Saturday, December 29, 2018

Favorites of 2018 (and 2017)

L to R, top to bottom: Annihilation, Antony & Cleopatra,
Pelleas & Melisandre, Burning

Putting together "best of" lists in these times can feel frivolous, and last year I never got beyond a perfunctory list of my favorites. 2018 was a blur of more awfulness and protests, plus getting out the vote and progress in the Mueller investigation. It was also a damn fine year for cinema, and I got the list together. Here are my favorites in various categories (and 2017's picks at the end).

L to R, top to bottom: Blindspotting, Hereditary,
Burning, The Favourite, Annihilation,
The Death of Stalin

Annihilation: This movie reminded me of Under the Skin in several ways, including the audience's love-it-or-hate-it reaction. I loved it, but there was a lot of weird laughter at dramatic moments in my screening. Great special effects, and I preferred this contemplative, ambiguous film to director Alex Garland's debut, Ex Machina.

Blindspotting: With Black Panther, Sorry to Bother You, and Blindspotting, 2018 was a big cinematic year for Oakland. Directed by Carlos López Estrada and written by and starring Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal, tonal roller coaster Blindspotting looks at a contemporary, gentrifying Oakland and police violence.

The Death of Stalin: I watched this movie twice this year. Once in theaters, and then again after Brett Kavanaugh was confirmed to the Supreme Court. Totalitarianism is a cancer, but the way its aggrandizement and increasingly ludicrous untruths inevitably paint its loyalists into corners is ripe for satire. How else to capture the whiplash of absurdities and atrocities?

Hereditary: As in other A24 horror movie The Witch, a teenager must deal with not only a malevolent supernatural entity, but with guilt, grief, and the weight of the family's blame in the aftermath of a tragedy. Toni Collette and Ann Dowd are powerhouses.

The Favourite: I went into this expecting to be wowed by Olivia Colman, and was even more wowed than anticipated. Yorgos Lanthimos takes a historic event (Britain's withdrawal from the War of the Spanish Succession) and gives us a tightly wound story of politics, power plays, chronic illness, abusive relationships, and Mad Max: Fury Road's Nux in elaborate 18th Century finery.

Burning: Based on a short story by Haruki Murakami, this slow burn by Chang-dong Lee is a master class in cinematography and tension. It's also very much of the zeitgeist. In Burning, Seoul's underemployed millennials live in cramped, dark studios or their parents' houses and compete in the marginal gig economy while their 1-percenter peers lounge in the tony Gangnam neighborhood Psy made world-famous a few years back. The three lead actors (Ah-in Yoo, Steven Yeun, and Jong-seo Jun) are excellent.

Books (I read in 2018, not necessarily published in 2018)

Moriarty by Anthony Horowitz: This twisty post-Reichenbach Falls Sherlock Holmes novel deals with whether or not math professor/crime lord James Moriarty survived that incident. Includes my new favorite Moriarty origin story. (Fans of this sort of thing might also want to check out Professor Moriarty: The Hound of the D'Urbervilles by Kim Newman.)

Wonder Valley by Ivy Pochoda: Drifters, runaways, and cultists populate this contemporary Southern California noir.

The Charm Buyers by Lillian Howan: One of the highlights of 2018 was reading at Lit Crawl, an annual evening of literary readings across San Francisco's Mission District. After my group's reading, a few of us ended up at a reading where Lillian Howan read a short story so powerful that I had to look her up and order her novel. In The Charm Buyers, Marc Antoine Chen, a member of the Chinese Hakka community in Tahiti, has a loving extended family and is the heir to a fortune in black pearl cultivation. But Marc seems determined not to make life easy for himself, shunning his father's business in favor of his own illegal operations and falling for first his cousin and then an older French woman. When his cousin falls ill, Marc must decide whether or not to potentially sacrifice everything for her.

The Yonahlosse Riding Camp for Girls by Anton DiSclafani: Just squeaking in under the wire (I devoured this book over the holidays) is this Depression-set page-turner about a Florida teenager sent away to a remote girls' boarding school after a mysterious, scandalizing incident. Horses + a narrator who's a prickly but engaging addition to the "coming of age" genre.

The Good Place and Kid Gorgeous at Radio City

While the movies I loved this year often starkly confronted our current times, I looked for laughs and comfort in other media. This year I finally started watching (and quickly got caught up on) The Good Place, which, despite being about death and Hell, is a warm blanket and cup of tea of a show. Honestly, few things have helped me with my anxiety as much as William Jackson Harper's Chidi.

