Tuesday, June 18, 2019

New "CASABLANCA" from Egypt

A new film bearing the name Casablanca has been released by Egypt. Many critics are pointing out that the new movie might be a turning point in the history of that country's film industry. The film is directed by Peter Mimi, written by Heshan Helal, and it stars Amir Karara, Eyad Nassar, Ghada Adel, Amr Abdel-Gelil, Lebleba and Mahmoud El-Bezawy.

The film deals with three friends who work together in ship burglary. They are usually tasked to steal the expensive cars that contain hidden drugs on those ships, in order to get a percentage of the money in return. However, they get caught at some point throughout the movie and start betraying each other, until the plot thickens and they get involved in life and death matters with the Mafia men in Casablanca, Morocco. 

The trailer of the film amassed a million views in three hours of its release. This is a record in the history of Egyptian cinema.
Synergy Productions and film producer Waleed Mansour, presented the trailer where star Amir Karara appeared in several action scenes. In addition, the appearance of Jordanian star Eyad Nassar is expected to be a turning point in his career.  Casablanca was released during Eid al-Fitr, the end of Ramadan.

I am happy to report that this new movie has nothing to do with the American film of the same name.  It is not an Egyptian remake. It is a totally contemporary action film only using the one word title of the classic Warner Brothers picture. Perhaps the director sees it as a homage to the Golden Age of Hollywood, but that is not clear. Other than the fact that the movie portrays Morocco as a dangerous place filled with intrigue, and perhaps death might be the only link to the original film.

Source: https://identity-mag.com/casablanca-unrealistic-action-movie-or-a-turning-point-in-egyptian-cinema/

Sunday, June 16, 2019

ON BROADWAY: To Kill a Mockingbird

The winners here are Aaron Sorkin who has fashioned a riveting play out of Harper Lee's well known 1960 novel, and director Bartlett Sher, who time and time again surprises us by conjuring the magic and genuineness of the theater, whether it be one of his warhorse revivals at Lincoln Center, or this powerful hybrid. Would that he were as lucky with the world of opera. His forays at the MET have been received with mixed reviews time and time again. Another clever touch is the use of music, especially composed for this production for pump organ and guitar by the talented Adam Guettel, whose brilliant 2005 music for The Light in the Piazza won a Tony for Best Musical Score, and was presented at Lincoln Center helmed by Mr. Sher.

Perhaps there is no better actor to play the righteous lawyer Atticus Finch, then Jeff Daniels, and actor who is experiencing the second stage of his career, and whose accent couldn't be more genuine, if at times one has to bend an ear to catch every word. After all, he was born in 1955 in Clarke County Georgia, and I am sure that his Deep Southern roots resonate with the dramatic themes of this work, as well as its language. If there is an actor capable of wiping off the memory of Gregory Peck, in the landmark film of the novel, then Mr. Daniels is it.

Mr. Sher's great genius lies in his precise, at times wondrous casting. Celia Keenan-Bolger, who won a Tony award this year for this performance, allows her talent, and the magic of the theater to convince us that she is the child Scout. Likewise Will Pullen and Gideon Glick portray touching versions of Jem Finch, and Dill Harris. Gbenga Akinnagbe is a touching Tom Robinson, and LaTanya Richardson Jackson is a memorable Calpurnia. The intensity portrayed by Frederick Weller as Bob Ewell leaves a dark impression on one's soul, and Erin Wilhelmi as his daughter Mayella is an unforgettable creature, one part victim, the other part mired in her entitled homegrown racism.

"All rise" has been the catchword for this production. All rise, indeed, as one of the best casts on Broadway delivers a performance truly worthy of a standing ovation.

Saturday, June 15, 2019

ON BROADWAY: Kiss Me Kate

Cole Porter never had it so good with Kiss Me Kate. His 1948 answer to Rodgers and Hammerstein's Oklahoma! was his first musical where his clever lyrics and music were fully integrated organically to the show's book. And what a book it was! Bella and Samuel Spewack wrote a charming comedy about an acting troupe putting on Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew led by Fred Graham, the show's director and leading man, and his leading lady, ex-wife Lilli Vannessi. These battling exes were inspired by real-life husband and wife stars Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne who were known to engage in marital battles on and off the stage.

