Friday, October 30, 2009

I Am The Master Of My Fate, I Am The Captain Of My Soul...

Alongside Martin McDonagh's The Pillowman and David Mamet's Glengarry Glen Ross, Arthur Miller's brilliant A View from the Bridge is my favorite play. Unfortunately, I've never acted in any of the aforementioned plays, although I have consistently used monologues from each of them for audition material throughout high school. I first read A View from the Bridge as required summer reading for Mr. Billy Dragoo's Theatre II class the summer before my sophomore year of high school. As soon as I read the play, I picked out a particular monologue by the antihero Eddie Carbone, which I would use early on during my sophomore year for an audition for The Lovesong of J. Robert Oppenheimer. Last fall, I performed the same monologue at the 2008 Texas Thespian Festival in Fort Worth, and advanced to the Nationals competition in Solo Acting.

I mention A View from the Bridge because the extraordinary play, more than ever, is appearing everywhere around me. First and foremost, I am using Miller's work as my narrative text for my latest critical essay, which is an assignment for my class Writing the Essay: Art and the World. Secondly, it was announced only a few days ago that a revival of A View from the Bridge will open on Broadway beginning December 28th, starring Liev Schreiber as Eddie Carbone and Scarlett Johansson as his niece Catherine. Even if these two terrific actors weren't attached to the production, I'd still be first in line to see the play (as I've yet to see a professional production of this particular Miller work, nor have I seen Sidney Lumet's 1962 film adaptation). Schreiber is an actor I admire tremendously both onstage and on-camera - he won a Tony Award in 2006 for his performance as Richard Roma in a revival of Mamet's Glengarry Glen Ross, and so naturally I can't wait to see what he does with Eddie Carbone.

This past Thursday evening, I once again used Eddie Carbone's signature monologue from A View from the Bridge - this time, to a large crowd at Third Avenue North. My performance was one of seventeen acts competing in Third North's Ultra Violet Live (UVL) talent competition, a talent show featuring musical acts, spoken word poetry, original songs, interpretive dancing, stand-up comedy, and my solo acting performance. I performed two contrasting monologues - one dramatic piece, from Miller's A View from the Bridge as Eddie Carbone, and one comedic piece, from Alan Ayckbourn's A Small Family Business as Jack. After the judges deliberated, I was thrilled to be named the Third North UVL Runner Up, coming in second place behind a musical act performed by freshman Phoebe Ryan. As it turns out, Phoebe and I both advanced to the English Speaking Union's National Shakespeare Competition back in April 2008, performing at Lincoln Center as two contestants out of sixty selected from the entire nation. I wish her the best of luck at the NYU-wide UVL competition in spring 2010; if for some reason she is unable to perform, I will take her spot. As it stands, I received a twenty-dollar iTunes gift certificate from the judges, so I'm just thrilled with my new music purchases.

Here's a random fact - only five years ago, in October 2004, freshman Stephani Gabriella Germanotta competed in Third North's Ultra Violet Live (UVL) talent competition, and placed first with a ballad from the musical Wicked. The following spring at the NYU-wide competition, she ended up placing second. Today she is known as musical artist Lady GaGa. I won't pretend to know much about Lady GaGa and her music, but I'm aware she's a popular artist.

Today, I pitched my original idea for a Radio Drama to my Sound Image class, where our final end-of-year projects are audio dramas under ten minutes in length. I was very lucky to have my Radio Drama idea selected for production, which is already underway. The script I presented for the Radio Drama is a piece of rewritten history involving the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, specifically a "what if" scenario imagining if Mrs. Jacqueline Kennedy, not JFK, was killed in Dallas by Lee Harvey Oswald. I'm working with a terrific four-person group on this project, including my good friend Morgan Block serving as Producer/Casting/Talent Coordinator, Andrew Griego as Lead Production Editor/Mixer, and Shaun Kim as Sound Engineer and SFX/Foley Coordinator. As the writer of the Radio Drama, I am serving as the Writer/Director/Co-Editor.

