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Feb 25/13

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Reviewed here: Oscars Ceremony 2013 (TV); Amour (Movie); Rigoletto (Opera); Django Unchained (Movie)

Oscars Ceremony 2013

Apart from big elections and important funerals, Oscars night is the one time of the year for tv watching here at Dilettante’s Diary. Not that I care much about who wins the awards. Competition doesn’t really mean anything when it comes to the arts. Besides, what do those people really know about movies?

My reason for watching is that I like to see how the ceremony works – or doesn’t – as a show. And that, of course, depends a lot on the host.

In the opening shtick, much was made of the fact that Seth MacFarlane would probably be billed as the worst host ever in the history of the Oscars. From what I saw of the show, I would say that’s not fair. After all, we haven’t yet seen the complete history of the Oscars. When we do, though, he might be a genuine contender for the title.

Not that he wasn’t bright and pleasant and easy to look at. And he particularly shone when he got to show his expertise in the song and dance routines. The trouble was with the jokes. I think they didn’t suit his personality. The person he was trying to be for the ceremony didn’t fit very well with the person he is. I don’t have access to the notes of Mr. MacFarlane’s psychiatric sessions (if he has them) but, from what I hear about him, he’s a pretty edgy guy. His humour is at its best in the gross and sardonic veins. Obviously, you can’t do that for the Oscars. So his writers had him tip-toeing up to that line without ever crossing it. That meant he was trying to be naughty in a cute boyish way and just ended up being obnoxious. Witness the song: "We saw your boobs" which was simply horrible in every way (except for the dancing).

The one part of the opening routine that worked really well was the appearance of William Shatner beaming down on us from some time in the future to remonstrate with Mr. MacFarlane over his poor performance. Mr. Shatner’s acting was relaxed, casual and very amusing – much better than anything I've see him do until now.

My main impression of the presentations was that the writers for the ceremony should abandon, for once and for all, that tired gimmick of having the presenters pretend to be bumbling and not sure of what they’re doing. The routine that Paul Rudd and Melissa McCarthy were forced to go through was painfully incoherent. The gig set up for the actors from The Avengers was a mess.

I’m sorry to report that the ceremony appears to be falling back on the practice of including lots of glitzy musical numbers. It was a great relief to me when, a few years ago, they dropped that tiresome business of performing each of the nominated songs. Who wants – or needs – to have a ceremony like this bloated with such stuffing?

But I did find that the performance of the music from Les Miserables by all the cast members was stirring and effective. Maybe that was a sign that there were still better things to come in the show. However, it was time for me to go to bed.

Which I did with no regrets whatsoever except for missing the tribute to the departed members. That was always one of the highlights of the show for me.

 

Amour (Movie) written and directed by Michael Haneke; starring Jean-Louis Trintignant, Emmanuelle Riva, Isabelle Huppert; with Alexandre Tharaud, William Shimell, Ramn Agirre, Rita Blanco, Carole Franck, Dinara Drukarova.

Georges and Anne are a retired couple, in their eighties, I’d guess, – very genteel and cultured – and they live in one of those marvellously roomy apartments in a grand old edifice in Paris. She (Emmanuelle Riva) is a former piano teacher of some distinction. He (Jean-Louis Trintignant) appears to have been a college prof or the like. Their apartment is crammed with books and their French is beautiful. All is going well until Anne needs surgery to remove a blockage of the carotid artery. Unfortunately, she falls into the five percent of patients for whom the surgery doesn’t work. She returns home paralyzed on her right side. Georges looks after her devotedly, with the help of some part-time nursing. Eventually she has another stroke; things deteriorate markedly.

In some ways, this isn’t so much a drama – there’s hardly any plot – as a study of two elderly people struggling along together in decline. The only thing that functions as a kind of forward thrust to the narrative is the fact that the movie opens with a macabre tableau that gives us the final result of it all. So you’re kept wondering how we’re going to get there. Meanwhile, there are George’s efforts at faithfully carrying out the daily therapy sessions, helping with the toileting and other hygienic functions, cutting Anne’s meat while they’re seated together in their little nook by the kitchen window, singing songs, telling memories, poring over photo albums. The only point at which there appears to be some exciting plot development turns out to be just a nightmare of Georges’. Their married daughter (Isabelle Huppert), who lives in England, drops in now and then.

If the title weren’t enough to spell it out for us, we get the message of the great love between these two. When Georges says that it’s good to have Anne back home after the surgery, the delight expressed in both their faces is unmistakable. I think what’s remarkable about this movie is that we’ve never seen the business of dealing with a dying partner laid out in such detail. We’ve had touches of it in other movies but none of them dwelt on the nitty-gritty of care-giving the way this one does. Anybody with a partner can’t watch this movie without being visited by sombre thoughts about what may lie down the road.

