Posted in Movie Reviews

Paranoia in Red, White and Blue

Parallax_View_movie_posterWe go through periods of time when American movies excel in looking nervously over their shoulder. The film noir era is a definite example, but is it any wonder that 1970’s films seemed to feature so many shades of paranoia? With the assassinations of the previous decade, and especially the byzantine twists of Watergate, it wasn’t surprising. What an overwhelming sense of ideals betrayed, with the Nixon administration as the prime agent of cover-up when not itself acting as the perpetrator of misdeeds.

“The Parallax View” (1974), based on the 1970 novel of the same title by Loren Singer, was clearly inspired by the coincidental deaths (or deliberate if you have a conspiracy bent) of witnesses to the JFK assassination and its surrounding events. However, while maintaining the book’s device of a shadowy organization masterminding these incidents, the film omits the novel’s hints as to the “why.” The audience is left with an overwhelming sense of isolation. Threats seem to be in the very air we breathe.

This is quite a turn from an earlier film which also culminates in an assassination at a political rally, 1962’s “The Manchurian Candidate.” There the threat was specific, not diffuse, and the Cold War message was loud and clear: “The Commies are everywhere.” Nevertheless you knew the villains would be thwarted and the government of the United States would be preserved. However, “The Parallax View,” far from offering such reassurance, says there are forces far larger than you and me and they’ll always, but always, win—it’s foolish to even try to do battle.

“The Parallax View” begins with a Fourth of July parade which leads to perhaps the most evocative assassination scene on film, as Senator Charles Carroll, an independent evidently exploring a Presidential run, works a fundraiser held at the top of Seattle’s Space Needle. Maybe it’s because I have a problem with heights that I found this particularly unsettling, but seeing the attendees trapped when the shooting starts is a nightmare—if you lived through the ’60’s, this may bring it all back for you. Key players are rendered powerless, including Lee Carter (Paula Prentiss), a TV news reporter, and Austin Tucker (William Daniels), the senator’s political advisor, as they’re separated from the scene by a wall of blood-splattered glass. We see the senator’s fixed stare as he lies dying, so reminiscent of the famous photo of Bobby Kennedy sprawled on the hotel kitchen floor while a busboy leans over him to offer comfort.

Although a faceless investigation committee declares this the act of a lone disturbed man who sought recognition, we’ve been shown otherwise (Take that, Warren Commission). But when Lee Carter later shows up on the doorstep of reporter Joe Frady (Warren Beatty) with “They’re going to kill me, six other witnesses have already died,” we’re off and running.

You may feel as I did that every plot hole in “The Parallax View” feels wide enough to drive a Mack truck through. At first I thought it was simply a bad editing job, but the novel shares the same problem of too much left unexplained. Perhaps it’s director Alan J. Pakula’s effort to make the audience work by forcing them to fill in the blanks themselves. It’s not always successful: Joe Frady remains an unlikely and unlikeable investigator. In Warren Beatty’s absent-minded performance, he seems rather dim and incompetent (Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman as Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, respectively, in “All the Presidents’ Men,” would have solved the mystery in less than half the time). When he survives the bombing that kills another assassination witness, you just don’t believe he had the capability to do so.

Beatty could have taken lessons from several actors who make the most out of minimal screen time. In fact Paula Prentiss’s big scene, Lee Carter’s insistence to Frady that the people present at the Space Needle are being murdered one by one, is something of a cult favorite. William Daniels as Austin Tucker does a wonderful job, initially as a dapper, in-control political operative, and later as a haunted and hunted man who trusts no one. The performances of several others are equally vivid: Kelly Thordsen as that staple of films of this genre, a corrupt local sheriff, Walter McGinn as the shadowy Parallax operative, and Hume Cronyn, not chewing the scenery this time, as Frady’s editor. But the climactic scene does what movies are best at—telling a story visually, as we watch Candidate George Hammond ride a golf cart through the large arena in which a campaign fundraiser is to take place. Shots ring out, he slumps in his seat, and the runaway cart crashes into banquet table after banquet table, all variously covered by red, white and blue tablecloths.

To a certain extent you wonder why it’s worth taking out Hammond when he orates only the same nondescript all-purpose political blather lampooned a year later in Robert Altman’s “Nashville.” A portrait of America on the eve of the bicentennial, “Nashville” culminates in an assassination not of that film’s Presidential candidate, the invisible Hal Philip Walker, but of a celebrity—the film’s most fragile character, the singer Barbara Jean (Ronee Blakly). Interestingly enough, this was not in Joan Tewksbury’s original script; Altman, clearly of the view that assassination had by this time been woven into the fabric of America, insisted on its inclusion.

nashville-gunshot
Nashville: Assassination by Loner

There’s no inkling during the film that we’re headed in this direction. But the running thread of Hal Philip Walker’s campaign and particularly, Lady Pearl’s (Barbara Baxley) teary speech about working for JFK and Bobby Kennedy, ring a faint alarm. At the rally at Nashville’s Centennial Park in front of the Parthenon, we follow the moves of both a Barbara Jean-obsessed soldier (Scott Glenn) and Kenny (David Hayward), a seemingly sympathetic young man who’s been toting a guitar case (it’s Nashville after all). Following a series of images—Barbara Jean performing in a long white dress, not coincidentally resembling Lady Liberty, with a huge billowing American flag on display behind the stage—we see to our shock that it’s the “nice boy,” Kenny, who whips out a gun from that guitar case and fires away. The phoenix-like emergence of the wannabee Albuqueque (the late great Barbara Harris) who rises from the chaos to calm the crowd with chorus after chorus of “It Don’t Worry Me” reassures us that we’re survivors, though it doesn’t erase the fear of what came before.

All the President's Men:
All the President’s Men: “In my day we called it a double-cross”

When “All the President’s Men” (1976) finally rolls around, the government has betrayed us all. What with CIA operatives, slush funds, hush money, campaign dirty tricks—all perpetrated by CREEP, that marvelous acronym for the Committee to Re-elect the President—you can never be sure of anything. By the time Bob Woodward has his last late night meeting with Deep Throat (Hal Holbrook) in his favorite underground parking garage, you too may want to pull up your collar and scurry away.

Enjoy the fear.

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Posted in Movie Reviews

Second Time Around

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Timothy Bottoms and Cloris Leachman: “The Last Picture Show”

Do the films we love in our youth still resonate for us years later?

I clearly remember how “The Last Picture Show” bowled me over when I first saw it as a college student. Based upon the novel by Larry McMurtry, the film covers one year in the life of small town Anarene, Texas, during the early 1950’s. The windblown locale (Archer City, McMurtry’s real-life home town) is itself a character in the narrative and serves as one of the film’s strongest assets. It’s hard to shake the sense of desolation produced by that short strip of worn storefronts lining Main Street across from an equally dilapidated Texaco station. This stark image is accentuated by director Peter Bogdanovich’s choice to film the story in black and white—unusual at the time of its 1971 release, but absolutely fitting.

Viewing the movie so many years later, I was struck by how well Bogdanovich captures the claustrophobia and sheer boredom of small town life. The only entertainment spots in Anarene are the town movie theater, a tattered pool hall and Friday night high school football games in which the local boys always seem to be trounced. Everybody knows everybody else’s business—there really are no secrets.

Enter Sonny (Timothy Bottoms) and Duane (Jeff Bridges), two contrasting high school seniors, the latter a not-necessarily-very-nice guy, the former, a far deeper individual who sometimes doesn’t understand his own emotions. The casting of this film couldn’t be better, and it’s even more of a treat now to watch these young men at the outset of their careers to see how they were able to grow into mature actors. Jeff Bridges is terrific, and Timothy Bottoms is so heartfelt as Sonny that I was shocked to learn John Ritter was almost cast in the part (Nobody does suffering better than Timothy Bottoms). Ben Johnson’s performance as Sam the Lion, Anarene’s anchor and resident role model, has lost little over the years—that Best Supporting Actor Oscar he won for this role was well-deserved, though his long monologue at the reservoir may seem a bit stagey today (fault of the script, not the actor). And Clu Gulager, playing Abilene, the local heel, may have the fewest lines in the movie but nevertheless leaves a strong impression.

Sadly, there’s one aspect of “The Last Picture Show” that’s become more grating over the years. This was model Cybill Shepherd’s first acting job, and unfortunately it shows. Chosen by Peter Bogdanovich to play Jacy, the prettiest girl in town, she fills the bill visually but it’s a shame that so many of her line readings go clank (One is reminded of Pauline Kael’s appraisal of an acting performance of Cyd Charisse: “She reads her lines as if she learned them phonetically.”) Of course she improved tremendously after this film, but there’s a difference between acting insincerely as Jacy does and insincerely acting which Ms. Shepherd does. However, she plays the comedy well—Jacy’s reaction to Duane’s non-performance in the motel room and later, her snappishness at Duane’s preening following his success, is classic. Nevertheless, it would have made for a more interesting dynamic had a more skilled actress with a greater understanding of Jacy’s duplicity played the role (In a parallel universe equipped with time travel, Alexis Bledel would have been ideal).

But what’s particularly striking when watching “The Last Picture Show” now is that it provided such strong roles for three mature actresses: Ellen Burstyn as Jacy’s mother, Lois; Cloris Leachman as Ruth Popper, the football coach’s wife; and Eileen Brennan as Genevieve, who runs the town’s cafe owned by Sam the Lion. While few actors could play comedy as well as Ms. Brennan (check out “Private Benjamin”), it’s great to see her thrive in a more dramatic role. Both Ms. Leachman and Ms. Burstyn were nominated for Best Supporting Actress Oscars, and while Ms. Leachman won, Ms. Burstyn is a lot more fun to watch. Although she’s bored to death by her husband, Lois still enjoys life. She’s accumulated more than her share of mileage, while Ruth has seemingly stayed in her shell. Nevertheless, both of these characters connect with the recessive Sonny in two of the best scenes in the film. Ellen Burstyn’s roguish, “Should I or shouldn’t I?” look at Sonny after she rescues him from his runaway marriage to Jacy, and Cloris Leachman’s explosion at the unfaithful young man when he seeks her out after Billy’s death, the scene which cinched her the Oscar, retain their power after all this time.

It’s a gift that “The Last Picture Show,” is the type of quiet movie that nevertheless still speaks to those who return to it after so many years. Seeing it again is certainly time well spent.

Posted in Opera

Encore!

Anna Netrebko in the Met HD Telecast of “Il Trovatore”

When I was growing up, one of my mother’s constant lessons was “Get value for your money.” If you’re an opera lover, one of the best ways to do so is to subscribe to the Metropolitan Opera’s streaming service, Met Opera on Demand. The site has a tremendous library featuring HD and PBS telecasts dating back to the Scotto/Pavarotti “La Boheme” in 1977, and a slew of radio broadcasts from the 1930’s to the present, with performances being added to the site on a regular basis. It’s almost an embarrassment of riches.

While I haven’t really dipped into the video component yet (It’s baseball season after all. Go Mets!), I’ve been having a ball listening to the broadcasts. It’s been both educational and entertaining. For example, I had forgotten how much I enjoyed Tchaikovsky’s “Queen of Spades” when I saw it in the house (a pity the Met doesn’t do it more often). Met Opera on Demand lets you hear both Dmitri Hvorostovsky and Peter Mattei sing Yeletsky’s big aria, and what a joy it is to savor two different approaches—the first, more dramatic, the second more lyrical.

I was present at the Met for a number of the broadcasts, and I get a particular charge out of revisiting these performances. I saw that featured “Giulio Cesare” in which David Daniels shone in his Met debut, and to hear him again, when I’m now a full-fledged baroque opera fan, is a treat. That unearthly mezzo-soprano/countertenor blend he and Stephanie Blythe produced in their duet remains a stunner. I was also pleased to discover my memory did not play tricks with respect to the length of the ovation Mirella Freni received at the conclusion of the Letter Scene in “Eugene Onegin.” This was one of the few times I ever saw an opera singer break character to acknowledge applause. Had she not smiled and nodded to the cheering audience, the performance wouldn’t have been able to continue. Speaking of Ms. Freni, while I was present for the videotaping of the excellent “Falstaff” in which she appears as Mistress Ford (available for streaming), there’s an even better radio broadcast of this opera that originally aired three years later. Barbara Daniels replaces Ms. Freni, but Paul Plishka is still Falstaff, the ensemble is tighter, Paul Groves is a better Fenton and Barbara Bonney tops her earlier performance as Nanetta by singing the final ascending line of her aria seemingly in one breath.

The earlier radio broadcasts that pre-date my opera-going, not to mention my birth, are particularly fascinating. Fortunately the quality of sound of those long ago performances does nothing to harm virtuosity—I’m currently in the middle of a 1940 “Die Walküre” with Kirsten Flagstad, Marjorie Lawrence and Lauritz Melchior that’s pure electricity. It’s a privilege to hear Leonard Warren’s distinctive baritone in the full range of his Verdi roles, and perhaps best of all, as Tonio in “I Pagliacci.” An extra-pleasant surprise is hearing what an astute vocal actor Richard Tucker was. His sarcastic bark of laughter during his confrontation with Eileen Farrell’s Santuzza in a 1960 “Cavalleria Rusticana” is chilling. And what a pleasure to experience Cesare Siepi’s gorgeous sound! On the other hand, I’ve listened to a few broadcasts that would have been better left on the shelf. They’re not necessarily terrible, but they do remind you that in addition to the stars who sang, the Met, like any other opera house, had to rely on its B and C list singers to fill out its long season.

The site is particularly instructive with respect to how performance values have changed over the decades. There’s a 1946 “Rosenkavalier” featuring the terrific Ochs of Emmanuel List, as well as the Octavian of Risë Stevens in her prime. While she’s in good form, it’s evident she was really a contralto stretched into mezzo territory. A young Eleanor Steber is a lively Sophie–I never knew she had been such a high flier. Unfortunately, their voices don’t reach that ideal blend that Strauss evidently wanted for the two characters they portray. Nor does this happen in a 1964 broadcast slackly led by Thomas Schippers. Lisa Della Casa, displaced from the Marschallin by Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, is the Octavian, Judith Raskin the Sophie, and on first hearing two things are immediately apparent: sopranos have no business singing Octavian, and the rehearsal time for this performance was probably negligible. Fortunately there are two “Rosenkavalier” broadcasts currently available that make amends. A 1969 performance with Karl Böhm on the podium (speaking of greater care for musical values), featuring Leonie Rysanek, Christa Ludwig and Reri Grist, is a stunner. The last two produce the magical vocal blend Strauss envisioned for Octavian and Sophie, and the beauty of their sound is matched, if not topped, in a 1983 broadcast in which Judith Blegen’s soprano is almost an overtone of Tatiana Troyanos’ mezzo in their duets. With the bonus of Kiri Te Kanawa’s Marschallin, it’s a wonderful performance.

I look forward to more Met broadcasts and delving into the video archive in the near future. I can’t recommend Met Opera on Demand enough.

Posted in Opera

Così fan tutte

Act I Finale: Dr. Magnetico–er, Kelli O’Hara–to the Rescue

Mozart and da Ponte’s last collaboration, “Così fan tutte,” has got to be one of the most put-upon works in the standard opera repertoire. Its very title, usually translated as “Women Are Like That,” rings alarm bells of misogyny. For well over a century its plot, revolving around a cynical fiancée-swapping bet, was variously expurgated, hashed up and outright replaced. It wasn’t until well after the turn of the last century that the opera was recognized for both the musical masterpiece it is and the sharp take on human behavior it presents.

“Così” at its best requires certain ingredients. If “Falstaff” is a conductor’s opera, “Così” is most definitely a director’s opera. On its face the plot is broad comedy: Two soldiers (Ferrando and Guglielmo) engaged to two sisters (Dorabella and Fiordiligi) are suckered into a bet proposed by their cynical older friend (Don Alfonso) who maintains that the ladies, protestations by their lovers to the contrary, aren’t paragons but instead are just like all other women—they’ll stray, given the opportunity. At the cynical friend’s direction, the soldiers fake going off to war, and return in disguise to attempt to seduce each other’s fiancée. The cynical friend is aided and abetted by the ladies’ maid (Despina) who at various times masquerades as a quack doctor to bring the soldiers back to life after a mock suicide attempt, and as a notary to perform a marriage ceremony for the swapped couples. All is eventually revealed and reconciled, and the lovebirds return to their rightful partners.

But are they? The catch to “Così” is that da Ponte tells you one thing and Mozart seemingly tells you the opposite: Da Ponte’s take on the whole work is farcical, whereas Mozart provides a number of heart-stopping moments along the way. These include the lovers’ leave-taking quartet, the trio “Soave sia il vento” which seems suspended in time, Ferrando’s love-struck aria, “Un’ aura amorosa,” and most crucially, Fiordiligi’s “Per pietà.” Her aria is the opera’s big “Hey, wait a minute” moment, when things stop being funny—this is a woman in torment. It becomes even more complicated a bit later as Ferrando in disguise seduces Fiordiligi. On its surface this is payback for Guglielmo’s successful seduction of Dorabella, but is that all? We already know he’s a romantic, and the passionate music of the duet with Fiordiligi (“Fra gli amplessi”) logically leads you to think he may not just be acting. The ambiguity of “Così” and the cruelty of Don Alfonso’s mind games, set against some broad farce, demand a director who can handle a sensitive balancing act.

I’d like to say Phelim McDermott, director of the Metropolitan Opera’s new “Così” production, filled the bill entirely, but unfortunately he failed in certain details. Let’s get some controversy out of the way first: I loved his setting of the opera in 1950’s Coney Island, I think the side-show performers are a wonderful addition and I enjoyed the clever pantomime during the overture. All of this heightened the experience and in no way demeaned the opera as some critics have complained (What a bunch of stuffed shirts). However, where I thought he fell short was in not giving certain key moments the opportunity to land properly. This was most evident when Amanda Majeski as Fiordiligi sang “Per pieta” while floating up and down on a balloon ride. The seriousness of that moment should never be undercut. Similarly, the staging of her Act I aria, the satirical “Come scoglio,” while funny, was too frenetic; give the woman a chance to breathe!

The performances were a mixed bag. Of the four lovers, honors go to the gentlemen, Ben Bliss and Adam Plachetka, whose naval officers turned Danny Zuko lookalikes were well sung, as was Serena Malfi’s Dorabella. I was somewhat disappointed by Amanda Majeski who seemed overparted as Fiordiligi. In fairness, this is a killer role, both vocally and dramatically, and it takes a great deal of stage presence to get the character’s points across. One of the best opera performances I ever saw was “Così” at New York City Opera many years ago when the company’s Mozart operas were usually sung in English. The late Patricia Brooks, who began her career as an actress before switching to opera, was the Fiordiligi. I can still remember how she emoted during the recitative of “Per pieta” to set up the audience’s laughter, before her entire physical demeanor changed to signal the very real pain the character was experiencing. The audience instantly hushed, and she had them hanging on every note until she finished. I would have liked to have seen that kind of stage savvy at the Met last night, but it wasn’t to be.

Fortunately there was energy and presence to burn when Kelli O’Hara was on stage. There was a lot of interweb disparagement when she was announced as Despina last year, and I’m thrilled she’s proven the naysayers wrong. She projects well in the house, she rattled off Despina’s recitative like a pro and she seemed to be enjoying herself immensely (I particularly loved her dancing Texas justice of the peace at the end of Act II). She and Christopher Maltman, as Don Alfonso, played well together, and here’s hoping this isn’t the end of her performances at the Met.

“Così” will be this Saturday’s “Live in HD” telecast. It’s worth the excursion to Coney Island.

Posted in Television

Great Expectations

Nanette (Cristin Milloti) Getting the Last Laugh in Black Mirror’s “USS Callister”

CAUTION: SPOILERS AHEAD

Is there any doubt that one of the highest bars in American popular culture was set by that television gem, “The Twilight Zone”? Lasting only five seasons in its initial run, its long shadow has been felt ever since. There’s hardly been a sci-fi or speculative television series in subsequent decades that has not escaped comparison with Rod Serling’s creation. Its hallmarks made it iconic: Serling’s clenched-jaw introductions, the terseness of its storytelling and above all, its final twists. It was and is a tough act to follow, yet we still hope, with the premiere of each new show of that genre, that the original will be matched, if not surpassed.

“Black Mirror,” the brainchild of Charlie Brooker, was both inspired by and measured against TZ from the start. Now in its fourth season, “Black Mirror” seems not only in competition with the older show but with itself. Gaining steam over time, “Black Mirror’s” previous episodes culminated in an unforgettable Season 3, which brought “Nosedive,” “Playtest,” “Shut Up and Dance,” and, most memorably, the Emmy-winning “San Junipero.” Where would Charlie Brooker go from here?

The answer, at least for me, was not entirely welcome. While I have no quibble with Brooker’s promise that Season 4 of “Black Mirror” would be much darker than before, I found it markedly inconsistent, both in writing and in execution. It begins with “USS Callister,” featuring a “Star Trek”-like fantasy created by an exceptionally mean character. I was never a Trekkie, but the end of the episode, both in real and fantasy time, is most satisfying (the above photo is only half the story). Two of the episodes, “Crocodile” and “Metalhead,” are the darkest of Season 4, and both fail for different reasons. I’m not into torture porn, which features in the former, and the latter consists entirely of a chase with little if any information as to “Who,” “What,” “Where” and “Why?,” leaving you not to care. And I found “Black Museum,” the last episode, to be quite predictable.

The two stand-out episodes are “Arkangel” and “Hang the DJ,” which in retrospect are also the most plausible. “Arkangel” rests on the age-old push/ pull between mothers and daughters, updated with technology that’s just around the corner. Featuring Rosemarie DeWitt as the over-protective (to say the least) mom and Brenna Harding as her shielded daughter, the episode is directed by Jodie Foster to a heartbreaking conclusion. However, my favorite, and one of “Black Mirror’s” best, is “Hang the DJ,” the ingredients of which somewhat resemble those of “San Junipero:” two characters with mad chemistry who belong together. In place of Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Mackenzie Davis, we’ve got Georgina Campbell and Joe Cole (who is especially adorable) in a world where Higher Powers pair people in serial relationships of dictated duration. “Hang the DJ” resonates on several levels, not least in its references to mythic stories. The Forbidden Question looms large in this episode: as Elsa can not ask Lohengrin his name, as Orpheus may not glance back at Eurydice, Amy and Frank agree not to ask the length of their predetermined relationship. Naturally one of them blinks. In addition to the sweetness of its actors, “Hang the DJ” features a number of laugh-out-loud moments and an ending worthy of “The Twilight Zone.” It’s a shame the rest of this season’s episodes didn’t match this one in quality.

The availability of Amazon Prime’s “Philip K. Dick’s ‘Electric Dreams'” followed closely on the heels of the current round of “Black Mirror.” This 10-episode show is based on Dick’s futuristic short stories which were initially published in the early 50’s. Although Dick’s work has been updated and expanded, there’s a strong feeling of “Been there, done that.” So many ground-breaking sci-fi concepts of the 30’s, 40’s and 50’s wound up in film and television that the imitations are stronger in memory than the originals. But this show suffers from another problem: so many sci-fi concepts originally deemed beyond imagination have in fact become reality. As Yogi Berra is supposed to have said (and is quoted in one of the “Electric Dream” episodes), “The future ain’t what it used to be.”

Like “The Twilight Zone,” “Electric Dreams” is an anthology in which each episode has a different writer, director and cast (“Black Mirror” also features independent episodes, but all with the exception of Season 3’s “Nosedive,” were scripted by Charlie Brooker, who still managed to devise its story). When “Electric Dreams” works, it’s more because of the actors’ performances than the material which by now has been worked and reworked so many times: The boy who thinks his father has been taken over by an alien (“The Father Thing”). The man with a psychotic son being tempted to join a perfect world in which the son never existed (“The Commuter”). The existence of a fantasy world which may be more real than the original (“Real Life”). Greg Kinnear, Mireille Enos and Jack Gore, Timothy Spall, and Anna Paquin, respectively, enrich these episodes to a considerable degree, as does Richard Madden (hello, Robb Stark!) for “The Hood Maker.”

“Human Is”: Silas (Bryan Cranston) and Vera (Essie Davis)

Once again, though, mad chemistry wins out, this time in “Human Is,” the episode which may be closest to Philip Dick’s original concept. The beginning is hard to take—Bryan Cranston may be a space hero, but his emotional distance from his wife, played by Essie Davis, borders on abuse. The change in the man, following a harrowing ambush by aliens, the suspicion of his co-workers, the loyalty of his wife and the wonderful ending are all foreseeable, yet the journey is a particularly enjoyable one. Cranston has never been more intriguing, and he and Davis are terrific together. The final lines of the episode are taken directly from Dick’s short story, and Cranston’s delivery sticks the landing of the final twist. Bravo!

Posted in Movie Reviews, Opera

The Opera House

There’s a special pleasure in seeing a film or taped footage of an event my younger self may have experienced several decades ago. “The Opera House,” director Susan Froemke’s new documentary of the conception, construction and finally the opening of the new Metropolitan Opera House at Lincoln Center in 1966 fits that bill to a T. It’s a fascinating saga of artistic, financial and civic cooperation, and definitely one of the most enjoyable films I’ve seen recently. A particularly refreshing aspect is its lack of villains; instead we see a cast of heroes, among whom are Met General Manager Rudolph Bing, Philanthropist John D. Rockefeller III, Lincoln Center Architect Wallace Harrison, Civic Planner Robert Moses, and, most memorably, Soprano Leontyne Price.

As the film rightly points out, the construction of New York’s Lincoln Center, and especially a new home for the Metropolitan Opera, was a national and indeed, an international event. It came at a time when opera claimed a more significant place in the American cultural consciousness than it does today. The exposure of the art form to the general public was then considerable: opera singers had frequently appeared in Hollywood films in the 1930’s and 40’s, and many had had their own radio programs. Later, when television entered the scene, opera singers were a staple on the numerous variety shows that aired; they regularly appeared on “The Tonight Show,” and Beverly Sills even filled in for host Johnny Carson when he was on vacation. The Saturday afternoon broadcasts from the Metropolitan Opera, sponsored by Texaco for many years, were an institution. So even if you weren’t a fan, you were at least familiar with the name “Verdi,” and could probably hum the “Toreador Song” from “Carmen.”

I never attended a performance at the old Met at Broadway and 39th Street, but the footage of its auditorium, as Ms. Froemke shows, is breathtaking in its ornate red and gold. However, the house’s shortcomings as a theater were enormous: no room for modern stage equipment, the forced storage of scenery outdoors on Seventh Avenue due to lack of indoor space, few if any rehearsal areas (To further illustrate the point I would have liked Ms. Froemke to have contrasted the physical plant of the old Met by showing the state of the art facilities of a European opera house). As a result plans to build a new opera house were in the wind as early as 1908. A series of problems and crises, not to mention the Depression, intervened in the following decades, so it wasn’t until Robert Moses’ proposal of the cultural enclave that became Lincoln Center that a new opera house began to morph from dream to reality. However, Ms. Froemke doesn’t sugarcoat the human cost of this urban renewal; several former residents of the West Side neighborhood that was condemned and cleared for Lincoln Center express their opinions of their forced move.

A major highlight of “The Opera House” is footage of the groundbreaking ceremony at Lincoln Center in May, 1959, where a very dapper Leonard Bernstein opens the proceedings by leading the New York Philharmonic in Aaron Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man.” The event was deemed of such import that President Eisenhower attended; as he does the honors by sinking that first shovel in the earth, we hear the Julliard Choir sing out with the “Hallelujah Chorus” from Handel’s “Messiah.” Leading Met singers Risë Stevens and Leonard Warren also performed, and it’s shocking to remember that the latter would be gone in less than a year, dying of a massive heart attack on stage in the midst of a performance of “La Forza del Destino” at the old house.

Met General Manager Rudolph Bing is of course a major presence in “The Opera House.” At first he appears as almost impossibly imperious and formal, and stubbornly opposed to accommodating the “Save the Met” sentimentalists (Ms. Froemke should have provided some context for this controversy by referencing the public outcry at the significant loss of historic structures in New York City, especially Pennsylvania Station, during the late 50’s and early 60’s, and the fact that only a few years before, a public campaign had indeed saved Carnegie Hall from demolition). But in preparing to open the new house while still saying goodbye to the old, Bing emerges as a hero. What a difficult job this man had–mounting a new opera to inaugurate the Met’s new home (Samuel Barber’s “Antony and Cleopatra”), apprehensively eyeing Director Franco Zeffirelli’s creation of a massive extravaganza of a production that eventually broke the stage turntable and famously trapped Leontyne Price inside Cleopatra’s pyramid, overseeing nine new productions scheduled for that first season (four in the first week alone), and dealing with a looming strike by the orchestra musicians (though not mentioned in the film, Bing announced from the stage on Opening Night that a settlement had been reached). The tension as we see Bing deal with all of this is palpable, yet somehow he manages. Few could have handled all these crises as well.

But it’s Soprano Leontyne Price, whose career straddled the old and the new houses, who walks away with the film. At the age of 91 she’s sharply informative as well as a total hoot. I particularly enjoyed her account of what it was like to sing with Tenor Franco Corelli, with whom she made a joint debut at the Met (“We sang insane!!!,” as attested to by the recording of the “Il Trovatore” broadcast from that season), and her stories of the trials, tribulations and triumph of opening the new house as Cleopatra are terrific. As she proudly—and rightly—states, “Sometimes you sing so well you just want to kiss yourself, and I did that night.” When she breaks into the opening phrases of Samuel Barber’s “Knoxville: Summer of 1915” (“It has become the time of evening/When people sit on their porches/Rocking gently and talking gently…”) while reminiscing about their friendship, don’t be surprised if you find yourself tearing up as I did. As the possessor of the most beautiful soprano voice of my time, she remains a treasure.

“The Opera House’ will be screened once more as a Fathom event on January 17. Here’s hoping for a quick release of the DVD and a showing on PBS. It’s a marvelous film.

Posted in Television

The Crown

WARNING–SPOILERS FOLLOW

Rule Britannia!

Late to the party as usual, I didn’t expect to enjoy “The Crown” as much as I did when I finally tuned in last month. Needless to say I wound up eating my pre-viewing impression and was soundly hooked as I binged Season One. Season Two, recently available for streaming on Netflix, has only solidified my admiration for this show.

What makes “The Crown” so addictive? There’s the obvious: American fascination with royalty, American fascination with the very rich, American fascination with scandal (real or imagined)—you get the picture. However, there’s more in play. While the dates and events leading up to and during World War II are generally known, dramas centered on life in England’s post-war period haven’t received nearly as much exposure in America. Because Elizabeth has reigned for decades, most of us have no image of her other than the formerly middle-aged, now elderly woman she is. It comes as quite a shock to realize how very young she was—only 25—when she became Queen, so seeing her at this stage of her life is certainly a new and refreshing experience.

Ah, but many ask: Is what we see on Netflix true? Aside from the fact that we’ll never really know who said what to whom in so many situations dramatized in “The Crown,” some details tend to nag. Not to be nit-picky, but I find it very hard to believe that the subject of Elizabeth’s regnant name was not discussed prior to her father’s death; she had been heiress presumptive for years at a time when George VI was not exactly in the best of health. “Spontaneity” is simply not in the monarchy’s lexicon. In addition, certain aspects of Season Two’s “Dear Mrs. Kennedy” episode were especially troublesome (and Michael C. Hall was a surprisingly awful JFK). Why was there no mention of President Kennedy’s father, Joseph P. Kennedy, American Ambassador to the Court of St. James in the 1930’s? Given the senior Kennedy’s position, JFK would have been familiar with court protocol unlike the bumbler we see on the screen. And JFK’s being jealous of Jackie’s star power? By all accounts this was a marriage shrewdly made, designed to showcase her style and sophistication as essential political assets. He knew it, she knew it, and by all means the strategists knew it and deployed accordingly.

These quibbles are relatively minor considering how well “The Crown” works as drama. Season One is one long spellbinder featuring a very young woman acceding to a position of power while her country was still coping with the privations of World War II, all at a time when her assumption of the throne put unimaginable strain on her marriage. Season Two gets off to a slow start—as Elizabeth aptly observes, Philip’s whining and whingeing is indeed tedious, and unfortunately drags on for three episodes. But then “The Crown” hits its stride, with one fascinating story after another: Philip besmirched by the scandal of the divorce of his boon companion, Mike Parker, and later, his suspected involvement in the Profumo Affair; the Duke of Windsor’s attempt to obtain a position of influence in England as details regarding his (and the Duchess of Windsor’s) involvement with Hitler and the Nazi regime before the war sour his prospects; the back story of Philip’s unhappy childhood, the shocking loss of his favorite sister and her family and his seemingly blind eye to the emotional needs of his own son; and best of all, Elizabeth’s dance with Kwame Nkrumah, President of Ghana. I don’t think we see her enjoying any other moment in this show as much as his whirling her around the floor to “Begin the Beguine.”

Netflix really shot the works in the casting department for “The Crown.” John Lithgow deserves every accolade he’s received as Churchill. I enjoy Jared Harris in everything he’s done, even (and especially) as the scheming Lane Pryce in “Mad Men.” His George VI is a solid presence, and it’s rather interesting that both he and Colin Firth (“The King’s Speech”) played the character so memorably though neither resembles the frail man who actually reigned. Pip Torrens’ multi-layered performance as Royal Secretary Tommy Lascelles, the courtier you love to hate, is fun to watch, and Greg Wise makes an incredibly suave Lord Mountbatten. Perhaps best of all, Alex Jennings’ performance as the Duke of Windsor, a man eternally denied what he wanted most and blind to the ramifications of his actions, may be the stand-out of both seasons.

But the heart of “The Crown” is its trio of core actors: Claire Foy (Elizabeth), Matt Smith (Philip) and especially Vanessa Kirby (Margaret). The gentleman goes first: Matt Smith does an excellent job with a difficult and at times impossible character. To say Philip is mercurial is an understatement, yet while Smith shows the recklessness and impatience of the man, he makes us understand his frustrations. Equally skilled at displaying Philip’s tender side, Smith delivers the character’s speech at his 10th anniversary party, in all in its complexity, to perfection.

Claire Foy’s portrayal of the young Elizabeth could not be better. Her range is a marvel–from being overwhelmed at the father’s untimely death and her assumption of the crown to issues with Philip and Margaret and the intricacies of dealing with a parade of prime ministers, competing courtiers and her own mother, she’s just about perfect. She’s perhaps at her best when an anvil falls and she can’t show emotion. Watch her gather herself in the blink of an eye and just go on. This is most evident in the “Dear Mrs. Kennedy” episode when she presses a friend to reveal the cutting things Jackie said about her at a dinner party–the merest flicker of hurt crosses her face as she struggles to shrug it off. Yet her best scene in Season Two, aside from dancing with Nkrumah, may be her discussion with Lord Altrincham (astutely played by John Heffernan), well-meaning yet vocal critic of Elizabeth’s performance and public image as monarch. While it was her choice to meet with him, she really doesn’t want to be there. Yet Ms. Foy makes it equally apparent that Elizabeth knows she must listen to this man’s suggestions in order to improve—she owes it to the country. The actor’s skill in this scene is only topped by the Queen’s delivery of her first Christmas address on television—her awkwardness and discomfort are palpable as she gamely pushes through.

But it’s the brilliantly nervy performance of Vanessa Kirby as Princess Margaret that keeps you glued to the tube for “Just one more episode!” as you binge. She delivers on a tremendous opportunity, playing a character whose existence threatens to become as empty as that of her uncle, the Duke of Windsor. What a showcase Ms. Kirby has: the Peter Townsend mess, her clashes with her sister (or, more accurately, the institutions of crown, church and government) and her involvement with and eventual marriage to Antony Armstrong-Jones (Matthew Goode). Ms. Kirby and Mr. Goode manage to maintain an exquisitely slow burn during their characters’ courtship; their interactions during the episode “Beryl,” with her insinuations and his ambiguity (sexual and otherwise) are riveting. In a way you’re sorry to see them married. And so will they be.

The next season of “The Crown” will skip ahead to the early 1970’s, and the actors we’ve enjoyed so much will be replaced. Olivia Coleman, marvelous in “Broadchurch” among many other things, will inherit Claire Foy’s tiara. I have no doubt the show will retain its quality.