Sunday, August 23, 2015

"If you want drama, go to the opera"— Top Opera Movies


     Scarcity creates value.
     So when computer graphics were new and expensive, and therefore unusual, films crammed with eye-popping special effects and feats of physical-impossibility were just the thing to draw an audience. 
     Now every mangled tale of a forgotten B-list Marvel superhero of the '70s conjures up a convincing army of physics-defying orcs and droids and CGI ho-hum magic whatever. Common as dirt. Far harder to find are actual human stunts, performed by actual human stars. So they stand out, despite being a practice that traces back to silent picture days.
     Or at least one stunt was enough to draw me to the cinema to see the latest "Mission Impossible" installment. Just as Tom Cruise bouncing around the top the Burg Khalifa skyscraper in Dubai forced my ass into a seat to see "Ghost Protocol" in 2011, so his heavily-publicized take-off clinging to the outside of an airplane as it takes off was lure enough to compel me to see "Rogue Nation" a couple weeks back.
    Boy-howdy. The short review is, it's everything it's supposed to be. A superb thriller, packed with the sort of stuff that a movie like that is supposed to be packed with. And the airplane stunt, at the beginning of the movie, was truly memorable.  I don't know if  Cruise does his own stunts because he's crazy, or to show off the physical prowess of the Scientology lifestyle, or with the exact cynical intention of drumming his movies.
    But it works.  
    I even, at one point during the film, said to myself: "Okay Tom, so be a Scientologist then." Not that it isn't still a scary, vindictive cult. But really, what faith isn't?
     The movie is not without flaw: a few BMW product placements too many, intrusions that stop the plot as surely as if John Cameron Swazye stepped from behind a pillar and attached a Timex watch to the frame of Cruise's motorcycle to illustrate its durability. And the hero-is-about-to-be-tortured-but-gets-away trope has to be proclaimed officially dead and buried after "Rogue Nation." No mas. 
Tom Cruise and Rebecca Ferguson at the Vienna Opera.
     But that's not why I'm writing about it. This quasi-review is just prelude, and could be left in the capable hands of my colleague, Richard Roeper. No, the reason I'm focusing on the new "Mission Impossible" movie is because one product placement is far more satisfying and subtle than constantly flashing the BMW logo: a good 10 minute chunk of the film, at least, takes place at  the Vienna State Opera House. 
    Sure, the segment is another cliche, an attempt on the life of the Austrian prime minister by a team of bad guy assassins,  interspersed with satisfying snatches of "Turandot." Though the set piece is forgivable because it contains the immortal line, "You want drama, go to the opera." 
    Exactly. And its very derisiveness made me think of the many, many great opera movies that are not only fun to watch, but help introduce newcomers to the art form. This being a humble blog, I will limit myself to my favorite six opera movies, though feel free to add your own (though not "Pretty Woman," which I didn't forget, but am excluding, because it's a romantic comedy about a streetwalker who looks like Julia Roberts, and whose prostitution leads to wealth and happiness, which is like writing a musical about a heroin addict who looks like Taylor Swift and who, thanks to her addiction, finds love and fulfillment).
     I'm also leaving out the Bugs Bunny shorts that introduced most of us to opera, since they aren't technically "movies," and probably deserve a post of their own someday. 
    So, with no further throat-clearing, my list of Great Opera Movies, in order of their greatness..


Tom Hulce
1. Amadeus. Thirty years later, I still remember shock of seeing Pinto from "Animal House" cast in the role of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. But it worked.  Milos Forman's movie version of the Broadway hit not only  offers up a gloss of Mozart's greatest compositions, but explains how they were created, including a wonderful "Queen of the Night" aria from "The Magic Flute" and the chilling climactic moment from "Don Giovani" that set me up for disappointment when I finally saw it live at the Lyric. Winner of eight-Academy Awards, including best actor to F. Murray Abraham, in his one-hit-wonder star turn as Antonio Salieri, the court composer, enemy of Mozart, and narrator of the film. Elizabeth Berridge  steals the show as Mozart's bright-faced, scheming wife, Constanze Weber.

2. Moonstruck. I would have put this first—it's one of my favorite movies—but didn't want people to smirk. Norman Jewison's wonderful 1987 family comedy stars Cher, of all people, who is surprisingly capable, despite what you think of her. She is the aging accountant, 
Cher and Nicholas Cage at the Met
Loretta Castorini, who, seven years after her husband was hit by a bus, is poised to marry a schlub—or whatever the Italian version of a "schlub" is—Danny Aielo, when she meets maimed baker Nicholas Cage, back when he could still act. The movie begins with the Met preparing to stage "La Boheme," and pivots on their date to the production. "I didn't really think she was going to die," Cher says through tears afterward. "I knew she was sick...."  Then the movie is filled with memorable lines, Cage seems to get most of them, including the useful "I ain't no freakin' monument to justice!" and a poignant meditation on love. "Love don't make things nice—it ruins everything. It breaks your heart. It makes things a mess. We aren’t here to make things perfect. The snowflakes are perfect. The stars are perfect. Not us. Not us! We are here to ruin ourselves and to break our hearts and love the wrong people and die." Sounds like the plot of every opera.



