Sunday, November 28, 2010

Through The Third "I" Darkly

Earlier this month, San Francisco cinéastes were treated to the Eighth Annual San Francisco International South Asian Film Festival: Bollywood and Beyond. This festival is produced by a group that describes itself as follows:
"3rd I is a non-profit, national organization committed to promoting diverse images of South Asians through independent film. We represent filmmakers and audiences from Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal, The Maldives, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Tibet, and the South Asian Diaspora. We support our mission by providing film screenings, filmmaking courses, networking resources, and a distribution channel for the South Asian-American film community and our audiences."
What I love about this festival is that it screens films that rarely receive mainstream distribution in the United States. Some of their screenings provide great armchair adventures. Others take us inside a worldview that is alien to most Americans. Rather than a tour of five-star hotels and tourist attractions in exotic locales, 3rd I's films often delve into South Asian mythology, the gritty reality of Third World poverty, exotic films of heightened sensuality and, of course, the obligatory Bollywood musical.

Two films from this year's festival deal with rarely showcased segments of society: India's working poor and the dumbest of potential terrorists. One entry even went into general release within days of the festival!

* * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Nishtha Jain's documentary, At My Doorstep, examines the people who -- almost invisibly -- are a part of her daily life. From the front door of the filmmaker's apartment in a highrise building in the Film City district of Bombay, she begins to discover which people take out her trash, iron her shirts, guard the parking lot, and help prepare food for her neighbors. With a documentarian's sense of due diligence she tries to get beyond the facelessness that is such a common aspect of menial labor.

Poster art for At My Doorstep

What Jain quickly discovers is that many of the delivery boys, garbage collectors, and night watchmen whose jobs are designed to make life easier for Bombay's middle and upper classes are often getting by with little or no survival plans. Many live in nearby slums. In heavy rains, they can lose all of their possessions if there is flooding in their neighborhoods.

Some workers never get a day off for the simple reason that skipping a day's work could mean losing a job. “I feel bad about it because I can’t fulfill my family’s needs and that makes me ashamed,” confesses one man.

Sonu (a security guard who must go up to the roof of Jain's apartment building to check the water pumps) explains that in the midst of Bombay's torrential rains he cannot even use an umbrella or wear a rain slicker to keep dry. Should people be surprised that nearly 85% of Bombay's workers are employed in such casual work? Or that most have no organization to help support them? Watching a group of maids calling for a work stoppage is deeply saddening as they try to convince their colleagues that the mistress can heat her own food for just one day.

Then there are the delivery boys from take-away food stands who respond to orders phoned in by people who want their food delivered to them hot out of the kitchen. The greatest irony? Many customers shortchange these workers and refuse to tip them, assuring the impoverished boys that they'll pay up sometime later in the month. As one delivery boy explains:
“The customers know it’s free home delivery. So if we are a little late, they tell us to go away. They expect the stuff to be delivered instantly. ‘I am making tea now, send me milk immediately,’ they say. Or they’ll ask for curds just when they are sitting down to eat.” 

And yet, some of the workers Jain interviews reveal surprising talents. Dayanand is a poet and writer from Bokaro (a small town in the Indian state of Jharkhand) who works as a security guard. Some are husbands who yearn for a better life for their family. Others are men who have found that they cannot earn enough to support their family in a teeming megalopolis like Bombay. As the filmmaker explains:
“I wanted to record the rhythms of everyday work, the slackening pace of the afternoon, the long evening shadows beckoning people back to work, the tired bodies fighting sleep at night, catch the day breaking with the watchmen on the rooftops and see the seasons changing. The purpose was not to limit oneself to showing hardship, inequality, and poverty (which is very important), but also to discover ways to make sense of all this to our hardened minds and immune hearts. I don’t treat my protagonists as ‘subjects.’ They are my co-writers and co-directors. They are participating in the films for the same reason that I’m making these films, in the hope that we can get a dialogue started.  We work together to tell our stories.” 
Although it might inspire them to count their blessings, I doubt many Americans will ever get a chance to watch At My Doorstep. There is a great sadness in this film, despite the determination of its subjects to keep working.

* * * * * * * * * *
Given America's general paranoia about terrorists, it would be easy to imagine that a film like Four Lions would do poorly at the box office. But if audiences think of this film as the Islamic answer to The Three Stooges, they might find it a chillingly funny tribute to incompetence. Apparently, man's innate stupidity spans the globe with remarkable ease. In his director's statement, Chris Morris writes:
"Where’s the joke in terror? As Four Lions will demonstrate, it’s staring you right in the face. In three years of research, I have spoken to terrorism experts, imams, police, secret services, and hundreds of Muslims. Even those who have trained and fought jihad report the frequency of farceTerrorist cells have the same group dynamics as stag parties and 'five a side football teams.' There is conflict, friendship, misunderstanding, and rivalry. Terrorism is about ideology, but it’s also about berks.
The Islamic answer to Idiot's Delight

You don’t have to mock Islamic beliefs to make a joke out of someone who wants to run the world under sharia law but can’t apply it in his own home because his wife won’t let him. You know the Hamburg cell was led by Mohamed Atta, but did you know he was so strict that the other plotters called him 'the ayatollah'? And that every time he formed an Islamic discussion group he was so critical he fired them all within a week? The unfathomable world of extremism seemed to contain elements of farce."
Morris points to the following incidents to back up his argument:
  • When 9/11 hijacker Mohamed Atta was teased for pissing too loudly, he blamed the Jews for making thin bathroom doors. 
  • At training camps young jihadis argue about money, shoot each other’s feet off, chase snakes, and get thrown out for smoking. 
  • Terrorist mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohamed spent two hours looking for a costume that wouldn’t make him look fat on camera.
  • A minute into his martyrdom video, a would-be bomber stopped and asked the cameraman "What was the question again?” 
  • On Millennium Eve, five jihadis planned to ram a U.S. warship with a launch full of bombs. In the dead of night, they slipped their boat into the water and stacked it with explosives. But when they stepped in, it sank. 
The would-be terrorists suit up for their big moment.

