Monday, August 31, 2009

Sing Out, Ruiz!

At a recent town hall meeting an aggrieved elderly Caucasian woman started sobbing "I want my country back." Several weeks later, an obviously clueless Representative Lynn Jenkins (R-Kansas) landed in hot water after stating that the Republican Party was "still looking for the next 'great white hope.'"

While many of us get hearty laughs from the grammatical errors showcased on websites like, it isn't always easy to see things through another person's eyes. Blogger 2Morrowknight's essay No, Not My America, You Mean Our America goes a long way toward reminding people how racial diversity and multiculturalism have made American society what it was, is, and will be.

Living in a large urban environment like New York, Los Angeles, or San Francisco, one gets used to the presence of a sizable Asian-American community (as well as a substantial Gaysian presence). While both subsets are responsible for impressive contributions to any city's melting pot, they are still plagued by racial stereotypes.

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In 1968, afte five brilliant years at the helm of The Dick Van Dyke Show, Carl Reiner wrote and directed an absolutely hilarious stage farce that called for four sets of identical twins. He began writing the play as a project to keep his young secretary busy. In My Anecdotal Life: A Memoir, Reiner describes Something Different as "a play born not out of any deep desire to write but out of sheer boredom -- and not even my own."

Onstage, a narcissistic Jewish playwright (Bob Dishy) and his wife (Linda Lavin) had to argue with their twin sons (one black, one white), who always spoke in unison. You can -- and should --read Reiner's recollections of the play here just to get an idea of how outrageous the out-of-town tryout was compared to the final version of the show. A brilliant comedy writer, Reiner crafted the following classic piece of dialogue between Sheldon "Bud" Nemerov (who is beginning to wonder if his two boys could really be identical twins) and his 10-year-old sons:
"Bud: Close your eyes. What color is your hair?

Bevin & Kevin: Black and red.

Bud: What color are your legs?

Bevin & Kevin: Black and blue."
Something Different played for 111 performances at the Cort Theater, closing on February 24, 1968. On March 9, 1993 (exactly 25 years and 15 days later), David Henry Hwang's ill-fated Face Value premiered on the very same stage. Unfortunately, Hwang's play closed after eight previews and never officially opened on Broadway.

This weekend Theatreworks presented the Northern California premiere of Hwang's political satire, Yellow Face, which was inspired by the playwright's dispute with Actors' Equity Association over Cameron Mackintosh's casting of Jonathan Pryce to star in the Broadway production of Miss Saigon. Of equal importance to the play are Hwang's experiences trying to bring Face Value to life. Described by its creator as a mockumentary, Yellow Face earned Hwang his third Obie Award for Playwrighting and, for the third time, made him a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

Francis Jue and Pun Bandhu (Photo by: David Allen)

In his play, Hwang tries to strike a balance between the challenges faced by Asian-American actors who find themselves deprived of unemployment opportunities when roles originally written for Asians are either rewritten for Caucasians or cast with white actors who have "Yellowed up" and the bizarre realities faced by any actor (Asian or Caucasian) who is trying to find steady work. As Yellow Face attempts to wrestle with the shifting sands of racism in our society, Hwang deftly uses common assumptions about racial identity to comically bludgeon certain stereotypes to death.
  • Francis Jue portrays 19 different characters ranging from Hwang's father (a Chinese banker who dreams of being Jimmy Stewart) to Bernard Jacobs who, for many years, was President of The Shubert Organization.
  • Thomas Azar plays Marcus Dahlman, a Caucasian actor who is accidentally miscast by Hwang in an Asian role. After Hwang suggests that Marcus change his last name from Dahlman to Gee, the actor goes on to enjoy great success in a variety of Asian-identified roles (even starring in a tour of Rodgers & Hammerstein's beloved musical, The King and I) and becomes active in the Asian-American community. To cover for the shame of having assumed Marcus was part Asian, Hwang concocts a story about the actor being a Siberian Jew, stressing Siberia's proximity to Asia.
  • A reporter from The New York Times, who claims to have no agenda, warns Hwang that he already has enough information to write an article about the congressional investigation being led by Senator Fred Thompson into Hwang's father's banking practices. The reporter suddenly becomes very defensive when Hwang threatens to retaliate by making the reporter a character in an upcoming play.
  • With the exception of the two men portraying Hwang and Marcus, the other actors in the cast must quickly rotate through a series of roles that may require them to portray people of different racial backgrounds as well as both male and female characters.
  • When a newsman can't understand that the allegiance of a Chinese-born immigrant who has become a naturalized citizen (or a Chinese-American who was born in the United States) would be to America -- and not to China -- the playwrights asks if he would like to be labeled as a "White American" and have his loyalties come under similar scrutiny.
  • Would-be cameos by familiar celebrities who have played important roles in Hwang's life (including Joseph Papp, Lea Salonga, B.D. Wong, Jane Krakowski, and Lily Tomlin,) pepper the script, floating in and out of the narration with dizzying rapidity.
In his director's notes, Robert Kelley observes that:
"In a country still shocked and awed by the election of an African American president, still absorbing the appointment of a projects-born Latina to the Supreme Court, still contemplating a not-too-distant future in which Caucasians are no longer the majority, it is fair to say that changing attitudes about race have become a primary focus of American culture. From the devastation of Native Americans to the debilitating conflicts over slavery and discrimination, from the abuse of Chinese railroad laborers to the internment of Japanese Americans and the struggles of Chicano farm workers, racial relations have long been the most agonizing flaw in America's character.

By acknowledging and examining issues of racial and cultural identity with a unique blend of irony, comedy, and drama, David Henry Hwang has become America's best-known Asian-American playwright. Having lived long at the crossroads of Asian activism and American opportunity, Hwang offers a unique perspective on our times, finding them amusing, enraging, and occasionally inspiring. As we share his struggle to reconcile individual cultural identity with the beckoning forces of melting-pot America, we do so knowing that there are no easy answers."
Marcus (Thomas Azar) and "DHH" (Pun Bandhu)
(Photo by: David Allen)

Although told in meticulous detail (Hwang refuses to identify which incidents are true and which are fictional), if you're not a devout theater queen or Asian-American activist, many of the references in Yellow Face may fly by you in the kind of dizzying dramatic whoosh that makes you feel like you are on a roller coaster grasping for the safety bar. Under Kelly's deft guidance, the seven actors race through a seemingly huge cast of characters until even Hwang can't seem to figure out whether he is for or against racial stereotypes (sometimes they work to his benefit), whether to fight for racially sensitive casting or support the sanctity of "artistic freedom."

