My Illustrious Acting Career, Spring 2012 Edition

I played Big Daddy Pollitt in the Needham Community Theater production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.

I went quite nicely, good crowd, and a good time was had by all.

Big Daddy in the Needham Times

Big Daddy in the Needham Times

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Titus Andronicus – Shakespeare – A Tale of Two Movies

I have been working on an audition monologue from Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus and, at the very worthwhile suggestion of my audition coach Bobbie Steinbach I watched the Julie Taymor movie version and the BBC movie version. There’s are big differences, one being about $19.5 million dollars. Julie Taymor’s career was cresting after several magnificent successes (her Lion King is a pretty fantastic production), and apparently she didn’t have any trouble finding plenty of money to spend. The BBC didn’t have that budget but had considerable expectations to live up to themselves. They didn’t have to have an eye-popping spectacle Lion King-style, but they did have the responsibility to create a standard. They were the BBC. They were British. They had to do it right!

When it comes to “doing Shakespeare” I think Fantasia has it exactly right in his excellent book Instant Shakespeare. You have to embrace the text – understand it as completely as it is possible to do so. When questions arise as to what the text means, as they must, the decisions have to be at least plausible in light of the history of the play’s origins. Then, beyond that, the play has to let Shakespeare do the talking. A production needs to get out of the way and let Shakespeare roll.

By that standard, the BBC production is better than Taymor’s. I got the sense that Taymor’s costumes, sets, and music were at times meant to be a distraction from Shakespeare’s play – which was perhaps judged too difficult to understand or too boring on its own. It is not an easy play to present, true. Why Taymor chose this play, I don’t know. If she’d started with Hamlet or Macbeth or Lear she might not have felt the need to throw so much eye-candy at the audience. (Or not, we’ll never know. I doubt that we’ll be seeing any more Shakespeare movies from Taymor. The movie was a box-office flop, and her career needs to be rescued from big-budget flopping at this point.) It would be easy to paint the BBC’s production as cautious, but I don’t think it is. They used their limited budget effectively and creatively. Like Taymor’s play, the (earlier) BBC production leads in with shots of the young Lucius, and sets the play in an alternate universe – wisely avoiding trying to resurrect ancient Rome. The BBC brings it off convincingly and in a way that enhances the play, for the most part, and does not distract. We don’t get some of the very striking images that Taymor created – and they are not all bad by any means. I thought that her depiction of the “lopped and hewed” hands of the young Lavinia as twigs was a bit of genius. But I think she ruined that scene by excessive use of CGI that just got in the way. Overall, Taymor’s kaleidoscopic imagery seemed to be trying too hard and getting in the way too much. The world still awaits a big-budget movie version of Titus Andronicus that lets Shakespeare take the wheel and do the driving.

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Cabiria – Pastrone (1914)

Cabiria is an awe-inspiring film. I don’t think it would be remade today without extensive use of CGI effects, and I don’t think it would be remade. The grand historical epic is not something that the movie-going public seems to want these days – historical epics are consigned to 10 minute youtube videos now. Still, with plenty of action, sumptuous sets, and an exotic locale, there is a lot to be said for this movie. The acting style is more theatrical than I’m used to seeing a modern movie – it is more “grand theater” – but seems to fit the overall epic style of the movie well. Takes a bit of getting used to now and then. Movie-making was still a work-in-progress in 1914 – there is a lot of experimentation going on in this movie and the result is a bit uneven here and there, but for the most part it works. The movie goes for realism – re-creating the ancient world in mind-boggling detail. The costumes, props, sets are so good, that when something comes along that isn’t perfect, it stands out – unfairly. When it is good, no modern movie would dare try to compete (without CGI). When it is not so good, it requires a suspension of expectations, shall we say: it is way better than we have any right to expect almost 100 years after the movie was made. This movie pulls you in and makes you care about the characters while treating you to some eye-candy that is as good as it gets.



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Great Movies Journey: Cabiria – Maciste in Chains

Had to post this wonderfully-composed shot from Pastrone’s Cabiria.

Cabiria - Maciste in Chains

Cabiria - Maciste in Chains

My reactions to the film as a whole after I finish watching it.

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Great Movie Journey: The Great Dictator – Chaplin

Chaplin’s first talkie – and his biggest grossing film – made quite an impression at the time. Not only was Chaplin ahead of the curve in terms of sizing up Hitler and Mussolini, but he left The Tramp behind forever in a film that audiences loved. I wonder how many people thought “What? Charlie Chaplin has a British accent?!”

The film was a brave political statement, and it had an important effect on how the public thought about Hitler and the treatment of the Jews. In the U.S. it acted as a counter-weight to those who had sympathy for Hitler’s views. Seems sad and strange that people were openly supporting the persecution of Jews – even here in America.