Klaus Kinski
3. Fitzcarraldo. No movie captures the obsessive passion of the opera fan like Werner Herzog' 1982 tale of an Irishman, improbably played by Klaus Kinski, who wants to build an opera house in the middle of the South American rain forest. To do so, he needs to make money—how else?—in the rubber industry, and to do that he does the only sensible thing: try to drag a 320-ton steamship across a jungle portage with  an army of Peruvian peons, while blasting Caruso on his gramophone, it's the perfect metaphor for art and human passion giving the finger to the indifferent forces of nature.

4.  The Untouchables. Kevin Costner in a historically-iffy but satisfying portrayal of Elliot Ness and his battle against Al Capone in Jazz Age Chicago. Sean Connery is the street smart
Robert De Niro at the opera
Chicago cop who utters his classic definition of the "the Chicago Way." Not only is there a thrilling homage to the Odessa Steps sequence from Eisenstein's "Battleship Potemkin" filmed in Union Station's Great Hall, but Connery is gunned down in a a classic back and forth between Capone, played by Robert DeNiro, enjoying that most cliched of movie opera moments, Pagliacci's "Vesti la giubba" aria while director  Brian De Palma cuts from the opera to the unfolding murder (used again in "Godfather III, "which doesn't make our list, well, because it's "Godfather III"). 



5. A Night at the Opera. The only way Margaret Dumont could be any stuffier was to make her a wealthy dowager interested in investing in the New York Opera Company. What opera goer hasn't, at one point or another, wished the Marx Brothers would burst in an bring some interest to a production? Here they switch the sheet music to "Il Trovatore" for "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" and in general make a hash of the production (including a chase in the rafters that isn't anything like the one in "Rogue Nation."  This 1935 classic—No. 12 on the American Film Institute's list of all-time funniest movies— did much to kidnap "Pagliacci" and hold it for ransom in popular culture, with Groucho adding his own lyrics. "Ridi, pagliacci, I love you very much-ee." 

6. To Rome With Love. While the funniest part of Woody's Allen's 2012 movie is Roberto
Fabio Armilato can only sing when wet.
Benigni's Leopoldo, an ordinary man who wakes up one morning to discover he's become a wildly-popular celebrity, one of the movie's sub-stories involves a mortician named Giancario, an amateur opera singer who can sing beautifully, but only in the shower. So Allen's character, Jerry, a vacationing American opera director, arranges for him to sing—"Pagliacci," of course—in the shower on-stage. It might not be the Marx Brothers, but if you can't laugh at a man standing in a shower stall on stage in a concert hall, singing opera in front of an audience, well, you can't laugh at anything. 


Anyway, those are mine. Did I miss any?

(Yes, I have. Readers on Facebook have been suggesting their own favorites, and one mentioned the heartbreaking scene in  7. "Philadelphia" Jonathan Demme's ground-breaking 1993 movie about a lawyer with AIDS, where a dying Tom Hanks, who won the Academy Award for his role, tries to explain "La mamma morta" from "Andrea Chenier"—sung by Maria Callas, no less—to Denzel Washington. "The place that cradled me is burning..." Notice the moment when Washington glances at his watch. That's what we're up against. Just love that scene. I can't believe I forgot it).

30 comments:

  1. One of my favorite operas is Bizet's Carmen. An interesting film adaptations is Carlos Saura's 1983 film, Carmen. A drama based around the production of the opera, featuring top quality flamenco dancing.

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    1. I totally agree. One of my top movies.
      Barbara P

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  2. The Ghost of Christmas PastAugust 23, 2015 at 2:26 AM

    Godfather 3 is a great movie--indeed, it is the best of the three.

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  3. The Tosca sequence in "Quantum of Solace" was pretty good I thought, though I'm hardly an opera guy.

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  4. Cage can still act when he wants to. I think he has a lot of financial problems. That is why he takes so many crappy roles. Rent Joe. That was very good.

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  5. Foul Play. Which also should be on the list of Great Pope Movies.

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  6. And the Godfather Part III should never be included in the list of great anythings, unless the category is Disappointments.

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    1. on the Tonight Show years ago, Carnac the Great said the answer was "boobs, chili dogs, and Godfather movies." the question in the envelope was, "what are some things that two is enough of?"

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  7. The Great Caruso with Mario Lanza.

    But comparing Scientology(not a faith) with world religions? That's not fully accurate.

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  8. Agree that the Mozart film with Hulce is a great choice. It got people interested in listening to more Mozart.

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  9. Cruise is an idiot.

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  10. Bergman's The Magic Flute. The 1925 Phantom of the Opera w Lon Chaney. The Pirates of Penzance w Kevin Kline. If this premise can be stretched a bit to include Broadway, both versions of The Producers. Movie w great opera scene - Citizen Kane.
    On one of our field trips to Orchestra Hall, they showed "What's Opera Doc?" on a large screen, as it ended the screen lifted and the symphony started playing The Ride of the Valkyries. It was fantastic. Wagner is by far my favorite composer.

