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

Maria by Callas

 

Directed by:
Tom Volf

113 min.

In English, French and Italian with English subtitles.

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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

The children act

Judge Fiona Maye of the British High court of justice specializing in family law, has some very difficult cases to review. As the film opens, Fiona is writing a decision about conjoined twins. The hospital wants to separate the babies, claiming that both are going to die if they don’t. If separated, only one will survive. The parents refuse to separate, so it’s up to Judge Maye (Emma Thompson) to decide. She’s a total professional, emotionally detached from the cases that are brought to her. What’s important to her is the law. While preparing for her next case, Fiona’s husband Jack (Stanley Tucci) tells her that she’s working too much. He complains that they never have time to be together, they haven’t had sex in 11 months, so he announces he’s going to have an affair. She’s stunned and angry, of course. She cuts of their conversation, and Jack packs up and goes to have an affair. Her next case is about 17-year-old Adam who has leukemia. Adam (Fionn Whitehead) and his parents are Jehovah’s witnesses and they refuse the blood transfusion that would save the boy. The doctors want to save Adam’s life. After hearing the arguments from both side, Fiona makes the unusual decision to visit Adam at hospital. What makes The children act stand out from other similar British drama is Emma Thompson’s cutting performance. It is precise, cold, calculated, and eventually emotionally draining. When Thompson’s expressive cold stare meets Fionn Whitehead (as Adam), it’s a magical moment. Whitehead’s passion is somehow nothing out of the ordinary. It’s the later obsession that is compelling. Enough said. Thompson, Whitehead and Tucci are a dream cast. The soundtrack has traditional songs performed by Thompson. And a beautiful score by Stephen Warbeck has piano (Judge Maye plays the piano) and guitar (Adam is seen playing guitar). Cinematographer Andrew Dunn seemed to have taken a cue from Judge Maye. He uses a small sample of greys and blacks. Why? Maybe it’s because you won’t foresee the sudden emotions that will grab you. Just like Judge Fiona Maye. Maybe.

Rémi-Serge Gratton

The children act

 

Directed by:
Richard Eyre

Screenplay by:
Ian McEwan
Based on his own novel

Starring:
Emma Thompson
Fionn Whitehead
Stanley Tucci
Ben Chaplin

105 min.

Rated Parental Guidance

Juliet, Naked

Duncan claims to be Tucker Crowe’s No. 1 fan. He has set up a website about Crowe, with lengthy pretentious discussions analyzing every guitar plucks on Crowe’s only vinyl called “Juliet”, recorded thirty years ago. There are also many speculations on what happened to Tucker Crowe since then. Duncan Thomson (Chris O’Dowd) is British and lives in England with his girlfriend Annie Platt (Rose Byrne). For years Annie has silently endured Duncan’s obsession about Crowe. She keeps it in until one day she mistakenly opens a package addressed to Duncan. It’s a new demo CD from Crowe, another mainly acoustic affair called “Juliet, Naked”. She automatically knows that Duncan will be angry, not because she opened the package, but because it was from Crowe. Then she decides to listen to it. Duncan is livid. He calms down once he listens to it and falls in love with the new album. But Annie hates it. After reading Duncan’s piece on the new CD on his Crowe website, she decides to post her own dislike of “Juliet, Naked”, ripping apart Duncan ‘s corny article. Duncan is angry and he starts looking elsewhere for support. He finds it in the arm of another woman. As a result of her post, Annie receives an email supporting her views from a man who claims to be Tucker Crowe. Annie believes it is Crowe, and without telling Duncan she starts corresponding with him.. Tucker Crowe (Ethan Hawke) lives in the US with his ex-wife. Actually he lives in the shed behind the house so he can be near to his young son Jackson (Azhy Robertson). His life is kind of mess. Besides Jackson, Crowe has several children from other relations, some he almost never sees, others he has never met. Through emails, Annie and Tucker develop a friendship where they share everything. When Duncan tells Annie he has been cheating on her, she kicks him out. When Lizzie (Ayoola Smart), one of Tucker’s daughter is about to give birth, he plans to come to England to be near her. Perfect moment for Annie and Tucker to finally meet. But upon arriving in England, Tucker suddenly feels sick. From the first scene with Chris O’Dowd perfect (during the whole film really) at parodying Duncan’s fan website. Juliet, Naked is an excellent romantic comedy. It takes a very funny look at fandom (with Duncan it should be called “fandoom”). Snappy dialogues delivered by a near perfect cast (Hawke and Byrne have very good chemistry, and young Azhy Robertson is a great find). A really charming film.

