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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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.

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.

My generation

Michael Caine goes back in time to the 1960s when everything British was popular. It was called “The British invasion”, The Beatles and its “Beatlemania” being the earliest manifestation of the invasion. But My generation is about every aspect of the British counterculture. Caine interviews fashion model Twiggy and photographer David Bailey, film producer David Putnam, actress Joan Collins, singers like Lulu and Marianne Faithfull, The who’s Roger Daltrey, and Paul McCartney from The Beatles. The unusual decision was made to only play the audio of their conversations while on the screen we see their younger images from film archives. Lots of them, sometimes at too fast a psychedelic pace that will annoy some. But a soundtrack of great songs from the era will please many. Among the songs (I can’t get no) Satisfaction by The Rolling Stones and Strawberry fields forever by The Beatles with its brilliant arrangements. My generation is a fun documentary. For the lovers of British culture.

Rémi-Serge Gratton

 

My generation

 

Directed by:
David Batty

Screenplay by:
Dick Clement
Ian La Frenais

Documentary featuring Michael Caine

85 min.

Rated Parental Guidance

Letter from Masanjia

It all started in 2012 when a woman, Julie Keith from Oregon, unwrapped the Halloween decorations she had purchased from Kmart (the styrofoam black tombstone), and found a letter hidden inside. The letter writer was describing the human rights abuse and torture he had endured at the Chinese Masanjia labor camp. After some calls to officials that heeded nothing, Julie turned to a Oregon newspaper. Cable news picked it up and it became a big news around the world. In China, as a direct result of Julie’s actions, the prisoners are released from Masanjia and there are calls to reform the forced labor system. The author of the letter, Sun Yi, is finally free after years at Masanjia. Yi is a Falun Gong follower and activist who was persecuted, like many other Falun Gong followers, by the Chinese government for years. Upon his released, Yi reconnects with his wife, Fu Ning. Because of the dangers involved, their relationship is tenuous and it’s heartbreaking. But Sun Yi goes back to his activism, planning to do a documentary denouncing the Falun Gong persecution. Director Leon Lee shows us part of what Yi has filmed. When Lee interviews Yi about his ordeal at the camp, Lee has chosen animation to illustrate it. It’s a great choice. I would have hated to see some corny reconstitution with actor. But Sun Yi’s problems are not over. He has to go underground, and may have to escape the country leaving his wife in China. Letter from Masanjia is such a moving and compelling documentary. People like Julie Keith, Sun Yi and his wife Fu Ning make this one of the year’s best tear-jerker.

Rémi-Serge Gratton

Letter from Masanjia

 

Directed by:
Leon Lee

Screenplay by:
Caylan Ford
Leon Lee

75 min.

McQueen

Most of us know next to nothing about British fashion designer Alexander McQueen. But after seeing Ian Bonhôte and Peter Ettedgui’s documentary we now perceive McQueen as a brilliant conceptual artist, and not simply as a fashion icon. His runway shows were so dark and controversial. He titled his graduation collection Jack the ripper stalks his victims. The clothes had been sewn with bright red threads, lines of blood was running through the fabric. A later collection called Highland rape had models wearing ripped clothes, their hairs dishevelled. In the film we discover that as a child, Lee (as family and close friend called him. His full name was Lee Alexander McQueen.) was sexually abused by his brother-in-law, his sister Janet’s husband. Janet, who is interviewed in the film, confirms that. Other family members, close friends, lovers, boyfriends and collaborators talk about the darkness he carried with him throughout his life. Later, when he went to Paris to work for Givenchy, he was a bit more conventional. A bit! If you can call a double amputee model walking down the catwalk on carved wooden legs “conventional”. In one spectacular moment a model wearing a strapless white dress is standing on a rotating section of the catwalk and, while she is rotating, the dress is being sprayed by two robotic paint guns. VOSS, his 2001 catwalk, was insane. It was set in a padded room with mirrors, the models were acting as if they were crazy, pieces from the clothes were falling on the floor. A glass room was in the middle of the runway. Inside, it was revealed later, (when the glass walls came crashing down and breaking on the floor) there was a naked obese woman on a chaise longue wearing only a gas mask. One reviewer called it “the best pieces of fashion theatre I have ever witnessed.” “Fashion theatre” is I think a fitting description for what McQueen was doing. But McQueen was a troubled man. Troubled by too much drugs, the failure of his love life and the suicide of his mentor, Isabella Blow. What is clear in McQueen is that he was a genius and that, at 40 in 2010, he died too soon. We are grateful, through this documentary, to get a peek into his artistry and his brilliant mind.

