Sunday, November 28, 2021

Licorice Pizza by Paul Thomas Anderson

I was there. Well, not exactly there, because Licorice Pizza, Paul Thomas Anderson's latest film is so SoCal that even its title, the name of a record store chain during the director's youth, has to be explained to someone like me whose memory of the 1970's means remembering (or forgetting) the gritty urban decay of New York, complete with graffiti-filled subways and dangerous city sectors.

I saw this film in 70mm at the Village East theater, a landmark building that presented Yiddish entertainment at the beginning of the century. Very few people will be able to tell you who played this house. I noticed the young crowd around me that gathered to see this movie, and I realized that even fewer had any clear memory of the 1970's. And yet, PT Anderson's film, filled with such loving nostalgia for days gone by, his days gone by, resonated with this young audience. The director presented a very personal story, but he also knows that if you grew up at the turn of the century in New York's Jewish ghetto, or in the Taxi Driver New York blight, or in any other decade, or any place on Earth, one thing is certain: everyone goes through adolescence and everyone falls in love. That is the simple reality and universal theme of this film.

So, the director's approach is to mine his memory banks. Episodes of his life are beautifully recreated, focusing on a young 15 year-old high school student and child actor Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman) and his pursuit of Alana Kane (Alana Haim), a twenty-something who eventually becomes his business partner and main squeeze. Together, they travel the landscape of Southern California at a time when prices were so low that a high school kid could open a water bed store and sell one to Jon Peters (a hilarious Bradley Cooper) during the time the ex-hairdresser turned producer was dating Barbra Streisand.

In PT Anderson's coming-of-age enchantment, Old Hollywood is still hanging on as the new lions are storming the gates. We don't get a glimpse of Stephen Spielberg or George Lucas in this film, but figures like Jack Holden (Sean Penn as William Holden), and Rex Blau (Tom Waits as an aging film director -- a John Huston / John Ford composite), play memorable parts in this film. The movie is also filled with cameos. Blink and you'll miss John C. Reilly, a PT Anderson stalwart, as Herman Munster. But you won't forget Christine Ebersole as a Lucille Ball-like character who beats up Gary after he commits a faux-pas on live TV.

The San Fernando Valley has never been portrayed so charming before. Especially during the gas shortage sequence, when Gary runs past lines of cars to the tune of David Bowie's "Life on Mars?" In this film we find a softer PT Anderson. Boogie Nights, Magnolia, and The Master were tough subjects, and his scalpel had to be sharper and cut deeper. Here, the director's main prop is his camera (he takes the DP credit for the first time), and it seems that his main concerns are to present a rosy recreation of his coming-of-age years, and to make sure Cooper Hoffman and Alana Kane come out of this as bright new Hollywood stars. Not a bad reason to create this film. Cooper's dad, the late Philip Seymour Hoffman had a long association with PT Anderson, the actor giving some of his best, defining performances under this director's lens. Now is the time for a new generation to spring forward, as the director turns his gaze back to the past.

Friday, November 26, 2021

Stephen Sondheim is Dead

I knew one day we would all have to go through this. The once young, vibrant enfant terrible of the Broadway stage, the one who dazzled us with the youthful lyrics of West Side Story and who matured into the greatest American lyricist/composer since Cole Porter is dead. Stephen Sondheim seemed to be an eternal presence. Although his name had not graced any Broadway marquee in quite a while, revivals of his classic work often adorned the Great White Way. And in the back of every theater-goers mind there was always the hope that there was one more in him. One more masterpiece before the long sleep; like Giuseppe Verdi who produced two of his greatest operas, Otello and Falstaff after he had called it quits.

His shows almost never made money. Sure, when he started out at first as the young lyricist to Leonard Bernstein's music in West Side Story that show was a hit. And so was Gypsy, for which he almost wrote the music, however Ethel Merman did not want to star in a show written by an unknown composer. So Stephen reprised his role as lyricist, this time to Jules Stein's great score. He was soon to come into his own as a composer and lyricist with his farce A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.

