Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Ben Stiller Rethinks Film Classic "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty"

51st New York Film Festival gets first look World Premiere of film opening in theaters everywhere Christmas Day

Reviewed by Dwight Casimere October 5, 2013
News Conference photos by Dwight Casimere

NEW YORK--Ben Stiller affirms himself in the pantheon of great comedic actor/directors, in league with the great Jerry Lewis, with his Samuel Goldwyn Films, Red Hour Films and Truenorth Productions film "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty," due in theaters everywhere Christmas Day. Screened in the World Premiere at the 51st New York Film Festival, the film is Stiller's rethinking, with screenwriter Steven Conrad (The Pursuit of Happyness 2006, The Weather Man 2005)  of the 1947 film treasure from the senior Samuel Goldwyn's studio, starring the late, great Dany Kaye. Based on the James Thurber's two-and-a-half page 1939 classic tale of a man trapped in a hum-drum life who has all-absorbing fantasies of an alter-life of adventure, Stiller expands the idea into the high-concept and hi-tech world of the 21st century and develops an epic tale of a man whose over-active imagination takes over and blows his real life completely out of the water!

As Stiller's recreated character, Mitty is a photo editor at LIFE Magazine with the rather no-hum tite of "Negative Assets Manager." Giving the story line an even more current ring of truth, the publication is on the losing end of a corporate takeover and Mitty's job and the very survival of the magazine all hinges on his ability to track  down a potentially award-winning cover photo, "negative #25," and it's elusive photographer, the mysterious sean O'Connell, played with brilliant detachment by Sean Penn. Oscar winner and film legend Shirley MacLaine stars as Walter's mother and Kristin Wiig is Mitty's unwilling partner in misadventure and eventual love interest.

"Mitty's job as the custodian of the photo library at LIFE is essential to his character and to the telling of the story," Stiller told a packed screening  for  reporters at the 51st New York Film Festival. "He secretly wishes that he could live all of the brave and bold moments that he sees parading past him in the confines of his office. He also finds himself at a crossroads, the institution he loves is about to be left behind in the dust of the revolution and his own importance as the visual chronicler of American culture, like the magazine, is about to be kicked to the curb. It's a really transformative moment in Walter's life. Instead of retreating, he finds the courage to go out into the world."
And "go out" he does, with a flourish. The visual effects are stunning, as are the stunts, some of which Stiller did himself. "They brought in a stunt man to do the most difficult skateboard scenes, but otherwise, that's me you see doing a lot of it." There was also a real effort to bring an air of authenticity to the cinematic experience. "You're not going to see a lot of CG and "blue screen" stuff in this film because (Director of Photography) Stuart Dryburgh (Kate and Leopold, 2001, Martin Scorsese's "Shine A Light"2008 Rolling Stones documentary in IMAX), insisted on authenticity and live action throughout. The helicopter you see at the end is actually the helicopter flown by Huggy Bear in the original Hawaii 5-O TV series!" And on that happy note, the news conference and the terrific screening were concluded.

Tilda Swinton in Only Lovers Left Alive at the 51st New York Film Festival

Writer/Director Jim Jarmusch takes sexy, moody look at modern-day vampires

Reviewed by Dwight Casimere October 10, 2013 at the 51st New York Film Festival
News conference photos by Dwight Casmere

 Director Jim Jarmusch with Tilda Swinton at the New York Film Festival premiere

 Jeffrey Wright, Tilda Swinton and Jim Jarmusch on the Festival Premiere Red Carpet
Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston in the title roles as the vampire lovers Adam and Eve (below)

NEW YORK--It took a self-indulgent director like Jim Jarmusch to lift the vampire movie genre out of its cliched past and bring it firmly into a modern context with his rather tongue-in-cheek look at vampire love, Sony Classic Picture's "Only Lovers Left Alive," which received its U.S. Premiere at the 51st New York Film Festival.

An award-winning director (Grand Prix, 2005 Cannes Film Festival for Broken Flowers with Bill Murray in the title role), Jarmusch both wrote and directed this stylish, moody look at vampire life and love in the indie-Rock, underground scene.  Shot in both the urban decay of present-day Detroit and the seedy back-alleys of Tangier, Jarmusch shows, on the surface, how two locales that would seem so dissimilar due to their distance, can project the same atmosphere of timeless desecration. In the same way, he shows how the relationship between the vampire lovers Adam and Eve, played by Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston, remains constant, even though they've been married for nearly a century and a half, and have spent much of that time living apart.

