Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Met HD Hamlet strips down to bare emotion

Photos by Marti Sohl/Metropolitan Opera

With the arrival of spring, The Met: Live HD world cinemacast series continued with its eighth presentation of Ambroise Thomas’s Hamlet in a bracing production by the celebrated directing duo of Patrice Caurier and Moshe Leiser. The pair, with the experience of more than a quarter century and 70 operas between them, eschewed the normal convention of elaborate sets to present a stripped down production staged by Set Designer Christian Fenouillat and Lighting Designer Christophe Forey. Famed multicamera television and video director Brian Large, in his second MET HD outing of the season created a riveting and fluid visual reading of Shakespeare’s intense drama.

“Half of what I’m involved with here is interpolating the character of Hamlet and reading between the lines,” English baritone Simon Keenlyside, who plays the troubled dark Prince of Denmark, told Met diva and backstage interviewer Renee Fleming following an emotionally draining first act. “This isn’t Shakespeare’s Hamlet, but something quite different. So what makes the character stand out for me are some differences in shading and certain nuances. That’s what makes it happen for me.

Fleming pointed out, “The problem is, everybody knows this play. Everybody knows Hamlet. What’s the challenge for you to somehow make this interpretation different?

“That’s the problem. Everybody comes to Hamlet with such ‘gravitas,’ but this isn’t the play. This isn’t Hamlet as people already know him. It offends many people that it isn’t the Hamlet they know. Its texturally Hamlet, its just not Shakespeare. It’s similar enough and powerful nonetheless and it makes people think. When I’m singing this role, I can’t draw the line between being a singer and being an actor. Like you, Renee, I’m a storyteller.”

The opera, sung in French with English subtitles, was not without its own sense of drama that would have been worthy of a Shakespearean play. Ten days before Opening Night, the Met found itself without a lead soprano in the French opera that had not been performed there in more than a hundred years. Veteran Natalie Dessay, who had been scheduled to perform the lead role had fallen ill and was forced to cancel.

“I was in Vienna finishing up ‘Medea’ when I got the call from Peter Gelb (Met General Manager),” German coloratura soprano Marlis Petersen told Fleming backstage. “I had six days to learn a five-act, three hour French opera. Maestro (Louis) Langree and I communicated on Skype, the Internet is absolutely fantastic, and I watched a production of Hamlet that had been performed in Geneva on the plane coming over from New York. So I have to thank all this wonderful new technology for making my performance happen.”

The results onstage and in live cinemacast were mesmerizing. Featuring a large vocal cast, directed by Met Chorus Director Donald Palumbo and wearing elaborate period costumes by

Met Costume Designer Agostino Cavalco, the Met brought forth a superlative production. The paucity of sets became a non-issue, especially due to the dramatic lighting effects created by Lighting Designer Christophe Forey.

The rest of the Met’s brilliant cast made the entire production a joy to watch. Met stalwart, bass-baritone James Morris sang the role of King Claudius, Hamlet’s duplicitous uncle, who Hamlet suspects conspired to murder his father along with his mother, Queen Gertrude, sung with regal beauty by veteran mezzo Jennifer Larmore. Toby Spence lent his beautiful tenor voice to the role of Ophelia’s brother Laerte and beautifully portrayed that character’s angst and frustration. David Pittsinger sang appropriately grave tones as the ghost of Hamlet’s murdered father.

“Originally, there was another ending where Hamlet lives to take his father’s throne,” conductor Langree confided to Fleming in his backstage interview. “But there’s something in the Anglo-Saxon spirit that just wouldn’t allow that to happen, so everything ends here with great tragedy.” It was felt deeply as the curtain fell on this seamlessly executed production.

The final Met: Live HD cinemacast will be presented Saturday, May 1 at 1pm Eastern, noon Central time, with Renee Fleming in the title role of the Met’s new production of Rossini’s Armida, which is rarely performed. Rising African American tenor Larence Brownlee, who is on the cover of the April issue of Opera News magazine, will also star.

Set during the crusades, Armida is the story of the love between Armida, a Saracen sorceress and Rinaldo, leader of the Christians, who is torn between love and his sense of duty.

