Thursday, February 25, 2010

Ambassadors of Song

Forget, for a moment, all those pregnant women who attempt to pipe Mozart into their wombs on the assumption that such music will lead to a kinder, better, and stronger fetus. Forget all the ways in which you can now carry your music around with you (whether on an iPod, iPhone, MP3 player, or some other device).

Think back to the first time that, as a child, you had a personal experience with song. Odds are it was the moment your mother sang you a lullaby as she rocked you to sleep (she may have sung the standard lullaby by Brahms). Here's Virginia O'Brien performing a jazzed-up version of Rock a Bye, Baby in the 1941 Marx Brothers' film, The Big Store:

From the moment a child hears his first lullaby, he equates song with the soothing presence of his mother, emotional security, and an incredible sense of tenderness. Years later, when singing a lullaby to another child, that same song will be passed on to the next generation as a gift wrapped up in unconditional love.

Vocal artists from every culture have traveled the world as wandering minstrels and ambassadors of song. Whether one thinks of such unique talents as France's Edith Piaf, South Africa's Miriam Makeba, America's Elvis Presley, Canada's Celine Dion, Australia's Joan Sutherland, Sweden's Birgit Nilsson, or Italy's Luciano Pavarotti, there is no denying the fact that these artists have become totemic figures in the history and culture of their homeland as well as in the international music world.

Wherever they have gone -- and however their voices have been heard -- these artists have awed listeners with their talent, charmed people with their music, and inspired new generations of singers with the power of their voices. Broadening their repertoire with new songs and arias as their careers expand, these artists love what they do and share that love with millions of fans and admirers.

Other than 1935's "I Feel A Song Coming On" (lyrics by Dorothy Fields and George Oppenheimer, music by Jimmy McHugh) few lyrics explain the power of the human voice like With A Song In My Heart. In this scene from 1930's Spring Is Here, Lawrence Gray and Bernice Claire sing this classic by Rodgers & Hart (originally written for their 1929 Broadway musical Spring Is Here).

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Last fall, the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco presented a staged musical revue called Irving Berlin's I Love A Piano. Conceived by Ray Roderick and Michael Berkeley, the show attempted to cram 60 songs by Berlin into one fast-moving entertainment. Last month, Cantor Rosalyn Barak of San Francisco's Congregation Emanu-El took a more personal (and far more intimate) approach to exploring the Irving Berlin catalogue.

Cantor Roslyn Barak

Although Berlin's first published hit was Alexander's Ragtime Band (1911), many of his songs worked their way into the fabric of America's culture. Barak's program included numbers ranging from Berlin's famous Army song Oh, How I Hate To Get Up In The Morning (1918) to What'll I Do? (1924), Always (1925), and the oft-forgotten Yiddisha Nightingale:
"Miss Minnie Rosenstein
Had such a voice so fine
Just like Tetrazzini
Any time that Minnie sang a song
You'd think of real estate seven blocks long
Some song!
Young Mister Abie Cohn used to call to her home
Just to hear her singing
Presents he was bringing
Full of bliss!
One night young Abie proposed to the Miss
Like this!

Yiddisha nightingale, sing me a song
Your voice has got such sweetness that it makes me strong
Yiddisha nightingale, sing me a song
I promise that I'll take you on a long honeymoon
I'd give a dollar to hear you, my queen
I wouldn't give a nickel to hear Tetrazzini
Just to hear your cultivated voice good and strong
I'd serve a year in jail
Yiddisha nightingale
Won't you sing me a song?

Then said young Abie Cohn
I'm going to buy a home
One that's made of marble
Dear, where you can warble harmony
And I don't care for expenses you see
That's me!
I'll go and learn to play on the piano, say
You'll sing while I'm playing
People will be saying
As they pass
Some class!"
Many of Berlin's songs gained popularity over the radio, on Broadway, and in Hollywood musicals. There were moments of lyrical poignancy when Barak invited the audience to sing along with her renditions of such famous Berlin standards as Blue Skies (1926), Easter Parade (1933), White Christmas (1940), and You're Just In Love (1950). What struck me, however, was not just the sweetness of hearing so many seniors merrily raising their voices in song, but the fact that so many of them remembered the lyrics to songs that are more than 60 years old!

Irving Berlin

At one point, Barak showcased a moment of personal heaven by inviting the audience to join her in watching a clip of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers singing and dancing Cheek To Cheek in 1935's Top Hat.

The biggest surprise of the evening -- and a genuine shock for me -- came with the screening of the following clip from This Is The Army (1943) in which Kate Smith introduced God Bless America (originally written in 1918 for the musical revue Yip Yip Yaphank) to film audiences. As I watched Smith proudly strut her stuff, I suddenly realized how much she looked like Glenn Beck in drag. Don't take my word -- see for yourself!

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Last week, the Lorraine Hansberry Theatre made its first appearance in its new home: the former Post Street Theatre. The good news is that this Bay area theatre company (which had been homeless for a critical period of time) finally has a roof over its head.

The bad news was obvious to everyone who attended the official opening of Mahalia: A Gospel Musical. What should have been a triumphant opening night was more like a nervous dress rehearsal in which lighting cues were flubbed, lines were stepped on, people needed help remembering the script, and the lead performer dutifully (if tentatively) kept trying to make her way up and down a daunting set of risers.

