Wednesday, November 5, 2014

What-to-Watch Wednesday: Odd Thomas (2013)

What-to-Watch Wednesday: Odd Thomas (2013)

I don't normally pay much attention to the suggestions Netflix forces on my feed whenever I sign in to watch something.  More often than not, I know exactly what I am looking for.  And, very seldom do I just scroll through random titles unless I am interested in watching some stand-up.  But, Odd Thomas caught my eye again and again whenever I signed on,  And, my interest was piqued when I learned it was based on a series of books by Dean Koontz.

So, one Sunday afternoon a couple weeks ago, I decided to watch it.  The first thing I noticed was the assured performance Anton Yelchin delivers.  At twenty-five, he is a highly engaging actor and exudes a confidence that many actors in his age-range do not.  This is probably due to his having been a child actor (he's been working for more than half his life), but he is also just a fine screen actor with a likability akin to a young Tom Hanks.

Yelchin's ability to connect with an audience is what grounds this film in reality enough for us to care about his character and be invested enough to see how the story unfolds.  He plays Odd Thomas, a twenty year old short order cook who has the ability to see and communicate with the dead.  Odd is a quirky, quick-witted young man with no big aspirations in life other than to be a great short order cook and hang out with his girlfriend, Stormy.  But, he also possesses a strong moral center that pushes him to do everything he can to help the wandering souls who cross his path.

The casting of Yelchin in the title role is the best part of the film and elevates it at moments to something beyond a low-grade B-movie.  In every other aspect, the film feels more like a really good pilot to an ongoing cable series than a polished motion picture.  That isn't a criticism so much as it is advice on what kind of expectations to set when watching this movie.  I wonder if the anticipation of adapting the other books in the series fueled this TV-pilot tone.  If so, it was a risky move that almost doesn't pay off and probably only worked for me because I watched it on Netflix, not on a big screen.

Regardless, Odd Thomas is a decent entertainment made better by a strong lead performance.  If it were a TV series, I would definitely be watching it.




Wednesday, September 3, 2014

What-to-Watch Wednesday: Room 237 (2012)

What-to-Watch Wednesday: Room 237 (2012)

I missed making a recommendation last Wednesday due to a particularly difficult first-week back for teachers.  It felt as though we had far less time to prepare our classrooms than in previous years, and a batch of redundant meetings sapped the energy completely out of me.  All this coupled with Sweeney Todd rehearsals brought me extreme exhaustion and less spare time.

So last week's difficulties aside, I am back at it with another movie recommendation.  This time the selection is the documentary film Room 237, which offers an in-depth look at a variety of interpretations of Stanley Kubrick's The Shining.  True, a decided change of pace from the narrative films I've been touting so far, but Room 237 does fit right in with the others as a film that ignites my love for cinematic art.

It also came back into my thoughts recently due to a conversation I had with a friend about The Shining and the pros and cons of adapting a literary text for the big screen.

Anyway, here's the deal: do not watch Room 237 unless the following things are true for you:

1.  You have watched Kubrick's version of The Shining and have a passable command of the events and major details of the movie.  You will be lost within five minutes of watching this documentary otherwise.

2.  You have a borderline neurotic need to listen to a close literary analysis of a classic film.

3.  You are able to follow the explanation of not only one such literary analysis as mentioned in #2 but several analyses being explained in bits and pieces all at the same time.  In a voice over.  While related clips from various Kubrick films and other films are shown at a sometimes frenetic pace.

4.  You know the difference between authentic literary interpretation, which is drawn from sound conclusions and supported by textual evidence, and outlandish conspiracy theories, which are made by connecting the dots one wishes to connect despite the lack of real support to do so.

And, finally...

5.  Despite the enjoyment you get at hearing deep, close-readings of the film, you are also willing to look at The Shining as simply being one of the most effectively well-crafted  horror films ever made.  No more, no less.

If these five criteria fit you, please, feel free to watch this film and then find me to discuss your thoughts.  If these five criteria don't fit, watch the film anyway.  Just know I won't be very willing to discuss it with you in any great detail.  And, if you give the moon landing interpretation any credence, please, feel free to dig a hole and crawl in it, all without contacting me.  As I have said before, I don't do psycho-management in social media.


