Monday, March 24, 2014

"Cesar Chavez" a riveting bio-pic about an unsung hero

Reviewed by Dwight Casimere

Mexican actor and director Diego Luna brings to theaters this weekend a riveting biopic about one of the most important, but largely unsung and overlooked leaders of the twentieth century labor movement. " Cesar Chavez" opens in theaters everywhere Friday, March 28.

Starring Michael Pena ("Crash," "Million Dollar Baby") as the messianic leader of the Mexican American labor union, the United Farm Workers, the film also features the resourceful actress Rosario Dawson as Chavez's longtime organizing partner, Dolores Huerta and America Ferrera ("Ugly Betty,") as his long-suffering, activist wife, Helen. John Malkovich, who was also one of the producers of the film, plays the smarmy, self-righteous head of the giant grape conglomerate who is Chavez's nemesis. In one gripping confrontational scene, it becomes strikingly ironic that the two men are cut from the same cloth as each recounts his struggles and rise through hard work and rugged individualism. The two are more alike than they think, yet circumstances, politics and economics set them at odds.

Chavez was born into a family of migrant workers in 1927 in Yuma, Arizona. The family moved to California's Central Valley in 1938, and, after a stint in the Navy, he developed a friendship with labor organizer Fred Ross that would change his life. Chavez first began voter registration drives, then formed the United Farm Workers Union. He rose to national prominence through a series of national boycotts, hunger strikes and a 340-mile trek from Delano- Bakersfield to the California state capitol that brought international attention to the plight of Mexican farm workers.

Chavez's self-sacrifice, his commitment to non-violence and his activism on behalf of Mexican American workers resulted in benefits and social changes that are still being felt today. Besides improving the lot of workers overall, Chavez also attacked some of the core belief systems within his own community that had proved detrimental to their advancement; machoism and eye-for-an-eye violence. Chavez fought for and encouraged involvement of women in his movement and, reluctantly, let his own wife take a bold and dangerous stand.

Chavez was the direct disciple of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and practiced his code of non-violence to the point of his own detriment. Yet his commitment to social justice and his personal sacrifice are exemplary.

At times, the "bad guy" grape growers and law enforcement officials seem one-dimentional in a ham-fisted imitation of Rod Steiger "In The Heat of the Night," and the violence at times seems almost cartoonish, but the message is clear and Luna and Pena deliver it in fast-paced, no nonsense fashion.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Rome: the City of Eternal Spring

Story and photo gallery by Dwight Casimere

ROME, Italy--Spring is here! After the long and difficult winter, it's finally time to start thinking of a visit to the city where spring is eternal; Rome. Promoroma, the Special Agency of the Chamber of Commerce of Rome organized an Educational Tour to familiarize members of the travel and entertainment media of the treasures to be found in the hidden Rome. With the aid of consultants from Roam around Rome, vacations made to measure, participants were invited to immerse themselves in the  city's many architectural and historical wonders, through the activity of urban trekking.  One simply walks through the cobblestoned boulevards and narrow byways experiencing the city as an unfolding drama, complete with colorful backdrops, romantic settings and an endless cast of  characters.

Experiencing Rome is like looking  into a precious jewel with many facets and colors.  The deeper you peer into it, the more you see. Just as you think you know all that there is to know, or begin to understand her, she begins to reveal that much more! Such was my experience with our affable guides, Antonio Rinaldi, an Architect who is a native to Rome, and a student of Art and Archeology and Pier Paolo Meschini, a native  of Turin who has adopted Rome as his home. As a construction engineer and city planner, he brings a unique perspective to the architectural and historic treasures of this Eternal City. Through their eyes, one gains a very personal, yet informed view of a city that never ceases to amaze. You may leave Rome, but it never leaves you. Once you visit her, she will always be in your mind and in your heart. Here are just a few of the impressions garnered during an urban trek through her myriad of streets and palazzo.

 On the famed Spanish Steps
 The view of Vatican City from the Cafferetti Terrace
 The ancient ruins in central Rome
 A slice of life in the Trastevere

 At the Trevi Fountain immortalized in the film "La Dolce Vita"
 The bride and groom kiss in the square outside the Basilica of Santa Maria where they were married
 Inside the Basilica of Santa Maria

 Among the ruins of Ancient Rome

 The view from a bridge over the Tiber River
 The Spanish Steps at dawn
 The entrance to the Jewish Ghetto in Rome near the Tiber River

 A cooking lesson at Gambero Rosso's Citta' del Gusto
Absorbing the sights, sounds and smells of central Rome

Arrivederci Roma!

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Of Horses and Men a stunning Icelandic director's debut at New Directors New Films Festival in New York

Reviewed by Dwight Casimere

NEW YORK--Of Horses and Men is a stunning cinematic debut for Icelandic stage director Benedikt Erlingsson, who wrote and directed the film. 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.