Since many of the scenes written by Hwang are little more than dramatic renditions of telephone calls, emails, and newspaper clippings, any production of Yellow Face has to move at a fairly rapid clip. Director Robert Kelley keeps his cast moving swiftly about J.B. Wilson's unit set as the action shifts between New York, San Francisco, Washington, Los Angeles, Boston, and the remote province of Guizhou, China (where farmers alternate between catching fish with their bare hands and talking on cell phones).

In addition to the solid performances from Thomas Azar as Marcus, Pun Bandhu as the playwright, and Francis Jue (in a wide variety of roles), there were strong contributions from Howard Swain (as Broadway producer Stuart Ostrow, Senator John Kerry, and others), Amy Resnick as Jane Krakowski (and numerous other characters), Tina Chilip, and Robert Ernst, who doubled as the Announcer and the mysterious reporter from The New York Times.

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While Hwang's play uses misplaced political priorities, race-baiting, and mistaken identities as tools with which to demystify and better understand one's place in a racially hypersensitive society, Frameline's newest DVD, Asian Queer Shorts, includes one film that explores racism from a different perspective. Raymond Yeung's Yellow Fever (1998) explores the delicate issue of gay Asian men who only want to date Caucasians -- men for whom the concept of sex with "sticky rice" is one step short of incest.

Yeung (who, in addition to being Chairman of the Hong Kong Gay & Lesbian Film Festival also wrote and directed 2006's Cut Sleeve Boys) focuses in on the romantic frustrations of a pissy Asian Brit named Montgomery (Adrian Pang), whose closest friend Ernest (Ivan Heng) -- an overly dramatic and grandly pretentious opera queen -- is dying of loneliness. A hardcore cynic, Ernest warns Monty that "Every fairy tale has the same ending: Charles fucks Camilla and Diana gets bulimia!"

No matter how much he fights it, the racial preferences that keep haunting Monty can be paraphrased as:
"One potato, two potato, three potato, four.
Why isn't some nice rice queen knocking on my door?
Five potato, six potato, seven potato, eight.
Why can't I find a handsome potato to date?"
When Monty acquires a new neighbor who is originally from Taiwan, he is incredibly rude to Jai Ming (Gerald Chew). As his attempts to pick up a white man in gay bars continue to fail, he eventually succumbs to Jai Ming's gentle hospitality.

Gerald Chew and Adrian Pang in Yellow Fever

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In Lucky Kuswandi's 15-minute short from Indonesia entitled Still, a lonely young gay man roams a small beach town as he struggles to understand his confusing relationship with his father. Backed by a wonderfully haunting score by Kelly Salloum, Still begins with a poem written by its star, Jason Woo:
"if we were fishes,
we would be those multi-colored ones
un abashed
un ashamed of our shimmering
gold, silver, violet scales

if we were fishes,
we would be the prettiest ones
with elaborate fins
those fan-like fins that graced the water

if we were fishes,
we would be like those
living in a bowl
all on display for everyone to see"
Here's the trailer:

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Directed by Mark Reyes, Last Full Show tells the story of a young gay man from a privileged background who is driven to and from his private school in the Philippines each day by the family chauffeur, Bert (Nanding Josef). The film begins as two sex hounds stand in the back of a movie theater, watching men cruise. When Jess (Jeremy Aguado) challenges Gardo (Sugus Legaspi) to see if he can get lucky with young Crispin (Francis Villaneuva), he's stunned to see Gardo strike up a friendship with a boy who is easily twenty years younger than him.

As Crispin and Gardo get to know each other better while riding buses and dining in restaurants, Bert becomes suspicious when he notices Gardo wearing a family heirloom that Crispin has given his friend. Reyes' sweet and poignant short, which captures the innocence of a young gay man's first steps into the world of cruising for sex, gets a silent boost from the hilarious performance by Mae Paneer as the theater's "ticket lady."

Francis Villaneuva and Sugus Legaspi in Last Full Show

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Kevin Choi's 13-minute black and white short, Dissolution of Bodies, finds two handsome Asian academics cuddling in bed as they discuss philosophy, monogamy, Nietzsche and narcissism. Passion and politics take turns with drama and desire as the camera captures surprising moments of physical and intellectual intimacy. Accompanied by Ronen Landa's haunting musical score for taiko drums and a shakuhachi, the film benefits from Manfred Reiff's beautiful cinematography.

Kenneth Lee and Leon Le in Dissolution of Bodies

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Anyone who has had the good fortune to see Jun-Ik Lee's masterpiece, King and the Clown already knows that the period costumes from Korea's Joseon Dynasty offer a rich visual treat. In 2004, director Hyun-Jin Park shot a 13-minute gay short which is set in the Joseon Dynasty. A Crimson Mark puts a gay twist on a historical narrative and frames it so beautifully that one watches with a sense of wonderment. Here's the trailer for Frameline's new DVD:

Monday, August 24, 2009

Best Kept Secrets? Or Secrets Best Kept

When one examines situations that involve potential abuses of power, one quickly learns that things are seldom what they seem:
  • A person's oldest and dearest confidante may be laying plans to sabotage his future bliss (My Best Friend's Wedding).
  • A bitter teen princess and her ruthless mother may be plotting to deprive a young girl of her chance to win a dance contest (Hairspray).
  • A former lover may turn out to have once been a Nazi (The Reader).
  • A military hero's most trusted advisor may be planning his downfall (Othello).
  • A handsome airline pilot may be jockeying back and forth between two marriages while planning to marry a third woman in another city (Frequent Flyer).
  • A President could insist that he "never had sexual relations with that woman."
  • An innocent young woman's new boyfriend could kill her brother (West Side Story).
  • A young girl could wake up to discover that her fantastical adventures had been nothing more than a feverish dream (The Wizard of Oz).
From self-righteous bible-thumping adulterers like John Ensign to slimy politicians like Joe Lieberman, from idiots like Sarah Palin to media clowns like Glenn Beck, there is more than enough hypocrisy to go around. If you think I'm kidding, try hiking the Appalachian Trail to see if it ends in Argentina!

Only when a person examines how power is being manipulated to strengthen one party's influence over another does disillusionment set in. Truth may be an honorable goal, but finding the truth often involves an ugly voyage across a vast sea of deception filled with terrifying monsters.

