Wednesday, October 25, 2006


Due to ticket exchanges and what-not, Gretchen and I got a late start on this season at the San Francisco Opera, with this past weekend's matinee of "Tristan and Isolde" (Composer: Richard Wagner, Conductor: Donald Runnicles, Production Designer: David Hockney, Stage Director: Thor Steingraber, Production from Los Angeles Opera, Running time: 4 hours, 45 minutes). It has taken me a few days (we saw this on Sunday) to pull together my thoughts without OVERLY being glib about what is a great big chunk of musical theatre. It is a long 4 hours and 45 minutes. There are a couple of intermissions, though. And it does end with an ecstatic 8 minutes of musically dramatic bliss!!

I won't even attempt or pretend to analyze the score, except to say that the leitmotif that runs throughout the piece, is brought to an exquisite climax at the finale. Soprano Christine Brewer as 'Isolde' nailed that final moment. Good thing, too, otherwise one would have no other choice but to say that 'it wasn't over until the fat lady sings.' I do not mean to be harsh, but, Ms. Brewer has definitely gained some weight since her last appearance at SFO. I know it may sound terribly shallow when discussing a performer's physical attributes when she required to slam away at nearly FIVE HOURS of Wagner, however one just can't help but notice how physically uncomfortable she seemed at points. The set was at quite a rake and Ms. Brewer had a scary time negotiating the 'downhill' portion at one point. Not to mention, the costume design was simply NOT flattering. She was simply dressed in drapery. And there is the logistical problem involved in having cast Thomas Moser as 'Tristan', who is equally rotund, therefore providing a certain challenge during the embraces. (Or as opera-pal Gretchen has referred to such situations in the past, "It's like watching the space shuttle dock.") The couple sang out front for the greater majority of the opera.

Vocally, Ms. Brewer was phenomenal. It is a HUGE orchestra that the cast is required to sing over and there was never a problem with hearing her. Mr. Moser, on the other hand, was drowned out more often than not. The supporting cast, most notably Jane Irwin as 'Brangane' sounded fine, but were awkwardly staged in tableaux during the duets between the lead couple.

The staging was pedestrian at best. Well, actually, had it been pedestrian, aka walked around a bit, that would have been more exciting. This was a big raked and empty stage upon which the performers stood still and sang at us. For FOUR HOURS and FORTY FIVE minutes. It was nearly a concert version, except for that big raked stage. David Hockney's design of this production is simply ugly. His choices of colors are typically BOLD, however due to the lack of action on stage, we are forced to just stare at that floor. And that weird tent-like-cut-out-or-whatever-it-was on the boat in Act One. And those 'Celtic trees' on the side of Act Two. And that hideous excuse for 'grass' that was laid out like bad carpet in Act Three. I hated looking at it. And since there is not much of a plot to it, I was able to close my eyes.

Full disclosure: I dozed through most of the second act. Act Two seemed to consist of T&I standing there, hand in hand (since they are unable to physically embrace each other - see above), singing at us. So, I closed my eyes and dozed.

However, as the saying goes, "Wagner has heavenly moments but hellish half hours." Those final eight minutes of the opera were exquisite, and for that the Wagnerites in the audience cheered like they were at a rock concert!

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Monday, October 23, 2006

Just because I LUV this scene!

I'm still sorting myself out about "Tristan and Isolde" at SF Opera yesterday, before I post about it. However, speaking of operas...

Tommy - Ann Margret Champagne Meltdown

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Sunday, October 22, 2006

WTF is "What Is It?"

The Castro Theatre presented "An Evening With Crispin Glover", which included Mr. Glover performing his "Big Slide Show" along with a screening of his "What Is It?", which would be followed by a Q&A. 'Castro Bob' informed, or is that warned, us (JimmyD and I) that it would be a long evening, particularly if one were to hang around for the book signing afterward. We left in the middle of the Q&A.