And then, magic happened. His collaboration with director Harold Prince produced some of the greatest American musicals. Lightning kept striking every time. Follies, Company, A Little Night Music, Pacific Overtures, Sweeney Todd the Demon Barber of Fleet Street, Sunday in the Park with George, Merrily We Roll Along, Into the Woods, Assasins, and Passion. There were Tony Awards galore, as well as the Pulitzer Prize. If you have followed his career you have your favorites. I know I fell in love with Sweeney Todd the moment I heard the downbeat chord on the organ that begins the score. For Sondheim it was a revenge story, for director Hal Prince it was about the dehumanization of man during the Industrial Revolution. 

Definitely the Stephen Sondheim musical was not the feel good, warm and fuzzy product that Broadway audiences expected. The shows made very little money, but he was expanding the horizons of musical theater. He couldn't compete with the likes of an Annie, Les Misérables or with Andrew Lloyd Weber's British invasion. And, of course, he just could not bring in the crowds that were starting to flock to the corporate Disney shows that were filling the theaters.

I remember a radio interview Sondheim gave at the time of the premiere of Sweeney Todd, a show I got to see three times. He was talking about the struggle to find a musical language to fit a particular show. He reminisced about Pacific Overtures, a daring show about the opening of Japan in the 1800's and the  eventual westernization and commercialization of the country. Like Richard Rodgers in the 1950's who struggled with how Eastern to make the music of The King and I, Sondheim could not get the feeling for this show right. Until, as so often happens, one day it hit him. In the staccato rhythms of Spanish flamenco music somehow he found the necessary voice for his show about Japan's floating kingdom. I never forgot this incredible journey of discovery that this artist went through, and was able to tell us about it. At that moment I realized that Sondheim was not just the cerebral creator of Broadway entertainment. He had become a musical advocate for the globalization of music. The show was the customary Sondheim flop. Imagine a show where the Americans are the bad guys for destroying the beautiful traditions of Japan, playing during 1976: the year where jingoism was at its highest as America celebrated its Bicentennial.

As a composer Sondheim was unique among his peers. Everybody always said one did not leave the theater humming a Sondheim score. That might have been true, but what was always certain was that his choice of a musical idiom fitted the show like a glove. His music could be brassy as in Company, operatic with a touch of the gothic as in Sweeney Todd, and even minimalist and filled with a dash of pointillism in Sunday in the Park with George. And sometimes it could just simply sway in perfect Johann Strauss three quarter time in A Little Night Music, one of my favorite Sondheim shows, adapted from Smiles of a Summer Night, one of the great Ingmar Bergman films.

We have lost one of the great ones. I do not think we will see another one like him in our lifetime.

Monday, November 15, 2021

30 year-old "Meistersinger" returns to the MET

The month of November saw the Metropolitan Opera stage a revival of their 30 year-old production of Richard Wagner's Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. This decision created a unique event in the world of opera. Here in the year 2021, when "Regietheatre" has become the norm, even on these shores, the MET dared to mount a production completely devoid of any agenda or director-driven point of view: the norm on the great operatic stages around the world these days. Nowhere to be found on the MET stage was the Lilliputian world that director Stefan Herheim created for his 2013 staging of this work at the Salzburg Festival. And certainly, the MET was staying clear of the World War II political treatise of Barrie Kosky's Bayreuth staging, with its exploration of the inherent antisemitism prevalent in the work. 

The MET staging, which played its last performance this season on Sunday (and which might be the last time this production is staged), is an epic imagining of this work created at a time when this opera company envisioned each staging in its repertory to last the minimum of twenty years. It was the way the MET operated under Joseph Volpe, who ran the institution from 1990 to 2006. Thus, Günther Schneider-Siemssen's beautiful sets might have cost a lot of money, but the institution would get it all back in those twenty years. Little did the creators of this production envision that thirty years down the road the MET would still be presenting their work. The only creators who remain alive are director Otto Schenk and choreographer Carmen De Lavallade, both in their 90's.

