Tag Archives: 2013

PHILOMENA (2013)

Philomena (2013) Judi Dench, Steve CooganThere is a potentially exploitative blockbuster at the heart of Philomena (2013), and as it unfolds we expect, at any moment, to be drawn into yet another example of cinema as propaganda. A film with the theme of abusive nuns in an Irish Catholic asylum lording over unwed mothers is an invitation for at least one audience-as-silly-putty moment, molded by hackneyed writing and line delivery. It never happens. Instead, we are treated to a sensitively written, smartly balanced drama, which never succumbs to overt sentimentality or cynicism.

Philomena (2013)

Such restraint takes a collaborative effort, and Philomena benefits from the directing of Stephen Frears, Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope’s screen treatment of Martin Sixsmith’s book, along with Judi Dench’s astute performance.

Philomena (2013) Judi Dench

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SUPERMAN ON SCREEN, AND MAN OF STEEL (2013)

MAN OF STEEL (2013 ZACK SNYDER)

Superman should have kept his underwear on.

Despite his status as the oldest, most iconic comic book character, few seem to be able to do Superman justice when it comes to the big screen. Internet buzz among the DC fan base revealed a high level of anticipation for Man of Steel (2013). It had disaster written all over it before the project even started. It would seem obvious to anyone except film executives: co-writer and producer Christopher Nolan has a reputation for excruciatingly complicated narrative, which promised to be a case of oil meets water for a very simple, very old, and very well-known story. This was the first bad sign. The second, even more predictable omen of failure was in the choice of hack directorZack Snyder. His one-dimensional 300 (2007) was a new, crude lesson in soulless, video game stylized juvenilia. Sucker Punch (2011) actually strove to be even worse and, incredibly enough, succeeded.

SUPERMAN AND THE MOLE MEN. GEORGE REEVES, PHYLLIS COATES
There have been only two solid cinematic treatments of this solemn American myth: Superman And The Mole Men (1951) and Superman II (1980). Superman and the Mole Men depicted Superman in exactly the way he is supposed to be, as envisioned by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. He’s a barrel-chested, steadfast believer and proponent of Truth, Justice and the American Way even in the face of social bigotries. (Though he had a lighter side, too; Superman was probably at his zaniest, funniest and most surreal in Jack Kirby’s spinoff “Superman’s Pal: Jimmy Olsen”). It works, despite the film’s being undeniably dated, and despite the threadbare budget which resulted in clunky makeup and special effects (such as a souped up vacuum cleaner subbing for a ray gun). It is in Superman’s very first feature film that the filmmakers (a ragtag team of assignment types, including director Lee Shalom, who went onto work in television) captured the rudimentary essence of a decidedly unpretentious character. Preceding the Man of Steel’s first feature were the art deco Fleischer Brothers animated shorts (1941-1943), the noirishradio show “The Adventures of Superman” (1940-1951, starring Bud Collyer as the voice of Superman) and two 1950 theatrical serials, Superman (1948) and Atom Man vs. Superman (both starring Kirk Alyn). All of these productions were true in spirit to the original “Superman magazine.”

SUPERMAN II (1980, RICHARD LESTER)

The first season of the televisions series “The Adventures of Superman” (1953-1958) continued the edgy noir flavor of the radio show from which it took its name. Like Superman and the Mole Men, the series starred George Reeves as the quintessential Clark Kent and Phyllis Coates as the equally quintessential, feisty Lois Lane. Possessing virtuous fire, Coates’ Lane still has not been surpassed. Unfortunately, the show’s producers, believing virtuousness was not compatible with fire, decided the way to make the show more “kid friendly” was to replace Coates with the hopelessly “Leave it to Beaver”-styled virgin Noel Neill. That wasn’t the only change. While the second season did have a few good episodes, the saccharine quickly began to set in. The series, low budget to begin with, dissipated into embarrassing Ed Wood territory in budget, writing and acting. Mercifully, it came to an end, albeit through the tragedy of  Reeves’ suicide.

Max Fleischer Superman

The next screen incarnation came with the mega hit Superman (1978) starring Christopher Reeve and Margot Kidder. It was, by and large, a bloated, unimaginative affair, although it did have fleeting moments of charm. Superman II was far better for having bypassed the redundant origin narrative.  Superman II has a host of great villains (Terence Stamp as Zod, the underrated Sarah Douglas as Ursa, and Gene Hackman as Lex Luthor). Clark Kent, stripped of his powers for the sake of love (the priestly Superman must remain celibate, of course), is far more than a bumbling oaf, and succeeds in winning our empathy in his fight to regain what he has lost.

