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Gatsby, Star Trek & Iron Man

Posted on: May 26th, 2013 by Art Leonard No Comments

Herewith my reactions to the “big three” mass audience Hollywood films released in May, now having seen all three.  I thought that the best of the three was The Great Gatsby, which, despite some anachronistic touches, did a fairly good job of animating the novel and telling a coherent story with good performances and memorable scenes.  In third place, by a long shot, is Iron Man 3, which I found to be virtually incoherent as far as plotting went, a noisy succession of fights and explosions that seemed never deeper than its special effects.  Somewhere in the middle languishes the second Star Trek film in J.J. Abrams’ rebooting of the saga of the voyages of the Enterprise.

First, as to Gatsby, I think Leonardo di Caprio was absolutely fantastic in the title role, and he was not let down by his supporting cast.  Baz Luhrmann’s production is a bit over-the-top in the big party scenes, but then the big party scenes are supposed to be over-the-top, and my only real objection to them is the music.  Everything else seems period-appropriate to some extent, but the party music is at times too 21st century and wrecks the dramatic verisimilitude.  (It isn’t helped much by injecting Rhapsody in Blue into the first big party scene, either, since that wasn’t written until a few years after the party was supposed to be taking place.  I notice these things and they really bug me.  I once had a letter published in the Sunday Arts section of the NY Times complaining about the use of a Schubert Piano Trio in a drawing room concert scene in a movie set in early 19th century England, pointing out that the piece in question wasn’t written until a few years after the scene was supposed to be taking place.  You’d think these studios had no money to spend on research to avoid such anachronisms!)  Is the film perfect?  Of course not, no film is perfect, but I think this was a much more interesting Gatsby than the previous Hollywood attempt.

On Star Trek: Into the Darkness. . .  I’m of an age to have watched and loved the original 1960s TV series when it was new, and I always felt the most important thing about Star Trek was the fantastic interchange between the characters – Kirk, Spock, McCoy, Scott, Sulu, Chekov, Uhura.  Even as the plotting grew less ingenious in the second season, and the sets and plotting turned shabby in the third (when the show was kept alive with a sharply reduced budget for writers and sets, mainly in response to a campaign among fans of the show to write to the network protesting the planned cancellation after the second season), those characters had been created and set in motion, making the show absorbing for its fans despite these flaws.  The Star Trek movies using aging members of the original TV cast were a bit overblown, but the survival of those characters and their continuing interactions made them watchable as well.  When J.J. Abrams launched his first “prequel” a few years ago, casting young actors to play Kirk, Spock, McCoy, Scott, Sulu, Chekov and Uhura as the youthful StarFleet recruits setting off on their first mission, I was dubious that the original flare would be recaptured, but that first film really “clicked” for me – especially Pine and Quinto as Kirk and Spock.  And the story, plotting, sets, etc., were more than adequate as a vehicle to reintroduce the characters at an earlier stage in their lives.  This second episode let me down a bit, not so much because the plotting is weak, but because I thought that the characters were a bit under-written.  Only Quinto’s Spock emerges satisfactorily.  McCoy was always the complainer, but never quite as “one note” as in this film, and Pine’s Kirk seems not nearly as thoughtful as the young Shatner of the first TV season.  Scott is almost written out of the story, only to make a late re-entry, but with not much to do, and Sulu, Chekov and Uhura are very much neglected by the screenwriters, who have undermined the legend of Spock by creating a spurious romance with Uhura.  I realize that they included elements in the prior film to justify departing from some aspects of these relationships as they were developed in the original TV series, but I hope they don’t undermine Spock’s strangeness and make him too human as the reboot continues.  (I’m assuming here that this film will be successful enough to make a third film possible….  Here’s hoping, since I definitely want to see more of Pine and Quinto in these roles.)

Finally, the mess that is Iron Man 3.  I really enjoyed the first film in this series, since I enjoy watching Robert Downey Jr. do his shtick, and he had plenty of good material in that first film.  The second was less interesting, but still watchable.  This third film is almost unwatchable.  I realize these Iron Man films are supposed to be filmed version of comic strip characters, but I think it goes altogether too far to keep resuscitating characters after they have apparently been killed off in circumstances that even a “super” character could not survive.  I like Guy Pearce as well as the next guy, but c’mon!!!  Are they planning to bring him back in Iron Man 4, if there is a 4?  This film was all about noise and explosions, and Downey was giving very little good material to play with.  The kid who saves him stole the show, as far as I was concerned.

