No ‘Cure’ for this Stupidity

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“There is no sin except stupidity.”
– Oscar Wilde, The Critic as Artist (1891)

I usually feel sorry for Gore Verbinski, knowing he didn’t become a more renowned director. In a world where films – particular the average American film – are as interchangeable as a row of bran muffins, Verbinski’s movies actually have a visual style. Not content with the usual over-edited flat frames that get converted to horrible 3-D in post, Verbinski lets you know that he isn’t merely sleepwalking through his job as a director – he wants to hold your attention for as long possible through methods that don’t cinematically equate to dangling keys in front of a baby. I wouldn’t go so far as to call him a “visionary director,” but he’s come a long way from “the director of Mouse Hunt”. Why he hasn’t achieved the recognition of the infinitely less-talented Zack Snyder, I’ll never know?

But, like Snyder, Verbinski’s skills behind the camera far outweigh his ability to pick scripts. Occasionally he’ll stumble upon one that’s fairly decent (The Weather Man, The Ring, the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie), but most of his choices have been mediocre Hollywood tripe. One hopes that one day he’ll be matched up with a screenwriter capable of supplying compelling words to go along with his striking visuals.

Not only does A Cure for Wellness lack an adequate script, but considering that said script is based on a story Verbinski co-wrote, he has only himself to blame for the film’s shortcomings.

For young Mr. Lockhart (Dane DeHaan), there’s nowhere to go but up. The hotshot yuppie is coming off a winning streak with his superiors give him a rather unorthodox task: head to a remote wellness center in the Swiss Alps and retrieve a Mr. Pembroke, a senior partner who has yet to return.

Lockhart does as he’s told, but after being stonewalled by center staff and falling victim to a car accident, he suddenly finds himself counted amongst the center’s patients. At first, it appears he’ll be getting some much needed downtime from work, but he soon begins to suspect there’s something much more sinister afoot.

A Cure for Wellness is a prime example of what Roger Ebert called “the Idiot Plot”. Had the central characters exercised a modicum of common sense, there’s no way this movie would be almost 2 ½ hours long. It features people failing to ask obvious questions, “restricted” areas that are easier to get into than a Burger King wrapper, characters known to be dangerous or insecure are left on their own, and an “action” final so clichéd and predictable that I’m surprised it didn’t take place on the catwalk of an explosion factory. And that’s not even mentioning how this psychological thriller, which claims to be grounded in reality, takes such a ludicrous third act turn for the supernatural that one expects M. Night Shyamalan to jump out and shout “What a twist!”

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“Is it too late to quit and sign on for Chronicle 2?”

And the worst part is that there’s a good film buried underneath all the dreck, just dying get out. Verbinski was clearly trying to make an atmospheric gothic horror in the style of the old Hammer films. While he doesn’t fully succeed – a lot of the early “quiet” scenes come off as boring more than scary – there are moments that perfectly capture the films false sense of security and looming dread. When Lockhart wakes up after his accident, he looks out the window and DeHaan gives him the slightest smile that puts us in the audience in the same comfortable place. Moments later he finds a small bug in his drinking water, but dismisses it. An odd coincidence or the sign of something more? Scenes like these are when the film truly shines.

But then Verbinski undermines that success by having his idiot characters do something to show off the gore effects (which, to be fair, do look impressive). It’s as if Verbinski wanted to make the original Wicker Man – the one with Christopher Lee – but didn’t believe his audience was intelligent enough for that, so he decided halfway to make the Nic Cage Wicker Man (with eels in the place of bees).

And that’s the real shame of watching this movie: you can see the homages to all the films which influenced it (there’s a nod to Marathon Man – you can guess which scene), but no real attempt to aspire to their level of greatness. Gore Verbinski may still have the opportunity to become a great film-maker, but as long as his standard for scripts is this low, he has only himself to blame.

GRADE:                D+

‘Fool’s Rush In

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“No matter how I think we grow/
You always seem to let me know/
It ain’t workin’, It ain’t workin’/
And when I try to walk away/
You hurt yourself to make me stay/
This is crazy, This is crazy…”
– Lauryn Hill, “Ex-Factor”, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill (1998)

What is it about the wrong relationships that make us stay when we know we shouldn’t? Putting aside things like emotional blackmail or literal imprisonment, what is it about toxic relationships that keep otherwise rational people of free will in situations they know are destructive? Misguided nostalgia for better times? The knowledge that you could leave at any time, but fail to realise that you should? Perhaps it’s the belief that you’re just going through a rough patch and that it’ll all be better?

Whatever the reason, you’re not doing yourself any favors by staying in such a relationship. It’s been said that you haven’t really lived until you’ve experienced that kind of love, but anyone who has wouldn’t wish it on their worst enemy.

Fool for Love is a play about the worst people being bound together, but unable to tear themselves away from one another.

In a cheap motel in the Mojave Desert, lovers May and Eddie try to hash out where their relationship now stands. Eddie is jealous of the thought of May with another man that night, May has finally had it with Eddie’s repeated infidelities. As they bicker, drink, and deeply kiss, they’re joined by the spectre of an “old man” who seems to know them both intimately. With May’s date on the way and Eddie’s new mistress creating a nuisance, the only thing certain about this night is that love has made fools of them all.

