Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Has plastic surgery helped ANY actress?

The Internet seems to be abuzz about Renee Zellweger, who no longer looks as she did for the first 44 years of her life. Here are the old Renee and new Renee::





Zellweger has attributed the change to a healthier lifestyle, which pushes credulity past the breaking point. (A healthier lifestyle doesn't fundamentally change the look of your face, unless you were obese or rail-thin.)

I'm not interested in debating whether she should have had work done; she has the right to change her looks if her self-esteem depends on them. But I wonder whether jobs depend on them.

I'm aware that male Hollywood producers and actors think 45-year-old men can be rugged and sexy, while 45-year-old women have passed their primes. (I just saw a trailer for "The Gambler," starring 43-year-old Mark Wahlberg and 25-year-old Brie Larson. I don't think she's playing his daughter.)

I'm merely wondering whether plastic surgery has ever helped an actress' career. Has some producer said, "Wow, that 45-year-old used to be dowdy, but now I want her to star opposite Brad Pitt in my epic about the Revolutionary War"?

Jennifer Gray modified her Semitic looks after "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" and "Dirty Dancing" and headed straight for obscurity. Meg Ryan had work done a few years back and has appeared in just one feature film since: the upcoming "Ithaca," which she herself directed. I can't think of a single actress whose career became busier or more significant after noticeable plastic surgery.

Though I have mixed feelings about Renee Zellweger as an actress, I always thought she looked uniquely appealing. Now she looks generically attractive, interchangeable with other shiny blondes. (When I first saw the photo above, I thought she might be Kristin Chenoweth.) I wish her well, but what was the point?

Monday, October 20, 2014

Why no American studio would make "Pride"

I saw just one movie last week on my vacation, the British import "Pride." I'd say Roger Moore, the critic we often use for wire-service reviews when I don't see a film, undervalued it a bit; I enjoyed this early-'80s tale, inspired by a real-life alliance between gay rights activists in London and Welsh coal miners. But the realization that struck me afterward made me sad: Nobody in America would have made this movie.

Why? Three reasons.



First, it shows obvious pro-union sympathies. We like to think of Hollywood power players as unregenerate leftists, but how often do they make films about labor movements? "Little man/woman takes on the system" stories are always popular. But a movie about striking miners being starved out by their government? Not bloody likely.

Second, one of the heroines is fat. And smart. And bold. In America, fat women in movies can be objects of hilarity, sassy best friends, maternal types or desperate loners. They can't be intelligent leaders who also have well-adjusted lives as moms or wives.

Third, the picture doesn't end with the lonely lesbian finding a girlfriend and the just-out-of-the-closet guy marching off to a happy future. (He's happier because he is out of the closet, but he's on his own and nearly broke.) Nor does the main bigoted character have an epiphany.

We don't deal in ambiguity in America; we like stories tied off with neat bows, with the virtuous people all rewarded and the wicked punished. Hollywood knows that and keeps them coming.

Friday, October 3, 2014

America's newest movie critic: Satan!

Reviewers often end up in quote-filled ads, but this is the first time I've seen the Prince of Darkness weigh in on a film:



I personally don't want to see Nicolas Cage's "Left Behind," which opens today. I'm convinced that, after a decade of hilariously awful films interspersed with "National Treasure" sequels, Lucifer will be able to fill the Hell Plaza 12-plex exclusively with the likes of "The Wicker Man," "Drive Angry," "Season of the Witch" and other Cage mistakes.

But I'm fascinated that The Horned One chose this movie to criticize: not "The Passion of the Christ," "The Book of John," "Jesus" or countless other biblical movies. Apparently, this one will provide inarguable proof that some people will be taken to heaven during the rapture, while the rest will be dropped into the clutches of The Father of Lies. And if we see "Left Behind," we'll know that.

If you go to the film's Facebook page, you find that Satan's pronouncement has stirred up hornets:

"Time is running out, but the good Lord will exhaust every opportunity for the lost. I think many will be saved. I plan to invite and pay for several people to come with me. Take that, Satan!"

Or this:

"It was signed "Satan". Meaning he doesn't want unbelievers to go! We are in the last days and he's doing everything he can to pull souls onto his side and creating havoc by destroying mankind!"

This isn't the first time a film distributor fabricated a critic's quote. Sony Pictures famously invented "David Manning" in 2000, inserting his fictitious comments (all raves) in its ads as if he actually worked at a media outlet. The hoax, exposed after a few months, forced Sony to refund $5 to anyone who claimed to have attended one of the movies because Manning extolled it.

But this is the first time anyone has snuck Beelzebub into a blurb, as far as I know. Who's next: Jehovah?

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Joe Green, the world's greatest opera composer

That's how my first music teacher referred to this guy, whose name (translated from Italian) is indeed Joseph Green:


And just in time for Opera Carolina's October production of "Nabucco" comes a new book from Amadeus Press in its "Unlocking the Masters" series: Victor Lederer's "Verdi: The Opera and Choral Works."

I had already read "The Great Instrumental Works," M. Owen Lee's installment in this series, so I knew what to expect: A compact, lucid evaluation of all of Giuseppe Verdi's operas (including the obscure ones) and requiem mass, with whole chapters devoted to the most significant pieces.

Lederer separates Verdi's catalogue into major and lesser works (correctly, from my point of view), summarizes plots, indicates key arias and ensembles, and offers brief but pointed critical commentary. Even someone who thinks he's an expert on the composer might find insights here.

Most crucially, the book comes with a 79-minute CD of Golden Age performances of Verdi's arias. (No choruses, though. So no "Va, pensiero" from "Nabucco," the composer's first hit tune and successful show.) The oldest of these arias brings us tenor Edmond Clément singing "La donna e mobile" in French in 1904; the newest come from Bulgarian bass Boris Christoff and Italian tenor Mario del Monaco, both singing in Italian during the 1950s. If your grandfather droned on about the irreplaceable Claudia Muzio and Rosa Ponselle, you'll find out what he meant.

