Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Et tu, Matt

Matt Lauer has been axed from NBC News after a secret meeting between the NBC brass and an alleged victim who accused the longtime broadcaster of inappropriate sexual behavior.

Live on the air, Savannah Guthrie, Lauer's co-host on Today, was visibly shaken by the news.  She announced that "All we can say is that we are heartbroken. I'm heartbroken for Matt. He is my dear, dear friend and my partner and he is beloved by many, many people here. And I'm heartbroken for the brave colleague who came forward to tell her story and any other women who have their own stories to tell." 

Following Lauer's firing, FOX News published an article on its website which featured Katie Couric admitting in a 2012 interview that Matt Lauer pinched her on the ass a lot.

Who's next?

Monday, November 27, 2017

COCO is a hit!

Over the Thanksgiving Holiday weekend, audiences in the United States flocked to theaters to learn what Mexican moviegoers had proven more than a month ago: that Disney/Pixar’s Coco is an authentic hit.  The animated film soared to a $71.2 million domestic debut to win the five-day holiday frame, topping such superhero behemoths as Justice League and Thor: Ragnarok, according to studio estimates. Coco grossed $49 million for the three-day domestic weekend, and has now pulled in a total of $153.4 million worldwide.
The film was years in pre-production, and this care really shows in its authenticity and respect towards Mexican culture, especially the Day of the Dead, the religious holiday that is at the heart of the film.  The drawings above are two of many that were done in order to achieve the look of the film.  Basically, the Disney/Pixar artists conjured up a city of the Dead where its citizens are happy to be on the other side. I recommend this film, especially during this holiday season.

Thursday, November 23, 2017

Dmitri Hvorostovsky is dead at 55

The great Dmitri Hvorostovski, one of opera's great baritones, and a specialist in the operas of Giuseppe Verdi died in London at the age of 55 after a long battle with brain cancer.  He was one of the shining lights of the operatic stage, a dashing, sexy figure with his mane of silver hair which he wore long, which he almost never hid from the public, and which he always successfully incorporated into his operatic characters.  Only once did I see him hide his silver-maned hair: his last Rigoletto at the MET, where, unbeknownst to his adoring fans, he must already have known that he had developed a deadly tumor in his brain.

Hvorostovski learned to play the Metropolitan Opera, a gigantic house that scares many European-trained singers, and where he sang 180 performances. When I first heard him live his voice, though compact, beautiful and secure, sounded small: a perfect voice for a European opera house.  His breathing between phrases was the loudest I had ever heard.  His approach to a score, however, sounded like no one else: always the tell-tale sign of a great artist.  As his voice matured his instrument became stronger, more secure, but the original beauty of his tone always remained.  His performances at the MET, before his illness, were outstanding, and his lieder recitals always revealed a consummate artist comfortable being accompanied just with a piano.  His performances of Russian folk songs and popular romantic songs were very important to him.  In an interview with The New Yorker magazine, he remembered a concert he gave at the age of 22 in a bread factory in central Siberia, near the town of Krasnoyarsk, his birthplace, in below-freezing weather. The audience, wearing fur hats and warm boots, was in tears.

No one looked like him (his hair turned completely white by the time he was 30), no one sounded like him.  Perhaps the complex role of Eugene Onegin, one of his specialties, suited him so well because he was as complex as the title role of that great Alexander Pushkin poem. Now that he has entered immortality, he will be missed.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Et tu, Charlie...

The sexual allegations snowball has rolled over Charlie Rose, the longtime 75 year-old journalist whose longtime PBS show has featured some of the most important figures in the world.  According to the Washington Post, eight women have come forward accusing Rose of unwanted sexual advances, lewd behavior, and nudity.  Five of the women spoke to the Washington Post on condition of anonymity.  The accidents mostly occurred while they were interns at Rose's PBS show. The women range from 21 to 37.

PBS and Bloomberg have suspended airings of his show.  Rose also co-hosts "CBS This Morning" and is a contributing journalist on the prestigious 60 minutes show.  CBS has suspended Rose pending an internal investigation of these allegations.

Who's next?