Fool for Love has a long history with the Magic. Shepard premiered the play with them in 1983, as he served as playwright-in-residence. That original production starred Ed Harris and Kathy Baker as Eddie and May, respectively, and was a finalist for Pulitzer Prize in Drama. It was also made into a little-seen 1985 film adaptation directed by Robert Altman. Now, after 34 years, the play has returned to the Magic as a “Legacy Revival”.

So how does it hold up? As a play, pretty damn well. Shepard’s modern-day Western plays and characters will, at best, become more and more interesting as they reveal themselves. With no era-specific references to date the material, it’s easy to believe that this flea-bag motel chamber play could take place today as well as it did in ’83. After all, doing stupid things at the behest of one’s heart (and/or loins) isn’t exactly a new development.

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Andrew Pastides as ‘Eddie’, Jessi Campbell as ‘May’. Photo by Jennifer Reiley

Unfortunately, the cast isn’t quite up to the challenge. They seem confused as to whether to play the material straight or irreverently. What’s more, they never seem to get a handle on how their characters talk, both in terms of intent and accent. (Pastides seemed to attempt an accent in the opening lines before abandoning it altogether, and I’m not sure Campbell tried the accent at all.) The two leads come off too overwrought, and the remaining two – Rod Gnapp as “Old Man” and Patrick Russell as “Martin,” May’s date – at times sounded as if they were reading their lines for the first time. It gave the impression of a would-be Tennessee Williams production rather than the intimacy of a Shepard piece.

The production is far more successful on a technical level. Artistic Director Loretta Greco use of Andrew Boyce’s rather spartan set works at creating a claustrophobic environment out of an area that has no walls. This, combined with the fact that the stage is on a raised platform, suggests the audience is peeping on a scientific experiment or a prison cell. Very effective.

What few signs we see of the outside world are perfectly conveyed Christopher Akerlind’s lights and Sara Huddleston’s sounds. I won’t spoil it, but the sequences in which Eddie’s new mistress drives up to motel are both hilarious and terrifying at the same time.

While not a perfect production, it’s not hard to guess why the Magic is proud to have Fool for Love as part of its lasting legacy. It’s themes of buried secrets and toxic relationships are just as resonant now as they were more than 30 years ago. As long as there are people willing to fall in love, there will be unhealthy obsessions and destructive actions done on its behalf.

Grade:                  B

Fool for Love is playing until Feb. 25 at the Magic Theatre at the Fort Mason Center in San Francisco.
For tickets and information, please visit the Magic’s official site here.

Deafening ‘Silence’

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“[F]aith is like a glass of water. When you’re young, the glass is small, and it’s easy to fill up. But the older you get, the bigger the glass gets, and the same amount of liquid doesn’t fill it anymore. Periodically, the glass has to be refilled.”
– Kevin Smith, Dogma (1999)

*I saw Silence on Saturday – 14 January 2017.

There’s a saying that to collect all the information in the universe you’d need a computer the size of the entire universe. I think if the power of faith were somehow able to be measured, it would take a scale of similar grandeur, and I have no idea what you’d weigh it against. Faith has led humanity to carry out some of its greatest accomplishments as well as its most horrendous crimes. It’s an intangible thing that that has spawned immovable solid monuments. Whether or not one believes, we owe a great deal of our history on this planet to what’s been done in the name of a higher power.

But as much as believers tell themselves that their faith is immoveable, what happens when they’re faced with a test they could never have foreseen? What do they do when the power and symbols that guide their life are shown to be powerless? What happens when you meet someone who believes as strong as you do – if not stronger – but in something else entirely?

These are the kinds of spiritual questions that woke Martin Scorsese up at night. He grew up wanting to be a Jesuit priest, but wound up being the ground-breaking film-maker who directed The Last Temptation of Christ and once told Roger Ebert that he was afraid of going to Hell (not for making Last Temptation, mind you, but because he’d been divorced so many times). As much as he’s explored faith in his films – being the Catholic guilt that’s been in the background since his first feature, Mean Streets, or the explicit persecution of a religious figure, as seen in Kundun – but never as strongly as he does in his latest masterpiece, Silence.

In the 17th century, Christianity is still a religious minority in Japan. When word leaves the country that Portuguese priest Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson) has renounced his faith, his two protégés, Fathers Rodrigues and Garupe (Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver) refuse to believe. Determined to learn the truth and finish their mentor’s work, the two are given permission to enter Japan. Once there, they find themselves confronted with the very obstacles that destroyed Ferreira’s congregation. The two men will be lucky to escape their lives or, more importantly, their faith intact.

I don’t consider myself religious. I was raised… kinda Baptist (long story), grew up around Catholics, had friends who were Jews, strongly considered converting to Islam, and am now just an unaffiliated, science-minded fella. That said, I can’t think of any religious film that has shaken me to the core as much as Silence. This isn’t the pandering hypocritical fluff of Pure Flix or Kirk Cameron, nor is it the fire ‘n brimstone proselytizing of the Left Behind series (also starring Cameron); nor the say-one-thing-but-do-another material you find in Tyler Perry movies. No, this film isn’t trying to convert anyone, rather it wants each member of the audience to ask him/herself why they believe what they believe. This is a film that is absolutely respectful of a system of belief (Catholicism) and simultaneous asks what business missionaries have in trying to convert anyone.

