Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Embracing The Whole Ridiculous Mess: Lady Gaga's Monster Ball

This review originally appeared on the San Francisco Appeal.

Lady Gaga has been such a pervasive pop culture presence of late that it's hard to believe that a mere two years ago, not many people had even heard of her. Just over a year ago, she was playing clubs like Mezzanine here in San Francisco. Eight months later, she was headlining the Bill Graham Auditorium, and now, nine months after that, she's invaded the HP Pavilion in San Jose. Is that the definition of a meteoric rise?

I didn't get on the Lady Gaga bandwagon until mid-2009, which I regret, because man, I would have to loved to have seen her in a club setting. I had to make due with the Bill Graham Auditorium show, which was the beginning of her current Monster Ball tour. She was originally going to begin a tour with Kanye West in 2009, but after his VMA Awards speechus interruptus, that tour was canceled, and she decided to go it solo, and the Monster Ball was born. But after seeing her S.F. stop, I got the feeling that the show, impressive as it was, was kind of slapped together, and probably designed with a shorter set-list in mind.

Needless to say, the tour as I saw it Monday night is bigger. Much bigger. Bigger sets; bigger costumes (of course!); and a bigger crowd. Madonna set the bar way back when with her Blonde Ambition tour, and pop stars have been reaching for that ever since. Amongst all the smoke and mirrors, the Monster Ball has a story to tell, and as infuriatingly literal as that story sometimes is, I will always appreciate Gaga's attempts to top herself.

Some of the only holdovers from the tour's earlier leg were the video montages, projected onto a giant screen that encircled the stage at the show's opening, and during longer costume and set changes. Gaga knows how to work the crowd into a frenzy, and the show slowly built its opening, as slo-mo black and white scenes of her twirling, and getting slapped, made way for the first number "Dance in the Dark," with the first half of the song sung behind the curtain, revealing her posing silhouette. By the time the curtain lifted, the crowd was on its feet, screaming along to the song.

The show's story, which one needn't worry about following, as Gaga finds the need to explain it more than once, (something Madonna would only do off stage. Gaga take note!), involves her and her friends trying to make it to the Monster Ball, while being sidetracked by a broken down car, a subway train that leads them astray, and a tornado (yes, a tornado) that drops her and her gang in a scary version of Central Park, complete with black trees, and park benches made of giant razor blades.

It was at that point in the show, with the song "Paparazzi" that I stopped being annoyed with its literalness, and just embraced the whole ridiculous mess. (I wouldn't want to spoil anything, but if you're wondering if the "Monster" in "Monster Ball" makes a literal appearance, that would be yes.)

Of almost equal entertainment was counting the number of different things seen attached to the heads of the fans--sorry, "Little Monsters"--in the crowd. Among those items were caution tape; feathers; soda cans; orbiting rings; fiber optic cowboy hats; mirror shards; bows made of hair; and horns. Also, there was a guy in a bunny costume. I don't know.

Of course, all that paled in comparison to the get-ups Gaga donned during the course of her show. My favorite was probably the white wedding dress/angel costume, with its huge train, wings, and fan headdress that opened and closed during the course of the song "So Happy I Could Die," sung while standing on a platform hovering above the crowd.

The show clocked in at two hours, and I can see an argument for some tightening here and there. Gaga likes to talk to her fans. A lot. And while these speeches are endearing, they also have the tendency to grind the show to a halt.

The irony inherent in her commanding people to be "who you want to be," paired with her pleads for worship (she likens herself to Tinkerbell, a modern pop princess fairy who will die without our constant applause), have been noted before, most brilliantly by Rich Juzwiak, and a lot of her audience love could be perceived as pandering. But I'm pushing middle-age here, so Gaga's message of embracing ones inner freak and mutual acceptance is not really aimed at me.

I hope it does get though to those who might benefit, and the fact that a nightly donation of $20,000 goes to a LBGT charity benefiting homeless youth means she's not just talk.

