Category: Have You Seen…?


A few years ago I did an extensive, year-long search for an orchestra conductor.  One candidate’s remark  still resonates long after the search was successfully completed.  This young conductor told me that, contrary to the traditional thinking of serious and staid classical performance, if orchestras weren’t playing with all the joy and abandon they could muster, there had better be something pretty spectacular going on on the stage, from start to finish, because otherwise, audiences would be leaving the music hall in droves.  Why?  Because audiences today are used to, and expect “wows” with every note.   We are way too over-stimulated to sit still and watch the paint dry.

philadelphia-orchestra-yannickLast night we had the pleasure of hearing and seeing the Philadelphia Orchestra, presented in high definition (HD) at the Palme d’Or Cinema at the Westfield Mall.  Seeing an orchestra concert filmed live in HD with surround sound can actually be pretty exciting, due to the opportunity for up close observation.  The 2nd oboist had a nervous tic.  The french horns were all women.  The bassoonist had to wear some sort of shoulder harness.  Seeing how the conductor actually communicates with the musicians can add a curious and satisfying dimension to what we hear in a performance.  Every conductor is unique and capable of creating a discernible difference in orchestra performance.  When John Williams was conductor of the Boston Pops, it was common knowledge that the orchestra did not like him.  It was front and center when they played for him. 

Under the dazzling baton of Montreal native Yannick Nézet-Séguin, this Philadelphia Orchestra concert was up close and personal, delivering one WOW after the other.  It was obvious that this orchestra really likes their leader.  The programme represented Nezet-Seguin’s fresh approach to programming which was explained during the post concert conversation – yet another innovative approach that orchestras now use to engage us.  Yannick’s philosophy is to pair seemingly unrelated selections but which do indeed have common threads as he explained in the post concert interview.  The idea works and we, the audience, benefit by learning more about what we are hearing.      

I’m telling you about this beautiful concert in the hopes that it will be presented more than once, as many of Palme d’Ors offerings are. Do check the listings. 

In this particular concert,  Nézet-Séguin paired the Mahler Symphony #1 with the Korngold Violin Concerto.   Who, you ask?  If you don’t recognize Erich Korngold’s name you will likely recognize his music – he is considered the father of film music, having written such memorable film scores as Captain Blood, The Green Pastures, The Adventures of Robin Hood, The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex, Between Two Worlds, and Of Human Bondage, to name a few.  Those who do recognize his film scores probably don’t know that he was also a prolific and serious romantic composer. 

On the flip side, I wasn’t aware that Gustav Mahler was considered the inspiration for most early film music.  Who knew?  What an exciting pairing. Besides which, if you are like many who immediately think Mahler: heavy, modern, dissonant, ugg – wrong.  There is nothing more delightful, harmonic, and sensible than the Mahler First.  It’s gorgeous and satisfying from beginning to end.

Guest artist Hiliary Hahn, an extraordinary violinist, gloriously executed the extremely difficult Korngold Concerto on her 1865 Vuillaume Violin. What a big fat tone she gets out of her instrument.  Of course, she should have been, and would have been, the highlight of the concert, had the charming and effervescent Yannick not stolen the evening with his riveting interpretation of the Mahler.  I have NEVER, EVER heard a symphony concert audience erupt in cheers the way this one did at the end of the performance.  One would have thought the Phillies had just scored a triple.  WOW, WOW, and triple WOW.   (Thank you Palme d’Or for giving us such a thrill.)

This new crop of fabulous young conductors on the American Symphonic Scene is putting excitement  into orchestra performance like never before.  Whether it’s Gustavo Dudamel with the LA Phil, Alan Gilbert from the NY Philharmonic or young Yannick Nézet-Séguin from the Philadelphia Orchestra, we need not fear that classical music is a thing of the past.  These young Turks are kicking ass and taking no prisoners. So if you can’t see an orchestra live, you can still enjoy dozens of fabulous offerings at The River Cinemas in Rancho Mirage, the Camelot Theater in Palm Springs, or the Palme d’Or at Westfield Mall in Palm Desert. 

In addition, the Palme provides three plus months of scheduling on their website, so you can actually plan accordingly.  How nice!  In particular The Palme  goes above and beyond to provide a wide variety of programming that more and more has included classical choices in ballet, opera,  theater and concerts as well as their usual array of the best in cinema – not just the latest explosive, car-crash, box office bang-ups.  Also, I should not have been surprised to see listed in general release right now, two films that we previewed at the International Film Festival in January – Fill The Void and The Kon Tiki (actually quite scary.) 

A few recommendations I might make in the coming schedule are:

The Palme:  The National Theater Live presents Helen Mirren in “The Audience,” reprising her role as Queen Elizabeth II as she, from young mother to grandmother, meets with each of her prime ministers in an imagined set of conversations.  June 13 live @ 11 am; repeats June 20 4 pm  & June 25, 6:30. I can’t wait for this one.  Also watch for Otello Sept 26 and Kenneth Branagh as Macbeth October 17  & 24.Helen-Mirren

The Palme:  If you prefer ballet or opera you can choose the Paris Opera Ballet Series throughout June and July, including La Sylphide, Fallstaff, The Magic Flute or Carmen.

