Saturday, December 26, 2009

The Situation's Fraught

If love were easy, fewer people would be so miserable. But familiarity often leads to contempt and, once that happens, the gates of hell open to unleash doubt, deception, disappointment, and depression. And guess what? That's when just two people are involved! Add a third person to the mix and complications quickly ensue.
  • In A Little Night Music, lawyer Fredrik Egerman can't stop fantasizing about his old flame, Desiree Armfeldt (even though he has recently married a very young and naive woman named Anne).
  • In 110 in the Shade, self-conscious spinster Lizzie Curry must decide whether to run away with Bill Starbuck (a con man who claims to be a rainmaker) or settle down with the dull, divorced, but reliable Sheriff File.
  • In A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, the aging, cantankerous Senex and his naive young son, Hero, both have their eyes set on the beautiful Philia. In the following video clip, father and son express their doubts about whether either one of them could be a satisfactory lover.

The past year has been filled with bitter debates in which religious conservatives have accused the LGBT community and its sympathizers of trying to redefine traditional marriage. Somehow, they have convinced themselves that it's a slippery slope from men loving men and women loving women to someone wanting to marry his pet dog (as opposed to finishing My Pet Goat).

For some reason, two women in love with the same man -- or two men in love with the same woman -- never seems to provoke the same level of moral outrage. Perhaps the reason Tiger Woods got away with so many affairs is because, as the old saying goes, "Membership has its privileges." Assuming, of course, that membership involves belonging to a subset that is distinctly heterosexual.

December offered two screenings of films whose plots revolve around tortured heterosexual love triangles. One is a bitter anti-war silent film that debuted in 1919, shortly after World War I. The other is a contemporary romantic comedy headed by a cast of three major Hollywood stars. The first was a revolutionary breakthrough in film 90 years ago. The second attempts to be revolutionary while nestled snugly in the coziest of surroundings.

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Accompanied by Robert Israel on the Mighty Wurlitzer, the San Francisco Silent Film Festival (in association with Alliance Francaise of San Francisco and the Consulate General of France, San Francisco) recently presented the North American premiere of the restored version of filmmaking pioneer Abel Gance's masterpiece, J'Accuse. In 1919, the film's French and British premieres were controversial events in which critics credited the filmmaker with, among other things, forcing his audience to think.

American audiences, however, did not respond as well. In large part, this was because the film's impact had been severely watered down by re-editing that forced a happy ending. Renamed I Accuse, the film's anti-war sentiment had been changed so dramatically that it seemed as if Gance's epic was actually about French patriotism.

In 2007, the Nederlands Filmmuseum and Lobster Films worked together to restore the version of Gance's film that had been shown throughout Europe following World War I. Clocking in at nearly 162 minutes, the restored print (as seen at the Castro Theatre) marked the first time that American audiences had really ever had a chance to see the film as it was intended to be shown. Gance is known to have explained that at the time he was making J'Accuse:
"This film was intended to show that if war did not serve some purpose, then it was a terrible waste. If it had to be waged, then a man's death must achieve something. There were great numbers of soldiers coming to the Midi on eight-day passes (a little "breather" after four years at the front). I asked the local HQ if I could borrow two thousand of them. These men had come straight from the front. They had seen it all and now they played the dead -- knowing they would probably die themselves. In a few weeks or months 80% of them would disappear. I knew it and so did they."
Seeing Gance's restored film barely a week after Barack Obama announced plans to increase the number of troops in Afghanistan gave J'Accuse a renewed timeliness. In the final third of the film, as the war's victims head home in a powerful "March of the Dead" sequence (predating the zombie genre), the deranged Jean warns villagers that "Your dead will come back and they'll ask you for an explanation! Shame on you, unfaithful wives, war profiteers, politicians and president!"

Romuald Joubé as Jean Diaz

Who are the basic characters in J'Accuse ?
  • Jean Diaz (Romuald Joubé) is a poet who strongly believes in pacifism.
  • Mother Diaz (Mme. Mancini) is Jean's mother, who loves having her son read his poems to her. After war breaks out, and Jean leaves for the front, she never stops praying for his safety.
  • Francois Laurin (Séverin-Mars) is a provincial farmer who, although frequently drunk, crude, and abusive, claims to deeply love his wife.
  • Edith Laurin (Maryse Dauvray) is stuck in a loveless marriage with Francois, but is secretly in love with Jean. When Francois sends her away (presumably to protect her from invading soldiers, but probably just as much to prevent Edith from seeing Jean), Edith gets gang-raped by a group of German soldiers. She eventually gives birth to an illegitimate child and returns home in shame. Fearing that if Francois discovers she has an illegitimate child he would not hesitate to kill it, she sends her daughter to live with Jean.
  • Angele (Angele Guys) is Edith's illegitimate daughter. When Francois returns home from the front and sees Edith and Jean playing with Angele, he immediately assumes that the little girl is their love child.
  • Maria Lazare (Maxime Desjardins) is a retired soldier, a stern traditionalist and conservative militarist who is the father of Francois. When his daughter-in-law returns home with Angele, he denounces her for her infidelity and disowns her.
Jean (Romuald Joubé) and Francois Laurin (Séverin-Mars)

Gance's film tries to humanize the impact of war by showing how it affects the members of a village whose sons have all gone off to battle (and, particularly, the three unfortunate souls caught in a romantic triangle). As soldiers at the front, Jean and Francois manage to overcome their jealous rivalry after Francois learns that Jean risked his life on a dangerous mission that was supposed to have been carried out by Francois.