In the meantime, I am excitedly anticipating the upcoming Sunday performance of my original one-act play, The Certifiable, by Tisch New Theatre. Directed by Mark Galinovsky, the performance begins at 5:00 PM in the Tisch Common Room at 721 Broadway. Having attended a rehearsal this past Tuesday evening (and planning on watching another rehearsal tomorrow afternoon), I am really impressed with the acting and staging of the play.

In the spirit of Halloween, I ventured to the IFC Center with some other film students tonight to see Lars Von Trier's incredibly disturbing new film Antichrist, starring Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg as a married couple grieving the loss of a child. Von Trier, no stranger to disturbing subject matter and emotionally and physically exhausting his audience, has made an extremely controversial and effectively despairing film. At its core, Antichrist is an arthouse movie from start to finish. It's almost impossible to critique critically, because although the movie is brilliantly made and features incredible performances from Dafoe and Gainsbourg, there are scenes in this film that are as downright disturbing and shocking as anything I've ever seen. And, more importantly, it's rather unclear what Von Trier is even trying to say with this movie.

I admire Antichrist a great deal from a filmmaking perspective, but its not meant to be entertainment. Roger Ebert notes that the film must be applauded for so effectively evoking a sense of despair, and although I agree with him, I can't help but think that Antichrist is so intent on unsettling the audience that, ultimately, the movie doesn't come anywhere close to the emotional power of Von Trier's Breaking the Waves (1996). I think Von Trier is brilliant, and in its own very twisted way, Antichrist is brilliant, too. But I'll never watch it again.

Reading the October 19th issue of The New Yorker, I'm thrilled to find that John Lahr writes fondly of Michael Grandage's production of Hamlet, starring Jude Law. Later in the issue, David Denby writes on Lone Scherfig's An Education and, specifically, Peter Sarsgaard's great performance. I'll act as Mr. Sarsgaard's publicist briefly, providing a really great quote from Denby:

"It's been apparent for some time that Peter Sarsgaard is an actor of major talent waiting for a major role, and he almost gets one in An Education...I have a feeling Sarsgaard could have stretched the role a lot further if the script had allowed him to, but, still, what he does is surprising...Sarsgaard makes it seem as if David, out of need, desire, and strength - and weakness, too - were experiencing everything for the first time."

I'll close this entry with a poem, inspired by the recently released trailer of Clint Eastwood's Invictus, starring Morgan Freeman as South African President Nelson Mandela and Matt Damon as the South African rugby star vying for the World Cup. The film doesn't open until December, but upon seeing the trailer, I was excited to hear the words of William Ernest Henley's poem Invictus, which very well embodies Mandela's unconquerable soul in the face of imprisonment. The poem is one of several vocal warmups Mr. Billy Dragoo regularly asked The Red Dragon Players to recite before performing onstage, and so the words hold a special place in my heart. Here is Invictus.

Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the Pit from pole to pole
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll.
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

William Ernest Henley

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

But When We Get To The End, He Wants To Start All Over Again

This past Saturday was New York University's Parent's Day, and so I was able to spend time this weekend with my visiting mother and grandmother. While they were here, we attended a Saturday night performance of God of Carnage on Broadway, which recently won Best Play at the 2009 Tony Awards. The play, written by Yasmina Reza and directed by Best Director Tony winner Matthew Warchus (who also helmed Alan Ayckbourn's brilliant trilogy The Norman Conquests on Broadway recently), is a fascinating look at an evening gathering between two married couples that quickly breaks out into absolute chaos. Although the synopsis calls to mind Edward Albee's revolutionary Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Warchus' play is far funnier and lighthearted, and an incredible pleasure to watch. But make no mistake - the laughs sting, and the social commentary isn't lost in the very dark humor.

The original Broadway cast ends their incredible run on November 14th, and although I am sure the replacement cast will be spectacular as well, the four original actors are a delight to watch in God of Carnage. Jeff Daniels, Hope Davis, James Gandolfini and Marcia Gay Harden are simply extraordinary (Mrs. Harden won the Tony award for Best Actress).

After the performance, I was lucky enough to travel backstage of the Bernard Jacobs Theatre and meet Mrs. Harden, who is a Texas native and a graduate of NYU's Tisch School of the Arts. She is, quite simply, a terrific actress and a wonderful person. As part of the ongoing curtain call for the great actors, I waited outside of the theater after going backstage so that the rest of the cast could sign my God of Carnage poster. It was truly a Broadway experience I will never forget.