For tickets and information, visit or

Monday, March 22, 2010

Andy Garcia presents cinematic Valentine to Miami Film Fest

Story and photos by Dwight Casimere

Veteran Actor and Miami “Favorite Son” Andy Garcia presented a cinematic Valentine to close out the recently concluded Miami International Film Festival with his self-produced starring vehicle, “City Island.”

The film takes a dark comedy look at a protagonist and a family trapped in the watershed of their own deceptions. Garcia plays Vince Rizzo, a prison guard (“Excuse me, that’s ‘correctional officer,” Rizzo patiently tells all who make the common fuax pas), who is anything but ‘correct.’ In fact, he and his entire family take lying to the level of high art.

Rizzo has dreams of becoming an actor and has been moonlighting by taking acting classes. Too embarrassed to tell his wife and suffer her acid-tongued ridicule, he would rather lie and tell her that he has a gambling problem and is out playing poker. His daughter Vivian (a sparkling debut outing by Garcia’s real-life daughter Dominik Garcia-Lorido) is pretending she’s away at college when, in fact, she is working in a sleazy dive as a stripper. The lynch pin that drives the story is Garcia/Rizzo’s discovery that he has an illegitimate son who is, in fact, one of his prisoners. He brings him home to his family under the guise of some made-up prison release and rehabilitation program that only exists in his own mind. It turns out the con is the only one in this dysfunctional menagerie who isn’t trying to con someone.

Even the setting of the movie is a contradiction. City Island is a tiny, isolated New England-type fishing village plopped right in the middle of Hudson Bay in the shadow of the Brooklyn Bridge. The Manhattan skyline looms in the distance, but this self-conscious, brooding eyesore of a hamlet couldn’t be further removed from all the glitz and glamour of the Big Apple. Cinematographer Vanja Cernjul (Wristcutters: A Love Story-2007, Where God Left His Shoes-2008) does a marvelous job of capturing the shimmering tranquility of City Island and juxtaposing it against the turbulence and outright ugliness of the Rizzo family’s inner turmoil.

Audience Award winner at the 2009 Tribeca Film Festival, the film received its Festival Premiere in the town that the Cuban-born Garcia considers home before an enthusiastic Gala audience.

Director Raymond De Felitta characterized the film’s appeal among audiences succinctly when he told the sold out crowd, “This is the kind of film that everyone who sees it absolutely loves it, but none of the big studios will touch it. Everywhere we’ve shown this film, audiences rave about it. Fortunately, we found a sympathetic ear in Anchor Bay which agreed to distribute it.” The film has opened in Miami and will have its New York commercial run later this spring and break out in limited distribution around the country. “Every time we show this film, the word of mouth gives us a bigger audience at the next showing. I hope you come out an bring your friends and families when it opens here in Miami and really give this film your support.”

Andy Garcia’s daughter Dominik gives a standout performance as his screen daughter Vivian. She really captures her character’s flaws and vulnerabilities while simultaneously revealing the steely resolve that lies underneath.

“Andy had wanted to hire a ‘name’ actress for the part,” Director De Felitta revealed, “but Dominik had said all along that she wanted the part. She even took pole dancing lessons at her local gym so she’d be ready.” De Felitta said Garcia didn’t necessarily discourage Vivian from seeking the part but he didn’t want to do anything that seemed as if he was influencing the final selection. “Instead, she took the indirect route and went through the casting agent who had been hired by the film. She did a reading and made a favorable impression. When the actress they originally hired to do the part fell through the casting director called Andy and told him that his daughter was the best choice and that she already knew the part by heart!” And the rest, as they say, is history and the makings of an absolutely delightful film.

As the credits rolled on City Island, the audience erupted into a deserved standing ovation. Their ‘favorite son’ had won their hearts.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Miami International Film Festival in U.S. Premiere of Crab Trap from Columbian director Oscar Ruiz Navia

by Dwight Casimere

I have to admit, the Columbia/France movie production ‘Crab Trap,’ the debut production of Columbian Director Oscar Ruiz Navia, was not on my radar as a subject for review at the Miami International Film Festival. The film, in its U.S. Premiere at the festival, was set to have its final of two screenings on the day I sat down on the outdoor terrace of the Royal Palm Hotel on South Beach, the festival’s temporary headquarters, to conduct a breakfast interview with Spanish producer Jose Nolla about the U.S. Premiere of his film ’25 Carat (25 Kilates) in the Cinema 360 Degrees category for emerging global directors, which had concluded the previous night. After a lengthy discussion of his film, Nolla took a deep breath and declared, “but the film you have to see tonight is ‘Crab Trap.’ That is an amazing film. It quietly draws you in, but there’s a lot of truth in it.”