The film begins in Adam's grungy, back-alley apartment in one of the seediest parts of Detroit. A vintage record player spins an old R & B classic 45, and that pretty much sets the tone for the rest of the movie. Eve hurries home from nights of swilling top-shelf blood in a Tangiers flat to ease her troubled husband's ennui. Their nights are filled with love-making and partaking of their drug-of-choice, in this case O-negative blood ("the good stuff," they call it, in a veiled drug-culture reference), which they obtain from a crooked doctor at the local clinic, comically named Dr. Watson.  Jeffrey Wright, a fine actor, with numerous awards to his credit, is wasted in this almost cartoonish cameo appearance.

The film manages to poke fun at itself as it pokes along with moody, dimly lit shots and a terrific sound track that will thoroughly delight fans of vintage Soul music and R & B. You won't hear the 'best of Motown' anywhere in this sound track. These vampires only dig the songs that you would have heard on 'race music' stations in the early 1960s in ghetto urban America. For this quality alone, I applaud Jarmusch's sense of style and effect. As far as I'm concerned, any movie soundtrack that juxtaposes Wanda Jackson's soulful, explosive hit "Trapped By a Thing Called Love," (played during  a really sexy slow-dance scene by Adam and Eve straight out of those "red light" basement parties of yore) and Paganini's Caprice No. 5, is a must-have in my CD collection!

There's plenty of blood-swilling, but only from crystal sherry glasses ("neck-sucking is so fucking 15th century!" Eve declares) and the only hint of violent neck-sucking comes when Eve's younger sister Ava, played by Mia Wasikowska, in a free-wheeling comedic performance) shows up to upset the couple's serene apple-cart after 87 years by trashing their apartment and Adam's vintage guitar collection and totally devouring his beloved underground connection to the vintage instruments and recording equipment he covets. We get the sense that Adam is uncomfortable in his modern day skin and the techno trappings of the modern world. He embodies the guts of his computer in the shell of an old floor-cabinet 50s styled TV and fills his apartment with contraptions from the recording studios of a bygone era.  There's a standoff with some vampires early on in the film, but Jarmusch dismisses the urge to break out into a blood-bath that would have completely ruined the mood of the film. John Hurt (a Jarmusch alum Jarmusch's 1995 dead Men with Johnny Depp) makes a cameo as a seemingly drug-addled 500 year old Christopher Marlowe, who dismisses Shakespeare as "an illiterate philistine." I guess now we know who really wrote all those great masterpieces!

"Obviously, it's not a horror movie," Jarmusch said of the film at the festival news conference. "It's just a little character study, an overview that shows a love story that spans that amount of time and shows their perception of history over that long period of time. It was really interactive to me and that was what drew me to it."

"Only Lovers Left Alive" is currently making the rounds of film festivals around the globe. It opens in Italy, November 27 at the Torino Film Festival and then begins release in Germany, Sweden and Japan in December. No date has been set as of yet by Sony Pictures Classics for a U.S. theatrical release in 2014.

Monday, November 11, 2013


U.S. Encore Wednesday,  November 13, 2013 6:30pm local time
Canadian Encores Saturday,  December 7, 2013 12 Noon local time
Monday,  December 16, 2013 6:30pm local time
 Roberto Alagna and Patricia Racette in the title roles

George Gagnidze as the evil Baron Scarpia and with Patricia Racette as Floria Tosca below

Roberto Alagna as the painter and rebel sympathizer Mario Cavarodossi

Met Opera Live HD brought out two of the Metropolitan Opera's most enduring stars, Patricia Racette and Roberto Alagna, to bring renewed vitality to the most performed opera in Met history, Giacomo Puccini's Tosca.

With humongous sets and a dark, grim production by Luc Nondy, Racette gives a passionate performance as the love-struck diva Floria Tosca. The object of her affection is the painter and the painter and revolutionary sympathizer Mario Cavaradossi, sung with dramatic flair by Met favorite Roberto Alagna. Bass-baritone George Gagnidze is deliciously evil as the smarmy villain Baron Scarpia.

Suffice to say that the pllot and the tragic ending come as no surprise. Indeed, many in the audience were humming along to Puccini's famous arias. Scarpia is chilling as he sings the aria "Va Tosca," at the end of Act One, when he declares "Iago had a handkerchief, I have a fan," referring to the famous plot of Othello, in which the title character is driven to murder his wife in a jealous rage fanned by a misplaced handerchief. Who cannot help but be moved by Tosca's emotional Vise d'Arte or Cavaradossi's "E lucevan le stelle," in the Final Act. Alagna, in particular, infused his character with an air of authenticity. "After all, he is half French, half Italian, just as I am," he declared to Met Live interviewer and Met diva Renee Fleming. "He is!" he said of the character. His mother is French!" and proceeded to give salutations to the global  Live HD audience kin both French and Italian to underscore his point.