Fine Art anyone? 

How about great art on the big screen?   That’s different.  The Palme  – July 6th, 12:00 pm will offer a first: a behind-the-scenes look at putting together and seeing an art exhibition – in this case the work of Edvard Munch (The Scream) as celebrated in Norway on Munch’s 150 anniversary. 

The River will offer – October 10, 7:30 pm from The National Gallery, London a major exhibition on one of the most startling and fascinating artists of all-time, Johannes Vermeer, most popularly known as the painter of the Girl with a Pearl Earring. Vermeer painted little more than 30 works that still exist, and the National Gallery has chosen to focus on his art in relation to music. Music was one of the most popular themes of Dutch painting and revealed an enormous amount about the sitter and the society.  Not to be missed. 

Summer at The River Cinemas also will be offering a full schedule of Live At The Met Opera Encores, including Carmen (stand-out MET performance) June 19; Ill Trovatore, June 26; Armida, July 10th; and La Traviata, July 17th.  The River is also showing  Tchaikovsky’s masterpiece Swan Lake live from  the Mariinsky Theatre, Thursday, June 6th at 6:30 pm.  If you’ve never seen a ballet, this is the one to see. 

The Palme will also show the Philadelphia Orchestra with Simon Rattle conducting Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony, June 26th @ 6:30 pm. 

So as we head into the summer season there is no reason to lament the inevitable heat.  And don’t tell me there’s nothing to do!  I’ve barely scratched the surface and given you plenty of links to source even more options.  Theaters struggle to fill seats during the summer, but unfortunately they don’t market these cultural gems very well.  I believe more folks would attend these stellar performances if there was better exposure to their target market.  So there.  I’m doing my bit. 

Don’t forget Palm Springs Restaurant Week is May 31 June 16th.  Palm Desert Restaurant Week is May 31 – June 9th.  May I suggest you eat, drink and be merry.  With all the lovely culture Coachella Valley has to offer why wouldn’t you?

 

Two very satisfying baseball movies are currently making the rounds.  Both give valuable lessons in the triumph of personal courage.

 JackieRobinsonIt’s really hard to imagine in 2013 how blatant and ugly was the shameful, wide-spread and accepted practice of segregation and Jim Crow laws in post-WWII America.  42 is the moving and intimate story of Brooklyn Dodgers Number 42 – black baseball player Jackie Robinson – and the Dodgers’ decision to hire Robinson and take on the struggle to break the color barrier in 1947-48.  42 gives us but a tiny, unvarnished taste of what it must have been like to be the recipient of such vicious, withering, personal attacks from every quarter, and what courage Robinson showed not knowing the eventual outcome.  The despicable behavior of my fellow Americans brought tears of shame streaming down my face, only to be replaced by tears of pride for the humanity that Robinson showed us all in the face of one of the ugliest chapters in our history.

Chadwick Bozeman gives us a towering yet deeply human portrayal of Robinson, playing opposite a crusty Harrison Ford as Dodger owner Branch Rickey who pragmatically sees the future for what it is.  What a team Robinson & Rickey made.  What a story we get from Bozeman and Harrison.  Do not miss it.

yanklesIn The Big Inning….” is the clever tag line of an adorable little independent film called the Yankles, written, directed and produced by two nice Jewish boys from Orange county, David & Zev Brooks. 

The Yeshiva Torah V’Limud rabbinical students have a fledgling baseball team. They have a chance to compete in the intercollegiate athletic system. Now all they need is a coach. Enter three-time DUY loser Charlie Jones (played by Brian Wimmer) who’s just been paroled after an 18-month jail sentence and who must satisfy his community service parole requirement. He just happens to be the X-wife of the sister of Yankles shortstop and team captain, Elliot Eliahu Dubinsky, (played by Michael Buster) who just happens to be an X-AA ball player who is now a huge disappointment to Dad, X-major league ball player Frankie Dubinsky, (played by Don Most of Happy Days fame)  because after a trip to Israel he’s abandoned his baseball career to become a Rabbi.  Did you get all that?  No matter.   For everyone who simply likes a good story, this maisse mit a deitch is a leben ahf dein kip.  You’ll be k’velening all over yourself.  If you like baseball, you’ll like it even better. 

Interesting that the film was shot entirely in Utah and the cast were mostly locals who happened to be of the Mormon faith.  They did an outstanding job in their portrayal of Orthodox Yeshiva students, who must learn from their Rebbe that “some things are more important than winning.  We are Jewish Yeshiva students first and ball Yankles3players second.”  That belief is sorely tested when the Yankles make it into the finals and the smarmy Inter-collegiate sports commissioner (with a  double play of antisemitism and a past score to settle with Coach Charlie) schedules the final game on the Jewish Sabbath so the team won’t be unable to play. 

Although the film hasn’t yet found a home through wide distribution, look for it On Demand, through Netflix or at YouTube.  We were fortunate enough to see it at Temple Sinai in Palm Desert where we were treated to an after film discussion with the writing, directing and producing brothers David & Zev Brooks.

