Thursday, February 28, 2013

Van Cliburn: An Artist and an Advocate for the Arts

Van Cliburn, the famed American pianist, died yesterday at age 78. Cliburn achieved his prominence and career by winning the prestigious Tchaikovsky Piano Competition in Moscow in 1958. He was 23 at the time and sparked a lasting devotion from Russian fans and jump-started an interest in classical music in this country. His recording of Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1 became the first classical record to sell over a million copies, and in those days there were no downloads or sharing. An LP lasted and usually cost around $12.00.

A number of factors influenced my lifelong love of classical music. Among them were both my grandmothers, who took me to concerts and the touring Metropolitan Opera company, and Van Cliburn, who was one of the few classical artists featured on the cover of Time Magazine. His recording of Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1 was one of the first classical lps I bought.
Of course, we're not counting all of Elvis's records, etc. from my youth.

During his career, he recorded more best-selling albums and was at times the most popular of all touring classical artists. The prestigious Van Cliburn Competition was instituted in 1962 by the National Guild of Piano Teachers and has become one of the top piano competitions in the world.

Quite a legacy for a soft-spoken young man who became a U.S. envoy for music, especially in Russia, where he returned and was received rapturously many years later. May his legacy live on in our love of great music.

Thursday, February 21, 2013


How many years in Oscar history have there been at least six films worthy of Best Picture? And, yes, there are nine nominees, but we are not counting DJANGO: UNCHAINED, Quenton Tarantino's latest blood-drenched revision of history. So, the race for Best Film is the most fascinating category. But let's play the prediction game and finish off with Best Film.

Best Actor: It's a foregone conclusion. If Daniel Day Lewis doesn't win for his incredible reincarnation of Abraham Lincoln, then we will all be monkeys' uncles.

Best Actress: Five strong performances (I haven't seen AMOUR with nominee Emanuelle Riva as an elderly woman facing death, but friends and critics alike hail her as sublime). Odds are on Jennifer Lawrence as a sassy but deeply sad young widow in SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK, but my choice is Naomi Watts and her harrowing, heartfelt mother facing the Asian tsunami and holding on to her family despite daunting odds in THE IMPOSSIBLE.

Who should win: Naomi Watts.  Who will: Jennifer Lawrence.

Best Supporting Actor: Amazing field of Oscar winners. Adam Arkin as a wily producer of a fake film in ARGO, Robert de Niro as a frustrated but loving father of his mentally disturbed adult son. Christopher Waltz reprising his role from INGLORIOUS BASTERDS in DJANGO UNCHAINED, the least impressive of the five. Phillip Seymour Hoffman in THE MASTER. And Tommy Lee Jones as Thaddeus Stephens, the radical Republican who chews up the scenery in a good way and politicos of all stripes in LINCOLN.

Who should win: Tommy Lee Jones. Who will: Tommy Lee Jones.

Best Supporting Actress: Another great field. But it's really down to two knock-out performances. In LES MISERABLES Anne Hathaway plays the tragic Fantine who is forced into prostitution to pay for her daughter's survival. Her version of "I Had a Dream," is one of the rawest, most moving solos in movie history. Sally Field is Mary Todd Lincoln with all her guts, depression, and love for her patient husband Abe.

Who should win: Anne Hathaway. Who will: Anne Hathaway.

Best Director: Steven Spielberg's LINCOLN is subdued and reverent history with great writing and acting, but maybe a bit too stodgy. Ang Lee's LIFE OF PI is a rapturous 3-D fable about a boy and a tiger surviving a shipwreck and weeks together on the sea. German director Michael Haneke's AMOUR and independent director Benh Zeitlin's beautiful BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD are worthy long shots, as is David O. Russell's quirky dramedy about mental illness. What's interesting here is that Ben Affleck, who directed the highly praised ARGO and has won almost every other best director award out there, is NOT nominated.

Who should win: Ang Lee, LIFE OF PI. Who will: Ang Lee.

Best Original Screenplay: MOONRISE KINGDOM will probably beat DARK ZERO THIRTY.

Best Adapted Screenplay: Tony Kushner's LINCOLN is hard to beat. He combines Lincoln's actual words and speeches with some of his own, and it works.

LIFE OF PI will probably take the lion's share of the technical awards: Visual Effects, Sound Editing, Sound Mixing, Production Design, Editing, Cinematography, Best Original (music) Score.

