Friday, April 30, 2010

A Fount of Nothing

A few years back, I remember seeing the trailer for writer-director Darren Aronofsky's sci-fi opus, The Fountain. It looked fantastic, and yet I never did get out to the theater to see it. Recently, I decided to catch up with it on Blu-ray.

As promised in those trailers, this movie looks fantastic. While it was by no means a cheap movie to make, it was produced on a fraction of the budget that major Hollywood effectaganzas have to work with. Here, it's clear that the artistic and creative people involved did more with less, and made it appear that every last dollar was visible on the screen. If you've seen What Dreams May Come or The Lovely Bones, or another such movie that is a feast for the eyes, we're talking about that level of eye-popping awe, and then some.

And like those other movies, we're talking about something that is lacking in other aspects of the piece. In fact, this movie is practically void and bankrupt in every other aspect but the visuals. The story is a defiantly non-sensical interpolation of three timelines: a 16th-century conquistador goes on a quest for his beautiful queen; a modern-day experimental doctor searches for a cure that will help his beloved survive a terminal disease; and... well, I guess some time in the future, a zen master is flying through space in a transparent bubble with a giant tree that contains the soul of his departed love, looking for suicide/rebirth in a distant nebula. I think.

Narratively, love is link between these disparate threads. They're connected more by actors Hugh Jackman and Rachel Weisz, who embody characters in the different time frames. But any connection between them -- both as echoes between stories, and between the characters themselves within any one given story -- feels forced and superficial. No true emotion lands in any of the time frames, and all the jumping around between stories thwarts any momentum the story tries to build in connecting with the audience.

The actors try hard to elevate the experience, screaming, shedding tears, pouring their hearts onto the screen, but it all feels empty and unnatural, when it's not downright off-putting and confusing. The movie is just a series of gorgeous paintings brought to life, and would have been far more effective in the static, non-literal, non-narrative medium.

I found myself bored stiff long before the credits arrived, and feeling that anything I was going to get out of the movie would have been obtained in the first 10 or 15 minutes or so. It was a waste of time to sit through the rest. The Fountain gets a D-.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Don't Be an Idiot

I've picked up a few things lately with little parts enclosed in plastic bags. More and more, I'm seeing these warning symbols on those bags:


I don't know which one is funnier, the baby crawling along with a bag on its head, or the guy going "oh no, my head's caught in a plastic bag!" (Actually, the guy seems perilously close to demonstrating autoerotic asphyxiation for what must presumably be intended as a "family friendly" symbol. But then, I suppose they are saying "don't do this.")

It seems I'm not the only one who finds these logos preposterous. And the public opinion seems to be that the man is the funnier of the two, since you can get a coffee mug of it.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Things Better Left Alone

Last year's film Where the Wild Things Are was a polarizing one, judging from most of the reviews of it I've seen -- critics seemed to either love it or hate it. The split opinions kept me from heading out to see it while it was in theaters, but when it arrived recently on DVD, I decided to check it out.

I am certainly glad I didn't shell out the money to see it in the theater -- I fall squarely in the "hate it" camp. I don't know if I've ever seen a 90 minute movie that felt so long. Thin on plot and thinner still on genuine sentiment, it's just a mind-numbing procession of boring mini-episodes.

Of course, it's based on the famous children's book by Maurice Sendak, which itself is only a few pages and driven entirely by the artwork. The book has little or no plot, and is just about evoking a mood. On this level, the movie is a rather faithful adaptation. It has to inject a lot of superfluous material to pad the length up to a full feature, but visually, it's a dead ringer for the book. The look of the creatures, little Max in his wolf suit with crown and king's scepter -- it's all brought to life from the pages.

But it's all book-ended by a slow-paced "real world" set-up that makes you impatient before any of those visuals actually arrive. And when they do, the novelty wears off very quickly. This all would have made a fine "short subject" film, because that's about the point where you're ready for it to end.

The characters in the film are largely unlikable; with Max himself, the script goes almost aggressively in this direction. He's a rather obnoxious little brat, which I suppose does qualify him as a "Wild Thing," but makes him a bad protagonist for a movie like this. Again, it all just works better on the pages of the original book.

Perhaps you might call it too much of a good thing. You can sit down with a young child and read the book cover to cover in just a few minutes. Watching this movie takes at least 18 times longer to do, and just isn't worth it when the best thing you can say of the movie is "it looks just like the book." I rate the movie a D-.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

America, the Not-So-Beautiful

I recently checked out one of Eddie Murphy's more well-regarded movies, Coming to America. This was something of a turning point for his movies. It was (I think) the first time he played multiple roles in the film with the help of heavy prosthetic makeup. To hear director John Landis tell it, it was also the first time he showed up on set with his full entourage, behaving in full-on asshole "I'm a giant celebrity" mode, too.

The thing is, the movie really isn't "all that." The plot is probably known to you. A wealthy African prince resists his father's arranged marriage and heads off to New York in the hopes of finding an independent-minded woman who will love him for himself, not for his riches or title. It's a really simple idea, so any traction the film has must come from the performers, bringing the funny.

For a while, they sort of do. The opening half hour or so of the movie does generate some laughs, mostly in the outrageous treatment of the prince in his daily life in his native country. In truth, it's the situations -- the writing -- that are funnier than Eddie Murphy himself. Arsenio Hall and James Earl Jones bring some laughs too.

But then the prince actually comes to America (hey, it's in the title!), and the movie immediately starts to power down. There are a few spikes of humor, in Murphy's portrayal of a crazy old Jewish man who hangs out in a barbershop to kvetch, and Hall's portrayal of an over-the-top evangelist. But mostly, the movie gets shorter on jokes and longer on story, struggling to make two lovebirds meet, and struggling more to put any truly credible obstacles in their way.

It's funny (strange, not ha-ha) that the movie works so hard on the story and yet leaves some obvious flaws in this area. For example, when his father the king catches back up with the prince and insists on going through with the arranged marriage, it ends up being the wise and strong-willed queen that convinces the king to let the young prince marry whoever he wants, defying the ages-old tradition of arranged marriage. The queen. The one who herself must have been part of the arranged marriage tradition, and should therefore be a glorified handmaiden who does whatever the king wants -- not an independent woman who speaks her mind, exactly like the sort of woman the prince is going to all this trouble to meet!

I'd forgive the story pitfalls if the movie were actually funny. But it just gets more tired as it rolls on for a brief -- but somehow long -- 90 minutes. By the time it was over, I was wishing I'd turned it off about halfway through. I rate Coming to America a C-.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Day 8, 10:00-11:00 AM

It looks like now that they've decided to end 24, they've cut off the budget too. Those CG helicopters look pretty fake.

Really, what are they gonna do to Jack Bauer, shoot him down over Manhattan?

Tell the searchers to look for the only guy carrying a bag with everything in it.

NYPD is securing the "perimeter." Which means two things: drink! And Jack will definitely escape, as a perimeter has never contained anyone in the history of 24.

When someone asks "isn't morality relative?", you know the conversation has gone into dark territory.

Is Chloe actually having this conversation with Jack on her CTU-issued cell phone?

Jack can just go into a Radio Shack and buy four scrambled cell phones?

We saw Dana Walsh's face all red and banged up just minutes ago in the re-cap. She's already completely healed?

Michael Madsen and Kiefer Sutherland are going to have an "intense whisper-off."

Taylor has changed her mind about five times in the last 90 minutes. President's prerogative?

Kayla Hassan says, "remember what father said?" I think it was, "don't touch the hair."

Dalia and Kayla Hassan spin the Wheel of Morality and provide us with today's lesson.

As Chloe is doing all this communicating with Jack and Cole, she'd better be sure not to toggle the wrong phone line.

With this whole desire for non-lethal force, might the strike team not want to use tasers?

Seriously, Chloe? You've known Jack all these years, and you only sent five guys to deal with him? Jack kills five guys during a commercial break.

"Dammit, Cole!" (Drink!)

"We'll notify CTU about your men within the next two hours." So... should I take a drink in two weeks?

Treaties are bloody, but apparently "not like this." As opposed to the treaties that are traditionally signed after war, which of course aren't bloody at all.

Why should Dana Walsh fear torture? We've seen how preposterously fast she heals.

With the artistically manipulated ladle, I'm not sure if they're waterboarding her or serving her soup.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Dr. Death

This weekend, HBO debuted their new movie, You Don't Know Jack. It's a biopic about Dr. Jack Kevorkian, the headline-maker of the 1990s who assisted in the suicides of over 100 people. This film follows his story from the first time he assists in the euthanasia of a patient to the point where he is actually convicted of second degree murder and sent to prison, and attempts to convey his passion on the issue of patients' rights.

Al Pacino stars as the doctor, and gives an interesting performance. I'm of a mixed mind about this famous actor. On the one hand, he often does the thing I hate more than anything from a major actor -- he really just plays the character as "himself." Pacino has a stock pool of mannerisms, speech patterns, and demeanors that everyone who has seen even a few of his films will know well. And yet, I find myself forgiving him for this to some degree, because this persona he has is a fiery and passionate one that often lights up the screen.

