Archive for March, 2010

  • Mad men

    Date: 2010.03.28 | Category: Movies, Theater | Response: 0

    I hadn’t been back to ACT since we let our subscription lapse last summer, but I couldn’t resist their latest show, Canadian playwright/director Morris Panych’s “Vigil,” because it stars Marco Barricelli, my absolute favorite local actor until he left San Francisco and became artistic director of Shakespeare Santa Cruz. Even better, “Vigil” is only a two-character play and Barricelli’s Kemp has 99% of the dialogue.

    So I was already predisposed to like it, but it exceeded my expectations. “Vigil” is a pitch-black comedy about a man who is summoned to the bedside of a sick, elderly aunt (Olympia Dukakis) whom he barely knows. Since she’s the only family he has, he feels obligated to make the trip. After all, she’s dying; how long could it take?

    The aunt turns out to be mute, although it’s not clear whether her silence is the result of a medical condition, a la Roger Ebert, something psychological, or maybe she just doesn’t want to speak. In any event, Kemp begins the dreary work of ministering to her, which seems to mainly consist of bringing her endless servings of butterscotch pudding, and talking. Oh, boy, does he talk. He tells her about his pathetic childhood, his dead-end job at a bank, the fact that he doesn’t have any friends — and if that doesn’t sound particularly funny, trust me, Panych’s well-crafted dialogue makes it so. Take Kemp’s story about his father, for instance: “The day he died, he was quite definite. He just sat down in his big old chair and he said, ‘I’m going to die now.’ And he did. Well, of course, he shot himself.”

    Unfortunately for Kemp, all of that butterscotch pudding seems to be making Auntie stronger. “I’ve been worried about your health lately,” he tells her. “You’re looking better.” He so resents her new lease on life that he decides perhaps he can hurry the process along just a bit. Needless to say, things don’t exactly go as planned.

    Dukakis is very good as the wily old woman — luckily, our very good orchestra seats were close enough to the stage to allow us to view her facial expressions; this isn’t a play you want to see from the second balcony — but it’s really Barricelli’s show, and despite the fact that he’s known for his roles as men who are heroic and handsome, he was spot-on playing a schlub, and kept the audience laughing throughout.

    Another one of life’s losers is the title character in “Greenberg,” played by Ben Stiller in the new film by Noah Baumbach (“The Squid and the Whale”). If you think Stiller’s presence means that “Greenberg” is a mainstream comedy in the vein of “Tropic Thunder,” guess again. The movie has more in common with the ultra-low-budget mumblecore genre, a style of filmmaking I was briefly infatuated with last summer when the Sundance Channel was added to our cable lineup and I started catching movies like “Hannah Takes the Stairs” and “The Puffy Chair.” Mumblecore films are extremely naturalistic slice-of-life pictures which tend to focus on the trials & tribulations of aimless twentysomethings, and the undisputed queen of the genre is Greta Gerwig — who co-stars with Stiller in “Greenberg,” her first wide release.

    Gerwig’s Florence is the personal assistant to Greenberg’s brother Phillip, a successful executive who is taking his family on a monthlong vacation to Vietnam. While the family is away, Phillip has invited his brother Roger (Stiller), fresh out of a mental institution in New York, to live in their gorgeous Los Angeles home. Exactly why Greenberg was in the hospital is never explained, but it’s not hard to picture this neurotic guy having a nervous breakdown. He seems ill-equipped to deal with day-to-day life, and copes the best he can by writing angry but highly nitpicky letters to corporations (his missive to American Airlines complains about the quality of the buttons which make the seats recline).