Busy Cultural Calendar – Suzuki at the NYP, Don Carlo at the Met, Marlboro Musicians at PSC, The Revisionist at Cherry Lane Theatre, The Lying Lesson at Atlantic Theater Co.

Posted on: March 14th, 2013 by Art Leonard No Comments

From the title of this posting, you can see that I’ve attended quite a few things over the past few weeks, and I’ve been too busy to write about them individually, so herewith a summing up.

On March 8 I was at the New York Philharmonic to hear Masaaki Suzuki, making his debut conducting the orchestra, in works by Mendelssohn and Johann Sebastian Bach.  The program had a nice symmetry, beginning with Bach’s motet “Singet dem Herrn ein Neues Lied”, BWV 225, and concluding with his Magnificat in D, BWV 243.  In between, we had Mendelssohn’s Magnificat in D from 1822, and surviving selections from his incomplete oratorio, Christus (published posthumously as Op. 97).  Thus, each half ended with a Magnificat!  I had become acquainted with Suzuki’s work through his Bach recordings on the BIS label, as I have been collecting his serious of the complete Catatas as they have been issued.  I also have and greatly admire his recording of Monteverdi’s 1610 publication of the Mass and Vespers Service.  Suzuki melds the best of “historically informed practice” with lively tempi, well-articulated rhythms, and full, colorful sound, verging at times on the romantic.  All of those merits were on display with the Philharmonic.  The selections from “Christus” were a delighful musical discovery for me. The music was intensely dramatic, and the solo singing by Sherezade Panthaki (soprano), Nicholas Phan (tenor), and Tyler Duncan and Paul Tipton (baritones) was right on the money.  The excellent combined forces of Bach Collegium Japan and Yale Schola Cantorum (Suzuki directs both) provided a rich, well-focused sound and brought generally youthful enthusiasm to the music.  Mendelssohn’s Magnificat, a youthful work (age 13) predating his “breakthrough” accomplishments of the Octet and the Midsummer Night’s Dream Overture, is well-crafted but not yet at the level of mature individuality that this composer would achieve within a year or two.  The Bach motet, performed (unusually) with the accompaniment of an instrumental octet & organ, made a grand introduction with it’s 8-voice polyphony.  The highlight for me was Bach’s Magnificat, which I had the pleasure of playing (as an orchestra member) in college.  I’ve long regarded this piece as one of Bach’s finest achievements, verging on opera at times, bringing out the drama inherent in the text of this ancient Latin poem.  Once again, the solos were thrilling, especially Nicholas Phan’s “heroic” performance of the Deposuit.

The next afternoon I was at the Metropolitan Opera for the Saturday matinee performance of Verdi’s Don Carlo, conducted by Lorin Maazel.  The Met performs the original 5 act version, written for the Paris Opera, but in an Italian translation that was original conceived for the 4-act version presented in Italy and then expanded.  I think Verdi was smart to leave out the original Act 1 when he introduced the work in Italy.  It is the least inspired of the acts, it makes the piece extra long, and it is not necessary to the dramatic action, as the “back story” can be provided to the audience before the performance.  (One friend, disagreeing with my view, points out that Act 1 ends with the only really happy music in the opera.  True enough.)  Maazel’s slow tempi ensured that the 5-Act version made for a very long show, beginning shortly after 11 am and concluding at close to 4 p.m., with two intermissions, one after Act 2 and one after Act 3.  I thought Ramon Vargas was not really up to the challenges of the title role, but Ferruccio Furlanetto was excellent as King Phillip of Spain, and Tommaso Matelli was stunning as the Grand Inquisitor in his big scene with Furlanetto.  Barbara Frittoli and Anna Smirnova in the female leads were also excellent, but the real stars of the afternoon were the Met chorus and the orchestra, as is often the case in this house.

That evening, I heard a group of Musicians from Marlboro presented by Peoples’ Symphony Concerts at the High School of Fashion Industries in Manhattan.  A string quartet made up of Michelle Ross, Ida Levin, Michael Tree and Paul Wiancko gave excellent performances of Haydn’s Op. 77, No. 1, and Schumann’s Op. 41, No.2.  Levin returned with Emily Deans and Gabriel Cabezas for a very dramatic rendition of Schoenberg’s String Trio as the interlude between the two quartets.  This was music-making on a very high level, as always from Marlboro groups.  PSC remains at the HSFI as renovations are dragging on at their usual home base of Washington Irving High School.

