Tuesday, December 31, 2013

From Director David O. Russell: American Hustle

In David O. Russell's American Hustle, a recreation of the Abscam scandal: an F.B.I. sting operation that led to the arrest of several members of Congress, the American Dream has transformed into the more complex Great American Con Game, and everybody seems to be in on the act. Set in the 1970s, a decade of wild excess, marked by big hair, superfluous jewelry, and the apotheosis of Rock, we are in the world of the grift where a Mexican-American from Tucson can successfully impersonate a Sheik from Abu Dhabi, and an American stripper can pass off as a British aristocrat.

Christian Bale, fifty pounds overweight and with a horrible comb-over, plays con-man Irving Rosenfeld who befriends ex-stripper, Cosmopolitan magazine employee Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams). Soon they become romantically entangled despite the fact that Irving is married to Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), and the couple has a son. Into this unsettling triangle comes undercover F.B.I. agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), who catches Irving and Sydney in a scam, and since he is attracted to Sydney, promises to set them both free if the couple helps him take down four other scam artists. Soon the plan develops into a complex, dangerous scheme involving the mayor of Camden, New Jersey, Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), plans to bring gambling to Atlantic City, and the participation of Miami mafiosi headed by Meyer Lanski's under-boss Victor Tellegio (an uncredited Robert De Niro).

With its underworld characters and noirish ambiance, right from the initial scene, as we watch Christian Bale's Irving attempt to hide his baldness with a miserable-looking rug, the film successfully descends into a world of fabrication and counterfeit, setting the tone for the double and triple-crosses that are to follow. The performances by the principle actors are quite excellent, although Mr. Bale has revealed that most of his lines were improvised. The entire film, with its complex script by the director and Eric Warren Singer aims high when it comes to Oscar potential, although in interviews, director Russell also confessed to rewriting Mr. Singer's script extensively, and admitted that he was more interested in the performances and characterizations than in the plot.

American Hustle is a very entertaining film, with brilliant performances, some of which promise to be big winners in the upcoming award ceremonies.

Monday, December 30, 2013

Martin Scorsese's The Wolf of Wall Street

In "Show Biz Bugs," a 1957 Warner Brothers cartoon directed by Friz Freleng, Daffy Duck is furious that Bugs Bunny has gotten top billing at their vaudeville theater, and he is determined to prove, once and for all, that he is the biggest star. Failing to impress the audience time after time, Daffy performs the ultimate act: he drinks combustible liquids and then swallows a lighted match. He achieves utter success with the audience by exploding himself: a stunt that unfortunately he can only do once.

This is how I feel about Leonardo DiCaprio's performance in Martin Scorsese's hyper-kinetic new film The Wolf of Wall Street. The actor has been led to the very heights of Oscar begging, with director Scorsese carefully crafting a ton of scenes, both poignant and comic, to show the actor's range, and to impress audiences, especially those members of the Academy. Actually, the entire three hour movie (written with a frantic sweep by Terence Winter) is geared towards the gold for DiCaprio. The thing is, that he is really good in it! The best, the most believable, and the most impressive he has been since he became Mr. Scorsese's muse. He had to resort to pulling a Daffy Duck, but he's still alive.  He's exploded and he's hit the heights with this one. It's Oscar time, or else!

The structure of the film is the rags to riches story of Jordan Belfort, a stockbroker in Wall Street who loses his job on Black Friday, but inspired by the life and business lessons of his mentor, senior stockbroker Mark Hanna (a memorable cameo by Matthew McConaughey), he re-invents himself, rapidly becoming the head-honcho of a small company on Long Island selling penny stocks to unsuspecting investors and receiving 50 percent commission. It doesn't take long for Jordan to break out on his own, along with neighbor Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill), and form a new enterprise that rapidly becomes a billion-dollar company: a giant on Wall Street called Stratton Oakmont, complete with a hungry lion for a logo. Soon, the excesses of big money rear their ugly heads, and Jordan and his associates descend into a maelstrom of drug-fueled lavish parties and orgies, while their questionable business practices raise a red flag with the ever-watchful FBI.

More or less, this is the rags to riches story found in Mr. Scorsese's Goodfellas (1990), and The Wolf of Wall Street arrives complete with many of the same stylistic touches found in the earlier film, including voice-over narration by the leading character, and the creation of a milieu of a life of crime where the participants are scum, but lovable, or at least interesting. In many ways, it is the same film, this time bigger, louder, longer, slicker, but morally empty, lacking the Catholic guilt harbored in the ethnic memories of the old neighborhood.

Aside from Mr. Hill and Mr. McConaughey, both of whom are sure to be nominated for the big awards for their fine performances, there is a very likable Jean Dujardin as a slick but sleazy Swiss banker, and newcomer Australian actress Margot Robbie as Naomi, the bombshell Jordan meets at his house in the Hamptons, and soon weds.

The Wolf of Wall Street may not be the most original Scorsese movie, but it does add the most interesting chapter in the on-going collaboration between director and leading man.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

McKellen & Stewart in Pinter's No Man's Land

No Man's Land is Harold Pinter's 1975 play, first produced at the National Theatre of Great Britain, with a stellar cast featuring John Gielgud and Ralph Richardson. The play is pure Pinter in its use of calculated silences, enigmatic characters, a lack of any real plot, and a frightening sense of danger lurking inside the psyche of every one of these damaged characters; a situation which can resort to violence at any time. Structurally, the flow of the two acts is reminiscent of the great post-war "Theatre of the Absurd" plays of Eugene Ionesco, early Edward Albee, and Samuel Beckett, whose Waiting for Godot is playing in repertory with this production of Pinter's drama. Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart are taking the lead roles, and Tony Award winners Billy Crudup and Shuler Hensley complete the casts.

Comparing the 1975 cast to the present one, in the role of Spooner, John Gielgud was a foppish character of Chaplinesque pathos. Ian McKellen turns him into a literary but raggedy scarecrow that has been left too long out in a field. Hirst was an over-the-top, aristocratic drunk, awash in memories and dementia: perfect for the unique theatrical persona embodied by the talented Ralph Richardson. Patrick Stewart, lacking the physical presence and demented bravura of Sir Ralph, plays the role with a certain amount of frailty, even sitting down stiffly and uncomfortably in his big chair. Since Mr. Stewart is remarkably fit and looks quite young for his years, it is a testament to his acting abilities that he carries off the part with so much conviction.

Mr. Crudup and Mr. Hensley bring a real sense of menace to their respective roles of Foster and Briggs (all four characters are named after famous Cricket players). In typical Pinter fashion, it is unclear what their roles are in this household.  Is the young Foster merely Hirst's amanuensis? Is the brutish Briggs just a servant and bodyguard? Are the pair conspiring to lead Hirst to oblivion with alcohol? Do they sense that Spooner might be a danger to their plan? Are they lovers? In typical Pinter fashion, the playwright refuses to provide concrete answers.

As in Beckett's work, these four characters are stuck in a no man's land each one has built for himself. It is a place, which according to Spooner, "never moves...never changes, which never grows older, but which remains forever icy and silent." If the play is about the reaction of a dysfunctional household to an intruder, and the possibility that this person might awaken the other from his lethargic, alcohol-soaked existence, then the play strikes a chord of genuine theatrical discovery, and the trip to this icy, silent no man's land is quite gratifying.

