Sunday, June 17, 2018

Romeo and Juliet at ABT

I never get tired of watching Kenneth MacMillan's brilliant choreography of Sergei Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet. The more I attend performances, the more I discover. This time I noticed that in the second act, the beggar who crosses the stage on crutches later on throws them away, and starts dancing freely much to the chagrin of the characters who just gave him alms. Also, the two little boys who stand on sentry at the entrance of the Capulet household come back in the second act, and sway to the music and wave to the dancers, but are ushered away when death comes to Verona's main square. It's little touches like these that makes this work so fascinating and utterly enjoyable.

Likewise, the more I listen to Prokofiev's brilliant, exciting score the more surprises come through.  I concentrated this time on the vast array of dissonances, and thought about just how dangerous it was to be a 20th century composer in Stalin's Soviet Russia. How, for example, Dmitri Shostakovitch, that other giant of Russian music, suffered for putting on paper what he heard in his mind's ear. How much did Prokofiev have to adjust his own modernist leanings in order to have his music approved by a repressive state? This work just might be my "desert-island ballet," although the jury is still out on that one, and I think it might just be out for a long time.

Yesterday afternoon American Ballet Theatre presented the ballet with two of the most charismatic and popular dancers in its roster: Daniil Simkin and Misty Copeland. Mr. Simkin is an exciting, highly technical dancer who offers a graceful interpretation of the title character, going from youthful lad to lover. Ms. Copeland, riding a wave of recent acclaim once becoming a principal dancer, presents us with a very likeable Juliet, but watching her early entrance, one never experiences the innocent, shy girl that the role demands. Instead her characterization emphasizes the passionate, take-charge woman that she ultimately becomes towards the end of the drama right from the start. Not exactly what is called for in a Juliet, however her charm and technical proficiency carry her through.

Romeo and Juliet is one of the most satisfying works in ABT's roster, not to be missed by anyone who values great theater and beautiful ballet. The perfect marriage of amazing music and inspired movement.

Monday, June 11, 2018

Robert De Niro's F-bomb at the Tony Awards

Robert De Niro hurled the F-bomb last night at the Tony Awards towards Donald Trump.  CBS, which broadcasted the show live, scrambled to censor the speech.  Above is the uncensored clip from England's The Guardian.

Sunday, June 10, 2018

The Band's Visit on Broadway

The Band's Visit is the musical on everybody's lips as the Tony Awards approaches. At the ceremony tonight, this little gem of a show is sure to take away many of the 10 Tonys for which it is nominated.  It is a musical that takes us back to a time before jukebox creations, and shows with numbers that try to top each other. But more importantly, it is a show about real people caught in real-life situations that many musical comedies do not attempt. Yes, the show is undoubtedly a comedy, much in the way that Anton Chekhov's stage works can be labeled comedies. It is about the ebb and flow of life, at times uproarious, at times sad and brooding, but always looking for the bright side, the light at the end of the tunnel, if you will.

Adapted from a film by the same name, the book by Itamar Moses and the music and lyrics by David Yazbek tell the story of how an Egyptian military musical band makes a wrong turn on their way to a concert, and end up in a backwater Israeli town in 1996. Strangers in a strange land, especially in their dapper blue uniforms which makes them look like the forgotten section of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Heart's Club Band.  With songs that barely rise above a whisper, but which enter and stay in our collective mind, the meeting of Arabs and Jews, seemingly mortal enemies, their political and language differences melt away thanks to the music that the band brings: a mixture of Egyptian classical tunes and the jazz legacy of Chet Baker. Mr. Yazbek has written songs for grownups: Of course, when it comes to today's Broadway, Mr. Yazbek is truly a stranger in a strange land, and for this singular accomplishment he will be honored with the Tony at tonight's ceremony. I can assure you of that.

Katrina Lenk, in a star-making performance, steals the show.  As Dina, a young woman who has seen too much of life, and has settled in "Nowheresville," commands the stage with her presence and her beautiful, powerful voice. Likewise, Dariush Kashani, as Tewfiq, (a part originated by Tony Shalhoub, and a role for which he is nominated for Best Performance by an Actor in a Musical) the leader of the band, creates a three-dimensional character, a serious man full of dignity, and pride in his musicians, but also carrying a deep-seated pain at the death of his wife and only son. The rest of the cast is wonderful, especially John Cariani, who I have enjoyed in the recent Something Rotten, and the latest revival of Fiddler on the Roof.

The Band's Visit is a not-to-be-missed show. The kind of musical that Broadway talent should be aiming to create all the time. Believe me, audiences want to be moved by shows that touch the mind as well as the heart.

Friday, June 08, 2018

Anthony Bourdain (1956-2018)

Anthony Bourdain (1956-2018) He had a knack for entering the kitchens of far-away countries, and making us feel as if we knew that distant place inside out.