Between firing rocket launchers in the wrong direction and using their cell phones to detonate incendiary devices at all the wrong moments, it's no wonder this group of wannabe terrorists becomes its own worst enemy. The one problem with Four Lions is that some of the actors' British accents are so thick that key characters can barely be understood.

While the subject matter may give you pause, there is no need to worry about watching Four Lions. Just think of it as the jihadi version of Jackass. Here's the trailer:

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Soul-Sucking Succubi

Once upon a time a witch could instill fear in people's hearts. From Rapunzel's mother to Hansel and Gretel's Rosina Daintymouth --  from Endor to Salem, Massachusetts --  witches were thought of as powerful tools of evil, women whose seductive and manipulative skills could crush a man's soul or enslave him to the dark powers of Satan.

No one cares about witches, anymore. That's because they're too busy calling women bitches, instead.

In the past 25 years (as rappers removed the mystique from witches and made a "bitch" sound more like a disposable item), it's been hard to correctly label the truly scary women in our society. Can you imagine pretty little Dorothy Gale, dressed in a gingham smock, looking Sarah Palin, Mary Matalin, or Karen Hughes in the face and innocently asking "Are you a good bitch or a bad bitch?"
  • Gone are the days when witches had hooked noses, warts on their fingers, brooms to fly, and places to go. 
  • Gone are the days when a lust-filled cackle could turn one's blood to ice. 
  • Gone are the days when a witch might cast a spell on someone.
  • Gone are the days when people were terrified by words like "I'll get you, my pretty, and your little dog, too!"
Thankfully, those women can still be found in literature and onstage. Two of them recently visited Bay area theatres.

* * * * * * * * * * * *
First published in 2002, Coraline is a horror novella by Neil Gaiman that achieved rapid market penetration. Winner of the 2003 Bram Stoker Award for Best Work for Young Readers, in 2009 Coraline was adapted by Henry Selick, who transformed it into a popular stop-motion film. A stage adaptation by David Greenspan with music and lyrics by Stephin Merritt had its world premiere in New York on May 6, 2009. SFPlayhouse is currently presenting the show's West Coast premiere of the musicalized Coraline.

In the following video, lead actor Maya Donato, director Bill English, and SFPlayhouse's music director, Robert Moreno, describe the special effects that have been created for this production of Coraline.

To be honest, I was glad I had neither read the book nor seen the movie of Coraline prior to attending SFPlayhouse's production. Entering the theatre without the emotional baggage of comparisons to how the story plays out in other art forms made it easier to concentrate on what was happening before my eyes. As director Bill English explains in his program note:
"Every culture has a story that puts in symbolic form the journey from child to adult. From Walkabout to Star Wars, humanity has thrilled over and over to this universal story of transformation. Dorothy, Alice, and many other young tweenies have taken us on this journey. We all remember that time in our lives when we realized for the first time that we would have to forge a new identity that would be all our own, separate from our parents. And we also remember the wave of terror that came with it." 
Maya Donato as Coraline (Photo by: Jessica Palopoli)

"We all have stood facing that door into an alternate universe and yet, shivering with fear, we went through.The 'other' world is not really all that different from her own (boring and tedious). And yet courage is required of Coraline and she steps up to the challenge. The story reminds us all that behind the ordinary doors in our lives lie the opportunity and the challenge of transformation.
Joseph Campbell describes the hero's journey as a violent upheaval in which the protagonist makes a courageous leap that transforms his nature and ours with him if we come along for the ride. It's Coraline's very ordinariness that makes it special. Coraline tackles the second biggest question humans face: Who am I and how do I fit in with this world?"

Miss Forcible (Susi Damilano), Coraline (Maya Donato), and
Miss Spink (Maureen McVerry). Photo by: Jessica Palopoli

While Bill English has drawn appealing performances from Susi Damilano (Miss Forcible), Maureen McVerry (Miss Spink), Maya Donato (Coraline), and Jackson Davis (Coraline's father),  the evening's high-powered moments all belong to the fearsome Stacy Ross, who portrays Coraline's real and "other" mothers with wicked glee. Brian Degan Scott (Mr. Bobo) and Brian Yates Sharber  (the cat) make strong contributions in supporting roles.

Coraline (Maya Donato) and the cat (Brian Yates Sharber)
Photo by: Jessica Palopoli

As a stage vehicle, Coraline has big ambitions but distinctly limited charms. While I very much liked Valera Coble's costume designs and the unit set designed by Bill English and Matt Vuolo, I continue to find Stephin Merritt's talent as a composer to be criminally overrated (this is the same man who created a truly wretched score to accompany the San Francisco Film Society's screening of the 1916 silent version of Jules Verne's novel, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea).

* * * * * * * * *
Over at the San Francisco Opera, beloved soprano Karita Mattila scored a major triumph in her debut in the role of the seductive, cynical Emilia Marty in The Makropulos Case. Based on a play by Karel Capek, Czech composer Leos Janacek's opera about a mysterious woman who claims to be 337 years old grows ever more fascinating for audiences as they feel themselves wither and age.

Karita Mattila as Emilia Marty (Photo by: Cory Weaver)

Born in Prague (where her father was an alchemist in the court of Emperor Rudolf II), Elina Makropulos was forced to sample a potion that could keep her youthful for 300 years. Over the centuries she has led a scandalous life using the same initials (E.M.) but taking on the names of Eugenia Montez, Ektarina Myshkin, Ellian MacGregor, and her current Emilia Marty.

