Thursday, August 27, 2015

David Gordon Green's "Joe" - Cage is the man.

Undertow, All the Real Girls, and now Joe . . . David Gordon Green again proves himself to be among the greatest indie film directors/producers in the business.

In Joe, Green gives Nicolas Cage one of the strongest roles of his career. In fact, I can't think of a better performance from this actor than what he brings to the title character of this remarkable film.

The greatest directors all have a sense of personal style that is immediately identifiable and, as unlikely as it seems, I went into Joe not knowing a thing about it (other than the brief 2 sentence synopsis) but immediately sensed this was the work of DGG.

An ex-con with a propensity towards violence frequently kept at the simmering point (barely), Joe is, nonetheless, a solid man, a good hearted fellow with a moral conscience that at time seems to torture him and barely keeps him from returning to prison.

Leading and managing a group of black, aging forest day workers,he takes in 15 year old, badly abused Gary as a hand. Up until know the only hand this kid has known has been that of Wade, his raging alcoholic of a father whose abuse on his family is the stuff of nightmares.

Unlike most mentor flicks, Joe reveals himself to Gary, warts and all, but even so, Joe is the halcyon lake to Wade's cesspool.

As ever, Green plumbs the depths of each of his characters and they unfold before our eyes, exposing a humanity borne both of darkness and light. Even Wade, despite his despicability, becomes more of a tragic figure, more pitiable than loathsome (though loathsome is not out of the question).

In addition to the central redemption story, Joe shows the title character's interactions among his poor, rural Texas community with Green skimping neither on the brutality nor the horrors of this life bringing an unflinching realism that comes off in near documentary style.

Throughout the darkness Joe is shot through with moments of almost comedic lightness that lend a believable truth to the film, something missing from many bigger budgeted Hollywood movies. As an example and, without revealing too much, a potentially dangerous scene segues into a break dancing lesson from the most unlikely of characters, a moment of cinematic magic that didn't cost a million dollars.

As with most of this director's films, the cast could not be bettered. In addition to Cage's already lauded turn as Joe, Tye Sheridan's performance as Gary is a thing of beauty, capturing one who has seen too much too soon yet still hopes to retain a thread of the innocence every kid deserves. It's masterful work from a gifted young actor.

As Wade, Green cast a local homeless man, Gary Poulter, who pulls in whatever it was in his life that took him there . . . and gives it back to us tenfold. It is a terrifying, soul searing and tortured performance. (Note: Mr. Poulter died two months after filming and is one of two people Joe is dedicated to).

Ronnie Gene Blevins, Adriene Mishler, Elbert Hill, A.J. Wilson McPhaul and the rest of the cast all contribute mightily to the telling of this tale, written by Gary Hawkins based upon Larry Brown's novel of the same name.

Cinematography and soundtrack are wed exquisitely, with at least one incredible sequence featuring noise (feedback, electronics, etc.) in place of music to chilling effect. While Joe is not a film for the faint of heart, those willing enter to its world on its own terms are in for a richly rewarding film experience with some powerful performances.

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Sunday, August 2, 2015

PORTopera's Tosca: One Sing-ular Sensation

On paper at least, Puccini’s Tosca seemed like an odd choice for an opera company to make its debut in the arena of “semi-staging” However, with imaginative use of space, intelligent (and detailed) direction, good costumes, a first rate orchestra, choruses and a cast of singers, the possibility exists of the experience being greater than the sum of its parts. Such was the case with PORTopera’s second go at Puccini’s classic potboiler.

With a 60+ piece orchestra taking pride of place on stage, only a narrow corridor of space toward the apron existed for the action to develop. A large wooden platform with a staircase leading to its top served, in the first act as the painter Mario Cavaradossi’s galley in Church of Sant’Andrea della Valle, (an enormous blank picture frame atop it), and in the second, as the parapet of the Castel St. Angelo for a changing of the guard, and the denouement of Tosca leaping to her death.

Challenged by the limited playing space, director, Dona D. Vaughn created an intimate Tosca that did not skimp on her customary excellence, her supernumeraries (scrub maid,, monk, Scarpia’s henchmen, et al.) enlivening and providing richly detailed action.

Vaughn wisely embraced, and enhanced, the comedic elements of the first act which came off with the lighthearted naturalness of musical comedy, particularly the marvelous work from Thomas Hammons' genuinely funny (and warmly curmudgeonly) Sacristan, the romantic interplay between Tosca and Mario, and the children’s entrance. The children's chorus was a delight and one could not help but smile as as the kids circled and danced around the old man. All of this worked, of course, to heighten the contrasting, darker, more chilling aspects of the tale and make them more deeply felt without the use of maudlin manipulation to which this opera frequently falls prey.

Adam Diegel, PORT’s excellent Pinkerton from several seasons ago, returned as an exuberant young Cavaradossi, his bright, enormously pingy tenor ringing out with amazing clarity over the orchestra. Despite Maestro Lord’s moving the score along, both of Mario’s arias elicited applause, particularly the tragic “E lucevan le stele,” which earned hearty cheers and bravos from the house, and his "Vittoria!" has rarely been more thrillingly sung in my lifetime.