Monday, December 23, 2013

NY Film Festival: Inside Llewyn Davis

A 1960s Greenwich Village folk singer: a modern-day Ulysses on a circular odyssey that goes nowhere is the premise of Joel and Ethan Coen's brilliant, latest film Inside Llewyn Davis. Based loosely on the early career of folksinger Dave Van Ronk, and his classic album Inside Dave Van Ronk (which features the singer at the threshold of a door, with a cat peering outside), the film recreates Camelot in the Village: a time when college students sported button down shirts, browline glasses, and short hair, and the Gaslight Cafe inside a basement of MacDougal Street, was the gathering place for the booming folk scene. In a matter of years it would all come to a halt when Bob Dylan went electric at the Newport Folk Festival, and the British invasion rocked America.

The look of the film is prodigious. Shot on film by cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel, it has a palette of desaturated hues reminiscent of old Eastmancolor. The iconography of the film owes its look to yet another record cover: "The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan," which features the singer, arm in arm, with his then girlfriend Suze Rotolo, walking in the middle of the street at the corner of Jones and West 4th on a sad, snowy day. This famous album features eleven original songs (including Blowin' in the Wind, Masters of War, and A Hard Rain's a-Gonna Fall), an achievement that proved to be another death knell to the myriad of singers in the Village that were performing traditional songs. Singers like the unfortunate, mythical Llewyn Davis.

It's not just the fact that Llewyn, played with wondrous pathos by sad-eyed, newcomer Oscar Isaac, is not able to create new material that is a fatal drawback, but it is also the way he deals with his friends that closes many doors for him, and will eventually doom his career.  His friend Jean (Carey Mulligan) accuses him of making her pregnant, even though she's not sure if the child is his or her husband's Jim (Justin Timberlake).  Just the same, she demands that he pay for the abortion so that Jim never finds out. In one of the more poignant scenes Jim, Jean and their friend Troy (Stark Sands), a private in the Army on his way to Fort Dix and presumably Vietnam, sing Hedy West's great folk song "Five Hundred Miles" leaving Llewyn Davis in the audience, a mere spectator, divorced from being part of a great performance.

Later on, Llewyn hitches a ride to Chicago with Roland Turner (John Goodman), an actor turned Jazz musician, and his taciturn driver Johnny Five (Garret Hedlund). Mr. Goodman, in a phenomenal, minimalist performance serves as a combination Cyclops and Lotus Eater in Llewyn's misbegotten journey, which ends in disappointment when Chicago club promoter Bud Grossman (F. Murray Abraham) decides, after hearing him play, that there's no money to be had in Llewyn's brand of folk.

Llewyn hitchhikes back to New York, tired and broken: his aspirations rapidly disappearing. In an unexpected, but brilliant turn, the structure of the film comes back to its beginning once again. Llewyn performs "Hang me, oh Hang Me" at the Gaslight, and gets beaten up outside the club by a mysterious stranger, as he did in the initial moments of the movie. Llewyn's life and career, seem to be spinning in circles, out of control, and going nowhere fast.

In turning their amazing talents to a down-and-out character from another decade, the Coen brothers have touched a nerve with our very own time of marginalized, unemployed millions in an unstable economy. The story of Llewyn Davis, homeless but filled with dreams of better things to come, speaks to our time, as it lovingly recreates a page of history largely forgotten today.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

NY Film Festival: Nebraska

Nebraska is Alexander Payne's new film: a rumination on old age, the heartbrake of unfulfilled dreams, the eternal struggle between fathers and sons, and the death of America's heartland during the current economic crisis. Shot on black-and-white film by Phedon Papamichael, the texture of the images are reminiscent of the great photographs of Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange of the Great Depression, and Gregg Toland's cinematography on John Ford's great film The Grapes of Wrath.

The story centers on the complex relationship between a father and son. Woody, (Bruce Dern) is an alcoholic octogenarian, who is rapidly losing touch with reality, and who wants to travel from his home in Billings, Montana to Lincoln, Nebraska to collect the million dollars that he thinks he's won in a bogus sweepstakes. His son, David (Will Forte), a stereo and TV salesman who has just split up with his live-in girlfriend, agrees to drive him there, even though he knows fully well that there will be no money waiting for him at the end of their journey. Rounding out the other main characters in this road film are Woody's shrewish wife Kate (June Squibb) and Ross (Bob Odenkirk), Woody's more successful older son who is an up-and-coming TV anchorman. When the journey takes us to Woody and Kate's rural town where they grew up, we also meet Ed Pegram (Stacy Keach), Woody's ex-business partner who does not wait long before he threatens Woody and the family claiming that the old man owes him ten grand.

Despite the serious issues of unemployment, economic failure, and old age that the film raises, Bob Nelson's screenplay is rich and plentiful with dark comedic scenes that verge on the absurd, coupled with brilliant dialogue that elevates the script to the level of art. Woody and his son hopelessly looking for dad's teeth on the railroad tracks is pure Samuel Beckett, while their dialogue during this scene, in which both take their turn at dismissing that the teeth they found are not the right teeth, is pure Golden-Age Hollywood. 

Alexander Payne has once again cast his film perfectly. Bruce Dern is wonderfully memorable as Woody, a grizzled, whispy-haired lumbering, but fragile man; his face a map showing a lifetime of sacrifice and missed opportunities. June Squibb, an actress who has made a career playing mothers and aunts, and who played Helen Schmidt in Payne's 2002 About Schmidt, is a force of shrewish nature as Woody's loud but lovable wife: an old lady who clearly has happily misplaced her super-ego somewhere far, and who wants to ship Woody to a nursing home. Sons Will Forte and Bob Odenkirk start out in Cain and Abel mode until circumstances turn them into bumbling conspirators in a hilarious sequence regarding an old air compressor.

One of the best films of the year, Nebraska is destined for loads of prizes and awards, and it is not to be missed.

Monday, October 07, 2013

NY Film Festival: The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

Walter Mitty started life as the "hero" of a short story by James Thurber that first appeared in the pages of The New Yorker magazine on March 18, 1939. This short tale of a man, who lives a mundane life and only seems to come alive inside his heroic daydreams, was the perfect antidote for a country coming out of an economic depression, and on the verge of a second World War. In 1944 the short story was adapted as a radio play with Robert Benchley playing the daydreaming Mitty, while in 1947 independent film producer Samuel Goldwyn adapted the story into a lavish Technicolor film, shaping the narrative to suit the comic talents of actor Danny Kaye.

This new film, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, produced by the son and grandson of Samuel Goldwyn, is a vanity project directed and starring Ben Stiller. In this new take on the story, written by Steven Conrad, Walter is a bachelor, taking care of his aging mom (Shirley MacLaine). Some of the first shots of the film reveal Walter sitting at his computer, and looking at the ever decreasing funds on his checkbook after setting up his mom in an old-age home. He lives alone in the Upper West Side, and is having technical problems sending a wink on eHarmony to a co-worker he is interested in, played by Kristen Wiig. Both of them work midtown at Life magazine, which is soon to shut down and join the list of venerable publications reduced to an Internet dot com. Walter Mitty, who works in the bowels of the Time-Life building, as a "negative asset manager" misplaces a negative that had been sent to the magazine's office by famed but enigmatic photographer Sean O'Connell (Sean Penn), and in order to impress the girl he loves he sets on a quest to find the famed shutterbug: a journey that takes him from barren Greenland, to an erupting volcano in Iceland, to the mountains of Afghanistan. It also takes him out of his dreams, and into reality.