Here, Pacino is interesting because he mutes that famous persona to a surprising degree. Yes, there are moments of shouting and grandstanding in the film, but for the most part, you don't really see many glimpses of that "this whole court room's out of order!" verve that you usually get with Pacino. More so than in any other Pacino film I've ever seen, the actor does slip into another character as Dr. Kevorkian.

The cast also includes Susan Sarandon and John Goodman, and while both are most definitely secondary parts in this story, they make a good impact in their scenes.

The script is a bit odd, because it treats a very emotional and charged subject in a rather academic way. We do see a number of "characters" living in intense pain, desperate to end their suffering and their lives... but with only a few exceptions, they aren't really brought to the screen in an emotionally compelling way. In most cases, they're more "points of data" used to build both the narrative and a case in favor of allowing assisted suicide.

The drama is reserved for Kevorkian himself, and it's rarely of the tear-jerking variety. The movie is more about how this man has a clear message (for which a compelling argument is presented; but then, I was on its side to begin with), but is not himself a clear messenger. When he opens his mouth in support of his cause, he's as likely to stick his own foot in it. And to a large degree, this is what winds him up in hot water by the movie's end.

The film ends up being an interesting, but not fantastic one. The title doesn't do it any favors, though; it feels inappropriately flippant about a very serious subject matter. But then, perhaps that's the point? It's a little off, like Kevorkian himself. In any case, I'd rate the movie a B-. It's worth checking out if you already have HBO; it's certainly not anything to get a subscription for.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Double Feature -- Part 2

If you're joining our story already in progress, Thursday night I went to see the National Theatre Conservatory's production of Tartuffe. It was the first of two shows they're performing in rep, and the evening was an entertaining but odd mix of good, bad, and strange. But it was, despite some cross-gender casting, ultimately a production that felt more or less like a full-fledged theatrical production -- something you might see outside of the "student environment."

Friday night's Hamlet was some other hybrid sort of entity. It bore the constant stamp of a staging being mounted primarily for educational purposes. With only 10 graduates, there was a lot of doubling up of roles. This isn't in and of itself odd for Shakespeare in general, nor especially for Hamlet in particular; the play has many more roles than you'd probably actually want to cast different actors for anyway. Why not double up a character with only one scene in the final act with another character used more liberally throughout the show?

But some of the doubling choices were awkward at times. Doubling of the actor playing Guildenstern meant that at times, Rosencrantz stood on stage alone. Sure, abridgement of the text meant Rosencrantz had no dialogue anyway (one seldom sees an unabridged Hamlet anymore), but nevertheless, it seems to me a rather major compromise of the spirit of the characters to show one without the other. (If you don't know why, I'm going to assume you've never seen or read Hamlet. Perhaps you should skip out on this blog and go rent one of the many film versions of it.) Put simply, the double casting of actors appeared to be more about giving each student his or her "fair share" of the play rather than doing what was best for the play as a piece of theater. But I'll come back to this in a moment.

There were odd moments of business interjected into the play for no apparent reason other than to let a student showcase some niche talent picked up during the Conservatory's intensive training. For example, Ophelia dangled from a low-flying trapeze twice during the play -- once for her introduction, and once as a sort of dream-like vision as Laertes learns of her death. A bit of a head-scratcher, if you ask me. (And you did. You're reading this.)

But here's the strangest choice of all: the play would better have been called "Hamlets" and not "Hamlet." The role of the melancholy dane was split up for four different actors to perform. I learned of this choice the night before, looking at the shared program for Tartuffe and Hamlet, and seeing credits listed for Hamlet 1, Hamlet 2, Hamlet 3, and Hamlet 4. It was easy to recognize this separation for what it was: giving multiple graduates the chance to take a crack at the meatiest role (in terms of the sheer amount of dialogue, at least) in all of Shakespeare.

So I basically spent 24 hours wondering how this would be approached. Was it to be a purely chronological thing, making no attempt to hide the true reason for the device? Or was there some way you could thematically deconstruct the role of Hamlet into four pieces? Would perhaps one performer take the part for scenes of a certain nature, then another step in when the tone shifted? Perhaps that would be needlessly confusing, but perhaps that would validate the choice for dramatic, not educational reasons?

Well, as it turned out, the Hamlet hand-offs were a mostly sequential matter. Each performer took the role for one quarter of the performance, then stepped down center as the next performer came in behind to perform a sort of "demonic possession" or "essence transfer" bit of physicality to take over the role. It all culminated in the final sword fight with Laertes, in which each one of the four Hamlets took a turn playing one touch against him. All four then appeared on stage together to hold Cladius by the arms and stab him collectively as a group. I will say, that final moment was actually rather effective, but I'm still not sure it was worth the odd journey through four Hamlets.

Who played the different Hamlets... now there's an interesting subject. First up was the man I'd found so unexpectedly compelling the night before in Tartuffe (Sean Lyons). By Shakespeare's five-act text, he played the bulk of the first, including the confrontation with the ghost of Hamlet's father. He was fairly great in this performance too, though I felt the intensity of his opening monologue a bit over the top. I thought to myself, no actor would ever come out swinging this fiercely if he had an entire two-and-a-half hours of this ahead of him; he simply wouldn't have the stamina. Having only a 40 minute piece to take on, though...

But he absolutely killed it in the confrontation with the ghost. In an inspired choice of staging, this exchange was portrayed as an act of spiritual possession of Hamlet himself by the ghost. The one actor played both parts (with a small assist from an audio effect, but mostly through a powerful physicality). The only thing about this that wasn't perfect is that it was retroactively undermined later in the performance. At this point in time, the audience hadn't seen how the four Hamlets would hand off the role to one another. Once we had seen it? Well, it looked rather a lot like this scene with the ghost. Had the production not been trying to sustain the multiple-actor gimmick, the ghostly possession would have been a home run.

Hamlet 2 came on for the bulk of act two, encompassing the famed "to be or not to be" speech, and taking everything through "the play's the thing / Wherein I'll catch the conscience of the king." (Which is also where this production placed its intermission.) This Hamlet was played by a woman (Rebecca Martin). I probably should have mentioned her from the previous night's Tartuffe, but her role there was so minor -- she played Loyal, for those familiar with that play -- that it slipped my mind. She was actually quite good for her few minutes on stage, but that impression got lost in the whole two-plus hours.

Of course, this is probably the only time in her life she'll play Hamlet. And there was maybe a moment or two in her performance where she attacked it like that, over-aggressive, a performance pitched to last only 40 minutes and not for an entire play. But these moments were few; for the most part, this Hamlet 2 was strong. You might argue she had the worst chunk of the play to work with. Yes, you get Shakespeare's most famous soliloquy, but it's also the stretch of the story where Hamlet is frozen with indecisiveness. He's been charged to act by the ghost, but doesn't actually do much of anything.

On comes Hamlet 3 to steer the role through the presentation of the play to King Claudius, the confrontation with his mother Gertrude, and the murder of Polonius. This Hamlet was the actor who made me cringe the night before as Tartuffe himself (M. Scott McLean). I was pleased to see an entirely different performance here. Whatever odd choice, be it his or the director's, that had led to such an outlandishly impish Tartuffe had no parallel in his Hamlet. The actual staging of Polonius' murder was almost laughably awkward, but it's no fault of the actor's. He handled the confrontation with Gertrude wonderfully.

Finally came Hamlet 4, and here's where it got even more interesting. Hamlet 4 was also supposed to have been a woman -- the very same woman who, the night before for Tartuffe -- had completely lost her voice and was "dubbed" by another actor. You might be able to get away with that for a light-hearted comedy, but there was simply no way that was going to work for a powerful tragedy like Hamlet. But still -- there is no understudy.

Or so I thought. According to the sign in the lobby, Andrew Schwartz was taking over the role. I may never know for sure who this guy was. He's not in the graduating class. Perhaps he's a second-year student in the Conservatory? Perhaps he's played Hamlet before somewhere? (Probably in this production I found a short write-up about online? I notice it was directed by the same director who put together this production.) In any case, it seems to me there's no way this guy didn't learn his entire role in about 48 hours or less, including all the dialogue, blocking, and fight choreography for the big finish. And even if he had played Hamlet somewhere before and had some memory of the lines rolling around in his head, he still had to learn the part of Guildenstern -- that's how this particular role was double-cast.

So my hat's off to this actor. If I hadn't been told anything, I would have just assumed he was the guy for the role all along. In fact, on one level, I'd say he was actually the best of all four of the Hamlets. His was the one performance that, from beginning to end, felt properly "of a piece" with the entire play. Where the other three all had moments that seemed pitched too high, to "make the most of my piece of the play," Hamlet 4 was the one performer who seemed to be tracking the whole play on an arc. Like I said, maybe he played it before. Or maybe he was just more spontaneous and natural, holding on for dear life trying to remember lines he'd just learned. However he did it, this guy rocked it.

