Sunday, January 29, 2006

Sundance Post V: Closure, Anyone? 

We spent time in our little festival-going team last night debating which of the award winners to see. We weren't all that psyched for any of them, but we remained hopeful. Ultimately, K. and I chose Special Dramatic Jury Prize for Independent Vision winner In Between Days, Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award winner Stephanie Daley and World Dramatic Jury Prize winner 13 Tzameti.

Just before In Between Days started, I glanced at an email review which predicted it would not find an audience beyond the festival circuit and I have to concur. The story of a Korean girl struggling to assimilate in either the U.S. or Canada (we can't tell exactly where we are), the film falls into the deadly category of "slice of life" filmmaking. The trap here is that naturalistic slice had better be damn interesting. In this case...not so much.

Tilda Swinton, the British Meryl Streep of her generation, is the reason to see Stephanie Daley. There are other great actors on hand: Denis O'Hare, Tim Hutton and the very promising young Amber Tamblyn among them. But it's Swinton's film and she always delivers. The story follows a pregnant, court-appointed psychologist as she evaluates a high school girl who may have murdered an unwanted, premature child. Many plot details swirl, but at heart its the examination of the ambivalence and fear that some women may feel as they are pregnant. It's refusal to give an "all ends tied up" denouement is the only thing that makes this an "independent film". Beyond that it's simply a very well acted retread of such classic "What made them do [insert unimaginable crime here] and what does it mean" investigative dramas such as Equus, Agnes of God, etc.

13 Tzameti has been called Tarantino meets Hitchcock. Unfortunately, it's not up to the standards of Hitch, but it's an understandable comparison. Stylishly shot and over-scored within an inch of it's life, 13 Tzameti is something like Stephen King's "The Running Man" melded with John Woo's most famous signature shot on shown on repeat. If you'd like to see lots of guns pointed at lots of heads, this is the flick for you.

All of the films today suffered from an inability to provide satisfying endings. I'm hoping that our dinner tonight at the Blind Dog will provide one for our little Sundance team.
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Sundance Post IV: Saturday in the Snow 

Before I go into Saturday, I need to recap LATE Friday night. I'd like to have a word with the GENIUS scheduler who decided to put a 2.5 hour doc about Ralph Nader on at 10:45pm, An Unreasonable Man. Of course, we're the smarties who got tix for said showing. At any rate, it had a terrific first half recapping Nader's early years and then strangely loses its way during Nader's presidential forays. Given an editor, it would be a pretty good flick.

After getting home at 2am, we decided to bail on the first Saturday timeslot and we started with a noon screening of Wrestling with Angels: Playwright Tony Kushner. A workmanlike piece of doc-making, it flies purely on the strength of its brilliant subject. It was a joy for me because I would happily see/listen to anything Tony Kushner said, wrote or had produced.

Our second flick was a pure crowdpleaser. Kinky Boots is The Fully Monty crossed with La Cage aux Folles. As K. said, "Any film where drag queens save the day is a winner in my book." Ditto.

Right as we went into Kinky Boots, it began to do a proper Utah snow. So we were trekking about in the soft stuff for the rest of the day. It is something I appreciate as global warming seems to have denied The City any real snow this year.

We caught our first big ensemble piece next. Nicole Holofcener is a Sundance fave and her latest work is Friends with Money. Jennifer Aniston, Joan Cusack, Scott Caan, Simon McBurney (Artistic Director of Complicite), and Jason Isaacs (Harry Potter's Lucius Malfoy with an American accent!) all deliver great performances in Holofcener's well-observed dramedy.

Award winners are announced and start to screen Saturday night. So tonight we saw the Dramatic Grand Jury Winner, Quincenera. And Sherpa Dan and I have been arguing about it ever since. The story of the clash of cultures both within generations of Echo Park Latinos and between the Latino community and the largely gay entreprenuers who are gentrifying this neighborhood of L.A., Quincenera has a number of problematic elements. I thought it was good watching overall, but not the sort of integrated work one expects from an award winner. Sherpa Dan thought that it needed a significant subplot excised. K. sided with Dan.
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Friday, January 27, 2006

Sundance Post III: Doc Day 

We dragged our sorry selves out of bed with five and a half hours of sleep to kick off a day full of documentaries.

