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BOTTOM LINE: A new play about a dysfunctional family: it has some funny moments, but it’s a heavy piece of theatre. Ethan Hawke and the rest of the cast are quite wonderful.

Family doesn’t always come first, although it certainly takes center stage, in Thomas Nohilly’s new play Blood From a Stone. A grittier, less caricatured August: Osage County, this family drama makes you feel like a few interventions are in order. It’s billed as a dark comedy, and while there are certainly laugh-out-loud moments, the harsh reality of the struggles at hand overpower any gag meant to lighten things up. But committed performances and thoughtful writing make Blood From a Stone a completely engaging experience, even with its faults.

With a three-act structure and a clock-in time around two and a half hours, Blood From a Stone gives itself a lengthy tenure to reveal its characters and their conflicts. About a working class family in Connecticut and the adult children who are less than independent, all six characters embrace opportunities to explain their bad choices; they are all guilty of their own wrongdoings without being completely villainous. The result is a rather hero-less unfolding of the subsequent drama. It’s hard to loyally take a side, as everyone is responsible for their own poor decisions.

Travis (Ethan Hawke) is the son that got away — that is, he escaped to New York to forge an adult life. At the time of the play, he is back at his parents’ house before he journeys cross country to more or less find himself. His parents Bill (Gordon Clapp) and Margaret (Ann Dowd) live an uncomfortably abusive existence with one another. Emotional lashes have become their method of communicating. Travis is his mother’s son, and so through his eyes, Margaret looks like the victim. But as the story unfolds and we see Bill defended by their other son Matt (Thomas Guiry) it’s clear that both are at fault. The third child Sarah (Natasha Lyonne) is the most stable, although she seems pretty miserable as a mother with another on the way, who also works full time. And then you have Yvette (Daphne Rubin-Vega) as the family’s next door neighbor and Travis’s ex-girlfriend. Although informative about Travis’s circumstances, her scene could easily pluck right out of the play.¬†Hawke and the rest of the ensemble act the crap out of this story, breathing life into people who are tortured in their own ways.

I’ve been a fan of director Michael Mann (Ali, The Last of the Mohicans) for some years now. One thing I’ve always been able to count on is that no matter what project he’s filming, it will be a worthy consideration, a high-class work of art.

That is, until now.

Public Enemies, the latest Mann film, about the FBI hunt for legendary criminal John Dillinger (Johnny Depp) is a lengthy potboiler of a thriller, as most of Mann’s films tend to be. The problem here however, is that the pot boils overly long, the thrills are virtually nonexistent, and the story is sadly pedestrian, being one that we’ve seen many times before — including from Mann himself.

Set during the Great Depression of the 1930s, the film tracks the brilliant yet often brutal career of John Dillinger, a man who loves robbing banks as much for the public acclaim as for the money. Dillinger is known for his eccentric style, smooth appearance, being not unkind to his hostages (at one point even giving his own coat to a female captive to protect her from Chicago’s windy breezes), never taking money from customers of the banks he robs–only from the banks themselves–and his clean getaways. He doesn’t even shoot cops unless backed into a corner with no other option. He’s a true gentlemen’s criminal.

Assigned to capture Dillinger is one Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale), a dedicated agent placed in charge of the FBI’s Chicago bureau by none other than J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup) himself. Unfortunately, after a botched attempt to capture Baby Face Nelson (Stephen Graham), in which one of his own agents is killed, Purvis realizes his slick looking but inexperienced field agents aren’t quite up to the task, and he’s forced to recruit outside help to nab Nelson, some other gangsters, and of course public enemy #1, Dillinger.

degrassiDegrassi: The Next Generation — Season 7 (2009, Echo Bridge Home Entertainment)
purchase this DVD collection from Amazon: DVD

Degrassi: The Next Generation is like the older, Canadian cousin of the BBC’s Skins. Skins is brasher and quite a bit more racy, but that doesn’t mean that Degrassi: The Next Generation is some old fuddy duddy. Quite the contrary, using a half hour format (perfect for today’s attention deficit teenagers) and a much quicker pace, Degrassi: The Next Generation tackles the same issues as Skins with just as much drama, humor and effectiveness (with none of the nudity or foul language)

Echo Bridge Home Entertainment has just released the complete seventh Season of Degrassi: The Next Generation in a four-disc box set. If you are as unfamiliar with Degrassi as I was, starting your journey into the Degrassi universe with the seventh season is a little disorienting, like suddenly attending a new high school mid-way through the school year. However, a few clicks of the mouse are an easy remedy to that problem. Season 7 was significant because many of the regulars from the show (who had been on it all seven seasons) were finally graduating from high school (mind you, the actors playing these roles were actual teenagers and not twentysomethings trying to pass as teens). Particularly long-running was Emma (Miriam McDonald), whose origin dates back to the 1987 series, Degrassi Junior High, and whose character was the catalyst for Degrassi: The Next Generation.

The history of these characters may seem complicated, but once you’re immersed in this world, you quickly catch on. Which is good, because Degrassi has a cast so large I could spend most of this review rattling off their names and how they all interconnect. Instead, I’ll highlight several of the compelling story arcs that carried through season 7:

Gran Torino finally opened to wide release this weekend, and rapidly earned the number one spot at the box office.

It deserves every single dollar it’s made.

Many have been calling it a type of Dirty Harry film, harking back to the old days when director/star Clint Eastwood (Million Dollar Baby, Changeling) ran around as Callahan, asking punks if they felt lucky before blowing a hole in them with his .44 Magnum. Indeed, the trailers make it seem as if Gran Torino is a last hurrah action film for Eastwood, before he takes his final bow somewhere down the line.

The truth is, Gran Torino is not an action film by any true meaning of the word. Yes, there is action in it, but it’s action not just for the sake of showing some blood and violence; it’s organically grown from the storyline, from the result of consequences brought about by the acts and doings of the characters within the film. In short, Gran Torino is a character piece about an irascible Korean War vet who also happens to be an unrepentant bigot, who doesn’t exactly learn the error of his ways, but learns that some people he hates are better than others, and chooses–just as he did in the war–to stand up for those who can’t stand up for themselves.

It’s an impressive and important thing that Gran Torino is an Eastwood starrer. In many ways, it has to be: the thought of a 78 year-old man going head-on against youthful gang members would be laughable had any other actor played the lead…but because it’s Eastwood, the man who virtually invented scowling, whose fed-up cop Callahan beat the path for all other “loose cannon” cops to follow in his footsteps… the suspension of disbelief necessary to invest in the film not only clicks on automatically, it’s maintained throughout the film without one instance of being lost. Eastwood’s steely gaze, the simmering quiver in his jaw and a patented growl that might very well have belonged to Wolverine’s father, provides much of the dramatic forewarning and humor–yes, there is well-placed humor to be found–for the majority of the picture.