Friday, July 01, 2011

Camera Obscura: Barbie Van Gogh, Dracula Dolls , Frankenstein Redux, and 'Plot Device'

Time to dig through the Pop Culture Trash Pile. (A word of warning - most of the names of the famous folk, both real and fictional, which follow are about people long born before 1998, so relevance is limited and I don't care 'cause I am an Ancient Creature born in the last century.)

1st Find - Marketing wizards of the Barbie-doll Empire turn to the world of Art for their inspirations with the release of a series of "collectibles", featuring the Mona Lisa Barbie. My favorite is the "Van Gogh Barbie" - which, really, should be a Ken doll, with one ear, a beard, and be wearing ratty clothes. Instead, this doll is just a generic glam doll wearing a dress that looks like a mangled "Starry Night" canvas. A Picasso Barbie would be fun to see - and should have a face that looks like this.

2nd Find - Director Francis Ford Coppola is headed to the San Diego Comic-Con in July with his newest movie, "Twixt", which he describes as "one part Gothic romance, one part personal film, and one part the kind of horror film that began my career". Starring Val Kilmer and Bruce Dern, it remains to be seen if it dredges up memories of Coppola's "Dementia 13" or the horror known as "Godfather Part Three". (Maybe we can convince Coppola to produce a George Romero version of "Night of the Living Dead Barbie Dolls."

3rd Find - Speaking of dolls and monsters, I was far more interested in the report that a new series of "collectibles" (don't say dolls!) in homage to the Hammer horror films set for release. We get Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee and Ingrid Pitt. Nerd Swoon!

4th Find
- So, Frankenstein returns. This latest incarnation features actor Haley Joel Osment as one Victor Franklin, who seeks to reanimate the dead, in a film version of the graphic novel "Wake the Dead" and is being produced by former Guns 'n Roses guitarist Slash.

And if you are up early Saturday morning (or very late Friday) check out the broadcast on Turner Classic Movies of "Frankenstein Created Woman" starring Peter Cushing and one-time Playboy playmate Susan Denberg. While Susan plays several roles here in this bizarre sci-f reinvention, her voice was dubbed by another uncredited actress. Lots of background on the movie here.

TCM is also playing a rather sad Boris Karloff movie called "Frankenstein 1970", which was made in the 1950s and never makes clear why the year 1970 was part of the title. I suggest instead the rather fascinating "Dracula A.D. 1972" with Cushing and Lee once again facing off in the modern go-go dancing world of 1972.

5th Find - While reading about the oddity of singer Lou Reed's musical salute to Edgar Allan Poe, titled "The Raven" from 2003, I discovered a new movie about Poe is headed to the big screen next year starring actor John Cusack as Poe in a movie called "The Raven". The story follows Poe's last days as he trails a serial killer who mimics Poe's stories. It's being directed by James McTeigue, who made "Ninja Assassin" and "V For Vendetta".

6th Find - Something from this year and this week - a short film rips into the tired tropes of filmmaking and storytelling in "Plot Device". Enjoy!

Plot Device from Red Giant on Vimeo.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Wrecking the Economy For Fun and Profit

Are politicians really gambling on national and global economic collapse?

Sure seems that way, given the Republican House Majority Leader Eric Cantor stormed out of negotiations with Democrats over debt reduction and tax discussions, which stalled the whole compromise plan. But he's also investing $15,000 against U.S. government bonds. If there is another economic crash because of failed budget talks, he'll make large profits.

"Unless an agreement can be reached, the U.S. could begin defaulting on its debt payments on Aug. 2. If that happens and Cantor is still invested in the fund, the value of his holdings would skyrocket.

“If the debt ceiling isn’t raised, investors would start fleeing U.S. Treasuries,” said Matt Koppenheffer, who writes for the investment website the Motley Fool. “Yields would rise, prices would fall, and the Proshares ETF should do very well. It would spike.”

Cantor’s office claims the investment is simply part of a balanced portfolio. I have no evidence to the contrary. It’s hardly a stretch, though, to suggest prominent officials should avoid these kinds of conflicts of interest."

Who will not profit from these games? Just the American public. Oh, and Republicans have been constantly campaigning for re-election by claiming the Democrats and President Obama haven't helped the economy rebound after it was driven into the ditch by greedy, gambling speculators and lousy economic policies.

I have no problem if a politician wants to make a gamble on the issues of policy - except when the goal is wrecking our economy. As Steve Benen writes in an earlier post, rating agencies like Moody's and the S&P, have clearly stated the trouble is just weeks away:

here’s a certain beauty to the GOP’s clinical insanity: they’re eager to impress rating agencies, so they’re pursuing a strategy that would aggravate rating agencies.

Also keep in mind, Moody’s Investors Service — another one of the agencies (GOP Senator) McConnell wants to impress — has said the nation’s AAA U.S. credit rating is at risk of being downgraded by mid-July, long before the deadline, if it looks like failure is even a possibility. In other words, the United States would suffer if it looks like the country might miss a payment on its debt obligations, and since Republicans refuse to even consider reducing the debt with a penny of additional revenue, it’s getting increasingly difficult to see how this game of chicken ends anytime soon."

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Tennessee Media FAIL - Bogus Claims in "Pork" Report

It is most likely that Tennesseans will read or hear a report today from their newspapers and TV stations which will claim hundreds of millions of tax dollars being wasted by Tennessee government, but is any of it true or are local news folks just pushing a press release without checking any of the claims it presents? (Hint: the answer is: yes.)

The self-proclaimed "non-partisan think tank", the Tennessee Center for Policy Research, tends to be mostly partisan, and is rather low on the thinking scale too. Still today they are pushing (and news outlets are reprinting) a dubious report called "pork report" which it really is not. Pork-barrel spending is a phrase coined to describe government spending which aims to benefit the residents of specific districts, which it is hoped will encourage re-election.

But no such resident benefit really applies to the TCPR claims. They offer instead what they call government waste - but is it?

One claim in the report is a "waste" of tax funds ($14.5 million) for the Tennessee Solar Institute which will spend the funds on "innovative project grants". Businesses get limited assistance to pay for solar power installations, which saves them money on the costs of powering their business. That will lead to less demand on power companies, and also spurs the spread of solar power - from which Tennessee is particularly primed to receive enormous benefit. How enormous? Since the Hemlock company is investing about $2 billion dollars in Clarksville, TN to build panel components, that's pretty large - it means hundreds of jobs, establishes Tennessee in the alternative energy market, and can you name another single company investing anywhere near $2 billion dollars in the state's manufacturing arena?

Another item berated in the "report" are funds for development of switchgrass into bio-fuel, and the report says: "The government should not be in the business of subsidizing flailing industries like switchgrass-to-ethanol with taxpayers’ money."

Ah yes, save those tax funds for subsidizing .... maybe oil companies?

Much of this "report" rather curiously hammers away at alternative energy development.

Another item cited was for disbursement of Federal funds for a weatherization program for homes for low income residents. The state got $99 million and the "report" cites one contractor who received $3,600 for work which the contractor did not actually do. Was that "wasteful" spending or a contractor engaging in fraud? Are they facing punishment for that? The "report" does not say.

News outlets in Tennessee will spread a poorly written attack on government, the news outlets won't really investigate any of the claims in the report, and viewers will see government as villain.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

'Hot Coffee' Shatters Myths of Judicial System

HBO aired the documentary "Hot Coffee" last night, which takes aim at the myths of tort reform, 'frivolous lawsuits', mandatory arbitration clauses and the multi-million dollar battles to manipulates courts and voters.

Filmmaker Susan Saladoff was formerly an attorney and this is her first film and she makes sure it packs a powerful punch. She starts with the myths surrounding the "hot coffee" case where a 79-year-old woman's effort to be compensated for horrendous physical damages from a spilled cup of McDonald's coffee. She has been touted as the poster child of a frivolous lawsuit - but the facts of her near-crippling wounds demolish the myths most Americans believe to be the facts of the case.

Also featured is the brutal attack on a KBR employee in Iraq, Jamie Leigh Jones, whose savage rape by fellow employees was deemed safe from prosecution due to a mandatory arbitration clause in her employment contract - the case led to a change in federal laws, but she is still attempting to find justice as her case finally hit the courts on June 12th of this year.

I've written previously about Jones' tragic attack and the dubious constitutional legalities of 'mandatory arbitration'.

Money and the rising primacy of corporations above individuals are detailed in 'Hot Coffee' in ways likely to make a viewer's head explode.

Of course, those whose tactics are under attack from the film cry and moan that it is soooo unfair.

They are furious - because having a 'fair review' of your complaint is considered a fundamental American right.

So perhaps the question which should be best considered is simple - how can it be legal for a company to demand that as part of your employment, or as part of your decision to buy a product, you must waive your right to due process in court?

The movie also highlights the state-by-state attack on laws to protect consumers and hold companies accountable, and when those laws were upheld, a state-by-state attack to install judges who would favor business above the rights of the individual. And of course, this maze of mirrors has been sold to the general public as 'reform'.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

'Why Is There Cheese Coming Out of Your Pants?'

Let me slide the curtain back a wee bit on the Real Daily Life of Your Humble Narrator (that's me). For the last few weeks, I've been tackling several theatrical projects, as I do most every summer.

For many years now, I have most fortunate to work as an acting teacher for children, usually 3rd to 9th graders, for classes offered via Walters State Community College and for the local arts center in Morristown, the Rose Center. Also, I am working again as director for the annual Rose Center Summer Players production - this year, my fourth in the program, we are working on a production of Rudyard Kipling's "Just So Stories." That show opens the last weekend of July and will be held at Rose Center, and I'll be posting/promoting about this show more in the days and weeks ahead.

The downside for any readers here, however, is that such tasks often mean much less time to post here. My apologies for my absences - it takes a quality and quantity of time to create posts and such time has been difficult to obtain, as my mind has been consumed with so many lesson plans, students, scripts and much more. Still I wanted to share a few things from the last few weeks which I found hilarious fun.

In my classes we explore lots of acting styles and techniques and the kids do lots and lots of improv exercises to draw out ideas and I say with no reservations whatsoever that the kids create some truly funny (and sometimes serious) moments on the stage.As I am always nerdishly committed to acting, I've known for some time that I surely must appear to the kids as one strange and eccentric adult. So be it. Hopefully, all the goofiness I help create also includes educational aspects, but also, it's just fun for all of us.

One improv scene we work on is the Interrogation. Two students take the stage, one is a detective and the other a suspect (and there are other variations too) . The aim is to only speak in questions, and it gets insanely hard and funny. At one point this past week, a student had been told he was a "pie thief" who is accused of stealing cakes, pies, donuts, etc. As the student was being questioned about where he was, and his alibi's and such, the detective suddenly turned and pointedly asked "Why is there cheese coming out of your pants?!??!"

That line pretty much stopped the class as we all just laughed like a room of, well, kids. I have no idea where the idea for the question came from, but it surely brought us all to tears laughing.

There were several other funny scenes in the last few weeks too, in which students worked to perform as some kind of character - either one from a book, script, tv show, movie, real life, or one they invent themselves - and do a short monologue as that character. That always brings out memorable moments.

For example, one young boy performed as a CIA agent who was working undercover at a Bass Pro shop as salesman, another young girl acted as if she were a totally confused host on the Today show who had lost her script, was late to the set, and keep asking if was time for a commercial. "It's time to take a break for a commercial .... isn't it?" she asked looking at imaginary cameras and putting her finger to her ear as if she had a earphone connected to the control booth. "can we ... is it ... it's not? .... Ha- ha, just a moment folks ...we.... NOW we have ... we don't have? Ha-ha .... ummmm.... are we still on?"

Another young girl, skin all pale white, with fiery red hair, takes the stage, whips as scarf around her like a shawl and does a spot-on impersonation of actor Tyler Perry as "Madea". A few years back, a boy did a stunning 8 minute routine imitating Bill Cosby from his stand-up movie "Bill Cosby:Himself". It was a flawless impersonation. He did the scene where Cosby was talking about the chaos surround bath-time at his home, and his performance was just amazing - especially when you think that there is no script he could have memorized - he had just seen that video so many times he knew every line, every pause, every inflection - and when he was done, he calmly walked back to his seat as if nothing at all had happened.

And for this year's Rose Center show, most of cast are taking on multiple roles as they create all the wild animals from Kipling's stories - camels, elephants, snakes, horses, monkeys, and many more. In these shows, the actors also (with much parental help) create the costumes too. So many days are ahead of puzzling out how a horse walks, how an elephant uses his trunk, how to make costumes that might need to convert from a giraffe into a kangaroo. They work very hard and while I will always make time to write (either here or working to create other new stage shows) the gifts that these kids are willing to share I truly appreciate and learn from as well.

Working in the performing arts does not resolve world problems, won't reduce the national debt or stop global warming or any such 'real world' issues. Still, the growing imaginations and creativity I have been lucky enough to witness always reminds me to never underestimate what we are all capable of, if we just allow for a time and a space for creativity to flourish. It's a wonderful way to spend the summer.