She's also not just show. My defense of Lady Gaga, to those who just don't get it, always begins and ends with the fact that the lady has talent. She's got an amazing voice, and a complete knack for writing a catchy pop song. Lady Gaga without the talent is Ke$ha, so I'll take Gaga any day.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

SFIFF: Get Low and Robert Duvall Tribute

This review originally appeared on the San Francisco Appeal.

The line for the Robert Duvall tribute and screening of Get Low at the Castro on Friday night started about 90 minutes before showtime, and was around the block shortly thereafter. After scarfing down some pizza at Marcello's across the street, I grabbed a spot in line, and once inside headed straight for the balcony, knowing most of the good seats on the ground floor would be cordoned off for movie types, as is the case with many of these events. As luck would have it, I was one of the first in the balcony, and got a nice seat front row center. Alas, I think the seats up there have been around since the theater's opening, as they are not the cushiest. My bum was numb by the end of the three hour night.

I learned it's pretty easy to spot movie industry folks away from their SoCal stomping grounds. The women were better dressed than any of the regular ticket holders, and the men all sported meticulously unshaven faces and wore blazers. Eventually, they were joined by someone I recognized, but couldn't name until I realized, while watching the movie, that it was actor Bill Cobbs.

A little after showtime, an introduction to the evening was made, and a brief retrospective video of some of Robert Duvall's best roles was presented. It included a lot from The Godfather movies, and not nearly enough from The Great Santini.

Following that, Robert Duvall came onstage for an interview with David D'Arcy. Duvall looked dapper, in jeans and some tan boots, and was a little shorter than I thought he'd be. The talk started with a discussion of his early acting days in New York, barely getting by, and living in such a crappy apartment that he once woke up and had to "literally flick a cockroach off [his] teeth."

D'Arcy, in what I imagine was an attempt to keep the conversation local, asked a lot of questions about the making of THX 1138, part of which was filmed in the then under construction BART tunnels. Duvall spoke highly of George Lucas' abilities as a director (I guess he hasn't seen any of the Star Wars prequels?), and called him a real innovator, which yeah, is undeniably true. Duvall had initially met Lucas when he was doing The Rain People with Francis Ford Coppola, and that's what ultimately lead to his role in The Godfather.

The on-stage portion of the interview didn't actually go on that long before it was opened it up to questions from the audience, which is always a risky endeavor. And yes, there were some questions that were actually just declarations of love, including the bringing of flowers and a love letter to the stage.

One actual question was about his role in The Road, which was really just a cameo, and Duvall was very critical of the handling of the movie saying, "the Weinsteins trashed it! They didn't do anything with that movie. They didn't do publicity or anything." He was also asked what his all-time favorite character to play was, and he was quick to say Gus McCrae in Lonesome Dove, likening the role to the American equivalent of Shakespeare.

One of the final questions was whether he'd ever consider, with his love of Argentine tango, doing "Dancing With the Stars." He replied "that's too much work!" and was also critical of the version of the Argentine tango they do on the show, saying it's not authentic, and it takes years to learn. I say, get in there and teach them a thing or two, Bobby!

Following the Q&A was a screening of his new film Get Low. (Which is just a terrible title. In trying to remember it, it inevitably gets misquoted as "Low Down," or worse, "Down Low.")

Duvall plays Felix Bush, an old hermit in 1930s Tennessee, who decides to throw a funeral while he's still alive so he can hear all the stories people would tell about him. It sounds kind of grim, but it's actually quite funny, owing in large part to the presence of Bill Murray, who plays the funeral parlor owner who agrees to put on the "Funeral Party."

Lucas Black, who I know best for his childhood role in the short-lived TV series "American Gothic," is all grown up and hunky now, and co-stars as Murray's partner at the funeral home. His southern drawl is, thankfully, still in tact. Sissy Spacek also has a supporting role as a woman who knew Felix in younger days, and the aforementioned Bill Cobbs is great in his role as a preacher.

