A dad and his daughters, loving life in New York City

Thursday, September 28

The Science of Sleep: the movie; the art show

In 2004, director Michael Gondry teamed up with screenwriter Charlie Kauffman and the result was one of my favorite movies of the last five years or so, the smart, imaginative, heartbreaking, hopelessly romantic Eternal Sunshine for the Spotless Mind.

Gondry's on his own in The Science of Sleep—the story of man-child Stephane who gets lost between dreams and reality while falling in love with his comely neighbor Stephanie—and I must say I really missed Kauffman's edge, as well as his gift for maintaining a tight narrative amid surreal surroundings. Even with significantly lowered expectations based on DGlass's lukewarm review, Science of Sleep has to be called a disappointment.

The main culprit? Stephane. Though Gael Garcia Bernal is appropriately doe-eyed and admirably game, Gondry's admitted alter-ego may start out charming and sweet, but pretty quickly his cutesy act turns cloying; his vulnerability, more about self-pity. And during the movie's final half hour or so I felt like he became almost irritating, a sentimental stalker. The ending suggests that this arc may very well have been intentional on Gondry's part, but that doesn't mean I found it appealing to watch.

The film does have its amusing moments, and many of the dream sequences nicely evoke the way our waking reality—our fears and desires, frustrations and hopes, people, places and things—gets all mashed together in unlikely ways as we sleep. And the settings are often fantastic...

...which is why you should REALLY see Gondry's "Exhibition of Sculpture and Pathological Creepy Little Gifts", now at Deitch on Grand Street, but only through Saturday, September 30. This collection of sets and props from the movie, occasionally interactive and often cleverly integrated with video screens, is a total delight. You don't need to have seen the film in order to appreciate these busy, beguiling, slightly insane creations, but it probably helps. (Or maybe it even works better in reverse—seeing this exhibit actually made me think more fondly of the movie.) Either way, I wish it weren't closing so soon, because I know Bo and Co would have really liked it.

And if you go, make sure you play the piano.

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Ecotopia at the ICP

The natural world, and how we interact with it (read: destroy it, mostly) is the subject of the Second International Center of Photography's Triennial. Since Bo and Co are always intrigued by animals, and get appropriately outraged at humanity's environmental suicide, and, most important on this day, since a technical glitch prevented us from doing what we really came to midtown to do—play Cruel 2 Be Kind: The Benevolent Assassin's Game—the three of us went to ICP last Saturday to see Ecotopia.

No question, there are many powerful images here. I loved two of Mitch Epstein's shots—one of Biloxi, Mississippi, in Katrina's aftermath; another of a cozy West Virginia home in the shadow of a nuclear power plant—which brilliantly capture different combinations of benign man and scary man and benign nature and scary nature. Simon Norfolk's haunting landscapes, littered with the detrius of war—scatterings of shell casings, a burned-out tank—plant the seed of a suggestion that maybe Mother Nature will outlast her unruly children after all. Doug Aitken builds a bird-megalapolis from FedEx boxes, with chaotic and witty results.

Catherine Chalmers offers an extreme-close-up video of insects, spiders, beetles, snakes and newts that's simultaneously beautiful and repellent, and altogether mesmerizing. Harri Kallo's biologically-accurate recreation of dodo birds, shot in what once was their natural habitat on the Island of Mauritius, is both sad and oddly exhilarating, as if a flock of these ridiculous-looking creatures had actually been discovered. And the three of us all agreed that the video-installation caves and outcroppings—made from (presumably recycled) black packing material—looked cool and worked well at breaking up the visual presentation.

But for every hit, there was a least one misfire. Sam Easteron's lengthy series of [Insert Animal Name]-cams was just silly, we thought, hitting bottom with the nano-second-long Fly-cam. I didn't really get Marine Hugonnier's video of a balloon ride to the Matterhorn, which comes right out and insists that I, the shallow viewer, would prefer the images to seem more like a postcard, which I didn't. And I thought Mary Mattingly's watery, futuristic visions of nomads clad in "wearable houses" felt like just another post-apocalypse cliché.