Then why did I feel a slight resistance to the admiration for this couple that we’re obviously supposed to feel?

When you find yourself responding less than rapturously to a movie that other people are raving about, you sometimes wonder if one or two factors might be involved. First, there’s always the possibility of backlash: your expectations have been raised too high, so there’s bound to be a letdown. But I don’t think that was happening in this case because, as usual, I studiously avoided reading any reviews or commentary on the movie beforehand. Admittedly, though, I couldn’t help picking up the buzz in the air about the movie. And then there’s the possibility that I’m just reacting perversely: the curmudgeon in me is simply refusing to go along with the general wave of approval. Well, we wouldn’t want to see me to fall to an accusation like that. So let’s see if we can pinpoint some demonstrable reasons for my less-than-ecstatic response while, at the same time, acknowledging that there’s much about the movie that’s very good.

Something that was bothering me a lot through the movie was that it was all so beautiful. I kept wondering if we would feel the same way about Georges and Anne if they were just plain old Bob and Sally, living in an ordinary highrise. That apartment of Georges and Anne’s is virtually one of the main characters in the movie, certainly more important than their daughter. We’re fascinated by those lofty ceilings, the enormous sunlit windows – about eight feet tall – looking out over the fabled city. Not to mention the trappings of the apartment: the concert grand piano, the wood panelling, the paintings, the books, the elegant furniture. Admittedly, some of it looks a little tarnished on close inspection – grimy sections on the bedroom wallpaper, for instance – but the overall effect is one of a life of grandeur and privilege.

Not to say that people living in those circumstances don’t have genuine health issues and personal tragedies. The problem is that the writer/director Michael Haneke is making it all look so charming and arty. Every scene is lighted like a Vermeer painting. Even when the old couple are sitting at their little table in the kitchen, there’s an Old Masters still-life harmony about the scene. You wonder if anything like the real world is ever going to impinge.

Consider the fact that these people HAVE NO TV! How realistic is that? Are they living in a time warp? No, apparently not, given that they have a cell phone and a CD player. But their not having a tv makes them so special, so set-apart. If they’d had a tv, this movie wouldn’t have existed because, as we know, tv watching fills up much of the day for most infirm people. With the tv blaring in the background, Anne and George wouldn’t have seemed so precious.

And the way they seem to us matters because of the fact that there’s so little plot to engage us in their story. Virtually all there is for us to hang onto is our feeling for these people. And therein I had some problems. The crux of their situation is that Anne made Georges promise not to send her back to hospital. That’s a well-known scenario but one that tests my sympathy. Doesn’t the patient ever give a thought to the fact that it’s extremely selfish to demand such a promise from a partner? Look at all the trouble that poor George – who, by no means, has the training or skill – is put through. Not that I don’t understand Anne’s request; it’s just that it makes me a bit impatient about their situation when, if it weren’t for her stubbornness, such obvious remedies were available.

On top of which, there’s something off-putting about George and Anne’s attitude to the rest of the world. They’re something of a closed unit. They don’t let other people in. At one point, Georges even tries to stop their daughter from seeing her mother. As parents, they never seem to relate to her in a very warm or affectionate way. Is this a French thing? The fending-off applies to other people as well. When a former student of Anne’s, now a concert pianist (Alexandre Tharaud), comes to visit, there’s awkwardness all around. They refuse to give him any explanation of her situation or to discuss it. As a result, when he sends her his most recent CD, he includes a card on which he, inadvertently, makes offensive remarks. I don’t understand a culture in which people behave this way. If Georges and Anne were more connected to other people, not so insular, if they’d share a bit of their burden with other people, they might not feel the alienation and helplessness that lead – as if inevitably – to the morally dubious conclusion of the movie.

None of this is to deny that Amour is very tastefully made. And yet, to my mind, it’s just a little too self-consciously highbrow. In its quiet, understated way, it shrieks at you that this is not a movie but a film. The scene that comes right after that opening tableau takes place in a concert hall where, for a couple of minutes, we watch the auditorium from the point of view of the stage, as the audience members chat and settle down. We have no idea what’s going on or why we’re here in this hall. The filmmaker is telling us: this movie is going to be a slow, thoughtful affair and you have to give us time to let things roll out gradually. Ok fine. But we eventually find out that the concert was by Anne’s former student and it has nothing to do with anything that follows. Then why the portentous setup?