Before long, Walter changes into the man of his imagination (he becomes a kind of a cartoon character). Conrad's script changes the original intent of the Thurber story as the title character goes from a mensch lost in his daydreams to a valiant doer who, in a schmaltzy conclusion, gets the girl, as befits any hero. And it's not a daydream anymore: it's for real! Had Stiller concluded his film giving the audience a hint that Walter has not progressed out of his reveries, and that we are once again stuck in another fantasy, the film would have been more interesting. However, Stiller is not out to make a depressing film about a daydreamer, but about a man who can overcome all of that and get the girl. The film is punctuated by rock songs that point to this theme. Curiously, David Bowie's great "Space Oddity," a song about an astronaut who becomes marooned in space, is spun as the story of a man of great courage overcoming great odds and "going into the unknown."

Unfortunately, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty chooses to forgo the unknown, and tread on familiar ground. As a result, it stays earthbound and revels in its schmaltzy feel-good universe.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

NY Film Festival Opening Night: Captain Phillips

The New York Film Festival opened on Friday with Captain Phillips, the new film from director Paul Greengrass, which recounts the true-life events of 2009 when the commercial container ship Maersk Alabama was taken over by Somali pirates, and its captain was taken hostage and held for four harrowing days. The film is an exciting hyper-kinetic addition to the director's list of works which include Bloody Sunday (2002) and United 93 (2006), two films in which innocent victims are tested by powerful, threatening forces. In this latest film, those forces are embodied by four terrific first time Somali-born actors headed by Barkhad Abdi, a performer with an incredibly frightening piercing stare, and a volcanic volume of energy. It is one of the most riveting cinematic debuts in a while, and anyone watching this film will never forget his performance as Muse, the leader of the pirates.

In the title role, Tom Hanks gives an excellent performance as Everyman in peril. With a Boston accent which starts out thick, and tends to disappear as the film progresses, he is well cast, and totally believable in this role. His finely crafted performance serves as a perfect foil to the out of control exuberance of his captors. The result makes for exciting film making that hits all the right notes. Mr. Hanks is particularly effective towards the end of the movie, and his concluding scene is unforgettable. But then again, Mr. Hanks has always been excellent at delivering the inner crux of his characters through a single finely crafted scene in a film. He did it in Philadelphia (1993) with an intense close-up and an opera aria, and walked out of that year's Academy Awards ceremony with an Oscar. At its conclusion, this film has crafted a similar, pivotal scene for the actor, and he is marvelous in it.

Captain Phillips represents an interesting departure for the New York Film Festival, often the home of highly personal small films from international auteurs. This Columbia Pictures release represents the first film presentation from the festival's new chief Kent Jones. It promises a departure from the twenty-five year tenure of Richard Peña. Under the old regime, the festival had no lack of auteurs, and a plethora of films from all over the world. Films from France were never strangers to the festival, and the promise of the avant-garde was always around the corner. The festival was a magnificent showcase for independent talent, but it always seemed to avoid the big Hollywood releases. More than likely, the perfect New York Film Festival film was Pulp Fiction, opening night of 1994. Here was a highly personal, idiosyncratic film that ended up being a juggernaut at the box office.

Captain Phillips will surely be a hot film at the box-office, but it is also a thoughtful character study of men who are driven to their breaking point: an excellent way to start the New York Film Festival this year.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

The MET Opens With New Production of Eugene Onegin

Opening Night of the MET almost turned into a circus last night as a group of protesters entered the house, and started shouting "Putin, end your war on Russian gays!" as the house lights dimmed before the beginning of the new production of Eugene Onegin. The ruckus was a continuation of the small, but lively protest that had gone on outside, on the sidewalk facing Lincoln Center's Plaza. Eventually, the protesters were chased out of the house minutes later, and the opera went on without any more interruptions -- well, more or less. About a quarter of the rich, beautifully dressed patrons, who paid top dollar to sit in the orchestra section, and who might not have been familiar with this great Tchaikovsky work thought that Act I had finished after the great Letter Scene, and got up and went out to enjoy the intermission. Unfortunately, when they heard the music playing most wanted to come back, and unfortunately the ushers must have been pressured to allow them back in the house; an action that added noise and commotion during the scene when Onegin (Mariusz Kwiecien) rejects Tatiana (Anna Netrebko) after he receives her love letter. In many ways, all these shenanigans were an extension of the messy, rehearsal process that this production had prior to yesterday's uneven premiere. Deborah Warner bowed out of the production as a result of having to undergo surgery and Fiona Shaw took over despite the fact that she was directing another production in Europe. Ms. Shaw has not been seen in the house for weeks, and she was not there last night.

This new staging replaces the 1997 Robert Carsen beauty of a production that took place on a mostly bare set, and created beautiful minimalist stage pictures, mostly with lights that created a warm palette. This production, by comparison, is positively cluttered. The sets by Tom Pye are handsome and realistic, but ultimately turn out to be boring and anti-dramatic. The colonnade that dominates the last act looks impressive as a quasi-symbol of authority over passion, but their placement restricts the action onstage. The costumes by Chloe Obolensky are authentic to the 19th century, and probably the most successful aspect of the new staging.

The Peter Gelb era has presented some very successful opening night stagings, as well as some infamous duds. I can still hear the boos from the Tosca opening night a few years ago. This production of Eugene Onegin, as well as last year's L'Elisir d'Amore opening night, are throwback to a more conservative Metropolitan Opera. It just could be that Mr. Gelb is tired of opening the house to a chorus of boos from the New York conservative cognoscenti.

The cast looked and sounded glorious. Ms. Netrebko and Mr. Kwiecien make a handsome unrequited love couple. Tenor Piotr Beczala was a fabulous Vladimir Lenski, the starry-eyed, sensitive poet who longs for Tatiana's sister Olga, and who challenges his best friend Onegin to a duel when he feels that the aloof aristocrat is humiliating him publicly by flirting with his love. Down in the pit Valery Gergiev led a vigorous, pensive performance.

This new production may not be the most beautiful jewel on the MET's crown, but it's shiny luster seems to have won over the first night's audience. It needs a superb cast to make it come to life. Fortunately, these days a more than winning cast is setting Lincoln Center's nights on fire. Don't miss them!

Saturday, September 21, 2013

NY Film Festival: About Time

It seems rare, and even out of place, for the New York Film Festival to present a romantic comedy like Richard Curtis's About Time. Since its inception, and especially in the last twenty-five years or so, the festival has been known for presenting an austere lineup of international films featuring mostly dramatic, serious works. Even when the festival presented Ed Wood in 1994, that film had a serious backbone, and it was, of course, referential to the world of cult cinema.

The new film by Mr. Curtis focuses on the kind of left-of-center, eccentric British family where the mother, played by Lindsay Duncan, has developed her sense of fashion according to the tastes of the Queen, and a simple minded uncle (Richard Cordery) is always dressed to the nines every day of the year. But when it comes to strange, the best part of the family is left to the father (Bill Nighy). He reveals to his son Tim (Domhnall Gleeson), when he reaches his twenty-first birthday, the family secret: that the men in the family have always been able to travel through time. They can't change history, but they are able to change what happens, and what has happened in their own life. And all of this without a TARDIS! All that's needed is a dark room, a tightening of the fists, and off they go to whatever part of their personal past they want to re-live. Needless to say, that famous British icon, the Time Lord from Gallifrey, is curiously never mentioned or alluded to.

When Tim finds out about his special power, he uses it to fix himself up with a girlfriend. When he does, he makes sure that he revisits certain scenes of his recent past often, especially when it comes to a first night of hot sex with Mary (Rachel McAdams) the American girl with whom he marries and raises a family. Their first date improves each time that Tim chooses to relive their time in bed.

