Category: Reviews

Photo Courtesy of the Vanishing Point Chronicles

Mid-October marks many things in a college student’s life. It’s the beginning of midterms, the end of the beginning-of-semester haze, the hangover from homecoming, the warm weather’s slow abandonment. We desperately begin to count down to Fall Break, but the wait seems impossible. In this hour of need, you ask, what else but film can lift our spirits? What films and shows can we turn to?

Fall TV premieres are slowly trickling in, but for immediate therapy, check out this summer’s best premieres and releases:

  1. Dunkirk

Only Christopher Nolan can write a 70 page screenplay, cast Harry Styles as the most talkative character, and then insist that his film be shown in 70mm across all theaters in the US. And only Christopher Nolan can turn all of that into a smashing success. Based on a true story, Dunkirk is not only the most visually stunning film you’ll see this year, but also the most enthralling. Commonly mislabeled as a typical war movie, there’s really no way to describe Dunkirk to someone who hasn’t seen it. What Nolan has created is a plot line with twists and characters unlike those you may be familiar with. And that’s precisely what makes it so great.

  1. The Big Sick

I don’t think I’d be able to count the number of times I burst out laughing while watching Kumail Nanjiani’s debut feature film. A movie based on Nunjari’s own love story, The Big Sick was the romantic comedy version of Dunkirk. Nanjiani refuses to conform to the tropes that often plague this genre and instead infuses this story that isn’t really about romance at all with an incredible sense of humor and relevant social commentary . This innovative story, combined with Ray Romano’s adorably dopey performance as the girlfriend’s dad, catapults The Big Sick to the top of romantic comedies.

  1. Spider-Man: Homecoming

If you’re only planning on watching one of this summer’s blockbuster superhero hits, skip Gal Gadot’s overrated Wonder Woman for Tom Holland’s stellar performance in Spider-Man. Sure, Wonder Woman broke a glass ceiling and it’s great that a woman superhero is getting her chance to shine, but amidst the massive boost of superhero movies, Spider-Man returns to the genre’s roots. Unlike Wonder Woman and other recent films in the genre, Spider-Man is light and funny, and it finally feels like the movie-for-all-ages superhero films promise to be. Holland’s character is indeed “super,” but he’s also relatable, and I found myself rooting more genuinely for him than I had for any Marvel or DC character in a long time.

  1. The Handmaid’s Tale

If you don’t want something dark, don’t watch The Handmaid’s Tale. But if you want to experience television’s most thrilling and thought-provoking series of the summer, it may be worth it. Based on the novel by Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale follows a dystopian futuristic America in which women are forced to return to domesticity. Our protagonist, played by Elisabeth Moss, is chosen as a breeder– and while her performance is outstanding, nothing could prepare you for the chills that will run up your spine when Yvonne Strahovski’s and Ann Dowd’s characters come on screen. In fact, nothing really could prepare you for the whole show at all, so I guess you’ll just have to watch it yourself.

  1. Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt

I know I’ve spoken about this show before, but in this season Kimmy attends Columbia, and her observations are so spot on that it should probably be required viewing for incoming first-years. Although they filmed at UTS and not Columbia, the Kimmy Schmidt showmakers somehow found a way to harness the culture of Columbia– stress levels and all– in a wonderfully concocted season of puns, social commentaries, and Hamilton’s Daveed Diggs. Even if you haven’t watched the first couple of seasons, season three is worth your time. Maybe use it as a study break when you’re up late in Butler– and perhaps take Kimmy’s advice when she tells you there’s more to life than studying.

Photo by Timothy Diovanni

Hypercube: Brain on Fire

(le) poisson rouge 10/15/17

 

If you want to learn about philosophy in action, talk to Hypercube, a NYC-based contemporary music ensemble comprised of saxophone, percussion, guitar, and piano:

“A hypercube can be described as an analogous shape, a 3-dimenseional cube, in four or more dimensions. The cube formation is essentially a 3-dimensional equalizer. We like to think that it enters another dimension when the music is added,” Erin Rogers, saxophonist, explained over e-mail.

Does the music transport to another dimension? Or is this just lofty language – is the actual experience more conservative?

