Saturday, February 28, 2015

OPERA: The Barber of Seville

Rossini's Barber of Seville is perhaps the world's favorite opera buffa, and with good reason. You have Rossini's delightful music with its hummable, memorable themes (already familiar to anyone who grew up with Bugs Bunny). And you have the classic Beaumarchais comedy of sassy servants helping young lovers outwit pompous elders with disguises, subterfuge, and plot twists, the pinnacle of French comedy drawing on commedia dell'arte traditions. The current production at LA Opera renders this classic splendidly. Some bright young talents enliven the lead roles, with a shimmering golden tenor of René Barbera giving us a handsome Almaviva, the brilliant soaring mezzo of Elizabeth DeShong giving us a spirited and sassy Rosina, and the nimble mellifluous baritone of Rodion Pogossov making a puckish Figaro. Many of the great arias, duets, and ensembles ended to sustained applause from a delighted audience. The set (from a Teatro Real Madrid production) cleverly uses some giant white columns and walls with baroque details and wrought iron gate, all of which move around and reconfigure from a Seville street under a balcony to the interior of Don Bartolo's home. While the architecture is ornate, the furniture is spare, just the essential pieces, plus several chairs that get used in unexpected ways, including being artfully tossed around and pulled out from under people. The costumes and lighting play with color, beginning the play in nearly all white, adding color as the plot progresses, with the finale a riot of bright colors when the lovers take off in an air balloon. (Hey, didn't I just see that balloon the other week in the Ghosts of Versailles? :-)) The direction is lively and playful, layering physical comic notes on an already very funny libretto (like a hyperactive Figaro circling the others when they are "frozen like statues", waving his hands in front of their unregistering faces). When Almaviva sings his opening serenade, the women of Seville step out to see what is going on, and throughout the opera an ensemble of nosy townsfolk are always looking in around the edges of the action. We took our college-age nieces to see this, as it's such a good first opera experience, and we all enjoyed it immensely.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

FILM: The Last Five Years

I had never heard of the unjustly short-lived Broadway musical "The Last Five Years" until my godson did a phenomenal number from it for a high school cabaret. I was intrigued by the concept. It tells the story of young lovers in an ultimately failed marriage, with him singing scenes of their relationship from first excited date to ultimate parting, and her singing her viewpoint backwards, starting from the split and working back. (Since the story opens with the end of the relationship, that's not a spoiler.) Having seen playwright Jason Robert Brown's other major work, Parade, and been impressed with that, I've long been eager to see The Last Five Years someday. Thus, when I saw it had been done as a film with Anna Kendrick and Jeremy Jordan, we rushed out to see it. Happily, it lived up to all my great expectations. Kendrick is "pitch perfect" as Cathy, struggling to assert herself while not being exactly sure what she wants, singing sweetly and powerfully at the same time. And Jordan (recent Broadway star of "Newsies") brings an equally powerful voice to make a compelling Jamie. It's easy to join Cathy in getting swept up in his exuberance. His exuberance is only fueled when his career as an author rises meteorically. Her plunge into acting doesn't meet with anything like his success, drawing the lines for their fatal rift. The film keeps faith with the structure of the play, as a series of alternating solos, although both actors are present in every number (unlike the play) even if only one is singing. This creates an emphasized subjectivity which really brings out her conflicted pride and loneliness at his book readings and parties, and his frustration with her unvoiced hesitance to enjoy his success. Streets and scenes of New York City provide just the right backdrop, and it is realized in a way that the visuals provide lovely settings, while letting the songs speak for themselves. (Which is perfect, as Jason Robert Brown's lyrics are clever and incisive, in Sondheim territory.) I think the conceit of the forward and backward story-telling works wonderfully, as a relationship is something that you live forward and reflect on backward, especially in those moments like Cathy's opening number, stunned and wondering what happened, where exactly it went wrong. The two really only sing together when they cross in the middle when they marry. The way he winds it up in the end is brilliantly conceived and beautifully realized in film. Given that the play is said to be rather closely autobiographical for Brown, it is surprisingly even-handed. Both characters are sympathetic, and the audience is not lead to take sides or fed an entirely pat answer for the ultimate failure. Rather, like the characters, we are left to look back and search vainly for where exactly things went wrong for the beautiful couple that we were all rooting for.

Monday, February 16, 2015

FILM: 2015 Oscar-Nominated Shorts

A few years ago, some friends let us in on a secret. Some of the best films are the shorts, and the Laemmle Theaters run screenings of them every year a few weeks before the Oscars. You can see as many as a dozen great films in one evening! Last weekend, we screened all the live action and animated shorts.


PARVANEH (Talkhon Hamzavi and Stefan Eichenberger) – 25 minutes/Switzerland/Dari and German. Parvaneh, a teenage Afghan girl, is a lone refugee in Switzerland, where she attempts to navigate a cold, unfamiliar environment. When desperate and blocked in her attempts to send money home to her parents, she enlists the help of Emely, a punked-out young Swiss teen she meets on the street. What starts as a quick transaction turns into a night of new experiences and a developing friendship. The film adeptly portrays Parvaneh's initial solitude, desperation, and determination, and their transformation into tentative trust and confidence. We watch as Parvaneh (which appropriately turns out to be Dari for "butterfly") blossoms.

BUTTER LAMP (La Lampe Au Beurre De Yak) (Hu Wei and Julien Féret) – 15 minutes/France and China/Tibetan. This film consists solely in watching a traveling portrait photographer take photos of various families in a remote Tibetan village, posing them, choosing an artificial backdrop, and "click", next. The premise sounds dry on the face of it, but it was surprisingly charming. The village is full of characters, and just in the minute or two that the photographer spends with each of them, you get a glimpse of their character. It will make you smile.