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And I get why people get a pro-imperial vibe from the film. At first glance, it’s easy to dismiss the film as being about a bunch of White men who go to Japan to convert them to a new religion, only for the White men to cry “persecution” when confronted with alternate beliefs. (Mtv News’s Inkoo Kang has a well-written critique of the film on that basis here) As a Black man, I get that, but I don’t agree. I don’t agree because the film spends so much time with people rationally telling Rodrigues that he’s wrong. They flip every one of his pro-Church arguments back on him to explain their own beliefs and why they don’t need Catholicism. And he doesn’t really have a retort, ending most of the arguments in a stalemate. And given that “underground Catholicism” is still common in countries like China the way Islamophobia is rampant in the US, the film is less about which faith is “right” so much about what value you get from believing in a higher being that doesn’t speak back to you.

In fact, I’d argue that the one character just as important as Rodrigues is that of Kijichiro (Yōsuke Kubozuka). The character both restores and shatters Rodrigues’ faith over the course of the film. It would be easy to say the character is a coward, but Scorsese is smarter than that (as shown with Rodrigues in the film’s final act). It’s easy for any of us to say we would or wouldn’t do this or that in a given situation. It’s quite different to be confronted with such a situation. Everyone has a breaking point. Who are you to say it makes you less of a person by acknowledging it?

Since it’s a Scorsese film, it may seem a bit redundant to say that the direction and cinematography are top-notch, but they are. This is a film that takes its time, letting moments naturally build and allowing their effects to linger long after. At 1hr. 41min., it’s understandable that some might find it a tough sit. But if you’ve ever believed in anything, it’s the sort of film you never knew you had to watch.

This may be the first Andrew Garfield performance that I’ve actually liked on its own merits. He was a terrible Spider-Man and The Social Network was great on the basis of the direction and writing rather than his acting (hell, that film even fooled us into thinking Timberlake was a half-decent actor). But here, he actually becomes the actor most critics have claimed him to be for some time. He’s not just navel-gazing with his oddly-curled lip, he imbues Rodrigues with humanity and an inner struggle that’s palatable. I haven’t seen Hacksaw Ridge – his other 2016 “Catholic guilt” film, to which this one will inevitably be compared – but I can definitely say that this is a career highlight for him.

As I type these words the United States is currently under the rule of an hypocritical failed “businessman” whose voter base consisted largely of “proud Christians” (never mind that this guy’s been divorced more times than I can count) who connected with his unapologetic Islamophobia and anti-Semitism. This is a terrifying modern example of how the faith of the masses can be used as a weapon.

For the more logical of us, faith is anchor to keep us grounded when the outside world would sweep us away. I say that as someone not subscribed to any particular faith, nor am I sure that there even is any higher power. Regardless, Silence is a film that asks questions about Christianity rarely brought up by those who claim to be its loudest representatives. It’s as much a triumph of the craft of film-making as it is an examination of spirituality. And you don’t need to be well-versed in either to understand its power.

Grade:                  A

Barely ‘Live’-ing

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He’s wearing a fedora. Can hipsters tell the difference between that and a trilby?

“People ask me to predict the future, when all I want to do is prevent it. Better yet, build it.”
– Ray Bradbury, Beyond 1984: The People Machines (1979)

*I saw Live by Night on Saturday – 14 January 2017.

Is it just me or does it seem that hindsight bias is the one mental condition affecting everyone on television these days? Deep down I know it must have always been there, but I seem to have noticed more people trying to say “I told you so” these days than before – even people who blatantly never us anything. It’s not enough that every day I read some new op-ed saying “the tech bubble is this close to collapsing worse than in 2000,” but everyone claiming to be the reincarnation of Nostradamus says they foresaw every recent calamity, from the 2008 financial crisis to the season premiere of The Walking Dead. Hell, Aaron Sorkin practically based an entire tv show around hindsight bias with The Newsroom.

And it’s the sort of left-leaning bias exhibited by folks like Sorkin that brings me to today’s film. Although I fancy myself as being politically progressive/left-to-centre, I’m not one for pandering from either side of the aisle. I consider myself a logical and scientific person, so I’m more attracted to facts than opinions. With so much “fake news” consumed by people in bubbles, I’ve become even more discriminating in the legitimate sources I patronize each day. I don’t want you to talk down to me or just say you agree, I want you to tell me the truth.

Live by Night is what happens when one tries to insert the square peg of modern-day liberal bias (most of which I agree with) into the round hole of a Depression-era setting.

When Boston native Joe Coughlin (Ben Affleck) returns from World War I, the only line of work he’s able to keep is to become a heavy for leader of the Irish mob. After making the tragic mistake of sleeping with – and falling for – the boss’s girl, he retreats to Miami to build his own empire. As he fights against ignorance of local authorities and the racism of the time, it only serves to increase Joe’s vigilance in shaping the world as he sees fit.

Ever heard the term “limousine liberal”? It’s a derogatory term used to describe rich lefties who couldn’t possibly have the working class’s best interests at heart. Otherwise, why would they constantly bask in such opulence? (What the fuck is the conservative equivalent? Seriously, I’m asking. The right-wing working class voted for a multiply-bankrupted “billionaire” who wants to destroy the very regulations that keep those workers safe.) When lefties actually live up to those stereotypes and it seeps into their art – Sorkin’s growing body of work, the films of Rod Lurie, to name but a few – it’s cringe-inducing.