Wednesday, August 20, 2014

What-to-Watch Wednesday: Nine Lives (2005)

What-to-Watch Wednesday: Nine Lives (2005)

A long time ago, I created a list of my top ten personal favorite movies.  Nine Lives had not yet been released.  Should I ever compile a new top ten list, Nine Lives will be a top contender and possibly displace one the films for which my affection has waned over the years.

Yes, it is that good of a movie (assuming the fact that I would potentially put it in my top ten means anything).

The film, written and directed by Rodrigo Garcia, tells the stories of nine different women in short, uninterrupted vignettes.  Garcia is the son of famous author, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and he has his father's gift for creating rich, fascinating characters.  The fact that these characters are some of the most real, sharply-defined female characters I've ever seen on film only serves to point out the laziness that normally goes into writing women.  With careful ease, Garcia creates nine female characters that could readily support a full-length film.

Not that a full-length film is needed here.  Each vignette is nothing short of a showcase for one gifted actress after another.  In a span of about ten minutes, the audience learns everything we need to know about each woman, her situation, and why she makes certain choices.  Then once the major points have been made, the film wisely switches to the next segment so the audience doesn't have to be inundated with unnecessary details and complication.  It seems Rodrigo and the actresses are trusting the intelligence of the audience to read between the lines and make the connections a lesser film would hammer in with the subtlety of a train wreck.

All nine vignettes are wonderful.  But, if you are like me, there will be certain ones you respond to more than others, depending on your own personal history and experience.  And, each one, just like all the best stories, will leave you wanting to know more about the women featured.




Saturday, August 16, 2014

A (Not So) Simple Song

Last Sunday, I sang once again at a church service.  The piece I performed was "A Simple Song" by Leonard Bernstein, and I was accompanied by the wonderful Melanie Bradley on piano and long-time friend Stacey Hartman on flute.  We did the 11:00 service at Melanie's church, Lewes Presbyterian, an old, beautiful church in downtown Lewes.  It went well, I think, and the congregation seemed to genuinely appreciate what we offered.  Afterwards, when I was home relaxing before Sweeney Todd rehearsal, I reflected on what has long been my approach to singing in church as opposed to singing anywhere else.

I always did feel differently about church singing than I did about singing on stage or in any other public venue.  Somehow, getting applause in church after performing always feels wrong to me even though I hunger for it at any other time.  And, while other performances are usually dictated by a script or what will best please an audience, I typically take great pains when selecting a piece to perform at a church.  You see, although I don't consider myself a devout Christian, I am spiritual enough to believe that whatever middling musical talent I have is a gift I should put to service.  And, in the case of the church, that means doing what I can to enhance the message being conveyed that day.

This practice I adopted from a woman named Florence Ruley who was the music director of St. John's United Methodist, the church I attended as a teenager.  She would carefully select hymns (if not given suggestions from the pastor) that correlated with either the scripture being read at that service or the content of the sermon, a copy of which she would often be given as a guide.  Many times, she and I looked over different song choices for me to perform, trying to find something that would contribute in some way to the overall theme of the service.

Although I didn't recognize it at the time, I now see that Mrs. Ruley was showing me how to leave ego at the door and bring my skills and talents to bear on a cooperative task in which others were supplying their own skills and talents.  My singing a song wasn't a pause in the service for a moment of spotlight or an extra treat for the bored congregation.  Rather it was a continuation of the message, a way to shed light on some aspect of the sermon's lesson.  While I don't kid myself into believing that I always accomplish this, it is an idea I've carried with me into adulthood and one that provides me a sense of fulfillment that regular stage performing does not.

My choosing "A Simple Song" brought all of this back to me as I began the mental struggle I've had with this song for over twenty years, dating back to when I first heard it sung while I was in high school to a failed attempt to perform it myself when I was in college to the present day in which I have now sung it twice as part of two different church services.  This struggle really amounted to a fear of singing this song in front of people and not doing it justice or, worse, simply not doing it well at all.  But, the lesson from Mrs. Ruley finally sunk in and got me to face that fear and accomplish one of my long-time, unstated goals.

