Saturday, November 30, 2013

Hollywood Blows Up The White House, Twice

"Fifteen minutes after you have pitched a story to a movie producer, they will have forgotten that you ever spoke to them and will honestly think they came up with the idea themselves. This happens every day in Hollywood," explained a screenwriter friend who once had a script stolen from him by a fledgling producer.

This year the outrageous script theft award belongs to Millenium Films' Olympus Has Fallen and Columbia Pictures' White House Down, which are so amusingly similar it's a wonder nobody has been publicly sued. The idea of terrorists blowing up the White House and taking a US president hostage probably started as a propaganda effort to keep Americans afraid of their own shadows as 9/11 recedes into the historical distance. Though the bad guys are nominally Korean and American mercenaries, Olympus Has Fallen gives the game away when a TV broadcaster announces that leaders throughout the world are sending heartfelt condolences except "in the Mideast where they are all cheering."

In truth, the evil terrorists in each film are like Hitchcock's MacGuffins, necessary to advance the plot but essentially nonsensical and politically unaligned. In Olympus Has Fallen, the terrorist is a North Korean who infiltrated himself into the highest reaches of the South Korean government before unleashing his fiendish plans, but it's never clear if he and his minions are a rogue operation or are being directed by the North Korean government. The villains in White House Down have something to do with homegrown right-wing survivalists and mercenaries but the overarching motive leads once again to a robbery at Fort Knox. In both movies, the old, retiring Secret Service head turns out to be a traitor to his president and his country. "I lost my way," a too-young Dylan McDermott explains weakly in Olympus Has Fallen before our hero wreaks vengeance. James Woods is better at chewing the scenery in the same role in White House Down, and has even been given the political motivation of believing the president is making the U.S. unsafe through peace overtures to Iran.

In fact, White House Down has superior casting in just about every category. Aaron Eckhart is always interesting to watch, but he's seriously wrong in Olympus Has Fallen as the U.S. President. He would have made more sense as the renegade security hero instead of Gerard Butler, who looks like he was on one too many benders before filming began. In White House Down, Jamie Foxx enacts a sly parody of Obama and Channing Tatum channeling a young Bruce Willis is perfect action-adventure candy.

Of course, both of them have Children in Peril to deal with, Gerard with the president's son Connor and Channing with his own daughter Emily who he doesn't see very often after a divorce. Remember, since this is the same script, both children conveniently have encyclopedic knowledge of the White House and its many secret hallways, bathrooms, and hollow walls. Ever since Steven Spielberg and Jeffrey Katzenberg started feeling guilty about not spending enough time with their children while making billions of dollars, repairing a relationship between father and child seems to be one of the requirements of every script produced in Hollywood for the last two decades.

The major male-female relationships for Gerard and Channing are their high-in-the-security-bureaucracy female friends who have turned them both down for jobs. This was on account of their independent spirits, but by the final reel both women come to admire our heroes' outrageous skill and heroism in saving the president and by extension the Free World. Angela Bassett plays the character in Olympus and Maggie Gyllenhall in Down, and it goes without saying that their exceptional acting skills are completely wasted in yet another example of Hollywood's unconscious, everyday sexism.

For the sake of the narrative, both films provide a basic civics lesson on presidential succession. If the President and Vice President are dead, the next in line is the Speaker of the House of Representatives, here played by Morgan Freeman in Olympus and Richard Jenkins in Down. They were probably supposed to be archvillains in both scripts, but once Morgan Freeman was cast, somebody must have decided it wouldn't look good to have the only black man be the bad guy, so his motives are ambiguous until the finale.

My screenwriting friend left the business some time ago and even successfully litigated over the theft of his screenplay. The real punchline is that the thief was rewarded for his bad behavior and is now a major honcho at a large movie studio.

Friday, November 29, 2013

California Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving this year was on one of those warm, sunny winter days that would make you want to move to California if you didn't live here already.

I walked to San Francisco Fisherman's Wharf to buy some fresh cracked crab but they were selling it at twice the price of local groceries so I didn't bother...

...but people watched the mostly foreign tourists instead...

...along with locals out walking their dogs.

Later we saw an elderly gentleman who so enjoyed his Thanksgiving dinner at House of Prime Rib that he left in an ambulance...

...near a billboard that promised to sculpt and freeze all your holiday fat away.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Muni Mobile Madness

"Do you mean to tell me that I have to go through you in order to contact my grandfather? Is that what you're telling me? I AM a good son. I don't curse at you or swear at you when I talk to you. You WHAT? So my own mother is not inviting me to Thanksgiving, and you're going to tell all your friends that you're ashamed of me? Maybe I'll just show up, what would you think of that?"

