Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Playback Tuesday: Classics

Edit: This post was meant for Tuesday, but was originally posted Wednesday, Dec. 30th...sorry for the delay, but Casablanca is a hefty read.

I must admit a crucial film failing...I have never seen Casablanca. I know of it. As a teen, I've even seen the last scene of the film, which I supposed was about some guy who was going to leave the woman he loved at an airport to fight a war or something.

I was wrong, of course, but I didn't find that out until today when I finished reading the screenplay. The guy turned out to be Rick, a feigned opportunist who turns out to be a sentimentalist and ends up helping more than one couple escape Nazi-occupied Casablanca. The screenplay itself was rather brilliant. Within the first five pages I understood that Casablanca is a corrupt, chaotic environment where survival means shady dealings with colorful characters, and escape means bargaining with unforgiving, yet morally wavering officials and scam artists. Casablanca is also a hostile environment where the locals (and visitors who often turn into locals) go to a night club called Rick's to drown their sorrows in alcohol, music, and gambling. Having seen the ending already, I began (now as an adult) to piece together the suspenseful puzzle, ultimately understanding that my conceptions of what the movie was about were those of a simpleton. Casablanca wasn't a love story about a guy leaving a girl at an airport. Rather, it is a tale about the triumph of right over wrong, responsibility over recklessness, and the importance of humanitarian causes over individual gain. Written in 1942, during the heated battles of World War II, I can only imagine the impact such a script made in Hollywood. Perhaps the script and it's eventual impact on American cinema, and it's broader impact on an America struggling to figure out its role in world affairs, proves once again that the pen (if used well) can be mightier than the sword (or at least put a cause behind using it).

Screenplay by: Julius Epstein, Philip G. Epstein, and Howard Koch

Monday, December 28, 2009

The Biz Monday Starter: A Review

I found this article on the New York Times...it is a wonderful hodgepodge of some things I've been talking about and mulling over. Film versus Theatre, book adaptations to film, musicals turned into musical films, and films turned into musicals and plays. What I especially enjoy about this article is that it starts off with a comparison between Ingmar Bergman's 1955 film, Smiles of a Summer Night, and Stephen Sondheim's Broadway play, A Little Night of Music. The article turned out to be a little lesson in film history and a perspective into the differences between film and theatre (positive and negative), and an interesting commentary on the audience's connection/role in both.

If you have the time for a quick two page read you should check it out.

Smiles of Another Adaptation
by A.O. Scott

Monday, December 21, 2009

The Biz Monday Starter: Christmas

Christmas is on the way, which means it is time for me to cuddle up with some good movies in front of a warm fire (to bad I am currently without a fireplace). I will be back on Dec. 26th to share more movies, more theatre/film thoughts, and some more plays/screenplays. Enjoy the holidays.

Edit: Made Dec. 25th at 9:08pm
Let's make that Dec. 28th (as it actually falls on a Monday...sometimes I really need to look at my calendar) !

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Picture Perfect Weekend: Christmas Break

Time goes quickly does it not? It is the weekend, so it is a good time to announce that Dec. 21st I will be signing off until December 26th...more time to watch some good films and read some good screenplays/plays.

The picture is one from the road of my current tour across the mid-west.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Film Flash Friday: Hamlet 2

Movies always hold such hope for me. Maybe it is because the hype surrounding them has become so much more sophisticated. For instance, in the case of Hamlet 2, I knew some of the lyrics to the films main song, "Rock Me Sexy Jesus" before the film arrived in theatres. I also understood that the producers of the South Park and Team America produced this movie. I am not sure what that means exactly. It has become common practice for producers of popular movies to do this. As if producing a successful movie means success with another. Forget the fact that the writers, directors, editors, and actors could be entirely different. A producer is supposed to have some magic power that overcomes those things I guess. That being said, I was excited about this movie. A film that makes fun of theatre and actors looked like a good time...never again will I let a preview take me in. The first five minutes of the movie had me laughing, the rest of the movie had me checking my watch. Which brings me to the question of how could something with the potential to be so good go so horribly wrong? It went from a fun romp in satire to a nosedive into the silly and stereotypical. Except that the stereotypical wasn't even funny, just painful. The main song that I had been treated to in almost every preview of the movie came at me in the last (merciful) thirty minutes of the film when the talked about play was finally performed. I wanted to scream is this all you have? Theatre people are some of the craziest people I know and this is all you have to say about high school theatre and the people who teach it? How can you mess up this film with so many funny people/situations to chose from? It was almost like they used a serious film about a white teacher helping inner city kids to be better people and tried to make the worst hour and a half SNL sketch I've ever seen.