We got off to a very strong start with So Much So Fast, the story of a young man who developed ALS and his remarkable family; most remarkable are his brother and friends who founded a foundation to challenge the rules of clinical science in order to race for a cure for their loved one. (For those of you who know Lawler, this is the foundation he worked for at one time. He appears briefly in the background of one scene.)

Next up was I for India, an autobiographical documentary about an Indian family's generational diaspora from India to Great Britain. While there are some great elements to it due to the extensive Super 8 film reels that the director's father shot over the years, it was not overall a tremendously engaging film and I admit to taking a brief opportunity in the middle section to work on repairing my sleep debt.

Tis Autumn: The Search for Jackie Paris is an interesting tale about a jazz singer lauded as a "singer's singer" who never achieved the public notice his peers expected, despite his having toured with Charlie Parker and having been Ella's favorite male vocalist. Captured just before his death, the film untangles his odd history and suggests that for every Frank Sinatra that receives critical and public acclaim there are probably 99 serious artists like Jackie Paris who do not.

We just came from God Grew Tired of Us and my eyes are still tired from weeping. It follows the "Lost Boys of Sudan" from their 1000 mile trek through the desert to three remarkable souls relocated to the United States. Totally ripped my heart out.

Now we're off to see our final film of the day and it's yet another doc. This one's 2+ hours on Ralph Nader. More on that one either late tonight or tomorrow.
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Sundance Post II: Strong Start & Finish, Middling in Between 

So we've just gotten back to our condo at about 2:30am Utah time.

Despite having Paul Giamatti and Michelle Williams in the lead roles, Hawk proved to be a dud - as Dan and others predicted. The only reason I can imagine that Giamatti agreed to do the flick is because like all formerly geeky young men, he still has a fascination with falconry.

We followed that with Viva Zapatero, an Italian documentary about a comedienne who did a show so bitingly satirical that Berlusconi had her kicked off the air after a single episode. She herself was terribly charming. The documentary itself was probably more engaging for Italians, but it had frightening resonance with our American state of affairs nonetheless.

We concluded Day 1 with The World According to Sesame Street, a doc of particular interest to K. as she used to work at the Sesame Workshop. It is an extremely engaging exploration of how Sesame creates foreign co-productions with local content and production teams. The film covers three efforts, South Africa, Bangladesh and Kosovo.

So the day started and ended strong. The middle was not so impressive. Ah well, tomorrow's another day. Plenty more films to redeem ourselves with. First one's at 10am...
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Thursday, January 26, 2006

Sundance Post I: Schedule Shuffling 

As regular readers know, I normally only publish on a weekly basis. (Yes, yes. I know that I missed last week. Those of you who know my professionally know that things are pretty busy for me at work.) But we're at Sundance again for our annual pilgrimage and I'm going to try something new: blogging closer to real time.

We arrived on last night (Wednesday) to learn that two of our party had already seen and hated The Darwin Awards. We had that scheduled as our second flick for today (Thursday) and we were being advised by our little movie mob to ditch our tickets.

Linda had lasted 15 minutes and Sherpa Dan had watched the whole thing and declared it beyond redemption. I was conflicted about not seeing it because last year, Dan desperately hated Brick - which I loved.

K. fell asleep for Brick, but it was flick six for that day and one could hardly blame her. She claims to have hated what little she saw of it, however. So when Dan panned Darwin without reservation, K. was inclined to ditch our tix in favor of something else.

So we dumped the Darwin tix first thing this AM in favor of a doc called Small Town Gay Bar (which we're headed off to see momentarily).

Additionally, the advance buzz on The Hawk is Dying is more of a ZZZZZ. Variety hated it, Dan thought it was blah, and the people behind us at our first film complained about Hawk from the moment they sat down until the our film began. *sigh* Our whole Day 1 schedule is feeling kind of risky. We're going to take our chances with Hawk anyway.

In the meantime, we've seen our first film Word Play which we really enjoyed a lot. It was a great way to start our festival. I don't have time to do a full-on review yet. But we both thought it was exactly the sort of doc we love to see at festivals: fun, warm, articulate and engaging.

More later...
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Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Pondering All the Pixels 

I've never seen CSI: Miami until our dear friend Amy guest starred on it this week. I loved David Caruso back in the day when he was the original star of NYPD Blue and I pretty much lost track of his career when he left that show prematurely - like many of the original NYPD Blue fans, I suspect.

