Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Doctor Who

“He’s like fire and ice and rage. He’s like the night and the storm in the heart of the sun. He’s ancient and forever. He burns at the centre of time and can see the turn of the universe. And… he’s wonderful.”

I am so grateful to have caught Hamlet on Masterpiece Theatre last month; it introduced me to David Tennant, which led me to Doctor Who. This is the television show I have been looking for without even knowing I was looking for it. If you combined all my childhood obsessions, and most of my adult ones, you’d more or less end up with this series. Despite the fact that Who has existed, in one form or another, for decades and is an enormous part of popular British culture, when I watch it I feel as if it could have been made just for me.

The titular hero of Doctor Who is an alien. To the casual observer he appears to be human but he is actually a Time Lord from the planet Gallifrey. When mortally injured he is able to cheat death by regenerating, a process which changes every cell of his body, altering his physical appearance and personality but preserving his memories and his consciousness. It’s a useful plot device and a clever trick to have on hand when an actor leaves the show and the Doctor needs a recast. To date eleven actors have played the Doctor. Though they vary in age, temperament and appearance they are all meant to be the same being.

The series returned to BBC in 2005 (the first time in over fifteen years since new episodes had been produced on a regular basis) with the ninth incarnation of the Doctor, played to perfection by Christopher Eccleston. He was roughly nine hundred years old and the last of his race, his home planet and every living thing on it having been destroyed in the Time Wars, which affected various parts of the universe but had no real effect on the Earth. The Doctor is not only the last of his kind but also, somehow, to blame for the events which led to the demise of his people. Alone in the universe he travels through time and space in his TARDIS (Time And Relative Dimension In Space), a sentient ship that appears, on the outside, to be a blue police box but is in fact a vast and wondrous vessel. While she never speaks a line of dialogue the TARDIS is every bit as alive as any other character in the Who-iverse. She is all that remains of the Doctor’s home and his affection for her is both real and endearing.

Because he’s a personable creature, and also a lonely old man, the Doctor invites new friends he meets in the midst of various adventures to accompany him as travelling companions. His preference trends toward human, as he has a particular affection for us as a species; specifically young, attractive, female humans, often with a boyfriend or family member coming along for the ride at various points. Sometimes other aliens, fellow time travelers, even the occasional robot dog find themselves tagging along as well. The show excels at establishing an odd sense of community amongst this small, disparate group. Travelling with the Doctor is kind of like belonging to some fun, exclusive, dangerous club. Because where the Doctor goes danger tends to follow… but he always makes danger look like so much fun.

From time to time the relationship between the Doctor and a female companion may turn romantic. The show is marketed towards children in Britain and considered family programming so things never get very explicit. There’s lots of hand-holding (usually while running from some sort of adversary), hugging and the odd chaste kiss here and there. From what I’ve read, this kind of thing only happens in the newer episodes and was never really an issue in the earlier seasons of the series. Personally I like my Sci-Fi / Fantasy Adventure tinged with some element of romance (especially when the Doctor is played by such charismatic and attractive actors). A romantic element can certainly be introduced without negating every other aspect of the series. For me it just adds another layer to the story. By examining the nature of the Doctor’s relationships with his various companions we learn more about him and more about them. Their interactions help define who they are as characters and make them seem all the more real.

Besides it’s not as if the Doctor can ever settle down and be a family man (though he can’t help but wonder sometimes what that might be like); he doesn’t age, at least not like humans do. He won’t die, at least not for a very, very, very long time. The lifespan of a human companion is little more than the blink of an eye to him. He can never live a human life. So while he may appear, to us, to be constant and eternal he can only ever offer something ephemeral to his friends. When you travel with the Doctor it’s great. It’s adventure and danger and wonder and vast unknown expanses of the universe, all right in front of you. But it’s not a permanent way of life. All journeys eventually come to an end. The way those journeys change the characters that embark upon them, both for better and worse, is probably one of the most compelling aspects of the show for me. That in the midst of all of time and space there are these tiny personal dramas taking place.

Doctor Who is Greek Mythology, Christian allegory, Superman, E.T., The Lord of the Rings, His Dark Materials, The Time Traveler's Wife, The Twilight Zone, late-night creature features and historical costume dramas, all rolled into one. In reviving the series head writer and executive producer Russell T. Davies has somehow managed to make something that feels both modern and retro. The people feel real, the danger feels real but the creatures are often dated-looking and hilarious. Which somehow makes them even more terrifying. Though it's often clever and cheeky, it lacks the sometimes smug, post-modern edge of shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and that is one of its greatest strengths (and that’s no slight on Buffy, who is great in her own right). It doesn’t just reference programming that I watched as a kid, it resurrects it. And applies enough grown-up sensibility to get me engaged, while never forgetting that it’s meant to be a wildly entertaining show. It may sound like it’d be a mess, sometimes it actually is a mess, but it’s always glorious.

