Thursday, January 30, 2014

Sight and Sound Movie List - La Rahman

Not favorites, but movies I have happily watched multiple times...

1)      Bottle Rocket (Wes Anderson, 1996): It’s best if you watch this alone the first time around, or maybe with a friend or two who know not to talk a whole lot during movies, because the jokes are quiet and disguised as throwaway lines. If you root for the underdog you will love this movie. Also has one of the cutest love scenes ever.

2)      Bhaji on the Beach (Gurinder Chadha, 1993): A movie about a bunch of multigenerational South Asian women going on a day trip to a Blackpool beach resort. The fight, they laugh, they cry, they flirt, they lament. This movie is smart, funny, touching, and on point. I relate to every character in this movie.

3)      Devdas (1955 and 2002 remake): The 1955 version is dark and devastating. So much pain, so little joy.  The 2002 remake is absolutely gorgeous—the music, the costuming, the colors, the scenery. I want to live inside of it forever. But the glitzy Bollywood treatment takes away from the story a little, I think.  Also, I find Sharukh Khan to be SO irritating and hate his trembly scrunched-up crying face. Ugh, annoying. Really, though, both versions are classics.

4)      Mississippi Masala (Mira Nair, 1991): South Asia in the Deep South. This one is about a woman working in her family’s crappy motel in South Mississippi, the political circumstances that brought her family there, and her romance with a Black man. Sarita Choudhury and Denzel Washington are SUPER HOT together. I love the juxtaposition of two cultures that are fiercely loyal to their roots and their ways of being.

5)      Hype! (Doug Pray, 1996): I wasn’t even that into grunge music and don’t even necessarily like all the music in this film (although it did introduce me to “Second Skin” by The Gits, which is one of my favorite songs ever), but it’s a really well-made documentary and I’ve seen it way more times that I can count.  Good examination of how artistic communities grow, get talked up, get exploited, and then become “forgotten”.

6)      The Wedding Banquet (Ang Lee, 1993): I seem to gravitate towards movies involving cultural norms and the ways children and parents negotiate their way around them, I guess? Great movie about a gay man who not only feels that he cannot be honest about his sexuality with his Taiwanese parents, but who also goes through a traditional wedding ceremony to avoid hurting them with the truth.  Ultimately it’s about the lies families tell to protect one another. Warning: the trailer is TERRIBLE, so misleading and super corny, if I hadn’t already seen the movie it would have made me want to pass on it.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Sight and Sound Movie List - Eta Boris's Contribution

Well, the usual disclaimer that the list is not especially ordered. 

1. Pulp Fiction (1994, dir. Quentin Tarantino)
I consider this movie one of the perfect expressions of American Cool. For this reason, everyone loves to love this movie. But I don't care. This movie change the way I look at storytelling, dialog, and cinematography. It did with negative spaces and silences what many movies can't do with pages of words and action. During the diner scene at Jack Rabbit Slim's, there is a moment when both John Travolta and Uma Thurman are silent. They just smoke, and look off into the distance. It's not awkward, or strange, or forced. It's just one of the coolest shots in American movie history.

2. Amelie (2001, dir. Jean-Pierre Jeunet)
Right? This is the perfect romantic comedy. I assume that upon finishing this movie, Jean-Pierre Jeunet dropped the mic and walked off the stage. On top of that, it's gorgeously shot, meticulously written, and superbly acted. 

3. Animal House (1978, dir. John Landis)
This movie is such a legend, every college comedy since then has tried to be it (and failed utterly). It is juvenile a thousand times over, which is why it's so brilliant. It is always immensely gratifying to watch a group of extraordinarily talented people do their best and just not give a fuck. Best of all, instead of insightfully addressing the subtleties of human condition, or whatever, they do this.

4. Predator  (1987, dir. John McTiernan)
The first one - accept no imitations. It's Arnold doing what he does best - wearing makeup and punching things with bullets - and so much more. It is also a surprisingly (*) intelligent examination of militant masculinity and the hunter / prey duality. Both the soldiers and the Predator go through the hunter-to-prey transformation. What's more, they actually have clear and interesting psychological responses. All of this - in an 80s Arnold movie.

(*) I'm pretty sure it was surprising even to the writers, as they are the brains behind such incredible follow ups as Wild Wild West and AVP.

5. Requiem for a Dream (2000, dir. Darren Aronofsky)
It is such a brutally beautiful examination of life's downward spiral, it left me in a deep depression for several days. Then someone told me that Trainspotting was even heavier, and today, ten years later, I still can't bring myself to watch Trainspotting. This movie is simply flawless.

6. Ink (2009, dir. Jamin Winans)
This is an obscure indie that seems to have started out when someone wanted to make a mediocre martial arts demo tape. Then this somehow snowballed into an amazing concept and a final reveal that - even though you can probably see it coming - leaves you sobbing like a goddamned child.

7. The Dead Poets Society (1989, dir. Peter Weir)
Maybe my love of stories about alienation and self-discovery are a commentary on who I am. The first time I saw this movie was in English class, just a couple months after moving to the States. I'm sure I didn't actually understand much of it, but it hooked me. There's a measure of great acting and directing. 

8. Funny People (2009, dir. Judd Apatow)
Maybe this movie doesn't mean as much if you've never done live comedy. It's a good, honest, true portrayal of what it's like. 

9. Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead (1990, dir. Tom Stoppard)
Alright, Tim Roth and Gary Oldman are two of the best, easy. Tom Stoppard's intelligence, however, is frightening in its reach and depth. This is surely one of the smartest plays there is. It simultaneously filled me with wonder and made me feel like the least dullard.

10. Ghost in the Shell (1995, dir. Mamoru Oshii)
The first time I saw it, I was going through some particularly low and difficult times. It was a bizarre and exhilarating experience to see my mood so perfectly expressed on the screen. I think to this day the effect hasn't really lessened on me.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

800 Words: For Claudio Abbado (1933-2014)

The last minute of Bruckner’s 5th Symphony: crowning one of the most exciting finales ever written in one of the world’s greatest symphonies. For 80 minutes, Bruckner carefully assembles every single building block, patiently building a cathedral-like edifice in which the full effect is not revealed until the listener arrives at the final peroration, which crown the listening experience of Bruckner’s 5th Symphony in the same overwhelming way a pilgrim walks through a cathedral to finally arrive at a domed fresco which crowns the glory of an Italian duomo. The full orchestra intones a chorale which comes at us with all the force of prophetic revelation, and at the end of the chorale, Abbado hushes the orchestra so that we can pellucidly hear… the flute line.

Moments like this were all too frequent in Abbado’s music-making. No doubt, there were music-lovers, there always are, who heard that flute line and viewed it as yet another testimony to Claudio Abbado’s probity and meticulousness. I heard it and thought to myself, yet again, that this is a conductor who had far too much power. When recreative musicians spend their entire careers getting their every whim satiated, they lose focus on the essentials and concentrate on whatever trivial detail of their recreation captures their fancy.

Detail was at the heart of Abbado’s musicianship. He seemed to perceive music as a collection of millions of pixelated details which together formed an overwhelming composite. He once said in an interview that he was temperamentally misplaced as a conductor, being more suited to be an academic researcher. It’s impossible to hear his performances and not hear what he meant. The meticulousness of his approach is clear in every one of his performances. During the 1980’s when he was Principal Guest Conductor of the Chicago Symphony, he apparently drove the orchestra crazy with his constant need to hone every last detail of the score. Later in his career, he was said to talk very little in rehearsal, but by this point, he didn’t need to. He only appeared with orchestras like the Berlin Philharmonic or one of the half-dozen (!!!) orchestras he founded, which knew his desires and working methods extremely well.

I don’t mean to imply by any of this that Claudio Abbado was anything but a great conductor, there are far too many great achievements to ever deny him that status, but Abbado was a podium superstar in his early 30’s, and his star only grew with every decade. And as it did for so many musicians of his jet-set generation, his music making suffered enormously from the unprecedented wealth of opportunities he was afforded. And no conductor, perhaps in all of music history, was ever more catered to than Abbado, not even Bernstein or Karajan or Toscanini or Kleiber. He always prided himself on never having to seek an appointment because some organization would always imploring him to take over. But rather than demand growth from the organizations he lead, he seemed to have a passive-aggressive habit of ditching his organizations when he didn’t get what he wanted, knowing that another organization would always come calling. When things got too troublesome at La Scala, the Vienna Opera was immediately on the phone. When the London Symphony no longer suited him, he could easily have gone to America and lead the New York Philharmonic or the Chicago Symphony - instead he got the most coveted prize of all - the Berlin Philhamonic. After his slightly heated departure from the Berlin Philharmonic and the death of Carlos Kleiber (whose sister served as Abbado’s secretary), it seemed a universally shared opinion for the last decade that Claudio Abbado was the world’s greatest conductor. And as the world’s greatest conductor, he was able to (re)create the Lucerne Festival Orchestra, a dream-team of his favorite musicians from all the orchestras, conservatories, and chamber groups he’d worked with throughout his career. Like Carlos Kleiber, his contemporary and friend and a similar conductor in many ways, he aspired to nothing less than the ideal concert conditions, and killed an enormous part of his inborn talent by his refusal to compromise. Of course Abbado was never the world’s greatest conductor - he was only ever the safe choice for such a question - a conductor who reliably gave good performances that were guaranteed to not offend anyone. And as the conductor who pleased the most listeners, he was able to get things which other conductors with greater strength of conviction could only dream about.

