Saturday, October 08, 2016

The Salesman

A couple of weeks ago I got to see a preview screening of The Salesman, Asghar Farhadi's taut new film about personal revenge. It plays at the Mill Valley Film Festival next week & then in Bay Area theaters in January. The story presents us with a cultured, well-educated husband & wife living in Tehran. They are about to star opposite each other in a production of Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman. In the gripping opening scene, which is in one long take & appears to be an over-stated MacGuffin, they are forced to evacuate their apartment building. They move to another apartment, previously inhabited by an elusive woman who may be a prostitute. When the wife is alone in the apartment one evening, she is assaulted by an intruder. The specific details of attack are never made explicit, but the wife is too traumatized to talk to the police, & the husband, out of a chivalrous instinct, sets out to track down the assailant himself.

Though the plot is calculated & takes many contrived side trips, the movie has an immediacy & sense of urgency. I was never sure where scenes were headed, & I liked the way that things left unsaid or unseen loomed large. In the subplot involving Death of a Salesman, it's nice seeing realistic glimpses of the production, which appears quite faithful.

Farhadi often trails the characters with a hand-held camera, & always felt like I was right in the middle of the action. Shahab Hosseini as the husband Emad is a likable & charismatic actor. It is easy to keep identifying with Emad even as his behavior becomes increasingly disappointing. There's a stage-like quality to the tension underlying every scene, & the film is unsettling. Right through its last moments, I kept re-evaluating what I thought about its moral dilemmas.

§ Forushande (The Salesman) (2016)
Asghar Farhadi, dir.
Iran, France, 125 mins.

§ Mill Valley Film Festival 39
Rafael 1, Fri, Oct 7, 7:30 PM
Rafael 2, Wed, Oct 12, 12:00 PM

Friday, October 07, 2016

Dream of the Red Chamber at SF Opera

Back in the first week of the San Francisco Opera season, I attended the 2nd performance of Dream of the Red Chamber, the opera by Bright Sheng & David Henry Hwang receiving its world premiere here. I enjoyed the visual spectacle of the production. The opening chorus of beggars, emerging from a burning village, looks like a painting come to life. Dai Yu's boat trip at the beginning of the story & her climactic disappearance at the end are depicted simply but effectively using rippling blue fabrics. I liked the visual poetry of an interlude that illustrates the passing of the seasons with falling leaves of different colors.

Scene transitions had beautiful choreography. The grand hall of the Jia family is appropriately ostentatious, & as its multi-plane backdrop rose into place, I felt like I was floating above the landscape. The transformation of Granny Jia's deathbed into a funeral bier was efficient & clever. The costumes were opulent.

The cast was uniformly strong & ardent. Tenor Yijie Shi as Bao Yu sounded open & clarion & acted befittingly like a feckless teenager in act 1. Soprano Pureum Jo as his love interest Dai Yu sang with a consistent, solid sound & had nice soft notes. I liked mezzo Hyona Kim as the imperious Lady Wang. Her singing was expressive & emphatic. Soprano Irene Roberts was a pragmatic Bao Chai. Her sound was full, & she was impressively resolute in her act 2 monologue. Soprano Karen Chia-ling Ho was a rueful Princess Jia & sang confidently. The soloists are almost all high voices, so it was nice hearing the male voices of the chorus.

Mr. Sheng's music is atmospheric, with strong, irregular rhythms, chromatic harmonies, & shimmering orchestral colors. Chinese accents are provided by gongs at moments of urgency, & there is a prominent solo for the qin. The vocal lines often feel stretched, with long-held notes at the ends of phrases. The orchestra played alertly for conductor George Manahan, & the clarinet solos were especially lovely.

The choppy storyline includes elements of romance, domestic drama, politics & Buddhist philosophy. Mr. Hwang's English language libretto is prosaic & even bald, particularly in the erotic dream scene. Supertitles & program notes were accommodatingly provided in both English & Chinese, & there were definitely more Asian faces in the audience than I am used to seeing at the opera.

There was an open curtain during intermission, with director Stan Lai talking about the production & taking questions via Twitter. The audience seemed attentive. Mr. Sheng was present to take a curtain call at the end of the performance.