Rémi-Serge Gratton

Juliet, Naked

 

Directed by:
Jesse Peretz

Screenplay by:
Evgenia Peretz
Jim Taylor
Tamara Jenkins
Based on the novel by Nick Hornby

Starring:
Rose Byrne
Ethan Hawke
Chris O’Dowd
Azhy Robertson
Ayoola Smart
Lily Brazier

105 min.

Rated 14A

Hearts beat loud

The great chemistry between Nick Offerman and Kiersey Clemons is one of the main reason to go see Hearts beat loud. Offerman and Clemons play father and daughter Frank and Sam Fisher. As Frank is just about to close his Brooklyn vinyl record store after 17 years, Sam is leaving to college to study medicine. So Dad wants to jam with his daughter a few times before she leaves. Frank plays the guitar and Sam is on some sort of keyboards/samplers. When Frank ask Sam what they should call their band, Sam swiftly answers “We are not a band.”. So the name of the band becomes We are not a band. Sam has several things on her mind. Beside wanting to become a doctor, she’s in love with Rose (Sasha Lane). (Sam’s lesbianism is refreshingly not an issue for anyone in Hearts beat loud.) But Sam was born into music. Frank and Sam’s mom, who died in a bicycle accident, were in a band together, and Marianne, Frank’s mother and Sam’s grandmother (Blythe Danner, who unfortunately only has a few scenes) was a singer in her younger years. So “Music runs in the family” (as the tagline for the film says). Sam is interested enough with music that she writes songs, including a love song for Rose. It’s called Hearts beat loud, and Frank is so enthusiastic about the song that he puts it on Spotify where it becomes a hit. He is already planning for a world tour. Sam will have none of it, she loves singing with her Dad, but she’s leaving for college. Offerman and Clemons are so effective at recreating the love between fathers/mothers and daughters/sons. Their little arguments where Frank is trying to say something to make Sam laugh, but Sam, like all teenagers, never find her Dad funny. It all rings true. Toni Collette plays Leslie, Frank’s vinyl store landlady and possible love interest. And Ted Danson is Dave, Frank’s best friend who also owns a bar (Yes, Danson behind a bar again). But the film belongs to Kiersey Clemons, who, beside being a talented actress, has such a powerful singing voice. Hearts beat loud’s songs were all composed by Keegan DeWitt, including the inspired title song. In my favorite scene, Frank and Sam are recording Hearts beat loud. The arrangement is simple at first with only a few instruments, as more instruments are added, the song builds up layers upon layers. This seems an apt description for this film. It may seem at first a simple, charming film, but it becomes more complex and compelling. Still, it is charming.

Rémi-Serge Gratton

 

Hearts beat loud

 

Directed by:
Brett Haley

Screenplay by:
Brett Haley
Marc Basch

Starring:
Nick Offerman
Kiersey Clemons
Toni Collette
Ted Danson
Sasha Lane
Blythe Danner

97 min.

Rated Parental Guidance

Grace Jones: Bloodlight and Bami

A fan: Would you ever do another movie?
Grace Jones: My own!

Well, this as close as you can get. Sophie Fiennes’s documentary is a small glare into the personality of the legendary singer. Do we really know who is Grace Jones after this film? I don’t think so. But we can see that she can’t be easily defined. She’s strong-willed when we see her on the phone trying to reach an agreement to get the musicians she hired to the recording studio. She’s producing her own album with her own money, there is no time waiting around the studio while the musicians are waking up from an all-night party. She travels back to her native Jamaica with her son to be with her mother and her family. There she is laughing as they reminisce about the past and attends church where her mother is singing a gospel song. In Paris, she sings (or rather lip sync) her famous La vie en rose for French TV. This is France, so of course the choreography (?) shows sexy young girls in pink baby dolls while Jones sits on a stool. She does not like it, she tells the producer it’s tacky and corny and she wants it scrapped. But it’s when Jones is on-stage that the film comes alive. The pulsating beats of the music, her incredible stage presence wearing the weirdest hats, masks and costume. On the stage Grace Jones is a giant. Fiennes was allowed to follow Jones in most aspect of her life. We even see Jones naked several times. At 70, Jones doesn’t seem to be afraid of anything.

