Wednesday, February 23, 2005

In the Heat of the Night

Maybe some of you have noticed how crappy PBS stations are becoming these days. It seems like every time I tune in, expecting another informative Nova or muckraking Frontline, I see repeats of the Antiques Roadshow or some gawdawful reunion concert of old pop stars. And what are they up to now, like, *TEN* tenors? Come on. But here in Philly, Saturday nights on PBS are usually movie nights--full length, uninterrupted movies. Sure, there is a fairly heavy rotation of Woody Allen films, which can get tiresome, but there are lots of other films, too. One of those last week was In the Heat of the Night, the 1967 race/crime drama with Sidney Poitier and Rod Steiger. Sometimes 'classic' movies leave me fairly cold; many are mildly enjoyable or intellectually interesting, but otherwise, eh. But, man, In the Heat of the Night kicks ass. I couldn't help myself from saying several times while I was watching, 'wow; this is a great movie.' So thank you, WHYY, for showing this movie rather than some wheezing Riverdance redux or Yanni special. My check is in the mail.

Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Steve Zissou, Can't Sit Through...

Upon entering the theatre to see The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, I found $9.00 lying on the floor. I turned the corner and found 5 other theatre patrons seated. I could, of course, have walked to the front of the theatre and made the announcement of finding $9.00. Alternately, I could have taken the $9.00 to the ticket taker and been done with it. I, of course, did neither. Rather, I folded the $9.00 rather neatly, and stuck it in my pocket.

Forty five minutes later, the thought struck me: This movie sort of sucks... Then the memory of the $9.00 in my pocket brought on the idea: If I leave, I'm really not out any bucks... So, I did.

Maybe the movie got better. All I could think though was that it appeared they were having more fun making the movie than the movie actually was... Might be a good movie if you're dropping acid. Sort of got the feeling they did a little LSD at some point during the production... Maybe from start to finish?

Monday, February 21, 2005

Proof of mediocraty in Theatre

I just saw "Proof" at my local college. "Proof" is the story of girl whose father, a brilliant and crazy mathematician, dies leaving her to question her own sanity. Without getting into too much detail, the girl claims to have written a groundbreaking proof but no one believes that she could have done it. I read the script during the auditions and thought that it would be a great play to see. What I saw on that stage was nothing like what I read. Lines were flat, movements forced and every inch of those actors faces screamed to me that they didn't care in the slightest about what they were doing.
The acting in a play such as this should be realistic and subtle. It was not. Most of the lines were flat and spat out without any feeling, until the actors flipped a switch in their heads and became angry and loud. There was no middle ground. No rising emotion or building tension. In the world of this show you are either as complacent as a sloth on barbituates or as hyper-excited as a ferret on amphetamines.
To be fair, there was one player that did sincerly care about what he was doing. The character of the father was played very well. He was believable in every movement, every syllable of every line. At least someone up there knew what they were doing.
The entire show was plagued by this inorganic feeling. It premeated everything. Everything was rehearsed down to the finest detail. Even a simple hand gesture seemed artificial. Perhaps this is due to the director more than anything. There are those who want everything to look just so every single time. In my opinion, these people should try watchmaking instead of directing. It would suit them better and the theatre would be better off for it.
This show could have been great. It could have left people thinking. Instead it aimed itself at simply entertaining the audience. It succeeded too. Every review I have read for it has been glowing. Not one of them however said that it really made them think. All they said was that it was entertaining. A potentially great play was turned to ruin by a cast that only cared about showing off their angry faces. Like so many movies it left meaning and depth outside in the car.
Is this what theatre is coming to? Is the stage now pandering the same meaningless, two-dimensional crap that we see on the large and small screen? Has it always don this? Have I simply been blind to it until now? Either way this show made me embarassed to be called an actor.

Friday, February 18, 2005

The Great Impersonation

Mr. Oppenheim forgive me:

Dominey felt from his soul he would have welcomed an earthquake, a thunderbolt, the crumbling of the floor beneath his feet to have been spared the torture of her sweet importunities.