The reasons he was afforded all those opportunities can’t be denied. Among the jet-set generation, there can be no doubt that Abbado was one of the most compelling - and that combination of star power and real musicianship made the entire music world virtually unable to refuse him anything. Neither Zubin Mehta, nor Lorin Maazel, nor Riccardo Muti, Andre Previn, Charles Dutoit, or Seiji Ozawa have ever yet lived up to their enormous promise. World War II depleted Europe’s supply of promising musicians, so the remaining ones who showed promise were offered the moon at far too young an age. Week to week, sometimes day to day, they were rehearsing in a different city, never planting roots, never giving too much of themselves to any one place or performance, rarely ever around long enough to impose their own vision of making music on any one orchestra. They were musical playboys who reaped all the rewards of the podium’s many temptations without adequately fulfilling any of the responsibilities. Most of the more interesting traditional conductors of their generation spent nearly half their careers as B-listers; Charles Mackerras, Gennadi Rozhdestvensky, Neeme Jarvi, Michael Tilson Thomas, Christoph von Dohnanyi, Stanislaw Skrowaczewski, Herbert Blomstedt, James Levine, Michael Gielen, Mariss Jansons, Carlos Kleiber, David Zinman, Yuri Temirkanov, Georges Pretre, Klaus Tennstedt, Kurt Masur, Wolfgang Sawallisch; even among those like Levine and Sawallisch who spent their whole careers at the top of the profession, every one of them spent plenty of time in the provinces - doing the unglamourous work of building orchestras and opera houses, taking lots of private time for score study, staying in the same city for weeks or months on end do see through the fruits of their labor. It says something, to me at least, that among the conductorial jetset who virtually began their careers at the top of the profession, the most accomplished of them have become Bernard Haitink, Colin Davis, Daniel Barenboim, and Claudio Abbado. Except for Barenboim, whom everybody seemed to view as another underachieving musical playboy until less than a decade ago, none of them has a showman’s bone in their body. In each case of Haitink, Davis, and Abbado, their natural self-effacement inhibited their performances, but it also shielded them from much of the shallowness which such an approach would guarantee in more extroverted conductors.

The Abbado recorded catalogue is endless, and most of it is ultimately forgettable - endless Beethoven and Mozart and Mahler and Tchaikovsky and Verdi with the world’s greatest orchestras and opera houses, or with any of the half-dozen (again... !!!) orchestras he founded. Very little of it is bad, in fact a lot of it is quite good. It’s always excellently played, with much more care than conductors usually put into issues of dynamics, balance, and phrasing. But ultimately, it’s generic as hell - safety-padded and utterly without risk, one great orchestra sounding much like the next with very little in the way of original ideas.

Abbado wasn’t just Italian, he was Milanese musical royalty. His father was the longtime head of the Milan Conservatory, a position inherited by Abbado’s older brother. This meant two things - the first was that he was born with contacts available for him in every major conservatory in Europe - which enabled him to found orchestra after orchestra of young musicians whom he could hand-pick. The second was that as a type of Milanese aristocrat, he was actually half-Austrian - not by blood, but by worldview, as Milan was for so long the property of the Austrian Empire, and his music making seemed defined by the twin poles of Italy and Austria.

Abbado gave old-school German performances of German repertoire when it was fashionable to do so, then switched to historically informed practice only in the late-90’s when it was no longer controversial. In the first half of his career, he seemed to conduct everything like it was Brahms, in the second half, he seemed to conduct everything like it was Rossini. Indeed, those two seemed to be the only composers with vast outputs whom he consistently conducted with amazing perception - the obsessive nature of their geniuses falling precisely in tune with Abbado’s own obsessiveness. Indeed, it’s regretful that he didn’t use his inordinate power in Lucerne to give us the Brahms and Rossini of our dreams. His Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Verdi, Debussy, Ravel, and Stravinsky, all seemed like it was conducted through Rossini’s prism. More often than not,  he was quite short-winded in these composers - with fast tempos and clipped phrases, exciting in its bubbly way, but often short-changing us vastly on the drama and depth. His Mendelssohn, Wagner, Bruckner, Tchaikovsky, Dvorak, Mahler, Strauss, Schoenberg, and Berg usually seemed interpreted through Brahms’s mantle. Everything was warm and sung out, the violence understated, and the formal structure important above all other considerations.

During his years at La Scala, he was lauded for his Verdi performances as perhaps no Verdian was since Arturo Toscanini. In Abbado’s hands, what often seems to listeners vulgar and exhibitionistic became composerly and well-structured. But Verdi without the vulgarity is neutered Verdi, stripped of most of the fun. He was at his best in Verdi pieces which the opera public respects more than they love - like Simon Boccanegra and Don Carlo, in which Verdi’s artistic ambitions stretched to new heights and left his non-connoisseur audiences scratching their heads.

Some of his Mahler is, of course, legendary. But it’s incredibly inconsistent. Abbado’s unshowmanlike temperament is completely at odds with the early work of Mahler’s Wunderhorn period - few recordings have ever been more unjustly lauded than his inaugural Lucerne performance of Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony, which is one of the most polite and well-mannered ever made. David Hurwitz rightly referred to Abbado’s Mahler performances as ‘Mahler-lite’. Abbado played Mahler as though it were Brahms with more brass - he consistently underplayed the musical violence which Mahler plainly exhorted orchestras to pursue in his scores. Along with Bernard Haitink and Pierre Boulez, Abbado’s Mahler shares the dubious distinction of exhibiting playing of being the first generation of Mahler conductors to elicit orchestral playing so masterly that it’s utterly passionless.  But it’s difficult to think of a conductor who ever was more exemplary in the ‘Viennese’ Mahler, whose firmer structure and advanced harmonies made Abbado come to life in a manner that the more sprawling early music never did. In the ‘late’ Mahler symphonies which looked forward to developments by Schoenberg and Berg, few conductors were ever better. Abbado clearly didn’t understand the rural Central Europe from which Mahler hailed, but he certainly understood Vienna.