As madness takes its toll on the battlefield and in the trenches, Gance makes use of the real letters soldiers wrote to their loved ones in order to show audiences the willingness of these men to risk their lives for their country. Another set of (fictional) letters to be delivered to Edith forms a critical plot device that is too complicated to explain here in print.

Back when I was writing about opera, I often attended productions of rarely-performed "important works" that had been revived to satisfy the curiosity of cultural historians, academics, and musicologists. Among these "lost treasures" were:
These works often seemed better off left undisturbed. Although the restored version of Abel Gance's J'Accuse felt about an hour too long for modern audiences (and frequently started to sag), it still ranks as a major achievement in filmmaking during the early part of the 20th century. I'm grateful for having had a chance to see it.

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The man I followed out to San Francisco (who committed suicide in the early 1980s) used to insist that a person might as well die after turning 30. Why? Because, by that point, he'd have done everything there was to do.

Several years ago, a friend who had worked his way high up the corporate ladder received the kind of phone call an adult executive dreads. Just as he was about to start a top-level meeting, his phone rang. Since his mother was calling from Hawaii, he thought it might be important. "Oh, Larry," she gushed, "I'm so happy! I just had sex for the first time since your stepfather died!"

He was an emotional wreck for the rest of the day.

Even after they have become adults, for many people the thought of their parents having sex is nothing less than ghastly. Even though sexual intercourse between their parents is the act that gave these people life, for their aging parents to still be fucking seems gross to them. The thought of people over 70 having sex severely tests the gag reflexes of many grown children.

But for the participants? It could actually be fun.

A new film by Nancy Meyers celebrates the concept of seniors having sex. Perhaps to prove there is a market for film other than 15-year-old boys -- or to satisfy the latent desires of AARP's membership for a tasteful version of Geezers Gone Wild -- It's Complicated is a romantic comedy for the woman who has everything to play with -- except a hard dick.

Jane (Meryl Streep) and Jake (Alec Baldwin) have been divorced for ten years. During their 20-year marriage, they had three children and built a comfortable life in Santa Barbara before their marriage broke up. With Jake remarried to the much younger Agness (Lake Bell) -- who wants a child by him in addition to the obnoxious brat she retained from her previous marriage -- Jane has been content to run a successful gourmet bakery and catering business and enjoy the company of her friends. Their lives would seem to be on fairly solid ground.
  • As the film opens, Jane and Jake are seen congratulating two friends who have stayed married for 30 years. Their body language and the intimacy of their speech patterns belong to two people who have invested a lot of time and energy in each other.
  • With their youngest child (Zoe Kazan) headed off to college, Jane suddenly finds herself alone in an empty house with the chance to finally build her dream kitchen. Although her children ask if she will feel uncomfortable being all by herself, they cannot supply what Jane needs.
  • Jane's support group of widows and divorcées urge her to get out more and get some adventure in her life. To be honest, Jane is feeling fairly self-confident, very much akin to the mixed emotions expressed by Nellie Forbush (Reba McEntire) in this clip from a June 9, 2005 concert performance of South Pacific at Carnegie Hall.

All that remains is to fly to New York for her son's college graduation. And that's where all the trouble starts.

When Jane and Jake run into each other at the hotel bar (Jane is waiting to be summoned to dinner at her table for one), Jake orders drinks and the two start to get chummy. Very chummy. Several hours later they end up in bed.

Jane (Meryl Streep) and Jake (Alec Baldwin)

This is not the coolest move for Jane, who tends to be analytical and think about consequences. But for Jake, it's like a return to the mother lode. Hot sex with the true love of his life? Who could ask for anything more!

Things get complicated (hence the title of the movie) when Jane and Jake continue to have sex upon their return to California. With Jake's second wife becoming suspicious -- and Jane's son-in-law (John Krasinski) horrified when he catches on to their affair -- the addition to Jane's life of an extremely handsome, solicitous, and divorced architect (Steve Martin) is an ingredient that can only lead to spontaneous combustion.

Jane (Meryl Streep) and Adam (Steve Martin)

Can Jake get back with his wife? Can Jane have it all?

See Jane bake.

See Jane get baked.

Nancy Meyers' film achieves some interesting breakthroughs:
  • Whereas the bulk of comedy films hitting the market these days (especially those by Judd Apatow) feature teenagers getting high and feeling all giggly around adults, Meyers has people in their 50s and 60s getting high and feeling all giggly and silly around their children.
  • Instead of resorting to teenage piss and fart jokes, she seeks humor in the more adult physical humiliation of hot flashes, male infertility, portliness, sags, and wrinkles.
  • Instead of young girls lifting their shirts to show off their perky tits, we get to see Alec Baldwin preening and proudly repositioning his junk as he poses before a web camera.
  • Instead of young boys grabbing their crotches to show how gangsta they think they are, we get to see Baldwin reaching over and grabbing Streep's crotch in memory of good times.
  • Whereas Jane might seem the one most vulnerable to being hurt by a romantic triangle, it is actually Adam (whose wife left him while they were on vacation) who is most worried about protecting his emotions.
Steve Martin as Adam

