Saturday, December 20, 2014

La Traviata: Met Opera Showcases a Rising Diva

Reviewed by Dwight Casimere December 16, 2014

Met Opera Photos: Ken Howard

"La Traviata" continues through January 24 at the Metropolitan Opera House, Lincoln Center. Visit for tickets and show information

NEW YORK--Few operas have been so emblematic of the genre and have inspired such loyalty as Guiseppe Verdi's La Traviata. Since its premiere in Venice, that most decadent of cities (next to New Orleans, which in many ways, emulates it with its annual Mardi Gras celebrations,  originating in Venice in the time of the Medicis), has been performed countless times around the globe and is the most popular entry,  on the annual calendars of most opera companies. La Traviata was first performed at the Met in 1883, within a month of the company's opening, and has appeared in all but 15 performances there after a ten year hiatus.

La Traviata is based on the novel "La Dame aux Camelias" (1852) written by the great Black French writer Alexandre Dumas. The opera was originally entitled "Violetta" after the main character, and was premiered at La Fenice opera house in Venice to mixed reviews. The current title "La Traviata" translates loosely to be "a fallen woman," and, as such, was censored by the local authorities who demanded that the opera change its original production from a contemporary setting to sometime in the distant past (c. 1700). It was not until the 1880s that the current "realistic" production that we now see, was staged.

Today, La Traviata is the most performed opera in the world, placing number one on the Operabase list as of the 2012/13 season.

In the opera, Violetta, sung by the beautiful and voluptuous Latvian soprano Marina Rebeka,  is a wealthy "kept" woman, a courtesan, who is a highly paid companion to the wealthy men of her time. She is introduced at a party to a young nobleman, Alfredo Germont. sung brilliantly by native Philadelphia tenor Stephen Costello. At first meeting, she sings to him of her belief in free love, but gives him a camellia and tells him to return when the flower has wilted, which means he will see her the next day. Realizing her gesture will mean an end to her wanton life, she sings of her conflicting emotions, in the first of several familiar arias that are sung with both technical and emotional facility by Rebeka. Her silvery high notes, which are marked with a burnished brilliance and restraint that builds to an eruptive crescendo, are a marvel to behold. Her aria in the Third Act, when she realizes that she is dying, is one of the most spine-chilling moments of the entire Met season.

Marina Rebeka is not only an exceptional singer, she is a consumate performer. Her emotive "dance of death" in which she both celebrates her life and abandons herself to impending death is miraculous. She starts slowly, then begins to spin wildly, like a whirling dervish. The choreography is reminiscent of the death dances practiced by inigenous peoples in Australia and New Zealand.

The spare, modernistic production by Willy Decker, pares the visual elements to the minimum, which puts the focus squarely on the central story line of impending death. A huge clock with an ominous,  figure with white hair and dark suit,  silently watching the proceedings from the sidelines, is an uncomfortable reminder of her fate. The clock advances throughout the opera and finally reaches center stage in the final act, with the ominous figur, the spectre of death, becoming an active part of the action.

The opera chorus, directed by Donald Polumbo, with extensive choreography by Athol Farmer, is an intregal part of the action. Dressed in monochromatic costumes and donning masks that mock the central character in bizarre, cartoonish fashion, they are like a choreographed Greek chorus, telegraphing the story's progression through song and skillfully plotted dance. Set and Costume Designer Wofgang Gussman created an atmosphere in which contrasts in colors and textures, with eye-popping focal points, such as brightly colored fabrics draped over the sparse furnishings and, sometimes, an almost bare-skinned Violetta.  Genoa, Italy-based conductor Marco Armiliato  finds just the right pacing to bring this moving train of a tale from the vortex of the heroine's troubled beginnings to its fatal conclusion.

La Traviata is Grand Opera at its finest, with a meteroic rising star in the lead role and a virile, golden-voiced tenor, Stephen Costello, as her leading man, Alfredo. Quinn Kelsey, a young. robust baritone from Honolulu, does a terrific job of conveying the gravity of the role of the elder Giorgio Germont, Alfredo's disapproving father.

Sadly, Traviata is not on the schedule for any upcoming Met Live HD performances. With the removal of The Death of Klinghoffer from the schedule due to protests earlier this season, perhaps a last minute addition to the roster might be considered. It would be a shame for the world to miss out on this tremendous remounting of a production and its stellar cast. The next Met Live HD production is Lehar's The Merry Widow in a New Production with Renee Fleming, Saturday, January 17, 2015 at 12:55pm ET with a U.S. Encore Wednesday, January 21 at 6:30pm local time. Check or fathomevents. com for theatre locations and tickets. Upcoming La Traviata performances are December 22, 27 and 30 and January 7, 10, 14, 17, 21 and 24. Check for showtimes and tickets.
Bulgarian soprano Sonya Yoncheva assumes the role of Violetta from January 14 on. Yoncheva made her Met debut as Gilda in Rigoletto in 2013.