His trips to Spain were some of his best shows. His journey to Granada to visit an ex cameraman who had become an ex-pat in Andalucía was a culinary journey into the heart of Southern Spain. His farewell trip to Ferran Adrià's El Bulli, where he actually was allowed to become a temporary cook, brought Tony back to the kitchen: his roots.

His sudden, tragic death, following the suicide of Kate Spade the same week, is disconcerting, hinting perhaps at a national malaise during these politically nebulous times.

Monday, June 04, 2018

La Bayadère at ABT

La Bayadère, with the glorious music of Ludwig Minkus and the choreography of Marius Petipa is perhaps the greatest exponent of pure Orientalism in ballet that sprung in Imperial Russia in the late nineteenth century. The artistic movement, which also includes Rimsky-Korsakov's 1888 Sheherazade, eventually led to the 20th century and Igor Stravinsky's 1913 Le Sacre du Printemps. Petipa's classical choreography morphed into Vaslav Nijinsky's examination of angular body movements to illustrate the primeval qualities of Stravinsky's music. Orientalism became Primitivism: the perfect prelude for the savagery of the Russian Revolution and the disposal of the Imperial dynasty that supported the work of classical ballet and the Great War.  But back in 1877, when La Bayadère was first performed by the Imperial Ballet in St Petersburg no one suspected that Orientalism was a hidden metaphor for a society that would soon be gone with the wind.

American Ballet Theatre's version of this classic follows Petipa's choreography closely.  On Saturday night, the cast featured Isabella Boylston as the dancer Nikiya, and Jeffrey Cirio was the warrior Solor. They offered technically excellent performances. Ms. Boylston is a careful dancer, and at times this gets in the way of her performance. If she would only let herself go she would achieve the kind of heights that would propel her to another level. Mr. Cirio is a more "go for the gold" performer, and he proved it Saturday night with a gutsy approach that excited many in the audience. Likewise Misty Copeland, in the smaller role of Gamzatti, proved that she is the real deal, if at times her dancing lacks a certain elegance that some in the audience demand. Joseph Gorak, as the Bronze Idol, stole the show with his bravura solo dance and showy body makeup. Hard to dislike an idol that comes to life, and whose blingy bouncy body catches the glow of the spotlight.

Sunday, May 06, 2018

AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR... Why?

Once upon a time, Marvel was a modest comic book company offering superhero entertainment to children of all ages.  The majority of us fell prey to the lure of the cheaply printed magazines whose pages turned yellow as we hit puberty; unless you were a real geek, and had your issues neatly encased in those plastic sleeves. Marvel was fun, and ultimately, it was inconsequential: something to grow out of as high school, college, responsibility, and life entered the picture. Marvel is now Marvel Studios, and in 2018 it is what going to the movies has become for millions of people. An escape to a fantasy world that reminds 40-somethings currently running the studios of their childhood, and bewitches teenagers with images reminiscent of video games, and easily recognizable landscapes where immediately they can tell the good guys from the bad guys. No character development nonsense need apply these days. From the first frame any non-thinking, popcorn-eating adolescent knows who to root for between visits to his phone whenever the movie squeezes in a scene where nobody dies, nothing explodes, and characters attempt to have a conversation.

Even though this is not really a film, but rather a series of random images connected together by a flimsy plot, we are inexplicably entertained by these images. Incredible cgi creations that any director of the past would be jealous to own is in part responsible for this. But, what are we being entertained by? Thanos (no relation to Thanos Papalexis -- the British businessman and convicted murderer), played by a cgi Josh Brolin, a villain whose chin would make Jay Leno hide in the trunk of one of his many automobiles, is in search of stones which will give him all the power in the world, er, I mean in the universe. To stop him the cavalcade of Marvel superheroes come out of the woodwork. From Robert Downey, Jr.'s Tony Stark AKA Iron Man (whose film started the Marvel enterprise ten years ago) to Benedict Cumberbatch's Doctor Strange, a superhero wizard based on Satanist/magician Alastair Crowley. Wouldn't it be great if instead of posturing with a Dracula cape as he does incessantly, Mr. Cumberbatch could act in a Mr. Crowley biopic? Not as long as the Marvel universe rules the cinematic universe. The only character who is allowed to show some semblance of humanity is Dr. Bruce Banner (wonderfully played by Mark Ruffalo) who is unable to conjure his alter ego The Hulk, at a time that he needs him the most, in a clear case of superhero constipation. 