Watching a scene again and again, with different outcomes, is cinematic. It puts us on the level of a Hitchcockian Rear Window voyeur watching rushes of an unfinished film, or re-watching a favorite movie where we always find something new each time we delve into it. In many ways, About Time is a bit like many of Mr. Curtis's previous films: a family dramedy filled with memorable characters forming a wider family. We follow their lives through the years, in scenes of celebration and sorrow. Somehow, we have seen it all before in his screenplay of Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill, and Bridget Jones's Diary. This is certainly not a criticism of the film, but an observation that his latest work is meta cinematic. and any resemblance to any of his previous films is actually not incidental. This might just be the most interesting part of the film for cinema buffs. On the other hand, if you just surrender to the story and the engaging performances by Mr. Nighy, Ms. McAdams, and especially Mr. Gleeson, whose ability with comic timing reminds us of the young Hugh Grant, you will be more than pleased by this film.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

NY Film Festival: The Wind Rises

Hayao Miyazaki's latest animated film, The Wind Rises (Kaze Tachinu) tells the story of the formative years of fictional character Jiro Horikoshi, who develops the airplane that would become key to the Japanese war effort in World War II. In one of the film's many dreams, in which Horikoshi converses with his mentor, the Italian flying pioneer Giovanni Caproni, the Japanese engineer bewails the fact that "none of the planes ever came back." Indeed! Horikoshi's sleek, powerful invention was used by Imperial Japan during the last years of the war for the infamous Kamizake suicide attacks on Allied vessels in the Pacific.  The Italian aviation giant had, in a previous dream, reminded Horikoshi that "airplanes are beautiful dreams" and had warned him against their use in warfare. Caproni's warning together with Jiro's sad realization is one of the great, poignant moments in this amazing film.

In what might be his last anime (Mr. Miyazaki has announced that he is retiring from film), the director has hit a political vein in his country. He has publicly opposed Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's current plan to rebuild his country's military, and when the film opens in the United States, it is certain to strike a vein in our collective view of the role Japan played in the war before its final defeat in 1945.

Japan churns out computer animated anime by the hundreds each year, but a film by Miyazaki has always been the product of traditional animation. Even though he used digital paint in Princess Mononoke (1997), the computer animated department of Studio Ghibli, the animation studio he founded in 1985, was dissolved in 2008. The art work in The Wind Rises, with its gentle, soft images and hand-drawn characters is like fine calligraphy, and represents another great milestone in the career of one of Japan's great filmmakers.

Monday, August 05, 2013

Watch the new Meistersinger from The Salzburg Festival

The charming and imaginative new Stefan Herheim production of Richard Wagner's Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, conducted by Daniele Gatti, which premiered at the Salzburg Festival last Friday, and which is coming in the future to the Metropolitan Opera is currently streaming on 3sat.com. If you have problem viewing it, change the Format (found below the image) to Mpg4/h264.

Sunday, August 04, 2013

Woody Allen's Blue Jasmine

It is good news to see Woody Allen at the top of his game once again with his latest film Blue Jasmine. This weekend, it was very rewarding to see lines around the corner in Manhattan, and theaters filled with intelligent audiences. Not to see the latest summer blockbuster, where a non-human soars through the skies, cities get needlessly destroyed, and dialogue consists of expletives and monosyllabic words. These are audiences that remember Allen's golden age, which started in 1977 with the release of Annie Hall, and continued with a string of hits that included Manhattan and Broadway Danny Rose.

Blue Jasmine creates a summertime cinematic world where superheroes are superfluous, if not downright ridiculous. The film reminds us that the human heart has enough emotion and action, as well as the ability to commit violent and treacherous acts. Who needs a damaged alien with a tight-fitting suit, who can't stay still, and who doesn't shed a tear when thousands perish as buildings topple? Isn't it more cinematic to explore the damaged souls of real human beings?

Elitist cinema? You bet! As elitist as Jean Renoir, Federico Fellini, or Ingmar Bergman, to name a few of the master filmmakers that Mr. Allen adores. Besides, there has always been a strong streak of elitism about Mr. Allen (and the audiences that flock to his films!) once he discovered the WASPs and Jews of the Upper East Side, Elaine's (the now closed legendary restaurant where New York's literati hung out, and where Woody always had table 8, close to William Styron at table 4), and once he moved from Brooklyn to his new home on Fifth Avenue. His films have always been a clear mirror image of his life, and Blue Jasmine finds him once again in his very familiar territory where he can dissect the problems of modern social class.

To enter into detail about this film is to rob the viewer of the element of discovery. Suffice it to disclose that in a screenplay that riffs on Tennessee Williams's A Streetcar Named Desire, a wondrous Cate Blanchett, bound for a Best Leading Actress nomination and Oscar for sure, plays Jasmine, a modern day Blanche DuBois, the former Park Avenue wife of Wall Street player Hal (Alec Baldwin) who, like Bernie Madoff, has gone to jail for one too many crooked deals. Like the Southern belle in Williams's drama, Jasmine arrives in San Francisco, broke, and carrying the only possessions she has left: expensive couture clothing inside her Louis Vuitton luggage set. She has gone to her sister's house to start all over again. Ginger (played by the amazing Sally Hawkins) is a single mom with two kids by her former husband (a surprisingly effective Andrew Dice Clay) and is now in a relationship with a Stanley Kowalski type (a memorable Bobby Cannavale). Jasmine, once accustomed to summering in the Hamptons, and who has now hit the skids immediately falls into conflict with the lower middle class characters she meets through her sister Ginger. Her only escape is to down xanax with vodka chasers, and her only hope is Dwight (Peter Sarsgaard) an up-and-coming yuppie she meets at a party who works in the State Department, and who has ambitions of entering California politics.

It is a wondrous film, beautifully written and directed, and shot on film by Spanish cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe, the brilliant D.P. who provided the creepy images in the Spanish horror film The Others, and who previously worked with Mr. Allen on Vicky Cristina Barcelona. In this film, he shoots the flashback New York interior scenes of wealthy spaces with warm, radiant hues, while the vistas and indoors of San Francisco get a freer, more European approach.

Finally, the title of the film reminds us of the "blue piano" that Tennessee Williams mentions multiple times in the stage directions of his play. The film moves along to the tune of Mr. Allen's favorite jazz recordings. Classic performances by Lizzie Miles, King Oliver and Louis Armstrong are heard alongside contemporary jazz artists like Conal Fowkes.

Don't miss what will end up being one of the most important films of 2013.

Thursday, August 01, 2013

A 10 minute Bayreuth "Boovation" for Frank Castorf and his Production Team

Here are only mere seconds of the 10 minute Bayreuth "standing boovation" that greeted Frank Castorf and his production team after the conclusion of Richard Wagner's Götterdämmerung, on Wednesday afternoon at the Bayreuth Festspielhaus. According to published reports (and as you can see in the video) Castorf, his hands folded, refused to leave the stage and allow conductor Kirill Petrenko and the entire Bayreuth Orchestra to take their collective bow. Since Castorf and company were not leaving the stage, they opened the curtain behind them, revealing a sea of musicians carrying their instruments. This is a Bayreuth tradition, and the only way that an appreciative audience can applaud the orchestra. At Bayreuth the musicians and the conductor are out of sight, inside a pit, under the stage. When the members of the audience saw the musicians onstage they burst into applause. It was reported that Frank Castorf, like a leach, remained onstage taking in the ovation as if it was directed towards him.

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Herheim's Meistersinger

With all the controversy going on in Bayreuth over Frank Castorf's bicentennial staging of The Ring of the Nibelung, the Salzburg Festival, which is going on at the moment, has taken a back seat. Now that Bayreuth has premiered the tetralogy in its totality, and Mr. Castorf has received the loudest and fiercest boos I have ever heard at the Green Hill (worse even than when the late Christoph Schlingensief faced the crowd during the run of his Parsifal) one of the most anticipated Salzburg events is due to premiere: Stefan Herheim's new production of Richard Wagner's Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. You may remember that Bayreuth's current production of Parsifal was directed by Mr. Herheim back in 2008, and there is a lot of anticipation as to what he is going to do with Wagner's glorious comedy.