But why is this production still being mounted in a world-class opera company when similar institutions are experimenting with newer styles that break traditional stagings? The answer lies in the very fact that the New York opera audience is essentially a conservative one, resistant to watching their favorite operas in newer, more daring stagings. The Stefan Herheim production almost made it to the MET, but at the last moment that idea was scrapped, and the old production remained.

What audiences saw this November was a return to a simpler world of opera, where the composer still ruled, and where the director's job involved nothing more than the recreation of the vision of the composer. What the MET did do is populate these old sets with some of the great Wagnerian artists available today. All of them European, most of them German, and the large majority veterans of many summers at the Bayreuth Festival. Here was Klaus Florian Vogt, that amazing tenor with the sweet, youthful voice -- offering a clear antidote to Jonas Kaufmann's baritonal fach. There was also Michael Volle, who clearly owns the role of Hans Sachs at the moment, with his intelligent, humanistic approach to this wise character. There was also Johannes Martin Kränzle who, in my opeinion, can't be beat in the role of Sixtus Beckmesser, whether he is wearing a Jew's head in Mr. Kosky's current production at the Green Hill, or in this production which showcases his great comedic skills. And let's not forget Georg Zeppenfeld who belongs in the same league as René Pape when it comes to interpreting the great Wagner bass roles.

But the drawing card to this revival was soprano Lise Davidsen who continues her meteoric rise in the opera world. What a voice, and what a season she will have at the MET! Upcoming performances include two soprano roles in Richard Strauss's operas: the title role in Ariadne auf Naxos and Chrysothemis in Elektra. Antonio Pappano conducted this mighty work with a sure hand, letting the orchestra show off its brilliant playing. His reading was transparent rather than pompous. His reading of the third act prelude was one of the most beautiful I have ever heard in any opera house.

It was a great pleasure to see this staging once more, but, as gorgeous and intelligent as this production might be, let's face it: I think we are all ready to see a new MET Meistersinger soon.

Saturday, October 09, 2021

PARALLEL MOTHERS at the NY Film Festival

With his latest film, Parallel Mothers (Madres Paralelas) Pedro Almodóvar comes back to the world of feminine relations, a landscape he's been exploring throughout his career, which encompasses fifteen films at the New York Film Festival. Last night he presented his latest creation as the closing selection of the annual film gathering at Alice Tully Hall

Before it has even opened to the public, the movie has already gathered a controversial pre-release vibe in the United States when a kind of furor arose a few weeks ago over the film's advertising poster which shows a nipple dripping mother's milk. America's puritanical ways play right into Almodóvar's penchant for shocking the public; this time around with a maternal image. But then again, he's been stirring the pot since the early days of the "Movida" movement in Spain, the post-Francisco Franco years when moral restrictions were lessened and liberty came back to Spain. This is the period when he came to prominence with such early amateurish "shockers" as Pepi, Lucy, Bom until he hit his stride with 1988's Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, one of the many great films in his oeuvre.

At last night's screening, Dennis Lim, director of Programming at Film at Lincoln Center, introduced the film by saying that there is a new political urgency in this film not seen before. Although this film does focus on the unresolved murders that occurred during the Spanish Civil War which led to a Fascist government in Spain that lasted into the 1970s, nearly all of Almodóvar's films shed a light on Spain's troubled past. Their sense of liberation, sexually and sociological, are a reaction to the forty-some-odd years that Spain endured under Franco's regime. 

 In 1997, Almodóvar released Live Flesh (Carne trémula) in which a young, pregnant prostitute during Franco's Spain (Penélope Cruz's first performance under his direction) gives birth to an illegitimate child in a Madrid bus. The film then goes forward in time to the present post-Franco Spain as we follow the child now an adult. Parallel Mothers once again casts Ms. Cruz as a pregnant photographer this time sharing her modern Madrid hospital room with a pregnant teen, newcomer Milena Smit, who is the director's latest muse, and who gives an amazing performance. It is only her second film.