But nothing explains the problem of Abbado’s power over the industry better than his Beethoven cycles in Berlin. Abbado recorded three Beethoven Symphony cycles, two of which were recorded over the course of less than three years during his final years with the Berlin Philharmonic. The former was recorded without an audience, the latter live. The former cycle is perfectly respectable, but nothing special - a light, frothy Beethoven whose point of view consumers could buy far more cheaply if they bought David Zinman’s roughly contemporaneous cycle in Zurich. The second is far more exciting, and was released on CD as representing ‘The Maestro’s final interpretive wishes,’ basically invalidating the recordings he made only a year or two earlier and screwing over those music-lovers who invested nearly $100 in the original cycle.

Abbado was a perfectly respectable conductor of the classics, but in fifty years, nobody will treasure most of his performances. They hail from a period when far too many recordings were made, few of which were distinguishable from one another. They come from a period when classical music was at its stalest. There was an ivory ideal performance which all musicians aspired, and inevitably, it was the same performance. Abbado was prized above all other conductors because he got closer to that ideal than perhaps any other musician of his time. But the ideal performances of the now ending age are not ideal performances. He was not a perfect conductor, he was merely the perfect conductor for his time and place.

The Abbado We’ll Remember:

Rossini: L’Italiana in Algieri, Il Vieggo a Riems, La Cenerentola, Il Barbiere di Siviglia, - Abbado was born to conduct Rossini, and Rossini is his great contribution to music history. No longer can Rossini be condescended to as a musical lightweight, whose music is nothing more substantial than showboat vehicles for singers too light-voiced for ‘serious’ opera. Abbado never stinted an ounce on Rossini’s fun, but he added to Rossini a Beethoven-like musical heft that made his operas apiece with the 19th century. His Rossini performances are Abbado’s great gift to the world of music.

Brahms: Symphonies, Concertos, Misc. - There’s more than enough great Brahms to go around in the world - or at least there will be until today’s older generation dies out. But Abbado showed a level of devotion and perception which is rare even for his generation. It’s true that he had the Berlin Philharmonic, perhaps the greatest of all Brahms instruments, at his disposal for a while. But everything about Brahms - the stern austerity masking an inner warmth, the intricate forms, the reserved temperament, the singing line, was tempermentally matched with Abbado, who conducted this most difficult composer as though it was the most natural music in the world.

Mahler 7th The charge of 'Mahler lite' is often accurate, but a little unfair. In Mahler’s early symphonies, which require a Leonard Bernstein-like showman to pull them off properly, it is absolutely true. But in later works, he was often unmatchable. I prefer his Berlin Philharmonic performance of teh 7th, but this is a work that Abbado will always own with whatever orchestra he conducted. Until recently, most listeners were still confused by this piece. Abbado, with his secure grounding in Schoenberg and Berg and Brahms all the other important parts of Fin de Siecle Vienna, understood this most Viennese of Mahler Symphonies as perhaps no other conductor ever has. All those random-seeming juxtapositions finally make sense.

Mahler 8th It’s an impossible work to conduct, and Abbado’s version has a weak first half, which requires a Barnum and Bailey (Bernstein)-like showman. But very few if any conductors have made the second half sing the way Abbado did. It requires an iron fist to control the structure, and a velvet glove to caress the delicacy. Perhaps those two phrase could stand in as a good description of Abbado’s entire ethos.

Mahler 9th - Everybody has their favorite conductor of Mahler 9, and if any conductor can be said to own it, it’s clearly Bruno Walter, and great as Bruno Walter was in this piece, Abbado is one of the few conductors who can conjure up the same frenzied abyss that Walter did 75 years ago, and do so with much, much better playing and sound. In light of that, I feel comfortable saying that no conductor ever conducted this work better. This isn’t his greatest performance of the four we have extant, but it shows just how cosmic Abbado could be in works he understood well. And few conductors, if any, understood Mahler 9 better.

Mussorgsky: Khovanshchina It was Claudio Abbado, not a Russian conductor, who demonstrated once and for all that Khovanshchina, however incomplete or mixed up in editions, is fully powerful enough to stand alongside Boris Godunov (his recording of Boris, while hardly definitive, is still essential, and in many ways 'gave' Mussorgsky's original orchestration to the West). Somehow, I can’t find the complete youtube video which I found yesterday, but anyone who’s heard the live CD release of this performance could never forget it. At one performance during this 1989 run, Leonard Bernstein was so moved that after it was done, he emerged on the stage to embrace his former pupil in front of the audience.

Verdi: Simon Boccanegra and Don Carlos I would imagine that the culture of Verdi - singers taking endless high notes, audiences demanding constant encores, the singers’ cult of personality, the unearned emotional extravagence - enraged Abbado and his artistic seriousness. He never recorded the ‘Big Three’ (Rigoletto, Il Trovatore, La Traviata), and his recordings of Aida, Un Ballo in Maschera, and Falstaff are all strangely frugal in the drama department - as though he wanted to downplay its perceived vulgarity and had no idea what to replace it with. Like his Mozart, his Verdi seems to be viewed through Rossini’s lens. One might almost call his approach to Verdi ‘revisionist.’ But the far greater seriousness of Don Carlos and Simon Boccanegra were ideal for him. The musical innovation, the emphasis on realistic drama rather than singer callisthenics and emotional extravagance, the lofty dramatizations of existential issues, were far more in Abbado’s Viennese wheelhouse. It can’t be denied, Abbado let us see a high seriousness to Verdi which was mostly overlooked for an entire century.

