Sunday, February 28, 2010

"Just making sure." - The Crazies (2010)

“Just making sure,” says Deputy Russell Clank (Joe Anderson) in a matter of fact tone as he pumps lead into the dead bodies of a woman and boy infected with a secret biological toxin that turns people into murderous “crazies.” Now, that’s a clever survivor – unlike many stupid, so-called survivors who fail to make sure a zombie is dead, or stand around to see if a bite victim is going to get better, as many have in the plethora of zombie or zombie-like movies released in the past ten years. "Just making sure." I like that - and I laughed out loud. If you’re going to watch another zombie-like horror flick, you might as well have quick-shooting good guys. The Crazies has that plus more.

Often gripping, The Crazies follows your standard zombies-caused-by-biological-weapon plot. The government fucked up. The plane carrying their killer virus to a disposal site crashes near the peaceful Iowa town of Ogden Marsh. People get infected and start shooting, burning, sawing, and impaling fellow townspeople. Government steps in and tries to contain the disaster – and you know what that means. So Sheriff David Dutton (Timothy Olyphant), his gorgeous wife Judy (Radha Mitchell), and Deputy Russell Clank (Joe Anderson), try to escape before the final dust off.

To embellish the standard shocks and gore, you have the radiant, kick-ass Mitchell – one of my favorite horror/sci-fi heroines. (She acquitted herself well in Pitch Black and Silent Hill.) I love how her beautiful eyes turn cold and determined when she head-shoots a hideous "crazy." In addition, the film features some artful cinematography of wide-open Iowa farmland and empty two-lane roads disappearing into the distance. This worthwhile little horror entertainment opens with a gripping appearance of a shotgun-toting farmer at a high school baseball game, and it also includes a terrifying scene involving a "crazy," a pitch fork, and panicking victims lying strapped to gurneys.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

"Fill your hand you son of a bitch!" - True Grit (1969)

(In anticipation of the Coen brothers’ remake of the 1969 movie True Grit, and inspired by the Film Doctor’s in-depth analysis of themes in the Coen brothers’ A Serious Man (2009), I offer this review of the original True Grit.)

In the late 1960s John Wayne teamed up with veteran action-adventure director Henry Hathaway (The Lives of a Bengal Lancer, Call Northside 777, Garden of Evil, Nevada Smith) and performers Glen Campbell (What a quaint time the 60s was – that the likes of country singer Glen Campbell could be a significant audience draw!), Kim Darby (She was an unknown; but I remembered her at the time from her touching role as a young girl doomed to die in adolescence in the Star Trek episode “Miri” ), Robert Duvall – with the accompaniment of a rousing musical score by Elmer Bernstein (The Magnificent Seven) – to make a faithful adaptation of the Charles Portis novel True Grit. John Wayne’s performance as Reuben J. “Rooster” Cogburn, the overweight, alcoholic, eye-patched U.S. Marshall known for shooting first and asking questions later, won the Duke his first and only Oscar for Best Actor. Yes, he overacts at times. Yes, he deserved the Oscar for his superior performance in The Searchers or The Shootist - or both. But within this elegiac, beautifully-filmed Western adventure about vengeance and shattered innocence, Wayne performs in some memorably touching as well as hilarious moments, and the film is a dramatic look at a time in history when it was getting tough to be an outlaw – and just as tough to be a lawmen dealing ruthlessly with the ruthless.

When her father is murdered by drunken ranch hand Tom Chaney (Jeff Corey), fourteen-year-old Mattie Ross takes it upon herself to hire the shooting Marshall Cogburn to track down the killer and bring him back dead or alive. Mattie, a parsimonious, obsessive-compulsive “little priss” has a very tough and determined side to her. She tells the sheriff of Fort Smith, “I will not rest until Tom Chaney is barking in hell.” That’s a great line. And she’s tough enough to stand up to Marshall Rooster Cogburn, that “drunken gabby fool.” She gets what she wants when it comes to horse dealing, to the extent that it drives horse trader Colonel Stonehill (Strother Martin) to say, “I have just received word that a young girl fell head-first into a fifty-foot well… I thought perhaps it was you.” She also wants to accompany Rooster Cogburn on the manhunt, along with Texas Ranger LaBoeuf (pronounced La Beef) (Glen Campbell), in pursuit of Chaney for shooting a Texas senator off a porch swing. Thus, Mattie Ross embarks on the adventure of her life.

But it is an adventure that turns traumatic and robs Mattie of her youth. In her mind, it should be easy to catch Tom Chaney. Just ambush him on the road, beat him senseless with sticks, and tie him up. Her conception of the undertaking is like a kid’s game, like the play-acting she suggests for their first night camping out. But violence and death come abruptly and shockingly when they come upon a cabin harboring two men connected with “Lucky Ned” Pepper (Robert Duvall), the notorious outlaw Rooster “shot in the lip” once upon a time. When Moon (a young Dennis Hopper) threatens to give in and divulge what he knows, Quincy (Jeremy Slater) chops his fingers off with a hunting knife and stabs him before Rooster shoots Quincy. Blood and fingers everywhere, and that night as they wait in ambush for Ned’s gang, Mattie seems sobered by the ghastliness of death.

Alhough the first half of the film, filmed more claustrophobically in the town of Fort Smith, consists of sparring and joking amongst Rooster, LaBoeuf, Mattie, and the hapless characters who come in contact with Mattie's Puritanical rigidity, the exteriors of the second half of the film, with the grand and belittling Rocky Mountains standing in for the Winding Stair Mountains of Arkansas, sets the story in a radiant fall that suggests the declining of all things. Dazzling shots of brilliant yellow aspen leaves make it clear that winter is coming. The nights are cold. Youth and the day when a man like Rooster could get away with arresting someone without a warrant or killing someone without cause are waning. Young people can die, too – as seen in Moon’s death and in the death of fair-haired, “little boy Billy,” a member of Ned’s gang who came from a good family. Even the ruthless outlaw Ned Pepper, wonderfully played by Duvall as a snake-eyed, mean little man, knows his outlaw days are numbered. “I need a good judge.”