That being said, feel free to check out the madness for yourself. Hamlet 2 is out on dvd...

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Playback Tuesday: Readability

Is there something to be said about the literary prowess of playwrights and screenwriters? For a long time screenplays (the newer kids on the block) were not published because the general consensus was that no one would read them. That they lacked literary value. Perhaps early editors believed that films focused much more on images than words, where the world of the playwright revolved around written (and eventually spoken) words. Even today the playwright has a considerable amount of power compared to that of the screenwriter. Most individuals, unless the screenwriter was also the actor or the director, can't name the writer(s) of their favorite films. It will be interesting to see what happens as film continues to be a forerunner of performance art. Will the status of the screenwriter be elevated?

As far as readability, I believe that screenplays are becoming more and more commonplace in libraries and bookstores, though finding popular screenplays is a great deal more harrowing that finding popular plays.

A popular play that I was elated to find sitting on my local library shelf was The Iceman Cometh by Eugene O'Neil. I watched an avant-garde production of his The Emperor Jones in a college class and wasn't quite sure how to feel about it. The language, the racial issues, and the dream like states of his characters were confusing. The story itself seemed like a departure from the realism that he helped push through in American theatre. For a long time, I decided to avoid reading his plays fearing that I would get lost in a symbolic wasteland that I couldn't figure out how to wade out of. But as time goes by, I prefer to get stuck, I find.

The Iceman Cometh was a shock in that the writing style was so literary based, it was almost as if I was reading a novel. Each character's emotions and facial expressions were literally written out on each page. I was amazed at how each character's story became gradually deciphered through interactions with each other in a bar. Each character felt fleshed out to the point where revelations in the play, especially in the last the scenes were painful to read. O'Neil seemed to delve into the psychological inclinations of each character through "Hickey," the salesman who was unrelenting in his pushing and proding. It is a dark play about grand delusions that keep individuals stuck in the past living in the present.

If part of an actors job is to translate text into performance, into action, then this play is gold mine that must be carefully sifted through. I imagine that part of the challenge with a play like this is to not lend too much sympathy towards each character. Because each one seems to revel in living the lie.

The Iceman Cometh as a play was a magnificently detailed read. I wonder if the screenplay version of it is similar. Something to look into, I think.

Monday, December 14, 2009

The Biz Monday Starter: Censorship

Censorship is always something interesting to come back to when exploring theatre and film. I've been checking up on some of my favorite theatre blogs, and stumbled across this post on the Praxis Theatre Blog. Usually when censorship is discussed it has do with a powerful majority silencing a not so powerful minority, but what happens when there is censorship within a minority/ethnic group? Is the argument that we must censor so that the majority does not misunderstand a valid one? Does censorship within a minority group stifle growth within a community or protect it from being victimized/vilified by outsiders? It is always interesting to remember that art, even within an artistic community, is not immune to censorship.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Picture Perfect Weekend

A replica of President Reagan's family stove. Things change rather quickly, don't they? Have a great weekend.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Film Flash Friday: The Golden Compass