To answer these questions, I will describe the musical experience. Mikel Kuehn’s Color Fields (2006/8) sounds like painted landscapes. Barren, desolate tundra morphed into desert glow. In the most colorful moments, it is hard to determine which instrument is playing which line. Disembodied sound eliminates the individual, presenting a blurred image.

These mixing timbres – a fancy term to say how an instrument sounds because of its physicality (i.e. what makes a clarinet sound like a clarinet and not a flute) – are explored in Andriessen’s Hout (1991). I appreciate Rogers’s commentary before the piece; she describes how the instruments interact through a displaced motive. Tree branches shoot out, overlapping, rustling into each other. Rare unisons sound like the manifestation of unshakeable wood.

Behind me, as I listen, ice cubes rumble. Spaghetti and meatballs float in waiters’ hands. This is a new concert experience for me – I am used to the absence of most extraneous sounds – and I am not very happy about it (boohoo for me, I guess).

Rogers leans back with her instrument, like a rocker with their guitar or mic stand. Jay Sorce, spectacled, navigates his instrument’s fingerboard, stoically, with an occasional head wiggle. A grey-haired man in the front row moves his head in time with the music, outwardly satisfied. Unflinching precision masks Chris Graham’s face; he is a Secret Service agent on the marimba. Between pieces, he appears relaxed, friendly, smiley. Pianist Andrea Lodge’s head bounces in a groove. Yellow, blue, pink light shroud the performers, their instruments, sheet music, and iPads. One forlorn disco ball dangles, misplaced, from the ceiling.

Photo by Timothy Diovanni.

Most composers treat Sorce’s guitars – he plays both acoustic and electric – with extra care, making sure to not have them overpower the ensemble. Schuessler’s Liminal Bridges (2016) and Hurel’s Localized Corrosion (2009) stand in contrast: Sorce shreds, riffs, wails, screams eruptions of living sound. Flutter-tonguing in the saxophone complements these outbursts. Who knew these instruments could mix so convincingly?

Considering these sound worlds, does the program achieve its goal of setting the audience’s “Brain on Fire”? This program is as a challenge to concertgoers: the music should, in theory, cause vigilant attention, surprise, visceral responses. Hurrel’s Localized Corrosion best accomplishes this task for me.

Intense, overwhelming sound catapults the piece. Thunderclaps in the bass drum, a growling saxophone, trembling guitar. Quick switch in texture. Sad vibrations stream from the solo guitar. Ensemble jumps at him, vigorous, interruptive. Disconsolate saxophone sighs: hell-plunging, uneasy piano pulsations: metallic acceleration on a small gong: vigorous, bold guitar. A bass drum orgasm terminates in profound stillness. Tense energy radiates from the stage. 10, 15, 20 seconds. Nothing. The performers hold their positions. Lodge rustles; her head moves slightly downward. Then, they release their stance, breaking the spell.

Because of its multifarious, competing textures, Hurel’s work causes continual engagement.  This is not mind-numbingly music: it cannot be turned into Muzak, lightly pacified in shopping malls and convention centers. It demands the precision and daring of this ensemble to strike the deep chasms between passages, to become alive. Provocative music ignites an experiential fire.

Sondra Radvanovsky in the title role and Joyce DiDonato as Adalgisa in Bellini’s “Norma.” Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

 

Monday was opening night at the Metropolitan Opera. The evening was a chance to be seen, to be heard, to be loud. Half-drunk, piss-colored prosecco glasses hovered through the Met lobby. Red-headed twins in matching green dresses pranced down the stairs. Muted elegance hid in an alcove, a sentry with a light-blue, fluffy overthrow. Folks met colleagues with half-hearted smiles, and lovers embraced joyously. Noise echoed throughout the space, filled with exclamations of “You…look superb”, clacks of skyscraper heels, Italian murmurs, Russian rumors, small talk on the summer weather. Press congregated in an impenetrable, baseball-diamond formation. A gaggle of photographers snapped ferociously.