Sunday afternoon it was down to Greenwich Village and the Cherry Lane Theater for Rattlestick Playwrights Theater’s production of Jesse Eisenberg’s new play, The Revisionist, starring Eisenberg, Vanessa Redgrave and Dan Oreskes.  Redgrave plays an elderly Polish Jewish woman playing host to her “cousin” from American, played by Eisenberg, who drops in for a week to work on a book he is writing.  He’s a terrible houseguest, and she is tortured by a secret she eventually has to share with him about her past.  Oreskes plays a taxi driver who provides transportation and male attention to Redgrave’s character.  Most of the dialogue between Redgrave and Oreskes is in Polish!  Or at least a convincing representation thereof.  Eisenberg’s character seems a near variant of the part he wrote for himself in his prior Rattlestick production, Asuncion, and not far different from the part of Mark Zuckerberg he played in the movie, “The Social Network.”  Time for Eisenberg to show more range and stop playing the same personality type in different settings.  Redgrave is incredible in this and makes it worth seeing, creating one of those truly unforgettable characters.

Finally, on Tuesday night (March 12) I saw the last preview performance of “The Lying Lesson,” an Atlantic Theater Company production of a new play by Craig Lucas, which opened the following night and got its NY Times review this morning.  I agree with the NY Times review, having also found this tale of the elderly Bette Davis a bit thin on the ground, although nicely produced and acted by Carol Kane and Mickey Sumner.  Kane channels Davis, although I thought in the first half hour or so her strange way of talking and walking seemed more caricature than performance.  Sumner is entrancing as a young woman who “breaks in” to the house on the Maine coast that Davis is in the process of buying and worms her way into Davis’s confidence.  I guess people who are infatuated with the image of Bette Davis will find this entertaining, but I was bored.

Tonight I look forward to a concert performance of Andre Previn’s operative treatment of “A Streetcar Named Desire” at Carnegie Hall.

Zero Dark Thirty

Posted on: January 25th, 2013 by Art Leonard No Comments

This film was high on my list, but it took a while to find the time to go.  I went earlier this week and have been trying to “process” for myself what I think about this film. 

Zero Dark Thirty presents a dramatic version of the search for Osama bin Laden, launched after the 9/11/2001 suicide attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.  The focus is on a particular female CIA agent who, in the film, participates in the effort to determine Bin Laden’s location.  Early scenes vividly portray the torture of a captured suspect by CIA operatives seeking information about the operations of Al Qaeda and Bin Laden’s location.  Our main character observes but does not personally inflict physical force on the suspect. The presentation can be somewhat confusing, because little explanation is provided to the viewer.  There is little in the way of comprehensible exposition in the early stages of the film.  It is unclear whether any information that the torture subject reveals is used or contributes directly to apprehending terrorists.  Later scenes cast some doubt on the reliability of intelligence upon which the CIA operatives are taking action.  Ultimately, of course, Bin Laden’s whereabouts are discovered, after ten years of effort, and a major portion of the film is devoted to a re-enactment of the successful raid on his compound.  My interpretation of what was happening was that lucky breaks, good detective work, and the obsessive focus of the central character, played by Jessica Chastain, resulted in locating and terminating BinLaden.  (My understanding is that the character portrayed by Chastain may be something of a composite, not totally based on just one individual.)

This is a thrilling piece of film-making, giving the viewer a sense of being present and observing real events unwinding.  It is confusing to follow at times, because the narrative is fast-paced, many of the characters speak quickly in jargon-laden language, and there is sometimes no explanation about what is going on – one just watches things unfold and has to supply one’s own explanation.  The casting and directing is very strong.  I was particularly amused at James Gandolfini (“Tony Soprano”) being cast as Director of the CIA.  Once a boss, always a boss, I guess.  He gives a great performance, as he always does, even though it is a brief bit part.

This film has attracted some harsh criticism as being said to communicate that torture results in useful intelligence.  It is not clear to me that the film would send that message to a viewer who is watching intently and interpreting carefully what is presented.  One of my facebook friends questioned why the torture scenes were included if they were not relevant to the discovery of Bin Laden’s location?  My response is that the vehicle for presenting this story is the central character and a dramatic account of her experiences, which would include from the time she arrived in the Middle East as part of the intelligence-gathering mission after 9/11, a time that included these extreme interrogation techniques.  These were experiences that marked her and influenced how she proceeded.  It seemed to me that Chastain portrayed the character as being uncomfortable with these techniques and being devoted to other means of investigation.  She ultimately uncovers Bin Laden’s location after these techniques were officially abandoned, and it is not clear from the film that any intelligence traced to torture of captives directly contributed to the discovery.