Of Horses and Men screens Saturday, March 22 at 6:15pm at Theatre 1, T1 at MOMA with a post- screening discussion and Monday, March 24 at 6:30pm at The Walter Reade Theater at Lincoln Center, also with a post-screening discussion.

Now in its 43rd year, the renowned New Directors/New Films festival, presented jointly by The Museum of Modern Art and the Film Society of Lincoln Center, introduces New York audiences to the work of emerging or not-yet established filmmakers from around the world. The festival takes place at the Walter Reade Theater at Lincoln Center and at The Roy and Niuta Titus Theater 1 at MoMA. For programming and ticketing information, please

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Met Live HD Werther spotlights tenor Jonas Kaufmann in starring role

by Dwight Casimere

NEW YORK--German tenor Jonas Kaufmann is one of the most in-demand performers on the operatic stage. Met Live HD audiences around the world will have an opportunity to see him in action in Jules Massenet's Werther, transmitted live from the stage of the Metropolitan Opera House Saturday, March15 at 12:55pm. U.S. Encore showings are scheduled in theaters Wednesday, March 19 at 6:30pm ET and Canadian Encores are scheduled Saturday, May 24 at 6:30pm ET and Monday, May 26 at 6:30pm ET. The remaining performances at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York are Tuesday, March 11 at 7:30pm and the Saturday, March 15 matinee at 1pm.

Adapted from Geothe's novel "The Sorrows of Young Werther," the opera tells the story of  the young, self-absorbed sometime poet Werther. A member of the nobility living in 1780s Germany, Werther falls head of heels in love with the oldest daughter of the widowed Bailiff, Charlotte, sung beautifully by French mezzo-soprano Sophie Koch.  There's one slight problem; she is promised to someone else, the military officer Albert, sung majestically by Serbian bass David Bizic, in his Metropolitan Opera debut. 

The action takes place at the Bailiff's huge estate on the outskirts of Frankfurt, captured in a style that almost looks like a French Impressionist painting by Set and Costume Designer Rob Howell in this new production by Richard Eyre.  French conductor Alain Altinoglu captures the rich harmonic textures of Massenet's lush score, eliciting shimmering passages from the Met orchestra in the pit.  Imaginative video imagery designed by Wendall K. Harrington further evokes the era of the late 19th century, the time in which this opera had its world premiere. On the night I visited the Met, there was plenty of French and German being spoken by loyal fans of both Goethe and Massenet who turned out to see this lovingly crafted production. "Werther" honors both with a brilliantly staged  effort.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Met Opera The Enchanted Island: A Baroque pastiche perfect for the Digital Age

Reviewed by Dwight Casimere February 26, 2014

Photos: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

NEW YORK--The Enchanted Island returns to the Met for its first revival since its wildly successful 2011 premiere with additional stars, in the persons of Susan Graham and Andriana Chuchman and new arias and shortened scenes. Performances on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera House continue through Thursday, March 20.

Conceived by Metropolitan Opera  General Manager Peter Gelb as a return to the nearly forgotten Baroque tradition of pastiche, in which arias from various sources are woven together according to the preferences of the directors and the singers. Cuts and substitions are made to better serve the story line or to suit the vocal style of the singers. For his production, Gelb enlisted the services of Jeremy Sams, who devised and wrote the libretto, along with Music Advisor Ellen Rosand and conductor Patrick Summers, to give a fresh face and voice to Phelim McDermott's production. The ancient practice of "pastiche" in which directors substitute arias within an opera  was largely dispensed with as composers and publishers began to exercise greater control over the music world. The practice is not unlike that of practitioners in  today's the Digital Age, in which images, sound bites and music  are swapped out and mixed at will to create a finished product. Instead of "samples" of James Brown and Aretha, and Miles Davis, the likes of Handel, Vivaldi, Rameau and other leading composers of the Baroque era are freely quoted musically throughout this scintillating production.

Loosely based on Shakespeare's "The Tempest" and "A Midsummer Night's Dream, "
the revival returns to the Met stage powerhouse stars Danielle de Niese as Ariel,  Placido Domingo as Neptune and the supersonic voices of David Daniels as Prospero and Luca Pisaroni as the diabolical Caliban.

Don't try to make sense of the plot. This is all about great singing and spectacular visuals provided by Associate Director and Set Designer Julian Crouch, Costume Designer Kevin Pollard, Lighting Designer Brian MacDevitt, and Choreographer Graciela Daniele.  Animation and Projection Designs by Fifty Nine Productions embellish  this visually stunning production, thus underscoring the point that opera now firmly exists in the context of the Digital Age.