    Phillip left Florence’s phone number, so of course Greenberg calls her frequently to help him with tasks such as grocery shopping (his list: ice cream sandwiches and whiskey) or taking the family dog to the vet (Greenberg, a true New Yorker, doesn’t drive). The two bond, sort of. Florence is the sort of young woman who needs to be needed, and she seems slightly titillated by Greenberg’s brokenness, despite her best friend’s warnings that no good can come of this relationship. Meanwhile, Greenberg reunites with people from his past — the bandmates he screwed over 20 years ago (he quashed a major label deal that turned out to be their one and only shot at the big time), his now-married ex-girlfriend, and Phillip’s wife’s daughter and her pals, who throw a wild party at the manse. The latter event, which brings 40-year-old Greenberg together with a bunch of kids in their early 20s, leads to a cringe-inducing scene in which Greenberg does coke and tries to “relate” to the young people, who rightly see him as pathetic.

    If this were a conventional romantic comedy, we’d root for Florence and Greenberg to get together. Instead, most people will undoubtedly find themselves rooting against them. Florence is a little aimless, but Greenberg is flat-out misanthropic and almost sociopathic in his disregard for other people. What’s remarkable is how Stiller, a huge star, disappears into the role; it’s hard to imagine many successful Hollywood actors who would have the guts to appear so unlikable on screen. “Greenberg” the movie can be hard to watch, but it’s difficult to imagine anyone who does see it not being captivated by Gerwig, who should finally break out of the micro-budget indie film world after this role.

  • Sweden vs. Norway: Scandinavian Crime Smackdown!

    Date: 2010.03.20 | Category: Books, Movies, Sweden | Response: 3

    It’s been a Scandinavian weekend so far. Yesterday, my friend Janet Rudolph hosted a mystery salon in her home for Norwegian crime writer Jo Nesbo. I had been looking forward to the event for weeks, partly because it gave me an excuse to go to Nordic House and stock up on Norwegian gjetost (goat’s milk cheese), crispbread and cookies. I had tried to undersell the gjetost to my friends, because to be honest, it’s a bit of an acquired taste — even San Francisco Chronicle cheese columnist Janet Fletcher doesn’t care for it, calling it “too sweet, fudgy and one-dimensional.”

    I did get a chuckle out of Fletcher’s quote from a Whole Foods cheesemonger who told her that “her Norwegian customers laugh at the packaged half-pound cubes of Gjetost she sells. Norwegians, they tell her, eat way too much Gjetost to buy it a half-pound at a time.” (Those customers should really make the trip to Nordic House, which sells the cheese in five and a half pound blocks. I bought a 17-ounce cube, figuring I could easily consume the leftovers.) When Joe and I were in Bergen a few years ago, our hotel had a fabulous breakfast buffet each morning, featuring the largest block of gjetost I’d ever seen.

    Happily, however, lots of people raved about the cheese, even asking where it was available. The Ski Queen brand (a goat’s milk/cow’s milk combo) is actually fairly easy to find — I’ve even seen it at gourmet groceries like Andronico’s — but ekte gjetost (made only from goats’ milk), which is what I bought, is probably only available at specialty stores like Nordic House. Perhaps it’s because I’m a Swede, but the two taste pretty much the same to me. I just didn’t want to risk embarrassing myself in front of the Norwegian author with an inferior product.

    I’m not sure if Nesbo ate any of the cheese — I did see him polishing off a bowl of fruit salad — but he seemed pretty impressed that it was there. I can’t yet vouch for any of Nesbo’s books, as I’m only about 100 pages into Nemesis, but I can definitely state that he is an absolutely fascinating guy who kept the audience rapt for about 90 minutes. If he hadn’t had another signing to go to, we could probably have kept firing questions at him for another hour.