Photos: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

 Marina Rebeka as Violetta
 Stephen Costello as Alfredo and Marina Rebeka as Violetta and (below) Violetta with the Met Opera chorus

Handel's Messiah: New York Philharmonic

Handel's Messiah Presented by the Robert Hekemian Family Foundation

A boy soprano and added period instruments give renewed energy to a stellar Holiday tradition

NEW YORK--The added innovations of a thoroughly enthralling boy soprano, in the person of 11 year old Connor Tsui, of the Metropolitan Opera Chorus, and, a  long-necked lute called the theorbo, played by Guest Artist Daniel Swenberg and the conductor playing a small, harpsichord-like instrument called the virginal, give some added punch to an informed and emotive reading of the Holiday classic, Handel's Messiah at the New York Philharmonic. Tonight's performance, Saturday, December 20 at 7:30pm, provides the final opportuniy to see this year's stellar edition. Visit for ticket availability.

Conductor Gary Thor Wedow, in his second appearance since his Philharmonic debut in 2012, leads the orchestra and the Westminster Symphonic Choir of Princeton, New Jersey, in a sensitive and subtly nuanced performance of this deeply moving religious recitative. Wedow, a member of The Julliard School faculty, is specialist in historically informed performances.

An ubiquitous staple of the Holidays, this presentation veers itself away from the overly edited,  high-volume vocal and orchestral pryrotechnics common to many productions. This is a more low-key, scholarly rendition. Employing the Barenreiter edition, edited by John Tobin, it adds many rarely-heard choral sections and arias, including the short introductory recitatives from the boy soprano. I have never heard them in all of my many years of both performing the Messiah as a youth and viewing it as an adult.

Young Master Tsui, singing entirely from memory, while the other soloists worked form the score, displayed a poise far beyond his years, and a clear, decisive tone throughout his short proclomations. Accompanied by Mr. Wedow on the virginal, it was a moment of angelic beauty.

British Countertenor lestyn(correct spelling) Davies was the sole standout of the evening, with a soft, emotionally charged vocal reading of librettist Charles Jennens' words, which were inspired by various passages from the Bible. The Messiah depicts Christ's Coming, His humble birth and later events surrounding his life on earth, Crucifixion and Resurrection. Swedish Soprano Camilla Tilling, Canadian baritone James Westman and tenor Michael Slattery lend operatic authority to this inspired performance of Handel's masterpiece.

Eschewing the baton to conduct the orchestra and chorus using subtle cues from his supple hands and pointed finger gestures, Conductor Wedow created an enthralling tapestry of sound from the string-dominated orchestra, which featured early period instruments. Trumpet solos, played by Matthew Muckey and keyboard solos from Paolo Bordignon on harpsichord and Kent Tritle on the organ, lent majestic authority to the proceedings,  Handel's Mdssiah is an enthralling performance that is a highlight of the frenetic Holiday Season. It is also one of the few,  profound reminders of its religious roots, which have been, sadly, largely overshadowed by commercialism.

Below: Gary Thor Wedow conducts the New York Philharmonic in his 2012 debut
 Photo credit: New York Times
 Conductor Gary Thor Wedow

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Met Live HD Encore: Die Meistersinger An Opera Lover's Dream

Met Encore Presentation tonight, Wednesday, December 17, at 6:30pm local time,
Canadian Encore February 7 at 12pm local time, Monday, February 23 at 6pm local time

The next Met Live HD presentation features Renee Fleming starring in Franz Lehar's "The Merry Widow," Saturday, January 17 at 12:55pm ET

Reviewed by Dwight Casimere
Metropolitan Opera Photos by Ken Howard

NEW YORK--Tonight, Wednesday, December 17th, is a special night for opera lovers world-wide, because they will have an opportunity to see the Met Opera's Live HD Encore Presentation of Wagner's Die Meistersinger in select theatres at 6:30pm, local time. The production, a revival of a production first mounted by the company seven years ago, is a dream-come-true for sincere lovers of the art form.

The production is a triumph on many levels. Just go down the checklist. It is Met Opera Music Director James Levine's first revisiting of the works of Richard Wagner since 2011, and he is in top form here. The international cast is a collection of the top Wagnerian singers in the world, making this a rare opportunity to see the likes of beloved Met veteran, bass-baritone James Morris as shoemaker Hans Sachs, South African heldentenor Johan Botha, another Met favorite, as the young knight, Walther, German soprano Annette Dasch as rhapsodic love interest Eva,  celebrated German bass Hans-Peter Konig as the town goldsmith, Pogner, Johannes Martin Krankle as the town clerk, Sixtus Beckmesser and Scottish mezzo-soprano Karen Cargill in the role of Magdalene, Eva's attendant. The Metropolitan Opera chorus, directed by Chorus Master Donald Palumbo and the rich, world-class sound of the Metropolitan Opera orchestra, are reason enough to sit back, relax, and enjoy one of the lengthiest, but most satisfying evenings of opera this season.

The story unfolds in 16th Century Nuremberg, a regimented society, dominated by the culture of professional guilds. The opera takes place in this claustrophobic, highly regimented world,with the focal point the guild hall of the meistersingers, the hallowed fraternity of vocal musicians who are revered by all. To become a "master singer," candidates must pass a series of singing trials, which are governed by a byzantine set of rules. The test is graded with an intricate scoring system, controlled by one Sixtus Beckmesser, the town clerk, who is young Walther's nemisis. The test goes beyond singing. It encompasses personal aesthetics, moral integrity, and creative amplitude, all of which Walther has in abundance.

