Thursday, October 23, 2014

Production images Courtesy Magador Films

Of Horses and Men is a stunning cinematic debut for Icelandic stage director Benedikt Erlingsson, who wrote and directed the film.  The film screened at the 52nd Chicago International Film Festival October 18 and 19.

Set against the breathtaking landscape of Iceland's wide-openterritories, the film is a satire that shows the day to day ebb and flow of life, love and death and influence of the elemental force of nature. Life in the isolated villages revolve mainly around the exquisitely beautiful wild Icelandic short-legged horses, which roam freely over the vast prairies and valleys. The horses are rounded up periodically and sold off to the locals, who are left with the dubious task of breaking them into beasts of burden. That construct sets for the irony and biting satire of the film, so brilliantly executed in almost storybook fashion by director Erlingsson. The story is told, sometimes from the point of view of the horses, and sometimes from the point of view of the people who ride them and who think they control them. Bottom line, film reveals how all are equally subject to the forces and whims of life and nature. 

The leitmotif that runs throughout the film is the cat and mouse romance developing between a widower and a widow in the township, Played with empathy and vulnerability by Ingvar E. Sigurdsson and Charlotte Boving, the two are, on the surface, meant for each other, but prying eyes of nosy neighbors, who suck the life out of anyone in close proximity by keeping tabs on their every move! No wonder the local town lovely takes such joy in roaming the valleys and capturing the wild horses. 

The film opens with the Ingvar character breaking the beautiful white mare that he has coveted. We finally see him proudly riding it, in full formal riding gear, with the horse at a crisp, high-stepping gallop, for all to
see. It is an impressive sight and all the townspeople come out,some the binoculars, to witness the spectacle. It certainly gets the attention of his tentative love interest, played by Boving. A complication quickly sets in. Her wild black stallion has broken loose and has taken a sudden interest in the filly. In perhaps one of the most humorous and indelible sexual scenes to ever hit the screen, the stallion pounces upon the mare, with the Ingvar character forced to sit there in utter humiliation, until the stallion has spent himself. Visually, the image is so powerful, because it almost looks as if the rider is equally as violated as the horse. It is an hilarious scene!

The Ingvar character is humiliated, so much so, that he decides to shoot his prized horse, which he feels has been violated. (Is there a subtle social commentary about the issue of rape, in which women are often vilified, abandoned and even stoned to death, in many cultures, when they are sexually attacked? We'll leave that one for another film.)

I won't tell you more, because you have to see this film to believe it. First of all, it is beautifully shot and directed.  Benedikt Erlingsson is Iceland's most prolific stage director and this is his first film. The Original Score, by David Thor Johnsson is a knockout and the Cinematography by Bergsteinn Bjoergulfsson is breathtaking. The shots of those beautiful wild horses roaming the sweeping countryside are alone worth the price of admission. The Producer of the film, Fridrik Thor Fridriksson, was nominated for an Oscar for his film, Children of Nature in 1991 and Of Horses axnd Men was submitted to the 2014 Academy Awards for Best Foreign Language Film. It's already won a truckload of festival awards over the past year, including Best Director at the Tokyo Film Festival and and the New Directors Award at the San Sebastian Film Festival.

It's a pity that this film has not been picked up for U.S. distribution. It has a great deal to say about humankind's reationship with animals and the environment and our inter-dependability. Our fates are more entwined than we would like to think. From the import of this film, it would appear that the animals are more in tune and aware of this than we are. Perhaps we should take a clue and start doing more to protect them.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

"Miss Julie" Opens 50th Chicago International Film Festival

By Phyllis Dreazen
Miss Julie photos Courtesy Wrekin Hill Entertainment

Two-time Academy Award-nominee Liv Ullmann (Cries and Whispers, Scenes from a Marriage) returned to the Chicago International Film Festival, where she made her debut as a director (Sofie, 1992) to open its 50th edition with the film "Miss Julie." Ullmann directed and wrote the script of this adaptation of August Strindberg's eponymous 1888 stage drama of psychosexual class warfare. The play was banned for 50 years in the United Kingdom as much for its sexual content as its class commentary, and Ullman's version with Golden Globe winner Colin Farrell (In Bruges) as John, personal valet to an Anglo-Irish Lord and two-time Oscar nominee Jessica Chastain (Zero Dark Thirty) , as the Lord's spoiled daughter who sexually stalks him, masterfully touches upon both social hot-buttons. Fellow two-time Oscar nominee Samantha Morton (Minority Report) is the cook, Kathleen, who observes the sexual sparring from afar, in her chamber just off the kitchen, where much of the drama takes place.