You should know… The “bami” in the title is a traditional Jamaican flatbread very popular in rural communities.

Rémi-Serge Gratton

Grace Jones: Bloodlight and Bami

 

Directed by:
Sophie Fiennes

115 min.

In English and French with English subtitles.

On Chesil Beach

Un vol d’oiseau traverse un ciel trop beau.
Tu pars avec eux sans retour,
Et pour moi il, ne fait plus jour.

Ton départ, Clémence DesRochers

For their wedding night in 1962 Florence Ponting and Edward Mayhew (Saiorse Ronan and Billy Howle) have rented a room in a small hotel at Chesil Beach. From the delicious dinner, served in their room by two waiter from room service, to the bed, memories from their disfunctional lives come rushing back to blur the deep love they share for each other. At times they look like two deers caught in the headlights. Yes, I repeat: this is 1962, England. Two words: sexual repression. They are too young, naive and both are virgins. This a “love at first sight” affair. They met as he was studying history and she the violin. Through the flashback we see that they are very much in love. But Edward’s mother (Anne-Marie Duff) suffered a mental illness and several times he witnessed her walking around the house naked. And there are hints that Florence was sexually abused by her father and because of that she is repulsed by sex. On Chesil Beach is basically a two character, minimalist screenplay by Ian McEwan, who adapted his own novel. He keeps it simple, and it works pretty well as he effectively gets into each characters head. And this can’t work unless the two young leads (who we first saw together in The seagull) are well casted and directed. We’ve seen what Saoirse Ronan can do, how much of a range she has as an actress. Billy Howle is the revelation here. Edward is such a fragile young man that when he arrives at Chesil Beach on his wedding night he is just about to explode. Howle gives a much detailed performance. It has a pleasant soundtrack with a mix of classical music and 60s rock-and-roll. Production values are excelent, though the makeup in the later scenes could have been much better. On Chesil Beach is helped greatly by cinematographer Sean Bobbitt who shows us that sad stories seem even sadder on a sunny summer beach.

Rémi-Serge Gratton

On Chesil Beach

 

Directed by:
Dominic Clarke

Screenplay by:
Ian McEwan
Based on his own novel

Starring:
Saoirse Ronan
Billy Howle
Emily Watson
Anne-Marie Duff
Samuel West

110 min.

Itzhak

When you look at Itzhak Perlman as he plays the violin, of course you notice how agile his fingers are, how fast they can move. But you can also see how happy Perlman seems to be. In this new documentary by Alison Chernick, we visit Perlman, his wife Toby and their two dogs in their house in New York. We follow them at different concert venues, at the Juilliard school where he teaches violin and on trips to Israel. As some of you will know, Perlman contracted Polio as a child and there are many TV appearances where he was walking on stage with crutches. Now he uses an electric scooter. During a winter trip outside in the street of New York his entourage has brought a shovel to clear the sidewalks. Through conversations he has with Toby, family and friends we learn about his life. Itzhak Perlman was born in Tel Aviv in 1945. The family emigrated to the USA when he was 10 years old. Because of his disability, many people doubted he could have a career despite the incredible quality of the boy’s playing, so he was mostly ignored. Then in 1958, when he was 13, he made a memorable appearance on The Ed Sullivan show that changed everything. During the course of the film we see Perlman dinning and having fun with his friend actor Alan Alda. He receives the Medal of freedom from Barack Obama and while in Israel he dines with Benjamin Netanyahu. He also plays at a concert with Billy Joel where they are rehearsing We didn’t start the fire. And then there is the beautiful and joyful music that Itzhak Perlman plays. The highlight is Perlman playing John Williams’ Schindler’s list. It confirms the great quality of the film composer’s masterpiece. The meeting of two brilliant artists. Itzhak is a celebration of life. Bravo!

