Saturday, April 22, 2017

A Note For the Cast & Crew of Driving Miss Daisy

So, the run of Driving Miss Daisy at Possum Point Players has been finished for almost two weeks now.  My sense is that it was a success in every way for Possums, and my hope is that choosing well-written material, material that a cast and crew can get excited about, continues to be the trend at PPP.  Suffice it to say, I've come away from the experience of performing in Driving Miss Daisy with a great deal of satisfaction.

It is due to that satisfaction that I wish to reach out to the wonderful cast and crew I got to work with on this show.  Personally, I am not big on the "circle" tradition that most community theaters in the area have.  Don't get me wrong - I completely see the value in it, especially as a morale raiser just before a show.  But, my mindset is usually in need of quiet contemplation before walking onto the stage, and "circle" takes me out of that much needed space.

The result is that I listen as people speak, but I rarely have much to say during it.  And, when it is done, I go back to my quiet as best I can.  It usually isn't until a show is done and I've had a chance to reflect on it that I have anything much to say at all.  And, that is what I would like to do right now.

Although a short play (it clocks in at just under an hour and half), Driving Miss Daisy requires an ongoing collaboration between cast and crew the likes of which I have never experienced in a show.  I give our light and sound crew as well as the stage crew a lot of credit for creating a unique look and feel for this production.  From the opening notes of the mood-setting music to the final dimming of Miss Daisy's living room lamp, the show just looked and sounded wonderful.  And, the scene transitions were smooth and felt like organic parts of the story.

Special mention needs to go out to our costume and make-up crew.  My character alone had eight or nine costume changes, some of them very quick ones, and each one subtly suggested the progression of time, something that was a key ingredient for this show.  Along with the costumes, the three of us cast members had to be aged; I alone was supposed to age from 40 to 67, so, in some ways, I had the most dramatic change to undergo.  As such, our make-up and costuming crew was just as active backstage as we were onstage.  And any success the show has had is due in large part to the efforts of those individuals.

I do feel I need to make particular note of two crew members who were especially helpful to me during the show's run.  Ashlie Workman and Elizabeth Holz alternately made it possible for me to get through my costume changes in a timely manner.  They each knew my costume changes better than I ever could, and I marveled at how they were always prepared with a shirt ready for me to put on or a new tie for an upcoming scene.  I have nothing but gratitude for the invaluable assistance they were to me.

As for my fellow cast mates: Claudius Bowden and Stephanie Allman, getting to play these finely written scenes with the two of them each show night was one of the best theater experiences I've ever had.  It is a rare pleasure in community theater to work with people who can pick up what you are putting down and vice versa in order to make scenes feel fresh and new each night.  I am so grateful we got to go on this journey together of discovering our characters and making the scenes work.

And, last but not least, my illustrious director, Becky Craft.  I know she didn't plan on directing this piece and that part of her wishes the opportunity had never been there to begin with as it was the result of dear friend's illness, but I consider myself damn lucky to have gotten to work with her twice now on two of the best written stage dramas of the last century.  When I first worked with her on Doubt, I appreciated how every choice she made as director was informed by the script, through valid interpretation of the piece we were trying to bring to life.  The same held true throughout Driving Miss Daisy, and I came away believing we managed to create something very special.  That feeling is all because of Becky and the creative leadership she provided throughout this whole production.

I have said before that I view theater productions as ephemeral experiences, meant to be savored in the moment and nowhere else, so I never wax nostalgic for a show I have completed.  But, I will have great memories of Driving Miss Daisy for a long time to come.

Thank you all, and best wishes for the future!

Friday, April 21, 2017

Iris West Must DIE (Flash Season 3, 2017)

Jeff takes on a subject near and dear to my heart.  Although I agree with most of his points, I can't say I agree with his conclusion that "Iris West Must DIE!"

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

What-To-Watch Wednesday - Lady In White (1988)

I am writing my review of Lady In White almost exclusively from the memory I have of watching it for the first time when I was about fourteen.  I say "almost exclusively" because the film is not available on Netflix on either streaming or DVD, but I did find it on YouTube, which I've been viewing in starts and stops as my time allows.  So, I will apologize ahead of time if my memory of certain details is spotty even though I believe I remember enough to give a decent recommendation.

What needs to be noted first is that Lady In White has the look and feel of a quintessential 80s film.  The opening sequence alone featuring a long cab drive to a small town in upstate New York clearly places the movie in that decade, complete with phony-sounding voice overs and inexplicable quick cuts.  It seems most American films of the 1980s were afraid to take their time in depicting a scene, and Lady In White is no exception.

The film's opening serves as a clumsy frame tale that flashes back to the early 1960s.  It is here, in a small town in northern New York, where the movie finds its voice and displays style that makes it an engaging horror story.

We learn that the narrator is Frankie Scarlatti, and we follow him as a young boy during one Halloween season.  Frankie has a loving family life, but he is lonely and very much haunted by the death of his mother.  His daily life is filled by fighting with his older brother, shyly fawning over a cute girl in his class, and avoiding bullies.  He is also a burgeoning writer and at one point regales his classmates with a horror story he has written for their school's Halloween party.

After school one day, he is locked in the coat closet by the aforementioned bullies and is trapped there well into the night.  While he waits for someone to find him, he witnesses the ghost of a little girl enter the coat closet.  Although the girl initially talks to Frankie and seems aware of his presence, she is suddenly pulled into what appears to be a re-enactment of her murder.  Afterwards, someone (a live person) comes into the coat closet looking for something, finds Frankie, and attacks him, nearly choking him to death.