You see, my fear, just like any other fear, had roots in the egocentric desire that the world around me is significantly preoccupied with my actions.  People often fear how something is going to appear to others because they think others have a vested interest in what they do, and I am no different.  But, the simple truth is that no matter what mishap or flub I make or even how brilliant my actions, the world at large will continue on, completely unaffected by my failures and successes.

On the surface, that appears to be a depressing train of thought: no matter what I do, the world doesn't care and will continue on regardless.  But, the acceptance of this idea frees one from the constraints imposed by fear.  After all, if what I do isn't going to have a far-reaching affect, why not take a chance on something?  Why be afraid of possible ridicule and judgment?

Of course, there are those who are going to offer up ridicule and judgment in abundance all in an effort to feel superior or mask their own fear, but I'm talking about a big picture view here.  In the grand scheme of things, we don't amount to very much, and in that state, we have space to move around in, freedom to discover things about ourselves.  And, yes, do the things we've been afraid to do for so long.

The paradox is that by accepting our insignificance and releasing our fear, we open up an opportunity to touch a wide range of individuals.  Because I finally found the balls to sing "A Simple Song", maybe I was able to reach someone and they were able to receive a message they needed to hear.  Maybe I helped save the service from terminal boredom.  Or, maybe people forgot everything about the service, including me, the moment they walked out to the parking lot to go home.  I don't know for sure, but, more importantly, I don't need to know because what matters as far as I need to be concerned is that I faced my personal fear, set aside my own egotism, and worked with other talented people on something bigger than myself.  I got something very special out of the experience, and I just hope someone else was able to as well.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

What-to-Watch Wednesday: Junebug (2005)

What-to-Watch Wednesday: Junebug (2005)

For those of you who don't know, Junebug is the film that put Amy Adams on the map.  She was a semi-familiar face in movies and television in the early 2000's, but it wasn't until she did this small, independent film that critics sat up and took notice of what a phenomenal talent she is.  Her performance is a tour-de-force, star-making one that deserves all the acclaim it received, including leading Adams to her first Academy Award nomination.  And, one simply can't discuss Junebug without talking about how great Adams is in her role as Ashley.  But, there is so much more to this excitingly rich movie that solely focusing on Adams is doing a disservice to what Junebug has to offer.

Among these is one of the most authentic portrayals of a working class southern family I've ever seen on film.  These are people not at all sophisticated, they often speak in harsh words to each other, and truly deep, important emotions are communicated in knowing silences.  These are people I grew up around, and I was pleasantly surprised at how well the screenplay and the performances captured these qualities.

One performance I would like to point out (besides Adams) is that of Scott Wilson (best known for his role on The Walking Dead) as the father, Eugene Johnston.  Here is a study in how an actor creates a character through subtlety and  controlled silences.  What a marvel it is to watch!

But, the fact is, every actor in the cast is bringing their A-game to this film.  Ben McKenzie finds real humanity in a character that could have been just another bitter jackass.  The always great Celia Weston plays the family matriarch with a powerful disapproving gaze and a heart of fierce love.  But, it is Amy Adams who shines in how she conveys the deep loneliness and unflinching optimism of a character desperate to be loved by a family that has trouble expressing it.  When she finally has a dark moment late in the film, it is probably one of the most heartbreaking things anyone will ever witness on a movie screen.

Junebug is a wonderful, special little film.  Most viewers will find something they can connect to in it.







Wednesday, August 6, 2014

What-To-Watch Wednesday: Hanna (2011)

What-to-Watch Wednesday: Hanna (2011)

Hanna is a good film, not a great film.  I feel like I need to make that distinction because my goal isn't to recommend films that are stunning examples of cinematic art.  Rather I want to shine light on films that offer something different.  And, the truth is,  I can see where someone really wouldn't get this movie.  But, variety being the much needed spice in life, I believe most people could watch Hanna and appreciate it for being a nice variation of a formulaic genre piece or, at least, have their palettes cleansed for richer fare.

At its heart, Hanna is an action thriller that features many of the tropes that go along with that genre: a hero on the run, a ruthless villain, and thrilling fight sequences to name a few.  What makes the material fresh, however, is that the hero is a teenage girl, relentlessly trained in a secluded wilderness to be a master assassin.  One day, her father/trainer (played by Eric Bana) gives her a choice, and that choice starts the cat-and-mouse game that drives the central plot.