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Go ahead – shoot. Batman v. Superman still sucks!

Live by Night is such a misfire. I’ve never read the book, so I can’t say how much of what’s wrong is the fault of novelist Dennis Lahane. But given that Ben Affleck wrote the screen adaptation, stars in the lead role, narrates the film, and directed himself – it’s safe to say he’s behind a lot of what’s wrong.

If I had to narrow it down to two major problems, the first would be that this film feels like the highlight reel of television mini-series: characters are introduced in one scene never to return again; major developments are brushed away with a dissolve and Affleck’s own clunky narration; and the film seems to be in a constant race to both fit in and wrap up as many storylines as possible within two hours. This results in an obvious lack of character development, something the audience needs to have if they’re to have any empathy for the people on-screen.

The other problem is the film’s aforementioned modern take on politics and social mores. When Affleck’s Joe Coughlin tries to set up a casino, only to be confronted by local religious leaders, the exchanges are what one would expect to read in the transcript of the latest episode of Real Time with Bill Maher (and there’s a reason I stopped watching that damn show). A similar speech by Coughlin about “the working man” is a clumsy retread of a similar speech from Citizen Kane. But all of that pales in comparison to the film’s take on race. Coughlin’s wife/partner in Miami is the Afro-Cuban Graciela Corrales (Zoe Saldana). Not only does Coughlin – again, a native Boston, an area with a long history of racism – not care about his lover’s race, not only does he defend her and her family from the Ku Klux Klan, but he delivers yet another pretentious speech about how someday all the downtrodden races in the United States will come for what’s there’s.

As a Black man myself, I spent every moment of this wishing he’d shut up. It didn’t help matters that each of these speeches was delivered in a near-first-person direct-to-camera address.

Believe it or not, there are some good things to be found in the film. Affleck will likely never win an Oscar for acting – unless he’s undeservedly handed one the way DiCaprio was – but he knows how to get good performances from his casts. Said cast features Chris Cooper, Brendan Gleeson, Sienna Miller, Elle Fanning, Titus Welliver, and Anthony Michael Hall. Some only show up for a single scene, but they deliver their lines well.

Affleck’s other strength as a director is that he knows how to stage an action scene. Having already written and directed The Town, it makes sense that he’d fancy the old-school bullet-riddled action of crime films over the more popular explosion-heavy action blockbusters. The shoot-outs have a great sense of tension and kinetic energy that gets you interested in the outcome of these paper-thin characters. Perhaps one day Affleck will turn over the acting and writing duties to someone else as he guides the story from behind the camera.

Live by Night thinks it’s a great movie and wants you to think so as well. It says all of these things that are oh-so important and thinks you should show it due respect for having the courage to do so. But there’s an old saying about someone who says they’re great as opposed to someone who actually is. If Live by Night were a person, it would be the former.

Grade:                  C

‘Hidden’ Talents

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“You guys know about vampires? You know, vampires have no reflections in a mirror? There’s this idea that monsters don’t have reflections in a mirror.  And what I’ve always thought isn’t that monsters don’t have reflections in a mirror. It’s that if you want to make a human being into a monster, deny them, at the cultural level, any reflection of themselves. And growing up, I felt like a monster in some ways. I didn’t see myself reflected at all.”
– Junot Diaz, speaking to students at Rutgers University, 2007

*I saw Hidden Figures on Saturday – 14 January 2017.

As I was growing up, Black History Month held no shortage of surprises for me. The older I got, the more I saw that many of the innovations we take for granted these days owe much of their existence to people who look like me. As I grew more militant in my teens, my joy in discovering these Black historical figures grew to anger that they’d literally been “whited-out” of the popular consciousness, if not historical record. (You can probably think of 100 times you’ve seen actors plays Thomas Edison, but when’s the last time you saw one play George Washington Carver?)

That’s why when you see hashtags saying #RepresentationMatters, it’s not simply “a buncha’ whiny minorities who can’t see we’re doin’ ‘em a favor”. It’s certainly an attempt to erase the White/cis/hetero/Christian/male stories that are – and always have been – told ad nauseum. No, it’s an attempt to get proper recognition for taking part in the most important stories in human history. That isn’t greed, that’s wanting what’s right.

Hidden Figures is a film meant to pay tribute to some of the unsung heroes behold NASA’s Apollo Space Program. It doesn’t entirely succeed, but it makes an incredibly noble effort.

It’s 1961 and “The Space Race” is truly beginning to heat up. As the United States brings together its greatest minds to beat the Soviet Union, the US is still struggling with institutional racism and the burgeoning Civil Rights Movement. In the midst of these events we find Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson, and Dorothy Vaughan – three Black American women who work for NASA. As they fight every day to break through the glass ceiling the prevents them from advancing, their talents may be the very thing the US needs.

There’s a type of biopic that’s commonly thought of as “Disney Channel-style”: safe; lacking in controversy; and often over-simplifying historical events in an attempt not to offend, well, anyone. It’s a bit funny to think The Disney Channel has this distinction if you can remember back to the biopics they aired in the late-‘80s/early-‘90s (the ones about racism frequently featured death and the word “nigger”), but the distinction is apt in regards to both the contemporary Disney Channel and the modern biopic.

