Thursday, February 25, 2010

The Plan: Two down...five more to go

Let me explain. No...let me sum up:

I have decided to see these seven films before the Academy Awards broadcast on Sunday night, March 7 -

☐ An Education

☐ Avatar

☐ The Blind Side

Crazy Heart [I saw this one Saturday night - click the link for my review]

☐ District 9

☐ The Hurt Locker

☐ The Last Station

Sunday night, I saw...

An Education - (Jim Styro's mini-review)

Do you ever have those moments when you feel that you are viewing life through a particular prism where all of the common elements in things stand out very distinctly and you see how everything seems interrelated - and its not because you're on drugs or anything - but the patterns in events and people and things just seem to blend together in a rich tapestry that seems utterly clear to you...?

Well, even if you don't - there are some common elements between the films Crazy Heart and An Education which, despite significant differences in setting, style and point of view, stand out clearly - especially when having watched the movies on back-to-back evenings. Chief among these is the notion of "Romance gone wrong" - the feeling that the relationship being portrayed cannot (perhaps, should not) last. In Crazy Heart, we see this played out primarily from the point of view of a 60+ year-old man; in An Education, our protagonist is a 16-year-old (soon to be 17) girl, Jenny. In Crazy Heart, the romantic relationship seems like it may be a last chance at redemption for our hero; in An Education, it is clearly a first love - with the potential to deliver Jenny from (what she views as) the stifling environs of 1961 Great Britain*.

The movie is filled with wonderful performances from Alfred Molina, Olivia Williams, Emma Thompson (in a small but important role) - to mention only a few - but most impressive is Carey Mulligan as Jenny. The success of the entire film rests on her ability to strike the right balance between the bliss of youthful naivete and the single-mindedness of an adolescent mind certain that she is not understood by those around her, that the future being planned for her is a trap. Her performance seems so natural that we are drawn on her emotional roller-coaster ride (or, should I say, helter skelter?). I found the movie quite moving - and this is due in large part to Mulligan's performance.

Mulligan and Peter Sarsgaard (Garden State & Kinsey), who plays David, the older man that wants to expose Jenny to the finer things in life, make an attractive couple - and the movie does a great job of capturing the look and feel of Britain and Europe in the early 60's - like Breakfast at Tiffany's set in London or Paris. But, like Crazy Heart, though you think you know where the film is going (and may even be right about its final destination) the path it takes will likely hold at least a few surprises.

I know it seems like I'm easy (though I'm not cheap) - but I have to say:
An Education is one class I think you'll be glad you sat through.

Take care.

* Setting the film in that year may have simply been staying true to the original article, written by Lynn Barber, upon which the film is based. But it seems entirely fitting - even necessary - that the story take place in a pre-Beatles England - before the Fab Four began to thaw Britain out of its post-World War 2 malaise - and give the Baby Boom its boom.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

The Plan: One down...six more to go

To recap: Saturday morning, I decided that I would try to see the following seven films before the Academy Awards broadcast on Sunday night, March 7.

An Education
The Blind Side
Crazy Heart
District 9
The Hurt Locker
The Last Station

Combining these with three previously-viewed films that have been nominated for Best Picture this year (A Serious Man, Up!, and Up in the Air) would give me a tally of having viewed:

8 of the 10 Best Picture nominees, and
3 of the 5 nominees in each acting category (except Best Supporting Actor)

[Side note: I wish I could find a way to see Invictus - but it's not playing in theaters anywhere I can find - and it's not out on DVD either.]

Why do you care about any of this? I don't know Because I've promised to feature mini-reviews of the movies after I see them. And you don't think I'm completely full of crap value my opinion.

Saturday night, I watched...

Crazy Heart (Jim Styro's mini-review)

I love seeing movies without having a lot of expectations. I'm almost always pleasantly surprised. Of course, I wasn't surprised by another Oscar-worthy performance by Jeff Bridges. He's become one of my favorite actors over the years - not only delivering wonderful and varied performances - but picking great movies in which to appear. And Maggie Gyllenhaal is no slouch either (I particularly loved her in Stranger Than Fiction).

Bridges plays an chain-smoking, alcoholic country singer/songwriter, "Bad" Blake, who is past his prime and headed for an early grave. While traveling from one sorry gig to another, he grants an interview to Jean (Gyllenhaal), whose youth and unpretentious beauty pierce through the haze of his dreary, booze-soaked existence. Against her better judgement, Jean starts to fall in love with Bad (which makes the thing sound more cliched than it is, IMO) and he begins to form a bond with both her and her pre-school-aged son. For me, the movie stirred up memories of another great little movie - Tender Mercies (which earned Robert Duvall - whose appearance in Crazy Heart is almost an homage to that earlier movie - a well-deserved Oscar for Best Actor) which featured a similar cast of characters.