It is now accepted by critics of the extreme interrogation techniques that in addition to being immoral they are not effective because a subject under such interrogation will say what they think they have to say to end the torture, regardless of its truth, and — as I think is well illustrated in these violent scenes — will tell interrogators what the interrogators want to hear, just reinforcing what may be incorrect suppositions.  Experts in the field contend that verbal interrogation, skillfully conducted, can be much more effective in eliciting accurate information.  I don’t think this film, as a dramatic work, can settle that question one way or the other.  I do think that the graphic depiction of these violent interrogation techniques is likely to bring home to the viewer how repulsive such techniques are, demeaning of human dignity and contrary to the concepts upon which our country is founded, including ideas of due process of law and protection of individual autonomy as well as respect for the physical integrity of the individual.  We reject the notion that the ends always justify the means, and if the ends are illusory and the means are disgusting, all the more reason to reject the means.

At bottom, I think the criticism of the filmmakers is overly-generalized and inadequately sensitive to the details of the film they made.  Depicting such activities is not equivalent to approving of them.  I would be very upset if the film overtly depicted a torture victim spouting obviously valuable and accurate intelligence in the course of this activity, but that is not my impression of the scenes in this film.

Promised Land – New Film

Posted on: January 10th, 2013 by Art Leonard No Comments

Gus Van Sant’s new film, “Promised Land,” with a screenplay by Matt Damon and Jon Krasinski, who co-star in the film, is obviously a labor of love on the part of all concerned, and I found it interesting to watch, but also a bit didactic. 

The theater tonight (Wednesday night) was pretty empty, so I suspect that despite the good reviews this one is not doing very well at the box office.  But it deserves to do better. 

They are sounding the alarm about a very important policy question, one that is now front and center here in New York State.  “Fracking” to release natural gas resources is helping to make the US move sharply towards energy independence, but at what cost?  Is the technology really safe enough?  Can one rely on the representations of the industry? 

This film rigs things in a few ways.  Casting a favorite old-timer like Hal Holbrook to raise the tough questions….  Depicting the energy company as a duplicitous, manipulating juggernaut….   And I won’t give away the ending, but I felt a bit manipulated.  On the other hand, they are raising very legitimate questions here that deserve careful study.

Cultural Updates: Some Summer Films & Some Mostly-Mozart

Posted on: August 9th, 2012 by Art Leonard No Comments

While visiting Mom in Florida, I saw two of the current crop of summer movies: "Ted" and "Total Recall." 

"Ted" is the saga of a teddy bear that comes to life and ultimately wreaks havoc in the life of the little boy to whom he is given as a Christmas present.  It seems to have had a wildly popular few weeks upon its release, probably because people love the foul-mouthed, raunchy teddy bear, who gets away with saying things that nobody would tolerate in "polite society."  I thought the main acting accomplishment in this movie was the ability of the human actors to keep a straight face while delivering their lines — which was no doubt enhanced by the absence of the teddy bear, who was inserted through the miracle of contemporary computer graphics, no doubt.  Mom turned to me early in the movie and said "this is really silly" but in fact it was entertaining, there were a few good belly laughs, but I don't think it's going to win any awards.

"Total Recall" is a remake of an old Arnold Schwarzenegger sci-fi flick, with Colin Farrell in the Arnie role.  I always enjoy watching Colin Farrell, who shows off his fine physical condition in an early scene wearing nothing but boxer shorts.  Apart from that scene, the film is largely forgettable.  It is really just a variation on a typical "chase" film, in which Farrell is constantly on the run once it turns out that he seems to be not who he seems to be.  It's a bit confusing, and the ending doesn't necessarily sort everything out, either.  Lots of noise and gruesome special effects are on display.  So I guess it's a typical summer film — but the choices were limited at the Ormond Beach multiplex….

The annual Mostly Mozart Festival is well under way at Lincoln Center, and I've now been to two programs.  Last Wednesday I attended the all-Mozart evening directed by Louis Langree, the Festival's Music Director.  The big works on the program were a piano concerto with Nelson Freire as soloists and the Prague Symphony (No. 38).  They started with an old favorite, the overture to La Clemenza da Tito (which I learned as a kid from a 78 rpm recording by Sir Thomas Beecham and the LPO), and also brought on Lawrence Brownlee, a fine tenor, to sing two numbers.  It was certainly a pleasant evening, although from my vantage point, a side-stage seat behind the tympani, it felt at times like a tympani concerto (especially in the symphony). 