This evening the schlub above was talking into a mobile phone loud enough for the back half of the 5 Fulton Limited Muni bus to overhear his side of a seriously neurotic conversation all the way from Van Ness to Masonic about two miles away. His fellow passengers glanced at each other furtively at first, but by the end were openly laughing at the self-absorbed monster. I was tempted to grab the phone out of his hand and shout, "Mom, you're right. You should be ashamed of him."

Happy Thanksgiving and here's a wish that your family dynamics are more pleasant than the Muni Mobile Madness above.

Monday, November 25, 2013

A Strauss and Mozart Weekend

By complete chance, I went to two concerts this weekend that focused on the music of Richard Strauss and Mozart, with a contemporary Iranian composer thrown into the mix to spice things up. Thursday evening at the SF Conservatory of Music they were presenting another Chamber Music Masters concert. The scheduled "Master," violinist Jorja Fleezanis, canceled at the last moment and her replacement was violinist Geoff Nuttall, who is known from his very successful St. Lawrence String Quartet, which Nuttall co-founded. The concert started with the string sextet that serves as an overture to Strauss's final opera, Capriccio, which is caviar for sophisticated audiences and an exquisite bore for most. I'm in the latter category, and the performance simply made me happy I was not going to have sit through a whole performance of the long, one-act opera about a Viennese Countess who has to decide between Words or Music. (The performers above are l-r Paul Hersh, Douglas Ku Won Kwon, Patricia Ryan, Natalie Raney, Jodi Levitz and Geoff Nuttall.)

This was followed by Conservatory alumni Sahba Aminkia's Deltangi-ha (Nostalgies), an autobiographical piece for piano trio about growing up in Iran and the nostalgia of an exile. The five movement piece had a detailed program, which Aminikia repeated onstage, telling us that the piano clusters were the missiles from the Iran-Iraq War and "the snow" was his first love.

Aminikia doesn't really need the explicit program because the interesting music speaks for itself, and sometimes it's better to let audiences come up with their own mental pictures. The recently formed Delphi Trio above (l-r Liana Berube, Jeffrey LaDeur, and Michelle Kwon) premiered the piece a couple of years ago, and they gave a wonderful, lively performance.

After intermission, there was a Viola Quintet by Mozart that was curiously unsatisfying. There's no one right way to play Mozart, but in my experience performers either make his music deadly dull or sparklingly alive, and it's a skill that seems to be innate. Geoff Nuttall, the La Salle Quartet Master, didn't seem to have that inner Mozartian sense, and the performance leaned towards the mannered and ponderous rather than the poetic. The piece stayed interesting mostly through the contributions of the two Conservatory students in the ensemble, Joshua Peters on violin and Laura Gaynon on cello. What one could make out from their musical lines was delightful and yes, Mozartian. (The performers above are l-r Laura Gaynon, Jodi Levitz, Geoff Nuttall, Joshua Peters, and Paul Hersh.)

At the San Francisco Symphony on Sunday afternoon, Semyon Bychkov (above right) conducted a dull, inert performance of Mozart's Piano Concerto #24 with a technically perfect, emotionally robotic Till Fellner (above left) as the soloist. Particularly after hearing Jeremy Denk playing the Mozart Piano Concerto #25 a couple of weeks ago with the same orchestra, bringing out every ounce of feeling in the music, this felt like a serious letdown.

After intermission, we were assaulted by Richard Straus's final tone poem from 1915, An Alpine Symphony. It's a gargantuan, one-hour, uninterrupted piece for a huge orchestra about hiking up and down an Austrian Alp from sunrise to sunset with a wild, freak storm thrown into the many climaxes. How I'm feeling about Richard Strauss seems to depend on the decade and the performers and my mood. There is something peculiarly Austrian and curdled and overwrought about most of his music, yet it's also seductive, and at his best he can be overwhelming.

An Alpine Symphony has some of his worst and best music side by side, and in Sunday's SF Symphony performance under Bychkov, the best conquered all before it. At a concert Bychkov conducted here last year, there was the same bad old music/good new music dichotomy, where he slaughtered Schubert's Unfinished Symphony and led a soul-stirring Shostakovich Eleventh. Let's hope he brings on those latter skills for Britten's War Requiem this coming week.

