Monday, July 30, 2007

Kiarostami at the PFA

Saturday evening I saw 2 films at the Pacific Film Archive by the highly-regarded Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami. I'm almost embarrassed to admit that I knew nothing about him, other than that he was the teacher Bahman Ghobadi, who may be the best director working today.

First was the 1987 film Where Is the Friend's Home? A school boy sets out to accomplish the seemingly simple task of returning his friend's notebook & encounters a completely unhelpful, though never malicious, adult world. The story is straight-forward enough for a child to follow, but the movie itself is carefully constructed, poetic & incredibly respectful of the emotional lives of children. This is one of those films where every shot looks like a carefully composed photograph & every scene has a point to make.

Kiarostami has a wonderful way to end the movie. Once the main crisis has passed, the movie simply stops. There is nothing else that we need to see. Where is the Friend's Home? is the 1st part of trilogy which is concluded next weekend.

My party stayed to see the 1990 documentary Homework. This film turned out to be more for Kiarostami specialists. It is interviews with school boys about doing homework. It's evidently a social critique of the educational system in Iran. I did learn some shocking statistics about the illiteracy rate of the parents. However, I felt like I didn't have enough background about the school reforms in Iran to understand the importance of the issues raised.

Spider Pig

Like many people, I'm sure, I've been waiting for a Simpson's movie for years. So Friday night I was at the 10:30pm showing of The Simpsons Movie in the Westfield Mall. It was definitely an event. Best costumed audience member: The guy in the Duffman outfit, complete with cape, boots & beer can belt.

The movie has the jokes-on-top-of-jokes & subversive humor of the TV show, & I was not disappointed. However, I was expecting more cameos by the supporting characters who are such an important part of the texture of the TV show. Instead, it seems like the writers were determined to stick to the story line, so the focus was mainly the Simpsons family members. Not that that was a bad thing, but I'm guessing that when the DVD comes out, it will be full of random gags that didn't make the final cut. Still, Ned Flanders gets one of the funniest lines in the movie (something about the Devil's curly red hair).

Best audience moment: When it is revealed that Arnold Schwarzenegger has become President of the United States, this local audience went dead quiet. I guess no Californians find that funny.

Ingmar & Bill

News today of the passing of 2 greats: The masterful Swedish film & theater director Ingmar Bergman at age 89 & the beloved San Francisco 49ers coach Bill Walsh at age 74. I don't suppose they had much in common, other than that they both lived full, productive & accomplished lives. A friend forwarded this link to a surprisingly humorous interview with Liv Ullman as a remembrance of Bergman.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Brits Off Broadway in NYC

This post is a month late, but let's put it here for completeness. Last month I was in New York City to see Alan Ayckbourn's Initmate Exchanges at the Brits Off Broadway festival. I saw 8 plays in 6 days! I wasn't sure how I would like it, but it's such a unique theatrical event that I did not want to miss it. Fortunately, I thoroughly enjoyed the plays. The 2nd act of the "Affairs in a Tent" variation was so funny that my jaw hurt from laughing so much. & I learned that acting is a very technical task. Because I saw so many versions, I saw some scenes 4 times, & the actors were very consistent from night to night. Part of the fun is that only 2 actors play all the parts. Bill Champion & Claudia Elmhirst did such a terrific job creating completely distinct characters that very quickly I forgot that each time one of them walked off stage they had to do a quick costume change. The trick became invisible.

Other highlights of my New York trip:

  • The walk-through sculptures in the Richard Serra retrospective at the MOMA. Also the high-concept political cartoons of Dan Perjovschi drawn on the atrium walls.
  • Rug crocheted out of Wonder Bread bags at American Folk Art Museum.
  • The glass-topped Apple Store on 5th Avenue.
  • The Saurischian Dinosaurs & 34-ton meteorite at the Museum of Natural History.
  • Being taken to lunch by friends who are real New Yorkers.
  • The MoCCA Art Fest in Soho's Puck Building. I wish I had had more time for it. Matt Madden showed me proofs of his soon-to-be-released book about creating comics. Matt Feazell showed me his sketch book. I picked up Will Dinski's beautiful silk screen print of his Scientology test results. The prolific Tim Fish sold me Strugglers, the (autobiographical?) prequel to Cavalcade of Boys. I made the mistake of passing up Andy Hartzell's wordless Fox Bunny Funny, but he lives here in San Francisco, so maybe I can cross paths with him again. Due to an unexpected personal connection, I got Free Shit from Charles Burns & an autographed copy of One Eye, his new book of photography.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Iphigénie & Don Giovanni at SFO

Still catching up with last month.

