Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Plácido Domingo Accussed of Sexual Harrasment

The term "Latin Lover" assumes certain types of behavior that in today's #Me Too movement can quickly and easily turn into accusations of sexual harassment. Plácido Domingo, who for years came to prominence on the operatic stage as a virile tenor, oozing sexual charm, has now been accused of sexual harassment by a number of singers and a dancer. Mr. Domingo, who is now 78 and continues to conduct and sing opera, albeit as a baritone, has denied these accusations, some of them dating back more than thirty years.

The LA Opera, an institution that Domingo has served for over thirty years will engage outside counsel to investigate these allegations. However the San Francisco Opera has cancelled all of Domingo's upcoming performances in October citing these allegations. They went on to give a statement to CNN. "Though the alleged incidents reported did not take place at San Francisco Opera, the Company is unable to present the artist on the War Memorial Opera House stage. San Francisco Opera is committed to its strong anti-sexual harassment policy and requires all Company members to adhere to the highest standards of professional conduct. San Francisco Opera places a great priority on creating a safe and secure environment where everyone can focus on their work and art, and in which colleagues are treated with respect, dignity and collegiality." 

The Metropolitan Opera, the musical organization with which Domingo is perhaps best known for, has yet to comment on these accusations.

Mr. Domingo offered the following statement to CNN: "People who know me or who have worked with me know that I am not someone who would intentionally harm, offend, or embarrass anyone. However, I recognize that the rules and standards by which we are -- and should be -- measured against today are very different than they were in the past. I am blessed and privileged to have had a more than 50-year career in opera and will hold myself to the highest standards."

Friday, August 09, 2019

Life on the Moon (?)

The question as to whether or not there is life on the Moon may finally have a positive answer. A payload of tardigrades, micro animals that have shown to be the most resilient species on Earth, may have survived an Israeli spaceship that crash landed on the Moon back in April. The Beresheet spacecraft was carrying thousands of them.

Tardigrades, as you can see by the picture above, are pudgy little animals no longer than one millimeter long. They live in water or in the film of water on plants like lichen or moss, and can be found all over the world, in some of the most extreme environments, from icy mountains and polar regions to the balmy equator and the depths of the sea.

Along with the creatures, the ship also carried an archive of 30 million pages of information about planet Earth, as well as human DNA samples and a payload of the little creatures which had been dehydrated.

According to Nova Spivack, co-founder of the mission, "Best-case scenario is that the little library is fully intact, sitting on a nice sandy hillside on the Moon for a billion years. In the distant future it might be recovered by our descendants or by a future form of intelligent life that might evolve long after we're gone. From the DNA and the cells that we included, you could clone us and regenerate the human race and other plants and animals."

As far as the tardigrades are concerned, they will not be able to reproduce or move around in their dehydrated state, but if they survived the crash and are rehydrated they can come back to life years later.

Thursday, August 08, 2019

The Main Slate of the New York Film Festival

The Main Slate for the 2019 New York Film Festival has been announced.  Here are the films:

Opening Night The Irishman Dir. Martin Scorsese 

Centerpiece Marriage Story Dir. Noah Baumbach

Closing Night  Motherless Brooklyn Dir. Edward Norton

Atlantics: A Ghost Love Story Dir. Mati Diop

Bacurau Dir. Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles

Beanpole Dir. Kantemir Balagov

Fire Will Come Dir. Oliver Laxe

First Cow Dir. Kelly Reichardt

A Girl Missing Dir. Koji Fukada

I Was at Home, But… Dir. Angela Schanelec

Liberté Dir. Albert Serra

Martin Eden Dir. Pietro Marcello

The Moneychanger Dir. Federico Veiroj

Oh Mercy! Dir. Arnaud Desplechin

Pain and Glory Dir. Pedro Almodóvar

Parasite Dir. Bong Joon-ho

Film Comment Presents
 
Portrait of a Lady on Fire 
Dir. Céline Sciamma

Saturday Fiction
Dir. Lou Ye

Sibyl
Dir. Justine Triet

Synonyms
Dir. Nadav Lapid

To the Ends of the Earth
Dir. Kiyoshi Kurosawa

The Traitor
Dir. Marco Bellocchio

Varda by Agnès
Dir. Agnès Varda

Vitalina Varela
Dir. Pedro Costa

Wasp Network
Dir. Olivier Assayas

The Whistlers
Dir. Corneliu Porumboiu

The Wild Goose Lake
Dir. Diao Yinan

Young Ahmed
Dir. Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne

Zombi Child
Dir. Bertrand Bonello

Thursday, August 01, 2019

HAL PRINCE dies at 91

That picture above represents the way I will always remember Hal Prince, that giant of Broadway, who died yesterday in Iceland at the age of 91. White-bearded with a twinkle in the eye so highly visible because his glasses were always off, balanced on his bald head. I learned his name as either the director or producer of so many musicals I was too young to have seen, but knew well through the LP original cast albums in my collection. Scratching the surface of his prodigious output there was West Side Story, Fiddler on the Roof, Cabaret, and Damn Yankees. All of them hits, some classics of the American Musical Theater.

Those were the old musicals I knew. When I started going to Broadway shows during high school and college, I realized the man was active, and collaborating with Stephen Sondheim, the greatest living composer/lyricist. That's when I saw Sweeney Todd, my first Hal Prince musical. I saw the original cast three times. I went back to discover the previous Prince/Sondheim creations: A Funny Thing Happen on the Way to the Forum, Follies, Company, A Little Night Music (based on Ingmar Bergman's film Smiles of a Summer Night), and Pacific Overtures, a masterpiece about the opening of Japan by Commodore Perry, that flopped on Broadway on its initial run: a condemnation of American imperialism in 1976, the American Bicentennial year. There were Tony Awards galore, and music that has become part of Broadway lore. It was the 1980's, the time when Broadway decided to revive many of these musicals with their original stars. To this day the revival of Fiddler, with Zero Mostel reprising his role of Tevye is one of my treasured memories of Broadway.

Hal Prince went on to work with the British invasion of Andrew Lloyd Webber. He directed The Phantom of the Opera in the West End and on Broadway. To this day the New York production of Phantom, now in its 31st year of continuous operation, regularly grosses over $1 million weekly. It is also still running in London, and around the world productions of this work has been seen by over 140 million people. The original cast recording has sold over 40 million copies.

He is the last of the great producers/directors, and Broadway will not see the likes of someone like him again. He will be remembered as one of the great talents to grace the Great White Way.

Monday, July 29, 2019

THE IRISHMAN will open the 2019 NY Film Festival

The New York Film Festival will open on September 27th with the world premiere of Martin Scorsese's latest film The Irishman, a biopic of Jimmy Hoffa based on the book I Hear you Paint Houses by Charles Brandt. The film stars Robert DeNiro, Al Pacino and Joey Pesci, who came out of an unofficial retirement to do this project. It is the ninth collaboration between DeNiro and Scorsese, and their first since 1995's Casino.

With a budget reported to be $200 million dollars, the film is being distributed by Netflix, which hopes to outdo last year's Roma, a film by Alfonso Cuarón which won Oscars for Best Foreign Film and Best Cinematography, and which was the centerpiece offering at the NY Film Festival last year. A passion project for Scorsese, the movie also stars Harvey Keitel, Bobby Cannavale and Anna Paquin.

Following the NY Film Festival showing and a short theatrical release, the film is set to stream digitally late in 2019.

Saturday, July 27, 2019

Spanish Singer Makes Debut at Bayreuth

Jorge Rodríguez Norton, the tenor from Asturias, Spain made his debut at Bayreuth on Thursday's opening night gala of the new production of Tannhäuser, directed by Tobias Kratzer and conducted by Valery Gergiev. Mr. Rodríguez Norton, who sings the role of Heinrich der Schrieber, becomes only the third Spaniard to sing at the Green Hill after Victoria de los Ángeles and Plácido Domingo. Festspielchef Katharina Wagner personally communicated with the singer through Facebook after she heard him sing in a performance of Tristan und Isolde at the Gran Teatre del Liceu in Barcelona. At first, the singer thought that somebody was playing a prank on him. but soon enough he realized that Ms. Wagner was offering him an opportunity to sing at the festival. Since the production will be repeated next year, the tenor from Avilés says that he has already signed for the 2020 festival, and has attended the rehearsals of the rest of the offerings for this year.

