Tuesday, February 24, 2015

It's Meta Cinema All Over Again

It if happens once, it's a fluke. But if it happens three times, then we can actually say that a trend has been born in Tinsel Town. In the last four years, the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences has awarded the coveted Best Picture Oscar to a film that basically presents a story about its own production. In other words, the textbook definition of meta cinema. Like Federico Fellini's or Truffaut's Day for Night, the latest batch of award winners represent the latest effort by today's filmmakers to present films that are actually about the film itself.  

The Artist started this latest trend. The 2011 French romantic-drama made in the style of a black-and-white silent film, took home the Best Picture award, and stole the hearts of many movie-goers who never thought of asking themselves why anyone would make a silent film in our times. This was followed by the memorable Argo, a film that recounts the story of how the CIA managed to rescue a group of Americans diplomats who were being held hostage in Teheran by making the Iranians believe that they were making a Sci-Fi film.

This year, Birdman, or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) might have put the crowning touch on this trend -- or the kiss of Death. Alejandro González Iñárritu's brilliant rumination on superhero films, Raymond Carver and Magical-Realism surrounds the story of one washed-up, ego-maniacal actor yearning for a comeback by staging a vanity Broadway play destined to flop. Capturing it all, Emmanuel Lubezki's fluid camera, gives us the illusion that all has been done in one slick take, while ironically reminding us that we are watching a movie about a movie.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Tonight's OSCARS: My Updated Picks

The Oscars are finally here. I predict the following will be the big winners tonight:
BEST ACTOR: Eddie Redmayne
BEST ACTRESS: Julianne Moore
BEST DIRECTOR: Alejandro González Iñárritu

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

The Iceman Cometh at BAM

Eugene O'Neill, America's greatest and most celebrated playwright, spent the last years of his productive life exorcising the demons of his past. In his last creation, the posthumous Long Day's Journey into Night he succeeded in putting to rest the ghosts of his parents and his dead brother in four agonizing acts filled with remorse and guilt, and soaked with a generous amount of whiskey.

In his previous play The Iceman Cometh, finished in 1939, but not given its Broadway premiere until 1946, O'Neill resurrected the down-and-out creatures of the night that inhabited his Greenwich Village hangout, a dump called "Jimmie-The-Priest's," where the young, alcoholic soon-to-be Nobel Laureate paid three dollars a month to stay, drink and solidify his morbidity among a group of the walking dead. In the play, the establishment became "Harry Hope's Saloon," described by Larry Slade, one of the principal dwellers of these lower depths as ''the No Chance Saloon... the End of the Line Cafe, the bottom of the Sea Rathskeller! . . . it's the last harbor. No one here has to worry about where they're going next, because there is no farther they can go."

It was in such a place that O'Neill first came into contact with the many "pipe dreams" that were harbored there. It was here that he tried unsuccessfully to commit suicide, then contracted tuberculosis (in those days, a disease tantamount to a death warrant), and miraculously recovered to have a rebirth as a writer. He was all of 24 years old.

Chicago's Goodman Theatre has brought its production of The Iceman Cometh to The Brooklyn Academy of Music's Harvey Theater, meticulously staged by its artistic director Robert Falls, and starring Nathan Lane and Brian Dennehy, among a cast of veteran stage actors all of whom are excellent in their parts.

Stephen Quimette as Harry Hope, the proprietor of the joint, is truly unforgettable in a role that requires him to rage at his customers for never paying him, and later on to quake in his boots at the thought of leaving his establishment after 20 years of being a shut-in. John Douglas Thompson, as an African American one-time owner of a gambling house delivers his monologues about racial inequality in America with an elegant pride. John Hoogenakker as a Harvard Law School alumnus is heart-breaking as a young lost soul riddled with DTs, and Lee Wilkof as Hugo Kalmar, an aging one-time anarchist, dreams of halcyon future days when all will drink champagne underneath the willow trees.