I've spent a lot of time now talking about the Hamlets, so unfortunately I might give short shrift to some of the other aspects of the production. I will say that the Dorine I liked from Tartuffe the night before (Kelli Crump) was great again in Hamlet, taking the role of Horatio. It was a much smaller role, but she found moments of levity and intensity within it.

Another bright spot was this evening's Polonius (Joseph Yeargain). The night before, he'd played Valere in Tartuffe -- a rather stock, silly role in which he made little impression on me either way. But as Polonius, he nailed the blowhard to perfection. There are laughs throughout Shakespeare -- even the tragedies -- but often only those very familiar with the text will catch them. When a large chunk of the audience laughs, and at something that's not a sight gag, you know it's because the actor has powered through the language barrier and really made everyone understand it. This actor did so with great skill.

The darkest spot on this occasion was the concept. Oh, not the four Hamlets conceit I've already expounded on at length. This mounting of the play was conceived of as a graphic novel, in the mold of Sin City. The director even wrote a few short paragraphs about it for the program -- he was inspired by seeing teens in a bookstore enthralled by the Watchmen to make a Hamlet that might somehow reach them in the same way. His Hamlet became a monochromatic void, lit harshly (sometimes hardly at all), and punctuated by discordant musical stings (for a sense of what it sounded like, check out the end of Weezer's "Undone -- The Sweater Song").

Put simply, this concept did not work. Admittedly, I'm no enthusiast of graphic novels, but I'll still make this bold statement -- the most important aspect of the medium is the framing. You see this every time some filmmaker translates a graphic novel into a movie, conspicuously meticulous camera angles designed to look like a painting. You're meant to see a panel in a graphic novel in this one specific way, with every detail precisely chosen and placed by the artist.

You simply cannot do this in a theatrical production. In a play, the audience, not the director, writer, or artist, is king. We'll look where we want to, see what we want to, "frame" our "shots" in the manner we see fit. You can encourage us to look in a certain place and see a certain thing by set design, staging, costumes, and other elements -- but you can't force that. So put in all the harsh lighting and fog effects you want. I'm not going to say, "ooo, isn't that artistic?" I'm going to say, "I can't see a damn thing." It's hard to complain about a stage actor who can't find his light when there's almost no light anywhere to be found.

The costuming of this production was also an attempt to modernize and "Sin City-ize" the play. Hamlet (all four of them), sported cargo pants, a leather jacket, a "Wittenberg" T-shirt, and a hoodie. In short, they all looked almost exactly like the Hamlet presented in the first season of the Canadian TV series Slings and Arrows. I just watched that recently, making this feel to me like a particularly obvious and distracting theft of an idea from another source. (Hmmm... perhaps I should write about my thoughts on Slings and Arrows some time...)

And then there was the final, climactic battle between Hamlet and Laertes. Put simply, it was staged as a lightsaber duel. The stage was pumped with fog thick enough that flashlight beams cut a very visible swath through the air. The performance and technical realization of this was actually pretty amazing. With incredibly crisp fight choreography, the performers would actually clash swords, stopping their beams of light so perfectly that you truly could see where the "blades" would impact one another. Each time the blades touched, a perfectly timed sound effect of two fencing foils scraping would play. The mind boggles to think at the rehearsal that went into making this work (particularly for Hamlet 4, who probably only learned the moves a day before).

The problem is, George Lucas, for good or ill, has destroyed this concept for all eternity. As soon as the first attack began, a woman one row behind me (who, by the way, is going to the "special hell" reserved for people who talk in a theater) says "ooo, it's lightsabers!" Thanks. We know. Precisely the point. We all know. For that one moment, we're thinking not of Hamlet, but of Star Wars. It doesn't matter that a moment later, we're all wowed by how skillfully this is being performed by both actor and sound operator; first came that moment where we were ripped out of the narrative and thinking about something else. More thievery.

In summation, this Hamlet was one where the actors had to overcome a lot -- artificial choices made because it was a production for MFA students... a bizarre and awkward theatrical concept... this jackass group of six in the back row who brought kids under 10 to the play and then proceeded to explain what was happening on stage all throughout the first act! (Culture your kids on your own damn time. Only take them to the theater when you're sure they -- and YOU -- won't talk during the performance. And if you think the plot is going to confuse them, explain the story to them before you go! /end rant.) Nevertheless, the actors did, on the whole, demonstrate what they have learned in their time at the Conservatory program, giving effective performances within these odd limitations.

Perhaps when next year's graduating class is performing this time next year, I'll make the effort to see their productions. It was a wild and distinct experience quite unlike any other I've had at the theater.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Double Feature -- Part 1

I had a very interesting experience at the theater over these past two evenings. I really don't bring any of this up by way of "review," as such. Many of you don't live in Denver, the shows I'm talking about both close tomorrow night, and they're sold out for their final performances in any case; it's not like anyone reading this would be able to attend, even if I recommended you should. Really, I just want to share the experience because it was really one of the stranger ones I've had attending the theater.

And to begin, I need a bit of background to place it all into full context. Here in Denver, the Denver Center Theatre Company runs the National Theatre Conservatory, an intense three-year Master of Fine Arts program in which just 10 students annually are given full scholarships to study acting with rigorous intensity. Lots of actors go on from this program to appear on Broadway, television, film... or even to remain here in Denver and become fixtures of the "parent" Company itself. But all that free schooling for the few lucky students ends up costing the Center just shy of $1 million a year, an expense they've decided they cannot continue. This year's freshman class will, in 2012, become the last class to graduate before they close the doors on the Conservatory.

But in the meantime, "the show must go on." It's graduating time for this year's senior class, and this year they're doing it by performing two different shows in daily rep: Molière's Tartuffe, and Shakespeare's Hamlet. I attended the former last night, and the latter tonight.

This was the first time I'd ever actually seen multiple shows being performed in rotation by the same group of actors. In the past, I've seen stage productions of both plays. (Even of this particular translation of Tartuffe from French to English.) As such, it afforded me the chance to really focus on the shows collectively, rather than each independently. How were the actors in their different roles? What sorts of triumphs and pitfalls could be attributed to the actors, and which to the directors (who were different for the two shows)?

First up was Tartuffe. For those unfamiliar with the play, the title character is a con man who has assumed the role of a most devout priest. His act has duped a wealthy man to invite the con artist into his home. The entire family, who has not been taken in, tries to make the man see the truth, but he stubbornly stands by the priest and favors him to the detriment of everyone. It's a comedy of a style common for the time in which it was written, and done in the playwright's customary technique of rhyming couplets.

The director of this particular version of Tartuffe left much to be desired. The play was poorly staged, with actors frequently obstructing and upstaging one another, giving key lines of dialogue with their backs to the audience, and otherwise awkwardly moving about.

But by far the worst aspect of this performance was Tartuffe himself. The actor playing the role sniveled and choked on his own words like some sort of strange cross between Gollum and Truman Capote (sans lisp). Some of the audience laughed at the gimmick, but within three minutes, I'd come to find it intolerable. I suppose this was intended to show what a snake-oil salesman the man is, and to exhibit that he's not a very good one -- having fooled only the one man and not the rest of the family. Still, I feel this actor should have been encouraged by his director to find a "new choice."

There was another end of the spectrum, however. Two actors shone brilliantly in the cast. One played the wealthy man's maid, Dorine. Arguably the best written role in the show, she has a smart remark for every occasion, and generates the biggest laughs on the page. The actress portraying her (Kelli Crump) brought this to life with perfect sass, never missing a trick or an opportunity for a laugh.

More impressive still was the actor playing Cleante (Sean Lyons), the brother of the duped man. On the page, it's not an impressive part. He has only a few scenes, and his function in the play is to be primarily the mouthpiece of the playwright. To read it, it's just not a funny role. But this actor found jokes that weren't obvious, and carried them off without them ever seeming forced. Performances like this are why one goes to see a play they've seen before, to have an actor show you something in the play you never knew was there. Brilliant.

Residing off the spectrum in a peculiar category of its own was the character of Damis, the hotheaded son of the wealthy man. The Conservatory graduating class being what it is, comprised of the particular mix of genders (and ethnicities) it has, means that some roles must be filled unconventionally. There's nothing wrong -- or even necessarily unusual -- about that. In this production, Damis was played by a woman (and not the only part to be played by someone of the opposite sex; there were other women as men, and one man as a woman).

But as unfortunate circumstance would have it, this poor woman had completely lost her voice during this week of performances. Could not say one word. But it's her graduating performance. It's a public performance, yes, but it's also ultimately an educational exercise; there was no understudy. So, as one of the cast members explained to us before the play began, this actor would move about on stage and perform the "motions" of her part, while another person sat off stage and read the dialogue for her.