Friday, July 26, 2019

Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood: new Tarantino film

With a title that evokes two of director Sergio Leone’s great films, as well as the world of fairy tales, which imply make believe and wish fulfillment, Quentin Tarantino’s ninth film Once Upon a Time...in Hollywood is a love letter to the film industry at a time when great sweeping changes were going on in cinema. A young generation had taken the reins, European new waves were challenging the very nature of film entertainment, the American studio system had crumbled, and dark foreboding clouds were gathering in the horizon. The summer of love was gone, and ahead, horrible events would occur behind the gated mansion of an up-and-coming movie star and her famous director husband. Or will they? The director riffs on the Tate-LaBianca murders by the Charles Manson family, an event triggered by the lyrics of an album from a British group that already was showing tears at its seams. Tarantino reinvents this era in a highly ambitious wide canvas that bears the gravitas of apocalyptic times.

Next door to Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) and Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha) lives Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), an actor who specializes in World War II B pictures and TV westerns, and who now is on the downward slope of his career. His buddy Cliff Booth (an excellent Brad Pitt) is his stunt double, chauffeur and confidant. Cliff's shady past poses an obstacle for him to get work, as a matter of fact, it is only because of Rick that he gets any film work at all. And it shows, while Rick lives in the Hollywood hills in a beautiful house with a pool, Cliff lives in a derelict trailer with his pit bull next to a drive-in.

The film is an engrossing and kaleidoscopic recreation of a time that Tarantino did not personally know or yearn for in any kind of nostalgic way; after all he was a six year old child when the events of this film take place. As always the decade is brought to life through the world of cinema, which Tarantino knows better than any other director working today. Therefore, the film is highly detailed with homages and illusions to the famous spots in L.A. and the theater marquees announcing the films of the time. Some of these are well-known, but in the great tradition of film geekdom, at whose throne Tarantino sits, the majority are rare and forgotten. As far as the director is concerned, though, they are treasures to be discovered by a new contemporary audience.

Aside from the performances of DiCaprio and Pitt, both surely destined for Oscar nominations, there are wonderful moments from Margot Robbie, whose Sharon Tate is a free spirit radiant beauty who visits a Hollywood theater so she can see her own performance in the film The Wrecking Crew, alongside Dean Martin. Powerful also is Bruce Dern in a tiny cameo playing the blind, aged owner of a Western Ranch being rented by the Manson family.

Without a doubt, Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood is Tarantino's most accomplished film, and one of the best movies of the year. Gone are the jerky rhythms of many of his past films, here replaced by a deliberately smooth glide when it comes to camera movement as well as story development. A new Tarantino? Not exactly. There's still a whole lot of the old Quentin that we all love, but this film shows signs of artist maturity, which is definitely not a bad thing.

Thursday, July 25, 2019

Bayreuth: New Staging of Tannhäuser

The Bayreuth Festival began today with a new production of Richard Wagner's romantic opera Tannhäuser, directed by Tobias Kratzer and under the musical leadership of Valery Gergiev, both men making their Bayreuth debuts this year. For the director this opera goes beyond the conflict of profane versus pure love; he sees it as a clash between high and lowbrow art. Mr. Kratzer noticed that the composition of this work took place at a time when Wagner himself did not know whether he was going to go down in history as an anarchist or as a composer, or even if he was going to be remembered at all. Given this background to the work Mr. Kratzer states that "Wagner is writing about two models of life ... two conflicting love models." He goes on to explain that this approach to the story "makes it more contemporary than if you restrict the whole thing to the whore versus saint conflict of Romanticism."
Thus we are presented with a van with a green rabbit on top, and outside speakers, driving through the Romantic pine forests of Germany, and a biogas plant (an in-joke to the last Bayreuth production of this work by Sebastian Baumgarten). Driving the van are Venus in a skintight suit (Elena Zhidkova), and her lover Tannhäuser (Stephen Gould), a clown (shades of Josef von Sternberg's 1930 film The Blue Angel where a distinguish English professor marries a lusty cabaret performer only to find himself degraded to the role of clown -- literally). Riding with them, in silent roles, are Oskar the midget (Manni Laudenbach) and famed black cabaret drag queen Le Gateau Chocolat. The Venusberg is a simple German cottage complete with human-sized garden gnomes, a perfect reason for Le Gateau to don her Snow White outfit straight out of the Walt Disney film. As the relationship between Venus and Tannhäuser deteriorates during the Venusberg scene we discover that only one item makes any sense for him: a duffel bag with a vocal score that says "Wagner" on the front cover, presumably the score to this opera itself. When he invokes the name of the Virgin Mary, Tannhäuser is transported to Bayreuth itself, and we find out that he was a singer who went rogue. He is welcomed back to the Green Hill, but not by Elisabeth (Lise Davidsen) who usually is absent from the first act. In this staging she makes an appearance and formally welcomes her former lover with a slap on the face.

The concept of using Bayreuth as the background for a production is reminiscent of Stefan Herheim's great staging of Parsifal in 2008 where Wahnfried became the point of departure for a production that chronicled the story of Germany through the World Wars and reconstruction. As Act II begins we realize that Mr. Kratzer will stage this act as if it were a performance of the act itself, even with video from backstage showing stage managers. The production in this ersatz staging is nothing like Bayreuth has seen since 1951. The costumes look like a pre-Wieland Wagner staging from the 1930's. The conflict between high and low art comes to a head during the song contest. Eventually, the characters from the first act infiltrate the Festspielhaus, and rush the stage at the mention of Venus and Tannhäuser's praise for carnal love. In a video cameo Katharina Wagner herself calls the police to arrest the intruders, and when they drive up the Green Hill they handcuff Tannhäuser and take him away as he sings the words "Nach Rom!"
As the opera continues into the concluding act the production becomes less Wagner's story, and begins to be overpowered by Mr. Kratzer's conceit. The third act takes place in a junkyard invaded by pilgrims who look more like refugees. Wolfram dresses up in the clown outfit and wig that Tannhäuser wore in Act I and, at the urging of Elisabeth herself, has sex with her in the van. Tannhäuser eventually returns only to find that Elisabeth has committed suicide.
There was amazing singing from all the principals, especially Stephen Gould, who is no stranger to the role of Tannhäuser. Lise Davidsen sang with a smooth, powerful voice that beautifully exemplifies this character. Markus Eiche has the perfect voice for Wolfram, and his song to the Evening Star was a highlight of the concluding act, pity that so much of the staging made very little sense. Valery Gergiev lead a competent reading of the score, but a personal vision of the work was missing. His appearance on stage during the curtain calls drew a smattering of boos.

Needless to say the production team was greeted by ferocious boos by about half of the audience, although applause seemed to have won out in the end due to the great quality of singing and acting by all. Not a bad start for this year's festival. Let's hope that the critics do not totally kill this production, since there are many good ideas, especially in the first act. I'm sure Mr. Kratzer will be refining the production as it makes a comeback in years to come.

Bayreuth: New Ring for 2020


On the eve of the start of the 2019 Bayreuth Festival, festspielchief Katharina Wagner has announced in a press conference that a new Ring will be staged at the Green Hill in 2020. The new production will replace the Frank Castorf staging, a mish-mash that was universally hated since its premiere back in 2013. According to Ms. Wagner the young, Austrian director Valentin Schwarz will stage the new production. Mr. Schwarz made a mark in the opera world when he staged Maurizio Kagel's opera Mare Nostrum at Cologne. The musical direction will be in the hands of Pietari Inkinen, the young Finnish violinist and conductor of the Japan Philharmonic and the Prague Symphony Orchestra.

