Friday, March 13, 2015

Reverend's Reviews: Hoffmann & Madonna


Flush from the international success of their 1948 dance fantasy The Red Shoes, longtime co-directors Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger turned their attention to a cinematic adaptation of The Tales of Hoffman, Jacques Offenbach's classic opera. The 1951 result was also highly acclaimed and nominated for two Academy Awards for its stunning sets and costumes but fell into relative obscurity.

Now, however, moviegoers have an opportunity to discover The Tales of Hoffmann anew thanks to a gorgeous digital restoration supervised by Martin Scorsese, who counts it as one of the films that inspired him most as a young director, and Oscar-winning editor Thelma Schoonmaker (who is Powell's widow). They found and restored 8 minutes of previously cut footage to the movie, which begins limited engagements today at Cinefamily in Los Angeles and New York City's Film Forum.

While thoroughly cinematic as only Powell and Pressburger could conjure — featuring their trademark dream-like sequences, use of superimposed images and extensive overhead camera shots — their Tales of Hoffmann also proves to be one of the few grand-scale productions of an opera on film. Opera lovers who aren't regular film attendees owe it to themselves to check the restoration out.

The plot is relatively simple. A poet named Hoffmann recounts to his drinking buddies three personal stories of love found and quickly lost, even as a sinister rival plots to steal the latest object of Hoffmann's affection out from under him. Each tale is elaborately sung (though not always convincingly lip-synched), designed and staged. One involves a robotic puppet-woman and magic glasses, another a courtesan who connives with the devil to steal men's souls, and the last centers on the dying daughter of a celebrated composer.

The Tales of Hoffmann isn't quite as well-executed nor as haunting as such practically perfect Pressburger-Powell productions as The Red Shoes, Black Narcissus and The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp. In addition to the sometimes barely attempted lip-synching, the actors' credits at the start of each individual tale are excessive as is a newly discovered curtain-call epilogue. Nevertheless it is a fun, wittily directed and technically impressive achievement, with numerous added ballet interludes for their Red Shoes star Moira Shearer. Although the restored version may soon be available on Blu-ray, don't miss the chance to catch it or any other of the directors' works for that matter on the big screen.

She isn't quite as vintage as The Tales of Hoffmann but pop singer/provocateur Madonna is pushing 60. It is therefore a bit tiresome and potentially even disturbing that she is pretty much doing the same thing she's been doing for the last 30+ years on her new release Rebel Heart (now available for download and on CD). Whereas her spiritual descendant Lady Gaga has seen the wisdom of mixing things up with show tunes and Tony Bennett duets while still in her 20's, Madonna continues to recycle the same dance grooves, Catholic imagery and sexual allusions she has used since at least 1984's Like a Virgin.

The 19 tracks on the deluxe edition CD I listened to are bookended by her two best new songs, the opening "Living for Love" and the closing, confessional title track. In fact, the album's most memorable and revealing tunes are those that are more personal, such as "HeartBreak City" and "Joan of Arc". But too many others reek of the been there, heard that and seem like Madonna is trying to replicate her past triumphs (she even samples "Vogue" in the middle of one song). She also uses the term "bitch" repeatedly and derogatorily on no less than three tracks. I wanted to yell back, "Bitch, give it a rest!" In fact, I may have done so while listening in the privacy of my car.

To her credit, Madonna is still in good voice and from most reports continues to deliver great live performances, cape-tripping gaffes aside. I just wish she would do something/anything musically to surprise her longtime fans, including myself, while she still has the chance.

Reverend's Ratings:
The Tales of Hoffmann: A-
Rebel Heart: C

Review by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and Rage Monthly Magazine.

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