On Sunday afternoon, my mother, grandmother and I attended a matinee of William Shakespeare's Hamlet at the Broadhurst Theatre, directed by Michael Grandage and starring actor Jude Law in the titular role. Clocking in at nearly four hours, there is not a boring moment of this production of Hamlet - Law is truly memorable as the tortured hero, and a brilliant cast of British character actors join him onstage.

Hamlet never fails to fascinate me, more so than any other Shakespeare play, because it is ultimately a play about a man accused of insanity in a world where everybody else breaks the rules and twists the moral fabrics of society to their own liking and, tragically, gets away with it. Ironically, Hamlet is really the only sane character in the kingdom of Denmark, and those surrounding him are so afraid to admit that he is right that, eventually, Hamlet is driven to extreme measures in order to expose the lies on which this new kingdom is built. He fights endlessly for the truth, only to be met by enemies who were once friends, and a family that turns their backs on him because of his necessarily bizarre behavior. It's a Shakespearean tragedy that is played out daily by common men as much as by princes and kings.

Last Thursday evening, I attended a free screening of F. Gary Gray's new film Law Abiding Citizen at the Cantor Film Center. Producer Alan Siegel held a Q&A after the movie, which stars Jamie Foxx and Gerard Butler in a plot almost too convoluted to explain. Roger Ebert hits it on the head in his review of the movie, when he writes that Law Abiding Citizen is "one of those movies you like more at the time than in retrospect." I had fun, but I forgot about the movie within an hour or two, which may be due to the fact that afterward I quickly headed uptown to the AMC Loews 34th Street IMAX theater with a group of excited film freshmen to catch the midnight showing of Spike Jonze's Where the Wild Things Are.

Where the Wild Things Are is a difficult movie to write about, because the movie plays subtly on so many emotions without words. I have an enormous amount of respect for the movie, and when I say I was deeply moved, I truly mean it. There are those proclaiming the film as the best movie of the year, a claim with which I would strongly disagree, but the movie is quite an achievement nonetheless. I want to see it again.

On both Sunday evening and yesterday evening, I got to see my good friend Mitchell Stephens, who is a senior this year at Austin High School, as he was visiting New York City to look at colleges, among them New York University and Fordham University. He and I starred in many productions together with The Red Dragon Players at Austin High School (among them Major Barbara, Over the River and Through the Woods, Willy Wonka, Radio Eyes, Urinetown: The Musical, The Diary of Anne Frank and Into the Woods), and I am certain he will be a highly sought-after candidate for many top theatre schools. If he winds up going to college and studying acting in New York, I will be very excited. I had dinner with him, my mother and grandmother Sunday evening at Tavern on Jane Street, owned by Horton Foote Jr., the son of brilliant playwright Horton Foote, and yesterday I was able to show him around the Tisch building at 721 Broadway.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

An Education and Peter Sarsgaard

Lone Scherfig's An Education is strikingly original, very well written and features outstanding performances from Carey Mulligan, Peter Sarsgaard, Alfred Molina and the rest of the very talented cast. I suspect the film will be receive Best Picture, Best Actress (Mulligan) and Best Supporting Actor (Molina) nominations at next year's Academy Awards. The film focuses on sixteen year-old Londoner Jenny (Mulligan, whose talent matches her beauty) who begins an affair with the much older David (Sarsgaard) in the early 1960s. The titular education is provided by David, and the prospect of a future with him and his seemingly cultured friends appears far more exciting to Jenny than a college education at Oxford. An Education wisely explores the idealism of youth and the disillusionment that comes with life experience - it's an excellent film.

I have to pay special attention to one of my favorite working actors, Peter Sarsgaard. When I was thirteen years old, I went to see Shattered Glass (2003, Billy Ray) at Austin's local art house theater, and I was awestruck by Sarsgaard's brilliant and explosive performance as editor Chuck Lane. That he did not receive an Academy Award nomination for the film (much less a deserving win) is a real crime in Academy history.