Overweight and short of breath (he had lost a lung to cancer), John Wayne is well-suited for his role as an indolent alcoholic. The eye patch covering his Civil War wound suggests a pirate or outlaw. Indeed, Cogburn’s sordid past is in keeping with the film’s look at the ironies of justice and injustice. During the Civil War, he rode with Missouri guerrillas. After the war, he robbed a bank in New Mexico. Cogburn is quite a character, and Wayne takes his portrayal of the shooting marshall into the realm of caricature.

But John Wayne's presence, as in most of his films, gives the film solidity, definitely buoying up Glen Campbell’s terrible acting by siding with Mattie and making the foolish Texas ranger the brunt of Cogburn’s jokes. When the Texan makes a mess of a wild turkey with a Sharps rifle, Cogburn observes to the disgusted Mattie, “Too much gun.” When the Texan ruins the ambush by shooting too early and hitting Ned’s horse instead of Ned, Cogburn concludes, “Well, La Boeuf, you’re quite a horse shooter.”

Kim Darby is not a great actress. When Darby plays scenes with Campbell, it’s a bit like watching poor high school performers merely reciting lines thinking about what they’re saying. But Wayne brings the best out of Darby, and together they develop a tender father-daughter rapport that embellishes three particularly poignant scenes. In two of the scenes, Cogburn tells Mattie of his wild and wayward life, and Mattie begins to see the good in him, getting over her prejudice that Cogburn is a despicable low-life, merely a tool for her to use to get what she wants. Later, she is significantly impressed when Cogburn faces four outlaws all on his own and boldly tells Ned, “Fill your hand, you son of a bitch.” What ensues is one of the most beautiful and thrilling long shots in the history of Westerns: Cogburn charging the four outlaws in a meadow surrounded by aspens bright with autumnal yellow.

"Fill your hands you son of a bitch."

That said, I don't see the recent commentary suggesting that the Coens want to make their new adaptation of the novel more from Mattie's point of view - that the 1969 is all about Rooster Cogburn. Not so. The opening scene and the last scene are from Mattie's point of view. The first scenes of the film follow Mattie as she goes from place to place in Fort Smith inquiring into the death of her father and arranging his burial. We first see Rooster through Mattie's eyes as a mean cuss (he rough handles a prisoner) and a remorseless killer (he talks in court about his career shooting suspects). Throughout the film, as Rooster talks about his life, Mattie's condescending attitude toward this drunken lout changes to one of endearment and respect.

Wayne’s last scene with Darby is one of the most touching scenes in any Western. Mattie has narrowly escaped death, and she meets Cogburn in the family cemetery on her ranch to bid him farewell. Mattie’s offer of a place next to her grave suggests that Mattie doesn’t see normal womanhood and marriage as her future. Fall has faded; it’s winter now.

Standing in his classic Michelangelo’s David stance, one knee bent, Wayne as old Rooster is touched. He tells her that that place in the cemetery should be for her kin, and besides, he might be old, but he wants to avoid death as long as possible. Cogburn, the man of dubious morals, keeps plodding on in life. He has a new horse that can jump a four-rail fence. “You’re too old and fat to be jumping horses.” You’re wrong there, “little sister.” In the film’s final image, Cogburn does it. He jumps a fence, hat held on high. Cogburn moves on in life. Mattie stays behind, injured, mournful.

Looking Forward to the Remake:

So it looks like the Coen brothers’ remake of True Grit is in the filming stage. Although the original holds a special place in my heart because of my love for John Wayne and my nostalgia for the thrilling experience of seeing it in theaters upon its release, I am really looking forward to he Coens' take on the story. We need more Westerns. The cast looks great. Apparently, Jeff Bridges plays John Wayne; I mean Rooster Cogburn. I can’t think of a better choice. Matt Damon takes over Glenn Campbell’s role, and Josh Brolin plays Tom Chaney. Actually, Brolin would also make a great Ned Pepper. Relative newcomer Hailee Steinfield will play Mattie Ross. And you can’t go wrong with Roger Deakins (The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford) in charge of cinematography. Oh, yeah, and the Coens direct.

I’m not going to miss it!

The Directors Joel and Ethan Coen

John Wayne and Jeff Bridges (most likely) as U.S. Marshall Reuben "Rooster" Cogburn

Matt Damon as Texas Ranger La Boeuf - Josh Brolin as Murderer Tom Chaney

Hailee Steinfield as Mattie Ross

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Thoughts on Shutter Island

Here There Be Spoilers:

What I liked about this movie –

The grand dramatic entrance: Shutter Island opens as a ferry emerges from the fog, taking Federal Marshall Teddy Daniels to Shutter Island mental hospital. As he and his sidekick, Chuck (Mark Ruffalo) are driven to the hospital’s imposing gates, the musical score is an ominous, dramatic theme heralding Teddy’s descent into hell. At first I felt the music was overblown, but as a dramatic moment it is one of the best in the film.

Out in the storm: Snooping around for clues to the whereabouts of a patient who has supposedly disappeared, Teddy and Chuck find themselves in heavy rain in a woods that starts to fall down around them. They take refuge in a crypt. Spooky, yes, and very dramatic.

Michelle Williams plays Teddy’s dead wife as a sultry beauty with a deep sadness about her. Her presence is wonderful, and the dreams in which she appears reminded me of the flashbacks to the soldier’s wife, played by Miranda Otto, in The Thin Red Line. As Otto is in Malick’s movie, Williams is hauntingly seductive.