The movie then becomes as much a mystery as it is a horror story.  Who is the little girl?  Who and why was she killed?  Who attacked Frankie?  These are questions that Frankie seeks to answer, all of which involve a long string of child murders in his town going back for years and a local legend about a "Lady In White" who can be seen walking through a nearby woods.

Sophisticated viewers, however, will be able to guess Frankie's attacker, particularly if they are familiar with  Roger Ebert's "Law of Economy of Characters."  It states that there are no extraneous characters in a film and that seemingly superfluous characters will end up playing a significant part in the plot, especially if that character is played by a relatively famous actor.  I don't mean to add spoilers to this review, but Lady In White is a perfect example of this concept in action.

Also, that isn't meant as a criticism of the film.  In fact, the beauty of how this is handled is that even if the viewer guesses who the killer is, it makes perfect sense that Frankie would not.  And so dramatic irony is created in watching Frankie attempt to figure out the mystery and inch closer and closer to danger in doing so.

Lady In White is a film about atmosphere, about the gentle creepiness of a dark room and hidden secrets.  While it isn't a film I've gone back to re-watch over the years, it has stayed with me ever since I first saw it as a teenager.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Guardians of the Galaxy - Are They Superheroes?

Via a discussion about the Guardians of the Galaxy, Jeff tackles of the biggest debates in comic book fandom: what is a super hero?

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

What-To-Watch Wednesday - Reefer Madness: the Movie Musical (2005)

I don't think I've reviewed a musical before for this series, so it is probably about time that I included at least one.  And, if I am going to choose one, it would have to be the musical version of Reefer Madness.

For those that don't know, the original film version of Reefer Madness was released in 1936 and was a shameless exploitation film that purported to show the damaging effects of marijuana use.  Medically inaccurate and exaggerated to the point of camp, the film was originally funded by some church group that wanted to warn parents about the dangers of pot smoking.  However, a producer of exploitation films bought the distribution rights to the film and had it re-cut to market on the exploitation film circuit.  Since then, the film has become a cult classic as a notable "worst film ever made."

Of course, such a film is a ripe target for parody, and the musical version does indeed parody the inaccuracies and exaggerations depicted in the original film.  It opens in a small mid-western town with an emergency PTA meeting in which a guest lecturer (Alan Cumming) shows concerned parents a film he says reveals the dire evil their children are facing with marijuana use.  The film-within-a-film follows the budding romance of Jimmy Harper (Christian Campbell) and Mary Lane (Kristen Bell) as they profess their love for each other and show a striking ignorance of the plot of Romeo and Juliet.

Soon, Jimmy is enticed by a pot dealer, Jack (Steven Weber), to come back to his "reefer den."  Once there, Jimmy is tricked into smoking what he thinks is a regular cigarette (incidentally, cigarette smoking is repeatedly and comically touted as being harmless throughout the film) and begins his descent into addiction and madness.  To say Jimmy's life begins to unravel as a result of his pot smoking is an understatement as he goes on a tirade of increasingly erratic behavior that includes orgies, hallucinations, and murder.

All of this happens with rousing song and dance numbers, of course.  The music deliciously punches up the satirical elements that make the film feel like a rich SNL skit.  Look for the "Mary Jane/Mary Lane" number, which offers the obvious play on words.

And, speaking of SNL, the stand-out performance in this movie is Ana Gasteyer as Mae, one of the reefer den residents.  Her number, "The Stuff," done in the style of a classic Broadway ballad, is a study in comedic timing and singing.

Finally, Reefer Madness doesn't have a trailer available on the internet that I could find.  This is probably because the film never had a theatrical release as it was aired on Showtime.  So, instead, watch one of the kooky musical numbers.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

What-To-Watch Wednesday - Stranger Than Fiction (2006)

At some point, I will more than likely update my Top Ten Films list.  And when I do, Stranger Than Fiction will be a top contender to make one of the ten.

There are so many things I like about this film that I hardly know where to begin talking about it.  I suppose I should first start by mentioning how smartly written the movie is.  The screenwriter, Zach Helm, takes what could be a hackneyed premise and turns it into a story that is genuinely sweet and touching.  It follows the exploits of Harold Crick, an IRS agent, who lives a life of mundane consistency.  One morning, Harold wakes up and hears a female voice narrating his life.  His initial irritation and concern changes to alarm when the voice reveals that Harold is headed to an untimely death.

Frantic about facing his own mortality, Harold seeks out help to avoid his fate and, in the process, he ends up changing his life for the better.  A meeting with a psychiatrist leads him to getting advice from a literature professor, who instructs Harold to live his life to the fullest until they are able to find out what kind of story he is in, namely a comedy or a tragedy.  Harold begins to indulge in his long neglected passions, starts to connect with the people around him, and even falls in love with a young woman he is auditing.  All of this occurs as he is slowly approaching his eminent death.

What makes these pretty outlandish circumstances palatable is the interesting ensemble cast.  Will Ferrell plays Harold Crick, and here he manages to dial down his trademark mania to portray a man whose very existence is muted.  He is surrounded in the film by the likes of Maggie Gyllenhaal, Dustin Hoffman, Emma Thompson, and Queen Latifah, all of whom create interesting and compelling characters that seem to have distinct histories of their own outside of the main narrative.

Of particular note are the characters played by Emma Thompson and Queen Latifah.  Thompson plays Karen Eiffel, the author whose voice Harold hears throughout the film.  Unbeknownst to her, the writer's block she is battling is caused by Harold's efforts to stay alive.  Queen Latifah is Penny Escher, a publisher's assistant, who has been sent to help Karen finish the book.