So, to begin, Crispin Glover's "Big Slide Show" is a performance piece, sort of, in that he reads selections from his EIGHT books while the pages are projected on the screen behind him. There is some significance to the projections, as the actual text is thoroughly illustrated and fonts and format of the text itself is poetically typeset, handwritten and drawn. His literature could best be compared to William S. Burroughs, perhaps, if you think about "Naked Lunch" at it's most surreal moments. However, the performance as a whole is not so surreal as it is Dadaist. Sigh.

The inanity of Dada makes me laugh, sometimes. However, the inanity of Dada can be tiresome, also. As Mr. Glover proceeded along in this opening hour, I was amused at points, but then became worried about his sanity. Though by the end of the performance, I came to realize that the joke really is on the audience, which is the heart of Dada, as far as I am concerned. To present anti-art as art is the inherent contradiction of Dada, and the reason why it can be so annoying, which is when Dada is at its most successful.

And "What Is It?" (dir. Crispin Glover, US, 2005, 72 mins.) can be annoying. It is also absurdly and scandalously funny! The film's infamous reputation is based upon the fact that the cast is made up almost entirely of people with Downs Syndrome (with the exception of Crispin Glover (as an underworld king of some sort) and Fairuza Balk who is the voice of the snails). However, that is just the tip of the iceberg as far as the exploitative and offensive quotient of the film is concerned. I usually do my best to avoid discussing plots so to keep from letting spoilers slip in, or to plant expectations into the minds of potential audiences. However, in the case of "What Is It?", the plot defies discussion, though his Q&A (which he insists upon at every screening of the film - it is part of the performance piece which he is touring with, actually) would let you believe otherwise. So, allow me to describe what was (for me) the epitome of the Dadaist vision Glover created in a single shot in the film. Glover appears as a devil-like character and is seated upon a throne, which is adorned with swastikas and a scepter with a photo of Shirley Temple in front of a swastika. In front of this throne, is a nude man with cerebral palsy, inside a clam shell (in an homage to "Venus Rising") who is being masturbated by a nude woman wearing a monkey mask. During this, the soundtrack is playing a song by Johnny Rebel called, "Niggers aren't dead, they just smell that way". So, what artistic purpose could such a scene serve? None. It is Dada. So any further discussion of the film itself and its anti-production qualities are pointless. (There was much discussion during the Q&A about the killing of the dozen or so snails, but...)

I can not in good conscious recommend anyone to go see this. However, it is a brilliant example of Dada anti-cinema and Crispin Glover can be quite entertaining. That is, if you are one to be into that kind of thing...

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Friday, October 20, 2006

The Prestidigitation of The Prestige

"The Prestige" (dir. Christopher Nolan, US, 2006, 128 mins.) I include Christopher Nolan ("Following" "Memento" "Insomnia" "Batman Begins") as one of our generations auteurs, along with Tom Twyker ("Run Lola Run" and I CAN'T wait for "Perfume"!) and Fernando Meirelles ("City of God" "Constant Gardener"). His films are ART. Not necessarily popular, and at times annoyingly just out of reach, but art can be like that. "The Prestige" is like that. Disguised as a twist encrusted thriller, it is actually a character study of two men's obsessions. Inserting the illusions in Nolan's trademark non-linear plotting only makes the film more difficult to follow. Not that I am complaining about that, mind you. However, one needs to be prepared, or at least in the frame of mind to tackle such a sophisticated screenplay. I could compare it to the first time I saw "Vertigo". I just wanted it to END. I wanted the obsession to be resolved. I felt that same kind of need for relief towards the end of "The Prestige". The twists and mysteries had played themselves out, yet the obsessions of the two characters continued and I needed them to stop. I needed the film to stop and let us out of the crazed little world it created. And I mean that in the best possible sense.

The production design and cinematography are excellent. There are moments of stunning beauty, as well as brutal realism. The editing is sure footed and quite precise, if not too exhaustive. I doubt anyone would deny that the film feels too long, even though the pacing is fairly swift. It is the length of the journey that feels tiresome, yet that is its point. My one real negative criticism of the film is the sound design! I could not understand everything that was being said. The vocal track needs to be bumped up over the atmospheric foley and the ever moody score.