Hidden Figures falls somewhere in-between: it’s conscious enough of the time period to remember that racism was a daily part of life in the ‘60s, but avoids going into detail (neither death nor the word “nigger” are to be found), seemingly in an attempt to keep White audiences comfortable. It’s an approach that’s less “loud and proud” and more “Meet me halfway on this”. Given that the film is written, produced, and directed entirely by Whites, that isn’t surprising.

Mind you, that isn’t to say the film is bad, just that it treats its subject with kid gloves. It’s clichéd and predictable due to the conventions of mainstream biopics, but not bad. It would have been better to have a film where the characters didn’t all speak in both exposition and a self-awareness that could only come with contemporary hindsight, but make no mistake that the best efforts are made by all involved.

The cast are mostly great in their roles. Taraji P. Henson and Octavia Spencer tend to be typecast as the “ghetto baby-mama” and “sassy Black woman” (respectively), but they have a much wider range than those roles suggest. Here they wear the roles of a mathematical geniuses like comfortable coats. Janelle Monáe is adequate as the third part of their trio. Between this and Moonlight, it’s clear she means to take a serious stab at acting. She’s decent, but she hasn’t completely gotten out of the “I. Am. Reading. Lines.”-style of delivery. Hopefully this will improve with further roles. (Hell, she’s already better than the lifeless block of wood that is Michael Colter.)

Their co-stars far well also. Mahershala Ali – with whom Monáe also co-starred in Moonlight – makes the most of what is ultimately a thankless role, namely the standard love interest. Kevin Costner is… Kevin Costner. Kirsten Dunst is perfectly condescending as our heroes’ supervisor whose White privilege blinds her to her own racism. I’ve never seen The Big Bang Theory other than promos – promos which guarantee that I’ll never watch the show proper – but Jim Parsons appears to be a capable actor when he isn’t acting out nerd stereotypes thought up by the rich jocks who beat up the nerds.

Nominations notwithstanding, I’ll actually be surprised if Hidden Figures has any lasting impact. True, it tells a story of women often left out of the history books, but it does so in a way that’s almost laughable in how it doesn’t want to offend anyone. It’s a film about racism – people were offended when it happened and people will be offended telling about it. I say again that the film isn’t bad by any means, just not fully respectful of the audience’s intelligence. And given that the subjects are defined by both their race and their intellect, that’s a missed opportunity on the part of the (all-White) film-makers.

Grade:                  B+

Wounded ‘Animals’

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“And I’m here to remind you
Of the mess you left when you went away
It’s not fair to deny me
Of the cross I bear that you gave to me”

– Alanis Morissette, “You Oughta Know” (1995)

*I saw Nocturnal Animals on Sunday – 1 January 2017.

There’s an old saying that you should never insult an artist because you’ll just wind up part of their work. Few people ever heed this warning; probably because most “aspiring” artists never put forth the effort to graduate to “working” artists – to say nothing of “famous” artists. But for those who do make it to the latter stage, portraying those who wronged them can often have hilarious – if not litigious – results.

But what’s the point of making art if it doesn’t resonate with both the artist and the audience? As much as artists fancy themselves as holding a mirror up to the world, it’s a funhouse mirror with cracks and distortions purposefully placed on the image. Naturally, some people won’t like what’s reflected back at them. The real question is whether the distortion is the work of the mirror’s maker or in the eye of the beholder.

Susan Morrow’s art gallery is one of the most revered in Los Angeles. She’s a rich beautiful woman whose clientele include some of the most influential movers and shakers in the industry. But it all barely covers the emptiness she feels from her loveless marriage and spending her day around shallow sycophants.

So comfortable is she in her routine that she isn’t prepared for the arrival of a package from her first husband, Edward. The package is the manuscript to Edward’s upcoming novel, Nocturnal Animals, which he has dedicated to her. As she pushes her way through Edward’s disturbing, violent tome, she’s forced to confront some truths about their marriage which she’d rather forget.

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I never saw A Single Man, Tom Ford’s critically-acclaimed 2009 historical drama. I am, however, aware of the fact that he’s one of the most renowned fashion designers in the entire world. Given that success in one field doesn’t automatically translate into another (just look at every musician who’s tried to break into films, and vice versa), I probably would have had greater doubts about this film, had I gone in knowing Ford both directed it and adapted the screenplay. In fact, given the film’s confusing trailers, I didn’t know what to expect.

Thankfully, my love Amy Adams served me well (at least, better than it did the last time) and I was treated to a story about how life manifests itself through art in unexpected ways. As an artist myself – specifically a dramatist and storyteller – this struck a particular chord with me. I believe that venting one’s frustrations through art is healthy, but I worry about how my frustrations manifest themselves when they become extreme. It’s one thing for this to happen in my journal, but it’s another to showcase my angriest thoughts to the world. But at least some catharsis was achieved, right?