Ms. Wagner has always championed young talent, so it is no surprise that Mr. Schwarz and Mr. Inkinen will both be making their debuts at Bayreuth with this new production. In addition, Ms. Wagner has never shied away from importing talent that often brings controversy to the yearly summer festival. Back in 2004, when her father Wolfgang Wagner was still running the Festspielhaus, she championed the new Parsifal by Christoph Schlingensief and Pierre Boulez, one of the most controversial productions in the recent history of the festival.
The press conference also revealed some of the singers who will grace this new staging. Günther Groisböck is scheduled to sing the role of Wotan, Klaus Florian Vogt, who has become the "house tenor" will be Sigmund, while Andreas Schager and Stephen Gould will share the role of Siegfried. The role of Brünnhilde will also be shared by Petra Lang in Die Walküre, Daniel Köhler in Siegfried, and American soprano Christine Goerke, fresh off her triumph in the Metropolitan Opera Ring staging from last season, will perform in Götterdämmerung.

Wednesday, July 24, 2019

A Roadmap for Impeachment?

We are hours away from a day that has been awaited by many on the democratic side of the aisle in Washington D.C. Robert Mueller will testify today in congress for the American people. Could it be the beginning of the end of the Donald Trump presidency? According to the many pundits who have chimed in about this Wednesday morning, the hearing might not reveal any earth shattering facts, especially if the former special counsel adheres to his 448 page report. Mueller will appear before the House Judiciary Committee at 8:30 a.m., a hearing that is expected to run for three hours. After a break, Mueller will testify before the House Intelligence Committee at noon. Although the hearing has the possibility of being explosive, Mr. Mueller is a reluctant witness, and if he is questioned about something in the report, he might just ask the various committee members to re-read the report that he already wrote in order to get the answer they are looking for. That would be the biggest disappointment for anyone who feels that Trump's days in the White House are numbered. A do or die moment for democrats, and a chance for republicans to close the book on this part of Trump's presidency.

Sunday, July 21, 2019

Bayreuth 2019: All Systems are GO!

In the spirit of the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing, all systems are go for the opening of the 2019 Bayreuth Festival, which will take place on August 25 with a new production of Tannhäuser, directed by Tobias Kratzer and conducted by Valery Gergiev. Mr. Kratzer being famous as an avant-garde director, together with the recent  track-record at Bayreuth during the last 10 years or so, it is safe to say that it will be an experimental look at Richard Wagner's romantic opera. Mr. Kratzer has already directed this work during the 2010-2011season in Bremen. The following video, a promo for that production, might give you an example of what the director has in mind for the Green Hill this summer.


But then again, I'm sure Mr. Kratzer has had time to rethink the opera, and most likely will offer a production with new ideas, and with a deeper understanding of the work. One thing is certain: I doubt very much that, despite being being an anniversary year for the moon landing, Mr. Kratzer will stage Tannhäuser in space as in the unconventional staging of La Bohème, conducted by Gustavo Dudamel, which debuted at the Opéra National de Paris in 2017. A production which produced a storm of boos during its run.

Something tells me that the boos will still be heard at Bayreuth no matter what. It has been a tradition lately to boo the creative team on opening night, especially if the concept is new and controversial. Even last year, at a performance of Die Meistersinger I attended, which had already played the year before, I experienced an audience which booed Barrie Kosky's production with its references to the post-war Nuremberg trials, and its highlight of Wagner's anti-Semitic approach to his character Sixtus Beckmesser.

We will see what this summer brings.  It is my understanding that the production will once again be broadcast live by BR-KLASSIK.

Saturday, July 20, 2019

W.A. Mozart's THE MAGIC FLUTE at the Mostly Mozart Festival

What a sheer delight is the Barrie Kosky, Suzanne Andrade production of Mozart's The Magic Flute, with incredible animations by Paul Barritt and his company 1927. This whimsical staging which gets its inspiration from silent film, the cabaret world of the German Weimar Republic, and German Expressionism has gone round the world, being presented in the Komische Oper Berlin, The Los Angeles Opera, as well as in the Teatro Real, Madrid. Now this staging comes to New York for the first time under the banner of the Mostly Mozart Festival, with the orchestra conducted by Louis Langrée.

Here is a promotion video that was made for the L.A. Opera premiere of this staging.


The opera is being performed in the original German, and you might remember that Mozart and his librettist Emanuel Schikaneder came up with a "singspiel" rather than a work with formal recitatives. Between the musical numbers there is dialogue. Here the words of the dialogue are shone on the screen "silent movie style," while an 18th century fortepiano accompanies it with music from Mozart's two fantasias for piano K. 475 in C minor and K. 397 in D minor. As a result, the singers never speak the dialogue, and the illusion of a silent movie is maintained.

In this production Tamino is a silent movie matinee idol; he could be Valentino, or Fairbanks, or Ramón Novarro. Papageno is Buster Keaton, Tamina is Louise Brooks, and Monostatos is Count Orlok from Nosferatu. But aside from casting the characters as recognizable figures from the silent cinema, what makes this production one of the best things I have seen on an operatic stage in a while is the marriage between live action and animation. The stage is a screen where Mr. Barritt's imagination shines and is allowed to go wild. The Queen of the Night as a gigantic black widow spider, and a pack of wild hell-hounds firmly held by Count Orlok's leash are two of the effects that really captivated me and the rest of the audience. But if you experience this production, I am sure you will have your favorite moments as well. Also outstanding in its planning is the fact that the visual effects don't just work for an audience sitting stage center. I was a bit off to the side, and none of the magic was lost.

In this video, Australian director Barrie Kosky (and friend) introduces the production, while allowing you to take a peek at some of the segments of the work.

Friday, July 12, 2019

Leonardo's ST. JEROME at the MET

One of the great paintings of the Renaissance, Leonardo Da Vinci's St. Jerome Praying in the Wilderness, an unfinished portrait that the artist began in 1483, and continued to work on until his death in 1519, is now on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The canvas is on loan from the Vatican Museums, its permanent home, and it will be on display here in New York City until October 6. The exhibition is in honor of the five hundredth observance of the death of the Florentine master.

As a member of the museum, I saw the painting yesterday, and stayed around for a 15 minute lecture by Carmen Bambach, PhD, the Yale educated, Chilean-born curator of the museum, and a specialist on the Renaissance, and Leonardo in particular. She has authored many exhibition catalogues for the museum, including The Drawings of Bronzino, which is part of my personal library. Dr. Bambach is the author of the soon-to-be-released Leonardo da Vinci Rediscovered, a four volume modern rethinking of the career and unique vision of the artist. Her book is published by Yale University Press, and available from Amazon by following the link below.

Tuesday, July 09, 2019

ABT: Beauty returns

On the very last day, and the very last performance of this season's American Ballet Theatre, I decided to catch their swan song, a revival of Tchaikovsky's Sleeping Beauty. My knowledge of the ballet is still below neophyte level, I have only seen ABT's production once before. I grew up watching Walt Disney's brilliant widescreen animated retelling of the fairy tale which uses many musical themes from the work. It's music that I have grown up with, but while in my mind a certain mysterious musical segment will always belong to Maleficent's creepy raven, it is fun to hear this same music accompanying a pas-de-deux between the White Cat and Puss-in-Boots.

It was the last performance of ABT, and apparently they were not leaving anything behind. Going to my seat for the first time, When I showed one usher my ticket, and she pointed in the general direction of my seat, she did not perform the action that always follows that brief encounter. They ran out of playbills! Now, I have been attending the Metropolitan Opera House since the late 1970's, and never has the MET ran out of playbills. How disconcerting. I asked the usher who was dancing, and she had trouble remembering the names of the principals. I spent the first act without a playbill, not recognizing who was on stage, and surrounded by an audience who also spent the performance with empty hands.  As soon as the first intermission began I went up to the Parterre Boxes. If anybody is going to have a playbill is going to be the Parterre Boxes level, I told myself. Those are the expensive seats. When I inquired, the usher there smile, and asked me "how many do you want?" I should have asked for two, but for some reason one was enough for that evening.