These characters have a  very clearly defined relationship that provides a counterpoint to Harold's experiences.  Their interactions with one another are made more interesting by the unexpected pairing of Thompson and Latifah, who are engaging as individual actresses and manage to parlay that into an easy chemistry with one another.  Their scenes would make an interesting movie by themselves, but here they enhance the main storyline.

Stranger Than Fiction is one of those films in which all the right elements come together in precisely the right ways to make something that is truly a joy to watch from beginning to end.  In the years since its release, I've yet to see a film that is quite like it, and that is a testament to its originality and style.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

PPP Driving Miss Daisy

A promotional video for my latest show, PPP's production of Driving Miss Daisy.  Look for me a little ways in - I'm playing Boolie.

SPIDERMAN HOMECOMING TRAILER (2017) *** Details You Missed ***

Jeff offers a pretty nifty breakdown of the new Spidey trailer.  Check it out!

Board Games & Politics

Several weeks ago, just after the new year began, I was invited to the home of some friends for a Friday night of drinking and board games.  Along with the massage I had scheduled for earlier that evening, this promised to be a great ending to my work week and a good way to get my weekend started.  Little did I realize though that I would end the evening with an interesting political allegory about which I would feel inspired to write.

Going into this social situation, I didn't know that I would be the only liberal present, a situation that in and of itself isn't all that surprising given the socio-political make-up of Sussex County, Delaware.  I was surprised though to be among ardent Trump supporters.  Although I do count Trump supporters among some of my friends, family, and colleagues, I wasn't prepared to be surrounded in so intimate a social situation and to be the target of some good-natured ribbing for my liberal viewpoints.

Don't get me wrong - I didn't feel there was anything malicious in the teasing, and I was certainly giving as good as I got.  I just wasn't expecting this type of encounter among people I consider friends and contemporaries.

The evening commenced with a series of board games of varying levels of complexity.  The first game we played was Apples To Apples, which is essentially a clean version of Cards Against Humanity.  A round consists of one player reading a question or statement with a fill-in-the blank.  The other players provide responses from the cards they have, and the reader selects what he/she feels is the best answer, usually the one that is the most clever or the funniest.

Round after round, I noticed something.  The Trump supporters were, to put it kindly, stepping outside the bounds of the rules to get their cards selected.  There were not-so-subtle hints thrown out as to which card the reader should select.  Some of the readers at times clearly picked the card of someone they have a more personal connection to, like a spouse, rather than actually picking one that was actually funny or clever.  And, most interestingly there was some irritation expressed whenever a reader failed to pick a certain card, particularly a card in which the player had done everything he or she could to get it selected.

I, the bleeding heart liberal, stuck to the rules and came in last.

However, the next game we played saw a turning of the tide so to speak.  We set out to play something called Finish Lines, a game in which a player is given a portion of a quote from anything ranging from song lyrics to a literary text to a famous speech and has to finish the quote.  It is a game that requires a certain measure of cultural literacy as well as a certain precision in the use of language in order to be successful at it.

It is also a game in which it is very difficult to rely on special favors and secret hints in order to win.  And, I noticed that the Trump supporters began to flounder as I took a decisive lead.  In other words, the liberal excelled at the game that required a base of knowledge and education, not side deals and underhanded maneuvers.

The final game of the evening served up the last major point of the little political allegory I was observing.  I had never played Cranium before, so I asked for someone to explain it to me.  I was told that the game requires at least two teams of two people to compete against each by completing cooperative tasks and problem solving.  I was paired with one of the Trump supporters and faced off against the other two.

Almost immediately, my partner and I dominated the game, winning one round after another, completing our tasks well within the time limits placed on us.  Anything ranging from acting out a scenario to constructing objects with clay - nothing daunted us for too long, and we found ourselves easily working in tandem to move further along the board.  As our imminent victory became more assured, I couldn't help but take pride in the fact that the liberal was succeeding at the game that required cooperation and problem solving skills.

You probably noticed that I didn't mention any names in this little anecdote I've laid out.  That's because I have no desire to embarrass my friends.  And, I don't mean to imply that some lighthearted rule breaking during an inconsequential board game indicates a lack in moral rectitude.  These individuals are fine people with whom I always have a good time.  However, I could not ignore the obvious political parallels I could draw between what was happening during this pleasant evening of recreation and what has been playing out on the national stage over the last year.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

What-to-Watch Wednesday - The Nines (2007)

If a movie gives me something to think about then I can forgive it almost any flaw.  Such is the case with The Nines, a film that ponders some rather deep existential matters even if its efforts aren't 100% successful the whole time.

The film stars Ryan Reynolds in three different roles that seem to be in three different stories, but they are in fact connected in a single narrative.  The film's events though are disjointed and surreal, leaving the viewer wondering what is real and what might be the product of a deranged mind.  What remains consistent in each story is that the Reynolds' character starts to see his world unravel in some way.  There are also two characters who continuously pop up (played by Hope Davis and Melissa McCarthy) and engage in a tug-a-war in which they try to keep him away from the other.  Their actions are what result in each world starting to come apart.

The mystery behind what is happening slowly reveals itself, and the answer tackles some rather big issues about the nature of existence, of how we determine the reality in which we find ourselves.  It also ponders the relationship a creator has with his creations.  Does the creator owe any allegiance to that which he has created?  Is he free to destroy that which he creates simply because he was the one who created it in the first place?