The young knight, Walther von Stolzing(Johan Botha), has fallen in love with the town goldsmith's daughter, the voluptuous Eva(Annette Dasch), who has been promised in engagement to the winner of the guild of meistersinger's song contest. Walther plans to win the contest in order to ask for her hand, but it thwarted at every turn by the town clerk, Meckmesser (Johannes Martin Kranzle), who keeps rigorous count of the impressionable young knight's many missteps and unorthodox singing methods. Despite the town clerk's condemnation, Walther has pricked the curiosity of Hans Sachs (Michael Volle), the town cobbler and himself a master singer. Sachs is intrigued by Walther's beguiling emotional appeal and his zealous devotion to inspired singing.

The opera is a long sit, six hours, with the second act alone clocking in at  two hours. However, the rewards are infinite. Let's put it this way, I would rather sit through five hours of Wagner's Meistersinger, than an entire afternoon of NFL Sunday, with its frequent penalty replay delays, inane commentary and non-sensical commercials. Thank God for the pause button and DVR!
Thankfully, great opera is now as near as your local movie theatre and soon, hopefully, on your home DVR.

Superlatives like "sublime," "absolutely fantastic," and "a superlative performance," that have been used in other reviews of this production, are just the start. Suffice to say that this reviewer has already seen the production twice, both on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera House and Live in HD at the Empire 25 in Times Square, and were it not for a special performance of Handel's "The Messiah" at the New York Philharmonic, an annual ritual, would be back in the Live HD audience again tonight!

"There's a lot of humor written into this opera," Maestro James Levine told Met Live HD backstage interviewer and soprano superstar Debora Voigt. "We see the singer/actors reacting to what's happening in a scene just as much as they are absorbed in the scene. There's a lot of their perception that the audience becomes a part of. "

For tickets and  theatre locations, visit or
 Johan Botha as Walther and Annette Dasch as Eva
 Johannes Martin Kranzle as Beckmesser
 Johan Botha (Walther) with Hans-Peter Konig as Pogner and (Below),
with the Metropolitan Opera Chorus

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Second City's "Twist Your Dickens, Or Scrooge You! Presented by Goodman Theatre

"Scrooge You!" The perfect tonic for Holiday Blues

What do Superman, celebrity chef Rick Bayless and Little Orphan Annie have in common? If you're lucky enough to snag a ticket to The Second City's production of "Twist Your Dickens, Or Scrooge You!" Presented by Goodman Theatre in the intimate confines of the Owen Theatre, you'll have a riotous time finding out why.  Due to high ticket demand, Goodman Theatre extends "Twist Your Dickens" through Jan 3.  A special bar package is included for New Year's Eve. Visit for tickets and information.

Starring Second City veteran Francis Guinan as Scrooge with Brian Boland taking over the role starting December 26, Frank Caeti whizzes in on a skateboard as the Ghost of Christmas Past, full of campy '80s references, and Peter Gwinn steals the show as a glib Jacob Marley. Sayjal Joshi is a salty Tiny Tim and Beth Melewski is  a super-hip and saucy Ghost of Christmas Present.  The cast is superbly rounded out by an acerbic Robin Scott as Mrs. Cratchit and an emphathetic Tim Stoltenberg as Bob Cratchit. The creative team really makes it all come together: Tom Budewitz created the simple, but imaginative sets, Rachel Lambert provided costumes that both evoked the period and a bit of the modern day for hilarious contrast and Gina Patterson did a creative job with the lighting. Mara Filler is Production Stage Manager.  

The audience is as much a part of the play as the cast. Audience "misdeeds" written in the lobby prior to the show are included in the onstage banter, as are audience reactions that are incorporated into the show on the spot. Its improv theatre at its best, and only as Second City can do it.  The production also includes local celebs from varying backgrounds. Opening night included celebrity chef Rick Bayless, who has had his own musical stage show and feast "Cascabel" this summer at Mag Mile's Lookinglass. Theatre. Future cameos are planned with WBBM TV's Bill Kurtis, celebrity sommelier and former "Check Please" host Alpana Singh and Chicago Cub's Len Kasper. 

Written by former The Colbert Report writers Peter Gwinn and Bobby Mort and directed by Artistic Director of the Second City Training Center Matt Hovde, "Twist Your Dickens" is, in the words of the LA Times, "riotous havoc.' It's just the tonic to cure Holiday Blues and, since the show changes every night, worth more than a single visit. One nice thing about this show is that, like its companion, the "real" Scrooge ala "A Christmas Carol," playing next door in the Albert Theatre, "Scrooge You!" is, with the exception of young children,  a show that can be enjoyed by virtually everyone. is the place for more information,

Friday, November 7, 2014

Film Review: The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared

Screened at the Chicago Film Festival
Currently available in DVD release at

What do a 40 year old elephant, 500 thousand dollars in stolen cash, Robert Oppenheimer, Stalin, Franco and a 100 year old man have in common? On the surface, nothing. But in the hands of Swedish film director Felix Herngren, who co-wrote the film, based on Jonas Jonasson's wildly popular 2009 debut novel of the same title (Herngren is a director and actor best known for the hit TV series "Smash"), all of the disparate elements are loosely bound together to depict the madcap misadventures of 100 year old Allan Karlsson, played with brilliant abandon by Swedish comedy great Robert Gustafsson.