Director Aaron Schneider, who began as a cinematographer, has a keen eye for period detail, and the small town, 1930s setting looks absolutely authentic without feeling fussy. The story itself has some overly melodramatic moments, but Duvall saves it from falling completely down the maudlin trap in a speech near the film's end that, in the hands of a lesser actor, could easily have been overplayed and obvious. Duvall's delivery in that scene brought tears to my eyes.

After the film, Duvall and director Schneider took the stage once again to take questions from the audience, most of which were variations on, "Congratulations on the movie. You were great in it!" Bill Cobbs was also brought on stage, and spoke of the instant rapport he felt with Duvall upon meeting him on the film set. He also said it was the first time he had watched the movie in its entirety, and when asked what he thought of it, he jokingly shrugged his shoulders and said, "Ehhhh."

Monday, May 3, 2010

SFIFF: Cairo Time

This review originally appeared on the San Francisco Appeal.

Middle-aged women love Patricia Clarkson, if the conversation between friends in the Balcony Bar at the Kabuki just prior to the screening of Cairo Time Thursday night is any indication:

"Oh, I just adore Patricia Clarkson."

"Oh, yes, me too. She's just fabulous!"


That last comment was not about Clarkson's looks. That bon mot came from a dog that one of the women had brought along to the theater. Now, I have to imagine that the dog was some kind of service animal, but just what kind I can't be sure, as it was a small, shaggy, black, lap dog. But, it must have been a Patricia Clarkson fan too, as not a peep was heard from it throughout the film. Perhaps it was as enraptured by the film as the rest of the audience seemed to be.

I jokingly referred to Cairo Time as Patricia Clarkson Gets Her Groove Back since the plot kind of sounds like the story of a woman finding passion in a foreign land. Thankfully, the film is much more subtle than that. Clarkson plays Juliette, a magazine writer married to a man who works for the U.N. Their children grown and out on their own, she comes to Cairo for a vacation with her husband, but finds he's stuck in skirmish in the Gaza Strip, with no real idea of when he'll be able to come to Cairo. Stuck in the foreign city alone, but not one to stay in her hotel room, she explores the city on her own, and with a local man named Tareq (Alexander Siddig), a former colleague of her husband's.

The set-up lends itself to many cliches, but the movie is able to avoid most of them. Clarkson and Siddiq are perfect in their roles, and the city of Cairo is almost a third character in the movie, alive and vibrant.

Patricia Clarkson and director Rubba Nadda were on hand after the showing to answer a few questions. Clarkson, looking quite chic in a black trench coat and black skirt, jokingly kicked up her heels telling us they had just come from having cocktail. She's quite vibrant in person, and just glows with beauty and good humor.

Rubba Nadda, who is Canadian, and of Arabic descent, discussed a trip to Cairo shee took as a teenager that stayed with her and was the ultimate influence on the film. As a result, she insisted the movie actually be shot there, as opposed to an "easier" location, such as Morocco. Clarkson had nothing but good things to say of the city, and noted that when the shoot was over and it was time to leave, those bags were the hardest bags she's ever had to pack.

The Q&A was opened up to the audience, and the most interesting exchange was probably when a woman asked about some possible naivety that the character Juliette may have demonstrated by walking the streets of Cairo in breezy "Western" outfits, showing bare arms and legs. Clarkson insisted that a lot of thought was put into what she wore in the film, and that nothing she wore would actually be considered scandalous. The director also chimed in that it's a big misconception that all the women in Middle Eastern countries are completely covered up, and that women there wear all kinds of clothing.

This is ultimately an interesting point within the context of the film, as Juliette is literally followed and groped by groups of men during her initial walks alone through the city. When she tells this to Tareq, he replies it is because she is a very beautiful woman, and makes no mention of her clothing. Apparently, the luminosity of Patricia Clarkson transcends all cultures.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

SFIFF: Gainsbourg (Je t' non plus)

This review originally appeared on the San Francisco Appeal.