And at the heart of it all is this man. This remarkable spaceman. The last of his kind. We never learn his real name but he’s given so many names throughout the series. The Doctor. He's a lonely angel and an angry god. A force of justice, rightness and benevolence in the universe. He is ancient but he retains a childlike sense of wonder. He is so much more than we can ever be but he sees the potential in us and he thinks we are miraculous. We think we need him but he needs us just as much, if not more. His greatest gift to mankind is the ability to show human beings just how amazing they can be. How much they can accomplish. How much they can become. For me, Doctor Who is, at its heart, a story about mankind’s relationship with the other, with divinity (if you believe in that sort of thing), with the whole of history and all of time and consciousness. What more could a viewer possibly ask for?

I wanted to write one self-contained entry on Doctor Who as a means of explaining why, for the past month, I have lived and breathed this show. Why I felt compelled to watch four seasons in less than the span of four weeks. Why I think it’s easily one of the best television series I’ve ever seen and why I cannot stop talking about it even though I realize that everyone I know is sick to death of hearing about it. One little essay is just not going to cut it. Consider this an introduction. There’ll be much, much more where this came from.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Robin Hood

I wanted to like Ridley Scott and Russell Crowe’s new Robin Hood. Really, I did. The more I think about it, though, the more I realize how much I disliked the movie. I never expected it to be groundbreaking cinema but I thought it at least looked like fun, in a “Maximus in Sherwood Forest” kind of way. And while the movie does play at times like a Gladiator/ Lord of the Rings hybrid it is nowhere near as entertaining or engaging as either of those titles.

I don’t know why we needed an origin story for the famous outlaw and, judging by Scott’s movie, I’m not sure he knows, either. Maybe he figured he needed a new angle, since the story has been told so many times. And while I would ordinarily support casting more mature actors, like Crowe and Cate Blanchett, as opposed to tweeny-boppers, I find it odd that Robin and Marian were this old and beaten down by life at the very beginning of the legend.

Based on trailers and press for Robin Hood I was expecting a gruff, tough, rugged tale. I did not expect funny, lighthearted moments but I rather enjoyed them and wished there had been more of the same. I especially enjoyed the scene where Robin and his Merry Men snag a shipment of grain in Sherwood Forest; again, it made me wish for more of the same. But since this is an origin myth we have to trod unfamiliar ground. We have to know why Robin has become an outlaw and what compels him to stand up for the little guy and defy the men in power. Which means, in this version of events, we get lots of dull, tedious political intrigue and Crowe’s Robin making rousing (not really but I guess they were meant to be) speeches about personal freedom. The parts that worked best, I thought, were the parts that every other Robin Hood movie already has. Maybe Scott should have left well enough alone.

Things pick up a little in the last half hour, with a well-choreographed battle sequence (even if it’s marred by entirely pointless scenes of a suited-up Marian going to war with the boys. This is not Return of the King and she’s definitely no Eowyn); I will confess that the sound of the arrows zipping through the sky was neat. But, just like the rousing call to arms speeches, it all seemed a bit rote. After Middle Earth and Narnia and the Roman Coliseum this movie felt too much like too many movies I’d seen before. Better movies. Movies with warmth and charm behind them. Movies that didn’t feel like cynical grabs to cash in on already proven and popular material. I found Robin Hood to be lacking in sincerity and purpose. It was wildly erratic in tone and pace and, just like the decision to cast older actors for a prequel story, the filmmaking decisions seemed random rather than thought-out. What kind of movie was Scott intending to make? Aside from one that could easily turn a profit, I honestly have no idea.

The actors make the best of it. The supporting cast seems well-suited to the material, I guess, but it’s hard to say for certain since we see so little of them. I guess Mr. Scott was banking on us already knowing who Will Scarlet, Little John and Friar Tuck are, so no need to bog down the movie with anything like actual character development. Crowe and Blanchett are adequate as Robin and Marian; had they had better material to work with I’m sure they could have been great. At least they look pretty and they make a handsome couple. There doesn’t feel like much of a spark between them but there doesn’t feel like much of a spark in the movie, period.

I will say that the closing credits were spectacular. I mean this in all sincerity. The credits are like a tiny, animated version of the story, told in a vivid, painterly fashion. The artists responsible for those credits should make their own version of Robin Hood. I think that might actually be something worth seeing.

Thursday, May 13, 2010


To date, I have seen four adaptations of Hamlet and, while I’ve never felt the urge to seek out every available version, I’ve never met a cinematic retelling of the play that I didn’t like. In 1990, Franco Zeffirelli and Mel Gibson provided my introduction, at the age of fourteen, to the melancholy Danish prince. I’d had some exposure, by that time, to Shakespeare’s work but my grasp of the Bard’s language was still tenuous at best, so I had trouble keeping up with the story. What stood out and made a lasting impression on me was Ophelia. I liked her because she was pretty and crazy. Helena Bonham Carter does both pretty and crazy well, especially in a period setting, and even if I didn’t entirely understand Ophelia’s plight, I felt for her (it was actually Bonham Carter’s performance in this movie that prompted me to seek out more of her work, so I guess I have Zeffirelli & co. to thank for my love of Merchant Ivory films and, by extension, the writings of E.M. Forster).

