Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Easter Roundup: What I Watched Over the Holiday Weekend

Good Friday, April 22, 2011: The Last Temptation of Christ 
I had never seen this but I remember when my mom went to see it on the big screen and all the controversy Scorsese's movie stirred up. I thought it was beautifully made and very powerful. I love that it looks kind of like an old-fashioned, big budget Bible epic; the combination of radical, contemporary story and aesthetic plucked from an earlier era was a good way to go with this subject matter. The lighting and the effects are especially dramatic and terrific, as is the score by Peter Gabriel. I like that Harvey Keitel's Judas could be right at home in Mean Streets or Goodfellas and the John the Baptist scenes are fascinating. They could be outtakes from Hair (I had no idea J the B and his followers partied like that. No wonder Salome wanted in on the action). The crucifixion, temptation and death of Jesus are very moving. Scorsese makes the scenes gruesome and graphic but doesn't focus all the attention on the carnage and physical suffering. The emotional struggle that Dafoe's Jesus undergoes is far more wrenching and, like Nikos Kazantzakis, Scorsese certainly seems to understand that.

Saturday, April 23, 2011: Doctor Who 
This was one of my favorite moments from the Doctor Who S6 opener, The Impossible Astronaut. It's such an arresting image and so foreboding because of the wrongness of the astronaut, in full-on space gear, appearing in a lake on Earth in broad daylight. The beauty and stillness of the scene (filmed on location in Utah) only enhances the sense of dread. Like all episodes penned by showrunner Steven Moffat, The Impossible Astronaut is dark and unsettling. Matt Smith has some especially impressive, rather chilling moments as the Doctor; he knows his companions are keeping something from him and Smith makes the character's frustration, disgust even, at not being the most knowledgeable person in the room (for once) very palpable. Karen Gillan's Amy continues to grow on me and Alex Kingston's River Song continues to be awesome. Rory doesn't have much to do but he gets sidelined a lot. I hope he'll have a chance to be more crucial to the story as the season progresses.

Easter Sunday, April 24, 2011: United
I told my husband we had to watch this one because it'd probably be the only time a single movie would contain something that each of us loves intensely. In his case that something is football and in mine it's David Tennant. Unfortunately the movie, about the Munich air disaster that killed several young players from the much beloved Manchester United football team (nicknamed the "Busy Babes"), was only so-so. It's a well made movie and there are some striking visuals, especially in the aftermath of the accident, but, at just 90 minutes long, it feels like there's barely time for United to break the surface. The tone is somber and respectful and of course I was very sad to see the young, vibrant players cut down in their prime. But it would have meant more to me if the first part of the movie had done more than give us cursory introductions before rushing towards the accident, which serves as the dramatic centerpiece of the movie. The latter half focuses on surviving player Bobby Charlton and his relationship with coach Jimmy Murphy. Tennant, who plays Murphy, and Jack O'Connell, as Charlton, do good work but, again, it all feels a bit slight and rushed. All the pieces were in place, the filmmakers just failed to do more than the bare minimum that was required to tell the tale. I'm not sorry I watched it but I definitely wanted more.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Happy Birthday, Dear Doctor

I fell in love with David Tennant's performance in Hamlet. I adored the enthusiasm, physicality and open-heartedness he brought to the role - the same manic energy, I would come to realize, that he applied to his role as the Doctor - and I adore it still.

It is my sincere hope that David John McDonald, born forty years ago today in Bathgate, West Lothian, Scotland, has had a very happy birthday.

Jane Eyre

I am not a Jane Eyre expert. I’ve read the novel but not since high school, when it was required reading (required summer reading at that, which meant I put off reading it until the bitter end of vacation, then steamrolled through it as quickly as possible and retained very little of what I’d read). For some reason Jane’s childhood woes, particularly the death of her one beloved friend at school, were the only parts of the book that really stuck with me. I feel like it’s the sort of story I should have liked, just like I feel like I should have enjoyed Wuthering Heights so much more than I did when I first read it for Sophomore English (I have re-read that one, by the way, and have, in fact, come to love it very much), because the Bronte sisters do crazy gothic romance like nobody’s business and I consider myself a fan of highly strung romantic escapades (especially when they involve possible supernatural elements and moors - which all the Bronte output seems to do).