The cast is beautiful to look at. Hugh Jackman gives an excellent performance to an exceptionally complicated character. His arc from romantic lead to vengeful obsessive is seamlessly played out. The complicated script may have confused Christian Bale, as his accents were all over the place and not for any particular reason. Bale has an even MORE convoluted character to play in the piece, however the inconsistencies within the performance went beyond the acknowledged difficulty of the role. Michael Caine gives another solid performance, and it would be really cool to see this again to really dissect what he is doing, as he holds the keys to the twists involved. Scarlett Johannsen is her typically gorgeous self, but does not really have much to do here. David Bowie is simply terrific and nearly unrecognizable as Tesla, who plays a central role in the men's obsessions. Oh! Also, Andy Serkis ("Gollum") actually steals a scene or two with his quirky brand of humor, as Tesla's assistant, nee 'Igor'!

"The Prestige" is a difficult film to wholeheartedly recommend. You gotta be in the mood! But if you are in a relaxed state of mind and prepared to ride along Nolan's portraiture of obsession, then you must see this!

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Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Running With Oscars

"Running With Scissors" (dir. Ryan Murphy, US, 2006, 121 mins.) previewed to a PACKED house tonight at the Metreon in San Francisco. As word has it, Annette Bening delivers a huge, powerhouse performance as Augusten Burroughs psychotic mom in this film version of his memoirs. She gives a no-holds-barred performance! It is ferocious, pathetic, scary and funny. She clearly dominates the film, though Jill Clayburgh gives a great supporting performance by playing to the opposite. Clayburgh (who allowed the production to age her past her 62 years) plays Burroughs 'adoptive mother' with quiet and subtle affection. In my experience with the film, she was the heart of the piece.

Caught between these two is Augusten Burroughs, played by Joseph Cross. Here is where I have some debatable qualms. Cross portrays Burroughs with an unusual stability and innocence that just didn't sync up with the insanity with which he is surrounded. Director Ryan Murphy seems to have chosen to make Augusten an innocent waif, starting with a nearly outrageously cute and precocious 6 year old Augusten, played by Jack Kaeding. In translating the memoir to film, the acerbic wit of the words authored by Burroughs himself, which served to portray him in print, is lost in watching Cross in an observational characterization, and placed in the position of being our innocent hero lost in this Wonderland. Yes, there are points in which he displays pain, angst, confusion, etc. However, it did not seem to me that Cross carried the emotional baggage of that world with him throughout the film. It is the best and worst aspect of the film, in that we are observing his mother just as he does. But I think it would have carried a great deal more weight had the film focused more on his internal struggle than the extraordinary circumstances surrounding him.

That said, those circumstances are gloriously performed and designed. The Finch household to which he is abandoned is played with gusto by Brian Cox, Jill Clayburgh, Gwyneth Paltrow and Evan Rachel Wood, with special mention to production designer Richard Sherman and set decorator Mathew Ferguson for having created a house that plays a character unto itself. Joseph Fiennes appears in all his studly glory as the teenage Augusten's middle-age, schizophrenic lover. Alec Baldwin also gives a beautifully understated and painful performance as Burrough's father and Bening's nemesis.

The music supervision (which I can not find a credit for) was just a delight as it triggered a whole series of 70's flashbacks for me! There were some minute lapses in continuity, however that is the danger in having cigarettes play such a central role in the action, it seems. Though it is shot in widescreen, the cinematography itself wasn't all that spectacular. However, the costume design was fabulous: from tracing Mrs. Burrough's attempts at being fashionable to the nearly Addams family goth of the Finches.
When it comes to Oscars, Bening is a sure bet to go toe-to-toe with Helen Mirren's Queen Elizabeth. The characters are 180 degrees from each other, as are the techniques necessary to portray them. It'll be interesting to see which one will win! Clayburgh and the adapted screenplay are also shoe-ins for nominations. It is possible that the film will ride the performances into a best picture nom, though I would be hesitant myself to label it as such.