Still, certain aesthetic features of Amour are splendid. There’s hardly any music in the movie and then, only when it’s particularly appropriate to what’s happening. At the worst low point in the relationship between Georges and Anne, something awful happens. The camera simply cuts away and focuses, in close-up, on details of various paintings around the room. The silent study of the paintings is superbly eloquent. The message seems to be: there’s nothing we can say or do here, so we may as well try to take some comfort in these painted scenes. At times, in fact, the use of silence made me feel that we were watching something like the great works of Ingmar Berman or the movie Le Grand Silence, a documentary about cloistered monks in a monastery in the French alps. The most stunning use of silence in Amour is the final scene: Georges and Anne’s daughter is walking through the apartment, looking at in a new way. The movie just suddenly stops, with no fanfare, no final words. Very refreshingly non-Hollywood.

Capsule comment (instead of a rating): Beautiful and irritating.

 

Rigoletto (Opera) by Giuseppe Verdi; conducted by Michele Mariotti; production by Michael Mayer; set design by Christine Jones; costume design by Susan Hilferty; starring Zeljko Lučić, Diana Damrau, Piotr Beczala, Oksana Volkova, Štefan Kocn; with the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and Chorus; HD Live Transmission, Feb 16/13

My main reason for catching this one is that I’m finding these non-traditional settings of the operas very interesting. Last season’s transmission of the Met’s Traviata in a sterile white space was a knock-out. For this Rigoletto, the setting chosen by director Michael Mayer is Las Vegas in the 1960s. His idea was to find a relatively contemporary context that matched the corruption, the sleaze and sexism of the original. As explained by Mr. Mayer in an intermission interview, the count and his courtiers are to be seen as something like the Las Vegas rat pack, with its hangers-on. Rigoletto, a court jester in the historic setting, is here depicted as being somewhat along the lines of the comedian Don Rickles.

As the overture was playing, Rigoletto hurried Gilda, in demure coat and kerchief, through the empty nightclub/casino and bundled her into an elevator which he opened with a special key, sending her up to their private quarters. Who could have guessed that the sight of those lights rising on the panel above the elevator, to indicate its ascent through the various floors, could have such a sinisterly dramatic effect? Later, there was a pole dancer in the bar where the duke meets Maddalena and Sparafucile. Then, we got the duke’s swinging around that same pole in giddy self-satisfaction after his singing of "La donne mobile." The sense of the rising storm came off to chilling effect through the flickering of the neon lights in the background. Ultimately and most tragically, there was Rigoletto’s finding Gilda’s body in the trunk of a big-finned Cadillac parked outside the bar.

Various aspects of the costumes played up the concept brilliantly: tuxedoes on the men, exotic feathers on the fan dancers who were vamping the duke during his jovial opening aria, "Questa o quella." The duke’s casual garb – windbreaker and slacks – when posing as a student brought to mind West Side Story. Rigoletto’s cardigan could have come from no other period except that era of American excess: orange and red diamonds in an argyle design. The hired assassin, Sparafucile (my favouite name for a villain), had the obligatory leather jacket to go with sleek, greasy hair and sideburns. Maddalena in slip and peignoir looked like she had stepped out of a lingerie ad. Best of all, was Giovanna, Gilda’s supposed minder. With beehive hair, she was busting out of a tight little black dress, low cut, with a chartreuse jacket. During the tender father/daughter stuff, there was Giovanna, standing in the background, smoking and chewing gum.

But, of course, it’s the music that matters. And this production served Signor Verdi magnificently. (How is it possible that that one man provided the world with so many of its best, long-lasting and unforgettable melodies?)

Until now, I hadn’t thought of Piotr Beczala as one of the star tenors – competent, certainly, but not amazing. He won me over completely here. During the intermission interview, he said that Placido Domingo advised him that the duke, not being one of the most artistically satisfying roles, is one that you just have to have fun with. Mr. Beczala certainly did, making for a very convincing playboy. When Rene Fleming, as host, asked what he thinks on the lead-up to a high note, he said that you can’t think about it; if you have to think about it, it’s too late. I took that to mean that you’ve got to be able to rely on the fact that it’s there. He made it abundantly clear that he has loads of high notes there, ready whenever he calls on them. There was a carefree, almost a wild abandon, to his singing that seemed very generous to me.

In some ways, Diana Damrau’s voice strikes me as a bit too rich, too mature for the ideal Gilda. Her "Caro nome" didn’t have the ethereal, floating quality that suits it so well; it was a touch more dramatic, in Ms. Damrau’s performance. But her voice is so gorgeous, her singing so splendid, that nobody could complain. It was simply astounding what she managed to accomplish in the death scene – singing so beautifully while propped up in the trunk of that Cadillac, clinging to her dad.