Sleeping Beauty is Marius Petipa's most epic piece of choreography, with dozens of dancers, many in costumes that bring to life such fairy tale favorites as Red Riding Hood and the Wolf, the Ogre and his Ogress wife, as well as Bluebeard and Sheherezade. Buried in all of this is a rather simple story of how the evil fairy Carabosse (danced with tongue-in-cheek malevolence by Craig Salstein) curses Princess Aurora (Cassandra Trenary) until true love in the form of Prince Désiré (Joseph Gorak) breaks the spell.

Maybe that's why ABT ordered so few playbills. Everybody knows this story, and everybody knows how it will end.

Thursday, July 04, 2019

MIDSOMMAR: New Film by Ari Aster

After Midsommar, Ari Aster’s latest journey into modern horror, many critics will be calling the director's talent as visionary, despite the fact that this latest shows that his vision at times is clouded and his tastes easily given to excesses — a Dario Argento for our times, some might say. This is a mantle Mr. Aster might be proud to wear, but in reality he still has to prove himself. This is only his second feature. As a newcomer he was crowned an auteur after his first feature, Hereditary, a little gem of a horror film about grieving, hit the 2018 Sundance Film Festival, and went on to conquer both critics and audiences. Grief, and our human reaction to devastating loss also happens to be a major theme in this latest feature.

After a terrible family tragedy, Dani, an incredible Florence Pugh, convinces herself that she wants to go with her boyfriend, Christian (Jack Reynor) and his college pals to a remote village in Sweden, at the invitation of a Swedish exchange student friend of theirs, to witness a once-in-a-lifetime summer festival. Since the group features anthropology majors this is the perfect summer vacation for them to advance their thesis. For Dani it is a chance to get away and work on her strained relationship with Christian.

The village is an idyllic place bathed in the perpetual sunlight of the Scandinavian summer, and beautifully photographed by cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski, who captures the green earth, the white dresses, the rosy cheeks, and the welcoming smiles with such earnestness that you would never think there is anything wrong in this Arcadian paradise. But make no mistake about it: the villagers harbor a clear, twisted agenda here, subtly foreshadowed by the sight of buildings with odd, twisted Expressionistic roofs, and revealed with unspeakable horror when the village stages an "ättestupa," a ritual where an elderly village couple, after being celebrated for their old age, jump to their deaths in what has to be one of the most horrific suicides/senicides ever filmed. From the point of view of the tropes of horror film, the scene works perfectly because its setup has been so carefully calculated.

This ritualistic suicide sets into motion a series of events where the visitors become grossly embroiled in the grisly events of the village. Without giving anything away, allow me to divulge that you are in for a slow ride with a few calculated bumps along the way. At 147 minutes the film is way too long for its own good. The montage of the film is pristine, but actually shaving it down to a manageable size would have made it as close to ideal as possible.

Despite its many flaws, Midsommar is a feast for the eyes and ears, although it ends up feeling like a celebration that has gone on for too long. The film starts showing its faults, and Aster begins to run out of tricks. At times the mise-en-scène is quite inventive: the upside-down shot when the group first arrives by car to the village demonstrates the inverted, topsy-turvy world in which they have just entered. Another shot, early in the film, in which Dani is talking to Christian, she looking at the camera, while he is reflected in a mirror is not only cool, like Diego Velázquez's great painting Las Meninas, but visually shows how their relationship is clearly not on the same plane.

Finally, Ari Aster reveals how much of a film geek he can be, usually a good thing, yet here it works against him. Visually, Midsommar harks back to a number of movies I'm convinced the director loves. For starters, both the original version of The Wicker Man, featuring Christopher Lee, and its 2006 remake with Nicholas Cage play a huge part in the conception of the narrative, and its visual palette. Midsommar feels like a remake, and if you consider the fact that there is a film called Midsummer (2003) whose IMDB logline reads as follows:  "After ... friends graduate secondary school, they head off to a Swedish cabin for midsummer as previous years. Strange things happen" then the film is very much a remake. And like last year's reworking of another horror film, Luca Guadagnino's take on Dario Argento's Suspiria, this film also goes off its hinges when it leaves behind the world of verisimilitude, and enters into the plane of over-indulgence and its end result, which is always excessive length.

Friday, June 21, 2019

ABT: Manon with Roberto Bolle's Farewell

Ballet farewells are for the cognoscenti. Those that have followed the career of an artist, and want to make sure they have a last look at him/her before the end. For the rest of us, it's a matter of dealing with the fact that one missed a lot. Especially when it comes to the retirement of a great, beloved artist. This season it was Roberto Bolle's turn. After joining American Ballet Theatre as a principal in 2009, last night he gave his last performance with ABT in Sir Kenneth McMillan's Manon; the role of Des Grieux being one of the staples of his much-admired career. The magnificent Hee Seo was his Manon, and the ever-popular American dancer James Whiteside danced the role of Lescaut.
This was my first time at this ballet, and as the evening progressed I had to fight the absurd thoughts of comparing this work to the Jules Massenet opera, which I don't know very well, or Giacomo Puccini's take on the Abbé Prévost's novel which I have never read. Also, not having followed the career of Mr. Bolle I was totally unprepared for last night's evening. To be honest, I usually like to do my homework before a performance, but I only learned of the gala the night before, and I wanted to be there. Why? Because many times, in such events filled with so much emotion an artist can touch greatness. And, I believe it happened last night. Yes, the buzz in the audience was there, and the fans and the cognoscenti were evenly spread around the house, but all of that aside, reflecting just on the performance, it was a great evening of dance. Mr. Bolle couldn't have done better. It's what happens when an artist decides to call it quits while he's still at the top of his game following the dictum for retirement: "Don't stay too long!" Of course a dancer reaches the end when the rest of us are still fledglings at our professions. I'm glad that Mr. Bolle chose to go out when he did. He left the limelight with one of those bangs that people will be talking about for years -- that's what I mean by touching greatness.

Of course, following the wild standing ovation there were the customary tributes by colleagues past and present. I offer the above video, in case you were not in the house last night, so you can share in the glory of the evening.

Tuesday, June 18, 2019

New "CASABLANCA" from Egypt

A new film bearing the name Casablanca has been released by Egypt. Many critics are pointing out that the new movie might be a turning point in the history of that country's film industry. The film is directed by Peter Mimi, written by Heshan Helal, and it stars Amir Karara, Eyad Nassar, Ghada Adel, Amr Abdel-Gelil, Lebleba and Mahmoud El-Bezawy.

The film deals with three friends who work together in ship burglary. They are usually tasked to steal the expensive cars that contain hidden drugs on those ships, in order to get a percentage of the money in return. However, they get caught at some point throughout the movie and start betraying each other, until the plot thickens and they get involved in life and death matters with the Mafia men in Casablanca, Morocco. 

The trailer of the film amassed a million views in three hours of its release. This is a record in the history of Egyptian cinema.
Synergy Productions and film producer Waleed Mansour, presented the trailer where star Amir Karara appeared in several action scenes. In addition, the appearance of Jordanian star Eyad Nassar is expected to be a turning point in his career.  Casablanca was released during Eid al-Fitr, the end of Ramadan.

I am happy to report that this new movie has nothing to do with the American film of the same name.  It is not an Egyptian remake. It is a totally contemporary action film only using the one word title of the classic Warner Brothers picture. Perhaps the director sees it as a homage to the Golden Age of Hollywood, but that is not clear. Other than the fact that the movie portrays Morocco as a dangerous place filled with intrigue, and perhaps death might be the only link to the original film.