These days I appreciate Hamlet as a whole but my opinion of any version I see still depends, in part, on whether or not I think they get Ophelia right. I’m usually satisfied. Kate Winslet makes a fine tragi-romantic heroine in Kenneth Branagh’s comprehensive adaptation (from 1996) and Julia Stiles does admirable work with the role in Michael Almereyda’s visually arresting, modern take on the tale (2000), even if Ophelia’s already scant dialogue is whittled away to little more than a handful of lines.

In the Royal Shakespeare Company’s new stage-to-screen version of Hamlet (which aired on PBS late last month) Ophelia is played by Mariah Gale, who is excellent in the role. She is able to convey both ladylike composure and childish naivete, often in the same scene; and when she goes mad it is ugly, pitiful and terribly effective. For once, however, I found myself more captivated by Hamlet himself than my beloved Ophelia, and that has everything to do with David Tennant’s raw, nervy, awesome performance in the title role.

I have never seen Tennant in the role he is most associated with, that of the Doctor on Doctor Who ( but I am presently taking steps to correct that). In fact, I’d never even heard of him. I would not have guessed that the actor is in his late thirties (he looks much younger), an age that I would ordinarily consider far too old for the role of Hamlet (and yes, I’m looking at you, Mel and Ken). His youthful appearance is matched by a teenager’s vivacity, coupled with a portrait of madness that often borders on hysteria. And why not? Our hero is not only unbalanced but is playing mad for the benefit of his uncle, so it’s more than appropriate that Tennant’s performance skews towards over-the-topness now and again. His Hamlet is spry and agile, at once a morose young man and a gangly, emo teenager. The physicality and exuberance he brings to the part only enhances his excellent interpretation of Shakespeare’s text. Passages that I could only get the gist of before made perfect sense to me in this version, as if, trite as it sounds, I was truly hearing the words for the first time.

Tennant’s performance made the character of Hamlet accessible for me in a way that he had never been before. He makes the hero youthful and modern but he also speaks the lines like he actually knows what he’s talking about, like he actually feels them, thinks them. The result is near perfection.

That blend of modernity and classical sensibility extends to the production as a whole, with its swank interiors and contemporary technological flourishes. The sets are sparse and elegant, and almost every available surface, including the floor, is covered in high-gloss black paint, creating a mirrored effect. When the actors aren’t delivering their soliloquies into actual mirrors (the production makes terrific use of one large, fractured looking glass several times throughout the course of the story) or breaking the fourth wall to speak to the audience directly, they simply drop to the floor and speak to their reflections there. Given the amount of introspection in the play it’s effective to have the characters so often deliver the lines directly to themselves.

The production also makes use of CCTV, so that when someone is spying on someone else it’s almost always through the lense of a surveillance camera. Hamlet even busts out a camcorder to document his uncle’s reaction to The Mousetrap, the play within a play that aids in the eventual undoing of the villain. These flourishes worked well enough but reminded me too much of Almereyda’s modern take, in which Hamlet was a young filmmaker and always had a handheld camera at the ready. They didn’t detract in the least, they just didn’t enhance my viewing experience as much as they did in the former version. I did appreciate the suggestion that everyone was being watched, almost always. It helped foster the sense of suspicion and paranoia that is so central to the story.

The rest of the cast is superb. Patrick Stewart does a fine job as both Claudius and the ghost of the slain king. I found Penny Downie to be an especially compelling, and often sympathetic, Gertrude, and I adored Peter De Jersey’s thoughtful, sensitive Horatio, who helped make the demise of this particular Hamlet the most moving one I’ve seen.

If you enjoy Hamlet there are many, many options from which you can choose. While I certainly haven’t seen enough of them to say which is the definitive Hamlet, I think this one definitely deserves a look.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

You Don't Know Jack

If you already feel strongly, one way or the other, about Dr. Jack Kevorkian than this well-made HBO original is unlikely to change your mind about anything. The movie is meant to offer a glimpse into the private life of a polarizing public figure; it presents Kevorkian as a somewhat crotchety oddball, with a quick temper and a macabre streak (at least, if his original artwork is any indication). I actually think he’s a rather endearing figure, probably because I’m a bit of a prickly personality myself, and I also feel, very strongly, that none of his personal eccentricities diminish, in any way, his commitment to his work and his compassion for his patients.

You Don’t Know Jack makes effective use of actual footage from Kevorkian’s consultations with patients and it is stressed, more than once, that his decision to help any person end his life is never entered into lightly. He simply feels that it is senseless, cruel, barbaric even, to prolong human suffering, especially when an individual is of sound mind and wishes to end his own life. Throughout the course of the movie I never found fault with any of Kevorkian’s actions or decisions in regard to his patients; and while I cannot say for certain I assume that their families do not think his acts were performed in anything less than good faith, otherwise I don’t believe they would have given consent to have footage of their loved ones used in the movie.

