Friday, December 20, 2013

The best movies of 2013 (that I saw, anyhow)

Movie critics often lament in December how few memorable films came out over the previous 12 months. I’ve done that from time to time, but not this year: 2013 had plenty of highlights. You’ll have to take my word on some of these, as three films in my top 10 won’t get here until Jan. 10, and another two never opened locally at all (as far as I know). That’s why we have DVD players – and patience.

Here’s the roster, with honorable mentions at the bottom that were just as good as most of the entries in the first 10.

1) “Gravity” – Technically jaw-dropping, deeply moving, compelling acted, gorgeously shot, not a moment too long or too short. An astronaut marooned in space tries to get home, with Sandra Bullock delivering the performance of her career and director Alfonso Cuaron taking our eyes places they’ve never been (and in 3-D).

2) “12 Years a Slave” – Impossible to watch twice, essential to watch once. British director Steve McQueen has made the best film ever about American slavery, as a free man in New York state (Chiwetel Ejiofor) gets kidnapped by slavers and tries to regain his freedom without losing his dignity, physical well-being or sanity.

3) “Her” – Writer-director Spike Jonze makes a tender drama about a shy, lonely man (the terrific Joaquin Phoenix) who finally develops a satisfying relationship. Unfortunately, it’s with the disembodied voice of a personal operating system in his computer (Scarlett Johansson), and “she” understands him like no one else.

4) “Captain Phillips” – Director Paul Greengrass maintains the “you are there” tension in this story of a cargo ship taken over by Somali pirates off the Horn of Africa. Tom Hanks and talented newcomer Barkhad Abdi play a cat-and-mouse game as the ship’s shrewd captain and the ragged pirate on whom the Somalis rely.

5) “Inside Llewyn Davis” – The Coen brothers deliver their first unexaggerated portrait of a protagonist. He’s a folk singer in the early 1960s (well played and sung by Oscar Isaac) who clings stubbornly to his would-be career, despite everyone else’s insistence that he’ll never succeed. Touchingly down-to-earth.

6) “A Hijacking” – Another story about a ship taken over by Somali pirates, but the focus in this Danish drama is on the cook chosen to communicate with the home office and the company president who hires a professional negotiator to advise him. As weeks drag on without resolution, a different kind of tension begins to grip us.

7) “The Spectacular Now” – One of the most honest movies I’ve ever seen about high school students. Miles Teller plays a smart, self-assured senior looking for a reason to care about anything; Shailene Woodley is the smarter, quiet girl who may give it to him, if she believes he can stop drinking and grow up.

8) “The Great Gatsby” – One of the greatest American novels finally gets a worthy screen adaptation in Baz Luhrmann’s re-imagining, modern rap soundtrack and all. Leonardo DiCaprio surpasses himself as the rich, reckless, tragically fated investor who realizes too late that he’s empty at his emotional, spiritual core.

9) “Room 237” – This fascinating documentary takes its name from the place in “The Shining” where terrible things occur. It consists of fantastical fan theories about Stanley Kubrick’s film that occasionally illuminate it (perhaps) but mostly show the deranged lengths to which Americans go to support crazy notions.

10) “August: Osage County” – The most dysfunctional family since Oedipus’ clan reunites when the father goes missing. Tracy Letts’ stage version had more bite than this adaptation, but the acting ensemble – including Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Julianne Lewis and Benedict Cumberbatch – may be the year’s best.

Honorable mention in alphabetical order: “Dallas Buyers Club,” “Despicable Me 2,” “Enough Said,” “Frozen,” “The Hunt,” “Lee Daniels’ The Butler.”

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Five musical post-Christmas gifts

No reason to stop giving just because the holiday season has come and gone, right? Your friends will appreciate these five CDs if they drop out of the sky for no reason at all. Two of them are essential listening; the other three have their charms.