Since then, Sarsgaard has consistently given superb performances in films as varied as Garden State (2004, Zach Braff), Kinsey (2004, Bill Condon), Jarhead (2005, Sam Mendes), Elegy (2008, Isabel Coixet) and now An Education. Here's hoping that he receives a nomination this year for his great performance (although his work is so brilliantly subtle I suspect the Academy may slight him once again). To the right is a picture of Sarsgaard and me, along with my friend Bolton Eckert and his brother Travis, at the 90th birthday party of Oscar-winning screenwriter Horton Foote in March 2006. I should note that Sarsgaard is truly one of the nicest actors I have ever met in person.

Earlier this week, singer Al Martino passed away at the age of 82. Martino played Sinatra-like singer Johnny Fontane in The Godfather (1972, Francis Ford Coppola) and, according to a fascinating article from Britain's Telegraph, asked his own 'godfather' to convince Coppola to cast him in the Fontane role. May he rest in peace.

On Monday evening, I attended my second plenary session for my class Writing the Essay: Art and the World. Rather than a typical lecture, however, students were treated to a preview performance of The Jackie Look, a performance piece by performance artist Karen Finley, in the Skirball Center for the Performing Arts. Finley, who is known for her controversial performances (she was infamously one of the NEA Four - one of four artists whose grant from the National Endowment for the Arts was rejected in 1990 due to the graphic content of the art) 'portrays' Jacqueline Kennedy Onasis in this performance, which opens for the public on January 30th, 2010 at The Laurie Beechman Theatre. It was an interesting way to spend a Monday night, certainly - that's all I'll say.

On Tuesday morning, I took a field trip downtown for my class The Irish and New York. We visited The Irish Hunger Memorial, a fascinating public art piece near Ground Zero honoring those who suffered and died from starvation not just from Ireland's historic potato famine, but from famines and hungers worldwide. As soon I have pictures printed from the memorial, I will post them online.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Five Feet From Scorsese and The Certifiable

On Thursday evening, I had the pleasure of attending a screening of Min Ye (Tell Me Who You Are), a film from Mali directed by Souleymane Cisse, at The Director's Guild of America Theatre. Following the screening (which was part of the DGA's Global Cinema Series), there was a question-and-answer with the director moderated by none other than Martin Scorsese.

In anticipation of this incredible opportunity to see Scorsese with my own eyes, I arrived at the DGA Theatre early enough to guarantee a front-row seat, along with my friends Morgan Block and Jeremy Keller. Before the screening, we surveyed the crowd and discovered that actor Steve Buscemi and my favorite screenwriter, Paul Schrader, were both in the audience, among many other distinguished filmmakers and actors. Min Ye is a fascinating picture about a polygamist in Mali and the emotional distress of his first wife, who has been unfaithful to her husband.

When Scorsese entered the theatre and took a seat only a few feet away from me, I was wearing a decidedly goofy grin, as if I were in some sort of fantastical dream. I'm not usually one to be "starstruck" by a celebrity, but Scorsese may be the sole exception. As evidenced by this blog, he plays a larger role in my life than he will ever know. I know - I am sure many film students around the globe would say the exact same thing - but still, actually seeing my hero with my own eyes was a truly spectacular occasion. Unbeknownst to me, Jeremy snapped a few pictures of Scorsese during the Q&A - and, as you can see above, my fingers are visible in the photographs. Does it say something about my love for Scorsese that I am extremely proud to have my fingers appear in the same picture as the great director? Perhaps it is a severe case of idol worship, but it's well-deserved.

In even more exciting news, I received word today from Tisch New Theatre that they will be staging and producing my original play The Certifiable this fall. They've already chosen a director for my script, and they are keeping me updated with auditions and rehearsal schedules. The play is scheduled to premiere on November 1st. I couldn't be more excited about the prospect of seeing my play onstage. I submitted The Certifiable last month on a lark to Tisch New Theatre, and I am thrilled that it has been chosen for a staged reading.

I recently attended a performance of Peter Sellars' Othello at NYU's Skirball Center for the Performing Arts, starring Philip Seymour Hoffman as Iago and John Ortiz as Othello. I found the production, which has been unfairly maligned by critics, to be an exciting re-imagining of Shakespeare's play. The four-hour running time led to many walk-outs during intermission, but Hoffman, Ortiz and Sellars created what I believed to be a fascinating modern take on the classic text.