Alexandra LoBianco made for a lovely, winning Tosca presenting a softer, more coquettish heroine than the sometimes jealous, woman-on-the-verge as she's so frequently presented. LoBianco offered a softer, more coquettish Tosca, a deliciously coy flirtatiousness tempering her jealous outbursts, making her vulnerable and her eventual harrowing predicament all the more wrenching. The first act duet with Mario garnered enough applause to nearly stop the action, and, I can state without hesitation, it's been many years since I've felt a certain "tingle" at the end of that scene.

Luxury casting was found in the Scarpia of James Morris, whose voice, while showing signs of age, has Scarpia imprinted all over it. I wasn't the only one who wondered why he, alone, was in a modern tuxedo (I'm imagining a minor costume controversy may have been involved here) but the fact is he could've been donned in overalls or pajamas and one still was going to believe THIS was Scarpia. The self-important piety with which he entered, literally stopped the show in St. Andrea's. Alternating between subtlety and villainy Morris created a Scarpia who one sensed always got his way, his man . . . and his woman. Until Tosca.

Mario's execution was made all the more gruesome by the addition of a coup de grâce, stopped at the last minute, the effect of which made the moment all the more chilling and, perhaps for the first time, made me wonder if the boy might actually get up and flee with Tosca. The ensuing moments of chaos worked beautifully (how nice to hear the vocal parts here, almost always eliminated by the Met and other companies) as Tosca is hunted and chased down before taking opera's most famous leap (LoBianco's "O Scarpia avanti a Dio" by the way, was positively thrilling).

Over thirty years after I (a then a chorister) sang a tour of Boheme with him, it was an absolute joy to see and hear Thomas Hammons as the Sacristan, still potent of voice and ever the actor. Robert Mellon (Angelotti), Lucas Levy (Spoletta), Josh Quinn (Sciarrone) and Carina Di Gianfilippo (The Shepherd) all offered splendid contributions to the evening's proceedings.

Maestro Stephen Lord's work with the PORT orchestra and choruses was exemplary, presenting Puccini's score as full-throttled and rousing as one could hope for, leading principals for whom he rarely hold to hold back or do much adjusting of volume for.

On paper, this may have read as a "semi-staged" production, but for a packed house at Merrill Auditorium, it was a Tosca for the ages.

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Monday, June 22, 2015

That Other Salome: 1923 Silent Classic

After what seemed like forever I finally got my hands on a copy of this now classic silent starring the then 44 year old Alla Nazimova. With amazing designs by Natacha Rambova (aka Mrs. Rudy Valentino) it is inspired by Beardsley's famous drawings. Yes, at times Nazimova at times looks her age, but then melts into a bizarre girlishness appropriate to the insanity of her charactedr.

In amazing physical shape, Nazimova often isn't wearing, sometimes bringing focus to her wig with that crown of bobbing lights. It is one of the coolest headdresses created for film. She is never subtle, but what would be the purpose of that in a silent film? What she is is electrifying, captivating even when standing still and striking one of her trademark poses, evoking, at times, Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard (perhaps even inspiring Ms. Swanson?).

Earl Schenck is both beautiful and bizarre as Narraboth, in his harlequin painted tights, silver nipple discs and a necklace of beads as big as golf balls. He moves like a dancer.

Arthur Jasmine as The Page is about the feyest creature I've ever seen on screen and like everything else about this Salome, completely over the top.

No one, however, is more over-the-top than Rose Dione's termagant Herodias. Clawing, kicking Narraboth and her slaves, drunkenly flirting with a table guest hers is a frightening comical presence. She is not helped by her cave-woman hair and the most garishly painted tights in the film. Dione would later gain her "real" fame as the wonderful Madame Tetrallini in the film classic Freaks. There were moments where I thought "Cher as Morticia Addams."

Nigel De Brulier's Jokanaan seems to be modeled after Wilde himself. Nearly naked (as is much of the cast) he is positively sepulchral, his white, white skin almost glowing blue.

Interestingly there is a choice of soundtracks and I couldn't settle on one. Ultimately I ended up preferring the electronic score with "Invisible Orchestra" - a two man operation of keyboards and percussion, over the somewhat Strauss-lite, and flute heavy chamber orchestra accompaniment.

The famous dance is mesmerizing, Nazimova barely moving but riveting the attention. After the dance and execution, Nazimova's Salome is transformed by the most elaborate costume of the show, an eye-poopping gown worn beneath an enormous Turandot-like robe, completely with a stage filling train, her eyelids painted and topping everything off with a turban. Straight out of Beardsley, and a hell of a lot of fun.

Even more fun - and more visually impressive - was the bonus feature accompanying the film: Lot in Sodom. Lots of bared flesh, time-lapsed photography creating breathtakingly modern images for a film of its time.

