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Tuesday 28 February 2017

Hidden Figures, Film 2016, co-written and directed by Theodore Melfi, 8* out of 10

This subversively entertaining comedy drama will get under your skin as it tells the little known story of three talented black women working in 1950s segregated Virginia, making the most of a unique opportunity offered by the space race between the Soviet Union and the United States for an important step towards emancipation at the workplace. 

In 1962, John Glenn in the Friendship 7 became the first American to travel into space and make it back to earth in one piece. Based on real people and events, Hidden Figures puts the spotlight on little-known aspect of National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA) achievement, in catching up with and ultimately overtaking the Soviet Union in the space race between the two superpowers. It is the role that “computers” (in two senses of this word) played in making this possible. “Computers” was the job title of the mathematically gifted people who would perform the mathematics necessary to engineer the space rockets and send them into orbit (as well as denoting the digital machine that has revolutionized modern society). One section of the human computers at NASA consisted of black women. Three of them, Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae) and Katherine G. Johnson (Mary Jackson) are hitherto unsung heroes portrayed in this film. At the time, Virginia was a segregated State. This meant that black people were made to work in offices separate from their white colleagues, had to take their coffee from separate coffee machines and use separate toilets. Moreover, it was, “of-course” considered normal to not to see women as equal to men at work. But the national importance of the space race and the introduction of electronic computers provided a unique opportunity for minorities and women to make a quantum leap in emancipation at NASA through professional achievement. 

Hidden Figures (a title with two senses, both applying to this tale) tells the story of three talented black women took advantage of a unique window of opportunity. The screen writers made a risky choice by choosing to tell it as a comedy drama, but they succeed. Not least, because the comedic format makes the scenes that show the “banality of segregation” hit us in the gut even more effectively and memorably, than a purely dramatic treatment would have. The normality with which intelligent white men and women accepted that situation in the 1950s and 1960s serves as a reminder that existing social arrangements have a seductive power. Reasonable people manage to justify themselves what should evidently be unjustifiable. The main reason why the two white men, mission director John Harrison (Kevin Costner) and astronaut John Glenn (Glen Powell) break through the convention of their time is not a commitment to civil rights, but a recognition that it is for their own benefit to do so. For the first, his career and for the second his life depends on it. The important steps in the emancipation of the black women at the centre of this story were a by-product of the need of NASA to innovate and succeed. Enlightened self-interest aligned with the advancement of civil rights.

Based on the book by Margot Lee Shatterly, Allison Schroeder and Theodore Malfi have done an excellent job on their screenplay.  A fine ensemble cast competently directed by Theodore Malfi keeps the audience interested and entertained from beginning to end. Hidden Figures is exactly what a good comedy drama based on true events can and should be. As a bonus, you get a look at the charismatic Mahershala Ali (Academy Award for best supporting role in the film “Moonlight”).  This film gets under your skin. Highly recommended.

Friday 17 February 2017

Amadeus, Play by Peter Schaffer, National Theatre, London , 8* out of 10

The revival of this powerful drama by Peter Schaffer on the stage of the National Theatre in London successfully weaves the live music and the members of the orchestra into the action on stage. Lucian Msamati gives a strong performance as a black Salieri, who becomes angry and vengeful towards God. Director Michael Longhurst and his cast create a beautifully entertaining and thought provoking evening at the theatre. A production which thoroughly deserves its sell-out run.  

Vienna in the 1780s. Now in his 20s, and married to Constanze Weber (Karla Crome), the former travelling pianist-wunderkind Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (Adam Gillen) comes to Vienna to launch, what he hopes will be a successful career as a freelance composer. Convinced of being the best (which indeed he is), he is a rather childish and uncouth figure, not adept at playing the politics in the Vienna cultural scene at the Court of the Austrian Emperor Joseph II. Here, Antonio Salieri (Lucian Msamate) is the celebrated composer carefully building his musical career and social status. Contrary to Mozart, he is a master at the political game and a paragon of morally irreproachable behaviour, faithful husband to his wife and member of charitable committees. He believes that his success is due to a promise he made to serve God faithfully in return for success in his art and profession. But, the appearance of the vulgar childish young Mozart, who despite of his silliness and immoral behaviour seems to have been chosen by God as the vessel for composing the most divine music with apparent ease, shakes the foundations of Salieri’s faith and thus an important part of his identity. Salieri’s love for God gradually turns into a deep and damaging feeling of anger at being undeservedly mocked by him with ever escalating consequences. 

Recounted by Salieri many years after the events, Amadeus tells the story of Mozart’s time in Vienna, through the memory (or phantasy) of Salieri as a clear sighted (or confused) old man, whose conscience is plagued but what he did (or what he imagined he might have done) to his rival Mozart. In short, while, according to the historians, the story told here, based on an actual rumour at the time, is not true at all, it is beautifully imagined and told. Also, Mozart was not as eccentric and socially dysfunctional as he is presented in this play. But divergences from history do not make Schaffer's play any less moving and powerful or it's main characters any less memorable. 