HOCAnyone who has ever attempted to build a house with playing cards knows the intense focus it takes.  Not one intruding thought can be allowed to disrupt the absolute concentration required.  That intense concentration is offered by the two main characters – unctuous Congressman Francis Underwood, he a boy of the South and his cool-as-ice wife, Claire – in Netflix’s impressive new series House Of Cards, loosely based on the BBC series of the same name.

With this new 13-part series,  completely available for your marathon viewing, Kevin Spacey gives us the ultimate anti-hero in Congressman Underwood. One reviewer aptly described Spacey’s character as “a politician on the make, he is evocatively deadpan and sad-eyed, as if he wished this wretched world didn’t justify his deeds but will damn sure make the best of it.”   

After a betrayal of Presidential proportions we are the lucky voyeurs who get to watch The Congressman and his lobbyist wife Claire (played with brilliant restraint by Robin Wright) build their intricate house of cards with infinite patience and religious-like dedication to the “family business,” glimpses of which are tantalizingly doled out as the series unfolds. Never has television given us a more clear understanding of the way government really works, all intelligently packaged in a crisp script that simmers and crackles with all our inherent moral flaws. We have surely reached the tipping point when nearly every review of House Of Cards begins with the words  “a journey to the dark side.” Indeed.  This is The West Wing up to its neck in Congressional sludge.

house-of-cards

Everything about this slick production is calculated for the ultimate effect: to make the worst possible expectations of our government decidedly palatable and definitely enjoyable.  It’s a visual banquet filled with tasty morsels we’d ordinarily find disgusting.  In the opening credits, time-lapse photography reminds us that the orbit of any individual or thing is secondary to the institution of governmental power.  The music is haunting.  The set decoration is cool and murky, nuanced by every possible shade of gray. Every action is darkly paced and, like a skilled lover, makes us breathless with anticipation.

But while the Tony Sopranos, the Walter Whites and the Dexters are compelling anti-heroes,  they aren’t exactly our next-door neighbors.   The Congressman hits us right where we live as he jerks the shroud off the putrefying body of government and forces us to face with a macabre sense of relief, the awful truth that corruption is necessary and required.

Just as Lord Acton paraphrased in 1887, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.”

But we knew that, didn’t we?  Thank heavens the truth has been dragged from the closet and given yet another airing.

So cancel your weekend plans, order sustenance and settle in for the most compelling, spell-binding, unrestrained tale of legislative debauchery ever dressed up and tricked out in Sunday’s best go to meet’in finery. You cannot watch just one episode at a time.

Movie Review:

A quartet is a composition for four instruments or voices; a group of things that are considered a unit, or that belong together.

thequartet

And so it is that this Quartet is the most endearing of films and it’s that belonging thing that tugs at your heart throughout this thoughtful, touching, charming story about living in the moment, no matter how fleeting those moments are as we face the final chapters of our lives.

A home for aging musicians on the magnificent grounds of “Beecham House*” is the setting for three of the most delightful aging stars in the opera firmament: Tom Courtenay as Regie, Billy Connolly as Wilf and Pauline Collins as Cissy.  Enter the diva of all divas, Maggie Smith as Jean, who cannot face the realities of her reduced circumstances –  financially, professionally, physically, emotionally – but then, who of us can do it with much aplomb?

Dustin Hoffman directs this story of love, humor and reconciliation with a concert master’s touch.  Tom Courtenay’s kind and aging gigolo is completely charming without lurching into lechery; Cissy’s addled memory-lapses are the perfect foil for tension breaking; and Reggie is perhaps more devastatingly handsome with age.   The apex of their collective operatic careers was their performance in Verdi’s Rigoletto and its famous act III quartet “one of the finest examples of ensemble writing in all of opera.”

The annual fund-raising Gala is looming.  Diva Jean’s arrival introduces the irresistible possibility bigger donors if the quartet will only reunite.  Will they do it?  Can they do it – will their voices hold up?  And what of the smoldering love once felt for two of our stars?  Can they be reunited as well?

BeechamHouseGive yourself a treat and see for yourself.   Tears, laughter, lovely sentimentality, compassion, glorious music, human emotion, happy ending.  This quartet definitely belongs together.  What more could you want?

* Hedsor House was once the home of the Dowager Princess of Wales, mother of George III, (aka Beecham House in the film) in Buckinghamshire, England.  It has only been open to the public since 2008.

Movie Review

lesmisThere are few instances when life conspires to give us perfection.  To witness such an event, even a century ago would have been a miraculous occurrence worthy of biblical reference.  Today we are less inclined toward miracles, so jaded are we by facsimiles thereof.

I promise you, the film of Les Misérables is the real deal at $250 million and worth every frame and every franc.  Weighing in at a hefty two hours thirty-seven minutes, this heart-wrenching musical drama speaks to our basic human need to believe that good will triumph over evil; wrongs can be righted; and redemption is possible.

There’s a reason Les Misérables is the longest running musical theater production in the world.  It premiered in Paris in crowe1980, in London in 1985 and in New York two years later.  It has been enthusiastically seen by over 6 million (and counting) in multiple countries, in multiple languages.  It’s a  compelling story of love, hate, hope, redemption, and the bawdiest of humor, taking us all on a satisfying emotional roller-coaster ride.  But. While most of the world raves on about the music, the music, the music – a film could never survive on music alone.  That would require an unrivaled sense of artistic proportion.