Leonardo DiCaprio always delivers a solid performance. I love his intensity. I’ve read articles suggesting that Scorsese should end his partnership with DiCaprio. I disagree.

DiCaprio is supported by a wonderful cast. Ruffalo is perfect as the laid-back film noir sidekick, offsetting Teddy’s stronger emotions. If a film involves a cover-up, or a perceived cover-up, you can always find Max Von Sydow (as in Minority Report) – or Ben Kingsley – and this movie has both of them, and here both play doctors, a pair of Gothic horror Frankensteins in a sinister castle. Once again, Jackie Earle Haley shows his talent for playing an emaciated weirdo, and Elias Koteas provides horror with his ghastly, stitched face. I don’t know if this is intentional direction on Marty’s part, but Koteas looks and sounds like Robert De Niro playing one of his psycho roles.

Scorsese’s art direction and cinematography are always excellent. He knows how to evoke an ominous, threatening atmosphere with artistic lighting and atmospheric shots of corridors, doorways, and cells juxtaposed with the opulence of the doctors’ parlor and dining room.

The spiral stairway reminiscent of the stairway in Vertigo: In the same way Scottie (James Stewart) overcomes deep fears and ascends a twisting stairway to a revelation, Teddy climbs toward a revelation of similarly dramatic impact. I cringed from the tension and atmosphere, but I also cringed because I knew I was going to get pretty substantial proof regarding what is going on at Shutter Island – and I didn’t want the revelation to be what I had suspected since –

- The massacre at Dachau: I enjoyed the visceral effect of this surrealistic scene. I loved the shot from the point of view of the German prisoners as the shots approach them down the line. But it was here – and this scene comes rather early in the film – that I began to suspect that Teddy was possibly insane and deluding himself regarding the strange happenings on Shutter Island.

What I didn’t like about this movie –

The film loses tension as it moves along ponderously into too many mysteries. A little tightening would have maintained the suspense which starts to leak away as the storm goes on too long. In particular, the dream in which Teddy is embracing Dolores (Williams) in a shower of ashes goes on too long. It’s a wonderfully haunting image – but its length weakens its impact.

The big revelation that Teddy has been on the island all along as an inmate and that his investigation into the disappearance of an inmate and into his suspicions of some sort of pernicious cover-up of evil experimentation is all self-delusion: I knew this was coming since the Dachau massacre scene. The massacre happens in such an unrealistic way – a sparse rank of soldiers with M1s could hardly mow down a thick block of prisoners in such a methodical way. There was a shooting of unarmed German guards at Dachau, but it didn’t happen this way. Then, as other scenes seem surrealistic - the power of the storm, for example - my suspicions grew.

So as Teddy climbs the lighthouse stairway, I expected the whole "reality" of the film to be popped like a bubble. It’s my problem, I admit – my problem with how I perceive cinematic narrative. I guess I’m so geared to perceiving cinematic action as a story that is happening – unless it’s an obvious flashback, dream, or illusion. That most of what we saw is an illusion just feels like lazy plotting to me and a cheap twist ending.

As I said, I loved Teddy and Chuck’s grand, dramatic entrance – but when I discover at the end that this scene that I accepted as reality never happened, then the whole drama of the film is popped for me in the same way my conception of what is going is burst for me.

It’s also a disappointment to me when I see that a film has missed a greater dramatic potential. As Teddy climbs the stairway, I cringed from the established tension, but I also cringed, knowing that I was going to learn that Teddy is deluding himself. I actually uttered, “No, no, no, no!” But I was also suspended by the possibility of a much more dramatic twist: the doctors convince him to accept his insanity and then, resigned, he’s ready to be led away – but then he sees, and we, the audience, see it with him, some slip-up on the part of the doctors that indicates that he is not insane. That he is right. There is a cover-up of dastardly experiments.

Finally, we come to the last scene in which Teddy talks about whether it’s better to live as a monster or die as a good man. I initially took this as a possibility that the end can be taken ambiguously – that, indeed, there has been a cover-up, Teddy is not insane, and he realizes there’s no hope – he might as well get lobotomized. But I have Googled interpretations of this ending, and it’s pretty clear that there is no ambiguity.

But, okay, so he’s going to be taken off to get a lobotomy. Well, then, why would an orderly bring the instruments (the sharp pointy thing sticking out of the towel – this was not a syringe in case he needed to be sedated) out into the garden? Aren't the instruments ready for him in the operating room? I think I was sharp enough at that point that I didn’t need to be shown the instrument in order to conclude that they were going to scramble Teddy’s brains.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Two for Valentine's Day Weekend

Okay, so I got it backwards. I saw The Wolfman on the 14th and Valentine’s Day on the 15th, but my wife didn’t mind me abandoning her on Valentine’s Day because her birthday is on the 13th. That’s her day, and the 14th gets short shrift. We exchange cards. I get some chocolates to eat at the movies.

The Wolfman, a satisfying entertainment full of growls, slashing claws, and hairy CGI werewolves, makes the clever choice of setting its story in the Blackmoor and in London, England, in 1891 – as a classic monster tale should be. There’s something about the dank moor, the dinghy pubs, the shadowy mansions, and the coal-smoke shrouded London skyline that’s just the right setting for a tale about werewolves.

The Wolfman also chooses a cast of performers well suited to the Gothic genre and the Victorian time period. Benicio Del Toro is perfect as Lawrence Talbot, the hapless victim of a werewolf attack; he already looks dark and wolf-like before CGI sets in. Anthony Hopkins is wonderfully hairy in beard and long hair as Lawrence’s lycanthropic pop. Emily Blunt, fetching in those tight bodices, does a solid job of playing the beauty that thinks she can tame the beast, and Hugo Weaving taps his inner Agent Smith to play a no-nonsense Scotland Yard inspector investigating the slaughter of villagers by madman or beast.