From: The Great Impersonation, by E. Phillips Oppenheim

I'm thinking those must've been s-o-m-e 'importunities'....

Monday, February 14, 2005

Friendly Folk, In Good Company

These are nice people, the people In Good Company; and the story line is something more familiar to our daily middle class lives than cops and robbers, prisoners and/or spies. Though, admittedly their jobs, homes, and lives, seemed a lot more appealng than mine. I'm not sure what to say about the cast, other than maybe superb. I've always had a hard on for Marg Helgenberger, so I could see why Dennis Quaid would be a devoted husband. Dennis Quaid was just very likable,... Like I said friendly folk. I'm a little bit partial to That's 70's Show and I didn't see much more from Topher Grace than I've seen in Eric Foreman, but at least he admits to being 26 years old... And Scarlett, well she's just so darn pretty, you can't help but feel why Topher's a little devoted. Untimately a feel good move, with maybe a sort of stupid scene with Malcolm MacDowell; good supporting cast...

Saturday, February 12, 2005

The Longest Yard: Men being men, & stickin' it to the man

The first thing that struck me about The Longest Yard was how *cheap* it looked--and not just the rich tart Burt is sleeping with in the opening. The inside sets were full of ugly wood panelling and chintzy curtains and seemed way too small, like the movie was shot inside a mobile home. It's only after Burt gets to the football field that things start to open up. And there, of course, he's able to reclaim the dignity he squandered on the outside. To do so he must exorcise the demons of his past, sacrifice his own interests for the sake of his fellow inmates, heal the prison's racial divide, and stand up to the power that seeks to crush his spirit. All these goals are reached as the movie rushes downfield in a fun but disorganized run of 120 minutes.

I had expected this movie to be about class, but it was more about being a man. The two are not entirely separate, of course, and it's significant that while on the outside Burt is oppressed by women, money-men and cops, on the inside it's just cops. One of the things I liked most was how the warden and his captain are usually accompanied by the trappings of squaresville authority: They had motivational slogans on their walls and they would mouth them self-imporantly, with an American flag visible over their shoulder. At the right hand of the warden was a silent assitant (possibly the the prison pastor, since I think he was reading the last rites at a prisoner's funeral) ready to tape-record choice snippets of the warden's speeches. In a time when most of America seems ready to swallow whole the slogans of God, Company and Country, it was nice to see in this movie some relics of an era more independent, more suspicious of authority.

That's probably not how the filmmakers would have put it, though. They would have said that the heroes of the movie were just showing that they had balls--the two things the world can never beat out of you, according to one of the prisoners. In the end, the movie is not about social change. It's not like any of the men get out of prison because they won a football game, like in John Huston's Victory (1981). But resisting emasculation is its own reward. 'Fuck you, boy!', the warden yells at Burt after the game. Burt's smirking reply is 'Not today, boss.'

It's interesting to note how race is played in the movie, too. It's almost like a 'white pride' movie, because the white characters are in many ways modeling the resistance of black men against racism. All the characters, black or white, are called 'boy' by the guards, and at a crucial moment the sacrifice of a black player inspires Burt to get back in the game. The guards try and pit the races against each other, but the prisoners are able to see that the struggle for manhood is a shared struggle.

The movie seemed put together in a slap-dash manner. Either it was hacked to pieces in editing, or the continuity man was asleep during most of the filming. The back-stories of the inmates--Burt included--are hardly touched on at all, and some of the cons on the football team are introduced with a depth that seems a set up for later scenes on the field, but those scenes never come and players by and large loose any individuality once in uniform. In the opening, the shrewish girlfriend warns Burt not to take her Masserati, but he drives off in a Citroen, clearly marked as such. Maybe he listened to her, and took her *other* car? And in the football game, Dick Keil, the Bond movie villain guy, is at some points wearing a sling on one of his arms, but it's never explained.

Some nice touches:

- cons' cheerleaders (where'd they come from?) at the game sing 'Born Free.'
- Bernadette Peters as the warden's secretary, wearing a huge soft-serve hairdo.
- after losing the football game, the captain asks the warden, "Where's your damn power theory now?!" [Edward G. Robinson voice] Yeah, see .
- credits thank Gov. Jimmy Carter for allowing them to film in Georgia prisons.

Tuesday, February 08, 2005

Who am I? (or, Am I defined by my Video Store?)

I signed up for NetFlix. Been avoiding it for some time. I don’t suppose I would have such strong feelings if I didn’t absolutely love my locally owned and operated rental shop.

I’ve been going to Rain City Video for about 5 years now. The people there are always the perfect amount of geek and chic. Once they get to know you, they start recommending movie they think you would like. I adore just browsing around the store flirting with the cute clerks and waiting for something to grab me (a movie that is).

But NexFlix is sooo easy and convenient and almost instantly gratifying. I find myself rushing to watch movies just so I can get more. The “Queue” is the best. It’s so hard to remember what you wanted to see, now I have a big long list that I can shuffle around as my mood changes.

I feel like a traitor. Over the years I have put a lot of time and energy into avoiding the giant rental stores like HV and BB. Rain City used to be very convenient for me, now that I’ve moved it’s a hassle to get there, but I tend to be pretty loyal, a trait that dies hard. Am I a bad person?

Is this the beginning of a decent down the steep slope of mass consumerism? What is next? An SUV? Not sorting the garbage from the recycling? And what will become of the worm bin? Think Globally! Act Locally!
Maybe the last vestige of my Northern California Granola Girl packed up and moved south, leaving me alone to justify yet another step into the matrix.

Monday, February 07, 2005

Movie Club for February: The Longest Yard

My pick for this month's movie club: The Longest Yard, starring Burt Reynolds as a former pro football player who is sent to prison, and there organizes an inmates-against-the guards football game. A remake of this movie is soon to be released, starring Adam Sandler and Chris Rock, with Reynolds as a coach this time.

So why this movie? Mostly, I guess, because I saw an ad for the new version during the so-called 'Super Bowl' (boooo! Patriots are the new Cowboys! Let's all hate them together). But also because I've never seen the whole thing, and I think it's part of an interesting genre of prison movies that came out in the late 1960s and 1970s. Politically and economically, the 1970s seem to be a crucial decade in the turn toward our current phase of conservative politics, corporate globalism, and fear-mongering. Lest any think that sentence is just another bit of Bush-bashing, let me clarify that I'm talking about the last 25-30 years of US history, not just the current Bush administration, during which these long-term developments seem to be coming to some sort of crisis point.

One of the key issues for conservative politics in the 1970s-1990s was crime, and the need to clamp down hard on all types of criminality (except white collar and corporate crime). As a result of mandatory sentencing laws and the war on drugs, the US now has the highest incarceration rate in the world (we surpassed Russia in 2002 when we had 714 people behind bars for ever 100,000 people in the country; Russia's rate was 548; Canada's 116; England's 141). Rising levels of crime were the primary basis for 'get tough' policies in the 1980s. But since the 1990s, while crime rates have been dropping, the prison population has maintained steady growth, topping 2 million for the first time in history in 2002.

So before there were terrorists silently stalking us day and night, there were criminals--drug gangs, kids out 'wilding', serial killers and pedophiles--who would stop at nothing to do us and our families harm. But the 1970s prison movies (and don't forget those Johnny Cash records!) showed a very different face of crime than, say, the Dirty Harry movies. Prisoners were sometimes victims of circumstance, or rebels against authority, or at least in some way presented sympathetically. In recent years, there seems to have been a new stream of prison movies making their way to movie screens. Some, like the Shawshank Redemption (1994) and The Green Mile (1999), have stressed the redemptive possibilities of prisons--a far cry from the prison inhabited by Cool Hand Luke. While they might be portrayed as fanciful propaganda in a society happily ignorant of its increasing population of actual prisoners, these movies still showed (some) prisoners as human and at least capable of redemption.

Do these new prison movies foretell a change in our national culture and politics, back toward the more anti-authority movies of the 1970s? Were those earlier prison movies really anti-authority? How will the presentation of prison life have changed in the 2005 version from 1974's The Longest Yard? Will there be any echoes from the Abu Ghraib scandal, or lack of scandal, in our popular entertainment (how long before the first joke about being piled naked into a pyramid--other than from Rush Limbaugh, that is)?

These are questions that I invite you to ask as you watch The Longest Yard. Aside from all this frothsome popular culture stuff, though, I expect the movie to be pretty funny. For reasons that I cannot quite identify, I have grown rather fond of early Bert Reynolds movies, even though I remember in my snobby adolescence really hating the Smokey and the Bandit flicks when they came out (without ever seeing them, of course). It was nice to see Bert in his own Super Bowl commercial, too. I'm sorry that his most recent comeback, begun with Boogie Nights (1997), I believe, seems to have stalled; hopefully, some smart screenwriter somewhere is at work on a new Sharky's Machine movie--sort of Sharky meets the Rockford files. So enjoy the movie, then write up your thoughts for the rest of us.

Friday, February 04, 2005

Hutu Rwanda - Revisited/Say my gripes...

In the shadow of The Inn of the Sixth Happiness I must add my comments that Hotel Rwanda may be a poor example of how far Hollywood has gone. Though worthy of praise for its performances and political message, this movie is also strained by the same problems as The Inn... (Hotel? Inn? do you think there's a conspiracy?) In any event, it has a small echo of things not being exactly factual. Though I'm not at all aware of anything not being factual in the story, there are a particular set of coincidences at the ending of the movie that smacks of pure Hollywood. In fact, one particular, that defies explanation within the scope of the movie (perhaps something happened off screen?). This Hollywood ending had me wondering if there were other Hollywood elements buried in the story... That said, I believe it also is handicapped by the same language problem as Inn of the Sixth Happiness (there is something very wonderful about that title... to know that there are six happinesses...). Rwanda, as the audience is reminded, was a belgian colony after all, so if the language isn't native, it would probably, most likely, be french, n'est-ce pas? Nevertheless, nary un mot francais est dit (a french word is spoken...), not even when he calls Belgium. Rather, Paul (Don Cheadle), and the rest of the crew, pretty much spoke the king's english, like they just stepped off a plane from Nairobi.

On the subject of foreign language in movies, I should say the best I ever saw was in Z. This was a greek movie that I think won best foreign language film sometime in the 70's. In any event, when I saw this movie I remember they would typically start scenes by having the actors speaking greek, and displaying subtitles, but then after 20 seconds or so, the voices changed from greek to english. The voices always sounded essentially the same, but the switch would typically take place when one person stopped speaking and another began. The english was dubbed though... Gave you the feel for the language, but also freed you from having to read subtitles for 2 hours...

Wednesday, February 02, 2005

Movies I'd Like to See

Since I've not been consuming films at the pace I'd like, I thought I'd post a list of some of the movies I'd like to see but haven't. If anyone would care to recommend others or to criticize any of my choices, please feel free.

- The Aviator
I heard Martin Scorsese talking about shooting some scenes from the perspective of a rack of towels or something absurd like that. Eh, artists--who the hell knows how they think. And his last films have not been that great--Bringing Out the Dead was mediocre at best; Gangs of New York was good. But hey--it's a great director shooting pictures of really cool airplanes. How could that go wrong?

- Million Dollar Baby
This does not look like a good film, really, but I do like Clint Eastwood, and I'm impressed by the fact that the marketing of the movie is not emphasizing the fact that the young boxer is a woman. That seems fairly progressive to me, though it's also a measure of just how little it takes these days for me to be impressed.

- Sideways
Mainly because I can't believe so many people think this is a good movie--it looks like a fairly typical upper-middle-class-white-middle-aged-guy-having-a-crisis film, with a snooty whine, oops, I mean wine metaphor overlaid. But people I respect say it's a great film, so go figure.

- The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou
- Motorcycle Diaries
- Hero
- Napolean Dynamite
- Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgandy
- Garden State
- Silver City
- Maria Full of Grace
- Spiderman 2
- The Assassination of Richard Nixon

- Far From Heaven
- Ararat
- Moonlight Mile
- Mystic River