The film also features some familiar faces from Almodóvar's past. Rossy De Palma, a stalwart in the director's list of films, received applause when she first appeared. Likewise, the audience also recognized the likes of Julieta Serrano, who is also an Almodóvar favorite going back to the days of Women/Breakdown.

The film was shot in the expected vivid, colorful palette of José Luis Alcaine, the director's longtime working cinematographer.

 The film will be released by Sony Pictures Classics, who have been by Almodóvar's side since the beginning.  In his post talk, the director urged any Academy member in the audience to vote for this film, and if nominated, to vote for Milena Smit, who has clearly become Trilby to his Svengali. Something tells me that Ms. Smit is already a permanent member of the roster of Almodóvar's women, and that we are going to see a lot of her in the future. A star is born!

Sunday, October 03, 2021

"The French Dispatch" at the NY Film Festival

With his familiar tongue-in-cheek deadpan that makes Buster Keaton appear like a loquacious lady at a garden party, Wes Anderson brings us his latest film, The French Dispatch, an anthology picture about an American expatriate magazine in the fictional French town of Ennui-sur-Blasé. 

The movie is a loving Valentine to The New Yorker magazine as well as being filled with all kinds of homages to French cinema. The movie presents stories that go back to some famous articles that originally appeared in the pages of The New Yorker. For example, Mavis Gallant's article "The Events in May: A Paris Notebook" about the student riots in 1968 serves as a vehicle for Timothée Chalamet, Frances McDormand and Lyna Khoudri to engage in a love triangle in the protest-filled streets of Paris, while Anderson channels the look and gritty black-and-white of Jean-Luc Godard and other members of the Nouvelle Vague.

In another tangential vignette, Jeffrey Wright gives us an impersonation of a fictitious writer that mixes James Baldwin with a dash of food critic AJ Liebling as he recounts a story to TV host Liev Schreiver of a bizarre kidnapping that ends up turning into an animated sequence during the concluding minutes.

In perhaps the most enjoyable section of the film, Benicio Del Toro is an incarcerated artist in love with a female prison guard, beautifully played by Léa Seydoux, while art dealer Adrien Brody lays some schemes to make money off the prisoner's art work. As he tells Del Toro's character “All artists sell their work. That’s what makes them artists.” The segment, also shot in black-and-white, brings to mind Jean Renoir's film Boudou Saved from Drowning, and it is based on a 1951 New Yorker article by SN Behrman about shady art dealer Lord Duveen.

All the different segments always come back to the offices of the French Dispatch, whose editor-in-chief, played by Bill Murray, bears a more than slight resemblance to Harold Ross, The New Yorker's co-founder and fabled first editor.

What binds all of this together is Anderson's love of the magazine and his love of France. From the point of view of cinema, the glue in this film is his, by now, familiar geometric mise-en-scène, which in this film he exploits to the nth degree. Arguably, this is the most Andersonian of all his films. Everything is neatly arranged within a frame whose aspect ratio, for reasons that remain unclear to me, keeps changing from academy ratio to widescreen. He used the same technique in his earlier film The Grand Budapest Hotel. If you dig his symmetrical, structural compositions you are in for a treat. However, after a while, the constant reliance on tableaux and strict visual order cries out for some good old fashion visual chaos. And although at times Anderson allows his brilliant cinematographer Robert D. Yeoman to hand-hold the camera, the Andersonian world must adhere to unity and order all the time.

Saturday, September 25, 2021

The Tragedy of Macbeth at the NY Film Festival

 After a long time not posting on this blog, I am glad to say that I am back. Many things happened during that time. There were deaths in the family as well as COVID, which changed all our lives, and whose specter still has us in its grip. But last night, I saw a film that was so riveting that I feel compelled to come back to these old pages and share some of my ideas about it with all of you.

