Maria by Callas

Casta Diva, che inargenti
queste sacre antiche piante,
a noi volgi il bel sembiante
senza nube e senza vel…
Tempra, o Diva,
tempra tu de’ cori ardenti
tempra ancora lo zelo audace,
spargi in terra quella pace
che regnar tu fai nel ciel…

English translation:
Pure Goddess, whose silver covers
These sacred ancient plants,
we turn to your lovely face
unclouded and without veil…
Temper, oh Goddess,
the hardening of you ardent spirits
temper your bold zeal,
Scatter peace across the earth
Thou make reign in the sky…

Casta Diva, from the opera Norma by Vincenzo Bellini

Before the documentary Maria by Callas, I knew almost nothing about Maria Callas. I am probably too young, or opera has never been very interesting to me. Director Tom Volf does some very clever editing choices. As the title suggest, Callas herself will tell her story in her own words in TV interviews and letters and other writings read by Fanny Ardant and Joyce DiDonato. There are also plenty of photos and archival films. Many aspect of her life is explored. Her frosty relationship with her mother, her education and training as an opera singer, the many scandals, the bad reputation that Callas had as a “difficult” woman, her off and on affair (Callas calls it “friendship”) with Aristotle Onassis (who left her to marry Jackie Kennedy), the love/hate relationship with her fans, her bouts of depression and her poor health toward the end of her life. Volf keeps bringing us back to a 1970 interview with David Frost. Whatever we see, the reputation that followed Callas as a tempestuous artist is I think false. What is true is that Callas had great respect and love for her fans. She did not want to sing unless she felt she could deliver the most stellar performance. The interviews are punctuated by performances that are meant to comment on Callas herself, and her life. The lyrics for Bellini’s Casta Diva are talk about a “pure Goddess” with a “lovely face unclouded and without veil”, who is called to “temper your bold zeal”. For her affair with Onassis, there is Bizet’s L’amour est un oiseau rebelle from Carmen. And for her most depressed period we see her sing Verdi’s Addio del passato from La Traviata. But these performances serve another purpose. The younger generations, who like me knew of Callas but never heard or seen Callas sing, are going to be surprised by her voice and the emotional impact of Maria Callas. Without knowing much about opera, then and now, I must ask the question: Is Maria Callas still the best opera singer? Ever? She’s hard to top. Technically perfect and with such intensity that it must have been hard to maintain that high quality of performance. The demand on her body and her mind might have been what has made her so fragile. We learn as much about Callas when we’re looking at Callas sing than in the interviews. Here we have a complete portrait of the “pure Goddess” of opera “unclouded and without veil”.

Rémi-Serge Gratton

Plays at Ottawa’s ByTowne Cinema from November 16 – 20
https://www.bytowne.ca/movie/maria-by-callas

Maria by Callas

Directed by:
Tom Volf

113 min.

In English, French and Italian with English subtitles.

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The cakemaker (האופה מברלין)

The cakemaker starts with a seduction scene between German pastry chef Thomas (Tim Kalkhof) and one of his client at the Berlin café where Thomas works. The client is Oren (Roy Miller), an Israeli businessman. The seduction happens in front of a big slice of Black Forest cake. Few words are softly spoken, a few furtive glances. We don’t need more, we get it, they’ll have sex. That minimalist approach is present throughout the film. It’s a delicate film, accompanied by a delicate score for solo piano by Dominique Charpentier. Although he has a wife and a young son in Jerusalem, Oren comes back to be with Thomas every time he visits Berlin. And when he goes back to his family, Oren brings some cookies or cake to them. Then on one of his trip back, Oren is accidentally killed. naturally Thomas is devastated by the news, but he makes the crazy decision to travel to Jerusalem, and visits the café run by Oren’s widow, Anat (Sarah Adler). First he gets to know Anat, then she hires him as a waiter/barista. One thing leading to another, he then starts baking for the café, and they fall in love and have sex. She still doesn’t know that Thomas was her late husband’s gay lover. If Moti (Zohar Strauss), her Orthodox brother-in-law, voices his disapproval of this German baker, it’s because the café may lose the kosher certification. One thing is clear, when Anat finds out, the cookie dough is gonna hit the fan. This is a most assured debut feature from writer/director Ofir Raul Graizer, who knows a thing or two about restraint and knows exactly what pace he should to give every scenes. The three leading actors are emotionally invested into those characters and their stories. Tim Kalkhof is particularly effective and has to play with very little dialogue. Male sexual fluidity is a new phenomenon in cinema. Films like the artistically acclaimed Call me by your name and others, are an interesting fresh look at the lives of LGBTQ people. A really lovely film.

