Thursday, September 30, 2010

Riccardo Muti

Riccardo Muti has started his music directorship of the Chicago Symphony with a bang, pairing Hector Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique with its unusual and seldom-performed sequel, Lelio or The Return to Life, in four concerts last week. (The program will be repeated in New York during the orchestra's 2011 spring visit there.) Symphonie fantastique is subtitled "An episode in the life of an artist," and Lelio returns to the life of that artist in an hour-long piece that is a miniature concert in its own right, consisting of six pieces for vocalists, chorus, and orchestra linked by a dramatic monologue. For the Chicago concerts, Gerard Depardieu appeared as the artist-monologuist. I wish I could have been there, because this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity; I hope it was captured on video and will be made available.,CST-NWS-cso25web.article

UPDATE (10/17/2010): The Muti/Depardieu collaboration on Lelio is in fact available on DVD: 

RIP Arthur Penn

The great director Arthur Penn has passed away:,0,7876188.story

My favorite Penn film is Night Moves, which is one of the finest neo-noirs ever made. Of course Bonnie and Clyde is his most famous film, and I don't think its impact on the course of American cinema has been over-rated; it landed like a bombshell towards the end of a listless decade in American film, and helped kick off the wave of top-notch commercial film-making that lasted for about a decade (1967-1976, roughly). It is too bad that, like most everyone else, Penn hit a rough patch in the Eighties; his last "ambitious" film was the underrated Four Friends in 1981 (although I hear that Penn & Teller Get Killed, 1989, is interesting; and I adore Penn & Teller). One curious item in Penn's IMDB filmography that I would like to know more about is a 1968 television movie -- the year after Bonnie and Clyde -- called Flesh and Blood, with an incredible cast consisting of Edmond O'Brien, Kim Stanley, Robert Duvall, Suzanne Pleshette, E.G. Marshall, and Kim Darby.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Pop Movies

Some of my students wanted to take me to a movie, and the only English-language movie playing at the multiplex was Resident Evil: Afterlife. It's not a movie I would choose to see on my own, to put it mildly. But it did get me thinking. The only other movie I've seen at a theater in Korea was Inception, and there should be a big contrast there: pure popcorn cinema versus prestige Oscar-bait moviemaking. But no, what struck me is how similar the two films are.

The directorial strategies, the production design, the murky photography, the thumping use of music in the two films are all quite comparable. Both heavily overuse Matrix/Crouching Tiger-style slo-mo of tossed weapons and flipping bodies. The plotting in Inception is a little trickier, but neither movie really makes any sense. Both films end unresolved (although Resident Evil: Afterlife sets up a sequel and Inception doesn't). There is nothing to choose between the movies as far as dialogue goes; neither is going to win any Oscar Wilde Awards. The thesping, which should be a real point of distinction between an A-list production and a franchise sequel, is about the same quality in both films, too. No one in Resident Evil gives quite as good a performance as Marion Cotillard or Joseph Gordon-Levitt in Inception, but Milla Jovovich is easily the equal of Leonardo DiCaprio as far as screen command goes: a dazzling looker with acting chops. I would a heck of a lot rather watch her in this sort of movie than the insufferably self-absorbed Angelina Jolie.

Resident Alien: Afterlife actually comes out a little better in this aesthetic head-to-head, because it is not so impressed with itself as Inception. But that is not to say that I liked it. In addition to Inception, it has a lot in common with Christian Alvart's Pandorum (a dubious DVD rental of mine earlier this year), Zack Snyder's 300, the bad parts of Neill Blomkamp's District 9, and probably a whole flotilla of movies I have not seen. This rotting dank environs/clanging metal/mutating aliens/future dread (etc.) genre draws on such obvious forebears as John Carpenter's The Thing and Escape from New York, George Romero's Dawn of the Dead, and Ridley Scott's Alien, as well as less likely candidates such as Tron, C.H.U.D., and Metalstorm: The Destruction of Jared Syn. Its roots are very largely in pop science fiction and horror films of the late Seventies and the Eighties -- the cinematic junk food of the current crop of directors' youth -- although the products now (including remakes of the inspirations) intend to be bigger and badder, of course. If this is the new operational style of popular film-making -- reprocessed by-products that are vaguely reminiscent of meat -- it's back to Eric Rohmer for me.

I saw Resident Evil: Afterlife in 3D. It looks fine, but the 3D is used very conventionally --objects coming out of the screen at the audience in the same manner that was commonplace during the mid-1950s wave of 3D films. So much for progress. The audience did not gasp at the optic assault even once, which I take as a sign that the new 3D is already becoming ho-hum.