Tuesday, September 29, 2015

An Open Letter

Dear Matt Damon,


I have liked you as an actor ever since School Ties. And I'm sure you're a good guy. But recently, it seems as though every time you open your mouth your Straight White Male Privilege comes flooding out and it is EMBARRASSING.
I can't really speak to the whole Project Greenlight diversity issue, but this most recent slip-up, I most definitely can. "Actors are more effective when they're a mystery," huh? So by that yardstick, you must be a pretty damn ineffective actor, since everyone knows a whole lot about you - we know your best friend is Ben Affleck because you told us when doing the rounds for the film you wrote  together (Good Will Hunting, one of my favorite films), we even know who your wife is because you bring her to premieres with you and thank her in award acceptance speeches. And because of that, we know (GASP) what your sexuality is!
Yet somehow, we still believed you (and your co-star Michael Douglas, aka Mr. Catherine Zeta-Jones) as a gay man in Steven Soderbergh's Behind the Candelabra. And we buy it when you fall in love and have sex with women other than your wife in other films. Because acting is ALL ABOUT making people forget that you are who you are in real life and making them believe you are whatever character you are playing. For example: We all knew Christopher Lee was not a vampire, but we were still scared shitless of him as Dracula anyway! "Mystery" doesn't ever enter the picture. The only time it might lend a helping hand is when the actor is BAD, when they're not doing their job to make the character believable. That's when we rely on our good old-fashioned intuition to help fill in holes.
Because let's face it: 99% of the time when you see someone, you assume they are straight. Even if it's only subconsciously. Because, let's face it, most people in the world are straight. And since that's the case, people are straight until proven gay. That just is how it is, and that's okay. It does, however, put the onus on gay people of all stripes to "come out" (a phrase I detest) and let people know. That's slightly unfair (more so in parts of the world where being gay is a crime or otherwise punishable offense in the eyes of other people) but it is what it is.

So at best, Matt, by saying this you are showing that you are completely ignorant of how your own craft works, and at worst you are saying something extremely damaging to gay people. It's not exactly homophobic per se, but it promotes homophobia by suggesting that gay people should not say anything about their homosexuality at the same time as you and countless others flaunt your heterosexuality around the world without giving it a second thought.
And no matter which one it is, your statements make me think less of you. And they make me less likely to see your new film, which looks like it might be really good and which I probably would have seen otherwise (and which, by your own logic, no one will see - or believe you in if they do - because there's no mystery to the fact that you are not an astronaut with world-class smarts). Because now when I look at you, all I can see is a smug straight white man who doesn't have the ability to see past the end of his nose. And why would I want to support the career of someone like that?


Dancin' Dan

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Thursday Movie Picks - All in the Family Edition: Adopted/Foster Families

Written as part of the weekly blogathon hosted by Wandering Through the Shelves. Join in the fun by picking three films that relate to the week's theme and telling us about them!

To all my fellow Jews out there, Happy New Year, and I hope your fast was easy. That's the short reason why this posting is a bit late and a bit short today. To everyone else, HAPPY FALL! My favorite season.

Anyway, let's get right down to it, shall we?

This month's All in the Family Edition of Thursday Movie Picks focuses on Adoptive/Foster Families. This is the long reason why this posting is a bit late and short today. This is one of those times where I have to page through all the movies I've seen (thank you, Letterboxd!) and see which ones fit the theme. I just couldn't think of any off the top of my head. And then of course, when I see one that fits, I smack myself and say, "DUH! How could I forget?!"

Animal Kingdom (David Michod, 2010) J's mother has died from a self-inflicted overdose. So he gets taken in by his grandmother, formerly estranged. There's a reason for that: Her sons Darren, Craig, and Pope are a bit of a criminal element. And the police are after them. This Australian family crime drama is a stunning exercise in tension, compelling from first frame to last.

Despicable Me (Pierre Coffin and Chris Renaud, 2010) Gru is just your average supervillain trying to put a dastardly plot into motion. His plot? To steal the moon. But after the Chinese shrink ray (an integral part of his plan, as you can guess) he stole gets stolen from him, he adopts three adorable orphan girls to enlist their help to get it back. But the little brats start to grow on him, and he ends up (SPOILER ALERT) adopting them for real. Adorable, hilarious animated film with great voice performances all around (especially from Julie Andrews, doing an impeccable German accent as Gru's impossible-to-please mother).

