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 fathomevents.com 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.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Anna Netrebko Affirms Status as Reigning Met Diva in Verdi's Macbeth

Russian Soprano Unleashes Vocal, Dramatic Powers in Tour de Force Performance

Reviewed by Dwight Casimere
Metropolitan Opera photos by Marty Sohl

 Anna Netrebko and Zeljko Lucic as Lord and Lady Macbeth
 Lady Macbeth (Anna Netrebko) imbues Verdi's ornate trills and runs with a dark menace in her portrayal as Lady Macbeth
 The spectre of the assassinated Banquo appears at Macbeth's coronation banquet of Act II
 English troops gather at the border to invade Scotland in Act III
Below: Lady Macbeth leads at toast at her husband's ill-fated coronation banquet of Act II

NEW YORK--Anna Netrebko affirmed her status as the reigning Metropolitan Opera soprano in her recent performances as Lady Macbeth in Verdi's operatic adaptation of Shakespeare's Macbeth in performance at the Metropolitan Opera House Wednesday October 15 and Saturday, October 18 and Live in HD at select movie theatres globally in Encore Performance  Wednesday, October 15 at 6:30pm local time. Check metopera.org or fathomevents.com for theatre locations.

In her early childhood days in her native Krasnodar, Russia and later at the Leningrad High School of Music, Anna Netrebko's expressed mission was to become an actress. Her early inclinations served her with stunning success in this brilliant production directed by Adrian Noble and conducted by Met Principal Conductor Fabio Luisi. Netrebko's soaring high notes and compelling dramatic performance propel her into the ranks of the Met's finest, joining such hallowed names as Callas, Sutherland and Price. By her own choice, Netrebko elected to portray Lady Macbeth as a blond, ala Marilyn Monroe, giving her character an irresistable sensuality and sexual power, while portraying her with the cunning and stealth of a she-lion. With German bass superstar Rene Pape as the mudered Banquo (he appears as a blood-spattered ghost throughout much of the opera), Serbian and Montenegran baritone Zelijko Lucic in the title role and Maltese tenor Joseph Calleja as Macduff, the emerging victor, this is the Met's best, and most satisfying offering to date this season. The sustained applause and bellowing "Bravos" throughout the performance attest to the unanimously positive response.

Netrebko reached deep into her subconscious to realize the steely ferocity and overt evil at the center of her character. "There's a bit of this dark side in all of us," she told backstage interviewer and fellow Russian soprano Anita Rachvelishvili, this year's Carmen. "I'm always distrustful of people who are nice all of the time, because it means they are hiding this dark side underneath.That means ALL of you," she said, playfully pointing her finger at the camera toward the theatre audience.

In addition to her superb acting, Netrebko proves her mastery of her vocal art. She is able to invest a sultry sensuality in her lower range while scaling to the heights with an unwavering, gorgeous tone. Her high notes gleam with crystalline clarity that ring, even into the outer lobby of the Metropolitan Opera House.

Her "mad" scene in Act IV, in which she sleepwalks precariously over a series of chairs left over from the previous evening's coronation banquet, which was interrupted by the specter of Banquo's ghost, who the Macbeth's schemed to murder in order to gain the throne, is the central triumph of the opera.
Her restrained performance added to the emotional power of the scene. Her sustained high D-flat, sung in perfect pianissimo as she stumbled into the darkness of her chambers, heightened the drama. I only wish that the audience had held off on its loud  and lengthy adulation to allow the sublime feeling of the moment to sink in.

Rene Pape lent his rich, molasses-tinged baritone to the role of the assassinated Banquo. He managed to maintain his character's dignity, although he is forced to appear as a mute, fake blood-soaked spectre that only the guilt-ridden Macbeth can see in Act III. Pape is a veteran of the role, having performed it since 1991. Likewise Calleja, as Macduff, has performed the role since 1997, in his debut at the age of 19 in his native Malta. "No doubt many of my countrymen and women are watching me in my homeland right now," he said proudly, during the backstage interview at intermission during the Met Live HD movie-cast. Both he and Pape extended greetings to theatre audience in their native languages. Part of the beauty of Live In HD!

The chorus, as prepared and directed by Met Chorus Master Donald Palumbo, did a stellar job of executing the opera's lengthy and dramatically and vocally diverse scenes. The witches, dressed as sort of gentile bag ladies, stole the show.  Mark Thompson's minimalism gave hints of the settings, with the blackened outlines of trees denoting the forest and black, velvet covered columns with ribbons of white light and a lone chandelier depicting the castle. His costumes, which went from Stalin-esque military uniforms for the royalty, to Che Guevara berets and leather jackets for the rebel kinghts, clearly delineated the sides of good and evil in present-day terms.  The minimal sets and costumes allowed the dramatic singing of the actors to shine through as the main event.  Live HD Director Gary Halverson of TV's Two and a Half Men did his usual stellar job of realizing the production for live transmission.  See it all in an Encore Presentation next Wednesday, October 15, at 6:30pm at a theatre near you!

Thursday, October 9, 2014

"Timbuktu" in American Premiere at New York Film Festival

Famed North African Director Abderrahmane Sissako takes an up close and personal look at the Jihadist occupation of his homeland

Reviewed by Dwight Casimere October  1
News conference photos by Dwight Casimere
film images courtesty Cohen Media Group

New York--Humanist and director Abderrahman Sissako (Mamako, Waiting for Happiness)  presided over the U.S. Premiere of his French-Mauritanian produced dramatic film "Timbuktu" at the New York Film Festival. The film is currently being screened as part of the Chicago International Film Festival in its Black Perspectives category, October 15 and 16. It is entered in the festival's Main Competition. In a word, Timbuktu is a masterpiece. 

The film comes to the United States with considerable pedigree. It was selected to compete fof the Palme d'Or at its World Premiere at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival. At Cannes, it won the Prize of the Ecumenical Jury and the Francois Chalais Prize. It has been selected as the Mauritanian entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 87th Academy Awards. Judging from the reactions at the recent screenings in Lincoln Center at the New York Film Festival, the film has a strong possibility of winning.

The very word Timbuktu conjures exotic images of North African fantasy and legend which has been reinforced in films, novels, and even Broadway musicals. In Sissako's artfully crafted drama, the tragedy beneath its glittering history is revealed with stunning clarity. The peace and cultural and religious harmony of this idyllic north African oasis is suddenly shattered by the arrival of jihadist militia. "They literally hijacked the place," Sissako declared in a New York Film Festival appearance. 

The film was inspired by the public stoning of a young, unmarried couple in the town of Aguelhok, near Timbuktu. It centers on the brief occupation of Timbuktu by jihadist Islamic fundamentalists. Instead of approaching the subject with sweeping epic scenes involving massive armies and political leaders, the film takes an almost microscopic look at the impact of the takeover and its effect on the  lives of the region's most ordinary people; the nomadic herdsmen who live in tents on the outskirts of town, a lone fisherman whose preoccupation is the protection of his fishing nets, the women fishmongers and shopkeepers who become targets of the fundamentalist's scorn against uppity women.

Sissako, wth his collaborator, cinematographer Sofian El Fani, who lit up the screen with last year's Palm d'Or Cannes Film Festival Winner and Official Selection at the 2013 New York Film Festival, "Blue Is The Warmest Color," contrasts the bright yellow light and swirling sands of the south-east Mauritanian villages of Oualata and Nema, where the film was shot, with the draconian tactics of the jihadists, who are threatening to drive the thriving local culture back into the Middle Ages. El Fani creates scenes that are at once idyllic and terrifying. Many scenes are filmed from the vantage point of a long lens, with few, if any edits, The effect absorbs the viewer in the scene and forces them to focus on the action. One scene, in particular, is quite pointed in its depiction of the impredictability of life and death in this newly harsh environment. The camera is frozen in a wide shot of the lake where the local fisherman has his nets. Kidane accuses the fisherman of killing his prized cow. There's an altercation that ends tragically. The result, seen from afar, depicts  an artful, almost macabre ballet of life and death. It is at once horrifying and exquisite. 

"Timbuktu is a symbol," Sissako said at a post-screening news conference at the Walter Reade Theater in Lincoln Center. "This was truly the world's first multi-cultural society. It is the home of the world's first university and a place, until recently, where all of the worlds religions lived together in peace and harmony. Timbuktu is not only a multi-cultural, but a multi-lingual society, and you hear that throughout the film." Scenes are filmed in Arabic, French, English and the local Tamashek languages. There's one tragically comic scene in which one of the jihad soldiers is frantically radioing the details of a tragic incident to his base commader in fractured Arabic. Finally, the frustrated base commander yells at him "Just speak in English man, I can't understand a word you're saying!"

The scene highlights the further absurdity of the occupation. None of the jihadists speaks the local lingo, so all communications have to be translated from Arabic to French and then into English for anyone to be understood. It's insult added to injury.

The film is filled with contrasts. The long-flowing dresses and headwraps of the women and occassional caravans of camels and sights of herds of cattle are punctuated by the use of cell phones, gleaming motorbikes and the ominous presence of military trucks and high-powered rifles. It is a juxtaposition that jarringly places the story in the present and a reminder of  the imminent danger that lurks beneath the idyllic scenes.

As the film unfolds, we see the gradual unraveling of the everday peace of this tiny village.  Each day, there's a new restriction. First, a curfew. Then an edict that no music be played in private homes. A couple caught partying with friends is later stoned to death.  The youth are ordered to stop playing soccer.  Although their ball has been taken from them, the young boys play in mime, without a ball, in protest. Smoking is also banned, but the ban is regularly abused, even by the jihad's very own. 

The edicts finally go from the sublime to the ridiculous with the latest ban having to do with "any old thing in a public place." Many of the locals decide they've sufferd the last straw. A cadre of militants stormtrooping through the local mosque during prayer even prompts the otherwise peace-keeping and largely silent Imam (played with restrained anger  by Adel Mahmoud Cherif) to protest by attempting to reason with the rabidly dogmatic loyalists. His words fall on deaf ears, much to his chagrin.

"The women are the ones who truly resist," Sissako affirmed. "The men do nothing to fight back. In fact, they acquiesse!" We see a scene, early in the film, where a woman fishmonger refuses to cover her hands with gloves as ordered by the jihad military. She defiantly thrusts our her hands, telling them she would rather they cut them off than have to wear their gloves in the sweltering heat. She's then led off to prison.

 A young woman, sentenced to forty lashes in public for  defying the ban on music sings as her tears flow from each tortuous blow. The scene is movingly portrayed by Malian singer, actress and composer Fatoumata Diawara. One is reminded of the scene in Steve McQueen's Oscar-winning "12 Years A Slave," in which the female protagnonist is almost whipped to death. Similarly, the scene is hard to watch and makes you flinch.  By contrast, a man ordered to take off his long Western-styled pants, storms off, ripping them off in frustration. He is obviously agitated, but acquiesces, even in the throes of outrage.

All of the actors in the film are locals or amatuers gleqned from the local population. The most engaging is Toya, the daughter of the local herdsman Kidane (Ibrahim Ahmed) and his wife Satima (Toulou Kiki), who refuse to leave their traditional tent on the outskirts of town, even though all of their neighbors have long fled the encroaching jihadist invasion. There's their precious 12 year old daughter Toya, played by amateur actress Layla Walter Mohamed (more on her presently) and finally, the fourth member of the family, Issa (played with disarming charm and heart-tugging innocence by Mehdi AG Mohamed) , an orphaned boy who tends the Kidane's small herd of  eight cattle. 

"There was this young girl who kept popping up in front of me, no matter where I went to hold open auditions. Finally, I said, 'Okay! You can be in the film. The part had been written for a three year old girl as the daughter. I asked how old she was. She said she was twelve. So, you can imagine what I did. I changed the script." The amatuer child actress, Layla Walet Mohamed actually becomes the heart and soul of the film as a reflection of hope for Africa's future.

There's a scene that opens the film, depicting a young gazelle being pursued by the jihad military. They fire their weapons repeatedly at the animal, frightening it into further flight. "Don't kill it, only frighten it," the commander yells. This scene symbolizes the treatment of the local townspeople by the insurgents. They  rule by fear. The threat of death is their weapon of choice against the innocent. 

There are some touching and powerful performances at many key points, particularly by Haitian actress and dancer Kettly Noel as the local madfwoman, who ridicules the baddies in her Medusa-like riddles and confounds them with her voodoo dolls and wild incantations. A particularly inspired scenes shows a native man dancing trance-like around one of her amulets. It is at once celebratory and elegiac.

Sissako not only imbues his local townspeople with dignity, but he also allows his villians to  display an element of human frailty. We see an aggressive lieutenant, Abdelkrim ( played with a complex mix of humanity and gruff masculinity reminiscent of Victor Mature or Robert Mitchum by Abel Jafri),  who is caught by his fellow officer sneaking off to smoke in spite of the very clear ban against it. His compatriot vows not to expose him out of a begrudging loyalty. ""Don't worry," he says. "I won't expose you." 
Hichem Yacoubi (A Prophet, 2009, Munich, 2005 and Azur and Asmar: The Prince's Quest) plays the jihadist sidekick with just the right amount of tongue-in-cheek irony.

The film alternates between moments of excruciating beauty and abject horror; humor and sadness, earthly and spiritual pleasure and the most unimaginable pain. It's hard to watch this film and not be moved. In fact, it is reported that the director himself, began sobbing while talking about the film at the Cannes festival news conference. Aided by the evocative score by Amine Bouhafa, the film not only bares on its sleeve the heart of a wounded people, but the soul of a director as an artist.

"Timbuktu" screens as part of Black Perspectives at the Chicago Film Festival October 15  at 8:15pm and 16 at 8pm. Actor Hichem Yacoubi is scheduled to attend.  For tickets and information, visit chicagofilmfestival.com. The U.S. theatrical release for "Timbuktu" is January 28.

Director Abderrahmane Sissako with his child actors Mehdi AG Mohamed (l) and Layla Walet Mohamed (r)
Kidane (Ibrahim Ahmed), the local herdsman, consoles his adopted son, Issa  (Mehdi AG Mohamed) upon the slaughter of their prized cow, named GPS
Director Sissako on location
Jihadist militants patrol the local market
The cast at the Cannes Film Festival
Scenes from the film

Haitian actress Kettly Noel plays the local Voodoo Woman
Below: Kidane (Ibrahem Ahmed) faces the Jihadist's kangaroo court
 Director Abderrahmane Sissako at the New York Film Festival news conference
 Siassako, who speaks only French, spoke emotionally through an interpreter at the news conference