I'm going to start with the most impressive classical recording I've heard in months: Igor Levit playing Beethoven's last five piano sonatas on a two-disc set for Sony. At 26, he has gone head to head with all the greats who've recorded these pieces so impressively -- Artur Schnabel, Wilhelm Kempff, Mitusko Uchida and so many others -- and come out with a fresh interpretation. Each rush of excitement or moment of gentle musing seems spontaneous, as if he were improvising. The Russian pianist knows Chopin was already composing when Beethoven died, and his poetic playing links the two composers in spirit. Here's a sample from a live performances of Beethoven's Sonata No. 31, slightly different from the one on this superbly recorded studio set:

My favorite original cast recording in multiple moons comes from "Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812," an adaptation of one section of Leo Tolstoy's "War and Peace." I can't begin to give you a sense of it with a lone excerpt, because composer-lyricist Dave Malloy veers from cabaret-style songs to melancholy ballads to comic numbers that bolt like a runaway horse. (He even has time for a brief, funny parody of a Philip Glass-style opera.) Here's an excerpt, with the cast singing the prologue at an outdoor gig:

The show was created as an immersive experience, with members of the cast serving Russian food and dropping by to sit briefly at your table. The recording on Ghostlight Records goes as far as any could in recreating that feeling of being at a party, among friends related a tragic but ultimately redemptive story. (Well, redemptive for one character, anyhow. No spoilers here.)

The other three albums may appeal more to niche audiences. (All of these come from Ghostlight, too.) A new recording of "Marry Me a Little," assembling 17 rarely heard Stephen Sondheim songs, slightly changes the off-off-Broadway show conceived by Craig Lucas and Norman Rene in 1980. (For instance, the wistful "If You Can Find Me, I'm Here" is in; "Pour le Sport" is out.) Lauren Molina and Jason Tam sing sensitively; though few of these songs are top-drawer Sondheim, they hold up.

If you enjoyed the recent TV "Sound of Music," especially Laura Benanti's performance as Elsa, you're the target audience for "In Constant Search of the Right Kind of Attention," a live recording of her act from 54 Below in New York. (I'd call it a solo CD, but music director/pianist Todd Almond and his trio make crucial contributions.) Benanti scales down her Broadway-sized pipes, shows a quirky sense of humor and works through a strong, 13-song set with monologues attached. She ends with numbers from two roles she played on Broadway, "Unusual Way" (from "Nine") and the hilarious "Model Behavior" (from "Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown").

For me, the main attractions in "Somethin' Real Special" are the still underappreciated lyrics by Dorothy Fields. As the notes by Maury Yeston say, she could write romantic standards ("I'm in the Mood for Love," "The Way You Look Tonight") or Lorenz Hart-like banter ("Then You Went and Changed Your Mind"), and she was comfortable with composers who favored the blues (Harold Arlen), old-fashioned romanticism (Sigmund Romberg) or jazz (Jimmy McHugh). Philip Chaffin's light baritone best conveys the lyrical ballads; he can't quite swing, but he puts over sweeter songs seldom heard nowadays, including the title cut and the introspective "Alone Too Long." A 25-piece orchestra backs him with a rich sound.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Farewell, Peter O'Toole

The last member of an acting generation -- and my favorite film actor, Daniel Day-Lewis possibly excepted -- died Sunday. Before I go further, here's a sample of the acting that knocked me out:

O'Toole was the last of the grand personalities from the 1950s who boozed and brawled and womanized while acting up a storm: Richard Burton, Richard Harris, Oliver Reed, Peter Finch and others. O'Toole had the longest career of any of them: He was acting right up to his death, often in small roles in movies with religious themes, and "Katherine of Alexandria" will come out in 2014. (He once described himself as "a retired Christian," expressing admiration for Jesus' teachings.)

There are two kinds of movie stars: comets and chameleons. The first impress us with the force of their personalities, often playing similar characters, and the second choose to hide inside characters. I couldn't name a dozen performers who could fit into both categories across their careers, but O'Toole was one of them.

Consider what may be his greatest work, playing a mad nobleman in the savage satire "The Ruling Class." He begins by proclaiming himself the reincarnated Christ and preaching peace; when his disgusted upper-crust family cures him of this delusion, he manages to pass for sane and take his seat in the House of Lords -- this time, convinced he's the reincarnation of Jack the Ripper:

O'Toole set an all-time record for futility at the Academy Awards, though he received an honorary Oscar in 2003 for career achievement. He was nominated for best actor eight times and lost eight times. Without fail, his most brilliant work was ignored in the hubbub over an iconic performance: John Wayne in "True Grit," Marlon Brando in "The Godfather," Robert De Niro in "Raging Bull," Ben Kingsley in "Gandhi." O'Toole's Lawrence of Arabia, which Premiere magazine deemed the greatest film performance of all  time, had the evil fortune of competing against Gregory Peck's Atticus Finch in "To Kill a Mockingbird."

