Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Bryan Cranston in TRUMBO

When I was in grammar school, I remember one of my classmates got chewed out by one of my teachers because he was reading the novel Johnny Got his Gun, the 1938 anti-war novel by Dalton Trumbo, better known as one of Hollywood's greatest screenwriters and one of the infamous blacklisted "Hollywood Ten." It was the early 1970s, the Vietnam War had stretched out to Cambodia and Laos, and Trumbo, a communist who had been to prison for not cooperating with the House UN-American Activities Committee (HUAC), was still persona non grata to many conservative people in this country.

Most people my age, myself included, did not know anything about him. I was fascinated by the name I saw in my friend's book (which had a picture of a soldier running against a hand doing a victory sign -- which to us in the 1970s was a peace sign). I did not know anybody called Dalton or Trumbo, for that matter. I'm sure my classmate, a tall, lanky boy with buck teeth named John O'Toole, was reading the book because it had been reissued in paperback as a result of a film having been released in 1971 (with a screenplay by Trumbo himself). And I'm sure he was curious about its lurid content. In the early 70s, the story of an American soldier, horribly deformed as a result of a mortar shell explosion in World War I was a thinly veiled anti-war comment on our involvement in Southeast Asia.

The film Trumbo feels as if its creators also had little knowledge of the man and the period. The film doesn't really feel like it was written, but more like it was cut and pasted from Wikipedia articles. Somehow, this biopic should have been told as a theater piece, and not as a movie. Film is too inquisitive and too exacting. Actors can bring to life such luminaries from the silver screen as John Wayne and Edward G. Robinson onstage, aided by the magic of theater.  However, film puts up a roadblock whenever well-known icons have to be represented.  As a result the attempt to recreate Hollywood in the late 1940s and 50s fails to persuade us. It feels like a sendup of Hollywood and not a loving recreation. Bryan Cranston's performance as Trumbo has its moments, but often he opts for an over-the-top approach. And unfortunately, it is also very clear that there are scenes that have been included only to make sure that he has a chance to garner a Best Actor nomination.

Only John Goodman as scumbag producer Frank King, and Helen Mirren as Hollywood's power broker Hedda Hopper survive the superficial approach this film takes. Christian Berkel as Otto Preminger and David James Elliott as John Wayne create minor caricatures, while Diane Lane, playing Cleo, Trumbo's wife, is just another person that we want to get to know better, but the film does not allow us to do so.

I learned a few facts about Mr. Trumbo but the film does not get under the man's skin, which is what any successful biopic must do. In many ways I was reminded of myself back in grammar school, a boy who did not know who this Dalton Trumbo was even though I had just been with the man for over two hours.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Lulu at the Metropolitan Opera

Alban Berg's last, unfinished opera Lulu (completed by composer Friedrich Cerha in 1970) came back to the Metropolitan Opera last week in a new production by William Kentridge. Arguably the greatest and most famous work to emerge from the so-called serialist, twelve-tone compositional system devised by Arnold Schoenberg, the work is based on two plays by Frank Wedekind that relates the rise and fall of a black-widow siren who seems to violently terminate the life of any man that comes into her orbit. It served silent film star Louise Brooks with her greatest vehicle in G.W. Pabst's Pandora's Box.

The complete Lulu was first presented at the MET in 1980 with Teresa Stratas taking on the challenging title role and James Levine conducting the angular, expressionistic, taxing score: a musical revelation for those of us that were lucky enough to be present at those performances. In this go-around, Mr. Levine was supposed to take up the challenge of conducting once more, but unfortunately it seems that his failing health has not allowed him to do so. I'm not sure if given his current health issues he would be able to take up the challenge of conducting this complex work. Last month I noticed that his Tannhäuser was lackluster. Some might argue that Mr. Levine is mellowing with age; that might be true, but what I heard coming from the pit was a lack of energy, not a deepening of musical ideas. His choice to step down for this production was a wise one, since German conductor Lothar Koenigs, who is a specialist in 20th century music, led a vibrant reading of Berg's score. His conducting was sinuous and sultry at times, and he trusted the forces of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra enough to let go of their reins and allow them to make some earth-shaking sounds during the dramatic moments of the score.

Taking on the title role in this production is German soprano Marlis Petersen, who has made a career playing this role (and who will put the role to rest after this production). She has no problem bringing this heroine to life: her strong soprano is able to sail the high tessitura that the role demands, and her sexy body conveys the erotic side of the character (is there another side?) beautifully. On a personal level, I am glad that she is putting this role to sleep. Too much twelve-tone singing and pretty soon you will find yourself without any legato! She will play Rosalinde in Die Fledermaus at Munich's Bavarian State Opera. I'm sure that will be a much more "pleasant to the ear" and it will sit in her voice beautifully.

Johan Reuter playing the dual role of Dr. Schön/Jack the Ripper was strong of voice and proved to be a gifted actor. Susan Graham made deep impressions as Countess Geschwitz (perhaps the only decent character in this story) and Paul Groves as the painter and the African Prince was vocally memorable.

 Mr. Kentridge's production is a marvel, following the tradition of his earlier production of Dmitri Shostakovitch's The Nose.  Projections appear and disappear before our eyes, commenting, sometimes slyly on the going-ons on stage. It is a hyper-kinetic approach that helps the audience through the difficulties of the score. I'm sure that some members of the audience who find the complex score a sonic puzzle stayed through the end, just to see what the production would bring.  Key to this are the solo performers Joanna Dudley (who uses an onstage grand piano like some use a Bowflex Max Trainer) and Andrea Fabi who plays a butler in a twisted, expressionistic style worthy of the somnambulist Cesare in the silent film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.

Although it might not be for everybody (I saw a lot of young kids with their parents last night -- I hope their parents tried to explain something about the music to them!) this production of Lulu is not to be missed. Just go in there with an open mind, and chances are that your perception of what music can be, and what it can be achieved will be challenged. After all, that's what good opera should be doing through every performance.

Saturday, November 07, 2015

Spotlight: the Best Film of the Year

Spotlight, the story of how a group of Boston Globe reporters exposed the cover up of sexually abused children by pedophile priests. The film is a hard-hitting newsroom drama in the style of Network, The Insider, and All the President's Men. It is a gripping work with a superlative ensemble cast, and the words "Academy Awards" emblazoned all over this amazing film.

When Martin Baron (Liev Schreiber), a Jewish newspaper editor arrives in Irish Catholic Boston from the Miami Herald he encourages a small group of reporters to dig into the labyrinthine world of the Boston archdiocese, which at that time was headed by Cardinal Bernard Law. As New York Times critic A.O. Scott noted in his fine review of this film, Cardinal Law's opinion that "the city flourishes when the great institutions work together," is the major reason why the sexual molestation of thousands of children was covered up by the powers that be. Mr. Scott added that "when institutions convinced of their own greatness work together, what usually happens is that the truth is buried and the innocent suffer." Truer words were never spoken.

The incredible cast is headed by Michael Keaton and John Slattery as Boston Globe editors, and it features Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, and Brian d'Arcy James as Globe reporters. Stanley Tucci and Billy Crudup give memorable performances as attorneys, and Len Cariou is chilling as Cardinal Law. To watch this amazing cast at work is to marvel at the power of great filmmaking. The script by Josh Singer and director Tom McCarthy is a marvel of economy, deserving of all the praise that it will receive come award season.