Purely as a film, I don’t like this movie very much. I don’t think it is funny. Chaplin’s trademark gags fall flat for me. In my mind, it is just not that funny seeing storm-troopers being hit in the face with a wet paintbrush or hit on the head with a skillet. I’ve seen a lot of Chaplin’s films, and the comic action here seems perfunctory – just recycling old material without adding anything new. And even these brief funny bits are embedded in long and not very interesting story-telling. There can’t be serious drama in a Chaplin flick – he doesn’t do that, and there can’t be mad-cap story-telling about the abuse of Jews. It just doesn’t work for me. The famous scene with the globe/balloon doesn’t impress me much either: It is clever, and I think Chaplin should be thought of as a comic dancer primarily, but I wonder what Fred Astaire or Gene Kelly would have done there – it just isn’t enormously artistic or clever or funny.

As a movie, I don’t think this is a great movie. It was a risky political statement by a hugely popular entertainer that clicked with audiences of that time and changed the way people thought. That is admirable, and I applaud that.

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Quickie game review: Skyrim

Skyrim is another installment in the Elder Scrolls series. It attempts to incorporate a more structured story-line on top of the basic Morrowind/Oblivion system (tweaked a bit). It is fun, but suffers from the same major flaw that both Morrowind and Oblivion had: it is hard-ish early, but at a point not too far into the game it gets so easy that it seems pointless to continue. I continued to play past that point, completing a number of quests that involved killing bad guys with one hit – and never even taking the slightest damage myself. But, it was a joyless affair. The “dragon” and even more so, the “uprising” storylines did not seem very interesting. The dragons were more of a bother than anything else, and the dragon-related power-ups were completely ignorable. So, it is a fun game to play around with, and there is some challenge early, but the mid-to-late game imbalances, the repetitive and pointlessly easy quests, and the outright bugs – and weird bug-like oddities – sucked the life out of it. It is a pretty game to look at, but it feels like a lot more went into the looks than the actual game-play. 3.5 out of 5.

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Great Movies Journey: After Hours – Scorsese

I put off viewing this film because it is a Scorsese movie. I felt I had to be in the right mental frame of mind. I had to don my emotional armor and double-check for chinks between the joints. Then I had to strap myself in a chair, have someone tie my hands behind my back (so I can’t turn it off) and then press the “play” button.

Oh, so much worry for not much of anything. Yes, it is tense early on, but then as the plot starts moving the laughs start coming – this is a very funny movie. It is a black comedy, so what is happening is not so funny for the main character, but that’s part of the gag. It is funny – so much gets skewered – dating, the bar scene, clubs – recast as a nightmarish – but funny – decent into hell.

It would make a good opera – something along the lines of Tales of Hoffmann. I loved it. Will definitely watch it again.

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Boston Baroque – Messiah Full Monty

Boston Baroque puts on a good Messiah: historically informed ensemble and toboggan-on-ice tempos. The soloists this year were a bit hit-and-not-such-a-hit. From the fifth row of the balcony in Jordan Hall, the soloists were hard to hear, especially later in the concert, drowned out by the violins. Too bad. The acoustics in Jordan Hall are great, and typically there is not a bad seat in the house. But, the sound balance was not ideal this time.

A couple of observations about Boston Baroque. Almost the entire orchestra is female. Seems odd. The Pearlman Harem. Plus, Pearlman seems to favor using young singers for soloists, perhaps because Baroque is associated with Boston University. I have no problem with lack of age, but often the voices do not seem very mature – a bit thin and light. Or perhaps that is the sound he prefers – if so, I don’t agree. Especially when I have a less than ideal seat.

I don’t go to a Messiah every year, and I might try one of those giant-wall-of-sound performances like the Handel and Haydn Society does next time – or just crank up the sound on my sound system at home. My bottom is not happy with the seats in Jordan Hall for such a long concert – especially when you get the Full Monty Easter and Christmas version of the Messiah the way Boston Baroque does it. We’ll see.

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My Singing Career – Fall 2011 edition

I sang in Longwood Opera’s La Boheme. It was fun. New and interesting experiences were had.

Nice job by Scotty, Maestro Brody, the singers, and the rest of the crew that made it happen.

Highlight: Sol Kim Bently’s Mimi.

The best seat at the Opera is: on stage. Next best: off stage right. 🙂

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Quick Game Reviews: Psychonauts, Dead Island, To the Moon

Psychonauts – a Good Old Game, it is a fun action/adventure game that only bogs down near the end when the irritating platform-jumping sections get irritatingly hard. 4 of 5.

Dead Island – a 3D first-person kill-endless-zombies game that starts out a bit creepy, then devolves into repetitive zombie stomping. The behavior of the zombies is just way too predictable. You do get to stomp a lot of zombies, however. 3.5 of 5.

To the Moon – it isn’t really a game, move like an animated graphic novel. It is unique in that it is a game-like entertainment that deals with death, disease, and loneliness in a way that is both touching and amusing. However, it avoids sappiness by over-dosing on stupid jokes and mini-games. Also, if you think about the actions of the “good guys” in the game a bit you realize that their sense of ethics is deeply wrong. So, hard to really rate this one – a big plus 4.5 but a big minus 1.5, I guess. 3 of 5.

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