The performances are all top-notch. Amy Adams continues to earn her distinction as one of the best working actresses today. The difference between her younger version of Susan, who had no problem voicing her frustrations, to the older Susan, who swallows a lot of shit, is creepy in how familiar it is. I’ve never been the biggest fan of Jake Gyllenhaal – he seems to do films (Prince of Persia, Southpaw) that, to me, scream “I should be famous!” rather than showing a versatile actor. But occasionally he’ll something like this or Nightcrawler to remind us that he’s good when in the right hands. His dual performance as Edward, Susan’s ex, and Tony, the protagonist of Edward’s novel, is almost a literal interpretation of Susan’s inner frustrations. And the rest of the star-studded cast – Isla Fisher, Michael Shannon, Jena Malone, Michael Sheen, Laura Linney – all leave lasting impression, even when their characters only appear in one scene.

This is thanks in no short part to Ford. Had I this was Ford’s work going in, I probably would have expected nothing more than for the cast to all dress sharply (which they do). But to Ford’s credit, he writes and directs in such a way that his actors are able to naturally inhabit their characters. Better yet, he and cinematographer Seamus McGarvey know when to hold back when necessary. Make no mistake, all of the shots are gorgeous, but the duo know when well-choreographed action is needed and when a quiet still shot can be just as effective, if not moreso.

Nocturnal Animals was a pleasant surprise because I expected nothing more than another award-season indie drama starring a bunch of pretty white people whose lives are suddenly up-ended. Granted, the film checks off every item on that list, but it’s strength is that in spite of that (and the aforementioned confusing ad campaign) it’s still a story about scars that linger long after the damage has healed. It may manifest itself in the form of quiet reservation, it may manifest itself in the form of bloody revenge. But you have to acknowledge it, otherwise you’re just risking more damage.

Grade:                  A

Social Media writing

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The following is a small collection of posts that I’ve been hired to create for the social media pages of various companies and organizations.

Zackees (2014-2015)

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Property Connect (2014)

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24/7 Inktoner (2015-2016)

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I also ghost-wrote 24/7 Inktoner’s tech-related blog (under the alias of webmaster “Steven Leigh”) from 2015-2016. The blog can be found here.

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More samples available upon request.

The Gift of ‘Gab’

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“I hold that man is in the right who is most closely in league with the future.”
– Henrik Ibsen, Letter to Georg Brandes (3 January 1882)

An artist has only so much control over how their work is interpreted, but at least they can answer questions when they’re alive. One the artist has died, not even the most iron-fisted estate can protect the world from a great work being “re-envisioned” into something scarcely resembling the creator’s vision. Granted, fresh perspectives reveal a classic work’s continued relevance (or lack thereof), but forcing the square peg of an older work into the round hole of modern social mores is often a losing gambit.

This problem is apparent in Cutting Ball’s new production of Hedda Gabler.

The whole house is abuzz with talk of Jørgen Tesman’s new wife, Hedda. The daughter of the unseen General Gabler, Hedda married less for love and more to avoid spinster status. Still, she’s making the best of her new life. But when her scandalous past looks to derail her husband’s promising future, Hedda is forced into a position where the only choice of her own free will is one with lasting consequences.

L-R: Thea Elvsted (Carla Pauli), Eilert Løvborg (Kunal Prasad), Hedda (Britney Frazier), Jørgen Tesman (Francisco Arcila) Photo by Liz Olson

L-R: Thea Elvsted (Carla Pauli), Eilert Løvborg (Kunal Prasad), Hedda (Britney Frazier), Jørgen Tesman (Francisco Arcila)
Photo by Liz Olson

There are times when it’s appropriate to add humor to a dramatic story. After all, life is neither wholly tragic nor wholly comical; even the heaviest tales have moments of levity. It’s another thing entirely to try to rework a straight forward drama into a slapstick comedy, which is what director Yury Umov has done with this production. The moment Berte the maid (Michelle Drexler) stumbles with a bouquet of flowers in the play’s opening minutes it becomes clear that Umov has decided to transform Ibsen’s most oft-performed drama into a Marx Brothers production. It doesn’t work.

Not only are the pratfalls out of place, but the performances are contradictory to Ibsen’s text (which, it should be noted, is well preserved by adaptor Paul Walsh). Everyone is played as such a scenery-chewing caricature that I’m honestly surprised that no one threw a pie. If this version of Brack (Steve Thomas, made a commissioner here, rather than the traditional judge) had tied Hedda to train tracks and twirled his moustache, it would have easily fit the tone of the entire show.

Of course, had that scenario occurred, it would have been difficult to feel sorry for this Hedda anyway. The secret to Hedda, as written by Ibsen, is that she’s smarter than she lets on. As much as she’s subject to the will of others, her ability to adapt to situations shows that she can never be controlled. It’s part of what makes the play’s infamous final act so shocking – she’s finally backed into a corner from which there’s no escape. But this Hedda, as played by Britney Frazier under Umov’s direction, has two modes: 1 – swagger with a Cheshire cat-grin; and 2 – steel-faced detachment. It’s clear that they were going for a more “empowering” interpretation than earlier versions (casting a black woman in the title role amongst a mostly-white cast adds to this), but they’ve actually gone the other direction and presented her here as a conniving black widow. Just as the rest of the cast come off as cartoonish villains, our would-be heroine comes off as someone’s idea of a “badass chick” rather than a fleshed-out human being.