I got into the mood with an early dinner at a South Beach restaurant that specialized in Columbian cuisine. It was then off to the Regal theatre for the final screening of ‘Crab Trap’ (El Vuelco Del Cangrejo), presented in Spanish with English subtitles.

The film focuses its subject on a rarely seen or filmed entity, the black population of the remote regions of Columbia. If this were the Chicago International Film Festival, this film would have been presented as part of the Black Perspectives Competition. In Miami’s film festival, it is presented as part of the Ibero-American Competition. The film was greeted by a capacity audience composed primarily of Spanish-speaking film enthusiasts.

The movie begins with the camera panning a serene setting in a remote jungle on Columbia’s Pacific coast. A lone man(Daniel, played with Christ-like stoicism by Rodrigo Velez. He, along with Jaime Andres Castano, who plays the ‘villain,’ Paisa, are the only professional actors, and the only whites in the cast ), walks aimlessly through the forest, pausing occasionally to catch his breath and to reflect on his journey. He takes a drink of water and looks longingly at a fading picture of himself and a young woman, perhaps his wife, which was obviously taken in happier times. We sense his loneliness and his depression.

The film quickly establishes its metaphorical theme centering on the conflict between the ‘outside’ Western world and civilization and its impact on the isolated, almost primitive, unspoiled world of those who inhabit the enchanted world at the edge of the rainforest. With its stunning use of remote locales, local residents as actors and its almost reluctant use of excessive dialogue, the film borders on documentary.

Back to the story. A local man appears to Daniel as if out of nowhere. The sight of the barefoot, smiling black man startles the stranger. Collecting himself, he asks the man to show him the way to the next town, La Barra. The man reluctantly agrees, but admonishes him. “You must keep up. I walk fast and if you fall behind, I’ll say goodbye.” The man dances off with a laugh and the stranger is left to find his own way to the village. After encountering a group of black youths playing soccer on the beach, the stranger is directed to his final destination, the house of a mystery man known only by the name ‘Cerebro,’ “The Brain” ( Arnobio Salazar Rivas. Carebro, by the way, is Rivas’s real nickname and he and director Navia based the character on himself).’ Cerebro is the villages self proclaimed leader and mystic. He is a man of few words whose slightest gestures and mutterings speak volumes. His origins are shrouded in mystery and the explanation he gives the stranger makes them even more obscure.

We quickly learn that Daniel wants him to secure a motorboat so that he can leave the island. Cerebro reluctantly agrees to supply him with one, but only for a price and after a great deal of emotional jousting and vetting. Daniel’s attention is distracted by the sudden appearance of Cerebro’s attractive niece, Jazmine. She is carrying a young child who we later suspect may have been fathered by Cerebro.

The appearance of the white stranger in the isolated village is a cause for some consternation among the black natives. They are already at odds with another white man, Paisa (Jaime Andres Castano) who arrived a few years hence claiming legal ownership of the local beach, which the black locals consider to be their birthright. Paisa has plans to build a resort and disco on the sight. He constantly makes his presence and his plan known by obnoxiously blaring loud rap music through a series of ever enlarging speaker systems that he somehow managers to smuggle onto the remote island from the outside world.

“We have been told to welcome the white man because he brings modernity and money, “ Cerebro ruefully tells Daniel. “But all we see is what he takes away from us. Certainly, there is nothing left for the blacks.” Daniel asks if he can help Cerebro build the house he is working on. “You can clean the beach,” Cerebro says with a note of disdain. When asked why he is building a house of straw and driftwood instead of concrete, Cerebro cautions. “The white man has come here many times before to build concrete houses. Each time, the sea destroys them. The sea is ruthless. It destroys everything.” The stranger goes about his work, moving a pile of boulders and driftwood off the beach, like Sisyphus and his mythical stone.