Nonetheless I have never felt compelled to revisit Jane Eyre like I did Wuthering Heights, so I can’t say with any certainty that this version gets it right any more than any of the other film adaptations of Charlotte Bronte’s novel (none of which I think I’ve watched all the way through). What I can say is that I enjoyed the movie very much and found it appropriately gothic, romantic, pretty and swoon-worthy. It’s well paced and particularly engaging in the second half, when the love story really gets going, and the performances are outstanding. The secondary characters all fare well thanks to the talent of a strong supporting cast which includes Judi Dench, Jamie Bell, Sally Hawkins and Tamzin Merchant (who is essentially reprising her Pride and Prejudice role of younger woman who dotes on the heroine, with just as much charm in the latter as she exhibited in the former). Amelia Clarkson deserves a mention as well, for creating, in just a handful of scenes, a young Jane that is both strong and sympathetic. But the movie really belongs, as it should, to Michael Fassbender’s Rochester and Mia Wasikowska’s brilliant Jane. Even though I had only seen each of them in one movie apiece (Inglorious Basterds for him, Alice in Wonderland for her) it was their names that made me want to see the movie in the first place and they certainly do not disappoint. Fassbender plays Rochester as melancholy and ill-tempered but also sly and playful. It’s as if he knows no one else is going to entertain him so he sets out to amuse himself. In certain scenes there’s this wonderful twinkle in his eye, like he’s thinking of some private joke that amuses him to no end. I like that there’s something there to balance out all the angst and brooding that Rochester has to carry around with him. And he is matched by Wasikowska, who is capable of conveying the attraction Jane feels for Rochester, almost the instant she meets him, as well as the practical side of the character who instinctively guards herself against those feelings. I think the movie does a wonderful job of making Wasikowska, a very pretty girl, look plain, insignificant even, but never frumpy or homely. She’s styled and lighted harshly and Wasikowska carries herself in a kind of hunched over, perpetual air of timidity. But her eyes betray the fact that her Jane is strong, smart and fierce. The movie could almost work as a silent film based on the expressiveness of Wasikowska’s eyes. She made me root for Jane from start to finish.

While I appreciate most of director Cary Fukunaga’s choices, the film has an austere elegance that seems appropriate for a story about an intelligent but reserved heroine like Jane, I do think the movie making occasionally feels a little too safe and conservative. In fact there are moments that could probably be used interchangeably with any other stately BBC-produced literary adaptation that’s been made in the last ten years. I sometimes, over the course of the movie, found myself wishing for a director with a slightly stronger visual vocabulary and a more distinctive sense of style. Someone like Jane Campion, perhaps, or even Joe Wright. But I only felt like that part of the time because there are also individual scenes in Jane Eyre that are rich and marvelous – like the one when Jane is reading a picture book with her pupil, Adele, and the illustration on the page is distorted by the lens of a tilted magnifying glass, or the masterfully composed scene nearer the end of the movie when an anxious Jane nervously paces alongside the neatly trimmed hedges – and I find myself thinking about those striking moments, as well as those incredibly effective performances by Fassbender and Wasikowska, several days after having seen the film. I wish Jane Eyre could have had a few more moments like that, if only to help it stand out a bit more from all the other Jane Eyre interpretations. Because I do think that this is a very good movie and that it is definitely worth seeing, even if it feels, at times, like you’ve seen it before.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Like a Phoenix from the Ashes

journal: 2011.04.13-14

I've resurrected my garden blog. At least for the next six weeks or so, until the sticky heat, raging mosquitoes and my lack of a green thumb force me back indoors.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Being Human

You'd have been hard-pressed to find a finer seventy-five minutes of television last night than the season three finale of Being Human, which made its American debut on BBC America. The stirring performances by the cast are matched by the thoughtful writing on a show whose dramatic and emotional impact has only grown stronger each season. I can highly recommend the entire series but I believe the latest one is the show's strongest showing yet.

Being Human has a premise that might repel as many viewers as it attracts: a ghost, a werewolf and a vampire share a flat and attempt to be as human as possible. While supernatural storytelling has a built-in audience and vampires in particular have been wildly popular for the last several years, there are still a lot of viewers who will no doubt dismiss a program like Being Human because that kind of fare just isn't their thing. While all the conflict and tension arise from the show's central conceit the focus on the fantastic and the horrific element always takes a backseat to the show's human aspect. At its heart Being Human is about the friendship between the three central characters, their devotion to and love for one another. The show's warmth, sweetness and sincerity have constantly defied my expectations as a viewer and I now rank Annie, George and Mitchell amongst the fictional characters I love the most.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Red Riding Hood

I spent the first fifteen minutes or so of Red Riding Hood trying to determine just how seriously the filmmakers intended the audience to take their movie. I finally concluded that while Catherine Hardwicke's latest offering might court the Twilight crowd Red Riding Hood is in no way meant to be treated with the same kind of heartfelt, angst-ridden devotion. The movie's obvious inspiration is fairy tales and folklore but it also feels, in many ways, like an homage to those overwrought, fantasy-horror movies from the 80s and early 90s - titles like The Lost Boys, Legend, Bram Stoker's Dracula and, of course, The Company of Wolves - as well as earlier cult and B Movie triumphs, like the Hammer Horror classics and the original Wicker Man.