Ms. Damrau’s acting at that point was especially rivetting. As her grip on the dad got more and more frantic, it really looked like she was dying. It struck me that the acting was, in fact, one of the most remarkable things about a production like this. It seemed that the naturalistic, almost contemporary setting of the opera forced the actor/singers to be more true. No hiding behind period costumes like people in a painted tableau. These had to be people that we recognized, almost like people we meet on the street every day.

That was exactly the effect of Zeljko Lučić’s portrayal of Rigoletto. This great bear of a man was not some grotesque monster (I liked the fact that the hump on his back was minimal) but a brooding, worried, single parent who’s desperate to protect the one value in his life – his daughter. The only thing I didn’t get was any sense that this guy, as the proffered explanations of the production would have it, was some sort of comedian. In the traditional productions, it doesn’t matter that there’s nothing funny about this court jester; you can see him as a very annoying pest. The transposition of the character to something like a 1960s stand-up comic didn’t work for me.

But Mr. Lučić’s powerful singing swept away any such quibble. This is the kind of singer who strikes you – somewhat to the envy of other singers, I suspect – as the kind of guy who never required much training in vocal technique. His voice is so vast and limitless that I suspect it was always the case, for him, of just standing and letting it roll. Granted, there may have been some coaching on style and interpretation but I doubt that any instruction on voice production was required. When a singer’s voice seems to have no limits, as is the case with this one, it’s nice for listeners to be able to sit back and be carried along for the ride. Maybe that’s why his plea to the courtiers to take pity on him was emotionally devastating.

It was thanks, in no small measure to Mr. Lučić, that this production neatly side-stepped one of the problems that always bugs me about this opera: the curse. I usually find that spooky aspect of the Mediterranean culture a bit hard to take. But this production had so much else going for it that you almost forgot about that. I wasn’t, however, completely sold on the attempt to update the libretto in the subtitles. It wasn’t too bad when "Comprendo!" came out as "I got it!" But the attempt to provide rhyming, cool-cat lines for the duke’s first aria seemed a bit corny: "Baby, you send me to the moon!" The overall effect of the show was so thrilling, though, that it made me think perhaps we could get some people under fifty-years-old to attend these transmissions if they had any idea what was going on. I don’t understand why people look for excitement in hockey rinks and football stadiums. 

 

Django Unchained (Movie) written and directed by Quentin Tarantino; starring Christoph Waltz, Jamie Foxx, Leonardo DiCaprio, Kerry Washington, Samuel L. Jackson; with Walton Goggins, Dennis Christopher, James Remar, David Steen, Laura Cayouette, Ato Essandoh, Sammi Rotibi, Don Johnson, Franco Nero, Bruce Dern, Jonah Hill

Quentin Tarantino is one of the few directors towards whom I feel a certain loyalty, even if his track record of late hasn’t been great. After all, I’ll never forget the revolutionary impact of his Pulp Fiction. While watching that, it occurred to me that movies would never be the same. And they aren’t. So I didn’t let the tepid response to this one keep me away.

It’s the story of Django, a slave in the US south. We open just a few years before the civil war. A German bounty hunter named Schultz, disguising himself as a dentist, has bought Django because he knows Django can identify a couple of murderers that Schultz wants to bag. (In the 1966 movie, Django, that’s the name of the bounty hunter; there’s no other connection between the two movies apart from the Western ambiance.) When that mission goes well, Schultz offers Django his freedom in return for Django’s partnering with him in the bounty-hunting business. As they pursue various murderers, the more urgent quest becomes the search for Django’s wife, Broomhilda, who was sold separately from him. The key to finding her is that she has a distinctive trait among slaves: she speaks German, having been raised on a plantation owned by Germans.

The proliferation of gunslingers, whiskey, beer, mud, grit, wide open spaces and plenty of horseflesh would make this something of a conventional horse opera. But not in the hands of Quentin Tarantino. What he gives us is something much more complicated. In some ways, it pays homage to the old Westerns: the brightly-coloured titles flash on the screen at the opening of the movie in that jaunty way of old. In other ways, the movie almost seems a parody of the traditional ones: the success of Schultz’s and Django’s missions depends on our accepting the improbable premise that they’re both ridiculously skillful when it comes to sharpshooting.