We learn that Karlsson grew up as a highly precocious loner who had a propensity for blowing things  up. His predilection gets him in some unlikely circumstances, including being both on the front lines of the Spanish Revolution, blowing up bridges, to being a favored member of Franco's court. Later, he makes his way into Stalin's inner circle to become the point man in an assassination attempt and later assists Dr. Robert Oppenheimer in creating the atom bomb. It all rings of Forest Gump, and the Disney distributed film has enjoyed rock star success on the international film festival circuit. Last year, it gave "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" a run for its money for garnering awards on the European festival circuit.

Living out his last days quietly in the Scandinavian countryside, Karlksson's old propensity gets him in a bit of trouble and lands him in the care of a nursing home, which he absolutely loathes. On the day when the home is planning an elaborate party to mark his 100th birthday, he decides to make a run for it and climbs out of his first story window and heads to the nearest train station and buys a ticket to anywhere.

He runs into a crook on the run, who asks him to watch his suitcase, which, incidentally, is full of ill-gotten cash. The old man wanders off with the bag, not knowing what's inside, and that's where the zany plot and odd collection of characters begin to unfold.

The film score by acclaimed Swedish composer Matti Bye, underscores all of the action with inventive keyboard improvisations and front-and-center brass flourishes. Bay's credits include a Best Original Score nomination by the Swedish film academy and composing credits for the film "Everlasting" by Academy Award nominated director Jan Troell and the score for "Scenes from a Playhouse," the documentary on Swedish film great Ingmar Bergman. The carefully crafted framing of cinematographer Goran Hallberg and editing by Henrik Kallberg make this film a visual delight.

At times, the plot twists are a bit hard to follow and the humor sometimes escapes, but, you laugh anyway. Comparison's to Winston Groom's "Forrest Gump" or Voltaire's "Candide" may cross your mind, this screenplay, as written by Herngren and co-writer Hans Ingemaansson will have none of either of the former's philosophical bent. The author described his novel as a "hopeful satire on the shortcomings of mankind." The film version dispenses with all that psychobabble and goes straight for the funny bone. Anyone who says there's no such thing as a Scandinavian sense of humor will be proved to be dead wrong with this film. It's wildly funny, even if you don't quite get the jokes. In this one, as Shakespeare said, 'the play's the thing' and Herngren crafts every scene in such a way that the irony and the humor jump out at you at every turn. Yes, at times the plot twists are incongruous, but, who cares, this film will give you more laughs than you've had all year on your own.
Photo images courtesy Disney Films

 Swedish comic legend Robert Gustafsson (l) is the film's befuddled Alan Karlssonn in an early scene with  Iwar Wiklander (r) as Julius
and (below) with actor David Shackleton as Einstein's twin

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Bizet's "Carmen" Met Live HD Encore in Theatres Globally Tonight

Met Live HD Encore Carmen in Theatres Wednesday, Nov. 4   6:30pm Eastern Time

 Aleksandrs Antonenko and Anita Rachvelishvikli as Don Jose and Carmen
 Anita Rachvelishvili in the title role
Below: Jennifer Johnson Cano as Mercedes, Anita Rachvelishvili as Carmen and Kiri Deonarine as Fraquita
By Dwight Casimere
Photos by Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

Director Richard Eyre strikes again with a sizzling production of Bizet's Carmen.  Mezzo Soprano Anita Rachvelishvili is red-hot in the title role, portraying the gypsy temptress with sultry magnetism. She gives flesh and blood to her character, both with her physical sensuality and her soaring, seductive voice.

Aleksandrs Antonenko is her jealous lover, Don Jose, who risks everything; his rank, honor and family, in desperate pursuit of the wanton gypsy. Ildar Abdrazakov is the vainglorious bullfighter, Escamillo, who puts his personal stamp on the famous "Toreador" aria.  Pablo Heras-Casado's conducting of the beloved score is spot on, emphasizing one recognizable melody after another with a vitality that makes it seem that its your first time hearing the all-too-familiar tunes. No matter, the action on the Metropolitan Opera stage unfolds with an almost cinematic scope and pace. Of all the operas presented this season Live in HD, this one plays most like a film in terms of rapid fire plot pacing and eruptive emotions.

Richard Eyre's staging and the spare settings evoke the mood of the scenes without cluttering up the stage with props and backdrops. The action and the singing carry the story and Eyre allows all of the spine-chilling drama Bizet infused into his masterpiece, to bubble to the surface. Particularly effective is the scene set in the Gypsy's hideout. The lighting and effect of the chorus members descending an arced stairway from high above the stage to their darkened, candlelit lair below, effectively coveys the feeling of subterfuge and danger. 