Schumann: Scenes from Goethe’s Faust - Abbado was always galvanized by rare repertoire. And even today, there is so much little-known Schumann that one can’t help but regret how little of it he recorded. Schumann, musical father to Brahms, never wrote a more Brahmsian piece, and Abbado’s Berliners tear into it with relish.

Alban Berg - All of Abbado’s Berg is worth the listen. Even if Abbado’s music-making is not quite violent enough for the Second Viennese School, he gets Berg’s sleazy lyricism. Under Abbado, Berg sounds downright approachable, and even if later conductors like Simon Rattle and Esa-Pekka Salonen (and Barenboim) do better by the Second Viennese School, Abbado paved the way towards a greater understanding.

Gyorgy Kurtag For reasons I won’t elucidate here, Gyorgy Kurtag is a sleeping giant in the world of modern music, even if he’s still alive. Abbado appointed Kurtag, still not well known, as composer-in-residence at the Berlin Philharmonic in spite of the fact that Kurtag had not written an orchestral work since he was a student. It was a brilliant gamble which only a first-class musician would have the foresight to make.

Hindemith: Kammermusik There was clearly something about Abbado which was tired of the obbligations which his prestige accorded him. He was, so often, at his best in completely out-of-the-way repertoire which few other conductors would think to tackle. Had he been just another C-list conductor taking avant-garde projects whenever they came to him, he might have been more interesting. Lots of standard repertoire seemed to put him to sleep, but neglected repertoire like this always woke him up.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Sight and Sound Movie List - Die Steggy

Here you go. I just picked some films at random from my collection and gushed some thoughts.

Jurassic Park (1993, dir. Steven Spielberg)
My love for this movie is no secret. It is the only good film made about dinosaurs. It's also just great from beginning to end, not a scene wasted. The special effects, largely not CG, still hold up even after a decade has passed. I still find it hard to believe that the raptors are actually people in suits (also where do I get one of those suits). That first scene where Dr. Alan Grant sees the dinosaur just perfectly captures the magic of the park before it all goes to hell. 

Brazil (1985, dir. Terry Gilliam)
Oh what Terry Gilliam film to include? Brazil is my personal favorite, it's also my first so maybe I'm biased. Jonathan Pryce is the perfect protagonist for the film and Michael Palin is wonderfully cast as the mild manner torturer. Brazil doesn't take you to new worlds like its informal trilogy (The Adventures of Baron Munchausen and Time Bandits) but makes a bizarre world out of the reality we live in.

Spirited Away (2002, dir. Hideo Miyazaki)
I admit I'm torn about which Miyazaki film to include here. I enjoy Howl's Moving Castle more (I chose dubbed which I know is controversial but Christian Bale and Billy Crystal do a great job) but I think Spirited Away is a better movie. Miyazaki creates these entire worlds that are just fantastical. Spirited Away is the most robust and fascinating of those worlds and the animation is astounding. It is a little darker than most of his movies (not Princess Mononoke dark, but no cute and fluffy Totoro either) at times scary without losing that warmth that is so characteristic of Studio Ghibli films. 

The King and I (1956, dir. Walter Lang)
When I was a kid, I thought the scene where the King swirls Anna around the ballroom in "Shall Me Dance" was the pinnacle of romance. Scratch that, I still think that to this day. Oh yes, it is grossly stereotypical, but my sheer delight every time I watch that can almost make me forget that, if only for a few hours. This is the crown jewel of my emergency kit of VHSs I reach for when I've reached my all time low. Joining it (and thus receiving an honorable mention to this list) are Singing in the Rain and The Pirate which is this obscure Cole Porter musical with Gene Kelly and Judy Garland that one of my contains my favorite songs "Be a Clown." I'm not sure you can find the latter of films but if you love old time musicals it is worth hunting around for. 

The Lord of the Rings (2001-3, dir. Peter Jackson)
Lord of the Rings will never reach a higher pinnacle than Peter Jackson's trilogy. Thanks to the magic of New Zealand and the folks at WETA workshop it is stunning and about as entertaining as you can ever wrought out of Tolkien. If you want an example of the epic crap those movies could have been in the wrong hands just watch The Hobbit movies. Lord of the Rings was a labor of love and it shines. I'm not sure how the fates aligned to allow PJ to create such a spectacle but his films but I thank him for introducing a whole new generation, including myself, to Middle Earth. 

Big Fish (2003, dir. Tim Burton)
Some people have a movie they love for the sheer fact it is able to encapsulate a spirit so remarkably akin to their own family. Big Fish is that movie for me. The tall tales are right out of my own childhood growing up with the Stegmans, a family heralding from a circus town and forever emulating that big top spirit. It's also the last decent movie Tim Burton ever did, before he kept making the same movie over and over again with Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter *shudder*. 

O Brother Where Out Thou  (1999, dir. Joel Coen)
Hands down my favorite Coen Brothers film. A) I've been a fan of the Odyssey since I was in elementary school thanks to Wishbone B) It is responsible for many modern American's affinity for bluegrass C) It's just a great movie, an amazing adventure, a visual thrill ride. 