Friday, November 22, 2013

100 Van Ness Stripped

100 Van Ness is a 1970s AAA office skyscraper that's being turned into a glass-sheathed luxury apartment rental. The transformation is a perfect symbol of what is happening in San Francisco right now, as the older city is being pulverized by a new wave of money and young people.

There is plenty to be horrified about during these nouveau gold rush times, but being a good Gemini Buddhist, it's difficult not to be fascinated watching a new version of the world emerge.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Korean Placenta Jars at The Asian

The Asian Art Museum is featuring a Korean Art exhibit focused on ceremonial artifacts of the royal classes during the Joseon Dynasty from 1392 until 1910, when the Korean peninsula was once again invaded by Japan.

Korean peninsular culture is unimaginably ancient, with the oldest surviving pottery dating from 8000 BCE. That's just the tip of the historical iceberg since humans have been around since the Lower Paleolithic days 500,000 years ago.

The jars above and below are Placenta Jars where the umbilical cord and placenta of royal offspring would be sealed and given reverence.

It may be one of the oddest cultural traditions I have ever encountered.

The remainder of the exhibit features elaborate illustrated books detailing the proper etiquette for royal parades on various occasions, along with objets that made life more beautiful.

Though it doesn't have anything to do with the Joseon Dynasty, there is even a recent Nam June Paik installation with see-through dress and video screen that belongs just for its distinctive Korean eccentricity.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Catholics, Gays, Russians and Rachmaninoff

My mother was a devout Catholic until a priest told her she must exercise self control rather than birth control, and she told him to go to hell. This was in the early 1960s after doctors had explained she would probably not survive another Caesarian section, which is how she had given birth to her four children. After leaving the Holy Roman Church, she still yearned for the spiritual, so as a family we tried out one congregation after another, starting with Presbyterians and ending with Episcopalians. What I remember most strongly from those early churchgoing experiences was the seemingly endless, excruciating boredom, reinforced by a precocious skepticism that had me mentally filing Jesus stories in the same fantastical category of adult lies as Santa and the Tooth Fairy.

Last Friday evening, I went to St. Ignatius Church, the formidable, 99-year-old Jesuit stronghold high on the hill on Fulton Street. The visit was for a concert by the San Francisco Choral Society and the Golden Gate Men's Chorus, and unfortunately the experience brought back the painful ennui and discomfort of churchgoing like some poisonous childhood madeleine.

The toxic denunciations of gay marriage by current San Francisco Archbishop Archbishop Salvatore Joseph Cordileone were also an insistent background during the concert, partly because the Golden Gate Men's Chorus above started as an elite offshoot of the San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus in 1982. The latter group have long struck me as musically ghastly, so the professional quality of the Golden Gate ensemble under conductor Joseph Piazza was a wonderful surprise. Still, it was strange listening to the men perform liturgical music at an institution that officially disapproves of them. The group sang a Gregorian Chant, Randall Thompson's Alleluia, a lugubrious hymn by Nickolai Golvanov, and best of all, a minimalist tinged Hosanna by Dan Forrest, who was most recently the Department Head of Music for Bob Jones University in South Carolina. This was the Protestant educational institution that banned interracial dating until the year 2000, and whose leader, Bob Jones, Jr., was quoted saying: "Catholicism is not another Christian denomination. It is a satanic counterfeit, an ecclesiastic tyranny over the souls of men....It is the old harlot of the book of the Revelation, 'the Mother of Harlots.' All popes are demon possessed."

The major work on Friday's program was Rachmaninoff's 90-minute All-Night Vigil from 1915, sung a capella by the combined forces of the Golden Gate Men's Chorus and the San Francisco Choral Society, conducted by Music Director Robert Geary. The singing was lovely but unexpectedly bland, with the chewy, slurring consonants of the Church Slavonic text missing for the most part. A major exception was the Russian tenor soloist Kirill Duschechkin whose voice was thrilling and idiosyncratic, making one wish the evening had been designed as an operatic showcase for him. The dreary succession of Slavonic hymns also set me to wondering about the Russian Orthodox Church, which was cruelly repressed during the Soviet Twentieth Century. They now seem to be doing their 21st Century best to get back into the gay and lesbian repression game themselves, in concert with Russian right-wing politicians.

After my mother's death, my sisters came across the surprising news that her final spiritual group had been a small collection of ex-Catholics who worshiped together at a meeting room in a gay community center in San Luis Obispo, California. My mother didn't particularly enjoy having a gay son because she desired grandchildren above all, so the irony of her being part of a renegade Catholic group at a gay center at the end of her life seemed perfect somehow.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

SF Opera Community Open House

The second annual San Francisco Opera Community Open House for families took place last Saturday.