The story moves like a steamroller, from Don Jose's headlong infatuation with Carmen to his desperate attempts to possess her, to his eventual descent into military desertion and murder. Rachvelishvili is perfect as the headstrong, passionately independent Carmen. No man will posses her or fetter her freedom, even at the cost of her life. It is a bravura performance and one which commands your attention from start to finish. There are some who have not seen this opera, so I won't ruin the finish. Suffice to say that the final face-off between Carmen and Don Jose as sung by Antonenko and Rachvelishvili is palpable and riveting. Their delivery raises the level beyond the mere dramatic to become a heightened state of reality. Don Jose emerges from the shadows outside the bullring where Escamlio is fighting the bull. He is a desperate fugitive. Carmen, defiant as ever, confronts him. Richard Eyre's staging of this scene is masterful and the dramatic singing of the twoi stars is sublime.  Carmen screens this Saturday, November 1 Live in HD at theatres around the globe at 12:55pm ET with an Encore Presentation Wednesday, Nov 5 at 6:30pm local time. Visit metopera,org or for theatre locations. 

Friday, October 24, 2014

Met Live HD-Mozart's Le Nozze di Figaro in Fresh New Production

Reviewed by Dwight Casimere
Photos: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

From the opening strains of Mozart's stirring overture to his comic opera Le Nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro) with Music Director James Levine at the podium, it was apparent that the audience was in for something special. In a newly minted production from Director Richard Eyre and an inspired cast, led by the dashing bass-baritone Ildar Abdrazakov as Figaro and a dazzing Marlis Petersen as his bride, Susanna, this was a "Nozze" to remember. There is another performance with the same stellar cast at the Metropolitan Opera House set for October 25 and the Met HD Canadian Encore is set for theatres there on Saturday, December 6 at 12pm local time and Monday, December 15 at 6:30pm local time. Le Nozze returns to the Met Thursday, December 4 at 7:30pm with Conductor Edo de Waart at the podium and the smoldering Danielle de Niese as Susanna and Erwin Schrott as Figaro.

Director Richard Eyre set the 18th Century parlor drama in the Seville of the 1930s. "I wanted to show a society just on the cusp of destruction. I set it in the years just before World War II. Mozart set his opera in the late 18th century in a time when class and social standing were all important. That's not so true today. People aren't so concerned about class--at least they say they aren't," he said, bringing a hearty laugh from the Live HD audience.  "But the concerns about sexual morays and improprieties still exist to this day."

Ildar Abrazakov and Marlis Petersen lit up the stage as Figaro and Susanna, both with their beautiful singing and their superb acting. "It's interesting that Maestro Levine's notes to the singers were more about acting than about the music. He really has a fine inner sense of drama," Eyre told backstage inerviewer and Met superstar Renee Fleming. "He sees the acting and the singing as a seamless whole rather than separate entities."

Peter Mattei is appropriately swarmy and loathsome as the philandering Count Alamaviva. Isabel Leonard shines as the love-struck, oversexed pageboy Cherubino. In spite of its more than three and a half hour length, this is a production that truly makes time seem to fly by. Its an opera that can been seen time and time and again, and it never seems old. As one who has seen it several times since its Season Opening Night at the Met, the music, the singing and the laughs seem fresh  with every performance.  The next Met Live HD moviecast is Carmen, Saturday, November 1 at 12:55 ET with Anita Rachvelishvili in the title role and Aleksandrs Antonenko as her Don Jose. I've seen this one live at the Met twice, You definitely don't want to miss it!
 Ildar Abdrazakov as Figaro with Marlis Petersen as Susanna
 Isabel Leonard as Cherubino with Marlis Petersen
Amanda Majeski as the Countess, Peter Mattei as the Count with Abdrazakov and Petersen

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Red Army documentary lifts the veil of secrecy surrounding unethical sports training at 50th Chicago International Film Festival

Production images courtesy Sony  Classics Pictures
 Red Army publicity photo Courtesy Sony Classics Pictures
 Chicago director Gabe Polsky with Red Army  film subject Slava Fetisov
Slava Fetisov responds to questions from reporters

Even though clocking in at an exhaustive nearly three-and-a-half hours, Red Army, thesolo directing film debut from Chicago-bred director Gabe Polsky, is a totally absorbing documentary account of the rise and fall of the world's greatest hockey team, the Soviet "Red Army," which one two Olympic gold medals, one silver and several world championships in the 1970s and 80s. The team seemed invincible, until its defeat at the 1980 Olympics in the David and Goliath "Miracle on Ice,"when a group of amateur American college players defied the odds to beat the highly experience, professionally-trained squad from the Soviet Union. The buildup and the match were dutifully covered by America's most adversarial sports report, Howard Cosell. Footage of his broadcasts are included in the meticulously prepared documentary, which includes personal interviews with the players and coaches, both present and archival and detailed footage of crucial matches and behind the scenes training. Anyone with an interest in probing the all-pervasive influence of sports on society to the extreme should view this film. It is both a warning and a tonic to the cult of sports that equally pervades both U.S. and Soviet society.