Well, I know! He is going to stage the entire opera inside of Hans Sach's cobbler shop. From the pictures published by Intermezzo, it seems as if the characters are Lilliput sized creatures that will be roaming around a set featuring gigantic sized objects, such as shoes.

The opening night, this Friday, will be broadcast with a short delay on Unitel Classica, beginning at 20.15 CET (7:15pm UK time).

This staging sounds like a fun and imaginative way to stage Wagner's work. It is perfect for the Salzburg Festival. However, I don't like that I'm hearing that the Metropolitan Opera is interested in this staging as well. Already, New York has inherited its current La Traviata staging from Salzburg. That's one production that should have never gone into repertory at a house like the MET! It was great as a summer vehicle for Anna Netrebko and Rolando Villazón back in 2005. But Salzburg has moved on, and the MET is now saddled with a vision of a meat-and-potatoes work that after a few seasons already looks tired. I fear the same will occur with this Meistersinger if it comes to New York. Salzburg summer productions should never become repertory productions at the MET, especially not when it comes to Meistersinger. The current MET production is a sumptuous Otto Schenk creation that is as revered as his Ring Cycle that was replaced recently by the infamous "Machine."

I can already hear the boos on opening night. If New York wanted a Herheim production, then they should have picked up his current Bayreuth staging of Parsifal. I don't think it would please everybody in New York either, but at least I find it more interesting than the current François Girard staging that premiered at the MET this past season.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Invasion of the Mini Wagners

As part of the Richard Wagner year that is being celebrated all over the world, Bayreuth has commissioned 500 statues of the composer, each measuring one meter in height, in a standing conductor's pose, in all kinds of wild, crazy colors. The statues have been placed around town as well as on the lawns of the Festspielhaus. They are the work of artist Ottmar Hörl, who in the past has also made similar installations, such as multiple mini statues of Karl Marx, and a more controversial one featuring garden gnomes giving a "Sieg Heil" Nazi salute.

The Wagner statues are under 24-hour guard, in case some devious tourist wants to take one home. At the end of the festival, it is likely that the statues will be up for sale, as has been the custom with this artist's work. Expect the statues to go for €300-700.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

First picture of Bayreuth's New Ring

It's opening night at the Bayreuth Festival, and Karl Marx, Vladimir Lenin, Josef Stalin, and Mao Zedong will not be in attendance. That's because they have been placed on Mount Rushmore as part of the scenery for the new production of Richard Wagner's Siegfried, which will premiere on July 27 at the Festspielhaus. Under the direction of avant-garde director Frank Castorf, this new Ring of the Nibelung promises to be an epic production of greed, capitalism, and socialism during the 20th Century.

Monday, May 27, 2013

Luhrmann's The Great Gatsby

The maximalism of Baz Luhrmann can easily put you off. He doesn't so much adapt F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby as he hits you over the head with the book. Thank goodness that it is not that big a novel, otherwise he'd knock us right out completely. In his hands this morality play of the Jazz Age leaves us breathless at times, as if he didn't trust that the source material can yield a worthy adaptation without including everything including the proverbial kitchen sink. The result is a very long, overblown film where the very personal story of three little rich people and one confused narrator oftentimes gets lost in the excessive glitz of a world that outdoes any of the scenes of debaucheries of Scott and Zelda, or the novel itself.

Leonardo DiCaprio plays Jay Gatsby with a smattering of a fading English accent that betrays his past. His accent sounds as mysterious as the man that he portrays. In his Long Island mansion, a Xanadu castle fit for three kings, he throws lavish weekend parties where the cream of society is entertained by anachronistic musical acts that may be grounded in the Charleston, but that ultimately turn into a modern hip-hop rave. Nobody is invited to these affairs, people just attend. All except his next door neighbor, Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) who receives a personal invitation, and who in the middle of the frenzy gets to meet the secretive host. They immediately strike a friendship that becomes the crux of this classic story. Of course, right across the bay from the Gatsby estate we have Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan) and her husband Tom (Joel Edgerton), who was Nick's classmate at Yale. These are the other members of this amorous rectangle, doomed to end in tragedy.

The director comes up with an entertaining film, but certainly not the definitive adaptation of this novel, a literary work that because of its internal narrative, and subtle plot might not be adaptable to the film medium, and if it is, certainly not by such a Cecil B. DeMille-style talent like Mr. Luhrmann. There is a silent film adaptation that is now lost, made just a few short years after the novel was published. Perhaps that film, released at the height of the Jazz Age, got it right.

What Mr. Luhrmann does get right is the visual look of the film. It is a stunningly beautiful creation. Photographed by Simon Duggan, the film has a great Technicolor warm look that easily puts you into the period. Likewise, the scenic design by Catherine Martin makes her Art Deco sets come to life. Come award time, I am sure that the visual production aspect of this film will be remembered. So far this year, it is the most visually impressive film I have seen.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Richard Wagner at 200

Today, May 22, we celebrate the birth of Richard Wagner.  The composer was born in Leipzig, Germany in 1813, 200 years ago today.  But how do we celebrate the birth of such an important person in history? And why does today not feel any different? It seems to me that audiences have not stopped celebrating him, his incredible life, and his amazing artistic legacy. It has been a celebration that has lasted for 200 years, and fortunately promises to continue for 200 more.

I read somewhere that Richard Wagner is the most discussed historical person after Jesus Christ. This might be so. Hundreds, perhaps thousands of books have been written about his life, his controversial views, and his love affairs. Of course, there are also his thirteen operas. More books have been written about them. From among all the music that he wrote, in a lifetime of composing, these are the works that placed him in the pantheon of the immortals; and out of these, normally only ten are performed. Not a very good record when we compare his output to that of the other composer with whom he shares the same year of birth -- Giuseppe Verdi. The Italian master was prodigious in his writing, often finishing a work in a matter of weeks during his early and middle periods. Wagner often took years to finish a project. The Ring of the Nibelung took more than twenty. It's hard to be a fast worker when you are modernizing and revolutionizing 19th century theater. Of Verdi's thirty completed operas, more than half are in the repertory of most opera houses. For their 2013-2014 season, the Metropolitan Opera will perform two works by Verdi (surprisingly few) and not a one by Wagner -- not surprising and understandable. It seems that no opera house can survive a season without mounting at least one work by Verdi, but Wagner is a little more problematic. His music dramas are a little more expensive to put on, and a little harder to cast. Perhaps this is why a performance of a Wagner work is such a special event. It takes a little extra effort to set it up and get through it. But, in return, what amazing things it gives you back.

I suppose that the best way to celebrate his work, his life, and his legacy is to continue celebrating him the way we have all these years. My wishes on this bicentennial are the following: May Bayreuth always continue to mount his works, and may all the other opera houses in the world follow suit. May the powers-that-be nurture the kind of voices needed to fill the great roles that he created. And may producers, and anyone responsible for Wagner productions around the world, always remember that his music and words are sacrosanct, and that they should be treated with respect.

Happy Birthday, Maestro! Herzlichen Glückwunsch zum Geburtstag!