Jeanie Tracy as Mahalia Jackson

Known as the first Queen of Gospel Music, Mahalia Jackson was born in 1911 and grew up in the New Orleans area. She moved to the South Side of Chicago at the age of 16 and soon began touring with the Johnson Gospel Singers. During the Great Depression she toured around the church and gospel circuit with composer Thomas A. Dorsey but refused to sing secular music. She made her first recording sometime around 1931 and, by the time of her death, had recorded nearly 35 albums.

In 1950, Jackson became the first gospel singer to perform at Carnegie Hall. She subsequently toured Europe several times and sang at President Kennedy's inauguration. A close friend and supporter of the Reverend Martin Luther King, she sang at the March on Washington in 1963 before an audience of 250,000 and sang at King's funeral in 1968.

In addition to singing at political events in the 1950s and 1960s, appearing in movies such as St. Louis Blues (1958) and Imitation of Life (1959), Jackson mentored Aretha Franklin, discovered Della Reese, and became a worldwide ambassador for gospel music. She was the first gospel singer to win a Grammy Award (the category of Gospel Music or Other Religious Recording was created by the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences in order to honor Mahalia Jackson in 1962 ).

As directed by Stanley E. Williams, the problems with Mahalia: A Gospel Musical were pretty obvious:
  • The company obviously lacked sufficient time to get settled in its new home and rehearse thoroughly.
  • Although supporting cast members John "Jambi" Borens and Yvonne Cobbs-Bey boast many years of experience working with gospel choirs, spoken text is not their strong suit. Other than her Act I characterization of Jackson's Aunt Duke, Ms. Cobbs-Bey had trouble creating believable portrayals throughout much of the evening.
  • Tom Stoltz's script is, at best well intentioned and, at worst, clumsily written.
  • As Mahalia Jackson, veteran singer Jeanie Tracy may have had voice to spare, but navigating the stage risers often seemed challenging. Despite her very sweet speaking voice, she is not a natural actress.
However, once Tracy opened her mouth to sing, none of these problems seemed to matter very much. I've seen numerous performances where musical preparation was underdone and dialogue was rock solid. This was one of the first opening nights I've attended where, even though the dialogue suffered terribly, the musical side of the evening was on solid ground. Some of this, no doubt, was due to the solid work by Borens on a Hammond organ and Charlene Moore on the piano.

More than anything, the production rides on the shoulders of the woman portraying Mahalia Jackson (who must deliver more than 25 musical numbers over the course of the evening). In this area, Tracy stood strong, happily delivering an encore of When The Saints Go Marching In.

Jeanie Tracy as Mahalia Jackson

I'm certainly not alone in wishing that the Lorraine Hansberry Theatre had a better opening night. But what's more important is that they now have a home to call their own -- and nowhere to go but up.

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Special mention should be made of a superb new musical documentary that will be screened on Saturday, March 13 at the upcoming San Francisco Asian-American International Film Festival. An exuberant musical travelogue, Sing China! follows the Los Angeles Children's Chorus as they prepare for their 2008 tour of China, with performances in Shanghai, Beijing, and Xi’an.

The Los Angeles Children's Chorus at the Great Wall of China

Director Freida Lee Mock has done a beautiful job of balancing the personal and professional demands facing these teenagers as they deal with jet lag, culture shock, and the awe of passing impressive new buildings like Beijing's (Bird's Nest) National Stadium.

Beijing's Bird's Nest National Stadium

Along with sightseeing visits to a silk factory, the Great Wall of China, The Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square, and the famous Terracotta Army, we see the chorus of 60 youngsters (aged 11-17) as they rehearse, perform, and interact with their peers in choruses from various parts of China.

Interior shot of The Great Auditorium in Beijing

Whether performing in their hotel lobby as a way of showing their appreciation to the staff -- or in the 10,000-seat Great Auditorium of Beijing's Great Hall of the People -- the chorus proudly demonstrates how their work with artistic director Anne Tomlinson has prepared them to shine in performances of Carl Orff's challenging Carmina Burana as well as the Chinese folk song Mo Li Hua (Jasmine Flower), which can be heard in Act I of Puccini's 1926 opera, Turandot. In the following clip, soprano Song Zuying performs Mo Li Hua with a full orchestra at the Kennedy Center.

In the following clip (taken from a September 1998 performance of Turandot in Beijing's Forbidden City) you can hear the children's chorus sing Mo Li Hua at approximately the 7:30 mark:

Much of the joy in watching Sing China! comes from witnessing a group of highly-trained young musicians as they use song to cross musical bridges that span the Pacific Ocean as well as their teenage years. One student, who was adopted by an American family, goes back to visit the Chinese orphanage where she was taken by her birth parents. A young Filipino-American student from Los Angeles marvels at being in a place where almost everyone he sees is Asian.

In an era when teamwork in secondary schools is usually only showcased in sports like football and basketball, it's refreshing to see the Los Angeles Children's Chorus showing how the arts can be a positive influence for youth and serve as a shared experience that can be embraced and appreciated by teenagers around the world.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Help Is On The Way

Blanche duBois always depended on the kindness of strangers. The Beatles managed to get by With A Little Help From My Friends. But, as we all know, the first step toward getting help requires admitting that a problem even exists. This year marks the 45th anniversary of the release of Help!