The Sony Classics Pictures film received its world premiere at the Cannes Film Festival to rave reviews and was presented in its North American Premiere at the Toronto Film Festival. Recent introductions to the U.S. include the films American premiere at the New York Film Festival in its Spotlight on Documentary and most recently, at the 50th Chicago International Film Festival Docufest Program, with the Emmy-award winning director, Gabe Polsky, returning to the festival  October 14 for a screening and Q and A session with the audience. 
"Red Army" is a Cold War drama played out on ice, with the Soviet government using all of its resources to create an almost super-human force to crush the imperialist opposition of the West and its democratic ideology through the arena of sports competition. The film is a brilliant illustration of the crushing effect of political ideology on the human spirit and the indomitable ability of that self-same spirit to triumph above it all.  

The film is largely seen through the eyes of team captain Slava Fetisov, who appeared in person at the recent New York Film Festival. At a post-screening news conference, he proved to be one of the festival's most engaging and humorous participants, in spite of his thick Russian accent.

Throughout the film, Fetisov affirmed his loyalty to Mother Russia, even in the face of growing injustices toward he and his fellow teammates by his cruel, inhumane coach and the Soviet powers-that-be. Fetisov had a couple of key atttributes to his credit, that later served him well in his subsequent dealings with the Soviet government, which earned him his freedom from the grip of the Soviets in the final days of the Soviet Union; his incredible talent as a hockey player and he fierce loyalty he engendered from his fellow teammates.

This is a brilliantly crafted film that begs for a wider audience. Anyone who has a child involved in team sports can relate to the demands exacted by the Soviet government upon their young players. Perhaps in the extreme, they still reflect many of the psychological and physical demands that are placed upon many of our young, aspiring athletes in this country. This film is an object lesson to us all.

The turning point for the fiercely loyal Fetisov came when one of fellow teammates and close friends was denied leave to visit his dying father due to practice for an upcoming all-import  tournament against the U.S.. This was the last straw for Fetisov and precipitated his eventual defection to the U.S. and a highly-successful career as a National Hockey League player, team captain and coach. Fetisov elected to returned to Russia following the fall of the Soviet Union, and now is director of his homeland's entire athletic programs.

"Red Army" follows the thoughts and life of a highly principled man with the courage of his convictions, who stood up to a powerful authority and through his integrity and force of will, exacted change which benefited all. In his work today, Fetisov is still effecting change for his countrymen. He has overseen the building of more than 300 stadiums throughout Russia, especially in ethnic regions that were underserved or not at all. He has also recruited talent from the furthermost regions of his country and trained them for promising careers in the field of athletics. He is truly a man who lives by his principals and is an example to us all. This film cries for U.S. distribution. Hopefully in the near future as the professional and college football, basketball and hockey schedules, and their pervading cultural influence,  get underway in this country. 

Of Horses and Men from Iceland a commentary on human and environmental interrelation at 50th Chicago International Film Festival

Production images Courtesy Magador Films

Of Horses and Men is a stunning cinematic debut for Icelandic stage director Benedikt Erlingsson, who wrote and directed the film.  The film screened at the 50th Chicago International Film Festival October 18 and 19.

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.

It's a pity that this film has not been picked up for U.S. distribution. It has a great deal to say about humankind's reationship with animals and the environment and our inter-dependability. Our fates are more entwined than we would like to think. From the import of this film, it would appear that the animals are more in tune and aware of this than we are. Perhaps we should take a clue and start doing more to protect them.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

"Miss Julie" Opens 50th Chicago International Film Festival

By Phyllis Dreazen
Miss Julie photos Courtesy Wrekin Hill Entertainment

Two-time Academy Award-nominee Liv Ullmann (Cries and Whispers, Scenes from a Marriage) returned to the Chicago International Film Festival, where she made her debut as a director (Sofie, 1992) to open its 50th edition with the film "Miss Julie." Ullmann directed and wrote the script of this adaptation of August Strindberg's eponymous 1888 stage drama of psychosexual class warfare. The play was banned for 50 years in the United Kingdom as much for its sexual content as its class commentary, and Ullman's version with Golden Globe winner Colin Farrell (In Bruges) as John, personal valet to an Anglo-Irish Lord and two-time Oscar nominee Jessica Chastain (Zero Dark Thirty) , as the Lord's spoiled daughter who sexually stalks him, masterfully touches upon both social hot-buttons. Fellow two-time Oscar nominee Samantha Morton (Minority Report) is the cook, Kathleen, who observes the sexual sparring from afar, in her chamber just off the kitchen, where much of the drama takes place.

Miss Julie is perhaps one of the most performed stage productions of all time. It has been adapted to the screen three times, and from this recent effort by Ullmann, the third time is truly the charm. Ullmann strips the story to its bare essentials; getting rid of all of its side characters in order to hone in on the conflict between John and Miss Julie. Relocating the action from Sweden to Ireland, ("I didn't want to film in Sweden with an English-speaking cast. That would be wrong," Ullmann said in and earlier interview), it is beautifully filmed at Castle Coole, County Fermanagh, by Cinematographer Mikhail Krichman.

Ullmann is best known for her decades-long collaboration with famed director Ingmar Bergman, who was also her lover. The two were one of the most successful teams in  film history. It is no surprise that Ullmann eventually moved into the director's chair, and this film brings to bear the sum total of her experience.