Eventually, an unseen magnet dragged us from the velvety mulling spaces into the theater. The performance began promptly 20 minutes late with a rendition of the National Anthem. Maestro James Levine conducted. The audience largely did not sing along.

Of course, there was an opera to be had tonight: Vincenzo Bellini’s Norma (1831). For those who don’t know Norma, here is a quick summary:

Norma is a priestess in Gaul (think France) during Roman occupation. She had two kids with a Roman governor, Pollione, but now he’s seeing Adalgisa, another priestess. Adalgisa tells Norma about Pollione, which makes her (understandably) furious. Act 1 ends in a heave.

Norma considers killing her children—Hello Medea!—but draws her dagger away at the last moment. Adalgisa enters and Norma is apparently A-Okay with her and Pollione: she even suggests that they run off to Rome together. Adalgisa is aghast. She hopes to reconnect Norma and Pollione.

Segue to a rather boring male chorus. The Druids want to revolt. But it’s not time yet, says Norma’s dad Oroveso. Snooze.

Final scene. Norma learns that Pollione will stay with Adalgisa. She strikes the war gong three times, the Druids fire up a frenzy (torches!). The drama blusters to a close: Norma tries to get back with Pollione, he refuses, she decides to kill herself, Pollione joins her and they walk into the pyre together (How sweet!).

For this vocal masterclass disguised as an opera, a producer could simply put a white backdrop on the Met’s stage without too much injustice. That said, I thought the staging admirably captured Bellini’s late romantic aesthetic. Dark, disorientating pines and scattered, encroaching moonshine complemented the characters’ interactions.

Joyce DiDonato as Adalgisa in Bellini’s “Norma.” Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

As an audience member proclaimed at intermission, though, “people care mostly about the voices in this work.” Tenor Joseph Calleja (Pollione) was casual, reserved, despite the heady topic (love). He infused more devotion as his character was whirlpooled into the tragedy. Soprano Joyce DiDonato (Adalgisa) had a silvery tone when she sang high. Her acting felt spontaneous and intense. Sondra Radvanovsky (Norma) embodied tender, moving Romanticism in her famous aria, Casta Diva. Throughout the marathon, Radvanovsky executed rocket-powered scales, winding phrases, and dancing grace notes—markers of the bel canto style–with ease.

Although I haven’t seen it posited elsewhere, the bel canto singing style extends to instrumentalists at well. In Casta Diva I was impressed by the flutist’s phrasing and tone, which built a solid foundation for Radvanovsky. In an exposed clarinet and flute duet in the first act, the intonation was sparkling clean. Their effort created an appropriate holiness. Overall, the orchestra’s fortes just felt way too safe. More sound! (Please.)

Cadenzas—extended, solo passages usually for one or two musicians—allow singers to showcase their vocal prowess. Duet vocal cadenzas are especially difficult to execute because both singers must be perfectly synchronized in their tempo alterations and dynamic choices. Radvanovsky and DiDonato had to perform several of these duets. In the first act, their intonation suffered in their upper register. However, they solved the problem in the second act, summoning the pristine beauty of the bel canto style.

Although I have several reservations about the plot, one scene stands out for its drama. When the Druids find Pollione in their temple, they bring him to Norma to kill him. Instead, Norma tries to convince Pollione to return to her. He refuses; Norma indicates that she will kill Pollione’s lover. She recalls the Druids and announces that a guilty priestess shall burn on the pyre. They implore, “Who is she?” Norma hesitates. The Druids ask again, “Who is she?” Norma, “It is I.” The singers captured the tragedy of the moment with intense, palpable stillness. When the orchestra reentered on their soft sostenuto, the mood was solemn, desolate. Radvanovsky pleads and prays, her accepted devastation processes to its infernal . Here, I believe the production succeeded: the prolonged silence followed by the tragic orchestra created a poignant ping that made me empathize with Norma’s fate. Such pathos proves that a moving Norma is not just about the singers, rather how different operatic elements–orchestra, staging, choreography, ensemble–interact with each other. The experience can only be endured through a live performance.

 

Norma runs through December 16, with casting changes. The opera will be broadcast live October 7, at 1:00 PM, on WQXR 105.9 FM.