Kevorkian’s detractors may disagree but I found the tone of You Don't Know Jack to be consistently objective. It presents the events in an even-handed manner without campaigning for or against the assisted suicide cause. It is to director Barry Levinson’s credit that he can take such a lightning rod of a story and transform it into a compelling, understated character study. He is helped enormously by a terrific cast. John Goodman, Susan Sarandon and Danny Huston are solid in their supporting roles and Brenda Vaccaro is especially effective and touching as Kevorkian’s sister Margo.

Fond as I am of Pacino I’ll admit that I was skeptical of him making a convincing Dr. Kevorkian but I think he’s really quite good in the role. There may have been one or two moments where I thought a “Hoo-Ah” was going to escape his lips but, for the most part, his performance is subtle and convincing.

This is another fine example of exceptional, compelling storytelling from HBO. Kudos. Hoo-Ah, indeed.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Howl's Moving Castle

Hayao Miyazaki is an adored and respected director of animated features. His films, hand drawn rather than computer generated, for the most part, are painterly and sumptuous, like picture-books come to life. His visual style is inherently quaint and charming but also staggering in its attention to detail. There is so much to see in his movies and so many marvelous little details to appreciate and enjoy.

Miyazaki often writes his own screenplays and his stories are intelligent, thought-provoking and incredibly even-handed. His villains do more than simply advance the plot or create conflict and their motivations are often explored and explained; in some instances they become as endearing and relatable to the audience as the heroes themselves.

I have seen three of Miyazaki’s movies, Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away and Howl’s Moving Castle, and each one centers around female protagonists and antagonists. There are always male characters who are essential to the plot but, in Miyazaki’s world, the women really seem to run the show. One of the things I love most about Miyazaki’s leading ladies is their compassion and their empathy. His villains often turn out to be unhappy misfits and his heroines are heroic, in part, because they recognize their adversaries for what they truly are and reach out to them. Sometimes they even rescue them. It’s a romantic notion, like Beauty saving her Beast, and it really appeals to me. Rather than vanquishing the enemy a Miyazaki story is just as likely to conclude with all the characters befriending one another and forming some kind of quirky surrogate family. That has certainly been the case with both Spirited Away and Howl’s Moving Castle.

The Howl in Howl’s Moving Castle is a charming, attractive wizard who also happens to be moody, immature and something of a coward. He uses his considerable skills to conceal his whereabouts from a scorned lover, a witch who would steal his heart, quite literally, for herself, and various political leaders, who want him to fight in their various propaganda wars. Or, something like that. Honestly, I had a hard time keeping all the plot threads straight in my head. Miyazaki is working from someone else’s material in this movie (a novel, of the same name, by Diana Wynne Jones) and maybe that accounts for the odd, scattered feel of the story. It leaps off in too many directions. It bears a striking resemblance to Spirited Away but it lacks the earlier movie’s focus. This in no way means it isn’t worth seeing, I just think it’s slightly less brilliant than the other two Miyazaki movies I’ve seen (when the visuals are this stunning and carefully crafted I can make allowances for less than stellar storytelling, though a well-told tale always enhances a viewing experience).

Despite the title of the story the star of the show is actually Sophie, a sensible young woman who works in her family’s hat shop. Sophie’s chance encounter with Howl stirs the ire of the Witch of the Waste, who was once the wizard’s sweetheart and still carries a torch for him. In her jealousy the witch casts a spell on Sophie that transforms the girl into an old crone. Sophie is not particularly bothered by her change in appearance but she does not care for the aches and pains that have accompanied her rapid ageing process. She sets off in search of Howl and his travelling castle, to see if he might break the spell and return her to her true form.

Of course Sophie finds Howl and takes up residence in his fabulous moving castle, an enormous, clamoring mass of wood and metal that walks around on mechanical legs. Naturally she falls in love with him and he with her, despite the fact that she’s an old crone (though her age shifts throughout the story and as her love for Howl grows her age appears to decrease). Howl, it seems, is under a spell of his own; something to do with the fire spirit who lives in his home and the spurned witch and the political leaders. Again, I really can’t explain it because I really couldn’t follow a lot of it. But the moments where Howl transforms into a giant bird, a process that is painful and increasingly difficult for him to reverse, are great. And Sophie always loves Howl, no matter what he looks like on the outside, the same way Howl can’t help but love Sophie no matter what age she appears to be. I like that Sophie has to save not only herself but the man she loves, along with most of the secondary characters in the story. And I love the voice contributions from the American and British actors who helped bring the English-language version of the movie to life. Howl might be a sullen, shallow nitwit at times but he’s voiced by Christian Bale, who manages to make the character appealing, sexy and a tad bit dangerous. Billy Crystal’s contribution, as Calcifer the fire spirit, is funny but never oversteps into self-indulgence. Emily Mortimer and the late, great Jean Simmons do a terrific job with Sophie at her various ages and Lauren Bacall is perfect for the Witch of the Waste, who starts out as a menace but becomes one of the more endearing characters by story’s end.

I’m certain that any knowledge of Japanese culture only enhances the viewing experience with Miyazaki’s work, as I’d imagine that some of his imagery and story elements derive from Eastern myths and legends. His themes are timeless and resonant but his visual style and offbeat characters are arresting and unique; his movies have the feel of something that is at once ancient and familiar but also new and original. And that is almost always a combination worth seeing.