Like the heroine of Alban Berg's opera, Lulu, this siren causes men to lose their senses, spend all their money on her, and commit rash acts in the hope of impressing her. However, after 337 years on earth, she is tired, bored, and ready to die. Emilia has outgrown love, politics, greed, and the usual roster of base human instincts. Unless, of course, she can get her hands on the recipe for her father's potion.

Matthew O'Neill as Count Hauk-Sendorf  (Photo by: Cory Weaver)

Janacek's operas are not famous for melodies or lyrical lines. Instead, they are taut musical dramas that require solid acting from their singers. Under the baton of conductor Jiri Behlolavek, the cast acquitted itself quite handsomely. 

Director  Olivier Tambosi drew crisp characterizations from Matthew O'Neill as one of Emilia's old flames (Count Hauk-Sendorf), Brian Jagde as the newly-infatuated Janek, Thomas Glenn as Vitek, Gerd Grochowski as Baron Jaroslav Prus, and  Dale Travis as Dr. Kolenaty. 

In smaller roles, Susannah Biller shone as Kristina and Miro Dvorsky was quite effective as Albert Gregor.  Austin Kness continued to impress as the stagehand; Maya Lahyani did double duty as a chambermaid and cleaning woman

A co-production with the Finnish National Opera, The Makropulos Case was handsomely designed by Frank Phillipp Schlossmann. However, the true stars of the evening were Karita Mattila (who will perform the role again in Helsinki in 2012) and the San Francisco Opera Orchestra.

Karita Mattila as Emilia Marty (Photo by: Cory Weaver)

An interesting side note: While The Makropulos Case is not exactly the female equivalent of Anne Rice's best-selling novel, Interview With The Vampire, if the story ever gets a screen adaptation, the role of Emilia Marty would be perfectly tailored to Cher's talents. Not that Cher is 337 years old. At least, not yet.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

They're Not At All In Love

Based on William Shakespeare's farce, The Comedy of Errors (first published in 1623), The Boys From Syracuse opened at the Alvin Theatre on November 23, 1938 and became an instant hit. Adapted and directed by George Abbott (with choreography by George Balanchine), the musical comedy starred Eddie Albert and Jimmy Savo. With music by Richard Rodgers and lyrics by Lorenz Hart, one of the show's hit songs contained the following lyric:
"Falling in love with love is falling for make believe.
Falling in love with love is playing the fool;
Caring too much is such a juvenile fancy.
Learning to trust is just for children in school.

I fell in love with love one night when the moon was full
I was unwise with eyes unable to see.
I fell in love with love, with love everlasting,
But love fell out with me."
Lots of romantic comedies have been based on the concept of "loathe at first sight." Precious few have been able to frame their plot as candidly as Love and Other Drugs, the new film by Edward Zwick that recently opened nationwide. There are many reasons to see this film, not the least of which are Jake Gyllenhall's muscular thighs and juicy butt cheeks.

This is an intelligent, carefully-crafted sex dramedy with a plot that doesn't pull any punches. Based on Jamie Reidy's 2005 novel, Hard Sell: The Evolution of a Viagra Salesman, it could just as easily have been titled "The Enlightenment of a Self-Avowed Asshole."

Gyllenhall plays a confident young lothario who knows how to charm the ladies. As a salesman, Jamie Randall (Gyllenhall) knows exactly how to turn it on, when to pull back, and when to wait for a woman to want him. His moves are slick, successful, and lead to plenty of casual sex.

While Jamie has never lived up to his physician father's expectations, his sexual prowess has always made him a hero to his kid brother, Josh (Josh Gad). A clumsy, fat, insecure putz, Josh has made millions in the software business. Both Jamie and Josh know that, despite the younger brother's sudden wealth, Josh will always be a putz.

Poster art for Love and Other Drugs

Josh may be completely lacking in social skills, but he can smell money like a pig can sniff out truffles. After his older brother gets fired from a low-level sales position at an electronics store (for fucking one of his co-workers in the back room while on break), Josh points out that pharmaceutical sales reps are the only people whose entry level jobs start at $100,000 a year.

In no time at all Jamie has entered a training program where he is assigned to a middle-aged mentor named Bruce Winston (Oliver Platt). Winston may lack Jamie's looks and charm, but they both understand the importance of one word: pussy.

After learning that his top competitor is a former military man named Trey Hannigan (Gabriel Macht), Jamie finds a way to ingratiate himself with Hannigan's prize contact, Dr. Stan Knight (Hank Azaria). Having charmed the good doctor into letting him tag along as an intern, Jamie then gets to watch Dr. Knight examine a beautiful patient named Maggie Murdock (Anne Hathaway) who, worried about a potential lump, unhesitatingly bares her breast in the examination room. As you can see see in the following trailer, Jamie and Maggie don't exactly "meet cute":

To make matters worse, Maggie is devilishly smart, a talented artist, and the kind of liberated woman who is capable of beating Jamie at his own game. Just as the handsome young drug rep has perfected the old "Find'em, feel'em, fuck'em, and forget'em" routine, Maggie is only interested in  no-strings-attached sex.  She wants it hot and heavy, but with no emotional involvement.

That's because Maggie has recently been diagnosed with stage 1 Parkinson's disease. Lonely, scared, and not wanting to be humped and dumped (like she was by Trey Hannigan as soon as he learned about her illness), Maggie's psychological defenses are up, even if her sexual guard is down.

Not only does Love and Other Drugs meticulously plot a growing relationship in which a woman tells the man that she'd prefer it if he were a total shit (and he admits to being fully qualified for the role), it never apologizes for the casual sex that sparks a growing lust between Jamie and Maggie. Along the way, the movie gets some pretty good digs in at how physicians are corrupted by drug reps and how a boner pill gets all the pharmaceutical industry's support while seniors must travel to Canada to get affordable medications.