The result was odd, and quite took me out of the play. Oh, not necessarily for the most obvious reason; I actually found that within a minute or two, I just learned to accept lines coming in from offstage as this woman never opened her mouth. And the reader actually did give a performance, and not just a rote recitation of the dialogue. But they actually had a man read the dialogue for a woman playing a man's role, which made the whole thing a little too "meta" for me. Plus, the woman really seemed to be gesticulating and "face acting" wildly in her performance. Pulled out of the play, I had to wonder, is this how she'd be performing it if she could speak for herself? Is this wild behavior because the character is an aggressive hothead, or is it an actor overcompensating like a silent film star?

So, all told, the evening was a most thoroughly mixed bag. The bright spots were almost blindingly so, the rough spots abrasive indeed, and then there was just the weirdness too. I left simultaneously entertained, disappointed, and full of speculation about what I would see on the next night, with Hamlet.

Perhaps out of a sense for dramatic tension myself, or perhaps just in recognition that I've already droned on past the attention span of the average internet surfer, I think I'll pause this tale for now and say "to be continued." Tomorrow, I'll regale you with my night of Hamlet, and the comparisons it brought.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Ordinary Movie

I recently decided to cross another Oscar winning Best Picture off my list, watching 1980's Ordinary People. This film marked Robert Redford's directorial debut -- and he too won an Oscar for his efforts. The cast included Donald Sutherland, Mary Tyler Moore (another nominee, for Best Actress), Timothy Hutton (winner, for Best Supporting Actor), and Judd Hirsch (nominated in the same category as Hutton). In short, it was a major line-up of people making a much-esteemed picture.

But, as is unfortunately often the case, I cannot see today what all the fuss was then, 30 years ago. It's certainly the sort of dramatic mine field that actors and directors love to march boldly into, explaining how all these people were attracted to the story. It revolves around a family who has lost the older of two teenage sons in an accident. It has shattered the family, leaving the mother cold and distant, the surviving son stricken with guilt and unable to cope with profound psychiatric problems, and the father unable to figure out how to help or connect with either of them. Angst ensues.

The thing is, it's very awkwardly paced angst. The story doesn't quite unfold in an order that makes sense. It's certainly a deliberate narrative device, withholding the context for the stilted family drama we see in the opening act. But the device goes too far for my tastes. Effect precedes cause as a matter of course for this movie. Characters seem too easily able to articulate exactly what's going on in their minds for the sake of the plot; yet you can't help but wonder why, if they all can be so honest with themselves, they're having such great difficulty with one another.

The editing of it is noticeably jarring -- and not in a way I think was intentional. In the first 15 minutes of the film in particular, I noticed multiple occasions where it seemed that scenes were cut into too early, or left too late. You could see actors standing in place as though waiting for the call for "action," before suddenly starting their movements in a most unnatural way. I wondered if perhaps I was imagining things, but in my subsequent research about the movie, I learned this bit of odd trivia: Ordinary People is actually the only Best Picture winner ever to not receive a nomination in the Best Editing category at the Academy Awards. On the one hand, I'm surprised I even noticed; on the other, that's how bad the editing seems to be.

But though the movie is awkward on the page and even more awkward in the editing, it's not without merit. The acting really does pull it all back from the brink. In particular, the scenes with Timothy Hutton (as the surviving son) in sessions with Judd Hirsch (as his psychiatrist) are really the spine of the entire two hours. It's understandable why both men received nominations for the work. (And similarly understandable why Hutton, with the emotionally showier part, won over his fellow actor.)

Still, I found it a mostly tedious film overall, a very much overrated piece that covers the same emotional terrain as other movies have done more effectively. I rate Ordinary People a C-.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Pushing the Wrong Buttons

Years ago, sci-fi writer Richard Matheson wrote a short story called "Button, Button" that had some buzz about it. During the 80s incarnation of The Twilight Zone, the story became the basis of a 20-minute segment that was one of the more well-received pieces on the show. (This despite the fact that Matheson loudly criticized the alternate ending given to the TV version of his story.)

Last year, the story was adapted again into the feature length movie, The Box. This time, the man behind Donnie Darko, Richard Kelly, was directing and writing. My opinion of that movie was mixed at best, so that wasn't really what attracted my curiosity. Really, I wondered how anyone could manage to take such a simple idea, inherently only about 20 minutes of screen time long, and expand it into a two-hour film.

The core idea is very straightforward. A married couple has a mysterious man show up on their doorstep with a simple wooden box with a button on top. Push the button, and two things will happen. The couple will receive some large amount of money. (The exact amount depends on inflation and shifting ideas of what constitutes a "large amount of money," depending on when the story is being told.) Secondly, someone whom they do not know will die. Can you live with the knowledge that you're responsible for a stranger's death with money to console your guilt? (Well... that's not really the message of the story. The true message depends on whether you're talking about the original short story, or The Twilight Zone version.)

Anyway, that's really all there is to it. So how do you get two hours out of it? By jumping off the tracks into Crazy Town. The Box takes its cues from the plot of The Twilight Zone incarnation of Button, Button, injecting odd details like setting the tale in the mid-1970s; making the woman (played by Cameron Diaz) have a disfigured foot after a childhood accident; making the man (played by James Marsden) a NASA engineer who worked on the cameras of the Viking space probe that went to Mars; and by making the "mysterious man" (played by Frank Langella) into some ghastly maybe-a-zombie, maybe-possessed, maybe-an-actual-Martian freak.

Despite these oddities, the film is actually rather effective and tense for a while, even though anyone who knows the story isn't going to be surprised. (Nor, for that matter, would anyone with half a brain to anticipate where the plot is going.) It's kind of cool, sort of suspenseful, and mostly interesting.

Then, about one hour into the movie, the whole of the story, as told before, is finished. And from there things get really, really weird, as I probably should have expected from the man who made Donnie Darko. Legions of zombie-like "employees" of the Mysterious Man start stalking the couple. Weird alien technology is used to cause havoc. A new dilemma is presented to the couple that is somehow supposed to one-up the drama and trauma of the first one, but just seems like a bridge too far. The movie stops making any effort at making any sense.

Before it's all over, any "hey, this actually isn't too bad" goodwill I felt during the first half has been foolishly squandered. It basically winds up being half of a good movie. And so, not surprisingly, I rate it a C+. (Middle of the road, with a "plus" for Frank Langella, who remains effectively creepy even as his part grows more absurd.) Those who can do without the trappings of visual effects would be better advised to seek out the original short story and read that.

The Last Recruit

Many times throughout this final season of Lost, there have been moments where you think "the sprint for the finish line has really started now." But I think tonight's episode upped the ante on that; tonight, it really felt like the beginning of the end. Interestingly, it wasn't really the goings-on on the Island that gave me that impression. Instead, it was the events in the Sideways World that showed the final threads pulling together.

Nearly every storyline we've seen all season in the Sideways World came back to be continued tonight. Jack met his sister Claire and was brought in to perform surgery on Locke, Sawyer dealt with Kate and apprehended Sayid, Sun survived her gunshot wound with her baby alive... threads crossing every which way, starting to be pulled taut.

But there were a few events of note on the Island too. Number one was literally years in the making: at long last, the reunion of Sun and Jin. It's probably impossible for something that long coming to really pay off, but it at the very least came close, a poignant moment.

There was the story of Sayid, continuing to dance around the notion that's he's probably thinking of the "dead woman he loved and lost" as Nadia, when the same could apply to Shannon. Desmond's zen-like state allowed him to pose very pointed questions to Sayid, questioning his actions. Enough to pull Desmond back from the "dark side?" Well, we didn't see the body now, did we?

A redemption we did get to see on screen was Claire's, as Kate simultaneously talked Claire into coming and Sawyer into letting it happen. But I find just as much uncertainty in this development. It seems like Sayid probably didn't shoot Desmond, but what turned him, and why is he deciding to lie to UnLocke now? By the same token, Claire can't really have come back from years of crazy on the Island just like that, right?

Add Widmore to the "what's going on with them?" pile from this week. Though off screen in this episode, he called in to order the defecting castaways taken into custody. Of course, Widmore Good or Evil is a game we've been playing a while now, so this shouldn't shock anybody.

Unfortunately, however, the continuation of all these threads won't be coming next week, from the look of it. According to the schedule, next week's episode of Lost is a re-run. So the only Lost mysteries you can contemplate next week is why they decided to inject one re-run in an otherwise uninterrupted season. Perhaps you can ponder if there's any significance to why that one re-run was chosen to be the Richard-centric episode from just a few weeks ago. Was it judged to be especially important to the conclusion by the producers?

At least Glee is back now and I still have that in Lost's absence next week. (Though you know what? Screw you, American Idol, for running long and cutting into the scheduled run time!)

Monday, April 19, 2010

Day 8, 9:00-10:00 AM

That's a full service hospital, what with interns apparently ready to just give their shirt and shoes to people. (But what, no socks?)

You're not supposed to use your cell phone in the hospital, Jack.

Just a couple hours ago, Ethan Canin had a heart attack for which he received no medical attention for nearly a full hour, but here he is, back up on his feet and on the job. Trying to show Jack Bauer up in the "endurance" department, obviously.