Monday, April 12, 2010


My husband is not a fan of David Lynch. He likes The Elephant Man and The Straight Story well enough and he’ll admit that Mulholland Drive and Blue Velvet are decent. He’ll even acknowledge, begrudgingly, that Lynch is one of the finest living directors we’ve got but, at the end of the day, he really doesn’t care one way or the other about the man or his artistic output. I love my husband in spite of this and, in return, he tolerates my Lynch love.

My affection for the director and his work began on April 8, 1990, when the pilot episode of Twin Peaks aired on ABC. Last Thursday marked the twentieth anniversary of that memorable debut and I used it as an opportunity to sing the show's praises on all the various social networking sites that I frequent. This is what I had to say about it on the Knoxblab:

I think it helped that I was a thirteen year old girl when the show debuted. if I'd seen the series for the first time when I was older I'm sure I would've liked it but I probably wouldn't have been as obsessed as I ended up being. This was my first exposure to Lynch and it was like nothing I'd ever seen before. It blew my little mind. The show shaped my tastes and my sense of humor to some extent. I love it not just for what it is but for what it meant to me when I was a dorky teenager.

My affection for Peaks prompted me to seek out Lynch’s film work. Most of his movies initially freaked me out but I came around, eventually. Like many avant-garde directors his style and themes are idiosyncratic and instantly recognizable, even to a casual follower: his protagonists are typically nonconformist or, at the very least, deny expectations. He often explores the seedy underbelly of some typical trope: first it was small town America but for the last decade or so he has fixated on Hollywood and all that it appears to offer. He incorporates dream sequences into his stories and, sometimes, he'll apply dream logic (an oxymoron if ever there was one) to the whole production. He always seems to be digging at the surface of his subjects and trying to get down to the meaty stuff buried underneath. His movies work on an aesthetic and subconscious level and if you think you understand what’s going on then you’re probably missing the point.

The 2007 documentary Lynch, which I watched last weekend (husband suggested it for some reason. He did not make it to the end), is meant to provide a peek behind the red curtain as Lynch works on various projects, including his most recent movie, Inland Empire. It’s an aimless and poorly made movie (the filmmakers may have been trying to create something quirky and Lynchian but; if that’s what they were going for, they failed) but it’s worth seeing if you’re a devoted fan of the director. I enjoyed the footage of Lynch creating enormous mixed media pieces, out of things like tiny plaster buffalo forms and cigarette butts, as well as the little glimpses into the director’s working relationship with the wonderful Laura Dern. Inland Empire was Dern’s third starring turn in a Lynch movie and the two of them appear to have genuine respect and affection for one another; she seems to get him and I think, every time they work together, she is committed to helping him realize his vision. He’s lucky to have such a talented and fearless woman in his corner.

I guess David Lynch is something of an acquired taste but, really, aren’t most things? You’re probably gonna like what he does or you aren’t. I’m sure nostalgia plays a role in my love of all things Lynch (I’m too self-absorbed for it not to play one) but, whatever the reasons, I feel it’s fortunate that we have him. Maybe some day we’ll even get a decent documentary about him, too.*

*I’d love to see what someone like Werner Herzog, a director I’ve come to love because he’s one of my husband’s favorites, could do with Lynch as a subject.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

The Third Man

I remember the exact moment that I fell in love with Joseph Cotten. It was Fourth of July, 2008 and Turner Classic Movies had chosen to celebrate our Nation’s birthday by scheduling a Hitchcock marathon, which I thought was a terrific idea. I was happy that I woke up in time to watch Shadow of a Doubt that morning; I had never seen it but my mom had recently watched it for the first time and raved about it, so I was anxious to check it out for myself. Cotten’s Uncle Charlie hooked me the minute he appeared on screen, lying, almost corpse-like, on a bed in a seedy motel, smoking a cigar. And when he opened his mouth to speak, with that sonorous, sinister but incredibly seductive voice of his, it was like being struck by lightning. I was gobsmacked. Who on earth was this glorious creature? And why hadn’t I noticed him before? I didn't even know if I’d seen him in anything else because surely, if I had, I'd have remembered him. I sat, spellbound, for the length of the movie, which I thought was fabulous in every way, and then I set about researching Mr. Joseph Cotten. I quickly realized that I had actually seen a handful of his movies and was surprised that he had failed to make more of an impact on me, especially considering that two of the movies I’d seen, Citizen Kane and The Third Man, were thought to be two of his very best roles.

Though I’d watched Kane a couple of times and found it entirely underwhelming (I really like it now but I’m not sure I’ll ever love it), The Third Man was a movie I’d remembered enjoying, even if I could remember little else about it. I caught it at Downtown West on its fiftieth anniversary run in ’99, mostly because I knew it was the movie Juliet and Pauline went to see together in Heavenly Creatures. I remembered Orson Welles, of course, especially the bit where the kitten sidles up to him in the alley and starts batting at his shoelaces, but Cotten had failed to leave a lasting impression, despite the fact that he’s in practically every frame of the film.