§ Dream of the Red Chamber
Music by Bright Sheng
Libretto by David Henry Hwang and Bright Sheng

San Francisco Opera
Conductor, George Manahan 
Director, Stan Lai
Production Designer, Tim Yip
Lighting Designer, Gary Marder
Choreographer, Fang-Yi Sheu
Chorus Director, Ian Robertson
Fight Director, Dave Maier

Flower/Dai Yu, Pureum Jo
Stone/Bao Yu, Yijie Shi
Lady Wang, Hyona Kim
Bao Chai, Irene Roberts
Granny Jia, Qiulin Zhang
Princess Jia, Karen Chia-ling Ho
Aunt Xue, Yanyu Guo
The Monk/Dreamer, Randall Nakano
Lady-in-Waiting/Flower, Toni Marie Palmertree, Amina Edris, Zanda Švēde
Eunuch/Stone, Pene Pati, Alex Boyer, Edward Nelson

Tuesday 09/13/16 7:30PM
War Memorial Opera House

SFMOMA Modern Cinema Schedule


6:00 pm - Rashomon (Akira Kurosawa, Japan, 1950, 88 min.) with an introduction by Philip Kaufman
8:30 pm - The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Germany, 1972, 125 min.)

1:00 pm - Agnès Varda in California: Documenteur / Black Panthers / Uncle Yanco (Agnès Varda, France, 112 min.)
3:45 pm - Mysterious Object at Noon (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Thailand, 2000, 89 min.)
5:45 pm - The Seventh Seal (Ingmar Bergman, Sweden, 1957, 96 min.)
8:00 pm - L'Avventura (Michelangelo Antonioni, Italy, 1960, 143 min.)

2:00 pm - Sans Soleil with La Jetée (Chris Marker, France, 1983/1962, 132 min.)
5:00 pm - Black Girl with Borom Sarret (Ousmane Sembène, Senegal, 1966/1963, 85 min.)
7:15 pm - Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (Chantal Akerman, Belgium/France, 1975, 201 min.) with an introduction by Wayne Wang


7:00 pm - An Evening with Apichatpong Weerasthakul

6:00 pm - Mekong Hotel (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Thailand, 2012, 61 min.)
8:00 pm - Viridiana (Luis Buñuel, Spain, 1961, 90 min.)

1:00 pm - The River (Jean Renoir, France, 1951, 99 min.)
3:30 pm - Shorts by Apichatpong Weerasthakul
6:00 pm - Syndromes and a Century (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Thailand/France, 2006, 105 min.)
8:30 pm - Knife in the Water (Roman Polanski, Poland, 1962, 94 min.)

2:00 pm - Tropical Malady (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Thailand/France, 2004, 118 min.)
4:30 pm - The Spirit of the Beehive (Victor Erice, Spain, 1973, 99 min.)
7:00 pm - Cemetery of Splendor (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Thailand, 2015, 122 min.)


6:00 pm - Pitfall (Hiroshi Teshigahara, Japan, 1962 97 min.)
8:30 pm - Carnival of Souls (Herk Harvey, USA, 1962, 78 min.)

3:00 pm - Picnic at Hanging Rock (Peter Weir, Australia, 1975, 107 min.)
6:00 pm - Grey Gardens (Albert Maysles and David Maysles, USA, 1976, 94 min.)
8:00 pm - Ugetsu (Kenji Mizoguchi, Japan, 1953, 97 min.)

3:00 pm - Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, UK/Thailand/Germany/France/Spain, 2010, 113 min.)
6:00 pm - A Touch of Zen (King Hu, Taiwan, 1971, 180 min.)

Phyllis Wattis Theater at SFMOMA
Please use entrance at Minna Street, near Third Street.

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Don Pasquale at San Francisco Opera

Maurizio Muraro (Don Pasquale) and
Lucas Meachem (Dr. Malatesta).
Photo from SF Opera web site.
Wednesday night I was in standing room at San Francisco Opera for Don Pasquale, Donizetti's sprightly farce about elder abuse. Director Laurent Pelly's modern dress staging is great fun. Comic momentum was propelled by slapstick, stylish costumes, silent movie-style pantomime, dancing & a lot of opening & closing of doors. Even from up in the balcony, I did not feel I was missing any of the action. The stylized set represents a street with houses on either side & a huge rotating room in the middle, representing Don Pasquale's home. This room also turned out to function as a megaphone. Singers' voices sometimes boomed when they were standing inside.