Logan and the Russian diplomat have a diagonal head conversation.

The judge felt bad about the whole "no bail" thing, so he's taking a 30 minutes recess to give Bazhaev's lawyer 5 minutes with his client.

The bailiff must have very bad hearing. But then, Jack is using his patented intimi-whisper.

Apparently, Russian help getting Dana Walsh into CTU would explain how she got there. We all thought she just checked the "not a mole" box on her application.

Doesn't Logan's political strategy usually operative through the rear entrance?

Cole thinks it's totally okay to let Jack beat on Dana some more.

Logan gestures emphatically and threatens that "this will all be finished." What, television? Or specifically Fox News?

Taking advice from Julius Caesar? Look how things turned out for him.

The President is off to the least secure building in the city -- the CTU office.

Alright, just keep staring creepily into the camera, Katee.

The President is specifically careful to thank CTU for their "efforts," not their results. "I know you won't let me down." (Again.)

Why does Jack have this big box of stuff to take with him from CTU? He doesn't actually work there!

That whole time President Taylor was talking to Jack and Chloe, the Secret Service was busy trying to get that limo turned around in that tiny tunnel.

Grand Theft Chopper.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Opening Up a Can...

I really wasn't sure I wanted to see the new movie Kick-Ass. Actually, based on seeing the trailer, I was pretty sure I didn't want to see it. After all, comic book movies and I haven't always seen eye to eye, and I think Nicholas Cage is one of the worst "actors" to somehow keep finding steady work these days. But then, a few weeks ago, I got a better idea of what Kick-Ass was really like. It's not the slapstick sort of comedy the trailer implies. It might be that the people cutting that trailer were trying to trick people into thinking they were going to see something different.

Actually, it's more likely that the people cutting that trailer couldn't actually show what the movie really was in a "green band" (for all audiences) trailer. Because what I was hearing was that Kick-Ass was actually a foul-mouthed, raucous orgy of violence -- at least, in the original source material. And the creators apparently had script approval over this film as well. My expectations now shifted to something different, I decided to give the film a try.

It was everything I expected, and maybe more. I can only imagine the shock of anyone who saw this movie expecting what they saw in the trailer; instead, they got something as bloody and visceral as any Quentin Tarantino movie -- but without so much self-indulgent dialogue and aimless subplotting.

Kick-Ass is the story of a comic-loving teenager who, despite a lack of any skills or even much athleticism, decides to don a costume himself and go out fighting crime. His well intentioned but not always successful efforts soon grab attention -- including from a vigilante father and his 11-year old daughter who are doing the superhero thing to even greater extremes, and from a crime lord whose operations are threatened by this unlikely celebrity.

The film may be called Kick-Ass, but the real scene-stealer of the movie is the daughter, Hit Girl. Played by Chloe Moretz, who had a smallish but entertaining role in (500) Days of Summer, she comes across as a bigger badass than any of the adult actors who've famously trained for months for their roles in crazy action blockbusters. Assuming you're not deeply unsettled at the sight of a little girl doing the things she does in this movie (and you're kind of supposed to be on some level), you'll be wildly entertained.

On the other end of the spectrum is Nicholas Cage, who once again demonstrates why I don't like him -- by playing "Nicholas Cage," just like he does in every movie, just this time in a kind of a Batman-looking suit. Fortunately, his role in the movie is actually somewhat smallish, and didn't bring the whole down too far.

While the movie does entertain, it does maybe try a little too hard to set up a franchise. It does tell a complete story on its own, but it also is a little too neat in setting up what the sequel would be. I suppose this is par for the course in sueprhero movies, if you look Spider-man, Batman Begins... hell, even the original Superman. Still, this movie was in so many ways an unconventional superhero movie -- boldly charging across the line of dark, violent, and just plain messed-up that others only flirt with -- that it just seems out of place to be laying track for Kick-Ass 2.

But then, I would probably go see a Kick-Ass 2, after my experience with this first one. I'd rate it a B.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Brotherly Love

I recently watched a film that, in my opinion, is a better "war movie" from last year than the Best Picture winner, The Hurt Locker. Well, a little bit better, at least.

Brothers is the story of... well... two brothers, one a perpetual screw-up recently released from prison (Jake Gyllenhall), the other a soldier who followed in his father's footsteps and who is heading off to fight in the Middle East (Tobey Maguire). Natalie Portman plays the wife of the soldier, whose life is shattered when her husband is apparently killed in action. In fact, he has been captured by the enemy, and is put through a grueling ordeal that transforms and destroys him.

The script is not outstanding or revolutionary, and it borrows some ideas you've probably seen in other war movies -- particularly the more modern, "gritty" kind. It's also playing a romance-that-cannot-be thread that isn't exactly breaking new ground. But what makes the movie really succeed is the strength of its acting. All three -- Maguire, Gyllenhaal, and Portman -- give really fantastic performances. They're powerful when they need to be, subtle when they need to be, and hit every beat in between.

In particular, Tobey Maguire is really amazing. His character comes back from war so different and so damaged that he's a completely different person, and Maguire captures this perfectly. He gives a truly chilling performance; though the film has been somewhat rote and predictable through the first two acts, he is such a terrifying wild card in the final act that I honestly found myself uncertain just what he would do. The tension in the last half hour of the film is strong and potent, and while the film didn't really need to be "redeemed" as such, this is the part that lifts the whole thing a cut above others.

I rate Brothers a B-. I might have gone higher, but it truly is an average movie elevated a great deal by good acting. If you've liked any of those three performers in other films, you would probably enjoy their work here.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Tippe Point

I noticed recently at Sangediver's house that the run of U.S. Presidential dollar coins has made it at least as far as John Tyler. His wife (Sangediver's, not John Tyler's) is a bit of a presidential trivia buff, and I asked her, "he's the one that filled in for William Henry Harrison, right?" (Harrison being the president who famously died after only a month in office.)

But even before she could answer, I remembered that I actually knew the answer thanks to my grandfather. On a few scattered occasions, I'd heard him mention "Tippecanoe and Tyler too." It wasn't like a catch phrase or anything, but it's an oddball enough thing that it sticks in your mind, you know? I suppose at the time, I might have thought is was some lyric to an older song I'd never heard, but I once was curious enough to research it and learn the true origin. Yes, it was a song... but it was actually the campaign song for President Harrison (hero of the Battle of Tippecanoe) and his running mate, John Tyler.

This was in 1840, by the way. This means that even if my grandfather heard this bizarre "Tippecanoe and Tyler too" phrase from his grandfather, there's no way that he was actually around to have heard it at the time, either. Just how many generations did this pass through to get to me? What do you suppose the guy who wrote it would have thought to know that his little jingle was still going to be known (if not widely) nearly two centuries later?

And perhaps most importantly of all: why is any of this taking up space in my brain?

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Lost Again

Several weeks back, I wrote about an HBO documentary I watched, Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills. It told the story of three teenagers on trial for the brutal murders of three young boys in a small Arkansas town. The film presented a compelling case for the teenagers' innocence, made all the more poignant by the end, as all of them are convicted and sentenced with scant evidence and a surplus of emotion.

A few years later, the same crew went back in to make a follow-up documentary, Paradise Lost 2: Revelations. The subtitle is a bit of a misnomer, as the film doesn't actually deliver much in the way of new revelations about the case. But what it does deliver is a very different treatment of the material that stands apart as separate from and interesting in comparison to the original.

One major difference is that the three young men are featured much less in this film than the original. This is of necessity, of course -- they are now imprisoned, and access to them is much more limited. Even though an appeal is in progress as this second film is being made, the documentary cameras are barred from the courtroom. Where the first movie gives us a front-row seat to events, this story is told at a greater distance, as we watch events outside the courthouse, and sit in on interviews involving other people surrounding the case.

Two people become more of a focus in this film that were minor "characters" in the first. One is the stepfather of one of the murdered boys. He came across as quite the freak show in the first documentary. Here, he's presented as a full-on candidate for "the real killer." And whether you believe that or not, the film "entertains" (if that's not too ghastly a word to use, given the real-life context) on the strength of how crazed a character he is.

Second, the film focuses on one of the defense attorneys from the original trial. Five years on, he is the only lawyer still actively working on the case and trying to secure an acquittal for his client. He's still turning over new stones, working on the case without compensation. The film tracks his efforts as he works with new experts, motivated to help him in part because of the original documentary, and you really find yourself rooting for him.

Speaking of people motivated by the original documentary, this film also devotes time to a group of people who have organized under the "Free the West Memphis Three" banner upon seeing that first film. They provide another interesting voice here. They articulate many of the things that you find yourself thinking as you watch both this film and the original. And yet for all their determination, you feel frustration as there seems to be very little they can actually do. It's an interesting texture unlike anything from the first documentary.

In all, I'd say this second film isn't quite as compelling as the first, but I found it still very much worth watching. I rate it a B-.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

What Would Brian Boitano Do?

Why, he'd curse a blue streak as he congratulated the South Park creators on reaching their 200th episode, airing tonight.

