The American

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A slow, quiet, intense performance and story drive this movie from moments in until the denoument. A strong three stars here, but don’t expect a Bourne-like chase across Euorpe. This is more like Dark Star, which may be a low-budget genre flick, but set out to show us the boredom of long space travel and succeeded well. In this case, the waiting is pressurized by ever-present danger. I never felt bored by the film, despite its length and its general lack of dialogue and action.

Far from glamorizing Clooney’s nefarious job, it is one of the most honest depictions I’ve seen in a long time. OK, perhaps they riff a bit too much on the “prostitute with a heart of gold” type of theme (and, I’m not talking about this literally) but without that dram of conscience, we wouldn’t have a character to hang our hat on.

If you like slow-burn character studies and a peek behind what you think you know about how a hit man must live to succeed and survive, check this out. If you want action and explosions and reparte, this isn’t the movie for you.

Devil

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A perfectly fun and serviceable Twilight Zone or Night Gallery type story. Well executed and produced, but with only a few surprises, mostly of the shock type. Having just seen a live show that employed pitch black and noise to surprise, this wasn’t as effective for me. And, while it tries to rise above by having additional plots and twists, it is only marginally successful as the twists and surprises just weren’t to me.

This was the first of the new Night Chronicles series that M. Night Shyamalan is producing and providing the story for, but not the scripts. I’m looking forward to the next, but they need to become better movies rather than 90 min TV specials if they’re going to be a success, IMO. However, as a rental if you like horror/suspense, you probably won’t be wasting your time.

Freud’s Last Session

There has been a strange confluence of shows and subject matter for me in the last couple weeks. Think of it as informational strange attractors. Discussions of spiritualism in Play Dead and the Houdini exhibit (including crossover characters), shows without intermission and only 1 or 2 characters (both this and Play Dead), and the era and day of the King’s speech by King George the VI depicted in The King’s Speech and this play.

Feud’s posits a meeting of CS Lewis and Sigmund Freud on Sept 3, 1939 (the day of King George VI’s speech and the declaration of war against Germany by England). It is, on its surface, a debate on the existence of god between a famously life-long atheist (Freud) and the newly converted Lewis. The debate, by twists and turns, is entertaining and provoking.

The performances and design elements were done beautifully and evoked the era and season. The give and take between the elderly, dying Freud and the young upstart, Lewis, are wonderful verbal sparring matches with philosophical and sophistic gymnastics. The only weak element for me was the fear of German bombing. More than once the threat of immanent death is evoked to spur the conversation and provide contradictions between convictions and reactions; the atheist and Christian both scrambling to avoid death despite their earlier comments and beliefs. I’m not sure if it was sound design, acting, or the writing around these moments, but they just never felt as more than distraction; attempts to provoke rather than evoke.

But the main question really becomes, can you create a play with an unanswerable conundrum at its core? Tom Stoppard challenges this often in his shows from Hapgood to Travesties to Arcadia (and many others). But Stoppard, while focusing on dialogue steeped in metaphysics, focuses the story on the people and their struggles with the resulting answers, or more questions, and their relationship with the world. Freud’s ends with a meaningful moment, but not a fully satisfying one for me.

I struggled with that reaction as my opinion is that you trust the writer. Much like poetry, if you don’t think the story worked, perhaps you missed the story that was being told. Layers and levels like this are the hallmark of great plays. After a night of sleeping on it, I’m still not sure this one had those levels. That, however entertaining, it wasn’t a great play, but just a great entertainment; and maybe that was enough in this case.

Play Dead

Had the chance to catch the odd, off-broadway production, Play Dead, last night. It is at once silly, fun, and resonant. Despite all the Grand Guignol promises, there is never any pretense that it isn’t theatre and fake and for fun. This is the genius of the experience… you are complicit from the beginning and whether the illusions surprise you or not or thrill you or not, you are like a kid in a Cony Island haunted house.

I laughed (a LOT) and even squealed a time or two during the evening. Todd Robbins’ ability to own the stage and your attention for 90 minutes is truly wonderful to watch. Teller’s (of Penn and Teller) hand is all over the piece, though mostly in the dark approach to the illusions. Without the frenetic Penn and his patter to lighten the mood, every illusion lives in the macabre. Of course, any relief would be counter-productive in this case.

What is most interesting and surprising is that after you leave the theatre, you can’t stop thinking about the issues and ideas he brings up during your stay in his world. The thoughts bounce around your head a little, and as a memorial to his friend, Dorothy Bembridge, this is a fitting result.

Small delay and apologies

Life has conspired, in a good way, to interfere with my regular posts. I hope to add a couple reviews this week about some live performance events I’m attending, but there has been no time for movies at night. I expect to be back in the swing by the end of the weekend…. but there should be plenty to dig through on this site if you’re looking for other recommendations until then. Sorry for the slight pause in output.