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CALVARY (2014) AND I CONFESS (1953)

Calvary (2014 John Michael McDonagh) Brendan Gleeson. theatrical poster.Calvary (2014 John Michael McDonagh) Brendan Gleeson as Fr. James

John Michael McDonagh’s Calvary was one of 2014’s best films, with  a central performance that is authentic in the rarest of ways.  Brendan Gleeson is a welcome throwback to a specialized breed of cinematic actors: big, erudite men (Robert Shaw was such an actor). Gleeson began his acting career  at a young age, appearing in the plays of Samuel Beckett and William Shakespeare. He was an English teacher for over a decade before embarking on a film career. Naturally, he has specialized in playing Irish patriarchs, mentors and historical figures, which makes his casting as Father James, a potential martyr, shrewd.

Calvary (2014 John Michael McDonagh) Brendan Gleeson. US theatrical release poster

Traditionally, the role of a Catholic priest has been thought of as an actor’s plum. It is easy to see why, especially in the contemporary world. The Roman Catholic priest, with his vows of  poverty, chastity, and obedience, has willfully chosen a subculture that is shockingly in direct opposition to the precepts of modernism’s worldview. The priest believes, whether he inevitably lives up to it or not, that he has an existential calling. He does not take the honor unto himself. Rather, he regards that his is a vocation called by something inward. His rejection of materialism is, hypothetically, inclusive. Capital, desire, and ego, theoretically are tenets of a status quo path that he has chosen to reject. The priesthood is the quintessential revolt against all that which is temporal.

Calvary (2014 John Michael McDonagh) Brendan Gleeson.

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A lucidly filmed documentation of a mature Brucknerian’s energetic 4th

It could very well be that maestro Daniel Barenboim’s greatest contribution to music has been in filmed performances. Perhaps, none of his Wagner opera recordings, though “generally” excellent, could be considered reference versions. Yet, his filmed Ring and Parsifal (with Harry Kupfer), and three excellent Tristans (Ponnelle, the much missed Muller, and the recently departed enfant terrible Patrice Chereau) have no serious competition in the DVD market (it remains to be seen whether Barenboim’s 2010 Ring with Cassiers, coming to DVD this year, will hold its own).

Bruckner The Mature Symphonies Barenboim  Berlin

Barenboim’s recordings of the Beethoven piano sonatas, again, while A contender amongst contemporary pianists, will not retire the likes of Schnabel or Serkin. However, his filmed traversal is an epic and indispensable record of sound and vision. Likewise, the recent DVD production of the five Beethoven Piano Concertos with the Staatskapelle Berlin. The 2005 Ramallah Concert with his West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, despite the naysaying of a few hardened cynics, is one of the most joyously filmed musical celebrations extent.

DIGITAL CAMERA“Barenboim in Chicago”oil on canvas. Alfred Eaker ©2001

Though not generally known as a top conductor of Verdi, Debussy, Mahler, Schoenberg, or Boulez, Barenboim has collaborated in excellent filmed performances of the Requiem, La Mer, the 9th Symphony, Variations for Orchestra, and Notations. Of course, Barenboim has maintained a lifelong commitment to Bruckner with two complete cycles (the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Berlin Philharmonic). Both have their proponents and critics, possibly because like Barenboim himself, they are an uneven lot (and while all conductors are uneven, Barenboim is almost radically so). Regardless of one’s stance, few would argue that Barenboim’s way with Bruckner can displace acclaimed masters Furtwangler, Karajan, Kna, Jochum, Wand, Klemperer, Cleibidache, or Giulini (although I would subjectively argue a few of these). Accentus with Unitel Classics has produced Barenboim’s performances of the mature symphonies with Staatskapelle Berlin. So far, the 4th and 5th have been released and although Barenboim has considerably more extensive Brucknerian competition in the DVD/Blu-ray medium (Karajan, Wand, Celibidache) his first two entries have already met with critical accolades.

Barenboim

Bruckner once said that his music, like his faith, was boundlessly expansive. With that in mind, the inherent spiritual quality and devout Catholicity of Bruckner cannot be blanketed, but there is little worry in this since such is rarely the case (although some have argued that Boulez’s Bruckner does just that). The trend has long and often been the reverse: promoting the transcendental qualities at the expense of the music’s corporal muscularity and direct earthiness (which, just about Catholic would say are far more pronounced tenets, despite the trappings, of that epically complex faith).

DIGITAL CAMERA“Barenboim in Chicago” oil on canvas. Alfred Eaker © 1998

While Barenboim acknowledges the composition’s religiosity through the music’s hushed qualities, he commendably keeps it latent and opts for a red-blooded, dramatic reading that emphasizes the theatrical German tradition that he belongs to (and that is the key to Barenboim, as opposed to the tiresome, often repeated claims that he is a mere Furtwangler clone. Barenboim has about as much in common with the likes of Klemperer and Walter as he does Furtwangler).

Barenboim's Bruckner

The camerawork and sound are lucid and non-intrusive. This a welcome release to the DVD/Blu-ray market and can be acquired without reservations. Hopefully, symphonies 6-9 will be forthcoming in a timely manner.

DIGITAL CAMERA“Barenboim in Chicago” oil on canvas. Alfred Eaker © 1998