Source: https://identity-mag.com/casablanca-unrealistic-action-movie-or-a-turning-point-in-egyptian-cinema/

Sunday, June 16, 2019

ON BROADWAY: To Kill a Mockingbird

The winners here are Aaron Sorkin who has fashioned a riveting play out of Harper Lee's well known 1960 novel, and director Bartlett Sher, who time and time again surprises us by conjuring the magic and genuineness of the theater, whether it be one of his warhorse revivals at Lincoln Center, or this powerful hybrid. Would that he were as lucky with the world of opera. His forays at the MET have been received with mixed reviews time and time again. Another clever touch is the use of music, especially composed for this production for pump organ and guitar by the talented Adam Guettel, whose brilliant 2005 music for The Light in the Piazza won a Tony for Best Musical Score, and was presented at Lincoln Center helmed by Mr. Sher.

Perhaps there is no better actor to play the righteous lawyer Atticus Finch, then Jeff Daniels, and actor who is experiencing the second stage of his career, and whose accent couldn't be more genuine, if at times one has to bend an ear to catch every word. After all, he was born in 1955 in Clarke County Georgia, and I am sure that his Deep Southern roots resonate with the dramatic themes of this work, as well as its language. If there is an actor capable of wiping off the memory of Gregory Peck, in the landmark film of the novel, then Mr. Daniels is it.

Mr. Sher's great genius lies in his precise, at times wondrous casting. Celia Keenan-Bolger, who won a Tony award this year for this performance, allows her talent, and the magic of the theater to convince us that she is the child Scout. Likewise Will Pullen and Gideon Glick portray touching versions of Jem Finch, and Dill Harris. Gbenga Akinnagbe is a touching Tom Robinson, and LaTanya Richardson Jackson is a memorable Calpurnia. The intensity portrayed by Frederick Weller as Bob Ewell leaves a dark impression on one's soul, and Erin Wilhelmi as his daughter Mayella is an unforgettable creature, one part victim, the other part mired in her entitled homegrown racism.

"All rise" has been the catchword for this production. All rise, indeed, as one of the best casts on Broadway delivers a performance truly worthy of a standing ovation.

Saturday, June 15, 2019

ON BROADWAY: Kiss Me Kate

Cole Porter never had it so good with Kiss Me Kate. His 1948 answer to Rodgers and Hammerstein's Oklahoma! was his first musical where his clever lyrics and music were fully integrated organically to the show's book. And what a book it was! Bella and Samuel Spewack wrote a charming comedy about an acting troupe putting on Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew led by Fred Graham, the show's director and leading man, and his leading lady, ex-wife Lilli Vannessi. These battling exes were inspired by real-life husband and wife stars Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne who were known to engage in marital battles on and off the stage.

The Roundabout Theatre Company is in the midst of a fun revival of this classic, starring Kelli O'Hara and Will Chase. Immediately one notices how many of the show's songs have gone on to become part of the American Songbook. Porter's contribution to this list of musical gems often came from forgotten shows. "Begin the Beguine," one of his great songs comes from a show called Jubilee, probably only remembered because of Mr. Porter's musical participation. Incidentally, "Just One of Those Things" also came from this forgotten piece of Broadway history, penned by Moss Hart, whose plot revolves around the silver jubilee of Britain's King George V.  But Kiss Me Kate's list of hits includes "Another Op'nin', Another Show," "Wunderbar," "So in Love," "Too Darn Hot," and that audience favorite "Brush up Your Shakespeare," sung by two Runyonesque gangsters. It's the 10 o'clock number that over the years has become an audience favorite.

This revival, directed by Scott Ellis, is not only a lot of fun, but it maintains the show in period, thus assuring that the jokes and references adhere to that post-war period where America was prospering, and the Broadway musical was in the midst of its richest period.

Bravo to Kelli O'Hara, who has become our leading Broadway actress, specializing in revivals. Let us hope that before long she lands a new musical that could possibly equal the greatness of the string of hits that she has had (South Pacific, The King and I) lately.

On a personal level, this was my first production of this beloved classic. Also I had never seen the 1953 MGM film starring Kathryn Grayson and Howard Keel either. My only link to Kiss Me Kate were the songs "Wunderbar" and "So in Love," sung by Alfred Drake and Patricia Morison, and which I got to learn when I bought a Broadway retrospective set on LP of original cast recordings. What talent! No wonder it took home the first Tony Award for best musical back in 1949.

The current revival runs until the end of this month. I suggest you get down to Studio 54 and catch it before the summer gets too darn hot and the show closes.

Sunday, May 05, 2019

AVENGERS: ENDGAME

When Samuel Beckett wrote his follow up to Waiting for Godot, a one-act play for four characters called Endgame, he wrote that this play needs to be performed in an empty room with two small windows. Marvel Studios has now given us their Endgame: a three hours plus film that takes place in many crowded rooms all around the universe, and windows to dozens of other referential works of cinema, including the Marvel Universe movies themselves. Any garden variety fanboy will wallow in the post-modernist recognition game, the rest of us will need a score card in case you want to keep track, which if you are just a casual observer of this cinematic phenomenon called Marvel you might not care at all.

But for those with a minor allegiance, or zero allegiance to the series, all you have to know is that the movie is a 2019 reworking of The Seven Samurai where the surviving Avengers try to recruit whoever is left in order to set the universe right again; or maybe it's about killing Thanos again, or maybe the real plot is about recovering magic rocks. It's mostly about all these with a little help from H.G. Wells's The Time Machine. In all likely-hood if you give the film more than just a cursory viewing its about how to bring to a conclusion one of the most profitable cinematic franchises in the history of cinema.

And try not to tell anyone who hasn't braved the crowds about the movie. These days, if you divulge anything that happens (fanboys consider every frame sacred) it is considered a spoiler, and people will consider you an outcast, and they will walk away from you when they see you heading to the water cooler during the morning coffee break. But then again, famboys will surely have beaten you to this film. I know one person who has already seen it three times.

I'm now going to make a confession. I enjoyed watching this film. I liked the way the narrative is presented. I enjoyed the performances, many of them, especially that of Robert Downey, Jr., who has spent more than a decade perfecting his Tony Stark. I doubt the film needed to be 181 minutes; there are sections that drag with dialogue that often misses the point. The humor is sophomoric. Scarlett Johansson complains that she is getting email from a racoon, and Thor has let himself go and now looks and acts more like "The Dude" in The Big Lebowski. But not to worry, before you know it, everything comes back to normal, (ooops, sorry about that, was that a spoiler?) and the film ends with...

Well, let me not get exiled from the water cooler at work.  Just go to see it. Half of this planet has already done so thus far to the tune of two billion dollars. Whatever you think of the film, Avengers: Endgame has become a cultural landmark for our times.

Saturday, April 20, 2019

On Broadway: GARY: A SEQUEL TO TITUS ANDRONICUS

Titus Andronicus has not fared well in the modern era. William Shakespeare's first tragedy (co-written, it is believed with George Peele) was immensely popular in its day -- the Elizabethans had a ferocious taste for revenge plays. However in the Victorian era it fell out of favor due to its excessive violence. The 20th century did not improve the play's lot, and to this day it is considered one of the least important efforts by the Bard.

What can you do with it, then? A much maligned, over-the-top Shakespeare revenge tragedy of dubious authorship. You can try to produce it straight and try not to get laughs from nervous audience members reacting to the exuberant violence. You can dismiss it, of course, and concentrate on the masterpieces of the canon. Or you can laugh it off and lampoon the freaking thing. This is more or less what playwright Taylor Mac (who uses the term “judy” as a gender pronoun) has done with his wickedly uproarious Gary: A Sequel to Titus Andronicus, opening tomorrow night at the Booth Theatre, and starring Nathan Lane, Julie White and Kristine Nielsen. This show should have opened in May, but it extended its previews after actress Andrew Martin suffered an injury during rehearsals, and had to withdraw from the production.