Miss Julie is perhaps one of the most performed stage productions of all time. It has been adapted to the screen three times, and from this recent effort by Ullmann, the third time is truly the charm. Ullmann strips the story to its bare essentials; getting rid of all of its side characters in order to hone in on the conflict between John and Miss Julie. Relocating the action from Sweden to Ireland, ("I didn't want to film in Sweden with an English-speaking cast. That would be wrong," Ullmann said in and earlier interview), it is beautifully filmed at Castle Coole, County Fermanagh, by Cinematographer Mikhail Krichman.

Ullmann is best known for her decades-long collaboration with famed director Ingmar Bergman, who was also her lover. The two were one of the most successful teams in  film history. It is no surprise that Ullmann eventually moved into the director's chair, and this film brings to bear the sum total of her experience.

Farrell is especially powerful in the role of John. Well-traveled and well-read, he exudes the frustration of having to work at a station far beneath his capabilities. His disdain for Miss Julie and her privilege and arrogance could fill a room, and it does. In one particularly humiliating scene, Miss Julie commands him to kiss the toe of her shoe. He does so, but in a most erotic fashion, then, ironically, turns to begin shining his master's boots, as a distraction from her advances. It is a telling scene that sets up the psychological and sexual tug-of-war that follows.

The tension builds for two -and- a- half hours. After a failed effort to escape the rigorous bonds of class and social propriety, the two hapless lovers return to their macabre passion-dance, which ends disastrously.

Miss Ullmann received the Career Achievement Award in a pre-screening ceremony with Chicago International Film Festival founder Michael Kutza, a close friend, doing the presenting. "Maybe you're doing this Michael to say "I'm sorry!" Ullmann joked. "I remember my first film as a director which was premiered at this festival. There we were, a full house and the film begins. It was in Danish with French subtitles. After about ten minutes, we stopped it and Michael and I went to a restaurant and got completely drunk!"  Only in Chicago.

 Colin Farrell and Liv Ullmann on the Red Carpet at the Harris Theatre

 Liv Ullmann in the Director's Chair on the set of Miss Julie

 Colin Farrell as John and Jessica Chastain as Julie

 Colin Farrell and festival founder Michael Kutza present the Career Achievement Award to Liv Ullmann

Monday, October 13, 2014

New York Film Festival: British Director Mike Leigh's "Mr. Turner" A Biopic Masterpiece

Reviewed by Dwight Casimere at the New York Film Festival
Film images Courtesy Sony Pictures Classics
News conference photos by Dwight Casimere
Theatrical Release: Friday, December 19 (limited)

NEW YORK--British director Mike Leigh( Secrets and Lies 1996,  Vera Drake 2004, Another Year 2010) has done it again! His latest masterpiece is the biopic "Mr. Turner," which depicts the last 25 years of the life of the  eccentric British landscape artist J.M.W. Turner. Regarded as one of the greatest painters in the world by those in artistic circles, but largely overlooked by the general public, Turner's work and his use of light, texture and tone, predates the techniques and styles of the Impressionists several decades later.

At the film's U.S. Premiere at the New York Film Festival, audiences were given an opportunity to revel in the sheer beauty of the cinematography of Cannes Film Festival Vulcan Award-winner Dick Pope and the masterful direction of Mike Leigh, which earned the film  a Palme d'Or nomination and the superb acting of Timothy Spall as the enigmatic Joseph Mallford William Turner (1775-1851), which won him the Best Actor award at Cannes.

Turner is personally, at once a wall of secrecy and an enigma wrapped in a riddle, yet Mike Leigh probes beneath the surface of this complex character to reveal his flaws and laughable humanity. He is deeply affected by the death of his father, William Turner (1745-1829), played by Paul Jesson. We learn that Taylor's mother died in an insane asylum when the artist was still quite young and that his sister died at age 5, leaving him an only child. These tragic events obviously had a profound effect on Turner, because he never had a solid, open relationship with any woman over the course of his life. At best, they were tangential, and at times, cruel. His faithful housekeeper of 4o years, Hannah Danby(1786-1853), played exquisitely by Dorothy Atkinson, who turns in the best performance in the film, other than Spall as Turner. She died two years after Turner, but was doggedly devoted to him in spite of his abusive treatment.  For much of the film, she is largely invisible to him, except for his sudden and violent sexual exploitation of her. In one scene, we see him attack her viciously from behind, then leave her hanging alone in his study without  so much as a kiss.