So who would dare attempt such a feat?

Tom Hooper.

Who?  Oh, the guy who did The Kings Speech?

Ah.  Well.  Maybe.

No maybe about it.

Most films are carried by their star power.  Only a few are carried by the director’s vision.  This is one of them.

Director Hooper has crafted perfection in his cinematic interpretation of the brilliant stage production.  Its music is emotionally searing.  The  fully through-sung approach is unique.  Yet all is faithful to the classic Victor Hugo text.  Set designer Eve Stewart (her fourth collaboration with Hooper) has produced a Herculean backdrop, inspired by works from French artist & illustrator Gustave Doré and 19th century photographer Charles Manville.  She has blended these elements beautifully with the location shoots.  She has created a sweeping and grand visual that perfectly balances  the other aspects of the film.  All has been entrusted to cinematographer Danny Cohen, who has given us a colossal, panoramic, romantic canvas that is beyond our wildest  imaginings.  Il est magnifique.

Oh, how the language limps in an attempt to describe this enormously satisfying adaptation wherein all the singers perform their music live (a phenomenal achievement) as the camera rolls – no singing in the sound booth with a playback – this is the high-wire without a net. Musical Director Stephen Booker explains the live recording: “The problem when you’re singing to playback is that it denies the actor of being in the moment because they have to stick to the millisecond of a plan laid down months before. Whereas, when they sing live, an actor has the freedom to create the illusion that the character is acting in the moment, which has a profound effect on the power and the realism of the performance. There’s so much emotion in Les Misérables, and I wanted the actors to have options which might be created by the performance—options which they would be unlikely to have in a recording studio months before.”

battle

Thank goodness this didn’t turn into a “film of a musical.”

I’ve been fortunate to see the play three times (London, New York and Boston)  and three times I’ve stubbornly endured the four-hour, PBS-produced 25th anniversary television spectacle.  Although I noticed different things with each show, I still savored every note, and my tears still flowed on cue.  But the film truly completes the story in a way I hadn’t expected.

Hooper et al – a veritable who’s who in production & design – have passionately honored the shows’ origins while brilliantly creating a cinematic homage on a Sistine-Chapel-sized canvas.   This faithful yet fresh adaptation, viewed universally or intimately at will, transcends what we think we know and showers us with a fresh sense that something extraordinary is happening.

The film is described as the perfect storm of acting prowess and singing virtuosity by a star powered cast headed by Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway, Amanda Sayfried, Eddie Redmayne, Helen Bonham-Carter and Sasha Barren-Cohen.

jackmanThere is not a weak moment, not a weak voice, not a weak scene – from the overwhelming opening sequence of a chain gang dragging a monstrous ship into dry dock, to Jean Valjean’s last dying moment – so poignant there is not a dry eye in the theater.  At the end you may be exhausted, but you will not be untouched by this brave and shining cinematic experience.

Isn’t it fascinating that French composers Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg, along with lyricist Herbert Kretzmer could have created such a masterpiece, rightfully called one of the greatest theatrical scores of all times, and yet, unlike other wildly successful musical collaborators for the theater –  Rogers & Hammerstein, Lerner & Lowe, or even Andrew Lloyd Weber – this trio have had no other offerings since they created Les Misérables.

Perhaps it is simply that perfection cannot be topped.

Guardians

Take your children, take your grandchildren, or just take yourself to see Rise of the Guardians.

There are times when every one of us needs a little reassurance.  Recent events make me feel that we are living in such times and Rise of the Guardians  the movie, might seem to be just for the children, but it’s not. It’s for anyone who has lost faith and stopped believing in goodness and the possibilities in the world.

My research produced a number of references from folklore to modern comics that deal with the subject of guardians and the battle between good and evil.  This particular story is based on a children’s fable described as a contemporary fairy tale entitled The Guardians of Childhood by William Joyce.  I found it so charming, I sent copies to both sets of our grandchildren.  Joyce served as co-director on this magical and enchanting Dreamworks animation.  Here is an abbreviated synopsis of this sweet story, excerpted from the official website:

It’s a visually stunning yet simple story,  described as “an epic adventure that tells the story of a group of heroes, each with an extraordinary ability.   Meet The Guardians of Childhood:

Fairy.

Santa Claus – more than a legend in this story, is called North and is given voice by none other than Alex Baldwin. He’s not your typical belly-full-of-jelly character, “he’s a warrior with a heart of gold who has  ‘naughty’ tattooed on one arm and ‘nice’ on the other.  Fierce, demanding and impulsive, everything about North is larger than life.  For North, nothing is impossible as long as he believes in it.”

Jack Frost, in the voice of Chris Pine, “is more than a myth. He is a supernatural being much like the guardians, but unlike the others, he is a loner: the classic rebel without a cause.  He too is immortal, eternally young, charismatic and smart.  He has incredible weather powers that he controls with his magic staff; he can control the winds, storms, cold and snow.  He’s the spirit of mischief and chaos personified.  But until he can discover the purpose behind his amazing powers, he will never be a true guardian.”