The strange thing about asking for help is that, when it arrives, it might not be quite what you expected.
  • It might be an American missionary who has come to Haiti to round up orphans with the intent of offering them a better life.
  • It might be a group of do-gooders from California whose awareness of how to mobilize a community might be exactly what you didn't know you needed.
  • Or it might be a 40-year-old French ocean liner nearing the end of its career whose captain turned his ship around in order to answer an SOS from the sinking flagship of the Italian Line.
July 26, 1956: The Andrea Doria and the Ile de France

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Written and directed by the team of Christian Becker and Oliver Schwabe, Tender Parasites focuses on the loving (if parasitic) lifestyles of Jakob and Manu. In their director's statement, the filmmakers explain how their film was inspired by the survival strategies of a young couple that had fallen through the cracks in the system:
"Oliver chanced upon a few sentences on the Internet, which immediately burned themselves into our memory. Soon thereafter, Christian read a newspaper article about a young woman who, with her boyfriend, had been camping in the woods for half a year (not because the two were nature freaks, but because they wanted to try out what it means to live differently).

After our feature debut, Egoshooter, which captured the state of a solipsistic young man who seemed not to care about the future, we wanted the protagonists of Tender Parasites to face the world 'out there' as self-sufficient, head-strong, and self-determined heroes. They are sensitive enough to realize what is missing in people's lives -- and then they put this knowledge to use as providers of human services. We let Jakob and Manu loose upon an ailing society. Their motives are not altruistic; instead they use this strategy to make money. Jakob and Manu are no missionaries, but idealists acting for their own sake.

Jakob (Robert Stadlober) and Manu (Maja Schöne)

We learn, with our heroes, that the 'parasitic market' is incredibly big. Our tender parasites have discovered an insatiable market niche. They have found a way of dropping out of society in order to, in return, exploit the reality of lack: Emotions for money, money for emotions -- for Jakob and Manu it becomes an exhausting, holistic experience.

But with this line of work come certain dangers: Jakob and Manu absorb their clients' emotional garbage. They ingest it, so to speak. What remains are emotional scars made of experiences and memories of jobs to which they have devoted themselves wholeheartedly."
As the film begins, Jakob and Manu have been camping out in the woods. Manu has been working as a caregiver for the elderly Mrs. Katz (Gerda Broken), who occasionally lets the young couple make love on the floor in front of her to remind her what life used to be like.

Meanwhile, Jakob manages to insert himself into the lives of a wealthy couple who are mourning the loss of their adolescent son. After Martin (Sylvester Groth) nearly mows Jakob down while trying to land his glider, the two men start to bond in unexpected ways. Soon Jakob is staying with Martin and his wife (against Claudia's wishes) and Martin starts to show signs of opening up. However, Claudia (Corinna Kirchhoff) wants Jakob out of their home.

Martin (Sylvester Groth) and Claudia (Corinna Kirchhoff)

Things come to a head when Mrs. Katz dies unexpectedly and Manu must find a way to alert the police without being held responsible for the old woman's death. When the investigation leads the police to Martin's home, the older man covers for Jakob and then quickly becomes suspicious of his young friend's motives.

Was Jakob planning to murder Martin and Claudia and steal all their money? That might easily have happened had not Martin's kindness and tenderness started to make Jakob feel like a surrogate son. But when Manu shows up at Martin's house, pretending to be Jakob's sister, the young couple's plans fall apart.

Jakob (Robert Stadlober) and Martin (Sylvester Groth)

Jakob wants to stay longer, but Manu is determined for them to move on to a seaside resort filled with elderly people who are, no doubt, living pretty lonely lives. A series of angry confrontations ensue, after which Jakob and Manu drive off in Claudia's van (which they subsequently abandon).

Several months later, Jakob and Manu have dyed their hair and are working the boardwalk, looking for new clients. A carefully arranged rendezvous with Martin (who has driven several hours to see Jakob) finally allows for some closure between the two men. After Martin leaves, Manu introduces Jakob to a sweet, lonely old man she has met in the café where she is now working as a waitress. A new and willing host has presented himself for the young and solicitous social parasites.

Tender Parasites demonstrates how two young people with limited skills can target a niche market that longs for a taste of their vitality and virility. While Jakob and Manu could easily become vicious predators, they have approached their new career as business partners with a social conscience. As they try to anticipate the needs of their clients (and keep their employers happy), Jakob and Manu are careful not to break any laws or hurt the people they tend to.

Tender Parasites will be screened as part of the German Gems film festival on Sunday, February 28th at the Castro Theatre (you can order tickets here).

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Many critics have been hailing the "new Thai Cinema" from independent filmmakers like Apichatpong Weerasethakul (Tropical Malady, Syndromes and a Century) as an exciting and radical style of moviemaking. I've got a different word for it: B-O-R-I-N-G.

Next month, the San Francisco Asian-American International Film Festival will present the Bay area premiere of Anocha Suwichakornpong's new film, Mundane History. Prepare to be underwhelmed.