Navia’s camera drops us into the mystical world of this remote Columbian village like a stealth paratrooper on a night mission. His camera pans the unspoiled landscape, revealing it to us if it were the subject matter of Milton’s “Paradise Lost.”

The crabs, which are the subject of the film’s title, are seen in rare, isolated shots. They are the silent witnesses to the island’s shifting social landscape and its collective suffering. They, like the villagers, are its victims, as evidenced by their dwindling numbers.

Crab Trap is a marvelous film that uses a small, little known world and its isolated problems to reveal a larger truth. It is rife with symbolism. The dialogue is sparse, but frightfully revealing. The story unfolds slowly, with languid images pregnant with meaning and saturated with truth. The washed-out appearance of Navia’s color palette enhances the dream-like quality of the film’s narrative.

Much of the film centers on the lonely stranger, Daniel, and his reluctant relationship with the precocious little Lucia (Karent Hinestroza). She insists on breaking through the lonely wall of hurt that Daniel surrounds himself in. Her annoyance has a purpose. It is as much an effort to break Daniel out of his self-imposed emotional exile, as it is to establish an emotional beachhead. She pricks his conscience like someone picking at a scab on an old wound. Later, as Daniel swims in the current, she goes through his personal things. It is a practice Daniel indulges in often. It is almost like a baptism for his wounded soul. At times, he sees his estranged wife’s face as he emerges above the surface of the water. Lucia finds her picture in Daniel’s backpack. She has discovered the source of his despair. The knowledge binds her to him completely.

Of the characters, Jazmine (a luminous Yisela Alvarez) is the most alluring. Trapped in a repressive relationship with her uncle, Cerebro, she is at once his ward, his housemaid and his concubine. She is also relegated to the role of village sex object. It is both the source of her shame and her liberation.

Cerebro uses his persistent insomnia as an excuse to satisfy his lustful cravings with her. After all, what’s a little incest between consenting relations? Jazmine finds emotional release in her dalliances, mostly, we later learn, with Paisa.

She bonds sexually with Daniel early in the film, but we later learn she is only trying him out for size. There’s already that relationship with Paisa that walks the thin line between love and hate. There’s a truly revealing scene involving she and Paisa when she pays a later afternoon visit to the shack where Paisa scales the fish that he smuggles onto the island. For some reason, he is the only person around who seems to get them on a regular basis, which everyone else makes do with rice alone. Earlier, he had given a fish to Jazmine as a peace offering, thus luring her into his lair.

The sexual innuendo is obvious as is the symbolism of the fish, which is a scarce commodity on the island. “Outsiders have over fished and stripped the sea,” Cerebro tells the stranger during a long journey by canoe up the river. “When I was young, there were carp, perch, yellow tail and sting rays and many, many crabs. Now, there nothing.” From time to time, we see what few crabs remain scuttling across the beach. The little girl leads the stranger on futile missions to trap them.

Mysteriously, there are no fish in the village. Local fishermen spends weeks on excursions into the ocean and its treacherous riptides, only to return home weeks later empty-handed. At night, the local inhabitants build bonfires on the beach and participate in a type of rain dance in hopes of their safe return.

Besides the persistent blaring of Paisa’s music, the other intrusion from the outside world on the otherwise tranquil island are the reports on the island’s only TV of the civil unrest in the cities beyond. The local populace is rising up against the President and his corrupt regime. There are reports of guerilla fighting in the mountains and villages.

In microcosm, there is growing unrest among the local black villagers against Paisa and his plans to turn their peaceful reserve into another Paradise Island. (Ironically, the motorboat desired by Daniel for his escape is named ‘The Paradise’).

The moment of conflict comes. Bad blood is precipitated when Paisa refuses to pay the black youths he has recruited to construct a wall restricting the beach from use by the local blacks. Already stung by disapproval from their elders, the young men are humiliated and vow revenge. The flames of unrest have been fanned and the firestorm is soon to follow!

Back to that toxic relationship between Jazmine and Paisa: She gives him dance lessons in his fish scaling shack that inevitably turn into a roll in the hay. In many ways, she is taunting Paisa and snubbing her nose at those around her. Her surreptitious visits are no secret to anyone. They become the focus of ‘locker room’ talk by the local teens over a shared bottle of moonshine after a beachside socker game. The stranger listens with amazement at the revelation, but soon gets a fly on the wall view for himself. Maybe Jazmine wants everyone to see? It may be her only avenue to emancipation.