From its two leads down to minor character roles, this is a movie that has been blessed with great casting by Victoria Thomas. Because Gyllenhall and Hathaway are such strong and fearless actors, the sex scenes never seem gratuitous.  In fact, they make the film's subsequent seriousness all the more poignant.

As you watch Love and Other Drugs, don't be surprised if you find yourself thinking that Anne Hathaway (who has always been an extremely intelligent, daring, and talented actor) is now positioned to take over the kinds of roles that once headed directly toward Julia Roberts. Hathaway's onscreen magnetism -- and the sparks that fly between her and Gyllenhall -- also make one wonder if the two might make a great team in subsequent movies.

Hathaway has a solid singing voice (as was demonstrated when she starred in the New York City Center's February, 2002 Encores production of Carnival (click here to watch her perform "Yes, My Heart" ). In his review in The New York Times, Ben Brantley wrote:

"Give thanks for Anne Hathaway, who just completed her freshman year at Vassar and who somehow makes unspotted purity look like the latest fashion. This is essential, since the appeal of  Carnival, a show of strangely polarized sensibilities, lies in the balance of a slightly smirky cynicism and the unquestioned innocence of its leading lady.
Ms. Hathaway, best known for the Cinderella fantasy film, The Princess Diaries, has a flutish, frill-free soprano that is the opposite of show-biz brass and a pretty, open face that looks as if it had never raised an eyebrow. Making her New York debut, she trades on her novice status to create a sense of unblinking wonder."
Since 2002, Hathaway's screen portrayals have grown increasingly complex and ballsy. Considering the classic movie musicals that are already in preproduction for new film versions (Damn Yankees and My Fair Lady in 2012, South Pacific in 2013), I'd love to see her star opposite Gyllenhall in a remake of The Pajama Game. Watch this clip with Doris Day and John Raitt from the 1957 film and see if you don't agree:

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

A Nutcracker To Shun

The recent box office bonanzas scored by such 3D releases as Avatar, Alice in Wonderland, and Toy Story 3 have inspired many producers to see what properties are adaptable to today's 3D film technology. Some have rolled out so-called 3D products whose use of the technology is pretty lame. Not every film studio has the artistic integrity and financial strength of Walt Disney Pictures, Pixar, or DreamWorks.

The result is that some so-called 3D films get rushed to market in a brazen attempt to cash in on a marketplace where people will buy anything that has the term "3D" built into its marketing campaign. Over the years, I've seen some pretty awful movies (Carnosaur, Rock Haven, Centurions of Rome, Adela, Ciao, The Blood of Rebirth). None, however, has been as expensive, as overproduced, as idiotic, as appalling, or as stupefyingly reprehensible as the giant steaming turd known as The Nutcracker in 3D (which will be released in theatres over Thanksgiving weekend).

Poster art for Nutcracker 3D

How bad is The Nutcracker in 3D? Instead of handing out 3D glasses, they should be handing out bedpans at the entrance to the theatre.
  • If you've ever wondered what 110 minutes of explosive diarrhea might feel like in 3D, by all means purchase a ticket to see The Nutcracker in 3D.
  • If you yearn to experience the artistic equivalent of esophageal reflux, by all means purchase a ticket to see The Nutcracker in 3D.
  • If your darkest fantasy is to watch Karl Rove drown the world's hopes for a brighter future in an endless supply of rancid smegma, by all means purchase a ticket to see The Nutcracker 3D.
  • If you want revenge on your ex, your mother-in-law, or a loathsome business colleague, by all means take them to see The Nutcracker in 3D.
If, on the other hand, you're a rational person with an ounce of self respect, don't spend a cent of your hard-earned money on the tsunami of fecal waste that is Andre Konchalovsky's The Nutcracker in 3D. This film is such a heinous, despicably greedy rape of a classic that to call Konchalovsky's film a whopping piece of shit might unintentionally lend it some dignity. In far too many ways, The Nutcracker in 3D is like an afterbirth -- something that should be severed and left behind (despite its purported nutritional value) -- so that life can go on.

Just when you thought that wretched excess could become no more wretched or excessive, along comes The Nutcracker in 3D, a film whose script (written by Konchalovsky) is so sophomoric that it makes Howard the Duck seem downright Shakespearean. The marketing campaign for The Nutcracker in 3D challenges audiences to "Experience the holiday classic as you've never seen it before." That much is true.

According to the film's trailer, The Nutcracker in 3D is "based on the story and music of Tchaikovsky." However, for the sake of historical accuracy, it should be noted that this film is actually based on E.T.A. Hoffmann's story, The Nutcracker and the Mouse King, that was written in 1816. Tchaikovsky  did not compose the ballet music for The Nutcracker until 1892.

Whereas The Nutcracker ballet that is beloved by millions focuses on the story of the Mouse King, Konchalovsky uses Hoffmann's subplot about the Mouse Queen as a jumping-off point to transform the mice into an army of vicious rats led by a  campy John Turturro -- in a white Andy Warhol wig -- whose mother (the Rat Queen) is played by the same actress (Frances de la Tour) who portrays the drunk housekeeper. 

Don't think that Konchalovsky limited himself to ripping off ideas and images from The Wizard of Oz. In order to appeal to adolescent boys, there are attack helicopters, Star Wars-like air taxis, giant robots stomping around the territory, a battle scene that looks more like a video game, and a scene straight out of Chicken Run.