Pun (Arkanae Cherkham) and Ake (Phakpoom Surapongsanurak)

Mudane History focuses on the activities in the household of a university professor (Paramej Noieam) living in Bangkok. A young male nurse named Pun (Arkanae Cherkham) has been hired to care for the professor's invalid son, Ake (Phakpoom Surapongsanurak) who became a paraplegic following an accident that no one in the household is willing to discuss.

In between segments which capture Ake's boredom and disillusionment, the camera focuses on him masturbating in the bathtub, watches his pet turtle swim around in his aquarium, and treats the audience to the mundane comings and goings of his father's car. Suwichakornpong's film is being hailed with such buzzwords as "lush, mesmerizing, languid, profound, subtle, epic," and other triggers designed to draw people to the box office. Most attendees, however, may be extremely disappointed with the experience.

Pun (Arkanae Cherkham) and Ake (Phakpoom Surapongsanurak)

The filmmaker's attempts to impress include an artistic depiction of the death of a star (after a trip by Pun and Ake to Bangkok's planetarium) as well as a filmed childbirth via Caesarean section, followed by the clamping and clipping of the infant's umbilical cord. Although Suwichakornpong is quite excited about her use of music by the Malaysian band Furniture and the Thai group Photo Sticker Machine, this music can't do much to enliven a film that barely seems interested in holding an audience's interest.

It's easy to imagine this film symbolizing all kinds of things about life, death, science, and Thai culture. In the final analysis, what Mundane History embraces is a style of cinema that is devoid of storytelling (you'll find more dramatic tension in Bangkok's frequent downpours of rain). Here's the trailer:

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To suggest that "when it rains, it pours" would be a cruel understatement for the residents of New Orleans who survived 2005's Hurricane Katrina. A new documentary by S. Leo Chiang profiles how the aftermath of Katrina forced huge political, economic, and cultural changes on the district of New Orleans East, which is often referred to locally as Versailles (Chiang is currently at work producing Limited Partnerships, a feature-length documentary about the struggles of gay Americans and their foreign same-sex partners to stay together despite the challenges of American immigration laws that threaten to pull them apart).

Filmmaker S. Leo Chiang

In A Village Called Versailles (which will also be screened as part of the upcoming San Francisco Asian-American International Film Festival) Chiang does a remarkable job of depicting how an immigrant community of 8,000 Vietnamese Americans who had avoided the spotlight for many years was forced to become assertive, aggressive, and politically defiant in the wake of Katrina.

Many of the elders who lived in New Orleans East had fled Vietnam as boat people in the 1970s. Having escaped political oppression in Southeast Asia, they kept their heads low, their community tightly-knit, and rarely took part in local politics.

Like many immigrants, their goals had always been centered on upgrading their homes, boats, cars, businesses, and churches while providing for their children. When Katrina struck -- and those who evacuated New Orleans were torn from their community and their cultural ties -- the devastation inflicted by the hurricane was felt by everyone who had lived in New Orleans East.

Several young Vietnamese Americans from California, however, were eager to volunteer their help. When Mimi Nguyen traveled to Houston and offered her skills as a Vietnamese interpreter, she was shocked to learn that no one in Houston had anticipated such a need. The original assumption was apparently that the only language for which interpreters would be needed was Spanish (and that there were already plenty of local Spanish-speaking interpreters available).

It soon became obvious to Nguyen and others that the Vietnamese community had not done much to integrate itself into the larger population of New Orleans. Although Father Vien Nguyen was a key figure in the Vietnamese-American community, he was almost unknown outside of his parish. When Mayor Ray Nagin used his emergency power to open up the Chef Menteur landfill (located less than two miles from Versailles) for toxic Katrina debris disposal, the residents of Versailles quickly discovered that:
  • Nagin had never performed an environmental impact study.
  • There was no protective lining on the bottom of the dump.
  • The Chef Menteur landfill was right beside the body of water that had flooded the community during Hurricane Katrina.
  • Nagin's administration had never made any attempt to include the Vietnamese-American community of New Orleans East in its decision to use the Chef Menteur landfill.
Whereas San Franciscans would instantly be ready for a fight, the Versailles community barely even knew where to begin. Many of the elders (who are legally citizens of the United States) barely spoke English. With their allegiance focused primarily on their church and their neighbors, they lacked sufficient outrage to protest.

Many of the younger generation (who were more in tune with hip hop music and electronic gadgets than political action) lacked a sense of ownership in the crisis because their parents had never involved them in political issues. There was also a critical generation gap between those who identified as Americans and local elders who did not really consider themselves to be fully American.

The lone political voice in Versailles at the time was that of Joel Waltzer, a Caucasian attorney whose law office was in the district. Together with City Councilwoman Cynthia Willard-Lewis (who subsequently hired Mimi Nguyen to work in her office), he helped to craft the legal challenges to Mayor Nagin's orders.

A Village Called Versailles should hold great interest for San Francisco's Asian-American community, which is thoroughly entrenched in real estate, local politics, and the city's business community. It should also inspire Asian-American youth to take on leadership roles in their own communities as they realize that their future is going to depend on them, rather than their elders. Young Asian-Americans already have Evan Low (the Mayor of Campbell, California) to look to as a role model.