Om Shanti Om  (2007, dir. Farah Khan)
This should be everyone's introduction to Bollywood. Then they should spend the next year of their life devouring other great films of the Indian cinema and then they should watch it again so they can get all the jokes the missed and love it all the more. It is so much fun that it worms its way even into the most skeptical of hearts. 

Life and Death of Peter Sellers  (2004, dir. Stephen Hopkins)
Geoffrey Rush is an incredible actor and it is nowhere more apparent than this movie. The movie is as zany as the man himself while dealing with some hard truths of the man's life. Peter Sellers considered himself a vessel for his characters, empty except for the fictional beings he embodied. In the same vein Geoffrey Rush becomes a vessel not just for Sellers but for everyone around him. It's a fantastic film. 

Hotel Rwanda (2004, dir. Terry George)
I have to put this on the list because it inspired me to want to join the United Nations. It was a misguided path I know but it someways you have to admire a movie with such an inspirational ability. It is heartbreaking but it is effective. 

Cashback (2006, dir. Sean Ellis)
I first saw Cashback when it was a Academy-Award nominated short because I had a crush on Sean Biggerstaff (most will know him as Oliver Wood from Harry Potter), who plays the lead. However I ended up like the short for its own merits. Basically about a art student working at a grocery store who has the ability to stop time. What follows is beautiful and the love story that dominates full length film is pretty good. Oh and lots of naked women...if you're into that sort of thing. 

The Matador (2005, dir. Richard Sheperd)
This is is an odd and final pick for my random list of movies that strike my fancy. I always say people have two favorite Bonds: their first Bond, the first actor they ever saw in a Bond movie who makes an imprint on you like a little chick to its mother and their favorite Bond, the one that after seeing far more Bond movies becomes their favorite through merit. Pierce Brosnan was my first Bond and so perhaps I have that strange chicky imprint to blame for why I like this film that if I were honest to myself, is not that great. However I find Brosnan as an aging assassin just perfect and a trainwreck I want to watch over and over. 

Thursday, January 16, 2014

800 Words: The ABC's of the Marriage of Figaro - Draft 2 - Part B - Figaro and Susanna - The New Man and Woman

The best Figaros are mostly Italian - Renato Capecchi, Giuseppe Taddei, Lucio Gallo, Lorenzo Ragazzo, Ruggiero Raimondi, Luca Pisaroni, Claudio Desderi - the only non-Italians who can punch at Figaro’s weight are Bryn Terfel, Gerald Finley, and the little-known Anton Scharinger. Figaro doesn’t require a great voice. There are many Italian basses and baritones who fall on the rocks with Figaro ( Ezio Pinza, Cesare Siepi, Sesto Bruscantini) because they don’t understand what makes him tick and sing the entire role as though they were Don Giovanni seducing Zerlina. Figaro is not a singer’s role, it’s an actor’s role - and Comic Actor’s at that. But Figaro must be sung beautifully, but to sing Mozart only with beauty is to do a terrible disservice to his infinite-sided music. In order to understand Figaro, you must understand the Italian culture from which he hailed - an Italian culture that doesn’t have much currency anymore, as well as the French notions of beauty which good singing conforms to.

It’s a far more common problem with singers who play Susanna, who usually try to sing Susanna as though she’s just another beautiful woman with no real depth of her own. For my money, there are a few good ones, but only four unreservedly great Susannas whom I’ve found so far - Anna Moffo, Alison Hagley, Lucia Popp, and Cecilia Bartoli - two of whom are Italian (or Moffo was at least the American daughter of Italian immigrants). Most sopranos try to sing the role rather than embody it. The loss is the audience’s, who will never understand just how much is lost in the process. As in everything with Mozart, duality is the key to all - Figaro and Susanna are both equal parts poet and peasant, and both sides must be present at all times.

The Marriage of Figaro is more grounded in reality than any opera (than any work of theater?) ever written, but like so many Mozart operas, Mozart arrives at that reality by standing a fairy tale on its head. All one has to do is to think of The Magic Flute, a nobleman or knight is sent on his quest to defeat an evil sorcerer to recapture a damsel in distress, only to discover that the evil sorcerer is in fact benevolent and the Queen who sent him on his quest is vengeful.

(Children of Paradise - One of the greatest movies ever made, and a movie impossible without either Commedia dell’arte or Mozart.)

In the particular case of Figaro, the Fairy Tales in question are the stories of Italy’s ancient and now hallowed Commedia dell’arte tradition - though it was hardly hallowed at the time of its most common practice. The Commedia dell’arte stood in direct opposition to the ideals of humanism and realism of the Renaissance era which birthed it - it was an application of the modern means and technology of the Renaissance to a Medieval ethos. While Michelangelo and Raphael were painting ever more realistic figures, Commedia dell’arte used caricatured masks and exaggerated movements. While Machiavelli and Erasmus probed the workings of the human mind, the characters of Commedia dell’arte were strict archetypes with no interior life. Petrarch and Tasso aspired to prove that the Italian colloquial language could hold riches as great as anything from the Classic poets of Ancient Greece and Rome. But Commedia dell’arte aspired to a language that could be understood by all. All throughout the Renaissance era, individuals of genius proclaimed their mighty work to inspire the world’s awe, but Commedia dell’arte was a completely derivative work - with the same basic stories told over and over again, and each troupe putting its own variation on the same theme. For hundreds of years, Commedia dell’arte was a popular artform with no intellectual aspirations. It was common currency throughout Europe, and everyone knew its characters as well as all of us today might know characters from the old network Sitcoms which were watched every week by tens of millions.