The Blind Side (John Lee Hancock, 2009) The heartwarming story of a good family of White Christian Saviours who adopt a big black boy not because his mother is a no-good drug addict who barely takes care of him, not solely out of the goodness of their hearts, but because he MIGHT be good at football. And, whaddya know, they just happen to be important people at a Southern private school with a good football team! Aw, I don't mean to be mean, really I don't. The Blind Side is a perfectly nice Lifetime movie that has born the brunt of some pretty harsh, although not entirely undeserved, criticism because it managed a Best Picture nomination. It may be sickly sweet and only competently made, but the performances of Sandra Bullock and Tim McGraw as the heads of the family in question are just complex enough to make it not entirely cringe-worthy. Not at all Oscar-worthy, least of all in 2009, but still.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Thursday Movie Picks - Journalists/Reporters for Print/TV

Written as part of the weekly blogathon hosted by Wandering Through the Shelves. Join by picking three movies that fit the week's theme and telling us about them!

Is it really Thursday again already? It feels like just yesterday that we were talking about movies on trains. And this week, the theme is journalists/reporters. Ah, the intrepid reporter bungling their way to a career-making story with nothing but pluck, gumption, and a notepad - one of my favorite movie plots! I could have gone classic this week (if you haven't seen His Girl Friday, DO IT. Rosalind Russell is tremendous in it), but I did that last week, so contemporary films were in order. Here we have, for your viewing enjoyment, two fictional journalists who got more than what they bargained for, and one real-life newsman who was much more than his opponents bargained for.

Never Been Kissed (Raja Gosnell, 1999) Josie Geller, played by a radiant Drew Barrymore, starts out as a copy editor, but then one day the Editor-in-Chief of the paper she works for gives her a "real" assignment: go undercover in a high school to report on what teenagers' lives are really like. Of course, Josie had a terrible time when she was in high school (she was nicknamed "Josie Grossy") and wants to succeed this time around. Except that she still has the same temperament she had in high school, and teens haven't changed that much in the intervening years. So then her popular younger brother (David Arquette) goes back to school too, and everyone learns that high school - even one attended by 30 year-olds - is hell, and outer appearances don't always match the inner person. It's all cliché, yes, but Barrymore is impossibly winning, and the ensemble cast (including Michael Vartan, Jessica Alba, Leelee Sobieski, Molly Shannon, John C. Reilly, James Franco, and Garry Marshall in a great cameo as the Editor-in-Chief) is very fun.

The Ring (Gore Verbinski, 2002) Intrepid journalist Rachel Keller is concerned about her son, who has apparently been drawing morbid pictures of his cousin Katie's death.... even before it happened. Being an intrepid journalist, she naturally decides to investigate the mysterious death of her niece. Which of course includes watching this weird-ass videotape she watched in a cabin with friends. A videotape straight out of urban legend. One that causes you to die seven days after you watch it. But Rachel finds out that the legend is all too real. And of course she bumbles her way around trying to get to the bottom of how such a tape came into existence. Both The Ring and the original Japanese film Ringu, on which it is based, have a concept that has horror built right in; the plot itself suggests that the very act of watching the film will kill you. It doesn't get much scarier than that. But Verbinski's film has a sturdier sense of mood than Hideo Nakata's original, and a great performance from Naomi Watts at its center.

Good Night, and Good Luck (George Clooney, 2005) Nightly News anchorman Edward R. Murrow and his team go to battle with Senator Joseph McCarthy, who is on a Communist witch hunt in 1950s America. Clooney's film so ably and completely captures not just the look but the feel of the 50s in every aspect of the production. And while the entire ensemble cast deserves praise, it's character actor David Strathairn, as Murrow, who has the biggest part, and boy does he run with the opportunity, giving a performance that transcends mere mimicry to stand on its own as a performance of solid, deep power. Clooney (whose passion project this was; his father was a TV newsman) couldn't have asked for a better actor to carry this exciting, well-made, important film.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Thursday Movie Picks - Train Movies

Written as part of the weekly blogathon hosted by Wandering Through the Shelves. Please join us by picking three movies that fit the week's theme and telling people about them!

Ever since the dawn of film, with the Lumière brothers' "L'arrivée d'un train en gare de La Ciotat" in 1896, the cinema has been in love with trains. It's hard to deny they make for pretty arresting viewing on their own, not really needing anything else to give them interest. As someone who commuted via train from Connecticut to New York City for work for seven years, I can say that the trains of today are not quite what they were: The modern sleekness has stripped away a lot of their grandeur. At any rate, these films inspired by trains are pretty great, and capture a lot (if not all) of what makes them so fascinating.

