Mark Metcalf, co-owner of Libby Montana restaurant in Mequon, is an actor known for his work in movies, TV and on the stage. He is best known for his work in "Animal House," "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and "Seinfeld."
In addition to his work on screen, Metcalf is involved with the Milwaukee International Film Festival, First Stage Children's Theater and a number of other projects.
He also finds time to write about movies for OnMilwaukee.com.
This week, Metcalfe weighs in on "The Four Feathers," "The 4400" and the works of writer-director Preston Sturges.
THE FOUR FEATHERS (2002)
When Heath Ledger died, I wanted to watch something of his that I hadn't seen. There were several options. I liked him as an actor very much, because of his work in "Candy" and "Brokeback Mountain."
He had also seemed to be able to play it straight, as it were, that is, do the Hollywood shuffle, in movies like "A Knight's Tale."
He looked good and spoke with passion and did movie star stuff. I wanted to see how he faired in a truly great story, a remake of one of the great movies of all time, "Four Feathers." He's OK. He isn't asked to do much more than look good and stand in the right place, because the director is so busy and concerned with composing compelling pictures.
Unfortunately, the director doesn't seem to be interested in the humanity of the story -- in the characters and what happens to them. As a result, Ledger doesn't really have a framework in which to work.
He looks good and suffers well and there seems to be something between he and Kate Hudson, who plays his fiancé, but she has no finish, I mean the way a wine is supposed to have "finish", and as I said the director whose name I won't mention, gets lost in his pretty pictures.
The original with John Clements and Ralph Richardson is truly great. The men are human, complicated and funny. Zoltan Korda, one of the famous Korda brothers, does amazing things with the camera, too. Though he was doing them for the first time, he never sacrifices the story of four friends who go to war in the desert during the peak time of British imperialism. See the 1939 version. Skip the Heath Ledger remake and rent "Candy" to get your Heath Ledger fix.
THE 4400 (2004-‘07)
I consider this kind of the thinking man's "Heroes." The series is on the Sci-Fi Channel. Now that the writer's strike is over, it should be back on the air in a month or so.
There are nice human touches of reacquainting the 4400 (that's how many people were "beamed up") with lives that have moved on and experienced time in the way that we all have. In some cases there is nothing left of the life or the people they left behind. We measure our lives by the people we affect and that affect us, so it gives one pause to realize that life goes on even after we are gone.
As the series unfolds, we realize that each of the 4400 has a certain power -- the power to destroy, super fast reflexes, seeing into the future. The entry level of the story is with the Homeland Security unit that is investigating the reappearance of these 4400 people. The question that is always hovering is: Is this the hand of God? Is it an alien intervention? How did these people attain their powers and what are they going to do with them? Is there a plan?
Of course, that's the question that human kind has been asking since they had time to sit around the fire and ask questions. So far, no one can fly or make black stuff come out of their eyes and nose. One character does seem to be able to heal others and perhaps himself. Some have terribly destructive powers. "Heroes" is more comic book, flashier, less possible and doesn't really ask any questions, like "What is the plan?" or "Is there a plan?" "Heroes" says, "be afraid, be very afraid because there may be a virus out there that can do wonderful and terrible things." "The 4400" says "There may be intelligence out there and we don't really know what it wants or intends for us, but likely it wants to help us not destroy us." I think there is more hope in "The 4400" and the possibility of change.
THE WORK OF PRESTON STURGES
I am producing the Student Screenwriting Competition for the Milwaukee International Film Festival and as we were preparing to teach the first seminar on screenwriting to the 40 finalists, I was thinking about how dialogue informs a film.
I went back and looked at a bunch of Preston Sturges films to see how phenomenally great dialogue becomes the main element in a film. I watched "Miracle at Morgan's Creek," "Hail, The Conquering Hero," both with the great Eddie Bracken, and a great turn by Betty Hutton in "Miracle."
I watched "The Great McGinty," with Brian Donlevy, and a clunky one with Dick Powell called "Christmas in July." Each one of these films has a unique and terribly human story, with irony in every nuance. Each one has great and individual performances, unlike anything else around, before or since. And each one has dialogue that tells the story and reveals character with wit and charm, cleverness and humor, intelligence and warmth. Slightly elevated dialogue but not phony in the least. The actors make it seem real and are so easily natural that it truly feels as if it is being spoken for the first time. And there is elegance to it.
There is a lot of criticism written that after WWII we lost our innocence and will never again be able to produce films like these. I think we just got more wrapped up in commerce and forgot the primary motivation for all story telling which is to communicate experience. And when it all started we were huddled around a fire, keeping away the scary, scary night, telling stories to take away the fear, to draw the community together, to survive. Somehow these films give me hope, make me feel that there is a future for the species.
Mark Metcalf is an actor and owner of Libby Montana restaurant in Mequon. Still active in Milwaukee theater, he's best known for his roles as Neidermeyer in "Animal House" and as The Maestro on "Seinfeld."
Originally from New Jersey, Metcalf now lives in Bayside.