Writer/director John August tackles these questions in a story that functions as a show business allegory on one level but evolves into something much deeper and profound as the "rules" of movie storytelling are slowly and systematically ignored to reveal hidden truths beneath the surface.  Like David Lynch's Mulholland Drive, The Nines brings attention to itself as a movie by breaking the rules it establishes at the start and isn't afraid to confuse the audience with inexplicable dialogue and random jumps in time and space.  Unlike Mulholland Drive, however, The Nines isn't cynical and has, in fact, a great deal of heart at its core.

And that is where the film loses some of its power by being a touch too sentimental about its subject matter.  It doesn't quite make the leap into brilliant satire because it feels the need to give its characters some closure.  But, you know, that's okay.  By the time all is said and done, the audience has connected enough to the characters, even as they continuously change, to want them to find some sort of happy ending.

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Did HAN and BOBA FETT and MACE WINDU Survive?

So, Jeff had me help out with this one.  Look for me playing a smarmy Disney executive.

I really like this one because Jeff shows his strong, acerbic view on some of the more "extreme" aspects of Star Wars fandom.  I can't say I agree with him 100%, but he is a good enough friend that I am okay with him being completely wrong sometimes.  Haha!

Friday, March 24, 2017

Lessons From a Comic Book: Rising From the Shadow

My first entries in this series focused on two of DC Comics' Big Three (Superman and Wonder Woman), so the natural assumption would be that the next one would examine Batman.  However, I came of age reading comics when Batman was pretty uninspiring as a hero.  Certainly, he was cool (and still is), but he was being depicted in the comics as something of a sociopath with a dark and unwelcoming personality.  There was little kindness in him, no sparks of warmth that would take the edge off his more intimidating characteristics.

I've written about this portrayal before, and I still say it damaged the character most noticeably in how it limited what could be done with him in the comics.  Fortunately, such has not been the case with the supporting characters of the Batman mythos.

Although I never read any of the core Batman comics on a regular basis, in the 1990s I found myself reading two books that were considered part of the Batman-family of books: Nightwing and Birds of Prey.  Nightwing was the first solo book for Dick Grayson, who had long since dropped his Robin identity to forge his own way as Nightwing.  Birds of Prey focused on two female leads (a rarity even in today's comics), one of whom was Barbara Gordon aka Oracle.  At the onset of each title's run, the books were being written by legendary writer, Chuck Dixon, who took the characters in directions that carved distinctive identities for each of them.

Nightwing had long been considered the most popular super-hero to not have his own book.  DC Comics seemed noncommittal to the idea of giving the character a solo book until a costume change and a successful mini-series effectively poised the character to carry his own series, beginning in 1996.  Immediately, the series distinguished itself from the core Batman books through its look and content.  In Scott McDaniel, the book had an artist that highlighted Nightwing's acrobatic movement and a fighting style shown from angles that made the action look truly death-defying.  All of this was placed within the context of a story about a young man making his way in a strange city, determined to forge his own path.

In contrast, Oracle was a character born out of tragedy.  Barbara Gordon had her career as Batgirl ended when the Joker shot a bullet through her spine, turning her into a paraplegic.  From this horrific experience, she created the identity of Oracle, a computer and technology expert who functioned as a powerful information broker for DC's metahumans.  Still, she was little more than an occasional supporting player until a succession of one-shots and minis paired her with the equally under utilized Black Canary.  The popularity of the pairing paved the way for an ongoing series in which Oracle functioned as mission coordinator while Black Canary was the field agent in their partnership.

My reading life has taught me that sometimes certain books find you when you're ready to read them.  I've come to believe that such was the case with Nightwing and Birds of Prey.  I was reading both books at time when my life was stalled - I had left college, was working some dead end jobs, and had no clear prospects to get on track to a real career.  Obviously, my choices were very much in contrast to what Dick Grayson and Barbara Gordon were accomplishing with their lives.  And, on a certain level, their active stories served to highlight how mine was going nowhere.

I won't be so melodramatic as to say that reading these comics galvanized me into taking some drastic action with my life and finally getting it into gear.  It took a series of circumstances and a lot of much needed life experience for that to happen.  However, I think I can honestly say my reading these books kept me from becoming too complacent in what my life had become at that time as well as helping me not lose focus on my long-term goals, even though many were telling me to give them up.  

Like Dick and Barbara, I, too, felt the pressures of living up to the expectations of my parental figures and wanted desperately to be accepted on my own terms and for what I wanted to be.  At times, I understood all too well what it was like to be part of an all-encompassing family that left little room for individuality and where there was an expectation to fit into the common narrative of the other members regardless of whether or not that narrative fit into the one I was writing for myself.  The balancing act that Nightwing and Birds of Prey achieved on a regular basis taught me it was possible to have one's own space while also fitting into a larger context.  One doesn't necessarily have to reject one in order to have the other.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Movie Crushes

Clockwise from top: Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman,
Black Lively in Age of Adaline, Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast At Tiffany's
A couple weeks ago, I watched Age of Adaline for the first time.  It had been sitting in my Netflix queue for the longest time, and my rotation of receiving movies on DVD (a much slower rotation than my viewing of streaming movies) finally brought Age of Adeline to the top of the list.

When it arrived, I let it sit for a few days until I had an opportunity to watch it.  To be frank, I didn't have a burning desire to see it right away.  From everything I had heard about the film, it sounded like very predictable fare.  But, I was interested to see Harrison Ford in it as he had gotten some good notices for his performance.  And, I wanted to see the actor who plays Ford's character as a young man, as he is supposed to have an uncanny impression of both Ford's mannerisms and voice.

However, when I started watching it, what I did not expect was to witness a revelatory performance by Blake Lively, whose most notable roles thus far have been in the awful Green Lantern film and the TV show, Gossip Girls.

As the movie went on, I was drawn to the grace and maturity Lively projects as a woman who has inexplicably stopped aging.  I couldn't take my eyes off her whenever she was on screen.  Not only is she incredibly beautiful in the film, but her performance was so soulful that I can say without hyperbole that I was deeply moved emotionally.  Everything about me as a man was fully charged by how this character spoke, how she walked, and how she always seemed to be holding back a little something from the other characters as well as the audience.

In short, I was crushing on the character of Adaline in a major way.  And, I want to make a clear distinction: I was indeed crushing on Adaline, not Blake Lively.  I'm not so deluded as to crush on someone I haven't met, and I am smart enough to know that an actress's performance in a film in no way represents who she is as a person.  Plus, she's married to Ryan Reynolds, so there is no way I could ever compete with that.

Still, I was crushing, and it made me think back to times when I had similar feelings wash over me when watching movies.

My first true movie crush occurred when I was fifteen years old and watched Pretty Woman for the first time.  Julia Roberts was a relatively unknown film actress at the time, who had garnered some success with her performance in Steel Magnolias.  But, it was her role as Vivian in Pretty Woman that propelled her to super stardom.

The first time I saw Roberts walk out in that red formal gown was the first time I was truly charmed by feminine beauty and grace, albeit slightly awkward grace as Vivian is defined by a somewhat gangly and uncertain demeanor.  The shapeliness she has in that dress, though, the gentle womanly curves she displays, all had me enthralled.  And that laugh.  A guffaw really, when Richard Gere pretends to close the jewelry box on her hand.  A genuine and honest reaction which would hearten most men and give them a resounding sense of accomplishment should they succeed in making a woman laugh like that.

I wouldn't be dumbfounded in such a way again until I watched Breakfast At Tiffany's a few years later.  The casual elegance of Audrey Hepburn as Holly Golightly sitting in a window sill singing "Moon River" filled my heart with something I can't quite express, a longing maybe, some sort of ache.  Holly emerges briefly framed in that window, her guard down, dressed in a sweater and slacks, and manages to be more enchanting than she has thus far been in the whole film.

The simplicity of the scene is an enticement in and of itself.  It makes the mystery surrounding Holly seem within reach, knowable.  Personally, I am most taken by the dust rag in her hair.  So commonplace, so ordinary, yet she wears it as some kind of crown, an accessory to her natural beauty and style.

As I write this, I know that it is very easy to think I'm just spouting on and on about some movie stars I think are hot.  True, I find Hepburn, Roberts, and Lively to be very beautiful women, but my crushes are more than some expression of libidinous desire.  They are about the projection of my own emotional needs onto these fictional characters, and what qualities I respond to in a woman.  Not a reality based reaction by any stretch of the imagination, but I do find it fascinating how we can become emotionally attached to people we see in a movie.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

What-to-Watch Wednesday - Teacher of the Year (2014)

"In my class on Monday, it's Wednesday."

This line when delivered in Jason Strouse's Teacher of the Year was one of several times I guffawed during my first viewing of the movie.  It's a ridiculous line that makes no sense.  However, when it is said and how it is said - and by whowraps the line's absurdity in a rhetorical stylization I have become all too familiar with as a teacher.

The real power of Teacher of the Year is that, just like that line, it is a clever satire with a heart for the ridiculous.  Even in its most outlandish depictions of public education, there is a kernel of truth that will strongly resonate with teachers who have been in the profession for a while.

Take for instance the spineless administration, the useless guidance counselors, and pointlessly competitive teachers featured in the film.  All are cartoonish and exaggerated portrayals, but any long-term teacher will see qualities they recognize and have encountered at some point in their careers.

The film's authenticity comes from the fact that Strouse (who both wrote and directed it) is a high school English teacher himself.  Or, at least he was at the time the film was made.  As such, his writing and directing, although over the top at times in how they approach the subject matter, show a sharp insight into the joys and frustrations of public education.

The story follows Mitch Carter, an English teacher at a California charter school, who has just been named State Teacher of the Year, as he navigates the ins and outs of being an educator.  In faux-documentary style, the film reveals Mitch's personal feelings about his career as well as those of his colleagues.  We learn that Mitch is a good, dedicated teacher, one who truly deserves the honor he has been given, but he has slowly become disillusioned by the state of his profession.  When a lucrative job offer comes his way, he is torn between a career that is personally fulfilling and one that would mean more financial security for him and his growing family.

It is the film takes a serious tone towards what teachers are thinking and feeling.  Some moments, particularly during the interview segments, are cringe-worthy because they are too real.  It is in these moments that Strouse manages to capture a variety of teacher voices and attitudes, all of which ring true on some level, ranging from the young energy of new teachers to the grizzled, been-there-done-that stillness of the veterans.

Everything about Teacher of the Year shows a precision and craft that are not only needed in true satire but also make for a damn good film.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

What-to-Watch Wednesday - Frailty (2001)

The recent death of Bill Paxton brought to mind a film of his I haven't thought about in some time, which is a shame because it is one of his best: Frailty.  The film, directed by Paxton, stars Matthew McConaughey as a distraught young man who shows up at a Texas FBI office claiming to have information about a serial murderer called the God's Hand Killer.  He says his name is Fenton Meiks and demands to speak only to the agent leading the investigation, and when the agent (Powers Boothe) shows up, Meiks reveals that his brother, Adam, is the famed killer and begins telling the tale of their growing up.