Ernesto 1st appearance made me laugh right away. He entered wearing his pajamas & stirring a cup of coffee. It immediately established his unambitious character & gave a reason for Don Pasquale to disinherit him. Similarly, Norina's shabby apartment, with its piles of clothes & magazines but no furniture, immediately communicated her scrappy personality.

Bass-baritone Maurizio Muraro in the title role had a resonant, stentorian voice & was a terrific comic actor. His shadow boxing during his act 3 scene with Malatesta so pleased the audience that they spontaneously applauded mid-duet. He was also a very human & sympathetic Pasquale. Tenor Lawrence Brownlee has a unique voice. It's light & agile & goes high up with astonishing comfort, yet it's tensile & cutting. Mr. Brownlee had to be a game performer as Ernesto. He sang into the floor while on all fours, sang while climbing a tall ladder & dangled upside down from a window.

Soprano Heidi Stober was a gutsy Norina, & the staging did nothing to ameliorate the meanness of her treatment of Pasquale. Ms. Stober sounded sturdy & a bit sultry, & she showed off startlingly big high notes. Baritone Lucas Meachem was an elegant yet shady Malatesta. His voice was firm, suave & soothing, & he was hilarious in his duets with Norina & Pasquale. The chorus was solid & lively & came across as a character in itself. 3 supers playing Pasquale's servants were amusing presences.

Conductor Giuseppe Finzi led with quick tempos & a flexible beat. The musical climaxes were pointed. All the orchestral solos sounded smooth, & the trumpet solo for Ernesto's "Cercherò lontana terra" had a nice long line & was polished. The violins' ensemble was occasionally loose.

My opera companion & I had a conversation with a friendly usher who admitted to being curious about opera but not yet a fan when she 1st started ushering. This would be a good production to attend when there is an Open Curtain. I'd like to see how they turn Don Pasquale's house upside down during intermission.

§  Don Pasquale
Music by Gaetano Donizetti
Libretto by Giovanni Ruffini and Gaetano Donizetti

San Francisco Opera
Conductor, Giuseppe Finzi
Director, Laurent Pelly

Don Pasquale, Maurizio Muraro 
Norina, Heidi Stober 
Ernesto, Lawrence Brownlee
Dr. Malatesta, Lucas Meachem
A Notary, Bojan Knežević

Wednesday 09/28/16 7:30PM
War Memorial Opera House

Friday, September 23, 2016

Modern Cinema Series at SFMOMA

Last week the SFMOMA held a press briefing in their newly renovated Phyllis Wattis Theater to announce their up-coming Modern Cinema series, taking place on 3 packed weekends in October. Dominic Willsdon, SFMOMA's Curator of Education and Public Practice, & Frank Smigiel, Associate Curator, Performance and Film, discussed the program's themes, along with Noah Cowan, Executive Director of the San Francisco Film Society, who was actually at the Toronto International Film Festival but appeared via a choppy Skype call.

With Halloween deliberately in mind, the curators chose many films on the subject of haunting. Their selections reminded me of what would play at an art house cinema in the days before video rentals. The schedule includes art film classics Rashomon & The Seventh Seal, the cult classics Carnival of Souls & Grey Gardens, & notorious experimental works like Sans Soleil & Jean Deilman. The 2nd weekend focuses on Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul, who will attend all weekend to introduce the screenings. Philip Kaufman & Wayne Wang are also expected as guest presenters. Tickets are available online for individual shows, but as far as I know there are no series passes.

The renovated theater seats 270 & is equipped with film & digital projectors & a Meyer Sound system. The staff made sure we noted the new cupholders. The theater has its own entrance & box office on Minna Street, so that screenings can take place outside of museum hours. The stage has been deepened so that the space is also suitable for live performances.

A couple of the attendees had very specific questions about the versions of the films being shown. When Mr. Cowan was asked what was the best thing he'd seen at TIFF so far, he was eager to name Barry Jenkins's Moonlight & the biopic Jackie.