The most basic plot of Commedia dell’arte involves an evil nobleman named Pantalone - greedy, selfish, tyrannical, who must be brought to heel, mostly because he oppresses a young pair of fresh faced lovers - known in Italian as Innamorati. He is inevitably brought to heel by his servant - Arlecchino (Harlequin) - who is inevitably much smarter and more skilled than his master.

Within this framework can be an infinity of plot variations, but the additional characters were usually all the same. There is Colombina - the mistress of Arlecchino, who aids his schemes with her female cunning. There is La Signora, who marries Pantalone for his wealth and usually cuckolds him. There is Il Dottore, the learned man brought in to help Pantalone who is in fact rather stupid and can’t keep up with Arlecchino’s cunning. There’s La Ruffiana, the ugly old woman who used to be a whore and whose love is unrequited. There’s Pedrolino, the servant, who acts as the go between that moves the plot forward and can help or hinder Arlecchino’s plans. There’s Tartaglia, the doddering old servant who has a stutter...

There are some stock characters from Commedia dell’arte who don’t make their way into The Marriage of Figaro, but at least half of them do. Mozart knew about these characters in Austria, and Beaumarchais knew about them in France. There is neither a Marriage of Figaro nor a Don Giovanni nor a Cosi fan Tutte without the example these characters provided. Nor is there any way Moliere could have written Tartuffe, or Shakespeare could have written a Midsummer Night’s Dream.

But the tropes of Commedia dell’arte are the gears through which Mozart turns everything we ever knew about popular art. Through this popular artform, Mozart and Da Ponte created a ‘new man.’ Mozart did not have much time for reading, but he would have had to have a great deal of familiarity with the ideas of his day in order to move in social circles like the ones from which he hoped to gain employment. And the most commonly read authors of his time were still the philosophes of France - particularly Voltaire and Rousseau. The French Revolution and the German intellectual revolution were just around the corner, but at the time, Mozart’s head would be filled with Rousseau notions, with his characters Emile and Sophie, who were brought up to be both masters of and in natural harmony with their surroundings, with Rousseau’s notions of how innate goodness was corrupted from birth by society, of how the lower classes lack of finish presented a more true and healthy view of life, and how a firmer social contract must be established to allow all people better lives. The air throughout Europe was of reform, not revolution. It was thought that a greater welfare, a higher standard of living and culture for the world’s masses, could be brought to fruition in strictly controlled surroundings like crops on a farm. Through Figaro and Susanna, Mozart and Da Ponte showed how Arlecchino and Columbina can be transformed into Emile and Sophie.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Sight and Sound Movie List - HaWestbrook

The Godfather (1972, dir. Francis Ford Coppola)

The Godfather Part II (1974, dir. Francis Ford Coppola)

Watching The Godfather again. (1972, dir. Francis Ford Coppola)

Watching The Godfather Part II again. (1974, dir. Francis Ford Coppola)

Watching either film on the big screen (1972, 1974, dir. Francis Ford Coppola) in any year when it's revived as though it were a pilgrimage to Mecca.

Watching The Godfather Saga on television where they take all the parts they cut out and make it chronological and almost liking it a little more than the separate movies. (1977, dir. Francis Ford Coppola)

Watching The Godfather Part III (1990, dir. Francis Ford Coppola) and remembering how masterful and brilliant the first two movies were compared to this steaming pile of dung travesty.

Goodfellas (1990, dir. Martin Scorsese)

Scarface (1983, dir. Brian DePalma

My Little Pony: The Movie (1986, dir. Mike Joens)

(No horses or ponies heads were harmed in the making of this list.)

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Sight and Sound Movie List - The Decker

I'm not sure if I'm qualified to list the ten best movies of all time, but I can list my ten personal favorites.  Even that's hard, I narrowed it down to thirty or so and had a tough time crossing anything off.  These ten, though, I can watch at anytime and have repeatedly:

1. Logan's Run (1976, dir. Michael Anderson) - My first favorite movie, I made my mom rent the vhs multiple times back in the day.  Great 70's analog synthesizer sound effects and silly miniature future-scapes, and the acting is actually not bad...well, with the exception of Farrah Fawcett. Renew!!!

2. Dune (1984, dir. David Lynch) - My other favorite movie, tied with Logan's Run, and also my favorite book.  More great actors in a cheesy sci-fi setting, and I love every bit of it.  Not very true to the book, but fun anyway.

3. Singles (1992, dir. Cameron Crowe) -  Set in early 90's Seattle, lots of cameos by grunge icons.  Probably my favorite soundtrack of all time and a good story.  Sometimes it feels like I'm living in this movie, which is pretty cool :)

4. Amelie (2001, dir. Jean-Pierre Jeunet) - Just simply beautiful and warms my heart.

5. The Shawshank Redemption (1995, dir. Frank Darabont) - Kind of brutal but uplifting at the same time. 

6. The Princess Bride (1987, dir. Rob Reiner) - I don't see how anyone could not love this movie, awesome cast including Andre the Giant!  Yes, Fred Savage is annoying as hell, but at least you can focus on the awesomeness of Peter Falk in those scenes. A great one for an all ages crowd.