The Roundabout Theatre Company is in the midst of a fun revival of this classic, starring Kelli O'Hara and Will Chase. Immediately one notices how many of the show's songs have gone on to become part of the American Songbook. Porter's contribution to this list of musical gems often came from forgotten shows. "Begin the Beguine," one of his great songs comes from a show called Jubilee, probably only remembered because of Mr. Porter's musical participation. Incidentally, "Just One of Those Things" also came from this forgotten piece of Broadway history, penned by Moss Hart, whose plot revolves around the silver jubilee of Britain's King George V.  But Kiss Me Kate's list of hits includes "Another Op'nin', Another Show," "Wunderbar," "So in Love," "Too Darn Hot," and that audience favorite "Brush up Your Shakespeare," sung by two Runyonesque gangsters. It's the 10 o'clock number that over the years has become an audience favorite.

This revival, directed by Scott Ellis, is not only a lot of fun, but it maintains the show in period, thus assuring that the jokes and references adhere to that post-war period where America was prospering, and the Broadway musical was in the midst of its richest period.

Bravo to Kelli O'Hara, who has become our leading Broadway actress, specializing in revivals. Let us hope that before long she lands a new musical that could possibly equal the greatness of the string of hits that she has had (South Pacific, The King and I) lately.

On a personal level, this was my first production of this beloved classic. Also I had never seen the 1953 MGM film starring Kathryn Grayson and Howard Keel either. My only link to Kiss Me Kate were the songs "Wunderbar" and "So in Love," sung by Alfred Drake and Patricia Morison, and which I got to learn when I bought a Broadway retrospective set on LP of original cast recordings. What talent! No wonder it took home the first Tony Award for best musical back in 1949.

The current revival runs until the end of this month. I suggest you get down to Studio 54 and catch it before the summer gets too darn hot and the show closes.

Sunday, May 05, 2019

AVENGERS: ENDGAME

When Samuel Beckett wrote his follow up to Waiting for Godot, a one-act play for four characters called Endgame, he wrote that this play needs to be performed in an empty room with two small windows. Marvel Studios has now given us their Endgame: a three hours plus film that takes place in many crowded rooms all around the universe, and windows to dozens of other referential works of cinema, including the Marvel Universe movies themselves. Any garden variety fanboy will wallow in the post-modernist recognition game, the rest of us will need a score card in case you want to keep track, which if you are just a casual observer of this cinematic phenomenon called Marvel you might not care at all.

But for those with a minor allegiance, or zero allegiance to the series, all you have to know is that the movie is a 2019 reworking of The Seven Samurai where the surviving Avengers try to recruit whoever is left in order to set the universe right again; or maybe it's about killing Thanos again, or maybe the real plot is about recovering magic rocks. It's mostly about all these with a little help from H.G. Wells's The Time Machine. In all likely-hood if you give the film more than just a cursory viewing its about how to bring to a conclusion one of the most profitable cinematic franchises in the history of cinema.

And try not to tell anyone who hasn't braved the crowds about the movie. These days, if you divulge anything that happens (fanboys consider every frame sacred) it is considered a spoiler, and people will consider you an outcast, and they will walk away from you when they see you heading to the water cooler during the morning coffee break. But then again, famboys will surely have beaten you to this film. I know one person who has already seen it three times.

I'm now going to make a confession. I enjoyed watching this film. I liked the way the narrative is presented. I enjoyed the performances, many of them, especially that of Robert Downey, Jr., who has spent more than a decade perfecting his Tony Stark. I doubt the film needed to be 181 minutes; there are sections that drag with dialogue that often misses the point. The humor is sophomoric. Scarlett Johansson complains that she is getting email from a racoon, and Thor has let himself go and now looks and acts more like "The Dude" in The Big Lebowski. But not to worry, before you know it, everything comes back to normal, (ooops, sorry about that, was that a spoiler?) and the film ends with...

Well, let me not get exiled from the water cooler at work.  Just go to see it. Half of this planet has already done so thus far to the tune of two billion dollars. Whatever you think of the film, Avengers: Endgame has become a cultural landmark for our times.

Saturday, April 20, 2019

On Broadway: GARY: A SEQUEL TO TITUS ANDRONICUS

Titus Andronicus has not fared well in the modern era. William Shakespeare's first tragedy (co-written, it is believed with George Peele) was immensely popular in its day -- the Elizabethans had a ferocious taste for revenge plays. However in the Victorian era it fell out of favor due to its excessive violence. The 20th century did not improve the play's lot, and to this day it is considered one of the least important efforts by the Bard.

What can you do with it, then? A much maligned, over-the-top Shakespeare revenge tragedy of dubious authorship. You can try to produce it straight and try not to get laughs from nervous audience members reacting to the exuberant violence. You can dismiss it, of course, and concentrate on the masterpieces of the canon. Or you can laugh it off and lampoon the freaking thing. This is more or less what playwright Taylor Mac (who uses the term “judy” as a gender pronoun) has done with his wickedly uproarious Gary: A Sequel to Titus Andronicus, opening tomorrow night at the Booth Theatre, and starring Nathan Lane, Julie White and Kristine Nielsen. This show should have opened in May, but it extended its previews after actress Andrew Martin suffered an injury during rehearsals, and had to withdraw from the production.