John Mulaney's special Kid Gorgeous at Radio City is his best so far and a welcome respite as we try to deal with the horse loose in this hospital. Plus, there's a solid intro of Art Deco porn if you're into that.

The dancers of Fury

Pelleas & Melisandre: I attended all three of West Edge Opera's summer productions, and this Debussy opera directed by Keturah Stickann was my favorite with its lush, sensuous sets and costumes. For 2019, I'm most looking forward to Elkhanah Pulitzer's take on The Threepenny Opera!

Fury: A ballet based on Mad Max: Fury Road? It works!

Antony & Cleopatra: A National Theatre Live production with Ralph Fiennes and Sophie Okonedo as Shakespeare's hot mess couple? Yes, please! I bought this ticket impulsively on a Bad News day (I don't even remember which one), but it was well worth the drive to the Lark Theater in Larkspur.


Randy Rainbow: Another year of the Trump Administration, another year of Randy Rainbow keeping us sane! Throughout the lows and lower lows of 2018, Randy was there with timely song parodies. My personal favorite this year was his Gilbert and Sullivan take on "a very stable genius," but other topics included Rudy Giuliani joining Trump's legal team and the ever-intensifying Mueller investigation. Can't wait to see him live with my mom in 2019!

And 2017:

SF Ballet Frankenstein
SF Ballet Salome
Cyrano de Bergerac - Livermore Shakespeare
La Traviata - SF Opera
Girls of the Golden West - SF Opera

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders
A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James
The Decameron by Boccaccio

The Florida Project
Call Me By Your Name

Saturday, September 15, 2018

Mad Max Fury Road: the Ballet

The Mad Max crew rushes back to the Citadel

On Friday, 9/14/18, I woke up with a headache. Then my cat threw up under the bed. I managed to get to work on time. There was an exciting development, with Manafort flipping, but what really jump-started my day? A tweet from San Francisco Ballet about a performance some of its dancers were in: a ballet inspired by Mad Max: Fury Road. I love ballet. I love Mad Max: Fury Road. There were only two performances: that night and Saturday night, which I wouldn't be able to make.

I have never bought a ticket so fast. Somewhere in the digital dash for a Fury ticket I absorbed that principal Frances Chung was one of the SF Ballet dancers, but it was only after I purchased my general admission ticket that I saw that two of my other favorites, Dores André and Jennifer Stahl-Weitz, were performing as well, along with Luke Ingham and three principals from Alonzo King LINES Ballet: Adji Cissoko, Babatunji, and Michael Montgomery. How had I not known about this before Friday? I followed both Frances Chung and Dores André on Instagram, but somehow despite my social media addiction, was not paying it enough attention.

My headache continued, impervious to meds or caffeine. But I was determined, and after work I hoped on the T, stopped for a quick pizza dinner in the Dogpatch neighborhood, and then continued to the Midway SF, an arts space in an industrial area near Islais Creek.

An abandoned something or other nearby

The crowd was definitely younger and hipper than most ballet crowds, but there were plenty of older folks willing to come out in the middle of nowhere to see such illustrious dancers. (Or maybe I'm prejudiced - the well dressed Boomers could have also been hardcore fans of George Miller's dieselpunk masterpiece with zero connections to ballet.)

The doors opened at 7pm (there was no indication of when the performance would start, and a last-minute Facebook query went unanswered). Inside the dark, maze-like complex was a stage-in-the-round connected by a catwalk to a stage for the musicians. There were multiple bars. There was an attached cafe with more alcohol and food. There was a VIP room. I came alone and I'm not cool, so instead of socializing and drinking, I got a water from the bar, plopped myself on the concrete floor in front of the stage (chairs and stadium seating were strictly for those who had bought VIP tickets), and used my phone's flashlight to read a novel I had with me. My extreme uncoolness ended up being a huge boon.

Babatunji (Max) and Montgomery (Nux) on the catwalk,
with the VIP crowd behind them

I sat there on the floor for over an hour (the show finally started around 8:45pm) as my headache continued and the room filled up. Based on a few social media posts I saw afterwards, a lot of people couldn't actually see the show. Apparently some tried standing on the bars, but were made to get down. Another person on twitter said many left. I was impervious to all this.

Just how amazing my spot was didn't completely dawn on me until the dancing started. The music was by classical/pop fusion band YASSOU, and it was original, not Junkie XL's (a.k.a. Tom Holkenborg) soundtrack from the movie. YASSOU front woman Lilie Hoy (who played Capable) opened Fury with a song about memories of the world before the apocalypse while the projection screens showed lush green landscapes. The music was good, but I'll be totally honest: I was there for the dancing, and found the opening song a bit slow.