The General (Clyde Bruckman and Buster Keaton, 1926) Buster Keaton is a genius. A goddamn genius. The physical stunts he did are pure madness to even attempt, but he executes them with such flawless ease that it makes me jealous. And to top it all off, "The Great Stone-Face" has no flair whatsoever. He just tosses off every single death-defying stunt like it's nothing. Like he's bored. Oh, a house just fell down around me. Whatever. Oh, I just narrowly avoided getting shot by a canon which I loaded after running along a moving train, that's all. No big whoop, just another day on the job, wasn't even any fun. It's sick. The General, perhaps his finest hour, he gets the girl by rescuing both her and his beloved train in the midst of the Civil War. Shockingly, it's actually (slightly loosely) based on a true story.

The Lady Vanishes (Alfred Hitchcock, 1938) Hitchcock's British pictures are quite different from his American ones, and I don't think that difference is more apparent than in this film. It's a sly little thriller, yes, but it's also a light comedy, something that, while an element of some of Hitchcock's later pictures, could never really be called a defining trait of any of them. That it works so breezily well is due in part to Hitch, but mostly to his fine, fine cast: Margaret Lockwood as our heroine, Michael Redgrave as her impossibly dashing foil, and of course Dame May Whitty as the titular old lady who may or may not have even existed in the first place. And let's not forget the delightful Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne as Charters & Caldicott, such perfectly British supporting characters that they were drafted to appear in two other completely different films (one of which, Night Train to Munich, not only also takes place on a train, but also co-stars Margaret Lockwood) and had a mini-series all to themselves. The Lady Vanishes is pure pleasure.

20th Century (Howard Hawks, 1934) Okay, yes, this is really only here because I've performed in the musical based on this film and it's so, so bad. But the film is fun. I mean, I ask you: Can you go wrong with a Howard Hawks-directed screwball comedy starring Carole Lombard and John Barrymore as sparring, egotistical theater folk? You cannot, my friends. You truly can NOT.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Thursday Movie Picks - Teacher Movies

Written as part of the blogathon hosted weekly by Wandering Through the Shelves. If you haven't already, you should join us by picking three movies that relate to the week's theme and telling us about them.

My father was a high school French and Spanish teacher for twenty-four years before becoming a vice principal. My mother became a middle school social worker after working in a hospital for years. So I have a special place in my heart for films that look at the adult side of schools. I've already used some good ones in previous weeks (Dead Poet's Society, Take the Lead, Hamlet 2). These are three of my absolute favorites.

Mr. Holland's Opus (Stephen Herek, 1995) Glen Holland is a composer trying to start a family. Since there aren't exactly a whole lot of regular jobs for composers, he takes a job as a high school music teacher to make some money. What he didn't expect was that the job would take over his life, to the point that he becomes more invested in his students (including young Alicia Witt, Terence Howard, and Jean Louisa Kelly) than his son, who (of course - this being a melodrama and all) happens to be deaf. Richard Dreyfuss is great in the lead, aging Holland believably from the 50s through the 90s, and Gleanne Headley is incredibly sympathetic as his wife.

Entre les murs (Laurent Cantet, 2008) Everything about Laurent Cantet's film (titled The Class in English-speaking countries) is risky: the students are real kids, not actors, it was based on an autobiographical book by a teacher in an average French school, that teacher plays himself in the film, and it's shot like a documentary, despite being more or less scripted. So if The Class feels more true to life than other school films, that's because it is. In every possible way. Neither M. Marin nor his students nor the other teachers are perfect - they all make mistakes, even when they know in the moment that they're wrong. The dialogue in the classroom is more stimulating, and teaches the audience more about the current state of France (and possibly the world), than any other film ever made. FULL DISCLOSURE: I attempted to read the book on which this was based, and found it SO dry. The film, thankfully, is anything but. The fly-on-the-wall documentary style is an inspired choice, making everything feel like it's buzzing with energy.

School of Rock (2003, Richard Linklater) Far and away the best (read: least annoying) Jack Black has ever been, largely because he plays off the kids so well. This is slightly bending the rules a bit, as Black's character, Dewey Finn, isn't actually a teacher but a washed-up never-was rock band leader. He may be a terrible, lazy son of a bitch, but when he pretends to be his best friend to take a substitute teaching job at a prestigious prep school (he's also broke), it turns out he's a pretty good music teacher. He's also selfish, turning the kids into a band to compete in a local Battle of the Bands to prove to his old band that he's better than they are. The kids (including a young Miranda Cosgrove) are adorable, Black interacts with them brilliantly, Sarah Silverman is hilarious in a bit part (Dewey's best friend's girlfriend), and Joan Cusack is at her Cusack-ian best as the principal of the school.