For some reason, the filmmakers decided to add a fairy tale element to the story in that Hanna becomes a very resourceful Little Red Riding Hood pursued by a big, scary wolf.  As such, the starkly real locations where Hanna's journey takes her become exotic and dangerous wonderlands.  In these wonderlands, she encounters real world issues (like money) made to seem alien and strange due to her secluded upbringing as well as first love (how Hanna handles an amorous young man gives the film one of its only laughs).

As for the big, bad wolf, the story sticks with its fairy tale motifs by having a villain archetype familiar in folklore: the wicked stepmother.  In Marissa Wiegler, the movie has a villain who is ruthless and seductive.  Cate Blanchett plays Wiegler with a snarling southern drawl obsessed with handling and controlling every situation she encounters.  Within the first few moments she comes on screen, the audience knows Wiegler will say and do just about anything to make sure she gets what she wants.

And, this is what sets Hanna apart from other action thrillers.  Its story is simultaneously and paradoxically made lighter and more dire with the infusion of fairy tale elements.  The viewer is able to access and sympathize with this strange teenage girl as a fairy tale heroine.  And, the bitter evil of the villain is greatly heightened as a result, too.

Like I said earlier, Hanna isn't a great movie, but it does provide something more than what is usually found in this genre.  Well worth a viewing.




Sunday, August 3, 2014

Poem Cycle: My End of Something

Despite being a constant presence on Facebook, I rarely speak about very personal things.  At least not those things I consider personal.  But, once in a while, something will occur in my life that I feel the need to express and put out there.  The process helps me wrap my mind around what I'm feeling and properly deal with it.

The last time I did this was when I posted a cycle of poems about the love I was feeling for the young woman I affectionately referred to as "My Lady" in various posts on Facebook.  In these poems, I wanted to capture the multitude of feelings a man experiences as a new relationship begins, everything from physical desire to the deeply emotional.  And, I shared them with the woman about whom they were written.  And then I shared them with the rest of you.

I don't know if those poems were any good, but they were as true as anything I'd written up to that point in my life.  When I look back at them, my memories of what I was thinking and feeling during that time are made fresh.

Now I find myself at a different stage and feel the need to express what is inside me.  That relationship I held so dear came to an end a little over a year ago.  The hows and whys I don't want to go into because ultimately they are only important to the two people involved.  And, I don't want any displays of sympathy; I reached out to those personally closest to me for support during that difficult time, and, with their help (among other things), I got through the ordeal and have come out better as a result.

What I wish to do now is share another cycle of poems that I hope capture what the experience was like for me.  There are three poems in total, and I worked on each one periodically over the last several months.  They are a reflection of what was my perspective at given moments during the process of letting go and moving on.  And, without explaining the poems too much (because there is no surer way to kill an expressive piece than by over explanation), they are not meant to place or deflect blame, and they only present one side of this experience - mine.  

Finally, just to assuage any concerns people may have, the third poem is the most accurate depiction of my current mindset.  I'm doing well.  And, I am finding real peace and joy in my life for the first time in a very long time.

*****
For E. - Goodbye...


The Coward

A storm was coming
And from your spot on the front lawn, you stood
And yelled
For me to secure the roof
Board up the windows
Waterproof the basement
You barked commands
On how I needed to be a partner
To participate
Be present

I scampered and you
Stood
And talked
You talked to friends and family and passersby
About the approaching storm
About your fears that the house would fall
And how I might not have what it takes to see it through
You talked
Of how you were taking every action you could

Meanwhile…
I scurried
Over the floors and the boards and the windows
Hammering here, fastening there
Scaling the walls and climbing the roof
And whenever I reached out a hand to feel yours
For some sign of love, affection, support
You slapped it away and said
Not enough
Not the right time
You’re doing it wrong
Don’t be a victim
Get some game
When I suggested I needed your presence, you said
Don’t make me feel like I’m not enough
That I’m not doing enough
The nails are crooked
Why’s that board there
I need to feel safe
I need to know you can do this
I need, I need, I need…