Things were a little tense before the screening of Gainsbourg (Je t' non plus). Since I got to the Kabuki early, and was starving, I decided to partake in the Balcony Bar and get some overpriced food and booze before the showing. Luckily, the screening was in theater one, and I love to sit in the balcony, so I could just bring in my drink if I wasn't finished when it began, and get drunk during the movie. Perfect!

There were other people up there with the same idea, and when ticket takers appeared at the opening of the balcony, the assumption was, seating was beginning. But not so fast there, Peter Coyote, who was the first person to try to get into the theater. He was told seating was not beginning yet, and in fact, the first people to be let in would be those who were "Press A." What is "Press A" you ask? Not me, that's for sure, since I was also denied entry. I am not sure if Peter Coyote is a member of "Press A," or if he was finally recognized by one of the ushers, but he was eventually allowed to enter, and soon, those lowly normal ticket holders began to line up, only to be told the real line was outside.

Now, I know technically it's not fair if people who are eating in the Balcony Bar are let in before those who were waiting in line, but really, wouldn't the Kabuki prefer to get as much money out of people as possible? So shouldn't those up there spending 30 bucks on a quesadilla and a cocktail be given a little slack? (On non-festival nights this whole thing is avoided because when you get a ticket, you reserve a seat. But SFIFF showings are a cutthroat first come first seated operation.)

So, those holding cocktails were told to wait until those who waited in line were let in. Which lead to some bitching and moaning and at least one VERY cranky guy who did not appreciate people brushing against his legs as they passed by him to get to a seat.

So, now that I've told you all about the pre-seating show, I should probably get to the important thing: the movie. Except I can't, really. Until the movie is publically released, reviews are forbidden by the SFIFF.

But I can tell you this: the woman who introduced the movie, who was French, made the assumption that Serge Gainsbourg needs no introduction since everyone already knows who his is. I wonder about that. I think he is well-known by the French, people who were into pop music during the mid to late late 60s, and hipsters.

As I am none of those, I only knew a little about him going into the movie, mainly because more than one person has played me some of the songs he did with Brigitte Bardot. So, in case there are some out there who are as uniformed as me, in a nutshell: He was a songwriter and musician who is best known for his collaborations with beautiful young starlets, both in and out of the studio. His longest collaboration was with English model and actress Jane Birkin, and Charlotte Gainsbourg is their daughter.

The movie, which is a straightforward biopic with fantastical elements, was directed by Joann Sfar, who is also a comic book writer, and that graphic novel influence can be felt throughout the movie. The adult Gainsbourg is played by Eric Elmosnino, whose resemblance to the real life Serge is spooky. In fact, the casting of the entire movie is pretty spot on, including Lucy Gordon as Gainsbourg's ultimate muse, Jane Birkin. (Sadly, Gordon committed suicide last year, before the movie was released in France.)

Biopics always seem to have the same issues: If you're a fan of the subject, then you can fill in the blanks. If you don't know much about them, you'll probably find yourself running to the Internet after the movie is over to try and figure out just what you were missing. Let's just say, after Gainsbourg, I was thankful for the existence of Wikipedia.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

SFIFF: Walter Murch's State Of The Cinema Address

This post originally appeared on the San Francisco Appeal.

Sunday was a stunningly beautiful day in San Francisco, which of course meant I headed straight for the Film Festival so I could sit in a dark, air conditioned theater. Each year the festival invites someone influential in the film industry to give a "State of Cinema Address," discussing issues facing the movie industry and its future. Past speakers have included Tilda Swinton and Brad Bird. This year's speaker was Walter Murch, legendary editor of cinematic sights and sounds.

(One moviegoing tip: Never sit in the first row of the balcony of Theater One at the Kabuki, especially if you are fairly short, and the event involves seeing someone give a lecture. You will have to watch said lecture through bars, like you're in movie prison. But the second row, with its unobstructed view, equally cushy seats, handy side tables and access to a bar? It's a prison break into movie theater heaven.)