On a stage filled with piles of bloody corpses, more funny than gross, three characters, a clown, a chairwoman and a midwife re-enact the bloody deeds of the play, reminisce on how they managed to survive the massacre in Act V, and ponder life’s many mysteries and conundrums. It’s a clear Samuel Beckett situation, but played to slapstick perfection by the three principles. The humor is always coarse, relying on fart jokes and necrophilic shtick. High comedy it is not, but the again Titus is nowhere near the same league as Hamlet. Bathroom humor, therefore, is the right counterpart to its Elizabethan inspiration.

If Taylor Mac’s play wanders, and sometimes descends into the lower depths of taste, the three actors are there to salvage it. Mr. Lane, who recently appeared in epic serious dramas (The Iceman Cometh and Angels in America) returns to the genre for which we know him best. As the clown Gary, he seems to be aware of the pecking order of Shakespearean roles. He is a hopeless clown (he juggles pigeons who fly away) but he tells us that one day he dreams of ascending the Elizabethan "Dramatis Personae" ladder and become a Fool, like King Lear’s wise companion. Likewise Ms. White and Ms. Nielsen are shattered characters that survive life by grit and a hopeless hope belief that one day things will improve. The play couldn't be darker if it wanted to be, but amid the carnage a ray of hope (reminiscent of the conclusion of Akira Kurosawa's great film Rashomon) sends us home once again assuring us of the inherent goodness of mankind.

Sunday, March 31, 2019

Die Walküre at the MET

Spring is the traditional time to present the works of Richard Wagner at the Metropolitan Opera. For many years, for instance, the option of Good Friday was to go to St. Thomas on Fifth Avenue to hear its incredible choir, or go uptown to the Met and enjoy the five hours plus of Wagner's Parsifal. This practice is not being honored with such rigidity any more these days, but the opera company is currently presenting its three Ring Cycles this Spring, and I ventured out yesterday morning for a noontime start to a matinee performance of Die Walküre, the second installment of the composer's famed tetralogy. This performance was also telecast to the entire world. It also meant the return of the widely debated and much maligned Robert Lepage production, which consists of a giant machine made up of planks, which move in all sorts of ways as beautiful projections are shined upon it. Its a staging that replaced the beloved 1986 Otto Schenk staging. When the Lepage staging premiered in the 2010-2011 season, it had a tendency to malfunction. I remember quite well opening night when the Rainbow Bridge in the last scene of Das Rheingold failed to work, and the gods had to walk offstage, finding a detour route to Valhalla.

The staging of Die Walküre back in its premiere season was also problematic. Bryn Terfel as Wotan seemed uneasy walking along the steep planks, and Deborah Voigt took a tumble on her "Hojotoho" entrance. Tenor Jonas Kaufmann fared better than his colleagues. In his entire performance as Siegmund he never had to step on the darn thing. The machine was a mess, but when it did work it showed scenes of great beauty and wonderful imagination. The descent to Nibelheim in Rheingold is one of the greatest effects I have seen on any stage.  It outdoes artist M.C. Escher in its preposterous and impossible construction.

The engineers and computer programmers at Ex Machina, Lepage's company responsible for the construction of this gigantic gizmo definitely heard the complaints of opera fans. Yesterday afternoon the production went off without a hitch. The machine is now much quieter than it was back when it made its first appearance. As it moved, I only heard mechanical sounds twice, and they were very subtle. The only alien sound one heard in Act II was that of Wotan's spear rolling down one of the planks, and landing with a thud.

When this production opened it featured the best Wagnerians 2011 could offer. Now in 2019, one can say that the MET has resorted to the road show cast. However, yesterday's performance was as solid and as good as anything that being offered in other major opera houses, including the Bayreuth Festival. Christine Goerke sang a beautiful Brünhilde, a major addition to her repertory. Eva-Marie Westbroek was a fine, powerful Sieglinde, Stuart Skelton proved that he can sing a better Siegmund than his awful Otello earlier on in the season, and Günther Groissböck was marvelous in the short role of Hunding. As Wotan, Greer Grimsley's voice is cavernous and comes from the back of his throat, and tends to stay there. As a result his legato phrasing and diction suffers. However, his last act farewell to his daughter brought a tear to my eye. The two artists sang it and acted it beautifully. Conductor Philippe Jordan led a clean, detailed reading of the score, never overwhelming his singers.

