Posted in Movie Reviews, Opera

No-Winter Notes

As I’m writing this, all forecasts say we’re going to hit 62 degrees this afternoon. It’s baseball weather. The last time we had a winter this mild (about 15 years ago if fading memory serves), the trees were blooming in late February. Despite the nay-sayers, yes Virginia, there is indeed global warming.

Does an actor or performer ever use up their ability to engage us? Is there ever a time when they reach into their bag of tricks and just can’t find the technique, the gesture or the intonation that surprises us and makes us remember how gifted they really are? Unfortunately, yes.

The Suave Mr. Morris

This past Saturday I heard the Met broadcast of Tosca, which featured Patricia Racette, Marcelo Alvarez and James Morris. It’s hard to believe, but Mr. Morris has 40 years at the Met under his belt, having made his debut at the tender age of 23 (he was a baby Don Giovanni four years later). I’ve had the pleasure of seeing him perform an incredible range of roles—Philip II in Verdi’s Don Carlo, Iago, Wotan in Die Walkure, and Dr. Schoen, fatally caught in the web of Berg’s Lulu. Flipping the coin, he was all that you could want as Mozart’s Figaro. When Margaret Juntwait, announcer for the Met broadcasts, mentioned that Morris would soon be singing Claggart in Britten’s Billy Budd again, I thought “My God, what will the Met do when he retires?” I’ve seen him twice in the role, and can’t imagine anyone else bringing to the part what he does. On Saturday he was a wonderfully suave and menacing Scarpia who never let you forget he was an aristocrat, which is something most baritones overlook—it’s Baron Scarpia after all. Yes, his voice is showing some age, and as a bass-baritone some of Scarpia’s high notes were fudged or non-existent. But who cares when you hear an artist who never fails to surprise?

The next day I saw Albert Nobbs with Glenn Close in false nose and Charlie Chaplin pants and bowler. Albert may have been 19th century Irish, but when I see him, all I see is Patty Hewes from Damages. Somewhere along the line I became clued into her as an actor—her moves are predictable. It’s not shtik, which is a term I’d attach to Susan Sarandon, whose performances became very one-note for me as long ago as The Client, though she did a bang-up job in ‘Cradle’ Will Rock (And while I’m on the subject, I’ve got a long-standing bone to pick: Anne Bancroft was the image of Reggie as described in John Grisham’s novel, and should have gotten the movie role, no questions asked). On the other hand, Janet McTeer, who matches Albert Nobbs’s m.o. by disguising herself as a man, is tremendous. There’s one scene she steals (among several) that puts all this into perspective—when she, as Hubert, and Albert don dresses to walk along the beach. Glenn Close walks as Glenn Close, i.e., a woman. Janet McTeer manages to pull off a true Victor/Victoria—a woman playing a man playing a woman—displaying all guises simultaneously. It has to be seen to be believed. I think she’s a long shot to win an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress, but I’d love for her to do it.

Super Bowl Sunday is looming, but I’ve got a confession to make: even though I’m a Giants fan, I’m switching to PBS at 9:00 p.m. Nothing gets between me and Downton Abbey, especially now with the Spanish influenza epidemic on the horizon, Lady Mary facing perpetual blackmail from her sleaze of a fiance, Matthew–er–indisposed for marriage and Lavinia vowing that she can’t live without him. I don’t remember the last time I saw two characters as engaging or as right for each other as Lady Mary and Matthew, and if they’re not back together by the end of this season, I’ll be fuming for a year.

Tomorrow is Groundhog Day. Bet Punxsutawney Phil shows up wearing shades with a beer in his paw.

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Posted in Movie Reviews

Paradise Road: Not Your Standard Chick Flick

There are certain movies I’m compelled to watch if they pop up when I channel surf. Last month I hardly got anything done because Up in the Air was running endlessly on cable, and who can resist George Clooney in a story like that? Yesterday it was a film I hadn’t watched in quite a while–Paradise Road, starring an amazing line-up of actors: Glenn Close, Pauline Collins, Frances McDormand, Julianna Marguilies, Jennifer Ehle and perhaps best of all, a young Cate Blanchett in her first make-you-sit-up-and-take-notice role.

Frances McDormand and Cate Blanchett

The film is based on true events: the evacuation of women and children from Singapore in 1942 prior to the British surrender, the torpedoing and strafing of their rescue ships and their subsequent internment by the Japanese on Sumatra for three and a half years. The internees were a mixed lot: wives and children of army officers, businessmen and Dutch planters, missionaries, nuns and Australian army nurses, among others. During their captivity two of the women organized a “vocal orchestra,” and from memory, wrote scores of classical works arranged for performance by their fellow prisoners. Unlike a number of these women, the scores survived the war and are heard in the film.

Admittedly the movie, written and directed by Bruce Beresford (Breaker Morant and later, Driving Miss Daisy), pulls some punches. It does not show the machine-gun massacre of survivors of the sunken Vyner Brooke, nor the sexual abuse many of the women endured. And for obvious reasons the actors can’t come near to resembling real survivors of years of starvation, malaria and dysentery with little if any medical treatment. But what we do see is enough to make you wonder how their actual counterparts made it through.

There are some amazing moments in this movie: Cate Blanchett’s army nurse standing up to the camp commander over the deprivation the internees have suffered, and later enduring a day and night of torture; Glenn Close, the organizer of the vocal orchestra, being marched into the jungle by a Japanese sergeant (wonderfully played by Clyde Kusatsu), obviously fearing her imminent execution or worse, only to be confronted by something quite different; and Julianna Marguilies, tempted by the opportunity to live in luxury while servicing Japanese officers, not quite nobly opting to “sing and starve.” Frances McDormand has a great time playing the camp’s doctor, a German Jewish refugee, and Jennifer Ehle is heartbreaking as the newlywed separated from her army officer husband. I also enjoyed Johanna Ter Steege as the not-so-innocent nun (“I luff viskey!”), but Pauline Collins, as the missionary who writes the vocal scores from memory, gets the best scene. Her quietly calling the camp commander on the real extent of his authority suspends time–you can’t believe she’s said what she said, and you wonder where she got the gall to say it.

This one is well worth the time, but I’d advise passing up the cable version for either a Region 2 DVD or the film on VHS (remember those?). The TV version and as I understand it, the Region 1 DVD, both omit a crucial scene–the defiant aftermath of the death of one of the main characters. This should not be missed.