Farrell is especially powerful in the role of John. Well-traveled and well-read, he exudes the frustration of having to work at a station far beneath his capabilities. His disdain for Miss Julie and her privilege and arrogance could fill a room, and it does. In one particularly humiliating scene, Miss Julie commands him to kiss the toe of her shoe. He does so, but in a most erotic fashion, then, ironically, turns to begin shining his master's boots, as a distraction from her advances. It is a telling scene that sets up the psychological and sexual tug-of-war that follows.

The tension builds for two -and- a- half hours. After a failed effort to escape the rigorous bonds of class and social propriety, the two hapless lovers return to their macabre passion-dance, which ends disastrously.

Miss Ullmann received the Career Achievement Award in a pre-screening ceremony with Chicago International Film Festival founder Michael Kutza, a close friend, doing the presenting. "Maybe you're doing this Michael to say "I'm sorry!" Ullmann joked. "I remember my first film as a director which was premiered at this festival. There we were, a full house and the film begins. It was in Danish with French subtitles. After about ten minutes, we stopped it and Michael and I went to a restaurant and got completely drunk!"  Only in Chicago.

 Colin Farrell and Liv Ullmann on the Red Carpet at the Harris Theatre

 Liv Ullmann in the Director's Chair on the set of Miss Julie

 Colin Farrell as John and Jessica Chastain as Julie

 Colin Farrell and festival founder Michael Kutza present the Career Achievement Award to Liv Ullmann

Monday, October 13, 2014

New York Film Festival: British Director Mike Leigh's "Mr. Turner" A Biopic Masterpiece

Reviewed by Dwight Casimere at the New York Film Festival
Film images Courtesy Sony Pictures Classics
News conference photos by Dwight Casimere
Theatrical Release: Friday, December 19 (limited)

NEW YORK--British director Mike Leigh( Secrets and Lies 1996,  Vera Drake 2004, Another Year 2010) has done it again! His latest masterpiece is the biopic "Mr. Turner," which depicts the last 25 years of the life of the  eccentric British landscape artist J.M.W. Turner. Regarded as one of the greatest painters in the world by those in artistic circles, but largely overlooked by the general public, Turner's work and his use of light, texture and tone, predates the techniques and styles of the Impressionists several decades later.

At the film's U.S. Premiere at the New York Film Festival, audiences were given an opportunity to revel in the sheer beauty of the cinematography of Cannes Film Festival Vulcan Award-winner Dick Pope and the masterful direction of Mike Leigh, which earned the film  a Palme d'Or nomination and the superb acting of Timothy Spall as the enigmatic Joseph Mallford William Turner (1775-1851), which won him the Best Actor award at Cannes.

Turner is personally, at once a wall of secrecy and an enigma wrapped in a riddle, yet Mike Leigh probes beneath the surface of this complex character to reveal his flaws and laughable humanity. He is deeply affected by the death of his father, William Turner (1745-1829), played by Paul Jesson. We learn that Taylor's mother died in an insane asylum when the artist was still quite young and that his sister died at age 5, leaving him an only child. These tragic events obviously had a profound effect on Turner, because he never had a solid, open relationship with any woman over the course of his life. At best, they were tangential, and at times, cruel. His faithful housekeeper of 4o years, Hannah Danby(1786-1853), played exquisitely by Dorothy Atkinson, who turns in the best performance in the film, other than Spall as Turner. She died two years after Turner, but was doggedly devoted to him in spite of his abusive treatment.  For much of the film, she is largely invisible to him, except for his sudden and violent sexual exploitation of her. In one scene, we see him attack her viciously from behind, then leave her hanging alone in his study without  so much as a kiss.

" We know very little about her," said Dorothy Atkinson at the New York Film Festival news conference. "We do know that she was fantastically devoted to him and that she had a horrible skin condition (psoriasis)." Early in the film, we meet Sarah Danby (1760-1861), played by Ruth Sheen, Turner's first mistress and mother of his two illegitimate  daughters, who are seen paying a pop-in visit to Turner in his studio, in hopes of having him own up to his fatherhood responsibilities. Turner loudly rebuffs them and kicks them out.

Later in the film, he develops a relationship with Sophia Booth ( played by Marion Bailey), his landlady at the seaside cottage where he rents a guest room to gain inspiration for the seascapes which will earn his fame. Turner's husband, a mariner, dies and the two soon begin a relationship in earnest. Turner visits her often in his search for inspiration. In fact, in the course of one of his steamboat trips to visit her, he has himself lashed to the mast of a ship in order to experience first hand a violent snowstorm at sea, which will later become the subject of one of his paintings. We see their relationship grow over time, perhaps the only gentle and fulfilling relationship with a woman that he will ever have, although it is largely played out in secret. He practically dies in her arms near the end of the film.

The look of the film was created with excruciating attention to detail by cinematographer Dick Pope. He discussed his methodology at length at the New York Film Festival news conference. "We were trying to evoke what he saw,"Pope said, "looking through him, through his eyes, in terms of camera movement.

"A lot of the vantage points in the film are Turner's, looking at what he is observing."