Is it possible that Hollywood has awaken from its horrid summer slumber and is once again producing films for adults featuring three dimensional characters and issues of real importance? I hope that Spotlight serves as the game changer, and that it heralds a new generation of smart, thought-provoking cinema.

Sunday, October 04, 2015

NYFF: Steve Jobs

Steve Jobs, Danny Boyle's new film, from a screenplay by Aaron Sorkin, is a series of extraordinary scenes, most of them acted out backstage before some of Apple Inc's fabled announcements of their new products. This is the second film that screenwriter Sorkin has written about technology. David Fincher's The Social Network, which brought to life the genesis of Facebook, earned Sorkin a well deserved Oscar. This time around his screenplay focuses on the relationships between the man and various people around his orbit. A large percentage of the script is composed of conversations between two people, making the film a very private, inside look at Steve Jobs. The only public scenes are those when Jobs steps on the stage of an auditorium, to rousing cheers, as an expectant public drools at the mouth in expectation of the latest miracle from Cupertino. It is not a typical biopic of the genius who revolutionized the way we interact with technology. Far from it. The film begins with the introduction of the first Macintosh, meanders through Jobs's failing venture away from Apple, with the NeXT Cube, and concludes with his return to Apple and the unveiling of the first iMac. Towards the conclusion of the film he promises his estranged daughter that one day she will be able to throw away her walkman, and carry a thousand songs in her pocket, but the iPod is barely a dream as the concluding titles of this film roll.

As usual, Michael Fassbender morphs effortlessly into the title character, giving a subdued performance where he balances the Zen-like public Jobs with a private man who is acquainted with personal demons. Kate Winslet is also brilliant in her role of an Apple executive who is part lion tamer to Steve Job's beast, and part unfulfilled love interest.  Jeff Daniels as Apple's CEO, Michael Stuhlbarg as a member of the original Macintosh team, and Seth Rogen as Apple co-creator Steve Wozniak give memorable performances.

At the heart of this film is Steve Job's rocky relation to Chrisann Brennan (played by Katherine Waterstone), Jobs's high school girlfriend, and his daughter Lisa, who throughout the film grows to a college-age student, and is memorably played by Brazilian newcomer Perla Haney-Jardine.

Behind the scenes, Alwin Küchler's cinematography runs the gamut from grainy filmstock for the 1980's scenes, and switches to digital as the story progresses, and Daniel Pemberton's score has a driving, subliminal beat. Danny Boyle's direction is surprisingly subdued, as is required by this very subtle script.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

NYFF: The Walk

Robert Zemeckis loves to take us back to the future; his films recreate the past with his brilliant use of cutting-edge technology. He is a master at dressing up the events that he portrays with incredible accuracy and adding a showman's flair that sanitizes the events for the audience. In Forrest Gump, he took us through a cavalcade of American history through the eyes of a singular, memorable Everyman; and in Who Framed Roger Rabbit? he celebrated the heyday of American animation while pushing the technological envelope when it came to human-toon interaction.

In his latest film, The Walk, he takes us to the gritty, graffiti-filled New York 1970s, when the buildings of the World Trade Center were just the tallest structures in the world, far from the symbols of nostalgia and grief that they would become. The plot of the movie tells how an obsessed French aerialist came to be absorbed by the structures. Philippe Pettit could not help himself when it came to setting a high tension wire between the two buildings so he could walk across them, and although the film might glorify his soft-shoe 1974 routine high above the skyline of New York City, the film is really a paean to the lost Twin Towers, which Mr. Zemeckis recreates with a loving touch.

When a movie focuses on such a mythic, colossal structure, it's hard to squeeze in memorable performances. Joseph Gordon-Levitt manages to bring Mr. Pettit to life, but just barely, by donning an outrageous accent along with an equal histrionic manner. Subtle acting, it is not. In many ways, his performance mirrors Mr. Zemeckis's approach to the whole story. At the outset, for example, the director portrays Paris in a busy half black-and-white which tries to remind us of the French New Wave. Here Mr. Pettit runs into street musician Annie (Charlotte Le Bon), and it's love at first sight. But their boy-meets-girl fairy-tale story has no middle or depth as it leads to its nostalgic, predestined separation conclusion. Ben Kingsley, as Papa Rudy, a mentor figure, is a memorable Yoda character, but his wild eastern European accent (it's suppose to be Czech) is reminiscent of some of the foreign accents heard from Laurence Olivier towards the end of his career.  I guess when the movie is all about recreating a building something's gotta give.

Still, the movie is worth seeing from the technical point of view. Not Since Martin Scorsese's Hugo have we seen a better use of 3D. Mr. Zemeckis is a born showman, and he is not afraid to pull all the stops when it comes to using this technology. He knows that the audience likes to have objects come flying at them when they go to see a 3D movie, and of course he's not shy in giving it to us. But beyond the stereotypical effects, it is in the creation of a marvelous sense of depth and dizzying sense of vertigo that The Walk excels. And although a homage to bygone days is primarily at the heart of this film, it is the brilliant use of technology that at the end leaves us with the most satisfying cinematic moments.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Pope Francis is finally in the Americas

 Pope Francis is finally in the Americas. He just landed in Havana, Cuba, where he has once again urged in his opening speech that relations between the island and the United States return to normal. Pope Francis is the architect of this new dawn in political relations between the two countries.

Monday, August 24, 2015

New Documentary About Jackson Heights

The Film Society of Lincoln Center has announced that as part of the 53rd New York Film Festival a new documentary by Frederick Wiseman's will focus on my neighborhood: Jackson Heights.  Here is the information as I received it today in a press release.

"In Jackson Heights"
Frederick Wiseman, USA, 2015, DCP, 190m
Fred Wiseman’s 40th feature documentary is about Jackson Heights, Queens, one of New York City’s liveliest and most culturally diverse neighborhoods, a thriving and endlessly changing crossroad of styles, cuisines, and languages, and now—like vast portions of our city—caught in the gears of economic “development.” Wiseman’s mastery is as total as it is transparent: his film moves without apparent effort from an LGBT support meeting to a musical street performance to a gathering of Holocaust survivors to a hilarious training class for aspiring taxi drivers to an ace eyebrow-removal specialist at work to the annual Gay Pride parade to a meeting of local businessmen in a beauty parlor to discuss the oncoming economic threat to open-air merchants selling their wares to a meeting of undocumented individuals facing deportation. Wiseman catches the textures of New York life in 2015, the music of our speech, and a vast, emotionally complex, dynamic tapestry is woven before our eyes. A Zipporah Films release.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

A Sneak Peek at the MET's New OTELLO

According to the Metropolitan Opera, rehearsals are well underway at the house for opening night, which will premiere the company's new production of Giuseppe Verdi's Otello. This new staging directed by Bartlett Sher will feature sets by Es Devlin, costumes by Catherine Zuber, and lighting and projections by Donald Holder and Luke Halls. The principals: tenor Aleksandrs Antonenko (Otello), soprano Sonya Yoncheva (Desdemona), and baritone Željko Lučić (Iago) are scheduled to sing on opening night. The principal conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra, Yannick Nézet-Séguin will conduct this new production.