On a stage filled with piles of bloody corpses, more funny than gross, three characters, a clown, a chairwoman and a midwife re-enact the bloody deeds of the play, reminisce on how they managed to survive the massacre in Act V, and ponder life’s many mysteries and conundrums. It’s a clear Samuel Beckett situation, but played to slapstick perfection by the three principles. The humor is always coarse, relying on fart jokes and necrophilic shtick. High comedy it is not, but the again Titus is nowhere near the same league as Hamlet. Bathroom humor, therefore, is the right counterpart to its Elizabethan inspiration.

If Taylor Mac’s play wanders, and sometimes descends into the lower depths of taste, the three actors are there to salvage it. Mr. Lane, who recently appeared in epic serious dramas (The Iceman Cometh and Angels in America) returns to the genre for which we know him best. As the clown Gary, he seems to be aware of the pecking order of Shakespearean roles. He is a hopeless clown (he juggles pigeons who fly away) but he tells us that one day he dreams of ascending the Elizabethan "Dramatis Personae" ladder and become a Fool, like King Lear’s wise companion. Likewise Ms. White and Ms. Nielsen are shattered characters that survive life by grit and a hopeless hope belief that one day things will improve. The play couldn't be darker if it wanted to be, but amid the carnage a ray of hope (reminiscent of the conclusion of Akira Kurosawa's great film Rashomon) sends us home once again assuring us of the inherent goodness of mankind.

Sunday, March 31, 2019

Die Walküre at the MET

Spring is the traditional time to present the works of Richard Wagner at the Metropolitan Opera. For many years, for instance, the option of Good Friday was to go to St. Thomas on Fifth Avenue to hear its incredible choir, or go uptown to the Met and enjoy the five hours plus of Wagner's Parsifal. This practice is not being honored with such rigidity any more these days, but the opera company is currently presenting its three Ring Cycles this Spring, and I ventured out yesterday morning for a noontime start to a matinee performance of Die Walküre, the second installment of the composer's famed tetralogy. This performance was also telecast to the entire world. It also meant the return of the widely debated and much maligned Robert Lepage production, which consists of a giant machine made up of planks, which move in all sorts of ways as beautiful projections are shined upon it. Its a staging that replaced the beloved 1986 Otto Schenk staging. When the Lepage staging premiered in the 2010-2011 season, it had a tendency to malfunction. I remember quite well opening night when the Rainbow Bridge in the last scene of Das Rheingold failed to work, and the gods had to walk offstage, finding a detour route to Valhalla.

The staging of Die Walküre back in its premiere season was also problematic. Bryn Terfel as Wotan seemed uneasy walking along the steep planks, and Deborah Voigt took a tumble on her "Hojotoho" entrance. Tenor Jonas Kaufmann fared better than his colleagues. In his entire performance as Siegmund he never had to step on the darn thing. The machine was a mess, but when it did work it showed scenes of great beauty and wonderful imagination. The descent to Nibelheim in Rheingold is one of the greatest effects I have seen on any stage.  It outdoes artist M.C. Escher in its preposterous and impossible construction.

The engineers and computer programmers at Ex Machina, Lepage's company responsible for the construction of this gigantic gizmo definitely heard the complaints of opera fans. Yesterday afternoon the production went off without a hitch. The machine is now much quieter than it was back when it made its first appearance. As it moved, I only heard mechanical sounds twice, and they were very subtle. The only alien sound one heard in Act II was that of Wotan's spear rolling down one of the planks, and landing with a thud.

When this production opened it featured the best Wagnerians 2011 could offer. Now in 2019, one can say that the MET has resorted to the road show cast. However, yesterday's performance was as solid and as good as anything that being offered in other major opera houses, including the Bayreuth Festival. Christine Goerke sang a beautiful Brünhilde, a major addition to her repertory. Eva-Marie Westbroek was a fine, powerful Sieglinde, Stuart Skelton proved that he can sing a better Siegmund than his awful Otello earlier on in the season, and Günther Groissböck was marvelous in the short role of Hunding. As Wotan, Greer Grimsley's voice is cavernous and comes from the back of his throat, and tends to stay there. As a result his legato phrasing and diction suffers. However, his last act farewell to his daughter brought a tear to my eye. The two artists sang it and acted it beautifully. Conductor Philippe Jordan led a clean, detailed reading of the score, never overwhelming his singers.

This is a very good performance of this opera, and if you like this work, you'd be crazy to miss it. It is not perfect, but it is excellent.

Wednesday, March 27, 2019

US: the new Jordan Peele film

One is not sure what Jordan Peele wants to be: a social critic, or a scare meister? Thus far he has been able to blend the two with genuine success. In his first film, Get Out, a young black man witnesses first hand a monstrous side of bigoted white America. In Us, his second film, he tackles the theme of the doppelgänger in a terrifying story that begins during an equally terrifying time in America: Ronald Reagan's presidency and the "Hands Across America" benefit event. In 1986 young little Adelaide encounters a doppelgänger of herself at a funhouse in Santa Cruz beach. Years later, she's now a married adult, and along with her two children and her husband, she heads to Santa Cruz on vacation, even though the trip is making her apprehensive since she has not forgotten the traumatic event of her childhood that happened there.

One evening, the family is visited by doppelgängers of themselves: scary creatures dressed in red overalls, and wielding sharp golden scissors, their voices monstrous shrieks, and unintelligent grunts. These visitors might look like the family, but they are many rungs down the evolutionary and social scale. The trailer for this film seemed to suggest that the film was a condemnation of black versus black violence, but when an upper-class white family is savagely murdered by equally deranged doppelgängers, the film begins to suggest a social war rather than a racial one. The have-nots finally getting the upper-hand on the economically advantaged.

But Mr. Peele makes sure that there are more layers to the story than just an economic slasher nightmare. He conveys information that there are hundreds, perhaps thousands of abandoned tunnels running through the United States. Obviously tunnels that hold great secrets, places that will eventually be revealed and shed light on the meaning of the rows of caged rabbits that we see during the film's credit sequence.

One thing's for sure: the cast, headed by the luminous Lupita Nyong'o shines. Playing their own doppelgängers both she and her husband Gabe (Winston Duke) relish their dual roles. Likewise Elizabeth Moss and Tim Heidecker, who play their friends Kitty and Josh, pull all the stops playing their fiendish counterparts.

At the showing I attended, I heard a lady comment after the film concluded that she knew there was a message to the film, but she was not sure what it was. I fear this will be the opinion of one too many viewers of this film. These viewers will instead focus and enjoy the roller coaster ride the director offers. The film is more successful as a creature feature than as an economic satire.

Jeffrey Anderson in Common Sense Media summed it all up this way: "Jordan Peele's horror shocker can't compete with its sensational predecessor Get Out, but it doesn't have to."

Sunday, March 17, 2019

Everybody Knows (Todos lo saben) Starring Cruz and Bardem

Homecomings are dangerous. From ancient Greek tragedy we know that a return home after many years can stir dormant emotions and bring forth forgotten grudges to the surface that often culminate in dire events. So it is with Asghar Farhadi’s latest film Everybody Knows (Todos lo saben). Away from his native Iran, where his films have won the Oscar twice (A Separation and The Salesman), the writer/director has crafted an intricate story about a kidnapping in a Spanish town that seems to be an indictment of Old World values and deep resentments that are triggered by a visit from America.

Laura (Penélope Cruz) arrives home from Argentina with her two children sans her husband. The occasion for her return is a family wedding, where in the middle of the festivities her impetuous teenage daughter is kidnapped. The wedding sequence, crafted as carefully as that of The Godfather or The Deer Hunter, serves to introduce the relationships in this family. We learn that Paco (Javier Bardem) was in love with Laura, and that he now owns the vineyards that once belonged to her family, an important plot point.

The wedding sequence is a masterpiece of exposition, economic in its development and festive in its crafting. Perhaps the highlight of the film, and arguably its strongest section. Once the kidnapping occurs, sending the film to its second act, the narrative slows down, turning the plot into a ponderous whodunnit instead of speeding up the action and racing towards a completion. Farhadi relies too much on the emotional toll the kidnapping produces on the characters, when instead he should be offering the audience more clues and fewer red herrings. The eventual result is that the final resolution leaves us a bit cold.