Lucia is a fifty years of craftiness and wisdom compacted into a ten year old’s body. To no one’s surprise, by the end of the film, she becomes Daniel’s sole salvation and benefactor.

In the end, everyone gets what they want. The stranger gets his motorboat and his much-vaunted freedom. The native blacks, like the Lion in Oz, get their courage and their resolve back.

The last thing we hear as the screen fades to black and the credits roll is the sound of native machetes cutting through the wooden staves erected by Paisa to protect ‘his’ beach. It is certainly that, no more!

Crab Trap was certainly an audience favorite at the Miami International Film Festival from the tone of the comments I heard, both in English and Spanish, at the conclusion of the film.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

A 'Fantastique' French invasion at Symphony Center-Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France

Special to The Connoisseur by Jessica Tinianow

Swedish Mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter joined an all-Ravel concert, which included Mother Goose, Daphnis et Chloe, La Valse and Sheherazade performed by the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France conducted by Myung-Whun Chung at the Symphony Center.

The performance included Ravel’s three dance pieces the complete Mother Goose ballet, La valse and Suites 1 and 2 from the ballet Daphnis and Chloe in addition to the three songs from Sheherazade. These pieces were played exquisitely and elegantly by the orchestra. The masterful wind section elevated the listener with grace and ease. The wind section played through the evening with delicateness and subtlety. One could envision the lightness and elegance of the ballet dancers flitting about on stage. Magali Moznier , the flutist was riveting and sublime in her playing of the flute and especially in her accompaniment of Von Otter’s voice in The Enchanted Flute. Her subtle phrasing of the music resonated thru all the pieces.

Von Otter’s graceful voice captured the nuances of the poet’s language and the imagination. She transformed the inflections of the words into song. Her rendition of The Enchanted Flute flowed slowly and with ease accompanied gently by the flute. It captured the simplicity of its central image of the flute caressing a lover’s cheek like a kiss

The evening was just that- a gentle kiss from The Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France caressing our cheeks with their elegant and sophisticated playing. Fantastique!

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Miami Film Fest premieres Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist & Rebel

by Dwight Casimere

Final credits had barely completed rolling after the International Premiere of the Documentary Feature film “Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist and Rebel” at the Miami International Film Festival when director Brigitte Berman announced to the sold-out audience that “a feature film is already in the works!”

Berman’s two-hour visual homage traces the rise of the 80-year-old founder of the Playboy Empire from the magazine’s humble beginnings in the living room of his Woodlawn apartment at 60th & Harper. The film details both the highs and the lows of his more than half-century career as the nation’s self-appointed sex therapist and guru of all things cool. There’s his toe-to-toe battle against the forces of evil in the persons of J. Edgar Hoover and his FBI and Sen. Joe McCarthy and his House Un-American Activities Committee to his clubbing at the hands of Chicago Police during the 1968 Democratic Convention Riots. The documentary credits him with everything from being one of the early white champions of black civil rights to being the standard bearer for women’s reproductive and Gay rights. The film even goes so far as to credit him with creating the moral and sociological ground work that led to the election of the nation’s first black President. Then there’s his love/hate relationship with the Women’s Movement. Praised on the one hand for his stand in favor of Abortion Rights but pilloried on the others for his objectifying of women through the magazine’s iconic centerfolds. A self-professed film buff “from the age of five,” according to Hef, he was finally honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame for his pioneering work on television with his landmark TV shows, ‘Playboy’s Penthouse” and “Playboy After Dark.”

There are the low points as well; the brutal and senseless murder of 1980 Playmate of the Year Dorothy Stratten at the hands of her estranged husband and the 1975 suicide of his trusted assistant, Bobbie Arnstein, in the aftermath of a government directed drug witch-hunt aimed at toppling Hef’s left-leaning empire.

Hefner is given his due for the magazine’s decidedly liberal editorial stance and its ground-breaking interviews with such legends as Bob Dylan, football great Jim Brown and boxing legend and anti-war activist Muhammad
Ali, conducted primarily by Alex Haley, who himself would go on to make history as the author of the book and TV series “Roots.”

