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.