Tuesday, September 26, 2006
SOMETHING THE LORD MADE is probably the best made-for-television movie I had never heard of until the title was mentioned over dinner on a recent cruise. Thanks to the unwavering recommendation by new-found friends from Hawaii, upon my return home I immediately began to search for a DVD or videotape of this production which aired on HBO in 2004. Thankfully, I was able to locate a copy at a nearby Blockbuster store.
Let's begin by simply mentioning some of the awards bestowed upon this excellent project that is based on a true and compelling story:
IMAGE AWARDS -- Outstanding Television Movie
IMAGE AWARDS -- Nominated for Outstanding Actor
WRITERS GUILD OF AMERICA -- Best Original Long-Form Screenplay
DIRECTORS GUILD OF AMERICA -- DGA Award for Outstanding Achievement in Movies for Television
EMMY AWARD -- Outstanding Cinematography for a Made-for-Television Movie
EMMY AWARD -- Best Made-for-Television Movie
EMMY AWARD -- Best Editing for a Made-for-Television Movie
EMMY AWARD -- Six (6) additional Emmy Nominations
GOLDEN GLOBES -- Two (2) Nominations
ARTIOS AWARD -- Best Casting for a Television Movie-of-the-Week
PEABODY AWARD -- Best Television Movie
And all are deserved...
How in the world could I have not known about SOMETHING THE LORD MADE? Just as perplexing, how could I have not known about the real-life events the movie is based upon? In my defense, I'll gladly bet that 90% or more of those who read this review will not have known about this remarkable true-life story either.
Special mention must go to Joseph Sargent, perhaps the most consistent director to work in television. Since 1954, his vast directing credits include eighty-one separate television shows, television movies and feature films. Among these credits is THE INCIDENT, written by good friends Michael and James Norell, which is arguably the best made-for-television movie ever. One thing you can bank on is that if Joseph Sargent is directing, the project is going to be a good one. And the better news is that he's still going strong. (He directed SOMETHING THE LORD MADE when he was 79).
The cast is uniformly excellent. Alan Rickman plays Dr. Alfred Blalock, an ambitious, eccentric white surgeon who is willing to go against the long-standing medical orthodoxy that says flat out: "You can't operate on the heart -- that's basic."
Blalock's unlikely partner is Vivian Thomas, a black-carpenter-turned-lab-assistant who proves indispensable in this duo achieving a medical breakthrough. Thomas is portrayed by Mos Def, regarded as one of hip-hop's most introspective and insightful artists. The name, by the way, stands for "Most Definitely," and Mos Def's sensitive performance is most definitely one reason I believe you will be seeing a lot more of him in the years to come.
Focusing on the plight of "blue babies" -- infants with a congenital heart defect that turns their skin blue as they slowly suffocate -- the interracial team of Blalock and Thomas successfully perform the first-ever heart surgery, altering forever the mortality rate of blue babies and, by extension, forever changing medical science as well.
Other cast members are equally as solid. Mary Stuart Masterson as Dr. Helen Taussig is superb as always. The same can be said for Kyra Sedgewick and Charles S. Dutton as, respectively, Blalock's wife and Thomas' father. In fact, the entire cast and crew do an outstanding job.
Last, but certainly not least, I must single out screenwriters Peter Silverman and Robert Caswell who manage to expeditiously examine the evolving relationship which existed between these two men over a period of nearly forty years. And here's the single biggest surprise of all -- Silverman and Caswell elect to not have the ground-breaking operation serve as the climax of the story. Instead, they leave an entire act to establish a heartfelt, satisfactory denouement regarding the specific racial and educational issues which they chose to explore with honesty and compassion. This is a bold structural departure from what just about every other writer would do, and it helps propel SOMETHING THE LORD MADE to a truly memorable and inspiring viewing experience.
Monday, September 11, 2006
WARNING!!! THE PATH TO 9/11 is a long one and far too rocky for anyone susceptible to motion sickness.
Let me begin by stating that I am not in any way influenced by the political controversy that has unjustifiably surrounded this project. As the disclaimer clearly states on three separate occasions, this miniseries contains "fictionalized scenes" for "dramatic and narrative purposes." I personally don't care which president comes across as the most incompetent -- be it the one having bad oral sex in the oval office (yes, in this case there is such a thing) or the one responsible for beaucoup bagged bodies in Baghdad. I predict you won't care either.
Here's another prediction -- you will agree with me that any film or television program shot by a director of photography with uncontrollable epilepsy should be burried under the dung from a thousand camels. I used to think that UNITED 93 and THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT held the title, but Joel Ransom's camera work makes both seem smoother than a Bently on the autobahn. He is a self-winding watch's nightmare; within fifteen minutes I was down on my knees praying to Allah to provide him a steady tripod or to provide me a big bottle of Dramamine.
This technique, of course, is known as cinema verite, whereby naturalistic techniques reminiscent of documentary filmmaking (such as the use of hand-held cameras) combine with elements of a scripted film to form a "cinema of truth." As a result, the "look" is intended to be one of factual events being portrayed as they actually took place.
Alas, jerking off isn't Joel's only habitual cinematic sin. Every third scene is shot with his spastic camera bouncing, weaving, dollying, panning and/or peering through something in the foreground, be it venetian blinds, wrought iron railings, clothes lines, wind chimes, fluttering flags, birdcages, rotating fan blades, iron bars, chain link fences, balloon strings, camouflage netting, barb wire, desk lamps, wooden slats or people moseying around the streets of Mosul.
The clumsy, overly expository dialog is courtesy of a self-declared screenwriter named Cyrus Nowrasteh. While Cyrus the Great was the first Achaemenian king of ancient Persia, this contemporary Cyrus should be banned from ever again putting his Number 2 to a Big Chief tablet. On the plus side, I must credit the entire cast for doing its best. Harvey Keitel is solid in the lead role and I was especially impressed by newcomer Prasanna Puwanarajah who plays Istiak.
The special effects are also superior to the average made-for-television film with the one exception of a process shot of the New York City skyline that had the buildings bobbing like Riverdance performers.
This was an ambitious undertaking. THE PATH TO 9/11 could have been an informative and interesting overview of the past decade's overlooked warning signs and damn-near criminal incompetence leading up to the most fateful day in our lifetime. Instead, we get an unsteady, virtually unwatchable whirligig.
Tonight the alphabet network will broadcast the final edition. Expect further capricious cinematography and indifferent dialog. You can also anticipate seeing further blunders among the FBI, the CIA, the past two presidential administrations and others in the collective failure to find and capture Osama bin Laden.
History seems to be repeating itself...we never captured Pancho Villa either.
Tuesday, September 5, 2006
There are many who believe that absolute perfection is simply unattainable -- at least in this life and on this planet. I'm not certain where I stand on the issue, but I do know that I've seen things that come pretty darn close. For example, a Ferrari 550 Barchetta, or Italian super model Monica Bellucci or the "Manager's Special" at Parziale's Pizzeria in Canyon Lake, Texas. But these are topics for another day and another time...
When it comes to filmmaking, however, there are very few films which even come close to achieving perfection. And one of these is, unfortunately, not available for purchase anywhere. In this case I'm referring to a student film that was written and directed by Adam Davidson while attending Columbia University.
"A student film? You can't be serious?"
Winner of the Golden Palm for "Best Short Film" at the 1990 Cannes Film Festival and the recipient of the Oscar for "Best Short Film, Live Action" a year later, Davidson's THE LUNCH DATE is simply a phenomenal cinematic achievement. Throw in two (yes, two) Student Academy Awards and you can quickly discern that THE LUNCH DATE is very special, very special indeed.
Beautifully shot in black & white, this is the story of a white woman and her uncomfortable encounter with a black man in a cafeteria located in Grand Central Station. After taking her tray to an empty table she discovers she has forgotten her silverware. Upon her return she is astonished to find a large black man eating her food. After the initial shock subsides she decides to be defiant and to eat off the plate as well. When they are both finished the black man gets up and walks away, only to return with a cup of coffee for them both. After a sip or two the woman gets up and walks toward the exit. Just before stepping out she turns back and discovers that her own meal was on another table all this time.
With minimal dialog (and none between the two main characters), Davidson manages to tell a complete, complex, compelling and compassionate story in a mere ten minutes. He initially entertains the viewer by masterfully crafting a concise screenplay that contains a surprising twist and an even more surprising reversal. And then, just when it isn't expected, he astounds us with a stunning resolution that will not soon be forgotten.
Since his graduation Davidson has established a successful career directing a whole host of prime time television programs, including episodes of LAW & ORDER, MONK, SIX FEET UNDER, DEADWOOD and GREY'S ANATOMY to name only a few. With his obvious talent I, for one, would welcome his being given the chance to write and direct a feature film.
Surely that day will come.