I'm hearing that teenagers everywhere are going to see this film over and over again. A phenomenon that has not happened since Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet boarded a certain ship that sank in 1912. The reason for the return business of so many young people to Titanic in 1997 was based on mega star adulation that catapulted DiCaprio to the level of heartthrob, together with a collective fascination with the actual sinking of the ocean liner. Add to that Kate Winslet magnificent performance, and Celine Dion's mega-hit song "My Heart Will Go on" and you had the makings of a real hit. These days, teens react subconsciously to the fact that this film is shot like the TV series (the movie is composed mostly of close-ups) that they binge upon. At the incredible length of 143 minutes, far longer than it should have been, the film's length is not enough for them. They've spent hours and hours watching seasons of Stranger Things, therefore repeated viewings of a film like this one carries them into territory where they find a huge level of comfort.

After watching this movie, like many other critics out there, I felt like a mourner at the gravesite of cinema. But those awful Biblical epics of the 1950's led to wonderful creations in the next decade. I'm hopeful that these superheroes will go away. At the end of this film, when so many superheroes met their end and dispersed into dust I was not happy.  $1. 519 billion in box office earnings worldwide thus far tells me that they will all be back.

Saturday, April 28, 2018

Anna Netrebko stars as TOSCA at the MET

It takes a ballsy opera singer to take on Giacomo Puccini's great opera Tosca. Even more, it takes a truly fearless Prima-Donna to take on this role for the first time at the Metropolitan Opera, arguably the center of the opera world, and the focus of much of the international press. But that is exactly what soprano sensation Anna Netrebko has done this spring at the MET. By jumping into the role of the tempestuous opera singer in love with a revolutionary artist in the dark, political days of 1800 Rome, she had proven once more that there may be a lot of opera singers out there, but currently she is the great diva of our times. On Thursday night, the MET was nearly sold out (something that should happen more often, but it does not, regrettably), and there must have been at least half a baker's dozen of Russian oligarchs in attendance as Ms. Netrebko sang an incredible performance of this work, putting herself on the map with the Tebaldis and Callases, among others, that made this work a staple of their repertory at the MET.

The focus of this production in the press this year was the falling out of the original cast that included Jonas Kaufmann and Bryn Terfel, along with the original soprano, Kristine Opolais, and her husband, the conductor Andris Nelsons. In other words, the major players of the cast. The MET had to scramble to replace everyone, but not before they had to replace James Levine, who after Mr. Nelsons left was selected to lead the orchestra, and then the sexual allegations hit, and Levine was out of the picture. Perhaps the only mention of his name in the precincts of the MET currently is on the CD's, DVD's and Blu-Rays in the MET opera shop of past productions he conducted. The MET is not getting rid of those potential sources of income! They won't have him around, but will make money out of his name and product. Interesting, isn't it?  No wonder the maestro is suing the Metropolitan Opera.  It's messy at the management level these days.

But thankfully, the art is not suffering, or at least, it does not appear to do so. Thursday's performance was quite strong, although uneven. At the helm was maestro Bertrand de Billy who lead a secure reading of Puccini's score. Netrebko's Cavaradossi was her husband Yusif Eyvasov, whose voice is not the most pleasant of instruments. Tight throughout his range, and lacking any real pianissimo, he manages to produce real high notes that are secure and quite stunning to hear. The journey there, however, can be a rocky one. Perhaps the best singing belonged to Michael Volle, whose dark Wagnerian baritone was perfect for Baron Scarpia's brand of treachery. I saw Mr. Volle last summer at the Bayreuth Festival as Hans Sachs (a role which he will repeat this year at the Green Hill), and I am glad to report that the Italian side of his repertory is as secure as his German one.

Sir David McVicar's new production, of course replaces Luc Bondy's awful staging which dethroned Franco Zeffirelli's much loved production. You remember?  It was the one where Scarpia gropes the Virgin Mary at the end of the Te Deum, and where he gets fellated by a couple of prostitutes on an expensive couch in Act Two!  No wonder there were boos on the 2009 opening night from the largely conservative New York audience. The present production is what I would call Zefirrelli light.  The three main sets certainly resemble their real Roman locations, and there is a mighty angel atop Castel Sant'Angelo. It's what New York opera lovers want to see, and Peter Gelb, the MET's general manager has admitted that this return to conservatism has taught him not to mess with the warhorses. Perhaps leave experimentation to new works (The Exterminating Angel, perhaps).

The opera season is rapidly coming to an end, but do not miss this production of Tosca with this cast. It was probably one of the best evenings at the MET this year.