There are some obvious creature comforts involved in this romantic comedy (which seems to take place in a rarified atmosphere):
  • Money is never an issue. Jane is comfortably well off, as are her husband (an attorney), her new love (an architect), and everyone else in the movie.
  • Jane, Jake, and Adam inhabit a nearly all-white community (except for the support staff at Jane's bakery and one of Adam's coworkers, who is Asian).
  • Much of Jane's home and professional environment look like a porn shoot designed by Martha Stewart.
  • Jane's outfits are simple, but elegant. She hasn't shopped at Wal-Mart or Target in years.
  • Adam is never a physical threat. He is very white, old enough to know better, and sufficiently wounded to need space of his own. In most other situations, he would be the understanding gay friend.
  • Once the spark is reignited between them, Jane and Jake have an easy rapport, even if Jake is quickly reverting to behaving like an overeager manpuppy.
By sheer coincidence, I caught a screening of Disney's new animated feature, The Princess and the Frog, on the same day that I attended a press screening of It's Complicated. As I sat watching the Disney flick, I couldn't help but chuckle at how so many of Louis the Alligator's movements matched other big-assed Disney characters like Baloo the Bear in The Jungle Book.

When you see The Princess and the Frog, watch carefully as Louis swings his massive hips from side to side, exulting in the sheer joy of having a good time. Watch the smile on his face, and notice his grinning self-satisfaction at being a big guy who loves jazz. Compare it to the dancing hippos in Fantasia and many of Disney's other larger-than-life characters (Pumbaa in The Lion King) and you'll soon realize that Baldwin absolutely nailed their uninhibited lust for life in his characterization of Jake.

I doubt it was intentional, but Baldwin perfectly encapsulates the essence of an adult male who wallows in sensual pleasure -- whether it be from food (Pumbaa describes the taste of a grub as "slimy but satisfying") or sex. In It's Complicated, Jake is so pleased with himself that he is nearly glowing when he tells his ex-wife "I love it when you smell like butter."

Tooling around in his little sports coupe, Jake is an aging boy who still wants to play with all of his favorite toys. In many ways, Baldwin's performance in this film is the AARP male's counterpart to I Enjoy Being A Girl (the hit number from Flower Drum Song).

He exudes a certain kind of masculine earthiness without every being smug. Watch Baldwin's face as he lovingly cups his hand between Streep's thighs the morning after they've had sex in New York. He's like a big old Disney bear who found a nest filled with honey.

Baldwin has always been such a strong actor that he can easily portray the supermacho type of man or the powerful corporate clown without sacrificing an ounce of his masculinity. In this clip from the same performance of South Pacific, you can see him having a great time in drag as the alluring "Honey Bun."

Streep is, of course, wonderful as Jane. Whether struggling to fend off Baldwin's amorous advances, exploring a new friendship with Steve Martin's Adam, or giggling her way through a party while stoned on her ass, she breezes through the film with nary a stretch mark on display. Steve Martin's performance as Adam is elegantly insecure.

As much as one may worship Streep, this is really Baldwin's picture. One could criticize Meyers for the overwhelming whiteness of her film, but this is her romantic fantasy and she directs it with grace and wit (rest assured, there are no cum stains on Jane's heavy thread-count sheets). Here's the trailer:

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Head Trips

Is it a coincidence? I mean, really. What are the chances? Two of the most anticipated films of the Christmas release season focus on the lives of a filmmaker. Not just any filmmaker, mind you, but filmmakers who are major talents.

Because each film focuses on the creative process that drives an artist to keep working, it's important to see how each artist's artistic style mirrors his lifestyle. In one film the phenomenal organization and memory of a meticulous filmmaker help to rescue a masterpiece that had been destroyed by a jealous villain. In another, an artist's sloppy, scatter-shot approach to life is reflected in his art.

In each film, however, the artist has a support network that is so fiercely devoted to him that its members will do almost anything to clear away potential obstacles that could prevent the artist from tapping into his creative juices. Is it mere coincidence that the lusty, torrid Penélope Cruz has a key role in each of these movies? Or should audiences be scrutinizing the large number of coincidences that lie at the heart of each film?

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Let's start off by examining Rob Marshall's deliciously overblown cinematic treatment of Nine. As most people know, Marshall has been evolving as a double-edged artistic strongman (choreographer and director) through his work on the following productions:
For his work on Chicago, Marshall received the award for Best Directorial Debut from the National Board of Review of Motion Pictures and an award for Outstanding Directing from the Directors Guild of America. He received those awards the old-fashioned way. He earned them.