The local villagers certainly need Scotland Yard's help. I got a special kick out of one scene in which the angry villagers think that a docile-looking CGI bear belonging to a band of gypsies is the beast responsible for recent eviscerations and decapitations. The villagers are set straight when the full moon sends the local werewolf on a killing spree.

Sudden starts pumped up by excessive sound bursts are employed unnecessarily here. (In fact, they should be banned from all horror films.) The art direction successfully sets a tense, spooky, Gothic atmosphere, and the film is expeditiously paced, gripping, and includes a steam-powered London omnibus that gets toppled and attacked King Kong-style. It also includes the classic research-lycanthropy-in-dusty-leather-volumes scene that is trite but fun.

I saw Valentine's Day with my daughter, who is a walking encyclopedia of pop culture, and I thought it would be fun spotting the stars. The two young women sitting behind me obviously knew their share of pop culture because they sighed whenever a handsome male star made his appearance. I bet they watched a lot of television. I do not exaggerate when I say that they incessantly uttered a pair of synchronized “Ahhhs” at every corny, sentimental moment in the film – and there were quite a few of those. At first I found them irritating, but when a number of other groups of young women began uttering similar “Ahhhs,” and when a teenage girl yelled out something like “Yeah, baby,” when Taylor Lautner appeared on screen, I settled back and accepted this as an audience participation sort of experience. So when Jessica Biel, who plays a sports agent who hosts a lonely hearts dinner every February 14th for her dateless friends because she’s always alone on Valentine’s Day, I blurted out, “Why?”

Valentine’s Day is like Pulp Fiction. It takes place in L.A. It follows the concurrent stories of numerous disconnected characters. A lot of the disconnected characters end up connected at the end. There the similarities end.

Valentine’s Day is exceedingly silly, but I have to admit it is genuinely funny without being crass, and I laughed out loud a number of times, especially at Jessica Biel, quite hilarious as the awkward workaholic who never has time for relationships.

The rest of the stars do their part effectively. Taylor Swift plays an irritating teenage ditz. She’s probably had a lot of experience with that. Anyway, ditzy teenage girls are supposed to be irritating. Taylor Lautner threatens to take his shirt off. The audience got tense. Bradley Cooper and Julia Roberts play passengers sitting together on a plane. I don't understand why Julia Roberts is such a big star. Anne Hathaway plays a struggling poetry major who makes money doing phone sex. A cat’s rough tongue takes on new meaning. Her shocked boyfriend is played by Topher Grace, who gets some laughs out of his conservative guy from Muncie, Indiana, routine. Shirley MacLaine is old.

Ashton Kutcher, as the owner of a booming florist business, provides the central thread that links many of the subplots, and he’s best friends with the best kind of best friend: Jennifer Garner, I mean, Julia, played by Jennifer Garner, a woman who learns the shocking truth about her lover on Valentine’s Day but who also learns that the best love just might be your best friend. Ahhh! Kutcher also engages in some very funny jokes on airport security lines as he races against time to try to stop Julia from getting hurt. As far as movies about Valentine’s Day go, this was a good one.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

The Drama of Looking - The Rains Came (1939)

I recently enjoyed Jason Bellamy’s visual analysis of carefully considered close-ups in Hitchcock’s Psycho for its insightful examination of Hitchcock's dramatic use of close-ups as well as for its serendipity, for I had just purchased The Rains Came on DVD, not just because I like any movie that interrupts vain human longings and petty frictions with a rousing earthquake and flood, but because I adore the film's black-and-white cinematography, and I especially admire one beautifully filmed and edited scene that includes the same sort of judicious use of close-ups for dramatic effect mentioned in Jason's post. In addition, the scene includes a fine example of the drama of looking - the simple visual device of a character looking at and seeing an object that has dramatic significance - a device also mastered by Hitchcock in many of his films.

Clarence Brown's The Rains Came (1939), one of the numerous films of the British-in-India genre popular in the 1930s, features Myrna Loy as Lady Edwina Esketh, a notorious high society woman who finds new meaning in life and a chance to change her ways when she falls in love with a handsome Indian doctor played by Tyrone Power. George Brent plays Tom Ransome, a cynical alcoholic, similarly outcast in India by his notoriety. But the film’s famous set piece is the earthquake, followed by a flood, that devastates the state of Ranchipur and changes everything for Lady Edwina and Tom Ransome.

Films of this type portray British occupation of India as a matter of fact and a jolly good thing. I digress here, but I’ve often wondered why they were such popular Hollywood fare. While they glorify Queen Victoria and seem to pay tribute to a British sense of order, they boldly accept British imperialism and often portray Indians as caricatures, but when I was a boy I loved them for their action, adventure, and exotic settings, ever since I saw The Lives of a Bengal Lancer (1935), with Gary Cooper, one of my favorite films of the 1930s.

The scene I examine here takes place in the hospital where Major Rama Safti (Power) is treating victims of a bubonic plague epidemic caused by the disaster. In an act of self-sacrifice designed to atone for her wastrel existence, Lady Esketh takes on work there as a common nurse, willing to scrub blood from the surgery floor and tend to plague victims.


Lady Esketh pours water for a plague victim ...

Look at the beautiful composition and lighting in this shot ...

She sees the fan coolie faint and she calls for help ...

She sets the glass of water down in the wrong place, nicely lit by the lamp. Note that the "right place" is illuminated on the other side of the frame.

She disinfects her hands. Note the pitcher lit in the background. Thus, we know what she has done wrong and what is going to happen. But the suspense and drama lie in her looking and seeing what we already know and dread.

Back at her station, she gets thirsty and pours a glass of water and drinks ...

She doesn't see the other glass ...

Her eyes fall on the other pitcher without its glass ...

The camera pans quickly ...

Close-up on the other pitcher. Lady Esketh says, "The glass."

She knows - we know - her fatal error, but the suspense lies in her looking for the final evidence of that error ...

She looks and sees the glass and the pitcher, but is it the glass?

The camera pulls around ...

... slowly revealing ...

... the uncontaminated glass - highlighted by reflections of light - behind the pitcher ...

She reacts in horror ...

Then, masterfully, the camera pulls back from the close-up to reveal the whole, tragic tableau.

Only four words have been spoken during the entire episode. The scene builds tension and achieves impact by using the camera to look and see what the character sees. If only more films nowadays took the time to set up shots that achieve as much.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

“Well, all right then.”

“Well, all right then,” as Sandra Bullock’s Leigh Ann Tuohy says. I saw a number of animated kids’ movies in 2009. I also saw Avatar. Now I’ve seen The Blind Side, and I no more accept any scene in that movie as reality than I accept any scene in Up or Avatar as anything but fantasy.

The Blind Side might as well have been an animated kids’ movie. Each scene (with perhaps the exception of the scene in which Leigh Anne (Sandra Bullock) meets Michael’s downtrodden, crack-addicted mother) looks and sounds absolutely phony.

Yes, I know that the events themselves occurred, but director John Lee Hancock makes no effort to make me believe the events involved real people or occurred in a place that really exists.

Each scene is like a fantasy. The rooms in the house look fake and unlived-in. The wrecked truck looks fake. Everyone in the family is happy. Everyone is so accepting of Michael. The teenage daughter (Lily Collins) is never moody, always upbeat. The tutor Miss Sue (Kathy Bates) is so bubbly with enthusiasm and good spirit. The little boy, S.J., (Jae Head) looks like a computer-animated character in a Disney-Pixar film. Indeed, the college talent scouts look and act like they are animated.

Well, perhaps Leigh Ann Tuohy (Bullock) and her Ol’ Miss grad hubbie Sean Tuohy (Tim McGraw) look like convincingly real, rich Republicans from the South. (The shot in which Sean lounges on the bed, dressed in khakis, barefoot, made me throw up a little in my mouth.) But everything else from the crisp new clothing that ALL the students at the high school wear to the way the inner city thugs talk is false.

“Well, all right then,” as Leigh Ann would say. I’ve had my say, and now I’ve seen all ten Oscar nominees for Best Picture, and now I’m convinced of how ludicrous it is to scrape the bottom of the barrel to round up ten nominees, and I now know why I will puke if Sandra Bullock wins the Oscar for Best Actress.

From her very first appearance Bullock gives a serviceable performance without any sort of emotion. Her movements are obviously choreographed, her fierce demeanor is a superficial fabrication, and I never felt for a moment that she was a real person with feelings. Note the image below. It is a Hallmark card pose that might as well have been rendered in brightly colored hand-drawn animation with a fluffy white puppy thrown in to balance out the composition.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Les Misérables – The Ups and Downs of Producing a High School Stage Production

Inspired by the Film Doctor’s entertaining and edifying logs chronicling the joys and trials of teaching a video production class, I record here the saga of producing a stage adaptation of Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables with my Drama Club, which consists of 29 students from grades 7 through 12.

Spring, 2009:

I must choose a play for the Drama Club’s annual stage production which we present each school year at the end of January. As the school year ends, upcoming seniors and other club members hang around in my room at lunch and brainstorm possible productions for the upcoming year.

I toy with the idea of doing Night of the Living Dead. I have actually found a script, but the cast is too small – except for all the zombies. I usually have about thirty drama club members – varying in talent from naturally talented to serviceable to downright dreadful (I often wonder why some of them sign up).

But I have always run Drama Club with the philosophy that if a student wants to get up on stage and act, I want to provide that exciting experience for him. This adds more work for me, which often involves writing in bit parts or, my faithful fallback, a crowd scene of townspeople as a sort of chorus commenting on the action or providing comic relief. But I’m happy to do it.

To defray their disappointment of not doing Night of the Living Dead, we spend our remaining club meeting time making a very quickly done but fun movie called Night of the Living Dead Nazis which includes parody of Jaws and Cape Cod.

Finally, I revisit a script I’ve had for a long time: an adaptation of Hugo’s Les Misérables. It has a large cast . Just what I need. Everybody gets a part and I even have to give some players two bit parts. The play also has a large number of female parts. That’s good because my drama club is usually mostly girls. One year I had about twenty girls and five guys so we did an adaptation of Picnic at Hanging Rock - the perfect thing: a story that takes place in a girls’ school – and it turned out to be my favorite theatrical experience of the twenty-three full-length productions I’ve done over the years.

I go with Hugo. The story has drama, romance, and action. I never produce a high school play that doesn’t have action. Our audiences need action or comedy or both. Also, I love live theater, but my passion for movies far surpasses that love of theater, so I’m not that crazy about classic plays that are a lot of talking. I always tell my students, “You know that when I’m directing the play, in my mind I’m directing a movie.”

So Les Misérables has just what I need: lots of factory girls and citizens (the population of Paris will be mostly female), escape and pursuit, revolution, barricades, and shooting.

Summer, 2009 –

Props are the bane of my existence during a performance. They get misplaced or played with and broken by the younger members of the cast – and that means disaster! There’s nothing worse than when an actor looks for a prop and it’s not in its proper (ooh, pun!) place – and it’s time to go on stage.

Drama Clubbers remember the legendary story of Sophie’s muff from a production of Tom Jones. This symbol of Tom’s love for Sophie is brought on and off stage by so many players that it got mislaid during one performance, and when Partridge comes on stage, needs to hand it to Tom, and realizes he’s forgotten it, he runs off stage to get it, only to find it’s not in its right place, and he has to run all over the backstage area while everyone’s frantically looking for it. When he finally recovers the muff and gets back on stage, it’s obvious to the audience what has transpired, but it made for a fun unscripted bit of comedy.