The auburn-haired Irishman certainly made subpar movies from time to time. But he was never subpar IN a movie, and his work sometimes brought a touch of greatness to an otherwise pleasant outing. One of those was "Venus," the 2006 drama that earned him his last Oscar nomination; he played an elderly actor infatuated with a tough young woman. (Sure enough, he lost to Forest Whitaker's rampaging Idi Amin in "Last King of Scotland.")

The title character in "Venus" asks O'Toole's Maurice if he believes in anything. "Pleasure, I like," he replies. "I've tried to give pleasure. That's all I'd recommend to anyone." He never stopped.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Five Christmas songs that make me sad

Technically, that would be any Christmas song. The uplifting ones remind me of how far we fall short in carrying out Christ's messages about tolerance, kindness, love for our fellow man -- including the ones we don't immediately find lovable -- and assistance for those who need it. I see too little of that in North Carolina (or the world, for that matter) these days.

Most intentionally sad Christmas songs, such as "Blue Christmas," remark on the absence of a loved one. Those aren't especially sad to me, unless the singer is imprisoned for life, because a reunion is possible if the parted lovers get together or make up or overcome obstacles. Here are my five choices, in alphabetical order:

"I Believe in Father Christmas" -- Greg Lake expresses his disgust for humanity, which has failed to achieve the dream: "They said there'll be snow at Christmas/They said there'll be peace on Earth/But instead it just kept on raining/A veil of tears for the virgin's birth." He concludes with this: "Hallelujah! Noel! Be it heaven or hell/The Christmas we get we deserve." Ouch.

"If We Make it Through December" -- Merle Haggard has wrongly been claimed by conservatives (he's more of a libertarian), but people from any political party can appreciate this mournful tune about a guy who gets laid off at a factory just before the holidays. His "little girl don't understand why daddy can't afford no Christmas here." An all too common story nowadays.

"Mamacita, donde esta Santa Claus?" -- Sung to a cha cha beat and meant to be funny, as a little boy asks his mother where Santa may be. The kid expects to hear Santa click his castanets on the roof and call out to his reindeer: Pedro, Vixen, Pancho and Blitzen. But his mom doesn't reply, and somehow I don't think he's getting any gifts. Might just be me, though.

"Pretty Paper" -- Shoppers bustle to and fro. Money changes hands, everyone's loaded with presents and heading home in a good mood -- except for the weeping homeless guy sitting on the curb. The narrator thinks about stopping to do a good deed, but he's in such a hurry! And homeless guys are depressing, so he moves on. Written by Willie Nelson, sung unforgettably by Roy Orbison:

"Santa Claus, Go Straight to the Ghetto" -- James Brown urges Saint Nicholas to leave "a toy for Johnnie, a dog for Mary, something pretty for Donnie, and don't forget Gary." Everybody has forgotten these kids except, perhaps, Santa. Brown puts a little poignant coda on it, remembering childhood poverty: "You know that I know that you will see/'Cause that was once me."

Friday, December 6, 2013

Was Nelson Mandela a cheap tipper?

Probably not. But after countless tributes to selflessness, patience and high-mindedness -- all of which I'm sure he had -- I'm starting to wonder if he spent 27 years on Robbens Island without once cussing a prison guard.

The film "Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom" comes out later this month, and advance word suggests it depicts the title character as a saint. I'm willing to believe he had deep wells of kindness and dignity, but I don't want to sit through a canonization. I'm looking forward more to "The Mountaintop," the Katori Hall play that Blumenthal Performing Arts will import in February. It depicts Martin Luther King Jr. on the eve of his assassination as a brave, conflicted, intelligent but imperfect man.

I don't expect anyone to pay tribute to Mandela a day after his death by saying he liked to punch kittens. But this constant flow of lofty praise washes away his humanity. Was he bad at ping-pong? Addicted to car-chase movies? An irritating kibitzer at poker games? Likely to loll around the living room when company came and refuse to put on a decent shirt? The person emerging from this adulation isn't a person at all: He's a symbol.