Now let's look at a curious set of coincidences linked to what is now known as the Richard Rodgers Theatre on West 46th Street.
  • In May 1982, Nine opened at the same theatre and ran for 729 performances. With a book by Arthur Kopit and Mario Fratti, Nine starred Raul Julia as Guido Contini and marked the Broadway debut of songwriter Maury Yeston. Based on Federico Fellini's autobiographical film 8-1/2, the show was directed by Tommy Tune and choreographed by his long-time associate, Thommie Walsh. Like Chicago, Nine was very much a "concept" (as opposed to a "book") show in which a single male was surrounded by 24 actresses representing every facet of a woman's beauty, strength, and power.
The original stage productions of Chicago and Nine sprang from the artistic vision of two great director/choreographers: Bob Fosse and Tommy Tune. A third, equally formidable director/choreographer has successfully transformed both of these Broadway shows into powerful movie musicals. Despite a lot of pissing and moaning from film pundits about how disappointed they are with the movie Marshall made from Nine, several facts remain crystal clear:
  • As a dancer, choreographer, and director, Marshall knows his way around the vocabulary and literature of the Broadway musical.
  • Unlike traditional book musicals (My Fair Lady, The Sound of Music), Chicago and Nine were highly stylized stage productions closely identified with the directorial styles of their creators.
  • In the film versions of Chicago and Nine, Marshall used a lot of quick cuts to move the action along in a way that was simply not possible in the original stage version of each show.
  • Marshall also succeeded in transforming carefully choreographed stage numbers to the screen by drenching them in as much wretched excess they could stand. As Mae West used to purr: "Too much of a good thing can be wonderful."
Judi Dench performs Lilli's Folies Bergere fantasy
  • In the process of moving each stage musical to the screen, Marshall was able to clarify a lot of moments for the audience, broaden the visual range of the story, and heighten the level of excitement.
  • Last, but certainly not least: Many of today's entertainment pundits did not see the original Broadway productions of Chicago and Nine.
What was merely dazzling in the film version of Chicago is, by the nature of the stage property, a necessary part of the storytelling in the movie of Nine. Why? Because what the audience is seeing are the inner workings of an oversexed, overtired, and overly adored Italian man who is a world famous creative artist as well as an incurable narcissist. All of the film's musical numbers are essentially taking place inside the massive sound stage that is Guido Contini's overly fertile imagination. Charlotte Chandler, who wrote Fellini's biography (I, Fellini) recalls the filmmaker telling her that:
"No one ever perceives the real world. Each person simply calls private, personal fantasies The Truth. Dreams are the only reality. My films are often based on my dreams. When I wake up, I put them down as funny little drawings. The difference is that I know I live in a fantasy world. I prefer it that way and resent anything that disturbs my vision.

For me, making films is making love. I’m most alive when I’m directing. But before I started making , something happened to me which I always feared could happen. And when it did, it was more terrible that I could ever have imagined. I suffered my greatest fear: director’s block. Director’s block is like writer’s block, except that it’s public rather than private. My crew called me ‘the magician,’ but the film I was going to make had fled from me. I considered abandoning it, but I could not let all of those people down who believed I was a magician. It came to me that I should make a film about a director who has director’s block."

Composer Maury Yeston, who revised his original Broadway score for the film version, makes some interesting observations about the process:

"Working on Nine with Rob Marshall and John DeLuca was the most life-giving, inspiring, and welcoming experience of my creative life. They are meticulous, they are brilliant and they simply inspire changes for the better.

The original song for Guido’s mother in the stage version is a quintessentially high soprano song. Sophia Loren is not a soprano, so the song would not have the same effect. My goal was to write a song for Sophia that would still have the same lyrical and musical function but that would respond to her vocal range and, even more so, the very essence of this extraordinary woman whose DNA is part of the fabric of Italian cinema. I took some very haunting music from the song 'Waltz from Nine' in the stage show and transformed that into this song.

Kate Hudson has a spectacular voice and is a great dancer, so we wanted an up-tempo number rich with dancing and singing for her. 'Cinema Italiano' turned out to be a great idea for reasons that weren’t immediately apparent. It became a witty, entertaining way to show audiences of today how, back in 1965, Italian movies were the new wave of excitement and the very pinnacle of cinematic achievement. It was also a way to reveal how Italian movies not only gave the world a new film style but a new fashion style as this realm of skinny ties and speedy sports cars became a lifestyle to which people everywhere aspired. Kate took all that and hit it out of the park.”
In the long run, however, it's all about Guido. Whatever Guido wants, Guido gets. And when Guido can't get it up artistically, there is an army of fans, lovers, and coworkers eager to help him rub out another film. Most notable among these are:
  • Guido's wife, Luisa Contini (Marion Cotillard), a woman who has grown tired of her husband's extramarital affairs. Even though she worships his talent, Luisa's patience has been exhausted by Guido's endless lies, deceptions, and denials.
  • Guido's mother (Sophia Loren) is, of course, the beautiful Italian woman who can do no wrong.
  • Guido's mistress, Carla (Penélope Cruz) oozes sex, is frighteningly insecure, and extremely moody.
Carla (Penélope Cruz) in one of Guido's fantasies
  • Guido's confidante, Lilli (Judi Dench) doesn't mince words. Eager for him to break through his director's block, she tells Guido that it's time to shit or get off the pot.
  • Guido's fan, Stephanie (Kate Hudson) is an American journalist who is obsessed with Guido Contini. She desperately wishes to have sex with him.
  • Guido's first sexual experience, Saraghina (Fergie) is the earthiest of Italian whores.
  • Guido's manager, Dante (Ricky Tognazzi) will move mountains to help his friend create a new piece of art.
  • Guido's muse, Claudia Jenssen (Nicole Kidman) is aloof, distant, and surprisingly unsympathetic to his needs.
Nicole Kidman as Claudia, Guido's muse.

My personal recollection of the original Broadway production of Nine (which won the Tony award for Best Musical) was that it was surprisingly boring. Marshall's resuscitation has transformed the work into a far more exciting musical whose visual and musical riches are dazzling.

At the center of it all is Daniel Day-Lewis as a slithery, serpentine, chain-smoking Guido who drives around Rome in a pale blue Fiat Alfa Spider. Constantly racing between women while trying to avoid the media, Daniel Day-Lewis's Guido starts out looking emotionally drained but finishes the movie with the ghost of his younger self beside him, ready to start work on another film.