A Village Called Versailles benefits from an original musical score by Joel Goodman. Chiang's documentary will be broadcast nationally in May over PBS stations as part of the Independent Lens series. Here's the trailer:

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Last Friday, I dropped into the Exit Theatre where (dressed as his alter ego Cora Values), Sean Owens was entertaining the troops with Cora's Recipe For Love. The troops -- barely a dozen altogether -- were mostly friends of Sean's who had been recruited into the act. Over the course of the evening, they got to impersonate denizens of the tiny town of Rectal, Texas who would drop by the local Gas 'n Gulp where Cora reigns supreme.

With Friday's show dedicated to "Break-ups and Shake-ups," Cora took turns between baking her breaded artichoke hearts in a smoking toaster oven and looking after her executive chef and ex-husband Zeke Plummett (Jim Fourniadis) -- one of the best straight men/banjo players and serial husbands a truck stop hostess could hope for. Accompanied on the piano by Emmett Corkpike (Don Seaver), Cora took turns between singing a few ditties, raffling off slices of pie, and tending to the emotional wounds of what she likes to call her "irregular regulars."

What could have been a disastrously underattended event turned into a wistfully down-home literary salon as Cora demonstrated her skill with improvising "five and ten stories." These tales essentially make stunning use of five words donated by the audience (which then get fed into ten extremely long run-on sentences). The words are incorporated into the first five sentences in their original order and then used again (in reverse order) in Cora's second set of sentences.

While that may sound fairly simplistic on paper, Cora's skill as a storyteller, yarn spinner, and cunning linguist gave the evening a special aura of redneck literacy with three types of sprinkles on top. Residents of Greater Tuna, Texas were gently given notice by Rectal's "hostess with the mostess" that they'd been served.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Saving The Planet One Way At A Time

No snow for the Winter Olympics! Too much snow in the nation's capital! That was all assholes like Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity needed to claim that the recent spate of snowstorms on the East Coast proved global warming was a fraud. Thankfully, comedians like Andy Cobb are available to set them straight:

As new technology and new ideas have spread, some people have found ways to micromanage the growth cycle of plants and animals. With water scarcity a big problem in some areas, one of the most interesting trends in jump-starting food cycles is aquaponics, which was recently featured in an article in The New York Times.

Boulder, Colorado's Sylvia Bernstein (the author of The Aquaponics Gardening Blog) has become something of an expert in the field. In the following clip, she explains how easy it is to grow produce and fresh water fish in one ecologically efficient greenhouse:

Man's efforts to come up with new and inventive ways to raise crops, understand nature, and reduce our carbon footprint are a key factor in three new films. In one, a science project provides an escape from family stress. In another, a wealthy rock musician embarks on a secondary career as a winemaker. In the third, two morons try to save the planet with their remarkable feats of abject stupidity. Can you guess who gets the best result from his labors?

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Soon to be screened at the San Francisco Asian-American International Film Festival is a family drama written and directed by Leena Pendharkar entitled Raspberry Magic. Set in the Pacific Northwest (but filmed in Oakland), the film focuses on 11-year-old Monica Shah (Lily Javaherpour) and her high school science project.

Although Monica has an interesting hypothesis (that raspberry leaves will respond positively to human touch and that touching stimulates growth), she has not been getting good results in the school laboratory. One problem is Zachary (Zach Mills), a condescending male nerd who claims that the robot he's built can respond to people's emotions. Whether Zachary's racism and misogyny are calculated to sabotage a rival or he's just a teenaged putz isn't Monica's biggest problem.

The Shah family is in crisis and Monica has no idea what to do about it.
  • Monica's father is an engineer trying to design educational video games on the side. Manoj (Ravi Kapoor) has been so wrapped up in his work that he has become oblivious to outside influences. When Manoj is laid off from his job and told he might have better opportunities in India, the shame of being unable to provide for his family is devastating. His macho pride won't allow him to accept financial help from his brother-in-law and so he moves into a nearby motel room.
  • Monica's mother has been trying to sell her recipes and knowledge of Indian food to a publisher, but with little success. Nandini (Meera Simham), however, is an expert at humiliating and nagging her husband in front of their children. When her book is rejected at the same time her husband moves out, she throws a fit and sinks into a depression. Dishes keep piling up in the sink until a new man enters her life and offers Nandini a ray of hope.
  • Monica's little sister, Gina (Keya Shah), doesn't understand why her parents have separated and has little talent for keeping a secret. She's pretty good at reading adult body language and takes a critical fall for the sake of the plot.
  • Monica's closest friend, Sarah (Bella Thorne), is quick to offer encouragement and emotional support but is living in an extremely unsupportive environment of her own with an emotionally immature single mother who is a total loser.
  • Monica's science teacher (Alison Brie) is quick to choose Zachary's robot as the winner of the science fair. To her credit, Ms. Bradlee signs the necessary permission form for Monica, who shows her the rule that allows anyone to enter the regional competition as an independent.
While Manoj flails about trying to get game developers to look at his work product -- and Nandini stays in bed all day sulking -- no one is paying much attention to Monica, who decides to modify her experiment and plant her raspberries in the nearby forest. Eventually, the three key figures in the Shah family get through with a little help from their friends:
  • The school gardener (James Morrison) gives Monica some valuable insights into plants while Susan offers close support.
  • Amrish (Maulik Pancholy), a long-time friend of Monica's father, convinces one of his college contacts to look at Manoj's educational game. Although, as a software entrepreneur, Dylan (Randall Batinkoff) quickly understands that Manoj's game is not sufficiently entertaining, he does have an opening for an engineer and offers Manoj a job.
  • Caden (Andy Gates) publishes an online food journal. After tasting Nandini's strawberry banana lassi and some of her other Indian dishes, he comes through with a publishing deal. Although Gina and Monica are worried about Caden's touchy-feely approach to their mother, they are more concerned with getting their parents back together.
As family tension mounts in the early part of the film, Monica tries to comfort Gina by telling her that the raspberries will bloom when their parents get back together. As seen through a child's eyes, it's a logical hope that family unity can and will be restored. As a plot device, however, it signals exactly where the film must go and makes much of the film (especially a Hansel and Gretel-style search through the forest for the missing Monica) feel a bit forced.