Although the middle section of the film could have used an editor's firm hand, the final sequence shows a master filmmaker in complete control of his craft. As one of the characters prepares to reveal to another the identity of the kidnappers, the sanitation service is hosing down the main square of the village, the strong gush of water making the streets clean once again. Even the crucifix in the middle of the plaza gets a good scrubbing. Is the town now going to be cleansed of its past sins?  Of course not, this is the Old World. It'll just get dirty once more: everybody knows that!

Sunday, February 24, 2019

Academy Awards ballot

Here is a ballot for tonight's Oscar ceremony featuring all the categories.

The Indie Spirit Award Winners

Yesterday the Indie Spirit Awards were presented. Although they are not great prognosticators for tonight's Oscars, there are a lot of crossover films and artists for both shows.  Some of the winners were genuine surprises, but isn't that what indie films should do: surprise us by doing it in an unexpected way? Here are the nominees and winners in most major categories:

Best FeatureEIGHTH GRADE
FIRST REFORMED
IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK (WINNER)
LEAVE NO TRACE
YOU WERE NEVER REALLY HERE

Best Director
Debra Granik, LEAVE NO TRACE
Barry Jenkins, IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK (WINNER)
Tamara Jenkins, PRIVATE LIFE
Lynne Ramsay, YOU WERE NEVER REALLY HERE
Paul Schrader, FIRST REFORMED

Best First Feature
HEREDITARY
SORRY TO BOTHER YOU (WINNER)
THE TALE
WE THE ANIMALS
WILDLIFE

Best Male Lead
John Cho, SEARCHING
Daveed Diggs, BLINDSPOTTING
Ethan Hawke, FIRST REFORMED (WINNER)
Christian Malheiros, SÓCRATES
Joaquin Phoenix, YOU WERE NEVER REALLY HERE
Best Female Lead
Glenn Close, THE WIFE (WINNER)
Toni Collette, HEREDITARY
Elsie Fisher, EIGHTH GRADE
Regina Hall, SUPPORT THE GIRLS
Helena Howard, MADELINE’S MADELINE
Carey Mulligan, WILDLIFE

Best Supporting Female ActorKayli Carter, PRIVATE LIFE
Tyne Daly, A BREAD FACTORY
Regina King, IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK (WINNER)
Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie, LEAVE NO TRACE
J. Smith-Cameron, NANCY

Best Supporting Male ActorRaúl Castillo, WE THE ANIMALS
Adam Driver, BLACKKKLANSMAN
Richard E. Grant, CAN YOU EVER FORGIVE ME? (WINNER)
Josh Hamilton, EIGHTH GRADE
John David Washington, MONSTERS AND MEN

Best Cinematography
Ashley Connor, MADELINE’S MADELINE
Diego Garcia, WILDLIFE
Benjamin Loeb, MANDY
Sayombhu Mukdeeprom, SUSPIRIA (WINNER)
Zak Mulligan, WE THE ANIMALS

Best Screenplay(Writer/Story By)
Rebecca Lenkiewicz & Wash Westmoreland, COLETTE
Nicole Holofcener & Jeff Whitty, CAN YOU EVER FORGIVE ME? (WINNER)
Tamara Jenkins, PRIVATE LIFE
Boots Riley, SORRY TO BOTHER YOU
Paul Schrader FIRST REFORMED

Best First Screenplay
Bo Burnham, EIGHTH GRADE (WINNER)
Christina Choe, NANCY
Cory Finley, THOROUGHBREDS
Jennifer Fox, THE TALE
Quinn Shephard (Writer/Story By) and Laurie Shephard (Story By), BLAME

Best Editing
Joe Bini, YOU WERE NEVER REALLY HERE (WINNER)
Keiko Deguchi, Brian A. Kates & Jeremiah Zagar, WE THE ANIMALS
Luke Dunkley, Nick Fenton, Chris Gill & Julian Hart, AMERICAN ANIMALS
Anne Fabini, Alex Hall and Gary Levy, THE TALE
Nick Houy, MID90S

Best DocumentaryHALE COUNTY THIS MORNING, THIS EVENING
MINDING THE GAP
OF FATHERS AND SONS
ON HER SHOULDERS
SHIRKERS
WON’T YOU BE MY NEIGHBOR? (WINNER)

Best International FilmBURNING (South Korea)
THE FAVOURITE (United Kingdom)
HAPPY AS LAZZARO (Italy)
ROMA (Mexico) (WINNER)
SHOPLIFTERS (Japan)

The Robert Altman Award, whose previous winners included Spotlight (2015) and Moonlight (2016), interestingly went to SUSPIRIA, a film by Luca Guadagnino, a remake of Dario Argento's 1977 horror film. I was very surprised by this honor.  Although there were some unforgettable scenes in this film, Guadagnino's take ended up being an overblown and over-long rumination on Argento's classic.

Robert Altman Award
SUSPIRIA
Director: Luca Guadagnino
Casting Directors: Avy Kaufman, Stella Savino
Ensemble Cast: Malgosia Bela, Ingrid Caven, Lutz Ebersdorf, Elena Fokina, Mia Goth, Jessica Harper, Dakota Johnson, Gala Moody, Chloë Grace Moretz, Renée Soutendijk, Tilda Swinton, Sylvie Testud, Angela Winkler

Saturday, February 23, 2019

Verdi's FALSTAFF at the MET

The creative work of an older artist is usually a very personal statement; the creative work of an older genius carries us to a place we have not been before, and that includes transporting the artist himself. And so it is with Giuseppe Verdi, who after a life in the theater, and a self-imposed retirement, came back to the limelight to re-examine the work of another genius: William Shakespeare, a playwright whose work preoccupied the composer from the early Macbeth (Verdi did not read the play until he composed the opera, basing his music on the libretto of Francesco Maria Piave) to Otello and the final Falstaff, both of them blessed with libretti by Arrigo Boito.

Last night the MET revived the Robert Carsen production of Verdi's last opera. The production updates the work to the post World War II era, or as the program indicates "during the reign of Elizabeth II," a decision that works most of the time. Utilizing a unit set, the Garter Inn morphs into the kind of stuffy 1950s gentleman's club where no women are allowed, so needless to say the appearance of Mistress Quickly (Marie-Nicole Lemieux) sends the club members running out the door. When Ford (Juan Jesús Rodríguez) disguises himself as Mr. "Fontana" he comes in looking like a Texas oil baron, and Alice's kitchen, where a mini-riot hurls Falstaff out the window and into the Thames River, looks like a technicolor colorization of I Love Lucy. On the other hand, Herne's Oak was minimalist with only a starry sky to denote the outdoors.

But what would this production be without Ambrogio Maestri? The man owns the role of Falstaff hands down, and he has sung it around the world, along with so many other roles, including Baron Scarpia in Tosca at Las Palmas, Michele in Il Tabarro at the Bavarian State Opera, and Germont in La Traviata in Tokyo. Earlier this season at the MET he was heartbreaking as Michonnet in Adriana Lecouvreur. He is one of our most gifted character singers, and his resonant, ample baritone fills the house.  It's very exciting to watch a singer so invested in a role.

The MET has surrounded him with a variety of talented singing actors for this revival, stand-outs include Golda Schultz, a sweet Nannetta, and the aforementioned Mr. Rodríguez who was excellent as Ford. Ms. Lemieux's deep contralto made an excellent Quickly, but her acting was a bit schticky and over the top, "more matter with less art," as the Bard himself would say.  The orchestra under the baton of debuting conductor Richard Farnes was its usual excellent ensemble.  All in all, it's a revival not to be missed, and if this opera is a new venture for you, this ensemble will surely make it memorable.

Friday, February 22, 2019

It's OSCAR Time!

It's that time of the year! After a loopy, confusing pre-Oscar season complete with the postponement of an Oscar category which made little sense, and an announcement that certain categories would not be televised (another mistake that was rapidly rectified), we are limping towards the big day this Sunday, still with no host. In recent memory this is the first time that the ceremony will not be hosted by one person.