The story of Peter Schaffer’s brilliant theatre play is best known through Milos Forman’s excellent film adaptation; the National Theatre’s new production of the original play brings us back to the theatrical origins. Sadly, playwright Peter Schaffer died in June 2016. 

Amadeus, Mozart’s middle name, means loved by God and it is no accident that Schaffer chose it as the title for his play: Salieri cannot accept why God would endow the undeserving Mozart with such musical talent, rather than the god-fearing Salieri himself. He perceives this as a cruel and unfair joke that God is playing on him.    
Lucian Msamati is an excellent Salieri, a complex character overwhelmed by Mozart’s divine music and full of anger at God for giving such a gift to someone so undeserving. Having a black actor playing a character moving in the higher social circles of 1780’s Vienna is not as historically odd as it may seem: the very real black Angelo Soliman (see picture below), originally from today’s Nigeria or Northern Cameroon, played a prominent role in Vienna’s Freemasonry in the 1780’s and was an acquaintance of Mozart’s. However, the decision by director or the actor, to give Salieri an Italian accent when he speaks in English is a pity; the beautiful and powerful lines given to Salieri by Schaffer should be spoken in English free of any artificial foreign accent. Moreover, at times Msamati briefly seems to fall into another accent altogether. All this is unnecessarily distracting, but the brilliant physicality and sonorous voice of Msamati more than makes up for this slight flaw.

The other outstanding performance is Karla Crome’s as Mozart’s adored and loving wife Constanze. She is the smart and cunning adversary to Salieri. Constanze defends her Wolfgang’s interests with all she’s got, while taking advantage of the social and sexual freedom this period of the Enlightenment allows her, despite of an adoring jealous husband and a disapproving society. Mozart himself is of course not averse to trysts with his high society groupies and adoring sopranos but Constanze remains his one true love.  

The special feature of director Michael Longhurst’s production is that Mozart’s music, which is skilfully woven into the dramatic action on stage is played and sung live. This provides some challenges to dramaturgical choreography which are beautifully resolved by bringing the musicians into the action on stage and giving this production its unique character with a special energy and aura. The acceptable drawback is that when the music is background to dialogues or soliloquies on stage, hearing the important sometimes lyrical text can be difficult. 

The great creativity of the production and the high quality of the acting, singing and musicianship by the entire ensemble brought out the strengths of Schaffer’s powerful play. A beautifully entertaining and thought provoking evening at the theatre, for a production which thoroughly deserves its sell-out run.


Angelo Suliman
"A cultured man, Soliman was highly respected in the intellectual circles of Vienna and counted as a valued friend by Austrian Emperor Joseph II and Count Franz Moritz von Lacy. In 1783, he joined the Masonic lodge "True Harmony", whose membership included many of Vienna's influential artists and scholars of the time, among them the musicians Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Joseph Haydn"

Wednesday 8 February 2017

La La Land, Film 2016, written and directed by Damien Chazelle, 5* out of 10

This bitter-sweet romantic-drama-musical is only mildly enjoyable. There are relatively strong scenes at beginning and the end - the rest is rather weak. The main characters are emotionally immature and lack depth and chemistry. The music has some good syncopation but no memorable melodies. Much ado about very little. 

Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) and Mia (Emma Stone) meet in Los Angeles and immediately dislike each other; clearly they are heading for romance. Sebastian plays standard tunes in a Hollywood restaurant, Mia works as barista in a Hollywood-studio-lot coffee shop (the clean-cut American, not the Dutch weed-distributing kind). Sebastian thinks Jazz is great, Mia’s dream is to become a famous Hollywood actress. When romance strikes, Sebastian will persuade Mia that she can make it, if she persists. In return Mia persuades Sebastian that he will one day have the Jazz Club he dreams of, if he persists. Will their plans for romance and career be realized?

The first and last scenes of La La Land are good, set, special effects,  photography  and choreography come together here. As for the rest, this film is sadly lacking in what makes a romantic musical. The script has no edge and hardly any wit. The music has some good syncopation but lacks catchy melodies. This is a disappointing effort from writer/director Damien Chazelle, who managed to bring plenty of wit and edge to his excellent 2014-film Whiplash, which also included a brilliant Jazz-score. Moreover, as there is no real chemistry between Ms. Stone and Mr. Gosling - both capable of great acting performances in various genres, but mainly coasting here - the romance part on which this film turns, lacks the necessary spark to be credible. Sebastian and Mia seem to stay together because each can provide to the other the persistence they need to succeed professionally. Why cannot they summon enough motivation from within? The answer is given in a dialogue between them when Mia, disappointed that Sebastian appears to have given up on his dream (- or is it her dream for him?) says: “People like people who are passionate about something.” Really? Is the moral of this film: if you want to be liked by people (which people exactly?) you must be passionate about something (does it matter which something or can you just choose at random?).

In the face of a gut-wrenchingly brilliant film like Manchester-by-the-Sea being available for choice it is regrettable, though not surprising, that this year perhaps, in a communal attempt to escape political realities, a dreamy musical romance/drama would get a record equalling number of Oscar nominations.