Saturday, December 21, 2013

Roam around Rome: vacations made to measure

Story and photo gallery by Dwight Casimere

The view from Caffarelli Terrace

Below: lunch at the Terrazza Caffrelli

A view of the Capitol and the Capitoline Musems
Enjoying a glass of Prosecco on the Terrazza
Outside the Capitolini Museum

Below: Scenes of Ancient Rome

Dinner at Harry's Bar

Winemaker and owner Marco Caldani with his excellent Gelso della Valchetta wine
Harry's Bar by night

Rome, Italy--There are rare occasions  when a single event can change the course of your life, or at least your perception of it. Such was the case in a recent Rome Educational Tour sponsored by Promoroma, the special agency of the Chamber of Commerce of Rome, conducted by their consultants, the Roam around Rome tour agency and its affable and accommodating  guides Pier Paolo Meschini and Antonio Rinaldini. Their sensitive portrayal of the history and culture of Rome through the lens of their personal perspective and life-long experience made this a travel experience that transcended the mere physicality of the ancient ruins and monuments, giving them breath,  life and vitality.

Our tour allowed us to experience Rome from the very heights of its grandest vistas to the depths of ancient civilizations buried in hidden labyrinths beneath some of the city's most established treasures. It is these secret chambers and the barely discernible meanings behind the inscriptions etched in stone on their crumbling walls, that the particular insights of our tour guides became most evident.  Their words brought illumination to darkened passageways and faded markings. Personal anecdotes about the ancient families and their fabled past brought the gleaming images of marble statues and fountains into even sharper relief against the azure brilliance of the Roman sky. This was Rome as never seen before, more beautiful, picturesque and storied than any documentary or dramatic film.

A short van ride from the quaint and beautifully appointed Hotel degli Aranci in the "Embassy Row" and orange tree-lined streets of the tony residential neighborhood not far from the Villa Borghese, and our party arrived for an intimate introductory luncheon on the outdoor terrace at the Terrazza Caffarelli high above the steps of the Capitol and atop the beautiful building that hosts the Capitoline Museums in Piazzale Caffarelli. This rare venue, with stunning views of the Capitol and sweeping panoramas of Rome proper, with Vatican City in the distance, offers a unique location for exclusive luncheons, dinners and private receptions as well as meetings and conventions. The management, coordinated by Relais le Jardin, creates events that match the extraordinary surroundings. 

The Capitoline Museums can be traced back to 1471, when Pope Sixtus IV donated the first group of bronze statues of great symbolic value to the People of Rome. This modest, but significant contribution served as the nucleus to a growing collection closely inked to the city of Rome, its history, culture and its people. Breathing the crisp early winter air and taking in the sun-drenched vistas and the delightfully rich local cuisine prepared by the Relaid le Jardin catering staff made this a truly unique experience that will be long remembered.

Following the fabulous lunch consisting of such local delicacies as Aranchini, Prosciutto, stuffed zuccini flowers and delicate pasta infused with fresh, local truffles, sprinkled with Pecorino Romano cheese and  roasted guinea hen with chestnuts and rapini, we then visited the nearby Domus Romane of Palazzo Velentini. 

The Palazzo Valentini, seat of the Province of Rome since 1873, was commissioned by Cardinal Michele Bonelli, a nephew of Pope Pius V, in 1585. When it underwent renovation in the seventeenth century, the archeological remains of  ancient Roman houses were discovered underneath. A team of art historians, archeologists and architects researched the remains and, through the Provincial Administration, restored the ruins and put the excavations on public display. The result of their work revealed a series of luxurious steam rooms, bathing areas and entertainment centers, punctuated by lavish gardens and gathering, lounging and gaming areas that rival the spas and country clubs of today. This was a significant revelation of the glorious lifestlye experienced by the wealthy elite of ancient Roman society and a glimpse into a highly advanced and sophisticated society that provides the historic underpinnings for the topography and culture of modern day Rome.

A leisurely late afternoon rest and it was time to freshen up and head for dinner in the nearby central area for dinner at Harry's Bar, made famous by the writings of Ernest Hemingway and the creation of the famous  Champagne and white peach nectar drink, the Bellini and Harry's  legendary continental cuisine which has lined the stomachs of celebrities from the literary, political, artistic and film world for decades. Many of the pictures of Harry's most prominent customers through the ages, shaking the hand of its founder Harry Cipriani and the current owner and manager of the Rome location, adorn the walls in its elegant, wood-paneled dining rooms and sumptuous and cozy bar, for which it is world-famous. This was a memorable evening of great cuisine and brilliant company in an historic surrounding that oozed charm. This is the Rome that inspired artists and poets and  La Dolce Vita and I was happy to be a part of it, if only for one evening!