The captivating Tooth Fairy is more than a fairy tale.  Given voice by Isla Fisher, Tooth is “beautiful, elegant,  blue and green iridescent, half human and half hummingbird.  She is full of energy and always in motion  collecting children’s teeth with the help of her fleet of mini fairies who patrol the globe 24/7.  What you don’t know is that the children’s teeth hold the most precious childhood memories.  Tooth safeguards these teeth in her palace and returns the memories when we need them most.”

Hugh Jackman lends his tough Aussie voice to Bunymund, aka The Easter Bunny, who believes that he is more than a fable.  “Bunny is a cool, calm Australian, as dry as the outback; an in-the-dirt, rough and tumble protector of nature.  He follows nature’s rhythms and when it’s time for action, he waits for the perfect moment to act – all over in a heartbeat with the help of his enchanted boomerangs and exploding Easter eggs.   Bunny is completely unflappable.   The only thing that gets under his skin is North’s constant ribbing about how Christmas is more important than Easter.”

sandman

Dear Sweet Sandman – more than a dream – has no voice, but he is still “our guardian of dreams.  He communicates through magical sand images that are conjured in our imagination, like a game of charades.  He is ancient and wise and incredibly powerful.  Although peaceful by nature, Sandman is a fierce fighter, expertly wielding his dreamsand-whips to fight Pitch and his nightmares.”

And then there is Pitch, an evil spirit perfectly pitched by Jude Law, giving voice to the “boogeyman who hid under your bed when you were a child, and gave you reason to fear the dark.  He’s had to endure generations of parents telling their children not to fear or believe in him, while the Guardians are beloved by all.

But in his underground liar Pitch has devised a plan to change all that.  With the help of his sinister army of nightmares, Pitch plans to destroy belief in the guardians and all they represent – until there is nothing left but fear.”

When Pitch lays down the gauntlet to take over the world, “the immortal Guardians must join forces for the first time to protect the hopes, beliefs and imagination of children all over the world.”

Wasn’t it Tinkerbell who said, “You don’t have to understand, you just have to believe.”  Our world is so complex, it’s easy to lose faith, but maybe it’s worth a try. At least seeing this movie made me feel that way for a while.

Give yourself a treat this holiday season.  Go to the movies!

Isn’t wisdom gained through understanding how and why something was done?  Isn’t that the basis for forming beliefs and opinions?  Because history is no longer an integral part of a well-grounded education today, is there any opportunity for those in charge to appreciate the hard-won wisdom of those who went before us and paid such a dear price?

With the release of the most recent biographical film on Abraham Lincoln, we have the gift of a fresh and vibrant Lincoln in Steven Spielberg’s luminescent film about our 16th President. We would do well to ponder the invaluable lessons of his presidency, woven like threads of gold into this brilliant historical tapestry.

“I am not bound to win, but I am bound to be true. I am not bound to succeed, but I am bound to live by the light that I have. I must stand with anybody that stands right, and stand with him while he is right, and part with him when he goes wrong.” Abraham Lincoln

Although Lincoln has been a constant in our lives – from the copper pennies that bear his face, to the silhouette on the teachers’ February-themed bulletin board, to the silent, massive image gazing out upon the throngs at his Memorial in Washington –  most of us know next to nothing about him – about how he accomplished what so many believed was absolutely and completely wrong, dangerously pig-headed and impossible.  He did it because he believed in a higher ideal.

Daniel Day Lewis brings this enigmatic leader into breathtaking focus with his perceptive portrayal of a “scorned, back-woods lawyer,” contemptuously described  by his contemporaries as an uncouth, awkward, baboonish, shuffling, and uneducated creature of politics.  This Lincoln embodies everything we would eschew today, given the current trend to favor sophisticated form over honest substance.

And yet, the intricacies  found in Lincoln’s emotional and intellectual depth leave us gasping.  In one sentence he whipsaws us from the lowest political motives to literary analogies that are inspirational. It is a privilege to watch Lincoln’s steady but oh so painful efforts to move our country towards the passage of the 13th amendment to the US Constitution, while Lewis steadfastly moves us towards an understanding of Lincoln’s character that is nothing short of a tour de force.

The film examines the messy process of governance, using the high drama and complexities surrounding the passage of the amendment to abolish slavery.  That event alone is worthy of study in that the sharp divide in the Union then, is disturbingly similar to the divisions we face today – states rights vs. the good of Union – The UNITED States of America.  Left vs. Right. Democrats vs. Republicans.  Liberals vs. Conservatives.  Democracy vs. Socialism.  America vs. Europe. We may be even more polarized today than we were back then, given that so many today seem so ignorant of what they are risking.

Lewis gives us insight into Lincoln’s brilliant mind through his awkward carriage, stooped low by the awesome burden of governance,  his powerfully expressive eyes, and his parsimonious language.  We see his mind – whirling cogs and wheels – contemplating the  repugnance of war, the immorality of slavery and the avarice of his fellow citizens.  His Congress vacillates, weighing the sacrifice of doing what is right and necessary, regardless of, or in spite of, personal gain.  The audience is mesmerized.  We hang on every syllable uttered by men who only in retrospect would be labeled great.

Lincoln should be required viewing for every member of Congress, every appointed government official,  as it reminds us in the most uncomfortable ways that without a greater purpose, there can be no justification for the tawdry, squalid, partisan muckraking that consumes our government – we are reduced to the lowest common denominator.  The issues of today are equal to the ones which took the country to the precipice in 1865.  Yes, we have great causes – all governments, countries, eras have them, but ours seem subordinate to petty partisanship.

Where are the great leaders who are willing to bring passion to outcomes worth more than the political patronage of horse traders and nest featherers?  There will always be that, human nature being what it is, but we’ve lost sight of the greater good and there is no one to lead us and inspire us to be better than we are.

lincoln-daniel-day-lewisI am reminded of a much used phrase, from Aesop, from Patrick Henry, from the new Testament – United we stand, divided we fall,  which also appears on the great seal of the State of Kentucky, (incidentally Lincoln’s actual birthplace.)  Lincoln understood what was at stake.  He knew that governing was a lonely business, not a popularity contest.  He was willing to risk his entire Presidency, and ultimately his life, on the strength of an ideal that he believed would right a tremendous wrong and would eventually heal the country.  If only we had such wisdom and courage from our leaders now; if only they would choose honesty and truth over political expediency.

If you don’t see another movie this year, I urge you to see this one, and take a few of the younger generation with you.  Sally Fields is at her best as Mary Todd Lincoln.  We are awed by Tommy Lee Jones’ Thaddeus  Stevens and we are deeply grateful for the comic relief from James Spader as a hapless lobbiest who breaks the tension when we need it most.  David Strathairn as a more than sufficiently arrogant William Seward. There are a few things I could criticize about the Lincoln screen play but I won’t.  The bulk of it is just too remarkable to mention minor flaws.

P.S. If this movie whets your appetite and you are curious to know more about the subtle brilliance of Lincoln, I heartily recommend Doris Kerns Goodwin’s book, Team of Rivals.  It was a primary resource for this movie.

This past week was a culture cram, as we previewed three entirely different but equally entertaining films currently available in our area.


First up – spoiler alert – this one is probably trending a bit far from the main stream  –  Swan Lake – is the 2011 filmed performance of a contemporary interpretation of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake as seen through the eyes of choreographer Matthew Bourne.  While it may be the longest running ballet in London’s  West End (since its introduction in 1995,) this unsettling adaptation was described by one reviewer as more creepily inspired by Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds than by the Bolshoi.  Ah ha!  Now I understand…and I couldn’t agree more.

As one of our party opined: “The dancers were far better than the choreography given them, and seven moves were crammed in, when four would have sufficed with more grace.”  I found it inconsistent at best, and likened it more to a poor imitation of what the great American theater director, Peter Sellars, (who is so well known for his brilliant contemporary interpretations of classic operas) might have done.   Bourne also felt the need to throw in every clichéd red Freudian slip, including some thinly veiled references to Oedipus  – or was that Cougar Town?  Enough said.  Am I recommending it at 2+ hours?  Ummmm, maybe not.

Diana Vreeland –  The Eye Has to Travel is an exquisite documentary that chronicles, in her own intriguing words, the remarkable life’s work of the editor of  Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue  Magazines: the enigmatic Diana Vreeland –  one of 20th century’s most intriguing, contemporary fashion icons.  Anyone who ever perused these magazines in the sixties will remember her unique perspective, which ushered in a “fashion as art, and more” philosophy that went on to create its own billion dollar impact on our lives.  I doubt it’s ever been surpassed.

As one Daily Beast reviewer so succinctly put it: “It would not be an exaggeration to say that Diana Vreeland is single-handedly responsible for the pop-culture meme that great fashion editors are flamboyant and eccentric, possess the temperaments of tyrants, and are prone to mysterious pronouncements about pink being the navy blue of India.”   But perhaps Jackie O stated it more clearly in her observation,  which was quoted in the LA Times review:  “To say that Diana Vreeland has dealt only with fashion trivializes what she has done. She has commented on the times.”  

Diana’s career (everyone pronounced her name dee-ah-na, in that mad sixties-affected way) culminated in her final, crowning accomplishment as consultant to the Costume Institute of the  Metropolitan Museum of Art,  1971-84, where she mounted twelve exhibitions, making each one’s opening a glittering society  “happening,” much to the chagrin of the staid museum directors.

The film is largely narrated by her interviewer George Plimpton and produced by her granddaughter, Lisa Immordino Vreeland.  It’s a nostalgic trip through the freshness of fashion and celebrity and art and the avant-garde –  that spun  mid-20th century innocence into a whirl of Lights!  Color! Action!   After my Pucci mini dress and Twiggy haircut, I was never the same.  Were you?

Ben Affleck does it again!  Argo tops a body of work that just keeps getting better with each offering.  Affleck is a master story teller…but we knew that after Good Will Hunting and Gone Baby Gone.  We confirmed it after Our Town.  With Argo we’ve become fervent aficionados.

From the opening scene, to the closing credits, you’re committed – not a wasted word, not a meandering scene, not a moment of confusion.  This thrilling, true account of the covert plot to rescue six Americans stranded in the Iranian revolution erupting at the end of Carter’s Presidency, has you clinching your fists and holding your breath, even though you totally know they are all going to get out.  The masterful pacing is just right and John Goodman and Alan Arkin bring the absolute perfect dollop of over-the-top comic relief as fictitious Hollywood film types who sign on for the caper  – and we sure need the relief, because this one will have your stomach in knots.