THE PHONE CALL (Mat Kirkby and James Lucas) – 21 minutes/UK/English. A young woman working at a suicide hotline gets a phone call that changes her life. The scope of story and emotion that is packed into this 21-minute film is impressive, heart-breaking, and touching. I think this may have been my favorite.

AYA (Oded Binnun and Mihal Brezis) – 39 minutes/Israel and France/English, Hebrew, Danish. Aya is an intriguing enigma, a woman who feels more connected to strangers than she does to her own family and friends. We learn this over the course of a car ride to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv airport, where she has gone to pick up her husband but instead capriciously gives a stranger a ride.

BOOGALOO AND GRAHAM (Michael Lennox and Ronan Blaney) – 14 minutes/UK/English. An utterly charming story of two young boys in Northern Ireland in the 1970s during "the troubles", who attempt to keep two pet chickens. The charm of a good Irish storyteller recalling the earnest innocence of youth with a golden "Wonder Years" patina is a heartwarming winner.


ME AND MY MOULTON (Torill Kove) – 14 minutes/Canada/English. An engaging illustration of a middle daughter's impressions of her own life in a family that's just a little bit different from everyone else. When your father is the only man in town with a moustache, and your architect parents buy you a funky bike that looks different from all the other kids' bikes, it's rough to be a teen. These light-hearted reflections are stylishly and humorously illustrated in colorful line drawings.

FEAST (Patrick Osborne and Kristina Reed) – 6 minutes/USA/Non-dialogue. An endearing dog's-eye view of his master enjoying bachelorhood but then getting married and starting a family, all experienced by the food that lands on the floor. Rich, evocative cartoon imagery and some good belly laughs.

THE BIGGER PICTURE (Daisy Jacobs and Christopher Hees) – 7 minutes/UK/English. A very stylish and impressionistic rendering of two grown brothers dealing with their aging and dying mother, and the conflict when one brother gets stuck with more of the work. A whole arc with emotional nuance is conveyed in only 7 minutes, with skillfully crafted dialog and editing, and the animation is vivid and colorful, in a very subjective, impressionist painterly style. I think I'd put my vote here for most beautiful animation.

A SINGLE LIFE (Marieke Blaauw, Joris Oprins, Job Roggeveen) – 2 minutes/The Netherlands/Non-dialogue. An LOL funny short short film about a woman and a time-controlling record player.

THE DAM KEEPER (Robert Kondo and Dice Tsutsumi) – 18 minutes/USA/Non-dialogue. A post-apocalyptic Aesop-style fable about bullying and judging others too superficially, with a pig, a fox, and other animal characters going to school and inhabiting a town. The animation is rich and vivid, in a painterly brushed style.

Some "bonus" animations (not nominated, but honorable mention) included "Duet", a beautiful, graceful, sweeping depiction of a girl, a boy, and his dog as they grow up, all done in luminous line drawings on dark background; and "Bus Story", a quirky little cartoon of a plucky woman taking on a school bus route, overcoming the unappreciative kids, the Quebec winter, and a misanthropic old man who owns the bus.

Friday, February 13, 2015

BOOKS: Flash Boys

In his book Flash Boys, Michael Lewis penetrates the shroud of mystery cloaking "high frequency trading" firms, and how they are manipulating the stock exchanges. While the topic may sound dry, Lewis brings it alive by telling the story through the personal perspectives of several key Wall Street players. The main hero is an unusually decent Canadian broker who set out to find out just exactly what high-frequency traders (HFT) were really doing (since practically no one actually knew), and ultimately moved to correct the predatory behavior by creating a new transparent exchange that neutralized advantages of speed. Other characters include an Irish immigrant who became very successful selling technology to the HFTs so they could gain timing advantages measured in microseconds, and a Russian programmer who became the only Goldman Sachs employee arrested in the wake of the financial crisis. Lewis does a good job of breaking down some rather technical details, keeping the story human-focused, and nicely framing it with an artful ending that signals both that the new exchange succeeded and that foiling one game will not end market gaming, it will only change the strategy. I found the tale fascinating, and by the end I was outraged at just how much economic resources and human capital are lost due to the perverse incentives in the current market structure. Fortunately, it seems the FBI has read the book too, and some action has begun to be taken. Now if only the SEC would wake up and read this book.

Sunday, February 08, 2015

FILM: Mr. Turner

It seems fitting to describe the film Mr. Turner as a portrait of the artist. No real action, plot, or dramatic arc is found here, but rather a visualization of the life and character of the early 19th century artist. Watching his interactions with his father, his maid, his daughters and their mother, his mistress, his peers, and his patrons, we get a good sense of this very interesting character who was often curmudgeonly, but also often gentlemanly, and sometimes generous. Timothy Spall does a superb job of capturing this complex and often taciturn man. We get a good sense of his place in society at the time, prominent though also with a few detractors as his style became more abstract later in life. Visually, director Mike Leigh does a terrific job of conveying the grittiness of the times (even the well-off in England in the 1840s lived a rather dirty existence by today's standards), and also conveying the beauty that Turner saw in it. There are some extraordinary scenes which are completely painterly, capturing the natural light of clouds and sky in such a way that it looks like a painting. And sometimes these scenes fade into or out of a painting. The opening scene, of a Dutch windmill, river, and sky, with two nuns walking along the river, looks completely like a painting, except that the nuns are slowly moving, and as the camera pans back, we see the silhouette of the artist sketching the scene, memorizing the light. In another scene, the artist has himself lashed to the mast of a ship so that he can see what light looks like in a stormy sea (and practically gives himself pneumonia in the process). While the film was bit draggy at times (it was nearly 3 hours after all), I did mostly enjoy it. I am not often a fan of plotless films, but I was engaged by this portrait, and found my thoughts returning to it later in the week.