Babatunji, Montgomery, and Hoy

But then Luke Ingham charged out! Playing a much hotter version of Immortan Joe (sadly, I did not get any passable photos of him), Ingham moved around the tiny round stage with power and abandon. At one point he rushed nearly to the edge of the stage where I sat, and I realized that I was 1) sitting within arm's reach to a performance by some of the country's best dancers, and 2) that I had paid $35 for it. Yeah, I was on a hard floor and had to hunch down a little to see under the barrier, but it was still a better view than the box seats at the War Memorial Opera House (I assume).

By the time Babatunji made the most interesting, graceful crawl across a pretend desert ever, the headache receded from my awareness.

This elation only intensified as Stahl-Weitz (Splendid) and André (Toast) came out. I first fell in love with André when she danced the lead in Arthur Pita's Salome in March 2017, which I saw from a discounted dress circle seat. Her intensity can be felt from the balcony, but from a few feet away? Electric!

Dores Andre and Jennifer Stahl-Weitz

Also electric was Adji Cissoko as Furiosa. Her role as a principal at LINES is apt, considering her, well, lines. She is a live power line. And seeing Chung's (the Keeper of the Seeds) expressive face so close? Priceless (but again, $35!!!). A section en pointe with André, Chung, and Cissoko was a highlight for me.

Chung and Cissoko, VIP section in background

Although the story of Mad Max: Fury Road is obviously pared down for Fury the hour-long ballet, it gets the emotions right. You have the story of a harsh world, constant violence, and a group of various foes who come together in trust, love, and friendship to fight against evil. Hoy and Montgomery were sweet as young lovers Capable and Nux, but Babatunji and Cissoko were especially intriguing as Max and Furiosa. Their chemistry, explored in a fascinating pas de deux, was spot-on, and the audience went wild when they teamed up to kill Immortan Joe. (By jamming Cissoko's steel-like pointed leg in his face. Death by pointe shoe: it's ballet.)

Stahl-Weitz, Cissoko, and Andre

Also exciting about the show was its creative team. While ballet is having a great moment with young choreographers, many of the most famous are men (Arthur Pita, Justin Peck, Liam Scarlett, etc). Fury's choreographer is Danielle Rowe, and the composer (Kristina Dutton) and producer (Kate Duhamel) are women as well.

My takeaway from the crowd around me was that those who were able to see it loved it, but it was a disappointment for many of  those who had bought general admission and were not either tall or early enough to snag a spot on the ground. However, there was a camera crew, and the San Francisco Dance Film Festival was being promoted, so maybe it will show up there someday?

There is one more show tonight (9/15/18), and it looks like there are some general admission tickets left as of this writing. Get there early!

The stage

Image info:
All photos: terrible, mine (photos on social media tagged with #FuryShow were encouraged)

Sunday, July 15, 2018

Dream Cast - The Hunchback of Notre Dame

I'm still on my Notre-Dame de Paris kick. I have been for years, but still am, too. How much time did I put into this Dream Cast? Way too much!

Like I stated for Wuthering Heights and Frankenstein, this Hunchback of Notre Dame/Notre-Dame de Paris dream production is definitely a miniseries, not a movie. It would be an accurate reflection of Victor Hugo's novel, and would therefore have a LOT of stuff, so two hours isn't going to work.

Most importantly: it has Jehan Frollo du Moulin!

Oui, Jehan, this is your moment!

Previously in Dream Cast:
The Tempest
Wuthering Heights

Young Frollo - Timothee Chalamet & Young Chantefleurie - Olivia Cooke

Before Claude Frollo and Paquette "Chantefleurie" Guybertaut become hateful, preternaturally aged 36-year-olds, they're happy young single parents in wildly opposite social positions. Claude Frollo, an intensely focused and extraordinarily gifted student in Paris, ends up finding new meaning in life when he adopts his baby brother Jehan after their parents die of the plague. Meanwhile in nearby Reims, Chantefleurie, worn down by poverty and prostitution, is thrilled when she gives birth to a baby girl she names Agnes. Everything's great, cue "Dear Theodosia."

But the unthinkable strikes when baby Agnes is kidnapped and a deformed toddler left in her place. Chantefleurie's anguish is only compounded when she is erroneously told (due to 15th Century forensics) that the Gypsies responsible cooked and ate her baby. Chantefleurie's and Frollo's fates converge for the first time when he ends up adopting - on a Quasimodo Sunday - the toddler left in place of Agnes.

It helps that Chalamet is French and waifish, but what really sells him to me for young Claude is his excellence in subtly showing an active interior life. Frollo is quiet and reserved, but always thinking. Cooke, an expressive standout in Thoroughbreds, could bring Chantefleurie's elation and heartbreak to life.