Sunday, April 22, 2018

A Quiet Place

It's great that A Quiet Place has become the latest horror film sensation. Directed and starring John Krasinski and his wife Emily Blunt, the movie takes us to a near future where the majority of the people of Earth have been wiped out by blind alien creatures with hypersensitive hearing. They play a husband and wife trying to survive in a farm, along with their two children. One of their children was killed by one of the creatures as a result of a noisy, battery operated toy that attracted one of the monsters. The family has been able to survive for an additional year communicating with one another through sign language. But the future looks dismal for them. The wife is pregnant.  How is she going to give birth without making a sound? And, of course, how is the newborn baby going to come into what's left of the world, and not cry? The premise presents a nightmare that they may not be able to survive, and this makes for a fantastic horror film that keeps us on the edge of our seats, and makes us chew our popcorn as quietly as possible. It's like watching a well-crafted silent movie, and undoubtedly the quietest film ever produced by Michael Bay.

The film fits today's concept of smart horror. It has a unique monster, unique horror situations, characters that make intelligent decisions, and definite franchise potential. Although, I wish that they would leave it alone, and not turn it into a Blumhouse style series. Rarely has there been a film where you could hear a pin drop in the theater. So distant from DC and Marvel, and their ear-splitting Dolbyized worlds.

When conductor Sir Georg Solti visited the Metropolitan Opera with a Paris Opera production of Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro, he held down the sound of the orchestra and the singers. With the sound low, the audience at the MET started leaning in to hear every word and listen to every note. As a director, Mr. Krasinski does the same thing with this film. The lower the sound level, the closer we move to the edge of our seats. The fact that he manages to maintain us in this position for a fast moving 95 minutes is the utter success of this fine film.

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

CASABLANCA to be shown on TCM

The film CASABLANCA will be shown on TCM tomorrow, Wednesday at 8:00pm EST. For more information about this classic movie go to my website Vincent's CASABLANCA HomePage. If you miss it, which you shouldn't, you can always catch it on Watch TCM, a service where you can stream films from the TCM vaults.

Thursday, April 05, 2018

ANGELS IN AMERICA is back on Broadway

"Angels in America, a Gay Fantasia on National Themes," Tony Kushner's epic play about the politics of the AIDS crisis during the 1980s is back on Broadway. The original production was in 1993 when "Millennium Approaches," the first part of this two-play cycle opened at the Walter Kerr Theater in May.  It was joined by the second part "Perestroika" in November, when both works were presented in repertory. The current production, starring Andrew Garfield and Nathan Lane first played at the National Theatre of Great Britain, and was directed by Marianne Elliott, the Olivier and Tony Award winner for "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time." Minus a few cast changes, the production has come intact from across the pond with the principal actors and many of its supporting players; but more importantly with a theatrical power that makes this revival one of the outstanding Broadway productions of all time.

There is Tony Award gold right now on the stage of the Neil Simon Theater. Andrew Garfield is a revelation as Prior Walter, the AIDS victim who becomes a kind of seer, prophet once stricken with the disease and after being visited by an angel. His performance is a sheer delight of power, pathos, and dignity. Nathan Lane, who has been very busy lately on the Broadway and BAM stages, adds to his remarkable roster of roles playing the monstrous Roy Cohn, whose political clout cannot save him when he contracts Kaposi's sarcoma after a lifetime of closeted gay encounters all over the world. Whereas Prior's imaginary visitation by an angel leads him to become an advocate for the disease, Cohn is visited by the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg, the accused Cold-War spy whom he prosecuted. Both encounters hold within them interesting resolutions.
There are amazing performances by featured actors who play many parts. Lee Pace as a closeted Mormon and Roy Cohn protegee is memorable, as well as James McArdle, the Scottish actor who plays Prior's boyfriend Louis: a New York Jew filled with liberal opinions who often serves as the mouthpiece of the author. Nathan Stewart-Jarrett, best known in the UK for the series Utopia, steals the show as Belize, the drag-queen nurse who comes into contact with all the characters, and whose confrontations with Lane's Cohn are the most memorable for their wit, as well as for their tenderness.

It is not often that a modern masterpiece gets revived on Broadway, and with such an incredible cast. The commercial theater, unfortunately, is not always the place where you will find intelligence and great ideas. The way to see the work is to invest eight hours and see both parts. The play will challenge you in so many ways. But ask yourself, when was the last time you attended something on Broadway that made you think? Don't pass up this rare chance to see first-rate theater with an incredible cast.

Friday, March 30, 2018

El Quijote: Fabled NYC Restaurant closes during Holy Week

Today, on the day that many Christians commemorate the death of Jesus Christ, many New York food lovers will witness the death of an institution. El Quijote, the fabled restaurant on 23rd street, under the famous/infamous Chelsea Hotel, will close its doors after being in operation since 1930. How many restaurants in New York City today can claim that they were open during the height of the Great Depression, and have remained opened ever since.

To dine at El Quijote is to step back in time almost 90 years, which is to say almost a century. The decor has remained the same: a combination of Spanish kitsch and a literature lesson in pictures, figures and statues of Miguel de Cervantes's novel. I'm sure that a list of its patrons would read like a cross section of America's notables. Once I saw actor Fyvush Finkel, one of the last remaining pillars of the Yiddish theater dining there. He was sitting at a large table with family and friends. Fyvush, who died at the age of 96 in 2016 was only eight years old when El Quijote first opened its doors to the public.