§ Modern Cinema Press Briefing
Tuesday, September 13, 10:00 am
Phyllis Wattis Theater, SFMOMA

Week 1: Haunted by Cinema | Friday, October 7 - Sunday, October 9
Week 2: Apichatpong Weerasethakul | Thursday, October 13 - Saturday, October 16
Week 3: Haunted Cinema | Friday, October 21, - Sunday October 32
Phyllis Wattis Theater, SFMOMA

The Eagle Huntress

Last week I got to see a preview screening of The Eagle Huntress, a beautifully photographed documentary set in Mongolia which will play at the up-coming Mill Valley Festival. The film introduces us to Aisholpan, a joyful 13-year old Kazakh girl who is learning to hunt with eagles, a traditional tribal skill customarily practiced only by men.

In the film's 3 parts, we see her training her eagle, competing as the only female in the region's annual Golden Eagle Festival, & finally testing her ability out in the wild, fox hunting in a tough winter landscape. Aisholpan is wonderfully confident, & the relationship between her & her father tremendously trusting. In a sequence that will frighten any parent, she rappels down a cliff to an eagle's nest & steals the eaglet she will train for the competition.

The imagery is gorgeous, with soaring crane shots & spectacular aerial views shot with a drone. No doubt the stark beauty of the mountains & snowy landscapes belies the difficulty of filming, as well as the arduousness of actually living there. The inhabitants' clothing & homes are depicted in sumptuous detail. I enjoyed seeing glimpses of Aisholpan at school, where the atmosphere seems surprisingly cozy.

The storytelling is basic. I liked the film's prologue, which shows the father freeing an eagle after its 7-year service. A recurring montage of skeptical tribal elders provides a touch of humor. The filmmaker does not get too personal with his subjects, & I did not feel that anything was at stake, but I was grateful to see a family film not in the Pixar/Disney mode. The movie is in Kazakh, apart from the minimal narration delivered by Daisy Ridley.

§ The Eagle Huntress (2016)
Otto Bell, dir. UK, Mongolia, USA. 87 mins. 

§ Mill Valley Film Festival 39
Sun, Oct 9 11:15 AM, Sequoia 1 
Mon, Oct 10 12:45 PM, Rafael 1

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Used Book Sale at Fort Mason

This week the Friends of the SF Public Library are holding one of their twice yearly used book sales at Fort Mason. It's not really the place to go if you are looking for a particular book, but browsing can be fun, &, with prices topping out at $3, there's not much risk.

My strategy is to walk along the tables until something speaks to me, like this technical manual about regular expressions, in Polish.

The exception to the $3 maximum is the section for rare & collectible books, which has some amazing items. Above is a page from Street Types of Great American Cities (1896), which claims to be edifying & whose manner is exquisitely condescending, cynical, sexist & racist.

Even after examining the contents, I had no idea what was going on here.

I also have no idea what the "I" & "A" stand for here. It probably covers anyone above the age of puberty.

The Big Book Sale continues through Sunday, when everything goes for a dollar. On Wednesday afternoon the majority of customers were buying in bulk & required shopping carts, so be prepared for long checkout lines.

§ The Big Book Sale
September 21 - 25, 2016 / 10 AM - 6 PM
Fort Mason Center's Festival Pavilion 

Hardcovers: $3 / Paperbacks: $2 / Children's Books: $1 / All Media: $1
All items will be $1 on Sunday, September 25th. 

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Mill Valley Film Festival 39 Press Announcement

Last week I attended the press announcement for the 39th Mill Valley Film Festival, which takes place October 6-16 at venues in Mill Valley, Larkspur, Corte Madera & San Rafael. Founder & Executive Director Mark Fishkin, Director of Programming Zoe Elton & Senior Programmer Janis Plotkin gave an informal rundown of the program & showed trailers for some of the films.