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In an October 2002 letter to Ron Suskind, John Dilulio (who briefly served as President George W. Bush's first Director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships and was also the first of Bush's advisers to resign his post) described his contempt for Karl Rove's team of Mayberry Machiavellis by defining them as:
"...staff, senior and junior, who consistently talked and acted as if the height of political sophistication consisted in reducing every issue to its simplest, black-and-white terms for public consumption, then steering legislative initiatives or policy proposals as far right as possible."
While Dilulio's comments caused quite a ruckus, most people had a greater familiarity with the fictional town of Mayberry than with Niccolo Machiavelli or his political treatises. As a result of his writings, however, Machiavelli's name has become synonymous with the use of deceitful measures in power struggles (whether they involve political intrigue or flat-out war).

One of the Bay area's best-kept theatrical secrets, Berkeley's CentralWorks recently debuted their interpretation of Machiavelli's The Prince in a production that was written and directed by resident playwright Gary Graves. In his program notes, Graves explains that:
"Machiavelli was an experienced diplomat at the height of the Italian Renaissance. He visited the courts and palaces of many of the most powerful figures of his day as an emissary of the Republic of Florence. He saw first-hand how the dangerous games of power politics were played, and he began to draw a whole range of conclusions about the nature of those games in general. These conclusions, and the reasoning behind them, constitute the text of The Prince. But he wrote the book during the low point of his life.
After many years of service to the Republic, the government rather suddenly collapsed and Machiavelli was forced to leave Florence when the powerful Medici family returned to take control of the city. What followed for Machiavelli was a kind of exile, when he lived on the family farm seven miles outside Florence, reduced to a life of idleness and insignificance. It was then that he began to reflect upon his career in politics and wrote The Prince.
Most scholars agree that Machiavelli's The Prince is one of the most influential works ever written in the history of political science. Though it was composed some time around 1513, the short book wasn't actually published until five years after Machiavelli's death in 1527. The text of the book includes a dedication to Lorenzo de Medici II (the grandson of Lorenzo the Magnificent), and makes it clear that Machiavelli intended to present the work to young Lorenzo, the new Duke of Florence, as a gift. It is also fairly clear from the dedication that Machiavelli was hoping the small book would impress the new ruler enough that he might bring its author into his service.
Though we know from Machiavelli's letters that he considered trying to present the book to Lorenzo in person, there is no historical record of such a meeting ever actually taking place. Our play, however, imagines what might have happened if it did."
With Richard Frederick as Machiavelli and Michael Navarra as Lorenzo, the latest production from CentralWorks becomes a tightly-wound battle of wits between two men: a youngster who has suddenly risen to great power and his former tutor, who has become a master of political intrigue. The younger man is extremely idealistic, finding it hard to believe how cynical his former teacher has become. The teacher, however, is a master manipulator, more than willing to twist his way into his former student's new circle of power and authority.

Richard Frederick and Michael Navarra (Photo by: Eduardo Soler)

Whereas, with many Bay theater companies, one may hope for a good evening of theater but end up being disappointed, with CentralWorks the opposite happens. Even if a person arrives feeling tired, worn down, or uninformed with regard to the subject of the play, it doesn't take long before that person is on the edge of his seat, totally involved in the drama unfolding before him.

More than anything else, CentralWorks probably sets the highest artistic standard in the Bay area for consistently intelligent, provocative, and relevant drama. The performances by Richard Frederick and Michael Navarra (who occasionally bore an uncanny resemblance to Gavin Newsom) were absolutely riveting. Gregory Scharpen's meticulous, almost cinematic soundscape added an eerie undertone to the proceedings.

Michael Navarra as Lorenzo (Photo by: Eduardo Soler)

At one point in the play, young Lorenzo is asked to recall a lesson in which a man was asked if he would prefer to live with a wild creature (half man/half satyr) who could teach him all about life and war -- or with a priest who could keep him safe. As I sat in the Berkeley City Club watching this drama unfold, I asked myself: Would I rather sit through 70-minutes of political philosophy transformed into a gripping piece of theater or three hours of overproduced commercial drek?

The answer required little deliberation.

That CentralWorks continues to maintain such a high level of intellectual acuity in its work is a great tribute to Graves' artistic vision and the company's collaborative process. Graves teaches playwriting at the Berkeley Rep School of Theatre and has helped to develop 16 scripts for the company since 1996. He directs and lights many productions at CentralWorks.

Richard Frederick as Machiavelli (Photo by: Eduardo Soler)

Because CentralWorks performs in such a tiny room, Graves has become a master of crafting his scripts to unheard musical rhythms. If you're looking for an unsung hero of Bay area theatre, this is the man whose work you should be following. There is a flow to many of his texts that pulses like chamber music. As a result, the CentralWorks experience has taken on a legacy of "total immersion theatre."

I've said it before and I'll say it again. If you want to experience some of the best theater in the entire Bay area, you owe it to yourself to check out CentralWorks. Their production of Machiavelli's The Prince runs through September 19 at the Berkeley City Club. You can order tickets here.

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Just as Gary Graves poses a triple threat (playwright, director, lighting designer) with regard to staged productions, producer, director, and cinematographer Andy Abrahams Wilson is a triple threat filmmaker. The recipient of a Pew Charitable Trust Fellowship in Dance/Media, Wilson was recognized by the Marin Arts Council as an Outstanding Artist of 2003. He has produced films about dance and dancers and has been nominated for an Emmy award. Wilson currently teaches video as art and discovery at Sausalito's Open Eye Pictures (which he founded in 1994). The studio's mission statement reads as follows:
"Open Eye Pictures is an award-winning, nonprofit production company specializing in creative, educational media. Taking a unique, humanistic approach, we open the eyes of viewers to see the extraordinary in the ordinary and the bigness in the littlest of things. We turn the lens on places where worlds and assumptions collide, illuminating the new life that springs forth. Telling stories through rich and poetic imagery, Open Eye Pictures moves its audience in unexpected ways."
If I stress Wilson's artistic achievements it is because he has done a remarkable job of making a documentary -- that looks absolutely gorgeous -- about a truly depressing disease that has reached epidemic proportions in America. Part of Wilson's motivation for making Under Our Skin was personal: His twin sister and another close friend had both been diagnosed with Lyme disease. Over a period of four years, the filmmaker amassed 375 hours of footage for his documentary.

Under Our Skin, which focuses on patients struggling with Lyme disease, is that rare documentary that can hold a cruel mirror up to the insurance companies and other power players within the medical field and contrast their shallowness and deceptive practices with the real life pain being experienced by patients who are routinely denied coverage for their illness.