Sunday, May 05, 2013

Maurizio Pollini at Carnegie Hall

In the twilight of his years Maurizio Pollini continues to amaze with the aristocratic virtuosity and technical dexterity that has garnered him world-wide acclaim since he won the Chopin International Competition at the age of 18.  This afternoon at Carnegie Hall he performed some of the great treasures of piano literature with an all-Beethoven sonata program that included the "Pathétique" for starters and the "Appassionata" as a concluding piece. Rounding out the program, Mr. Pollini also played number 22 as well as number 23, the "Waldstein."

Mr. Pollini might show his age in his walking stride to his piano, but once he sits in front of his instrument he is a young man once again, in many ways an unassuming presence at the keyboard who tends to disappear inside the music he is playing. Perhaps this is why he is one of the greats.  A Maurizio Pollini recital is not about him, it's all about the music. He delved into the C minor "Pathétique" Op. 13, the earliest piece in the group, with clean attacks, superb musicianship and youthful exuberance. The well-known second movement Adagio cantabile floated on air at a tempo slightly faster than usual, and it concluded with a vigorous reading of the Rondo that whet the audience's appetite for the rest of the program to follow.

The "Waldstein" Op. 53, a piece composed between 1803 and 1804, ended the first part of the program.  The opening movement Allegro was exciting and crisp, the Adagio majestic and pensive, and the concluding Rondo movement with its Prestissimo finale caused some of the audience members to rise to their feet, while shouts of "bravo," the first of many more to come, began to be heard throughout the house.

The second part of the program began with a change. Mr. Pollini chose to play sonata number 22 Op. 54 instead of number 24 as listed on the program. This work, composed in 1804, is one of the seven bipartite works of the 32 sonatas that Beethoven wrote.  The first movement is a romantic minuet steeped in the classical tradition, and the second a superb allegro vivace. By making this change, the entire afternoon program was played chronologically in the order the pieces were composed thus giving us a rare glimpse at the musical development of the composer.

Mr. Pollini concluded the concert with a remarkable reading of the Opus 57 "Appassionata," one of the most difficult pieces in the entire piano repertory. Starting with its quiet, ominous theme, through its second movement Andante variations and concluding with a Presto coda that returns the piece to F minor, Mr. Pollini was on fire. Needless to say, the audience rose to its feet at the end in thunderous applause. He was brought back by the tremendous ovation, and played two encores, one of which was Beethoven's "Bagatelle" in B flat minor.

Mr. Pollini has been quoted as saying that "in music, the complexity makes the intensity," and in his special unassuming way he treated today's New York audience to an intense afternoon of wondrous music.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Wagner's Siegfried at the MET

The Metropolitan Opera is in the middle of presenting three Ring Cycles this spring, and this afternoon was the premiere of Siegfried, the third part of Richard Wagner's monumental tetralogy. It is the second year that the Robert Lepage production is seen in its entirety at the house.  This season comes with a few key changes in the cast from the first initial years when the operas debuted. The "machine," the twenty four planks that make up the unit set for the four operas, is still very much with us, and continues to be the source of much controversy, and the topic of most of the audience conversation at intermissions. When the contraption works, it offers a 21st century staging that at times can be arresting as it is maddening. When it malfunctions it is an engineering nightmare that leaves audiences wishing that the MET had kept the previous Otto Schenk staging alone.

Having seen the entire music drama at the house as well as on Blu-Ray DVD I've concluded that this staging is best enjoyed on a 16x9 flat screen monitor at home, or in an HD presentation in the theater. The "machine" robs the staging of depth with much of the action taking place near the apron of the stage. This is perfect for the two dimensional presentation on a theater or home screen. Some audience members have even complained that, depending on what part of the house one sits, the "machine" steals away some of the sound. With money coming in hand over fist from the worldwide HD presentations MET management could probably care less what goes on at the house these days.

Among the artists returning to the roles they created in this production are Gerhard Siegel as Mime and Jay Hunter Morris as Siegfried.  These days Mr. Siegel owns the role of Mime.  He is a brilliant actor with a strong heldentenorish voice to match.  Mr. Morris is very strong in the acting department, but his voice, compared to that of Mr. Siegel, is lighter, making the MET's Ring possibly the only production of this work where the Siegfried could sing Mime and vice-versa.  I would love for them to switch roles in a recording of this opera and examine the results.  Likewise, basso-profundo Hans-Peter König was a thunderous Fafner, a voice that harks back to the Golden Age of Wagnerian singers.  Eric Owens, as Alberich, continues to be a phenomenal stage presence, but this afternoon his low notes sounded a bit dry.   Deborah Voigt has become the house Brünnhilde, and this afternoon she sounded strong and radiant, the best I have seen her in quite a while.  Mark Delavan, taking on the role of Wotan for the first time this year, sounded strong and assured.

The Metropolitan Opera orchestra, under Fabio Luisi played flawlessly as usual this very difficult score.  We are so lucky to have such an incredibly fine ensemble playing every night in New York City.

Saturday, April 06, 2013

Music meets Technology at the American Composers Orchestra

The American Composers Orchestra concert on Friday evening at Carnegie's Zankel auditorium, under the direction of George Manahan, explored the possibilities of music and technology under the banner of "Playing it UNsafe."  Composer Raymond J. Lustig's "Latency Canons" does just that. It is a transatlantic twelve minute orchestra work that balances the musicians in New York with the Gildas Quartet playing, in "real" time from Manchester, England, and over the Internet.  The unreliable aspect of cyberspace, together with the delay that oftentimes happens in our current computer communication is the backbone of this work.  In Richard Wagner's Parsifal when the character Gurnemanz mysteriously states that in the realm of the Grail "time becomes space" he could very well be talking about Mr. Lustig's canons.  His mostly tonal piece culminates in a dizzying fugue punctuated by massive chords on the brass section.  That the Internet has become more reliable and less twitchy than when perhaps the idea first occurred to Mr. Lustig is not the point.  The very fact that the composer embraces unreliability in performance as the piece's raison d'être continues to make the essence of "Latency Canons" wonderfully experimental.

For more information about Raymond Lustig and his music, visit his website: RaymondLustig.com.

Wednesday, April 03, 2013

Blancanieves, A Silent Snow White Set in Spain

If you are a Spanish filmmaker and you are going to update Snow White and the Seven Dwarves you might as well pull all the stops and set the classic fairy tale in 1920s pre Civil War Andalucia.  That's where director Pablo Berger takes us in his film Blancanieves, transporting us right to the middle of sun-drenched Seville amid the heat of the bullfight and the clamor of flamenco. And to make it even more timeless, he reaches back to the early days of cinema and presents the story as a silent film, in beautiful black-and-white.

Under Berger's direction, Snow White becomes a grotesque tale of the sword and the cape set to the driving rhythms of the earthy but elegant gypsy music that gives Southern Spain its soul and passion.  Snow White, here called Carmen is the daughter of famous torero Antonio Villalta (Daniel Giménez Cacho) and a flamenco singer from Seville's Triana neighborhood.  On a sunny day in the bullring, the matador ably disposes of the first five bulls, but the last one, named Lucifer, savagely gores him, leaving him incapacitated for life.  His pregnant wife gives birth to Carmen prematurely, and dies in the process.  Thus the little orphan is left to be raised by the grandmother (Angela Molina) who teaches young Carmen the ways of the gypsy dance, and thus maintains the spirit of her mother alive.  Meanwhile, the bullfighter's gold digging nurse Encarna (Maribel Verdú) marries him and keeps him a virtual prisoner in his own house as she transforms herself into the evil lady of the manor -- a scarier Evil Queen I have not seen!  When the grandmother dies in the middle of a flamenco dance on the day of Carmen's first communion, Encarna sends for the little girl and, like every twisted fairy tale stepmother, drives Carmen into a Cinderella-like slave existence.