A little story about sticker shock. I guess I never really thought that sticker shock could be a term that could apply to something other than price tags. But I think that movie ratings can be a sort of sticker shock. Having just finished the dvd previews I was greeted by a green screen that had in print big enough for my grandmother to read from two rooms down, PG-13. For a moment I couldn't believe that the movie I had seen marketed to little kids under 13 could be rated (and recommended) for those over 13. I was familiar with the themes of the books, but I began to wonder what had pushed this film over the PG rating I had expected. The film was undoubtedly darker than it's counterpart The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Murder, free will, death, and spirits were all subjects broached upon within the first fifteen minutes. What surprised me the most though was my obliviousness towards it. I approached the movie as an adult would. It wasn't until the final battle scene that I began to wonder what a 10 year-old Alysa would think of it (had my parent's allowed me to see it--which would definitely be questionable). Would I have found the film scary? Or would, I just watch it like I would Toy Story? Neat, new, and different? The battle scenes in this movie and The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe have been rattling around in my mind for sometime. One of the jarring things about them is that the battle scenes involve children as warriors. Despite the opponents often being personified animals, I wonder if war is encroaching upon the minds of our youth. The success of such movies with young audiences makes me wonder if the films are indeed a reflection of a more realistic, information accessible world where children are often aware of the issues that plague their adult counterparts. Children playing subdued versions of violent games is not a new concept. While working at one summer camp I over heard one kid propose to another that they play good guys versus the terrorists, a modern day version of Cowboys and Indians, I guess.

With movies like the Golden Compass, I am reminded that despite films moving the setting to far away fantastical worlds the issues at the heart of a lot of them seem to hit close to home. I wonder if it is disappointing or upsetting to children to voyeur to a new world only to discover there is no happy oasis. That happy endings have to be fought for. Perhaps, it is a great comfort. Maybe these new more realistic oriented children films are a great mirror for children to look into and study. Or maybe, these movies are nothing more than a subliminal blip in the great expanse of children's thoughts. Maybe.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Playback Tuesday: Sense and Sensibility (the diaries)

There are few things more personal than journals. I feel forever indebted to individuals, artists in particular, who take it upon themselves to document their experiences in the arts--and then decide to share them with others. Robert Rodriguez and Spike Lee both did that with two of their first films. Both men shared experiences that were harrowing, entertaining, soul wrenching, and honest. Emma Thompson does the same with her writing, but from an actor/screenwriter's perspective. Sense and Sensibility was Emma Thompson's first screenplay and she shares the agony of writing, "I go to West Hampstead and switch the computer on. Another draft...I spend the rest of January in tears and a black dressing gown. During February and March I revise the script constantly but the basic structure remains the same. Half a dozen new drafts hit the presses but by 2 April we settle on the final shooting draft." Her sense of humor is endearing, and the way in which she explains the epic part of filming that few know about (the waiting and waiting for the weather to change, for Kate Winslet to recover from fainting after shooting a scene for long hours in the rain and cold, for lights and sound to be set up, for sets to be changed, for sheep to be herded, for horses to wake up and stop farting loudly during takes, for babies to stop crying, etc.) is a lesson in humility and the reality of work. Often she worked 12 to 15 hour days in all sorts of weather. Quite a job indeed. She also manages to take some of the glamour out of filming (in a good way of course). One of my favorite entries was Thursday 18 May in which she writes, "Managed to pee on most of my underwear this morning (trailer loos are very cramped) so I'm in a very bad temper." I am the kind of twisted individual that would never call that too much information. How often does one get the chance to peer inside the mind of Emma Thompson? I feel very fortunate to have had the pleasure.

Monday, December 7, 2009

The Biz Monday Starter: Film Industry Heroes

Art as a reflection of society. I've been thinking a lot about that lately. How is the American film industry a reflection of me? Is it an accurate one? If so, do I like the portrayal? If not, what do I feel is lacking? I don't believe, of course, that one film or one character or one script can fully define me as individual, but I do believe that it at least attempts to reflect certain aspects of my culture, my values, and my life. Which brings me to the subject of film industry heroes. I read this NYTimes article by A.O. Scott and could not stop thinking about it. It is well written and brings up some good points about film, the American hero, and American values. Anyone have any ideas, critiques, or comments?

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Picture Perfect Weekend

I have a fascination with libraries. The ability to borrow more material than I could ever possibly afford to buy is a simple pleasure that I try hard not to overlooked. Libraries remind me that I am extremely fortunate to be literate. A seemingly simple thing that really took years to master--I think about this sometimes when I am reading Harriet Tubman's biography. How much society, expectations, and access to education has come, and how far it still has to go.

Every place I go I try and visit libraries. The picture above is of one of the two lions in front of the "Queen's Library" in NYC. Below are two images taken from the downtown Charlotte, NC library. I have many more photos of the quotes they had up, many of them extremely inspiring, that I may share later.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Film Flash Friday: The Hours

It has been brought to my attention that my posts having been coming later and later in the day, thus making it hard to read my Monday, Tuesday, and Friday posts on the day they were posted. My sincerest apologies...I need to get my act together for sure! I have been a bit of a late owl lately, but I will definitely endeavor to return to my morning post schedule.

That being said, I have been busy watching films. As many as my eyes (and schedule) can handle. To see recent updates please check out my sidebars. I've also added my Netflix queue in case any one wants to follow along and watch one and critique my critique or add comments.

I am not sure how many people actually take the time to watch the full length director commentaries. I know that I should, but I usually make some excuse not to. After I finished The Hours, not watching the director & author commentary was not an option. The film blew me away and the thought of being regaled with more insight into the filming process was too much to pass up. Before this film I watched Dog Show again, and watched the commentary for it. The commentary for that film was interesting and funny, but not extremely detailed. The commentary for The Hours was extremely different. Both the director and the author of the novel had such insightful and helpful things to say. Everything from why a scene was shot in the spring versus the winter and how scenes were set up to how the author created the characters and whether or not the 1950s character was semi-autobiographical and based off of his mom. They both also talked about the difficulties of creating art...so much discussion for roughly an hour and a half. I felt like I was attending a master class of both directing and novel writing. It was as if I was invited to an exclusive interview, an informal chat that will forever change the way I look at the film. Needless to say, if you haven't seen the movie I recommend it, but if nothing else I recommend you take a look at the commentary of the director and writer...it definitely kept my attention.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Playback Tuesday: Sense and Sensibility

I find myself thoroughly enjoying reading screenplays. For some reason I am actually finding it easier to read them than plays. Why? One of my theories is that theatre is more performance oriented--how people act out a story. And with the exception of plays that are written in more of a literary style, like those of Eugene O'neil (i.e The Iceman Cometh), it has become vogue to leave out character directions. For instance...Jane stares modily into the distance. The current shift in theatre seems to revolve more around the actor. Some actors actually go through plays with such character directions and mark them out. It's this idea that part of an actors job derives from the constant adjustment to what is happening on stage, being "in the moment." The debate seems to be can an actor be in the moment when they feel as if they have to be angry on a certain line or is that part of an actors job--figuring out a way to be angry by the line. Actors usually have general ideas of how the play is supposed to progress and how they are supposed to feel, but what happens when each emotion is itemized line by line? Whatever the answer, if there even can be only one, as a reader it can be hard without such direction to understand why the story progresses how it does. I understand the power of the playwright in theatre, but it is amazing what actors bring to the table. In a screenplay, the story is foremost and everything visual is laid out. I know when I am in the exterior or interior, and with most, I even understand the camera angle. A close up on the face and why it is there. It is as if each character is there to progress the theme, the story. It is less about the protoganist Elinor Dashwod, and more about three sister and their mom struggling to cope with the harsh realities faced by women in England who have no rights to property or inheritance. With the screenplay I am taken to all sorts of locations and houses and fields that in theatre would be representations of location. Maybe that is it? Theatre is a representation of reality, whereas film attempt to create reality. I cannot say for sure. I can only say that Emma Thompson's screenplay is a definite balance between language, romance, comedy, and good ole drama. A fast and satisfying read.