For me, El Quijote was all about the shrimp ajillo (shrimp with garlic sauce) a potent mixture that stayed on your breath for hours and was sure to repel potential amorous encounters as well as your common urban vampire. It was always served with yellow rice. Whether or not they used real saffron to make it yellow was irrelevant. Shrimp ajillo with yellow rice was my meal of choice, preceded by a hot bowl of "caldo gallego," the earthy soup from the Northwest of Spain. On a cold wintry day, when the wind blew up and down 23rd street, there was nothing better.

The other drawing card was the sangría, although here one must acquiesce to the way this libation is prepared at that other venerable Spanish restaurant, Sevilla, in the village.  In Sevilla, the sangría has maintained its delicious taste since I first visited this joint in the late 1970s. At El Quijote, the sangría was a movable feast: sometimes too strong, other times too fruity. One time, it was even murky and dark. At Sevilla, the sangría is always clear. El Quijote featured the second best sangría in New York City, let's leave it at that.

The only question left now is will El Quijote open its doors again, and if it does, what will it look like, and what will the food be like? I for one am asking the gods for a speedy resurrection.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

James Levine is suing the MET

Will this be the straw that finally breaks Peter Gelb's back? James Levine is suing the Metropolitan Opera over the fact that he was fired after allegations of sexual misconduct surfaced.  According to the Hollywood Reporter, the conductor filed a lawsuit on Thursday claiming that the opera company used baseless allegations to tarnish his fabled career. The company went on to fire him without even a telephone call. The suit asks for at least 5.8 million dollars. The MET has not seen the suit as of this writing, and has made no comments. The MET suspended Levine back in December, and started an investigation after the New York Post and the New York Times published allegations of sexual misconduct involving three boys. These events go back decades ago, and Levine said that the accusations were unfounded, and that he had not been charged with any crime.

When all this blows over, and I believe it will, like any witch hunt, I believe there is a good chance that James Levine will come back to the MET. And I also believe that the audience will welcome him with great acclaim. The reason why the MET orchestra is the polished ensemble it is is all due to Maestro Levine. When he returns it will be a very uncomfortable place for Gelb, I'm sure. That might be the moment when the board will finally fire him, and search for somebody who understand the likes and tastes of the New York opera-going public.

Sunday, March 04, 2018

Oscars Predictions

The Oscars are tonight, of course.  Here are some last minute predictions:

Actor in a leading role: Gary Oldman
Actor in a supporting role: Sam Rockwell
Actress in a leading role: Frances McDormand 
Actress in a supporting role: Laurie Metcalf
Best Director: Guillermo Del Toro (The Shape of Water)
Best Cinematography: Roger Deakins (Blade Runner 2049)
Best Picture: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Saturday, March 03, 2018

WACO on the new Paramount Network

Waco, a six part miniseries based on the 1993 siege of the Waco, Texas compound of the Branch Dividians, a millenarian cult led by David Koresh, brings to mind President Trump's recent tweets on the failure of the FBI to get anything right. After a standoff of more than 50 days, the Bureau chose to use might against the cult, which produced a raging fire which brought the ordeal to a tragic end. At the end Koresh, and many women and children Branch Dividians, seventy-six in all, laid dead in the ashes of the inferno. It was one of the most tragic uses of lethal force used by Americans against Americans.

The series began as a project of the Weinstein Company, but soon after reports of sexual allegation surfaced, Harvey Weinstein's name as well as the name of his company was removed from the series. Spike, which was supposed to air the series became Paramount, and the first episode aired on January of this year.

The screenplay by John Eric Dowdle, Drew Dowdle, Salvatore Stabile and Sarah Nicole Jones presents us with a linear account of the events, title cards telling us the number of days of the standoff. What is missing from their script is a serious backward glance at the man who brought all these people to Mount Carmel and convinced them that he was the Second Coming. Koresh's journey as a Seventh Day Adventist, his pilgrimage to the Holy Land, and his memorization of the Bible before he was twenty years old adds much to his character. What is also missing from their script is the very fact that Koresh was a monster: a self-proclaimed messiah who bullied and mistreated his followers all in the name of dogma together with his preoccupation with the book of Revelation and the End of Days. You wouldn't know this Koresh from the character that actor Taylor Kitsch creates, however. In Mr. Kitsch's sensitive portrayal, Koresh is a well-meaning hippie, who probably took some acid, did some mushrooms and expanded his mind into a Bible-thumping rocker, with a gift of the gab, all tied up with a neat Texan drawl. The screenplay misses the deep allegiance to belief and Scripture that made Koresh so believable to his followers.

