Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Potter & Strange: Wizards or Superheroes?

Jeff once again tackles the issue of what exactly makes for a super hero.

What-To-Watch Wednesday - Wit (2001)

One of the greatest challenges a filmmaker will face is adapting a powerful stage work for the screen while managing to also retain the material's power and effectiveness.  Although stage and film are both dramatic art forms, there is a wide gulf between the two in terms of story presentation.  And, often a piece that works brilliantly on the stage will fall flat when translated to the screen.

I believe that what makes the film version of Wit so good is the inspired collaboration between Emma Thompson (who stars as the main character) and Mike Nichols (who directs the film).  They co-wrote the script together and bring to bear a collective experience from both stage and film.  These are two individuals who thoroughly know what works and what doesn't in both formats.

And there is a lot that works about Wit.  From the smart screenplay adaptation to the acting to the carefully planned moments in which the fourth wall is broken.  There isn't a wrong move made in the entire film.

The story is about a literature professor named Vivian Bearing, who learns that she is in the last stages of ovarian cancer and is enlisted in an aggressive, but experimental treatment program as part of a cancer study.  In an effort to retain some sense of control and perhaps her humanity, Vivian begins chronicling her experiences with the treatment, resulting in periodic monologues describing her circumstances with a sense of irony, humor, heartbreak, and yes...wit.

As an academic, Vivian is able to bring a cold, analytical eye to the situation and breakdown in some detail the systematic monotony of being chronically ill.  However, she is also a woman facing her own mortality in a series of very painful steps.  The script, brought to life by Thompson's performance, doesn't shy away from the real fear that Vivian is feeling as well as the regret she experiences in looking back over her life, a life she dedicated to becoming the leading authority on the holy sonnets of John Donne, often at the expense of human empathy and connection.

When you watch, look for the scenes between Vivian and Nurse Susie (played by the wonderful Audra McDonald), for here is where viewers will find the true message about human compassion and kindness.  In small, simple gestures, Nurse Susie expresses more understanding about the human condition than anything the more learned characters espouse, including Vivian.

The film originally aired on HBO and never received a theatrical release, which is just as well since I think the big studios would have had a hard time knowing how to promote this film.  Below is the only trailer I could find; it was one that aired on HBO at the time.

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.

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 ...