Rémi-Serge Gratton

Plays at Ottawa’s ByTowne Cinema from November 16 – 22

https://www.bytowne.ca/movie/the-cakemaker

The cakemaker (האופה מברלין)

Directed by:
Ofir Raul Graizer

Screenplay by:
Ofir Raul Graizer

Starring:
Tim Kalkhof
Sarah Adler
Zohar Strauss
Roy Miller

104 min.

In English, Hebrew and German with English subtitles.

Bel Canto

Based on actual events (the1996 Lima hostage Crisis) but adapted from an Ann Patchett bestselling novel that has almost nothing left, if anything, from the real events, Bel Canto is a most amusing political drama/soap opera. Amusing to me at least. Among the international cast, the most well-known are Japan’s Ken Watanabe, France’s Christopher Lambert and American actress Julianne Moore. Watanabe plays Japanese industrialist businessman Katsumi Hosokawa who travels to a South American country to celebrate his own birthday. President Ochoa wants Hosokawa to open a plant, but has refused the invitation. Knowing very well that Hosokawa is an opera fan, the President has hired Hosokawa’s favorite singer, Roxanne Coss (Moore, with the singing voice of Renée Fleming) to give a concert in the President’s residence. But Hosokawa has no intention of doing business with the dictator and only come for the concert, and Coss only accepted because of the money they were willing to pay her. The concert has just begun in front of dignitaries, ambassadors and their wives, when a group guerrillas with machine guns crash the party. They keep everyone hostage and they demand that President Ochoa, who could not attend the concert because he was sick, release all political prisoners. At first the relations between the hostages and the guerrillas are tense, but over time, call it Stockholm syndrome if you want, things get friendlier. Hosokawa and the opera singer are obviously in love, so they start an affair. There is also attractions between Hosokawa’s translator (Ryô Kase) and a female guerrillas (María Mercedes Coroy). The film has a lot of credibility issues. Laughable scenes like the one where, after the government has cut off the water, Roxanne Coss goes on the balcony and sing so they’ll get the water back. And they do! Moments like this, and others even crazier, only work if you are good and innocent, or if, like me, you don’t take the film too seriously. Yes, there are beautiful things and marvelous music. Yes, Julianne Moore is very good, as always. I just think that the whole thing could easily have become a parody in the Airplane style. It ends in chaos and predictable tragedy. Predictable, but still disturbing. Your choice.

Rémi-Serge Gratton

Bel Canto

 

Directed by:
Paul Weitz

Starring:
Julianne Moore
Ken Watanabe
Sebastian Koch
Ryô Kase
María Mercedes Coroy
Christopher Lambert

Screenplay by:
Paul Weitz
Anthony Weintraub
Based on the novel by Ann Patchett

101 min.

Rated 14A

In English and some Spanish, French, and Japanese with English subtitles

Science fair

Jack Andraka runs to the stage screaming and shrieking as if he was a contestant on The price is right. (“Come on down!”) It’s 2013 and Andraka, 15 at the time, won the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair’s big prize and the $75,000 that comes with it. On stage, Jack hugs the presenter with such a joyous enthusiasm that she seems to be afraid he’s going to crush her. He stands for the camera with his mouth wide open. And it stays open as if his brain was screaming OH MY GGGGGGGGGGGODDDDDDDD!!!!!!!! This highly comic moment informs us of the importance ISEF will have on the lives of the students who attend. Directors Cristina Costantini (a previous ISEF winner) and Darren Foster have chosen to follow some students from diferent backgrounds who are going with a variety of science projects. There is Robbie Barrat who although he is failing maths, he’s good with computers. His project is about computers and algorithms. Team mates Ryan Folz, Harsha Paladugu and Abraham Riedel-Mishaan are bringing their invention: an electronic 3D-printed stethoscope. There’s Anjali Chadha from the same school. There is two teens from Brazil, Myllena Braz da Silva and Gabriel de Moura Martins, young Ivo Zell from Germany. Muslim-American Kashfia Rahman is from a South Dakota school. Even if Kashfia is already an award-winning science student, the school has ignored her accomplishments, due to the too great importance they put on team sport activities. Same old story everywhere. And then there is Dr. Serena McCalla, a science research teacher at a New York High school, who tries to give her students the drive and the tools they need to succeed. Dr. McCalla is very hard on her student. But the fair is not an easy thing to go through. Although the cameras are not allowed during the judging, we know as the contestants are locked in a room for 6 hours and have to answer tough questioning from the judging panels. At the end, very few of them will receive an award. If they do win, they will go back to their school where again their award will be ignored. But no matter, all of them, winners or not, are already heroes on their ways to become important scientists. And change the world, of course.

Rémi-Serge Gratton

Plays at Ottawa’s ByTowne Cinema from November 9 – 18 & December 16 – 18
https://www.bytowne.ca/movie/science-fair

Science fair

Directed by:
Cristina Costantini & Darren Foster

Screenplay by:
Cristina Costantini & Darren Foster

90 min.

