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 metopera.org or fathomevents.com 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 chicagofilmfestival.com. 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!

Monday, September 29, 2014

Handsome and Homeless, Richard Gere Transforms Himself in Elegant Masterpiece "Time Out of Mind"

Dwight Casimere with Time Out of Mind Director Oren Moverman

Reviewed by Dwight Casimere at the New York Film Festival September 25

Story and photos by Dwight Casimere

NEW YORK--"Handsome." "Homeless." Only one of those words would be the first thing to come to mind in a word-association test in relation to the actor Richard Gere. However, in Director Oren Moverman's (The Messenger, Rampart)  observational film "Time Out of Mind," the "silver fox" of leading men (The Cotton Club, Pretty Woman, Arbitrage) manages to devolve himself to the status of a befuddled homeless man, whom it takes us almost half the film to learn is George Hammond, a man formerly of some means and a stable family life, who, as the result of an unspecified set of circumstances, finds himself homeless. I found the film troubling to watch and a bit unsettling perhaps because given today's precarious social and economic times, George could be you or me in the blink of an eye.

We meet George, who at this moment is nameless, sleeping in the bathtub of an abandoned apartment somewhere in Manhattan's East Village. The building manager, played by Steve Buscemi (Tv's "Empire Boardwalk") is trying to uproot him, because, apparently, the heretofore abandoned and dilapidated building has been sold to new owners and is in for a facelift and George, along with any other squatters, who may have occupied the premises, have to hat up and head out. George emerges from his fog long enough to protest and vaguely mumble that he's awaiting the return of someone named "Sheila," who we surmise may be his estranged wife, who we later learned has died from cancer. When George arises to stumble his way out, he eventually stands erect and we see him dressed in the remains of what was a formerly a quite nice business suits, and to click open the roller bag extension handle of one of those pieces of hard-bodied Samsonite luggage that road-warrior business store in the overhead bins on business flights. Its a brief glimpse into George's now distant past.

There's quickly another clue. On his way on the road to oblivion, in which he'll be sleeping in subway trains, hustling spare change for cheap beer and a sandwich or wondering where his next warm bed is for the night, he spots a beautiful young girl and her Reggae-looking hip black boyfriend. He follows them through the East Village's storied Tompkin's Square. It quickly becomes evident that this is his estranged daughter, Maggie (Jena Malone), a bartender in a local pub. There are several tense scenes in that pub between the two as the film unfolds and we see George at various stages of devolution. The daughter/George sparring  is sort of a plot touchstone that brings us to the films touching conclusion.

Director Moverman's style of shooting the film with his long-time collaborator, cinematographer Bobby Bukowski has the look and feel of a narrative or documentary, almost bordering on the exhaustive work of Frederick Wiseman. There's good reason for that comparison. The film itself has been in gestation for thirty years, with Gere and Moverman picking up the baton in the past decade. We see Gere looking at life through windows and screens, acting  as if he were struggling to touch the beings inside, but being blocked by an invisible barrier at every turn.

The film immerses the viewer in George's world. Shadowy figures swirl around him as New Yorkers go about their daily business, oblivious to the struggles and inner conflicts he endures. We hear snatches of conversations a the drama of other people's lives play out just outside the range of his peripheral vision. The random sounds are deliberately left in the film, according to director Moverman, in order to heighten its sense of reality. "Every director wants 'clean sound.' We decided to leave all the distracting noise in the film, because the reality is that while George is going through his troubles, other people's real-life dramas are also being played out." The sense of encroachment is everywhere. The sirens, the off-camera arguments between couples. George can't get a good night's sleep in the streets because of all the noise. Selling his good suit and overcoat, he's able to scrape up enough money for a handful of loose cans of beer, that he quaffs down at daybreak in order to drown out the pain of his misery.

The technique of shooting Gere from afar was actually a device employed by Moverman in creating the film.  In a news conference following the press screening for the New York Film Festival, Moverman shared how he got shots of Gere panhandling from afar with a hidden camera from inside a Starbucks almost a block away. The interactions between Gere and the passersby were real and palpable. Most ignored him. A few acknowledged him and some even recognized the star beneath the scruffy exterior. "It was kind of a Rorschach test for people. One was a French tourist, a woman who thought I was really a homeless guy and tried to give me some food.  The other two who recognized me were African American and when they just passed me they went, 'Hey Rich. How you doin' man!?' There was no question about what I was doing or  'Have you fallen on hard times?' and 'What happened to your career?' Just 'Rich, how you doin' man,' and they just continued on their way."

For the most part, people barely looked at him and that is precisely the theme that recurs throughout the film. Gere makes the point several times as the character Geoge. "Nobody sees us. We're invisible," he tells a hyperactive wanderer he befriends in the Bellevue homeless shelter, played with exquisite
high-wire pirouettes by veteran stage and screen mega-star Ben Vereen. "We're cartoon characters," he says, doing robotic moves with Vereen in the middle of the street. The rest of the time, George spends his time drinking or repeating cryptic pharases absent-mindfully. His delirium speaks more to his sense self-loathing and denial  than it does to any real cognitive loss. Oh, about that handsomeness. Reference is made several times in the film and brought home in multiple utterances by a case worker who is screening him prior to admitting him to the homeless shelter. "I'll give you your pass to get a bed tonight if you'll answer my questions, 'handsome," she says, bribing him into cooperation.

George/Gere has a tryst with a homeless woman, who he mistakenly calls Sheila, played with relish by Kyra  Sedgwick. Apparently it was enough to get her attention. The two have a tete-a-tete at a picnic table overlooking the East River, then indulge in a roll in the hay in a knapsack in a back alley. Love among the ruins.

I know, it's hard to imagine Richard Gere as a disheveled homeless person, no matter how much research he does and how much he adorns himself in sack-cloth and ashes, he will always be one of this era's most potent leading men. It's to his credit as both an actor and as a human being, that he is able to immerse himself in a character and give him breath and life and make you want to reach to touch him with empathy. "I think we all have a yearning to be known and be seen," he told the news conference assemblage at Lincoln Center. "I come her and you want to hear what I want to say. But, I'm the same guy that I was on the street, and no one wanted to hear his story. I could see how quickly we can all descend into this scary territory when we're totally cut loose from all our connections to people."

The title for the film is gleaned from a Bob Dylan studio album of the same title. Moverman also cowrote the 2007 Bob Dylan curiosity "I'm Not There," on the set of which Moverman and Gere met. "There was a book, "Land of Lost Souls," by a guy named Cadillac Man, a homeless man. It was a very unschooled autobiography, but it was by someone who was able to communicate his world," Gere explained.  "I knew this was the way it should feel....that point of view.

"What I wanted to convey is the sense of the process being the movie. Going through the bureaucracy is enough plot. You don't need to pump it up. Life itself, without any dramaturgy, is enough."

Unfortunately, "Time Out of Mind," doesn't have a distributor. The film is in its U.S. Premiere at the 52nd New York Film Festival presenting Sunday, October 5 at 6pm at Alice Tully Hall, Lincoln  Center and at 8:45pm Thursday, October 9 with a Q and A with director Oren Moverman and actor Richard Gere. October 8 is "An Evening with Richard Gere" at the Elinor Brunin Munroe Film Center and Alice Tully Hall, as part of the NYFF52 Main Slate. For tickets and information, visit www.filmlinc.com.