Raspberry Magic does a good job of showing some of the cultural pressures that weigh on a suburban Indian-American family. While Pendharkar's first full-length feature film is an admirable effort, it's not a particularly gripping drama. Here's the trailer:

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I love documentaries and industrial tours. I love musicians and the creative process. Although I don't drink wine or listen to much rock music, I had a grand time watching Blood Into Wine, which will be screened on February 25 at the VIZ Cinema as part of San Francisco's Noisepop Festival.

Written and directed by Ryan Page and Christopher Pomerenke, Blood Into Wine offers the perfect introduction to winemaking for people who loathe the sound of a wine snob using the opportunity to pontificate during a meal as a way to stroke his own ego. Think of this film as the equivalent of a documentary for people who hate opera queens about what goes on behind the scenes of creating a successful opera production.

The main focus of Blood Into Wine is rock musician Maynard James Keenan. Internationally famous for his appearances with Tool, Keenan has become a business partner with Eric Glomski in Merkin Vineyards and Caduceus Cellars (located near the tiny former ghost town of Jerome in Arizona's Verde Valley).

Although Blood Into Wine is blessed with cameo appearances from actress Milla Jovovich and comedian Patton Oswalt, the combination of Keenan's dry wit, Glomski's down-to-earth enthusiasm for winemaking, and the challenge of going up against the California wine industry (have you heard of any famous Arizona wines lately?) gives the film a mixture of history, intellect, geography, science, business, geology, and personal growth woven into a documentary of immense appeal.

It's not Winemaking For Dummies. Nor is it purely a vanity piece for Keenan (although his celebrity plays a big part in the plot).

Instead, this is a film about an intelligent musician and creative artist who graduated from Kendall College of Art & Design with a background in interior design and set construction and served his time in the Army before becoming a talented singer/songwriter and popular rocker. A man with a firm business mind, Keenan also owns a produce market and organic market in Cornville, Arizona, has part ownership of the Cobras & Matadors restaurant in the Los Feliz district of Los Angeles, and has worked at developing his skills as a stand-up comedian.

As a result, Keenan is not afraid to play straight man to two actors impersonating doofuses in a public access TV type of interview situation or sign bottles of wine on a tour of regional Whole Foods supermarkets. Fully at ease explaining some of the challenges of growing grapes on a hillside in Northern Arizona ("You have to watch out for all kinds of pests: insects, mice, hippies....."), Keenan's knowledgeable, laid-back charm serves as the perfect foil for Glomski's missionary zeal and enthusiasm for winemaking.

By developing a wine brand with a limited inventory that will appeal to connoisseurs while having the safety net of being able to market his wines to adoring fans, Keenan has demonstrated a solid business plan for developing a secondary career. When he wishes to travel, he has the freedom to tour as a musician. When he wishes to stay at home in Arizona and develop his wine business, he can do so in relative peace and quiet.

Blessed by Cary Truelick's gorgeous cinematography (which often makes the film seem like a promotional for Arizona's tourism industry), Blood Into Wine is as interesting a hybrid as its talented multidisciplinary protagonist. It is at once a powerful biopic, an educational documentary, and a strong marketing tool. Here's the trailer:

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Last fall, as part of its Taiwan Film Days mini festival, the San Francisco Film Society screened Yang Li-chou's beautiful film entitled Beyond The Arctic. This sports documentary followed the Taiwan team's efforts to race across the ice in a competitive hike to the North Pole. Misguided political correctness about the environment gets its due with a new climate warming farce that was recently screened at the San Francisco Indie Film Fest.

Starring Rhys Thomas as Brian Tongue (who doesn't learn his girlfriend is four months pregnant until he's halfway to the North Pole) and Stephen Mangan as Mark Bark Jones (whose politically correct bark is actually as bad as his bite), this indie flick is laced with the kind of humor that made Little Britain famous. It is, without doubt, the first documentary about the perils of the Arctic ever to include a debate about the value of having a foreskin for added protection against subfreezing temperatures.