Skin

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A difficult movie to watch, emotionally, but with some uplifting moments. One occurs even before the credits when the filmakers felt they had to define Apartheid and the morality laws in South Africa… the felt it had been long enough that folks are already forgetting. That was both surprising and encouraging.

The basic story is a true one, and the internal battle of both the main character and her parents about what it means to be white or colored in a state-instituted racist society is fascinating. Well acted and interestingly constructed, this is worth seeing if you are in the right mood or just want to know what it was like in S. Africa during that period.

The Dying Gaul

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Self-aware and self-referential, this flick is about making a movie and the subject of that movie reflecting on the action. Even the title is a mobius strip of a moniker and effectively left us thinking after the denouement. The story comes together as a twisted, black-ish comedy/social commentary that is hypnotic at times and is full of gorgeous cinematography and a great soundtrack. Probably not a film for everyone given the sensibility and the subject, but it is a solid independent offering with very good performances.

Catfish

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Not an easy movie to discuss without ruining the experience, but I’ll give it a shot. There was a lot of chatter about Catfish out of the festival circuit last year and it caught my eye. I had little idea what it was about… I think that was part of why it worked and recommend watching it without reading the summary or back of the box or any in-depth reviews. Part of the movie is figuring out what kind of movie it is.

From the moment the front credits rolled, it had us. And while we had no idea what ride we had gotten on, it was beautifully edited to carry us along to the end. It is, admittedly a light 4 stars, but it really got my attention.

All I will add to the above is this would be an excellent part of a double feature (or watched on successive nights) with The Social Network.

The Lost Boys: The Thirst

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The Lost Boys (the original) is a cult classic for a reason. It was different, it had a sense of humor about the world and itself, it had a great cast, and it had big hair. Despite the last bit, it stands up rather well even this many years later.

The Lost Boys: The Tribe, the first sequel, was one of the most disappointing follow-up I’ve seen in a long time. But I liked the original so much I had to check out The Thirst.

The Thirst is an amusing B-film with few surprises, but manages to recapture some of the humor of the first film. More, though, it is actually a nice tribute to Corey Haim without actually concentrating on him… it really about the continuing adventures of the Frog brothers but the footage almost always has Haim at the center. The film is even dedicated to him (and Asst. Dir Leigh Tanchel, who had a heck of a resume in his own right). Finally, they manage to take some great swipes at Twilight fandom as well.

So, if you want to watch more in the universe of Lost Boys, skip The Tribe and jump to The Thirst. I am hoping that just let it lie at this point. There is little value to continuing the story and unless they really improve the writing, it would just be, well, bad.

The 16 Line Principle

As this blog progresses, I’m reminded of something I discovered about my writing many years ago and realized it also had relevance to how stories are changing today with “new media.”

Long, long ago I used to keep a pocket notebook on me at all times for writing poetry. The pages were 16 lines long. Needless to say, most of my poems came out to 16, 32, or the occasional 48 lines. The media shaped the message (not to be confused with “the medium is the message,” for those that remember). As I moved from the Netflix connection to our FB account for posting reviews to this WordPress version, my reviews grew in size and detail (I refrain from saying “value” as I cannot make that call, you must).

What an artist creates is bounded by the media they are working in. Whether a type of paint, a length of page, or a character limitation of a tweet. It isn’t just that these new media provide opportunity, they actually change the way the artist thinks. Sometimes without realizing it.

With the advent of Twitter and other short burst social networking as well as the new hybrids of online/on disc/on screen approaches to stories, how and what we author is changing. The printing press freed people to distribute diatribes and leaflets with much greater ease.. not to mention newspapers and books. Now, with eBooks taking the fore, other boundaries are being lifted. It isn’t that you sit down and say, heck, I’m going to write a 1000 page fantasy novel, but knowing that there isn’t a reason you cannot, means that restriction is lifted from your thinking.

Is this good or bad or ?? When writing sonnets, the very restrictions fueled some of the greatest writing. This is where craft and creativity shine, within the rules that are set… which isn’t to say you don’t and shouldn’t break the rules. In fact, being an artist is often about knowing when to break the rules.

We already have best celling (yes, on purpose) novels sent a few hundred characters at a time via SMS to phones. And we have novel and novel universes being created (Greg Bear and Neal Stephenson’s, The Mongoliad) blurring the lines and reinventing story structure because “they can.” While the act was more conscious in this case, it was a leap made because thinking had changed.

To bring this full circle… when word processing became available and I retired my little notebook as a primary way to write, I watched my poetry expand. The ultimate expression of that was a 1000 line epic SF poem. Why? Because I couldn’t see the bottom of the page any longer… it was just a blank screen that went on forever…

Art, writing, life explained… or at least commented upon…