This is a very good performance of this opera, and if you like this work, you'd be crazy to miss it. It is not perfect, but it is excellent.

Wednesday, March 27, 2019

US: the new Jordan Peele film

One is not sure what Jordan Peele wants to be: a social critic, or a scare meister? Thus far he has been able to blend the two with genuine success. In his first film, Get Out, a young black man witnesses first hand a monstrous side of bigoted white America. In Us, his second film, he tackles the theme of the doppelgänger in a terrifying story that begins during an equally terrifying time in America: Ronald Reagan's presidency and the "Hands Across America" benefit event. In 1986 young little Adelaide encounters a doppelgänger of herself at a funhouse in Santa Cruz beach. Years later, she's now a married adult, and along with her two children and her husband, she heads to Santa Cruz on vacation, even though the trip is making her apprehensive since she has not forgotten the traumatic event of her childhood that happened there.

One evening, the family is visited by doppelgängers of themselves: scary creatures dressed in red overalls, and wielding sharp golden scissors, their voices monstrous shrieks, and unintelligent grunts. These visitors might look like the family, but they are many rungs down the evolutionary and social scale. The trailer for this film seemed to suggest that the film was a condemnation of black versus black violence, but when an upper-class white family is savagely murdered by equally deranged doppelgängers, the film begins to suggest a social war rather than a racial one. The have-nots finally getting the upper-hand on the economically advantaged.

But Mr. Peele makes sure that there are more layers to the story than just an economic slasher nightmare. He conveys information that there are hundreds, perhaps thousands of abandoned tunnels running through the United States. Obviously tunnels that hold great secrets, places that will eventually be revealed and shed light on the meaning of the rows of caged rabbits that we see during the film's credit sequence.

One thing's for sure: the cast, headed by the luminous Lupita Nyong'o shines. Playing their own doppelgängers both she and her husband Gabe (Winston Duke) relish their dual roles. Likewise Elizabeth Moss and Tim Heidecker, who play their friends Kitty and Josh, pull all the stops playing their fiendish counterparts.

At the showing I attended, I heard a lady comment after the film concluded that she knew there was a message to the film, but she was not sure what it was. I fear this will be the opinion of one too many viewers of this film. These viewers will instead focus and enjoy the roller coaster ride the director offers. The film is more successful as a creature feature than as an economic satire.

Jeffrey Anderson in Common Sense Media summed it all up this way: "Jordan Peele's horror shocker can't compete with its sensational predecessor Get Out, but it doesn't have to."

Sunday, March 17, 2019

Everybody Knows (Todos lo saben) Starring Cruz and Bardem

Homecomings are dangerous. From ancient Greek tragedy we know that a return home after many years can stir dormant emotions and bring forth forgotten grudges to the surface that often culminate in dire events. So it is with Asghar Farhadi’s latest film Everybody Knows (Todos lo saben). Away from his native Iran, where his films have won the Oscar twice (A Separation and The Salesman), the writer/director has crafted an intricate story about a kidnapping in a Spanish town that seems to be an indictment of Old World values and deep resentments that are triggered by a visit from America.

Laura (Penélope Cruz) arrives home from Argentina with her two children sans her husband. The occasion for her return is a family wedding, where in the middle of the festivities her impetuous teenage daughter is kidnapped. The wedding sequence, crafted as carefully as that of The Godfather or The Deer Hunter, serves to introduce the relationships in this family. We learn that Paco (Javier Bardem) was in love with Laura, and that he now owns the vineyards that once belonged to her family, an important plot point.

The wedding sequence is a masterpiece of exposition, economic in its development and festive in its crafting. Perhaps the highlight of the film, and arguably its strongest section. Once the kidnapping occurs, sending the film to its second act, the narrative slows down, turning the plot into a ponderous whodunnit instead of speeding up the action and racing towards a completion. Farhadi relies too much on the emotional toll the kidnapping produces on the characters, when instead he should be offering the audience more clues and fewer red herrings. The eventual result is that the final resolution leaves us a bit cold.

Although the middle section of the film could have used an editor's firm hand, the final sequence shows a master filmmaker in complete control of his craft. As one of the characters prepares to reveal to another the identity of the kidnappers, the sanitation service is hosing down the main square of the village, the strong gush of water making the streets clean once again. Even the crucifix in the middle of the plaza gets a good scrubbing. Is the town now going to be cleansed of its past sins?  Of course not, this is the Old World. It'll just get dirty once more: everybody knows that!