Brian and Mark are hoping to make the Guinness Book of World Records for being the first carbon neutral, vegetarian, and organic expedition ever to attempt the North Pole without a commercial sponsor. Wearing T-shirts that say "Don't Be Impotent" on one side and "Be Important" on the other, they have no experience, no planning, and no intellectual grasp of what they are about to do. What they really want is to make an important statement and become famous.

Without any knowledge about how to deal with polar bears in the wild (or unexpected competition from two gay Norwegian hikers who are not just carbon neutral, vegetarian, organic, and unsponsored, but a whole lot faster on their feet than the British duo), the Brits start their training by dragging tires across meadows and trying to acclimate themselves to the cold in a meat locker (despite their claim to be strict vegetarians).

Stephen Mangan as vegetarian Mark Bark Jones

Whether one watches Brian trying to initiate phone sex with his girlfriend back home or Mark trying to wipe Brian's shit off his snowy boots, Thomas and Mangan are brutally funny as the two idiots at the center of the film. As a Norwegian gay couple who bring wet suits for the water segments of their trek -- but whose relationship breaks up midway through their hike to the North Pole -- Alexander Skarsgård (Terje) and Lars Arentz-Hansen (Ketil) milk more farce out of the simple act of offering Brian a biscuit than one could ever imagine.

With beautiful cinematography by Stuart Biddlecombe and a ridiculously silly script by David L. Williams and Neil Warhurst, Beyond The Pole brings a delicious touch of British snark to the frozen reaches near the top of the planet. Even though the script covers a period of nearly 75 days on the ice (with no supplies and not a whole lot of brains to help these two fools), the inevitable tragedy that befalls the British expedition is nevertheless milked for as much comic effect as possible under the keen directorial guidance of Williams.

Strong support comes from Mark Benton as Graham (Brian's best friend who develops the hots for Brian's girlfriend), Rosie Cavaliero as Sandra (who didn't want to tell Brian she was pregnant because it might distract him from his goals), and Helen Baxendale as Becky (Mark's girlfriend who dumps him and heads for the French Riviera).

Beyond The Pole should be seen by anyone who takes their favorite causes a bit too seriously. Here's the trailer:

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Life With (and Without) Father

For those of us lucky enough to have known our fathers, many of them have played a critical role in our lives. Not just as the parent who paid the bills or drove the family car, but as the person who served as a role model and may have sometimes offered a quieter kind of love than that of our mothers.

For many gay men, their father was someone who always kept an emotional distance. I was lucky enough to know my father extremely well and be able to talk with him honestly. As he grew older his skin became more creased, his hair continued to thin, and his spirits often sank due to family problems. Still, we made it a point to speak on the phone each weekend to make sure we knew what was happening in each other's lives.

Sometimes we would meet in a city where there were new things to explore. On a weekend visit to Walt Disney World, we shared a day with friends of mine from Rhode Island. Standing in the 360-degree Circle Vision auditorium, I watched my father (a former high school teacher) hop up on a railing right after the announcement warning people not to sit on the railings.

During a week-long visit to Hawaii my father insisted on comparison shopping for prunes (despite my insistence that all of the ABC convenience stores charged the same price). Late one night, when I returned to our hotel room after spending a few hours at a gay bathhouse, he asked if I'd had a nice bath.

Several years later, when he started to run to catch a bus while we were in North Beach, I told him to slow down and wait a few minutes for the next bus. Old habits never die and, as a former New Yorker, it killed him to lose those precious few moments.

Once, we met in London for a week of sightseeing and theatre after he had attended a week-long ElderHostel devoted to birdwatching in Scotland. As we prepared to leave our hotel room one morning, I asked if he wanted to take an apple with him. Because he was facing away from me, my father replied "No, I think I'll take the bus." My sister later told me that she was convinced he'd been reading people's lips for years without telling anyone how bad his hearing had become.

Watching a parent start to lose it -- whether from a mental process like Alzheimer's or the sheer physical deterioration of aging -- is always difficult for children who, as adults, are in the midst of experiencing the painful role reversal in which the child becomes the parent and the parent often becomes increasingly childlike. Two new films handle this acute change in a family's equilibrium with a combination of comedy, drama, alienation, fantasy, and no small amount of anguish.

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It's difficult to describe a film which has a clear narrative yet feels like the writer/director is trying to herd cats on the set. Perhaps that's because the characters in Mitchell Lichtenstein's new dramedy, Happy Tears, are so sadly torn between their fantasies, their fears, and reality.

Because the filmmaker's father (Roy Lichtenstein) was a famous artist, he knows the price of fame as well as the inner workings of the art world that haunt a minor character. As he explains:
"Since I know something about the art world, I thought I could deal with it in a sort of shorthand, which was necessary since it’s not the main focus of Happy Tears. I thought: what if I had to -- or felt compelled to -- deal with my father’s legacy by myself? Overseeing exhibitions, creating the catalogue raisonné, etc.? I’m completely unsuited to the task, and anyway, it’s not a one-person job.