Eventually, director Berger remembers that this is Snow White, so the little girl grows up to be the fairest of them all: Macarena García.  The evil stepmother sends her henchman to kill her, but she survives the attack only to be revived by a troupe of midget bullfighters: an inspired idea that mixes Buñuelian imagery with Tod Browning's horror classic Freaks.  Eventually, under the tutelage of her little friends, Carmen becomes a lady matador, gains notoriety by performing in small dusty towns, and eventually gets a big contract to come back to Seville, the mecca of bullfighting, where her father almost lost his life.

From here on, it's a short road to a poisoned apple, a glass coffin, and the kind of ending that draws from the original fairy tale while deviating from it in a most melodramatic way.  Mr. Berger's final shot, offers an unexpected touch of the poet that may not be totally in keeping with the rest of the film.  It is the kind of conclusion that leaves audiences with a veil of satisfaction that hides the disturbing darkness beneath.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

New York Times Article about Peter Gelb

The New York Times Sunday magazine has a very interesting, in-depth article on Peter Gelb's tenure as the Metropolitan Opera's current general manager.  While the Times keeps it available online, you can read it by going here.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Las Vegas Rigoletto at the MET

 Wieland Wagner ushered in the era of the director in opera with the reopening of the Bayreuth Festival in 1951.  His historic production of Parsifal was a personal statement assuring the world that the Green Hill would never go back to the German mythological productions that had been connected with his country’s Nazi past.  The second part of the 20th century proved to be a breeding ground for directors trying their hand at Richard Wagner’s works.  With their mythic settings and abstract ideas these operas and music dramas lent themselves easily to experimentation in a way that other composers did not.  Case and point, the majority of works by Giuseppe Verdi, whose operas seem to be rooted in a specific time and place, remained more or less in their original setting for the longest time.  No more!  Verdian Regietheater has arrived with full force this year at the MET with the new production of the 1851 classic Rigoletto, the tragedy of a jester in Renaissance Mantua now transformed by director Michael Mayer as the story of a shtick funny man in 1960s Rat Pack Las Vegas.

The concept is not entirely new.  In 1982, at the English National Opera, Dr. Jonathan Miller set this work in New York’s mob-controlled Little Italy in the 1950s.  Director Mayer took this idea and ran away with it, all the way to the boozy era of Frankie, Dean, Sammy, and Joey, and he has brought back to life their loud tuxedos, the all-night drinking bouts, and the neon-lit Sands and Flamingo atmosphere of the rough joints that the Mafia set up in the Vegas Strip in the post World War II years.

What makes this production work, and work very well is the commitment of the entire cast to this new concept.  Everyone is perfectly cast in the ensemble, and all look comfortable in the updated setting.  The Duke, who is now a cross between Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin, is played with flair and abandon by Piotr Beczala who makes one of the most dashing cads we have seen on the MET stage in a long time.  His "La Donna è Mobile" ends with him swinging around a pole where a topless dancer gyrated only minutes before in front of the assassin Sparafucile, memorably played by Slovakian bass Stefan Kocán, a dangerous figure with a deep dark bass voice, and massive deep notes.  His initial encounter with Rigoletto (Željko Lučić), in an after hours bar, drew bravos from the crowd, especially the last note of the duet: Kocán's beautifully placed low F. 

At the heart of this opera there is the relationship between father and daughter, and this production has a winning pair of singers in these roles.  Mr. Lučić was perfectly cast as the jester with the acid tongue and a highly personal family secret.  In this production, while all the men are wearing loud period tuxes, he wears sweaters, giving the impression of being a hunchback Joey Bishop.  His voice is perfectly suited for this role: a round baritone that's not afraid of resorting to a growl or two.  In the 1940s and 1950s Leonard Warren was famous for a similar approach to this character, and Lučić's reading of the score reminded me of Warren's sound.  Diana Damrau made a beautiful, virginal Gilda.  She was able to convey the character's sweetness, and naivete, while she sailed through Verdi's difficult music.  Her "Caro Nome" was brilliant, with clear trills that made the receptive audience burst out in applause and well-deserved bravos. Kudos also to Michele Mariotti who conducted this well-known score with assured aplomb making the ensemble reach both massive controlled tuttis as well as very tender moments.

Updating this work is a directorial decision that is still considered a big risk in this city.  Experimentation is the norm across international opera houses, but it has also become the trademark of the Peter Gelb tenure at the MET, something that a faction of the New York opera public is deeply lamenting.  Year after year innovative productions of the bread and butter works are replacing the conservative Joseph Volpe productions that stood the test of time and pleased the tastes of the majority of New York's opera audience.  This production manages to hit the right notes, offering a risky, potentially silly, but successful re-imagining of a much-beloved work in the canon.  When the elements fit, as they do here, then the result is a memorable and satisfying piece of theater.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

New Parsifal at the MET

 When I heard Parsifal at the Bayreuth Festival this summer, I wrote on this blog that the experience was like listening to the work for the first time.  The new Metropolitan Opera production of this work premiered on Friday, and the event also felt like a first of sorts.  The new staging by François Girard removes the work from the confines of MET traditional staging where it has always been since the opera company produced the work in 1903 against the wishes of the composer that this "stage consecrating festival play" be performed only at the Green Hill.  It is the MET's first non-traditional production of this work, and the opening night crowd received it with the customary applause and cheers for the performers, and some very loud boos aimed at the production team.

In Girard's vision of Richard Wagner's last work the gathering MET audience itself becomes part of the drama as a reflecting black curtain welcomes us, and puts us right on the stage even before the initial downbeat.  This idea of a mirror is hardly new, having been used, coincidentally, at Bayreuth this summer during the concluding moments of the current production.  Here at the MET, the Grail Knights are a group of men in white shirt sleeves and black pants looking more like an American Quaker or Shaker congregation.  In Michael Levine's minimalist set the chorus of men sit in a circle on one side, right from the start of the opera, while their wives, veiled women in black, are segregated on the other side of the stage, separated by a crack through which water flows, and sometimes blood.  At the end of the first act the chasm opens to reveal what appears to be burning lava beneath: perhaps a foreshadowing of nastier things to come.  In the second act the playing area of Klingsor's realm is a forest of spears in a pool of blood where everyone gets their feet wet.  In the final act, the Grail Knights are in a complete disarray.  The stage is now a makeshift graveyard, and a sense of doom hangs in the air.  Luckily, Parsifal comes to the rescue, bringing back the stolen spear.  He inserts the lance into the mouth of the Grail cup -- an obvious sexual metaphor that makes Kundry swoon.  And now that male (spear) and female (grail) are back together again the men and women dare to walk across the crack, and gather together, crossing the barrier that originally had kept them apart.

Girard's production steers away from controversy and presents us with a middle of the road "regietheatre lite" that's very European, but ultimately benign, and ultimately quite traditional.  No Apocalyptic, cannibalistic Parsifal here as in Calixto Bieito's Staatsoper Stuttgart production, and certainly no Stefan Herheim's Bayreuth production where Wagner's opera intertwines with the history of Germany and Bayreuth itself.  Girard follows the path set down by the composer, but the production also steers away from the traditional trappings of previous MET stagings, and this is enough cause for conservative New York opera lovers to raise a clamor, and long for the days when Cecil B. De Mille-sized sets rolled on during the Grail transformation scene.  The grandeur is still there: listen to it!  It's all in the music!