" We know very little about her," said Dorothy Atkinson at the New York Film Festival news conference. "We do know that she was fantastically devoted to him and that she had a horrible skin condition (psoriasis)." Early in the film, we meet Sarah Danby (1760-1861), played by Ruth Sheen, Turner's first mistress and mother of his two illegitimate  daughters, who are seen paying a pop-in visit to Turner in his studio, in hopes of having him own up to his fatherhood responsibilities. Turner loudly rebuffs them and kicks them out.

Later in the film, he develops a relationship with Sophia Booth ( played by Marion Bailey), his landlady at the seaside cottage where he rents a guest room to gain inspiration for the seascapes which will earn his fame. Turner's husband, a mariner, dies and the two soon begin a relationship in earnest. Turner visits her often in his search for inspiration. In fact, in the course of one of his steamboat trips to visit her, he has himself lashed to the mast of a ship in order to experience first hand a violent snowstorm at sea, which will later become the subject of one of his paintings. We see their relationship grow over time, perhaps the only gentle and fulfilling relationship with a woman that he will ever have, although it is largely played out in secret. He practically dies in her arms near the end of the film.

The look of the film was created with excruciating attention to detail by cinematographer Dick Pope. He discussed his methodology at length at the New York Film Festival news conference. "We were trying to evoke what he saw,"Pope said, "looking through him, through his eyes, in terms of camera movement.

"A lot of the vantage points in the film are Turner's, looking at what he is observing."

The look of the film is stunning, almost duplicating the landscapes and seascapes that Turner painted. That observation is no accident, according to Pope. "I studied Turner's color palette, " he told the rapt audience of news reporters and film reviewers,"We spent a lot of time at the Tate Museum in London, where the majority of Turner's paintings are hung (Turner was adamant that his paintings be made accessible to the general public for free. In a key scene in the film, we see him turn down what would today be millions of dollars from a wealthy nobleman, because he refused to sell his paintings to private collectors. Instead, he bequeathed them to the public trust.) "The Tate proved to be a fantastic resource for everything Turner-even to the paints he used. We looked at that, and the film is colored in very much the same palette of what Turner was using at the time." In one of the film's early scenes, we witness Turner meticulously going through the color inventory of a local paint shop, selecting the pigments that he will later use for his masterpieces. It is an exhaustive process, which Pope faithful replicates. "We took that experience to heart and used the paints that he was buying in the color shop as our own palette in the film." The effect is visually stunning.

One of the scenes that is texturally the centerpiece of the film, is one of Turner's most famous paintings, "The Fighting Temeraire." In the film, Pope and Leigh shoot a scene in which they imaging Turning viewing the Temeraire being towed away on the River Thames to be dismantled as scrap. When the scene opens, we at first think that it is one of Turner's painting, then the camera pulls back to reveal that it is in fact, reality, with Turner and his aides observing the majestic ship being towed while floating close by in a skiff. "We shot that scene very late in the evening, just on the cusp of sunset," Pope revealed. "We were blessed with the most fantastic sunset and the actors and the whole landscape was viewed in this beautiful light. It was filmed almost in the same place as where the painting was depicted. Those magical guys back in London created the moving Temeraire ship in CGI, which I hope you found completely believable, because I did!"

The rest of the film was likewise faithful to Turner's color palette and to the settings for the story. Everything was shot on location where the story unfolded. "We  did a lot of studying, Mike and I, for almost everything we shot," Pope explained. "We were blessed with wonderful weather last year. It was a fantastic summer in Margate, where we shot it. We first went one way, then the other, trying to capture the best light. We did that with the interiors as well. For example, in the house that Mrs. Booth lives in (Turner's final mistress), the windows--a lot of people come up to me and say, 'That's CG out the window, right?' I say 'Like Hell it is! It never is on one of Mike's films. The house that Mrs. Booth had behind her when she was in that room when she was eating supper was the actual view out the window shot at the right time of day."

Mike Leigh, the director, summed it up best. "The great source of reference for the entire film, of course, is Turner's work. The look of the film comes out of a sense of us trying to interpret, visually, his paintings, but also the spirit of the two periods in which the film takes place, Georgian and early Victorian."