 As these pictures reveal, this new staging will feature stunning projections, and while the costumes seem to be somewhat in period, (from the sketches the MET has published) the settings offer no specific time frame. Undoubtedly, it is a production that fits the current modernistic trends of the opera house under the leadership of Peter Gelb.   

Lately, director Bartlett Sher has had an impressive number of successes: from the original Lincoln Center production of The Light in the Piazza in 2005, to his stunning revival in 2008 of South Pacific, and this year's megahit production of The King and I. His opera productions at the MET, ranging from The Barber of Seville to The Tales of Hoffmann have rapidly become audience favorites.  I am sure that Verdi's supreme Shakespearean tragedy is in good hands, and I am looking forward to being there on opening night. 

Friday, August 14, 2015

Mary Jo Heath: The New Voice of the MET Broadcasts

It has been announced that Mary Jo Heath will become the new Metropolitan Opera radio host. She replaces Margaret Juntwait, who died earlier this year. In the history of the MET broadcasts (at one time sponsored by Texaco, and currently by Toll Brothers) there have only been four hosts. Milton Cross was the voice of the MET for four decades, and he was followed by Peter Allen, who had a twenty plus year run. Heath has been a producer for the broadcasts, and she replaced Ms. Juntwait when she fell ill. Heath will officially assume her new role with the first Sirius broadcast of the season, the opening night performance of Verdi’s Otello on Monday, September 21.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Written on Skin at the Mostly Mozart Festival

When George Benjamin, the composer of the opera Written on Skin, was a teenager he traveled to Paris to study with Olivier Messiaen. The great composer/organist was very much impressed with his young pupil, even comparing him to Mozart. It is totally apt, therefore, that the American premiere of Benjamin's tour-de-force opera occurred last night in New York during the yearly summer homage to the boy genius from Salzburg.

The libretto of Written on Skin, by playwright Martin Crimp, takes us back to medieval days to recount an episode in the life of the legendary Catalan troubadour Guillem de Cabestaing. As the story goes, he falls in love with his patron's wife, and when the husband finds out about their infidelity, he kills the troubadour, rips out his heart and cooks it. That evening at dinner the husband forces his wife to eat her lover's remains. After she realizes what she has done (and wanting to preserve the taste of her beloved on her lips forever) she commits suicide by throwing herself from a balcony. In the opera the troubadour is turned into an itinerant artist whose specialty is illuminated manuscripts. Weaving in and out of the medieval story, characters in modern dress called angels reenact the story, entering into the medieval part of the set from their fluorescence lit contemporary space which resembles a laboratory, a place where perhaps illuminated manuscript might be in the process of being restored.

Both the libretto and the music travel back and forth in time and space. Mr. Benjamin's score freely mixes twentieth century thunderous dissonance with elements of contemporary tonality. His use of instruments such as a glass harmonica (a Benjamin Franklin invention favored by both Mozart and Gaetano Donizetti) as well as claves, pebbles, sleigh bells, and sandpaper offer a history of what is accepted as musical. The sounds coming out of that pit last night were exciting and mysterious. The audience is kept guessing as to the nature of those cryptic sounds. At the same time, the music is dictated by the dramatic events onstage. It never feels like the musical inventions are overwhelming the drama. Meanwhile, the libretto offers lines like “Strip the cities of brick . . . strip out the wires and cover the land with grass” which transcends the notion of time and space.

Most of the principal singers, as well as the musicians (The Mahler Chamber Orchestra) performed this work at its world premiere at the Aix-en-Provence Festival in 2012. The new kids on the block were countertenor Tim Mead, and conductor Alan Gilbert. Reprising the roles they created were baritone Christopher Purves and soprano Barbara Hannigan. All of them deserve much praise for their incredible work.

Written on Skin is a landmark work. I have no doubt that its score will be on the reading, and future performing lists of many conservatories. I am also sure that audience raconteurs will delight (or bore) later generations with tall tales about how they were present at the premiere. Consider yourself lucky if you were able to snatch up a ticket to the three performances being presented in this year's Mostly Mozart Festival.

Friday, August 07, 2015

Fun Home and Hamilton

I saw Fun Home last night, a few months after it won the Tony Award as best musical. I thought I was a little late in getting to it, but the original cast is still together, and the show is as powerful as it was when it showcased at the Public Theater downtown on Lafayette Street. I particularly enjoyed the chamber musical ensemble, which was the perfect accompaniment to what is essentially a musical largely assembled from private scenes and recollections. Fun Home is a modern, chamber opera about the coming of age of a lesbian graphic novelist, her closeted gay father, and her dysfunctional family. Written by Jeanine Tesori and Lisa Kron, and based on Alison Bechdel's autobiographical story, the show features stellar performances headed by Michael Cerveris in a Tony Award winning performance as the father, and child actress Sydney Lucas as the young Alison Bechdel.

This week, a new musical opened on Broadway: Hamilton. Like Fun Home this show, a musical tribute to our nation's Founding Fathers, also started humbly at the Public Theater where it soon became the hot ticket in town. It has moved to the Richard Rodgers Theater and it continues to be the show that you just have to see. Lin-Manuel Miranda who wrote the memorable Tony Award winner In the Heights (which also played at the Richard Rodgers Theater) is the author and star of this new work which takes the story of political figures (who have been immortalized in marble statues, and whose likeness adorns our money) and brings it back to the realm of mortality. History might have immortalized them, but this show remind us that they were just angry young men with a driven political purpose. To this end, the score, a mixture of hip-hop, rap and pop, is the perfect musical idiom to tell the story of these youthful trailblazers. The fact that they are largely played by black and Hispanic performers makes this work groundbreaking on many different levels.

Thankfully, I managed to get tickets.  But I couldn't get in until mid December. At least I will see this show with its original cast, months before the next Tony Award ceremony. I predict that it will be nominated for all major awards, and it will be a winner in many if not all categories.  From all the reviews that I have read this is the musical that will be featured in the history books of the great landmarks of the American musical theater.  I'm not sure if Mr. Miranda planned on ending up in a history book (for a show that desperately debunks history) but that is, oftentimes, the irony of success.

Thursday, August 06, 2015

Just Stick to Singing, Juan Diego!

It cannot be denied that Peruvian tenor Juan Diego Flórez has the kind of voice that only comes once in a lifetime. His lyrical, leggero instrument may never serve him well in late Verdi or Puccini, but in the triumvirate of the major bel canto composers he has excelled like very few can in this delicate, difficult repertory.  He broke the long-standing custom of banning encores at the Metropolitan Opera when the uproarious ovation that he received for singing the 9 high C's in "A mes amis" from The Daughter of the Regiment forced him to reprise the aria in its entirety; a feat that not even the great Luciano Pavarotti was able to do. Encores had not been heard at the house since the Golden Age of Enrico Caruso. He owns the role of Count Almaviva, reviving some arias from that work that many tenors had skipped due to its difficulty, and he possesses a high frequency voice that easily spans two octaves up to a high E flat (which he proved in a live performance of Rossini's Zelmira in 2009).