Nine offers audiences a cinematic journey that resembles a cornucopia bursting to the seams with jealous women and lush visuals. Marshall's treatment of the material puts him solidly in the same playing field as Bob Fosse, Tommy Tune, and Gene Kelly. Watch this Anatomy of a Scene in which he explains how he built Lilli's Folies Bergere number for Judi Dench. As the film's producer, Marc E. Platt, explains:
"In each of these extraordinary actors there was always the ability to sing and dance. The key was to allow them to feel safe and have the confidence to give bravura performances that I think will be revelatory for audiences. The skill of Rob Marshall, John De Luca and their terrific team of associate choreographers and vocal coaches allowed each of our cast members to realize their full potential. Rob has a unique background for this story in that he came from the world of the theatre as a dancer and choreographer, made the leap into directing for the theater, and then became a film director.

Fergie as Saraghina (Guido's first whore)

Nine is a film about a filmmaker, about cinema, and about creating. Rob is a creator, so it was personal for him. He’s a man who understands cinema, its history, its academics, the technical aspects of directing a film, and the aesthetics. He also comes from the world of musicals (he grew up in that world). He understands how music moves narrative along. He understands how to seamlessly integrate the elements of music and dance, storytelling, and design. In that sense, the movie Nine is the perfect marriage of director to material."
If you're smart, you'll ignore all the naysayers and allow yourself to wallow in Nine's abundance of riches (you won't regret a moment of Marshall's excesses). You'll probably even find yourself looking forward to a second viewing. Here's the trailer:

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Where Nine focuses on a filmmaker whose creativity is being smothered by his fame and identity, Pedro Aldomovar's newest movie, Broken Embraces, is all about a filmmaker who has had his art stolen from him by a cruel twist of fate. Once upon a time, Mateo Blanco was a successful filmmaker who liked to call himself Harry Caine. A horrible automobile accident left him blind and unable to work as an artist.

As the film opens, "Harry Caine" has unbelievably managed to seduce a young woman who helped him cross the street. When his assistant, Judit (Blanca Portillo), enters, she is not pleased by what she finds.

The audience soon learns that "Harry Caine" used to be the famous filmmaker, Mateo Blanco. However, once he lost his sight -- and his ability to create art -- he decided it was better to declare Mateo dead.

Soon, news arrives that Ernesto Martel, Sr. (José Luis Gomez), the boorish businessman who ruined Harry and Judit's lives, has died. His son, Ernesto Martel, Jr. (Rubén Ochandiano). wants to speak to "Harry" about helping the younger Martel exact vengeance on his father's legacy.

Lena (Penélope Cruz) and Matteo (Lluis Homar)

After Judit's son, Diego, ends up in the hospital following an accidental overdose, it is Mateo who keeps him company until Judit can return to town. When Diego asks how Mateo lost his vision, he finally learns about the tragedy his mother has kept secret for most of Diego's life.

From that point onward, Aldomovar's film accelerates from what seemed like a rather ordinary drama about a blind man into a riveting tale of sex, love, humiliation, and revenge. As the filmmaker explains:
"When Lena falls into Ernesto Martel’s clutches she has all the attributes of the femme fatale: dark, ambitious beauty, a humble past, a family in a precarious situation, as well as the intelligence not to resign herself and to take risks. But she has too many scruples and lacks cynicism. Her love for Mateo precipitates her tragedy, even though she would have eventually left the tycoon (Martel) and he wouldn’t have allowed it.

Penélope Cruz as Lena

But Lena isn’t a femme fatale. She’s condemned to misfortune. Mateo, Lena, and Ernesto Sr. make up a typical film noir trio. The three love fiercely. One of them is very powerful, violent, and unscrupulous. Combustion is served. The trio is flanked by Judit García, who brings treachery, a secret son, and a guilt complex to the group (ingredients that will make the relationship between the four even thicker).

Film noir is one of my favourite genres. I’d already moved in that direction in Live Flesh and Bad Education. I’ve done so again in Broken Embraces. The scene of Ernesto Sr.’s feet, walking up to and then away from the door of the room where Lena is, followed by the scene on the staircase, are definitely 'noir.' After an hour’s narrative, the scene on the staircase reveals the genre to which the film belongs. That sensation of blackness doesn’t leave us until the end."
There are many joys to be found in Broken Embraces, not the least of which is Aldomovar's encyclopedic knowledge of film history and his incredible skill as a storyteller. With Judit no longer able to hide from the truth, a curious turn of circumstances allows Mateo to regain control of his lost masterpiece.

As the film ends, the audience learns how an artist's incredible organizational strengths can rescue a work in crisis. Part of Aldomovar's revelation is how a blind filmmaker (who has lost his sense of vision) can restore a lost work to its original artistic vision.

There is no fat on this film, only microscopic layers of hints, motivations, and betrayal that build to a stunning climax. As Aldomovar explains:
"Editing is in the origin of the narrative (it is the cinematic narrative, strictly speaking). The plot of Broken Embraces dramatizes the importance of editing, its direct relationship with the director, and the fragility of the film if someone gets between the editing and the director. Although you can make a living from it, filmmaking is not only a profession. It also an irrational passion."
It's no secret that Aldomovar has an uncanny way of making love to his female stars with his camera. As he did so spectacularly in Volver, he uses Penélope Cruz as a tragic figure, a fashion model, a gifted comic, and an object of overwhelming desire and sensitivity. Throughout the film she is a woman of exquisite beauty, jaw-dropping sensuality, and remarkable vulnerability.