Best Foreign Film: AMOUR, Austria.

Best Costume Design: Either LES MISERABLES or ANNA KARENINA.

And finally...drum roll, please: Best Film. Is it a smash musical adaptation that recorded the actual voices as they sang (LES MIZ), a tense procedural about finding and killing Bin Laden (ZERO DARK THIRTY), a somber but often brilliant biography of our greatest president, a technical and thematic triumph about a boy and a tiger, a crackerjack political thriller about about saving  hostages in Iran (ARGO), or one of the other nominees?

Best Film: What should win: Life of Pi. What will: Life of Pi.

But don't hold me to it.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Read the fine print: SIDE EFFECTS hits the depression drug market

The latest film by the uniquely  talented Steven Soderbergh (OCEANS 11, TRAFFIC, ERIN BROCOVICH) tackles the drug firms that sell us relief from depression, stress, and even bi-polar dysfunction. We all know those commercials that begin in grayish tones with a variety of sad, unhappy people of all stripes. Then we see the pitch for the latest antidepressant with its promises of sunny days and happy nights and we watch smiling grandparents frolicking with their precious grandkids, husbands and wives reviving marital bliss, and all through rose-colored glasses. It's as though we've gone to Narnia or Oz. But wait: don't skip through the end or you'll miss the list of side effects. It's a long list that includes insomnia, headaches, nausea, etc., and ends with thoughts of suicide and DEATH. Of course, this part is read so speedily that we can hardly decipher the words.

The drug conclomerates and their ads are among the targets of Soderbergh's intriguing and suspenseful thriller SIDE EFFECTS. Part Hitchcock, part police procedural, and part character study, this film is typical of the director's talent for entertaining and making us think at the same time. Rooney Mara plays a deeply depressed young woman who stabs her husband to death while under the influence of a new drug, prescribed by her psychiatrist (Jude Law), who is conducting a test survey for a big drug company. She claims she did it in her sleep and is sent to a psychiatric hospital for observation. Meanwhile Law's character becomes a target for the media. He loses his partnership, his job for the conglomerate, and even his family, but he decides to fight back and uncovers an elaborate plot that is far deeper than a wife killing her husband. The entire cast, including Catherine Zeta-Jones, is excellent, but Jude Law carries the film with his intelligent and dogged pursuit of the truth. If you miss SIDE EFFECTS in theaters, put it on your streaming or Netflix queue.

Monday, February 11, 2013

A NEW BLOG and a tribute to my dvd recorder

My daughter Cat Nelson and her older son Jay, almost 13, go to a lot of movies together. They have decided to created a blog reviewing some of these films. Here is there blog:

Their first reviews are about ARGO, one of the best of 2012.

Last night we skipped the Grammys in favor of a two hour episode of DOWNTON ABBEY. Surprise!! Lots of surprises for both top side and bottom galley at the Abbey, all ending with a smashing game of cricket!

Now to the Grammys, or should I say, through the Grammys. As a side note, I would like to thank the genius(es) who gave us the dvd recorder. Just think, I could zip through the 3 and a half hour Grammy Awards in an hour and a half, eliminating all commercials and any reference to hip hop or rap (almost, they seemed to sneak into other musical types). Yes, I know a 73 year old granddad shouldn't be watching the Grammys, but I can't resist the sets, the lights, and the outfits. Highlights? Carrie Underwood's silver dress which shimmered with butterflies, fields of blue, etc. Justin Timberlake's smashing big band riff--this guy just gets better and better. Frank Ocean and Bruno Mars, the latter teaming up with Sting in a tribute to Bob Marley. And there were the usual lows: Rhiana and her ilk were zapped, thanks to my trusty dvd recorder!

Wednesday, February 6, 2013


The New Yorker opined that watching the new film THE IMPOSSIBLE was almost impossible. For once, I agree with one of their critics. THE IMPOSSIBLE recounts the incredible tsunami that took over 230,000 lives in Southeast Asia in 2004 and its aftermath through the lives of one family. Directed by Spanish director J.A. Bayona, this film concentrates on the Bennett family as they attempt to survive the disaster. Based on a true events, the screenplay has taken a Spanish family's experience and given it universal appeal in the Bennetts whose nationality is not disclosed.