Sunday, February 24, 2019

Academy Awards ballot

Here is a ballot for tonight's Oscar ceremony featuring all the categories.

The Indie Spirit Award Winners

Yesterday the Indie Spirit Awards were presented. Although they are not great prognosticators for tonight's Oscars, there are a lot of crossover films and artists for both shows.  Some of the winners were genuine surprises, but isn't that what indie films should do: surprise us by doing it in an unexpected way? Here are the nominees and winners in most major categories:

Best FeatureEIGHTH GRADE
FIRST REFORMED
IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK (WINNER)
LEAVE NO TRACE
YOU WERE NEVER REALLY HERE

Best Director
Debra Granik, LEAVE NO TRACE
Barry Jenkins, IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK (WINNER)
Tamara Jenkins, PRIVATE LIFE
Lynne Ramsay, YOU WERE NEVER REALLY HERE
Paul Schrader, FIRST REFORMED

Best First Feature
HEREDITARY
SORRY TO BOTHER YOU (WINNER)
THE TALE
WE THE ANIMALS
WILDLIFE

Best Male Lead
John Cho, SEARCHING
Daveed Diggs, BLINDSPOTTING
Ethan Hawke, FIRST REFORMED (WINNER)
Christian Malheiros, SÓCRATES
Joaquin Phoenix, YOU WERE NEVER REALLY HERE
Best Female Lead
Glenn Close, THE WIFE (WINNER)
Toni Collette, HEREDITARY
Elsie Fisher, EIGHTH GRADE
Regina Hall, SUPPORT THE GIRLS
Helena Howard, MADELINE’S MADELINE
Carey Mulligan, WILDLIFE

Best Supporting Female ActorKayli Carter, PRIVATE LIFE
Tyne Daly, A BREAD FACTORY
Regina King, IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK (WINNER)
Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie, LEAVE NO TRACE
J. Smith-Cameron, NANCY

Best Supporting Male ActorRaúl Castillo, WE THE ANIMALS
Adam Driver, BLACKKKLANSMAN
Richard E. Grant, CAN YOU EVER FORGIVE ME? (WINNER)
Josh Hamilton, EIGHTH GRADE
John David Washington, MONSTERS AND MEN

Best Cinematography
Ashley Connor, MADELINE’S MADELINE
Diego Garcia, WILDLIFE
Benjamin Loeb, MANDY
Sayombhu Mukdeeprom, SUSPIRIA (WINNER)
Zak Mulligan, WE THE ANIMALS

Best Screenplay(Writer/Story By)
Rebecca Lenkiewicz & Wash Westmoreland, COLETTE
Nicole Holofcener & Jeff Whitty, CAN YOU EVER FORGIVE ME? (WINNER)
Tamara Jenkins, PRIVATE LIFE
Boots Riley, SORRY TO BOTHER YOU
Paul Schrader FIRST REFORMED

Best First Screenplay
Bo Burnham, EIGHTH GRADE (WINNER)
Christina Choe, NANCY
Cory Finley, THOROUGHBREDS
Jennifer Fox, THE TALE
Quinn Shephard (Writer/Story By) and Laurie Shephard (Story By), BLAME

Best Editing
Joe Bini, YOU WERE NEVER REALLY HERE (WINNER)
Keiko Deguchi, Brian A. Kates & Jeremiah Zagar, WE THE ANIMALS
Luke Dunkley, Nick Fenton, Chris Gill & Julian Hart, AMERICAN ANIMALS
Anne Fabini, Alex Hall and Gary Levy, THE TALE
Nick Houy, MID90S

Best DocumentaryHALE COUNTY THIS MORNING, THIS EVENING
MINDING THE GAP
OF FATHERS AND SONS
ON HER SHOULDERS
SHIRKERS
WON’T YOU BE MY NEIGHBOR? (WINNER)

Best International FilmBURNING (South Korea)
THE FAVOURITE (United Kingdom)
HAPPY AS LAZZARO (Italy)
ROMA (Mexico) (WINNER)
SHOPLIFTERS (Japan)

The Robert Altman Award, whose previous winners included Spotlight (2015) and Moonlight (2016), interestingly went to SUSPIRIA, a film by Luca Guadagnino, a remake of Dario Argento's 1977 horror film. I was very surprised by this honor.  Although there were some unforgettable scenes in this film, Guadagnino's take ended up being an overblown and over-long rumination on Argento's classic.