Nathan Lane and Brian Dennehy as Hickey, the traveling salesman with a newly-found Messianic streak, and Larry Slade, a staunch Irish son-of-a-gun who patiently waits for death, but fails to be persuaded by Hickey's phony spiels, are the bastions of any production of this play. Both offer titanic performances. Mr. Dennehy is perfectly cast as the ex-anarchist who has seen too much of life, and now simply waits for the endgame from inside a bottle of rotgut. Mr. Lane, might not be physically the classic Hickey (a la Jason Robards, Jr. or Lee Marvin of famed previous productions), but his buoyant stamina, and his ability to play a cynical con-man, while entertaining drunks with a bawdy joke about the sexual peccadilloes of the iceman prepare us for his shattering monologue in the last act: the longest soliloquy O'Neill ever wrote, and the true test for any Hickey. Mr. Lane passes with flying colors.

The Iceman Cometh is about the lies that we tell ourselves in order to keep on living. In this tragedy O'Neill holds up the mirror up to nature, and in it we see ourselves experiencing a true catharsis. This play, like most of O'Neill's great works, offers us a rare chance to look at ourselves, and this marvelous production gives us a chance to learn a little more about our human condition.

Sunday, February 01, 2015

Protester at MET Premiere

A pro-Ukrainian protester jumped on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera last Thursday, and held up a sign equating Vladimir Putin with Adolf Hitler. This happened after a performance of Tchaikovsky's Iolanta, conducted by Valery Gergiev and starring Anna Netrebko. Recently, both the Russian conductor and soprano megastar have been under fire for their support of Putin's intervention in the Ukraine.  Here is a report about the event:

Les Contes d'Hoffmann at the MET

When they tell the story of the Peter Gelb years at the Metropolitan Opera, and they get down to the new productions that he brought to the house, I am sure that Bartlett Sher's kaleidoscopic vision of Jacques Offenbach's Les Contes d'Hoffmann (with sets and costumes by Michael Yeargan and Catherine Zuber) will be at the head of the list. This was a creation that was originally devised for Rolando Villazón and Anna Netrebko -- a perfect vehicle to follow their Willy Decker produced La Traviata smash at Salzburg the previous summer. Of course, the Mexican tenor sensation became mysteriously ill, and was replaced by Maltese tenor Joseph Calleja, who also dropped out of a few performances due to illness. Tenor David Pomeroy covered for Mr. Calleja. Meanwhile, Netrebko sang all of the initial performances and soared, giving one of the most memorable performances of the year.  Her Antonia became one of the highlights of her MET career, eclipsed, perhaps this season by her astonishing turn as Lady Macbeth. The original production was conducted by James Levine, who back in December of 2009 was still able to walk to the podium. Later on in the season, Mr. Levine will come back to this production with a fresh, new cast.

Yesterday, Yves Abel, the young Canadian conductor led an excellent performance that was broadcast in HD throughout the world. Vittorio Grigolo, in excellent voice, played Hoffmann with the kind of aplomb we all expect from anyone taking on this challenging part. He knows how to use his voice for the MET. He knows that it pays to push a little more while maintaining vocal focus. The result is a big voice which audiences react positively to. An accomplished actor, he was even able to drape a tablecloth around his shoulders, crouch down and perform a kind of bear dance shuffle along the apron of the stage in a reprise of the Kleinzach number, a stage direction vaguely reminiscent of a Jewish man with a prayer shawl, and an obvious reference to Offenbach's German-Jewish heritage.

The women in Hoffmann's life were a mixed lot yesterday. Although Kate Lindsey playing the dual role of Nicklausse and The Muse was a believable actress, at times her deep mezzo was overwhelmed by the orchestration. Likewise, Hibla Gerzmava was a stentorian Antonia but her voice was just large and unfocused. As the doll Olympia, Erin Morley's light coloratura fared much better, and she was able to convey the robot-like qualities of the role quite nicely. Christine Rice was a memorable Giulietta, lending beautiful harmonies for the well-known Barcarolle that begins the Venetian act.

Thomas Hampson is touch-and-go these days. Yesterday, his voice sounded drier than usual, and he resorted to force it during some dramatic moments. Overall, it was an uneven vocal reading of the four villains, but not terrible. His stage presence and manicured-perfect acting made up for any of the vocal low points along the way.

I am looking forward for this production's return this season with a new cast, and featuring the return of Mr. Levine.