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


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.