On the evening of June 26th I saw Iphigénie by Gluck at the SFO. This is an opera I had never seen or heard before, & I was a little apprehensive about it being too dry. It is very serious, no frills music, but it's also dramatic & direct. The stark, black-on-black production matched the music perfectly. There's been much commentary already on the luminous final moments of the staging; check out Opera Chic & Out West Arts. Susan Graham gave a totally commanding performance in the title role. She held my attention every moment. I was also very pleased to hear the solid-voiced Bo Skovhus as Iphigénie's brother Pylade & the lyrical Paul Groves as Pylade's friend Pylade.

Then on June 28th I was back in the Opera House for Mozart's Don Giovanni. I was disappointed that Donald Runnicles was not in the pit that evening. Instead the performance was led by Donato Cabrera, whom I had never heard before. My guess is that Runnicles would have led more vigorously. There were times in the 1st act when it seemed like the orchestra was not quite keeping up with the singers. The cast was uniformly competent & very even, & each singer did something to distinguish him or herself. Charles Castronovo as Ottavio has a light voice but is extremely musical. Kristinn Sigmundsson as the Commendatore is big in voice & stage presence. Luca Pisaroni as Masetto sings beautifully & is a terrific actor. His angry Masetto is no clown. Elza van den Heever was a huge-voiced Donna Anna. She appeared due to the puzzling, last-minute replacement of Hope Briggs.

Visually, it's a macabre production. The stage floor is fractured, revealing that the action is occurring over a field of buried skulls & bones. In the banquet scene the Commendatore is not a statue but a zombie with rotting flesh & exposed bone. Don Giovanni's death is presided over by a winged skeleton rising above the stage. I suppose it was a coincidence, but this production looked very similar to the Iphigénie. It was largely black-on-black, & in the finale the setting lifted to reveal a lit sky.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Sicko & Ratatouille

What could be more patriotic than to see Michael Moore's Sicko on July 4th? I was glad I saw it. There are no real surprises, though the movie is funnier than one would expect. In one scene, Moore plays at being an innocent abroad & wanders a National Health Service hospital looking for the place to pay the bill. He eventually finds a window labeled "Cashier", only to discover that this is where patients are reimbursed for travel expenses if they have to take a taxi to the hospital!

The same week I also saw Pixar's latest release, Ratatouille. Highly recommended. It looks gorgeous. The textures of the food are rendered in such detail that you feel hungry leaving the show. I loved the character of the funereal food critic Anton Ego. Half-way through I felt like I wasn't watching a movie for children at all. & if you're wanting even more, it comes with a dead-pan short subject about an inexpert alien abduction.

I saw both these movies at the remodeled Kabuki, which is now Sundance Cinemas Kabuki. I saw Ratatouille from the balcony of the large auditorium, which is very comfortable, very wide seats, each with their own side table. I saw Sicko in one of the smaller auditoriums, which now have stadium seating.

Beggars of Life

This weekend was the Silent Film Festival at the Castro. I love this festival, & I wish I had had time this weekend to see more screenings. It's the knowledgeable & enthusiastic audiences that really make it an event.

Last night I saw William Wellman's 1928 Beggars of Life. It's the picaresque story of a reluctant romance in the world of railroad hobos. It has a pre-Pabst apperance by Louise Brooks & a big, warm-hearted performance by Wallace Beery, but other than that it seems like a fairly typical late silent-era movie. William Wellman's son spoke briefly after the screening, & he implied that the mediocre material was given to Wellman in the expectation that he would create a flop. Instead, he crafted a decent movie.

Merola's La Cenerentola: Denied!

I showed up at the Cowell Theatre in Fort Mason to try to get a ticket for Merola Opera's La Cenerentola, but they were sold out. One lucky guy just ahead of me on the waiting list was the last one to get in. Rats!

Sunday, July 08, 2007

4th of July Fireworks

It was actually a perfectly clear sky Wednesday evening for the Aquatic Park fireworks show. This made it a rarity! It was a spectacular show. I had a great view from the path atop For Mason.

City Lights at the Castro

As a run-up to the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, the Castro is showing Chaplin's City Lights all this week. Went to see it last night. What can I say? It's a classic & perfect movie.

The audience was almost completely adults, & their response was subdued, I thought. I only saw one kid there. Maybe this movie is so old that it's just an art movie & not also a family classic.

Saturday, July 07, 2007

First iPhone spotted in the wild

I was wondering how long before I started to seeing people using iPhones in the real world. Well, I just had my 1st iPhone sighting an hour ago. While in a neighborhood cafe in the Marina, I saw a young guy wearing a Google cap at the next table using his iPhone to surf the Web. He was showing it off to 2 friends.