Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Memoirs of a Geisha

“My world is as forbidden as it is fragile; without its mysteries, it cannot survive.”--Sayuri

Thus, began our journey on the silver screen into the world and mystique of the Geisha, a world that is so alien to the West that Director Rob Marshall wants us to view and understand in his epic 2 hours and 41 minutes of film that was based on Arthur Golden’s 1997 Bestselling Novel “Memoirs of a Geisha.”

To be a Geisha is not easy. To be one, you have to cast your past away and live in a world that is far different from the ordinary; years of rigorous training in centuries- old traditions of voice, dance and music as well as the obsession of perfecting an art that is to entertain and please men.

A Geisha is neither a courtesan nor a prostitute nor do they harbor any illusion of becoming the wife of the men that they have met along the way. Instead they are a part of a culture that is hard to fathom in the eyes of the western world and is a moving work of art through their learned and coordinated movements; from the flick of their fingers to the tilting of their heads down to the enigmatic smiles and graceful feather-like strides. Their cultured singing voices and their samisen- playing skills all added to its glamour and mystique to the casual observer.

Their grace and elegance in the ancient Japanese tradition of Tea Ceremony is worth noting. It is poetry in motion, so to speak. Neither a single movie nor a hundred books can capture the real essence of the mystical and legendary world of the Geisha.

Director Robert Marshall (Chicago) can only capture bits and pieces of it but thanks to his filmmaking skills and talent, he was able to bring to the widescreen the book’s visual richness and dramatic story- telling that conveys beauty, romance and sadness to the viewer.

The movie tells the story of young Chiyo’s journey from her impoverished life in the fishing village into a whole new world that is the Gion District of Kyoto, Japan’s ancient capital until her rise to the top of the Geisha-dom in the 1930s.Chiyo (played by Suzuka Ohgo/ later named Sayuri) was brought to the Geisha house by her father and found herself a virtual slave by the dominating “Mother” (Kaori Momoi) and became the recipient of the house’s “Star” Geisha Hatsumomo’s (Gong Li) ill- treatment who quickly realized the young girl as a potential threat that will one day steal her throne.

Chiyo simply turned the other cheek and prefer to suffer in silence rather than fight back against Hatsumomo’s atrocities towards her until a stranger (Ken Watanabe- The Chairman) spotted her crying on a bridge offered his handkerchief to wipe away her tears and even bought her some cold refreshment to lift her sagging morale and waning spirits, an act of kindness which the young girl had never experienced before that subsequently left a lasting impression on her as she vowed to repay the kind- hearted Chairman in the only way that she is capable of- by becoming a Geisha herself.

Sayuri (Ziyi Zhang), now a grown up with her beautiful expressive eyes and stunning beauty and well –schooled by the elegant Mameha (Michelle Yeoh), Hatsumomo’s rival in the fine arts of the profession, have turned the tables on the now aging Hatsumomo where finally she beat her in her own game.

The movie with its talented casts of actors and performers have offered us juts a glimpse of the secret world of the Geisha that is once forbidden from the prying eyes of outsiders.

Of course the film had its drawbacks and flaws but all in all Marshall came up with a film that is gorgeous to see, mysterious yet elegant. A visual feast that is hypnotic likened to the Chrysanthemums slowly falling on the ground.

The experience can be summed up in Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics in the Broadway musical, “Pacific Overtures”---

“We sit inside the screens and contemplate the view that’s painted on the screens, more beautiful than true…”

Suggested Readings:

Memoirs of a Geisha- Arthur Golden
Geisha- Liza Dalby
Geisha: A Living Tradition- Kyoko Aihara
‘Geisha: Women of Japan’s Flower and Willow World’- Tina Skinner and Mary L. Martin
‘Madame Sadayakko: The Geisha Who Bewitched the West’-Lesley

*Posted in Bill Blahs March 6, 2006

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

2006 Mark Twain Prize for American Humor

While waiting for the 10:00 pm CSI Miami on CBS, I went channel surfing last night and chanced upon the 2006 Mark Twain Prize for American Humor on PBS and decided to watch the show instead and did not regret it.

It’s a star- studded affair honoring this year’s recipient, Neil Simon whose works is said to have been the most widely performed next only to Shakespeare. He was feted with accolades, tributes and testimonials at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts by friends and colleagues who in one way or another owed their careers to the foremost American playwright.

Neil Simon, the prolific writer who at one time have a record of four Broadway productions running simultaneously has authored more than 40 Broadway plays since 1961 most of them light-hearted and humorous plays but is best known for his autobiographical Eugene Trilogy (Brighton Beach Memoirs, Biloxi Blues and Broadway Bound) and Chapter Two which critics considered as his finest work and was written shortly after his first wife died of cancer.