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Sunday, October 15, 2006

My Chemical Romance

JimmyD introduced me to 'My Chemical Romance', who is about to release their latest album: "The Black Parade".

I. Love. This. Video! I. Must. Have. The. Album!

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Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Infamous Driving Lessons

Sigh. So much talent and so close, yet so far from being satisfying. I was in a double feature of sorts today that left me itching to GET OUT of the theatre!

"Driving Lessons" (dir. Jeremy Brock, UK, 2006, 98 mins.) stars Julie Walters, Rupert Grint, Laura Linney and Nicholas Farrell (gawd, what a voice!) in a domestic/religious/coming-of-age/sort of 'Harold and Maude' kind of story. In other words, it's sort of a mess. Walters is great hamming it up as an over-the-hill actress who lures Grint away from his coldly religious and controlling mother (Linney) and his sympathetic father (Farrell), who happens to be a vicar. There is a line Walters speaks: "Just when you think it is over, life gives you a view like this and completely confuses you." This speaks volumes to the aesthetics of the film itself. The little dramas which make up the plot are just so precious and episodic that it is constantly jerking itself forward. But then, there is a priceless moment of acting or a breathtaking shot of countryside and you are involved again. Grint tries desperately to break free from his 'Ron Weasley' self, but to no real effect. Linney gives a complex performance to an undeservingly and underwritten role. But it is only worth seeing for Julie Walters' performance as a Grande Dame, a character that is an entire generation older than her 'Mrs. Weasley' to which she plays opposite Grint in the Harry Potter films. She's amazing to watch. However, the film just isn't.

Sadly, neither is "Infamous" (dir. Douglas McGrath, US, 2006, 110 mins.). It is a STAR STUDDED version of Truman Capote's research into the writing of "In Cold Blood." This screenplay by McGrath, is based upon the book "Truman Capote" by George Plimpton, which focused on Capote's life during his rendering of the stories of the murders in Kansas. What I am trying to say here is that there are WAY TOO MANY levels of dissolution of events to make this emotionally compelling. Toby Jones, the least well known amongst the cast, plays Capote as nearly a cartoon of himself. Which might have been the point, but I don't know. The supporting cast, led by Daniel Craig as the murderer Perry Smith, the relationship upon which the film focuses upon, and Sandra Bullock as Nelle Harper Lee, is generally quite good. Juliet Stevenson is outstanding as Diana Vreeland! Sigourney Weaver, Isabella Rossellini, Peter Bogdanovich and even Gwyneth Paltrow as a night club singer(?), pop up in here for various reasons that I am not completely sure of. Their interviews must be based upon Plimpton's format in the book. I found them to be sort of distracting if not distancing from the heart of the story.

Unfortunately, this will be held up against last year's "Capote", which is a much superior piece, if only for Phillip Seymour Hoffman's tour de force. "Capote" benefited from not being pinned down into a bio-pic of sorts in its screenplay. There are moments in "Infamous" which play TERRIBLY, yet the cast plods on. Craig and Bullock nearly single handedly save the film. Unfortunately, Toby's 'Capote' might be almost TOO accurate in his characterization of the subliminal and manipulative writer. He almost disappears behind the angst of Craig's murderer. But maybe that was the point? I don't know. I just know that I got quite anxious and bored with it. Sorry.

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Monday, October 02, 2006

Mill Valley Film Festival - Preview and Recommendation

Seeing as the Mill Valley Film Festival opens THIS WEEK, I've decided to report on the highlights of the films I've seen during the past couple of weeks of press previews. As I stated earlier, I think I've seen Helen Mirren and Peter O'Toole give their long overdue Oscar performances in "The Queen" and "Venus", respectively. However, Forest Whitaker gives one of the most powerful performances I've seen in a long time and may just swipe the statue away from Mr. O'Toole. These three performances alone justify visits to Marin, if not demand them!