Opening the Second Act is the scene where Scarpia is amusing himself with a collection of female "escorts. Seen in the virtual altogether in previous productions, they were swathed in feather boas and flowing shawls in this Live HD production. Tosca, who is subsequently lured to Scarpia's den and forced to witness the arrest and torture of her lover, Cavaradossi, is driven to murder the scheming Scarpia with his own steak knife after pretending to be seduced by him. The murder sets off the tragic string of events that followed, fueled by her mislaid trust in the word of an avowed snake, Scarpia, that she and Cavardossi will be allowed to go free after a mock execution.

Tosca will be seen in Encore Performance in theatres across the country Wednesday evening at 6:30pm local time. Check local listings for locations or visit or

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Spike Jonze strikes a modern love note with "her" starring Joaquin Phoenix, Scarlett Johansson

Film explores love in the age of technology and our absorbing obsession with personal information devices

Reviewed on the closing day of the New York Film Festival,  October 12, 2013
News conference photos by Dwight Casimere

NEW YORK-One of the enduring scenarios of modern urban life is riding the subway, hearing the announcement over the p.a. system that riders should conceal all personal information devices, tablets and cell phones while, at the same time, almost everyone on board is absorbed with texting, talking on their cell phone, reading a kindle or listening to music in their earbuds, which means they never heard the announcement in the first place.  Click that image ahead in the not-to-distant future to the world of Oscar-nominated director Spike Jonze and his latest tome from Warner Bros. and Annapurna Pictures, "her, " starring Joaquin Phoenix as a professional writer, who works in a cubicle for a computer personalized letter writing service, composing moving, personal letters for people to send to loved ones. Joaquin's character is recently divorced. Empty and hurting inside, his letters are the envy of everyone who works at the service as he pours his deepest emotions into letters that reveal his creative side and his true aspiration to become a great novelist.

Set in a futuristic vision of Los Angeles, shot partially amongst the towering high-rises of Shanghai, Phoenix's character, Theodore, is quickly introduced to a new computer operating system named "Samantha" (voiced with Godiva chocolate silkiness by Scarlett Johansson), which quckly establishes an emotional connection with the lonely Theodore, responding to his every mood, bolstering his ego, and fostering a deep psychological bond.  Through Samantha, Theodore supplants his lingering emotional umbilical chord to his ex-wife Catherine (Rooney Mara), and begins to distance himself to his friend and co-worker, Amy (Amy Adams), with whom there's the possibility to a budding romance.
 He is completely immersed in Samantha and is enthralled by her every word. It is a cautionary tale which addresses our times and our obsession with technology.

In a news conference following the film's screening at he 51st New York Film Festival, director Jonze was joined by Joaquin Phoenix and his co-stars Amy Adams, Rooney Mara and Olivia Wilde (Theodore's failed blind date).  "I got the idea from toying around with an online instant messaging system that displayed a type of artificial intelligence. You could send a message that said, like, "Hello," and it would answer back, "How are you?" and you would say, "Oh, I'm not so good," and it would answer "Oh, that's too bad."  That's when I had this buzz of 'Wow, I'm actually talking to this thing! Then it quickly devolved into the idea of a man, having a relationship with an entity like that with a fully-formed consciousness, and the idea of what would happen if you had a real relationshiop that you could write into a love story and a movie."

Joaquin Phoenix plays a moody, detached character who is dogged by bouts of depression, self-doubt and lingering anxiety (now there's a stretch!). The biggest challenge for him, was largely playing against a character that is unseen throughout the entire film, causing him to act in a vacuum. "It wasn't really that hard for me, because I walk around the house talking to myself all the time, talking to myself, reciting lines and imagining scenes. I mean, I'm rehearsing all the time. I am an actor, after all." Johansson, who was, almost appropriately, not present at the news conference or the premiere, Closing Night screening, was acutally called in during post-production by Jonze, to replace the voiceings of British actress Samantha Morton, a two-time Oscar nominee and Jonze alumna (Synecdoche, New York, which Jonze produced.) Six months after production on the film ended, Jonze realized that Morton's aloof portrayal of the central character didn';t quite make the connection with Theodore that he had hoped for. He quickly shifted gears, brought in Johansson, who was finishing up her Broadway run of "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof." Phoenix came into the studio to bounce his lines off Johansson to create the kind of engaging rapport that became the heart of the film.

"The thing about Samantha is that, unlike human beings, she has no baggage, so she can create his kind of utopian relationship that we can only imagine, " Jonze reflected. "Unlike his blind date, who completely unravels. She has an enormous amount of pain and baggage from past relationships and projects all of that on every word that Theodore is saying. Samantha, on the other hand, is open-minded. She has no past and only sees the best in him."