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Monday, May 25, 2015

Wuorinen's Brokeback Mountain

Earlier I'd read an in depth review for the DVD of this opera, its critic asking if a composer known primarily for writing "dense, angular, and discordant music," could adapt his style to fit this story. His response was a resounding, "no," citing a complete lack of tenderness or warmth between the two central characters.

Today I watched the DVD of Wuorinen's opera, and must admit to feeling quite differently from what I'd read. This may be, at least in part, because I didn't feel it necessary for the composer to adapt his style for any reason; this is the musical language in which he speaks, and speaks it very well.

Despite the romance at its heart, I don't see Brokeback Mountain as "just" a gay love story, and while I admired Mr. Lee's film, feel Proulx's story to be more of a period piece, set in a time not long ago where being queer could (and obviously did) get people killed.

These two men (particularly Ennis) live in perpetual fear of being discovered resulting in a chilling denial of who they are. They inhabit a world that, more frequently than not, terrifies the hell out of them. Wuorinen captures this world, as well as these boys and their emotions, with chilling conviction and expressiveness.

Where Jack (a marvelous portrayal from Tom Randle) imagines the pair of them starting a life and owning a ranch together, Ennis is paralyzed by his fears to the point of inaction, and watches his life dissolve before him, impotent, angered and rendered incapable of doing anything about it. Again, Wuorinen's score conveys all of this, cutting brilliantly to the bone with an appropriate, tragic gravitas.

I've read assertions the creators do not allow us to witness any tenderness between the two men, either musically or dramatically. I disagree. To cite one example; their last night on the mountain opens with Jack standing alone, Ennis coming up from behind him, enveloping him in his arms, singing tenderly (including part of his wordless vocalise heard earlier). Here, he expresses his disappointment at having to leave Jack for the mountaintop, before being convinced to spend their one last night together. The staging here makes for great theatre and is filled with symbolic implications for all. We watch as the tent is lifted off of them as the stage transforms into the almost disjointed jumble that will be their lives for the next four years (and much of the rest of the opera).

While the score is typically angular and frequently dense, Wuorinen does provide beautiful moments to break up the harshness. Some feel such moments are too few, but they serve precisely what the composer and Ms. Proulx saw as their project, which is a different beast than the touching film from Mr. Lee. It is much closer to the author's original short story, which will not sit well for those who prefer the film's sentimentality. One of those moments is Jack and Ennis' final meeting, infinitely touching, as we witness frustration, grow into anger before transforming into an ultimate sense of foreboding; the realization that grief and continued loneliness shall be their only future they may share. Here, orchestra, singers, staging and libretto come together so masterfully I confess, I was, as Ennis later admits, choked with love." It's what (for me) opera is all about.

The remaining (rather large) cast, are fully committed to their (often) minor roles, with Heather Buck standing out as Ennis' young, frustrated wife, who over the course of their marriage reaches the point of no return. It's a tough sing with a lot of high notes and almost from the beginning, a fever pitch intensity. As Lureen Hannah Esther Minutillo, has a sometimes oddly accented English, but convey's her characters coolness and ambition convincingly. With probably the least amount of stage time, Jane Henschel turns in a touching portrayal of Jack's mother, her cameo feeling like a genuine star turn.

The final scene finds Ennis, alone at at the mountain, caressing their two shirts which Jack had secretly held onto for 20 years, pouring out his grief, admitting his great love, was emotionally shattering. You sense this man will be alone for whatever days he has left, the sentiment confirmed by his closing line, as those two shirts, along with any dreams or hopes, float away, upwards towards the peaks. "It was only you in my life, and it will always be only you. Only you. Jack, I swear." Here, after listening to all the density of orchestral layers building on top of one another, Wuorinen wisely ends the opera, with Jack holding one final, unaccompanied, ending his opera in silence. The effect is heartbreaking storytelling of the first order.

Towards the end of the review I'd earlier mentioned, its author of wrote:

"Thus, we are left with the message that love between men is no different from an encounter in a rough-n-ready porn flick, where grunts, slaps and lots of gritty sounds take the place of warmth, tenderness, and open-hearted embrace."

I felt no "porn" sensibility of any stripe at play here, the gentleness expressed between the dual protagonists being felt throughout the opera, a shocking counterpoint against the brutality of their realities. That warmth extended, too, through the final curtain as Mr. Okulitch, basking in a sea of applause, awaits his partner to join him, the two sharing a big embrace (how often do we see artists hugging during bows?) and a warm ovation.

I can see how Wuorinen's score, led here by Titus Engel, might be tough for some audiences to warm up to, but it is, in its often brutal way, beautiful, with the sense of the mountain felt strongly through the entire opera. .

I'd like to believe this score, and this fascinating production by Ivo van Hove, will be seen again on other stages, but whether that happens or not, am grateful for the commitment of Mr. Mortier the Teatro Real for producing it and the resultant DVD.

Hours later, I'm still a bit rattled by the experience, something I find the best of art always does to me.

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