At the Salzburg Festival this week he offered a recital of Italian and French art songs that clearly displayed his astounding vocal technique. Accompanied by Vincenzo Scalera, Flórez was in splendid voice, and the audience was enormously receptive of his choice of repertory. He offered as an encore "Fra poco a me ricovero" from Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor, which was heartbreaking, and wonderfully received.

Then he returned to the stage with a guitar.  This is when things started getting a little weird. He took off his bow tie and hurled it away (it landed inside the piano), and went on to sing "Besame mucho." Mr. Scalera returned to the piano, and accompanied him in a rousing rendition of Agustin Lara's  "Granada."  By this time Mr. Flórez had gotten way too playful with his audience. He started comically reaching for his throat, as if telling the audience that he was running out of gas.  Nothing doing, though: as a final encore he launched into the nine C's of the aforementioned "A mes amis" each high note beautifully placed.  However, by the end of the aria once again he started mugging for the audience, making a joke of the vocal gymnastics required to sing this piece. Let us just say that comedy is not Mr. Flórez's forte. I often feel that his comic timing lags behind the beat, and this was clearly evident at the stage of the Großes Festspielhaus this week.  He just wasn't as funny as he thought he was, and it took away from the beauty of his remarkable singing. Just stick to singing, Juan Diego!

Below is the concert in its entirety.

Wednesday, August 05, 2015

The NY Film Festival welcomes Laurie Anderson

A recent press release from the Film Society of Lincoln Center reveals that Laurie Anderson has been commissioned to design the poster for the 53rd New York Film Festival. The yearly cinematic event will run from September 25 to October 11, and, as usual will feature films from around the world, as well as major releases from American studios.

Ms. Anderson is one of the most daring and creative personalities in the arts. She is best known for her gigantic multimedia presentations as well as her cutting-edge use of technology. She has been a director, writer and composer of works that span theater, performance art and experimental music. Her upcoming installation called Habeas Corpus will be at the Park Avenue Armory from October 2-4.

Below is the poster that Ms. Anderson has created for this year's New York Film Festival.

Regarding the poster, Ms. Anderson revealed “The NYFF is such an eclectic and ecstatically wild mix of films, and I wanted to try to capture some of the variety of subjects and styles. The original piece this is is based on, Follow the Sound, is 18 feet long with lots of plots and characters and fragments. I made this painting two years ago when I was feeling especially inspired by the scale of projected film and the possibilities of abrupt jump cuts. I’m so happy it’s the poster for this year’s festival.”

Sunday, August 02, 2015

Benedict Cumberbatch's HAMLET

Next week Benedict Cumberbatch begins his sold-out run of Hamlet at the Barbican in London. The production will be directed by Lindsey Turner and produced by Sonia Friedman. I do hope that the powers-that-be decide to bring this production to Broadway.  Jude Law's turn as the melancholy Dane sold out in London. I was there during his run, staying at my usual St. Martin's Lane Hotel, a block away from Wyndham's Theatre. Every morning a queue would form before sunrise for day tickets. I never bothered to wake up early to try to snatch up a ticket. Why spend my early morning hours watching the sun rise over Leicester Square, inhaling the fumes from the constant traffic on Charing Cross Road? The production eventually came to New York, and not surprisingly it sold out its brief limited run. I saw it on Broadway, at the Broadhurst Theater, and it was worth the wait.

Now it's time for us to be given the chance to experience how Mr. Cumberbatch will shape Shakespeare's greatest role.

Friday, July 31, 2015

Pope's Visit Forces Change for the NYFF

I received the following from the Film Society of Lincoln Center:

New York, NY (July 29, 2015) – The Film Society of Lincoln Center announced today that the World Premiere of Robert Zemeckis’s The Walk will take place on Saturday, September 26 instead of Friday, September 25 due to Pope Francis’s upcoming visit to New York. The date change was made for logistical and security reasons. The film, which remains the Opening Night selection of the 53rd New York Film Festival (September 25 – October 11), will screen at Alice Tully Hall. Festival dates stay the same, with free NYFF programming to take place on Friday, September 25, prior to the Opening Night screening on Saturday, September 26.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

NY Times Review of the new Bayreuth "Tristan"

The following review appeared today in the New York Times.

BAYREUTH, Germany — It’s the season of re-evaluating well-loved characters we thought we knew. First Atticus Finch, a saintly warrior for racial justice in Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird,” was revealed as a patronizing bigot in Ms. Lee’s newly published companion novel, “Go Set a Watchman.”

Now there visionists have come for King Marke. In a new production of Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde” that opened the Bayreuth Festival on Saturday evening, the thoughtful, melancholy king of the opera’s libretto, shocked and saddened by Tristan’s betrayal, is depicted as a brutal, unfeeling tyrant. At the end, rather than blessing the dead bodies of Tristan and Isolde, as Wagner indicated, Marke drags Isolde — here very much alive — away, still insisting on claiming the bride Tristan stole from him.

That is not the only intervention by the production’s director, Katharina Wagner, who has led the festival since 2008 with another of the composer’s great-granddaughters, her half sister Eva Wagner-Pasquier. This “Tristan” abjures magic: The title characters, in an agonized mixture of lust and guilt from the start, ecstatically pour out the famous love potion rather than drinking it, taking radical responsibility for their actions.

The second act is not the lovers’ secluded summer idyll but a fleeting union in a dystopian prison yard where Marke’s thugs have thrown them to be watched over by guards and pursued by harsh floodlights. This is a post-Stasi, post-Snowden “Tristan,” or perhaps it shows that the composer anticipated what we have tended to consider a recent phenomenon: the death of privacy — even, in this production, in death.

Ms. Wagner has made the opera a veritable taxonomy of gray, gloomy nightmares. The first act, set aboard Tristan’s ship, is here a labyrinth of shadowy staircases to nowhere, a combination of M. C. Escher and Piranesi. The looming walls and retracting cylindrical cages of the second act lead to a third act permeated by fog and dotted with a hall-of-mirrors profusion of Isoldes — some living, some collapsing mannequins — conjured by Tristan in his madness.

At this point, it is news when a production at Bayreuth, known for its cadre of fierce traditionalists, does not get booed, and on Saturday, Ms. Wagner and her design team seemed to receive only cheers at their curtain call. That speaks to the sobriety of the staging, and perhaps to some relief that this director has not offered a repeat of her idea-filled but messy, much-reviled “Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg,” first performed here in 2007.

With anonymously contemporary décor (by Frank Philipp Schlössmann and Matthias Lippert) and timeless costumes (by Thomas Kaiser) that are simultaneously medieval and futuristic, this “Tristan” is cleaner than “Die Meistersinger,” its divergences from the original text carefully considered. No, there is not the “tent-like cabin” that the libretto gives Isolde aboard Tristan’s ship, but that tent does find its way into Ms. Wagner’s second act, when the lovers cobble together a makeshift shelter out of some fabric to hide from the glare of the prison-yard lights.