A key figure in the film is the famous British art critic John Ruskin, himself the subject of a biopic to be released this year. He is played terrifically by Joshua McGuire as a somewhat effete, self absorbed dilatant consumed with his own self-importance and who loves to hear the sound of his own voice, which is grating to others because of its high pitch and his inability to pronounce the letter "R."  "Ruskin was, to put it bluntly, a real prick," Leigh explained with gusto. "But in the end, he turned out to be Turner's greatest champion." Ruskin's praise of Turner's work was reflexive, in terms of its effect on his career as an art critic. In writing about Turner, Ruskin found his "voice," mixing his critical observations with discourses on aesthetics, science and ethics. So cemented had become their relationship, that Ruskin devoted himself to cataloguing the nearly 20,00 works Turner had bequeathed to the British nation.

Below: Two views of the art critic John Ruskin

Below: Scenes from the New York Film Festival news conference

Marion Bailey (Mrs. Booth), director Mike Leigh and Timothy Spall (Mr. Turner) at the New York Film Festival

The cast of Mr. Turner at the NYFF news conference
            Cinematographer  Dick Pope explains the color palette of the film

Below: The 'class photo' for Mr. Turner at the New York Film Festival news conference
 Dwight Casimere with Timothy Spall
Below:  Scenes from Mr. Turner, Courtesy Sony Pictures Classics

In one scene, we see Turner appear at one of his showings at the Royal Academy of Art, where he is begrudgingly accepted as member because of his standing as a superstar. We see him blithely wandering about the room, critiquing the work of his colleagues and, uninvitedly, adding color accents to their work, a dash of red here, a swirl of white either spat from his mouth or smeared with his hand, which leaves them aghast. He is even seen smearing a grey funnel cloud just off center in the swirling sea storm  depicted in one of his own paintings. Instead of ruining the work, he made it better, giving it a new and previously unseen perspective.

Another scene depicts Turner's friendship with Mary Somerville (1780-1872), played by Lesley Manville. She is a scientist who gains renown for her work in experiments with refracted light at a time when the notion of women engaging in such work was not condoned. Her experiments as shown in the film are an odd precursor to a later scene in which Turner is exposed to the new phenomenon of photography, which similarly uses refracted light to create photographic images. It is one of the more humorous scenes in the film with Turner harrumphing that he wonders if this new contraption will replace his use to society as a painter.

Don't be turned off by the scholarly subject matter of Mr. Turner, This is a must-see film, full of beautiful scenery, sensuality, humor and touching moments of humanity that will make you cry. It is Mike Leigh's and David Pope's Valentine to a great, unrecognized hero to the world of art who has still much to say about the environment, both natural and emotional, that we live in today.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Anna Netrebko Affirms Status as Reigning Met Diva in Verdi's Macbeth

Russian Soprano Unleashes Vocal, Dramatic Powers in Tour de Force Performance

Reviewed by Dwight Casimere
Metropolitan Opera photos by Marty Sohl

 Anna Netrebko and Zeljko Lucic as Lord and Lady Macbeth
 Lady Macbeth (Anna Netrebko) imbues Verdi's ornate trills and runs with a dark menace in her portrayal as Lady Macbeth
 The spectre of the assassinated Banquo appears at Macbeth's coronation banquet of Act II
 English troops gather at the border to invade Scotland in Act III
Below: Lady Macbeth leads at toast at her husband's ill-fated coronation banquet of Act II

NEW YORK--Anna Netrebko affirmed her status as the reigning Metropolitan Opera soprano in her recent performances as Lady Macbeth in Verdi's operatic adaptation of Shakespeare's Macbeth in performance at the Metropolitan Opera House Wednesday October 15 and Saturday, October 18 and Live in HD at select movie theatres globally in Encore Performance  Wednesday, October 15 at 6:30pm local time. Check or for theatre locations.

In her early childhood days in her native Krasnodar, Russia and later at the Leningrad High School of Music, Anna Netrebko's expressed mission was to become an actress. Her early inclinations served her with stunning success in this brilliant production directed by Adrian Noble and conducted by Met Principal Conductor Fabio Luisi. Netrebko's soaring high notes and compelling dramatic performance propel her into the ranks of the Met's finest, joining such hallowed names as Callas, Sutherland and Price. By her own choice, Netrebko elected to portray Lady Macbeth as a blond, ala Marilyn Monroe, giving her character an irresistable sensuality and sexual power, while portraying her with the cunning and stealth of a she-lion. With German bass superstar Rene Pape as the mudered Banquo (he appears as a blood-spattered ghost throughout much of the opera), Serbian and Montenegran baritone Zelijko Lucic in the title role and Maltese tenor Joseph Calleja as Macduff, the emerging victor, this is the Met's best, and most satisfying offering to date this season. The sustained applause and bellowing "Bravos" throughout the performance attest to the unanimously positive response.

