Friday, November 30, 2012

Skyfall Review

Daniel Craig in Skyfall

There's a moment towards the end of the fabulous Casino Royale that hints at new possibilities for the James Bond franchise : James and Vesper, having recovered from odious torture at the hands of "Le Chiffre" (Mads Mikkelsen) embrace lovingly on a beach, and James reveals his plan to leave his life of espionage behind: "You do what I do for too long and there won't be any soul left to salvage," he laments to Vesper. The scene is escapist, romantic and has an undertone of tragedy, of course, for we know they won't be allowed to run away together. For one of the first times since Connery, Bond isn't a cliché.

Skyfall continues the trend of shaping Bond into a much rounder character than in previous movies, complicating his relationship with M and giving us a glimpse into his childhood home in Scotland, where the movie's climax takes place. The film received rave reviews and it's easy to see the attraction: a terrific villain played with aplomb, a deftly shot rooftop fight sequence set against the lights of Shanghai, and several updates of bond characters and conventions. Here the villain is after something much more personal than  "world domination," Bond finds himself probed sexually by his captor, and Moneypenny is no longer merely a secretary. We also have a charming new Q played by Ben Whishaw. Adele even sings one of the best Bond theme songs. All of this is to be applauded.    

Yet despite these updates, Skyfall presents a different type of conservatism. Never mind that the sexism is still here: indeed the Bond girl, a sex-slave, played by the beautiful Bérénice Marlohe, isn't exactly liberated by Bond, quite the opposite. No, the real conservatism happens when the violence explodes in London. It was a bold move to eliminate the ubiquitous threat from abroad and turn England into its own worst nightmare, yet as the chaos unfolds and M reads a Tennyson poem (which Judi Dench reads well, of course), the movie starts to feel like a defense of enhanced security measures. Never before has James Bond been so tied to the institution he works for. And when the villain, with a click of a button, sends a tube train crashing through a ceiling towards Bond, we feel that we might have entered Gotham and woken up in a Christopher Nolan movie. Skyfall, then, starts to become too dark, too much about MI:6 and M, and not enough about Bond.

What's missing here is the romance that marked the Connery films: the shot of Ursula Andress emerging out of the water has been replaced by an image of Woolf Blitzer on a television screen. Frankly, I don't go to a James Bond movie to see Woolf Blitzer's head in it; I go precisely to avoid that image. Some people have said that Craig is the best Bond ever, and while he's done an excellent job with the role, let's not forget that Connery looked equally at home playing golf as as he did killing a man. In Connery's hands, Bond was a black sheep, loyal to queen and country, and incomparably cool.  So, while Skyfall is well done in many ways and certainly an interesting revision of the franchise, it lacks the charm that marked Connery's best films. 
Not even traveling "back in time" to take a ride with Bond in his Aston Martin could capture that charm.


Sunday, November 25, 2012

Chu-Fang Huang

I hope that we're finally moving past the "a good pianist is hard to find" lament, because there are many fine pianists out there — you simply might not have heard of them. Take for example Chinese-born Chu-Fang Huang, whose levelheaded but expressive playing deserves note.

I heard Ms. Huang perform a program that included Haydn, Chopin's second sonata, modern Chinese music, and Prokofiev's seventh sonata. The recital nicely showed off her music range and the pieces played upon one another in interesting ways (for example, not many would blame you for mistaking Wanghua Chu's Xingjing Fantasy for Prokofiev). Huang has an excellent command of dynamics and stakes out a sensible middle-ground when it comes to tempos. While her playing might not have Yuja Wang's flair or Jeremy Denk's meditative qualities, she never gets in the music's way. And at only 23, she's a pianist with a bright future.

My only real disappointment was not getting to the chance to interview Ms. Huang after the recital!