All in all, about as mixed a cultural experience as a typical Saturday afternoon in Chelsea. The biggest difference: galleries are free. Ecotopia will be at the ICP, on 43rd Street and 6th Avenue, until early January.

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Monday, September 25

Pythonalot at the Film Forum

I was maybe 10 or 11 when I first became aware of Monty Python's Flying Circus. At the time (this was around 1973 or '74), the BBC show ran on Sunday nights, Channel 13, I think at 10:30, so I had to get special permission to stay up late and watch it. I couldn't believe that something this relentlessly silly actually existed (and starring adults, no less!); nor that anything could make me laugh so hard.

Anyway, it had been probably 15 years since I'd had any extended exposure to these guys when yesterday afternoon Bo and Co and I went to the Pythonalot Festival at the Film Forum to see their best movie, The Holy Grail. Not surprisingly, it felt more nostalgic than immediately entertaining for me, though I definitely cracked up a few times. And I had forgotten just how stunningly low budget a production this was, and how creative the troupe could be to overcome—and embrace—their lack of funds.

Most rewarding, though, was watching Bo and Co experience these old jokes for the first time, even giggling hysterically through several scenes, especially the Knights who say "Ni", the three questions at the Bridge of Death, and the witch-determining sequence. Given her recent interest in Broadway musicals, Bo in particular seemed to appreciate that she now "got" what Spamalot was all about, without actually seeing that show. And I was thinking later on how cool it was to introduce a piece of culture to my kids at just around the same age that I, too, first enjoyed it. Even cooler: to have them instantly like it.

The Holy Grail is playing through Thursday, September 28, and there are raffles after at least one show per day... and can you guess who won the Grand Prize on Sunday of two free tickets to Spamalot???!!! The Pythonalot Festival continues on through October 5, and includes The Life of Brian and The Meaning of Life.


Sunday, September 24

Anish Kapoor: Sky Mirror

I suppose you could accuse Anish Kapoor of being a crowd pleaser.

Because he totally is.

Twice I've had the pleasure to view and hang around and play under his "Cloud Gate" (more affectionally known as the "shiny bean") in Chicago's Millenium Park, and it's been surrounded by grinning, giddy mobs. Now Kapoor has given New York City reason to smile with his magnificent Sky Mirror, unveiled this week in Rockefeller Center.

Weighing in at 23 tons and (somewhat precariously) leaning three stories high over Fifth Avenue's bustling sidewalk, the round Sky Mirror is basically what it sounds like: a massive stainless steel mirror, concave to the west, convex to the east. And so the side facing 30 Rock literally turns the world upside down, and the side facing Fifth bends and stretches your view and is alive with the colors and movement of the street. Kapoor calls this sort of sculpture a "non-object", because despite its monumental size, it really suggests a void, filled with whatever wanders into its vicinity.

The Sky Mirror is only around until October 27, and it's the type of piece you'll have no problem enjoying two or three times, because it never looks the same (as you can tell, Scoboco went on a gray day... but we'd love to also see the concave side with a blue sky and puffy white clouds). And because any work of art that makes you think about and see the world in a new way—especially a part of the world that is as familiar and iconic as Rockefeller Center—is doing its job well. And because it'll make you happy.

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Friday, September 22

The Pretzel Croissant at City Bakery

It's been pretty much established that City Bakery makes the best cookies in town: dense, sweet, gooey, crunchy, the Chocolate Chip and the Oatmeal Raisin are equally delicious.* Also amazing is their Carmelized French Toast... add a few strips of Niman Ranch bacon to your plate, and you won't have a better breakfast for months. The hot chocolate, too, is remarkable: rich and sludgy, you can double the decadence by adding a huge, freshly-made, melty marshmallow.