This Wednesday we had a very different sort of concert – no Mozart!  In the first half, Susanna Malkki conducted the Festival Orchestra in Luciano Berio's "Rendering," a realization of sketches that Franz Schubert left that could have become his 10th Symphony.  Because Schubert hadn't fully sketched out the symphony when he turned to other projects and then died, things were not far enough along — at least in Berio's view — to just do a reconstruction and orchestration job.  (Although others have done that.  I remember at least two recordings or "realizations" of Schubert's 10th Symphony based on these sketches.)  What Berio did was to just orchestrate the sketches and then connect them with aimless canoodling of an orchestrally diaphonous sort.  The result is curiously unsatisfying.  I think that Malkki and the orchestra did what could be done with it, but I didn't think it really worked as a coherent piece of music.

After intermission, Garrick Ohlsson appeared for Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 5, the "Emperor" concerto.  Every time I hear this concerto in concert I am awash with nostalgia for my youth, since it was on the first program in which I played as a double-bassist in the Cornell University Symphony Orchestra.  We were joining orchestras all over the world in marking Beethoven's 200th birthday in December 1970.  Our conductor, Karel Husa, was acquainted from his student days in Prague with Rudolf Firkusny, the great Czech pianist, and had landed him as our soloist for the concerto and the Choral Fantasy.  It was a spectacular concert, and thrilling for me.  I think of it every time I attend a performance of the "Emperor."  That Ohlsson was the soloist was icing on the cake, because I first hear him perform that very year at Cornell.  He was fresh from triumph in the Warsaw Chopin International Competition and performed as part of the University's concert series.  So, double the nostalgia and gratifying it was to see him thriving in concert 42 years later.  (I've heard him perform many times over the years, and he's never let me down yet.)

Ohlsson is a big man, but looks can deceive, and he plays with incredible delicacy and finesse when these characteristics are called for.  In the first movement of the Beethoven, there are many such interludes, and it was a pleasure to watch and listen.  Ohlsson projects an air of calm engagement which is quite reassuring to an audience.  You know he is master of the situation, you sense he is totally comfortable with the music, and you can just sit back and enjoy.  There is no nervousness about things going wrong.  There is also rarely any venture beyond the mainstream of interpretation, but that can be very satisfying in this concerto when everything just clicks.  I was impressed again, as I always am when I heard this, by how transcendantly beautiful the first few pages of the second movement can be in the right hands.  Beethoven at his most Mozartian, which may by itself justify its inclusion at the Mostly-Mozart Festival.

Responding to tumultuous applause at the end, Ohlsson played Chopin's Eb Waltz with great panache and at least 5 cellphone interruptions.  (He just played right through them, apparently oblivious since he was focused on playing the music.)  Why do people turn their cellphones on before the houselights have come back on????

Prior to the concert, there was a brief recital by pianist Conrad Tao, an 18-year-old Juilliard-Columbia student.  He played two Rachmaninoff Preludes and Stravinsky's Three Movements from Petroushka.  He certainly has the big technique for these pieces, but not yet the finesse that he will achieve with age and experience.  I thought the contrast with Ohlsson was interesting.  Ohlsson's dynamic range seemed to me about twice as large – from softest to loudest – as Tao's, and his molding of the music and sensitivity to phrasing and touch put the youngster in the shade.  But it's an unfair comparison.  Heard on his own, Tao was fine for his current stage of development.  I just hope he hung around to hear Ohlsson and kept his ears open.  There is lots of room for growth. 

This weekend I head with my regular concert companion for Cooperstown, N.Y., to sample the wares at Glimmerglass Opera Festival.  We will be attending all four of this year's productions, squeezed into two evenings and two matinees.  The NY Times did a summary review of last week's performances, and it sounds like we will be having a splendid time.

The Dark Knight Rises – The New Film

Posted on: July 21st, 2012 by Art Leonard No Comments

Yesterday I was part of the enormous outpouring of U.S. moviegoers who packed the theaters for the opening of "The Dark Night Rises."  Undeterred by the news of insanity from Aurora, Colorado, I went with a friend to see an early evening show at the Regal Cinema in Battery Park City.  NYPD officers were idling out front, as promised by Police Commissioner Ray Kelly, but I didn't see how that would have prevented a similar incident at that theater, as they were down at the street level, were not checking bags, there are no metal detectors, there is an alternative entrance to the building that was not guarded, and the theater is several stories above street level (reached through escalators and an elevator).  So the police officers were there to "show the flag," not to accomplish anything substantive.

There was some tension and apprehension among the audience, but the only real distraction I confronted was a serial texter sitting where his flashing smartphone screen was an occasional distraction to me.  (I hate it when people do that, despite the pre-show announcement that texting is prohibited during the movie.  By contrast, I was pleasantly surprised that there were no cell-phone signal disruptions during the long movie, at least none that I heard.)

