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.  


Sunday, July 8, 2012

Favorite Film Scores

A Tale of Two Sisters

Hello! Since I've been listening to a lot of film scores recently, as well as composing some piano music, I thought I'd share some of my favorite movie music:  

Midnight in Paris
(Stephane Wrembel)

I have a special place in my heart for this little film, and that's probably in no small part due to its easygoing yet heartfelt score. Woody Allen's love of jazz shines through here and Sidney Bechet "Si Tu Vois Ma Mere" has never sounded more timeless.   

A Tale of Two Sisters 
(Lee Byung-woo)

A classic K-Horror film, A Tale of Two Sisters takes a searing look at familial cruelty. Visually, this is my favorite film of the bunch and its main musical theme is gorgeous.     

(Joe Hisaishi)

It would be possible to fill this whole list with scores by the incomparable Joe Hisaishi! This violent cop movie is visually arresting featuring artwork created by the director, "Beat" Takeshi Kitano (who also stars in the film), juxtaposed against bloody brutality. The main theme is one of Hisaishi's saddest compositions.

(Yann Tiersen)

One of the most famous film scores of all! The arrangements aren't as intricate as Hisaishi's, but it would be hard to pass this one over.   


Sadly, movies are one of the few places to hear new classical music that isn't atonal, though I've heard that's changing a bit. Regardless, I'd like to hear music like this get more mainstream play. What are your favorite film scores?


Sunday, June 24, 2012

England Retrospective

Last summer, I spent the month of the July in Oxford, England at Lady Margaret Hall, and between learning to punt on the Thames, reading Nabokov in the lovely gardens, and seeing/meeting so many interesting people, it was an extraordinary trip. Perhaps I'm a bit nostalgic with Wimbledon starting tomorrow, but I'd like to share a few pictures here. I'll also be uploading many more pictures from the trip to my Flickr account. Thanks for reading and enjoy!

LMH College

On the River Thames 

Wedding at Blenheim Palace

Tower of London


Monday, June 18, 2012

Cinematic Savior: Monsieur Lazhar

2012 has been a disappointing year as far as movies go, but I've finally found something special in the beautiful Canadian-French film, Monsieur Lazhar.

Directed by the modest Philippe Falardeau, this film, set in Montreal, centers around Bashir Lazhar, an Algerian immigrant who begins teaching an elementary school class after its beloved teacher commits suicide.  Lazhar, played by Mohamed Saïd Fellag with aplomb, is the kind of teacher who elevates his students, taking them to see Moliere's The Imaginary Invalid and reading them Balzac for dictation.  At the same time, he's also deeply invested in them on a personal level, knowing that their grief parallels his own.

There are a number of interesting themes here, all handled with a deft touch: immigration and cultural identity in Canada/Quebec; the student-teacher relationship and its politicized, but sometimes imaginary boundaries; and unexplainable loss and the grief that accompanies it.  There's also an interesting meta component to the film as Quebec itself has defiantly struggled to maintain its own cultural identity from the rest of Canada (there's an amusing joke about this at  Lazhar's immigration hearing).

A compelling thread in the film surrounds loss and grief.  After the class's teacher hangs herself  in her own classroom, the administrative response is to move past it quickly, having the room painted a new color and using the school psychologist to "cure" the students.  No one wants to talk about the suicide and why it happened, save for the children, who are disturbed by it in various complicated ways--none more than the two children who saw their teacher's dead body: Claire and Simon (Sophie Nélisse and Émilien Néron).  Lazhar, recognizing this, defies the administration and provincial parents to give his students an outlet for honest communication.  In a society obsessed with "closure" and neat endings, it was refreshing to see a film challenge such notions head on.

Fellage is the movie's anchor, though Sophie Nélisse and Émilien Néron are perhaps the true stars here, giving the kind of unaffected performances that only children can.  The cathartic resolution of their conflict is a gut-wrenching moment in the film, instantly relatable to anyone who has tortured himself with secret guilt for too long.

The score features original compositions by Martin Léon, as well as lovely performances of Mozart's famous A-Major Piano Sonata and Scarlatti, all of which lovingly imbue "la belle province."

Monsieur Lazhar is a terrific film, easily better than that piece of cotton-candy, The Artist. In watching it I felt grateful that films like this are finding the light of day, and was reminded of how much I care about good, thoughtful art--and that's something that I hadn't felt in a long time at the movie theatres.



Philippe Falardeau Interview

Sunday, May 27, 2012

New York City Weekend

Here are some pictures from a trip to New York.  I went to a Japanese restaurant with a friend near Astor Place and while the food didn't compare to what I've had in NorCal and Toronto, it was still a lot of fun.  It's a lovely section of the city and better than the meal were the Puddin' Pops from Puddin NYC on St. Mark's Place.  Sadly, we ate the pops too quickly to photograph.

Saki Cocktails

Salmon Skin Avocado Salad

Not quite as spicy as I had hoped for

"Sputnik Sweetheart"


I also chanced upon a new clothing line, Maison Kitsuné, which has a boutique inside the NoMad Hotel in Chelsea.  The store is quite minimalist, but still inviting.  A collection inspired by The Great Gatsby was showcased, which I thought was a lot of fun for a high-end Parisian line in the city.    

The palette above appealed to me


Friday, May 11, 2012

New Tennis Sneakers

Hello, and happy Friday! 

So, after much deliberation, I decided to buy the new Roger Federer tennis sneakers.  They were a bit pricey, but I'm a big fan of a previous version and Federer = GOAT.     

Federer at the 2012 Australian Open

 Nike Vapor Tour 9

They're essentially a running shoe with the support and stability of a tennis shoe.  When I first saw the colors, I wasn't a fan, but they've grown on me.  I realized, though, that they're a fun fashion item and that I should get another pair of tennis sneakers for practice sessions and training. After all, I don't want to destroy such a cool shoe.

My solution was to get a pair of the Yonex SHT-304R, which I'd had my eye on for a while now.  They're a bit quirky, but very comfortable and as is typical with Yonex products, well-designed and constructed. 

Yonex SHT-304R

I like the details.

Which sneaker do you guys prefer?  That's all for now, but there's more to come soon :-)


Monday, May 7, 2012

Sunday Night Ice Cream

Tonight I went to Emack & Bolio's with a friend and took some pictures.  In addition to the ice cream, there's a big assortment of candy, cookies & other sweets.  The vibe is somewhat similar to Ben & Jerry's (though it's actually older been around longer), but with a bit more character.  I definitely recommend it!  


Vanilla & Cookie Monster Sundae 

The Pianist


Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Weekend Review Part Two: Borromeo String Quartet

Hello friends,

I also had the pleasure of hearing a concert by the Borromeo String Quartet last weekend and, wow, was it terrific!  The musicians played Dvorak's "American" quartet and Schubert's "Death and the Maiden" quartet.  In addition to being out of this world musicians, they're also quite progressive in terms of presenting classical music to audiences in new and interesting ways.  To the point, they used laptops instead of paper scores, using foot pedals to turn the pages.  As Nicholas Kitchen explained, this setup is quite useful as they can easily see the entire score, as opposed to just an individual part.  They also displayed some of the Schubert score on a projector screen for the audience to view and played a recording of another group's interpretation of the Dvorak piece for comparison's sake.  Some people might not like multimedia finding its way into the concert hall, but everything was so seamlessly integrated that I found the experience illuminating and not at all distracting.  A YouTube video can't do them justice, but here's them playing the final movement of "Death and the Maiden" from a different performance.  Enjoy!


P.S. I'm looking forward to sharing some of my own piano playing with you guys in the coming weeks. 

Monday, April 30, 2012

Weekend Review: Salmon Fishing in the Yemen & Radiohead

Dear friends,

This past weekend I saw Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, starring Ewan McGregor and Emily Blunt.  I'm a fan of Ewan McGregor and the quirky title appealed to me, so I decided to check this one out (besides, what else is playing?).  It's essentially a conventional romantic comedy-drama with a slightly more interesting premise: a British scientist, under the directive of his government and with the the backing of a wealthy Yemeni Sheikh, attempts to introduce salmon fishing to the Yemen.  The British get a good news story out of the Arab world, and the people of Yemen gain access to the water created by a dam, as well as the salmon fishing.  Weird right? Ha!  Well, the movie is a cliched affair, but the interplay between Ewan McGregor and the cute Emily Blunt was nice.  I've always been a fan of British television and movies, and the production here was on par with what I expected.

I have to say, though, that I wasn't completely satisfied with how relationships were treated in the film.  Both leads end up leaving their significant others (who are portrayed as being shrewish and overly career-focused, or attractive but completely dull, so we're made to think that this is fine).  At one point in the film McGregor's character sends a text message to his wife that confirms the finality of their separation.  Yikes.  There is an interesting moment, though, at the end of the film, where it appears that things might not work out as expected for both McGregor's new love and his dam project, both of which he's come to embrace as his raison d'être.  This unresolved moment in the film reminded me of a couple of lines from on my favorite Radiohead songs, "Nude" (I know, the film has no place being compared to a great Radiohead song, but I like unusual comparions ha!):

Now that you've found it, it's gone
Now that you feel it, you don't 

Sometimes it's only through gaining and losing something that we realize what we were looking for, and there's no guarantee we'll ever find that thing again.  Of course, the film gives us the happy ending that many secretly crave. I guess that's why some people like romantic comedies so much!

Thanks for reading and enjoy the Radiohead song!