So, yes, City Bakery does sweet treats exceptionally well. But if you're craving something savory (and don't feel like tackling the vast and acclaimed salad bar in the back), may I suggest one of my favorite snacks these days, the Pretzel Croissant. True, they really don't look like anything special—in fact, I didn't even try one until my 20th or so visit—but I've become addicted to their intense hit of salty, buttery goodness, packaged in an unbelievably crisp and flaky shell. It's almost as if, by combining these two different bread-foods, they've doubled the pleasure inherent in each. It's really unlike anything I've ever had before.

Of course, I also always get a cookie, too. You know... for dessert.

* City Bakery is on 18th Street, between 5th and 6th Avenues. You can also get their cookies and other pastries at Build a Green Bakery, a tiny storefront on 1st Avenue, just south of 14th Street, whose interior is entirely made from recycled/repurposed materials.

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Wednesday, September 20

Jonathan Lethem at the Starbucks Salon

I must say, they really did this right.

The Starbucks Salon—ten days of writers, musicians and DJs performing for free in the heart of Soho—had been heavily hyped... and, naturally, greeted with some skepticism, given the massive-global-corporation-ness of the sponsor. I was pleasantly surprised, then, that pretty much everything about the event exemplified what you can do when you have a lot of money AND are smart enough to spend it well. From the Salon's simple, informative website to the fun, contemporary design of the airy space itself; from the pristine sound system to the comfy seating; from the friendly staffers to the impressive lack of corporate cheerleading: it all felt less like a marketing scheme and more like a... well, like a Salon.

Anyway, I finally made it to Greene Street on the event's final day to watch Jonathan Lethem, joined by director and fellow Brooklynite Isaac Bulter, tackle a "lightly theatrical" reading of a new short story. Now, I'm definitely a Lethem fan: I enjoyed Gun, With Occasional Music and Motherless Brooklyn quite a bit, and liked Fortress of Solitude even more. But this story—called Their Back Pages, and kind of like "Lost", but starring cartoon characters—didn't really convince me, though the animated Butler was pretty entertaining to watch, and Lethem was sharp and charming in the Q and A that followed... AND someone handed me a free almond toffee bar on my way out! Makes me hope Starbucks decides to spend this kind of money again next year.

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Tuesday, September 19

Agora II at the McCarren Pool

Credit Noémie Lafrance for giving us back Williamsburg's McCarren Pool. This glorious old W.P.A.-era facility had been left to crumble by the Parks Department since it was closed in 1986, its four-story brick facade looming like some sort of ancient temple over a vast basin of peeling turquoise paint and local graffiti. (Here's some great old pics.) But where the city saw a fiscal headache, Lafrance saw the perfect spot for her next site-specific dance piece and, through her non-profit company Sens Productions, came up with the money to bring the pool up to code for public shows. The result was last fall's Agora, and its "continuation", going on now, Agora II.

This is a HUGE space to stage a dance, which works both for and against Lafrance. When Agora II succeeds it's because she's packed her 5,000 square-foot stage with a city's (or, at least, an agora's) worth of emotion and energy: angry, loving, silly, fierce, anxious, naive, peaceful, loud, frightened, powerful, cacophonous, mean-spirited, joyful. There's always lots going on, and the dozens and dozens of dancers move freely in and out of the pool, often sitting next to you as they change costume or await their next scene. At one point a dancer grabbed my hand (I was sitting on the side, she was down in the pool) and begged me, no matter what she said, not to let her go. She immediately began to writhe and jerk and scream "let me go let me GO!" but I held tight and then she stopped and gently told me it was OK, I could let her go now, and she looked me in the eyes and said: "I love you..." Honestly, it was pretty moving.

Also fun is the audience participation this year. If you buy a "player" ticket (and you definitely should, because it's ten dollars cheaper than a regular ticket, and you don't have to "play" if you don't want to), you're assigned a team, with a specific assignment at a specific time. I was on the "X" team, which required that, when the "Twilight Zone" theme came on, I jumped into the pool, formed a massive X with my teammates, and opened an umbrella (provided). The "Wave" team was not so lucky: their dance was basically to run laps.