Monday, November 20, 2017

COCO from Disney/Pixar

Coco, the new animated film from the Disney/Pixar Studios aims to bring the dead back to life, in a delightful, colorful fantasy set in Mexico during the Day of the Dead celebration. The film centers around Miguel, a young boy who wants to be a singer in a household where music is forbidden as a result of events that occurred many generations ago in his family.  Now, his relatives are shoemakers, but Miguel longs to become a popular singer like his idol, the late Ernesto de la Cruz, a character based on Jorge Negrete and Pedro Infante, two popular Mexican actor/singers of the Golden Age of Mexican film in the 1940s and 1950s.  During the celebration of Día de Muertos, Miguel steals his hero's guitar from his mausoleum in order to enter a song contest and this leads to an unexpected voyage to the Land of the Dead, which looks like a Disneyland version of the city of Guanajuato.
The film is full of eye-popping visuals that have been carefully researched and beautifully rendered by the production team headed by director/screenwriter Lee Unkrich.  It's a collection of lovingly recreated South-of-the-Border stereotypes, but it is all done in such an endearing way that we accept it.  This might be a Mexico where El Chapo never existed, but it doesn't matter.

Writer Umberto Eco, referring to the film Casablanca, once wrote that "two clichés make us laugh, a hundred clichés move us..." and that's what Coco boils down to.   If you think it is a gringo version of a Mexico that has never existed, an antidote to Luis Buñuel's Los Olvidados, or Alejandro González Iñárritu's Amores Perros, then you are totally missing the point.  Go to see it, and when a tear rolls down your eyes, you'll realize that you are watching an extraordinary little film.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

The Sexual Allegations Snowball Keeps On Rollin'

The sexual allegation snowball rolled down Hollywood Boulevard with a brute force, trying to survive the L.A. heat, but never losing its hate-power.  It first knocked down Harvey Weinstein with the greatest of force.  Then it lingered there gaining further strength, whacking him countless times.  Then it took a turn towards the east running over Kevin Spacey, exposing the famed actor of things most show business and non-show business people already suspected.  Yesterday comedian Louis C.K. got hit badly as well, and at least he has admitted to these past major peccadillos.

Kevin Spacey, who says he does not remember abusing Anthony Rapp, Tony Montana, or Harry Dreyfuss (son of Richard), has been dropped not only of Netflix's House of Cards, but also from the upcoming, completed movie All the Money in the World, where he was to play billionaire J. Paul Getty.  He has been replaced by Christopher Plummer.  There goes that Oscar nomination!  And after this summer's Baby Driver, Spacey's career was going full-gear.  The J. Paul Getty movie would have been the one-two punch he needed for Oscar gold, perhaps.  I wonder if the Baby Driver DVD, Blu-ray sales are taking a beating.  The scandal came out just as the film was being made available on home video.

Even though Hollywood seems to be cleaning house, as far as I know, Woody Allen's new movie Wonder Wheel is still slated to come out on December 1.  The director continues to operate under the shadow of sexual abuse allegations.  Also, when director Roman Polanski was arrested in Switzerland for the alleged rape of an underage girl, Woody Allen, Alejandro González Inárritu, Martin Scorcese, Wong Kar-wai, Wim Wenders, and Pedro Almodóvar, among others, signed a petition for his release.

It's not that Mr. Allen and Mr. Polanski have achieved the kind of clout that makes them untouchables, it's just the proven fact that America loves to knock down its heroes just to see them rise again.  Celebrity second acts from Robert Downey, Jr., Mickey Rourke to sports announcer Marv Albert and Mel Gibson are legendary.  They all spent years in Purgatory, and crawled out more popular than ever.  Based on this, something tells me that the accused superstar of today will turn out to be the comeback kid one sunny day in the future.

Sunday, November 05, 2017

A Sunnier, Funnier THOR: RAGNAROK

As Thor: Ragnarok is poised to have a winning $121 million opening weekend, Marvel might have just hit upon the winning formula for the one superhero in the eponymous universe who has failed to ignite the excitement and the box-office success that the rest of the super-beings have garnered.

The latest film features a Thor (Chris Hemsworth) with a comic routine that's sillier and lighter than in the previous films. This is a winning directorial decision on the part of New Zealander Taika Waititi, the latest helmer in this series.  When you have a superhero based on a mythology that was co-opted by National Socialism in Germany in the 1930's as result of Adolf Hitler's love of Richard Wagner's monumental music dramas where Thor, Odin, Loki, and the rest of the gang are characters (albeit in their Germanic names of Donner, Wotan, and Loge) one cannot treat this myth with an Aryan supremacy point of view. The operas of Wagner were de-Nazified after World War II, and to this day play without any of the clutter that the composer demanded and which the Nazis loved.  However, Thor, the Marvel comic book, as created by Stan Lee, Larry Lieber and Jack Kirby in 1962 went backwards, in their pictorial look. This is not to say that Marvel created a Nazi hero, but they did give birth to the epitome of the Aryan male: powerful, blond, not only a god, but physically god-like.  It is obvious that the comic book creators of Thor were not aware that, as they were creating a hero that Nazis would adore, the operas of Wagner, the one artistic place in culture where these Germanic/Scandinavian myths remained alive, were being radically changed by Wieland Wagner, the composer's grandson, at Bayreuth, the German city where the operas were first performed.