I saw the connection not only in the way certain scenes were shot but in some of the casting choices. While the casting for the young leads is entirely uninspired (I think Amanda Seyfried is great on Big Love but fails miserably when she’s given lesser material that calls for a bit more creativity on her part; and the two male leads are barely worth the effort it takes to mention them in this aside) the casting of the supporting players suggests at least a slight affection for and knowledge of the horror and fantasy genres: Dracula himself, the terrific Gary Oldman, plays the pious werewolf killer. And there’s never a time when I see Virginia Madsen, who had very little to do here, that I’m not reminded of her terrific performance in Candyman, my personal favorite out of all the countless supernatural serial killer slash-fests. And I have to wonder if Julie Christie was cast not just because the filmmakers knew she’d bring beauty and a sense of dignity to the role of the grandmother (which she does) but because she once starred in another supernatural thriller that centered around a red-cloaked girl. Even the digital effects on the wolf, clunky but also endearing, reminded me of the G’mork from The Neverending Story. Perhaps I am relying too heavily on my own film-going history by forming these assumptions. I do, however, know that Leonardo DiCaprio, whose Appian Way is one of the production companies that financed Red Riding Hood, and I are roughly the same age and might, possibly, have similar taste in genre films, or at least be well-versed in some of the same source material. Appian Way also produced the incredibly silly, but well-made and somewhat enjoyable, Orphan, which did very little, I thought, to hide the fact that it drew almost all of its inspiration from the creepy kid horror titles of the seventies, like the Omen series. Maybe DiCaprio is systematically working his way through his movie collection and developing projects as tribute to the stuff he loved as a child. But again, that assumption is not based in fact (it is, however, the kind of thing I'd be tempted to do if I had a production company of my own).

It was that sense of familiarity and nostalgia that made me warm, initially, to Red Riding Hood. Unfortunately, I cannot say that the movie works well even as a derivative of earlier genre flicks (had it done so I might have been more willing to overlook the obvious flaws, the lackluster acting by the younger leads and the mostly uninspired script, maybe even write them off as intentional and meant to be postmodern or ironic or something) because it simply tries too hard to appeal to the aforementioned Twilight set, many of whom think that a shiny vampire struggling with his urge to take a bite out of his sweetheart's throat is the height of courtly love, when it should have focused on the people, like me, who recognize that a premise like that is ridiculous but can happily go along with it if it's presented stylishly enough, or with a real flair for the dramatic, or a wink and a smile. Again I'll bring up Coppola's take on Stoker's Dracula. The writing is every bit as goofy and the acting every bit as silly as it is in Red Riding Hood. The movie works because it’s done with such style and drama. I appreciate the way Coppola pulls out all the stops and revels in the notion that more is sometimes more. I feel like that movie knew its audience and catered to it, mindless of whether everyone else was going to like it or not. Old-fashioned techniques are employed for the special effects, not to create something seamless and believable but to fuel the sense of delirium and wrongness that pervades the picture. Coppola also tempers the carnage with provocation, tossing in several scenes of erotic mayhem. Not because they advance the plot but because, again, they contribute to the slightly off but still seductive mood the movie is creating (and, no, I’m not ashamed to admit that I find the whole thing rather titillating). This may have been a movie kids wanted to see but it was not a movie made primarily with a younger audience in mind (I saw it on the big screen only because I have a cool mom who bought the tickets for my high school pals and me in advance). By comparison Red Riding Hood looks very tame and tepid. And without solid acting or a thoughtful story to back it up the whole thing just seems mild and faintly lazy. I'm disappointed mostly because I saw genuine promise in where the whole thing was going in the first half and then ended up feeling even more disappointed when the movie got dull, soppy and predictable in the final act. Maybe the filmmakers think the big reveal at the end is more rewarding than it is (and it is a horrible choice, I think, done clearly to try and create a surprise ending). They certainly do devote enough time to the whole whodunit element of the story when what they ought to have been figuring out was how to insert more crazy scenes of debaucherous revelry amongst the townspeople into the plot – more crazy animal masks, sexy folk dancing and weird reenactments of bedtime stories, please - since those bits are the most satisfying and generate a fun, heady momentum that the rest of the movie can't come close to conveying. I do think some of the scenery is gorgeous and the soundtrack is quite good. I like the score by Brian Reitzell as well as many of the standalone tracks (especially the one by Fever Ray). If the filmmakers had built around those elements, and focused on creating a disquieting, creepy, erotic atmosphere, rather than a paint-by-numbers mystery and a lukewarm love story, Red Riding Hood might have fared better. At the very least I would have been more satisfied.

I understand that it's harder these days for studios to justify the less mainstream choices and the projects that might run a bigger risk of underperforming at the box office. Virtually anybody can buy a cheap camera and make a great movie if they have the time and the vision, so the studios opt to play it safe, leave the groundbreaking ideas to the up and comers, and stick to the proven winners that they think will bring them big numbers for the opening weekend. I don’t think they’re necessarily aspiring to mediocrity, which is bound to be the result after you’ve watered something down enough to appeal to the largest cross section of consumers, I just think they’re less concerned with creating art than they are about staying in business. They are, after all, probably on their last legs. So I'm not surprised that Red Riding Hood is kind of a dud (in much the same way that I’m not surprised that recent Best Picture winner The King’s Speech has been edited and re-released with a PG-13 rating, in order to make it accessible to younger ticket-buyers. But that’s another blog entry); what surprised me were the things it got right, which gave me just enough hope in that first half that I might see something that would exceed my meager expectations. Instead it just made me want to watch Dracula again.