For anyone in MusicHum, this opera presents the perfect opportunity to see an archetype of bel canto. Tickets in the boonies aren’t as cheap as they once were: the best you can do is a $25 rush ticket the day of the performance on the Met’s website (rush tickets are cheaper than student tickets.). Information and ticket listings on metopera.org.

 

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Photo Courtesy of Matthew Murphy


Hal Prince has undoubtedly influenced the world of Broadway, inspiring others to pursue careers in the theatre industry. When entering the theatre, the expectation was that the show, in the process of highlighting Prince’s works, would using meaning

The Prince of Broadway celebrates sixteen shows that the legendary Hal Prince directed, and as the musical states, some of them were flops and some were successes, but all of them, he believed, were creatively daring and meaningful. Thus, it was up to the audience’s discretion for this show if they agreed with his direction of this somewhat-seeming self-serving musical, and with the statement aforementioned, some of the performances were flops and some were major successes.

Tony Yazbeck in Follies. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

For instance, Tony Yazbeck truly shined throughout all numbers he was in, most notably in “The Right Girl” from the musical Follies. His exquisite tap dancing followed by his intense acting sent the crowd roaring for more of his excellence. And that wasn’t the only star performance by Mr. Yazbeck. Even from his first spotlight on the Friedman theatre, one could tell by his poise that he would shine in every performance that he was staged in, success or flop.

However, with many successes, there are usually some flops tagged along. In this showcase of a musical, there were clearly some weaker moments. For example, pretty much every time the eponymous “Hal Prince” would narrate in the transitions between each performance, the delivery fell flat. It was almost to the point of cringeworthy between musicals that we were anticipating when the dialogue would end in exchange with the performances of yesteryear.

Overall, whether you are a Broadway aficionado wanting to relive some of the glories of the Great White Way or a newcomer wanting to delve deeper into the greats of the past, the Prince of Broadway is a wonderful showcase of brilliant performance and a pleasant night at the theatre.

Prince of Broadway is part of the Manhattan Theatre Club which offers a program called “30 Under 30” where anyone under the age of 30 can qualify for $30 rush tickets. Click here for more information.

Christine Ebersole and Patti LuPone. Photo Courtesy of Joan Marcus.

“There are no ugly women, only lazy ones.”

Helena Rubinstein, cosmetics entrepreneur and rival of Elizabeth Arden, repeated that over the course of her career. Beauty was revolutionized by Rubinstein and Arden, but more importantly, they were powerful entrepreneurs in a male-dominated workforce. War Paint, a new musical at the Nederlander Theatre, gives us a glimpse of the day-to-day of the lives of these women and their rivalry.

The set design was beautiful, the costumes were magnificent, and, of course, the two-time Tony Award-winners Patti LuPone (Helena Rubinstein) and Christine Ebersole (Elizabeth Arden) were fantastic, as expected. The musical progresses from the advertised topic, the rivalry of these two beauty entrepreneurs, to a broader reflection on their internal struggles as powerful women. By the end of the musical, drugstore cosmetics lines have devalued the image of timeless beauty, and the two women are forced to reflect on the value and impact of their lives’ work.

While a compelling and moving narrative put to incredible music, the flow of the lyrics was sometimes stilted. Elizabeth Arden, despite her humble upbringing and incredible corporate empire, was portrayed as a brainless blonde in contrast to Helena Rubinstein. She was ‘obsessed’ with her packaging, as opposed to obsessed with how good her porcelain containers were for business. In wartime, the outfits of her sales representatives were exaggerated by ‘military women’ in short skirts, contrasted sharply by Rubenstein’s clinical containers and women in military-inspired uniforms. The rivalry between the two women was written with a strong hand and exaggerated dialogue, while their hesitant coming together seemed much more natural. And at the end of the performance, a question about the unresolved impact of cosmetics on women’s freedom seemed to be misplaced. The narrative of two successful women strong enough to create a lasting industry was diluted by the question of their lasting impact, not on professional women but on beauty standards.

Overall, War Paint brought this narrative into the 21st century with grace and respect for the immense task that both Rubinstein and Arden faced in building companies named after and run by women.