It can be difficult, however, for Lafrance's choreography to remain visually compelling in such a large arena: frankly, my eyes aren't good enough to even really see what was going on on the other side of the "stage". But this where the magnificent, almost magical site really comes into play, because even when my attention wandered, the whole atmosphere of the setting—amplified by the deftly compiled and edited sound effects, spoken word, rhythm cuts and melodic songs of the piece's soundtrack—couldn't help but make me feel good. And the ending is genuinely beautiful, filled with hope and willingness... and then everyone jumps in and dances to Stevie Wonder.

Agora II will be performed tomorrow through Saturday, September 23, at 8:00, and then again next Wednesday through Saturday, September 30, also at 8:00. I went alone, but I know Bo and Co would have definitely enjoyed it. You can get tickets online here, with no extra processing fees.

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Monday, September 18

Joe at Alessi

As if it weren't enough fun to have Italian design giant Alessi open up a slick, spanking-new flagship store in Soho, Joe: The Art of Coffee has set up an espresso bar in the front, complete with their trademark tasty pastries!

First the store. It's very mod, very cool, the lighting's terrific, the layout smart, and the deft use of mirrors makes it feel much roomier than it actually is (not that that's a new trick... it's just that they've executed it really well). All of Alessi's greatest hits are in stock, and it all looks terrific and tempting in the setting. Yes, you can get everything here elsewhere, but how convenient to have it all in one place. Expect mobs.

So after not buying anything I headed back up front for a cup of Joe's startlingly refreshing iced coffee (I'm so used to—and tired of—the bitterness of Starbucks... so heavy on the tongue, you always need gum or something afterwards) and an amazing almond croissant: it had that chewy, sort-of-burnt, sort-of-carmalized texture and it was rich and dense and delicious. This definitely has the potential to become the go-to place for a Soho pick-me-up. It's on Greene Street, between Houston and Prince.

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Saturday, September 16

The Last Kiss

A little context before I start praising The Last Kiss:
1. Garden State was pretty much my favorite movie of 2004;
2. I'm a total sucker for romantic comedies and love stories (happy and/or sad), and there are SO few good ones that come out each year;
3. I saw it yesterday afternoon, alone, in the rain and gloom.

So despite the generally bad reviews, I was totally predisposed for two hours of love and heartbreak, laughter and tears. And for me, the movie delivered: I laughed, I cried, I got pissed off at the guys' inexcusable behavior, I laughed and cried some more, I wished and wished and wished...

The plot here is basically about four men hitting 30 and dealing poorly, selfishly, immaturely with their very different relationships and life situations. Paul Haggis, of Crash and Million Dollar Baby fame, is generous with his script, and most of the eight or so main characters get at least a few good lines. Director Tony Goldwyn (who also did the great A Walk on the Moon), juggles the storylines nicely. And the cast as a whole is attractive and charismatic, led by Garden State star Zach Braff, who (nearly?) destroys the best thing in his life with a stupid, panic-induced infidelity; Lucinda Barret as Jenna, his newly-pregnant girlfriend whose evocation of the pain and emotional wreckage caused by Braff's lies and betrayal is dignified and dead-on; Rachel Bilson as the home-wrecking college student who can't see past her own immediate desires to the larger harm she's contributing to; and the ever-reliable Tom Wilkinson and Blythe Danner as Jenna's parents.

Like I said: I laughed; I cried.

If you think you'll like this movie, you probably will.


Thursday, September 14

Ursa Minor

For a few years now I've heard people say that my friend Michelle Casillas has a beautiful voice; that I definitely should see her perform. Finally, on Wednesday night I had the opportunity, when her excellent band Ursa Minor played Club Midway on Avenue B.

They weren't kidding about her voice.

Michelle's singing is truly luscious; soulful, playful, deeply affecting. Her songs are lovely, jazzy, sad, welcoming. I was reminded of Feist more than once. And the band was terrific—the usual rythmn section of Bob DiPietro and Rod Jost was joined by a trumpet player whose name escapes me, but he definitely added some punch to the arrangements. I had a great time, and only hope they play again soon.