As to the film itself – It will be a big financial success, although I don't think it is an extraordinary artistic success.  It is a summer action film.  There is lots of action.  There is plenty of noise. There are explosions.  There are fights.  There are nifty sets and costumes.  There are dastardly villains and flawed heroes.  There are Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman doing their wonderful supporting role things.  There are great toys in play for Batman.  There is Joseph Gordon-Levitt as a not-too-bright but very loyal young cop.  I'm not going to include any plot-spoilers here, but by now so many millions of people have seen the film that keeping details of the plot a secret seems a waste of energy.

Was it worth seeing?  Yes.  Would it have been better to see it at an IMAX theater rather than in stadium seating at a regular theater?  I don't know, but I find that the projection and sound at Regal's Battery Park City location is pretty good, and even though it is a multiplex the wide screen was decently large.  Audiences there tend to be better behaved than at the midtown theaters, because there is a much higher ratio of local residents to tourists.  (Battery Park City is a bit off the tourist path.) 

My one complaint: I found the dialogue hard to decipher at times, because of the tendency of the actors to mumble their lines, speak them too quickly, or throw away syllables.  In addition, the leading villain wears an apparatus on his lower face that obscures his speech, and when dressed as Batman, Christian Bale disguises his voice in a way that also sometimes obscures meaning.  (By contrast, one can always understand every word that Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman utter, and when he's not dressed as Batman, Bale is also very good about articulating his lines.)  But understanding every word isn't essential to following the somewhat convoluted and occasionally confusing plotting….  In the end, it's about the action and the noise more than about the story.

Comments on a selection of summer films…. June/July 2012

Posted on: July 10th, 2012 by Art Leonard No Comments

The onslaught of "summer films" has begun, and I've attended several over the past few weeks, including "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter," "Moonrise Kingdom," "The Amazing Spiderman," and "To Rome With Love."  Actually, "To Rome," the Woody Allen piece, is not specifically a summertime movie; it just coincidentally got released.  But the others name above certainly fit the genre – more focused on entertainment than any sort of social commentary.  Of the entire lot, I liked "Moonrise Kingdom" the best.  It's sort of a role reveral film.  A bunch of kids take to acting like adults, putting to shame the adults in their life who are acting like immature kids much of the time.  I especially loved the soundtrack, which used lots of music by Benjamin Britten, including the favorite old recording of his Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra, with Bernstein and the NY Philharmonic, narrated by Schuylar Chapin when he was still a child.

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, is not quite as lame as it sounds.  (The NY Times critic commented that it was such a wonderful title for a film that it was a shame that they spoiled it by making the movie.)  The film takes the life story of Lincoln and interjects vampires; so what could be bad?  Young Abe, staying up late reading in the loft of the log cabin, sees the vampirish creditor of his deadbeat dad steal into the cabin and bit his mother, who subsequently dies in great pain.  Lincoln determines upon revenge and when he grows up becomes a vampire hunter!  The skills he learns come in handy when he is president and the crisis of the Confederate invasion of the north (culminating in the battle of Gettysburg) is amplified by Jefferson Davis's enlistment of a swarm of southern vampires, who have been living off the blood of black slaves.  (C'mon, it's a vampire movie, so don't roll your eyes!)  One of the conceits of this film is that a vampire's bite will finish you off if you have a "pure soul" like Lincoln's innocent mom, but will turn you into an "undead" vampire if not.  Lincoln resists the offer of eternal life, rejecting the proffered bite of a vampire who befriends him, deciding instead to go to the theater with Mrs. Lincoln, and you know what happens next.

"The Amazing Spiderman" – Somebody decided to remake the original Spiderman movie, but to change various plot elements along the way.  Andrew Garfield and his current girlfriend star as Peter Parker and his girlfriend.  Complication: girlfriend is the daughter of the police inspector who's out to get Spiderman.  Garfield is a sexier Spiderman than his predecessor – at least, his seems to fill out his Spiderman costume better – and he is also more subtle actor, which might seem out of place in this kind of summer spectacular which is so heavily devoted to special effects.  At any rate, you get your decibel's worth in this film, and the 3-D effects put the earlier Spiderman movie in the shade.

"To Rome with Love" is the thinking person's summer movie, but it has its share of slapstick as Woody Allen takes some members of his usual crew of actors on a little vacation trip to Rome, mixing them with Italian actors for local color.  I liked "Midnight in Paris" better, but then I'm a sucker for costume drama and impersonations of historical figures, which you get in the time-travel sequences of "Midnight".  "To Rome" is set relentlessly in the present, but there is lots of good fun, and I hope it gets a wider release than the indy-house in which I saw it on a small screen. 