Robert Altman Award
SUSPIRIA
Director: Luca Guadagnino
Casting Directors: Avy Kaufman, Stella Savino
Ensemble Cast: Malgosia Bela, Ingrid Caven, Lutz Ebersdorf, Elena Fokina, Mia Goth, Jessica Harper, Dakota Johnson, Gala Moody, Chloë Grace Moretz, Renée Soutendijk, Tilda Swinton, Sylvie Testud, Angela Winkler

Saturday, February 23, 2019

Verdi's FALSTAFF at the MET

The creative work of an older artist is usually a very personal statement; the creative work of an older genius carries us to a place we have not been before, and that includes transporting the artist himself. And so it is with Giuseppe Verdi, who after a life in the theater, and a self-imposed retirement, came back to the limelight to re-examine the work of another genius: William Shakespeare, a playwright whose work preoccupied the composer from the early Macbeth (Verdi did not read the play until he composed the opera, basing his music on the libretto of Francesco Maria Piave) to Otello and the final Falstaff, both of them blessed with libretti by Arrigo Boito.

Last night the MET revived the Robert Carsen production of Verdi's last opera. The production updates the work to the post World War II era, or as the program indicates "during the reign of Elizabeth II," a decision that works most of the time. Utilizing a unit set, the Garter Inn morphs into the kind of stuffy 1950s gentleman's club where no women are allowed, so needless to say the appearance of Mistress Quickly (Marie-Nicole Lemieux) sends the club members running out the door. When Ford (Juan Jesús Rodríguez) disguises himself as Mr. "Fontana" he comes in looking like a Texas oil baron, and Alice's kitchen, where a mini-riot hurls Falstaff out the window and into the Thames River, looks like a technicolor colorization of I Love Lucy. On the other hand, Herne's Oak was minimalist with only a starry sky to denote the outdoors.

But what would this production be without Ambrogio Maestri? The man owns the role of Falstaff hands down, and he has sung it around the world, along with so many other roles, including Baron Scarpia in Tosca at Las Palmas, Michele in Il Tabarro at the Bavarian State Opera, and Germont in La Traviata in Tokyo. Earlier this season at the MET he was heartbreaking as Michonnet in Adriana Lecouvreur. He is one of our most gifted character singers, and his resonant, ample baritone fills the house.  It's very exciting to watch a singer so invested in a role.

The MET has surrounded him with a variety of talented singing actors for this revival, stand-outs include Golda Schultz, a sweet Nannetta, and the aforementioned Mr. Rodríguez who was excellent as Ford. Ms. Lemieux's deep contralto made an excellent Quickly, but her acting was a bit schticky and over the top, "more matter with less art," as the Bard himself would say.  The orchestra under the baton of debuting conductor Richard Farnes was its usual excellent ensemble.  All in all, it's a revival not to be missed, and if this opera is a new venture for you, this ensemble will surely make it memorable.

Friday, February 22, 2019

It's OSCAR Time!

It's that time of the year! After a loopy, confusing pre-Oscar season complete with the postponement of an Oscar category which made little sense, and an announcement that certain categories would not be televised (another mistake that was rapidly rectified), we are limping towards the big day this Sunday, still with no host. In recent memory this is the first time that the ceremony will not be hosted by one person.

Still, Oscar night is Oscar night, no matter who hosts, and the awarding of this fabled statuette still matters in Tinsel Town. So, here are my predictions in the main categories.

BEST PICTURE: Whatever you might think of this art film, hands down, Roma will take the big prize, and it just might be a Mexican fiesta, with Alfonso Cuarón's film taking multiple prizes.

BEST ACTOR: After winning just about every award prior to Oscar night, including the Golden Globes and the SAG, 37 year old Rami Malek will become one of the youngest Oscar recipients for his impersonation of Freddie Mercury in Bohemian Rhapsody.

BEST ACTRESS: This is a tough one. Will Oscar award Olivia Colman for her beautiful performance in The Favourite, or will they give it to Glenn Close for a lifetime of great achievement? Oscar has a track record of doing this again and again? I think this just might be Ms. Close's year!

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR: Another tough category! Mahershala Ali already won this category for Moonlight, but his performance in Green Book was praised by critics and audiences alike.  It's also a feel good movie, and the character he plays is very likeable; so I predict Mr. Ali will follow Denzel Washington to become the second African American actor to win two Oscars.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS: The ladies from The Favourite (Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone) despite their fine performances, will cancel each other out. Marina de Tavira's role in Roma was small. This category is between Regina King (If Beale Street Could Talk) and Amy Adams (Vice). Being a huge Adams fan, I'm going with her this year.