"her" comes to theatres everywhere January 10, 2014.

Once Upon A Dream starring The Rascals recalls glory days of "Blue Eyed Soul"

Special to Dwight The Connoisseur

Once Upon a Dream starring The Rascals is following up on its critically acclaimed, sold out Broadway engagement, with a national tour that is bringing rave reviews and, more importantly, audience cheers for the show that literally invites them to dance in the aisles.  Broadway In Chicago presents the Original Band Members, Felix Cavaliere, Eddie Brugati, Dino Danellian and Gene Cornish, in an eye-popping show for five performances only through November 10 at the Cadillac Palace Theatre. The show returns to Broadway for the Holidays.

 Although in their late '60s, The Original Rascals showed up in fine voice and great form to relive their former glory days when they dominated the spotlight of fame, topping the charts in the early 1960s before the start of the "British Invasion" and the arrival of that then, little known group, The Beatles. "Believe iit or not, the Beatles opened for US," proclaimed lead singer Eddie Brigati in a larger-than-life talking head projected comments interspersed with dazzling vintage video clips of The Rasals in concert and other performers from the Soul Music hey day of the '60s and '70s.  One particularly effective video featured rare footage of a soul group dancing to the live music of The Rascals. The digitally remastered video was synchronized so that the dancer's movements coincided with the beat of the live music. Masterful!

The narrative in the talking heads recounts the groups ups and downs, from the earliest days when Brigati was shot in a childhood prank, "the bullets still in there. It only hurts when I love. It's too bad that the world is somehow always so tragically funny!"

Beginning with an introduction by Ed Sullivan gleaned from their appearance on his landmark CBS Television show in 1968, the show proceeded with a spirited romp through their many  hits, including"Good Lovin'," "Lonely Too Long," "It's A Beautiful Morning," "How Can I Be Sure. "

The second act of the show begins with a beautifully sung rendition of what is probably their biggest hit, "Groovin'," and continues with their landmark nod to the Civil Rights Movement, "People Just Wanna Be Free," which was preceeded by an emphatic statement from Brigati, declaring that  "the Rascals were always at the forefront of Civil Rights. We did not tolerate discrimination in any way, form or fashion. In fact, we insisted that all of the opening acts for our concerts be black groups." In the early days of their recording career, the sound of the group was virtually indistinguishable from that of black groups that were popular at the time, such as The Temptations. They were, as the Chicago Sun Times reported recently, the first white band signed to Atlantic Records, long the home of such legendary African American artists as Aretha Franklin and Wilson Pickett. Produced by Steven Van Zandt, the multi-faceted singer, songwriter, producer and actor, best known as guitarist with Bruce Sprinsteen's E Street Band and Tony Soprano's right-hand man in the long-running character of Silvio Dante (1999-2007), along with his wife, Maureen, the show is musically and visually stunning with Stage, Video and Lighting Design by Marc Brickman and the terrific Music and Lyrics by Rascal originals Felix Cavaliere and Eddie Brigati.

Van Zandt wrote the show, and it flows from start to finish with the audience on their feet throughout. Van Zandt himself sets the tone of the show from the outset, announcing over the loudspeaker while the stage is still dark that audience members are welcome to take out their iPhones and take photos and videos, dance in the aisles, sing-along and "pretty much do any" thing you want!!!" The appreciative cheers from the audience resounded throughout the night.

Friday, November 1, 2013

"The Invisible Woman" at the New York Film Festival

Ralph Fiennes reveals complex character of British literary icon Charles Dickens
Author's real life nothing like the "Christmas Carol" we associate with him

Reviewed by Dwight Casimere at the 51st New York Film Festival October 9, 2013

NEW YORK--Charles Dickens is best known as the author of "A Christmas Carol," which will soon be staged around the world by local theatre companies and shown in both black and white and color film versions from this and the last century, especially as the Christmas Holidays approach. From outward appearances, his is an avuncular, iconic figure that embodies the intellect and morality of pre-Victorian England. That soft-focus, idealized version of his personal history is completely cast aside in Fienne's latest directorial and starring effort, "The Invisible Woman," which shows Dickens to be a conflicted, complex man with a dark, troubled side. Coincidentally, he was a philanderer who all but cast aside his dutiful wife Catherine to pursue a year's long secret affair with a wanna be teenaged actress Nelly Ternan. Cumulative accounts of the story, culled from personal letters written by Dickens and his emotionally bruised wife and accounts from friends and associates, was the basis for the brilliant screenplay. Adapted by Screenwriter Abi Morgan from a biography, "Nelly Ternan" by Claire Tomalin, the film portrays the story of Dicken's illicit relationship with Nelly Ternan, played skillfully by Felicity Jones, as a complex woman whose aspirations are totally out of step with the society in which she lives. Nelly has ambitions to be a great actress. Dickens has the ambition to get in her drawers. He even has the audacity to ask her mother, in so many veiled terms, for permission to do so. The vague promise of a career is enough to convince mom that, maybe 'an arrangement' isn't such a bad idea since there are few opportunities for women without a male sponsor and Dickens, with all his fame, prestige and fortune, can certainly offer her a secure life, even in the context of a clandestine affair, that going it on her own could not. Such was the lot of women in the 19th century.