New York Philharmonic gives Handel's Messiah fresh sound with youthful voices

British Guest Conductor Andrew Manze gives new vitality to time-worn Holiday classic

Reviewed by Dwight Casimere December 20, 2013
Guest Conductor Andrew Manze
Westminster Symphonic Choir
Soprano Joelle Harvey
Bass Matthew Rose
Below: Mezzo-Soprano Tamara Mumford

NEW YORK--When George Frideric Handel's "Messiah" had its London premiere at Covent Garden in 1743, critics considered it scandalous that a musical work based on scripture would be performed in such a secular setting and not in a church. In those days, it was an Easter tradition. Now, some 270 years later, his oratory is performed at Christmastime in churches, concert halls, high school auditoriums and at venues normally associated with rock concerts and commercial theatre. "Messiah" has become a fixture of the Holiday season with just as many "sing-it-yourself" and  "best hits of" performances as there are full symphonic presentations, such as the one offered this week by the New York Philharmonic, with guest conductor Andrew Manze in his Philharmonic debut. 

Manze, the British violinist and soon-to-be principal conductor of Hanover, Germany's NDR Radio Philharmonic Orchestra, looked at this ubiquitous work with a fresh eye. He brought with him the quicksilver voices of the Westminster Symphonic choir at Rider University's College of the Arts in Princeton, New Jersey, and a Marvel Team of singing superheroes in the solo parts to help him realize his vision.

From the outset, it was crystal clear that this was not going to be your maiden aunt's rendition of Handel's Messiah. Manze began the work by outlining carefully paced measures in the Sinfonia Overture that allowed the opening themes plenty of breathing room to sink in and lay the groundwork for the massive musical journey ahead. Not simply glorifying the birth of Christ, as predicted in early scripture, which provided the text for Part I,  Handel's oratory then proceeded through his suffering and martyrdom at the Cross, on to his  Resurrection and the eventual resurrection of  all Mankind. It was stirring stuff indeed, which made it abundantly clear why King George II and the London premiere audience were moved to stand during the reading of the Hallelujah Chorus at Covent Garden Theatre, thus sparking a tradition that remains to this day.

British tenor Allan Clayton set the oratorial wheels in motion with his dramatic vocal rendering  of the opening recitative "Comfort ye, my people." Later, his fellow Brit, bass Matthew Rose let loose with a stentorian aria, "Why do the nations so furiously rage together?"  that shook the rafters. If there were anyone dozing in the front rows, or whose mind had drifted off to thoughts of the day's Christmas shopping in Herald Square, they were quickly shaken back to reality and the urgent musical business at hand.

Soprano Joelle Harvey was herself angelic in her lilting rendition of Luke II: "And the angel said unto them, Fear not; behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy."

The ravishingly beautiful mezzo-soprano Tamara Mumford, in her New York Philharmonic subscription debut, lent an air of mystery to the Air "He was despised," which was so aptly suited to her rich,  soulful voice.

Yet another errant cell phone threatened to burst the mystic spell of music in Avery Fisher Hall.  Thankfully, it was a least tuned to a classically-tinged musical ring-tone, which was quickly, and mercifully,  extinguished. Perhaps it will take more than Alec Baldwin's soothing recorded voice at the outset of each concert to quell the cell phone stampede that threatens to ruin every concert there. Maybe he needs to show up in the flesh in full anti-papparazzi mode!

Guest conductor Manze is to be commended for his skill at navigating Handel's massive and ambitious score, which, in other hands, could have proven unwieldy and unfocused. He allowed the inner voices to develop in the symphonic interludes, emphasizing some lovely and insightful passages in the cello and bass sections. Even the on stage organ and harpsichord could be heard over the orchestral swell at key moments.  Matthew Muckey's burnished trumpet melded perfectly with bass Matthew Rose's stern reading of the Air "The trumpet shall sound."

Manze's approach to the Hallelujah Chorus was the most refreshing of any I have heard. Rather than letting the choir and orchestra proceed full speed ahead as is done in so many performances, he allowed the suspense to build, with careful layering of the counterpoint and fugue written for the voices and orchestra, creating an engaging tapestry of sound. He preceded the finale with a brief, but dramatic pause, allowing thundering notes from the timpani to highlight its stirring climax.  "Bravos!"  emitted by members of the audience were richly deserved.

Handel's Messiah repeats in performance Saturday, December 21, at 7:30 pm. If you've already heard the Messiah elsewhere, rest assured, you've never heard it with such clarity and authority as performed by the New York Philharmonic. For tickets and information, visit
Below: Tenor Allan Clayton

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.