The thing that impresses me about South Park is that even now, in its 14th year, it manages to be truly funny almost every week. Contrast this with, say, The Simpsons, which hasn't been funny in about 14 years.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Everybody Loves Hugo

When it comes to the mysteries of Lost, I've always been a viewer more interested in answers to those surrounding the characters more than those surrounding the Island. As such, one of the biggest dangling threads for me went back to season two, when Libby was killed off without us ever seeing a flashback episode explaining her past... but having seen that tantalizing glimpse of her in the mental institution with Hurley.

So honestly, I'm not sure how I felt about them revisiting this thread tonight. I mean, on the one hand, I'm certainly glad that they revisited the story between Libby and Hurley. Their relationship was very pure and sweet, just nice to watch. But showing us this story again, and putting her in the institution again in this reality just makes me wonder all over again: what the hell was she doing in the asylum the "first time" around?

Perhaps we are meant to infer that "first reality Libby" was actually there for exactly the same reason? That she had memories from an alternate reality, specifically memories of Hurley? She was, after all, quite fixated on him in that brief scene we saw of her in the institution four years ago. And she very clearly remembered him. If she was fixating on him as a sort of "constant," then... well, I suppose that all makes some rough kind of sense.

But even if that is the answer to that question, it then begs more questions. Why is Libby so special that she knew apparently before anybody else about the existence of the other world? Is this something we're going to actually get answers to in the scant five episodes we have left, or was tonight more about just giving us that last revisiting of an old character before things wind up?

Either way, I've probably obsessed about this one aspect of a busy episode long enough. After all, there were plenty of other things going on. We had the return of Michael, conclusively revealing the nature of the ghostly whispers we've heard on the Island all these years -- they are just that, ghostly whispers. I certainly didn't need to see Michael again for me to feel my experience with Lost was complete, but sure, whatever. He didn't run around screaming Walt's name for an hour, so I'm okay with it.

Poor Ilana. We hardly knew you. But I have to say, as I was watching her shove things into that bag of dynamite, I was totally picturing pompous old Dr. Arzt, and saying out loud to the TV, "how in the hell is that dynamite not blowing.... oh, well, there it is."

On deck for next episode, the rest of the candidates finally arrive to confront UnLocke. But to keep you thinking until then, we were left with one more big thing on the way out: what the hell is going on with Sideways Desmond? He closed out the episode by running over Sideways Locke with his car. Hugo gets a kiss from his soul mate, Locke gets the front grill.

This, of course, came after Smokey-as-Locke tossed Island Desmond down the well. So is this some kind of revenge thing? Do the two Desmonds have complete awareness of one another now? Or is it not as petty as that? Was Sideways Desmond going after Locke because he knows Locke is dead in the other reality? But then, so was Libby. But then, Libby wasn't an Oceanic passenger in this second reality. Or maybe Desmond wasn't trying to kill Locke, and knew he would survive?

Now there's enough to keep your head spinning until next week arrives. Dramatically speaking, this week's episode was actually one of the weaker ones of the season, I thought. Still, even at that, it offered plenty to get the mind spinning, and certainly pushed pieces a little closer to the finish.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Day 8, 8:00-9:00 AM

I still can't believe they named a fictional Middle Eastern company the I.R.K. It's like a name out of Get Smart or something.

Dahlia says her husband was sorry about all the torture. Nice, but a lie.

Taylor's plan is that a woman could become president of a Middle Eastern country. A lovely sentiment, but sadly ludicrous even for 24.

Chloe acts like she runs CTU already. Putting her in charge shouldn't change much.

Hastings takes the news of his firing standing up straight, for perhaps the first time in his life.

Hastings talks about letting the "snake into the garden." I like this CTU-as-garden metaphor, because CTU is full of crap.

Little Teri Bauer's middle name should be "Hostage," because that's the family heritage.

It appears that the First Crazy Lazy didn't finish the job a few seasons back; Charles Logan is still alive.

This is how you get an actor to agree to sit out for half an episode: have his character have sex in real time. Play to ego.

Dahlia will need her daughter's help now. She can start by not sleeping with terrorists.

Logan is going to help with "resurrecting the peace process." So... Zombie Peace?!

I've heard great things about "I'm sorry I stabbed you" sex.

Is no one gonna keep pressure on Renee's wound?

And just like that, the best thing about season 7 is gone.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Date Movie

Today, I checked out the new comedy starring Steve Carell and Tina Fey, Date Night. It was definitely one of those movies where I hoped it would be as funny as it looked in the trailers, and that not all the best parts had been spoiled there. It was a case where it looked all too conventional in its storyline, but hopefully the stars would add something extra.

Indeed, it was a conventional plot, cobbled together from a few other movies you've probably all seen before. A married couple is mistaken for two people holding information over the head of a dangerous mobster, whose goons are trying to have our unlikely (and unlucky) heroes killed. Hilarity ensues.

And actually, it does. Steve Carell and Tina Fey both create a lot of great moments in this movie. The entire thing just has the sense of fun about it; you can tell (even before seeing the outtakes that run over the end credits) that everyone had a lot of fun making this movie. Carell plays less dumb than he does on The Office, and Fey less smart than she does on 30 Rock -- but the two meet in the middle and create a lot of laughs.

The supporting cast is also quite entertaining, including normally oh-so-serious Mark Wahlberg and William Fichtner. In a string of near-cameo appearances, there's also Ray Liotta, James Franco, Mila Kunis, Mark Ruffalo, and Kristen Wiig. Again, you just get the sense they're cutting loose and having fun.

If anything, the story is so wafer thin that you almost wish even less attention had been paid to it. There are a few action sequences better suited to a madcap buddy cop movie than a film like this, purely there to advance the plot, I think. Still, Date Night does generate laughs when it stops trying to be an action movie too. Overall, I'd rate it a B.

Friday, April 09, 2010

Froggy Went a-Courtin'

I wanted to be more supportive of Disney's most recent "traditional animation" film, The Princess and the Frog, and get out to see it in the theater. I do not subscribe to the notion that the hand-drawn cel format is a relic of the past. It is not the computer animation technique that makes the the newer crop of animated movies a triumph; it's the genius of the work done by the people at Pixar studios. (Other studios have both hits and misses, depending on the strength of the writing, acting, directing, and other elements of any given film.)

In any case, it was only recently, when The Princess and the Frog arrived on DVD, that I finally got to see the movie. And it's really a very good one -- but not quite a masterpiece quite on par with the films of the so-called "Disney Renaissance" of the 1990s.

But again, it's not the fault of the technique. The hand-drawn animation in this film is really excellent. Yes, they use some computer cheats from time to time (but then, so did those films of the 90s), but the artists really are producing the bulk of this film in the classic technique, and it looks great. The structure of the story also really takes advantage of the medium; there are a lot of ideas -- both in the narrative and the visuals -- that could only really be expressed in this way, as opposed to live action.

The story is rather clever too. Rather than purporting to be THE telling of THE Princess and the Frog, this movie is set in New Orleans of the past, involving characters who are actually aware of the old fairy tale. Events transpire that make them live the story themselves. And those characters are entertaining. There's a strong modern-day Disney heroine, likable sidekicks, a menacing villain... all the elements, and working together well.

Two things don't quite fit. One is the song writing of Randy Newman. During that 90s Renaissance, much of the soundtrack was provided by the brilliant pair of Howard Ashman and Alan Menken; later, other lyricists such as Tim Rice came in after the death of Ashman; later still, other skillful people like Phil Collins. I have never really liked Randy Newman. In my opinion, the man has only ever really written one song, and every other composition in his career has simply mined the space closely on either side of that one idea. Every song of his sounds like every other song.

What's worse is, Newman doesn't even have to be performing the song himself (as he often does; see Toy Story) for this unfortunate quality in his composing to push through. The songs of this film are arranged for full orchestra. They're performed by half a dozen different people. And yet they all sound like the same one Randy Newman song. It's a frustratingly narrow palette for a movie that's so visually rich and colorful.

The second problem I have is with the writing. Actually, it's quite clever and entertaining overall, but there is one particular point in the plot that feels a bit out of step. Out of date, actually. The heroine has aspirations to open her own restaurant, a goal she's pursued all her life with dogged determination. But when she's caught up in the events of this movie and ultimately comes to seek advice from a mysterious old magical woman in the bayou, she's given essentially this guidance: "you don't know what you want, girl; you need to settle down and find someone to love."

This seems a pretty backwards notion to me for a modern film. Sure, "love conquers all" will always be a relevant narrative theme, and this movie is hardly the only place espousing the notion that "you're nobody 'til somebody loves you." But there's a strange undercurrent in the way this plot point unfolds that doesn't quite seem so innocent. It really comes across: "that's great, kid; but you'd better think about finding a man who loves you." That note rings more sour than any of Randy Newman's.