BEST DIRECTOR: Here's what we have: Yorgos Lanthimos, an arthouse Greek filmmaker whose third English language film The Favourite is probably his most accessible work. Paweł Pawlikowski, who already won an Oscar for his masterful Ida, and whose Cold War is an artistic followup to that film, is a strong contender. Adam McKay, whose Vice was popular and well distributed is a long shot; and Spike Lee and his hip socio-political "joint" BlacKkKlansman has brought the Brooklyn filmmaker back to the forefront. Oh, Oscar, you make it difficult!  Oh yeah! I forgot! The winner will be Alfonso Cuarón!

And here are the rest of my predictions:

BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY: I'm hoping that the Oscar goes to the most beautifully shot film this year: the black-and-white, Academy Ratio Cold War.  However, Roma, another black-and-white beauty, might just take this prize as well.

ANIMATED FEATURE: No contest!  It's going to be Spider-Man into the Spider-Verse.

BEST DOCUMENTARY: In this political climate RBG is sure to win.

BEST FOREIGN LANGUAGE FILM: Could it be that Roma will get both Best Film as well as this award?  It's possible, but I will be happy if either Japan's Shoplifters or Poland's Cold War take the prize.

BEST SCREENPLAY: What a category this year! All great scripts, although Roma will defeat them all. However, it could happen that either The Favourite or Green Book can spoil the Roma juggernaut.

BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY: Here is where one of our great auteurs, Spike Lee finally gets his well-deserved Oscar for a lifetime of making movies his way.

The Oscar ceremony will be broadcast on ABC, Sunday February 24 at 8:00pm ET.

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

NETWORK on Broadway with Bryan Cranston

Network, the new adaptation of the Paddy Chayefsky screenplay, now playing at the Belasco Theatre, is all about watching. The arriving audience is greeted with a peek at a thespian's workout before a show. Actors on yoga mats stretching, exercising, and doing all an actor does to get into character now on display onstage. Director Ivo van Hove satisfies our inherent curiosities about show business while instantly making us voyeurs even before the first line of the play is uttered. And when the play does start, a giant screen upstage begins to capture it all in an HD hyper-reality. The TV images making the live performances before us almost secondary.

It’s satisfying to watch Bryan Cranston give what might just be the performance of a lifetime as Howard Beale, the veteran news anchor at the end of his rope, thinking of ending it all live on the air. A performance that has been finely crafted after a sold out run at London's National Theatre, and honored with the Olivier award. For me, the real satisfaction in Mr. Cranston's performance involves watching his 1080p image on a giant screen. And why not: it's how many of us got to know this talented actor, especially in his monumental performance in AMC's Breaking Bad, where he played Walter White, a chemistry teacher turned drug dealer. Van Hove’s staging celebrates our pixelized actor/audience relationship with him through the use of his brilliant technology.

Despite the 21st century staging, Lee Hal's adaptation of the film is set in 1976, where the fictional UBS is a distant fourth network, years before CNN made viewers dependent on 24 hour broadcasts and constant announcements of breaking news. Howard Beale’s rants maintain an air of prophecy reminding us that television is a show-business marketplace. And even though the character's monologues closely describe the current state of the medium, Chayefsky's main goal at the time was not to play the soothsayer, but to skewer the medium, and remind us why we called it the Boob Tube.

The supporting roles are a little bit more problematic in this production. It's very hard to forget or even come close to William Holden's Max Schumacher, being one of the actor's great performances of his later years. Tony Goldwyn is not the right age for the part, and although he gives a creditable performance, it is hard to believe him as a contemporary of the much older Mr. Cranston, especially when the two characters talk about how they both started together as young men at CBS with Edward R. Murrow. Maybe a little more old age makeup might have helped, or maybe van Hove is asking us to suspend our disbelief big time. Tatiana Maslany is believable as Diana Christensen, but again this actress is up against the indelible, celluloid memory of Faye Dunaway's Oscar winning performance.

Not to worry: with Mr. Cranston you will not be missing Jon Finch's titanic Academy award winning performance as Howard Beale. That's why the winner of this year's Tony award for best actor in a play is onstage at the Belasco Theatre.  Don't miss him!