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    1. "Mr. Wagner has beautiful moments but bad quarters of an hour." - Gioachino Rossini

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    2. I love Wagner too, though I think Mozart edges him out.

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    3. Apparently Rossini didn't say that about Wagner. The joke had been circulating for about 15 years before Rossini's supposed quote appeared in print, and then it was in French not Italian. The quip was originally said about a tenor.

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    4. OK, how about...
      "I love Wagner, but the music I prefer is that of a cat hung up by its tail outside a window and trying to stick to the panes of glass with its claws." –Charles-Pierre Baudelaire
      (and just for the record, i do like Wagner's orchestral music.)

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    5. Oh, I didn't bring it up bc I thought you were dissing Wagner. It's just I hear that quote a lot when referencing Wagner. That quote was brought up by my prof as one of the misquoted quotes about him, this was an entire class about Wagner's Ring. The only time I tend to pounce on someone's dislike of Wagner is if their entire reason is bc Hitler. Ugh! The Baudelaire quote is a good one, :).

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    6. Mozart edges everybody out Neil.

      A number of operas have been filmed, but not many that have the impact of the real thing. We're used to quick cutting and rapid scene changes in the movies, and holding on for the soprano to finish her aria is sometimes a problem for the camera. Also, close-ups of opera singers in full cry can be unattractive. However, there have been some good films that have preserved what was a golden age of opera singing, notably a Tosca with Callas, Gobbi and Di Stefano, all in their prime. There is also a fine La Traviata directed by Franco Zeffireli featuring Teresa Stratas, a wonderful singing actress with a fragile beauty that made her operatic demise from consumption believable.

      And there was Julia Migenes as a very sexy Carmen, with Placido Domingo as her Don Jose. I suspect Otto Preminger's Carmen Jones, with Dorothy Dandrige and Harry Belafonte might appear dated, but probably worth viewing for the fact that the lead role was actually sung by a young Marilyn Horne.

      Finally, I agree that the scene in "Philadelphia was powerful. La Mamma Morta is a killer area from an opera that seems to have gone out of fashion but is one I would like to see brought back by Lyric Opera, if the right singers can be found.

      Tom Evans

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  11. Diva Plavalaguna singing "Il dolce suono," in The Fifth Element.

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  12. Something I heard or read once about Margaret Dumont--I have no idea if it's true: She had absolutely no sense of humor. This is what qualified her to be the straight woman in the Marx Bros. pictures, because anyone with a normal sense of humor would be cracking up every few seconds at Groucho's ad libs, and the movie would never get shot.

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    1. That is pretty much true. I have hear Groucho say in inteviews, that she really didn't get the humor

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  13. The Night at the Opera ballgame stint reminded me of a baseball movie that used opera in a different way. "The Bad News Bears" (original) with the score based on Carmen.

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  14. For making opera-going seem like a swell idea, I'd go with "Moonstruck", too. But you're also right that the Don Giovanni part of "Amadeus" is awesome. I also thought it was brilliant when Salieri was looking at a score that Mozart was composing and said something like "It was as if he were just taking dictation." I love seeing a few minutes of opera presented in a movie like that, and then I think, yeah, why don't we go to the opera more? And then we attend an actual opera, and I never run into Cher OR Nicolas Cage and the experience is not the fantasy I was hoping for! To me, it's like if one knew nothing about baseball, watched fifteen minutes of the nightly wrap-up on Sports Center and thought "That looks like fun; all home runs and great diving catches" and then went to a 3-hour, 2-1 game and wondered where all the action was...

    Seems like "Steinberg: 'Okay Tom, so be a Scientologist then.'" would be a blurb of extremely high praise on an ad for MI:5. : )

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  15. The Madama Butterfly piece in Fatal Attraction is pleasant one.

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  16. Ravel's Bolero from Ten with Bo Derek was nice.

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  17. I missed a few of those movies, will have to catch up. Both "Amadeus" and "Moonstruck" are favorites of mine, especially Tom Hulce's portrayal of Mozart, playing the role exactly as I had hoped he would. And Tom Hanks in "Philadelphia", especially the scene referred to above, is what sets him apart IMO, I think my favorite actor.

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  18. Great blog today. Of the movies mentioned, I have to say that Tom Hanks' scene in "Philadelphia" is the most poignant for me. I know squat about opera and it usually doesn't make an impression on me when it's part of a movie. A friend of mine, a tough veteran of the Korean War and someone who didn't strike me as an opera fan, liked to listen to opera while working in the garage. I was giving him some crap about it one day. He looked at me and said, "Stan, sometimes it's better than sex".

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  19. I was just reading a recent Rolling Stone review of "M.I. - Rogue Nation" where they mentioned another famous opera scene: from Hitchcock's 1956 movie "The Man Who Knew Too Much". Here is the YouTube link showing the scene, with Doris Day and James Stewart; it's quite entertaining.

    www.youtube.com/watch?v=pjCLKo-ib4I

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