On that fateful Boxing Day, Maria Belon watched her husband Quique Alvarez and their three sons swept away with trees, cars, and even destroyed buildings. After several days of extreme suffering, the family was finally reunited at a field hospital where Maria had been brought by Thai volunteers. These events are imagined in harrowing detail in the film. Naomi Watts plays Maria Bennett, a doctor, and Ewan MacGregor is her husband Henry. After the initial wave, Maria and her oldest son Lucas (Tom Holland) cling to trees, endure yet another massive wave, and are eventually aided by Thai citizens who themselves are suffering the effects and losses of the storm. By this time Maria's wounds are so severe her life hangs in the balance.
Back at their wrecked hotel Henry believes that all of his family is gone until he discovers his two youngest sons nearby. He makes the difficult decision to put the boys on a refugee truck while he stays to search for his wife. Interweaving these two stories, the director creates considerable suspense as well as empathy for the family members and for other survivors. The physicality of their suffering and striving to survive is rendered in graphic detail. However, the emotional upheaval is what makes this film so difficult to watch. That comes primarily from two sources. First, the director chooses to include scenes with other desperate victims suffering or searching for loved ones. Second, he has chosen almost perfect actors for the Bennetts. They are all memorable, but young Tom Holland as Lucas carries the dramatic heft of the film. He literally becomes a man in seeing his wounded mother through this crisis. Holland's expressions of despair and hope are so painful to watch that the viewer is tempted to turn away weeping. This is one of the finest juvenile performances I have ever seen, and it recalls a similar amazing performance, that of a twelve year old Christian Bale in Spielberg's EMPIRE OF THE SUN (1987), where he played a young Brit who is forced to survive for years in a Japanese concentration camp.

THE IMPOSSIBLE is a film that encompasses heroism, tragedy, and family love. So it's difficult to watch? Yes, but also moving and eventually transforming. SEE IT.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Television Just Got Its Game Back

Looking for some smart, involving, and almost addictive tv shows. Look no further than the new NETFLIX series HOUSE OF CARDS, created by David Fincher (SEVEN, FIGHT CLUB, THE SOCIAL NETWORK) and starring Kevin Spacey (Oscars for the classic THE USUAL SUSPECTS and AMERICAN BEAUTY) as Frank Underwood, a scheming powerful politician. What's unusual about this series is that one can stream the entire first season and watch any or all of it any time he wishes.

There are strong similarities to THE WEST WING,  a beloved paen to liberal goodness, but there are fewer good guys here and many more Machivellian tricks. Frank is the trickmaster. As House Majority Whip he gets things done through intimidation, lying, and making people do bad things and feel good about it. Spacey, who last year starred as Richard the Third in a world tour, is perfect in the role. He and his writers have gone back to the bard and used the dramatic aside as humorous plot device. After Frank stabs a colleague in the back, the turns to us, the tv audience and slyly makes us his confederates in his manuevering. A screen technique that Laurence Olivier perfected in HAMLET and especially in RICHARD THE THIRD, it works even better on television (MODERN FAMILY is a prime example).

Frank is aided and abetted by his sleekly amoral wife, played to perfection by Robin Wright. Yes, Buttercup from THE PRINCESS BRIDE...still gorgeous but definitely not innocent. She and the rest of the supporting cast give depth to this drama, but the star is Kevin Spacey, who can jump from Southern charm at the pulpit to vengeful skulduggery and then turn to the audience and wink.

Two other shows that entertain and challenge the intellect as well. In its second season PERSON OF INTEREST is a clever mystery that exploits modern technology and the espionage genre. A brilliant scientist (a perfectly cast Michael Emerson from LOST) has created a computer that can spot someone in peril in New York City. He enlists a former CIA agent (Jim Caviezel) with nothing to lose and plenty of muscle to protect the the designated victim. The two make a terrific odd couple, one brainy and eccentric and the other brawny and filled with dark secrets.

ELEMENTARY is anything but. Yet another take on the Sherlock Holmes legend, this procedural has Sherlock in New York assisting the police with his razor-sharp logic, but also in rehab for his drug habit. The big twist here is that Dr. Watson is a woman, played by Lucy Liu, who is at first Sherlock's care-taker but gradually his assistant. She's not the bumbling sidekick of Doyle's original stories. English actor Johnny Lee Miller makes an antic but compelling Holmes and Liu is a smart and patient foil.

All three of these series are intelligent and fast-paced entertainment, a rarity in programs today.