Just fine for a comedy – not so good in a more dramatic production – as in Rehearsal for Murder when the murderer needs to reach into a drawer and pull out a flashlight – a piece of evidence that will incriminate him – and he rolls the flashlight to the back of the drawer, can’t find it, gets frantic, and I roll my backstage flashlight around the backdrop behind the desk.

But I like looking for props, and I usually try to do most of that during the summer. This play needs costumes more than props so I make many trips to Goodwill to buy long dresses, corduroy pants, old coats and jackets. I find an old greatcoat for Jean Valjean the ex-con; I have an old leather knapsack for him and a great walking staff.

As for props, I chiefly need a number of revolvers that look realistic. As for costuming and set decoration, I decide to set the play in the late 1800s – with rabble-rousing anarchists leading the revolt - rather than the early 1800s. For a previous performance, I bought a couple of authentic-looking metal toy revolvers at a little toy store down Cape in Orleans. I go there as early in June as possible and buy out their whole stock.

In the barricade scene, the police will run in from the side entrance to the auditorium and outflank the revolutionists. Standing with their backs to the audience, they will advance, Odessa steps style, and then aim their revolvers. Off stage I will supply the gunshots as the policemen jerk their pistols back with the recoil.

For gunshots I always use an 8-shot .22 caliber starter’s pistol. It delivers a nice loud bang. I’ve used one onstage and offstage for a number of performances, but I need to order a new one. High school sports catalogs don’t carry them anymore, but I can order it from a theater catalogue. From the same catalogue I get Nazi-type caps for the policemen.

I get most of my furniture props from the school’s gargantuan October yard sale that fills an entire gym. I get some great old chairs, bookcases, and a tall cabinet.

September, 2009 –

Damn! Summer vacation is over! Back to school! But for me, and many of my students, Drama Club gets us through the humdrum.

As in all schools, conducting an activity is always a competition for time, space, and student membership. Besides all the sports and activities that compete, teens these days lead busy lives. We can’t start rehearsals until December – because the soccer season competes in the fall. Even though we start rehearsing in December, the music department has gradually taken over use of the stage during that time for their Christmas concert. In order to avoid friction, I decide to spend the December weeks rehearsing after school in a large classroom; we will simply drill lines in all scenes and not worry about blocking.

But starting in September we meet every Day 3 of a 6-day rotation during a chaotic much-conflicted time period known as “Activity Period” – though to the students it means lunch – so it’s hard to get much done.

We cast the play. (A number of players will need to play two roles. In order to give a departing senior a challenging job, she will play Fantine and Cosette. I need another substantial role for another senior girl who has been with me for five years, so I cast her as a female Javert.) We do a partial read-through. We talk about costumes.

I will supply many of the main costume pieces, but the students are expected to come up with whatever else is needed. I have some European army sweaters with epaulettes for the policemen but they need to have black jeans. They are told this in November. The deadline for final consultation on costumes is early January.

On January 27, the day before the first performance, one clueless policeman (who must have missed some meetings and never read the handouts or the downloads on the Drama Club web page) comes to me and wonders about pants. “You’re supposed to have black jeans.” “I have black sweat pants with white stripes down the side.” Ah, fuck! That’s what I think. I can’t say it, so I insert one of my famous f-bomb euphemisms.

Another string of innocuous words beginning with “f” comes when one student has missed all his scheduled rehearsals. It’s getting too late to fool around. He never comes to me to negotiate. During a key rehearsal, I give his main part to another deserving student. When the recalcitrant student finally shows up and I tell him he’s out, he doesn’t understand why never appearing for a meeting or rehearsal and never showing up to consult with me should lead to his termination!

Another glitch is that the terminated student was also supposed to play a no-speaking bit part as an insane prisoner who is supposed to identify another prisoner as Jean Valjean. Rehearsing the scene, I stand in as the insane prisoner and realize I haven’t appeared in a cameo in many years and this very brief part is right up my alley.

In the past, I’ve usually appeared in a cameo as someone insane. I played Boo Radley in To Kill a Mockingbird. I played an insane Martian in The Martian Chronicles, a Bible-beater in Inherit the Wind, a Pythonesque moronic guard in Newgate Prison in Tom Jones. As Bibolet, I will wear the big greatcoat and a floppy hat and shuffle in muttering about the horrors of the prison. It could be fun.

December –

“Rehearsals” in Room 303 go well. We act out the scenes and drill lines, going over and over a scene until most of it is memorized. Students have shown up with most of their lines memorized. This is a first. Most students feel they can “learn” their lines during rehearsals. Some avoid reading the playbook as much as possible. But this group is different. Peer pressure begins to work advantageously as the kids see that the “in” thing is to have their lines memorized and they don’t want to stand out as the ones who don’t even know where their playbooks are.

January –

We finally get the use of the stage for 14 days and block out all the scenes! Still, there are conflicts. We do not have a real theater. The stage is built into a small gym. Thus, we need to be done at 4:30 when one of the basketball teams comes in to practice. Another time, a puppet show troupe that came to do an assembly is taking down their stuff when I’m trying to set up my stuff. I lose another day of rehearsal for a mandatory all-faculty meeting about the financial situation.

On election day – when Ted Kennedy rolls over in his grave as Republican voters elect Scott Brown over Martha Coakley, half of the gym is used as a polling location. All day I’ve wondered if I will be allowed to rehearse on the stage nearby. I jokingly tell my head that I don’t need to tell her what I’m more concerned about – the fate of the nation or drama rehearsal. Finally, at the end of the day, I get the go ahead.