I'm probably not spoiling much when I say that in the end, the young woman actually gets everything -- both what she's advised to pursue, and what she originally wanted -- thus taking the edge off this a bit. And everything else about the writing helps further mute the impact of this element: it's funny, clever, well-paced, and more. By the time I average everything up, I'd still give the movie a B, and a recommendation. Nevertheless, it's a shame that such a large bite was taken out of an otherwise very satisfying meal.

Thursday, April 08, 2010

Opus Night

Tonight, I saw a local theater company's production of a relatively new play called Opus. Written by Michael Hollinger, it's the story of a string quartet that has recently ejected a long time member from their group, and hired a new replacement just as they're about to give a very important and prestigious performance. The question is, has the change in the group really been for the better, or is there still more strife and conflict working against them?

The play was fairly interesting, but something felt somehow "just a little off" as I watched this rendition at Denver's Curious Theater Company. I want to be an articulate critic, but unfortunately, I can't quite put my finger on exactly what was wrong.

I can say that the flow of the piece didn't quite work naturally for me. The climatic final scene sees a massive and loud argument among the five characters in the play -- current and former members of the quartet. It's quite tense and dramatic, and a good culmination for the play. And yet, quite a few people in the audience were laughing at it. Even allowing that some people do actually laugh of nervousness when confronted with such circumstances, it seemed to me that something was off to get this kind of a reaction.

I wondered if maybe it was the play itself, that in its overall construction, it doesn't quite earn this fiery conclusion. But that didn't really feel right in my mind; I also see that the play has won fairly enthusiastic praise in other cities where it has been performed.

So then I wondered if maybe it was the director's fault; that maybe he hadn't mapped an appropriate arc through the script with enough "foreshocks" in anticipation of the final quake. But that also felt wrong. First of all, the director of this particular production was Chip Walton. If you're not a major Denver theater geek, that probably doesn't mean a thing to you, but suffice it to say this he is a very intelligent "actor's director" that has been working in Denver a long time and knows what he's doing. And I could easily point to elements of this play's staging, pacing, and more that showed he wasn't asleep at the wheel here.

Well then, theater really is an actor's medium. Perhaps it was simply a weak link in the cast? Except that when I really tried to identify who that was, I couldn't come up with an answer. All five parts have good moments. I could think of a few monologues by one or two of the characters that didn't feel like they were that strong, but I could just as quickly think of scenes where those same performers brought powerhouse moments to the piece.

Maybe it's as simple as this: I saw the play on a Thursday night, making it the first night the actors had performed it again since breaking from last weekend. Maybe they just had to "work back up to it."

In any case, I thought the play wasn't a triumph, but it was still very enjoyable. It's nice to see a play with which I'm not familiar, and I'd probably give this particular production of it a B-. If close personal drama and/or classical music is an interest of yours, then you might very well have an interest in this play -- either right now in these next two weeks (if you live in the Denver area), or if a company close to you should happen to stage this recent (but apparently popular) play.

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Love and Money

I skipped Michael Moore's most recent documentary in the theaters, but it recently arrived on DVD and I decided to give it a shot. Capitalism: A Love Story is his look at the financial state in America, of the eroding middle class, the widening gap between the wealthy and impoverished, and the questioning of whether capitalism is all it's cracked up to be. Capitalism, the movie posits, does not go hand in hand with democracy as a force for good.

The film is an interesting collection of contradiction. On the one hand, it's almost Moore's least political film in a long while (certainly, among those I've seen). But it's actually an intensely political film; it's just that he goes after a number of targets without regard to their political affiliation. Oh, there's plenty of vitriol for the Bush (Jr.) administration, and even several shells lobbed back at Ronald Reagan. But if you make it past the first half hour, there are actually a good number of jabs at Democrat politicians, not just Republicans. Among the people he vilifies most for the banking crisis were members of Bill Clinton's cabinet, and it was a Democratic majority in Congress that passed the recent stimulus/bailout package of which -- "spoiler" alert -- Moore is not a fan.

He has longer sequences in this film where he "steps away" from the action, neither appearing on camera nor narrating the proceedings. The movie is unquestionably at its strongest in these moments, depicting real people in a variety of awful situations: a couple being paid token amounts a mortgage company to act as low-priced movers carrying out the eviction on their own house; several families relating tales of how corporations cashed in massive life insurance policies on dead spouses while leaving the bereaved penniless; case after case of insult piled upon injury.

But on the other hand, when he does appear on screen -- in fact or in narration -- Moore is more Moore than ever before. He marches up to corporate headquarters with his megaphone and camera crew, accomplishing nothing but grandstanding for his film. He heaps criticisms on certain figures without necessarily providing sound logic or context for his accusations. This is Moore at his most polarizing, a man who knows very well how to paint a picture, but far less well how to present an argument.

Frankly, even I -- someone who shares a great many of the man's political views -- found the first third or so of the movie rather off-putting. It was preaching to the choir, firing off shots indiscriminately. But then the movie settled into really humanizing the situation, and finally segued into a pretty compelling condemnation. It was fairly short of suggestions for solutions, though, other than a vague "rise up" call to arms without much of a notion of "and do what?"

It's hit and miss, with most of the misses being all front-loaded in the opening act. That might make it tough for some to get through, and undoubtedly even worse for those predisposed not to like Moore's films in the first place. If you see it through though, I'd call it a B-.

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Happily Ever After

Dear producers of FlashForward... we need to borrow half your cast this week. Thanks, Producers of Lost.

It was an episode about Desmond this week, but interestingly was just as much an episode about Sideways Charlie. Ever since the first episode of this sixth season, the audience was put on the trail of knowing that something about Desmond was going to be different in these two realities the show was presenting. But this week, we learned that it was actually Charlie -- and Daniel (Farraday/Widmore)! -- that really bridged the gap first.

The Sideways stories have been an interesting look at the characters even though we know them so well by this point. But now, as of the final moments of this episode, they have a narrative thrust all of their own. It seems under the right circumstances, a Sideways character can have a glimpse of their Island existence. And Desmond aims to show it to them. He's going to have to get busy; there aren't that many episodes left.

I love the little connections tonight that weren't overly spelled out for the audience, but left there for us to intuit on our own. There was the return of "the constant" idea (from the brilliant episode of the same name), that if Desmond and Penny reconnect, it will snap Desmond back to reality. There was Eloise's obvious knowledge of this fact, since she was trying to keep the two apart. There was Daniel's description of the woman he ran into at the museum, clearly the archaeologist Charlotte we saw a few weeks back.

But even with "episodes to go" now well down into the single digits, Lost is posing new questions even as it answers existing ones. We have a much clearer picture of what the Sideways story is really about, and the role Desmond will play in it. But what exactly does Widmore want Desmond to do on the Island? And what sort of Zen- or Zombie-like state has come over poor Desmond that he'll go along with Widmore, Sayid, whoever happens to be there at the moment?

I'm eagerly waiting to find out.

Monday, April 05, 2010

Day 8, 6:00-8:00 AM

Hassan: "This is not right!" His hair is messed up!

Black Ops cars keep Hide-a-Keys under the wheel well?

When Tarin turns off the bomb, it sounds like it took his picture.

The clock stops on 00:07? Hmm... Jack Bauer vs. James Bond. Now that would be a showdown.

Not only will Jack steal your car, he'll show you just how rough he's going to treat it as he drives off.

President Taylor says this peace with the Middle East has eluded them for fifty years. Really? JUST fifty?

iRobot? I, Robot?

Where was Cole all this time?

It suddenly occurs to me that stuffing Prady's dead body in the air vent might not have been the best idea. The smell is sure to start circulating soon.

Hey, eyes on the road, Tarin. This is New York.

And come to think of it, how are they driving so fast in Manhattan anyway?

Good to know the President trusts Stabby McThumbsaw.

What's our "perimeter" looks like? (Drink!)

"Dammit! They've made us!" (Drink!)

"Set up a perimeter around the parking lot." (Drink! Ooo, now we're cooking!)

Alright Katee, give us your mole-iest facial expression.

"They're coming straight at me, dammit!" (Drink!)

"No one could have survived that." Jack Bauer could have, I'll bet.

Why is the team allowing anyone to leave the parking garage right now?

"Someone at CTU tipped them off." "How is that possible?" Seriously, Renee... have you not watched this show?

Dana needs to go get her migraine meds for the massive headache her plot is giving us.

"He was not in the vehicle." "I don't understand." Well... uh, he. was. not. in. the. vehicle.

Big shootout in the CTU parking garage. I'll bet insurance premiums are a bitch if you tell your provider that's where you park your car during the day.

Infiltrating CTU is "not an easy task." Really?

When Renee Walker calls someone a sociopath, you know they're unhinged.

Hyundai. Enough trunk space to transport a foreign president.

Hassan talks of his cone-tree, then gives us a marble-mouthed "perimeter." (Drink!)

President Taylor and Ethan Kanin come very close to a Kiss Me You Fool moment.

Arlo basically tells us that Dana Walsh doesn't have the tits of terrorist.

Maybe this time, you shouldn't let the whole Hassan family watch live?

"Cover the perimeter." (Drink!)

I think the bolt cutter guy has the safest job in all of CTU.

Why is the IRK terrorist guy delivering the important message to the people of his country in English?

So much for "events occur in real time."

Sunday, April 04, 2010

Stop the Clock

I recently read this little mini-article, an interview with 24 executive producer Howard Gordon, in which he is confronted on the insane crappiness of the Dana Walsh storyline in this season of 24. He basically whines about how there are only so many "tropes" in the genre, and challenges "anyone to try to sit in our chair and figure out how to do 24 continuous, real-time episodes, without using certain devices."

I would gladly have taken him up on that offer.

For starters, I challenge the tired thinking that there must be a CTU mole in every season of 24. In season 2, the only mole-like character worked in the president's administration. CTU was squeaky clean. In season 3, the writers turned the mole convention on its head by making it appear there was a mole, only to turn around later and reveal that this person was working for the good guys, feeding false information to the enemy -- a double agent! Even season 6 (which until now, was the clear "winner" for worst season of 24) had no moles, unless you count the character played by Stargate's Michael Shanks.

Secondly, I don't even primarily object to the presence of a mole in the story. I object first to the lack of planning ahead for such a plot twist (Dana's behavior in the first half of this season does NOT track with the revelation that she's a mole). And I object the lazy thinking that just instantly made Dana Walsh the mole.

If I were "sitting in their chair," oh, let's see. I'll spend a couple quick minutes on this. If there must be a mole.

How about Hastings? In eight years of 24, the mole has never been the head of CTU. There would be all sorts of avenues for new storytelling if the man right at the top is working to undermine the investigation. Not to mention that his pig-headed behavior from earlier in the season would make more sense in a context where he's actually trying to obstruct CTU from within.

How about Prady, the parole officer sent in to harass Dana? What if he was actually someone sent in by the baddies to get inside CTU's walls and mess up their computers or something? This would be world's better justification for having a "parole officer" that works at 3:00 in the morning. It would explain why he didn't just stay put in the room where he was left, wandering out into the halls unattended. It would be a different kind of internal threat than CTU has faced before. And perhaps most importantly of all, it would be a far better use of a fine actor like Stephen Root. Why bother getting him to play a stock pain in the ass for three episodes?

Hell, if we're illogical enough to even consider the idea of Dana Walsh as mole, then how about Renee Walker? Clearly she's completely broken since we left her in season 7. Would it be too far of a stretch to send her to the dark side? It worked for Tony Almeida. 24 has always worked best when the nemesis is someone with a deeply personal connection to Jack, and never better than when that nemesis was a "femme fatale" -- just think back to Nina Meyers.

Or if, gods dammit, Starbuck really has to be the frakking mole, then how about at least presenting us the story in a manner different than we've seen before on 24? How about not revealing the identity of the mole to us and leaving us as much in the dark as the rest of the characters? Show the villains mysteriously getting away without showing us how. Show us a manhunt inside CTU, where we don't know any more than the characters who they're looking for.

If the writers are having such a hard time filling 24 hours, maybe it's because they abandon promising ideas before exploring them completely. The EM pulse at CTU was an opportunity to force counter-terrorism back into the Dark Ages, showing us how they could make do without technology for an episode or two. Instead, Chloe just spouts some technobabble and fixes the problem in about 45 minutes. You know, the way she always does.

So yes, Mr. Gordon, I do think you're giving us "tiresome and lazy storytelling." I've seen the DVD features; maybe if you were a little less concerned about getting to the smoking room to light up cigars with your fellow writers, and a little more time (even just the 5 minutes I just spent) trying to actually think of things you haven't done before, 24 wouldn't feel so played out as it does in this unfortunate final season.

But boohoo, writing is hard.

Saturday, April 03, 2010

Not So Precious

Though I'm pretty sure I'm never going see The Blind Side, the movie for which Sandra Bullock can now attach "Academy Award Winner" before her name, I can now say that I've seen nine of the ten recent Best Picture nominees. For me, the ninth film was Precious -- or, as it is ponderously titled, Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire. (I suspect this is because someone felt they couldn't just name the movie Push after the mostly terrible sci-fi movie poisoned that name earlier in the year.)

This is the story of a Harlem teenager, abused by her mother, subjected to incest by her father, and almost illiterate, apparently trapped in her circumstances but struggling anyway to get out. It's meant to be inspirational, but the circumstances are so extreme that anyone in the audience is probably fortunate enough not to be able to directly relate to them. (Most anyone who could directly relate probably isn't watching movies.)

In fact, to be completely honest, the circumstances are almost preposterous. It is frankly unbelievable that so much dark, awful stuff could happen to one poor girl. It's like every cliché of every one of these kinds of "hard life" stories was swirled in a screenplay blender, with a few extra bits of horrible mixed in besides.

It's borderline comedic, even. I wasn't going to say anything about this at first. When I was watching the movie and finding it almost laughable, I found myself wondering, "does this make me some kind of monster or something that I find this a bit silly?" But in preparing my thoughts on the movie, I looked at what some critics had written, and was reassured that I was not alone in seeing this unintended element in the movie. One critic even scathingly wrote: "...[Lee] Daniels is a director who would find it hard to imagine puddings can be over-egged, or that Monty Python's 'We're So Poor' sketch was meant to be funny." Put simply, the movie works so hard to be a downer, that you either reject the transparent manipulations it's using on you, or you just react to extreme sorrow as many people actually do in life, with unexpected laughter.

But the thing is, the movie finally does turn a corner in its last act. Not in its script -- no, that maintains its tone all the way to the bitter end. But in swoops some truly phenomenal acting to pick up the slack. Gabourey Sidibe's Best Actress nomination, and Mo'Nique's Best Supporting Actress win, are well deserved. The latter in particular just reaches out and snatches the award with her final scene in the movie. My head was still rejecting the overwrought premise of the film, but my heart could no longer reject that for these characters at least, it was very real. And this is probably a testament to the director, Lee Daniels, who was derided in that review I mentioned. Put simply, I don't think a comedian like Mo'Nique, given her roles thus far, could have found her way to such a raw and powerful performance on her own; clearly, a director with a real gift for working with actors helped her find it.

But in the end, Precious still remains an average (at best) movie lifted up by stellar acting. I rate it a C+. "Students of the craft" would probably want to watch it; I probably wouldn't recommend it for anyone else.

Friday, April 02, 2010

Pad People

My title is not a Bostonian talking about "pod people." No, it's a reference to tomorrow's big day -- the day for all the early adopters to run out and buy their iPads. CNN.com has posted this helpful guide to tell you which iPad you should get.

Personally, I find this flow chart far more helpful.

Thursday, April 01, 2010

There There

Back in college, I had a drama professor who at fairly regular intervals would praise the performance of Peter Sellers in a movie called Being There. I'd never heard of it, and didn't really have the time to track it down. Nevertheless, the movie did stick in some deep corner of my mind enough that when I was tossing a pile of movies into the Netflix queue not long ago, Being There made the list.

If you, like me, have never heard of the movie, here's some background. Made in 1979, this was the last movie starring Peter Sellers to be released before his death. He plays a simpleton gardener with the mind of child, whose wealthy employer dies at the start of the movie, putting him out onto the street with no place to go, or even any idea how to get by in society. But a random sequence of events has him fall in with another wealthy couple who mistake him for a brilliant down-on-his-luck businessman; they take him in and hilaridramedy ensues.

I may not have heard of this movie, but I get the very distinct impression that the writer of Forrest Gump did. There are some uncanny similarities between the two. While Gump is played mainly for drama where Being There goes mainly for laughs, the two both revolve around idiots with charmed lives. They even both get to meet United States presidents.

I didn't much care for Forrest Gump, and I didn't much care for Being There either. The reasons are rather different, though. Primarily, I just didn't find Being There to be that funny. Clocking in at over two hours long, the movie just can't sustain the shallow, one-note "mistaken for a brilliant man" gag. It's worth a polite smile here and there, and not much more.

But there are at least two worthy elements of the film. One, as promised by that old college professor, is indeed the work of Peter Sellers. It's a perfect, guileless performance that seems completely real. He never plays for laughs, only for realism, and this actor who in the past slipped so chameleon-like into so many other roles (sometimes in the same movie) completely disappears into this one too.

The other element, perhaps oddly, is a healthy dose of cynicism. Without going into particulars, I'll just refer back to that plot point that involves Sellers' character meeting the president. It turns out that politics is a major undercurrent in the plot, and the film takes a very dim view of it in general, and politicians in particular. Not that I have any illusions about the subject being somehow more "pure" back in the late 1970s, but I certainly feel that the movie was a bit prescient on the matter, looking at the thirty years since.

Still, while these two factors made the movie watchable, I wouldn't say they lifted it to a place where I'd actually recommend it. If you're a Peter Sellers fan, then you've probably already seen it anyway; this is perhaps rightly considered one of his best films. For the rest of you, I'll just call it a C+ and let you do with that what you will.