His talent is enormous and has contributed immensely to both theater and film as he was also a recipient of a Pulitzer Prize, three Tony Awards, a Golden Globe, an American Comedy Award, a Drama Desk Award and now, a Kennedy Center Award that was named after Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens), the 19th century American satirist, humorist and writer who William Faulkner called the “Father of American Literature” and was widely known for his novels Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer.

Mr. Neil Simon is in good company with the list of the past recipients a veritable Who’s Who in the business--

Recipients of the Kennedy Center Mark Twain Prize have been Richard Pryor (1998), Jonathan Winters (1999), Carl Reiner (2000), Whoopi Goldberg (2001), Bob Newhart (2002), Lily Tomlin (2003), Lorne Michaels (2004) and Steve Martin (2005).

Now on it’s 9th year, the Mark Twain Prize was taped at the John F. Kennedy for the Performing Arts on October 15, 2006 and was finally shown last night on public TV and it was a good hour and a half of showcasing the talent of the man and stories behind the scenes; of his writings and the performers acting in it.

Christina Applegate performed a smooth rendition of Big Spender from the musical revival Sweet Charity accompanied on the piano by the multi- talented singer, pianist, songwriter, arranger and producer, Allen Toussaint whose seminal works earned for the New Orleans native an induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1998.

Ms. Applegate essayed the role of Charity Hope Valentine for her Broadway debut that earned her a Tony Award nomination for Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Musical. I watched Sweet Charity twice when I was in the big Apple, one with her in it and the other with Charlotte d’Amboise who also played Roxie Hart in Chicago when I watched the said musical at the Ambassador Theater. I’ll write about my take on the said shows next time if my time and schedule permits.Ha-ha.

Matthew Broderick, the two-time Tony award- winning actor (He got his first for Brighton Beach Memoirs) thanked Neil Simon “ for making it possible to purchase a small golden palace in the Himalayas" paraphrasing his Tony award-winning lines of the teen character he essayed upon seeing a naked woman for the first time in his life.

"He allowed me my whole professional life, he got me right." "Oscar-winning actor for the movie The Goodbye Girl, Richard Dreyfuss said of the role Mr. Simon had in his career.

Jonathan Silverman, the versatile actor who was recently seen in the independent feature film Laura Smiles which won the Emerging Filmmaker Award at the Denver Film Festival this year jump-started his acting career when he “made” the character of Eugene Morris Jerome (Simon’s other self as a young man in the trilogy) “His” on Broadway but graciously credited the playwright of changing his life when he “plucked him from obscurity!”

Tony award- winner Heather Headley who originated the role of Nala in the Tony Award Winning musical The Lion King and cemented her status in the Elton John/ Tim Rice collaboration Aida as one of the Great White Way’s best made a very beautiful rendition of the song “What do you get when you fall in love?” from the 1968 show Promises, Promises, the Burt Bacharach classic which was in turn based on the 1960 Billy Wilder film The Apartment written by who else but Neil Simon!

Other Stars who came to sing praises to Mr. Neil Simon were Robert Redford (who talked about his friendship with him and about the “mountains in Utah.”), Emmy Award winner Patricia Heaton (who revived the role of Paula in the new version of the classic "The Goodbye Girl" for TNT), Malcolm in the Middle’s Jane Kaczmarek who once appeared on Broadway in Lost in Yonkers, Mad About You star and co- creator Paul Reiser.

Lucy Arnaz (who played Sonia Wolsk in They’re Playing Our Song), fellow New Yorker Robert Klein (1979 -They’re Playing Our Song), Nathan Lane (who was recently seen in the movie The Producers and also starred with Matthew Broderick in last year's The Odd Couple on Broadway), Seinfeld’s George Costanza (Jason Alexander) and Carl Reiner (also a Mark Twain Prize recipient in 2000) .

Here’s a short list of his works and let’s hope that he will continue writing and share his talent with us.

Pulitzer Prize for Drama – Lost in Yonkers (1991)

Tony Award – for his plays:
The Odd Couple (1965, Best Author, Play)
Biloxi Blues (1985, Best Play)
Lost in Yonkers (1991, Best Play)

Golden Globe – The Goodbye Girl (1978, Best Screenplay - Motion Picture, Best Motion Picture - Musical/Comedy)

American Comedy Award – for his life work (1989, Creative Achievement Award)

Drama Desk Award – Lost in Yonkers (1991, Outstanding New Play)

In his speech, Neil Simon was modest enough and admitted to being nervous speaking in public (a case of “better read than heard?”-which is considered an enigma for some very good writers) as he shared to us the journey that he took for his “Come Blow Your Horn.“ ---

”It took me six years to write my first play” and openly admitted that he took the title from one of his daughter’s nursery rhymes books that turned out into a “so-so play” that was then made into a “so-so movie” with a “so-so Frank Sinatra" in it.