Netrebko reached deep into her subconscious to realize the steely ferocity and overt evil at the center of her character. "There's a bit of this dark side in all of us," she told backstage interviewer and fellow Russian soprano Anita Rachvelishvili, this year's Carmen. "I'm always distrustful of people who are nice all of the time, because it means they are hiding this dark side underneath.That means ALL of you," she said, playfully pointing her finger at the camera toward the theatre audience.

In addition to her superb acting, Netrebko proves her mastery of her vocal art. She is able to invest a sultry sensuality in her lower range while scaling to the heights with an unwavering, gorgeous tone. Her high notes gleam with crystalline clarity that ring, even into the outer lobby of the Metropolitan Opera House.

Her "mad" scene in Act IV, in which she sleepwalks precariously over a series of chairs left over from the previous evening's coronation banquet, which was interrupted by the specter of Banquo's ghost, who the Macbeth's schemed to murder in order to gain the throne, is the central triumph of the opera.
Her restrained performance added to the emotional power of the scene. Her sustained high D-flat, sung in perfect pianissimo as she stumbled into the darkness of her chambers, heightened the drama. I only wish that the audience had held off on its loud  and lengthy adulation to allow the sublime feeling of the moment to sink in.

Rene Pape lent his rich, molasses-tinged baritone to the role of the assassinated Banquo. He managed to maintain his character's dignity, although he is forced to appear as a mute, fake blood-soaked spectre that only the guilt-ridden Macbeth can see in Act III. Pape is a veteran of the role, having performed it since 1991. Likewise Calleja, as Macduff, has performed the role since 1997, in his debut at the age of 19 in his native Malta. "No doubt many of my countrymen and women are watching me in my homeland right now," he said proudly, during the backstage interview at intermission during the Met Live HD movie-cast. Both he and Pape extended greetings to theatre audience in their native languages. Part of the beauty of Live In HD!

The chorus, as prepared and directed by Met Chorus Master Donald Palumbo, did a stellar job of executing the opera's lengthy and dramatically and vocally diverse scenes. The witches, dressed as sort of gentile bag ladies, stole the show.  Mark Thompson's minimalism gave hints of the settings, with the blackened outlines of trees denoting the forest and black, velvet covered columns with ribbons of white light and a lone chandelier depicting the castle. His costumes, which went from Stalin-esque military uniforms for the royalty, to Che Guevara berets and leather jackets for the rebel kinghts, clearly delineated the sides of good and evil in present-day terms.  The minimal sets and costumes allowed the dramatic singing of the actors to shine through as the main event.  Live HD Director Gary Halverson of TV's Two and a Half Men did his usual stellar job of realizing the production for live transmission.  See it all in an Encore Presentation next Wednesday, October 15, at 6:30pm at a theatre near you!

Thursday, October 9, 2014

"Timbuktu" in American Premiere at New York Film Festival

Famed North African Director Abderrahmane Sissako takes an up close and personal look at the Jihadist occupation of his homeland

Reviewed by Dwight Casimere October  1
News conference photos by Dwight Casimere
film images courtesty Cohen Media Group

New York--Humanist and director Abderrahman Sissako (Mamako, Waiting for Happiness)  presided over the U.S. Premiere of his French-Mauritanian produced dramatic film "Timbuktu" at the New York Film Festival. The film is currently being screened as part of the Chicago International Film Festival in its Black Perspectives category, October 15 and 16. It is entered in the festival's Main Competition. In a word, Timbuktu is a masterpiece. 

The film comes to the United States with considerable pedigree. It was selected to compete fof the Palme d'Or at its World Premiere at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival. At Cannes, it won the Prize of the Ecumenical Jury and the Francois Chalais Prize. It has been selected as the Mauritanian entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 87th Academy Awards. Judging from the reactions at the recent screenings in Lincoln Center at the New York Film Festival, the film has a strong possibility of winning.

The very word Timbuktu conjures exotic images of North African fantasy and legend which has been reinforced in films, novels, and even Broadway musicals. In Sissako's artfully crafted drama, the tragedy beneath its glittering history is revealed with stunning clarity. The peace and cultural and religious harmony of this idyllic north African oasis is suddenly shattered by the arrival of jihadist militia. "They literally hijacked the place," Sissako declared in a New York Film Festival appearance. 