And still I wait for the ultimate summer movie – the return of Batman as the Black Knight, coming up in a few weeks.

Two Comedies: “To Rome With Love” and “Peter and the Starcatcher”

Posted on: June 27th, 2012 by Art Leonard No Comments

Here's a contrast.  A few days ago I went to see Woody Allen's new film, "To Rome With Love," and yesterday evening I saw Rick Elice's play, "Peter and the Starcatcher."  Both comedies, but of a very different sort.

In "To Rome With Love," Woody Allen continues his progression through various European locales (he has in recent years shot films in England, France and Spain), now focusing on Rome – both the Rome of the tourists and the Rome of the natives, with a humorous look at their interaction.  After all, Rome is a city whose economy depends heavily on tourism, so combining the two makes sense.  I thought there were many more laughs in this one than in "Midnight in Paris," his previous European excursion, but ultimately I found "MIdnight" the more interesting film because of the amusing way he presented historical characters from the Parisian cultural scene of the 1920s, interacting with a "time traveling" modern American.  There is, basically, one story line running through "Midnight in Paris."  "To Rome With Love" presents several simultaneous story lines, cutting back and forth between them.  One expects them to intersect, but they don't – they just continue as parallel story lines. 

That said, each of the parallel story lines is interesting, and some really comical situations develop.  I was entertained and engaged throughout.  There is also an interesting intermingling here of familiar American actors and mainly unfamiliar Italian actors.  Some of the action takes place in Italian with English subtitles.  My favorite character is the funeral director, Giancarlo, played by Fabio Armiliato, a familiar name because Armiliato sings at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. He is a funeral director who loves to sing in the shower and has a great voice, but outside the shower he's a musical dud.  Woody Allen, playing the American father of a young woman who has fallen in love with Giancarlo's son, Michelangelo (played charmingly by Flavio Parenti), is a retired opera director who overhears Giancarlo singing in the shower and makes big plans for his operatic career – with hilarious results.

Anyway, I think this one is definitely worth seeing, even though it is not quite in the class of "Midnight in Paris."

As for "Peter and the Starcatcher"…  This is a light-hearted prequel to the familiar Peter Pan story, giving a "back story" to Peter and Captain Hook.  It comes across like typical British nonsense comedy, lots of slapstick, lots of punning (most of it outrageous) – in short, Monty Python and Spamalot are definite godfathers of this show.  That said, the large cast manages all the silliness very well, especially the leads – Christian Borle as "Black Stache" – the pirate leader who will become our celebrated Captain; Adam Chanler-Berat as the nameless orphan boy who will become Peter; and Celia Keenan-Bolger as the fierce tomboy-girl who will eventually grow up to be the mother of Wendy in the Peter Pan stories.  Lots of energy is expended on stage, and the audience is kept enthralled.  At Broadway prices, one might expect something a bit deeper, but it is what it is and for what it is it is exceedingly well done.

Two Comedies: “To Rome With Love” and “Peter and the Starcatcher”

Posted on: June 27th, 2012 by Art Leonard No Comments

Here's a contrast.  A few days ago I went to see Woody Allen's new film, "To Rome With Love," and yesterday evening I saw Rick Elice's play, "Peter and the Starcatcher."  Both comedies, but of a very different sort.

In "To Rome With Love," Woody Allen continues his progression through various European locales (he has in recent years shot films in England, France and Spain), now focusing on Rome – both the Rome of the tourists and the Rome of the natives, with a humorous look at their interaction.  After all, Rome is a city whose economy depends heavily on tourism, so combining the two makes sense.  I thought there were many more laughs in this one than in "Midnight in Paris," his previous European excursion, but ultimately I found "MIdnight" the more interesting film because of the amusing way he presented historical characters from the Parisian cultural scene of the 1920s, interacting with a "time traveling" modern American.  There is, basically, one story line running through "Midnight in Paris."  "To Rome With Love" presents several simultaneous story lines, cutting back and forth between them.  One expects them to intersect, but they don't – they just continue as parallel story lines. 

That said, each of the parallel story lines is interesting, and some really comical situations develop.  I was entertained and engaged throughout.  There is also an interesting intermingling here of familiar American actors and mainly unfamiliar Italian actors.  Some of the action takes place in Italian with English subtitles.  My favorite character is the funeral director, Giancarlo, played by Fabio Armiliato, a familiar name because Armiliato sings at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. He is a funeral director who loves to sing in the shower and has a great voice, but outside the shower he's a musical dud.  Woody Allen, playing the American father of a young woman who has fallen in love with Giancarlo's son, Michelangelo (played charmingly by Flavio Parenti), is a retired opera director who overhears Giancarlo singing in the shower and makes big plans for his operatic career – with hilarious results.