Placido Domingo is majestic as Neptune, ruler of the deep. Susan Graham and David Daniels literally steal the show as  the sorceress Sycorax and the exiled Duke of Milan. Patrick Summers took a festive approach toward the ensemble pieces and lengthy orchestra sessions, giving the music a light, pliable tone and feel throughout. The Enchanted Island makes for a terrific night or afternoon of great singing, high drama and sumptuous scenery. I mean, who looks better on stage than Danielle de Niese!  Her presence alone is worth the price of admission.
 Placido Domingo as Neptune
 The set designed by Julian Crouch
 David Daniels as Prospero
Danielle de Niese as Ariel

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Borodin's Prince Igor Met Live HD

by Dwight Casimere

Photos: Cory Weaver/Metropolitan Opera
            Jonathan Tichler/Metropolitan Opera

NEW YORK---Only a few performances remain of one of the Metropolitan Opera's most visually stunning, musically satisfying and psychologically probing productions of the season; Borodin's  Prince Igor.

Met Live HD Encore performances in the U.S. Wednesday, March 5 at 6:30pm Eastern Time, with Canadian Encores Saturday, April 12 at 12pm Eastern Time and Monday, April 14 at 6:30pm Eastern Time and through March 8, live on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera, are the few remaining opportunities to see this stunning production.

Russian director Dmitri Tcherniakov employs an imaginative set with 12,500 poppies and a cadre of powerhouse singers from Russia, Slovakia, the Ukraine and Georgia to present Borodin's lush operatic masterpiece.

Much of the action in Prince Igor takes place within the mind of the wounded lead character, sung with force and brilliance by Russian bass-baritone Ildar Abdrazakov.  Stark black and white silent-film segments, filmed expressly for the production, visually fill out the running narrative.  Based on a libretto written by Borodin after a 12th century epic poem, the score was incomplete at the point of his untimely death. It was later completed by Russian masters Rimsky-Korsakov and Glazunov.
Additional elements were added for the Met production by director Tcherniakov with conductor  Gianandrea Noseda. A lively approach to the highly complex score brought out its many layers, without allowing it to become ponderous. Thus, the more than four hour production moved along at a rapid pace. The action onstage so absorbed the audience that  time became irrelevant.

In speaking with the Met's own marvelous star bass-baritone Eric Owens, who served as the knowledgable backstage interviewer and host for the Met Live HD presentation, Abdrazakov spoke of the challenges inherent in the demanding role of Prince Igor. After sending greetings to his fellow Russians who were watching the production live in theaters throughout his native land, Abdrazakov expounded. "When I first understudied the role as a young student in Moscow, I was told that this role would, in the future, be my visa card. That turned out to be true, and now I am here singing it at the Met!"

Regarding the more psychological approach taken by director Tcherniakov in the Met production, he told Owens, "In a way, the school prepared me for this role, but when I came here, Dmitri showed me so many more things about it. In rehearsals, we tried many approaches, and many of the different things we worked on, you are seeing here today."

The story of Prince Igor is rooted in Russian lore. Igor is the Russian prince who rules the ancient city of Putivl. He leads his army in a campaign against the nomadic Polovtsians. Yes, those Polovtsians, who are celebrated in the elaborate dance scene in Act I, which features Borodin's lovely theme, to which many in the audience hummed along.  Choreographer Itzik Galili and a corp of extremely nimble dancers imbued the scene with magic.

The dramatic poppy field set, designed by director Tcherniakov, costumes by Elena Zaitseva, lighting by Gleb Filshtinsky and the exceptional black and white footage and other visuals by projection designer S. Katy Tucker, all combined to make this a visually absorbing production. Met Live HD director, TVs legendary Gary Halvorson, brought it all together in a seamless presentation.

Despite the length of the opera, the action proceeds rather quickly. Igor's troops are defeated and he and his son Vladimir, sung by Russian tenor Sergey Semishkur, in his Met debut, are taken captive.

In the interim, Igor has entrusted his wife and his city in the care of his brother-in-law, Prince Galitsky, sung with gusto by Russian bass Mikhail Petrenko, who connives to wrest power from Igor while he is in captivity.

What follows are the scenes which make this production so absolutely riveting. The dream sequencer, supported by the black and white footage,  depicts a wounded Prince Igor communing with his devoted wife, Yaroslavna, sung by Ukrainian soprano Oksana Dyka, in her Met debut. Later scenes reveal her forceful voice with its clear high notes and golden precision.

Other singers similarly acquit themselves. Georgian mezzo-soprano Anita Rachvelishvilil brings sensuality and depth to her role as Konchakovna, the daughter of the Khan, sung by Slovakian bass Stefan Kocan.

 For all its early drama, the opera ends on a pensive note, with an escaped Igor returning to his village broken and subdued, to help them rebuild by salvaging the scraps from the ruins. It is symbolic of the challenges ahead. The road to recovery will be long and hard, but with commitment and togetherness, there's hope. In a way, the opera has a life-lesson for us all that is worth seeing and learning from.

Next Met Live HD: Massenet's Werther with the great Jonas Kaufmann in the title role, Saturday, March 15 at 12:55pm Eastern Time. Check local listings or visit or for further details.