The film was inspired by the public stoning of a young, unmarried couple in the town of Aguelhok, near Timbuktu. It centers on the brief occupation of Timbuktu by jihadist Islamic fundamentalists. Instead of approaching the subject with sweeping epic scenes involving massive armies and political leaders, the film takes an almost microscopic look at the impact of the takeover and its effect on the  lives of the region's most ordinary people; the nomadic herdsmen who live in tents on the outskirts of town, a lone fisherman whose preoccupation is the protection of his fishing nets, the women fishmongers and shopkeepers who become targets of the fundamentalist's scorn against uppity women.

Sissako, wth his collaborator, cinematographer Sofian El Fani, who lit up the screen with last year's Palm d'Or Cannes Film Festival Winner and Official Selection at the 2013 New York Film Festival, "Blue Is The Warmest Color," contrasts the bright yellow light and swirling sands of the south-east Mauritanian villages of Oualata and Nema, where the film was shot, with the draconian tactics of the jihadists, who are threatening to drive the thriving local culture back into the Middle Ages. El Fani creates scenes that are at once idyllic and terrifying. Many scenes are filmed from the vantage point of a long lens, with few, if any edits, The effect absorbs the viewer in the scene and forces them to focus on the action. One scene, in particular, is quite pointed in its depiction of the impredictability of life and death in this newly harsh environment. The camera is frozen in a wide shot of the lake where the local fisherman has his nets. Kidane accuses the fisherman of killing his prized cow. There's an altercation that ends tragically. The result, seen from afar, depicts  an artful, almost macabre ballet of life and death. It is at once horrifying and exquisite. 

"Timbuktu is a symbol," Sissako said at a post-screening news conference at the Walter Reade Theater in Lincoln Center. "This was truly the world's first multi-cultural society. It is the home of the world's first university and a place, until recently, where all of the worlds religions lived together in peace and harmony. Timbuktu is not only a multi-cultural, but a multi-lingual society, and you hear that throughout the film." Scenes are filmed in Arabic, French, English and the local Tamashek languages. There's one tragically comic scene in which one of the jihad soldiers is frantically radioing the details of a tragic incident to his base commader in fractured Arabic. Finally, the frustrated base commander yells at him "Just speak in English man, I can't understand a word you're saying!"

The scene highlights the further absurdity of the occupation. None of the jihadists speaks the local lingo, so all communications have to be translated from Arabic to French and then into English for anyone to be understood. It's insult added to injury.

The film is filled with contrasts. The long-flowing dresses and headwraps of the women and occassional caravans of camels and sights of herds of cattle are punctuated by the use of cell phones, gleaming motorbikes and the ominous presence of military trucks and high-powered rifles. It is a juxtaposition that jarringly places the story in the present and a reminder of  the imminent danger that lurks beneath the idyllic scenes.

As the film unfolds, we see the gradual unraveling of the everday peace of this tiny village.  Each day, there's a new restriction. First, a curfew. Then an edict that no music be played in private homes. A couple caught partying with friends is later stoned to death.  The youth are ordered to stop playing soccer.  Although their ball has been taken from them, the young boys play in mime, without a ball, in protest. Smoking is also banned, but the ban is regularly abused, even by the jihad's very own. 

The edicts finally go from the sublime to the ridiculous with the latest ban having to do with "any old thing in a public place." Many of the locals decide they've sufferd the last straw. A cadre of militants stormtrooping through the local mosque during prayer even prompts the otherwise peace-keeping and largely silent Imam (played with restrained anger  by Adel Mahmoud Cherif) to protest by attempting to reason with the rabidly dogmatic loyalists. His words fall on deaf ears, much to his chagrin.

"The women are the ones who truly resist," Sissako affirmed. "The men do nothing to fight back. In fact, they acquiesse!" We see a scene, early in the film, where a woman fishmonger refuses to cover her hands with gloves as ordered by the jihad military. She defiantly thrusts our her hands, telling them she would rather they cut them off than have to wear their gloves in the sweltering heat. She's then led off to prison.

 A young woman, sentenced to forty lashes in public for  defying the ban on music sings as her tears flow from each tortuous blow. The scene is movingly portrayed by Malian singer, actress and composer Fatoumata Diawara. One is reminded of the scene in Steve McQueen's Oscar-winning "12 Years A Slave," in which the female protagnonist is almost whipped to death. Similarly, the scene is hard to watch and makes you flinch.  By contrast, a man ordered to take off his long Western-styled pants, storms off, ripping them off in frustration. He is obviously agitated, but acquiesces, even in the throes of outrage.