"The Last King of Scotland" (dir. Kevin MacDonald, UK, 2006, 121 mins.) This is the opening night film for the Mill Valley Film Festival and will be screened with Forest Whitaker present. His portrayal of the Ugandan dictator/president Idi Amin is one of the most exciting, explosive and complicated screen performances I think I have ever seen. His ability to let us glimpse at the psychotic underneath all that charisma is simply brilliant. His entrance in the film is comparable to Eva Peron's balcony scene. And that is just the beginning of his performance! The dangerous atmosphere that Whitaker is able to exude pervade the scenes in which he doesn't even appear. In fact, he does not appear in the harrowing climax, yet there is no doubt that it is Amin who has driven that scene into the darkness.

Director Kevin MacDonald has chosen a fairly violent cinematic and editing style, very reminiscent of Fernando Meirelles' "City of God". However, it didn't feel justified and was actually sort of annoying, until THAT CLIMAX! The audience I saw it with left the theatre in stunned silence. This thing is INTENSE! And the response to Forest Whitaker when he takes the stage after the screening in Mill Valley should be spine tingling!

So should Helen Mirren's reception be as equally thunderous as she will be present for "The Queen" (dir. Stephen Frears, UK, 2006, 97 mins.) Coincidentally, she plays a head of state, too: Queen Elizabeth II. The plot revolves around the political and regal mechanisations surrounding the death and funeral of Princess Diana. The script by Peter Morgan is sufficient, though it does tread perilously close to something made-for-tv. It is Mirren's minimal, technical and uncanny resemblance and performance of ER that lifts the film to event-like proportions. Her opening title moment is nearly shocking in that she seems to DARE the audience to believe she is anyone BUT the Queen! Her stillness draws even more attention to her eyes and mind as we can actually see her think through the dilemma that the situation presented to her.

Her supporting cast featuring James Cromwell, Michael Sheen and Alex Jennings as Prince Philip, Tony Blair and Prince Charles, respectively, are given almost too much script to deliver. It is as if the screenplay didn't trust Mirren to deliver us the complexities of the situation without the other characters commenting upon them. The glorious exception to this group is Sylvia Syms as the Queen Mother! Syms and Mirren play off each other with such synchronicity that one would believe that they had lived together for their entire lives.

When Ms. Mirren ascends the stage after the screening, you will be able to hear the ovation from across the Golden Gate Bridge!

And my final over-the-top recommendation is for "Venus" (dir. Roger Michell, UK, 2006, 95 mins.) featuring Peter O'Toole in a variation on the typical "Death In Venice" motif. In fact, I thought the title might have been a play on words, but it plays a more significant symbol in the film. O'Toole performs with the technical skill of the veteran craftsman that he is. His ability to seduce the 20 year old object of his affection without turning lecherous and distasteful is something Woody Allen should study. His wit, charm and physical slapstick (Yes! He takes a pratfall!) are genuinely endearing and not disengaging at the least. His plight is ably commented upon by no one less than Vanessa Redgrave, playing his ex-wife, and Leslie Phillips and Richard Griffiths as a pair of his oldest and closest friends. The trio of O'Toole, Phillips and Griffiths is truly remarkable in their comaraderie and chemistry. Of course, Redgrave could play opposite to a fern and still be brilliant, so there is no wonder that her performance with O'Toole here is her standard brilliant quality. Newcomer Jodie Whittaker as the 20 year old object of his affection, has her work cut out for her amongst these titans. She holds her own fairly well, given that the script requires her to fight against her blossoming emotions towards the old man. But then again, 'the old man' IS Peter O'Toole, so how difficult could that be?

Had O'Toole been scheduled to appear at the Festival, then this would be a week demanding flights from around the country! As it is, these three films should ensure a more than successful festival for the Valley with the Mill...

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