You can hear a few Ursa Minor tunes (and see some pictures that don't suck) here, and here, and here.

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Bings at Roll and Dough

Add bings to your list of the city's great quick bites.

The creation of Elizabeth Ting—who apparantly first sold them at Unique Pastry in Queens, and this month opened up shop in the West Village—bings are Eggo-sized, somehow both chewy AND flaky, sesame-encrusted pastries neatly (and generously) stuffed with such sweet or savory treats as banana, red bean, spicy chicken, cabbage, vegetable, pork and chives... about 15 varieties were available when I stopped by last night. I had a beef and a chicken, and am already anxious to go back for more. And I know Bo and Co will love them. The fillings were juicy without being sloppy, flavorful without living on in my mouth for hours, and at $1.50 each, it made for an unbelievably cheap, totally tasty on-the-go dinner.

Roll and Dough is right off Sixth Avenue on West 3rd Street, ideal for a pre- or post-IFC movie snack. There are tables, and they also serve soup and buns and dumplings.

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Wednesday, September 13

Zaha Hadid at the Guggenheim

Architect/designer Zaha Hadid's story is almost as interesting as her work. Born in Iraq, long based in London, Hadid spent almost 20 years shopping around her ideas using her trademark, nearly abstract paintings, or "testing fields".

They look like this:

Needless to say, it was a tough sell.

Finally, whomever was in charge of building the Vitra Fire Station in Germany understood her vision, and in 1994, Hadid saw her first creation come to life. Ten years later she became the first woman to win the Pritzker Prize (Quick: name another woman architect. Besides Maya Lin.), and her signature style—lacking an art critic's vocabulary, I'll call it "fluid yet explosive"—has made her designs among the most sought after in the world.

Anyway: the Guggenheim show. There is much to love here. Hadid's kitchen in the museum's highest gallery is beautiful, fun, original (I especially liked the cabinets), as is the car she designed, and her furniture, and her lighting fixtures, all on display in the alcoves as you make your way down the ramps. (An aside: I always go top to bottom at the Guggenheim, even though that usually means I'm reversing the chronology.) Hadid's buildings are stunning, both in concept and in the way they function in the world. She combines forms and textures and lines in striking, unusual ways, and often makes brilliant use of concrete, which, as DGlass always says, can be so warm and elegant when done correctly (and, as we all know from pick-just-about-any-municipal-building, so creepy and oppressive when done wrong). My personal favorite is her BMW plant, which just opened this year and ingeniously combines a working factory and the carmaker's corporate offices into one building. Be sure to watch the video on this. And also check out the video on what Hadid designed for the museum's open interior—it looks amazing—but, unfortunately, it seems they couldn't pull off the engineering.

But there are problems. The many photographs of her finished projects, her works-in-progress, and her proposals are placed on walls so close to the ramp that it's extremely difficult for an old man with increasingly poor eyes to stand far back enough to really appreciate them. Also, neither one of were convinced by Hadid's paintings (reminiscent of cheesy sci-fi illustrations, we thought), and these take up fully half the exhibition space. It helped, then, that DGlass is a Guggenheim member, and I rode along for free.

The Hadid show will be up until October 25. Jackson Pollack's drawings—a few of which are quite striking, either using colors not usually associated with the artist, or almost minimalist in their execution—will be there until September 29, and are definitely worth a look.

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Saturday, September 9

Art Parade in Soho 2006

Scoboco had a blast this lovely afternoon at the Deitch/Paper Magazine/Creative Time Art Parade. We arrived about a half hour early and got a great spot right off Prince Street, chatted it up with the friendly folks around us, and grinned and cheered and danced and shouted out, in true Mardi Gras fashion, "Hey mister, throw me something!" and the freebies went flying as about 40 minutes worth of marchers turned West Broadway into a block party.

Here are just a few shots (click to enlarge) of the many creative, lively, loud, silly, sexified, politicized, happy revelers.

PS: We did go to S'Mac for dinner, and it's just as good (and the owners just as calm and friendly) as it was in early July.

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