Connecticut's Attorney General, Richard Blumenthal, investigated allegations that serious flaws were to be found in the Infectious Diseases Society of America's process for writing its 2006 Lyme disease guidelines. Blumenthal charged that IDSA's board of directors had financial interests that compromised their ethics, causing them to advocate against the use of long-term antibiotic treatment for patients with Lyme. Under Our Skin takes aim at the hypocrisy of the IDSA's position.

Wilson's documentary also outlines the insurance industry's systematic attempts to discredit physicians who have specialized in treating patients with Lyme and relates how insurance companies have worked behind the scenes to have some doctors' medical licenses suspended so that they could then turn around and sue those very same physicians to recover the costs incurred from unauthorized treatment protocols.

In the following video, Dr. Joseph Jemsek (whose license was suspended for one year by the North Carolina Medical Board) describes how insurance companies pursue their insidious goals while attempting to jack up their profits.

As an infectious process that attacks the immune system, the spread of Lyme disease has eerie parallels to the history of HIV and AIDS. Both diseases started to ravage patients around 1980 (at about the same time that managed care started to become a dominant force in the medical field). In the early years of both epidemics, it was the patients who were often educating their physicians about the disease.

However, AIDS hit a minority population with a long history of political protests as well as its own media -- the newly-formed Gay Press Association. While word of a deadly new disease spread quickly through the gay population, patients with Lyme were often misdiagnosed or unable to find a physician who knew how to treat someone with Lyme.

Part of the problem is that Lyme can easily mimic symptoms of such chronic diseases as syphilis, Alzheimer's, multiple sclerosis, systemic lupus erythematosus, ADHD, fibromyalgia, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig's disease), chronic fatigue syndrome, anxiety, depression, and Parkinson's disease. Some physicians still refuse to issue a diagnosis of Lyme disease or even admit that it exists. The disease, however, does manage to find its way onto a death certificate.

Because a new law in the early 1980s made it possible for patents to be issued for living organisms, many of the researchers working on Lyme disease were quick to secure patents which might prove profitable, even if they prevented a great deal of research from being shared. A recent breakthrough, which points to Lyme having the physical characteristics of a biofilm, has offered new insights into the chronic nature of the disease.

Whether or not you know anyone who suffers from Lyme disease, Under Our Skin is an excellent teaching tool for people who have been brainwashed by the health insurance industry. If you want to give a conservative acquaintance a strong consciousness-raising session, I highly recommend Wilson's documentary. Here's the trailer:

Sunday, August 23, 2009

To Flash Or Not To Flash [Back]

There is nothing quite like living in the moment. Whether relishing its joys or hurting from its woes, the fierce urgency of now is what fills our lives with vitality. In this pirated clip from Jerry Herman's 1966 smash hit, Mame, Angela Lansbury exuberantly explains why "life is a banquet and most poor sons of bitches are starving to death."

Sometimes, in order to frame a narrative, a playwright will resort to using a flashback. One of the few musicals to use this gimmick successfully was 1964's Funny Girl.

In the opening sequence, a sadder-but-wiser Fanny Brice crosses the stage, stops for a moment to stare out into the theater and then, upon entering her dressing room, looks into the mirror. When her dresser, Emma, leaves her alone for a few minutes, Fanny begins to think back on her life and her incredible journey all the way from Hester Street ("If A Girl Isn't Pretty") to becoming the star of the Ziegfeld Follies.

At the end of the show, after Fanny has sung "The Music That Makes Me Dance," there is a blackout and the lights come up once again on Fanny, seated in front of her dressing room mirror as she anticipates the arrival of her husband, Nicky Arnstein (who has just been released from jail). Following the emotional journey that Fanny has shared with the audience, her farewell to Nicky is the perfect setup for the show's climactic reprise of Don't Rain On My Parade.

In 1968, when the film version of Funny Girl was directed by the great William Wyler, the finale was changed so that Barbra Streisand could sing one of Fanny Brice's biggest hits: My Man. The result can be seen in this thrilling clip:

In 1971, when a controversial new musical starring Angela Lansbury and directed by Gower Champion began its tryout in Boston, I attended an early performance of Prettybelle. Despite having book and lyrics by Bob Merrill (and a musical score by Jule Styne), Prettybelle kept yanking the audience back and forth between a confusing series of flashbacks that made little sense.

I was horrified by the mess onstage.

After returning home to Providence, Rhode Island that night, I typed up six pages of notes that stressed the need to get rid of all the flashbacks and then mailed my letter to Lansbury (with whom I had been corresponding since our first meeting in 1966). By the time I returned to Boston three weeks later to catch another performance of Prettybelle, the producers had announced their intention to close the show on the road rather than bring the production to Broadway.

As I watched from the balcony of the Shubert Theatre, I was more than a little startled by the transformation that had taken place onstage. Later, when I went to visit Lansbury in her dressing room, she smiled and said "I gave your notes to Gower and, as you can see, he used them!"

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While Shakespeare's murderous Macbeth may claim that "Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow creeps in this petty pace from day to day," the melancholy Hamlet cautions his troupe of actors that "The play's the thing wherein I'll catch the conscience of the King."

While kings may have a wisp of a conscience, dumb jock closet cases do not. This causes a real problem for any director attempting to stage Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa's play, Good Boys and True, which recently opened a short run at New Conservatory Theatre Center.

The play opens in 1988 with a young preppie, Brandon Hardy (Brady Boyd), showing a group of prospective families around the campus of St. Joseph's Academy. Like many students at this private school close to the nation's capital, Brandon is a legacy case who is heavily invested in sports. Although he is a gung-ho member of the football team, his physique and personality are much more impressive than his intellect.

Unlike Brandon, his best friend at St. Joseph's is an out and proud young gay man. Smart, culturally aware, and refreshingly blunt, Justin (Sal Matos) has more integrity in his little finger than most of the other characters in the play. He is the first person in his family to attend a private school.

Brandon and Justin have been secretly plotting to go to Dartmouth after they graduate (where they plan to room together). In the meantime, Justin has obviously been giving Brandon a whole lot more than the copious notes he takes in class.

Sal Matos and Brady Boyd (Photo by: Lois Tema)

Good Boys and True revolves around the crisis that erupts when the school's football coach (Mark Irwin) discovers a videotape showing a young man -- who looks exactly like Brandon -- fucking a young woman while repeatedly positioning her so that her face will be visible to a hidden camera. As a close friend of Brandon's father, the coach immediately contacts Brandon's parents to ask if they know anything about the tape.