Anyway, I think this one is definitely worth seeing, even though it is not quite in the class of "Midnight in Paris."

As for "Peter and the Starcatcher"…  This is a light-hearted prequel to the familiar Peter Pan story, giving a "back story" to Peter and Captain Hook.  It comes across like typical British nonsense comedy, lots of slapstick, lots of punning (most of it outrageous) – in short, Monty Python and Spamalot are definite godfathers of this show.  That said, the large cast manages all the silliness very well, especially the leads – Christian Borle as "Black Stache" – the pirate leader who will become our celebrated Captain; Adam Chanler-Berat as the nameless orphan boy who will become Peter; and Celia Keenan-Bolger as the fierce tomboy-girl who will eventually grow up to be the mother of Wendy in the Peter Pan stories.  Lots of energy is expended on stage, and the audience is kept enthralled.  At Broadway prices, one might expect something a bit deeper, but it is what it is and for what it is it is exceedingly well done.

A Week of Dramatized Biography

Posted on: May 19th, 2012 by Art Leonard No Comments

This past week I attended three productions that were dramatizations of the lives of real people.  On Tuesday, I saw "The Columnist," a play by David Auburn about Joe Alsop, the syndicated columnist who wielded outsize influence in the 1950s and 1960s.  On Thursday, I saw "End of the Rainbow," a play by Peter Quilter, about Judy Garland's December 1968 visit to London to perform a series of concerts in an attempted comeback from drug and alcohol addiction.  And on Friday morning, I attended a mid-day screening of "Mahler on the Couch," a German film directed by Percy Adlon, with script by Percy and Felix Adlon, about Gustav Mahler's consultation with Sigmund Freud during a crisis in Mahler's marriage.

Each of these productions had strengths and weaknesses, but all three impressed me as interesting attempts to capture the personalities of people who made a difference in the world but suffered terribly from various kinds of emotional instability, insecurity, and the brave projection of superiority.  And each provided a vehicle for some incredible acting.  John Lithgow as Joe Alsop created a memorably despicable character, a closeted gay man who marries a widowed mother of a teenage girl as a "cover" and insurance against blackmail generated by his indiscretion with a Russian agent while on assignment in Moscow.  Tracie Bennett does an incredible, over-the-top job impersonating Garland shortly before her drug overdose death, as she struggled with her demons to keep her concert commitment in London.  And Johannes Silberschneider creates a memorable Mahler – at least for me, if not for The Times' critic. 

Each of these leading characters is surrounding by a strong supporting cast in a very well-done production.

In "The Columnist," we get a convincing Washington, D.C., study as our setting for most of the drama, and excellent support from Margaret Colin as Alsop's wife, Boyd Gaines as his brother Stewart, Stephen Kunken as his journalistic antagonist on the issue of the Vietnam War, David Halberstam, and Brian J. Smith as the Russian "tour guide" who entraps him in the indiscretion that will haunt him throughout his career.  In "End of the Rainbow," most of the action takes place in the grand room of a London hotel suite; Tom Pelphrey is stunning as Garland's last boyfriend who struggles to keep her off pills and alcohol until it become obvious that she can't function without them, and Michael Cumpsty is winning as the gay pianist/music director for her show who goes far beyond the call of duty to get her through the ordeal.  In "Mahler on the Couch," apparently shot in the actual locations where much of the plot unfolded, Karl Markovics is a playful Freud, Barbara Romaner an enticing Alma Schindler, but to me the most enticing of the supporting players is Friedrich Mucke as the glamorous young architect, Walter Gropius, whose affair with Alma ignites the crisis that leads Mahler to Freud.

Despite all this talent on display (and excellent cinematography in the Mahler film), there are weaknesses in the scripts that undermine the effectiveness of the productions.  "The Columnist" is very talky at times and drags in the first act.  "End of the Rainbow" is full of histrionics, and at times I felt that Ms. Bennett's Garland becomes cartoonishly exaggerated – but her singing saves the day!  Finally, the Mahler film seems overly simplistic in "diagnosing" the composer's mental and family problems.  Despite these flaws, however, I found the sequence of biographical productions to be generally stimulating, entertaining, and worth the time I spent.

I would especially recommend that anybody interested in the Mahler film HURRY to see it (at Lincoln Center Film Society) since films of this sort tend to have short runs – although I've no doubt it will become available on DVD before too long.