The production is much more successful in its set design by Jacquelyn Scott. The nearly-all-white set consists of four sets of rolling patio doors to indicate setting changes. I’m not entirely sure what the hanging flower bouquets represent, but they give a lovely contrast to the white set pieces. Maybe that was the point? Just as the lead actress – a black woman – is meant to stand out against he mostly-white co-stars, it would make sense that the set design follows suit.

So too does the costume design by Alina Bokovikova. You can’t tell from the photos above (I assume the costumes weren’t completed when they photos were taken), but the majority of the cast are dressed in steampunk-suggestive attire: Jørgen starts off in a thick pair of industrial goggles; Berte is always seen in a brown leather apron; etc. The exception, of course, is Hedda, whose attire suggests the floral rather than mechanical.

Although the slapstick tone is off, sound designer Cliff Caruthers seems to be having fun with the playlist he’s selected for transitions. The play begins with The Magnetic Fields’ “How Fucking Romantic,” later adding classics from The Foundations, Tiny Tim, Nina Simone, and Bobby Vinton. There’s also a quiet electronica score in the first act that seems to vanish afterward. Hamilton Guillén’s lights are effective, but the constant back-and-forth switching of them – particularly in Hedda’s first scene with Brack – came off as overkill.

All in all, solid on the production-side.

It’s a tempting bit of hubris to think that having a modern outlook means ours is more enlightened. The problem with that is failing to recognize the value of the original. This production of Hedda Gabler has the actors delivery serious lines silly, joyful lines angrily, and uses unnecessary pratfalls for blocking that only requires a character walk from one point to another. None of this adds to Ibsen’s work, nor reveals anything about it.

It’s a shame really: there’s a lot of talent in both the cast and crew. If there’d been just as much respect for the source material, the result would have been something special.

Grade:            C

Hedda Gabler‘s regular run begins this Thursday the 26th at The EXIT on Taylor.
For tickets and information, please visit Cutting Ball.

Swinging for the ‘Fences’

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“My greatest influence has been the blues. And that’s a literary influence, because I think the blues is the best literature that we as black Americans have.”
– August Wilson, interview in The Believer, November 2004

*I saw Fences on Sunday – 25 December 2016.

If you ever need proof as to how institutional racism is imbedded into the world of art, look no further than the use of Black American patois. Our slang continuously sets the tone for what’s considered “cool” in the US – nay, the world – but it only gets recognition once White people adopt it. In a perfect world, E-40 would get more recognition for his contributions to the national vernacular than Quentin Tarantino ever did by using the word “nigger” as a punctuation.

In fact, a perfect world would recognize the dialogue of August Wilson as being just as important – if not more so – than those of Tarantino and David Mamet. Few other authors so accurately captured the rhythm, cadence, and comfort of Black American voices. Through his 10-play “Pittsburgh Cycle”, he painted a painfully intimate portrait of the Black experience through the 20th century. But just as Octavia E. Butler’s contributions to science fiction have been forgotten, so too have Wilson’s contributions to theatre.

His 1985 Pultizer-winning play Fences was nearly made into a film after its successful Broadway run, using a screenplay by the author himself. It ultimately failed to materialize due to Wilson’s insistence that the film have a Black director. None of his works have gotten big screen adaptations until now. Using the Wilson screenplay (mostly – more on that below) and a Black director in Denzel Washington, this quintessentially American story has finally been captured on film.

And it was well worth the wait.

If there’s one thing you can say about Troy Maxson (Washington), it’s that he’s a survivor. He’s survived a rough childhood, daily racism, and the burden of caring for his family to make life for himself. He may not be the successful ball player he could have been, but the life he’s created with his wife Rose Lee (Viola Davis) is a happy one. Mostly. The combined circumstances of a possible job advancement and his son Cory’s athletic potential plant a resentment in Troy based on not having become the success he should have been. No longer content with his everyday routine, Troy begins taking small steps that will have drastic repercussions for he and his family.

fences-stillIt’s a damn shame that Wilson himself didn’t live to see this film. Knowing that he passed away in 2005, one can only speculate the playwright – who described himself as “not a big movie person” – would have reacted to the final product. For those of us who revere his work, this is (almost) better than we could have ever asked for. Whereas some film adaptations of plays tend to highlight the play’s shortcomings (August: Osage County), lose something in translation (Les Misérables), or both – in addition to being released too late to ride the play’s popularity – (Rent), a piece like Fences has the timeless appeal of Death of a Salesman, to which it’s often compared.

As a director, Washington makes great use of both himself and his fellow cast mates from the 2010 revival of the play. I’m often wary of actors who direct themselves, as it tends to scream “vanity project”. Thankfully, Washington’s directorial choices have wisely kept the focus off of him alone, even when the frame does just that. His portrayal of Troy is layered in a way Washington has rarely been onscreen. I can’t imagine any other director getting a better performance out of him, even frequent collaborator Spike Lee.

But if any one member of the across-the-board-excellent cast deserves praise, it’s Viola Davis. Just as Naomie Harris in the recent Moonlight, Davis takes what could have been an overwrought performance (can you imagine Tyler Perry directing this film?) and injects it with a beating human heart that you can feel through the screen. Rose Lee is neither “mammy” caricature nor Hotep straw-woman. She’s a living, breathing human being who struggles to maintain her composure in light of the curveball life has thrown her. And also like Naomie Harris, if Davis’ name doesn’t show up during nominations, you’ll know the game is rigged.