All of the actors in the film are locals or amatuers gleqned from the local population. The most engaging is Toya, the daughter of the local herdsman Kidane (Ibrahim Ahmed) and his wife Satima (Toulou Kiki), who refuse to leave their traditional tent on the outskirts of town, even though all of their neighbors have long fled the encroaching jihadist invasion. There's their precious 12 year old daughter Toya, played by amateur actress Layla Walter Mohamed (more on her presently) and finally, the fourth member of the family, Issa (played with disarming charm and heart-tugging innocence by Mehdi AG Mohamed) , an orphaned boy who tends the Kidane's small herd of  eight cattle. 

"There was this young girl who kept popping up in front of me, no matter where I went to hold open auditions. Finally, I said, 'Okay! You can be in the film. The part had been written for a three year old girl as the daughter. I asked how old she was. She said she was twelve. So, you can imagine what I did. I changed the script." The amatuer child actress, Layla Walet Mohamed actually becomes the heart and soul of the film as a reflection of hope for Africa's future.

There's a scene that opens the film, depicting a young gazelle being pursued by the jihad military. They fire their weapons repeatedly at the animal, frightening it into further flight. "Don't kill it, only frighten it," the commander yells. This scene symbolizes the treatment of the local townspeople by the insurgents. They  rule by fear. The threat of death is their weapon of choice against the innocent. 

There are some touching and powerful performances at many key points, particularly by Haitian actress and dancer Kettly Noel as the local madfwoman, who ridicules the baddies in her Medusa-like riddles and confounds them with her voodoo dolls and wild incantations. A particularly inspired scenes shows a native man dancing trance-like around one of her amulets. It is at once celebratory and elegiac.

Sissako not only imbues his local townspeople with dignity, but he also allows his villians to  display an element of human frailty. We see an aggressive lieutenant, Abdelkrim ( played with a complex mix of humanity and gruff masculinity reminiscent of Victor Mature or Robert Mitchum by Abel Jafri),  who is caught by his fellow officer sneaking off to smoke in spite of the very clear ban against it. His compatriot vows not to expose him out of a begrudging loyalty. ""Don't worry," he says. "I won't expose you." 
Hichem Yacoubi (A Prophet, 2009, Munich, 2005 and Azur and Asmar: The Prince's Quest) plays the jihadist sidekick with just the right amount of tongue-in-cheek irony.

The film alternates between moments of excruciating beauty and abject horror; humor and sadness, earthly and spiritual pleasure and the most unimaginable pain. It's hard to watch this film and not be moved. In fact, it is reported that the director himself, began sobbing while talking about the film at the Cannes festival news conference. Aided by the evocative score by Amine Bouhafa, the film not only bares on its sleeve the heart of a wounded people, but the soul of a director as an artist.

"Timbuktu" screens as part of Black Perspectives at the Chicago Film Festival October 15  at 8:15pm and 16 at 8pm. Actor Hichem Yacoubi is scheduled to attend.  For tickets and information, visit The U.S. theatrical release for "Timbuktu" is January 28.

Director Abderrahmane Sissako with his child actors Mehdi AG Mohamed (l) and Layla Walet Mohamed (r)
Kidane (Ibrahim Ahmed), the local herdsman, consoles his adopted son, Issa  (Mehdi AG Mohamed) upon the slaughter of their prized cow, named GPS
Director Sissako on location
Jihadist militants patrol the local market
The cast at the Cannes Film Festival
Scenes from the film

Haitian actress Kettly Noel plays the local Voodoo Woman
Below: Kidane (Ibrahem Ahmed) faces the Jihadist's kangaroo court
 Director Abderrahmane Sissako at the New York Film Festival news conference
 Siassako, who speaks only French, spoke emotionally through an interpreter at the news conference

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

New York Phil Gets Serious with Mahler/Chin Subscription Opener

Reviewed by Dwight Casimere  September 30, 2014

NEW YORK--Music Director Alan Gilbert unleashed the full creative forces of the New York Philharmonic with an ingenius program that best exemplifies his raison d'etre. Opening with the Subscription Concert Debut of Unsuk Chin's Clarinet Concerto with Finnish virtuoso Kari Kriikku, the program closed with an impassioned reading of Mahler's Symphony No. 1 in D Major. Forget the acoustical deficiencies of Avery Fisher Hall. Gilbert and company delivered a performance that would make even the most die-hard critic stand up and take notice.