Despite some of the lapses in the screenplay, if Mr. Kitsch's Koresh grabs us, so does Michael Shannon's performance as Gary Noesner, the FBI agent who tries against all odds, including his boss's orders, to end the stalemate. Their phone conversations are at the heart of this story, as they show us two determined men in brutally honest conversation. Both Mr. Shannon and Mr. Kitsch through their acting abilities also manage to convey to us that the characters they play know very well in their heart of hearts that their efforts will end badly.

In supporting, but key roles John Leguizamo is excellent in the opening episodes as an ATF agent who infiltrates the Mount Carmel compound and befriends Koresh. Likewise, Rory Culkin, as one of Koresh's disciples gives a captivating, heartfelt performance. Also, Shannon's boss Tony Prince, played by Glenn Fleshler and FBI agent Mitch Decker (Shea Whigham) give credible performances as the villains of the piece. Julia Garner's heartbreaking performance as Michelle Jones, forced to marry Culkin's character, and forced to watch her father's body be buried in a ditch, offers a great contribution to this miniseries.

Waco may not be a revelation, but it expertly handles a very dark page in American history. It is definitely worth your while to watch this excellent miniseries.

Friday, February 23, 2018

BLACK PANTHER: new film from Marvel

 The premise of the comic book Black Panther, now a major motion picture from Marvel Studios, was to be an antidote to the racism found in such movies as the classic King Kong, or the countless Tarzan films, and Saturday morning serials such as Jungle Raiders, from Columbia Pictures. This was popular entertainment that Stan Lee must have eaten up when he was a youth, and which gave him the impetus to create an African superhero at a time of racial upheaval in his own country.

Racist America produced Skull Island, Kong’s domain: a place so backward that prehistoric monsters still ruled the land. That was the way the majority of Americans thought of Africa, if they thought of it at all.  And Kong himself, a kind of mutant giant ape was the perfect Freudian threatening view of a black man lusting after the blond white girl of his dream. “Blondes are scarce around here” is one of the memorable lines uttered by the white hunters when they survey the black tribe that worships the giant monkey. By contrast, Wakanda, the mythical African country where king T'Challa and his Black Panther alter-ego rule, is a technological wonder, decades ahead of any other country in the West, and hiding their advancements for reasons that are never quite made clear. The very idea of an advanced country being able to hide in the age of Google Earth is preposterous, but we must remember that Mr. Lee thought of all this when the very idea of the Internet was science fiction.

The film adaptation is visually quite stunning. The landscape of Wakanda is a cross between Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, the city of tomorrow, and Disney, Marvel Studios's parent company. Quite impressive to look at, but the film, despite its Afrocentric point of departure, and African American actors and crew, cannot entirely free itself from an essentially phony "Disneyworld's Adventureland" approach to a distant place many of us know very little about.

Black Panther, the film, has shown to be very popular with black families, especially in cities like New York, Detroit, and Chicago. There were, as a matter of fact, many African American families in attendance at the IMAX 2D showing I attended today. I can't keep from thinking that this film might be 2018's version of blaxploitation, the 1970's ethnic genre of films made for black audiences by white filmmakers. Certainly many of the stereotypical tropes of blaxploitation regarding the portrayal of blacks and whites reappear in this film. Whereas the majority of the black characters are shown to have an innate nobility, the white characters in this film are either villainous caricatures (Andy Serkis) or well-meaning, but befuddled allies (Martin Freeman).

How are we supposed to internalize this film? There is more than a hint here that we look at Wakanda with the eyes of Marcus Garvey's utopian Pan-Africanism movement of the early part of the 20th century, where he urged American and Jamaican blacks to return to their ancestral land. Or perhaps we can come to grips with this film if we borrow political theorist Richard Iton's controversial idea that the black diaspora simultaneous causes African Americans to disown and at the same time to desire the continent of Africa. Certainly any African-American watching this film would feel a connection to a utopia in the African continent, even if this wonderful place only exists in the movies.

Monday, February 19, 2018

PARSIFAL at the MET

François Girard's Apocalyptic production of Parsifal is back at the MET this month, with a stellar cast, and under the direction of the soon-to-be MET's Music Director Yannick Nézet-Séguin.  This is the first revival of this production which made its debut a few years ago.