Seeing and hearing how well the entire cast “sings” Wilson’s words, I’d be remiss to not mention the words that likely aren’t Wilson’s. Although the screenplay is solely credited to Wilson, it’s no secret that Washington retained the services of another Pulitzer-winning playwright when adapting the screenplay: Tony Kushner. As the film went into production, I wrote an entire article for SF Theater Pub about what it could potentially mean. So as to not repeat that article here, let’s just say I was worried about such a distinctive White writer attempting to adapt such an equally distinctive Black writer.

If you know the play, it would appear that whatever changes were made were for staging purposes – the words are clearly all Wilson’s. If I had to guess, I’d say that Kushner is responsible for the slight drag that occurs during the film’s final act. As shown with the scripts for Munich and Lincoln, Kushner’s screenplays tend to go on longer than they should. One could say the same for his stage plays, but those are his own pieces and there’s always a reason for his extending those story.  The one flaw keeping me from giving this film a flawless grade is that the final act could have used some pruning, be it in the script or the editing bay.

But that is definitely the only flaw against it.

The play Fences was a labor of love for August Wilson, and an equal amount of love was put into its film adaptation. I hope this film will lead more people to seek out his work – hopefully live productions – and I also hope further film adaptations will be produced with this level of care and talent. This is what Wilson deserves. This is what we all deserve.

Grade:                  A-

Going ‘Rogue’

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“Writers should not waste their time or talent trying to tell stories in someone else’s universe.”
– Orson Scott Card, on fan fiction in the afterward to Maps in a Mirror
(NOTE: Despite this statement, Card does, in fact, write fan-fiction)

*I saw Rogue One: A Star Wars Story on Sunday – 25 December 2016.

It’s easy to see why some people think George Lucas hates Star Wars; that every post-Empire entry into the franchise – from the Ewoks to the digital addition of Hayden Christensen – was his way of trying to slaughter the very goose that continually laid him golden eggs (even if some of those eggs stunk). That’s an oversimplification, of course, but to read about the anti-corporate Lucas who cut his teeth under the tutelage of Francis Ford Coppola, it’s not hard to think that he’d rather be making the next THX-1138 rather than the umpteenth tale in the galaxy far, far away.

In 2012, he unburdened himself from the Death Star on his shoulder by selling Lucasfilm and the Star Wars franchise to Disney. He’s lived a comparatively quiet existence since – getting married, fathering his first (biological) child, and only occasionally appearing to make stupid comments. And if he wanted to free himself from all corporate cinematic responsibilities, perhaps it can be read as subtle commentary that he turned his creation over to the (often) redundant corporate entity that is The Mouse House.

With the release of JJ Abrams’ The Force Awakens and the new spin-off Rogue One, Disney appear to be fully committed to their publicly announced plan to release one Star Wars film per year. For those wondering if this will lead to too much of a good thing, you needn’t worry: both films released thus far show Disney have no intention of making the films good.

Nearly two decades after the rise of the Galactic Empire, the last remnants of The Old Republic have manifested themselves in the form of a Rebel Alliance. They strike the occasional significant blow to the Empire, but the latter’s resources are unlimited. So much so that they’ve nearly completed construction on a new super weapon. With the aid of a petty criminal named Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), the Rebels plot to infiltrate an imperial base and discover if it’s at all possible to destroy this weapon before it destroys them.

I should love this movie. It’s a reverent nod to the original trilogy through a modern day sensibilities and technology meant to shed light on shadows of the classic story that were previously unseen. It has, to date, the most diverse cast of any live action Star Wars film. It presents the idea of moral gray areas that add complexity to series’ clichéd “good vs. evil”. This is like the Extended Universe comics come to life.

Knowing said diversity made Trump supporters boycott is an added bonus.

Knowing said diversity made Trump supporters boycott is an added bonus.

So why do I think it fails? Because both it and The Force Awakens fall into the trap of all fan-fiction: they just rehash old stories with familiar characters. I know that sounds, given the debt Star Wars (and the Indiana Jones films) owes to both well-worn mythologies and film genres. Nevertheless, the original Star Wars distinguished itself in its retelling; the new films make the same mistake as Lucas’ prequels in the way the merely refurbish what we’ve already seen before. It’s like watching Eragon again. Strike that – Eragon was merely a rip-off; the new Star Wars flicks are fan-fic made canon.

Which isn’t to say there’s nothing good. If Rogue One makes one indisputable triumph, it sure as hell isn’t the CGI grave-robbing of Peter Cushing (and, retroactively, Carrie Fisher), but how it treats one of the series most important characters: this movie makes Darth Vader scary. I don’t mean just “evil” (we already know that) or merely intimidating. No, there’s a scene in this film that appears to come straight out of a slasher film, with a Sith lord and his lightsaber in place of a masked man with an axe. It’s intense, it’s terrifying, it’s a great thing to behold.

And it’s a welcome relief to a film that exists to give unnecessary details to a story for which we already know the ending.

Credit where it’s due: Rogue One is pretty to look at, and has some genuinely exciting set pieces at its disposal. That doesn’t change the fact that its existence is only to prove that the franchise has become the redundant corporate machine Lucas feared it would be. At least he can say that doesn’t have to worry about it anymore. Not many paying movie-watchers can say the same.

Grade:                  C+