Poster art for Nutcracker in 3D

The Drosselmeyer character has been transformed into an Einstein-like Uncle Albert (Nathan Lane in one of the low points of his career). Mary (Elle Fanning) is, of course, delighted with the new dollhouse that contains such curious toys as Gielgud (who becomes a talking monkey). The Nutcracker gets nicknamed "NC" and there are numerous references to Sigmund Freud in Konchalovsky's script (which might seem inspired if it had  been written for a high school or summer camp musical).

Once you hear Nathan Lane's Uncle Albert respond to a young boy's question by saying "If I tell you, I'll have to kill you," you might think there would be nowhere to go but up. But you would be wrong.  So horribly, pathetically, pitiably wrong.

With the action set in Vienna in the 1920s, it's only fitting that the army of rats should be dressed like Nazi soldiers intent on "ratifying" adjacent territories.While reading through Konchalovsky's website, I came across some prophetic quotes from past projects:
  • "I am a person who craves for work, I take up projects thoughtlessly, sometimes irresponsibly (sometimes I think: how do I get out of this?) I like having several projects at a time. I am never haunted by the same film. I immerse into absolutely different worlds and enjoy doing it. I must make films about people whom I love a lot." (Ogonyok #51, 1988.)
  • "Cinema is cruel as it's too specific. The task of a film director is to leave room for fantasy." (Kultura, March 2, 2000.)
  • "I don't like to retell an idea. It should be hidden. It will show in a performance, and if it is not understood, that will be my fault. It is impossible to explain it anyway". (Kultura, March 2, 2000).
There were obvious warning signs that this film might be the Thanksgiving holiday's biggest turkey:
  • Compared to the websites for major animation releases, the website for The Nutcracker in 3D is surprisingly simple and small.
  • When I went online to research the film, I couldn't find anything resembling a press kit or production stills to be used with a review.
  • At the press screening I attended, even the children lost interest quickly.
  • The 73-year-old director cast his 37-year-old wife (Yuliya Vysotskaya) in the dual roles of Mary's mother and the Snow Fairy.
Perhaps it would be wise to apply Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon to The Nutcracker in 3D:
  • Nathan Lane starred in Mel Brooks' musical adaptation of The Producers on Broadway.
  • One of the highlights of the show was the musical number "Springtime for Hitler."
  • Nathan Lane plays ditsy Uncle Albert in The Nutcracker in 3D.
  • Although not labeled as "The Ballet From Buchenwald," in The Nutcracker 3D, the Rat King's army is dressed like storm troopers
Perhaps the surest indicator of this film's artistic bankruptcy is Konchalovsky's use of so much music by Tchaikovsky from sources other than The Nutcracker. When someone adapting The Nutcracker doesn't even have enough faith in the source material he is using, it's a sure sign that disaster lies ahead.

Why should you avoid this film like the plague? The Nutcracker in 3D insults the intelligence of people who are just learning how to talk. Here's the trailer.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Sadder But Wiser Girls

On September 16, 1925, when  No, No, Nanette opened on Broadway at the Globe TheatreI Want To Be Happy (music by Vincent Youmans and lyrics by Irving Caesar) quickly became one of the show's hit songs. Eight decades later, its lyric reads like a theme song for codependency:
"I want to be happy
But I won't be happy
Till I make you happy too. 
Life's really worth living
When you are mirth giving
Why can't I give some to you? 
When skies are gray
And you say you are blue
I'll send the sun smiling through 
I want to be happy
But I won't be happy
Till I make you happy too."
By May 11, 1965, when Flora the Red Menace opened at the Alvin Theatre some 40 years later with an exuberant 19-year-old Liza Minnelli making her Broadway debut, women were growing weary of having their hearts broken. The show's final number (written by John Kander and Fred Ebb) contains the following lyrics:
"Sing me a happy song about robins in spring
Sing me a happy song with a happy ending.
Some cheerful rondelet about catching the ring
Sing happy.

Sing me a sonnet all about rolling in gold
Some peppy melody about rainbows blending
Nothing with phrases saying you're out in the cold
Sing happy.

Tell me tomorrow's gonna be peaches and cream
Assure me clouds are lined with a silver lining
Say how you've realized an impossible dream
Sing me a happy song.

Play me a madrigal about trips to the moon
Or some old ballad about two eyes shining
It can't be loud enough or a moment too soon
Sing happy.

No need reminding me that it all fell apart
I need no lyrics singing of stormy weather
There's quite enough around me that's breaking my heart
Sing happy.

Give me a hallelujah and get up and shout
Tell me the sun is shining around the corner
Whoever's interested helping me out
Please keep it happy.

I'm only in the market for long loud laughter
I'll let you serenade me till dawn comes along
Just make it a happy
Keep it a happy song."
Whereas popular romances usually focused on a perky young woman (played by someone like Doris Day), one of the surest signs that virginity was losing its dramatic clout could be detected in this number from Meredith Willson's 1957 hit, The Music Man. Listen carefully as Professor Harold Hill (Matthew Broderick) explains why it's "The Sadder But Wiser Girl For Me."

Today, sadder but wiser girls dominate the landscape. In some situations, the stress of trying to maintain a career while raising a family has left them numb and exhausted. In other situations, intelligent women have found their futures compromised not just by their relationships with men, but by the imposition of strict gender roles by religion and society.

* * * * * * * * * * * *
The Marin Theatre Company recently offered Bay area theatregoers the West Coast premiere of Lucinda Coxon's dramedy entitled Happy Now? Set in modern London, the show revolves around the following characters:
  • Kitty (Rosemary Garrison), a young female executive whose husband has assumed primary care for their two young children. When the play opens, Kitty (who works for a pharmaceutical firm seeking a cure for cancer) has just finished  speaking at a convention where she was a last minute substitution for her boss, who is dying of cancer.
  • Kitty's mother (Andrew Hurteau), an aging and thoroughly narcissistic woman who has driven her husband and children up the walls for years.
  • Johnny (Alex Moggridge), Kitty's husband. A former lawyer, Johnny changed careers to become an elementary school teacher on the assumption that, by doing so, he could contribute something "meaningful" to the world.
  • Carl (Kevin Rolston), Kitty's best gay friend who is always available when needed but prefers not to call attention to his own emotional needs.