Brandon's father is away in Ecuador with a group of traveling physicians, but his mother (another surgeon) is incredulous that the coach could even imagine that her son, the very apple of her eye, would have any interest in doing something so disgusting. In her heart of hearts, she knows that her son is just not "like that" -- until she watches the tape and is forced to confront Brandon with her newfound knowledge.

Brandon (who comes from an extremely privileged background) has always had life handed to him on a silver platter. Whenever he's gotten in trouble, his father has always been able to make a phone call that resolved the situation. After many years of observation, Brandon has learned how to keep a poker face while reassuring his overly fraught mother that everything will be all right.

Tall, strapping, slyly manipulative and handsome as hell, when cornered he exhibits the kind of communication skills that would make Levi Johnston seem downright effusive. While watching Elizabeth Hardy (Jennifer McGeorge) try to get her son to understand the implications of what he had done, I couldn't help but think of Barney Frank's recent comment to a protestor: "Arguing with you, ma'am, would be like trying to have an argument with the dining room table."

Jennifer McGeorge and Brady Boyd (Photo by: Lois Tema)

Watching a flashback fail in a staged production is often uncomfortable for the audience. Why? If the moment has not been properly set up, the audience might wonder what is going on. In some cases, the flashback may come too late to do any good. Although the first act of Good Boys and True follows a linear path, its second act is bracketed by two critical flashbacks.

At the beginning of Act II, the audience sees Brandon trying to pick up Cheryl Moody at the shopping mall. The play's final scene is a flashback showing what happened when Brandon first met Justin in the locker room at St. Joseph's (and how the two boys started to bond over their mutual love for The Hardy Boys). While there's an obvious gay spark to their conversation, the scene offers too little information and occurs too late in the evening. The play then ends abruptly, in a manner that left some members of the audience thinking "Huh? What the fuck was that?"

Nevertheless, Good Boys and True does raise some important points about the complicity of some people in enabling others to engage in sexual abuse. The most notable scene in the play occurs when Brandon's mother seeks out Cheryl Moody in the food court at the shopping mall where Cheryl works and tries to make amends by saying she would do anything to ease Cheryl's pain.

Cheryl, whose life has effectively been ruined by the news coverage of the incident, gives her a scathing description of the "things she could do" -- which include paying for Cheryl's college tuition -- before explaining that Mrs. Hardy has no intention of actually doing anything. She's just saying these things in order to feel better about herself.

John Dixon's anemic stage direction didn't help matters at all. Although he got decent performances out of Jennifer McGeorge as Brandon's mother, Erin Hoffman as his aunt, and Vivian Kane as Cheryl Moody, Brady Boyd's good natured performance as Brandon -- while easy on the eyes -- was almost laughable. He was easily outclassed by Sal Matos as Justin and Mark Irwin as Coach Shea.

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If flashbacks work better on television and in film, it's often because it is so easy to edit them. Characters can be dressed and made up to look younger, the setting can be changed to a noticeably earlier event, and it's so much easier to convince an audience that they are looking back at a previous moment in a character's life.

In terms of analyzing news events, the writers and research team at The Daily Show With Jon Stewart have become experts at mining comedy gold from news archives. The following segment unmasking Glenn Beck's ridiculous hypocrisy is a stellar example of how flashbacks can be used for maximum effect:

Some filmmakers handle flashbacks better than others. As written by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber -- and neatly directed by Mark Webb -- (500) Days of Summer takes the audience on a dizzying journey back and forth through a young man's fixation on a pretty girl.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel

Although the film actually begins on day 488 of their relationship, each segment is cued by an indication of which one of the 500 days the audience is revisiting in the up-and-down romance between Tom Hansen (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and Summer Finn (Zooey Deschanel).

In one brilliantly written segment, a split screen shows what happens when Tom attends a party thrown by Summer. On the left side of the screen, we see the action through the hopeful lens of Tom's expectations. On the right side of the screen, we see the exact same party through the crushing lens of reality.

I was particularly interested in seeing this film because I have always admired the work of Joseph Gordon-Levitt since I first watched him on Third Rock From The Sun. But (500) Days of Summer also benefits from strong performances by Geoffrey Arend as Tom's friend McKenzie, Chloe Moretz as his precocious younger sister Rachel, Clark Gregg as his employer at a greeting card business, and Jason Robinson in a hilariously graphic cameo as one of Summer's former boyfriends: the magnificently endowed "Puma."

Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel

(500) Days of Summer is also about the importance of learning to be honest with yourself and the people in your life, instead of just sleepwalking through a cloud of bullshit. Gordon-Levitt and Deschanel bring new life to the genre of intelligent romance -- a style so intoxicating, poignant, and refreshing that it almost feels new.

Whether playfully testing the bedroom furniture in an Ikea showroom or daring each other to act out in public by pretending to have Tourette syndrome, these two appealing leads make a enticing pair of emotionally mismatched souls. Here's the trailer:

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Fathers and Sons

Literature and psychology may be rife with references to maternal instinct, but much less is written about a father's attitudes toward his children, particularly his son(s). In some cases, shared activities (especially sports) may have helped to foster male bonding. But in far too many instances the father was either emotionally/physically distant or absent without leave. Many grown men will quickly admit to having had less than satisfactory relationships with their fathers.

In today's world we find a surprising number of gay men actively involved in parenting (along with single men whose wives have died or left them custody of their children). However, unless these men were raised in a large family -- where the care of younger siblings was a shared responsibility -- they may just be learning how to raise a child and wildly improvising on a day-to-day basis.

Even further removed from a child's daily life is what has sadly come to be known as his baby daddy (the man who may have impregnated his mother but subsequently failed to show any interest in or responsibility for his offspring). While President Obama and many others have urged parents to take a more active role in their children's upbringing, there will always be a segment of the population that could care less about their progeny.

Two films recently dealt with unique relationships between fathers and sons. Although focused on different times, different places, and wildly different circumstances, in each family the father outlived his son. While the nonfiction son died of rectal cancer in middle age, the fictional son became an accidental suicide during a clumsy attempt at autoerotic asphyxiation.

The legacy of David Carradine lives on.