This year's guests include actors Nicole Kidman, Ewan McGregor, Gael García Bernal & Aaron Eckhart, as well as filmmaker Julie Dash, the 1st African American woman to direct a theatrically released feature film. Each appears in a special event featuring a screening & an onstage conversation. The closing night film is Loving, based on the story of Richard & Mildred Loving, the interracial couple who fought Virginia's anti-miscegenation law all the way to the Supreme Court. Director Jeff Nichols & stars Joel Edgerton & Ruth Negga are scheduled to attend. James Franco is expected at the premiere of his film In Dubious Battle. In commemoration of the closing of the Century Cinema in Corte Madera, the festival will show the original Star Wars trilogy there on October 8th.

There will be a film focus on Culinary Cinema, as well as clusters of films from Germany & Latin America. The mention of a 1-day schedule of films & events about cannabis caused the press conference audience to laugh. As part of the Mind the Gap series, a panel discussion will feature women technologists from the Disney animation studio. Other films highlighted at the press announcement include the German comedy Toni Erdmann, which apparently caused a sensation at Cannes, Aquarius, starring Sônia Braga, & the animated feature The Red Turtle. The trailer for Do Not Resist, a documentary about the militarization of the police, was frightening all on its own. California Typewriter, a documentary about devotees of the typewriter, sounds sweet. The slapstick Lost in Paris was intriguingly compared to a Jacques Tati film.

Times for Fire at Sea in the printed program have been changed, & a screening of Moulin Rouge! has been added on October 7th at the Century Cinema, Corte Madera.

§ Mill Valley Film Festival Press Conference 
Monday, September 12, 2016 at 6:00PM
Dolby Laboratories, San Francisco, CA

§ Mill Valley Film Festival 39
October 6 - 16, 2016
Century Cinema, Corte Madera
Century Larkspur, Larkspur
Cinearts Sequoia, Mill Valley
Lark Theater, Larkspur
San Rafael Film Center, San Rafael

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Lucia di Lammermoor at Opera San José

Last week Opera San José opened their 33rd season, & on Sunday I attended their production of Lucia di Lammermoor. Soprano Sylvia Lee sang & acted the title role so proficiently that it seemed almost light for her. Her voice was clean, pretty & smooth throughout, & it cut through to the ear without being loud. Her Lucia was frightening in the mad scene & looked both scared & dangerous. I liked that the staging had her interacting with other characters, who were not able to keep sharp objects out of her hands.

Tenor Kirk Dougherty's wide-eyed Edgardo looked constantly startled. He made an effortful sound that evinced muscle & stamina, & he was unfailingly strong all the way through his death scene. As Enrico, baritone Matthew Hanscom was big-voiced & appropriately blunt & bullying. Bass Colin Ramsey was a benign Raimondo, his voice clear, soft-edged & slightly slender. Tenor Michael Mendelsohn was a scene-stealing Arturo, comically preening & leering. The relatively small chorus sang cohesively.

The orchestra sounded balanced under conductor Ming Luke, & it was nice that his beat could be flexible. I was fortunate to be seated just 3 rows from the stage, & it was interesting to observe the flutist stand up in the pit & turn to face the stage when she accompanied Lucia's mad scene.

The production was conventional, with period costumes & flat scenery. All the indoor scenes were set in the same wood-paneled interior, meaning the Wolf's Crag scene was transported to Lammermoor, making Edgardo crash the wedding party twice. The audience was generally attentive, though I heard people comment about the set each time the curtain went up. Someone's hearing aid squalled throughout the performance, & I felt really bad for Edgardo when a cellphone started ringing in the closing moments of his big scene at the end of the opera.

Opera San José has a new ticket design which helpfully displays the seat number in a large font. It was fun to break the fourth wall during intermission by chatting with Oboeinsight, who tried to convince me that the oboe is actually not that hard to play.

§ Lucia di Lammermoor
Music by Gaetano Donizetti | Libretto by Salvadore Cammarano

Opera San José
Conductor, Ming Luke
Stage Director, Benjamin Spierman

Lucia, Sylvia Lee
Edgardo, Kirk Dougherty
Enrico, Matthew Hanscom
Alisa, Anna Yelizarova
Normanno, Yungbae Yang
Arturo, Michael Mendelsohn
Raimondo, Colin Ramsey
Opera San José Orchestra, Chorus, Dancers and Supers

Sunday, September 11, 2016, 3p
California Theatre, San Jose