Kitty (Rosemary Garrison) and Carl (Kevin Rolston) 
prepare for a birthday party. (Photo by: Ed Smith)

  • Miles (Mark Anderson Phillips), an alcoholic attorney who is Johnny's best friend. After a domestic dispute with his wife, Miles suddenly moves in with Johnny & Kitty while Kitty is away on a business trip.
  • Bea (Mollie Stickney), married to Miles at the beginning of the play, but happily pursuing an independent life by the final curtain.
  • Michael (Andrew Hurteau), a married bureaucrat who tries to pick up women at conventions held out of town. As the play opens, Michael is making a pass at Kitty. When she declines his offer, he shocks her by stating that she'll be ready for him at some point in the future.

Michael (Andrew Hurteau) and Kitty (Rosemary Garrison)
relax in Michael's hotel room. (Photo by: Ed Smith)

Using a unit set by the ever-reliable Melpomene Katakalos that includes series of projection screens, director Jasson Minadakis explains what attracted him to Coxon's script:

"What struck me about the play was how completely Lucinda had captured the insane pace of modern adult life. She had written a play starring my friends, colleagues, and neighbors with their faults, quirks, loveliness and passion.  I felt she had captured me as well.
She understands driving home from work wondering how you managed to pass the last five exits without seeing them. She understands looking up from the dinner table and asking yourself: 'Who exactly is that sitting across from me?' And she has brought those questions and feelings to the stage with incredible humor and compassion.
One of the hardest things about contemporary life is finding a way to forgive ourselves for being human and making mistakes. Our society demands we be perfect at everything, all the time, without pause. With that kind of pressure, I wonder how we stay sane and find happiness and joy in life. Hopefully, we can learn to forgive ourselves, and each other, and find the happiness that is out there."
What most surprised me about Coxon's play was how little I cared about any of her characters. My initial reaction was to label it as another drama about bored and boring breeders.

What struck me was that the least selfish character onstage was Carl who, despite the turmoil in his own personal and professional life, was able to put his own needs on hold so he could tend to the needs of others. A key moment occurs when Kitty calls Carl at work to tell him what a miserable day she is having. "You called me out of a meeting with a very important client just to tell me THIS?" he asks.

As the play ends, we see Kitty sitting on a couch with Johnny on one side of her and Miles on the other. Both of them have fallen asleep while watching an episode of Will and Grace, leaving Kitty to look after two grown men in addition to her two children. In all honesty, I found the ending less poignant than pathetic.

Miles (Mark Anderson Phillips ), Kitty (Rosemary Garrison),
and Johnny (Alex Moggridge). Photo by: Ed Smith

* * * * * * * * * * * *
Curiously, a movie that screened at the Eighth Annual San Francisco International South Asian Film Festival, Bollywood and Beyond captures a woman caught in a much more dramatically interesting situation. Set in Dhaka, IndiaThird Person Singular Number makes Kitty's problems look like a piece of cake.

Like many middle class women in Dhaka, Ruba (Nusrat Imroz Tisha) is a modern, educated young woman. Although she has lived with Munna (Mosharraf Karim) and is in love with him, she has chosen not to go through with a traditional wedding. The result is that, when Munna (who works for an NGO) is arrested and thrown in prison, she is at the mercy of an older, more conservative generation.

Like the United States, Ruba is bogged down fighting two wars. In her battle to remain free in a conservative Muslim society, she must deal with constant refusals to rent an apartment to a single woman (not to mention the Muslims who won't even allow her to visit her mother's grave). Internally, she is battling the 13-year-old and six-year-old incarnations of herself who don't like -- or can't understand -- what Ruba is doing with her life.

Ruba as an adult, a 13-year-old, and a six-year-old child.

Written and directed by Mostofa Sarwar Farooki (and based on a novel by Manzoorul Islam) Third Person Singular Number follows an emotionally strained path to a surprisingly modern ending. In the past, Farooki's films have addressed such themes as middle class angst, romance among urban youth, the deception, hypocrisy, and frailty of the individual, and frustrations about his own culture and conservative Muslim concepts of guilt and redemption.
In his director's statement, he writes:
"Do our society and religion allow a middle class, single woman to live alone?
What do we really mean when we say 'men and women are equal'?
Do we actually live in present time only?
Or does our past also live with us, walk hand in hand?
Can we ever be alone amidst the eloquence of our past?
Or can we ever be together amidst the engulfing solitude of caged soul?

These five questions chased me to the making of Third Person Singular Number. I tried to attempt the film from a humane point of view. I opened the film with the single woman out on the street, all alone at night. I could have opened the film in hundreds of ways. But I opened it like that just to see whether our streets and nights are safe for a single woman. This reflects a major motivation behind making this film. The motivation is that I tried to scale the sanity (or insanity) of my society and religion and see how they respond when it comes to handling women's issues."

Nusrat Imroze Tisha as Ruba
Third Person Singular Number benefits from some beautiful cinematography by Subrata Das Ripon and an original musical score by Rezaul  K.Leemon. After Ruba tires of her family, trying to find an apartment, trying to find work, and struggling to cope with having a husband in jail, she is rescued by a close childhood friend who has become a popular music star.

As the most modern person in the film, Tupo (Rashed Uddin Ahmed Topu) is more than willing to share his wealth with Ruba. When he is not in the recording studio (or busy chatting with girls on Facebook who would love to date him), his generosity and patience are quietly overpowering.

