Sunday, January 29, 2012

Noir City Double Feature

Noir City, 01.28.2012 David Ladd and Alan K. Rode in conversation after showing of 1949 version of The Great Gatsby at the Castro Theatre.It was so crowded for the Noir City double feature at the Castro Theatre on Saturday that I ended up sitting in the balcony. I was curious to see the 1949 version of The Great Gatsby, with Alan Ladd in the title role. Alan K. Rode introduced the movie & interviewed David Ladd, Alan Ladd's son, after the screening. Mr. Ladd accurately described the movie as a "simplistic" re-telling of the novel & averred that it wasn't as bad as he remembered. It was a financial failure and never shown on TV or released on DVD. A bright spot is the casting of Shelley Winters as Myrtle, though her character is reduced to a cameo. The audience laughed at the crude process shot showing her being run over. The director's daughter, Nancy Nugent, was present in the audience.

I enjoyed the 2nd feature, Three Strangers, more. John Huston has a script credit. The O'Henry-like plot involves 3 London strangers whose lives intersect during Chinese New Year. Each owns a share of a winning racing ticket, & 2 out of the 3 behave badly. The movie has good performances by Sydney Greenstreet, Geraldine Fitzgerald and Peter Lorre, who is cast against type as a loveable, Shakespeare-quoting alcoholic.

§ Noir City

The Great Gatsby
1949, Paramount [Universal], 91 min.

Three Strangers
1946, Warner Bros., 92 min.

Castro Theatre
Saturday, Jan 28

British Arrows Awards 2011

Walkers Shortbread, 01.26.2012 Walkers Shortbread samples for audience at British Arrows Awards screening at YBCA.This week I saw this compilation of 50 award-winning Web and TV adverts from Britain. It's so dense with strong, well-executed ideas that it's like watching an action movie where there's an explosion every minute. In one breathlessly exuberant commercial, referencing Leni Riefenstahl's Olympia, a soccer fan runs across the globe. in another, a man takes an exhilarating roller coaster ride to work. Only a couple of the ads use sex to sell, but humor features in a majority of the selections. It was fun to see one of the Sony Ericsson Web videos of the hilariously condescending focus groups at the Product Testing Institute. The audience also laughed a lot for a Doritos Web video delivering inept advice on how to create great ads.

I was often impressed by how much information could be conveyed in a short time. In an ad that does not even mention a product, the panoply of a woman's life, from infancy to old age, passes before us in less than 90 seconds. It made me anxious. I was totally disturbed by a surreal promo populated with cartoon parodies of advertising imagery. It even had a fish on a bicycle.

Three McDonald's ads made it into the show, & it was weird to see a customer step up to the counter & order tea. Aardman created a marvel with their stop-motion animation of a figure less than 1 cm high, shot with a Nokia cellphone and a microscope. Like last year, the Best TV Commercial award went to T-Mobile, for an Impov Everywhere-type stunt in which singers and beatboxers greet passengers arriving at Heathrow. It's happy but not very original. As an added bonus, those of us at the afternoon screening received free samples of Walkers shortbread.

§ British Arrows Awards 2011
(Formerly British Television Advertising Awards)
Thu-Sun, Jan 26-29, 2012  •  2, 4, 6 & 8 pm

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Occupy the Banks

Hacked Muni Shelter ad
Hacked Muni shelter ad at Mission and Third Streets. The alterations are under the glass.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Noontime Concerts: French Music Festival

As part of their French Music Festival, the inaccurately-named Noontime Concerts presented tenor Brian Thorsett with French horn player Kevin Rivard & pianist Dmitriy Cogan on Tuesday. The program was all short pieces & made me feel I was in a comfy sofa in a French drawing room, having tea & cookies. Mr. Thorsett has a clear, bell-like voice, though his highest notes sounded thin. He sang the 5 songs by Dorumsgaard with a sweet simplicity & was often very soft, creating an intimate mood. Both the Aubade aria by Lalo & the Elégie by Massenet had a languid, stretched-out feel. He did a nice falsetto in the Lalo & a smooth crescendo/diminuendo at the end of the Massenet.