Mr. Girard places the opera in a barren landscape with tempestuous, ominous skies. On one side of the stage a group of men sit in a circle, all wearing black pants and white shirts, swaying, as if they were a cult in deep prayer. Meanwhile, the women are dressed in black, silent, and separated from the men by a giant crevice through which a river of blood flows.  Certainly not what Richard Wagner had in mind, but given the liberality of modern Wagnerian stagings these days, this production at least adheres to the concept of a physical grail, and a leader of the cult with a wound that refuses to close. The second act features a pool of blood, perhaps the most interesting part of this production, to represent Klingsor's lair.  The third act takes us back to the barren landscape, where eventually the women and the men will integrate after Parsifal returns the spear, thus uniting spear and grail: the ying meets its yang, and in this production, things get really Freudian when Parsifal dips the spear's point into the grail; the spear's phallic symbol penetrates the holy vessel. This heterosexual ending would have satisfied Wagner to no end, as it does the majority of the patrons of the Metropolitan Opera.

The MET has made certain that it gathered the best singers of today to present this revival. René Pape gave us his familiar reading of Gurnemanz, although I thought he lacked some heft Saturday afternoon.  Is all that nicotine catching up to him? As Parsifal Klaus Florian Vogt, who sang the role at Bayreuth two summers ago, gave us a sweet, lyrical reading of the title character. His voice is perfect for the foolish boy of Act I, but his light timbre is at times unconvincing as the mature Parsifal who comes back to save the knights of the Grail. "Why is Tamino singing Parsifal?" is a comment I have seen more than once in social media. Evelyn Herlitzius, another Bayreuth alumna was a strong Kundry, despite the fact that there were some unsteady moments throughout the performance. Peter Mattei as Amfortas, gave us, by far, the most satisfying vocal and acting performance: a man in deepest physical and mental anguish waiting to die so as to free himself of the duty he no longer wants to perform.

I can't wait until maestro Nézet-Séguin officially takes the reins of the Metropolitan Opera. Tempi always being one of the most argued aspects of this score, on Saturday he gave us a reading trending towards the slow side, especially in the prelude, and overall a masterful dissemination of this complex work.  I found his approach to the tender, quiet moments of Act III, as exciting as the bells and kettle drums of the Transformation Scene in Act I. (Are they using electronic instruments to represent the bells of Montsalvat these days?)

I get to go again on Tuesday, so I'm hoping for a performance as brilliant as the matinee I attended last Saturday.

Sunday, January 28, 2018

Catching up with the Awards Season: Phantom Thread

Very few directors can build a sense of dread and maintain it through a three act structure like Paul Thomas Anderson. In his latest film Phantom Thread we sense a supernatural threat from its elegant title, but in this film ghosts might haunt the living, but they are quiet, serene, unsettling apparitions. The real dread comes from the living, especially those that enter the orbit of Reynolds Woodcock, a dress designer of haute couture played with calculated restraint by Daniel Day-Lewis, in what he has promised to be his last screen performance. If this turns out to be true, he has left us the most enigmatic creation in his catalogue of amazing performances.

The House of Woodcock’s artistic denizen as played by Mr. Day-Lewis is a mixture of many famous designers, from Christian Dior to Cristobal Balenciaga (director Anderson became very interested in Balenciaga as he was writing the screenplay), and even the late Gianni Versace and his sister Donatella.  In fact, in this film the backbone of the Woodcock enterprise is Cyril Woodcock, Reynolds's sister, played by the incredible Leslie Manville, a frequent collaborator of director Mike Leigh, an actress who can speak volumes with a raised eyebrow. If Mr. Lewis’s performance is restrained, Ms. Manville’s performance resides in her Zen mask where the audience can project their longings and questions about this story.  Not surprisingly, she offers few answers, keeping her character mysterious and distant.  But when it comes to her relationship with the other characters, especially her brother, she is undoubtedly the commanding one.

On a weekend trip to the country, driving his car as if he was either pursued by the Furies, or wishing to crash, Woodcock meets a waitress named Alma (Vicky Krieps), who immediately becomes his latest muse, and moves in with him to his fashionable house/atelier.  They are a mismatched couple from the start.  The exacting Woodcock is bothered by any little noise she makes at the breakfast table, and all he seems to want to do is work, rest, and brood about the proximity of death.  And it is this death wish that propels the character forward, imagining his dead mother dressed in her bridal gown in his room, while maintaining a dominant attitude towards Alma.  But Alma knows that the way to a man's heart might just be through his stomach, and devises a plan where she can switch the established roles in their relationship -- a harrowing decision that adds a dark sense of dominance and submission to their life.

I was able to see Phantom Thread projected in 70mm film this afternoon, a rare treat from years past, perfect for this kind of story that takes place at a time when watching a film was the most common thing in the world.  Paul Thomas Anderson served as his own cinematographer in this film, although he gave his long-time cameraman Michael Bauman the title of "lighting cameraman," shades of what Stanley Kubrick did with John Alcott in Barry Lyndon.  Bottom line is that the film did not get a nomination for its cinematography, which is a shame because it is a sumptuous looking work.

I recommend this film, but only if you enjoy a kind of cinema that does not answer all the questions, and leaves you thinking about possible answers.