I was exhausted!  Best film of the year.

Sixto Rodriguez

I’m not always up for experimental adventures in film.  If I’m giving up 2+ hours, I want some guaranteed ROI.  But occasionally a review resonates.   Who knows why?  Blame it on my mysterious but rarely wrong intuition.  If there’s hangtime I go with the universe.  So it was with that thought that we headed off to The Camelot Theater  in Palm Springs, home of The Desert Film Society and artsy fartsy film screenings.  The paper had a short blurb describing the screening of a documentary about an obscure musician who had been touted as the next Bob Dylan but who flamed out early and disappeared.  I don’t even like Dylan – never, ever did.  But I thought the historical period would be useful to my labor of love, a novel about the Rock and Roll era. 

To say that truth is stranger than fiction belongs in the department of redundant  redundancy.  This is some strange story.  Searching for Sugarman is a Swedish documentary; the winner of the Sundance Special Jury Prize as well as its Audience Award.  The film chronicles the short-lived almost-career of a seventies Detroit troubadour named Sixto Rodriguez who apparently disappeared after releasing two albums to critical acclaim.  So much for the vision of pundits.   The records were produced by Palm Springs resident, Steve Rowland, so there was the local tie-in and he graciously shared some of this thoughts at the after-screening Q&A.  The film is just now opening in selected cities. 

Rodriguez was far better than Dylan ever thought about being.  Pure of voice, poetic of heart,  a Mexican/American Indian with a spirit so stealth it knocks you completely off balance; he was discovered in a Detroit dive bar, recorded two albums that bombed and then drifted away.  The music industry being the cruelest of mistresses, and the most insidious of bookkeepers, it was rumored that he committed an on-stage suicide after the audience rejection.   Urban legend complete.  Case closed. 

Not so fast.  That’s just the beginning of a layered mystery that begged to be told but until now, never was.  During the Apartheid era in South Africa, bootlegged copies of Rodriguez’s records with their anti-establishment message tapped into the psyche of the underground and became their anthem of unrest.  Rodriguez was their folk hero.  It’s estimated that  at least 500,000 copies of his albums were eventually sold there.  Enter the Internet and the curiosity of two South Africans who began a journey to seek out and uncover the story of what happened to Sixto Rogriguez.  Oh, and where the money went.   There’s always that, isn’t there? 

No spoiler alert here.  Go meet Sugarman  for yourself.

Everyone should see a Ballet once in their lifetime…even if you end up not liking it.  To see Ballet in HD on the big screen gives you an appreciation of a dancers’ incredible athleticism whether you can follow the story line or not.   Often it doesn’t matter.  It originated during the Italian Renaissance around the 15th century but was further as a concert dance form in France and Russia to be primarily performed with classical music.  The world originates in the Latin Ballo, Ballare, meaning to dance.  Many have never had any exposure to this glorious art form, but now, thanks to some very smart and forward thinking promoters who have glommed on to the Metropolitan’ Opera’s Live in HD smash-up that is in its third season of live broadcasts, we – the great unwashed – are being treated to the best of the best – wonderful productions from the Royal Ballet in London, and now the Bolshoi Ballet showing of Ramonda August 26 at our local cinema, The River in Rancho Mirage.  So sad that Cinnemark can’t be bothered to promote what they are offering.  But word of mouth is a powerful thing, isn’t it?  So pass this one on to all your friends and I’ll keep you posted as more become available. 

As more and more world-wide venues upgrade to the requisite equipment to film these incredible productions, we the audience get to enjoy resources such as Emerging Cinemas  and others who are treating us not only to Ballet but also to Shakespeare at the Globe in London (last year we saw three outstanding offerings); The Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Canada which brought us Christopher Plummer in The Tempest (reviewed in my June 16th post; Opera from Teatro Alla Scala, Bologna and of course the grandest of old ladies, The Metropolitan Opera in New York City.  Last year the LA Phil gave us two fantastic live concerts from Disney Hall with Gustavo Dudamel, that 30-year-old wunderkind who is by far the world’s greatest conductor.  To watch him conduct up close and personal through the lens of the camera, you know exactly why the LA Phil has become the world’s premiere orchestra. 

Television is doing its best to keep up with the competition of culture at the big cinema, and kudos should go out to reality shows that are delighted to sift through the worst of the worst  America has to offer in order to unearth the pure, unadulterated talent that is out there, lurking in obscurity while praying for Big Bucks Hollywood to come knocking.  Of course, “the worst” are what boost the ratings…like a passing a train wreck…we just can’t pull our eyes away from the wretchedly sad characters who are like junkies clawing their way towards that fifteen seconds of fame, no matter how personally embarrassing.  I’m always amazed at the audience’s ability to revere talent and in the same breath wallow in the most pathetically awful examples of what humanity can produce when run amuck.