Liu Yan River by Jianzhong Wang


Sunday, November 4, 2012

A Visit to the Zoo

Well, I've been terrible about posting, but it hasn't been out of lack of interest. In fact, I've really wanted to write reviews of three concerts (Lang Lang, Yo-Yo Ma and Norah Jones) and several movies, but unfortunately life has had other plans for me. Hopefully I’ll get around to writing a bit about Lang Lang, at the very least. There's lots to be written about him, stereotypes about Asian musicians, and the current state of classical music.

This blog is here to stay and here are a few snapshots (I emphasize "snapshots" as my DSLR was taken in for repair) from a recent trip to D.C., where I spent several hours at the Washington Zoo. Zoos are obviously controversial places and seeing a group of "feeder" goldfish petrified in the four corners of a rather nightmarish looking aquatic snake’s tank reminded me of this. At the same time, though, so many people, particularly those in urban environments, are divorced from nature, at least ostensibly. The separation of 'civilization' from ‘nature’ has had terrible consequences on our environment, and without zoos, this separation would be even more pronounced.

Anyways, I hope you enjoy the pictures and please check back soon as I promise reviews of both Cloud Atlas and Skyfall. 

I've been to a number of major zoos, but the Washington Zoo is probably my favorite. 

A different kind of zoo


Sunday, July 29, 2012

New & Past Releases: Volume 1

The Amazing Spider-Man (2012)
Marc Webb

Reboots are all the rage, and I actually enjoyed this one. I saw it in 3D because it was the only showing that a friend and I could catch, and while the the 3D did nothing for this one, the special effects were good. Andrew Garfield does a pretty good job making the Peter Parker character a little complicated without overdoing it. The villain wasn't the best, but this was fun, if forgettable.

To Rome with Love (2012)
Woody Allen

This is probably the most polarizing film of the bunch, as Woody Allen movies tend to be. Someone I know described it as "charming" and I completely agree. The four vignettes presented here (two of which are completely in Italian) are a delightful mix of comedy, satire, opera and Italian visual delight. Some people think of Allen's movies as being a bit trite, but this felt fresh with plenty to unpack. All the performances are good with Jesse Eisenberg, Roberto Benigni and Alessandro Tiberi standing out. I think Allen knew precisely what he was doing with his two most recent flicks, and it's reassuring given the large number of confused movies out there.

Norwegian Wood (2010)
Tran Anh Hung

I'd been really looking forward to seeing this one as its based on one of my favorite contemporary novels. Unfortunately, it falls quite flat, simply moving an attractive cast along a book plot; there's no real character development here. The score deserves some commenting on: I'm a big fan of Radiohead, but I've never been completely "on board" with Jonny Greenwood's avante-garde classical offerings. And while he can tap into a sound evocative of jazz greats like Eric Dolphy and Charles Mingus (or even Sun Ra), I'm not sure that ambiance works in all contexts. The guitar theme works well for the film, but some of the orchestral music becomes tedious. While this didn't really work as movie, it had enough pretty shots that get me interested in its director.

The Scent of Green Papaya (1993)
Tran Anh Hung

Which takes me to...something much more interesting! Tran Anh Hung's enormous talent is evident here in one of the visually beautiful films I've ever seen. Hung is French-Vietnamese, influenced by Ozu and Japanese cinema, and shot this film set in Vietnam on a sound stage in Boulogne, France. The movie's production raises questions about what it means to make a movie about a country one knew only in childhood. Perhaps I'll get to writing about this film in the future...

That's all for now!

Monday, July 16, 2012

Beacon, New York

Hello! Here are some pictures from a day trip to Beacon, NY, a pleasant little town about 70 miles outside of New York. A friend and I went to check out the Dia: Beacon gallery, which wasn't my cup of tea, though there were a lot of charming shops and nice views of the river in the town itself. Two of the highlights were Play Toys & Gifts and the Cup & Saucer Tea Room.

 Cool Japanese Erasers

 Nya Nya

Jellyfish or Just Bubbles? 

 Salmon Cakes 

Chicken Crepe (Delicious)

My friend and I also shared a pretty killer scone, but it was eaten too quickly for pics.