But, apart from a shared faith in human endurance, the similarity between the films does not run that deep. Although Bad and Jean genuinely care for each other, their relationship never feels quite right (as perhaps it should not). And Bad's nickname is well-earned - it is not clear until near the end of the film whether he can or will change his ways. Although the story feels familiar, the plot line and performances don't necessarily take you where you might expect them to go. Even so, it is a wonderful journey - with great music (Bridges sings and plays the material himself) and fine performances all around.

Crazy Heart is a film well worth seeing.

Take care.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

"'s all...part of The Plan"*

I wanted to be random today - I really did. But all I've got is The Plan. I decided I needed The Plan Friday night. Saturday morning, I began to craft the details. And I will soon reveal all to you, Gentle Reader.

The Academy Awards are on March 7 this year. There are 10 films nominated for Best Picture this year (I will rant about them expanding the field from 5 to 10 films another time - I need my beauty rest). The nominees are (in an order that will become clear momentarily):
  • Up! (The last Pixar movie - I saw it soon after it was released)

  • A Serious Man (The Coen Brothers latest. I saw it soon after it was released. It does for late 60s Hebrews what "Fargo" did for Minnesotans - kind of)

  • Up in the Air (Jason Reitman's hot streak continues. George Clooney's too. A movie near and dear to many here in Detroit. I saw it - twice.)

  • Avatar (James Cameron's latest epic. It's supposed to be more that just great special effects.)

  • An Education (As of Saturday morning, I didn't know anything about this movie - except that it had been nominated for Best Picture)

  • The Blind Side (As of Saturday morning, the only three things I knew about this movie were: it had been nominated for Best Picture, Sandra Bullock was in the movie, and it had something to do with football)

  • District 9 (This is a sci-fi flick I've heard a little about. More importantly, I have the DVD in my possession courtesy of Netflix.)

  • The Hurt Locker (This is a contemporary war flick that The Boy compared with Platoon. I expect to have the DVD in my possession later today - courtesy of Netflix.

  • Precious (I don't know much about this film - other than the fact that it, too, has been nominated for Best Picture - and appears to star a large black woman. If the advertising is in any way accurate.)

  • Inglourious Basterds (Quentin Tarantino's latest. Still trying to play violence for humor, from what I've heard. That rarely works on me.)

In addition to these Best Picture nominees, there are a couple of films (Crazy Heart and The Last Station) that feature more than one performance nominated for an Academy Award.

So I decided that I needed to see seven of the nine films above prior to Oscar Night (I know there are twelve films mentioned - but remember, I've already seen three of them). I further decided that - in protest of them expanding the Best Picture field to ten films, I would NOT try to see all the nominees in that category (Precious and Inglourious Basterds are out) - but I'm going to fill in with Crazy Heart and The Last Station so that I will be well-informed regarding the acting nominees.

This weekend, I began to put The Plan into action - and I will post brief (?) reviews of the films taken in on Saturday and Sunday...just a soon as I write them. Hopefully tomorrow.

Take care.

* R.I.P. Heath Ledger

Thursday, February 18, 2010

The Song Is Over

"I drank for four days and four nights...
and then I fell through a window.
I was bleeding - but I was forgetting."
-- Oscar Madison (from Neil Simon's The Odd Couple)

People who are involved in theater productions - be they actors, technicians, directors, stage managers, you name it - these people are all familiar with a phenomena akin to postpartum depression.* Since being in a play is not as intense or solitary an experience as pregnancy (or so I imagine, having never been pregnant myself), the let-down afterward isn't nearly as severe - and, the sense of emptiness is eased because it is common to everyone involved. But, as with all good things that must come to end, there is still a feeling of loss, a void that must be faced.

For me, being cast as the lead in a really good play was a dream come true. And to be cast as Oscar Madison in The Odd Couple was like being able to hand-pick the dream. The play had it's original run on Broadway when I was a pre-schooler - so I can't remember a time before the archetypes of Felix Ungar and Oscar Madison existed. I grew up with the movie and the TV show. I loved these characters in the way a child can truly love a fictional character, half-expecting to perhaps meet them one day, like a favorite sports figure or a movie star.