Here’s a quick run down of some of my favorites.    The Voice  got its legs last season even though much of the format is cheesy-over-the-top.   Fortunately the talent does shine through if you can ignore the ridiculous posturing of the judges (the Sing Off was an exception to that criticism) whose egos just can’t resist competing with the naive contestants who so desperately crave stardom, all the while whining about how they’ve “worked soooooo hard” to get there. 

Hey!  “Hard work” is the only thing that will ever get you anything, anywhere!  Suck it up.  By some twist of fate you landed in the big leagues, put on your big girl panties and deal with it.  Stop the sniveling.  There is a huuuge difference between ‘a star wannabe’ and having the true, undeniable passion that drives you to do what you do.  You sing or dance, because you simply can not, not sing or dance.  That is what pushes through the most painful rejection and crushing disappointment that is the gauntlet of ‘making it’ in the entertainment business today.   Make no mistake:  it is The Most Ruthless of Businesses.

The X Factor  format plays this waaaaay over the top and can border on emotional cruelty when they take advantage of contestants who are  not emotionally stable enough to endure the  incredible demands of the competition.  You think life is tough?  You think training for a marathon would be tough?  Try going through thirteen weeks of non-stop, 24-hour, rehearsals; weekly performances of not one but two or three pieces that must be polished to perfection;  learning new material; no sleep; mentors pushing and pulling according to what they think makes a star, yada yada yada.  ‘They – the mentors, the suits, the fans, the judges –  pick at your clothes, crab about your hair, complain about your choices until you begin to wonder..is this about the contestant or is this about conflict = ratings?   Only the most centered, healthy individual can endure such pressures…not some fragile individual just out of drug rehab or into their third month of sobriety.   Anybody worried about what happens to those tender souls when they get tossed on the reject pile in front of twenty million viewers and some idiot MC grabs them and says “tell me how you’re feeling?”   However, the X Factor,  in spite of itself and nasty old Simon Cowel (who isn’t anything of the sort)  last season did produce the most amazing winner,  Melanie Amaro.  This little singing angel didn’t go in for the drama –  she just stood there and sang her heart out and it was NO CONTEST!   The cream does rise to the top!     

The Sing Off was an a-capella format featuring real singers with incredible musicality who simply let their true vocal chops do the work.  What a breath of fresh air.   Made up of mostly young college singing groups, the audience was treated to a refreshing “revisit” to those salad days when gorgeous four, five, and six-part harmonies were popular.  No dependence on mechanics and technical tricks which camouflages the lack of true vocal talent in the majority of  today’s “stars.”   But of course!  Sadly but predictably, NBC in it’s usual lack of class/talent/intelligence canceled the show because it was up against said X Factor.  Guess there wasn’t enough blood on the floor.  However, there is a social media campaign to reinstate it.  Let’s see if the power of Social Media can win one for quality vs quantity. 

One of the most wonderful reality competitions is  So You Think You Can Dance, in its ninth season.   This year’s group of contestants shows us the incredible athleticism necessary in these world-of-dance genres – from hip-hop to ballroom and ballet.  Their routines are as demanding as anything our olympic athletes showed us last month.  It’s lovely, too,  to see the choreographers getting a bit of fame-rub-off, as they are publicly applauded for their amazing choreography each week.  These judges do take their roles seriously and it shows.  The format is geared to bring out the best.   Their sharp but fair critiques don’t sugar coat their tough love message that the execution of the routine didn’t make the grade.  This past week, they had the option of saving one beautiful dancer, Cheon, who even though he is clearly the most talented and best trained dancer in the group, had not garnered the requisite votes to stay in the competition.  I suspect that he’s just not grinning and pandering to the audience, as he is a very serious dancer (trained at the Royal Ballet in London.)   Head judge and executive producer (not only this show but also American Idol,)  Nigel Lithgoe, put it very simply: For some, dancing is an option, but for dancers like Cheon, it is the only option.  How right you are Nigel. 

In all, talent is everywhere, quality programing is there, and culture is alive and well, albeit sandwiched between the annoyingly crass need to sell stuff and pander to the worst in all of us.  But thanks to technology, we just tape the show and then watch it later and wiz through those commercials.  So – I’m willing to sift through the train wrecks to applaud the hard work and raw talent that  finally has a chance to be seen and heard.  For so many years TV fed us such a bland, empty-calorie-diet of mindless pabulum,  all this reality fever is a welcome change.   Nothing like high drama awash with tears and trauma.

A housekeeping note.  I was inspecting the way this blog appears when it arrives in your e-mail box.   Horrors!   I am reminded once again that technology is NEVER what it’s cracked up to be.  Depending on your operating system, the size of your monitor, the search engine you use;  my carefully crafted blog can come crashing, banging, sliding into your computer system like a drunken sailor!  Not to mention the typos that sneak through even after ten rewrites. (Yes, writing does not come flying out of anyone’s brain, to land perfectly on the page, even if you are Hemingway – it takes many many rewrites.)  So please accept my apologies for anything less than a perfect post.  It’s what I strive for, but as I look back I see that I often fail.  So sorry.  My bad.  My heartfelt thanks for reading.  I’m like those dancers and singers…I can not, not write.  I appreciate the many readers who pop in to see what I’m thinking about, and I especially appreciate it when you pass it along to your friends.  I am humbled and honored.

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