To say that Chin's Clarinet Concerto is technically challenging is an understatement. She searches for notes and melodies in places where there are none to be had. "  there's something unique about the way she combines traditional souns and instrments to create something utterly fresh and modern. "She also has the uncanny capability to write music that creates colors," Gilbert expounded.

To demonstrate, he had soloist Kriikku take the front of the stage to demonstrate. He played passages from Chin's symphony in increasing levels of difficulty. First playing a passage that involved playing two notes at once. At one point, he had to be seated on a stool because the fingering on one passage was so difficult, he could no longer hold his instrument while standing erect.

"Her music may sound difficult, Gilbert said,  but those challenges serve a purpose. Her music always expresses something profoundly human. It may seem artificial, but it always expresses something profoundly human.

Gilbert's handling of the Mahler only served to show the deep rapport he has developed with the orchestra. Cues were given with the slightest wave of the hand or a subtle bend of an arm. The simpatico is at times almost subconscious. Houdini could not have done it better.

Mahler's Symphony No. 1 is a masterpiece of thematic development.  A simple bird call from the woodwinds is later developed into a full-blown theme for a movement.  A mere flourish by offstage brass is later the entre' to a rousing finale complete with pounding timpani, crashing cymbals and exploding trumpets. Not since Sir Georg Solti have I seen so diifiicult a piece performed with such aplomb.  The news reported some weeks ago that the Philharmonic extended Gilbert's contract. Wise move. He's a keeper.
Soloist Kari Kriikku
!Maestro Alan Gilbert

New York Philharmonic Scores "Two Base Hit" with Dual Openings

Reviewed by Dwight Casimere

NEW YORK--Credit New York Philharmonic Artistic Advisor, actor  Alec Baldwin and Music Director Alan Gilbert with creating an Opening Night Gala performance that reached out to engage the audience in an enticing way. "La Dolce Vita: The Music of Italian Cinema," was a program which explored Italian film music spanning the last half of the twentieth century from Fellini's La Dolce Vita (1950) to Michael Radford's Il Postino (1994). It was part of "The Art of the Score: Film Week at the Philharmonic," which later presented "Charlie Chaplin's Modern Times; The Tramp at 100," with the orchestra playing the director's original score.

The following week, the Philharmonic presented yet another opening, the start of its regular subscription season with a more traditional program of serious music;  Mahler's Symphony No. 1, along with the U.S. Premiere of  a Philharmonic co-commission with the Gothenburg Symphony, Unsuk Chin's Clarinet Concerto with Finnish viruoso Kari Kriikku as soloist.

Although the New York Yankees are absent from the Major League Baseball playoffs, they might have fared better if they had someone in their roster the likes of Maestro Gilbert, who scored a two-run-homer with this season's series of opening concerts.

Aided by the sumptuous playing of the orchestra and the lush orchestrations of William Ross, the concert was a satisfying, even if sometimes frothy, experience throughout. Add the beauty and crystalline vocals of a sultry Renee Fleming, in full cabaret mode, singing with mike in hand, the sylvan voice of pop vocalist Josh Groban (think Andrea Bocelli without the annoying warble), and the heartfelt searing violin of Joshua Bell, and you have a musical display that the Italians would rate as "Squisito!"

The evening began with Nino Rota's memorable music from "Amarcord," with Joshua Bell writing a musical love letter with Stelvio Cipriani's , Suite from "The Anonymous Venetian, followed by Ennio Morricone's lush theme "Your Love," from "Once Upon a Time in the West, with Renee Fleming caressing the microphone like a long lost love  and emitting some of the most beautiful vocal tones to ever reverberate in Avery Fisher Hall. 

The highlight of the program was the pensive theme by Andrea and Ennio Morricone, "Se," from Guiseppe Tornatore's "Cinema Paradiso." This is one of the most beautiful pieces of film music ever written, but until you've heard it as performed by the collective forces of Bell, Fleming and Groban with the New York Philharmonic, you have yet to realize the emotional depth and spiritual power of this haunting music.

Maestro Alan Gilbert

The music was accompanied by fragments of film clips, most notably from the great Visconti film, "The Leopard," with Burt Lancaster as Don Fabrizio, the Prince of Salina, dancing with Claudia Cardinale. The rest of the visuals, projected on a screen behind and above the orchestra featured some Monty Python-esque animation that, frankly, I found distracting. The lone exception was the rising moon effect of the great Fellini, occasionally tipping his signature Borsalino fedora. Nice touch!