Horn player Kevin Rivard accompanied Mr. Thorsett in the pieces by Mercadante & Massenet & was soloist for pieces by Dukas & Gartenlaub. His playing was consistently smooth, clean and warm, & he had great dynamic control. He did a terrific trill in the Mercadante. I liked the way he could make the horn sound like it was echoing from far away. Gartnelaub's Pour Le Cor was the one modern-sounding piece & was moody, mysterious & urgent. It received extended applause. Mr. Cogan is a dainty pianist who executes run and tremolos very rapidly & evenly. He looks cheerful when he plays. The 3 musicians achieved a good balance despite the echoey church acoustic.

Mr. Thorsett told us that Massenet's Elégie was the audience participation portion of the program & invited us to sing along if we knew the words, or to "just sound French." I did not hear anyone join in.

§ Noontime Concerts
French Music Festival

Kevin Rivard, horn
Brian Thorsett, tenor
Dmitriy Cogan, piano

F. S. Mercadante: L'Appel du Chasseur
Paul Dukas: Villanelle
Arne Dorumsgaard: 5 Early French Songs
     L'Amour de moy
     Cashez, beaux yeux
     Cette année si belle
     Que je plains tous ces esprits
     Le célèbre menuet d'exaudet
Jules Massenet: Amour Benis
Edouard Lalo: "Aubebe" from Le Roi d'Ys
Odette Gartenlaub: Pour Le Cor
Jules Massenet: Elégie

Tuesday, January 24 12:30 p.m.
Old St. Mary’s Cathedral

§ Photo of Mr. Rivard by Heather George

Friday, January 20, 2012

Cantor Arts Center

Sequence, Richard Serra, 01.18.2012 Sequence (2008) by Richard Serra at the Cantor Arts Center, Stanford University.Looking for something to keep me off the Internet on Wednesday, I took a field trip to the Cantor Arts Center on the Stanford campus. After a calming 20 minute walk from Caltrain, I ate at the museum's tiny cafe & then wandered the 2 floors of galleries at random. The collection's variety surprised me. I came across such diverse objects as Rodin drawings, a finely carved Egyptian stela, a Henry Fuseli painting, Japanese netsukes & photos by Edward Weston. There are some really fun pieces currently on display, such as Duane Hanson's slovenly realistic Slab Man & William Kentridge's anamorphic Medusa drawing, which needs to be viewed in a cylindrical mirror. A massive walk-through Richard Serra is behind the museum.

The Accident, Willem Geets, 01.18.2012 Detail of The Accident (1899), by Willem Geets, at the Cantor Arts Center, Stanford University.There are also some real howlers. In the 1890s, Mrs. Stanford put her jewelry up for sale to raise funds for the University, & she had Astley David Middleton Cooper paint a wall-sized portrait of them, complete with lot numbers. As it turned out, she was unable to find buyers. Truly reprehensible is The Accident (1899) by Willem Geets, which depicts a Medieval Belgian crowd watching a man strip down before he jumps into a canal to rescue a drowning child.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Sneak Preview of The Great Gatsby

Tuesday evening Ensemble Parallèle held an informative preview event for their up-coming production of John Harbison's opera of The Great Gatsby. Composer Jacques Desjardins gave us a detailed explanation of his reorchestration for chamber ensemble. His challenge was to use fewer instruments yet preserve the original score's orchestral colors. He proudly showed us pages of the score demonstrating his solutions for replacing the "singular voice of the harp" with other instruments. Harbison himself has sanctioned Mr. Desjardins's work.