Joseph Cheshire Cotten was dapper and elegant. He was tall (6’2”) and he carried himself gracefully. He even had his suits specially tailored without pockets so that he would appear more streamlined. He had a handsome face and wavy hair. He was a little bit older than your average matinee idol when he began his film career (after a stint on Broadway with Kate Hepburn and Van Heflin in The Philadelphia Story) but, otherwise, he had all the makings of a dreamboat leading man.

But here’s the thing about Cotten, and it’s one of the things I love most about him: not only could he disappear into a character he was playing, he could fade into the fabric of the film itself, so that other players, like his buddy Welles, could shine. A role like Uncle Charlie is brash and showy, which is why it got my attention, but a role like Jed Leland or Holly Martins is something much subtler and, I would think, much more difficult to pull off with success. Cotten almost never seemed to be trying to draw attention to himself but I think that makes him all the more magnetic. It also makes him well-suited to playing underdogs, sad sacks and dupes, which he did on a fairly regular basis and never with more success than in Carol Reed and Graham Greene’s sublime The Third Man.

Poor Holly Martins, pulp western author, drunkard, hopeless romantic, finds himself in post-war Vienna at the request of his longtime pal Harry Lime, who’s offered him a job with his medical charity. But by the time Martins arrives Lime is dead and the police are accusing the dearly departed of all sorts of nasty illegal activities. Martins ought to have the good sense to turn tail and head home to America but, maybe because he’s confused himself with a hero from one of his books, maybe because he likes the look of Lime’s girl, the lovely, melancholy Anna, he decides to stick around, butt heads with Trevor Howard's (quite wonderful) Major Calloway and restore his pal’s good name.

The movie, usually classified as film noir, works so well, in part, because it defies categorization. It’s tragic, romantic and darkly comedic. It’s mysterious and suspenseful. It’s a little like Casablanca, only most of the characters act in their own self-interest rather than in the interest of the greater good. Even honest, sensible Holly Martins is in it for himself, if only to feel a sense of pride for having done the right thing and helped the damsel in distress out in the process. Martins is a lot like another of Greene’s protagonists, The Quiet American’s Alden Pyle, who tries to impose his simple black and white worldview onto a situation with no easy solutions; these lines, paraphrased from The Quiet American, spoken in reference to Pyle, could even be applied to Martins himself: “I should have known that saving the girl and saving the country would be the same thing to a man like Pyle.” In both stories, the naivete (coupled with a skewed sense of moral rightness) of these quiet Americans, ends up having disastrous consequences.

Cotten certainly plays Martins as a fool but he’s a likable fool and his antics are entertaining and oddly endearing. Both Carey Grant and Jimmy Stewart were considered for the role of Martins and either man could have played the part convincingly but not as well (and I realize I’m terribly biased) as Cotten; Grant would have to have gotten the girl, in the end, and for the movie to work that just cannot happen (this wasn’t a problem with an actor like Cotten in the role, because he almost never got the girl) and Jimmy Stewart’s usual awe-shucks persona might have come across as over the top in the understated environment that Reed constructs. I think Cotten could better project the sense of defeatism that was necessary for the role. He can stumble about, earnestly, for the better part of the picture, trying to right the wrongs and save the girl, but you sense that, deep down, he knows he’s always going to come out on the losing end.

If The Third Man dealt in typical heroes and villains, Lime, played by Welles, would be the black hat to Martins white. He’s up to no good, for sure, but Welles makes him so gregarious and appealing (and, like Uncle Charlie, more than a little sinister-seductive) that it’s hard not to root for him a little bit despite the atrocity of his crimes. Because he’s a big personality it’s right that he has so little screen time; he doesn’t need any more than he gets to remain memorable to the viewer.

Alida Valli’s performance as Anna impresses me more every time I watch the movie. She’s perfect as a sad woman who is entirely resigned to the circumstances of her existence. Her love for Harry is genuine but tempered by practicality. She knows there’s no future for the two of them, she doesn’t even want one, but, no matter how dark his secrets may be, she goes on caring for him all the same.

I am so grateful that, eleven years later, I was able to see this marvelous movie on the big screen again, when I could better appreciate its brilliance (and seeing it in the beautiful AFI Silver, truly a treasure for any cinephile, only made the experience more special).

Monday, March 29, 2010

The Ghost Writer

I love a lot of movies, for a lot of different reasons, but every once in while I’ll have a movie viewing experience that transcends love. Roger Ebert, on his excellent movie blog, has talked about a feeling of elation that sometimes passes over him while he’s watching a movie. I think what I sometimes feel is sort of like that, though if I had to give this sensation my own descriptor I’d probably dub it “ecstatic awe.” It happens when a movie tells a story so well and is so perfectly crafted that it makes me giddy. It’s seeing a piece of cinema constructed by an artist who’s firing on all cylinders, who couldn’t do a single thing to improve the work he’s presented to his audience. I felt it the first time I watched Curtis Hanson’s L.A. Confidential and I felt it again last Friday when I saw Roman Polanski’s The Ghost Writer.