Out of hurried fear
And stupid desperation
I covered up the house’s more vulnerable parts from you
Skimped on a few nails in a rush to get it done
I didn’t totally secure some valuables
And I stopped to catch my breath on the opposite side of the house from you
Trying to get it all done in time,
Hoping it would all be enough
But when the storm came
The house went tumbling down

And in the midst of the rubble
When I reached out a hand and sheepishly said let’s rebuild
I found…a note
Taped hurriedly and coldly on the leaning mailbox
Saying you had gone to stand
And talk

At another house
-----
True Medusa

Something the storytellers don’t tell you
A man makes his own Medusa
Fortifies her gaze with his weakness
Feeds the snake hair with his lies
And like a warrior on a (sometimes) winged steed
He flies off to destroy his creation
Never realizing he goes to tackle himself

For the Medusa doesn’t turn men to stone
With a look of horror all her own
Her eyes are immense green mirrors
So men see themselves when they look at her
And they are stiffened by the truths laid bare
Becoming not stone, strong and resilient,
But brittle shale
That crumbles at the slightest touch
Or a gentle sob heard from behind a closed door
-----
There Was Laughter

There was laughter
The last time we spoke
Face to face
Not through your barrier of texts
And it was nice

We laughed
And I felt
Something build
Something renew
Not a bridge
To bridge the gulf
Between us
But a steady foundation, strong and true,
Surer ground to stand on, to feel secure in
Providing confidence in my step, trust in my legs
And I could be where I was and go where I needed

And from this I find the honest strength,
Not born from protective sarcasm or manipulative intellect, limp and useless,
But, real strength to send you love without ironic self-servitude or romantic delusion,
Love that says I wish you happiness and peace and fulfillment,
Love expressed earnestly with no fake-it-to-make sentimentality
Love that frees me (even as I hope it enriches you) for a future I want to experience.
                                                                                                                               
What pain we caused each other, what anger we nursed, what resentment choked our hearts,
All is gone now for me, replaced by the tremendousness of calm unknowing
And feeling the touch of the past as it slips off my shoulder, I look forward to what lies ahead.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

What-to-Watch Wednesday: The Station Agent (2003)

My plan is that my "What-to-Watch" entries will be an extension of my previous "Overlooked Movies" posts from Facebook where I sought to highlight movies I have encountered and liked that many people probably haven't heard of for one reason or another.  They aren't intended to be movie reviews in the strictest sense namely because I think there are more than enough reviewers online and in print, and I don't think I have anything particularly brilliant or revelatory to add to the film criticism discourse.  No, I merely want to be the guy who, from time to time, may recommend a pretty good movie.

Oh, and I've given myself the arbitrary deadline of offering up a new suggestion every Wednesday.  Mainly because I like the alliterative title.  So, yeah, we'll see how that goes.

Anyway, let's get started...

What-to-Watch Wednesday: The Station Agent

I have a predilection for small, quiet films.  And, it doesn't get much smaller and quieter than The Station Agent.  There are no big moments here.  No suspenseful plot twists.  Certainly no action sequences.  And, no emotionally overwrought performances from the actors.  Indeed, most of the time the actors never raise their voices above the level of gentle conversation.

What The Station Agent does offer is a portrait of the friendship formed by three lonely individuals brought together by the separate circumstances of their lives.  There is Fin (played by Peter Dinklage), a train enthusiast who inherits an abandoned train depot in a small New Jersey town.  His desire for quiet isolation is continuously interrupted by the lonely Joe (Bobby Canavale), who parks his snack truck next door to the train depot.  They are eventually joined by Olivia (Patricia Clarkson), and soon the three form a comfortable friendship, despite Fin's initial reluctance.

It doesn't end there.  There is a burgeoning romance between Fin and Emily, a local librarian.  We get to see why Fin prefers to be alone even though he is incredibly lonely.  And, we learn more about trains that any of us thought we ever wanted to know.  But, at the center of this gem of a movie are the performances of the three lead actors and the gentle way they depict the friendship of these very isolated and damaged people.  A fine, fine film.


Oh...Bother (Or No Good Deed Goes Unpunished)

I can't say what kind of face I have, but it must be one that invites total strangers to engage in random conversation.  It happens to...