Tupo's gentle nature, life-long devotion to Ruba, and unending kindness offer a sharp contrast to the repressed, conservative old Muslim (Abul Hayat) who refuses to a rent an apartment to Ruba but still wants to have her around as a mistress. When Ruba keeps threatening to call the man's wife, he doesn't know how to deal with such a modern woman.

Cell phones play an important role in the plot of Third Person Singular Number, whose story follows a long and often surprisingly modern arc. Nusrat Imroz Tisha is brave, resourceful, and resolute as Ruba. As Munna,  Mosharraf Karim bears an uncanny resemblance to New York's outgoing Governor David Paterson. Here's the trailer:

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Music To Their Ears

"Genius" is a term that gets used today with surprising inaccuracy. Much like the word "diva," its broad applications have cheapened its meaning.
  • Someone who can tie his shoelaces is cynically referred to as a genius.
  • It's not uncommon to hear someone ask "What genius came up with that idea?"
While someone with a high IQ may be labeled a genius (or nicknamed "Einstein"), the genius label takes on new meaning when applied to a person's creativity.
  • Some people, who desire to be recognized for their creative prowess, may only be wannabe geniuses (people who are far more ordinary than they wish to believe).
  • Some people, lacking genius of their own, have managed to carve out careers on the backs of true geniuses by showcasing or recreating the work of major artists whose output has often been described as being touched by genius.
  • Then, of course, there are the people -- few and far between -- who are true geniuses. 
These three types of artistic genius don't always hang out together. By examining how they are depicted, it's possible to get a better handle on what constitutes real genius.

* * * * * * * * * * * * *
An Indian film that was recently shown at the Eighth Annual San Francisco International South Asian Film Festival, Bollywood and BeyondGandu (asshole) is the story of a young man living in Kolkata who thinks he's a genius. Rest assured, he's not.

Gandu (a Bengali slang word meaning "loser") is little more than an angry 20-year-old slacker who hates his life, hates his prostitute mother, hates work, hates Indian society, and prefers to spend his days masturbating. His only friend is a rickshaw driver who is obsessed with martial artist Bruce Lee.

Meanwhile, his appetite for hard drugs is underwritten by pathetic attempts at purchasing a winning lottery ticket and Gandu's childlike ability to crawl on hands and knees past the bed where his mother is having sex with her boyfriend, Dasbabu (the proprietor of a local Internet café), and steal money from the man's wallet.

Gandu and Rickshaw Boy

The one talent Gandu can lay claim to is his ability to write and perform scathing Bengali rap lyrics which express his rage at the world around him. As the filmmaker explains:
"Gandu is a rapper. The average Bengali has probably never come across rap. This is the land of melody. Gandu hates melody. He finds extreme words that are shunned by the mainstream, and crafts songs with them. He plays the lottery, losing regularly, and he roams the city aimlessly. Inside a cyber café, he downloads porn and rap, clocking a girl who Skypes endlessly with her boyfriend somewhere far away.
The rickshawala is a young guy, a wicked rider of the rickshaw. His body plays to a rhythm that is one with the streets he moves on. His rickshaw is a shrine of Bruce Lee. Gandu watches him from a distance. They become friends in a weird manner. Gandu begins to pour out his desires. He talks about rap, he talks about hate, he talks about society, and he talks about anger. The rickshaw puller shows him smack. Together, they dive into the shadows, into a dark space where fantasy is the only reality.
Throughout the film, we get the feeling that Gandu is curious about the dark Goddess, Kali. Kali is a Goddess of the night, a pagan icon. She dwells in crematoriums and is celebrated by outlaws. Blood is her symbol, and she is also hailed as the ultimate dark sexual force. 
His friend takes him off to some strange space. They find themselves in a temple, they are given some strange drug by a Sadhu, they wake up under a mammoth tree, and a poet tells them that Gandu is, in fact, the hero of a film. Reality and fiction, surreal and bizarre come together as Gandu hurtles towards a wild finale. He wins the lottery, he finds himself in bed with an alien sex kitten, he decides to cut a demo, and performs as a star. But are these dreams, or are they really happening? Will Gandu be a victim of his own nightmare?"

At a certain point, it becomes difficult to tell if the audience is watching Gandu's story, the filmmaker's story, or the visions of a heroin-addled mind. There are scenes of Gandu having fairly intense sex with a woman as well as shots of a disbelieving Gandu actually winning the lottery.

Shot primarily in beautiful black-and-white, there are many parts of Gandu that evoke surprising memories of John Greyson's 2009 film opera, Fig Trees. The most fascinating sequences in Gandu are the music videos in which this angry young man (with no future except what he can conjure up in his drug-induced delusions) pours out his rage and bile to the camera.

Gandu feels very much like a filmmaker's early attempts to stretch his artistic muscles. While the protagonist and whatever story line can be found in the film may seem distasteful to some audiences, there is no avoiding the fact that the director, Quashik Mukherjee (who prefers to be known as "Q"), knows what he's doing with a camera. Here's the trailer:

* * * * * * * * * * * * *
Down in San MateoBroadway By the Bay closed out its season with one of Scott Siegel's Broadway By The Year evenings imported from New York. The presentation was split between two years (1930 for the first act, and 1964 for the second). However, poor sound engineering amplified each singer's vocal weaknesses more than their assets.

Music director, Ross Patterson also made some surprisingly misguided choices. Why would anyone choose to end "Sunrise, Sunset" (from Fiddler on the Roof) on a major chord? Who in their right mind would ask a big, brassy belter like Mary Testa to sing a love song from an operetta by Sigmund Romberg?

It boggles the mind.