7.  Poltergeist (1983, dir. Tobe Hooper) - I saw this movie when I was way too young, so it made a big impression! It's holds up really well for an 80's film, still freaks me out.

8. The Empire Strikes Back (1980, dir. Irvin Kershner) - My favorite of the original trilogy, although I absolutely love all three.

9. The Fellowship of the Ring (2001, dir. Peter Jackson) - Again, I love all three but have watched this one many more times.

10. That's the Way of the World (1975, dir. Sig Shore) Starring Harvey Keitel as a music producer and Earth, Wind, and Fire as "The Group."  A cool drama set in the ugly recording industry of the 70's, great soundtrack and a satisfying ending.  There's a scene with Earth, Wind, and Fire playing at a roller disco, worth watching for that reason alone!

It pained me to cross some movies off the list, so here's a list of runners-up which I love just as much:  Idiocracy, Festival Express, The Thing(1982), The Big Lebowski, The Joy Luck Club, Napoleon Dynamite, The Evil Dead I&II, The Never Ending Story, Bloodsport, Amadeus, Jurassic Park, Clash of the Titans(1981), Akira, The Color Purple, and Spaceballs.

Sight and Sound Movie List - The Goodell

 I’m not saying best because I’m just a guy who’s seen a couple of films; I don’t qualify as a cinephile or cineaste or whatever.

Favorite Science Fiction Movie: Blade Runner. (1982, dir. Ridley Scott) The problem with sci-fi is the ones that I’ve seen tend to be either/or: either they have good special effects story or they have an interesting concept. This is one of the few that had both and more impressively, it’s pre-CGI.

Runners-Up: 2001, The Terminator. The former is obvious I suppose but the latter may be a surprise. That being said, think about it. The story is simple but it works. The concept isn’t that crazy. The only things that the film suffers from are very dated special effects and bad 80s haircuts. I’m willing to overlook both of that.

Favorite Western Movie: Unforgiven. (1992, dir. Clint Eastwood) Good story, good acting and also, I’ve never seen Shane, The Searchers, How The West Was Won, or High Noon.

Favorite Action Movie: Road Warrior. (1981, dir. George Miller) All three of the Mad Max films are good. I actually like Thunderdome a little bit better but I don’t really think of that as an action film. I may not want Mel Gibson as a neighbor or as an explainer of Scottish or American Revolutionary history but he’s great as a post-apocalyptic anti-hero. Also, as long as there’d be a designated driver, I bet he’d be fun to grab a drink with.

Favorite Historical Movie: The Baader-Meinhof Complex. (2008, dir. Uli Edel) At best, a historical film is often only good at showing historic atmosphere in Technicolor. Usually the history is totally off or it doesn’t even bother trying to be anything than a costume drama to serve as a vehicle for some actor to get an Academy award. This one is different, and it wasn’t made by Ken Burns.

Favorite Ahistorical Movie: Amadeus. (1984, dir. Milos Forman) Nope. Mozart wasn’t indirectly killed by Salieri or buried in a mass grave (the last one makes no sense; he was the most famous musician in Europe!). Nonetheless, this film is very entertaining and has a great soundtrack. I like that one of the guys from Animal House got to play possibly the greatest musical talent in history.

Favorite Gangster Movie: Casino. (1995, dir. Martin Scorsese) No, this is not as good as The Godfather, Goodfellas, Godfather II, or whatever, but I like it better, because a) it moves faster than The Godfather, and b) the story is much more tightly told than Goodfellas. Also, I’m always interested in the intersection between legitimate and illegitimate business (“Behind every great fortune lies a great crime.” Honore de Balzac), which Casino has much more of than the other films.

Favorite Romance: Amélie. (2001, dir. Jean-Pierre Jeunet) I like the main character. I like the story. I like how she turns to water. I like a happy ending. Maybe Jonathan Richman was right when he asserted Paris was made for love.

Favorite Film About Teenagers: Dazed & Confused. (1993, dir. Richard Linklater) Most teenage films are vapid wastes of time. This one I like because all of the characters were to some extent believable. Also, it’s set in the South but there’s very little caricature. And it looks it was shot in the town I was a teenager in.

Honorable Mention: Wargames. (1983, dir. John Badham) my all-time nerdiest moment? I don't know if this qualifies but it's up there. Remember Wargames? I loved that movie as a child. Matthew Broderick's greatest role. Still relevant seeing as nukes are still being pointed at each other. Anyway, one day I watched it and I was totally fascinated by the different strategies listed in this scene:

I wrote down as many of them as I could read for purposes of further research (which didn't happen, so I guess I never reached my apotheosis of nerdery.) I watched it again and decided some of them wouldn't be bad as a down-tempo or lounge fusion band or something like a cheap Thievery Corporation knock-off.

Possible candidates include:

Far East Strategy

Iceland Maximum

Atlantic Heavy

Arctic Minimal

Denmark Massive

Pacific Defense

Spain Counter

English Thrust (also a possible swash-buckling themed porn title)

Venezuela Sudden