Saturday, January 27, 2018

Catching up with the Awards Season: THE POST

The Post is Steven Spielberg's film about the publishing by the Washington Post of the Pentagon Papers, classified information detailing how the US government lied about the thirty year involvement in the Vietnam War.  It is also the director's chance to delve into cinematic territory occupied by such great films as All the President's Men, Alan J. Pakula's Oscar winning 1976 film about the Washington Post's investigation of the Watergate burglary, and the more recent Oscar recipient Spotlight, a film by Tom McCarthy detailing the investigation by the Boston Globe of allegations of sexual molestation in the Catholic Church.  Both films are hard-hitting investigating dramas played out in America's newsrooms, noisy, overcrowded work places filled with the clatter of typewriters and the scent of cigarette smoke.  They are also mostly male-driven environments, although both Spotlight and The Post make sure that there are females visible.  Can it be otherwise in these politically charged days?

Spielberg, of course has America's most beloved female actor, Meryll Streep. heading the cast.  As Katharine Graham, owner and publisher of the newspaper, she must decide if publishing such a detrimental story to the Nixon presidency, material that has already gotten The New York Times in trouble, is beneficial to a company which is preparing for its IPO.  Mrs. Graham travels in powerful circles, a blue-blood Brahmin used to giving parties where defense secretary Robert McNamara, the person most responsible for the escalation of the war, is a welcome guest.  But the newspaper business is in her blood.  She inherited it from her father, and she took it over from her husband when he committed suicide.  She is a powerful woman, the kind we ought to like these days, although she is filled with questions and doubts, as any other human being would be. Ms. Streep ably portrays the dichotomy of the character in her usual brilliant way.

In the lion's den that is the newsroom of the Washington Post, the lead gladiator is Tom Hanks as Ben Bradlee, executive editor of the newspaper, challenging the federal government at every turn in his quest to publish the top secret documents. (Of course, it was his son, Ben Bradlee, Jr. who led the Boston Globe's expose that is featured in the film Spotlight -- thus somehow linking the two films together). Like Ms. Streep, Mr. Hanks offers us a carefully crafted performance. Ms. Streep is unashamed to expose her Yale trained technique as she approaches her character, but Mr. Hanks is all Hollywood method acting, in a performance that at times tends to be quite subtle.  The juxtaposition of acting styles works, and their scenes together makes the film come alive, even when the script by Liz Hannah and Josh Singer seems to fail them.

Mr. Spielberg's direction keeps the action going throughout, but I find that he lingers way too long during the third act. Lately, the man is into providing us with epilogues. (The same problem I found with the conclusion of Bridge of Spies.) Is it really necessary to have Justice Black's opinion read out loud in the newsroom in order to stir our patriotic feelings?  And worst of all, is it really necessary to end the film with the Watergate break-in?  Is Mr. Spielberg hinting at a possible sequel (or perhaps a 1970s trilogy ending with the disgrace of Richard Nixon)?  I would remind Mr. Spielberg's of screenwriter/director Billy Wilder's last screenwriting tip:

"The third act must build, build, build in tempo and action until the last event, and then — that's it. Don’t hang around."

Monday, January 15, 2018

Frances McDormand and her Three Billboards

Catching up with the possible Oscar nominated films of 2017, I finally got around to see the very fine Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, a film by that very talented Irish/British playwright and screenwriter/director Martin McDonagh.  The story of a teenage girl, raped and burned, while the town's police seemingly do nothing about capturing the criminals forces the mother (Frances McDormand) to take the law into her own hands and rent three billboards advertising the inefficiency of the police department, and especially the town's police chief (Woody Harrelson), who is dying of pancreatic cancer. A great story, expertly told, with a great cast giving stellar performances.  I loved the movie, and surely it will receive many Oscars.  My vote would certainly go to its fine screenplay, which surprises a viewer at almost every turn.

Having watched the Golden Globes last weekend, I was overwhelmed by the support given to the issue of sexual harassment. Most of the women wore black, and most winners included some kind of sociopolitical statement that mentioned the recent events that have exploded in Hollywood.

I was bothered by Ms. McDormand's attitude during the broadcast, in particular when she went up on stage to receive her award for her fine performance in this film.  Was it me, or did it seem like she was still acting?  Has she been unable to shed the role of Mildred?  Her actions and in particular her facial expressions seem to come right from the film, and not from an actress in a fancy dinner awards show.  It made her look like a weirdo, which she may very well be, but I thought that her actions were way too close to her character, and this deep association to one's work is off-putting and dangerous.

Let's hope that when Ms. McDormand goes up to receive her well-deserved Oscar (in this year of the woman, she is a shoo-in to win!) she finds it within herself to be more herself.  No need to show us what a great actress you are, this film proves it in spades.