Sunday, February 03, 2019

SHOPLIFTERS: an Oscar Nominated Film from Japan

Shoplifters is Japan's entry at this year's Academy Awards. The film by Hirokasu Kore-eda, a "Lower Depths" look at a marginalized family in modern Japan, was the Palme D'Or winner at the last Cannes Film Festival, as well as one of the films in the Main Slate of the 2018 New York Film Festival. Director Kore-eda presents us with a most unusual group: a ragged collection of societal cast-offs, living together in cramped quarters like any other family.  But this "family" is unusual. They are bound together by their will to survive, and they exercise this primordial instinct by the oldest professions. The oldest male, acting in the role of the father, Osamu, (Lily Franky) and the youngest male, Shota, (Kairi Jyo) are a tremendous tag-team when it comes to ripping off supermarkets; and the teenage daughter Aki (Mayu Matsuoka) works at a sex club, entertaining anonymous clients from behind a one-way glass. When Osamu and Shota bring home a five year old girl named Juri (Miyu Sasaki), who has been forgotten by her parents, the family grows even more in their cramped quarter, but the girl is welcomed. Right away we realize that she is also damaged goods, like the rest of them: Grandma (Kilin Kiki) also notices that the girl's body is filled with scars. When the media breaks the news that the little girl has been kidnapped, Osamu's partner, Nobuyo (Sakura Ando) does not fret, instead she cuts Juri's hair, and the women go "shopping" for little dresses, which they all stuff into their bags.
 In telling their story, director Kore-eda avoids the darkest aspects of their lives. It might be a sordid story of poverty, but somehow the mood remains light throughout the film. As the director unwraps their story we come to know and love these characters, empathizing with their flaws, and even believing that they are more sinned against than sinning. As much as possible, the narrative line escapes from their cramped shanty, contrasting exteriors that show modern Japan's ultra-fast trains rolling by very close to their makeshift home. The family even has a day at the beach: one last moment of relative happiness before an event shifts the narrative into a darker hue that leads us to a denouement that's revelatory and surprising. 

Shoplifters is a very special film in a year filled with incredible titles from all over the world. As New York Times critic Manohla Dargis concluded in her insightful review of this film "In their grubby imperfections, Kore-eda finds a perfect story about being human." And this is what elevates this tale into a universal examination of the human heart. Don't miss it. It truly is one of the best films of the year.

Sunday, January 20, 2019

Finally a good-fitting tenor at the MET

When I started going to the opera back when I was a teenager, I heard that Francesco Cilea's Adriana Lecouvreur was a second rate work composed by a third-rate composer. It didn't matter that in those days the likes of Renata Scotto, Montserrat Caballé, José Carreras, Plácido Domingo, and other luminaries of the time were singing the leading roles of the actress Adriana (the Comédie-Française actress Adrienne Lecouvreur) and her lover Maurizio (the Count of Saxony). I stayed away from this opera, and kept away from it, in part because the MET, my principal go-to theater for opera, hardly revived this work, perhaps as a result of the negative criticism that it received since its premiere at the Teatro Lirico in Milan in 1902.

Last night, under the threat of a big snowstorm (that ended up being no more than an annoying rainstorm) I rectified this gap in my operatic education and attended my first Adriana. I didn't vacillate in buying tickets months ahead of time for this new production by Sir David McVicar. With the likes of Anna Netrebko and Piotr Beczała scheduled to sing the main roles it was a not-to-be-missed production. A lot of people must have had the same idea, since the house was sold-out, and the three rows of standing room behind the orchestra were also full.

I also went because this season I'm on a search for a night at the MET when the tenor actually gives a good performance. Ever since the Alagna opening night Samson et Dalila fiasco I've only been to performances where the tenor has either been terrible, or in the case of the new Traviata, miscast when it comes to the dynamic and timbre levels of the rest of the singers. And let's not forget the Jonas Kaufmann episode on the night I went to see him in Fanciulla del West. He went ahead and sang, when instead he should have stayed in bed with a hot toddy. Let's face it, it has not been a very good season for the tenor voice at the MET.

Last night, the cast did not disappoint. Netrebko as Adriana was her vocally exciting self crafting a character as complex and vulnerable as any diva that has step in front of the footlights. And Beczała, fresh from his triumph at Bayreuth, stepping in for Alagna in Lohengrin at the last minute, finally made my trips to Lincoln Center worth it when it comes to hearing an exciting tenor voice that does not disappoint.

Perhaps the two great performances of the evening came from Anita Rachvelishvili as the Princess of Bouillon and Ambrogio Maestri as Michonnet. Miss Rachvelishvili,who was a fiery Amneris to Ms. Netrebko's Aida earlier this year, once again was a vocally-impressive rival in this opera. Mr. Maestri, our current worldwide go-to Falstaff, proved that he could be heart-breaking in his unrequited love of Adriana.

Gianandrea Noseda led a knowledgeable, if at times pedestrian reading of a score rich with amazingly beautiful melodies, but lacking musical invention. It proves once again that in the verismo generation, the last great generation of Italian opera, very few composers can even dream of comparing to the greatness of Giacomo Puccini.