In Act I, George and Ira Gershwin stood front and center with selections from Girl Crazy (I Got Rhythm, Embraceable You) as well as the title song from Strike Up The Band. Songs from Cole Porter's revue, The New Yorkers, included Love For Sale  and "Take Me Back To Manhattan."

"My First Love, My Last Love: from Nina Rosa proved to be a charmer as well as a song from Three's A Crowd (written by Howard Dietz and Arthur Schwartz) entitled Body and Soul. Versatile singer/tap dancer Noah Racey added quite a bit of zest to the first act with his dancing.

The second act's focus on 1964 (one of the best years for musicals on Broadway) had some surprising choices (five songs from Fiddler). Marc Kudisch took a crack at If I Were A Rich Man and teamed up with Mary Testa for "Do You Love Me?"

Scott Coulter sang "Miracle of Miracles" preceded by one of the songs that had been cut from the show during its out-of-town tryout in Detroit. In what was -- at least for me -- the highlight of the evening, "The Richest Man in the World" demonstrated what made Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick such an incredibly sensitive songwriting team.

Scott Coulter scored strongly with his rendition of the title song from Stephen Sondheim's big flop (Anyone Can Whistle). While brief mention was made of What Makes Sammy Run? (which had music and lyrics by Ervin Drake), no one bothered to sing Steve Lawrence's big hit, "A Room Without Windows."

1964 was a banner year for composer Jule Styne, who had two big (and troubled) musicals open that spring. Funny Girl premiered on March 26 at the Winter Garden, rocketing Barbra Streisand to stardom. Carole J. Bufford opened the second act with "Don't Rain On My Parade" (which was followed a bit later by Mary Testa belting out Styne's raucous "Cornet Man").

Marc Kudisch sang "My Fortune Is My Face" from Fade Out, Fade In (which opened exactly two months later at the Mark Hellinger Theatre with Carol Burnett as its star). How I wish the program had included either "The Usher From the Mezzanine" or Burnett's Act II big torch song, "Go Home, Train."

Jerry Herman's first big hit show (Hello, Dolly!) was represented by "Before the Parade Passes By" and "It Only Takes A Moment." While Hello, Dolly! was playing to sold-out audiences at the St. James Theatre on West 44th Street, a musicalization of 1937's play by Clifford OdetsGolden Boy (with music by Charles Strouse and lyrics by Lee Adams), was playing across the street at the Majestic. I was surprised that Siegel chose a rather lackluster song instead of "While the City Sleeps," "I Want To Be With You," or the rousing "Don't Forget 127th Street."

Sadly, there were no songs offered from High Spirits, which boasts the great "Home Sweet Heaven" (music and lyrics by Hugh Martin and Timothy Gray). Much to my surprise, Noah Racey sang "I Got Everything I Want" (with music and lyrics by Jack Lawrence and Stan Freeman) from the ill-fated Buddy Hackett vehicle, I Had A Ball. A much better choice would have been the show's rousing title song (which, to my knowledge, is the only title song of a Broadway musical that featured a belly dancer).

The following clip from the Ed Sullivan Show features Broadway belter Karen Morrow (with a voice that could rival Ethel Merman) singing the hell out of the title song from I Had A Ball. Although the sound is out of sync with the video, Morrow's clarion voice never ceases to thrill.

* * * * * * * * * * * * *
Born in Toronto on September 25, 1932, Glenn Gould was hailed by many as a child prodigy. As he grew older, his eccentricities became almost as famous as his music making. Directed by Michele Hozer and Peter Raymont, a new documentary entitled Genius Within: The Inner Life of Glenn Gould examines the life of a man whose multiple talents were undeniable, but whose personality resisted the traditional career path of a concert pianist.

Under the guidance of his teacher, Alberto Guerrero, Gould developed a striking technique (known as finger tapping). In addition to singing or humming whenever he played, he used a chair that placed him in a very different physical relationship with the keyboard than typical pianists.

A replica of Glenn Gould's chair

Blessed with a tremendous amount of archival footage, this documentary includes clips showing Gould during his triumphant tour of the Soviet Union in 1957 as well as in rehearsal studios and concert stages across North America. A musician whose innate intelligence in some ways prevented him from falling into the trap of becoming a classical freak show, Gould shocked the classical music world when he abandoned the concert stage at the age of 31.

Like Barbra Streisand, Gould loved to make music but dreaded having to live up to the expectations of a live audience (he was much more at home in a recording studio). His feelings on the subject became so intense that he developed an acronym, GPAADAK, which stood for the "Gould Plan for the Abolition of Applause and Demonstrations of All Kinds."

A talented composer, orchestrator, broadcaster, and conductor, Gould continually sent shock waves through the classical music industry. To get a sense of how radical some of  his musical interpretations seemed to his colleagues, just listen to this speech given by Leonard Bernstein prior to a performance of the Brahms piano concerto No. 1 in D minor with the New York Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall.

Genius Within: The Inner Life of Glenn Gould also examines Gould's private life (he had a long affair with Cornelia Foss, the wife of Lukas Foss) and his subsequent work as a radio documentarian for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. By the time Cornelia left him in 1972 to return to her husband, Gould was relying heavily on antidepressants and showing increased symptoms of paranoia. By the time Gould died on October 4, 1982 at the age of 50, he was a shell of the promising young man who had taken the world by storm.

Glenn Gould at the keyboard

What I find so fascinating about Genius Within: The Inner Life of Glenn Gould is how richly it fills in gaps in Gould's life that have eluded the general public's knowledge of this fascinating musician. Particularly moving are the interviews with Cornelia Foss's grown children (who were too young to understand what was happening when their parents separated and when Cornelia left Gould to return to her husband).  This is a complex documentary about an incredibly complex man that will challenge you, entertain you, and occasionally take your breath away with its beauty. Here's the trailer: