Posted in Brain Bits, Opera, Television

Brain Bits for a Snowy Saturday

We’re one day past the Ides of February, and snow flakes the size of quarters are falling outside my window. Pitchers and catchers have reported to spring training, Punxsutawney Phil did not see his shadow, yet we’re still stuck in neutrals of brown, gray and above all, white. Where are you, warm weather?

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Fans of the Metropolitan Opera Live in HD broadcasts are definitely in for a treat today when the new production of”Rigoletto” gets beamed ’round the world. Director Michael Mayer has set the opera in Rat Pack-era Las Vegas, 1960, and amazingly, it works. That being said, I think the HD audience will enjoy it even more than I did when I saw the production live in the house this past Tuesday. The problem is this: while the setting is a great deal of fun, it’s enormously distracting when the curtain goes up and you’re looking at a neon-lit casino, with wall-to-wall roulette and blackjack tables, men in leopard print dinner jackets and Countess Ceprano swanning about as Marilyn Monroe. My eyes felt like pinwheels trying to take all this in, to the extent that Piotr Bezcala’s “Questa o quella” barely registered (though he does rock a mean mic). With the HD cameras directing the view, this busy-ness should be lessened considerably.

Tragedy in a Cadillac
Tragedy in a Cadillac

Nitpickers will carp that depicting Monterone as an Arab Sheik is ridiculous, and that even Sinatra didn’t have an entourage the size of the army that hangs around the Duke (no wonder Gilda is terrified). It didn’t bother me because the game was worth the candle. As Peter Sellars did with his “Nozze di Figaro,” set in the Trump Tower (one of the best opera productions I ever saw), Mayer gets the soul of the work. In “Rigoletto,” Verdi forces us to examine a milieu that’s enticing but corrupt to the core, that grinds out innocence and destroys love. I always thought setting this in Studio 54 during the cocaine ’70’s would be a great idea, but I like Mayer’s idea so much more.

As to the music, Diana Damrau, a wonderful Gilda, sang perhaps the best “Caro nome” I’ve ever heard. Piotr Beczala had a few pinched high notes at the outset, which really surprised me, but Conductor Michele Mariotti did him no favors. Fortunately Beczala soon sounded like his normal self, ultimately delivering a tremendous “La donne è mobile.” Željiko Lucic broke my heart when he confronted the Duke’s courtiers, Stefan Kocan was an amusingly suave Sparafucile, and the last act quartet, featuring mezzo Oksana Volkova as one hot-to-trot Maddalena, was outstanding.

If you can’t make it to today’s HD, there’s always an encore presentation to look forward to, as well as the PBS telecast during the summer. Enjoy!

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While I was tempted to hold my comments until after tomorrow night’s season finale, I have to say “Downton Abbey” has made a terrific comeback from the doldrums of Sybil’s death, its impact on Robert and Cora’s marriage and the wrangling over a Catholic baptism for baby Sybil. Nearly everyone, both above and below stairs, has either returned to form or even better.

The best show in town, hands down, was the Dowager Countess and Isabel Crawley singing that old duet, “Anything You Can Snark, I Can Snark Better.” Talk about moxie—Violet places an ad to get poor Ethel hired out-of-town? Without talking to Isabel, her employer, first? I know rank has its privilege, but come on. It seemed even she finally realized that her meddling better go the whole route and come down on the side of the angels. So voila—the Dowager works her magic to smooth the way for Ethel to take a post near her son’s grandparents where she’ll be able to see her boy again. Violet 1, Nasty Grandpa 0.

Of course karma paid a visit by saddling her with Rose, that 18 year-old wild child of a grandniece. Is having a (distantly) related Bright Young Thing suddenly appearing out of the blue somehow mandatory in British period drama? This started with Georgianna in the original “Upstairs, Downstairs,” only to recur with that naughty Nazi sympathizer, Lady Persephone, in the show’s recent incarnation. We know it’s now 1920-something in “Downton Abbey”-land, which gives Julian Fellows license to feature basement jazz joints and aristocrats gone wild, but how clichéd can you get? Rose is already a major pain, but her scenes were worth enduring just to see Matthew burst her bubble: “Married men always have horrid wives.”

Speaking of Matthew and the Department of Fecundity, we all knew that his spinal cord injury had nothing to do with the absence of a Matthew or Mary Jr. Now that Mary has set things right, gynecologically speaking (nice bit of continuity that she used her American grandma’s name for a cover—at least she was good for something) we can get on with the next generation. And finally we had some teasing and flirting between the two of them, what with all the sturm und drang of a nearly bankrupt Downton. I’ve gone back to really liking Mary in the last two episodes—siding with Tom over the baby’s baptism and finally hopping on the Matthew Express Train of Success, because her old man’s ideas about how to run an estate seem to be even stodgier than himself.

Truly allies at last
Truly allies at last

I’m of two minds about Edith’s storyline. On the one hand, I love seeing her all modern and out and about in the world (the clothes are fabulous). Her editor is an engaging sort, but why is she being forced into playing Jane Eyre, what with his crazy wife in an asylum? On the Tom front, I’m glad I was wrong about his fate—it’ll be great to see him run Downton as the estate’s agent, and I’m enjoying his closeness to Cora. His confrontation with his drunken brother below stairs was so impressive that he finally (and rightly) won Carson over at long last.

I don’t understand the hubbub about Thomas and the confusion over who was egging James on. Aren’t these people wise to what an intriguer O’Brien is, especially now that she’s obviously looking after her nephew’s interests? Everyone from Lord Grantham to Daisy was aware Thomas was gay, so big deal. Nevertheless, it was worth following all the twists and turns of the story just to hear the Earl’s crack about being kissed at Eton and seeing O’Brien blanch after Bates whispered Thomas’s magic words in her ear.

Finally, I’m going to go out on a limb here and say I don’t think Bates’s release from prison is the end of the story. See, I thought all along he killed his wife, and I sense there’s a lot more in his past that’s going to come out. To me there’s something not quite right about the man. We’ll see what the future holds on that score.

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Posted in Books, Movie Reviews

Watch the Skies!

The-Thing-from-Another-World-logoHas a decade of film provided as much fodder for doctoral theses as the 1950’s? So much covert and overt political activity, what with Red-baiting, McCarthyism, the House Committee on Un-American Activities and blacklisted screenwriters sidelined. And all of this spilled over into science fiction films, those black-and-white classics that remain so much fun to watch even now.

Enter my all-time favorite in the genre, 1951’s “The Thing (From Another World).”

There are so many urban legends about this movie, from who really directed it (Howard Hawks or Christian Nyby?) to whether the film was cut to remove a scene showing exactly what the Thing did to those scientists in the greenhouse (depends on who you talk to). But let’s start with the basics. The source material of “The Thing” is the classic 1938 sci-fi novella, “Who Goes There?” by John W. Campbell, Jr., under the pen name Don A. Stuart. However, the movie version is a major departure from the original, which like “Alien” many years later, is really an elegant horror story (1982’s “The Thing” directed by John Carpenter and starring Kurt Russell, is far closer to the novella’s plot).

The 1951 version is one-half classic 50’s paranoia and one-half “Wisecrackers at the North Pole.” The action takes place at an Arctic outpost manned by a group of scientists, headed by Dr. Carrington (Robert Cornthwaite) who marches to his own drummer and who sports what would in a few years be labelled a beatnik’s goatee. Naturally he butts heads with Air Force Captain Hendry (Kenneth Tobey) and his men, who’ve been dispatched to help investigate a UFO that crashed into nearby ice. Along for the ride is Scotty (Douglas Spencer), a journalist apparently embedded with the military (he follows the Air Force guys everywhere), and, in true Howard Hawks fashion, a sophisticated brunette (Margaret Sheridan) serving as Carrington’s secretary who has a thing for Hendry (and vice versa).

The fun really starts when the alien creature (James Arness—yes, Marshall Dillon himself), frozen in a block of ice, is brought into the scientists’ compound. It’s impossible to watch any of the 50’s sci-fi films and not believe “alien” is code for Communist. In movie after movie they infiltrate, they change shape, they take over your mind! They can be anybody! And as Peter Biskind, in his excellent critique of 50’s film, “Seeing is Believing,”  states, audiences of that era were equally taught to beware the fellow traveller, i.e., a person like Dr. Carrington who wants to make nice with the invader. Biskind hilariously calls Carrington a “Thing-symp[athizer]” and points out his Russian-style fur hat and coat (In appearance he does bear a startling resemblance to the way Rod Steiger would look and dress a decade later in “Dr. Zhivago.”)

Enemies Within
Enemies Within

The Thing, though a mass of vegetable matter, thrives on blood, both canine and human. So after sucking a couple of sled dogs dry, he goes after the scientists, two of whom are later found in the greenhouse “hanging upside down, like in a slaughterhouse,” per Captain Hendry.  But Dr. Carrington, not to be deterred, starts cultivating Baby Things from the monster’s seed pods and nourishes them with plasma. His actions creep out even his fellow scientists, but before they can do anything about it the Thing returns, ultimately to be electrocuted by the intrepid (conservative) men of the Air Force. But you can never rest easy—as Scotty warns in the radio broadcast that ends the film, we have to “keep watching the skies!”

Military Know-How
Military Know-How

While you can knock yourself out with the symbolism and the Red-baiting angle, there’s so much more to enjoy in “The Thing.” First, the script by Charles Lederer, screenwriter of “His Girl Friday,” with its overlapping dialogue, never stops. Whether the banter is between Captain Hendry and would-be squeeze Nikki, or Scotty and just about everybody, it’s classic Hollywood. The score, by Dimitri Tiomkin, is one of the best of its era, and makes you wonder what he and his contemporaries would have done if the theremin had never been invented.  And the actors really look like the characters they play—no glamor. If you’re a Groucho Marx fan, you’ll recognize George Fenneman, his “You Bet Your Life” announcer, as the varsity sweater-wearing scientist, and if you’ve got a good ear, you’ll realize that Paul Frees, another scientist, was later the voice of Boris Badenov and Inspector Fenwick of “Rocky and Bullwinkle” fame, among many other cartoon characters, including Ludwig von Drake. Both Eduard Franz and Robert Cornthwaite would go on to long careers as character actors, and Kenneth Tobey, who appeared in so many black-and-white films, would startle audiences with his red hair when he finally showed up in color.

“The Thing” is on DVD , though in a somewhat bare-bones version, with no commentary or extras beyond the theatrical trailer. I’d love to see a reissue with all the bells and whistles that can be mustered, including the final word on who directed it (the majority of those in the know say Hawks, the titular producer) and that missing scene (two people who saw “The Thing” in its first release insisted to me it was included). In the meantime, we’ll just have to “watch the skies!”