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Prior to the 2009 San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, I had seen only two documentaries by Hungarian filmmaker Péter Forgács: Miss Universe 1929: Lisl Goldarbeiter (2006) and The Danube Exodus (1998). Both films were the result of Forgács's remarkable work in restoring and editing home movies by ordinary Hungarians that were filmed beginning in the 1930s. In writing about the "Private Hungary" series in his book, A Critical Cinema, film pundit Scott MacDonald noted that:
"While some of those who work with home movies and amateur films focus on the typicality of this material, the ways in which it exemplifies general historical developments or the human condition, Forgács often does considerable research into the particular films he works with so that, as he presents his version of them, he can provide us with specific information about these nonprofessional filmmakers and, often, about the family members and friends recorded in the imagery. The resulting films create a very unusual experience -- somewhere between the public experience of a commercial film and the intimacy of watching home movies -- during which we are able to experience, seemingly from the inside, the real lives of families not our own.

Forgács's exploration of home movies began as a way of coming to terms with his Hungarian heritage, and especially the psychic complexities of living in a rigorously totalitarian communist state, where much of what one knows and feels in private is dangerous to admit publicly. Forgács himself was for some years confined to Hungary, as a result of his active protests against Soviet domination; in time, he turned this limited mobility to his advantage in an exploration of the private lives of Hungarians.
Since the end of the Cold War and the dismantling of the Iron Curtain, and Forgács's resulting personal mobility -- his investigation of the lives revealed in home movies and amateur films has often extended well beyond the borders of his native land. He remains fascinated with the history of Europe leading up to and into World War II, and with the struggles of Eastern Europe with the Soviet Union in the decades following the war, as this history is revealed in the personal archives of those who took the time to document their experience.

Forgács's videos are full of surprises, both technically and ideologically. In the "Private Hungary" series Forgács learned to work with the standard devices of nonfiction film -- visual text, narration, music -- but he uses each of these with unusual inventiveness. Many of his tapes have been made in collaboration with composer/musician, Tibor Szemző, whose compositions are consistently evocative and powerful. And Forgács has used a wide variety of visual text and has demonstrated an unusual sense of timing with it. Forgács sometimes calls his pieces "video operas," a term that suggests the overall musicality of his presentation of text and image, as well as the way these tapes position the microcosmic lives of individuals within the macrocosm of societal change and cultural history."
Over the years, Hollywood makeup artists have achieved remarkable aging effects with the use of rubberized masks and prosthetics:
Still, nothing quite compares to seeing nearly 90 years of a person's life documented in snapshots and on film. In I Am Von Höfler -- Variation On Werther, Forgács reconstructs the life and times of Tibor Von Höfler, the last in the line of a 250-year-old family of great leather makers from the small Hungarian town of Pécs. Researchers have suggested that Goethe modeled The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774) on a distant ancestor of Tibor Von Höfler. Using that idea as a hook, Forgács has spliced clips from a fictional cinematic depiction of Werther into his 160-minute epic.

The son of a father who was a Christian industralist and a Jewish mother, Tibor von Höfler fathered a child of his own out of wedlock. Because many letters between family members survived (as did photographs and home movies), Forgács is able to, in essence, recreate the history of Von Höfler's life from his charmed childhood and spoiled playboy years to his struggles to become a professional chemist; from witnessing the German invasion of Hungary to the Holocaust, the Communist takeover, and 30 years of marital bliss.

Throughout the film, we see images of Tibor's son Peti (Peter), who was born to his mistress. We watch Peti grow from an adorable infant with silky bond hair to a middle-aged parent as voiceovers read letters from Peti's mother begging for money. Later, one hears the distress in Tibor's letter to the authorities after he has been arrested, his apartment seized by the Communists, and his 13-year-old son has returned home to discover he has nowhere to live. In his interview with Scott MacDonald, Forgács explained that:
"Psychoanalysis is part of American culture, but it is still not part of Hungarian culture because Communism was very thorough in killing off 'decadent, bourgeois, Freudian analysis.' There was a psychologist in Budapest who had been in prison because of the 1956 revolution: Ferenc Merei. He had studied at the Sorbonne, before the war, and he taught me psychology and group therapy. I was around him for 11 years; he was my private university, the best.

To me it is revelation to read the faces of people in home movies and the context we see them in, and to consider what this reveals about human psychology. The face is an extraordinarily sensitive surface, and these faces are not just objects like we see in Muybridge or in the Edison or Lumiere films; and they are not just acting, like in the Melies films. In this case, even if it is an artificial situation, they are representing themselves. As a result, these films are full of revelatory moments about how it was there, about how they felt, about what they felt the need to represent. If these revelations of self are then placed in a context where you can sense the whole culture, its history and background, and how particular personalities fit into it, the results become very dynamic."
Throughout the film, vintage photographs and footage of Hungary from nearly a century ago shows the evolution of styles in cars, motorcycles and clothing. I found the references to Werther almost unnecessary (and occasionally distracting from a story that stood well enough on its own). As with any of Forgács's "Private Hungary" films, the viewer feels an eerie, Twilight Zone kind of sensation -- the feeling that one has traveled back through time to a lost world. Here's the trailer:

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While one might feel muted sympathy for the relationship between Tibor von Höfler and his son Peti, the emotions running through me as I watched World's Greatest Dad were quite different. Occasionally one hears warnings that people should never tell their secrets to a writer because a writer's biggest perversion is trying to make use of anything he possibly can.

This film proves the old adage true.

Written and directed by Bobcat Goldthwait, World's Greatest Dad is supposed to be a black comedy in which Robin Williams stars as Lance Clayton, a worn-down high school poetry teacher whose attempts at writing novels and screenplays have garnered nothing but rejection letters. Although Lance may worship the music of Bruce Hornsby and be carrying on a lusty affair with Claire (Alexie Gilmore), his school's shapely art teacher, Lance is the kind of dutiful nebbish who must force a wan smile when one of his colleagues boasts of selling a story to the prestigious New Yorker Magazine on his very first try.

A single father, Lance is also the sadder-but-wiser parent of the teenage Kyle (Daryl Sabara), a totally contemptable, sullen, manipulative and homophobic asshole with a sizzling mean streak. Kyle doesn't hesitate to dump on his father, intimidate his one and only friend Andrew (Evan Martin), and behave like a total dickwad.

The epitome of an adolescent schmuck (Kyle refers to Claire as his favorite TILF -- "teacher I'd like to fuck") Lance's son routinely rejects any attempts at father-son bonding with a stinging putdown. When Lance walks in on one of his son's attempts at autoerotic asphyxiation, his concern for his child is curtly rebuffed with a snide "For god's sakes, Dad, I was cumming!"