Conductor Nicole Paiement laid out the opera's structure & pointed out musical motifs & places where the orchestra foreshadows the story. Her close study of the score was evident. 6 members of the cast were on hand to perform excerpts, accompanied by the piano. All the singers dropped easily into their roles. Soprano Susannah Biller is a strong & steady-voiced Daisy, & I liked the sultry passage we heard with her & mezzo Julienne Walker as Jordan. Tenor Dan Snyder sounds appropriately firm & muscular as Tom Buchanan. Mezzo Erin Neff was a very direct actress as Myrtle in her Train Aria, & baritone Jason Detwiler fittingly reflective in one of Nick Caraway's arias. Tenor Marco Panuccio as Gatsby sounded suave & was lightly comic in a short dialogue accompanied by one of Harbisons' original jazz tunes. We also heard an ensemble with multiple characters expressing their differing thoughts, which Ms. Paiement described as Mozart-like.

Finally director Brian Staufenbiel discussed the staging. He claimed to "abandon realism" in the set design, though the pictures he showed us clearly indicated the locations, but without filling them up with realistic details. Video projections will animate the sets both from behind & in front, & Mr. Staufenbiel showed us a video for the eyeglasses billboard, which comes to life & watches the characters. The presentation ended with a brief Q&A & a reception with the musicians & production staff.

Ensemble Parallèle presents The Great Gatsby By John Harbison on February 10, 11 And 12, 2012 at San Francisco’s Yerba Buena Center For The Arts.

§ Sneak Preview of The Great Gatsby

Ensemble Parallèle
Conductor, Nicole Paiement
Director, Brian Staufenbiel
Pianist, Keisuke Nakagoshi

Susannah Biller (Daisy Buchanan)
Marco Panuccio (Gatsby)
Dan Snyder (Tom Buchanan)
Jason Detwiler (Nick Carraway)
Julienne Walker (Jordan Baker)
Erin Neff (Myrtle Wilson)

January 17 2012, 6:00pm
Sol Joseph Recital Hall, San Francisco Conservatory of Music

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Best of Annecy 2011

This compilation of animated shorts from the Annecy International Animation Film Festival got sold out last year, but fortunately the SF Film Society brought it back this weekend, & I was finally able to see it on Friday. The selection showcases a variety of techniques, though there is a lack of memorable stories. The program repeats on Sunday at New People Cinema.

The Eagleman Stag (Mikey Please, England, 9 min)
Intricate stopmotion animation of a fragile world painstakingly constructed of white paper. The visuals illustrate the bitter, existential musings of a world-weary entomologist.

Plato (Léonard Cohen, France, 8 min)
A wordless film combining stopmotion & drawing. A 2-dimensional figure pops in and out of the 3-dimensional world.

How to Feed the World? (Denis Van Waerebeke, Poland, 10 min)
An animated infographic explaining world hunger & food dependency in the schematic style of an airplane safety card. Problems arise because humans can't photosynethesize and there is a market for food. 

The Lost Town of Switez (Kamil Polak, Poland, 21 min)
A hallucinatory mashup of computer animation, painting & the imagery of Eastern Orthodox icons. The mix of visual styles is spooky & disconcerting.

Sidewalk Scribble (Peter Lowey, Australia, 3 min)
Wittily animated street sketches, set dancing to a Hungarian Rhapsody by Lizst. I enjoyed its improvisational feel & the observational quality of the drawings. It's the one film I immediately wanted to watch again. 

Paths of Hate (Damian Nenow, Poland, 10 min)
A computer-animated battle between to nihilistic 2 fighter pilots, in the style of old war comics. The film takes its violence very seriously & is both slick & very gory.

A Morning Stroll (Grant Orchard, England, 7 min)
In the sick humor category, this film tells the same anecdote about a chicken 3 times. Each retelling is in a different style & becomes grosser & grosser. It's satirical silliness made everyone in the audience laugh.

Chroniques de la poisse / Sticky Ends (Osman Cerfon, France, 7 min)
More sick humor, expressed with flat, crude drawings & a cruel but deadpan sense of humor. Grotesque, violent deaths come to innocent people who cross paths with a dejected fish.

