17 March 2007

On the Great Low-Budget Drama

Let us reflect briefly on the simple, unpretentious drama. The anti-blockbuster. The kind of movie that no one lines up for, and that often is never advertised on TV. Yet these small, humble, overlooked films are sometimes the best examples of film making.

What am I talking about? Well, "Monsters Ball" and "The Woodsman" are great examples. A powerful story, light-handed direction, and a group of fabulous actors. That's what it takes. But these are the movies that don't get much press, and even less buzz among fans. Such movies rarely draw major stars, and unless they do, they are sure to get little financing. (and there's a sort of uncertainty principle at work here.... when such films DO draw major stars, and big money, they often become too Hollywood... and then fail to realize the script's original potential.)

I've recently seen two films that got it right.

"The Trip to Bountiful" (1985) was written by Horton Foote, adapted from his stage play, and directed by Peter Masterson. It's not a great movie, but just see it for Geraldine Page's leading performance. She's an old woman, living with her son and daughter in law, desperate to see her old home one more time before she dies. Ms. Page won the best actress Oscar that year, and it's easy to see why.

Sadly, the movie as a whole never really feels like a movie. It is very visibly a stage adaptation, and at times you can darn near feel the proscenium just off camera. A better director would have made it more cinematic, and that would have helped. But don't let this deter you. The story is outstanding, and the actors are all first rate.

Horton Foote (also of Tender Mercies fame) has a very recognizable world view: "Life goes on." There are never any dramatic turns of fate in his stories, no miracles. The cavalry never comes to the rescue, and there is never a Hollywood ending. His is an honest view. He believes in what seem to be very small victories, which nonetheless are very large for the characters involved.

But now, a real gem.... "Affliction" (1998), written and directed by Paul Schrader. Wow.....

This is a "must see" film, in my opinion. Consider...
- A fabulously real character study
- probably Nick Nolte's best performance ever
- great roles by Sissie Spacek and James Coburn
- scene direction that is so simple and fluid it's virtually invisible

If I had to pick a perfect example of a a truly GREAT low budget drama, this would be it. It's not a perfect movie, but it's darn close.

I'm reluctant to say too much about it. It's dark, disturbing, and brutally honest, and just a great, great movie. High art, this film. Please give it a look.

PS: ...and I just thought of another one: "The Sweet Hereafter," 1997, writen and directed by Atom Egoyan, adapted from the novel by Russell Banks. If I had to compare them, I think this is an even stronger film than "Affliction."

12 March 2007

Why Do Movies Suck?

This isn't a review of my own (I regret to say), but it is a pointer to a David Weinberger article that was published in the March 2007 issue of the Journal of the Hyperlinked Organization (JOHO). I've been a fan of his writing for years, and am sad that his newsletter has largely been replaced by his blog. I haven't quite evolved into the person I want to be -- a person who will be able to keep up with things in the blog world. But I'm trying.

Anyway, it's an interesting observation. It would be a good conversation starter, especially with some snacks nearby, and a glass at hand. You can read it here.

07 March 2007

Six Feet Under

Six Feet Under was an HBO series that ran for five years, completing its run in 2005. All of the episodes are now available on DVD and if you've never had the pleasure of indulging in this provocative drama, I heartily recommend that you do so. I recently watched the entire series and continue to find its all-too-human characters and all-too-realistic situations invading my thoughts.

The series centers on the Fisher family, who run an independent funeral home in LA. The scripts are laced with wit, philosophy and black humor. With the central characters constantly confronting death, how could it not be? All of the characters, both major and minor, are fully realized human beings with endearing qualities as well as frustrating ones, flaws as well as virtues. They are some of the most three dimensional, complex characters that I have ever encountered in any medium. And they are depicted by marvelous, nuanced performers from the actors.

Nathaniel, the patriarch of the family, meets an untimely demise in the first few minutes of the initial episode. However, he still appears to his family members from time to time to chat with them and give them his take on their current situations. These visitations are not depicted as paranormal phenomena. Rather, they are projections of the living characters, imagining what the late Nathaniel might have to say to them at this time. It may sound hokey, but the device is seamlessly integrated into the narrative. Other deceased characters also take advantage of the opportunity to berate and advise.

Nathaniel's widow, Ruth, is an amazing admixture of middle-aged confusion, longing, whining and at times, a surprising wellspring of maternal strength and warmth. It is actually her sons, David and Nate, who run the family business. David begins the series as a closeted gay man and over the course of the show he slowly emerges. He and his partner, Keith, have more than their share of ups and downs. But they are the most realistically portrayed gay characters that I have encountered on the screen. The youngest Fisher is daughter Claire. We meet her in adolescence and watch as she grapples with rebellion, angst and hormones to become a quirky, talented young woman.

The series is laced with dark humor and each episode opens with the last few minutes before the death of a character. This is usually someone we have never seen before, but somehow the death will be integrated into the plot before the final fade to white, which is utilized in the series instead of the ubiquitous fade to black.

Before I began viewing, I had heard nothing but accolades for the final episode. I was not disappointed - it was nothing short of magnificent, building on everything that had come before. It is well worth your time to check out this series and at this date you have the advantage of never having to wait months for the resolution of a cliff-hanger, as those who viewed it over the course of five years often had to. It's a big commitment in terms of time, but well worth the investment.