Penélope Cruz as Lena.

As powerful a figure onscreen as she is, Cruz must nonetheless keep pace with Blanca Portillo's portrait of the frustrated Judit, Lluis Homar's restrained Mateo, and the two highly dysfunctional Martels. Tamar Novas offers a poignant portrayal of Judit's openly gay son, Diego.

Diego (Tamar Novas) and his mother, Judit (Blanca Portillo)

A joy from start to finish, Broken Embraces is all about the craft of making film (Aldomovar's craft as well as Mateo's). The art direction is phenomenal, the plot twists jaw-dropping, the sense of sensuality enough to make your skin crawl, and the acting superb. Although Cruz is radiant throughout, this film is so much more than the sum of its parts. Here's the trailer:

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Delicate Balances

Don't get me wrong. I love computers. I remain in constant awe of our ever-evolving uses of today's technology. I am deeply thankful for such remarkable technological advances as:
Still, all of the media's brouhaha over James Cameron's use of new technology in Avatar strikes me as rather silly for one simple reason. No amount of CGI scripting can ever replace the visceral thrill of watching a live performer taking risks in front of an audience.

At a recent performance of Cirque du Soleil's new OVO, I occasionally had to remind myself that, just because the acrobatics on display might have looked easy, did not mean that they actually were easy. One or two falls onto the safety net offered a stark reminder of what could happen to a performer who had not endured long hours of practice, training, and experience performing dangerous stunts before a huge crowd of onlookers.

In the circus arts, failure often leads to growth and a strengthening of craft. I sometimes wonder if the awe we feel toward circus performers, acrobats, and clowns has more to do with their necessarily insane level of confidence than their willingness to risk failure and immediately go back into action.

Two recent events offered an interesting contrast in how physical stunts and circus acts have been performed before an audience with eight decades separating the actual performances. Watching the difference in styles while remaining in awe of what the performers were actually doing with their bodies offered a model lesson in technique and creativity.

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As part of its special winter event, the San Francisco Silent Film Festival offered two films featuring the great Buster Keaton. The Goat (1921) is a 23-minute short in which Keaton's photo is accidentally taken and distributed to the media instead of a photo of the criminal "Dead Shot Dan." A classic farce based on mistaken identities, the film also features some wild stunts -- such as the image of Keaton sitting astride a clay statue that slowly melts and collapses under his weight.

Keaton and Harold Lloyd were notorious for doing all of their own stunts and, in The Goat, there is one stunt that is breathtaking in its design and execution. Trapped at a dinner party with the girl of his dreams and her father (a huge policeman who is none too happy to see Keaton in the room), Keaton executes a brilliant step escape as he leaps from his chair to the dining room table, and then up and over the cop's head, escaping through the transom above the door.

The Goat is also famous for one of Keaton's great train stunts. As the camera focuses on a train coming into a station, we see the engine grow closer and closer until it stops -- just within range of the camera -- and the audience sees a deadpan Keaton seated astride the train's cowcatcher. Watch The Goat in its entirety in these three video clips and notice how fresh the stunts seem after 85 years!

The main attraction, of course, was Keaton's 1924 classic, Sherlock, Jr. in which the actor plays a young film projectionist who has high hopes of becoming a detective. In 1991, the Library of Congress chose Sherlock, Jr. as one of the films worthy of preservation in the National Film Registry. This film is most notable for the dream sequences in which Keaton seems to move from the auditorium directly into the action taking place on the screen.

As you can see from the above video clip, Sherlock, Jr. is filled with remarkable stunts involving trains, cars, motorbikes, and any other vehicle Keaton was able to work with (the scene in which Keaton hangs onto the spout leading to a railroad water tower led to a fall that fractured the comedian's neck). For the dream scenes that required rapid changes in environments (from the jungle to the ocean, etc., ) Keaton and his crew used surveying instruments to mark the exact locations where Keaton and the cameras needed to be positioned to assure continuity in each sequence.

The American Film Institute has ranked Sherlock, Jr. as #62 in the 100 funniest films of all time. With Dennis James accompanying the film on the Mighty Wurlitzer in the Castro Theatre, the screening of Sherlock, Jr. was, as always, a huge hit with the Silent Film Festival's audience.

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Over at Dance Mission Theatre, Sweet Can Theatrical Circus has been offering a new one-hour performance piece designed for children of all ages. Yes Sweet Can features a quartet of circus artists who, as the show opens, are staring out a window to the sounds of thunder and torrential rain. Looking for ways to amuse themselves while trapped indoors on a rainy afternoon, they embark on a series of carefully choreographed stunts and dance routines.