Frollo - Zachary Quinto

Sixteen years later, Frollo isn't doing so great. Having literally run out of human knowledge to acquire, he has turned his studies to the dark arts and alchemy, and those pursuits are driving him insane. The public thinks he and Quasimodo are demons. Jehan has turned out to be an asshole. He has a sexual awakening, but isn't allowed to have sex. Furthermore, the printing press is growing in popularity, and he worries what effect this will have on architectural trends.

Basically, Frollo is pissed off all the time, looks pissed off all the time, and do you know who also looks pissed off all the time? Zachary Quinto! That's not a diss; I love his work (and I'm also cursed with RBF). This role would let Quinto scowl to his heart's content and then dive back into early-Heroes villainy. Plus, he would look fantastic in a cassock.

Quasimodo - Joshua Castille

Part of Quasimodo's identity that is often overlooked in adaptations is that he is deaf. His beloved bells of Notre-Dame have taken away his hearing (though he can still make out the largest bell). He and Frollo develop their own sign language, but Quasimodo remains mostly isolated from society. Broadway actor Joshua Castille, who has profound hearing loss, recently performed the part of Quasimodo in the Disney musical at Seattle's 5th Avenue Theatre using American Sign Language with a singer/interpreter. Videos of Castille performing are online (he's also been on Switched at Birth), and he's an expressive and engaging actor.

Of course, for physicality, Castille isn't quite there for what this role traditionally is. Quasimodo is supposed to be lumbering and unnaturally strong, able to toss people across the room when they annoy him. He could pose a serious threat, and even though the people mock him, they're afraid of him. Castille could maybe throw...a kitten? There's certainly no way we're going to believe he can pick up his foster brother Jehan by the feet and slam him so hard against the walls of Notre-Dame that his brain comes out (he can just push him, I guess). Also, Quasimodo is supposed to be ugly and very much not. But that's what prosthetics and makeup are for!

Esmeralda - Kiersey Clemons

Race and Esmeralda is complicated and thorny. Adaptations generally cut out the Chantefleurie story, where Esmeralda is identified as Agnes from Reims, which is about 45 minutes away from Paris by train. Although she doesn't seem to actually be what we today call Roma (her father is not identified other than that he's a criminal), she "passes" with her black hair and tan skin, which is compared to those of people from Andalusia and Egypt. For adaptations that have to pare down runtime and/or want to avoid a problematic "Gypsy kidnappers" plot, it's easier to just say she's Roma and leave out the origin story.

I don't want to do that, but I would stick with a woman of color in this role. My pick would be radiant Kiersey Clemons. I saw her recently in cute, family-friendly indie Hearts Beat Loud. The role allows Clemons to show off her acting and musical chops, both of which are stellar.

With her buoyancy and singing voice, I'd love to see her as Esmeralda. In Hugo's novel, Esmeralda is street-smart and will totes pull a knife on you, but is also, heartbreakingly, a typical teenager. She wants to sing, dance, obsess over her crush, and do magic tricks with her pet goat. The idea of her as "sexy Gypsy temptress" is something the men around her project on her. Clemons could definitely show Esmeralda's vitality, charm, and tragedy.

Fleur-de-Lys - Bebe Cave

Fleur-de-Lys isn't an altogether sympathetic character. She's a noblewoman, Phoebus's fiancee, and jealous of Esmeralda. She makes fun of Esmeralda's clothes and does what she can to keep her and Phoebus apart. However, her feelings are understandable. Although born rich, as a woman, she's also born without any power of her own. She has no say in being given in marriage to a philandering douche, and she's trying to exercise as much damage control as she can.

I recently watched Tale of Tales, and was captivated by Bebe Cave, who plays Violet, a princess forced into marriage with a literal ogre. Cave's expressiveness and adaptability made her believable and endearing as naive princess, "final girl" victim, and rightful ruler. A lesser director and actor might have have portrayed Violet as a spoiled mean girl at the beginning of her story, but Matteo Garrone and Cave avoided that misogynistic cliche. Cave is the actress I'd want to explore and express Fleur-de-Lys's unenviable position.

Clopin Trouillefou - Taika Waititi

In Hugo's novel, Clopin is not the leader of the Gypsies, but the King of Thunes (beggars, vagabonds, criminals, etc). He rules the underworld gathered at the Court of Miracles as part of a triumvirate with the Duke of Egypt and Bohemia (Gypsies) and the Emperor of Galilee (Jews). Clopin is charismatic and "fun," but also a bit of a psychopath. He's more than ready to hang Gringoire (after toying with him) for the crime of accidentally wandering into the Court of Miracles. During the showdown between the underworld, the cops, and Quasimodo (the underworld mistakenly thinks Quasimodo is holding Esmeralda captive in Notre-Dame, and storms the cathedral), Clopin dies, but not before hacking off a bunch of limbs with a scythe.