Free solo

In its opening sequence new documentary Free solo is enough to induce vertigo. Husband and wife directing team Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi’s incredible film is about Free solo climber Alex Honnold and his attempt to climb El Capitan in California’s Yosemite National Park. Free solo (soloing) is the dangerous sport of climbing cliffs without the safety of ropes or harnesses. They use their bare hands and light climbing shoes, finding small crevices to hold onto. It looks like a crazy stunt or an impossible task to us mere humans. El Capitan stands at 3,000 feet and is the mother of all cliffs. Any fall will surely be fatal. If Honnold lives in his van it’s not because he’s poor. He’s a successful author and lecturer. He lives in his van because it’s more convenient. He can park his van near the mountains he plans to climb. We see him climbing El Capitan with ropes and a harness until he’s ready soloing. Now Alex Honnold has a new girlfriend. He met Sanni Mccandless at a book signing. So Alex has someone else beside himself to think about when he decides to climb El Capitan. Meru was an earlier documentary by Chin and Vasarhelyi and as we see in Free solo, their images are nothing short of spectacular. In its last segment Free solo becomes the best edge-of-your-seat, hold-your-breath documentary. Most impressive.

Rémi-Serge Gratton

 

Free solo

 

Directed by:
Jimmy Chin & Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi

97 min.

What they had

After putting some make up, Ruth (Blythe Danner) goes out into the Chicago snowy winter wearing only a nightgown and her slippers. Ruth has Alzheimer. She does things like fail to recognize her own children or talk into the stapler when the phone rings. Realizing that she’s gone, her husband Burt (Robert Forster) phones their son, Nicky (Michael Shannon). Then Nicky phones his sister Bridget (Hilary Swank) who flies in from California with her highly depressed/sleepy daughter, Emma (Taissa Farmiga, Vera Farmiga’s younger sister). Burt did not want Bridget to be called, claiming that all is fine and that he can take care of his wife. They find Ruth unharmed, but the problem remains, according to Nicky: What are we going to do with mom? The family members react differently depending on the way they usually respond to crisis. Dad/Burt wants to be in control and thinks he can manage, even though there are ample proofs that he can’t. Nicky, who has already looked for a memory center, rages and rants when nobody listens. Bridget has the perfect solution: Do nothing. And Emma sleeps. This is a complex family portrait, with the family’s dysfunctions (hey, we all came from dysfunctional families) highlighting everyone’s failing in their personal lives. What I liked about What they had is the excellent ensemble cast. What I liked most is the great performances from two veteran actors: Robert Forster and Blythe Danner. Danner is all subtlety here as she bring sweet and sour nostalgic humour to the film. Forster plays the central character in the film. He’s really the master conductor in an orchestra of great actors. I’m hoping to see Danner and Forster be Oscar nominated. Who knows? Only time will tell. In the meantime enjoy!

Rémi-Serge Gratton

 

What they had

 

Directed by:
Elizabeth Chomko

Screenplay by:
Elizabeth Chomko

Starring:
Hilary Swank
Michael Shannon
Robert Forster
Blythe Danner
Taissa Farmiga

101 min.

The happy prince

The happy prince is an Oscar Wilde biopic about the last years of his life. After spending a few years of hard labour in British prisons for homosexuality, Oscar Wilde goes to Paris where he can live without fear under the name of Sebastian Melmoth. Although Wilde (Rupert Everett) is physically weaker as a result of his time in prison where he had to endure a lot, he also retains a bloated ego. He is shown going to a French tavern, standing on tables to sing with great panache. And there’s the young male prostitute who seems to be in awe of him. At home in England, his wife, Constance (Emily Watson), won’t allow him to see his sons unless he stops seeing his lover young Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas (Colin Morgan). But in Paris Wilde can’t wait to be reunited with Bosie. He gets a lot of support from his ex-lover Robbie Ross (Edwin Thomas) or friends like Reggie Turner (Colin Firth). This great cast also includes Tom Wilkinson in a small if-you-blink-you’ll-miss-it cameo. As Oscar Wilde becomes weaker he starts having weird visions. In one stunning moment, a stoic Queen Victoria is staring at Wilde on his deathbed. Except for a few flashback snippets, most of the film shows Wilde at the end of life. On top of playing Rupert Everett playing Oscar Wilde, he also wrote the screenplay and directed the film. The film is all over the place and needed a bit more focus, but it’s excusable as Wilde had a big over the top persona. And Everett plays a complex, multifaceted character. One moment joyous, then depressed and depressing, jumping on tables to quietly singing a love song to some boy (it’s surely Bosie) or later self-pitying. The production values are excellent. What’s not to like?

Rémi-Serge Gratton

 

The happy prince

 

Directed by:
Rupert Everett

Screenplay by:
Rupert Everett

Starring:
Rupert Everett
Edwin Thomas
Colin Morgan
Colin Firth
Benjamin Voisin
Emily Watson
Tom Wilkinson
Béatrice Dalle
Anna Chancellor

105 min.