It works out fine. The voters are quiet. The bored policeman gets something to watch. And we have devilish fun rehearsing the uprising scenes. I’ve added chants like “Down with oppression! Long live anarchy!” We play it up! After rehearsal, I have to race over to another polling place to vote fruitlessly against Brown.

Conflicts continue. Our last rehearsal is on January 27. We go over Act 2. But the teacher who coaches Mock Trial has failed to tell me that two of my cast members – one of them being Javert – have a trial that afternoon and so they will probably miss the rehearsal. Javert says she will try to get scheduled to go first and then race back to rehearsal.

We go through Act 2 non-stop. Marius needs to inform Javert about the Thenardiers’ plan to rob M. Leblanc (Jean Valjean). I stand in for Javert. Suddenly, the girl playing Javert leaps up on stage, takes my place, and says the next line. Some of these kids are true professionals!

We have spent a lot of time rehearsing the building of the barricade and the massacre of the citizens.

The set consists of two upstage areas with furniture to suggest two different rooms for various scenes. When it comes time to build the barricade, the citizens storm out and use all the furniture to create a barrier running upstage to downstage. It takes choreography and strict assignment of who helps whom carry which piece of furniture. When done, it looks cool.

Then the police come on stage right and tell the citizens to disperse. Little Gavroche (the group’s mascot) shouts the cops down and the citizens cheer. After that, Jean says he’s going to execute Javert as a spy but lets her go and fires off a shot to make it sound like he’s shot her. After Valjean returns to the barricade, the police come through the auditorium and outflank the citizens.

The shooting is strictly choreographed. When Valjean points off stage, I need to fire off one shot. Then, when the police attack, I need to fire six more shots. Bang. One of the leaders falls down. Bang. The other leader goes down. Citizens run. Gavroche runs to pick up a gun. Bang. He goes down. Marius runs to Gavroche. Bang. He’s wounded. A guard aims at Marius to finish him off and – bang – Eponine blocks the shot. Ideally, I’d like to fire one more shot to accommodate a little girl who has begged me for the opportunity to die on stage. Then, the police chief is supposed to march up to Eponine and deliver the coup de grâce.

That’s a total of seven shots from an eight-shot pistol prone to misfires. Should have bought another gun, but it’s too late. No time to reload after Valjean’s shot, so I decide to do the first shot by smashing a roll of caps with a mallet – which delivers a gloriously loud bang if done right.

During the final run through, there’s a misfire, a delay, and when I fire the fifth shot in the barricade scene and Eponine blocks it, the citizen girl falls too – but it looks okay and we decide it’s the miracle bullet that passes through Eponine, avoids Marius, and hits the citizen behind.

Sometimes I realize that I complicate things by trying to please everybody. I add a lot of citizens to the barricade scene – which gives the factory girls a chance to do two roles – but that complicates the choreography of everything and we spend a lot of time rehearsing the action scene while other scenes need work.

The students are feeling nervous about Act One. But I tell them they’ll do fine.

January 28, 10:30 AM – Performance for the Middle School –

We’re ready to start on time (we need to be done by 12:15), but the middle schoolers are ushered in late.

The play starts. Valjean hikes through the audience. He is harrassed by police. He tries to sleep in the middle of a path. A woman points out a house that might take him in. It’s a good strong beginning.

Then, in the house of Bishop Myriel and his sister, Valjean drops a line. Then the other two students – who were the shakiest with their lines during rehearsals – drop their lines. Practically a whole page vanishes, thus cutting out the introduction of Valjean’s parole papers and tattoo which are important establishing details for later in the story.

Watching from backstage, we all gasp! Then the girl playing the sister saves it. From then on, everything goes pretty smoothly.

Time for Bibolet to make his appearance. The middle schoolers, my 8th grade history students among them, love it!

Comes time for the action scenes! All goes well. The audience yelps at the loud shots. The chief of police steps up to finish off Eponine. Misfire! But he’s cool, waits for me, the next shot goes off, and he reacts to the recoil.

January 28, 7:30 PM – First evening performance for the public –

Act One, Scene 2: Valjean, Myriel, and the bishop’s sister redeem themselves for the morning’s disaster and they nail the scene perfectly.

Comes time for Valjean’s offstage shot and I confidently use the first shot in the pistol instead of the problematic roll of caps. I rush around to stage left and all the massacre shots fire nicely until the policeman approaches for the dramatic coup de grâce. Click. The student playing the policeman keeps cool and waits. Two more clicks. I’m screwed. I left the mallet and caps off stage right. We’re really screwed! I try to reload. Bang! A very quick-thinking student off right has hit a roll of caps with the mallet! It does the job. The policeman and my wonderful Eponine react instantaneously!

January 29, 10:30 AM – Performance for the Dreaded Upper School –

The cast is always extra nervous performing for the high schoolers – which includes the SENIORS. The seniors – like the groundlings of Shakespeare’s day – are very exacting audience members. Some seniors like to sit in the front row and try to make their friends laugh.

But everything goes well. We get through Act One, Scene 2 without a hitch. No props mislaid.

Comes the barricade scene and the shots work dramatically. I can hear the audience reaction from my station near the lights control panel.

January 29, 6:30 PM –

Students start arriving for their fourth performance in two days. They’re on a high, but they’re very tired – and a tired teenager is a hyper teenager. They are loud, running around the halls, making messes. I tell them when they need to start getting into costumes and makeup, but they don't pay any attention to me.

I interrupt a small group in a darkened alcove between two sets of doors. As bothered by the hyper ones as I am, they are holding a group meditation session. Meditation, good! Burning joss stick, not okay.

I tell everyone that curtain time will come quickly and they will be caught unprepared and out of character. "You are cruising for a downfall," I say. When most of them are gathered, I try the breathing exercises and voice exercises that usually get them into the zone. The exercises are not working. I give up and head for the lights. “Uh, you’re starting soon. Lights go up – you better be ready.”