There was a small army of volunteers, including James Parr above, tending to kiddie arts and crafts tables where you could make coin props...

...along with paper corsages and hats decorated with whatever you wanted, including swastikas.

The best crafter was the boy above whose hat included a paper corsage on top that doubled as a pom-pom.

Inside the auditorium, there were musical demonstrations by orchestra members, soloists, and in the instance above, the San Francisco Opera Chorus, which was fruitlessly trying to get the audience going in a sing-along of the Barcarolle from The Tales of Hoffman and a march translated into English from Cosi Fan Tutte.

Erin Neff, above right, explained that she had been a good little girl when growing up but was always getting into trouble "because I was so loud all the time. Now I'm grown up and getting paid to be loud."

Thankfully, the baby above was more interested in absorbing the world around her than making noise.

There were supernumeraries wandering around in costumes, including Tom Carlisle above doing his best Giuseppe Verdi impersonation.

Kimberly Thompson was looking glamorous as usual, and James Crow above reminded me of the season when the opera house was being retrofitted and the company produced Verdi's Aida at Bill Graham Civic Auditorium. There weren't enough plumbing facilities to get away with body makeup so the hundreds of extras portraying the Egyptian Army looked like they were from Ireland, with a sea of knobby white knees poking out from warrior kilts.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Hamelin and The Pacifica Quartet Play Ornstein

San Francisco Performances presented a chamber music concert by the Pacifica Quartet and pianist Marc-Andre Hamelin at the SFJAZZ Center on Monday evening that was surprising and thrilling.

The concert started with Shostakovich's 7th String Quartet, which is a short, concentrated burst of strange, skittering energy that would ordinarily overshadow everything else on a program. The impassioned, expert performance was by (left to right above) Simin Ganatra and Sibbi Bernhardsson on violin, Brandon Vamos on cello, and Masumi Per Rostad on viola.

The quartet was then joined by pianist Marc-Andre Hamelin, in their first collaboration together, in Leo Ornstein's 1927 Quintet for Piano and Strings, which is a long (45-minute), ambitious, and what appears to be fiendishly difficult piece to play. As Hamelin explained on Sarah Cahill's Then and Now radio program last Sunday (click here), "Ornstein was one of the most instinctual composers I've ever encountered. He could very well dispense with accepted forms, like a sonata form or whatever, and still make it work. He could write one episode after another, but he knew how to proportion everything so that it would make sense." In the same interview, violinist Bernhardsson relates, "A lot of the transitions, you go through so many moods, the transitions actually are incredibly seamless. A lot of our rehearsing has just been figuring out the transitions because they happen so quickly and they go from such characteristic differences and are written very seamlessly which has really impressed me with this piece."

Monday evening's performance was the first in a planned tour of the U.S. and Europe playing the Ornstein quintet before making a recording, and most of the audience sat slack-jawed at the sheer virtuosity of the performers and the brilliance of the music. The first movement Allegro barbaro had so many notes for Hamelin the pianist that the pageturner beside him was advancing the score seemingly every fifteen seconds. He also seemed to act as the de facto leader of the ensemble, suddenly changing tempo to signal one of the "transitions." The soft, sinuous Andante lamentoso was a contemplative break for the audience preceding what sounded like Eastern European Gypsy tunes being fractured and passed back and forth in the final Allegro agitato, before the quintet ended gently and softly.

After intermission came the Dvorak Piano Quintet in A Major, which was played with precision and brilliance, but which sounded like they were still channeling Ornstein rather than the 19th Century Bohemian. It was still a major treat hearing violist Masumi Per Rostad (above right) playing the main theme of the Dumka movement with beautiful soulfulness.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Veterans Day Parade 2013

The San Francisco Veterans Day Parade made its lightly attended way up Market Street to Civic Center on Sunday morning.

Most of the usual suspects were present, including retired military groups marching proudly...

...and Veterans for Peace marching sadly...

...along with ancient Filipino World War Two veterans on a motorized cable car surrounded by their grandchildren demanding equal veteran's rights for their lolos.

Since this is a San Francisco parade, there were also the occasional oddities like Rosie the Riveter in a cherry-red convertible above...

...and a contingent of what looked to be Ohlone Indians.

The real excitement arrived with the high school drill teams and marching bands, who were all expert musicians.

The groups from Lowell High School, the elite academics institution on the westside, were almost frightening in their precision.

I pray that none of them end up cannon fodder and killers like so many young people before them.