American chaos

Six months before the 2016 Presidential Election, Jim Stern took his camera across the USA with the aim to understand Donald Trump’s appeal to some of his supporters. They look friendly enough, except that they only trust Trump, even when they know he’s lying, and they hate Hillary Clinton with a passion. Among the people who Stern meets are some descendants of the feuding Hatfields and McCoys, except that they are now friends. The closer he gets to election day, Stern gets more and more depressed. Of course we remember the outcome. There’s nothing new that we don’t see it every weeks on cable TV. Maybe some people might find it to their liking, but there’s not much interest from me.

Rémi-Serge Gratton

 

American chaos

 

Directed by:
James D. Stern

90 min.

Lizzie

Lizzie Borden took an axe
And gave her mother forty whacks.
When she saw what she had done,
She gave her father forty-one.

Skipping-rope rhyme of uncertain origin

On the morning of August 4, 1892, Andrew Borden (Jamey Sheriden) and his second wife Abby (Fiona Shaw) were found dead. They were axed in two separate rooms of their house in Fall river, Massachusetts, and it seems, at two separate times. Around the house but outside, according to their testimonies, were Andrew’s youngest daughter, Lizzie (Chloë Sevigny), and the maid Bridget Sullivan (Kristen Stewart). Later on, Lizzie Borden was arrested and accused. There was a trial, but she was found not guilty. These are the facts and part of the Lizzie Borden legend. In the 125 years since the murders there has been many theories on who killed the Bordens, or, if it was Lizzie, how she did it and why. In the film’s opening scene Lizzie finds her father dead, then we flashback 6 month before the murder. Every theories are explored: Lizzie and her elder sister Emma (Kim Dickens) had a terrible relationship with their father and hated Abby, their stepmother, the rumor that Lizzie was epileptic, another rumor was that she was a lesbian and that she and Bridget were lovers, uncle John Morse (a particularly snake-like Denis O’Hare), who was visiting the Bordens at the time, was considered a suspect by police, and other facts that were made up for the sake the film, as some real facts are conveniently tossed aside. All those things are piled up and hammered with very little subtlety as Lizzie becomes a “whowilldoit” rather than a “whodoneit”. There is enough here for several Lizzie Borden movies. We understand that Lizzie, an adult of 32 years old, was rather repressed by her parents as was the custom in 1892. Understandably Lizzie Borden rebelled against that repression. Too bad that such talented actresses like Sevigny (one of the producers) and Stewart don’t have a better screenplay to work with.

You should know… Despite what the rhyme says, Abby Borden was hit by the axe 19 times and Andrew 11 times.

Good read… In his 1984 novel Lizzie, Evan Hunter (AKA Ed McBain) mixes fiction and facts by taking the real court transcripts and Lizzie’s trip to Europe, of which we know next to nothing about, and inventing what happened there.

Rémi-Serge Gratton

 

Lizzie

 

Directed by:
Craig William Macneill

Screenplay by:
Bryce Kass

Starring:
Chloë Sevigny
Kristen Stewart
Kim Dickens
Fiona Shaw
Jamey Sheriden
Denis O’Hare

105 min.

The wife

In The wife Glenn Close and Jonathan Pryce are Joan and Joe Castleman. In the film’s opening scene, they receive the news that Joe has been awarded the Nobel Prize in literature. As we look into Close’s piercing blue eyes, we’re not quite sure what Joan feels when she gets the news. Is Joan happy, angry, sad or just plain mad? All of the above at once and more. Soon the Castleman fly to Stockholm accompanied by their adult son David (Max Irons). David who has a highly dysfunctional relationship with his father, is also a writer. Journalist Nathaniel Bone (a miscast Christian Slater) is traveling on the same plane. Nathaniel wants to write Joe Castleman’s unauthorized biography in which reveal that all of Joe’s novel were the work of a ghostwriter. With that cloud, true or not, hanging over their heads, David’s temper tantrums, Joe’s attempt to cheat on his wife again for the nth time by seducing a young Swedish photographer (Karin Franz Korlof) and Joan seeking more independence, things are about to explode. There are some misguided flashbacks to their earlier years, but the only thing that we want and need is Close and Pryce together. Pryce hasn’t been a leading man in a long time and now he has found the right part and the right partner. Close and Pryce enjoy sinking their teeth into those juicy parts. And the moviegoers should also enjoy it!

Rémi-Serge Gratton

 

The wife

 

Directed by:
Björn Runge

Screenplay by:
Jane Anderson
Based on the novel by Meg Wolitzer

Starring:
Glenn Close
Jonathan Pryce
Annie Starke
Harry Lloyd
Christian Slater
Max Irons
Elizabeth McGovern

101 min.

Rated 14A