In the time of his greatest literary success (Oliver Twist, The Life and Adventures of Nickleby,  A Christmas Carol), which was the mid 19th century( the 1830s-1850s. Dickens died in 1870.) Dickens enjoyed a level of celebrity that is more akin to what is experienced today than anything in his time. His books sold in the thousands and in several countries, at a time when there was no His public readings of his works were sold out months in advance. He lectured and traveled extensively, making two speaking trips to America, at a time when that was no mean feat. In his public appearances, he not only performed readings of his works, but he also spoke out against the institution of slavery and offered solutions to the problem. His sell-out performances were perhaps the first to introduce ticket scalpers to the public lexicon. They routinely gathered outside his events, selling tickets at far above their face value to willing participants. Dickens later wrote of his American experience in his memoirs, entitled "American Notes."  "They flock around me as if I were an idol," he wrote. In his notes, he seemed to at first,  revel in the experience, but later, complained of the invasion of his privacy and criticized what he viewed as American gregariousness and crude habits.

The film also casts Nelly's torment within the contemporary context of the struggles women faced in Victorian England. "The reality is that women were almost entirely dependent on the earnings of men. "Mrs Ternan, the mother, tacitly allows this relationship to happen," Fiennes said. "What's she going to do? She risks social ostracisiation for her daughter, but the security and the benefits of support of Dickens perhaps outweigh the risk of breaking the taboo." Kristin Scott Thomas plays Nelly's apprehensive, but practical-minded mother. who finally acquiesces.

Fiennes appeared at the New York Film Festival news conference with Joanna Scanlan, who portrays Dicken's wife Catherine, who is all but discarded after bearing Dickens ten children. One of the most emotionally charged scenes in the film is one that occurs midway through, when Dickens forces her to return a ring he had specially made for Nelly, but which was mistakenly delivered by the jeweler to the Mrs. Catherine Dickens is obviously humiliated. but resigns herself to the situation and manages to present the ring to Nelly with a sense of dignity and grace in the face of obvious emotional defeat.

According to Fiennes, there's historical evidence that Dickens may have fathered not just one, but possibly two illegitimate children as the result of his illicit liaison. "Charles Dickens absolutely had a child with Nelly Ternan," Fiennes affirmed.

Originally, Fiennes said, he had sought another actor to protray Dickens, when he was first handed the project by the BBC. "But things fell through and the more I read about Dickens, the more intrigued I became about the complexities of this man and decided I wanted to portray him myself."

What was it like directing himself as an actor? Fiennes was blunt, but in a self-deprecating humorous way. "Ralph Fiennes the actor can be extremely difficult, walking off the set and all. So can Ralph Fiennes the director. He can be pretty tough to deal with too!"

Dickens could run, but he couldn't hide from his deception, especially in his writing
 Dwight Casimere with Ralph Fiennes at the 51st New York Film Festival
 Ralph Fiennes with co-star Joanna Scanlan at the news conference

. Fiennes claims that, while Dickens kept their involvement under wraps, there were clearly acknowledgements, even inspiration for characters and situations, that were revealed in his writing. "Great Expectations" was clearly written at a time when we know he was involved with Ellen Ternan. It's even to the extent to which you can clearly identify elements of Nelly in the female characters he writes, especially in his later books," Fiennes told a post screening news conference at the New York Film Festival."I actually feel his writing of female characters got much better after his involvement with Nelly."

"The Invisible Woman" reveals Dickens to be a flawed British national treasure. The fact that Dickens carried on the affair with the much-younger teenaged actress is clear evidence of the severe gap that existed between Dickens the writer and public figure and Dickens the man. "Dickens was tormented. He had huge extremes of emotion. We tend to get the sort of Christmas card image of Dickens-this smiling, jolly father-figure, but clearly, when you read more about him you find that he was a very disturbed man; a man in mental and emotional anguish," Fiennes said.