    Nesbo, who turns 50 this month but looks a lot younger (one of my friends guessed he was in his 30s), was a stockbroker/rock star before he started writing mysteries. His band, Di Derre, was so successful that they had a major label deal and played gigs all over Norway, but Nesbo had promised his mom that he wouldn’t quit his day job, so he would rush to the airport after the market closed and fly to the gig, then fly back to Oslo in time for the opening bell at 9 AM. Needless to say, he burned out pretty quickly and took a leave of absence from both the band and his job. Nesbo developed his protagonist, police detective Harry Hole, on the plane while flying from Norway to Australia. He didn’t have any great expectations for his manuscript, but it was published (under the title Flaggermusmannen, or The Bat Man) — and won the prestigious Glass Key Award for the best Scandinavian crime novel of the year. He is in America promoting The Devil’s Star, his fifth Harry Hole novel and the third to be published in the U.S.

    One person asked Nesbo to talk a little bit about Norway and Norwegians. He said that the Swedes are very well organized and like consensus, whereas Norwegians love to argue. If it’s late at night and a Stockholmer is walking home from work and comes to a crosswalk, he will stop if the light is red rather than cross the street, even if there are no cars in sight. A Norwegian, on the other hand, will go ahead and cross. Nesbo has worked in both Oslo and Stockholm, so he’s probably right about that.

    Today, we went to see the film adaptation of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, or, as I prefer to think of it because the original title is very accurate, Men Who Hate Women. The book was pretty brutal, and I was really dreading seeing one particular scene involving the heroine, Lisbeth Salander — the film is not rated, probably because it would have gotten an NC-17 if it had been submitted to the MPAA board — and indeed, it’s pretty horrifying. However, I don’t think the violence in the movie is gratuitous. I mean, a central theme of the book is the way some men mistreat women, and there’s no point in sugarcoating that. But anyone who had trouble with the book’s violent scenes is probably not going to want to see them acted out onscreen.

    The main reason to see the film is the same as the main reason to read the book, which you might recall I was not wild about — Lisbeth is a kick-ass character, and the actress who plays her, Noomi Rapace, does an amazing job of bringing her to life. She is completely believable as the troubled but brilliant computer hacker who helps solve a 40-year-old crime. The far less compelling hero, journalist Mikael Blomkvist, is played by the popular Swedish actor Michael Nyqvist, whom I’ve seen in a whole bunch of films, including “Together” and “As It Is In Heaven.” One of the best things about the movie adaptation of Girl is that it makes Blomkvist less of a ladies’ man — in the book, he is for some reason completely irresistible to women, but the film wisely excises most of his romantic escapades to focus on plot.

    The movie is two and a half hours long, but considering that the book weighs in at 600 pages, that’s pretty darn short. It manages to be both incredibly faithful to the source material while trimming a lot of the more convoluted plot elements and condensing Mikael and Lisbeth’s work solving the mystery. It’s fairly suspenseful, considering how much of the book consisted of two people doing research; there are lots of scenes showing the pair looking through old photographs and searching computer databases, but director Niels Arden Oplev always keeps things moving along, and throws in some lovely scenery of the Swedish countryside in winter.

    If you haven’t yet gotten around to reading Stieg Larsson’s book, I’d highly recommend seeing the film instead, because it’ll save you a lot of time and everything important is in there. Since I haven’t read volumes two or three, I think I’ll just wait for the movies to come out (they’re due in the U.S. this summer). I’m sure there will be an inevitable U.S. remake, but it’s doubtful that the American filmmakers will be as true to Larsson’s vision as his fellow Swedes have been.

  • A Song for Europe

    Date: 2010.03.18 | Category: Music | Response: 1

    I love the Eurovision Song Contest so much that one year, I actually timed a trip to Sweden so I could watch it. Now, I am delighted to say that I can stream it live on my very own computer. And thanks to YouTube, I can even familiarize myself with entrants before the contest itself (which will take place on May 29 this year).

    The Swedish media give Eurovision Super Bowl-level coverage. Lately, the Swedish entrants have not been particularly successful — the last song to win was Charlotte Nilsson’s “Tusen och en natt” (1999), and last year’s entry, “La voix” by Malena Ernman, finished a lackluster 21st, Sweden’s worst result in over 15 years. Perhaps the most famous Eurovision winner of all time was ABBA’s “Waterloo” back in 1974; I’m guessing it’s the only winning song the average American would recognize.