In the flashback scenes that follow, Paxton plays the father of the two boys.  A single father whose wife died in childbirth, he looks after his boys as best he can and seems to have forged a stable, happy family life for the three of them.  Early scenes show him to be an attentive, caring father who loves his sons, and they dote on him in return.  This is an especially important detail for the audience to ponder in order for what happens later to have any real resonance.

One night, the father bursts into the boys' bedroom and explains that he has been visited by an angel who has tasked them with hunting down and destroying demons in human form.  The boys are baffled at first, but then one of them becomes skeptical towards his father's claims while the other supports them wholeheartedly.  The flashbacks then center around what the skeptical son does in response to what he believes is his father's growing madness.

I hesitate to say anything further since part of the film functions as a thriller with plot twists and surprise reveals.  But, I do want to point out that Frailty is a horror film in the truest sense of the word and one that is masterfully directed by Paxton.  Rather than relying on graphic violence,  Paxton achieves a pervasive mood throughout the narrative that is a mixture of fear and sadness.  And, all of it is centered around a once happy family starting to crumble apart.

The final moments of the film leave it open for debate about why certain events occurred.  However, it is a debate that won't offer up an easy side to be on because it largely depends on how much of an optimistic outlook one has about life and how much faith one has that rational thought is a guiding principle in the world.  If you decide to believe in a more rational explanation, you have to accept some pretty unlikely coincidences; if you lean towards a supernatural cause, you have to believe that the God as presented by Judeo-Christian beliefs does not exist - at least not within the world of this film.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Severus Snape is the ONLY Right Answer

Jeff's newest video.  He makes a good, sentimental argument for why Snape should be saved from death over other Harry Potter characters that met their demise.  I would argue they all died deaths that were too important to the overall narrative to be overturned.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

The Epidemic of Passable Movies

This guy makes some pretty astute observations about "passable movies."  Although I agree with much of what he is saying, he doesn't give enough credit to the social value of films, particularly popcorn flicks.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Nerd U: Ep. 05 - Why Wonder Woman is the Most Important Movie of the Year

Jeff covers what promises to be the must-see super-hero film of 2017.  He makes some good points about what the movie has going for it.

Monday, March 6, 2017

To My Sister...

To My Sister…

There isn’t a word yet
For two different stories written on the same page,
Following separate, winding paths that, although intersecting at key points,
Have a disunity in which they seem to fight for space

Yet, as the tales progress, growing richer and more detailed,
They gently guide each other,
Shaping each other’s plot, molding perceptions of the characters,
And offering hope of a resolution

They bring counterpoint
And illumination
On the events of one
The tone of the other

Making them each stronger and more defined

And those mutual page turns-
They can be exciting,
And sometimes sad,
But they are always worth the passage into a new understanding

There is no word for any of this,
No single way to encompass the push and pull
Of the enriched overall narrative


Are the closest we get.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Nerd U: Episode 01 - Intro to the Channel

My buddy, Jeff, has started his own YouTube channel.  I vehemently disagree with him on several things (because DC is better than Marvel, LOTR is superior to Harry Potter where it really counts, and Spider-man 2 with Tobey Maguire is actually the best Spider-man film done so far), but his coverage of all-things nerdy is quite interesting to watch.  Check it out!

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Steve's Top Ten Films: Star Wars

Star Wars is a forty-year-old film this year.  I turn forty-two today, which means I existed for two whole years in a world without Star Wars.  I have no clear memories of those two years, so I don't remember a time when the film wasn't part of my life in some way.

I am told my Uncle Wayne took me to see the film sometime during its first release, but I don't remember seeing it for the first time.  I wonder what my two-year-old self experienced in that first viewing.  Was I scared?  Thrilled?  Awestruck?  More than likely it was a combination of all those and more.

What I do remember is the excitement I felt whenever the film came back around for limited re-release.  One of those releases marked the first time I was ever allowed to go see a film by myself, more than likely fueled by my parents having absolutely no desire to see the film again.  Likewise, I distinctly remember going to see the two sequels: Empire was at the Seaford Twin Cinema, an initial attempt by my father taking my sister and me to see it thwarted by a sold-out theater; Return of the Jedi was at the Midway Theater in Rehoboth along with my mother, my Aunt Vicki, my sister, and two female cousins.  None of whom cared at all about seeing the movie, at least not at the level I did, so I might as well have been seeing it by myself.

But, my excitement over those two films resulted directly from the deep connection I felt (and still feel) to the first Star Wars movie, a film whose existence is interwoven with mine on a primal level.  I honestly don't know what kind of person I would be if Star Wars hadn't existed in my life.  And, on a certain level, I don't understand people who are indifferent to the film because feeling that way would mean an essential part of me would disappear.

I have to confess that although my top ten films receive nearly equal admiration from me, I saved Star Wars for last because at forty years old it has been part of my awareness the longest out of any film I've ever seen.  And, it continues to be an active part of my life as new Star Wars films are made, and I have been able to share the experience with students, my Nerd Circle buddies, and, most importantly, my nephew, who has recently made a point of watching all the films in the series and has come to me with questions about the story and characters.

So, the significance of this film in my life perpetually evolves into something more than it was before.  That means something.

Monday, February 27, 2017

Steve's Top Ten Films: It Happened One Night

In light of the debacle that was last night's Oscars ceremony, it might be appropriate to take a look at one of the classic Best Picture winners, one that unmistakably swept the top five categories of Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Director, and Best Screenplay.  Of course, the same could be said for One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, but It Happened One Night has the distinction of being the first film to be so honored.  And, it accomplished the feat despite being a movie that no one, not even the stars, believed in except for the director, Frank Capra.

Made in the heyday of the Hollywood contract players, Clark Gable was loaned out to do the picture as a business move by his home studio; Gable was a reluctant participant as a result.  Claudette Colbert had to be coaxed into doing it with an increased salary and a promise to have her filming completed in one month.  Reportedly, she was a prima donna on set and would throw tantrums almost daily.

Despite the trials and tribulations of the production, the end result is one of the most smartly-written romantic comedies ever put to film.  And, being made before the enforcement of the MPAA production code, the film has a sense of daring even by some of today's standards.

There are a number of iconic scenes in the movie: Clark Gable undressing in front of Claudette Colbert, Colbert stopping a passing car by showing her leg.  But, my favorite scene is when the two of them seemingly improvise an argument to avoid capture by the police.  They pretend to be a married couple who are instigated into an old argument by the presence of the police officers.  Although the actual scene was scripted, the direction and performances make the exchange seem completely ad libbed, and it is a moment of real connection between the characters.  From then on, everything the characters say and do is seen within the context of them falling in love.

Unfortunately for modern romantic comedies, I judge them based on how they measure up to the film I believe set the standard for the genre.  Very few are able to match the wit and charm of It Happened One Night.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Steve's Top Ten Films: Chasing Amy

Some might find it interesting that Chasing Amy is the only comic book-related film in my top ten.  And, it is only a comic book movie in that it is set within the workings of the comic book industry and makes references only those familiar with the genre would clearly understand.  One of the opening scenes takes place at a comicon, and it remains to this day one of the most authentic-looking depictions of a con I have ever seen on film.  Sure, it ventures at times into cartoonishness with the inker vs. tracer debate and the comic book panel discussion in which the character of Hooper X delivers his hilarious deconstruction of the Star Wars trilogy.  But, the feel of the con is spot on, right down to how the attendees look and act.

Written and directed by Kevin Smith, a comic book aficionado himself, Chasing Amy was something of a comeback for Smith, who had an indie success with Clerks but then misstepped in a big way with the dead-in-the-water Mallrats.  Chasing Amy showcased his writing talent and his ability to create interesting characters who find themselves in situations that involve authentic emotions, not just tongue-in-cheek slapstick or toilet humor, although there is plenty of both in Chasing Amy.

The story is about a comic writer/artist named Holden, who befriends and then falls in love with a fellow comic book writer/artist named Alyssa.  The problem initially is that Alyssa is openly gay, and so it seems there friendship will not advance to romance.  But, one thing leads to another, and the two begin a romance.  More problems arise when details about Alyssa's past comes to light, and Holden is torn on how to handle knowing the information.

Yes, this sounds like the typical set up for a standard romantic comedy, but Chasing Amy transcends the genre by having the characters' choices carry real weight and ramifications.  There are no sudden revelations that fix all the conflicts, no last minute reconciliations that give everyone a happily-ever-after.  Instead, we get a story about characters who are maturing into adults, accompanied by all the pain and heartache that comes with it.

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Steve's Top Ten Films: Eve's Bayou

Because of Eve's Bayou, you will never hear me offer too much criticism of the effects of social media or the advent of home entertainment.  A film this small and with such a limited release never would have crossed my radar if not for the internet.  Specifically, if I had not been regularly reading Roger Ebert's movie reviews for the Chicago Sun-Times, something I was only able to do because of the internet.

From reading his reviews, I was able to learn about all kinds of films from a reliable source.  I didn't always agree with Ebert on his assessment of a film, but he always offered a comprehensive and varied examination of released movies, many of which never got much media attention and certainly wouldn't have made it to a theater anywhere within driving distance of me on the Delmarva Peninsula.

In 1997, Ebert released his top ten films for that year, and topping it was a film that received very little attention outside of film critics.  The fact that Eve's Bayou beat out such films as Titanic, Jackie Brown, and L.A. Confidential in Ebert's opinion intrigued me greatly.  As soon as it became available on VHS, I watched it and instantly fell in love with this charming and heartbreaking movie.

It is a family drama set in the Louisiana Bayou of 1950s or 1960s.  The Batistes are a well-to-do black family with a seemingly picture-perfect life, but there are secrets and bitter resentments simmering under the surface.  Samuel L. Jackson stars as Louis Batiste, the patriarch of the family and a doctor, who enjoys a certain measure of prestige and popularity in the surrounding community.  His wife, Roz (Lynn Whitfield), finds herself torn between her love for her husband and her sense of betrayal as his many infidelities begin to come to light.  Caught in the middle are their three children, who are old enough to know something is wrong even if they don't understand fully everything they see and hear.

The story is told from the point of view of the middle child, Eve, and opens with her very ominous narration: "Memory is a selection of images, some elusive, others imprinted indelibly on the brain. The summer I killed my father I was 10 years old."  From that moment, I knew I was watching a film of striking originality and strong narrative voice.

Friday, February 24, 2017

Steve's Top Ten Films: Alien

I think one of the reasons I am not more of a fan of horror films is that most of them are an exercise in combining and recombining the same old tropes and storytelling techniques with no real attempt to introduce some style or originality.  Not that it is fair to expect every genre film to be completely new and original - there has to be some recognizable qualities for films in a particular genre - but a good director will always try to present the story in way that feels fresh.

What makes Alien so appealing to me is that it finds a fresh presentation by mashing together two tried and true film genres (science fiction and horror) and breathes life into the more tired characteristics of both by switching between the two, keeping the audience in a state of off-balance for most of the picture.  At the moments it feels like a sci-fi adventure while others it is straight out horror with some now classic cinematic scares.

Although the beginning of a very successful film franchise that has managed to maintain a certain level of decent quality for the most part, none of the other films in the series quite achieve the sheer artistry that Alien does.  It is a film with a setting that looks gritty and lived-in even though it takes place in outer space.  It is a film with smart characters who find themselves completely out of their depth in a situation that threatens their very lives.  And, it is a film that gets a visceral reaction out of its audience nearly forty years after its release.  Most of the subsequent films just rehash these qualities.

Coincidentally, my first exposure to the Alien-franchise started with the second film, Aliens.  I was maybe 11 or 12 when I first saw it, and I remember feeling emotionally jostled and completely unsettled afterwards.  Year later, I would read Roger Ebert's review of the film and agree with his description that the sequel is two hours of really bad road.  A couple years later when I finally watched the first film, I found myself appreciating the creepy slow pace of its story and being more emotionally invested in the character of Ellen Ripley.  Of all the Alien films, this is the one I go back regularly.

Steve's Top Ten Films: The Color Purple

The first time I learned to separate a movie from its original source material came when I had to finally read Alice Walker's The Color Purple for a class years after having seen the film.  The novel is epistolary, told in letters Celie writes to God, her sister, and finally herself.  It has a very clear narrative voice and an emphasis on an extremely uncinematic main character.  The film version remains largely faithful to the novel, but it strikes its own narrative beats and finds different areas upon which to focus.

Maybe I benefitted from having the seen the film first because I have never felt that one is diminished by the other.  It's just that the film allows us to see the same story from a different angle.  Some things are lost in the translation, certainly, but there is a strong emotional depth to the film, and the characters come to life in way that the book never quite manages to pull off.

Part of the reason for this is due to the direction of Steven Spielberg.  The Color Purple was his first real foray into straight drama, and it gave him an opportunity to truly grow as a director.  His signature moves as a director are there: one or more of the characters looking at the sky at some celestial orb, camera-shots that pull into tight close-ups, long training shots that make up the majority of a scene.  But, here he finally employs them to tell a mature story dealing with emotional truth.

Although The Color Purple is one of the biggest all-time Academy Award losers (it lost all nine of its nominations, and Spielberg wasn't even recognized with a nom), it made Hollywood take notice of Spielberg as more than a genre director of very stylish popcorn flicks.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Steve's Top Ten Films: Leaving Las Vegas

The other day, a student showed me the Story Bible for a fictional world he plans to write about.  Carefully, he took me through the details of the world and the various people who populate it.  

At one point, he said, "I don't know if this is the kind of story you'd read, Mr. Givens, but what do you think?"

I told him, "I don't have a particular type of story I like to read, but you gotta give me good characters.  You give me good characters, and I will follow a story wherever it goes, come hell or high water."

We then began talking about the characters in his story, and I was indeed fascinated.

As I started writing this review for Leaving Las Vegas, that conversation came to mind because the reason this 22-year-old movie has remained a favorite is due to the two central characters, Ben and Sera.  They are sad, incredibly flawed characters with issues that should render happiness an impossibility for them - Ben is a suicidal drunk; Sera is an abused hooker.  However, these two meet on the streets of Las Vegas and find some relief from their lonesome lives,

Leaving Las Vegas isn't a happy movie.  Ben and Sera are on a trajectory that will only leave them alone again.  But, the film offers a small sliver of hope that even two people who have gotten so low can still connect and offer each other a moment of love and acceptance.  And, you want them to have that hope because, despite their flaws, Ben and Sera are real people who generate real sympathy.  They are what make the darker moments in the film palatable.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Steve's Top Ten Films: One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

So, I'm cheating a little with this one as I have a very busy day ahead of me.  Previously, I wrote a review of for One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest for my W2WW series, and I am merely re-posting it here.  My thoughts on the film remain unchanged though.

Why watch One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest?

Well, the cast alone is reason enough to give it a once over:

Jack Nicholson, one of the most devilishly gifted screen actors of all time, as Randle McMurphy, one of the most subversive, counter-cultural characters in literature.

Louise Fletcher, a terrifically under-utilized actress, as the icy, porcelain-featured Nurse Ratched, arguably the vilest villain in cinematic history.

And the inmates of the psychiatric ward played by the best character actors working in film.  Will Sampson, Christopher Lloyd, Danny DeVito, and Brad Dourif to name a few.

There's also the score.  The movie opens and closes with the sounds of a musical saw, creating an eerie, yet playful tone that perfectly captures what the audience experiences as the story unfolds.

Oh, yes, the story!  Funny and allegorical.  Sad but uplifting.  A power struggle between freewill and submission.  Between male and female.  That offers a subjective view on sanity and dares to question the imposition of societal norms.  And an ending that will inspire debate even among the most dull-minded of movie goers.  Who wins in the end?  Is there even a way to tell?

Sweeping the top five Oscar categories and taking in a tremendous box office for the time, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is hardly an overlooked movie, the kind I try to highlight in my W2WW series.  And, I would venture to say most people who would be inclined to read this blog and pay any attention to my ramblings have already seen the movie and/or read the book.  But, good movies (and books, too) age like fine wine and need to be savored over and over throughout the years.  This is one such film and should be brought out once in a while for yet another viewing.

Released the year I was born, this gem is among my favorite movies of all time, but not for that reason.  It is nothing short of a masterpiece in filmmaking that remains every bit as compelling and powerful forty years later.

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...