The look of the film is stunning, almost duplicating the landscapes and seascapes that Turner painted. That observation is no accident, according to Pope. "I studied Turner's color palette, " he told the rapt audience of news reporters and film reviewers,"We spent a lot of time at the Tate Museum in London, where the majority of Turner's paintings are hung (Turner was adamant that his paintings be made accessible to the general public for free. In a key scene in the film, we see him turn down what would today be millions of dollars from a wealthy nobleman, because he refused to sell his paintings to private collectors. Instead, he bequeathed them to the public trust.) "The Tate proved to be a fantastic resource for everything Turner-even to the paints he used. We looked at that, and the film is colored in very much the same palette of what Turner was using at the time." In one of the film's early scenes, we witness Turner meticulously going through the color inventory of a local paint shop, selecting the pigments that he will later use for his masterpieces. It is an exhaustive process, which Pope faithful replicates. "We took that experience to heart and used the paints that he was buying in the color shop as our own palette in the film." The effect is visually stunning.

One of the scenes that is texturally the centerpiece of the film, is one of Turner's most famous paintings, "The Fighting Temeraire." In the film, Pope and Leigh shoot a scene in which they imaging Turning viewing the Temeraire being towed away on the River Thames to be dismantled as scrap. When the scene opens, we at first think that it is one of Turner's painting, then the camera pulls back to reveal that it is in fact, reality, with Turner and his aides observing the majestic ship being towed while floating close by in a skiff. "We shot that scene very late in the evening, just on the cusp of sunset," Pope revealed. "We were blessed with the most fantastic sunset and the actors and the whole landscape was viewed in this beautiful light. It was filmed almost in the same place as where the painting was depicted. Those magical guys back in London created the moving Temeraire ship in CGI, which I hope you found completely believable, because I did!"

The rest of the film was likewise faithful to Turner's color palette and to the settings for the story. Everything was shot on location where the story unfolded. "We  did a lot of studying, Mike and I, for almost everything we shot," Pope explained. "We were blessed with wonderful weather last year. It was a fantastic summer in Margate, where we shot it. We first went one way, then the other, trying to capture the best light. We did that with the interiors as well. For example, in the house that Mrs. Booth lives in (Turner's final mistress), the windows--a lot of people come up to me and say, 'That's CG out the window, right?' I say 'Like Hell it is! It never is on one of Mike's films. The house that Mrs. Booth had behind her when she was in that room when she was eating supper was the actual view out the window shot at the right time of day."

Mike Leigh, the director, summed it up best. "The great source of reference for the entire film, of course, is Turner's work. The look of the film comes out of a sense of us trying to interpret, visually, his paintings, but also the spirit of the two periods in which the film takes place, Georgian and early Victorian."

A key figure in the film is the famous British art critic John Ruskin, himself the subject of a biopic to be released this year. He is played terrifically by Joshua McGuire as a somewhat effete, self absorbed dilatant consumed with his own self-importance and who loves to hear the sound of his own voice, which is grating to others because of its high pitch and his inability to pronounce the letter "R."  "Ruskin was, to put it bluntly, a real prick," Leigh explained with gusto. "But in the end, he turned out to be Turner's greatest champion." Ruskin's praise of Turner's work was reflexive, in terms of its effect on his career as an art critic. In writing about Turner, Ruskin found his "voice," mixing his critical observations with discourses on aesthetics, science and ethics. So cemented had become their relationship, that Ruskin devoted himself to cataloguing the nearly 20,00 works Turner had bequeathed to the British nation.

Below: Two views of the art critic John Ruskin

Below: Scenes from the New York Film Festival news conference

Marion Bailey (Mrs. Booth), director Mike Leigh and Timothy Spall (Mr. Turner) at the New York Film Festival

The cast of Mr. Turner at the NYFF news conference
            Cinematographer  Dick Pope explains the color palette of the film

Below: The 'class photo' for Mr. Turner at the New York Film Festival news conference
 Dwight Casimere with Timothy Spall
Below:  Scenes from Mr. Turner, Courtesy Sony Pictures Classics

In one scene, we see Turner appear at one of his showings at the Royal Academy of Art, where he is begrudgingly accepted as member because of his standing as a superstar. We see him blithely wandering about the room, critiquing the work of his colleagues and, uninvitedly, adding color accents to their work, a dash of red here, a swirl of white either spat from his mouth or smeared with his hand, which leaves them aghast. He is even seen smearing a grey funnel cloud just off center in the swirling sea storm  depicted in one of his own paintings. Instead of ruining the work, he made it better, giving it a new and previously unseen perspective.

Another scene depicts Turner's friendship with Mary Somerville (1780-1872), played by Lesley Manville. She is a scientist who gains renown for her work in experiments with refracted light at a time when the notion of women engaging in such work was not condoned. Her experiments as shown in the film are an odd precursor to a later scene in which Turner is exposed to the new phenomenon of photography, which similarly uses refracted light to create photographic images. It is one of the more humorous scenes in the film with Turner harrumphing that he wonders if this new contraption will replace his use to society as a painter.

Don't be turned off by the scholarly subject matter of Mr. Turner, This is a must-see film, full of beautiful scenery, sensuality, humor and touching moments of humanity that will make you cry. It is Mike Leigh's and David Pope's Valentine to a great, unrecognized hero to the world of art who has still much to say about the environment, both natural and emotional, that we live in today.