  • Matt White has a lyrical dance number with a broom that has obviously been inspired by some of Gene Kelly's routines.
  • Kerri Kresinski performs a solo number on aerial silks.
  • Beth Clarke balances on a slack rope in addition to acting out a lovely pantomime during which she uses every part of her body to balance kitchen objects while creating a liquid chocolate treat for herself.
  • Natasha Kaluza becomes the "Super Duper Hula Hooper" (eventually using her neck and torso to twirl a dozen hula hoops at once).
If that isn't enough to entertain an audience filled with children, there is also a rather silly number for three women stuck in garbage pails. As directors Wendy Parkman and Johanna Haigood explain in the show's program notes:
"Sweet Can presents the circus performer as a human being, accessible to everyone, and uses the performer's circus skills to make connections by demonstrating the shared emotional experiences that unite all of us -- joy, exasperation, and love, to name a few. Our mission is to create intimate, heartfelt performances in which the audience and performer easily connect with one another.

Yes Sweet Can explores the theme of resourcefulness. Throughout the show the performers demonstrate the magic in everyday life which is accessible to everyone by using the ordinary objects that make up their world. Inspired to create this show by the drastic social and political changes in the winter of 2008 with the election of Barack Obama (and following economic downturn), Sweet Can wanted to reinforce the concept that the things we need are always around us and that, simply by being ourselves, we can bring joy to one another."
While Yes Sweet Can offers plenty of visual entertainment, the true star of the show is Eric “EO” Oberthaler, the wiry trumpet player who has composed a knockout score to accompany the performers.

Composer Eric Oberthaler

Oberthaler's compositions have ranged from operatic rituals composed for the Burning Man Festival to a piece called Flowering Anomalies (that premiered at the TED2009 conference); from a techno-rock opera entitled Joe Messiah to numerous works for the world music ensemble, Gamelan X. A musician who specializes in trumpet, keyboards and voice, Oberthaler is also a featured performer with Brass Menazeri.

It's a bit startling to attend a performance by acrobats and circus artists and realize that their impact is being eclipsed -- in fact, almost dwarfed -- by the talent that composed the music to support their acts. Oberthaler is definitely a creative force to be reckoned with. You can (and should) listen to samples of his music here.

Eric Oberthaler performing in Joe Messiah

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Ham For The Holidays

December's entertainment news is often filled with articles devoted to the latest films hoping to get Oscar recognition and the more traditional shows that dominate the season. There is, however, a second tier of productions aimed at carefully targeted niche audiences. Whether one considers the San Francisco Silent Film Festival's special Winter Event, the African American Shakespeare Company's production of Cinderella, or the San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus annual Home for the Holidays concert, there are customized Christmas strokes for all kinds of Christmas folks.

Three productions seen in the past week concentrated on the "Big Hair and Big Hopes" approach to Christmas. Over at the Aurora Theatre Company in downtown Berkeley, it was time to find Jesus nesting in a beehive hairdo while Katie Guthorn, Carol Bozzio Littleton, and Darby Gould performed in The Coverlettes Cover Christmas.

Katie Guthorn, Carol Bozzio Littleton , and Darby Gould
(Photo by David Allen)

All three of these women have years of performing experience under their belts.
Although part of the charm of the fictional Coverlettes is that they lack the star power of major girl groups like The Chantels, The Shirelles, The Supremes, or The Marvelettes -- and have never really had the magnetism or talent to climb higher up the ladder of success -- their performance often seemed frightfully tepid. Describing themselves as a trio of beehived sisters (Stella, Bella, and Ella) from the overwhelming whiteness of Vermont, the Coverlettes bring to mind the scene in Dreamgirls in which an all-white cover group of male pop singers (Dave & The Sweethearts) effectively drains the life from Cadillac Car by crooning it to death.

Despite a wardrobe of heavily sequined costumes in red, gold, green, and silver, this production provides a sterling example of why "all that glitters is not gold." The lame dialogue between musical numbers (which appears to have been written by director Tom Ross, who originally conceived the show), lands with a thud. Even solid hits like Santa Baby, and Beyoncé 's recent Single Ladies (Put A Ring On It) seem surprisingly anemic.

Darby Gould, Carol Bozzio Littleton, and Katie Guthorn
(Photo by David Allen)

While this year's edition of The Coverlettes Cover Christmas featured favorites like He's A Rebel, Rockin' Around The Christmas Tree, and White Christmas, a new segment of the show was devoted to the memory of the late Ellie Greenwich (who wrote such hits as Hanky Panky, Leader of the Pack, River Deep, Mountain High, and Da Doo Ron Ron).

Although Darby Gould's rendition of Joni Mitchell's hauntingly beautiful River is a major high point in the show, with a running time of approximately 75 minutes The Coverlettes Cover Christmas is, at best, a pleasant and intimate holiday diversion. Randy Craig accompanied the singers on piano with Vince Littleton on drums and Maurice Tani on bass guitar.

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Over at the New Conservatory Theatre Center, a delicious new production of Dames at Sea is delighting audiences in much the same way that Busby Berkeley's movie musicals helped to lift spirits during the Great Depression. Created in 1966, with music by Jim Wise, and lyrics by George Haimsohn and Robin Miller, Dames at Sea (which originally starred Bernadette Peters) can be a tricky show to mount.

A loving tribute to the cherished Warner Brothers movie musicals of the 1930s, Dames at Sea incorporates every cliché and bit of corniness from the genre (especially the girl from Centerville who arrives in New York City with only a pair of tap shoes in her luggage). A simple show to produce (one set, six actors), Dames at Sea has become a staple of community theatre.