Murch's lecture, which included liberal use of a Mac computer and something that may or may not have been a PowerPoint presentation, was like a really good film history class. I've sat through my share of boring lectures at film school, and what I would have given to hear something as engaging as Murch's presentation. That said, it was, again, like a film class, and not quite as much of the forward-looking lecture one might expect from something billed as a "State of Cinema" address. I also think he probably had a lot more he could have presented, but being limited to an hour, the whole thing seemed to come to an abrupt end.

He began his lecture with a brief discussion of the iPad, and how the introduction of nifty new technology inevitably leads to a discussion of not what it can do, but what it's missing. In the iPad's case, it's complaints like "Where's the camera?" and "What, no USB port?" Thus it is, and thus it has always been, as he illustrated with a quote from Maxim Gorky, who wrote about seeing a Lumiere film for the first time.

"If you only knew how strange it is to be there. It is a world without sound, without colour. Every thing there--the earth, the trees, the people, the water and the air--is dipped in monotonous grey. Grey rays of the sun across the grey sky, grey eyes in grey faces, and the leaves of the trees are ashen grey. It is not life but its shadow. It is not motion but its soundless spectre."

When presented with this amazing new technology, the immediate response is, essentially, "Where's the color? And the sound?" It is this lack that propels invention forward. Murch talked about how even back in the beginnings of cinema, the idea of "one man, one machine," as opposed to the community experience of movie going, was what lead to the invention of the Kinetoscope.

With the invention of the Kinetoscope came Edison's "Kinetophone," an attempt to record sound and image at the same time, for a synced sound movie. Filmmaker William Dickson helped Edison with this endeavor, and one of the short movies they did, sans sound, is famous because some consider it to be the first presentation of homosexuality on film.

The sound that was recorded for the film was thought lost, but the recording, on a broken cylinder, was recently discovered, and Murch was able to figure out how to sync the two, resulting in the first time that bit of film and audio had been heard in over 100 years, and, in fact, the ONLY time the sound and image were ever synced correctly.

Murch then went a little further back in time, discussing the three artists he felt helped pave the way for the birth of cinema: Beethoven, whose music was influenced by the chaos of nature, and not something like the controlled art of architecture that had influenced previous composers; Gustav Flaubert, whose prose introduced realism to fiction; and, of course, Edison, the inventor who brought cinema to the masses. According to Murch, it was the collision of "dynamism and realism" that gave birth to movies.

It was about at this point that the lecture came to an end, and he took questions from the audience. Unfortunately, he seemed to miss the point of several questions, interpreting one woman's comment about how "fast" editing and cuts are these days, and whether he thinks those fast cuts are rewiring how we think, as a question about how long it takes to edit movies now compared to 20 or 30 years ago. (He said there isn't much difference in production time.)

Another question about where he saw Ada Lovelace, who invented the first computer language, fit into his timeline of influences towards the birth of cinema, he mistook to be a question about when computers where first introduced into the filmmaking process. (Someone later pointed out his mistake and he admitted he had never heard of Ada Lovelace, but would be sure to look her up. Probably on Wikipedia, like I did.)

When asked about Dede Allen, who recently died, and how women have been able to carve an influential spot in the field more readily then in other aspects of filmmaking, he joked that all editors are feminine, in that they are "cooking what the guys bring back from the hunt," and "dealing with their tantrums."

He ended the lecture with the presentation of a graph, illustrating the commonalities and differences between cinema, theater, video and dreams. Cinema and theater are community based, but only one is a repeatable experience. (No two theater performances are the same.) Video is repeatable, but is historically a "private" experience (TV, DVDs). And dreams are unique, but entirely private. Ultimately, in the center of it all, in potential, if not actuality, he places games, which can encompass all those aspects. And it was refreshing to hear him discuss this potential future not with disdain, but with excitement about the possibilities.