    Last weekend, Sweden selected its 2010 Eurovision entry — “This Is My Life” by former “Idol” contestant Anna Bergendahl. I find it a tad bland, a ballad with the always popular “I believe in me” lyrics: “This is my life, my friend/And this is my time to spend/I can’t be no one else.” Something about Bergendahl’s voice reminds me of a sheep bleating, which I suppose is mildly preferable to the Mariah Carey melismas used and abused by so many “American Idol” contestants.

    If I had been voting, I would definitely had cast my ballot for Erik Saade‘s “Manboy,” the second place finisher, which is prime Euro-cheese. You must stop whatever you’re doing and watch the video, and make sure you watch it all the way ’til the end, because that’s the best part!

    “Manboy, manboy, you can call me manboy/I’ll show you how to love.” What does it mean? Who cares! It’s the ideal Eurovision song — vaguely homoerotic inanity set to a disco beat. I had never heard of Saade, but apparently he is a children’s TV host and a former boy band member. Eric, you may have come in second, but your onstage shower (the sort of gimmick that would have killed at the finals in Oslo) made you #1 in my heart!

    Most of the other finalists played a bit too safe, in my opinion, perhaps a natural reaction to the country’s skittishness after being rejected by the Eurovision voters so many years in a row. Besides “Manboy,” the undisputed highlight of the competition had to be the opening segment featuring the program’s three hosts. Whose brilliantly demented idea was it to have aging action hero Dolph Lundgren, best known for his turn as Ivan Drago in “Rocky IV,” co-host the proceedings? And who suggested that he sing?

    (According to Wikipedia, Dolph’s latest direct-to-video masterpiece is a filmed-in-Russia action pic called “Command Performance,” in which Lundgren “plays a drummer in a rock band forced to face terrorists at a concert.” The story “was inspired by a concert Madonna did for Russian President Vladimir Putin.” Doesn’t that make you want to put it in your Netflix queue right this second?)

    Folks, it doesn’t get any more Eurovision-y than this. Watch and enjoy.

  • I Am Killing the Internet

    Date: 2010.03.12 | Category: Internet | Response: 2

    Over a year ago, I wrote a post titled “I Am Killing the Newspaper Business,” so titled because I had canceled my San Francisco Chronicle subscription. (Note: I haven’t been billed for my Sunday-only subscription since January 2009. I am a murderer, I tell you, a murderer!) Now I learn that I am far more evil than I originally thought. I am killing the Internet!

    I had never visited, or even heard of, the web site Ars Technica until a couple of days ago, when I saw a Tweet linking to a piece posted there entitled “Why Ad Blocking is devastating to the sites you love.” Then the site’s editor, Ken Fisher, had a commentary on All Things Considered yesterday called “Why Clicking Isn’t Enough: Unblock Reasonable Ads.” Said Fisher: “If you have an ad blocker running and you load 10 pages today, you’ve consumed resources.”

    Here is my confession: I have Adblock Plus running on my web browser. “If you read a site and care about its well being, then you should not block ads (or you subscribe to sites like Ars that offer ads-free versions of the site),” writes Fisher in his article. “If a site has advertising you don’t agree with, don’t go there.”

    I have happily paid for a subscription to Salon.com for several years — they introduced their “premium” version many years ago, in the pre-Adblock days. Subscribers don’t see any ads. Even though I could block them now with Adblock, and it’s not like I love every single thing on the site, I still think it’s worth paying a few bucks a year to support them.

    However, most sites I visit frequently don’t have that option. So why do I block the ads?

    It’s simple: I cannot focus on what I’m reading if something on the page is moving. That goes for scrolling Twitter feeds as well as ads, by the way. I had to tweak Adblock to turn off the Twitter feed on one of my favorite sites, Go Fug Yourself, because I could not concentrate on the words when Tweets were scrolling past in the right-hand column. And that’s a web site devoted to critiquing celebrity fashion — do you honestly think I could focus on a piece on worldwide oil prices by Paul Krugman if a trailer for HBO’s “The Pacific” was playing next to it?

    I would never activate Adblock on, say, the Lansing City Pulse web site (a friend writes for them) because the ads are blissfully motionless. However, apparently the “experts” have decided that such ads are not as effective as ones with sound and activity. Sure, it’s easy to say, as Fisher does, just “don’t go there,” but in truth, most people aren’t likely to stop visiting a site simply because its ads are annoying — not when they’re so easy to block.

    If I value your content, I’ll happily pay a subscription fee to access it — I’m sure I will subscribe to the New York Times when it erects a paywall next year — but don’t ask me to read something while a debt consolidation ad with dancing gorillas is taking over a third of the screen.

  • Everlasting

    Date: 2010.03.06 | Category: Movies, Sweden | Response: 3

    Swedish comedies exist. I’ve seen them; I own a few on DVD. However, the Swedish films that make it to our shores are almost uniformly downers, ranging from a certain tone of wistful melancholy (“Let the Right One In”) to “I hope you have the suicide prevention hotline on speed dial” (“Lilja 4-Ever”).

    “Everlasting Moments” probably falls somewhere between the two — I’d rank it with Ingmar Bergman’s “Fanny & Alexander,” another brilliant Swedish movie that will never be called “the feel-good picture of the year,” but they both seem appropriately sad, depicting a world where bad things happen to good people, but isn’t that just like life?

    Jan Troell is, since Bergman’s death, probably the most venerable Swedish director working today. His 1971 film “The Emigrants” is one of the few non-English-language movies ever nominated for the Best Picture Academy Award. He was in the San Francisco area during the past week for a retrospective of his films in San Rafael, and he made an appearance at the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley for a Q&A after a screening of “Everlasting Moments.”

    I had somehow managed to miss “Everlasting Moments” during its March 2009 theatrical run, and I’m very grateful that I got a second chance to see it, because this is a stunningly beautiful, extremely moving film. The movie, which is set in the early part of the 20th century, is about Maria Larsson, who lives in southern Sweden with her husband, Sigfrid. He is a pretty decent, hard-working guy when he’s sober, but if he’s had a few drinks, he turns into an abusive monster who frequently cheats on her. When a dockworker’s strike sidelines Sigfrid, money becomes tighter, which is especially tough considering that Maria keeps popping out kids (any 21st century woman who sees this film will no doubt be grateful that for the invention of reliable birth control). Maria’s life seems pretty miserable, but one day she rediscovers a fancy camera that she won a few years before in a lottery. She figures she can sell it to make some money, but a kindly camera store owner looks at the one photo she took and becomes convinced that she has an artist’s eye, and he provides her with some plates and chemicals free of charge.

    In this era of ubiquitous digital cameras, it’s hard to think back on a time when the taking of a photograph was still something of a miracle. Maria is amazed at the “magic” of being able to capture a picture of her children, or of the cat perched on a windowsill. The camera helps take her away from the drudgery of everyday life and the often violent and stormy relationship she has with her husband. She also becomes friends with the camera store owner, which drives Sigfrid into a jealous rage when he finds out about it.

    Since this is a Swedish movie, you can probably guess that Maria doesn’t leave her husband, marry the kindly shopkeeper and become a successful photographer. However, one of the most remarkable things about this film is that it is a true story, based on a book by Troell’s wife Agneta. One of her father’s cousins was the daughter of the real-life Maria, and told Agneta the story of her mother’s life. Agneta did a brief slide presentation after the screening and showed the audience a selection of photos taken by Maria Larsson; some of them had been recreated for the movie. The crowd gasped when they saw how much Finnish actress Maria Heiskanen, who plays the title role, resembled her real-life counterpart.

    Agneta said that her first instinct had been to do a documentary based on the material she had accumulated for her book, but her husband thought it would make be better as a feature film. And when your husband is Jan Troell, you’re not going to disagree. He has brought her family story to life in a masterful way.

  • Couched

    Date: 2010.03.04 | Category: Journalism, Meta | Response: 5

    Yes, the Conical Glass has a fresh ‘n fruity new look, and is now powered by WordPress. That’s because Blogger, the platform I had been using, is shutting down FTP support. If you use Blogger and have no idea what that means, don’t worry — according to Blogger Support, “only .5% of active blogs are published via FTP.” Yours probably isn’t one of them. But being old school, mine was. Anyway, I’m still tweaking things around here, so pardon any technical glitches, and unfortunately, the changeover means you can’t leave new comments on old posts. The past 6+ years of entries are all still available, though; just check the Links column in the sidebar to access the archives.

    The Washington Post‘s StoryLab published an interesting article called “Do comments scare off sources?” The piece was written by a reporter who had avidly pursued an interview with a debt collector for a story he was writing on the collections business. Michael Sutherland, president of American Collections Enterprise, was reluctant to go on the record, because he was worried that he would be portrayed as a villain. “I assured him I was committed to being fair and accurate—and telling the collectors’ side of the story,” wrote the reporter, Christian Davenport. The end result was, says Davenport, “a balanced story that took readers inside a debt collection firm.”

    However, despite Davenport’s best efforts, Sutherland wasn’t happy with the result — thanks largely to the “community” of posters at washingtonpost.com, who were only too happy to append vitriolic comments like, “Scam-acne-face-Sutherland and all his little minions, scum….special place in Hell for them.” Such comments were “why I was so hesitant in doing an interview” in the first place, he wrote in an email to the reporter. “Lesson learned. I will never allow for another interview.” Davenport is now concerned that fear of angry comments will have a chilling effect on potential sources.

    I can’t say I blame Sutherland, or anyone else who says no to an interview because they don’t have thick enough skin to laugh off the remarks of the peanut gallery. The San Francisco Chronicle has a cute weekly feature in the Sunday paper called “On the Couch,” which tells the story of a couple and how they met. I read it in the printed paper (what a concept!) and have never gone online to look at the comments, but after reading last Sunday’s “On the Couch,” I couldn’t resist. The couple, who own Alameda’s R&B Cellars (great wine, by the way!), were high school acquaintances who reconnected and married when they were in their 40s. They were both in “unhappy marriages,” and they eventually left their respective partners. I suspected that would set the comment board ablaze, and I was right.

    “The way you write this out like some wonderful charming love story is just positively disturbing! It is a story of betrayal and selfishness,” writes commenter “believeinlove.” “Sure romantic feelings change,” writes “daisy1,” “but what bothers me most is that both of these people KNEW there were problems in their marriages (from all impressions based on this article) and barely attempted anything to resolve those issues in their committed relationships before jumping ship! There’s nothing to celebrate when divorce happens especially with children involved.” (When the couple married, “their nearly grown sons” served as attendants, and they claimed there was no animosity with their exes.) “A new low in the couples series of articles,” snarled “SFBiz.” Rather than being celebrated, this couple should be shunned. They probably are, except by the Chron.”

    I didn’t delve too deep into the “On the Couch” archives, but a quick scan of comments shows that posters are only too happy to share their feelings about the couples’ childrearing habits, looks, etc. (Of course, you can know everything there is to know about two people by reading a 10-inch story.) Who would want to be judged by a bunch of anonymous cranks? Unless you and your partner met while rebuilding levees in New Orleans; you’re good-looking, but not too good-looking (the union of two very attractive people inevitably “ends up in separation,” said one “Couch” commenter); and you have exactly 1.8 kids (no kids=selfish! too many kids=you’re killing the planet!), you should probably stay off the couch.