There’s a right and a wrong way to do political thrillers. Focus too much on the relevance of the message and the end result, earnest though it may be, is often less than thrilling for the moviegoer. Polanski’s movie, with its focus on fictional former UK PM Robert Lang, who has a soft spot for American anti-terrorist tactics, certainly feels timely. When we begin to suspect that this affable (and somewhat dim-witted) politician may be fooling around on his bright, driven wife with his comely assistant it’s impossible not to think of Elizabeth Edwards and Jenny Sanford. In the hands of a less skilled director this sort of ripped from the headlines material could have produced a movie with little more to offer than the latest episode of Law & Order. In Polanski’s hands it is elevated into something sublime.

For starters, Polanski and co-writer Robert Harris (working from the novel The Ghost, by Harris) give us a stellar protagonist. Their Ghost is morally grey and unencumbered by family or close friends. His initial motivation may be the terrific sum of money he stands to gain by tweaking the PM’s memoirs but as the plot begins to thicken and curdle all motive seems to fly out the window. And why the hell wouldn’t it; after all, this a guy with nothing to lose, except maybe his life (and I often felt like I cared about that more than he did). Ewan McGregor plays the Ghost to perfection. His open, earnest face may make the character more endearing than he has a right to be but McGregor also infuses him with cunning, wit and charm. In fact all the performances are spot-on. Pierce Brosnan’s Lang may be something of a dim bulb but the strength of his convictions, coupled with his quick temper, can also make him a formidable foe. As his wife, Ruth, Olivia Williams is fierce and intelligent. I felt for this woman even though she frightened me a little bit. Kim Cattrall brings great Va-Va-Voom to the role of Lang’s assistant and (more than likely) mistress. She also has a scene near the close of the film that suggests there’s a softer, more human side to her character underneath all that aloof vamping.

Visually, the film is impressive. The greenish-grey cast of the cinematography (so reminiscent of Annie Leibovitz), coupled with the pristine homes of all the wealthy characters, heightens the oppressive, claustrophobic feeling of the narrative. The score is tense but it’s also playful. It heightens the suspense but it also helped me to remember that this is a movie, an entertainment. Movies can educate us and they can move us but sometimes it’s great just to be entertained. The Ghost Writer is an entertainment. An ecstatic, brilliant, marvelous entertainment.

Monday, March 22, 2010

The White Ribbon

I have an easier time explaining what I don’t like about a movie than what I do like, so it’s difficult for me to write about Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon because I liked almost everything about it. The movie centers around a series of tragic events that occur in a small German town just before the onset of the first World War. It’s possible that some of these events are accidents but most of the atrocities are deliberate, instigated either as acts of malice or retribution.

The White Ribbon may be about “the origin of every type of terrorism, be it of political or religious nature,” as Haneke told the Austrian newspaper Kurier. Perhaps, like my friend Kelly suggested, it foreshadows the apathy of the German people to the horrors of World War II and the Holocaust. All my husband would say after we’d seen the movie together was that he liked it and that it told an interesting story. I asked him if he agreed with the description I’d seen that said Haneke had created an allegory for the origins of socialism. He thought that might be going a bit too far.

Having mulled it over for a few days now I’ve decided that whatever message The White Ribbon is trying to convey is probably secondary, in my mind, at least, to the actual experience of watching the whole thing unfold on screen. This movie had my full attention, demanded it, almost, from start to finish. It is engaging and suspenseful. The black and white cinematography is every bit as arresting and beautiful as I had hoped it would be but there’s nothing soft or romantic about the images; they are sharp and high on contrast. The exteriors sometimes seem too bright, which adds to the stark, uneasy tone of the picture. More often than not the tragedies occur off-camera, which only heightens the near-stifling sense of dread that permeates the story.

The full title of the movie translates as The White Ribbon - A German Children’s Story and I liked that it sometimes felt like Grimm’s for grown-ups. The inclusion of a narrator, relating the sad events from a much later date, not only bolsters the fable-like tone of the tale but also helps keep the audience at a distance. I felt like this movie held me at arms length even as it drew me into it’s dark, cruel world. The events that Haneke chronicles remain steeped in ambiguity but I wonder if understanding the whos and the whys better would only spoil the viewing experience. Think I’ll take Iris Dement’s advice and just let the mystery be.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Alice in Wonderland

It was with some trepidation that I approached Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland this past weekend. Burton’s signature aesthetic, tweaked and perfected but essentially unchanged throughout the course of his career, is now easily recognizable, maybe even cliché, but, to me, almost always welcome. Favorite collaborators Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter (as well as long-time composer Danny Elfman) are once again along for the ride. No surprises there but, again, not a problem. I don’t demand groundbreaking cinema from filmmakers that I enjoy and if Burton and co. were, in fact, treading familiar ground with this latest offering I figured I’d probably be ok with it. I’ve yet to see a movie made by this bunch that I didn’t like at least a little bit