Magnetic Taika Waititi would be a scene-stealer in this mercurial role.

Jehan Frollo - Owen Teague

Nineteen-year-old Owen Teague is best known for playing bully Patrick Hockstetter in 2017's It. In a departure from the novel and the 1990 miniseries, 2017 Patrick gets to be attractive and rock a killer 80s wardrobe. He dies quickly, but Teague's charisma makes an impact.

Sixteen-year-old Jehan is less sadistic than Patrick, but still a bully and major problem child. He mocks classmates, mooches money from brother/guardian Frollo, gets drunk, and visits prostitutes. Despite this, he's popular and hangs out with everyone from Phoebus to Clopin.

He can be a leader when he feels like it, organizing student raids on wine shops and fighting at the front of the underworld's attempt to free Esmeralda from Notre-Dame. His real aim there is revenge against both Claude, who has cut him off financially, and his hated foster brother Quasimodo. Unfortunately for Jehan, it doesn't go well, but he does go out in true Jehan fashion by singing defiantly in his final moments. I'd cast Teague and his sardonic grin as teen rebel Jehan.

Pierre Gringoire - John Mulaney & Phoebus - Liam Hemsworth

To be honest, I was pretty "meh" about casting either of these characters until I thought of John Mulaney as Gringoire. Then I was all for it!

Gringoire (loosely based on an actual historic figure) is an impoverished, up-and-coming poet and playwright for whom almost nothing goes right. The novel starts with his play about to be performed, but it gets held up for reasons behold his control, resulting in a furious crowd. When the production finally starts, the crowd's interest is quickly diverted by Clopin and his Flemish diplomat/hosier friend. Afterwards, he accidentally ends up in the Court of Miracles and is almost executed by Clopin. Esmeralda saves him by marrying him, but they don't have sex because she's not DTF. From then on, Gringoire has to perform in the Gypsies' acrobatic shows, balancing chairs on his head and whatnot.

The one thing that goes right for him: through his "marriage" with Esmeralda, he meets and falls in love with her little white goat, Djali. In the chaos and bloodshed of the ending, the two of them manage to escape. If you say you don't want to see John Mulaney heroically fleeing a scene of violence with a goat clutched in his arms, you are lying.

As for Phoebus, meh. All you need for Phoebus is a good-looking, halfway decent actor who can savor being a hot dick. Liam Hemsworth would be fine.

Chantefleurie/Sister Gudule - Charlotte Gainsbourg

After being told her baby was killed and cannibalized, Chantefleurie leaves Reims and becomes Sister Gudule: an anchoress living in a tiny, cold, barren cell in a public square in Paris. There she mourns her daughter and screams abuse at Gypsies (including, ironically, Esmeralda). When she and Esmeralda finally figure out they're mother and daughter thanks to matching baby shoes, their joy is short-lived. Esmeralda is arrested, and Gudule dies defending her.

It's a small role, but pretty much at 11 the whole time, and Gainsbourg would knock it out of the park.

1) Quasimodo, 2) Jehan Frollo, 3) Phoebus, 4) Fleur-de-Lys, 5) Chantefleurie/Sister Gudule, 6) Esmeralda, 7) Djali, 8) Pierre Gringoire, 9) Claude Frollo

Image info:

Header image: 
Zachary Quinto as a priest (I knew someone had to have put him in a collar sometime, and google Images delivered): this 2010 Funny or Die sketch.
Kiersey Clemons in Cannes: photo by George Pimentel
Joshua Castille: from the 5th Avenue Theatre production
John Mulaney: from John Mulaney: Kid Gorgeous at Radio City
Taika Waititi: his twitter

Jehan + character guide at bottom: illustration from 1844 edition

Timothee Chalamet: from Call Me By Your Name
Olivia Cooke: from Thoroughbreds
Zachary Quinto: from American Horror Story
Joshua Castille: promo pic for 5th Avenue Theatre by Mark Kitaoka
Kiersey Clemons: from Hearts Beat Loud
Bebe Cave: from Tale of Tales
Taiki Waititi: his Facebook profile
Owen Teague: from It
John Mulaney with dog: his twitter
Liam Hemsworth: IMDB headshot
Charlotte Gainsbourg: from Antichrist