Friday, October 9, 2009

When The Truth Is Found To Be Lies, And All The Joy Within You Dies

Here are my thoughts on a slew of new film releases (and my thoughts on a contemporary classic, which I surprisingly had never seen until this past Wednesday night).

A Serious Man, the new movie from Joel and Ethan Coen, is one of the best films of the year. Last Friday, I arrived along with a group of fellow film students at New York's Landmark Sunshine Theater for a packed screening of the film. Luckily, the theater gave away a handful of free shirts before the screening, which said, The New Film By Joel and Ethan Coen - A Serious Man. I am proud to say I was a lucky recipient of one of these fine pieces of movie memorabilia.

The film stars Michael Stuhlbarg (the star of Martin McDonagh's masterful play The Pillowman) in a remarkable performance as a physics professor in a Midwest Jewish suburb circa 1967, whose life slowly begins to unravel into chaos as his wife, children and community turn against him. Although the film is by all means a classic Coen Brothers picture (featuring one of their finest supporting characters yet - the hilariously repugnant Sy Ableman, played by Fred Melamed in a performance that should be remembered come Oscar time), I wasn't expecting a film so deeply immersed in faith and religion. It's the kind of film I would expect from Martin Scorsese rather than from Joel and Ethan Coen. That isn't to say that A Serious Man doesn't offer the typically bizarre, offbeat humor for which the Coens are known, but, much like their masterpiece No Country for Old Men, the movie is as disturbing and ambiguous as it is darkly funny.

In short, A Serious Man stands alongside Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds and Bigelow's The Hurt Locker as one of the year's most exciting releases thus far.

On Saturday evening, a group of fellow film students and I ventured to the AMC Theater on 19th street and caught a screening of Ricky Gervais' new comedy, The Invention of Lying. Not only is the film very funny (especially when Edward Norton, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Jason Bateman show up for surprise cameos), but Gervais has also made an unexpectedly subversive comedy that explores topics as varied as the absurdity of religion and the necessity of telling lies in order to maintain a balanced universe. The laughs often sting, and although the movie doesn't really maintain a consistent tone throughout, it's an enjoyable theatrical experience.

I don't believe I ever expressed my thoughts on Steven Soderbergh's great new movie, The Informant!, which I had the chance to experience with my wonderful girlfriend Anne during my brief visit to Washington D.C. exactly three weeks ago. The exclamation point on the title says everything you need to know about Soderbergh's take on whistleblower corporate dramas, starring Matt Damon in an astonishing performance as the goofy Mark Whitacre, the vice president of an agricultural business firm who decides to confess to the FBI the price-fixing schemes in which the company is complicit. Whitacre agrees to wear a wire and act as an FBI informant, which would all be fine and dandy if he weren't a compulsive liar - to his family, to the FBI, to everyone.

Soderbergh wisely doesn't opt for a serious tone, a la The Insider (1999, Michael Mann). The brilliant use of stream-of-conscious narration from Whitacre helps the audience understand and empathize with an otherwise frustratingly intelligent man who makes some dreadful mistakes. The Informant! is a movie about a man unconsciously leading two different lives, which is more or less what everybody does, albeit to a lesser extreme than Whitacre. His mistakes are idiotic, yes, but his intentions are mostly noble, and Soderbergh and Damon ask the audience to stick with him despite his eccentricities. It's a great movie, and one of the best performances yet from the incredible Damon.

Eight days ago, my friend Mike Cheslik and I were waiting in line for a special screening of Drew Barrymore's Whip It at New York's AMC Theater near Times Square. Ten minutes before the movie was to begin, a screening representative told us that the cinema was full, and offered everyone a Whip It headband as compensation for the time spent waiting in line. Mike and I were about to leave when we were offered last-minute tickets to a screening of Oren Peli's Paranormal Activity, a film with which I wasn't familiar. It was a free movie, though, and so we figured we'd check it out.

As it turns out, Paranormal Activity is one of the most frightening movies I've seen in a very long time. The movie is currently expanding to more theaters nationwide, and I encourage horror enthusiasts to give this film a chance - it's absolutely terrifying.