If you've never heard a note of opera, you'll want to start with a different overview of the art form. If you're already convinced that Verdi has no peer as a composer for the stage -- which I believe, Mozart fanatic though I am -- this will be a fine way to familiarize yourself quickly with Big Joe Green.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Great young pianists come to Charlotte

Technically, only one of them is coming in person; the other's arriving on disc. But both these guys knock me out.

I saw Inon Barnatan this spring at Spoleto Festival USA, where he played a revelatory version of Mendelssohn's First Piano Trio with violinist Livia Sohn and cellist David Ying. After 40 years of listening to classical music, I seldom hear performances that make me rethink a familiar piece of music deeply; this one did. I couldn't find a video of it, so here's Barnatan playing the first movement of a late Schubert sonata.




The Israeli pianist wasn't supposed to come to Charlotte. But when Mandy Patinkin cancelled his season-ending appearance with Charlotte Concerts, the group snagged Barnatan and cellist Alisa Weilerstein (herself a Spoleto and Charlotte Symphony alum) for a duo evening. I can't imagine better fortune: We're getting one of the world's most in-demand cellists and the Israeli pianist who has become the New York Philharmonic's first Artist in Association, which means he has been booked there for three years' worth of concerts and recitals.

By the way, Charlotte Concerts opens its Halton Theater season Oct. 10 with a pair of pianists who reportedly cook up remarkable adaptations of the classics. I've never seen Anderson and Roe, except on YouTube. Here's their version of Astor Piazzola's "Libertango:"



And last but by no means least, the other keyboard whiz I've been listening to lately is Igor Levit, who's the youngest of the lot (27 to Barnatan's 35). I praised his late Beethoven sonatas in another post, and now I've been enjoying his set of Bach partitas. Here's a sampling of the first partita that shows his style: fluid, introspective, emotional (not a word I always associate with Bach, especially in the partitas) and warm:



The Russian-born, German-based pianist plays nowhere closer to Charlotte than Cincinnati in the 2014-15 season, so I'll have to be satisfied with the two recordings he has made for Sony Classics.

When I was in college in the early 1970s, a piano fan told me we were living in a Golden Age: not just the last moments of Artur Rubinstein and Vladimir Horowitz but the rise of Murray Perahia, Maurizio Pollini, Alfred Brendel and many others. Another one seems to be on the way.

Monday, September 22, 2014

The nicest man in country music

George Hamilton IV passed away last week the same way he did everything in his country music career: quietly and with dignity. Here's a long-ago performance of "Abilene," his biggest hit, in a medley with "Fort Worth, Dallas or Houston:"



I covered country music in the early 1980s and regularly interviewed singers and songwriters. (Highlight of my country music career: Profiling lead singer Joe Bonsall for the souvenir book sold on the Oak Ridge Boys' national tour.) And I never met anyone nicer than George Hamilton IV, who was living in Matthews at the time.

Outlaws were common then. Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings were hot, sometimes performing with Johnny Cash and Kris Kristofferson as The Highwaymen. The courtly crooners from the Don Gibson-Jim Reeves era had all but disappeared. Yet here came GH IV with his shy smile, his tuneful but unassertive voice and his easy style.

Most folks remember that he started as a gentle pop singer: "A Rose and a Baby Ruth" cracked the top 10 in 1956, "Why Don't They Understand" got there the next year, and he recorded an oddity called "The Teen Commandments" with fellow up-and-comers Johnny Nash and Paul Anka the year after that. Then "Abilene" went to the top spot on the country charts for four weeks in 1963 and changed his destiny.

I interviewed him more than 30 years ago, when I was a green writer in my 20s and he was just nine years younger than my dad. He took all the time I needed for the interview, fed me some history I didn't know about the industry and seemed pleased to share his point of view with a reporter for the smaller paper in town. (I started at The Charlotte News, which died in 1985.)

Over the years, I heard that other writers had similar experiences. His style would never permit him to become one of the most famous or wealthy singers in his business, but he stuck to it for 50 years. I admire that.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

The Spanish teacher and the rubber duck

When someone you know casually hands you a CD -- especially in the parking lot of a Harris-Teeter -- you think, "I'll listen to this once, dream up something pleasant to say the next time I meet this guy and drop it into the storage closet." Strangely, I didn't.

I listened all the way through "Como estas, mi amigo?" with pleasure. I even listened to a couple of songs twice. Here's an admittedly amateurish video of my favorite, "Pato de hule." That's composer-singer Jay Barron, a Spanish teacher at Providence Day School, onstage, and bass player Isaac Melendez bouncing around in front of him. The title means "Rubber ducky," and it's a tribute to a reassuring bathtub toy:



He created the CD to help beginning students of Spanish wrestle with simple concepts: colors, things found in nature, friendship, a desire to sing. Some numbers are in Spanish and English, some just in Spanish (with occasional spoken interjections in English), and most are rhythmically infectious. Besides Melendez, the album's full of good Latino musicians: percussionist Jaswar Acosta, guitarist Tony Arreaza, sax player Oscar Huerta.

Barron knows which song is his "hit," as he not only made this video at Fantafest last spring -- it's his only video, as far as I know -- but put the tune on the album twice, once in Spanish and once bilingually.

He's giving a CD release concert Saturday at 2 p.m. in the school auditorium at 5800 Sardis Rd. Tickets are $5, and you can get the CD for $10 there or through his Facebook site. Bring your own rubber duck and join in when he does "Pato de hule." I can't get the song out of my ears!