening night was a triumph for the MET.  After months of bitterness and instability that took the institution to the brink of a labor strike, it is good to have this New York institution opened again doing what it does best.