Watching CSI, I thought to myself, "Wow, he's doing classic Shatner-style, American Kabuki. I thought that style of acting could only be seen in its pure form in syndicated episodes of the original-flavor Star Trek and old VHS copies of TJ Hooker. I had no idea that a new master had emerged to take the mantle from the originator." (The originator having moved on into his lovable, crazy coot phase.) Unfortunately, K. is not an appreciator of Kabuki acting on the small screen and she was unable to stop herself from jeering during "dramatic" moments.

As the show moved forward, K. turned to me and remarked that one of the women had clearly had a terrible blemish the day of the shoot. I had noticed this, but had not commented.

(In fact, this is one of the key departures in our respective TV-watching styles. I watch largely in silence. If a comment is burning a hole in my head, I pause the show with the TiVo remote. My dearest K. must comment in the moment lest her
head explode. This is particularly true if W. comes on the screen, in which case she entirely forgets my presence altogether and simply yells at the helpless box directly with no intermediary.)

These normal flaws in actors' visages are largely hidden from the viewing public on a day-to-day basis. But in this case, even more than the blemish itself, it was the makeup artist's hand that was clearly on display. Smack in the middle of the lovely actor's cheek was what looked like an amateur artist's attempt to repair the canvas of her face.

I observed more closely after that and it seemed to me that the clarity of the broadcast image of CSI: Miami was of a higher resolution than our normal digital cable signal. I'm not too geeky about broadcast signal, so I'm not sure if this is true or if it was an artifact of the show being shot in hi-def video or what. But it simply wasn't fair to this woman. She was being upstaged by the flesh colored spot that didn't match her flesh. And we don't even have a new-fangled HDTV.

This got me to thinking about what technology lets us see in images of female beauty. The invention of the airbrush has ensured that as legions of New Yorkers walk by ubiquitous kiosks each day, they are bombarded by fraudulent masterpieces.

There's a great web demo of just what airbrushing really means in terms of how fake these images really are. Decades of this fakery has raised male expectations as to just what they will see the morning after, but I began to wonder of HDTV was not going to begin shattering the unfair myths of body image.

I noticed in the last year that TV writers have begun to publish lists of who looks good and who does not on an HDTV signal and it began to occur to me that perhaps, just PERHAPS, HDTV might begin to inject some sense of reality into the world through its falsely hyper-real signal. I say falsely hyper-real because when I see an HDTV signal, my first thought is that my own vision cannot see the world that clearly and in such bright colors without the aid of this TV image. When I see butterflies in a meadow they are not nearly as brilliant as the HDTV nature shows I've seen demo'd my friends' homes.

But then reality set in. And I realized that given human nature HDTV is more likely to do the worst. HDTV is more likely to increase the caste system, not shatter it. Because some people apparently DO look flawless on HDTV. So these millions of new pixels are far more likely to further raise expectations as to what's possible - for a short time. Because even Catherine Zeta-Jones will not remain wrinkle free forever.

Then what will happen? How much makeup can be slathered on without making your average actor LOOK like a Kabuki actor, even if they are performing in the most naturalistic acting style possible? And what about the so-called reality shows? How will real people fair in the increasingly challenging war of pixilated expectations?

This line of thinking led me to the most far-out image yet. What happens when an American Kabuki actor like Caruso gets has his makeup brilliantly exposed in the HDTV closeup of the future? Then there will be no 'American' needed before the word Kabuki. 21st Century technology will have effectively transported us back to 17th Century Japan!
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Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Passion at Work 

While hosting the Oscars many years ago, Steve Martin did a fantastic routine about what to say backstage after a show to a friend whose performance was no good. With tremendous sincerity, he offered “Only you could have done that!” With great seriousness, he intoned, “Fascinating choices you made.” My favorite, which he delivered with joyous enthusiasm, was, “I saw you up there!”

So it was with some trepidation that I sat down to read my dear friend Lawler Kang’s new book, Passion at Work over the holiday break. I have to confess, I’m not a big fan of business books, nor the category most commonly referred to as “self help”. Being a failed actor myself and having attended (and caused friends and family to attend) many less-than-thrilling evenings of “showcase” theatre, I’m guiltily gun-shy about reviewing friends’ creative output. What if I have to steal a line from Steve Martin? Eeek.