Still, Oscar night is Oscar night, no matter who hosts, and the awarding of this fabled statuette still matters in Tinsel Town. So, here are my predictions in the main categories.

BEST PICTURE: Whatever you might think of this art film, hands down, Roma will take the big prize, and it just might be a Mexican fiesta, with Alfonso Cuarón's film taking multiple prizes.

BEST ACTOR: After winning just about every award prior to Oscar night, including the Golden Globes and the SAG, 37 year old Rami Malek will become one of the youngest Oscar recipients for his impersonation of Freddie Mercury in Bohemian Rhapsody.

BEST ACTRESS: This is a tough one. Will Oscar award Olivia Colman for her beautiful performance in The Favourite, or will they give it to Glenn Close for a lifetime of great achievement? Oscar has a track record of doing this again and again? I think this just might be Ms. Close's year!

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR: Another tough category! Mahershala Ali already won this category for Moonlight, but his performance in Green Book was praised by critics and audiences alike.  It's also a feel good movie, and the character he plays is very likeable; so I predict Mr. Ali will follow Denzel Washington to become the second African American actor to win two Oscars.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS: The ladies from The Favourite (Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone) despite their fine performances, will cancel each other out. Marina de Tavira's role in Roma was small. This category is between Regina King (If Beale Street Could Talk) and Amy Adams (Vice). Being a huge Adams fan, I'm going with her this year.

BEST DIRECTOR: Here's what we have: Yorgos Lanthimos, an arthouse Greek filmmaker whose third English language film The Favourite is probably his most accessible work. Paweł Pawlikowski, who already won an Oscar for his masterful Ida, and whose Cold War is an artistic followup to that film, is a strong contender. Adam McKay, whose Vice was popular and well distributed is a long shot; and Spike Lee and his hip socio-political "joint" BlacKkKlansman has brought the Brooklyn filmmaker back to the forefront. Oh, Oscar, you make it difficult!  Oh yeah! I forgot! The winner will be Alfonso Cuarón!

And here are the rest of my predictions:

BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY: I'm hoping that the Oscar goes to the most beautifully shot film this year: the black-and-white, Academy Ratio Cold War.  However, Roma, another black-and-white beauty, might just take this prize as well.

ANIMATED FEATURE: No contest!  It's going to be Spider-Man into the Spider-Verse.

BEST DOCUMENTARY: In this political climate RBG is sure to win.

BEST FOREIGN LANGUAGE FILM: Could it be that Roma will get both Best Film as well as this award?  It's possible, but I will be happy if either Japan's Shoplifters or Poland's Cold War take the prize.

BEST SCREENPLAY: What a category this year! All great scripts, although Roma will defeat them all. However, it could happen that either The Favourite or Green Book can spoil the Roma juggernaut.

BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY: Here is where one of our great auteurs, Spike Lee finally gets his well-deserved Oscar for a lifetime of making movies his way.

The Oscar ceremony will be broadcast on ABC, Sunday February 24 at 8:00pm ET.

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

NETWORK on Broadway with Bryan Cranston

Network, the new adaptation of the Paddy Chayefsky screenplay, now playing at the Belasco Theatre, is all about watching. The arriving audience is greeted with a peek at a thespian's workout before a show. Actors on yoga mats stretching, exercising, and doing all an actor does to get into character now on display onstage. Director Ivo van Hove satisfies our inherent curiosities about show business while instantly making us voyeurs even before the first line of the play is uttered. And when the play does start, a giant screen upstage begins to capture it all in an HD hyper-reality. The TV images making the live performances before us almost secondary.

It’s satisfying to watch Bryan Cranston give what might just be the performance of a lifetime as Howard Beale, the veteran news anchor at the end of his rope, thinking of ending it all live on the air. A performance that has been finely crafted after a sold out run at London's National Theatre, and honored with the Olivier award. For me, the real satisfaction in Mr. Cranston's performance involves watching his 1080p image on a giant screen. And why not: it's how many of us got to know this talented actor, especially in his monumental performance in AMC's Breaking Bad, where he played Walter White, a chemistry teacher turned drug dealer. Van Hove’s staging celebrates our pixelized actor/audience relationship with him through the use of his brilliant technology.

Despite the 21st century staging, Lee Hal's adaptation of the film is set in 1976, where the fictional UBS is a distant fourth network, years before CNN made viewers dependent on 24 hour broadcasts and constant announcements of breaking news. Howard Beale’s rants maintain an air of prophecy reminding us that television is a show-business marketplace. And even though the character's monologues closely describe the current state of the medium, Chayefsky's main goal at the time was not to play the soothsayer, but to skewer the medium, and remind us why we called it the Boob Tube.

The supporting roles are a little bit more problematic in this production. It's very hard to forget or even come close to William Holden's Max Schumacher, being one of the actor's great performances of his later years. Tony Goldwyn is not the right age for the part, and although he gives a creditable performance, it is hard to believe him as a contemporary of the much older Mr. Cranston, especially when the two characters talk about how they both started together as young men at CBS with Edward R. Murrow. Maybe a little more old age makeup might have helped, or maybe van Hove is asking us to suspend our disbelief big time. Tatiana Maslany is believable as Diana Christensen, but again this actress is up against the indelible, celluloid memory of Faye Dunaway's Oscar winning performance.

Not to worry: with Mr. Cranston you will not be missing Jon Finch's titanic Academy award winning performance as Howard Beale. That's why the winner of this year's Tony award for best actor in a play is onstage at the Belasco Theatre.  Don't miss him!

Sunday, February 03, 2019

SHOPLIFTERS: an Oscar Nominated Film from Japan

Shoplifters is Japan's entry at this year's Academy Awards. The film by Hirokasu Kore-eda, a "Lower Depths" look at a marginalized family in modern Japan, was the Palme D'Or winner at the last Cannes Film Festival, as well as one of the films in the Main Slate of the 2018 New York Film Festival. Director Kore-eda presents us with a most unusual group: a ragged collection of societal cast-offs, living together in cramped quarters like any other family.  But this "family" is unusual. They are bound together by their will to survive, and they exercise this primordial instinct by the oldest professions. The oldest male, acting in the role of the father, Osamu, (Lily Franky) and the youngest male, Shota, (Kairi Jyo) are a tremendous tag-team when it comes to ripping off supermarkets; and the teenage daughter Aki (Mayu Matsuoka) works at a sex club, entertaining anonymous clients from behind a one-way glass. When Osamu and Shota bring home a five year old girl named Juri (Miyu Sasaki), who has been forgotten by her parents, the family grows even more in their cramped quarter, but the girl is welcomed. Right away we realize that she is also damaged goods, like the rest of them: Grandma (Kilin Kiki) also notices that the girl's body is filled with scars. When the media breaks the news that the little girl has been kidnapped, Osamu's partner, Nobuyo (Sakura Ando) does not fret, instead she cuts Juri's hair, and the women go "shopping" for little dresses, which they all stuff into their bags.
 In telling their story, director Kore-eda avoids the darkest aspects of their lives. It might be a sordid story of poverty, but somehow the mood remains light throughout the film. As the director unwraps their story we come to know and love these characters, empathizing with their flaws, and even believing that they are more sinned against than sinning. As much as possible, the narrative line escapes from their cramped shanty, contrasting exteriors that show modern Japan's ultra-fast trains rolling by very close to their makeshift home. The family even has a day at the beach: one last moment of relative happiness before an event shifts the narrative into a darker hue that leads us to a denouement that's revelatory and surprising. 

Shoplifters is a very special film in a year filled with incredible titles from all over the world. As New York Times critic Manohla Dargis concluded in her insightful review of this film "In their grubby imperfections, Kore-eda finds a perfect story about being human." And this is what elevates this tale into a universal examination of the human heart. Don't miss it. It truly is one of the best films of the year.