7:30 PM – Second evening performance –

They come down from their hyper high, sobered by the imminent approach of their appearances on stage. Sometimes a little tiredness is good. It can make them calmer on stage, less likely to speed through a scene.

Lights go up. Valjean does his long walk through the auditorium. This gives the others time to calm down.

The play starts. They fumble through some scenes but then they gain momentum and they do just fine.

Saturday, January 30, 6:00 PM –

We meet for Chinese food and cake to celebrate. This is the last performance. The students are tired but determined to do their best tonight – to add the lines they’ve dropped, to correct the lines they’ve fudged. Monsieur Thenardier, when he talks greedily about all the things he’s going to steal from Valjean, has been saying, “Worth a plenty” instead of “Worth plenty” – for some inscrutable language disability reason.

I have had Drama Club members with speech impediments, extreme learning disabilities, and severe shyness. But I’ve sent them out on stage, and they’ve overcome a lot of personal obstacles.

I give the perennial warning not to ruin the last performance by overacting or adding a joke line. This has happened before. Strangely, the ones who have been full of stage fright or have had a tough time memorizing lines suddenly get cocky and overconfident on last night and they want to add a line that will get a laugh.

I’ll never forgive the student who played Montag in Fahrenheit 451. It was a performance on the big community college stage before a large audience of school groups from all over the Cape. In his opening monologue, Montag talks about how much he loves the smell of burning things, and the student playing him added, “I love the smell of kerosene in the morning.” How clever! He thought he could impress me with his film knowledge and I wouldn't mind that he broke the golden rule. It might have even worked except that he did it self-consciously and out of character.

Perhaps worse, in an epic two-hour adaptation of David Copperfield I had scripted, Little Emily meets Martha, a fallen woman who ends up in a horrid whorehouse in London, and a student called from offstage in a British accent, loud enough to make his friend playing Martha crack a smile, which was his aim, “She’s got the herpes!”

So, with these and other episodes in mind, I reiterate, “Don’t add any lines!”

7:30 PM –

Last performance. Sometimes disasters occur on last night. The muff misplacement occurred on a last night. But these students have enjoyed the play, and they put their hearts and souls into the final performance. They take my advice, “Act like you’re this character thinking these words before you say them. Don’t just recite lines.” They inject every line with sincerity. The improv in the crowd scenes gets a little too liberal, but no one adds any jarring lines.

The Thenardiers are despicable snakes. A Chinese student plays Azelma like a pathetic waif out of the manga literature she loves. Fantine, played by a totally exhausted senior who burns the candle at both ends and in the middle, looks like she really dies. Valjean in his transformation from ex-con to humanitarian mayor to protective father shows three distinct characters. The citizens put passion into their rabble rousing. “Down with oppression! Long live anarchy!”

The only thing that goes wrong is that damn gun. It works admirably on the first shots of the massacre and the actors time their falls perfectly. Little Gavroche has just enough time to pick up a fallen gun and start to point it and then BANG! But the gun misfires three times on the coup de grâce. CLICK, CLICK, CLICK. Eponine falls anyway. From the audience’s point of view it looks fine – like the sergeant decides not to shoot her and she slumps down from her previous wound. I only have myself to blame. I got too technical; I made the scene too complicated.

There have been worse technical disasters - like during David Copperfield when I turned on the projector to project the storm waves but the student on sound had forgotten to change CDs and turned on "Soldier of the King" instead of the storm sound effects.

Javert delivers her final monologue. She rushes off stage with a gun to her head. Bang! (The gun works like a charm!) Blackout. Final scene of reconciliation. Valjean walks off with Cosette and Marius. Charlotte, the maid, picks up Valjean’s old pack. She looks at his old parole papers. She looks at the audience in horror at the suffering recorded there. She walks off. Lights down.

Curtain call. Applause. Director takes a bow. Tradition dictates that I bid the senior members of Drama Club farewell before they go off to college in the fall. It’s emotional – luckily, only two have been with me since 8th grade. Tears and hugs. Javert gives an amazing speech of gratitude. I get flowers (traditional) plus a gift card to Regal Cinemas (because they know me well).

Then the students depart like a tornado, leaving behind a scattering of forgotten shoes, jackets, jewelry, hats, and electronic devices.

Sunday, January 31- 9:00 AM –

Every Sunday during the school year, I put a thermos of hot tea and breakfast in a pack and take my Cardigan Welsh corgi for a long hike at Sandy Neck, a wild place of beach, tidal marsh, sand dunes, and a vast world of interdunal swales filled with vernal pools and thickets of scrub pine, oak, and sassafras. It's always a welcome getaway after the Saturday performance.

It’s sunny, but the wind is freezing and the tide is high, so I am the only one there. That’s how I like it. It’s beautiful. The wolf moon has turned the marsh into an icy inland sea glistening in the sun.

Here I get lots of ideas. I plot fiction, compose parts of blog posts, plan future drama productions, or solve complicated staging problems with the current play. Here I also get props. Beach rocks for Picnic at Hanging Rock. A board for the Thenardiers’ Inn sign. Boards and rope for the wreck in David Copperfield - as well as video footage of storm waves for the storm scene effect.

The play has been on my mind since last May, the performances were emotional experiences, and so I know I will suffer the inevitable post-production blues tomorrow at school, a time when I can be especially sensitive to complaints about any messes we left behind or to frantic requests that we move our props out of the backstage area. I need to immerse myself in another creative project, discuss ideas for next year’s play (I have no idea what to do - go any ideas?), and remember how appreciative all my cast members were after the performance on Saturday night.

I need to tap into those words of appreciation, feel the residue of emotions stirred up by our epic tale of injustice, obsession, and devotion, and listen to the echoes of dramatic lines.

Down with oppression! Long live anarchy!