Friday, May 25, 2007

(Insert Phoenix Simile Here)

“The fires were set by landlords who were tired of trying to evict delinquent tenants. They were set by vandals who intended to return for the plumbing systems, which were easier to extract and sell once the firemen had knocked down the walls. They were set by idle kids who wandered the streets aimlessly after school….Sometimes ignition was preceded by the ritual removal of property, meaning that the fire had been started by the family that knew that Social Services was obligated to provide new housing and moving expenses to victims of disastrous combustion.”

Ladies and Gentlemen, The Bronx is Burning, by Jonathan Mahler

There’s a stretch of the Cross Bronx Expressway, between Crotona Park and Webster Avenue, where the road elevates, offering a three-hundred and sixty degree view of the surrounding neighborhood. Traveling that section today recalls memories from my childhood in the mid-eighties when many of the apartment buildings in that area were abandoned and boarded, the result of arson almost a decade earlier. What I found particularly interesting at that time was the addition of silhouettes – human, plant and domestic animal – to the window boards. Literal window-dress, used to mask one of the emblems of New York City’s near-total economic collapse in the late-1970’s.

Today, those buildings have been repaired and are again housing tenants. However, a little further south in the almost equally revitalized Hunts Point I discovered a sight that I had once thought vanished from The Bronx. Four twenty-nine Bruckner Boulevard (pictured upper right), between E. 144th and E. 149th Streets, caught my eye while zipping by on my bike last summer.

Given the neighborhood’s notoriously rough history I found one window (pictured lower left) particularly ironic. It appeared that there was a man being held at gun point. When I made a u-turn for a closer inspection, I realized that it wasn't just a random criminal act, but a cop collaring a criminal. The window silhouettes also seem to have a film noir-ish quality to them - the one to the immediate left of this one features a female with a pin-up girl hairstyle smoking a cigarette - the femme fatale, if you will.

A Google search revealed that the building belongs to Cayne Industrial Sales Corporation, a company which sells steel lockers and shelving. Despite the fact that the building is occupied and functional, its initially deceptive ‘abandoned’ quality speaks to a different period of time in New York when the city was once again on the verge of re-inventing itself.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Shrek the Third's Writing is "Royally F#&@%d"

What do Shrek (2001), Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl (2003) and Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest (2006) have in common?

Tight, sharp and funny writing. Namely that of the screenwriting team of Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio (they also penned the screenplay for Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, but I can't speak for that one yet).

Sadly, Shrek the Third (and its predecessor, Shrek 2) doesn’t possess the same talented writing team. I always likened Shrek (2001) to The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle (the television series, not the lackluster 2000 film): the animation is crude (read about my overall issues with CG usage in film in my Spider-Man 3 post), but the heart and humor in the writing more than compensated. I thought for sure that Shrek the Third would be somewhat on par with the writing of Shrek because of the screenwritng team of Jeffrey Price and Peter Seaman. After all, they did write a decent little film called Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988).

I'll conclude with two somewhat-related issues: Don’t get me wrong, I like the gingerbread man (that’s why I purchased the above Happy Meal toy), but elements of his design and performance are strikingly similar to Mr. Bill. Also, the gumdrop button poop sight gag in Shrek the Third is really similar to this You Tube video:

[In case it’s no longer available: Poppin’ Fresh, The Pillsbury Doughboy laughs so hard that he has a croissant-shaped accident.]

Monday, May 7, 2007

Emo Spider-Man

It is time to put the Spider-Man film franchise to sleep. Sure, Spider-Man 3 will set records in terms of ticket sales and potentially even DVD sales, but the film suffers from an ill-conceived story, excessive length and digital effects that often don’t blend well with the live-action shots.

Spider-man 3’s plot can be explained in a single sentence: Peter Parker, over-taken by a hostile space substance suddenly becomes emo Spider-Man. Given the amount of crying that Toby Maguire has done in these three films it’s only logical that he would take the next step and start wearing solid black tights and eyeliner (between this film and the Pirates of the Caribbean series, I don’t think there’s been this much eye make-up on male actors since the days of silent films). All he’s missing is a marble composition notebook filled with poetry and whiny musings.

Spider-Man 3 is saturated with examples of how CG animation and effects have made suspension of disbelief increasingly impossible these days at the movies. Granted it has allowed for some interesting camera work and subtle special effects, however it often fails in the realm of believable human and anthropomorphic characters.

Case in point: Flint Marko’s (Thomas Haden Church) transformation into Sandman in a radioactive sand silo begins with a shot of his cellular structure undergoing drastic changes. Reminiscent of Epcot’s Body Wars, the scene is effective because it’s not bound by the average audience’s intuitive notion of how an event like this should unfold. The opposite is true when Sandman’s full humanoid form is revealed. As anatomically correct as the filmmakers tried to render him, Sandman’s performance possesses crude movements similar to those of early 2-D (‘rubber hose’) and stop-motion (jerky-movement) animated characters. His initial reaction to his new form is expressed through a lot of pantomimed, ‘eye-less’ disbelief (kind of like slow-motion ‘jazz hands’ and what appears to be an attempt to express his frustration through tears that wouldn’t come – either that, or he was having a Visine moment on par with Ben Stein pouring a bucket of sand over an iris-emblazoned beach ball in their commercials).

Spider-Man 3’s faults rest not entirely with CG excess – if anything poor storytelling has made it all the more glaring. What is most-baffling is the previously and thoroughly explored event that steeled Peter Parker/Spider-Man’s resolve is shown in flashback (now with never before seen ‘missing’ footage!) at least three times while the substance that creates the truly under-developed Venom (Topher Grace) is never given such consideration. Avoiding any unnecessary exposition, a simple resolution may have been a Daily Bugle cover featuring a concise explanation (complete with a fill-in-the-blank government agency ‘sez’ tagline). Previously, whenever something has fallen from the sky in the New York tri-state area, it usually lands on someone’s car or house and makes the cover of a tabloid newspaper.

Oh, wait...I almost forgot. There's a third villain, New Goblin (James Franco). I don't know which villain was more 'throw-away': New Goblin or Venom. Although, Emo Spider-Man does deride New Goblin as "Goblin Junior."

Saturday, May 5, 2007

Supernumerary or 'Cractor' ?

The Merriam-Webster online dictionary ( defines supernumerary as [noun] “1: a supernumerary person or thing” and “2: an actor employed to play a walk-on.” I coined a slightly different term for my dual responsibilities on The Juilliard School’s production of La finta giardiniera: 'cractor'.

What exactly is a cractor? Simple: A cractor is a hybrid of stage crew and actor. How did I become one? Please read on.

My association with The Juilliard School began in late-August 2005, as a participant in the school’s Professional Intern Program (props: Upon completion of my internship, I immediately began to “over-hire” (or freelance) with their scene shop on run-crews for various productions. Amongst those productions have been three operas, two of which found me in costume on stage.

The first, in November 2005, was A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Briefly, I appeared on- stage and assisted the performers in placing a small-scale stage curtain attached to two poles into the deck. The second, La finta (April 25th, 27th and 29th, 2007) was a more prolonged experience; I was on stage in numerous scenes within all three acts in addition to moving scenery in-between.

Don’t get me wrong – I enjoyed the experience. However, actor / performer have always ranked relatively low on my list of aspirations; I can be somewhat introverted. You can imagine my horror, when, dressed as a 19th century Italian servant, I was directed [along with my fellow valets] to march around the stage while ‘playing’ instruments (I was assigned the Double Bass and the music allegedly eminating from the instruments was supplied courtesy of The Juilliard Orchestra) and then flank a door for six to eight minutes.

I developed a device to make it through what could have been an excruciating length of time for me – one that I later discovered was not as unique as I had originally thought. During rehearsals, I looked for my “fourth wall,” a place where I could focus my eyes while I stood there. It came in the form of a railing, about mid-orchestra section out in the house. Ironically, after the second performance, I was watching a program later that evening on PBS in which the late actress Uta Hagen was teaching a younger generation of actors the exact method I was using. Maybe this acting thing isn’t so bad after all...
[Note: I'm second from left in the background of the above photo]