But it was successful enough that, “For the first time, I had money in the bank,” and softly added, “Yes sir, yes sir three bags full!!” as the audience broke into a hearty laughter.

Tuesday, November 7, 2006

NBC's E- Ring: The Forgotten Episode

The notoriety of the Philippines' Islamic Terrorist Group Abu Sayyaf ("Bearer of the Sword" in Arabic) have reached the United States TV audience during the night before Thanksgiving episode of the latest NBC TV Series, E- Ring which is being top billed by Benjamin Bratt who portrays the battle- tested Major James "JT" Tinewski, a battle-tested Green Beret, Ranger and Delta Force operative and Dennis Hopper as Colonel Eli McNulty, a highly- decorated soldier and a former Vietnam War POW who came out of retirement after the 9-11 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center to head the United States fight against the terrorists on a global stage. Produced by Jerry Bruckheimer, E- Ring is based on the fictional Special Operations Division (S.O.D.) inside the Pentagon's National Operations Command, whose main draw is to show to the viewing public the works of the men of the shadowy Special Operations Command and how they are confronting the growing menace of terrorism worldwide. The show is now gaining popularity among US TV viewers.

The November 23, 2005 episode entitled "The Forgotten" is about Scott Navarro, a Navy SEAL long thought to be dead but is said to be alive as relayed by a CIA operative to the SOD and is in fact in the hands of the notorious Abu Sayyaf bandits and being held in their stronghold in the mountains of Jolo, the main island of the Sulu archipelago in southern Philippines. When Colonel McNulty learns of the news, he immediately put the plan for his rescue into motion. As is always the case in real life and in real situation, in the corridors of power of the United States Department of Defense headquarters where critical decisions are made and decided upon, politicking, professional jealousy and intrigue abounds.

The show captures the conflict between the military and the civilian authorities on their views and the dilemmas they face be it with regards to the matter of national security, foreign policy or saving the life of a serviceman left behind. The viewers learn about the critical decisions made inside the air- conditioned rooms of the Pentagon by intelligence officers/ analysts and the execution of those decisions in the field by covert operatives.

So, when McNulty's plan to rescue the Navy SEAL was thumbed down by a Civilian Department of Defense Bureaucrat, he and his team in the E- Ring had to devise an alternative which lead to the so-called "backdoor" option just to get the soldier back on US soil and into the arms of his father- alive.

The show in an effort to add authenticity, made mention of some of the Abu Sayyaf's real- life notoriety like the infamous Sipadan Hostage- taking incident as well as that of the kidnapping of the two American Missionaries from the Dos Palmas Resort in the island of Palawan who although they refrained from mentioning the names of the Burnham couple, it is quite obvious whom they're referring to when they said that, "the husband was killed during the rescue attempt by the Philippine Security Forces." But all these came out hollow for aside from being ignorant of the Joint Republic of the Philippines- United States Military Treaty, they were also at a loss on the capability of the Philippine Military as well as the Abu Sayyaf which was evident in the lines delivered by the casts during one of the E-Rings brain storming sessions. This is unforgivable for a big- budgeted made for TV- series from a big TV player like NBC. The scriptwriters for this episode had suffered from what spooks would term as "Failure of Intelligence."

The producers tried hard to impress upon the viewers the excitement and the drama in the inner circle of the Pentagon's E-ring but failed. It is not because of the characters fault but rather of the scripts' lack of depth in tackling the topic. They could have dug deeper into the plot and not resort to the fast- paced visual effects to mask the shallowness of the story.

In the end, Colonel McNulty and his men have outmaneuvered the civilian bureaucrat which only shows that when it comes to military matters, nobody knows the ins and outs of special operations like the men in the Pentagon's E- Ring. If only President George W. Bush have consulted them before invading Iraq in the guise of looking for Saddam Hussein's Weapons of Mass Destruction which turned out to be a big embarassment for his administration but that is another story. Only time will tell though whether the new NBC behind-the scenes Power drama will again suffer or not from "Failure of Intelligence" and endure the forever changing and demanding American Television Market.