Robin Williams as Lance Clayton

Several days later, when Kyle dies as a result of an accident during one of his masturbatory marathons, Lance's grief is visceral and genuine. However, rather than let the world know the shameful truth about how his son died, Lance hangs his son's body in a closet and forges a suicide note (which is far more literate than any thought that ever came out of Kyle's filthy mouth) before dialing the police.

Daryl Sabara as Lance's obnoxious son, Kyle

Goldthwait's plot starts to twist when a nosy teenager finds the suicide note in the online police report and posts it on the Internet. The ensuing behavior from Kyle's classmates (all of whom loathed him when he was alive), is supposed to show what hypocrites people become when given the slightest dose of cheap sentiment. Unfortunately, the joke gets stretched out far beyond its ability to sustain any laughs, to the point where World's Greatest Dad starts to feel like a misguided ode to putz power.

We eventually see publishers fawning over Lance who, smitten with the attention given his son's forged suicide note, has gone ahead and ghostwritten Kyle's diary. As the literary voice of his son, Lance is getting all the adulation he has craved as a writer (including an appearance on a major television talk show). Only when Kyle's school decides to name its library in honor of the deceased student (which is most ironic considering the dead boy's lack of interest in reading), does Lance finally decide to come clean.

The horrified rejection he is subjected to is much worse than any of the form letters he received from publishers. As Williams enters the school pool and strips down to dive naked off the high board (yes, Virginia, you might get a peek at the infamous Williams schlong), he supposedly washes the guilt of his misdeeds away and becomes a free man.

The problem is that, by this point in the film, the gimmick had long outlived its ability to shock. As a writer, I could certainly understand the sense of desperation and shame which led Lance to forge his son's suicide note and then ride the crest of media attention and fame as far as he could. However, as much as I could admire the restrained performance of Robin Williams as the grieving father, I found myself unable to care for him, for his son, for his deception, or for the film.

It should be noted that, from a technical standpoint, Waiting For Dad is well directed (Goldthwait is noted for his efficiency as a film and television director). I particularly enjoyed the contributions of Mitzi McCall as Lance's reclusive neighbor, Geoffrey Pierson as a fatuous school principal, and Henry Simmons as Lance's romantic rival for Claire's attention.

However, one really has to wonder if -- without Goldthwait's friend Robin Williams starring as Lance -- anyone would have made the effort to invest in World's Greatest Dad (or would make an effort to see it). Here's the trailer:

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Philadelphia On My Mind

According to Wikipedia, the city of Philadelphia was once "the second-largest in the British Empire (after London), and the social and geographical center of the original 13 American colonies." It played host to the First Continental Congress (1774), the Second Continental Congress (1775), and the signing of the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776.

Philadelphia (which, from 1790 to 1800 served as the nation's first capital) is the home of the Liberty Bell and numerous other icons with patriotic significance. Historical sites include Independence Hall, the Benjamin Franklin National Memorial, as well as the homes of Betsy Ross and Edgar Allan Poe. The legendary ocean liner S.S. United States (the subject of a magnificent documentary entitled S.S. United States: Lady in Waiting) lies rusting in a South Philadelphia shipyard.

Philadelphia has always had a strong cultural life. Founded in 1900, the Philadelphia Orchestra is one of America's "Big Five" symphony orchestras. Philadelphia claims to have more public art and more murals than any other American city.

In 1966, Barbra Streisand's television special, Color Me Barbra, featured a fashion/fantasy segment shot on location at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The steps in front of that museum became immortalized when Sylvester Stallone wrote and starred in the Rocky series of films. However, Philadelphia has always maintained a steady presence on stage and screen:
While Philadelphia may be nicknamed The City of Brotherly Love, not everyone has spoken kindly of it. Former Mayor Frank Rizzo once claimed that "The streets are safe in Philadelphia, it's only the people that make them unsafe." Native son W.C. Fields was famously credited with these three statements:
  1. "I once spent a year in Philadelphia. I think it was a Sunday."
  2. "Last week I went to Philadelphia, but it was closed."
  3. "Here lies W.C. Fields. I would rather be living in Philadelphia."

    "People see my current success but don't realize I've worked hard to get where I am," claims musician Kevin Eubanks. "I used to clean garbage off the Philadelphia docks and put a lot of time into developing my music."

    Even though Bruce Springsteen received the 1993 Academy Award and 1995 Grammy Award for Best Song for Streets of Philadelphia, in many parts of the city the streets are an environment young people yearn to escape. Two new films (one fictional, the other a documentary) show how people in different situations deal with the tensions of living in some of Philadelphia's grittier neighborhoods.

    * * * * * * * * *
    For certain students at Northeast Philadelphia's Frankford High School, the message is clear. That woman in room 325 may be tougher than the football coach, but she'll help you escape the ghetto and enter a world filled with opportunity.

    Having taught for 38 years, Wilma Stephenson begins the school year by telling her new students that "This is not your mother's home economics class." She then stresses the fact that the reason the previous year's class received over $750,000 in scholarship money was because they earned it.

    Directed by Mark Becker and Jennifer Grausman, Pressure Cooker shows what happens when adolescents who could easily end up working at McDonalds, Wal-Mart, or dealing drugs come into contact with a teacher whose personality quickly shifts between being a benevolent despot and a substitute parent. In an inner city school (where more than 40% of the students don't reach their senior year), Stephenson's pupils have the benefit of knowing that their teacher will move mountains to motivate them -- and will be rooting for them from day one (Stephenson also coaches Frankford's cheerleading team).

    Wilma Stephenson with Erica Gaither

    "Since I was a teenager I have been inspired by the incredible stories of the students who participated in the C-CAP program and its annual cooking competitions," states producer-director Jennifer Grausman (whose father founded C-CAP in 1990 to provide career counseling, job training, and college scholarships by working with existing public high school culinary classes across the country). Grausman grew up absorbing the tales of extraordinary achievement that her father would bring home from work.
    "The question for me was: How did this particular teacher turn out so many successful students? We went down to Frankford in June 2006 to interview Wilma. She was an incredibly passionate person and we knew we had found a great and complex character. Wilma seeks out kids who are ambitious. They start out with a goal and they achieve it. She can be cantankerous and she knows it -- but she will go to hell and back for the students who get with the program and show true promise as well as the hunger to succeed. Those who fall short of her discipline will not be missed. Many will drop out before the first week is out. She offers these kids her version of the American Dream: You choose a realistic goal. You work hard. You work the system. You get out of Northeast Philly."
    For those students who come from dysfunctional homes, having such a personality in their lives can make a world of difference. As this documentary follows students from the beginning of the year to their final examination (competition) and school prom, the audience sees students who have grown up on a diet of fast food and fried chicken learning how to broaden their palates, acquire marketable skills, and understand what perfectionism is all about.