The final film I'll be discussing is Lars Von Trier's Breaking the Waves (1996), a movie I had never viewed until my Storytelling Strategies instructor, Ezra Sacks, screened the film for our class this past Wednesday evening. Von Trier's film is as emotionally devastating a picture as I've ever seen, and features a lead performance from Emily Watson that is staggering in its complexity and brilliance. As someone eagerly anticipating Von Trier's latest project, the infamously disturbing Antichrist (2009), I enjoyed watching one of his earliest films - and very likely his best.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

So We Beat On, Boats Against The Current, Borne Back Ceaselessly Into The Past...

It's a tough thing attempting to explain the unbearably painful and heartbreaking past two weeks, during which I haven't written a single entry. My heart goes out to the Goode family, in memory of their loving and wonderful son and brother, James Lawrence Goode, 1995-2009.

He was my little film friend. I say that because, as an only child, I have for years imposed my taste for great and obscure cinema on friends and family who really could not have cared less. I first met Jamie Goode nearly two and a half years ago, but I don’t believe I really knew him until the beginning of this past summer, when I was able to spend nearly every day with him and his wonderful sister, Anne. I noticed we had something unusual in common when one day Anne and I picked him up from a friend’s house, and he displayed to us his list of the one hundred finest movies ever made.

This occurrence made me very excited. I studied his list endlessly, compared it to my own, and wrote him a list of film recommendations that I believed to be ‘essential viewing.’ Jamie and I, it seems, both shared the obsession of making lists – top ten movies of the year, top ten favorite actors, twenty-five worst movies of the past five years, you name it.

I remember when Jamie, Anne and I stayed up late one night at her house and watched the great movie Raging Bull (1980, Martin Scorsese). Did I ever believe in my mind that it might not be a wise idea for a thirteen year-old boy to watch such a brutal movie? Jamie answered that question for me almost immediately. He would not watch films such as Raging Bull or Goodfellas (1990, Martin Scorsese) and comment on the awesomeness of the violence and rough language; instead, he would talk about the movie in the way a seasoned film critic might talk about the movie – elegantly, with careful attention to everything that made it great and enjoyable.

His comments were not the words of a typical adolescent craving to see an R-rated movie. These were the words of an incredibly mature young man who understood film as literary geniuses might understand literature and poetry.

I cannot emphasize enough Jamie’s ability to unassumingly enter a room of young adults six and seven years his senior, and carry on an intelligent, informed conversation on topics as varied as politics, film and religion for hours. Never once did anyone find it odd that a fourteen year-old boy just out of junior high was hanging in the company of college students.

How do you surmise the entire life of such a human being in a mere obituary? How can the impact and beauty of the life of Jamie Goode be trimmed down to a small article? The truth of the matter is, you could write five hundred textbooks on Jamie Goode, and it still wouldn’t be enough. There could be five hundred textbooks written on my late father, John Kyser, too, and it still wouldn’t even begin to hint at what it was like to know him, to love him.

I wish there had been some sort of foreshadowing that would have prevented Jamie’s death from happening. I went to sleep peacefully last Sunday night, and I remember saying to my roommate in the dark that I was going to sleep very well that night. The next time I opened my eyes, it was to see that I had missed eleven calls on my cell phone. Sometimes death waves a warning flag before he strikes. Not this time.

If I ever have a son, I hope he is one-fourth of the man Jamie Goode was. Is. It is a testament to his indescribable character that I only knew him for such a brief period of time, and yet he feels like the younger brother I never had.

No, we can never resurrect Jamie by writing endlessly about him, because it will never be enough, it will never fully measure the weight of his impact. But Jamie Goode will be remembered. Sixty years from now, his friends will meet at a restaurant and laugh about Jamie’s sense of humor, his indelible intellect, and his endless love and kindness toward his friends and his family. It’s never been the same ever since we lost Jamie Goode, they’ll say, and indeed, it will never be the same. But make no mistake, Jamie will influence the future just as much as he has influenced the past. Nobody will ever forget.

Why did Jamie Goode have to be taken from us? Nobody will ever know. In the words of The Band, “I swear by the mud below my feet, you can’t raise a Cain back up when he’s in defeat.”