William Shakespeare's Macbeth, by my count, is the fourth time a major filmmaker attempts to adapt Shakespeare's arguably bloodiest, and also shortest of all his tragedies. This time around Joel Cohen, going solo after his brother Ethan Coen announced recently that he may be through with show business, has given us his interpretation of the Scottish play, and what an amazing visual feast it is.

The Coen brothers have always been very particular about the powerful images that grace their canvases. This time, Joel Cohen has decided to shoot the film in black and white and present it in Academy Ratio. This choice gives the film a timeless look. It makes us think of Orson Welles's moody, shadow-filled film interpretation of this play. Or perhaps, Akira Kurosawa's brilliant Throne of Blood, where the setting shifted to feudal Japan. Thanks to the brilliant cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel the images transport us to another time. The whole production was shot in sound stages making even exterior shots seem oppressive and lacking any true daylight. The sun never shines in this production (does it ever really shine in Scotland?), and this is another aspect of this production that works well.

Comparing it to other genres, this film brings to mind the brooding atmosphere of Laurence Olivier's Hamlet as well as the look of a Val Lewton horror film. Actually, to be more precise, and fitting, this movie looks like a medieval Film Noir. And given the Bard's plot involving a woman urging her husband to commit murder, as Joel Cohen noted in the Q&A that followed yesterday's showing of the film at the New York Film Festival, this comparison is quite apt. The Double Indemnity, black widow, pulp vibe of Shakespeare's play was one of the things that drew Mr. Coen to this project.

Our childhood reading of this play constantly brings us back to the Bard. Macbeth is my favorite Shakespeare play. It is also a favorite of Frances McDormand who plays Lady Macbeth in this film. I read this work in junior year of high school, Ms. McDormand revealed last night that she was asked to recite the sleepwalking scene during her early school days. For Denzel Washington, who plays the title role, his introduction to Shakespeare happened while he was a pre-med major at Fordham University at Lincoln Center. At the urging of his teacher and mentor Robert Stone (who was also my teacher) he played the title role in Othello on the Fordham stage. The rest is history.

Personally, I always love to see what directors do with the roles of the witches. In the groundbreaking stage production of the 1930's, which moved the setting to Haiti, director Orson Welles and producer  John Houseman hired Haitian Voodoo witch doctors to play these parts. In this film, Kathryn Hunter assumes all three roles, and all I can tell you is that you will not soon forget her. She is a subtle, weird presence on the screen, and thus really terrifying: the stuff of nightmares.

The leading roles are masterfully handled. Mr. Washington is a capable Shakespearean as he has proven many times in the past, and Ms. McDormand, who has played her role on stage, is really a wonder to behold in this film. I was a severe critic of her performance in Nomadland, which was filled with way too many of her own personal mannerisms and thus never allowed me to fully enter into the story. Here, by contrast, she assumes the role of Lady Macbeth  and magic happens: Frances McDormand, the producer and Oscar-winning actress disappears. 

But ultimately, it is the directorial work of Joel Cohen, going solo for the first time, which is the big winner here. The entire movie is filled with images you will not soon forget. There is one shot in particular during Lady Macbeth's sleepwalking scene that is as brilliant as anything that cinematographer Gregg Toland achieved for Welles in Citizen Kane.

Last night, while Mr. Coen was presenting his work, he noted a longstanding superstition connected to the play. “You probably know it. You’re not supposed to speak the name lest some horrible catastrophe befall you or the production. This is a superstition that all of us making the movie blithely ignored until Friday the 13th of March, 2020. Then we all got religion and after months passed and the show finally got back on its feet we started referring to it simply as ‘the tragedy,’” he said,

He ended his remarks by saying “I’d like to point out that just because it’s a tragedy doesn’t mean you can’t have a good time. So enjoy the tragedy.”

You too will be able to enjoy this Apple Original Films and A24 terrific production when the film officially opens at the end of the year.