    Frankford's culinary arts students at their final competition

    Pressure Cooker also serves as a valuable publicity vehicle for the C-CAP: Careers Through Culinary Arts Program, which helps to identify, groom, and reward potential chefs by opening up doors to careers in hospitality and food service. Whether a scholarship allows a student to attend Rhode Island's Johnson and Wales University or a culinary arts institute in a different city, that money can change a young person's life. The film focuses on three particular students:
    • Tyree is a tough young man expecting to receive a football scholarship. While his mother hopes that Tyree can take advantage of opportunities that could allow their family to get out of Philadelphia, she has added help from his teacher (who works in tandem with Tyree's football coach to make sure his needs are met).
    • Fatoumata Dembele is a recent immigrant from the African country of Mali. Born on the Ivory Coast (her mother is from Burkina Faso), she had to walk more than 20 miles every day to go back and forth to school She came to the United States at the age of 14, without being able to speak English. Although her father has very traditional views about what a woman should or should not achieve (and would not hesitate to sabotage her future just to keep her in her place), Fatoumata feels that she can't ignore so many of the opportunities that have been placed before her since coming to America.
    • Erica is hoping to get a scholarship that will allow her to leave Philadelphia. Although she is often like a seeing eye dog for her younger sister Ariel (who is legally blind), she knows that unless she gets out of Philadelphia, she will be tied down by responsibilities at home.

    Culinary arts student/cheerleader Erica Gaither

    Often compared to a drill sergeant, Stephenson doesn't cut her students any slack. In an NPR interview with Michel Martin, she explained why:
    "I expect all of my students to come up, reach the sky and go as far and further than they could even imagine. All of them have cried. All the screaming and the hollering that I do -- and the throwing out of the food and the demanding that they do perfect work? Many of them have tried to quit, but I won't let them. I love them with all of my heart. They're music to my ears. They really are.

    I also believe that my students particularly are getting more science, math and sometimes English than they are in their regular science classes. They aren't aware that they're doing the percentages, the baker's percentage, and they're unaware that they're doing the fractions. They're unaware of the chemistry between the baking soda and why it's reacting and why the yeast is rising and why the carbon dioxide. They're unaware of it, but they are getting this."
    As Grausman and Becker learned while filming Pressure Cooker:
    "The kids are competing for much more than a trophy and the chance to be number one; they are working towards something that will literally change their lives. Our hope is that young people who see the film will realize that there are still practical models for success in this day and age, no matter how great the odds might seem. Parents will be reminded of how much a difference their support and encouragement makes in their children's lives. The general audience will see how teenagers can thrive if they are just guided toward the tangible opportunities that are already out there."
    Even so, the challenges of filming Wilma's students were daunting:
    "As filmmakers, we realized that the narrative appeal was more in Wilma's classroom than at the competition itself. We were not interested in the typical plot machinations of a competition film," says director-editor Mark Becker. "The true battleground for these kids is in her kitchen, and that's where the surrogate family develops. The reward of this kind of narrative approach is that, in the end, what we are left with is a film about the many shades of devotion.

    As for Wilma, I think everyone on the production feared her. She had a way of reducing us all to teenagers. Her philosophy at Frankford was always to command respect from her kids, and she by no means left this mode for us. There were times when we both had that sinking feeling like we were in trouble or something (like shooting a sensitive moment, or getting too close to her on a tough day) and neither of us liked being in trouble. We'd drive back to New York kicking ourselves, wondering if she would let us back in the kitchen. We were suspended from the kitchen a few times, but never expelled."

    * * * * * * * *
    While Pressure Cooker gives audiences an idea of what it takes to get out of Philly, The Nail: The Story of Joey Nardone shows what happens when someone is released from prison and returns to his old stomping grounds in the slums of South Philadelphia. Directed by James Quattrochi, with a screenplay by Jason Noto, The Nail is not your typical boxing story any more than it is an inspirational "young grasshopper" experience like The Karate Kid.

    Tony Luke, Jr. stars as Joey Nardone, a former Golden Gloves winner who got his name because he used to be able to hammer nails into a wall with his fist. Joey once accidentally killed a young girl during a bar brawl. Once a lean, mean fighting machine, Joey's eight years of prison food have transformed him into a fat schlub.

    Tony Luke, Jr., as Joey Nardone

    Upon his return to civilization, Joey wants nothing more than to lead a quiet, honest life without any violence. Nevertheless, he finds himself surrounded by some of his old cronies:
    • Massimo (William Forsythe), an old friend who picks up Joey after he is released from prison. Massimo hates the thought of Joey doing menial work and would like nothing more than to have the ex-con once again provide the muscle for his operation.
    • Pete (Leo Rossi), the owner of the local boxing ring, who first met Joey when he was 14 years old. Pete, who is now training a new generation of boxers, also has a new employee named HiFi (Joe Pistone), who is like a walking encyclopedia of boxing statistics.
    • Chickie (Tony Danza), a sports promoter with a mean streak who derives immense pleasure from humiliating Joey.
    Tony Danza as Chickie

    When Joey moves into a decrepit slum, he discovers that his neighbors are a highly dysfunctional Puerto Rican family with a long history of domestic abuse. Amelia (Dayanara Torres) is a beautiful young mother subject to violent outbursts from her drunk and extremely macho husband (Billy Gallo). Their 14-year-old son, Jesus (Paul Orrantia) is constantly being bullied at school and is frequently beaten by his drunk father.

    At first, Jesus spurns Joey's attempts to help him. But upon learning that Joey was once a boxing champion, he takes a shine to the older man. It's hard to tell whose sense of need is greater.

    Tony Luke, Jr., and Paul Orrantia

    One look at Tony as he leaves prison gives the audience a strong hint that things will not go well. Despite the best of intentions, Joey meets a tragic end at the hand of Jesus's bitter father. Although there are moments which feel predictable, and sometimes almost cheezy, there can be no denying the fact that The Nail will keep you in its grip right up to the bittersweet end, as a 22-year-old Jesus becomes the new boxing champion.

    While the film has some mawkish moments, its basic honesty shines through and keeps the viewer involved. The Nail will be available on DVD starting September 4th. Here's the trailer: