Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Something...UNNAMABLE....

This past weekend was really wonderful after the past several weeks of rush, rush, rush.  I managed to have three packed weekends in a row and a really tight rehearsal period and it really drained me (as you could tell from yesterday's post), but I was slightly rejuvanated by a weekend spent at home with nothing planned aside from some light cooking and a lot of quality time with my cats (who've been feeling ignored and neglected lately). In my convelescence I also managed to do a hefty amount of catching up in my Netflix instant queue which I hadn't watched anything from in several weeks.  One of the films I watched was one I added last summer while I was bored and seeking some sort of diversion.  It was a horror film (because for some reason I like watching horror films in the summer) and based on an H.P. Lovecraft story, so I figured it couldn't possibly be bad.  Was I right?  Let's think of some choice words to give to this story which is uncanny, UNreal, and UNusual...it is The Unnamable.

The film begins in the late 18th century in the Winthrop house and something within it is screaming and banging at the walls of its confines. Joshua Winthrop, the owner of the house, rushes through the poorly lit corridors of the house before unlocking a heavily locked door. He begins talking to the creature inside to calm it down but it then kills him. Flashing forward to the present, we are introduced to Randolph Carter and two of his university buddies, Howard and Joel, as he regales them with ghost stories. Randolph points out that they are sitting in the graveyard surrounding the haunted house of his tales (which happens to be within the limits of observation). The story that Randolph had been telling them was of Joshua Winthrop and the creature which killed him.  The creature was seen only once and due to it's horrifying nature, it was called "unnamable".  Joel then comes up with the idea to stay there over night. Randolph and Howard go back to the university, leaving Joel to it. Soon a group of students unrelated to the first group decide to go there. Two are young lads fresh from the university football team, Bruce Weeks and John Babcock, and the other two are a couple of girls that they want to score with. One, Wendy Barnes, is a girl whom Howard is in love with it and the other is Tanya Heller, who secretly loves Howard. They go there and get set up in a room to tell each other ghost stories. Meanwhile Howard chases after Randolph to tell him that Joel never came back from the house, prompting Randolph to swing into action. The creature, which has already killed Joel, begins stalking the four youngsters in the house, planning to kill them as she killed her father and Joel.  Will Howard and Randolph be able to save them, or will the 'unnamable' creature kill them all?

There's something about The Unnamable that really makes it genuinely creepy and effective as a horror film.  With the atmosphere and gore effects it employs, I think it could easily be remembered as a true 'monster in the house' classic.  Unfortunately, because it was made by the very low-rent Vidmark, everything else about it is cheap, cheap, cheap.  The 'old dark house' is a laughably obvious plywood set, the actors are terrible (with the exception of Howard and 'maybe' Randolph), the script is full of holes (even for a horror film) and the music is terrible.  Somehow, The Unnamable still managed to scare me despite these huge shortcomings...which I suppose is a testiment to either it's director or it's cinematographer.  They are so effective at not showing the creature until the very end of the picture that a real sense of dread is created by the deaths and the happenings....what is it?  Where is it?  What can it do?  It's almost like the shark in Jaws and really does stand as proof that less is more.  I would never recommend The Unnamable as a film that someone should watch...but I'd be lying if the creature hadn't haunted my nightmares that evening.

Monday, February 27, 2012

A Quick Check In

It appears I may be MIA for a few weeks starting now, as I am entering the final two weeks of rehearsals leading up to the senior play and so my free time is likely going to be limited.  I often find that no matter how much I try to prepare for a production week I am never ready for it...no matter what I do.  I know some of it is my own weaknesses.  Contrary to what people may think, I don't spend every waking moment thinking about and planning for my shows (sometimes, I like to just forget about it and lie on the sofa with the TV playing)...which is a contributing factor I'm sure.  I think if I got a few props every weekend and worked on tickets or the program or posters early on in the production, I'd probably enter these two weeks much less stressed.  Its not like I waited till the last minutes either, but I could have been finished sooner.  As it is, we've probably got more props in place than we usually do and a poster and program that just needs printing...and that's earlier than last year...but I still can't shake the feeling that we aren't ready for it to be the last two weeks. Perhaps it is the nature of the play itself...we're doing "Noises Off", a famously funny and difficult to produce play.  I'm beginning to wonder if I haven't bitten off more than I could chew with this one...because here we are at 11 days till showtime and we aren't even ready to get through Act II without stopping (Act II, just so you know, is the play's most difficult moment when the stage is turned around to show the backstage area and the actors must be their off-stage characters while also rushing to the front of the stage to do their "play within a play").  Granted, we're clearer on it than we were a week ago, but will we be ready a week from now?  I can't help but wonder if this is my failure?  Did I fail my cast in some way?  Did I not give them enough specifics?  Did I make it too complicated? Did I rehearse them poorly?  What could I have done differently?

I am confident that we will be successful with our play...though maybe not as successful as we might have been...and I think that's what bugs me.  I would have to have put on this play and have it be dull and unfunny or simply mediocre.  This was my chance to top my previous year's work and create something truly amazing...and I have a feeling I'm going to miss the mark.  You never know though, two weeks from now I may write an amendment to this post detailing how we were amazing and how I can't believe I doubted us...but for now I'm feeling rather beat down by this animal, and I'm certainly planning to direct a much more simple play next year.  For now though, I must focus on this one (though I already have to start planning the musical...it never ends) and make sure we can at least get through an act without stopping.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Carried Away

Well, I've been off the grid for several days and haven't had much time to watch too many films to evaluate here for you...largely because I was in New York City watching some pretty amazing live theater.  Films are a wonderful expression of storytelling in sight and sound, and yet still there is something about the up-close and personal element of live theater that we still can't quite get away from.  I'm not going to debate which form is better here today...I'll leave that to people who find the debate important enough to harbor a bias...rather I want to discuss one of the shows that I saw while I was in the Big Apple.  It is a show that I have always been curious about and facinated by due to it's outrageous idea and tremendous failure in it's original form.  I doubt that many people aren't familiar with the first novel that Stephen King published under his real name, and even fewer are probably unfamiliar with Brian De Palma's powerhouse film based on the property.  It is a seemingly simple tale of high school alienation and bullying that is punched up by ultra-religious overtones and then framed around the fact that something horrible is about to happen because of a prank gone wrong.  It was a powerful little book and film and so Broadway thought it would also make a powerhouse musical.  They did indeed make history, but not the kind they wanted.  Carrie: The Musical opened on Broadway in 1988 and ran for a grand total of five performances before it closed in the face of bad reviews and and infamous reputation.  Now, MCC Theater in the West Village have revived and reworked the material into an all-new show that they hope will wash away the original's tarnished reputation and give "Carrie" a better chance at success.  I was there at the Febuary 17th performance, the culmination of three weeks of previews (there's still a week to go until the show opens 'officially') and I can honestly say that this Carrie is superior to the original production in every way...though opinions will differ due to the subject matter.

The set for the new production is very simple and is meant to evoke an image of a burned-out gymnasium.  The stage is open with no curtains and there are three doors...one on each side and a huge set of metal fire doors that exit to the rear.  Immediately you feel a sense of menace and danger in this environment that is confined to the stage and sits only inches from where you sit in safe reality.  Suddenly, spooky sound effects begin to rise to a crecendo and the stage lights dim...and Carrie is off to a rolling start.  The play begins with, and then is framed by, the confession of Sue Snell (Christy Altomare) while she is questioned by unseen voices who we assume to be police or FBI.  She repeats words from King's book about how they were kids, and suddenly the stage is alive with high school students rushing to and fro for the number "In", which is about how it's dangerous to be different.  The voices of the cast blend beautifully and as they move, you feel as though you are really seeing something special.  Soon, Carrie White (Molly Ranson) appears and now the play feels like it is hitting familiar territory.  From that point on we are treated to a book that follows the book and film fairly religiously and music that effectively evokes the spirit of the original text while also providing the satire found in the film.  Ranson acts with convincing awkwarness and sincerity in her early scenes and shows growth and change throughout.  When she first began her scenes as Carrie, I thought "Wow, that actress is really awkward."  It never occured to me that she was actually acting (usually you can tell)...however, when she sings the end of the Act I finale "I Remember How Those Boys Could Dance", she gives her mother a smile that expressed both defiance and the monster stirring beneath the surface.  Suddenly, I believed this awkward girl could kill someone. 
Marin Mazzie also shines as Margaret White, the religion-obsessed mother of Carrie who acts as her home torturer.  Mazzie plays Margaret with a sincerity and intensity that clearly reads as love...even when she is being cruel.  I would compare the portrayal to Kathy Bates' Annie Wilkes...in fact, the whole time I was watching her I felt I could hear Bates saying "Hush now, trust me...it's for the best."  Margaret doesn't hurt Carrie because she wants power over her...she does it because she loves her and she feels she has no other choice.  This comes across beautifully in each of her numbers, including the thrilling "And Eve Was Weak", the soft and touching "Evening Prayers", and the dangerous and powerful "I Remember How Those Boys Could Dance."  I thought, after that, that there would be no way for her to top her performance up to that point...and yet she does it in spades when Carrie leaves for the prom and she sings "When There's No One".  In this song she decides that she must kill Carrie in order to save her from her 'witch-like' powers, but she also realizes that that act will leave her alone and that she might as well be dead herself.  Fully aware that Margaret was a monster, I found myself tearing up for her as Mazzie took the stage and delivered probably the most moving number of the show.

Much has been said since these preview performances began about the Prom sequence and how it feels rushed and incomplete (more has been said about the lack of 'blood' in the scene, which people are leaping on and attacking without having seen the show).  I don't know if it has changed since I saw it, but I felt that the scene lasted the perfect length of time.  It begins as a party, the best night of the year, and the staging captures the magic and romance of prom night in the reprise of a new song, "A Night We'll Never Forget", and reprises of "Unsuspecting Hearts" (which Carrie shares with her kindly gym teacher), and "Dreamer in Disguise" (another new song which shares a poem that Tommy Ross wrote and which Carrie liked).  Reactions to Carrie's entrance are handled very well, with most thinking she looks silly and at least one girl sincerely wishing her well.  Then, the big moment occurs.  Earlier in the show a bucket of blood was carried on stage by Chris Hargensen (Carmen Cusack) and Billy Nolan (Ben Thompson) and then lifted (by means of a shadow projection effect) into the rafters.  That same shadow bucket is projected on stage and then tipped, allowing a projected glop of blood to fall down over Carrie.  The projected blood, helped by red lights, covers Carrie and she reacts appropriately...acting as though there is real blood all over her.  The teens then start to taunt her (and since they are also covered in the 'blood', it is assumed that this teasing is all in Carrie's now-broken mind) until Carrie gets mad.  Suddenly the red light focuses in only on Carrie and she looks up, dowsing them in harsh light.  Fear turns to panic as projected flames begin to creep up the back wall and the teens all dash for the exits only to find them blocked.  Then, in tightly choreographed agony, the victims begin to writhe in Carrie's power and find themselves thrown against the back wall and then up it.  As Carrie leaves through the double doors, they hang there lifeless and dead-eyed as the projected flames dance across them.  When Carrie exits, the doors slam shut with a deafaning clang and there is a pause...and then a projected explosion (with sound) rocks the theater as the bodies react in slow motion to it...looking as though they have been tossed from the building.  The whole destruction sequence does indeed happen quickly, but it wisely doesn't linger and so the impact of the moment resonates with you long after the show has ended.  You constantly wonder if you really saw what you thought you saw...and that is reason alone to return to see it again.

Not all is roses though in this new production.  While the new songs are all welcome (aside from the surprisingly dull "Why Not Me?") several of the older songs have been tweaked lyricly...in many cases to their detrement.  There were many moments where a lyric replaced one that I was used to and I cringed...not because my memory was shattered, but because the new lyric was really bad.  Some songs had lyrics that sounded as though I had written them...and that is REALLY bad.  In many of these instances the new lyric isn't even necessary to reflect current changes in the production and only seems to have been changed for the sake of change.  I hope that the creators change some of them back, if not all, so as to give this production a better chance at bat.  All of the new songs are excellent and replace some real turds from the original score and favorites of mine include: "Dreamer in Disguise", "You Shine", and "The World According to Chris".  I mentioned before that "Why Not Me?" was dull and I was not exaggerating, but it replaces the tonally inappropriate "I'm Not Alone" and thus makes for a better moment...but that hole isn't filled yet...there's another song waiting to be created here.  In terms of casting, there are three weak links (in my humble opinion) that don't match the game put on by the other performers.  Wayne Alan Wilcox is not bad in his role as Mr. Stephens, the English Teacher, but he looks far too young to be taken seriously in the role and it should have gone to someone who looked as world-savvy as Carmen Cusack who plays gym-teacher, Mrs. Gardner.  On the more serious side are Jeanna De Waal and Ben Thompson as Chris and Billy, the villains.  Both of them act convincingly enough in their roles, but their singing voices are very weak compared to their castmates...and in such important roles you really need people who are going to hit every aspect of the performance perfectly.  Other negatives include a scattering of awkward moments and transitions in the material early on in the show (such as the transition between high school and home in the beginning and the reaction to Carrie's period in the gym locker room).  These are all moments that merely require an effective pause or additional still moments in between so that we don't lose them in all the action...thankfully these moments disappear by mid Act I and never reappear.

You can tell that Carrie is an entertaining show when you watch it with an audience.  People were cheering, laughing, and gasping in all of the appropriate moments and it made for a very exciting night at the theater.  Granted, not everyone will experience Carrie from the same point of view.  For every person who was terrified of Carrie and her Prom rampage there was another one giggling with delight at the camp they percieved in the moment.  There were even those who simply thought the whole thing was cheesy and irredemable (which is a criticism one can lob at any musical).  Perhaps there is no way around that in a show like this, that deals with crazy mothers, period blood, dead pigs, and telekinesis.  There's no doubt about it though, Carrie offers solid entertainment no matter how you percieve it and I believe it is "the" Off-Broadway show to catch this season.  I hope all of  you who can see it, go...and hopefully you will be "Carried" away, like I was.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

A Very Violent Valentine's Day

I have few things to participate in on Valentine's Day...and no, I'm not about to throw a tantrum about it being stupid, condescending to singles, and driven by greeting card and candy companies.  What I mean is, there isn't a lot for the holiday to offer outside of bright decorations, specially packaged candy, and an amplification of awareness that most of the world is single.  We don't get off school for it, because honestly...no one needs a day off work to spend the day with a loved one.  We don't give gifts, unless we have a friend or significant other that we have made agreements with.  We don't even really do parties for it (I mean grown up parties...the little ones kids do in elementary school don't count) because it's become unattractive to be a part of.  Like the Star Wars prequels (or the whole series if you're as tired of it as I am), it is something that is fashionable to hate because many of us are bitter about being alone and having to sit through the weeks leading up to an event that we are not invited to.  I have many friends who wish people a Happy Singles Awareness Day instead, though I think that focuses too much on our own frustrations with being lonely and less on the real trouble with the holiday...that it doesn't honor it's roots.  Valentine's Day began as an observance of one or more Christian martyrs named Valentinus and it was not until the time of Geoffrey Chauser that the day became associate with romantic love or courting paractices (and people began giving valentines).  You read that right kids, the day is meant to honor those who died for their faith (probably violently) and not those who have found love (or at the very least, lust).  It is fitting then, that I look at a film today that is not about romance, but about violence against an innocent.  I'm sure the filmmakers of this particular horror yarn were not thinking this deeply, which simply makes the irony even more prevalent in the fact that they chose to capitalize on the "holiday horror" craze of the 80s by making a film where a killer butchered some young people on Valentine's Day.  So this...belated...valentine is for those of you who feel left out and ignored by the romantic side of Valentine's Day, won't you be My Bloody Valentine?

In 1960, the town of Valentine Bluffs suffered a terrible tragedy.  Due to a couple of foremen wanting to get to the annual Valentine's Dance on time, a methane warning went unchecked and an explosion trapped five miners in the Hanniger Mine.  Six weeks later the accident's sole survivor, Harry Warden, was rescued...much to everyone's horror.  It seems that Warden survived by eating his dead co-workers and he had gone completely mad in six weeks time.  After a year in a mental institution, Harry escaped and went back to Valentine Bluffs to kill the foremen responsible.  As a warning, he cut the heart out of each man and placed them in heart shaped boxes with a note threatening that he would kill anyone who ever tried to hold a Valentine's Dance there again.  Several years pass and Harry Warden has become a town legend that is laughed at by the kids and young people there.  A group of miners decide to revive the dance, concluding that Harry Warden is nothing but a ghost story and that there is nothing to fear.  However, when more hearts show up in heart shaped boxes and murders begin to occur, the town cancels the dance so as to avoid more trouble.  Not to be disappointed, the miners set up their own party at the mine where, unseen, a man in a miner's outfit is slowly dispatching of them one by one.  Has Harry Warden returned?

My Bloody Valentine gets a lot of flack for being one of Paramount's "Friday the 13th" clones and I think only a marginal amount of it is justified.  Yes it has gore and a masked killer, and yet it is set on a 'day specific' event but there the similarities end.  If anything, this film is more like Prom Night and other slashers of it's ilk where there is a mystery to be solved.  Also, Valentine handles it's mystery elements and 'whodunnit?' angle better than Friday the 13th because you actually wonder about whether or not the killer is Harry Warden or one of the people from town.  Another element that separates Valentine from it's brethren is it's setting.  Whoever decided that a mine would make a good scary setting really had something there.  Yes, "Scooby Doo" goes to the old abandoned mine a lot for clues, but live action film never really goes there in terms of setting a menacing location.  Having the mine play a prominant role and having the killer wear a gas mask and mine suit makes everything about the 'horror' elements work together as an organic whole.  The performances are standard and none of them really stand out...in fact, the three leads who make up the three parts of a love triangle are all fairly weak and underwritten...but luckily they are surrounded by interesting supporting cast members who take some of the weight off of their shoulders.  Valentine's sense of humor is refreshing too in it's sense of irony.  For example, when one girl that we know is pick-axe fodder by minute 15 is talking about her dress for the party she almost knowingly says "Cut down to here, split up to here...I might not get out alive!"  It's a tremendously funny, yet also chilling moment because we know that cuts and splits don't just refer to fashion and that very few will get out of this alive.  The film is peppered with funny moments like these that help to relieve the tension but that also provide excellent dramatic, situational, and verbal irony for those of us who are in the know.  I think that My Bloody Valentine is clearly one of the better slasher films to come out of the 80's slasher craze, and certainly one that fits it's holiday's roots much better than you might think.  These innocent victims recall the Valentinus martyrs of old and how they were needlessly slaughtered to satisfy the cruelty of another.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

That's Just Ducky

It's a very common thing to feel like an outcast, especially in a world where fitting in and being a part of a group is seen as so important.  I see students struggling to fit in every day in school and succeeding and failing about equally in this, and I often wonder if it's something that we really can fix?  I mean think about it?  Most stories that we see nowadays aren't about being an individual but about coming to be accepted by the group.  Some would say this is a positive, but isn't that just giving the masses the permission that it's "ok" to accept people into the assimilation machine?  Where are the heartwarming stories about characters who embrace their individuality and shun the group?  They do exist, but not in enough numbers. Too often we see the outcast embraced and assimilated into the group, sacrificing part of themselves in order to make the transition and we cheer for them not because it is good...but because it is what we all secretly want.  We all want to belong.  I can't help thinking of this subversive tactic when I'm watching films that we're supposed to hate, because I often feel like these films are outcasts that refuse to play by the group's rules...and therefore are shunned like the nerdy girl at a house party.  One in particular I avoided for years because it had an infamous reputation of being one of the worst films ever made, and yet when I finally watched this supposed travesty of filmmaking, I was not turned off.  Indeed, I found myself laughing at the absurdity of it all and honestly believing that that was what I was supposed to be doing.  True, audiences are never going to embrace really wild ideas like pregnant men, interspecies relations, and (in the case of today's film) foulmouthed water foul.  So it is with the interest of the outcast in mind that I bring to you a proud-to-be-different film called Howard the Duck.

Howard the Duck is living a fairly average life in Duckworld, the duck equivalent of Earth, where anthropomorphic ducks have evolved to achieve civilization rather than people.  It is very clear that Howard lives a fine life, but is dissatisfied in his day-to-day routine.  All that changes, however, when a intergalactic beam grabs him and transports him to Earth...Cleveland, Ohio to be precise.  Earth's citizens are not thrilled about running into a 4-foot, talking duck and so Howard is immediately shunned, reviled, and even punished for not being more human.  However he makes a friend in Beverly Switzler, a rocker in a band, who is saved by Howard when he whips up some "Quack Fu" on some muggers who accost her.  Together, Beverly and Howard try to discover why he is here and how to send them back.  Teamed with a batty scientist named Phil Blumburtt, they track down the source of the beam that brought Howard here to a large electromagnetic telescope that has the force to lock onto beings several galaxies away and bring them here.  Things take a turn for the worst, however, when while trying to send Howard back they inadvertantly grab ahold of one of the Dark Overlords of the Universe, who then takes residence inside of Dr. Walter Jenning and threatens to destroy the world.  It's up to Howard, Beverly, and Phil to stop him before it's too late.

Howard the Duck is universally considered one of the worst films ever made...and there is a lot to recommend that honor.  The film centers around a 4 foot tall anthropomorphic duck which, no matter how you justify it, just seems silly.  Then there is the idea that Beverly isn't just a friend to Howard, but she is actually attracted to him.  This tends to turn most people's stomachs in the same way that homosexuality does for people who aren't affected by such feelings.  The performances and story are campy as hell, and it often feels like two films hastily sewn together (one half is a fish-out-of-water story, the other is an alien invasion plot).  Yet, I cannot find it in myself to fault Howard.  Yes, it is a bad movie...but based on the level of humor and the way much of the film is staged, it is clear that that is the filmmaker's intention.  It's as if they said, "How do you take a film where the star is a duck seriously?" and then answered "You don't."  Everything about the film is parody from the 80s lifestyles and fashions, to the way we stereotype outsiders and weirdos.  The film does not pander to us either by making the obvious and overplayed route of making a "It's ok to be me" movie.  It doesn't even broach that topic...no it revels in doing what people wouldn't do with a story like this...by having Howard try to join human civilization and giving the finger to anyone who won't let him....and then it makes him fight a big, greasy monster.  It's totally absurd and I have to believe that that is what the filmmakers intended...and America simply didn't get the joke.  Granted, the joke isn't all that funny to begin with...but it certainly does make us look like schmucks in the way it lampoons both American culture and the way we treat those who are different.  Maybe we're more comfortable when films about outsiders make us cry rather than make us laugh...afterall, films like Carrie and Mask still pack them in.  Odd that we can cry for the losers, but we can't laugh at ourselves for making them that way.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Bad Kids and Broomsticks

It's hard following the rules sometimes, especially in something as pointless and demeaning as study hall.  I make no secret about disliking the way study hall is being done this year although I can't say it isn't a better alternative than having regular periods around lunch rather than blocks.  You see, in our school, we have a lunch room that is shared with the middle school and thus requires that certain times be used for lunch and never ever changed regardless of two hour delays or schedules that otherwise don't match.  It leaves a large gap in our day where nothing is happening unless there is a class...or a study hall.  In the past we simply had class before and after lunch (6A and 6B) and certain teachers would either be teaching or at lunch depending on whether they had Lunch 1 or Lunch 2.  Now every teacher has a study hall (X or Y) that coinsides with first or second lunch respectively.  Sadly, it is mainly extended babysitting and kid corralling.  Student come into the room with no expectations and no grading and essentially it is either a silent detention-like environment, or it is a social half-hour with kids talking loudly and otherwise behaving like kids.  I could probably stand this if I had kids that I like...but unfortunately I have a few students in study hall that have an excess of personality (I prefer to say that than other choice words) and revel in causing drama.  Earlier in the year, it became common place for kids to move between study halls in order to work (read: socialize) with friends or to complete tests with other teachers.  This removed some of the 'excessive personality' students from my room and made me happier...but now, due to several issues because kids weren't where they were supposed to be...administration has asked us to only send kids using passes and making sure a call is made from teacher-to-teacher to confirm that the student did indeed arrive.  I have simplified this even more by simply not allowing anyone to leave anymore, at all.  I made this announcement today under the guise of being forced into it by administration (not that I want them to hate admin. but I think this is just easier) and I think most of the kids were fine with it.  Then there were the ones who weren't...and I could feel their eyes burning into me like hot coals as I resumed my spot behind my desk.  I wondered to myself what they would do if they thought they could get rid of me at that moment, which put me in mind of a film I began showing my sophomores today.  I love to read literature and then watch the corresponding film after we complete it so that those kids who "got it" can get even more from it by seeing a visual representation and those that didn't can hopefully get a better grasp of the material as we move on.  This particular piece is based on a famous play by Arthur Miller that on the surface is about the Salem Witch Trials, but on a deeper level is about the more figurative witch hunts that plague important moments through history (like Miller's own dealings with the House Un-American Activities Committee).  It is also a fantastic piece of interpersonal and psychological drama and one I think every student should see.  So let's head off to the trial and experience The Crucible.

Early morning in 1692 Salem, Massachusetts, some young village girls meet in the woods with a Barbadian slave named Tituba (Charlayne Woodard). One of the girls, Abigail Williams (Winona Ryder), kills a chicken and drinks the blood, wishing for John Proctor's wife to die. They are surprised by Abigail's uncle, Reverend Samuel Parris (Bruce Davison), who discovers them. As the girls run away, Parris' daughter, Betty (Rachael Bella), falls over unconscious. Parris questions Abigail about the events that took place in the woods; Betty will not awaken, nor will Ruth (Ashley Peldon), the daughter of Thomas and Ann Putnam (Jeffrey Jones and Frances Conroy), who was also dancing. This strikes Mrs. Putnam hard as she has had seven other children before Ruth who died at childbirth. The Parris house is also visited by Giles Corey (Peter Vaughan), who suspects that the children are just acting their sicknesses, and John Proctor (Daniel Day-Lewis), with whom Abigail had an affair and whose wife she wants dead. Abigail still loves Proctor, but Proctor feels that he made a mistake and leaves her. The Putnams and Reverend Parris believe that Betty and Ruth are demonically possessed, so they call Reverend John Hale (Rob Campbell) from Beverly, to examine Betty. To save herself and the other girls from punishment, Abigail claims that Tituba was working with the devil. After a brutal whipping, Tituba confesses to being a witch. Struck by their newfound power, the other girls begin naming other women whom they "saw" with the devil. What then transpires is a whirlwind of finger pointing and a real test of truth as Proctor, Corey, and Nurse all try to fight against the lies of the girls while Abigail continues to gain power and support.

The Crucible is simply an amazing adaptation.  Most people who see it would never know it was a play first because of the skillful way that Miller opens up his own work and incorporates the town and characters that are only mentioned in passing within his rich original text.  The addition of people who were accused but never seen in the play is masterful and allows for some very filmic montages of innocent yet unusual happenings followed closely by rabid accusation by Abigail and the girls of Salem.  The performances are also top notch, as should be expected in an adaptation of a largely character and performance driven piece.  Ryder crafts Abigail in a highly complex way so that she is soft and victim-like when she needs to be, and then vicious and hateful when the scene calls for it...she also never lets you see whether the softness is her mask or if her viciousness is.  Day-Lewis as Proctor is tremendous (as always) and has the perfect foil in Allen's Elizabeth, for which she won an Oscar.  Day-Lewis's Proctor runs a careful balance between stagey over-the-top campiness and quiet, film-like subtlety which plays perfectly against Allen's quiet coldness.  She makes Elizabeth much more complex than she usually appears in the plays as she slowly lowers her walls and builds subtly to her final dramatic scene with John in the jail.  Im short, there is a reason she won.  So much works in The Crucible that it makes anything that doesn't stand out just a little bit more.  Yes some of the scenes seem to favor screaming for actual emoting and some of the court moments veer toward campy...but isn't that also the point?  These girls were faking these events so shouldn't they come off as over-the-top and unrealistic for us as a matter of dramatic irony?  In any case, this is a solid adaptation and one I am anxious to enjoy through the eyes of my students as they react to the powerhouse performances and the fantastic drama.

I Couldn't Find a Good Youtube vid to embed...so here's a link instead

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Madness...Times Four

Today hasn't quite turned out like I had expected.  I had planned to use the laptop computers with my speech classes today and then have a nice, relaxing 6th and 8th periods while our guidance counselor went over the specifics of scheduling them for their junior year.  However, even the best laid plans can have hiccups.  First, the laptop cart was taken by the technology dept. and so I had to (in a matter or seconds) reschedule my speech class for the library computers...and then my 6th period was less than relaxing because the only way our sophomore guidance counselor could see all of the English classes was to combine my class (which is not exactly stellar) with another teacher's class (which is comprised of a surprising variety of hoodlums) and thus, it was interesting to say the least.  For the first hour it was fairly quiet and respectful, but I could sense the outbreak simmering below the surface.  Then when she passed out the class choice forms...it was like the eruption of Mt. St. Helens.  Ok, maybe it wasn't that bad but it certainly was chaotic.  I'm hoping that 8th period, which is not combined with anyone's class, is nicer and more restrained.  I was put in the mindset of madness, though, and thinking about how quickly placidity becomes absolute bedlam under the right circumstances...and I was reminded of a film that is being released on Blu-ray today as one of MGM's latest catalogue releases.  It is an amazing sight...a screwball/chase comedy featuring some of that decade's biggest stars that can also be classified as an epic, seeing as it runs over two and a half hours.  You might think that a comic genre cannot sustain a film of such a massive length and would grow stale and boring...and that is where the film defies by being one of the most engaging and entertaining comedies of the 1960s.  So let's join in on the chase as we find out that It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.

A group of strangers all traveling the same stretch of road find themselves thrown into a crazy adventure when an out of control car nearly runs them off the road.  The driver of the car is "Smiler" Grogan, a suspect in a tuna factory robbery 15 years ago.  The strangers, Melville Crump, a dentist; Lennie Pike, a furniture mover; Dingy Bell and Benjy Benjamin, two friends on their way to Las Vegas; and J. Russell Finch, an entrepreneur, all bear witness to Smiler's dying words.  As he fades away, he reveals that he has hidden away his stolen fortune of $350,000 in Santa Rosa under "a big W".  The strangers all agree to ignore the information...at least for a hot minute.  Soon they are all convincing themselves to go after the cash (or in the case of Finch, convinced by an overbearing mother-in-law) and are dead set on arriving there first so they can profit and screw the others out of a cut.  The race to the finish becomes nasty, then violent, and then all-out insane as they ruin cars, boats, planes, and other assorted vehicles in their pursuit of financial gain.  Along the way, more and more bystanders who hear about the stolen money begin to join in on the hunt until it seems like the whole world is out to get the loot...along with a police detective who has been hunting Smiler and his loot for 15 years.  Who will succeed?

It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World is the perfect kind of blockbuster.  It takes a very simple idea and then adds in hundreds of characters that will add to the drama of the simple idea and expand the run time to over 2 hours.  Then you cast the whole picture, even the cameo roles, with huge Hollywood stars. It then no longer feels like a simple idea...it feels like an event.  Irwin Allen would use this formula to good effect many times when he produced his disaster movies...but Mad is probably more effective than any of those, because it is a comedy.  No one dies (except for Jimmy Durante as Smiler) and all the violent situations end with some kind of punchline so the audience remains enthralled and in suspense without getting depressed.  It really shouldn't work and should play more like a gargantuan mistake, however thanks to the film's unabashed disdain for anything traditional and it's embracing of all that is insane and hilarious.  There are clear protagonists who have arcs...but they often change and aren't always who you think.  Also, its amazing which characters you will find memorable in the assortment.  Some latch onto Spencer Tracy's downtrodden police detective while others relate to the arc of Dorothy Provine who plays the seen and rarely heard (until the end) wife of Milton Berle's Finch.  Myself, I tend to follow Ethel Merman's Mrs. Marcus, the shrill and overbearing mother-in-law of Finch (because she is so beautifully insufferable).  There's something and someone for everyone in this film...as long as you can outlast the run time.  I think the only downside to Mad is it's extremely long run time, which seems excessive but ends up being necessary given the sizable load of characters in the piece.  However, should your butt fall asleep during the viewing...it doesn't hurt to hit the pause button at Intermission.  Rent it for a Friday or Saturday night when you don't have anything planned and laugh yourself silly.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Rocket Man

When I think back on my youth, there always seemed to be a class, or a guest speaker, or a test that would ask about your favorite superpower.  In trying to understand how student minds work, someone always asks what ability you wish you had that is supernatural (in fact, I've even done this in my own classes).  A lot of people choose telepathy and mind reading, others choose invisibility, and still others like choosing eternal life.  Me, I was much more simple.  I wanted to be able to fly.  I always enjoyed stories of characters who could fly and it always seemed to me to be a much more practical super power than invisibility or eternal life (although telepathy would be pretty awesome).  If I could fly, I could reach destinations faster and cut down on my gas bill...I could reach the top of buildings and mezzanines in a single bound and never worry about stairs or elevators again.  I could even see the world from a completely new perspective.  My fascination with flying is not unique; it seems as though everyone would love to be able to fly.  The writers of Superman, Watchmen, and even Hancock all have added flight to one or more of their characters because of how powerful it makes characters seem.  Air travel remains popular due to it's ease and speed and folks almost always want the window seat so they can look down at the world below them.  Flight is one of life's miracles and we treat it with reverence.  I suppose that is why today's film still fascinates me as much as it did when it was new.  So let's take to the skies with Disney's answer to the comic book movie, The Rocketeer.

Cliff Seacord is a pilot who hopes to make his mark as an aerial racer and artist, however circumstances never seem to be going his way.  He has done clown shows for very little money, has kept himself from treating his girlfriend Jenny Blake to nicer dates because he is broke, and has hung all of his hopes and dreams on a single airplane.  You can imagine his shock and dismay then, when that plane is totaled when the FBI is chasing a fugitive across his runway and the gunfire brings him down.  The FBI destroys his plane and a gas tank in their chase and refuse to pay for it, leaving Seacord and his mechanic, Peevy, to hold the bill.  Little do they know that the crook took Peevy's old vacuum cleaner and substituted it for what he stole...a prototype made by aviation king Howard Hughes.  When Cliff and Peevy find it, they think that just maybe their luck has changed.  The prototype is a backpack rocket, meant to allow a man to fly.  The first time they turn the contraption on, it goes flying across the room and nearly destroys their work space, but soon after they begin to understand how the device works.  Meanwhile Jenny, who aspires to be an actress, has just joined the cast of a medieval film featuring Nevile Sinclair, a dapper Clark Gable-like actor.  She admires him and longs to play a scene with him, but she does not realize that Sinclair is actually a Nazi spy who originally commissioned the theft of the rocket.  Nevile soon realizes that Seacord has the rocket and makes plans to use Jenny to get it from him...and Seacord suddenly finds himself needing to become a hero.

The Rocketeer takes elements from superhero films like Superman: The Movie and mixes in a healthy dose of 1930s Indiana Jones flavor to create something that feels familiar on one hand and yet terribly unique.  It is one of the many cases, particulalry in the wake of 1989's Batman, where a film was clearly meant to be a franchise starter and yet never quite took off.  Like The Shadow and The Phantom, audiences weren't exactly dying to see The Rocketeer and with good reason.  It merely looked like "Superman" crossed with "Indiana Jones" from the advertisements and so people already felt that it was "been there, done that".  While part of that is true, another part of that ignores what made The Rocketeer unique.  First, it was a very violent film for Disney, with men being folded in half and a respectable amount of fake blood dribbling from wounds but also, it was much like Die Hard in that it was about a reluctant hero.  Superman and Batman are fighting crime because they feel they must...but Cliff Seacord simply gets dragged into the action due to proximity.  He only becomes a hero in the interest of saving his girlfriend, not because he wants to save the world.  Few comic book films featured a hero who didn't want to be a hero and that sets The Rocketeer apart from it's brethren.  That's not to say that Cliff is selfish, not a bit...he just knows that when you want something done right, you should do it yourself.  That is his position each time he saves someone, whether it is a friend caught in an airplane disaster, or his lady love when she is heald bay by the evil villain.  Billy Campbell, Jennifer Connelly, and Timothy Dalton should all be commended for their performances...particularly Campbell and Connelly who were not "names" at the time and so feel like fresh-new faces for us to fall in love with.  It's a shame that the film didn't take off with audiences (no pun intended) and thus we have no part 2, 3, or 4.  However, maybe that's best given the track record of comic book sequels in the 90s.  Perhaps someone will do a reimagining (I hate that word) of the story for new audiences and turn it into something that people will want to see again and again.  Until then, we will only have the original comic books and the film, which is a diamond in the rough for anyone to discover.