Luminaris (Juan Pablo Zaramella, Argentina, 6 min)
Zany story set to a tango that uses pixilation to animate live actors in a fanciful lightbulb factory. Most impressive are the outdoor shots in which actors glide down the streets along with the sun's pixilated shadow.

§ The Best of Annecy 2011
Friday, January 13 & Sunday, January 15
SF Film Society Cinema

§ Picture credit: Sticky Ends, Osman Cerfon

Period of Adjustment

I was wary about seeing this obscure Tennessee Williams play, but I'm glad I caught Period of Adjustment before it closes at SF Playhouse this weekend. Weirdly, the play is a romantic comedy. The production is cozy, starting with a very cute set depicting a suburban home straight out of a 1950s sitcom. The married couple that inhabits it even sleeps in single beds. It's Christmas Eve, & Ralph, a Korean War vet, receives an impromptu visit from his newlywed army buddy, George. Ralph's wife has just left him, & it looks like George has abandoned his new bride on Ralph's doorstep. Since it's Tennessee Williams, the dialogue has that poetic quality that makes it seem as if the characters are singing instead of talking. And male anxiety about sexual performance is a major theme.

The staging has a streamlined flow & faithfully reproduces the 1950s. The 6 actors, 3 of whom do not even appear until after the intermission, are a good ensemble cast. Johnny Moreno is darkly charismatic as Ralph, & he does not overdo his character's bravado. Patrick Alparone's performance as George is appropriately jittery, & he makes for a good physical contrast with Mr. Moreno. In her brief appearance as George's mother-in-law, Jean Forsman communicates anger & disgust categorically. As George's wife, Maggie Mason only materializes at the very end of the play. She inserts herself smoothly, & her Dorothea is wonderfully self-possessed & unaffected, especially as she delivers the play's final line.

The SF Playhouse is a tight squeeze for both the audience & the stage. I saw a young woman fall to the floor while getting to her seat in the middle of an aisle. People on my side of the theater walked across the stage to get to their seats, & a few of us helped ourselves to the plate of cookies which sat on the prop television downstage.

§ The SF Playhouse

Period of Adjustment
by Tennessee Williams
directed by Bill English

Patrick Alparone, George Haverstick
Jean Forsman, Mrs. McGillicuddy
Joe Madero, Mr. McGillicuddy
Maggie Mason, Dorothea Bates
MacKenzie Meehan, Isabel Haverstick
Johnny Moreno, Ralph Bates

11 January 2012 7pm

§ Production photo: Jessica Palopoli

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

SF Symphony with Tetzlaff

Christian Tetzlaff, 01.08.2011 Violinist Christian Tetzlaff signing CDs after his performance of the Ligeti Violin Concerto with the SF Symphony.I had a seat in the side terrace for the San Francisco Symphony's well-attended Sunday matinee. MTT led Liszt's Prometheus tone poem without a baton & shifted easily between moods, but I did not grasp the overall structure, if there is one. It was surprising to hear a fugue in the middle of it. There is also an unusual passage for trumpet & tuba. The performance was clean, & the strings played strongly & with bite.

MTT addressed the audience before soloist Christian Tetzlaff came out for the Ligeti Violin Concerto. MTT noted the work's "recklessness" & gleefully pointed out the ocarinas in the orchestra. The piece uses a reduced orchestra, with only 11 strings & a handful of brass & woodwinds, but of course it requires 3 percussionists. Mr. Tetzlaff's playing was consistently smooth & warm, no matter how extreme his part. He could have been playing Mozart. The long violin lines in the middle movements were beautiful, & his chords & pizzicato were were emphatic & startlingly crisp. According to the program notes, Mr. Tetzlaff supplied his own cadenza, which included eerie quarter tone double stops & a spooky passage in harmonics that uncannily imitated whistling. MTT beat time fastidiously & led with relative restraint. The dance & folk elements of the piece came through, especially in the last movement. I liked the brasses' softly played chorale in the 2nd movement, & the entire orchestra played alertly. Mr. Tetzlaff has a happy & boyish stage presence, & he received a warm response from the audience & the orchestra.

Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 1 occupied the 2nd half. MTT had a score on the podium, but he never opened it. The orchestra, especially the strings, made a full sound throughout. Every movement seemed to unfold at the same ceremonious tempo. I enjoyed the lovely, pure-toned clarinet solo in the 1st movement & the long, seamless oboe solo in the 2nd movement, both solos nicely understated.

Michael Tilson Thomas, conductor

LISZT: Prometheus, Symphonic Poem No. 5
LIGETI: Violin Concerto
TCHAIKOVSKY: Symphony No. 1 in G minor, Opus 13, Winter Daydreams

Sun, Jan 8, 2012 2:00pm
Davies Symphony Hall

Monday, January 09, 2012

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

Over the weekend I saw the new film version of John le Carré's Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. The film's emphasis is on its dreary & institutional atmosphere. Everything seems to happen on overcast winter days. If I hadn't already seen the 6-hour TV version, I doubt I could have followed the tortured plot. We often see only the negative space around events, making it even more opaque. We also have to absorb events out of sequence, & then there's a boozy office Christmas party that the film keeps returning to. Gary Oldman's performance as George Smiley is so calculatingly cold that it is practically non-existent. Afterward, I couldn't remember ever seeing the character move. The cast of venerable British actors may have been underutilized. My favorite moment came from Simon McBurney as a disapproving government bureaucrat, who butters a piece of toast & bites into it quite expressively.

Director: Tomas Alfredson
France, UK, Germany, 127 min

Oddball Films: One In A Million

Noting the rise of digital projection systems, Stephen Parr, director of Oddball Films introduced this evening with the claim that "Film is becoming a rarefied thing." We were then treated to a genre-defying selection of rickety, washed-out films from the Oddball archives in a program loosely exploring the theme of money. We saw the opening sequence of $, a 1970s bank heist film starring Warren Beatty & Goldie Hawn. The 1st shot, showing a dollar sign suspended from a crane, parodies the flying Jesus from La Doce Vita. The Disney studio does a terrible job of repurposing their old cartoons to inform us how to be good consumers in Buyer Be Wise. Trader Vic’s Used Cars is a terrific short documentary about used car salesman Victor Snyder, who is wonderfully old-school & has a great line in comic patter. My movie companion & I disagreed later about whether he was actually telling the truth about a sales prank.

The strangest item was an episode of Million Dollar Bowling, a 1950s TV game show in which extremely serious bowlers compete to earn up to a million dollars. Henry Mancini appears as one of the celebrity team captains. The Oddball audience got genuinely engaged in the contest, cheering at strikes & groaning at open frames. The Money Tree, an educational film set firmly in the body-conscious 1980s, is distressingly hopeless as it tells the story of a newlywed couple with too much consumer debt. In The Face of Lincoln, sculptor Merrell Gage molds a large head of Lincoln while narrating the president's life. It is weirdly entertaining, especially when the artist ages the portrait head as the life story progresses. The program ended with a minimally animated cartoon telling the Zen-like story of a poor stone cutter seduced by greed.

§ Oddball Films: One In A Million
Guest Curator, Soumyaa Kapil
$ (1971), opening sequence
Director: Richard Brooks

Buyer Be Wise (1982, animated)

Disney Cartoon

Trader Vic’s Used Cars (1976)

Director: Charles Braverman

Million Dollar Bowling (1950s TV)

The Money Tree (1983, educational)

Face of Lincoln (1955)

Director: Edward Freed

Tara the Stonecutter (1955, animated)

Director: John Wilson

Friday, January 6 at 8:00PM