Any restive fundamentalists in the audience might also have been calmed by seeming homages to the festival’s past, in a summer when Wagner’s home here, the Villa Wahnfried, is having its long-awaited reopening as an expanded museum. The third act of “Tristan,” its playing spaces defined by soft fields of light (designed by Reinhard Traub) and punctuated by floating pyramids that keep appearing and vanishing, evokes the abstract “New Bayreuth” aesthetic of the 1950s and ’60s.

Despite its stage-filling sets and its willingness to tinker with details of plot and character, the production’s overall impact on Saturday was modest. It makes few ideological claims, but also, more problematic, few emotional ones. Despite the terrors implied by its settings, its mood is never persuasively disconcerting or, indeed, persuasively much of anything. It is fluent and sensible, but that may not be enough when approaching one of the most disorienting works in operatic history.

In that sense, one of the production’s greatest strengths may also be a weakness: Christian Thielemann’s conducting was perhaps too subtly colored, too easily flowing, too effortlessly responsive for its own good, bolstering the impression that tension was all but missing from the performance.

Mr. Thielemann’s approach to Wagner has unique naturalness. In the first act, which frequently takes the form of a kind of call-and-response between singers and orchestra, his answers always arrived with alert immediacy. But like his oddly unanxious “Parsifal” at the Salzburg Easter Festival two years ago, his “Tristan” smooths over the work’s strangeness, its emotional extremes, its revolutionary harmonies.

Recently given the essentially new title of music director at the festival, Mr. Thielemann, rather than Ms. Wagner, was the one to bear some scattered boos at his bow. Perhaps that was a response to his musical choices, or perhaps to his controversially conservative politics or his seemingly ever-growing power here at Bayreuth.

It was clearer why the soprano Evelyn Herlitzius, announced last month as a replacement for Anja Kampe as Isolde, got her own catcalls: Her voice is angular rather than luxuriant, though her sound has clarity, and she acts with febrile focus. She was the odd woman out in a cast with considerable vocal glamour. The bass-baritone Iain Paterson was a hearty Kurwenal, and the mezzo-soprano Christa Mayer floated Brangäne’s offstage warnings to the lovers in Act 2 with haunting poise.

Stephen Gould actually sang Tristan — no mean feat — with a tone mellower and more lyrical than the pressured bellowing of many other tenors in this impossible role. Best of all was Georg Zeppenfeld as King Marke, his bass rich and pitch black, his malignancy potently underplayed. He made the production’s most surprising revision entirely convincing.

Friday, July 24, 2015

More Green Hill Shenanigans

The following article appeared on The Guardian:

It’s that time of year again: the balmy nights of late spring are the augurs of the annual ritual of blood-letting in northern Bavaria, when the remaining Wagners do their best to tear each other apart in public on the eve of the Bayreuth Festival

This week’s fun on the Green Hill concerns the following: it was announced over a year ago that Eva Wagner-Pasquier would be leaving her co-managerial duties with her half-sister Katharina at the end of this season. But that’s not enough, it seems. Malevolent forces somewhere within the poisonous, Nibelheimisch politics of Wagner’s Bayreuth mean, apparently, that Eva isn’t even allowed to be seen anywhere in the environs of the festival theatre, otherwise their star conductor Christian Thielemann will apparently humph off in a massive schtropp and not conduct Tristan und Isolde in the production that Katharina is directing to open the festival on 25 July. 

Allegedly, that is: Thielemann denies it, as do key partners in the festival organization, but Wagner-Pasquier’s lawyer seems to confirm the rumours. And, in a personal statement, Daniel Barenboim has called the treatment she is being subjected to as “inhumane.”  “I thought you couldn’t take away people’s freedom of movement – unless they were criminals,” he added.

And all of this comes on top of Kirill Petrenko, the Ring’s conductor and the sole unsullied hero of Bayreuth’s current production of the tetralogy, voicing his disapproval at the late, late replacement of his Siegfried, Lance Ryan, with Stefan Vinke describing the treatment of Ryan – and Wagner-Pasquier – as “unprofessional and wholly undignified”, and saying that only his responsibility to and respect for his colleagues have stopped him from cancelling altogether. 

So, are Bayreuth and the Wagner clan in crisis? Far from it: Bayreuth just wouldn’t be Bayreuth without its annual curtain-raiser of gossip and scandal. Let’s instead be grateful to everyone at the Green Hill for the drama that makes it an on- and offstage saga that just keep on giving, year after year.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Shenanigans on the Green Hill

Lots of news to report.  First, a poster advertising Opening Night of the Bayreuth Festival (on the left) is now available. The festival will begin this Saturday with a performance of Tristan und Isolde, a new production by Katharina Wagner. The composer's great-granddaughter shocked audiences with her strange, irreverent production of Die Meistersinger. This new production of Tristan will be shown on German theaters on August 7.

There are also reports that the rehearsal period for this festival has not gone smoothly. Already two sopranos have bowed out of this new production, and now the latest news is that there is growing animosity between Kirill Petrenko and Christian Thielemann. The root of this animosity might stem from the fact that Mr. Petrenko has just been named chief conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic, a position that Mr. Thielemann coveted as a result of being a disciple of Herbert von Karajan who was appointed music director for life of this orchestra in 1955.

Currently Evelyn Herlitzius is singing the role of Isolde.  She replaced Anja Kampe a few weeks ago. However, the singer has not stormed out of Bayreuth and will honor her contract to sing the role of Sieglinde in this year's revival of Frank Castorf's dreadful Ring production. It is interesting to note that Ms. Kampe is Mr. Petrenko's companion, and Mr. Thielemann is conducting the new production of Tristan.  You do the math!

Further news about Katharina's Tristan reveals some early pictures of this new production.
This beautiful stage image bears more than a passing resemblance to the "New Bayreuth" style of Wieland Wagner, Katharina's uncle, who revolutionized the festival when he took over the reins in 1951. In an effort to get rid of all vestiges of Nazism that the festival had acquired, thanks to the many times that Adolf Hitler attended during the 1930s, Wieland Wagner employed light and darkness to re-invent the Wagnerian world. It became a style much imitated around the world.
An interesting image from what can only be Act II of the opera.  Though the centerpiece of this work is the glorious love duet between the title characters, it seems that Katharina is underlining the impossibility and the danger of this elicit love affair by placing the two characters on opposite sides of a turnstile, while Tristan seems to be choking his beloved.
Georg Zeppenfeld as King Marke looks more like a pimp from a 1970s blaxploitation film.

As always, opening night of the Bayreuth Festival is an event, and this production will, I'm sure, divide audiences and further the debate over the kind of productions that are being presented at the Green Hill these days.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

The Great Jon Vickers is Dead

Jon Vickers, the great Canadian tenor who excelled in such operatic roles as Otello, Tristan and Peter Grimes died at the age of 88 of Alzheimer's disease. I was lucky to have thrilled to his colossal singing in my early days of opera-going, at the end of the 1970s at the MET. He was a shining star in roles which ranged from Handel to Britten, and his performances of Otello, Pagliacci, The Bartered Bride, and most memorably, Parsifal, were unforgettable. Likewise, he shared the stage with some of the great sopranos of the post World War II era, from Maria Callas to Birgit Nilsson, with whom he sang many memorable performances of Richard Wagner's Tristan und Isolde all over the world.  Unfortunately, I never saw him sing a performance of Samson et Dalilah, one of his signature titanic roles, which he brought to life with his huge voice. Nor was I lucky enough to thrill to his great Florestan in Beethoven's Fidelio.  Luckily, many of these performances were recorded, and quite a lot exists in video as well.

Below is video of Jon Vickers performing Otello, from 1978, from the stage of the Metropolitan Opera. This was one of the first "Live from the Met" telecasts. Here we have the duet "Dio ti giocondi" from the beginning of Act III.  Renata Scotto sings the role of Desdemona, and the memorable production was designed by Franco Zeffirelli.  The young James Levine conducted.

Thursday, July 02, 2015

Jurassic World: More of the Same

Mankind's twisted dream to play God is at the heart of the best horror movies in cinema history. It is the driving force behind not just Frankenstein but every other movie that features a mad scientist throwing a monkey wrench in the machinery of the natural universe, only to be punished for his folly, usually by his own creation. It is also the primal essence of Michael Crichton's novel Jurassic Park and the Steven Spielberg franchise adapted from that bestseller that features the original film, two sequels, and now a reboot: Jurassic World, also produced by Amblin Entertainment, Spielberg's company, and directed by Colin Trevorrow, a helmer who is not afraid to liberally pay homages to the earlier films and its famous creator.

If you remember Jeff Goldblum's line in The Lost World, the uneven sequel to the first film, then you're already pretty familiar with the main plot of this new film. Back in 1997, reprising the role of Dr. Ian Malcolm, the character quipped as he once again stared at the ferocious biological dinosaurs that DNA cloning had brought back to life, and the initial sense of wonder that it produced on people: "Oh, yeah, Oooh, Aaah, that's how it always starts. Then later there's running and um, screaming." In Jurassic World there is plenty to Oooh and Aaah. We are back in Isla Nublar, a remote island near Costa Rica, where the original Jurassic Park was built. Now an amazing resort, a la Disney World, has emerged from the ruins of that failed enterprise where the tourists can indulge in the fantasy of having a close encounter with a host of extinct creatures. There's even a petting zoo where the kiddies can ride the mild baby herbivores. But to satisfy the spectators blood lust there is also a show where the carcass of a dead shark is eaten whole by a gigantic Mosasaurus, an aquatic carnivore, who jumps out of his pool, like a killer whale, splashing those in the stands. The scene is one of the early highlights of the film, and it is a magnificent example of cgi at its best.

The plot is pretty basic. Two brothers are sent on a dream vacation to Jurassic World where their aunt (Bryce Dallas Howard) is the operations manager of the place. Even though she is supposed to personally give the kids the VIP tour of the park, she is too busy recruiting corporate sponsors for a new attraction called Indominus Rex, a genetically modified Frankenstein of a dinosaur made from the DNA of several dangerous predatory creatures. Meanwhile, Owen Grady (Chris Pratt), a Velociraptor trainer, and Great White Hunter type, warns the powers-that-be that Indominus Rex poses a real threat because it  has lived in isolation all its life. Further, Vic Hoskins (Vincent D'Onofrio) believes that the raptors can be trained for military use. This is the "Oooh and Aaah" section of the film.

But what would the Jurassic Park franchise be without the running and the screaming?!

And there's plenty of that as Indominus Rex, tired of his isolated existence, escapes from his walled enclosure in search of freedom and a viable second act to this film. Its escape is followed by four Velociraptors busting out, and most thrilling of all the spectacular flight of escapee winged Pterosaurs, who descend on the park's visitors, like a squadron of fighting planes, and attack them like the Avialae descendants of dinosaurs in Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds. There's running for ya! Also, there's the sight of Ms. Howard racing through the island's thicket in her business suit and 4 inch heels. Soon to become a camp classic! And speaking of classics, the film manages to channel the spirit of King Kong as well as the original Jurassic films.

In the Judeo-Christian tradition trying to be a creator is bad enough, and it has to be punished, but the producers of Jurassic World also know that we live in a secular society. Therefore, the bad guys in this film are not the scientists who originally cloned these creatures, but the shady men who represent the corporate greed that leads to the destruction of the enterprise. It's the one interesting take on the Frankenstein myth that the Jurassic franchise has added, and it is a formula that adds some interest to an otherwise predictable journey to a man-made segment of the Mesozoic Era.

Wednesday, July 01, 2015

Booing at the Royal Opera House

The opening night performance of the opera William Tell, by Giacomo Rossini was booed at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden because of the on-stage dramatization of a rape scene with nudity. The following excerpts are from an article on the BBC website:

The Opera House issued a statement after the performance... apologizing for any distress caused. Director of opera Kasper Holten said: "The production intends to make it an uncomfortable scene, just as there are several upsetting and violent scenes in Rossini's score. We are sorry if some people have found this distressing."

Holten said the scene "puts the spotlight on the brutal reality of women being abused during war time, and sexual violence being a tragic fact of war." Rossini's opera of the Swiss patriot, William Tell, who shoots an arrow that splits an apple atop his son's head, has been directed by Damiano Michieletto and stars Canadian baritone Gerald Finley as Tell and American tenor John Osborn.

Osborn told Reuters after the performance that the scene "maybe ... went a little longer than it should have. But it happened and I think it's an element you can use to show just how horrible these people were that were occupying this town," he said. "If you don't feel the brutality, the suffering these people have had to face, if you want to hide it, it becomes soft, it becomes for children."

The Stage gave the production one star. George Hall called it a "dire evening" in which the "gratuitous gang-rape" scene provoked "the noisiest and most sustained booing I can ever recall during any performance at this address. Intellectually poverty-stricken, emotionally crass and with indifferent stagecraft, the result is nowhere near the standard an international company should be aiming at", he said.

Mark Valencia writing for What's on Stage pointed out that first night booing is "a fast-growing problem at Covent Garden that doesn't happen at other opera houses. It's become standard practice for the director of practically every new production to be jeered by practiced factions in the audience who object to ideas that go beyond the literal reading of an opera," he said.

But at last night's first night "the perpetrators did something unheard of: they booed during the music. And they did so loudly and long." They also booed at the end of the performance when the production team came on stage for the curtain call.
The opera is Italian director Damiano Michieletto's debut at the Royal Opera House.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Dmitri Hvorostovsky Diagnosed with Brain Tumor

The following appeared in the New York Times a few days ago:
The celebrated Russian baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky has a brain tumor and has canceled all engagements through the end of August, according to an announcement posted Wednesday on his website.
“He has recently been suffering from serious health issues, and a brain tumor has just been diagnosed,” the statement said. “Although his voice and vocal condition are normal, his sense of balance has been severely affected.”
The site said that he would begin treatment this week and that he remains “very optimistic for the future.”
Mr. Hvorostovsky, one of the best-loved baritones in the world, is still scheduled to appear in September at the Metropolitan Opera in a star-filled production of Verdi’s “Il Trovatore,” featuring Anna Netrebko as Leonora.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Mad Max: Fury Road

A.O. Scott, in his insightful review in the New York Times of the film Mad Max: Fury Road, wrote that this film isn’t "about heroism... it’s about revolution." Perhaps that is the reason why this franchise reboot by its original director feels as fresh as the original film did back in 1980 when it was just an Australian low budget, sleeper exploitation movie starring a then unknown Mel Gibson. George Miller has gone back to his original creation and he has brought with him an arsenal of talent to bring it up to date. Junkie XL's musical score, with its deep string chords and clever riffs on Giuseppe Verdi's Requiem, is a memorable asset to the film. Likewise, master cinematographer John Seale agreed to come out of retirement for this film, and his work is spectacular. All shot digitally, using an arsenal of new cameras including the Arri Alexa Plus. It is one of the most beautifully shot films in recent memory.

Once again we are in a post-Apocalyptic world (devoid of any visible zombies, although I'm sure they are out there in the vast empty wasteland that Earth has become) where gasoline and water are scarce commodities, and where the dignity of what's left of mankind has been trampled by ruthless chieftains like Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne) who keeps a harem of women, and whose army of War Boys capture Max (Tom Hardy). Our eponymous hero is a loner who can easily be an American hero right out of the pages of James Fenimore Cooper. He is taken prisoner by Immortan Joe's men and turned into a "blood bag" for a sick War Boy named Nux (Nicholas Hoult). When Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) drives off-course in her mission to find gasoline, Immortan Joe realizes that she has betrayed him by stealing some of his women, one of whom is pregnant. And the chase is on!  This is when the movie gets loud, down and dirty: but you wouldn't have it otherwise. It is, after all, a Mad Max movie!

But this film goes beyond the twisted metal and explosions that are the bread and butter of the summer cinematic season. At the heart of Fury Road is a tale of vengeance and redemption, all major themes of the American western, a genre that this film often pays tribute to, especially in its photographic wide open vistas and in the depiction of its laconic hero. Or heroine, for that matter. This film is very much about Ms. Theron's character: a damaged, but strong-willed, valiant woman with a prosthetic arm. She belongs to the same breed as Julie Christie in Robert Altman's McCabe and Mrs. Miller or Claudia Cardinale in Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in the West. By far, it is the feminist film of the year.

The film is also impressive when it comes to the amount of images that linger in one's mind. George Miller knows how to set up a scene and how much to hold a shot so that it becomes indelible. The opening sequence of Max chomping down on a live two-headed gecko, and a truly surreal nighttime shot of people on stilts walking through a poisonous bog are two memorable moments from this film.

Finally a winner in a summer season of many forgettable films. 

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Julie Kent Bids Farewell to ABT

Julie Kent, who for many ballet fans represent the epitome of the all-American ballerina, bid farewell to her artistic home, American Ballet Theater, after an amazing 29 year career with the company. She chose Sergei Prokofiev's demanding Romeo and Juliet for her swan song, and with her partner for the evening, principal dancer Roberto Bolle, she gave her all in a passionate performance that at times seemed the work of a much younger artist, while at the same time it was obvious that her Juliet came with a lifetime of technique, experience, and elegance.

It was a sold-out audience that was there to celebrate Ms. Kent's career, and her entrance in the second scene of Act I caused such a deafening roar that it must have been difficult for the performers to hear the music. As the evening went on, her flawless performance turned into a love fest for the audience. It was truly a perfect evening for her, and for the rest of the company, and one of the highlights of this year's ABT season.

The ovation at the end of the evening went on for close to twenty minutes.  The great curtain of the Metropolitan Opera parted and the assembled cast, each with a flower in hand, tossed them in her direction, while petals rained down from the rafters.  Meanwhile in the audience not a single soul left the place, and everyone remained on their feet. Then, there was the parade of colleagues onstage, all bearing flowers, positioning them in the middle of the stage, creating a mountain of flora. These included Xiomara Reyes and Paloma Herrera, who earlier in the season had their very own memorable ABT farewells. One of the last to pay her tribute was ABT's Associate Artistic Director Victor Barbee, a former dancer with ABT, and Ms. Kent's husband. There were some tender ovation moments as her children William and Josephine shared the stage with their mom.

It was an evening that few will forget, but as ABT finishes the last two weeks of the season, I'm sure that on everybody's mind is the question of who will fill the spots of these three artists who were so much an integral part of the company.  It promises to be a very interesting 2016 season.

Thursday, June 04, 2015

The Walk will open the 53rd NY Film Festival

I received the following announcement from the Film Society of Lincoln Center:

The Film Society of Lincoln Center announced today that Robert Zemeckis’s The Walk will make its World Premiere as the Opening Night selection of the upcoming 53rd New York Film Festival (September 25 – October 11), which will kick off at Alice Tully Hall. A true story, the film is based on Philippe Petit’s memoir To Reach the Clouds and stars Golden Globe nominee Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Petit, the French high-wire artist who achieved the feat of walking between the Twin Towers in 1974. The Walk will be the second 3D feature selected for the Opening Night Gala since Ang Lee’s Life of Pi in 2012 and also marks Zemeckis’s return to the Festival after Flight, the 2012 Closing Night Gala selection. The film will be released in 3D and IMAX 3D on October 2, 2015.

New York Film Festival Director and Selection Committee Chair Kent Jones said: “The Walk is surprising in so many ways. First of all, it plays like a classic heist movie in the tradition of The Asphalt Jungle or Bob le flambeur—the planning, the rehearsing, the execution, the last-minute problems—but here it’s not money that’s stolen but access to the world’s tallest buildings. It’s also an astonishing re-creation of Lower Manhattan in the ’70s. And then, it becomes something quite rare, rich, mysterious… and throughout it all, you’re on the edge of your seat.”

Robert Zemeckis added: “I am extremely honored and grateful that our film has been selected to open the 53rd New York Film Festival. The Walk is a New York story, so I am delighted to be presenting the film to New York audiences first. My hope is that Festival audiences will be immersed in the spectacle, but also to be enraptured by the celebration of a passionate artist who helped give the wonderful towers a soul.”

Wednesday, June 03, 2015

Margaret Juntwait is dead at 58

Margaret Juntwait, Former WNYC Host, and the Voice of the Metropolitan Opera, died today at the age of 58. In the history of the Metropolitan Opera Radio Broadcasts she was only the third host, and the first woman to hold this position. She will be missed.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Tomorrowland is Pure and Preachy Disney

The basic premise of Tomorrowland, the new Disney film from director Brad Bird, is that half the world tries to build up Mother Earth in the morning, while the other half tears it down overnight.  Mankind has an incredible inventive gift that has led humanity to wonderful achievements, however we are a race that is also inherently bent on destruction, and this dark aspect seems to be taking over our current civilization.

The story begins in 1965 with the young Frank Walker (who will grow up to be George Clooney) who attends the New York World's Fair and brings with him a half-baked jetpack gizmo that he has invented. While being rejected by Hugh Laurie (who turns out to be the villain in the piece, a fact that you know right from his first appearance) he meets the mysterious child Athena (Raffey Cassidy) who introduces him, via a magical pin, to the world of tomorrow: a remarkable skyscraper city, half Fritz Lang's Metropolis, half modern-day Dubai, which ultimately is reminiscent of a 1950's conception of the future.  In other words, it reminds one of the sleek "Tomorrowland," one of the theme lands of Disneyland/Disney World.