The thing that gave me pause was that some of the imagery I’d seen, in trailers and TV spots, looked far too much like Alice as imagined by the owner of the local head shop. I never liked those t-shirts that Stone Mountain sold, with the spidery, garishly colorful caricatures of the Hatter and the Cheshire Cat. Rather than a full-on psychedelic hallucination I wanted a Wonderland that was equal parts weirdness and Victorian finery. I wanted the juxtaposition of an absurd, nonsensical story butting up against mannered English restraint. John Tenniel’s illustrations for the first edition of Lewis Carroll’s much-beloved book are effective precisely because they capture that uneasy combination of elements so well (now seems like as good a time as any to confess that I’ve never even read all of Alice In Wonderland and that it’s mostly those exquisite little drawings that keep me so fascinated in the story).

I needn’t have worried, though. Burton may borrow here and there from the many different visual interpretations of Alice that have sprung up throughout the years but the overall style of the film is unmistakably his own. And for the most part, I think it works.

The movie is set several years after the titular heroine’s first journey down the rabbit hole. Alice is nineteen and perhaps mere moments away from an engagement to a buck-toothed, carrot-topped lord named Hamish. He has a delicate digestive system and a fussy demeanor. Alice’s mother and sister think it’s an ideal match because it offers Alice social standing and financial security. Alice is too much like her late father, a progressive nonconformist with a taste for adventure, to agree. When Hamish pops the question Alice bolts, taking a familiar tumble into a Wonderland that’s in dire straights.

The plot is nothing special, Wonderland needs a champion and Alice is the chosen one, but it’s adequate. Burton’s visual style suits a Wonderland that’s fallen into ruin and there are moments in the movie that are beautiful to behold. Yes, there’s a third act battle scene and, yes, we’ve seen similar ones many times before, on all those trips to Narnia and Middle Earth. Some critics have cited this as the point where the movie falls apart for them but it wasn’t a deal breaker for me; it doesn’t drag on for too long and Alice looks rather fetching in her shiny armour (as she does in her assortment of beautiful, outlandish dresses, which are usually created on the fly by whatever’s handy to accommodate her constant changes in size).

Alice is played by the Australian actress Mia Wasikowska. This was the first time I’d seen her in anything (though I’ve been meaning to catch That Evening Sun, in which she stars alongside Hal Holbrook) and I thought she was charming. Her Alice is clever, sensitive and wonderfully understated. Amidst all the bluster and mayhem her quiet assuredness is engaging. Depp is fun to watch and he brings an element of sweet melancholy to the Hatter. His relationship with Alice is very much like that of the Scarecrow’s with Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz (at times I thought the movie danced around a romantic attraction between the two, and there are certainly physical parallels between the Hatter and Hamish, but it never actually goes anywhere). Bonham Carter is a hoot and I enjoyed her Red Queen immensely. If I had to guess I’d say her ginormous, grotesquely beautiful head was created using prosthetic makeup, smoothed out with the aid of CGI, simply because it looks like it’s actually, physically, present. If I am wrong and it was all computer generated then it is even more impressive, because my one complaint about the movie, and it is a big one, is that there is some appalling computed generated animation.

The problem doesn’t really lie with the characters, who work quite well. Even the ones who initially looked so off-putting to me (Dee and Dum, the Cheshire Cat) won me over with very little effort. Burton has an excellent voice cast and they’re able to lend even the oddest looking characters ample doses of personality and charm. They don’t look real but that seems deliberate, as if Burton was going for the feel of a classic Disney film, like Pete’s Dragon or Mary Poppins, that combines hand-drawn animation with live action. It’s a nice, cozy touch.

For me it is mostly the landscapes of Wonderland that fare so poorly. There are moments where the animated settings look quaint and deliberately animated, like the characters, and, again, it works. Then there are the moments that look as if they’ve been plucked from a cheap video game and create jarring, stagnant blips in the fabric of the film. I was reminded of others movies I love that are marred by awful CGI (Gladiator is always one of the first to spring to mind), the kind of animation that, I think, is meant to look real but is always too dull, too flat, too smoothed-out to fool anyone. I don’t know if the animators thought this stuff looked good or if they just thought that audiences wouldn’t care (and maybe some moviegoers are perfectly fine with this type of thing) but it was a near-constant distraction for me. As a lover of stop-motion animation I couldn’t help but pine for Burton’s landscapes as they appeared in Henry Selick’s marvelous Nightmare Before Christmas, or the tactile beauty of the topiaries in Burton’s own Edward Scissorhands. There’s actually a bit of closing credit animation, twining vines and opening flowers around an iron gate, that looks as if it may be stop-motion; it’s a shame that it is easily more engaging and intimate than half the effects that feature in the film itself (and also a shame that it is paired with a bland Avril Lavigne song, instead of a piece from Elfman’s score).

If Burton had incorporated a tad more personal craftsmanship into the movie, rather than relying so heavily on the computer generated stuff, he might have produced something really wondrous. Instead there’s much to admire amidst the moments that fall painfully flat.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

just getting the hang of this. check back soon.