What a relief it was to be only a chapter into the book when I found myself stopping and saying to K. “Hey! I think I’m really going to like Lawler’s new book!” I immediately read her a few sentences that had resonated for me with some much-needed and timely insights.

I’ve always found Lawler to be a very inspiring person, so on an elemental level it was no surprise to me that he could deliver on the premise. But in addition to being a good and useful read, for me there was another deeply personal element that came into my experience of the book.

Lawler and I met at Vassar in 19*cough cough* when we were freshmen. Lawler was a strapping young dude with a penchant for skateboarding across campus with no shirt on. Given his totally ripped physique, one could hardly blame him for forgoing appropriate sun coverage. I was not built like a god and in addition was what now might be called a Goth, so I was clad pretty much in black denim, leather and silver metal.

Seeing him cruise about one could also not fail to notice the significant scar moving up the front of his body. It seemed evident that a disciple of Dr. Frankenstein had unceremoniously cut Lawler from his guggle to his zatch and stapled him shut in haste. It is not an elegant scar. Being a studied dark little soul at the time, I was of course jealous.

We got to know each other over time and I learned that the scar was only the tip of the iceberg. He’d already survived a neural aneurism long before the stomach adventure. I won’t go into all the details here, but suffice it to say that Lawler arrived in college with a carpe diem attitude born of two seriously close encounters with his mortality. He had been paralyzed, blind and comatose. He had rehabbed himself with surfing and skateboarding. On top of all this, Lawler was an able academic, relentlessly sunny and an extremely proficient party animal. What couldn’t he do?

Cut to ten years later. We’d lost touch. A colleague swiveled in her chair and handed me a piece of paper. “You know this guy?” I looked down at a resume.

“KNOW HIM?” I yelped. He was one of my best friends in college!”

“We want him. Can you help close him?”

“Set me up!” I crowed.

And so it came to be that ten years after college we reconnected. A wonderful thing. But in reading the book, I realized I had blanked out some of the serious drama of our college experience. I found myself tearing up as I read Lawler’s description of how his insides had come undone partway through college and they’d had to open him up two more times to repair the damage. I had forgotten about sitting around with our friends shell-shocked wondering whether he’d come through it.

Strangely, while I’d blanked all of that, I had always remembered one emotional encounter between us where I berated him because I thought I was noticing his recovery lagging. I believed he was not keeping up with some of his exercises.

All these years later, I remember feeling so upset, but not what set me off. I’d often wondered when I'd pondered that moment as an adult, why I was being so emotional about it. Was it really any of my business? (No.) Going through the chapter on his brushes with death, I realized that my memory must fall somewhere around the time of these sudden surgeries that'd I'd forgotten; with their concomitant weight loss and our group’s communal concern for his recovery. I’m sure my own predisposition to see the glass half empty enhanced the concern I felt. Somehow, the strength of the emotion burned that moment in, but something else erased the context. Odd how memory works, isn’t it?

Now, I have seriously digressed here on my own memories and foibles and I don't want that to be distract from the overall wonderfulness of the book. So let me return to its real content and tell you who I think will find value in it. Passion at Work is a book for people who love business but feel that they have not properly aligned their work efforts with their passions. Lawler has created a simple framework for doing the work to figure out how to accomplish this. Interestingly, he has chosen to use business language and consulting frameworks to help readers design an action plan to achieve the goal of finding and doing work they are truly passionate about.

While he has made a serious attempt to avoid tribal jargon in writing the book, if your not comfortable using the concepts of startup funding and venture captalism as metaphors for career conceptualization, this is not the book for you. If, however, you are a dedicated business person who feels a lack of passion for your job, your industry, and find yourself dreading the alarm clock, then this is DEFINITELY the book for you.

In fact, a colleague wandered by my desk today. I have displayed the book proudly and prominently. He looked it over and we talked about it for a while. “It’s quite timely, isn’t it?” he said. “So many people our age have gone out there and jumped into business and everyone’s working 24/7. Now I think people are starting to ask, ‘What for?’”

I agree. I think Lawler may catch the zeitgeist on this one. And the neat thing is, this is a book that only Lawler could have written. It's truly born of his own experiences as a human and as a business person. So I find myself using a Steve Martin line with no regrets and zero sarcasm: "Lawler, only you could have done that!"
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