Rémi-Serge Gratton

McQueen

 

Directed by:
Ian Bonhôte
Peter Ettedgui

Screenplay by:
Peter Ettedgui

111 min.

Rated 14A

Boom for real: The late teenage years of Jean-Michel Basquiat

In 1976 Jean-Michel Basquiat was a homeless 16 years old. With his friend Al Diaz he started to spray paint graffiti on New York’s Lower East Side buildings, They called themselves SAMO (short for “same old”). Their designs included inscribed messages. But Basquiat’s street art was unlike anything anyone had ever seen. His reputation started to build and soon he would become one of the most important American artist. Driver interviews friends, lovers and fans of his work. The film is often more about them and their impression of Basquiat than it is about Basquiat himself. He is seen in film archives and photos as an enigmatic, evasive presence. In some weird photos he has shaved the front half his head. Sarah Driver’s documentary is a glimpse into his surroundings and the New York underground art scene (including early Hip Hop) in the late 70s. Jean-Michel Basquiat died of a drug overdose in 1988 at 27. The film is a fitting tribute.

Rémi-Serge Gratton

Boom for real: The late teenage years of Jean-Michel Basquiat

 

Directed by:
Sarah Driver

79 min.

Rated 14A

Three identical strangers

Three identical strangers tells a weird story of a “separated at birth” type. It all started in 1980 when 19-year-old Bobby Shafran discovered he had a twin brother. You could not get more “indentical” than Bobby and his brother Eddy Galland. An article is published in a newspaper and David Kellman sees the photos of his two twins. Of course the three boys became media sensations. We see clips from The Phil Donahue show where they list their similarities. Even though they were adopted by couples of different economic classes (a blue collar, a middle class, and an upper class), they practiced the same sports when they were younger, smoked the same brand of cigarette, dated the same type of girls. The triplets and their parents had a lot of questions. When they compared notes they realized that the boys had been placed by the same adoption agency. Louise Wise services placed children with Jewish families. When pressed for answers the directors responded that it was too hard to place triplets or twins, so they had to be separated. It was later revealled that their separation, along with the separations of thousands of twins, had been deliberate in order to conduct a study about twins. Why? That’s the mystery at the heart of this film. The study was never published and the results are locked until 2066. Many of twins suffured from depression or some form of mental illness, leading some to suicide. Although Three identical strangers is interesting mostly because the story is so gripping, it is very well made. We feel for Bobby and David, the two surviving twins, who are at the centre of the film.

Rémi-Serge Gratton

Three identical strangers

 

Directed by:
Tim Wardle

96 min.

Rated Parental Guidance

The gospel according to André

André Leon Talley (AKA as ALT) is the in-your-face, larger-than-life gay African-American fashion journalist and former editor-at-large of Vogue. Kate Novack’s camera follows Talley for several months. He’s a big man who now mostly wears classy and colorful capes and caftans. Although he was born in Washington, D. C., Talley was raised by his grandmother, Binnie Francis Davis, in North Carolina in the Jim Crow South during the segregation era. After working at Andy Warhol’s Factory in New York in 1974, André started volunteering at Metropolitan museum of art for Diana Vreeland, than worked at Vogue in various functions from 1983 to 2013. With photos, film archives and interviews from his collaborators (among them Anna Wintour from Vogue) The gospel according to André gives us a mildly interesting portrait of what made André a fashion icon. But there’s another dramatic arch that takes over the film. The gospel according to André was shot during the 2016 American election. All I will tell you is that there is devastation the morning after the election. For that and for André Leon Talley, some may want to see it.

Rémi-Serge Gratton

The gospel according to André

 

Directed by:
Kate Novack

94 min.

Rated Parental Guidance