On the day after Richard Nixon's obituary ran, a reader asked me why the news about Watergate had to be placed so high in it. Now that Nixon was dead, why not simply report the good qualities he had? I pointed out that Nixon was the only president chased out of office by his misdeeds, however significant or trivial one considers them, and that was enormous news. (As the caller was a staunch Republican, I promised that Bill Clinton's obit would mention Monica Lewinsky prominently. I'm sure it will.)

Nobody forced Mandela to quit the presidency of South Africa, of course, and one needn't wash every piece of dirty linen in public. If Mandela had screaming arguments with his brother-in-law over Christmas dinners, who cares? But worshipping at the base of his tomb -- especially in the case of a man who, by all accounts, would have been embarrassed by such attention -- doesn't do this great man a service.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

You're naked, lecturing to strangers

Did you ever have that panic-inducing dream? Maybe you've had the "taking the final exam in a course I've never attended" nightmare. If so, the look on your sleeping face was probably like the one on pianist Maria Joao Pires in this video, when she realized she had showed up for a concert with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra after preparing the wrong concerto.

This moment of confusion came before a free rehearsal for the evening performance, but the hall was full of people. (The Charlotte Symphony invites the public to its rehearsals, too.) Pires had the right composer: Mozart, one of the three men this poet of the keyboard has made her specialty all her career. (The others are Chopin and Schubert.) But where music director Riccardo Chailly had prepped his orchestra for Concerto No. 20, Mozart's most dramatic, she had been working on the sunnier 21st.

I like this video for three reasons. First, it shows that a world-class artist can make a horrible mistake but pull herself out of it almost immediately: Pires starts playing the D Minor from memory after a few seconds of preparation, and the opening bars indicate she's in full emotional command.

Second, the genial Chailly can elicit a tremendously weighty sound from one of the world's best orchestras while chatting with his soloist: When she explains that she'll try to play the piece he's started, he calmly says, "I'm sure you do that. You know it too well." He never stops conducting, never looks worried, never falters.

Third, it reminds me that a great performance of Mozart can't be topped, and you can see this will be one. The combination of the Dutch orchestra and the Portuguese pianist looks like it must have been a terrific blend. In case you'd like to hear her do the whole piece, here's a performance from 10 years ago with Pierre Boulez and the Berlin Philharmonic:

Monday, December 2, 2013

Maria Callas, gone too soon

The greatest soprano in the world was born 90 years ago today in Manhattan, christened Anna Maria Sofia Cecilia Kalogeropoulou and died exactly one month after Elvis Presley in 1977. At 53, an age when most sopranos begin gracefully to withdraw from leading roles, she was already retired and 20 years past her prime.

But what a prime! At her best, she married vocal skill to dramatic expression like no soprano before or since. Here's a sample:

That's what she sounded like in 1953, in the title role of what may be the most perfect opera recording: A "Tosca" with Victor de Sabata conducting, Giuseppe di Stefano (also in his very short prime) as the ardent Cavaradossi and Tito Gobbi as the venomous Scarpia.

And here's a video excerpt of a performance of the same role five years later with Gobbi. This consummate actress made only one official piece of video, the second act from "Tosca" in the mid-'60s, when her voice was beginning to go. But bootlegs such as this one abound.

She had limitations: She sang almost entirely in Italian, only occasionally making a foray into French. (The same was true of Pavarotti.) She never ventured into comedy, except for a couple of biting Rossini roles. She had no desire to play -- and perhaps could not play -- less complex parts. On the other hand, she started the revival of bel canto operas (where beautiful singing is paramount) and helped us rediscover Bellini and rarer Rossini and Donizetti pieces.

No one I have ever heard could be such a self-sacrificing yet embittered Norma in Bellini's opera, such a mercurial (and deep) Carmen in Bizet even after her voice was shaky, so pathetic a doomed Lucia di Lammermoor in Donizetti. (She's the only singer who has ever made Lucia's 15-minute mad scene tolerable.) Leonard Bernstein reportedly called her "the Bible," referring to the unquestionable authenticity of her performances.

Birgit Nilsson, Leontyne Price, Renata Tebaldi (Callas' main rival in the 1950s) and other contemporaries had longer careers and burned just as brightly in certain parts. After Callas dropped 80 pounds in 1954, her vocal production changed; she said she lost strength in her diaphragm, which made her lose confidence in herself. That led to vocal strain and a pronounced wobble. But in her brief, glorious heyday, no one could touch her.