Subconsciously, this has been the problem with the Thor franchise in film.  How do we side with an Aryan hero during these days when America is plagued by a troubling rise of white supremacists?  Can we even consider him a hero given its past history?  

Disney/Marvel Studio's answer is to make him funny.  And this they have done in this latest installment, and surprisingly to a large extent it works.  They even threw in Jeff Goldblum, a master of comic timing, as some kind of uber-garbage lord called the Grandmaster.  But as Mahnola Dargis wrote in her insightful New York Times review of this film:  "It’s amusing how “Ragnarok” humanizes Thor, yet in doing so it dilutes his Thorness, the essential qualities that make him more than a dude with a cool hammer. And the more familiar and less godlike he becomes, the more evident it is that this series has never figured out how to make his myth fit with the modern world."

Saturday, November 04, 2017

The Exterminating Angel : The Opera

The Exterminating Angel, Luis Buñuel's surrealistic dark comedy about a post-opera dinner party where the guests find themselves unable to leave, is one of the great masterpieces of world cinema. A savage indictment of upper-class bourgeois mores and traditional values, the film, made in Mexico by the iconoclastic Buñuel, was the opening night offering in the first year of the New York film Festival back in 1963.

Now, the movie has been turned into an opera, with a libretto by Tom Cairns based on the screenplay by Buñuel and the film's producer Luis Alcoriza.  The music is by British composer Thomas Adès, who in 2012 brought his The Tempest to the Metropolitan Opera.  After its premiere at the Salzburg Festival in the summer of 2016, his new opera is currently playing at the Met, with a production by the lyricist, and conducted by the composer himself.

The opera closely follows the film's plot, even using many of the same lines delivered by the actors. The composer and librettist have chosen English as the language of their adaptation, although Spanish is the film's original language.  It's an interesting change, but ultimately a logical one: Mr. Adès and Mr. Cairns are both British (Cairns was born in Northern Ireland) and these days most singing actors are better trained in singing English than Spanish, a language often absent in the majority of opera houses around the world.

Mr. Adès's score is the expected atonal musical language of the twentieth century. The orchestration is big and diverse, even adding a theremin, that strange electronic Russian instrument that provides an unearthly sound without physical contact from its player.  It is a perfect loopy addition for a surreal comedy. As is his custom, Mr. Adès insist on writing incredibly high tessitura challenges for the female voices, especially for the sopranos. Aesthetically, it is questionable whether the female human voice, reaching for notes beyond F above high C, is a very pleasant sound, but that does not stop the composer from providing ample bars containing these stratospheric high notes. That aside, without a doubt, the highlight of Mr. Adès's score is an interlude where musically he describes a dream/memory one of the characters has of a horrible train wreck.  The driving orchestration that Mr Adès achieves, together with the unbelievably high volume that the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra is asked to reach once again places that musical ensembles as one of the most polished in the whole world.

Mr. Cairns's staging differs greatly from the film. Whereas Buñuel's mise-en-scène revels in baroque clutter, the present staging chooses a minimalist approach. Also missing in this adaptation are direct references to the Catholic Church, an important aspect of the director's work, and especially a key aspect of the film's conclusion. Buñuel was notoriously anti-clerical and fond of offending established institutions, especially religious ones. The choice to remove this aspect (as well as an anti-Semitic joke) smacks of political correctness, and tears at the very core of Buñuel's savagery.

The technology of the Metropolitan Opera House far surpasses the analog effects of the low-budget original film.  A good example of this is the sequence when a severed hand appears crawling around the room.  The film could only afford a rubber prop pulled by a string. But the hand in the opera is a clever computerized projection that seems to crawl all over the proscenium-like stage that serves as a key part of the scenery. The severed extremity is a close cousin of Thing T. Thing (often referred to by just his last/first name!) the lovable character in the Addams Family films.

After the performance, I was happy to see that the singers took no solo vows, but came out to receive the audience's applause as an ensemble.  This opera, as the film, is truly an ensemble piece.  The only one who took a solo vow last night was the composer/conductor, and I guess that's the correct move.

If you like the film, and want to know where opera is headed, or where it is these days, don't miss this production of this work.