"Of course - if you're going to kill yourself,
where's the safest place to do it?
With your friends"
-- Oscar Madison

Can't get any better than that, right? Actually, it can. The way you improve on perfection is to share your dream with good friends. So you ask one of your closest friends, a guy you've know for nearly 30 years, to audition for the role of Felix. And he gets cast in that part. And you get another friend, who you've known for about 20 years, to audition - and he gets the role of Oscar's policeman buddy, Murray. Now, since the play only has eight different roles, you've got an excellent shot at a stellar cast. After all, the director has already shown her good taste in casting the leads and one of the supporting players. But she does even better than that - she casts all eight roles flawlessly. [In the end, you even forgive the director for not casting your wife in one of the two female roles; since she ends up being even more valuable to the production by handling props, setting dressing and being the stage manager - all in one!]

"Don't say 'Alright'! I want you to promise me
you're going to try and have a good time..."
--Oscar Madison

So the (dare I say it) stage is set. But you've still got to learn the 456 lines of dialogue. You've never done anything close to that before. You've got to learn to work together with the other actors - the ones you've worked with before and the ones you haven't; some who are already your friend and others who will become a new friend. You get to take off your pants on-stage. And throw plates of fake linguini. And figure out how to rip apart bags of potato chips so they make a nice mess and open cans of beer (OK, really just Diet 7UP) so they will spray everywhere. You pick out pre-show music (from the early to mid-1960s, heavy on Henry Mancini and Frank Sinatra) to put the audience in the mood.

And then you get to perform it all in front of a bunch of people - and try to get them to laugh.

But you only get to do that six times over two weekends.

Because, eventually, you have to allow your life to revert to being just "mostly out of control" rather than "completely out of control". More's the pity. Still, it was really fun while it lasted. And there's always the chance you'll get to do it again somewhere down the road.

"How about next Friday night?
You're not going to break up the game, are you?"
--Oscar Madison

Tuesday night, four of us got together to strike the set. We removed all of the remaining props and costumes from backstage, we loaded all the furniture that had been loaned for performances into the back of the MAW's Pacifica and delivered each piece back to the owners. We removed every trace of Oscar Madison's apartment from that stage.

I got home and turned on Turner Classic Movies in time to see the end of Billy Wilder's Some Like It Hot. Then they did a nice segment on Sidney Poitier. I should have been writing a blog post or balancing the check book. Or sleeping.

But The Odd Couple came on. I watched the whole thing. Again.

Take care.

* If you've ever really suffered from postpartum depression, cut me some slack.
I did say "akin", not "just like".

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

RTT: "Back from the Dead" Edition

  • Waiting a month and a half between posts really provides a lot of material. I should have enough stuff saved up to post every day for...a month and a half (I guess). Don't hold your breath on that one.
  • The last of our six performances of The Odd Couple took place Sunday afternoon. It was great fun and I will miss the opportunity to perform with and for friends. The cast party at our house following the show was cool too. I wish you coulda been there.
  • The MAW gave me a birthday/anniversary present on Jan. 21. She found a source who provided a 5-DVD set of the short-lived TV series, Frank's Place. My favorite episode was a 22-minute reimagining of Death of A Salesman. I have a special prize for anyone who remembers the month/day of my birth and my marriage (the usual disclaimers for family members, etc. apply to this contest).

  • Almost exactly one month before opening night of The Odd Couple, I was diagnosed with bronchitis. "No sweat", thought I. "I've got a month to kick this thing." Two 10-day courses of antibiotics later, I had kicked it. Then, less than five days before opening night, I got the stomach flu. Because being the lead in a play isn't exciting enough all on its own.

  • I resigned as President of the Motor City Youth Theatre Board recently. It really makes the MAW happy when I quit stuff. She would have me believe that my doing less would result in more sex - but I don't think she can back up that claim. ("Back up" that claim - did I really write that?!)

  • I wish you could have seen what fantastic work the MAW did with props and set dressing for The Odd Couple. In fact, I will make sure that you do see it - once I get a hold of some of the pictures from the show (there are literally hundreds on Shutterfly). The stamina and tenacity she exhibited made me proud.

  • I saw the film, Up In The Air, twice in January. I'm rooting for it to win the Best Picture Oscar this year.

  • The role of Oscar Madison has 456 lines in The Odd Couple (lines could be anything from a couple of words to a paragraph long monologue). The play has three acts (although we performed it as two) and lasts about two hours. Oscar is on-stage for all but about 5 minutes of that time. I'd rather play Oscar Madison again than Hamlet (wait - I've never played Hamlet; I'd still rather play Oscar again).

  • I enjoy being busy - but the thought occurred to me tonight (for the first time ever) that part of my desire to be busy is so I don't have to think about the things in my life over which I have no control. And having both an acute and (I believe) realistic view of the things over which I have no control doesn't make things any easier.

    It's not much of a post - but hopefully it'll do until something better comes along.
Take care.

PS: Go visit Keely at the Un-Mom willya?!

Tell her you were honoring the request of Jim Styro - actor, eater, blogger.