When directed well, Dames at Sea has the airy perfection of a sweet soufflé. When overdirected or overacted by a cast that tries to hammer every joke to the back walls of the theatre, the show can implode with remarkable speed. I first saw Dames at Sea in 1969 at the Theatre De Lys on Christopher Street. A local production at the Marines Memorial Theatre in 1998 got rave reviews but, at the performance I attended, went over like a lead balloon.

Thankfully, director F. Allen Sawyer has taken just the right approach with New Conservatory Theatre Center's production. Under G. Scott Lacy's musical direction, favorite numbers like "That Mister Man of Mine," "It's Raining In My Heart," and "The Beguine" shine with a tender tackiness that embraces the show as a comic sendup without ever losing affection for the songs being spoofed. Kuo-Hao Lo's economical unit set may be one of the rare instances in which a show curtain for Dames at Sea featured drawings of not just a battleship, but the Loch Ness monster as well.

John Cavellini and Rena Wilson (Photo by: Lois Tema)

As Ruby (the character created to spoof the real Ruby Keeler's role in 1933's hit musical 42nd Street), Rena Wilson proved to be a strong tapper with plenty of gumption and a nice soprano voice. John L. Cavellini's wide-eyed naiveté as Dick is just goofy enough to win over any cynics.

While Kate Paul's Joan showed some moments of vocal weakness, Christopher M. Nelson's performance as Lucky captured just the right spirit for this show. Drew Todd doubled as Hennessey and the Captain.

The big surprise, however, was Leanne Borghesi's performance as Mona Kent. A hefty woman who can easily belt any song to the back of the theater, Borghesi proved to have solid comic chops as well as a voice that demands attention. Keep an eye out for her in future Bay area productions.

At the performance I attended, it often seemed as if the cast kept getting extra laughter from a series of double entendres that may have hit their marks more strongly simply because New Conservatory Theatre Center is a gay theatre company. I saw the same phenomenon occur on the night Ann Miller stepped into the original Broadway production of Mame in 1969.

A line that had never gotten a big laugh suddenly stopped the show as Miller spat out the words "PECKER WOOD? What's PECKER WOOD?" Rest assured the Winter Garden Theatre was packled to the rafters with gay men for her opening night performance in the role.

Dames at Sea continues through January 17th at the New Conservatory Theatre Center (you can order tickets here). In the meantime, here's a brief trailer as an appetizer:

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In his weekly porn column in the Bay Area Reporter, John Karr recently wrote "Sure, the remaining nine men of Inside Israel are heartstoppers in their individual ways, but there's one curious commonality among them. Coming as they do from Hungary, Slovakia, France, Spain, and Argentina, they sure aren't circumcised. Isn't importing foreskin to Israel like bringing ham to the temple potluck?"

Not when you've got four truly tasteless hams eager to feed a hardcore audience hungry for humiliation. Legendary for their succulence, sarcasm, and simpleminded attempts at style, the Kinsey Sicks returned to the Herbst Theatre with their newest show, Wake The Fuck Up, America! in which they demonstrate their ample skill at putting the "ew" back in the "news." Rest assured, the girls get in plenty of digs at talk show personalities like Ann Coulter and Elisabeth Hasselbeck.

Modeled on morning talk shows like Fox & Friends -- that will abandon any serious news topic as soon as a blonde is reported missing -- Winnie (Irwin Keller), Rachel (Ben Schatz), Trixie (Jeff Manabat), and Trampolina (Spencer Brown) have devised a winning new format with which to entertain and offend the masses. As a holiday show, Wake The Fuck Up, America! (in which the girls appear as talk show hostesses and the audiences are, in effect, their television studio audience) offers its cast much greater flexibility than their previous vehicle (Oy Vey in a Manger), requires less scenery, and is much easier to follow.

The evening opened with a special appearance by The Lollipop Guild promoting the SFGMC's Home for the Holidays concerts on Christmas Eve at the Castro Theatre. "Guests" picked from the studio audience included Santa Claus, Bill Gates, and Mike (the Sheep-Fucking Pervert). Among the old hits from previous Kinsey Sicks shows sprinkled throughout the evening were:
  • Papirossen.
  • Jews Better Watch Out.
  • I'll Be Cloned For Christmas.
  • It's Crystal Time in the City.
  • God Bless Ye, Femmy Lesbians.
  • O Hoey Night (The Night That I Did Porn).
  • Have Yourself A Harried Little Christmas.
  • I'm Dreaming of a Vanna White Christmas.
  • O Cum All Ye Unfaithful (But Not On My Face).
The group brought down the house with their new Michael Jackson tribute ("Still Dead") as well as Winnie's hilarious adaptation of Frederick Weatherly's hit ballad from 1913, Danny Boy:

The ever-demure Rachel ("Can we hurry this thing up? I have to take a dump the size of Michael Moore!") had people doubled over in laughter with her spoof of Liza Minelli's "Mein Herr" number from the film version of Cabaret entitled "Bye, Bye, My Beaver Hair." In the following video clip, Trixie (who has perfected an even slower comic burn than Jack Benny) discusses one of her latest challenges:

San Francisco's beloved dragapella quartet will be appearing for two weeks next summer at the Rrazz Room (July 6-18, 2010), performing a new show entitled Kinsey Sicks: Each Hit & I. (Say it out loud several times to get the proper effect).

Brace yourselves and prepare accordingly.

The Kinsey Sicks: Trixie (Jeff Manabat), Rachel (Ben Schatz),
Trampolina (Spencer Brown), and Winnie (Irwin Keller)