Rémi-Serge Gratton

Itzhak

 

Directed by:
Alison Chernick

83 min.

Rated General.

C’est la vie! (Le sens de la fête)

It’s going to be a beautiful day. Pierre and Héléna are getting married. That is if everything goes according to plan. Wedding planner Max (Jean-Pierre Bacri) certainly hopes so. It’s a big outfit. A 17th-century castle was rented with the reception is to be held in the garden. A ton of staff has been hired, most of them waiters, but also musicians, sound men, electricians, assistants and a wedding photographer. From the start there are a number of small annoyances. The groom’s prefered wedding singer/DJ cancelled, and Max had to hire DJ James (Gilles Lellouche). But Max’s assistant, Adele (scene-stealer Eye Haidara), cannot stand DJ James, and she has no problem voicing her dislike to his face. Max’s brother-in-law, Julien (Vincent Macaigne), is one of the waiter. Julien recognizes the bride as one of his old girlfriend and remains obsessed by her throughout the reception. The photographer starts eating the food before it is served. As if it was not enough, Max’s personal life is also in shambles. As he is about to divorce, his other assistant but also his mistress, Josiane (Quebec actress Suzanne Clément from Xavier Dolan’s Laurence Anyways and Mommy), threatens to end their relationship and starts flirting with a young waiter in order to make Max jealous. Without telling the staff, Max has been planning to sell the business. He had enough! What I liked about C’est la vie! is that it is unmistakably French. A good ensemble cast, headed by the wonderful Jean-Pierre Bacri and an extremely funny script peppered with just enough magic. This not a masterpiece, but it is worth seeing.

Rémi-Serge Gratton

C’est la vie! (Le sens de la fête)

 

Directed by:
Olivier Nakache
Eric Toledano

Screenplay by:
Olivier Nakache
Eric Toledano

Starring:
Jean-Pierre Bacri
Eye Haidara
Gilles Lellouche
Jean-Paul Rouve
Vincent Macaigne
Alban Ivanov
Suzanne Clément

115 min.

Rated 14A

In French with English subtitles.

A fantastic woman (Una mujer fantástica)

In A fantastic woman transgender actress Daniela Vega gives a stunning performance. Vega plays Marina, a young trans woman who works as a waitress and sometimes sings in a cabaret. She lives in Santiago, Chile with her lover, an older gentleman called Orlando (Francisco Reyes). One night, when Orlando suffers an aneurysm, Marina drives him to the hospital. Right from the start there are problems. Marina is looked at with suspicion and is treated with less respect that other spouses would. After Orlando dies, a female detective (Amparo Noguera), who claims to have worked on the street with other transgender, doesn’t seem to believe Marina’s version of events. Marina is forced to go through a humiliating medical exam. Some exam! Marina is asked to undress, while the doctor takes photos of her naked body. And then there is Orlando’s family. She gets along with Orlando’s brother, who is kind to her. But when she returns Orlando’s car to his ex-wife, Marina is called sick and depraved, and she’s told that she wont be allowed to go to Orlando’s funeral. She has to vacate Orlando’s apartment after his son threatens to throw her out. When against warnings Marina goes to the funeral to pay respect to her lover, she’s met with more threats and violence. It’s quite disturbing. But through it all, Daniela Vega shows us Marina facing society’s prejudice with dignity and defiance. A fantastic woman is quite suspenseful, as this reviewer sat on the edge of his seat for the entire film. When Marina, who has been studying classical singing, goes up on stage and sings Handel’s Ombra mai fu (Vega’s own voice) she is happy. A fantastic woman, indeed!

And the Oscar went to… A fantastic woman won the award for Best foreign language film. On the stage to accept the Oscar Sebastián Lelio introduced the stars of his film, Daniela Vega and Francisco Reyes. Later in the Oscar-cast, Daniela Vega presented the Best song nominee from Call me by my name.

Rémi-Serge Gratton

 

A fantastic woman (Una mujer fantástica)

 

Directed by:
Sebastián Lelio

Screenplay by:
Sebastián Lelio
Gonzalo Maza

Starring:
Daniela Vega
Francisco Reyes
Luis Gnecco
Aline Küppenheim
Amparo Noguera

104 min.

In Spanish with English subtitles.