Daniele Gatti led the orchestra in a slow, majestic reading filled with magnificent details and soft nuances.  Italianate to the core, this was a Parsifal that sang, and he conducted without a score -- an impressive Herculean feat.  Onstage the chorus was simply marvelous once again.  This ensemble should not envy the famed Bayreuth chorus.  Both groups are first rate musicians, and last night proved that the MET chorus is one of the most important assets of this company.  In the leading roles René Pape presented a younger than usual Gurnemanz, vocally strong, with perfect diction and great stage presence.  Katarina Dalayman started vocally weak in the role of Kundry but warmed up by the time her big moments came in Act II.  Jonas Kaufmann was his usual excellent self throughout the evening.  His dark tenor filling the house, and at times resorting to his famous pianissimo in order to portray the youthfulness of the character.  The most impressive singer of the evening was Peter Mattei who was heartbreaking as the king who cannot bear to raise the grail once more.  His Amfortas was a wounded soul, bleeding profusely out of his right side, unable to walk without assistance, and totally damaged psychologically by his very human past failings.  His baritone rang true, with strength and pathos throughout his performance.  Finally, it was great to see Evgeny Nikitin sing.  He was banned from the Bayreuth Festival last summer when it was discovered that at one point in his youth he had a swastika tattooed on his chest.  His reading of Klingsor was vocally solid, although at times he resorted to an unnecessary Bayreuth bark in order to portray the evil intentions of the character.

This is an interesting production of Parsifal with a valid and familiar take on the story.  Certainly I do not think that it is a production that audiences will want to see for twenty years (as in the Joseph Volpe years), and I hope that in due time we get to experience another reincarnation of this timeless work.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Argo: a film directed by Ben Affleck

When militants stormed the United States embassy in Tehran in 1979 in retaliation for the U.S. sheltering the deposed Shah of Iran, more than 50 members of the embassy staff were taken hostage.  Six of them, however, escaped and hid at the home of the Canadian ambassador.  Back in the U.S., CIA operative Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck) dreams up a wacky, improbable plan to rescue the six while watching Battle for the Planet of the Apes on TV with his son.  The six Americans are going to pass as Canadian filmmakers scouting exotic desert locations for an imaginary Star Wars ripoff called Argo.

Labeled by Mendez's CIA supervisor Jack O'Donnell (Bryan Cranston) as "the best bad idea we have" the powers that be nevertheless sign off on it, and Mendez begins an eye-opening  journey of discovery in Hollywood-Babylon where he finds out that even an imaginary film requires a ton of pre-production.  He meets with John Chambers (John Goodman) a makeup expert who in the past did disguise work for the agency.  He welcomes Mendez to Tinsel Town by telling him "So you want to come to Hollywood and act like a big shot without actually doing anything? ... You'll fit right in."

The fake project begins to take shape when Mendez meets with producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) who helps Mendez to set up a phony film studio and successfully establish the pretense that this movie has been green lit and will be entering principal photography soon. A memorable, but frightening montage sequence juxtaposes the first reading of the Argo script by actors wearing ridiculous alien costumes with a televised news conference where the very real demands of the embassy militants are being read in English by an angry spokeswoman wearing a veil. Fun and games, and lies and truths merge in a pivotal but indecisive moment of history.

Eventually Mendez manages to sneak inside Tehran, meet the six, and instruct them in record time on the customs, mores, politics and pitfalls of Canadian English.  Time is of the essence, for back at the embassy the militants have realized that six Americans are missing, and armed posses are looking for them.  The film's finale at the airport is a nail biting sequence expertly handled by director Affleck.

The fact that Mr. Affleck was passed over as director when the Academy Awards nominations came out raised a lot of eyebrows.  The Golden Globes, last weekend, honored him with its version of the best director prize.  In addition, this year's Oscar host Seth MacFarlane believes that Ben Affleck got robbed in the Best Director Oscar category.  It should prove to be an interesting Oscar ceremony on February 24.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Django Unchained: New Tarantino Film

When Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) learns that the slave Django (Jamie Foxx) is married to a woman named Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), the German bounty hunter posing as a dentist mountebank can't help but recount the myth of the Valkyrie Brünnhilde and how she deceived her father Wotan: a story best told through Richard Wagner's epic cycle of operas The Ring of the Nibelung, and Fritz Lang's silent epic Die Nibelungen.  But Christoph Waltz's character only gets us started on the tale.  It's up to the real storyteller here, Quentin Tarantino, to take us to its shattering, fiery conclusion: an ending rivaling Götterdämmerung, the end of the Wagnerian cycle.  And he does, in his new film Django Unchained.

Once again, Tarantino is on his post-modern road trip, barreling through his favorite movie genres.  This time he has picked on the Western -- but not the John Ford, Howard Hawks studio product of Hollywood's Golden Age, and not even the dark psychological films of Anthony Mann and Budd Boetticher.  It's the spaghetti westerns that emerged in the 1960s that's getting the Tarantino treatment here: films such as Sergio Leone's "Dollars trilogy," a lesser western all'italiana titled Django by director Sergio Corbucci, and the countless grindhouse schlock that came out as the genre started to exhaust itself by the mid 1970s.  These neo-westerns were rougher, earthier beasts, and Tarantino is a master at capturing the good, the bad and the very ugly stylistic stereotypes of the genre with ease: the hungry zoom lens racing to focus on an immense closeup of a craggy European actor playing an American desperado, the uneven sound synchronization of dialogue due to Italy's tradition of post-dubbing, and the memorable music by Ennio Morricone and countless lesser imitators who gave the spaghetti westerns their funky but memorable edge.

But that same edginess unfortunately seems to follow Tarantino right into the structure and theme of this film, which quickly puts away its western trappings and suddenly turns into a period blaxploitation flick.  We leave behind the dusty western towns and snowy vista landscapes, and suddenly we are in a Southern antebellum plantation where a young patrician named Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio) fights his strongest slave specimens, one against the other, in a historical fictitious gladiatorial practice he calls "Mandingo fighting."  He brings to mind, of course, the film Mandingo, the Dino De Laurentiis 1975 stinker that's reportedly one of Tarantino's favorite films, and which has my favorite tagline of all time: "He is more than man, he is Mandingo."  They just don't write them like that anymore.

For the fiery finale, Django and Dr. Schultz attempt to rescue Broomhilda, who just happens to be one of the rebellious house slaves at Mr. Candie's plantation, aptly called Candie Land.  Here, Tarantino aims to recreate the massacre at the end of The Wild Bunch, a seminal western that is itself a hybrid of the old and the new. But Jamie Foxx lacks the gravitas of William Holden, drunk on violence, ripping Mexicans apart at the helm of a machine gun.  The results are less Sam Peckinpah and more John Wood, which is not a bad thing.

Before all of this, though, we meet Stephen, a cantankerous ancient house slave that has been keeping the status-quo at Candie Land for decades. Stephen is a truly perverse creation, and Samuel L. Jackson is in top form as he embodies this larger than life monster.  At times, Tarantino's dialogue in this film feels stilted, as if period and genre bind him to a set of rules he doesn't want to follow.  But when it comes to Mr. Jackson, the gloves are off, and the dialogue comes alive, even when half of what comes out of his mouth is contemporary ghetto street more worthy of an L.A. rapper than a house slave in the Old South.

The late American and spaghetti westerns had one thing in common: they were mostly about the end of an era.  They portrayed the end of the West where both lawman and outlaw were running out of dusty trails to roam as civilization was slowly creeping in.  Django Unchained like Steven Spielberg's Lincoln is about the beginning of something: the future of America as a land free of slavery.  Django Unchained may not be the perfect homage to the spaghetti western genre, but nevertheless it is an entertaining journey through Tarantino's movie-fueled imagination.