The future, according to the gospel of Disney, is a clean-cut place with the kind of architecture that brings to mind the futuristic designs of the theme parks as well as the memorable structures of Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava. His amazing City of Arts and Sciences in Valencia, Spain, for instance, seems to be the blueprint for Scott Chambliss's production designs.

But the land of tomorrow is rotten from within: it is crumbling and heading into dystopic destruction. To set things right, Athena summons Casey Newton (Britt Robinson), a teenager who has been sabotaging the dismantling of a NASA launch pad near Cape Canaveral where she lives. Obviously this is a teen who cares about space travel, and in the logic of this film one of the good guys. Her meeting with Athena, who gives her one of the magical pins, is the call to adventure that sets her on a journey where she meets the older Frank Walker, now a grizzled, discontented George Clooney living in the sticks, in a run-down house filled with interesting futuristic gadgets. The meeting of Casey and Frank, the catalyst that will bring the narrative to a climax, unfortunately takes way too long to happen. At 130 minutes the entire movie feels too overproduced and definitely too long.

Watching Tomorrowland is very much like attending the future section of EPCOT.  The sense of optimism overwhelms you. Nothing wrong with that. Frank Capra built a career based on it, and so did Walt Disney! What I find a bit troubling are the constant self-references. The entire film is a Disney infomercial. The Pirates of the Caribbean franchise was based on a park ride, but the films, especially the first of the series, was so successful artistically that you forgot the shameless plug and you concentrated on the new myth the film was developing. No such luck with Tomorrowland, which looks to the future, but deep down is just interested in first week earnings.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Mad Men ends by Big Sur

In his own words, Mad Men creator Matt Wiener could not believe that 150 people kept the ending to the show a secret. Well, make that 151. It was hard, but somehow I did it. It amazes me that this ending was in place in Matt's head right from the start of the series, and it managed to remain intact all the way to the end. It shows total knowledge of the character and the situations surrounding him in the drama. And by the way, keeping such a big secret, knowing me, takes amazing determination and will power! Never mind that I had to keep it for about five years.

But seriously, it was the best ending, the only ending possible to the series. It dashed away any gory hopes that Don Draper would end up a suicide, falling out of a building, his body descending in slow-motion, like the Vertigo inspired logo to the show.  Don has been falling now for many seasons, there was no need to belabor the point. The series ended with us inside Don's mind, as he dreams up what is arguably the greatest ad campaign for a product ever to come out of Madison Avenue. Bravo!

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Helen Mirren as Queen Elizabeth II in The Interview

All Hail Helen Mirren!  She is not only the Toast of Broadway, she is its reigning current queen as long as she plays Queen Elizabeth II in Peter Morgan's fantasy play The Interview.

The author (who also wrote Frost/Nixon and the screenplay for The Queen, an Oscar winning performance for Dame Helen) imagines what occurs during the weekly private meetings that the monarch has had with a queue of Prime Ministers, starting with a crotchety, self-serving Sir Winston Churchill, through the controversial Sir Anthony Eden, the down-to-earth Labour PM Harold Wilson, with whom Queen Elizabeth had a very close rapport, and the mighty Margaret Thatcher, whom the Queen saw as a fellow traveler as well as a very real rival for power. The play also includes a couple of scenes with John Major, whom we learn was not wholly prepared to lead a nation when it was his turn at the dispatch box, the very angry, and very Scottish Gordon Brown, and David Cameron, the UK's current Prime Minister. There is also a very small cameo by Tony Blair, but surprisingly the author does not imagine a one-to-one interview with the well-known leader of "New Labour."

When Dame Helen is on stage she rules. Our eyes are glued to her. This is part stagecraft, part stage presence. When Churchill appears center stage for his interview, puffing on a cigar, as portrayed by the physically imposing Dakin Matthews, he is a great dinosaur of a politician. The scene has been staged by director Stephen Daldry so perfectly that our eyes cannot help but shift momentarily to him. This gives Dame Helen (and her dressers) enough time to perform one of her many lightning fast costume changes right on stage. Suddenly she is transformed into the young, uncrowned queen welcoming her first Prime Minister who carries an agenda as big as his girth. It is early magic in a production that is filled with such delightful moments.

Among the visitors to Buckingham Palace two Prime Ministers stand out: John Major (Dylan Baker), and Harold Wilson (Richard McCabe). Each of these scenes plays beautifully in contrast to the other. Mr. Baker portrays a weak, but very human John Major, a politician unable to escape from the shadow of his "Iron Lady" predecessor. Likewise, Mr. McCabe plays the droll Mr. Wilson who knows that politically he has to push his socialist agenda to a woman who was born with a silver spoon in her mouth. Despite their social class differences, the play portrays their relationship in the warmest of ways. It is the most satisfying interview of the evening, and Mr. Morgan even dramatizes a trip by Mr. Wilson to Balmoral Castle for a rainy weekend in Scotland with the Royal Family.

This is an evening of sheer artistry on Broadway.  A unique play where even the interval (or intermission, as we say in the States) has a very British atmosphere.  It is a not to be missed production, and  one of the big contenders for this year's Tony Awards.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Balanchine and Stravinsky at the NYC Ballet

 Last Saturday afternoon I attended the New York City Ballet. They performed four of the great Igor Stravinsky, George Balanchine collaborations: Apollo, Agon, Duo Concertant, and Symphony in Three Movements. These classic works, that collectively have come to be known as the "black and white" ballets, due to the fact that the dancers are costumed in primarily these two colors, are staples of this company, and are brought back year after year to the delight of seasoned ballet aficionados and young audiences coming to these works for the first time.

Apollo is the oldest of these ballets.  Stravinsky composed the music in 1927, and the twenty-four-year-old Balanchine choreographed it a year later.  A host of great dancers have passed through this iconic role throughout the decades. It is the only Balanchine creation that puts the male dancer on the forefront. The short video below features Chase Finlay, a NYC Ballet principal dancer, explaining his approach to dancing this role.

Duo Concertant is a unique creation that features two dancers as well as a pianist and a violinist, all on stage. The short work examines the equal relationship that exist (or ought to exist) between music and dance. The piece takes the musicians out of the pit and places them side by side with the dancers. Saturday's results also included an interesting juxtaposition between the seasoned age of the musicians versus the youthful quality of the dancers. I'm not sure if this was an original intention of Mr. Balanchine.

The performance concluded with the amazing Symphony in Three Movements, a hyper-kinetic Stravinsky composition from 1945 that on the one hand looks back to his atonal beginnings back with Sergei Diaghilev and The Ballets Russes and dares to look forward toward the future of music. Listen closely with your eyes closed, and you will hear the nervous minimalism of a John Adams.  However most ballet goers will not close their eyes especially when a dancer of the caliber of Amar Ramasar is dancing in it. Mr. Ramasar has been a soloist since 2006, and he was a principal dancer in Chichester Psalms, the Leonard Bernstein, Peter Martins ballet that I performed with the NYC Ballet when I was a member of the Juilliard Choral Union.

If you missed the black and white Stravinsky, Balanchine ballets this season, I would not worry.  I am certain that they will be performed again next year to the delight of young and old.