Lest the film get bogged down in sanctimonious back-slapping, it details all those great parties at he Playboy Mansions, both in Chicago and in Holmby Hills near Hollywood. It ends on a candid account of his recently failed marriage and dalliances with multiple girl friends in a harem-like existence involving, first seven, then a pared down, more manageable three simultaneous girlfriends. As Dick Cavett said in a salient moment during the film’s final minutes, ”Hef gives new hope to anyone who is over a hundred!”

Director Berman reiterated the point at the conclusion of the Q and A following the film. “Hef’s mother just passed away at the ripe old age of a hundred and five. He’s in really good health at 80, so there’s precedence for him to be around for a very long time!”

Miami Film Festival honors breakout directors

by Dwight Casimere

Chilean director Cristian Jimenez is a bit disheveled after a night of partying in the aftermath of the final screening of his debut film, Optical Illusions (Ilusiones Opticas) in its North American Premiere at the 2010 Miami International Film Festival. The film was one of a dozen shown as part of the Ibero-American Competition, which presented dramatic features from first, second, and third-time director from Latin America, Spain and Portugal.

“We were doing karaoke until three o’clock this morning. Both my singing and my English are terrible, but people kept on cheering and I kept on singing. Maybe they were further out of it than I was!” A writer for a French publication, in town for the festival, laughed in agreement as the two shared breakfast in the patio garden of the Royal Palm Hotel on South Beach, Miami, and the festival’s temporary headquarters

“I’m on my way to France,” he volunteered. “I’ll be presenting the film at the Film Festival in Toulouse and then I’ll be spending six months in Paris on a film project.

“My film has been showing in France for three weeks already,” he said with amazement. “I’m expecting that we’’’ even do a few weeks more when I get there. We didn’t even do three weeks in Chile!”

Enthusiastic responses on foreign soil were borne out at the inaugural screening at the 2010 Miami International Film Festival in a late night Saturday screening at the Regal Theatre on South Beach’s famous Lincoln Road, which is similar to Chicago’s Rush Street/Oak Street/Mag Mile area.

In a post-screening Q. and A., director Jimenez expounded on the film’s multiple themes. Optical Illusion is a Robert Altman-esque pastiche of plots and characters, similar in structure to the Oscar-winning film “Crash.” Three stories involving characters of completely divergent backgrounds somehow intertwine to deliver a unifying message. “I decided that instead of using the conventional arc of following the story of one character to its conclusion to use a multi-dimensional structure that focused on three very different situations. On the surface, they seem isolated from each other, but they all share a common characteristic. Each of the protagonists reaches a crisis that forces them to look at their lives and have a new beginning. The change is often brought about by their connection and ultimate bonding to another person."

The storylines seem quirky, even comical on the surface, but they each have the ring of truth. A once-blind skier who regains his sight through the magical work of a modern, miracle-working clinic suddenly finds himself an unwilling celebrity spokesperson for the company His new-found fame drives him to despair, making him wish for the solace of sightlessness. A mall security guard falls in love with a beautiful, but wealthy shoplifter. Bored by her privileged existence, she thrill seeks the possibility of being caught red-handed. At first, the novice security guard watches her antics like a voyeur through the mall’s security cameras. When she begins to deliberately taunt him with suggestive movements on the elevator security cameras, the guard goes into hot pursuit. His impending doom is all but certain.

The third story, about a financial services employee who is humiliated by his unceremoniously ‘firing’ precipitated by the global economic downtown. “A lot of people think this part of the film is pure fiction,” Jimenez told me in a private interview following the screening. “But this actually happened. When I returned home last summer, my father had been fired from the executive’s job he’d held for thirty years. The most humiliating thing about it is that they didn’t just let him go, they transferred him to a dead-end job in an ‘outplacement bureau.’ It was the most humiliating thing imaginable. Having someone show up for work everyday to perform a task that they know is meaningless. It’s really cruel. This surreal Kafkaesque situation wasn’t something I make up. It actually happened. Finally, the character in the film develops the guts to quit, but not until he bonds with his son, who gives him the courage of his convictions and a new beginning.”