Overall, the movie exhibits flair and pizzazz that seem to say: this is how you do a jazzy western in the 21st century. We get surrealistic touches like sudden flashbacks to horrible incidents from Django's past. Along the trails, he keeps seeing magical apparitions of his wife. With regard to the soundtrack, my frequent complaint about obtrusive music in movies would be pointless here because the blaring music – everything from Beethoven’s "Fr Elise" to rap – is an integral part of the telling of the story; often the lyrics of the songs provide explicit commentary on what’s happening. The preponderance of gore is raised to a painterly level: blood splashing on white cotton balls standing on their stalks in the fields, for instance. Often, the spurting of blood is made all the more spectacular for being filmed in slow motion. Near the end of the movie, one shootout amounts almost to a rock video celebration of blood splatter that lasts nearly five minutes.

But not all the movie’s highlights are that gruesome. Occasionally, you get touches of comedy with a zany, contemporary touch. Like the scene where a posse of vigilantes rides out to ambush Schultz and Django in their desert encampment. The advance of the marauding horsemen, all wearing white hoods over their faces, is filmed from below, looking at their horses cresting a hill, with dramatic lighting that makes for an apocalyptic effect. But then the attack devolves into farce. Waiting on their horses, trying to decide what to do next, the attackers get embroiled in an argument about the hoods they’re wearing. The eye-holes aren’t positioned properly, it seems. Some of the guys can’t see. Their leader argues that that doesn’t matter as long as the horses can see. The guy whose wife made the hoods objects to the complaints about her work and he threatens to ride off in a huff.

All of which is, admittedly, impressive. But it seems to me that what’s wrong with the movie is that the arty effects slow it down. It’s certainly too long at nearly three hours. There’s a self-indulgent feel to it all, too much of a sense that the author/director is conscious of creating a masterpiece. Mr. Tarantino lets his actors dally too much with delicious bits of acting that get in the way of the story. When it turns out that Django doesn’t know the origins of his wife’s German name, Schultz launches on a boring lecture about the myth of Brunhilde. A meeting with Leonardo DiCapprio, a patrician plantation owner, wanders into byways about Alexander Dumas and phrenology.

None of the movie’s faults, though, can be blamed on the actors. Christoph Waltz serves up a suitably wily and beguiling Schultz who comes up with some ingenious ways of getting out of tight spots. The actor is hampered sometimes, though, by having to deliver speeches that are too formal and ornate. (And what’s going on in the accent department? The point is made that English isn’t Schultz’s first language but, in spite of certain odd inflections, he doesn’t sound the least bit German, even though Mr. Waltz is.) The role of Django doesn’t give Jamie Foxx much opportunity to strut his stuff but I suppose you could say it’s a credit to such a big star that he can keep his character brooding and wary most of the time, without any showy qualities interfering. For Leonardo DiCaprio, it’s something of a change to be playing the plantation owner who turns out to have a touch of psychopathy lurking under his charm, but Mr. DiCaprio handles the role convincingly. (I liked the fact that this wasn’t one of those westerns where everybody has unbelievably perfect teeth. Mr. DiCaprio’s are quite gungy.) Kerry Washington, as Broomhilda, is both beautiful and bewildered. A small part is provided for Franco Nero, presumably as a tribute to his starring role in the original Django. Jonah Hill has a neat cameo in the comic business about the white-hooded riders. Quentin Tarantino himself appears as one of the goons who transport Django, at one point, to a punishment awaiting him.

However, the only characters that interested me much were a couple of inhabitants of the DiCaprio character’s plantation. First, there was his widowed sister, played by Laura Cayouette, who gives us a winsome and, at the same time, heart-breaking portrait of a woman who’s struggling mightily, but not very successfully, to keep up the pretense of the gracious, vapid Southern beauty. But the most fascinating character in the movie is the manager of the household, played by Samuel L. Jackson. We can’t repeat here the term that is used to refer to his position but we’ll call him the head butler. This man is a marvellous study of the jovial, obsequious slave who is so completely trusted that he can even tease his master but who can suddenly show a very different side to his personality when challenged. The man made your mind spin with thoughts about the system he was caught up in.

Nothing else in the movie, impressive though it was, caught me up in the same way. There’s really nothing to take home. Except, of course, the very obvious message. If you hadn’t already come to the conclusion that slavery was not a very good idea, this movie might convince you, what with the treatment meted out to human beings treated as possessions: the whipping, the castrating and the confining to a hot box in the sun. What did it for me was the scene in the posh bordello where two male slaves were forced to fight until one of them was dead, with well-heeled gentlemen sitting around smoking their cigars and sipping their brandy as the entertainment proceeded to its fatal conclusion.

Capsule comment (in lieu of a rating): Lots of impressive elements don’t add up to a satisfying whole.

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