+ 12.8.2005 Bill Blahs

Monday, June 19, 2006

LENNON: A New Musical


To put the life and music of John Lennon into theater in an apparent attempt to cash in on the recent trend of what we now commonly referred to as the Jukebox musical trend that Broadway seems to espouse nowadays owing to the mega- success of ABBA’s “Mama Mia!” is an ambitious project to do. In spite of the failed Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations” as well as the current new homage to Elvis’ Music in “All Shook Up” you can only question how far this new genre can go without jeopardizing the Great White Way’s reputation of being home to original well- penned and well- crafted shows.

Lennon the Musical, which recently opened at the famed and historic Broadhurst Theater at 235 W. 44th St. between New York City’s 8th Avenue and Broadway, was nothing but a hollow stab to convey to us the different stages of complexities, eccentricities and finally, enlightenment in the life of an ex- Beatle named John. It was supposed to be a tell- all musical of his short life, but it turned out to be an edited version of his life-- a life that we much already know of . It is a musical masquerading as a tribute to the Man and His Music but turns out to be in this case, an updated version of the Ballad of Yoko and John sans Lennon’s formative years and success with the Beatles. Also, it made no mention of his substance abuse and volatile behavior and his interlude with May Pang. Imagine John Lennon’s life without the years with the Fab Four nor Cynthia and Julian?

Don Scardino (Broadway Credits- Director: Sacrilege/Performer: Godspell), the show’s creator and director delved much on John Lennon’s life after the Beatles and all for a reason. He focused mainly on his post- Beatles life with Yoko Ono in obvious deference to John’s widow whom he sought permission and collaborated in writing the musical and whose influence can be felt throughout the show. In a typical Ms. Ono fashion which is as famous as her chilling primal scream, you could tell her hand in the multi-cultural casting where John Lennon was played by nine different actors to denote the “universality” of his appeal and music as well as the conspicuous presence of a giant cut-out of her head appearing in the background in the end as if to tell us of her enormous presence in Lennon‘s life. Yes, it is indeed unique and creative in a way but still it fails to convey to the audience the real essence and objective of the musical.

The cast took turns in playing John by donning his trademark round wire- rim glasses. Will Chase turns out to be the audience’s favorite what with his resemblance to the late Beatle but also with his convincing Liverpool accent and affective performance. They also did some songs by the Beatles in their Ed Sullivan Show re-enactment performed by four female cast members but none of his collaboration with his erstwhile writing partner, Paul McCartney who was again snubbed which to many die- hard fans of John and the Beatles constitute to something close to blasphemy. It also tried but failed to impress on us that John is just a lost and wandering soul until he found the visionary Yoko Ono and had his epiphany and the rest is history- All you need is love, bed- in and peace.

The cast some of them Broadway veterans in their own right did their best but were limited by the show’s shallow roles given to them. The Filipina Broadway veteran Julie Danao- Salkin (Rent, The Karaoke Show, Saturday Night Fever) who hails from Quezon City though is far too- sweet to do a convincing Yoko Ono. Then there is the attempt to elicit some laughs albeit with little success from the audience by portraying his nemesis and persecutor, the late FBI Boss J. Edgar Hoover in red high heels as well as casting a woman as Elton John and Ed Sullivan being played by a black man just to name a few. There was another instance where one cast member pretending to be Ringo Starr having a bout with diarrhea!

The musical whose songs were mostly lifted from his final album, “Double fantasy” took us in a not-so-magical mystery tour of John’s life complete with backdrops of his art works, significant persons and events in the course of his short life- from his birth in 1940 up to his death in the hands of Mark David Chapman outside the Dakota Building near Central Park on December 8, 1980 which was not shown but told by a police officer that was supposed to be the first one on the scene of the crime. John’s ode to his son, Sean- “Beautiful Boy” was sang impressively by Julia Murney and Marcy Harrell’s intense rendition of “Woman Is The Nigger Of The World.“ is worth noting. The Flower- power song “Give Peace A Chance” is as timeless as ever. Although Ms. Ono released two previously unpublished songs by John just for the production- “India, India” and “I Don‘t Want To Lose You“, still the two- hours and ten minutes musical lacks depth, flair and color.

Despite all its flaws and imperfections, Lennon the musical is still worth watching, $100+ (although I got mine for $50 bucks) notwithstanding. For the die- hard Lennon Fanatic in us, just to take us back in time and reminisce about the life of Popular Music’s foremost iconic figure is consolation enough but whether it will survive and stand the test of time in its current Broadway run is another story. There are some ups and downs but that is John’s life was all about- a rollercoaster ride.

The final cut says it all when the “Imagine” video was shown and there was the MAN and his VOICE and his MUSIC in black and white who touched most of every one of us throughout his life but sadly, the show come to think of it, tried more to entice us to listen to the version of HER STORY.

August 2005

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