All that would be overwhelming. So I created Jackson, who is trying to make a connection with his father that he never had in life. Jackson’s dilemma is that he’s trying to prove something to someone who is no longer there. He should have worked it out while his father was still alive."
Unfortunately, Jackson's psychological problems (and the ways in which they affect his wife and sister-in-law), end up in a tug of war for control of the main narrative. Perhaps that's because Lichtenstein's plot centers around the following highly dysfunctional characters:
Rip Torn as Joe
  • Shelly (Ellen Barkin) is Joe's latest female companion. A nearly incoherent crack whore who treats Joe with great tenderness and affection, Shelley often wears a stethoscope around her neck while pretending to be a nurse.
  • Laura (Demi Moore) is Joe's older daughter, a realist who has been forced to accept her husband's bisexuality. Having protected her little sister from reality during their adolescence, she has no illusions about their father's deteriorating mental and physical condition.
  • Laurent (Sebastian Roché) is Laura's husband, who sometimes enjoys his work as a masseur more than one might expect.
  • Jayne (Parker Posey) is Joe's younger daughter, who has obviously thrived on playing the role of Daddy's little princess. Having married into money, Jayne has no problems spending $2,800 on a pair of boots she doesn't need. Unfortunately, she can't bear to face the reality of her father's decrepitude.
  • Jackson (Christian Camargo) is Jayne's wealthy husband. The son of a famous albeit deceased painter, Jackson has made a noble effort to manage his father's art and estate (but is obviously in way over his head). Terrified of the prospect that he could pass his own neuroses on to the next generation, Jackson has been reluctant to father a child with Jayne.
  • Ray (Billy Magnussen) is a teenager in Joe's neighborhood who has always had a crush on Jayne. After the two of them take Ecstasy during a rainstorm, they have some other-worldly sex which leaves Jayne surprised but happy to be pregnant.
Jayne (Parker Posey) and Laura (Demi Moore)

Happy Tears struggles to weave the fantasies in the minds of its characters into the reality they face when sober. Although the film has many genuinely funny moments, Lichtenstein has trouble pulling things together. Whether dealing with Joe's drunken folly, his daughters' quest to find the treasure he always told them was buried in his back yard, or one daughter's sudden decision to have a garage sale that will quickly get rid of her father's belongings, the film will probably have limited appeal at the box office.

That may be because audiences are not sure of what they're getting or because Lichtenstein's film hits some people too close to home. Laura's rage at being the sister who followed all the rules (but ended up poor) is no match for Jayne's talent for denial. Despite some lovely cameos from Celia Weston and Roger Rees, the film careens across the screen like a bus whose driver has suffered a heart attack.

Ellen Barkin

As much as I adore Parker Posey (and admire Demi Moore and Rip Torn), there is one compelling reason to see Happy Tears: the chance to watch Ellen Barkin steal the movie from some formidable competition without saying very much of anything. It's a virtuoso, award-worthy performance stuck in a mediocre movie. Here's the trailer:

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Turning 50 puts some people in a big funk. But for a German family man, what should be a routine midlife crisis turns into a bizarre experience accompanied by baroque music sung by a group reminiscent of the Swingle Singers, Norbert Baumgarten's new film, Mensch Kotschie, revolves around a woebegone soul whose family and professional lives are rapidly falling apart.

Stefan Kurt as Jürgen Kotschie

Nothing is going well for Jürgen Kotschie (Stefan Kurt), an architect about to celebrate his 50th birthday. His wife, Karin (Claudia Michelsen) can't seem to make up her mind between ordering hot or cold trays of food from the caterer. When not pumping iron, his teenage son Mario (Max Mauff) just wants the keys to the family car. Kotschie's father (Axel Werner), who lives in an adult care facility, is senile, silent, and refuses to let go of his television remote. Markwart (Henning Peker), one of Kotschie's close colleagues at work, is a total asshole.

In scenes that recall Jacques Tati's 1958 comedy, Mon Oncle, Kotschie is constantly challenged by malfunctioning automated sink faucets, paper towel dispensers, and sliding glass doors that conspire against him. His former girlfriend, Carmen Schöne (Ulrike Krumbiegel), has a young daughter named Jenny (Nele Trebs) whom Kotschie visits, takes to an amusement park without his mother's knowledge, and gives an envelope containing 20,000 Euros.

In between several bizarre encounters with hitchhikers, Kotschie manages to befriend a stray German Shepherd who eventually saves the man from his attempt to commit suicide by attaching a garden hose to his car's exhaust pipe.

Jürgen Kotschie (Stefan Kurt) with a man's best friend

There are times when Mensch Kotschie glows with a strange tenderness and wry sense of humor. At other times, it can easily lose its audience. While the dog's role as a guardian spirit becomes obvious toward the end of the film, this film is worth seeing for the beautiful cinematography by Lars Lenski. Mensch Kotschie will be shown on Sunday, February 28th as part of the German Gems film festival at the Castro Theatre. You can order tickets here.

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These days, the word "Daddy" has taken on new depth, especially within the gay community. While there are plenty of websites for gay men interested in intergenerational sex partners (SilverDaddies, DaddyHunt, NiceDaddies, etc.), few offer the wry charm found in My Heart Belongs To Daddy. Written by Cole Porter for 1938's Leave It To Me!, the song was made famous by Mary Martin (who appeared to be stranded in a Siberian railway station with nothing to wear but a fur coat). Martin sang it in the 1940 film, Love Thy Neighbor, and again in 1946's Night and Day. Enjoy the following clip: